Walking In The Sky

by Caroline Alert

In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the valley of fear
To a river so deep
I've been searching for something
Taken out of my soul
Something I'd never lose
Something somebody stole...

-- Billy Joel

No, Stanley Raymond Kowalski said firmly to himself as he lay in Fraser's bed in the Mountie's little apartment late one night. I ain't gonna do it. Not tonight. Huh unh. No! Then he rolled his eyes. That all sounded about as convincing as a worked-up virgin in the back seat of her boyfriend's car. He didn't even believe him.

Another, distinctly more evil voice deep inside him urged, Go on, do it. You know you want to! You won't be able to sleep until you do...

Okay, okay!

As usual, he went with his instincts. Listened to the evil voice. Took the easy way out. He gave in, sat up, flipped Fraser's bedside lamp on and stared down at his best friend, who lay sleeping on the floor near him. Wow, he thought for the hundredth time, with a rush of something like pleasure. Ben looked incredible when he slept. He was amazingly handsome anyway, but sleep relaxed his already gentle features into a look of peace that had amazed Ray the first time he saw it. He still remembered that night...

They were on an overnight stakeout together. He'd taken first watch while Ben went to sleep beside him. He glanced over at him idly while sipping his coffee in the quiet, shadowed interior of the GTO, and was suddenly struck by the purity of his friend's profile, by the innocence and serenity of the Mountie's sleeping face. If I believed in angels, he thought, that's how I think they'd look: just like that. Strong, kind, beautiful... perfect.

That thought was so unexpected that he blinked. Where the hell did that come from? Did Frannie drop some PCP or somethin' in my thermos before we left the station? He sniffed the coffee suspiciously, but it smelled all right. He gazed quickly around his car to check his eyesight, but other than his minor vision of a Mountie angel, he didn't seem to be hallucinating. He looked outside. No purple elephants or giant snakes or skeletons outside the car. Nothing but a quiet street.

He looked quickly back at Fraser. He'd slept through the whole thing. Good. But he still looked disturbingly angelic. Damn!

Ray blinked again, did a quick shoulder roll/clothing adjustment to shake off the weirdness, and glanced cautiously at him a third time. Finally, his strange moment of perception had passed. Fraser looked like Fraser again, just a dark-haired, good-looking guy who was his best friend.

A Mountie angel! Jeez! Kowalski shook his head at his own delusion. Either I'm tired, or I've been partnered with him way too long, if I'm starting to think about him like that! Angel, my ass! He's a big pain in the butt most of the time. He grimaced, remembering some of the crazy things the Mountie had made him do since they'd started working together. Driving through Chicago in a flaming car, tangling with voodoo freaks, jumping off of four story buildings into Lake Michigan... Fraser was an expert at endangering his life. Hell, he'd almost gotten him drowned twice!

Why is it, then, that I never feel safer than when I'm with him?

Ray hadn't been able to answer that question that night on their stakeout. Now, over a year later, as he stared down at his sleeping friend, he still couldn't. But it was truer than ever now. Being with Fraser was the only place he felt safe at all anymore.

And though he was even further from believing in angels than he had been back then, he still hadn't tired of watching Ben sleep. The past three weeks while he'd been staying with him, after they went to bed and he heard Ben's breathing slow and deepen, he'd flipped on the light countless times, just so he could look at him undisturbed. When Fraser was illuminated by its soft yellow glow, he'd sit up and watch the even, regular rise and fall of his best friend's chest. Study the way his long eyelashes made little black fans on his cheeks, and the way his usually firmly set lips relaxed in sleep. He'd smile at the way Ben always slept on his back, open and trusting as a little kid.

Almost before he knew it, his Fraser-watching had become something of a habit. Ray knew it wasn't exactly normal, but he wasn't into self analysis. Never had been. He acted on instinct. Went with his gut. So at first, he'd excused his odd new hobby by telling himself that since he wasn't sleeping much, and he didn't want to keep Fraser awake, he had to have something to do to while away the hours...

But that was a lame excuse, and he knew it. He had other options. He could've taken enough of his pain pills to knock him out all night, for instance. But he hated taking them. They doped him up so much that he just slept all the time if he took many of them. Plus, they clouded his head so bad that he could hardly tell his left hand from his right even when he woke afterwards.

So at first, he'd tried to read while Fraser was asleep. But he quickly found that his friend didn't have anything but weird books anyway. Surprise, surprise. Stuff like Down the Barrel: A Study in Ballistics; The Characteristics and Habits of Arctic Wolves; A Practical Guide to Canadian Flora and Fauna; The Official Administration Manual of the RCMP; and a bunch of stuff by somebody named Proust that was written in French. All boring, incomprehensible crap only the Mountie would like. No Ring World, no Sports Illustrated annuals, not even a Guinness Book of World Records--and as for Playboy, he'd known better than to even ask.

Luckily, he preferred Fraser-watching to his hopeless attempts at reading.

It took him awhile to figure out why. But as the long, largely sleepless nights passed while he kept his odd vigil over his slumbering friend, he started to get it. The same feelings kept returning while he watched Ben: warmth. Safety. It had to do with the way Fraser made him feel safe. That was nothing new, he always had--but Ray began to see that it hadn't been that important before, when he'd been tough, capable, sure of himself. Now, it was critical. Fraser had found him, rescued him when he was helpless, saved his life--and Fraser wouldn't let anyone hurt him again. Gentle as he was, he would kill to protect him. Ray knew that. And when he slept at all lately, it was only because of that knowledge.

But that wasn't all of it. Fraser was more to him than just a big red bodyguard. Other thoughts crossed his mind while Fraser slept quietly beside him through those long nights. Things he never would've admitted to anyone; but things that mattered nonetheless. Goodness, for one. Ray thought a lot about goodness, watching his partner. Fraser was probably the best human being he'd ever known, bar none. Though he was a cop, though he'd dealt with bad people for years, just as Ray had, he'd never let it affect him. Their smell, that stink of evil that Ray's dad had once warned him of, didn't cling to Ben. And it never would.

But Ray felt it all over him now. No matter how often he showered, no matter how hard he scrubbed, sometimes he still smelled that scent on his skin: the taint of corruption. But Ben was free of that. So as long as Ben slept like a baby beside him, it meant that goodness still existed. That peace was still possible. That someday, his own soul might be clean again somehow.

He used to feel that way when he woke up with Stella in his arms: peaceful. Centered. Whole. He needed that more than ever now--and Fraser was his only link to that feeling. Because in the past year or so, he'd taken some heavy blows. Too heavy. Stella had left him, and months later, he'd been kidnapped and hurt. But as long as Ben slept the sleep of the just, he could see that there were still some things in the world that didn't suck, that weren't evil and twisted. In his shattered world, Fraser was tangible proof of innocence.

Maybe I wasn't so far off with that angel stuff after all, he thought wistfully. Sometimes he wished he could believe in them, now that he'd gotten up close and personal with devils...

Or maybe I'm just losin' my friggin' mind, he thought darkly.

Because sometimes as he watched Ben sleep, he wondered if innocence and safety were all he was looking for in that handsome face. The Mountie might be his guardian angel, but after what Gentry had done to him, he sometimes wondered bitterly if Ben was safe with him.

It always came back to that: to his kidnapping, and the ordeal that followed. He couldn't forget it. The aches in his fractured finger, collar bone and rib were a constant reminder. He hugged his knees with his battered hands, and shivered at the thought of it. Shit. If Fraser and Dief hadn't found me, or if they'd come even a day later, I wouldn't be here. I'd be dead. Dog meat. Finito Benito.

Ben had saved his life. He owed him big time for that.

But for this...Kowalski shook his head helplessly. He didn't know how he was ever going to repay Ben for this, for taking him in after his kidnapping. He'd been a mess when he first woke up in the hospital, a shattered mass of fear, anger and searing hatred. Not to mention how he'd looked after the Gentrys had gotten through beating the shit out of him. Torturing him...His parents had come to see him in Chicago General after his rescue, and his mom had cried when she'd first laid eyes on him. His dad had turned white, as if all his worst fears about his son becoming a cop had just come true.

When they'd let him out three days later, his mom had wanted to take him to the trailer park in Skokie and nurse him back to health. But he'd refused.

The doctors and police shrink had told him he had Post Traumatic Stress, which was their fancy way of saying that his head was completely screwed up. No shit! He'd never felt so bad, like he had snakes crawling around in his brain. He could barely hold himself together. He felt black inside, worn out, used up. He didn't want to get out of bed, didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't want to do anything. He gave new meaning to the phrase "Officer down." Way down...

Hell, he'd gone nuclear one day when a young nurse was changing his bandages. Lost it completely, just because her long blond hair reminded him of Alison Gentry's. He'd broken out in a sweat, and had to shove her away before he hit her.

Freak! he'd told himself. He'd had hot fantasies about nurses for years, but now he couldn't stand to have one touch him! He'd apologized to her afterwards, but the incident had filled him with self loathing all the same. He didn't like anybody touching him anymore at all--yet he'd never felt so alone. You're so screwed up, you're pathetic. Plus, he had constant nightmares. More like flashbacks. Intense, hideous. So real they made him want to puke. They were almost as bad as being back in that room where the Gentrys had chained him up. He'd wake up sweating bullets and screaming his head off in the dark.

All of which made going to his parents' trailer to recuperate impossible. How could he subject his mom and dad to all that?

And if he'd needed further evidence that he was losing what was left of his marbles, there was the added fact that he kept remembering something Fraser had once told him: The sky isn't just above you, it's all around. If you look ahead, you'll see that the horizon touches the ground. So when you think about it, wherever you go, you're actually walking in the sky.

That gave him the chills. He hadn't understood what the hell Ben was talking about, at the time--he'd just told him he was a freak, and forgot about it. But the horrible thing was, now he got it. Now, he was living it. He didn't know who he was anymore. He had no boundaries, no safety net, nothing to cling to and no solid ground under his feet. He was floating, falling--

Walking in the sky.

Totally terrified.

So scared that when the doctors released him he'd wanted, more than anything, to be alone. The department had given him stress leave for as long as he needed it, and he'd meant to go back to his apartment and hide. Just draw the curtains and lie there in the dark until it all went away somehow. But Fraser wouldn't let him. When he found out he'd refused to let his parents take care of him, Ben had insisted that he go home with him instead.

He remembered his exact words.

"I have plenty of room, Ray; and lots of sick leave coming to me. Over three weeks, to be exact. I'd be glad of your company." Fraser tried to make it sound like some kind of vacation, like he'd be doing him a favor by staying with him.

Yeah, some favor, he thought bleakly. Saddle my best friend with a screaming lunatic who doesn't even know who he is anymore, and who's so fuckin' scary lookin' that his own mother cried at the sight of him...

Some vacation: three weeks at Club Looney Bin.

"No," he said. "No way. Forget about it!"

But Fraser wouldn't. Stubborn as always, he kept at him and at him until they fought about it. After his tenth "no", Ben fixed him with one of his calm, "I'm a Mountie and I Know Best" looks, and said, "You're really being very silly about this, Ray. Surely you can see this is the only logical solution."

"You can shove your logic up your--"

"Besides," Fraser continued calmly, ignoring him, "you're too badly wounded to be on your own yet."

"That's bull," he sneered, defiant. But he secretly knew it was true. He had a bandage around his chest where they'd broken a rib and a collarbone, a splint on his left hand for the finger they'd fractured, and so many other burns, scrapes and knife wounds that he couldn't count them. Internal injuries too, so bad that it hurt him even to piss at first. His legs were so weakened and sore from the repeated beatings and stabbings that he couldn't walk very far on his own yet. Fraser had to help him, or else he used a wheelchair.

But what really pissed him off was knowing that Fraser was even more worried about the screws he had loose upstairs than he was about all that. It made him furious. Fraser used to be his friend. Fraser liked him--at least, he'd thought he did. Now, he looked at him like he was a candidate for a rubber room. Who the hell does he think he is, some kinda RCMP shrink all of a sudden? "I ain't goin' with you, Fraser, and that's final!"

Fraser's mouth set in a stubborn line. Ray knew what that meant: trouble. Fraser could do Stubborn like no one he'd ever seen. He could outdo Stella in that department, and that was saying something. "Either you go with your parents, or you come home with me. It's your choice, Ray. But you're not leaving here alone. I'll carry you to my place bodily if I have to," he said quietly.

"The hell you will!" he roared, furious. Fraser's quiet tone hadn't fooled him for a second; he knew a threat when he heard one. He saw red, wanted to wrap his hands around the Mountie's throat. But luckily for Ben, he was out of reach. So he grabbed his Stetson up off the bed instead, and vented his rage by hurling it across his hospital room in retaliation. "What, did somebody die and make you God while I was out of it? You don't tell me what to do! I'm goin' to my apartment, you got that?" he yelled, doing his best wild-eyed Brando impersonation. "End of story! "

Yeah, right. Even that hadn't deterred Fraser. He just picked his hat up off the floor, set it back on his head, and said firmly, "I'm not telling you what to do. I'm giving you a choice, Ray. Your parents' place or mine. Make up your mind."

"Well, thank you very kindly," he'd snarled, "but you can shove that up your ass too! I'm goin' home! That's my choice, and that's final!"

So he'd ended up going with Fraser instead. Of course. He'd finally given in, out of sheer exhaustion. Let Fraser have his way, let him bring him to the ratty little apartment he'd rented a few months ago, for safekeeping. Maybe because it was easier, because he didn't have the strength right now to stop Fraser from carrying out his threat to kidnap him if he refused. Fraser was so goddamn pigheaded stubborn, he would've done it. Thrown him over his shoulder and carried him out like a sack of potatoes, kicking and screaming all the way, if he hadn't agreed to come home with him.

Even leaving the hospital in a wheelchair was better than that.

He'd told himself it would be better for his parents this way too. They couldn't have put up with his craziness, it would've scared them shitless. But Fraser could--nothing fazed him. Besides, his mom thought the Mountie walked on water. She trusted him to coddle her younger son as well as she could. So for his parents' sake, he'd let Fraser take him home.

At least, he'd told himself it was for their sake. But deep down inside, in that mental hole he'd crawled into since his ordeal, he sometimes thought he'd really done it for his own. Because he was secretly scared of himself now, of being left alone. Of what he might do if he had no one to talk to...

He moved over to the side of the bed, lay down and rested his chin on his hands, and stared down at the sleeping Mountie. "Whaddaya' think, Fraser?" he whispered, feeling chilled. "D'ya' think I'd've eaten my gun if I'd gone home alone? Izzat what you were worried about?"

Dief cocked his ears at him, but Fraser didn't answer. He was deeply asleep. Probably worn out from another day of fun with Ray the Crazy Man, he thought wryly. He didn't know how Fraser stood it: his moodiness, his inability to talk sometimes, his sudden fits of rage--and his nightmares. They were the worst of all, they kept both of them from sleeping much most nights. But Ben never complained. He put up with him, with all of it, without a word of reproach. He'd given him his bed to sleep in, he made sure he got dressed every morning, and fed him regularly even when he didn't want to eat, which was most of the time. He even drove him to his sessions with the shrink.

They'd made him see one after his kidnapping. Department policy, they said. But so far, it wasn't helping much. He hated talking about what they'd done to him, hated it. It catapulted him right back into that room, into the torture, and he'd go back to Fraser's apartment afterwards in moods so bleak he didn't want to talk at all.

Not that he was very perky lately anyway. When Fraser first brought him home, his moods been all one color: black. But the rest of him was more than colorful enough to make up for it. He'd been totally messed up then, his face a lumpy patchwork of jagged cuts and purple, yellow and green bruises, his left eye still half swollen shut. But he hadn't really cared about the visible damage because he'd avoided looking in the mirror much; and Fraser didn't seem to notice it.

But Fraser had noticed him brooding. After several days went by in which he didn't leave the apartment except to visit the department shrink, Ben had tried to cheer him up by taking him on a walk in the park with Dief.

"Come on," he coaxed, leading him outside. "The fresh air will do you good, Ray."

"Okay. Whatever." He agreed just to please him, and followed without comment. His legs had gotten better by then, he could walk on his own without any help. Slowly, anyway. So he'd shuffled along behind Fraser, too depressed to care where they were heading.

But he should have. Because when they reached the local park, he started noticing people shooting weird looks at him when they passed by. They weren't as kind as Fraser. They'd stared at him like he had a sign pasted on his forehead saying, "Freak Show". He ignored them at first, limped stubbornly along beside Ben thinking, Screw them. Fuck 'em all! Like to see how pretty they'd be, if someone worked them over for days with a bat, several knives and some Marlboros!

That worked for a while. Hostility kept him going. He'd concentrated on his boots and on hating everyone they passed, and he'd been okay.

Then, while they were strolling along a grassy path, a little girl had walked by them. He'd always liked kids, and she was really cute. Curly blond hair, wide blue eyes...

He'd forgotten himself completely. Looked at her and smiled.

Big mistake.

One look at his messed-up face, and she'd grabbed for her mother's hand. "Mommy! What happened to that man?" she quavered.

Fuck! That did it. He fled the park, limping as fast as he could, feeling sick inside. Furious and scared. Freak, was all he could think. Freak, freak, freak! He'd once teased Stella: "You're the smart one, I'm just pretty." He hadn't really meant it, he'd always known he was average looking at best, but at least he'd never scared anyone before. Now I'm Ray von fucking Frankenstein. Ray the Wolfman who scares kids, he'd raged silently, heading back towards Fraser's place. Ray the friggin' vampire, who can't be seen in daylight!

He didn't stop to see if Ben and Dief were behind him. He didn't give a damn.

Kowalski the freak! When he'd finally made it back to Fraser's apartment, he was breathing hard and in considerable pain, the barely healed cuts and slashes on his legs protesting the long walk and the effort of climbing stairs at its end. He slammed the door behind him viciously. But that hadn't begun to ease the volcanic pressure inside him, the rising fury and humiliation. Trying to suppress it, he threw himself on Fraser's bed, face down, closed his eyes and knotted his fists in the blankets to block out the sight of the surprised horror on that little kid's face when she saw him. But it wouldn't go away. Her image lingered on the backs of his eyelids, making every cut, bruise, stab wound and broken bone he had ache fiercely.

Unable to banish her from his mind quietly, he started yelling. Lost it completely, and began screaming his head off. "Shit!" he yelled, pulling wildly at the blankets he lay on. And once he got started, he couldn't stop. "Shit, shit, SHIT!" The rage poured out of him along with the screams, and before he knew it, he tore all the blankets off Ben's bed. Then he attacked the sheets. After he'd sent them flying, he threw his pillows and blankets all over the room, for good measure. "I'm never goin' back to that fuckin' park again!" he yelled. "Ever! "

At some point during his tantrum, Ben and Dief had come back in. He expected Fraser to get on his case, tell him to calm down, tell him that he was acting childish. Language, Ray! Some stupid shit like that, that would only make him madder. But he didn't. Ben just waited until he was done throwing things, until he stood in the middle of his pillow-strewn floor, panting and shaking, hunched over to ease the stabbing pain in his chest from his exertions. Then he looked calmly around at the mess he'd made. "All right, Ray," he said mildly. "I'm sorry I took you to that park. I just wanted you to get some fresh air. I didn't mean to upset you. You don't have to go back if you don't want to." Then Fraser quietly started picking up the scattered pieces of his bedding.

That floored him. Took the wind right out of his frigging sails, so to speak. How can you fight with someone who won't fight you back? He stared at his friend, shocked and suddenly a bit ashamed of himself. What had happened wasn't Fraser's fault, but he'd just about wrecked his apartment as a result. He tried to get hold of himself. Swallowed hard, and tried to get his breath back. Tried to think of some way to explain the fit he just had. You didn't upset me, Fraser, he wanted to say. It was that girl, that little kid. She--

But he couldn't admit that. Didn't want to talk about Ray the Monster. Not even to Fraser. "Okay then," he said lamely instead. "Just so you know."

Fraser just said, "Hmm," in that annoying way he had.

Then Ray bent over to pick up a pillow, and they made his bed back up together, without saying another word.

But Fraser hadn't let it go at that. Ray knew his newfound tendency to mope indoors worried him. So when he spent the next day slumped in his apartment bleakly contemplating the incident in the park, he saw Ben watching him closely out of the corner of his eye. Ray had ignored him, reliving the ugly scene in his head remorselessly, frame by frame. He just couldn't get over the fact that his face had scared a kid witless. He loved kids, he wanted kids so bad he'd driven Stella away bugging her about it--and now he was so ugly he'd scared one!

He tried to tell himself that it would get better, that his face wouldn't always be swollen and discolored like it was now, but it didn't help much. Even after the swelling went down, the bruises went away and his cuts healed, he'd have scars on his nose, his cheeks, his neck--and more under his clothes. The doctors had muttered things about plastic surgery, but he couldn't face the thought of that yet. He wanted to stay as far away from doctors and hospitals as he possibly could for awhile--their shiny medical instruments reminded him too much of the knives his kidnappers had used on him. So for awhile at least, he was stuck with Ray von Frankenstein.

He stared at his boots and sighed morosely.

All his brooding must've convinced Fraser that he needed some distraction. So after dinner, he'd suggested they watch an old movie on the TV he'd borrowed from his neighbor. He'd shrugged okay, not caring as long as it wasn't some horror flick. It wasn't. It turned out to be "Brigadoon," some crazy story about these hunters who blundered into this magical old town in Scotland that only came alive every two hundred years or so, and where everybody knew how to sing and dance. Then one of the hunters didn't want to leave, 'cuz he had the hots for this babe...

It all seemed silly to Kowalski. Five minutes into it, he was thinking, "Chick flick." But Ben loved it. He even hummed along with the music, so Ray knew he must've seen it before. And since Ben liked it so much he'd practically memorized it, he didn't have the heart to let on that he wasn't enjoying it too. He sat beside him pretending to be interested, but really thinking about that little girl again. About whether he'd ever be able to have kids now. Would any woman ever want him, the way he was now? He doubted it. He could always go the plastic surgery route, of course, but that wouldn't take care of the scars Alison Gentry had left inside his head. Would he ever be able to stand having a woman touch him again?

Shit! What if I can't ever have sex again?

He didn't want to now. Didn't feel like it. Didn't even think much about it, which wasn't like him. The department shrink had reassured him that he would eventually. Sexual dysfunction was normal after a rape, he said, but his desire would return in time. But Ray wasn't so sure--and that bothered him. Though he wasn't interested now, he still remembered how much fun sex had been before his kidnapping; and he wanted that again someday. So the prospect of eternal celibacy scared him.

He shuddered. I'd rather die. Any day. Just take me now, and get it over with. 'Cuz I don't even wanna think about living the rest of my life without women. Without fucking.

Still, he kept all his worrying to himself. Didn't want to interrupt Fraser while he was happily watching everybody dance their way around Scotland. But Fraser must've sensed that he was secretly fretting about something, because he pounced on him the minute the movie ended.

Before he could get away or hit the sack, Ben pulled him to the door. "Come on, Ray. Let's go out for a while."

Ray knew he meant to take him walking again, and with cheerful memories of their last outing filling his head, he dug in his heels. Grabbed the door frame and refused to budge. "Huh unh. No way, Fraser! I told you, I'm not goin' to that park again! Not even if they have a supermodel convention there!"

"Yes, you did. And I respect that, Ray. But we're not going to the park," Fraser said cheerfully.

"Yer right about that," he muttered sullenly. "We're not goin' anywhere. You can go out if you want. I'm going to bed."

"Don't be silly, Ray! Dief needs some exercise, and so do I. So do you, for that matter. So you're coming with us. Dief!" he called.

Before Ray knew what was happening, the treacherous wolf bounded between his legs, knocking him off balance. He lost his grip on the door frame and swayed. And his dictatorial buddy seized the opportunity. Pretending to steady him, Fraser got a death grip on his collar, yanked him away from the door and proceeded to drag him downstairs. "Just a little midnight stroll, Ray," he said lightly. "This won't take long."

"Lemme go, dammit!" He tried to pull away. But Fraser was bigger and far stronger, at the moment, than he was. He won the wrestling match with ease. Before he knew it, he tugged him down the stairs and out onto the street.

Dief took off, trotting happily away down West Racine. "Ah, well. There you have it! He's already chosen our route," Fraser said, sounding pleased as he finally let Ray go and strode after him.

"I don't care. I ain't goin'," he muttered resentfully, staring at the Mountie's broad back. Free at last, for a second, he considered trying to bolt. Just running off into the night, and never looking back. Then it hit him: it was late. Really late--near midnight. There were no impressionable kids around now that he could scare. There was hardly anyone out on the street at all. Just junkies, winos and bag ladies who looked as bad as he did. Or worse.

Goddamn smart Mountie, he'd groused to himself, realizing Fraser had planned it that way. But after that, he relaxed a little. Pulled his collar up around his neck and shuffled along after Ben and Dief like an obedient little freak. And when a wino passed them, about an hour later, and blinked curiously at his battered face, he widened his eyes and bared his teeth, just to see what would happen. The guy staggered, turned pale, then stumbled off in the opposite direction as fast as he could go.

"Ray, Ray, Ray," Fraser sighed, shaking his head.

But he'd grinned to himself. Hell, he'd almost laughed out loud. For the first time since he'd woke up in the hospital, for a second, he was amused. It felt good.

And after that, nothing anybody said or did when they saw him bothered him as much. Their midnight strolls quickly became a tradition. Ray didn't exactly enjoy them, but as long as no one hassled him about his appearance, he limped along beside Ben quietly. He knew it was Ben's way of looking after him, of seeing that he got a little fresh air and exercise, that he wasn't housebound all day. And his doctors had told him that he'd have to exercise to get his strength back. So he went along with it.

He didn't try to run away, either. And no matter how bad he felt, how depressed or scared or furious he ever got, even if he got mad enough to throw things, he never laid a hand on his partner. He drew the line at hitting Fraser. He couldn't. He owed him too much. Ben the Mother Hen. His own mom couldn't have looked after him any better.

He really did appreciate it. But he couldn't help wondering why Fraser had done it.

Sure, Ben was kind-hearted, always taking in strays, both human and animal, but this... This rescue operation is a bit much, even for him, Ray thought as he watched the sleeping Mountie.

A wave of pure affection swept over him, so strong that it almost hurt. Fraser had taken him in when no one else would have, or could have. He'd fed him, watered him, and put up with his nuttiness with the patience of a saint. He never got mad, not even when he lost it. He'd even held him sometimes at night, when it got so bad he thought he'd lose his mind...

Ray skittered away from that subject. He hated to admit, even to himself, how needy he'd become. Or how, in return for Ben's kindness, he'd ignored him, shouted at him, called him every name he knew and then some, and gone ballistic sometimes when he touched him. Some friend you are, he thought sourly. With friends like you, Fraser doesn't need enemies.

In his saner moments, his black moods embarrassed him. He had no idea why Fraser hadn't opened up his window and tossed his sorry butt out into the street where it belonged. But so far, he hadn't. He'd never had such a good friend in his life, and he had no idea how he was ever going to make it all up to him. But he wanted to. He wanted to give him something great. Hell, he wanted to give him everything he had, just to show how grateful he was that he'd stuck by him through this whole mess.

On impulse, he reached down with his good hand and touched Ben. First his dark hair, cut short but still thick. It was glossy and amazingly soft, as sleek as a woman's hair. Surprise, surprise, he told himself wryly. Benton the Beautiful, Prince Charming of the Great White North. Whadja' expect? Then, without knowing why, he went further, traced the line of his friend's cheek, his strong jaw with his fingers. He swallowed hard, his mouth going dry. He felt strangely excited, but a bit ashamed too. Like he was copping a feel or something. That's impossible, you moron! he told himself. He's a guy, you're a guy--that only applies to women. Still, it made him feel uneasy. He couldn't imagine why he was pawing Ben while he was asleep, but he was so caught up in the unexpected pleasure it gave him that he couldn't stop.

"Thanks," he whispered, trying to tell himself he was just expressing gratitude to his buddy. "Thanks for takin' me in and all..." And he meant that; he was grateful to Fraser, so grateful that he didn't even know how to begin thanking him.

But a little voice in the back of his head said, Oh, yeah, right! Since when have you ever thanked a guy with your hands before? Who d'ya think you're kidding, Kowalski? A feel is a feel, a grope is a grope!

But still, he didn't stop. He watched Fraser carefully as he touched his cheek, ready to pull back if he so much as stirred. When he didn't, it became even harder to tell himself that gratitude was all he felt--because he knew he should quit it, that he'd gone way beyond friendship into something else. Total insanity, probably. But he couldn't stop. Instead, like a man spellbound, he reached out a trembling finger to trace his lips...

Let me in, I want to be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions...

-- Bruce Springsteen

Fraser wasn't sure what woke him. Not a noise, but something softer. There it was again. Warmth, softness sliding across his skin: a touch. He woke suddenly at the realization, but lay quietly as fingers -- no, the backs of someone's fingers, he corrected himself -- brushed his cheek. Victoria? he thought sleepily, then rejected the idea. She was gone, long gone, and besides, these weren't her fingers. They weren't as slender, and they lacked her supreme self confidence. This touch was tentative, even frightened; these fingers were trembling. And since they posed no threat, he lay permitting it an instant longer as he wondered curiously whose they were.

Then one finger angled outward, and shakily touched the edge of his mouth. He frowned. "Ray?" he breathed sleepily, suddenly remembering who was with him, and why.

As Fraser finally opened his eyes, the bed creaked suddenly above him. The fingers were abruptly withdrawn as a slender hand pulled back hastily, buried itself guiltily among the blankets. "Yeah. It's just me," Ray said. "Sorry I woke you, Frase. I was just--well, I have to go to the can. Musta' stepped on you by accident. Sorry."

"Ahh," Fraser said. But from his pallet on the floor, in the light of his bedside lamp, which Ray had evidently turned on while he lay sleeping, he squinted up at his partner curiously. His hand touched me, not his foot. He's lying, he realized with a sense of shock. But why? Ray never lied...

Ray sat on the very edge of Fraser's bed, staring down at him intently. Ben's first impression was of burning blue eyes in a pale, scarred face, rimmed by heavy blond beard stubble. White skin stretched taut over angular bone structure that had once looked tough, but now seemed fragile, almost frail. He told himself it was because Ray had lost weight rapidly lately, because he'd been eating so little.

But he suddenly wondered if that fragility had always been there. Maybe he'd just never noticed it before because it had been hidden beneath a tough, macho attitude that made Ray seem far larger than the 5' 11'', slender man he really was. For the first time, Fraser wondered if that was deliberate. He'd always assumed that Ray's aggressiveness was innate, but maybe it was actually a learned form of self defense. Had Kowalski's size and slight build brought on abuse from bullies when he was growing up? The thought gave him a pang.

Still... that toughness, whether innate or learned, was all that had saved him from nearly deadly abuse this time.

In the yellow glow of the lamplight, Ray was a study in darkness. Dark hollows shadowed his cheeks, his eyes, and he had a haunted look that worried Fraser, as if his very life force had been dimmed by his ordeal. His spiky blond hair was partially flattened where he'd been sleeping on it, and the tattoo on his right arm, which usually stood out harshly on his pale skin, now was almost lost amid numerous welts and still healing scars that marred almost every inch of his body. Even Ray's characteristic boundless nervous energy had been depleted. It was only natural, since he'd been badly wounded, but it hurt Fraser to see Ray's normally swift, bouncy stride reduced to a slow, limping shuffle as it had been. He was moving a bit faster now, regaining strength rapidly thanks to their daily walks, but he was still uncharacteristically silent.

He looks lost, Ben thought. At the moment, he seemed less like the tough, self confident detective who'd taken Ray Vecchio's place, and more like one of the teenage runaways he'd occasionally rescued from Chicago's mean streets in the past few years. Fraser had seen that bruised, vulnerable look in Ray's eyes many times since his ordeal, but it never got any easier to bear. His sense of Ray's fragility was heightened when the detective flushed slightly under his gaze.

"Uhh... I didn't hurt you, did I?" Ray mumbled, suddenly avoiding his eyes.

"No. Oh, no," Fraser said automatically. But that was only partially true. Puzzling though it was, Ray's mysterious midnight touch certainly hadn't hurt him--but his continued presence in Fraser's apartment, in his life, had become a subtle kind of torture.

"Okay. I'm just gonna go then, Ben."

Ben. Ray had begun calling him that at times lately. Fraser wasn't sure why, when he'd never done so before. Kowalski usually addressed him as Fraser, Frase, even Frazoor when he was teasing--but never as Ben. He'd always seemed unwilling to use his first name, as if it were too intimate, or somehow unmanly. Fraser had even wondered if perhaps he disliked it, for whatever reason, though he'd never dared to ask why. But somehow, in the weeks since his kidnapping, he'd started to use it. Usually it would slip out at night, as if he was too tired to control his tongue. Ben wasn't sure if he even knew he was doing it, or what it signified. But he'd noticed, and it did strange things to his heart.

It reminded him of Ray Vecchio, of the friendship it seemed he'd lost. He hadn't heard anything from Vecchio for months, not since he'd gone undercover, and he missed him terribly. Even missed being called Benny. But Kowalski's newfound habit of calling him Ben also reminded him of how important his new Ray had become to him. He wasn't sure if that nickname meant anything to Ray, if it signified the same depth of affection that Vecchio's "Benny" had, but he hoped it did. He liked to think it was Kowalski's way of reaching out to him, a tiny sign of affection in the midst of his pain and confusion.

But in his darker moments, he realized that it might be a kind of sarcasm instead--a form of mockery. Ray had been hurt very badly indeed, physically and emotionally. So badly that he could hardly bear to be touched anymore. So badly that sometimes when he forgot that and laid a hand on his shoulder, or fussed over him too much, he lashed out and said things he never would have normally. Things that stung, cruel things that Fraser had to force himself to forget. Get away from me, you fuckin' moron! I'm not a baby, goddammit! Leave me the hell alone! I can take care of myself! Who d'you think you are, my fuckin' nurse?

Then later, he'd say, "Ben, I'm sorry. Sorry, Ben."

Apology--or just another, subtler form of jibe? Fraser wasn't sure if Ray saw him as friend or foe anymore, as helper or jailer. Or if that varied from moment to moment.

What's in a name? Shades of dark and light, like so many other things lately.

Ray threw his covers off and lowered his feet to the floor. He was almost naked, wearing only a bandage around his upper torso, his underwear and the gold bracelet he always wore on his wrist. Fraser had recovered it in Alison Gentry's house, and returned it as soon as Ray got out of the hospital. He didn't know what the jewelry meant to him, but since he'd never seen him without it, he'd assumed it was important. Either it had sentimental value, or it was simply part of Ray's persona. It was also somehow sexy. Erotic, even when worn on an arm that was badly bruised, as Ray's was now.

Of course, Ben had long ago memorized Ray's every feature, from head to toe. The more obvious ones were his wild, spiky blond hair, so entirely unlike his own thick, straight dark "pelt" that it seemed to have a life of its own; his light blue, intense eyes, fringed by long blond lashes; and his mouth, with its thin upper lip and full, almost pouting lower one, which was usually set in a tight line but sometimes relaxed into a smile of amazing sweetness. A long, lean body. Slender hands, capable and callused from holding a gun, yet somehow elegant. Ray's whole aura of nervous energy, of restlessness and constant motion... Those things anyone could see, but Fraser had made a study of Stanley Ray Kowalski, and discovered other fine little details that fascinated him: the back of Ray's head for instance, that oddly vulnerable area where his hair was cropped close to his skull. The vein that ran up the side of his temple, from the edge of his eyebrow to his hairline, that throbbed visibly beneath his delicate skin when he was interrogating a suspect, or yelling exultantly when the Hawks scored at a game. Ray's habit of scratching his neck when he was thinking, of chewing cinnamon flavored gum...

Fraser knew it all. And loved it all in the only way he could: silently, in the privacy of his own thoughts, his own heart. He sighed to himself, thinking that his intense attraction to his partner was not only hopeless, but inappropriate under the circumstances. So he averted his eyes as Ray padded past him. He knew Kowalski probably thought it was because he didn't like seeing the still healing scars on his body. But since the truth was even worse--that he couldn't look at him, even wounded and emotionally shaky as he was, and not want him--he kept silent and let him think what he would.

He'd taken him in because it was necessary, not because Ray had asked him to. In fact, Kowalski had adamantly refused to let him do it at first. They'd had a fight about it, but Fraser had insisted. Ray's doctor had hinted that while his physical injuries were healing well, his mental state was precarious; and Fraser concurred. He could see that the detective wasn't capable of caring for himself yet, that he would probably starve to death if left to his own devices. But he hadn't known how truly difficult the task of caring for his shattered partner would be--what a toll it would take on him.

But even if he had, he would've done it anyway. He'd simply had no choice.

While Ray was in the bathroom, Ben closed his eyes, reliving it all in his head.

He'd been in love with Stanley Raymond Kowalski for some time, long before his kidnapping and near death at the hands of James Gentry and his sister a month ago. Fraser wasn't sure exactly how his feelings for his partner had changed from the sort of brotherly affection he'd had for Ray Vecchio, into something deeper and far more frightening. It wasn't as if he'd woke up one morning and just decided to fall in love with another man. His feelings for his new Ray had just intensified over time, into something he'd never wanted or expected.

It had happened so subtly, so gradually that he hadn't even noticed it at first. In the wake of Ray Vecchio's sudden departure on an undercover assignment, which Fraser had tried hard to think of as Duty, and not betrayal, he and Ray had grown close. But that hadn't surprised anyone, least of all him. They'd both suffered losses and were lonely as a result. It had seemed natural--even necessary--that they'd spend a lot of time together. As he'd once told Kowalski, he liked to know the mettle of the men he worked with. And in the process, their friendship had deepened. So Ben wasn't shocked when he realized one day that Ray Kowalski was now the most important person in his life, the one with whom he had the strongest emotional bond. The bond he'd once had with Ray Vecchio remained, but he'd consigned it to a back corner of his heart, where it didn't hurt so much.

He had meant to soldier on in the absence of his best friend. Instead, he'd made a new one. But once he'd privately acknowledged that truth, he'd soon discovered another, far more painful and surprising one: that he wanted their bond to become even deeper and stronger; that his need for his new partner had become physical.

He made the discovery accidentally. While working on a case with Kowalski, he'd put a hand on his shoulder to say good morning one day. Ray had grunted something unintelligible at him while sipping his coffee and staring at some papers on his desk, but Fraser hadn't minded. He'd smiled down at his partner's spiky blond hair, amused by its usual disarray. Then it hit him, like the proverbial bolt out of the blue. He'd realized, with a dawning sense of dismay, that he was still holding onto Ray. Gripping his wiry shoulder, enjoying the tactile sensation of the hard muscles beneath his thin T-shirt, the warmth of his skin...

He enjoyed touching his own partner. Enjoyed it far too much.

Fraser had let go of Ray as if he'd been scalded. Kowalski didn't notice. He usually didn't notice much of anything in the morning until he downed several cups of coffee liberally laced with melted M & M's, a trait for which Fraser was particularly grateful on that occasion. But he was also secretly mortified by his own behavior. He suddenly realized that he'd been touching Ray a lot lately, in the course of their casework. Brushing his hands seemingly accidentally when they were at their desks, putting a hand on his shoulders when they walked together...

I never did that kind of thing with Ray Vecchio, he thought, confused. But the fact was that he'd been doing it a lot with Kowalski--and on some secret interior level, he'd enjoyed it. Once he'd realized that, he stopped it immediately. But the resulting dull aching he experienced confused him even more. Keeping his hands to himself hadn't stopped his desire--or the other alarming changes he began to notice in his attitude towards Kowalski.

He'd found himself wanting to spend more and more time with him, and feeling jealous if Ray made plans with anyone else. He became increasingly protective of him as well. Ray had once complained that he constantly risked his life in weird and unusual ways. Now, he found himself taking increasingly wild risks with his own life instead, while pursuing suspects with him, in order to keep Kowalski safe. When he'd examined the reasons for these unprecedented feelings, he'd finally realized, with a distinct sense of shock, that they sprang from a place deep inside his heart that only one other person in his life had ever managed to touch.

He was in love. He loved Ray Kowalski the same way he'd loved Victoria.

Well, perhaps not exactly the same way. His feelings for Ray were even deeper and more passionate, because he also trusted him; and he'd never been able to trust Victoria.

Still, it was a terrifying realization. Loving had never come easily to him. Victoria was the only woman he'd ever really loved, but after he'd put her in prison, she'd ended up hating him so much she'd tried to destroy not just him, but his best friend too. He wasn't even sure she'd ever really loved him in return. The sad truth was, in his whole adult life, he'd never had a fulfilling, happy relationship where a woman he loved had returned that love. So how in the world was he going to manage loving a man, when it was something he had no experience with whatsoever? At least he knew how to make love to a woman--but a man? He'd never even imagined that. Not to mention the fact that it was a kind of relationship most of the world regarded with repugnance...

Including Ray himself, most likely. Kowalski was so tough, so masculine that Fraser couldn't even kid himself about the possibility of him feeling desire for another man. That seemed laughable. Besides, he was still in love with his ex-wife.

So his love was hopeless, doomed from the start.

At first, Fraser had been in a quandary, with no idea what to do about the situation. If Ray Vecchio had still been there, he could've confided in him, at least on a hypothetical basis. Ray, what would you tell someone who had fallen in love with someone who was, for whatever reason, forbidden to them? He longed to. But Ray was gone, and Lt. Welsh had made it clear that he could not be contacted under any circumstances, for his own protection. And there was no one else in Chicago whom Fraser could trust with such a disturbing subject as his unprecedented desire for another man.

At least, he'd thought so at first. But later, as it became clear that time was only deepening his unspoken feelings and that ignoring them wasn't going to make them go away, he considered trying to discuss it with Francesca, because she'd always been like a sister to him. But he'd eventually rejected that idea as well. He was all too aware of her feelings for him, and though he trusted in her compassion, he also knew she was incredibly outspoken and emotional. He was afraid that if he confided in her, she might become jealous of Ray, and someday "spill the beans" to him, and divulge his secret without meaning to.

And telling Kowalski himself seemed out of the question. He couldn't risk it, for fear that he might prove as homophobic as most cops, and feel so uncomfortable around him afterwards that he'd ask for another partner. Or worse, transfer away, out of his life altogether, as he'd once considered doing.

So the last, and most painful realization he came to regarding his love, was that in order to keep Ray at his side, he had to give up all hope of ever being with him in the way he longed to. It was an extremely difficult decision to make, but since the alternative was to lose his partner altogether, Fraser felt he had no choice. Trust was a two way street; he needed Ray's as much as Ray needed his. If they couldn't depend on each other with bedrock certainty, they couldn't work together; and Ray wouldn't trust him if he knew the truth. Fraser was sure of that. And since he couldn't imagine--didn't even want to imagine--doing anything else with his life but working at Kowalski's side, he had only one option. Secrecy.

So he told no one how he felt. He kept silent, shoved his illogical love for his partner way down into the darkest, most private corner of his heart, and shut the door on it. Strove to forget it, just as he'd always done with emotions he couldn't handle. It wasn't a comfortable feeling, but it wasn't new to him, either. He'd done the same thing when his mother died, then later when his father was murdered, and more recently when Victoria and then Ray Vecchio had left him. He'd learned early on that wounds were easier to bear if you pretended they didn't exist. Besides--love had never been anything but a two-edged sword to him. He was used to it turning in his hand, used to it drawing blood instead of bringing happiness. Everyone he'd ever loved had left him. Everyone.

So he'd kept silent, endured the pain so that for once, he wouldn't have to suffer the loss.

But then Ray disappeared while on a routine investigation in east Chicago, and Fraser's world turned upside down. Even now, remembering the incident turned him cold...

Ray had gone to take a routine statement from a witness. When he failed to report back to the station after several hours, or respond to calls on his radio, the department dispatched Huey and Dewey to go and find him. They'd discovered his GTO parked--and locked--several blocks away from the house of one Shirley Ganden, a witness he'd been questioning about a robbery suspect. The car bore no one's prints on it but Kowalski's own.

An obviously bewildered Shirley told Huey, "Detective Kowalski was very nice. He asked me several questions, then after about ten minutes, he left. Oh, and he asked me to let the department know if I planned to leave town, in case he came up with any further questions for me." She further reported that Detective Kowalski had seemed completely relaxed and at ease to her. She hadn't seen him again, or heard anything out of the ordinary once he left her house. She'd assumed he'd gone back to the station until Huey and Dewey came knocking on her door.

Mrs. Ganden was a pleasant, middle-aged woman with three children, no police record, and no motive whatsoever to harm Ray Kowalski. Fraser had questioned her himself once he learned of Ray's disappearance, and he believed that she knew nothing about it. He, Huey and Dewey had questioned all her neighbors too, on both sides of the street. No one had seen or heard anything out of the ordinary that afternoon.

But Fraser had a bad feeling about the situation from the start. He felt that Ray must've met with foul play while returning to his car after questioning Mrs. Ganden, for several reasons. For one thing, that GTO was his life. He would never have left it behind unless he was pursuing a suspect, which wasn't likely. For another, even if he had spotted a crime in progress and chased someone, he should've called his pursuit in to the station, which he hadn't done.

The last, and most damning reason of all, was that there was an alley along the route Ray had to have taken back to his car that day. An alley in which someone could've hidden to waylay him; an alley in which someone could've had a car waiting to spirit him away, with no one the wiser. As time went by and no one called the 27th with any further information about the missing Detective, Fraser became increasingly sure that that was in fact what had happened to his partner. But no one called the station demanding any ransom for him, either, which was chilling.

Fraser combed every inch of the alley, looking for clues to his disappearance. But all he found were a few strands of blond hair, that were far too long to be Kowalski's.

Lab analysis eventually yielded the information that the hairs were female, from someone young, probably under the age of thirty--but that was all. It wasn't even a lead, since they had no idea who that hair belonged to, or if it even had any connection to Ray's disappearance. Fraser had taken Diefenbaker back to the alley with a sample of Ray's clothing, in the faint hope that his wolf could track Ray's route out of it; but no such luck. Dief had sniffed the clothes, sniffed the alley's entrance, trotted around it in circles for a moment, then looked at Fraser with a helpless, canine equivalent of a shrug. Fraser hadn't really been surprised. If Ray had been forcibly abducted in a car from the mouth of that alley, as he suspected, his scent would've disappeared when he'd entered the vehicle.

Extensive canvassing of the neighborhood of Ray's presumed abduction had proved equally fruitless. No one had seen anything, no one had heard anything. It was as if Stanley R. Kowalski had left Mrs. Ganden's house and simply vanished from the face of the earth.

But Fraser, and the detectives of the 27th, didn't give up. Ray was one of their own, and when someone messed with a cop, they wouldn't rest until that cop was found, and the guilty parties brought to justice, no matter what it took. Every available detective worked on finding Ray around the clock once word of his disappearance spread. He was well liked, and everyone wanted to help.

Fraser was beside himself. He couldn't eat, he couldn't sleep, and he was haunted by thoughts of what Ray might be going through, by the horrifying possibility that he might've even been murdered. He pored over every report on the case until his eyes hurt, looking for clues that might lead them to his whereabouts. But after three fruitless days without leads, he began to despair. Could it be that he'd lost his partner and best friend after all? Even though he'd never told him that he loved him?

Running out of hope, he returned to Mrs. Ganden's neighborhood one more time. He remembered there was one house at the opposite end of the alley whose owners had been away since the date of Ray's disappearance: the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Land. Their neighbors had said they'd gone on a mini-vacation to New Jersey. He'd already left several messages on their answering machine, asking them to call the 27th once they returned, but he decided to go by their house one more time, in the hope that they might've come home, and know something helpful regarding Ray's disappearance.

Finally, he hit pay dirt. Mrs. Land, a pretty brunette in her mid thirties, answered the door. She was in the midst of unpacking after their vacation, but she sat down and talked to him readily once he explained the situation. She said that while returning home from a trip to the grocery store for some film, she'd seen a slender man fitting Ray's description pass by the alley on his way to Mrs. Ganden's house the morning that he'd disappeared. She remembered his spiky blond hair, she said, and Fraser's heart contracted painfully. She hadn't seen him again, but Fraser asked her to call her husband at work, to see if he knew anything more.

Jeff Land, as it turned out, had seen something critical. He told Fraser over the phone that he'd decided, at the last minute, to throw out some trash before they left for New Jersey--garbage that was too large for their small garbage can. So he'd headed for the dumpster in the alley to dispose of it. On his way there, he'd seen two people, a tall, dark-haired man and a younger blond woman, helping a third blond man (who Fraser knew must be Ray), into a white Toyota Camry. Land remembered it because the blond man had been strangely limp. Land couldn't really see his face, but he'd noticed that his head and hands were hanging down while the taller, dark-haired man put him into the back seat of the car. Land had assumed he was sick, or possibly drunk, and that the other two were helping him, taking him home. But he hadn't been sure, so he'd paused and watched them curiously. The blond woman had noted his interest, and as soon as the blond man had been bundled into the back seat, she'd driven the car swiftly out of the opposite end of the alley.

Fraser could hardly believe it. The Lands seemed reliable people, which made their information not just a good lead, but a great one. Possibly good enough to break the case. His heart leapt painfully in his chest as he asked Jeff Land if he'd noticed the Camry's license number, by any chance. "I tried to," Land said regretfully, "but the car was too far away for me to make it out."

Fraser closed his eyes, hugely disappointed.

"But I was curious about the whole thing, so I did take a close look at all of them," Land added. "Just in case."

Fraser felt a renewed surge of hope. "Would you be willing to come down to the station right away and give a description of the man and woman you saw to a police artist, and take a look at some mug shots?"

"Well... does it have to be right now? I'm kind of busy--"

"Sir," Fraser said sternly, "I have every reason to believe that what you saw was the kidnapping of a police officer. We need your help right away. In cases like these, every second counts. Detective Kowalski's life may depend on you."

"Oh. I see," Land said. "In that case, I'll be right there. Can you give me directions, Constable Fraser?"

Land's observations had proved invaluable. While he was on his way to the station, Fraser had a hunch. They knew Ray hadn't been kidnapped for ransom, so what other motives could there be? What about revenge? "Francesca," he asked, "can you compile a list of all of the arrests Ray made in the last ten years for serious offenses, which resulted in jail sentences for the accused?"

"Sure, Frase."

"And can you check to see which of those convicts has been recently been released, and what their addresses might be?"

"Good idea," Frannie said. She started typing away on her computer, eager to help. Fraser knew that, like him, she'd been worried sick about her erstwhile 'brother's' kidnapping.

When Frannie's final list of names was compiled, he had her print their photos out for Jeff Land to examine when he arrived.

It had taken Land less than five minutes to wade his way through the stack of pictures and identify James Gentry. "This one," he said positively, pausing over one of the photos.

Gentry was a violent felon with a long arrest record stretching back to his adolescence: several assaults with deadly weapons, assault with intent to commit murder, and several arrests for suspected homicides. Ray had finally gathered enough evidence on him to make the last one stick. As a result, at the age of twenty one, Gentry had been sent to prison for ten years for the brutal murder of an acquaintance named Tara Lee, whom he'd raped and then beaten to death. That ten year sentence had ended just two weeks before Ray's disappearance. Just long enough, Fraser realized with a chill, for Gentry to find Ray again, and arrange for a safe place to hide him away--if he hadn't killed him already.

Jeff Land and Fraser stared down at his picture. The photo showed a man with long dark hair and a pair of the coldest, blackest eyes Fraser had ever seen. "You're sure this is him? The man you saw in the alley?" he asked, knowing those eyes could be capable of anything.

"Yeah! That's the guy!" Land said excitedly, tapping the picture with his forefinger. "His hair is a lot shorter, and he's got a moustache now, but that's him! That's the guy I saw by my house that morning. I'd stake my life on it. I couldn't forget those eyes."

Once Fraser reported Land's identification of Gentry to Lt. Welsh, he hadn't wasted any time. He'd immediately called a judge to get a warrant issued for James Gentry's arrest. Half the station had volunteered to surround Gentry's last known address, and Welsh ended up sending Huey, Dewey, Brinks, Shallan and Markham there to pick Gentry up and search his apartment.

But Fraser hadn't gone with them. His instincts had told him somehow that Ray wasn't there. It seemed far too easy. Gentry was vicious and violent in the extreme, but he'd been cunning enough to commit several murders without being caught, and he'd had enough run-in's with the police to understand their procedures as well. He would've counted on his apartment being searched if he fell under suspicion; and a small apartment with undoubtedly thin walls would be a stupid place in which to keep a kidnapped cop. Too much risk of the neighbors hearing something they shouldn't, and reporting it to the police. Fraser was betting that Gentry was far too smart for that; and that he'd kept Ray alive, no doubt to exact some long-drawn out, horrible sort of revenge for his arrest.

So while Welsh was busy readying the necessary paperwork and rounding up his posse, Fraser quietly checked Gentry's file for relatives and known associates. He learned that he had a younger sister living in east Chicago, who also had a rap sheet: one charge of assault, another for possession of an illegal substance. Equally significant was the fact that unlike her brother, she owned a house on an older street in east Chicago, which probably had a large yard isolating it from her nearest neighbor. A much safer place to stash a kidnapping victim than James' small apartment. He checked her police file on the computer himself, and wasn't surprised to find that she had long blond hair of a shade that matched the hairs he'd found in the alley where Ray was abducted by Gentry. Odds were, Alison had been her brother's accomplice.

Fraser had considered the matter for a moment. Half of the cops in the station, it seemed, were readying themselves to swoop down on Gentry's apartment, which was the only location for which they had a search warrant. There was no time to try to convince Welsh of his theory that Ray was, in fact, at Gentry's sister's house instead, or to contact a judge to try to get a second search warrant for it. Even if Welsh had listened to him, which Fraser doubted, every moment they delayed might mean the difference between life and death for Ray.

He made his decision. He had to act quickly, without the help of the other cops at the 27th. He took Francesca aside, told her what he was planning, and asked her if he could borrow her car. When she agreed, he also asked her to tell Lt. Welsh where he was going once he'd left, so that if he didn't return, he could send the troops in after Ray if he wasn't found at Gentry's apartment. Francesca's eyes had widened. "Take someone with you, Fraser!" she pleaded. "This Gentry's a real sicko."

"I intend to," he smiled. "Diefenbaker!" he called. "Let's go!"

He didn't ask any of the other officers to go with him because what he was about to do was illegal. He didn't have a search warrant, and he didn't want to get anyone else in trouble. But he wasn't about to let legality stand in the way of saving the life of the man he loved, either. He'd put duty first when he'd fallen in love with Victoria--he didn't intend to repeat that mistake a second time.

This time, Ray came first.

As it was, he'd almost been too late. He didn't like to remember how he'd found him, in a small, dark, sound-proofed room in the back of Alison Gentry's house...

He'd located the address easily enough. Accompanied by Diefenbaker, he'd slipped around back of the house and unlocked the back door with a credit card he'd borrowed from Francesca. It was a trick he'd learned from Ray Vecchio, and which he'd never used before; but he'd already violated the law by coming here without a search warrant. What was a little breaking and entering on top of that? In for a penny, in for a pound, he'd told himself. Whatever charges the Gentrys chose to file after the smoke cleared, he didn't care. If he had to face prison to save Ray, he would.

Once they were inside the house, he'd followed the sound of a television into the front room where he'd surprised a young blond woman whose face he recognized from her mug shot: Alison Gentry. She'd tried to scream, and he'd been forced to subdue her so she couldn't warn her brother if he was also present. He'd pulled her into the kitchen, taped her mouth with duct tape he found in a drawer, then fastened her securely to a chair, and shut her in a bedroom.

After that, with his heart beating a frantic tattoo in his chest, he'd begun a methodical search of the large house. When he'd finally found Ray, he'd frozen in the doorway when he saw him, sickened by the awful scene. It was surreal, like something out of a lurid Gothic novel. He'd been chained to the wall of a back bedroom. Large metal cuffs had been fastened to his wrists and ankles. He hung limply from them, naked and covered with blood and deep, blackened bruises from numerous wounds. Even his hair was stiff with dried blood. He was so still and pale that it took Fraser a moment to ascertain that he was, in fact, still breathing--unconscious, but not dead. His face and chest were badly battered. One eye was swollen shut, and he saw several burn marks under his jaw and around his nipples that looked like they'd been made by cigarettes. "My God," he'd whispered, revolted by the signs of torture.

But there was no time to waste. Alison Gentry had been alone when he'd found her, but there was no telling when her brother might show up; and though Fraser had brought a gun along for Ray's sake, he didn't want to get into a battle with James, since it would delay getting Ray to a hospital. So he'd begun to tear the room apart with shaking hands, looking for the key to Ray's cuffs.

When he couldn't find them, he tore back down the hall to the room where he'd stashed Alison, and ripped the tape off her mouth. When she winced, he felt a flicker of savage satisfaction. She deserves far worse, he thought grimly. "The keys!" he demanded. "Where are they?"

She'd spat at him. "Go fuck yourself!"

He'd felt a surge of rage so strong he could hardly keep from striking her. But he doubted that would be as effective as another kind of threat. "Dief!" he'd called sharply.

Instantly, his wolf stood up on his hind legs, put his paws on her chair and leaned close to Alison's neck, his teeth bared, growling an unmistakable warning.

"Either you tell me where they are, or he'll rip your throat out," he'd said. He'd only meant to threaten her, but after seeing what she and her brother had done to his partner, in that instant while Ray's life hung in the balance, he wasn't at all sure that he wouldn't have set aside his customary chivalry and allowed Dief to bite her if she'd refused.

Luckily, she didn't. Her eyes wide at the sight of Dief's sharp fangs, she whimpered, "In the kitchen. Top drawer, right hand side."

"Where is your brother?" he added, taking advantage of Dief's effective intimidation.

"He's at his girlfriend's."


"129 East Fiftieth," she said sullenly.

"When's he coming back?"

"In a couple of hours," Alison said.


For once, he didn't thank her for the information. She didn't deserve even that much courtesy, after what she'd helped her brother do to Ray. He taped her mouth again, then retrieved the keys and freed his partner. He laid him gently on the bed, called Lt. Welsh from Gentry's kitchen, informed him of the situation and Gentry's supposed whereabouts. He also asked for backup in case Alison was lying about that, or he returned sooner than she expected. Then he called an ambulance, and set about cleaning his friend's wounds as best he could before the paramedics arrived. Welsh called him back just as the ambulance got there, to let him know that Gentry had been captured, taken by surprise at his girlfriend's house with only a shot fired, and no one injured.

Fraser felt ambivalent about the news. He was glad that a vicious criminal had been taken off the streets, but part of him had wanted to hear that Gentry had been killed while trying to evade capture.

Ray turned on the water in the bathroom, and the noise brought Fraser out of his reverie with a start. He rubbed at his face with unsteady hands, trying to banish the bad memories. Though Ben was profoundly grateful that Ray had been spared, that he hadn't died at Gentry's hands, he almost dreaded his return to bed. Their constant proximity was hard on him. He wanted him more than ever now, so much that every morning when he woke to find Ray still sleeping in his bed, his heart would turn over with a surge of instant, painful, inevitable hope. Painful because he'd so often been disappointed--inevitable because he still couldn't help how he felt.

He loved Ray so much that it had been all he could do, these past few weeks, to keep from telling him so. But he felt keeping silent about it was even more important now. For the first time in their partnership, Ray was really leaning on him. He desperately needed someone to trust him after his ordeal, and he feared such a revelation might destroy the bond between them. So he had to keep quiet about his feelings.

Ben sighed to himself. He had what he most wanted, what he'd dreamed about: Ray Kowalski living with him, sleeping in his bed every night. But as usual when he got what he'd wished for, it wasn't at all like he'd hoped. Ray was a ghost of his former self, his confidence shattered, his emotions volatile, a stranger who was moody and unreachable--and Fraser wasn't sleeping with him, he was sleeping on his bedroll on the floor beside him. He might as well have been a million miles away.

Except for the times when Ray woke screaming, as he often did lately. When terrified, desperate sounds ripped from his dry throat in the darkness, Fraser would jolt awake, shake him, and call his name over and over to make his terrible cries stop, to banish the nightmares that gripped him. Sometimes Ray would push him away once his eyes opened and sanity finally returned.

"Okay, okay, Fraser," he'd say, though he was covered in cold sweat and shaking. "I'm all right now. Just leave me alone, okay?" He'd turn away, curl up in a ball in the center of the bed, and lie awake for a long time without saying a word, until he finally slept again, or daylight came.

At first, Fraser found those rejections hard to bear. But now he thought that the other times, when Ray turned to him for comfort, might be even worse.

Ray Kowalski was a strong man, and a tough cop. Before his ordeal with the Gentrys, Fraser had only seen him cry once, when he'd discovered he was responsible for Beth Boutrelle's false imprisonment and near execution. But all too often lately, when he woke yelling with horror deep in the night, he'd cry after Fraser woke him. Ben knew it was healthy, that he was venting intolerable fear and pain, which would help him heal, but his sobs were sometimes so deep and shattering that it hurt him to listen to them.

Sometimes, though he knew Ray didn't like to be touched now, he'd risk putting a hand on his shoulder to calm him, to let him know he wasn't alone. And sometimes, when Ray wept and shook so convulsively that it seemed he'd choke, he would forget his distaste for human contact, and reach back. Reach out for him blindly through his tears. Then Ben would soothe him in the only way he knew, by taking him in his arms and holding him close until the awful sobbing stopped. Ray clung to him so hard sometimes, on nights like that, that Fraser would find bruises on his skin the next morning.

There was nothing romantic about their closeness, though. It was a measure of Ray's desperation that he let Ben hold him at all. It was a measure of Fraser's that all he could feel while holding the man he loved was sorrow for his pain, and hatred for the people who'd caused it, who'd made sure that Ray would only seek his embrace when he was in agony. Because of the Gentrys, he was nothing but a spar of wood for a drowning man to cling to, when he longed to be a lover.

Worst of all, they always pretended, on those mornings after, that it hadn't happened. Ray never spoke about his nightmares, and Fraser reluctantly stayed silent too, and never mentioned the tears that often followed them. Ray's doctor had warned him not to try to force him to share details about his ordeal, that any confessions should come from him only when he was ready. At first, he'd hoped that would only be a matter of time, that Ray would eventually break down and talk to him about it. But he never had. Fraser was beginning to fear that he never would.

He and his partner had one flaw in common: they were both almost incapable of discussing deep emotions. Fraser sometimes thought that flaw had cost his father his life; and he wondered if it had cost Ray his marriage as well. He even began to worry that it might cost him his sanity.

Because though three weeks had passed since Ray's rescue, he wasn't really sure if he'd really gotten any better. Lt. Welsh kept asking him about it, anxious to have Kowalski back at his desk solving crimes, but Fraser kept evading him, telling him that Ray needed more time, that he wasn't ready yet. Which was true as far as it went, but what he didn't tell him was that he had no idea when he would be. Or even if he ever would be again.

If he couldn't get him to open up somehow, he doubted that he would.

In the midst of his grim musings, Fraser suddenly felt as if he were being watched. He opened his eyes to find Ray standing at the end of the hallway, his shoulder propped against the wall, looking at him silently. He didn't move, didn't even speak--but Fraser felt the weight of his gaze, palpable as a touch on his bare skin, and he shivered.

He sat up, to cover his telltale reaction. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly, wondering what emotions were moving behind his friend's intense blue eyes. He could never tell lately. Sometimes Ray wouldn't speak, sometimes he'd fly into a rage over the most innocent of questions. The doctor had also warned him that might happen, that volatility was common with post traumatic stress, but it often made him feel as if he were tiptoeing past land mines when he spoke to him.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Frase," Ray said.

He didn't smile, but he hadn't lashed out either. Satisfied with that, Fraser relaxed a little. But Ray's steady gaze made him uncomfortable, all the same. It reminded him of the way he'd touched him while he lay sleeping earlier, an anomaly that he still didn't understand. He didn't know if he should worry about such uncharacteristic behavior, or if he should just ignore it, like they'd fallen into the habit of ignoring so much that was unbearable lately.

"You look cold," he said at last, to break the awkward silence. Then he flushed a bit, realizing he must sound like the worst kind of mother hen. Ray would probably bite his head off for worrying about him unnecessarily.

But to his surprise, he didn't. He actually smiled a little. "Nawww, I'm fine. You worry too much, Ben."

He nodded. "I know. But maybe you should come back to bed. You need to rest," he said, knowing he was doing it again but unable to help himself. He'd fallen into an almost paternal role with his partner lately, due to his injuries. And while he rather enjoyed protecting and worrying over him, he tried not to be too obvious about it. He knew it hurt Ray's pride, which had been damaged enough already.

Ray smiled again. "So do you. Lie down, okay?" he said gently.

Fraser obeyed, surprised and pleased by his friend's unexpectedly mellow, affectionate mood. It was like a breath of sunlight after his storminess lately. He couldn't help but wonder if the way he'd touched him earlier had anything to do with that. After all, he'd lied about it, so maybe the touch had been prompted by affection he was embarrassed to admit to--

He caught himself sternly. Ray had probably lied about touching him because he'd been afraid that Fraser wouldn't believe his reason for it, and that he'd jump to the conclusion that it had been a caress anyway. It would be all too easy to fall into that trap, to indulge in wishful thinking about Ray's motives for the gesture; but he couldn't let himself do that.

Ben sighed to himself. Ray had told him how devoted he still was to his ex-wife, and he'd seen him watching women with distinctly lustful eyes on numerous occasions. Plus, he'd seen him kissing Luanne Russell, and he knew he'd had feelings for her. He was obviously heterosexual, and uninterested in men. So what had felt like caresses to him must've been something else--he just hadn't figured out what yet.

Just because you've gone off the deep end for a man, don't assume that he has too, he lectured himself. Or that he ever will! Especially after what Gentry did to him.

He lay down as Ray had asked, feeling distinctly depressed. Ray strode past him to the bed, and Fraser forced himself not to watch as he climbed onto it. But instead of lying down as he'd expected, he sat on the edge of it and looked down at him again, his eyes oddly intent.

"Ben, I wanna...tell you something," he said at last.

Ben... Something in the way he said it put Fraser on the alert. He searched his partner's eyes. Something disturbing moved in their blue depths, shadows that hadn't been there a moment before--and Ben suddenly knew what it was he wanted to talk about. Hope surged in him. This was what Ray needed most, to talk about his kidnapping, and he'd waited so long he'd begun to fear that he'd never do it. But Ben's hope was mixed with dread. Despite the fact that he knew Ray needed to unburden himself, he dreaded hearing the details of his nightmarish ordeal. Looking at his battered, lacerated body these past few weeks, and listening to his horrified screams when he had nightmares had told him more than he'd wanted to know about what he'd gone through.

But Ray needed him now, as he'd never needed him before; and Fraser loved him. So no matter how much it hurt him, he would listen. "All right," he said quietly.

Ray lowered his head and stared at the floor. "You know how...how I freak out, when I have those damn dreams," he choked out at last. It was a statement, not a question.

Fraser's heart turned over. He swallowed hard, staring down at the bulge of his feet under his blanket. He knew his reaction was important but he also knew that he shouldn't push. "Yes. I know," he said cautiously.

"It's because I keep dreamin' about them. That house--what they did to me."

"That's only natural, I suppose," Ben said gently. "No one could forget a terrible experience like that very quickly."

Ray grimaced. "Yeah, but... I've never... told you what happened," he went on.


"I mean, you must know some of it. You're the one who found me, and you must've read the reports..."

"Yes. I know about your injuries," Fraser admitted, choosing his words very carefully indeed. He didn't know whether he should tell Ray that he knew he'd been raped or not. He decided that it was better not to mention that detail, in case Ray believed he was unaware of it. He could certainly understand a victim's desire not to discuss such an experience with anyone else--especially a male victim as macho as Kowalski. Rape was hellish for anyone, but for a man as cocky as he...

A long silence fell, and out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Ray pacing restlessly beside him again. "You don't have to tell me any more if you don't want to," he said.

Ray shook his head. "I don't want to!" he burst out. "I don't wanna talk about it, but that damn shrink... He said if I don't, it'll just kinda' fester, and... I'm startin' to think he's right. It's just--It's eatin' me up, Fraser! I can't eat, I can't sleep--I still see 'em. I still hear 'em in my head... laughin' at me --"

Fraser swallowed, his mouth dry. "Then tell me," he said simply.

Ray nodded nervously, then paced some more. Up and down, up and down, until the agitated motion grew hard to watch, until Fraser wanted to grab him and make him stop. But Kowalski had always been a bundle of energy, happiest when in motion. He could understand why he needed to move now, of all times. So he stayed where he was, knowing Ray had to find his own way through this.

Finally, he stopped not far from Fraser, and stared off into space. "It hurt," Ray said at long last, his voice thick with remembered pain. "More than anything I ever felt. Worse than gettin' shot, worse than anything. I couldn't--" He broke off, strode across the room, came back again. "'I mean, I've faced death before--lots o' cops do, sooner or later, but... that was worse," he confessed huskily. "I always thought I could take anything, but that..." He shook his head, blinking as if to dispel his horrible memories. "That bitch with her goddamn cigarettes, she--and Gentry with his goddamn bat. At first, I told 'em to go to hell. But in the end... they made me scream," he said in a small voice, shaking. "Made me beg. Beg 'em to stop."

Ray swung away from him, so he couldn't see his face. Fraser could only imagine what it had cost him to admit that. He swallowed hard, felt the sting of tears in his eyes. His partner's words had cut into him like surgical blades. He didn't need to imagine what they'd done to him to break him. What he hadn't seen for himself, the doctor's reports on Ray's injuries had spelled out: a broken rib and collarbone, a broken finger on his left hand. Numerous severe bruises and contusions caused by repeated blows with a blunt object--undoubtedly Gentry's baseball bat. Bruised liver and kidneys. Multiple cuts and lacerations, knife wounds and cigarette burns. Gentry and his sister hadn't been subtle about taking revenge for his imprisonment. They'd beaten, stabbed and burned Ray so viciously it was a wonder he hadn't died.

"But when I begged 'em to stop... they just laughed. They laughed, then they did it some more. They -- took turns hurtin' me. I tried to tell myself that you'd come lookin' for me, but sometimes... sometimes I thought it was never gonna end. That no one would ever find me. Before they were done, I was beggin' 'em... to kill me," he admitted in a hoarse whisper.

Fraser closed his eyes, had to choke down a lump in his throat before he could speak. It was horrible, monstrous. Worse than he had dreamed. Worse yet, it was partly his fault. If he'd been smarter, if he'd only found him sooner, Gentry and his sister wouldn't have had time to hurt him so cruelly. "I'm sorry, Ray," he said, knowing the words were inadequate. "I'm so sorry they hurt you."

Ray nodded. "Yeah," he said thickly. "I know ya are. Thanks." For the first time in weeks, he reached out and touched Fraser--not looking for comfort himself this time, but trying to give it. He laid a hand on his shoulder for an instant. Moved by his generosity after all he'd been through, Fraser wanted, with an urgency that shook him, to pull him down into his arms and hold him, kiss him until he forgot all the horror and pain.

No one had been there to hold or comfort Ben after his mother died, and he could count the times anyone had held him since on the fingers of one hand. But when he was a very young boy, his mom had held him. Rocked him in her arms when he cried. He still remembered how wonderful it felt to have one's pain soothed by a loving embrace, by tender kisses--and he wanted to do that for Ray. He'd been wanting to do it ever since he'd found him. Not just to support him while he cried, but to stroke him and kiss him all over. But he knew it was impossible. Forbidden. That Ray himself wouldn't understand. So he held himself still, though he had to tense every muscle in his body to do so.

After a moment that seemed all too brief to Fraser, Ray let go of him. He wiped at his eyes and sniffed, trying to hide his tears.

But the sight of them forced Fraser into a confession of his own. "I wish I'd...found you sooner," he grated, the words like ashes in his mouth.

Ray shot him a swift glance. "What kinda' talk is that?" he asked gruffly. "It's not your fault! You're the one who figured it out. You saved me. I owe you my life. If it hadn't been for you, I'd be a dead man."

Fraser closed his eyes again, feeling sick as he remembered the terror that had filled him while he'd searched for him in Alison Gentry's house. Fear that he'd come too late... "Don't say that," he mumbled.

Ray crouched down beside him. "It's true. I don't know...if I ever thanked you for comin' after me," he said earnestly. "For gettin' me outta that hellhole. And...for everything else you've done. For takin' care o' me and all. Thanks, Ben."

At that instant, he knew why Ray had started calling him Ben--and that all his previous apologies had been sincere, and not the mockeries he'd feared. Ray cared for him too; and that meant more to him than anything. Fraser opened his eyes, looked past the red and white scars that still laced his face, deep into his best friend's eyes. "You're welcome," he said. "And you don't owe me, Ray. I know you would've done the same for me."

Ray nodded. "Yeah. But how? I mean--how'd you know I wasn't at Gentry's place, like everybody else thought?"

Because I love you, Fraser thought painfully. My eyes saw further than theirs did because they had to. I had to save you, because you're my life. But aloud, he said only, "I don't know, Ray. I just had a hunch Gentry wouldn't be stupid enough to try to keep you concealed in a small apartment."

Ray smiled bleakly. "Yer right. I did get a little noisy at times." He rubbed the fading red cigarette burns under his jaw unconsciously as he spoke.

Fraser winced. He knew it was probably a good sign that Ray could joke about his ordeal, but he couldn't see it as funny. He stared into his partner's face, at the gaunt, angular cheekbones and troubled blue eyes so close to him, and for a moment, pity and anger overwhelmed him. The mention of Gentry's name, combined with a close view of Ray's scars, triggered a sudden memory of Gentry's cold dark eyes. Fraser imagined himself downing the man with one punch, then kicking his prone body--and the violent image gave him a surge of righteous satisfaction.

But something of his dark thoughts must've showed in his expression. Ray stared at him, and his eyes narrowed. A little frown formed between his brows. "Sorry. Guess I got a little... heavy, there. Didn't mean to," he said awkwardly. "You okay with it, Frase?"

Ben had to bite his lip. For once, he was the one who wanted to shout. No, I'm not okay with it! I hate what they did to you! I hate that bastard so much that if I'd found him in that house I probably would've killed him with my bare hands--

He'd wanted to. Even now, it took all the iron self control he'd developed over the years to suppress his rage, not to tell Ray what was on his mind. But the police department psychologist who Ray was seeing had warned him against it, had told him that expressions of anger and/or hatred towards his kidnappers, natural though they might be, wouldn't aid Ray in his recovery. So he'd never told his friend that fantasies of violent retribution against Gentry for what he'd done to him sometimes filled his head.

I'm a Mountie, he reminded himself. I can do this. So he banished the violent images, swallowed his anger and finally, after a long pause, tried to smile up at his partner. "Yes," he said. "I just get... upset sometimes, thinking about what they did to you. But you're my friend. My partner. You know you can tell me anything, Ray. It's all right."

Ray swallowed hard, his throat working, as if he were suppressing strong emotions of his own. "Yeah. I know," he said hoarsely. "Thanks. But I think that's enough for tonight, huh? Let's get some sleep."

He climbed back into bed, and Ben settled back down on the floor beside him. Ray turned off the bedside lamp, and the room was once again plunged into darkness. Neither of them spoke for a long time. So long a time, in fact, that Fraser began to hope that Ray had gone back to sleep.

Then Ray said quietly, "Hey, Ben."


"You know what helped me get through it?"


"You. I thought o' you," Ray said hoarsely.

Fraser closed his eyes, but tears ran down his cheeks anyway. He couldn't stop them, and he didn't even try. He just lay there, his whole body one pulsing beat of love and pain so deep he had no words to express it. If he hadn't wept, he would've exploded from the strain of trying to keep it all in. If Ray had touched him at that moment, with so much as a fingertip, he wouldn't have been able to hold back. He would've tried to take him in his arms, no matter the consequences, because that little confession had ripped his heart right out of his chest.

He knew what it meant, what his partner had been trying to tell him: that he loved him. As a friend, maybe even like a brother. He felt honored by that. Moved. But shut out all the same; because it wasn't the kind of love he wanted from Ray. Never that.

What was that silly thing Ray Vecchio used to say? "Close, but no cigar."

He couldn't imagine why he'd thought of that now. Maybe because Vecchio had loved him in the same way--

Finally, after a silence so long and deep he thought it would never end, he managed to get himself back under control, to choke back his tears so he could speak. He forced out a whisper. "Go to sleep, Ray."

Because he'd discovered that there were other, more subtle forms of torture than knives and baseball bats. Any more of that, and he would've been the one begging Ray to stop.

Stanley Ray Kowalski lay awake for a long time after that, staring up at the ceiling and wondering about himself and the man who lay so close to him in the darkness. What in the hell made me say that? he wondered, already regretting his confession. What the hell was I thinking? Living in this rat trap must've fried my brain. I told him about the screaming! God, I was never gonna tell anybody that, ever. Shit! If he had any respect for me at all, that musta' flushed it down the toilet. Besides makin' him sick. I swear, he turned green. I thought he was gonna puke. Why the fuck did I do that?

But he knew why. Those nightmares had been festering inside him, just like that police shrink warned him they would. Turning into green pus, poisoning his brain--he had to get rid of them, had to talk about them to someone, or he'd rot away from the inside.

And he couldn't tell anyone else but Ben. No one else would've wanted to listen; no one else would've understood. The other cops at the 27th would've laughed if he'd told them he'd broken down like a girl and begged the Gentrys to kill him--and he could never have told his parents that, it would've freaked them out. He doubted Stella would've even understood it. She would've just expected him to be strong no matter what. But Ben hadn't. He'd gotten tears in his eyes. Said he was sorry he got hurt like that.

He clung to that memory. He'd never seen Ben cry before, except when that damn bounty hunter chick had left him high and dry and lonely. Fraser didn't exactly wear his heart on his sleeve. So his tears must've meant something: that he really was sorry, that he wished he'd found him sooner... And that must mean that he understood. That he didn't despise him. That made him feel a little better. Actually, telling Ben some of the gory details had too. For the first time since waking up in the hospital, he felt a little cleaner inside, a little less raw. Like maybe some of the Gentrys' stink was wearing off of him. Like maybe things would somehow be okay after all. Maybe, even though Fraser now knew that he'd screamed like a girl, he wouldn't hold it against him. Maybe he wouldn't ask for a new partner once this was over, once his scars healed and he got back on his feet again...

That was one of his worst fears. He had a lot of them right now, but that was near the top of his list: losing Fraser. He was still walking in the sky, and without him, he'd float away. Ben was the only person who made him feel safe anymore.

Who made him feel--

He squirmed under the bedcovers, as a strange wave of heat passed over him. Okay, so maybe I told Fraser about the screamin' so I'd feel better. Maybe I even do. But why'd I tell him how I dreamed about him when I was in that hellhole? And why the hell was I touchin' him like that?

He felt a wave of fear. Like he was falling from a great height, falling helplessly... Then somehow, he was there again. Back in Alison Gentry's house. He remembered Gentry's hands on his naked body, turning him to face the wall. His feeling of helplessness as he jerked his head back by the hair, so hard he thought his neck would snap...He'd known what was coming, and he'd roared, screamed furiously, more angry than he'd ever been in his life. But he couldn't stop him. He was helpless in those damn chains, could hardly even move, and they'd beaten him so badly by that time that the slightest movement was agony... And then the pain got worse. Infinitely worse as Gentry had thrust into him from behind, smashed him into the wall as he pounded into him.

Ben! he cried out, falling. Ben, help me!

But for the first time, even the thought of him wasn't comforting. Because he didn't think of him in the same way anymore. Not after...

What the hell's happening to me?

Had Gentry bent him? Twisted him? Was that why he'd been touching Ben like that? Had being raped made him gay? He started to sweat. A sick, cold sweat that reeked of fear. He rolled over and ground his face into the pillow. Knotted his fists in the blankets, shaking, and tried not to float away.

Tried to hold on for one more night.

Fraser watched Ray closely the next morning. He'd evidently gotten up before dawn, because when the morning light woke Fraser, Ray was already up and dressed. Sitting by the window, wearing an old pair of blue jeans with a hole in the knee, and a blue sweatshirt that hung a little on his overly thin frame. He stared out into nothingness, his eyes hooded and distant. Fraser wondered if he'd slept at all.

"Good morning," he said quietly, testing the waters.

Ray shot him a slanting blue glance, then turned to the window again without replying.

Fraser sat up and ran a hand through his hair as Diefenbaker whoofed at him, asking for something to eat. "Are you hungry?" he asked his friend. "I can make us some breakfast..."

Ray just shook his head no. Fraser sighed to himself. He'd hoped that Ray's confession last night would set his mind at ease, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect. He'd withdrawn into himself again, into the dark silence he fell into all too easily these days. But he told himself that it wasn't too hard to understand. Ray probably felt he'd said too much. He was probably embarrassed. So Fraser didn't push him to talk. He thought if he just carried on as usual, Ray would see that nothing he'd said had made any difference in their relationship, and eventually, he'd relax about it.

He hoped so.

Later that evening, after he'd just finished cleaning up their dinner dishes--dinner he'd forced Ray to eat, since he'd had nothing else all day--there was a knock at their door. Ray jumped a little. They hadn't had many visitors since he'd been staying with him. Lt. Welsh and Frannie had been by a few times, but Ray didn't want anyone else from the 27th to see him yet, and Fraser had respected his wishes. So Fraser was a little surprised that Ray didn't retreat as he went to open the door.

It was his neighbor. "Hello, Mr. Tilden," he smiled.

"Uh, hello," the older man said. "Mr. Fraser, I wondered if... I have this lamp, you see, in my bedroom," he began haltingly. Then he stopped in mid-sentence, his eyes widening.

Fraser knew he must've seen Ray behind him. He moved without thinking, shifted to block the older man's view, hoping to God Ray hadn't noticed his startled reaction. It was probably just surprise, he told himself. Mr. Tilden just hadn't realized that someone else was in his apartment with him. But he knew Ray wouldn't take it that way. He was so sensitive about his appearance, he'd go into black fits of depression if people stared at his still-healing face... He still wasn't sure he'd fully recovered from that little girl's unfortunate comment in the park that day.

"Yes?" he prompted politely. "Is something wrong with your lamp?"

"Well, it... It doesn't want to light all of a sudden, and I changed the bulb but it still won't. And I was wondering, could you come and look at it? It would just take a minute..."

Ordinarily, Fraser wouldn't have hesitated, but he didn't like leaving Ray alone. Not after last night, and especially not after the look Tilden had just given him. If Ray had seen it... He shot a look at him over his shoulder. But Ray's face was blank, calm, revealing nothing. Thank God, he thought, he didn't notice it.

"Go on, Frase," Ray said quietly. His lips twitched upward in the ghost of a smile. "I'll hold down the fort for awhile."

Fraser hesitated, even considered asking Ray to come with him. But he decided that would probably do more harm than good. He tried not to make Ray feel like he was his jailer. "All right," he said at last. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

When Ray nodded, he whistled to Dief, then shut the door behind them. But as Mr. Tilden strode off down the hall towards his apartment, Fraser turned to Dief and pointed back at his door. "Stay with Ray," he said clearly. "Guard."

Dief gave a bark to show that he understood, and settled faithfully down by his front door. Fraser followed Mr. Tilden, secure in the knowledge that if Ray did try to leave while he was gone, Dief would warn him.

Some ten minutes later, as he was putting the pieces of Mr. Tilden's lamp back together, Ben heard a mournful howl from down the hall. His head came up, and he dropped the screwdriver he was holding. "Excuse me," he said to his startled neighbor. "I have to go."

Ray. Something's wrong... He ran down the hall, his heart in his mouth. Dief sat by his door, barking loudly. He tore inside, skidded to a stop by his bed, already knowing his apartment was empty. Ray was nowhere to be seen, and Dief ran to the window, jumped out onto the fire escape and looked upwards, keening a worried sound deep in his throat.

The window! Fraser cursed himself. He'd forgotten about that. He'd expected Ray to head for the street if he left, but he'd evidently climbed out the window instead; and from the way Dief was acting, he'd gone up onto the roof. Dear God. He stuck his head out, but there was no sign of Ray on the fire escape above.

Fraser leapt out and started climbing, as silently as he could. It was faster than the elevator, and there was no time to waste. He suddenly realized that the past 24 hours must've been tough on Ray. First his agonized confession last night, and then Mr. Tilden's look of surprise moments ago, which he now knew Ray must've seen after all...

Please, God, please! he prayed as he hauled himself upward. Don't let him do anything stupid.

Ray stood at the edge of the roof, staring upward. Looking at the sky during the day bothered him lately, made him dizzy, because of that damn story of Fraser's; but he'd had a sudden yen to look at the stars. Not from down on the streets with the junkies and winos, but from up here, where it was quiet and he could be alone. He'd wanted to look at something pretty, 'cuz he'd seen how Fraser's neighbor, that Tilden guy, had looked at him just now, and it rankled. Same old shit, but every time he thought he'd gotten resigned to that, he discovered he wasn't.

It seemed he was doomed to disappointment, though, in his search for the stars. It was a bit cloudy, and they were hard to see. He craned his neck and leaned forward a bit, peering up. Then his boot hit the edge, and he swayed a little.


A hoarse cry rang out behind him, startling him. He'd thought he was alone up here--

As Fraser heaved himself up the last steps onto the roof, he saw his partner standing about ten feet away from him, near the edge of the building, and his heart almost leapt right out of his chest. Dear God, I was right! He's going to jump!

When Ray stepped to the edge and swayed, Fraser screamed, terrified. "No, Ray! Don't!"

Ray whirled, surprised by his yell. But he turned so quickly that it unbalanced him, and he flung out his arms a bit to steady himself. To Fraser, it seemed he was teetering on the brink of a downward plunge.

Ben was up over the edge in one fluid motion, and running before he knew he'd moved. He hit his partner in a flying tackle, knocking him onto his back with a force that jarred them both. They landed at the very edge of the roof. For a second, he just lay there on top of him, paralyzed by an enormous rush of relief. Because he was holding Ray, he'd caught him, he wasn't going to die--

He could feel the hole in the knee of Kowalski's jeans pressed against his leg, and even that little imperfection seemed sweet just because it was part of Ray.

"Shit!" Ray hissed breathlessly, shifting awkwardly under him. "What the hell was that, Fraser?"

He lifted his head, stared down at his partner incredulously. "What do you mean?" He was shaking with reaction, with the aftermath of pure, bone-chilling terror, so his words came out sharper than he'd meant them to.

Ray shifted again, then grimaced in exasperation as Fraser's heavier body kept him pinned down. "Fraser..." Then, just as swiftly, that exasperation turned to amusement, and he smiled. "I mean, what're you doing? Do you always jump guys on the roof like this, or am I your first?"

Fraser flushed. "I--no, I don't..."

He was suddenly aware that he wasn't just lying on top of Ray. He was also holding onto his arms. Their bodies were pressed tightly together, and Ray could probably feel how his heart was pounding. He could feel the detective's heart beating hard, too. And before he could stop himself, his eyes dropped to Ray's lips, which were slightly parted in a sardonic smile. He wanted to take that smiling mouth, he wanted to cover it with his own and kiss him so hard he forgot his own name--

Then it hit him: Ray had made a joke. He'd just stopped him from trying to kill himself, and he was lying there making a joke out of it!

Does he know he just scared the hell out of me? Or doesn't he even care? A wave of anger swept over him. He sat up and rolled off Ray, rested his back against the jutting edge of the roof. He swallowed hard. "Maybe you should tell me what you're doing up here," he grated accusingly, when he was sure he could speak without saying something he'd regret.

Ray sat up slowly, rubbing his chest and eyeing him strangely. "Came up to look at the stars," he said.

It was Fraser's turn to blink. "What?"

Ray shrugged a little. "Yeah, I... I get these moods, you know. I got depressed I guess, so I just... wanted to come up and look at the stars for awhile. They're pretty, they --" He broke off suddenly, as if he were too embarrassed to go any further.

Fraser stared at him in disbelief. Ray admitted that he was depressed, and he'd been standing at the edge, right at the edge--but then he remembered something. One little detail that he'd seen, but been too frightened to pay attention to before. When he'd first reached the top of the building, Ray had been standing at the edge of the roof all right; but he hadn't been looking down, like every suicidal jumper Fraser had ever seen.

He'd been looking up. Up at the stars.

He was telling the truth. He hadn't been trying to kill himself, he'd just come up to take a look at the night sky. Fraser closed his eyes, took a deep breath then blew it out again, feeling both relieved and completely idiotic. "I see," he said.

"Well, that makes one of us," Ray retorted. "What was the idea, jumpin' me like that?"

Fraser shrugged, knowing he was flushing, feeling as awkward as a kid caught with his hand in a cookie jar. "I just thought that --"

"What? What did you think?"

He jerked his head nervously, rubbed at his eyebrow with his thumb. "Well, that you were about to--to fall off the roof," he lied at last. "I was trying to catch you."

Ray pursed his lips, eyeing him intently. "Thought I was gonna jump, dintcha'?" he asked shrewdly.

Fraser shook his head, annoyed that Ray had seen through him. "No, I thought you might stumble--"

"Jump," Ray insisted.

"Lose your balance--"

"Jump!" Ray repeated stubbornly.

"Well, you seemed to be teetering, so--"

"Take a flyin' leap! Make like a bird and--"

"All right! Yes! I thought you were going to jump!" Fraser hissed finally, exasperated. Then he shot an apprehensive glance at Kowalski, afraid that the revelation might make him furious.

But to his surprise, Ray just nodded. "Thank you. Well, I guess I can see why you mighta' thought that," he said calmly, looking back at where he'd been standing. "But Ben... I'm not gonna kill myself, okay?"

Fraser just looked at him.

"I'm not," he said again.

Fraser raised an eyebrow.

Ray grimaced. "Okay. Gimme yer hand," he said.

Ben narrowed his eyes, confused, but after a moment, he held out his right hand.

Ray shook his head. "The other one," he said, holding his left hand up a little so Fraser could see the splint on it.

"Oh. Sorry," Ben said, holding out his left.

Ray gripped it tightly with his right, his good hand, then held their joined hands up in front of Fraser's eyes. "I swear, I'm not gonna kill myself," he said firmly. "I swear on this hand, your hand, the hand that saved my life, that I am not gonna give up like that. Okay, Ben? Don't want you to be worryin' about that."

Ben swallowed again, touched and immensely relieved by the sincerity in his partner's eyes, his voice. Ray's grip felt powerful, and his words felt more like a vow than a promise. He felt like a kid again suddenly, like a young boy taking an oath with a friend that they'd be blood brothers forever. He covered Ray's hand with his own much larger one, and nodded. "Understood."

Then, unexpectedly, Ray grinned. A wide, wicked grin that Fraser hadn't seen since his disappearance. "Okay. But you better let go now, or I'm gonna think you were tryin' to jump me after all," he teased.

Fraser hesitated. For a fraction of a second, a wild part of him responded to the wicked gleam in Kowalski's eyes, and wanted to tease him back. What would he do, he wondered, if I took him up on that dare? If I didn't let go of his hand, if I held onto it, even used that hold to pull him against me and kiss him instead?

Then the answer came to him. He'd probably punch me. After all, they were blood brothers only--not lovers. They would never be lovers, because loving took two, and he was in this alone. He let go of Ray's hand and silently got to his feet and headed for the top of the fire escape.

But his friend came after him, put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around again. He rolled his shoulders a little nervously, then cleared his throat. "Scared you pretty bad, didn't I," he said, and it was a statement, not a question.

This time, he didn't try to lie about it. "Yes," he said, letting some of it show in his eyes.

Ray hung his head. "Sorry. Didn't mean to. I thought I'd get back before you did, and you'd never even know I was gone."

Fraser smiled a little. "Dief got a little worried," he said.

Ray smiled a little too. "Dief, huh? I mighta' known."

As one, they turned back towards the fire escape then. Ben let Ray go first.

"Didja' get that guy's lamp fixed?" Ray asked casually over his shoulder.

"Almost." He didn't want to admit that he'd only gotten midway through the repair when Dief had noted Ray's absence, and alerted him to it. "By the way, how was the stargazing?" he asked.

Ray just shrugged. "Couldn't see much," he said as he started to descend. "There's too many clouds."

But that night as he lay in bed, Ray realized that he had seen something up on that roof after all. Several things: Ben's face, white with terror, as he tackled him in a desperate dive; Ben's gaze, hot with what looked like desire as it dropped to his mouth while he lay on top of him; and last but not least, Ben's hand, that had held onto his a few seconds too long, even after he'd teased him about trying to jump his bones.

He tried to tell himself it could mean something else, it didn't have to mean that... But he'd been a detective for too long to doubt his own eyes, and his instincts. And they were telling him that Fraser had been hiding something--something big.

And that maybe he had too.

Bam! Just like that, he was falling again. Falling forever, dizzy with the spin, feeling the blood roaring in his ears as he plunged. He dug his fingers into the blankets again and waited helplessly for the feeling to pass.

Sometimes it's like someone took a knife baby, edgy and dull
And cut a six inch valley through the middle of my soul
At night I wake up with the sheets soakin' wet
And a freight train runnin' through the middle of my head
Only you can cool my desire
Oh, I'm on fire

-- Bruce Springsteen

The next three days went by uneventfully. Fraser and Ray took their usual long walks at night, Ray tried not to brood so much during the days, and neither of them mentioned what had happened up on the roof. Ray thought a lot about what it meant, though; and what he needed to do about it.

But he didn't let himself turn on the light to watch Ben sleep.

But on the third night, he half woke way past midnight, roused from sleep by an unfamiliar sound. It was coming from Ben's direction, from the floor; a sort of strangled moan. He heard Dief whine uneasily, and blinked his eyes open, groggy from deep sleep.

In his dream, Ben leapt up on the roof again, his heart in his mouth, as Ray stood poised to jump. Only this time he was further away, and it would take him too long to cross the roof to get to him. He knew that even as he started to run. Knew that Ray was going to do it, going to jump, going to leave him like everyone else had. "Ray, wait!" he called desperately as he ran. "Don't! I love you!"

His partner turned to face him suddenly, his scars livid, his face twisted in a look of disgust. "Why do you think I wanna jump?"

Then he spread his arms and leapt.


Ray sat up, his heart pounding, jolted completed awake so abruptly by Fraser's screams that for a second, he couldn't even remember where they were. He reached out reflexively for his partner, and nearly knocked over the bedside lamp. He flipped it on, hands shaking, to find the Mountie sitting bolt upright, chest heaving, eyes wide.

"Raaaayyyy!" he shrieked.

Jesus Christ! He'd never heard Fraser scream before. It was a terrible sound: loud, hoarse, terror mixed with unbearable anguish. He dropped down to the floor beside Ben and reached out to him, touched his shoulder. Found it clammy with cold sweat. "Hey! Ben, wake up. It's okay," he said hastily, wondering what the hell he was dreaming about, that had him so terrified. Wondered if this was how Fraser felt, groggy and scared, his heart in overdrive, every time he woke him up this way.

Fraser blinked, his mouth working as if he were swallowing down another scream. "Ray!" he croaked, grabbing the hand that touched his shoulder as if to prove to himself that it was real.

"Yeah. It's me," he breathed, gripping his friend tighter to reassure him.

"I'm sorry," Fraser whispered, his eyes finally losing their wild look. He shivered, let him go and turned away a little, his breath still sawing through his chest.

Ray pulled his hand back, trying not to take it personally. After all, he hadn't exactly been Mr. Touchy-Feelie himself lately, but it had nothing to do with Fraser. "S'okay," he repeated softly. "You just had a bad dream."

Fraser was still breathing hard. Dief padded over to him, licked his cheek anxiously. Ben put an arm around him absently, then buried his cheek in the wolf's furry shoulder. "Yes," he said at last, his voice unsteady, his hands moving over Diefenbaker's coat in a blind search for comfort. "A bad dream..."

From the look in his eyes, that's the understatement of the century, Ray thought. And he yelled my name, so I must've been in it. Or was he thinkin' about the other Ray? "What was it?" he asked, curious. Even a little jealous.

To his surprise, Fraser glared at him. "I don't ask you what your nightmares are about, do I?" he snapped.

Ray shrugged that off with a little smile, unrepentant. "Yeah, but I'm not like you. I'm not as polite as you."

"I've noticed."

Ray raised an eyebrow. First a glare, now sarcasm? That must've been a whopper of a nightmare, he thought, to shake him up so bad. He's acting prickly. Totally unCanadian. "I just thought, you know, it might help if you talk about it," he tried again.

Fraser snorted. "You want me to talk?" he asked incredulously.


"You? Ray Kowalski, Mr. 'Don't Speak to Me, I'm Busy Brooding'? You want me to talk?"

Have I really been that bad? Ray thought, knowing he probably had. Still, he was beginning to get a bit pissed off at Fraser's attitude. He'd been just about to tell him that he thought he had some right to know about the nightmare since it was his name he'd been screaming out. But it could just as well have been Vecchio he was thinking of, and if it had been, Ray didn't want to know. "Okay. Don't tell me then. Just forget I said anything," he grumped.

"Fine," Fraser shot back.

"Okay!" Ray snapped.

"'Nuff said," Fraser retorted.

Ray laid back down on the bed in a huff.

Fraser lay back down, too. But neither man moved to switch off the light, and the silence that fell between them was uncomfortable. Dief gave them both an annoyed look, then padded off to go back to sleep in the corner.

Two minutes later, they both spoke at once. "I'm sorry, Ray--"

"Sorry, Ben--"

Then they both started to laugh.

When the snickering died away, Ray said, "I wasn't tryin' to pry, ya' know. I just... I just wanted to help you. Yer always helpin' me when I have bad dreams, so..."

Fraser was touched. "Thanks, Ray. I appreciate that. But I don't... It just isn't something I can tell you," he said at last, as gently as he could. He hadn't meant to snap at his partner about it, but he didn't want to discuss it with him for several reasons--not the least of which was the cold feeling the dream had left him with. As if it were more than a mere aberration thrown up by his subconscious. As if it were a warning of some kind. A hint of impending disaster. The fact that disaster had resulted, in his dream, from the revelation of his feelings for Ray disturbed him deeply.

But then, love had always frightened him. Why should this time be any different? he asked himself, trying to banish his goosebumps.

Ray sat up again, moved over to the edge of his bed, threw back his covers, dangled his legs over the side and gave him an intense look. "Wouldja have told him?" he asked.

"Who?" he asked absently, still worrying about the implications of his dream.

"Vecchio. Wouldja have told him about yer dream?"

Fraser frowned in surprise, suddenly focusing his full attention on Kowalski. Ray Vecchio had been gone for over a year now, for so long that he sometimes thought he'd never see him again. But Kowalski's question sounded strangely jealous all the same. As if he were wondering which of them Fraser liked best. And there was an edge in his voice that Fraser could seldom remember hearing before. It puzzled him. He couldn't imagine why Ray would worry about such a thing after all this time. Is he afraid, perhaps, that if Ray happens to return now, while he's staying with me, that I'd abandon him?

"Ray Vecchio isn't here, Ray," he pointed out, trying to reassure him.

It didn't work. Kowalski took it as an insult. His brow furrowed with familiar aggravation. "I know that, I know! I've been havin' nightmares, Fraser, not hallucinations!"

Fraser hid a smile. "I'm sorry, Ray."

"This is just, like--one o' those whadja'callits --"

"Hypothetical questions?"

"Yeah! Like you're always askin'. Hypothetical. I'm just sayin', hypothetically, if Vecchio was here, if he was sittin' here now instead o' me, would you tell him what your dream was about?"

Ben was tempted to point out that Ray Vecchio wouldn't have been sitting here with him, because he'd never arrested James Gentry, nor would he have been kidnapped and tortured by him, thus resulting in a stay in his apartment. But he restrained himself, since Ray had stressed that his question was merely hypothetical. Fraser had the distinct feeling, though, that it was nonetheless important. Important enough that Kowalski wouldn't let it go until he got an answer.

So Fraser gave it serious thought. "No," he said after a moment. And it was true--just not for the reasons Kowalski would think. He wouldn't have discussed such a dream with Ray Vecchio because it involved his deep desire for a man, and discovering that would've upset Ray, who was rather homophobic. So it wasn't that they weren't close enough for Ben to confide in him--actually, they were so close that he already knew what Ray's opinion on the subject would be. So he never would've brought it up.

But Ray Kowalski didn't need to know that.

And he couldn't quite hide a gleam of satisfaction at that news, either. "Okay," Ray nodded, visibly mollified. "Well, then... I guess you don't have to tell me either."

Fraser lifted his eyebrows, amused. "Thank you, Ray."

He laid back down, glad that the unexpected subject could now be closed. He expected Ray would lie back down too, but he didn't. He just sat there staring at him, and it began to make Fraser nervous. "Uh... is there something else on your mind, Ray?"

"Yeah." Kowalski's brow was furrowed again, and he scratched his neck absently, a sure sign that he was thinking heavily about something. "I just wanted to tell you that, you know... If you ever wanna talk about anything that's botherin' you, you can. With me, I mean."

Fraser blinked. Kowalski was full of surprises tonight. He knew he was trying to be helpful, but he couldn't help wondering what lay behind that unexpected offer. Had Ray sensed his inner turmoil? Or did it have something to do with his dream? Had he said something in his sleep that he shouldn't have? The thought made him distinctly uncomfortable, though he tried to hide it. "Well, that's very kind of you, Ray, but nothing's bothering me."

Ray searched his eyes. "Yer sure about that."

He nodded firmly. "Positive," he lied.

"Okay, but I coulda' sworn you just woke up screamin' a few minutes ago --"

"Everyone has nightmares occasionally, Ray!" he said defensively, turning red because he knew he was fibbing shamelessly. "That doesn't mean something is troubling me!"

It was Ray's turn to lift his eyebrows. "That's funny, 'cuz the shrink I've been seein' says different. He says they usually mean somethin'. That they're the result of 'unresolved emotions that haven't been dealt with.' And stuff like that."

"Well, not in this case," he insisted.

"Okay, fine, Frase. Just checkin'," Ray said mildly.

But to Fraser's chagrin, he didn't lean over to shut off the light again. He still kept looking at him. Studying him, as if he hadn't believed him. As if he knew damn well something was wrong, and wasn't going to give up until he found out what it was. Being the focus of those intense blue eyes at close range had a disturbingly arousing effect, and he shifted nervously under his covers, lifted a knee so that Ray wouldn't see what he was doing to him.

"What is it, now?" he asked, beginning to get a bit exasperated with Ray's unending questions.

"Huh? What's what?"

"Well, you keep staring at me! Is there something wrong, Ray?"

Ray let out a huff of breath that was almost a laugh, and looked away finally. Fraser was gratified to see him flush a bit himself. "Oh. Sorry. But yeah. Yeah, you could say that," he muttered. "That there's somethin' wrong, I mean." To his surprise, Ray closed his eyes for a long moment, as if he were trying to master some overpowering emotion--perhaps fear.

Fraser waited with baited breath. Dear God, is he going to tell me that I screamed out, "Ray, I love you?" or something equally damning, just now? Please, no...

"Ben," Ray ground out at last, his eyes still closed. "I gotta ask ya somethin'. If ya can do somethin' for me--"

"Anything," he said instantly, vastly relieved that this evidently had nothing to do with his damn dream.

Ray shook his head vehemently. "No, no! Don't do that. Don't say yes until you know what it is--"

Fraser was touched. Even after all this time, Ray had no idea how much he cared for him. "Ray, look at me," he said quietly. "Look at me!"

Haunted blue eyes opened again slowly, reluctantly, and searched his.

"Yes," he said again, meaning it.

Ray smiled for a second, but the expression faded quickly, as his smiles always did lately. His eyes hooded over and he shook his head. "It's not that simple," he said hoarsely.

"Yes," Fraser said patiently for the third time. "It is."

Ray lowered his head, his face indecipherable, and took a deep breath.

Fraser knew he was gathering his courage, and that alone was enough to set his already active curiosity ablaze. What could this mysterious request possibly be? Whatever it was, he would do it, even if it meant going to the ends of the earth.

"I wanna know if... if it'd be okay if I -- if you'd let me -- Ohh, shit, this is hard!" Ray cursed. He surged to his feet suddenly, looked away from him, and ran a hand through his hair roughly, his fingers digging into his scalp. He paced past him, every line of his too-thin body tense. "I don't know how to say this, I don't..."

Kowalski paced restlessly. He'd been thinking about it for days, trying to work up the guts to tell Fraser what he'd finally admitted to himself. But now that the moment was here, he'd choked. He'd known it was going to be hard to admit to such an innocent pair of blue eyes what he wanted--what he'd become...

But it was the truth. It had been true for a long time, even before his kidnapping. He knew that now. He wasn't sure when it had started, but it had been there as far back as that night in the car a year ago, when he'd looked at Ben and seen an angel in his sleeping face.

I love him, he thought, terrified. I was in love with him way back then, and I didn't even know it. Didn't even see it. I was so busy trying to hold on to what I'd already lost with Stella, I couldn't see what was right in front of my face.

But he saw it now, in living color. Dark hair, clear eyes as blue as the sea, big, gentle hands and a strong, beautiful body that made his mouth water. Brains, kindness, bravery, loyalty, courage, and a kind of sweetness he'd never seen in another man; that was Ben. He loved him, and he wanted him bad, so much that it was making him crazy. Every time he brushed past him lately, he had to restrain the urge to reach out and grab him, throw him down on his little bed and fuck the daylights out of him.

He'd never been turned on by a guy in his life before, but he was now--and it wasn't because of what Gentry had done to him, either. He'd thought a lot about that too. If anything, it was in spite of that. What that bastard had done to him had nothing to do with him and Ben, with what he wanted to happen between the two of them--nothing at all. That had been about pain, cruelty and humiliation. Sex used as a weapon, as a kind of torture. But he wanted to give Ben pleasure. Make him smile. Maybe even make him moan, but not in pain.

It was a simple equation, like 2+2 = 4. Gentry + Kowalski = bad.

Ray + Ben = good.

And once he'd figured that out, he'd realized that his feelings were okay. He wasn't sick or twisted. He wasn't even sure if he was gay, since the thought of Stella still turned him on. Gay, bi, whatever--what the hell difference did the labels make anyway? He just knew that he loved Ben now, in a different way. But he also knew he had to tell him, to do something about it...

Because he'd also realized that he wasn't the only one in Ben's little apartment with a guilty secret. Wasn't the only one who wanted to try out that little equation. Fraser wanted him too. He was almost sure of it.

But he would never, ever come right out and say it. Ray knew that too. The Mountie wasn't built that way. Especially not now, when he was so busy being his father/protector. He'd keep it to himself until he was old and gray, probably thinking it would be impolite to mention such an intimate subject.

And Kowalski didn't think he could wait that long.

Fraser eyed Ray closely as he paced, wondering what he was trying to say. His agitation was mounting, and he'd learned lately that sometimes it heralded explosions of temper in which Ray would yell, and even throw things around his apartment. He'd never tried to hurt him, and he apologized afterwards, but Fraser had learned to be wary of such moods. He eased himself up on his elbows again, in case Ray lost control and he had to dodge flying objects. "Would it help if I don't look at you while you say it?" he asked, keeping his voice low and calm.

Ray snorted. "Yeah, I guess. What I'm tryin' to say is... I've been thinkin' about us lately. You and me."

Fraser froze. Felt the stirrings of fear, but tried not to show it. "And?"

"Well, you know we make a good team, right?"

Fraser relaxed again. Okay, this was about work, not about his nightmare again. Not about--that. "Right."

"And we're good friends, ya' know--Hell, you're my best friend."

He smiled. "Thank you, Ray."

"Am I yours?" Ray asked.

Fraser blinked. "My best friend, you mean?"

Ray nodded.

He nodded back. "Yes. You are."

Ray looked relieved. "Okay. That's good. But are we as tight as you and Vecchio were?"

That again! Why on earth was Kowalski suddenly so obsessed with his relationship with Ray Vecchio? Fraser's earlier uneasiness returned tenfold. He'd thought Ray wanted to ask him for a favor or something, but instead, he'd returned to the awkward, intimate subject of his former partner, and their friendship. And the slang term he'd used confused Fraser even more. "Tight?" he echoed, puzzled by the term.

"Yeah. Tight. You know--" Ray clasped his hands together to illustrate. "Close."

Fraser frowned. The same question again, just phrased in a slightly different way: Do I mean as much to you as Vecchio did? He couldn't help wondering why that was suddenly so important to Kowalski. "Oh. Well, yes. Yes, we are," he said at last, wanting to be honest despite his increasing uneasiness with this topic.

Ray nodded nervously. "Okay. That's good. But see, the thing is... What if I wanna get closer?"

Fraser sat very, very still for a second, his uneasiness deepening into outright fear. Then he croaked, "What?" He tried to tell himself not to panic. That this couldn't possibly mean what he was afraid it did...

Ray started to pace again, every muscle in his body taut. He looked equally scared. Fraser could've sworn he was sweating. "What I'm tryin' to say is... Up on the roof the other night, I thought--well, you looked awfully scared when you thought I was gonna kill myself, and then... It seemed like you were lookin' at my mouth, and when I said 'you'd better let go or I'm gonna think you're tryin' to jump me after all', you still hung onto me. My hands, I mean. And I just thought--you know, that you were givin' me signals --"

For once, Kowalski was the one babbling. He was so nervous he was nearly incoherent. Still, Fraser understood him--all too well. Giving him signals--dear God! He felt himself blushing crimson. He'd thought he'd hidden his secret well, but in reality, he must've been so obvious that he might as well have hired a pilot to skywrite the message, 'I want to make love to Ray Kowalski' in towering white letters across the sky. He stared at his hands, embarrassed, unable to speak. Ray had seen, he'd guessed, he knew--

"What I wanna say is, that's okay. If that's how you feel, I mean. It's more than okay, it's... I mean-- what I'm tryin' to ask you is, if I can make love to you," Ray said hoarsely at last, in a rush. "I wanna make love to you, Ben."

Fraser froze, astounded, a roaring sound filling his ears. He couldn't move, couldn't speak, could hardly breathe. It was what he'd been hoping for, longing for, dying for for months--it was everything he wanted. But now that the moment was here, he couldn't believe it. His eyes, his ears must've malfunctioned somehow. Some trick of the light had made him see Ray's lips frame those words, some peculiarity of the night noise in Chicago had fooled him into hearing those unbelievable sounds...

I wanna make love to you, Ben. Ray the macho, Ray the tough... It couldn't be true.

"What?" he finally gasped again, after a long moment. He knew he was repeating himself like a dim-witted parrot, but he couldn't help it. His face burned--he felt like an idiot. He felt so much, such a raging torrent of emotions that he could hardly contain them. Love, hope, fear and excitement all rose in his breast. He found it hard just to draw air into his lungs. Rational discourse was beyond him, an added effort he couldn't manage. And the room had gotten quiet, so very quiet...

Ray's eyelids fell, masking his expression. His slender figure looked frozen too, as if he were hardly breathing. Then all at once, their frozen tableau was broken when he moved. Raised a slender hand, pressed it over his eyes in a weary gesture. "Nothin'. Ya' know, that was crazy," he said. "I made a mistake. Go back to sleep, and forget I ever said that. Just... forget it. Temporary insanity, that's all it was," he mumbled, turning away.

Fraser hated himself. He'd been stupid, he'd been unforgivably clumsy--he'd given Ray the impression that he didn't want him, that he was repulsed by his request. He'd come off as cold. Distant. Uncaring. And now Ray was embarrassed, and trying to pretend he hadn't meant it. Ray was retreating, and he couldn't blame him. Not for the first time, he damned himself for being so much his father's son that romance never came easily to him. But if you don't do something now, right now, it won't come at all, a little voice inside him warned. Get up, you idiot! Say something, before it's too late!

"No, it wasn't," he stuttered at long last.

"Huh?" Ray mumbled, face flushed, avoiding his eyes.

"What you asked me," he repeated, willing Ray to look at him. He understood why he didn't want to, though. This was incredibly hard for him too. He could hardly force words out of his stiffened lips, but he did it because he had to. Because what Ray had just said, unbelievable though it was, was the stuff that all his dreams were made of. "It wasn't crazy, Ray. It's...what I want too," he confessed, his heart beating hard.

That got Ray's attention. At last, haunted blue eyes rose to his, caught his gaze. "You? Yer sayin' you want me?" he asked, incredulous.

God, yes--so much you can't imagine. The very thought of touching Ray brought on a surge of arousal so strong it was almost painful. Fraser swallowed hard over the lump in his throat, wishing he could say that aloud. "Yes," he said instead. "I want you, Ray."

But despite his honesty, Ray's blue eyes searched his intensely for a moment, probing, doubting. "Yer not just sayin' that---"

Fraser thought of all the months he'd spent dreaming about Ray. Then the even more torturous nights here in his apartment lately when he'd lain awake, wanting him desperately, tortured by his nearness in this room and his own inability to touch him... And now Ray doubted that he really wanted him! He didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He shook his head. "No. I mean it," he insisted. To prove it, he threw back his covers. "I've wanted you for a long time, Ray," he whispered, too embarrassed to look down at himself, but knowing what Ray would see. Knowing that the thin boxer shorts he wore would reveal how aroused he was by the mere knowledge of Ray's desire for him.

And he was right. Ray's eyes tracked the movement automatically, then widened at the sight of him. "Jeez," he breathed in a low voice.

Fraser heard excitement in his voice, but fear as well. That smote him. He noticed that Ray hadn't approached him either, he was still watching him from across the room. He didn't miss the implications in that. He had to handle this carefully, so carefully. Ray was still so fragile emotionally and physically... He didn't want to scare him. He wasn't really sure that Ray was ready for this, that they should even be contemplating taking their relationship to a new level while Kowalski was so vulnerable. Ruthlessly suppressing his own desire, his own rising excitement, he asked, "Are you sure about this, Ray?"

Ray stared at him, his blue eyes beginning to heat. He licked his lips. "Yeah," he said. "I've been thinkin' about it a lot. Even dreamin' about it. I'm sure."

Fraser's heart turned over. Ray looked sure, he looked... Well, he looks like he wants to throw me down on the bed and have his way with me! Fraser realized, flushing at the thought. Still, he hesitated. He'd seen Ray looking at women in a similar way often enough, and he wondered if he'd really thought this through, if he realized what a fundamental change this step would make in his life. He himself had made his peace with that issue long ago, but he doubted very much if Ray had. Then he wondered whether Ray was even looking at this in the same way he was at all, or just in a casual lust sort of way, because of what had happened to him, and their resulting cohabitation of his apartment.

"You okay with it?" Ray asked. Smoldering at him, impatient as always.

How could he possibly answer that? "Yes. No. I mean, I want to. It's just that... after what happened to you, I'm wondering if... Well, if you haven't mistaken feelings of gratitude--or closeness, for--"


Fraser had never heard a more definite denial in his life.

"I want you, Frase."

Ray held his eyes. Wouldn't let him look away. And his blue eyes were burning now, burning with a heat that made Fraser's heart turn over. No one but Victoria had ever looked at him like that, as though they wanted to devour him. It wiped out the last of his doubts, set his mind at ease. On all but one thing...

"I've never... I mean -- not with a man, anyway," he blurted, so embarrassed he reddened even more. But he wanted to admit this, hard though it was, in the hopes that it would set Ray at ease, relieve any fears he might have about being seduced into things he wasn't ready for.

Ray's mouth tightened suddenly. "Don't worry. I have," he grated.

Fraser cursed himself. He'd meant to reassure Ray by revealing his own inexperience, not to remind him of his rape. But he couldn't say anything to remedy his blunder without revealing his knowledge of Ray's humiliation. He searched desperately for a way out. "I trust you, Ray," he said at last. "So however you want me... Whatever you want, it's all right."

"Okay." Ray swallowed hard. He moved back to the bed and sat down, and his eyes never left him. They were dark with desire, drinking him in with a look that made Fraser feel lightheaded. "Come 'mere," he said, patting the bed.

Ben sat down beside him, a little dizzy, feeling at once on fire and incredibly shy. He could hardly believe this was happening, that Ray wanted him, that his aching, endless, lonely desire was finally being returned. That Ray was going to hold him, to touch him, to --

Ray didn't touch him, but his gaze dropped to his mouth, and even that visual caress was enough to make Fraser's heart pound. He'd wanted Ray to look at him like that for so long, so very long... It was incredibly arousing.

"Lie down," Ray whispered uncertainly. "Please..."

He lay flat on his back in the middle of the bed, his heart beating fast, so fast, as he wondered what would come next.

"Close your eyes," the detective ordered in that same husky, shaky voice.

Fraser was surprised, but did as he asked. Then he heard the bed creak, and felt Ray move, felt him lean over him. He tried hard not to tense, not to betray any fear or nervousness, because he knew that would send Kowalski running like a rabbit, and if he backed out now, it would kill him.

Then Ray touched him. Lightly, tenderly ran a hand over his hair, down the side of his face, his neck, over his chest. A hand that trembled slightly. "Damn," he breathed, in a barely audible whisper. "You're so beautiful..."

Though Ben was well aware that women found him attractive, he didn't think of himself that way, and it moved him to hear Ray say so. He blinked, forgetting to keep his eyes closed. For a second, he saw Ray bending over him, his slender body pale in the lamplight, laced with still-healing scars, his face taut with hunger, his lips parted in a ragged breath. "So are you," he whispered, meaning it.

But his words didn't have the desired effect. "Close your eyes!" Ray ordered again, his voice suddenly fierce. Commanding, not asking. As if he didn't believe him. Almost as if he'd hurt him somehow, as if it pained him to be looked at from close range...

Maybe it does, Fraser realized suddenly, as he hastily obeyed. After what they did to him, with all the scars they left on his body and his soul, he feels ugly. Marred. Dirty. That's why he reacts so badly when people stare at him. That's why he wants me to keep my eyes closed while we make love. Oh God, Ray...

He would have to make him see himself differently. See how delicate he was, how beautiful...

Once his eyes were closed, Ray drew a deep breath and reached out for him again. Without a word, he traced the curve of his cheek, his jaw, then ran his hands over his shoulders and down his arms, rubbing his biceps gently. Fraser felt the roughness of the splint on his left hand as a tiny, added friction on his skin. Then Ray began to draw slow, sensuous circles around his nipples, making them harden. Fraser felt light-headed, almost feverish with wanting him. He arched his back unconsciously, dug his hands into the blankets. He'd never imagined Ray would be so tender, that his touch would be so gentle. It aroused him tremendously, to the point of pain.

He longed to touch him, to pull the pale, slender, muscular body next to his down on top of him, but he didn't dare. Ray didn't want to be looked at up close, even while he was making love to him, so Fraser doubted he wanted to be held, either. Ever since his kidnapping, touching had been forbidden unless Ray initiated it--and he only did that when he was terribly distraught. So though he longed to embrace him, Ben lay quietly where he was instead, waiting for an invitation.

"Ya' like that, Ben?" Ray whispered, his voice unsteady. He seemed uncertain, for he stopped caressing him, waiting for his answer.

The nickname and those words alone were so erotic that Ben's mouth went dry. "Yes," he croaked, craving the return of that light, torturous touch.

"Can you... just stay still then? Let me do what I want?" Ray husked.

Ray's uncertainty, the embarrassment that burned behind his awkward words, and the pain he knew was at the heart of all that, seared Ben. His instincts had been right after all--Ray didn't want to be touched. Even now. His heart fell.

Then he remembered something. A night in the park months before, when Ray had confessed that his lack of confidence had ruined his relationship with Luanne Russell. "What does that say about a guy, huh, Fraser?" he'd asked sadly. The insecurity that lurked beneath Ray's aggressiveness had surprised him then. But it shouldn't surprise him that it was worse now, after he'd been mocked, tortured, and raped. And Ray had been living with those feelings for a long time. His ordeal hadn't created them, it had only intensified them. So he shouldn't have expected that a few weeks of quiet living with him would make all of that go away.

Fraser wasn't sure what had caused Ray's insecurity; perhaps his divorce, or maybe the fact that his wife had since gone on to form other relationships. Maybe all of that. But it wasn't an impossible barrier, either. It was just something they'd have to work on. With time and patience, he hoped he could make Ray see what a fine man he was. That he was a brave man, a good police officer, a loyal friend--that he was worthy of being loved. And there's no time like the present...

Fraser forgot his disappointment in being unable to make love to his partner in a more active way as a wave of tenderness, of pure protectiveness, swept over him. He would do anything for this man, anything to help restore his pride, his sense of self worth. He would've worn a blindfold and remained mute, if Ray had needed it. Remaining passive while he made love to him seemed a small price to pay for the exquisite pleasure of having Ray's hands on him. He'd been dreaming of that for months now. Hell, he'd been terrified that it would never happen at all. So he would take whatever Ray wanted to give, however he needed to give it. "Of course," he said gently. "I don't mind."

He expected the tentative caresses to begin again, but Ray surprised him. He put a hand on his chest to brace himself, and leaned down and kissed him instead. His lips were warm and soft, but he drew back swiftly, as if he were afraid of being repulsed. Small chance of that, Fraser thought, hardening even more. Being with Ray was different, not like making love with women as he was used to--but not in a bad way. Far from it. Whereas they were soft, Ray's body was hard and angular. But Fraser found that unexpectedly arousing. Ray's hands, slender though they were, were thrillingly strong, and he loved the sharp scent of him, the warmth of his touch.

"Again," Fraser whispered, wanting more of these new and exciting sensations. He dug his fingers into the bedding to keep from reaching for him. "Please... kiss me again, Ray."

Ray drew a deep, hissing breath, then suddenly edged over to lay partially across his chest and right shoulder. His body felt warm, almost feverish, and Fraser luxuriated in the feeling of finally having his pale skin pressed against his. In the wild beating of his partner's heart against his chest. Ray's mouth came down again, his lips hard, hungry, parting Ben's, demanding entry. He opened to him eagerly, and Ray moaned. In less than a minute, they were kissing deeply, tongues entwined, hearts pounding.

Ray dug his fingers into his shoulders and tore his mouth away, kissing down his jaw. "You taste good, Ben," he breathed, licking him. "Mmm... so good."

Fraser moaned aloud, lights strobing behind his closed eyes as that hot mouth sucked deliciously at his skin. "Oh God," he whispered, praying that he wouldn't lose control. His blood roared in his ears. He'd wanted Ray so much, for so long, that his self control rapidly eroded. He was hard as a rock already, and throbbing. He hadn't had sex in a long time, and he wasn't sure how much more he could take without coming. But he wanted desperately to satisfy Ray first, to help him regain his confidence, and exploding like a green teenager before they'd done more than kiss wouldn't accomplish that. So he tried hard to steady himself, to hold back for Ray's sake.

But it wasn't easy.

Ray found the sensitive hollow at the base of his throat next. He licked it sensually, then began sucking at it hard, nipping until Ben's chest heaved, until he thought his heart would stop. Then he moved lower, began kissing his nipples. Ben bit his lip, trying to contain himself. But when he started sucking at them, he couldn't hold back. He heard himself moaning, and couldn't stop it.

That excited Ray. He made a loud, almost desperate sound at the back of his throat, took his left nipple into his mouth again, and scraped it gently with his teeth. Ben arched up off of the bed in ecstasy. His head tossed wildly on the pillow, his heart drumming so hard it seemed it would burst his chest. Forgetting everything but his wild need to get closer to Ray, closer still, he reached up and embraced him, put his arms around the slender shoulders above him.

Ray suddenly went rigid. Right when he was sucking Ben's nipple to a hard, delicious peak, Ben finally lost control and touched his shoulders, finally touched him at last. Ray stiffened as ugly images suddenly filled his head, jarring him. He saw Alison Gentry's glowing cigarette hovering near his own nipples, felt the incredible, searing pain when she'd held his shoulder and ground it into them--

He raised his head with a gasp of fear. No! Not now, please! Not with him--

He didn't want to remember that shit, not when he was with Ben. He'd done everything he could think of to prevent it, to protect himself. He'd been selfish, made Fraser close his eyes, even made him lie still, all so he'd feel safe. But it was no use. The memories filled his mind, shutting out reality. He was back in that damn room with them. Hanging there shaking, screaming while their mocking laughter echoed in his ears, while the sick fuckers burned him, while they--

"No!" he moaned, tearing away from Fraser in a blind panic. He leapt off the bed, panting, terrified.

In some dim, still rational corner of his mind, he was aware of Ben moving, saw him sit up, reach out to him. "Raywhat'sthematter?"

But it was just more input, more noise echoing in his already ringing head. He couldn't bear it, couldn't stand the look in his eyes, shrank from his pity... He turned away, grabbed his head in his hands, closed his eyes and squeezed hard, until his head hurt, until that minor but real pain drove away the remembered ones in his mind. Until his heart stopped hammering in his chest, until he could breathe again.

But the return of sanity only brought a different kind of agony. Shit! I lost it, I totally lost it... It had been hard enough to do this, terrifying to admit how much he wanted Ben for fear he'd lose him--and now this! He'd been wanting him for days now, ever since that night on the roof... Hell, even before that. Maybe ever since that night in the car, when he'd seen him as an angel. But he'd dreaded something like this happening, so he'd waited to ask his question, to try making love to him until he felt steadier. But he'd slept for a good six hours straight the night before without having one nightmare, so he'd thought he was doing better. And he'd wanted Ben so much he couldn't stand it for even one more hour, so he'd risked it--

And now this.

He felt the sting of tears at the backs of his eyes. Shit! I made poor Frase close his eyes, made him lie there like a block of wood, like a goddamn statue while I slobbered all over his gorgeous body. And he let me. Let me slaver over him like I was hot, instead of a scarred, skinny freak. Then, just when he was finally getting turned on, I turn into this shrieking fucking maniac! Ray the Wolfman, howling at the moon.


I didn't even get him off. He must hate me! he thought, shivering with self loathing. Or else he must be totally disgusted.

In the wake of his embarrassment, doubt set in. Maybe he'd been wrong all along about all of it. Maybe he'd mistaken Fraser's hot look on the roof. Maybe Fraser really didn't want him, despite his hard on. Maybe he'd been just been humoring him, taking pity on him because he knew he was so screwed up inside. Maybe he'd been thinking of a woman the whole time, to get himself excited. He probably didn't even go for men at all, he just hadn't had the heart to tell him. Maybe that was just a pity fuck.

He must've groaned out loud, because Ben came after him, laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Ray, are you okay?"

That gentle touch, his compassion, burned like a brand. Ben was such a good guy, so kind, and he'd done so much for him... He was also the hottest, most beautiful man Ray had ever seen. He deserved better, so much better than a skinny, disgusting freak like him--

He pulled away, unable to look at him. He felt a familiar, queasy sensation, like his belly was filled with crawling snakes. Shit! Not that too--it's too much. He rubbed his stomach uneasily, hating the ridges he felt there, the lines that Gentry's knife had left on his skin. Jesus, I don't even like touchin' me--how can Fraser stand it?

"Ray, please... Talk to me!" Ben pleaded.

But he couldn't. He had no words to describe how he felt, and even if he had, he couldn't have voiced them. The snakes roiled in his belly, tried to crawl up his throat. He bolted, shaking convulsively.

He had just enough wits left to lock the door behind him. Then he was on his knees to the porcelain god, retching his guts out while Ben banged on the door. "Ray, please! Open up! Let me in! I only want to help you," he pleaded.

Ray knew it was true, and it made him feel even worse.

When it was over, after he'd heaved so hard that he almost choked, he dragged himself up, rinsed the awful taste out of his mouth, splashed water over his deathly white face, then sank back down on the floor, shivering with cold. He wrapped his arms around his knees and hugged himself, trying to find comfort where there was no comfort to be found. Ignoring Fraser's increasingly frantic pleas to let him in, he slipped away, deep down inside himself where everything was dark and quiet, and he could escape the hell that had become his life. Escape the knowledge that he had utterly and completely failed the one person who mattered the most to him, the one man he would've done anything for.

You freak, he thought, lost in darkness.

In the end, Fraser kicked in the door. He wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do, he just knew he couldn't take this anymore. Every time Ray got a little better, every time they made an emotional connection, something like this would happen, and he would retreat even deeper inside himself. One step forward, three steps back. He couldn't let that pattern continue. Besides, Fraser was afraid to leave him alone. He had sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet in his bathroom, and with Ray in such a fragile state, he couldn't take any chances. He remembered his dream, how Ray had killed himself when he found out he loved him, and it made him frantic.

Why the hell did I forget, and touch him? he cursed himself, agonized.

His first kick on the door failed, though he knew it shouldn't have. One good kick should've half splintered it, but he was so upset that he misjudged the angle, and the resulting blow sent a shaft of pain up his leg. He gritted his teeth. They'd been close, so close... For a few moments, he could've sworn that Ray had forgotten his trauma and relaxed enough to become aroused. He'd been making love to him passionately--until Fraser had lost control and embraced him. Then all hell had broken loose. Ray had convulsed in his arms, going rigid, then shaking all over. He'd torn away from him, wild with fear, and then become violently ill.

It's my fault, he thought sickly. He lifted his leg, shifted slightly and kicked hard, almost savagely, taking his frustrations out on the door. It gave way at last, and crashed inward. Luckily, Ray was curled up on the floor far enough away that it didn't touch him. But the sight of him smote Fraser. Eyes closed, face pale, he sat huddled against the wall, hugging his knees, his body rigid. My fault...

He went to him, knelt down next to him quietly, and held out his hand. "Come on, Ray," he said gently. "Let me help you. You can't stay in here."

He wasn't sure Ray would even respond. Sometimes he'd retreat so far inside himself he wouldn't speak at all, so he readied himself to carry him out of the bathroom if necessary. But to his surprise, Ray roused a little at his words. He swallowed hard, even opened his eyes. Blinked rapidly, then glanced around as if trying to orient himself.

Fraser had a good idea where he'd gone to in his mind in the last few minutes, and the thought hurt him. "It's okay," he said softly. "Come on, get up now."

Still, Ray didn't move. And it occurred to him that maybe it was his outstretched hand that was scaring him. He withdrew it instantly. "Please get up, Ray. I promise, I won't touch you again."

"Okay," Ray muttered. He drew a deep breath, and slowly gathered his legs under him.

Fraser watched him closely, unsure if he could stand on his own.

But Ray reached out a shaky hand, braced himself against the wall and lurched to his feet without assistance. "Sorry," he said, his lips set in a thin, unhappy line.

That surprised Fraser. "I'm the one who should be sorry," he said quietly. "I shouldn't have touched you."

Ray stared at him blankly, as if he had no idea what he was talking about. Then he shook his head once. "No. It's not you," he whispered. "You didn't do anything. It's my fault." He closed his eyes, and his face crumpled. Tears flowed suddenly, sliding down his drawn cheeks. "I'm a freak," Ray said thickly, biting his lip. "A goddamn freak..."

Ben reached out tentatively, touched his shoulder tenderly. For once, Ray didn't flinch, didn't pull away. After a moment, Ben pulled him closer. To his surprise, Ray allowed it. He came into his arms, laid his head on his shoulder. "You're not a freak," Ben said, past the tears in his own eyes. "You're my friend." You're my lover, he wanted to say, but that wasn't true. It hadn't quite happened. Maybe now, it never would. But he told himself that didn't matter. All that mattered was keeping him safe. "Come back to bed, Ray," he whispered, aching inside.

Kowalski didn't fight him. He let him lead him back to bed, watched silently as he pulled the covers back. When Ben motioned him in, he climbed into bed without a word. Ben knew he must be worn out after what had just happened, but still, his passivity worried him. After his breakdown earlier, it didn't seem a good sign.

Still, it would probably be best to leave him alone now, he told himself, though the thought tore at him. So he pulled the covers up over Ray's slim body, then turned to go back to his pallet on the floor.

"No," Ray said, sitting up suddenly.

Fraser blinked in surprise.

"Can you...I mean, would you..." he faltered, avoiding his eyes. "Would you... umm...mind sleepin' here?" he grated at last, patting the bed beside him.

Fraser let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. All wasn't lost, after all. This was the first time Ray had ever asked him to share his bed. And even though he knew he didn't mean it in a romantic way, and that any further intimacy between them was out of the question after his violent reaction earlier, the fact that Ray still wanted him near him was encouraging.

He allowed himself a small smile. "Not at all. You're sure it's okay?"

Ray nodded.

Fraser lifted the covers and climbed in beside him, careful not to touch him as he did. He turned off the light without another word, settled back against the pillows and waited until he felt Ray relax beside him. Only then did he close his eyes. "Good night," he said.

Ray didn't answer for a long time. When he did, it wasn't to wish him good night. "I'm sorry, Ben," he said again in a low voice.

Ben's throat closed up. "Don't be," he said gently, when he could speak again. "It's all right. We have time. I'm not going anywhere."

Ray didn't say anything else, but Fraser felt him fumbling under the covers, and wondered what he was doing. Until Ray found his hand, silently took it in his and squeezed it. Fraser smiled to himself in the darkness. I love you, he thought, and fell asleep holding onto his hand.

Ray left early the next morning, well before dawn. Took one long last look at the Mountie, then eased out of his bed very slowly, so as not to wake him. Diefenbaker raised his head and looked at him curiously, but he held a hand to his lips to shush him, and the wolf laid back down obediently, without rousing Fraser. Ray dressed hastily, stuffed what cash he had into the pocket of his jeans while Ben slept, scribbled a quick note on a piece of scratch paper, set it on his table where he'd be sure to see it, then picked up his pack and slipped silently out into the dark hallway and down the stairs to the street.

Tears stung the back of his eyes, but he ignored them. It's better this way, he told himself. Better for him, anyway.

Because he didn't have a clue how he was going to make it without Fraser anymore. He didn't even know where he was going. He only knew he had to get out now, before it got any worse, before he hurt Ben any more than he already had.

Before he starts to hate me.

An hour later, Ben woke up. Warm with sleep, he groped for the hand he'd been holding--Ray's hand. But the sheets were cold beside him, and the apartment was quiet. Too quiet. He sat bolt upright in bed, a cold prickling of dread curling down his spine as the silence became ominous. "Ray?" he called into the emptiness. "Ray?"

Diefenbaker raised his head, cocked his ears at him and whined softly.

He's gone.

Ben could feel it. Ray had left him. He felt the bottom drop out of his life, his world. In an instant, his apartment became as bleak and barren as a field of tundra. No color. No warmth. No light. He stared blindly around it, searching for an answer, and spotted a scrap of paper on his table. So. He left a note, he thought bitterly. Is that supposed to make a difference?

He didn't get up, didn't even want to read it. He closed his eyes instead, and fell back on the bed, boneless and hollowed out inside. His breath came hard, sawing through his chest as he absorbed the blow. He thought of the irony in his final words to Ray: We have time. I'm not going anywhere. Had Ray been planning to leave him even then?

I should've known, he thought as despair washed over him. Familiar, black, punishing despair. I thought it would be all right, this once, he told himself. I thought because I didn't say the words aloud... Because I never told him I loved him, that it would be all right.

But his nightmare had come true anyway. He hadn't said the words, but he had dared to try to make love with Ray--and he'd lost him.

Fraser wondered bitterly if he should have said something after all. Told Ray how he felt. Told him how profoundly he stirred him, mind, soul, and body. Did saying 'I love you' make a difference in the end? Would that have made it harder for him to leave? Would it have changed anything? Or was he just cursed no matter what he did?

I should've known.

Morning light crept in through his window, weak and grey, and the city began to stir. Fraser just lay there, crying silently.

Two days later, early in the morning, Ray came back to his room with a bottle of vodka in a paper bag. He'd rented a place at this little bed and breakfast about an hour and a half out of Chicago, a place nobody knew about, where he and Stella used to stay years ago when they wanted to get out of the city for awhile. It was a nice little place, cozy, with trees and flowers and big, soft beds.

He was doing his best not to think of it as a hideout. But he'd been afraid to stay in Chicago, where Fraser might track him down, and this was the only place close by that he had good memories of. The problem was, the memories were too good. Now, he wasn't so sure that coming here had been such a bright idea. He was quickly discovering just how miserable he could be, in a place where he'd once been happy. There were a bunch of young couples staying there too, tourists, honeymooners or whatever, and the mere sight of them holding hands or kissing drove him crazy.

The place reminded him painfully of Stella, and of Ben. Of what he'd lost--and how much he'd changed.

Stella had left him, and now he'd left Ben. Ditched his only tether to reality, the only thing that had kept him from floating off, up into the sky. The thought made him shudder. He didn't feel safe out in the open. He ended up holing up in his room to escape, with a bottle of vodka. He shut the shades to blot out the sight of all the happy, normal honeymooners outside, and fell onto the bed on his back. Cradled the Stoly on his chest, and tried not to think about the way he and Stella used to make love endlessly here.

He drank slowly but steadily for the next hour or so. Let the alcohol burn down his throat and numb his brain. At least, he tried to. But though his body started to feel heavy, he couldn't turn off his head. The more he drank, the more memories came back to him: he saw Stella smiling as he slowly pulled an apple green dress down off her shoulders in a room much like this one, years ago. Heard her gasp as he came inside her. Filled her slowly, stretching out the ecstasy as long as he could--

And he saw Ben. Shivering under him as he sucked at his pale skin, kissed his neck. He could almost taste him, taste the clean, delicious flavor of that warm, satin smooth skin--

He closed his eyes to blot out the image. But when he did, all he saw were Ben's eyes, staring at him. Accusing him.

Shit, he groaned to himself. Leaving had been his idea, and he'd done it for Ben's own good, for both their sakes. Because he'd wanted to spare him the pain of having a lover who was so freaked out he couldn't bear to be touched; because he'd been crazy to even think about trying to seduce Ben under the circumstances; because Ben deserved better than a skinny, screwed up, scarred up nut case like him; because trying to have sex with him at all had been a mistake of epic proportions.

Because, because, because... That was all just words. Just noise. What he saw in his mind's eye was Ben when he picked up that goddamn note he'd left. The way the blood would drain away from that beautiful, pale face when he realized he wasn't coming back. Not that way, not ever --

Fraser was everything to him: brother cop, best friend, father confessor.

Fraser had done everything for him: taken him in, put up with his shit, cared for him, let him cry on his shoulder... He'd even listened to the grisly details of his torture without booking, or thinking less of him. He'd given him everything.

Fraser loved him, and he knew it. And he loved him back. He knew that, too.

So what had he done for him, in return for all that, for all he'd given? He'd snuck out after their first time together. Left him cold. Not that it had been anything too spectacular, mind you, with the way he'd made Ben lie there like a stone, then freaked out in the middle of it anyway and ruined things... But it could've been. He knew that. His hunger for Ben had been intense, and he'd felt the heat coming off of Fraser too, pouring off him like steam before he'd--

Before that, it hadn't been half bad. Hell, it'd been great. And it was their first time; and first times counted. They meant something. A lot. But he'd snuck out like the worst kind of wham-bam-thank you ma'am shithead afterwards, and left him all alone.

And no note could ever make that right.

He groaned, and took another swig of vodka. Needing a distraction, something to take his mind off his growing despondency, he reached out and turned on the clock radio that sat on a nearby nightstand. Turned it up, then laid back to listen to the rock music coming from it. It was Springsteen. The Boss. Singing his heart out, singing with passion:

Now on the street tonight the lights grow dim
The walls of my room are closin' in
There's a war outside still ragin' on
You say it ain't ours anymore to win...

I wanna sleep beneath peaceful skies
In my lover's bed
With a wide open country in my eyes
And these romantic dreams in my head.

Tears sprang to Ray's eyes. That was what he'd had with Stella: love. Peace. What he'd almost had with Ben... He forced the thought away. Here in this room where he was surrounded by the ghosts of his former lovers, the might-have-been's hurt too much to bear. He switched the radio off blindly. Told himself the tears were from the alcohol burning its way down his throat. But he knew better.

He was lonely--lonelier than he'd ever been in his whole life, even after his divorce. Then, at least he'd still had his looks, some mental stability, and some kind of hope he'd find someone else again. Now, he was a scarred up freak with nightmares who'd been lucky enough to find someone--and not just anyone, but a beautiful goddamn Mountie guardian angel--but couldn't stand to let him get close.

Ben must hate my guts, he thought sickly, as his tears overflowed. I suck.

Lust mingled with his sadness. Because in spite of what he'd done, he still wanted Ben. He needed him. Needed his strong arms around him, that warm, sweet mouth on his. Just thinking about what he'd left behind made him crazy. God, I need it! Touch. Sex. Fucking. I need it bad... I need Ben.

But he didn't deserve him. Didn't even deserve to ever see him again, after what he'd done. Yet he couldn't make his memory go away. He still felt his kiss, still tasted that perfect mouth. Remembered touching that beautiful body--God! Even though tears wet his cheeks, remembering Ben made the throbbing in his groin get stronger, until his cock strained painfully against his jeans. Until he couldn't stand it anymore. Hating himself, he unbuckled his belt, freed his cock and yanked at it roughly, without finesse, until he came into empty air.

When it was done, he wiped his tears away with the back of his hand. Tried to steady his breathing. Then he stumbled into the bathroom and wiped himself off with hands that shook. He wasn't sure if he felt better, or worse. The terrible pressure in his groin was gone, but he felt even emptier than before. He'd tried to imagine that the hands on his cock were Ben's instead of his own. But he couldn't even do that, because he didn't know what Ben's touch felt like.

I touched him, but I never let him touch me. Not like that. Just to hug me when I cried... Not as a lover. It made him feel sick. Hollow.

Like he was walking in the sky.

He'd had his chance with Ben, had the chance to feel those strong, gentle hands on him, and he'd blown it. Completely. He bowed his head over the sink, shaking. Random thoughts rippled through his unsettled mind. He thought of his mom, how she'd cried when she first saw him in the hospital. He saw the face of that little girl he'd freaked out in the park weeks ago. He thought of Ben, how he'd cried when he told him about his ordeal.

Then he thought about his gun. The blackness of it, the weight of it, the way the cold metal always warmed in his hand. He'd left it locked in the GTO, but he found himself longing for it, wanting to touch it. Wanting to use it.

No. He shoved the thought away with a shiver. Yer not doin' that. No!

Not that he didn't want to. Right now, the idea of putting his gun to his head and just ending it all was tempting as hell. No more sadness. No more regrets. No more wanting what couldn't be. But he couldn't do it.

'Cuz guess who'd end up starin' at yer miserable carcass in the morgue, you dipshit? Ben. That's who. And you've already done him enough damage for one day.

But he had to do something. Had to, or he was gonna crawl right out of his skin.

I gotta get outta here. Get some air. Clear my head.

As soon as the thought took shape in his mind, it went from an urge to an imperative. He had to go. Get away from all the ghosts in this room, from all the lost chances in his life. From Stella and Ben, his two biggest mistakes. He knew he was more than a little drunk, but he didn't care. On some dim interior level, he knew he was running from his problems again too, but he didn't care about that either. They were so overwhelming, he couldn't see a way past them. All he could do was run, and keep running, and hope they wouldn't catch him.

You can't start a fire
Sittin' around cryin' over a broken heart
This gun's for hire
Even if we're just dancing in the dark

-- Bruce Springsteen

Two hours later, Kowalski was in a little bar on the outskirts of town. One of those dark, dank, smoky places that served cheap booze, and had a couple of pool tables and a little back room where the local talent did blow jobs for a few bucks. A sleazy dive.

He fit right in.

The bruises had pretty much faded from his face by then, and his eyes looked normal enough. Most of the more visible marks of his ordeal were hidden under his jeans and leather jacket; and the still-healing knife scars remaining on his face would, he hoped, scare the bar's more timid patrons away, while simultaneously warning off the rougher ones. He hoped so because he didn't want to talk, and he definitely didn't want any trouble. He needed to be out with other people, but he didn't want to mingle.

It worked like a charm. No one had hassled him, or even tried to talk to him. He ordered some beer, then started shooting pool with a chick who was idling around one of the tables in back. She had dark hair and young-old eyes, and he guessed she was about twenty going on a century, experience wise. He didn't ask her name, since he didn't care; and she didn't seem to care about his face. Such a deal.

He put everything else out of his head, and just shot at the little colored balls. Rolled the beer around on his tongue and blinked a lot, to try and clear his vision. It didn't work too well, though. He had just enough coordination left to handle a pool cue, but not enough to make good shots. The girl he was playing wasn't drunk, so she was doing better. He was three games down--not that he cared about that either--and beginning to wonder if she was staring at him, and what those stares might mean, when she suddenly gave him a suggestive smile. Sidled up next to him, and rubbed his hip. Just in case the smile hadn't been enough of a hint.

"Hey," she breathed. "Wanna go somewhere?"

No, he thought automatically. But something in him tensed at her words. Responded hungrily to the obvious invitation in her blue eyes. It was nothing personal, just a stirring of pleasure that someone had made an offer. And she was slender, and almost pretty--

And way too young. She could be jail bait, for all I know. He blinked at her. Not saying yes, but not turning her down either. "How old are you?" he asked. Her nondescript tight blue jeans and clingy red knit shirt didn't give him much of a clue.

Her eyes narrowed, got hard and much older than her soft face. "I dunno. How'd you get those scars?" she retorted.

Ray got the message. He smiled tightly, ruefully. "Right. Ya got me."

She pressed closer, touched him again with practiced hands. Put her mouth on his. "I'd like to. I'd like to fuck you," she breathed, running her tongue over his lips lightly. "You're hot."

She was so close to him that she was a blur. All he saw was a haze of blue eyes and dark hair. But in that instant, despite the crude, obvious come on--or maybe because of it--desire flared in him. Sudden, inexplicable, intense. He swallowed hard. "Am I?"

"Oh, yeah," she said, smiling.

He wondered why. Wondered if the scars he felt were hideous were a big turn on for her--or if she was faking interest for reasons of her own. Somewhere deep inside, where his cop instincts lurked beneath all the vodka and beer, he felt a flicker of wariness. I don't know anything about her. She could be a hooker.

Then, for some reason, he saw an image of Ben's eyes. Clear, innocent, warm as summer. As different from this chick's eyes as day from night. Pain cut through him, mixed with self hatred. He could never touch Ben again, never go near him, after what he'd done.

So what if she was a hooker? This chick was what he needed, what he deserved.

She was all he deserved.

They never even made it back to his car. It was dark when they left the bar, and she started hanging on him as he stumbled along. Kissing him hard, touching him, getting him going. "Come on, baby," she whispered. "Wanna do it?"

He tried to tell himself that he did, but he kept seeing Ben's face hovering before him. His blue eyes. The innocence there. Innocence that changed to reproach because of what he was doing now.

He blinked them away with an effort. Tried to focus on the girl instead. Fought off a wave of self hatred as he realized that she didn't taste sweet, like Fraser. That her hands weren't gentle. He told himself it didn't matter that he didn't even know who she was; that he didn't care. This was what he'd wanted earlier: another body to arouse his, someone else to ease his loneliness. Any body would do.

Wouldn't it?

Then why do I keep comparing her to Ben?

She stroked him through his jeans, squeezed him. For a second, he imagined that was Ben's hand on him. Before he knew it, he was breathing raggedly as they kissed. Getting hard. She pushed him up against the side of the building they'd been walking past on the way to the GTO. Kissed him even harder, rubbing her breasts against his chest. "You're so hot," she panted. "Wanna do it? Huh?"

"Wait! Slow down," he protested, fear coursing through him. Sudden, sharp. Taking his breath. He remembered being pressed up against a wall by a woman like this. Remembered her sneers, and the searing pain-- remembered his own scream as Alison cut him again. He shut his eyes. Tried to blot out the frightening memory. Held the woman away from him a bit, so he could breathe.

"Whatsa' matter?" she asked.

He searched his mind for an excuse for his reluctance. He knew there was no way he could explain his ordeal to her, or the fear it had left him with. He knew better than to even try. "The car," he grated, trying to buy time. Telling himself that maybe in the familiar surroundings of the GTO, if he locked the doors, he might feel safe enough to take her. Though he no longer felt any real desire to, he knew he shouldn't back out now. "In my car. It's just over there--"

She shook her head, her eyes glittering, excited. "No. Here," she said, her hands working at his belt. "Right here... I'll go down on you, baby."

She stilled his protest with her eager mouth, and started to undo his jeans while she tongued him. But despite the stimulus, his fear grew. This was wrong, all wrong. It was dark, so dark and he was pressed against the wall--He was trapped, sweating--

"No!" He shoved her away suddenly, breaking her deep kiss. Freaked out, he gasped for air.

She was so surprised by his shove that she swayed for a second. "What the--whatsa' matter with you?" she asked as she straightened, her eyes narrowing with sudden speculation.

He stared at her helplessly. "Nothin', I just--" Just noticed something. You've got blue eyes and dark hair. Short dark hair. Just like Ben, dammit! Christ...

The realization shook him. She came towards him again, hips swaying, but he held her away firmly this time. He needed time, he needed air, he needed space --

He needed to figure out what the hell he was doing. Why he was out on a back street in a strange town, about to let a girl who resembled Fraser but who was really a total stranger do a blow job on him while he was still half hammered. I can't do this--

"Whatsa' matter? You don't like girls?" she spat, her face twisting with anger.

"'Course I do!" he protested. Stung, even humiliated, he let go of her. He was too drunk to think of the right words to say to reassure her, to wipe that awful look of scorn off her face.

"Then what is it. You don't like me?" she demanded.

"No. I mean, I do. Yer sexy and all, it's just --"

Her eyes narrowed to slits. "Then d'ya wanna do it, or not?"

His arousal had dwindled away to nothing long since. He shook his head reluctantly. "I can't." It was all he could say. He wanted to tell her more, to explain that it wasn't her fault. To say he was sorry--but it was useless. It would take an hour to explain how he'd ended up here with her, and she wouldn't have understood it even then. Besides, she's a stranger. Why in hell should she care?

She shrugged, her face taking on a defiant look. "That's too bad," she said, leaning close to him again. "Guess this is goodbye, then. I'm outta here."

"Okay," he said, with a helpless shrug. He watched her turn away, feeling confused. Ambivalent. Grateful he'd been spared the ordeal of trying to explain his refusal, even more grateful that he hadn't ended up having sex with her. She was probably a hooker, and he'd never paid for it in his life. He'd never had to... But he was sorry, too, that he hadn't had sex with her. Not because he wanted her, he didn't even really know her. But because he'd never been so lonely, or so close to the edge in his life.

Maybe I should've paid for it. Because who else am I gonna find, now, who'll want me?

He turned away numbly, meaning to head back to his car.

Then something hit him. Cracked into the back of his head so hard that the impact knocked him off his feet. What the fuck? For a stunned instant, as he swayed on his knees, blinded by pain, he couldn't figure out what had happened. Who the hell hit me?

And then he heard her voice.

"That's for turnin' me down, you fuckin' tease! That'll teach you to mess with Sherry!" she hissed somewhere behind him.

The chick! Evidently, her name was Sherry. She was the one who'd hit him. Decked him. Must've whacked him with her purse, since she wasn't carrying anything else. He couldn't believe it. If he'd grabbed her or hurt her, he could understand it; but all he'd done was turn down some casual sex! Just my luck. First time out cruising in years, and I pick up some kinda' psycho bitch who tries to kill guys who don't wanna screw her!

He tried to turn his head to look at her, to ask her why the hell she'd hit him, but the attempt made his head swim, brought on a surge of nausea that doubled him over. So he didn't say anything. He didn't even try to look at her again. He just kept his hands on the ground and his head still. Concentrated on breathing shallowly, to keep from vomiting as the beer and vodka he'd drunk roiled in his stomach, as the night reeled around him, and pain filled his world. He touched the back of his head gingerly, and his fingers came away wet. Great! Psycho bitch cracked my friggin' skull. He groaned in spite of himself, staring at the smear of blood on his fingers.

"Freak! Fuckin' goddamn freak," she snarled, unrepentant. "Who the hell d'you think you are, blowin' me off? Huh?"

Again, he didn't answer. He couldn't. Because he had no idea who he was anymore. He was just a freak, a helpless, hopeless freak on his knees in the dirt, with a head that hurt so bad he wanted to heave.

A nobody, walking in the sky.

Fortunately for him, Sherry seemed satisfied with the damage she'd done. She didn't try to roll him, or steal his wallet. Or hit him again. He wasn't sure he could've stopped her if she had, but she just muttered, "Freak!" one more time, then walked away.

He listened to the sound of her heels clicking away into silence on the pavement. Felt a brief flicker of relief when all was quiet around him again.

Then there was only the darkness and pain, and his despair.

Fraser waited quietly in the darkness of Ray's room. He'd left Diefenbaker with Inspector Thatcher, who had kindly allowed him to take a few days of his sick leave in order, as he'd explained, to locate a friend who was missing. He'd dreaded having to explain the situation in any more detail than that, but to his surprise, she hadn't asked him any questions. She'd just granted him the leave time and wished him luck.

Once he'd traced Ray to this bed and breakfast and ascertained which room he was staying in, he'd put Ray Vecchio's trick of unlocking a door with a credit card to good use again, and let himself in. Then settled into a chair to wait for Ray. Trying to decide what he was going to say when he came back--whether to kiss him or hit him.

Fraser had only hit a friend once in his whole life; and that friend had been Kowalski. But then, the circumstances had been entirely different. That blow had been mere payback for Ray's earlier uppercut to his own jaw, delivered during a heated argument. And he wouldn't have done it, wouldn't have hit him even then, but Ray had insisted... It had been his way of making up for what he'd done, by letting Fraser hit him back.

Fraser himself hadn't enjoyed doing it.

But now, he felt capable of it. Of hitting Ray, of hurting him. Now, he felt capable of almost anything.

Ray had hurt him worse than anyone ever had. Worse, even, than Victoria. Because she was a thief; a criminal. By the time she'd left, he'd learned not to trust her.

But he had trusted Ray. Had opened his heart to him--and Ray had responded by ripping it to shreds. By creeping away from him in the night without an explanation.

It had taken him two days after Ray's desertion to regain the power of rational thought. He'd gone back to work the morning that he left, so filled with pain and despair that he couldn't bear to remain in his now empty apartment, for fear that he'd do something desperate. Go up on the roof, perhaps, and take the flying leap he'd feared Ray was attempting that night. Or take out the gun he'd once considered using after Victoria had left him, and finally put an end to the lonely hell that had become his life.

But the thought of Dief had held him back. Even though no one else did, Dief still needed him. That thought lightened his despair a little. Gave him a reason to go on despite Ray's abandonment. Dief was his friend, and Fraser couldn't abandon him. He'd almost done so once before, had meant to leave him in Ray Vecchio's care when he'd tried to run off with Victoria, but he regretted that hasty decision so much now that he would never repeat it. So he'd left the gun in his trunk, and pulled on his uniform instead. Reported in to the Consulate because he didn't know what else to do, and tried to lose himself in the familiar routine.

On the second day, he'd been in the process of rearranging the contents of his desk for the twentieth time when, seized by a familiar impulse, he reached into his pocket and took out a small, folded piece of paper. He didn't know why he kept doing this, he'd memorized the awkwardly penned scribble on it the first time he read it. But something impelled him to unfold it and read it again, for the hundredth time.

He stared down at the piece of paper as if wishing could change what it said. Ray's note had been characteristically brief. It read: Fraser, I've got to go. I'm sorry about last night. Don't worry, I'll call you when I get my head straight. But don't try to find me. Thanks for everything. Ray.

Amazing, how a few words and a simple departure in the night could shatter his whole world. Fraser had read it, then crumpled it in his fist, wishing he could do the same with his feelings. But somehow, he couldn't bring himself to throw it away. It was his last tie to Ray, the only visible evidence he had that something had finally, actually happened between them.

Even if that something was what drove him away...

Tears stung Fraser's eyes. He blinked them away automatically. I've got to stop doing this, he thought desperately. It serves no purpose. It's just self torture. It's over.

But then it hit him. Burst over his darkened soul like a sunrise: It doesn't have to be. For once in his life, he didn't have to stoically accept defeat, and soldier on without a murmur. Despite what the note said, he could do something about it. Find Ray. Make him talk. Force him to confront what had happened between them.

I'm a Mountie. I can track him down.

It was a wild thought, even a crazy one. Ray had left him, and he didn't want to be found. He'd gone away because Fraser had fallen in love with him, and because he didn't want that love. Because he was cursed that way, because everyone he loved went away. His parents, Ray, Victoria--everyone.


For the first time in his life, Fraser didn't want to accept his fate. His curse. Whatever you wanted to call it. He always had before, but something in him had broken this time. This time, he just couldn't do it any longer. Couldn't let Ray go like this, without a word. Something inside him refused to give him up without a fight. Fraser suspected it was sheer blind stubbornness, the same stubbornness that both of his Rays had complained drove them crazy. But even if that were true, he also knew that it was the only thing keeping him alive at this point. The only thing that had kept him off the roof, and away from that gun.

The idea of pursuing Ray was the first hope he'd had in days. The first thought that hadn't brought him a fresh stab of pain. So he obeyed its urgings. He began turning it over in his head, examining it logically. Where would Ray go? He knew that Ray had fled his apartment in haste, and his note had said he'd call 'when he got his head straight'; so it was possible that he hadn't gone far. He might've gone to stay with his parents, but Fraser thought that was doubtful. Ray was still a bit unstable, and he hadn't wanted to subject his parents to his moods and nightmares. He could've fled to the Vecchios, but the same strictures would apply to them, and besides, Ray would know he could find him all too easily there. He had a brother as well, but he lived out of state, and they'd never been close, so it was even less likely that he'd go to him. Ray had no close friends that he knew of, and he wasn't married anymore--

Stella. Fraser's head came up suddenly, like a bloodhound that had just caught the scent of its quarry.

Assistant State's Attorney Stella Kowalski might be Ray's ex-wife, but she still knew Ray better than anyone. Stella might know where he would run to.

Fraser was reaching for the phone book before he'd completed the thought.

Ray almost made it to the car without getting sick. Almost.

When it was over, he stayed where he was, on his knees on the ground. He swayed a little, waiting for his dizziness to pass. Wishing desperately that he had some water, something to rinse his mouth out with. He couldn't face the thought of going back to the bar to get some, though. Couldn't bear the thought that Sherry might be there. She might've gone back and spread the story around, laughed about what she'd done to him. How she'd decked the freak with one blow...

She hit really hard. What the hell did she had in her purse, to make it so heavy and hard? Rocks, maybe? Or a gun? I'm probably lucky she didn't cap me, he thought. But he didn't feel lucky. God, I want some water...

My room, he thought hazily. I'll drive back to my room and wash up. There's water there...

He was too fogged from booze and pain to think of stopping at a gas station bathroom to clean up. He just wanted to get back to his room and hide, and lick his wounds in the darkness. Where no one could see him. Where no one could hurt him any more...

But he'd rest here for a minute first. He was tired, so tired...

Suddenly, he thought he heard a footstep somewhere not far behind him. He turned his head to look. Slowly, so he wouldn't get sick again. He couldn't see anyone, but his vision wasn't really good at night at the best of times. And right now, it sucked. Kept fading in and out, and blurring. Making two of everything.

Shit! Hope I don't have a concussion...

Latent paranoia from his kidnapping washed over him, made him sweat. Even though he couldn't see anyone, he was afraid there was someone out there watching him. He suddenly realized that he was hurt. Shaky. Drunk. Vulnerable. Worse, he was out in the open on an unfamiliar street in a lousy part of town late at night, when the hustlers and muggers and pushers come out to play. This isn't good. Not good at all. He'd just got done being a victim--twice in one night would be too much. A sudden surge of fear lifted him to his feet, sent him stumbling towards the GTO. Towards his gun, and safety.

I gotta get outta here. Go back to my room.

Ray never knew, afterwards, how he made it back to the B & B.

His head ached so badly that he had to close his eyes at times while he drove, to shut out the glaring reflections from the streetlights and headlights around him. His vision blurred in and out, and sometimes doubled. And he spent some time driving in circles, trying to remember the route back. On top of all that, everything looked different at night, and he hadn't really been paying attention to how he got to that damn bar in the first place.

When he finally pulled into the parking lot by his room, he was sweating, and so exhausted he could hardly stay awake. He hit the brakes, rolled the GTO to a stop in the parking lot near his room, and closed his eyes with a sigh of relief. He'd made it. He was safe. Almost, anyway. I just have to get to my room... No, first I have to rest. Just for a second. Well, a minute maybe--

He laid his head down on the wheel. Let the darkness steal over him...

In seconds, he was dead to the world.

Fraser's keen ears heard the distinctive, finely tuned purr of the GTO's engine pull up outside. He jerked awake abruptly. He'd been waiting so long for Ray to get back that he'd fallen asleep in a chair beside his bed. He sensed instantly that it was very late. A hush had stolen over the place. He glanced at the bedside clock. It read 2:10 a.m.

As Ray's headlights swept across the window, he wondered, Where has he been?

And who has he been with? The thought arrowed through his brain. Swift, painful. For the first time in his life, he was filled with jealousy. Consumed by it. Didn't know what he would do, what he would say if he found that Ray was staying here with someone else.

Doubt tore at him. Maybe Ray hadn't really wanted him at all. Maybe he'd just been lonely, or so insecure about his looks, after his beating, that he'd needed to try sex with someone, anyone... And if that were the case, after having failed with him, maybe he'd been out trying it again with the type of sexual partner he was used to. He might've been out with a woman. Might've brought her back here with him--

Maybe that's why he left me, he thought with a pang. Because he needed something that I couldn't give.

If that were true, then he'd lost him already. No matter what he said, or didn't say. Or what he himself needed. He clenched his fists as the engine shut off. Waited, with a heart that beat painfully fast, for Ray to come in. Alone or not.

But he didn't come.

Fraser waited, his rage growing with every passing second. He noticed after a minute went by that Ray hadn't even cut his headlights. Maybe he's kissing her, he thought, furious. Maybe he's got a woman in his car and he's making love to her, letting her touch him when he wouldn't let me--

He held himself still. Tried to beat back the flames of his rage. Told himself he was being ridiculous, that there could be another explanation for Ray remaining in his car. But it didn't seem likely. It was unusual for Ray to leave the lights on like that with his engine shut off, when it would run down the battery in his precious GTO. Actually, it's more than merely unusual, he reflected. It's totally abnormal. Even out of character.

Something's wrong, he realized suddenly.

He was out of the chair in a flash. Out the door a second later, and tearing towards the GTO.

He found Ray slumped over the wheel. Asleep or unconscious, he wasn't sure. But he was alone, and in spite of everything, before he even got his door open to check on his condition, Fraser was glad of that.

Until he saw blood. A dark trickle of blood in the close-cropped blond hair on the back of Ray's head, down the back of his slender neck--and his heart stopped.

"Ray. Ray. RAY! RAY!"

A familiar voice cut into his sleep. It was far away, but it spoke familiar words. His name, in a deep voice that meant safety. Comfort. Warmth. That meant everything. Ray floated up into the light again, out of the quiet, soothing darkness he'd been hiding in. Answering the summons of that voice, despite the pain.

He would've answered that voice if he'd been dying. He knew that somehow.

He blinked his heavy eyelids open. Winced at the light, and the pain. Felt night air cold on his face, and someone touching his shoulder. He tensed with the memory of fear. Someone had touched him, someone had hurt him--hit him? No, cut him with a knife--

"No! Don't," he whispered, flinching away from the touch.

"Ray, it's all right," the good voice said reassuringly. That deep, warm male voice that he knew... "You've been hurt. I want to help you. What happened?"

"Ben!" he croaked. Joy washed over him as he suddenly recognized the voice. Relief. Happiness so pure and profound that for a second, it even eclipsed the blinding pain in his head. He didn't know how, he didn't know why, but Ben had come for him. He'd found him. He wouldn't let anyone hurt him--

I'm safe now. Safe.

Fraser leaned down into the opened door of the GTO, staring worriedly at his partner. He'd shut off the car lights and put a hand on his shoulder, even called to him to rouse him, but Ray hadn't moved. Since he had a head injury, he hadn't dared to shake him. He wasn't sure he was going to be able to wake him at first, but after he called his name for a moment longer, Ray finally lifted his head.

He looks awful, Fraser thought, frightened. Kowalski was pale as a ghost, with red-rimmed eyes and a two-day beard. He smelled of smoke and liquor, and the sour smell of vomit--and fear.

"No, don't!" he croaked instinctively when Fraser touched him.

Ben's earlier rage ebbed. Wherever Ray had been, he hadn't been enjoying himself. In fact, he'd never seen him looking more miserable. "Ray, it's all right," he murmured reassuringly.

Ray looked up at him. Blinked blearily at him, as if he couldn't really see him at first. Then recognition dawned, and a look of pure joy softened his tired face. Brightened his red eyes. "Ben!" he breathed, with a little sigh of relief.

And Fraser was lost.

All his anger, all his jealousy, all the questions he'd meant to ask faded away into a far corner of his mind at that instant. Whatever Ray had been doing, he still cared for him--he still needed him. It was all there in his face, in that one unguarded instant, in that one word. He could let the rest go for now, as long as he knew that.

"Yes," he smiled in spite of everything. In spite of the tears that stung his eyes. "I'll help you, Ray. But what happened to you? Do you remember? You're bleeding..."

Ray shut his eyes again. In pain that seemed more emotional than physical this time, as if he were trying to blot out a memory. "Yeah. Someone hit me... with a purse, I think. Back of my head." He touched his head gingerly, then winced and removed his hand.

Someone carrying a purse. A female someone, Ben thought, not missing the fact that Ray hadn't mentioned her name. That gave him a twinge of uneasiness. But he ignored the implications of that for the moment, in his concern over Ray's condition. "Yes. You've got a bump, and a bit of a gash there. Can you walk, or do you want me to call an ambulance?"

"No!" Ray shook his head vehemently, then groaned as if the motion hurt him. "No, no hospital. Don't make me go there, please," he whispered, clutching at him with unsteady hands. "No doctors. Please--"

Fraser craned his neck to peer at the back of his head. He knew Ray had been--uneasy, to say the least, when he woke in the hospital after his ordeal. Whenever the doctors and nurses had approached him with metal instruments, even something as harmless as a thermometer, he'd turned white as the sheets he lay on; and Fraser knew why. Still, despite his plea, if Ray's wound looked serious, he meant to call an ambulance for him anyway.

He examined him carefully. His hair was cut so short that he could see the wound clearly even in the semi-darkness: a shallow gash across the base of his skull. Fraser had seen quite a few head wounds in the course of police work over the years, and Ray's didn't appear to be very serious. Though the gash had bled a lot, as head wounds often do, and there was some accompanying swelling, his skull wasn't visibly dented at the point of impact. That was a good sign. As were the facts that Ray hadn't forgotten how he was injured, his pupils weren't different sizes, he wasn't bleeding from his eyes, ears or mouth, and no fluid leaked from his nose. Fraser was relieved.

Any of those symptoms would've been evidence of a serious head injury requiring immediate medical attention. All the visible signs indicated that Ray might have a slight concussion, but no permanent damage. Still, head injuries are sometimes difficult to diagnose even for doctors, so Fraser wasn't entirely reassured. The fact that Ray had been sick recently indicated that there was a slight possibility that he might have internal bleeding from the blow. He would feel safer taking him to a hospital.

"This doesn't appear to be life threatening," he said at last. "But I'm not an expert. You should see a doctor, Ray. I could drive you to a hospital--"

"No." Ray clutched his arm weakly. "I can walk. Just... help me up, willya? Just wanna... go to bed," he croaked.

Fraser set his jaw. He knew Ray didn't mean anything by it, that he didn't even realize what he was saying, but still, the words hurt him. Brought back memories of what had almost been between them not long ago, in Ben's own bed. "You shouldn't sleep, Ray. Not after a blow like that," he warned.

Ray shrugged it off. "I've been hit harder. Don't gimme a hard time, all right? I'm not in the mood."

"All right," Ben said quietly, compromising. "I'll help you back to your room, and you can sleep for a few hours, if you promise to let me take you to a doctor in the morning." Though he knew better than to say so, he privately resolved to watch Ray closely while he was sleeping, and if there was the slightest change in his breathing, he'd wake him and drag him to an Emergency Room, whether he liked it or not.

"'Kay, Frase. I promise," Ray said wearily.

Ben reached in and put an arm around Ray's shoulder, and half pulled, half lifted him out of the car. Set him gently on his feet. "There," he said. "Come on. It's not far."

Ray sat quietly on the bed as Ben undressed him. Pulled off his boots and socks, then carefully, gently pulled off his shirt. He knew he should say something to him. Ask him how the hell he got here, how he'd found him, why he came... but his head hurt so much he couldn't think. He couldn't deal with all those questions yet, not when he was in so much pain.

He was just glad, so glad that Ben was here. He didn't have the words to say how glad. He breathed deeply while Fraser worked, inhaling his scent: fresh, clean, like pine woods or something. And in spite of everything, he loved the feel of Ben's hands on him. He knew he was only taking off his clothes in a kind of fatherly way, the way you'd put a sleepy little kid to bed, but at least he was touching him. His hands were warm and gentle, like sunlight on his cold body. He wouldn't have minded if he'd stripped him naked, but he stopped after he got his shirt off, as if he were afraid to do more. Ray felt a surge of regret for the new barriers between them. The awkwardness that hadn't been there before.

"Do you want to take a shower, Ray?"

The words were very gentle, just like his hands had been. They washed over him like a benediction. "Yeah." He nodded gratefully, amazed at how Fraser could read his mind. How did he know he wanted, needed to get clean? To wash the stink of that bar off of him, to wash away the pain of his stupid, failed attempt to have sex with that psycho girl...

"Sherry," he whispered ruefully.

Fraser paused beside him. Froze, like an animal sensing danger. "What?"

He shook his head. "Nothin'," he muttered, glad that Ben hadn't heard her name. He couldn't bear to tell him where he'd been, what he'd done. It still hurt too much--in more ways than one. "I'll just... go take a shower," he said, ashamed of his own weakness.

"Uhh, Ben..." Ray paused in the bathroom door. He was so tired he had to hold onto the door frame to keep from swaying, but he did it because this was important. More important than how tired he was, more important than anything. Problem was, he didn't even know where to begin. He felt tears sting his eyes, and hated himself for that, but even more so for leaving him. "I'm sorry," he mumbled finally. Then he said it again. Louder, just in case Ben hadn't heard him. "I'm really sorry." It wasn't enough, he knew that. But he wasn't sure what would be. He was too tired, and he hurt too much to figure that out right now. "But um, please... don't leave, okay?"

Fraser didn't say anything for a long time. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded funny. Kind of like he was crying, too. "All right, Ray," was all he said.

Ray closed his eyes. He couldn't look at Fraser, couldn't begin to face the pain he could hear in his voice. Any other lover, male or female, would've cursed him for what he'd done. Would've said something cruel, truthful but cutting, like, "I'm not the one who left in the first place, am I?" But not Ben.

He didn't deserve his forbearance or his loyalty. Didn't deserve to have Ben caring for him, like he always did. Didn't deserve any of it. Least of all Ben himself. But it felt good, so good to know he'd be out there while he took a shower... That he was finally safe again. Not walking in the sky anymore. "Thanks," he said hoarsely. "Thank you for that."

He shut the door behind him while he took his shower, though. He had just enough brains left to do that.

Ben sat back down in his chair while Ray took a shower. He tried to shut his mind down, to turn off his thoughts, his fears, and his imagination. He tried not to picture Ray in the shower, with water streaming over him... He tried to sit there without thinking anything at all.

But it was impossible. His mind couldn't let go of the fact that Ray had whispered a woman's name. "Sherry," he'd said. Wherever he'd been, he'd gotten into trouble--and he'd said her name. Fraser had no way of knowing if she was the cause of the trouble, if she was the woman who'd hit Ray with her purse, or if she was someone who'd rescued him. But it didn't really matter. Her very existence frightened him. When he'd first seen Ray, when he'd first opened his eyes and said his name, Ben had thought everything might somehow be okay again.

Now, he wasn't sure. Did Ray meet someone here after all? Someone he was attracted to? Have I lost him already?

He couldn't hold back his tears at the thought of that. After awhile, he didn't even try. He just sat there crying silently while Ray steamed up the bathroom taking a long, hot shower. Even as the tears ran down his face, he wondered what was happening to him. He usually never cried, and now here he was weeping as helplessly as a child again, for the second time in three days.

He didn't understand how things had turned out like this. He had done his best, had tried to care for Ray in a way no one had ever cared for him. Had tried to help heal the emotional and physical wounds from his ordeal, had ignored his own needs and feelings until Ray had finally come to him... Even then, remembering how others had abused his own innocence, he'd tried to make it right for Ray, had remained passive and still because that was what Ray needed--

But Ray, it seemed, hadn't appreciated that. Or anything much else about him, either. Or else why would he have left?

How could he do this to me?

Oh--that's right. I fell in love again, he reminded himself bitterly. That's why he's in there, and I'm out here, and we're both miserable. But even then, in the midst of his misery, he couldn't stop thinking of Ray. What if he faints in there? Falls and hits his head? he worried. I might not hear it, over the sound of the running water.

So he wiped his tears away, opened the bathroom door just a bit, and sat listening carefully. Part of him was tired of this, of always being the one who took care of others--of being a sort of male nurse, instead of a lover. But Ray needed help, and his instinct to protect Ray went so deep it wouldn't be denied. Deeper, certainly, than any selfish concern for his own pleasure. Probably deeper than his own instinct for self preservation, if it came to that.

So he sat in his chair and waited. Waited for Ray to come out, and tried not to think about women or purses or maybes. Tried not to think at all.

After soaping himself up, Ray sank down to the floor of the shower and let the hot water stream over his tired, aching body. It felt wonderful, so good that he didn't even mind the way the spray hurt his head when it hit his wound. He let it wash over him, wash the blood and dirt and shame away from him. He wished it could take his memories away as easily. But for now, it was enough just to have his body clean--and Fraser outside waiting for him.

Ben! He sat up with a jerk. Realized with a dim sense of shock that he was so tired that for a moment, he'd fallen asleep on the tiles, with the water running over him. At least, he hoped it was only a minute. After everything Fraser had just done for him, he didn't want to keep him waiting. He'd already run up enough points as a selfish jerk to last him a long while. Maybe forever.

He got to his feet with an effort. Turned off the water, stepped out, grabbed a towel and started to dry himself. Then he suddenly saw the bathroom door. It was open just a crack. That confused him. He knew he'd closed it behind him--for a second, he felt a thrill of fear. Then reason returned. Fraser must've opened it again. But why?

He must've been worried I'd faint in here or something. The thought gave him a pang. Another bit of kindness he didn't deserve. He dried his face, then drew close enough to the tiny opening to glimpse his friend. The sight shot pain through him. Fraser sat quietly in a chair by the door, his hands folded neatly in his lap, staring blindly out into space. His eyes were red, and he had a bleak, spent look like he'd been crying.

It hit Ray like a blow.

He'd almost forgotten for a minute, in the bliss of all that hot water and the security of Ben's presence, what he'd done to him. The wound he'd dealt him, and how much he still had to make up for.

If that was even still possible...

He knew Ben had every right to be angry with him. That, he would've expected. Would maybe even have welcomed. But his tears cut him to the bone. Ben was a good person, as good on the inside as he looked on the outside. He had the purest soul Ray had ever encountered. He'd given him everything, and asked for nothing; and in return, Ray had hurt him badly. Had made him cry. Fraser, who almost never cried.

Ray closed his eyes, feeling a thousand years old. You suck, he told himself. But it wasn't enough. For once, even hating himself wasn't enough. He had to do something--had to try to make things right.

He had no idea if it was possible that Ben might take him back. Might be willing to let him try to love him after all. But he had to find out. If this whole stupid escapade had taught him anything, it was that he'd been wrong to leave Fraser.

He loved him. Now, he had to prove it to him. Somehow.

Ray came out of the shower quietly, after what seemed like forever. He'd put his jeans back on, but not his shirt. Fraser felt a twinge of desire at the sight of his sleek, hairless chest. Despite the long white scars that laced it, he longed to touch it. He forced his eyes away from it. Cleared his throat. Ridiculous to be nervous now, in Ray's presence, when they'd known each other for so long, but there it was. This moment was so fragile he was afraid to speak and shatter the awkward silence between them.

But Ray surprised him by speaking first. He stopped beside his chair and caught his eyes. "Frase, I uhh...I know we need to talk," he began. "I'm sorry I left the way I did, and I know...I owe you some answers. And I'll tell you everything, I promise. But I'm just...I'm tired, and I've been drinkin' and my head kinda' hurts. So can we maybe postpone that until tomorrow?"

"Yes," he said quietly. "It's all right. I'll just...I could go, but you shouldn't be left alone after an injury like that. I thought I'd just stay here," he gestured at the chair he'd been sitting in, "while you get some sleep."

Ray closed his eyes. That was so like Fraser. He'd run out on him, had hurt him deeply, yet here he was volunteering to spend the night in a damn chair, watching over him! As if none of that had ever happened. It was incredible. Fraser was miles too good for him--but then he'd always known that.

He didn't know where the hell he was going to find the guts to say what he needed to say to him, not to mention the right words. He'd never been good with words. But he had to do this. So he took a deep breath. Opened his eyes. Caught Fraser's gaze, then took his hand gently. "No. I got a better idea," he said. He could hear his voice trembling, knew that Ben must sense his fear, but he risked it anyway. "Why don't you come and sleep in the bed? With me."

Fraser froze, his eyes widening slightly in shock.

Ray swallowed hard. "Just to sleep," he said, to reassure him. "Please. It's late, and I know yer tired, too. I don't know how you got here, but I'm just...I'm real glad you're here, Frase. I'm glad you found me. And... and I don't want you sleepin' in that damn chair. I won't let you. I'll sleep in it myself first. So just... take the bed, okay? Just for tonight." He stared at Fraser, willing him to say yes. Willing him to hear the words he wasn't saying. Asking him not to turn away now, though he had every right to. Though anyone else would have. He felt his heart beating hard, so hard in the silence. This was the moment, the critical moment--the one where he'd find out if he'd already lost him.

"All right," Ben said at last. "I'm going to have to wake you every two hours, though, Ray," he added. "Just so you don't slip into a coma."

Ray clung to his hand, let the towering wave of relief he felt show itself in a smile. "Okay," he said. Okay. I can live with that." But what he really meant was, I can live, knowing that you'll stay.

But Fraser didn't smile back at him. And after a minute, Ray let go of his hand and turned away. He knew why Ben hadn't smiled back, knew his staying wasn't the end of it. They still had major problems. His leaving still hung between them like a dark cloud. And then there was Sherry... Shit, he hadn't even told him about her yet. He wasn't sure if he could, or if he even should. But he was too tired, and too sore, to deal with that now. For now, it was enough to know that Fraser wouldn't leave him. That he didn't hate him for what he'd done.

The question of whether he could love him or not would have to wait until morning.

Better to let it go at that, until they had a chance to hash things out. He pulled down the covers on the bed. "Climb in," he invited. "Let's get some sleep." Taking his own advice, he fell onto it without another word.He was surprised to see that in the few seconds it had taken him to pull down the covers, Ben had already slipped off his shirt. He had to smile. Efficient as always...

Ben sat down quietly on the bed beside him, and pulled off his boots and socks. Then he reached out to douse the bedside lamp. "Good night, Ray."

Ray waited until he felt Fraser lie down on the bed beside him. Then he reached out to touch his arm. Gently, not asking for anything. Just a caress. "'Night, Ben."

Fraser didn't move. Didn't touch him back, didn't say anything. Not so much as a "Good night, Ray," in return.

Ray sighed to himself, and pulled his hand back. Well, whadja' expect, ya idiot? his conscience whispered. You ran off and left him. Whadja' expect?

It wasn't so much what I expected, he responded wearily. Just what I wanted...

Then he was asleep.

Fraser lay awake in the darkness, mindful of his promise to watch over Ray while he slept. Not surprisingly, Ray went to sleep almost the instant his body hit the bed. He didn't mind, he knew he needed it badly. But lying close to him while he slept felt both familiar now, yet uncomfortable too. He could feel Ray's warmth, see the angular contours of his face, even in the darkness. The arch of his cheekbones, the hollow of his throat... All those intriguing places he longed to touch, but never had. And maybe never would.

He felt tortured. He'd found Ray, but he still didn't have any answers. Still didn't know why he had left, or what was going to happen with them. If there even was a 'them' anymore. Or if there ever had been...

He didn't even know what Ray's tentative touch on his arm had meant: a plea for forgiveness, a sign of desire? Or none of the above. For all he knew, it could've been a kind of apologetic prelude to the thing he most feared: an announcement that he'd found someone else. A woman, perhaps, named Sherry. That his almost-but-not-quite lovemaking with Fraser had been a mistake he never wanted to repeat.

Fraser prayed that wasn't the case. He didn't know if he could take it, if he could stand to hear Ray say those words. He'd been betrayed, left, abandoned so many times that sometimes he thought one more disappointment would kill him. He still wanted Ray, wanted him so much that he'd almost broken when Ray touched him.

But not quite. He'd held back mainly out of fear. Part of him had wanted to respond, wanted to reach back--but part of him had been afraid. That part had asked, "Who's Sherry?" That part remembered what had happened the last time Ray had touched him, and he'd allowed himself to give in to his desire. That fearful, cautious voice had won out. For now. It had taken all the strength he possessed, he'd had to freeze every muscle in his body, but he'd done it. He'd remained still, hadn't responded to that tempting touch.

But there were other voices at work inside him as well as fear. Other, darker emotions. For when Ray had dangled further bait by wishing him a rather wistful goodnight, he'd had to clamp his mouth shut tightly against a sudden, almost overwhelming urge to reply--and not with an innocent goodnight, either. For a second, he'd fantasized about turning and using his mouth to stop Ray's treacherous one. To cover it forcibly with a hard kiss so he couldn't tell him any more lies, plunder it like a bandit--and then let Ray go. Turn his back and leave him hanging there, aroused yet alone and unsatisfied, without a word of explanation, as he had been when Kowalski left him.

The fact that such a mean little revenge fantasy had even occurred to him almost frightened Fraser. He had known that he was mad, that beneath his sadness lay a well of anger. He'd even wondered on the long drive out here if he would hit Ray when he found him. But he hadn't known how deep that anger went until just now.

Obviously, it was very deep. And very close to the surface, at the moment.

He knew that was probably partly because he was tired. It was very late, and he'd been under enormous stress for the past few days, since Ray had left him. Sheer stubbornness had carried him this far, but he hadn't anticipated finding Ray injured. The shock of that, and of taking care of him once again, had sapped what little remained of his meager resources. He felt exhausted. So drained that it was hard to keep his eyes open. Almost numb, mentally and physically.

Still, he took some comfort in the fact that he'd managed to contain his baser urges even so. His fear and his anger--even his desire. He'd even managed to ignore Ray's wistful sigh as he turned away at last, never knowing how close he'd come to danger. He'd let him drift off into the sleep he so obviously needed, instead of either pummeling him or making passionate love to him, as he ached to do.

But there was a limit to even a Mountie's self control; and Fraser knew he'd already reached his, and then some. He could probably control his fear and anger once he got some rest, but his desire was another matter. Rest would probably only intensify that. He didn't know if he'd be able to resist Ray again. He was attractive enough normally; but wounded and vulnerable like this, he was enormously tempting. He wasn't about to touch him or try to seduce him now, while he was hurt and in need of rest, of course. But after he'd recovered... if he reached for him again--

He swallowed hard. He honestly didn't know what he would do.

But who's Sherry?

The thought kept returning, sharp as a needle poking into his already raw skin.


Until at last, without meaning to, he drifted into a fitful sleep of his own.

Ray had just closed his eyes when he heard someone calling him. "Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray! RAY!"

"Huh?" The voice had grown urgent, so urgent that he sat bolt upright in bed, a bit frightened. The room looked grey, like maybe dawn had just come. His head hurt, and his mouth was dry. He looked around. He wasn't in his apartment. He rubbed at his eyes, wondering where the hell he was...

"Ahh. You are awake, then," the voice said, sounding a bit smug at having awakened him. "Good."

He looked down. The voice belonged to the guy lying next to him. A guy with a dark, handsome head, clear blue eyes and a superb chest. For a second, in a hungover fog, Ray wondered, What the hell am I doin' in bed with a Chippendale dancer?

Then, something about the guy's calm, steady gaze jogged his memory, and he recognized him: It's Ben. The events of the last few days came rushing back to him. He couldn't believe what he'd done. Yer a loser, he told himself. You left him! You suck. He rubbed gingerly at the back of his skull, winced at the pain it produced. Avoided Ben's eyes.

"Who am I?" Ben asked.

Ray blinked. "Yer kiddin' me, right?"

"No. Who am I?"

Ray frowned. "I thought I was the one with a concussion or somethin'--"

"Just answer the question. Humor me, please."

"Okay: yer Benton Fraser. Walkin' dictionary, owner of a junk food junkie wolf. Unfortunate employee of the Ice Queen. She Who Rules the Canadian Consulate," he joked. "That ring a bell?"

"Yes." Ben then held up three fingers. "How many--"

Ray groaned. "Aww, come on! Ya' got three up there, okay? How long are you gonna torture me like this?"

Fraser blinked in surprise. "I don't mean to torture you, Ray. It's just that it's been two hours, and I--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he grumped, shooting him a sideways glance. "You wanted to make sure I wasn't in a coma, right?"

Ben nodded. "After a head injury like yours, a person should be checked every two hours within the first twenty four, and every four hours for the next. It's standard procedure. But I fell asleep--"

"Standard procedure!" The phrase rang a bell, made Ray smile down at Ben. "What, like that buddy breathin' thing you did that time?"

Fraser stilled unexpectedly. "Yes. Rather like that," he said.

But he wasn't smiling. Their eyes met, and Ray knew what he was thinking: he was remembering that moment when he'd first kissed him underwater. Buddy breathing, hell--buddy kiss. Their first kiss. Ray remembered it, too. Remembered the heat of it, the warmth of Fraser's lips on his in that cold water...

Their eyes locked, blue on blue, and as if their identical thoughts had created a kind of invisible bridge, something leapt between them. Something like a wave of heat. Strong. Powerful. Irresistible. Ray swallowed hard. Felt himself leaning forward. Towards Fraser.

Or was Fraser leaning towards him?

"I've been meanin' to practice that," he said huskily. Looking at Ben's mouth. At how it was getting closer...

"You mean, the buddy breathing technique?" Fraser asked. His voice was faint, and Ray saw him swallow hard too. Saw his tongue sneak out to wet lips that had suddenly gone dry.

"Yeah." Oh, God, I want him! He wanted that dry mouth, that sneaky little tongue--wanted all of him. And Ben's mouth was close now, so close--his desire rose instantly. So did his hopes.

"Who is Sherry, Ray?"

Ray shut his eyes. Jesus! Talk about killin' the mood... Those words were like a slap in the face. A bucket of ice water dumped over his head. He fell back onto his pillow with a groan. Didn't think he heard me, but he must've. God, I'm not ready for this-- "What time is it?" he asked, in a cowardly attempt at distraction.

"Four fifteen a.m. Who is she?" Ben repeated, inexorable.

Something in Fraser's voice made Ray open his eyes again. The Mountie's eyes were steady, but he didn't look calm. He looked rigid, almost frightened. Like a man nerving himself to take a knockout punch, or like a guy waiting to hear a judge proclaim his death sentence.

Ray couldn't stand it. That look got to him as nothing else could have. He had to tell him the truth. No matter how bad it made him look. He owed him that much. "She's this girl--this chick I picked up last night. At this bar in town. She..."

Fraser's face got even paler. "I see," he said in a low voice. "And is she the one who hit you?"

God, I hate this! But he nodded. Forced himself to speak. "Yeah. Slugged me from behind with her purse. She musta' had somethin' hard in it. Maybe a gun, I don't know."

"Why did she hit you? Was she trying to rob you, Ray?"

Shit, this was hard! Slow torture, inch by inch. He hated the lost look in Fraser's eyes, the way Ben was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, to pretend this was something, anything other than what it was... He wanted to lie. Wanted very badly to lie, to say, Yes, this crazy girl mugged me. Tried to rob me. That's all it was.

But he was done lying. Done hiding. He owed Fraser the truth. So he shook his head slowly. "No. It wasn't that. She was nutty, she... she just got mad at me, 'cuz--"

"Why, Ray?"

He closed his eyes again. This was just like Ben, he always had to know every last little detail. But total honesty had its price. If he told him, gave him all the details and didn't lie about this, he was going to hurt him. Damned if I do, and double damned if I don't. Shit. "Because I didn't have sex with her," he ground out at last, temporizing.

Then he hated himself for the half truth. Couldn't decide if he'd phrased it that way for Ben's benefit, or his own. It made him sound blameless, which he damn well wasn't. What really counted was the reason why he didn't have sex with her, not the fact that he hadn't done it. But he prayed that Fraser wouldn't figure that out, that he'd be content with the wherefores and not ask for the whys.

Please, let that be enough.

But of course, it wasn't. The Mountie was probably one of the smartest people he'd ever met. No way was he going to miss the implications in that, or let them slide. Not when so much was at stake. "You couldn't, or wouldn't?" Fraser asked, in a very low voice, cutting right to the heart of the matter with his usual perceptiveness.

Ray groaned to himself. Bit his lip hard, until it hurt. Stared up at the ceiling so he wouldn't have to look at Fraser's pale, tense face. "Couldn't," he whispered at last.

Ben didn't say a word. He just laid back down beside him again silently. And that silence weighed on Kowalski like no silence ever had in his life. It pressed down on his chest, sucked all of the air out of the room and left him gasping. I had to tell him the truth, he thought wildly. Had to--I've hurt him so much already, I couldn't lie to him too...

So he'd hurt him again. Worse than ever. "You don't understand," he whispered heavily.

Fraser turned over. Turned his back to him. "Go back to sleep, Ray," he said in a terrible voice Ray had never heard before. Flat, colorless. Drained of every shred of emotion. "I'll wake you in another two hours."

Ray couldn't stand it. He raised himself up on an elbow. "No. You don't understand," he began helplessly. He knew that was a cliché, but didn't know how else to put it. "I had to tell you the truth, you deserve that. But that's not all of it--" He reached out and touched Fraser's bare shoulder tentatively.

Fraser exploded suddenly. Turned over, grabbed him before he could blink, and bore him down on his back on the bed. Held him there with a grip so strong it was painful. "Don't!" he hissed. "Don't touch me! Don't say another word!" His chest was heaving, and suddenly, his voice was loaded with emotion. Pain. More pain than even Ray had suspected. And rage. A cold, barely restrained rage Ray had never seen in him before. Not even that time he'd hit him by the lake.

Ray lay perfectly still for a moment. Not daring to speak, hardly even breathing. He'd never seen him this angry before. Never. He felt ashamed that he'd driven Fraser to this, that he'd caused that look in his eyes. First he'd made him cry, now he'd made him lose his temper. One more sin to lay at his door, one more thing he had to make up for. If he survived, that is. Because at the moment, Fraser looked like he'd like nothing better than to beat him to a pulp. So Ray just lay there, carefully passive and unresisting, until Fraser's face lost its look of frozen rage, and his hands loosened their rough grip on his shoulders.

Then Ray nodded. Just once. Without a word.

And Fraser released him just as silently. Took a deep breath, then lay back down beside him with his back turned, just as he had been.

Ray didn't move. Didn't speak. He just laid there, hoping against hope that Fraser would say something. Anything, to ease the terrible tension between them. But he didn't. Long minutes passed, and Ray gradually realized that he wasn't going to. Ben just lay there silently, wide awake and probably hating him.

For good reason. God, I suck. He thought longingly of the bottle of Stolichnaya he'd emptied the day before. Then despised himself for his own weakness. That shit wasn't going to help him through this. He had to keep his head clear. Had to stay alert. Had to stay awake. Not because he was afraid of Fraser, though. Even after what he'd done, Fraser hadn't hit him. He'd obviously been tempted to, and Ray wouldn't have blamed him if he had. Hell, it might've even made him feel better, like Fraser had evened the score a little for what he'd done. But as usual, the Mountie's iron self control had won out, and he'd contained himself.

Ray was betting that Fraser was even staying around because he was worried about him. In spite of everything he'd said and done, he would keep his promise and drive him to a doctor in the morning. Didn't matter how mad he was at him, Ben was a man of his word.

But he was also a man of action. Ray knew that too. And once he'd taken him to a doctor, his responsibility to care for him would be ended. Then, Ray would be in deep shit.

Fraser was going to leave him. He knew it. He'd sunk into such a terrible silence Ray was actually afraid, for the first time since he'd known him, of what Ben might do. Not to him, but to himself. Fraser was too good at controlling his emotions--he didn't know how to let them out. And if Ray couldn't find a way to explain what he'd done, the volcanic rage that he'd just witnessed would have to come out somehow, sometime.

Ray didn't want that to happen. Was afraid of what might happen if it did. If Fraser's awesome self control finally broke, the results would be disastrous. Fire, flood, pestilence--something of epic proportions. A total nuclear meltdown. He didn't like to imagine it. So he had to stay awake now. Had to think of a way to make Fraser understand what he hadn't understood himself, at the time. To make him see why he'd gone to that damn bar in the first place, and then out into that back street with Sherry.

If he couldn't, he'd lose him. And after trying to give him up for his own good, then getting him back again, his own innate selfishness had won out. He wasn't going to give him up without a fight this time. Not ever again...

But how was he going to reach through his anger? Past the awful wall of silence the Mountie had erected around himself?

Fraser turned his back to his partner. He didn't want Ray to see his face, to know how badly he'd hurt him. How sickened he was--how furious. When he'd touched him, it had been all he could do not to strike him. If Ray hadn't frozen under him, hadn't remained silent as he asked, he might have. But he'd been wise enough to shut up, had gone limp as a rag doll in his savage grip.

That was the only thing that had saved him. If he'd protested or struggled at all, Fraser didn't like to think what he might've done. He felt black, bitter, betrayed. He'd never felt so betrayed, not even when Victoria had left him. She'd been a criminal; he hadn't expected anything more from her.

But Ray was his partner. His best friend. He'd done everything for him, had taken care of him, even given him his heart... He'd gambled everything on the sense that what lay between them was real and profound. That Ray's feelings for him were as intense, as deep as his own. I was wrong. Look at how he repaid me, he thought bitterly. Two days after he left me, he goes out and finds some stranger in a bar, and tries to have sex with her!

He couldn't even feel glad that Ray had failed. The fact that he'd even tried ripped his heart out. That meant that Ray viewed his attempt at making love with him as a mistake. Meant that there was no future for the two of them at all. Oh, he'd stay with Ray for now, take him to a doctor and make sure he was all right, but beyond that...Beyond that, there was nothing. His future loomed like a dull grey void. Because he couldn't be Ray's partner anymore, now that Ray knew how much he wanted him. Not when Ray didn't want him back. And it was obvious from what he'd done that he didn't.

I must've just been a warm body in the night to him, he thought painfully. No more than that. I was wrong to try to love him. I should've known. I'll have to go back to Canada, he thought dully. Get a transfer. Go somewhere far away, and try to start over.

But he had no idea how he could do that, loving Ray as much as he did. No idea at all. The mere thought of it felt like a kind of death.

Ray waited for a long time in silence. Waited for Fraser to fall asleep again beside him, for his rough, angry breathing to calm. After a time, it did grow quieter, but Ray wasn't sure if he'd gone back to sleep. He was still so tired from his hangover and his head wound that he fell asleep himself for awhile at some point. But he jerked awake again abruptly, jolted by the sense that he had something important to do. Something that couldn't wait...

He stared at the clock. It was five thirty five. Hell of an early hour for heavy thinking. He'd never been a morning person. He could use some hot coffee with M & M's melting in it right then, and his head still ached dully. But it wasn't the blinding pain it had been. It was bearable now. Livable. So he ignored it, and tried to focus his fuzzy brain. Because he had more important things to think about. He had to get Ben back.

Because right now, even though they were lying side by side in bed, Fraser might as well have been a million miles away. He'd withdrawn into a cold, glacial silence so deep it was terrifying. His own Fortress of Solitude. All Ray could do was wait, and hope that something would come to him. Some miracle words he could say to draw him out, to make things all right again.

Because this was his fault. All of it. No question. He'd been an idiot to run away, and even more of one to go looking for sex with some psychotic stranger when he had Ben wanting him. Loving him. Ben Fraser, who was one in a million.

All of that was clear to Kowalski now. So brutally clear he wondered how he could've ever been so blind before.

Guess I just couldn't believe it, he thought, looking inside himself. Couldn't accept that someone that beautiful could ever want me--especially the way I am now. Ben's worth ten o' me, and I've always known that...I couldn't buy the idea that he fell in love with me. Me, Stanley Ray Kowalski. A slob with no manners, no class, and a bad attitude. A detective with a screwed-up life and nothin' but a few cop commendations to my name.

That realization was painful enough, but facing his reaction to it was even worse. So what'd I do? How'd I thank Fraser for that, for everything he did for me? I ran out on him. Ran like a scared shitless rabbit, like I always do. Same way I ran away from Stella before. Well, not exactly the same, he corrected himself bitterly. Ben, I ran out on physically, Stella I just stopped talkin' to. But it's the same thing in the end. Gone is gone.

What is it about me, that I can't let anyone get close anymore? It ain't just because o' how the Gentrys fucked me over, either--I did it to Stella too. Guess maybe I never could really believe that she loved me, so I let her pull away from me without putting up enough of a fight.

That failure was painful enough, but now he had another to his credit. Why'd I have to leave Ben too? Thought I was doin' it for his own good, but it hurt him bad. It hurt me too. Why'd I do it? So what if I can't make love to him right now? So what if I'm screwed up because o' the Gentrys? If I keep goin' to the shrink like I'm supposed to, he said that'll work out in time.

It suddenly occurred to him that it had already begun to. Just lying next to Fraser, even though he knew he was furious, he felt real, intense desire for him. Hell, for a few minutes, I even got a flicker when Sherry was pawin' me. Just because it was touch, and I needed that so bad. It gave him hope. If I could feel that, it means I'll be able to let Fraser touch me sooner or later too.

It better be sooner than later, a voice deep inside warned. Ben's the best thing that ever happened to you, and if you don't do somethin' now, you're gonna lose him. Forever. Like you lost Stella.

He wasn't used to looking inside himself this way. He'd only really started to do it after his kidnapping, because the police shrink had gotten him talking about all the heavy stuff that had happened to him; and to his surprise, that stuff had led to other stuff... More heavy stuff. Like his divorce, and the possible reasons for it.

He'd been thinking about that a lot ever since. About the whys, instead of just feeling the pain of it, like he had been. In the light of what he'd just done, he was pretty sure he'd finally figured it out. The big why: why he'd let the distance between him and Stella grow so vast that they finally couldn't reach across it anymore. Why he was alone now.

It was because he was afraid. Stanley Raymond Kowalski, the tough cop, was a coward at heart. He could count the times he'd ever said "I love you" to his own wife on the fingers of one hand; and he'd run like a rabbit to keep from saying that to Ben, too. And all of that came from the same place: fear. He couldn't let anyone close because he didn't think he was good enough--didn't think he deserved to be loved. He was scared they'd find out how screwed-up he was, and then they'd leave him. After they married, he'd stopped talking to Stella to keep her from finding out. And once her career began to take off, that silence had deepened, along with his insecurity. The more successful she became, the smaller he felt by comparison; and he'd run away from Ben for the same reason. It wasn't just because his loving had triggered memories of his rape--that had only been part of it. The truth was, Fraser outclassed him. He was kinder, smarter, had better manners, was far more handsome.

He'd made him feel like Quasimodo, beside the Six Million Dollar Man. Fraser scared the crap out of him. Just like Stella had begun to, after they were married.

But Stella had loved him once, in spite of all that. She'd known him better than almost anyone, and she'd loved him in spite of all his flaws. Ben must've too--at least before he'd pulled this stupid stunt. If he didn't love him, he never would've taken him in after his kidnapping, or put up with all of his crap, or taken care of him as tenderly as he had. Both Stella and Ben had loved him; and they were both smart people. Good people. So if they'd felt that way about him, there must be some reasons for it. Which meant that he wasn't a totally worthless human being, that he must have a few good qualities. Maybe more than a few.

So if he was alone, it was by his own choice. Because he was insecure and afraid. Because the prospect of opening up to another human being, of letting anyone see inside him, terrified him. Yet loneliness frightened him even more. Loneliness had driven him into the arms of a woman who was probably a hooker, and psychotic to boot.

It was pathetic. It was crazy. And worse yet, it was all by his own choice.

Keep it up, and you'll be alone forever. And you'll deserve to be.

Ray Kowalski shivered as he lay beside his formidably silent partner. Shivered like a drowning man, a man going down for the third and last time. Because this time, he knew he had to save himself. This time, he'd screwed up so bad that even Fraser wouldn't reach out a hand to save him. He'd finally reached his limit, and Ray didn't blame him. He'd hurt him too badly.

He wasn't even sure that he hadn't lost him already. But he had to find out. It was all up to him. Love and companionship, or fear and loneliness. Take your pick. He remembered telling Fraser once, 'Poker is sheer justice. The winner makes himself a winner, the loser makes himself a loser.' He'd been doing that for years, without even knowing it.

Stakes are high, he thought, sweating. Time for me to ante up.

Fraser woke suddenly from a light, fitful doze, to an extraordinary sight.

Ray knelt beside him. Stanley Raymond Kowalski, smartass incarnate, who normally cheerfully disrespected everyone and everything, was kneeling on the floor beside his bed. Barefoot, wearing only his jeans and a scared, haunted look.

That got to Fraser.

He sat up hastily, vaguely alarmed by that look, by Ray's humble, penitent pose. It penetrated even the bitter haze of pain and betrayal his confession had made him feel, and called up a reluctant sense of compassion. What was Ray doing down there? Had he perhaps gotten up while he was sleeping, fallen to the floor because of his head injury, and hurt himself again?

"What's wrong, Ray?" The words slipped out, automatic as his concern, despite all that Ray had done. Old habits, Fraser thought with an agonized twinge, are hard to break...

"Nothin'! Nothin', don't get up!" Kowalski said hastily. He touched his knee to keep him from rising, then jerked it back nervously. "I just..." Ray tried to smile, an uneasy attempt that faded when he didn't smile back. "I got somethin' to say. Somethin' I need to tell you. And I know I've got no right to ask you to listen after what I did...But I'm askin'. Will you just listen to me for a minute? And then, if you want to, you can go."

"All right," Fraser said. Not because he really meant to listen, but because of Ray's promise to release him if he did. That was what Fraser wanted, what he needed right now, more than anything. To get away. He would've promised Ray anything, in order to achieve that.

It was also obvious that Ray felt he needed to unburden himself further. But Fraser was so filled with pain that he didn't care. He'd let Ray confess to whatever other heinous acts he'd committed while they were apart--murder, arson, whatever, he'd believe anything at this point--just so they could bring this horrible, painful episode to a close. He'd let Ray clear his conscience, then he would take him to the doctor, as he'd promised.

Then they would go their separate ways. Forever. He would never see him again. He would go back to Canada, begin a new life. Try to forget he had ever heard the name Stanley Ray Kowalski... Aching with the finality of that decision, Fraser fixed his eyes on his partner's, those intense blue eyes he'd once trusted, and pretended to give him his full attention. "All right then. Say what you have to say," he told him.

But he was already filled to the brim with pain. He couldn't take any more. Not one more drop. So when Ray started talking, all Fraser really heard, at first, was the muffled sound of his own misery. The continued, painful beating of the stone in his chest that had once been his heart. All he really saw at first was Ray's lips moving. Opening, shaping words that had no meaning.

But after a time, those lips drew a reluctant response from him. He began focusing on them in spite of himself. Noting how ruddy they were, how sensual: the upper one almost thin, the lower one so full it invited kisses... And as he concentrated on Ray's mouth, gradually, here and there, he started to hear a word or two of what he was saying.

"Never told you... why I left. I couldn't say it--"

Ben shrugged, remembering the way he'd cried on that ugly dawn. How he'd lain on the bed that still bore traces of Ray's scent, torn apart by that very question, and considered ending his life because of it. That all seemed like a long time ago now. "It doesn't matter now," he said flatly.

"Yeah, Ben. Yeah, it does." Ray came closer, his eyes intense. He didn't touch him, but his eyes did. They held him somehow, reached right through all the bitterness inside him and caught him, trapped him in their burning blue.

"I need to tell you. To make you understand..." Ray looked down at the floor for a minute, biting his lip. "It wasn't you," he said at last, his voice rough with an agony that resembled Fraser's own. Pain that drew him in spite of himself. "It was me. I just... I couldn't handle the way I freaked out while we were--"

"While you were seducing me," Fraser said flatly.

Ray winced and looked down at the floor again.

Fraser stared at his blond head, surprised at the bitterness in his own voice, and his implied accusation. Ray hadn't seduced him, he'd asked if he could make love to him. He'd been honest, direct and sincere. Even painfully so. And Fraser himself had been more than a willing participant, he'd been eager. Hungry for it. And he'd loved what Ray did to him, loved his hesitant, awkward touch, his burning kisses... To call what had passed between them a seduction was not just untrue, it was ridiculous.

You only said that because of Sherry, he realized, a bit ashamed of his own cruelty. You're trying to punish him with a lie, because he turned to someone else. Such behavior was totally uncharacteristic of him. Last night, he'd come perilously close to hitting Ray; and now he was lying to hurt him! He was on a very slippery slope indeed. He'd begun to act like Victoria. She had let rage poison her, and look how she'd ended up. Consumed by hatred and lying with nearly every breath. Memories of her suddenly filled his mind, humbling him. If he'd learned anything from his disastrous encounter with her, surely it was the importance of forgiveness. The importance of honesty was something he'd always known.

He opened his mouth to retract his statement, but it was too late.

"Yeah, you could say that," Ray said tightly. "That I seduced you. You could put it that way, but I thought... I mean, I hoped that you--"

Ray's eyes sought his again, asking for forgiveness. But despite the way he'd just chastised himself for his own harshness, Fraser found himself unable to grant it. He'd been hurt too much, betrayed once too often, to grant absolution as quickly as he once would have. "What do you want me to say, Ray?" he asked, before he could stop himself. "That I liked it? That I still--"

He caught himself just in time. He wasn't going to admit that, to tell Ray that his desire for him was as impossibly intense as ever. Because that would only make him look like even more of a fool than he already did. "What possible difference could that make now?"

Fraser bit his lip. That's enough, he told himself sternly. Any more would be cruel. He was trying very hard not to be vicious, not to hurt Ray as he'd been hurt.

But not hard enough, it seemed. Those words hit home, like an arrow shot between Ray's light blue eyes. That question had hurt him, and the pain in them grew deeper. "You don't think that matters to me? You don't think I care?" he asked, his voice harsh.

Fraser closed his eyes, trying to shut out the sight of that pain, to turn off the part of him that longed to ease it. Even now, after everything Ray had done. "No, Ray," he said hoarsely. "I think you made that quite clear."

Ray took his hands suddenly, caught them in a fierce grip. "Look at me!" he whispered. "Fraser--look at me!"

Fraser hesitated. He didn't want to look, didn't want to see... But his upbringing prevented him from being a coward. He had been taught from childhood to face his fate, no matter how harsh it proved to be. So in the end, he opened his eyes reluctantly and looked at Ray again.

"I care," Ray grated. "I care so much about you that it scares me. You were the only thing that kept me alive when I was kidnapped! When they had me chained up, the only thing that kept me sane at all was thinkin' o' you! Seein' yer face--" He drew a deep, shaky breath, and Fraser suddenly saw tears in his eyes. "D'you know I used to watch you sleepin'?"

"What?" Fraser blinked, stunned.

Ray laughed bitterly. "It's nuts, I know. I know that. But when I first got outta' the hospital, I had trouble sleepin', and the nights seemed so long... I used to turn on the light and look at you, just watch you sleep. It made me feel good. Made me feel safe... like there was still somethin' good in my life, in the world, after what they did to me--"

That confession touched something deep inside him, so deep that Fraser didn't even have words for it. It thawed the frozen rage congealed around his heart. He remembered lying awake one night watching Victoria sleep, for some of the same reasons.

"I never knew that," he muttered at last, abashed. "I never guessed..."

Ray shook his head. "I didn't want you to know. I mean, I didn't really understand why I was doin' it myself... until one night I reached out and touched you," he whispered, his voice suddenly low, almost inaudible. "Then I knew." His eyes were downcast, fixed on the floor.

Fraser knew how hard that must've been for him to say. He remembered that night, remembered Ray's shaking hands on his face, and the way he'd lied about the touch afterwards. Now, Fraser knew why.

Still, he tried to ignore it. Didn't want to hear it. Refused to believe Ray could feel that way, could feel such tenderness for him, then go out and have sex with a stranger. Such contradictory feelings and actions simply weren't logical. All at once, he heard his father's voice in his head, chiding him. "You're too dispassionate, son. Too logical. It's too hard on him." His father had been trying to tell him that he and Ray were different, that they didn't think the same way; and he was right. So it was probably unfair of him to expect Ray to act the way he would.

Fraser could feel his resistance weakening, his anger fading in the face of Ray's contrition. And he wasn't sure he wanted it to. Wasn't sure he was ready to forgive him yet. He tried to pull away.

But Ray wouldn't let him. He held onto him tightly. "Please!" he pleaded. "Just let me say this..."

"All right." Fraser subsided reluctantly. Stopped fighting him. Let go of me, he wanted to say. But he didn't. He sat there letting Ray hold onto his hands. Ray's fingers felt oddly cold, and he curled his own around them. Not so much for Ray's sake, but his own. Since it would be the last time he would ever touch him, he wanted to carry the memory of warm fingers with him, not cold ones.

Ray took another deep breath. "I didn't leave because I don't want you. The truth is, I want you too much," he choked out at last. "So much I knew I couldn't stay away from you. But I--I didn't wanna hurt you..." Ray broke off, bit his lip. Swallowed hard, his throat working as if he were trying to force words past his lips that were impossible. "I left because I couldn't--because I can't..."

All at once, Fraser realized that this wasn't merely an apology, or even just a further confession, as he'd thought. This was something else, something infinitely harder. Ray was down on his knees emotionally as well as physically. He was stripping himself naked, revealing his heart, as he'd never done before. Baring his soul to him, as he'd probably never done to anyone in his life.

That insight led to another. He suddenly realized what Ray was trying so hard to say. It hit him like a blow between the eyes. Ray was trying to tell him that he hadn't had sex because he couldn't! All this time, deep down inside, he'd assumed that Ray had left because his kisses repulsed him. He never thought--never considered the possibility that-- Oh my God, I've been so blind!

"Ray, it's all right," he breathed, mortified at his mistake. "You don't have to--"

But Ray was shaking, he didn't even hear him. He lowered his eyes. "I--never told you, but Gentry... He--raped me," he grated at last. "And now I can't--I want you so much it's killin' me, and I can't even make love to you!" he whispered, anguish twisting his face. Then he was crying, tears rolling down his cheeks. But he didn't try to stop them, to hide them or wipe them away. "And you deserve better than that." He lifted his tear-filled eyes to Ben's again, and the anguish in them tore at Fraser's heart. "I'm so sorry, Ben..."

Ben covered Ray's cold, shaking hands with his. Held them tightly, still trying to warm them with his own. For a moment, he was too stunned to say anything. He'd thought Ray had dumped him. Callously. Heartlessly. That his kisses had revolted him. When the truth was, Ray had actually wanted him so much that his failure to make love with him had devastated him, made him feel so unworthy that he'd slunk away in shame.

I was wrong about him. So wrong, Fraser thought. The last traces of his anger melted away, replaced by compassion. "Ray," he said softly, ashamed of himself. "You don't have to do this--" He tried to pull him up, but Ray resisted. Stayed stubbornly on his knees.

"No!" Ray squeezed his fingers tightly, desperately. "I wanna tell you everything. All of it... I know I shouldn't have left like that, but I couldn't look you in the eye, not after that... I left because I thought you'd be better off without me. That you'd find someone normal. Someone who could--could make love with you without freaking out," he whispered. "Someone who...w-wouldn't make you just lie there..."

The shame in his voice smote Fraser deeply. "I'm sorry too, Ray," he whispered, a blink away from tears himself. "I didn't know. I thought you didn't want me."

Ray laughed bitterly, and almost choked on a sob. "God, Ben! You have no idea. No idea how much I--"

Fraser squeezed his hands.

"I never meant... to hurt you," Ray went on. "I know you probably think... I'm a slut, the way I chase women all the time, but I don't... I mean, when I'm with someone, I don't do that. When I was with Stella I never even looked at anybody else, ever--"

Fraser remembered the look on his partner's face the night he'd seen them dancing, and he believed him.

"I didn't...come here to find someone else. I just...needed to get away. And I used to come here with Stella, so... but it was a mistake. I missed you so much, and I felt so bad about leavin' that I got drunk. That's when I went to that bar, and met that woman--"

"Sherry," Fraser whispered, still holding Ray's hands in his.

"Yeah." Ray swallowed hard, trying to master his tears. He leaned forward, so that their joined hands rested on Fraser's knee. "I only went with her because--" He closed his eyes, and lowered his head onto Fraser's leg. Let go of his hands and gripped it blindly, digging his fingers into his thigh. "Jesus, I can't say this... You won't believe me--"

Kowalski choked on a sob, another tear running down his thin cheek.

"Yes I will, Ray," Fraser said gently. "Tell me." He stroked Ray's blond hair lightly, trying to swallow down a lump in his own throat. Kowalski's revelations shocked him. He suspected that Ray had probably never even told the police psychologist the things he was telling him now. He'd never seen him so upset before, not even in the hospital after his kidnapping. Even after taking him in as he had, he'd never fully realized how fragile he was, the frightening extent of his insecurity about himself, about his sexuality. He'd never fathomed the depths of his pain.

"She had dark hair and blue eyes... I think she might've been a hooker, but she... she looked like you, Ben," Ray said finally. "I mean, not exactly like, but enough... And I was still drunk, and I thought... I'd never see you again. I didn't deserve to. And I just--I was so damn lonely, I couldn't help it. I mean, I knew what she might be, but I thought no one else would ever want me, cuz of my friggin' scars, cuz of how ugly I am... So I went with her. Tried to imagine she was you. But she wasn't, and I couldn't. I freaked out again... She got mad, and hit me. I'm sorry. It was dumb, and I know it. It was - terrible. I fucked up, and I'm sorry."

Fraser closed his eyes. Ray wasn't alone in that. He'd been wrong, too--wrong about everything. He'd misjudged Ray completely. I should've known, he thought. But he'd misinterpreted Ray's intense reaction to their lovemaking. The fact that he'd gotten scared, then gotten sick had hurt him deeply. He'd assumed it was because Ray was revolted by his touch, by the fact that he was male--that it had reminded him of his rape.

Perhaps it had--but not at first. In his pain over Ray's extreme reaction and subsequent departure, Fraser had forgotten that all the pleasure in their sex hadn't been on his side. After all, Ray was the one who'd initiated it, not him; and even if it had brought back disturbing memories when he touched him, he must've gained considerable pleasure from their loving before that happened. Otherwise, he wouldn't have clung to him as he had, wouldn't have moaned the way he did while they kissed. Fraser had blinded himself to the fact that Ray had wanted him too.

He'd also misjudged the depth of his partner's resulting trauma. Ray had seemed calm enough afterwards, when he'd led him back to bed; but he now realized that had been the numbness of utter despair. Such deep despair that he'd fled, gotten drunk and blindly sought comfort with a woman who vaguely resembled him, in a futile and ultimately dangerous effort to recapture what they'd almost had.

I shouldn't have let myself fall asleep afterwards, Fraser thought, regretting his mistake bitterly. I know how impulsive he is, I should've anticipated that he might do something drastic...

"Can't ask you to forgive me, but I am sorry," Ray whispered again. "I'm so sorry I hurt you!" He clung blindly to Ben's leg, his shoulders shaking with barely suppressed sobs. Fraser saw a fresh rain of tears on his face.

"Ray, please... don't." Fraser couldn't stand it anymore. He was crying, too, the sight of Ray's pain too much for him to bear one second longer. He pulled him up, off of his knees on the floor and into his arms. Laid back on the bed cradling his slender, sobbing body to his chest. Ray held onto him desperately, shaking, and Fraser felt immensely grateful. "Don't cry," he whispered tenderly, though by that time, his own eyes were wet. "Don't cry, Ray. I'm sorry too. I was angry with you because I didn't understand. But now I do. And I forgive you, Ray. It's all right..."

"Oh, God. Ben..." Ray buried his face in his neck, shaking, and held onto him tightly. Hung on like he would never let go.

Fraser held Ray just as tightly, felt his heart beating wildly against him. Wanted to take away his pain, all the darkness he carried around inside of him, he rocked him in his arms like a child. Kissed his hair, the side of his temple. "I'm sorry Sherry hurt you," he whispered, meaning it. "And you're not ugly. I don't want to hear you say that again--"

Ray raised his face, and anguished blue eyes met his. "Aww, come on, Frase!" he whispered. "Look at me!"

Ben cocked his head. Took that angular, scarred, beloved face in his hands, and wiped some of his tears away gently. "I do look at you. I look at you all the time, Ray," he admitted at last. "But not because you're ugly," he said firmly. "It's because you're so attractive."

Ray rolled his eyes at that.

But Ben persisted. "I know you have some scars, and I regret what happened to you more than I can say, but they don't make you hideous. They make you look--tough. Dangerous. Like a..." He searched his mind for the right term, that slang phrase he'd heard women use. "Like a Bad Boy," he said, smiling a little.

Ray blinked through his tears. Huffed a short, almost soundless laugh. "Yer kiddin' me."

Ben shook his head again. Encouraged by the fact that Ray had stopped crying, he persisted with his explanation, wanting to distract him. "No. You were always attractive, but you look positively piratical now, Ray."

Kowalski frowned. "Piratical?"

Fraser smiled at his confusion. "Like a pirate, Ray."

"Oh. You mean, like Captain Hook or somethin'?" Kowalski asked, frowning. Clearly doubtful as to how anyone could find a man with a metal hook for a hand attractive.

"No, actually, I was thinking more along the lines of Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate, he admitted.

"Wow!" Ray blinked in amazement. "He was hot."

"Yes. And so are you, Ray. Notwithstanding its origins, I find your new look very...sexy." There. He'd told the truth. Gotten that word out, though not without blushing.

Ray blinked. "Really?"

Fraser swallowed hard, swept by a wave of desire so sudden and unexpected that it took away his breath. He'd never held Ray like this before, with his whole body in his arms, with Ray's weight pressing down on him--and the realization turned his desire to comfort into desire of an entirely different kind.

"Yes. Really," he breathed. He couldn't say anything more. His mouth had gone dry.

Ray Kowalski stared down at the Mountie. He saw no trace of anger in his face anymore, no bitterness. No revulsion either. Nothing but warmth in his blue eyes--warmth that was suddenly intensifying. Turning to heat. Incredible as it seemed, Fraser hadn't just forgiven him. He'd as much as said that he still wanted him. Or was he just hearing what he wanted to hear? He drew in a deep, shaky breath. Hesitated, scared to presume or expect too much. Because after what he'd done, he didn't even deserve Fraser's forgiveness. And as for the other--

But Fraser had kissed him. Had said he found his 'new look' sexy--and Fraser didn't lie.

Ray stared down at him, and saw Fraser swallow hard. As if he were trying to hold back emotions too strong to contain. Just like he was. "What do you want, Ben?" he whispered, humbled by the intensity of his feelings for the Mountie. "What can I do to make it up to you? I'll do anything you want. Anything... Just--tell me you don't hate me," he whispered. "Please..."

Fraser rolled him over gently onto his back and looked down at him intently. His gentle smile was gone. He was serious, but his face had softened in some indescribable way. "I don't hate you, Ray," he said quietly. "I could never hate you. I love you."

Ray closed his eyes. Not to hold back tears, though. Not this time. But because those were words he'd never said very often himself; words he found nearly impossible to say. Also because they were words he thought he'd never hear again, ever, from anyone. But most of all, because Ben Fraser had said them. Fraser, who he loved.

"I love you, too," he said, tears still glittering in his reddened eyes. "God, I love you, Ben."

There! At last. The words were out, he'd said it... and it felt great. Like a ten-ton weight had been lifted off of his chest. He wasn't Ray von Frankenstein anymore, he was Ray the Crimson Pirate. Ray the fucking gorgeous pirate captain. Ray the Bad Boy. All because of Fraser. He felt indescribably happy. Light as a feather, yet anchored securely to the earth.

He wasn't walking in the sky anymore. He was safe. He was loved. He was home.

He smiled.

Fraser lowered his head. "Then can I kiss you?" he whispered.

"Yeah. God, yes..."

Ray closed his eyes to feel it. Felt Fraser smile, then felt his lips ghosting over his skin. His cheeks, his temples, his eyes... Loving him, caressing him. Even his scars, as if Fraser loved them too, just because they were part of him.

"Okay, Ray?" Fraser whispered, checking to make sure the intimacy hasn't frightened him this time.

"Yeah," he whispered back, so moved by Fraser's tenderness that he can hardly talk. And I haven't even looked at him yet--

So he did. He opened his eyes, like he'd finally opened his heart. And saw his Mountie angel hovering over him again, as pure and perfect as he'd looked that night in his car, so long ago. Wellll...maybe not quite that pure, he corrected himself. Because there was a hunger in those blue eyes now that was even more delicious than angelic perfection. A hunger he knew all too well. A hunger he was determined, this time, to satisfy--head wound or no, paranoia or no--or die trying.

"Good. Then... can I touch you, Ray?" Ben pleaded, his breathing unsteady but warm on Ray's skin.

Ray suddenly realized that he hadn't done that yet. Ben hadn't even used his hands, just his mouth--but Ray was already shivering. Aroused by those few kisses. By having what he'd wanted for so long.

Ben mistook his shiver for fear. "Please," he pleaded. "I promise I won't hurt you, I just--"

Ray stopped him by laying his fingers on that lush mouth. "I know that," he said, deeply touched. "You don't have to say it, I know."

"Then is it all right?"

He smiled up into the earnest blue eyes above him. "It's what I want," he said hoarsely. "What I need...more than anything in this world. Put your hands on me, Ben," he said. "Please." That would be his gift to Ben. His first gift, hopefully only the first of many. "Do whatever you want to me. Anything..."

"You'll tell me if--"

"Shhh," he breathed, knowing there would be no fear this time. This time, there would only be love. "Just touch me."

Then his world dissolved in pleasure. Kisses, touches... Tenderness. The sweet taste of Fraser's skin, the gentle caresses of his hands, the touch of his tender mouth on his scars, like a blessing. Ben kissed them all, as if he wanted to take the memory of how he'd got each one away with his caresses.

And he did.

Ray didn't think of the Gentrys, of the past, or of his agony, while Ben held him. Couldn't think of anything other than Ben as they touched each other. It wasn't just sex. It was so far removed from Sherry's crude gropes in that alley that he had no words for it. It was giving, it was taking only to give even more. It was never ending. Fraser had become his world. They rolled over and over on the bed, feasting on each other. Afterwards, Stan could never remember taking Fraser's clothes off, or Fraser removing his. It was all a blur of sensuality, an unending loop of endless, sweet, erotic sensation. They were just naked together somehow, like it was always meant to be. Ben's mouth on his nipples, his hands on Ben's cock... Stroking, sucking, sighing. Oh God, Ray, yes! Yes, like that-- and Ohhhh, Benny, that's so good...

Stealing each other's breath, then giving it back.

Sensation piling on sensation... His heart was pounding, his body was on fire, and Benny was the torch that kept him going. Flaming kisses on his mouth, warm breath in his ear, fire between his legs... Beyond words now, he heard himself moaning hoarsely. Felt his body tensing as Fraser's hot lips teased him. Tantalized him. He felt himself clutching his dark head frantically as the already intense pleasure grew impossibly hotter. Trying to hold on as he was gently suckled. Sucked... Engulfed.


He burst suddenly. Exploded. Cried out as his body lifted his heavier partner's off the bed. He was buoyant, ecstatic. Flying high.

"RayrayrayohRAY!" Fraser was moaning too. Shaking. Exploding with him, because of him, for him.

They hung there, lost in pleasure, for interminable moments. Breathing hard. Lacking the strength to move, but still holding onto each other.

Then Ray finally raised his head. Saw Fraser's dark head lying on his thigh, Fraser's arms wrapped around his hips. Those beautiful, muscular, strong arms that had seen him through so much. He caressed them gently. His own muscles were still twitching, in gentle aftershocks. His heart was still beating fast, his body still humming from what Fraser had done to him.

Ray + Ben = good. Yeah. Oh, yeah. Better than good. This is perfect.

He suddenly realized that he was totally, completely, deliriously happy. Just as he had been once with Stella in this place. He touched Fraser's shoulders gently. "Ya' know I had a dream, once, that you were an angel," he said. Part of him couldn't believe how sappy he was being, but part of him knew that dream came true. I've been 'Touched By An Angel', he thought. It sounded so dopey that he grinned. No, maybe it'd be more accurate to say I've been fucked...

Fucked By an Angel. Yeah.

But he knew better than to say that to Fraser.

Still, Fraser was amused by the very idea that he was some kind of heavenly messenger. "Indeed?"Ray felt him laugh, a quiet rumbling in his chest. Ben lifted his head at last, and fixed him with his piercing blue eyes. Let him drown in their azure depths for a moment before he intoned, "You really shouldn't drink so much vodka, Ray. I've heard that it can produce strange hallucinations."

But even as he spoke, Ben was moving. Coming to him. Pulling himself up the bed, up Ray's body to his mouth again. He looked decidedly unangelic, too. More like wicked. Wanton, even.

Ray saw him coming. Saw that look, and it set a pulse beating deep in his belly. Hard to believe he could be aroused again so soon after such a climax, but he was. So he teased Fraser, wanting to lighten the moment. Slow things down a little. Distract Ben from making him come again so soon. Not that he didn't want him, but Ray hadn't had any in so long, he was afraid he might die from such sudden, massive doses of pleasure. OD on the Mountie like some junkie.

"Hey, what's so funny about that?" he protested, pretending to be wounded by Fraser's little jibe. "If I'm Captain Crimson, I guess you can be an angel--"

Fraser cut off his pretend protest with his mouth. Ray kissed him back softly, lips already bruised from endless kissing but wanting more. "I'll be anything you want me to be, Ray," Ben whispered after a moment, bending his head so that their foreheads touched. "Anything. Just don't leave me again."

Ray forgot all about sex for a second. He wanted to lighten the moment, but somehow it had gotten very heavy indeed. He froze, pain shafting through his heart at the little-boy-lost note in Ben's voice. He'd heard traces of it before, when he spoke of Vecchio, but this time it was his fault. He wondered how many people had hurt the Mountie, how many undeserved betrayals lay behind his tightly buttoned, perfectly groomed facade. Beneath that uniform that he wore like a suit of armor. Ray knew you didn't build walls like that for nothing.

You build 'em because people do shitty stuff like sneakin' out after yer first time, he thought, flushing with shame. He wondered how many bricks in Fraser's defensive walls now had his name on them. Vowed silently to find them all, and tear them down. He didn't care if it took years. And when he was done with the Kowalski bricks, he'd start on the rest.

"I won't," he whispered back. He pulled Ben into his arms and held him tightly, fiercely. Pressed his dark head against his heart, wrapped his legs around him. Cradled him not just with his arms or hands, but with his whole body. His heart, too. "I promise. I promise you, Ben."

Ben kissed his chest. "Okay, Ray." And in that soft whisper, Ray heard renewed trust and belief.

Only then did Ray let him go, and then just long enough to flip him over onto his stomach on the bed. Then he laid down on top of him again. Ran his hands over his broad shoulders, stroking his muscles, kissing his back. Exploring.

"I really should take you to a doctor, Ray," Fraser protested. But his voice was mild, and he wasn't exactly trying to push him away, either.

Ray grinned to himself. If my head didn't explode after the way he just made me come, it's fine, he thought. "Okay. Just gimme a few minutes, willya'?" he pleaded. "Then we can go..."

"All right," Fraser said amiably. "Mmmm..." Ben arched under him slowly, almost purring with delight. Dug his fingers into the covers, like a big cat stretching. "What're you doing, Ray?"

Ray grinned. "What else? Checkin' for wings."

"Hmmm. See any, Captain Crimson?"

He shrugged. "Naw. Musta' been the vodka, like you said."

"Or maybe you just can't see them without your glasses," Fraser suggested.

"Mmm. You want me to look closer, Angel man?" Ray grinned.

Fraser smiled. "Could you please?" he asked politely. "After all, if I do have---mmm," he shivered, as Ray kept on kissing his shoulders under the guise of inspecting them for any trace of feathers. "Wings that is, or feathers of which I was unaware--oh, Ray!"

Ray lifted his head for a second, smiling. He'd let his hands drift a bit lower, and Fraser's little moan of appreciation wasn't lost on him. He continued his search, his kisses. So far, he hadn't seen any feathers on the Mountie's back, but it wouldn't surprise him if he found a few. "Yeah? Then what?"

"Well, then I'll have to have my... ohhh, yesss... my uniform altered. Won't I?"

"Yeah. Guess so," Ray murmured, playing along. He went on kissing and stroking him, making the Mountie tremble. Then he lifted his head as a sudden thought struck him. "Frase, um...you wouldn't be plannin' on makin' me change mine, wouldja'?"

"What do you mean, Ray? You don't wear a uniform. Oh, and please don't stop..."

"Yeah I do," Ray muttered as he lowered his head again, rainin gentle kisses on the pale, perfect skin of Fraser's back. "Jeans. T-shirt. Boots. A jacket in the winter... That's my uniform. And I like it," he said, in between kisses. "But now that I'm... Captain Crimson, yer not gonna like...want me to wear one o' those funny, poofy white shirts like pirates wear in movies, are ya?"

He was only half teasing. Ray knew he had a lot to make up for, but the thought of giving up his jeans and t-shirts to act out Fraser's pirate fantasies spooked him. God, what if he wants me to do it in public? Oh, no way! "Or an earring? Or one o' those little red bandanna type thingies?"

"I don't know, Ray," Fraser said, with a happy sigh. "It might look rather fetching, actually..."

"Fetching? What the hell does that mean?" Ray yelped.

"Fetching means attractive, Ray. Which you are; and undoubtedly you'd be even more so, in pirate garb..."

Ray groaned to himself. Oh my God--he's thinkin' about it! He knew what that meant, too. If Fraser was thinking about it, he'd end up wearing the damn bandanna -- and who the hell knew what else. Cuz like it or not, he'd do anything for the Mountie. I'm doomed. Doomed to be with a crazed Mountie who wants me to play dress-up. But then it hit him: Two can play that game. And there were certain things he'd definitely like to see Fraser wearing. He grinned to himself. "I will if you will..."

"Hmm?" Ray laid his head back down on his lover's back with an evil grin. "How d'ya feel about black leather pants, Frase?"

The End

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© Caroline Alert 1998