To Hear The Words

Story IV in the "Alchemy" Series

by Caroline Alert

Kowalski took a deep breath before he walked into the station. Shit. This is gonna be hard.

But that didn't matter. It had to be done. Pitter patter, let's get at 'er, he told himself, forcing his boots to move forward. He could feel the extra weight of Rylan's gun in the pocket of his leather jacket, a cold reminder of what had happened last night.

Not that he needed one. His body was busy reminding him all about how it had been not just used, but abused. He ached all over. Felt like a six foot, walking purple and green bruise. His head, neck, chest and wrists all throbbed in time with each other, and the coffee he'd drunk while slowly getting dressed earlier was jumping around in his gut like it was trying to find its way back up his throat.

But he hid all that. He'd trimmed his beard and moussed his hair up extra carefully that morning, and even worn a long-sleeved sweater so the cuts and bruises on his wrists wouldn't show. There was nothing he could do to disguise the lumps on the back of his head, but he'd done what he could about the rest of him. He needed to look his best, or at least in control, when he confronted his partner. So he moved purposefully despite his pain, trying to look like a man on a mission, instead of the used up, banged up, shit-for-brains loser he really felt like.

Okay, so it was an illusion. What else did he have?

Captain Harlan stepped out of his office before he'd taken more than a few steps toward his desk. "Hey, Kowalski. In my office," he said.

Ray hesitated. Fuck, he thought. The last thing he wanted was a lecture from the Captain. I need to find Rylan.

"Now, Detective!" Harlan barked. "Are you deaf?"

Ray set his jaw. Sometimes Harlan reminded him of Thatcher so much that it creeped him out. But since he knew what he wanted and that it wouldn't take much time, he headed reluctantly for Harlan's open door.

When he'd closed it behind him, Harlan sat down behind his desk and fixed him with a measuring stare. "Did you see the headline in the paper this morning, Kowalski?"

Ray's heart fell. He hadn't even looked at a paper, but it didn't take a genius to guess what had happened. Damn, but the shit was really hitting the fan lately. "No. Another one?" he grated.

Harlan nodded grimly. "A sixteen year old. She's in Cook County General as we speak."

Ray grimaced.

"That makes what -- five junkies in the past three months, who've managed to survive sniffing coke cut with rat poison? And two who didn't? How's your investigation coming, Detective?"

Ray shifted uneasily on his feet. "We gave it priority, Captain. We've been rattlin' dealer's chains for weeks, but nobody's talkin."

Harlan's eyes narrowed. "What a surprise! And here I thought someone would be eager to confess."

Ray winced. He'd known he was walking into this, but that didn't make it any easier to hear.

"So what you're saying is, you still don't have any solid leads. Is that about right?" Harlan snapped.

He shrugged. "It takes time--"

"We don't have time, Kowalski!" the Captain barked. "The bodies are piling up! I need some answers, dammit!"

Ray knew that. He knew everyone was on Harlan's ass about this thing, from the Mayor on down, and nobody wanted to solve it more than he did. He opened his mouth to tell Harlan his suspicions, but then remembered that he didn't have any solid evidence to back up them up -- not yet, anyway. So he shut it again.

But not fast enough. "What?" Harlan prompted, his eyes narrowing.

Ray scratched the back of his head, around the edge of the big, throbbing lump he'd gotten when Rylan knocked him into his table last night. "It's nothin'," he said, not wanting to look like a fool.

"No, you were gonna say something," the Captain insisted. "What was it?"

"It's Donen," he said reluctantly.

Harlan lifted an eyebrow. "Ty Donen? He's a pretty heavy hitter. What about him?"

Ray shrugged a little. "I think it's him."

Harlan settled back in his chair with a sour look. "You THINK so."

The sarcasm dripping from his voice pissed Ray off a little. "Yeah! I wasn't gonna bring it up, cuz we don't have anything solid on him. But he's been gettin' squeezed lately. There's this new dealer, Ramirez, who's cuttin' into his business, and a couple of his restaurants are losin' money too."

Harlan looked a bit less skeptical; and he followed Ray's lead instantly. "So maybe he's been cuttin' his stuff to stretch it. More bang for his bucks?"

Ray nodded. "Maybe. I think so. He felt wrong to me, when we talked to him. But we're not done interviewin' dealers yet, we've got five more to go."

Harlan's look got even colder. "Make it fast, Kowalski. If it's Donen, nail him. If it isn't, then find the bastard, whoever he is, and get that crap he's been sellin' off the streets before one more junkie dies. You got me?"

He nodded. "Loud and clear, Captain."

"Okay. Now get goin'."

He was halfway out the door before Harlan finished his sentence. He knew how important the case was, he hadn't needed a lecture about it. What he did need was to find Rylan. Pronto.

It didn't take long. The kid wasn't at his desk, but Ray met him coming out of the break room, sipping coffee morosely. When their eyes met, Rylan was the first to look away.

It made him feel a tiny bit better. But he knew the worst was yet to come. Still, he'd spent a mostly sleepless night thinking about what he should say, and he'd managed to come up with a plan. He walked up to Rylan and said tersely, "Come on outside. We need to talk."

And somewhat to his surprise, Rylan followed him without a word.

In a bathroom stall at the 27th, Ray Vecchio stared at the little piece of paper from the clinic, with his test results. For the first time in months, he knew a moment of pure relief. He'd had it sent to the station because he didn't want his family, much less Serena, to know that he'd even gone in for testing. They'd have wanted to know why, and that was something he could never, ever tell any of them. Not even her. Especially not her. It was for her sake that he'd gone, that he'd spent the last eight months worried out of his mind. All for her.

Because he loved her, because she'd saved his life, his sanity -- and because this was the one thing that might've taken her away.

He knew all the statistics by heart by now. They'd told him that risk of transmission was low, that only about one in five hundred people who had intimate contact with an infected person actually got it, but that hadn't reassured him. He'd gotten tested several times, needing to be absolutely sure. Three times before, in fact. Once, then again after 3 months, again at six, and this was his eight month clincher. If it hadn't showed up by now, then they'd told him his chances were nil. That he would be safe.

"I'm clean," he thought, closing his eyes to let it wash over him. "I'm clean! Thank you, God." He sat back on the toilet, drawing deep breaths, feeling the nervous pounding of his heart slow to a more normal rhythm. He clutched the tiny cross he always wore in an unsteady hand, and smiled as he sent up a little prayer of pure gratitude. He was clean. He was free. He could forget.

He could get married.

Good thing -- because it was only a few weeks now until the wedding. Then Benny would stand up beside him and hand him the ring, he'd marry the woman he was madly in love with, and finally be able to put the past behind him. Close the frigging book on the Bookman, once and for all. And on James Maxwell.

Jimmy the Crusher. Jimmy the Freak...

That name still meant pain, but he could control it now. Push it away with the intensity of his relief. Just a few more weeks now, and he'd finally be able to forget.

Thank God.

Wanting privacy for what he was about to say, Ray walked Pat out to the parking lot. He stopped by his car and waited as Rylan took a final gulp of his coffee. He looked like he needed it. Like he hadn't gotten much sleep the night before either. Ray allowed himself a little jab of satisfaction at that, then pushed the feeling aside in favor of more serious business.

"Okay. About what happened--"

Rylan winced. "I'm sorry, Ko," he said hastily.

But Ray cut him off. "I heard that. Don't wanna hear it again," he said coldly, taking control. "You got yer chance to talk last night. Now it's my turn. You shut up and listen."

Rylan's mouth tightened into an unhappy line. He crushed his styrofoam coffee cup, dropped it on the ground and mashed it with the toe of his boot. "Okay," he grated. He looked visibly unhappy, but at least he hadn't walked away. At least he was listening.

Inwardly, Ray breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't been at all sure this would work, that Pat wouldn't tell him to do his worst and be damned. But he didn't betray that by as much as a flicker of an eyelash. He kept his face hard and cold, his eyes boring into Rylan's. "You got one chance," he said. "One way to keep yer badge."

"How's that?"

"Counseling. You gotta see a shrink about what you did. About all of it. Yer dad, Hank Miller, and me."

Pat's eyes widened with alarm. "Aww, come on--"

Ray knew what he was thinking. "I don't mean the department shrink," he said. That doctor's records were supposed to be strictly confidential, like those of every other psychiatrist. But the truth was, if you started seeing him regularly, word had a funny way of getting around that you were nuts. Weird, with a capital W. And the next thing you knew, none of your brothers in blue wanted to work with you. He understood why Rylan would be hesitant to confide in him. "But you haveta see a shrink. Yer gonna call one right now. Before we leave. Or I don't get in the car with you. Izzat clear?"

Rylan looked off down the street, his dark eyes bitter. "I hear ya," he said.

"Good. And there's more. Yer not just goin' for one visit, yer goin' for at least six months."

Pat looked back at him swiftly, openly angry now. "I'm not--"

"Hey!" Ray cut him off. "This isn't you mouthin' off. This is you listenin', or else I swear out a complaint. Ya got that?"

Rylan swallowed hard, visibly trying to throttle back his temper. But eventually, common sense prevailed, and he nodded reluctantly. "Yeah."

"Okay then. The second thing is, we're done. You don't come to my place again, for any reason. Ever."

Pain leached the color from Rylan's face. A muscle worked in his cheek, and he looked away, squinting as if the sunlight hurt his eyes. "Surprise, surprise," he said, trying to sound cool.

But Ray knew he'd hurt him. It made him feel strange. Vengefully glad yet guilty, all at once. But he didn't let it distract him from finishing what he had to say. "The last thing is, I'm gonna keep an eye on you. And if you don't keep seein' the shrink like I said, then I'll swear out that complaint after all."

Surprise mixed with the look of pain in Rylan's dark eyes. He searched Ray's for a second, as if checking to see how serious that threat had been. Ray met his gaze without blinking. Rylan sighed, and toed the remains of his coffee cup moodily. "All right," he said at last. "It's not like I have much of a choice, is it?"

Ray narrowed his eyes at him. "More of one than you gave me," he said.

At that, the bitterness faded from Pat's eyes, replaced by shame. "True enough," he said. He hesitated, then sighed again. "Okay then," he shrugged, giving in. "Let's find a phone booth, and I'll call a shrink."

Ray fell into step with him automatically as they headed for the nearest public phone booth, by a convenience store about half a block from the station. He didn't say anything, but he felt relief washing through him. He'd done it. Convinced him to get help, even though he wasn't very happy about it. He just prayed that he'd done the right thing. That it would be enough. That he wasn't making a mistake by not turning him in.

But he didn't think so. If Rylan hadn't felt intensely guilty about what he'd done, about getting drunk and acting like his abusive old man, he would never have given in so easily. Ray figured that deep inside, he knew he needed help. He must, or he wouldn't have let him go last night. After all, he'd had the chance to rape him, and he hadn't done it. So that had to mean that his bastard of a father hadn't been able to beat all the goodness out of him. Somewhere deep inside him, there was still a part of him that wanted to be a decent human being. Ray felt that was the part of him that had chosen to become a cop, to help people. That was the part of him that was still desperately looking for love, in a world where he'd never found any.

That part was worth saving.

He waited outside the booth while Pat pulled out the tattered copy of the Yellow Pages, turned to the section on doctors, and dialed a number. He listened as he made himself an appointment in about a week, then hung up. "Done," Pat said. "His name's Kelly. Hey, think he might be Irish?" Rylan smiled a little, trying to ease the awkward moment.

"I don't care if he's from Mars, as long as ya talk to him," he said wryly.

Rylan nodded. "I will, Ray. I swear," he said, suddenly serious again. His large, dark eyes had softened. They searched his in a way that reminded Ray of last night, when he'd admitted that no one had ever loved him. Like he was hoping against hope that calling a doctor had made Ray forgive him.

Ray turned away from that look, from his hopeful eyes. It was going to take a lot more than that, to get him off the hook for what he'd done. A memory flashed through his mind, of Rylan holding him by the hair and pulling his neck back until his muscles screamed. It shook him. A wave of anger rolled through him, dark and deep. He wanted to punch him all over again. He walked away from him instead, not even waiting to see if Rylan was following.

But of course, he did. Seconds later, he was at his elbow. Looking down at him again with those eyes. Those eyes that said, Forgive me. Help me. Please.

"We still partners, Ko?" he asked.

Ray had to bite his tongue. With the memory of his abuse still raw in his mind, he was tempted to tell him to fuck off, to find himself a new partner. He knew he probably should. He hadn't made continuing their partnership part of the deal to save Rylan's badge because he hadn't been sure, even then, if he wanted to go on with it. But Rylan's look, and the fact that he'd complied with his rules so far, swayed him. Besides -- he'd also sworn to keep an eye on him, and he knew it would be easier to do that if they stayed together. "For now," he said at last, his voice cold. "But it's Ray, not Ko. And ya screw up again, and we're history."

"Gotcha. And I won't, I promise," Rylan said, looking immensely relieved. He even reached out to touch Ray's arm. "You won't be sorry you kept me as your partner, Ray. I swear."

But Ray couldn't take his promise on faith anymore. Not after last night. He didn't even like Rylan touching him. His wounds were still too raw. He looked down pointedly at the big hand that rested on his forearm. He'd trusted that hand, had relied on it, but last night, it had turned on him. Cuffed him. Hurt him. "Don't be doin' that," he said tersely, shaking him off.

He strode on then, not turning to see the look of hurt he knew must be in Pat's eyes. He couldn't, because he knew in his bones that what had happened wasn't all Rylan's fault. He'd helped to put that look there, by not turning him down when he'd first asked for sex. That had been a stupid, colossal mistake. It still tore at him. But he kept walking, because he'd done all he could to set things right now. He could've turned him in, but instead, he'd made him get help. Even agreed to remain his partner, if only at work. It was the best he could do.

Hell, it was the probably the first unselfish thing he'd done since he'd left the 27th. And he'd done it because it was what he figured Benny would've done in his place. In some weird way, though Fraser would never know it, he'd done all of it for his sake, even more than for Rylan's. He'd given Rylan all that he could, and more than he'd thought he was capable of last night. Rylan would have to take things from there. But somewhere deep inside, he felt better. Like this might be the first step back towards being Stanley Raymond Kowalski again. Maybe even the first step back towards Fraser.

"Come on," he called over his shoulder, without stopping. "We got more social calls to make this mornin'."

Then he heard Rylan's boots behind him. When he caught up again, to Ray's relief, he only said one word. "Ramirez?"

Ray nodded. "Yeah. Donen's competitor. He's next." Then he dug Rylan's gun out of his pocket and handed it back to him. Pat looked almost elated, as if he thought that meant everything was back to normal between them. Ray eyed him moodily. Things will never be the same now. Doesn't he get that? "Don't make me sorry I did that, either," he said coldly, as they climbed into the car.

Harry Styles, Donen's lieutenant, called him on his cell phone later that morning. Having followed the two cops when they left the 29th, he was now idling by the window of a liquor store not far from Ramirez's headquarters, where he could keep an eye on anyone coming in or out. "Now would be a good time, boss, " he said, lowering his voice automatically, so none of the store's other customers could hear him. "They just went into Ramirez' place."

"Do it," Donen said coldly.

So Styles cut off that call and made another: to a cell phone in a car a block away, where two men sat waiting. After he gave them directions to Ramirez's, they hid their guns and the other tools of their trade beneath long coats and climbed out of their car. Seconds later, they were walking towards Ramirez' headquarters. They took a position just down the block and around the corner from its front entrance, talking idly as they waited.

They didn't mind being patient for a little while longer. They were being well paid, and besides, they both liked their work.

Ray Kowalski came up once. Let himself float way up, up into the light and sensation... and pain. So much pain. He was cold, and he hurt. God, it hurts! My head's on fire.

And it wasn't just his head. It was his chest, arms and legs too. He hurt all over.

He heard the loud, repetitive sound of someone breathing in short, ragged gulps of air, instead of normal breaths. And every time he heard one, he felt a sharp, stabbing pain in his chest. After a time, he realized the sound -- and the pain -- were connected to him. That they were him. Holy shit! That's me, he realized with a dim sense of panic. My head hurts, and it hurts when I breathe! This is bad. What the hell happened?

Frightened, he tried to move, then stilled when excruciating pain shot through him with the effort. But though he hadn't managed to lift a finger, his aborted attempt at moving produced another, unexpected result. He heard a voice, someone saying his name. "Ray. Ray? It's all right. I'm here." It was a male voice, and familiar, but he could hardly hear it for the pounding pain in his head.

He was still confused. Where the hell is here? he wanted to ask. And who the hell are you? He tried to take a deep breath so he could talk, but tensed as pain cut through his chest again. Shit, that hurt! Bad idea. Okay. No talkin'. Just breathe... Little tiny breaths, not deep ones... That's it.

While he was trying to quiet his breathing so his chest wouldn't hurt so much, a dark thought slipped into his head. Broken ribs. I must have broken ribs. That's why I can't talk. But how the fuck did that happen? He searched his memory with no result. His skull was splitting, and even trying to remember what he'd had for breakfast was an effort. He couldn't do it. Didn't even know what day it was. The last thing he could remember was going to work. Talking to Rylan...

"We still partners, Ko?"

"Yeah, but if you screw up again--"

"I won't..."

Beyond that, there was nothing. Nothing, until he woke up here.

What the hell had happened?

All at once, he felt someone touch him. Fingers slipped over his hand. He would've shrunk from the contact except that the touch was so gentle, at first he thought it must be a woman's. Jeez. Am I in bed with someone? he wondered, his confusion intensifying. But then the hand enfolded his completely, and it was so large he realized that it belonged to a man. It was strong, and radiating heat, and in the cold, strange place of agony he was in, he craved its warmth. So he didn't try to pull away from it. He let it warm him while he tried to figure out whose it was.

Okay. So a guy's holdin' my hand. Why would a guy do that? Maybe it was his partner. Rylan? he tried to ask, but couldn't. He felt his lips move, but nothing came out. Stubbornly, he sucked in a deeper breath, determined to speak, then shuddered as a hot, stabbing pain seared through his chest again. Damn ribs! Can't do it. No way. He stopped trying, gave in and took little, shallow breaths again, until the hot wave of pain receded.

"Don't try to talk. Just rest, Ray. It's all right," the voice said again.

His scrambled brain still couldn't identify it -- but he realized it wasn't Rylan's voice. It was familiar though, and it sounded so close he figured it must belong to the guy holding his hand. The deduction made him feel a bit less stupid. And the guy's touch -- and his voice -- made him feel even better. Warm and safe, despite his pain. A friend, he thought, clutching at elusive threads of memory connected to the voice. Feelings of trust, of affection. He's a friend...

But was that all he was? All at once, another memory connected to that voice filled his mind. A memory of hearing it whisper tender things to him, of hearing it cry out in passion. He suddenly remembered being held by those big, warm hands once before. The memories were intense, and intensely sexual. Those hands had done more than touch him, they'd stroked him -- they'd made love to him. But that realization only increased his confusion.

How can that be? He's not Rylan... and I'm not sleeping with anyone else. Am I? Thoughts whirled round and round through his mind, chased each other crazily, like squirrels on speed. Where's Pat? Who the hell is this guy who's with me? And if I had sex with him, why can't I remember his name?

Nothing made any sense. His confusion suddenly escalated, approaching panic. He had too many questions, no voice to ask them with, and he was in too much pain to come up with any answers. He couldn't even open his eyes to see what the hell was going on. Despite the voice's reassurance that he was okay, realizing how weak and helpless he was scared him. Why can't I remember how I got hurt? Why can't I see? Am I blind? What the fuck's goin' on?

Confused, he made another effort to sit up, using the hand holding his as leverage. But he couldn't do it. He was so weak that the effort of tensing his muscles made him shake. Pain exploded in his head and chest with the effort, so much pain that this time, he moaned a little.

"Ray, please be still!" the voice above him pleaded. Its tone had gone from comforting to distinctly anxious, as if his efforts to get up had scared its owner. He felt another large hand settle onto the arm he'd been trying to use to push himself up with -- and that hand exerted a light, careful downward pressure. "Don't try to get up. Don't try to move. Just lie still. You've been hurt."

No shit, Sherlock! he felt like saying. That's the only part o' this I do understand...

"But you're safe now. If you can hear me, try to open your eyes."

He responded instinctively to the voice. Stopped trying to move, and tried to obey it. To open his eyes instead. After a titanic effort, he managed to lift his lids a little, but all he could see was light so bright that it hurt. It stabbed into his eyes, blinding, agonizing. Oh God -- it hurts too much. I can't! He hated to disappoint the voice, but he finally gave up. Closed his eyes, let go of consciousness again and fell back down. Down into the warm, comforting darkness where nothing could hurt him. Into the blackness where he could rest...

When Ray regained consciousness again, the blinding pain in his head had faded a fraction. It still felt like a bunch of construction workers were banging on the inside of his skull with hammers, but not as hard as they had been. At least he managed to get his eyes open. He remembered someone -- a man -- saying, "You've been hurt. But you're safe now." But he wasn't sure if that had been real, or just a dream. So he tried to look around him, to see if the man was still with him, to see if he really was safe as he'd said.

At first, he just blinked slowly at the unfocused brightness around him. His eyes watered so much that he couldn't see. It took awhile, but he finally got them to focus. Even managed to turn his aching head to the left at last, very slowly. There was no one there, but he saw several bouquets of flowers sitting on a counter. Brightly colored balloons saying "Get Well Soon" floated nearby.

Hospital, he thought weakly, as his vision blurred in and out. I'm in a hospital. Shit. I hate hospitals.

But the fear he'd felt when he'd first opened his eyes ebbed away as that sunk in. The voice had been right: whatever had happened, he was safe now. Much as he hated hospitals, they were good places to be when you were hurt; and he was hurting, big time. He felt like he'd been hit by a truck. He just couldn't remember when, or how it happened. He tried again, tried until his head hurt so much he almost puked. But there was nothing, just this greyness in his head where memory should've been. So he gave up trying and closed his eyes for a minute, trying to relax and keep his stomach from crawling back up his throat.

When the nausea passed and he could stand to open his eyes again, he turned his head in the other direction. He saw what looked like the hazy outlines of a man's figure beside him, and he blinked, trying hard to make him out. He thought he remembered a man's hand holding his, but when he rolled his eyes downward, he saw that no one was touching him now. He felt confused. Disappointed. That hand holding had felt nice.

But he wasn't sure if it had been real. Maybe that was just a dream... Maybe this is too. He blinked and squinted at the apparition by his bed, trying to be sure, trying to focus on it. But when the figure became a little clearer, he was stunned. Because he saw red. A bright shade of red that was burned into his memory: Mountie Red. Blue eyes that were burned into his brain. Ben's eyes. It was Benny. He was sitting in a chair by his bed in full uniform. The Sacred Stetson sat on a counter nearby.

Ray's heart turned over. He blinked again, but the vision stayed put. He stared at the Mountie, rapt as any worshipper eyeing the image of a saint, emotion surging so painfully in his chest that he could hardly breathe. Fraser wasn't looking at him, he was looking down at the floor, with his eyes half closed. But it didn't matter. He drank in the sight of him like a starving man.

But when Fraser didn't move, or even seem to breathe for several minutes, Ray frowned. Am I dreamin' this after all? Because he'd gotten used to dreaming about him lately. He saw him almost every night, and he always looked beautiful in those dreams, so beautiful that he forgot how much he'd hurt him. But then he realized that this time, for some reason, Ben looked different. A little less perfect, maybe. A bit thinner, a little tired and worried. There were faint circles under his eyes, and his head was drooping. Even as Ray watched, it drooped a little more, until it rested on his chest. Then his eyes closed for a few seconds.

He looks really tired. Like he's crashin' cuz he's exhausted. Like he hasn't slept in days. He frowned unconsciously. So maybe this isn't a dream. I wouldn't dream somethin' like that. So maybe he's really here. A light dawned in his head. Maybe he came to see me because I got hurt. That would be Fraser-like, visiting the wounded. Even if the injured body belonged to a former partner who'd treated him like crap, he'd still consider it his duty to pay his respects. Yeah, that could be it. Please, let that be it! Let him really be here!

A faint thrill of hope, of excitement shot through his aching body. He tried not to think of other reasons Fraser might've come, but he couldn't help it. Maybe he still cares what happens to my sorry ass. Maybe he even wants to patch things up! he thought, excited.

He stared at the sleeping Mountie, hypnotized, hope racing through him. Fraser the Ice Prince. Benny the Beautiful. His Benny Ben, in the same room with him again! Maybe even here because he wanted to be -- because he cared. It seemed too good to be true. Impatient, he suddenly wanted Ben to wake up and tell him something: some dumb story about moose, or seals, or lichen, or crazy trappers, or weird relatives who liked cabbage way too much. Or even, God help him, an Inuit story. Anything, to prove that he was real. If it's weird enough, I'll know it's really Ben.

But for once, Fraser wasn't talking. He just sat there sleeping. Just my luck, he thought wryly. I used to have a hard time gettin' him to shut up, and now that I can't talk, he's out of it!

He licked his dry lips, trying to summon up the energy to speak himself. "Fraser," he tried to say, but all that came out was a sigh. Still, as he watched him, his lips curved in a little smile. Benny Ben, he thought, forgetting his eagerness to wake him as he indulged in the luxury of just looking at him.

Despite his air of weariness and the hint of dark circles under his eyes, Fraser was still incredibly handsome; and as his gaze roved over his former lover, Ray's mood shifted from impatience back to quiet adoration. God, you're beautiful. Ben's full lips and high cheekbones seemed even better defined than they had been, as if he'd lost a few pounds, and his tunic looked like it was fitting looser too. Ray wondered why, then forgot the question as he admired his dark hair, which was as thick and shiny as ever. And even though they were closed now, Ray remembered how blue his eyes were. Ben had the most amazing eyes he'd ever seen, so clear and innocent they were like summer skies, so pure they'd always made him feel like he could dive into them, dive deep and cleanse his soul...

Maybe he still could. Remembering Ben's eyes, the tiny, fragile hope Ray had been nurturing since Frannie's visit grew stronger, like a spark flaring into a small but steady flame. Frannie had convinced him that he'd been wrong. She'd said that Fraser hadn't betrayed him, and that there was at least a slim chance that he might forgive him. And after what he'd done with Rylan, he needed someone to do that. No, not someone -- Fraser. Ben. He needed to talk to him, to tell him he was sorry. He needed him to be real.

There was only one way to find out. He swallowed hard, trying to wet his dry mouth, and opened it to call out to him again. But he closed it before saying anything, because then he remembered. Not what had happened to him, not why he hurt so much or how he'd ended up in a hospital bed, but something more important: why Fraser couldn't possibly really be here. Because he'd yelled at him, shoved him, kicked his hat -- because he'd humiliated him in front of the whole squadroom. Because he'd broken up with him in the worst way possible. Because he hadn't even spoken to him for months.

It all came back to him in a sickening rush. No matter what happened to me, no matter how I ended up in here, there's no way he would've come to see me. No way that he would've held my hand. I don't deserve that, after the shitty way I treated him. So either I'm so doped on painkillers that I'm hallucinatin', or this is just a dream after all. That voice I heard earlier, it must've been Pat. He must've told me that I'm safe. He must've held my hand. It couldn't've been Fraser. That was the only idea that made sense. This vision of Ben, well... That was just morphine messing with his head, or a dream.

Having convinced himself that Fraser couldn't possibly be real, Ray felt the heaviness of regret steal through him, a bleakness a dark as his pain. His eyes filled with tears. If it's a dream, I don't wanna wake up. So he didn't try to talk to the beautiful apparition in red. In his dreams, every time he did, Ben went away. So Ray didn't speak, didn't move -- he hardly even breathed. He just stared at his dream lover silently, and remembered how it had felt to be happy.

Fraser lifted his head with a jerk, realizing with a surge of shame that he'd somehow fallen asleep -- for how long, he didn't know. But something indefinable had wakened him. He'd spent so much time here in the past few days that he'd become attuned to its smallest details; and just now, something in the still, silent room had changed. Not its smell, that was still the same combination of flowers, harsh cleansers and stale, recirculated air. What was it? Then he saw it: something had moved. Ray had moved on the bed beside him. Turned his bruised, bandaged head towards him a little. Ray's blue eyes were open. Open, aware -- and focused on him.

Fraser sat up swiftly, his heart turning over. Thank God! He's conscious again. Something inside him that had been stretched taut for days -- ever since Ray was admitted to the hospital, battered, bloody, unconscious and near death from a beating and gunshot wound -- finally relaxed. He had been afraid, so afraid...

Ray Vecchio had driven him to the hospital when they first got the terrible news. Someone had made an anonymous 911 call to report a shooting, whose victims turned out to be Ray Kowalski and Patrick Rylan. The news had flashed from District to District, as reports of cop shootings always did. Vecchio had received it on his car radio when they were driving back to the 27th from a crime scene. They'd exchanged a shocked look, and then, without a word, Ray had headed for the hospital at top speed. He'd driven far too fast, swinging the Riv around corners so fast that it had rocked Fraser in his seat, but Fraser hadn't reprimanded him for it. He'd wished he could go even faster. All he could think was, Ray's been shot.

And suddenly, all the reasons he'd had for not trying harder to mend fences between them seemed ludicrous.

By the time they arrived, Kowalski was already in surgery for his head injury, gunshot wound, and fractured ribs. His surgeon had told Ben afterwards that the operation had been successful. With typically guarded optimism, he'd added that if all went well, Ray should regain consciousness some time in the next few days.

But since no one knew who had shot Ray and his partner, or if they would return to try to finish the job, Kowalski was given a round-the-clock police guard; and Fraser's long vigil began. Inspector Thatcher allowed him to utilize some of his accumulated sick leave in order to stay with Ray, a kindness he hadn't expected. But deep in his heart, he knew that if she'd refused his request, he still would've stayed with him. Even if it had meant the loss of his career, he couldn't have done anything else. Despite the constant presence of a policeman guarding Ray's door day and night, Fraser wouldn't have felt that he was safe if he hadn't watched over him personally. He had to protect him -- but more than that, he felt he had to will him to live.

Because Ray didn't regain consciousness after his surgeries. Two days later, his vital signs were strong enough that he was moved out of the ICU and into a private room. But when two more days passed and he remained comatose and unresponsive, Ben had feared the worst. In the dark, pessimistic part of him that he always hid from others, the fearful part of him that Victoria had worsened, he'd feared that Ray would die.

He kept remembering what his father had said about Victoria, and how second chances, no matter how badly you needed them, were seldom granted. Sitting by Ray's silent figure, the memory had made him ache. He hadn't been able to mend things with her. Was Ray going to be taken from him too, before he got the chance?

There had been only one moment when he'd had a brief surge of hope. On the third morning after the shooting, Fraser had thought for a moment that Ray might be regaining consciousness. He'd stirred and moaned softly. His right leg had shifted slightly under his covers, and then his right arm had moved. He'd felt somehow that Ray was waking, that he was perhaps even trying to get up. He'd taken his hand and tried to reassure him, but he wasn't sure if Ray had even heard him. He hadn't spoken or opened his eyes. But his breathing had grown louder and more labored, and his eyelids had twitched slightly; and Fraser could've sworn that when he took Ray's hand in his, just for a moment, Ray's fingers had curled against his with a faint, answering pressure.

But he wasn't sure. Wasn't at all sure that wasn't just an illusion his mind had dreamed up, to keep him from losing all hope. Because Ray's slight stirring took less than two minutes, and when it was over, his hand was completely limp again, his breathing quieted and he sank back into unconsciousness. And he'd stayed that way all day, and part of the next.

Now that his eyes were finally open, Fraser realized that Ray had been unconscious for five days. Five long days, during which he'd watched over him almost ceaselessly, sleeping only rarely, in two-hour snatches, either in a chair or on the floor beside his bed.

Fraser let out a sigh of pure relief. But in the next instant, as he searched Ray's eyes, he felt a new kind of fear. He didn't know what to do, what to say to him. His head felt heavy with weariness, from days without sleep, and he remembered how the last time he'd seen him, Ray had threatened him with violence if he ever caught sight of him again. Did he still feel that way? Would he swear at him again, tell him to get out?

Fraser wasn't sure how he would bear it if he did. He held his breath, staring at his injured former partner intently. He tried to read Ray's expression, but his bruises and bandages made it difficult. Ray didn't speak, either; he just blinked rapidly. But for a second, Fraser wondered if he was trying to hold back tears, and his hopes rose. Was Ray so happy, so relieved to see him again, that he was crying? That was a possibility he'd never imagined. He caught his breath, his heart surging in his chest.

Then he realized it was more likely that Ray was just trying to clear his probably cloudy vision. He bit his lip, embarrassed at himself for seeing what he wanted to see, rather than what was. For reading things into Ray's responses that weren't really there. He'd told himself over and over again in the last few days that even if Ray did recover, it wasn't likely that he'd forgive him. The truth was, he had no way of knowing what his former partner was feeling: pain, regret, fear? He didn't even know if Ray recognized him.

But he longed to reach out to him. He wanted to touch him, to hold his hand again... But he held himself back, partly out of a fear of hurting him, and partly because he was afraid his touch wouldn't be welcome. It had been one thing to hold Ray's hand to comfort him when he was semi-conscious. But now that his eyes were open and he was aware, such a gesture might be repulsed. Don't, he warned himself. This may not have changed anything. He may still hate me.

"Ray," he said hoarsely at last. "Do you know who I am?"

A long pause, then the bandaged head nodded very slightly. Ray's blue eyes held his, but he still didn't speak. Not a word.

Fraser tried to tell himself that he probably couldn't talk, that his broken ribs probably made taking the deep breaths necessary for speech very painful, if not impossible. Still, he was disappointed. Somewhere deep inside, he'd been hoping -- waiting -- for Ray to say his name. Perhaps even for Ray to forgive him.

But he suddenly realized that he shouldn't be waiting at all. Shouldn't be here any longer. He'd gotten so tired, he'd forgotten that he had an important task to perform. He swallowed hard, trying to clear his dry throat, to gain control of his rampaging emotions as duty and love warred inside him. He had to report Ray's improved condition to his doctor and the police. Yet he couldn't seem to make himself do it. He just sat there looking at him. Rejoicing, privately and selfishly, that his former lover was getting better -- that he was going to live.

He tried to shove his enormous feeling of relief aside, and compel himself to do his duty by listing all the reasons for it in his head. His doctor gave me strict instructions to call him as soon as Ray woke, so he can check his progress and responses. And his Captain needs to question him about the shooting as soon as possible, in an effort to catch their attackers. It's been several days now, and they have no clues. Without Ray's eyewitness information, the trail is getting cold. Also, everyone at the 27th District is waiting for good news about him too. I have to go tell them all that he's awake.

So said logic. So duty demanded. But his heart said otherwise. Neither duty nor logic could compete with the need that beat hard within him, that tightened his whole body. A need to communicate with Ray. To connect with him again, to regain what they had lost. He wanted so desperately to be alone with his former lover for just a few moments more, to tell him -- to tell him--

To tell him the truth. I need you, Ray, he wanted to say. I've missed you so much -- I love you.

It seems little enough to ask, he thought, rationalizing his own behavior. All I need is a few minutes to say that, and then I'll do my duty. Give up on having Ray all to myself, and let everyone else in on the wondrous secret of his recovery. But he had to say those words first. They were burning inside him, as if his whole life had been building towards just this moment, though he'd never guessed it. That was the one positive thing Victoria had taught him: there were times in life when Love had to come before Duty. And this was definitely one of those times.

In a moment of guilty insight, he wondered if that was one of the reasons that Ray had walked away from him before, because he'd never said those words to him. Never told him how much he meant to him. That was his fault, and the result of his past. After Victoria, he'd been afraid to say those words to anyone. But he didn't want to lose this chance to set that right. As Ray stared at him, Fraser wondered if he was waiting for him to say it too.

He opened his mouth to do it, to ease the enormous pressure in his chest by letting out the truth that beat inside it like a caged bird, trying to get free. But as usual, the words choked in his throat. "Ray, I--"

A little frown formed between Ray's brows, as if he sensed that Fraser was trying to tell him something very important. His eyes searched Ben's intently.

Ben tried again. "I need to say... That is, to tell you -- tell you that I--"

He broke off, disgusted with himself. He was stuttering like an idiot. His need to speak was intense, as strong as his love for Ray, yet he couldn't seem to utter the words he needed to say. They throbbed inside of him, gathered in his throat like a shout. But something held them back, some greater force prevented his frozen lips and tongue from shaping them. He took a deep breath and tried again. But instead of declaring his love, all that he finally managed to ask was the question, "Do you remember what happened to you?"

Fraser couldn't believe it. As soon as the words left his lips, he was filled with shame. He sounded like a policeman, like a cop taking a witness's statement, rather than an impassioned lover. How could his clumsy body have betrayed him so completely? It was as if his overwhelming emotions had overloaded the neural connections between his brain and his tongue, and his subconscious had fallen back on his RCMP training as the only available means of expression. He hated himself. He'd said the careful thing, the correct thing -- not what really mattered. Not the truth. And he suspected that he knew why. He was still too afraid to say it. He was terrified to tell Ray that he still loved him, for fear of being brutally rejected again. For fear that Ray had never really loved him back.

Coward, he cursed himself.

Oblivious to his inner turmoil, Ray just shook his head.

"You don't remember anything, Ray?" Fraser persisted, wanting to be sure. "Nothing at all?"

A look of pained frustration crossed Ray's face, and he shook his head again. Just a small, silent shake, but he winced a little afterwards, as if even that slight movement hurt him. Seeing that, Fraser was a bit relieved that Ray didn't remember what had happened to him yet. For one thing he'd been assaulted so brutally that the memories had to be traumatic; and for another, he was in enough physical pain without adding emotional stress to his burdens. It also made Ben feel a tad less guilty for not immediately reporting his return to consciousness. After all, if Ray didn't remember the shooting, then he couldn't give Captain Harlan any leads about his assailant, could he?

A second later, he seized on that as an excuse to remain with him. Since Ray can't give anyone any information about his attack, he reasoned, surely it would be permissible for me to stay with him a few minutes longer?

He knew he was being terribly selfish, but for once, he let his heart rule his head. After his long, lonely, anxious vigil, he allowed himself a bit of purely selfish pleasure. He just sat watching the blue of Ray's eyes, marveling at the intensity of their color in his pale face. His own feelings were equally intense, but confusing. Some of them were positive: he felt overwhelming relief, hope, and love. But darker emotions swam inside him too. Frustration from not being able to express his love, and bitterness about the circumstances that had finally brought them together again. Though he was glad to see Ray again, so glad that he couldn't find words to express it, he hated the fact that his first sight of him after so long was in a hospital room. He hated the fact that someone had hurt him so much, had almost killed him...

Seeing Ray, who was normally a ball of kinetic energy, lying so still and white in a hospital bed was almost more than he could bear. It also brought back disturbing memories of another hospital vigil, when he'd been the one injured and Ray Vecchio had sat vigil over him. There had been a black cloud hanging between them as well, every bit as dark and ominous as the tension that thickened the air between him and Ray Kowalski now. Fraser remembered bitterly how he'd thought, at that time, that his life could never get any worse. That he'd been through utter hell, and that at least he had the small comfort of knowing that would never happen again. That he'd hit rock bottom, and there was no place to go from there but up.

But hell, it seemed, could be gone through again. He had just been there. The circumstances weren't exactly the same: this time he hadn't been shot, Ray had -- and presumably not by a friend. But the details didn't matter. It was the feelings that counted. It was having your heart torn out that gave you the taste of hell, and for the past few days, Fraser's mouth had felt dry and full of ashes. He'd felt that way ever since he'd gotten the news that Ray had been severely beaten, then shot and left for dead.

Now that Ray was awake, now that he knew he was going to survive, his troubles still weren't over. Because after rushing to his side to watch over him, he'd taken yet another blow. He hadn't spoken of it to anyone, and no one else who'd visited Ray -- not Lt. Welsh, Francesca, Stella or Captain Harlan -- had seemed to notice the marks on his wrists: the distinctive pattern of severe handcuff chafing. Or if they had, they must've assumed he'd gotten them when he was attacked. But Ben knew better. He'd had the chance to study them closely; and since the blood in those cuts had already dried and granulated when he first saw him, they predated the injuries that had put him in the hospital. So they weren't part of that attack at all. And there was only one way Ray could've acquired those cuts and welts: he must've been handcuffed, then jerked and pulled so hard against the restraints that his skin had been not just bruised, but cut open.

Fraser had the sinking feeling that he knew exactly how Ray had acquired those wounds. Though he wasn't very experienced sexually, he wasn't by any means na´ve about such things. He'd seen such marks on people before, in the course of his police work. People who'd had sex with someone who enjoyed domination and pain, who got aroused by handcuffing and hurting a helpless partner. And he'd heard rumors that Ray's current partner, Rylan, was very handsome, but also a bisexual sadist. He hadn't wanted to believe them, but since Ray and Rylan both carried handcuffs as part of their job, and Ray suddenly bore the marks of severe handcuff chafing only a few months after becoming Rylan's partner, it didn't take much deductive reasoning to guess that he was the one who'd cuffed Ray -- or why.

Fraser knew what his fading cuts and bruises signified, but he couldn't accept it. So while Ray lay unconscious in his bed, he'd stared at those red marks on his slim wrists for hours, as if his intense scrutiny could somehow make them, and the heartache they caused him, go away. But of course, they didn't; and the fruitless exercise only deepened his grief. It was bad enough that Ray had taken a new, younger lover after he'd left him -- but clearly, he had also let that lover do sadistic things to him. To hurt him. Fraser had had plenty of time, sitting beside his bed in that quiet room, to absorb the shock of that. But he couldn't. If he'd had a lifetime, it wouldn't have been enough.

Still, it had given him a bitter insight. For the first time, he knew in his heart how Ray Vecchio must have felt after he'd shot him. Why his green eyes had been so full of guilt. Fraser felt just as responsible for Kowalski's injuries now as Ray had once felt for his. Not just the injuries from his attack, but the bruises from his bout of rough sex as well. He knew Ray had left the 27th because of him, because of the pain he'd felt over their breakup. And he suspected that his wild behavior at the 29th, perhaps even his affair with Rylan, sprang from the same source -- from Ray's unhappiness, which he had somehow unwittingly caused. He couldn't help thinking that Ray would never have taken up with such a kinky person as Rylan if they had stayed together. He would never have transferred to the 29th at all, would never have become Rylan's partner, but for him; and if he'd stayed at the 27th, he wouldn't have been shot.

He remembered the dream he'd had just a few nights ago. The dream that something bad was going to happen to Ray. Now that it had, he knew it had been more than a dream. It had been a premonition -- a warning, which he'd ignored. Why, oh why hadn't he listened to it?

Ray was now lying here half dead and sexually abused because he hadn't. Because he hadn't been able to stop himself from falling in love with his own partner; and because he hadn't been able, when they'd had a fight, to find the words to make him stay. Or the courage to go after him later to try and mend their broken relationship, to bring him back, even when his dreams had warned him to.

Coward! he thought again, even more bitterly than before.

Sitting there looking at his injured friend, Ben wondered how Ray Vecchio had sat beside him for so many long days in a quiet hell like this, and not broken down and wept with the pain of it. Then he thought, Perhaps he did. But knowing Ray, he would've done it somewhere where I wouldn't see him. Where no one would see him.

Fraser had done the same. None of the nurses who'd been attending Ray had ever caught him weeping. But that didn't mean he hadn't cried. He had, more times than he cared to remember. He'd just made sure that no one saw him doing it. He'd timed the nurses' rounds and only let his tears fall immediately after they left, so no one would ever know the depth of his grief; or that this was all his fault.

But Ray knows, he thought bleakly, staring into Kowalski's light blue eyes. He knows. The only question is, does he hate me for it? His guilt was so enormous that he didn't know what to say. And Ray either couldn't, or wouldn't, speak. Fraser wasn't sure if Ray meant to punish him with silence, but it was beginning to have that effect. It had stretched out between them for so long that it was becoming painful. He had to break it somehow.

Force of habit made him cast around in his mind for a way to make himself useful, to help Ray, though he wasn't sure if he would let him. His eyes fell on the carafe of water and cups he'd had the nurse leave by his bed earlier, and he realized that he must be thirsty. "Here," he said. He filled a paper cup with cold water, put a straw in it and held it out to the detective, hoping against hope that he would take it. For an instant, Ray didn't move. Then he bit his lip and slowly lifted his free hand, the one that wasn't hooked up to an I.V., to take the cup. At least, he tried to. But he was still very weak, and it was shaking so badly that Fraser was afraid he'd drop it, and spill the water on himself.

"It's okay, I'll hold it," he offered automatically. Then, remembering Ray's pride, he thought, Oh, dear. Now he'll think I'm treating him like a child. He'll get angry...

But to his surprise, Ray didn't. Didn't get angry or push him away. In fact, his blue eyes flashed what he could've sworn was a look of gratitude at him. Then he let his arm drop back down onto the bed while he held the cup to his bruised lips. Ray took the straw in his mouth and sipped the water eagerly, until he'd drained the cup dry.

"More?" Fraser asked, pleased that his small effort to help hadn't been angrily rejected, as he'd feared.

"Yeah... Thirsty," Ray muttered hoarsely.

"Here." Fraser filled the cup again, and held the straw carefully to Ray's lips, basking in the warmth of being needed, for what felt like the first time in ages.

Ray couldn't believe it. Fraser didn't seem to hate him. Hell, he was helping him! He'd somehow figured out what he needed, the way he'd always been able to, without him having to say a word. And now he was giving it to him. Ben probably should've hit him upside his stupid, jealous head for leaving him; but instead, he'd handed him a cup of water to ease his thirst. And a few minutes earlier, he'd had the oddest feeling he'd been trying to do even more than that. He'd been trying to tell him something, something important. But he'd gotten tongue-tied, stuttered a lot, then retreated into acting official instead. Asked him if he could remember how he got hurt. It frustrated the hell out of him, because Ben only got tongue-tied like that when he was trying to talk about his feelings -- and he wanted to be all over that subject. He wanted Ben to spill his guts, tell him everything he was hiding behind those beautiful blue eyes.

But he didn't ask, because after what he'd done, he was lucky the Mountie was there at all. And he knew it. He was so lucky he'd do anything to keep him there -- including keeping his own mouth shut, for once. So he tried to tough it out, tried to act cool, to take the glass of water casually, like he wasn't reading anything into Ben's presence, or his help. But he couldn't do it. He was so weak, and so damn nervous and excited and afraid, that his hand shook like a junkie in dire need of a fix. So bad that Fraser's eyes widened.

"It's okay, I'll hold it," Ben said, bringing the cup to his lips instantly. So he wouldn't feel bad about his own weakness. So he could have what he needed.

Fraser did all that instinctively -- even after everything he'd done to him. It made Ray want to cry. He knew that Rylan wouldn't have done it. Rylan had never been to him what Fraser was. Maybe because Rylan wasn't one tenth the man that Benton Fraser was. Or the partner. The quiet Canadian had made the true definition of that word painfully clear to him once again. Even after he'd kicked him out of bed, out of his life, he'd still come to look after him when he got hurt. His kindness touched Kowalski so deeply that he had to fight to keep from reaching for him with his weak, shaky hands. He struggled to keep his face blank, to hide the powerful emotions that were sweeping through him, now that he knew Fraser was real. That he'd come to be with him in his hour of need. That he didn't hate his guts, like he'd feared.

I don't deserve it, he thought. And in the next breath, Wanna kiss you. A beat later, God, I love you. But he didn't say any of that. He knew he didn't deserve to. He'd lost the right to when he'd thrown Fraser away. So he just set his jaw and froze his whole face as Ben held the cup of water to his lips. Tried not to feel stupid as he sucked it up through a straw, like a baby. He felt like a baby: weak, helpless, overcome with emotions he could hardly control. He had to blink back a stupid surge of tears at the sight of Ben's beloved hands, so close to his face. He could hardly hold his head up off the pillow, but he wanted to grab his hands and pull them to his mouth, wanted to kiss them, wanted to pull him into his arms and never let him go. He didn't know what had happened to him, why he was here, or what the hell was going on. All he knew was, Fraser still had his heart.

It had leapt in his chest at his first sight of him. It was beating way too fast now, as Ben's hands hovered near his mouth.

He just didn't know if Ben wanted it anymore.

Fraser filled the cup again, and held the straw to the detective's mouth. Ray's dry lips closed around it and he gulped eagerly at the cold water. Too eagerly, because he coughed a little, then winced with pain.

"Slowly," Fraser cautioned.

Ray obeyed him, taking smaller sips, and as he did, Fraser snuck a glance at him at close range, trying to gauge his mood. He held his head up off the pillow a bit, but he looked tense beneath his bandages. Stiff. Even pained. Fraser wasn't sure if that pain was emotional or physical. It was possible that even lifting his head was an effort for him at the moment; and even likelier that he was finding the pain of his injuries hard to bear.

Or maybe, as he'd feared, Ray was still angry with him.

Fraser didn't know, and it made him uneasy. He held the cup a little closer to him, and wondered what to say next. How to get past the awkwardness between them. Then he remembered how he'd felt when he first woke up in the hospital after Vecchio had shot him: how confused he'd been, how uncertain of what was real and what he had just dreamed... He hadn't remembered being shot at first, and Kowalski had admitted that he couldn't remember what had happened to him either.

Perhaps I should tell him what's going on, Fraser thought. Not what happened to Rylan, perhaps. I'm not sure he's in any shape to hear that just yet. But I could tell him about his own injuries.

After draining the cup a second time, Ray laid his head back down on his pillow, panting as if the slight effort of lifting it to drink had exhausted him. "Rest for a minute, Ray," Fraser said gently. "Don't try to talk. Would you like me to tell you what's happened?"

Ray's eyes fixed on his. Fraser saw fear there, but Kowalski nodded his head anyway. He admired his courage even as he tried to decide just how much to tell him. "All right. Well, as you've no doubt surmised, you're in the hospital," he said. "It appears you were ambushed by a person or persons unknown. You were badly beaten, and shot in the chest at close range," he said hoarsely, his throat choking with emotion at the thought of how close Ray had come to death because of that. But he forced himself to go on. "The bullet pierced a lung just above your heart. You also had a bad head injury. A blow of some sort caused a subdural hematoma."

A flicker of alarm flared in Ray's eyes at that, and his breath came faster.

Oh dear. I've frightened him, Ben realized. "You've already been operated on for it, though," he reassured him quickly. "And your surgeon said you should recover without any permanent damage."

Ray closed his eyes for a second, with what Fraser assumed must be pure relief. When he opened them again, he focused them on him intently and nodded, asking him to go on, as if he knew there was more.

Fraser chose his next words cautiously. "You also have two broken ribs and some internal injuries." Ray's doctor had told him those injuries were probably caused by a large, hard object like a baseball bat; but Fraser withheld that information. It was speculation anyway, and he didn't want to torture Ray with grim details that might not be true. "Your kidneys and spleen are bruised, so relieving yourself will hurt for awhile. But it's nothing that won't heal."

"So. Somebody... worked me over... good. Meant... to waste me. That... it?" Ray rasped slowly. His voice was weak, hardly more than a whisper, but Fraser was glad to hear it nonetheless. Gladder still that it sounded relatively calm, despite what he'd just related. "You tellin' me... all of it?"

Fraser hesitated. It went against his grain to lie, but he told himself that he really wasn't doing that, he was just withholding information until Ray was stronger and better able to cope with it. Delaying. Equivocating. Not lying. He would tell him everything, just not now. "Yes," he said. "That's the extent of it. You'll be here for another week, maybe two."

But Ray must've sensed that he hadn't been entirely candid, for a spark of impatience flared in his eyes. "No. I meant... Rylan. My ... partner. Was he... with me?" Ray's breathing came faster, and his eyes darkened. "Is he... okay?"

Fraser lowered his eyes. It was natural, even commendable for Ray to be worried about his partner. But his own feelings about Rylan were far different. He didn't want Ray to see the aversion he felt at the mere mention of his name. The pain. He looked away and ran the back of a finger nervously across his eyebrow, trying to decide whether to tell him the truth or not.

Ray stirred restlessly, painfully on his bed. "Frayzh!" he gritted. "Tell... me--"

Fraser lifted his gaze again reluctantly. Ray's eyes pleaded with him, and he gave in. He never had been able to deny him anything; that much hadn't changed. "Yes," he said quietly, trying to keep his voice even. "Rylan was with you, and he was shot too. But he didn't survive."

Ray let out a long, slow, shuddering breath as he absorbed the terrible news. Then he closed his eyes and set his jaw; and there was no mistaking the pain on his face.

That pain hurt Fraser on so many levels that for a moment, he lost his voice. He had to swallow hard before he could speak again. "He was dead before the paramedics got to you, Ray," he said very quietly. "And you were unconscious, and near death yourself from injuries and loss of blood. There was nothing you could've done."

Ray still didn't answer. Fraser looked away, seized with a jealousy he knew was inappropriate but couldn't help. His throat grew tight again. He wished he hadn't had to be the one to tell Ray that his partner -- his lover -- was dead. It didn't seem right, when he couldn't find it in his heart to regret that. Perhaps he could have, if it weren't for those marks on Ray's wrists. But those, and the abuse that had caused them, he couldn't forgive. He couldn't even fathom why Ray had allowed it to happen; much less that he might have enjoyed it. Though he'd never met Rylan, or even seen him, he hated him for hurting Ray like that.

But Patrick Rylan was dead, and despite what he'd done, what he'd been, Ray grieved for him. Ben knew he should probably go and leave him alone with his sorrow, but he couldn't make himself do it. He felt an almost superstitious fear that if he walked out of Ray's room now, he would lose him forever. Besides, he couldn't leave before saying what he'd been longing to tell him. He had to try again. So he stayed where he was and looked down at his boots, trying to think of a way to change the subject. Struggling to form the right words. There was such a gulf between them now, such a chasm, that bridging it wasn't easy. "Ray," he began again, "I need to tell you--"

But when he looked up, Ray's eyes were still closed, and he was crying.

The sight struck Fraser dumb. Pain lanced through him, and he gave up on the idea of telling Ray that he loved him. This wasn't the right time. He wondered painfully if maybe the right time had already come and gone, and it was too late now. "Ray?" he whispered, wanting to comfort him. Needing to be comforted himself.

But Ray didn't answer. Didn't open his eyes, didn't even move. He just lay there silently, with tears running down his cheeks, crying for his dead lover.

Ray could hardly take it in. Rylan, dead. Patrick Rylan, his twenty-five-year-old partner, dead. Shot dead. The words echoed hollowly in his head. How can that be? I just talked to him. Didn't I? But it must be true, Fraser said so and he never lies... But how could I let that happen? We were together, Fraser said that too. Why didn't I save him?

He didn't know. He couldn't remember any of it. Nothing. After he'd watched Rylan call a psychiatrist, his mind was a blank. And somehow, that was the worst of it. His own partner was dead, and he had no memory of his last moments, his last words. Did he call out for help? Did he yell for me, but I wasn't there? he wondered, agony cutting through him. What the fuck happened?

He went through it again in his head, poring over his memories desperately. He saw Pat standing shamefaced in front of him as he told him to go see a counselor. Pat nodding, agreeing to everything he said. Pat making the call, then asking, "We still partners, Ko?"

And him saying yes. Yes because he could see the hope in his eyes, a desperate hope that he couldn't quite hide. And because somehow, that look reminded him of Sammy, that mutt dog he'd had when he was growing up. Sammy had looked at him just like that, after he got hit by a car. Like he knew he was his last hope, his only hope.

He hadn't been able to help Sammy, but even after what Pat had done to him, he'd wanted to help him. Maybe because nobody else in his whole rotten life ever had. Maybe because he knew that in his own way, as much as he knew how to, Pat loved him. But mostly because it was what he knew Ben would've done. So he'd said yes. Yes, we're still partners, for now.

But maybe I shouldn't have.

Because what the hell kind of partner had he been? The kind that got Pat killed, that's what. Then couldn't even recall how it happened. There was nothing more in his head after they renewed their partnership. Nothing but a grey void, before he woke up here. He couldn't remember anything else. Not the shots, not the blood, not Rylan dying. Nothing.

Was that all Pat's life added up to? A big fat zero?

Ray closed his eyes in agony. But into the darkness behind his eyelids, an even worse thought floated. Did I let it happen? Did I let him get killed, because I was mad at him for what he did? Oh, God, no. Please, don't let that be true.

Ray paled and seemed to shrink inside his bandages at the news of his partner's death. Ben's heart sank. This was why he hadn't wanted to tell him about Rylan. When Ray closed his eyes as if to shut out something unbearable, he wished he hadn't. He reached out, meaning to take his hand, to tell him that he was sorry about what had happened. But then he realized that would be a lie. He grieved for Ray's pain over it, but he didn't regret the death itself. He knew he should, but he couldn't. He was jealous of Rylan, and the cruelty he'd exhibited towards Ray by handcuffing him and hurting him for his own pleasure sickened him. I'm not sorry he's dead, he thought.

He wouldn't have mourned the death of anyone who hurt Ray. It was that simple.

He wasn't proud of those feelings, of course. He even knew they weren't precisely fair. He'd never even met Rylan, after all; and it was possible that jealousy was making him judge him too harshly. Rylan might've had some redeeming qualities of which he was unaware. But if so, he didn't want to know what they were. At least not now. What he'd heard of the man, and inferred from Ray's wounds, he didn't like; and he couldn't pretend to mourn him. Given his near hatred, that would be hypocritical. So he pulled his hand back, dropped it into his lap and sat watching Ray, trying to think what to say to comfort him.

Tears rained from under his closed eyelids. Then Ray began to shake. He bit his lip, trying to contain his grief, but failed. He cried silently at first, then he began to weep in earnest. Harsh, choking sobs that Fraser knew must have hurt his injured ribs.

"Ray, don't!" he whispered. Because they hurt him too. Watching Ray cry, he felt like he was falling. Down and down and down, as he'd dreamed of doing by his window on so many lonely nights. And there was no one to catch him, nothing to break his fall.

But either Ray didn't hear him, or he couldn't control himself, because he kept on crying. Fraser ached for him, but couldn't summon the words to comfort him because he knew he was grieving for another lover, the man he'd chosen to replace him. And his jealousy spurred another dark thought. It suddenly occurred to him that Ray hadn't cried when they'd parted. He'd yelled, screamed, even shoved him -- but he hadn't shed a tear. But he's crying now, over a sadist. Over a man who hurt him, who put handcuffs on him and used him brutally for his own gratification.

He didn't understand it, just as he hadn't understood their breakup. And he resented Ray for confusing him so. He tried to tell himself again that he wasn't being fair. After all, the situations weren't the same. Their breakup had been upsetting, but it didn't have the same weight and gravity as a man's death. So how could he compare the two, or expect Ray to have reacted similarly to each situation?

But logic didn't matter to his heart. All it saw -- all it wanted to see -- was that Ray had shed tears for Rylan, but not for him. Does that mean Ray cared more for him than he did for me? Ben wasn't sure, but he suspected that it might. He was filled with bitterness, and the reassuring words he knew he should be saying wouldn't come.

"Ray," he croaked finally. "Please don't. I didn't... mean to upset you."

It wasn't much in the way of reassurance, but at least it wasn't a lie.

But it didn't seem to help. Ray's sobs had quieted a little, but tears still ran down his pale cheeks, and Fraser wasn't even sure if he'd heard him. If he was even aware that he was still in his room. He just lay there crying silently, and didn't speak or look at him.

Ben set his jaw tightly. This was worse than being punished -- it was torture. He felt further away from Ray than ever. It was just as he'd feared; nothing had changed between them after all. It didn't matter that he'd come here, didn't matter that he'd watched over him faithfully for several days without much sleep. It didn't matter how much he loved him, how deep his devotion was. Even now, he was not to be forgiven. He would never be forgiven -- or even told what it was that he'd done wrong.

Maybe that was immaterial now anyway. His place in Ray's heart had been taken, and he would never get it back. What was left for him to say?

Suddenly, Ray wasn't the only one who was crying. Fraser's eyes flooded with hot, useless tears. Rejected, humiliated and bewildered, he got up and reached blindly for his hat. Put it on and pulled the brim down a bit lower than usual, hoping it would shade his tear-filled eyes. I'll go get his doctor, he told himself, trying to stave off his own despair with thoughts of duty, as he always did. Get someone to come and check on him...

He headed blindly for the door.

After he learned of Pat's death, Ray remembered how he'd once confessed that no one had ever loved him. Now, nobody ever will. And it's my fault. My fault. That realization undid him. Both of his partners had depended on him, maybe even loved him in their own ways, and he'd failed them both. First Fraser, and now Rylan. And Rylan might've died because of it.

Fraser's presence had roused emotions in him he hadn't felt for months, had set a tiny pulse leaping inside of him -- but learning of Rylan's death turned his heartbeat into a runaway, a huge, thumping pain in his chest. He wasn't just a screw-up, he was a curse. A walking, talking voodoo juju jinx, guaranteed to cause pain and misery to anyone he got close to. His chest heaved with a silent sob as the cold, hard lump of despair that had settled in his gut when he left Ben suddenly liquified, and swelled into a black ocean of pain and guilt that drowned him.

He tried to hold it back, but he couldn't. He was too weak. The ocean grew, waves of grief surging against the tight cage of his chest until his ribs ached. Until his body couldn't hold it all in. He started to shake, then it poured out in a flood. Hot tears rained from his eyes, and sobs choked out of his mouth. He was crying, weeping like a girl in front of Fraser. It was humiliating, but his grief was so overwhelming that he couldn't even bring himself to care. He heard Fraser saying something, but his voice was dim and far away. He couldn't make out the words, and he couldn't answer. He could hardly even breathe through his pain and tears.

Finally, he brought up a shaking hand and wiped at his streaming eyes -- just in time to see Fraser's wavery red form moving. He swiped at his eyes again, blinking to clear his vision. He managed to see that Ben had gotten to his feet, and he had this awful look on his face. This blank, frozen Mountie mask that Ray knew he only wore when he'd been deeply hurt. Then he put on his hat, pulling it down low so that it shaded his eyes.

That little gesture panicked Kowalski. He didn't understand how he'd hurt Ben, but he recognized the signals. Knew what all that meant. He's leaving, he thought, panic cutting through the heaviness of his grief. He's leaving, and this time, he won't come back. I lost Rylan, and now I'm gonna lose him again too. Forever. Jesus, no! If he leaves, I won't make it--

Panic accelerated the painful galloping of his heart. He choked down his tears and reached out blindly for the Mountie, but he was too far away. Fraser didn't see him. His broad back was already turned, and he was heading for the door. Ray's terror increased. He had to stop him, but he couldn't move, couldn't even get up, he was too goddamn weak to catch him... He took a deep breath and cried out. Croaked his name in a voice hoarse with fear. "Ben! Benny, wait!"

"Benny, wait!"

Ben stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of his name. He turned to find Ray watching him. Saw him try, with shaking hands, to force himself up.

"Don't," he said automatically, taking a step back towards him.

Ray reached behind him, pulled a pillow up and raised himself up on it a little. "Don't leave, okay?" he choked out as he fell back onto it, wiping at the tears that stained his cheeks. He swallowed hard, trying to steady his voice. "I'm sorry," he rasped, a little louder.

Fraser took another step towards him, his heart leaping -- then he caught himself. He didn't know what Ray meant, and he didn't dare allow himself to hope. "For what, Ray?" he asked, his own voice unsteady.

"For the fight we had. For -- kickin' yer hat, and... all those things I said," Ray whispered. "For leavin' you. It was a mistake. I'm sorry."

Fraser almost swayed on his feet as a wave of shock rolled over him. He felt himself trembling. He'd been waiting to hear those words for so long, so very long. But until now, he'd only heard them in his dreams. Until now, the distance between them had seemed immense. Suddenly, it had shrunk to the size of a room. A mere few steps.

"I acted like a jerk. I'm sorry," Ray said again, his tear-stained face taut with strain. He didn't say, "Forgive me," but his eyes did.

Hope soared in Ben, hope and love that had been too long denied. He moved towards Ray's bed, put his hat down and sat down in the chair beside him again. "I'm sorry too, Ray," he said softly. But though he longed to touch him, he still didn't dare. Just because Ray had said he regretted their breakup, it didn't necessarily follow that he would want him back. Rylan still lay between them, for one thing. Ray's grief at learning of his death had been genuine, deep and devastating.

He couldn't reach out to Ray until he knew what it meant. He wondered with a pang, for the thousandth time, if he'd been in love with Rylan. Rylan, but not him. But he didn't dare ask. Couldn't say the words or touch him, either. The truce between them was too new, too fragile to bear the weight of such truths yet. And Ray's flesh seemed too fragile to bear the intensity of his feelings. He was afraid that if he touched him, his emotions would overwhelm him and he'd try to embrace him, maybe even to kiss him -- and he was far too weak for that.

So he settled for laying his arm on the bed near him instead. Then he drew a deep breath, and decided to venture his own apology. Unlike his aborted declaration of love, which had been a spontaneous impulse, he'd been rehearsing ways to say "I'm sorry" in his head for days now, while Ray lay unconscious in his bed. So they came to him readily. "Ray, I'm sorry for what happened between us when Ray Vecchio came back," he said quietly. "I know I hurt you somehow, but please believe me when I say that I don't know how. It wasn't intentional. I never meant to. I would never want to hurt you."

"I know," Ray whispered. "S'okay." He reached out slowly. His fingers touched Fraser's, and they were shaking. "Just... say ya don't hate me."

Ben's heart rose into his mouth. I thought you hated me. But it seemed that Ray didn't. He'd touched him -- had, perhaps, even forgiven him. So now, finally, he could reach out. Touch him back... He took a deep breath, exerted every ounce of self control that he had, and took Ray's fingers very gently in his. He closed his larger hand around his former partner's slightly smaller one. Just that, nothing more. But holding those slender fingers in his, he was struck anew by how delicate Ray really was, how fine-boned and beautiful -- how fragile. And when Ray tightened his fingers a little, gripping his hand in return, it moved him.

"I don't hate you. I never did. I--I missed you, Ray," he murmured. It wasn't quite "I love you", but it was all he could say. All he could force past the lump in his throat. He stroked Ray's knuckles with his thumb, shaken by the emotions sweeping through him: love, jealousy, anger. But he tried not to look at the bruises on Ray's wrists. Tried not to think about his tears, tried to focus only on his love for him instead.

Because he'd been given a gift, and he knew it. That second chance that his father had talked about, the one Life seldom granted you: a second chance with Ray. He didn't know what it entailed, whether Ray was offering to resume their former friendship, or if he'd take him back as a lover. But either way, Fraser couldn't treat it lightly. He was grateful for it, would accept whatever Ray wanted to give. Because being allowed to touch him again, to be close to him, to have his forgiveness after being so long alone...

It was more than he'd dared hope for. It meant everything to him.

"Guess I missed you too," Ray rasped. "Haven't seen anyone ... taste anything gross... for months. Felt weird."

Fraser laughed, and held onto his hand. Love surged in him with painful force, so strongly that he felt tears in his eyes again. But this time, they weren't tears of sadness. Ray had reached out to him: held his hand, even joked with him. He hadn't pushed him away, he'd even said he was sorry for leaving him. It felt good, so good to be close to him again. It felt almost like old times. His tired body filled with a sweet relief, pure as flowing water. He had to blink hard to hold back his tears as he stared down at their entwined fingers. "Your hand is cold, Ray," he said hoarsely. "Are you cold?" He let go of him so he could pull his blankets up higher. He tucked them in around him gently with his free hand.

"Nawww." Ray shook his head, his bruised lips softening into a little smile. "Not now." He slipped one hand out from underneath his blankets and reached for Ben's hand again. Took it in his long, slender fingers and held on tightly to it.

Fraser smiled at him, his heart too full for words.

Ray took Ben's hand in his, and Ben turned his warm, beautiful blue eyes on him and smiled.

That was all it took. It was too much, too fast. Rylan's death, Ben's return, his forgiveness -- emotion piled on emotion. After so many months of being frozen cold inside, he wasn't used to dealing with so many strong feelings all at once. He was thawing out, coming alive again, and it hurt. Rylan's death had torn him open, left him vulnerable; and now Ben's smile pierced his heart.

He tried to smile back at him, but somehow, found himself crying again instead.

Ben saw Ray try to smile back at him. But his lips trembled visibly and somehow, his smile turned into tears. "Damn," he muttered, as they slid down his cheeks. He bit his lip and closed his eyes again, his throat working as if his emotions were overwhelming. "Sorry. Must be ... the painkillers or somethin'." He flushed under his bandages, and Fraser knew he was embarrassed at his lack of self control.

"It's all right, Ray," Fraser said gently. And this time, it was. He wasn't sure what Ray's tears meant this time, if they signaled grief or happiness, but it didn't matter so much now. Ray had forgiven him, he didn't hate him. For now, that was enough. They still had a lot of talking to do, and he needed to find out what had caused their breakup, exactly what it was Ray had blamed him for. But now he felt there would be time to sort all of that out. All of Ray's complex emotions, and his too. And as long as they did that together, everything would be all right.

As long as Ray didn't let Rylan's memory come between them...

Fraser forced the thought out of his mind. "You've been through a lot. You should try to rest again now," he said. He gave Ray's hand a final squeeze, then laid it gently back on his breast. Then he leaned over and adjusted the pillow behind his head so that he could lie down again. Ray didn't argue with him, he just laid back down and rubbed at his eyes, trying to wipe away his tears. Ben suddenly realized, belatedly and with a guilty start, that he still needed to inform Lt. Welsh, Captain Harlan and Ray's doctor that he'd regained consciousness. He'd put that off long enough, so he stood up to go.

Then Ray opened his eyes again, and the corners of his bruised mouth lifted in a little smile. "Thanks," he said. "Thanks for comin'."

But even as Fraser drank in the sight of that smile like a starving man, Ray's eyelids began to droop. Obviously their brief conversation, and the emotional strain of learning of Rylan's death, had exhausted him. "You're welcome. Try to sleep, Ray," he said again, very gently.

"'Kay," Ray agreed, his voice already fading as his eyes closed. "Kinda... tired." But then his eyes fluttered open again briefly. "You gonna... be here when I wake up?" he asked.

That was the second time Ray had pleaded with him to stay, and it touched Fraser immensely. He smiled, warmed by the knowledge that Ray still needed him. That would sustain him for now; the rest could wait until Ray was stronger. "Yes. I'll stay as long as you want me to," he promised.

Ray stared at the walls of his room, bored and frustrated. There were so many questions, and he couldn't answer any of them. Who had attacked him and Rylan? Who beat the crap out of him, then shot him and left him for dead? Who killed Rylan, and why? Captain Harlan kept asking, and he had to keep telling him that he couldn't remember. But he knew that Harlan had left no stone unturned trying to figure it out. He'd even investigated the remote possibility that Ray might've somehow been involved in his partner's death, for reasons unknown. Harlan had already told him that they'd found all their guns at the scene, both his handgun and his smaller boot gun, and Rylan's too. And while he lay unconscious after his surgery, those weapons had been thoroughly checked out. But though all their guns were loaded, none of them had been fired. So before he'd even opened his eyes, it had been established that the bullets that killed Rylan hadn't come from his weapon.

Ray wasn't offended by Harlan's investigation. For one thing, he knew it was standard procedure. For another, he was grateful that its results had cleared him of any direct responsibility for Rylan's death. All the evidence suggested that he and Rylan had been taken by surprise by someone, or several someones, which gave him a kind of grim relief. Since he couldn't remember the incident himself, if he'd known that his gun had been fired, or worse, that it had been used to kill Pat, he would've felt even worse than he already did. He would've had to wonder if they'd both gone crazy, if Pat had attacked him again, and if he'd killed him in retaliation for that, plus his earlier rape attempt. The way things were, at least he knew they'd been assaulted by some perps, not each other.

But he still had no memory of the attack. None at all.

He sighed, frustrated. The bandages on his head and chest itched, and he wished, for probably the hundredth time that day, that he was anywhere else. Or at least that Fraser was here...

At the thought of him, he smiled without knowing it. Though Ben had gone back to work the day after he regained consciousness, he still came by to see him every night, as soon as his shift was over. And it was five thirty already, which meant that Ben was due in about fifteen minutes. Ray could hardly wait. He found himself living for those moments, for the sight of that flame-bright jacket and broad-brimmed hat coming through his door. He felt amazingly lucky that Ben still cared for him, after he'd freaked out and left him.

But they still hadn't talked about that. Ray wanted to, but he didn't have the guts to bring it up. To say that he hoped Ben wasn't just being kind. That he hoped Ben wanted him too; wanted him back as his lover. But he kept thinking that if he said all that, actually put his hopes into words, he'd jinx things. Find out something he didn't want to know. Ben might tell him that he was sorry, but he was with someone else. And he didn't know if he'd be able to stand that.

He didn't think that someone else was Ray Vecchio though. Not anymore. Vecchio had actually shocked him by coming by to see him the night before with Fraser and his mom. He'd been nice enough, and once Mrs. Vecchio was done hugging and kissing him, he'd even asked how he was doing. No sarcasm, no "Stanley", no contempt in his eyes or his voice.

Ray wasn't sure what was up with that. If Vecchio felt sorry for him, if he'd changed his mind about hating him for some reason, or if Fraser had brow-beaten him into being nice by threatening to tell him Inuit stories non-stop for a month, if he insulted him. But for whatever reason, Vecchio had been on his best behavior, so he'd decided to go with the flow. Behave himself too. So he'd told him he was doing fine, and that he was probably going to get out within a week.

Still, as they were talking, he'd wondered what Vecchio was really doing there. Then he'd noticed that while they made awkward small talk, Benny stood nearby beaming at them both. So he'd decided it must've been his idea for Vecchio to come and see him. Fraser was trying to make peace between the two of them.

Ray wasn't surprised. Even though Fraser still didn't know he'd left the 27th because of him, Vecchio had probably told him about how they'd sniped at each other when they'd first met. And the second time, when he'd practically thrown his files at the Italian, muttered a few surly hints about his top priority cases, then stalked out, hadn't been much better. So if Vecchio had mentioned any of that, Ben would've known there wasn't any love lost between them, and good-hearted as he was, he'd naturally tried to patch things up by bringing Vecchio to visit him.

Ray knew he should've appreciated that. But the whole time he'd been talking to Vecchio, despite what Frannie had told him, and his 99 percent certainty that she was right about him not being gay, half his mind had been preoccupied with watching him and Fraser. It was like the Italian set off this jealousy alarm inside his head. Whenever he saw him within ten feet of Ben, it started shrieking. Maybe it was because he was paranoid, or because the bond between them was so strong it was unmistakable. Either way, he couldn't ignore it. So while pretending to make conversation, he'd scanned them anxiously to see if there was any hint of romance involved in it.

But he hadn't seen any. Not in Ben's eyes, or in Vecchio's; and he'd been watching them both like hawks. They were easy with each other, there was deep, committed trust and affection there, but no sexual spark. None at all. Ben didn't touch Vecchio, and though Vecchio touched him, it was in a casual way. No hunger behind it.

Frannie was right. Ben and Vecchio weren't lovers. As far as he could tell, they never had been. Once he had the chance to study them together, he was sure of it. The last, thin little clouds of suspicion that had been floating at the back of his mind finally dissipated then, like so much smoke. Ray was still jealous of Vecchio for being Fraser's friend first, but he didn't hate him anymore.

He still hated himself, though. Because even though he'd told Fraser he was sorry for their break-up, he hadn't had the guts to take the next step. To explain why it had happened. To tell him that he'd spied on them, seen them hug and assumed (wrongly) that they'd been lovers, and that they were getting together again, shacking up behind his back -- and that Ben had lied to him about it.

He sighed to himself. He just couldn't figure out a way to say all that without making Fraser crazy, and himself look like the biggest ass in Illinois. Which, of course, he was. But he couldn't let it go, either. Sooner or later, polite as he was, Fraser was going to ask him what the hell had happened. And not only did he owe him an explanation, he also figured it'd be better if he brought it up himself. He was supposed to be a tough guy, so he had to start acting like one.

He was trying. He'd been practicing, when he was alone in his room. Trying to find the right words. "Uh, ya see, Frayzh," he muttered, "it's like this. I got worried about ya-- No. Start over," he told himself. "That sounds stupid."

He cleared his throat and tried again. "Okay. See, it all started the morning Vecchio came back. After we -- well, you know. When you didn't come back to my place in a half hour, like you said you would, I thought somethin' must've happened to ya. So I took a cab over to yer place, to find out what was goin' on."

He broke off, swallowing hard at the painful memory. "You didn't know I was there," he forced himself to say. "And I didn't tell ya, because when I got outta the cab in front o' yer apartment, I saw ya with him, Frayzh. You were with Vecchio, and ya were both laughin'. Dunno what at, but I thought it was me. I saw him put his arm around ya, and I thought--"

He broke off, unable to go on. He always choked at that point in his apology. He'd never been able to put the worst of his guilt into words, not even when he rehearsed all by himself like this.

"Well," a familiar voice suddenly said. "That's all very fascinating, but you've left out the best part, Detective. Just exactly what DID you think? When you saw Detective Vecchio with his arm around Constable Fraser, I mean?"

His ex-wife sauntered into his room, smiling wickedly.

Ray froze. "Hi, Stella," he said weakly. It was the second time she'd been by to see him in the last few days. Why in hell couldn't she have picked some other time, any other time to visit than right in the middle of one of his private confessions? Oh jeez, he thought, panicked. How long has she been out there? Did she hear all of it? Did I actually say that we -- that Frayzh and me--

Stella's smile widened. "Oh, Ray. You should see your face!"

He didn't have to. He could feel a slow flush creeping up his neck as she teased him. And he knew it must be putting ideas in her head about him and Fraser, if she didn't have them already after what she'd overheard. But he hadn't meant Stella to know that he and Benny had been lovers yet. Or maybe ever. He didn't think she'd take it well at all. So he pretended to misunderstand what she was talking about. "Yeah, well, you might not look so hot yerself, if you'd just been shot like I was," he muttered.

Stella sat gracefully down in the chair beside his bed, and pulled it up close, so that her knees were touching it. "Still," she said softly, "it's a nice face, under all those bandages."

She smiled at him, and he relaxed a little. "Thanks, Stel. Yer not so bad yerself. That's a nice dress yer wearin'," he added, grateful that she'd been diverted from the subject of whatever she'd overheard of his stupid little confession. He told himself it couldn't have been much, or she'd be giving him the third degree.

"Thank you," she smiled back. "How're you feeling?"

He shrugged. "Bored. There's nothin' good on the tube, and my bandages itch."

He scratched at the one on his head, and to his surprise, she leaned forward and kissed it, very gently. "Better?" she breathed.

He couldn't believe how nice she was being. She'd been like this when she came to see him before, too. All sweet and soft, like she used to be when they were first married. It was like the hard, sharp-tongued Stella who was Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski had been replaced by his Stel, the gentle girl he'd dated a thousand years ago. It brought back all his old feelings, made him want her all over again. In a kind of nostalgic way. For old times sake. "Yeah," he said, giving her a look. "Wanna try again?" he asked, only half teasing. He reached for her, drew her gently towards him. "This time, I'll help--"

For a second, it seemed like she was going to do it. Really going to kiss him. Then she lifted her head and kissed him on the forehead again, instead of on the mouth like he'd been wanting. "That probably wouldn't be a good idea, Ray," she said softly. "Seeing as how you're in love with Fraser, I mean."

"Stella--" He fell back onto his pillows with a groan. Holy shit. She DID hear it all! Embarrassment choked whatever excuses he might've dreamed up to try to explain it.

Amazingly, she didn't look angry. More sad than anything. Maybe even a little jealous. "I've known for awhile, Ray," she said quietly. "When were you going to tell me?"

He felt completely humiliated. Not only had Stella figured it out, but she also knew he'd been trying to hide it from her. So he did what he always did when he felt bad. He got angry. "I dunno," he shot back defensively. "When were ya gonna tell me about Frank Orsini? On yer weddin' day maybe? I hadda find out about him from my mom."

She winced. "Touche┤, Ray." She sat back a little, looking away from him.

For a minute, silence fell between them, and he was sorry he'd said it. This felt so familiar: the hurt, the jealousy, the regret. They'd played this scene a hundred times before, but it never got any easier. Sometimes he felt like this was all they had left, of what had once been an amazingly good thing: the ability to hurt each other. He didn't know what to say to her anymore, that wouldn't cause scenes like this. After an awkward silence, he reached out and took her hand gently. "Stel..."

She looked at him warily, hurt still written on her face. But she didn't pull away, and that was something. He ran his fingers over the back of her hand gently. "I just... didn't know how to tell ya," he said at last. "Didn't wanna hurt ya, and that's all I seem to be good at anymore."

She smiled at him then. A small, rueful smile, but the hurt look had faded from her eyes, replaced by a tenderness he'd seldom seen since their divorce. "No it isn't," she said. "You still have a way of surprising me sometimes, too."

And he knew what she meant: him holding her hand, and Fraser. Fraser, too. But it warmed him a little, knowing that despite their divorce, they still had something left between them besides pain. That way of knowing what the other was thinking without words; and caring about it, too. So the connection between them was still there, on some level. The love. Always would be.

"Constable Fraser..." She faltered, and for once, words seemed to fail her. She settled for shaking her head wryly. "That was a surprise."

He couldn't help himself. He grinned at that. "Freaked me out too, at first."

She managed to smile a little. "But I have to say, you've got good taste, Ray. He's very -- handsome."

"Yeah." It was all he could say. He felt himself flushing stupidly again, even redder than before. He'd never even imagined being able to talk about Fraser to Stella like this, or hearing her say anything good about him either, once she knew. He didn't have a clue how to respond. It was too weird, his own ex-wife thinking his male lover was cute! So he settled for squeezing her hand again.

He was a bit ashamed of himself now, for keeping it from her for so long. After all, now that she'd found out about it, she wasn't screaming at him like he'd thought she would. She wasn't saying ugly things or trying to make him feel bad. She'd actually given Fraser a compliment. She was trying to accept it, for his sake. He could hardly believe it. He caressed her fingers very tenderly, wishing he could tell her how relieved he was to find that she knew his secret and didn't hate him for it. How embarrassed he felt, looking back at the way he'd acted when she'd dated other men.


All of a sudden, he saw that she was crying. Her big blue eyes were filled with tears that threatened to overflow. Stella never cried, and it shocked him. "Hey!" Alarmed, he pulled her chair back over to the side of his bed again, so that he could reach out to her. He couldn't figure out what she was so upset about. Maybe the idea of him being with Fraser was freaking her out after all. "Whatsa matter?"

"I'm sorry," she sniffed, wiping at her eyes. "I swore I wasn't going to do this--"

"It's okay," he said softly. "What's up?" He put a hand on her shoulder and tugged her gently towards him, still half afraid she would push him away. But she didn't. She leaned over and laid her head against his shoulder, even let him put his arms around her. He felt her swallow hard, as if she were choking down a sob.

"It's just -- you scared me a bit this time, Ray," she whispered then, in a very small voice. "You were out so long... I thought you might die."

Her arms slipped around him then, tentatively, and he held her tighter, deeply touched. He was wrong, it wasn't Fraser that was bothering her at all. Or maybe it was, but not as much as this. "Shh," he crooned, rubbing her shoulder soothingly. "You know better'n that. I'm too stubborn to die."

She laughed, a shaky little puff of breath against his chest. "Isn't that the truth!"

He kissed the top of her head very softly. "Yeah. It is." He felt immensely tender. "I'm never gonna leave ya, Stella," he promised. It had been long enough since their divorce, now, that he could say that and mean it. "Not if I can help it, anyway. Even if... ya find someone else and get married, I mean. Or if I--" He caught himself. It wasn't an if anymore, he already HAD found someone. But at that instant, for the first time, the thought of making it official crossed his mind. He thought of marrying Ben. Not just getting him back, but putting a ring on his finger. Wow. It was mind-blowing.

But he knew better than to say it out loud. It was a total pipe dream, and besides, it kind of scared even him. He could just imagine how Stella might take it. Besides, this wasn't the time to even bring something like that up. "What I mean is, I'll always... be here for ya. If ya ever need anything. Not that you do," he added hastily, remembering her pride. "I mean, I know ya can take care of yerself and all, but I--"

She lifted her head then, and smiled at him through eyes that were still a little too bright. "It's okay, Ray. I understand," she said. She touched his cheek gently. "And that goes for me, too. Always."

To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him then, very softly. On the lips, just like he'd been wanting her to. He kissed her back, knowing that he would always love her. Feeling more peaceful inside about her than he'd felt since she left him.

But that feeling of contentment didn't last long. Because when she let him go and he finally opened his eyes again, he saw Fraser standing in the doorway watching them.

Oh shit. Ray stiffened in an instant. He knew Ben had seen it all. Worse yet, Stella didn't see him at first, and she took a shade too long letting him go.

And Fraser saw that, too.

His blue eyes were practically blazing with anger as Stella pulled away from him. It scared the hell out of him, because he wasn't sure if it was her he was mad at, or him. "Hey, Frayzh," he began, trying to act casual, so Fraser wouldn't think he'd walked in on a make-out session. Trying not to panic, trying to think of a way to explain that their kiss had been tender, not sexual. All about old times, not right now. That Stella was his past; but he wanted Fraser to be his future.

Fraser didn't give him a chance. "I'm sorry, Ray," he said, so stiffly polite that Ray winced. "I see that you're busy," he said tightly. "I'll come back later."

And with that, he was gone.

"No," Ray whispered. "Frayzh, wait!" he croaked, but it was too late. The Mountie had already left.

Stella stared at him. Ray had never been good at hiding his feelings, and right now, he was so upset he wasn't even trying. He looked frightened, even stricken, and she felt more than a little guilty. She knew what Fraser had seen, or thought he'd seen, and it was partly her fault. For a second, though, she considered just letting it go. Not doing anything about it. Letting Ray wiggle out of it as best he could. After all, his love life wasn't her problem anymore; and it'd serve him right actually, for stalking her when she was seeing Frank Orsini.

But then she saw how bruised and fragile he still was, and she wavered. How could she be cold to him, when she'd just come really close to losing him entirely? It seemed unfair, when he'd just finished telling her in his tough guy way, that he would always love her and look out for her. No matter what, for the rest of his life. And he'd do it. She knew that, too.

It was hard to hold a grudge against a man as sweet as that. So though she was jealous of the Mountie, she decided it wouldn't be fair of her to come between them. She still loved Ray, she always would, but she wasn't in love with him anymore. She'd moved on, and so had he. Hell, a blind man could see that he was desperately in love with the gorgeous Constable. And from the look in the big guy's eyes when he'd caught them kissing, it was decidedly mutual.

And though that hurt her somehow, she decided that it had its positive aspects, too. Maybe if the two of them got together, Ray would stop following her around when she went on dates. It was worth a shot. So before she knew it, she was on her feet, throwing her purse quickly over her shoulder. "Don't worry, Ray," she smiled down into his pale, anxious face. "I'll talk to him."

Then she hurried out the door, hoping she could catch up with Fraser before he got out of sight.

Ray sank back onto his pillows in total dejection. "Perfect," he groaned. "That's just friggin' perfect!" If he hadn't been wearing hospital duds that didn't even cover his ass, he'd've gotten up and run after them. Because given a choice, he wouldn't have sent Stella to talk Benny out of his snit. Not in a million years. Not when she was the cause of it. On a scale of 1 to 10 of possible disasters, that seemed like a twenty. Especially since Stella wasn't always the diplomatic type. Just thinking about what she might say to Fraser gave him the shivers.

Probably something like, "Oh, for God sakes, Constable. Stop being such an idiot, and go back in there and talk to him. We were only kissing, after all. It's not like you caught us having sex! And even if we had been, I fail to see how that would be any of your business!"

Oh, geez. I can hear it all now. He swallowed hard and shut his eyes tightly, trying to blot the disastrous image out of his head. Because if she said something like that to Fraser, he'd assume they were having sex (if he didn't already), and he could kiss any hope of ever having that with him again goodbye. He pounded his covers with a fist, because he knew it was half his fault.

Why'd you do it? Why the HELL did you DO that? he groaned inwardly. Ya KNEW Benny was on his way, how could ya forget that? He was only just starting to trust ya again. Now he probly thinks you were tryin' to score with Stella in yer hospital bed. He probly won't ever come back here again!

Stupid, stupid, STUPID! He hit himself in the forehead a couple of times with his fist, on general principles. It didn't seem to help. In fact, it hurt. Quite a bit. And when the pain died away, he was still terminally stupid. And he was still alone.

Fraser strode down the hall, his head spinning. First Rylan, and now Stella! he thought, furious. I thought Ray's ex-partner was the only one standing between us, but it seems that Ray's ex-wife is also there! He was kissing her, in his hospital bed no less! It stunned him. Despite the fact that he'd wanted to kiss Ray there himself, it infuriated him that Stella had done so instead. Indulged herself in what he'd only dreamed of doing. Exactly how many people was Ray involved with at the moment, anyway? Did the list even end with Stella and Rylan?

Maybe I should take a number when I visit him, he thought, seething. As if I were visiting the post office, or some other government agency. Line up behind all the others, living or dead, with whom Ray is in love!

Taking long strides, he bypassed the hospital elevator in favor of the stairs. He was in no mood to be polite to anyone at the moment. He didn't even want to look at anyone, much less speak. In fact, he opened the stairway door with perhaps more force than was absolutely necessary, and took a sort of grim pleasure in the loud noise it produced when it slammed back against the stairway wall.

He plunged through the doorway in a huff, and began taking the stairs down to street level two at a time. He knew he was behaving childishly, but he couldn't bring himself to care. He'd hurried to the hospital earlier, eager to see Ray, his mind filled with thoughts of him -- and his disappointment at finding Stella in his arms, at seeing them kiss, was overwhelming. He wasn't even sure what he'd said to them. All he wanted now was to get away from them, as fast as possible. Out into the night, where he could think.

But he'd only made it partway down the stairs when he heard someone calling him.

"Fraser! Constable Fraser, wait! Please!"

It was Stella.

Damn it! How did she track me here? he thought. He didn't look back at her. For an ignoble second, he actually considered ignoring her. Pretending he hadn't heard her, and heading out into the night as he'd planned.

But she had said please... Then she said it again. "Please, wait!"

A plea from a woman, couched in polite terms -- how could he resist it, when he'd been trained since birth to respond to such stimuli? He slowed in spite of himself. Lowered his head and sighed, and forced his boots to a stop. "All right," he called reluctantly back up the stairs. But he stayed where he was, not walking back up to her right away. He needed to get his breathing under control first, had to try to hide his fury. His jealousy. Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski was a very sharp, intelligent woman. But she didn't know about his relationship with Ray -- at least, he assumed that she didn't, from the way she'd been kissing him just now. And it certainly wasn't his place to tell her, or to allow her to deduce it from his expression.

Besides, after what he'd just seen, it seemed that his physical relationship with Ray was finished anyway.

So he hesitated before turning to talk to Stella Kowalski. It just wasn't easy, even for him, to give up his dreams in an instant.

Stella wasn't sure what to say to the Mountie. It wasn't every day that her ex-husband's new male lover caught them kissing, after all! His extremely handsome male lover, she thought wryly, as she stepped down the stairs towards him. She hadn't been exaggerating when she'd told Ray he had good taste. Like every other woman who came into even casual contact with him, she'd noticed Fraser. Six feet of glossy dark hair, broad shoulders, long legs, tight butt, and a boyishly handsome face were hard to miss. She could see at least some of the reasons why Ray had fallen for him, even from a distance. And the way he'd been watching over Ray since the shooting, keeping a vigil over him even though there was a 24-hr-a-day cop guard outside, spoke volumes about his character as well. But she'd always avoided him, mostly because he was her ex-husband's partner, and God only knew what Ray had told him about her.

But as she stepped downstairs towards him, she actually felt sorry for him. She noticed that he kept his back to her, that his broad shoulders were stiff, and that he was holding onto the stair rail with a grip that was far too tight. As an attorney, she'd learned to pay close attention to body language; and Fraser's fairly shouted pain, jealousy, and barely controlled anger. Those small details told her just how badly they'd hurt him, and how much he cared for Ray.

"Constable, I just wanted to tell you something," she began.

He surprised her by turning suddenly to face her, his face wiped clean of the anger she'd glimpsed on it earlier. Wiped entirely clean of any emotion whatsoever, in fact. He even let go of the rail. "Yes?" he asked politely.

She gave him high marks for self control, as well as good looks. Evidently, despite his anger, he'd decided not to give anything away. For Ray's sake, she approved of his discretion. But it also made her task even harder than it already was. How did she explain that the kiss he'd just seen didn't mean what he'd thought it did, when he seemed determined to pretend that he hadn't seen anything at all?

"I just wanted to say thanks... for taking care of him," she said carefully. "Of Ray, I mean."

Fraser stood very still, not saying anything. But his eyes searched hers intently, as if he were trying to fathom her motives for thanking him, and for following him down here.

He shouldn't have had to do that. She should've made them clear. She felt impatient with her own timidity. She wasn't usually like this, she was an attorney for god sakes. She knew how to state a case. "What you saw in there, Constable, wasn't what you think," she said firmly. Then she damned herself for sounding so cliched. "I was -- upset because Ray almost died. He was just comforting me. That's all."

There. She'd gotten it out. She hadn't exactly been eloquent, but she thought she'd gotten her point across. She gave herself points for presentation, anyway. Her voice had been firm and her eyes direct, though saying that hadn't been easy. She didn't really even know the man, and it wasn't like this situation was -- well, exactly normal for her. It was actually pretty weird. For Fraser too, she suspected.

But if so, he didn't let on. "Ahh," was all he said. His voice was quiet, and the word so ambiguous that she couldn't tell if he'd understood what she meant or not.

She shrugged mentally. Even if he hadn't, she wasn't willing to go further than that; not even for Ray. She'd done what she could, had embarrassed herself enough for him. So she didn't try to explain further. "All right then. I've got to be going now," she said instead.

"I see. Well, goodbye, then," Fraser said. He still hadn't betrayed, by so much as the blink of an eyelash, if he understood -- or forgave them.

Stella felt frustrated. The man's a veritable Sphinx, she thought. Still, thought his reticence was exasperating, it wasn't entirely unexpected. He'd always struck her as very quiet and polite -- seemingly not Ray's type at all. Then again, despite the fact that they'd been married, it seemed she didn't really know what Ray's type was, did she?

"Yes. Goodbye," she answered automatically. But as she passed him on her way downstairs, she had another idea. "Why don't you go back up and see Ray?" she suggested pointedly. "No need to cut your visit short because of me."

And if he doesn't get THAT, she thought wryly, he's too stupid to deserve him.

But it seemed Fraser did, because he suddenly smiled a little. "Yes," he said, with a quiet gleam in his eye. "I think perhaps I will."

Fraser headed back to Ray's room with a distinctly light heart. Not only had Stella Kowalski not been giving Ray a passionate kiss, as he'd thought, it seemed that she also knew that he and Ray had had a relationship. Maybe even that he hoped they could renew it. Stranger still, she seemed to approve. He wasn't sure if she'd deduced it from his behavior just now, or if Ray had told her; but he supposed it didn't really matter. It made him feel oddly warm, that two people -- Frannie and Stella -- had figured out that he was in love with Ray, and contrary to his expectations, neither of them had objected. In fact, both women had gone out of their way to try to help the relationship along.

He shook his head as he headed down the hall. Will wonders never cease.

Ray sat up in bed with a thermometer under his tongue as an aging nurse took his temperature and blood pressure, wondering how the hell his life could get any worse than this. Bad enough that he was bruised all over and bandaged like a mummy. Now, he was also being tortured by an old Nazi masquerading as a health care worker, who was squeezing his arm down to the size of a popsicle stick! Worse yet, Fraser had left him in a snit. Worst of all, his ex-wife had gone to chase him down and talk to him about it.

"Somebody shoot me," he pleaded miserably. But then he remembered -- somebody already had. That's why he was here. But it didn't matter much, as the thermometer garbled his words anyway, so not even the nurse could tell what he was saying. She just fixed him with an evil eye, and made the cuff squeeze his arm even harder. "Oww!" he moaned, so dejected he couldn't even summon the energy to growl at her.

Just then, Fraser came back through his door. And he wasn't angry anymore, he was smiling. Which could mean only one thing.

Stella found him, and she didn't screw it up. She explained things, and now he's cool with it! Ray realized, astounded. In a second, his world went from black to dazzling light. Forgetting all about what the nurse was doing to him, he lifted his head and grinned so hugely at him that the thermometer fell out of his mouth.

The nurse shook her head at him. "Mr. Kowalski! You need to keep that in your mouth--"

"Grrr!" He bared his teeth at her and snarled a little. Now that Ben was back, he felt much better.

His nurse wasn't fazed. She just pursed her lips in disapproval, and picked the thermometer up calmly. Apparently, it had been in his mouth long enough for her to take a reading, because she just said "Hmm," then made a note on his chart.

He turned back to his Mountie. "Hi, Frayzh," he said. "So, did Stella find ya? Did you guys talk?"

Fraser nodded, with a slight smile. "Yes. Everything's fine, Ray."

Ray relaxed, with a sigh of relief. "Whoo. That's good. Cuz when you left before, ya know, ya looked like you were really pissed at me."

Fraser's eyes slipped past his shoulder, to the nurse, then back at him. "Yes. Well. I'm not now," he said briefly.

Ray realized what that meant. Fraser didn't feel comfortable talking about this when they had an audience. He nodded. "Gotcha," he said. He'd been so excited that he'd come back that he'd forgotten the nurse was still in the room. But now that Fraser had reminded him, he just wanted to get rid of her, so they could be alone.

He turned back to her for a second, to find her staring googly-eyed at Fraser over the top of his chart, his vital signs forgotten. He wasn't surprised. All his nurses did that, the first time they saw Benny. When he'd first woke up after the shooting, he'd thought it was hysterical. But now it was starting to irritate him. It was hard enough trying to get Fraser back when he was covered from head to foot with bandages and bruises, without having to beat the nurses off him with a stick, too. "Hey! Florence Nightingale!" he snapped, waving the blood pressure cuff at her to snap her out of her trance. "Remember me? Yer patient? You can take the instrument of torture off now!"

"Really, Mr. Kowalski!" she sniffed as she slipped it off. "We do this for your own good, you know."

"Yeah, yeah. Scat," he said tersely. The nurse raised her eyebrows at him, but he ignored her and turned to smile at Fraser again.

"I think what Mr. Kowalski meant," Fraser said smoothly, "is thank you kindly for taking such good care of him, Nurse -- Retched," he smiled, reading her nametag.

"No I didn't," Ray muttered rebelliously.

But the nurse didn't even hear him, because Fraser was bending over her just then. Ostensibly to read her tag, but also to give her the benefit of his hundred gigawatt smile. What Ray privately thought of as 'The Killer Smile'. The one guaranteed to melt anyone, male or female, into this little puddle at his feet.

The nurse definitely puddled. She fluttered her eyelashes and almost giggled. "Oh, well, that's no problem," she blithered. "Mr--?"

"Dahmer," Ray jumped in helpfully, with a gleam in his own eye. "This is my friend, Ben Dahmer. Jeffrey's youngest cousin, on his mom's side. Cops haven't been able to make anything stick so far, though. So don't worry."

Nurse Retched shot him a shocked glance. He just smiled and did his best to look innocent. So she blinked at Fraser in consternation. Then a second later, she was making for the door.

Fraser opened his mouth to contradict his story, but she was already gone. He shut it again, with a bemused look. "Did you have to pick a notorious serial killer, Ray?" he asked wryly. "Surely you could've invented a slightly less unsavory name for me--"

He grinned, unrepentant. "Okay. Next time, I'll tell her you're Clinton's cousin. What's the dif? Got rid of her, didn't I?"

To his surprise, though Fraser didn't actually grin, his eyes were smiling. "True." But then he sobered. "But you won't repeat that to anyone else, will you?"

Ray laughed to himself. No need for that. Nurse Retched would spread it all over the hospital without his help. The rumor that her nasty cop patient was being visited by the relative of a famous murderer would be the top of the hospital grapevine for the next week, at least. He just hoped some of the younger, prettier nurses would think the story interesting enough to check out in person. "No. 'Course not," he said aloud, trying to look serious.

Then his amusement died away as Fraser walked over to his bed and looked down at him. It struck him all over again, just how beautiful he was. His dark hair, his smooth, pale skin and deliciously red mouth... He suddenly remembered kissing him. Pinning him against the wall and kissing the hell out of him, one magic night four months ago. Making love to him like they were the only people in the whole world.

It hit him again, like a punch in the gut, how much he'd lost. Got no right to do that anymore. No right to even touch him.

But he wanted to. Damn, how he wanted to! Just looking at him took his breath away.

Fraser frowned a little, as if something of his hunger had shown in his face. "Ray?"

He looked away. Tried hard to get his mind off of fucking him. "Damn bandages itch," he complained. It wasn't quite a lie. Not entirely. His bandages did itch, just not as much as he itched for Ben; but he figured the Mountie didn't need to know that. He wasn't even sure he'd want to know that, now. So he shifted his legs under his covers so he wouldn't see what he'd done to him, with just one innocent little look.

Fraser leaned over suddenly, unexpectedly, and gently, very gently, touched his temple where the bandage covered it. "Here, Ray?" he asked softly. "Is that where it's itching?"

Jesus. Does he know? Is he playin' with me? He shot a look at the Mountie, but Fraser's eyes held nothing but a kind of warm concern. But even that was too much. All at once, Ben was too close, too warm, too gentle -- too everything. Ray could hardly breathe. He closed his eyes helplessly. "Yeah," he croaked.

Ben started to massage him. Right through his bandages. He moved his fingers across his forehead, rubbing gently, loosening their edges a little, lifting them off his skin. Oh, it felt good. Ray drew in a deep breath, and let out a long, quivering sigh. Magic fingers, he thought, entranced.

"Is that better, Ray?" Fraser asked after a few minutes, withdrawing his hand.

Ray had to bite back a moan at the cessation of that wonderful stroking. "Yeah," he said aloud, in the understatement of the year. "Better. Thanks." When he finally got himself under some marginal control again, he opened his eyes -- and got the second shock of the day.

Ben was still leaning over him, just inches away, and his eyes were fixed on him. Fixed, dark and dilated with hunger; as if touching him had aroused him too.

He wants me!

Ray froze for a second, unsure what to do, terrified that he might be wrong, that he might be seeing things. Then he reached out. Like a man in a trance, he reached out for Fraser, meaning to pull his dark head down and kiss him, like he'd been longing to do for days.

But in that second, Fraser recovered himself. He backed away from his bed, away from his outstretched hand, and groped for the chair. Dragged it a safe distance from the bed and sat down in it, his body stiff and his posture formal. "Good. That's good," he said quickly. "Well. How are you feeling today, Ray?"

Ray groaned to himself, and dropped his outstretched hand. He recognized a hasty retreat when he saw one. So it's like that, is it? We're back to that? HowareyouRayI'mfineFrayzhhow'reyou? Dammit! It made him want to throw something at Fraser's handsome, overly polite head. Still, he knew he had no one but himself to blame. He shouldn't have looked at him like that, shouldn't have tried to grab him. It was too soon. Or maybe it was too late. Way too late. Months too late. Maybe he'd mistaken that hunger in Fraser's eyes, or even imagined it. He was sure by now that Ben wasn't sleeping with Vecchio, but that didn't mean he hadn't found somebody else, while he was off busting junkies with Rylan. And if that were true, he had nobody to blame but himself. He'd had Fraser in his bed, and in one of the stupidest moments of his whole life, he'd thrown him out. So he bit back his frustration. "I'm okay," was all he said.

And he was. He still hurt, but every day when he woke up, he felt stronger. More like himself. He was becoming Stanley Ray Kowalski again. And deep inside, that little pulse was throbbing harder. That little pulse that had sprung to life when he woke up to find Benny Ben beside him. That was what kept him going. In spite of everything, even now when Ben had pulled away from him, he couldn't quite give up his hopes.

Soon, he told himself. Some day soon, yer gonna look at me like that and I won't let you pull away. Won't let you run. I'm gonna kiss ya. Then, we'll see what happens.

But for now, he settled back against his pillows and waited, because that's what Fraser seemed to want. If Fraser wanted polite, he could do polite; if he wanted to be just buddies, he could do that too. For now. Besides, being chased down by his ex-wife had probably been enough of a scare for one day, even for the Mountie. So he cut him some slack. "How'd yer day go, Frayzh? Okay?"

Almost instantly, he was sorry he'd said that. Because literal Ben started to answer the casual question by relating in detail, almost minute by minute, everything he'd done at the Consulate that day. But he lay back and listened anyway, because it didn't really matter what he said. All that mattered was that he was here. That he kept coming back, night after night, to see him. That he'd come back even after he'd seen Stella kiss him.

That has to mean somethin', he told himself. It has to. So he lay there watching the Mountie's red lips move, letting his voice wash over him, and remembering how it felt to kiss him senseless. How he'd stolen his breath, made his knees weak, made him cry out. Made him come.

How he wanted, more than anything in the world, to do that to him again.

Mad visions and heated memories filled his head. Oblivious, Fraser blathered on about boring stuff like duty rosters, and main frame updates, and Inspector Thatcher. Ray nodded and smiled in all the right places, but his thoughts were hot. Hungry. Distinctly impolite.

Soon, he promised himself as he licked dry lips, burning behind his casual facade. Waiting and burning.

That night, after Fraser left, Ray had a hard time getting to sleep. Thoughts of Fraser intertwined with memories of Rylan, and frustration twisted through it all. He couldn't have Fraser, and he couldn't forget his partner either. Nor could he remember what had happened to him. To them. It was so freaky. He knew he'd been with Pat when he died because they'd found them near each other on the ground, and every broken bone, scar and ache he had confirmed the reality of their attack; but his mind just wouldn't cooperate. Refused to give him the memories he knew were locked inside it.

Memories of his partner's death.

Oh, sure, they'd told him that was normal. Even natural, under the circumstances. He'd undergone severe emotional as well as physical trauma, was the way they put it. Been beaten half to death, seen his own partner get murdered, been shot and taken a vicious blow to the head to top it all off. Small wonder, they'd said, that he couldn't remember it. He would, given time.

But time was one luxury they didn't have. Every day that he lay safe and snug in this bed with no memory of the murder, was one more day that whoever had done this to him -- whoever had killed Pat -- had to cover their tracks. To get away scot free.

Can't let that happen, he thought, restless even as he floated on the border of sleep. Gotta remember it. Gotta get it back. Gotta get Fraser back.

Get 'em both back...

He was floating. Floating, the way he did sometimes in dreams. Floating along a dingy street, watching as two men walked out of a bar in a bad neighborhood. The kind where everything could be had, for a price. Where people bought and sold everything, including each other. Even themselves, if it came down to that. For money, for power, or sometimes, just to live for one more day.

The bar was called The Pit Stop. It belonged to Juan Carlos Ramirez, up and coming Chicago drug dealer. And one of the guys walking out of it was him. The other was Rylan. They were walking side by side, talking.

Ray had a bad feeling. Like they were in danger. Like he needed to warn them about something, though he wasn't sure what. He floated down for a closer look, and suddenly, wham! He was back in his own body. Not looking at himself from behind anymore, but in his own skin, walking along beside Pat. "Whaddaya think?" he said to him.

Pat shrugged. "Dunno. He's so damn arrogant, it's hard to get past it, ya know? Hard to know if he ain't involved, or if he's guilty and just thinks we can't touch him."

He grimaced. "Yeah. I got that too--"

All of a sudden, Rylan stiffened beside him. But before he could even turn his head to see why he had, he felt the hard barrel of a big gun butt being jammed hard into his kidney from behind. A husky male voice said, "Just keep goin'. Keep walkin', both o' ya, and nobody'll get hurt."

Fear shot through him. Now he knew why Pat had stiffened: because he had a gun shoved into his back too. So there's two of 'em, he thought, smothering his initial surge of fear under cop reflexes. Trying to think, so they wouldn't get killed. First thing to do was go along with this until they figured out what the hell was going down. "Okay," he said, walking on as ordered. Pat did the same, taking his cue from Ray, silently following his lead. Ray thanked God for small favors.

"Just stay cool," he said, as much to Pat as to their abductors. "What is this?" he added, hoping to pry some information out of the goons. Hoping they were that stupid. "Who're ya workin' for?"

The guy behind him just laughed. "UPS. We're deliverin' a little message." The gun in his back jammed into him even harder. "Now keep goin', asshole, and shut the fuck up."

Ray kept walking, his mind turning furiously. Who are these goons? Ramirez', or someone else's? He had a strong feeling this ambush was connected to the bad coke epidemic they were investigating. And he knew why the two thugs wanted them to keep walking. They were going to herd them into a nearby alley, or someplace out of sight. Then, the fun would really begin. Shit, he thought, trying hard to control his growing fear, to think past it. He still had both his guns, but he couldn't go for them when these pricks had them both covered. Pat hadn't been disarmed either, but he was covered too. Ray figured the goons were just letting them keep their weapons for the moment. They'd disarm them when they were off the street, when it was safer, where there wouldn't be any curious witnesses around.

He turned his head just enough to glimpse the guy behind Rylan. He was big, but he had a nylon stocking over his head, obscuring his features. All Ray could make out was that he was blonde. But he guessed, without being able to see him, that the prick behind him was masked in just the same way. Probably wore the same clothes too: nondescript jeans, T-shirt and a long coat.

The better to conceal weapons under, he thought with a private groan. Still, though the masks looked ominous, he tried to tell himself that they might be a good sign. Might indicate that these thugs just meant to rough them up, rather than kill them. If they wanted us dead, they might not care if we saw their faces.

He tried to tell himself that, but he knew it was equally possible that they did have murder in mind, and that they were just being doubly careful, since they'd had to take them on the street, that no one could I.D. them for it later.

He must've stared at Pat's captor a second too long, because the guy behind him suddenly growled, "Eyes front, ya prick!" and slammed a fist into his back. It hurt. It hurt a lot -- the bastard had kidney-punched him. He stumbled, biting back a moan, but kept on going. It was either that or a bullet in the back, and he knew it. These guys were pros. Big, tough and serious. Blondie and the Beast, he thought, giving them nicknames in an attempt to distract himself from his own fear.

"Mother fucker!" Pat hissed beside him, shooting a searing glare at the guy who'd punched him.

At that, the blonde goon slapped him hard across the back of the head. "Shut up!" he grated. Pat kept going, but Ray could almost hear him grinding his teeth.

Ray didn't dare look at him. Not so much because he was afraid of being hit again, but because he was afraid Pat might lose it if he did. Go nuts like he had that time Shank hit him, and do something nuts to Blondie, something drastic that might get them both killed. He understood that impulse. He briefly considered doing something drastic himself. Shoving Blondie away from Pat for instance, and going for his gun. Even yelling for help.

But he rejected both ideas. Even if he did manage to temporarily distract one of them, the other could -- and would -- shoot him dead. And in this neighborhood, yelling for help would be stupid. Worse than stupid, it'd be totally useless. Even if there was anyone else on the street behind them, at the first sight of trouble, they'd undoubtedly run. No one in this locale would risk his life helping a stranger. And even if, by some miracle, someone did, he'd likely only get killed right along with them. And Ray didn't want to endanger anyone else to save them.

He and Rylan were alone here. They had to find their own way out of this, or they were dead.

He knew that, but deep inside him, a name was forming. Fraser!

He had to stifle the cry in his throat. It was like a reflex, automatic even after all this time. He was in danger, so he wanted Fraser. Needed him. He needed the Mountie's calm, steadying presence. Needed his cool head, to help him get out of this. Fraser was the only person he trusted with his life.

But Fraser wasn't here. He was alone with two hitmen and Rylan, who he couldn't trust. He felt cold inside. We're gonna die here, he thought, and the idea of that, of having both led his young partner to his death, and of never seeing Fraser again either, filled him with savage regret.

"In here," the thug behind him grunted, as they came to the mouth of an alley.

Ray and Rylan turned into it silently, but Ray saw the kid send him a desperate glance as they moved. Pat knew what was coming just as well as he did. But Ray didn't look back at him. He didn't have any hope to give him. No great escape plan, no way out of this. They were caught like rats in a trap, in the middle of crackhouse central with guns at their backs, held by two guys who knew how to use them and wouldn't hesitate. It didn't get any worse than that. He was so filled with rage and fear that it was all he could do to keep walking.

They were herded way down the alley, past a huge metal trash bin, until they were out of sight of the street. Then the Beast pushed him away hard, almost knocking him off his feet. But he put his hands up to keep from slamming into the wall in front of him, then turned to face them again. He saw that Blondie had one big hand wrapped tightly around Rylan's neck. The other was pressing the barrel of a Sig Sauer, with a silencer attached, hard against his head. He also saw that his captor, the one he'd nicknamed "the Beast", also had a nylon stocking over his head, and wore a long coat.

Professionals, he noted grimly. Just like I thought.

He could just make out thick dark hair squashed under the nylon covering his head, but he couldn't discern his features or eye color. Worse yet, though his captor wasn't as tall as Blondie, what he lacked in height, he made up for in bulk. He had the overly broad shoulders and huge biceps of a dedicated weightlifter. And it wasn't hard to guess how he got that way. Pumped himself up while doin' time, Ray thought. Then the Arnold wanna-be pulled back his coat and drew a length of lead pipe, about six inches in diameter, out of an inner pocket. His other hand held a .457 Magnum, with a silencer attached.

As Ray watched, his heart pounding, the goon raised it, pointed at his head, then began to walk towards him.

Ray's heart sank. The Beast could've shot him easily from where he stood. There was only reason why he'd approach him: they were either going to beat the crap out of them, or else beat the crap out of them, then kill them. Either way, it looked like he and Rylan were going to get knocked around. Shit.

"Take your gun out," the Beast ordered, his voice a bit muffled under his mask. "Kick it away."

Ray shook his head desperately. He was going to get hurt anyway, why make it easier for 'em? "Go fuck yerself."

Instantly, the goon's finger tightened on the trigger. Ray ducked instinctively. A bullet whined into the wall behind him, about where his shoulder had just been, and before he could even straighten up again, the Beast was suddenly beside him. He'd moved amazingly quickly and quietly, for such a big man, and he caught Ray by surprise. The lead pipe in his meaty fist whistled through the air, then smashed into his ribs. Agony blossomed in his chest, to the tune of a terrible cracking sound that he knew was his own bones breaking. And as he doubled over, it thudded into him again, lightning fast, numbing his shoulder.

He's fast, he thought dimly, in the part of his brain that wasn't shrieking with the pain. From what sounded like far away, he heard Rylan screaming. "Goddamnmotherfuckin'prick! STOP IT!"

"Don't," he tried to tell him, but it came out in a whisper. He wavered on his feet, trying to straighten up but hardly able to breathe because it hurt so much. But trying, because he knew Rylan needed him. Predictably, he'd lost it. Freaked out. Despite the gun held to his head, he was struggling wildly with Blondie. As he watched, Pat dug an elbow into his ribs, then went for his own gun, his face contorted with rage.

But Blondie got there first. He hit Rylan in the head with his Sig Sauer, not hard enough to knock him out, just enough to stagger him. Then as Pat wavered on his feet, he wrapped an arm around his neck in a choke hold and pressed the barrel into his temple again. "One more blink, and you're dead," he said, pulling Pat's gun out of his holster and throwing it onto the ground several feet away.

Ray took a deep breath, and managed to croak, "Chill out," to his partner. To his relief, Pat stopped fighting. Went limp in Blondie's hold, and nodded slightly, to show that he was listening. And he didn't seem seriously injured either, which was also a good thing.

But it confused Ray. The thug holding Pat hadn't shot him, even though he'd fought back. Maybe a good, old-fashioned beating was all they were after, but if so, why weren't they whaling on both of them? Was it possible that they were really only after him, and that Pat had just been grabbed because he was with him?

He didn't have much time to figure it out. As he fought to straighten up again, wondering how many of his ribs were broken, the Beast's feinted at him again with the pipe. This time, though, he was ready for it. He caught his wrist, blocking it. But then the Beast lashed out with his left. His fist slammed into his mouth, and the punch rocked his head back so hard that he lost his balance. His legs gave way under him, and he hit the dirt. Pain exploded in his chest with the impact, and he gasped, unable to move. "Ya had yer chance," a voice growled from somewhere above him, as his jacket was peeled back and a rough hand yanked his gun out of his holster. Tossed it away, into the dirt of the alley.

Still got my boot gun, he thought, trying to stave off his agony, forcing himself to think despite his spinning head. And he's got a tattoo. When the Beast had reached down to grab his gun, he'd seen a tattoo of a serrated-edge hunting knife with red drops of blood dripping from it on the underside of his wrist. He memorized it. If he lived through this, that little detail might be important.

But his chances of survival didn't seem good. As he lay there fighting for breath, tasting blood in his mouth, the Beast bent over him again. "Got a message for ya," he grinned. "Drop your drug investigation. Quit hasslin' Mr. Ramirez, or next time, we won't play so nice. Ya got that?"

Okay, he thought, with a grim surge of satisfaction. Now I know who y'are. One o' Ramirez's pet thugs. I live through this, and yer dog meat, he promised himself, as he fought for air. And despite his pain, he hadn't missed the prick's use of the words, "next time". Maybe that meant they weren't going to get killed after all. But he wasn't sure. It could mean they only meant to kill him, and not Pat. And in the meantime, since they weren't playing nice, he wouldn't either.

"Fuck you, and Ramirez too," he spat out of broken lips, as he forced himself to a sitting position.

He tried to get up, but the Beast caught him. "Wrong answer!" he grinned.

The lead pipe came down again, this time on the arm he'd braced to raise himself up. A stunning jolt of pain ran up it, and he folded, another moan ripping from his dry throat. His arm went numb, but he tried to tell himself that he was lucky. It'd been a lighter tap that time. It hadn't broken any bones. And at least he hadn't screamed. Not quite. Not yet. And Rylan was still on his feet. Blondie wasn't hitting him at all, just holding onto him. He clung to that, the one positive thing about this grim situation. Maybe they'll be satisfied with me. Maybe they won't hurt Pat.

He lay in the dirt panting. Quick, shallow breaths that were all his broken ribs would allow. He felt blood trickling down his chin from where the Beast had hit him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a little voice was telling him to stay down. Shut up. Quit taunting the Beast, and maybe he might get out of this alive.

He knew it was right. The bells were ringing, the match was over. He'd nearly been k.o.'d, and he should just stay down for the count. But he just couldn't. Ever since he'd left Fraser, he'd been moping. Passive. Letting things happen to him, instead of living. As a result, he'd been cuffed and almost raped. He was done with that now. Done taking what other people handed out to him. Fraser would never want someone who was a wuss, so if he wanted to get him back again, he had to start acting like a man. And if it didn't work, if Fraser had to hear that he'd been killed, he didn't want him to hear that he'd gone out like a coward. If he was going to die, he was going to do it on his feet. Besides, there was still some chance he could save Rylan; and he had to try. So he rolled a little, until his shoulder came up against a wall. He pushed against it, levering hard with his legs, the only part of him that wasn't damaged yet, and managed somehow to stagger upright again.

Because that was what Fraser would've done, in his place.

"We got -- yer message," he panted, wheezing blood. "Just-- let -- him go." He raised his good arm just enough to point at Rylan. "Ya got -- his gun. So let him -- walk away," he breathed. It was all he could get out, before the pain doubled him over again.

"Not yet," the Beast grinned. "I'm not done havin' fun with you yet."

He feinted with the pipe, and when Ray lurched sideways to avoid it, he kicked out viciously, catching him in the kneecap. Ray went down again, twisting to try to land on his back instead of his ribs. But he wasn't quite fast enough. He landed on his side, on his numbed arm and shoulder, and heard himself groan as he hit the pavement. Dimly, as if from a distance, he heard Rylan yelling "No!"

"Shoulda stayed put," the Beast advised. Then he kicked him again, in the stomach this time.

Ray cried out. If he'd had the breath, he would've screamed.

Mercifully, for some reason, the Beast backed off then. Stopped beating on him long enough for Ray to take a few panting breaths. Then, when the agony dimmed enough so that he could see and hear again, he realized why.

Rylan had somehow gotten free. Blondie was on his knees. Pat kicked him viciously, with enough force to throw him onto his back on the ground. Then he was loose. But instead of diving for his gun, which lay a few yards away from Blondie, he launched himself at the Beast, with murder in his eyes. "Ray!" he screamed, his long dark hair streaming out behind him as he ran towards them.

"No," Kowalski breathed. Ya don't have a gun, noNoNO--

Time seemed to slow around him. Rylan kept coming, while behind him, Blondie sat up and raised his gun. The Beast was yelling too, his mouth open, shaking his head at Blondie in what looked like a warning -- but it was too late. A shot rang out, quieted to a blipping hiss by the silencer on Blondie's gun. Rylan staggered, his body bowing forward from the impact. His eyes caught Ray's and held, and he saw no surprise there -- just a strange kind of satisfaction. Then he smiled a little, his eyes warming for a second.

Then he fell, face down into the dirt of the alley.

"No!" Ray croaked.

But it was done. For a second, no one moved. Both Blondie and the Beast stared down at Rylan where he lay crumpled at the Beast's feet. He didn't move, didn't moan or even twitch.

Then time resumed its normal flow. Ray watched numbly as the Beast finally recovered enough to walk over to Rylan and turn him over with his boot. There was dust in Pat's long hair, Ray noted with a pang, through his spreading agony. But his eyes were closed, and he looked almost peaceful. Like he was sleeping. But Ray knew he wasn't. Blondie had blown a hole clean through his body, and blood was pouring from it, staining his white T-shirt crimson. He was dead, and they all knew it.

"Shit. Ya offed him," the Beast said, sounding as stunned as Ray felt.

Because of me, Ray thought, and the pain of that was worse than anything the Beast had done to him.

Blondie got up and dusted himself off, and he and the Beast exchanged a wordless look. Ray knew what it meant, what was going to happen next. He tried frantically to reach for his boot gun, but the move put pressure on his broken ribs, and he fell back, wracked with agony, unable to reach it. He tried to get up, but his abused body wouldn't obey him. He just didn't have the strength. It seemed he wasn't destined to die on his feet after all. All he could do was lever himself up on one elbow as they came for him, his heart pounding with fear.

The Beast raised his gun, and all he could think was, "Fraser!"

He woke shouting his name. "Fraser! Fraser! FRAAASSSERRRR!"

But Fraser wasn't there. He was alone. It was dark and cold, and he was shaking, but he was alive. He didn't get it. How could he be alive? They'd killed him, killed him in the dirt in that alley--

And they'd killed Pat. Because of him.

Finally, he realized that it had been a dream. Just a dream. Well, not just a dream; a memory, really. He closed his eyes, sank back down on his pillows and kept saying his name, quieter now, while he trembled. "Fraser, Fraser, Fraser," he chanted, over and over, until he could breathe again. Clinging to his name, to his memory, to his love for him, until he stopped shaking.

"Fraser, I remember," he whispered, as tears slid down his cheeks.

Retelling it took a long time. All through the wee hours of the morning, Ray sat in his bed going over it and over it, again and again, every word, every detail, for Captain Harlan and the two Homicide detectives, Saller and Trapman, who'd been assigned to the case. Trying not to let them see how much it cost him to relive it.

Trying to make some sense of it all.

He told them everything. Everything, that is, except the real reason for Pat's death. Everything except the fact that they'd been sleeping together, and that Pat had fallen in love with him, and tried to rape him when he'd realized he was still in love with Fraser. Everything but the way Pat had looked at him in that alley, in the last second before he died.

He was never going to tell anyone that. He didn't think he could.

He wasn't sure what purpose it would serve if he did. It wouldn't change anything. Wouldn't bring his partner back from the dead. But he gave Pat what he could. "He tried to save me," he told Harlan and the others, knowing they wouldn't grasp the real meaning in those words. The why. But he gave them the how, for Rylan's sake. "He took a bullet in the back tryin' to save me. He died bein' a hero."

He wanted everyone to know that much.

Ray gave Harlan and the Homicide guys as detailed a description as he could of Blondie and the Beast: height, weight, hair color, etc., including the tattoo on the Beast's wrist. Shortly after, just before dawn, Juan Carlos Ramirez and his henchmen were rousted out of bed and arrested. And Saller and Trapman began grilling Ramirez. He had an alibi for the morning of the shooting, claimed that he was with some 'business associates'. But when he named them, and it turned out they were former gangbangers turned drug dealers, and small-time hoods, Saller and Trapman shrugged. Alibis like that were thin. They didn't hold up well in court. Some assistant DA would shoot holes in it, aided by the fact that juries didn't tend to find such witnesses credible.

The strange thing was, in this case, Trapman and Saller had their doubts, too. And not the usual ones, either. Not only did Ramirez loudly and repeatedly proclaim his innocence regarding the attack on Rylan and Kowalski, but he also claimed to have no knowledge whatsoever of the identity of their assailants. Ordinarily, of course, they would've assumed that he was lying. But astounding though it was, Saller and Trapman thought that he might actually be telling the truth.

Every one of Ramirez' employees, delivery boys and hangers-on who'd been arrested had been checked for the telltale tattoo, but none of them had it. And after they were thoroughly grilled regarding knowledge of the two shooters, they all told the same story too: they'd never heard of those guys. They didn't know them, and they knew even less about their attack on Rylan and Kowalski. One of them admitted that he'd been with Ramirez when Kowalski and Rylan questioned him about the arsenic-laced coke, but he swore that the two cops had left Ramirez' bar unmolested, and that he didn't know they'd been assaulted nearby shortly afterwards.

As usual, no one knew anything about anything.

That wasn't surprising. What was, was their believability. The detectives who took their statements also sensed that it was possible the scumbags were actually telling the truth about their ignorance, for once.

Trapman and Saller had a hunch they might have the wrong suspect in custody in connection with Rylan's death; and they didn't like that feeling. They hadn't liked Rylan either, but he was a brother cop, and no one got away with killing a cop. It was their duty to make sure of that.

But they also believed Kowalski. He was a good cop, with not just a clean record, but several commendations; and his anguish about his partner's death, and deep desire to see his murderers caught, had been totally genuine. They had no reason to doubt his statement that his assailant had stated, during the attack, that he was delivering a message from Ramirez to back off on their drug investigation.

But it was possible -- it was just possible -- that someone else was really behind that message. That someone else had set Ramirez up to take the fall for the hit on Kowalski and Rylan.

The only question was, who?

Not an easy question to answer. Both Saller and Trapman knew the shooters had probably skipped town long since. And they had no good facial descriptions to circulate to other police departments, because Blondie and the Beast had been masked. But acting on Kowalski's feeling that the guy who'd beaten him half to death had done time already, they had their Civilian Aide, Julie, start going through the police data bases to try to get a match on a felon with a tattoo of a knife on his inner wrist. But Saller, Trapman and Harlan all knew that their chances of finding him were slim at best. And if Kowalski was wrong, and his shooter wasn't a convicted felon, their chances of catching his assailants were almost nil.

And since the shooters had left no evidence at the crime scene, and they had no hard evidence linking Ramirez or his people to the shooting either, unless they could turn up a suspect, their investigation would be at a standstill.

Ray forced himself up out bed that day. Forced himself to walk, though his doctor had warned him that it was too soon.

Judging by the amount of times that he fell down, the doctor must've been right about that. But he didn't care. He kept getting up and falling down and getting up again. Because he couldn't stay in that bed, now that he knew. He couldn't stand to lie there, thinking of how Pat had died. Remembering how his eyes had looked at that last second. Like he didn't mind dying, because it was for his sake. Because he loved him that much.

Jesus. Every time he thought of that, it was like getting stabbed.

And he had worse thoughts. As he struggled to walk despite his pain and weakness, he kept remembering the moment in his apartment, after his near rape, when Pat had tried to get him to hit him again. Knowing how furious he was, knowing that he wanted to kill him, Pat had still egged him on. He'd almost begged him to do it. He'd hated himself that much. Had he been thinking of that when he'd struggled with Blondie in the alley, too? Had he thrown himself in front of his gun because of it?

He didn't know, and it tortured him.

Finally, when his legs gave way again for what seemed like the hundredth time, and he crumpled to the floor, he didn't even try to get up again. He just laid there, like he'd laid in that alley the day he'd watched Pat die. Not minding the coldness of the floor. Half hoping it would numb him.

He put his hands over his eyes, shut them tightly, but he still kept seeing Rylan. Rylan running, screaming his name. Rylan looking to him, even while he was dying.

He'd wanted to remember all that. He'd needed to, so Rylan's killers could be caught. But now that he had, he was left with the pain of it, left with unanswerable questions. Rylan was gone, but why? The only thing he was sure of was that he'd been trying to save him. He knew that in his bones. But was that the only thought on his mind? Or had he been trying to kill himself too? Hoping that he would die in the process, to make up for trying to rape him?

Hate, love -- which one made him do it? he wondered. He knew he'd probably never know, but he still couldn't let it go. It mattered. He needed to know whose hands Pat's blood was on -- those two goons in the alley, or his.

Rylan's funeral had already taken place, while he was still flat on his back in bed. He'd been given the traditional police Honor Guard, and several of the other detectives in their division had carried his coffin, but that was small consolation to Ray. Though Fraser had sent flowers for him, he hadn't been able to go himself, and that hurt.

"Fraser," he whispered, lying on the cold floor. "Fraser, Fraser, Fraser..."

Fraser heard, through the police grapevine that day, that Ray had finally regained his memory of the attack, and that a suspect had already been arrested in connection with it. He was both pleased and relieved. He'd known how much his friend's inability to remember the circumstances surrounding his attack and his partner's death had been weighing on him, and how much Kowalski wanted Rylan's killers to be caught. He imagined that Ray was probably excited about the arrest, that he might even be jubilant about it. So as a kind of celebration, he brought him junk food when he came to visit him that night. A small ham and pineapple pizza, some M & M's, even a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Nothing that had any nutritional value, but everything that he knew Ray liked.

He smiled to himself as he carried the bag up to his room, thinking how delighted he would be when he saw its contents.

But to his surprise, Ray didn't smile at him when he came in, as he usually did. He was lying in bed with only his small bedside lamp on, and his face looked pensive, worn, even grim.

"Hello," he said, trying to cheer him up. "I heard that you regained your memory of the shooting, Ray, and that an arrest has already been made. Congratulations. That's good news."

Ray grunted something unintelligible in response.

Curiouser and curiouser, Fraser thought. But aloud, he said only, "I brought you something to eat." But even when he placed the junk food in his lap, Ray didn't even smile. He just stared down at the bag for a second, as if he didn't know what it was. He didn't try to open it, either.

Fraser's eyes narrowed. He suddenly realized that Ray looked more than just depressed. He looked pale, almost exhausted. He didn't look happy that his memory had finally returned, or even satisfied. If anything, he looked troubled. He studied him closely, and saw what looked like new bruises on his arms. What had he been doing? "Were you trying to walk around without assistance, Ray?" he guessed. "Are you sure that's wise?"

Ray's jaw tightened. "Can't stay in bed forever," he growled. "Get off my back, okay?"

Fraser's eyebrows rose. He sensed that Ray's anger had nothing to do with him, though. "What's wrong?"

Kowalski shook himself, as if trying to wake from an unpleasant dream. The anger faded from his eyes, and he shot him an apologetic look. "Nothin', Frayzh," he said quietly. "I just -- guess I'm just not hungry." He finally opened the bag then, and rummaged about a bit inside of it. "Thanks for bringing' me this stuff, though," he said. "It's cool."

"You're welcome," Fraser said automatically. But he had the feeling his friend was merely being polite, that he was still so upset that even junk food had no real appeal for him. And when Ray made no attempt to eat anything, his suspicions were confirmed. He swallowed his disappointment and picked the bag up again, placing it on Ray's bedside stand. "I'll just leave it here, where you can find it if you get hungry later," he said quietly.

"Sure. Thanks," Ray murmured.

But Ben doubted that he'd even touch the food. He seemed lost in thought, a million miles away. Fraser wondered what he'd been thinking about, all alone in the semi-darkness of his room. Did this new abstraction have something to do with Stella's visit, perhaps? Despite her assertion that their kiss didn't indicate romantic passion, was Ray still thinking about her? Was that why he didn't even seem to care that he'd come to see him?

Fraser felt confused. Jealous. Even resentful. "Are you feeling all right, Ray?" he asked, when several minutes went by and Ray didn't say anything. "Are you tired? Maybe I should leave--" He started to get up out of his chair.

At that, Ray finally roused himself. "No. Don't do that, ya just got here!" When he reached out and grabbed his arm, Ben felt a wave of heat pass over him at his touch, casual though it was. And it seemed to him that Ray held onto him longer than was necessary. But he wasn't sure if that was just wishful thinking, so he didn't comment on it.

But when Ray saw him looking down at him curiously, he let go of him instantly, flushing a little. "Sorry, I was just... thinkin' about something," he muttered vaguely.

"Ahh," he said. He tried to make it an encouraging "Ahh." The kind of "Ahh" that would prompt Ray to share his thoughts.

But it didn't work. Kowalski just stared down at the covers on his bed, as if their folds fascinated him. "Didja' ever... wonder why people do the things they do?" he asked slowly at last. "You know, even crazy things? Desperate things? Ya ever wonder about that, Frayzh?"

Fraser frowned, his confusion growing. He suddenly doubted that what was troubling Ray had anything to do with Stella. But he didn't have a clue what else it might be. Still, he tried to give him a thoughtful answer. "Many times," he said slowly. "The human heart is a complex thing. Sometimes it's hard to even understand why we do the things we do, let alone trying to understand what others' motives may be." Remembering Victoria, his own painful lesson in the thorny complexities of feeling, in the intricacies of love and hate, he fell silent.

"Yeah." Ray nodded, though he still didn't look at him.

When he didn't say anything else for a moment, Fraser suddenly became aware of how quiet his room had become. It was as if everyone else in the hospital had gone home or somehow disappeared, and they were all alone. He knew that wasn't true, but there was a sense of portent about the quiet all the same. As if Ray were going to tell him something important within the hush. And so he waited patiently in the silence, waited to hear it.

"Fraser, I--" Ray raised a hand to his eye suddenly in a quick, swiping gesture, and Fraser held his breath as he realized why he didn't want to look at him. That tears were swimming in his eyes. "I got... somethin' I wanna tell ya."

Fraser felt a cold prickle of dread. Whatever Ray was thinking about, it was upsetting him quite a bit. Which meant that it was probably not something he would want to hear. What if he'd been right? What if Ray was thinking about Stella after all? What if the "crazy thing" he'd been thinking about was his abiding love for her, that had reawakened in the aftermath of his attack, and her renewed attentions? What if the "desperate thing" he'd mentioned was the way he'd kissed her yesterday? Dear God, what if Ray was trying to work up the nerve to tell him that he was still in love with his wife? What if he was going to ask him to just forget what had happened between them several months ago, and go back to being merely his friend?

When Ray had first regained consciousness, he'd contented himself with the thought that getting his friendship back would be enough. But he'd grown greedy since. Talking to him, laughing with him, sitting in this quiet room with him night after night, he'd fallen in love with him all over again. If Ray now asked him to forget his passion and simply be his friend, he wasn't sure he'd be able to stand it.

That will kill me, Fraser thought with perfect clarity. Not his body, of course. That would go on living, for it was young, strong and vital. But if Ray turned away from him now, something inside him, his ability to love perhaps, that had already been badly damaged, would finally wither up and die.

So for a long moment, he didn't answer. It took him some time to get his breathing under control, to repress his fear enough to speak calmly. "Yes? What is it, Ray?"

"Come 'mere," Ray said, unexpectedly beckoning to him.

He dragged his chair closer to his bed, feeling doomed.

"No," Kowalski said. "I mean, over here. You know, on the bed."

Fraser blinked, stunned by the offer, unsure of what it meant. But Ray was already sliding over, making room for him on his bed, and Fraser's confusion was compounded by a sudden surge of intense desire for him. An image slid through his mind, cool and seductive, of Ray's body lying pliant under his on the crisp white sheets, and the sheer physicality of it embarrassed him. It was so relentless, the continual, aching demand of his body for this man, no matter the place, time or circumstances. Even now, when he was half afraid Ray was going to confess that he was still madly in love with his ex-wife, he couldn't stop wanting him.

"Ray, I don't think... Your bed's too small," he demurred, secretly afraid that he would guess what he was feeling if he got too close. Worse still, that he'd see it.

"What, are ya afraid the nurse is gonna come in?" Ray asked, his lips curving in an unexpectedly wicked little smile. A smile that hinted at exact knowledge of what he was thinking, and just why it might prove inconvenient if the nurse did come in and find them together in his bed.

It seemed a good excuse, and also safe, since Ray hadn't actually specified what they might be doing on his bed that would scandalize the nurse. So Ben seized on it. "Yes."

"Well, she won't. Not until around ten, and it's only six o'clock. We got lotsa time," he said. "So come on, Frayzh. Get yer butt over here. There's lotsa room."

When he hesitated, Ray's eyes grew serious again. "Please?"

He sighed, unable to resist. "Oh all right," he said. "If you insist." He climbed onto the bed gingerly, and sat as far away from Ray as he could without being obvious about it. Trying to pretend that he hadn't imagined being on it with him, that he wasn't aroused by his very nearness. He sat up very straight, feeling intensely uncomfortable.

"Now," he said, trying to sound calm. In control. Unaffected. "What was it you wanted to tell me, Ray?"

Ray sighed to himself. He'd known this wasn't going to be easy, but did Fraser have to make it so friggin' hard? He'd practically had to beg him to sit next to him, and now that he was actually on his bed, he was sitting ramrod straight, his back not even touching the wall, like someone had stuck a poker up his ass. He wondered if it was humanly possible for a guy to look more uncomfortable than Fraser did at that moment.

"Uh, Frayzh?"


"Sit back a bit, okay? Relax. Yer makin' me nervous."


The Mountie leaned back until his shoulders were touching the wall, then crossed his arms over his chest. But his whole body was still militarily straight, right down to his toes, which pointed up to the ceiling at a precise 90 degree angle.

What is that? Parade rest or somethin'? Ray wondered, exasperated.

"Is that better?"

Ray bit back a sarcastic reply. "Oh, yeah. That's great," he said. Because in spite of everything, he knew Fraser was trying. And it wasn't his fault that he had to do this. Ben wasn't the one who'd started this whole thing, who'd screwed everything up out of jealousy. He had, and it was past time for him to come clean about it. He had to throw his cards on the table, and tell Fraser what he'd done.

Fraser looked at him expectantly, and for a second, he just froze.

"Geez, this is hard--"

"Ray, maybe you should just tell me--"

They both burst out nervously at the same instant, then looked at each other and laughed. Then Ray said, "Me first, Frayzh, okay?"

"Certainly," the Mountie said. But this time when he sat back again, his shoulders looked a fraction looser, and his posture didn't look quite so defensive.

Good, Ray thought. He's loosening up a little. He just wasn't sure Fraser would ever be loose enough to sit through what he had to tell him. But he still had to try. Because unless they got past it, he didn't feel like he could touch him again. And he wanted to do that so much it was driving him crazy. He'd thought of that even when he was lying on the floor earlier, crying about Rylan. His desire for the Mountie was so strong it never ended. It ran like a river under everything he felt: guilt, anger, even grief. He wanted him so much that it was hard to keep his mind on his apology either, with Ben's beautiful dark head so close to his.

He cleared his throat nervously. "Okay. It's like this," he started awkwardly. "I wanna tell ya what happened. Before I got shot. When we had that fight, I mean. I wanna -- you know, tell ya why I got so mad. Okay?"

Fraser's eyes widened a little in surprise. "That's it? That's what you've been brooding about?"

"Well, no," he said automatically, thinking of Rylan. "But--" For a second, another truth trembled on his tongue. He longed to tell Fraser about it. About Pat, and how he died. Because Fraser was smarter than him. Maybe Fraser could really figure it out. Why Pat had done it. If it was really his fault. Maybe if he told him about it, he'd be able to sleep at night.

Then he remembered: to make Fraser understand about Pat's death, he'd have to tell him everything. Not just that he'd slept with him, but the way Pat was: lonely, sadistic, twisted -- hating himself, but so in love with him that he'd tried to rape him, once he realized he was still in love with Ben. He'd have to tell him all that, or Fraser wouldn't understand all the reasons why Pat had done what he did. But he couldn't tell Fraser any of that. He couldn't, or he'd lose him.

"I mean, yeah. That's it!" he said, correcting himself hastily. "I was just thinkin' about our fight."

"Hmm," Fraser said.

Ray gritted his teeth. God, I hate that little hmm! It's enough to drive ya crazy. I never know what it means. He wondered if this time, it meant that Fraser knew he was lying, that he'd actually spent most of the day thinking about Rylan. Feeling guilty about him. He saw Fraser looking at him closely, and he looked away, scared by the Mountie's perceptiveness. It's like he has this little window into my head, like he can see what I'm thinkin' or somethin'. And this was one time when he definitely didn't want him to know. Didn't want him to see the really dark things that he was hiding away from everyone, because he could hardly bear to think about them himself.

When he didn't say anything else, Fraser just said, "What I mean is yes, I would like to hear what happened."

It was weird. He sounded almost cheerful, or maybe relieved, like he'd been afraid Ray was going to tell him something even worse. Ray wondered again if he'd somehow guessed about Rylan, then told himself no. He wouldn't sound so cheerful if he had, or if he knew what he was going to say next. That he'd thought he was a liar. A lousy cheat. That he'd been screwing around on him with his best friend. Ray tensed up. He didn't know if Ben was going to be able to take it -- or if he'd walk out on him.

He gathered up a handful of his blanket and crushed it nervously in his fist as he started, praying he wasn't making another huge mistake. Praying he wasn't about to lose his Mountie all over again. Still, he had to do this. Had to be honest. Fraser was the best -- so he deserved the best. He had to tell him about this, at least, even if he couldn't tell him about Rylan.

He had to start being honest.

"Okay. Well, it all started when Vecchio came back," he said awkwardly, his voice sounding too loud in his own ears. "Remember that?" Then he winced at his own stupidity. Doh! Like he's gonna forget!

But all Fraser said was, "Yes."

So Ray took a deep breath and went on.

By the time Ray was done talking, the light had faded outside. Neither of them had bothered to get up and turn the overhead lights on, so they sat in relative dimness on his bed, side by side but still not touching.

Fraser felt stunned. A bit overwhelmed. He'd wondered so often just what it had been that upset Ray so much, but he'd never dreamed it was anything like this. Ray had suspected him of such terrible things: of lying, of running from his bed to be with another man, of betraying him right after the first time they'd made love. Yet he'd never said anything. And he'd even spied on him!

He wasn't sure which thing was worse. And the more he tried to decide, the more it hurt. The more it angered him.

Ray finally snuck a sideways look at him. "Uh, Frayzh? Like I said, I'm sorry," he said hesitantly.

"Hmm," Fraser muttered. He had no doubt that was true, but he wasn't sure that it helped much. He tried to imagine what it was about him that had led Ray to believe that he was capable of such disreputable behavior. What he'd ever done that would lead him to think he would betray him so callously. But he couldn't think of anything. He'd always been honest and straightforward with him from the first. He had never lied to Ray, and his anger rose as he contemplated just how deceitful Ray had assumed he'd been, nonetheless.

Ray didn't trust him. Hadn't trusted him on the deepest, more personal levels, even after they'd made love; and it stunned him. As far as he could see, that was the underlying cause of the whole problem. If Ray had trusted him, he would've stepped forward and made himself known when he'd seen him with Ray Vecchio that morning, instead of shadowing them; and if he'd trusted him, he wouldn't have misinterpreted Vecchio's hug, and his smiles, for something other than friendship. And if Ray had trusted him, even if he HAD misinterpreted their friendship, he would've come forward and said so. Explained his feelings, and asked what was really going on. Instead, he'd kept all his suspicions to himself, disappeared without a word, stayed out most of the weekend drinking, then flown into a rage when he'd tried to talk to him about it. Then, to add insult to injury, he'd left him for it.

That wasn't mature, Fraser thought, his anger beginning to heat into fury. It wasn't honest. It wasn't even fair. Moreover, it confirmed his own suspicions that Ray didn't really love him. Because how could you love someone, if you didn't even really trust them?

Then suddenly, he remembered Victoria, and some of his righteous anger died away. Ray knows about her, he thought. He remembered that Ray had read his file and Ray Vecchio's. So he knew at least some of what had happened when she'd come to Chicago and they'd embarked on their disastrous affair. He knew at least some of what he'd done with her -- and most of it hadn't been honest. Some of it, in fact, had been downright disreputable. Maybe Ray even knew that in the end, he'd tried to run away with her. All of that might've planted doubts in his head about him, about what he was capable of, even though he hoped Ray knew that wasn't his usual way of being.

Still -- maybe Ray had had some reasons, after all, not to trust him. Good reasons.

"Guess yer pretty pissed at me now, huh?" Ray asked, in that same tentative way. "I mean, not that I blame ya. Ya got every right to be. I acted like a total jerk. Lost my head. Did stuff I never should've done--"

Ray sounded miserable, but he still didn't answer him, because the words "lost my head" triggered a sudden flood of memories. Dark scenes from his past, from a time when he'd lost his own head, cascaded through Ben's mind. He recalled the pain on Ray Vecchio's face one night long ago, when he'd found out he'd missed his pool night because he was with Victoria. The tears on his own face when he'd set candles ablaze all over his apartment, in the desperate hope that she would somehow see them and come back to him, even though by then, he knew she'd betrayed both him and Ray. Last but certainly not least, in fact the worst of all, was the memory of how he'd run after her at that train station. Even after he'd known everything, known the appalling depth of her perfidy, the extent of her damaging web of lies, he'd still pursued her. He'd almost forsaken his wolf, his career, and worst of all, his best friend Ray Vecchio, who had mortgaged his house to buy his way out of jail, just to be with her.

Love had made him crazy. Made him lose his head. Made him do things, as Kowalski had just said, that he never should've done. Terrible things, that he hadn't thought himself capable of until he met Victoria.

Wasn't it possible, just possible, that love had made Ray lose his head too? That perhaps it was love, not just a lack of trust in him, that had aroused his jealousy? That had driven him to think he was having an affair behind his back? And was it fair of him to be furious with Ray about it, when he'd done things that were even more reprehensible himself, in a similar situation? Was it fair to expect Ray to trust him absolutely regarding love and sex when he knew that he'd abandoned his best friend for a woman before? Was it fair of him to expect Ray to have behaved better than he himself had done, the last time he was deeply in love?

The questions jolted him. He sat quietly for a few moments, considering them.

Ray seemed to take his silence as a bad sign, because he shifted nervously beside him, and his voice grew more desperate. "Look, it was stupid. I know that! I know it now, I just -- didn't see it then. I got crazy, I... Wouldn't blame ya if ya hate me, but... I wanna try and make it up to ya. Whaddaya want, Ben? I'll do anything--"


"No, I mean it. I owe ya. I was a jerk. A pig. Treated ya bad. I admit it. Want me to write it down? Sign a confession or somethin', to say I'm sorry? Cuz I will."

Fraser cocked his head, surprised at the peculiar notion. "No, Ray, I--"

"What, then?" Ray sounded almost frantic. "Ya wanna hit me? Cuz ya can. I shoved you, but ya never hit me back, so it's okay. I owe you, so ya can pop me one. Go ahead." He turned to Fraser and stuck out his jaw. "Go on, hit me!"

Fraser shook his head. He was really going to have to find some way to persuade Ray that every serious argument didn't need to be settled with fisticuffs. "Ray, Ray, Ray," he sighed. "That's really not necessary."

"Well, whaddaya want then? Just tell me!"

"I've been trying to, but you keep interrupting me," he said mildly.

"Oh," Ray said, sounding sheepish. "Sorry."

"Yes. Well. First, let me say that your apology is accepted," he said.

Ray went completely still, and didn't utter a sound for the space of about thirty seconds. Eyes wide, he blinked at him, as if he were trying to absorb something totally shocking. "Huh?"

Ray looked like a bemused, battered little owl, with his hair sticking up over his bandages and his eyes like saucers. Fraser smiled a little in spite of himself. "Yes."

Ray squinted at him. "Just like that? Ya sure ya don't wanna--"

He shook his head, amused. "No. I don't want to hit you."

Ray sat back a little. "Okay. Good," he said. "That's -- good," he repeated.

But he was so obviously stunned that Fraser's smile grew wider. It was good to know that Ray had been so worried about this, about his reaction to his revelation of his jealousy. It must've been weighing very heavily on his mind, for he realized that Ray had now apologized twice for their fight. Granted, the first time, he hadn't explained what had caused it, but still... His obsession with the incident, and his decision to be honest about his reasons for the breakup, to risk his anger in order to tell him the truth, hinted that maybe he really did have deeper feelings for him than just lust. That maybe his feelings equaled Fraser's for him.

Fraser both appreciated his honesty, and very much wanted to believe that it sprang from love. "Yes. Sparring isn't always the best way to settle differences, you know, Ray," he added. "Though I do find it -- disturbing, in a word, that you assumed I was having an affair with Ray Vecchio but didn't tell me."

Ray grimaced. "I know. That was crappy. Way outta line. I'm sorry."

For a moment, silence fell between them. Then Ray shot him a curious glance. "So, you guys never--"

"Certainly not!" he snapped, flushing.

Ray grinned. "I know, I know! I'm just teasin'."

Fraser was nettled. "Well, how do you know?" he asked. It suddenly occurred to him that Ray had never explained how his change of heart had occurred. "What made you change your mind about Ray and I? You never asked me about him before--"

Ray just shrugged. "Frannie told me," he said.

Now it was Fraser's turn to look stunned. "Frannie? You asked her if I -- if Ray and I -- if we--?" He was so embarrassed, he almost choked.

"No!" Ray answered. "I mean I didn't exactly ASK her, it was more like... we argued about it. She asked me--"

Fraser's eyes got even wider. "You mean she asked YOU? Francesca asked you if I had an affair with her brother?" His mind reeled, and his face turned red.

Ray sat up straighter. "No, no! It's not like that," he said hastily. "She told me you didn't! Said I was crazy to think you'd do somethin' like that. Asked me where the hell I ever got that idea. Told me her brother isn't gay. Said she knew that I have -- had -- feelin's for you," he said awkwardly, after a minute. "An she thought you had -- well, that you might have--"

"Similar feelings for you," Fraser supplied, gratified to see that Ray was stumbling over his words now too. That he was clearly uncomfortable and embarrassed. And that he'd used the word "have", as in "have feelings for you", before changing it to "had." He hoped that meant what he thought it did. He held his breath, waiting to see if Ray would confirm it. But he didn't dare to look at him, for fear his hope might show on his face.

So he didn't see Ray shoot a wistful glance at him, then look away again when he noted his averted eyes. "Yeah. Right," he said quietly. "But I didn't tell her that, Frayzh. She was there when we had our fight, and I guess she just--"

"Figured things out," he said, remembering suddenly how Frannie had asked him if he'd heard from Ray and even volunteered to give him a message herself. He'd guessed, then, that she knew he was in love with Ray, and though it had shocked and embarrassed him, he'd been touched by the way she'd handled the delicate situation. She hadn't gotten angry or jealous or judgmental, as he'd expected. She'd offered to help him instead, in a quiet, tactful way that had amazed him. He'd always known that she had a good heart, but he'd never really realized just how smart she was, too. Or that her kindness would extend to talking to Ray about him all on her own, with no urging from him.

"Did Francesca call you?" he asked.

Ray shook his head. "No, she came to see me."

Fraser's eyes widened again. "She did?"

Ray smiled a little, remembering it. "Yeah. Showed up at my place one night about a week ago with a bottle of wine. We had a few drinks, then she made me spill my guts. Tell her why I left, what our fight was all about."

Fraser shook his head in admiration. That was one solution to the problem that had never crossed his mind. It was, he thought, a very Vecchio type of approach. He was infinitely grateful that her agile mind had applied itself to helping him when he'd needed it most. "Francesca has depths most people never suspect," he observed.

Ray nodded. "Ya can say that again. Surprised the hell outta me."

It didn't surprise Ben quite as much, but then he'd known her longer. "She cares for you very much, Ray," he said quietly.

Ray met his eyes then, and smiled a little. "I know," he said, and there was a note of wonder in his voice that told Fraser he was as touched by what she'd done on their behalf as he was. "I owe her one," he said. "Told her that. If I had a sister, ya know -- I'd want her to be like that."

Fraser was touched. It was Ray's way of saying that he loved Francesca too. "I think you do have one, Ray," he smiled.

Ray smiled, his eyes shining in the lamplight. "Guess we both do. She wouldn't've gotten me drunk for just anybody, ya know."

Fraser nodded. He made a mental note to thank her as soon as possible, for interfering in his and Ray's personal lives in the nicest possible way. He would have to send her a big bouquet of flowers or something. It was really amazing that she'd done so much to try to get Ray back for him, when she'd made it so obvious over the years that she wanted him herself. He wondered if he could've, or would have, done as much in her place, if the situation had been reversed.

I doubt it, he thought, knowing his own limitations. But they only made Francesca's tact and generosity that much more admirable. Why, considering her own feelings for him, what she'd done was positively gallant, even chivalrous. Flowers, he decided, wouldn't do. For this, he would have to think of something very special to do for her, and make it a surprise. Possibly a kind of public one, in front of her brother and others. Such displays didn't come easily to him, but he'd noticed how much she'd seemed to like the way he'd kissed her hand in front of Ray that day at the station. And after what she'd done for them, Francesca deserved to get something in return that would make her very happy. He filed the matter away for future consideration.

"Frayzh," Ray prompted.


"Ya still haven't told me what ya want me to do. Ya know, to make it up to ya."

"Oh." He had gotten rather distracted by the subject of Francesca's efforts on their behalf. He forced his thoughts back to Ray. "Well, there is one thing I would like, Ray." He turned to find Kowalski's blue eyes focused intently on him. "I would appreciate it if--"

"Yeah?" Ray prompted, his voice strangely husky.

"Well, if the next time you think I've done something wrong, you'd tell me what it is."

Ray's face fell. "That's it? That's all you want?"

"Yes," he said, puzzled by Ray's obvious disappointment. Of course that wasn't literally ALL that he wanted, but they had to take things in gradual steps. He couldn't very well tell Ray that what he really wanted was to lay him down and make love to him right here in his hospital bed, so he'd addressed the emotional issue instead. He'd thought that was more than fair, and half expected that Ray would be grateful, maybe even relieved, that he wasn't asking him to do some extravagant kind of penance for leaving him. But he didn't seem to be grateful. He didn't even seem to be taking his request seriously. Didn't he understand that it really wasn't insignificant, that he was really asking for his trust, his honesty? Didn't Ray understand how important those things were to him? Didn't he guess that he'd asked for them in the hope that, by restoring their friendship, repairing the broken bonds between them, they might eventually become lovers again too?

Ray laid back against his pillows with a sigh. DAMN IT! he swore inwardly. Every time I think it's gonna happen, every time I think he's gonna reach out, he doesn't. He couldn't admit that he'd been secretly hoping Fraser would ask him to tell the truth about how he felt, to admit that he still loved him. Or at least, tell him that he owed him a kiss. At least that. Hell, Fraser could've asked him for the moon, and he'd've given it to him. Instead, he'd just said he wanted to be told, the next time he messed up. What good is that? he asked himself, frustrated. What kinda reward is that? Most people would call that a punishment!

"Okay, Frayzh," he said dully. "You got it. Next time I think ya screwed up, I'll let ya know. Happy?"

"Yes," the Mountie said. But his voice was stiff, and he didn't look happy. He looked as disappointed as Ray felt. Kowalski got the feeling he'd missed something somehow, that he'd said something wrong, but he didn't know what. He'd agreed to what Fraser wanted, after all. How could that be wrong? But the suspicion that it somehow was made him feel lonely. Cut off from Ben, even though he was sitting right beside him. Thoughts of Rylan hovered at the edges of his mind, darkening his mood, and he suddenly dreaded Ben's departure. Dreaded trying to go to sleep by himself.

He was going to dream about Pat's death again. He knew it, and it scared him.

"Frayzh," he said slowly, "can I ask ya somethin'?"


Ray hesitated, unsure how to say this without sounding like a wuss. "I know it's gettin' late and all, and ya probly wanna go home, but... couldja stay awhile longer? Maybe, ya know, just until I fall asleep?"

To his surprise, Ben didn't look irritated, like he'd thought he might. On the contrary, his eyes warmed, and he looked at him intently. "Is something else bothering you, Ray?"

He finally decided to come clean about it, at least a little. As much as he could. He looked down at his covers and shrugged, trying to sound casual. "It's just... rememberin' all that stuff, what happened when Pat died..." He swallowed hard, suddenly feeling like he'd said too much, and changed the subject. "I just don't like this place at night, ya know? Miss my own bed."

He could feel Fraser's eyes on him, though he wasn't looking at him. "All right, Ray," he said quietly. "Why don't you lie down and try to sleep. I'll stay until you do," he said.

"Thanks," he said.

Fraser nodded, then turned and started to get up off his bed.

Ray realized that he meant to sit back down in his bedside chair. And before he knew what he was doing, he grabbed his arm. "'S'okay," he said quickly. "You can stay here."

Fraser looked down at the long, slim fingers clutching his arm. There was a hint of need in their overly tight grasp, and he suddenly realized that he'd been rather blind. In his relief that Ray had regained his memory, he'd neglected to think how that might have affected him. He'd forgotten that those memories had to be traumatic. He wondered if that was why Ray had gotten out of bed for the first time that morning. Had he been trying to walk away from recollections that were too ugly, too violent to be borne?

Was Ray afraid that he might dream of them again when he went to sleep?

He thought of how often he used to dream of Victoria after she left. The dreams had ambushed him in his sleep for weeks. Nightmares of the shot that had felled him while trying to run off with her. His heart went out to Ray. He covered the hand that lay on his arm with his own, and smiled down at him. "All right," he said. "As you wish."

Ray smiled. A sudden, warm beam of a smile that stole Fraser's heart. "Cool," he said. "Thanks."

And without another word, he settled back on his pillows with a happy little sigh, and shut his eyes. He started taking deeper, slower breaths, and within about ten minutes, he fell asleep.

Fraser smiled, watching him. Ray looked contented, secure, peaceful, like a child who knew that his parents were nearby watching over him.

And it suddenly hit him: maybe Ray had understood what he was asking for, after all. And maybe, in his own way, he'd just given it to him. Wasn't asking him to stay and watch over him while he slept an act of trust?

He reached out and gently, very gently, stroked the long, elegant fingers that lay on the blanket beside him. "Sweet dreams, Ray," he whispered.

When the nurse came in much later, he just held a finger to his lips to ask her to be quiet, not even caring what she thought about him sitting beside Ray on his bed while he slept.

To his surprise, the nurse looked at them for a moment, then just smiled. She made a note on Ray's chart, and left without saying anything or asking him to leave, though he knew it was now past visiting hours. He'd noticed that the nurses seemed to be willing to overlook their usual rules for Ray's sake. The thought made him smile. Kowalski was rather irresistible, to be sure.

He looked down at his sleeping face, and decided to stay awhile longer. Just in case Ray has a bad dream, he told himself.

The fact that he derived pleasure from watching him sleep was incidental. And in any case, he didn't think Ray would mind.

The next day, they got lucky. The police database search, which Harlan had directed, turned up a con named Michael Finn out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who had a tattoo matching the one Ray had described. He also had a long rap sheet, including several arrests for assault, and more than one attempted murder.

"Lemme see that, Julie," Saller said, hovering behind the 29th's Civilian Aide, Julie Penner, who'd pulled up Finn's information on her computer. "Damn," he muttered. "That could be our boy all right." He raised his voice. "Steve! Check this out! Julie found somethin' on the Rylan thing. Guy with the tattoo."

His partner, Steve Trapman, crowded in beside him, and whistled softly as he looked down at Julie's computer screen. "Lookit that -- his height, weight, hair color -- they all match Kowalski's description."

"And look here," Saller said, pointing to the bottom of the screen. "He's out on parole right now, after his latest stretch for assault with a deadly weapon. So we've got an address. And how much you wanna bet that he's violated his parole with a little visit to Chitown recently?"

"It's a good bet," Trapman agreed.

"Good work, Julie," Saller said.

He and Trapman grinned at each other with delight. Ramirez had proved to be kind of a dead end; they hadn't had enough evidence to hold him or any of his men. This little lead gave their investigation the jump start it had needed to get going again -- and maybe in a whole new direction. Finn wasn't exactly a local boy, but that didn't matter. Rylan and Kowalski had been working a big drug case when Rylan was murdered. Knocking on a lot of heavy hitters' doors, ruffling some feathers. It was plausible that someone might've been smart enough, and scared enough, to hire some out-of-town talent to get rid of them.

Maybe it had been Ramirez, but maybe not. In any case, if they could get their hands on Finn, they'd soon find out. Hopefully, they'd get him to roll, and not only tell them who his partner was, but who'd hired them, too.

Now that they had something solid to go on, in a case where hard evidence had been lacking, the two detectives didn't waste any time. Saller got on the phone to a judge to get a warrant for Finn's arrest, while Trapman had Julie print out some photos of Finn for Kowalski to look over. Granted, Finn had been wearing a mask when he'd attacked him, but it had been one of those see-through nylon things, and he hoped Kowalski might be able to recognize his profile from the pictures, at least. It'd be better if he could come down to the station to I.D. Finn if they got him. But though Kowalski was recovering, he was still in the hospital, and probably not in any shape to do that yet.


While Saller was on hold waiting for the judge, Trapman picked up the photo of Finn and waved it at him. "Ya know? Doesn't even matter about the mask. If Kowalski can't I.D. him from the pictures, if we get that mook in here, we can get his voice on tape. I bet he can I.D. him from that."

Saller nodded. "Tell ya what, someone danced all over me with a lead pipe, then shot me, I'd remember his voice."

"Oh yeah," Steve agreed. "And if that doesn't work, we'll cart his sorry ass over to the hospital, and have Kowalski look him over there."

"If we get him," Saller cautioned. "And let's get a subpoena for Ramirez' phone records, too. See if he made any calls to South Dakota lately."

Both cops were filled with excitement. Their eyes met and held, and each man knew what the other was thinking.

They were finally on the right track, with this very important case. If they got lucky, they were going to take down some cop killers. For a detective, that was the deepest kind of satisfaction there was.

Two days later, Harry Styles made a worried call to his boss, Ty Donen. "Yer not gonna like this, boss," he began. "But I'm back in Chicago, and I couldn't get the packages you wanted."

Donen was furious. "Neither one?"

"No. And I just heard -- the cops got Finn. Shipped him in for questioning this morning. They're--"

Ty Donen hung up. There was nothing he wanted to say, nothing more he needed to hear. The "packages" Styles had mentioned was their private code for Finn and Olson. Donen had sent Styles to get rid of them, but evidently, he'd failed. And if the cops had Finn, it was only a matter of time before they'd trace that cop's murder back to him. He cursed savagely to himself. If those two fuck-ups, Finn and Olson, had just done what he'd paid them to do, he wouldn't be in this mess. He couldn't help wondering what the hell had gone wrong when he'd sent them after Kowalski and Rylan. They were experienced thugs, but instead of the assault they'd contracted for, they'd ended up performing a hit. Hell, almost a double hit, because they'd worked Kowalski over good with a pipe, like he'd paid them to, but then they'd shot both of them to boot -- which he'd never even suggested. He wasn't that stupid.

Unfortunately for Donen, Finn and Olson weren't complete idiots either, because they'd disappeared right after the hits.

They'd been just smart enough for that. They hadn't even tried to collect their money, they'd just hightailed it out of town, before word got back to him of the mess they'd left behind. He'd had Styles watching them just in case, and been shocked when his lieutenant grimly reported what had happened. He'd watched Finn and Olson grab the cops and take them into an alley. But when twenty minutes elapsed and the two hired hitmen didn't come back out to collect their pay from him as directed, and the cops hadn't limped out either, Styles had strolled by the alley to check on things -- and found Finn and Olson gone, and the two cops lying there in pools of blood.

Styles had hightailed it out of there, shaken. Donen was livid. Two cops dead (or so he'd thought) because of his orders -- and the pricks he'd hired just to beat them up gone. Vanished. A good thing too, because after the disastrous way they'd screwed up their job, if he'd gotten his hands on them, they'd've been dead too.

He'd been marginally relieved to read, afterwards, that only one of the cops had died, that there were no witnesses to the crime, and that the killers hadn't left any evidence behind at the crime scene. Finn and Olson had used their own guns, and taken them away with them. Still, the local cops predictably went berserk. Cordoned off the area for miles while they searched for the shooters, then hauled Ramirez and all his men out of bed in a dawn raid a few days later, and carted them off for questioning.

Through it all, Donen sat tight. After all, with the two shooters gone, there was no evidence left to connect him to the murder. He'd set the thing up carefully, ordering Finn and Olson to implicate his rival, Ramirez, and it seemed they'd done that much of their job right, since the cops went after him just a few days after the shooting.

So as long as the cops didn't get their hands on Finn and Olson, he was okay. And they could be dealt with. He'd sent Styles after them, not trusting anyone else to handle something so delicate for him. But now it seemed even Styles had failed him. The two men had slipped through his hands, and now the cops had arrested Finn.

He slammed down the phone, breathing heavily. He briefly considered killing Styles for his incompetence, and because he'd had the strange feeling that he might've had a hand in this somehow. That he might've been the one who'd called 911 when those cops were shot, and made sure paramedics got there in time to save one of them. But he decided he didn't have time to go after Styles. For all he knew, Finn might've started spilling his guts the second the cops slapped cuffs on him. His name might've already come up, and once it did, they'd be after him too. He had to get out, and get out now.

He decided to leave Styles to the tender mercies of the Chicago P.D. Once Finn started singing, like he undoubtedly would, they'd be on his ass soon enough. The biggest regret he had about the mess, aside from being forced to flee, was that Finn and Olson had killed the wrong cop.

If one of them had to die, he wished it had been that Kowalski prick.

A week after that, Fraser maneuvered Ray past the reporters who still waited outside his hospital room, out the front doors of the hospital and to his GTO. On the drive back to his apartment, Ray was very quiet. He sat hunched in his coat, his sunglasses on despite the cloudy day, his face wan and guarded. He stared out at the street, saying little.

Fraser shot a sideways glance at him as he drove, trying to read his mood, to fathom the reason for his apparent withdrawal. He'd thought Ray would be happy, pleased that he'd finally been released from the hospital, that he'd be free from nurses, I.V.'s and questions for awhile. And happier still that the men who'd attacked him and Rylan had both been caught now. The arrest of one Michael Finn had been followed, two days later, by the arrest of his partner, the man who'd shot Rylan: one Aren Olson. They'd confessed that they'd been hired by a drug dealer named Ty Donen to kill Ray and Rylan. Unfortunately, both Donen and his lieutenant had disappeared before they could be arrested; but they had the men who'd actually pulled the trigger in custody, and Captain Harlan and the detectives of the 29th were very happy indeed.

Fraser thought it was odd, though, that Ray didn't look happy. He wondered if that was due to the outcome of the case, or the state of his health. He knew that Ray had pressured his doctor into releasing him as soon as possible; sooner, in fact, than his doctor had wanted to. He couldn't help wondering if that had been a mistake. Perhaps the pain of Ray's wounds was still hard to bear, and that accounted for his grim silence. "Are you all right, Ray?" he asked.

"Yeah." Ray looked out the window, his lips tightening. "I was just thinkin' about Pat. I shoulda' gone to his funeral, ya know."

Fraser looked hard at the road, trying in vain to suppress a dark stab of jealousy. Ray's words hit him hard. He should've guessed that Ray was thinking about Rylan, contrasting his own fate with that of his partner, but he hadn't. No wonder Ray was taking little pleasure in going home. He was thinking about the bleak fact that Rylan wasn't, that his younger partner was dead. Ray was feeling responsible for that, and there was probably little he could say to change his mind. But he had to try. So he set aside his jealousy and tried to help him. "It wasn't necessary, Ray. You were so badly injured yourself, no one expected you to be there. Besides, you sent flowers."

Ray grimaced. "Oh, well. I'm off the hook then, right? Got my partner killed, but at least I sent some goddamn roses. That makes it all okay!"

Fraser set his jaw. Patrick Rylan was an extremely sore subject with him anyway, and having his efforts to comfort Ray about his death met with sarcasm didn't help matters. It was an effort to keep his voice calm and even. "You did not get your partner killed, Ray. You said you walked into an ambush. No one could have predicted that."

Ray set his jaw too, so tightly that a muscle in his cheek jumped. "Don't say that, Fraser, okay? It's not true. I shoulda' been smarter, I shoulda' seen it comin'."

Fraser felt frustrated by Ray's stubborn insistence on blaming himself for the tragedy. "How could you? You had no way of knowing what Donen was planning--"

Ray thumped his fist on the dashboard, his face white. "I shoulda seen it!" he hissed. "I went to his place, messed with him in front of his people. It was stupid! I shoulda' known he'd go apeshit over that! But I was down -- depressed. I didn't think! I just didn't!"

Fraser's distress rose. Ray wasn't being logical, wasn't listening to a word he said. He was burying himself in guilt. He knew the feeling; he'd done the same himself, once upon a time. What was it Ray Vecchio had once said to him? "You were blindsided, Benny. It could've happened to anybody." He wanted to make Ray see that it was true of him too, that this wasn't his fault. He wanted to keep him from letting this tragedy destroy him. He kept his voice calm, tried to sound logical. "You were pursuing an investigation, Ray. You had to talk to Donen, he was a suspect. You did the right thing. How could you have known that he was the guilty party, when there were so many suspects? How could you possibly have predicted how he would react?"

"I made a mistake," Ray snarled. "A goddamn stupid, rookie mistake! Took out my problems on a suspect, and got my partner killed!"

Fraser could feel Ray's agitation rising, and tried again to defuse it. "Aren't you being a bit hard on yourself?"

"Like Hell! I bet YOU wouldn't've done it!"

Fraser shrugged, distinctly uncomfortable with the angry turn the conversation was taking. "I don't know what I might've done, but--"

"I can guess," Ray growled. "You'd've gone in there with yer hat, and yer wolf, and yer 'Thank you kindly's', and charmed the snot outta Donen! You'd've had him eatin' outta yer hand!"

Fraser winced a little. "Ray, I don't know--"

"I do!" Kowalski insisted bitterly. "I know! If you'd been there instead o' me, you'd've probly even pegged Donen somehow. Tasted tainted blow off his floor or somethin', and Pat wouldn't be dead now!"

Pat, Fraser noted, his own anger rising despite his attempts to hold it in. Pat, not Rylan. Illogical as it was, he always hated it when Ray called his deceased partner by his first name. It just reminded him that they'd been intimate, a subject he was trying hard not to think about. Stung by that, and by Ray's self blame, which was rapidly intensifying to self hatred, he unconsciously raised his own voice. "Ray, you're being irrational. Donen would hardly have left altered drugs lying about his place of business for me or anyone else to find. Besides, why are you so sure the ambush was all your fault? Your partner participated in interviewing Donen, too. How do you know it wasn't something HE said or did that angered him, or the thugs who attacked you? Isn't it possible that Rylan might've made a mistake?"

Ray erupted at that, his face reddening, hands balling into fists. "Don't say that!" he yelled, pounding hard on the dashboard. "You don't know that! Ya don't know anything about him! Pat was a good cop! So just shut the hell up!"

A ringing silence fell between them after that. Fraser was both hurt and intensely frustrated that his efforts to help had driven Ray into a towering rage, but he knew better than to say another word, lest Kowalski's hot temper explode into violence. He found himself remembering, against his will, how Ray had shoved him at the 27th. How much it had hurt. Not physically, it hadn't been hard enough for that -- but emotionally, it had been the equivalent of a kick to a man who was already down.

He kept silent, not wanting to get kicked like that again.

Ray was silent too. He swallowed hard and sat back in his seat, hunching over a little as if his assault on the dashboard had hurt his still healing ribs. For the next few minutes, Ray's panting breaths were the only sound in the quiet car. His face was red and his chest heaved, but he didn't say anything else. To Fraser's relief, he unclenched his fists and seemed to be trying to regain control of himself.

Fraser just tightened his hands on the wheel and stared grimly at the road ahead, embarrassed at his own clumsiness. By trying to help, he'd only made matters worse. He wondered if his own resentment was getting in the way. If Ray sensed the black, intense jealousy he felt towards his deceased partner, and if that was why they always argued whenever his name came up.

Is Ray still in love with him? he wondered. He remembered all the years he'd spent secretly pining for Victoria, all the years when he'd been unable to look at another woman because no one could compete with her impossibly beautiful memory, with her elegant ghost. Was Ray in love with a ghost now, too? Ben knew, better than anyone, how seductive such wraiths could be.

If he is, I'm lost.

Ray sat back against his seat, his heart pounding. Guilt and fury hammered inside him, howling to be let out. But he couldn't let them go. Not this time. He fought back his red, raw rage. Beat it down. Despite the dull throb of pain it sent lancing through his still healing ribs, he took deep breaths, concentrating on the sound of them, and didn't look at Fraser.

It's not his fault, he told himself over and over. Fraser hadn't meant to hurt him with that crack about Rylan. He had no way of knowing he'd struck a nerve when he'd said Rylan might've made a mistake. Fraser didn't know how true that was -- not just about Pat, but him too; and how bad their mistakes had been. He didn't know they'd gotten involved sexually, and how ugly, sad and twisted it had become before he died. He couldn't see the guilt that weighed on him now, with the realization that Pat's worst mistake might've been falling in love with him. He couldn't even guess at the questions that were tearing at him: was Rylan just being a good cop that day, trying to save his partner, or did he go nuts trying to save his lover, or did he just want to die? That was Ray's worst fear, that Pat might've committed suicide in that alley, trying to atone for the fact that he'd tried to rape him the night before.

Fraser didn't know what a weight he had sitting on his shoulders. He couldn't. And none of it was his fault, either. And once Ray could breathe again, once his anger faded away, he could see that clearly, and embarrassment filled him. He couldn't believe what he'd just done, how he'd gone nuclear on him. He'd promised himself that things were going to be different this time around. He was going to treat Ben better, he was never going to fly off the handle at him for no reason again. But they hadn't even made it home from the hospital yet, and he'd done just that. Completely lost it. Almost clocked him right on the jaw. And for what? For having the gall to suggest that Rylan's death might not be his fault.

Jeezus, Kowalski, yer a fool, he groaned to himself. He was only tryin' to help. He looked down and saw that his hands were still balled into fists, and he hastily uncurled them. Spread them out and rubbed them on his jeans, trying to steady them. Trying to steady himself. He had to stop doing this, had to quit taking his anger out on Fraser, who didn't deserve it.

On Benny Ben, who he loved.

He swallowed hard, took another deep breath. He knew what he had to do. Why was this always so hard for him to say? "Sorry," he grated, staring straight ahead at the road. "I'm sorry, Frayzh. Didn't mean to take yer head off like that."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fraser glance at him in surprise. "It's all right, Ray," he said. But Ray knew it wasn't, just by Fraser's tone. He'd gone all polite on him. All cool, Canadian and distant. Fraser's way of escaping a bad situation. Even though they were sitting side by side, there was a hundred miles between them all of a sudden. Ray's heart sank. He'd made a big mistake freaking out about Rylan like that, in front of Ben. Had he seen what he was trying to hide? Had he guessed that Pat had been more than just his partner?

Not for the first time, Ray felt a cold flicker of fear. He still hadn't told Ben about that. Bad enough that he'd been screwing around with someone else at all, but worse yet, with a kid way younger than him -- and someone he didn't even love, to boot. But if Fraser ever found out that he'd let Pat get rough with him too, or that he'd cuffed him and tried to rape him, he'd be so hurt and disgusted that he'd never let Ray touch him again. Ray knew it. Ben was so good, so kind and gentle, he'd never understand any of that.

Ray wasn't sure that he did either. But he was carrying the guilt of it around inside him still, like a black spot on his soul. A black spot that had gotten even bigger, and uglier, since Rylan's death. But he was going to carry that ugly stain, that secret, to his grave. Because he had to get Ben back again. Had to. It was his only goal in life now. He needed the Mountie, needed him more than he'd ever needed anyone, and he'd do anything to make that happen. Anything.

So he decided that for now, since his grief and guilt over Rylan's death were causing friction between them, he'd have to push them out of his mind for a bit. Stop thinking about it, about what Pat had done or hadn't done that fateful day, and why. Once he got Fraser back -- if he got him back -- then he'd try and deal with all that. But Ben was more important; he had to come first. First the living, then the dead...

Ray risked another look at him. He was still staring straight ahead, blue eyes fixed on the road, his face deceptively calm. As if nothing had happened, as if they were just out for a little Sunday drive. It was almost spooky. Fraser's self control was awesome, and his ability to distance himself emotionally was scary. He wondered what the hell he was thinking. Probably that I'm crazy, or that he's sorry he ever met me, he thought ruefully.

"I forgot to thank you before," he began awkwardly, trying to cut through the thick silence. "For this. Drivin' me home and all." He wanted Ben to know that he appreciated him, that he didn't take him for granted, despite his craziness.

But it didn't work. Fraser's polite, distant expression didn't thaw. "Think nothing of it," he said.

Ray grimaced, hating the way he was being shut out. Geez, he's not gonna let me off the hook. What can I do? He decided it had better be something big. So out of sheer desperation, he changed his mind again. Decided to give Fraser a limited version of what had happened in the alley that day, by way of an apology. "Guess I should tell you the truth. Why I feel so... responsible. For the shooting, I mean."

He knew he was taking a risk, that he'd have to choose his words carefully, so Fraser wouldn't find out about Rylan. But he decided to risk it, in the hopes that it would win him forgiveness, and maybe even some peace of mind. After all, even a limited confession was better than none, he told himself.

Fraser gave him a look of genuine surprise. "All right," he said.

Ray swallowed hard, and Fraser noticed that his hands were shaking again. Not with anger this time; it looked like he was trying to hold back other strong emotions now. Grief perhaps, or guilt. "It was a mistake," he said at last.


Ray shook his head bitterly. "It wasn't sposed to happen," he said again.

He was being maddeningly cryptic, but Fraser felt a cold chill run down his spine. All at once, he realized that there was more to this than he knew. More than Ray had ever told him. That maybe he had reasons for feeling guilty that he knew nothing about. "What are you saying, Ray?"

"Pat's first partner, a guy named Hank Miller, was killed," he said hoarsely. "Didja' know that?"

Fraser felt a flicker of frustration. Ray was talking in circles. "No, Ray. But what does that have to do with Rylan's death?"

"I'm gettin' to that," Ray said. "Miller was shot in a drug shootout in the Heights, about a year ago. Good cop, wife and two kids. 'Member that?"

Suddenly, Fraser remembered. "Oh, yes. I recall that now. Lieutenant Welsh went to his funeral," he said.

"Yeah. Right. Well, Pat was with him when it happened, and Miller's wife blamed him for it. Said he didn't protect him like he shoulda, even though it wasn't Pat's fault. He didn't talk about it much, but he was cut up about it. He was -- real protective o' me because of that. Over protective, I guess. And that day... He was tryin' to save me," he went on, his voice thick. "Donen's hired muscle grabbed us both, but they were only whalin' on me. Said they were givin' us a message from Ramirez, this other scumbag we'd just talked to, to quit our investigation. Donen was tryin' to send us his way, and it might've worked, except for Pat. I don't think they meant to waste me, and they'd hardly touched Pat. One of 'em was just holdin' him back, but then Finn started whalin' on me with that lead pipe, and things got outta hand."

Ray stopped speaking and shook his head, his eyes suspiciously bright.

"So Olson and Finn were only hired to beat you, to deliver a warning to you to stop your investigation?" Fraser guessed, stunned. "But something went wrong. Is that what you're saying?"

Ray nodded. He stared straight ahead at the road, but Fraser knew he wasn't seeing it. "It was Pat," he said at last, his voice hoarse. "He couldn't take it. He went crazy 'cuz Finn was workin' me over. I thought he only meant to break some bones, so I tried to tell Pat to chill out. But then I went down, and I think he thought he was gonna kill me. Maybe it reminded him o' Miller. I dunno, but he went nuts. He fought like crazy, tryin' to save me. He started yellin', then he broke loose and ran at Finn, screamin' his head off. That's when Olson killed him. Then they had to kill me to eliminate the witness. But I don't think it was sposed to go down like that. I think Pat freakin' out like that took 'em by surprise, and Olson just got trigger happy. Donen's not that stupid, he'd never put a hit on two cops like that. He knew we were lookin' at him anyway, he had to know we'd take him down for that. So it's my fault. My fault that he's dead, see? I don't think they were sposed to kill us, but it turned into that because of me. Cuz Pat was tryin' to protect me."

Ray couldn't go on. He stopped talking and swallowed hard. Took his sunglasses off and swiped roughly at his eyes, as if to brush away tears. Fraser clutched the wheel reflexively, his mind reeling. Ray had told him that they'd interrogated Donen as part of a drug investigation, and that he'd sent two thugs after them as a result. He'd just assumed their motive had been murder all along, and that was the story that had been released to the media. So the new picture Ray had just painted shocked him.

"Are you certain of this, Ray?" he asked, knowing that Kowalski would, of course, have to testify about the matter if the shooters were ever caught.

Ray shook his head bitterly. "It's just a gut feelin'. What my instincts tell me. I got no proof."

"But it doesn't make sense. Finn and Olson confessed. Why wouldn't they have told the truth, said that they were only sent to beat you up, rather than kill you? That Rylan's death was accidental, rather than a contract killing?"

Ray shrugged. "They're hitmen, Fraser. They got their pride. They're gonna go up for murder regardless. And ya know how juries are about cop killers. Even if they did tell the truth, it'd make 'em look stupid. Like cowards, ya know? And the jury probly wouldn't believe them anyway. This way, they can at least look competent. Like they just did the job they got paid to do, instead of screwin' up. Well, at least Donen was sposed to have paid 'em, before he ran off. They claim he stiffed 'em, but I'll bet they were too afraid to go back and ask for the dough, after they screwed up."

Fraser nodded thoughtfully. It was a convoluted tale to be sure, but now that he considered Ray's interpretation of events, it did seem plausible. Perhaps their attackers hadn't really been sent to kill them, but just to convey a warning. As Ray had said, Donen was smart enough to know that arranging a contract killing of two policemen would be tantamount to suicide. It was easy to believe that he'd only meant his hired thugs to beat them up. But Donen hadn't counted on a wild card: Patrick Rylan. Donen wouldn't have had any way of knowing that he was traumatized by his former partner's death, or that he and Ray were lovers, either.

Ray still hadn't admitted that, but Fraser suspected that it was a vital factor in the shooting. Ray had admitted that Rylan was overprotective towards him. Fraser surmised that his sexual relationship with Ray must've intensified those feelings, and made him lose control at the sight of Ray being beaten. They'd caused him to break away from his captors, and resulted in his death, and the near death of Kowalski as well, as a witness to his murder. The whole situation was far more complicated than Fraser had initially thought.

And, he thought grimly, far more emotional than Ray has seen fit to tell me, even now.

But he could fill in the blanks about Ray's relationship with Rylan for himself. And now that he knew the truth, he found himself reluctantly revising his original opinion of him. Because of the marks on Ray's wrists, Fraser had assumed that Pat Rylan was a vicious person, a sadist incapable of real feeling. Hearing that he had, in fact, given his life in an attempt to save Ray, misguided though the attempt was, made him feel vaguely ashamed. He'd assumed -- he'd wanted to believe -- that their relationship had been far different than the one he'd had with Ray. That it was mere casual lust. But maybe that wasn't true. Maybe Patrick Rylan, in his own strange way, had actually loved Ray. The fact that he'd given his life to save him certainly hinted strongly at that.

But it also intensified his deepest fear, that Ray might've returned that love. Fraser's chest tightened. He wasn't sure about that, but Ray's tears at his death, and his rage at the idea that Rylan might've made a mistake leading to their attack, were evidence that he had intense feelings about him. Fraser just wished he knew exactly what they were.

So while seeing tears in Ray's eyes made him ache inside, though he wanted to pull the car off the road, take him in his arms and comfort him, he didn't. He kept driving, and limited himself to laying a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Ray," he said. "I'm so sorry." It was true, but he wasn't sure what he was really sorry for. Was it for Ray's pain, or for himself? Was he sorry that he'd learned the truth? Sorry for finding out one more reason why he might've lost him after all?

Ray didn't say anything more, but he didn't push him away either. He allowed the touch, which relieved Fraser. His throat worked, but he had stopped crying.

"Are you okay now?" Fraser asked, reluctantly removing his hand.

Ray avoided his eyes, but he nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay," he said hoarsely. "I just wish... that he didn't have to die, ya know? Not like that."

Not for me. Ray didn't say that, but Fraser heard it in his voice.

He nodded, compassion pricking his heart painfully. "I know, Ray."

They both went back to watching the road after that, lost in their own thoughts. Fraser understood Ray's pain somewhat better now, but he wasn't sure if that brought them closer together. After what Ray had just told him, he wasn't sure that they would ever be truly close again. Though Patrick Rylan was dead, he still hung between them like a storm cloud: intangible yet indisputably there, and threatening. Ray's feelings about the shooting were not only raw, but intensely guilty, which indicated that he might still be obsessed with him, even after his murder. And the fact that Ray had replaced him with Rylan in a very short time was disturbing as well. It reinforced his earlier suspicion that what he'd mistaken for love was mere lust on Ray's part, a physical attraction that had been easily forgotten, rather than the love that he'd hoped for. And the cuff marks Rylan had left behind on Ray's wrists, the evidence of his physical abuse, haunted Fraser as well. Though they were almost entirely healed now, he couldn't forget them.

He still didn't understand them. Sadism and/or masochism weren't part of the Ray Kowalski he knew. Ray had never been rough or sadistic with him. Passionate yes, but never vicious or cruel. And he'd shown no signs of such behavior since he'd awakened in the hospital, either. But the marks on his wrists implied that maybe Ben didn't know him nearly as well as he'd once thought. They'd been lovers for such a short time, after all. Only one night. Fraser knew he hadn't begun to plumb the depths of Kowalski's sexual desires. The fact that he'd allowed Rylan to put handcuffs (and God only knew what else) on him, certainly implied that Ray possessed extremely dark erotic appetites that he'd never suspected. Perhaps he did get pleasure from the giving and taking of pain. That idea terrified him, for he knew he could never behave that way, could never bring himself to hurt Ray. The very thought was repulsive.

So if that was what Ray really wanted, they couldn't be lovers anymore. Friends perhaps, but not lovers.

And Fraser desperately wanted to be Ray's lover again. He wanted it with every beat of his battered heart. He would settle for his friendship if he had to, but it would condemn part of him, the part that wanted to love, to death. He wanted more than just friendship. He wanted the slim detective in his arms again, wanted to feel Ray's impetuous heart beating against his -- wanted to love him. But that all depended on Rylan. On the question of whether or not Ray had been in love with him. He felt so deeply guilty about his death that Fraser knew if he had been, he didn't stand a chance of winning him back. But he couldn't be certain, because Ray wasn't talking about it. He hadn't lied, but Fraser was sure he hadn't told him the whole truth, either; and he couldn't bring himself to ask. All he could hope for was that Ray was mourning his partner, not his true love, and that he didn't really share his dead lover's sadistic tendencies, either. He prayed that Ray would take him back, and that he wanted tenderness and closeness, like he did.

But it wasn't easy to have faith, for after his emotional outburst and his revelation about the shooting, Ray had retreated behind his dark glasses again, into a silence Fraser couldn't fathom.

Ray huddled back against his seat, suddenly feeling cold despite the fact that he was wearing a jacket. Did I say too much? Did he figure it out? He wasn't sure. He'd hoped that spilling his guts like that would make Fraser warm up, that it would lessen the distance between them, but it hadn't worked. Even though he'd told him most of the truth of what had happened that terrible morning, Ben wasn't saying much. He looked kind of bleak. More worried than relieved.

Ray couldn't imagine why, but it depressed him. Shit, he said to himself. Guess I've done enough damage for one morning. Better shut up now, before it gets any worse.

And so he did. He just hunched over in his jacket, easing his sore ribs, and stared out the window silently the rest of their way home.

When they arrived at Ray's apartment, they found a huge red paper heart taped to his door. "Welcome home, Ray", it proclaimed in large gold letters. It had been signed by just about everyone at the 27th precinct, and Fraser too. It was Frannie's handiwork, and the evidence of her love for her 'adopted brother', and the good will of his former co-workers too, pleased Fraser as much as he hoped it would please Ray.

It did. It stopped Ray dead in his tracks. He stared at it for a moment in sheer surprise, his lips curving in a delighted smile. But when he caught Fraser watching him, he blanked his face hastily, trying to project his customary cool. "At least they didn't send flowers," he shrugged. "Already got enough of those."

But though Ray was too much of a tough guy to admit it, Fraser knew the gesture had touched him all the same. And he was glad that something had lightened his mood, after their heated argument earlier in the car. He hadn't wanted his homecoming to be marred by negativity.

"Should I perhaps take that down now, Ray?"

Ray was still staring at the heart. Fraser suspected that he was reading each and every name on it. But typically, Ray wouldn't admit to that. "Yeah, maybe that'd be a good idea, Frayzh. Don't want my rep ruined," he answered.

So as he got out his keys and unlocked his door, Fraser carefully peeled the tape off of the paper heart, and took it down. And when he followed Ray into his apartment, he carried it with him. "Do you want me to throw it away?" he asked with apparent casualness.

"No! No, that's okay," Ray said hastily. "Just put it down on the counter, willya'? I'll get rid of it later."

"All right." Fraser smiled to himself. He suspected that Ray had no intention of getting rid of the paper heart at all, that he would keep it and look it over later when no one else was around, because he was touched that the people at his former district still cared so much about him. But he didn't want to embarrass him by telling him that, so he just laid the heart down on his kitchen counter without another word. Still, he felt oddly reassured. For the first time since he'd seen the cuff marks on him in the hospital, he dared to hope that Ray's affair with Rylan hadn't really changed him; that underneath his surface toughness, he still had the same sweetness.

Time will tell, he warned himself, trying not to get his hopes up.

Ray looked around for a minute, took a deep breath and smiled again, and Ben saw a certain tension disappear from the set of his shoulders as he took in the fact that he was home and safe now. "Do you want me to make you something to eat?" he offered, wanting to foster that feeling of comfort. "Soup, or a sandwich or something?"

Ray shook his head as he eased off his coat. He threw it carelessly onto his couch, then ran a hand through his hair. "No thanks. I just need to go to the can," he said. "You hungry, Frayzh?"

To his surprise, Fraser realized that he was. "A little," he admitted.

"Well, Frannie told me that she stocked my refrigerator, so help yerself," Ray said generously. "I'll be right back."

So while Ray disappeared down the hall to heed the call of nature, Fraser opened his refrigerator and eyed its contents with interest.

Some ten minutes later, Fraser had finished wolfing down a bologna sandwich and milk, and was idly glancing through Ray's large collection of CD's as he waited for him to come out of his bathroom. Fraser didn't know some of the artists whose names he saw on the CD's, but those he did recognize told him that Ray had a wide range of musical tastes. He saw Irish folk music by the Chieftains on his shelf, alongside rock music by Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and others. But his collection seemed typically disorganized. Cajun CD's sat next to pop tunes, as well as jazz by Miles Davis. He shook his head. How in the world did Ray manage to find anything?

I wonder if Ray has danced to all these different CD's. I wish I could've watched him doing it.

An image flashed into his head: Ray shirtless and barefoot, swaying slowly in the middle of his floor, eyes closed, graceful and intense, lost in the music. He imagined himself going to him, lowering his head to kiss his shoulder, tasting Ray's sweat, his heat. Desire flamed in him at that thought, its hot tongue licking at the edges of his control.

It was almost frightening how the mere thought of Ray, of his body, could make him hard in an instant. He tried to cool off by reminding himself that Ray took another lover after leaving him, and that he might still be in love with him too. But it didn't work. His pants still felt too tight. He stood there staring down at Ray's CD's, glad that Kowalski himself wasn't near him, so he couldn't see how aroused he'd become from imagining him dancing.

Think about something else, he told himself sternly.

So he imagined an old caribou. It was a technique he'd invented in his adolescence, when hormones had first bedeviled him. He'd learned to distract himself by concentrating intensely on nonsexual mental images, by creating them in such detail that they would banish his desire. So he hastily imagined an old caribou bull he'd once seen plodding his way across the tundra. He remembered the clopping of his hooves, and the scars of old battles with other males that had crisscrossed his shoulders. He focused all his concentration on the memory, until the burning between his thighs eased. There, he thought when it was done, and the bulge in his pants had gone away. Thank goodness.

He'd been trying very hard, ever since he'd first seen Ray again in the hospital, not to think of him in a sexual way, both for Ray's sake and for his own. But it wasn't easy. Especially not now that Ray was out of the hospital, and they were truly alone for the first time in months. Remembering how he'd failed to tell Ray he loved him that day, he regretted it anew. Would he ever gather the courage to put that into words, or had the moment gone by forever?

Ray emerged from the bathroom just then, and Fraser was caught by surprise. Suddenly he understood what had taken him so long. "You shaved your beard off," he observed, forgetting about his own problems for the moment.

Ray shrugged with apparent casualness. "Yeah. It itched."

"And your mustache."

Another shrug. "Never liked it much either. Gotta change your style every once in awhile, you know. Routine is a silent killer, and all that."

"Ahh," Fraser said. "Well. You look very nice, Ray." But he noticed that Ray's earring was gone too. And these sudden changes in his appearance didn't seem so much a new style as a reversion to an old one. He couldn't help but notice that they had the cumulative effect of transforming Ray back into the man who had once been his partner, and lover. And despite his deliberately casual air, Fraser couldn't help but wonder if he'd done it for his benefit.

He found himself hoping that he had.

Ray stretched then, like a lean, contented cat, and Fraser tried not to stare at the delicious sight.

"Ya know, it felt so good gettin' cleaned up, I think I'm gonna finish it off with a shower," Ray said casually. "Wash that hospital smell off me."

Fraser had an instant, painfully vivid mental image of Ray naked in the shower, hot water pouring down his slim, muscular body. It was so vivid he could almost hear the hiss of the water, see it sliding down Ray's skin. His mouth went dry, and he swallowed hard.

"That sounds like a good idea," he mumbled, turning slightly away to hide his reaction. "Go ahead, Ray. I'll just--"

And then it hit him. Maybe he was being obtuse. Maybe Ray's sudden decision to shower was meant as a not-so-subtle sign that he should leave, that Ray wanted to be alone.

"I'll just go," he finished, trying to conceal his deep disappointment.

"Oh," Ray said. But he sounded disappointed too. Very disappointed.

Fraser looked at him in surprise. "Is something the matter?"

"No. Well, yeah. Yeah, there is," Ray said awkwardly. "I -- I just--" He took a few steps towards him, then halted. Fraser sensed an urgency in him, some emotion straining at the edges of his control. "I was kinda hopin' you might wanna stay," he blurted suddenly. "With me," he added nervously. "For awhile."

That typically choppy, staccato declaration was followed by a tentative smile. Then Ray looked down at his mouth, and his smile faded away.

Ben suddenly knew that Ray wanted more than just his presence. He wanted to kiss him. He felt a rush of relief and hope. He froze, riveted to the spot by his hungry blue eyes, by the electric current suddenly flowing between them, switched on by Ray's hungry gaze. An answering desire rose in him, sweet and intense. He wanted to kiss Ray too. He'd wanted nothing more for the past four months. But he was afraid. He couldn't forget that his kiss was what had started all of this, couldn't forget that after he'd kissed him, Ray had left him and broken his heart. Nor could he forget the way Ray had reacted, both at the hospital and again in his car, about Rylan's death. So he didn't move.

After an awkward silence, Ray came towards him. He didn't say anything, but his eyes were dark with desire, and he didn't stop until he was just inches away from him. He searched his eyes for a second, and when he didn't move away, he bent his head forward to kiss him. But at the last instant, Ben drew back. Like a frightened animal, a moth flinching from a flame, he stood with his mouth scant inches away, not quite touching Ray's. Not letting Ray touch him...

Did you love Rylan? he wanted to ask. Did you ever love me? But once again, he couldn't force the words out, couldn't make himself say them aloud. So they stood close together, so close each could feel the other's warm breath on his face, neither man saying a word, their eyes locked in a tense, charged silence.

Be my lover, be my baby, be my wonderdrug
Be my flower, weeping silver tears on
A rusted heart
Be my lover, baby you just gotta want me
I don't know, can't think, not even breathing
Be my bloodstained suit of armor, be my everything

-- Jann Arden

Ray could feel the Mountie's sudden fear as sharply as if it were his own. And he couldn't stand it. Though he knew it was his fault, he hated the thought that Ben was afraid to touch him, or be touched by him. He'd been dreaming of nothing but making love to him for months. But now they were alone together in his apartment, and Ben wouldn't even kiss him. Or let himself be kissed. Not that he blamed him -- he'd acted like a jerk. Not only when he broke up with him, but today in the car, while Fraser was driving him home. It embarrassed him to think about it now. He wouldn't have blamed him if he'd just walked out on him.

But he hadn't, and it didn't look like he was going to. And no one had forced him to come here, either. Ben had done it of his own free will; and Ray told himself, for the hundredth time, that it had to mean something. He'd promised himself, that day Fraser had massaged his forehead in the hospital and he'd surprised that strange, hot look in his eyes, that he'd find out just what it meant.

"Come on, Frayzh," he whispered, half pleading. But Fraser didn't move. Okay then, he told himself. Just do it. Make it mean somethin'. He took a deep breath, closed the short distance between them again, then closed his eyes and covered Ben's mouth with his.

Despite his fear and his aching need, he tried to be gentle. And Ben didn't protest, but he didn't kiss him back either. Ray felt him shiver as if the light caress hurt him somehow. He put his hands on Ben's shoulders, trying to deepen the kiss, to part his lips and pull him close. And for a breathless second, he thought he was going to let him. He felt Fraser's lips part under the gentle pressure, and ran his tongue across his lower lip in a tentative caress. But Ben shook even harder at that, and pulled his head away again, like the kiss had burned him.

Is that how he feels? he wondered, wounded. Like all I'm gonna do is hurt him? "What's wrong?" he asked.

Fraser just shook his head.

Ray tried to search his eyes, but he looked away, avoiding his gaze. He could feel Ben's muscles twitching slightly under his hands, as if his instincts were telling him to run. His heart sank. Ben wasn't the only one in the room who was scared. He was too. He was terrified that he'd slipped away from him while they were separated. That he'd never trust him again, that they'd never regain what they'd had.

He froze where he was, and stopped trying to pull Ben closer. Dropped his hands, so he wouldn't feel so threatened. No matter how badly he wanted this, he couldn't force it, the way Rylan had tried to do to him. He knew that. He didn't want to, didn't want to hurt him in any way. He just didn't know what the hell to say to make Ben trust him again. He searched his mind desperately for the right words, but the words wouldn't come.

But inspiration did. So the kiss hadn't worked, or his words either. Maybe grabbing him and kissing him like that was too scary to Ben, after the way he'd left him. And he couldn't sweet talk him either. He wasn't good with words, he never had been. But that didn't matter. Words and kisses weren't the only way to reach him. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do. The one thing he'd always loved, the one thing he'd always used to reach Stella when nothing else could. Body language. He knew it was risky, that it might backfire on him, but Fraser was worth it. He'd always had something that made him want to leap into danger with him -- for him. He still did.

So Ray took a risk. Jumped off another cliff, for the Mountie. "Wanna dance?" he asked.

Fraser blinked at his former partner. "In what sense, Ray?"


"Well, I mean are you asking me if I feel like dancing in an emotional sense?" he went on. "If I feel happy, or giddy, or ecstatic, and wish to express that by dancing? Or are you saying--"

"Fraser!" Ray snapped, so suddenly that Ben almost jumped. "Knock it off. Ya know what I mean."

He shut up automatically, realizing belatedly that he'd been babbling. "Sorry," he mumbled. Despite his pretended confusion, he had understood what Ray meant, what he wanted. He just didn't know how to answer him. His invitation had taken him completely by surprise. Knocked him for a loop, as Americans were fond of saying. Of course, he'd danced before -- with women, that is -- and he'd enjoyed it. He actually prided himself on being rather good at it. But he'd never, in his entire life, been asked to dance by a man. He'd never imagined that he would be.

Women were easy to dance with, they were small and light and one simply put one's arms around them, kept them at a polite distance, and waltzed them around. But he couldn't imagine waltzing with Ray. Especially now. Ray wasn't small, he was only about an inch shorter than he, and though he was slender, he was also very strong, and an extremely good dancer to boot. He wouldn't be easy to twirl around the floor, or to keep at a polite distance. And there was something in Ray's smile -- in his eyes -- that sent a thrill right down to Ben's boots. A thrill of visceral excitement that was distinctly erotic. It made the idea of dancing with him seem dangerous.

It made him remember making love with him. Suddenly, vividly, and in graphic detail. Despite his resolve not to think sexual thoughts about Ray right now, when he was in no condition to engage in such activities. Despite the fact that he wasn't sure that either of them were ready, emotionally or physically, for such a thing. After all, just a moment ago, he'd flinched when Ray had merely kissed him. But now that Ray had asked him to dance, he was recalling how wonderful making love to him had felt. It was difficult to think of anything else, actually. He could almost taste the salty sweetness of his skin, the hardness of his muscles under his hands.

Oh dear.

"I thought you wanted to take a shower, Ray," he temporized, trying to avoid temptation.

Ray shook his head. "Not anymore." He took a step closer. A slow, slightly wicked grin was spreading across his face.

Ben thought that smile, and the bandage that still encircled his head, made him look like a pirate. A scarred, wicked blonde pirate who gave no quarter, granted no mercy -- and enjoyed ravaging his helpless captives. He also thought that he wouldn't mind being Ray's helpless captive, if it meant he could be ravaged by him. Then he blushed.

Ray saw his blush, and pressed his advantage. "I'm askin' you, if I put on some music, wouldja' dance with me?" He raised his eyebrows and held out his hand in invitation. His blue eyes smoldered with amusement -- and something else. Something more like heat. Something that went straight to Fraser's head. Or was it his groin?

Fraser's mouth went dry, just looking at him. Oh God. And he hesitated. Instead of saying no, he just stared, fascinated, at his oh-so-wicked-looking former partner. Wondering if this was a ploy, another way to get close to him after his kiss had failed. Wondering if Ray was actually trying to seduce him. Wondering if he should let him, because every cell in his entire body longed to seduce Ray, too. Fraser swallowed hard. Duty, he told himself sternly. I have a duty to make sure Ray doesn't hurt himself.

With a supreme effort, he finally managed to croak, "I'm not sure it would be prudent to attempt that, Ray, in your condition."

Ray laughed. " 'Wouldn't be prudent'?" he echoed. "Ya sound Like George Bush, Frayzh."

Fraser flushed and looked down at his boots. That hadn't come out at all like he'd wanted it to. Ray was right, he'd sounded overly formal, almost pompous. "Sorry. What I'm trying to say is--"

Ray got even closer. "I know what ya mean. Yer thinkin' o' me. Yer always doin' that. But just this once, why don't you let me worry about me, huh? All I wanna do is a little slow dance. Just one. Won't hurt myself. Promise I won't even try to dip ya. Whaddaya say?"

Ray smiled at him again. Fraser suspected that he was trying to look innocent, but he didn't. That same tantalizing, piratical smile curved his lips again, and he looked anything but harmless. More like Captain Kowalski, the Terror of Tortuga, Fraser thought, his pulse jumping in response. Still, he knew what he should do: say no. One little word, one little two letter word would turn down this extraordinary request, set aside this incredible temptation. Saying it shouldn't have been difficult. But somehow, it was.

"Come on, Benny," Ray teased as he hesitated. "Might not be prudent, but it'll sure as hell be fun."

And Fraser was lost. This was what had been missing from his life since Ray had left him: Fun. Romance. Spontaneity. No one else teased him the way Ray did. No one else in his life cared if he had fun, or tempted him with a pirate smile. "All right, Ray," he heard himself saying. "Just one dance, then."

Ray turned on his stereo, trying not to look as excited as he felt. He'd already moved his coffee table out of the way to clear a space for them. I get to dance with the Mountie! he kept thinking. And when thoughts of Vecchio flickered through his head, he added spitefully, And you don't! That made him smile. His heart was beating fast, and he felt almost like a kid again. Like that scrawny little teenager who used to spend hours staring into the mirror, trying to get his hair to look just like Steve McQueen's before his dates with Stella. He was hot, he was smokin' -- he was ready.

Rev up those ole warp engines, Mr. Scott -- I'm about to hit the floor with the man o' my dreams! he exulted. Bet I'm about to go where no man's gone before, too. Bet he's never danced with a guy before. Then again -- neither have I. But he didn't care. Anything that got Ben into his arms was okay.

Still, he needed just the right music for his little seduction plan. He wanted things to be perfect. For a second, he wished he had some of the high-brow music he knew Fraser really liked. But then it occurred to him that classical music wasn't make-out music; whereas some of the stuff he had definitely was. He hunted frantically through his numerous CD's for something slow, sexy and romantic. What was that Sting thing? Oh yeah. Here it is. "When We Dance." Perfect! This is greatness, he exulted, popping the CD into his player. If this doesn't get him, nothin' will.

Ray moved back to Ben's side and held out his hand as the music started, pulsing a gentle beat into the air around them. "Ready?" he asked. He sure was. It'd been so long since he'd danced that his feet were already itching to move. For the first time in months, he could feel the music inside him again, feel the pull of the beat like a hand tugging on his boots. It felt great.

Fraser shifted on his feet, looking a bit uncomfortable. "Uh, yes, but... that is, I'm not precisely sure--"

And if I wait until ya figure it out, I'll be old and grey before we ever take a step, Ray thought, exasperated. Rolling his eyes, he took the Mountie's hand, dragged him out into the middle of the floor, then turned to face him again. "Here," he said firmly. "Just put yer hand here..." He pulled one of Fraser's hands onto his shoulder, put his own hand on Ben's waist, and took his free hand firmly in the other. "There. We're all set. Just to make it easy for ya, I'll even let you lead. Just this once," he teased.

But Fraser wasn't smiling. He swallowed hard, looking more like a guy about to be fed to a shark than a happy dance partner. His hand squeezed Ray's tightly, but he looked pale, and he still didn't move.

"Come on, Frayzh. Whatsa' matter? You do know how to dance, right?" Ray asked, impatient to get going.

"Yes. Yes, I do. I just think -- perhaps this isn't such a good idea after all," Fraser said, looking close to panic.

Ray felt him stiffen, and sighed to himself. He was disappointed that Ben still looked so scared, but he wasn't going to let it stop him now, when they'd come this far. "Sure it is." He started to sway gently to the beat, and pulled Fraser along with him. "Nothin' complicated, just a little waltz," he said. "You know. One-two-three..."

Ray swayed gently back and forth in a slow, easy shuffle as he'd promised, knowing Fraser would freak if he tried any fancy moves. He was still treating him like he was made out of glass -- but Ray hoped that dancing with him would show Ben that he was healing fast, that he was ready for anything, and that what he wanted most was to make love with him. Dancing seemed like the best way to seduce him gently, without scaring him. How did that old saying go? "Body language is worth a thousand words." Or something like that.

Fraser took a few tentative steps, then looked down at their feet and stumbled, stepping on the toe of Ray's boot. "Oh! Ray, I'm sorry--"

Ignoring the mistake, Ray caught the beat again with the ease of long practice, and pulled Ben along with him. "It's okay. Just move, Frayzh. Nice 'n slow. Kinda' feel the beat with yer feet," he breathed soothingly. "One-two-three..." But Fraser was still stiff, gripping his hand so tightly that it almost hurt. It felt weird trying to haul someone as big and strong as him around, and some of Ray's bruised muscles protested a bit, but he ignored them. "Don't look down at yer feet, just move," he urged.

But Fraser wasn't relaxing. He stiffened up even more, and tromped on Ray's toe. "I don't think this is going to work, Ray," he said nervously, stopping dead in the middle of the floor. "I'm not sure what's wrong, but I can't seem to--"

"Chill out? Relax? Hang loose? Let yerself go?" Ray teased.

Fraser let out a nervous breath. "Exactly."

Ray just smiled. If this were anyone else, he'd've been climbing the walls with frustration by now. But this was Fraser. Benny Ben, who he wanted more than anything else in the world. For him, he could be patient. "Just keep movin'. You'll get it," he said encouragingly.

Fraser swallowed hard, but finally started moving again. Ray hummed along as Sting sang,

The priest has said my soul's salvation
Is in the balance of the angels...

Ray smiled to himself. He knew where his salvation lay. Right smack in the hands of his tall, endearingly nervous Mountie. Without him, he would never be happy, never be whole. He knew that now. So if he had to haul him around all day to seduce him, he would. He'd do anything not to lose him again. "Relax," he repeated softly. "Ya need to relax, and yer never gonna do that if ya keep lookin' at yer feet."

Fraser jerked his head up comically fast. "Oh. I'm sorry."

"Just listen to the music," he said softly, swaying to the beat. "Move with it and don't look down." He moved a bit closer to Fraser, so he could guide him more easily. "Trust me. I've been doin' this since I was a kid."

"Dancing with men?"

Ray shot him a narrow-eyed look, but then saw that the Mountie's eyes were twinkling. "No, with women, ya moron," he grinned, knowing he was being teased.

"Understood," Ben smiled back.

For the first time, Ray felt his grip loosen. And for a few seconds, as Fraser looked into his eyes, they moved smoothly together. Okay. I got it, he thought, excited. If I keep him talkin', he'll forget about bein' nervous. So he said, "But this isn't so different. It's still just two people movin' together to music. Easiest thing in the world..."

Fraser wasn't so sure that dancing with Ray was easy. It felt more like a subtle form of torture. He felt really awkward, holding Ray so close yet trying not to let their bodies touch as they swayed to the music. Having one of Ray's hands on his back, and the other holding his firmly. Watching how easily, how instinctively his former partner moved to the music. It was all incredibly sensual. He had to stiffen his whole body to keep from responding to it, to keep from drawing him closer. He'd promised himself that he would behave for Ray's sake, but dancing with him was arousing him even more than his kisses had done.

Though he'd danced with women successfully in the past, and even though Ray had offered to let him lead, he still felt awkward. As pumped full of hormones as a gawky adolescent, and about as much in control of them, and his own body. He kept stumbling over his own feet, and Ray's too, and he groaned inwardly. He must think I'm hopeless.

But Ray just held onto him and kept turning in slow circles, humming to the music under his breath. His body was relaxed, his movements fluid. Fraser took his advice and stopped looking down at his feet. He tried not to look at Ray either. He stared into space over his shoulder and started trying to follow the beat, and to take Ray along with him. He knew it wasn't precisely polite not to look at one's dancing partner, but it was the only way he could get his mind off Ray's body enough to concentrate on the music.

And Ray didn't seem to mind. "That's it," he smiled after a few minutes passed by and Fraser managed not to step on his feet again. "Yer gettin' it..."

Fraser had to admit that, after his initial nervousness dissipated, it was surprisingly pleasant moving slowly to the music with such a good dancer. Ray felt pleasantly warm, and he seemed to anticipate where his body was going to go before he knew himself. Fraser wasn't sure who was really leading whom, but once he fell into the rhythm of the music, it didn't really seem to matter. They just moved together, and he began to feel more confident, almost light on his feet.

The music was nice, too. A man with a whiskey-husky tenor was singing softly, "When we dance, angels will run and hide their wings." The imagery was romantic, even poetic, and Fraser decided that he liked it. That he liked dancing with Ray very much indeed. He held him a little closer and swung him around in a tight turn, a bit of daring that won him a smile.

"Go, Benny!" Ray laughed.

Fraser stared into Ray's blue eyes and smiled. He realized that for the first time in months, he was happy.

Oh God, this feels so good! Ray couldn't believe it. Now that Fraser had finally gotten over his initial stiffness, his clumsiness had disappeared and he could see that he was actually a good dancer. He held his hand and moved him around deftly, and Ray followed without even having to think about it. They were gliding around together like they'd been made for that, like they were two halves of the same light-footed body, and that body's only wish was to move to the beat.

He was in heaven. And a few minutes later, when Ben even worked up the courage to twirl him around in a tight little turn, he laughed out loud. "Go Benny!"

The knowledge that Ben was getting into it too excited him. So he took a chance, and moved even closer. Rested his chin on Ben's broad shoulder, let their chests and thighs touch. He felt him jump a little, a tiny, startled movement, and his steps faltered. But Ray held on and swung him around, and Ben gradually relaxed against him, and picked up the beat again. Ray smiled to himself, his hips swaying gently to the music, and against Ben. Damn, this is greatness! I could do this all day.

"Where'd you learn to dance so good, huh?" he whispered, turning his head to blow the question into Ben's ear. He felt him shiver and smiled, knowing he was getting to him.

"From my grandmother," Fraser murmured, his voice a bit husky. "Well, she paid for me to have lessons, anyway. She felt it was a necessary part of a young person's education."

Ray grinned against his shoulder. Thank God for little old lady librarians! Though he doubted she'd ever imagined what use her grandson would one day put his dance lessons to, as Ben twirled him gently around the room, he was infinitely grateful she'd had the foresight to make sure he knew how to do this.

The song went on,

If hell fire was a breath away,
I'd still be sayin'
I'd still be sayin'
I'm still in love
I'm still in love
I'm still in love with you...

Oh yeah, Ray thought. Ain't it the truth...

The song ended, but they kept dancing.

They didn't stop for a long time, not until the CD had played to its end. They didn't talk much, but they didn't have to. Ray knew Ben was enjoying it as much as he was, because he could feel how aroused he was getting. So he knew his plan was working. Sooner or later, they'd have to stop dancing and 'face the music', so to speak, but for once, Ray decided not to rush things. He held onto Ben, luxuriating in the warmth of his strong body, in just being close to him. He inhaled his scent slowly, drawing his essence deep into his lungs as they moved. A mixture of the warm woolen smell of his red serge, a faint tang of sweat, and the clean, woodsy scent that was Ben himself, it was headier than perfume. And mingled with the continual, intimate brushing of their bodies, it was potent, intoxicating. He breathed deeper, eyes closed, again and again, filling himself with it, with Ben, until he could almost taste him on his tongue. He felt himself hardening, throbbing slowly, but their closeness felt so good that he didn't want to spook him by pouncing on him. It felt so good he wasn't sure he ever wanted it to end.

But finally, when the notes of the last song died away, Ben lifted his head and looked down at him, and his eyes were intense. "The music stopped," he said into the sudden hush, swaying to a standstill.

But Ray noticed that he hadn't let go of him. "Yeah," he said, holding his breath. Leaving the next move up to the Mountie.

Fraser stopping moving too, but still held him close. "Ray, I--"

"What?" He waited, breathless, hopeful, to hear the words. But it seemed Benny had gotten tongue-tied again, like he always did when it came to emotional stuff. He ran his tongue over his lips and stared down at Ray as if he'd been hypnotized. His mouth worked, but he didn't say anything. Then, finally, just when Ray thought he'd explode with impatience, with anxiety, he said his name again.


It sounded desperate. Like a plea. So Ray knew he'd have to do it. And he didn't even really mind. He reached up and ran the backs of his fingers tenderly down the line of Ben's cheek, took a deep breath and said it. What he'd been thinking for months, but never had the guts to say before. "Lemme love you," he said softly. "I wanna love you."

Fraser inhaled sharply, his eyes widening, but he didn't move. Ray took that as a good sign and in the silence that followed, he leaned forward, curled his fingers around Ben's strong neck and kissed him again. Lightly, gently this time, over and over. Soft kisses that gave instead of taking, that asked instead of demanded. Ray put everything he felt, everything he was into those kisses, trying to seduce him with caresses more tender than any he'd ever given him before. And this time, Ben didn't pull away...

Fraser couldn't resist any more. It was that simple. Dancing with Ray had whirled away the last of his defenses, charmed him like a magic spell. He'd forgotten how it felt to hold him, how utterly right he felt in his arms. Or maybe it was hearing Ray say, "I wanna love you" that undid him. He wasn't sure. But the words made his heart turn over. He'd been waiting to hear them all his life, it seemed. So he finally stood still and let Ray kiss him. It felt like the whole world stood still, hushed for one perfect moment as Ray's warm, familiar mouth covered his own again and again, in achingly soft kisses. Fraser felt warm pleasure spreading through him, like he was melting inside where Ray's mouth was touching his. Like he'd been frozen since Ray left him, and now he was thawing like an icicle in the sun of Ray's warmth, his tenderness. He longed to take that warmth inside him and let it burn away every last molecule of coldness in his heart. He wanted--

Fraser suddenly realized he'd stopped passively accepting Ray's kisses and started to sway against him, to respond to him. Before he knew it, his hands were on Ray's shoulders. Those warm, slender shoulders he'd missed so much... He tried to stop. Told himself sternly that Ray had a bandage on his head, that he was a mass of still healing wounds, that he was undoubtedly much frailer than he looked. That it was far too soon to think of making love to him. He stiffened, trying very hard to remind himself of Ray's vulnerability. But it was extremely hard to do as Ray's arms slipped around him and his deliciously soft kisses grew bolder. When Ray's tongue traced his lips, he closed his eyes and shivered. Tried to distract himself by mentally listing all the things he loved about Ray that had nothing to do with sex. His sense of humor, his tenderness, his loyalty--

What loyalty? He left me -- and then he took another lover. The thought cut through his arousal abruptly, like a bucket of ice dumped over his heated head. He knew he wasn't being fair, that loyalty was one of Ray's attributes despite their breakup, but he stiffened anyway. He went still in Ray's embrace, and broke their kiss. He told himself that he was backing off for Ray's own good, but he wasn't sure that was true. Was he being compassionate, or jealous and vindictive?

He didn't know.

But Ray knew something was wrong. When he pulled away from their kiss, he sighed softly and let him go. Stepped back from him, his face flushing a little. "Yer right," he said, as if Fraser had spoken his misgivings aloud -- or as if he'd read his mind. "Maybe we shouldn't. Uh... I mean, maybe it's too soon." Then he winced, as if he felt he'd said too much.

"Maybe," Fraser echoed, before he could stop himself.

Ray winced, his face tightening. "Yeah. Right. Well... Guess I should go take that shower now, huh?" Despite what he'd said, there was a lingering trace of hope in Ray's voice, as if he were praying that he'd change his mind. Ask him to stay and make love to him instead.

Ben felt very awkward, because he wanted to. That note in Ray's voice tugged at him, making his doubts seem foolish. He opened his mouth to explain, to tell Ray that he hadn't meant to reject him. But then he remembered his momentary surge of resentment at him for leaving, and Ray's own comparative frailty right now, and shut it again as his confused feelings shifted once more. "Yes," he said instead. "Yes, maybe you should." He told himself again that maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to make love right now, for either of them.

"Right. Okay then." Ray didn't try to argue with him. He just nodded, avoiding his eyes, and turned and started away down the hall without a word of complaint.

But Fraser saw how his shoulders were sagging. How disappointed he looked. What are you doing? he asked himself angrily. You want this as much as he does. Maybe more. You've been dreaming about his touch, his hands, ever since he left you. You can't wait to get your hands on him either. You want to make love to him so much it hurts. So why the hell did you say that? Why did you turn him away?

But deep inside, he knew. In that moment, staring at the back of Ray's bandaged head, seeing his air of dejection, his own motives became clear. He'd told himself he was doing what was best for both of them, but in truth, by leading Ray on, then saying no at the last minute, he hadn't made himself feel good. He ached inside. And he couldn't fool himself that he'd done it for Ray's sake, either, or that it had helped him. He'd said no to punish him for leaving, not to save him from being hurt. He was finding it hard to forgive him -- not just for leaving him, but for taking up with another man as well. He was denying them both pleasure, keeping Ray at arm's length, because of his anger and jealousy. He was being petty. Small. Mean.

He turned toward Ray's living room silently, his own shoulders drooping. He was ashamed of himself.

But Ray surprised him. He came back down the hall again and touched his arm, his hand tentative. "I just had this thought," he said, scratching at his neck the way he always did when he felt awkward about something. "I thought that uh... you might wanna take one too. A shower, I mean. I thought you might wanna take a shower with me."

Ben blinked. He knew how much courage it had taken for Ray to say that. More courage than he possessed himself. Despite two rebuffs, he was still reaching out to him. He still wanted to make love, and he wasn't afraid to show it. This is your chance, he told himself. Maybe your last one. Take it, you fool! Before he decides you're not worth it, before he gives up on you completely.

But he couldn't make himself speak, couldn't answer. He was both relieved that Ray had made another overture, and a bit afraid of what it might mean. Of what Ray might want him to do, in the wake of his affair with Rylan.

Did Ray want to make love to him -- or to hurt him even more?

"Thought you might wanna take a shower with me." Ray said. He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. Fraser got as stiff as a frozen popsicle when he heard them, his eyes going wide with that "deer in the headlights" look he always got when Frannie kissed him, or when women hung on him or pestered him. Ray knew what that look meant: that someone had gotten too close, had trespassed on Fraser's personal space, and he was trying to figure out how to get away without being (God forbid) impolite. The look cut into him like a knife. After his long, miserable time with Rylan, then the shock and pain of his death and his even more miserable, painful recovery in the hospital, he'd wanted more than anything to wash the smell of bad people off him again; to get next to someone good. No, not just someone, to get next to Ben again. To be his lover again.

But that look shut him out as effectively as his stiffness during their kiss had earlier. It made him feel he'd been wrong about everything he'd been hoping for since he'd first opened his eyes in the hospital, and seen the Mountie sitting beside his bed. He'd thought -- he'd hoped -- that Fraser's presence here, the fact that he'd come home with him instead of leaving him at the hospital door, meant more than just forgiveness or even friendship. In his horny little heart, he'd hoped it meant that he wanted him too. He'd caught the Mountie looking at him several times lately with what looked like definite hunger; and when they danced and then Ben finally let him kiss him, for a minute, he'd thought their old magic had come back. He could've sworn that he'd forgotten his fears and responded to him. That maybe there was still a chance that he could love him. Or at least want him...

Guess I was wrong, he told himself bitterly. Well, I've never been good with people. It isn't the first time I've blown it. Probably won't be the last. He thought bitterly of Stella, of the times she'd cried because he wouldn't talk to her; of the pain in Rylan's eyes when he'd shouted, "You never saw it, didja' Ray? Ya don't have a fuckin' clue that I love you!"

He'd misjudged both of them, and now it seemed he didn't have a clue about Fraser's feelings, either. He'd misread his signals; or maybe even imagined them. Some expert in body language you are, Kowalski. His eyes hooded over and he stared down at his boots, his mouth tightening. "Forget it. That was stupid. Sorry I said it," he said curtly.

He turned away, ostensibly to head down the hall for a shower, but really running away so that Fraser wouldn't see his pain and embarrassment. He supposed Ben must've stayed with him out of a sense of duty or something, not because he wanted him anymore; and that deepened his humiliation. He knew that was selfish, that he should be glad Fraser was even willing to be his nurse, after what he'd done to him. He had no right to expect him to jump back into his bed.

But what was right and what he wanted were two different things. As usual.

Fraser winced as Ray turned away from him. He must feel like I'm teasing him. One minute I let him kiss me, the next, I pull away. It isn't fair to him to leave him in doubt as to my intentions. I can either go after him now, or give up on the idea of being his lover once and for all. Choose, he told himself.

And with that, his inner confusion suddenly cleared. His head might be full of doubts and questions, but his heart knew what it wanted. He went after Ray and caught his arm gently. "I'd like to take a shower with you, Ray," he said. "I'd like that very much."

A slow smile spread across his partner's face. A smile of amazing sweetness, that still had the power to steal Fraser's breath. "Okay. Good," Ray reached down and took his hand, and Fraser closed his fingers over it gently.

"Fine," he said, because that was how he felt. Fine. Wonderful in fact, as they walked down the hall hand in hand.

The End

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© Caroline Alert 1998