Won't Fear Love

by Caroline Alert

"Write it down in a letter? To who?"

"That doesn't matter, detective. It could be to your partner, or even to yourself."

I blink. Stare at the police psychiatrist. Can't believe what I'm hearing. "Yer kiddin' me, right?"

He shakes his head. "No. I think writing your feelings down in a letter would be a very helpful exercise for you, Officer Kowalski." He's trying to look serious. Wise. Like he's Dr. Supershrink, with a capital S. He just looks pompous to me. "It will help you determine exactly what the nature of your problem with your partner, Constable Fraser, is."

I blink at him again. Shake my head. Not smiling anymore. I'm starting to get ticked off. I bare my soul to this guy, tell him stuff I've never told my own mom, and this is the best he can do? Tell me to write myself a letter? To tell myself what I already know? He's an idiot! A jackass in an expensive suit with a Ph.D. "The department pays you to give advice like this?"

He stiffens a bit. Disturbed by my lack of respect. "It's a standard therapeutic technique, I assure you..."

Therapy, shmerapy! What a dipshit. I get up, disgusted. Didn't wanna come here anyway. Shoulda' known better, but I was desperate. Couldn't figure out what to do...But I can already see this chump doesn't have a clue, either. Write a letter to myself, my ass! "Oh yeah?" I snarl. "Well, do I look like Dear Abby to you?"

He smiles. A superior little smirk that makes me wanna pull his little silk tie so tight it'll choke him. "Not in the slightest, Detective. But I think..."

I shake my head, way past caring what he thinks. "End of session," I tell him, pissed. "Send me yer bill, Doc. 'Cuz I'm outta here!"

I start to turn away. He gets up hastily, holds out a hand like he wants to stop me. "Please, Detective. I really think we ought to discuss this..."

Now he's trying to look authoritative. Musta' decided serious wasn't cuttin' it. Must not realize I've always responded badly to every authority figure in my life...Except one.

I bare my teeth at Supershrink. "I think we just did. Now we're done."

Then I bomb out of his office. Pissed off at him and even madder at myself, for thinking such a stuffed shirt maroon could help me. "Write a letter", he says. "To identify the problem", he says.

Oh, that's good, doc! That's brilliant. Except I didn't come to your office to find out what my problem with Fraser is. I already know that: problem is, I want him. Want him bad. Can't even look at him without my damn mouth waterin', and parts way south goin' stiff. I don't get it. I haven't wanted a guy in years, not since a bit of dabbling in high school that I'd mostly forgotten. But the damn Mountie's done somethin' to me. Witched me with those big baby blues, or maybe hypnotized me with all those big words he likes so much. Hell, for all I know, he used some friggin' Inuit ritual hocus pocus chant thing to mess with my head! The one thing I know for sure is, I wanna jump Benton Fraser's bones. I don't need to write a fuckin' letter to figure that out! That much, I got already. Can't miss the way my dick stiffens up every time he touches me. What I was hoping Supershrink could tell me is, how to stop feeling that way. How to turn off this stupid, hopeless lech.

Maybe I shoulda' known better. It's not that easy to turn off feelings, or hormones, or whatever the hell this is. If it was, I sure as hell woulda' turned mine off when Stella left. But I couldn't shut 'em down when she walked, and I can't turn 'em off when Fraser's around, either.

He's completely clueless about it, though. As usual. Half of me's glad he is. The other half, the southern part, wishes he'd wake the hell up and pay attention to it...But I know he never will. Not just because he's clueless, but because he's so damn straight. Uptight. Polite. Moral. He hardly even looks at all the women who slaver all over him all the time! Even Frannie, who's a total babe, and who's driven herself half crazy chasin' him for years. According to Vecchio, he's only been in love once in his life...and that was with some crazy bitch who tried to ruin his career and/or kill him, whichever came first. I shake my head, just thinking about that. Chicago's full of women who'd do anything for one night in the sack with the Mountie, and who does he pick to fixate on? Some Canadian chick who's nuts, and out to get him. Only Fraser could be that dumb.

Then again, how smart am I? I fell for him, didn't I? For a guy who probably isn't real eager to try the L word again, since his first time flamed out so bad. And I can only imagine what he'd do if he knew his own partner, another guy, wanted to get it on with him. He'd probably blush as red as his uniform--then his head would explode. But I want him so bad that sometimes I wish I could risk telling him. Hell, I might even settle for the S word with him, if I could get it.

If. I seethe about it all the way back to my car. All the way back to the station too. About the shrink's stupidity, Fraser's, and my own. Don't know which of us is worse: me for havin' such an idiotic crush, Fraser for bein' too blind to see it, or the shrink for bein' clueless about how to help me get rid of it. Just thinking about it, I grip the wheel of the GTO so tight while I drive that my hands start to hurt. I wonder if it's possible to embed your fingerprints into the wheel, if you hold it tight enough. But I don't really want to embed them in the wheel.

I wanna put 'em on Fraser's skin. Put my hands all over that beautiful, snow white skin, kiss him and bite him and lick him until he howls like Dief on a date. When I get back to the 27th, I put my aching head down on the wheel. 'Cuz I know it ain't gonna happen. Dream on, Kowalski. I'll never know how long I sat there. But I didn't move until someone knocked on the window. Several mild taps, polite, just loud enough to get my attention.

I shoulda' known who it was, just from that. But I was so busy feeling sorry for myself that I was clueless until I caught the flash of red. Bright red. Mountie red, right beside me. Then I froze. But it was too late to pretend I hadn't seen him. So I lifted my head reluctantly. Saw dark hair, cut short but thick, glossy and black. Shiny as the finish on my GTO. Beautiful. A pair of clear blue eyes with lashes so long any chick would kill for them, full lips just crying to be kissed, a strong, square jaw, and shoulders so broad they filled the whole window frame.

Fraser. Of course. Who else would it be? I roll down the window, feeling doomed.

Fraser smiles. "Hi, Ray!"

I groan inwardly.

"I just came by to see if you'd like to go to lunch with me," he says casually.

I stare at him. Why does he have to be so friggin' handsome? So polite? So perfect? Why?

God hates me. That's what it is. "Ray?" Fraser leans towards me a little, a bit of a frown creasing his perfect brow. I'm so disgusted with myself that it must be showing. He must've seen it. And it worries him. Panicked, I make my whole face blank, because I'm afraid he's gonna lean in and put a hand on my shoulder, ask me what the hell's the matter. He's like that. Kind. Sensitive. Caring, underneath that formal politeness he tries to hold everyone at arm's length with.

Every woman's dream, that's Fraser.

But he's mine now too. And it's hard enough, without him touchin' me.

"Sure, yeah, Frase. Fine. Whatever," I mumble, trying to smile at him so he'll think I'm okay. "Get in. I'll drive."

My fake smile reassures him. He backs away from the window without touching me. Thank God. The only problem is, he goes around and climbs in next to me, sitting so close our thighs are almost brushing. And I know I'm gonna have a helluva time trying not to stare at him for the next hour or so, while we eat.

"Thanks, Ray," he says, oblivious. "Where would you like to go?"

Hell, I don't care! I want to snarl, hopelessly turned on as usual. Then I remember that Hell's a place, and that I'm already in it. I shrug instead. "I dunno. What do you feel like?" I ask, then wince as my mind dreams up a hot answer to that question. Hard. Muscular. Warm. Delicious... that's what Fraser would feel like. Jesus.

"How about that little Chinese place?" Fraser says. "The one not far from here?"

"Fine," I mutter. I gun the GTO out of the lot, staring hard at the road. Not looking at him at all. Hoping he won't notice what's poking its head up in my jeans.

But looking at the road doesn't help much. I can feel him anyway. Feel the heat of his big body. I can see him too, even though I'm not looking. The way he sits, shoulders straight but not tight, the easy, upright posture of a natural athlete. Graceful. The way his large fingers rest on the brim of the Stetson in his lap. I know it all by heart. I love it all. And his face is so familiar that it's burned into my brain. I see it every time I close my eyes. Not to mention in my dreams. Big blue eyes. Straight nose. Tempting lips. Perfect. Beautiful. Completely clueless.

Idiot, I think, trying to be mad at him. I do that a lot, when I can't take a cold shower. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. Today it's hard to sustain a burn, 'cuz I'm not sure who's the bigger idiot, him for not noticing or me for being too scared to tell him.

"What's the matter?" he asks finally, his voice a bit uncertain. "Would you rather have something other than Chinese food?"

I swallow hard. Clamp down ruthlessly on my filthy imagination. Won't let it dream up an answer to that question. Because there's a limit to how much I can take... especially with him sitting right next to me. And I don't ever want him to see what he's doing to me. "No. Chinese is fine. I'm just... thinkin' about a case," I grate. "That's all."

"Ah," he says. But out of the corner of my eye, I see him looking at me. Curious. Intent.

I don't dare look back. He knows me too well.

Neither one of us says much after that. Not in the car, and not at lunch either.

And when I drive him back to work, it gets even worse. If that's possible. After nearly an hour of doing my best to pretend I'm enjoying my burger while something big, red, and far more delicious sat across from me, I'm actually looking forward to driving. Staring at the road will be a relief, after that. But I make the mistake of turning on the radio, secretly hoping that'll discourage Fraser from trying to talk to me anymore. At times, even the sound of his voice is a hopeless turn on for me now...

But the radio doesn't help. The second I switch it on, Springsteen, the world class romantic, is moaning, "Promise me, baby, you won't let them find us. Hold me in your arms, let's let our love blind us, cover me... Shut the door and cover me. Well, I'm looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me..."

I get a mental picture, instantaneous and incredibly vivid, of Fraser lying on top of me. Covering me with his big body, the gold buttons in that bright red uniform pressing into my chest as he kisses me...

Shit! I reach for the dial and switch the music off hastily. Can't stand to listen to Springsteen screaming my private thoughts out where the Mountie can hear 'em. Does the whole friggin' world know how I feel? I wonder, furious. Everybody else, that is, except him...

Fraser looks at me curiously. "You don't like that song, Ray?"

"No," I lie tersely. "It sucks."

"But that was Bruce Springsteen, if I'm not mistaken. And just last week, you were telling me how much you love his music," Fraser points out, confused. "You said he was a working class poet..."

I roll my shoulders, intensely uncomfortable with the corner I've just worked myself into. Damn him for rememberin' everything I say! Why the hell doesn't he just ignore me, like everyone else? Of course, that's part of the reason why I want him so bad. Because he does listen to me, and remember things about me that no one else would. It's not just his body, it's...oh, hell. What's the use? "Yeah, well...That was then, this is now," I say. "Besides, what the hell do I know from poetry?"

Ben opens his mouth, then shuts it again abruptly, as if he has no real idea what to say to that. He looks completely confused.

He's not the only one. When I drop him off at the Consulate after, we both try to act like we're not relieved to be getting away from each other. But neither of us is fooled.

I wonder how much longer I can stand this. It's gettin' harder and harder to lie to him, to hide it. But what would I do if I told him, and he left me? Transferred out, like he talked about doing once?

Then I'd really be in Hell.

Later that night, lying on his bedroll in his tiny little office at the Canadian Consulate, Fraser ponders the situation. Something is bothering his partner, Ray Kowalski. He knows that as surely as he knows his own name. He also knows that Ray doesn't want him to know about it, because if he did, he would've told him by now. Ray isn't shy, or secretive either... except about his deepest longings and fears. Those, he hardly ever talked about.

Fraser knew of Stanley Ray Kowalski's pet peeves--well-armed criminals, traffic jams, authority figures, the Toronto Maple Leafs--within days of their first meeting. He'd learned of his favorite cars, sports teams, and foods in another week. But it wasn't until almost a year later that he learned of Ray's love for his ex-wife, or of how dancing with her transported his normally earthy partner into a state of near Nirvana, or of his habit of lying to his parents to protect them. And he suspected that he wouldn't have found out that much about him even by then, if several of their cases hadn't involved Stella and his parents.

Stanley Ray Kowalski had a tough facade much like his former partner, Ray Vecchio, did. But a similarly passionate heart beneath it, if you looked hard enough to see it.

Fraser has looked. And maybe because he has similar walls of his own, carefully constructed to protect his own heart, he has also seen past Ray's barriers on occasion. He knows the depth of feeling of which Kowalski is capable, and something of the pain it has caused him. He knows, even if no one else at the 27th has guessed, the degree of desperation involved in Kowalski's decision to take on another man's name, another man's life, in order to leave behind a past that seemed unbearable. He has even wondered, at times, if he would've done the same thing, if anyone had offered him the chance after Victoria.

But tonight, as the moonlight makes abstract, silvery patterns on the floor beside him, his thoughts center on Kowalski rather than himself. He wonders what category the shadows in his eyes spring from lately: longings or fears? He isn't sure. He's seen what looks like both in Ray's eyes at times lately. Most recently, when he'd surprised him slumped at the wheel of his car in the station's parking lot. Stan had been sitting so still that Fraser hadn't been sure he was even conscious. Alarmed, he'd rapped on the window. Ray had lifted his head promptly, but there was something in his eyes...Lost, haunted, whatever you wanted to call it, it had disturbed him. He hadn't seen Stan that troubled since the night he'd confessed that he still loved Stella.

What is wrong with him? If Fraser didn't know better, he would've suspected that he'd fallen in love, and that for whatever reason, his love was hopeless. But that couldn't be true, because Ray always talked freely about the women he was interested in, and he hadn't so much as mentioned anyone to Fraser. Not for months now. Nor was he dating anyone.

So what can it be?

Fraser shifts uneasily on his bedroll, wondering about it. He has the distinct (and distinctly alarming) feeling that it has something to do with him somehow. The look in Stan's eyes when he'd found him slumped over the wheel that day had seemed oddly personal. He wonders if he's done something wrong. Wracks his brain trying to remember if he had said or done anything to upset Stan in the last few months...

He can't remember anything out of the ordinary. Well, Stan did seem a bit bitter that time he found Francesca pressing my hand to her breast during their case involving Jerome Lafarette, the voodoo priest, but he didn't even ask me to explain it. He just made a joke about Frannie being crazy, then let it go. Still...Fraser pursues that line of inquiry, intrigued. Hmmm...He's never thought much about it before, but now he realizes that Stan has often registered something like disapproval when Frannie has touched him, or taken his arm, as she often does. He's always assumed that Stan was just acting the role of her big brother, being protective of her, but now he wonders if he's misinterpreted his motive. Is there more to his partner's sour reactions to her clinging behavior than that? Can it be that Stan has feelings for Frannie himself, and that he's jealous of Frannie's preference for him?

Fraser blinks. Oh, dear! The more he thinks about it, the more likely the possibility seems. It would explain Ray's depression, his seemingly jealous looks when Frannie hangs on him, Fraser's own intuition that Kowalski's problem somehow involves him, and Ray's unwillingness to talk about it. Ray had revealed a surprisingly deep insecurity about his own appeal to women during the Tucci case, and been visibly jealous about his intentions towards Luanne Russell. If he's now decided he wants Frannie, maybe he's keeping quiet about it because his mistaken jealousy over Luanne embarrassed him, and he doesn't want to repeat that error, or to appear foolish again. Fraser turns the theory over and over in his mind, but can find no glaringly obvious flaw in it. It seems a reasonable explanation for his partner's unrest and odd behavior lately. So he decides he should test the possibility. It shouldn't be difficult. All I need do is engage Francesca in some harmless conversation while Ray is close by, pretend to flirt with her a little, then watch him for signs of jealousy. If he exhibits any, I'll just take him aside, tell him that my feelings towards Francesca are nothing but brotherly, and then he will feel free to court her without interference. Satisfied to have found a relatively easy solution to Stan's problem, Ben Fraser closes his eyes and finally allows himself to fall asleep.

But the Mountie has forgotten a couple of very important things. One is that the best-laid plans often go awry in the real world. The second is that Francesca Vecchio can be rather unpredictable...

Due to unexpected business at the Consulate, two days go by before Fraser sees Kowalski again. When he does, he's gratified, as he approaches Ray's desk, to find that Frannie is nearby. Never a man to delay when action is necessary, he nods at his partner, then makes a beeline for Francesca. He knows Ray is watching and is anxious to implement his plan.

"Francesca," he says, "I wonder if you'd be so kind as to pull the files on the Henry Allen case for me?"

Francesca perks up immediately. "Oh, sure, Frase," she says, sidling close to him with a smile. Kowalski is seated with his boots up on his desk. Fraser watches him out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, his eyes narrow as he sees Frannie's smile, the way she leans towards him. Fraser recalls his partner saying that 'body language is something I'm particularly sensitive to', and he has to suppress a smile. His partner's body language radar certainly seems to be active at the moment. Good.

"Uh, did you want all the files, Frase, or just the ones on Billy Bones' murder?" Francesca breathes, plucking at a non-existent piece of lint on his sleeve. Deciding to give his theory a good, thorough test, Fraser leans closer to her and smiles back at her with more than his usual warmth. "That's a good question, Francesca," he says approvingly.

Francesca practically purrs.

Kowalski's feet come down off his desk at that. He is staring at them now, his blue eyes stormy, not even trying to hide his interest. Or is it jealousy? Fraser is increasingly convinced that is indeed the case, but he needs to make absolutely sure.

"Perhaps you should just get the ones on the murder," he tells Frannie with a warm look. "I wouldn't want you to hurt your back carrying a large stack of files..."

Ray snorts angrily. "She's stronger than she looks," he mutters under his breath. Frannie doesn't hear him, but Fraser catches the remark. "She could hogtie a Mountie in eight seconds flat!"

Fraser tries not to smile. So far, his plan is working perfectly.

But then Frannie suddenly, unexpectedly grabs his lanyard. "I have an idea," she says, tugging at it with a strength that is indeed surprising in a woman so small and seemingly delicate. "Why don't you come with me, and we can both get them out?"

"Uh..." Fraser tries to object, but she's got a stranglehold on his lanyard now, and is pulling him along helplessly behind her. He sees Stan shoot to his feet, a vein throbbing in his temple, but then Frannie whisks him away down a corridor out of sight. They're ostensibly heading for the file room, but as they pass a closet which he and her brother often used for confidential talks, Frannie suddenly says, "Frase, there's something I've been meaning to ask you...Privately, that is. Can you come in here for a second?" She pulls him towards the closet door.

Fraser is beginning to think this isn't the best plan he ever devised after all. And knowing Frannie's romantic proclivities, he finally manages a strangled protest. "No. I don't think we should--"

But Francesca isn't listening. The next thing he knows, she's dragged him into the darkened closet and shut the door securely behind them. Her arms twine around his neck like clinging vines in the musty darkness. "What I've been wanting to ask you is, do you wanna kiss me as much I wanna kiss you?"

Fraser freezes in terror. And before he can say 'No, please don't,' or anything at all, Frannie drags his head down in the darkness and kisses him, softly but firmly. Several times...

"God dammit!" someone curses. The next thing Fraser knows, the door is wrenched open so hard it's almost pulled off its hinges. Light spills over the shameful scene, and Frannie is torn away from him so abruptly... and so roughly... that she shrieks in protest.

"Owww!" she cries, as she's jerked unceremoniously back into the hallway.

Fraser himself is nearly jerked off his feet. But he doesn't protest as he steps back out into the hallway. He's shamed into silence.

Because Stan stands there like an avenging angel, his eyes burning, his face flushed with anger as his eyes rake them both. Totally unmoved by Frannie's cry of distress, he roars, "What the hell do you think yer doing?" And pushes her even further away from Fraser.

Frannie rubs her elbow, equally furious. "None of your..."

Stan shakes his head, shoves his face intimidatingly close to hers. "No, don't answer that! I know exactly what you were doin'!" he yells in a savage voice Fraser has never heard him use outside of an interrogation room before. "You wanted a little Mountie nooner! Dintcha'!"

Ray looks wild, red-faced and so close to a nuclear meltdown that for once, even Frannie is cowed. Fraser hears her mutter "Prevert" under her breath, but she doesn't look at Ray, or try to argue with him. Which is probably wise. But Fraser opens his mouth to chide Stan on her behalf. He has no idea what a 'nooner' is, but judging by Ray's tone of voice, it's a crude sexual reference, and he means to ask him to apologize to Frannie for it. After all, this whole situation is his fault.

But he doesn't get the chance. Ray suddenly turns on him with a look that is, if possible, even more dangerous than the one he just hit Frannie with. "What I wanna know is, what the hell were you doin'? Huh? Get yer brains caught in yer zipper?"

Fraser flushes. Ray Vecchio once told him what that particular expression means, and he's so embarrassed at the way his little plan to establish Stan's jealousy has gotten totally out of hand that for a second, he doesn't know how to answer that charge. That is, after all, exactly what he wanted Ray to think. Well, maybe not exactly that, he corrects himself hastily. I just wanted Ray to think I was interested in Frannie, possibly even dating her...not that I would have sex with her in a closet at the 27th! That very idea is so outrageous that he blushes.

Ray notices it, and his nostrils flare. He clearly thinks it's a sign of guilt.

Oh, dear.

"Uh, no," Ben manages to croak at last. He knows it's not much of an answer, but with Ray hovering over him, nostrils flaring, arms crossed belligerently, it's hard to think of a more plausible denial. Behind Kowalski's back, Frannie is making some kind of strange, covert motions across her mouth, as if she's trying to warn Fraser about something. He's so distracted by the sight that for a minute, he doesn't say anything else.

"Well?" Ray demands furiously. "Come on! You can do better than that!"

"You really have this all wrong, Ray," he says at last, with a puzzled shrug at Francesca because he can't figure out what she's doing.

Ray's lips thin in a nasty parody of a smile he usually uses only on criminals. "'Zat so?" he hisses. "Then why the hell have you got her lipstick all over yer mouth?"

Frannie rolls her eyes in disgust.

Fraser finally realizes what her mysterious hand signals were all about. She was trying to tell him to wipe her lipstick off! "I can explain that, Ray," he says hastily. He digs out his handkerchief to remove the telltale marks, but he's Too Late, with a capital T. His guilty swabbing only seems to increase Ray's ire.

Kowalski's lips set in a cruel line. "Okay. Let's hear it!" He plants his hands on his hips, waiting for an explanation. But it crosses Fraser's mind that he should be looking at Frannie that way instead of him. Why isn't he focused on her, if he's in love with her? Why isn't he more concerned about her innocence than mine? That question prompts another. Fraser suddenly remembers another time, another place, when Detective Dewey was teasing Stan about Stella being in love with Alderman Orsini. He remembers how Stan didn't wait then, didn't hesitate. He attacked Dewey for merely insinuating the woman he loved had been with another man. Went for his throat like a wildman. But this time, though the situation is even more damning, Ray hasn't hit him. This time, Ray, who is always impulsive, has waited. Asked for an explanation, though Fraser's guilt is written all over his face in bright red lipstick.


For a moment, just for an instant, a wild thought crosses his mind. Can it be that...?

No. He rejects the idea as absurd, impossible. Ray isn't-- He wouldn't... No. Of course not. He shakes himself. Forces his mind back to the task at hand. Tells himself that this incident, awkward though it is, has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ray is, in fact, in love with Francesca. So how is he going to convince him that she really didn't touch him just now, when Ray already saw her lipstick smeared all over his mouth? Logically, there are only two possible explanations for that: one is that he kissed her, the other that she kissed him. And neither explanation is likely to meet with favor in his partner's eyes right now.

It doesn't occur to him to clear himself by pinning the blame for the kiss on Francesca... that would be unthinkable, since it would violate the code of chivalry long ago drummed into him by his grandmother. And lying to clear either of them is equally unthinkable. The Code will not allow him to invent a spurious explanation for the presence of her lipstick on his mouth, either. Even if he could think of one with Ray glaring at him, which he can't. So he does the only thing he can, the only honorable thing... the only fair thing, since this whole mess began as a kind of jealousy test on his part. The Code does permit little white lies, for noble purposes such as the preservation of a lady's reputation. So Ben gallantly tells one, shouldering the blame.

"All right, Ray! If you must know, I lost control and kissed Francesca just now. But it was entirely my fault, and..."

Ray's mouth twists in the ugliest sneer Fraser has ever seen on his handsome face. His eyes turn dark and bitter with betrayal. He backs away, towards Francesca, but his eyes never leave Fraser's face. "Yeah, sure!" he hisses. "Lemme guess: she overpowered you, right? You couldn't stop her?"

Fraser and Frannie both blink, taken aback by Ray's unexpectedly bitter reaction.

Ray stops beside Francesca, waits ruthlessly until she looks up at him. Then he thrusts his face down until it's only inches from hers and snarls, "Don't let me spoil yer fun, Frannie! Go ahead... have yer little nooner! Jump him! See if I care!" "Ray, stop it!" Frannie cries, so hurt and embarrassed she has tears in her eyes.

Fraser is shocked too. Even furious. He's never seen Ray behave like this to a woman, ever. He's at Ray's side in a heartbeat, drawing a stunned Francesca away from him. "Ray! That was..."

Uncalled for, he meant to say, but he never gets the chance. Kowalski grabs him, shoves him up against the wall, his face twisted with rage. "Don't," he growls. "Don't talk to me! Just shut up!" He holds him against the wall, his hands twisted deep into his jacket. Fraser can feel Ray's pulse pounding in the wrists that have balled into fists against his chest, and he knows he's a hair away from explosion.

"Benny!" Francesca whispers from behind them, fear and shock in her voice. She takes a tentative step forward, as if she means to try and pull Ray off of him. Fraser cuts his eyes at her, warning her not to even try it. He doesn't move himself, doesn't raise his hands or even try to defend himself. He just stares at his partner silently, hoping his gaze can reach past his rage to the saner man inside him.

After a long moment, Ray lets him go.

But Fraser isn't sure if it's because he's mastered his rage... or if despair overcame it. Ray's eyes are hooded, revealing nothing, but his shoulders sag a little as he turns suddenly and walks away.

"Ray, don't be like that!" Francesca calls after him, surprising Fraser. "Come on... I'm the one who kissed him, really. And I was just kidding, you know..."

Fraser raises an eyebrow at her belated confession. She sounds as if she feels sorry for Ray somehow, which is strange under the circumstances.

Ray doesn't pay any attention to her. He strides off without a backward look at either of them.

Fraser expects Frannie to vent her feelings at last. Throw up her hands, spout a little Italian and ask, "Geesh! What's up with him?" But to his surprise, she doesn't. Instead, she stares at the spot where Ray disappeared around the corner with a stunned look on her face. As if she's had a minor but very disturbing revelation.

He can't imagine what it could be. And Frannie evidently isn't going to tell him. Which is so unlike her that it almost scares him. People aren't reacting at all the way he expects. First he completely miscalculates the intensity of his partner's reaction to his little experiment, then Francesca begins acting queerly. It's been a very strange day so far, Fraser thinks glumly. Not to mention upsetting. He can pursue dangerous criminals unarmed without a qualm, but the idea of his friends not getting along worries him. He asks quietly, "Are you all right, Francesca?"

She nods. Rubs the arm Ray grabbed, then shivers. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. But I don't think he is."

"I think you're right." He moves to go after him, but Frannie catches his arm unexpectedly.

"I don't think you should do that, Frase," she says softly. "Just leave him alone for awhile. I'll try and talk to him later. Okay?"

He stares down at her, wide-eyed. He knows Ray's unexpected fury scared her, which makes her offer to make peace between them doubly surprising. "Are you sure that would be wise, Francesca?" he asks at last, dubious.

Frannie nods. "Yeah. I mean... It was kinda my fault, you know?" she says quickly. "So I should talk to him."

Fraser nods after a moment. Though he could've sworn she was unaware that Ray evidently has romantic feelings for her, Frannie seems to understand what just happened better than he does somehow. "All right," he nods finally. "I've got to get back to the Consulate. But call and let me know if he's still upset after you talk to him, would you?"

Frannie smiles at him a little. Pats his arm, but in a proper, sisterly way this time. "Sure, Frase. I'll let you know. And umm... I'm sorry about that. I didn't mean to..."

He pats her shoulder. "Don't worry about it," he says, meaning it. "I've forgotten about it already."

But he is sure Stan hasn't.

Later that night, Ray tries to watch a game on TV. Hawks vs. the Leafs. Not that it's much of a game, the Hawks are wiping the floor of the rink with the Leafs, as usual, but he usually enjoys that.

Not tonight. Tonight, he doesn't even see the plays. All he sees, over and over again in his mind, is himself, acting like an asshole at the station. Grabbing Fraser and Frannie like some goddamn high school chaperone gone berserk. Freaking at the sight of Frannie's lipstick on Ben's gorgeous mouth. Knowing she'd had a taste of what he'd been wanting so badly for so long, and that she might've had more... might've bagged the Mountie in a closet, for shit's sake! -- if he hadn't come along and stopped it.

Freak, he groans to himself. Because he'd had absolutely no right to do that. No right to grab them, less still to holler at them. If they want to screw each other's brains out in a closet, what business is it of his? After all, Frannie isn't even really his sister...

She'd surprised the hell out of him, afterwards, too. Despite the way he'd grabbed her, hard enough to hurt, she hadn't confronted him, hadn't said a word about his manhandling or his screaming fit of jealousy. He'd avoided her after his rage died away because remorse had set in, and he didn't think he could stand to hear the angry words she was entitled to heap on his idiotic head. Hell, knowing Frannie, she was liable to hit him with something to boot. Besides, he was too busy hating himself to deal with her hatred too.

But she didn't hate him. Didn't hit him. Didn't even scream at him. Instead, she came up to his desk a couple of hours after it happened and asked him quietly if he was okay. Her big brown eyes were worried and sincere, like he really was her brother and she didn't want anything coming between them. "It's okay," she'd said, laying her hand gently on his for a second. "I understand, Ray."

And he'd had the strangest feeling that she did; and that she didn't hate him for it, either. Her eyes had held his for a long time, and something wordless had passed between them, something warm and good that he couldn't put a name to. She'd given him the feeling somehow that she wouldn't be dragging Fraser into any more closets for awhile. At least, not while he was around.

"Thanks," he said. "I'm sorry."

Not the greatest speech in the world, or the most original either, but then he'd never been good with words. But Frannie hadn't seemed to mind how tongue-tied he was after she touched him. She'd smiled at him anyway, then gone quietly back to her desk.

But he wondered if she understood his reaction, if she guessed that her unexpected forgiveness had overwhelmed him. He wasn't used to being let off the hook like that. Couldn't quite believe it. She'd been far nicer to him than Stella would've been if he'd grabbed her and yelled at her like that. Stella would've taken his head off, would've made him feel like pond scum. But Frannie had smiled at him, touched his hand, let him know they were still tight. Maybe it was because she was Italian, and more used to noisy displays of emotion... or maybe she just wasn't the vengeful type. Maybe both. All he knew for sure was, she'd forgiven him when he didn't deserve it. She'd made him really glad, for once, that her real brother was away, and that he could be her brother, at least for awhile.

"Flowers," he mumbles as the Hawks score onscreen. "I'll have to get her some flowers."

That will make Frannie happy, and make him feel better about behaving like such a shithead. Like he halfway deserves having her for a sister, even if it's only for awhile.

But what the hell am I gonna do about Fraser?

He groans again. Frannie might understand now, but he doubts Fraser does. How the hell is he going to explain the way he went ballistic on him for kissing her? He acted like a jealous boyfriend, when he and Frannie aren't even dating!

Get yer brains caught in yer zipper? he hears himself snarl at his partner for the thousandth time. He winces. Yeah, someone did, he thinks sourly. But it wasn't Big Red. It was you.

He wonders if Fraser will draw the safe conclusion that he has the hots for Frannie because of it. Wonders if he has the guts to set him straight, tell him the truth.

He shuts off the TV before the game even ends. Fuck the game. He doesn't give a damn. All he's given a damn about for months now is Benton Fraser, the perfect Mountie. Who somehow managed to look gorgeous even after being dragged out of a dirty closet with bright red lipstick all over his mouth. Who kissed a woman instead of him. Who'd stood there begging him, with those beautiful eyes, not to lose control and let the stupid scene become a knock-down dragout brawl.

Fraser was the only person in the universe who could've stopped him at that moment.

And the only one who could hurt him enough to have caused it.

Ray groans again. What the hell am I gonna do?

Fraser discovers, later that afternoon, that Frannie is as good as her word. She calls him to tell him that she's spoken to Ray, and that he's calmed down about the incident between them in the closet. "He just lost it for a minute, but he's okay now. He's not mad at us anymore."

"I'm glad," Fraser says. But he's also curious. "What did you say to him?"

Frannie is unexpectedly evasive. "Oh, you know... The usual stuff," she says airily. "Sister stuff. I know I screw up with the computer sometimes, but I'm good at that."

Fraser smiles long distance at this woman who is the sister he never had. "Your computer skills are quite good for someone who hasn't had any previous training, Francesca," he says warmly, "and your skills as a sister have always been outstanding. Thank you."

He feels her smile back. "You're welcome, Benton," she says softly. "Ciao."

But Ray himself doesn't call. Fraser decides it might be wise to let him cool off for awhile, despite Frannie's reassurance, so he doesn't go near the 27th for awhile either.

That night, when he finally goes to bed, Ray has the Merman dream again...

He's had it before. Many times. It started some time after he nearly drowned on the Henry Allen.

He is floating in dark, icy water. Swimming as best he can, which isn't well. Trying to bloom like a flower, but floundering instead. But he keeps going, because the water's so cold and he's scared. Terrified. He has to get out but he's trapped, there's no end to the water, and he's running out of air.

He pushes forward, but his panic mounts. It's dark, and so cold, and his heart is pounding so hard it seems to boom in his ears. There's pressure building in his chest, building...

I can't breathe...

His terrified heartbeat grows louder, until it fills the world. He can't swim any further, knows nothing but the intense, aching need to breathe. He falters, drifts down in the coldness, starts to black out. Float away from his body.

Then it happens. Something touches him. Something warm, impossibly warm in that icy water. Big, strong hands cup his cheeks, hold his face... A warm, commanding mouth closes over his, forces his lips open, breathes life into him again. Air. Warm, beautiful, wonderful air. He gulps at it, takes all the stranger has in several deep gasps. Feels the contact like an electric shock all through his body...

Then he opens his eyes. Sees long, dark hair floating about him, black as a raven's wing. Azure eyes, blue as the sea, smile into his as the stranger breaks the kiss, floats effortlessly in front of him. He sees pale white skin, a gorgeous torso with broad shoulders and well-defined biceps, and for a second, he thinks I know you... But then he sees the tail. The long, scaly, bright red tail stretching out below the stranger's upper body, where his hips and legs should be. But he doesn't have legs. Just that scarlet tail with flecks of gold, that ends in a graceful, bifurcated curve like a whale's tail.

Jesus! It's a mermaid, he thinks, awestruck. Then, with a second glance at the superbly muscled chest, he corrects himself. No, make that a merman.

Ray blinks in wonder. He's never seen anything like it before. Never expected to. The merman looks back at him calmly, its eyes dancing with secret merriment. Its tail beats slightly, gracefully back and forth in the water, in flashes of red and gold, keeping it close to him. Its hair hovers about it, moving in slow, dark, sinuous swirls, almost as if it has a life of its own. It's the most beautiful, magical, incredible thing he's ever seen.

He reaches for him, enchanted, longing to be kissed again, and the merman comes to him. Draws him close again, long dark lashes sweeping down over those sea blue eyes as he kisses Ray gently. The merman tastes salty and sweet at the same time. Ray draws breath from him again as their tongues entwine, as the merman's strong arms enfold him, dispelling the chill of the water, rocking him in a gentle, tidal rhythm. He relaxes completely, knowing he's safe now. The merman has saved him, he loves him, he won't let him drown. He's making love to him with that salty-sweet mouth; and Ray is aroused beyond belief. Rock-hard, just from kissing him...

Then the merman slides his tail between his legs. Begins rubbing it against his crotch as they hang there in the water. Twines the end around his leg as he undulates against him, muscles rippling...Wraps his whole body around him. Ray clutches at the merman's broad back, buries a hand in the long, silky dark hair that floats around him. It's cool, silky, and incredibly erotic sliding between his fingers. His heart is pounding, pounding from the pleasure of their silent, aquatic lovemaking. He's delirious, the blood's pounding in his head, his whole body is one throbbing pulse of ecstasy...

He comes. Hard, so hard his whole body shakes with it. He springs bolt upright in bed, spurting, throbbing, gasping for breath. When it's over, he reaches out blindly for his merman lover, but the darkness around him is empty. For a second, all he knows is that he's lost him. And even on the heels of his climax, that realization stabs at his heart. He cries out hoarsely into the darkness. "Benny!"

But there's no merman with red scales there. Not even a Mountie in a red uniform. Then he realizes: It was just a dream.

He's alone in his bed. Alone.

He lies back, panting and sweaty and completely wretched. "God damn it!" Goddamn dream! He hates it, hates it with a passion... but he can't stop dreaming it. And he knows why.

And that makes it even worse.

"Screwin' a goddamn fish," he breathes, trying to banish the memory of magic with crude words. "It's stupid. Shit!" But cursing it doesn't remove the ache in his heart. Doesn't make his room any less empty. He rubs at his stinging eyes, but can't stop the tears that roll down his cheeks, over his lips.

They taste salty. Like the merman.

Fraser waits patiently for two days after the kissing incident, to see if Ray will call him to mend fences, so to speak. He doesn't. But two days later, much to his surprise, Ray's GTO is parked outside his apartment building when he leaves for work in the morning. Though he hasn't spoken to him since the incident with Francesca, Ray waves to him casually, as if nothing has happened. Fraser climbs into the car, trying not to look as surprised... or as relieved... as he feels. "Hello, Ray," he says, retreating into formality for safety's sake. "How are you?"

Ray smiles at him. "Hangin' in there, Benton buddy," he says.

The smile is brief, but the tone's affectionate. Fraser gets the message: All is forgiven. But Ray doesn't want to talk about what happened. But Fraser himself is madly curious. What did Frannie say to him, to calm his rage? What magic words did she utter, to tame the Kowalski beast? "I see," he says. "Uh... Did Francesca..."

Stan pulls away from the curb suddenly, his fingers tightening unconsciously on the wheel. He looks at the road, avoiding Fraser's eyes. "Yeah, Frannie talked to me. We're cool," he says.

Fraser looks down at his hat. "That's good. I'm glad," he says. And he is, but he's still frustrated by Kowalski's terseness. What exactly did Frannie say? What did Ray say to her? And what should I say to him, to make up for my part in this mess? He turns his hat around in his hands, thinking about it. Sneaks a glance at Stan, trying to read his mood. But he has his dark sunglasses on, and his leather jacket, and his eyes are on the road. He's in full Cool mode, and Fraser knows he won't get another word out of him about it. He sighs to himself. Because something, some sixth sense tells him that Ray is still unhappy. The dark cloud that's been hanging over his head has not been dispelled one whit by that nonsense with Francesca; and he knows he is partly to blame.

He swallows hard, nerving himself for more than just an apology. He's decided to stick to his original plan, and tell Ray that he's not interested in Francesca romantically, so that he will feel free to pursue her himself, and stop misunderstanding her little gestures towards him. Then Fraser remembers her ardent kiss the other day in the closet, and blushes a little. All right, so maybe Ray didn't entirely misunderstand that little gesture... Francesca wants him, and she's never made any bones about it.

But Fraser suspects that Ray wants her just as badly. And since he's an attractive man in his own right, perhaps if he feels the way is clear to court Francesca, he'll win her over in time. Fraser fervently hopes so, since Francesca's ardent pursuit has caused him no end of difficulties over the last few years. "I'm sorry... about the other day," he mutters at last.

"What's that?"

Fraser clears his throat awkwardly. "I don't... Well, that is, Francesca is a wonderful woman," he stutters. "Attractive, kind... Did you know she also cooks very well too?"

Stan shoots him a sideways look. Ignores his complimentary words about Frannie, and focuses on his original apology. "So? What about the other day?"

Fraser turns his hat over, vastly uncomfortable. "What I'm trying to say is, that was a mistake. On my part. I've been lonely, and I... Well, it's just that Francesca can be very... persuasive, and I..."

"Lost yer head?" Ray says.

"You could call it that..."

"Got swept away?"

"Something like that, yes..."

"Were too sexy for yer shirt?" Ray suggests.

"What?" Ben asks, completely confused.

Ray grins. "Never mind. I'm just messin' with ya'. Don't worry about it, Fraser. It's over. Finito Benito. Anyway, I got a little 'swept away' there too. Sorry I yelled at ya'."

"It's all right."

"But uh... What were you sayin' about Frannie?"

"Oh. Well... Just that she's a great cook, and she has a kind heart, and..."


"And... she's like a sister to me," he says carefully, staring out the window. "Just like a sister."

Ray turns his head and gives him a long, silent look. Fraser wishes desperately that he could see behind his dark glasses, see what emotions are swimming in those intense blue eyes, but no such luck. After a long moment, Ray turns his head back to the road again. "Uh huh," is all he says.

Fraser gets the feeling somehow that Ray doesn't know what he is talking about. He isn't surprised. These are deep emotional waters, and he's often been accused of babbling hopelessly when required to speak of such things. He assumes he hasn't been very clear this time, either. "What I'm trying to say is, I'm not... That is, I have no romantic feelings for Francesca."

Stan gives him another sideways glance. "Uh huh," he says again. Only this time it's tinged with disbelief.

"Truly," Fraser insists.

Stan is suddenly glad he has his dark glasses on. Because he suddenly realizes that what he thought was just kind of silly babble about Frannie isn't really babble at all. Fraser is trying to tell him something. Something important. That he doesn't want her. Despite the kiss in the closet, the lipstick, and his blushes and all. And the implications of that are so stunning that Stan's afraid he may lose control of the GTO. He tightens suddenly sweaty hands on the wheel.

Damn! Is he saying what I think he's saying?

Naawww. Can't be. After all, he and the Mountie have had communication problems before. Actually, they have them fairly often. And he can't afford to be wrong about this. Needs to be sure this is real. Not some pleasant little daydream his imagination (which is overactive in the extreme regarding the Mountie) may have cooked up. So he pretends to be skeptical. "Uh huh," he says, in his best 'Yeah, right, tell me another one' voice. Holding the wheel hard all the while, so his hands don't start shaking; and watching Fraser just as hard, out of the corner of his eye.

"Truly," Fraser says. And gives him the big-eyed Mountie look, to prove it.

Stan can't look away. That look is gospel, like the Bible, something to be sworn by. If Fraser says something and gives you the Look, you'd better believe it. Damn... he means it!

He stares into those wide blue eyes, lets himself drown in them, in the Look. Lets himself imagine, for just a minute, that it means something more than what Fraser has said. Not just that he's not in love with Frannie, but that he's in love with...

The next thing he knows, his little daydream is interrupted. Fraser's perfect lips are moving. Forming his name. Yelling at him. "Ray. Ray. Ray! RAY!"

What the...

Ray breaks out of his stunned trance just in time to see that he's somehow hit the gas while drooling over the Mountie. They're now going 85 mph., and he's about to drive the GTO up the back of a Caddy in front of them. Fraser is clinging, white-knuckled and wide-eyed, to the dashboard while shrieking his name. He swerves madly into the next lane at the last possible second, narrowly avoiding a collision.

Both cop and Mountie breathe heavily for a moment. Neither speaks. Then Fraser picks up his hat, puts it on his lap again, and clears his throat. He's even paler than is normal for him. "I'm sorry," he says. "If I'd known it was going to upset you that much, I wouldn't have told you that I'm not in love with Francesca."

Ray grimaces, highly embarrassed at his momentary lapse. He grits his teeth and hangs onto the wheel grimly, pretending to be in complete control. Not just of the GTO, but himself too. "Upset? Me? I'm not upset! What gave you that idea?" he snorts.

"Well, the way you almost hit that Cadillac was certainly indicative..."

"Indicative!" he echoes scornfully. "Whaddaya' mean, 'indicative'? What the hell kinda word is that?" He actually knows perfectly well what it means, but he also knows exactly how to distract the Mountie. He's been down this verbal path before, and knows there's no surer way to get him off track than to mock his amazing vocabulary. And sparring with him about that will give Ray time to recover from his trance, and their near accident.

"It's an adjective, Ray, which means 'to indicate or point out'..."

Stan tries not to smile. Works every time! "Then why don't you just say so? Say 'pointing out'! Use plain English, for once! Indicative, my--"

"All right then. In plain English, 'I'd like to point out that I think you're upset because you almost crashed the car'!" Fraser says, a trace of exasperation in his normally calm voice. "Is that plain enough?"

Ray shrugs. "Guess so. I just don't happen to agree with it. I was makin' a lane change, that's all. Do it all the time." He's relaxed by now. Hidden behind his glasses again. Cool. Tough. Completely in control. Happy that he's managed to distract Fraser from the treacherous subject of what he doesn't feel for Frannie, and may or may not feel for anyone else. For him.

He needs time to deal with the whole thing. Can't take all that in now, while he's driving. It makes his head spin, fill with fantasies of what he could do if he just pulled the GTO off the road and...

"Lane change, my eye," Fraser mutters.

Ray tries not to grin. "What?"

Fraser sighs. Turns his hat in his hands. Gives him a sideways look. "Nothing," he says at last.

Good, Ray thinks. This is good.

I need time...

As it turns out, he doesn't get much. Seven days later, he and Fraser are crouched behind a filing cabinet in an old warehouse where they've chased a member of a ring of computer thieves to ground. The problem is, the thief is bold and well-armed, and holed up behind an even larger bunch of cabinets, where he can shoot at them with impunity. And Ray is running out of ammo.

And scared shitless, worried that Fraser is going to get killed. That he's going to lose him...

"Keep yer head down, dammit!" he yells, as the Mountie stands up a bit behind him. When the perp nearly shoots a hole in his hat, Ray almost loses his lunch. He's not a guy who thinks much about the future, but all of a sudden he's having horrible visions of Fraser in a coffin, and him left all alone. Shit! Goddamn idiot! I've never even told him how I feel, and he's tryin' to eat a bullet! "Down!" he hisses, heart pounding. He turns his head to make sure Fraser is obeying him this time. "That means down, not up! In case you haven't noticed, his aim is pretty good!"

Ray's worried enough that he's already put his glasses on. And he'd never admit it, but his hand is so slick with scared sweat that he's having trouble holding onto his gun.

As usual, the Mountie is unflappable. "Oh, I've noticed that he can shoot, Ray. But I've also noticed..." He starts to rise again.

Ray grabs his lanyard and yanks him back down hard, just as another bullet whines overhead. "What the hell did I just say?"

"...That he's getting a bit careless," Fraser continues, unperturbed. "He's starting to lean far enough out when I stand up that if you could just aim for his right hand..."

"Oh, sure! You just stand up and get your head blown off, so I can get a good shot at him!" Ray sneers, to cover the fact that Fraser's idea of a plan terrifies him. TV detectives are always doing shit like that, shooting guns out of perp's hands, but in real life, it's damn difficult. Even though he has his glasses on, he's not sure he can do it.

"Try, Ray," Fraser says sternly. Then he pulls his lanyard away and jumps to his feet again. So Ray sights desperately at the perp, heart hammering so hard it feels like it'll burst right out of his chest. Difficult or not, he's got to try the shot, because this is Fraser. Please, God, please! he prays. Don't let anything happen to him...And then he sees it. Fraser's right, the little scumbag is leanin' out too far! He aims at his hand. Prays please, just lemme make this shot... BAM!

Two shots ring out, at the same second. The perp screams, drops his gun and falls to the floor, cradling his bloody hand. But Ray has no time to pat himself on the back for making the shot, because at the same time, he hears Fraser grunt behind him, hears him stumble.


He's on his feet in a second and reaching for him. Doesn't realize his face is white with fear as he looks down at the rip in Fraser's right sleeve. A bullet's gone though it a few inches below the shoulder. "Fuck!" he breathes, his hands shaking. "You okay?"

He isn't, he's been shot! I let Frase get shot... "Language, Ray!" the Mountie says primly. "I'm fine, it's only a flesh wound."

Ray isn't very reassured by that, since Fraser would say the same thing if he were on the ground with bullets in both his arms, legs and every vital organ. "Lemme see!" he demands, freaked by the sight of his blood. He peels his ripped sleeve back with trembling hands, sees that the bullet dug a deep crease along the outside of his bicep. It's bleeding and no doubt it hurts like hell... but it won't kill him.

"Okay. Okay, that's not too bad," Ray croaks, trying to sound cool. To look cool, instead of on the verge of complete panic, like he was. He can't lose it in front of Fraser. Even though he now knows he doesn't have a thing for Frannie, he still doesn't want him to suspect how he feels, either. Lose your partner to a bullet, or to a guilty secret... gone is still gone.

But Fraser is getting impatient. "Quick, Ray! Go get the thief, before he gets away!"

"No. I'm gettin' you a bus first."

"That's really not necessary, Ray."

Ray ignores him. He pulls out his cell phone and calls it in, asks for an ambulance.

Fraser is busy watching the thief. "Hurry, Ray!" he urges as soon as he hangs up.

Ray draws a deep, shaky breath. Runs an unsteady hand across his eyes. "Okay. You just stay here," he says. Only then does he go after the perp, like he's supposed to. When he runs, gun in hand again, to get him, the thief's lying on the ground moaning and clutching his bloody hand. "Stay down, you shithead!" Ray yells. "And kick the gun away!"

The guy moans in protest. "You shot me, man!"

He keeps his gun trained on his head. "KICK IT NOW!" he yells, ruthless. You think that's bad... Yer lucky, you little sonuvabitch. If you'd really hurt him, I'd've capped you.

He watches as the guy kicks his gun away. "Smart move," he says. He doesn't let himself think of what he would've done if the little twit had killed Ben. He doesn't even want to imagine that.

Fraser watches his partner closely as he disarms the thief. The Mountie's apparent calm is only a mask. Inside, he's profoundly disquieted.

Why is Ray so upset? Kowalski is a seasoned policeman, with a lot of gun battles under his belt, but he turned white at the sight of his blood. Dead white, as if he were going to faint. His hands shook, and his voice was a hoarse, panicked croak as he examined his wound. It fairly crackles with rage now, as he screams at the downed suspect. The fact that he's been shot has changed the situation from a normal arrest into something intensely personal for Ray.

Then again-- is it his wound that set Stan off? Or is this just part and parcel of his strange behavior lately?

Keeping a hand firmly clamped to his arm to stem his bleeding, Fraser wonders. He remembers the wild suspicion that crossed his mind the day Frannie kissed him, and Stan became similarly enraged.

He's tried to put that suspicion out of his mind, but it returns to haunt him now, as Stan hauls the thief roughly to his feet and reads him his rights. He'd assumed his wild explosion that day was caused by jealousy over Frannie... but now he's not so sure. Though Ray has known for a week that he's not romantically interested in her, his behavior towards her hasn't changed in the slightest. Though he did send her flowers the day after the incident, it was clear they were meant as an apology. He's made no effort to ask her out on a date. Hardly the actions of a man who's wildly in love with Francesca.

Still, everything Ray has done lately -- his brooding silences, his fit of rage at Frannie's kisses, his preoccupation while driving, and his overreaction to his current wound -- would fit the pattern of a man who is very much in love. The only question is, with whom?

Fraser thinks he knows. He closes his eyes, more frightened of the possible answer to that than he was of getting shot.

"Hey, Frase!" Ray calls instantly. "You okay?"

Despite his duties with their prisoner, Ray is obviously still watching him closely. Still very worried about him. Fraser groans silently at the implications of that. Dear God... what if it's true? Then he opens his eyes again, and tries to smile. "Yes. I'm fine," he calls back. Contradicting the popularly held idea at the 27th District that Mounties don't lie.

That night, Ray can't sleep. He's put away another bad guy. Knows he should feel good about it. But he doesn't. He keeps hearing those bullets whining over Fraser's head, keeps seeing his blood, knows how close he came to losing him... and it makes him shudder. Makes him feel sick inside. Fraser has saved his butt many times, so many he's stopped counting. He even saved him from drowning on that damn ship with that buddy kiss thing...

But I let him get shot.

He can't get past it. He told Thatcher once that he wouldn't even know who he is anymore without the Mountie. He isn't happy about that, never knew it would happen, but it's true. Fraser's more than his partner, more than his friend...

I love him, he thinks. And it scares him. Bad. Enough to make him want to run for the hills. But where would he go? Where on earth could he possibly go that would be far enough away to make him forget those blue eyes and that brave heart? Where could he ever find another guy who will like him and accept him like Fraser does?

And why can't that be enough?

Because I want him too. I didn't ask for that to happen either, but it did. He runs a worried hand through his hair, tousling it even more than it usually is. Funny, how he used to think losing Stella was the worst thing that could ever happen to him. That had been bad, that had been really bad... but this is even worse. At least he'd been able to tell her how she'd hurt him; at least they'd been able to talk about it. He'd talked to his mom about it too, and Ben... and it had helped. And at least he and Stella are still friends, even though they aren't lovers anymore.

But he can't tell Ben, or his mom, or anyone about this--and he's never been Ben's lover. Not even once. And he's never going to be. Because he's broken all the rules this time, fallen in love with a guy... and not just any guy, but Mr. Straight personified, who's never going to even look at him like that...

He finds himself pacing the floor. Up and down, up and down. He knows it isn't going to solve anything, but it's not his nature to sit still. And he's so wrought up now, after almost losing Ben earlier, that it's either move or jump out of his skin. So he paces some more.

But it just keeps hurting. It keeps getting worse until he can't stand it. He keeps seeing Fraser's arm, and the blood. He let him get shot today, almost let him get killed... When he found his wound wasn't serious, he was shaking with relief. Shaking. It was all he could do to keep from hugging him once he saw that he was all right.

But I didn't even do that, he thinks bitterly. Couldn't. 'Cuz what would he've thought? He paces faster. Hating himself. What the hell kind of life is this, where I'm livin' that kind of lie? Where I can't even touch the one person I love the most, when I almost lost him? Huh? He paces, but all he finds are questions. All he feels is a huge hollow inside of him, with pain licking around the edges of it. Swallowing him whole, like white fire. He doesn't find any relief; and there are no answers.

Finally, in desperation, he turns on some music. Tries to dance to it, imagining he's holding the Mountie. But that only makes him laugh. Bitterly. Because he's never done that, so he can't even imagine what it would be like. Who the hell would lead?

Another stupid question he can't answer.

One too many. He shuts off the stereo, opens a cabinet door. Takes out a bottle of Stoly, plunks down on the couch and starts swigging. It burns down his throat. So what. He sips some more, staring into space. Trying to blot out his guilt, and the sight of Ben's eyes staring back at him.

Fuck it.

Language, Ray! The words echo in his mind, taunting him. He takes another, deeper pull at the bottle. His eyes sting. His vision blurs a bit. And he tells himself it's the vodka.

It has to be.

Deep in the night, Ray hears a knock on his door. He's almost finished the bottle of vodka by then, and though it hasn't put much of a dent in his pain, it has made him foggy. A bit sleepy. Though that just could be his body booking on him, after the day he's had. Wanting to shut down for awhile. He's not sure.

Either way, he doesn't feel like getting up. Doesn't want to talk to anyone. About anything.

"Go 'way," he mutters.

The knock comes again. Louder this time. Too loud for a woman, his cop brain thinks, automatically assessing the sound despite his exhaustion. And I didn't phone for a pizza... Did I?

Maybe he did. Because there's another knock. Clearly, whoever it is isn't going to take No for an answer. Must be some delivery boy, wantin' his tip, he thinks. He gets blearily to his feet, fumbling in his pockets for money. Finds some, hopes it's enough for a pizza, and stumbles to the door.

Opens it... to find Fraser standing there.

Oh shit...

Kowalski doesn't answer his door at first. Fraser knocks again and again, growing more and more concerned. Ray's car is parked outside, so he should be in. Why doesn't he answer?

Maybe he's asleep...

Fraser doesn't stop knocking, though. After the way Ray's been acting lately... especially this afternoon... he's willing to wake him and face his wrath, just to assure himself that he's okay. Fraser doesn't have any hard evidence that he isn't, but he's worried because Kowalski acted strange when he drove him back to the Consulate after the paramedics were done bandaging his arm. Despite his earlier concern, he was withdrawn afterwards, almost completely silent. Clammed up, as Americans were fond of saying. Fraser isn't sure if he regretted his overreaction to the shooting, or if he's angry with him for endangering himself. He needs to know, because Ray is his partner and his friend.

But he has another question to ask him, as well. A question that has to do with partnership, and friendship.

He needs to know if Ray wants to be more to him than that.

He knows it won't be easy. He's scared to even ask, afraid that Kowalski may punch him, or shoot him himself, if he's guessed wrong. And the idea that he may be right is even more terrifying. Once, he wouldn't have asked. Once, he would have stayed silent. Kept himself safe. But that was before Victoria. Before Ray Vecchio. Before he had loved and lost twice over, and learned just how important love can be to a man who has known far too much loneliness.

Some men would have turned inward after such pain. Fraser has been wise enough not to. He's learned the hard way how rare love really is, and how precious. So this time, scared though he is by the unknowns involved in this particular question, he will ask it anyway.

Ray deserves at least that much.

And perhaps... just perhaps... he does too.

Finally, Ray opens his door. He stands there clinging to it, dressed in a tank top and jeans. He's barefoot. His hair stands straight up as usual. He blinks like an owl. Sways ever so slightly. He looks disheveled, tired, maybe a little depressed. And he's been drinking. Vodka, by the smell of it.

Fraser doesn't care.

He feels a wave of pure affection sweep over him, strong and unexpected. Ray Vecchio may have left him, but the man who took his place has burrowed deep into his carefully guarded heart somehow. Ray but not Ray... Kowalski is definitely not Ray Vecchio, but he's as good a cop, as brave a man, as close a friend. And Stan seems to need him somehow, in a way his old Ray never did. A rose, he thinks, by any other name...

His affectionate little reverie is broken abruptly. "Fraser!" Ray croaks. "What the hell are you doin' here?"

That's so like Ray that he has to hide a smile. Well... It isn't exactly poetry, he thinks, but it will do.

"I couldn't sleep," he says. Which is at least partially true. He couldn't have slept without knowing that Ray was all right, anyway. "And I wondered if you'd like some company."

Ray blinks again. Doesn't say anything for a minute. Fraser waits patiently, half expecting to be told gruffly that it's late, that Ray is tired, or that he doesn't feel like talking...

Instead, Kowalski suddenly pulls open his door. "Sure," he says, and motions him inside.

Ray scratches his head. Wonders what the hell he's doing. He's had a hard time keeping his cool around Fraser under normal conditions lately. He doesn't even want to think about what he might do now that he's halfway hammered, and still scared from the shooting earlier. But he took one look at him, one little glance at those blue eyes and that earnest face, and he couldn't send him away. Couldn't. But he tries not to stare as the Mountie moves past him.

Still, he can't help noticing that Fraser looks perfectly neat, as usual. The bandage on his arm is out of sight under a blue shirt that's neatly tucked into blue jeans. No hat, but his hair, as always, is perfect.

By contrast, Ray knows he must look like something the cat dragged in, ate, and then spat up again. He runs a hand blearily through his hair, not sure if he's making it better or worse. He knows his eyes are probably red, but there's nothing he can do about that.

Fraser pauses by his couch. Stands there staring at him, with a funny look in his eyes. Almost like he's thinking of some private joke Ray doesn't know about.

It makes him nervous. Reminds him somehow of his damn merman dream. For a second, just an instant, he sees long, dark hair floating around Fraser's head. Feels a hot mouth on his...

Shit. He turns away, instantly aroused. Don't be doin' that, he warns himself. Just don't go there... This is going to be hard enough without that. "Come on, siddown," he says awkwardly, gesturing towards his couch. "You want a beer or something?"

"No, thank you, Ray."

He rubs his forehead, feeling stupid. "Yeah, that's right. I forgot. You don't drink." Or smoke, or sleep with guys. He forces the thought away, concentrates on being polite. Not that he can ever hope to match Fraser in that department, but he has to be on his best behavior now that the Mountie's here. He'd never admit it, but Fraser's opinion of him matters. He doesn't want him to think he's a hopeless drunk. "How 'bout some tea or somethin'?"

"Tea would be nice. Thank you."

"Okay. I don't have any of that bark stuff you like, but..."

"Whatever you have will be fine, Ray."

He pads into his kitchen, trying to remember if he still has some of that tea he bought because Fraser said he liked it. It's the only reason he'd have any, he never touches the stuff himself. He just keeps it around for the Mountie. "It's Gary something... no, Gray. Gray Earl? Is that it?" he mutters to himself, opening cupboards.

"If you're talking about the brand of tea, Ray, it's Earl Gray," Fraser says instantly. Ray shakes his head, smiling. Those guys were right. He's got ears like a bat. "Yeah, that's the one." Dammit, where the hell did I put it?

He rummages around, finally finds the tin of Earl Gray in the back of a cabinet, up high. But drinking has made him clumsy, and while he's getting it out, he knocks over a bottle of Bacardi Breezer. He grabs for it, and misses. It falls out of the cabinet and onto the floor. Breaks with a big crash. Splatters across the linoleum. He closes his eyes. Shit!

"Ray?" Fraser is on his feet in a second, beside him in another.

Great. "It's okay. I was gettin' the tea, and I just dropped a bottle o' rum cooler," he mumbles, feeling like a fool. "No big deal. I'll just clean it up..."

He puts the tea down, grabs a towel from beside the sink, crouches down to wipe up the spilled liquor.

"Here," Fraser says. "I'll help you."

Next thing Ray knows, Fraser's grabbed a towel too, and they're both crouched on the floor, knees almost touching, swabbing up the mess. "You don't haveta do that," Ray says, almost twitching because he's so close. "I can get it..."

Ben smiles at him. "No problem."

Then, in the midst of their swabbing, their hands collide. Ray freezes. Stares at the big, pale, muscular hand touching his, and swallows hard. Wonders what Ben would do if he grabbed it, kissed it, pulled him down onto the floor... Oh, right! a little voice inside him snarls. There's a good idea! That'd turn him on for sure! What a brilliant plan! Why do it in a bed, when you can roll around on the floor in broken glass? Hell, that's probably how they do it in Canada! What, are you outta' your friggin' mind?

He shakes his head to clear it. The stupid impulse passes, but he feels dizzy. He feels Ben, who's gone very still beside him, watching him. Willing him to look up. He tries hard not to look at him, but he can't stop himself. He remembers how he once thought Fraser's head might explode if he ever figured out how he feels about him. He can't resist checking, now, to see if it's still there, or if it's splattered all over his kitchen out of sheer shock. To see if Fraser knows...

When he looks up, Fraser's head is still there, and he's watching him closely. His eyes are bright blue, intensely alert... and aware of his reaction.

Ray pulls back as if he's been burned. Snatches his hand away so fast it's a blur. He's confused, embarrassed. His heart is beating way too fast. Fogged from the vodka, he can't think clearly. He doesn't know what to do, what to say to make that look in Fraser's eyes go away, to make that whole stupid moment just vanish. Part of him wishes he could think of some smart lie to cover up what he just did. But part of him... the drunk part, or maybe the crazy part... has this insane urge to tell him the truth. Just tell him. Stop hiding. Quit all the lying that he hates anyway.

"I'm sorry I didn't plug him sooner," he blurts out. It isn't the big bad truth he wants to tell, but it'll do for starters.

Fraser blinks at him in surprise. "What?"

"That thief. Burlinson," he says. "I'm sorry I let him shoot ya'."

There. It's out. Some of it, at least. He feels the load on his shoulders lighten a bit. He even risks a glance at Fraser, to see how he's taking it.

"Is that what's been bothering you, Ray?" Fraser asks; and the note of surprise in his voice goes a long way towards alleviating Stan's guilt. He can tell, before his friend says another word, that Fraser doesn't blame him for it... and that makes all the difference.

Ray shrugs, chokes down the growing impulse to let it all out, not just part of the truth but all of it. The whole ugly, messy, painful truth. That he loves him, that he needs him so much he almost panicked when he was in danger earlier... that he wants him so bad it's all he can do not to pull him down onto the floor and take him. Right here, right now. Best friend or not. Broken glass or not.

But he doesn't dare. He knows Fraser will forgive a lot. Hell, he's even forgiven him for letting him get shot. But even he has his limits, and Ray doesn't want to test them just now. So he just says, "Yeah. It's been buggin' me. I feel like I shoulda' got him sooner. Then you wouldn't have gotten hurt."

Fraser suddenly reaches out, puts a hand on his shoulder gently. "I had no idea you saw it that way, Ray," he says, just as gently. "I don't. My arm is fine, it hardly even hurts. And you're not responsible for shooting me, Mr. Burlinson is. Besides, getting shot is a risk we both run as policemen. And there was no way you could have shot him sooner, since he was behind cover until the instant you did. You made an excellent shot under difficult circumstances, hitting his hand at a distance while under fire like that. Not many cops could have done it. So you didn't fail in your duty, Ray. You protected me. As usual. If you hadn't been there with your gun, I might've been seriously injured. So please don't worry about it anymore."

Ray's skin is only partially covered by the thin strap of his tank top, so he feels the thrill of Fraser's touch, of that big, warm hand, right down to his toes. And his words are even better. Fraser hasn't just forgiven him, he's made it sound like he's thanking him! He's actually made him feel proud. Proud of his marksmanship. Proud of himself as a cop. Fraser is the only guy he knows who'd say something like that to him, with a bullet wound still in his arm. He feels a surge of love for Ben, so strong it's almost painful.

He has to pull away from him before he loses control completely, and tries to hug him. Or something even worse... "Well, okay. But next time, keep your head down when I tell you to, okay?" he gripes, trying to sound tough.

But Fraser knows better. "All right, Ray," he smiles.

And that smile does it. Ray's had more than he can handle already... that warm, sunny beam turns him inside out. "Here. Lemme just... I'll get a broom," he chokes out. It gives him an excuse to get up. To get away. He needs one. If he doesn't get away, right now, he's going to throw Fraser on the floor and have his way with him.

He stands up, heads blindly for the broom closet.


Ben's voice is very quiet, but Ray cuts him off, sensing danger. "Here's the broom," he interrupts. "I'll get this. It'll just take a second. Then I'll make ya' some tea, okay? Go siddown, Frase."

Get out. He doesn't say it, but he does. And he isn't the only one who can read body language. Fraser gets to his feet obediently, and goes back to the couch without a word. But Ray can feel something hanging in the air between them, a kind of tension that's never been there before. At least, not on Fraser's part. He groans to himself while he's sweeping. Wonders if he's sweeping away a broken friendship, along with the shards of glass.

What exactly did Fraser see in his eyes just now? Does he know? And if he does, what am I gonna do about it?

Fraser eyes Stanley Ray Kowalski closely as he moves around his kitchen making tea. Ray hasn't said a word to him since he practically threw him out of his kitchen; and the significance of that, and the way Ray's eyes darkened when he touched him, and when he smiled at him, isn't lost on him either. In fact, that little touch has opened up a whole new world to him; or rather, opened his eyes to a whole new way of seeing. Just as the touch of Victoria's hand on his once long ago revealed the meaning of sensuality to him, Ray's touch has just showed him that desire... maybe even love... hasn't disappeared from his life at her departure, as he once thought.

Ray wants me. He knows that now, beyond doubt. The hunger in his partner's eyes was unmistakable. That in itself was an amazing discovery... heaven in a grain of sand, so to speak... but he's also made another: he wants Ray too.

He's not sure why. He's never wanted a man before. But Stan isn't just any man, he's closer to him than anyone else has ever been, except Ray Vecchio. And Ray left him. Went away, just like Victoria. Like everyone else Fraser has ever loved. Except Kowalski. Stan had had the chance to leave him, and good reasons for it too; but he didn't leave. He stayed. Maybe that's why just now, when Stan's hand brushed his, he had the distinct urge to take it in his. To touch more of him, all of him.

I want him too, Fraser thinks. It's a frightening realization, but nonetheless true. He hadn't felt any desire when Frannie kissed him passionately, nothing but a mildly pleasant sensation of warmth... but Ray's innocent, accidental touch in the kitchen just now felt electric. Dangerous. Exciting. Erotic. He suddenly realizes how often he's touched Ray in the past, when it wasn't strictly necessary; and that he enjoyed it. I think I've wanted him for a long time, without realizing it.

Ray comes in suddenly with his cup of tea. "Thank you kindly," Fraser murmurs aloud as he reaches for it, hiding his thoughts while he thinks this revelation through.

"Sure, Frase," Ray mumbles back as he hands it to him. His eyes are hooded too.

And this time, both men are careful not to let their hands touch.

Kowalski drops down next to him on the couch, drums his fingers restlessly on his knee while he sips his tea. "So, whaddaya' wanna do? I got this video, 'Great Moments from the Superbowl.' Wanna watch some?"

Fraser shakes his head. He hasn't had much time to process these revelations and come to a decision, not nearly enough really for something as important as this. But he is sure of one thing; well, two things actually. One is that this isn't a moment for football; the other is that they can't go on as they have been, with Stan brooding and flying into rages, and both of them denying or ignoring how they feel. That would be cowardly. And though the mere idea of discussing the issue, let alone possibly having sex with another man, scares him, the idea of being alone forever is far worse.

He is sick of being alone. Tired of coming home to an empty apartment, with no one but Diefenbaker for company. Victoria gave him a taste of what living with someone is like, what loving someone could be like, and he wants more. Granted, Stan isn't female, but is that sufficient reason to refuse him? Where will he ever find someone else who will understand and accept him like he has?

"No," Fraser says quietly. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm not really in the mood for football."

Ray shrugs. "Okay. Ya' wanna just talk, then?"

Fraser nods. "Yes. I'd like that." He came here to ask Ray a question, after all. And though chance already provided him the answer, he decides to ask it anyway. To force the issue, so to speak. He knows this probably isn't the most opportune moment. Stan has been drinking, and he shouldn't take advantage of his vulnerability. Then again, maybe that makes this the perfect time to ask. The man's defensive walls are normally so high that he'd have no hope of getting a straight answer. But the vodka has predictably weakened those walls, enough so that Fraser now has a reasonable hope of getting through them.

What is that old saying? "In vino, veritas." In wine, there is truth. Indeed.

However, he suddenly remembers Ray Vecchio's version of that old saying: "In vino, violence." It's a salient point. Fraser isn't sure if Stan will admit to his feelings, to the sexual tension between them. In his slightly intoxicated state, he may get angry instead. Take offense, strike out and ask questions later. He came dangerously close to that the day Frannie kissed him. Fraser sighs to himself, resigned to the possibility of failure. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained. At worst, he's in for a long walk home with a sore jaw. (He refuses to admit, even to himself, that he might lose his partner entirely over it. If he allows himself to admit that, he'll be too scared to ever ask his question.) But if he doesn't speak up, he has the distinct feeling he'll regret it all his life.

He puts down his tea and takes a deep breath, gathering his courage. "Ray, can I ask you something?"

Kowalski yawns a little. "Well, that depends. If it's like 'Why is the sky blue?' or 'Why did Mounties start wearin' red?', then I can't help ya'. That's not my department," he teases. Anything else, okay."

His partner has obviously relaxed again, after their tense moment in the kitchen. Fraser regrets having to upset him as he knows this will, but he forces himself to go on. "I think this falls under the heading of 'anything else'," he says carefully.

Ray nods. "Okay, shoot."

Fraser almost winces at that. "All right. Well, what would you say if... that is, if I asked you..."

"Asked me what?"

"Well, if... Speaking hypothetically that is..."

"About what?" Rays asks, getting a bit impatient.

"You. Me. Us. Our... relationship," Fraser chokes out, over a big lump in his throat.

Ray tenses instantly. His eyes hood over, and his shoulders are suddenly taut as a drawn bowstring. "What about us?" he asks flatly.

Kowalski may be a bit the worse for wear, but he's not so drunk that he can't see where this line of questioning is going. Fraser feels like he's walking over a mine field as his partner's blue eyes bore into him. There's no mistaking the danger in those wary eyes, in that tense body. One false step, and he'll be walking home... and probably minus a partner.

Nevertheless, he goes on. Stay the course, he tells himself. "Well, what I'm trying to say is..." But he stops. At the last possible second, he chokes. Can't get the words out. Can't say, "Are you in love with me?" Because he's more than a little afraid that he's in love with Ray, too; and those words, that emotion, have always been a curse to him. Every time he says them, or even thinks he loves someone, that person either dies or leaves him. And if Ray loses control and hits him when he hears them, throws him out into the night and doesn't want anything to do with him again, he doesn't think he'll be able to stand it. He's been hurt too much, too many times now. He suddenly feels like this is his last chance, and that if he ruins it, he'll be lost forever.

"What the hell are you tryin' to say, Fraser?"

Fraser's heart sinks. Ray's words are terse, curt, unencouraging. Fraser's heart beats frantically, making it hard to think. He suddenly fears he's made a mistake, a terrible mistake, that he's somehow misinterpreted Ray's actions lately. Because if he did love him... if he cared for him at all... wouldn't he be trying to make this easier for him? Instead, he's glaring as if he wants to punch him.

He nerves himself to try one last time. Heart pounding, he wets dry lips, clears his throat. Prepares himself for the blow he fears is inevitable. "I'm trying to say... To ask you, that is, if you... want me, Ray," he breathes at last, in a voice hardly more than a whisper.

Stanley Ray Kowalski stares at Fraser, blown away by what he's just heard. He shakes his head a little, thinking this must be a drunken hallucination. 'Cuz he could've sworn he just heard the prim, proper Mountie ask him if he wants him, while his pale skin blushes the most beautiful shade of red he's ever seen. But shaking his head doesn't dispel the image. Fraser is still sitting there looking at him, wide-eyed and a little desperate, like he's afraid he's going to be hit or something.

Holy shit! He really said it. He knows. Wow.

And then another thought hits him: He's not running away. He's not disgusted. Freaked out. Whatever.

Fraser wants to talk about it. And that means he's not saying no. He would've run in that case; Ray knows him well enough to know that. But he didn't run. That must mean he cares, that there's some possibility they can get together. The realization bursts inside him like a bomb. Blows away the last of his already ragged self control, his caution. He wanted to stop lying... now he will. Wanted to tell Fraser the truth. Now he can.

He moves forward on the couch, holding the Mountie's gaze. "Yeah," he says, his own voice a bit unsteady as he looks into Fraser's azure blue eyes. The eyes of the merman... "Yeah, I want you. I want you bad, Frase. So I got a little question for you: what're we gonna do about it?"

Fraser's heart goes into overdrive. Stan isn't angry! He hasn't hit him. Hasn't thrown him out into the night after all. That's an immense relief. In fact, contrary to his expectations, Stan has admitted that he wants him. Wants him badly. The problem is, that's frightening in an entirely different way. And now he's edging closer, with the hungriest look he's ever seen on his face. Asking him what they're going to do about it.

Fraser suddenly remembers a moment long ago in Meg Thatcher's office, in a somewhat similar situation, when he was trying to reply to a question he'd assumed (wrongly) that she'd asked him. A similar kind of question, involving intimate physical matters. He remembers his fear, his desire to take things slowly. The flowers he offered her, the suggestions he made of conversation, dancing and taking their relationship forward in cautious increments.

Ray won't let him do that. He knows that instinctively because he knows Ray... and the look in his eyes confirms it. That heat will not be sated by mere hand holding or dancing, or allow any tiny, cautious steps to be taken. This will be a headlong, sensual rush to unimagined ends -- with no going back. If he doesn't leave, and leave now, he may well be devoured.

He knows that. Yet he doesn't move. Doesn't get up, doesn't even try to get away as Ray edges even closer. So close that their thighs are suddenly touching. So close that his burning blue eyes are all he can see.

"Well, Benny? What're we gonna do?" Ray whispers again. The corners of his mouth turn up in a slight, very slightly wicked smile.

And Fraser thinks, God help him, that those are the most erotic words he has ever heard. That perhaps he wants to be devoured after all. He swallows hard. Wets dry lips with his tongue again, watches Ray track the tiny movement, sees it whet his already obvious hunger even more. He suddenly wonders if his own eyes have begun to burn, as Ray's are doing. Perhaps they have, because the next words out of his mouth shock him. "I think... I think I'd like to kiss you," he gasps at last.

Ray's wicked smile grows wider. He leans even closer, angling his head towards Fraser's in the breathless hush. "Ya' think?" he breathes.

Fraser feels faint. He knows Ray's going to kiss him first. Waits breathlessly for him to.

But Ray doesn't. Instead, he waits. Blue eyes burning, lips tantalizingly close to Ben's, he freezes. Stares at his mouth hungrily, his lips slightly parted, and waits.

Fraser realizes that Kowalski may be drunk, but he's not stupid. He realizes the importance of what they're about to do, the profound changes it will make in both their lives. So he's not going to seduce him, or give him any grounds for later resentment. He waits for Ben to move. To commit himself. To answer his desire. To kiss him, as he just said he wanted to do. He wants Fraser to ante up, put his money where his mouth is. Or is it the other way around, in this situation?

Or maybe, he thinks, he's just trying to seduce me. To drive me mad, as he has no doubt been driven mad for some time now, by our sheer proximity. Now that he knows the truth, Fraser feels more than a little sorry about that. He never meant to cause Ray any pain.

And as far as seduction techniques go, this is a powerful one. The feel of Ray's warm breath on his face, the sight of his chest rising and falling rapidly as those burning blue eyes rake his mouth, the sensation of coiled, rising excitement in the slender body so close to his, is incredibly arousing.

So Fraser takes a deep breath. Closes his eyes, leans forward a little and does it. Puts his cards on the table. Takes the plunge. Commits himself. Presses his lips to the waiting mouth so close to his. It's a surprisingly pleasant sensation. Ray's lips are warm and soft, and Fraser prolongs the contact, moving his mouth against his partner's gently.

Ray moans softly, deep in his throat, at the gentle caress. Takes his shoulders in his hands and holds him tightly as he comes back for more. He angles his head to deepen their kiss, but Ben pulls back a little. He remembers that Ray has been drinking, that he probably shouldn't be doing this. Or at least, no more than this. So he makes one last effort at caution, for Ray's sake. He stops kissing him, pulls away again. "Ray, I don't think I should..."

"Don't think, Frase," Ray orders hoarsely. "Please. Don't talk. Just feel..." He bends his head again, covers Ben's mouth with his, trying to pry it open. And Ben does feel: the hardness of his mouth, the roughness of his beard stubble against his face, a wonderful, erotic friction that he loves. The insistent probing of his impatient tongue. The wild beating of Ray's impulsive heart against his chest. Ben trembles a bit, and Ray seizes the moment. Bites Fraser's lower lip lightly, until he gasps in surprise. "Open up," he whispers. Tantalizing. Sexy. Impossible to resist. Fraser obeys with a slight shiver, and Ray thrusts his tongue into his mouth.

Then all hell breaks loose. The next thing Fraser knows, he's down on his back on the couch as Ray plunders his mouth like a pirate. They're both breathing heavily, hearts pounding wildly as they kiss deeply. Hot, wet, tongue-thrusting kisses that go on and on. Ben's head is spinning. Ray tastes like cinnamon, vodka and something he can't even name. He tastes fiery and spicy and delicious. And he feels unique, too. Fraser is used to holding women, used to a soft kind of yielding. But Ray isn't soft, he's hard, muscular, heavy; and he isn't yielding. Far from it. He's strong, amazingly so, and he's pushing against him, pushing his kisses deeper into his mouth, grinding their hips together, their erections...

Fraser groans helplessly. He's lost. Overwhelmed by new and extremely erotic sensations, he's quit trying to slow Ray down. He's just trying to hang on now, holding on for dear life while Kowalski drives him out of his mind.

Ray can't believe it. He's got the Mountie. At last, at long last, Benton Fraser is in his arms. Not the merman, not the dream lover, but the real man. Mr. Polite, Mr. Straight. Fraser, the God of Ice and Snow. He was a bit shy at first, but he's been working on him. He's got his sweet mouth pried open now and he's kissing the hell out of him, going as deep as he can with his tongue. Eating him up alive. And Ben is kissing him back, so hotly he can hardly breathe. Using his tongue with remarkable skill. And thank you kindly Benny, because it's good, so good he can hardly stand it. And he isn't the only one who's getting off on it. He can feel Ben's heart pounding against him, can hear him moaning, feel him shiver. He knows he's liking it, and it's great, better than any dream he's ever had...

Because Fraser the Snow God isn't cold. He's hot, so hot Ray feels like he's on fire. And he tastes salty sweet, just like the merman.

Ray starts touching him, rubbing his flat abdomen through his shirt. Fraser moans and twists a little under him, and he grins into their kiss. Good. Ben likes that too. Encouraged, he pulls his shirt up out of his pants. He breaks their kiss just long enough to rise up and yank off his own tank top. He throws it on the floor, then jerk Ben's shirt up even higher, baring his nipples and most of that gorgeous chest. Oh God, what a chest! Smooth, hairless, muscular...like one of those marble statues you see in museums, only better, because its warm and alive; and (even better) heaving with passion.

"Oh, God, Ray..."

Kowalski doesn't know if that's an Oh God, Ray, stop or Oh God, Ray, that feels good... and he doesn't wait to find out. He knows if he gives Fraser time to think about this, he'll probably get scared. Talk himself out of the pleasure he's feeling, and the even greater pleasure Ray wants to give him. He's not going to let that happen. He's waited far too long for this. They both have. So he lowers his head again, puts his tongue on one of those flat brown nipples, and starts licking it like an ice cream cone. Rubbing the other one too. He doesn't want to neglect one spare inch of his precious Mountie. He likes to hear him moan, would love to make him scream.

"Ohhh!" Fraser bucks underneath him, gasping. Hands clawing at his back. Not screaming yet, but he's getting there. Ray is making noise too, loud gasps and groans of his own because it's been too long, and Ben just feels so damn good. Ray's cock has been hard since their first kiss, and it's straining so hard against his jeans now that it feels like it may go off any second. He holds on desperately though, because he's not going to let it end that fast. No way. He wants to make Fraser go over the edge first.

He forces his mind away from his own pleasure, focuses it ruthlessly on the beautiful body underneath him. He sucks at the hardening nipples, one after the other. Raises his head long enough to see Ben, face flushed, eyes closed, biting his lower lip as his back arches like a bow. Ben's hands are on him, one on his shoulder, the other digging into his bicep. "God, Ray!" he moans.

Beautiful, Kowalski thinks. He's so beautiful... Pale skin, that's flushed deliciously under his licks and kisses. Thick dark hair, slightly tousled now that he's run his hands through it. Brown nipples that have hardened under his mouth and hands. Everything about Ben is beautiful. He's as gorgeous, in his own way, as Stella once was to him. Lying there half out of his shirt, with his cock straining against his jeans, he's as exotic as the merman in his dreams.

Ray undoes the buttons on his shirt and takes it off him gently, making sure it doesn't catch on the bandage on his arm. He hasn't forgotten about Ben's injury, not for one second. He's kept his hands off that arm, to make sure that he doesn't hurt him. But once Ben's shirt hits the floor beside his own, he yanks at his zipper impatiently. There's no need to be careful with that, and he's too aroused to slow down. But he pulls too hard, and the zipper gets stuck.

"Shit!" Ray bites his lip, tugging at the tangled metal and cotton, almost snarling with frustration. Fraser just brushes his clumsy hands away gently. Takes the zipper and, with his usual efficiency, gets it unstuck within seconds, and pulled all the way down. Ray blinks at him in surprise, suddenly not so sure who is seducing who here.

Fraser just smiles a little, then pulls his head down. "I want you too, Ray," he breathes against his mouth. Then he kisses him. Firmly. Commandingly.

Ray doesn't need to be asked twice. While Ben kisses him, he grabs his jeans and pulls them down, baring his hips. Then he pulls away from their hot kiss, not without a slight groan of his own, and slides his tongue slowly all the way down Fraser's body, from his neck to his erection. Caressing him with both hands, all over, as he goes.

By the time he reaches his destination, Fraser is panting, all but sobbing. "Please, Ray, please..." Ray just smiles, because the best is yet to come...

Ray touches him, thinking how beautiful he is here, too. Pale flesh, darkened by the rush of his heated blood to a dark, sexy pink, strains against his flat stomach. He's large, but not overly so...perfect. He strokes him gently.

Fraser shudders all over at that. Nearly comes up off the couch. "Ray!"

Ray pushes him back down, holds him down with an arm across his chest as he takes a long, leisurely lick of his cock. Ben writhes, moaning helplessly. Ray knows that no man has ever touched him here before, that Frannie has never heard him cry out like that, never done this to him...and he's savagely glad of it. He lowers his head and takes the end of it in his mouth. Sucks at it a little. Fraser cries out. Ray knows he's on the edge. He is too. He's so close he can feel his own cock weeping. Throbbing powerfully. He's not sure how much longer he can hold out. So he takes him in deeper, sucks a bit harder.

Ben yells. Bucks. Explodes in his mouth.

Ray cries out too.

They both come at the same instant. Sweating, shaking, holding on to each other tightly. Perfect. Beautiful.

Ray doesn't let Ben go, even then. He tastes him, wanting all of him, everything Fraser has to give.

When it's over, he feels like he's run a mile. Been dropped out of a plane or something. He has to almost crawl back up Fraser's prone body, his breathing still unsteady. But he grins while he does it, because he's tired in a good way. He feels like the sun is shining. Like the Cubs have won the Series. All is right with the world. With his world, anyway. Because this time, when he wakes up, the merman will be here with him. In his arms.

Stanley Raymond Kowalski is one happy man.

So naturally, he teases Fraser. "Ya' know, I'll have to arrest you now. For takin' advantage of a fellow officer who was under the influence and all."

Ben, who still has his eyes closed, smiles. "I didn't know there was a law against that, Ray," he says hoarsely as Kowalski makes it up to his chest, settles down over him again. Then Fraser's eyes open, and Ray's heart almost breaks. Because Ben's eyes are very blue, and he smiles at him a little, like they're sharing some secret joke that the rest of the world isn't in on. The merman smile.

Ray shakes his head, so moved he can't begin to put his feelings into words. But he tries. "There oughtta' be," he says, reaching down to smooth that silky dark hair. "There oughtta' be a law against anyone bein' as beautiful as you."

Ben blinks at him as if he doesn't know what to say either. Then he pulls his head down and kisses him gently, tenderly. "If there was a law against beauty," he says softly, "I'd have to arrest you, too."

When the kiss is over, Ray puts his head down on Ben's shoulder. It looks like a gesture of affection, and it is. Besides, it feels good lying on the Mountie. He's big, hard and beautifully muscled, better than any body pillow Ray could imagine. But that's not all of it. The truth is, it's a way to stay in his arms, but hide his face for a minute. So he can take in the fact that he's just made love with Benton Fraser. Benny the Beautiful, wanted by every woman in Chicago, including the real Ray's own sister. That he made him scream.

And his head didn't explode after all, he thinks, grinning to himself.

Then the smile disappears as he remembers that Fraser just told him he thinks he's beautiful.

Not that Ray believes that, not for a second...he's been looking in the mirror at his angular, average face for too many years to accept that idea. But Ben just said so, which means he believes it; and Ben never lies. And it's the thought that counts, isn't that what they always say? And what a thought...

I love you, Ray thinks, slipping his arms around him. I love you so damn much...

But he can't say it. Even here, even now. He used to be able to say that out loud, but that was before Stella walked out on him. Before pain taught him not to trust. So he takes a breath, and says, "Yer crazy, Benny, ya' know that?"

Fraser holds Ray Kowalski, stroking the blonde head that lays on his shoulder gently. He can hardly believe what Ray just did to him, what they did to each other... Ray made him moan, made him quiver, made him scream. And Ray yelled out too, at the end. A loud, harsh cry, like the roar of a jungle animal. The mere memory of that sound makes Fraser shiver all over again.

Best of all, Ray didn't leave him afterwards. Victoria always did, she always pulled away from him as soon as the sex was done. But Ray didn't. He held on. Smiled at him, teased him, cuddled with him. He's holding him still, as if he never wants to let go. And the way he said 'Benny' just now... Ray never calls him that, never...

Fraser knows what that means. Knows Kowalski well enough now to listen for what he's not saying, for what lies behind his gruff sarcasm. And he's only heard that note in Ray's voice once before, when he told him that he still loved his ex-wife, Stella. So while someone else might think 'Yer crazy, Benny' is an insult, Fraser knows better. He's touched, and glad he finally had the courage to ask his question tonight. Very glad. He brings Ray's hand to his mouth, opens it and kisses his palm tenderly. "So I've been told," he answers, feeling absurdly happy.

Ray sighs just as happily, burrows his head even deeper into his shoulder. "That's okay. I kinda' like crazy," he whispers. "Get kinda' crazy myself sometimes."

Fraser isn't sure that either of them have much of a claim on sanity, considering what they just did. But he doesn't regret it, either. He lays Ray's hand back down on his chest again. Feels him yawn against his shoulder. A deep, satisfied, weary yawn. He smiles. "Go to sleep, Ray," he says softly.

Fraser reaches up to switch off the nearby lamp. Ray's arms tighten around him instantly, as if he's afraid he's going to leave. That little revelatory twitch speaks volumes to Fraser. He's used to thinking of himself as the one with a terrible fear of abandonment. It's sobering to realize that Ray bears similar scars.

"It's all right, Ray," he says gently. "Go to sleep. I'll stay with you."

Ray doesn't answer, he just nods against his chest. Shortly afterwards, his breathing gets slow and deep. Done in by the vodka, the lateness of the hour, and their combined exertions just now, he's fallen asleep. Fraser suddenly realizes that he's tired too, for some of the same reasons. He closes his eyes, but doesn't let himself drift off just yet. He wants to savor the moment. He holds onto his partner, luxuriating in the warm, solid weight of him. He strokes his blonde hair gently, until Ray sighs in his sleep.

He suddenly wonders what Ray Vecchio would think, if he could see him now. The thought makes him wince. Ray wouldn't understand, he thinks. He's not really sure he does either. He doesn't know what it is about him that's made Ray Kowalski fall in love with him, when he irritates him so much sometimes. Maybe we're both crazy, he reflects ruefully. Like he said... After all, Ray's been scarred, and so has he; and one bout of lovemaking, no matter how passionate, isn't going to erase those scars. Or their differences.

Maybe he'll regret this in the morning, in the cold grey light of day. Maybe Ray will, too.

But Ben doubts it. He finds no sadness in his own heart for what's just passed between them. On the contrary, he feels stronger somehow. As if Ray has started to mend something inside him that he didn't even know was broken. Healed some of the scars left there by other, more careless hands. Something tells him that maybe they're together because of those scars. Maybe that's why they need each other.

Fraser holds onto his partner in the darkness. My partner... That word now has a whole new meaning for him. He kisses Ray's hand again. Softly, so as not to wake him. Savors the warmth of his body, the taste of his skin. The knowledge that Ray loves him, and that for once, he isn't falling asleep alone.

His last thought, before sleep takes him, makes him smile.

It isn't so bad, being crazy together.

The End

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Author's notes: In current police slang, the word "bus" means an ambulance. "Dear Abby," for those readers outside the United States, is a reference to a national newspaper advice columnist who answers readers' letters. And the lyrics quoted in this story are from Bruce Springsteen's song, Cover Me.

© Caroline Alert 1998