Midnight Blue

Story III in the "Alchemy" Series

by Caroline Alert

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds of lovers past
Until a new one comes along

-- Billy Joel

From his seat on Ben's windowsill, Bob Fraser watched his son from a mere few inches away. Too narrow a perch for a mortal, but one of the advantages of being dead was that you could sit wherever you liked; and right now, he wanted to study Ben at close range. His son stood beside him gazing out his window, right through his invisible father in fact, if he'd only known it. The sadness in his eyes tugged at Bob so much that he almost decided to materialize, to let Ben see him. Almost. But he reminded himself that it wouldn't do any good to show himself just yet. Ben needed his help all right, but for now, he could best give it to him by staying out of sight and working behind the scenes.

At least, he hoped that was the best idea. He sighed to himself. Difficult thing, being a father. Even after your children grow up, even after you die, your responsibility for them doesn't end. If anything, his was greater now. Since he'd neglected them while he was alive, his parental duties had therefore become his first priority in the afterlife. That was the way things worked here.

But Ben didn't make that easy. Eyeing his tall, sturdy son at close range, Bob couldn't help wondering how he kept making such a hash of his personal life, when he was such a superb physical specimen. Most men would've given their eye teeth to be half as handsome as Ben was, and most women a great deal more to get close to him. Yet he didn't even seem to notice the way he turned heads, didn't seem aware of that particular advantage at all.

Maybe that's partly my fault, Bob thought ruefully. After all, he'd never been able to talk to him about it. Didn't seem appropriate, a father telling his own son that he looked like God's gift to women. He'd been afraid it might swell Benton's head. Still, it was a truth Bob saw all too clearly. He couldn't help it. Ben had been that way since he was a boy, so beautiful it almost hurt you to look at him. It had always hurt him a little, anyway, because Ben had gotten that from Caroline. Her large, innocent, expressive eyes, her gorgeous mouth. Every time he looked at his son, he saw her in him; and once he lost her, that had been both a blessing and a curse.

Strange, how beauty could be both a gift and an affliction -- but Ben's was. It got him noticed all right, but not necessarily by the right people, or in the right ways. Fraser Sr. shook his head, thinking of that Metcalf woman, and of the current Kowalski problem.

Stanley Ray Kowalski to be precise: his son's second Yank partner. He'd noticed Ben's beauty all right! Bob reflected wryly. Though he hadn't admitted it to himself, the Yank had been dazzled by it, right from the first. Bob had recently learned that Kowalski had developed a crush on his son almost from the moment they met, which had eventually led to--

Well, to what had happened that night he'd taken Ben out for a beer, about four months ago. Their first -- well, their first kiss. It was still a bit hard for him even to think about that. It had been a hell of a nasty shock. He'd known something was up with Ben after the Torrance woman left, of course. He'd as much as admitted that he was lonely. But when Bob had heard Kowalski invite him out to dinner, he'd left them alone for a time, trusting that his son's partner would find some way to cheer him up. He'd stopped by later on to find out if Kowalski had in fact managed to banish Ben's blues, and to see if they had any interesting leftovers...

And he'd gotten the shock of his afterlife.

They were done with dinner by then, and sitting in Kowalski's car, so leftovers weren't an option. Worse still, when he'd materialized in the back seat, there was his son up front, kissing his own partner -- and even more unbelievably, there was the American, kissing him back! Two policemen, making out in a car like a couple of het-up teenagers. Bob couldn't believe it. He'd wanted the Yank to take Ben's mind off his woman troubles, but not like that!

Still, he knew it was as much Ben's fault as Kowalski's. And it wasn't the first time Ben had done something like that, either. There were those incidents at RCMP Depot years before, with that young cadet... Bob hadn't approved of that either, but at the time, he'd assumed it was a kind of aberration brought on by loneliness. He'd never thought it would happen again. But when he saw him with Kowalski, he knew he'd been wrong about that. It was obvious that his son was attracted to men; and equally obvious -- at least to him -- that trouble would probably come of it.

And it had. They'd had a fight, just days after their first night together. That hadn't surprised him; what did was the way they both handled it. Immaturely, to say the least. They'd parted and refused to speak to each other since. He'd been sorely tempted to dispense a fatherly lecture to Ben about it in fact, on the virtues of persistence in the face of adversity. They'd both given up much too easily, in his opinion.

So Kowalski defected after your argument. Big deal! he wanted to tell him. It isn't the end of the world. It isn't even an insurmountable difficulty! After all, it's not as if he took a dogsled and vanished into uncharted territory. He just transferred to a different district within Chicago -- and it's a modern city, son, amply equipped with telephones. All you have to do is stop mooning out your window every night, swallow your pride and call the Yank, for God sakes!

It seemed simple enough to him. But somehow, things with Ben were never simple. They never had been. So tempted though he was to do so, he didn't tell him to call Kowalski because he knew better than to interfere this time -- at least verbally. He hadn't gotten anywhere warning Ben before, during his last disastrous romantic entanglement. He'd told him outright that time how little he knew about his dark-haired banshee of a lover, Victoria Metcalf. He'd tried to tell him she was Disaster with a capital D, but he hadn't listened.

No doubt Ben wouldn't listen to what he had to say this time, either. If he told him to dial Kowalski's number and try to work things out with him, he would probably accuse him of being out of his mind. He often did that, when presented with sensible advice.

He shook his head ruefully. Stubborn, that's Ben. Always has been. Inherited that from Caroline too, no doubt. Gets his heart stuck on the oddest people, and there's no budging him. Hell, that Metcalf woman shot his wolf, framed him and nearly got his best friend sent to prison, yet he still ran after her like she was Jeanette McFriggingDonald!

It made no sense to him. Then again, a woman had been involved, and women seldom made sense, in his experience. And it seemed Ben had similar problems fathoming the fair sex, because that whole affair had been a mess from start to finish. In the end, he'd been forced to intervene in the only way he could; by letting his first partner, the Yank with the big nose, shoot him. God knew, that hadn't been an easy decision. But the boy was so lovestruck that nothing he said made a dent in his devotion; and if he'd allowed him to run off with her, he'd've wound up dead. So he'd done what he had to do, for his son's sake.

Eventually, it seemed Ben had gotten over the injuries, both physical and emotional, that were inflicted on him by (and because of) Victoria Metcalf. But it seemed like his son just recovered from one of Cupid's arrows, when he got hit by another. Now there's this American, Ray Kowalski. Odd lookin' fella: hair's always standing straight up, like he just stuck his finger in a light socket. And I swear he's never used a razor in his life. Dresses like a derelict, too. Likes to listen to loud rock music and drives like he's never heard of speed limits, either. Bit of a barbarian, really.

But choosing such a person was typical of Ben. He was very handsome, he could take his pick of partners, but who did he decide to love? First, a crazed criminal out to destroy him. That had been bad enough, but at least she'd been attractive, and properly female. But now, he'd fallen head over heels for a man -- his own partner, for pity's sake -- and a blonde barbarian to boot! Bob shook his head again. Odd choices. It's enough to drive a father to distraction.

Still, now that he'd had some time to get over the shock of it, he had to admit, Ben's latest lover was at least an improvement on his first. If you overlooked the unfortunate fact that he wore pants, Kowalski had some good qualities: he was brave, strong despite his slenderness, a good shot (when he wore his glasses), and a loyal partner. The type who'd follow a man through hell if need be. He'd sensed that about him right away, and told Ben as much.

He smiled wryly to himself. In retrospect, maybe telling him that he approved of his new partner had been a mistake. But when he'd said "He's a good man, son," he'd just been trying to tell him that Kowalski was trustworthy, not to suggest that Ben take the barbarian to bed! But he had. Bob knew it, because he'd visited Ben again the night after that shocking kiss in Kowalski's car, and found them together as before. And that time, they were locked in an even more passionate embrace. In fact, when they went back to Kowalski's apartment, their encounter had grown so heated that he'd been forced to leave in order to give them some privacy.

He sighed again. Oh well. For good or ill, it was done now. And maybe in a way, it had been for the best. Because from the urgent way they'd been kissing at the door of the Yank's apartment, it was obvious they were both in dire need of a good--

Well, you know. A bit of fun. Thigh up, leg over, whatever.

Not that he'd stayed to watch that part, mind you. Though he had no doubt the sex had been passionate, he'd winked out again before he actually saw it. He drew the line at watching his son in bed. He used to arrest men for peeping when he was alive, he wasn't about to become a voyeur in the afterlife. But he'd assumed, from the way they were moaning and groping each other when he left, that matters had taken their logical course.

Besides, he knew his son. Ben was as straight-laced as they came, almost scared to death of the opposite sex actually, especially after that Metcalf woman got through with him. He usually didn't let people get close enough to touch him, let alone for a roll in the hay. But he was also very passionate, under his controlled exterior. So when someone did get past his defenses, the result of all that abstinence and his own repressed desire was that he usually lost control. And he'd never seen Ben so worked up as he'd been that night with the Yank. It had been a veritable explosion of pent-up sexual energy. They'd been going at each other so enthusiastically that he doubted they'd gotten a wink of sleep all night.

Still, though he'd beaten a hasty retreat that night without trying to interfere, the liaison had troubled him at first. It wasn't what he would've chosen for his son. He would've preferred that Ben give his boss a try. Not only was she female, and thus able to give him grandchildren, but she was also RCMP. An officer. Now, there would've been a match! He'd done his best to promote her, but when did Ben ever listen? Actually, he suspected that Victoria might've put him off women forever. Not that he blamed him for that -- she'd been frightening enough to scare almost any man away from women.

But the fact remained that his son needed to have some fun. He was far too stern and humorless for his own good. Handsome as he was, he never seemed to let himself enjoy that. But he had with the Yank. Kowalski had shown an intense, enthusiastic appreciation of Ben's beauty -- which Fraser had reciprocated.

And for that, Bob owed Kowalski a debt of gratitude. Thinking of him, he smiled a private little smile. He would never tell Ben, but he had to admit, the Yank did have rather fetching blue eyes, for a man.

So upon reflection, he'd decided that if Ben wanted to plow the blonde barbarian instead of a woman, he would turn a blind eye, so to speak. Since Ben wanted him so badly, and he wasn't a bad sort, he'd more or less resigned himself to the idea. And he supposed things could've been worse. After all, the Yank was a policeman too, so they understood each other. Plus, he made Ben smile, and he would never betray him the way that woman had. After Bob got used to the situation, it had actually begun to seem like a simple (if rather unconventional) solution to Ben's problems with romance.

It should've been simple, anyway. But they'd messed it up, as usual. There they were, presumably going at it like rabbits, and blowing off some much-needed steam in the process -- nothing wrong with that. But then, for reasons that he'd never understand, they'd had to introduce Feelings into the situation! They'd both decided they were In Love; and of course, events had immediately taken a turn for the worse.

He grimaced. I could've told them that would happen. Because they were both so starry-eyed they couldn't think straight, they'd had a silly little misunderstanding that had turned into a fight. Then the Yank had taken a powder. Transferred out like the devil was on his tail, convinced that Ben was betraying him with his first partner, Ray Vecchio.

Bob resented his part in this a little. He'd been away for a whole year by the time Ben fell for Kowalski. Did he have to come back from his stint in the Mafia on that day, of all days? Just in time to throw a spanner into the works? he thought testily. The worst of it is, Ben's never even touched him. Far as I can tell, he never even wanted to! So Kowalski ran away for nothing!

He sniffed to himself. It was all very complicated and messy. In my day, if two men wanted to share the same bedroll, they just did it, then never talked about it. They kept it hidden, and didn't attach any confusing emotions to it. As it should be.

Ben, who had been gazing silently out the window while his father worried over him, suddenly interrupted Bob's thoughts. He finally shifted his gaze from the street below for a moment, and peered around his apartment with a forlorn look. "Dad?" he heard him whisper.

It was a lonely sound, so lonely that he almost gave in to the plea. Ben sounded so completely miserable that he was tempted to become visible just long enough to tell him, "I'm here, son." Just that. No fatherly advice, just a quick materialization so his son would realize that he was still there watching over him. But then Ben muttered a comment that he was never around when he was needed; and he thought better of it.

Hmm. If you're going to get snotty about it, then you can keep yourself company, Benton, he sniffed, peeved. Typical of you to assume that I'm not paying any attention to you lately, just because you can't see me. You look, but you don't see, he thought, not for the first time. The truth was, he'd been watching Ben more closely in the past few months than he had in ages.

If there was one thing he prided himself on, it was his ability to learn from his mistakes. And he'd learned that, competent as his son was in certain areas, he was a bumbler when it came to romance. He'd let Ben handle his affair with that woman on his own that last time, and he'd wound up in serious trouble. He'd almost died. He wasn't about to let that happen again. So he'd resolved to meddle in his current problem with Kowalski, but this time, he'd taken a different approach.

Rather than hanging around lecturing Ben on his poor taste in romantic partners, or trying to change his mind, he'd decided to help him out. Try to get the Yank back. Because being dead, as he'd often told his son, gave a man certain advantages. One of those was the ability to see into the hidden hearts of the living; and he'd given Stanley Ray Kowalski a good, close look lately, for Ben's sake. That look had confirmed his first impression of the Yank: despite his flaws, Kowalski was a good man. A bit insecure perhaps, but he had his reasons for that. Hot headed and emotional at times too, but that made him a good foil for Ben, who tended to think everything to death. But Kowalski's greatest virtue -- the one that outweighed all his flaws in Bob's eyes -- was the fact that he really was totally, completely, head over heels in love with his son. He hadn't made that up to complicate their affair, as Bob had thought at first, or to strengthen his hold on Fraser; he truly loved him. He needed him too. He couldn't help himself.

That was what decided Bob in the end. Ben had always been quiet and shy, and after that Metcalf harpy got through with him, he'd become so emotionally distant that Bob thought it unlikely he'd ever warm up to anyone again. But Kowalski had melted his ice all right; and Fraser returned his love with a passion Bob had almost stopped believing that he was capable of feeling. And since God only knew when Ben would meet anyone who wanted him as much as Kowalski did again, Bob thought he might just be Ben's last chance at happiness. So come Hell or high water, he'd made up his mind to get the Yank for his son.

Ben gave up his vigil at the window with a sigh, and retreated to his bed. But once in it, as per usual lately, he tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Bob knew why. He was thinking about Kowalski again. Wanting him. Missing him. Which only strengthened his resolve to get the two men back together. Being a father was the one thing I was as much a failure at as Ben is at romance. This time around, I have to do better.

But since Ben tended to get stubborn when he knew he was taking an interest in his affairs, he'd contented himself with meddling invisibly, this time. He'd done his part to reunite the parted lovers secretly, by enabling them to contact each other in dreams. Just to keep the lines of communication open, so to speak, though they weren't seeing each other anymore. To keep either of them from doing anything stupid. To keep Fraser away from his window, and the Yank away from his gun, long enough for them to realize that they should be together.

"You're a fool," he heard Ben whisper bitterly to himself.

He nodded. You'll get no argument from me on that lately, son, he thought wryly. Both he and Kowalski had been behaving like children these last few months, pouting in their respective apartments refusing to communicate, yet secretly pining away for each other. Still -- another reason why he hadn't lectured Ben about his foolishness was that once upon a time, he and Buck Frobisher had acted the same way. Well, not exactly the same, of course. They hadn't been sleeping together after all. But they'd had a similar parting of the ways for similarly foolish reasons, and hadn't spoken to each other for years as a result. So he could hardly give himself airs as far as reasonable behavior with friends was concerned.

So after a time, he took pity on Ben's unhappiness, and sent him soothing thoughts to ease him into sleep. A short while later, he was rewarded when Ben's eyes drifted shut, and his breathing grew slower and deeper. He waited awhile longer, gazing down at the street below with the patience of a man who'd learned it the hard way. He waited while his son sank deeper into sleep -- into a place where he could reach him in his dreams.

Then Bob Fraser disappeared from the window ledge, and walked to meet his son.

"Hi, Dad," Fraser said when they approached each other. He was wearing casual clothes, Bob noticed. Jeans, a blue flannel shirt and leather jacket. The same clothes he'd had on when he and Kowalski first kissed months ago. It didn't surprise him. Ben wore those clothes often in his dreams, because he liked to revisit that moment.

That, Bob understood. He still remembered what he'd been wearing the night he'd first kissed Caroline. So he didn't comment. He just smiled. "Hello, son. You sound rather surprised to see me," he said instead.

Fraser gave him a look. A huffy, surprised little look that could've meant either, "I have no idea what you mean," or "How dare you read my mind like that!" Then he tugged at his ear and shrugged. "Well, you have been rather scarce these last few months, Dad," he said at last.

"Nonsense," he smiled. "I've been around, son. Keeping up, just as usual."

"With what, Dad? You're dead."

Oh, I only had a nickel, Bob thought, rolling his eyes in exasperation at that remark. "Well, with you and your partner, for one," he said.

"Ray Vecchio?" Ben asked, deliberately misunderstanding him. "I expect you've heard that he's getting married. You aren't planning on attending the wedding, are you, Dad?" he asked, with more than a trace of trepidation in his eyes.

"No, I don't mean Vecchio," he said, a bit crossly. "Don't be obtuse!"

"I'm not--"

"I'm talking about your other partner, son. The other Ray."

"Oh," Ben said. Just that. 'Oh'. But there was a world of meaning in that one syllable. It meant, "Oh, him. I don't want to talk about him."

But then he and Ben seldom agreed on conversational topics, so he didn't let that stop him. "Ray Kowalski," he persisted patiently. "The skinny Yank with the stand-up hair, who never learned to shave. The one who--"

"I know who he is, Dad!" Ben interrupted, so hastily that Bob wondered if he'd been afraid he was going to say, "The one who left you." He hadn't been, but he didn't get a chance to tell him that, because Ben spoke up again. "But he's not my partner anymore. He's gone, and I don't even know where he is." He tried hard to sound as if he didn't care, either, but though his tone was calm enough, Bob knew better. Fraser had been eating his heart out over the Yank ever since he'd left, he was just too proud to admit it.

"Yes you do, son. He's just across town," he said pointedly. "At the 29th District. You know that perfectly well."

"Well, knowing it is one thing -- being able to do anything about it is another," Ben said.

Bob rolled his eyes. Stubborn, stubborn. "There are plenty of taxis in this town, son, and beyond that, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with your legs. Is there something else preventing you from making a visit?"

Fraser shook his head. "It's not a question of transportation, Dad. I can't go there because Ray doesn't want me to," he said, avoiding his eyes. And there was no mistaking the bitterness in his voice, this time. "He doesn't want me," he said hoarsely. "He told me to go away. He--he kicked my hat, Dad."

Ben sounded like nothing so much as a bewildered little boy; and Bob's heart went out to him. But he knew better than to show it. What his son needed was good advice, not softness. "Horrors," he said wryly. And when Ben's crystal blue eyes lifted to his, he said crisply, "I'm not saying you have to go to the 29th , son. That's up to you. But you'd better not wait too long to patch up your differences. You'd better do something, and you'd better do it soon, because that partner of yours is starting to drift."

"Drift?" Ben echoed. "What do you mean?"

"Well, he--"

"Are you trying to tell me he's lost at sea, Dad? That he's adrift in a lifeboat somewhere? What?"

Bob gritted his teeth. Ben wasn't just being literal, he was also being sarcastic. He hated that. He knew it sprang from his unhappiness, but it was still hard to take. "I mean drift in the sense of straying from the right path," he said. If Ben wanted literal, he'd give him literal. He'd spell it out for him. "As in wandering. As in sliding--"

"All right, all right, Dad! I understand," Ben interrupted again.

He still looked peevish, but Bob heard something else in his voice too. Something like concern. Maybe even fear. So he pressed on. "With you, the Yank had a purpose, a direction -- but now he's rudderless. Drifting," he repeated stubbornly, because it was a good description. "He's unhappy without you, and his new partner is leading him into bad habits."

He didn't want to come out and say what those were, because he didn't want to hurt Ben any more than he already was. But the darkness that clouded his son's blue eyes at that hint told him that he already knew that Kowalski's new partner was also his lover. Well, if you can call it that, he harrumphed to himself. He'd dropped in to check up on the Yank one night, and caught him rolling around on the floor with his younger partner in a rough, revolting fashion. He knew they'd been about to have sex, but it had looked more like a wrestling match, that the Yank was losing.

Benton didn't say anything. Bob sensed it was because he was too choked up with pain and jealousy to speak. But he couldn't let the subject drop just yet. He needed to warn him. So he went on, "I've got a feeling that if this drags on too long, something terrible is going to happen."

Ben stepped closer to him, his eyes intent. Openly worried now. "What, Dad? What's going to happen?"

Bob shook his head. "That's all I can tell you, son," he said, not without regret. "The rest is up to you."

Then he walked away, wondering how powerful the dream he'd conjured had been. How much of it his son would remember when he awoke the next morning.

The next day, Ray and Rylan drove downtown to talk to Ty Donen. Ray wasn't looking forward to it. He wasn't really sure he'd been right about Donen being the scumbag they were after. Actually, he wasn't sure he'd been right about anything lately. And being unable to sleep much hadn't helped. Despite downing three cups of coffee while he'd watched the sunrise, then drinking another two after they got to the station, he still felt like shit. His hands were shaking from his caffeine o.d., and he wasn't much in the mood for the coming confrontation. Bundled up in his overcoat, he brooded as he drove about the sorry state his life was in. About the unexpected thing that had happened between him and his partner the night before, and what it meant. If anything. About his freaky dream of Ben, and what it might mean too.

"Man, you're a bundle o' laughs today," Rylan complained.

Ray shot him a sideways glance. Izzat some kinda complaint about last night? he wondered, defensive in the light of his own doubts. What'd he expect -- that I'd be singin' cuz he worked me over like a cheap hooker? Not a chance! Not only was he not going to sing, he didn't even feel happy. He felt uneasy. More depressed than he had before. But he didn't want to admit that, or to think about the dream he'd had about Fraser, either. He didn't want to talk at all. "You want chuckles, hire a clown," he snapped.

Rylan just shrugged and leaned over to switch the radio on. Ray let him, thinking the music would distract the kid so he wouldn't have to make conversation. But it ended up distracting him instead. Ray had tuned it to an oldies station the day before, and the dial was still set there. So when Pat turned it on, "Unchained Melody" poured out of the speakers. Ray expected him to change the station, since Pat's tastes ran more to hard rock, but for some reason, he didn't. He just sat back, stared out of the window and let the music play. And as the sad piano notes filled the car, Ray thought inevitably of Fraser.

Oh my love, my darling
I've hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time...

"Just what I need. An oldie moldie," he growled, trying to cover up the way the music tuned into the deep well of pain inside him. The way it brought his hurting to the surface, made it hard to hide. Perversely, though he'd been relieved when Rylan had turned it on, now he only wanted the music off. "Get rid o' that, willya?"

But Rylan didn't respond. He just hummed along with the song. Not getting the hint -- or not taking it.

Either way, it pissed him off. Ray gritted his teeth. "Turn that off, okay?"

"Why? I know it's old, but I like it. It's a classic," Rylan said. "What's your problem?" He settled back in his seat and gave Ray a look. It wasn't so much challenging as curious.

Uh oh, Ray thought. His instinct was to lean over and change the station anyway, despite Pat's objections, but the spark of curiosity in his eyes changed his mind. I should probably let it go. It's just a stupid song anyway, who cares? He got the feeling that Rylan had just insisted on listening to it at first because he knew it bugged him. But the more he bitched about it, the more he was starting to wonder why. And he didn't want him thinking about that. The kid's eyes were way too sharp, and Ray didn't want to make him jealous. He was asking way too many questions about him and Fraser already...

"No problem," he lied, keeping his hands on the wheel. Playing it cool. But as the song played on, though he tried, he couldn't tune it out.

And time goes by
So slowly,
But time can do so much...
Are you still mine?

That, he thought bitterly, is the sixty four thousand dollar question. Is Frayzh alone now, or is he with Vecchio? He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He was trying hard to look cool because Rylan was still watching him, but the damn lyrics were hitting him where he lived, in that secret spot deep inside that still bled if he thought too much about the Mountie.

I need your love,
I need your love,
God speed your love
To me.

As the song built to its climax, its lyrics triggered painful memories. Ray's fingers tightened reflexively on the wheel. God speed? Jesus effing Christ! Who the hell talks like that anymore? I've never heard anyone use those words in my life, except-- Pain filled him as he remembered a happier time at the 27th, when Fraser had gripped his arm in the middle of a case, smiled at him with those amazing blue eyes and said, "God speed, Ray."

Suddenly his chest contracted, and his eyes burned. "I said, turn that shit off!" he growled. But before Rylan could move, he leaned forward and shut the radio off himself.

This time, Rylan didn't protest. Silence fell between them, so thick that Ray could hear his own agitated breathing. But Pat was cool, as usual. He just lounged on his side of the car, watching him closely.

Like a cat, Ray thought, unsettled and embarrassed. Like a fuckin' cat playin' with a mouse. He stared at the road ahead, avoiding his eyes. Damning himself for losing control like that.

"Whatsa' matter, Ko?" Rylan asked softly. "That cut a little too close for comfort or something?"

Ray hated the way the kid seemed to be able to read his mind. To look right through his dark glasses, heavy coat and cool attitude to the emotions seething inside him. Then again, he'd kind of lost his cool for a minute there, so maybe it'd been pretty obvious. Hell, a reasonably bright teenager probably could've picked up on his mood, and been able to make a pretty good guess at the reason for it, too. "I just hate that stupid song, okay?" he lied. "Always have."

Rylan just kept looking at him, his eyes curious and intent. "If you say so."

Ray clung to the wheel. "Yeah, I do. I think you just heard me say so."

Rylan shrugged carelessly, and finally turned his gaze to the road in front of them again. "Whatever."

Rylan was quiet for a long time after that. All the way to Donen's restaurant. Still, Ray had the disturbing feeling that wheels were turning in his head. Wheels that he would never let Ray see. Wheels that were probably coming up with ideas that he wouldn't like. And he felt more uneasy than ever. He was sorry he'd turned off the radio, sorry he'd ever let the stupid song get to him like that.

Sorry about everything.

He swore to himself that if he found out Donen was the creep they were lookin' for -- if he smelled even a hint of guilt when they interviewed him -- he'd make him sorry, too. Big time. Right in front of his customers, if need be.

He needed something to look forward to.

Fraser woke that morning with a sense of impending doom. A feeling that something bad was going to happen. Something that he should remember -- something that he needed to prevent. And he thought of Ray Kowalski.

Then he tried to dismiss the chill that swept over him. That's nonsense, he told himself. It's not a premonition, I'm just obsessed with him. I can't think about anyone else, and I must've had a dream that gave me a strange feeling, and now my subconscious has combined the two. It doesn't mean anything!

But for the next hour, while he dressed, shaved and fed Diefenbaker, he couldn't get the worry out of his mind. It settled into his stomach, a cold, hard lump that wouldn't go away. And it wasn't nameless, that fear. Its name was Stanley Ray Kowalski.

I'll call him, he told himself. I will. I'll just swallow my pride and pick up the phone.

But he'd been telling himself that for four months now, and it still hadn't happened. And he wondered, as Ray Vecchio drove him to the Consulate later on, if it would happen today either.

Later that day, Frannie sat at her desk polishing her nails and thinking. Things were a complete mess; and she didn't like it. She didn't like it one bit. Everything was so screwed up right now, it wasn't even funny. Ray, Serena, Benton and Ray Kowalski... They'd all started falling like a bunch of dominoes when Kowalski left the 27th. Now, even with Serena here, Ray was still worried, because Ben was so unhappy. Oh, Ray was happy enough when he was with Serena, but when he wasn't, when he and Ben were working together, she'd seen how Ray watched him, how concerned he was about him. She heard him keep asking, "You okay, Benny? You're sure nothin's wrong?" And she'd seen how he stomped around the station after because Benton kept lying and telling him he was fine. Worse still, Ray was having nightmares. He had been, ever since he'd come home.

And the other Ray...

She shook her head, thinking of him. Jeez! Kowalski's gone completely off the friggin' deep end!It seemed like he was out to prove he didn't care about anyone or anything, even though it was completely, screamingly obvious (at least to her) that he was so in love he could hardly see straight.

Actually, that was part of the problem. Kowalski was so in love, and so torn up about it, that he wasn't seeing straight right now. He was acting like a wild man, acting nuts -- and she was deeply worried about him. From the ugly rumors she was hearing from the 29th, it was a miracle he wasn't dead already. He'd only been there a few months, but he already had a reputation as a real hot shot. The guy who'd take cases no one else would, who'd go places no one else would dare.

And she knew why. Ray wasn't stupid -- far from it. And he'd never given a damn about his reputation, or getting ahead either. He'd never been a glory hog, or one of those guys who'd do anything to get a promotion. The Ray Kowalski she knew was a good guy. Sarcastic, yeah, but a loyal, solid, brave cop all the same. A bit of a hothead, but he'd always kept it under control until lately. Now he was acting crazy, more like someone who wanted to get killed than a guy trying to prove himself on a new job. He'd been doing that ever since his fight with Ben.

That's what started this whole mess, she thought. That had to be the reason Kowalski had transferred to the 29th, and why he'd turned into Arnold Fricking Schwarzenegger once he got there. And that was why Benton was wandering around lately looking like he'd been hit over the head with a really big otter. He'd heard the rumors about Ray's incredible risk taking at the 29th too. Everyone had. It was all over the station, Fraser couldn't help but hear -- he just didn't have a clue what to do about it. And thatwas why her brother went around glaring and snapping at everybody sometimes, because he knew Fraser was unhappy but didn't know why -- because of course Ben would never, ever tell Mr. Testosterone what was really going on.

Not that I blame him, Frannie thought. She could just imagine what Ray's reaction would be, if Ben ever did. You what? You're what? No, you'd better say that again, because I don't think I heard you right. You're WHAT? You're in love with a GUY? WITH Kowalski? What, have you lost your friggin' mind? Only gays do that, Fraser! And you're a friend of mine, so there's no way you can be gay. NO WAY! You got that?

Frannie shook her head, imagining it. Then she sighed to herself. I mean, people are always talkin' about the war between the sexes, but they're all guys! This is ridiculous! But that was what this mess was starting to feel like to her: a war. A weird kind of cold war, where everybody was suspicious of everyone else, or mad at them, but no one really knew why. It had gone way beyond silly now. At this point, everyone involved was only unhappy; but if things didn't change, if nothing broke the stalemate they were all locked into, the situation was going to get ugly.

Someone was going to get badly hurt. She could feel it. She had a sixth sense about this kind of thing. She'd had the same sort of feeling, this sensation of a huge black cloud hovering over them, just before Ray's old girlfriend Irene was killed. She'd tried to warn him to stay away from her, but he hadn't listened. There was no need to tell him to stay away from Kowalski this time, because they hadn't seen each other for months, not since he'd left the 27th. But that hadn't solved anything. Ben was quietly going to pieces worrying about his wild antics at the 29th and missing him, Ray was tearing his hair out over Ben and having nightmares, Serena was worried about Ray -- and Frannie was worried about all of them.

She didn't want to see Ray's relationship with Serena fall apart. She was the best thing that had happened to him since his divorce. And she worried about the bad dreams Ray kept having. Sometimes they woke him yelling, and she'd never seen him like that before, not even in the midst of his worst cases. And she didn't want to see her brother's friendship with Benton ruined either, and this Kowalski thing was straining even that.

She could hardly bear to think about some of the things she'd heard that Ray Kowalski was doing. It was a fair bet that he was probably the unhappiest one in the bunch. She didn't really know what had caused his big fight with Fraser that day, since the Mountie (as usual) wasn't talking. She had her own theory, that it was some kind of lover's quarrel, but even that was guesswork. She didn't really know.

In any case, regardless of the reasons for it, somebody had to fix this, ASAP. And as usual, since all the men involved were far too busy proving they were tough to even talk about it, much less try dealing with it, it seemed like the fixing part was up to her. Men! she sniffed. Big useless piles of muscle! If they weren't so cute we'd all be better off without 'em...

Still... She didn't really like to think about a world without Fraser, or Ray Kowalski, or even her big brother. Pain in the butt though he was sometimes, she loved Ray dearly. She loved all of them. Kowalski too; and she missed him. She missed his spiky hair, and the way he always teased her...

Life at the 27th just hadn't been the same without him. She just wished she knew what to do about that, and about all the fallen dominoes he'd left behind him.

Ray looked at his watch. It was 9:50 p.m. Time to relax and kick back. It was also three nights since Rylan had showed up at his door wanting to get laid. Or to go over cases, or even to have a beer. He just hadn't come back, period. Ray wasn't sure how he felt about that -- or how Pat was feeling either, because they hadn't talked about it. Not once. Ray wasn't sure if his sour mood in the car the morning after had kept Pat from bringing it up, but in any case, he'd just followed his lead and ignored it too. Because he mostly just felt relieved that they weren't talking about it. He didn't want to talk about it, or do it again, either. He just wanted to forget it, like it was a bad dream. He wanted to pretend it had never happened. All the same, a part of him wondered why Rylan hadn't come back. It wasn't that he liked what Pat had done to him. It was just that his place was so damn quiet without him. Too quiet...

Well, he told himself wryly, it's not like ya need Rylan to fix that, do ya? Got a CD player, don'tcha? He padded over to his stereo system in bare feet, and put some music on. Nothing intense, just some soft, dreamy, rhythm-based stuff to help him unwind. He settled back on his couch, put his arms under his head, and listened to Everything.

Time will heal me
Time will save my soul.
Time will heal me,
Time will make me whole.

I used to believe that, he thought darkly. Before I left Frayzh, before everything went to hell...

Suddenly, there was a knock at his door. "Shit," he muttered. He got to his feet, got his gun and padded to one side to answer it. "Yeah? Who's there?"

"Land shark," a masculine voice snickered.

It was Rylan. Ray smiled in spite of himself. What the hell? I could use a laugh, why not let him in? I can always say no if I don't want to.

But when he opened the door, Rylan gave him such a suggestive grin that Ray's heart sped up instantly. He wasn't sure if what he was feeling was fear or excitement; and Rylan didn't give him a chance to find out. He came in fast, shoved the door shut behind him, and then advanced on him, his eyes dark with amusement and desire. "Hey, Ko. Ya put music on and everything," he teased. "Were you expecting me?"

Ray took a step backward. Not sure if he was teasing, or really trying to say the N word, he shut off his stereo. "Not exactly--"

He never got a chance to finish the sentence, because Rylan pulled him close. And it seemed like he already had ideas of his own, because Ray could feel his arousal. "Yer supposed to say yes," he breathed, his arms tightening around Ray possessively. "Yer supposed to say that you want it as much as I do. That you've been thinkin' about it as much as I have."

Ya must've been thinkin' about it a lot, Ray thought wryly, if yer that hard already. But he didn't say that. He just raised an eyebrow. "What if I haven't?"

Rylan grinned. "Then I'll just have to refresh your memory."

Rylan left about an hour later. After he shut the door behind him, Ray locked it automatically, then leaned his forehead against it. Stood there with his skin pressed to the cool wood, his head jumbled. What the hell am I doin'? I just had sex with my partner again -- for the second time in less than a week. If the department ever found out about it... He groaned. He didn't even like to think about that. Hell, there are rules against hetero couples on the same squad having a relationship! If they get found out, it's either an instant transfer or they yank yer badge. But the slightest hint that yer gay, and they won't transfer you, they'll throw you out on yer ass. No apologies. No second chances.

It was against the rules, of course, but it happened. So he knew that was what he was risking. What he and Rylan were both risking. Granted, it wasn't the greatest job in the world -- hell, it wasn't fun at all anymore without Fraser -- but it was all he had left. So why was he messing with it? He dug his hands into the wood, scratched his nails against it, trying to figure it out. First time didn't matter. Told myself it was a one night stand. Didn't mean anything. It was somethin' Rylan wanted. I just went along for the ride. For the hell of it. Freak thang. Wasn't sposed to happen again.

But it just had. Twice now. So it had to mean something. He could see that. And not just to Rylan, either -- to him too. Just like the first time, he could've said no, could've sent Pat away, but he hadn't.

But I still didn't know why. Wasn't like I liked it. He was bruised and aching again. Rylan had held him down this time, pinned his wrists to the floor so hard that they hurt. He'd been all over him, had bitten his nipples and sucked him off like there'd be no tomorrow. And this time, he hadn't been content to let Ray just lie there while he did what he wanted to him. He'd asked Ray to blow him.

And I did it, Ray thought uneasily. Made him wear a rubber, but I did it. Don't even know why. I didn't really want to. Didn't like bein' with him any better than I did the first time. Hell, I didn't even come. But Rylan didn't seem to care. He'd gotten off both times, and that seemed to be all that mattered to him.

Ray's head swam. The more he thought about it, the more messed up it all seemed. It was obvious why Rylan kept coming to see him: he was satisfied, he got off on it. But Ray couldn't figure out what the hell it was doing for him. Why he kept opening his door late at night to a kid who was bigger, stronger, and who played far rougher than he did. Who tried to dominate, rather than please him. It sure as hell isn't the sex, he thought. Hell, we don't even have sex. At least I don't.

So what was it? Some kind of master-slave thing? Was he that sick, that far gone? That desperate?

He didn't know. He was sure of only one thing: whatever was going on between them, Rylan was winning, and he was losing. What, he wasn't exactly sure. Self respect maybe? Or maybe it was worse than that. Maybe every time he let Rylan do him, he was losing a piece of his soul. If that's true, then why the hell do I keep lettin' him do it?

It was a mystery. A dark one that he wasn't sure he wanted to figure out.

But I gotta. It's important. It's my job, and his. It matters. He stood there for a long time, resting his head against the door and wondering what he would do the next time Rylan came knocking at his door. Because he knew now that he would. He'd come back looking for sex again and again, if he didn't do something about it. Because Pat wanted him, really wanted him bad. Ray could feel that. He thought he might even be in love with him, though he'd never said so.

He's not gonna stop, he thought. I'm gonna haveta tell him no. Make him go away. He flattened his hands against the door, pressed his fingers hard against its cool, unyielding smoothness. Am I gonna do that? he wondered. Am I?

He didn't know, and it scared him.

He turned away from the door finally, and moved to his stereo. He always turned to music when he got stirred up inside. If he felt good, he danced to let it out, for the pure joy of it; and if he felt bad, he danced to try and get it back. To find joy in the music and movement, when he couldn't find it anywhere else.

So he stood staring down at his CD player, trying to decide what to play. But though several minutes went by, he couldn't make himself pick anything. All he heard was Rylan's voice, saying, "Ya put music on and everything. Were you expecting me?" The truth was, he hadn't been. Not really. He'd half hoped that Rylan hadn't liked it enough to come back for more. He'd never thought this would happen again, and certainly not with his own partner. He didn't know how to handle it.

Dance for awhile, he told himself. Forget about it. But he stood paralyzed, unable to put on any music, unable to make a decision. Then it hit him, his second shock of the night: he didn't dance anymore. He hadn't for a long time. Not since he'd left Ben. He hadn't wanted to. And that was scary too. That had never happened to him before. Never. No matter how bad things had gotten for him, he'd always loved to dance. Even after Stella left him, he'd waltzed with her shadow, night after night... Holding onto her memory. And it had kept the darkness at bay, had kept him moving so his grief couldn't smother him.

He wasn't dancing now; but he was doing a lot of things he'd never done before. He'd grown a beard, gotten an ear pierced, and begun answering to the name 'Ko' -- all so he could leave the part of himself that had loved Ben behind. He'd tried to tell himself that was a good thing, but now he wasn't so sure. Lately it was beginning to seem like he'd thrown out more of himself than he'd meant to, like he'd thrown out his better half, along with his past with Fraser.

It was like the darkness had caught up to him -- crept into him. He was becoming someone even he didn't recognize. Someone who took crazy chances on the job, for the adrenaline rush it gave him. Someone who kept having sex with a kid ten years younger than he was, who was rougher than hell -- and who was his own partner. Small wonder he couldn't find the beat these days, couldn't lose himself in it anymore, didn't feel connected to the music like he used to. Maybe it's cuz I got nothin' good left inside me to connect with anything anymore.

It was a scary thought. But then he had another, even scarier one. Maybe I've already lost myself.

Too bleak for music, he turned away from his CD player and walked into his kitchen. He didn't even know why. Whaddaya want? he asked himself helplessly. What the hell do you want?

The answer floated up from inside of him instantly. I wanna be with Ben. Wanna make love to him with the lights on. In the dark. In moonlight. Outside in the sun. Every way there is. Then make up new ways. Want him to do things to me nobody's ever done. Wanna lie there naked while he touches me, just touches me. Wanna feel him tell me with his hands what he never said: that he loves me. Wanna hear him say it, too.

But wanting that was hopeless. Ben was a part of Stanley Ray Kowalski's life. His dream -- his lover. He was Ko. Ko didn't dance, and he didn't even have dreams, let alone a lover. Ko fixed himself a drink, and stared into nothingness while he tilted his head back and let the liquor burn down his throat.

"Here's the file you wanted, Ray. The one on--" Frannie stopped in mid-sentence as she realized she was talking to empty air. Her brother wasn't at his desk. She rolled her eyes in frustration. He'd just been bitching at her for not pulling a file he wanted on a suspect in the string of downtown robberies he was working. But now that she'd found it, he'd left his desk! She shook her head. He'd probably ducked into the closet or gone into the can or something, so he could whisper sweet nothings to Serena on his cell phone again, in private.

I swear, you'd think that phone was surgically attached to his ear lately! she thought. Then she smiled to herself. As annoying as Ray's frequent disappearances were lately, it was great to see him so in love again, especially with someone as cool as Serena. Serena knew things about cosmetics that Frannie had never heard of; and she was a great singer, and really sweet too. Frannie was happy that Ray was going to get married again, to someone she really liked. That was the icing on the cake.

But she couldn't help wondering if Ray had told Serena about his nightmares. About what had happened to him while he was away. She suspected that it was bothering him more than he was admitting to anyone.

Then there's the whole thing with Benton, she reflected, her smile disappearing.

As if on cue, Fraser suddenly walked around the corner and stopped beside her. She knew he was probably looking for Ray, but she smiled at him anyway. Not with the teasing, suggestive kind of smile she used to give him, but a friendly one. She'd given up flirting with him now that she'd figured out that he was in love with Kowalski. Dreaming about him had been fine when she'd thought he was available; but Frannie was smart enough to know when something was a lost cause. And if Benton was gay, that was something even she couldn't fight.

But he was also lost -- in more ways than one. So she couldn't give up caring about him. She didn't even want to. He was too beautiful, too smart, too sweet, too utterly adorable to ever get out of her heart. So she'd decided that if she couldn't have him as a husband, she'd just have to be like his sister instead. She figured that was safe enough. He didn't have any sisters or brothers at all, that she knew of. So at least she wouldn't have any competition there!

But as his self-appointed sister, she was worried about him. He didn't look too good these days. He's lost weight, and if he isn't careful, those shadows under his eyes are gonna become permanent, she thought, pitying him. But it wouldn't do to let him see that. "Hi, Frayzh," she said casually. "You looking for Ray?"

"Yes," the Mountie nodded. "As a matter of fact, I am."

Frannie shrugged. "So am I. He was just here, but he disappeared. I think he's off somewhere calling Serena again."

"Ahh," Fraser said. "He calls her a lot, doesn't he?"

Frannie rolled her eyes. "You can say that again!"

"Yes. Well... that's good. It's good to see him happy," he said quietly.

"Yeah, it is," she agreed. "Just don't tell him I said so, okay?"

Fraser tried to smile at her little joke, but the expression quickly flickered out and disappeared. He averted his gaze and stared down at his boots. And something flickered in his blue eyes for an instant -- flickered, then was extinguished so swiftly that anyone else but Frannie would've missed it. But she'd been watching Fraser for years, had made a total study of her Mountie; and she could've sworn that, just for a second, he'd looked a little jealous. Jealous and sad.

And I know why, she thought. Frannie put the case file she'd pulled for her brother down on his desk, and moved closer to him. He was still staring down at his feet. "Benton," she said softly, to call him back from the sad place he'd gone to in his head. But when his blue eyes lifted to hers, they were deliberately blanked of all emotion, and she knew he hadn't meant her to see his pain. That he hadn't wanted anyone to see it. So she wasn't sure what to say. She wanted so much to end the rift between him and Ray Kowalski, but she wasn't sure how. Fraser was such a private person, and so sensitive, that it was hard to know how to bring it up without hurting him. She finally said awkwardly, "I... I just wondered if you'd heard from Ray lately." That seemed safe enough. She didn't say which Ray, but she knew she didn't need to.

Fraser looked away again. But not so fast that she couldn't see the way he set his jaw tightly at her question. "No," he admitted. "No, I haven't. But I'm sure... " He broke off for a moment, as if his voice had failed him. He cleared his throat quickly and went on, "I'm sure he's very busy with his new job, and that he'll call when he can find the time."

If he'd been anyone else, Frannie would've rolled her eyes and snorted "Get real!" But Fraser was trying so hard to sound positive that she didn't have the heart. "Yeah. Right. I'm sure you're right, Frayzh. I'm sure he will," she said instead. But she was lying, and she figured that underneath, Fraser must know it too. After all, Kowalski had been gone for more than three months now -- and knowing Fraser, he'd probably been counting the days since he left! And Ray had had plenty of time, in all those months, to call his best friend. But he hadn't done it because of the fight they'd had. He hadn't called, and Fraser hadn't called him. And neither one was going to, either.

Typical men! she thought, exasperated. They were both being stubborn, though all it was making them was unhappy. Fraser was turning into a scarecrow right in front of her, and she'd heard enough about Kowalski's scary escapades at the 29th to know that he was acting like an idiot too, in his own way. It was becoming crystal clear to her that the two of them were never going to solve their problem on their own. She'd have to help them. She decided to be up front, and sound Fraser out about it.

"Would you like me to give him a call?" she offered softly. "You know, just to find out how he's doing and all?"

Fraser's eyes lifted suddenly, found hers again and held them. She saw surprise in them, and a surge of hope so strong that even the stoic Mountie couldn't suppress it. As if she'd just offered him a chance he'd never even thought of. Fraser was so self-sufficient and so private, she realized that it had probably never occurred to him to ask anyone for help with the Kowalski situation. But he looked grateful for her offer. His mouth opened, and she could've sworn he was going to say, "Yes. Would you do that for me, Francesca? I'd be very grateful."

But then he caught himself. He stiffened, shut his mouth, and pasted his perfect Mountie mask on again. Twitched his lips into a stiff curve that was supposed to be a smile. "No, thank you. I wouldn't want you to go to all that trouble," he said.

Frannie was disappointed. He was perfectly polite, as always, but she could hear the strain in his voice. She knew how hard it had been for him to say that. To look like that, as if he didn't care when his heart was secretly breaking. "Oh, it's no trouble!" she insisted. "I wouldn't mind--"

"Well thank you, but--"

"Really, Frayzh! It'd be easy. I could just--"

"No, Frannie!" Fraser snapped loudly. "I said, NO!"

Frannie blinked at him. She couldn't believe her ears. Not only had he interrupted her, but he'd called her Frannie! Frannie, not Francesca. And he'd raised his voice. He'd almost yelled at her! It shook her. He'd never spoken to her like that before, in the entire time she'd known him. He'd never looked at her with such anger. Not even that night when she'd showed up at his place in that ridiculous leather bustiere...

Frannie looked away. She was trying to help, and instead, she'd made a mess of things. She'd made him angry without meaning to -- and now he'd hurt her. "Okay," she mumbled. "Okay. Guess that was a stupid idea, huh? I can take a hint. Sorry I mentioned it." She edged away from Fraser, meaning to go back to her desk for awhile, where she could turn her back on both Ray and him, and forget her ill-advised attempt to help.

But Fraser stepped in front of her suddenly. "Francesca... "

She looked up at him warily, half expecting another outburst, but his clear blue eyes had softened noticeably. "I'm sorry," he said gently. "I seem to be... somewhat on edge lately. I haven't been... Well, I haven't been sleeping well." He ran the back of a finger across an eyebrow in a familiar little gesture that he always made when he was worried or upset. "I'm sorry I was rude. I didn't mean to suggest that your offer was silly. It was actually very kind. Thank you."

His eyes held hers, and he even smiled a little. A real smile, not the fake one he'd pasted on a few minutes ago; and Frannie's heart swelled. Unhappy as he was, Fraser still cared about her. He'd sensed that he'd hurt her, and instantly apologized. She forgave him just as quickly, worried that he'd confirmed what she'd only guessed, that he wasn't sleeping well. She already knew that he wasn't eating properly either, and it only intensified her desire to help him.

She decided to try telling him the truth. To finally lay her cards on the table, to tell him that she knew what was going on between him and Ray, and that it didn't matter. That she still loved him. So much, in fact, that she wanted to help him get Ray back, if that would make him happy.

"It's okay, Frayzh," she said softly, so no one else would hear. She tried to choose her words carefully, so she wouldn't upset him again. "I... know how you feel about him, and I just... want you to be happy, you know? And Ray too. And you haven't seemed happy lately. Without him, I mean. And when people are in love, they should be happy. Be together. So I just wanted you to know that... if you ever want me to... you know, kind of check up on him for you, to find out how he's doing, or get a message to him, I'd be happy to. Okay?"

Frannie finally faltered to a stop. She'd felt amazingly awkward, trying to say that to Fraser. Guess it wasn't exactly poetry, but at least I got it out. And he must've got what I meant, she told herself. Right? She sneaked a glance up at Fraser to find out.

Fraser stood frozen, his blue eyes wide and focused on her. She suspected that mentioning the L word out loud, especially in connection with him and Ray Kowalski, had shocked him. He blinked once, then twice, the way he always did when he was taking in something utterly unexpected. Then he cricked his neck nervously, and blushed. Oh yeah, she thought, amused. He got it. He knows what I meant.

She wouldn't have been surprised if he'd run in the opposite direction. In fact, it surprised her that he didn't. But once his flush faded a little, he smiled at her, and finally nodded. "Yes. Okay." Then to her surprise, he took her hand gently in his for a second, and rubbed his thumb across the back of her fingers in a little caress. "Thank you kindly, Francesca," he said quietly, holding her gaze. And she knew he wasn't just thanking her for offering to call Ray.

Frannie clung to his hand, lost in his clear blue eyes, in the unexpected sweetness of his gesture. For a second, she felt how wonderful it would be to be close to Fraser, really close to him, the way that Ray Kowalski was. To get more than the politeness he gave everyone, to be the one he gave his heart and soul to. And though she knew Kowalski had left him and that he was unhappy, in that moment, she envied him with all her heart.

Then her brother came striding into the room. He saw Fraser holding her hand -- or rather, he saw her holding Fraser's -- and rolled his eyes. "Jeez, Frannie, Don't you ever give up?" he complained as he walked up to them. "Come on, let go o' Benny! We got work to do."

Frannie expected Fraser to drop her hand and leap away from her like a scalded cat, totally embarrassed at having been caught in an expression of affection. She even started to move away herself. But Fraser surprised her. He squeezed her hand lightly, keeping her next to him. "Actually, I was just thanking your sister for something, Ray," he said calmly. And to her amazement, he lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the back of it lightly, in a gallant, old-fashioned gesture. No one else could've carried that off, but from Fraser, it was pure magic. "Thank you, Francesca," he said for the second time, smiling over her fingers at their shared secret.

Ray stared at them, struck dumb with amazement. Frannie grinned at him, then turned to Fraser again. "You're very welcome, Benton," she said, in her best dignified tone. "Anytime," she added, trusting that he'd catch her hidden meaning.

And he did. "I'll let you know," he said quietly. Then he finally let go of her hand. She walked away feeling like she was floating. Maybe she hadn't managed to get Benton to fall in love with her, but she wasn't doing too shabby being his sister. Not too shabby at all!

Behind her, she heard Ray say suspiciously, "Hey, you two! Is there somethin' goin' on here? Somethin' I should know about?"

She ignored him. She had no intention of dignifying that with a reply. She just kept smiling as she headed to her desk.

And it seemed like Fraser felt the same, because all he said was, "I don't believe so, Ray."

"This isn't, like, one of those chivalry type situations, is it?" Ray persisted. "Where you can't tell me somethin' I should know because it's against the Code?"

Frannie couldn't see Fraser's expression, but she somehow knew it was a mask of complete innocence. "If it were, how could I tell you?" he replied calmly. "That would violate the Code."

She wondered if Ray got it that Fraser was teasing him. That he did it with a straight face, and that he'd been doing it for years. Probably not, because she heard her brother groan. "Fraser, have I ever told you how much I hate the Code?"

"Many times, Ray."

Frannie grinned to herself as she headed back to her desk. She was so happy she was practically glowing. Not only had Benton apologized for getting mad at her, but he'd actually kissed her hand! That was beyond cool, she thought, thrilled by his gesture. Nobody ever did that to me before! It was just so perfect that Ben had been the first -- and in front of Ray, too! This sister stuff was proving to be a lot more fun than she'd ever thought it would be. She almost giggled out loud at the memory of her big brother standing there staring at her and Benton with his mouth hanging open.

But when she sank back down into her chair, she suddenly remembered Kowalski. The guy who'd caused their unprecedented argument. The one Ben really wanted to make love to. And she felt a little guilty. A guy as sweet, as wonderful as Fraser, deserved to be happy. Even if it wasn't with her. And right now, he was so unhappy that he wasn't even eating right, and he'd admitted that he wasn't sleeping either. It seemed he needed Kowalski to be happy, and it seemed like Ray needed him too, to keep from going crazy. So -- she'd have to get moving. Get off her butt and do something, before it was too late. Fraser hadn't okayed her calling Ray for him, though, so she'd have to think of something else. She pursed her lips as she filed one of her nails. What I need is a plan.

What the hell is goin' on with Fraser? Irritated and unable to sleep, Ray Vecchio turned over in bed and pounded his pillow. What was all that "Any time", and "I'll let you know" stuff between him and Frannie today, anyway?

If there was one thing he hated, it was sensing that Frannie was in on something that he wasn't; and he felt that now, with a vengeance. Benny had kissed her hand, for Crissakes! Benny, who usually blushed crimson if Frannie even got close enough to lay a hand on him, had kissed her hand like Prince Charming, right out in public. Then they'd murmured back and forth in some kind of code.

Something was going on, big time. Fraser had told Frannie something, something important, and he hadn't told him. It pissed him off.

It wouldn't have been so bad, if he hadn't known that Fraser was hiding something from him anyway. But that'd been obvious for weeks. Benny was busy outwardly being happy for him, but privately wasting away, like one of those hopeless chicks in those romance novels Frannie was always reading.

He snorted in disgust. "Sword of Desire", my ass! What the hell was Fraser doing, confiding secrets to someone who read books like that? To Frannie, of all people? Now, if they were planning some surprise in connection with his wedding, that would be okay. But he didn't think it was that. He had the uneasy feeling he might've told her his big, dark secret. Told Frannie what the hell had been bothering him lately.

If I ever find out you did, look out, Fraser! he thought resentfully. Because he'd asked him a hundred times, no, a thousand, what the hell was the matter with him. But would Fraser tell HIM? No. He just kept saying, "I'm fine, Ray. Thank you kindly for asking," until he wanted to strangle him. That had been going on since Kowalski left.

Kowalski... He turned over onto his back, and closed his eyes. Tried to blot out the sudden, vivid image of the other Ray that rose to mind: that spiky blonde head, nearly shaved in back, atop a slender, wiry body. But it didn't work. He could still see him, standing in front of Welsh that day, taut with rage from his fight with Benny. He remembered how his short-cropped hair and slimness had given him an air of vulnerability beneath his toughness; and how he'd played on that. Tested the theory by calling him "Stanley", then watched with a smile as his tight shoulders got even tighter. He was sure Kowalski would've loved to have smacked him for that. Underneath that stand-up hair and attitude, the guy was sensitive. Sensitive, like Benny.

In an odd way, knowing that made him feel better. It proved that he wasn't anything like Jimmy Maxwell.

The rational part of him knew that anyway. Hell, everybody he'd talked to about Kowalski liked him, from Benny and Welsh right on down to Frannie, his Ma and the kids. His family wouldn't have liked him if he wasn't a good guy, and Fraser and Welsh wouldn't have respected him if he wasn't a good cop. His record was proof enough of that: three commendations for bravery under fire. And if all that hadn't been enough to convince him that Kowalski had balls, the rumors floating around about his escapades at the 29th would have. Kowalski was kicking ass as a Narc.

So though he never would've admitted it to his face, he didn't think badly of the other Ray anymore.

He'd even started to feel a bit guilty about him. He twisted a little under his covers, uneasy with the knowledge that he was partly responsible for breaking up Benny's friendship with him. Only partly, because they'd also had some kind of fight, but still... He could've tried to help, could've tried to talk Kowalski into staying for Benny's sake, could've tried to be friendly to him. Instead, he'd called him "Stanley." Given him that mocking smile he'd learned to cut people with in the Family. Then privately exulted when he'd transferred out, because he didn't want him around, reminding him of his past.

But Fraser's resulting funk was starting to scare him. He knew it had something to do with Kowalski, because it had started just after they had their big blowout that day. And he knew they hadn't spoken to each other since, which meant that, whatever their disagreement had been, it was serious. But he had no clue about the specifics.

What did Kowalski say to him? he wondered. What'd he do?

He'd asked around about it, but nobody knew. Though everyone had heard Kowalski screaming at poor Benny to get away from him, and seen him use his hat for a football, no one had a clue what their feud was about. One detective had thought he'd heard Benny ask Kowalski if he was mad at him for being late, but Ray figured he must've gotten that wrong. Benny was never late, he was almost anally punctual. And he didn't peg Kowalski as a guy who'd give a flying fuck about punctuality anyway, let alone get mad enough about it to shove Fraser around. Everyone he'd talked to had said that he and Kowalski were good buddies. Tight. Practically joined at the hip -- until that day, anyway.

The whole thing made no sense. Benny, Kowalski, their fight, the Stetson, Maxwell... They all whirled around in his brain, pieces of a puzzle he had no answer to. He fell asleep wondering about them. And in his sleep, several hours later, he dreamed.

Dreamed of how he'd once wakened, in the pitch darkness of his Arizona mansion, to terror. To the harsh bite of a wire being wrapped around his neck. To Jimmy Maxwell's hateful breath in his ear. "You wanna marry her, don't you?" Jimmy hissed.

The wire tightened ominously, cutting off his breath, and his heart kicked into overdrive. He was in bed, at home. He should've been safe. How the hell had Maxwell gotten past his guards? Where the hell was Nero? How had Maxwell gotten into his bedroom without him hearing it? And how had he guessed how he felt about Serena, when he hadn't even asked her yet?

Then he forced those thoughts away. Because impossible though it should've been, Maxwell was there. Sitting beside him on his bed. Death personified. So he had no time to worry about Nero, or his guards, or anything but saving his own neck.

"Get this thing off of me, and get outta this bed, or I will kill you, you prick. Personally," he said. Trying to sound calm, even cold, despite the fact that his voice was hoarse from being choked, and he could hardly breathe. He knew he only had one choice, one chance with Maxwell: brazen it out. Balls of steel. If Maxwell sensed a hint of weakness, of fear, he'd kill him. He'd been wanting to do that for some time now, anyway.

"Not tonight, Armie," Jimmy practically cooed, tightening the garotte. "You so much as twitch, and I'll tighten this until you're wearing a second smile."

Ray moved anyway. The wire was cold agony at his throat, cutting into his skin. He knew it was only a matter of time before Maxwell made good on his threat and killed him with it, no matter what he said. And he was in no mood to draw the game out. Especially since Maxwell had mentioned Serena. He had to keep her out of this. So he exploded. Rolled towards Maxwell to ease the strain on his throat, and struck out hard, with arms, legs, everything he had.

For a second, he almost strangled as the wire bit deeply, viciously into his throat.

Then his strike hit home. It knocked Maxwell off the bed, and the horrible pressure on his throat disappeared. He tore the wire off, coughing. But before he could get up, Maxwell was on him again. Striking out blindly in the darkness, he hit Ray in the face with something hard and cold. So hard that Ray heard a bone crack with the impact. He grunted with the blinding pain, and Maxwell took advantage of his recoil to grab his arm, and drag him out of bed onto the floor.

He pressed a gun barrel into his forehead. A .357 Magnum, Ray guessed, from the size of it. "Now tell me," he panted. "Is she good in bed?"

Ray's heart squeezed inside of him. He hated Maxwell so much in that instant that if looks could kill, his eyes would've dropped him dead on his bedroom floor. "Go fuck yourself," he said clearly, knowing that Maxwell would kill him for it. His heart pounded in what he knew was his last moment on earth. Goodby, Serena, I love you... It was all he could think, how much he wanted her, and how he would never see her again. Serena! He tried to scream her name.


Suddenly, there was a bright light in his eyes, and Frannie was shaking him. "Ray, Ray! Wake up!"

He gasped, disoriented. "What -- Frannie, what the hell?" He'd been with Maxwell -- where was he? He blinked, confused to find himself in his old bedroom again, in his parents' house. "How'd I--" get here, he was going to say, then he swallowed the words as memory rushed back. He was home now, he wasn't in Arizona anymore. He was home. He was safe.

As he sat up in bed, his sister straightened up. She'd been leaning over him in her pajamas, and she looked worried. Almost frightened. What the hell is she doin' in my bedroom?

"You were yelling for Serena. You must've been having another nightmare, Ray," Frannie said, her voice soft.

But her concern made him defensive. "Whaddaya mean, another one?" He didn't like to think anyone else knew how often he had dreams like this. He hadn't even told Serena.

Frannie lifted an eyebrow in a look he knew very well. "Ray, I hear you thrashin' around in here all the time!"

He glared at her. "Does Ma know?" he blurted, then winced, realizing how adolescent that sounded.

Frannie pursed her lips. "No, but--"

"Good. And you're not gonna tell her, are ya. Or Serena."

It was a statement, not a question, and Frannie heard the implied threat in it. But it didn't faze her. She just moved back a little, out of arm's reach, and grinned at him. "I dunno. What's it worth to you, Ray?"

He realized with a sinking heart that she'd known for awhile, and hadn't said anything; and that she hadn't been going to, either, until he'd opened his big mouth. Dammit! He rolled his eyes. "Whaddaya want?" he asked. It was useless to argue with her, he'd learned that long ago. Frannie could've given the Iguanas lessons in stubbornness. So he lay back wearily anticipating having to write a check for a new pair of earrings, or a dress she had to have -- whatever.

But she surprised him. "Invite Benny over for dinner," she said.

He blinked. This was something new; bribing Frannie usually always cost money. Then again, he supposed it made perfect sense. Because if there was one thing she wanted more than money, clothes and jewelry, it was the Mountie. In fact, most of his bribe money, since Fraser had come along, had gone towards buying clothes and jewelry Frannie had hoped would help her bag him. So he wondered why Frannie hadn't thought of this before. And any mention of Fraser was another chance to tease her, which he didn't want to waste. So he widened his eyes in fake astonishment. "That's it? Just have Benny over for dinner?" he asked skeptically.

She stiffened up predictably. "Yeah, that's it."

He frowned, looking confused. "Don't you need a new dress for the occasion? Perfume? Something to aid in his entrapment?"

Frannie narrowed her eyes at him. "It isn't for me, Ray! It's for him!" she hissed, in her best 'you're too stupid to live' tone.

"What? You want me to buy a dress for Benny?" he blurted, beginning to enjoy this. "Are you nuts?"

"No, I want you to invite him! Just ask him, Ray, that's all!"

"Why?" he persisted, laughing to himself. "Ya think Benny's gonna die if he doesn't get pasta fazoule?"

She set her jaw, and put her hands on her hips. "Ray!"

"Okay, okay! I'll ask him. Satisfied?"

She smiled. "For now."

Finally, he gave up the game and looked at her, hard. Searched her eyes, all joking aside. "Frannie, did Benny tell you what's bugging him?"

She looked away. Down at her toes, like she had that time he'd caught her kissing Tommy Parker in the basement when she was nine. "No. No, he didn't. Why would he tell me?" she mumbled.

He grimaced, his worst suspicions confirmed. She was lying. She knew, all right. Fraser had told her. Jangling bracelets, chewing gum and "Sword of Desire" notwithstanding. He sighed. It made no sense. But then, nothing about this thing made sense. "But if you knew, you'd tell me, right?" he asked her quietly, hiding his exasperation. "Cuz you know it's important. Cuz you know that he's really upset. Capiche?"

She raised her eyes to his at that. Slowly, reluctantly. "Capiche," she said, just as quietly. "But I can't tell you, Ray."

Not "I don't know" this time. At least she was honest enough to admit it. But it only tightened the sense of apprehension in his gut. What the HELL was going on here? What could Fraser possibly have told her? And why her, instead of him? Whatever it was, it had to be bad, for Frannie to be so worried about him that she wanted him over for dinner for his sake, not for hers -- and for her to feel she couldn't tell him. Even here in his bedroom late at night, with no one else around. Just them together, like it always was when they were kids. No barriers between them. It had to be really bad, for Frannie not to be able to tell him now.

Frannie wrapped her arms around herself, shivering a little, and he suddenly realized that she was standing there in bare feet, while he was snug under his covers. And that it was cold. She'd run into his room in bare feet, without even taking time to throw on her robe, because she'd heard him having a nightmare. And she'd lingered to tease him about a bribe not just because she was worried about Fraser. His lips curved in a little smile.

"Go to bed, Frannie," he said softly. "It's late, and I'm okay."

It was her turn to search his eyes then.

"And I'll have Benny over. I promise. I'm -- worried about him, too," he said at last.

She came to him then. Put her arms around his neck, leaned over and hugged him wordlessly, smiling.

"Okay, okay!" he pretended to complain. "Geez, don't get all smarmy on me." But he hugged her back anyway. His beautiful, wacky Frannie, who'd charged in barefoot to save him from his demons. How could he help it?

She let him go then, and turned and headed for the door. But then she surprised him one more time. She turned and gave him a troubled look. "Ray, these dreams... you've been having them a lot. Don't you think you should--"

He turned away. What was she going to say? That he should 'talk to someone'? See a shrink? It turned him cold, even knowing that she knew about them. Jesus, what might he have said in his sleep? "It's nothing," he lied. "Pre-wedding jitters, that's all. Good NIGHT, Frannie," he said, making his voice as cold as he could.

He heard her sigh, but thank God, she didn't push it. She left quietly, closing his door behind her without another word.

Ray swallowed, vastly relieved. He was getting better, he really was. He didn't have the dreams so much anymore, and he was happy with Serena. So happy... If he could just figure out this thing with Benny, then everything would be okay.

He closed his eyes tightly, wanting to believe that. Needing to.

Ty Donen stood watching as the two cops left his place. Called themselves Detectives, but that was a just a fancy word for Narcs. Said they'd just come by 'to ask him a few questions', but he knew what that meant too. It was cop speak for "You're Under Suspicion, But We Don't Have Enough to Bust Your Balls With. Yet."

Donen wasn't happy. They couldn't have showed up at a worse time. He'd just made a deal with a local businessman with a habit. The terms of the deal were, the businessman got a heavy discount on prime blow, in return for supplying him with the strychnine Donen needed to cut the low grade stuff he sold on the street. A little extra 'kick' for the junkies, major extra green for him. It was a good deal that was going to ease his money worries, and Donen had no intention of letting two hotshot cops mess it up for him.

He hated cops anyway, and these two were worst than most. Young, good looking, cocky -- and totally disrespectful. It'd been all he could do, even with witnesses around, not to shoot the blonde one, that Kowalski prick, right where he stood. Cop had an Attitude, big time. Coming into his restaurant, trying to hassle him in front of his customers...

Worse yet, he'd figured out Donen's deal. That he was the one responsible for distributing the altered coke that several junkies had OD'd on lately. Or at least he had his suspicions; and that was bad enough. Donen decided he was going to make the prick pay for his insolence, and his cleverness too. Donen signaled to Harry Styles, his right-hand man, and they walked into his office at the rear of the restaurant. "I don't like those two," he said.

Styles, who had seen the cops 'interviewing him' earlier, shrugged his broad shoulders. "They don't know nothing, boss. They're just fishin', or they'd've been here with a warrant."

"I know that!" Donen snapped. "But I still don't like it. I want to you to dog them for a few days. See where they go, who they talk to -- but don't let them see you. Find out if they're visiting other dealers, and when, and let me know."

Styles' car was illegally equipped with a stolen police scanner, so he could listen in on the local cop's radio calls, and he was extremely good at tailing people without being seen. Still, he frowned a little at Donen's order, his long, skinny face wrinkling. "How's that gonna help us, Mr. Donen?"

Donen just smiled, his blue eyes cold in his round face. "Just do it, Harry. I'll worry about that."

Styles shrugged. "You're the boss," he said. Then he turned and headed for his car without another word.

Donen watched him go. He already had his plan for the two nosy cops all worked out. He was going to call in some out-of-town talent, a couple of hoods he didn't normally use. And as soon as Styles informed him that the detectives were visiting one of his rivals, he'd send his hired muscle to watch the guy's place. When the two cops came out after their 'interview', he'd have his men grab them, take them out somewhere close by and work them over real good, maybe with baseball bats. The blonde one first, and worst. He wanted him hurt bad. He'd wouldn't have his boys mess up his partner too badly, though. He wanted him to see the whole thing, and be in good enough shape to understand the warning they'd both been given: to forget about finding out who was dealing the blow with a strychnine chaser.

And just in case the cops weren't smart enough to back off after that, just to cover his ass, he'd stack the deck a little more. The timing and location of the beatings, plus a few hints dropped by his out-of-town help, would make those two stupid cops think they'd been beaten up on the orders of whichever one of Donen's rivals they'd just finished interviewing at the time, rather than him. Plus, as soon as the job was done, he'd send the two men he'd hired back out of state so they couldn't be traced. And without their actual attackers to grill, the cops would be all over the ass of whichever unlucky dealer Donen's men pointed the finger at. By the same token, that unlucky bastard wouldn't be able to prove that he hadn't set up the hit. So either way -- whether the cops let it go like he wanted, or they jumped on it and barked up the wrong tree -- he'd get his revenge on those two assholes, and the focus of the investigation turned away from him as well.

Donen grinned. It was a damn good plan. It would divert suspicion from his current operation and foul up some other dealer's at the same time, which was good for his business; and it would pay that skinny asshole Kowalski back for his mouth, too. A triple play. The only people it was going to be very, very bad for were those two cops.

A few days later, Frannie gripped her bottle of wine and smoothed her new sky blue skirt nervously one evening as she waited for Ray Kowalski to answer his door. She'd put on a white silk blouse and blue pumps before coming over, and taken extra time with her make-up, wanting to look her best. But she hadn't dared to call and let him know she was coming, for fear he'd refuse to see her. But no matter how angry he was at her brother, she couldn't believe he would shut the door in her face if she turned up unexpectedly... So here she was.

It wasn't much of a plan, but it was all she could think of.

She knew he must be home, because rock music was blaring so loudly inside that she could hear it through the door. "Welllll...Take me back down where cool water flows y'all," John Fogerty wailed. She smiled a little as he pressed his doorbell. I never knew Ray was a Creedence fan, she thought. As the music thumped on, she hit his doorbell again, just in case he hadn't heard her the first time. She pasted on a determined smile as she waited, but she wasn't really sure what her reception would be. No one in her family had heard much from Kowalski since her brother got back. Not even her mother, who was his favorite. He'd called her a few times, but he'd stopped coming by their house. And while the reasons for that were obvious to Frannie, if not to everyone else, she still wished things were different.

Frannie held her breath as the music played on. "Well if you get lost," Fogerty sang, "Just come on home to Green River." The lyrics seemed so on target that she blinked. Wow, she thought, that's almost like a sign or something! I mean, I came here to bring Ray back into the family, because he's been lost ever since he left Fraser, and--

"Who's there?" Ray's voice cut through her reverie suddenly, though the door hadn't opened.

Frannie frowned a little. Weird. Why doesn't he just open his door? When did he get so suspicious?

"A friend," she called back, hoping he'd recognize her voice. It seemed he did, because in a few seconds, the music stopped, and she heard the sound of locks being turned. The door swung open, and there he was.

"Hi, Ray!" she said in her best cheerful voice. "How ya doin'?"

He blinked at her, looking surprised, and she stared back at him. He's changed, she thought with a pang. He was still dressed casually, in a tight, black long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, and his hair was still defiantly spiky, but he'd grown a mustache and beard too, a close-cropped blonde square that came down on both sides of his mouth, framing his jaw. He sported an earring now too, a small gold ring in his right ear. But the biggest change was in his eyes. They looked sad. Wary, tired and much colder than she remembered.

The overall effect was disturbing. He looked handsome, but rougher somehow, tougher and wilder than the Ray she'd known. But sad too, as if his new style hadn't made him happy. Almost as if nothing could... And she suspected that she knew why.

"Frannie," he said at last. "What're you doin' here?"

Not exactly a 'Hey! Good to see you,' but at least he didn't slam the door in my face, she thought wryly. It'll do.

"Well, I could lie and say I was in the neighborhood," she said, "but since you're a detective, you'd see right through that. The truth is, I wanted to stop by and see you. It's been awhile, Ray."

He blinked at her, but didn't answer.

She felt really awkward. "You've got a beard now, huh?" she said. "It looks good."

"Thanks." He smiled briefly, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. "Ya know, Frannie, I... was just on my way out, so--"

She stiffened a little. He was lying, and she knew it. He was trying to get rid of her! But she wasn't going to let him. This was too important. She took a step closer to him. "Oh, what -- you've got a hot date with Cindy Crawford or something?" she protested. "So hot that you can't spare ten minutes to talk to an old friend who was nice enough to bring you a bottle of wine?"

She held the bottle up where he couldn't miss it, a gesture as deliberate as her use of the words 'old friend'. Ray dropped his eyes, looking a little embarrassed. When he glanced back up at her, his face had softened slightly. "It's not that, I just... wasn't expectin' company," he mumbled. "The place is a bit of a mess."

"Oh, please!" she waved a hand. "You haven't seen messy until you've seen a room after Tony and Maria's kids get through with it. Nothing fazes me anymore," she smiled, to reassure him.

He scratched his head. "I just didn't know you were comin'," he muttered again.

But somehow, she sensed that he was wavering. "I know. You just got lucky," she smiled mischievously. "I had a whim. Decided to come over and rattle your cage a little. Now, are you gonna let me in or not, Stanley?" she teased, knowing he hated being called that. "'Cuz this bottle's gettin' heavy, ya know?"

He finally gave in. Reached out and took the bottle from her hands, and opened the door. "Sorry. Come on in, Frannie."

She smiled. "That's more like it." And as she passed him, she obeyed a sudden impulse and reached up and kissed his cheek gently. "Good to see you, Ray," she said, meaning it.

He smiled down at her at that; really smiled, with his eyes too. "Aww, you just miss torturin' me," he teased, but she knew he was really saying he'd missed her too. And for just a second, she saw the Ray Kowalski she'd known peeking through, and she was glad she'd come.

Ray got two wine glasses out of a cupboard, then got out a cork remover and applied it to the bottle. As he worked the cork out, Frannie studied him covertly. His slender, wiry hands made short work of it, moving with smooth efficiency. She wondered involuntarily how many women he'd opened wine bottles for -- and how many men.

It still felt a bit weird to her, knowing that Ray was in love with Fraser. That Fraser was in love with him, instead of her. But once she'd got over the initial shock, she'd resigned herself to it. Because she loved Ben, really loved him, and Ray too; though not in the same way, of course. Ben was like her older brother, strong and dependable; Ray like a younger one, needy, pesky and smart-mouthed, but still adorable. But the point was, when you really love people, you want them to be happy. Besides -- at least with them, I know I'll never have to watch some other woman standing beside Ben in a wedding dress! she laughed to herself.

Ray popped the cork, then shot her a sideways glance. "What? Is it the beard, or the earring? What? What're you smilin' about?"

She blushed a little, embarrassed that he'd caught her staring. She hated that about cops, the good ones anyway -- they were so observant, they noticed everything you did. Ben and Ray were like that, too. Too bad they're all so clueless when it comes to emotions!

"I just wasn't sure you knew how to do that," she teased, pointing to the cork he'd just popped. "I was afraid I might have to step in and show you how, before you broke the bottle."

Ray snorted as he started to pour. "The day I need you to help me with things is the day they can take me off to the Funny Farm, Frannie."

She just grinned, loving the way he'd slipped back into their old routine of affectionate insults. "Well, it would be the perfect place for you. I'm surprised the men in the little white suits haven't come to get you yet."

"Been callin' em again, have ya?" he grinned back as he handed her the glass he'd poured.

"Only ten or twenty times a day," she teased as she took it. Ray's smile put her at ease, made her think that maybe this little rescue mission of hers would turn out okay after all. Remembering that her visit had an ulterior motive, she decided to jump right in, while he was in a good mood. She sipped at her glass of Chianti, then asked, "How've you been doing, Ray? Have you talked to anybody from the 27th lately? Or Fraser maybe?"

She'd dropped his name to test Ray's reaction -- and it was instantaneous. He stiffened like she'd hit him, frozen in the act of lifting his glass to his lips. He gave her a dark look, as if he knew exactly why she'd mentioned Fraser -- and didn't like it. "No," he said shortly. "How's Vecchio?"

Frannie winced inwardly. Maybe bringing Ben up first thing had been a mistake. Sure, Ray's reaction had told her what she wanted to know -- that his feelings for Ben were still as strong as ever -- but she'd also pissed him off. He'd asked about Ray to change the subject, not because he really cared. In fact, there was no mistaking the coldness in his voice when he mentioned her brother. It's like he hates him, she thought with a little shiver. Really hates him.

She could've come back with a smart remark, but she didn't. "Ray's fine," was all she said. She didn't want to make him so mad that he'd throw her out or something. The whole purpose of her visit was to get him talking.

Ray nodded. "Good. I hear he's gettin' married," he said in that same cold tone.

"Yeah," she answered. "At St. Mary's, downtown."

"Hmm," Ray shrugged. "Sounds exciting."

Frannie bit her lip. If anyone else had mentioned her brother's coming wedding that way, she'd have been angry -- but she understood Ray's feelings, probably better than anyone else could've. She'd chased Ben herself for years, suffered untold agonies of jealousy every time that bitchy boss of his gave him those hot little looks... It was only after she'd realized that Ben was in love with Kowalski that she'd finally given up all hope of snaring him herself. So she knew how Ray must feel: like her brother had gotten everything. His job, a new wife, and Ben as his partner too. The whole shooting match. While he was left out in the cold.

Not that that view was very logical. After all, her brother wouldn't have had Fraser all to himself if Ray hadn't left them! He was partly responsible for his own unhappiness, because he'd walked out without even trying to work things out with Fraser again. She wondered if he regretted it now; and she wished he could see the consequences. Because there were some things he didn't know.

Benton's so unhappy he looks like a ghost, he's lost weight, and he's not sleeping much... And Ray's mad because he won't tell him what's wrong, and he's having nightmares about his undercover work. I don't think Serena knows about that, but she knows something's wrong with Benny, and that Ray's worried about him, so she's worrying about Ray -- and I'm caught in the middle of all of it!

Frannie took another sip of wine, trying to figure out what to say. In her family, disagreements were settled by everyone screeching at everyone else until they all ran out of breath, then everything was forgiven and forgotten. But Kowalski was a different story. He had a mouth on him all right, but he was kind of like Ben in that he hardly ever talked about his feelings. Even when he'd shoved Ben in the squadroom that day, he hadn't said exactly what he was mad about. Everyone had tried to figure it out, but no one could. Nobody knew exactly what they'd been fighting about. And Fraser wouldn't talk about it, either. She was going to have to try to worm it out of Ray, but she wasn't sure how. She wasn't sure if he'd trust her enough to open up about it.

"Yeah, Ray's getting married," she answered him finally. "The wedding's only a few weeks away now. You should come over for dinner sometime," she said hopefully. "I know Ma would love to see you, and you could meet Serena, Ray's fiancÚ. She's terrific, she's made Ray really happy--"

Stan's face tightened, and he swung away from her. "I don't think so, Frannie," he said in a low voice. He strode away into his living room and flopped down on the couch, his eyes distant. "You can say hi to Sabrina for me, okay?"

"Serena," she corrected automatically.

Ray shrugged. "Whatever."

Frannie grimaced. Without meaning to, she'd hurt him again. She'd meant to be friendly, to try to let him know that he was still one of the family, to tell him that they missed him. But from the look on his face, he hadn't taken it that way. He looked like he thought she was rubbing his nose in her brother's happiness when he was clearly unhappy himself.

She sipped at her wine uneasily. This was turning out to be harder than she'd thought it would be. She wasn't used to worrying about everything she said -- but Ray seemed hypersensitive on the subject of her brother and Benny, which made this a little like walking through a minefield, where her every word might blow up in her face.

Okay, let's try somethin' else, she thought. She'd ask him how things were going in his life, talk about safe things for a while. Then, maybe after he'd had a couple of glasses of wine, he'd relax a bit and she could ease him into talking about Benton. Maybe...

She followed him into the living room and plunked down beside him on the couch with as cheerful a smile as she could manage. "So tell me, Ray. How's life at the 29th? You arrested anyone interesting lately?"

Ray actually smiled back for a second, as if he was grateful she'd changed the subject. "Ya mean Mel Gibson or Brad Pitt?" he teased. "Nawww... "

Frannie elbowed him gently. "No, come on, tell me! How are things at your new District?"

He shrugged. "They're okay. I'm workin' Narcotics now. I did that before, ya know? So I'm used to it. Bustin' junkies, tracin' dealers and suppliers. Same old same old," he smiled wryly.

Frannie couldn't believe it. He made his new job sound like a walk in the park. Like business as usual. No mention of the dangerous things he'd done lately, the crazy chances he was taking going after the city's most dangerous drug dealers... Nothing! Either he was hiding the truth because he didn't want to worry her, or else he really didn't think what he was doing was that dangerous. Either way, she didn't like it.

"Got a new partner now, though."

"Oh?" she prompted. "Who's that?" She didn't want to tell him she already knew all about Rylan, that she'd kept tabs on Ray's doings at the 29th through phone calls to another Civilian Aide named Julie who she'd made friends with there. She didn't want Ray to know how worried she'd been about him.

"Name's Rylan," Ray explained. "Patrick Rylan. How's that for an Irish name? He's a kid really. 25, only been a cop for a few years. His old man was a cop too... "

Ray rattled on about his new partner until Frannie wanted to scream -- because again, he wasn't telling her the truth. He said that Rylan was really smart, but he didn't say a word about his reputation for roughness, or about the even darker stuff she'd heard, that Rylan was bisexual and that he liked to play rough in bed, too. Of course, maybe that was just a rumor -- and even if it wasn't, he wasn't the kind of guy who'd tell her something like that about his own partner. Ray had his faults, but she knew being disloyal wasn't one of them. Still, she got the distinct feeling that he was making him sound better than he really was, for her benefit. So she'd think things were all rosy at the 29th, instead of screwed up like she knew they were.

She listened to him in silence for awhile, wondering how she was going to get past all this crap and get to the truth. Ray had never talked much about his feelings, and she'd already gotten a glimpse of how touchy he was on the subject of Fraser. But that was who she really needed to talk to him about. Their relationship was at the heart of this whole mess, and getting them back together seemed like the only way to fix it. Sitting here listening to Ray lying about his new life wasn't going to help things at all.

Frannie decided to take a risk and tell him the truth. "Ray, could we talk about something else for a minute?" she interrupted.

He shrugged. "Yeah, sure. What is it?"

"I wanted to tell you that I know," she blurted. "About you and Fraser, I mean." She felt really awkward. She'd meant to say that she knew they were in love, but somehow, sitting so close to this new, bearded Ray who wore an earring and wasn't telling her the truth, she couldn't. He seemed a bit like a stranger, and she was too embarrassed to say those words to him. "How you -- feel about each other," she said instead.

That got to him. Even though she hadn't said the L word, she could tell that he knew exactly what she meant. He went very still for a second, some unknown emotion flashing in his blue eyes. But he recovered almost instantly, an indifferent shrug replacing the heat in his eyes. "So what? That's old news. We had a fight, so we're not partners anymore. Everybody knows that."

Frannie knew he was just pretending to misunderstand her. He was playing it cool. Lying again -- and it made her mad. Did he think this was easy for her? She'd come here trying to help him, and all he'd done was lie to her. Okay then -- if he needed her to spell it out for him, she would. With a capital L. She took a deep breath, gathered her courage, then said it. "No! I mean I know you love him, Ray. That you're in love with Benny."

Ray froze again, his eyes locking with hers. And this time, there was no mistaking the emotion in his eyes. They were crackling with anger, and his mouth tightened into a thin line. But Frannie wasn't sorry she'd said it, all the same. She was actually kind of relieved that the big bad secret that had been hanging over all their heads and causing so much trouble was finally out in the open. Someone had to say it, she thought defiantly, and it might as well be me.

Ray didn't say anything for a long moment. He just sat there staring at her, his face set like stone. Then he got to his feet. "Yer nuts, Frannie," he growled. "Go home, okay?" He turned away and strode off down the hall, like he didn't even want to be in the same room with her anymore.

Frannie's heart skipped a beat. She hadn't expected that. She'd known that he'd probably hit the roof when she spilled the beans about him and Ben, but she hadn't thought he'd be so furious that he'd walk out on her. Still, beneath his apparent anger, she had a feeling he was more scared than anything. Scared of what she'd think of him now, scared of what she might say next. So she went after him.

"Ray, wait! Please don't go. I need to talk to you about this."

He swung around again and glared at her. "Izzat why you came here, Frannie? To try to tell me I'm gay? Huh? 'Cuz of all the dumb things you've ever said, and there've been lots, that is by far the DUMBEST!" He was really angry now, a vein throbbing in his temple as he yelled at her.

But Frannie had been dealing with large, angry males since she was a little girl, so his insult didn't deter her one bit. "Is it, Ray? Then why did you have that big fight with Fraser? Huh? Tell me that! Why'd you transfer out to the 29th all of a sudden?"

He rolled his eyes. "It's got nothin' to do with that. I had to leave!" he growled. "I was only fillin' in for your brother in the first place! Once he came back, my job there was over! You know that."

Frannie narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips. That was only half an answer; he hadn't answered her first (and most important) question, about why he'd fought with Fraser. We'll come back to that, she promised herself. "That's an excuse, Ray, and you know it! You didn't have to transfer out, you big hairball! You could've stayed at the 27th, and worked with Ray and Fraser. Lt. Welsh told me that he offered you a job, but you didn't want it. So why'd you yell at Fraser like that? Why'd you kick his hat? Why'd you leave? Huh? Tell me why."

"Because! I--" He stopped suddenly, biting back what he'd meant to say. His mouth worked, and for a second, he looked unhappy and scared.

So she said it for him, voiced the words he couldn't say. "Because you love Benton."

His jaw tightened. "No! That ain't it."

But she knew he was lying. "Yes it is! I know you do, Ray. Every time I mention his name, you get that look in your eyes--"

"What're you talkin' about? What look?" he scoffed.

But she knew she'd gotten to him. He was touchy, on the defensive. Frannie took a deep breath. "The same look that I had for years," she said.

That took Ray by surprise. He looked away, down at his boots for a minute. "Frannie--"

She drew a little closer to him, took a deep breath and took another risk. She reached up and touched his cheek very gently, praying he wouldn't pull away. "Come on, Ray," she said softly. "Don't you think I know how it feels? I'm not making fun of you, or trying to hurt you. I'm trying to tell you that I understand."

He closed his eyes at that. Closed them tight, and swallowed hard -- but he didn't push her away. She felt the muscle in his cheek tighten as he set his jaw, but he didn't yell at her. He just swallowed hard, like his emotions were choking him. And when he finally opened them to look at her again, his blue eyes were lonely and vulnerable. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "I guess maybe you do."

He'd finally let down his defenses, was letting her see inside him as he never had before. He looked as if he was on the edge of tears. "Oh, Ray," she breathed, her heart going out to him. She stepped even closer to him, put her other hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you..."

"I know." To her surprise, he reached out to her. Laid his hand over the fingers cupping his cheek. "I know," he repeated quietly. He took her other hand in his, and twined their fingers together gently. "I'm sorry I said you were dumb. Yer not, I just -- You kinda shocked me, ya know?" His eyes held hers, almost puppy dog soft now, asking for forgiveness.

"Ray, it's all right. You don't have to--"

"Yeah," he insisted. "I do. I wanna tell you... Yer not dumb at all, Frannie," he said softly. "Yer smart." He swallowed hard, and looked down for a minute, away from her, as if he was trying to gather his courage. Then he raised his eyes to hers again, and she could feel his pulse beating fast in his wrist, where it lay against her neck. "And yer right. About me and Frayzh, I mean. Yer right. I'm sorry I acted like such a jerk."

Frannie could hardly believe it. He'd opened up to her, actually told her the truth at last. Admitted that he loved Fraser. "Shhh," she whispered, touched by his honesty, his awkward apology, and his sudden warmth. "I know. It's okay, Ray."

"Ya sure?" His blue eyes still searched hers, and his thumb moved over the back of her hand in a little caress. "Ya don't hate me for my totally immense stupidity?"

She shook her head, smiling. "No."

"Good." He flashed her a sudden smile, sweeter than any he'd ever given her before. "So yer not gonna, like, blow up my GTO when you leave or anything?" he persisted, teasing her.

She'd never seen him like this before: sweet, gentle, funny, all macho toughness cast aside. It moved her. If this is the side he shows to Benny, no wonder he fell in love. "Of course not, you big hairball," she whispered fondly. She laid her head on his shoulder and gently slipped her arms around him.

"Don'tcha mean dirtbag?" he teased. But even as he did, she felt his arms slip around her too; and they hugged each other tightly.

"Same thing," she smiled. And she didn't let go of him. This was why she was here, to show him that she still cared about him, and that Ben did too.

This feels nice, she thought. She'd never hugged Ray before, never been so close to him. He smelled good, of some spicy, musky cologne; and slender as he was, his arms were surprisingly strong. He felt warm and comforting, but thin, so thin it gave her a pang. She wondered if he was starving himself like Ben had been lately, and for the same reason. She felt the sting of tears in her own eyes, and she patted his back, wanting to comfort him. When he sighed with pleasure at the little caress, she smiled a little. "What a pair of doofs we are, huh?"

Ray made a soft, amused sound deep in his throat. But he seemed to be enjoying the hug as much as she was, because he still made no move to let her go. He even tightened his hold on her a little. She felt a soft caress on the top of her head, and realized with surprise that he'd planted a little kiss on her hair. "Yeah," he said. "Doofs... That's a nice word for it. I woulda' said--"

She laughed. "I know what you would've said! Watch your language, Ray."

She felt him grin over her head. "Aww, you've been hangin' around with the Mountie too long."

He fell silent for a minute after that, but Frannie felt his heart speed up a bit beneath her cheek, and she knew what he was thinking.

"How's he doin', anyway?" he asked at last, like she knew he would.

She lifted her head to look at him. She could've teased him, but he looked so anxious that she didn't have the heart to. "Not good. He misses you," she said honestly.

He nodded ruefully. "Think so? Me too." He sighed again. "Never should've let myself... you know."

She smiled at him. "Yeah. I know. Then again, it's not like we had any choice! He's just so... so--"

They both grinned at their mutual frustration. "So damn beautiful!" they both moaned at once, in chorus.

Then they started to laugh.

An hour and another bottle of wine later, they were both sprawled on Ray's couch again side by side, a bit the worse for wear and still talking about Fraser, still laughing at the silly things he'd made them do.

"--and then... then Ben said... 'I'm afraid -- you're going to have to go home... because--'" Frannie broke off, giggling helplessly as she tried to tell Ray about her ill-fated attempt to seduce Fraser at his apartment long ago. She still remembered it clearly, even after all this time. But it didn't hurt any more. In fact, at the moment, it seemed hysterical.

"'Cuz why?" Ray prompted, grinning.

She giggled some more, then caught her breath. "He said, 'Because your... attire -- while very fetching--'"

Ray laughed even harder. "Fetching! Oh, yeah... I can just hear that--"

"'--is entirely ina-inappropriate'!" she gasped, laughing so hard her stomach hurt.

Ray doubled over with laughter too.

"No, wait!" Frannie giggled. "There's more! Then he said, 'And besides... I'm very much af-afraid, you may... catch--catch your death -- of pneumonia! And then... Ray would kill me. Though of course... he may kill me anyway... if he ever finds out... you were h-here!'" That was all she could get out before she began laughing too hard to speak.

Ray threw back his head and whooped, laughing so hard he couldn't sit up straight any longer. He leaned his head on Frannie's shoulder at first, then, when he couldn't stop giggling, let himself slide down so that his head was in her lap. "Oh God," he gasped. "What a riot! Damn..." He just laid there while they both laughed helplessly, until tears streamed from their eyes.

Frannie didn't mind. It felt good being so close to Ray. Talking to him like this, open and honest, holding nothing back. Confessing the silly things she'd done in the name of her love for the Mountie, and knowing that Ray understood them. That he understood how she felt in a way her own brother never had. And she understood his feelings too. She understood perfectly.

"Oh man," Ray gasped at last, wiping his streaming eyes again. "That is just too funny. Who else but Frayzh would throw a beautiful woman in leather outta his apartment in the middle of the night?"

His words surprised Frannie so much that she stopped laughing. "Beautiful?" she echoed, touched. "You think I'm--"

Ray smiled up at her, a shy smile she'd never seen before. "Yeah. Always have. Didn't you know?"

She swatted him playfully, to hide the way his unexpected compliment made her blush. "No! You were always so busy threatening to pop me if I didn't look something up fast enough on the computer, I guess I missed all your admiring glances," she teased.

Ray's smile faded a little. He took her hand in his, rubbed his thumb gently across her fingers. "Sorry if I was kinda' hard on you," he said. "Truth is, I guess I was a little jealous."

Frannie blinked. "Of ME?"

He shrugged, a bit embarrassed. "Well, I didn't know I was at the time. Hadn't figured out how I felt about Fraser then. Just knew it drove me crazy how you were always sashayin' around him in that little T-shirt--"

She grinned at him. "You noticed that, huh?"

Ray raised an eyebrow. "Frannie, trust me -- every guy in the station's noticed that!"

She blushed again, pleased that she'd been driving all the men at the 27th crazy while pursuing Fraser. At least all that time and effort spent 'sashaying' around the Mountie hadn't been completely wasted! She made a mental note to ask Ray which detectives, if any, had made specific comments about her sometime. After all, now that Fraser was out of the picture, she had to set her sights elsewhere...

"Besides," Ray went on, "I knew he loved you, and you knew him first. And it just kinda... made me feel left out, ya know?"

Frannie's smile turned a little sad at that. "Yeah," she said softly. "I know he loves me. But just... like a sister, you know? Not like I wanted him to."

Ray was the first person she'd ever admitted that too; and it was something she never would've told her own brother. She hoped to God he wouldn't tease her about it.

He didn't. "Yeah. I know," he said. His voice was gentle, even a bit sad. "I'm sorry, Frannie."

She loved him for that. Despite his temper, he had this amazing sweetness that touched her. It made her remember why she'd come there: to end the feud, and get Ray and Ben back together again. They were both good guys, and they deserved to be happy. She stroked Ray's spiky blonde hair gently, affectionately, and smiled down at him. "It's okay. It doesn't matter anymore," she said, and she was only half lying. "What does matter is, he loves you too. Fraser, I mean. He really loves you--"

Ray tensed instantly, his face tightening as if she'd slapped him. "Sure. Tell me another one," he said bitterly.

She frowned at him. "Ray, I mean it! He's been sick since you left! He's lost weight, he's not eating..."

That got Ray's attention. His blue eyes flicked to hers, full of pained surprise -- but then he caught himself. Shrugged and looked away. "What's he got to be upset about? He got his old partner back! That's what he wanted--"

Frannie shook her head. "No, he wants you!"

Ray's face hardened again. He sat up and ran a hand through his hair roughly. "He does, huh? He's sure as hell got a funny way o' showin' it."

"What do you mean?"

"Frannie--" he broke off suddenly, as if deciding he'd already said too much. He waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. "You don't wanna know."

"Oh yes I do! Tell me, Ray," she demanded. "Tell me what Benny did that was so terrible you had to run out on him like that!"

He glared at her. "You got it all wrong. He ran out on me, okay? That's what happened! He left me."

She shook her head, confused. "What're you talking about? You're the one who transferred out, not him!"

"I mean before that," Ray shot back. "It happened before that!"

Frannie stared at him, even more confused. "What happened?"

Ray set his jaw. "We were together, okay? He spent the night at my place. Just once. The night Vecchio came back--"

"Okay," she said, ignoring a faint twinge of jealousy at the thought of Ben making love to Ray. "So what happened?"

"Vecchio! Vecchio happened!" he sputtered, so angry he was almost incoherent.

"My brother? What do you mean?" She'd sensed that Kowalski couldn't stand her brother, but she wanted to know why. She cast her mind back to the weekend of Ray's return. "Ray told me he met Frase and they had breakfast that morning. So what?"

Ray stared at her, frustrated. "You really don't know, do you?"

"Know what?"

Ray looked away. "Oh, man. I've been shootin' my mouth off, but... that's enough," he said, suddenly uncomfortable.

Frannie caught his shoulder and shook him a little. "Spit it out, Ray!" she said, exasperated. "What's the big, dark secret here? What did Benny do? Why are you so mad at him? And what's Ray got to do with it?"

He shook his head stubbornly. "Stay out of it, Frannie."

Frannie shook her head just as stubbornly. "I can't! I'm already in it," she protested. "Benny's unhappy, so Ray's unhappy, and he's complaining to Serena, but neither of them can get Fraser to talk! And they're all driving me crazy! So help me out here, okay? Tell me what started all this!"

"Okay, okay!" he gave in reluctantly. "You wanna know so bad, I'll tell you. But yer not gonna like it."

"What?" she demanded, wondering why he looked so apprehensive.

He sighed. "Fraser lied to me."

Frannie snorted. "No way! Fraser never lies."

"Look, who's tellin' this story? Me or you?"

"Okay, okay," she said. She knew he was wrong about Fraser lying. He had to be. But she wanted to get to the heart of this mess, to get it cleaned up, and to do that, she had to find out what Ray was so upset about. So she shut up. "Go on."

"All right. Where was I? Oh, yeah. How Fraser lied. Okay. Well, he jumped outta my bed that morning, told me he had to go home to feed Dief. So I loaned him my car. He said he'd only be gone about thirty minutes, but he didn't come back. After almost two hours went by, I finally took a cab over to his place to find out what was goin' on. Then I found out he wasn't feedin' Dief at all. He took off to go to bed with your brother, who I didn't even know was back yet! Do you get it now?"

Frannie blinked at him, stunned. "WHAT?"

"They're lovers!" Ray snapped. "Benny and Vecchio. As soon as he found out Mr. Armani was back, Fraser dumped me like yesterday's news."

Frannie stared at Ray for a long moment. Just stared, wide-eyed with surprise. Then she put a hand over her mouth, to stifle a giggle.

"Hey!" Ray growled. "What's so funny?"

She laughed even harder at that. "Ben?" she gasped. "Benton -- and my brother?" She waved her hand helplessly. "Oh, please!"

Ray's eyes narrowed. "Dammit, Frannie! It isn't funny!"

She stopped laughing just long enough to raise an eyebrow at him. "Oh no? My brother -- Mr. Homophobic -- Ray gay? I don't think so!" She burst out giggling again, unable to help herself.

Ray folded his arms over his chest and glared at her. "I'm tellin' ya, it's true!"

He was starting to get really angry, so Frannie forced herself to stop laughing. "Okay. Okay, Ray, I'm sorry. But just tell me. What... um... what made you think so?" she managed to say after a moment. "That Ray are Benton are lovers, I mean."

Ray shrugged unhappily. "I saw 'em together that morning," he said.

She frowned, confused as to how he'd ever gotten such a mistaken impression. "Well, what exactly did you see? I mean, were they kissing in public? Waving little rainbow flags? What?"

"No. Nothing like that--"

"Then what DID they do?"

He finally told her the whole story: How he felt Ben had lied to him, because he was supposed to be coming back to go to breakfast with him, but he hadn't. How he'd gotten to Ben's place that morning just in time to see him going off with her brother instead. How he'd heard Ben say that he'd invited Vecchio out to breakfast himself, so he'd thought he'd arranged their meeting. How he'd also seen Ray throw his arm around Ben's shoulders as they walked away... How he'd assumed they were lovers. How he figured that it had taken Ben forever to get back to his place because he'd probably taken her brother back to his apartment after having breakfast and made love to him.

Jeez! Frannie thought, shocked. That's what this whole mess is about? Kowalski saw Ray give Benny a hug, and thought that meant they were lovers? He freaked out over something that never happened! Something that wasn't even real! She just stared at him, not knowing where to begin. "Ray, you've got this all wrong," she said at last.

His lips twisted into a disbelieving frown. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah!" she insisted.

"How do you know, Frannie? How-do-you-know?" he grated angrily.

"Well, for one thing, you said Fraser lied to you. That he ran home so he could go off with my brother, right?"

Ray nodded, his eyes stormy.

"Well, that's not how it happened!"

"How do you know? Were you there?"

"No, but I know."

"How could you?" Ray demanded.

"Just listen to me!" she pleaded. "I was home the day Ray got home. He came to our house for a bit, said hi to the family, then after dinner, he left for Ben's place."

"So? That just proves my point! He couldn't wait to be with him, cuz they're lovers! Just like I said!"

"No, wait, Ray! Lemme finish," she protested so loudly that he fell silent again. "Ben didn't lie to you so he could run off to be with my brother. He couldn't have, because he didn't even know he was going to be at his apartment! Ray surprised him!"

Ray's frown grew deeper. "Whaddaya mean?"

"I wanted to call Fraser to tell him the good news, to let him know Ray was home, but Ray wouldn't let me!"

Ray snorted. "How could you have called him? He doesn't have a phone!"

"Well, we can't call him directly, but we leave messages for him with his neighbor sometimes. Mrs. Worthing."

Ray nodded. "Oh yeah. The old lady who bakes him cookies 'n stuff."

Frannie nodded. "She's got a bit of a crush on him--"

"Yeah, yeah. Like everyone else in Chicago. Go on with yer story, Frannie," Ray said impatiently.

"Okay. Well, anyway, Ray made me promise not to even call Mrs. Worthing. He even made Ma promise not to! He said he was gonna go over to Fraser's place and just wait till he came home to surprise him."

Ray swallowed hard. "That can't be," he said. But his voice was weak, and there was a look of growing shock on his face.

Frannie caught his hand and squeezed it. "It is," she said softly. "I swear it is, Ray! I was there, I heard Ray say it. I saw him leave without calling Mrs. Worthing, and my mom and I didn't either. And nobody else could've told Ben, because nobody else knew that Ray was home! Well, except Lt. Welsh, and he doesn't know about Mrs. Worthing either. So Benny didn't know Ray was going to be there waiting for him when he left your place. He couldn't have!"

Ray closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He didn't want to believe what Frannie was telling him; but he couldn't disbelieve it either. Frannie wouldn't lie to him, not about this. Not when she knew how he felt about Fraser. Actually, Frannie wouldn't have anyway. She was an honest person and he trusted her. So if she said Ben hadn't known that Vecchio was waiting for him back at his apartment that morning, then he hadn't. Ben hadn't known that Vecchio was even in Chicago, any more than he had! So he hadn't lied to him, he hadn't left him to go be with Vecchio that morning, he'd just found him there when he went home. Despite the way things had looked, it had been an innocent meeting.

Ray felt dizzy with shock. He'd been wrong. All his self righteous anger at Fraser's supposed betrayal was melting away like so much smoke, leaving shame and regret in its place. Fraser hadn't lied to him, hadn't run off to be with Vecchio like he thought. He'd run into his old buddy because Vecchio had planned it that way, not the other way around. He'd considered that possibility at the time, but discarded it after he saw Ben laughing with Vecchio. After he saw Vecchio put his arm around him. Jealousy had swamped him, and he'd stopped thinking rationally. He'd decided that Ben was guilty without even giving him a chance to defend himself -- because Stella had left him, so he'd thought Fraser would too.

The realization terrified him. Because if he'd been wrong about that, then he might've been wrong about all of it. So everything he'd done, everything he'd said, the way he'd yelled at Ben -- might've all been for nothing. He'd left the 27th for nothing -- been with Rylan for nothing -- left the second big love of his life, for nothing.

It was too much. He'd been clinging to the idea that it had all been Fraser and Vecchio's fault for so long that he could hardly bear to let it go, because that would mean blaming himself. "But... but I heard him say it," he said faintly, grasping at straws. "That he was invitin' Vecchio out to breakfast. I heard him. Why would he do that, when he told me he was comin' back to have breakfast with me? After he PROMISED?"

"Come on, Ray," Frannie said impatiently. "What do you expect? For crying out loud, he hadn't seen him in a year -- and Ray was undercover with the Mafia all that time! Once he surprised him, what was Fraser supposed to do? Send him away so he could run back to you? Say, 'Hi, nice to see you, but I have a previous engagement. Catch you later.' Can you see Frayzh doin' that?"

"No." Ray grimaced. Put that way, it sounded really stupid.

"Of course Benton wanted to spend some time with Ray when he got back! They're best friends, you know? He wanted to talk to him, find out what had happened while he was away. Didn't he tell you that?"

Ray opened his mouth to say no, then shut it again. He had a sudden memory of Ben sitting by his desk, saying that he'd left him several messages explaining what had happened that morning, why he was late getting back, so he didn't understand why Ray was angry with him. Jesus -- that was it! He must've called me to let me know Vecchio was back, to tell me why he was gonna be late. That they were having' breakfast together, catchin' up on things. But I didn't listen to it, he thought bleakly. I erased all his messages when I got home. I erased every single one he left me that weekend, cuz I was pissed off at him. Cuz I was jealous...

When he didn't answer her, Frannie frowned at him. "He did tell you, didn't he?"

He set his jaw so hard that it hurt. He couldn't tell her the truth, it would make him look too stupid. "He tried to," he said finally, looking away from her. He was too embarrassed to confess the rest, that he hadn't let him. He went over the situation frantically in his head to see if there was any way Frannie could be wrong about this. Any way at all that he could've been right... "But what about the way they were actin'?" he asked, more than a little desperate. "I mean, Vecchio had his arm around Frayzh, I saw it. And the way they were laughin', I thought--"

Frannie lifted an eyebrow. "Ray, in case you haven't noticed, my brother's Italian," she said.

"Yeah I know, but--"

"We're like that," she explained. "When we feel things, we don't hide them. If we love someone, we show it. We hug them. Ray had just got back from this terrible, dangerous job where he could've been killed a dozen times over. Didn't you ever think that maybe he was just happy to be with his best friend again? That he was hugging Benny because he was glad to see him, not because they're gay?"

"No," he confessed, furious at his own stupidity, feeling worse and worse as he began to see the situation from a whole different angle. From the angle of an innocent friendship, instead of the sexual relationship his insecurity had made him see. "I didn't, I just--" He trailed off, feeling stupid.

"Men!" Frannie snorted, rolling her eyes. "Sure, Ray loves Benton, but not like that. They were laughing because they were happy, Ray, not because--"

"Yeah, yeah, I heard you. I get that," he cut in angrily. "But -- No! I don't believe this. THIS CAN'T BE RIGHT! IT CAN'T!" Unable to stay still, hardly able to contain his rising anguish, he swung in a circle, digging a hand into his hair.

"Stop shouting, Ray!" Frannie snapped, her hands on her hips. "It IS right!"

"No." He shook his head stubbornly and paced up the hall, trying to catch his breath, to calm down. But the pain was swelling inside him, filling his head until he thought it would burst. He paced back to Frannie again. "You weren't there!" he snapped. "You didn't see 'em! I did, and it just looked--" He broke off again.

Frannie was eyeing him skeptically, and he knew he must sound idiotic, that he wasn't explaining himself well at all. "You weren't there," he repeated, desperate to make her understand. "It was just like Stella. Just like that! When she was dating that politician, I mean. They looked just like that!"

Frannie frowned a little. "Oh. You mean, you thought that because Stella found someone else -- that she was betraying you or something?" she asked slowly. "You were jealous, and you thought that because she did that, Ben would too?"

"Maybe. Somethin' like that," he ground out. He didn't look at Frannie when he said it. He couldn't. He looked down at his boots, his face flaming, his chest heaving. It was hard to talk. Hell, he couldn't seem to breathe properly. He felt like he was going to hurl. Maybe even pass out. Because he saw it all now. How he'd made the biggest mistake of his life. Oh god, Frase! What'd I do? What the hell did I DO?

He'd hurt Ben for no reason, and he'd refused to even tell him why. He'd been more than a jerk, he'd been a complete asshole. Frannie was probably just gathering her breath before ripping him a second one, which was no more than he deserved.

But she didn't. Instead of screaming at him, she came to him and put her hand on his arm gently. "You should think better of yourself, ya know?" she said softly. "And Benny too. I mean, even if he and Ray had been lovers, did you really think he'd cheat on you? That he'd throw you away as soon as he came back?"

He shook his head numbly. But of course she was right. That was exactly what he'd done. What he'd thought. He'd ruined everything because of his own paranoia. Fraser hadn't done anything wrong, not one damn thing -- and he'd treated him like shit. Pushed him around, screamed at him -- then he'd left him. The sweetest, most sensual lover he'd ever had, and he'd thrown him away for nothing. For a mistake. Because he was so damn insecure he couldn't believe someone that good would ever stay with him. He looked down at the floor, choking on self hatred. "Yer sure," he croaked at last. "Yer absolutely sure they're not--"

Frannie shook her head. "No. Trust me, Ray. Ben and my brother aren't lovers," she said, very gently. "Ray's getting married, remember? And he's so crazy about Serena that he's calling her night and day. They've already got a house picked out and everything. Besides... you know how I feel about Frayzh. Don't you think I'd've seen it if there was anything like that going on between them?"

Ray knew that was true. Where Fraser was concerned, Frannie noticed everything. She was the only one at the 27th, besides Lt. Welsh maybe, who'd figured out how he and Fraser felt about each other. And they'd only been together once! So it stood to reason that if anything had ever gone on between Ben and Vecchio, she would've picked up on that too. He forced a little smile past the huge lump in his throat. "Yeah. Guess if it was, you'd've killed Ray yerself, huh?"

"In a heartbeat. Brother or no brother," Frannie smiled back.

He tried to laugh, but he couldn't. He couldn't even work up a real smile. He'd turned to ashes in his own hallway. He wasn't even sure how he was staying on his feet. Frannie's hand still lay lightly on his arm, and he thought maybe she was holding him up. He felt dizzy, like he was going to be sick...

Frannie looked at him intently. "Do you believe me now, Ray?"

He nodded miserably. Had to clear his throat before he could speak. "Yeah," he croaked. "But it's just a lot to take in, ya know? I was so sure..."

Frannie gave his arm one last little pat, then drew away from him. "Well, think about it," she said.

"Right," he mumbled. As if he could think about anything else now.

"Guess I should go," Frannie said, when a silence fell between them.

Ray nodded. He was hardly even aware that she was still standing there. His head was filled with images of Ben. He remembered their last conversation, the fight they'd had. He kept hearing Ben asking, "What is it you think I've done, Ray?" The bewilderment in his blue eyes had looked so genuine. No, it was genuine. If Frannie was right, and his heart told him she must be, then Fraser had had no way of knowing what he was freaking out about. And he'd refused to tell him.

Shit. He must hate me now -- and I wouldn't blame him.

He walked Frannie to his front door in a haze. The shock of her news was beginning to wear off, and the pain was setting in. If walking away from Fraser had blown a hole through him, then finding out that he'd done it for nothing, on mere suspicions that were completely untrue, widened that hole until he felt completely hollowed out. He was shaking, demolished, ready to collapse. If Frannie was right, he was too stupid to live.

Frannie turned and gave him a last little smile at his front door. "It's not too late, Ray, you know," she said softly. "Frayzh hasn't been happy since you left. Why don't you come by the 27th sometime, or go by the Consulate and talk to him?"

"Yeah. Maybe I will," he said, but he was lying for Frannie's benefit. Privately, he wondered how in the world he could do that. Because what if I do, and I find out that Fraser hates my guts now? Even being lonely was better than that, because he could still pretend there was some possibility that he might get Fraser back someday. That secret, deeply buried hope was all that he'd been living on for months now. But if he went to see him and Fraser rejected him, told him he never wanted to see him again--

The very thought turned him cold inside. Without that hope, he didn't know what he'd do. If he knew he could never get Fraser back, maybe the next time he and Rylan raided a crack house, he'd just forget to take his vest. Or maybe he'd step in front of the next hand that pointed a gun at him, and let the asshole take a shot. Or maybe he'd use his own gun--

"'By the way, Ray," Frannie said, cutting into his dark thoughts. "If I send you an invitation to the wedding, will you come?"

He almost laughed. The invitation was so sweet, so innocent compared to what he'd been thinking, that it seemed crazy for a second. He couldn't really take it in. He had to pull himself away from the grim place he'd gone to in his head before he could answer her. But he forced himself to, because as bad as he felt, he still didn't want to hurt her. Despite his pain and guilt, he realized that it had taken a lot of guts for her to come over and tell him all this. No one else would've done it for him, and he wanted to do something nice for her in return. So though the idea of watching Vecchio the Style Pig tie the knot wasn't his idea of fun, he knew it meant a lot to Frannie, so he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, sure. I'll be there," he mumbled.

"Good. That's great. Ma'll be happy," Frannie smiled.

"Good," he said. "Okay." He even tried to smile back, then gave up on it when his numb lips wouldn't move. He did keep his mouth shut about his aversion to the idea of watching Vecchio get married, though. He didn't tell Frannie that he'd go for her sake and her mom's, not for her brother's. That even if Vecchio wasn't Fraser's lover, he still didn't like him. For being Fraser's friend first, before he was. For calling him 'Stanley' in that jerky way, the first time they ever met. For looking at him like he was street scum the second time, when he was handing over his files. For not liking him, for reasons he couldn't figure out.

He didn't say any of that, because Frannie didn't need to hear it. She'd come here to help him out. She'd been a friend. So he returned the favor and kept his opinion of Detective Armani to himself.

"Okay. I'll see ya to the door," was all he said. Because he just wanted her to go now, so he could hurl or pass out or whatever the hell he was going to do now, in private. He even opened the door to hurry her along.

"'Bye, Ray," she said. She stepped outside into the hall, then turned back to him. "But come and see Frayzh soon, okay?" she repeated. "He misses you, I can tell. And he's not doing too well."

That was the second time she'd said that; and it was the only thing she could've said that could've made him feel even worse than he already did. He knew, better than anyone, how Fraser dealt with his problems. He didn't -- he just bottled them up inside. Hid behind his perfect Mountie face and never, ever let anyone see when he was hurt. But Ray knew how screwed up he'd been since their separation. So if it had hit Fraser even half as hard (and from what Frannie was saying, it had), it wasn't surprising that he wasn't eating or sleeping much. And he was to blame for that, too.

"I'll try," he said again, as the ten ton weight sitting on his shoulders got a little heavier.

Frannie didn't look too happy with his vague answer. She opened her mouth as if to protest, then shut it again. "Okay. And give Ma a call too, huh? She worries about you."

"Okay." He nodded. Even through the haze of his shock, he could feel Frannie's affection, see the warmth in her eyes for him, and it got to him. She looked gorgeous, in her tight blue skirt and white silk blouse; and now that she was about to leave, he suddenly realized how much he'd missed her. Julie, the Civilian aide at the 29th, was quiet, shy and nothing like Frannie. Francesca Vecchio was the closest thing he'd ever had to a sister.

It was a little weird, them both being in love with the Mountie -- but nice. Talking to her about him for a little while had helped him more than all the sex he'd had with Rylan lately. And if someone had had to blow a hole in him to show him what a prick he'd been to Fraser, he was somehow glad it'd been her. She was the only person from the 27th who'd come to visit him since he left, and he suddenly wanted to show her that he appreciated it. He leaned over and planted a little kiss on her cheek. "Thanks for comin' by, Frannie," he said softly, meaning it in spite of everything.

"Anytime, bro," she smiled, stroking his cheek. Then she moved off down the hall. He watched her until she went down the stairs and out of sight.

But when he finally closed the door behind her, he couldn't move. He just leaned against it, his knees weak, filled with guilt and shame. I was wrong, he thought. I left Benny -- I hurt him bad -- and I was wrong! He felt tears sting his eyes, but he held them back. Gotta figure out what to do, he told himself desperately. How to make things right with him. But he didn't have a clue how to do it. Didn't know if going to see Ben would make them both feel better or worse. Didn't even know if he even had the guts to find out. Frannie had said Ben still loved him, but what if she was wrong?

What if the one thing he'd been right about lately was the fact that Ben hated him now?

There's dirt in my mouth
From kissing who I should not dare.
There's mud coming out
with every rip and every tear.
This thing beneath my ribs
Will beat me to the ground...

-- Jann Arden

The following night, Ray sat half drowsing in front of his TV. Not really watching it, because his mind was elsewhere. On Frannie and what she'd told him. On Fraser, and the fact that he'd been wrong about him. That he'd left him for nothing, hurt him for no good reason. He'd thought about that all day, and the night before too. He hadn't been able to think of anything else after Frannie left.

But that was all four months ago, he thought bleakly. A lot can happen in four months. Hell, a lot has happened! He'd gotten a new partner, on the job and in the sack, Vecchio was getting married, and Fraser... Fraser was losing weight. Not eating, Frannie said. Moping around not talking much to anyone. Losing ground.

"He misses you, Ray." She'd said that too. He turned the idea over gingerly in his head, like the fragile, precious thing it was. Not daring to look at it too closely for fear that the bubble would burst. But wanting it to be true.

But he still hadn't been able to work up the guts to go over to the Consulate and talk to him. He kept remembering how he'd humiliated the Mountie in front of the whole squadroom that day, how he'd used his hat for a football. The Sacred Stetson. How could Fraser possibly forgive him for all that? It wasn't like he could just go waltzing over to his apartment with a bottle of wine, knock on his door and say, "Take me, I'm yours!" Gimme one good reason, he asked himself, why he wouldn't kick yer sorry ass all the way down the front steps of the Consulate and out into the street.

He couldn't come up with one.

It didn't help that he wasn't exactly at his best right now. It was late, he was tired, and his head and chest were sore. He'd had a bitch of a day. He'd hardly slept after Frannie's visit last night, for one thing. So he'd started his day with a headache, and ended it with a sandwich and a beer he'd used as a chaser for some aspirin. Well -- actually, he'd ended it with a knock-down, dragout fight, which was why he'd needed the beer and the aspirin. He grimaced, fingering the bump on the back of his head. He'd gotten it while he and Rylan were having a bit of fun towards the end of their long day, busting a couple of cokeheads for possession...

One of the perps, a six foot two specimen named Lenny Shank with a shaved head, tattoos of knives and skulls on his arms, and the overdeveloped body of a serious weightlifter, strongly objected to being arrested. So while Ray was busy cuffing his buddy, a twitchy little junkie with greasy dark hair by the name of Sykes, Shank registered his displeasure by jumping Rylan.

When Shank buried his fist in Rylan's gut, and he saw his partner double over, Ray's adrenaline kicked in. "Shit," he muttered. I had a feelin' that asshole was gonna be trouble. He yanked the back door of the GTO open and hastily shoved his cuffed perp inside. "Get in there!" he shouted.

Sykes scrambled into the back seat hastily, frightened. As Ray cuffed him securely to a door handle, he whined, "Aww, shit! Why'dja' have to do that, Lenny? They're cops, man! Ya shouldn't mess with cops--"

Ray slammed the door on him and jumped back into the fray. He could've pulled his gun, and before he'd come to the 29th, he would have. But not now. He lived for stuff like this now, for the adrenaline rush of danger. It was the only thing that cut through his sadness enough to make him feel alive anymore.

So he'd waded back in with his gun still holstered. By the time he got to Shank, he'd already knocked Rylan on his ass, and was standing over him while Rylan scrambled to his feet again. Ray was almost glad things had gotten ugly. He was pumped and in the mood for a little whup ass, so he just went for it. Stepped in and kicked the backs of Shank's knees really hard. That should've folded him up, but it didn't. The guy's legs were rock hard with muscle, and he was probably coked up to boot. It was a bit like kicking a tree. Ray doubted the freak even felt it much.

But it did get his attention. As the big man whirled to face him, growling, Ray cursed under his breath. At that point, he finally went for his gun, but it was too late. He got it out, but the freak punched it out of his hand before he could lift it. And before he could blink, the guy tagged him with a right to the jaw, then slammed a huge fist into his chest. All of a sudden, he was on his back on the street, seeing stars.

Things were a little fuzzy for the next few seconds. He tried to get up, but his head swam, so he just laid there, blinking, trying to steady himself. Then he heard someone howl with fury, and the next thing he knew, Shank was on the ground not far from him. Rylan was on top of him, whaling on the guy's head with his fists, his face twisted with rage. Ray wasn't very happy with the freak himself, but after a few brutal punches, he could also see that he wasn't putting up much of a fight anymore. He was pushing vainly at Rylan's shoulders as the young detective battered him. Trying to get him off, without success.

He's outta control, Ray thought. So he hauled his aching body upright, staggered over to his partner and tugged at his shoulder. "C'mon, Pat, lay off him!"

But Rylan didn't seem to hear him. "Not my partner, you fuck," he hissed, landing another blow on the prone perp's already bloodied face. "Not this time!"

Ray heard Shank groan. "Rylan -- back off!" he ordered again, grabbing his partner's shoulder.

But Rylan didn't listen. He punched Shank in the chest again with a bloody right hand.

Ray couldn't believe it. He'd never seen the kid lose it like that before. "Back off, dammit!" he yelled. "NOW!"

In the end, he had to put both arms around Pat and drag him off Shank bodily, to keep him from smashing his face to a bloody pulp. When he got him on his feet, Pat's face was still red with rage, and Ray could feel him shaking with adrenalin and fury. He gave him the car keys, took his cuffs and shoved him in the direction of the GTO. "Call it in, Detective!" he ordered hoarsely, hoping the familiar routine would bring him back to his senses. He started over to the downed perp, but turned his head as he moved to make sure that Rylan had obeyed him. Rylan went, and he bent over Shank. "Roll over," he grunted, needing him on his belly on the ground, so he could safely cuff him. Shank groaned, but he did it.

Once Ray had snapped Pat's cuffs on him, he shot another glance over his shoulder to see what Pat was doing. To his surprise, he saw him standing by the car staring at him with a strange, almost wounded expression. "Call it in, dammit!" he yelled, not so much exasperated as he was trying to shake Rylan out of his weird trance.

When Rylan finally climbed into the car to use the radio as he'd ordered, he dragged the bloodied perp to his feet, wincing at the sharp pain in his chest and shoulder as his bruised muscles protested the effort. "Come on, asshole," he snapped. "Before I read you yer rights, lemme say that you just added resistin' arrest and assaultin' an officer to yer sheet, as well as gettin' yer face rearranged. Hope yer happy."

"He's crazy," the cokehead muttered, wiping blood off his mouth as he glanced at Rylan. He suddenly stopped moving, growling, "You saw what he did. That's police brutality!"

Ray shoved him none too gently towards the GTO again. "Naww. That was a love tap. But if you don't get yer ass in that car in the next five seconds, we'll both show you a little police brutality, I promise. Ya heard of good cop, bad cop? Well, think of it this way: my partner there, he's the good cop."

To Ray's relief, Shank shambled towards his car without further protest. Following him, Ray flexed his sore shoulder and started his little cop chant: "You are under arrest, freak. You have the right to remain silent. At least until they put you away, then you can scream all ya want. But until then, the really great thing is, ANYTHING you say can and definitely WILL be used to bust yer ass in court. Mmm. Love that part. And there's more: ya have the right to an attorney -- or is that a scumbag? What's the dif. Anyway, if you can't afford one, we'll pry one out from under the nearest rock and appoint him to defend ya. Got all that?"

"That ain't how it goes," Shank mumbled sullenly as he put a hand over his head to guide him into the back seat.

"Tell it to the judge," he'd said. Shank had curled his busted lip in a sneer, but he hadn't given them any more trouble.

Nothing else weird had happened, so he should've been able to forget about it. But he couldn't. Even though several hours had passed, he couldn't stop thinking about the way Rylan had lost it during the arrest. Despite the fact that he was dead tired and his head ached like a sonuvabitch, as the TV blared on in front of him, it nagged at him. Somewhere deep inside, where his cop instincts resided, a little warning message was flashing. Telling him that was something was wrong with Rylan.

He had the uneasy feeling that if he hadn't managed to haul him off Shank in time, Pat might've beaten him to death. And that was so unlike him it was freaky. They'd been in worse situations before, in far more dangerous spots, and he'd never lost it like that. The kid was always cool and in control. Ray had even teased him about it, calling him "Mr. Ice". But not this time. And the only difference that Ray could see in what had gone down earlier was that he'd been attacked, and slightly injured. That was the trigger that seemed to set Rylan off. He'd gone into this wild, berserk rage when the perp knocked him down, and Ray kept remembering what he'd said: "Not my partner. Not this time."

The incident must've somehow brought back memories of his former partner's death. Ray wondered if Rylan somehow felt responsible for it. He didn't see why he should. He'd gone over all the police and press reports about the shooting months ago, when he first came to the 29th. And as far as he'd been able to tell from those records and the 29th's rumor mill, Pat had had nothing to do with it. He and Hank Miller had gone to a private home looking for a suspect in a drug-connected killing, and been unlucky enough to knock on the door just as that same suspect -- plus a number of his well-armed buddies -- was leaving. The suspect had panicked and opened fire, and so had his buddies. All four of them. Rylan and Miller had just been outnumbered and outgunned. It could've happened to any cops.

Rylan had been lucky to come out alive himself. By some miracle, he'd only taken a grazing shot to the head and one in his forearm. So he'd been knocked out, but not critically injured; and luckily, a neighbor who'd heard the shouts and gunfire had called the police. So Rylan woke up in a hospital instead of being laid in a coffin. But his partner wasn't so lucky. Hank Miller had taken four bullets, and by the time Rylan came to hours later, Miller was long gone.

Tough break. But it wasn't his fault at all, Ray thought. Maybe he doesn't see it that way, though. He would've tried talking to him about it after he'd first learned the details of the case, but considering the touchy way Pat had acted about it when they first met, he'd thought it was better not to. And when time went by and Pat never mentioned it again, Ray had assumed that he must be over it. But his outburst that afternoon suggested that he wasn't. Ray wondered if he should bring the subject up again, try to find out if he felt guilty about Miller's death, and why...

At that moment, there was a knock on his door. Ray rubbed his eyes, rousing reluctantly. He checked his watch: 10:45 p.m. Late. Too damn late. For a second, he almost didn't answer it. Then a tiny thrill of hope shot through him, mixed with the color of Mountie red. He knew it was stupid, that it was probably impossible, but now that Frannie had convinced him that Ben and Vecchio weren't lovers, he was hoping that one day, somehow--

He rose and went to the door, his heart beating a little faster. Still, he wasn't so tired -- or so optimistic -- that he forgot to be cautious. He took his gun with him and paused a foot to one side of his closed door. "Who is it?"

"The fuckin' Easter bunny. Who d'ya think?"

Ray closed his eyes. The bright red flicker of hope in his head died away. "Rylan," he muttered, disappointed. But he put his gun down again and opened the door.

As he swung the door open, Rylan stepped forward and slapped him on the shoulder with a grin. "Hey, Ko. What's up?" he asked. His voice was just a bit too loud, and he stepped past him quickly, not waiting to be invited inside. Ray felt annoyed. A bit uneasy. He noticed that Pat was wearing the same clothes he'd had on at work earlier: black jeans, a white t-shirt and his black motorcycle jacket. Ray suspected that he probably hadn't gone home after work, and the scent of whiskey as the younger cop passed him confirmed it.

Shit. He's been drinkin'. Must've gone straight to a bar when we clocked out, Ray thought, his annoyance growing. Remembering the way Pat had freaked out earlier, he couldn't help wondering if the two incidents were connected. Judging by the glitter in Rylan's eyes, though, and the edgy way he moved, he'd drunk enough to take the lid off his inhibitions, but not enough to affect him physically. Not nearly enough to slow him down.

Ray groaned to himself. Pat was big and strong, had at least thirty pounds on him, and he already knew how rough he liked to play. Now that he was half hammered, he might be downright dangerous. Great. And I'm already whipped, he thought. His head still ached, and his chest and shoulder too. This could get nasty. He decided then and there that if Pat got amorous, no matter how much he pleaded, he wouldn't let him fuck him tonight. No way. I'm not in the mood to be battered. Hell, I'm not even in the mood for company. Except Ben's...

He tried to bury that thought deep down inside. Tried not to hate Pat for not being him. Still, there was an edge in his voice when he said, "Well, hell. I was gonna ask you in, Rylan, but what's the point? Looks like yer already in."

Rylan just grinned at him, ignoring his surliness. "Looks that way, Ko. Hey, you got any whiskey?" he added. He headed for Ray's kitchen, but Ray got there first and blocked his way.

"No, I don't. What're you doin' here, Pat?" he asked tersely.

Surprise flickered in Rylan's dark brown eyes. "Do I need a reason?"

Ray's eyes narrowed. "Since you don't live here, it's late and I'm tired, yeah. You need a reason."

Rylan shrugged. "Then let's say I came to have a drink with a friend," he smiled.

Ray shook his head. "Don't feel like drinkin'," he said flatly. Understatement of the year. He was starting to get pissed enough to consider throwing Rylan out. But he wasn't sure he could, in the shape he was in. He hoped it wouldn't come to that, that he could talk him into leaving instead.

"Okay, Ko. But do you mind if I have one?"

Ray didn't move. "What would that make? Nine or ten, somethin' like that?"

Rylan just grinned. "Who's counting?" Then he tried to push past him.

Ray put a hand out to stop him. "Me. Toldja', I'm tired. So the bar's closed." He kept that hand firmly on Pat's chest, but his own bruised chest throbbed, his muscles protesting the effort of holding the larger, younger man back.

"Come on, Ko!" Pat protested, pushing him a little. Not hard, and he was grinning while he did it, but it pissed Ray off anyway. "Don't be a drag--"

"Hey! Don't gimme that," Ray snapped. He pushed back, so hard this time that it backed Rylan up a bit. "I already had enough fun with that coke freak today. I don't wanna play games with you too."

Rylan's smile disappeared instantly. He stopped pushing against Ray's grip and gave him a concerned look instead. "That fuckin' lowlife cokehead," he breathed. "He hurt you, didn't he?"

Ray looked away, uncomfortable with the unexpected response. Even drunk, Rylan was very perceptive. But he didn't like the way his mood had changed so suddenly. Didn't like his over protective reaction to the punch he'd taken, either. "Naw." He shook his head. "I told you, it's nothin'. I just need to get some sleep."

"You should have a doctor look at that, Ko," Rylan said, pointing to the spot at the junction of his chest and shoulder where the bald freak had punched him. "You took a helluva jolt. To your head, too." He wasn't joking anymore. He looked earnest, even worried.

Ray was touched in spite of himself, and he unbent enough to smile. "Yeah well, so did you. And I didn't see you hollerin' for a paramedic either," he teased.

"Lemme see," Rylan said.

Ray blinked. "What?"

"Take off your shirt," Pat insisted. "And lemme look at your head, too. I wanna make sure you're all right."

Ray shook his head, annoyed that Pat would fake concern to try to seduce him. "What, strip so you can play doctor?" he quipped. "Didn't know you had a license. 'Sides -- I'm not in the mood."

To Ray's surprise, a flicker of something like pain tightened Rylan's face for a second. "That wasn't a come on, Ray," he said quietly. "I saw you go down, and you were out for a second. You shoulda' gone to a doctor. Since you didn't, I just wanna make sure you're okay."

Ray relented a little. Rylan only called him Ray when he was being very serious. And he couldn't help remembering what Pat had said earlier that afternoon, while pounding on the guy who'd attacked him. "Not my partner. Not this time." Maybe he had it all wrong. Maybe Rylan wasn't looking for a fuck. Maybe he'd really come by to check on him because he'd been hurt. He was suddenly a bit embarrassed that he'd been so curt with him.

He sighed. "Okay. So if I take off my shirt and ya don't see broken ribs stickin' outta my chest or blood gushin' anywhere, you'll go home and leave me in peace?" he asked.

Rylan smiled again. "I'm not makin' any promises until the shirt comes off, and ya let me have a look at your head."

Ray rolled his eyes. "Persistent bastard."

"Ab-so-friggin'-lutely," Rylan shot back, unrepentant.

Ray finally gave in. Heaving another put-upon sigh, he reached down and pulled his t-shirt slowly over his head, trying not to wince as he did. Once he got it off, he threw it onto the couch and turned sideways, so Rylan could see the slight lump on the back of his head. "It's nothin', see? Just a bump. Hurt myself worse fallin' outta trees back in grade school." And before Rylan had a chance to argue, he turned to face him again, his chest bared so he could see his bruises there too. "So. No blood, no broken bones," he quipped. "Satisfied?"

Rylan moved closer, his face tightening as he stared at Ray's chest. "Shit," he breathed at the sight of the large purple and yellow bruise that spread up from Kowalski's left pectoral onto his left shoulder. "No, I ain't satisfied. I shoulda' killed that mother..."

Ray frowned, dismayed by his partner's overreaction to what he considered a minor injury. The mingled look of possessiveness and anger in Pat's eyes made him uneasy. "Don't be stupid. It's just a bruise. It's nothin'. I've been hurt a lot worse sparring."

But it was too late. Rylan's eyes were fixed on him intently, darkening with a sudden look of hunger that Ray knew well. "Yer so damn pretty, Ko," he whispered, bending his head. Before Ray could stop him, he'd pressed his lips to his cheek, and moved closer to him. "I hate that that freak put his hands on you."

Rylan tried to embrace him, but Ray pulled away. "Forget it," he said tersely. "Not tonight. I told you, I'm tired."

Rylan's face tightened strangely at that. His dark eyes narrowed and suddenly, the edge Ray had felt in him earlier was back with a vengeance. "Oh yeah?" he said, stepping forward again. "Izzat so?" His voice sounded menacing; velvety softness thinly covering hard anger.

Ray backed away slightly. "Yeah, it is. I'm an old man compared to you, Pat," he joked, trying to keep things light. He was too tired to fight about it, and he didn't like the look in Rylan's eyes all of a sudden. They looked hard, hot, crazy. Like they had when he'd gone after Shank, earlier.

But Rylan wasn't going to let it go. "Old, my ass," he said in the same menacing tone. "You roll into the station with more energy than half the squad put together, Ko. But you never seem to want any. You never ask me to fuck you, I always have to talk you into it. Why is that?"

Rylan hadn't made another move towards him, but Ray could feel his growing anger like a storm gathering inside his little apartment. A few more seconds, and Pat was gonna blow sky high. He could feel it. Aww, Christ -- that's all I need, is for him to go nuclear again. He's drunk, and I'm tired, and my head hurts. I just wanna go to bed...

He kept his voice quiet but firm, and stepped away from him. "I just promised you one night, Rylan. One time. And you've had a helluva lot more than that already. I'd say we're more than even. So why don't you just call it a night, and go home."

Rylan shook his head. "No. That's not the way I see it." He moved forward, following Ray, his whole body tense, and radiating anger. His dark brown eyes were focused so intently on him that Ray doubted he could see anything else. "I don't think I've ever had much of you at all, Ko. Not what counts, anyway."

"Izzat right?" Ray shot back. He tried to sound calm, but inwardly he was rocked by the implications of that. He'd warned Rylan at the beginning that their fling was strictly physical, no emotions allowed, but it was becoming clear that the kid hadn't listened to him. He sounded like he was in love -- and like he was pissed off that Ray didn't return his feelings.

Rylan shook his head, and his lips twisted into a menacing little smile. "No, it isn't right. But that can change."

Ohhhh, shit. Rylan's words, and that look, sent a shiver down Ray's spine. He'd never seen him look like that before -- never. He was seeing a whole different side to his partner all at once, and he didn't like it. What's more, he had the sinking feeling he knew exactly what Rylan had meant by that. He took another step backward, and Rylan followed him. He suddenly felt like he was being stalked by a very large, very angry cat. Dressed in black as he was, with his catlike dark eyes, Rylan reminded him of a big black panther. And Ray already knew that he could bite. For the first time since he'd met him, he was a bit afraid of his own partner.

"Go home, Rylan," he said again. Colder now, making it a definite warning this time. "Yer drunk. Go home and sleep it off."

But Rylan just shook his head. "Oh, no. This is one time yer not kickin' me out before I get what I want."

The look of unmistakable excitement on his face chilled Kowalski. Rylan sensed his fear, and it was turning him on; and it was obvious what he wanted. He retreated again, thinking rapidly. The situation was spinning out of control really fast. Reasoning with Rylan wasn't going to work, and he didn't want to fight him, either. So what the hell could he do?

Then he remembered his gun. He'd put it down on the table when he let Rylan in. It was only a few feet behind him now. Still, he hesitated. For one thing, pulling his gun would be an open admission that he couldn't handle Rylan. That he was weak. Normally, he'd never have considered it; he wouldn't have had to. Rylan was bigger, yeah, but he was faster. But not right now. Rylan was drunk, furious, aroused, and (most importantly) uninjured -- while he was ten years older, smaller, exhausted, and hurting. If it came to a fight, Pat would kick his ass. So I got two choices, he realized glumly. Shove my gun in his face, or get raped.

That was a no-brainer. "What the hell are you talking about?" he asked, stalling as he edged backwards.

Rylan's face grew even darker. "You think I don't notice? That I don't see how you always close your eyes when I touch you?" he hissed, coming after him. "You think I'm fuckin' BLIND?" He was almost shaking with anger now.

But Ray stayed cool. He just shrugged, sliding his boots another half step backward. Not far now, he told himself, praying that he'd reach the gun in time. "I told you how things were from the beginning," he said, trying to distract Rylan from noticing that he was edging towards his weapon. "It's just sex, that's all."

Rylan shook his head. "Oh, no. Not for me. It never was. You're mine, Ko," he breathed, his dark eyes wild and glittering with desire and fury. He took a step closer, smiling slightly as he closed the distance between them, as if he knew exactly what Ray was up to, and was just playing along until he found the right moment to pounce.

Maybe he is. Shit! Ray felt a flash of fear. He'd always suspected that Pat had feelings for him -- now he knew. But it didn't matter. He couldn't return them. And after this, he wasn't even sure if they could be partners anymore. He'd never wanted it to come to this, but deep inside, he knew it was partly his fault. He should've known better than to have gotten involved with another of his partners, especially a kid he hardly knew.

Still, he wasn't going to let himself be jumped, either. Even if Rylan had guessed his plan, he hadn't made a move to stop him; and he was almost there... Another half step, and the back of his leg touched the table. Then he secretly gathered himself, tensing his muscles. He would only have a second to whirl and get the gun--

"Mine," Pat said again, making a quick, unexpected grab for him.

Ray evaded him instinctively, bending backwards with a dancer's grace. "Not tonight," he breathed, and turned his evasive move into a whirling grab of his own. Backwards and down -- for his gun.

He never made it.

As he reached desperately for his weapon, out of the corner of his eye, Ray saw Pat launch himself in a flying leap. His big hands closed on his shoulders just as his fingertips brushed the cold metal of his revolver. The collision knocked his hand off the gun, and both of them off their feet. They crashed backwards violently, and as they went down, his head hit something, hard. And everything went black.

When Ray regained consciousness, his head was throbbing mercilessly, and he felt cold. "Didn't mean... hurt you," he heard someone say. The words faded in and out, and he struggled to focus on them. "... goin' for your gun. I saw you. Couldn't let you shoot me..."

"Wha?" he whispered, confused. Rylan. That was Rylan's voice. But Rylan was his partner. Why would he have pulled his gun on his own partner?

"You hit your head again. It was an accident," Rylan went on, sounding guilty.

Ray's thoughts spun in dizzy circles. Where was his gun? He wasn't holding it, but hadn't Rylan just said he'd gone for it? Had he dropped his gun? Why did his head hurt so much?

Then it all came back to him with a jolt. He remembered their argument, how Rylan had come after him, had jumped him, that he was going to -- No! A surge of fear and anger cut through his aching, woozy body. He fought to move, to get to his feet, but all he could manage was to open his eyes. When he did, the light hurt them, and he couldn't seem to focus them. The room seemed to be spinning. Moving past him. Then he realized that the room wasn't moving, he was. But he wasn't walking. He was being carried. By Rylan.

Put me the fuck down! he tried to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a hoarse croak. He felt a trickle of something cold on the back of his neck, and wondered fuzzily if it was blood.

"Waking up, are you?"

Rylan sounded kind of amused. He hated him for it. And he wasn't really sure if he should answer him, because the whole thing seemed unreal, like a dream... Or maybe a nightmare. He wasn't sure it was really even happening. But when he was laid face down on his bed, and found it hard to breathe, he realized that he wasn't dreaming. His face really was mashed into his covers, because Rylan had taken him into his bedroom and put him on his bed -- and he knew why. He turned his face so he could breathe, his stomach heaving. "No!" he moaned, frightened.

He tried to move again, to get away, but all he could manage was to raise himself up onto arms that shook. Then Rylan grabbed his hands, and he fell forward onto his face again as the younger cop pulled his arms up above his head. He struggled, tried to pull away until his head throbbed and he almost puked, but Rylan just tightened his grip until it hurt.

"Don't fight me, Ko," Rylan breathed, leaning over him. Holding his wrists imprisoned in a grip so tight it ground Ray's bones together. "I don't wanna hurt you. You'll like it, you'll see."

"Bastard," he grunted. "Don't--"

But Rylan wasn't listening.

Ray heard a familiar metallic click, and felt something cold and hard close around his left wrist, felt his weight suddenly hanging partially suspended from it. It hurt, and he raised his aching head, hoping he was wrong -- but his eyes confirmed what his ears had already told him. The click he'd heard was from handcuffs. Rylan had cuffed his left wrist, and he was still holding his right wrist tightly. "No," he husked again, his fear growing. "Stop it, god dammit!" He tried to free his other arm, but Rylan tightened his grip on it until it hurt, and forced it up towards the head of Ray's bed, beside the hand he'd already cuffed--

"NO!" He tried desperately to pull away, but it was too late.

"There." Another sinister click, the same coldness on his right wrist -- Rylan had cuffed both hands now.

Fuck! Ray's heart sank. When Rylan let him go and straightened up, he saw that he'd looped the chain linking the cuffs around the iron frame of his bedpost, just beneath the crossbar of his headboard. So there was no way he could pull away. He was trapped. Helpless. Though he used cuffs in the course of his job all the time, he'd never been cuffed by an assailant before, and the cold, implacable hardness of the metal around his wrists turned his fear to terror. "No, goddammit!" he moaned, rattling the cuffs as he pulled on them. "What the fuck are you doin'? Are you nuts? Lemme go!"

Rylan just smiled like the cat who'd swallowed the canary. "It didn't have to be this way," he said, ignoring his protests. He moved past him. Behind him. "You could've just let me do it. Let me do you the way I've been wanting to."

Ray's heart was beating so hard it felt like it would burst his chest. Pain strobed behind his eyes, at the back of his head where he'd hit it when Rylan tackled him. He had two bumps there now, and they both hurt like hell. Plus, he was so scared he found it hard to breathe. In an effort to keep himself from falling into mindless panic, he exploded with anger. "You sonovabitch!" he hissed. "Have you lost yer mind? Get these off me!" He struggled until he was breathless, until his head swam, his bruised chest and shoulder ached, and the cuffs dug painfully into his reddened wrists. But though he slammed the headboard against the wall repeatedly, it was made of solid metal. His puny efforts couldn't damage it, or the cuffs, at all. He'd have to cut through them with a blowtorch to break free.

When he subsided for a second to catch his breath, Rylan chided, "Stop that, Ko. You'll only hurt yourself worse." Then Ray heard the ominous sound of a belt buckle being undone.

"Shit! No, god dammit! NOOOOO!"

A wave of panic rolled over him. He went wild. Despite his sore shoulder, he got up on his knees and pulled furiously at his cuffs, pulled with all his might, until the headboard rattled furiously against the wall, and the pain of the metal cutting into his wrists made him gasp. Even then, he kept trying -- even after the chafing cut his skin open and he started to bleed -- but it was no use. As hard as he pulled on the cuffs, he couldn't break the bedpost. It was too strong. He yanked again and again, almost sobbing, but the cuffs, chain and bedpost still held him fast.

Rylan stood watching him struggle without a word. When he paused for breath, he sat down on the bed beside him, cool as a cucumber, as usual. "Frustrated?" he asked coldly. "Now you know how I felt, all those nights when I tried to make love to you. I did everything I could, ya know? Everything I knew, tryin' to make it good for you. But I couldn't. I could hardly ever even make you come. I wasn't good enough for you, was I?"

A note of pain had crept into his voice, and even in his near hysteria, Ray felt a stab of guilt. He'd never realized that in his own weird way, Rylan was actually trying to please him, to turn him on with all that rough stuff. He tried desperately to think. Was there a way to use that to his advantage? To use Rylan's feelings for him to make him set him free?

"I'm sorry," he grated, hoping against hope that he could reach through his drunken rage and stop this. "I did want you," he lied. "I do. Come on, Pat... Get these cuffs off me, and we can try it again. I can--"

"No!" Rylan cried out, suddenly furious again. "You still don't get it, do you?"

Ray's momentary flicker of hope turned to despair. Somehow, he'd made Rylan even madder than he was before. "Get what? What the hell are you talkin' about?" he hissed, pulling frantically at his chains again. Blood was welling from where his desperate struggles had chafed the skin off his wrists. But even when it started to run down his arms, he persisted despite the pain, panting with mounting terror. Rylan was obsessed with him, way over the edge -- and he wasn't going to give up until he raped him. Ray knew it, and the knowledge that he was helpless to prevent it was making him crazy.

Rylan set his jaw angrily. "You never saw it, didja', Ray? You don't have a fuckin' clue that I love you!"

At that, Ray exploded. "LOVE ME?" he screamed. "Are you crazy?" He turned and kicked out at Rylan with both feet, using all the strength he had. He kicked him so hard it knocked him right off the bed. And for a second, he felt a surge of savage satisfaction, that he'd managed to strike back.

But Pat wasn't really hurt. He sprang up off the floor again almost instantly, and Ray knew that he'd made a mistake. Rylan's eyes were even hotter now, his face taut and dangerous. He was going to make him pay.

He scrambled as far away as he could on the bed, trying to evade the answering blow that he knew was coming. "You don't love me! How can ya say that, then do somethin' like this?" he spat.

Rylan climbed onto the bed and grabbed him. Took his shoulders in a viselike grip, dug his fingers in until they hurt. He pulled Ray close and yelled, "What about what you've been doing? You think I don't know what's goin' on? That I don't know who you really want? Who you see when you close your eyes while I fuck you? That goddamn Mountie! You're still in love with your old partner!" he roared, shaking him roughly.

"Fraser?" Ray's fear suddenly shot off the scale. It filled his mind to the exclusion of all else, like white noise that crowded out all rational thought. But it wasn't fear for himself anymore. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"

"I know all about him!" Rylan snapped. "I drove by where he works one day, and took a good look at him. One look, and I knew--knew why I wasn't good enough for you." His tone suddenly shifted from angry to reflective, almost casual. "He's a handsome bastard, I'll give you that. Great body. Could use a tan, though." Then, in an instant, his voice lowered and grew furious again. "He was your lover, wasn't he?" He shook him again, so hard that Ray's head whipped back and forth, dizzying him.

He gritted his teeth and waited for it to stop before he could answer. As soon as he let up, he snarled, "Fraser? Now I know yer nuts! He's so straight I think he invented the word!"

"Is he?" Rylan sneered. But then, to Ray's surprise, he let him go. Got up off the bed and stalked around it, fuming, pantherlike. His stare burned into Ray like a laser.

But Ray had known Pat long enough, now, to know when he was bluffing. And underneath that tough stare, unlikely as it seemed, he sensed confusion. Hesitation. Rylan hadn't expected him to deny being Fraser's lover, and he was too drunk to really know what to do about it. Whether to believe him or not.

Ray took advantage of the momentary reprieve to think fast. The fact that Rylan had gone so far as to stalk Fraser amazed and horrified him. He realized -- too late -- that he really didn't know what the kid was capable of doing. Pat was obviously obsessed with him, and jealous as hell; and a few drinks had made him aggressive enough to assault him with rape in mind. And they were partners!

Jesus. What'll he do to Ben if he figures out for sure that I love him?

The thought turned him cold. He concentrated fiercely, trying to figure out how to protect Fraser. He'd already realized that there was no way Rylan could know for sure that he loved Ben, or that they'd slept together. Because there were only two other people who even had a clue about it: Frannie and Lt. Welsh, and he knew they'd never tell anyone. Neither would Fraser. No way. Especially not since he'd left him. So the only way Rylan could really find out for certain was if Ray let it slip -- and he wasn't about to. I've gotta lie, he thought desperately. Convince him that he's wrong, so he'll leave Benny alone.

"Yeah," he repeated, trying hard to sound convincing despite his near panic. "Yer so far wrong, it isn't even funny. Not only is Fraser straight, but he drove me nuts. That's really why I left, 'cuz he's crazy. Anal retentive like you wouldn't believe--"

Rylan suddenly jumped back onto the bed beside him and grabbed him by the hair, jerking his head back. "Don't lie to me!" he yelled, his face contorted, his voice thick with pain. "You love him, I know it! That's why you left -- that's why you always shut me out! Isn't it? That's why you never want to touch me! 'Cuz you want him instead!"

"No!" Ray gasped, his heart sinking. Rylan's grip made his head throb, but he tried to shut out the pain so he could think. Pat wasn't buying his story, and he had to. He had to, or Fraser was going to get hurt.

"Tell me the truth, damn you!" Rylan yelled, pulling his head back so hard that the muscles in Ray's neck burned with pain.

"I am, dammit! That isthe truth!" Ray gasped as his neck was pulled back even further. He tried to get his legs out in front of him, tried to lean back towards Rylan to ease the strain on his tortured spine, but he could only go so far because of the cuffs -- and Rylan just pulled harder. The pain made it impossible to think. He couldn't come up with any more lies -- all he could do was continue to deny it. "He's... not gay! I... don't... love him! I never... touched him!" he groaned.

But Rylan didn't believe him. He tightened his hand in Ray's hair, and increased the pressure until he had to bite his lip to keep from screaming. "Tell me you love him!" Rylan hissed, furious. "Admit it, and I'll let you go. TELL ME!"

"No! I... don't... love him!" Ray gritted stubbornly between clenched teeth, as the bones in his neck creaked and popped. OhGodohGod it hurts! Any second now, he thought, my spine's gonna snap, and it'll all be over--

And all he could feel was how much he loved Fraser. How he'd been a fool to ever leave him. The only scrap of comfort he had was that at least he could die protecting him--

Then Rylan let him go. It was so sudden that Ray pitched forward helplessly, face down into the softness of his covers again. He just laid there for a minute, panting and shaking with relief. But it was only a temporary respite. He knew it was far from over. He was still cuffed and helpless, still chained to his bed, and Rylan wasn't finished with him. He wasn't going to let him go until he'd raped him.

Still, stronger even than his fear and the fading pain in his neck and shoulders was a strong feeling of gladness, of relief. Fraser's safe. He's safe now. He lay there breathing hard, but feeling good about that. He must've finally convinced Rylan that they'd never been lovers, or he wouldn't have let him go. He could survive being raped as long as he knew Benny would be okay, that he wouldn't be hurt because of him. Rylan seemed so out of control, Ray was afraid that if he'd caved and confessed, he might've left him chained to the bed and gone after Fraser in his drunken rage. He might've even tried to kill him.

So he'd held out; and at least now, Rylan would leave Fraser alone.

Then Rylan sighed heavily. "You're a lousy liar, Ko," he said softly, and Ray froze. "I've seen the way you look whenever I mention his name. You're in love with him, all right. If you weren't, you'd have said you were. Lied to me to save yourself just now. To stop the pain."

Ray shook his head desperately. "Yer full o' shit, Rylan." But secretly, he was horrified by his cunning, and by the accuracy of his guess.

"Oh, no. I know all about that," Rylan went on. "My old man used to do this to me, from the time I was a kid. Great guy, my old man," he said bitterly. "He'd been a cop for years by the time I came along. He knew all about cuffs and how to use 'em. He's the one who taught me that little trick with the neck, by the way. That was one of his specialties."

Jesus, Ray thought, sickened. He'd always wondered why Rylan only got turned on by rough stuff, but it wasn't exactly something you could ask a guy. By the way, how'd you get so twisted? Now he knew. And he wished he didn't. The knowledge only reinforced his belief that Rylan still meant to rape him.

"Come on, Pat. Lemme go!" he grated, struggling against his chains again. "You've had yer fun. Now get me outta these!" He pulled on the restraints again as hard as he could, until his injured shoulder screamed with pain and his wrists bled again, but all he managed to do was to thump his bedpost back and forth against the wall again a few times.

"Oh no," Rylan said. "I haven't had my fun at all yet." Then he reached for him again.

Ray tried to twist away, but the younger cop caught him by the belt and forced him down onto his bed again, onto his stomach, jerking his legs out behind him so he couldn't use them for another kick.

"Not so fast, Ray," Rylan said grimly. "You lied to me. And you ignored me. You shouldn't have done that. Now it's your turn to suffer, like I've been hurting. Let's see how you like it."

Blood trickled down Ray's arms from his abused wrists as he tried to twist away. But despite his struggles, Rylan held him down with one arm, and reached around and unzipped his fly with the other.

"No! You fuckin' dirtbag! You goddamn scum sucking pig!" Ray screamed, beside himself with helpless fury.

Despite Ray's helpless curses, Rylan knelt on his lower legs, pinning him down. Then he jerked his jeans and underwear down to his knees with practiced hands. "If you only knew," he sneered. "You sound just like my old man."

Ray writhed wildly against his chains, panting with terror as he heard the sound of Rylan pulling his zipper down. "Maybe," he said, gritting his teeth against what was about to happen. "But you ARE him."

To his surprise, Rylan froze. Went still and silent, as if his words had struck home. "Yer just like him," Ray went on, praying that he was doing the right thing. "Yer as twisted as he was! You do this and yer a rapist, Rylan! A goddamn lowlife rapist! Ya got that?"

For a long, anguished moment, the silence went on. Rylan didn't speak, didn't say a word. All Ray could hear was the sound of his terrified heart pounding in his ears. He swallowed hard, trying to wet his dry throat, hoping to God he was finally getting through to the kid. "Didn't you hate what yer old man did to ya?" he asked hoarsely. "Don'tcha' hate him even now, for rapin' you? Izzat how you want me to feel? Ya want me to hate yer guts like that? 'Cuz I will, if you do this. I swear to God. Hell, I'll do more than just hate ya; I'll have yer ass up on charges. Assault, rape, you name it!"

"You wouldn't," Rylan said. But all at once, he didn't sound nearly as sure of himself.

And Ray pounced on that hint of insecurity. "Try me," he said, playing on Rylan's fear. Trying to intensify it. "The best thing that could happen is, you'll lose yer shield and go to prison -- and ya know what happens to cops in the joint, Rylan. Pretty boy like you, they'd draw lots about who'd get to fuck you first, before they killed ya!" He paused for a second, to let his partner think about that. "And if by some miracle ya didn't get convicted, I'd kill ya myself. Partner or no partner. I'd never let it go. Ever. Ya get what that means?" he grated. Rylan didn't answer him, but Ray pressed on relentlessly. "You know, don'tcha. Yer not gonna just get by with rapin' me -- you'll have to kill me. Or else I'll kill you for it, or you'll die in prison. So -- you ready for that? Ya ready to kill me, or to die yourself? Just to become a goddamn rapist, like yer old man? Izzat what you want?"

Ray stopped to catch his breath, waited for a long, anxious moment for Rylan to reply. But the kid still didn't move, or answer him. He hardly even seemed to be breathing. Ray rattled his chains furiously. "Ya just said I'm a lousy liar. So ya know I mean it. You think about it, Rylan!" he roared, trying to keep the pressure on.

Finally, Rylan let out a long sigh. Ray knew this was it. The moment of truth. Rylan was either going to rape and maybe kill him, or let him go. He turned his aching neck, trying to see him better. But Rylan's eyes were dark and distant as he leaned towards him. He couldn't read his expression and he tensed, fearing the worst.

But then he felt a gentle tugging at his left wrist. "Okay," Rylan said, sounding as tired as he felt. "Okay, Ray. I hear ya." Suddenly, the cuffs binding him snicked open and his bloodied wrists slipped out. Ray's whole body went limp as the younger cop released him, and he fell face forward onto his bed. For a moment, he just laid there breathing hard, his heart pounding, letting cool, sweet relief wash over him. He'd just missed getting raped and maybe killed by a hair. By a few words. By a troubled guy's last minute change of heart.

When he could move again, he turned over onto his back, cradling his wounded wrists on his belly as he eyed his partner warily.

Rylan had moved away from him. Leaning back against the wall on the opposite side of the room, he stared at him, his eyes dark and troubled. For a moment, thinking of how Pat had been abused, Ray almost felt sorry for him. But the flicker of compassion died when he thought about what he'd done to him and the way he'd stalked Fraser. His anger rose again. He pulled his jeans back up and buttoned them with bloodied, shaking hands, forced his tired body to a sitting position, then rolled his abused neck around on his shoulders in an effort to ease his strained muscles. They still hurt. So did his bruised shoulder, his banged head, and his scraped, bruised, bloody wrists. I'm a mess, he thought. And it's mostly his fault.

Rage began throbbing in his aching head. "What the hell were you doin', Pat?" he growled. Then the growl became a roar. "WHAT THE FUCK GOT INTO YOU? WHY'D YOU DO THAT?"

Rylan shivered slightly, as if he'd hit him instead of yelling at him. He closed his eyes, and raised his hands to his face. "I don't know," he said, his voice muffled by his own fingers. "I'm drunk, I got crazy--"

"Oh, no." Ray shook his head. The sweat of his earlier terror was congealing on his body, turning cold, but the return of his rage warmed him. "Yer not gettin' off that easy!" he hissed, rising to his feet. "You pried into my past for no reason, ya stalked my ex-partner -- ya cuffed me up like a perp, in my own place!" He moved towards Rylan, his injuries forgotten in the white hot heat of his fury. He grabbed Rylan's arms and shook him so hard that his head rattled. Just like Pat had done to him. He yelled, "Ya tried to rape me, ya scumbag!"

But Rylan didn't move, didn't try to fight him -- wouldn't even meet his eyes. "I know," he said, swallowing hard. "I'm sorry, Ray. I am--"

"Sorry?" Ray snarled. He shoved him so hard that Rylan's head banged against the wall. He grunted with pain, but Ray wasn't finished. He gripped his arm fiercely, pinning him to the wall. Fury pounding behind his eyes, he pulled back and buried his fist in his partner's stomach. The punch had all the power of his rage behind it, and it doubled Rylan over. He groaned and sagged in Ray's grip, the breath driven out of him.

But that didn't satisfy Ray. It didn't even come close. A great, black wave of anger, hatred and frustration washed over him. Suddenly, he wanted to make Rylan pay, pay for everything: for hurting him, for trying to rape him, even for the fact that he'd lost Ben. Most of all for that, even though he'd had nothing to do with it. Breathing hard, ready to explode, he let go of Rylan and brought his fists up. "Stand up," he snarled. Waiting for him to lash out, to strike back. To defend himself. Wanting him to, so he could let loose all the demons inside him. Get rid of all his pain.

But Pat didn't fight back. Didn't try to hit him, or even to defend himself. He just stood there gasping for breath, wiping at his streaming eyes. Then he straightened up, wincing. But he didn't lift a hand or try to get away. He just said, in a low voice, "Go ahead. Hit me again."

Ray raised his fist higher. Damn, he wanted to! The energy of raw rage had coiled in his tired, abused body, filled him with new strength. It pulsed through him, demanding to be let out. He wanted to let it out. Wanted to lash out with his fists again, with his feet, with his whole body -- wanted to beat the shit out of Rylan for what he'd done. He throbbed on the razor's edge of explosion.

But something held him back. Stayed his fist. Somewhere deep inside himself, a dim flicker of emotion rode the storm, froze his quivering muscles. It was fear. He was afraid. Afraid that if he let the blackness inside him out, it would overwhelm him. It was so huge, so powerful that if he ever let it go, he wouldn't be able to stop it. If he tried to make Rylan pay for the fact that he'd lost Ben, for all his unhappiness, not just for trying to rape him, he might lose control entirely. Go insane.

I could kill him. Unable to pull away, unable to strike out, he stood frozen, fist clenched, his own breathing loud in his ears.

Rylan's dark eyes locked on his; and they were, if anything, even bleaker than his own. "Do it," he whispered, a dark, desperate note of pleading in his voice.

Ray felt a tiny flash of shock. Rylan was more than guilty -- he wanted to die. He'd seen the madness in his eyes, and he wanted it to take him. Snuff out his life. He hated himself that much.

He let out a long, shuddering breath and lowered his fist. The raw, red wave of fury that had lifted him up drained away, taking most of his desire to kick Pat's ass away with it. He felt old. Sad. Disgusted. "Get out," he said in a low voice. "Get yer ass outta here."

Rylan turned away and walked towards his door without another word.

But Ray changed his mind. "Wait," he called.

Rylan stopped, but didn't turn to face him.

"Why?" Ray grated. "I'm yer partner. Thought I was yer friend. Why'd ya do it?"

Rylan muttered something Ray couldn't hear.


"I said, no one ever loved me," Rylan repeated hoarsely, finally turning to face him again.

Ray couldn't believe it. First an apology, now this? From cool, unsentimental Pat Rylan? It didn't make any sense. None of this did. "Don't gimme that shit. I don't want some friggin' sob story, Rylan! I hear those all day from the scumbags we arrest. Tell me the truth, dammit!"

Rylan didn't get angry or defensive as Ray had expected. He returned his look of contempt with one of sadness, as if he was used to that reaction. "That is the truth," Pat said into the sudden silence between them. "Wish it wasn't."

That brought Ray up short. The sob stories he heard on the street didn't affect him for two reasons. One, because he didn't know the people telling them, and two, because he knew they were lying to try to get out of being arrested. But what he saw in Rylan's eyes was a bleak kind of truth; and it didn't come with any plea for mercy, either. If anything, he looked ashamed. For a second, against his will, Ray responded to that. He tried to imagine what his life would've been like without his doting mom and dad. Without Stella. Without Ben... And all he got was a black kind of emptiness. Was that what Rylan's life had been? No love, no warmth, no closeness to anyone, ever?

It seemed impossible.

Rylan must've seen the flicker of disbelief on his face. Het his jaw tightly. Then he started to speak in a low, expressionless tone. "I don't know much about friends. I never had any. Not when I was growin' up, anyway. My mom died when I was four, and my old man... I think he blamed me for it. He always told me I was a useless piece o' garbage. I didn't have any friends because he drank, and I couldn't stand for anyone to see how he was with me. What he did to me... "

Ray opened his mouth to interrupt. He didn't want to hear any more of the story, because he could see where it was going -- explaining why Pat was the way he was. And that he wasn't entirely to blame for it. But Ray didn't want to hear it. He wanted to blame him, wanted to hate his guts for what he'd just done. Still, when Rylan lifted his eyes to look at him again, something in his gaze kept him silent, kept him listening in spite of himself.

"As soon as I got big enough to defend myself, when I was fifteen, I moved out," he said quietly. "Joined the Academy a few years later 'cuz I wanted to help people like me. People who couldn't defend themselves. But maybe it was too late. Maybe yer right. Maybe I did become my old man after all. Cuz look what I just did--"

Rylan's eyes had anguish in them now. They searched his, pleading for something: forgiveness, maybe absolution. Ray didn't know. But whatever it was, he couldn't give it. He just shook his head. He was appalled by the awful life Rylan had had, that he'd never suspected. All the same, he couldn't forgive what he'd done. Despite his apparent remorse, Rylan was dangerous. He'd stalked Fraser and attacked his own partner with rape in mind. He needed help, and he wouldn't get it if Ray just forgave him for it. He had to face up to what he'd done. With that in mind, Ray said, "Yeah. Look what ya did, partner!" He used the word deliberately, and held out his bloodied wrists for emphasis.

Rylan got the message. He looked down at them for a moment, then his face twisted and he closed his eyes. "Miller was my friend," he whispered, anguish thickening his voice. "Didja' know that?"

Ray lowered his hands, confused. His head was still throbbing, and it made it hard to think. Miller? Who the hell is Miller, and why is Rylan babblin' about him when he just attacked me? Then he remembered. Hank Miller was Rylan's ex-partner, the one who got wasted in the Heights. The guy he'd been thinking about when Rylan got here earlier. Ray shook his head. "No I didn't," he said slowly, wondering where this was going.

"He was. He was one of the first real friends I ever had. He taught me things, treated me decent... For the first time in my life, when I was with him, I felt like I was somebody. I woulda' done anything for him," he choked out, in a voice Ray had never heard before.

Kowalski couldn't believe it. Tough, macho Rylan, who didn't lose his cool under fire out on the streets, suddenly looked like he was on the brink of tears.

"But I couldn't save him." Pat's voice had thickened. He shook his head helplessly, and the next thing Ray knew, he was crying. Tears ran down his cheeks as he choked, "I couldn't. When I woke up, he was already dead. And his wife, she blamed me. Said it was my fault. That I was a screw-up, a lousy, no-good cop who failed his partner..." Rylan choked, unable to go on, and swiped roughly at the tears streaking his face.

Ray looked away. Rylan's anguish was real, and despite what he'd done, it got to him. He didn't want to feel sorry for a guy who'd decked him, chained him up like an animal, and almost raped him. But he did. He felt more than sorry, he was actually starting to feel a bit guilty. Not that Rylan had attacked him or stalked Fraser -- none of that was his fault -- but guilty that he'd never guessed that the kid was capable of all that. He was starting to see that his near-rape wasn't the random, inexplicable act that it had seemed at first; that it might never have happened at all, if he'd been paying attention.

There had been signs from the start of the volcanic emotions Rylan was keeping tightly bottled up inside him: his avid curiosity about Fraser, his rough, sadistic sex habits, his defensiveness when Ray asked him about Miller when they first met, and the way he'd freaked out and begun to beat Lenny Shank that day, for knocking him down... None of that had jibed with Rylan's apparently cool, calm facade.

But Ray had ignored all that. Despite his training as a detective and the ominous signs, he'd ignored his inconsistencies. Now it seemed obvious to him that Rylan's usual calm, his seeming cool, was just a mask. A rigid form of self control that kept his demons locked down tight. But he hadn't looked closely enough at Rylan to figure that out before. Though his attitude about the Miller shooting made him uneasy the first day he'd met him, and even though the kid was his partner, once he'd satisfied himself that Miller's death was accidental, he'd let it go at that. He'd been too wrapped up in his own misery to bother about Rylan's feelings.

So he wasn't exactly blameless in this whole mess -- not by a long shot. He wasn't responsible for Rylan getting so screwed up in the first place, but he was to blame for ignoring the warning signals that his partner had serious problems. And it wasn't his fault that Rylan had come on to him, but he was responsible for falling into bed with him when he could've said No. But most of all, he blamed himself for not putting a stop to it like he should've, and for ignoring Rylan completely, even when they were having sex.

Too late, Ray saw that he'd been so busy feeling incredibly sorry for himself for losing Fraser that he'd been blind to everything else. He'd failed in his duty as a cop, because he hadn't seen what was going on right in front of him. Worse still, he'd failed in his duty as Rylan's partner, because he hadn't treated him right. He'd both used and ignored him. Rylan was a sadist, but he hadn't exactly behaved like an angel either. He'd been a jerk. He averted his eyes, not knowing what to think, what to say.

"Then you came along," Rylan went on. "And you were like Miller... Tough on the outside, but good inside. Not like my old man. And I fell for you. I couldn't help it. Couldn't stop myself. I needed you, I needed someone so bad--" Rylan bit his lip. Tears were raining down his face again and he was shaking, actually shaking with the effort of suppressing his sobs.

Ray's throat got tight in spite of himself. "Don't," he grated, appalled at the way Rylan was coming apart at the seams right in front of him. Guilty at the thought that he'd unwittingly contributed to that. Ashamed of the fact that he'd never even guessed at all of the demons the kid was living with.

"Sorry," Rylan whispered. He fell silent for a minute, wiping his tears away and taking deep breaths, visibly fighting for control. "This... this is my fault," he said hoarsely at last. "I know that. I just -- I didn't want to fall for you, but I couldn't help it. Even when you told me up front that it didn't mean anything to you. Even though I knew all along that you didn't love me. I just kept hoping... Hoping I'd find some way to make you care. Just once, I wanted someone to--"

His voice trailed off, but it didn't matter. Ray heard what he wasn't saying, what he couldn't say. Pat had wanted someone to love him. Wanted it so much he'd done crazy things to get it: stalked Fraser and even tried to rape him. Jesus, he thought bleakly. We're pathetic, the pair of us. Rylan was dying for it, he was dying for it; yet even though they'd been having sex, they couldn't give that to each other. At least, he couldn't give it to Pat -- he still loved Benny. He always had. And he and Pat had been too busy acting tough to even admit to each other that love was what they really needed.

"But nothing I did to you ever worked," Rylan went on finally. "I couldn't -- make you feel anything. Then when you got mad at that song on the radio that day, I finally figured it out. That you were in love with someone else, I mean. First I thought it must be your ex-wife. But when I called the 27th, they said you were always hanging around with the Mountie, and that he was this total babe magnet. And since I already knew you swung both ways, I went to see him, to check him out. I always knew there was somethin' more to why you left the 27th than what you were tellin' me... Some reason why you didn't wanna talk about it, or about your old partner. And once I saw the Mountie, I knew what it was. Him. You're in love with him. And it made me crazy."

Ray hung his head. All of a sudden, he felt a thousand years old, and counting. And like he hadn't learned a thing in all that time. He'd thought he was leaving his problems behind when he'd left Fraser and come to the 29th, that he was making a fresh start. Instead, he'd just made another mess. Worse than the one before. It sat on his shoulders like a ten ton weight. He felt sad, sick and angry, but more than a little guilty too. "Go home, Pat," he said at last. "Get outta here and lemme think about this."

It was the best he could do. He could've arrested Rylan on the spot -- he had the authority, and more than just cause, and they both knew it. But he couldn't bring himself to do it, not when he felt like he was partly to blame for what had happened.

"Okay. Thanks, Ray," Rylan nodded. Then he turned around and moved slowly towards his door, still wiping at his eyes. Ray followed him. Dejected though Rylan looked at the moment, he couldn't forget what he'd done; and he wanted to make absolutely sure that he left.

Rylan stopped near his front door, and turned his head. "What're you gonna do?" he asked. His face was still wet with tears, and he looked as miserable as Ray felt. "You gonna turn me in?"

Ray shrugged. "Dunno yet," he said tersely. Suddenly, he realized that he was exhausted. Completely, utterly worn out, mentally and physically, from the injuries he'd received on the job earlier, and his ordeal with Rylan just now. Now that his rage was gone, he was starting to feel chilled by the sweat that had soaked him during the struggle, and his head, chest and wrists were killing him. He was in no shape to make such a big decision. He needed to shower and get some sleep first. Then he'd think about it.

"Fair enough," Rylan said. He reached for Ray's door, then turned to look at him again. "I am sorry, Ray," he said quietly. "I mean it."

Ray, not Ko. Rylan sounded like he was sincere. Ray wanted to believe that he was, but his trust had been largely destroyed by Rylan's assault. "Yeah well, ya should be," he said. "Ever done anything like this before?" he asked.

Rylan shook his head. "No. Never. I mean, I got a bit rough with my last girlfriend once. We got in a fight when I found out she was seein' someone else behind my back. She slapped me, and I hit her. But I never--never cuffed anybody like that before," he said awkwardly. "I never tried--"

"To rape someone," he snapped when Rylan faltered. A cold flicker of anger flared in his gut. "The word's rape, Pat. Ya gonna go around doin' it, ya better learn to say it. Say it!"

Rylan hung his head. "I never tried to rape anyone before," he whispered, his eyes filling with tears again. He opened his mouth as if to say he was sorry one more time, then shut it again as if he already knew that wouldn't cut it. That it was too little, too late.

Ray sighed, and bit back any more smart remarks. Rylan looked so miserable, he didn't have the heart to rag on him any more. He just hoped to God he was telling the truth about never having done this before. "Okay. Go home then. And don't do anything stupid. I haven't even made up my mind what I'm gonna do yet."

"Awright," Rylan said.

But they both knew he could press charges, for assault if nothing else, and that if he did, Rylan's career would be over. Ray's record was spotless, and though he was newer to the 29th than Rylan, with his physical injuries, he would be the one their superiors believed. They'd turn the case over to IA, and Rylan would be a goner.

If he turned him in.

Ray was gambling on the fact that Rylan wouldn't guess how reluctant he was to actually do that, though. He would if he had to, but he'd be cutting his own throat in the process. He doubted that Rylan knew it, but some of the other detectives already suspected that they were sleeping together. Ray had overheard some muttered comments at the 29th about it. So far, he and Rylan hadn't been harassed about it because they'd been discreet, and the other cops had no way of knowing for sure that they were doing anything but casework at his apartment late at night.

But if he turned his partner in, even if he lied and limited the charges to assault instead of attempted rape, and claimed that Rylan had chained him up during a fight in order to beat him, chances were that their affair would come out in the ensuing IA investigation. Ray knew how those things went -- IA tended to leave no stones unturned. And if their affair became public knowledge at the 29th, instead of just a rumor, even if Rylan was fired for assaulting him, his own career would be ruined as well, when the blue brotherhood learned that he was gay.

So Rylan didn't know it, but he couldn't really turn him in without hurting himself in the process.

Still, there was no way he could let this go. Though he knew Rylan had been drinking, and that it had probably contributed to his loss of control, it was obvious to him now that Pat didn't just like to play rough. He had serious problems with sex and sadism, due to his background. And unless he did something about them, it would only be a matter of time before he'd assault someone else.

Or hurt himself. Ray realized belatedly that Rylan was still packing his weapon. And he'd just had a harsh lesson in how little he knew his own partner -- and how unpredictable he could be. He decided he'd better disarm him before he left. One friggin' tragedy is enough for tonight, he thought wearily. "Gimme yer gun, Rylan," he said.

Pat hesitated.

That only made Ray even more determined to take his weapon. Their eyes locked, and Ray gathered all of the willpower he had left and focused his gaze into a tight beam that bored into the younger cop's eyes with undeniable force. "Hand it over, Pat," he demanded, holding out his hand. "Now!"

Finally, Pat reached into his holster, pulled out his gun and laid it in Ray's hand.

Ray took it with a sense of relief. Checked the safety, then took it into his kitchen and laid it on the counter. He'd hide it somewhere else after Rylan left, just to be safe. Then he walked back to his partner and said, "Okay. Now go home and sleep it off. We'll talk about it tomorrow."


But as Rylan reached for his door again, Ray suddenly remembered the way he'd terrorized and tortured him to force him to admit that he loved Fraser. How Pat had said he knew that he did, despite all his protests to the contrary. And it crossed his mind that Fraser was out there somewhere innocently living his life, with no idea that his ex-partner had gotten involved with someone screwed up enough to stalk him out of pure jealousy. And crazy enough to maybe hurt him...

He knows where Fraser works. A cold chill of fear trickled down Ray's spine as he imagined Rylan going over to the Canadian Consulate after he left his apartment, and taking revenge on him because he knew that Ray loved him instead. Even without his gun, Pat was formidably big and strong. He could do Fraser some damage if he caught him by surprise. And the very thought of Rylan's rough hands on the gentle Canadian made him want to puke.

In the blink of an eye, his earlier fury returned. He grabbed Rylan by the throat. Ignoring the pain in his wrists, he shoved him hard against the wall, with all his remaining strength. "I haven't made up my mind what I'm gonna do about this yet, but this much I do know," he growled. "Fraser's got nothin' to do with all this! Ya got that?"

Rylan nodded.

"And yer not gonna have anything to do with him either. Are ya?"

Rylan shook his head as best he could, with Ray's hand gripping his throat. "No, Ray."

But Ray still wasn't satisfied. "Yer not gonna go by where he works, yer not gonna call him -- nothin'! If I ever find out that you've gone near him again, I'll get ya. Ya understand me? I'll come after you myself, and I'll make what ya just did to me look like a picnic!" he yelled, shaking him. "And to hell with what happens to me after. Ya got that?"

Rylan didn't fight, didn't offer any resistance at all. He just said sadly, "You really do love him, don't you."

It was a statement, not a question, and it didn't lessen Ray's anxiety. He shook Rylan so hard that his teeth rattled. "Tell me you heard what I just said!" he roared.

"Okay, okay, Ray!" Rylan said hastily. "I got it."

Ray was breathing hard, and it took him a minute to calm down enough to loosen his grip. Before he did, he searched his partner's eyes, trying to make absolutely sure he was telling the truth before he let him go.

Rylan's mouth turned down. "I got it," he repeated quietly. "Believe me."

And this time, Ray did, because Rylan looked sadder than ever. He finally let him go. "Okay. Go home then," he ordered for the third time.

Rylan nodded, then asked hesitantly, "We still partners?"

Ray opened his mouth to say no, then shut it again. "For now," he temporized. "I told ya, we'll talk about it tomorrow."

Pat nodded silently. Then, to his relief, he turned and left without another word.

Thank God. Ray locked the door behind him with a huge sense of relief. He waited until he heard him drive away. Then he went into his bathroom and started to wash off the blood that had dried on his hands, wrists and forearms. Now that the incident was over, and the immediate threat was gone, reaction set in. He started to shake, realizing anew how close he'd come to being raped, and maybe even--

He put that thought out of his mind. Shoved it out. Because he had things to do, and if he let the fear get to him, he'd just curl up into a ball on the floor. Gotta get cleaned up first, he told himself. Get the blood off. His stomach was rolling so uneasily that if he didn't, he was afraid he'd puke. So he blanked his mind, and tried not to think about anything while he held his arms under the hot water. Ran a wet cloth over the worst of it, rinsed it out then did it again. He did it for a long time, until his trembling stopped. Until his gut settled down. Until the blood was gone. Until at least his wrists and arms were clean.

Okay, he said to himself. Keeping his words simple. Easy. Like you'd talk to a scared kid. Good. You did good. Now ya gotta take a shower. He pulled off his clothes slowly, his hands still unsteady, his wrists aching, driven by the need to cleanse himself. Get it off him: the blood, the bruises, Rylan's touch.

When he stepped into the shower, he turned the water on as hot as he could stand it and bowed his aching head, letting it cascade over him. It felt good on his bruised, battered body. Steamingly hot, even purifying. I'm alive, I'm alive, he told himself, trying to feel happy about it. But he couldn't. Rylan wasn't the only one who needed someone desperately -- he did too. And whatever else happened, whatever he decided to do tomorrow, Ray knew that in a way, he'd already lost him. He couldn't really trust him anymore. So Rylan wasn't the only one who was in trouble.

Worse still, he knew what had happened wasn't entirely Rylan's fault. He was ten years older, and he'd known better. He should never have gotten involved with him at all. But he'd been so lonely, so needy, so damn down that he'd done it anyway -- and look what it had done to both of them.

Worst of all, it still wasn't over. Tomorrow, he was going to have to decide what to do about Pat. And he was clueless. He just didn't know. It was hard to look past his anger, his fear, his sense of betrayal, and find the right thing to do. He tried to imagine what Fraser would've done in his shoes. Benny would've found a way to deal with him without hurting him any more than his shitty life already has, he thought, anguish spreading through him at the thought of his former lover. I know it. But how can I do that? How the hell can I do that? I'm not him.

He sat down on the floor of the shower, exhausted, and let the hot water run over him as he tried to find an answer. But all he saw in the steam was a sad pair of wide blue eyes staring at him. Eyes that evoked an unbearable longing. He closed his eyes in despair. He'd made so many changes in his life, had tried so hard to forget Fraser, to get along without him -- but it had all been pointless. He'd thought he was building a new life, a better one. But things weren't better, they were worse. For the second time in months, the ground had shifted under his feet. Now everything around him was a heap of rubble: lies, betrayal and violence. He'd been hurt by his own partner. He couldn't trust anyone except his old friends at the 27th, who he'd left behind. Sitting in the wreckage of his new life, the only certainty he had left was that he needed Ben. The only truth he'd learned in all his time alone was something he'd known all along: how much he loved him.

Still, Frannie had thrown him a lifeline. Given him the first real hope he'd had in months. She'd said that Ben was innocent, and he'd believed her. She'd even said that he might still love him. That he might be able to win him back. He wanted to believe that, too. I gotta go see him, he thought desperately. Gotta say it. Tell him I was wrong...

But when he looked down at his chafed-up wrists, his heart sank. They looked like raw hamburger after his struggle with Rylan. He couldn't go to see Ben with those marks on him. Fraser's sharp eyes would spot them in a second; and he was a cop, he'd know what had caused them. He couldn't explain away being cuffed like that, and fighting it so hard. Ben would guess what had happened, and he couldn't stand the thought of that. Cold, bitter shame twisted in his gut. What would Ben think if he knew what he'd been doing with Rylan? What Rylan had done to him? He'd think I'm a slut. Worse, a perv. Maybe I am.

He felt himself start to shiver, despite the hot water pouring over him. I shoulda gone to see him this morning, first thing. Before this happened, he realized. Now it's too late. But how am I ever gonna make things right between us if I don't go see him? Hell, how am I gonna make it, period, if I don't?

He was trapped in a hell of his own making, and he couldn't see any way out. He'd been chained up, brutalized and almost been raped -- he might've been killed tonight -- and he couldn't even tell anyone. Not a soul. Not even Ben. Especially not him. He sat there shaking, feeling sick, wishing like hell he had Ben there to hold him. But he had no one to turn to. He'd never felt so alone.

Yet somehow, on this bleakest night of his life, he had to decide Rylan's fate.

It was too much. Too much. He couldn't do it. Couldn't figure it out, couldn't even think. His head hurt too much. His heart hurt even more. All he knew was, he wanted Fraser.

"Frayzh," he choked. "Benny Ben... Man, I miss you." He leaned his head back against the tiled wall of his shower and wrapped his arms around his chest, trying to hold himself together. But he started to shake again. And after awhile, he wasn't sure if it was shower spray running down his face anymore, or something else.

The End

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Read the next story in the "Alchemy" Series:
To Hear The Words

© Caroline Alert 1998