This story features characters from Due South most notably Benton Fraser, Ray Kowalski, and Ray Vecchio. It is the third story in my "Fishing" series, and is a direct a sequel to The Catch. Oh, and although this series began as a DS/HL crossover, all the crossover aspects are basically gone by this point. (Is that confusing enough for you?).

Rated NC-17 for graphic sexuality (M/M). If you're considered a minor in your community please do not read this (do your parents know where you are, you young whippersnapper you!?). If you're narrow-minded or easily offended, you may want to take a pass as well. Characters property of Alliance, everything else is MINE ALL MINE!

Timeline-wise this is set during "The Call of the Wild," it basically fits between the capture of Muldoon, and the explanatory 'tag.' I just felt there was a lot left unsaid there that I wanted to know about. As before, please note this is not a 'fixit' story. If you're going to get upset by seeing Fraser with Ray K., then you probably want to skip this one.

A BIG Thank You to my Beta readers, Debra Ann Fiorini, Marina Bailey, & Carol Ann Liddiard. Thanks also to Caroline Alert for her reassurances regarding synchronicity

Hook, Line, and Sinker
© 1999, Kellie Matthews

It was funny, in the sense of strange, not as in humorous, Fraser thought, how he could have everything he wanted, and yet still have nothing at all. His father was finally at rest, Ray Vecchio had returned, Muldoon was in custody, his own reputation had been somewhat restored, and Ray Kowalski was back home safe, despite a half-dozen close calls. And yet he felt . . . empty. Fraser looked over to where Ray Vecchio sat on his mother's couch next to Stella Kowalski, and sighed soundlessly.

He'd come, as he had the last few nights, to the Vecchio's to celebrate Ray's return, to reminisce, and simply to enjoy Ray's company, so long absent. Yet, everything was different now. They were still friends, that much hadn't changed, but there was a distance between them now that had never been there before. At least, not mentally. Physical distance had separated them for quite some time. The mental distance was much harder to deal with.

He hadn't realized how difficult this would be. He had prepared himself, or so he'd thought, for the change in their relationship, but now, well, now it was obvious that he had not really done so at all. Perhaps it was Stella's presence that brought home the changes so painfully. Ray was so focused on her, on the courtship ritual, that even if he and Ray had merely been friends before, it would have left him feeling cut out. It was clear that Ray liked her. Very much. Perhaps as much as her . . . ex-husband had once.

No, like was not strong enough a word for what Stanley Raymond Kowalski had felt, and still felt for Stella. There was only one word for it. Love. Ben thought about his other Ray, and felt guilty. He should be there. With him. Not here. But he couldn't, not until he felt he'd atoned enough. Guilt was a double-edged blade, cutting him no matter which way he turned.

"Hey, Benny, you back up North again?" Ray teased. 'You're a million miles away! I was just telling Stella here about the old days. She doesn't believe you made me go wade around in a dumpster."

Fraser forced a smile, wondering why he felt resentful of Stella, when he never had before. He was almost angry at her. He knew that her presence here would be hurtful to Ray. (A tiny voice nagged at him 'And yours isn't?') He cleared his throat.

"I did. Actually, a great deal of evidence may be found in trash receptacles. Many criminals simply don't believe anyone would ever bother to look in a trash bin, so they think nothing of disposing of incriminating evidence there."

Ray chuckled. "I can tell you, that's one thing I haven't missed, Benny! I lost count of the number of suits I ruined when we worked together! Hey, that's one thing your new partner doesn't have to worry about! With the way he dresses nobody would ever know if he'd been dumpster-diving."

Stella and Ray both laughed. Ben didn't. It hadn't escaped his notice that Ray had begun to make a habit of these small, but telling jabs at Ray Kowalski. Was it because of Stella? Surely it had nothing to do with himself, since it was clear Ray would have no reason to be jealous of Ray over Ben. No, it must be Stella, he couldn't think of any other reason for it. Suddenly it was too much. He couldn't let it go any more. He waited until most of the others were distracted by a new topic, then leaned over toward his former partner.

"Ray, may I speak to you for a moment, alone?" he asked quietly.

Ray looked at him, and the smile died on his face as he saw the seriousness of Ben's expression. He hesitated a moment. Ben found that hesitation actually, physically painful. It was clear that Ray didn't want to be alone with him. Ben waited, unspeaking, and finally Ray nodded. "Sure, Benny." He stood up "Ladies, Benny and I are going for a little walk. Ma, don't put out the tiramisu until we get back, okay?"

Mrs. Vecchio laughed. "As if I would!"

Ray moved toward the door, and Ben followed him out to the far end of the porch, away from the door. Ray stood staring out into the street, gripping the porch-rail in both hands, clearly ill-at-ease.

"So, what's up, Fraser?"

Fraser. Not 'Benny.'

"Look at me, please, Ray."

Slowly Ray turned, and faced him. "I'm here."

"I have something I need to ask you."

"Ben, please, I . . ."

"It's not about us, Ray. At least, not directly."

Relaxation was instantaneous. "Oh. What then?"

"I would appreciate it if you could bring yourself to refrain from making derogatory comments about Ray, I mean, Stanley Kowalski."

Ray's eyes widened. "What?"

"It's not a difficult request, Ray."

"No, it's not, I meant, it's just-- what difference does it make? It's not like the guy's here to get his feelings hurt, and Stella doesn't mind."

She should, Ben thought. She should have that much loyalty to him, even if they were no longer married. He'd thought better of her.

"It doesn't matter if he's here or not, or if she minds or not, Ray. I care. I mind. Very much. He's my friend. He's my partner. He's my . . . " Ben hesitated, drew a shaky breath, and went on, though he was terribly uncertain how his next words would be received. "He's my lover."

The silence between them was sudden and deep. Ray's eyebrows shot up. He blinked. "You, and . . . Kowalski?" he asked finally, incredulity in the words.

Ben nodded, bracing himself, prepared for anger, for pain, for jealousy. What he wasn't prepared for was the flash of utter relief that lit Ray Vecchio's gaze once the surprise had subsided. That hurt, a great deal, although he really should have expected it. After all, hadn't he figured out long ago that Ray Vecchio could not love him the way he needed to be loved? Wasn't that what he'd told Ray? Had he lied, even to himself? Yes. Apparently so. Self-delusion was apparently a large part of his emotional makeup, at least where former loves were concerned.

"Wow, man, I had no idea." Ray rubbed his forehead, a classic delaying movement, then looked at him again, green eyes wide. "You, and the Pola . . . uh, Kowalski. Wow. I, ah, wasn't expecting that." He shook his head. "Sorry, Fraser. Geez, I guess, yeah, I coulda been a little nicer. I mean, at first it was like, he stole my life. But I guess he didn't. I kind of gave it to him. And then there was you. You're my partner, my territory, he's got no business in it. Then, well, you know how it is, there's Stella, and they used to . . . it's just a guy thing."

Ben didn't nod. He didn't understand, he didn't 'know how it was' and had never been much good at 'guy things.' Ray looked at him for another long moment, then shrugged.

"Hunh. Guess that explains why they're not together any more."

"No, Ray, his sexuality had nothing to do with their divorce. They separated long before we met."

Ray's eyebrows lifted. "You mean he never . . . before you?"

"You know I don't discuss such things, Ray," Fraser said, blushing, wondering how Ray had managed to discern that from such an innocuous statement.

"Yeah, that 'code of chivalry' thing. Sorry." He rubbed the back of his neck and studied Ben for a moment, then spoke again, a little awkwardly. "I, um, maybe this is out of line, but if the two of you are, like, an item, then how come you've been hanging around me all the time since you got back? I mean, I was starting to wonder if maybe you thought. . . well, you know."

Ben tried not to flinch, but it was one thing to know a truth in your head, and quite another to see it in your former lover's eyes, to hear it in his voice. It was, as the saying went, the last nail in the coffin. And with that question he suddenly began to wonder exactly what he was doing there. How long had it been since he'd been with Ray? How long had it been since he'd touched him? The last time he'd touched him, really touched him, had been the morning of the day he'd seen Ray Vecchio at the Hotel California. Since then they'd been in proximity, but without intimacy, and even that proximity had been severely limited.

During the case things had been too crazy. He'd been eaten up with the anguish of learning about his mother's death. Ray had tried to comfort him, but he hadn't wanted that. He'd been too angry, with Muldoon for the action, and with his father for not telling him. Then had come the pain of losing his father, again. Of course, he could tell no one of that pain. No one would understand. Only two people in the world knew about his father's posthumous visitations, Maggie, and Amanda. Neither were readily available for counseling. And there had been something else eating at him, too. Something that still ate at him.

When it came right down to it, he couldn't believe he'd dragged Ray along with him, nearly gotten him killed, several times over. He could have fallen from the aircraft's wing, been shot by one of Muldoon's men, could have died of injuries after that idiotic shove out of the plane (Ray, my friend, I'm going to endanger your life . . .), could have died of hypothermia on the ledge or in that crevasse. Yet through it all Ray had gone along, barely complaining, just occasionally asking for a slightly slower pace, always flashing that self-deprecating grin and making sure Fraser knew any problem Ray was having was his own fault, not Fraser's.

That first night in the Territories, when Ray had lain by the fire and asked him if he ever felt lost-- he'd known what Ray was asking then, and had deliberately pretended he didn't, because his own emotions were a little too raw to bear exposure. By the time he'd worked back around to answering the question, Ray had fallen into an exhausted sleep. More memories came . . . being pinned, so intimately, in that crevasse in the ice. He should have leaned forward, it would have taken so little to kiss him, to respond to the request in his gaze. But he hadn't done it because he was afraid that Ray would be able to read his guilt and fear and pain in a kiss, and then the opportunity was past.

Since they'd returned, things had been in an uproar at the Consulate, with Inspector Thatcher preparing to leave. What little time he did get to himself he had been spending primarily with Ray Vecchio, only half-conscious of the fact that he was avoiding Ray because he felt guilty for almost getting him killed. The same guilt he felt whenever he looked at Ray Vecchio, whom he had also nearly gotten killed. How could he have risked their lives like that? He'd thought nothing of exposing the two most important people in his life to potentially lethal situations out of sheer selfishness. Risking his own life, that was his choice. How dare he risk theirs as well?

His self-imposed punishment had been to deny himself Ray Kowalski, and to make himself more miserable by daily facing the pain of Ray Vecchio's gentle, but firm rejection of their former intimacy. Only now did it occur to him that he hadn't just been punishing himself by those actions. Unthinking, he had punished both of his friends as well. He had not explained himself to either of them, just forced them to accept his actions. How cruel. How unutterably cruel. He hadn't thought it was in him to be so selfish. But there it was.

Unbidden, a memory from earlier in the day surfaced. Ray Kowalski, standing in the hallway with Welsh and Huey, looking paler than usual, and rather unwell. Huey had a hand on Ray's shoulder, an unheard of action, since the two of them generally got along about as well as oil and water. He had wondered about that for a moment, then he'd gotten distracted by a question from Francesca and when he'd looked back, they were gone. He'd assumed Ray had wandered off to the file room, or an interrogation room, but now it hit him that he'd never come back. At all. And it had taken him this long to realize it.

"Yo! Hey, Fraser, you in there?"

Fraser blinked, coming back to the present to find Ray Vecchio looking at him with a concern that belied his teasing tone.

"Yes, Ray, I am here, and I shouldn't be. May I borrow your phone?"

Ray looked puzzled. "Sure, but what do you mean you shouldn't be?"

"Just that, Ray. I've been inconsiderate, to both of you, and I've only now realized it. I'll be going soon. I'm sorry."

He turned to go back into the house and use the phone, when Ray caught his arm and stopped him.

"Benny, wait! I didn't mean for you to think I don't want you around! I do! You're the best, Fraser, you're my friend! But, well, it's just that . . . things are different now."

"Understood," Ben said, then wondered if that word was too cold for this context. He had begun to be more careful with words lately, since Ray Kowalski was far more sensitive to their effects than Ray Vecchio ever had been. Guardedly keeping himself at arm's distance, he gentled his reply.

"Really, I do realize that, I have for quite some time. Forgive me if I inadvertently led you to believe I thought otherwise. This has nothing to do with that. I just need to be elsewhere right now. I need to . . . fix something I may have broken."

Finally Ray seemed to understand. He'd looked into Ben's face, and nodded. "Okay, Benny, I get it."

"Ray, there is one thing. . ."

"What's that?"

"I told you about my relationship with Ray in complete confidence. Please, don't tell Stella. If, and when, she learns of this, it should be from Ray."

Ray reached out and clasped his shoulder. "You got it. And, I'm glad. That you've found someone, I mean. I felt bad."

"Don't, Ray, I do understand. You can't fight your basic nature. That's something I think I've finally learned."

"Thank you, Benny," Ray left his hand on Ben's shoulder a moment longer, then he shook his head and reached out with both hands to pull him into an embrace. "God, I don't know what's the matter with me these days. Guess I spent so long being someone I'm not that I forgot how to act. I missed you. And I do love you, you know."

Ben hesitantly allowed his arms to go around Ray, fighting back tears. It had been so long, so very long. He allowed himself to just absorb the feel of Ray's lean body against his own. He knew this wasn't a beginning, though. This was an ending. The goodbye he'd never gotten, this was what should have replaced that cryptic phone call. After a moment he knew it had gone on as long as it could, and he slowly drew away, hoping his sadness wasn't too obvious. He let his hands rest lightly on Ray's shoulders as he replied. "I know that, Ray. I love you as well."

Ray smiled, a slightly lopsided, self-mocking smile, a hint of apology in his gaze as he saluted with two fingers. "Understood."

Ben smiled, trying to put his forgiveness into his smile. Then one last painful question came to him, and he looked at his former partner for a long moment. "Ray, may I ask you something?"

"Of course, Benny, anything."

"Was I . . . I mean, was it my -- that is," he paused, shook his head, impatient with his own inability to communicate. Spit it out, Fraser. Stop beating around the bush. "What I'm wondering is, did discomfort with our relationship contribute to your decision to go undercover?"

Ray's gaze softened, and he shook his head. "No, of course not, Benny. Growing up here, what I am, God, you get so tired of that association people make as soon as they find out you're Italian-American, they figure you gotta be with the Mob. Even when you're a cop, they figure you're dirty. I wanted to do something to change that, I wanted to make a difference. You understand that, right? You're the one who taught me I really could make a difference." He sighed, then his eyes widened and he looked at Ben, frowning. "Benny, have you been thinking that all this time? That it was your fault?"

Ben closed his eyes and nodded. It was that or lie, and he couldn't do that.

"Oh, Benny, I'm sorry. I was an idiot. It never even occurred to me that you might think that. All this time . . . God, I'm really sorry. If I'd realized, I would have said something, left you a note. . . anything!"

"Thank you, Ray. I had wondered. It's good to know."

Ray reached out and pulled Ben in again for a quick, hard hug, then let him go. There being nothing left to say, Ben excused himself and slipped into the kitchen to use the phone, hurriedly dialing the Division. Dewey answered the phone in the bullpen, and in response to his question told him Huey had 'found Kowalski ralphing in the bathroom' and that Welsh had sent him home. After ascertaining the definition of 'ralphing' Fraser thanked him for the information and hung up, mechanically.

Ray was ill, and he'd gone home, alone, without even stopping to let him know. That told him more than he wanted to know. He tried Ray's number, but there was no answer, nor did the machine pick up, which led him to suspect that the phone was unplugged. After a moment of internal debate, he did the unprecedented and phoned for a taxi. It would be far quicker than walking.

* * *

Ray slumped on his couch, staring into his drink, seeing a face there. The Other Guy's face. The Style-pig. Smarmy-looking jerk, with his thousand-dollar-plus suits and that stupid Hitler moustache. The creep who'd hurt Ben. Who'd fucked him, then left him with hardly a backward glance. Who'd never given him the equality that lovers should have. Selfish bastard.

And Fraser couldn't keep his eyes off him. Couldn't stay away from him. Was on him all the time, like a dog on a bone. So was Stella. One or the other he could have handled, maybe, but both? Christ, wasn't it enough that the guy had come back and blown his life completely out of the water? No, he had to have both Ben and Stella, too! The two people in the universe he loved more than anyone else, and the Style-pig had both of them. Emotionally, if not physically.

He didn't think Vecchio was sleeping with Ben. He was good at body language, and they weren't showing any of the non-verbal cues he would have expected to see if they were. Though, he thought maybe Vecchio might be sleeping with Stella. There were some cues there, those little glances, touches. Funny, that didn't bother him nearly as much as him not sleeping with Ben.

Whether they were or weren't didn't seem to matter, though. All he knew was that ever since they'd gotten back from the Frozen Wastes, Ben didn't seem to want to sleep with Ray, or even just be with him any more. Ray-him, not Ray-the-other-guy. God, he was even confusing himself. He'd always hated being called Stanley, but right now he was tempted to go back to it just so he wouldn't share a name with Vecchio. But he had gotten so used to Ray that he couldn't. Plus, Ray was what Ben had always called him. He didn't want to be Stanley because Stanley was a stranger to Ben. Unlike Ray. And . . . Ray.

What the hell did Ben see in the guy? Even after all this time, the first thing he'd done to Ben was hurt him some more. When he'd yelled at him for blowing his cover, Ray had seen hurt in Fraser's eyes and that pain had cut him like a knife. He halfway wished he had gone ahead and finished shredding the guy's cover. He'd love to have seen Muldoon blow the bastard's brains out. Except that wouldn't have made the pain in Ben's eyes go away. It would just have made it worse. Not to mention the fact that he and Ben would now be very dead and while it didn't matter much to him if he got dead, he didn't want Ben to be dead.

So, now Vecchio had his own life back, and a good percentage of Ray's life, too. Well, there was one thing he wasn't getting back. Not if he, Ray Kowalski had anything to say about it. Of course, he didn't have a say in it. It wasn't up to him, much as he wished it was.

Sometimes lately, when he looked at Ben and remembered the look on his face, the open, shining delight when that hotel room door had opened and he'd seen Vecchio, Ray thought he might throw up. Everyone was happy to see 'the real Ray.' Everyone but him. He wanted to kill him. A dark, roiling violence seethed beneath his surface, just waiting for a trigger. Now he knew. Now he understood how someone could really want to kill another person.

But for all that, he couldn't even sock the guy one, if for no other reason than that he'd taken a bullet for Fraser. That counted for a lot. He'd tried, he'd really tried to get along with him. For over a week now. The first day or so, he'd thought it might be okay. After all, the guy was gonna retire, take disability because of that slug.

But that hadn't happened yet, and the guy was working his desk-jockey job half-days, every day, and so Ray had to look at Vecchio all the time and know that Ben wanted him. Loved him. Not to mention that half the time Vecchio still looked at him like he was dirt. Less than dirt. It brought back all his old uncertainties, the ones he'd finally, finally begun to put aside.

To top it all off, what little time Fraser did have away from the Consulate these days, he seemed to spend hovering over Vecchio like a nurse in a sickroom. When he was supposedly there to 'liaise' with Ray. Oh, yeah, they were still partners, suuuure they were. 'If you'll have me.' Bullshit.

He'd pretended not to see the vaguely guilty looks that Ben sometimes shot in his direction, the apologetic glances. Finally he just couldn't take it any more. The stress, the hurt, the anger, it all got too big. In an act of self-humiliation that ranked right up there with peeing his pants in a bank lobby, he really had lost his lunch, right in the Division men's room, in front of God and Huey. Who went and got Welsh. Who sent him home with 'the flu.'

He'd slunk out without saying a word to anyone. No one needed to know. He'd gone home where he didn't have to try to pretend he didn't hurt, that he didn't care. He'd gone home and gotten drunk, a real, full-bottle, flat-out drunk. Hadn't done that in a long time.

Sometime after that, he had no idea what time it was, other than it was dark, he heard someone at the door, and he ignored it. There was silence for awhile, then he heard the sound of the door opening, and belatedly remembered he hadn't locked it. Not that it mattered. He perked up a bit. Maybe it was a criminal and they'd shoot him and put him out of his misery. Whoever it was walked into the room. He pretended to be asleep to make it easier. Shoot me, he thought. C'mon. Shoot me.

"Ray?" Fraser's voice sounded a little sad, a little disapproving.

Just what he needed. Fraser. "Yeah?" he said, then remembered he was supposed to be asleep. Oh well. Too late.

"You've been drinking," this time Fraser's voice was definitely disapproving.

"Yeh. 'magine that. Pretty fuckin' observant there, Cons'ble." he snarled belligerently.

"Ray, please."

Please. He remembered the times he'd heard that voice say 'please', when it was husky with desire. He flinched. Don't say please. Makes me think . .. makes me remember. "Whadaya want?"

"I wanted to talk to you. But you know, Ray, you really shouldn't drink if you're ill. The alcohol interferes with your immune system."

Ray looked up at him blearily. "You come over for the first time in fer-fuckin-ever just t'lecture me?"

Ben was silent for a few moments, then he shook his head, not looking directly at him. "No. I'm sorry. I didn't. I came because I was concerned about you. Because I realized that I have not been completely forthcoming, and that you might perhaps have misunderstood things."

Ray snorted derisively. "Nope. Don' think so. Not stupid, y'know. Not blind."

There was a long moment of silence. He let himself hope Ben had gone. No such luck.

"I'm sorry, Ray. I didn't mean . . ."

"Know that. Just go 'way."

"No." Fraser's voice was firm now. Determined.

Shit. He'd never get rid of him now. "I mean it!" Ray said, lunging unsteadily to his feet, fists clenched. "Get outta here!"

Ben caught him as he staggered, and almost fell, gathering him against his broad, warm chest.

"Ray, stop it."

"Go 'way!"

"Ray!" Fraser actually sounded aggravated. He shook him slightly. "Ray, listen to me!"

"Don' wanna."

"I realize that. Do it anyway." Ben said, uncharacteristically insistent. "Yes, I am pleased to see Ray. It has been a long time, and he is still my friend. I've missed him.

Ray flinched. "Stop!"

"Ray! Ray, listen to me! I said he's my friend. That's all. He's my friend. Nothing more. I thought you understood that."

"Thought so too," Ray said morosely. "'Til I saw how you look at him."

Fraser sighed. "Ray. Ray, please. We've talked about this before."

"Gonna fuck both of us?" Ray asked coarsely, almost wishing he would. At least then he'd be here, sometimes. "Nice bonus. Two-fer-one. Don' even have to 'member which one's which."

"Stop it, Ray!" Fraser's voice was hard, harsh, startling. Ray opened his eyes and stared into his face. He was angry. Very angry. Good. It was about time. Way too late, though.

"No. 'Nuff, Fraser. Get out. Go. Jus' get the hell out."

There was a long silence. Ray raised his eyelids just enough to see Fraser without making it obvious that he was looking. His friend's head was down, his eyes closed, a tension around his mouth that belied the seeming calm on his face. He lifted a hand, thumb stroking at his eyebrow in an unconscious distress signal before moving down to flick quickly across each eyelid as he drew in a long, shaky breath. The silence grew oppressive. Ray didn't break it. He knew what would happen if he didn't. Finally it did. Ben stood up and walked toward the door.

Ray wanted to say something, to stop him, but forced himself not to do so. It would be better this way. Let Fraser go out mad at him. Make it easy for him to leave. That way he wouldn't feel guilty. Ray could keep that treasure for himself. The guilt of knowing he'd hurt Ben.

Not that he wanted to hurt Ben. That was the last thing he wanted, but sometimes you had to hurt someone to help them, and he wanted Ben to be free to go back to Vecchio without worrying about him. Funny. He really had managed to affect Ben in one very basic way. Fraser had learned how to lie. Ben had actually lied to him. He'd said that nothing would change when the real Ray came back. But everything had. Everything. God.

The door opened and closed. He heard the lock click into place. Funny, how Ben wouldn't lock his own door but he'd lock Ray's. Ray waited, counting the seconds in his head, knowing just how long it took to walk down the stairs, out the door, into the night. When enough time had passed, he rolled off the couch onto the floor, and pounded his fists into the sofa cushions, wishing they were Vecchio's face.

When that brought no relief he let loose the agony that was trying to strangle him and wept, completely broken. God. God. God. He hadn't thought it would hurt this much. He hadn't known until just this moment how much more of his soul Fraser owned than Stella ever had.

He felt hot tears on his face, heard the ugly, broken sounds, the moans he made as he sobbed, mindlessly. God. It hurts. So bad. Hurts-hurts-hurts. He wished he'd died in that ice crack. It would have hurt so much less than this. He could have just gone to sleep and it would have all been over. But he hadn't. He was alive, and hurting, dying.

He wrapped his arms around himself and rocked. He looked over at where he'd tossed his badge and gun, and his gaze locked on the metallic gleam of the weapon. Since no criminal had obliged him, there was always the do-it-yourself method. No one would even wonder why. No one ever did, when you were a cop. You were just another statistic.

* * *

Ben stood on the sidewalk in front of Ray's apartment building, feeling completely adrift without Ray, who had, unknowing, become his lifeline. He couldn't blame Ray for being hurt, for being angry. He was ashamed of himself. Ashamed that he had risked two lives in the pursuit of revenge. Ashamed that despite his promise to Ray that nothing would change, he had allowed change to occur.

And Ray, far more sensitive and perceptive than anyone other than Fraser realized, had sensed that, and it had wounded him as surely as any gun or knife. Ben knew that the ugly words Ray had spoken were just a reflection of his pain. He understood that and he had gone, because he couldn't bear to inflict any more pain on his already suffering lover.

"Hey, mister?"

He turned slowly. A dark-haired woman in a shapeless housecoat was standing on the front step of the building, a few feet away. He remembered her. Ray's landlady. The one who lived below him.


"You're Apartment 309's friend, right?"

Fraser nodded. He was. Or at least, he used to be.

"Thought so. Um... maybe you wanta go back and check on him? I think he's hurt or somethin'."

Yes. He was hurt. Deeply. And I'm the one who hurt him, Fraser thought. Then he realized that couldn't be what she meant. She couldn't know that.

"Hurt?" he managed to ask.

"Yeah. I heard a noise, like maybe he fell, and a kind of whimpering sound."

Fear galvanized him. Ray was very drunk. What if he had injured himself? He turned and ran back to the building, nearly shoving the landlady aside in his haste.

"Hey! You need a key?" she asked as he brushed past her.

Fraser shook his head, not stopping. He had a key. With characteristically impulsive generosity, Ray had given him a key almost a month ago, the day after they'd first made love. A month. That was all. And of that month a week had been taken by the case, and he had wasted another. That left only two weeks of happiness, out of a month. Perhaps he really was insane, as people often suggested. What else explained his behavior? He suddenly wondered what on earth had possessed him to give up so easily. Fight, damn it. Fight for him. He's worth fighting for. Even if it's him you have to fight.

He took the stairs two at a time, flew down the hallway and skidded to a stop in front of Ray's apartment, almost slamming into the wall in his haste. Fumbling with the key in the door he'd locked behind himself when he left, he finally got the door open to find Ray lying in a fetal curl on the floor next to the couch. Fraser was kneeling at his side in seconds, hands moving anxiously over his body as he managed to puzzle out that Ray was saying 'it hurts' over and over again. He could find no sign of injury, though, no blood or bruises or swellings.

"Ray? What's wrong? Where are you hurt?"

For answer Ray merely curled more tightly in on himself, cupping his left hand over his face, his right tight against his stomach, suddenly silent, save for the gasping breaths he couldn't control. Could he have internal injuries? An ulcer, perforated by the liquor he had consumed? Surely not a heart attack. Ray was strong, healthy, fit, he had made it through their wilderness trek unscathed. It couldn't be his heart. Then, as Ben tried to think what else could be wrong, a hint of light runneled along the object Ray held in his right hand, half hidden against his shirt. Steel-blue, lethal metal.

Ben's heart froze within him. No. Not that. Oh God. Oh God. He had done this to Ray, hurt him this badly. How could he not have realized what he was doing? How could he not have known? This was so much worse than he could have possibly imagined. Anguished, he eased down next to Ray and pulled him into his arms, cradling him as he might a child, and put his lips against the surprising softness of his spiky hair.

"I love you, Ray. I know I hurt you, but I love you. I won't let you do this, and I won't let you push me away."

"Dammit, Fraser, lemme go!" Ray gasped, struggling in his arms, trying to fight free, uncoordinated from liquor and strong emotions.

"No. I won't let you go. Not ever."

Across the room, someone cleared their throat. Fraser looked up to see Ray's landlady hovering on the threshold with a most peculiar look on her face -- a combination of expressions that managed to be simultaneously scandalized, titillated, and concerned. His face heated as he realized she must have overheard him. It had been rather indiscreet of him to leave the door open, but in his defense, he'd been too worried about Ray to think clearly.

"So, um, he okay?" she asked, finally.

"I'm afraid he's had rather too much to drink."

"Oh. That's okay then. Well, guess I'll be goin'," she took a step away, then looked back at them with a grin and a wink. "G'night, and good luck. Cute, ain't he?"

Fraser was too stunned to think of anything to reply, but she didn't seem to expect one. She just closed the door with a raspy chuckle, leaving them alone together.

"Oh, hell," Ray groaned. "On top of everything else, now my landlady knows I'm queer. If she jacks the rent you're paying the extra, Fraser."

The words were as beautiful as any song. Fraser closed his eyes, fought back tears or relief, and then looked down into Ray's face. He looked like hell, but there was a faint gleam of humor in his red-rimmed eyes. Thank God. Thank God. Maybe they could get past this. Just maybe. He smiled, hiding the ache of his fear and self-disgust behind it.

"I would be happy to do so, Ray, however, I do feel that if I am to pay part of your rent, I should have certain privileges here."

Ray snorted. "Oh, right, like you don't already!" Then his jaw hardened stubbornly, and he glared at Fraser. "An' I'm still pissed at you, so don't go thinkin' thing's are okay."

Fraser sobered instantly. "I know that, Ray. You have every right to be angry with me." He reached down, and eased the gun from Ray's lax grasp, noting with relief that the safety was still on. At least things hadn't gone that far. It was bad enough that he even had it in his hand. Thankfully Ray gave it up without protest. Placing the weapon on the coffee table, Ben clasped Ray's hands in his. "I hurt you, and I'm sorry. But, if I may make a rather obvious point, I am here."

"Yeah, for now."

"No. Not just for now. I told you before, that what I had with Ray Vecchio is over. It can't be resurrected."

"Even though you'd like to," Ray said, fighting free of Ben's arms to sit with his back against the couch, his head in his hands.

Ben considered his next words carefully. "No, Ray. I don't want to resurrect it. What I have with you is far more than I ever had with him, or ever could have with him. I realize I have been behaving strangely . . ."

Ray laughed humorlessly. "You? Strange? Never."

Ben sighed. He'd deserved that. "I can be as much a fool as the next man, Ray," he said quietly, staring at their hands where they rested, clasped, in his lap. "I'm only human."

There was a long silence. Ben didn't dare look at Ray, too afraid it had been the wrong thing to say. Everyone here seemed to think he was some sort of superman. He supposed Ray probably did, too. He often found himself trying to live up to that, but it was a hard thing. A very hard thing.

"Say it again," Ray said suddenly.

"I'm only hum . . ."

"Not that."

"What, then?"

"The other thing. What you said when you held me."

A tiny rivulet of relief began to flow in his heart. "I love you, Ray. I love you, and I won't let you go, I won't let you push me away."

"And what about . . . him?"

"I love him too, but only as a friend. Not the way I love you."

"You sure?"

Ray's blue eyes lifted to his, then quickly lowered again, the wary, uncertain gaze of an animal who'd been struck by someone he trusted. God, that stabbed him like a knife. He'd seen that look in Ray's eyes before, thought it had been banished forever. Now it was back, in spades.

He wanted to close his eyes, to pretend he hadn't seen, but he couldn't. This was his fault. He'd done that. He had to face the consequences. Moving to kneel in front of Ray, he reached out to catch his chin in his hand and lift his face until their eyes met.

"I'm sure, Ray. Very sure. I've been foolish, thoughtless and cruel. I'm so very sorry for that. Can you forgive me?"

Ray's eyes misted, and he blinked and looked away. "Dumb question. How can I not?

"Easily. It's very difficult to forgive. Believe me, I know."

Ray flashed that self-deprecating smile again, the one Ben both loved and hated. "No, Fraser, it's not hard. Not when it's you."

"Why should it be different with me?"

"I don't know why, but it is. It just is."

"I won't hurt you again, Ray." Fraser promised, knowing he would do everything in his power to make certain that was the truth this time. No more blinders. No more self-indulgent guilt. "I love you."

Ray looked at him with an expression simultaneously wary, and hopeful, and he sighed. "Okay."

Okay. What a great deal of meaning that simple word carried. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Approval. Okay. Fraser held the word to him, relishing it.

"So, um, you gonna tell me why?" Ray asked quietly.

"Why what, Ray?"

"Why you've been avoiding me if you love me."

Ben sighed. This was why Ray was a detective. Even drunk he had an uncanny knack for knowing what questions to ask.

"I'm afraid I was punishing myself. I just wasn't thinking clearly enough to realize that I was also punishing you and Ray Vecchio as well. Sometimes I am not the most considerate of people."

Ray stared at him, then sat up straighter, frowning. "Let me get clear on this. You were punishing yourself by staying away from me?"

Ben nodded, knowing exactly how stupid it sounded. How stupid it had been. There was no excuse for it. None at all. There was a moment of silence as Ray processed that information, then he spoke again.

"Now explain to me how hanging out with Vecchio is a punishment."

"Well, I . . . "

"Never mind, I think I got it. You hang around him and since he doesn't want you any more, that hurts too, right? Jesus, Fraser! An' I thought I was screwed-up! What's wrong with you? What'd you do that was so rotten you got to fuck yourself up that bad for?"

It took Ben a second to puzzle out the meaning in that rather garbled sentence, but when he did, he closed his eyes.

"I almost got you killed. Both of you," he whispered, finally.

There was another long pause as Ray absorbed that information. Apparently the alcohol he had ingested was slowing him down, he was usually much quicker than this. Finally he spoke.

"Do I look dead to you? And Vecchio, he's got it made! Gets to get paid for doin' whatever he wants!"

"The fact remains, had I not been intent on revenge, Ray would not have been shot, nor would you have been subjected to several potentially-fatal events."

Ray sighed. "Ben, I love you, but you do know you're certifiable, right?"

Ben looked up to find Ray gazing at him fondly, an odd expression to have while stating that he was mentally deficient. Probably the alcohol at work again. He waited, figuring Ray hadn't finished yet. He was right.

"Were you raised by gorillas or something?" Ray demanded incredulously. "I mean, where'd you get this revenge crap? Yeah, so the guy killed your mom! You were already on the case when you found that out. The Style-pi... er, I mean Vecchio'd already gotten plugged by then, or almost. We were after a scumbag arms dealer and a nutball buyer. None of that woulda changed if Muldoon hadn't killed your mom. You caught the guy, you had him alone, if you'd wanted revenge you could've capped him in that mineshaft. But no, you brought him out, and he's going through the system. So where's the revenge?"

"Just because I managed to control my impulses does not mean I didn't have them, Ray."

"Yeah, so? That doesn't mean everything's your fault, either. I mean, I been wanting to smash Vecchio's face in, but that don't mean it was my fault he got shot."

Fraser looked at him, stunned. "What? Why would you want to hit Ray?"

"Well, partly because he treats me crappy, but mostly because he hurt you. He hurt you and left you." Ray frowned suddenly. "Wait. Maybe I oughta kiss him instead. If he hadn't hurt you and left you, then you wouldn't be here now. Yeah. You know, I think I will kiss him."

"I'd really rather you didn't, Ray," Fraser said, feeling most peculiar at the thought. He didn't like that idea at all. The thought of Ray kissing Ray . . . he blinked. "Please, don't."

Ray looked at him, and a sensual smile curved his mouth. "Why not?"

"I . . ." Fraser swallowed. "I'd just rather you didn't."

"Turns you on, does it? Got a taste for that threesome thing with Vecchio, did you?"

"Ray!" Fraser gasped. "Really!"

Ray's grin widened. "What's that thing they say about protesting too much?"

"I am not . . ." Fraser began, only to have Ray reach out and plant a hand right smack between his legs. "Okay, guess you're not lying," he said after a moment, lifting his hand.

"That's not a lie-detector, Ray," Fraser said drily.

"Sure it is."

"No it isn't."

"Is too. Watch." He put his hand back down. "Now, close your eyes, and think about Vecchio giving you a long, slow, wet kiss, peeling open those dress reds, unfastening that top button . . . ."


"Okay, okay. Now, let's say it was me. See me coming up behind you, putting one hand up under your shirt, the other one sliding down, into your pants . . . oh yeah." He grinned. "See? Just like Pinnocchio's nose."

"That is simply an autonomic reaction to the placement of your hand."

"Mmmhmm. Sure." Ray chuckled, then sobered. "Ben, will you . . . can you stay?"

Ben looked at him. "If you'll have me," he said, deliberately.

Ray smiled, slowly, sweetly. "Any way you want me to. But maybe, first, we could just um, be together, just be, for awhile?"

Fraser smiled back, drawn in by the aching vulnerability he sensed, a vulnerability that was echoed in himself. "Of course. I'd like that."

Ray closed his eyes, and sighed. "God, I sound like a chick. I wanna cuddle."

"Cuddling is nice, Ray."

"Yeah. 'Specially since I, uh, kinda had a little more to drink than I should've."

Fraser wrinkled his nose. "I was aware of that, Ray."

"You saying I stink?"

"Not in comparison to, say, a dead caribou."

Ray laughed. "I get the hint. Come on, help me so I don't fall down in the shower and crack my head open."

"You should also drink as much water as you can, so you don't end up with a hangover."

Ray looked up, surprised. "Where'd you learn that trick?"

"At Depot," Ben said, grinning. "I was the designated driver."

Fraser stood up, and extended his hands to help Ray to his feet. As he did, his gaze fell once more on Ray's police paraphernalia where they lay on the coffee table. Cell phone, cuffs, badge, gun. He looked at Ray.

"Would you have?" he asked quietly.

Ray followed his gaze, and thought about it. "I don't know. I don't think so. But . . . ."

Fraser looked him in the eyes. "If you had, I would have followed you."

Ray's eyes widened, then narrowed, sudden fury lighting them. "You do that and I'll . . . um. . . "

His voice trailed off. Ben figured he'd suddenly realized that if he'd already killed himself there wouldn't be much he could do about it. He was quiet for a moment, then he bit his lip and looked up at Ben through his eyelashes in a heartwrenchingly endearing way.

"Um, pretty stupid, hunh?"

Ben nodded. "Yes, but I understand. I have been in that place before, myself. If you had done it, I'd be there now. And I'm sorry."

"Enough. I got that already. I'm sorry for scaring you."

"Apology accepted. Shower?"

Ray grinned. "Shower."

* * *

Sometime in the blue-gray hours of dawn, Ray woke up. For the first time since they'd returned from Canada, he woke up slowly, lazily, without that panicked, loss-filled lunge to awareness he'd endured every other time he'd woken since then. He smiled, feeling the warm strength of his lover curled against him.

"Is everything all right, Ray?" Fraser's voice asked, quiet, calm, faintly curious.

"Yeah, Ben. Everything's great." It was funny how Ben always seemed to wake up as soon as Ray did. Like he had some kind of internal wake-up radar or something.

Fraser stroked a hand down his arm, finding his hand, intertwining their fingers. "You should go back to sleep, it's still early, and you were up late."

"So were you. I, um, I had a dream."

A slight tension bloomed in Ben's body. "A bad dream?"

He grinned. "No, just kind of a weird dream. I dreamed we were back up there, up North. Out in the middle of nowhere, with a dogsled, and Dief. We were, like, standing on a ridge looking down all this snow, and trees. Everything was white, except for where stuff looked black in contrast, like a picture by that photographer guy-- Grizzly Adams or something like that."

"Ansel Adams?" Ben asked, sounding amused.

"Yeah, him. Anyway, the only color was the sky, which was blue, except for this one weird-looking cloud."

"In what way was it weird-looking?"

"It looked like a hand. A reaching-out hand."

Ben was quiet for a moment, then he spoke. "Go on."

"That was about it. Except, I wasn't cold. Even though there was snow everywhere, and I was just sitting there in jeans and a t-shirt, I was warm. In the dream I was warm."


"What's that mean, that 'hmmm?'"

"Just 'hmmm'. An expression of interest, that's all."

"So, what does the dream mean?"

"You tell me, Ray, it was your dream."

Ray smiled. "I think it means it's time to get out of this hellhole for a while and go adventuring."

Against the back of his neck, he felt Ben's mouth curve in a smile. "I think so too, Ray."

"So, when are we leaving?"

"I'll have to apply for leave, as will you."

"I'll do it tomorrow. I have a lot of vacation saved up, seems like a good time to use it."

"I too have a good deal of leave time coming to me."

"Good. What else do we have to do?"

"We'll have to make travel arrangements, get a team, a sled, supplies."

"You can do that, right?"

"In my sleep."

Ray chuckled. "Good. Because that may be the only way you get any," he reached back and slid his hand down Ben's flank, eased it further back, to fill his palm with the hard curve of Ben's buttock. "Sleep, that is. Because I'm feeling deprived."

Ben caught Ray's earlobe between his teeth for a moment, then put his lips against his ear. "As am I, Ray," he said huskily, his hands spreading out to cover Ray's chest, fingers brushing his always-sensitive nipples.

Ray sighed, and pushed back into the cradle formed by Ben's body where it was curved behind his own. He felt a slight stirring against his buttocks, and began to rock, setting a cadence, until that stirring became an unmistakably hard length. Ben's hands slipped forward to caress his stomach, hips and thighs, and then moved lower to trail gentle fingers through the rough thatch of pubic curls, finally coming to rest cupped over Ray's hardening erection. After a moment, Ray pulled away a little, because the way they were lying, he couldn't touch Ben, pushing and maneuvering until they lay side-by-side.

"Now. Touch me," he breathed.

Not needing a second invitation, Ben reached for his cock and sheathed it with his fingers, moving his other hand down to cup the hot, sweat-damp flesh below it. Ray pushed into his hand, eyes half-closed with pleasure, his own hands searching, finding. Ben gasped and shuddered as he was enclosed by Ray's fingers, but didn't stop his ministrations. After a few moments of that, Ray needed more. He had to have more.

Reaching down to gently remove Ben's hands from himself, Ray slid lower on the bed, moving between Ben's thighs, and bent his head to drag his lips lightly across his lover's abdomen, using just a flicker of tongue against smooth, pale skin, now flushed with arousal. He loved how sleek Ben was, how soft that seldom-exposed flesh was against his mouth, loved the taste of him, the smell of him. Everything.

Moving lower, he found Ben's cock and circled its base with one hand, then put his lips to the side of his shaft, opening his teeth, biting gently. A soft affirmative sound slid from Ben's mouth, and his fingers clutched at Ray's shoulders. Ray smiled. Funny, how Ben always liked him to use his teeth. Liked to live dangerously. He bit again, a little harder, absorbed the shiver and gasp that followed, then moved lower, tongue flickering along the soft, loose folds of skin beneath Ben's cock, his free hand cupping, caressing. Against his fingers he could feel the strong, fast beat of Ben's pulse, speeding up now, as was his breathing.

Enough play. Ray shifted position slightly, opened his mouth and engulfed the pulsing shaft, his taste-buds flooding with the sweet-salt-bitter musk of flesh and sex. Ben moaned, shuddering. Yes, he wanted that moan, that shudder, more. Wanted to make him come, to taste his pleasure, to bring him fully home. He ran his tongue down the channel underneath, then back up to ease the tip of his tongue beneath the foreskin, pushing it back, then using his hand to keep it taut. Ben arched and sighed his name, his body tight with need.

One-handed, Ray grabbed the bottle of lubricant from the night-stand, flipped it open and drenched his fingers, then dropped the bottle and reached lower to find the small aperture and push two fingers inside. Ben gasped, buried his fingers in Ray's hair and held on as he let go of his control and thrust upward wildly. Ray let him do it, relaxing his jaw, tipping his head back to make more room for each thrust, using his hand in the same rhythm until Ben finally clutched his head in both hands, holding him still as he arched upward with an inarticulate cry and spilled into his mouth in pulsing waves, gasping with each spurt.

Finally the hands holding him relaxed, and Ray lifted his head, grinning.

"God, I love to make you come like that, loud and hard, like a wild thing. If the landlady didn't already know, she would now."

The sex-flush which had just begun to fade from Ben's creamy skin surged back upward in a blush, and Ray's grin became a laugh.

"And you still blush like a schoolgirl when I talk even halfway dirty."

Ben braced himself on his elbows and looked at Ray sheepishly. "I can't seem to help it."

"Don't even try. It's great." He sighed, and crawled back up until they were once more face-to-face, and he rubbed his nose across Ben's nose in what he'd been told as a kid was an 'Eskimo kiss.'

"Hey, they really kiss like this up there?"

"No, Ray, they kiss like this . . ." Fraser's mouth found his, almost delicately, openmouthed, warm-tongued. After a moment he drew back. "Since kissing is a European custom, it only stands to reason that it would be similar in any Europeanized culture."

"Good point. Still, maybe you should show me again. I wanna make sure I got it right."

Ben eyes sparked with humor as he nodded with mock-solemnity, repeating the caress. When he finished, Ray demonstrated his interpretation of the lesson. A soft brush of dry lips across dry lips, a firmer touch, openmouthed but still not full engagement, a tug of teeth on lower lip, then a quick flicker of tongue against tongue, and then, only then, did he let his mouth settle completely, sealing them together for a long, slow, sweetly mutual exploration. Finally Ray drew back.

"I think maybe I got it," he breathed. "What do you think?"

"Well," Ben hedged, dimples appearing around his mouth as he controlled a smile "One can never have too much practice with a tricky custom like that."

"Mmm, practice. I can do that. I'm good at practicing."

He lowered his head and practiced some more. Until he found himself lying over Ben, body straining against his, hips moving fluidly against hips, the aching hardness of his erection against the smooth, silky skin of Ben's abdomen, Ben's hands on his buttocks, urging him on. He stopped, panting a little, and put his forehead against Ben's shoulder, trying to catch his breath and slow down. He wanted this to last forever, and at this rate it would maybe be two minutes. Ben moved his hands upwards, stroking his back, his shoulders.

"Ray, I want you to make love to me," he whispered, his breath a warm caress against Ray's ear.

Ray chuckled. "Thought I was."

"No, I mean . . ." Fraser's voice trailed off.

Ray lifted his head so he could look into Ben's face. Ben was biting his lip and blushing fiercely as he looked helplessly up at Ray. A slow grin spread across Ray's face. He knew what tongue-tied Mountie meant, at least with his Mountie. Oooh, this was fun. He loved this part. "You mean you want me to fuck you?"

Ben's eyes closed, his blush deepened, and he nodded. "Yes, Ray."

"You mean, you want me inside you?"

Rayhadn't thought it was possible for someone to blush that dark and still remain conscious.

"Yes," Frasersaid in a strangled-sounding whisper.

Ray rolled to one side and slid a hand down Ben's body, starting at his shoulder, letting his fingertips re-chart the familiar territory of chest, ribs, belly, hip, thigh, all the way down to his knee, where he hooked a hand beneath it, pushing it up until it bent, then higher, until Ben's foot was flat on the bed, his knee raised, giving Ray the access he needed. He stroked his hand back down along the soft skin of Ben's groin, lower, lower. There. Ben caught his breath. He was still slick with lubricant, and Ray's fingers met with barely any resistance as they slipped inside.

"Ray, Ray please," Fraser breathed, his eyes dark with need.

Ray let his fingers slip free and slid into place beside Ben, then pulled him forward, urged Ben's thigh over his hip, pulling it high so it rested in the curve of his waist.

"I gotcha, Ben. I gotcha."

He slid his thumb across the tip of his own cock, spreading the slick pre-ejaculate around, then used one hand to guide himself and the other to carefully shift Ben's important bits slightly upward and out of the way as he curved his hips forward, found, and slipped inside that first little bit. Ben let out a single sob, a sound Ray knew from experience didn't indicate distress. He slid deeper, letting go of himself so he could push all the way in, flattening his hand against Ben's beautiful backside to help him keep his hips at the right angle. Face to face was always more difficult, unless you were into gymnastics, but this was a moment to be close, to be intimate, not acrobatic.

Stroking the soft cock trapped beneath his hand, knowing it would feel good, even if Ben didn't get hard again this soon, Ray leaned in to place nibbling kisses along his lovers jaw, enjoying the faint rasp of stubble against his skin, to brush his lips across his closed eyelids with their twin fans of thick, dark lashes. He let his tongue slip out to taste a bead of sweat that trickled down Ben's temple, and rocked softly into the confining heat that surrounded him, strangely content, feeling no urgency to bring the moment to completion. This was so right, so damned right. Ben's eyes drifted open, dreamy, smoky with arousal.

"I've missed you, Ray."

"Missed you too, Frase, too much, way too much. Next time you want to be punished, ask me, I can probably come up with something better."

"That would never work, Ray," Ben said, sighing as Ray shifted his hips a little, searching for just the right angle.

"Why not?"

"Because, one isn't supposed to enjoy punish . . . Oh God, Ray!"

Ray smiled. Found it. Under his hand, Ben's soft cock began to fill. His eyes were closed again, his tongue flickering out across his lower lip in an unconsciously sensual movement. Ray leaned forward and touched his own tongue to the same place, then captured Ben's mouth again for a long, deep kiss, all the while rocking into him, touching that sensitive little spot with his cock over and over again, feeling Ben's penis twitch and harden with each stroke.

"Some people might disagree," Ray whispered, after finally lifting his mouth.

Ben opened his eyes, looking bewildered, lost in the moment. "Ah, what were we . . .?"

"Never mind, just hang on."

He tightened his hand around the rigid length that was pulsing against his belly, and started to stroke harder with both hand and body. Ben moaned, bucking upward into his hand, into his thrusts. Ray's own pulse was pounding now, his contentment gone, need driving him. He put his mouth against that spot where Ben's shoulder and neck flowed together, and bit, then licked. Ben groaned, turning his head to one side to make it easier for Ray to reach him. Ray bit and licked, bit and licked again, never hard enough to break the skin, just enough to be a little wild. Ben started to tremble, and the tremors spread into Ray.

"Give it to me Ben, give it to me, let me feel you come," Ray whispered hotly.

That did it. Ben's face went slack and incandescent with pleasure as a cry broke from his lips. "Ray!"

The sound of his name, the sudden spread of wet heat against his belly, the rhythmic shivers, all combined to send him over the edge himself. He buried himself hilt-deep in his lover's body and let the waves wash him into delight.

* * *

Everything was going to be all right. That knowledge brought Ben as much pleasure as the purely physical release he'd just experienced. Yes, there were still problems, issues that would need dealing with, but from what he'd seen, that was normal for any couple. They were past the big hurdle though, the one raised by his own stubborn insistence on doing some sort of penance to redress his feelings of guilt. It suddenly struck him as rather odd that he had such Catholic ideas about guilt and penitence for someone raised Protestant. He couldn't believe how close he'd come to losing Ray over what amounted to baseless guilt.

He pulled Ray closer, reveling in the hard, living warmth of him, breathing his scent deeply, putting his mouth against his skin so he could taste him, reassure himself that he was here, and real, not a dream. Ray responded sleepily, stroking Ben's hair, wedging himself more tightly against him, if that were possible. Sweat beaded between their bodies, mingling with the still-warm wetness of semen where their stomachs touched. It would probably be good to get up, and go clean off, perhaps bring back a warm washcloth to do the same for Ray, but he didn't want to move. Being here like this, feeling that slight discomfort helped reassure him that yes, this was real. Very real, very earthy, completely human.

He felt grounded, firmly attached to the Earth for the first time in ages. Ray did that for him. When he started to lose that sense of connection, which he often did here in the city, Ray brought it back for him. Without him, Ben didn't feel whole any more.

"I love you, Ray Kowalski," he said, suddenly realizing he hadn't said that since that first time, weeks ago. That was far too long to let it go unspoken, even it if was hard for him to do so.

Ray stirred, nuzzling against his neck. "Love you, Ben. Benton Fraser. Hey, you got a middle name? Shouldn't I know that about you by now?"

Ben smiled. It was so very Ray, to go off on a tangent, even at the most serious of moments. "Yes, Ray, I have a middle name. Actually, I have two, which is why I don't use them. People find it confusing."

"I'm not that easy to confuse. What are they?"

"My father's first name, and my mother's maiden name."

"Oh, Robert Pinsent," Ray said sleepily. "Good. Thanks."

Ben lay there for a moment, trying to figure out how Ray knew that. Robert was easy enough, but he didn't recall ever having mentioned his mother's name to him. He had to know.

"Ray, how did you . . ."

As if reading his mind, Ray replied before he'd even finished posing the question. "The file on the NAFTA case. Remember? I had to read every damned case file you an' the . . . er . . . Vecchio worked on."

'The-er-Vecchio' appeared to be Ray Vecchio's new title these days. Ben smiled a little, touched that Ray would understand that no matter his own clearly mixed feelings toward the man, that he was Ben's friend and so he wouldn't badmouth him. But Ray's explanation was far from complete.

"Why would you remember such an insignificant detail?"

"Promise you won't get mad?"

"I promise."

"I remembered because when Muldoon told you about your mom, I went and looked up the file so I could do some checking and see what I could find about her for you. I never got a chance to do it, but I remembered her name. Caroline Pinsent. Pretty name, Caroline."

"Yes, it is," Ben said, remembering the way she'd looked as she had come for his father, as she'd put her insubstantial hands against his face. "Very beautiful. Like she was."

"You got her looks, hunh?"

Fraser felt a flush run through him. "Ray, I'm not . . . ."

"Just shut it, Fraser," Ray said with mock irritability. " You know damned well you are. So take the compliment already!"

Still blushing, Ben cleared his throat. "Thank you, Ray."

"That's better," Ray said smugly, as he tucked his head back down against Ben's shoulder and gave a deep sigh which turned into a yawn halfway through. "'Night, Ben."

"'Night Ray."

There was still an hour or two before they had to get up. Fraser tightened his arms around Ray, and settled back to rest, though he was fairly certain he wouldn't sleep again, himself. He thought of Ray's dream, and felt a certain sense of wonder that Ray was not only willing, but apparently eager to take on the challenge of what to him was a totally alien environment. Ray, who hated being cold with a passion, and who by his own account broke out in a rash when away from the city, was willing to go with Ben to a place few people would even consider visiting for a few days, let alone the weeks or months they would be there. It was the first time anyone had ever offered to do something like that for him. For once, he wasn't the only one willing to give.

Home. They were going home. He felt a rising sense of excitement at the prospect. Ray had said he felt warm in his dream, even without protection from the elements, which seemed almost to say he had already accepted that his place was there, that it was home not just for Ben, but for Ray, too. He hoped so, he really did. While he knew if it were needed, he would come back to Chicago for no other reason than to remain with Ray, there was a small corner of his soul that hoped they might find another path to walk together. One that would let him stay where he belonged, in that cold, clean emptiness that he knew best. Home.

* * *

Out of the corner of his eye, Ray Vecchio noted that the Pol . . . or rather, Kowalski had come into the bullpen. No more jibes, he told himself firmly, Benny doesn't like it. Kowalski stood in the doorway for a moment, looking around, then sauntered over to his own desk-- well, table-- and slouched down in his chair, opening a drawer, digging in it, finally taking out some kind of form which he put on top of a stack of files on his desk and started filling out.

Ray had to force himself not to stare at the other man. After last night, he was having a little trouble with that, because whenever he looked at the guy he found himself trying to imagine him with Benny, and failing. The Mountie, and that? It was like Snow White getting it on with an extra from The Road Warrior. Obviously there was something about the guy he was missing.

He still couldn't get over the weird fact that he was dating Stella, and the Mountie was with her ex. It was like some kind of cosmic connection thing. He forced himself to pay attention to the case file he was updating, and after a couple of minutes Kowalski got up and took himself and his form into Welsh's office. There was a short, somewhat heated discussion, then Welsh threw up his hands and waved the other man out of his office.

Apparently he must have agreed to whatever Kowalski had proposed, because the Pole was wearing a huge grin as he exited the room. It was the first time Ray had seen a smile from the guy that wasn't more of a baring of teeth. He was surprised to note that he had a very attractive smile. Okay, so there was one of those factors he'd missed.

Kowalski stopped by his desk, picked up a stack of folders, and wandered over to where Frannie was sitting. They joked together for a moment, Frannie clearly amused by whatever he'd said. He put down his folders on her desk and leaned over her to do something on her keyboard, his chin resting on the top of her head, arms framing her. Ray waited for her to belt the guy one, but strangely, she didn't seem to mind. Okay. So Frannie liked him too. And, he had to admit, the guy did have a pretty nice ass-- if a bit on the skinny side. Not that he noticed such things. Benny would, though. Ray grinned. Yeah, he'd notice, and then he'd blush.

After a couple of minutes Kowalski left Frannie and disappeared into the lunchroom, emerging a few minutes later with a coffee cup in one hand and a bag of M&M's in the other. Going back to his desk, he proceeded to drop half a dozen candies into the cup, which he then stirred and drank, with every evidence of satisfaction. Ray shuddered. Okay, so his culinary skills were less than ideal. That made him a pretty good match for Fraser, who, though he was capable of appreciating good food, seemed quite content to subsist on the opposite. Still sipping his mutant mochacchino, the other man picked up a file, leaned back in his chair, and propped his feet on the desk.

Since Kowalski's attention was on the file he held, Ray took a moment to study him closely. His boots looked like something one would wear to a mosh pit and his olive-green twill slacks clearly hadn't seen an iron since leaving the factory. With them he wore a too-small brownish t-shirt, and a leather jacket that would have been more at home on a street thug. As usual, his hair was gelled into wild spikes, and he also hadn't shaved since yesterday, at least; blondish-brown stubble outlined his jaw and mouth, with its rather petulant lower lip. Grudgingly Ray admitted to himself that all in all, the guy looked like he'd just stepped off the cover of 'Details.' It might not be his idea of style, but it was a style, for all that.

Suddenly Kowalski looked up and their eyes met. Knowing he'd just gotten caught staring, Ray braced for the baring of teeth he'd come to expect, and to his surprise, didn't get it. Instead, Kowalski straightened, looked around the bullpen, then put down his coffee, and stood up, moving purposefully toward his desk. Uh oh. Was he finally going to give in to the urge to plant a fist in Ray's face? He did kind of deserve it, he had been being a shit to the guy.

A quick glance around the room told him he and Kowalski were the only people present at the moment, so no one would come to his rescue. Warily Ray pushed his chair back a few inches to give himself room to leap to his feet if it were necessary, but Kowalski just planted his butt on the corner of the desk and . . . smiled. A real smile. A little diffident, a little sweet, openly friendly. The expression transformed his face completely, and stunned, Ray finally understood what Fraser saw in him.

"Hey, Vecchio," Kowalski ventured.

"Hey, Kowalski," Ray returned noncommittally, avoiding the contentious 'Stanley' and wondering what the hell was up.

"I, um, I was wondering if you might want to have lunch sometime? Either just us, or with Ben-- maybe even Stella too. I mean, it's kinda stupid for us to sit around here growling at each other like a couple of junkyard dogs. Yeah, he used to be yours but he's mine now, and Stella used to be mine, but she's not any more. So, like, we just have to learn to be okay with those things, right?"

Ray chuckled in spite of himself. "Yeah, that'd probably be a good idea, Kowalski."

"I thought so," Kowalski said proudly. "And Fraser didn't even put me up to it. In fact, he told me not to."

"Fraser told you not to talk to me?" Ray asked, surprised. Why would Fraser have done that?

Kowalski shook he head. "Nah, he told me not to kiss you."

Ray shoved his chair back a few more inches and looked around the room nervously. "What? Why the hell would you want to do that anyway?"

A big grin spread across Kowalski's expressive face. "I thought it would be nice to say thanks."

"For what?"

"Well, see, if you hadn't done the love-em an' leave-em thing, then I'd never have met Ben, and I don't think I'd want to be the person I'd be if I hadn't."

Confused, it took Ray a minute, but he finally figured out the sentence. He smiled. "Yeah, I know what you mean. He kind of has that effect on people."

"He does. So, truce?" He held out his hand.

Ray took it, and shook it firmly. "Truce, Ray."

Kowalski laughed. "How about you stick to Kowalski and I'll stick to Vecchio so it doesn't get confusing around here?"


"Oh, and Vecchio?"

"Yeah, Kowalski?"

"Sometime, could I? When he's around? Just to see the look on his face?"

"Could you what?"

"Plant one on you. No tongues or anything, I promise."

Ray laughed out loud, shaking his head. "You're a freak."

Kowalski grinned. "Yeah. So?"

Ray thought about it, about the expression Fraser would no doubt assume, and he chuckled. "Okay, yeah. Just once. And not in public."

"You got it." Kowalski grinned evilly. "This is gonna be fun. You know, Vecchio, you're okay."

Ray grinned back at him. "You know, Kowalski, you're okay too."

* * *

From the doorway to the bullpen, Fraser stood watching the byplay between Ray and Ray. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was clear to him that they were far more at ease than they had been up until now. He didn't know exactly what had happened, nor did it matter. What did matter was that they had apparently decided not to dislike each other. He smiled, feeling a warm glow somewhere in the center of his chest, which was silly because the heart was not the seat of emotion, it was simply a blood-pump made of muscles and nerves. Still, there it was. Not only was he going home, if only for awhile, but he'd gotten this unexpected gift as well. Finally something was going right in his world. Finally.

* * * Finis * * *

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