Story V in the "Alchemy" Series

by Caroline Alert

Ray and Ben undressed quietly, even a little awkwardly, each man hoping the other wouldn't notice how nervous he was. They shot hungry glances at each other as their clothes came off, both feeling they'd been apart for years instead of just four months.

Ray watched eagerly as Fraser quietly took off his uniform jacket. No, tunic, he corrected himself, smiling as he recalled the Mountie's precision with words. Ben was neat and precise about everything except his feelings for him, anyway. Fraser had taken a hell of a chance being with him before; and he was taking even more of one now, in his willingness to be with him again after he'd treated him badly. Thinking of that while he watched him hang his tunic neatly over the back of a bedroom chair, Ray was deeply touched, and glad that Ben had taken another chance on him. He'd missed his prissy neatness, missed everything about him so much... "Been a long time, huh, Ben?" he asked softly.

Fraser nodded. "Yes."

"Speakin' o' that..." Ray took a deep breath, not sure of how to say this without telling Ben about Rylan, without giving things away that he still didn't want Ben to know. But he had to say it, it was too important not to. "Uh, I guess I should tell ya... when I was in the hospital, I had an AIDS test. I'm clean," he said, careful not to mention any names, any specific reasons why he might not've been. But he knew Ben would put two and two together anyway, that he'd know he'd been with someone else while they were apart. Ray held his breath.

Ben went still for a second. Ray watched him closely, but he turned away, so he couldn't see his expression. "Thank you for telling me," was all he said. His voice was quiet, revealing nothing.

Ray let it go. It was clear that, while Ben must've drawn his own conclusions, he wasn't going to quiz him about them. Relieved, Ray pulled his shirt off, then unfastened the brace he'd been wearing around his ribs, and tossed it onto the floor with a sigh of relief. He rubbed absently at the spots on his chest where it had chafed his skin for a moment. But he dropped his hands when he noticed that Ben was staring at him. He smiled nervously. "Damn thing itches," he explained, wondering what Ben was thinking. He wanted to walk over and take him in his arms again, but the Mountie's intent gaze suddenly made him remember how he looked. That his head was bandaged and his torso covered with fading yellow and purple bruises and a gunshot scar.

Maybe he doesn't wanna make love to a guy who looks like he just went ten rounds with a heavyweight, and lost. He'd been so fixated on seducing Ben that he'd forgotten how banged up he still was, and it embarrassed him. He knew Ben had been aroused before when they danced, but maybe seeing his battered body uncovered now was turning him off. "Umm... you okay about this, Frase?" he asked nervously. "I know I'm all messed up. So if yer -- turned off, ya know... If ya don't want to, it's okay," he said.

Ray tried to smile, but Fraser could see worry lurking behind it, a fear of rejection.

He was both surprised and touched. He hadn't realized Ray felt embarrassed about his appearance, or he wouldn't have stared at him so openly. "No, Ray, it's not that," he said hastily, to reassure him.

If Ray had only known how terribly lonely and love starved he'd been since their breakup, he wouldn't have doubted himself. Seeing his normally tough, energetic partner quiet and vulnerable touched Ben's heart. It awakened a strong sense of protectiveness, of tenderness in him, that deepened his desire to painful levels. Ray's thinness, his slightly weakened condition, only heightened his appeal. He'd been longing to make love to him ever since he first saw him again and now that they were alone, and Ray had started to undress, that need had intensified. When Ray took his brace off and rubbed at his chest, his long, slender fingers brushing a nipple, his mouth went dry. The fact that Ray clearly had no idea what the innocent gesture had done to him only made it even more erotic. "You're not unattractive, Ray," he added, trying to be helpful despite his maddening desire. "No. Not at all."

That was the understatement of the year. He was convinced that, even in the midst of his torrid affair with Victoria, he had never found her as incredibly alluring as Ray was to him now, despite his scars. When Ray took off his rib brace and bared his torso, though his skin had regained its usual healthy color, Fraser could see that it bore numerous large, fading bruises and a raw-looking scar from his gunshot wound.

But Fraser didn't see his still-healing wounds as ugly. To him, they were evidence of Ray's courage, his strength, of the fact that he'd survived a vicious attack that would've killed most people. To him, they were the marks of a warrior; and he honored them. They didn't diminish Ray's natural grace, either. He was sleek, slender but muscular, like a thoroughbred or a greyhound. His slim dancer's body, with its hairless, muscular chest and brown nipples, aroused Ben instantly. Remembering the salty-sweet taste of those nipples, the way they'd once hardened under his tongue, he was half out of his mind with desire.

But despite his reassurance, Ray still looked hesitant. Though he stood close to him, he didn't try to touch him or kiss him again. Fraser realized that he hadn't convinced him of his desire, but he didn't know what else to say, and frustration made it even worse. Talking about his feelings had always been excruciatingly hard for him, and never more so than now, when he wanted to make love, not talk.

He would have needed the gifts of a poet to put all that he felt for Ray into words: to tell him that bruised and bandaged as he was, with his blue eyes shadowed with pain and uncertainty, he was still beautiful to him. So beautiful that he wanted to hold him forever, to take his pain away into himself, put his body in between Ray and the world, so no one could ever hurt him again... To say that he longed to touch him but was half afraid to because Ray might've changed, because he might ask him to do things that he found repugnant. And how could he tell Ray that he was just as afraid of himself? Afraid that he might devour him if he put his hands on him, because his hunger was so overwhelming. How could he admit that he was terrified he might hurt Ray by mistake, in his passion, and make him go away again?

Part of him wanted to say all that, wanted to make Ray understand his feelings, but the hunger inside him didn't care. That towering hunger just wanted Ray, wanted him here. Now. Without further delay, without any more kisses or foreplay or words.

Ray eyed him worriedly. "You okay, Frayzh?"

Ben searched his increasingly sexually obsessed mind for something rational to say, that would reassure his partner. "Yes. I'm just... a little worried -- about hurting you, I guess," he blurted at last.

Ray grinned. "Izzat all? Promise I won't break. Come on, Ben," he teased. He shifted a little on his feet, did a quick little bob and weave, even pretended to jab at his chin as if they were sparring. "Come get me. Boom, boom! Mmm! I'm ready for ya."

Despite Ray's cocky grin and posture, Fraser doubted that. He very much doubted that Ray could've withstood his mad, consuming desire when he was at his best, let alone now, in his weakened condition. Considering his injuries, he was surprised Ray could even move so swiftly. Though he hadn't seemed stiff or in pain when they'd danced earlier, or when he'd pulled his shirt over his head, he suspected that he might not be as fully recovered as he was pretending to be. After all, just over a week ago, his hands had been too weak to hold a cup of water. So throwing those rapid mock punches might've hurt him a little. But he was touched that Ray wanted him so much that he'd pretend they hadn't.

So he gave in to his raging desire for a moment, and reached out to caress him. Surely one touch won't hurt him, he told himself, drawing his fingers gently down Ray's cheekbone to the edge of his mouth. But the force of his own feelings shook him once again. He realized that this was the first time he'd ever touched Ray's face when he was clean shaven, his customary beard stubble temporarily gone. The unaccustomed smoothness of the freshly shaven skin on his cheeks was very erotic. A new aspect of Ray -- intriguing. How would it taste? Feel under his tongue? The instant his fingers touched that newly shaven skin, Ray's cheek muscle jumped in response, and Ben wanted to take him. Possess him.

He would've drawn back then, but Ray wouldn't let him.

Kowalski caught his wrist and held it, turned his cheek into it so that his fingers brushed his mouth. Then he kissed them, his face taut. "Please, Benny Ben," he said hoarsely. "Don't tease me..." He pulled his palm to his mouth and kissed it, touching the center with his warm tongue.

Fraser was taken by surprise. The caress sent a flash up his arm and through his entire body, like a jolt of electricity. Combined with Ray's use of his pet name and the hot look in his eyes, it threatened to overwhelm his control. Desire swept over him like fire. Despite his intention to take things slowly, he shivered, his cock hardening instantly. He hadn't lost his fear or his need to protect Ray, but those emotions were rapidly being pushed aside by the enormity of his desire. "I'm not teasing you, Ray," he tried to say, but his voice came out hoarse, more like a croak.

He knew he should pull back, take his hand away, but he didn't. Instead, he raised the one Ray had taken captive, and traced a finger over his lips. They parted eagerly, and as their gazes locked, Ray sucked three of Ben's fingers into his mouth, just like he had the morning after they'd first made love. His blue eyes hot and tempting, he sucked them hard, as if he were daring Ben to try to tell him again that the gesture was meaningless. Daring him to lie, or to turn away from him again.

Ben couldn't. That caress got to him like nothing else could have. It tipped his growing desire over the edge into uncontrollable need. Suddenly, he wanted to crush Ray in his arms, wanted to take him with an urgency that stole his breath. Wanted to make love to him no matter what the consequences might be for both of them. Deep inside, he felt a primitive desire to take Ray so passionately that he would never leave him again as Victoria had, as everyone he'd ever loved had. This time, he wasn't going to let Ray get away. He pulled his hand away, wrapped his arms around Ray and lowered his head.

Much to Ray's surprise, his first break in his plan to seduce Fraser came before they'd even finished undressing, let alone gotten into the shower. Ben suddenly reached out and tentatively touched his face, and Ray seized the moment. Taking that strong, square hand in his, he turned it over and planted a hot, lingering kiss on its palm. But as usual when he was trying to seduce Ben, the move backfired on him. He was trying to drive Ben crazy, but doing it to himself instead, because even that little bit of contact made him ache. And he wondered what Ben meant by touching him. Was he trying to reach out to him this time, or was he going to pull away again? He's drivin' me fuckin' crazy, blowin' hot and cold like this. As he held onto Ben's hand tightly, somehow the plea, "Don't tease me," tumbled out of his mouth. He heard himself breathing hard as he waited for his answer.

"I'm not teasing you," the Mountie said, and his voice was a husky near-whisper.

Yes! Ray exulted secretly. He knew that tone: Ben was getting turned on too, whether he wanted to be or not. Perfect. That made him even bolder. Remembering the first time they'd made love, he drew three of Ben's fingers into his mouth and suckled them. He looked Ben right in the eye while he did it, used his gaze, his tongue, and his hungry mouth to tell him that this time he wouldn't let him turn away, or push him away with lies. This time was for keeps.

Ben stared at him for a second, his eyes wide with stunned surprise as he gave his fingers a long, gentle, sexy scrape with his teeth. Then he finally broke. All at once, without a word, he pulled Ray close and kissed him. Hard, demandingly, forcing his lips apart and going deep with his tongue, fusing their bodies tightly together with his big, strong hands. Gone was the shy, anxious Ben of a few minutes ago and in his place was a wild man who forced his mouth open wide and sucked at his tongue, groaning.

'Kay, Tiger Man -- pounce me! Ray thought, delighted.

As if he could read his mind, Ben pulled him so tightly against his chest that Ray could feel the hammering of his heart. His fingers dug into Ray's back; his larger frame enveloped Kowalski's slighter one. Ray moaned aloud at the sudden, unexpected, complete possession of his body and mouth. Excitement spiked through him like a drug as he kissed Ben back. He loved the taste of his mouth, that sweet, distinctive, delicious Ben-flavor. The heat and strength of his big body. This is what I've been wantin'. What I need. This. You.

Ben spread his hands out over his back, pulling him even closer. Then he raised one and ran it through Ray's hair, his fingers massaging the blond detective's scalp, making it tingle. But before Ray could do more than sigh with pleasure, Ben's hands were moving again. This time, they cupped his head, turned it towards Ben so he could kiss down his cheek, along his jaw, where he'd shaved off his beard. They held him still while he licked the newly shaven, sensitive skin until Ray's breathing got ragged.

Who the hell woulda thought that'd feel so good? Oh, yeah! There, right there--

But Ben didn't stop there. Next, he dipped his tongue into the tiny hole on Ray's earlobe where his earring had been. He fastened on it, licked and even bit the spot gently. Ray knew instinctively that Ben was investigating him, seeing what had changed about his body while they were apart and tasting those changes. Maybe even claiming them, and him. Another weird thing he never would've thought of, that was so Fraser-like, and so erotic, that he gasped.

Trust him to know just where to lick oh, damn -- and bite--

Ben soothed the tiny hurt with his warm tongue, breathing hard. "Oh, Ray," he whispered in his ear, his voice shaky. "I missed you so!"

"Missed you -- too," Ray panted, not even trying to pretend Ben wasn't getting to him. Not that pretending would've done him any good, considering the big bulge that had formed in the front of his pants the second Ben put his hands on him...

Then he couldn't talk anymore, because his mouth was once again taken. Claimed breathlessly. Ben plundered it, thrusting his tongue deep, breathing raggedly. Ray did his best to match him thrust for thrust with his tongue. Missed ya, missed ya and God, I missed this!

Then Ben surprised him again. With a hungry moan, he reached down, took Ray's legs in his hands and lifted them off the floor, wrapping them around his waist. Pressing their groins together.

Ray could feel how hard he was. Suspended in Ben's embrace, he groaned helplessly. His bruised legs protested the maneuver, but at the same time, he was intensely excited by it, by the masterful way Ben had taken control of their lovemaking. By the way he was holding him suspended in his arms. He'd never done anything like that to him before, and it aroused him so that he clung even tighter to Ben while they kissed. Disregarding his sore muscles, he wrapped his legs around him and squeezed him with his thighs.

Fraser's next move was even better. He walked over to his bed, keeping them pressed tightly together as he moved. Ray's heart turned over. Oh man, he thought, he's carryin' me! Ben's big hands supported him, and he never stopped kissing him for a second. Ray loved it. It was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done to him. For him. He'd carried Stella in his arms a few times, and Rylan had carried him like a sack of potatoes after he'd knocked him out that terrible night but this was totally different. He'd never imagined making love with someone big enough, and strong enough, to carry him gently like this. But Ben held him easily, like he didn't weigh anything, and that evidence of his strength was an added thrill. Okay, now I've died and gone to heaven...

When they reached his bed, Ben tipped him backwards, plunging them both down onto it without ever breaking their deep kiss. This is even better than my dreams! Ray thought as they fell. This is greatness.

But when Ray landed on his back with Fraser's solid weight on top of him, his still-healing ribs throbbed painfully. He turned his head away and broke their kiss. "Wait," he mumbled.

But Fraser didn't stop. He transferred his hungry mouth to Ray's throat, biting and sucking at it so passionately that Ray's cock stiffened instantly, in spite of his pain. When Ben's fingers found his nipples and began rubbing them, Ray gasped sharply. "Oh, God!" he moaned, shaking.

Fraser was lost. He felt wild, feverish, out of control. He knew he shouldn't be doing this, that he might hurt Ray, that he was going too fast, but he couldn't stop. Being with Ray was intoxicating, headier than any drug he could imagine. He loved everything about him: his slender, slighter body, which fit so perfectly in his arms. His tangy, masculine scent, the fierce strength of his embrace, so different from that of a woman. Kowalski was so beautiful, he had to take him. He knew it was wrong, that Ray wasn't ready, but he couldn't let go of him. Couldn't stop kissing him. Now that he'd tasted Ray, held him, nothing could hold him back. He wanted to tear the rest of his clothes off. Was going to, he knew it. Somewhere deep inside, he wished that Ray would stop him. Be strong, when he couldn't be. Don't let me do this, he wanted to tell him. Tell me to stop. Don't let me...

But that wasn't what came out of his mouth. Somehow, what he heard himself saying instead, as he bit lightly at the strong arch of Ray's throat, was, "Let me, let me! Please, Ray, let me..."

"Let me," Ben moaned desperately. Kissing, biting, licking him. "Please, Ray, let me"

"Oh, yeah. Do it!" Ray urged, breathless. Now he knew Ben wasn't just being polite when he'd said he still wanted him. He'd never heard Ben beg for anything before. Ever. It meant that he didn't just want him, he was hot to have him. Desperate for it. What a rush! He'd meant to push him off a bit, to take the weight off his sore ribs and slow things down a little, but when he heard Ben begging to take him, all thought of restraint went out of his head. He'd been lonely for so long, but now he was with Ben again, was finally where he belonged, and nothing else mattered. He felt just as wild, as out of control as the Mountie was. Suddenly, he didn't care if it hurt. He didn't care if it killed him he had to have him. Now. No more waiting.

As Fraser kissed down his neck, he clutched at his shoulders, panting. Babbling. Urging him on. "Kiss me, Ben. Like that. Oh yeah. Do me!"

Ben made a hungry sound deep in his throat, almost like the growl of a wolf, as he kissed his chest. Ray just smiled. If this is how it feels gettin' devoured by a wild animal, it's fine by me.

Ben bent his beautiful dark head to Ray's left nipple. His mouth covered it, hot, wet and eager. Ray shivered. As Ben sucked on the tiny nub, making it hard, he moaned, "You feel good, Benny Ben. So good!" He buried his hands in the thick, silky mass of Ben's hair, loving the feel of it after so long. His whole body filled with heat, ached with pleasure at the touch of Ben's mouth on his nipple. It was overwhelming, all that ecstasy surging through him from that one tiny spot on his chest. Stunning. It blinded him to everything else. A SWAT team could've burst through the door at that moment, and he wouldn't have noticed. He arched upwards instinctively, wanting more; and if the move hurt his ribs, he was too far gone to feel it. As Ben moved lower, kissing down his body, he pumped his hips up towards his mouth, so excited that he hardly knew what he was saying. "Go on. Fuck me! Please! I want you to--"

Ray felt Ben's hands at his fly, popping the button on his jeans open, tearing at his zipper while he kissed and licked at his abdomen. Then he started pulling his jeans down, tugging hard, his fingers strong and impatient. When those fingers suddenly dug into a bruise on his hip, Ray gasped a little. But it didn't stop the wild rush of excitement pouring through him. After what Rylan had done to him, that was nothing. Besides, he knew Ben hadn't meant to hurt him. So he just laid there, biting his lip, almost vibrating with desire as he waited for Ben to do him--

But suddenly, Fraser froze. With his lips pressed to Ray's stomach, his hands gripping his jeans, he froze.

"Ben?" Ray panted, painfully aroused. Wanting him to go on.

Ben shuddered, and made a strangled little sound like he was choking. He lifted his head, stopped his exciting kisses, and stared down at him in dismay.

Ray felt bereft. Oh shit, he thought, alarmed. "What'sa matter?"

"I just -- I can't," Fraser whispered, his eyes wide and dark. He finally looked up at him, and Ray saw that his face was twisted with anguish. "God, Ray," he said. "What am I doing?" He sat up slowly. He looked flushed, almost wild-eyed, like someone who'd just woke up from a nightmare and found that reality was even scarier.

"Me!" Ray breathed, confused. "Don't stop!"

But Ben just shook his head. Traced the bruise he'd inadvertently poked with an unsteady finger. "I have to," he said. "This isn't right."

Ray couldn't believe it. "Don't say that," he moaned. "Do not say that to me! Of course it's right -- it's PERFECT!" After all, he was on his bed, half naked, his jeans down past his hips, his whole body throbbing from Ben's hot kisses, his cock so hard that it ached. He was finally where he'd been dreaming of for months, on the verge of being fucked into happy oblivion by his beloved Mountie. And Ben had to pick NOW to get cold feet?

"No," Ben said.

Ray rolled his eyes. He'd hit the wall, the familiar wall of Fraser's Mountie stubbornness. When he got like that, there was no getting past it. He lay there fuming, almost unbearably disappointed. "You can't DO that! I was this close!" he groaned. "That's torture, that's -- there's laws against doin' that!"

Fraser shot him a look.

"Okay, well maybe there aren't. But there oughtta be!" he growled. What the hell was the matter with Fraser? What was he doing, trying to kill him?

Fraser didn't explain. He just rolled off of him and turned his back. Crossed his arms over his chest and pinned his hands under them as if he didn't trust them.

Ray didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He didn't understand why Ben was doing this, and as usual, the Mountie wasn't talking. He'd always been like that. He'd talk your ear off about boring crap you never wanted to know, but trying to get important stuff out of him was like pulling teeth. His frustration soared at the Canadian's silence. "You gonna tell me what the hell this is all about?" he snapped.

For a moment, Fraser was silent. Then he shot him a sideways glance, waved a hand at him. "Look at you!" he grated. "You're covered with bruises."

"I know that," he shot back impatiently. "But ya told me before that they didn't gross ya out. So what's the problem?"

Ben set his jaw. "They don't, as you said, 'gross me out.' They do, however, suggest that you should still be in the hospital! I shouldn't have let your doctor release you"

Ray's confusion increased. "What? You shouldn't have that wasn't up to you!" he shot back, so frustrated he was seeing red. Fraser was acting bossy all of a sudden. Treating him like a maroon, like he was too dumb to run his own life. He knew he wasn't as smart as the Mountie, never would be, but he hated having Fraser wave that in his face. Especially now, when they were supposed to be making love, not testing brain capacity. "That was my decision! MINE! Not yers," he insisted. "And what the hell does when I got outta the hospital have to do with this, anyway? Ya sayin' ya think I made a mistake leavin' so soon? That I'm some kinda idiot?"

"No, Ray," Fraser said. "I'm not trying to say that you made a mistake. I'm trying to tell you that I just did. That I shouldn't have touched you! Let alone--" He hung his head, falling silent again, but he'd said enough.

Ray sat up slowly, with a little involuntary wince as his muscles protested the recent strain. Suddenly, he got what Ben was trying to tell him. He wasn't criticizing his judgment, but his own. He remembered he'd said earlier that he was afraid of hurting him. Now he thinks he did. He let me go just when things were gettin' really hot cuz he had an attack of the guilts. Musta' seen a bruise he didn't know about, and he freaked. His Dudley Do-Right conscience just popped up and kicked him in the head. It was probably yelling at him even now, telling him that he'd just about raped a helpless little invalid: namely, him.

What a crock! Ray snorted to himself. He knew his friend's enormous capacity for guilt, and he wasn't about to let him put on a hair shirt now, just when things were finally getting hot and heavy, like he'd wanted. But he told himself that screaming at Ben wasn't going to help things. So he took a deep breath, and turned down the volume. "So ya got a little excited," he said in a softer voice. He shrugged. "Hell, I did too! We haven't been together for awhile, ya know. That's only human."

But his words didn't help. Fraser just shook his head. He still wouldn't look at him.

Ray tried again. "Hey! I toldja' to come get me, and ya did. You were just doin' what I asked ya to, Frayzh," he pointed out. "And ya didn't hurt me. So don't freak out, okay?" He laid a hand on his shoulder, but Ben pulled away.

"No. Don't." Ben got to his feet and moved away blindly.

Ray got up too. He didn't like the way this was going. It was starting to get serious. He knew how bad Ben always took it when he lost control like it was the end of the world or something. And right now he looked all pale and shaky, like he'd just committed a murder and couldn't figure out where to hide the gun. And all he'd done was touch one of his bruises by accident. Jeez! Ray figured he'd have to nip this thing in the bud, or Ben would take off running and never come back. He moved around in front of him, so he'd have to look at him. "Listen," he said firmly. "It's okay. I said, ya didn't hurt me. You get that? So what's the problem?"

Ben just looked grim. "I am. I should leave. I should never have come here."

Fraser was really freaking out. Ray's heart sank. Dammit, I'm gonna lose him. Again. He shook his head. "Don't say that!" he said vehemently. "Don't! I want you here. Want you in my bed."

"No, Ray."

He sounded so final that Ray felt even worse. "Oh come on, Frazyh!" he pleaded. "Don't get all stubborn on me"

"I'm not being stubborn!" Fraser said.

And I thought Mounties couldn't lie. "The hell yer not!" Ray snapped back, desperation turning to anger.

Ben looked at him with the same emotion simmering in his blue gaze. "You're not being fair, Ray."

He widened his eyes at him. "ME? I'M not bein' fair? YOU'RE the one who said, 'Ray, let me,' then backed out while I was lettin' you!"

Fraser grimaced, flushing a little. "I know. And I'm sorry, but I'm doing this for your sake, Ray. Don't you understand?"

"No, I don't!" he yelled. "One minute, we're goin' at it, we're gettin' into it and don't tell me you weren't too, Fraser, cuz I know you were -- then the next minute, you do this total about face, and you wanna leave! What's up with that? That's not bein' a buddy, that's not even fair! HOW IS THAT GONNA HELP ME?"

Ben closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he looked down at his feet. "I'm sorry, but I can't... do this," he grated. "I can't -- control myself with you. Look what I just did! I hurt you"

"No ya didn't! Wanna let me be the judge o' that? I'm tellin' ya, that was nothin'! It was an accident. Don't you get it?" he asked fiercely. "The only way you can hurt me is if you leave!"

Fraser swallowed hard, and turned away from him again. He didn't say anything, and for a second, Ray hoped he'd finally won him over. But then he went to the chair where he'd hung his shirt and jacket, and picked up his shirt again without a word. Ray's heart gave an anxious skip. Ben hadn't listened to him. He was going to get dressed again, was going to cover that gorgeous body up again and then split. He was going to leave him.

And Ray wasn't sure that he'd ever come back. If Fraser left on a sour note like this, in the middle of an argument, he might just decide not to. Might decide that Stanley Raymond Kowalski was a pain in the ass. An idiot. More trouble than he was worth.

Fear shot through him. He went after him. "Come on, Frayzh. Don't go," he grated. "Please." He was beyond pleading now and into begging. He knew it, and he didn't even care. He would've gone down on his knees, if he'd thought it would make Ben stay. He knew what it was like to live without him now. He knew, and he'd hated it. It had almost killed him. And if he went away again, all that pain, all that darkness would come back. This time, Ray wasn't sure he'd survive it.

So when Ben pulled his T-shirt over his head, his fear deepened to near panic.

He reached out for him, then pulled his hand back at the last second. Then reached out again. He wanted to grab his arm, but was afraid that force would just increase Ben's resistance. So he held onto a fold of his T-shirt instead. Held on tight, as he heard himself babbling. "I won't try to make love to you again, I swear... Ya don't even haveta kiss me if ya don't wanna. Just don't leave me. Please don't."

As their argument grew more heated, Fraser began to feel enormous pressure building inside him. His body was taut, still aroused from making love to Ray, still aching for him. And their arguing only made that worse. He felt stiff, like he might shatter with a touch. But he couldn't let Ray touch him, because he couldn't trust himself. His worst fears had been realized. As soon as he'd touched Ray, he'd lost his head. He hadn't been gentle, he'd pounced on him like some kind of savage. He'd hurt him

He was losing all control.

It reminded him of how he'd been with Victoria, and that made him feel sick. He started to hear a roaring in his head, that drowned out Ray's voice. At first he thought it was another memory of her, returning with painful clarity: the loud sound of a train pulling out of a station with her on board, taking away his only hope of love...

Then he realized it was the sound of his own fear. And that he felt it for the same reason: he was losing his love for the second time.

Ray kept saying, "Don't, don't, don't go," but Fraser knew he had to leave. He reached for his clothes, knowing only the frantic need to get away. To get out of there before he did further damage. Before he hurt Ray any more than he already had. Before he exploded from the conflicting pressures inside him. From wanting Ray, but not being able to take him because his need was so intense that he couldn't control it.

Ray started pulling at his sleeve. Tugging at a fold in his T-shirt, as if he wanted to make physical contact but didn't dare grab him. Ben glanced over his shoulder and saw his lips moving frantically. And he looked so anxious that he made an effort to hear past the tumult in his head, to comprehend what he was saying.

"ya just dunno how I get. It's like bein' dead or somethin'! I can't do it!"

"What are you talking about, Ray?"

"When Stella left, I went nuts. Decided to be Vecchio, cuz it was better, anythin' was better than bein' me! And I tried bein' Ko too, but it didn't work. Pat ended up dead, cuz I couldn't make it work!"

Ben was confused. Ray was talking so fast he almost couldn't follow it, babbling almost incoherently about his past. About Stella and Rylan and the fact that he'd tried (unsuccessfully) to be someone named Ko. It didn't make much sense. All he could gather from the frenzied stream of words pouring from his would-be lover's mouth was that he sounded scared and that he still blamed himself for Patrick Rylan's death.

"Finn and Olson killed Rylan, Ray," he said firmly, because he was sure of that, at least. "It wasn't your fault."

He's right to feel afraid, though, Ben thought, guilty. Only the person he should be frightened of is me. He was still more afraid of hurting Ray if he stayed than if he left. So after a momentary hesitation, he reached out for his tunic again.

Ray finally touched him then. Gripped his arm hard, his fingers digging into his biceps. Holding him back. "What I'm sayin' is, I can't make it alone, Ben. Nothin' works without you! Not even my dreamcatcher. Without you, I had nightmares, I couldn't dance, I wasn't even bein' a good cop. It's like the only way I can be me is with you."

Fraser wavered. He could feel himself being persuaded, relenting because of the intensity of Kowalski's need for him and his own desire to fill that need. He reminded himself one last time that he was leaving for Ray's own good. That Ray would be better off without him. He forced himself to say, "That's silly, Ray. You lived on your own for many years without me. Quite capably, I might add. You're a more than competent detective, you have several citations for bravery--" He stopped himself. He meant the words to be reassuring, but they sounded cold instead.

Ray must've thought so too, because he suddenly put his arms around him from behind, his wiry body clinging in a desperate embrace. "Doesn't matter," he muttered against the back of his shoulder. "I never told anybody this, but all my life, I felt... lost inside. Not good enough. Like a loser, ya know?"

Fraser did know. Those words wrung his heart. He knew how that felt all too well. From the time he was a boy, he'd known what it was to be lost. He'd had no mother, a father who was hardly ever there... And he'd known, even as a small boy, that it was somehow his fault. That if he'd been better, smarter, more perfect, his mother wouldn't have died, and his father wouldn't have stayed away. He had tried to be good, to be perfect, tried all his life, oh, how he had tried! But despite all that, he was still flawed. Still lustful and selfish and far from perfect. But he'd never realized that Ray, the product of a normal upbringing with two parents, nonetheless shared those feelings of imperfection. That his insecurity went that deep. It touched a chord deep inside him, froze him where he stood.

"The only time I was ever happy was when I was with Stella. Then with you," Ray went on in a low voice. "But with you, it was better. Nobody ever touched me like you did. Did to me what you do. Nobody, not even her. With you, it was like comin' home. I never knew it could be like that "

Ray's voice trailed off on a note of wonder that melted Fraser's determination to leave. It stunned him to hear that he had touched Ray's body, maybe even his heart, in ways that even his own wife never had. How could that be? She had been with Ray far longer than he, and he knew she had loved him. The tenderness in her kiss at the hospital that day had been unmistakable. Could it be that she had nonetheless somehow taken him for granted? Or perhaps not seen deeply enough into him to give him what he needed? From Ray's words, it would seem so.

Was it possible that he was the one who could give Ray what he needed? That he could fill the same empty space inside Ray that Ray filled inside him? "With you, it was like comin' home." No one had ever said anything like that to him before. No one, not even Victoria. And being with Ray was like that for him, too. Like finding the home he'd always wanted, but had never known. Getting the love and acceptance he had always craved; and knowing that his love and acceptance meant just as much to Ray.

Emotion rose in his throat and choked him so that he couldn't speak. His fingers crushed the red serge of his tunic, which he'd somehow held onto throughout all of this, so tightly that it hurt.

Ray seemed to take his silence as a bad sign. His fingers dug into him even harder. "If you go, I got nothin'," he whispered. "Please, Ben -- please!"

He felt Ray's heart beating an anxious tattoo against his back, heard the fear and loneliness underlying his disjointed words, but still, he couldn't speak. Couldn't decide what to do. How can I leave him? That would be cruel. But after what I just did to him, how can I stay?

Unable to determine what would be the lesser of two evils, Fraser hesitated, paralyzed by uncharacteristic indecision. He longed to stay, but was afraid to. Despite Ray's need for him, and his deep love for Ray, he couldn't forget what he'd just done. Ray was weak, he'd been injured, he'd almost died just two weeks ago! Yet he'd just thrown him on his bed and almost raped him. Ray had tried to tell him to stop, but he'd been so filled with hunger, so mad for him that he couldn't wait. Despite his injuries, he'd kissed him roughly, and ground their bodies together, heedless of Ray's mending ribs. He'd hurt him so much that Ray had gasped out loud. Yet he was still begging him to stay. Why? How could Ray want him when he was capable of such acts?

Is this what he learned from his dead partner? To enjoy being abused? The thought turned Fraser's stomach.

But he abruptly realized, with a sense of shame, that he was no better. That perhaps the same loneliness that had driven Ray into an affair with Rylan was what had made him cruel. Because it had been so long since he'd touched Ray, since he'd kissed him, smelled his scent, that once he was in his arms again, he'd lost all control. Gone temporarily mad with lust, despite his best intentions, and manhandled him. He'd just treated Ray as selfishly, as sadistically as Patrick Rylan used to. He hadn't been gentle, hadn't tried to please him, he'd just taken without thought. And he still wanted Ray that much. He knew it, because despite his disgust at his own misbehavior, when Ray put his arms around him, the muscles in his abdomen quivered at his touch.

But that isn't all that I feel. That isn't even the half of it. He clung to that thought. Lust was only a small part of what he felt for Ray nor was that all he could give to him.

"The only way I can be me is with you... With you, it was like comin' home."

Those words were the key. They echoed in his mind, and slowly, an answer arose from the confusion inside him. If loneliness had made them both a little crazy, then maybe the only thing to do was to stay, and end their loneliness once and for all. To rise above his animal instincts and petty resentments, for Ray's sake. Maybe he couldn't be perfect, but he could do his best for him. He could do that by loving Ray with all his heart and soul, in spite of everything. By filling Ray's empty spaces, and letting Ray fill his. So neither of them would ever be so lonely that they'd do desperate things, ever again.

He could make a home for Ray in his heart; and let Ray be his home as well.

Wasn't that what he'd always wanted? What he'd been looking for all his life? For someone to need him like this? No one who he'd loved in his whole life had ever really needed him: not his mother, his father, and certainly not Victoria Metcalf or Ray Vecchio. Though he'd loved them all, they hadn't needed his strength, his affection to make them whole, like Ray Kowalski did. Hadn't he dreamed of finding someone who would love him so much that he'd see the best in him, and overlook the worst, as Ray was?

He dropped his tunic at last. "All right, Ray," he said gently. "I won't leave you." Ever, he promised himself silently.

Ray heaved an enormous sigh, his desperate grip relaxing at last. "Okay. Good," he murmured.

Ben felt the terrible tension in his body ebb away, but Ray didn't leave him. Didn't let go. He kept on hugging him, even patted his chest gently, as if he were trying to convey a gratitude he couldn't put into words. That felt so wonderful that even though Fraser knew he should let him go, he didn't. He put his hands on top of Ray's and held them, suddenly feeling an enormous tenderness for him, an awareness of his vulnerability, and a renewed sense of responsibility for him. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "For what I did just now." He knew that was no excuse, but he had to start somewhere. Start over again, and do things right this time. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Ray."

He lifted one of Ray's hands to his mouth and kissed it, as tender now as he'd been rough before.

Ray let go of him then. Turned him around so that they faced each other again. "I know that," he said, smiling a little. "Don'tcha think I know?" And in his face, in his voice, was the same tenderness that Fraser was feeling.

Home, Ben thought, deeply moved. He's my home. It made him feel humble and ashamed. Deeply ashamed that he hadn't treated Ray with more respect, with gentler hands. "But the fact remains that I did," he confessed. "I hurt you. I can't... trust myself."

Ray smiled, and touched his shoulder lightly. "'S'okay. I trust ya," he said simply.

And he did. Fraser saw it in his eyes, heard it in his voice. Despite the rough, selfish, unforgivable way he'd just behaved, Ray wasn't put off. Wasn't frightened of him. It was incredible. He was relieved, but he still needed to be certain why Ray felt that way. He stared at his bruised, bandaged face, into his long-lashed blue eyes, trying to decide if he was telling the truth or saying what he wanted to hear. He needed to be absolutely sure Ray wasn't overlooking what he'd done because he'd gotten used to being hurt.

But after a long moment, he decided that wasn't it. Ray's eyes were relieved, warm, and totally guileless. Hiding nothing. It seemed he was just overlooking his earlier roughness because he cared for him because he knew that he hadn't meant to do it, and that he wouldn't do it again, would never consciously hurt him. Relief swept over him at that realization. He had what he'd wanted most, what he'd feared had been destroyed by their recent separation: Ray's trust.

I want to be his home, too. I want it more than anything. He felt tears welling up in his eyes. He rubbed at them with the back of his hand. "You're sure you... want me to stay," he said at last.

"Yeah," came the instant answer. Ray's voice wasn't hesitant at all, and his blue eyes were rock steady. "Y-E-S, Ben. Yer what I want."

Each man saw home shining in the other's eyes, and they both smiled at the same instant.

Fraser was filled with emotion, with gratitude and love that he couldn't put into words. After a moment, he said hoarsely, "All right then." But despite the desire in his partner's eyes, he didn't move to hold Ray again. It was wonderful to know that Kowalski still trusted him, but he didn't trust himself yet. He needed a minute to recover from what he'd just done, to catch his breath and repair his tattered self control before he touched him again. "I think... I'd like to take that shower with you after all, Ray," he said slowly. "Would that be all right?"

"Sure," Ray nodded. "We can take our time. Do it right, ya know?" His blue eyes sparkled.

Fraser knew he wasn't referring to getting cleaned up. He felt a little smile tugging at the edges of his own mouth. "Yes. I think I know exactly what you mean."

Ray stripped off the rest of his clothes in record time. Despite their argument, after the heat he and Ben had just generated, he couldn't wait to really get it on with him. But something about Ben's silence as they finished undressing told him to back off. He could tell that he was still freaked that he'd gotten rough with him or at least, what Fraser thought was rough because he didn't try to kiss him again, or even touch him.

So Ray didn't try to touch him either. He just pulled off his jeans, boots and socks, and watched silently while Ben did the same. He was a little disappointed that Ben didn't even try to sneak a kiss, but he didn't say so. He had other things to be thankful for. Like the fact that Ben hadn't left him after all, despite the crazy things he'd said, the things he'd told him. Things he'd never told anyone else before, not even Stella.

All that stuff about him being a loser... Not that it wasn't true, but he knew it made him look really needy. Needy enough to send most people running in the opposite direction.

But not Ben. Ray had the funny feeling those words had somehow won his heart. That they were the reason he'd stayed. Because he'd opened himself up like that, not in spite of it. Because he'd told him how he felt. That he meant everything to him. That he trusted him, that he wasn't just another lover, he was everything. He was home to him. Maybe Ben needed that, as much as he did.

It seemed like it, because after he told him that, he saw something in Ben's eyes that he hadn't seen since they first had sex. Something like pure, shimmering happiness. Something that might've even been love.

Ray wanted to show him he felt the same way. Wanted to show him with his body, in the best way he knew how. He could hardly wait to do it. They'd come close there on his bed, so close that his body was still humming with excitement. He'd loved the way Ben had lost control, but since that'd scared him so badly he'd almost run away, if he needed to go slow now, he'd live with it. He could do slow, no problem. Hell, he'd been dreaming of that for months, of Fraser's patient, gentle way of driving him out of his mind. A time or two of that would do him more good than any of the pills the doctors had forced down his throat in the last week, that was for sure. Slow with Fraser was good.

Anything with Benny Ben was fine.

When Fraser finished taking off his clothes, he took Ray's hand in his gently, then headed silently for the shower. When they stepped inside, he reached over to turn on the water.

Ray turned to him eagerly. "Make it good and hot, okay?" he whispered, his breath warm in his ear as he kissed it.

Fraser wasn't sure if he was referring to the water or their intended lovemaking, but it didn't really matter. He turned on the hot water just in case, angled the shower head down so the water wouldn't hit them in the face, then put his hands gently on Ray's shoulders and kissed him carefully. Warm, soft kisses that caressed instead of demanded, that pressed Ray's lips apart just enough for him to trace them with his tongue, then pulled away again. As the shower spray streamed down his legs, he fed on the softness of his mouth again and again, and with each kiss, felt some of his faith in his self control returning. This was how he wanted to be with Ray: gentle and loving. This was how it should be...

It seemed that Ray felt that, too. "Mmm," he whispered, smiling. "That's nice. Come 'mere."

Ray pulled him a little closer. Fraser let him, trusting that Ray would tell him if something hurt him. Trusting that this time, he would listen -- because Ray believed he would. He even slipped his arms around him, loving the sensation of Ray's hard chest pressed against his again. Ray's lips were soft, warm, and wet from his kisses. Delicious.

But as they kissed, Fraser had a sudden, troubling mental image of Ray in Rylan's arms. He'd never seen Rylan, but he'd seen his picture in the paper after he was killed, and his dark good looks had haunted him. So his fertile imagination had no trouble putting Ray together with his exotic looking partner. He wasn't sure why it was doing so now: perhaps it was because he felt guilty about hurting Ray himself a moment ago, or perhaps it was just jealousy. But the timing of it frustrated him. Why did he have to think of Rylan now, when he was finally kissing Ray again?

Perversely, though he tried to banish it, the negative train of thought continued. Images of Ray kissing Rylan filled his mind. Thinking of the fading marks on Ray's slender wrists, and how Rylan must've put them there by clamping handcuffs on him and jerking them viciously, his jealousy simmered into anger.

He shuddered involuntarily. Uncomfortable with his dark thoughts, he broke their kiss and turned away from Ray, worried that his jealousy might show on his face. He didn't want anything to ruin their lovemaking this time, after they'd had so many false starts already.

But Ray knew something was up. "What's wrong?"

Fraser realized that he must be getting impatient with him, and for good reason. He'd pulled away from Ray's kisses once too often. Searching for an excuse for his latest withdrawal, he reached for the soap as if picking it up had been his intention all along. "Nothing. I just want to get clean," he said, knowing it was a lame excuse. But he was committed to it, so he began to soap up his chest, hoping it might at least distract him.

It certainly distracted Ray. As he lathered his upper body, the look in Ray's eyes changed from worry to open, avid hunger. He whispered, "Damn. I almost forgot how beautiful you are," and leaned forward to kiss him again, his mouth warm and eager. But even with Ray's mouth on his, Ben couldn't quite banish the thought of his other lover. In fact, the sensuality of Ray's kiss only increased his resentment that someone else had touched him, kissed him, tasted him like this.

Suddenly, Ben was swept by a feeling of pure, raw, primitive possessiveness. Earlier, he'd just wanted to make Ray his. Now, after his little mental movie of him kissing Rylan, he wanted more. He wanted to take him back from Rylan. He wanted to make Ray his and only his. It was more than a wish, it was a need, a compulsion so deep and powerful he couldn't ignore it. And to fulfill it, he'd have to wash away all traces of Rylan's touch from Ray's body. Soap him all over, from head to toe. So as soon as Ray broke their kiss, he laid the soap on his slender shoulder and started to rub it onto his skin.

"Oh. Yer gonna clean me up too, huh?" Ray smiled, unaware of his hidden motive.

"Yes," Fraser replied, his voice hoarse. He didn't dare say any more. After his shameful loss of control earlier, he didn't want to confess the dark need that drove him now. Ray might object if he did, and he needed to do this so badly he doubted he could even make love with him otherwise. And he needed that too, needed it desperately... So he swept the soap over Ray's chest, careful this time to avoid touching the areas where he was badly bruised. He used long, smooth, gentle strokes, hoping to disguise his need to reclaim his lover with the simple task of gently bathing him. Hoping that Ray would be aroused by his touch while he did it.

What better way, he thought, to make him forget all about Rylan?

As the Mountie started soaping up his shoulders, Ray wondered about Fraser's sudden obsession with getting clean. The Canadian's hands were gentle as usual, but Ray wondered what he was thinking about as he stroked the soap over his skin. Sex would've been the obvious answer, but Fraser looked too serious for that somehow. Not so much horny anymore but intent, like Ray was a puzzle he needed to figure out, and he could only do that if he was really clean.

Ray wasn't sure how he felt about that. He wanted Fraser to get excited, to get as aroused as he was. His cock had stiffened again at his first sight of Ben's beautiful, naked body, and it was getting harder as his hands guided the soap carefully over his bruised chest, brushed his nipples, then circled them slowly. He wasn't using a washcloth, just applying the soap directly to his skin, and somehow, that seemed erotic. Ray bit his lip as he watched it, incredibly aroused. He hadn't been this hard since... Well, not since they'd broken up. No one else could do this to him, for him, like Ben could. He loved him, and he wanted him so much he couldn't stand it. God, I need him. Need him so damn bad...

He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. Raised his hands and set them lightly on the Canadian's shoulders as Ben worked the soap across his belly. "Ben, umm... d'ya think we could skip the gettin' clean part for now?" he asked, only half joking. "'Cuz I'm not real good at waiting. And I'm already salutin' here"

Fraser shook his head instantly, almost vehemently. "No!"

Ray blinked, surprised at the intensity of his response. Not understanding it.

Ben lifted his head, as if he suddenly realized he'd reacted oddly. He looked embarrassed, but his tone was still insistent. "That is... I mean, I'd really like to do this, Ray. If you don't mind." He needed to. Ben didn't say it, but Ray heard it in his voice. Felt it in the hands that had paused, still holding the soap to his skin.

He suddenly felt a bit ashamed at his own selfishness. Fraser was trying to do something nice for him, maybe trying to make up for his unconscious roughness earlier, and he was in such a hurry to fuck him that he couldn't even wait for him to finish. Impatient bastard, he chided himself. That's what caused this whole mixup in the first place, remember? Ya better take a page from Ben's book for once, and slow down. Cuz he hardly ever asks for anything. Let him do this for ya if he wants to.

"Sure," he said, stifling his impatience. "Go ahead. Gives a whole new meanin' to the term 'clean cop', doesn't it?" he joked.

He was rewarded with a brief smile. Then Ben went down on one knee in front of him and started lathering up his legs.

Calm down, Ray told himself, his heart leaping at the Mountie's every touch. But it was hard. He had to close his eyes, had to look away from the sight of Ben kneeling in front of him, his beautiful dark head right there... Cuz it made his hands itch to take hold of his head, to push those lush, gorgeous lips where he wanted them, right onto his stiffening cock.

Get a grip, he told himself sternly. Stop thinkin' about what he could do, and enjoy what he's doin'. After all, it's been a long time since I made love with him. Way too long. So if he wants to put soap all over me before we do it, who cares? Still, it made him feel a bit weird. Stella had never liked showering with him very much, so she'd never done this to him. Hell, nobody had, not since his mom used to bathe him when he was a kid. He smiled, remembering that.

Only thing missin' is my rubber ducky, he thought, snickering to himself.

Or maybe he laughed out loud, because Ben suddenly looked up at him curiously. "Is something funny, Ray?"

He grinned. "Naw. Just thinkin' about rubber ducks," he said.

Ben blinked. "Ahh," he said, as if he'd just explained one of the world's greatest mysteries. Then he went back to his task.

Ray smiled down at his friend. See, that's what I love about you, he said to himself. Anyone else would think that was loony, but you just accept it.

Ben had always done that. Right from the beginning. Unlike Stella, he'd accepted all his weirdness, all his faults, without making him feel crazy or inadequate. So if Ben wanted to soap up every inch of his skinny body every time they showered for the rest of his life, he might just let him.

Ray stood still, and tried hard to be patient while Fraser did just that: soaped every inch of him. His cock, his legs, his feet, his butt, his back, everything. For some reason, he even lingered over his wrists for awhile. Ray was afraid he'd say something about the fading cuts and welts there, but to his relief, he didn't. He never had, and he'd finally decided Ben must've assumed he'd gotten them when he was shot. Though Fraser was usually way more observant than that, Ray didn't want to look that particular gift horse in the mouth. He wasn't about to tell him that he'd made a mistake. So he didn't say anything as Ben lathered his wrists up thoroughly, soaped them so heavily that the suds covered them completely. He wondered if it meant anything, though, or if he was just being paranoid. But he didn't dare ask.

But when Fraser raised the soap to his face, he felt he'd reached his limit. "What the -- hey, come on!" he protested. His patience wearing thin, he caught his friend's hand. "Enough is enough."

Fraser just shook his head. "All of you, Ray," he said with a determined glint in his eyes.

Ray sighed. When Fraser got that look, you might as well save your breath. Arguing with him would get you nowhere. So he let go of him, and Fraser quickly soaped his face, leaving out only the part of his forehead that was still bandaged. Then he started on his hair. Ray rolled his eyes. "Jeez, Frayzh. Ya know, down here in the States, we usually use somethin' called shampoo for that--"

"Soap will do just as well," Fraser said firmly. But he worked the soap into his hair very gently, avoiding his bandage, so Ray didn't object.

He couldn't resist teasing him, though. "What is it with this Mr. Clean thing, Frayzh? I go away for a little while, and you develop some kinda soap fetish?"

For a second, Fraser's hands stilled in his hair. "It was more than a little while, Ray. You left four months and sixteen days ago," he said quietly.

Ray closed his eyes, wincing. So Ben had been counting too. "Yeah, well... If it makes you feel any better, it felt like forever to me," he confessed.

"Good," Fraser said, scrubbing more soap into his hair.

Ray grinned, surprised at his honesty. "I don't believe you said that. That was kinda mean and unMountie-like, Frayzh, gloatin' over my unhappiness like that."

"Hmm," Fraser said. "Well, I'm not proud of it, Ray, but you were a bit unfair, you know."

Ray winced. "Yeah, I know. So okay, I guess yer entitled to gloat. A little."

"Thank you. That's very generous of you. But I think I've done enough for now." Fraser worked a bit more soap into Ray's hair, then finally took his hands away. "There," he said in a satisfied voice. "All done."

"Finally," Ray muttered under his breath.

Fraser paid no attention. He pushed Ray under the shower's spray, then turned him around to sluice off his back, and wash the rest of the soap out of his hair. Ray didn't complain. His usual impatience was offset by the pleasure of feeling Fraser's strong, gentle hands on him again after so long. He stood passive, letting the Mountie finish cleaning him off. He even smiled a bit as the water sprayed over him, because he knew it wouldn't be long before he got the rest of Ben, too.

As if he'd read his mind, Fraser suddenly pulled him out of the spray, put his arms around him and pulled him close. Holding the back of Ray's wet head gently in his hand, he kissed him, deeply but tenderly. When Ben finally broke the kiss, he looked into his eyes and smiled. Then he whispered, "I'm yours, Ray."

Ben's blue eyes were tender and shining into his. Ray felt something warm radiating from him that was almost physical. He felt like Ben could somehow see right down into his soul, and that he was offering his soul to him in return. His heart, his body, everything he was. Ray felt humbled. Thrilled. Almost awed, because he knew what an incredible gift that was. He knew, better than anyone. But he wasn't sure he deserved him, or how to answer that kind of offer. Thanks weren't enough. He wished he could think of something wonderful to say, or to give him in return, but all he could come up with was himself.

"Okay. Good," he blurted. Then, realizing how dumb that sounded, he added, "I mean it's good, cuz I'm yers too." But he felt himself flushing. Not at the sentiment, but because he wasn't sure it was enough. That he was.

Ray the screw-up, Ray the Attitude, in return for Beautiful Ben? Even he knew that equation didn't balance.

But Ben seemed to think it did. His eyes gleamed with satisfaction, and he kissed him again, even more passionately than before. When he began moving his hips against Ray's too, sliding their wet cocks together as they kissed, Kowalski's breathing grew harsh. He'd been patient long enough. When he finally came up for air, he moaned, "Okay, I'm yours, yer mine... Can we do it now?"

Ben blinked at him for a second. An odd look came over his face, as if Ray's request had made him think of something else. "Kneel down, Ray," he said.


"Kneel down," he repeated firmly.

The command surprised Ray a little. Ben was acting weird. Not out of control like before, but kind of forceful and intense all the same. First that weird little soap ritual, and now what? Is he gonna make me get down on my knees and beg for forgiveness?

Then he shrugged. What if he did? He'd do whatever Ben wanted. Whatever it took. He owed him that. But more than that, he wanted him, wanted to please him... Plus, he suddenly remembered that there were other things he could do on his knees than beg for forgiveness. That he might even be able to make Ben beg, if he did them right.

"Okay," he said. He dropped down onto the tiles with a smile.

But to his surprise, Ben didn't make him beg, or even ask him to go down on him. He just stood there looking down at him for a minute without saying a word. Then, all at once, he knelt down behind him. Okay, so he's not lookin' for an apology. That's good, Ray thought, relieved. But what the hell is he doin'?

When Ben put his arms around his chest and pulled his head back for another hot kiss, he got his answer. Ben was finally going to make love to him. Hot damn. A jolt of deep, nearly painful desire shot through him. His breathing got harsh, and his erection hardened. He was so hot for the Canadian that he could hardly stand it. But he winced a little as Ben bent him further backwards. The position hurt his still healing ribs.

Fraser sensed his discomfort, and ended their kiss instantly. "Lean on me, Ray," he said, as if he knew he was in pain. "Relax. Sit back in my arms..."

Ray hesitated for a second. He didn't know what Ben was up to, and it had been a long time since he'd trusted anyone. A long time, and a lot of strange sexual water under the bridge...

Ben wasn't really sure why he'd asked Ray to kneel down. It seemed a mere impulse, a whim. It wasn't as if he'd planned how he was going to make love to him, after all. He hadn't even been sure that would ever happen, or if Ray still wanted him, when he'd decided to drive him home from the hospital. So he didn't know if his reasons for wanting him to kneel were erotic at all. But after he voiced the question, as Ray hesitated, a sort of stubbornness came over him. Despite his unknown motives, it seemed important, even essential, that Ray do it anyway, and he wondered why.

When Ray smiled a little, said "Okay," then dropped to his knees, he discovered the answer. Something inside him that he hadn't even realized was tight and painful eased, as if a strand of barbed wire that had been wrapped around his heart had been removed. Understanding came, and it shocked him. He realized that part of him had wanted, needed, to make Ray obey him because until that moment, he hadn't been able to entirely forgive him for kicking his hat at the 27th, for shoving and humiliating him in front of everyone. He forgave him now, but not without a simultaneous surge of shame.

Get down on your knees, Ray. Who the hell was he, to demand such a thing? Such an abject apology? He suddenly wondered if his motives for it went back even further than their fight. If he'd subconsciously been making Ray pay for others' sins, as well as that incident at the 27th. Had Victoria's manipulations galled him so deeply that they lingered in his soul even now? Had they driven him to want to exert some sort of like power over Ray, to soothe his own wounded ego? Had he wanted to assure himself that this time, he would be the one in control of their relationship? He was shaken by his own darkness. Appalled at himself.

But amazed by Ray. He'd done it. Done it with a smile, as if it were a small thing. As if he didn't mind it. As if he would've done much more, if Ben had only asked him. Ben was mortified. Ray's cheerful obedience made him seem petty; arrogant; even cruel. He was deeply embarrassed for asking him to atone in such a way, and awed by his friend's generosity in doing so. But most of all, deeply tender and protective towards him. More in love with him than ever.

Ben knew of only one way to make up for his stupid, dictatorial, vengeful request. He dropped to his knees himself, in genuine penitence, and put his arms around the slender blond from behind. Spreading his palm over Ray's chest, so that he could feel his heart beating, he bent him backwards gently, changing the act from contrition to an embrace. He drew Ray against him, suddenly wanting nothing more than to be close to this man, who was far better to him than he deserved. But he felt Ray tense when he did, and realized that leaning backwards hurt him.

"Lean on me, Ray," he whispered. But what he really meant was, I love you.

This time, when Ben asked him to lean backward, Ray didn't hesitate. This was Benton Fraser, after all. Fraser, who'd sat vigil over him in the hospital for five long days and nights, even after he'd thrown him out and taken up with another guy. Ben, who'd never done anything wrong in the first place, whose only crime had been coming back to his apartment a little late. His Benny Ben, who he'd hurt terribly -- because he hadn't trusted him.

He suddenly wondered if maybe that was why Ben was doing all this. The soap ritual, the kneeling, all of it. Was it some strange sort of test he'd dreamed up, to see if he'd finally learned his lesson? Finally learned to trust him? The thought pissed him off a bit. He should know I do, he thought. I already told him that.

Then again, he'd only just finally gotten Ben back. So if this was a test, he didn't want to flunk it. Not this time. Not when the person handing out grades was his Mountie. Besides -- Ben's hands felt tender now, and his voice was soft and intimate. He wasn't giving orders now, he was just asking. Asking for his trust.

And he'd always had that. He'd given it to him long ago. Hell, the first time I looked into his big baby blues, I was talkin' partnership. Talkin' duets, before I knew it. There was just somethin' about him -- always knew I could trust him, from day one. He smiled to himself, remembering that. Then the smile died away, as he recalled what had happened when he'd somehow quit trusting him. It wasn't a pretty picture: their fight, him kicking Ben's hat, his lonely exile to the 29th, and Rylan. Most of all, Rylan.

He shivered a bit, and thrust his memory away. Focused his thoughts back on Ben. On what he needed to do, to repair the trust he'd broken. Whatever it takes, he thought. If he wants me to show him that I trust him a second time, or ten times a day for the next month, I'll do it. He's worth it.

So he did it. Leaned back into Ben's embrace, laid his head on Ben's broad shoulder, and gave himself over into his hands. Holding nothing back. Giving himself utterly. Trusting him completely.

Ben sat back on his haunches and eased him between his legs, and tightened his arms around him. Ray felt his broad chest against his back, his strong arms and body supporting him. Fraser's big, warm, muscular body wrapped all around him. Jesus, that feels so good...

"That's it, Ray," Ben said softly. He sounded both tender and pleased. "I'll hold you."

And Ray knew he would. He also knew that for once, he'd done the right thing. Made Ben happy. It was so cool. Never mind that it didn't take much, it was still a jazz, makin' Big Red smile. It put a smile on his own face. Besides -- being cradled in Ben's arms like this felt wonderful. Warm. Safe. Cozy and totally sexy, at the same time. It felt so good, he could've stayed like that forever.

But Fraser had other ideas. Suddenly, he was all over him. He took his mouth again, began kissing him passionately while he pinched, pulled and rubbed at his nipples gently with one hand. The other stroked his balls, then took his cock in a firm grip and began to stroke it gently, sensually, from root to tip.

Ray's head spun. It still amazed him, how Fraser could go from Mr. Polite to Tiger Man in the space of a second. Not that he was complaining. He was too busy moaning -- right into the hot, wet mouth that was sweetly devouring his. This was what he'd wanted for months, what he'd dreamed about. Hell, it was better than any of his dreams. Ben's embrace, his kisses. Ben naked with him, wrapped all around him. Ben's cock hard against his butt, Ben's hand warm on his aching cock. It felt so good he could've died happy, but all he wanted to do right then was live in that moment forever, with Ben making love to him.

A contrasting memory slipped through his mind: the scratchy feel of Rylan's chest and leg hair against his skin when they had sex. The way his hard body had pushed against him, crushed him, battered him. Overwhelmed him, demanding something he could never give. He'd always been half afraid that Pat might smother him someday, in his savage enthusiasm. By contrast, Ben was smooth and sleek, his hands were gentle, and his body supported him while he stroked and caressed him... Where Rylan had only and ever taken, Ben gave. He was perfect as any dream lover could ever be but he was real.

"Damn," Ray whispered, trembling with delight.

"Do you like this, Ray?" Ben's voice, warm and shy in his ear. A little hesitant, as if he'd misunderstood his shaky curse. Ben's tongue circled his ear, then dipped inside as he played with his nipples, caressed his cock.

Like it? "Yeah," he croaked, hardly able to speak. "Do whatever you want to me. I love it--"

That made Ben happy. He hummed in Ray's ear, a wordless little sound of pleasure. Then he drove his tongue deep into his ear, rubbed the head of his cock swiftly with his thumb, and stroked his nipple, all at the same time. Ray writhed with ecstasy at the triple stimulation, groaning helplessly. His body arched up instinctively, towards the source of that incredible pleasure, and he felt Ben's arms tighten on him, keeping him close. Keeping him from arching so far forward that he'd hurt himself again.

Loving him.

Ray could feel it, feel the love pouring out of him in every caress of those big, pale hands; and his own heart returned it. Reaching back, he wrapped his arms around Ben's neck and clung to him tightly, wanting to show him that he felt the same way.

Ray wanted this, their first time together in months, to be long and slow, to last forever.

But he couldn't do it. After so many long nights spent either alone or enduring what passed for sex with Rylan, the contrast of Ben's gentle hands was too much for him, the pleasure too intense. The sensation of being gently stroked rather than seized, of being cherished and pleased rather than used, was so wonderful that Ray couldn't control his response. He wanted to draw this out but he couldn't contain his own excitement. He was moaning, making these loud noises cuz it felt so damn good... And Ben was breathing harder too, hot, excited puffs of breath against his cheek. Ray's cock throbbed, and he felt the energy coiling at its base, the surge gathering in his balls as they lifted and tightened. He bit his lip hard, not wanting it to happen so soon, afraid of disappointing Ben.

"Ben, wait! I can't hang on--" He was panting like a dog, like an animal. He could hardly talk. Not just because of what Ben's hands were doing to him, though that was intense enough -- but also because he knew he'd bent his whole concentration, his whole being it seemed, on trying to please him, with no thought for himself. Ray had half forgotten how wonderful it was, being the sole focus of Ben's erotic attention. He grabbed his own cock, put his hand over Ben's, trying to slow down the stroking that was driving him mad.

"It's all right, Ray. Let go," Ben whispered in his ear. "This is for you..." He sank his teeth gently into his earlobe, and Ray gave in instantly. Took his interfering hand away and gave Ben free rein. No questions asked. Beyond caring that it was selfish. Knowing he really only wanted more of that hand, more of those teeth, more of whatever Ben wanted to do to him--

Ben wanted, it seemed, to tighten his grip on his cock. Wanted to fist it faster and faster. Pausing only briefly to give special attention to its head, with fingers that were now slick with his pre-ejaculate. His talented, sensitive fingers seemed to dance on the reddened, pulsing head of Ray's cock with just the precise amount of pressure needed to give him maximum pleasure.

That tore away the last vestiges of his self control. Ray writhed in Ben's arms, gasping for breath. A deep, thumping pleasure had been rising in him, rising in answer to Ben's touch; and at that, it grew even stronger. Harder, until the pulse of it shook his heart, his blood, his bones. He groaned loudly, his whole body throbbing in time with Ben's strokes. His whole universe narrowed to the pure, primal ecstasy of Ben's hands on his cock. His strong, quickening rhythm, that was pulling it out of him. Driving him on to his peak. He closed his eyes, giving up on the effort of trying to ride the wave, to make it last. It was no use. He was only flesh and blood, and he couldn't hold it in. He quit trying to stop it, and came instantly. Exploded, in a burst of ecstasy so intense that the world went dark around him. He hung suspended in Ben's arms for a time, crying out as his cock jerked and spurted, endlessly it seemed, over Ben's hands.

When he came back to himself, he opened his eyes slowly. Blinked, half surprised to see that he was still alive. Still in his own shower. Talk about the earth movin' -- damn! That was beyond good. It was incredible! He lay in Ben's embrace, weak and panting. His whole body felt limp, like he'd been running for miles. But good, too. Filled with a happiness he hadn't felt in months.

Ben's arms were still curled protectively around him. One hand cradled his cheek, the other traced gentle circles on his stomach. Ray could hear his heavy breathing, feel his arousal, but his fingers were tender and patient. He wasn't touching him erotically now, he was just waiting. Caressing him gently as he waited for him to recover.

Ben was amazing. It wasn't enough that he'd made him come so hard he almost blacked out; now he was taking care of him, too. Ray had been wanting this, longing for it: Ben's kindness, his tenderness, that filled his heart like nothing else could. He loved Ben so much, so much it pierced his heart. So much that it scared him. He felt tears spring to his eyes. He took Ben's hands in his and held them. "God," he whispered. "What ya do to me..."

He turned to kiss him, and as he did, felt Ben's cock press against his side. Ben was still hard -- so hard it was probably hurting him. The discovery filled Ray with the desire to make Ben come in the same mind-blowing way that he just had. "Now, I'm gonna take care o' you," he murmured, kissing him tenderly. Moving over, he sat next to him on the floor of the shower, and draped his right leg over Ben's left. He touched the semen on his stomach, then held his fingers to Ben's mouth.

"Know how ya love tastin' things," he said, smiling his best slow, teasing, "Come fuck me" smile. "Taste me," he invited.

Ben's eyes widened slightly with surprise, that melted instantly into hunger. He sucked Ray's fingers into his mouth eagerly, swirling his tongue over them. He closed his eyes, almost purring. Ray's mouth went dry, just watching him. Knowing Ben was tasting him on his fingers. It was trance-like. Hypnotic. He had to shake himself physically so he could get back to the task at hand.

He bent his head and breathed lightly on the tip of Ben's beautiful, reddened, upthrust cock. Kissed it softly. "This is fer you, Benny Ben," he whispered, smiling as it quivered at his touch. Then he took it in his mouth. Took it deep. Claimed it, the way Ben had just claimed him. He sucked hard, and Ben shuddered, groaning wildly around Ray's captive fingers.

Ray smiled, and sucked harder. He knew that was only the beginning.

They stayed in the shower for a long time. They couldn't seem to stop touching. Couldn't get enough of each other. Ray teased Ben about it a little, lowering his head as if to kiss him, then lifting it again before their lips could touch. "Want that, huh?" he whispered, smiling, his voice husky.

Ben smiled back, but Ray saw him swallow hard. "Yes..."

"Whaddaya want? Want me to kiss ya?" he asked, just to hear him say it.

Ben could've easily grabbed him and taken the kiss he wanted, but he lay back against the wall of the shower, playing along. Letting Ray tease him. Letting him take control. "Yes, Ray," he said, his gaze on Ray's mouth. Fastened there like he'd never seen anything he wanted more. "Please, kiss me again," he whispered, his tongue darting out over his lower lip in a familiar gesture.

At those words, and that erotic little sweep of Ben's tongue, Ray felt a visceral thrill, right down to his toes. Ben had taken the lead before, but he didn't seem to mind him taking over now. Hell, he looked like he was enjoying it. After being with Rylan, who'd never even bothered to ask him what he wanted, who'd treated him like some kind of boy toy sex slave, just lie there and take it and shut up, Ben's willingness to please him was pure heaven.

Having Ben plead to be kissed was like a dream. He almost wanted to pinch himself, to make sure it was real. That Ben was really here, naked with him. Asking for more kisses, even though they'd just finished making love. Being playful. Hell, that was better than any dream could ever be.

Ray grinned. "'Kay. Since ya asked me nice..." He lowered his head again and feasted on Ben's mouth, kissing and kissing and kissing his red lips endlessly. He wet them with kisses, then traced his upper lip with his tongue, and softly bit the fullness of his lower one. He tasted him slowly, using his tongue lightly, thoroughly, then withdrawing gently. Then he kissed his face, kissed his lovely blue eyes closed, traced the high arch of his cheekbones, the dark sleekness of his hair with his mouth, never getting enough.

Ben finally grew impatient and turned his head to find his lips, to join their mouths again. Ray moaned softly as their tongues entwined. All his bruises, pain and grief were forgotten in the joy of being close to Ben again. He felt high. Light, like he was floating. Drunk on champagne. Or maybe it was love.

Nothing else existed for him, or for Ben either. They kissed until they made love again, kept kissing while they did it, then started kissing again when they lay breathless and spent, until they made love again... One led to the other. There in the wet spray, on the tiles, they arched against each other again and again, with soft sighs and moans. Went to the edge, then over it, sometimes together, sometimes one after the other.

After a time, Ray remembered something he'd dreamed of, on those lonely nights without Ben. "Want you to fuck me," he whispered in Ben's ear as he kissed it. "Want you inside me."

They'd never done that before. Ray had never done that with anyone. He'd almost hit Rylan for even trying it. But with Ben, he wanted it. Wanted everything he could think of, and then some. Because it would be Benny Ben, giving it to him. Getting close to him in a way no one ever had. He wanted that part most of all.

But to his surprise, Ben hesitated. "Ray, we don't have to"

Ray didn't want to hear that. "I want it," he said. Stubborn, impatient. Remembering Rylan, and how he'd almost taken him by force. Taken what he only wanted to give to Ben. He twisted out of Ben's arms, stood up and put his hands flat on the slick shower wall. It felt cool under his hands, an exquisite counterpoint to the heat they were generating.

"Now," he said, offering himself. He more than wanted it, he needed to have Ben inside him. To find out what it felt like. But Fraser didn't move, and Ray turned his head to look curiously at him.

Ben stood behind him, his pale skin flushed pink with the heat of the shower and their sex, beads of water clinging to his big, muscular body, his dark hair wet to raven blackness. Ray had finger-combed it while he'd kissed him, slicked it neatly back from his face, baring his innocent features. Now his mouth went dry at the pure, angelic beauty of him.

God, he thought, in awe. He looks like somethin' out of a wet dream. Then he smiled. Guess this is kind of a wet dream! We're both wet, and he's so beautiful, he's like a dream...

But why was Ben hesitating? He suddenly had another twinge of insecurity, remembering what he looked like. Banged up, bandaged, funny-colored bruises everywhere. Not exactly wet dream material. Hell, he wasn't that even when he was at his best. Wasn't in Ben's class, and he knew it. The Mountie was world class in the looks department. A classic, like a Lamborghini. He was more like a base model Toyota. Skinny, average looking -- guys like him were a dime a dozen. It was why he had experimental hair. He had to do stuff like that, to get people to even look at him. Most people, anyway.

Then again -- Ben had looked at him. Looked real hard, with hunger in his eyes. He'd said he didn't care about his bruises. Hell, he'd even told him once that he thought he was handsome. Still, his hesitation now made him wonder. Either he'd changed his mind about that, or maybe he had other reasons for holding back.

Maybe he doesn't wanna do it at all. It suddenly hit him that he'd more or less demanded it. Ordered Ben to do it, instead of asking him if he wanted to. Selfish bastard, he chided himself. His throat closed up painfully. "Don't you wanna?" he asked, not daring to ask why.

At that, Ben finally moved. Slipped his arms around him from behind, and kissed his neck. "Yes, Ray," he breathed. His voice sounded hushed. Dark. Intimate. Like he was confessing secret sins to a priest.

Excitement sizzled through Ray. He wanted to be one of those sins. Wanted it bad. Only it wouldn't be a sin, not with Ben. He knew that. More like a gift. "Then do it," he said.

"Want you inside me," Ray whispered to him.

Ben shivered. His heart turned over. He couldn't believe what they were doing, how many times they'd made love already, and how much he wanted to do it again. He'd never felt so insatiable. And to hear Ray ask for that

I used to dream of doing that to him. Of really taking him, making him mine... of possessing him like that. But those had been secret, guilty dreams he'd confessed to no one, not even Ray himself. Not even when they'd become lovers. Because the act could cause pain, especially if you'd never done it before. He had, but he doubted that Ray had, and he'd already hurt him in his impatience. He didn't want to do it again.

But he did want to possess Ray to take him back from Rylan. Though soaping him thoroughly, then making love to him had blunted the edge of it, that dark need still pulsed inside him, simmering below the surface. Ray's unexpected words revived it, as if he'd somehow guessed how he felt, glimpsed his secret obsession.

But Ben's reasons for wanting to do it were not all selfish or dark. He also wanted the incredible pleasure that particular kind of lovemaking gave: the feeling of closeness, of oneness, that was so unique. He wanted to feel that, but he also wanted to share that closeness with Ray, to show him how wonderful it felt, too. So when Ray asked him to do it, despite the steam surrounding them, his mouth went dry. All rational thought fled his mind. He imagined pinning him to the wet tiles and thrusting deep inside him, joining them in a way he never had before.

His excitement was primitive. Primal. It seared along his nerves, hardening him, frightening him with its power. The shower was like their own little erotic world, and he was reveling in it, and in Ray's eagerness to touch him, and to be touched. After being so long without it, he was rediscovering the deep, heady, addictive pleasures of sex. Given the chance, he would've spent the next week in here with him. But he hadn't expected Ray to ask for this, for what he wanted most. So he didn't answer him at first. He held back, unsure of his own self control. He was afraid of getting carried away again, and of hurting Ray a second time.

Afraid of becoming Rylan, while trying to banish his ghost.

He considered saying no. But then Ray turned to him and asked plaintively, "Don't you wanna?"

Those simple words stole his heart. Reminded him of how fragile Ray was, in other ways than the merely physical. How easily he could be hurt. And though he doubted he really understood what he was asking, it was Ray asking and he loved Ray.

So he went to him, put his arms around him and kissed his doubts away. Confessed that he wanted it too, and saw Ray smile. All the while, he searched his mind for the way that would be right, that would cause the least discomfort. Because it was Ray asking.

Ben took his hand, and led him out of the shower. "Come on. Let's get dried off," he said. "I want -- that is, I think we should do this in your bed."

Ray's heart skipped, then settled into a faster beat than normal. He's gonna do it! Ben was really going to fuck him, take him the way he'd been dreaming about. As they toweled themselves off, his mouth went dry with excitement. The fact that Ben wanted to do it in his bed kind of made it seem special somehow. He knew it was possible he might've just gotten tired of making love in the shower, but Ray doubted that. It felt like the Mountie was thinking of him in this, taking care of him; and it was a great feeling. Fraser wasn't shy about asking him to risk his life on the job, and for a long time, that had blinded him to how much he cared. But in private, he showed a different side. He was thoughtful, attentive. He looked out for him like no one else in his whole adult life, except for Stella, ever had.

Ray wanted to thank him, but didn't want to sound mushy. So he reached out and toweled his dark, wet hair instead, and smiled into the bright blue of his eyes. "Yer too good lookin', ya know," he teased softly, to cover his feelings. "Oughtta be a law."

Ben didn't object to his teasing, or the toweling either. With his dark, damp hair curling into ringlets on his forehead, he smiled back at him. "There is, Ray. Concerning what we're about to do, anyway. I believe it is still illegal in the U.S.," he said, his eyes twinkling. "At least in some states."

Ray grinned, his heart still beating rapidly at the thought of it. "Guess I'll haveta arrest ya then," he said, dropping his towel on the floor as he reached for his hand.

"I see. Well then, maybe you'd better read me my rights, Ray," Ben answered, playing along as they headed out of the bathroom.

Ray grinned. He loved it when Ben got into the spirit of things, when they were in sync like this. Partnership. It's the best.

"Okay. Well, ya got the right to remain silent but I hope ya don't. I like hearin' ya moan," he said, leaning over to purr it into Ben's ear. "Turns me on," he added. He loved talking sexy to his Mountie, loved the way it always made him blush.

Ben turned pink on cue, but Ray thought he looked pleased all the same. Adorably tousled and happy to know that he turned him on. "Understood," Ben said as they walked.

"Then ya got the right to an attorney," Ray went on. "But unless ya plan to sue me for makin' ya come, ya won't need one."

"Ray!" Ben sounded faintly shocked.

Ray just grinned as he pulled him along. "One last thing. Ya got the right to make me come too. As many times as ya want. Ya got all that?"

Fraser nodded, a mischievous look in his blue eyes. "I'm not sure your version matches the official Miranda," he said solemnly, "but it will do."

Ray laughed. "Good! Then let's get to it." Without any further ado, he sat down on his bed, and pulled Ben down onto it beside him.

Ben kissed Ray thoroughly, slowly, wanting to draw the moment out. He was still laughing inside at Ray's bizarre, erotic version of the Miranda rights, and touched by his desire to make love in a new way. He could feel Ray's heart racing against him, and though it was immensely flattering, he needed to slow things down a little. He wanted to relax him, to make him more tranquil, so that his body would accept him with the least amount of pain.

When they came up for air, Ray asked, "How d'ya wanna do it?" Typically, he was all nervous impatience. "Want me on my stomach, or what?"

Ben shook his head. "No." He'd thought that over already. In deference to Ray's still-healing ribs, he'd decided he should lie down on his back for this. It would be easier for Ray, and nicer for him, too. He took Ray's hand in his and smiled tenderly at him. "I want... Well, I want to see you, Ray," he confessed shyly. "To look at you, while we--"

Ben knew that he must've said just the right thing, because he was rewarded by one of Ray's rare, but exceedingly sweet smiles. "Oh," he said. "That's cool. Okay then." He laid down on his back, spread his legs and locked his hands behind his head, as if displaying himself for Ben's pleasure. "Look away," he invited, smiling.

As if Ben could've done anything else. He wasn't sure if he'd finally convinced Ray that he found him handsome in spite of his bruises, or if he'd just done this to please him, but his mouth went dry all over again, at the sight of him. Words failed him, and for a moment, all he could do was stare. Bandages and all, Ray was beautiful, so beautiful. He didn't feel like he deserved having such beauty laid out like that, just for him. Ray's whipcord lean body, a masterpiece of masculine architecture, all hard planes and angles, yet graceful and immensely sensual as well. His hair, dampened to a dark shade of bronze in the shower, his beautiful cock, his lovely skin and long legs, were all marvelous to him. All precious and lovely. He loved every little detail of him, from the tattoo that curled starkly blue about Ray's right arm, to his long, honey-colored lashes, to the pale golden fuzz of the hair on his arms, legs and groin. Ben loved it all. He took his time and just savored the sight, feeding his own ardor. Just looking at Ray made him want to touch him, to taste him, all over again. It was all he could do not to throw himself on the bed and lick him from head to toe.

But he tabled that idea. Filed it away for future consideration, because it wasn't what Ray wanted now. What he'd asked for. He forced his thoughts back to the matter at hand. He moved toward the bed, drawn to his lover like a magnet, feeling deliciously sexual, almost like a libertine, set free by Ray's own desire for him.

Then he remembered. He couldn't just throw himself on his friend, he needed something to make it easier for Ray. A lubricant. He was amazed that he'd almost forgotten something so important, but he supposed it was understandable. Faced with such a temptingly beautiful distraction as his spiky-haired lover, it was difficult to think of safety precautions. Or of anything else but making love to him. "Excuse me for just a moment," he said, turning towards the hall.

Ray raised a curious eyebrow, but Ben was too embarrassed to tell him what he was doing. "I just need to borrow something," he said over his shoulder as he headed towards Ray's bathroom.


"It won't take a moment," he called back, too embarrassed to give Ray any details. Then he was in the bathroom. He opened Ray's medicine cabinet, and surveyed the toothpaste and other common items inside. That wouldn't help

"There," he said aloud with some satisfaction. "This will do." He grabbed a small bottle filled with an amber colored liquid, and headed eagerly back towards the bedroom.

When he came in holding the bottle, Ray eyed it curiously. "That's the oil Stella gave me. Vitamin E stuff. Don't use it much. It's got this girly smell, like perfume. Ya gonna put oil on yer hair or somethin', Ben?" he asked.

Fraser climbed back onto the bed, shaking his head. "No. This is for you, Ray," he said, hoping Kowalski would grasp its intimate purpose without requiring him to explain further. But Ray just frowned at him. He swallowed, searching for the right words. "Well, it's for both of us, actually. It's to -- well, it eases the way, so to speak. It makes it easier, that is, to--" He floundered to a halt, so embarrassed that he was stuttering. He could hardly get the words out, partly because the subject was sexual, but partly because thinking about that, about what he was going to do with it, excited him so much that it was difficult to string a coherent sentence together.

Finally, Ray relented, and grinned at him. "Just teasin' ya. I know what ya want it for. It's lube," he said.

Fraser let out a breath, half relieved, half exasperated at Ray's pretend ignorance. "Yes, exactly."

Ray just grinned at him as he opened the bottle, completely unrepentant. "Anybody ever tell ya yer cute when ya blush, Ben?"

Fraser shook his head, knowing that his ridiculous blush was probably deepening at the unexpected compliment.

"Well, ya are. Even yer ears get pink."

That really embarrassed him. Not knowing what to say, he stared down at the oil he was pouring into his hand. Tried to concentrate on its pleasant floral scent, instead of the way his pale skin was betraying his emotions.

Ray seemed to sense his discomfort, because he changed the subject suddenly. "Want me to put that on for ya?" he teased. "The love oil, I mean."

At least, Fraser thought he was teasing him again. But when he raised his head and saw the hungry glint mixed with the amusement in his partner's eyes, he knew the offer was genuine. But he shook his head. He was getting aroused already, just hearing Ray call the amber liquid "love oil". Merely by rubbing the oil onto his fingers. If Ray touched him with it, he wouldn't be able to control himself long enough to make love to him the way he'd asked him to. "No. I don't think that would be a good idea, Ray."

Ray's gaze dropped down to his groin, and he smiled again. Even more wickedly this time. "Guess not," he observed.

Ben found that arousing, too. Actually, he found everything about Ray so arousing that he knew this wasn't going to be easy. He put the bottle down on Ray's bedside stand, moved over beside him and slipped a pillow under his hips. Then he lowered himself down on top of him. He positioned himself between his legs but supported himself on his forearms, so their hips touched, but his weight wasn't on Ray's chest. "I'm going to kiss you for awhile first," he said softly.

He'd meant to slow things down, but it seemed Ray had other plans. As Ben lowered his head, he felt an immediate rise in tension in the lean body beneath him, in the hands that clutched at his back. "I am all over that idea," Ray smiled. Ray's mouth rose to meet his, and it was hungry. Passionate. He drove his tongue deep into Ben's mouth, sucking eagerly. It excited Ben so much that he had to push the sensation away. Remind himself that if he got aroused too quickly, he was liable to forget his own strength and hurt Ray again. He had to remain calm, and he would, for Ray's sake.

But Ray wasn't making that easy. His mouth was too hot, his kisses too exciting, for Ben to maintain control. So he broke the kiss and pushed Ray's head gently back down onto his pillow. Rained gentle kisses on his face, avoiding his mouth, trying to get him to relax. "Lie back and let yourself float," he said, in the softest, most soothing tone he could summon.

Ray snorted in mingled amusement and exasperation. "What're you, my swim coach? This bed look like a body o' water to you?"

"I wasn't speaking literally, Ray. Please"

"That's what I'm tryin' to do! Please ya," Kowalski grinned. "Come on, Ben"

Beneath his teasing, there was a plea in Ray's voice, mixed with characteristic impatience. Ben sucked in his breath when, instead of relaxing as he'd asked, Ray cheated by caressing him instead. Slipping his hands lower, until they closed over his buttocks, he kneaded them strongly. Sensually. Pressing their cocks tighter together in the process.

"How's that?" he murmured, with an evil little smile.

Ben felt his cock harden even more. "Distracting -- in the extreme," he said truthfully. He meant it as a reproof, but it failed, because his voice was somewhat unsteady. His words said no, but his voice said, yes, yes! So did the rapid tripping of his heart. In fact, Ray's caress felt so good that he had to bite his lip to keep from moaning aloud with pleasure. So good that for a selfish instant, he considered abandoning his plan to go slowly, and simply throwing himself on his lover instead. Ray grinned up at him, obviously wanting him to just that.

But Ben refused to give in to his plea, his enticing grin, or to the erotic demands of his hands, either. He wanted this, their first time at this sort of lovemaking, to be special for Ray. To be as painless as he could possibly make it. So he took a deep breath and tried to still the rapid beating of his own heart. "Close your eyes, Ray," he said gently. "Breathe deeply."

Kowalski rolled his eyes. "What, now ya wanna hypnotize me?" he grumbled. "Thought we were s'posed to be--"

"We are. We will. I promise. Just relax," Fraser said hastily, half afraid his partner was going to get angry. Start yelling at him to get on with it.

But Ray just sighed instead. A gusty little sigh of surrender. "Okay. Have it yer way," he said. He closed his eyes and began taking deeper breaths, as he'd asked him to. Moved his hands up to his waist again, and just held him instead of trying to arouse him.

"Good," Ben said, gratified. "That's it."

He traced Ray's lips with his tongue, and smiled when they parted for him. Ray's eagerness sent another jolt of excitement through him, and he had to steady himself before going on. He planted chaste little kisses on Ray's mouth for a time, not venturing inside, just caressing his hip gently with his left hand, until he felt Kowalski's simmering desire change to tenderness, a kind of mellow enjoyment of his caresses. When Ray's breathing and heartbeat slowed, he reached down between Ray's legs with his right hand, the hand that he'd oiled, found the spot he wanted and slipped a finger inside of him.

Ray's heart leapt against him. In an instant, the air between them was heated again. Sizzling with desire, both Ray's and his. Ben's heart skipped a beat, too, when he felt how tight his blond partner was. Gloriously, wonderfully hot and tight. But Ben persisted in caressing him slowly, exploring the sweetness of his warm mouth while he started to open his body with one finger. Then two... He kept thrusting gently, rotating his fingers, coating him thoroughly inside with the oil, making his tight passage slick with it. Ray groaned suddenly, a low, involuntary sound deep in his throat. Ben stilled, thinking he'd hurt him. But Ray pushed against him, his hands tightening around his waist, his hips lifting to drive his fingers deeper inside him. His gasps were eager, impatient, not pained. More like gasps of pure excitement.

"Mm, mm, mmm!" Ray moaned, breathing harder.

Ben's own heart leapt. The time he'd taken to quiet Ray had paid off. He'd opened him without hurting him, and he was widening deliciously as they kissed. He was also clearly getting aroused by the penetration of his fingers. He couldn't help but wonder how Ray would react when they were replaced by his cock... It was all Ben could do not to pant uncontrollably himself, at the very thought of that. His earlier need to reclaim Ray grew stronger, and his arousal intensified. But he clung stubbornly to his control for Ray's sake. He searched his mind for a distraction, a way to slow himself down. He remembered how Kowalski sometimes talked to him while they made love, and decided to try that. "Tell me, Ray," he whispered in his ear, keeping him dangling. "Tell me you want me..."

Still holding himself up on one arm, he began to move his fingers faster inside of him, and Ray gasped again. "Oh yeah." He began moaning in rhythm with each thrust. "I want you -- so much -- it's been makin' me -- oh, God! -- crazy -- since the day -- I left ya. Okay?" Ray shivered. "Dammit, please, just do it. Fuck me!"

Ray was moving restlessly under him, begging to be taken. But Ben knew he wasn't quite ready. He was rather large when fully aroused, and Ray was slender, and still very tight... He slipped another finger into him. At least, he tried to; but this time, it was difficult. Ray gasped, his anus tightening convulsively before he'd worked even half of his third finger inside.

Ben lifted his head. Ray trembled and sucked in a harsh, hissing breath. Ben froze for a second, knowing that he'd hurt him this time, despite his precautions. So he stilled his probing fingers, lowered his mouth to a sensitive spot on Ray's neck, and kissed it gently. "Are you sure you want this, Ray?" he asked, giving him a chance to back out if it was too painful.

"Are you nuts?" Ray gasped. "Look how hard I am!"

Ben didn't have to look, he knew. Ray's cock was rigid against his flat belly. And he'd also noticed that despite his pain, Ray hadn't let go of him, hadn't repulsed him or tried to stop him. He was still clinging to him, arching against him, and Ben knew that was an answer in itself. Still, despite Ray's denials, he also knew that he was hurting. Since talking seemed to distract him, when he felt the opening of his anus loosen again, he slid his fingers slowly deeper and whispered, "Tell me again, Ray. Say you want me."

Ray shivered under him, arching upward, digging his fingers into his back as he moaned, "Hell yeah! Want you so bad, Ben" He raised his head and kissed Ben's throat, even bit it lightly where his pulse was racing.

It sent a wave of heat crackling over Ben, those hoarse words, that hungry bite. Ray wanted him. Him, not Rylan. He'd said so, said his name, so Ben could finally believe it. Ray wasn't imagining someone else here in his bed, he wanted him: Benton Fraser. He closed his eyes and savored that fact for an instant. It was wildly exciting, and it was what he'd wanted more than anything. When he could speak again, he said hoarsely, "I want you too, Ray."

Then Ben couldn't wait any longer. He was shaking himself, both from hearing that and from the effort of holding back, of holding his own intense desire at bay while he readied his lover. His head spun from the mixed scents of Ray's body, sweaty and musky with arousal, and the lighter, floral aroma of the oil he'd stroked deep inside of him. Ray smelled of flowers and sex, and Ben had never imagined a scent so enticing.

Ray opened his eyes and looked at him. "Do it," he said. His pale blue eyes were intense. Heated, glittering with hunger. He smiled up at Ben, and he looked beautiful, savage, feral: like a wolf. Fraser loved him so much, it seemed his heart would break.

So he gave him what he wanted most. Supporting himself on one arm, he oiled himself up with a trembling hand, then slid inside him. Slowly, inch by inch. Though every cell in his body was screaming to plunge deep, not just to take Ray but to possess him wildly, he held back, and pushed in gently. Carefully. Despite the oil, Ray still felt tight. Tight and hot around him, like a velvety glove. A glove ringed with strong muscles, that squeezed him instinctively as he slid into it. Ray felt so wonderful, Ben groaned as the head of his cock slipped inside of him.

It was all he could do not to come. He closed his eyes for a minute, trying to maintain control as he pushed a fraction deeper.

He heard Ray gasp. He opened his eyes to check on him, and saw that Ray's eyes were tightly shut in a look of pain. His body had gone stiff, and his inner muscles contracted convulsively, squeezing Ben's cock with painful force. Ben held himself still, not going any further. "Are you -- all right, Ray?" he asked.

It was clear that he wasn't, because for a minute, Ray didn't answer. He swallowed and shuddered slightly, his mouth still taut with pain, his fingers digging into Ben's skin for a long moment. Then, just when Ben was about to withdraw, not wanting to hurt him any more, Ray let out a soft sigh. His anus relaxed around Ben's cock, and his tight expression eased into one of surprise, then near bliss. He smiled, running his hands over Ben's biceps in a caress. "Oh yeah," he breathed. "I'm good. I'm fine. It's okay..."

Ben knew what that meant: Ray's pain was easing, had started to turn into pleasure. He was doubly glad he'd decided to make love to him like this, so he could see that amazing look on Ray's face, as pain changed to rapture. That sweet softening, the beginnings of ecstasy. Relieved, he slid into him a little further.

Ray's lips parted in another little gasp. This time, one of pure pleasure. "Oh God," he whispered, sliding his caressing hands up, wrapping them around Ben's neck. "That's so good!"

"Yes," Ben whispered back, kissing the strong, lovely arch of Ray's throat. He was infinitely grateful that he was no longer hurting his lover, that Ray was starting to enjoy this. That he wanted him to go on. He pushed deeper, moaning with the pleasure of it.

But it seemed he'd pushed too far, too fast. Because Ray gasped, the tendons in his neck cording as he bit his lip. Ben stopped. He was halfway inside Ray now, and shaking with the need to finish it, to bury himself completely in his lover. But he still held back. "Did I hurt you?" he panted.

"No!" Ray said. He shook his head, slid his hands downward from Ben's neck, dug his fingers into his straining shoulders. "Go on. Gimme all of it. All o' you!"

But Ben hesitated, feeling the tension in his lover's body.

"I want it," Ray panted stubbornly. "Come on" All at once, he pulled on Ben's shoulders, a determined downward yank that was so strong it caught Ben by surprise. He lost his balance and fell forward with a startled grunt; and the movement drove him all the way into Ray. Suddenly buried to the hilt inside his lover, Ben froze, startled, his head beside Ray's on the pillow, his heart pounding. Ray was so tight, so very hot and tight, and despite the pleasure that throbbed through his cock at being sheathed with such delicious force, he feared it must've hurt him.

"Wait" He would've pulled away, pulled back, but Ray caught him.

"No." Ray slipped his arms around his back, then slid his hands down to Ben's buttocks. Those long, strong, elegant hands held him stubbornly in place as Ray caught his breath. Ben felt his body adjusting to his penetration, heard Ray's breath coming easier. Then he laughed, a warm little chuckle in Ben's ear. Pain drowned in eagerness. "Can't wait. Don't wanna. Come on, Benny Ben!" Ray turned his head and kissed him breathlessly, rocking his hips upward slightly. Just enough to give Ben a taste of what thrusting into him would feel like. "Fuck me!"

Now Ray had what he'd wanted. So did Ben. He was all the way inside Ray. Ray was his, and he was Ray's, body and soul. The realization touched him so deeply that he lifted his head to look at him. To check Ray's face one last time for any signs of serious pain, before the last ounce of his self control deserted him.

Impatient as always, Ray bit his lip, his blond head tossing on the pillow with sheer frustration. "Come ON, Ben! Swear to God -- if ya don't, I'll die!"

Ben blinked. "That's a myth, Ray! Coitus interruptus never killed anyone."

Ray sucked in a breath, half moan, half laugh. "Dunno what that is, but if ya stop now, I'll haveta kill ya!"

Ben nodded. "Understood."

Then they both burst out laughing, so hard that Ben almost fell onto Ray again.

It was the most incredible sensation. Joined together as they were, Ben could feel Ray laughing. It rumbled through him, shaking his belly, and he knew Ray could feel his just as well. Ben thought it was amazingly sexy and judging by the way that Ray stopped giggling, threw his head back and moaned, it was just as arousing to him. The sight of his abandonment shot a bolt of pure desire through Ben. It was thrilling, even moving, that Ray wanted him so much -- enough to endure considerable pain, in order to be close to him in this way. Enough to tease him that he would die unless he took him immediately.

Ben's laughter stilled. He suddenly understood what Ray meant. He felt like he'd die himself unless he finished what he'd started, unless he completed their joining. He lowered his head until his forehead rested on Ray's. "I love you," he whispered, shaken.

Ray tilted his chin up and kissed him. "If ya do, then move. Please! Do me, before I die o' waiting!" he pleaded.

"Right you are," Ben smiled. He pulled Ray's legs apart a bit more, then raised himself up on his forearms again, and began to move. Pulling out of him, then thrusting gently in again. Ray wrapped his legs around him and moaned happily. That sound filled Ben's world. Nothing existed but Ray: his warm, soft mouth, his hands holding him. His hoarse groans of pleasure, filling his mouth like sweet wine as they came together. Ray's body joined to his, wrapped hot and tight around his aching cock. Ray's cock, hot and hard against his belly. They were one, one joined body, not two separate individuals any longer. It was beautiful, perfect, sublime. Ben moaned deliriously, taking his lover's breath then giving it back, wanting to stay deep inside of him forever. This was how it was meant to be; how they were meant to be. Together.

He was home at last.

For a long moment after Ray pulled Ben down onto him, driving him all the way into him, neither of them moved. Despite the care Fraser had taken to prepare him, his cock had filled Ray to bursting, stretched him until it hurt but he loved it, despite the pain. Because it was Ben with him, Ben who was huge, hot and throbbing inside him. Ben who was doing something to him even Stella had never done. Ben who moaned into his kiss as he started to move, making wild sounds he'd never heard before, telling him how much he'd wanted this too. His Ben, who'd said that he loved him.

Ray was in heaven. If he'd known it would feel this good, he'd've had Ben do it to him that first time. They were closer than they'd ever been before, together in a way he'd only imagined until now. He wasn't sure where he ended anymore, and Ben began.

It was sweet, it was hot, it was wild. It was meant to be, and Ray knew it.

He clung to Ben as he filled him, then withdrew. Over and over. Ray got lost in the heat of it. The hot, dark sweetness of it. In the back of his mind, he knew that first times weren't supposed to feel this good, but now that the initial pain had faded, it was amazing. Ben thrust slowly, as if he were caught up in it too, as if he didn't want it to end either. After a time, he bent his dark head and whispered, "Say it again, Ray." It was more like a plea than a command. He sounded a bit desperate. "Tell me you're mine."

For a second, Ray was confused. Already told him that. Wasn't he listening? That was hard to believe. Ben didn't usually miss important stuff like that, and he didn't usually talk much during sex, either. But he'd been asking him that over and over. Ever since they'd started making love, it seemed. All of a sudden, he seemed obsessed with that question--

Suddenly, a memory flashed through his head. He remembered Rylan saying, "You're mine, Ko."

And he knew what this was about. The truth finally burst on him. It's about Pat Rylan.

Ben knew about him and Rylan -- that they'd been lovers. Ray didn't know how he'd found out, but he had. The knowledge speared cold, stark fear through him. Though Ben was buried deep inside him, he froze, frightened and ashamed. Ben gasped out loud, shuddering a little, and Ray realized belatedly that he'd clamped down hard on him with his sphincter muscles.

"Sorry," he gritted, forcing himself to relax.

Ben started moving again, but Ray couldn't let it go. When Ben started making love to him, he'd stopped thinking. He'd been lost in sex, in pure sensation and feeling. But now his mind kicked in, starting racing, trying to figure it out. He must've known all along, he thought. Probably figured it out from the cuff marks on my wrists, back in the hospital. Or maybe when I told him about the AIDS test. It didn't really matter how Ben had twigged to it -- what mattered was what he was going to do about it. The ecstasy that had been building in him started to fade, replaced by embarrassment and fear.

He tried to reassure himself. Okay, so he knows. But he still came here. He still made love to me. Told me he loves me too, and he meant it. I know he did... But he couldn't figure out why. Why Ben would still love him, or why he kept asking him to say that he belonged to him, when he knew what he and Rylan had done. Ray felt guilt for not owning up to it. Worse still, he suddenly realized that he'd never actually said the L word to Ben. Had never told him he loved him.

Maybe he thinks I just want him, but that I was in love with Rylan.

It hit him like a slap in the face. Suddenly, he understood everything: the soap ritual earlier in the shower, Fraser's unusual forcefulness, his repeated, possessive demands... All of it. Ben wasn't just making love to him, he was competing for him -- with a ghost. Rylan's ghost. He's jealous! he realized, shocked. Jealous as I ever was about Vecchio. That was why he'd soaped every inch of his skin, lingered over the bruises Rylan had put on his wrists, then washed him off thoroughly. In some strange way, he'd been trying to remove every trace of his former lover from his body. Ben would've probably had some fancy, Inuit-related, psycho-babble explanation for that. Would've said it was symbolic or tribal or Freudian, or some damn thing. But Ray knew it was jealousy, plain and simple. Ben had been bitten by the green-eyed monster. That was why he kept asking him to declare himself, to say that he belonged to him, when he'd never done that before.

Ben was jealous as hell. And even though he'd never said a word about it, the barely hidden urgency in his voice told Ray that he'd also been hurt. He's scared, too. Scared that I was in love with Pat or somethin' that I can't forget him. That's why he's doin' all this. That's why he finally came out and told me he loves me. He wants to know if this is more than sex. Wants to know if I love him, too. But I didn't say it. Shit! I hurt him worse than I ever knew.

Ben had stopped moving again, and was staring down at him with a worried look, as if he knew he'd withdrawn from him on some level. Ray knew what he had to do to make things right. And it was what he wanted to do anyway. Ben had already said it, it was about time that he returned the favor. That he made him believe it. He reached up and gripped Fraser's biceps tightly, digging his shaky fingers into his skin. "I'm yers, Benny Ben," he said hoarsely, pouring his heart into the words. His soul. "All yers. I love you. Ya hear me? I LOVE YOU! Just you. No one else."

Ben sighed. A long, deep ahhhh, with his whole body. Then he lowered his head and kissed him. "Thank you, Ray," he whispered against his mouth. His voice sounded thick, like his emotions were so strong they almost choked him.

Ray closed his eyes and smiled. Now, he had everything in the world that he wanted. Well, almost everything. And he knew how to get that one last thing. "Don't mention it," he said. "But don't stop, either."

Ben smiled at him. Then he closed his eyes and moved faster.

"That's -- good," Ray panted, staring up into his lover's beautiful, rapt face. "Oh, yeah. Mmmm..."

Ben thrust a bit harder, and a surge of pure excitement flamed through Ray's belly. He closed his eyes too, wanting to feel it, to savor the previously unknown, wonderful sensation of Ben moving inside him. The heat, the delicious friction of it. The feeling of being filled and covered and rocked, all at the same time. It was incredible, like nothing he'd ever known.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw that a few locks of dark hair had fallen over Ben's forehead, and he felt him trembling. When he moved his hands down his arms, he felt the strain in his big body, and realized that Ben was holding back. Even now, even after he'd hauled him down on top of him and told him to go for it, he was still afraid to let go, afraid to hurt him.

To Hell with that, he thought. "Come on, Ben," he chanted, urging him on. "Faster, go faster! I can take it. I want it!"

But Ben didn't want to do it. He shook his head silently, as if he were beyond words, but he didn't move any faster.

Ray grimaced with frustration. He was sick of being coddled, of being treated like an invalid. He wanted his lover, wanted all of him, wanted him now. He thrust his hips up against Ben's, meeting his downward strokes, changing their depth, and Ben's rhythm. "Give it to me!" he panted, determined. "DO it!"

Ben gasped, and bit his lip.

But he couldn't resist the way Ray had increased the tempo. He was forced to thrust deeper, and when he did, Ray felt his cock hit something deep inside him. Some secret g-spot, that wrung a groan of ecstasy from him. "Oh, God. Oh, Jesus -- yeah! Do that--"

As if hearing that finally broke the last of his control, Ben shut his eyes again, and began to put his back into it. His strokes grew faster and harder, thrusting deeper into Ray, so strongly that they pushed his body up the bed. Since arching his hips up to meet those forceful thrusts started to lance pain through his ribs, Ray laid back and held on to Ben's arms to brace himself instead, his own cock hard and bobbing against his stomach as his lover fucked him hard and fast. On and on, deeper and deeper, until almost every thrust hit that spot that strobed ecstasy through his whole body. Ray couldn't talk anymore, he could hardly even breathe. He just gasped for air and hung onto Ben's arms as Ben groaned, hips churning above him. Driving into him. God, he was so strong! So damn strong it felt like he could do this forever


Ray wanted him to do it forever. He didn't care if he died this way, didn't care if it killed him. He could hear himself moaning loudly, almost sobbing, delirious with pleasure, but still, Ben didn't stop.

It was wild. Raw. Ecstatic. Better than anything Ray had ever felt in his life. So the time came, all too soon, when he couldn't hold back anymore. He came, crying out as semen sprayed onto his chest, onto Ben's belly.

Driven over the edge by his climax, Ben cried out too. Ray felt his cock pulse powerfully, then hot liquid flooded him as he came. That blew his mind. He'd felt Ben come inside of him: every throbbing, pulsating inch of his hard cock, the hot jetting of his semen. And he loved it, loved it that he'd done that to him. Loved it even more that he'd been able to feel his climax deep inside his body, like he never had before. It felt hot. Deliriously intimate.

Ray lay limp on the bed, his eyes closed, his heart thundering in his chest. Ben kept on moving inside him. Slower now, and he was still trembling, but he kept moving. Surging gently inside him. Keeping them together, keeping them one. Like he didn't want to let him go, didn't want to let it end yet. "Oh, Ray," he whispered hoarsely.

Ray pulled his head down and kissed him. He didn't have any words for what had just happened. He doubted that anybody had ever invented any that could say what he was feeling. What Ben had done to him. Was still doing.

But sometimes you don't need words. So he just pulled Ben down onto him again, mending ribs and bullet wound stitches be damned, and tried to kiss him with everything he had: his hands, his mouth, his whole body. Hoping that would get the message across. Then he stopped kissing him just long enough for Ben to catch his breath. And just in case he hadn't got the message, he pressed his lips to his shoulder, stroked his dark hair and said it again. "I love you, Ben. Love you. I love you..."

Despite the slight pain in his ribs from Ben's weight, Ray didn't want to let him go. He held him and stroked him for a long time. Ben didn't say anything, but Ray didn't mind, because he didn't pull away either. Didn't pull out of him, even after he softened inside him. He didn't even seem to mind the sticky mess of come on his belly. He slipped his arms around Ray and embraced him too. Kowalski just laid there holding him, loving his weight, his warmth, not wanting to sever their bodies' connection.

But when Ben finally lifted his head, Ray was shocked to see tears in his eyes. "Oh, damn," he whispered, shaken. He pulled away from him then, finally. Forced himself up into a sitting position so that he could search his eyes. He'd thought Ben was okay with this, that he was as excited and pleased and overwhelmed as he was. "What'sa matter? What'd I do? What's wrong?"

Ben shook his head, smiling through his tears as he sat up beside him. "Nothing. It's not that," he whispered thickly at last. "It's just... I've never been so happy, Ray," he said shakily. "I didn't know... it was possible." A single, crystalline tear overflowed his brimming eyes.

Ray smiled, deeply touched. He was relieved they were happy tears, that he hadn't screwed up. What's more, he understood them. Ben was special to him, too. Not even Stella had ever done to him what he did. The way he'd loved her was just different. She'd never needed him the way he felt Ben did. Benny was unique, he reached into places in his heart that even Stella never had. His sweetness made him happier than he could ever say.

He took Ben's tear on his finger and wiped it away with gentle hands. Then he reached out and pulled him up beside him. Ben laid his dark head down onto his shoulder again, and Ray slipped his arms around him. "You deserve it," he said at last, when he could talk again. He caressed his shoulder gently as he spoke, just wanting to touch him. "Ya make me happy too. And I'm gonna keep ya happy. Ya got that? I love you. An' that's my mission in life now. Keepin' you happy."

Ben kissed the crook of his neck and shoulder. "That's easy," he said after a moment, trailing a finger over his chest. "Just don't leave me again, Ray," he whispered. "Please don't."

Ray closed his eyes. The words cut through him. It filled him with embarrassment and pain, that Ben could even think he would ever do that again. Ever be that incredibly blind and stupid, ever again. That'd be like cuttin' my own throat, he thought. It'd kill me.

But he couldn't say that. All he said was, "I won't, Benny Ben. I promise. I promise ya that."

That seemed to be enough. Ben sighed happily in his ear, and Ray held him close, wanting to feel the strong, steady rhythm of his heart.

They fell asleep that way.

When Fraser woke again some time later, he still lay in Ray's arms, with his head on his chest. He couldn't see his face, so he raised his head silently to see if Ray was awake. One of Kowalski's blue eyes opened slowly, as if he felt Ben watching him. Then the other, and Ben was treated to the sight of his lover looking blissful. Smiling a slow, sweet, very satisfied smile. "Hey, lover," Ray said softly.

Ben's heart contracted as a warm flood of happiness washed over him. He wondered if Ray could have any idea what such things meant to him. He'd been lonely for so long... He knew he'd never get tired of having Ray call him that, or of seeing him smile that way, contented and happy, because of him. Ray's happiness made him happy, fed back into his own contentment, which he then gave back to Ray in an endless loop. No wonder, Ben thought, the circle is a powerful symbol for so many cultures throughout the world: that's what love is. Endless, beautiful, unbroken, giving and taking, yin and yang...

But he kept his philosophical insight to himself, and just smiled back at his partner. "Hello, Ray," he said. "Are you hungry?" he asked, realizing with a guilty start that it had been hours since Ray had eaten. He'd had nothing but a little cereal in the hospital that morning, before they left. But Kowalski shook his head.

"Naw. Not for food, anyway." And the wicked grin that spread across his face left Ben in no doubt as to his meaning.

Ben would've insisted that he eat something, but he knew that Ray didn't eat much. He never had. He seemed to exist on a diet of rivers of coffee, broken only by the occasional sandwich or pizza. So Ben resolved to let a few more hours go by before pressing food on him. And as Ray's blue eyes smiled up at him, he found his own thoughts turning from food back to desire. Taking Ray like that had been incredible. Just remembering it made him want to make love to him again. The realization made him blush. He didn't even know if Ray would ever want to do that again. He'd taken him hard. Not as hard as he could have, he'd retained just enough control not to slam into him roughly but Ray had still urged him into thrusting far more forcefully than he'd meant to. It had been glorious for him, but he wasn't sure how it had been for Kowalski.

It embarrassed him that he'd been so lost in his own pleasure that he hadn't even thought to ask him. He lowered his eyes again. "Are you all right, Ray? I mean... I didn't hurt you, did I?" he asked, half afraid he might've cracked his mending ribs in his fervor.

"Naw. I'm fine." Ray's reply was immediate, and casual, and it took a weight off of Ben's shoulders.

"Good. I'm glad."

Ray pulled his head down and kissed him warmly. "'Izzat what ya thought all that screamin' was about?" he smiled, his voice husky-drowsy with sleep and satisfaction.

Ben shrugged. "I wasn't sure. Your ribs--"

Ray snorted softly. "They're fine. I'm not made o' glass, ya know. Not gonna break on ya."

"It's just that your injuries are so recent--"

"Don't worry about 'em," Ray said firmly. "Toldja, I'm not into pain. So if ya do somethin' I don't like, I'll let ya know. Got it?"

Ben smiled, feeling a bit silly that Ray had had to tell him to stop babying him. He'd just gotten so used to doing that lately, it was hard to get out of the habit, even when they were intimate like this. "Yes, Ray."

Kowalski's grin widened, and he lifted an eyebrow. "Or are ya fishin' for compliments? Huh?"

Ben shook his head instantly. "No!" he protested, embarrassed. "I would never"

Kowalski just laughed. "I know. But I'll give ya one anyway. Ya were wonderful. Fan-fucking-tastic, Benny Ben!"

Fraser ducked his head, feeling a red flush creeping up his neck. He'd never been comfortable talking about sex, but Ray was totally at ease with it. He envied him that, and he was also very gratified to know that Ray had enjoyed the experience as much as he had. He struggled to find the right words to return the compliment, and finally settled for, "So were you, Ray."

It seemed to be enough. Kowalski leered at him playfully. "Thanks. I loved it. Wanna do it again?"

Excitement flared in Ben for a second but then he noticed that Kowalski's blue eyes still looked a trifle heavy-lidded. A bit sleepy. And he realized that all their exertions in the past few hours must've worn him out. His body still needed to devote a lot of energy to healing itself, but Ray had just diverted a lot of that into repeated sessions of lovemaking.

Fraser felt very guilty, and he pushed away his desire to take Ray again, knowing that it was selfish. "Yes, but I'm a bit tired," he lied. "Would you mind if we got a little more sleep first?" he asked.

Ray shook his head. "Naw. Guess I wore ya out, huh?" He grinned suddenly, lifted his arms above his head and stretched, looking like nothing so much as a lean, contented cat.

Ben raised an amused eyebrow. "Now who's fishing for compliments?" he asked.

Ray burst out laughing. Ben leaned over to kiss him, then pulled away, intending to lay by his side while they slept. But Ray reached for him again. "Hey! Come mere, you"

Ben pretended to resist, and they tussled for a moment. In the end, a laughing, breathless Ray ended up on top of him. "'Kay," he grinned, panting a little. "This is good. Now yer my prisoner, so I guess you'll just have to stay right here till I go to sleep." He slipped his arms around Ben, settling his body more firmly over him.

Ben rolled his eyes. "Oh no. A fate worse than death," he intoned. "I don't know if I can stand it"

Ray grinned. "Oh, shut up. Ya love it, ya know ya do."

And Ben did. He had never had anyone like Ray in his life, someone he could laugh and tease with so freely. Someone who gave him total freedom in bed as well, who asked him what he wanted and who seemed to love everything he did. Kowalski was a marvel to him. So when the blond detective dropped his chin down onto Ben's chest, smiling at him, Ben smiled back. "Perhaps," he allowed.

Ray turned his head so that his cheek lay on Ben's chest. "No. No perhaps. No maybe," he said firmly. "Said ya love me, and Mounties don't lie, do they?"

Ben's breath caught in his throat, and he reached to stroke Ray's hair, very gently indeed. "No," he said softly.

"'Kay then." Ray sounded satisfied.

No, more than satisfied. He sounds happy, Ben thought. And knowing it was because of him was the best part of that knowledge.

"Sweet dreams, Benny Ben."

"You too, Ray," he answered.

But as he lay stroking Kowalski's hair, and Ray's breathing began to slow and deepen, Ben found himself growing troubled again. His thoughts turned to Rylan, as they so often did. He couldn't help wondering when Ray was going to be honest with him about it, when he was going to tell him about their affair. Why he hadn't trusted him enough to do so before now. Because he hadn't, that name still lay like a lead weight on his heart. It was the one of the few things about Ray that still frightened him. He reached out and traced Ray's tattoo gently with one finger, then said, "Ray, can I ask you a question?"

Ray moved his own hand gently on Ben's hip, caressing him lightly. Eyes closed, he murmured, "Sure."

But Fraser felt guilty. Ray was tired, and drifting towards sleep already. His body was relaxed, and his emotions so open and unguarded after their lovemaking, that he probably would've agreed to anything at that moment. He'd given him permission to ask a question without knowing what the nature of that question would be, how personal it was. That gave Ben a pang, but the matter had been weighing so heavily on him for so long that he suddenly felt he couldn't stand not knowing for one more moment. Even his knowledge of Ray's weariness couldn't hold back his long suppressed jealousy any more.

Still, his mouth went dry with fear as he said, "You and Patrick Rylan. Were you -- that is, was he your lover?"

Ray tensed instantly, as Fraser had suspected that he would. For a long, awkward moment, he didn't answer; but his wary stillness was a kind of answer in itself. Then at last, just when Ben was beginning to fear he wasn't going to say anything, he grated, "He's dead. Pat's dead, okay? Just let it go."

Fraser closed his eyes. The words were a warning, and he knew it, but he couldn't heed it. Despite the anguish and guilt he heard in Ray's voice, and though he knew he was tired, he couldn't back away from this. Hurtful or not, it was too important. Though he was already convinced they'd been lovers, he still needed to know how deep their involvement had been. He desperately needed to know if Ray had really loved Rylan. If Ray's renewed involvement with him was perhaps just a way of getting over his grief, or if there was a chance Ray really did love him now, as he'd just claimed he did.

A short while ago, with Ray groaning out his passion in his arms, and Fraser's own desire at peak intensity, Kowalski's declaration of love had been easy to believe. He still wanted to believe it. He knew how honest Ray was -- it wouldn't be like him to lie. Especially not about something so important.

But doubts had crept into his mind nonetheless. He had heard that men often said things during sex that they didn't really mean. Carried away by the heat of the moment, they'd make impassioned declarations just to please their partners, and to obtain release. He was afraid he might've unwittingly maneuvered Ray into that. After all, frightened by his affair with Rylan, he'd kept after him, asked him repeatedly to say that he was his, until Ray might've been so aroused he was desperate until he would've said just about anything to get the physical release he craved. Under those circumstances, how could he know if Ray had told him the truth?

Fraser searched his mind for the right words to use, the correct way to approach him on this touchy subject. "Ray... You remember how you were jealous of Ray Vecchio? How you thought we were lovers?"

"Yeah." Ray's voice was gentler, almost sheepish.

"Do you remember how that felt?" Ben asked quietly.

There was another silence, then suddenly Ray lifted his head and stared into Ben's eyes, a little frown furrowing his brow. "Izzat what this is about?" he breathed. "Yer still jealous o' Pat?"

Still? Fraser dropped his gaze, embarrassed. He wasn't sure what Ray meant by the word if he was surprised that he was still jealous of Rylan now that they'd made love, or if he'd known for some time that he had dark feelings about his former partner. Either way, he couldn't deny it. "Yes. I'm afraid so," he admitted quietly. "I know it's not right. It is, in fact, reprehensible on my part. Your relationship with him is probably none of my business, but"

"No!" Ray interrupted. "No, ya got a right to ask," he said. "Ya do."

That gave Fraser a little glow. It was good to hear Ray say he had some kind of claim on him, some right to be concerned about what he did.

"And yer right. We were sleepin' together," he said heavily. "But how the hell did you find out about it, anyway?"

Ben shifted uncomfortably beneath him, trying to decide how to answer. Whether it would be better to confess that he'd heard rumors or admit that he'd noticed Ray's bruises. Finally, he decided to come clean about all of it. After all, it was things left unspoken between them that had caused their disastrous breakup in the first place. He wanted things to be better for them this time around, and he knew that he couldn't expect Ray to be the only one to change in order to accomplish that. He had to change too. Hard though it was for him, he had to be more open and honest with Ray about his feelings. "I heard... rumors that Rylan was bisexual," he said awkwardly. "That he was... sadistic. And when you were in the hospital, I noticed the marks on your wrists"

Ray pulled away from him suddenly. Sat up and moved to the edge of the bed. He ran a hand through his blond hair, every line in his slender body taut with tension. Ben's heart sank. He'd wanted to be open and honest, but judging by Ray's reaction, he must've bungled it, and bungled it badly. He'd never been any good at talking about emotional things, it was probably idiotic of him to bring this up so soon... He should've just let him sleep. Ray was probably furious with him now.

But after an awkward moment, Kowalski just sighed. "Thought ya might've. But why didn't ya say somethin' before?" Before Ben could answer that, Ray waved a hand impatiently. "Never mind. Guess I shoulda' told ya." He shrugged uncomfortably. "It's just -- it was freaky, ya know? So I... didn't want ya to know about it," he confessed at last. To Fraser's surprise, he didn't sound angry. He sounded guilty, even ashamed.

It wasn't at all the reaction Fraser had expected, and he had no idea what it meant. "I'm not sure I understand, Ray."

Ray sighed. "I'm not surprised. Didn't understand it myself. Not until after Pat died. Not until I saw you again."

Fraser frowned in confusion. "Me? What do you mean?"

Ray ran a hand through his hair again, his fingers unsteady. "It took me awhile to figure the whole thing out. Me and him. Didn't really start to until I saw you in the hospital. Until after he died..." His voice trailed off for a minute, his eyes clouding over as they always did when Rylan's death was mentioned. For a moment, Ben was afraid he wouldn't say anything more.

But then he shook himself a little and went on. "Before that I was just -- I dunno what. Not gettin' anywhere. Tried to throw myself into my work, and Rylan and me, we racked up some busts, but... I still didn't feel good. Never felt good unless I was bustin' heads, and that's not bein' a good cop. And outside o' that, it was worse. I couldn't make decisions, I was just"

"Drifting?" Ben cut in, remembering a warning his father had given him one night in a dream, while he and Ray were apart. Wishing more than ever that he'd had the sense to heed it.

"Yeah," Ray nodded, his face shadowed. "Driftin'. Things got a little crazy." He shot a nervous glance at Ben, then looked away again. "Rylan was kinda' kinky. But then you already guessed that," he said in a low voice. "He got off on bein' rough. On pain."

Ben bit back his anger, and confined himself to a mere, "I see."

But some of the revulsion that he also felt must've showed, because Ray shook his head. "No, ya don't. He was seriously screwed up, I know. But it wasn't all his fault," he said slowly. "His mom died when he was a baby, and his old man beat him, cuffed him and raped him from the time he was little. And he never had any friends growin' up, cuz he didn't want anyone to find out what his dad was doin' to him... He had nobody to stick up for him, his whole life. Nobody who cared. So he didn't know anythin' else, anythin' better I mean."

"I'm sorry," Ben said. And for the first time since he'd guessed that Rylan had been Ray's lover, he was genuinely sorry for the man. He'd never guessed at his horrific background, had never even bothered to wonder what might've twisted a man into what Pat Rylan was rumored to be; and he suddenly realized that his lack of curiosity had been deliberate, and self-serving. He hadn't wanted to understand Rylan. He'd just wanted to dislike him because he'd been his rival for Ray's love and knowing he was a sadist had made that easy. He was ashamed of his unfairness.

"Yeah," Ray said quietly. Ben saw pain etched clearly on his face. "I'm sorry too. Cuz Pat... he wasn't all bad, ya know? He was smart, and he was a good cop. And he looked up to me. Almost like... like he was my little brother or somethin'. Right from the first. I think that's why I stuck with him. I think maybe, after we broke up... I dunno, maybe I needed that."

Ray turned away from him, as if he couldn't meet his eyes after admitting that. Fraser winced a little, not comforted by the thought that Ray had been devastated by their separation, too. Yet he understood what he was saying about Rylan's admiration for him. He'd often felt the same kind of admiration from Ray himself. He'd felt proud knowing that in some ways, Kowalski looked up to him. Ben knew the appeal of such approbation from a fellow officer, and knew it would be doubly seductive to someone whose ego had been badly hurt, as Ray's had been by his imagined desertion of him for Ray Vecchio.

"I see," he said quietly. "It's all right, Ray."

Ray shook his head again. "No! No, it isn't. There's more to it, stuff I haven't told you..." He got up off the bed and began to pace, avoiding Fraser's eyes. "I didn't start it, though. Us havin' sex, I mean. I want ya to know that. It was Pat's idea, not mine."

Fraser felt a secret surge of satisfaction at that news, but he hid it, knowing he was being petty. Knowing, too, that Ray wasn't finished yet. He was afraid to exult too soon, afraid to get cocky only to find that Ray had ended up falling in love with Rylan after all.

"Still... I let him do it. I'm not tryin' to say it was all his fault. It wasn't. I coulda said no, and I didn't. But it was weird... I didn't like it," Ray confessed in a low voice. "What he did, how he -- touched me. He was so rough, havin' sex with him was like bein' run over by a steam roller. Most o' the time, I never even came. I couldn't."

Fraser closed his eyes for a second. He was both embarrassed at hearing such intimate details about Ray's sex life, and deeply relieved, at the same time. Now that he knew the truth, it dispelled his two worst fears. First, that Ray was sadistic. It was clear that he wasn't, that he hadn't liked the things Rylan had done to him in bed. There was no doubt of that. Ben had been listening very hard to his confession, and the distaste, the embarrassment in his voice when he spoke of them had been deep and genuine. He was selfishly glad of it. Now he could stop worrying that Ray would ever try to hurt him, or ask to be hurt, when they were together. Despite his affair with Rylan, Ray hadn't changed.

Last, but certainly not least, since Ray hadn't enjoyed Rylan's touch, it seemed obvious that he couldn't have been in love with him, either. Ben was too ashamed to admit it, but he'd worried that Ray's declaration of love for him was suspect not only because of its timing, but because of Ray's intense grief over Rylan's death. That had frightened him into thinking Ray was mourning a lost love, not just his partner; and that he might become obsessed with his memory, as he had once been with Victoria's.

He wasn't worried about that anymore. Ray had said that he loved him only him and now, he finally believed it. At last, Rylan's shadow lifted off of Fraser's heart.

But all at once, he realized that Ray's confession raised another question. He frowned. "Then why did you do it, Ray?" The words slipped out before he could stop them.

Ray winced visibly. "Dunno," he said uncomfortably. "I know I shouldn't've. Shoulda' stopped it, I know. I tried, but I just couldn't," he said hoarsely. "It was like -- he needed me, and he was my partner. And he was so young... Kinda' felt responsible for him, I guess. Like I owed it to him or somethin'. Didn't want our partnership to fail, like ours did. And he wanted me so much -- even though I didn't want him, I think I needed that. Needed the strokes. For somebody to want me. Or maybe" He trailed off suddenly. Shook his head. Avoided Fraser's eyes.

"Maybe what, Ray?" Ben asked gently.

"Well, this may sound crazy, but... Sometimes I think I stuck with him to punish myself," he confessed hoarsely.

Ben blinked, stunned.

"Didn't know it at the time," Ray went on haltingly. "But I thought about it after he died. When I saw you again, I knew I never even really wanted him. So I wondered why I let him do what he did to me. And I think after I left you, I started to feel like I'd been unfair, ya know? Like I shouldn't've just walked out without tellin' ya what was wrong. What I thought ya did. So maybe bein' with him was a way to get back at myself. Felt like I didn't deserve anythin' better, after what I did to you."

Ben felt so guilty that he couldn't say anything. He'd suspected that Ray had fallen into a relationship with Rylan out of sheer loneliness, for which he was partly to blame. But he'd never expected to hear him say that he'd neither wanted to have sex with Rylan, nor enjoyed it. Knowing that his actions had driven Ray to something worse than a casual affair -- to degrading, unfulfilling sex with a sadist not just to ease his loneliness, but as a kind of self punishment shocked and hurt him.

Ray rolled his shoulders, as if trying to relieve intolerable tension. "Umm... That probably sounds crazy to you, huh?" he ventured. "Maybe it is. Maybe I'm nuts. Perverted. I dunno..."

Ray sounded increasingly desperate, and Ben knew his silence was contributing to that. If it was hard for him to hear these things, it must've been even harder for Ray to admit to them. And now Ray was worried that he was being judged for them, that he thought he was abnormal. Twisted. But the truth was, Ben was ashamed of himself. Of his own part in causing Ray to do such things, not of Ray. So he forced down his feelings of shock and guilt at Ray's intimate revelations, and got to his feet. Went over to his friend and put a hand on his shoulder. "No, Ray," he said quietly. "You're not crazy. Nor are you perverted. I think you were just lonely, and confused. And for that, I'm sorry."

Ray turned wide, surprised eyes on him. "Sorry? You? For what? It's not yer fault"

Fraser hung his head. "In a way, I think it is."

"That's nuts," Ray protested.

Fraser forced himself to look up and meet Ray's eyes again. "Is it? I never came after you, Ray. Never tried to set things right. I could have, but I didn't. So the fact that you turned to someone else... Well, it's partly my fault."

Ray shook his head. "No it isn't! I don't blame ya for not comin' after me. Didn't expect ya to. Hell, I broke up with ya! Shoved ya, in front o' everybody"

Fraser sighed, looking down at his feet. "I remember. And I think that's what really held me back. I wanted to contact you again. I picked up the phone a hundred times, even wrote you a letter once... But I tore it up, because I kept remembering that: how humiliated I felt when you pushed me, and kicked my hat. It kept me from reaching out to you again like I should have." He raised his eyes to his lover's finally, and looked straight at him. "I let pride hold me back," he confessed, baring his own soul, his failings, as Ray had just bared his. "I shouldn't have just let you go like I did. I should've made you tell me why you were so upset. I should've found a way to make you talk to me, to make you tell me what was wrong. But I didn't, and I'm sorry."

Ray stared at Fraser. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Fraser had always been like this, had always been willing to shoulder the blame for everything, but this was too much. After he'd cut him loose on mere unfounded suspicions that weren't even true, after he'd hurt and humiliated him in front of a whole squadroom full of cops, then taken another lover just weeks later, Fraser was trying to say it was all his fault!

Ray shook his head. Put his hands on Fraser's shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. "Listen," he said. "If this whole mess is anybody's fault, it's mine. I got crazy, I threw you out over somethin' that never even happened -- I acted like a total jerk. So I don't wanna hear you say this is all yer fault anymore. Okay?"

"But Ray, I--"

Ray smiled. "No buts, Ben." He leaned forward and kissed him. Wrapped his arms around him and kissed him for a long time, until he felt the Mountie relax and lean into him. Until he felt him forget all about guilt, and remember how good this felt: the two of them together, the way it should be. Then he finally ended the kiss, and leaned his forehead against Ben's, still hugging him. "Let's just say we both acted like jerks, then, and let it go at that, okay?" he asked softly. "We both made mistakes, and we're both sorry... But it's done now. I just want us to get past it. Can we do that?"

Ray almost held his breath. Suddenly, he wasn't sure that hugging Ben at such a moment was the right thing to do. Towards the end of their marriage, Stella had hated it when he did this; when he tried to hold her close, to show affection in order to end an argument or settle a disagreement. She'd accused him of trying to sweet talk her, instead of dealing with the 'issues'. Still, he'd fallen back into the old habit unconsciously with Ben, and once his arms were around him, he didn't want to pull away. So he stood there holding him, waiting to see how he'd react.

Luckily, Fraser didn't seem to have an 'issue' with hugging him. Judging by the way he was stroking his back and holding onto him, he seemed to like it. He seemed to be enjoying the embrace itself, as much as setting things straight about Rylan and their breakup. It suddenly struck Ray that Ben seemed to enjoy touching of all kinds, not just sexual, but the affectionate kind too -- to an amazing degree, considering his shyness. More than Stella ever had.

Maybe he never got much of it, he reflected. Haveta make that up to him. He smiled to himself. Jeez, what a chore! Havin' to touch Benny Ben a lot. Poor me. He felt lucky, even privileged, to be the one to shower Ben with affection.

"I want to get past it," Ben whispered. "It's forgotten, Ray."

Ray smiled. "Me too."

Ben turned his head, and kissed Ray's cheek gently. "I love you, Ray," he confessed, in that sweet, shy voice that he only used when he was revealing his deepest feelings.

Ray pulled him even closer and held him tightly, the way he'd dreamed of doing on all those lonely nights without him. Not even caring that it hurt his ribs. Thinking what an incredible gift his big, beautiful, affectionate, and best of all, romantic Mountie was. Wondering what the hell he'd ever done that was good enough to deserve him. "Love you too, Benny Ben," he whispered back, his eyes bright. "Swear to God I do." He pressed a kiss into the side of his neck, to seal the vow.

And Ben hugged him back.

They slept for awhile after that. When they woke again, they took another shower. Afterwards, Fraser put his pants back on. When he checked his watch, he saw with a faint sense of surprise that it was 10:30 p.m. "You should have something to eat," he told Ray, remembering that his lover hadn't eaten all day.

Kowalski shrugged, typically indifferent to the idea of food. "Okay."

Ben made Ray put his rib brace back on, and a robe too. As they went to the kitchen, Ben reflected that the food and the brace were for Ray's benefit, but the robe was for his. He wanted Kowalski to take a break from lovemaking long enough to eat, and he wasn't all that sure of his own self control if Ray lounged around naked in front of him while he did that. He also suspected that Ray probably wouldn't sit still long enough for him to cook anything elaborate, so he just made him some chicken soup and a sandwich.

He heated the soup and carried it and the sandwich to Ray's table. "Would you like some milk with that?" he asked, knowing that Frannie had left some in his refrigerator for him.

But Kowalski made a face at the suggestion. Shook his head. "Rather have a beer, thanks."

"Milk would be better for you," Ben said automatically. "The calcium would aid the rebuilding of your ribs"

"Thank you, Mr. Milk Advisory Board," Ray cut in wryly. He rose and stubbornly headed for the refrigerator himself. "But I'm havin' beer. Milk! Yecch! That's for little kids."

Ben decided not to remind Ray of the fact that he often drank milk himself, and didn't consider himself a child. He didn't want to argue over something so trivial.

But to his surprise, Ray seemed to remember his preference for milk without being prompted. Once he had a bottle of beer in his hand, he turned and shot him a glance, scratched at his neck a bit nervously.

"Ummm... not that ya have to be a kid to drink it," he said hastily. "I mean... some guys do. Drink milk, I mean. Well, not most guys, but--"

Fraser's eyebrow rose. It was rare that Ray ever got so embarrassed that he babbled; and highly entertaining, too. He just watched him, vastly amused.

"But some guys do," Ray repeated. "And that's okay." Then he stopped, suddenly realizing that he was being teased. He made a face at Ben as he headed back to the table with his beer. "Look, what I'm tryin' to say is, I'm not hungry, but I'll eat the soup and stuff. I just draw the line at milk. Okay?"

Ben nodded. He hadn't realized that Ray was just eating to indulge him, and the knowledge warmed him inside. Made his refusal to drink milk inconsequential. Ray was trying to get along with him, was trying to please him. Trying harder than he ever had in the past. "Yes. Okay, Ray," he said.

Ray sat down beside him with a happy little smile. Ben echoed it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so blissful, just being with someone. The emotion had nothing to do with lust. It was a quieter, warmer, deeper kind of feeling. It's love, he thought, with a sense of wonder. This is what real love feels like: being happy just to be in your lover's presence. This is what being in a relationship feels like.

It was a revelation to him. He and Victoria had never had this. With her, there hadn't been time for moments like this. There hadn't been time for much more than frantic sex and devastating goodbyes. So as he watched Ray eat the food he'd prepared, Ben let the new, sweet pleasure of a quiet little domestic moment fill his heart.

He'd never known love could have so many nuances; so many dimensions. But he was grateful for all of them. Despite what his Dad had said, he'd been given a second chance at love after all, and he was determined, this time, to make it work. He felt that Ray was, too. His willingness to eat to please him might've seemed a small and insignificant thing to another man, but Fraser knew it came from love. They were learning to compromise; about little things, anyway. It was a promising start. Maybe this time, they would stay together. He devoutly hoped so.

"How's the soup, Ray?" he asked gently.

With the spoon halfway to his mouth, Ray paused and smiled at him. For no reason at all. Or like he knew what he was really saying, and was saying it back to him. "Good, Frayzh. Terrific," he grinned, his blue eyes lit from within.

Yes, Ben thought. It's a very good start.

Ray chewed his sandwich slowly. Normally, he would've just crammed it in his mouth and wolfed it down, but not now. He didn't want to spill crumbs all over the place now. Didn't want to look like a pig, because Ben was watching him. Doin' his Mountie Mother Hen thing again. Not that he minded. He didn't even mind having to eat neat, because it touched him, how Ben always worried about him. Looked after him. No one had done that for him since Stella left. He hadn't even realized how much he'd missed it. But it gave him a little glow, just sitting there chowing down with Ben's blue eyes on him.

He felt himself smiling for no reason. Saw Ben doing it too. Couple o' lovestruck fools, he thought, and smiled again, without knowing it.

Ben's kindness didn't stop with making sure he got enough to eat, either. To his enormous surprise and relief, he'd listened to his tale of his weird affair with Pat Rylan without freaking out or getting mad at him. Ray was still trying to absorb that. He'd been so afraid of telling Ben about Rylan for so long, it was still hard to believe that he'd let him off the hook for it. He'd been terrified that Ben would kick his ass out the door as some kinda wacko pervert if he ever found out. But despite his obvious distaste for Pat's sadism, he hadn't reacted badly. He'd been totally understanding about the whole mess. Hell, he'd even tried to take the blame for it, though he'd managed to set him straight on that dumb idea.

Ray felt he owed Ben big time, for his forgiveness. But he hadn't repaid him for it very well. He still hadn't been entirely honest with him about Rylan, and as Ben sat beside him contentedly watching him eat, it started to bug him again. He frowned down at his sandwich. He still hadn't told him all of it. Not knowing what Ben's reaction to his twisted tale would be, he'd held the worst of it back. Hadn't said anything about Pat's rape attempt, or his suspicion that Pat's guilt about it might've had something -- maybe everything -- to do with his death. How he might've thrown himself in front of those two goons' guns because of it, or else because he loved him that much. He hadn't told Ben that he felt responsible for Pat's murder/suicide, whichever it was. Since their heated argument in the car earlier, he'd pushed the tragedy out of his head. Promised himself he wouldn't even think about it until he got things straightened out with Ben.

But now they were. Ben was his; he was Ben's. Ben had said so. They both had. Despite his confession that he'd had an affair with Pat in the meantime, against all odds, Ben had forgiven him; and now they were both back where they belonged. Together again. And the feeling between them -- the love, the passion, the level of trust was even deeper and stronger than it had been four months ago, when the whole thing started. Ray was happy, happier than he'd been in years. On Cloud Nine. Floating.

But Rylan wasn't. He was six feet under, in the cold, cold ground. Now that his name had come up again, Ray's guilt came rushing back with a vengeance. Dimming his euphoria. Making him feel like he didn't deserve it. Like maybe he didn't deserve Ben. Not after the way he'd messed up with Pat. Not when he might be responsible for his own partner's death.

I gotta tell him.

He sipped his beer moodily, avoiding Ben's eyes. He wanted to tell him. Didn't want to keep secrets from him, not any more. But he was afraid. Sure, Ben had forgiven him so far, but who knew what his limits were? What if telling him about Pat's rape attempt turned out to be the straw that broke the Mountie's back? How could he risk that now? How the hell would he even say it? "Guess what, Frayzh? Not that it matters, but I think Rylan mighta killed himself cuz he loved me. Oh, yeah, and did I ever mention that he tried to rape me, too?"

Ray groaned to himself, just thinking about it. He knew he should tell the truth, but he wasn't sure what it would do to Ben. After all, he'd admitted that he was jealous of Pat anyway. And judging from the way he'd acted when they were making love, from the way he'd washed him off and the number of times he'd made him promise that he was his now, Ben hadn't been just a little jealous, he'd been jealous as hell. Which was flattering, but scary too. If Ben hadn't figured their affair out on his own, and asked about it, Ray wasn't sure he'd've ever had the guts to tell him. He was too afraid of losing him.

And if he told him now that Pat had been madly in love with him, that might bring back the green-eyed monster with a vengeance. Might freak Ben out all over again. Might even make him leave. He might think I was lyin' when I said I love him, Ray reflected uneasily. He sure as hell didn't want that to happen. Ben was the only person other than Stella who he'd ever said those words to. They weren't easy for him to say -- and he'd only just made Ben believe them. He didn't want to fuck that up now. So he kept silent.

Ben frowned a little, watching him, as if he knew something was on his mind. Ray pushed the bowl of soup away. He'd finished the sandwich, but only half finished the soup. Thinking about Rylan had killed his appetite. "Thanks, Ben. That was good," he said. "But I'm done. Full. Can't eat another bite."

Ben smiled, as if that simple statement had made his day. It never failed to amaze Ray, how little he had to do to make him happy. Another man might've taken Ben for granted because of it, but to Ray, he seemed little short of miraculous. Except for the first few years they were married, he'd never been able to do enough to satisfy Stella. But with Ben, all he had to do sometimes was smile, and wham! The Mountie lit up like a kid at Christmas.

How the hell did I ever get so lucky?

But Ray had learned the hard way that luck and love didn't always last. Even if people said they loved you, if you did or said the wrong thing, they might leave you. Which only made the thought of telling Ben the whole truth about Rylan's death that much harder. "Mind if we go back to bed?" he asked instead, knowing he could forget his guilt if Ben touched him again. He always forgot about everything else, when he was in his arms.

But literal-minded Ben didn't catch his drift.

"Certainly," he said promptly. "I know you must be tired." Ben leaned over and picked up his soup bowl, and carried it to the sink to empty it out.

Ray shook his head, watching him, admiring the way his muscles bunched and played as he moved. Wow. Amazing, that anyone so beautiful can be so innocent. So naïve. Amazing how fuckin' sexy that can be, too.

"I didn't mean to sleep," he said, grinning at the Mountie suggestively.

Blue eyes flew to his. "Hmm?" Ben asked. Then his eyes widened with sudden comprehension, "Oh. Ahh. I see," he added, blushing.

That little blush was all Ray needed. In a flash, he forgot all about Rylan. Forgot about everything else but Ben. He was in heaven. He'd forgotten how it felt to love someone so much. He waited until Ben dumped his dirty dishes in the sink, then he grabbed his wrist impatiently. "Come on. Time for some more o' that 'Ahh' stuff," he grinned, pulling the Canadian towards his bedroom.

Ben didn't resist.

They made love again. Not in the heated rush that they had before, but slowly, tenderly, learning each other all over again after their long separation. When it was over, Ray still couldn't let Ben go. He'd been dreaming and fantasizing about Ben ever since he left him. Now he wanted to live some of those fantasies. "Lie back, Benny Ben," he said softly. "Close yer eyes. I just wanna touch you..." When Ben did, he started kissing him, gently, endlessly, from head to toe. Worshipping him with his mouth, as Ben had once done to him.

Midway through his slow, rapt exploration of his body, Ben whispered curiously, "What are you doing, Ray?" He sounded a bit surprised.

Ray smiled to himself. Oh, so nobody's ever done this to you before either, huh? he thought. Cool. Nice to know I'm the first. But aloud, he just said simply, "Lovin' you."

It must've been the right answer, because Ben closed his eyes with a happy little sigh, and didn't say another word.

Afterwards, they lay together in Ray's bed, quiet and vastly content. Ray lay on top of Ben, idly tracing little circles around his nipple. He grinned as he watched it harden at his touch. He couldn't get over how responsive Fraser was, how his beautiful body always roused at his caresses. It was like Christmas, like a gift he probably didn't deserve. "Hey. Lookit that," he teased. "Whaddaya s'pose that means, huh?"

"I don't know, Ray," the Mountie said, in his most innocent tone. "That I'm cold, perhaps?"

Ray snickered. "Try again..."

"That you're insatiable, perhaps?"

Ray laughed. "Now yer talkin'!"

Ben laughed too, then he sobered. "You know, you really should rest, Ray. I"

Ray snorted. "I'm restin'! I'm in bed, aren't I?"

"Well, yes, but"

"I'm nice and warm and cozy, aren't I?" he asked with apparent innocence as he reached down, found Ben's cock and began stroking it.

Fraser caught his breath, shivering with pleasure. "Well, yes, but"

"And I got a nice... big... warm... Mountie for a pillow, don't I?" he went on, moving his hips gently so that his cock thrust against Ben's.

Ben moaned, and Ray caught that moan in a hungry kiss. When they finally came up for air, Ben blinked helplessly. "What was the question again?"

Ray grinned. "The only question is, how do you want me this time?"

"Any way you want, Ray," Ben whispered happily. "Any way at all..."

The next time Ben woke, it was sometime in the early morning, just after dawn. He felt his nipple tingling, bent his head and saw that Ray was kissing it. His blond hair silvery in the grayness, his lips tender, Ray sucked gently at him, like a baby nursing at his mother's breast. Ben raised a sleepy hand to touch his hair, and felt himself throbbing slowly. He smiled at the realization that Ray could make him hard even in his sleep. And despite his tiredness and the many times they'd already made love, he found himself aching to do it again. He rolled slightly towards Ray, and a tiny, instinctive sound came from his throat. A whimper of pleasure.

Ray raised his head and smiled. "Shhh. Go back to sleep," he whispered.

"I thought you wanted"

"Naw." Ray shook his head slightly. "Didn't mean to wake ya. Just can't seem to stop kissin' you, Benny Ben," he confessed.

And even in the dimness, Ben saw the flash of his lover's smile. My lover. That thought was like a song in his mind, a high, pure note of wonder. It still seemed impossible sometimes, like a dream, that he was in Ray's bed. In his arms. That Ray had made love to him repeatedly, and would again. That Ray loved him... It moved him so much that he suddenly felt obliged to make a confession of his own.

"Ray," he began softly. "I... well, I appreciate you being honest with me. About Rylan, that is."

Ray nodded, but his smile faded. A faintly troubled look shadowed his eyes, and he looked away for a minute. "That's how it's s'posed to be, isn't it, Ben?" he asked slowly. "We can tell each other anything. Right?"

"Yes," he said. "Yes, that is how it should be." But he couldn't help wondering why Ray suddenly looked so somber. He had an odd feeling, suddenly, that there was something which Ray wasn't telling him. Still. Something disturbing. But he pushed the feeling away. Ray had sworn that he trusted him completely, had given himself to him without reserve. Surely he knew, now, that he could be trusted with his secrets.

He felt another, entirely different, pang as another thought struck him. Perhaps that shadow on Ray's face had to do with him. Perhaps, having given his heart, Ray was now upset because he'd guessed that he, Benton Fraser, hadn't always been entirely honest with him.

He'd tried to tell himself that he had. He'd even been self-righteously angry when Ray had confessed in the hospital that he'd thought he'd deceived him with Ray Vecchio, because he prided himself so on his own honesty. But he'd realized since that he'd been guilty of false pride on that score. Though honesty was extremely important to him, and though he tried very hard never to lie, there'd been moments when he'd either withheld information, from Ray and others, out of fear and times when he'd actually lied. Despite his love for his spiky-haired friend, there were still lots of things he hadn't told him, about matters large and small. Victoria Metcalf, for one. A very large matter indeed. A shameful one, that he still found it almost impossible to discuss. And about which he'd once lied to Ray.

Lying warm in Ray's arms as he was, that realization gave him a guilty twinge. Ray told me the truth about Patrick Rylan, he thought. Though he must've been as hard for him to talk about as Victoria is for me. And he knew why Ray had done that: out of love -- love for him. Now he had to return the gesture. Because if he and Ray were to be together, if they were to truly love each other as both he and Ray wanted, he would have to open himself as completely to the detective as Ray had to him. Honesty had to be, as the Americans said, a two-way street. He had only recently regained Ray's trust. He couldn't afford to lose it by continuing to hide his shameful secrets out of cowardice. That had to stop. If he was responsible for the shadow he'd glimpsed on Ray's face earlier, it was up to him to remove it.

Out of love.

He had plenty of that. He was overflowing with it. So why was this still so hard? He swallowed hard, sat up and took a deep breath. "There's something I need to tell you, Ray."

"Okay," the blond answered. Ray was very perceptive, and he looked serious, as if he already knew, before he spoke, that what he had to say was important.

Ben felt himself choking up, as usual. Since words tended to fail him at times like this, he decided to illustrate his point, instead of depending strictly on verbal explanations. So he took Ray's hand in his, lifted it to his mouth and kissed his fingers. "This," he said awkwardly. "This gesture. Do you remember it?"

Ray's eyes narrowed in puzzlement.

Ben realized that he didn't know what he was referring to. Partly because he hadn't exactly duplicated the caress he was thinking of, and partly because it had been months since he'd done it, then lied to him about it. He hadn't copied it exactly because it was so erotic, and he felt slightly embarrassed doing something like that to Ray, when he was trying to be serious. But Ray's confusion forced him to. So to further illustrate, he pulled Ray's hand upwards and gently sucked three of his fingers into his mouth. Closing his eyes for a moment, he lost himself in the caress as he stroked them with his tongue. When he opened them again, he saw, to his relief, that Ray understood him now.

"Yeah," was all he said. "I remember you doin' that."

But Fraser's words hadn't had the effect he'd wanted. Ray must've thought them an erotic overture, because his eyes were darkening with desire. Oh dear. It hadn't been Ben's intention to arouse his lover. Not now. There were things he needed to say first. So he pressed another gentle kiss onto Ray's fingers, and lowered them into his lap.

"I never told you what that means," he said at last, choosing his words carefully. Ray had questioned him about the meaning of that caress when he'd first done it to him. But he hadn't been able to tell him, because it was connected to Victoria. That, Ben thought with a flicker of shame, was one of the few times I ever lied to him. He'd told Ray it didn't mean anything, and almost immediately afterwards, Ray's mood had darkened. He'd started snapping at him, and ended up yelling.

Ben had begun to wonder if the two events were connected. If the ever-so-perceptive detective had sensed that he was lying about that touch, and if that deception had hurt him. Angered him so much that he'd lashed out at him. A tiny, cowardly part of him hoped that Ray wouldn't remember his lie. That the passage of time might've blurred the event, and so softened his own culpability, at least in Ray's mind. After all, that had been over four months ago--

But Ray's memory regarding the incident proved distressingly accurate. He stiffened a little. "No. Actually, ya told me it didn't mean anything," he corrected bluntly.

Ben lowered his eyes. There was an edge in Ray's voice all at once, and he couldn't blame him for it. But that, and the challenge in Ray's eyes when he'd repeated the gesture last night, confirmed his suspicion that his lie about it months before had hurt him. Perhaps Ray had done it to him again in the hopes that he would finally be honest about it. Ben wanted to. Now he wished that it hadn't taken him so long.

He searched his mind for the right way to explain the gesture. What it meant, and why he hadn't told him. "It did mean something, once," he admitted reluctantly.

Ray pulled his hand away. "What?" His earlier tenderness was fading, being replaced by anger and what sounded like jealousy.

Which wasn't surprising. Because if the caress had meaning for him, it had obviously been found with someone else. Ray wasn't likely to enjoy that realization, Ben thought, embarrassed. Finding it increasingly difficult to meet his rapidly heating blue eyes, he dropped his gaze. Stared at the blanket as he flushed, feeling intensely awkward and uncomfortable. He didn't want to tell Ray about Victoria. Even though he knew it was vital, that he had to, the memories were still so painful. They washed over him vividly, as he sat staring helplessly at the blankets. Dark, bittersweet visions. Snow falling on dark hair. Red, lush lips that kissed and then betrayed. Memories of love -- or what he'd thought was love -- gone wrong. Memories of blood, of tears, both his and hers. Memories of his near madness in the wake of her loss. Those memories were painful enough but having to recount them while being further lacerated by Ray's jealousy was almost unbearable.

Still, he had lost Victoria. He didn't want to lose Ray, so what choice did he have?

"I did that to Victoria Metcalf once," he said at last. "When we first met. Toto keep her from getting frostbite, when we were lost in a storm. She was dying," he added, "and I was trying to save her." Though that was true as far as it went, he realized that he was still editing the tale. Still trying to make himself sound better than he was. Nobler. More altruistic.

It shamed him into telling the unvarnished truth.

"I also did it because I wanted her. Afterwards, after the storm ended, I made love to her, Ray," he whispered. "She was a fugitive. A criminal, but I couldn't help myself. I was in love with her." He couldn't go on. He twisted the blanket in his hand, stared fiercely at it as shame choked him, and the drumming of his guilty heart beat loud in his own ears.

Ray was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Okay. But why'd ya lie to me about it?"

Ben closed his eyes. As always when someone got this close to him, when he let someone see so deeply into his dark side, into his faults, fear rose in him. A kind of panic that beat at the edges of his self control. Made him want to run. Though he longed to be honest with Ray, honesty had trapped him in the past. After he'd made the mistake of letting himself love Victoria, then turning her in, she had hated him. She'd put her knowledge of him, of his sense of honor and duty, to destructive use, and tried to ruin him. He knew Ray wouldn't do that, at least not knowingly; but his power over him was even greater than Victoria's had been. Ray could break him with a word, by merely withdrawing his affection. He knew that now. And how could he be sure that Ray wouldn't hate him too, once he knew how reprehensibly he had behaved with her? How could Ray possibly love him, once he knew how deeply flawed he was? The evil things of which he was capable?

His fear made him flush even redder, because he knew his feelings about this weren't normal. Normal people didn't dread someone else getting to know them like he did, because normal people hadn't done the things he'd done. Normal people wanted closeness, they craved it. He did too, but after Victoria, it also petrified him.

Ray isn't the one who's twisted inside. I am, he thought. Though he wanted his love desperately, he wasn't sure that he deserved it. He was also scared that Ray might end up hurting him again, if he trusted him enough to let him into his heart. He couldn't believe that Ray would want him if he let him see into his stained, sinful soul. That was why he'd lied to him about that gesture after the first time they'd made love, why he'd tried to make him think it was merely sexual, not personal. Not connected to love. Because he hadn't dared, then, to tell him about Victoria. Though love was sweet, he still couldn't forget how it had once almost destroyed him. How could he be sure that Ray would forgive is faults, when Victoria hadn't?

"Back in the hospital," Ray reminded him quietly, "ya told me to tell ya if ya screwed up. So tell me, Frayzh. Why'd ya lie about it?"

Ray's question jolted Ben back to the present. Ray was absolutely right, he had said that. Now, he vehemently wished he hadn't. He felt trapped by his own words. Forced by his promise to voice his deepest, darkest secrets, against his will. His fear grew, choking him. Ray's voice was slightly gentler now, less harsh, as if he'd sensed his fear and was trying not to make it worse. But he wasn't letting him off the hook, either. Wasn't letting the matter go, though a tiny, cowardly part of Ben devoutly wished that he would. Which meant that Ray realized the importance of what he had done. That he didn't consider it a trifling matter.

Ben wasn't surprised. As Ray had pointed out, he didn't usually lie; and Kowalski was far from stupid. The fact that he'd lied about something so seemingly trivial as an erotic caress, implied that it was actually far from trivial. That there must be strong emotions connected to it. Naturally, Ray wanted to know what they were.

No, he deserves to know. He's my lover. I have to tell him the truth; even if it costs me his love. Ben told himself that, but he still couldn't find the words to say it. Or the courage to bare his soul so completely. Yet he knew he had to. He felt like a fish out of water, struggling inside a net of his own making. Damned if he took a breath, damned if he didn't... His heart pounded, his mouth was dry, and he knew his face was flaming.

Suddenly, Ray reached for his hand again. Stroked it gently, almost tentatively. "Hey," he said softly. "It can't be that hard. Told you all about Rylan, didn't I? And how stupid I was about you and Vecchio? And ya didn't let me have it. So I promise, I'm not gonna clock ya for lyin' to me. Won't take yer head off. I just wanna know why, Ben. Why ya did it. Cuz it's not like you."

Ben felt a surge of despair. That was part of the problem -- Ray didn't know how like him it was. The depths to which he had sunk, in pursuit of the love he'd wanted so desperately. He'd been careful to hide all of that from him. He looked away, not knowing where to begin; and when he glanced down at his watch, he realized that there wasn't time to tell him now. The convoluted tale of his love for Victoria Metcalf would take hours to tell properly, and it was almost seven a.m. He had to get up and go to work soon.

Yet he couldn't leave Ray without an explanation, either. He was the one who'd brought all this up. He had to find a way to tell him at least some of it. He struggled to find a way to condense the tragedy, to distill the dark needs, the fears that she had left him with, into a few words that would make Ray understand how all that had culminated in his craven lie to him, the morning after they'd first made love.

It was, perhaps, the hardest thing he had ever had to say, to anyone. He rubbed an eyebrow unconsciously, and cleared his dry throat. "I'm sorry. I couldn't tell you the truth because I was afraid," he gritted at last, in a low voice. "Afraid of how you can sometimes see inside of me. I was afraid that you might not like what you saw. Victoria didn't. She was the only other person I ever let that close to me, and once she knew me... Once she knew that I loved her, she tried to destroy me."

Ben's face was shadowed, his hands knotted in the sheets, his eyes averted and dark with remembered pain. His voice was so low it was barely audible. Ray remembered back when he'd first met him: how infuriatingly, inhumanly perfect he'd thought he was. Amazingly handsome. Annoyingly confident. Like Superman or something. It still amazed him sometimes, to find that there was so much pain and loneliness underneath that confidence, beneath Ben's blindingly beautiful, polished exterior.

But it made him sad as well. Took away his anger. Ben hadn't lied to hurt him, but to protect himself. Because that Metcalf bitch whose fingers he'd first kissed that way had later tried to rip his heart to shreds. No wonder he'd been scared to open up about the thing. Knowing Ben, she might've been the first woman he'd ever had sex with, and she'd turned out to be a criminal, and a cast-iron bitch as well. That'd be enough to mess up almost any guy's head, especially one as sensitive as Ben. No wonder he didn't want to talk about it, or her.

Now that he knew the caress and the lie were connected to Ben's lost love, he wasn't pissed off anymore. He wanted to hug Ben, and he wanted to kick Victoria Metcalf's ass, for tying him up in such ugly knots. For making him think that letting anyone get to know him was dangerous; for teaching him that love could only hurt him. And how many others had there been, giving Ben shit like that over the years? Messing with his head so bad that he was terrified of letting anyone see inside of him. Ben, who had the kindest heart, the gentlest soul, of anyone Ray had ever known.

"Ben," he said gently. "Look at me."

When he finally lifted his head, Ray saw the tension in his mouth. The strain around his blue eyes. He knew Ben was still afraid. Gonna haveta do somethin' about that, he thought. Startin' now. So he chose his words carefully. "I get why ya lied, all right? And it's okay."

Ben blinked at him. A look of total noncomprehension, as if Ray was speaking Greek, or some other language he couldn't understand. "But Ray"

"No. No buts. I said, it's okay," Ray repeated.

Ben just looked bewildered.

Ray knew why this was hard for him to understand. Ben wasn't used to making mistakes -- except when it came to women, anyway, and what guy didn't fuck up concerning them? Besides, Ray suspected Ben's mistakes with women were probably the result of inexperience, more than anything else. Because otherwise, the Mountie was the biggest perfectionist he'd ever known. Never stopped until he nabbed the bad guys. Always did his paperwork, probably in triplicate. Crossed his t's, dotted his i's -- hell, even his hair was always friggin' perfect! But the downside of all that relentless perfectionism was, Ben tended to forget that he was human, and doomed to the occasional screw-up, just like everyone else. So when it happened, he couldn't forgive himself for it -- and he didn't believe anyone else would either.

He's just gonna have to get over that, Ray thought, waiting for the baffled look to fade from Ben's blue eyes. Get used to being let off the hook now and then, for bein' human. Cuz that's what love's about. Gonna make him get used to bein' loved, if it's the last thing I do, he promised himself. Because he'd learned something, in the time they'd been apart. It wasn't the lies people sometimes told that mattered so much, it was the way they pushed you apart that hurt. He wasn't going to let anything push him and Ben apart now. Not even Ben himself.

"All right, Ray," Ben said at last. "Thank you." He still sounded slightly amazed, but he'd accepted the fact that he'd been reprieved.

Ray was glad. But he also wanted Ben to know that he wasn't letting it go because it had been a small thing. Only because he loved him. So he added, "Don't think I'd like it much if ya did it again, though."

Ben swallowed hard, a muscle rippling in his cheek, but this time, to Ray's secret relief, he didn't look away. Didn't break eye contact with him. He just nodded quietly. "I won't."

"Okay. Good," he said, thinking that it was at least a start. Step One in Kowalski's Love Lessons: Tell Me Everything. Don't Lie. He smiled to himself. Step Two: Get This Straight -- I Am Not That Metcalf Bitch.

"Okay. Now tell me ya know I'm not gonna come after ya like Victoria did. Even if ya make mistakes. Even if ya screw up, big time. Tell me ya know I won't hurt ya."

That time, Ben did look away. He looked down at his hands for a second, then raised his eyes and said, "Yes. I know, Ray."

Ray grimaced. That was a dutiful Yes, not an honest one. Ben had only said it to please him, not because he really believed it. Well, maybe on the surface he did, but not deep down, where it counted. Shit, he thought, disgusted and a bit angry that Ben could still doubt him like that. Then again, he reminded himself that he already had hurt him. So badly that Ben had only just started, tentatively, to trust him again. Wasn't like anyone else he'd loved in his life had ever stuck around, either. So if Ben wasn't the trusting type, it was hardly surprising.

Ray sighed to himself. This wasn't going to be easy but at least the Canadian had accepted the fact that he wasn't going to be crucified for lying to him. Least he'd said he wouldn't lie to him anymore. That was something. Step One had gone just fine. But maybe asking for total trust, after he'd walked out on him so recently, wasn't really fair. So maybe Step Two would have to wait awhile.

Okay. One step at a time, then, he told himself. I can do that. He'd do whatever it took, to make Ben feel safe and loved. He would've crawled over broken glass to keep him, and to make him happy.

"All right," was all he said aloud. "That's done with. Fuhgeddaboutit," he smiled.

But Ray knew he wouldn't. Ben looked away, out the window, as if measuring the time from the morning's increasing brightness. "I have to get ready for work," he said quietly. "Will you be all right alone?"

Ray smiled. Ben the Mother Hen again. But he very much liked that side of the big Mountie, so he decided to let the problem of trust go for now, and to lighten the mood with a little joke. "Yeah, Frayzh. I'm a big boy, remember? Even dress myself and all."

When Ben looked back at him and returned his smile, Ray leaned forward and bore him back down onto the bed, kissing him warmly. Then he lifted his head and wiggled his hips against Ben's, until their cocks touched, and he felt himself harden a little. That was all it ever took for him -- one little touch, and Ben could make him hard. Turn him on. He loved that. "'Member how big I am?" he grinned suggestively.

Ben caught his breath. "Yes, Ray."

Ray smiled. He'd done what he'd set out to do: taken that shadowed, guilty look out of Ben's eyes. The Canadian was smiling again, and it seemed he'd forgotten his fear, at least for now. Ray felt his hands steal around his waist, stroking him gently. It's a start, he told himself. A good start... Later on, when Ben had had some time to get used to the idea, he'd ask him to tell him some more about Victoria Metcalf. But right now, he figured that between the two of them, they'd done enough confessing.

Looking down at Ben, all his worries faded from his mind. Wish we could spend the day in bed, he thought, as he lowered his head to kiss him again. But he knew that was impossible. He still had a few weeks' sick leave coming to him -- Captain Hardin's reward for solving the Donen case, getting that bad coke off the streets, and the Mayor off of his behind. But Ben didn't have that luxury. He'd missed enough time on his account lately, watching over him in the hospital, and bringing him home yesterday too. All good things gotta end, Ray thought wistfully. Ben had to go back to work today.

Ray kissed him tenderly, his earlier anger seemingly forgotten. "Okay then," he smiled. "You go to work, like a good little Mountie. I'll drive over and pick ya up tonight, when your shift's over." But despite his words, Ray didn't let go of him. He planted a little kiss on his chest, then laid his head there and slipped his arms around him. He held him gently, but he didn't let go.

Ben closed his eyes and slipped his arms around Ray too, because he knew what that wordless embrace meant. Forgiveness. Understanding. Love. All the things he didn't deserve, but that Ray gave him so freely. Kowalski was teaching him how many different ways the words 'I love you' could be said, even when they weren't. Those words that meant even more to him than sex. So though he should've risen to get dressed, he lay quietly in the warm circle of Ray's arms instead. He stroked Ray's slender body tenderly. Saying the words back to him with his hands, and by simply staying with him.

And it seemed that Ray heard them, because he sighed happily against his chest.

They just laid that way for a time, both feeling too peaceful to move. Fraser felt Ray's breathing slow, but even then, he didn't get up. He knew Ray hadn't gotten nearly enough sleep the night before, and besides, having the slight blond fall asleep with him was still a new and precious experience for him.

"This is so good," Ray whispered after awhile, sleep slurring his voice. "Soooo good..." Within moments, he was asleep again.

Ben stayed put a little longer, savoring the sweet sensation of holding Ray's warm, naked, sleeping body in his arms. It made him feel protective, and deeply tender. "Yes," he whispered, though Ray couldn't hear him. "Yes, it is."

For the first time in his life, a good person had said, "I love you" to him. Had let him say it back. He loved, and was loved in return; and that was better than good. More than wonderful. It was a miracle. For the first time in his life, he felt whole.

He slipped out from under Ray very carefully, made sure he was lying in a comfortable position, and pressed one last kiss onto the top of his slumbering head. Standing over him, he said it for at least the tenth time in the last few hours. Softly, into the pearly light of dawn. "I love you too, Ray."

And it sounded just as good as it had in the darkness. As it would in bright daylight. As it would, he hoped, for all the rest of his days. Thinking of that, he smiled as he got dressed. Maybe with Ray's help, he could finally leave Victoria's ghost behind him. As he took one last look at the slender man in his bed before shutting the door quietly behind him, she seemed very far away.

Ray Vecchio rubbed his aching eyes. He and Serena had decided to start moving their stuff into their new house early, the week before the wedding, so they could spend their wedding night in it. So he'd asked Lt. Welsh for the morning off, and spent it hauling boxes. It had been noon before he'd made it back to the 27th. But even lugging boxes was fun with Serena, and he'd been so energized by the thought of finally living in that house, of sleeping in it with his beautiful wife every night, that he'd decided to stay late to make up his lost time. He'd been plowing through his paperwork steadily ever since. Now, his body was reminding him that it was time to quit. A glance at his watch confirmed that it was past midnight.

Jeez. Time to knock off, he thought.

He put away his files and picked up his keys, indulging himself in a long, satisfying stretch. His back hurt a bit from all the sitting. He smiled a little, thinking maybe he'd swing by Serena's apartment and ask her to massage the kinks out of it for him... Then his eyes fell on the little bag she'd given him that morning, that was sitting on the floor by his desk. The music.

Oh, damn. The music! he groaned to himself. Forgot all about it! Serena had copied the sheet music she and Benny had been using to practice the song they were going to sing at their wedding, and she'd made him promise to deliver it to him as soon as possible, so he could practice on his own as much as he wanted before the big day. So he wouldn't get nervous, singing in front of all those people. But it had been a hectic day, trying to get caught up on all his work, and he'd totally forgotten to hand the sheet music over to Fraser.

He hesitated. I can always give it to him tomorrow, he told himself. 'Sides, knowing Benny, he's probably got the whole thing memorized by now anyway. Note for note.

Still, he'd promised -- and this wasn't the way he wanted to start out his new marriage, by reneging on promises he made to Serena. No matter how small. That realization tipped the balance, and he decided he'd better get it done, despite the lateness of the hour. Okay. I'll just swing by Benny's apartment on my way home, he thought. Then he remembered the time. What if he's already in bed? Then again, he never locks his door. So if I get there and his lights are off, I can just slip it inside the door and leave it for him.

Plan made, he grabbed the bag and took off, whistling softly to himself. Thinking not so much of Benny, but of Serena. After he dropped the sheet music off, he'd swing by her apartment and see if she was still up. Maybe he could even wangle a massage out of her, for his sore back. Madonna, but it was getting harder and harder to keep the vow he'd made, to himself and to her, not to sleep with her before their wedding night! She was so beautiful, so warm and loving that it was almost like torture.

Serena had thought his vow wonderfully romantic; and he'd let her. But he'd made that vow for a reason: to protect her. And though he'd recently learned that it was no longer necessary, he'd made it, so he was going to stick to it. He'd long ago made another vow, that he'd never told her about: to never let Armando Langostini touch her. He was never going to let anything from that part of his life touch her. Even when he'd been playing that role, living his life, when he'd held her and kissed her, it had been Ray Vecchio who had done it. His heart, his soul, not Armando's. But he'd almost stopped worrying about him now. Armando seemed to be gone.

And everything else was going according to plan: Serena had made it safely to Chicago, his family all loved her and she loved them, they'd bought a new house and started moving in, and the wedding was only a week away. The only thing that had been bothering him was Benny. But it seemed he'd mended his fences with Kowalski after his shooting. He looked a lot happier now, like the big cloud that had been hanging over his head had lifted. Over time, some of Ray's earlier aversion to the blond detective had faded too. So though he wasn't turning cartwheels over the fact that Benny and Kowalski had become friends again, since it made Fraser happy, he'd decided he could live with it. He was so happy with Serena, he could afford to be generous.

So he'd also decided that there was no big secret behind Benny's recent depression, either. Benny was just over sensitive. He hated it when he thought he'd hurt anyone, so he must've worked himself up over the fight he'd had with Kowalski. Ray was just relieved that it was all over with now, and that his best friend was his usual cheerful self, just in time for his wedding. He didn't even mind that Frannie had invited Kowalski to it. The church was gonna be full of cops anyway, what would one more matter?

Best of all, Armando hadn't surfaced for months, except in his dreams. He'd stopped thinking about him otherwise. In the last few weeks, he hadn't even dreamed about him much. He felt he was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. He was sure that once he was married, he wouldn't have those dreams at all anymore. He'd promised himself that he wouldn't.

Once he put the ring on Serena's finger, Armando would be gone forever. He'd put all the dark stuff that had happened to him in the Family behind him. He'd be with his new wife, they could have a family...

Everything was going according to his plan.

Ray Vecchio whistled as he walked to his car. He was one happy guy.

Some twenty minutes later, he knocked quietly on Fraser's door. "Benny?" he called softly.

There was no answer, but the door swung open a little at his touch. As usual. He shook his head wryly, smiling. So many things had changed in his life, but some things never would. The day Benny ever started locking his door, he'd know he'd been replaced by a pod person like in one of those sci-fi movies.

Since the apartment was silent, and there was no answer to his knock and hail, he figured Benny, who lived by the whole early to bed, early to rise idea, was probably already asleep. Which was pretty much what he'd expected, at this time of night. I'll just go in and leave the stuff on his kitchen table. That way the trip's not wasted, and he'll find it when he comes home.

Mindful of Dief's probable presence, and the fact that he might not be asleep, he pushed the door open slowly and quietly. As soon as he stepped inside, the wolf trotted up to him, his tail wagging. Ray smiled. When he'd first come back to Benny's apartment after his year-long stint in the Family, Dief's welcome had been something to see. He'd danced and leapt in circles around him, whoofing and grinning with excitement, then licked his face in obvious delight. Even though Benny himself hadn't been home, he'd felt welcomed in the warmest way. Like another part of his old life had clicked back into place, like he'd taken one more step away from being Langostini. Ray would never forget that. He'd been sneaking chocolate donuts to Dief ever since, when Benny wasn't looking.

"Hey, boy," he whispered, wishing he had one with him now as he put the bag down on the floor just inside the door, and bent to ruffle Dief's thick fur affectionately. He petted him for a moment, then turned to leave. But when he straightened, he noticed something odd out of the corner of his eye. A light was on, in Fraser's otherwise darkened apartment. Glancing curiously into his front room, he saw it was Ben's little bedside lamp. He hadn't noticed it at first, because its relatively weak illumination didn't spread very far. But it cast a yellow glow over the bed. Ray frowned, taking a curious step closer. Because it looked like there were two people in Fraser's little bed.

He gaped, his eyes going wide. There were two. One was Benny, but the head lying on the pillow beside his was blond. Fraser's in bed with someone! The shock of that froze him in his tracks.

But it didn't stop there. Another, even more profound jolt shot through him in the next split second, when he realized that the spiky-haired blond in Ben's bed wasn't female. It's a guy. A he, he thought, stupid with shock. Worse yet, it was a guy he recognized, and disliked. Stanley Ray Kowalski.

Benton Fraser was in bed with Ray Kowalski. He's gay. No, they're gay, or bi or something, he thought, astounded.

The shock was so severe that he felt the world spin around him. A roaring sound filled his head, and he knew it was the frenzied racing of his own heart, the pulsing of his outraged blood. There was no way this could be. It was impossible, like seeing aliens climbing out of a UFO. I'm sick, he told himself desperately. I'm drugged, I'm seeing things... He blinked at them, hoping the vision would go away, but it didn't. He kept seeing it: Ben and Kowalski in bed together. The covers had shifted down so that their chests and shoulders were exposed, and he could see that Ben lay on his back, with Kowalski's head on his shoulder. Kowalski lay on his side, draped over him, his arm curled around Fraser's chest.

Kowalski's got a tattoo, he thought, cop eyes automatically noting the blue mark on his arm. I never knew that...

He shoved the observation away. It didn't matter. What did was the fact that they were entwined together, even in sleep. They looked like they were embracing. A shudder shook him from head to foot. This couldn't be what it looked like, it couldn't. He knew instantly what it was -- what it had to be. Blackmail. Rape. This was ugly. Dark. Evil. He knew it. Knew it because he'd been there. He'd thought he was better now, the nightmares had nearly stopped and he'd thought he'd started to put it behind him. But as he stared at the two men in Fraser's bed, it all came rushing back in a storm of memory and emotions. Images began to strobe in his head, like scenes illuminated by a brutal spotlight. He saw himself in Maxwell's arms, in Maxwell's bed. On his knees, sucking Maxwell off. Handcuffed to the headboard of Maxwell's bed while Maxwell drove into his ass. Whipping a naked, moaning Maxwell until he came

Because he and the Bookman were lovers. If you could call it that. Had been for some time, before he ever took on Langostini's identity.

It was the one thing even the Feds hadn't known about Langostini. He swung both ways and Maxwell was gay. And though they'd kept it a secret, he and the Bookman were an item. So when he'd stepped into his shoes, he'd stepped into that too. Into their sick, sadistic, twisted relationship. Into their whips and chains. He'd had to, because Maxwell wasn't willing to let him go. So it was do it or die. He'd had to teach himself -- to force himself -- to fuck a man. To do it roughly, sadistically. To do things he'd never imagined doing, and pretend that he enjoyed them

That was when Armando had really come alive in his mind. He'd made himself believe that Armando was the one fucking Maxwell, the one whipping him. Armando, not him. It was the only way he could do those revolting things, and stay even halfway sane.

But why had Benny done this? Kowalski must've somehow coerced him into having sex. Was that what Benny had been so upset about, for so long? If so, what did the blond prick have on him? What could innocent Benny possibly have done that Kowalski could've held over his head to force him into this?

The gorge rose in his throat. His heart pounded, and the images came at him relentlessly, unceasing. Maxwell kissing him. Taking him up against his bedroom wall. Maxwell pistol whipping him half to death that night he'd broken into his house, the night he'd figured out that Ray was in love with Serena. Maxwell raping him while he lay there bleeding, drifting in and out of consciousness. Telling him that if he lifted a finger to stop him, he'd kill Serena. And Ray had known he'd do it, too. So he'd just laid there. He hadn't tried to stop him. He loved her that much. If Nero hadn't come in with a gun and gotten the drop on him, and driven him and his goons out of the house, Maxwell might've raped him until he died.

It had all been for Serena. He'd been ready to die to save her. But what would that have done to Serena -- to his Mom -- to Frannie, when they found out? What would they have thought, if they'd known he'd had sex with a man? Didn't matter that he'd never done it willingly, that he'd always thought of women when Maxwell touched him, that he'd only done what he had to do. They would have no way of knowing. They wouldn't have understood. He didn't even like to think about that, about how he'd almost died while being raped by Jimmy, or what his fiancé and family would have thought of him if he had. It still gave him the shudders.

But this was worse. Not Benny, he thought, sickened. Not Benny too, not like that, not him!

He couldn't stand the thought of it. Of someone hurting Benny like that. Fraser's memory had been what he'd clung to, as much as Serena, while he'd been away. Every time Maxwell left his bed, or he left his, he'd showered for a long time, then lain in bed and thought of Ben. Remembered his goodness, his innocence. Held on to thoughts of him, to keep from vomiting at what he'd just done.

He'd been clinging to him still, in ways he hadn't fully realized until now. He'd been glad when Kowalski left, and gladder still when Ben had said his blond girlfriend had left too, that things hadn't worked out between them. He'd wanted Benny all to himself, at least until his wedding. He'd needed him, to get himself back on an even keel. He'd needed to step back into his old life and have everything the same, so he could tell himself that he hadn't changed either. Or maybe so he could change back into his old self, into the relatively innocent Ray who'd been Ben's best friend. Hell, he'd even told himself that he deserved that, after what he'd gone through.

He'd been a totally selfish bastard -- but Fraser had done something even worse. He'd lied to him. He'd never told him about this. Seeing them together, Ray suspected this wasn't the first time this had happened. They looked way too comfortable together. HOW LONG? he wanted to scream, fury rising in him. How long had this been going on? Why the hell hadn't Fraser told him?

Hot, seething rage tightened his chest. He could hardly control it; and he didn't want to direct it towards Benny. Because this couldn't be his fault. No way. Benny would never have done this willingly, not in a million years. He must've been forced. Threatened. Coerced. Blackmailed. There was no other explanation.

So he turned his rage on the room's only other occupant. He didn't have to hate Benny. He'd hate Kowalski instead. That was easy. The little weasel had corrupted Benny somehow. Taken his innocence. Blackmailed and raped him. Tried to turn Benny into what Ray himself had once been -- into a whore.

He couldn't let that happen.

Filled with rage, he was moving before he knew it. Heading for the bed, for the bastard who'd raped Ben. Who'd corrupted him. Heading for Kowalski, with murder on his mind.

It was absurdly easy. Time slowed around him, and he moved quietly, shifting his weight forward onto the balls of his feet so that his shoes made no sound on Fraser's wooden floor. He was beside the bed in a heartbeat, and he pulled the covers off of Ben and Kowalski slowly. Carefully. He noticed that Kowalski had a tattoo, and that his slender body still bore a lot of fading bruises, and a livid gunshot scar. He knew where he'd got the big bullet wound, but he didn't even want to think about where all his bruises had come from. Didn't want to look close enough to see if any of them were hickeys or not. He didn't let Kowalski's fading injuries slow him down, though, didn't allow himself to feel an ounce of pity. Instead, he pulled the covers down to their knees with calm, steady hands. He didn't want to wake either of them up -- not just yet. They were both strong and well-trained, and he couldn't risk that. Together, they could resist him.

We can't have that, Armando smiled inside his head. Armando had taken over now. He knew all about this type of thing. It was what he lived for, what he was good at. Killing people. Taking them by surprise and snuffing them out almost before they knew what had happened.

He considered that. Once the covers were mostly off them, and he saw that both Kowalski and Benny were totally naked, the nausea rose in him again. The pure, flaming hatred. Maxwell, he thought. He's just like Maxwell. He dropped the blankets, his hands suddenly unsteady. For a second, he considered pulling his gun and wasting Kowalski right there. Killing him without finesse. Without warning. Without a word spoken. He deserved that, for what he'd done to Benny.

Armando would've done it. In fact, he felt him reaching for his gun, and the next thing he knew, it was pointed at Kowalski's head. But the thought suddenly crossed Ray Vecchio's mind that if he shot Kowalski here, while he lay in Fraser's arms, his blood would spatter onto Benny. And that would hurt Benny, that would upset him.

Benny won't like it if I kill him.

Ray Vecchio knew that. No matter how much Benny must hate Kowalski for forcing him into this, he wouldn't want him dead. Benny was too good-hearted to condone murder, for any reason. Even of a prick who'd raped him. Ray remembered how he'd even protected that bastard Girard once, the guy who'd killed his dad, because he felt it was his duty. So he knew he wouldn't want him to kill Kowalski, either.

Armando didn't care; to him, Kowalski was just like Maxwell. He was Maxwell. But Ray didn't want to hurt Benny. So he lowered the gun, staring down at them, caught in a flicker of indecision that was entirely Ray Vecchio's.

Then Kowalski stirred, turned his head towards him slightly. His eyes were still closed, but his brows had puckered in a sleepy little frown, and his hands twitched slightly, as if they were looking for his missing covers. Like he'd gotten cold without them. In a few more seconds, he'd wake up. Armando knew it. He felt it. They both might, and then he'd lose the critical element of surprise.

There's no time to waste, he thought coldly. Do him. Now.

He grabbed Kowalski by the throat with one hand, and by the arm with the other, and with one smooth, powerful jerk, fueled by the red heat of his rage, he hauled him out of bed and onto the floor. Kowalski's blue eyes flew open at his touch, and his body stiffened, but he'd been sleeping too heavily to stop him. It took him several seconds to come fully awake, and by that time, he'd hit the floor with a grunt of surprise and pain.

"What the fuck?"

Kowalski's hands, slim but surprisingly strong, came up to claw at the hand he'd wrapped around his throat, but it was too late. By the time Kowalski hit the floor, Armando had trained Ray Vecchio's gun on him as well. When the blond opened his mouth to protest, he jammed the barrel into it to shut him up. Kowalski's eyes went gratifyingly wide with surprise and fear. Somewhere behind him, he heard a warning growl from Dief, and heard Fraser sit up.

"Ray!" The name rang in his ears. Adrenaline had heightened his senses to the point where he probably would've heard a pin drop, so Fraser's cry sounded amazingly loud. He heard the fear and anguish in it, but he didn't let it touch him. He didn't even know which Ray Fraser was talking to -- him or Kowalski. But it didn't matter, because Ray wasn't in control now. Armando was, and he didn't answer to that name.

Dief's deepening growl commanded more of his attention. It was closer now. He could see the wolf creeping towards him out of the corner of his eye, tail lashing, teeth bared. But Armando knew he wasn't an immediate threat. Dief was hesitant, as confused as Fraser and Kowalski. Even though he'd grabbed Kowalski, and even though the wolf knew, from years of living with Fraser, the deadly threat represented by the gun he was pointing at him, he didn't attack. Dief knew that he was Fraser's friend. Still, it was clear that Dief wanted to protect Kowalski, too. He must've gotten used to seeing him in Fraser's apartment -- so he probably (mistakenly) thought of him as Ben's friend, too. Wasn't like the wolf would know that he'd sexually blackmailed Benny. Besides -- Ray Vecchio had been Fraser's best buddy for far longer than Kowalski had. So the wolf hesitated, sensing deadly intent but not knowing what to do, when it was between Ben's best friends.

Armando had counted on that. He kept an eye on Dief, but didn't let him disturb his concentration. Focus; that was the key to a successful hit. You had to keep focused, and stay sharp. He kept his eyes on his enemy, on Maxwell, and his finger on the trigger. But he didn't pull it yet. This was payback. Revenge. This was sweet. Armando laughed to himself. He felt a surge of pure, black joy at Maxwell's helplessness. His humiliation. He reveled in his fear, was glad he was fully awake now, and that he'd know who was doing it when he shot him dead.

"How's it feel, huh, Jimmy?" Armando taunted. "Bein' the helpless one?" Remembering how Maxwell had raped him on his bedroom floor that night, his hand tightened on the gun. His finger tugged gently on the trigger...

But Ray Vecchio stopped him. He resurfaced suddenly, with a surge of alarm, and looked down at the man he held captive. Jimmy Maxwell's hated face disappeared, was replaced by Ray Kowalski's furious one. Ray blinked swiftly. No, he told Armando. Wait. Don't shoot him before we really know what's goin' on here.

Armando fought for control, shoved the cop away again, deep down inside. He was drifting, and he couldn't afford to do that. The situation was too dangerous. Both cops were awake now, and the wolf was getting too close. He heard Dief growl again, almost at his elbow. "You. Mountie. Get him away from me. Now!" he said.

Fraser understood the warning implicit in those words, and in the finger he flexed on the trigger, because he obeyed instantly. Out of the corner of his eye, Armando saw him tug the wolf backwards, his hands around his chest. Dief allowed it. His hackles were still raised, but he obeyed Fraser anyway, and laid down slowly beside the bed. He saw the Mountie make some kind of hand signal to the wolf, presumably reinforcing his command to stay put, and Dief did.

Once the immediate danger had passed, Armando relaxed enough to let Vecchio surface again for a moment. Ray wanted to find out what Kowalski had on Fraser. It was important to know that before Armando killed him. It was possible that he had two levers to use on Ben: one that had started this whole scheme, and another to keep it going. He might even have pictures stowed away somewhere safe, to protect his sorry ass. Pictures of them in bed together. A little extra added insurance, to keep Fraser doing what he wanted, despite how he must've hated it. Ray knew all about that stuff. It was a tactic the Iguanas had used many, many times, with great success. So he'd ask Fraser what had started this whole thing, and then he'd find out from Kowalski what he'd used to back it up.

Then, depending on his answer, he might just let Armando kill the asshole.

He asked coolly over his shoulder, "What's he got on you, Benny?"

He heard bedsprings creak, heard Fraser get up. "Nothing," he said, in a low, urgent voice. "Ray, don't. Stop it! Put your gun away. He wasn't hurting me. He isn't Maxwell!"

Surprised by Fraser's words, Ray Vecchio froze momentarily. They surprised Kowalski too. The flicker of fear in his blue eyes turned to confusion. But when Vecchio hesitated, staring down at him with a frown, they narrowed with rage and hatred. Ray's gun was still jammed into his mouth, so Kowalski couldn't talk, but he growled and bit down on his gun barrel, his blue eyes blazing. It was the most amazing gesture of defiancé Ray had ever seen. Naked on the floor with his gun shoved halfway down his throat, Kowalski was still saying, "Bite me." Kowalski might be a prick and a blackmailing sonuvabitch, but he had balls. No doubt about that. Despite his rage, Ray Vecchio felt a flicker of reluctant admiration for his courage.

But Armando hated him for it. "Shut up, you," he growled, taking control again. He preferred his victims to wilt, to moan and cry and beg for their lives. Kowalski's unexpected bravery enraged him. He was tempted to pull his gun out of his mouth and wail on him with it first, before shooting him. To beat him bloody with it, just like Maxwell had done to him. But that would've been stupid. He had the upper hand now. He couldn't allow emotion to distract him. But apparently Fraser thought he had, because he heard a faint sound behind him and realized the Mountie was trying to sneak up on him, to disarm him.

"Get back on your bed, Mountie, or he's dead," he warned coldly. He felt, rather than saw, Fraser freeze behind him. Then he heard the slight creaking of his bed that told him he'd sat down on it like he'd ordered.

"Don't hurt him, Ray," Fraser pleaded. "Please don't! Let him go."

Armando shook his head, holding Kowalski's angry gaze as he caressed the trigger. "No. I'm gonna take care o' him for ya. But first, ya gotta tell me what he's got on you."

"RAY!" Fraser sounded choked -- more desperate than he'd ever heard him. So desperate that Ray Vecchio resurfaced and took control again, brought back by the anguish in his voice. He couldn't understand why Fraser would care so much about a guy who'd done such a terrible thing to him. It didn't make sense, and he wavered, confused.

"He's not blackmailing me," Fraser went on, his voice thick with an emotion Ray still couldn't identify. "Don't you see? It's not rape, Ray. He's my lover. Do you understand? I love him. Please don't hurt him. I love him!"

For the second time that night, the world spun around Ray Vecchio. Fraser's words seemed to echo in his ears: "I love him, I love himIlovehim" He froze, unable to move, hardly able to breathe, as they swept over him.

In a flash, he understood everything: his own blindness, the extent that Fraser had been lying to him, and the enormity of his mistake.

Kowalski was the key to all of it. If he hadn't disappeared so soon after he got back, and if he'd been able to look past his own knee-jerk dislike because of his chance resemblance to Maxwell, he'd've seen it much sooner. His time with the Iguanas had honed his ability to spot lies, and to ferret out secrets, to razor-like sharpness. But he'd been distracted by Serena and their wedding preparations. Plus, he'd been trying to forget all that. He'd let down his guard deliberately. He'd wanted things to be simple, he'd wanted to be happy again, he'd wanted to relax, and stop mistrusting everyone around him. But most of all, he hadn't wanted to take a close look at Ben's relationship with Kowalski. He'd been afraid to, afraid he might find out that Benny liked Kowalski better than him. He'd been so jealous of "the other Ray" that he couldn't even see straight. So envious of the fact that he'd taken his place at Fraser's side while he was away that he'd been glad to see him go.

He'd never guessed that he had more reasons to be jealous of Kowalski than even his paranoid, Wiseguy mindset had ever dreamed.

But the signs had been there all along, right under his nose. He saw that now. Hell, Fraser had almost let the cat out of the bag himself, the first day he came back. When he'd asked him to describe the person who'd put the hickey on his neck, he remembered his exact words: "Tall. Blond," he'd said. "A wonderful person." Which was exactly how his family had all described Kowalski. Now that it was far too late, he realized that Fraser had never said "she" or "her, or even used the word "girlfriend" in that conversation. He'd just said "my friend", blushed all over the place, refused to tell Ray his "friend's" name, and let him believe his "friend" was female.

Now he knew why.

Now he knew the why of a lot of weird little things that had been bothering him. Why Fraser had been so depressed after Kowalski transferred out; why he'd said his relationship with his "friend" hadn't worked out, and that she'd left. Now he knew what he must've told Frannie that day at the station when he'd kissed her hand, and why they'd been talking in that weird sort of code in front of him; and why Frannie had refused to tell him what they'd been talking about.

That was an extra morsel of agony for him: Frannie knew about this. Benny had lied to him about this all along, about the biggest, most important secret he'd ever had -- but he'd told Frannie. Not him, but Frannie. After all they'd done together, everything they'd been through, he'd gone to Frannie with this, instead of him. That burned, like Benny had seared his heart with a blowtorch.

He was gay. Benny was gay, or bi, or whatever -- and he'd never said. He was fucking Kowalski, he'd even said he loved him -- but he'd never told him.

He wasn't sure what made him sicker. The fact of it, or that he'd lied to him about it. He felt a flash of hatred for Fraser now, too. Wanted to hurt them both, not just for being what they were, but for shutting him out like this.

But he couldn't. Once he heard Ben say he loved Kowalski, that changed everything. He became Ray Vecchio again, and Armando slithered away, taking all his cold-blooded ruthlessness away with him. His joy in killing. Ray Vecchio couldn't kill anyone in cold blood, let alone his best friend. Or even his best friend's lover. He couldn't kill Benny, and he couldn't save him, either. If he was in love, he wouldn't want to be saved. But if Benny was in love with a man, he wasn't sure he even knew him anymore.

Maybe I never did, he thought bleakly.

Benny was lost to him. He felt confused. Betrayed.

Benny had been his best friend. He knew things about him even Serena didn't know, was close to him in a way even she could never be. He'd counted on him, trusted him more than he'd ever trusted anyone in his life. He loved him like a brother. But now all that was gone, shattered the second he saw Kowalski's blond head lying on Ben's chest. So if Benny was lost, then so was he.

He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding as his rage drained away. He pulled the gun out of Kowalski's mouth and heaved himself to his feet without a word.

Vecchio was stunned. Completely blown away by the fact that Ben had said that he loved him. Ray Kowalski could see it in his face.

Good, he thought. That makes two of us. He didn't know what the hell Vecchio was doing here in the middle of the night, or why he'd freaked out, hauled him out of bed, called him "Jimmy" and shoved a gun in his mouth. None of it made any sense. But he did know that until Fraser had said that he loved him, Vecchio had meant to kill him. To blow his brains out, right there on Fraser's floor. He'd been a cop long enough to recognize deadly intent when he saw it, and Vecchio's green eyes had been blazing with it. But once Ben had said that he loved him, all the wind had gone out of Vecchio's sails. He'd wilted, and let him go. When he climbed to his feet, he wasn't even looking at him anymore. He was just staring at Fraser, his eyes wide with shock.

Ray smiled; a cold, grim smile. Vecchio was distracted so it was payback time. "Shouldn't've put yer gun away, freak!" he snarled. He reached out and grabbed the crazed Italian's ankles with both hands. He yanked hard, throwing his weight into it, knowing that the prick wasn't expecting it. Not now.

He pulled Vecchio's legs out from under him, and he went down with a satisfying thud. He even dropped the gun. And before Fraser could say a word or move towards them, Kowalski jumped him. Climbed on top of him and grabbed him by the throat. "Like that?" he asked, with a nasty grin. "How's it feel, huh, Vecchio? Bein' the helpless one?" he sneered. "Bastard!"

Then he punched him.

At least he meant to. Hard, right in the mouth.

But Fraser caught him. Stopped him. Grabbed his arm, and hauled him up off of Vecchio before he could land the punch. Damn, but the Mountie was strong!

"Stop it, Ray. That's enough," Ben said in a clear, loud voice. Both his tone and his grip stunned Kowalski. That was Ben's cop voice. He'd never used it with him before and he didn't like it. But Ben held him in a cop's grip, too, an arm thrown across his chest, clamping down on him tightly. So there wasn't much he could do about it. "Ray, get up," Ben went on, in that same tone, to Vecchio this time. "Get up and go now. Please. There's been enough violence."

Fraser's authoritative tone worked just as well on Vecchio as it had on him. The Italian got back up without a word, and without trying to retaliate, either. He even reholstered his gun.

But the sight of Vecchio standing on his feet again renewed Ray's rage. "Lemme go, dammit!" he snarled, struggling to get away from Ben, his head throbbing with frustrated rage. He wanted to beat the crap out of the Italian, who stood there glaring at him. But Fraser held him in an iron grip and wouldn't let go. He couldn't break free.

"Please go, Ray," Ben repeated, this time in a quieter voice. But there was an edge of anguish in it that tore at Kowalski's heart. "Now."

"Fine," Vecchio said flatly. He straightened his suit with hands that Kowalski was glad to see were starting to shake. "I'll go. Be glad to. But I won't be back."

Kowalski had stopped fighting Ben's hold, but his eyes glared bloody murder. "Damn right ya won't. Ya ever come back here, I'll kill ya!" he yelled.

Ray ignored Kowalski's threat. Now that he was sane again, himself again, he even understood it. Knew that he would've probably said the same thing, if he were in his shoes. But it didn't lessen his hatred, or his shame. He found himself shaking as he faced the two of them. It was odd, because they were both naked and unarmed, and he was dressed and carrying a gun, but he felt hideously vulnerable in front of them now. Sure, he'd found out they were gay, or bi or whatever -- but they'd learned his secret, too. He'd gone nuts in front of them.

What the hell did fags call it? Being 'outed'? He'd 'outed' himself, in a way. Brought out the biggest skeleton in his closet, and rattled its dry bones in front of two perceptive cops. He wasn't sure if Kowalski got it yet -- he might be too furious to have put two and two together that fast. Plus, he didn't know about his history with Maxwell. But Fraser did; and he knew why he'd done it. Why he'd lost it so completely. Ray could see it in his eyes.

He's gonna tell Kowalski, as soon as I leave, he thought. It made him sick. More ashamed than he'd ever been in his life. He'd never wanted anyone else to find out what had happened to him in the Family. What Maxwell had done to him, what he'd made him do. He'd hidden it from everyone, even his mom. But now Ben knew; and Ray Kowalski, who hated his guts, would know too. God only knew who he'd tell. Jesus he could spread rumors all through the Department. Welsh would find out, Hewey and Dewey would everyone would.

Worse, what if Serena found out? What if Ben went to her about this? What if he told her what he'd guessed? What if she learned his darkest secret?

Jesus. I could lose her.

The thought took his breath away, filled him with cold terror. Suddenly, Fraser wasn't just his ex-friend anymore. He was worse than a betrayer who loved someone else more than him, or even a once-trusted companion who'd deceived him. He was a threat. To his newfound life, to his happiness. Both of them were.

"We're finished, Fraser," he said, trying to sound cold instead of frightened. Trying to make it sound like it was Benny's fault, like it was because they were bi -- not because of what he'd done, or what Fraser knew about him. "We're not partners anymore, and you don't come to my wedding," he said. He hated the way emotion thickened his voice, made it shake. But he forced the words out. He had to. "Either of you. You stay away from me and Serena. From me and my family. For good."

Kowalski had cooled off by then, stopped fighting Fraser or trying to get at him. So Ben had let him go. But his eyes heated to blue, burning coals again at his words. "To hell with yer weddin'!" he snarled. "Who needs ya? You stay away from us, ya fuckin' nutcase!" He started forward again, anger in every line of his slender body.

Fraser caught his arm, held him back. "Ray, please," he murmured. "Please don't." And to Ray's surprise, Kowalski subsided. Reluctantly, but clearly because it was what Benny wanted. Vecchio knew in that instant that no one else could've done that, could've kept Kowalski from going for him again, for the way he'd rejected Fraser. And that hurt, on levels so deep he didn't even have names for them. It was true -- they were in love. Kowalski loved Benny, just like he did.

That thought brought on a wave of revulsion. No, not like I do! That, that's gross. Perverted, disgusting!

But hard on the heels of that, he remembered how they'd looked when he came in. Tender. Trusting. Even innocent, all curled up together. Not really disgusting at all. Maybe, if they're in love, it isn't like that. Not like being with Maxwell was for me. The thought crossed his mind before he could stop it. Maybe Kowalski isn't like Maxwell in bed... But the idea that their sex might be gentle and pleasurable only made what he and Maxwell had done seem that much worse. That much sicker. And it only left him further out in the cold. Locked out of Fraser's heart by the little blond who'd taken his place. The fact that he was the one who'd chosen to leave didn't make that any easier to bear. Jealousy blasted through him again.

"Fuck you, Kowalski," he said coldly. Then he looked at Fraser. "Fuck both o' you!"

Fraser went white at that. Kowalski's lips thinned in a snarl. "Izzat yer problem, Vecchio? Izzat what ya really want? Ya jealous?" He took a step towards him. Taunting him outrageously. Trying, as unbelievable as it seemed, to provoke him. When he was naked and unarmed, and Ray was carrying a gun. In spite of everything, Ray felt, again, a flicker of unwilling admiration for his courage. Or sheer craziness -- whatever. It crossed his mind that Benny wouldn't have made it in the Family -- but Kowalski probably would've.

Then he hated himself, for having had a good thought of any kind about the little prick who'd stolen Benny away from him. He took an involuntary step towards him, rage rising in him again.

Ben moved in front of Kowalski. "Please, Ray," he said hoarsely. "Please don't do this"

Though Ben was facing him, Ray Vecchio wasn't sure which one of them he was talking to, and that hurt. He'd had enough of that. Enough of this. He couldn't take anymore. He had to get out. He shook his head, tears burning behind his eyes. "We're not friends anymore, Fraser. I don't ever wanna see you again." He turned on his heel and walked out, before he lost it completely and started crying like a girl in front of Fraser and Kowalski.

He couldn't bear, even now, to think of him as Ben's lover.

Behind him, Kowalski growled, "Good riddance! He doesn't need ya anyway. But you'll be seein' me, ya freak! Count on it."

Despite his lover's threat, Fraser came after him. He'd pulled on a pair of jeans and followed him, grabbed his arm to keep him from walking away. "Ray, I'm sorry!" he said, his voice low and urgent. "I know I should've told you. I wanted to, but I thought you wouldn't understand."

Ray had a sudden, dark sense of déjà vu. He'd been here before, gone through this scene with Ben before. One dark night when Ben had missed his big pool night, cuz he was shacked up with that Metcalf bitch. Fraser had chased him out to his car, ran down the middle of the street after him, trying to explain why he'd done it. Why he'd hurt him like that.

He'd forgiven him then. That, he'd halfway understood. After all, she was a woman, and a beautiful one at that. But this? Fucking a guy? Fucking the 'other Ray', the guy who'd spent a year being him while he was away? It was too much. In a weird way, it was almost like incest or something. He couldn't accept it. Not from Fraser, who'd he thought was innocent. Cuz even if it wasn't rape, it was perverted.

This hurt worse than Victoria and that had been bad enough. This, he couldn't forgive.

"You were right. You were so right. I don't understand!" he snarled. He shook Ben's hand off angrily, tears filling his eyes as he headed down the hall towards the stairs. "So just stay the hell away from me!" It was all he could get out but it was enough. It stopped Fraser from coming after him.

But as he stalked away, he heard Kowalski growl at Ben. "Ya didn't have to tell him! It's none of his goddamn business!"

Ray knew he shouldn't care. Kowalski was an enemy now. So was Fraser. He shouldn't care what they thought of him, what they said. But those words made him feel more alone than he had since the day he'd left on his undercover assignment.

He made it to the stairs and clattered down them, empty and angry and hollowed out inside. He'd thought everything in his life was back on track again. He'd been a fool. Now, almost on the eve of his wedding, he'd lost Benny, found out that he was gay or bi (and he wasn't sure which was worse) -- and Armando had come back.

He made it out to the street and into his car, moving automatically. But once he was in the driver's seat, a wave of terror rolled over him. His hands shook so badly that he couldn't get the key in to start the car.

I almost killed him. The nearness of it made him shake. He'd come within a hair of murdering Kowalski, for reasons that no one else but Ben even had a clue about. He'd almost killed a cop, just a few days before his own wedding. Almost committed suicide himself -- because if he'd offed Kowalski, he would've been sent to prison, where cops got killed.

And it would've all been for nothing. He'd meant to do it to protect Benny, but he'd been wrong about that. Benny didn't need protection. Kowalski was his lover. His lover, not his rapist. He'd totally misread the situation, because of his past with Maxwell. Because Kowalski looked a little like him -- and because he'd always been jealous of his friendship with Fraser.

He'd been a fool, about a helluva lot of things. He'd never guessed that Benny was gay, or that Kowalski had wormed his way into his bed. His own sister had known it, but he'd never even guessed.

It was too much. He couldn't deal with all of it. He felt like he was suffocating. Found himself breathing way too fast. Madonna. Am I going crazy?

He didn't know. There was only one thing left for him to do. One place he could go. He started the engine, tightened his shaky hands on the wheel, and drove off into the night.

"No! Huh uh. No way, Fraser!" Stanley Ray Kowalski snarled.

Furious and humiliated because the Italian had caught him with his pants down, he'd put his jeans on again after Ray Vecchio left. So he wasn't naked anymore, but somehow, he still felt like he was. Fraser had pulled on his jeans and a sweatshirt, too. But Ray suspected that getting dressed hadn't made him feel much better either, because Ben didn't answer him. He sat on a kitchen chair, his face pale, his eyes shuttered, and rubbed his arms as if he were cold.

Ray didn't like how Ben looked, or the fact that he'd ignored him. He didn't like it at all. But he hid his worry by pacing restlessly up and down his tiny living room. Why the hell didn't we hear Vecchio come in? he thought, for at least the hundredth time. Wishing he could change what had just happened, though he knew he couldn't. Why the fuck didn't I wake up before he had a chance to grab me?

But he knew why. He just didn't want to face it. The truth was, he and Ben had been sleeping like the proverbial dead when Vecchio crept in because they'd worn themselves out making love. After being separated from Ben all day, he'd been so horny that he'd practically ripped his uniform off as soon as he drove him home after work. This thing between them was so strong they couldn't get enough of each other. No matter how many times they did it, or how hard they went at it, he always wanted more. So did Ben. They'd been so absorbed in each other that he didn't even know exactly how long they'd been making love before Vecchio got there. For several hours, certainly. At some point, they'd just fallen asleep in each other's arms, worn out and happy, with the bedside lamp still on.

That damn lamp. He hadn't thought about turning it off before they fell asleep. Ben hadn't either. It had seemed totally inconsequential at the time. Unnecessary. They were alone, so who cared? And he liked to make love to Ben with the light on, liked to see his beautiful body, watch his face while he caressed him, when he made him come. Now he wished, desperately, that he'd shut the goddamn lamp off for once. That little detail tortured him. Because if he had, if it had been dark in Ben's apartment when Vecchio came in, he might not have seen them. He might've assumed Ben was either gone, or else asleep all alone. He might've left without being any the wiser about them. Without anyone being hurt.

But he couldn't change things now. It was done. They'd left the light on, and Vecchio had come in, and tried to kill him when he saw them together. Now he and Ben had to somehow deal with all that.

They weren't doing too well so far. Ray had a sour taste in his mouth now, that was more than the mere aftermath of fear and shock. Deep inside, so deep that he would never have admitted it to anyone, it hurt him to know that seeing them together, knowing that they were sexually involved, had filled Vecchio with such rage. Such hatred. What was between him and Ben was so good, so right -- it was the best thing he'd ever had. Better even than his love for Stella, and that had been a minor miracle in its own right. It hurt that their love, the incredible happiness they'd found, just looked ugly to Vecchio. Perverted. Like rape.


It was the first time the outside world had intruded into their perfect, private little world, and the intrusion had been more brutal, and far more violent, than he'd ever imagined it would be. He'd expected sneers. Name calling. Gay jokes, insults, maybe even an occasional jackass who might take a punch at him. But he'd never expected that a fellow cop, Ben's best friend at that, would try to kill him. That hurt. It hurt a lot.

The prick shoved his gun in my mouth, he thought, his whole body going taut at the memory. His eyes turned cold. "I'm gonna arrest Vecchio," he said out loud, for the twentieth time. He took a wicked pleasure in the very sound of the words. In imagining doing it. The idea filled his mind with beautiful, evil visions. Vecchio in handcuffs. In the lockup, with some three hundred pound biker cozyin' up to him. Oh, yeah. Mr. Armani, a biker's bitch. He could see that. After what he'd done to them, he wanted to see that.

"He'll be sorry. Big time," he added vengefully.

That finally got a response from Ben. But not the one he wanted. All he said was, "Would you like some coffee, Ray?"

"Fuck, no!" he snapped, before he even thought. Then, realizing what he'd said, how he'd overreacted, he shot a sideways glance at Ben. He half expected a lecture on bad language, but Ben just winced and looked away. Ray's mouth tightened. Ben was probably trying to help, to calm him, to make this bizarre night seem more normal. But he didn't want that. Wasn't in the mood to be petted or soothed. Something terrible had happened, and he wasn't going to ignore it. Wasn't going to let Ben do it, either. How the hell was he supposed to act like this was a regular old Thursday morning, when Ben's best buddy had just tried to whack him?

"How can you even think of food at a time like this?" he grated.

"Technically, coffee isn't food, Ray. It's a beverage," the Mountie answered automatically.

Ray gritted his teeth. Beverage, schmeverage. "Whatever ya wanna call it, I don't want any! And I swear, Fraser, if you do that niggling thing right now--"

"Understood," Ben said hastily.

Ray went back to pacing. The truth was, he'd really refused the coffee because emotionally, he already felt raw. Jittery. Wired. Coffee would've made that worse. Turned it into an explosion. He could feel one coming anyway. No caffeine needed. Because Ray Vecchio had come into Ben's apartment in the middle of the night and attacked him -- tried to kill him. Because he thought he'd raped Ben or something. Because he'd confused him with someone named "Jimmy", whoever the hell he was. Vecchio had obviously gone off the deep end. Way off! He was fucking looney tunes.

Worse, Ben refused to see that. He'd refused to let Ray beat the crap out of him, refused to back him up about arresting him either, and now he seemed to have taken a dive off the deep end himself. Because despite what had happened, he kept insisting that he had to talk to Vecchio.

"I need to apologize to him, Ray," he said, for the third time.


Ray couldn't believe it. As far as he could tell, Vecchio's craziness must be catching. Because of all the crazy things that had happened in Ben's apartment that night, and there'd been quite a few, this had to be the craziest. Vecchio had tried to kill him, and threatened both of them; and now Ben wanted to apologize to him! He was used to the Mountie doing weird things, but this was beyond belief. Freaks! I oughtta have 'em both committed, Ray thought darkly.

But aloud, all he said for the third time -- was, "No! N-o, no! Ya don't wanna go anywhere near him! He's nuts! Wheel's runnin', but the hamster's dead! Don'tcha get that?"

But Fraser wasn't listening. He hadn't heard a thing he'd said after Vecchio left, though they'd been arguing ever since. Well, Ray had been arguing anyway. Telling Fraser they should charge Vecchio with aggravated assault. That they should turn his ass in, and let the law Ben was so fond of do a number on him.

But Fraser didn't agree. He'd either been silent, or horribly polite. But in any case, he hadn't agreed about charging Vecchio. Actually, he hadn't said much at all. Ray could've forgiven him for being quiet, though. He knew how sensitive Ben was, and that he was probably in shock over what had just happened. Besides, though Fraser could talk more than any man he'd ever met, Ray knew that discussing his deepest feelings was something else again. For Ben, it was almost like torture. So he could've forgiven his silence in the wake of Vecchio's crazed attack.

But he couldn't forgive his avoidance. Ever since Vecchio left, Ben had stayed far away from him. Hadn't hugged him, tried to comfort him, or even touched him. That hurt. Because deep down inside, Ray didn't just want that, he craved it. He wanted Ben's embrace, his strong arms around him, like he needed his next breath. He'd come within a hair of dying tonight, and a part of him was still cold inside. He needed Ben to make him warm again, to make his fear go away.

But he couldn't admit it. Couldn't blow his tough guy image like that. Hell, he'd already lost it with him once, just a few days ago. He'd grabbed Ben and practically begged him not to leave. So though he would've given his right arm for a hug right now, he couldn't ask for one. Couldn't get down on his knees every time they had an argument. He wished Ben would offer one, so he wouldn't have to ask, but he didn't. Ben didn't seem to sense his need for comfort at all. He acted like he had the Plague. Wouldn't come within ten feet of him. Worst of all, despite his objections, he kept mumbling something wacko about telling Vecchio he was sorry.

Ray had been doing a slow burn ever since Ben had brought that up; and he'd told him so. "Wow -- what a brilliant plan, Frayzh. Apologize to the guy who just tried to kill me. That'll solve everything. Why the hell didn't I think o' that? In fact, I think I'll bring ya along, the next time I haveta bust some cokehead. After he pumps a few shots off at me, I'll just have you apologize to him! THAT'LL make him wanna come along quietly!"

Fraser hadn't responded to his sarcasm. Hadn't gotten mad in return, just narrowed his eyes a little. It wasn't nearly enough. It hadn't improved Ray's mood at all. In fact, it was getting nastier every time Ben repeated his stupid plan. "NO!" he said again, louder.

"No what, Ray?"

Ray gritted his teeth. He hated it when Fraser played dumb. He'd learned long ago that he only did that when you said something he didn't want to hear. And he was all over that little trick. Wasn't going to let him get away with it. He didn't usually tell Fraser what to do, but this was different. This was dangerous. As nuts, in its own way, as what Vecchio had just done. He couldn't stand by and let it happen.

"You know what! What you just said! Apologizin' to Vecchio. You ain't doin' that!" he insisted.

Benton Fraser set his jaw just as stubbornly. "I have to, Ray."

Ray paced across the floor, so agitated he couldn't stay still. "Whaddaya MEAN, ya HAVE to? The Ice Queen order ya to?"

Fraser sighed. "No. Of course not. She doesn't even know--"

"Right," he cut in. "But unless I've missed somethin', ya don't haveta take orders from anyone else! So if she didn't order ya to apologize to that asshole for tryin' to kill me, then ya don't have to!"

Ben tugged at his ear. "That's rather circular logic, Ray. How could she issue an order regarding an incident of which she is unaware?"

Ray's eyes narrowed. "Oh, now yer accusin' me o' logic? That's rich!" he fumed, insulted. He knew why Ben was doing it. He was trying to distract him, so he wouldn't have to deal with the real issue: his objection to his crazy apology plan. But Ray wasn't about to let him sidestep that. No way.

"No, I said 'circular logic'"

Ray cut him off. "Circles or squares, what's the dif? Yer the logical one, not me! But where's yer logic now, huh? What the hell are you thinkin'? Cuz I definitely do not get that whole apology idea!"

"I have to talk to him. He's my friend, Ray," Ben said again, with a terrible kind of patience. He kept repeating that over and over, like he was talking to a kid or someone senile, and knew he'd never be understood.

That tone, plus the fact that Ben hadn't offered one good reason for it, pissed Ray off even more. "Oh, well. That clears it up," he spat. "He's yer friend. So what am I? Fuckin' chopped liver?"

Fraser looked at him with a little frown, as if he was wondering if that was a trick question, or if he was really expected to answer it.

"Forget it!" Ray muttered. He threw his hands in the air and walked away. Then he curled his left hand into a fist, and slammed it into the open palm of his right, in sheer frustration. Jealousy was rising in him again, hot, ugly jealousy he hadn't felt since that morning months ago when he'd seen Vecchio put his arm around Fraser, when he'd assumed they were lovers. He knew that wasn't true now. But he also knew that despite the fact that Vecchio had almost killed him an hour ago, Ben was thinking of that Ray now, and not of him. And it added tinder to the smoldering flames of his rage. He paced a few steps away, then back, the tinder already smoking.

"How can ya still say Vecchio's yer friend?" he exploded. "He toldja to get lost, that he never wants to see ya again! So I'd say he was yer friend! WAS! He ain't anymore. Then there's the ugly little fact that he attacked me. What're we gonna do about that? Huh?"

Ben's only response was a slight wince.

But it spoke volumes to Ray. Ben was in danger. In danger from crazy Vecchio, but too blind to see it. In Ray's mind, Ben's friendship with the Italian was rapidly assuming the proportions of a ticking time bomb. Something he had to disconnect, before it killed them both. Of course, any sane person would've considered their friendship over already, after what had just happened. But not Ben. Oh, no. Vecchio came into his place in the middle of the night, attacked his lover while they were both asleep, threatened to kill him, then told him he never wanted to see him again when he realized they were bi, and the crazy Canadian felt that he had to tell Vecchio he was sorry!

Freak, Ray thought, glowering at him across the room. He couldn't figure it out. It just seemed like Ben had lost his mind now too, and he had to look out for him. Be the Mountie's Mother Hen for a change. And the first thing he had to do was convince him that talking to Vecchio wasn't a good idea. So he kept at him. "What the hell was he doin' here, anyway?" he demanded. Because he knew if he was going to talk Ben out of that, he had to understand the crazy situation better himself.

Fraser nodded towards something Ray hadn't noticed a small bag that sat on his kitchen table. "It's sheet music," he said, very quietly. "The music for a song I was going to sing at his wedding. He left it by the door. I think he just came to deliver that."

Ray couldn't believe it. "Sheet music? Vecchio came all the way over here in the middle of the night, to deliver sheet music? THAT's what caused this whole thing? I almost got whacked cuz he couldn't wait to give ya the lyrics to "Feelings" or somethin'?" He shook his head. He couldn't take that in. It was crazy. Everything Vecchio had done was crazy. Everything about this whole mess was crazy. "Why the hell didn't he just give it to ya at work today?"

"I don't know, Ray. I'm sorry," Ben said.

Ray shot a glance at him, and something in Ben's still, pale face reached in under his breastbone and squeezed. For a moment, he forgot his anger. Remembered that though he was the one Vecchio had grabbed, he wasn't the only one he'd hurt. Not by a long shot. For a second, it even crossed his mind that Ben might possibly hurt worse than he did. At least he had his rage to keep him warm; but he wasn't sure what Ben was feeling. What he was using to keep insanity at bay. He just knew that he looked cold. More alone than he'd seen him look in months.

He was just a few yards away, but it felt like miles. Ray swallowed hard. Ben was going away from him. Every minute, every second, he was receding further and further from him, like a tide going out to sea. He was retreating inside himself again, behind the private walls he'd kept between them for almost a year.

Until that night when he'd finally broken, and kissed him.

Ray remembered that night, and that kiss, with the vividness of sudden desperation. He remembered how Ben had cried, and how those tears had driven him to take a risk, to take Ben in his arms for the very first time. How good it had felt to hold him. How Ben's leather jacket had creaked in the silence, when he'd leaned towards him. How gentle his first kiss had been. How his lips had trembled, and how those gentle lips had shaken him. Rocked his world.

That night seemed a million years ago now. Now, despite the way they'd just fucked each other into happy exhaustion a few hours ago, he suddenly feared that Ben might never kiss him again. The thought turned him cold. Vecchio did that, he thought. Put that distance between us again. Ray hated him for it. But he didn't know how to pull Ben back to him. How to keep him from going away entirely. He wanted to tell him that everything would be okay, but he couldn't. Nothing would be right between them again until they got this straightened out. He couldn't lie about that.

He still hadn't told Ben the whole truth about Rylan -- and there was no way he was going to add to that weight on his conscience by letting this slide by, too. He wasn't going to keep his rage all bottled up inside, even though he knew that Ben wished he would. But he took a deep breath, trying to tamp down his anger and pain long enough to force some rational words out. Trying to reach out to Ben across the uncomfortable distance between them. "Why'd he do it, Ben?" he asked, doing his best to keep his voice calm. Not to let his fury spill out. "Why the hell did he think I raped you? It's not like I had ya chained to yer bed! Not like I had a gun to yer head! Hell, we weren't even DOIN' anything when he came in! We were asleep!"

Fraser winced again, but for different reasons this time. "It's -- complicated," he began. "I think Ray is deeply troubled--"

Kowalski snorted. "Ya think? Deeply troubled, my ass! He's a fuckin' lunatic!"

Fraser ignored his outburst. "I think he's been that way ever since he got back. That his undercover work damaged him, in ways he hid from everyone. Including me. You heard him call you Jimmy?"

"Yeah. What the hell was up with that?"

Fraser swallowed hard, and his gaze went blank. Turned inward. When he spoke, his voice was remote, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. "I think he mixed you up in his mind with James Maxwell. He was a contract killer with the Iguanas, who tried to murder him on his undercover assignment."

Ray stared at him in disbelief. "What? Ya mean he thinks I'M a wiseguy? That's NUTS! I--"

Fraser interrupted, in that same remote voice. "No. I mean, I don't think he thinks you're actually a member of the Mafia. But I think you remind him of Maxwell somehow. That you resemble him physically. And Maxwell was evidently a rapist as well as a murderer."

Ray's eyes narrowed. He didn't understand what Ben meant by 'evidently'. It sounded like he'd known that Maxwell was a killer, but that he'd just figured the rapist part out somehow, from what Vecchio had done tonight. Ray didn't get the connection, or what it had to do with his attack; and he didn't care. He was too angry to worry about the finer points of Vecchio's psychosis, or Ben's diagnosis of it, at the moment. He was too furious with the squirrelly Italian to even try figuring him out. "So what yer tellin' me is, Vecchio the psycho thinks I'm a psycho too! That it, Dr. Freud?" he asked, acidly sarcastic.

"No. Of course he doesn't." Fraser shook his head, his voice more insistent now. Not so distant. As if he'd come back from wherever he'd gone away to in his head, and was now focusing on him again. On their conversation. Ray supposed that might've been an improvement, if he wasn't spouting such horseshit.

"What I mean is, Ray doesn't think of you that way normally. He doesn't think of you that way now, and he didn't before tonight, either. Didn't think of you as actually being Maxwell before tonight, that is. I think that for a few minutes, he just snapped."

Ray wrinkled his brow, more confused than ever. "Huh?"

"It's just that seeing us together--" Fraser broke off suddenly, as if his voice failed him.

Ray saw him swallow hard, and knew in that second that Vecchio's rage at finding them together had wounded Ben as deeply as it had him. Maybe deeper, because he and Vecchio were -- or had been -- best friends. So he bit his tongue, and didn't snap out another smart remark.

Ben went on quietly, "He didn't know about us. I never told him, and I think it deeply shocked him. Made him remember Maxwell. Made him slip back into being Armando Langostini for a moment. That's why he thought you'd forced me into having sex with you, why he asked me what you 'had on me'. He confused you with Maxwell somehow. I think that's why he attacked you. He was thinking of Maxwell, of--of things he'd done. So he thought you'd hurt me. That you were blackmailing me. But it really has nothing do to with you, Ray. It's my fault"

"Bullshit!" Ray exploded. "Friend or not, he's nuts! NUTS! Too much multi in the personality! Ya said so yerself. But that's not yer fault!"

Fraser closed his eyes, rubbed an eyebrow with the back of his thumb the way he always did when he was upset, and didn't answer.

Ray didn't know what to say. He should've known Ben would react this way, he always thought he was to blame for everything, but he still thought it was beyond crazy. Vecchio had lost his mind, and that was Ben's fault, because he'd never told him he was bi? His frustration mounted. The knots in his stomach tightened until they hurt. "Yer the one it's got nothin' to do with!" he burst out. "In case ya didn't notice, he was tryin' to kill me! ME, not you!"

Fraser opened his eyes at that, and sighed. "I know, Ray. I saw it," he said.

For just a second, Ray saw a flicker of anguish in his blue eyes. But then Fraser looked away again. The flicker died, concealed behind a masklike expression Ray couldn't read, and his anger rose. "Oh yeah? I'm startin' to wonder," he growled. He knew he wasn't being fair -- Ben wasn't indifferent to the situation. He'd backed him up when it really counted. He'd intervened on his behalf, had repeatedly begged Vecchio not to hurt him, had even risked his own life by trying to jump him. But he was too angry to take all that into account just now. All he could see was the way Ben had bailed out on making Vecchio pay for it. "If ya saw it, how come ya didn't back me up about arrestin' him for it? Last time I checked, what he did's still a crime here, Fraser! Ya shove a piece in someone's mouth and threaten to kill 'em, that's aggravated assault! Not to mention a hate crime, him freakin' cuz he found out about you 'n' me--"

"I know that too," the Mountie said in that same low voice.

That made Ray even madder. Fraser's stubborn calm, his refusal to yell or get upset, was driving him up the wall. And his refusal to look at him, to even meet his eyes, made him feel savage. Not to mention confused and h Humiliated. Ben's crazy friend had just tried to blow his brains out, but Ben sat there like Vecchio had dropped by to ask them out to dinner!

"Then why the hell din'tcha BACK ME UP?" he yelled again, infuriated by Ben's coolness. By the fact that he hadn't really answered his question, that he was avoiding the whole issue of Vecchio's guilt. Ray paced up and down the floor, glowering, because he suspected he already knew why Ben was doing that.

"He didn't really hurt you, Ray," Fraser said at last. "And he thought he was protecting me"

"Oh, that is WEAK!" he yelled. "That is SO LAME! He didn't QUITE blow my fuckin' head off, and it was all for a good cause anyway! He was protectin' YOU! So I should just let it go? Izzat what yer sayin'?"

Fraser shook his head. "Ray"

But he was too furious to listen. He lashed out again, aiming below the belt. "Hell, I don't even know why I'm surprised! After all, from what I hear, he tried to shoot yer last lover, too! But he missed, so ya still got his bullet in ya!"

Fraser closed his eyes again. A faint shudder ran through him, and he clasped his hands together so tightly that his knuckles went white. "He thought she had a gun pointed at me," he said, and Ray could see how hard it was for him to keep his voice even. "He thought he was protecting me. It was an accident"

"Sure! Just like tonight. Just like he almost accidentally -- blew a hole in me, too!" Ray shot back scornfully. "Wake up an' smell the coffee, Fraser! How many times is Vecchio gonna haveta shoot at yer lovers before ya ditch the wacko?"

"Ray, please!" Ben's voice wasn't even now. It was strained. Raw.

For a moment, the pain in that quiet voice cut through Ray's rage. He caught his breath as a memory ran through his mind. He heard himself saying to Ben, "Tell me ya know I won't hurt ya." He felt a stab of guilt. Of shame. He'd meant that when he said it -- he still did. But he hadn't kept his promise, though not for lack of trying. Despite his intense pain over the way he felt Ben had failed him, despite his renewed jealousy, he'd managed not to punch him, or shove him again. He'd done at least that much. But there are ways and ways to hit; and he'd been hurling angry words at Ben ever since Vecchio left.

He hesitated. Bit his lip. "Okay," he muttered. "'Kay. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that"

But his guilt didn't last long. When Ben stayed silent, his resentment returned. Because Ben had failed him, after all. He'd stood by and let a man who'd tried to kill him walk off scot free. And now he was doing something even worse: asking him to let it go, too. So why the hell should he apologize for being angry? He had every right to be! Hell, he'd be nuts if he wasn't!

Rage returned, scorching him, goading him to speak. Cruel, spiteful words poured out of him, smoking with hate and jealousy. "Know what I think? I think Vecchio's got a thing fer you!" he snarled. He was lying -- he didn't really think that. Not anymore. But it was the only thing he'd said so far that had gotten to Ben at all, so he pushed it. "That's why he always hated me! He's fuckin' jealous! THAT'S why he whips out his gun every time he knows yer sleepin' with someone! He wants to fuck ya himself, HE JUST CAN'T ADMIT IT!"

At that, a flicker of something like anger finally flared in the gentle Canadian's eyes. Fraser was on his feet suddenly, at his side in another half second. He grabbed him and shook him slightly, his eyes filled with an anguish Kowalski somehow knew was for Vecchio's sake. "Stop it, Ray! That's not true! You don't understand! You don't know what happened to him--"

That was true enough. He didn't know; but Fraser was about to tell him. Ray sensed it. He'd been holding something back, but his words had finally broken through his defensive walls somehow, and he was going to spill his guts. But from the look on his face, it wasn't going to be anything he wanted to hear. Just more shit about Vecchio. The horrors of his undercover gig. It made Ray want to puke. Like he was supposed to feel sorry for the crazy fuck who'd tried to waste him!

"I DON'T CARE!" he shouted. "I don't wanna hear it! I don't care! I HATE HIS FUCKIN' GUTS, AND I'M GONNA NAIL HIS ASS, IF IT'S THE LAST THING I DO! YA GOT THAT?"

Fraser did. In the ringing silence that followed, he sucked in a shaky breath. His eyes went dark with anger. His hands tightened unconsciously on Ray's arms. Kowalski felt a deeper wave of anger spread through him at Ben's reaction. Fraser hadn't gotten excited when Vecchio had tried to kill him, but let him threaten the Italian, and he got pissed in a second!

Enraged, his heart pounding, he felt his muscles tense with the urge to hit something. He told himself desperately that it was Vecchio he was really mad at, that it was Vecchio he wanted to hit. That he was never going to hit Ben, no matter what. But Fraser's protectiveness towards Vecchio had his fingers curling into fists. If he said one more word about him, he was afraid he'd go ape shit. Lose it completely. Forget every vow he'd made to himself about never touching Ben in anger again, and pop him one.

"Back off, Ben," he hissed through clenched teeth.

"No." Fraser shook his head stubbornly. "Ray, please listen..."

But Ray couldn't. As Ben hung onto him, another feeling shot through him, that wasn't rage, but was just as heated. Ben's touch confused him. It made half of him want to hit but the other half was excited. He didn't understand it. It hadn't been like that with Stella. When they'd fought, it had killed his desire. But right now, with Ben, it was different. Even in the midst of the worst fight they'd had since their breakup, he still wanted him. So much that, if Ben didn't get away from him, he would

He wasn't sure what he'd do. That was the problem. He was scared to touch him while he was so angry. Didn't know what it would do to him, what form rage would twist his desire into. It might melt away if he kissed Ben, as his anger usually did; or it might grow even hotter. For a second, he imagined throwing Ben onto his back on the bed. Covering his stubborn mouth with his, making him shut up or maybe making love to him.

But was love what it would be?

Suddenly, without warning, Ray remembered Rylan. Rylan's cuffs, cold around his aching wrists. Rylan stripping him from behind with strong, determined hands, while he hung bloodied and helpless from his own headboard, yelling hoarsely for him to stop.

Ray's stomach lurched. Sickened, he thought, Izzat what you want? Ya wanna hurt Ben like that? He shut his eyes, revolted. He was never going to force so much as a kiss on Ben. No matter what. He didn't want him to connect his touch with fear. With anything but love, passion and pleasure.

He felt like Ben's hands were on fire, like they were burning his bare skin.

"Let go o' me!" he snapped, confused by his own conflicting impulses. Frightened that Rylan's kink might've rubbed off on him. He would've pushed Ben away, but he'd learned his lesson about shoving him around already, and he was doing his damnedest not to make that mistake again. But he needed space. Breathing room. So he pulled Ben's hand off his arm, and stumbled away from him. Got himself out of striking or kissing-distance. Out of the danger zone. Because his love for Ben was even deeper than his rage, and he didn't want this to make him do something he'd regret. Something that would tear them apart.

Ben took a step forward, as if to follow him. Ray shook his head vehemently, not knowing what he would do if Ben touched him again.

"No. Just stay there," he warned.

Ben must've realized that he was close to breaking, because for once, he obeyed him. Stayed where he was, and kept quiet. He bit back whatever he was going to say about Ray Vecchio, and just stared at Ray. But his blue eyes were anxious, and his breathing was unsteady. He was finally, obviously agitated.

Ray felt a kind of mean satisfaction at that, at the fact that he'd finally cracked Fraser's goddamn superhuman calm. He knew how hard he'd been trying to hold his emotions in check. But he also felt that it was just a front. He suspected that ever since Vecchio left, Ben had been clinging to a pretense of calm when he was really so cut up inside that he didn't know what to do.

The problem was, he was afraid that he knew what that meant, too. About him and Vecchio, and their respective places in Fraser's heart. So just cracking his calm wasn't enough. He'd kept his fists to himself, but he was still too angry to keep his mouth shut. " He's gonna pay for this," he repeated bitterly. "I ain't lettin' him off the hook for it, even if you are."

He paused deliberately after that. Waited for Fraser to say something. Part of him had been waiting for that ever since Vecchio left, waiting for the real Fraser to step forward. The law-abiding Mountie who hated to even see people litter, or make a turn without signaling. The Fraser who would never, ever condone or excuse attempted murder. The Fraser who he trusted, who he leaned on. The Fraser who was his friend, his lover -- his world. Despite his own anger and shock, he gave him another chance to speak up. To set things right.

That was one of the reasons he'd kept hammering at this, trying to get Ben to open up. He wanted to give him every chance to be a stand-up cop, to come out of his shock-induced haze and do his duty. But Ben hadn't taken them. He'd let all of them go by without comment. He didn't answer him this time, either.

Ray clenched his fingers so hard that they whitened, and dug into his palm. "Guess it's pretty fuckin' clear who it is you really care about," he growled. Then he waited, once again, for Fraser to prove him wrong. To show some of that famous "We always get our man" Mountie spirit, and agree to go after Vecchio. Or at the very least, to get mad at him for using bad language.

But he didn't. He'd been swearing up a storm ever since Vecchio left, but Ben hadn't said a word about it. When he didn't object to his latest curse either, Ray's frustration soared off the scale. It was like Ben had been replaced by this zombie guy, who wouldn't respond no matter which of his buttons you pushed. He'd tried all of them in the last hour, without result.

He hated that he'd been reduced to this: to acting like a spoiled teenager just to get Ben's attention when it should've been his by right. Out of love. But he hadn't felt any love coming from Ben since it happened. Another thing that cut deep, that he didn't understand. "Fuck it!" he hissed again.

At that, Ben finally shot him a look. But he glanced away again without a word, without rising to the bait.

Ray stared at him, frustrated, enraged, and scared. He'd thought they'd put all this behind them, but here they were again. Him and Ben, on opposite sides of the big Italian fence that was Vecchio. This was all Vecchio's fault. All of it: his fear, and Ben's drawn, tight look of guilt and shame. He kept coming between them, in ways real or imagined.

I could kill him! he raged inwardly. First, I screw things up bein' jealous o' him when we first get together. Well, maybe that was mostly my fault, but now that I finally got Ben back, he's right there in between us again! And this time, he stuck his goddamn nose into it. Sneakin' in here when we're in bed... Barrin' Ben from his friggin' wedding, when he knows how much bein' his best man means to him, cuz he found out we're bi. Tellin' him they're not partners anymore! Makin' him feel guilty for bein' with me! I SHOULD kill him!

His mind was a tangle of anger, pain, and fear. Things weren't over between the three of them yet; and he was as scared of Vecchio's warning to Ben to stay away as he had been of his gun. Because he knew Ben would never do that. It just wasn't in him. Ben loved Vecchio, and he never let go of the people he loved. He'd kept on loving Victoria Metcalf even after she was imprisoned for eight years, he'd kept on loving Vecchio even after he'd left him for a year without a word and he'd kept on loving him, God knew why, even after he'd shoved him, kicked his hat, and thrown him out.

Ben was faithful as a wolf, once he gave his heart.

The hell of it was, Vecchio knew that as well as he did. Ray was sure of it. He was crazy, but he sure as hell wasn't stupid, and he'd known Fraser a lot longer than he had. So Vecchio had to know that despite the way he'd told him to fuck off, Fraser wouldn't let him go. Vecchio would know that Ben would eventually go to him, hat in hand, blink those big blue eyes at him, and beg Vecchio to take him back. And Ray knew that the Italian would, despite what he'd said. Because in spite of his homophobia, in his own way, Vecchio loved Fraser as much as he did. Hell, he'd been willing to kill for him. You'd have to be blind not to know what that meant.

No way is he gonna cut Ben loose forever. It ain't gonna happen.

Vecchio would get over this. He'd take Ben back. Ray was sure of it. But not for free. And it didn't take a genius to guess what price he'd make Ben pay for getting his friendship back: him. Vecchio would ask Ben to give him up. Stop seeing him, stop sleeping with him, stop loving him, so his goddamn Catholic conscience could be clear. So the big, macho tough guy wouldn't have to deal with the fact that his best friend was bi.

Hell, this is Vecchio's perfect opening. His big chance to be rid o' me fer good, he thought.

It made Ray want to hit. After he'd come to see him in the hospital, he'd thought that maybe Vecchio had gotten over hating him. But obviously not. That little gesture must've been Ben's idea. Vecchio had always hated him, from day one. And now he was forcing Ben to choose between Vecchio and his family, Vecchio and his new wife -- and him. And Fraser had a history with them that went way back. He'd loved them long before he ever met Stanley Ray Kowalski.

If push came to shove, this time, Ray figured he'd be the one who'd get shoved. Not just out of Fraser's bed, but out of his life.

So Ray paced, nervous as a cat. Sure, Fraser didn't give up on people he loved -- not ordinarily. But what if he loved two people who hated each other, and the one he'd known the longest asked him to give up the other? What would he do in that case? Ray didn't know, and it scared him to death. He was afraid he was going to lose Ben again. For good this time. And not because he'd done something stupid, either. Because Ray Vecchio had.

It ain't fair! he thought bitterly. Why should I have to pay for Vecchio bein' nuts? He moved further away from Ben and tried to catch his breath. Put a lid on his explosive anger. Gather his thoughts. But all he could think of was Fraser's stubborn, idiotic idea of apologizing to Vecchio, and how that would ruin everything. How he'd lose him if he did. He was sure if Ben ever talked to Vecchio again, Vecchio would demand that he get rid of him. And what they had was so good, so perfect, he couldn't bear the thought of losing it because Vecchio was a narrow-minded jerk. "Yer not gonna apologize for not tellin' him about me, Fraser," he repeated, circling the room. "Toldja, it's none o' his goddamn business!"

Fraser wisely stayed a few feet away, but his eyes pleaded with him. "Ray, will you sit down?" he asked, as if his pacing was making him nervous. "Please! We need to sit down and discuss this rationally"

"No!" he paced faster. "No talkin'. No discussion. Yer NOT gonna apologize to someone who tried to kill me! It ain't gonna happen!"

He couldn't let it happen.

Fraser blew out an exasperated breath. "I don't intend to apologize for that, Ray. Don't be silly. You don't understand"

He paced some more. Up and down, up and down, his body unable to contain the pressure rising inside him. "Yer damn right I don't. So tell me. Make me understand, Fraser! Make me understand how that prick could bust into your apartment while we were asleep"

"That was my fault. The door wasn't locked, Ray. You know that--"

"Okay then. Tell me how he could rip the covers off us like we were goddamn fuckin' underage TEENAGERS, put a chokehold on me, throw me on the floor and put his damn GUN in my mouth, and you still need to APOLOGIZE to him!"

That one was a bit harder. It gave even Fraser pause. He was silent for a long moment. Finally, he said, "I'm not going to apologize for that, Ray. That would make no sense." He bit his lip. "I'm not entirely sure if I can explain it"


Ben swallowed hard. "I don't think he came here meaning to hurt anyone, but he was wrong to pull his gun on you, no matter what he thought you'd done. I'm sorry for that. But I still need to talk to him about you and I. I want to apologize for not telling him about you, about us, sooner."

"After what HE did? He's the one owes us an apology! Don'tcha get that? Besides, he won't listen to ya!" Ray protested. "He doesn't wanna hear it!"

Fraser grimaced. "I'll grant you, he's disturbed right now. He's not himself. But he's not insane. I can--"

"How do you know?" Ray interrupted, confused. "How the HELL do you know he's not crazy? Said yerself, he 'snapped'. Now yer tryin' to tell me he's sane! Which is it?"

Fraser set his jaw. "Just think, Ray. He could've killed you. He could have, but he didn't. I do think he lost control -- but only for a few moments. Once I told him what the situation was, he became himself again. He backed down. That, at least, was the act of a rational man."

Fraser kept harping on that, on how Vecchio hadn't really pulled the trigger. But Ray didn't care. As far as he was concerned, that was about as valid as the famous Twinkie defense. "Oh, yeah. That's real rational. 'Snappin' in and outta reality! Ya want we should give the prick a medal cuz he 'snapped' back in just in time, before he killed me?"

Fraser's eyes narrowed. "I'm sorry he hurt you, but please don't call him that, Ray. He's my friend."

He exploded. "Then what am I, Fraser? Huh? What am I? How can you sit there, after you watched him try to whack me, and still say he's yer friend?"

Ben opened his mouth to answer, but Ray cut him off again, too furious to listen.

"Who're you gonna back up here? Yer friend or yer lover? Don'tcha get it, Fraser? HIS FINGER WAS ON THE TRIGGER! HE WAS GONNA KILL ME! OR DON'T YOU GIVE A FUCK?"

He suddenly realized that he was screaming again. He stopped. Took a deep breath. Told himself he was being childish. Unfair. Fraser did care about him, he knew that. He cared so much that he'd tried to save his life at the risk of his own -- so much that he'd told Vecchio he loved him, too, knowing what that would do to their friendship. In fact, Ray figured Ben had saved his life. In that deadly moment when Vecchio's finger had tightened on the trigger, he felt that Ben's words, his frantic declarations of love for him, were all that had kept him from pulling it. The only reason Vecchio hadn't wasted him was because he didn't want to hurt Ben. If Ben hadn't kept saying the L word, he would've been toast.

Still, Ray wasn't sorry for what he'd said. Ben needed to hear it, because after all he'd done to him, to them, he couldn't understand how all he could talk about was apologizing to fucking crazy Vecchio, his would-be murderer. It didn't seem right to him, not for any reason. By trying to kill him, Vecchio had stepped over the line. Way over. He didn't deserve any apologies, he deserved to have his ass thrown in jail!

So he waited, one last time, for Fraser to realize that. Or at least to reach out to him. To hold him and tell him he really did love him after all, like he'd claimed he did, and that even Ray Vecchio couldn't break them up. To tell him that somehow, some way, they'd find their way through this mess together. He waited for Ben to include him, instead of acting like this was something had happened to him, when Ray had been the one naked on the floor with Vecchio's gun jammed in his teeth.

But Fraser didn't do any of those things. Didn't reach out to him, didn't even come a step closer. He just stared at him, his blue eyes tormented, and whispered, "Is that what you think, Ray?"

That cut Ray to the bone. "What the hell am I s'posed to think?" he sputtered. "Only thing I can figure is, ya wanna apologize cuz ya just don't give a fuck about me. Cuz he means more to ya than I do!" The words came out angry. Belligerent. He wondered if Ben knew how much it hurt him to say them. That he could hardly force them past the lump in his throat.

"That's not true. Don't do this to me, Ray," Ben ground out, in a voice that was hardly more than a whisper.

Ray knew what he was talking about, what he couldn't bring himself to say: "Don't make me choose between you." And that terrified him too, because he thought he knew who Ben would choose. Why else would he be acting this way, as if his life was over just because Vecchio didn't want to be friends with him anymore? "That's the point!" he growled. "I'M not the one who did anything, Fraser. I'm the one who was attacked! Remember? I'm the victim, not the perp! I should've gone down to the 29th by now, and charged yer buddy with assault!"

Fraser's shoulders tightened. "You have the right to, of course," he said, in a stiff voice.

Ray looked at him intently. Giving him one last chance. "If I did, wouldja back me up? Give a statement too?"

Fraser closed his eyes. "Yes," he said tonelessly, after a long moment.

Ray supposed he should've been happy with that. Up till then, Fraser had refused to do even that much. At least he was giving him some kind of support, at last. Or was he? He stared at him, searched his eyes. All he saw there was duty -- mixed with fear and pain. He knew what that meant. Ben would go along with it because it was his duty, and because his freaky Fraser/Mountie genes wouldn't let him lie -- but not because he loved him. The agony on his pale face told Ray what a price he'd pay if he forced him to swear out a statement against Vecchio. Fraser would do his duty all right, but things would be over between them.

I'd lose him, he thought.

Maybe he'd known that from the beginning. Though he'd ranted and raved about turning Vecchio in, had threatened to do it several times, he'd just been using that to try to break Fraser out of his shell, to get him to talk. He hadn't seriously intended to go to the 29th and swear out a complaint. But he doubted Ben realized that. His anger was too real, too raw, for Ben to think he didn't mean what he'd said.

Dammit! he thought, raging helplessly. Don'tcha know why I didn't do it already? Don'tcha know? But he couldn't say it. Because it frightened him, loving Ben that much. So much that he was probably going to let it go. Let fucking crazy Vecchio off the hook for putting his gun in his mouth, for trying to kill him, just because he knew what it would do to Ben if he hauled his ass up on charges.

Hell, maybe Vecchio isn't the only one who's nuts, he thought grimly. Cuz what if he changes his mind? What if he 'snaps', and comes after me again? If Vecchio was as crazy as Ben said, then letting him off the hook might cost him his life. His mouth twisted wryly. Vecchio isn't the only one who's willing to risk everything for Ben. He wondered if the Mountie had a clue about that. Wondered, too, why Ben didn't seem to feel the same way about him all of a sudden. Even though he'd said he was his. Even though Ray had believed it.

"Aww, screw it!" he snarled, choking on it. He pulled on his T-shirt and jacket, snatched his car keys up off of Fraser's kitchen table and headed for the door, emptied of words. Emptied of everything except his burning fury, and hopeless love for a guy who seemed to care more for his best friend than for him.

But with every step he took across the floor, something inside him was still waiting. For Fraser to grab his arm. Call him back. Show some sign that he still loved him.

But Fraser didn't say a word.

Walking out didn't seem like such a bad idea, then. Cuz Ben had already gone away.

To say that Ray left in a huff would've been a vast understatement. He strode out the door livid, raging, and slammed it so hard behind him that the whole apartment shook. And oh, the echo! Sharp and hard, like the sound of a gunshot, the gunshot that almost was. It cut through Ben so that for a moment, he couldn't move. He just stood there, eyes closed, accepting it for the stinging rebuke that it was.

Ray had left him. He hadn't tried to prevent it, because it would've been futile. Like trying to stop a force of nature. He'd learned the hard way that when Kowalski got that enraged, it was better to say little. Better not to argue with him. Best to stand back and let him blow, like a volcano.

He'd seen the explosion coming. Anger had begun seething in Kowalski's light blue eyes when he'd tried to explain Ray Vecchio's brutal actions. It grew hotter, bubbled and hissed when they argued about his desire to apologize to Vecchio, and built to a towering peak of fury when he tried to tell him that the attack had been caused by what had happened to Ray while he was undercover. Kowalski didn't want to hear that. It had made veins bulge in his forehead. He didn't want to hear anything from him, it seemed, but the words, "Yes, I will sign a statement against him. I will help you put my best friend in jail." But even when he finally gave in and said that, it wasn't enough. He'd stormed out anyway. And though he'd longed to call him back, to make him stay, he'd thought that if he tried, Ray would strike him.

Fraser didn't want to risk it. He was still reeling from the dire events of the last few hours. He didn't feel strong enough to place himself, like a piece of flotsam, in the direct path of the raging river of Ray's fury. Wasn't willing to get swept away by it, to be hurt even more by it. After all, Ray had shoved him and kicked his hat not long ago, over far less than this. So rather than risk another violent confrontation, this time between Ray and himself, he'd let him go.

Now, he stood wondering if he'd done the right thing. Maybe, he thought gloomily, I should've let Ray hit me. He wasn't at all sure that he didn't deserve that. Because he should've backed him up earlier about arresting Vecchio. He knew that. Ray saw his failure to do that as a lack of loyalty, even as evidence that he cared more for Vecchio than for him.

But it wasn't true. Why couldn't he see that he loved both of them in different ways? Ray was his lover, but Vecchio was like a brother to him. If he helped Ray to arrest him almost on the eve of his wedding, it might destroy him; and he couldn't risk that.

For a cop, being arrested would be bad enough. But if he agreed to Ray Kowalski's desire to pursue revenge through the justice system, that wasn't all the damage that would be done to Vecchio. Ben didn't know if Kowalski had thought about this, or if he was too angry to care, but he knew that Vecchio would probably also lose his fiancé, if they charged him with aggravated assault. It wasn't a felony, just a misdemeanor, but he'd still be put in jail. He'd still have to have someone bail him out, then face trial. Which might wreck his marriage plans. Though Fraser trusted Serena, he didn't know her that well. Didn't know if her love for Ray Vecchio was strong enough to survive learning that he'd been arrested -- or the reasons behind it. Let alone the public scandal of a trial. That would've been a lot to ask of any woman.

What if she left him because of it? Fraser knew that Serena had become essential to Ray. He loved her deeply. Given the uncertainty of his current mental state, and his guilt over his misguided attack on Kowalski, Ben wasn't at all sure what he would do if he was turned in by his best friend, then lost his reputation and Serena as well, because of it. All of that might be enough to push him over the edge. Vecchio might become desperate -- even suicidal. He was the only one who knew how close Ray had come to that once before, after Irene Zuko died.

I won't be the cause of Ray Vecchio's death, he thought, chilled to the bone by the very idea of it. Granted, that was a worst case scenario, but look at the tragedy that had played itself out after he'd turned in Victoria Metcalf, in the name of justice. He'd never dreamed that doing his duty could wreak such havoc on his life, and the lives of everyone he cared for. But now he knew what a toll a blind devotion to justice could take. And as he'd once told Ray, he didn't ever want to make that mistake again.

But he didn't want to lose Kowalski, either, or pretend that he hadn't witnessed a crime, just because the perpetrator was his friend. For the second time in his life, Ben felt a profound confusion as to where his duty really lay.

There was no doubt where his heart was. I almost lost Ray.

It was all he could think, all he'd been able to think since Vecchio had left his apartment, carrying the gun he'd almost used to end Ray Kowalski's life. His Ray. His love. His sweet, tender, volatile, wondrous Ray had almost been killed by his other Ray, who he also loved.

Even now, Fraser could hardly believe it. While the incident had unfolded, he'd responded instinctively, driven by a need to protect his lover. But once Vecchio had gone, he'd turned cold. He'd put his clothes on, but he still couldn't get warm. He'd sat shivering in a chair, nearly speechless with horror, as he thought of how close Ray had come to dying. How close he himself had come to losing the love of his life. He knew he hadn't reacted well, hadn't handled Ray's subsequent, justified fury and desire for legal retribution well at all; but he couldn't. He was still too deeply in shock. He was used to violence in the course of his job, but between those he loved, it was unthinkable. Unbearable.

Yet it had happened. His best friend had almost murdered his lover. Had thrown him to the floor naked, put a gun in his mouth and almost pulled the trigger, because he thought Kowalski had somehow blackmailed him into having sex, that he'd raped him. And Vecchio had thought that partly because he hadn't been honest with him. Because he'd never told him that he was sometimes attracted to men, or that he and Kowalski were lovers. Because even when Vecchio had spotted a hickey Kowalski had left on his neck, he'd let him think -- led him to think -- it had been put there by a woman.

Why did I do that?

Ben pressed the heels of his hands over his eyes, as if he could somehow shut out the knowledge of his own guilt. But it didn't work. He'd known it was wrong to mislead Ray Vecchio about his love affair with Ray. He didn't tell lies, and that was, if not a lie of commission, then most certainly one of omission. But he'd soothed his uneasy conscience by telling himself that it was a small enough deception. A sort of white lie, at most. He'd never guessed how that 'little white lie' would come back to haunt him. When Kowalski had left him, it had even seemed a moot point, because he'd never really thought he would return. And they'd been back together for such a short time, for only a few days... There hadn't been time to deal with the problems their relationship would cause with others yet. They were too busy rebuilding it. They'd both been in such a happy haze, lost in their own private, sensual, erotic world whenever they were together, that he'd forgotten all about it. He hadn't even thought about how he would explain Kowalski to Ray Vecchio. He'd been too busy reveling in his caresses, in his love, to worry about the outside world.

Now it was too late. Now he knew that it hadn't been either a white lie or a moot point. It was hugely important. In retrospect, he realized that he'd been a fool. He'd thought his time in Chicago had made him wise to new ways, urban ways -- but maybe what it had really done was corrupt him. Because he'd tried to deceive his best friend, in order to retain his affection. But lies were always discovered in the end; and when they were, they often did irreparable damage. His 'little white lie' had blown up viciously -- not just in his face, but in Ray Kowalski's as well. Because he'd deceived Ray Vecchio in that way, and never bothered to tell him the truth later on, for the second time in the space of a month, Ray Kowalski had nearly died.

And as if that weren't enough, Fraser also knew that he wasn't the only one who'd been keeping secrets.

Ray Vecchio had hidden a terrible one of his own. He'd been raped by James Maxwell. Fraser knew it. He'd seen the pure, soul-deep hatred in his eyes when he'd put his gun in Ray Kowalski's mouth, when he'd asked, "What's he got on you, Benny?" Heard the hatred in his voice when he'd called Ray "Jimmy" and asked him, "How does it feel to be the helpless one now?" It was clear to him that Ray was reliving his own rape at Maxwell's hands, trying to take revenge for it.

There had been other clues, too, that something was deeply wrong with Ray: his uncharacteristic savagery, his ruthlessness, the way he'd addressed him as "Mountie" several times, as if they were relative strangers... The man who'd tried to kill Ray Kowalski was so different from Ray Vecchio that it had seemed as if a stranger had somehow temporarily taken over Vecchio's body.

But not a total stranger. Not to him, anyway. Fraser had seen that 'other Ray', that cold, ruthless persona once before: at breakfast, the morning Ray had returned from his year in the Mafia. That was the one time Ray had shown him his alter ego, 'Armando Langostini'; and though their conversation was brief, it had been so chilling that he'd never forgotten it.

During the attack on Kowalski, he'd recognized Armando -- and more. Danger had set his mind racing at top speed, and other clues had fallen into place, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fitting together. He'd remembered the dark look on Ray Vecchio's face the morning of his return, his intuition that something unspeakable had happened to him, Serena's hint that Maxwell had done something terrible when he'd learned that Ray was in love with her, and Vecchio's strange, almost instantaneous dislike of Ray Kowalski. He hadn't understood any of that before, but when Vecchio pulled his gun on Kowalski, he did. In a moment of revelation, he saw that Armando Langostini's persona had surfaced inside Ray, that he was prepared to kill -- and he understood why. Memories, hints and instinct had all coalesced, in Fraser's mind, into a dark picture of Ray's hidden life in the Iguana family.

Fraser vividly recalled Ray's chilling description of James Maxwell, aka "Jimmy the Crusher", a fellow contract killer for the Iguanas. He'd said that Maxwell had tried to kill him, and it was clear that Ray both hated and feared the man. Since he'd called Kowalski "Jimmy" when he'd threatened him, it followed that Maxwell must be the "Jimmy" he meant, and that Ray must physically resemble Maxwell, enough to have disturbed the Italian from the start -- which explained Vecchio's puzzling antipathy to Kowalski when they first met. That, plus Vecchio's reference to sexual blackmail, and the fact that he'd leapt to the conclusion that Ray had forced him into having sex, spoke volumes to Ben. Ray must've attacked Kowalski partly because he reminded him of a man who'd terrorized him sexually.

Fraser could only guess at the details. Perhaps Maxwell was gay, had wanted Ray/Armando, and when he'd learned of Ray Vecchio's love for Serena, had threatened to kill her if Ray didn't sleep with him. The only thing he was sure of was that Maxwell hadn't just tried to kill Ray; he'd blackmailed and sexually violated him, too. That had to be the source of the torment he'd sensed in him when he'd first returned from Arizona.

Fraser wished, desperately and far too late, that he'd tried harder to get Ray to open up to him about his pain back then. But he'd let it go, partly because he was so depressed when Kowalski left him, but also because he was convinced that Ray's happiness with Serena had helped him to forget his terrible time with the Iguanas.

But he'd been wrong. Ray hadn't forgotten, he'd just pretended to. All that darkness had evidently been festering in his soul, because when he'd walked in and discovered him in bed with Kowalski, it had resurfaced with a vengeance. He guessed that the shock of seeing them together must've triggered some sort of traumatic flashback to his rape by Maxwell. Something so abhorrent that Ray didn't want to face it, and couldn't function; so Armando Langostini had surfaced to take control. Fraser could only guess at the mechanics of Ray's momentary breakdown, but he did know such things were possible. He'd read about them during his tenure with law enforcement.

Unfortunately, his understanding of the reasons for the tragedy only reinforced his sense that he was at least partly responsible for it.

He felt so guilty about it, so ashamed, that he'd hardly been able to look Kowalski in the eye since the assault. He'd wanted to make a home for Ray with him, a safe haven where they could be together, and where the violence of his job and the pain of the outside world could never touch him. Instead, he'd almost gotten him killed. His failure to tell Ray Vecchio the truth, plus his careless habit of never locking his door because Dief was always with him, had almost had fatal consequences. He'd failed Ray Kowalski in the worst way.

Worse yet, he hadn't been able to confess his guilt to Ray -- or to talk sensibly to him about it about all. After Vecchio left, he'd been frozen, almost paralyzed with shock and shame. Ray had been just the opposite: enraged, vengeful, almost climbing the walls in his fury. Fire to his ice. The combination had been disastrous. He hadn't been able to calm Ray down, to soothe his ire so they could discuss the subject rationally, the way he'd wanted to, because he hadn't been calm himself. Far from it. He'd been keenly aware of Ray's fury, frightened of what he might do to avenge it, and sick with guilt over lying to Vecchio about him. Of what Kowalski might do if he ever found out about that lie...

Most of all, he'd been so frightened at the way he'd almost lost him, that he couldn't talk much at all. He'd sat there nearly mute while Ray raged around him, snarling and snapping at him, wild with fury. Perversely, he'd never loved him more. Had never even realized, until the moment when he'd wakened to find Ray helpless on the floor with Ray Vecchio's gun in his mouth, just how very much he did love him. How empty his world would be without him. He would've thrown himself on Vecchio's gun in a heartbeat, would've gladly taken a bullet himself, to save Kowalski's life. He'd been about to do just that when Vecchio turned and saw him, and warned him off. He still would've done it, if he hadn't been too far away to reach him in one leap. If he hadn't known that Armando Langostini would likely shoot him first, then kill Ray anyway, afterwards.

He wasn't sure, even now, just what had saved Kowalski. Fraser didn't know exactly what he'd said, in the critical moment when he'd seen Vecchio's finger tighten on the trigger. He knew he'd pleaded for Ray's life, but he'd been so totally terrified that the details were blurred. All he could remember was saying, "I love him," over and over. It seemed unlikely that that had turned Vecchio from his deadly purpose, though. He didn't know if it had been anything he'd said at all. All he was certain of was that Ray had suddenly come to his senses. His green eyes had finally lost their strangeness, that look of dreadful ruthlessness. They'd gone wide and shocked looking, and in that instant when he'd finally lowered his gun, Ben had known that it was Ray Vecchio looking at him once again. That Armando Langostini was gone.

But then, just when relief had washed over him, another cruel blow had fallen. "We're not partners anymore," Ray had said. "You don't come to my wedding. Stay away from me and my family..." His best friend had utterly rejected him and his lover.

Fraser hadn't had time, yet, to deal with the pain those words had inflicted. Because after Vecchio left, he'd thought only of Ray. How precious he was, and how he'd almost gotten him killed through his cowardice. He'd longed to hug him, to take him in his arms and comfort him, but Ray was so infuriated, his body so tense, that touching him seemed dangerous. More likely to elicit a punch than an answering caress. With guilt riding his shoulders, his eyes had filled with tears that he hadn't wanted Kowalski to see. So he'd stayed as far away as he could. Avoided looking at him. Didn't say more than he had to. Which was probably wise, because the few words he had managed to choke out had only served to upset Ray even more.

It seemed bleakly ironic that the one thing Ray didn't blame him for was the thing that had nearly gotten him killed. He seemed to feel that he hadn't been wrong to hide their relationship from Ray Vecchio. He'd said that it was none of his business. So he'd been given a reprieve on that score. But Fraser suspected that it was only temporary. That Ray was probably too upset to have given the matter full consideration yet. Once he did, he might begin to wonder if he'd had other reasons for keeping silent. Though Ray had heard him tell Vecchio that he'd kept their love a secret for fear that he'd lose his friendship, Kowalski might decide that wasn't his real motive for keeping silent. Given his tendency towards insecurity, he might decide that he'd kept quiet about their relationship because he was ashamed of him -- and he might leave him again. For good this time. Forever.

Perhaps, Fraser thought bleakly, he already has. After all, Ray had stormed out without saying a word about where he was going. Or when, or if, he was ever coming back. That possibility filled him with dread, like the rising of a cold, dark tide inside him. He couldn't help remembering the chill he'd felt at Ray Vecchio's return -- how it had both gladdened and scared him, because he'd sensed that it would someday bring him to this. That Vecchio would force him to make a choice between the two people he loved most in the world: his two Rays.

Then again -- maybe Kowalski had spared him that. Maybe he'd just made the choice for him.

Oh, God.

Fraser bit his lip, jammed his hands against his aching forehead as another, even darker possibility occurred to him. Maybe some hidden, masochistic part of him had wanted Ray to do that. Maybe he'd kept silent because he'd known that would enrage Ray even further. Had he deliberately tried to push him away? To make him leave, to punish himself for the lie that had nearly cost Ray his life? The idea frightened him.

Was this what life in Chicago had done to him? Taught him to lie so well that even he no longer understood the real motives behind his own actions, until it was too late?

Fraser prayed that wasn't true. Ray promised me, he thought. Clinging to hope. Grasping at straws. Trusting Ray Kowalski more, now, than he trusted himself. He said that he wouldn't hurt me. Even if I made a serious mistake. And he promised that he wouldn't leave me again.

Yet it seemed that Ray had done both those things tonight.

He supposed he should've been angry. But searching his heart, he found no resentment towards his lover there. After all, Ray had made those promises to him in good faith. But neither of them could possibly have foreseen that something like this would happen. The scene in his apartment tonight had been so violent, so unexpected, that he couldn't blame Ray for reacting strongly to it. He'd nearly been killed in his bed; and because of mistakes Ben himself had made. Unarmed and taken by surprise, Ben had been helpless to stop it. All he could do was prevent Kowalski from exacerbating the already dangerous situation by beating Vecchio for it afterwards.

But Ray hadn't appreciated his attempt to defuse the situation. He'd been furious with him for preventing the fist fight he'd wanted with Vecchio. Was enraged that he still cared for Vecchio, that he didn't want to turn him in, in spite of what he'd done. He understood why that would upset him, but it was extremely difficult for him to aid in charging his best friend with assault when he thought he'd been acting in his defense. If he'd thought Vecchio was a real danger to the community, or any further danger to Kowalski, he would've forced himself to do it -- but he didn't believe that he was. The only reason he'd drawn his gun on Kowalski was because he'd walked into a situation with his own best friend that mirrored his dark, hidden past and aroused emotions so extreme that they caused a temporary mental lapse. The odds against that happening again with anyone else were

Well, they had to be enormous. Ordinarily, he would've calculated them, but at the moment, he was too upset. He just told himself that they had to be beyond astronomical, and let it go at that.

He based those odds on his bone-deep knowledge of Ray Vecchio. They'd been more than friends, more like brothers. He knew Ray, and he'd seen the guilt in his green eyes once he'd realized the enormity of his mistake. He'd seen the shame, and he'd known in his bones that Vecchio probably wouldn't be able to so much as look at his gun again for some time. Vecchio wasn't the crazed maniac that Kowalski thought he was. In fact, Fraser suspected that he was walking the floor somewhere right now, in agony over what he'd just done, over the fact that he'd nearly committed a deadly crime for the wrong reasons.

Out of love for me.

He hated the fact that his best friend's affection for him had led him to assault his lover, but it was true. That was why Fraser wanted to talk things out with Ray Vecchio, why he wanted to apologize -- and more. They had been best friends for years, and he couldn't just throw that away. He hadn't mentioned it to Kowalski for fear of angering him further, but despite what Vecchio had done, despite his angry rejection, he also wanted to see him again so that he could convince him to get some help. Psychologic counseling. It was obvious that he needed it. Ray had suffered terribly, he'd been raped and almost murdered. His problems went deep, and they hadn't been solved either by time, or his love for Serena. He needed some help to get over them, but Ben knew it was extremely unlikely that he'd get that help on his own. So he wanted to talk him into it. Felt he was obligated to do so, since it was extremely unlikely that anyone else but he and Ray Kowalski even knew they existed; and Kowalski wanted to prosecute Ray, rather than help him.

In the meantime, despite what he'd done to them, Ben didn't want to hurt him more than he'd already been hurt.

But Ray Kowalski didn't understand that. He didn't want to hear about the horrors Ray must've undergone during his time with the Iguanas -- he was too angry to care. He also didn't understand that he still loved Ray Vecchio as a friend, just as he would've still loved Kowalski, if he'd almost killed someone on his behalf. The blond detective was too jealous to want to see that, and Ben didn't know how to explain it, how to make him understand those things. So although Kowalski's leaving had hurt, he hadn't tried to prevent it. Under the circumstances, he could hardly blame Ray for wanting to get out of his apartment, and away from him, for awhile.

He didn't blame Ray for anything. Oh, no. He blamed himself.

Hoping that Ray hadn't left him forever, Ben went to his window and stared out into the darkness. With all that had happened, he felt a vague sense of surprise. It wasn't even dawn, yet already, his world had changed.

Ray spent the day alone. First he paced the floor in his apartment, as per usual. Raging about Ben and Vecchio. Mostly Vecchio. He started making a mental list of the reasons he hated him.

  1. Cuz he attacked me.
  2. Cuz he found out about me and Ben.
  3. Cuz he came between us again, and
  4. Cuz he's a Style Pig.
Making the list was almost too easy. Hell, given time, he could've racked up reasons E through Z, why Vecchio should cease to exist. But Ben wasn't exactly at the top of his list of favorite people either, for taking Vecchio's side in the whole thing.

He lied to me, he thought, still seething. Said he loved me, but he really loves Vecchio. Loves him more 'n me, anyway. Said he'd swear out a complaint against him, but he doesn't really wanna. Liar!

He paced and paced, letting it burn in his gut, until a little voice in his head said, But you never lie, do you? What about Stella? And Rylan? Then, last but certainly not least, What about Ben?

He stopped in mid-stride. Flinched as it hit him: all three of the most important relationships he'd had were based on lies. Stella, Rylan, and Ben -- he'd lied to all of them. Let Stella think he was a teenage hero in that bank, instead of a coward. Let Rylan fuck him, and even told him he liked it when he didn't, when he hated it and all he'd been thinking about the whole time was Ben. Last but not least, he'd let Ben think he was a stand-up cop, and that Rylan had just died protecting him because they were partners, not because he'd fallen in love with him. Not because his indifference had made Pat desperate. Not because things between them had gotten so screwed up that Pat tried to rape him.

"Shit," he swore softly.

He tried to shove the uncomfortable insight away. Didn't want to pursue it. Didn't even want to admit that it was true. Wanted to shove it down into a deep, dark hole inside of him, and go back to being mad at Ben and Vecchio. But that little voice just kept on whispering to him. You wanna hate Vecchio as much as he wants to hate you.

Whoa. Intruder alert. Another unwanted bulletin from his goddamn conscience.

That ain't true! he argued with it. Who asked ya?

But it wouldn't shut up. It kept nagging at him, like Stella on a bad day. Telling him stuff he didn't want to hear. Like maybe he wanted it that way for the same reason Vecchio did: cuz he wanted Ben all to himself. Cuz he didn't want Vecchio coming between them again. About anything. Ever. Maybe that was the real reason he'd pushed Ben so hard to back him up on turning Vecchio in. He didn't just want revenge, he'd wanted to get Vecchio out of Ben's life permanently. Two birds with one stone. Deep down, he'd figured that if Ben signed a statement against Vecchio, that would be it between them. The Italian would never take him back; and after that, Ben probably wouldn't even dare to ask him.

In one crazy second, he saw the secret agenda he'd hidden under his self righteous anger: he'd wanted to totally destroy Ben's friendship with Vecchio. It was in tatters now anyway, and he'd wanted to blow the last of it away. Cuz he was afraid of Ben loving someone else that much, even as a friend. He'd wanted to get rid of Vecchio, so he could have Ben all to himself. He was that selfish. That cruel. That needy.

God, the crap inside of him.

Ray's heart sank. He shook his head. Jeez. How sick is that? he asked himself. Yer like a selfish little kid. Don't want the Mountie to play with anybody but you. And I thought Vecchio was crazy! Hell, we're just the same. More alike than I knew.

Once he started listening to that annoying little voice inside him, other fears and griefs he'd been avoiding rose to the surface. He thought about what Pat might've become if he'd lived. About what he'd become, after getting involved with him. Why he hadn't told Ben everything about the way he died yet. What he might become again, if he lost Ben. About Vecchio, and why he'd pulled a gun on him. Why he'd called him Jimmy. What Vecchio had become.

But most of all, he kept reliving the attack in his head. Every ugly minute of it. If it'd been a total stranger, he could've handled it better. But it had been goddamn fucking humiliating, being thrown naked onto the floor -- caught like a green rookie, made to look like a total, candy-ass wimp in front of his lover -- by a fellow cop who was Ben's best buddy. It didn't fucking get worse than that. He hadn't been able to stop it, or even say a word, cuz Vecchio's piece was jammed in his teeth almost before he got his eyes open. Cuz Vecchio's hand was wrapped around his throat. Cutting off his breath. And the look in Vecchio's eyes: pure, smoking green hatred. It'd felt personal.

It had felt like death.

It'd terrified him. He'd been angry too, so pissed off that he'd bit down on the barrel of the Italian's gun. But underneath it, he'd been scared shitless. He didn't have a chance, and he'd known it. He'd just lain there, toughing it out, waiting for Vecchio to pull the trigger and blow his brains out. But on the inside, where no one could hear him, he'd been screaming.

No, no, NO! Please no, not now

Cuz he'd just found something to live for. The best thing he'd ever had. The love of his life. He didn't want to die, now that he'd found Ben. And he'd been scared for Ben too, because he knew what it would do to him if the bastard killed him.

But he'd lived. Against all odds, Vecchio hadn't pulled the trigger. He was still here.

So how come he didn't feel good? Hell, I should be flyin' high. Glad I'm still alive and kickin'. It was just hard to feel that way when Ben didn't really seem to care. When the only person he seemed to be worried about was Vecchio.

Every time Ray thought about that, it was like being stabbed. But he couldn't stop.

As the morning wore on, his thoughts circled, going nowhere. The incident kept playing in his head, like a video he couldn't shut off. He was still too angry to make sense of it all, and his apartment was too small. Too confining. He didn't want walls around him anymore. He wanted sun on his face. Fresh air -- or at least what passed for that in Chicago.

Gotta get out. Clear my head.

So he grabbed his car keys, got in the GTO and took off. Didn't know where he was going. Didn't care. He ended up at the lake. Walked along staring out over the water while he thought some more. Somehow, as he rested his eyes on its blue, shimmering surface, his fury started to ebb. Slowly, gradually, as he walked along with the wind teasing his hair and tourists strolling by him, the tightness in his chest eased. He could think again, instead of just wanting to hit.

Going over and over it in his head wasn't gonna do jack squat for any of them. Instead of reliving the incident and chewing on his rage, he tried to look at it logically, like Ben would. Okay, so Vecchio found out about us. Tried to kill me. That's over with now. Doneski. What I gotta figure out now is what I'm gonna do about it.

He'd already half decided that he was going to let it go for Ben's sake. But now that he thought it over, that gave him an uneasy feeling. It felt too much like taking the easy way out, so he could smooth things over with Ben. But he was a cop; he couldn't afford to think like that.

What if Ben's wrong about Vecchio not bein' dangerous anymore? What if I let him off cuz I don't wanna hurt Ben, and then he 'snaps' on someone else, and that time, there's no Mountie around to talk him out of it? What if he kills someone next time?

Letting Ray Vecchio go could have awful consequences. He needed to be sure what he was doing was right, so he considered his choices carefully. He grinned to himself: Revenge first, cuz it felt good to think about that.

Technically, I could charge him with aggravated assault, maybe even throw in a hate crime charge too, just for fun. I could get his Armani-suited ass thrown in jail, with or without Fraser's help. And if he's still dangerous, I oughtta do it. Fraser's friend or not. The problem was, if Ben didn't back him up as a witness, it'd be just his word against Vecchio's -- and after taking down most of the Iguana family, Vecchio was the Department's Golden Boy. Chicago P.D. would probably throw its weight behind him, or at least use it to try to get the charges dropped. So if Ben didn't go along with it, who knew if the charges would stick?

It was a tough one.

He turned it over in his mind. He had to decide soon, because any further delay in reporting the assault would raise questions about his credibility -- especially if Fraser didn't back him up. And he had other angles than Vecchio's craziness to consider. Like would it be worth it? Sure, it'd feel good, watching the book get thrown at the guy who'd pulled a gun on him; and if Vecchio was permanently flipped, instead of just temporarily 'snapped' like Ben thought, then it'd be even better, cuz he'd know he'd gotten a nutcase off the streets, so he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone else.

But sweet as revenge mixed with justice might be, it would have its down side, too. It'd cause a helluva lotta damage. Vecchio would go to jail, at least until someone bailed him out, and then, if the Department didn't manage to lean on him heavily enough to force him to drop the charges, there'd be a trial. Which would hurt Frannie, Mama Vecchio, Vecchio's fiancé, and the whole Vecchio family; and that'd hurt him, cuz they'd become like a second family to him, while Ray was away. It might even ruin Vecchio's wedding plans. And while he wouldn't lose any sleep over hurting him that way, and he didn't even know his fiancé, hurting the rest of the Vecchios was a different story.

Worst of all, it would hurt Ben deeply. Probably so badly that he'd leave him -- and losing Ben would kill him.

Bye bye, relationship. Bye bye, love. Bye bye, Kowalski, he thought gloomily.

Weighed against all that, and the fact that Vecchio hadn't really hurt him, at least not physically, he wasn't sure such drastic revenge would be worth it. Wasn't like Vecchio had broken into Ben's place, after all. Like Ben said, he'd left the door unlocked. And the Italian really hadn't done more than invade their privacy, bruise his neck, and scare the crap out of him.

No, he corrected himself, he scared the crap out of us. Ben was scared too.

His anger had faded enough, finally, that he could start being fair to Fraser. Okay, so Ben had conflicting loyalties. He didn't want to turn Vecchio in for it. Didn't even seem to think that he was a danger to him any longer. Kept harping on how Vecchio had backed down, once he knew he wasn't raping Ben. His attitude was only natural, wasn't it? After all, they'd been friends for a long time. Ben loved the guy.

But is that all of it?

All of a sudden, something twigged in Ray's head. Something felt wrong. Why was Ben so set on not charging Vecchio with assault? At first, he'd been too angry to see past the obvious reasons: Vecchio was his best buddy. Vecchio had thought he was defending Ben. Vecchio was getting married soon, and Ben didn't want to louse that up. All good reasons for not wanting to send him to jail.

Still... now that he'd chilled out, now that he could think rationally again, those reasons didn't seem good enough. After all, Fraser wasn't just a Mountie, he was Super Mountie. Practically a poster boy for the RCMP. He took everything it stood for deadly seriously, especially his duty. Friendship and loyalty hadn't kept him from doing his duty before, under similarly extreme circumstances. Hell, Victoria Metcalf was his lover, and he turned her in when she was accused of a crime. What makes Vecchio different?

Ray scratched his head, thinking about it. Dodged an unsteady roller-blader skating by him and walked on, his thoughts focused on unraveling the mystery. Not for Vecchio's sake, but for his own; and for Ben's. He had to figure this thing out if he was going to make things work with him again; and he had to do that. Despite the way he felt Ben had failed him, he couldn't leave him. He had to break down the walls he'd retreated behind. Get him back again.

He'd lost Stella. He wasn't going to lose Ben, too. Where he was concerned, failure wasn't an option.

He thought hard. His instincts told him that Ben's desire not to charge Vecchio had something to do with the reasons why the Italian had attacked him. But he still wasn't sure he understood them completely. It might've been just the shock of finding them together, and him looking like Maxwell, but what if there was more to it than that? He had a feeling Ben knew more about it than he'd said, but trying to pry Vecchio's motives for it out of him afterwards hadn't worked very well. Ben had been so freaked himself that he'd just spouted a bunch of psychologic mumbo jumbo. Somethin' about how Vecchio had somehow been taken over by Armando Langostini!

He snorted to himself. Vecchio, possessed by the spirit of a dead Wiseguy. Right! Like ta see Fraser try explainin' THAT one to the judge! "You see, your Honor, it was a highly unusual situation: at the time of the attack, Detective Vecchio was channeling the spirit of a contract killer named Armando Langostini, a member of the notorious Iguana crime family. So he's really not to blame.

He snickered, imagining that.

But when he sobered again, something still bothered him. He remembered feeling a vague sense that he'd missed something when Ben had tried to explain why Vecchio had flipped out. He relived the conversation in his mind. Ben had said that Vecchio 'snapped' because seeing them together shocked the hell out of him, and because he reminded him of Maxwell, some contract killer who'd tried to whack him. Weird. But he supposed it could be true. If Vecchio was 'troubled' (translate: wacko) enough to confuse the two of them, he could see how that, and the shock of finding out about them, could've made him flip out and get mad enough to waste him. Had to be a shock, finding someone who reminded you of your worst enemy, in bed with your best buddy, who you'd thought was straight. Hell, yeah. Vecchio had been so shocked he'd thought he'd blackmailed Ben into sleeping with him!


But he pushed his resentment aside. He had to figure this out, and there was more to it. Something Ben said when they were arguing afterwards had bothered him. It hadn't sounded right. But he'd been too angry to pursue it at the time. Now he concentrated, trying to remember Fraser's exact words.

"You don't know what happened to him, Ray..."

That's it. Well, part of it anyway. Ben had a weird look in his eyes when he'd said that. Like he knew something about Vecchio that Ray didn't. And he'd already told him that Maxwell had tried to waste Vecchio by then -- so what was it? His concentration sharpened. Had Ben meant that wasn't all that Maxwell had done to him? Was there something else, something Ben hadn't told him? What was it he'd said exactly? Ray chased an elusive fragment of memory. He didn't have the near total recall that Ben seemed to have, but his memory was still better than average; and damn good, where Ben was concerned. He squinted, thinking hard. He'd said something about Maxwell, something that hadn't made sense--

"Maxwell was evidently a rapist, as well as a murderer."

Yeah! That was it!

He stopped walking for a minute. Turned and stared out at Lake Michigan as he turned the words over in his mind. How the hell did Fraser know that? He'd said Vecchio had told him that Maxwell had tried to kill him -- but Fraser had mentioned the rape thing like it was new information that he'd just figured out himself. Not like it was something Vecchio had said.

Ray frowned. How'd he figure that out? And what if it's true? What if Maxwell was a rapist, too? What's that got to do with me and Vecchio?

He remembered the anguish in Ben's face when he'd screamed that ugly stuff about Vecchio trying to whack him cuz he was jealous, cuz he secretly wanted to have sex with Ben himself. That had gotten to Ben like nothing else. Set him off. But something about the look on his face... Ray relived the scene again in his mind's eye. Ben hadn't looked shocked, or like he was scared that it could be true. He'd looked hurt, like it was so far off the mark that he couldn't stand it. Like it wasn't just insulting, but totally impossible. "You don't know what happened to him, Ray!"

Why did Ben think it was impossible that Vecchio could ever want him? Sometimes the homophobes who sneered the loudest did it cuz they secretly wanted a taste of cock. And Ben was so beautiful... Then again, he'd watched Vecchio with Ben at the hospital, and hadn't seen so much as a trace of lust in the Italian's eyes for his gorgeous Mountie, even when Vecchio was relaxed and off guard; and he'd been watching for it.

Plus, Ben knows Vecchio better than anyone; and Ben doesn't lie. If he thinks the idea's totally wacked, and I didn't see any sign of it either, then maybe it is.

Maybe Vecchio was as firmly straight as he seemed. But if so, what did that have to do with Maxwell being a rapist?

As Ray stood there watching the light glint off of the lake, a possibility flashed through his mind, swift as the dance of sunlight on the water but far darker. Despite the warmth, it gave him a chill.

The End

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© Caroline Alert 1998