Signs, Symbols And Dreams

Story II in the "Alchemy" Series

by Caroline Alert

Sometimes I feel like an innocent one
To deserve this fate, what have I ever done?
I know that I made all the rules
But time can even change the hopeless ways of fools
I love you tonight like I did yesterday
I won't think of tomorrow or the price I'll pay
I drink from the well
My soul is dry
I never know why
All I want is for your love to be all mine
But the angels won't have it

-- Melissa Etheridge

Damn! Fraser's been gone for an hour and a half! What the hell did he do, take Dief for a stroll all the way to friggin' Springfield?

Stanley Ray Kowalski was very, very annoyed with Benton Fraser. Not for the first time. But his annoyance couldn't blot out the unaccustomed worry niggling at his insides. When Fraser had left his apartment early that morning to go home and feed Dief, Ray could've sworn that he was eager to return so they could make love again; and he'd given his word that he'd come back in half an hour with his wolf in tow, so they could spend the rest of the weekend together at Ray's place. But though Fraser's word was normally like a vow, an hour and a half had already gone by -- and there was no sign of him. That wasn't like Fraser, wasn't like him at all. Something had obviously gone wrong. But the Mountie was so Stone Age he didn't even own a phone, so Ray hadn't been able to call him and find out what it was. Worse yet, Ben had taken Ray's own car in order to go home and feed his wolf, so Kowalski had no transportation. So here he was, stewing in the back of a cab he'd been forced to take to Fraser's apartment to find out what had happened to him.

Where the hell is he? I don't care how mad Dief was at Fraser for ignorin' him, don't care if he made him jump through goddamn flamin' hoops -- he shoulda' been back before now!

The slender, spiky-haired blonde detective was still fuming inwardly when the cab driver pulled over to the curb about half a block away from Fraser's apartment building. Doesn't matter what kinda screwy explanation he comes up with -- even if he says he was buildin' an igloo for the winter, Fraser's gonna owe me big time for this little stunt. Big time! When the cab rolled to a stop, he jumped out instantly and strode off, anxious to bag his errant Mountie. But a loud bellow caught him by surprise before he'd taken more than a few steps.

"Hey! What's with ya? Think I do this for free or somethin'?" the cab driver yelled. "Pay up!"

He realized with a start that he'd been so preoccupied with thoughts of Ben that he'd almost walked off without paying him. Annoyed at himself, he turned back and lowered his head for a second to dig some cash out of the pocket of his jeans. "Sorry. Here ya go..."


As the taxi drove away, he turned and walked on towards Fraser's building. Just then, his lover walked out of it. Both relieved and exasperated, Ray opened his mouth to call out to him. But he faltered as Fraser turned his head and smiled at another man who walked out of the building hard on his heels. He was a stranger Ray didn't recognize. They were talking as they stepped out onto the sidewalk, and when Ray realized that they hadn't seen him, he froze without knowing why. They didn't notice him. Absorbed in their conversation, they turned right and moved off down the street, away from him, still oblivious to his presence.

Surprised and inexplicably uneasy at this unexpected turn of events, Ray followed them quietly. He told himself that if Ben turned around and saw him, he'd walk up and join them. But he didn't, and as Ray walked, he stared hard at the stranger. His cop radar on the alert, he started cataloguing him from force of habit: Six feet, maybe 180 lbs. Slender build. Dark hair. Balding on top. Olive skin. Big eyes, a big nose. He was wearing a long, soft coat that practically screamed money. He looked neat. Stylish, in a way Ray knew he would never be -- but tough, too.

That air of toughness deepened Ray's uneasiness somehow. Got him puzzling about all this. First Ben, who was usually so punctual it was sickening, and who'd promised to come back right away, was incredibly late getting back to his place. Then when he tracked him down, he found him going out with a stranger -- despite his other promise, which was that they'd go out to breakfast as soon as he got back. So Fraser had broken two promises to him in one morning, something he'd never done in their entire partnership. Plus, he was suddenly going off with some stranger. Ray had stumbled onto something weird -- something he didn't like.

He tried to explain it away to himself, though. Ben had a habit of picking up strays -- maybe that's what this guy was. Maybe he needed help, or money or something. But Ray rejected that scenario almost as soon as he thought of it. The stranger just didn't fit the profile. That coat he was wearing cost more than Ray made in a month. Wasn't too likely he was looking for a handout. And his air of competence, of toughness, implied that it was more likely that he ate strays for breakfast than that he was one. Hell, he looked tough enough to eat a certain Mountie.

So what gives? Ray wondered. There's somethin' familiar about that guy. Dunno what. Looks like a wiseguy. Who is he? And what the hell's Frayzh doin' with him? Without making a conscious decision to, he found himself moving. Going after the two men. Shadowing them as they walked away. Maybe Benny's in some kinda' trouble. Maybe that's why he didn't call or come back. Maybe this guy caught him when he came home, maybe he's being strong-armed or kidnapped or somethin'.

But he realized that couldn't be it either. Their body language was all wrong. They looked loose, relaxed, completely at ease -- even intimate. They were walking side by side, shoulder to shoulder, so absorbed in each other that they didn't even see him; and they were both smiling. No coercion there, not even the hint of a threat. They looked more like two old friends. Ray should've been happy -- or at least relieved. It was obvious that Ben wasn't being kidnapped, that he was with a friend.

But the realization just deepened the uneasiness in his gut. They're thick as thieves, he thought, resenting it. Hating the idea that Eagle Eye Fraser could be so absorbed in anyone else that he wouldn't notice him.

As Ray tailed them, he noticed that the stranger was telling Fraser a funny story. His hands moved in animated, graceful gestures as he spoke, and Ben was watching him and smiling as they walked. He hated that too. It made him feel left out, like the only guy in the room who didn't get the joke. But he was too far away to hear what they were saying, so he lengthened his stride to catch up with them. He suddenly wanted to step between them, to interrupt their cozy little chat. Find out what the hell was up.

But then he stopped, frozen like a deer caught in the headlights of a very large truck, as a memory filled his mind. He'd seen Stella like this before. He wasn't proud of it, of being so desperate he'd stalked his own wife, but he'd done it more than once. Watched her walk hand in hand with other men after their divorce, watched her smile at them and even kiss them. An old feeling of helplessness, of utter betrayal washed over him, and suddenly the innocent scene in front of him took on entirely different tones. Much darker ones. The stranger's broad grin suddenly seemed sly, almost a leer, and Ben's answering smile a wanton look of invitation.

Ray's mouth tightened into grim lines as a seed of suspicion was planted in his head. He took a few quick, silent steps closer to the two men. Not trying to join them now -- trying to eavesdrop. He told me he was just gonna feed Dief and walk him, then come right back with him. So where's the wolf? And who the hell is this guy?

As he watched with narrowed eyes, the tall, skinny guy threw his arm around Ben's shoulders and squeezed them as he murmured something to him. Ray couldn't quite hear the words, but he didn't have to. Fraser's face lit up and he laughed, actually laughed out loud.

Ray's heart stopped. He's touchin' him, he thought, instantly angry. Gettin' intimate with him -- and Ben's lettin' him! He's even laughin'.

It amazed him. Fraser hardly ever laughed like that. He was way too serious. In the year he'd known him, he could count the times on one hand that he'd ever seen him let go like that. So how had this guy, this stranger who Ray had never even seen before, gotten him to beam like that, to laugh out loud?

The answer to that little riddle was obvious. The tall guy might be a stranger to Ray, but not to Fraser. By the look of it, they'd known each other for a long time. They were close. Tight. Good buddies. Hell, maybe they were even more than that. But he'd been Ben's partner for a year. So how could he be that close to someone he'd never met, had never even seen before? Who Fraser had never mentioned? Had Ben been keeping secrets from him? As Ray stared at them, stunned, the bad feeling he'd had earlier about Fraser's past, that something connected with it was about to go wrong, swept over him again even more strongly.

His suspicions grew even darker. He suddenly wondered if Fraser had set this little reunion up himself. Maybe that's why he was in such a hurry to get outta my place all of a sudden! He told me he was only goin' home to feed Dief, but maybe he really came to meet this guy. Jesus -- what if he's Ben's lover?

His heart started to beat fast, too fast, like he'd been running. But his legs felt strangely weak, like they would hardly hold him up. He halted for a second in pained confusion as he watched the two men stroll along ahead of him. Ray had thought Fraser was in love with him, but the way he was looking at this guy made him think he'd been wrong about that, made him think maybe the Mountie really loved the stranger instead. Anger and jealousy roiled inside him, tightening his chest. Cutting off his breath.

No, please! a little voice inside him moaned, not wanting to accept the growing suspicion that he'd been betrayed. Not again! First Stella, and now Ben--

But look at them! he argued back, staring at the two men who were walking along ahead of him. Look at how close they are! Look at that!

But that inner voice urged him to wait, not to jump to conclusions. Fraser never lies. Maybe it's not what it looks like. Maybe it's not what you think. Maybe this guy just came over and surprised him. Maybe Fraser didn't even know he was coming. Hoping against hope that might be the case, he forced his numb body forward again, edged a few steps closer to them, listening hard.

Fraser said, "Well I really don't think that's fair, Ray. After all, I invited you to breakfast. So I should pay."

That did it. That little snippet of conversation killed his last, faint hope that this wasn't what it looked like, that he might've mistaken the situation. Not only had Fraser known he was coming, he'd invited him to breakfast! And he sure as hell didn't do that from my place, so he must've called him after he left. So they didn't meet by chance. Fraser set this up. He told me he was comin' back to my place, that he was gonna go out to breakfast with ME, then he ran home and called this guy, and went out with him instead. So he lied to me. Fraser lied! And there's only one reason why he'd do that, and why he wouldn't come back...

His mind reeled. They're lovers all right. He left my bed and ran to him. So he wants him more than me.

A loud roaring sound filled Ray's head. His heart fell to the street and shattered in little pieces around his boots. He'd given Fraser everything: his body, his heart, his soul. He'd trusted him more than he'd ever trusted anyone in his life except Stella. He'd wanted to make him happy, but the Mountie had betrayed him. Fraser had said he needed him, even implied that he loved him, then ditched him for another guy, an old lover, after just one night! Or maybe it was worse than that. Maybe he'd been seeing this guy on the sly all along, even before they came together. He swayed, then his legs folded under him, just gave out. He sank down onto the pavement, dazed. Sat down on the edge of the sidewalk and hung his aching head in his hands, dizzy with shock as his new life, his new love, crumbled to pieces in front of him.

Wild, chaotic thoughts flashed through the white noise in his mind. He set this whole thing up. Lied to me so he could run over here and be with him... On our first morning together! Damn -- was I that bad? Was he usin' me the whole time? I could kill him! Take him apart with my bare hands. I should kill both of 'em.

Filled with rage, for a wild second, he considered it. Imagined running down the street and throwing himself on the Mountie, pinning him to the ground and beating the crap out of him. And if Mr. Wiseguy objected, he'd jump Bogart all over him too. Be glad to.

But who the hell IS he?

Then he suddenly remembered something. Fraser called him Ray. In the midst of his revenge fantasy, it hit him. Another revelation, another blow. Jesus -- is that Vecchio? The real Ray Vecchio? He held his head again, struck by another wave of dizziness. No, that can't be. It can't! He's gone! If he'd come back, Welsh woulda known. He woulda told me!

But then he remembered two things. The first was Ben's voice last night, saying, "There's a message on your machine, Ray." The problem was, he hadn't listened to it. He'd been in too much of a hurry to get Fraser in bed then, and too worried about why he hadn't come back this morning, to replay it yet. So maybe Welsh had tried to call and give him the big news, and he'd just missed it.

The second thing he remembered tied into that little feeling he'd had that he'd seen the guy walking with Fraser somewhere before. Now he recalled where: on a little 3x5 photo he'd seen in his file about a year ago. He'd studied that snapshot when he first took on his job, his life. And he'd seen Vecchio's face again, not long after, on a postcard he'd sent Fraser. No question -- the guy with Ben had the same dark hair and green eyes, the same big nose as that picture in the file, and on that postcard. He was Detective Third Grade Raymond Vecchio, Fraser's old partner.

Too bad that goddamn file didn't have one important little bit of information, he thought bitterly. Too bad it didn't say that Vecchio and Fraser weren't just partners, they were lovers!

God, I've been stupid, he moaned to himself. So stupid! I shoulda' seen it. I shoulda' guessed! Shit, the line on that postcard Vecchio sent him was obvious enough: "Cold out here -- warm me up!" That's a come on if I ever heard one! And as if that weren't enough of a clue, in the picture on it, Vecchio had his arm around Ben! Hell, he practically had his head on his shoulder. And they were both grinning like fools -- No, like lovers.

He ground his teeth together, remembering how he'd hardly given the postcard any thought at the time. How could I have been so damn blind? And why the fuck didn't Fraser tell me? He musta got dumped. Vecchio left him behind when he went undercover, after all... So he must've been embarrassed. Too embarrassed to ever mention it.

Suddenly, other things made sense as well. Fraser's unprecedented tears the other night, for one. Torrance's little kiss-off musta reminded him of the way Vecchio left him. And Fraser's previous experience with men, for another. He musta got it with Vecchio. At least some of it... Maybe there were other guys I still don't know about. He must've given me a fling just 'cuz there was no one else to turn to. But now that Vecchio's back, he doesn't care about me anymore. Doesn't want me anymore. He lied to me -- about everything.

The more he thought about it, the more his anguish grew. How do I even know he was callin' out my name in bed? All that "Ray, Ray, RAY!"stuff -- maybe he meant Ray Vecchio! Maybe he was thinkin' about him the whole time he was with me. God! When I touched him, was he imagining Vecchio's hands on him instead o' mine?

Ray's pain was paralyzing. He didn't move, didn't even try to follow them any further. He just sat there, his boots trailing in the gutter, feeling like a fool as he turned his aching head to watch the two men walk off down the street together. Because he didn't know how it had happened, or why, or even when -- but Vecchio, Fraser's old partner, was back from his undercover assignment. The real Ray Vecchio. Mr. Armani. The guy who could make Ben laugh the way he, Ray Kowalski, had seldom managed to. The guy Ben really loved.

He didn't even ask himself how he could compete with that; how he could get Ben back.

He already knew the answer. He couldn't.

"It all happened kind of fast," Ray told Ben, his face growing somber. "My leavin', I mean. I coulda' stayed longer, I got tons of inside stuff on a bunch o' heavy hitters as it was... Enough to take 'em down, maybe even to cripple the Iguana's southwest operation. But there was this kind o' feud goin' on, between Armando Langostini -- the Bookman, the guy I was supposed to be -- and this other hitman. And things finally just got too hot for me. So I had to get out."

Ben and Ray sat at a table by a window, having breakfast in the same little café they often used to eat in, before Ray left. That had been Ray's idea; and warmed by the unexpected sentimentality in his friend's choice, Fraser had agreed. He hadn't eaten there very often after Ray's departure, because it was bad enough being haunted by his father's ghost; he hadn't wanted to see Ray in every corner too. But it felt good to be sitting there with him now, with the morning sun streaming in the window. It lit the side of Ray's face, a bright counterpoint to the dark story he was telling, of the life he'd been living for the past year. And the knowledge that Ray was out of that life now, out of danger, was even better.

"The capo I was working for -- Giancarlo Iguana, the head of the southwest branch of the family -- he likes to pit his lieutenants against each other. Calls it 'healthy competition'," Ray went on. "But the truth is, he figures if they're busy tearin' at each other's throats, they won't have time to get ambitious enough to try takin' him out."

Fraser nodded. "Actually, Ray, it might interest you to know that Louis the XIV, sometimes known as "The Sun King", employed a similar strategy with the numerous nobles in his enormous court. He invented amazingly elaborate rituals concerning all aspects of daily life at Versailles: dressing, eating meals, paying calls on one's friends... And he required everyone to follow them to the letter, or risk being disgraced. He felt it would keep them all too busy to indulge in plotting against his throne. As it happened, however--"

"Fraser!" Ray interrupted. "Lemme finish before you start with the history lesson, okay? You can lecture me about the French Revolution later."

"Sorry," Fraser apologized. "Go on."

"Okay. Lemme see, where was I... Oh, yeah. The Family. Well, I got along all right with all of Iguana's lieutenants, for the most part. Had 'em convinced I was the Bookman, this stone killer they were too afraid to mess with -- all except one. James Frank Maxwell, a.k.a. "Jimmy the Crusher". He got that little nickname 'cuz he has this charming little habit of handcuffing his victims to garage door supports, then crushing them against the doors with a car."

"Good God," Fraser muttered.

"Yeah. Guy's a real psycho," Ray agreed grimly. "But clever. The cops suspected him of offin' at least eight guys in the last few years, but he's good at hidin' bodies out in the desert, and he always torched the cars he used for the murders, so there was never any evidence left to tie him to anything... Anyway, Maxwell had this real thing about the Bookman. Hated his guts. There was bad blood between 'em before I ever stepped into his shoes, and it didn't get any better while I was there. I couldn't stand him either. But Giancarlo was always throwin' us together, trying to get us to compete with each other for contract kills 'n stuff--"

Ben's eyes widened.

Ray grimaced. "I'd forgotten that look," he muttered.

"What look?"

Vecchio smiled, his mouth a bit wry. "You know, that thing you do -- the Big Eyed Mountie Look. Guaranteed to make anyone feel guilty, even if they haven't done anything."

Ben lowered his head. "Ray, I--I didn't mean that--"

"Don't worry," Ray went on. "I didn't kill anybody. I did some things I'm not proud of -- I had to, to play the part. But not that." Still, for a moment, his eyes became bleak. Darker than Ben had ever seen them. He looked out the window, but Ben knew he wasn't seeing the street outside. His thoughts were somewhere else. In a place where he'd done things he didn't like to remember.

Ben couldn't help wondering what they were -- but in the next breath, he knew he would never ask. Not because he thought Ray wouldn't tell him; but because he might. Because of their friendship, he might feel obliged to confess the things he'd done that he wasn't proud of, if Fraser asked him to; and he didn't want to pressure him. That was something that should come from Ray in his own time, if it ever came at all -- not because Fraser had pried it out of him. He even felt a bit guilty that he'd made Ray feel uncomfortable, even for a moment, about his actions while undercover. "It's all right, Ray," he said. "I know it must've been hard for you. I'm sure you just did what you had to do."

But Ray didn't answer, and his eyes were still far away.

Fraser knew he wasn't reaching him. The words he'd said seemed paltry, inadequate to convey his meaning: that he understood about the dark side everyone carried around inside them. That he knew Ray must've had to delve deeply into that side of himself while he was away, maybe so deeply that it had frightened him. That he knew all about the guilt and regret that came from having done things -- terrible things -- which you hadn't thought yourself capable of. "I wasn't there, Ray," he said quietly, "so I can't really know what you went through. But I had my own-- What I'm trying to say is, after Victoria... No matter what happened, I'd be the last person to judge you for it."

Slowly, as if it was hard for him to pull himself back to their table, to their conversation, from the black place he'd gone to in his memory, Ray finally turned his head back and looked at him. Opened himself for a second in a dark, wordless look, a slanting green shaft of pain and regret, laced with sorrow that they'd both had to dance with their own demons.

The look harrowed Ben's heart. God, he thought. It must've been worse than I imagined. What Ray had told him was bad enough, but that look said he hadn't revealed the half of it. He found himself reaching out to him. "Ray, I--"

But Ray withdrew instinctively. As if Fraser's gesture told him he'd revealed more than he'd intended, he looked away. Pulled his hands away so that he couldn't be touched. Blanked his eyes so they couldn't be easily read. At first, Ben thought he was watching his defenses going up again -- but then he watched Ray change in a way he'd never seen before.

In a second, he became hard. Dangerous. A snake clothed in Armani. "Thanks, Frayzh," he said, smiling as calmly if they'd been discussing the weather. He sat back in his chair, the picture of negligent ease, one long, elegant hand toying idly with a spoon. "Don't mind tellin' you, though, it wasn't easy not to. Kill people, I mean. It's what the Bookman did, after all." And he smiled. A tiny, hard little smile that didn't warm his eyes. They'd gone as cold and hard as emeralds, and they held Fraser's with a razor-sharp intensity, daring him to break their hold. To look away. "I-- He-- actually liked it. And he was good at it, too."

For a moment, Fraser froze. He couldn't move, couldn't speak. He suddenly realized that Ray had gone away -- and in his place sat Armando Langostini. His alter ego. And the transformation was chilling. He'd thought Ray was withdrawing, but he'd done just the opposite. He'd opened himself again, only in a different way. He was showing him who he had been -- a tiny glimpse of what he'd had to make himself into to survive.

Fraser felt like the temperature in the room had suddenly dropped forty degrees. Like the long, elegant fingers playing with the spoon inches just inches away from him could've slit his throat with equal ease. He wanted to look away from the cold green eyes that had locked with his, that bored into him as if they could break him with their sheer intensity. Wanted to say, Don't. Please don't, Ray. Don't do this.

But he couldn't. Because whatever Ray had done, whoever he had become, it had all been in the name of Duty. To bring a bunch of murderers to justice. To stop their killing. If he didn't understand that, who would? Who could? And how could he blame Ray for wanting him to? If he looked away from this -- from him -- he wouldn't be worthy of his friendship. Even when he'd been lost in the dark, even after he knew he'd meant to leave him, to betray him because of his passion for Victoria, Ray had never looked away from him. Ray had loved him that much. So Fraser didn't flinch. Didn't look away. He stared deep into the cold green eyes of the Bookman, and said quietly, "Yes. I know. But you're not him, Ray."

The Bookman's eyes held his for a moment longer, then he looked away. Down at the table, down at the spoon in his hands. Down at whoever -- or whatever -- it was he saw reflected in its shiny surface.

Ben felt their gaze break with an almost physical snap. Saw Ray's body relax, saw the lethal tension ebb from it as Armando Langostini relinquished his hold on it, and Ray Vecchio returned. He felt relieved, like he'd just fought an invisible battle and won.

Ray didn't look as certain. He kept staring down at the table, his eyes quietly reflective now, and it was awhile before he spoke again. Finally, he said very softly, "But I was."

Ben had no answer for that. He felt instinctively that Ray had been trying to tell him something in that moment of dark self revelation. Something more, even, than who he'd been. Something, perhaps, of what he'd done. But what? "Ray--"

Vecchio cut him off. "I had to fake two murders while I was bein' him," he said, still looking down at his hands. "And they were watchin' me all the time. Both times, I was really sweating. So many things could've gone wrong, and Maxwell was just waiting for me to make a mistake so he could splat me on his garage door..."

Ray broke off suddenly, as shadows suddenly swam in the depths of his eyes again. He shook his head in an effort to banish them, then smiled quickly at him again. "What a funny guy," he joked. But his smile was small and tight, and Ben knew it was for his benefit. So that he wouldn't think Ray had been damaged by what he'd just been through. Not for the first time, he thought how hard it must've been for Ray, who loved his family so, to leave them -- to leave everyone and everything he knew behind, to live among men who killed for a living, knowing that the slightest little mistake might be his last.

That little smile was supposed to keep him from knowing how much all that had hurt. It didn't work. Fraser said quietly, "I'm sorry, Ray. It must've been terrible."

Ray's jaw tightened, and Fraser saw him swallow hard. "Yeah. It was," he said at last. "But with a little help from the Feds, I got the two victims, the two I was s'posed to kill, safely outta state, and set 'em up in new identities. And they sang like little birds in return, so the Feds were happy. That turned out okay. But the second time, Maxwell was on the scene, and somethin' -- I don't know what -- made him suspicious. After that, he was on a mission to get me, even though he didn't have orders from Giancarlo to do it. He just wanted to take me out." Ray rubbed the scar on his cheekbone unconsciously, his eyes bleak and far away. "He sent a couple of his boys over to my house one night, at about two in the morning--" Ray drew a deep breath. "It was ugly, Benny. Real ugly. Let's just say that if it hadn't been for my butler, Nero, I wouldn't be sittin' here now. He saved my life."

Fraser raised his glass of orange juice. "To Nero," he said quietly, meaning it.

Ray blinked, then raised his own glass. "Yeah. To Nero, wherever he may be," he said, clinking his glass against Fraser's. "Helluva guy. And a good friend when I needed one. The only friend I had out there, actually."

Fraser felt a pang at those words. He felt jealous of Nero, wished that he could've been the one at Ray's side in his hour of need instead. But at the same time, he realized that he'd had his own Nero, a friend in his own hour of need after Ray Vecchio left: his new Ray, Stanley Raymond Kowalski. So his jealousy was tempered with gratitude that neither he nor Ray Vecchio had really been alone, even while parted from each other. "I'm glad you had someone to stand by you, Ray," he said. And I'm glad I had someone too...

That thought reminded him that he was neglecting his other friend shamefully at the moment. He looked at a nearby clock, and saw with surprise that nearly an hour and forty five minutes had passed since he'd left Ray's apartment. Oh dear. He was over an hour late getting back, and given Kowalski's impatience, the detective would probably be climbing the walls by now, wondering where he was. He got to his feet suddenly. "Would you excuse me for a minute?"

Ray blinked in surprise. "You're not leavin', are ya?"

Fraser shook his head. Part of him, the selfish part, wished he could -- wanted to get back to Ray and their lovemaking. But he knew Vecchio wouldn't understand if he left their first reunion in a year so quickly, before they'd had a chance to fill each other in on everything that had happened during that time. It wouldn't be right to run off when he'd just returned after such a long absence.

Deep inside, he was afraid that if he did, Ray would regret the things he'd told him, regret revealing even as much as he had of what he'd gone through. If he left now, Ray would think he was turning his eyes away. Turning away from him, because he'd shown him a glimpse of the truth. So he said, "No, I'm not leaving. I just remembered, I have to make a phone call. I won't be a minute."

"Oh. Sure. Go ahead," Ray nodded, looking relieved.

He headed for the coffee shop counter, paused near the man standing behind it. Mr. Dinardo, who owned the café, had been kind enough to let Fraser use his phone in the past. "Excuse me, Mr. Dinardo," he said, "Would you mind if I used your phone? It's a local call," he assured him.

Dinardo nodded amiably as he polished a glass. "Sure, help yourself. You know where it is."

Fraser smiled. "Thank you kindly." But when he dialed Ray's number, though he let it ring several times, Ray didn't answer. Fraser frowned. It was over an hour since he'd left, so it didn't seem likely that Ray could still be in the shower. So why hadn't he answered the phone? When his recorded message sounded, he was disappointed. He'd hoped to explain the situation to Ray himself. Still, he left a detailed message telling him where he'd gone, apologizing for his lateness and swearing that he would return within the hour, after he and Ray Vecchio had finished catching up. "I'll see you soon, Ray," he promised.

But after he hung up, he hesitated by the phone, troubled by a faint sense that something was wrong. For a second, he considered asking Ray to come back to Kowalski's apartment with him. That way, they could continue their conversation, and he could also keep his promise to return to his new lover. Plus, he could then introduce his friends to each other. But then he rejected the idea. It occurred to him that Kowalski might do something typically impulsive like coming to the door to greet him without a stitch of clothing on, or saying, "Well! It's about time you got your cute little ass back here, Frayzh," or something equally endearing but hideously embarrassing that would give them away. And he didn't even like to think how Ray Vecchio might react to something like that.

He decided that it might be better to stay and talk with his old friend awhile longer. And not merely to spare himself possible embarrassment, either. He suspected that Ray needed to be with him, to get some of his dark experiences off his chest. He doubted that he would unburden himself to anyone else in the same way. He knew instinctively that he would never reveal Armando Langostini to his mother or sisters, as he had to him. Of course, the Police Department had psychiatrists available for counseling, but he also knew that Vecchio would never voluntarily see one. So for his sake, he decided to stay. If Ray doesn't get my phone message for some reason, I'll explain it all to him when I go back to his apartment, he told himself.

Then he headed back to the table where Vecchio sat, wondering who he would find there this time; his friend, or Armando Langostini.

To Ben's surprise, when he returned to the table, the emotional landscape had changed yet again. Ray was staring out the window with a relaxed, almost dreamy smile on his face. He was so deeply abstracted that he started when Fraser sat down across from him.

"I got somethin' else to tell ya, Benny," Ray said. "Somethin' big."

"Let me guess. You were offered a promotion due to your undercover work?" Fraser hazarded. It seemed a likely scenario. Ray had said he'd gathered a lot of useful information on powerful people within the Mafia, that his undercover assignment had been a success. It stood to reason that arrests would soon begin, and that his contribution to that would not be overlooked by his superiors.

But Ray shook his head. "No. Well, yeah. I mean -- they offered me one."

"But you didn't take it?" Fraser guessed again, surprised.

Ray shook his head. "Naw. They were gonna give me my own division -- make me a Lieutenant -- but the catch was, I'd have to transfer to New York. And I would've had to leave right away. And it just didn't seem right. You know, Ma's not gettin' any younger, and she hasn't even had a chance to get used to me bein' back yet -- it didn't seem right to run off on her after just bein' away for a year."

Fraser nodded. "I understand, Ray." And he did -- but he didn't. Or rather, he sensed that there was something more to Ray's rejection of his promotion than what he'd said. He searched his friend's face, his eyes, to see what he was holding back.

After a moment of that, Ray smiled. "Okay, you're right. It's not just because o' Ma. It's what I want, too. I've been thinkin' about this place for a year," he admitted, a bit sheepishly. "About the 27th, and Comiskey Park, and the Bulls -- it's home, you know? And after everything that's happened, I just wanted to come home for awhile. Get my head straight."

"I can understand that. And I'm glad you'll be staying," Fraser said.

For a moment, silence fell again as they both smiled at each other.

Then Ray said, "And I wanted to see you too, Benny. I missed ya."

The simple words took Fraser by surprise. He felt moisture spring to his eyes, and he blinked rapidly, hoping that Ray hadn't noticed. "Me too, Ray," he managed to get out. "Me too. I mean, I missed you too, not that I missed myself--"

Ray laughed. "Yeah, I got it. And there's another reason I wanted to stay in Chicago," he went on, surprising him again. "That's my big news. My assignment in Vegas wasn't all bad. While I was away, I met someone. Someone special." He passed a small photo across the table to Fraser, with an air of suppressed excitement.

Fraser gazed down at the picture. A beautiful young woman who looked as if she were 25-30 years old stared back at him with a smile. She had shoulder length dark hair and striking blue eyes in a heart-shaped face; and Fraser was struck by the sweetness of her smile. Now he knew why Ray had worn such a dreamy, love-struck expression when he returned to their table. He was in love with this woman.

Staring down at her photo, Ben felt both happy and sad, and a faint stab of something that must've been jealousy. Happy because Ray had found someone to love, and because he was a good man who deserved that, but sad because before Ray said another word about her, he knew that things between them would never be the same again -- because of her. In the old days, they'd practically lived in each other's pockets; and he'd been looking forward to spending a lot of time with Ray again, now that he was back in Chicago. But since Ray had a girlfriend now, he'd undoubtedly want to spend the majority of his time with her instead. Ben knew he shouldn't be jealous, because after all, he'd just found someone special himself. But he couldn't help it. Though Ray Vecchio had been returned to him safe and sound, his prayers hadn't entirely been answered, for their friendship wouldn't be the same anymore. "She's lovely," he said, hiding his regrets for Ray's sake. "Who is she?"

Vecchio's smile grew even wider. "Serena Tianni," he said. "My fiancée."

Fraser's eyes widened. "You're getting married?" he asked, shocked. Ray had dated a number of women since they'd met; but he'd never known him to be this serious about any of them.

"Yeah. I am," Ray said.

Ben didn't know what to say. For the second time that morning, he was speechless with surprise. Though Serena was undeniably attractive, he couldn't help wondering what special qualities she possessed that had made his friend willing to risk marrying again, after his first marriage had ended in divorce. But he knew it would be impolite to ask him. So he just smiled and said, "Congratulations, Ray." Then he handed her picture back to him carefully.

"Thanks, Benny." Vecchio cradled the photo in his hands as if were spun gold, staring down at Serena's image fondly.

Fraser noticed that his face had softened again, that his eyes were sparkling with a look of genuine happiness, and he suddenly felt guilty. The fact that Ray had met a woman he cared for while he was away on his assignment must've made the dark work he was doing more bearable; and he should be grateful for that, not jealous. "So tell me more about her," he urged, curious. "How did you meet her?"

"She's a singer," Ray explained. "She works in this club called Maxi's in Vegas, where Giancarlo liked to hold a lot of his business meetings. I heard her singin' one night when I walked in. I couldn't stop starin' at her; and before I knew it, she was lookin' back."

Fraser smiled, remembering conversations they'd had long ago on the subject of love at first sight. "So she gave you The Sign, Ray?"

Veccho grinned. "Yeah. The Sign. The way she looked at me... I'm tellin' ya, Benny -- that first night, I knew. I knew she was the woman for me, just like I knew the first time I ever saw Angie." But at the mention of her, a cloud passed over Ray's face, dimming his smile. Fraser understood why. With Angie, the Sign hadn't worked out. And like Kowalski, Ray Vecchio still felt a lot of guilt about his divorce.

"It doesn't have to be that way this time, Ray," Ben said quietly. "The past is past. And I'm by no means an expert on the subject of marriage, but I can see that you really love Serena. I'm sure you'll make it work."

Ray looked up at him, and his eyes softened with a look so warm that Fraser was touched. In that moment, his face lost its recently acquired toughness, and he looked just the way Fraser remembered him from the old days. "So. You can still read my mind, huh, Benny?" he asked softly.

Fraser ducked his head. "Only sometimes, Ray," he said awkwardly, but his friend's words touched him all the same. The fact that he and Ray still shared a bond deeper than words warmed him too.

"Well, thanks. Thanks for the vote o' confidence," Ray added. "I appreciate it."

Fraser smiled at him, cherishing these private moments with his old friend because he already knew they would probably be infrequent in the future. Then, to cheer Ray up again and because he also knew he was dying to, he said, "Tell me more about Serena."

"She's still in Vegas," Ray said. "I had to fake my own death to get outta there, 'cuz Maxwell wasn't gonna let up. If I'd stayed, sooner or later, he'd've killed me. So the Feds helped me stage this phony car accident where Nero and I both supposedly went up in flames. Then Nero went off to California, and I came back here. But Serena couldn't just leave suddenly. Maxwell knew her and he knew we were seein' each other, so it would've looked way too suspicious if she'd taken off when I 'died'. So she's gonna be there for two more weeks, then she's hoppin' a plane and comin' here for good. And five months after that, we're gonna get married."

"I'm happy for you, Ray," Fraser said.

Ray was practically aglow. "Thanks. Yer gonna love her, Benny, I know it! She sang pop and torchy type stuff in that club, but she's really into classical music. She loves all that highbrow stuff you like -- Mozart and Chopin and stuff -- and she sings like an angel."

Fraser was intrigued. Serena Tianni did indeed sound special. "I can't wait to meet her."

"Well, you won't have long to wait. But I'll tell ya, that two weeks is gonna feel like forever to me. I won't rest easy until she's here with me, ya know?" Ray looked down at his hands with a pensive expression.

Fraser thought of all the lonely years he'd spent pining hopelessly for Victoria. "I know, Ray," he said quietly. Then, to divert his friend from his worry, he asked, "But if you don't mind my asking, why are you waiting five months before you get married?"

Ray's face tightened oddly at that. A muscle in his cheek twitched, and just for a second, Fraser saw a trace of unexpected emotion in his eyes -- something like fear. But it was quickly suppressed, so swiftly that he wasn't sure he'd really seen it.

Then his friend said, "It's a long story. Actually, I wanted to wait six months, but Serena talked me down to five. See, the thing is -- Serena's givin' up a lot comin' here, Benny. Her job, her home... She's never lived anywhere but Vegas, and she liked it there. She liked singin' in Maxi's, she has friends there -- she was happy. But she agreed to leave all that behind -- to give up everything she knows, for me. Cuz my life is here." He shook his head, smiling a little in wonderment at that. "Ain't that somethin'?"

Ben nodded, thinking again of how Kowalski had made mad, passionate love to him beside his opened door the night before, even after he'd warned him about it. How he'd been willing to risk his job in order to touch him, and how much that had moved him. But Serena had done even more for Ray; and his opinion of her went up another notch because of that. "Yes. Yes, it is," he said, meaning it.

Ray grew serious again. "I mean, if it was just up to me, I'd marry her tomorrow. But it isn't. It's gotta be right for her, too. So I wanna give her time to get used to her new life before we rush down the aisle. I just wanna make sure she's happy here, you know?" he said earnestly. "So I figure I'll show her the city, let her get used to my family -- and if she survives all that," he grinned, "and she still wants to marry me, then we'll both know we're doin' the right thing."

Fraser smiled. "That sounds very wise, Ray."

Ray smiled. "Yeah, well. I've had a lotta practice bein' a wise guy lately."

Fraser groaned.

"Okay, okay, bad pun. I know," Ray grinned. "But it's gonna seem like months 'till Serena gets here -- I gotta amuse myself somehow. Oh, and while we're on that subject, there is one thing you could do that'd help me through it, Benny."

"Anything," Fraser said.

Ray grinned. "Wanna be my best man?"

Fraser was so touched that for a second, he couldn't answer. Despite the dreadful life Vecchio had led for a year, despite the scar on his cheek and the hardness he sometimes saw on his face, deep down inside, he was still the same old Ray he had once loved: generous and affectionate. It was good to know that Ray still felt the same way about him, too. He smiled. "I'd be honored."

"Great!" Ray grinned, delighted. He was so excited that he reached across the table and gripped Fraser's hand. "Thanks, Frase! I owe you one."

Ben shook his head, and returned his handshake warmly. "It's my pleasure. Thank you kindly for asking me."

When they let go of each other's hands, Ray sobered again. "I know it can't have been easy for you, comin' back from Canada and findin' me gone like that... I was a little worried that you might hold it against me."

Something inside Fraser said, Ahh, at that. Despite Ray's earlier warmth, his confession that he'd missed him, and even his request to be his best man, that dark question had still been burning inside of him. In spite of everything. Why did you leave me?

He needed to know. Had to, if their friendship was to be totally restored. He was glad that Vecchio had brought up the issue of his abrupt departure himself -- somehow, it made it easier for him to talk about it. Still, he chose his words carefully. He still didn't know all the reasons why Ray had left, and until he learned what they were, he didn't want to judge him. Didn't want him to know how angry -- how hurt -- he'd been when he left. "I was... upset when I learned that you were gone, of course. But not entirely surprised. I had the feeling something was wrong when you called me in the Yukon. I felt somehow that you were trying to say goodbye, but I didn't know why."

Ray grimaced. "Yeah. I'm sorry about that. I was hopin' they'd let me leave after you got back, so I could say goodbye in person, but it didn't turn out that way. And I'm sorry I couldn't tell you where I was goin' over the phone, and why, but that wasn't possible either."

Fraser nodded. "I suspected as much."

"They didn't even wanna let me call you at all, but I told 'em if they didn't, I wouldn't go. So they finally gave in."

Ben smiled. Part of his anger over Ray's leaving had to do with the fact that its suddenness had made him wonder if he'd really regretted leaving him behind. It had made him question, in his lonelier moments, whether Ray had really loved him at all -- even as a friend. He was infinitely relieved to learn that Ray really hadn't abandoned him without a thought; that he'd fought hard with the powers that be to tell him goodbye in the only way he could.

"Still, it made me feel like a jerk, leavin' ya without bein' able to say where I was going, or why. You're my friend. Hell, you're my best friend. So I hope you know that wasn't how I wanted it to be," Ray said earnestly.

Ben nodded again. "I know," he said. And suddenly, he did. He saw the deep regret in his friend's eyes, and the tension, pain and anger he'd been carrying around inside him ever since his departure began to ebb away. Now that he knew the truth, that Ray hadn't wanted to leave him that way, had even worried that it might've destroyed their friendship entirely, it went a long way towards repairing the deep wounds his abrupt departure had carved into Fraser's heart. After all, Ray had had far more serious things to worry about in the past twelve months than Ben's feelings. Yet in the midst of treacherous, murderous men, with his own life in grave danger, he'd worried about them all the same. That told Fraser better than any words could have how important he really was to him. You can't ask more of a man -- or a friend -- than that, he thought.

"It's all right, Ray," he said. And for him, at last, it was.

Ray heaved a deep sigh of relief. "God, that's good to hear! I've been worryin' about that for a year. Thought you might be so pissed off at me for runnin' out on you that you'd never speak to me again."

Now that the air was cleared between them, Fraser couldn't resist teasing him a little. "Why on earth would you think that? The fact that you left me stranded at that train station a year ago with Dief -- and a very heavy pack, I might add -- didn't prevent me from inviting you out to breakfast just now, did it, Ray?" he asked, with apparent innocence.

"No, but--"

"And despite the fact that I only heard from you once during the entire year that you were gone, I haven't heaped any abuse on your head for neglecting me, have I?"

Ray smiled, realizing he was being teased. "No, you haven't. But--"

"In fact, as I recall," Fraser interrupted again, enjoying himself hugely, "just now I agreed to be the best man at your wedding. Does that seem to you like the act of a man who's nursing a grudge, or some secret desire for revenge?"

Ray shrugged. "That depends on what you say when you're toasting the groom at my wedding!"

They both burst out laughing at that.

When their chuckles died away, Ben decided to let Ray off the hook. "I promise, I won't say anything negative at your wedding, Ray. My word of honor."

"Okay. So -- you don't hate me for leavin' ya like that," Ray said. "You really don't?"

Fraser was a bit surprised. He thought he'd already made that clear. But it was apparent, from Ray's intent look, that he wanted -- maybe even needed -- to hear it again. So he repeated himself.

"No. I don't hate you, Ray. I never did."

Ray sat back with a satisfied smile. "Good. But come on, Benny. Tell me the truth. You must've been mad at me, weren't ya? Just a little?"

Ben felt himself flushing a little. But Ray had pointed out earlier that he could read his mind, so he supposed he shouldn't object to the fact that Vecchio could also read his. Even about things like that, feelings he wasn't proud to acknowledge. "Well, yes," he said at last. "A little. I was also a bit confused when I came back and found another man sitting at your desk claiming to be you," he answered. "Especially when everyone else was calling him Ray Vecchio, too. Even your own sister."

"Ya mean Frannie didn't set you straight on what was goin' on?" Ray asked, frowning. "I asked her to tell you, just in case Welsh didn't get with you about it right away."

Fraser shook his head. "She tried to, but she was... Well, a bit hard to understand. I believe her exact words were, 'I know what you know and what everybody else knows, and all of that is known. Do you know what I mean?'"

Ray held his head. "Oh, God. Some things never change," he groaned.

Fraser smiled. "Well, to be fair to Francesca, she didn't have much time to explain. Ray Kowalski was calling to me rather impatiently from the car--"

"Kowalski," Ray interrupted. "He's the new guy, right?"

"Yes." And my lover, Fraser thought, warmed by the idea.

"D'you like him? Did you two get along, or didja' drive him crazy too?" Ray asked.

Fraser knew he couldn't tell Vecchio just how close they really were, but he opened his mouth to say Yes, I like him very much. That seemed safe enough, as well as being the truth. But something stopped him. Ray was smiling and his question seemed casual enough, but there was a certain tension in the set of his shoulders, an intensity in his gaze, that didn't jibe with that. He wondered if he was jealous. No, that can't be, he told himself. He's the one who left me, who went away, after all. And he and Ray Kowalski haven't even met yet! Also, he has no idea that we're lovers. It must be something else...

Nevertheless, he chose his words very carefully. Though his impulse was to sing Kowalski's praises, his instincts warned him not to. Not when Ray was so intensely interested in his answer, and didn't want him to know why. So he decided to downplay his partner's abilities instead. "He's been a good partner," he said. "He's very competent, if a little hot-headed at times--"

Ray's green eyes widened unexpectedly at that. "He's a hothead? Kowalski's a hothead?" he asked, his tone more than a little unfriendly.

Fraser blinked in surprise at his reaction. He didn't understand why that would upset Ray.

"Has he been getting you in trouble while I was gone?" Vecchio demanded.

Suddenly, Fraser understood. Ray was merely being protective. "No. Nothing like that," he said. Perversely, now that his description had given Vecchio a dim view of Kowalski, he felt driven to defend him. "He just tends to act on instinct, where I prefer to use logic. He tends to be a bit impulsive, but he's also very brave," he said. "He has several commendations for courage, and he's been very loyal." Still, despite his accolades, Ray looked grim; and it made him nervous. "Kowalski is -- interesting," he stammered, not knowing precisely how to describe him in order to make Vecchio like him, yet wanting to put in a good word for his lover. "At least, I think so. And I'm not the only one. Francesca finds him interesting, too," he babbled as Ray's narrow-eyed stare increased his nervousness.

Ray's eyes widened and grew heated again in an instant. "Frannie's interested in him?" he choked. He flattened his palms on the table and leaned forward. "You mean she's dating him? My sister is datin' a hothead? You LET my sister date a guy you know is a hothead, while I was away?"

Oh dear! Fraser said to himself. In his belated attempt to praise Kowalski, he'd inadvertently jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, conversationally speaking. Ray had been away for so long that he'd half forgotten his overly protective attitude towards his younger sister. The moment he'd mentioned Francesca's interest in Ray Kowalski, he'd no doubt leapt to the conclusion that Frannie and Kowalski were lovers!

"No, no! They aren't dating. I didn't mean Francesca was interested in Ray romantically. I just meant that they've gotten along well in your absence," he explained hastily. "That's all."

Ray sat back in his chair. "Oh," he muttered, his green eyes losing their dangerous intensity in an instant. "Well, if that's all it is, okay. Forget I said anything." He looked down and casually speared another forkful of eggs, as if the subject was already forgotten, as far as he was concerned.

Fraser heaved another private sigh of relief even as he watched his friend with fascination. That was another thing he'd almost forgotten: Ray's amazing volatility, the speed with which he could go from rage to serenity and back again. It was like watching a car go from zero to sixty in seconds. It was one of the things he'd always admired about him, his ability to switch emotional gears more rapidly than he himself could ever dream of doing. It was good to know that his year of undercover work hadn't changed that.

In fact, it occurred to him that Ray's changeability might've served him well on his assignment, allowing Vecchio to adapt to situations more easily than he would have. After all, my first attempt at undercover work resulted in my being exposed within hours by hunters with relatively low intelligence, and then clubbed repeatedly, he thought with a smile, whereas Ray successfully survived a year in the heart of the upper echelons of the Mafia without significant injury. He's definitely more adept at subterfuge than I am!

But he forced his wandering mind back to the subject at hand, namely Francesca's relationship with his partner. "Actually, Ray is more like a brother to Francesca," he said truthfully, determined to make him see what a good person he was. "Your mother likes him, too," he added, knowing how much weight that would carry with Vecchio. "She's had him over for dinner many times. And he's looked out for your family while you've been gone."

Ray squinted at him through narrowed eyes. "Izzat so?"

Fraser couldn't tell what that expression signified: suspicion, jealousy or approval. "Yes," he nodded, trying to sound positive. "Ray has become like a member of the family in your absence. But he and Francesca are just good friends," he repeated.

Ray eyed him for a moment longer, then finally lowered his gaze to his plate again, apparently satisfied that he was telling the truth. "Okay. I believe you, Benny. Can't wait to meet him."

Fraser wasn't sure if that was meant in a positive sense or not. For Kowalski's sake, he hoped so. But he decided to let the matter go at that, before he said anything else that would upset his friend. And when Ray went back to eating his eggs without further comment, he heaved a mental sigh of relief at having successfully tiptoed his way through the conversational minefield of Kowalski's relationship with his sister. He made a mental note to tell Ray Kowalski never to make any jokes about Francesca around her brother -- or to mention what they'd done to his car, either.

Ray Vecchio's devotion to his car was -- well, if it had been anyone else, Fraser would've said that it bordered on the insane. So the fact that he and Ray Kowalski had once been forced to drive his beloved Buick Riviera into Lake Michigan because it was on fire still caused him occasional twinges of unease. Luckily, it had happened while Ray was away, but he'd begun having bad dreams about the car all the same, the night that it happened. He'd had several vivid ones, in fact, in which Vecchio returned before he'd been able to have it repaired. Actually, he supposed it would be more accurate to call them nightmares -- because what had happened to him at Ray's hands in each of them wasn't pretty. As a result, he'd had the car pulled from the lake immediately, restored to perfect running condition as quickly as possible, and parked outside the Vecchio house. He'd noticed that Ray had driven it over to his apartment that morning without comment, so it appeared that the extra money he'd paid to ensure that the restoration job was thorough had been well spent. Ray had no idea that his car had ever been damaged. And if he and Ray Kowalski were very lucky, he never would.

As long as no one happens to mention the regrettable incident to him, he thought, Kowalski and I stand a good chance of living to a ripe old age.

Crossing his fingers that would never happen, he relaxed and applied himself to his own breakfast, and a contented quiet fell between them for a few minutes.

But then Ray looked up at him and smiled, a familiar, wickedly amused kind of smile that Fraser recognized instantly. That smile meant that Ray had caught him behaving less than perfectly (or at least thought he had), and was about to skewer him for it. Verbally speaking, of course.

Oh dear, he thought again, sitting up a little straighter in his chair. Did he find out about the car after all?

"Okay, Benny. Give. Who is she?"

Fraser hesitated in the act of lifting a forkful of hashed browns to his mouth. He was vastly relieved that Ray wasn't asking about his car, but confused as to what he was referring. "She who, Ray?"

Ray just kept smiling. "Aww, come on! Don't gimme that innocent look! I just spilled my guts to you about Serena. The least you can do is return the favor and tell me your girlfriend's name. At least, I assume she's a girlfriend, 'cuz I don't see a ring," he teased, looking at Ben's hand.

Fraser put his fork down with a puzzled frown. Where had Ray gotten the idea that he was involved with a woman? "I really don't know what you mean."

Ray rolled his eyes. "Please! I know you're shy and all that, but we're best friends, right? You can tell me."

Ben frowned a little. "Tell you what?"

Ray sighed a familiar, put-upon sigh that Ben had heard a thousand times before. "Look," he said. "I got to your apartment at eight o'clock last night, and you weren't there. At first I thought okay, maybe he's workin' late or he went out to get a bite to eat or somethin'. But you never came home -- not even to feed Dief -- at least not until seven thirty this morning. And when you did, you were still wearin' your uniform, and you had this big, doofy grin on your face. Now, you know that's not exactly normal behavior for you, Benny. And we both know what all that adds up to: a woman."

Fraser lowered his eyes. Ray was absolutely right; last night had been highly unusual for him. But he hadn't even realized that Vecchio had been at his apartment that long, or that he'd been smiling like that when he'd walked in, either. But an observer who knew him as well as Ray did would have to draw the obvious conclusion from his uncharacteristic behavior, and the break in his routine. It seemed that he'd unwittingly given himself away already. He tensed, and felt himself blushing helplessly.

"Don't look so surprised, Benny! It didn't take a genius to figure that one out," Ray teased, grinning at his embarrassment.

Ben didn't know what to say. Ray was right about what he'd been doing, but completely wrong about who he'd been doing it with. He knew he should correct his mistaken impression, but he also knew that if he did, he ran the risk of ruining their friendship. "It... isn't what you think, Ray," he muttered, skirting the truth as he tried to figure out what to do about this unexpected dilemma. His heart was beating fast, and his face flushed even redder.

Ray just laughed. "Oh yeah? Come on, Benny! Even if I hadn't seen you come home this morning, I still would've guessed. You've practically got "I scored last night" written all over you!"

"What do you mean?" he blurted.

Ray leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Benny... I wasn't gonna mention this 'cuz I didn't wanna embarrass you, but your lips are a bit swollen. And unless I'm sadly mistaken or goin' blind, which I don't think I am, there's a huge hickey showin' above the edge o' your collar there. And that usually means that a guy's got a woman in his life. So who is she?"

Fraser couldn't answer. He stared at Ray, stricken with fear and embarrassment. He raised a hand to his mouth automatically, to see if what Ray had said about his lips was true, then dropped it in guilty haste when he realized the gesture would only serve to incriminate him even further. Swollen lips -- a hickey! Dear God! I didn't realize my collar doesn't cover Ray's love bite! I never thought to look at myself in a mirror before I left his apartment...

His mind reeled. He remembered how intensely Ray had made love to him the night before, how he'd encouraged him to do it, how he'd wanted to be marked by his passion. He couldn't regret that passion, but he very much regretted that someone else had noticed the signs of it. He'd never meant for that to happen. He'd just never dreamed that he'd be eating breakfast the very next morning with a sharp-eyed Italian cop who knew him better than anyone.

What can I tell him? he wondered helplessly. How can I tell him? I can't! Ray will never understand this, he'll hate Kowalski before he ever even meets him! Remembering his odd premonition that he'd be forced to choose between his best friend and his new lover, he shivered inwardly.

Ray noticed his discomfort, and his smile suddenly vanished, replaced by a look of dismay. "God, it's not Victoria, is it?" he blurted. "Did she come back while I was gone?"

Ben smiled ruefully. Ray had been living in extreme danger for the past year, had been forced to deal with killers on a daily basis, yet the mere thought of Victoria still turned him pale. A fact which didn't reflect very well on his taste in women. "No, no. It's nothing like that, Ray," he reassured him, while casting about mentally for a way to explain the visible traces of lovemaking on his body without either mentioning Ray Kowalski or lying. It wasn't an easy task, but he had no choice. Close as they were, he knew he couldn't tell Vecchio the truth. It might destroy their friendship, and he couldn't bear that, having just regained it after their long separation. And his concerns weren't merely personal. If Vecchio found out about them, it would probably also destroy any hope that his two Rays could ever develop a working relationship. And Fraser knew they'd have to work together for at least a little while, while Vecchio took over his former job from Kowalski.

That realization gave him a pang, too. He wondered how Kowalski was going to take having to give up his position to Ray Vecchio. Not well, he suspected. I'll have to help him through it, he thought. Then he forced his mind back to his own immediate problem of how to explain things to Vecchio.

"It happened... very suddenly," he confessed at last, blushing as he remembered Ray's ardor the night before. "We've... been friends for a long time, but we just -- I never expected--" He faltered, unable to find the right words to explain how romance had suddenly happened for him and his partner.

Ray grinned. "She just kinda fell into your arms all of a sudden, huh? Kinda' outta the blue?"

Fraser smiled, recalling how Ray had embraced him in his car that night. "It would be more accurate to say that I was the one who fell."

"Well, whatever. I'm happy for ya, Benny. It's about time," Ray said. "So tell me all about her! Is she someone you met at work?"


"Details! What's she look like? Short? Tall? Brunette, blonde, what?"

"Tall," Fraser said truthfully. "Blonde."

"What's her name? And when do I get to meet her?"

Fraser squirmed a bit in his seat, increasingly uncomfortable with this deception. Ray's obvious delight in his new romance made him feel like a heel, and he choked up. "I -- umm..."

Ray frowned a little. "Yer not kiddin' me about the blonde stuff, are ya? It's not the Dragon Lady, is it?"

Fraser smiled in spite of himself, at the apprehension in Ray's voice. "No, it isn't. Inspector Thatcher and I are not romantically involved."

"Thank God," Ray breathed, not bothering to hide his relief.

"But Ray--" Fraser hesitated. "I'd really rather not tell you my... friend's name just yet."

Ray frowned unhappily. "Why not?"

"Well, as I said, this all happened suddenly, and... Well, things are a bit complicated," he said nervously, feeling incredibly awkward.

"Oh." Ray looked away as if trying to hide his disappointment.

Fraser remembered how hurt he'd been when he hadn't introduced him promptly to Victoria long ago. He didn't want to hurt him like that again. "It's just that I don't know if things are going to work out between us, and if they don't, and you meet one day, I wouldn't want you to... be prejudiced on my account," he explained, carefully avoiding the use of any telltale pronouns.

Ray nodded. "Oh. Okay. I understand," he said. But he still looked a bit disappointed.

Fraser didn't blame him, but he didn't dare try to explain further either. He was afraid to say anything more in case he betrayed himself, or Ray Kowalski.

"Just tell me one thing," Ray said, his green eyes lifting and focusing intently on Ben. "This friend o' yours, is she a good person?"

Fraser was touched. He knew Ray was remembering Victoria too, and that he was worried about him. He wished he could tell him the truth, tell him all about Ray Kowalski, about all of the things Ray had done for him and for others. The three citations Ray had received for saving innocent people in the course of his police work came immediately to mind, as well as times when he'd personally seen Ray's courage displayed. The pitched gun battle in the woods near the Police Academy for instance, when they'd been protecting Bruce Spender from his brother. And Ray's pursuit of Johnny "the Worm" Maggot later on, during the Bennett case. Despite the fact that Maggot had been heavily armed with a gun and a knife, while Ray was only carrying a gun, he'd chased him into a narrow alley without hesitation. And when he'd followed to assist, thinking of his safety rather than his own, Ray had tried to dissuade him, yelling, "Fraser, don't! He'll cap you!"

And Ray's protectiveness was not confined merely to him, or to civilians endangered by criminals. Fraser had noticed that Ray was very protective of everyone he cared for. He'd even stepped in to protect his ex-wife Stella one day when she was accosted by a client's angry husband, a thing which Fraser supposed not many ex-husbands would have done. And he was capable of amazing tenderness, too. Fraser would never forget that moment in his car recently when Ray had held him tightly in his arms as he cried, and whispered, "Tell me what you need, and I'll get it. I swear." Or the way Ray had made love to him with mingled passion and gentleness last night...

"Yes," he said at last, his voice thick with emotion. "My friend is a very good person. Wonderful, in fact."

"No criminal record?" Ray persisted.

Fraser smiled again. "No, Ray. None at all."

"Okay. Good." Ray nodded with a satisfied smile. "That's all I need to know, for now. But Benny -- as soon as you make up your mind it's for real, I get to meet her first, before anybody else. Deal?"

Fraser nodded. "Okay, Ray." He was relieved to have been let off the hook so easily. But he couldn't imagine how it would ever be possible to introduce Ray Kowalski to Vecchio as his lover; and it pained him to have given Ray the false impression that he was actually in love with a woman. He told himself uneasily that he had never actually said so, that Ray had come up with the idea on his own... But his conscience argued, Yes, but you could have corrected him, and you didn't. And that's as bad as lying.

He frowned to himself. It was an ethical dilemma: was permitting someone else to labor under a false impression the moral equivalent of a lie?

Oblivious to his discomfort, Ray hefted a forkful of scrambled eggs and grinned at him. "Oh, and Benny... If I were you, next time you're on a date, I'd tell Blondie to chew on parts o' you that are covered by the uniform."

"Ray!" Fraser protested, blushing to the roots of his hair as the comment triggered vivid memories of the moment when he'd acquired the bruise in question. He could almost feel Ray's wiry body pressing him hard against the wall, Ray's hot, panting breath on his skin, Ray's hot mouth sucking at that sensitive spot on his neck. A wave of heat swept over him, and his pants suddenly felt far too tight. He shifted in his chair, and glanced around nervously to see if anyone had heard his friend's scandalous comment on his love life, or noticed his embarrassment, or (worse still) his involuntary arousal. But to his immense relief, no one was looking in their direction.

"What?" Ray teased, his eyes sparkling wickedly. "I'm only thinkin' o' you, Fraser. Wouldn't want the Dragon Lady to catch you with a hickey like that! She'd probably have you standin' guard duty for a month."

"Ray, please!" Fraser muttered.

"Okay, okay," Ray laughed. "I'll quit teasin' ya. I know how you are about that stuff."

"Thank you," Fraser said gratefully.

Suddenly, both men were struck at the same instant by how familiar this was. How wonderful it felt to be sitting together teasing each other, as they had so often in years gone by. They broke into spontaneous smiles. "Just like old times, eh, Ray?" Ben asked softly.

Ray nodded happily. "Yeah. Like old times, Benny."

Their eyes held for a moment, with perfect understanding. Ray does know me, Fraser thought. He knows me so well... For a moment he felt only affection and happiness. But then his uneasiness returned. But he doesn't know about this. Doesn't know that I'm sometimes attracted to men, and that I'm completely, head-over-heels in love with a man at this very moment, with my own partner. He knows everything, he thought painfully, except the truth.

So even as they smiled at each other, and part of Fraser's heart rejoiced that his best friend had returned home safely, that a missing piece of his life was now back in place, another part of him was ashamed.

And as Ray Vecchio smiled into Ben's innocent blue eyes, he thought, I shoulda' told him. But how can I?

The following Monday morning, Ray walked through the door of the 27th with the worst hangover he'd had in years. He'd spent most of the weekend drinking in several different bars and wandering aimlessly through the streets, hating Fraser and Ray Vecchio. At some point on Saturday, Fraser had come back to his apartment and returned the GTO. Slipped the key under his door. Ray had stumbled on it when he'd come home at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning. But even that hadn't made a dent in his jealousy and depression. He didn't want the damn car back as much as he wanted Fraser.

He even dreamt about him that night. He was with Vecchio, and they were both laughing at him.

Ray didn't sleep for very long. When he woke Sunday morning, he'd sobered a little -- but he couldn't stop thinking about it. About Ben being with Vecchio. Holding him. Kissing him... Fucking him. It was so depressing that he had a bottle of vodka in his hand before he even got his clothes on. And every time he imagined Fraser in bed with Vecchio, he'd take another drink. And so it went. When he finished the vodka, he drove to another bar and downed a few more shots. Then a few more... He didn't go back to his apartment until after midnight, and by then he was so hammered he'd barely made it to his bed before passing out. Lucky he'd had his alarm clock set to wake him automatically, or he never would've made it into work on time.

But the fact that he had didn't make him happy. He was paying, big time, for his little weekend wallow in booze and self pity. He felt like crap. Crap that someone had jumped Bogart all over. His head was pounding, his eyes hurt, and his mouth felt like a couple hundred soldiers with muddy boots had been tramping through it all night.

And the first thing he saw when he entered the squadroom was Fraser's red coat. Bright as a friggin' Christmas ornament, and twice as cheery. The Mountie was sitting by his desk like he'd been waiting for him. He groaned to himself. Shit! The whole universe is against me.

He tried to get away. Turned to head for the lunch room to get some coffee, hoping Fraser hadn't seen him. But it was no use.

"Ray!" Fraser waved to him, looking relieved.

Ray closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and headed for his desk. He felt anything but relieved. He had a bad feeling about this. Very bad. He was in no kind of shape for a confrontation with anyone right now, let alone Fraser. Still, there was no point putting it off any longer. He'd ducked him all weekend, but that couldn't go on forever. Forget the coffee. Might as well get it over with, he told himself, his heart in his boots. He shuffled slowly over to his desk.

"Good morning, Ray," Fraser said as he sat down.

It made him grit his teeth. After everything he'd done, his politeness seemed phony. Ridiculous. Hypocrite! How can he act so friggin' polite, when he was screwin' his brains out with both me and Vecchio this weekend?

When he didn't answer, the Mountie frowned at him. "Is something wrong?"

Fraser's apparent innocence made him furious. He used to buy that act, but now he knew better. Ray set his jaw. Looked him right in the eye. "You know damn well there is," he said in a low voice.

Fraser blinked in what looked like genuine surprise. "Well, I was somewhat worried when I came back to your apartment on Saturday morning and found you gone," he said nervously. "I'm sorry I was late, but I tried to call you numerous times, and got no answer."

Ray knew at least that much was true. Fraser had left at least a dozen messages on his answering machine over the weekend, starting on Saturday morning. But after he'd seen him with Vecchio, he couldn't stand to listen to any more of his lies. So he'd erased them all without listening to a single one.

"I was busy," Ray shot back instead, his temper rising. That was also true -- in a way. I was busy tryin' to drink myself under a table so I could forget what you did to me! But it didn't work. And now yer makin' it sound like I was the one who did something wrong! For a second, he considered letting him have it -- verbally, at least. Telling him that he knew what was going on, that he'd seen him with Vecchio Saturday morning, that he knew they were lovers. Asking him what the fuck he thought he was doing, playing with him like that. But then he changed his mind. Why should I? He isn't being honest with me, so why should I spill my guts?

Fraser's blue eyes searched his. Ray stared back, silently daring him to tell the truth. Ben cleared his throat, unable to hide his growing uneasiness. "Yes. Well, I came back again on Sunday morning to check on you, and--"

Ray ran a hand through his hair. "I was out," he said shortly. Yeah -- out walkin' the streets, hammered half outta my skull, wonderin' why I ever let you get so deep into my heart that now I can't get you out! Not even after what you did...

Fraser looked down at his feet. "Yes. I gathered that," he said, his voice a bit hoarse. His blue eyes lifted again, searched Ray's with a worried look. "Where were you, Ray?"

Oh, man! That is it! That is friggin' it! Ray thought, outraged. Ya jump out of bed with me, lie to me and go running off to fuck yer old boyfriend Vecchio, then you've got the balls to ask me where Iwas? He stifled an urge to curl his fingers into a fist and sock Fraser right on his perfect, square jaw. "What the hell do you care?" he sneered, furious.

Fraser flinched, his blue eyes filling with a shocked kind of pain Ray hadn't expected. "I--I -- well, I mean of course I care, Ray," he stuttered at last. "You're my... partner, and my friend."

How can he say that? He can he even say that, after what he did? Ray got to his feet, leaned closer to the Mountie and pitched his voice low, so no one else could hear what he said next. "Fraser, I do NOT wanna talk about this!" he hissed. "This isn't the place, or the time. You and me -- let's just say we made a mistake. It'll never work. It's over. End of story. I mean... we can still work together if ya want, but that's all. Nothin' else. You got that?"

Ray figured he was being pretty generous, all things considered. He was offering Fraser a chance, a way to end this peaceably. It was the one conclusion he'd come to, during all his drunken wanderings that weekend: his sexual relationship with Fraser was over. He wasn't sharing him with Vecchio or anyone else. Especially not after Ben had lied to him, after he'd gone to Vecchio behind his back... But despite his anger, he wasn't going to throw a fit about it, or even ask for a new partner. He had just enough pride left to want to avoid a scene -- and he didn't want to lose Fraser entirely, either. Even now.

But they couldn't be lovers anymore. Not ever. He drew the line at that.

But even as he said it, he knew Fraser would never accept that. He had to poke and pry and analyze everything -- and their relationship, short as it had been, was no exception. He'd never let it go without talking it to death first.

"No, Ray. This is important," Fraser said stubbornly, right on cue. "We have to talk about it!"

Ray had already done more talking than he wanted to. And he was seething with rising frustration because all that talking still wasn't getting his message across. Because Fraser wouldn't listen. Because he never listened -- especially when you said something he didn't want to hear. He'd talk your head off any day, but he didn't listen.

"No! Now ya see, that's where you're wrong," he gritted, his anger growing. "We don't have to talk. And I don't have anything else to say. So here -- I'll show ya how it works." He turned his back, opened one of the drawers in his filing cabinet, and pretended to dig for a file. "See? This is me, not talkin' to you. Get the hint?"

He heard a sigh behind him. "Ray, you're being childish--"

Was that a faint trace of frustration he heard in Fraser's voice? It cranked his inner burn up even hotter. I'll show you childish! He slammed the file drawer shut suddenly, so hard it rattled the cabinet. Whirled and pointed a shaking finger at Fraser. "Do NOT tell me how I'm being! You don't know shit about it! In fact, yer so clueless it's pathetic! So just shut the hell up!" He suddenly realized he was yelling, and that everyone in their vicinity had stopped what they were doing to stare at them. Well, screw 'em! It's not like I never yelled at Fraser before. Do it all the time, he thought defiantly.

But not like this. This was different. This was for real. He was furious, madder than he'd ever been at Fraser -- and it showed. His chest was heaving, and he felt his face turning a dark, ugly red. Felt a vein throbbing in his temple. Felt the urge to ball his pointing finger into a fist and--

But he held it in with an effort. He wasn't going to do that, wasn't going to get physical with him. He'd promised himself he wouldn't. No matter what. He'd lost his temper before with other cops, had lashed out with his fists after Stella left him, and it wasn't something he was proud of. He was going to keep his hands to himself from now on. Do the right thing.

Still, his yelling had got everyone's attention. Worse, he had the distinct feeling everyone around them was taking Fraser's side. Just because the Mountie always acted like the perfect gentleman, they probably all assumed that Ray was in the wrong, that he was acting like a bastard for no reason. They didn't know, any more than he had known, how much deceit Fraser was capable of. He had everybody fooled. But Ray couldn't clue them in on it, either. Not unless he wanted everyone in the room to know that they'd slept together. So despite the way his head was throbbing, he shut up, lowered his finger, sank down in his chair again and tried to get hold of himself.

Fraser's face fell at his tirade, but he set his jaw in a familiar, stubborn way that Ray knew meant trouble. He wasn't going to let this go, wasn't going to shut up as he'd asked. He was going to keep poking and prying and asking stupid questions until Ray exploded. Kowalski bit his lip, determined not to let it happen.

"I confess, I am 'clueless', as you say, Ray. I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about."

He leaned over his desk, leaned close to Fraser so he could keep his reply from all the eagerly listening ears around them. "Do not say that again! I don't wanna hear that from you!" he hissed. "We both know what happened--"

"No, we don't!" Fraser insisted. "As I said, I don't know what happened. At least, not what you think happened. Not what you're so upset about--"

"Fraser!" he growled. The Mountie was definitely nervous, because he was babbling. Ray remembered how he used to think that was cute. Now it just rubbed him raw, like the scrape of fingernails on a blackboard. And the fact that he was lying on top of all that added to his fury. Despite his resolution to behave, he wanted to hit Fraser to make him shut up. He really did. He straightened up again and counted to ten instead. "I'll give you five seconds," he said grimly. "After that, you either agree to let this go, or get outta here!"

"Ray, I can't just let it go!" Fraser protested. "What I'm trying to say is, you're right, I don't know how you feel. How can I, when you won't talk to me?"

Ray glared at him. "What's the point of spelling it out, when we both know what you did?"

"Are you upset that I didn't -- I mean, that I came back late on Saturday?" Fraser corrected himself, lowering his voice too, in tacit recognition of their audience. "If that's what this is about, I don't understand. I already apologized for that. I left several messages on your machine, explaining everything. Why are you still angry?"

Ray shook his head bitterly. Oh, so you 'explained everything', did you? What the hell did you say? "Sorry, Ray. I have to go fuck my old partner. I'll be back soon?" He set his jaw, ground his teeth together until they hurt, fighting back another urge to hit the Mountie. Besides, you think one little "I'm sorry" can make this all right? Nothin' can make this all right. Nothin'! You lied to me -- you screwed me over!

Right then, he made up his mind. If Fraser wouldn't accept his compromise, his offer to end their sexual relationship quietly, if he wasn't willing to just work with him without being his lover, the way they used to, then they'd have to split up permanently. Completely. In bed and out of it. Their partnership was over.

He can be Vecchio's partner instead, he told himself. Though the idea made him want to puke, he figured that would probably happen anyway, whether he wanted it to or not. Now that Vecchio was back, Fraser would have to choose which one of them he'd partner up with; and it seemed obvious to him that he'd already chosen Vecchio. So it would be easier on his pride to end their partnership himself, before Fraser did it for him. Rather be the dumper than the dumpee, he thought bitterly.

And suddenly he just wanted to get it over with. Quit prolonging the agony. It wasn't what he really wanted, of course. Not at all. He didn't want to lose Fraser entirely -- he loved him too much. He'd tried to make peace with him, to hang onto some kind of relationship with him, but Fraser wouldn't listen. Okay then. If Vecchio's the one he really wants, I'll give him Vecchio, he thought darkly. I'll walk away. But I'm gonna have to get in his face about it, or Fraser will never get it, never shut up.

And he wasn't in the mood to drag this out any longer. It hurt too damn much.

And so did his head. It hurt so bad he couldn't think of a polite way to say it, couldn't summon the energy to figure out how to soften the blow. So he gave up trying. He sank back down into his chair and just spit it out. "Okay, okay! You wanted me to talk, fine. You wanna know how I feel, Fraser? Okay, I'll tell ya. Here it is: as of right now, we're not partners anymore. We're not even friends. I want you to stay away from me. I don't wanna talk to you, I don't wanna see you -- in fact, I don't wanna so much as catch a glimpse of yer little red coat, ever again. Or I will pop you one. That's how I feel! Izzat clear?"

This time, there was no question that Fraser got it. He paled, and his blue eyes filled with a shocked look, a look of despair. "You don't mean that, Ray," he breathed. "You can't! Please--"

His head throbbed even harder. Jesus! He's incredible. I just told him to piss off, and he's tryin' to tell me I didn't mean it! "Yeah. I do," he grated. Looking him right in the eye again so there'd be no mistake, he said coldly, "We're done, Fraser. Kaput. Finished. Finito Benito. I don't wanna work with you anymore. I'm tellin' you to get out. And I mean it. Every goddamn word. Get outta here. Get away from me!"

He hated doing this, hated it. But he felt like he had no choice. Vecchio was back, and by running off with him like he had, Fraser had made it crystal clear that his loyalties lay with him. But Ray couldn't live with that. It made his head hurt even more, just thinking about it. Fraser was the best thing that had ever happened to him -- and he'd lost him almost before they even got started. Lost him to the guy who'd put a bullet hole in his back. Who'd left him for nearly a whole goddamn year, without a word! It made no sense, but then life seldom did. It didn't matter that he couldn't understand it, that he would never understand it -- he still knew it was true. Fraser's past had risen up and kicked him in the butt, just like he'd sensed it would. And he couldn't take it.

Fraser looked stricken. "At least tell me why you're angry, Ray. Please! Tell me what it is you think I've done!" he pleaded in a low voice.

But Ray forced himself not to respond. He didn't buy that innocent act anymore. He couldn't afford to. "It's not what I THINK you did, it's what you DID! You figure it out!" he said tersely. He was through being toyed with. Still, some part of him hated being shitty to Fraser, even now. As the look of shock in his eyes deepened, he wanted to reach out and touch him, to take back what he'd said... Wanted to hold onto him, even though Ben had betrayed him.

But self respect, what little he had left, prevented that. It's his fault, he told himself, hardening his heart. He's the one who stabbed me in the back. He deserves it.

They sat frozen for a moment, staring at each other, both feeling like they were poised on the edge of an abyss. Each secretly hoped the other would say something to repair the rift between them, but neither knew how. Ray felt it was Fraser's responsibility to explain, to come clean and confess what he'd done with Vecchio; but Fraser had no idea that Ray had even seen them together. He was so confused, so stricken by Ray's unexpected anger, that he didn't know what to say. And so the moment was lost.

In the end, Ray had to leave. He couldn't stand it, couldn't bear the hurt, bewildered look in Fraser's eyes any longer. It was cutting into him, and he was bleeding heavily enough inside already. Worse yet, he still wanted Fraser, more than he would've thought possible. Just being so close to him tore him up inside. It's over, he told himself ruthlessly. Let it go!

He got to his feet and started to shoulder past him. But Fraser got up too, reached out and caught his shoulder. "Ray, please!" he said again, almost begging. "Why won't you tell me what I've done?"

Ray shook his head, tried to pull away. "Cuz we're way past talkin', Fraser. And you should know what you did. And I told you not to touch me, remember?" he growled, glaring at him. "Now back off!"

"Wait, Ray!" Fraser hung onto him, refusing to let go. Maybe it was because he was desperate, or so upset that he temporarily forgot his own strength, but for whatever reason, his fingers suddenly dug deeply into Ray's shoulder.

That tiny added pain pushed Ray over the edge. He'd reached his limit, he couldn't take anymore. He just had to make it stop, so he struck out blindly. "Get yer hands off me!" he roared, shoving Fraser to make him let go. But in his rage, he pushed too hard. So hard that Fraser was almost knocked off his feet. He slammed into the side of Ray's filing cabinet, his hat went flying, and the cabinet swayed dangerously.

Shit! Ray felt an instantaneous surge of guilt. He'd promised himself he wasn't going to hit Fraser, and though that wasn't exactly a punch, it wasn't much better. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw everyone around them freeze. A couple of the nearby detectives were watching him with narrowed eyes, with that cop intensity that told him they were a hair away from intervening. So he froze too. He wanted to apologize, to grab Ben's arm to steady him, but he knew that if he made another move towards him, the cops watching would probably grab him thinking he meant to punch him. And if that happened, he'd lose it entirely, and there'd be a brawl. So he stood still, watching Fraser straighten up again with a kind of horrified fascination.

Ben tugged at his tunic once, straightening it with a tiny, automatic gesture that tugged at Ray's heart. He didn't say anything, not one word; he just gave him a look. A look of wounded innocence, of total, stunned disbelief that Ray could do such a thing. He didn't even really look angry, he looked sick. As shattered as he'd felt himself the morning he'd seen Ben walking down the street with Vecchio's arm flung possessively over his shoulders.

Ray didn't know how to take that. He'd expected Fraser to look guilty, had been waiting for that, but he still looked so innocent that it made him feel sick too. Sick, confused and helpless. Just two nights ago, he'd realized that he loved Fraser so much that he would kill for him. It was still true. So how had it come to this?

Because he doesn't love me back, he thought bleakly, and was ashamed to feel tears stinging his eyes. Oh shit, he thought. Shit, shit, shit! He couldn't break down now, in front of a roomful of cops. But he was a hair away from it. So, to keep himself from bawling like a baby, he exploded. "Keep yer fuckin' hands off me! Don't ever touch me again!" he yelled. "Just stay the hell away from me!"

It was so quiet in the squadroom, you could've heard a pin drop. Fraser's face was ashen. He looked over Ray's shoulder and around the room, and Ray knew he was registering the many pairs of fascinated eyes that were watching them. But he didn't say a word. He just looked at Ray one last time, his eyes begging for an answer.

Ray didn't say a word. He was too choked up to speak. Too busy blinking back his tears.

Fraser's eyes filled with despair. He hung his head for a second, and then, in the breathless hush, reached down silently to pick his hat up off the floor near Ray's feet.

Ray's fury, which had ebbed once he broke free of Fraser's hold, suddenly returned, mixed with shame and pain so deep it took his breath away. He wanted Fraser, needed him, loved him -- yet he'd just hurt and humiliated him in front of the whole 27th. He hated himself for it, but he hated Fraser even more. Why'd you make me do that? WHY? Why'd you make me love you, then run back to Vecchio? Did you ever love me at all, even for one second, or were you just fuckin' me over? Usin' me the whole time?

He didn't know. Chances were, he never would.

At the thought of that, the pressure inside him became intolerable again. I'm losin' him, he thought desperately. And I don't even know why! As Fraser bent his beautiful dark head to retrieve his hat, Ray felt like he was about to go nuclear. His heart was thumping in his chest, blood pounding in his ears. If he didn't do something, he'd explode. So he took out his savage fury on the closest inanimate object. He took a step forward and before Fraser could pick up his hat again, he kicked it. Hard, so that it went sailing across the room and landed under Frannie's desk. He heard several audible gasps, knew that one of them was Frannie's. But he steeled himself not to care, not to look at any of them.

He just stood there for a second, breathing hard.

No one spoke. Fraser set his jaw tightly, and Ray suddenly knew he was trying to hold back tears too. Their gazes met and for a second, he saw the same bottomless pain in Ben's blue eyes that he'd seen that night in his car. The pain he'd once tried to ease. But now it was a fraction deeper. Now, he was a part of it.

Now, it was a part of him.

He had to get out, get away from it somehow. Move, so he could breathe. So he could see something other than the darkness he'd put back in Fraser's beautiful eyes. So he charged towards Lt. Welsh's office, trying to make it look like he was headed somewhere important -- instead of running away. Though he knew the Lt. hated it when anyone barged in without knocking, he did it anyway, his face dark with anger he couldn't hide. He was in no mood to be polite -- not to anyone. But he did have an excuse for intruding. Gotta tell him that I finally got his message, that I know Vecchio's back.

"You told me to check in as soon as I got here -- so here I am, Lieutenant!" he said defiantly.

But as he stopped in front of Welsh's desk, he turned his head and saw the Italian sitting in a chair just a foot away, and the rest of what he'd meant to say died in his throat. Vecchio was still wearing the coat he'd seen on him outside Fraser's apartment, over an obviously expensive black suit. Ray wanted to growl like an animal. He felt a surge of pure, unadulterated hatred, even deeper and more vicious than the pain he felt at Fraser's betrayal. Because underneath that, he still loved him. Vecchio, he didn't even know. Vecchio, he wanted to kill. But as good as killing him right in front of Welsh would've felt, it would've also landed him in a cell -- and he was knee deep in sexual hijinks as it was, thanks to the Italian and a certain Mountie. He didn't want things to get any worse. So he settled for giving Vecchio a hard, unfriendly stare instead.

Vecchio raised an eyebrow and studied him coolly, unruffled by his abrupt entrance, or his glare. Of course, after dealing with Mafia hard guys for the past year, probly nothin' would faze him, Ray thought resentfully. The Italian looked cool, calm, stylish and perfectly groomed. By contrast, Ray knew his eyes were reddened from his hangover, his hair was mussed as usual, and his jeans and grey t-shirt were wrinkled, and far from new. Vecchio looked like he'd just stepped out of the pages of GQ, whereas he probably looked like he'd just dragged himself up out of a gutter somewhere. Ray hated Vecchio for that, too. Hated his Armani-clad guts.

Shit! he thought, rage and jealousy surging through him like a tidal wave as he suddenly put another two and two together. Vecchio's here, so's Fraser -- which means he probly gave Fraser a ride in. Hell, for all I know, they mighta' spent the whole weekend together! Vecchio mighta fucked him in the car on the way over here!

The thought of that turned his stomach. The thought of Ben's hands, his beautiful hands, on this snobby looking Italian made him want to hurl. The more he thought about him, the more reasons he found to hate him. He glared at Vecchio. There's no way I'm gonna work with him -- no way. If Welsh makes me try, I'll end up tearin' him apart with my bare hands. I know it.

As if on cue, Welsh said wryly, "Well. Detective Vecchio. Or should I say Kowalski? I was just gonna ask you to come in, but as usual, you're way ahead o' me. Have a seat. I'd like you to meet--"

Ray stayed where he was, tore his eyes away from Vecchio and snarled, "I know who he is." He couldn't bring himself to say his name, or shake hands with him, or even look at him again. He turned forward and kept his eyes focused on Lt. Welsh, his back to his namesake, and his hands to himself. It was safer that way.

Welsh sat back in his chair, no doubt surprised by his animosity, and gave him one of his Looks. One of those looks that said, "You'd better explain yourself, Detective. Fast."

Ray knew those looks well. He also knew he'd better cough something up, or Welsh would toss him out on his kiester. "I got the message you left, Lieutenant," he snapped, unwilling to say anything more.

"Good," Welsh said, though his eyes still searched Ray's face for the cause of his anger.

Oh, yeah, I got it all right, Ray thought bitterly. Just a little too late! Too late for it to make any difference. Too late to keep from losing Fraser to Vecchio. God dammit! he thought for the hundredth time, anguish cutting through him. If I'd only listened to that message sooner, when I first brought Ben home--

But a fatalistic voice inside him said, What difference would it have made? Ben made his choice. It was his decision, not mine -- and he picked Vecchio. He felt Vecchio's eyes on him, felt them boring curious holes in his back, but he ignored him.

"Well," Vecchio said. "So this is my replacement. It's good to meet you too -- Stanley."

Ray's shoulders tightened at the sarcasm in his voice. God damn him, that was some kinda' crack about my name! I oughtta pop him! But he forced himself not to respond, to keep his back turned to the Italian because he suspected that he was smirking. Hell, he could feel him smirking! And if he saw him do that, he'd go apeshit again, he just knew it.

He felt his whole body going stiff with rage. It was incredibly hard to control himself with Benny's lover sitting a few inches behind him, making wisecracks. Giving off nasty vibes. Weird -- it's like he hates me. Not just cuz I'm ignoring him, either. He couldn't imagine why, since they'd never even met before, but he wasn't going to give himself a headache trying to figure it out, either. If it's true, fine by me. Makes it easier to hate him back. Not that he was having any trouble with that anyway.

He took a deep breath and set his jaw. Maybe if I don't look at him again, he told himself, I can keep from punchin' him before I leave. Maybe. So he faced stubbornly forward, instead of turning around and throwing himself on Vecchio like he wanted to. But he took a second and entertained himself with thoughts of cornering him in an alley some night when he wasn't expecting it, and beating the crap out of him. That little fantasy felt good -- but it didn't exactly relax him any. He was so steamed up, he decided that if the weasel said one more word to him, he'd act out his little alleyway fantasy right here in Welsh's office -- and screw the consequences.

"Sit down, Detective," Lt. Welsh repeated. "I want you to brief Detective Vecchio here on your caseload. As of tomorrow, he's officially back on this squad--"

Welsh kept talking, but Ray didn't hear another word he said. That was it: the axe he'd been waiting for, the axe that would come down on his skinny neck and separate him from what little he had left, in the wake of Benny's betrayal. He'd known it was going to fall, had known it from the moment he'd seen Vecchio outside Fraser's apartment. But it still hurt. It wasn't bad enough that Vecchio had taken his lover, now he was going to get his desk too. His job. His place at the 27th. His whole new life.

Because it was never really mine to begin with... Just like Benny was never really mine.

It all belonged to Vecchio in the first place, and now he was taking it back. And there was nothing he could do about any of it. Nothin' -- except this. Head pounding, sick at heart, he pulled out his badge and gun and set them down on his boss's desk with a thump.

"What the hell is this, Detective? What's goin' on here?" Welsh asked angrily.

Ray Vecchio didn't say anything. But Kowalski could still feel Vecchio watching him, and all the staring, prying eyes of the other detectives on his back, right through the glass of Welsh's office window. No doubt they were all busy judging him. Screw him, he thought. And them too! I'm outta here.

He took a deep breath. "This is me sayin' Adios, Lieutenant," he said. "Been nice workin' with ya. But I quit."

In the surprised hush left behind in the squadroom after Kowalski's explosion, Frannie bent over and picked up Benton's hat. "Here, Frayzh." She held it out to him, her heart in her eyes. She could see that he'd been hurt by Ray's fit of rage, hurt badly. She didn't know what had gone wrong between them, but she hoped against hope that whatever it was, he would turn to her for help. For comfort. For something...

But he didn't. He took his hat back without a word, and stared down at it for a moment as if he couldn't remember what to do with it. Almost as if he'd forgotten where he was, or who he was. He looked blinded, white with shock and pain.

Frannie had never seen him look like that before. Except--

Then it hit her. He'd looked like that when she'd seen him in the hospital after that mess with that bitch, Victoria Metcalf. Just like that, like someone had reached down inside him and torn his heart out, and he had no idea what to do about it. How to go on living. Only this time, Victoria wasn't here. This time, Ray was the one who'd hurt him.

Frannie saw it then, for the first time. The truth hit her like a bomb. Oh my God! He's in love with him. With Ray Kowalski! That's what that fight was about. Her whole body went cold with a shock almost as deep as Fraser's. She tried to think of something to say to comfort him, but she was so hurt herself that her mind had gone numb. The words just wouldn't come. But I love you, was all she could think. I've loved you for so long, and I never knew. Why didn't you tell me?

After a long moment, Fraser finally looked up again. He tried to smile at her, but failed. "Thank you, Francesca," he said. His voice was hoarse with strain, yet he was polite as always. But in that instant, she almost hated him for it. She knew he cared for her in his own way, but that was all she would ever have of him: politeness. A brotherly kind of affection. He didn't want to hold her, didn't want to make love to her, didn't feel any passion for her -- he wanted Ray, who didn't even want him. Her big, beautiful Mountie was in love with another man. She turned away from him so he wouldn't see the tears that suddenly filled her eyes. So she wouldn't say something stupid, that would hurt him even more.

Fraser walked away without another word. And she let him go.

A few minutes later, Ray Kowalski went storming by on his way out. He'd been in Lt. Welsh's office with her brother. She didn't know what they'd said, but she'd heard raised voices, and knew they'd been arguing about something. But she didn't much care about what he'd done to piss off the Lieutenant just then. What mattered was figuring out how he felt about Fraser. Because maybe Fraser's feelings for Ray were one-sided. Maybe that was why Ray had gotten so upset. Maybe he'd just learned that Fraser wanted him, but he didn't want Fraser back. So maybe she could still comfort Fraser later. Maybe there was still a chance for her.

Frannie looked deep into Kowalski's eyes as he swung past her, hoping against hope -- but then she saw it.

Kowalski had that same terrible look Fraser had. Like he'd been hurt so bad the only thing that was keeping him on his feet was his stubborn pride. Oh God, she thought. He's in love with Benny too! In a second, all her hopes that Fraser might be suffering from a terminal case of unrequited love vanished into thin air, just like her visions of one day standing by the Mountie's side in a beautiful white wedding gown. Now she knew that would never happen. Now she knew all her dreams for the past three years had been just that -- dreams. Despite their fight, Kowalski and Fraser were in love with each other.

That was too much. She turned away and headed for the bathroom, where she could break down and cry in peace.

Later that night, a couple of hours after he'd finally returned home after wandering by the shores of Lake Michigan all day, Ray heard a knock on his door. He went to answer it, then froze in the act of reaching for the doorknob. "Who the hell is it?" he barked.

Hoping it was Fraser. Hoping it wasn't.

"Who the hell d'ya think, Kowalski?" a male voice barked back.

He hung his head. It wasn't Fraser, it was Welsh. He wasn't sure that was an improvement, but he grudgingly unlocked his door and opened it anyway. The Lieutenant stood there, wearing a long overcoat and an unhappy expression.

"I'm not changin' my mind," he said defensively, before Welsh could say a word.

Welsh just looked at him. "Ya hear me askin' you to?"

Ray sighed and hung his head. "No."

Welsh sighed too. A long, world weary sigh that spoke volumes. "Look, are you gonna let me in or not, Detective?"

Ray hesitated. "I'm not a detective anymore," he said stubbornly, not wanting to let him in without making that clear.

Welsh rolled his eyes and shouldered past him into his living room. "Oh yes you are," he said, tossing something onto his coffee table. Two somethings. One rattled, the other hit with a heavy thump.

Ray didn't have to look to know that they were his shield and gun.

"I didn't accept those," Welsh said.

Ray shut his door with more force than was strictly necessary. "It's not your decision, Lieutenant!" he snapped. "It's mine."

Welsh turned and raised an eyebrow at him. "You didn't look like you were in any shape to be making big decisions like that when you threw those on my desk this morning," he said wryly. "And you don't look much better now."

Ray pursed his lips. He wasn't surprised that Welsh had noticed how hung over he was earlier. He wasn't sitting behind that desk because he was stupid or unobservant, after all. Still, it embarrassed him. "I'm sober," he said curtly. "And I ain't changin' my mind."

Welsh shook his head, and sat down uninvited on his couch. "Yer actin' like an idiot, Kowalski. You can't turn in your shield just because you had a few drinks, and a spat with Big Red--"

Pain and shame twisted in Ray's gut. He'd known that gossip would get back to Welsh about that, but it was one thing to know it, and another thing to hear it from his mouth. "Fraser's got nothin' to do with this!" he lied vehemently. "Nothin'."

Welsh fixed him with a skeptical look. "Uh huh. Then what does? Why'd you quit, Kowalski? Not that I care, of course, but I have to have some reason to list on your paperwork," he said sarcastically. "You know how it is. I lose a detective, it looks bad. The brass wants to know why."

Ray shrugged defiantly. He wasn't going to tell anyone else about what had happened between him and Fraser, ever. "Tell 'em I'm burned out," he said. "Tell 'em I got a job at McDonalds, that pays better! I don't care."

Welsh shook his head. "It's Vecchio, isn't it," he said quietly. "You hate him for comin' back and takin' your place, just when you were gettin' comfortable with your job -- and your partner."

It was a statement, not a question, and it pissed Ray off. He hadn't expected Welsh would see through him that easily. Plus, what had Welsh meant by him "getting comfortable" with Fraser? He didn't dare ask. He was afraid that after his nuclear meltdown at the station, Welsh had guessed what was really going on between them, that they'd been more than just partners -- if only for one night. One more thing to blame Vecchio for, he thought, seething. Like that style pig hasn't done enough already! If he hadn't come back, Welsh probably would never have figured it out. But now he suspects. Hell, maybe he even knows!

Still, no matter what Welsh knew or only suspected, he wasn't going to confirm it. "No," he lied again. "I've just had it, like I toldja."

Welsh sighed again. "Ya don't have to do this, ya know," he said. "You're a good cop. We can make room for you here, even with Vecchio back--"

"No!" Ray exploded. He couldn't spend another day, or even another hour, in the same room with that Wiseguy wanna-be who'd stolen Fraser away from him. If he had to work with him day after day, if he had to see them giving each other hot little looks, maybe even kissing, only two things could happen. Either he'd end up behind bars for murdering a certain Italian in front of an entire squadroom full of cops, or else he'd eat his gun. Both scenarios sucked. Vecchio had taken everything else away from him that mattered. He wasn't willing to give up his life for him too.

"That's the way it is," he repeated, trying not to sound as sorry about it as he felt. "That's how it has to be."

Welsh lifted an eyebrow. "Well," he said wryly. "Since Vecchio and Fraser obviously have nothin' to do with this, you wanna tell me what does?"

Ray caught himself. If he wasn't careful, he was going to give the whole thing away. Maybe he already had. He finally sank down next to Welsh on his couch, and ran his hands through his hair while he searched for another way to explain himself. "I'm just finished there. Done," he added, in a quieter voice. "If ya need a reason, say I'm burned out. I don't care." He stared down at his hands.

Welsh shrugged. "Suit yourself. But you should think twice about quittin', anyway. There's lots of other districts you could transfer to."

"I guess," Ray muttered. He'd been thinking about that himself today, while he wandered by the lake. He'd already begun to regret throwing his shield away so impulsively. Despite what had happened with Fraser, he wasn't sure he was ready to throw away his whole career yet. He couldn't go back to the 27th, not with him and Vecchio there, but like Welsh said, there were plenty of other Districts in Chicago. He might be able to go back to working Narcotics somewhere, or maybe Homicide... Work was all that had saved him after his breakup with Stella. That and dancing. If he transferred, at least he'd have something to do, something he knew how to do, while he tried to figure out how to pick up the pieces after his latest romantic disaster.

His badge and gun lay on the coffee table just inches away from him. He eyed them moodily. He wanted to pick them up again, but that would be like admitting that he'd been wrong to throw them away in the first place. And he didn't want to lose face in Welsh's eyes, any more than he already had. So he just looked at them, but made no move to pick them up.

A long, awkward silence fell between them. "Well, I've gotta go," Welsh said at last. He got to his feet, shoved his hands in his pockets and stared down at Ray. "You think about it, Detective," he said quietly. "You're a good cop, you shouldn't throw that all away because of... whatever. I know Vecchio comin' back so sudden was kind of a shock, and I'm sorry I didn't get with you about it beforehand."

Ray saw a hint of guilt in his eyes, and he smiled ruefully. "'S'okay, Lieutenant," he said, letting him off the hook. "It wouldn't have changed anything."

Welsh studied him for a minute. "Maybe not. But I'll leave your badge here tonight, anyway. If you haven't changed your mind by tomorrow morning, then come back and turn it in for good. But if you have, then we'll talk about other possibilities." He turned and headed for the door.

Ray was too preoccupied by suspicion to answer. He stared at Welsh's back with a frown, suddenly wondering what he'd meant when he'd said he shouldn't throw his job away because of "whatever". It was the second hint he'd given that he knew he and Ben were lovers. Either I'm paranoid, or he knows I slept with Fraser, he thought for the second time. But how could he know? What, have I got a sign taped to my back saying "I had sex with the Mountie" or somethin'?

But as Welsh opened his door, the meaning of his last statement finally got through to him. Welsh had offered him a second chance, a chance to transfer out instead of quitting. He'd done him a favor by not accepting his impulsive resignation, and then stuck his neck out even further by coming here to try and talk him back onto the force. He didn't have to do either of those things, and a lot of district heads wouldn't have. But Welsh was a good commander who really cared about his men. Ray suddenly realized that he'd acted like a jerk to him. He'd been rude and surly, when he should've thanked him.

He jumped to his feet and caught Welsh at his door. "Thanks, Lieutenant," he said. "I'll think about it. I promise." He stuck out his hand, wanting him to know there were no hard feelings.

Welsh gripped it with a slight smile. "Good, Detective. That's good."

As he headed out, he turned around one last time. "You know, Ray Vecchio's a good cop too," he said. "So is Big Red. You could do a lot worse for partners. You might give that some thought, while you're deciding what to do with your shield."

Ray looked down at his boots, embarrassed.

Welsh turned and walked away. "Kickin' his hat like that -- ouch," he said as he moved off down the hall. "Ya know how he is about that hat..."

Then he rounded the corner of the hallway and was gone.

Jeez, he even heard about the hat! Ray winced as he shut his door. Probably everyone at the station has by now -- and they probly all side with Fraser.

But then it hit him: not everyone did. Welsh had come here tonight on his behalf, after all. Ray smiled ruefully to himself. One way or another, he was leaving the 27th for good. He'd already made up his mind about that. But now he knew there'd be at least one person there who didn't hate him.

Then he remembered Frannie's gasp of horror when he kicked Fraser's Stetson, and the hard look she'd given him when he stormed out later, and he groaned to himself. Maybe I should wear my vest when I go in to talk to Welsh tomorrow. Just in case Frannie's around...

When Ray Vecchio learned, shortly thereafter, that Ray Kowalski had decided to transfer to another district instead of quitting, he felt vaguely disappointed. Glad that Fraser's fill-in partner was going away, but disappointed that he hadn't left the department entirely. At least then, he'd have known he'd never have to see the punk again. As it was, there was still a chance they'd run into each other on the job, and that sucked. But he kept it to himself. He'd never told Fraser why he disliked him. He'd never told anybody, because they wouldn't understand. Fraser and Frannie both liked the jerk. Hell, even Ma had liked him! She'd sung his praises to the skies, told him that he was 'a good boy' who'd 'watched over them' while he was away. Like that was supposed to make him grateful or something.

It didn't. If he never saw Stanley Raymond Kowalski again, it would be too soon.

Ray Vecchio knew that his hateful, knee-jerk reaction to Fraser's skinny partner was unfair. But Armando Langostini had hated him on sight. Ray was doing his best to forget Armando now, to bury him and everything he stood for way down in the deepest, darkest hole he could dig inside of him; but Kowalski had brought him back without even trying.

Like the reptile he was, Armando had slithered to the surface again the first time he'd laid eyes on Kowalski. Ray had heard someone yelling out in the squadroom that morning, and when the other Ray blew into Lt. Welsh's office soon after like an angry tornado, it hadn't taken a genius to figure out that he was the one who'd just lost it. He'd felt a mixture of emotions at his first glimpse of his replacement: envy, amusement at the way he was ticked off, and curiosity. Why was he so pissed? What was he like? But overlaying all that was jealousy. This guy had taken his place for a year, lolled around in his comparatively cushy life, while he'd been busting his balls trying to survive inside the Family. He'd taken his place with Benny -- at his side, if not in his heart. Hell, he'd even taken his place with his real family while he was gone.

Ray wasn't sure he liked that much. So he'd said hello by calling him "Stanley", making a guess that Kowalski probably hated that geeky name. Then, rewarded by the gratifying way the blonde detective's shoulders tightened at his little jab, he'd settled back and studied the back of his head with more than ordinary interest as he stood in front of him snapping at Welsh.

That turned out to be a mistake. Because the next thing he noticed was his hair. It was dark blonde, moussed so that it stuck straight up on top in defiant spikes. and cropped so short in the back that it was almost shaved. The shaved part made him look boyish, like a kid whose barber had taken off way too much. It bared his neck, and made him look unprotected -- vulnerable.

And with that thought, he'd flashed on the past. Armando rose up inside him and thought resentfully, He looks just like Maxwell.

No he doesn't, he'd argued back. He'd shifted in his chair, trying to make him go away, but he was suddenly there, too strong to ignore.

Remember? Langostini persisted ruthlessly. Remember how Jimmy's head used to look just like that, right after he got a haircut? I used to study the prick when he wasn't looking, and think about blowing a hole in it. Remember? Especially after Maxwell found out about Serena. After he--

Ray had pushed him away hard then. He didn't want to remember that. Had vowed he wasn't going to think about it anymore. So he'd shut off Langostini's oily, hateful voice in his head in the only way he could -- by shifting the hatred he'd made him remember onto Kowalski. The contempt. Jesus, what were they thinking, replacing me with him? He's all raw bones and skinny ass. Plus, he dresses like a bag lady. Whaddid he do, sleep in those clothes all weekend?

That made him feel a little better. Looking down on Kowalski made him feel more in control; and that gave him the power to banish Armando again. He doesn't even really look like Jimmy Maxwell, he insisted, regaining control. He's not good lookin' in that smooth kinda way. And he doesn't have his stone cold eyes. Kowalski's about his height, but he's gotta be thirty pounds lighter. And so what if he has blonde hair and blue eyes? So does half the population. He's not Jimmy, he'd told himself forcefully. Not just for Kowalski's sake, but for his own. Because he was going to have to work with him for awhile, while he took his old job back, and there was no way he'd be able to do that if he kept thinking of him as Maxwell.

But as it turned out, Kowalski had saved him the trouble. He'd quit that morning, then reconsidered and transferred to another district. In any case, they'd only had one more short meeting with Welsh, in which Kowalski had turned over his files, muttered a few things about his top priority cases, then left. So Ray hadn't had to deal with his ambivalent feelings about him, and he was glad.

Maxwell had been enough to put him off blondes forever. He'd been the bane of his life in the Family. The freak who'd almost broken him. Who'd--

No. Don't go there, he thought as the darkness inside him stirred again. He's gone, he told himself desperately, swallowing it down. They're both gone! Maxwell's hundreds of miles away, and that jerk Kowalski's off to some other district. It's just me and Benny now, like it used to be. And Serena will be here soon, and then everything will be all right. So forget about it!

But deep inside, he wondered if it would really be that simple. Because Benny was acting funny now. Ever since he'd had that weird fight with Kowalski, the morning he'd quit. It was a good thing he hadn't known at the time that it was Benny the prick was shouting at outside Welsh's office that day, either, or he'd have waded into it and then Kowalski would've really had something to yell about. Benny had been too polite to shout back, but he wasn't. He'd have gladly kicked Kowalski's spiky-haired little ass for him. But he wasn't sure if Fraser would've liked it if he had. Ever since they'd heard that the punk was transferring out, Benny had been quiet. Way too quiet. He couldn't help wondering what the hell had gone on between the two of them. Whatever it was, Fraser wasn't talking. And he didn't dare bring it up, didn't dare try to talk it out to make him feel better. Because what if, unlike him, Fraser was sorry to see the little punk go? He'd said a lot of nice things about him, after all. What if they'd somehow gotten close while he was away? What if Fraser wanted him back?

Ray's mouth tightened. He couldn't have that. Couldn't have that blonde jerk around reminding him of what he was trying so hard to forget. Benny didn't know it, but he needed him, needed his calm, steadying presence like he never had before. Fraser had to help him settle back into his old routine, so he could become Ray Vecchio again, and make Armando go away forever.

He needed Benny all right; and in the last year, he'd learned to be ruthless when it came to his deepest needs. So no way was he going to share him with Stanley Ray Kowalski. If his leaving ticked Benny off, then he'll just have to get over it.

But deep inside, he felt a tiny flicker of guilt. He wondered if he was really leaving Armando behind after all. Because wasn't that something he would've said? Wasn't that something he would've done? Deprived someone of a friend so that he could have total control, so that he'd feel more comfortable? Besides -- was it fair for him to expect Benny to just get over it? Because that was the real trick, wasn't it? Getting over things.

And he still hadn't done it.

Two weeks later, Ray Kowalski reported for work at the 29th District's Narcotics Division. Once again, he found himself standing in front of his boss's desk. Only this time, it belonged to his new boss, Captain Jim Harlan. Harlan was tall and thin, with greying hair, a lined face and cold eyes. He had the look of a guy who'd been stressed out for too long. Ray wondered if he took that out on his men, and if he was going to like him at all.

"Ray Kowalski, sir," he said, trying his best to sound polite. To start off on the right foot, at least. He'd have plenty of time to screw things up once Harlan got to know him. "Reporting for duty."

Harlan's eyes bored into him. "Kowalski? Oh, right -- the transfer from the 27th."

"Yeah. Ray Kowalski," he repeated. Weird, how his own name sounded strange to him now. He'd gotten used to answering to Vecchio, to thinking of himself as Ray Vecchio. But the Style Pig's got that name back now, he thought, pain and hatred stirring inside him. Hope he chokes on it!

Then he tried to push the thought of his rival away. I'm not gonna think about that anymore -- about Fraser anymore, he told himself for the thousandth time. That's why I came here, to get away from all that. From him.

But the pain wouldn't go away. It had come with him, all the way across town to the 29th. It had made a home with him, settled into his gut and stayed there, despite all he could do. He could feel it even now. Losing Fraser had blown a hole in him, and a cold wind was whistling through it.

Focus, dammit! he told himself desperately as he realized with a start that Harlan was talking to him.

"Your desk is right there, Detective." He pointed to the right rear of the squadroom. "Check in with Personnel down the hall first, make sure they've got all your paperwork straight--"

"Sure. No problem," he smiled, trying to sound smart. Together. In control. What he should be, instead of lost like he was.

"Then look for Detective Rylan. He'll be your new partner, he'll get you up to speed on your case load."


"Yeah. There he is. Young guy, long dark hair," Harlan said, pointing out into the squadroom.

Even as Ray followed the direction of that pointing finger, he felt a bit uneasy. There had been a hint of a sneer in Harlan's voice, as if he thought Rylan was a prick, or a loser. Ray suddenly wondered if he was getting the shaft by being assigned as his partner. Sometimes new guys in the shop were given the freak of the bunch, the runt of the litter, the partner nobody else wanted. He hoped that wasn't the case with him. He searched the squadroom looking for long dark hair, and found it on a tall kid standing by a desk close to the one Harlan had indicated was his now. The kid was staring moodily down into a file. He wore expensive shades and a black leather Harley Davidson jacket, stretched tight across broad shoulders. He was about an inch or two taller than Ray, and heavier too. Even bigger than Fraser--

Ray set his jaw tightly. God dammit, stop comparin' everyone you meet to him! "That guy?" he asked tersely, pointing at the biker wanna-be.

"Yeah," the Captain said. "That's Pat Rylan."

He didn't say anything else, but again, Ray heard a trace of a disturbing undercurrent in his voice. Something like barely hidden dislike or contempt. Though it made him a bit uneasy, he decided not to pass judgment on Pat Rylan until he'd gotten to know him. If they were going to be partners, he wanted to form his own opinion of him, not go by what anyone else thought.

When he stared at him for a minute, his first impression was that Rylan was really young. Not bad looking under all that hair, but young. "Uhh... No offense, Captain, but is he shavin' yet?"

Harlan narrowed his eyes at him. "He's twenty five, Kowalski. Street smart, too. And he's got a good arrest record. Anything else you wanna know?"

Ray shook his head. He could take a hint. He knew there was a lot Harlan wasn't telling him, but from the look in his eyes, he was going to have to find it out for himself. So he backed off. No sense contributing to the Captain's stress level just yet. "No. I'll just check in with Personnel, then I'll get started."

"Good. Dismissed," Harlan said. "I'll come and check on you later, make sure you're settling in all right."

"Okay. Thanks, Captain."

Ten minutes later, his paperwork all sorted out, he headed back into the squadroom to meet his new partner. But the kid was gone. He hunted around, and eventually found him in the lunchroom, drinking a coke and smoking while he pored over a case file. Ray paused in the doorway for a few seconds before he went in, to study him.

His first impression was right; Rylan definitely looked younger than he was. His face was smooth and unlined, though high cheekbones saved it from boyishness. And now that he'd taken off his jacket, Ray could see that he had a good build, the chest and biceps of a guy who worked out regularly with weights. His long hair, dark eyes and vaguely sinister good looks, coupled with a kind of cockiness Ray could sense instantly, were perfectly suited to narcotics work. Despite the fact that he was only 25, he looked like a guy who knew his way around the streets. He looked tough, despite his age.

Okay so far, he thought. Having learned all he could visually, now it was time to check out Rylan's personality. Ray walked up to him quietly. "Hey. I'm Ray Kowalski," he said.

Rylan didn't get up, but when he looked up at him, Ray saw a swift flash of surprise on his face. Whether it was good or bad, he couldn't tell. "Mmm. The new guy," was all Rylan said. But despite his terseness, he stared at him intently.

Ray wasn't sure if he was trying to psych him out or if he was just curious. But in any case, it took a hell of a lot more than a hard stare to worry him. "Yeah. The new guy," he said calmly. "Yer new partner."

An awkward silence fell after that. Ray studied Rylan more closely while he waited for a response. Eyes like a cat, he thought. Big, dark and kinda mysterious. Kinda exotic. Bet he makes out like a bandit with chicks. He smiled wryly to himself. What is it about me, that I keep gettin' partnered with babe magnets?

"I'm Pat Rylan," the younger cop finally said.

"Good to meet ya," Ray muttered. But the truth was, it was way too soon to tell about that.

Rylan seemed to feel the same way. He gave him another long, measuring stare. Ray returned it with an unblinking look of his own. He registered his good looks and his intensity without much interest. No matter what Rylan was like, he'd already made up his mind that he wasn't going to make the mistake of caring about his partner too much, this time around. He didn't really care what Rylan thought of him, as long as they got along well enough to work together.

"Uh huh," Rylan answered. He finally lowered his eyes, and the staring contest was over. He must've decided Ray was okay, because he reached out a booted foot and pushed a chair in his direction. "Siddown. Take a load off, partner," he said wryly.

"Thanks." Ray straddled the chair and smiled at the kid. "So tell me, Rylan. How come yer workin' solo? What happened to yer last partner?"

Rylan turned away and stubbed out his cigarette with a grimace. "Don't waste any time, do ya?" he grunted.

Ray shrugged. "I'm the curious type. That's why I became a detective." That was a lie, but what the hell. It sounded good. Hell of a lot better than the truth, which involved him pissing his pants in a bank robbery at age twelve, then obsessing about catching the robber for the next 25 years. That was way more personal than he wanted to get with Rylan yet. Or maybe ever.

"So. What happened to him?" he repeated, because Rylan hadn't answered him.

Rylan searched his eyes, as if he were trying to decide if Ray was messing with his head. "He croaked," he said tonelessly at last.

Ray shot him a sharp glance before he could stop himself. "Of what? Old age?" He needed to know what he'd stepped into here.

Rylan shrugged. "Guess you could call it that," he said coolly. "Miller was fifty two when he caught a bullet. That's old for a cop."

Suddenly, Ray remembered hearing about it. Hank Miller, a narcotics cop who'd been shot to death just two months ago, in a firefight in the Heights. He'd left behind a wife and two kids. He and Fraser had talked about it -- hell, the whole 27th had been talking about it, and it had been all over the news. They'd never met the guy, but he remembered Welsh saying he'd known him years before. He'd said Miller was a good guy, a stand up cop. He'd gone to his funeral. Ray wondered if Rylan had. Wondered if he was in any way responsible for it. He wouldn't still be working here if there was any evidence to that effect, of course, but it still made him uneasy. Was there somethin' funky about Miller's death? Is that the reason Harlan doesn't like the kid? And do the other cops in the Division feel the same way? If so, he was going to have a tough time here. As his partner, any shit that stuck to Rylan would rub off on him.

And that was all he needed, to be hassled in his new job because of his partner's problems. Hunh uh. No way. He made a mental note to check out the Miller shooting as soon as he got a chance. It's important to know the mettle of the man you work with. Fraser's words, uttered about him when they'd first met. They crossed his mind before he could help it, and he winced at the memory. He was trying very hard to forget him, but it wasn't easy. Fraser had been more than his partner, he'd been like his right hand. He felt sometimes like he was bleeding somewhere inside, now that they weren't seeing each other anymore. Now that he never saw him at all...

He shook himself, realizing belatedly that Rylan was staring at him again, and that this time, it was because he was waiting for a reaction to his revelation about Miller's death. "Yeah. Right," Ray said aloud, keeping his voice carefully noncommittal. He would've liked to ask Rylan some more questions, but he knew he'd already put him on the defensive by bringing it up so soon. It would be better to let it go for now, until he could look into it quietly on his own. "So. You wanna bring me up to speed on what you're workin' on?" he asked, trying to put him at ease by changing the subject.

Rylan nodded. "Okay. But first -- what am I gonna call you?"

Ray frowned at the odd question. "How 'bout Kowalski? That's my name."

Rylan shook his head. "Nawww, that's too long," he said casually. "And Walski sounds funny. How 'bout Ko?"

Ray opened his mouth to object, because he'd never had a nickname before; but then he shut it again. It struck him that Fraser had never called him that, that no one in his life had ever called him Ko before. If Rylan had called him Ray, it would've brought back memories of the Mountie. Or worse, reminded him of Vecchio. This way, there was no danger of that. It would be like a fresh start, which was what he needed. He'd already decided he was going to change things this time around -- so why not his name?

"Yeah. Okay. Ko's all right," he said, trying it out on his tongue. It's short anyway. And I've been called worse things, that's for damn sure! Least he didn't try to piss me off by callin' me somethin' cute like Dickhead. Least he's tryin' to be friendly. These days, he would take what he could get.

"Ko it is, then," Rylan said. He got to his feet. "Come on back to my desk, and I'll show you my case files, Ko."

"Okay." But as he followed the younger detective through the station, all Ray could think of was his new name. Ko. Ko. He rolled it around in his head. Sounds almost Hawaiian or somethin'. That's cool. 'Book 'em, Ko!' He smiled to himself, deciding he liked it. Decided he might like Rylan too, though the jury would be out on that one until he worked with him for awhile.

The important thing was, he was here. He'd done it. Left Fraser, and now he was starting over. New job, new name, a new partner--

For a second, he almost felt good. But only for a second. Then his blues came back again. Because he wasn't sure how much good all those changes had done him. He was still empty inside, except for the pain. He still couldn't seem to forget Fraser, no matter how hard he tried. And until he could do that, he wouldn't really have left that part of his life behind him.

Give it time, he told himself. It's only been a few weeks. Ya just got started makin' changes. Give 'em time to work out. And he realized that they didn't have to stop with his name. He could make other changes too. Change his style, grow a mustache, whatever. He'd reinvented himself once before when he was desperately unhappy, had become Ray Vecchio to escape the pain of losing Stella. He could do it again. He would do it.

It had been Stanley Ray Vecchio's job to forget Stella. He'd pretty much done that. Now it would be Stanley Ray 'Ko' Kowalski's job to forget about Fraser.

And Ko, he thought, is just gettin' started.

A few weeks later, Fraser, Ray and Serena Tianni sat around the little table at Fraser's apartment one night. They'd just come back from dinner at a Thai restaurant that Fraser had discovered during Ray's absence. Ben had invited them both out, in honor of Serena's arrival in Chicago the day before. Ray's mother had cooked a big dinner for her the previous night, so the whole Vecchio clan could meet her. But Ben had wanted to do something special for her as well, because she was Ray's fiancée, so he'd decided to take the couple out on his own. And he was glad he had. Serena was every bit as beautiful as her picture, a charming, sweet woman with whom he already felt very comfortable. He was glad, because it erased the jealousy he'd felt when he'd first learned about her.

Ray patted his stomach. "I tell ya, Benny, I didn't know if I was gonna like that kind o' food, but it was great!" he sighed happily. "Think I ate too much."

Serena sat beside Ray, holding his hand, her blue eyes lit with happiness too. "You don't need to worry, sweetheart," she said fondly. "You're too thin. You could stand to put on a few pounds."

Ray smiled at her, then looked at Ben. "Isn't that just like a woman, Benny? We're not even married yet, and she's already tryin' to fatten me up."

Fraser smiled, knowing Ray loved Serena's attentions. He had brightened visibly once she'd arrived safely in Chicago, and Fraser had seen no further hints of the darkness his undercover work had engendered. The demons that had bedeviled Ray during their breakfast the morning after his return seemed to have been exorcised. At least, Fraser assumed so. Ray hadn't mentioned anything about the Bookman to him again, or to anyone else as far as Fraser could tell. When news had reached them of numerous arrests of members of the Iguana family being carried out in Nevada and Arizona as a result of the evidence Ray had gathered against them, but that Maxwell had somehow escaped, he'd worried that it might revive his traumatic memories. But though the entire 27th, it seemed, had stopped by his desk to congratulate him, it hadn't seemed to faze Ray. He'd smiled a lot, thanked everyone, and gone around whistling tunelessly that day, as if he'd rather enjoyed the fuss they'd made of him. Fraser was both proud of him and relieved. Even though his nemesis hadn't been caught, Ray seemed happy with the results of his undercover work.

Or was he? Fraser couldn't help thinking how deeply his experience with Victoria had scarred him, how impossible it had proved to forget -- yet how well he'd managed to hide his lingering pain from everyone. And he wondered at times if Ray had really forgotten what he'd gone through either; or if he was hiding it too. He'd tried to raise the subject with him more than once, but Ray had deflected his questions, and Fraser hadn't dared to push the matter further. He couldn't force Ray to confide in him, after all, if he didn't choose to. But he wondered how much of his experience he'd shared with Serena either. Somehow, he felt Ray wouldn't want to burden her with his pain. Still, now that Serena was with him, he seemed as happy and enthusiastic as Fraser had ever seen him. He looked like a man who had put his recent past behind him, and was now concentrating on his future. For his sake, Fraser hoped so.

"Would you two like some coffee or tea?" he asked, trying to be a good host.

"Tea would be nice," Serena said.

Ahh, a fellow tea lover, Fraser thought, pleased.

"Yeah, sure, Benny. That's fine," Ray said easily.

Fraser stifled a smile. Before he'd met Serena, Ray had always vehemently refused to touch tea, insisting that real men in America only drank coffee. He was glad to see that his friend was willing to bend to accommodate his fiancée's differing tastes.

And he wasn't the only one. Fraser himself had laid in extra supplies for the occasion: a small bouquet of flowers for his little table, a new chair for Serena to sit in, several kinds of tea and coffee, as well as extra cups, saucers and plates so that he'd have something to serve them with. Diefenbaker had raised a skeptical eyebrow at all the changes, but he hadn't paid any attention to him. He still winced when he thought of the tin plates on which he'd been forced to serve dinner to Victoria when she returned, because they were all he owned. He didn't intend to be embarrassed that way in front of Ray's fiancée too. "I have lemon herbal tea, and Earl Gray," he said. "Which would you prefer?"

"The herbal tea would be great," Serena smiled. "I love lemon tea."

"Okay," Ray chimed in.

"Very well," Fraser said, making a mental note to keep lemon tea in his apartment in future. He hoped that he'd end up using a lot of it, that Ray and Serena would still visit him once they were married. Now that Ray is gone, I have no one else. The thought crossed his mind before he could stop it. He winced and rose to his feet hastily, ostensibly so that he could make the tea but really so that he could hide his face before anyone noticed his expression.

But it didn't work. Serena frowned slightly. "Is something wrong, Ben?" she asked.

"No." Fraser shook his head quickly. "Not at all. I'll just get the tea. It won't take a minute." He escaped into his little kitchen with a feeling of relief. As he'd already discovered, Serena was very perceptive, very quick to notice emotional nuances in others. He had the uncomfortable feeling that she'd already noticed his underlying depression about losing Kowalski, and that she might've even mentioned it to Ray. Because when he made his denial and turned towards the kitchen, he saw her trade a worried glance with Ray that seemed to say, "See? I told you he's upset about something."

He tried to look more cheerful as he bustled around making tea, so they'd have no further cause for concern. But as usual when he tried to suppress powerful emotions, they only gripped him harder. Against his will, he remembered Ray Kowalski's odd habit of drinking instant coffee flavored with melted M & M candies. And that little jab of memory cleared the way for an ambush. Suddenly, he saw a vision of his former lover. Saw Ray soaking wet beside Lake Michigan, on that memorable day when they'd wrecked Ray Vecchio's car. Heard him say with a delighted smile, "You called me Ray!"

He remembered the odd, unexpected way his heart had lurched inside him at those words.

He hadn't understood it at the time. Now he knew what it meant. He'd begun to fall in love with Stanley Ray Kowalski at that moment, with his dazzlingly sweet smile, with his pure, almost childlike delight in the simple fact that he'd said his name. That he'd begun to accept him. Until that instant, he'd been so caught up in his own grief over losing Ray Vecchio, that he hadn't really seen Ray Kowalski as an individual -- just as the man who'd replaced his best friend. But in that instant, he'd become unique, not a man posing as Ray Vecchio but Stanley Raymond Kowalski. And his realization that Kowalski might need a friend too, that he might be lonely as well, had touched him.

It was that hint of shared loneliness that had first made Kowalski real to him, a person rather than a replacement. And perhaps, in the end, it had been the knowledge that gave him the courage to reach out to Ray himself, when he was hurting. To finally kiss him, as he'd been longing to do. But he wondered bitterly if they shared even that anymore.

Was Ray as lonely as he, or had Ray replaced him with someone else?

Pain surged through his chest, tightening it until he could hardly breathe. It was a mistake, he thought, remembering their breakup. I should've tried harder to prevent it, to make him stay. But he didn't know how. Ray had yelled at him, raged at him, told him he never wanted to see him again. And once he'd heard that his transfer process had begun, he'd been forced to believe that he meant it. He'd feared that if he'd tried to call him, or go to his apartment to see him, they might come to blows; and their breakup had been public enough, and ugly enough, as it was. So he'd let him slip away without trying to stop it.

Now, he regretted it. He felt Ray's absence at his table, in his life, so keenly that it was overwhelming. Ray Vecchio sat a few feet away with the woman he loved, with his other half. Where was his?

Forget him, he told himself sternly, trying to regain control. Just for now, just until they're gone. Then you can think of him again.

It was all that he could do. There was no way to banish Ray's memory permanently, and he didn't even want to. He just needed to dispel it long enough so that he didn't break down in front of his guests and humiliate himself. He closed his eyes and counted to ten, and when he opened them again, Ray's image was gone. He breathed a sigh of relief, rubbed his chest to relax his clenched, aching muscles, and concentrated on making tea. Fixed his mind on it so fiercely that nothing else could intrude.

But as he carried their cups of tea back to the table a few minutes later, Fraser noticed Serena whispering into Ray's ear. At first, he assumed she was whispering sweet nothings, but then he heard Ray whisper back, "Ask him! Just ask him."

His heart sank. Ask him what? Why he was so depressed, what he was brooding about? Ray had already asked him that several times, and he'd put him off each time. He dreaded going through that again, having to lie to Ray's fiancée too, to conceal his broken heart. Oh what a tangled web we weave, he thought unhappily as he set their tea down on the table. But since eavesdropping was impolite, he kept silent, and tried his best not to look as though he'd overheard them.

"Thank you, Ben. That smells wonderful." Serena flashed him a warm, genuine smile, and his tension receded a little. She was a very tactful person, and she seemed to like him. Surely she would spare him the embarrassment of having to explain the sudden darkening of his mood, despite their company.

"Yeah. Thanks, Benny." Ray took his cup of tea as Fraser sat down, and for a moment, they all sipped the warm, fragrant lemon tea in silence. And just when Ben's worries had almost vanished, when he'd almost managed to convince himself that he hadn't really heard Ray correctly, Serena set her cup down and looked at him a bit shyly. "There's something I've been wanting to ask you, Ben," she began, her eyes flitting nervously to Ray's for confirmation. He saw Ray nod, urging her to continue, and he stiffened in his chair, his earlier fear returning.

"Ray says that you like to sing, and I was wondering... Well, if you'd consider singing something at our wedding," Serena said softly, her blue eyes smiling hopefully into his.

Fraser blinked. Immensely relieved that he'd been wrong, that they weren't trying to pry into the sadness he was trying to hide, he fell all over himself agreeing with her request. "Oh, of course. I'm flattered you asked me. Well yes, of course! I'd love to."

Ray laughed. "Okay, okay, Benny -- we get the idea!"

"The only problem is," he realized suddenly, "I'm not used to singing by myself. Without accompaniment, that is. I mean, I have a guitar but it's at home in Canada, and--"

Ray's smile widened. "Not to worry, Benny. Should I go get it?" he muttered mysteriously to Serena, who nodded happily at him. Ray squeezed her hand, then got up and made for the door. "I'll just be a second, Frayzh," he called over his shoulder. "Got somethin' I wanna show ya..."

Fraser didn't understand what was going on, and his confusion must've showed on his face, because Serena smiled at him. "We have a little surprise for you," she said.

Fraser lifted an eyebrow. "For me?"

"Yes. We wanted to do something special for you, since you agreed to be Ray's best man," she explained.

Fraser was touched. "Really, it's not necessary," he protested. "I'm happy to do it."

Serena edged closer to him, smiling warmly. "I know you are, Ben. You love Ray a lot, I can see that."

Fraser lowered his eyes, feeling himself blushing a little at the unexpected sentiment. But it was true, so he didn't try to deny it. A silence fell between them for a moment. Then, to his surprise, Serena reached for his hand and took it in her smaller, slender fingers gently. And he didn't feel the kind of fear that he usually did when women touched him. In fact, he felt a sensation of genuine warmth. He looked up into Serena's pretty blue eyes, startled by his own response to her, and their gazes met and held.

"I hope . . . I hope that we'll get to be friends, Ben," Serena said simply. "Good friends. Because there's no one who means more to Ray than you. And I want you to know that our marriage won't change any of that. I'm not going to take him away from you. You're my husband's best friend, and I want you to be mine too. I want you to be a part of our lives. Always."

Fraser was stunned. He'd had no idea that Serena sensed his nagging fear that he would eventually lose Ray to her entirely, that he might never see him again after they were married. But it seemed that not only had she felt it, she also understood it, and was doing her best to relieve it. He felt a surge of surprise and affection for her. No one in his life, except his Rays, had ever looked so deeply into his heart and responded so generously to his feelings. He was so touched that for a moment, he couldn't think of what to say. He'd liked Serena from the moment he met her, but in that instant, she won him over completely.

Finally, he cleared his throat and squeezed her hand very gently. "Well, I... I'd like that too," he stammered. "Thank you."

Serena grinned, then released his hand. "Oh, I'm so glad!" she breathed. "You don't know how nervous I was about meeting you. Ray's talked so much about you, I was afraid that if you didn't like me, the wedding would be off!"

Fraser's eyes widened, and he laughed. "You were nervous -- about meeting me?" He shook his head, remembering his own fright, how he'd ironed his shirt and jeans three times tonight and checked his hair so often while he was getting ready that Dief had finally rolled his eyes in disgust. All because he'd wanted to make a good impression on Ray's new fiancée. But as he looked into Serena's lovely, laughing eyes, he knew his fears had been in vain. His friend had chosen a woman whose heart was as beautiful as her outward appearance, and who'd made it clear she had no intention of coming between him and Ray. "You didn't need to be," he said. "I think Ray is a very lucky man."

"Thank you," Serena smiled. "I know he's lucky to have a friend like you, Ben."

Fraser shrugged, uncomfortable as he always was with compliments, but his attention sharpened when Serena's face clouded over a little. "You know, there's something I've been wanting to ask you," she said softly, with a nervous glance at the door.

Ben realized she wanted to say something that she didn't want Ray to hear, and he frowned. "Is something troubling you?" he asked.

"Well... Yes," she said. She twisted her hands together, and Fraser realized that it was the first time he'd seen her look upset. "It's about Ray," she went on awkwardly. "I wouldn't normally ask you this, but has he talked to you at all about -- well, about what happened while he was undercover?"

"A little," he nodded. "He doesn't seem to want to talk about it."

"No," she agreed. "And I can understand that. I met some of the men he dealt with all the time. They used to come to Maxi's for business meetings, and to party. And--" She swallowed, her face going a little pale. "Oh, Ben, you don't know. That Jimmy Maxwell -- he was the scariest person I've ever seen. He liked to scare people. He liked to kill people. And when he found out Ray was in love with me, he--"

Her voice trailed off, and Fraser leaned closer to her, disturbed by what she was hinting at. "Did he hurt you, Serena?" he asked, trying to keep his voice gentle despite his anger at the thought of it. He was relieved when she shook her head.

"No. Not me. Ray wouldn't let him. And he won't tell me, but I think--"

Fraser heard the sound of Ray's feet coming down the hallway, and he leaned even closer to Serena. "What?" he asked, sensing that she was just about to tell him something really important. Something that had to do with the darkness he'd seen in Ray's eyes the morning after he came back. But it was too late. They both heard footsteps outside the door, and Serena fell silent.

Ray strode back into his apartment just then -- carrying a shiny new guitar, with a huge red bow tied on it. He carried it over and set it down in Fraser's lap with a big smile. "Happy wedding present, Benny," he said.

Fraser stared down at the beautiful instrument in his lap, so stunned that he momentarily forgot all about what Serena had been saying. "Ray, I... I couldn't possibly . . . This... It's beautiful!" he breathed, turning the guitar up so that he could look at it.

"Good! I'm glad you like it," Ray beamed. "Serena helped me pick it out, she knows all about that stuff. It's handmade of Alaskan spruce and -- what was that other stuff, honey?"

"Brazilian rosewood," Serena said. She was smiling again as well, her eyes twinkling at his obvious astonishment. Ben was amazed that they'd both managed to keep the gift such a complete surprise. He hadn't had any idea they were going to do this.

"Yeah. That's it. And see, it's got an abalone border around the hole here," Ray pointed out, leaning over the guitar in Ben's hands. "Cool, huh?"

"It's not a hole, it's actually a sound board, Ray," he corrected automatically. "And it's more than cool, it's beautiful." It was also expensive. He knew that. Custom made guitars like this were worth hundreds of dollars. There was no way he could accept such a gift. "I can't--"

Ray waved a hand in a careless, elegant gesture. "Now, don't say that, Benny. Don't say no. See, in America, when a guy says he'll be another guy's best man, it's customary for the guy to get his best man a gift. So it's no big deal, okay? It's just what we do here."

Ben had to blink back a sudden rush of moisture to his eyes. This wasn't just any guitar, it was a beautiful, handmade instrument: a gift so exquisite, so perfect, that it took his breath away. "But... It's too expensive, Ray. I can't," he faltered. He choked up, overcome by this unexpected evidence of Ray's continued affection for him. He looked down, embarrassed at his momentary loss of control.

To his surprise, Ray sat down beside him. "Hey, Benny," he said quietly.

Fraser took a deep breath and raised his eyes.

Ray met his gaze and held it, his green eyes intense. "Listen. If it wasn't for you, I never woulda' had the guts to take that undercover assignment," he said quietly. "You taught me how one guy can make a difference. You made me want to. And if it wasn't for that, I never woulda' met Serena, and we wouldn't be gettin' married now. So I owe all that to you, and this is my way of sayin' thank you. This is for you, from Serena and me. From my heart. From both our hearts. Capiche? So you gotta take it."

There was no way on earth Fraser could've resisted that. He didn't even try. He just nodded, his eyes still suspiciously bright. He had to swallow hard before he could answer. "Capiche, Ray," he said, after a long moment. "Thank you."

Ray smiled. "You're welcome."

Serena was beaming as happily as Ray was. "I'm so glad you like it, Ben. Now we can sing together sometime, if you want to. Isn't this great?"

"Yes," Ben said, surprised to find that the idea actually pleased him. He'd never sung with a woman before, it would be a new experience -- and with Serena, he wouldn't be nervous. Well... at least not as nervous as he would've been with someone else, anyway.

Ray stood up again, put his arm around Serena and drew her close. "Yeah, it is," he agreed. "Just don't do any o' that "Kumbaya" stuff, okay? Cuz I don't wanna get sick."

Fraser smiled. "How about "Oh, Canada', Ray?"

The Italian rolled his eyes predictably at that. "How 'bout 'All Along The Watchtower'?"

"How about Beethoven's Fifth?" Serena chimed in, teasing both of them.

Ray just grinned at her. "I'm not fallin' for that one," he said, laughing. "Whatever you wanna sing, honey, it's fine by me."

Watching them, for a moment, Ben was happier than he'd felt in weeks. As he began to strum his beautiful new guitar gently, he realized how blessed he was. He had his best friend back safe and sound from a dangerous assignment, and even though he was getting married, his fiancée had just assured him that Ray would still be very much a part of his life. So he wasn't losing a friend, he was gaining a new one, who had jointly gifted him with a beautiful new guitar, and even promised to sing with him.

Ray wasn't the only one who was lucky. Fraser knew he was, too. I should be happy, he told himself. I should.

But even as he told himself that, his momentary contentment drained away when Ray and Serena smiled at each other, then bent their heads for a tender kiss. He averted his eyes. Again, even in the charmed circle of his friends' love, he felt alone.

Broken lover, you can touch me In the dark the innocent can't see...

-- Melissa Etheridge

Ray shoved the pizza box out of the way with his boot, and leaned his head on the back of the couch. Ran a hand through his hair and scratched at the mustache and neat square of beard he'd recently grown around his mouth and chin. He kept it trimmed, but it was so new that sometimes it still itched. "Man, I'm tired," he sighed, knowing all the beers he'd drunk while they were going over their case files had contributed to that. "What time is it?"

Rylan looked at his watch. "1:30," he said, sounding a bit surprised. "Damn, didn't know it was so late. Guess I should be goin', huh?" He shot a sideways look at Kowalski, from inside the curtain of his long dark hair.

Ray turned his head absently, sensing there was something behind that seemingly innocent question. He found Rylan's brown eyes focused intently on him, like he wanted something but didn't know how to ask for it. And that hesitancy was very unlike him. A faint hint of uneasiness skittered through his brain, but he forced it away. He was too tired for this, too tired for undercurrents and hidden emotions. A bit fogged from beer, and not in the mood to reach out. If he wants somethin', he's damn well gonna have to say so. "Yeah," he said bluntly. "Maybe you should. It's kinda' late, and we're not really gettin' anywhere with this anyway..."

They'd been going over all the rap sheets and information they had on some of the larger dealers in town, to see if they could figure out which of them might be involved in peddling some bad dope that had showed up in several different parts of Chicago lately. But so far, they weren't having any luck. It could've been any one of a dozen different scumbags, all of whom were more than capable of selling the strichnine-laced coke that had already landed several junkies in the hospital, and killed a few more.

The problem was, the source was hard to trace. The junkies who'd survived couldn't (or wouldn't) give more than vague descriptions of the guys who'd sold them their blow. ("Whaddaya want from me, man? I was strung out at the time!") And Ray knew that catching their penny ante dealers wouldn't help much either. Even if they did, he'd have to go through several more levels of peddlers before he got to their boss; and dealers were notorious for going to prison rather than ratting out their suppliers, for the simple reason that those who ratted didn't live long, in prison or out of it.

"I know," Rylan said. He frowned down at the files spread in front of him, sounding as disheartened as Ray felt. "I just feel like we're missin' somethin', ya know?"

"Yeah, I know." Kowalski sighed to himself. He felt the same way. Like there was something in all these files he just wasn't seeing. "It could be any of 'em, but somehow... I like Donen for it," he said slowly, thinking out loud.

"Ty Donen? The one who runs drugs through that restaurant? The creep with the ratfaced lieutenant? Why?"

Ray shrugged, staring at Donen's picture, which lay near him on the table in his opened file. "Dunno. 'S just a hunch. Word is, he's been having' some money troubles. Maybe he's cuttin' his stuff to increase his cash flow."

To Ray's relief, Rylan didn't argue with him. He just nodded. "Could be. Maybe we should go pay him a visit tomorrow," he said. "See what's shakin'. Mess with his head."

Ray smiled. That was one of the things he liked about Pat. He was tough, even fearless. He was always good to go. "Yeah. Sure," he said. But he still had a disturbing feeling, a nagging sense that they were missing something vital. He felt it in his bones. Fraser woulda found it. The thought arrowed across his tired brain before he could suppress it. Fraser woulda seen it...

Pain filled him, cut through his weariness like a knife. Like it always did, if he allowed his brain to even form that name. He tugged moodily at the earring he'd recently had put in his right ear, and touched his beard again. He'd changed jobs, changed partners, gotten a new nickname, a beard and an earring, and let months go by -- but he still couldn't stop thinking about him.

I still can't let go. Even though thinking of him hurt. Even though Ben's memory was like a scalpel that could cut him into bloody little pieces in seconds if he let it, sometimes when he got tired like this, he couldn't force it away. He'd see Ben's blue eyes staring at him with that wounded expression they'd had the last time he saw him, and he'd want him so much he could hardly breathe.

"Whatsa' matter, Ko?"

Rylan's voice cut into his reverie, and he shook himself. For a minute, he'd forgotten Pat was even in the room. "Nothin'. I'm just tired," he said, figuring a half truth was better than a lie.

"Ya sure that's all it is?"

He sent a sharp glance Pat's way. "Said it was, didn't I?"

"Yeah. But sometimes you seem..."

"What?" he demanded irritably.

"Well, like you're not really with me," Rylan said, surprising him. "Like you wish you were somewhere else. Or with someone else. The Mountie, maybe."

Rylan eyed him calmly, but Ray felt like he'd just had a bomb dropped on his head. The Mountie! What the fuck? How can Rylan know about me and Ben? Rylan's tone was quiet, almost casual, but the depth of knowledge about his past that he'd hinted at chilled Kowalski. He remembered telling the kid that his ex-partner was named Ben, but that was it. He'd never mentioned that he was a Mountie, or told him his last name. He hadn't given Rylan any details, because he didn't want Pat to know anything about him, or that painful part of his past.

So Rylan must've dug the information up on his own. Granted, that wouldn't have been hard. A simple phone call to the 27th would've done it. All Pat would've had to do was identify himself as Ray Kowalski's new partner, for instance, and one of the female aids might've happily spilled everything she knew about his ex partner, the 27th's red-coated chick magnet. His name, where he worked -- everything. The people at the 27th would've trusted anyone who'd partnered up with him.

The question was, why had Pat bothered? Had he been checking up on him, on his record as a detective? That, Ray could've understood. But he hadn't mentioned anything about that, or the cases he and Ben had worked together. Instead, he'd implied that he knew he still missed Fraser a lot. That hinted at the idea that Pat might have other, darker motives for his curiosity. Motives like jealousy, maybe.

For a long moment, Ray didn't move, didn't even blink. He couldn't mask his surprise, but he tried to keep his confusion and pain from showing while he tried to figure out what to say. "How do you know about Fraser?" he growled. Then he caught himself. Rylan couldn't really know they'd been lovers. No one at the 27th could've told him that, because no one else had known. Well, except for Lt. Welsh maybe, and he'd never mention it. So Rylan had to be fishing for information, hoping that he'd betray himself. "I mean, what do you know about him?" he added hastily, trying to make it sound like a sneer. "You never even met the guy."

But it was too late. Rylan smiled, and Ray knew his little slip had confirmed his suspicions. "I know Constable Benton Fraser of the R.C.M.P. used to be your unofficial partner," he said, his eyes boring into Ray. "Weird name. Heard he's a weird kinda guy, too. Likes to taste things--"

Ray saw red. "Fraser's not weird, he's Canadian!" he snapped, his anger aroused in a second by Rylan's put-down. But he saw something flicker in Rylan's eyes at that, a dark little glimmer of satisfaction that said he'd just betrayed himself again, that he'd confirmed Rylan's suspicions about him and his ex-partner. He bit his lip, knowing his instinctive defense of his former lover had been a mistake.

Rylan just smiled again. A nasty, speculative smile. "I think maybe he's the reason you left the 27th. I think maybe--"

"You think too much about stuff that's none o' yer damn business!" Ray cut in, beginning to get scared as well as pissed off. He wasn't sure how much Rylan knew and how much was pure guesswork, but it didn't matter. He didn't want Rylan thinking about him and Ben as a couple. The next thing you knew, he'd be blabbing it around the station, and the other detectives would be harassing him for being gay. He'd seen it happen. They could do more than just make his life miserable, they could get him busted. Get his ass canned, if they wanted to.

And it's over, Ray told himself for the thousandth time, trying not to feel the familiar pain that came with it. The last thing he needed was to be punished for something that was dead and gone, and that had already cut him to pieces anyway. He glared a warning at Pat to drop it.

But the kid didn't back down. "Maybe. But you're my partner now, Ko," he said, looking him right in the eye. "And it's important to know things about your partner."

There was something weird about the way he said it, something almost possessive, that took Ray aback. He didn't know what to make of it, or of the sudden intensity in Pat's eyes. Rather than backing off of the subject like he'd wanted, Rylan had as much as admitted that he'd done some nosing around about him. He wasn't sure what to do about that. He felt like coming down hard on him for it, but he knew that Fraser had done the same thing when they'd first started working together. And he hadn't jumped all over him for it...

Besides, Ray was guilty of a little snooping himself. He'd looked up the Miller shooting when he'd first partnered up with Rylan, to make sure he wasn't involved, that he wasn't a dirty cop. But he'd done that for good reason after all, because he'd learned that Rylan's last partner had died violently, and he'd needed to know if he could trust him or not. Why the hell had Rylan pried into his past? Was he just checking on his new partner out of curiosity as Fraser had, or did he have other reasons?

Was he jealous? Ray couldn't tell. It seemed like a ridiculous idea on the face of it. There was nothing going on between them, and they hadn't been partners for that long either, just a matter of months. Still, he didn't like the way their conversation was going. Didn't like the feeling that there might be ominous secrets hidden in Rylan's dark eyes, or that he'd checked him out so thoroughly without good reason. "What's yer problem, Rylan?" he asked, leaning forward and meeting him stare for stare. "Ya worried about why I transferred here? Izzat it? Think I'm a bad cop or somethin'? Ya tryin' to say you want a new partner?"

Rylan finally backed down at that, his eyes widening a little in surprise. He shook his head swiftly. "No, no! It's nothin' like that. Yer a great partner, Ko. I'm learnin' a lot from you. I'm just curious about your old partner, that's all. About why you left--"

Frustrated, Kowalski barked, "I told you why! I was on an undercover assignment. Fillin' in for another cop. He came back and took his old job with Ben, so I had to go. End o' story."

"Is it?" Pat shot back coolly. "I wonder."

Ray set his jaw. Despite his warnings and his obvious anger, Rylan was still trying to pry, and he didn't like it. "Why're you askin' me all these questions all of a sudden?"

Rylan shrugged. "You're an interesting guy, Ko. I'm just tryin' to get to know you better," he said softly.

That made him back off a bit. Okay -- so maybe Rylan was just curious about him. In a friendly way. Not thinking he was gay. He could live with that. He rolled his eyes, his anger fading to exasperation with that admission. His fear ebbed away. "Jesus, Pat! We spend 10 hours a day together, sometimes more," he complained. "What more d'ya want?"

Rylan held his gaze. "What if I told you I do want more?"

Shocked, Ray tensed up again instantly, his heart speeding up. Shit, I must be hallucinating, he thought. This can't be. I'm dreamin'. "What the hell are you talkin' about?" he rasped, hoping he was wrong. Hoping this didn't mean what he thought it did. Cuz I never thought he was interested in me -- but that look in his eyes just now... Oh, God.

Rylan took a deep breath, then put a hand on his arm and slid it slowly up to his bicep, never looking away for a second. "I'm talking about this," he said. He let his gaze drop to Ray's mouth, and his voice was suddenly husky. "About sex. You and me, together. You ever done it with a guy, Ko?"

Ray didn't answer. He closed his eyes, half hoping this was just a bad dream brought on by too much late night Budweiser. Holy shit! This isn't happening. It isn't. It can't be!

But Rylan wasn't finished. He wasn't a dream, and he didn't disappear. Far from it. "I wanna be with you, Ray," he said hoarsely. "Wanna have sex with you. I've been wantin' to ever since I first saw you. How 'bout it?"

Kowalski held himself very still. He was so stunned he didn't know what to say. During most of his time at the 27th, he'd hardly been able to get a date. Yet within the past few months, two of his partners had come on to him! Is it my cologne? he wondered, scratching his head. 'And why didn't I see it comin'? He'd heard some rumors that Rylan was bisexual, but he'd put them down to sour grapes. Hadn't paid any attention to them. Now he wished he had. Maybe then, finding out that Pat wanted him wouldn't have come as such a shock.

But to Ray's surprise, he didn't say no to Rylan's come-on. Though part of him wanted to, the part that didn't want to be with anyone but Ben, the other half argued that he had to face reality. And the reality was that Fraser had betrayed him, and he'd left him for it. Fraser was gone forever. So what was he supposed to do now, spend his whole life crying over it? Bleeding to death, drop by slow, torturous drop? Wanting something he was never going to get back, like he had with Stella? And feeling so alone he ached inside? Or should he take what Rylan was offering just because it was touch, and that was better than being alone?

"I don't know," he mumbled. It was stupid, but he didn't know what to say. Because though it was flattering, the kid's offer was also scary. There was more involved here than just lust and loneliness. Pat wasn't one of his usual one-night-stands, like the chicks he used to pick up in bars after Stella left. He was his partner -- and he'd just found out, to his sorrow, what could happen when you let yourself fall in love with your partner. He was in no danger of that himself this time, he was still too broken up inside about Fraser to care about anyone else. But he didn't want that to happen to Rylan, either.

And the way Pat had checked up on him, his interest in his relationship with Fraser, hinted at feelings that ran deeper than casual lust. Ray didn't want to get involved with him if that were true. He felt nothing for Rylan beyond casual friendship and the loyalty any cop owed his partner. And he had just enough compassion left that he didn't want to break anyone else's heart the way Stella and Ben had broken his. He didn't want to hurt Pat needlessly. So he searched the younger cop's eyes. "I don't think you wanna do this," he heard himself say. And the significance of that little 'you' wasn't lost on him. What did he want? He wasn't sure.

"Yeah I do," Rylan said, picking up on his ambivalence. "The question is, do you?" He didn't move, or take his hands off Ray's arm. He just wet his lips, and his brown, catlike eyes were intent. Undeniably hungry. They pinned Ray to the couch with their intensity.

Ray felt a tiny shiver in his belly that might've been lust. Or maybe it's just loneliness, he thought tiredly. Not sure I'd know the difference anymore. He'd noticed Rylan's striking good looks, of course. He'd seen women noticing him a lot too, and no wonder. He was built, confident, plus his dark hair and eyes gave him that Bad Boy look chicks loved. But he just didn't do anything for him. He felt no excitement at the thought of taking him to bed. Not so much as a spark. He's not Ben, he thought before he could stop himself. But the other half of him answered, Yeah, but he's all you've got now. He lowered his eyes, not wanting Rylan to read his expression. "I dunno," he repeated finally, wavering. "We're partners. It's probly not a good idea."

Rylan snorted softly. "That's funny, coming from you," he said. "Since when did you start acting cautious?"

Since I fell in love and it almost killed me -- twice, he thought bitterly. But he didn't say so. Rylan didn't know that; and he didn't want him to. He didn't want to share his feelings with him, didn't want to open up. That was how you got hurt, and he was done with that. He was never going to let anyone close enough to rip his heart out again. Ever. So he didn't say anything.

But while he was brooding, Rylan reached down and put a hand on his leg. Moved it slowly up his thigh, in a definite caress. "Come on, Ko," he urged softly. "It'd be hot, you and me. I can feel it. Don't you want it too?"

As that hand crept up his thigh, he felt a slight shiver. He knew he should probably put a stop to this, that it wasn't a good idea for either of them, but he couldn't make himself do it. No one had touched him like that in a long time. Not since Ben. He stared down at Pat's hand instead, feeling cornered, unable to say yes or no without hurting him. And as he did, he had a sudden, painful vision of another hand: slightly smaller, paler, and more beautifully shaped.

Ben's hand.

He couldn't believe it. After all this time, even when he was with another guy, he couldn't stop seeing Fraser. Couldn't stop wanting him. It was stupid, but that memory shook him, made him want to push Rylan away. Don't, that's not fair, he told himself. It's not his fault he's not Ben. He closed his eyes for a second and concentrated on feeling Rylan's touch, so he could banish the memory of Fraser's. And when he opened them again, all he could see were Rylan's big, blunt fingers on his leg. Stroking him. Feeling him.

Good, he thought, relieved that he'd made Fraser's memory disappear.

But he realized too late that Rylan had taken his momentary distraction for a yes. He'd probably even thought he'd closed his eyes because he was excited. Because his gaze was fixed on his face, and he was smiling slightly. Triumphantly. He stroked him harder. "That's it, Ray," he breathed. "You feel it, don't you? How hot it would be?"

What I feel is, I want Benny. Not you, he thought helplessly. But Pat had no way of knowing that he'd been thinking of the Mountie. Wanting him instead... Ray opened his mouth to tell him the truth, but he couldn't. The words stuck in his throat. They hurt too much. He found himself joking instead. "Well, it's kinda' hard not to feel you. Ya got a grip like a python, Pat." He smiled tentatively, to cover the fact that he didn't really know what to do. He should've said no, but Rylan's touch was the first thing that had managed to distract him from his pain in months; and maybe he needed that. Maybe he just wanted to see if he could forget about the Mountie long enough to get a hard on about someone else. Or maybe he just didn't want to reject Rylan, to hurt the one person he'd allowed himself to feel even friendship for since he left the 27th.

Whatever the reason, he still didn't move or push the younger cop away.

Rylan raised an eyebrow, his grin widening, as if he knew he had it made now. "Ya think so? I haven't even really got started yet." Holding his eyes, Rylan moved his hand further up and traced the length of Ray's cock through his jeans. Stroked it slowly, with practiced ease. Ray held his breath. But he felt none of the pleasure, none of the tenderness, none of the incredible, intense excitement he'd felt with Ben... No emotion at all, only a faint stirring of desire. Just his cock hardening a little.

But he decided that would have to be enough. That even a cold flicker was better than nothing at all. You can't spend the rest of your life wanting someone who doesn't want you, he told himself. You're gonna have to get used to stuff like this, because it's all you've got now.

"Okay," he said at last. Then he realized that since he had no idea what Pat felt or what he was expecting, he'd better tell him there were limits to this, to what he was willing to do. He reached down and caught his hand, stopped its stroking and sought his eyes. "All right," he growled. "We can do this. But don't kid yerself. This is tonight. Just one night. No strings. Nothin' else."

I'm not in love with you, he wanted to say. But he didn't, because he wasn't sure Rylan even cared.

"That's cool," Rylan said casually. He knelt down between Ray's legs. He wasn't smiling, but he didn't look crushed, either. At least, Ray didn't think he did. Pat's eyes were hooded over like he was keeping secrets, so it was hard to tell. But when he let go of the warning grip he'd taken on his hand, Rylan's secretive look melted into a smile. A slow, satisfied smile that said he'd known this was going to happen all along. "Who says I want anything else?" he asked, caressing Ray's inner thighs with both hands now. Rubbing sensually. "This is just sex, Ray. No strings. Like you said."

But Ray wasn't entirely reassured. Rylan had just said he'd wanted him from the time they met, yet he'd never given the slightest hint of it. Which meant that Pat was either lying to flatter him, or else he was extremely good at hiding his feelings -- far better than Ray himself. Ray was inclined to believe that he'd been hiding the truth about his secret attraction. He remembered the long, intense look Rylan had given him when they first met. He'd assumed at the time that the kid was just sizing up his new partner. But now he suspected there'd been more to it than that. Maybe he was sizing up Little Ray instead...

It worried him. As far as he was concerned, they were partner cops, and maybe friends. But not friends the way he and Ben had been, not close friends at all. And they would never be lovers the way he and Ben had been, either. Never in a million years.

Looking hard into Rylan's hungry dark eyes, he said, "Okay. But remember, this is just for tonight. It doesn't mean anything."

Rylan just grinned. "But it's sure gonna feel good, Ko."

Ray had no chance to reply, because Rylan leaned forward and kissed him. Hard. Forcefully. Ray felt an odd flash of relief, because the contrast between his kiss and Ben's was so total, there was no comparison. Rylan had none of the Mountie's gentleness. His kiss was more like an assault, like Ray's mouth was a fort he was going to take or die trying. Pat forced his lips apart and explored his mouth with deep, hungry thrusts of his tongue as he slipped his arms around him. Ray shut his eyes, trying to get into it. Rylan was big, warm and muscular, and his hard body enfolded him tightly. He could feel the kid's heart pounding against him, racing with excitement. He heard Pat making low sounds of pleasure in the back of his throat.

But Ray didn't make a sound. He knew Pat was right. It should've felt good. He should've enjoyed it. But all he felt was a surge of sadness.

But he'd done it now. He'd said yes, so he couldn't back out or he'd look like a wimp. He finally forced himself to return the kiss, and at his response, Rylan made a small, hungry sound in the back of his throat, breathing hard. Man. He really wants me, Ray realized. He's got it bad. It should've been flattering, but somehow it wasn't.

Pat pulled up his shirt and started working on his nipples, rubbing and pinching them. "Mmm, that's it," he murmured as they hardened under his hands. He stopped kissing Ray just long enough to pull his shirt off. Then he took his mouth eagerly again while his hands dipped lower and started squeezing him through his jeans, then pulling at his belt. His clever hands made short work of undoing his buckle, and his expertise told Ray that he'd undoubtedly done this a lot. Probably a hell of a lot more than he had. But he couldn't bring himself to care. So what if Rylan's a slut, what if he fucks someone different every night? At least someone's touchin' me. At least someone wants me.

He could feel his heart beating a little faster at the sensual assault, and he told himself that was enough. Rylan moaned enthusiastically, breathing hard as he leaned into him. As he pulled his belt off, he pressed him back into the couch pillows with more hard kisses. Then he pulled his own t-shirt off, so they were both naked to the waist. Ray looked at Pat's chest. His body was buff compared to his, with large, hard muscles and a springy mat of dark chest hair that trailed in a line down his flat stomach to the waistband of his jeans. But despite his good looks and enthusiasm, Ray felt nothing. No real pleasure at his kiss, his touch. Just a kind of letdown.

Ben isn't hairy like that, he found himself thinking. His chest is smooth. Perfect... He remembered how incredibly sensual it had felt, pressing their smooth chests together, skin to skin with no scratchy chest hair in between, just satin-smooth flesh--

Jesus, he told himself angrily. Stop it!

He closed his eyes and tried to focus on what Rylan was doing to him. Maybe because thoughts of Fraser kept distracting him, his body wasn't responding much. Despite the way his partner was working him over, all he had was a barely perceptible flicker of heat between his thighs. He wasn't really hard. But he didn't pull away. Not when Rylan forced him down onto his back on the couch. Not even when he pinned him underneath his big body and drove his tongue so deeply into his mouth that Ray could hardly breathe. He was starting to realize that some of the rumors he'd heard about Rylan had been true: he definitely seemed to get off on dominating his partner. But he didn't protest the younger cop's roughness. Didn't say a word. He knew he should stop this, that it didn't feel right, but somehow, he couldn't push Pat away. The kid seemed so excited that it would've been cruel to change his mind at this stage of the game. So he clung to him, hoping that Pat's horniness would rub off on him somehow.

But it didn't. Memories of Ben's lovemaking intruded again, filling his mind against his will. Gentle hands, tender kisses.

"Mmm. You taste good, Ray," Rylan moaned, gripping him so tightly that it hurt a little.

Ray tried to focus on his grip, on his compliment. But in his head, he could hear Ben saying the same thing; and his voice, his words, were the only ones that mattered. He remembered how Ben had touched him that time, how he'd run his hands all over him so gently, without speaking--

Rylan would never do that for him, he realized, his heart sinking. Then he felt his cock softening too, and felt a surge of despair. Of anger. God DAMMIT! he screamed inwardly, frustrated by the Mountie's ghost. Get outta my head! Leave me alone!

But it was no use. Instead of clearing obediently, his brain called up another image of Ben. The way he looked asleep, the way his dark eyelashes looked so thick and soft against his pale cheeks...

Jesus effing Christ! He moaned out of sheer frustration. If Rylan hadn't been there, he would've yelled. Banged his head against a wall. Hit something. He had a big, beautiful young cop crawling all over his skinny body, doing his best to turn him on, and all he could do was think of Fraser. Benny the betrayer.

Freak, he told himself, disgusted. Yer hopeless, ya oughtta be locked up in a rubber room somewhere! Then, all at once, a new thought struck him. Saved him from despair. Since he couldn't forget Ben, why not imagine that Rylan was him? That they were together again? Maybe that'd get him going.

It wasn't something he usually did -- that he'd ever had to do before -- but it was the only hope he had, so he tried it. He closed his eyes and sank his fingers into Rylan's hair, pretending that it was Ben's dark hair he was touching instead. Then he moved one hand lower, onto Pat's broad shoulders, telling himself it was Ben's body he was holding. Ben's hard muscles he was stroking. Benny Ben, he whispered in his head, gritting his teeth against the sudden impulse to moan his name out loud.

But it didn't work. Rylan's hair was far too long, and not as thick and silky as Fraser's. And his skin was rougher, not as smooth. He didn't smell like Benny, didn't taste like him -- didn't feel like him. His body knew the difference as well as his heart did, and it refused to respond. It just wasn't the same. Ray bit his lip. I want it to be over, dammit! he raged inwardly. When is it ever gonna be over?

Not tonight, anyway. That much was obvious. He could've had ten supermodels working him over, and it still wouldn't have turned his crank. After that, Ray gave up trying to pretend that Rylan was Fraser so that he could get excited. He quit pretending, period. To himself, and to Pat. He took his hands out of Rylan's hair, put them on his shoulders and just laid there and let him do what he wanted.

Rylan didn't seem to care that Ray wasn't responding to him any more, that he wasn't stroking or kissing him in return. He sucked and licked and even bit at Ray's neck enthusiastically. Ray doubted that he even noticed that he was just going along for the ride. Then he wondered if having a passive partner actually excited him, if Pat preferred taking charge of a fuck and making his partner go along. Then he felt weird about lying there analyzing him like that. He'd never done that with Fraser -- he hadn't been able to. Because whenever Ben touched him, all rational thought went out of his head...

But he's not Ben. That thought came again, producing a stab of pain more vivid than any feeling Rylan's touch had aroused. Ray stolidly tried to ignore it.

Rylan reached down and began to tug at Ray's jeans, working them down towards his knees. Then he closed his hard fist around his nearly limp cock, began to pump it slowly while he sucked, then bit at his hardening nipples. It hurt a little, and Ray sucked in his breath. But Rylan must've mistaken that for a moan of pleasure, because he smiled. "Oh, yeah, Ko," he panted. "You're hot..."

Ray finally remembered to moan again then, for Rylan's sake. Because he couldn't bring himself to do anything else, and it didn't seem fair to just lie there like a log while the kid sweated over him. Besides -- if this was all he was ever going to have now, buddy fucking or one night stands with people he didn't care about, he had to at least pretend to enjoy it.

But soon, slowly jacking him off wasn't enough for Rylan. He pulled Ray down onto the floor and squeezed his cock harder. He started to fist him faster and faster, twisting and pumping Ray's cock until the movement was almost savage, until it hurt. And he started to squeeze his balls at the same time. Kowalski hung onto him, eyes closed, not wanting to look at what Rylan was doing to him. Damn, he's rough!

Ray was moaning for real now. Biting his lip. Still, he didn't try to stop Rylan. He let him yank at his cock, let him bite his neck. Because he could feel the other man's pleasure, feel his rising excitement, and it had been so long since he'd felt that way himself that part of him responded to it. It didn't touch the inner, icy core of him, didn't warm his cold heart, but his body finally began to respond to the crude stimulation. His breath came faster and his cock started to throb in Rylan's grip.

"That's it, Ko," Rylan panted as Ray hardened slowly in his fist. "Give it to me! Come, baby."

It took a long time, but finally, he came. Not the satisfying, mind blowing way he had with Benny, but enough so that a little spilled into Rylan's rough hand at last, over it, making him groan. "Ohhh, yeah, Ray. That's it!" he whispered, pleased. He tasted the semen on his hand, then rubbed some of it onto Kowalski's belly. "That's what I wanted. Doesn't that feel good?" he breathed.

No, Ray thought bitterly. No, it doesn't. It was so far from good that it almost hurt. He knew what good felt like. Good felt like warm, azure blue eyes and big hands that were gentle, so gentle on his skin... Good felt like tenderness, like being understood right down to his bones. Good felt like pleasure spreading from the warm, slow, sensuous touch of his lover's hands, like being so excited by it that he could hardly breathe. Good felt like being connected to his lover, not just their bodies but everything -- hearts, minds, souls. Good felt like exploding so hard when he came with him -- for him -- that he felt like he was going to pass out.

Good felt like Stella and Ben. Like it was with them. Good felt like love.

This felt like being fucked. Hard, rough, fast, impersonal. It wasn't love, or anything close to it. His body responded to it in a way -- it was programmed to do that. But he knew, better than most, how little that meant. In his career as a cop, he'd learned that sometimes even rape victims came. Give enough attention to certain body parts, and they'd do their thing, no matter how you felt about it. It meant nothing. Less than nothing. So did this. It didn't touch his heart, didn't move him at all. Even though they still lay close together, though Rylan still had his arms around him, sex with him had left him cold inside. Cold as ice. Empty, like sex had with the women he used to bring home after Stella left him. He felt so hollow that he had to remind himself that this was all he had now. All he could expect.

Why the fuck did I do this? he wondered. He felt so let down that he didn't even want to talk about it. But he knew he couldn't tell Rylan that. Not just because it might hurt him, but because it might make him angry; and the last thing he needed right now was a fight. He was beating himself up just fine. He didn't need any extra help.

He forced his lips to move. "Yeah. Sure. That was good," he muttered. And he was lying as much for his sake as for Rylan's. It was bad enough he'd just had lousy sex with his own partner, when he hadn't liked it, should've known better anyway and hated himself for it. If he had to talk about it on top of all that, he'd go nuts. So he complimented Pat hoping that would shut him up.

"It was great," Rylan agreed. He sounded satisfied, even a bit smug; and he was smiling.

If you say so, Ray thought sourly. All he wanted now was to be alone. To get Rylan off him. Make him go away. He wondered how to do that, how he could make him leave without making him feel like he'd just been wham, bam, thank you ma'amed--

But Rylan had other ideas. "Now it's my turn," he said, his eyes lighting up.

Ray groaned inwardly. He knew Rylan hadn't come yet, but selfishly, he didn't care. He'd had enough. He opened his mouth to say no. But before he could say a word, Rylan flipped him over onto his stomach. Then Ray heard him undoing his own belt. He suddenly realized what he wanted, and he felt a cold flare of rage. "No!" he snapped. He turned over again, pulled away from his partner, pulled his jeans back up to his hips, got up and sat back down on his couch.

Rylan blinked, hands frozen on his zipper. "What? You got a problem?"

He shook his head. "Don't even think about it," he said, biting the words off.

Rylan blinked again, frowning in confusion. "What? You want me to use lube? A glove? What?"

He swallowed hard, swept by another wave of deep, inexplicable anger that rose up in his throat. He felt like yelling, I want you to get the hell out. And don't ever touch me again! But he bit back the words. He'd let Rylan fuck him after all, had told him it was okay. He couldn't scream at him now for trying something else. For not being someone else...

He took a deep breath, and choked down his rage. "No. I'm not gonna do that. That's all," he grated finally.

"Why?" Rylan climbed to his feet and looked down at him with a frown. He looked so confused, so disappointed that Ray was surprised. His earlier uneasiness returned. Rylan looked emotional, and he didn't like it. He didn't want that.

"That's just the way it is," he said gruffly. Because Pat's feelings about it didn't matter. He couldn't let him fuck him in the ass, would never let him do that. He didn't know why, but the very idea made him so furious that he would've hurt him if he'd tried it again. "Take it or leave it. If you don't like it, you can go."

Rylan raised an eyebrow. "Hey, don't get upset, Ko! It's cool," he breathed. "We can do other things..."

"Whatever," Kowalski said coldly. He supposed he owed Rylan that much. One more fuck, just to get him off. "But not that," he repeated. "I'm not ever doin' that."

Rylan wanted to stay the night with him. Seemed eager to keep having sex with him. But as soon as he could, as soon as he made him come, which didn't take long, Kowalski made him leave. Afterwards, he laid in bed wondering at himself. At the fact that he'd just had sex with his own partner. And at how he'd done it. On his couch and on the floor, instead of in his bed where it was comfortable. He hadn't even taken Pat into his bedroom. Why? The obvious answer was, he didn't want him there. But why? And why hadn't he let Pat come inside him, either? He'd let him lick him, bite him, put bruises on him -- why not that? Why had he balked at that? What made it different?

But deep inside, he knew. Fraser had been in his bed, had made love to him in that bed -- so he didn't want Rylan in it. Crazy, but it was true. And the other thing, that was... personal. Intimate. More than just sex. He'd never let anyone do that to him... He shut his eyes, but he couldn't shut out the truth that rose from deep inside him. But I would've let Benny do it.

He gritted his teeth. It was all about Fraser, damn it. All of it! Not just what he'd let Rylan do, but what he hadn't. He'd never have been with him at all, would never have let Pat touch him, if Fraser hadn't betrayed him. A fresh wave of pain cut through him, as the wound inside him that had never healed broke open and began to bleed again. Face the truth, you dipshit, he told himself harshly. Ben's gone! I left him, and I'm never gonna see him again!

But the words didn't matter. Facing the truth didn't make his pain go away. It just seemed to deepen the helpless longing inside of him. Everything he did, or didn't do, still related to Fraser. He suddenly wished that Fraser had made love to him that way, the way Rylan had wanted to. But he never did. I never asked him to. Don't even know if he wanted to. We weren't together that long... He felt heavy with regret, with missed chances. Still, he didn't want anyone else to touch him like that. Even though Ben was gone.

Gone. I left him, and I can't go back.

The words were cold, like a funeral dirge. They made him shiver, even though he was wrapped securely in his blankets. So did the memory of his own coldness. Although he'd let Rylan fuck him, and even though he liked him, and trusted him as much as he'd let himself trust anyone anymore, he hadn't felt a thing. Nothing positive, anyway; nothing but sadness. Rylan had pushed his body's buttons enough to make him come once, but that was all. Though he'd gotten Pat off after that, he hadn't come again himself in the process. There had been no connection between them, nothing mingling except their bodies. He was still empty. Still cold. Still alone.

This was a mistake, he thought. He was bruised and aching, inside and out. Being with Pat had made him feel worse than ever.

Okay. So it didn't feel good. It's not the end of the world. Just don't let it happen again, he told himself. But he wasn't really sure he meant that. Because he'd never felt so alone as he had in the past few months, since he'd left Fraser. He had a hole inside him the size of the Grand Canyon, and nothing to fill it. He hadn't been with anyone since, hadn't even wanted to. He didn't want to be with Rylan now, but what else did he have? He wasn't sure how much longer he could carry on doing his job, how much longer he could keep pretending he was a functioning human being, without something to ease the terrible emptiness inside him.

Maybe Rylan's desire would save him. Keep him away from the edge until he could find his feet again. Maybe it'll even make me forget about Fraser some day, he told himself, though he wasn't sure he really believed that. At least Rylan looks up to me -- at least he needs me. The awful thing was, he knew how pathetic that sounded, but he clung to it anyway. It was all he had to stuff into that hole, all he had to keep him from falling into his Grand Canyon and never finding his way out. Tears stung the corners of his eyes, and he let them fall.

A long time later, when they finally stopped falling, he slipped into a fitful sleep.

Lying in the city night a million fingers tingling my skin Out there in the sea tonight, I thought I saw you clutching your sin...

-- Melissa Etheridge

Later that night, Ray dreamed of Fraser again. He heard a knock on his door and in his dream, he didn't pull out his gun like he always did now. He just went to the door and pulled it open, feeling eager instead of afraid. And when he did, he saw Fraser standing there. Impossibly handsome, glittering in his red and gold uniform, he cocked his head and searched his eyes with a mournful expression, as if he knew what he'd done. He looked as lonely as Ray felt; and he said just one thing. "Why, Ray? Why?"

He couldn't answer. He'd meant to take that look out of Ben's eyes, to make him happy. Maybe he still could... He reached out, frantic to touch him. To pull him to his heart and hold him there, hold him -- but Fraser just faded away. He called out, ran out his door after him. But the hallway was dark now, and empty. Just like his life. He ran downstairs to the street and spun in a frantic circle on the sidewalk, looking in every direction for the flame-red of his lover's jacket, but Ben was nowhere in sight. His calls became screams of frustration, of loss. "Fraser! Ben, wait! BENNNNNEEEE!"

He woke up yelling. Heart pounding, breathing fast, he reached out and flipped on his light. "Fraser!" he cried out again. But no one answered. His gaze fell on his clock. 4:35 a.m. Not even dawn yet... It was quiet. Too quiet. And he felt strange. A bit frightened. He could've sworn Fraser was here, that he'd been with him -- but he swept the room with his eyes, and it was empty. He was alone.

Just a dream, he thought. Just another goddamn dream...

He slumped back down onto his pillow, panting, feeling stupid. Feeling unbearably empty. It had felt so real -- and Ben had looked so sad. As if he somehow knew what he'd done, knew that he'd let Rylan have sex with him, and it had hurt him. Ray knew that was ridiculous, impossible. Get a grip, he told himself. But he couldn't get the look in Fraser's eyes out of his mind. It filled his thoughts until his insides knotted painfully.

He got up and stumbled into his bathroom to take a piss. Didn't look in the mirror. Didn't even want to see the look that dream must've put into his own eyes. He was depressed enough already. He just shut off the light and started shuffling back down the hall to his bedroom. Frickin' dreams are gonna drive me nuts, he thought resentfully.

But as he headed back to bed, he saw the little circle of beads and leather he'd hung on the wall above it. His dreamcatcher.

He stopped and stared at it. Ben had made it for him long ago, as a birthday present. He looked at the white eagle feather that hung in its center. He remembered Ben telling him, in the midst of a running gun battle, all about how hard it was to get a real one, about the lengths he'd gone to. "Freak," he'd said, wondering how anyone could be whacked enough to blather about crap like that when people were trying to blow holes in him.

It wasn't until he'd gotten the thing home, hung it over his bed and looked it over, really studied the spiderweb-like intricacy of its interior, and the perfect, careful way the leather had been wrapped around its outer rim, that he'd realized how much time, effort and patience Ben had put into making a gift for a guy he didn't even know that well yet. Okay, so it was a weird kind of gift, but it was still beautiful. Jesus, it musta taken him hours and hours, he'd thought. He'd never admitted it to Fraser, but he'd marveled at his generosity. That had been one of his first hints about what an extraordinary guy the Canadian was.

But the little gift hadn't waited for him to appreciate it. It had worked its magic that very same day. The day Fraser gave it to him, it had caught the biggest nightmare of his life, his own personal boogieman, Marcus Ellery, in its little web for him.

He just didn't think it was a coincidence. The same day Fraser gave him the dreamcatcher, he'd caught the man he'd been obsessing about for twenty five years -- what the hell were the odds on that? And then he'd let him go, which somehow set him free too. His obsession with Ellery was over. Gone. Vanished. He'd felt like a new man, like he'd been born again into Vecchio's life. He'd felt lucky, like things were going to be different this time around. Better for him somehow.

And the dreamcatcher was part of all that. He'd never told Fraser that either, but it gave him an odd sense of security. So he'd never taken it down, not even after their breakup. He'd left it hanging over his bed, like a leftover bit of Mountie magic. Big Red juju. Or maybe he'd kept it because it was the one piece of Fraser he had left, the one bit of remaining evidence he could use to prove to himself on nights like this that Ben had once cared about him...

So what's up with it now? he wondered. Why isn't it snatchin' my nightmares away anymore?

Something had to be wrong with it, because you name a kind of nightmare, and he was having it. Dreams that he was running away from something. Dreams that he was hopelessly lost in the dark, and couldn't find his way home. And all of those dreams had Fraser in them somehow. They cut his sleep short almost every night, they tortured him.

He stared at the little dreamcatcher, sadness heavy in him. Maybe it isn't workin' cuz it was Ben's magic. Maybe it only worked when he cared about me, he thought. Now that he doesn't, I've got no protection. For a second, he felt a chill. Then he realized how crazy that sounded.

"Jeez," he snapped. "Yer not just pathetic, yer goin' nuts!" But telling himself that didn't seem to help. Even the idea that he was losing it, that he was probably going to wind up in a nut house, didn't hurt as much as the thought that Ben didn't love him anymore. That maybe he never had...

He swallowed hard, trying to choke down the huge lump that rose in his throat, but it was no good. His chest tightened, and his eyes filled with tears. He ran a shaking hand over his face, and his fingers came away wet. He shook his head, trying to fight it off. But the pressure built in his chest. His sadness grew until he knew he was on the verge of bursting out sobbing like a girl. He bit his lip. Don't, he told himself desperately. It ain't that bad! So I'm havin' bad dreams. Least I got a new lover now. I've got Rylan.

But that didn't help much. The boast didn't ring true, because he knew how hollow it was. He didn't have a lover, he had a fuck buddy. No, a fuck master. And a selfish, kinky one at that, who didn't even turn him on. So he was really still alone.

He brushed at his eyes again, wiped away more tears. Okay, so what if I am? he told himself defiantly, trying to banish the sadness his dream had left in its wake. It's better that way. No one can hurt you if you don't care.

But he knew that he still did. He still cared, because he still hurt. And he hurt because Fraser's memory wouldn't let go of him. He hadn't seen him for months, but his ghost still haunted him nearly every night. Still called to him. His name drummed inside him like a heartbeat. He was still part of him, as surely as if he had his name tattooed on his arm instead of the Champion logo; as if it were carved into his bones. He held his head for a minute, trying to make his name stop sounding in his brain, but it was no use. There it was: Ben. Benny. Benny Ben. Benton the Beautiful Fraser. His eagle feather, his magic spell, his lucky charm, his partner -- his love. Everything he wanted but couldn't have.

I gotta get outta here, he told himself. He couldn't look at the dreamcatcher any more, or he'd go insane. So he padded into the kitchen and started to make himself some coffee.

No point tryin' to sleep now. It ain't gonna happen. Not after that.

Still, at least he'd avoided the fit of tears that had threatened earlier. Just barely. At least that was something... But he knew that even though he hadn't let them out, the tears were still there, lurking inside him. His sadness hadn't gone away. The thought crossed his mind, as it often did lately, that there might be a way to make it stop, to make Ben's ghost go away. All he'd have to do was swallow his pride and go by the 27th to talk to him.

Maybe things have changed. Maybe he'd be glad to see me. Maybe I was wrong about the whole thing. That was the worst thought of all, the one that always came to mind after these damn dreams. Maybe I shouldn't have left him...

Doubts had begun to creep into his self righteous anger at the Mountie; and they were always the strongest in the dark hours before dawn. In the aftermath of his dreams about him, he'd remember how hungover he'd been that morning they'd had their big fight. How crappy he'd felt: dry-mouthed, red-eyed, his head pounding mercilessly... Welsh had been right. He hadn't been in any condition to make important decisions then.

But that was him: act first, think later. Or maybe not at all. As far as he could tell, he'd set a personal record for not thinking that morning when he'd dumped Fraser. He'd thrown him away as casually as you'd throw away a worn out old boot; and almost done the same with his career. Luckily, Welsh had talked him out of that, but he couldn't help wishing that Fraser had managed to convince him not to break up with him, too. Of the two decisions, he already knew that leaving him had been the more important one.

Jobs are a dime a dozen, but where the hell will I ever find another lover like him?

He wondered for the hundredth time if he'd overreacted to Fraser's insistence that they talk about their problem. Remembering how he'd shoved him instead, how he'd yelled at him and broken up with him on the spot, he winced. He'd been so sure he was right at the time, but he didn't feel that way now. Now he wondered if it had been a mistake. If maybe Fraser had been right. Maybe instead of shoving him, he should've told him why he was mad. Maybe he should've spelled it out, so at least he would've had a chance to explain, to defend himself. Fraser had asked him to repeatedly. Hell, he'd almost begged him to. Now, he wished he'd listened to him.

Maybe if I had, things would've been different.

As he stared at the gently bubbling coffee maker, an old memory crossed his mind. He remembered asking his dad once how he would know for sure when he'd finally found the right girl, the one he was meant to be with. "That's a tough one," his dad had said. "But one thing to watch for is if she closes her eyes when you kiss her. If she doesn't, she's definitely not the one."

Ray thought painfully, Ben always closed his eyes when I kissed him. Always. Just like Stella.

The coffeemaker's bubbling was noiser now, as it really began to heat up. He stared at it, wishing he felt that energetic. Wishing he felt anything at all besides bad.

After the coffee was brewed, he dropped M & M's into it with unsteady hands. But as he waited for the candies to dissolve, he remembered how his dreams of love with Fraser had dissolved just like that when Vecchio came back and he saw them together. And his anger returned. He knew that if he went by the 27th, there was a good chance he'd see that again, that he'd find them together. He'd heard rumors through the blue grapevine that Vecchio was engaged, that he was going to marry some chick he'd met while he was undercover, but he didn't really believe them. Now that he was out of the picture, he thought it was much more likely that Fraser and Vecchio were lovers.

Jesus -- what if I saw them together? he thought. What if I saw Vecchio kiss him? What if Ben closed his eyes for him too? A bolt of pure, black jealousy shot through him. No, he said to himself stubbornly. I'm not goin' back there. Not ever.

But inside, he knew it wasn't just jealousy that kept him from going. It wasn't anger either, or even pride. It went deeper than that. It was fear. Fear that he'd been wrong about Ben betraying him -- that he'd misinterpreted the whole thing. Fear that Ben might've turned to Vecchio for real now, for comfort after he'd dumped him. Fear that he might've caused the very affair he'd thought he was running from.

Fear that he'd lost the second great love of his life through his own stupid, blind jealousy. That was the thing he really couldn't face.

Needing the warmth, he cradled his mug in his shaky hands while he waited for the coffee to cool a bit. Then he gulped it down. Despite the chocolate he'd added, it still tasted bitter. He drank it anyway, and stared out the window. It was still dark, and a long way till dawn. He wondered if Fraser was sleeping. If he was haunted by doubts and dreams the way he was...

Or if he ever thought of him at all.

At 4:35 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, when even the street people were mostly curled up in doorways sleeping, Fraser sat bolt upright in bed, covered with a cold sweat. "Ray?" he whispered. He turned on his bedside lamp and gazed around his room, his heart sinking as he saw that Dief was its only other occupant.

The wolf lifted his furry head. Again? he asked.

Fraser bowed his head. "Yes," he muttered. He'd dreamed of Ray again, that he'd gone to see him and asked him why he'd left. Ray hadn't answered him, but the dream had seemed so real that the echoes of his voice lingered in Fraser's head, a fading but still audible torment. "Fraser! Ben! BENNNEEEE!" He closed his eyes, trying to blot them out.

"It's all right, Dief. Go back to sleep," he said, though he knew from experience that he himself would find sleep impossible after that.

Dief lowered his head back down onto his paws and watched him with a worried expression. Ben tried to smile to reassure him, but the expression didn't come naturally to him anymore, and he quickly gave up the effort.

He got up instead, went to his window and stared out into the night, as he often did lately. Wondering where in those miles of cold darkness Ray was. If he was home, and what he was thinking. The familiar undercurrent that ran through his mind constantly, waking and sleeping. He'd tried to avoid self pity, but it was hard not to feel that fate was against him, that he was cursed, because he'd lost another lover. The thought of Ray burned inside him like a bank of hot coals in his chest. A fire, concealed but never dying. He couldn't put it out, or make it go away. He couldn't even seem to make sense of his life without him -- or understand how, in the teeming masses of this city, he could still feel so alone.

Why am I still alone, when I love Ray so much?

Because he doesn't love you back. Because no one ever did. Because you're not worth loving. The painful answer welled up from deep inside him, from that place that had been hollowed out inside of him since childhood, since his mother's death. That deep, dark place where everything hurt, and where nothing made sense. Just as Ray's leaving made no sense.

He'd tried to reject that feeling, tried to tell himself that Ray's departure wasn't his fault, but he couldn't really be sure, because he didn't know why he'd left. He'd gone over and over it in his mind in the months since their breakup. Every angry word Ray had said, every searing glare was burned into his brain -- but he still didn't understand what had happened. Why he'd lost him. "It's not what I think, it's what you DID," Ray had said. He'd replayed that sentence a thousand times in his memory, as if it were a code he could crack if he tried hard enough, but its meaning still eluded him. What the hell did Ray think he'd done? What mistake had he made that had cost him his lover this time?

Fraser didn't doubt that it was his mistake somehow. Like Victoria, Ray obviously felt he'd done something wrong, something terrible that couldn't be forgiven. And it had something to do with his failure to return promptly to his apartment the morning they'd first made love. That much, he knew.

But that was all he knew. He didn't know what it was, what sin he'd unwittingly committed that had caused Ray to quit his job, to leave him in such a fury. As far as he knew, the only thing he was guilty of was tardiness. It hardly seemed sufficient reason to sever their relationship, especially when he'd called Ray several times from the café to explain it, to tell him that Ray Vecchio had returned suddenly and unexpectedly, and that he would come back as soon as they were done eating breakfast.

It was a mystery. All he knew for sure was that Kowalski hadn't answered any of his calls, which meant he was either already gone by then, or too angry to want to talk to him. He also knew that Ray had disappeared either while he was out having breakfast with Ray Vecchio or during the half hour drive to his apartment afterwards, for when he'd returned the GTO, Kowalski was already gone. He'd checked with his landlady, and she'd said she'd seen him take off alone, on foot, before he got there. She just wasn't sure exactly when.

And Fraser didn't understand why. Another mystery. He could've sworn, from Ray's initial sulkiness at the idea of him leaving, and erotic teasing after, that he was eager to make love again. So why had he taken off? He'd considered the possibility that Ray might've grown furious because he was late getting back, but had rejected it. Ray had never been particularly punctual himself, nor had he ever been so unreasonable, or so petty, that he would get upset with him for taking some time to see an old friend. He'd felt sure that Ray, being a cop himself, would understand why he wanted to see his former partner again, when he'd just returned from a long and dangerous undercover assignment with the Mafia.

Fraser felt there was more to Ray's anger than that. He wasn't sure what, but neither incident seemed sufficient reason for Ray to disappear without a word as he had, or for his towering fury at work the following Monday morning. He'd looked red-eyed, pale and depressed, and smelled faintly of liquor, as if he'd spent the weekend drinking. Fraser had been wise enough not to bring that up when they talked, but it worried him. Though it would explain where Ray had disappeared to for most of the weekend, drinking binges weren't normal behavior for him. Even when Stella had been dating someone else, and Ray had confessed his love for her with tears in his eyes, he hadn't gone out drinking to forget his pain. What could he possibly have done to hurt Ray worse than that, to drive him to drown his sorrows in a bottle? What had he been so furious about? And why had Ray insisted that he should know the reason for it without being told?

Ben rubbed at his eyebrow, mystified as ever when he recalled the detective's behavior. They were lovers by then. Surely that should have made Ray more understanding, more willing to explain himself, and to listen to Ben's explanation, shouldn't it?

But it hadn't. Far from it. Ray refused to listen to his account of the incident at all. He'd been completely irrational. He'd blown up, shouted at him, cursed him, and finally shoved him. He even kicked my hat, he thought, wincing.

He closed his eyes as the pain of it washed over him yet again. He had seldom been so hurt, so humiliated, in all his life. And the worst of it was Ray's refusal to tell him why. Why he was so angry at work on Monday morning, and why he'd left his apartment on Saturday without waiting for him. His unexpected departure had worried Fraser so much that when he'd returned his car, he'd then waited outside his apartment for four long hours. He'd hoped that when Kowalski came back, he could apologize to him for returning so late. He'd wanted to explain about the momentous, unexpected event that had delayed him...

But Ray had never come back. Eventually, he'd given up on waiting, slipped the key to Ray's car under his door and walked home again. Still, he'd called him repeatedly from a pay phone all the rest of that day and long into the night, trying to explain. But if Kowalski had come home again, he'd never answered those calls. Or responded to the messages he'd left on his answering machine. Increasingly worried, he'd walked to his apartment at nine o'clock the next morning, to try to talk to him. But again, he never got the chance. If Ray had ever returned home the previous night, he was gone again by then. Ben had walked home again, his worry deepening. More phone calls to Ray on Sunday had met with the same silence.

Fraser had been so worried by Sunday night that he'd hardly slept. So he'd asked Ray Vecchio for a ride to the 27th early the next morning, before his shift began at the Consulate, hoping to iron things out with Kowalski there. But that attempt had ended in an even worse failure, a complete breach between them. Ray had told him there was something wrong, that he should know what it was, and that it meant they couldn't be lovers anymore. Then he'd refused to talk about it any further. When he'd persisted in asking what he'd done, Ray had finally blown up, shoved him into a filing cabinet, and told him to get out, that he never wanted to see him again. Then he'd transferred out, to the 29th District's Narcotics Division.

Perhaps I should be glad he didn't hit me again, Fraser thought bleakly. But he didn't feel glad. He felt wounded, like he had when Victoria left him. Hollowed out inside, with nothing left behind but his hopeless love for Ray Kowalski, and the pain it caused. In fact, he felt even worse this time. At least when Victoria left, he'd been able to talk to Ray Vecchio about her, which had helped immensely. But discussing his passion for Kowalski with Vecchio was impossible. Not only was Vecchio homophobic, but he'd also developed an instant, and rather puzzling, dislike for Kowalski. They'd only met twice, and very briefly at that, but now Vecchio's eyes narrowed and turned cold whenever Ray's name was mentioned. So Fraser didn't dare confess his love for him. In fact, he felt guilty for being unable to conceal his depression about having lost him. Worse, he felt like an idiot for being unable to understand what had gone wrong between them, for having so little experience with relationships that he couldn't even fathom what Ray thought he had done.

His emotions were so tangled, so complex and contradictory... He knew he shouldn't be depressed, that he should be happy that Ray Vecchio had come back, that he was home safe after such a dangerous assignment. And he was. It was wonderful seeing Ray again, working with him, knowing that he was safe and that he didn't have to worry about him anymore. But that didn't fill the emptiness inside him, for Ray had changed too. Though he'd taken up his old job at the 27th, Fraser no longer saw very much of him outside of working hours, as he spent most of his free time with Serena.

Though that left him lonely, Fraser tried hard not to mind it. He liked Serena very much, and he could see that she was good for his friend. She and Ray had settled into a busy pattern of house hunting, buying furniture, arranging their wedding and doing all of the things that couples planning their future together do; and Serena had never brought up the subject of Jimmy Maxwell, and Ray's previous involvement with him, again. So Fraser had assumed that either she'd regretted doing it in the first place, or that whatever was troubling her -- or Ray -- about it had been resolved. So he didn't mention Maxwell to Ray, who seemed to be in continuing high spirits. Ray had even promised him that once their wedding was over and they'd settled into their new life, they'd do more things together. Shoot some hoops, like they used to. Get together for dinner. And he'd tried to tell himself that that would be enough.

He knew very well that neither Ray nor Serena meant to exclude him. In fact, Serena had done her best to include him in their activities, as she'd promised she would. She often invited him along on their shopping expeditions, but Ben always declined. He knew she was trying to cheer him up, but he also knew that watching her and Ray pick out towels and dish patterns would only remind him of what he'd lost, and plunge him deeper into depression. Other than a few, ultimately disastrous days with Victoria and a year in RCMP Depot long ago, he'd never lived with anyone else. So what could he contribute to their shopping trips? He had scant knowledge of cohabitative domesticity.

And now that Ray Kowalski's broken up with me, I probably never will.

He closed his eyes, remembering Kowalski's bitter last words to him. I don't wanna talk to you again, I don't wanna see you again -- in fact, I don't wanna so much as catch a glimpse of yer little red coat, or I will pop you one... Keep yer fuckin' hands off me! Don't ever touch me again!

The words rang in his head as he stared blindly out his window. A tear followed them, but it slipped down Fraser's cheek unnoticed. He had an alarming tendency towards tears lately when he was alone, and he'd stopped trying to hold them back. He was afraid that if he did, the pressure would build up inside of him until he'd crack publicly, and humiliate himself in front of others. So sometimes now, when he woke from dreams of Ray and his eyes spilled over, he didn't even bother to wipe his tears away. He just let them fall, let himself weep until his sorrow returned to bearable levels.

Sometimes he wished the tears would wash away Ray's memory, but they never did. His heart was still tied to him, to a man he couldn't have. He couldn't help remembering how he'd worried, after their first night together, that Ray didn't really love him. Now he'd realized, to his sorrow, that it must be true. Ray didn't love him, Ray didn't even want him. His transfer to another district seemed proof of that.

But even that hadn't ended the matter. Despite the fact that Ray didn't return his feelings, Fraser still loved him so much that his behavior at the 29th was giving him nightmares. In the few short months he'd been working Narcotics there, he'd garnered a reputation as a hotshot, a wild man who would go anywhere, do anything to make a bust. No crackhouse was too dangerous, no drug lord too well-armed to deter him. He was taking suicidal chances, and so was his young partner, Patrick Rylan. Fraser couldn't help wondering why Ray's new Captain, a man named Harlan, was allowing it. Perhaps he valued the number of arrests his men made more than their safety. And to make matters worse, Fraser had heard unsettling rumors about Rylan. Rumors that he was bisexual and worse. Rumors that he was a sadist, and that he and Ray were--

Fraser swallowed hard, and gripped the window frame tightly as a wave of vertigo swept over him. Or maybe it was nausea, at the thought of a sadist putting rough hands on Ray's soft skin. At the thought of someone else making love to him. Or worse, hurting him... At least Fraser hoped it was dizziness, nausea, or some momentary bodily malfunction that had suddenly made him sway forward, and not some insane urge to hurl himself out of the window. Dief whined behind him, as if he'd noticed the sudden move and worried that he might be considering just that.

Fraser wasn't entirely sure that Dief was wrong. What he'd feared most, on that momentous night in Ray's car when he'd first kissed him, had come true. Once again he'd given his soul for love, and again, it had been torn to shreds. Just like that time with Victoria. But this time the pain was worse, because he'd been hurt by someone he trusted absolutely -- for reasons he didn't even understand.

Worse still, this time he'd had no time to recover, no quiet interval alone in a hospital bed in which to heal his broken heart. Since he wasn't injured, he had no valid reason to request time off. Besides, even if he had been able to come up with some excuse for leave that would've satisfied Inspector Thatcher, he wouldn't have been able to justify it to Ray Vecchio. Ray had always been able to see past any front he tried to put up, if his suspicions were aroused; and Ben knew he was worried about him as it was. Asking for leave after Ray Kowalski left him would've set Vecchio's internal alarms to shrieking. Then Ray would've been after him, teasing at first, then demanding answers, and finally yelling at him in an effort to pry the truth out of him; and Fraser was so upset that he knew he wouldn't have been able to resist him for long. Eventually, he would've broken down and confessed everything -- and if Ray Vecchio ever found out he was in love with another man, he would lose the one friend he had left in the world.

Ben couldn't afford to do that. Losing his friendship as well as Kowalski's would've killed him. So, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, he'd reported helplessly for duty the morning that Ray Kowalski broke up with him, and every day since. He'd done his duty as best he could, had tried to pretend that nothing was bothering him, but the strain of that was telling on him. Thoughts of Ray tormented him, waking and sleeping. He saw him in his dreams almost every night, and had trouble sleeping afterwards. Inevitably, he'd grown distracted. He'd begun making mistakes. Nothing major, just some minor errors in the routine reports he was required to fill out, but for him, they were unprecedented. Hard evidence that he was coming apart at the seams.

And inevitably, others had started to notice. The Inspector had already reprimanded him for not paying enough attention to his work, and Ray Vecchio was watching him with a worried look in his eyes. Asking him if everything was okay far more often than he should have. Secretly, he was filled with despair. All too often lately, when he stared out of his window late at night while the rest of the world slept, he had the urge to lose himself somehow. Leave all his pain behind.

The amount of time he was spending near his window had begun to worry him. So did the urges he got when he was near it. The way he'd begun to imagine falling. The dizziness of it, the air rushing past his ears until that final moment--

Not that he'd ever do anything like that, of course. He was a Fraser, and Frasers didn't quit. Ever. No matter what. His strange fantasies of falling were just that: fantasies, not reality. Just odd, random thoughts which he experienced, but would never act upon. Besides, even if he'd wanted to -- which, of course, he didn't -- he couldn't have, because even in his sorrow, he wasn't entirely alone. He still had Dief, who was his responsibility -- who needed him.

Still, he trembled looking down. But I need Ray...

That was the real hell of it. Though Kowalski had hurt and humiliated him, he still couldn't stop wanting him. Needing him. He still dreamed about making love with him, about the intensity of it, both emotional and physical. He longed for the heady excitement he'd felt in Ray's arms, the incredible, hot sensual pleasure. And the quieter, but equally powerful sense of closeness, of soul-deep communion, that he'd felt when Ray had lain still and let him touch him all over, afterwards. That was unlike anything he'd felt before, even with Victoria. He'd never known love so sweet, because for once, his feelings had been based on trust, on shared experiences -- on friendship. He longed to regain that trust, to repair the damage he'd somehow unwittingly done. Even now, he would've done anything to bring Ray back, if he'd only known how.

But he didn't. Wishing couldn't bring him back, and neither could crying. He'd done enough of both to know. He'd also considered more rational options such as calling him, or going to the 29th to try to patch things up. But he didn't believe that would work, either. Ray had been so furious and so unreasonable when they parted, that Fraser felt any attempt at a reconciliation on his part would only result in another humiliating rejection.

He didn't think he could bear that.

He could almost hear his father's voice in his head, intoning the same words he'd said once before when Ben had stood crying by this very window, over a woman who'd torn his heart out. Sometimes that's all you need in life, son, is that second chance. But it's the one thing you're never going to get.

He wiped away his tears with unsteady hands. He hadn't had a second chance with Victoria, and it seemed he wasn't going to get one with Ray, either. He understood that. Life was harsh sometimes; that was just the way things were. What he didn't understand was how he was supposed to go on anyway, without that chance -- without Ray. If only his father could've explained that...

If only.

But he hadn't seen his father for weeks. It seemed no one wanted to be around him anymore. Not that he blamed them. But he needed someone to confide in, someone to talk to. Needed it so badly... "Dad?" he croaked, hoping against hope. But as usual lately, no one answered.

Had his father finally left him for good? Taken off for greener pastures, or whatever passed for those where he was? Or he was hovering somewhere nearby, invisibly watching as he slowly went to pieces over Ray? Was he waiting to see what happened at his window? Watching to see if his son was made of Mountie steel, or if he was going to crack like an eggshell?

He felt a flash of resentment. "Typical," he snapped. "This is so typical of you, Dad! Let an embarrassing situation arise, and wild horses couldn't keep you away. But you're never around when I really need you. Thanks a lot!" Then he fell silent again, realizing that he sounded petty. Childish. Desperate. Perhaps even pathetic. Knowing it wasn't really his father he was upset with, anyway. He was too busy hating himself to have time for that. He looked down at the darkened sidewalk outside his window, and tried not to think about falling. Again.

Finally, he forced himself to let go of the window frame and go back to bed. But after he laid down in it, he stared wide-eyed at the ceiling, unsleeping. I want to go home, he thought, desperate. He tried to soothe himself by thinking of sunrise at his cabin, of the way the sun turned the gray dawn sky to molten gold, of the many hues and colors it created in northern snows. But the only color his mind could visualize, it seemed, was blue.

Somewhere along the way, home had ceased to be white snow, gold sunrises and a cabin. It had become blue eyes.

"You're a fool," he whispered out loud.

The End

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Read the next story in the "Alchemy" Series:
Midnight Blue

© Caroline Alert 1998