This is a sequel to my Due South & Hard Core Logo slash crossover, Northern Comfort. Benton Fraser and Ray Kowalski belong to Alliance/Atlantis and Paul Haggis. Billy Tallent belongs to Michael Turner, Bruce McDonald, Noel S. Baker, and "Ed Festus Productions." Rated NC-17 for explicit boy-on-boy naughtiness (F/K), a little bad language, and a good bit of angst. There are SPOILERS for Hard Core Logo, as well as for the DS episodes "Dr. Longball," and "Ladies' Man."

Soundtrack for this one: David Wilcox's "Slipping Through My Fist." and Melissa Etheridge's "Breakdown" -- the whole CD, but especially "Angels Would Fall," "Sleep," and "Truth of the Heart." The title is taken from a line in "Truth of the Heart." (Which seems like it was written with Benton Fraser in mind. . . even though I know darned well it wasn't.) --Kellie

No Secrets
© 1999 Kellie Matthews

        The ride from the crime scene they'd been working was uncomfortably silent. Not for the first time of late, either. Ray Kowalski was quiet, almost withdrawn, and Benton Fraser was getting concerned. No, not just concerned. Worried. Ever since Beth Botrelle had been released, Ray had seemed uncharacteristically subdued, even more than could be accounted for by his upset over the case. His normal exuberance was gone, he looked worn and distant. That distance was not just emotional, either, it was physical. Over the past three days, Ray's normal repertoire of pokes, prods, pats, and clutches was entirely absent, as were his usual invitations to share meals, and most of their customary banter. Having come to rely on those things to supply the intimacy his life was sorely lacking, Fraser felt strangely bereft without them.
        The car rolled to a stop in front of the Consulate, but not in a parking place. No, Ray was essentially double-parked. Clearly he was stopping just long enough to let Ben out. That, too, was not usual. Ray shot a quick glance his direction, then his head swivelled forward again and he stared out the windshield.
        "Here you go, Fraser, office sweet office. Have a good one," Ray said, his voice overly nonchalant.
        Fraser nodded, wishing he could think of an excuse not to exit the car, worried about Ray's state of mind, frustrated by his own inability to really help. Perhaps it was simply a reflection of his own inner turmoil, but the only explanation he could find for Ray's sudden uncommunicativeness and distance was the thought that Ray had somehow sensed his attraction. Could his awkward offer of physical comfort the other night have betrayed him? Somehow his hand on Ray's shoulder, his neck, must have given away his longing to do more than that. He thought he'd been so careful to keep his touch impersonal and asexual, yet what else might have caused Ray to retreat like this? It seemed undeniable that Ray had finally managed to see beneath his facade, and had been repelled by what he'd found there.
        Since his experiences with Billy Tallent, it had become more and more difficult to keep himself in line. He knew now what was possible, and he wanted that, badly. Very badly. He wanted to touch, to smell, to taste. To experience Ray in every way possible. It was maddening. Frustrating. Being around Ray was sometimes physically painful.
        Worse, he seemed to keep hearing Billy's voice, encouraging him to tell Ray how he felt. Twenty times or more, the words had actually formed themselves on his lips, but he'd swallowed them down unspoken, bitter as bile. He simply couldn't do it, especially not after watching Ray with Luanne Russell. That whole incident had reaffirmed to him yet again that Ray was undeniably heterosexual. Nor could he bring himself to mention their lack of closeness now, to extend an invitation to dinner himself, afraid it might be misinterpreted. He stifled a sigh and opened the car door, about to step out, when Ray spoke again, diffidently.
        "Hey, Frase, think I could borrow Dief for awhile?"
        Fraser turned, regarding his slim, wild-haired partner with bemusement. "To do what?"
        Ray stared straight ahead out the windshield. "Well, Dief likes pizza . . . ah, never mind. See ya." He shrugged as if to indicate how unimportant his thoughts were.
        Ben stared, trying to process his statement. What did Diefenbaker's fondness for junk food have to do with anything? Then he sorted it out. Ray didn't want to eat alone, and had in essence been inviting Diefenbaker to dinner. Not him. He felt much as he had that day by the lake when Ray had hit him, though this pain was far more intense.
        Blindly he pushed himself out of the car and headed for the consulate, glad of the darkness, knowing his expression would betray him. You were wrong, Billy. It was better not to feel. So much better. He heard Ray call his name on an uncertain note, heard the skitter of claws on the pavement and realized Diefenbaker was at his side. He stooped, grabbed the wolf's muzzle and spoke directly into his face. "Go to Ray. Stay with Ray."
        Dief whined, puzzled, and backed up a step.
        "Stay with Ray," Fraser repeated in a harsh whisper, then he was on his feet again, and the consulate door yielded to the key held in shaking fingers and he was blessedly inside. He went to his office, closing the door firmly, leaning back against it, dragging air into his lungs as if he'd run a marathon.

* * *

        Ray watched Fraser bend to speak to the wolf, watched him walk into the building, staring in open disbelief as Fraser closed the door firmly, leaving his companion outside. Dief stood for a moment, tail down, staring at the consulate door, then returned to the car, jumping into the seat Fraser had just abandoned, looking at Ray accusingly.
        "I know," Ray sighed. "I suck." He sighed again, and put his head against the steering wheel. "God, why do I keep falling for people who don't want me? What is with that? Glutton for punishment, I guess. But I better go talk to him. Didn't mean to hurt his feelings. Just, well, it's just hard, you know?"
        He looked over to find the wolf staring at him sagely, as if agreeing, and shook his head with a wry grin. "Damn, now he's got me talking to you too, like you're some kind of furry shrink."
        Reaching across Diefenbaker, Ray closed the passenger-side door, pulled forward into a real parking place, and killed the car. He sat for a moment, then resolutely threw open his door. "Okay, come on. Let's go see your human and the Suckmeister will try to make it right."
        He strode determinedly up to the door, Diefenbaker at his heels and reached for the handle. The door was locked. Well, that wasn't surprising, it was, after all, after hours. He knocked. No answer. Fraser must be in the can or something. He waited a few moments, then knocked again. Still no answer. Maybe Fraser thought he was someone with an emergency immigration request or something. He knocked louder, leaning closer to the door. He knew Fraser's hearing was so good he didn't really need to shout, but he did raise his voice just a little.
        "C'mon, Fraser, open up! It's me, Ray."
        Still no answer. For the first time it began to sink in that maybe Fraser wasn't opening the door because it was him, not because he didn't know it was him. His heart sank. Dief whined. Ray stood for a moment, uncertainly, then his jaw tightened. No way was he going to let this happen. Not after the last time he'd messed things up between them had nearly sent Fraser back to Canada.
        He got out his wallet, extracted the expired credit card he kept for such occasions, and went to slip the lock, only it wouldn't go in. He frowned, and squinted at the lock. It was shiny. New. One of those tamper-proof locks. Crap. He shouldn't have told Fraser about that trick, should have known Fraser wouldn't leave the Consulate poorly secured like that. He'd probably replaced the damned lock the next day. He sat down on the step, staring at the wolf.
        "Dief, what do I do now?"
        The wolf just stared back at him. Ray ran his hands through his hair, frustrated. Okay, fine. If he was going to play it this way, Ray could be stubborn as well. He leaned back against the door, and settled in to wait. Fraser had to come out sometime, and Ray fully intended to be here when he did. Stella had been stubborn too, but Ray had always been able to out-stubborn . . . He shivered. Shit. He was not going to do this again. He might be sick enough to get turned on by his own partner, but he wasn't sick enough to stalk Fraser like he had Stella.
        He lurched to his feet and headed for his car, then looked back over his shoulder.
        "Looks like you're stuck with me tonight, Dief. Come on, let's go."
        Dief hesitated, almost like a human might when given a difficult decision, then he followed, resuming his place in the GTO where Fraser normally sat. Ray closed the door, went to the driver's side and slid in. Almost unwillingly, he looked back at the Consulate, thought he saw a flicker of movement at the curtains in the front room. Hopefully, he waited for a few more moments, but when no other motion was detected, and the door did not open, he sighed.
        "I'm sorry, Fraser. It's not you. You didn't do anything wrong. It's me who's wrong. I'm the sicko."
        Diefenbaker whined softly in reply as Ray started the car, checked for traffic, and pulled out.

* * *

        Fraser listened to the knocking. Somehow, just from the timbre and pacing of the sound, he knew it was Ray. He closed his eyes. No. He couldn't face that. He simply couldn't. Perhaps he was a coward. No, there was no perhaps about it. He was definitely a coward. And Ray would be upset with him, but really, it was better this way. If it had gotten to the point where Ray was so uncomfortable with him that he would rather be lonely than be around him, then it was far too late to do anything about it.
        Another knock. Louder this time. Ray's voice, as well. God. He wanted to fling open the door, pull him bodily into the building, and show him what he was missing. But could not. That would be wrong. He knew that, viscerally. Knew that although there were ways to force a response, he wouldn't want it that way. He waited. The knocking stopped. There was silence for a while, and he found himself moving down the hallway with quiet steps, into the Inspector's office, to twitch back the edge of a curtain. The car was still there. That meant Ray was, as well.
        After a little while longer, he heard Ray speaking again, apparently to Diefenbaker. He couldn't quite make out words. Heard a car door close. Then another. He chanced another look. The car was still there and he could make out two pale shapes within it. He quickly let the curtain drop back, and moments later heard the car start, and pull away. He had thought that would bring relief. It didn't. The emptiness inside him only seemed to yawn deeper, a cold, icy crevasse in his soul. Almost automatically he reached for Dief, just to touch something warm, and alive, and then realized he was with Ray.
        That had been ill thought out. Now he would have to fetch him back. That would mean seeing Ray. Something hot slipped from beneath his lashes, slid down his face. His tongue flicked it away when it reached his lips, but it was rapidly followed by more, and he couldn't keep pace. He sank down on one of the chairs, face in his hands, and mourned the stillborn possibilities in a silence broken only by his own breathing, ragged and harsh.

* * *

        Ray stared at the reports on his desk, one hand folded protectively around the other, both pressed against his midriff as if he were holding his insides in. Which he might as well be, the way his morning coffee ate at his stomach like a pool of acid. He felt strangely cold, even though there was a warm, furry shape curled across his feet. He'd brought Diefenbaker to work, figuring Fraser would eventually come by to get him, but after the eighth person had seen Dief and asked him where Fraser was, he'd made the wolf sit under the desk instead of next to it. His attempts to phone the Consulate last night had all ended in Voicemail Hell, so he had no idea what to expect today.
        He heard Welsh's door open, and quickly grabbed a folder, pretending to study its contents. God. Six more hours of this? He'd done it before, in the early days after Stella had asked for a divorce, but it was somehow harder now. Maybe every time you screwed up your life, it got harder. It was definitely time to go do some 'footwork' on a case. Get out, go someplace where he didn't have to pretend to be a functional human being. He was so intent on the contents of the folder he held that he didn't even realize someone was speaking to him until it had clearly been going on for some time, judging by the resigned irritation in the voice.
        ". . .ective Vecchio?"
        He snapped back into the present and turned, the expanse of red that met his eyes made his heart lurch, but even before his gaze lifted to Turnbull's bland countenance he knew it wasn't Fraser, because this person smelled wrong. Nobody smelled like Fraser did. Soap, cedar, starch, wool, and . . . something. Not chemical, not perfume, just Fraser. Christ. He even knew what Fraser smelled like. How sick was that? He registered the fact that the Mountie looked a trifle annoyed at the moment. Turnbull, annoyed? That had to be a first. How many times had he called his name?
        "Sorry, Turnbull. I was deep into it, ya know? What's up?" It came to him suddenly that something might be wrong with Fraser. Why else would Turnbull be here? His fingers curled into fists, mangling the folder in his hands. "Something wrong with Fraser?"
        Something flickered in Turnbull's normally affable gaze, and he hesitated, then shook his head. "No sir. Constable Fraser merely asked me to determine whether you had finished with Diefenbaker's services."
        "Oh," Ray said blankly, staring up at the tall figure. He didn't like that pause, but Turnbull was like Fraser, and he wouldn't lie. If Fraser was hurt, or sick or something, he'd have said. So. This was it. His last card played, and useless. Fraser hadn't even come to get Dief himself. He forced himself to unclench his hands, smoothing the heavy tagboard, trying to unwrinkle the papers it held.
        "Oh. Well. Yeah, we're done. He's here . . . ." he scooted back from the desk, and Dief looked up, saw Turnbull, and growled. Ray frowned. "Hey, that's no way to act. You behave yourself. Go on. Go with him. Fraser wants you." /Not me. Not that I blame him./ "Go on, get out of there."
        With clear reluctance, Diefenbaker unfolded himself from the cave-like space and pushed past Ray to stand beside Turnbull. Ray looked at the wolf, and without looking up at Turnbull he spoke again.
        "Tell Fraser I . . . uh, thanks. For letting me . . . borrow him, I mean."
        Turnbull bobbed like a waiter. "Certainly, sir. I shall." He hesitated again, and his look was questioning, and odd. "Was there anything else you'd like me to tell Constable Fraser?" he prompted.
        A hundred things. And none. He shook his head, avoiding those oddly penetrating eyes. "Nah. Think it's all been said, Turnbull. But thanks."
        Turnbull stood there for a moment longer. Ray deliberately shifted his attention back to his file. After a moment he heard a slight sigh, and Turnbull was walking away, leaving Ray blessedly alone again. He covered his face with his hands, trying to remember how to breathe. "Oh, man, Kowalski, you are such a major, world-class screw up it's not even funny," he whispered to himself.
        A day without Fraser. A day without Fraser was like a day without sunshine. God, now he had a picture stuck in his head of Fraser with a glass of orange juice. Maybe looking tousled, like he'd just woken up. Wearing those damned red long-johns that should've looked silly but instead looked sexy . . . Christ, Kowalski. Stop it. Just stop it. And it wasn't just a day. It was. . . forever.
        Shit. Frannie. Just what he needed. He sucked some air in, managed to keep down his coffee, and looked up.
        "Yeah Frannie, what?"
        She regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, her dark eyes shining with concern. She was a pretty woman, if a little ditzy. Why couldn't he have fallen for her? That at least would be normal. Well, except that she was supposed to be his sister, so that'd be pretty sick too. Good thought. Real reassuring.
        "You don't look so hot, Ray. You got that flu that's going around?"
        "Nah, Frannie, thanks, I'm fine. Just a headache. And the coffee . . . ." He waved a hand aimlessly to indicate disgust.
        She grimaced. "Yeah, I know. It's enough to strip paint. That'd give anybody a headache. I still don't see why Welsh wouldn't let me keep the espresso machine! But anyway, what'd Turnbull want?"
        "Nothing really, he just came to get Dief."
        "Oh. Guess Fraser was busy?"
        "Guess so," Ray lied.
        She looked a little forlorn and Ray had the strangest feeling she was thinking almost exactly what he'd just been thinking himself. Why couldn't she have fallen for Turnbull instead of Fraser? At least with that particular Big Red Guy she'd have stood a fighting chance, while she was as far out of Fraser's league as . . . well, as Ray was. Suddenly she looked back at him, their eyes met, and hers widened.
        He looked away. "What Frannie?"
        "Um. . . uh. . . is . . . are you and. . . ." She stopped, bit her lip, and made a face. Then she started again, looking peeved. "Is Stella bein' mean to you again? Because if she is, I swear I'm gonna kick her skinny little . . . "
        "No," he reassured her hastily. "Stella's not being mean to me." At least no meaner than normal, he thought. And for that, well, maybe she had a reason to be. He hadn't exactly let her go, even now, when he knew he didn't, and never would, have the 'old' feelings for her again. It was like he was just holding on just to have. . . something to hold onto. Looked like he had a lot of letting go to do. Frannie frowned.
        "Ray, you really do look like crap. You sure you're okay?"
        He forced a smile. "Gee Fran, love you too. Look, I got work to do, so I'm going to go do it, okay?"
        "You sure you shouldn't just go home?"
        He glared at her. "I'm sure. Now go . . . aide somebody."
        "I was trying to 'aide' you, you moron!" she said, sounding like a sister ought to.
        He couldn't help but chuckle at that. "Thanks. But I can take care of myself."
        She snorted. "Oh yeah. Sure."
        Across the room, Huey hollered her name, and she sighed.
        "So practice what you preach, bro. Take care of yourself," she said as she headed over to see what the other detective needed.
        Ray stood up and scribbled his name on the 'out' board with a random case number next to it, and headed for the parking lot. For a while he just drove around aimlessly, but after the third time he passed the Consulate, he realized what he was doing, and forced himself to stop. Stalking again. Damn it. Maybe he ought to see a shrink. The department had one. But that would get back to people, and besides, Vecchio would never do it, and he was supposed to be Vecchio.
        So that left only one alternative. A few blocks, a few turns, and he was parked and walking into that weird joint Fraser had taken him to a few days back, taking a seat at the bar. The skinny balding bartender was there again, the one who'd been so hot to be helpful. The guy looked up and saw him, came over, nodding in recognition as he did.
        "Scotch. Double. Straight up," Ray snapped out.
        The bartender nodded, poured, and handed him the drink before speaking
        "So, how's the despondency these days?"
        Ray took three long, searing swallows and a moment to catch his breath, then looked the guy in the eyes. "Worse."
        "Thought you looked pretty bad. Want to talk about it?"
        "Yeah. No." His gaze went to the mirror, and he people watched for a moment. It dawned on him suddenly that there wasn't a single female face in the room. It also came to him what neighborhood he was in. He shook his head, suddenly amused. Leave it to Fraser to take him to a gay bar. If it had been anyone but Fraser, he'd have wondered if he was trying to tell him something, but he knew that Fraser was simply clueless. To him it had just been a convenient place to take Ray after his little episode in the alley.
        Ray's gaze moved to the bartender, found him staring back intently, and he realized suddenly that maybe the guy wanted to do more than talk, but he wasn't in the market. There was only one guy he wanted. Only one guy he'd ever wanted. And that guy couldn't even bring himself to touch him.
        "So, where's Constable Fraser?"
        "Working," Ray said shortly, staring into his empty glass.
        "Oh. He must be working a lot. Haven't seen him around here much lately."
        Ray looked up from his glass, surprised. "Lately? You mean he's been here before?"
        "Yeah, he comes in for lunch a lot. He's sort of a regular."
        "Fraser?" Ray heard the incredulity in his voice. Fraser hung out in gay bars?? No way. He shook his head. "Fraser doesn't even drink!"
        "No, he doesn't, but we serve excellent sandwiches, and he does know his herbs. And he likes to talk, did you know he tells great stories?"
        Ray chuckled. "Oh yeah. Got a story for every occasion. Well, almost. No story for. . . ." He stopped himself, shaking his head. Don't go there. He concentrated on the unexpected revelation that Fraser was a regular here. In a strange way it made sense. For Fraser going to a regular bar meant women would try to pick him up, and he wasn't into that, but he was too nice to women to want to hurt their feelings by saying no. Coming here, well, it was a yuppie gay bar at lunch time. Nobody would be obnoxious, and Fraser would be politely oblivious to any and all overtures, and there would be no problem. And he could talk esoteric herbs and stuff about warts with the bartender, what better place for him?
        Of course, this might explain how Fraser had managed to pick up on Ray's feelings, despite Ray's attempts to bury them so deeply they couldn't be seen. If he was hanging here, seeing it all around him, maybe he'd learned what to look for. Yeah. That explained a lot. And Fraser, being Fraser, would never dream of saying anything like "Ray, you're making me uncomfortable, back off." He would just do what he had done, he'd get distant, back away himself, since he couldn't ask Ray to do it. Shit.
        "You know, the first time you were in here, I thought for sure you guys were a couple," the bartender said conversationally. "I mean, it was just so clear, the touching, the closeness . . . But then last time, the vibe was totally different. Did you break up? Is that what's bothering you?"
        Ray stared at him, totally confused. "Hunh? What do you mean the first time I was here? I've only been here once before in my whole life."
        The bartender stared back at him, looking equally confused. "You were here before, remember? You guys were in here together about two months ago. You had a guitar case with you, and looked like somebody had worked you over. You were having lunch on your way to the airport, about to leave for Los Angeles, and I distinctly remember Constable Fraser calling you by name, Billy." He said that last with a pleased expression, as if that should prove his point.
        Ray shook his head, frowning. "My name's not Billy, it's Ray." He dug out his wallet and flipped it open, half afraid that he would find his license showed his name as "Billy Vecchio." Thankfully he hadn't entered the Twilight Zone. It said Ray, just like it always had. He showed it to the bartender, who read it, and looked embarrassed.
        "I'm terribly sorry. I must have mistaken you for someone else. I was sure it was you, I'm usually very good with faces. You don't have a twin brother, do you?"
        "I got a brother, but he's not my twin and he lives in Arizona. Wait a sec. . . you're telling me that Fraser was in here a couple of months back with some guy named Billy who looked like me?" His query drew a nod. He frowned. "You remember when that was?"
        The other man shook his head. "Not exactly. Sometime before Halloween, I think."
        Ray thought back. Sometime before Halloween. Part of October, he'd been in Acapulco. And Fraser had been here in Chicago, alone. Or maybe not alone. With some guy who looked like him. Named Billy. Fraser in a gay bar with a guitar-toting guy named Billy, who looked like him. For a moment something green-eyed and nasty roiled in his gut, a despairing frustration that Fraser might have given someone else what he so desperately wanted himself, then he shook it off.
        No. No way was he going there. It was just not possible. Whoever the guy was, whatever he was to Fraser, despite the bartender's comment about them looking intimate, it couldn't have been. Fraser just didn't do intimate. Not with anybody, but especially not with a guy. Suddenly the Scotch and the coffee and the jealousy seemed to ignite in his stomach, making him nauseated. He felt a sweat starting, a feverish flush of misery and embarrassment. The bartender looked at him in concern.
        "Are you feeling all right? You don't look well at all."
        Ray shook his head. "Think I got the flu," he said, telling himself that was what it was. Must be.
        "Perhaps you should go home? Would you like me to call you a cab?"
        Ray shook his head. One Scotch didn't make him unsafe behind the wheel. "Nah. I got it. I'm going." He fished a bill from his wallet, laid it on the counter, and slid off the stool. His stomach lurched. He swallowed hard, waving off the offer of change, and headed for his car. If he was going to be sick, he'd do it at home in private.

* * *

        While he'd never been particularly fond of paperwork, Fraser had always been good at it, but in the last two days he had discovered in himself a distressing tendency to sit staring blankly at the pages while thinking about Ray. Some of his memories and thoughts made him smile, others brought an ache to his chest and a tightness to his throat. As a consequence he wasn't getting much of his work done at all, and what little he had accomplished was not up to his usual standards. Even Turnbull had noticed.
        Which was why he was currently sitting at his desk with a mug of honey sweetened lemon-mint tea and a plate of toast. Apparently Turnbull had decided he was under the weather, and needed coddling. He sipped the tea absently. It did taste good, but he had no interest in the toast. Although he should probably eat it, just to make sure Turnbull's feelings didn't get hurt, or cause him to fret even more and perhaps start to push for more of an answer to Fraser's state of mind. Turnbull could be annoyingly tenacious.
        Wishing he'd thought to eat it while it was still warm, Fraser poked at the toast and was about to pick it up when the phone rang. From the ring pattern, it was a call being transferred from Turnbull's station at the reception desk. With a sigh of relief, he pushed the plate aside and picked up the phone. "Good afternoon, Canadian Consulate, Acting Liaison Officer Benton Fraser speaking."
        There was a pause, then a chuckle. A very familiar sounding chuckle. He sat up straighter, pressing the phone closer to his ear as the person on the other end finally spoke.
        "Hi, Ben. That's quite a mouthful. But then, so are you."
        Fraser's face went hot. He felt a strange mixture of disappointment, pleasure, and a disconcertingly instantaneous undercurrent of physical arousal. "Billy, please! What if Constable Turnbull were still on the line?"
        "Relax, he's not, I heard him hang up. How're you doing? You sound a little rough."
        How, after a grand total of forty syllables, had Billy managed to discern that all was not quite well in Ben's world?
        "I have no complaints," he said, because that was the closest he could get to lying without actually doing so. What had he to complain about? He was clothed, fed, sheltered, all the basics. All but one.
        "Ben." Billy's voice carried a note of warning.
        "I'm fine," Fraser said reassuringly, his voice carefully even.
        There was a moment of silence, and when Billy spoke his voice was flat. "Okay, that's how you want it? I can do that. Goodb . . . ."
        "No!" Ben gasped, suddenly achingly aware that he was about to drive away yet another friend. "Please, don't go. Please. It's not that I don't want -- I just wasn't expecting-- I'm just not ready to talk . . . about myself."
        There was another pause as that was absorbed, then Billy sighed and Ben relaxed a little. Somehow that sigh told him his desperate bid for patience had been accepted.
        "Okay, okay, Ben. Sorry. Guess I'm a little touchy myself today."
        "Is something wrong?"
        "Yeah, but I thought I'd at least say hello before I started crying on you this time."
        "What is it?" Ben asked, concerned.
        "I finally tracked Mary down and talked to her about Billie."
        Ben felt a shiver of anxiety run through him. "How did it go? Did she confirm your suspicions?"
        "Yeah, she did. Billie's mine."
        "That's good, right?"
        "Maybe in some other lifetime. Not this one."
        "Tell me," Ben said encouragingly, worried now.
        "I found out why she took off that night looking so freaked out. John told her about what happened with me and Joe, just before the band split up the first time."
        Ben frowned, thinking back to what Billy had told him. "You mean about the rape?"
        "Yeah. About that."
        "That upset her?"
        "That's putting it mildly."
        "Well, I can understand that. Clearly she had affection for you, and the idea that you were assaulted must have been difficult for her."
        There was a short silence, then Billy spoke again. "You always see things in the best possible light, don't you, Ben? That's so refreshing. No, unfortunately that's not at all what her reaction was. To put it bluntly, she's appalled that she had a kid by a fag. She wants nothing to do with me, and doesn't want me within a mile of Billie."
        "Oh my God," Ben said, utterly appalled, aching at the pain behind those flatly-stated words. "That's . . . that's reprehensible. To blame you for something you couldn't prevent, to withhold your child from you, because you were violated? No, that's worse than reprehensible, it's inhuman. Billy, I'm sorry."
        There was a choked sound, quiet, a sniffle, a cough. "Thanks, Ben. God, it feels good to talk to someone who's a real human being. I get so tired of all the fucking primates I know. But I'm thinking . . . I'm thinking I want to fight this. Is that wrong? To want to know my own kid?"
        Ben wished they could be having the conversation in person. It was so much harder like this. "No, Billy. It's not wrong to want to know her."
        There was a moment of quiet, and over the phone line Ben could hear the click of a lighter being flicked open and the sound of the flints sparking, and the indrawn breath as Billy took that first heavy drag to make sure his cigarette lit before speaking again. "You have no idea how much I needed to hear that. You're the one person I can trust in this, Ben. The one person I know won't lie to me, and will tell me straight out if I'm fucking up here. Is it still the right thing to do, even if it means dragging it all into court? Because something tells me that's where it's going to end up in the long run, if I do this."
        He was probably right. Ben considered that for a moment. On the one hand were Billy's rights, responsibilities and needs, on the other hand were the child's. He sighed. "I honestly don't know the answer to that. It will be difficult for all involved but for you especially. Undoubtedly the incident with Joe will be brought up, and you will be treated much as any rape victim would be. Your past sexual history will be brought into play, your present as well, in all likelihood. Your substance abuse issues will be brought up. You do realize that?"
        Billy exhaled slowly, Fraser could almost see the smoke.
        "Yeah. I do. I talked to my lawyer, and that's what she said, too. She gave me the name of a lawyer in San Francisco who specializes in custody cases that involve what she calls 'extreme lifestyles.' Some guy named Brian Hawkins. He's supposed to have a really good track record. She also said it was good that I joined AA. Been going pretty regularly, at least as much as I can when I'm not on the road. Haven't had a drink since, well, since Chicago." He chuckled.
        "See? You're a good influence on me, Ben. That ought to make you feel good. I started seeing a therapist too, like you suggested. Been sorting through lots of stuff about Joe, and about my past. I got to thinking about my folks, and didn't want to be like that for my own kid, so I decided I needed to do something about it. Have to get that sorted out or it'll all just keep happening, right? "
        Ben felt inordinately pleased that Billy had listened, really listened to him, and was making positive changes in his life because of that. He liked helping people. It made him feel like he actually had a purpose.
        "I'm glad you're getting it 'sorted out,'" he said quietly. "Thank you for letting me know that. As for whether or not you should fight for custody, that's your decision, and I can't really do more than say you should follow your heart."
        That's what his father had started telling him. He wondered sometimes, why his father had suddenly gone from always harping on his duty, to suggesting that perhaps there was more to life than that. That change had seemed to come on the heels of Ray Vecchio's departure, and the arrival of Ray Kowalski in his life. Why was that? If his father was simply an artifact of his own psyche, did it mean that part of him had realized all along that what he felt for Ray was deeper than simple friendship?
        Or, if as he believed, it truly was his father's ghost, did that mean his father recognized and accepted that fact as well? A strange, but fascinating speculation. Still, it was a difficult axiom to adhere to. How could he follow his heart when it led him to places he wasn't permitted to go?
        "I guess that's all any of us can do, isn't it?" Billy said quietly. He paused, then spoke again, less diffidently. "Ben, you know, don't you, if I decide to fight this, you might end up involved? I'm not going to mention you, but if they investigate me, that motel clerk might remember me, and if he does, he'll remember you, too, and there could be some speculation. That's why I had to talk to you about this. This isn't just me on the line here. It could be really bad for you. I mean, I'm not trying to be vain here, I know I'm not the most famous guy in the world, but with Jenifur being hot right now, there will be some press on this, there's bound to be. And if you get dragged in, it could get ugly, especially with you being a Mountie and all that."
        Ben hadn't considered that, and for a moment it gave him pause. How would people react to his name being linked to Billy's in such a fashion? How would it affect his relationships with his friends? His throat threatened to close up. What did that matter? Ray Vecchio had rejected him long ago. Now Ray Kowalski had as well. There was no one else he was close to. His career, such as it was, could be impacted, but he had already done a sterling job of destroying himself professionally, and there was little that could make things worse. No, his own interests were petty here, compared to Billy's. He took a sip of lukewarm tea to loosen the knot in this throat, and spoke again.
        "If that should occur, I will deal with it," he said firmly. "You mustn't let your concern for me influence your decision in this. You have to do what's right for you. I am responsible for my conduct, and for the possible consequences of my actions, not you."
        "Somehow I knew you would say that. You're something else, Ben Fraser. You really are. You know I'll do my damnedest to keep you out of things, right?"
        "Yes, I do. Thank you, Billy."
        "Don't thank me. I'm the reason there's a problem to begin with."
        "No, you're not. It was a combination of circumstances, many of which were beyond your control. You cannot blame yourself."
        Billy chuckled drily. "You sound like my shrink. But you're right, I know you are. You were right about a lot of things. There's been a lot of . . . of bad shit in my life. Hurts getting through it, remembering it."
        Ben frowned. "Are you all right?"
        There was a pause as Billy inhaled, exhaled. "Yeah. Mostly. It's easier to just not think about it. But it's got to be done."
        "Would you like to talk about it?"
        "No. That's what I have a shrink for, Ben. You don't need my crap, but thanks for the offer. So, you ready to talk yet? What's going on with you?"
        Ben rubbed at his eyebrow, then dropped his hand, annoyed with himself for that giveaway gesture, even if Billy wasn't in the room to see it. "Very little, actually. I'm processing paperwork at the moment."
        "That's not what I meant and you know it. How was your friend's trip to Acapulco? He still with that woman?"
        "No, actually, they went their separate ways shortly after they reached their destination, and Ray came back early to assist with an investigation."
        "Interesting. So, have you ever talked to him about your feelings?"
        "No, that didn't prove necessary."
        "That he was able to figure it out on his own."
        "Ah. And?"
        "And . . . ." Ben's voice caught and he had to start over. "And apparently we are no longer speaking."
        "Shit. Wait, 'apparently?' Okay, Ben, something's weird here. Spill. Start from the top. Don't leave anything out."
        "Your long distance bill . . . ."
        "Fuck the long distance bill, we just released a CD and it's already at number four. I sent you one, by the way. Know it's not your style, but figured, what the hell. Now, let me worry about my finances. You talk."
        Feeling guilty because he was wasting Billy's time and money, and because he was supposed to be working, Ben awkwardly told him about the events of the past few weeks. When he finished, Billy sighed.
        "Ben, for a smart guy you can be really stupid. He's not the one who won't talk. It's you. He tried to talk to you. You wouldn't let him. You're so sure you've already got it figured out that you won't even let him tell you himself! Jesus, if that's not fucked up, what is?"
        "He hasn't come by or tried to call since that first night. . . ." Ben said defensively.
        "Well there's only so many times you can hit your head against a wall and keep at it, you know. Besides, from what you've told me, this guy's not exactly overflowing with self-esteem. If he thinks you don't want to see him, he's not going to push it. I wouldn't. Somebody slams a door in my face, I get the message. Bet he did too."
        Billy had a point. Ray was at times insecure, though not as much now as he had been when they'd first met. Now he stood up for himself. As he had that time on the dock, and on several other occasions Fraser could remember. Although Ben had a tendency to manipulate people, Ray normally didn't allow him to do so. Why would he, then, in this case? No, it didn't make sense. But perhaps he had made too swift an assumption . . .
        "You think I should make an overture?" he asked.
        "Yeah, I do. But like you said, you have to follow your heart. You're the only one who can say what's right for you. I just think maybe you jumped the gun on this one."
        As he started to reply, the intercom light flashed on. With an apology, he put Billy on hold to answer the other line.
        "Acting Liaison Offic. . . " he began, only to be interrupted by Thatcher's crisp voice.
        "I know who you are, Constable Fraser. It's three o-clock."
        For a moment he frowned blankly, wondering why the Inspector was telling him what time it was, then he belatedly remembered they had a staff meeting scheduled. Good lord! He'd completely forgotten. "Yes, sir, I was just finishing up with the gentleman on line one. I'll be right in."
        "Very good, Fraser."
        She hung up, and he hastily switched back to Billy. "I'm sorry, I have to go. I have a meeting."
        "No problem. But if you need to talk some more, you have my number, right? I'll be here. I stay up late. Call me."
        "Thank you," Ben said, though he knew he wouldn't. He couldn't impose like that. "Let me know how things go with Billie?"
        "I will, Ben. Thanks. I'll keep you up to date. Now, better get to your meeting before the boss gets out the cat o' nine tails."
        "She's not. . . ." Ben began.
        Billy laughed. "I know that. Good bye, Ben. Talk to you soon."
        Ben found himself nodding. "Yes, soon. Good bye."
        He replaced the phone in its cradle and stood up, straightening his tunic, and his shoulders. Time to get to work.

* * *

        Ray had given up any thought of trying to go to work when his alarm went off and he realized he'd lain in bed awake since about ten thirty the previous night. He was too good a cop to go to work in this state. He knew damned well he'd be useless to everyone like this. He'd been through it before. He knew himself that well, at least. Was learning more about himself every day.
        Like the fact that apparently he was gay. Or something close to it. He was a little confused on that score. Apparently his libido didn't care if the object of his affections was male or female, it just cared how the person made him feel. And Fraser made him feel like he was in love. That head-over-heels, all-or-nothing feeling. That heights-of-joy and depths-of-despair stuff that made him utterly crazy. Especially that despair part, which he was pretty damned close to right now.
        Crazy. That's what he was. Certifiable, probably. He ought to just check himself into Ravenswood or someplace like that and get it over with. He was in love with Benton Fraser, RCMP. Mr. So-Straight-You-Could-Use-Him-For-A-Ruler. For God's sake, how stupid could one person be? Why did he do this to himself? He had to be nuts. He really did. First he couldn't let go of Stella, now he was obsessing over Ben. That startled him. Ben. He'd never dared call him that, despite the temptation. It was just too damned. . . intimate. Calling him 'Fraser' or a variation on that kept him in a little box that said 'hands off.' No, definitely do not think of him as Ben. Especially not while lying in bed.
        God. This was what had gotten him into this mess to begin with. Just like with Stella. He hadn't been able to let her go, and he'd ended up with a new life because of it. Now instead of using that second chance, he'd just done it again. No. No more. He had to let go. Just stop thinking about him. He's not yours, he's never going to be yours, he's not even your partner any more. You've made him so uncomfortable he can't even stand to be around you. You hurt him. Just like you did with Stella. Just stop it. You're sick. You're stupid.
        "I suck," he said aloud into the empty room. His voice sounded rough and strained. "Fraser, I'm sorry."
* * *

        "Hi, Fraser! What are you doing here?" Dewey asked, brushing past Fraser in the doorway as he stepped into the station. He didn't, however, wait for an answer as he kept right on going out the door.
        Since that wasn't unusual behavior for Dewey, Fraser kept on toward the bullpen. The hallways, as usual, were a chaotic swirl of humanity, and he nodded in greeting to several people before he actually managed to get to his destination. He stepped into the room, only to find to his disappointment that Ray's desk was empty. He had spent the better part of the previous night steeling himself to do this, to put aside his pain and his preconceptions to go to Ray, and apologize, and try to listen to him. To find him gone, now, was quite a letdown. Perhaps he was in the file room, or one of the interrogation rooms. He moved to Francesca's desk and cleared his throat. She looked up, and her face lit up, as usual.
        "Hey, Frase! What are you doing here?"
        Ben frowned. It seemed odd that he'd gotten that comment twice in five minutes. "I'm here to see Ray."
        Frannie looked puzzled, shooting a glance at Ray's desk. Which, now that he was looking at it again seemed unusually . . . neat.
        "He's not here, Frase," she answered, returning her gaze to him.
        "I see that. Do you know where I might find him?"
        Her frown deepened. "I guess he's probably at home. I mean, unless he's at the hospital, which I really doubt, knowing how Ray feels about hospitals."
        Fraser felt as if time had stopped. He stared at Francesca, who stared back, starting to look a little flustered. He blinked.
        "Ray . . . was Ray hurt? Is he ill?" Fraser ventured.
        "Well, yeah. Thought you knew that. Figured that was why you haven't been around the past few days. I mean, obviously there's no reason for you to be here if he's not."
        She shot him an odd, edged glance. He wondered if she thought he ought to come by simply to see her. Probably. He never had managed to make her understand that he thought of her as a sister, not a potential mate. But Ray. . . what had happened? Half a dozen scenarios flashed through his head, all of them too horrible to contemplate. Ray beaten. Knifed. Shot. He found he was clutching the Stetson hard enough to dent the brim, and forced himself to relax his fingers.
        "What happened? How was he injured?"
        She rolled her eyes. "He's not hurt, Fraser, he's got the flu. Been out since Tuesday. It's goin' around. I was thinking about calling him, seeing how he's doing, but you know he'd just get cranky with me."
        Days? Ray had been ill for days? How could he not have known that? How could he not have felt that, inside somewhere?
        "Frase? What's the matter?" Frannie's voice was gentle now, concerned. He guessed he must have looked as stricken as he felt, and struggled to find a neutral expression.
        "I've just remembered something important I need to do. Thank you kindly for your assistance, Francesca."
        "Any time, Fraser. Any time."
        The sultry tone in her voice, and in her eyes, made him want to sigh in aggravation, but he just ignored it instead. He didn't have time to play the Oblivious Game with her. His overriding concern was Ray's well-being, and nothing would prevent him from ascertaining the state of his health. Influenza wasn't something to take lightly, even in a strong man like Ray. Especially as he'd seemed worn and overtired of late.
        It had been selfish of him not to think of Ray's well being, to simply withdraw from his life like that. Ray needed caretaking, and without Fraser he had no one. His first stops would be the grocery store and pharmacy. The word 'hospital' had put knots in his stomach. Francesca was quite correct in thinking that if Ray were really ill, it was quite likely he would refuse hospitalization, since he loathed hospitals. No, even if it was painful to be around Ray knowing his feelings were not reciprocated, Fraser could not let Ray suffer because of it.

* * *

        Day three of withdrawal, Ray thought, rolling onto his back, staring at the light coming in the windows. He wondered if he was the only person on the planet who got addicted to people, instead of drugs. He'd been up all night, again, wrestling the impulse to go to the Consulate and bang on the door and yell until Fraser either answered it or had him hauled off to jail. Now that it was daylight he could sleep, because somehow that sort of melodramatic crap was unthinkable in the light of day.
        He reached for the phone, dialed, told Welsh he was still sick. Which he was. Mentally. Probably would be for the rest of his life. In any case, he knew if he tried to work he'd just end up either shooting someone, or getting shot, and he wasn't quite that far gone.
        Rolling onto his stomach, he closed his eyes, and tried to sleep. Behind his eyelids he saw a scene that was becoming too familiar of late. In his mind's eye, a little video played out, Fraser with some guy who sort of looked like him, but was somehow more. . . everything. More confident. More attractive. More interesting. They sat in that damned bar, leaning close, too close. Fraser looked relaxed. Happy. Pleasured. His stomach lurched and he opened his eyes, slamming a fist into the mattress in frustration.
        "Damn it, Kowalski, you are one sick puppy," he growled at himself. "Getting jealous of some poor schmuck who had lunch with Fraser. Hell, you were off trying to get laid, so what room have you got to be jealous? Like he's not allowed to have lunch with somebody? Disgusting."
         Yeah, he'd been trying to get laid. Desperately hoping if he could find some chick who'd have him it would make everything all better. Make him stop dreaming about making love to his utterly gorgeous and completely clueless Canadian partner until neither of them could walk for a week. Of course, the chick had figured out real quick that he wasn't into her, and had taken off for greener pastures, leaving him alone to indulge his most common fantasies.
        Fraser. The way his hair always stayed perfectly unruffled, and the way the pale, smooth skin of his neck looked so lickable, and the odd little droop to his mouth sometimes when he smiled. More. The faultless taper of shoulder to waist, the near-perfect hemispheres of that incredible ass, the bulge between those sleek, powerful thighs-- imagine them without loose wool or taut denim, instead warm and bare against his own skin . . . Christ, no wonder Fraser didn't want to be around him, if he was picking up on that vibe. Shit. He grabbed his pillow, curled up around it, his face pressed into it to hide from the light, and incidentally, to absorb the tears.

* * *
        Taking no chances that Ray would not let him in, especially after his own disgraceful behavior at the Consulate, Fraser decided to risk his partner's wrath by not even attempting the direct route. Arriving at the apartment building, he went directly to Ray's landlady. Fortunately she not only remembered him, but had no qualms about letting him into Ray's apartment after he explained that Ray had missed three days of work and his co-workers were concerned about his health. Holding his bag of groceries, he followed her up the stairs, feeling guilty for lying to her. Of course, it wasn't precisely a lie. Ray had indeed been absent from work for three days, and Francesca was concerned about him, if no one else was.
        She unlocked the door, whispered for him to let her know if everything was all right, then padded off down the hallway. A nice woman. He stood for a moment, uncertainly, then shook his head and opened the door. The apartment was dim and quiet, overly warm, a little stuffy. The drawn curtains filtered the light, giving an oddly ruddy glow to the room. Neither the stereo or television were on, which was rather unusual in and of itself. He could see through the open door to Ray's bedroom that there was a figure there, in bed. Apparently sleeping. Good. Sleep was the best restorative the body could have.
        He paused to set down his groceries on the kitchen counter, noted there were no dishes in the sink, and frowned. He opened the dishwasher. No dishes there either. Odd, knowing Ray's housekeeping habits, he would have expected that after three days the sink would be full of unwashed dishes. He opened the refrigerator, found as he'd half expected, several cartons of Chinese take-out there, but a look inside them told him they had been there for quite some time. Indeed, long enough for what appeared to be a rudimentary civilization to have sprung up inside the boxes. He dropped the containers into the garbage and made a mental note to take it out before the smell permeated the apartment.
        Feeling a little claustrophobic in the clutter and warmth, Ben tugged at his collar, ripping it open, then decided he needed to remove his tunic entirely if he was going to be caring for an invalid. He didn't want to get anything on his uniform. He removed the tunic, arranged it carefully over the back of a chair, and then quickly put away the few groceries he'd brought. Still too warm, he pushed up the sleeves of his henley, then realizing he was merely postponing the inevitable, he turned to face the difficult part. He had to make sure Ray was all right. Had to cross that invisible barrier he'd never allowed himself to pass before, to set foot in that most private space. He drew a deep breath and forced himself to cross the room, to go to the threshold of the bedroom.
        The covers were messily pushed to one side, exposing Ray curled around his pillow as if it were a person, and completely, gloriously naked. Fraser closed his eyes and swallowed hard against the desire to have Ray wrapped around him the way he was wrapped around his pillow. Stop that. He's ill. He needs help, not lustful imaginings. He forced himself to walk forward, to kneel beside the bed, and reach out, placing his fingers against the side of Ray's throat, just below the ear, trying to ascertain if he had a fever. Thankfully, his skin felt almost cool, slightly damp with sweat. Good. No fever.
        As he started to pull his hand back, Ray reached up, putting his hand over Fraser's, fingers curling around so he was not just holding it in place, but actually holding it. Ray murmured something incoherent, and rubbed his face against their hands much as a cat might rub the fingers of someone who petted it. His normal three-day bristles had softened, lengthened into at least a six-day growth, past the point of being stubble, well on its way to being beard. Fraser wondered what it would feel like against his lips. That thought shocked him, and he tried to pull his hand away. Ray resisted, fingers closing more tightly around his.
        "No, Ben . . . ." Ray said, then his eyes opened and Fraser was frozen, staring into their startled depths. For the second time that day, his world seemed to come to a standstill. Then Ray blinked, frowned.
        Fraser nodded. "Hello, Ray."
        As if they belonged to someone else, his fingers moved, stroking softly against that bare, sweaty throat, enjoying the feel of those narrow fingers around his, knowing it was going to end too soon, and badly, but he couldn't seem to help himself. To his amazement, Ray didn't instantly pull away, nor did he let go of Ben's hand. He seemed to be thinking, frowning a little, but not appalled, not disgusted. They were far too close, far too close, Fraser thought, gaze dropping to Ray's mouth. Dangerously close.
        It came to him suddenly, Ray had said 'No, Ben.' Not Fraser. Ben. Did Ray think of him as 'Ben' then, sometimes? It also came to him, just as startlingly, that Ray had said that before he'd ever opened his eyes. What did that mean? The implications were, frankly, staggering.
        "Uh, Fraser, what're you doing?"
        He watched the syllables form on those beautiful lips, watched the way they moved and parted. He leaned closer. "Losing my mind, I'm afraid," he said with a regretful sigh, and leaned forward the rest of the way.
        The beard was a strange combination of soft and harsh. The lips were like silk, warm, faintly moist silk, which clung slightly to his own lips. When he would have deepened the kiss, though, Ray pulled away, eyes wide and startled. Then suddenly he let go of Ben's hand and his eyebrows lowered, eyes filling with anger.
        "I don't need a pity fuck, Fraser. You don't have to lie back, close your eyes and think of Canada to get me out of bed and back to work. You've made it clear enough you'd rather eat glass than touch me so it's not like you're real convincing here."
        Fraser stared at him, baffled. "Ray, I don't understand . . . ." he began, then stopped, shaking his head. "What makes you think that I wouldn't wish to touch you? Provided, of course, that you wished for me to do so," he amended hastily, completely confused as to what exactly Ray was upset about, since it didn't seem to be the kiss, or at least not the fact of the kiss in and of itself, but rather about Fraser's motivations in doing so, which though far from innocent certainly had nothing to do with thinking of Canada, or pity either.
        "Oh for chrissake, Fraser, I may sound stupid but I'm not. I got the picture. You don't want to be anywhere near me, and I know damned well it goes back to that night outside the Botrelle place. You practically jumped out of the car when I put my arms around you, and I wasn't even putting the moves on you. Just wanted. . . just needed to . . . oh, hell."
        Ray rolled away and lurched to his feet, grabbing at the bedspread to save his modesty, or what was left of it, but as he straightened after catching up the fabric, he suddenly went white and swayed. Fraser barely managed to catch him before he toppled to the floor. In that completely boneless state that accompanied unconsciousness, Ray was surprisingly heavy, and Fraser shifted his grip, wrapping his arms around Ray's lax form and pulling him close so he couldn't slide out of his arms and fall again. As he did Ray came back to himself, struggling. Fraser held him firmly, having no intention of letting him go until he was sure he was fully recovered. And until this whole 'touching' thing was resolved.
        "Fraser! Leggo!" Ray demanded.
        "No, Ray. You stood up and passed out, and I am not going to let you go until I'm certain it won't happen again."
        Ray subsided, frowning. "Oh." He frowned. "Oh yeah. Got a little dizzy there. Um, you can let go now."
        Fraser turned his head until he could look into Ray's somewhat bloodshot blue eyes. From this distance he could see they were flecked with gold, like sunlight on water. No wonder sometimes when they caught the light they almost looked amber. So beautif. . . no. That was not something he ought to be thinking. He needed to be clearheaded, to deal with this problem, to try to make Ray understand, without disgusting him, and then to try to understand in return just what Ray was feeling, and thinking, because he had a difficult time believing it was what it had sounded like. He took a deep breath.
        "Ray, it has become very apparent that I need to make something clear. I have no aversion to touching you, at all. On the contrary, I . . . well, in any case I'm not entirely certain what I did to give you that impression, but it most assuredly was not my intent."
        Ray pulled back a little, staring into Fraser's face with that almost angry expression he got when trying to understand something slightly out of his realm of experience. "It wasn't?" he asked uncertainly.
        Fraser shook his head. "No, it wasn't. But I need to ask you something. Based on what you said, and on how you reacted a few moments ago, do I gather that you, ah, might not be entirely averse to my touching you?"
        Color flared instantly across Ray's angular face, and he dropped his gaze. "I. . . uh. . . " A shy, sheepish smile curved his mouth, and he shrugged diffidently. "Hell. Guess it's kind of too late to put that cat back in the bag, hunh?"
        "Why would I wish to . . . "
        "It's a metaphor, Fraser."
        "Ah. Meaning?"
        "Meaning no. I'm not, like you said, averse."
        Good heavens. It was nearly too much to take in. "Ray, you do know what 'averse' means, don't you?" Fraser asked in sudden concern.
        Ray glared at him, offended. "Yeah, I know what 'averse' means, Fraser. So, um, do I take it you're not, well, averse either?"
        Fraser started to smile. "Considering the fact that I am, at this very moment, touching you, is not the answer clear?"
        "You're touching me, but you're not touching me, if you know what I mean. And I'm not touching you, except that I kind of can't help it. I thought we were talking touching, not just touching. And it's kind of hard to talk about this right now, I mean, you got about a zillion layers on and I'm wearing air. So either you start peeling down or let me put some clothes on."
        "Yes," Fraser said, feeling suddenly a little giddy. "Certainly. What would you like me to remove first?"
        He could tell by the way Ray's eyes widened that he had not expected that reply.
        "You teasing me, Fraser?" Ray asked uncertainly.
        He smiled. "Yes, Ray."
        Ray nodded slowly. Then he smiled. "Cool. So, um, you weren't kissing me so you could do the 'virgin sacrifice on the altar of Ray's demonic lust' thing just so I'd go back to work?"
        Fraser stared at him, speechless. "Is that what you thought?" he finally managed to gasp after a moment.
        "Well, yeah."
        Fraser let go of him. "Ray, that's. . . that's insulting. To both of us."
        "Yeah, well . . . ." Ray shrugged, looking apologetic, then leaned over to pick up the bedspread again. And kept right on leaning, ending up on his hands and knees. Fraser knelt beside him instantly.
        "Ray, you're ill. Please get back in bed, we can have this conversation some other time."
        Ray waved him off, sitting back on his haunches, bedspread clutched in his hands and swathed across his lap like a model's drape. "I'm not sick."
        "That's the second time you've almost passed out, Ray, clearly you're not well!"
        "I'm fine. Just kind of forgot to eat."
        Ben remembered the lack of dirty dishes, the spore cultures masquerading as take-out food. "How long?"
        "How long what?"
        "How long has it been since you ate anything substantial?"
        Ray thought about that. Thought some more. "Um, lunch, the day I dropped you off at the Consulate."
        Ben stared at him, appalled. "Ray! That was nearly four days ago! And you've had nothing since then?"
        "Had some orange juice, but that ran out. Maybe an apple. Some crackers. Water, of course."
        "Guess I got hungry."
        Ben sighed. "Not why did you have some juice, an apple, and crackers. Why didn't you eat?"
        "Wasn't hungry."
        "Ray," Fraser said warningly.
        Ray looked down at his hands, resting awkwardly one in the other against the tangled blue bedspread, and sighed. "Just . . . couldn't. I didn't want to go out to get stuff, didn't want to face the world, I guess. Thought I'd screwed everything up again. My fault. Thought you must've figured out I was hot for you, and that's why you started acting weird around me the last couple of months. I tried to be so good. Didn't touch you, never said anything you might think meant something else, even stopped asking you out all the time, didn't want to be a pain, didn't want you to feel ob. . . obli. . . like you had to. Then I go and hurt your feelings . . . God, Fraser, how can you like me?"
        Ben hated the reappearence of this Ray, the one who had been bludgeoned into such a state of insecurity he felt he had no self worth. But he also understood him, intimately. So familiar. This was who he was, inside, the part of himself he showed to almost no one. The side he'd shown to a virtual stranger, but had never confessed to his best friend. God, if only he'd taken Billy's advice weeks ago, he could have circumvented all of this pain for both of them. He moved closer, caught those long, narrow hands in his own broader, blunter ones.
        "Ray. It was as much my fault as yours, actually more so. I made similar assumptions, and I wasn't honest with you. Had I been, this wouldn't have happened. But I was a coward. I was afraid to tell you how I felt, so I withdrew, and you sensed that. I should have known you would, you feel everything so intensely. I envy that in you."
        Ray looked at him like he'd lost his mind. "You envy me? Fraser, are you unhinged?"
        Fraser smiled. "Yes, Ray. I think perhaps I am. Because right now, more than anything in the world I want to kiss you again."
        Ray's eyes widened again, and he considered that, then a slight smile quirked one corner of his expressive mouth. "That don't sound unhinged to me."
        "It is, because what I really should be doing is getting you something to eat. That would be the logical thing, the responsible thing."
        "Well, like you said, logic doesn't always work."
        "True enough," Fraser said,
        "So, you going to trust your instincts on this one, Fras. . . Ben?"
        He closed his eyes briefly. Ben. Such an erotic sound said in that husky, nasal voice. "Yes, Ray. I believe I am."
        Fraser leaned in, and this time Ray's mouth lifted toward his, meeting him. This time Ray's lips parted as Ben's did, and Ben couldn't resist letting his tongue slip out to stroke that sensuous lower lip, the sharp edges of teeth, then the wet, satiny warmth of Ray's mouth. Ah, God, he'd waited for this for so long, dreamed of it. It was nearly impossible to believe it was really happening, until after a moment of hesitation, Ray's tongue met his, and the kiss deepened, and it was very, very real.
        His hands came up to frame Ray's face, feeling the soft roughness of almost-beard against his palms. Felt Ray's arms go around him, pulling him closer, then they were sliding down onto the bare floor, padded here and there by the bedspread tangled between them. A sudden panicked thought brought Ben up to check and make sure Ray hadn't passed out again, and he was reassured by the sullen frown that greeted his abandonment.
        "Hey!" Ray protested.
        "I'm sorry, I was afraid you'd fainted again."
        Ray grinned suddenly, that lightning flash of teeth. "You're damned good, Ben, but you're not that good."
        He blushed. "I didn't mean it that. . . "
        "I know."
        Neither of them seemed to know what to say after that. The silence lengthened as they stared at each other, until Ben saw Ray's eyes starting to dilate, and realized he couldn't let this happen, not now. There were far more pressing needs to take care of, and a great deal they still needed to talk about. He looked away, breaking eye contact, and addressed that issue.
        "Ray, you need to eat."
        Ray sighed. "Yeah, yeah, okay. But I'm gonna have to call out for pizza or something. There's nothing in the house."
        "Actually, that won't be necessary. Since I suspected that you might not have been prepared for an extended stay at home, I stopped by the market before coming over."
        Ray frowned suddenly. "Hey, how'd you get in here, anyway?"
        Fraser cleared his throat. "Ah, well, your landlady was most helpful."
        "I've got to talk to her about letting any bum in off the street," Ray said disgustedly.
        "Well, except you," Ray allowed. "So what'd you bring?"
        "Soup, soda crackers, juice, ginger tea, a few other things. Basic invalid fare."
        "I'm not an invalid."
        "Well, I wasn't to know you were simply malingering."
        "Malingering. Shirking your duties. Feigning illness."
        "I wasn't. I was sick, not my body, but. . . . ." His expression went achingly forlorn. "Thought I'd lost you. That was hard."
        Fraser closed his eyes, willing back the tears. "I know, Ray. It was hard for me as well." He flicked his fingertips across his eyebrow, got his emotions under control. "Now then, come along," he said briskly. "Time to eat." He got to his feet, extending a hand to help Ray up, keeping a hand on his arm to steady him until he was sure he wasn't going to pass out again.
        As soon as he let go, Ray grabbed a ratty-looking navy-blue robe out of the closet and pulled it on. Feeling greatly relieved that all that skin was finally under some sort of cover, Ben started out of the room, only to be stopped by Ray's voice.
        "Look, Fraser, I've got to make a pit-stop first. I'll be out in a second, okay?"
        With a nod of acknowledgment, Ben continued on into the kitchen as Ray detoured into the bathroom. He was just hunting in the surprisingly well-organized and equipped kitchen for a can opener when he heard a laugh from the other room.
        "Holy crap, Ben. You kissed me looking like this? Jesus! And with morning mouth on top of it? You really are unhinged! I'm going to shave."
        He heard water running. Ben thought of the way that almost-beard framed Ray's mouth, the way it had felt as they kissed, and he slammed the drawer shut and practically ran to the bathroom, coming in just as Ray was dispensing shaving gel into his hand.
        "Please, don't."
        Ray whipped around, startled, one hand full of gel. "Hunh? Why not?"
        Fraser blushed, staring at his feet. "I. . . ah, I rather like it."
        Ray eyed him narrowly, then started to grin. "Yeah?"
        Ben nodded.
        Ray chuckled. "Okay. No shaving. At least not until later." He put down the can and lowered his hand to the sink, rinsing the unused gel down the drain. "See? Promise."
        Still blushing, Ben nodded again. "Thank you, Ray."
        Ray winked. "Anytime. Now scram, I've got to use the can."
         Fraser was gently pushed out of the room and the door closed in his face. He stood there for a moment, then he headed back to the kitchen, shaking his head. God, that wink. The first time he'd seen it, from the stranger who insisted he was Ray Vecchio, he'd experienced an immediate and very disconcerting physical reaction. He'd been taken aback, never before affected like that by another man.
        Ray had taken him utterly by storm with his off-kilter approach to nearly everything, his energy, his intensity, his charm. He'd never had a chance. Ray was everything he needed. Warmth, passion, intuition, openness. In every way his opposite, and his equal. He still couldn't quite wrap his mind around the idea that his feelings seemed to be reciprocated. That seemed so completely impossible. Reciprocation was not something he had come to expect from life.
        He remembered Billy saying that somewhere inside Ben must have sensed that Ray returned his attraction. He had been right, but how could Billy have known that? He smiled, thinking about psychic hot-lines, and started looking for the can opener again. He found one in relatively short order, unearthed a saucepan from a cupboard and started heating the soup. He put crackers on a plate, as always somewhat bemused by Ray's 'Holstein' patterned dishes. He cut up an apple and some celery, added them to the plate with the crackers, and took them all out to the table with the jar of peanut butter he'd bought, along with a knife. Ray wandered into the room and reached out to grab a celery stick.
        "Fraser, I love you forever. Peanut butter," he sighed dreamily as he used his celery stick to dig out a massive scoop of peanut butter which he proceeded to lick off the celery in a truly lascivious fashion.
        Fraser stared, swallowed. Ray had a very . . . long . . . tongue. He shook himself. No. No. No. Not yet. He beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen and concentrated on getting the soup ready and into a bowl. He could hear Ray crunching celery. Thank goodness. No more licking, he thought as he put a spoon in the bowl and headed out to the table.
* * *

        Fraser placed a steaming bowl of soup in front of him, and Ray immediately abandoned the apples to attack it, guzzling down the hot, salty broth, barely even pretending to chew the overcooked little pasta stars. Chicken-and-stars. Kid food. Cute. Somehow very Fraser. Still, it couldn't have tasted any better if it had come from Ambria. God, he was starving. After a moment Ben cleared his throat.
        "You might want to slow down a little. You could upset your stomach that way."
        Ray looked at him, at his already half-empty bowl, and sighed. "Yeah. You're right. I'm a pig."
        "You're hungry, not a pig." Guilt shadowed Ben's slate-blue gaze. "Ray, I. . . I'm so very sorry. I never meant . . . ."
        Ray put down his spoon. "Fraser. Frase. Ben. No. It happens. But only when we don't communicate. Thought we learned that on the boat, but maybe not all the way. We've got to keep the lines open."
        Ben nodded. "Yes, we do. It's difficult, but imperative."
        Ray smiled a little and picked up his spoon again, resuming his meal, much more slowly. After a few more mouthfuls, he put the spoon down again, sighing. "Think I better stop. Don't want to push things." He looked over at Fraser, frowning. "You're not eating?"
        Ben shook his head. "No, Ray. I ate earlier."
        Ray studied him intently, seeing the lines of fatigue in his face, the faint darkness under his eyes. For a moment he caught a glimpse of what Fraser would look like in ten years, and that startled him. Ben always looked the same. It was hard to think of him ever changing. He frowned. "You been sleeping okay?"
        Fraser hesitated a moment, and Ray knew his instinct was to tell a social lie. He caught Ben's eye and shook his head minutely. No more of that, no more. He saw the acknowledgment of that in Ben's eyes as he spoke.
        "No, I haven't slept well in several days."
        "Me either."
        They looked at each other. Ben sighed. "Ray, I need, that is, we need to talk."
        Ray sighed back. "Yeah. We do. Not sure where to start, though."
        "I guess I should start by saying I'm sorry, I . . . ."
        "Fraser, do not do that!" Ray exclaimed vehemently. "Do not apologize. You didn't do anything wrong. At least no wronger than I did. It just happened. Stuff just happens sometimes. Like bam, a bolt out of the blue. That's what this is."
        Ben ran his fingers along his eyebrow, and smiled a little. "A more apt description I would be hard pressed to find.
        Ray smiled back, tentatively. "You too, hunh? I mean, I kept telling myself it was just a phase, I'd get over it, it was just because you were so . . . you. So different. Never met anybody like you before. But I didn't get over it. It just kept going. And getting more complicated. And deeper. Sure, yeah, you're gorgeous, I mean who's not going to be attracted and-- oh, stop blushing. You know it's true." Ray had to smile. Fraser was so damned oblivious sometimes. "You know you'd even make Orrin Hatch think twice. And look at me. I never thought about another guy before in my life, but you walked into the precinct that day, and it was like somebody hit me with a baseball bat."
        "That sounds rather painful," Fraser said evenly, his eyebrows up in his patented 'oh really?' look.
        "Yeah. It was. Especially when you started feeling me up."
        Fraser's eyes widened. "I never . . . ."
        "Oh yeah. You had your hands all over me. My leg, my thigh. Shit. There I am driving a burning car and my gorgeous but wacko Canadian partner is feeling me up. And I got a hard-on the size of a Mac truck and I'm thinking I'm going to die any second and my last minute on earth will have been spent trying to figure out how to keep you from noticing, and wondering what the hell I'm doing with a hard-on for you when I'm not even gay." He grinned, then was instantly serious again, afraid he'd said the wrong thing, that Ben would misinterpret that. "Least, I didn't think I was. Still not sure. All I know is how you make me feel, and I feel. . . ." Oh hell. This wasn't supposed to happen yet. Too fast, Kowalski. You're always too fast. Premature declaration. Thankfully that problem didn't extend to other areas.
        "How do you feel?" Ben prompted softly, his expression taut, and apprehensive.
        Ray sighed. "Don't freak out on me, okay?"
        Ben nodded. "I won't."
        Folding his hands around each other, Ray stared at them to avoid looking at Ben. "Okay. I mean, sure, I want you. Which is a lot, but that's not all of it. See, you're always there for me. You help me be a better person. You gave me that dream-catcher thing, only it's more like a dream-giver. It's like it gives me my dreams, or you do. Finding Marcus Ellery, catching bad guys in a sailing ship, hitting that home run, everything good that's happened since we met. I feel like-- like I'm not all here without you. And I know that's dumb, that I'm me no matter what, but I just feel so much for you, and that's it, that's just . . . it. That's what it's supposed to be like when you love somebody. So I guess, that's what it is, what I feel. I love you."
        After a moment of silence, he looked up, anxiously, to find Ben sitting there with his eyes closed, an expression close to rapture on his face as he nodded, his mouth shaping a word. Ray was no lip-reader, but it looked kind of like 'yes' to him.
        "Yes." The shape became a real word. "Yes, Ray. I feel that, as well. All of that. You give me light, and warmth, and you never judge me. I'm a person to you, not a . . . a cardboard cut-out who feels nothing, needs nothing. You know I have needs, you force me to feel. I need that. I need you. And I too was taken off guard that first day. You pulled me into your life without hesitation, you don't let me hold back, you . . . freed me from that image of perfection everyone, including myself, had boxed me into. I couldn't help but love you. I just never dreamed you might . . . ."
        Ben's voice broke, and Ray was out of his chair in a heartbeat, kneeling between Ben's knees and wrapping his arms around his middle, pulling him close, head against his shoulder. "Ben, don't, it's okay. Me either. I didn't either. It's not something we're good at, guys, you know. Not supposed to do this, feel this. There's no rule book."
        Ben nodded, his face against Ray's hair, and they just sat like that for a moment. Then Ray let go, and eased back a little, looking up into Ben's face. "So. Where do we go from here?"
        Ben gazed back at him seriously. "That depends on where you want it to go. It might be easier all around should we leave things as they are. Society does not look kindly on this sort of relationship. So, it could stay as it is, if that's what you prefer."
        Ray made a sound, shook his head, but Fraser went on.
        "Or it could go . . . further. Much further."
        Ben's tone was low, intimate, husky. Ray's mouth was suddenly dry, and he was intensely aware that he was kneeling between Ben's thighs, that he had been, just moments earlier, pressed tightly up against the body he'd craved, fantasized about. He licked his lips, and Fraser cleared his throat.
        "Before that decision is made, however, I believe I need to disabuse you of a misapprehension."
        Ray couldn't help but smile. "Disabuse away."
        "Earlier you said something which led me to believe you think I am. . . well. . . without experience."
        Ray stared at him, puzzled, wondering where this was headed. "Yeah?"
        Ben nodded, face pink, looking vastly uncomfortable. "Yes, well, I'm not."
        "Not what?"
        "Not a virgin, Ray. Not in any context."
        Oooh. That. He smiled. "I was joking, Ben. I don't really think you're . . . ." It sank in then, the rest of that sentence. "Not in any context? What does that mean?"
        The flush deepened, but Ben looked at him steadily. "There was someone. A man."
        A man. Oh, Christ. He flashed suddenly on that bartender. 'I was sure you were a couple.' 'Looked like you.' 'Billy.' He swallowed the lump in his throat as every fear he'd dreamed up in the past few days slammed home. "Oh." He raked a hand through his hair, trying not to notice it was shaking. "I see."
        "No. I don't believe you do."
        He moved away, stood up, and began to pace. "I don't want to know."
        "You need to know, Ray."
        Ray moved over to the windows, pushed aside the curtain and stared blindly out at the parking lot. "Why?"
        "Because it's important that you understand. We can't have any lies between us, even lies of omission."
        "You know, it's really irritating when you're always right," Ray snapped.
        "I'm not always right, Ray. I wasn't right when I wouldn't talk to you three nights ago. I wasn't right to not tell you how I felt, months ago, to make assumptions, to keep you at arm's length. I wasn't right to not trust you before, so I'm. . . I'm trying to trust you now. Please listen to me."
        Ray let the curtain fall and shoved his hands into the pockets of his robe so Fraser couldn't see they were clenched into fists. He sighed. "Okay. Fine. Tell me."
        "His name was Billy. He came to the consulate for assistance one evening . . . ."
        "Wait!" Ray interrupted suddenly. Hearing that name, having it confirmed for him that he hadn't just been paranoid seemed to suck all the warmth and life from him. He felt like curling up, wrapping his arms around himself. He didn't know if he could listen to this. Fraser needed to tell him, and he needed to hear it, but he was terrified of it too. "Just . . . just tell me one thing first."
        "If I can," Fraser said softly.
        "Did . . . did it mean anything?"
        There was a pause, then: "Yes."
        Ray squeezed his eyes closed as Fraser kept speaking, quietly, evenly.
        "It meant coming to terms with who I am. What I am. What I want. It meant I could no longer pretend I didn't know, that I wasn't sure. And it meant, unfortunately, that I had a much more difficult time hiding those feelings and that knowledge from you. He told me I shouldn't even try to hide it. He told me to tell you how I felt about you. I should have listened."
        Ray whipped around, aghast. "You told him about me?"
        "Yes. After a fashion. I told him I had a friend with whom I was in love."
        "You. . . " Words failed him. Whatever he had expected Ben to say, that wasn't it. He looked at his partner uncertainly. "You told him you loved . . . me?"
        Ben nodded. "Yes."
        Ray absorbed that, felt a sense of wonder. Somehow that made it real. Ben had told someone else. "When?" he asked, waiting, somehow sure he knew what the answer would be.

* * *

        Fraser gathered his thoughts, preparing to tell a story. Not an Inuit story. No, this one was much harder to tell. He looked down at his hands. They were strong, capable hands, but sometimes he couldn't help thinking how stubby they looked in comparison to Ray's long, slender ones. No, don't get distracted. Answer the question. He took a deep breath. "It was when you were in Acapulco. I was-- ah, I'm afraid I was very jealous. I was hurt. I was feeling . . . . well, you have to understand, that seemed to confirm that there was not even the remotest possibility that there could ever be anything between us."
        Ray groaned. "Oh, Christ, Fraser. I'm sorry. I was just so . . . messed up. I was trying so hard to pretend I didn't have it bad for you, to find something, someone, anyone else. Didn't want you to know, thought you would be disgusted. . . ."
        Ben reached out to settle his hand on Ray's shoulder, a warm, gentle pressure, feeling him startle a little. Apparently he hadn't heard Ben get up and walk over. Ben squeezed slightly, reassuringly.
        "I know, Ray. And you don't have to apologize. I understand that. Don't you think I was doing the same thing?"
        Taking a huge chance, he let his arms slide around Ray, pulling him close. When his partner didn't protest, but rather leaned back into him slightly, he felt a surge of relief, and rested his forehead against the back of Ray's head as he began to speak again.
        "He was alone, a stranger here, and in a very dark place. Someone he loved had died and he felt guilty. He needed someone, a person he could never have again. I needed you, but I thought that was impossible. So he was you, for me, and I was his friend, for him. That's all it was. But it opened my eyes. What we did helped me clarify what I feel for you, Ray. Helped me understand what it is I want, what I need, from you. That I needed to belong to you, in every way, not just as friends, but to feel you in my body, to know you, to experience every possible aspect of you."
        Ray shuddered, trying to pull away.
        "Please, I can't. . . ."
        Ben tightened his embrace. "No, Ray, please. I don't say this to hurt you, I just need you to understand. I know how this feels. I've felt it as well. Watching you with Stella, and others as well, I thought I would lose my mind. I've even been needlessly cruel to you, simply due to my own jealousy."
        Ray was silent for a moment, then he spoke, doubtfully. "You haven't. You're never mean."
        Ah. Confession time. Very few people saw the darkness at his heart, he disguised it too well. "I was," he said quietly. "With Luanne Russell I deliberately led you toward certain conclusions I knew would influence the way you saw her, because I didn't want to share you, because I was afraid she would hurt you. Then, when things fell out as I expected, I let you believe it was a flaw in yourself, rather than in me, that had brought you to that place. All that, simply to make certain you would not end up in her bed." Abruptly he let go of Ray and stepped away, hands limp at his sides, gazing at the floor. "Sometimes I'm not very . . . nice."
        Ray stared at him in amazement. "You did that? You really did that, just to keep me from doing the horizontal mambo with Luanne?"
        Heat surged across Ben's face, though he refused to look up. "Yes."
         There was a long silence. Ben waited for disgust. Finally Ray spoke.
        Ben's gaze snapped up, surprised, wary, to find Ray regarding him with an odd smile.
        "Cool?" he asked, confused.
        "Funny, I was right. You were jealous, but boy was I wrong about which one of us! I thought you wanted her."
        Ben bit his lip, embarrassed, but honest. "No. I wanted you."
        Ray's grin broadened. "Yeah, I get that. Now. And yeah, it's cool."
        Ben frowned at him. "It's not 'cool' to allow oneself to be deliberately cruel and manipulative."
        The smile faded, and Ray regarded him intently. "No, but see, it was more than that. It meant you care. You said it yourself, you didn't want her to hurt me. Not that it wouldn't've been a lot better if you'd just said something, but I get it. I do. And Luanne, I mean, she was just one more shot at pretending I didn't want you. But you know, sleeping next to you in that back yard was so much better than sleeping with Luanne would've been. That was cool, and you even made me coffee. And it was just as well, because she'd have dumped me on my ass as soon as she figured I was just trying to sub her for you. Which wouldn't have taken long if it had been anything like Laura."
        "Laura?" Ben asked, trying to remember someone by that name.
        Ray stared at him in surprise. "Yeah, you remember. Bad-check girl? Acapulco?"
        Apparently he'd managed to completely block her name from his memory. "Ah, yes. I had forgotten her name. I never did really ask what happened."
        "I wouldn't have told you anyhow."
        "Forgive me, I . . . ."
        "At least not then," Ray said, cutting off the apology with a wink. "Doesn't matter now. Guess I'd been talking about you a lot on the flight down. Too much. And then we get to the resort and we're starting to get down and dirty, and I've got my eyes closed and the only way I can get interested is if I pretend she's you, which isn't working real good 'cause she's soft in places you wouldn't be."
        He stopped suddenly, looked at Ben and shook his head wryly. "Guess I shoulda tried your idea. Least with another guy you wouldn't have that problem. Anyway, things are finally starting to happen when I open my stupid mouth and out pops your name. She wasn't what ya call real . . . understanding."
        Ben felt a tiny smile lifted the corners of his mouth, and tried hard to control it. It really wasn't nice to smirk. "Really?"
        Ray pushed his hands into his robe pockets, and stared at the floor. "Yeah. Really. Kind of . . . embarrassing. Never did that before. Didn't know I had it quite that bad. So, see, I do understand, about the . . . about him. Don't have to like it, but I got no business being a jerk about it."
        Ben studied him for a long moment, trying to decide if Ray was serious, or just saying what he thought Ben wanted to hear. Finally he spoke. "Do you really mean that?"
        Ray nodded slowly, then suddenly shook his head, a hint of pain in his eyes. "No. Damn it, I know it's true, but inside. . . well, you know I'm kind of a jealous guy. It's hard for me, but I'll get over it. You didn't do anything wrong. It's like . . . past. So being jealous of this guy would be like you being jealous of Stella, right?"
        "Actually, Ray, that's a very good parallel. I have been jealous of Stella, frequently. But I believe that neither of us have anything to fear from past relationships, now, do we? Stella is in your past, Billy is in mine."
        As he said Billy's name, Ray closed his eyes for a moment, bending his head, rubbing his forehead with one hand to hide his face, but Ben saw the insecurity and hurt written on it anyway, and knew what Ray was thinking as clearly as if he'd spoken aloud; that he was second best, again. Ben couldn't allow him to think that.
        Ray turned and awkwardly pulled Ben closer, bringing their lips together. Heat flared, instant and electric. Ben's arms went around him in return, pulling him close, responding instinctively, his head tilted a little so their mouths could blend more easily. Hot breath in his mouth, hot tongue against his own. He heard/felt a soft moan, and shuddered as Ray leaned in, kissing him harder, and sensation tried to overwhelm his thoughts, then suddenly Ben realized that was exactly what Ray wanted to happen, that he was trying to change the subject, as it were, and he gently but firmly pulled away.
        Ray sighed, looking sad. "What, Ben?"
        "It's you. Only you. It has been only you for a long time. Like you, I thought anything between us was impossible, I tried to find substitutes, but none of them were right. None of them. Not one. There is no substitute for you, because no one else is you, no one else makes me feel the way you do. You're my partner, my friend, and so much more. You're like . . . like the sun, my life is dark without you." He knew he was blushing, such words did not come easily to him, but he continued, urgent, insistent. "Please believe that. If you can't believe that, I'll go, now, because I could never be with you if I thought you didn't." Ben stepped away, and the room seemed colder.
        Ray shivered and stared at Ben, swallowing hard. Ben gazed back, willing him to believe. Ray took a deep breath, their eyes locked.
        "I believe you."
        "You're not just humoring me?" Fraser asked quietly.
        Ray shook his head, still looking directly into Ben's eyes. "No. I believe you. I . . . trust you."
        Ben closed his eyes, relief flooding him. "Thank you."
        Suddenly Ray turned away, though not before Ben saw a flash of fear on his face. Ben understood that, too. In Ray's experience, trust led to heartbreak. That was Ben's experience as well. But Ray trusted him, sometimes even with his life. Had since the first day they'd met, when Ray had taken a bullet for him.
        Ben would never forget the horrified rage that had consumed him when he'd thought Ray dead, or at least terribly wounded. He'd very nearly used his lanyard to strangle the inaptly named Ms. Garbo, rather than to bind her. Nor could he forget the relief he'd felt at realizing that the creature of light and warmth who so mesmerized him was safe, and unharmed. Ray would die for him. He would do the same for Ray. Was there any surer definition of love?
        Moving closer, Ben wrapped his arms around Ray from behind, holding him quietly, his face against the curve of Ray's neck. They stood like that until Ray began to relax. With that relaxation came the realization that their bodies were touching full-length, so close that he could feel the warmth of Ray's skin through their clothing, smell the scent of him. His own body stirred, inevitably he supposed, with the object of his desire so near, and since there was no space between them he started to draw back before his interest became too obvious, not wanting to rush things. But as he tried to move away, Ray leaned back a little, pressing against him, tilting his head a little to one side, so they fit together even better.
        Could he . . . was he possibly hinting that more would not be unwelcome? He heard a sharply indrawn breath, and was startled to realize it was his own. Well, there was only one way to know for certain. He had to ask. This was not something he could make an assumption about. He gathered his courage, and spoke, lips almost touching the back of Ray's neck.
        Ray shivered, and after a moment he nodded jerkily. Tentatively, Ben slipped his hands inside the open vee of Ray's robe, fanning his fingers across his chest, feeling the resilient warmth of his skin. He just stood like that for a moment, savoring the newness of that sensation, then he couldn't resist any longer. He let his fingers move lightly across Ray's nipples, which were taut before he even touched them. Another shiver went through Ray as Ben explored those ridged nubs with his fingertips.
        Daring, Ben kissed the side of Ray's neck, letting his tongue learn his flavor, knowing that for the rest of his life Ray's unique scent, texture, and taste was going to define erotic for him. He moved his mouth upward, tongue tracing the edge of one small, oddly delicate ear, following that a moment later with the light scrape of teeth against that same spot. Ray gasped, and made a soft sound in his throat which emboldened Ben. He dealt efficiently with the knotted belt and the robe fell open.
        He leaned forward over Ray's shoulder, relishing the view. Despite the odd ambiguity of his demeanor and his intensely lovely eyes, Ray was lean, tawny-pale, and strongly masculine. Just the opposite of Ben, who, although he knew he was reasonably fit and well made, had been teased about his smooth, white skin, his lack of body hair, the fact that he was almost femininely pretty. He smiled a little, thinking about the old adage of opposites attracting. That was never more true. He had to share his feelings, though, couldn't let them go unspoken.
        "You're so beautiful, Ray."
        Ray laughed, shaking his head and Ben tightened his arms around him. "You are," he whispered emphatically, licking Ray's ear, as he brought his hands up to Ray's shoulders. Sensing the anticipatory tension in Ray's body, he slowly let his hands range down his partner's chest and belly finally brushing lightly over the arching thrust of his cock for a moment before closing around him. Ray groaned softly, eyes squeezed shut as Ben stroked him with gentle fingers. Ben couldn't look away from the thick, hard shaft in his hand.
        Imagination supplied a hint of what Ray might feel like in his mouth, what he might taste like, and Ben moaned, too. Taste. He wanted that so badly. Needed that, so badly. At his moan, Ray shuddered, his cock jerking in Ben's hand, not coming, but very close. Ben stopped stroking, it was too soon for that. He wanted so much more, but he didn't move his hand away.
        "Ben, please. Let go."
        Hearing the rough plea in Ray's voice, Ben reluctantly released him, worried that Ray was changing his mind. Instantly Ray turned, took Ben's face between his hands and brought his mouth against Fraser's, parting his lips with a maddening tongue. They rocked together, his hips against Ray's narrower ones, the unfamiliar hardness of Ray's cock against his own through layers of wool and cotton. After a few moments Fraser pulled his mouth away, gasping for air, and Ray went after his collar bone, the only part of Ben's body that was exposed at the moment, kissing it, licking it, sucking it. But that wasn't what Ben wanted, or needed. The thought of tasting Ray was nearly an obsession now. He tried to pull away.
        Ray didn't stop.
        "Ray, please." He was startled by his own voice, husky, low, needy.
        Ray slid a hand down Fraser's back, cupped one of his buttocks, those long fingers spreading out, dipping just a little between . . .
        "Ray!" Ben moaned, still trying to pull away.
        Surprisingly strong, Ray wouldn't let him move as his other hand moved up to start unfastening the buttons on the henley. Rational thought began to desert him as Ray got the buttons open and licked at the hollow of his throat, hands coming up to push the braces off his shoulders preparatory to grabbing his shirt and hauling it off. Ben shuddered. No. His turn. He had to do this, had to have this. . . to taste. He had to taste.
        Catching Ray's hands in his own, he held them away from his body as his mouth met Ray's in a blistering kiss, hard, and hot, and almost painful, then he was sliding down to his knees on the floor, and leaning in and filling his mouth with the hot, hard thickness of Ray's cock. Yes. This was delight. This was what he needed, wanted, craved. The salt-sweet taste of him, the feel of him on his tongue, the satin of him against his lips. Yes. Perfect.

* * *

        "Holy . . . Oh God. . . Oh. . . fuck, Fraser! Ben!"
        Not even Ray's wildest fantasy had included this. Ben on his knees, fully clothed, one hand wrapped around his cock, pumping as he took Ray into his mouth, sucking, licking, the other hand cupped over his ass, urging him forward into that sweet, wet heat, that suction, that incredible tongue stroking the perfect, perfect spot on the underside of his penis. Ray grabbed the roll-top desk with one hand, flattened the other against the wall, trying desperately to stay on his feet as the sensations threatened to overwhelm him. He could feel the pleasure rising, and knew he wasn't going to last two minutes at this rate.
        "Ben, ohgodohgodohgod. . . please, you gotta stop, stop now!"
        He stopped. Ray dragged air into his lungs, shuddering, as Ben slowly let his cock slip from between his lips. Okay, okay, slow down. Just take it easy. He tried to think of some joking comment to tone things down, only to find himself watching as Ben brought a hand up to his mouth, very deliberately sucking on his own fingers.
        That didn't register as anything but an incredibly erotic display of orality until seconds later when those lips were back on his cock again, the dry hand was once more stroking him, and then those wet fingers were sliding between his legs, between his cheeks, and one finger was circling slickly, and then pressing in. For about a tenth of a second he was shocked, and started to tense, but then sensation kicked in and it felt incredible, leaving him wondering what it would feel like to have Ben's cock there instead of his finger. That was all it took. Pleasure exploded through him like a gunshot and he was coming in hard, dizzying waves.
        Somehow Ray managed to stay upright with only minor knee-buckling. He was very, very glad of the wall and the desk, though. He watched as Ben slowly released him, leaned back in for a moment to take the last welling droplet, then sat back. His thumb wiped from the corner of his mouth inward, his tongue flickered across his thumb, then across his lips. His eyes were half-closed, his expression stunningly self-satisfied. It struck Ray that Ben looked for all the world like Diefenbaker did after enjoying an illicit doughnut, and he realized with complete amazement that Ben had obviously enjoyed the hell out of what he'd just done.
        That was one blow too many for his still-wobbly legs. He winced a little as his knees hit the floor, then he leaned forward and sealed his mouth over Ben's, kissing him deeply, meaningfully, thumbs stroking his jaw, urging his mouth wide, searching out his own taste in Ben's mouth, finding that unbearably erotic. If he hadn't just come, he probably would have again, just from that. Finally he pulled back, shaking his head.
        "You're nuts, Ben, completely nuts."
        Ben blushed. He blushed. After what he'd just done, the man blushed? Ray pulled him close, burying his face in the smooth curve of trapezius muscle, smelling the rich, warm scent of him. Starch-wool-cedar-soap-Ben. He knew that smell like he knew his own. He rubbed his nose along the line of Ben's shoulder and sighed.
        "Love the way you smell. I'd know you blindfolded." Heat against his skin. Another blush. Ray lifted his head, looked into Ben's eyes and shook his head again. "What got into you?"
        Completely flushed and flustered, Ben's lashes came down to shutter his gaze in a look that on anyone else would have been coy, but Ray had already seen the flash of guilt in those storm-blue eyes.
        "I just . . . I just had to. I needed to. I'm sor . . . ."
        Ray plastered a hand over Ben's mouth before he could complete the word. Arranging his face into its most threatening mien, he leaned forward. "Do not, ever, say that word to me again, unless I say you can. Got it?"
        Ben nodded, wide-eyed. Ray eyed him a moment longer, then lifted his hand. "Good. I mean it. I am sick of you apologizing for stuff you have no need to apologize for." He shook his head, still amazed. "I mean, do you have any idea how it makes me feel to know that you wanted me that bad? Skinny, weird-haired me? It's like. . . I don't know, I got nothing to compare it to. It's just . . . well, fucking amazing. 'Scuse the French."
        Ben's eyebrows lifted. "I don't believe that word is French, Ray."
        "Nah, really?" Ray said trying to keep a straight face.
        "Indeed, although the derivation is lost in time, many linguists believe it is likely of Scandinavian or Norwegian origin, from fukka, or focka, to copulate, or perhaps from fock, which means . . . ." Ben stopped suddenly, and a smile curved his mouth. "But I'm sure that wouldn't interest you."
        Ray grinned. "You, Benton Fraser, are what's commonly known as a tease. You got me. What's it mean?"
        "Penis," Ben said, smooth as satin.
        Ray threw back his head, laughing. "God, I'd've bet fifty bucks you couldn't say that without blushing. You're a revelation, Ben. The only man I know who can give a thousand-dollar blowjob and then discourse on the linguistic derivation of 'fuck.'"
        Fraser cocked his head. "Would that be in US or Canadian dollars, Ray?"
        Ray laughed. He loved it when Ben let his sense of humor out to play, something that had begun happening more and more frequently, the longer they had known each other. At least until recently. It was good to see it again.
        "U.S. of course, none of that funny money for me." He looked at his partner, noticing that even after everything he'd done, his hair was still utterly perfect. Impulsively Ray reached over and ruffled Ben's hair with both hands, then sat back to survey his handiwork with a grin. "Do you have any idea how long I've wanted to do that?"
        Ben shook his head, then slanted a startlingly provocative look at him. "Is that all you've wanted to do, Ray?"
        Wow. Ray picked his jaw up off the floor and shook his head, slowly, seriously.
        "Ah," Ben said, looking thoughtful, his hands shifting position a little, resting on his thighs, pale against the dark wool of his pants.
        Automatically Ray's gaze followed that movement, simultaneously registering the substantial rise beneath the concealing fabric between those hands. He licked suddenly-dry lips, lifted his gaze slowly up that flat abdomen, firm chest, broad shoulders, past moist, parted lips, met smoky, wide-pupiled eyes. There was wildness there in that gaze, barely held in check. Waiting. For him. Holy cow. His eyes traveled Ben's body again, this time lingering, cataloguing. But he knew what Ben looked like clothed. He wanted to know more than that, but suddenly he was nervous, and uncertain, at a loss as to how to proceed. Then he laughed, shaking his head.
        "What?" Ben asked.
        Ray smiled, self-deprecatingly. "Not sure where to start."
        "Where do you want to start?"
        Was that husky, seductive voice really Ben's? He chanced a look into those eyes once more. Yes. It was his. Absolutely. The look, the voice, the knowledge that Ben wanted to be here, wanted him. . . "I want to fuck your brains out." The words fell out of his mouth in a rush, and Ray closed his eyes and his mouth, blushing. Hiding his face behind his hand, he moaned, "God, tell me I didn't just say that."
        There was a moment of silence. He figured his partner was blushing too hard to speak, but to his surprise, when Ben finally did find his voice he sounded amused, and hell, downright provocative.
        "I've always admired your honesty, Ray, and frankly that sounds rather appealing. However, might I suggest a change of venue?"
        Appealing? Ben thought that having his brains fucked out sounded appealing? Ray looked out from behind his fingers to find Ben staring at him with that same hungry look he'd worn a few minutes earlier. Oh, man. He needed this. Needed it as much as Ray did. The thought staggered him. Sometimes it seemed like Fraser never needed anyone, or anything. But apparently he needed Ray.
        The rest of Ben's sentence percolated down through his brain. Change of venue. Ben wanted to move. Good plan. Standing in the middle of the living room wasn't exactly conducive to fooling around. Couch maybe, it was close. No, bedroom. That was serious. Bedroom. Yeah. Ben deserved that. Not the casual, on-the-make informality of the couch, but the bedroom and all that implied. All that implied.
        Christ. He was . . . they were. . . going to touch. To get naked. To kiss. To lick, suck. . . make love. Yes. Not just fuck. Make love. With Benton Fraser. His luck had been drifting toward good for months, now it was firmly there. How many times in his life had he gotten exactly what he wanted? Once? Twice? Now, this. Beyond amazing. He shivered, his body reacting in a way he wouldn't have thought possible this soon, at his age. A deep, hot hunger began to build once more. His brain might not quite believe this was happening, but apparently his body had no such problem. Ray surged to his feet and held out a hand, silently, not trusting his voice.
        Ben took it, and Ray braced him to his feet. Unexpectedly, once upright, Ben pulled him into his arms, and Ray was astonished again by how well they fit together. Everything matched, perfectly. He turned his head, and their lips met. Slowly, sweetly, a long, soft, gentle kiss, full of promise, and a strange, slow passion. He made a sound in his throat, a soft groan, tightened his arms around Ben's back and waist, pulling as much as possible of that firm body against his own. Perfect. Except that he was pretty much bare and Fraser was still covered neck-to-foot. With a little sigh he broke the kiss, and found himself smiling goofily into Fraser's slightly glazed eyes.
        "Come on. Let's get that venue, and you, changed."
        At Ben's nod, Ray found Ben's hand with his own, and drew him into the bedroom, pushing him gently down on the bed as he knelt and started loosening the bootlaces. He was suddenly very glad he'd borrowed Turnbull's Serge that one time, since it meant he knew the details necessary to removing The Uniform. (Funny, how there were just some things he thought of in capital letters these days. The Uniform, The Queen. Fraser had rubbed off on him.)
        He disposed of the boots, then the socks. Ben's feet, like his hands, were wide and a little square, though not particularly long, very different from Ray's long, narrow ones with their almost prehensile toes. Next he tugged open the ties that held the pants snug at the ankle beneath the boots. Then . . . then he was up on his knees, his gaze lifting to Ben's as his fingers found the button at the waist and slowly drew down the zipper. Ben was watching him intently, almost frowning. Ray reached out a finger and smoothed the line between his eyebrows.
        "Something wrong?" he asked, afraid of the answer.
        "No, Ray. I was just. . . watching you."
        "How come?"
        A slow smile curved Ben's mouth, lit his smoky gaze. "Because I enjoy watching you. I find you very attractive."
        Ray felt a blush burn his face, knew he was as red as Ben's tunic. "Nutball," he muttered. Dropping his gaze from Ben's, he found himself looking at the white cotton exposed by that open fly. Knew that what waited there was undeniably male. Beautifully so. Stolen glances in a dozen men's rooms had told him that unlike ninety percent of the guys Ray had ever noticed, Ben was uncut. That idea fascinated him. He licked his lips, reached out, touching thin, woven cotton with a fingertip, feeling the racing pulse beat in the flesh beneath the fabric.
        "You're not afraid of this, are you?" Fraser asked, in a voice that said he knew the answer already.
        Ray smiled, agreeing. "No. Maybe that's kind of weird, but I'm not. Guess when you want something long enough, it takes the fear out of it."
        "You did once tell me you would try anything."
        He grinned. "You would remember that."
        "That comment fueled my fantasies for weeks, Ray. I'm unlikely to forget it. "
        Ray's gaze snapped up to Ben's face, disbelieving. "It did?"
        A slow smile curved Ben's mouth. "Oh, most certainly. It still does, in fact. Was it true?"
        With some difficulty, Ray located his voice. Thankfully it didn't squeak. "With you? Absolutely."
        Ben closed his eyes for a moment, reopened them, and what Ray saw in those blue-gray depths was a perfect echo of what he was feeling. He had to express it, had to say it, but not with his mouth. He'd already done that. What he wanted now was to prove it with his body. He slid his hands beneath the loosened waistband of Ben's pants, found the hem of the henley and tugged it free.
        "I have to see you now, Ben. I want to see you, all of you. Now. Okay? Right now." He pulled the shirt up and off in a single yank.
        Ben emerged from the folds looking amused, and even more ruffled than before. "If you'll just give me a moment . . . ." he began.
        Ray planted a hand on his chest, pushed him down onto his back on the bed, grabbed the waistband of his trousers and started pulling. "No. No more moments. Now."
        Fraser caught his hands. "Let me, it will be faster."
        "Faster is good," Ray said, letting go.
        Ray slid his robe off, dropping it on the floor, and sat down on the bed as Ben got to his feet, stripping off his pants, and laying them neatly across the top of the bureau. Then his hands were at the waist of his boxers, and he stopped, obviously self-conscious, though Ray had no idea why he should be. From the meager glimpses he'd caught of Ben without clothing, he certainly had nothing to be embarrassed about. He wasn't like Ray, a skinny, stringy, average sort of guy. No, he was beautiful.
        "Thought you said it would be faster if you did it." Ray said, trying to tease Ben out of his shyness.
        Ben drew in his breath, and skinned out of his boxers, deliberately not looking at Ray as he placed the garment with his pants and then turned toward the bed again. Ray's gaze flickered down him, lingered, then rose again, awed. He'd known Ben would be beautiful, but this was beyond expectations.
        "Jesus, Ben. You're . . . perfect. Just perfect." Ray looked down, back up again, warmly amused. "But I'm never going to be able to see you blush again without remembering exactly where it starts. An' that's going to make it really hard."
        That distracted Ben, and he looked at Ray, puzzled. "Make it really hard to what?"
        Ray grinned slyly. "There is no what. It's just going to make it hard, Ben."
        Ray watched as Ben rolled that around in his head for a minute, and saw his face change as the double entendre finally registered. A smile curved his mouth upward for an instant, then he controlled his features.
        "Ah. I see."
        "Figured you would, eventually."
        They stared at each other, still at that awkward impasse. Both of them naked, but separated by about three feet of air, which might as well have been a mile. Ben flicked his fingertips across his eyebrow, which reassured Ray immensely. Knowing Ben was nervous too helped a lot. He figured between the two of them, he probably had the most experience, at least quantity wise, so maybe he ought to take the lead here. He deliberately chose not to think about the fact that even if Ben had a lot less quantity of experience, he had more variety. Unless Ray counted what Ben had just done with him. That certainly was variety.
        Suddenly he wondered what the hell he was doing getting all weirded out about someone in Ben's past, when he had Ben naked, obviously willing, and within arm's reach. God. Ben really had just gone down on him. He had just come in that gorgeous mouth, and those broad, warm hands had been wrapped around his cock, a thick, capable finger actually inside him. The thought made him instantly hot, and very bothered, and completely distracted him from anything other than attempting to return the favor. Deliberately he patted the bed, lifting his eyebrows in an unspoken query.
        Fraser took a step forward. Then another. He stood beside the bed for a moment, then as if he were a marionette with severed strings, he was kneeling, almost between Ray's thighs. His gaze was fixed on Ray's cock, which began to harden instantly. Damn, all Ben had to do was look at him and he started to get hard. This could be a problem. Not at the moment, but at the station it simply would not do. Ben licked his lips, and Ray shuddered, feeling the pleasurable surge of blood into his penis as it anticipated the touch of that mouth again. Amazing. But, oh man, not again. There was so much more he wanted to do. Like do a little tasting of his own.
        "Ben," he said softly.
        Ben looked up as if Ray had woken him from a trance. His lips were slightly parted. Ray leaned forward brought their lips together. Oh yeah. This he could do. This he knew, real well. He licked into the moist heat of Ben's mouth, flicking his tongue against palate, teeth, the slick, soft inner surface of lower lip. Felt Ben's tongue slide against his own in a hot, wet tangle of muscle. When the kiss finally broke, they were both panting. Ray reached down and grabbed Ben by the upper arms and hauled him bodily out of his crouch. Fortunately the other man didn't resist, because there was no way he could have managed the move if he had.
        Still holding his partner's solid form in his arms, Ray let himself fall back against the bed, taking Ben with him, loving the broad solidity of his partner's body against his own. He'd never been with anyone who felt like this, who covered him like a big, warm blanket. Never knew how good it could feel. It seemed crazy now that they'd waited so long to find out they both wanted the same thing. He shivered, remembering the cold, lonely feeling that had gripped him for the past few days, and Ben's arms tightened around him.
        "Ray?" His voice was soft, concerned.
        "I'm okay. God, I missed you. Missed this. Just didn't know I did."
        Ben looked bemused. "How can you miss something you've never had?"
        "I don't know, but I can, I did. It's like. . . I knew. I just knew."
        Ray tried to shrug, but the motion didn't translate well lying down. It turned into more of a squirm, which was, all in all, okay because it was movement against Ben, and that felt good. Apparently Ben thought so too, judging from the way his eyes closed, and his teeth caught at his lower lip. He turned Fraser on. Just like Fraser turned him on. That was . . . surprising. Amazing. Greatness.
        After all, if two people loved each other, and after all, the L-word had passed their lips, it was good if they also wanted each other. Made things easier. Though this wasn't easy, not this time, at least. He wasn't like Fraser, couldn't just go for it. Wait. Why couldn't he? Since when was he Mr. Cautious? He'd always been the one to leap first and look later. What was the problem with that now? He thought of all the things he'd imagined doing to Fraser, no, with Fraser. God, so many. So what the hell was he waiting for? He already had the engraved invitation.
        "Ray? Would you like me to go?"
        Ben's voice was carefully controlled, but there were layers in it. Pain. Sorrow. Fear. Ray could hear those emotions in Ben's voice, as plain as day, felt them in the body that was moving away from his. His brain kicked back in. Oh God. He was spending way too much time in his head and not enough in his body, and he was scaring Ben. Without thinking, he grabbed, and held, wrapping his arms tightly around Fraser, not letting him move, fingers spread across the back of his head, threaded through his thick, soft hair, holding his face against his shoulder, but not so hard he couldn't breathe.
        "God no! No! Sorry, Ben. There's just so much I want to do . . . to say. . . I'm sorry, I suck. . . ."
        "You don't suck." Ben said firmly. "At least, you haven't yet," he said after a moment's pause.
        Ray pulled back and stared at him. Was that. . . had Benton Fraser just made a dirty joke? The faint curve to the corners of Ben's mouth confirmed his suspicions, and he grinned. "Working on that," he said, his voice almost a growl. Somehow he managed to get enough leverage to flip their positions, which he knew he'd never have been able to do if he hadn't had the element of surprise on his side.
        Now above his startled-looking partner, Ray drew Ben's arms above his head, cupping his hands together so he could hold them there with one hand as he leaned in and began to kiss the creamy satin of his wrists, sucking softly, not enough to raise a mark, just enough to satisfy the craving in him to do it. He heard Ben's startled intake of breath as his lips moved, tongue following the faint blue tracery of a vein up his inner arm to his elbow, pausing there to kiss, to suck some more. Ben arched, a faint, wordless moan breaking from his lips. Ray licked that snowy skin, so surprisingly warm, kissed it, then lifted so his lips were barely above the surface.
        "Do you have any idea how much you turn me on?" he whispered, lips brushing skin as he spoke. "Did you know your forearms turn me on? How nuts is that? You roll your sleeves up and I get hard. Did you know that?"
        "My arms?" Ben's voice was resonant with disbelief.
        Ray lifted his head and looked down into Ben's face, into blue-gray eyes that were wide, dilated, and dubious. He smiled.
        "Believe it. It's a good thing you don't do it too often, or I'd be in trouble bigtime. You know a manila folder is a really handy thing, just the right size to hide behind, and nobody thinks a thing about it if you carry one around with you."
        Still smiling, Ray returned to his explorations, still not letting go of Ben's hands, this time kissing and sucking what he could reach of the lower arm, then continuing on up, up over the smooth curves of biceps and triceps, across the arch where it joined the body. Then his mouth was moving onto Ben's chest, licking at that collarbone that was just as fascinating as his forearms. Ben was shivering beneath his touch, breathing hard, hips pushing up against Ray's. Finally Ray leaned down and fastened his lips around one of those damned pink nipples (for some reason it just seemed cool that his extremely male partner had pink nipples) and stroked his tongue across it, then sucked. Ben nearly arched them both off the bed. Only a hastily placed foot on the floor kept them from going right over the edge.
        Deciding that maybe their position was a little too precarious, Ray kissed and nudged and prodded Fraser until they were in the middle of the bed and not likely to fall off again. Only then did he start the make-out session again. Making out he was good at. The gender of the make-ee didn't seem to matter a bit. In fact, it kind of made it easier, because when he slid a hand down Ben's torso and wrapped his fingers around that beautiful and startlingly silky hard-on, he knew just what would feel good. And he did it.
        There was a little more 'play' to Ben's equipment than he had with his own, the loose skin gave him a moment's pause, but it only took him a second or two to get the hang of that. And the way Ben was thrusting into his hand, and making those almost animal-sounding noises was incredibly sexy. He eased up on his tempo a little, wanting this to last, wanting to do so much more than just touch. Remembering the delight of Ben's mouth on him, he wanted to give that, too. More than that, he wanted, desperately, to taste Fraser. He almost came just thinking about it. He leaned down, using his hand to slide Ben's foreskin back, then he touched his tongue to the slick, swollen head.
        Ben moaned. Loudly. His hips came up off the bed, and Ray got a lot more of a mouthful than he'd originally planned, but he just let his jaw loosen, and let Ben in. Then he gently pushed him back to the bed and held him down with an arm across his hips as he let the thick shaft slip slowly out again, and this time as it slid across his tongue he had time to taste, and he understood that 'Dief with a donut' expression Ben had been wearing earlier. He liked this. A lot. Liked the sweet-salt-bitterness, the strangely clean astringence. It tasted like home, like Ben, like lust, like life.
        Ray engulfed Ben again, shifting his free hand between his partner's thighs to cup the sweaty weight of his testicles, rolling them a little, tugging. Ben tried to arch up off the bed again. Ray leaned on him hard, keeping him pinned, and set to in earnest, trying to remember the best bits of every great blowjob he'd ever had. And the greatest had been less than half an hour earlier, and he definitely remembered what had made it so great. He couldn't be Ben, which was the best part, but he could do that incredible finger thing. . . if Ben would let him.
        Tentatively he let his hand slide lower, over the smooth, sweat-slick skin of the perineum, then upward to ease his fingers between those muscular hemispheres, to stroke a finger with heart-stopping intimacy across the vulnerable opening there. Ben moaned, shuddered, and shifted his thighs apart, the response instant and unmistakable both there, and in the jerk and thickening of the cock in his mouth. He would let him. Oh yeah. He suddenly became aware that Ben's moans had taken on a definite shape. He'd missed that, concentrating so hard.
        ". . .Ray. . . Ray, please. . . ."
        Without releasing his prize, he looked up at Ben's flushed and sweating face. "Mmmm?"
        Ben shuddered again, gasped and bucked. "Please, would you . . . do you think you could . . . ."
        The flush in his face deepened. Ray reluctantly let him go and lifted his head. "Would I what, Ben? What do you need?"
        Fraser squinched his eyes closed, bit his lip, then let it go. He licked his lips, cleared his throat. "I need you . . . in me. If you can, if you don't mind, if it doesn't bother you . . . ."
        Ray knew he was just sitting there staring, his mouth open in shock. Had Ben just asked him to . . . no. He must have misunderstood. Surely.
        "What?" he managed to gasp.
        "Never mind, it's all right. Just do . . . whatever you want. That will be fine."
        Ray scowled. "Oh no. No you don't. Polite does not cut it when we're naked and I got your dick in my hand, Benton. I just want to be sure I got it right, be sure we're both pursuing the same lead, so I'm going to ask again. Did you just ask me to . . . to fuck you?"
        Color swept up Ben's sweat-gleamed torso, and he put an arm across his eyes, but his lips formed a word. A single word. And it wasn't 'no.' Ray let go of Ben's cock and grabbed his own, hard, pinching just beneath the head, panting, forcing back the rush with a groan of almost-pain. Lord. Ben wanted him . . . that way. The way Ray had stopped himself from imagining a thousand times. God. He wanted to. He wanted to, bad. But. . .
        "Ben, I can't," he said, apologetic, cursing his lack of foresight.
        "I understand, Ray. It's all right, you don't have to feel . . . ."
        "Ben," he interrupted gently. "No. You don't understand. I want to. God, do I want to. But I don't have anything."
        "Have any what?" Ben asked, lifting his arm, looking curiously at Ray.
        "Y'know, protection. Haven't had much call for them in quite a while," he admitted, embarrassed.
        He saw the light go on in that disappointed face. Saw him understand, smile a little.
        "Ah. I see."
        "Yeah. Thought you would. I'm sorry."
        "No, Ray, it's all right. If you'll just excuse me a moment . . . "
        And before he could protest, Fraser was off the bed and out of the room. He was still sitting there, puzzled, when Ben returned a moment later, looking a little embarrassed himself as he held out his hand.
        Ray put out his own hand and received a small bottle and a three-pack of condoms. His eyes widened, went from his hand to Ben's face, back, forth, back. Fraser? Benton 'Pure as the Driven Snow' Fraser was packing condoms and lube? Had he planned this? No. Ray was sure of that. This was yet another case of Typical Fraser Preparedness. And his cock didn't care why Ben had them. It was telling him in no uncertain terms that it did not matter. At all. Wow.
         Somewhere in the back of his head he heard a voice telling him they probably ought to talk about this. They should probably discuss the potential repercussions, the pitfalls and hazards that awaited them. But Ben was waiting, and he looked . . . scared, but hopeful, and horny, all at once. Which was exactly how Ray felt. And he was going on his gut here, on instinct. Like always. He looked up into Ben's uncertain face, and grinned.
        "So, whatcha doing up there?"
        Relief, anticipation, and flat-out lust flashed across Ben's features, and Fraser hit the bed about two seconds later, on his belly, one knee canted to the side to open himself. The utter trust and need that spoke was an erotic shock that hit Ray at about eight on the Richter scale. Jesus. His hands shook as he opened one of the packets, rolled the slick film down over himself, frowning a little, because it was different from what he'd expected, kind of loose around the top, but still snug at the bottom. Weird. Must be Canadian.
        He grinned to himself at that thought and then his gaze went to Ben again and the fear came back. God. Could he do this? Fraser shifted his hips a little, almost a thrust into the bed, and heat flushed through Ray as he watched that. Yeah. He could do this. Just had to remember how. He'd done it before, just never with a guy. Couldn't be that different. Like riding a bike. Like kissing. His fingers molded themselves over one buttock, soothing, petting. Ben humped again, made a throaty little sound.
        Ray stifled a whimper as his cock jumped in response. Slow. Take it slow. Easy. He managed to flip the top of the bottle open, drizzled a little of its contents into the cleft of that incredible ass. Ben sucked in his breath in a gasp as the cool lubricant hit hot flesh, and Ray wondered if he should have warmed it in his fingers first. Fingers. Right. He shifted his fingers over, down, smoothed that now-warm slickness up and down, around, circling. Fraser moaned. Ray shivered. God. So hot. He teased again, around, around, a fingertip easing just a tiny bit inside, withdrawing, easing in, withdrawing. On the third tease, Ben pushed his hips back toward Ray's hand.
        "Ray, please!" Ben grated, hands clenching into fists. "Please. . ." Husky, broken, pleading, pleasing.
        Ray held his breath, and eased his finger in, deep. Felt resistance yield, felt Ben buck into the sheets, moaning in a way that left no doubt he did not want Ray to stop. Ray stroked gently, used his other hand to add more lube, this time drizzling it down his own hand so that by the time it got to Ben's skin it was warm. Things got very slippery, and soon he had a second finger in that smooth, tight heat, and Ben was driving him out of his mind with his humping and groaning and panting. There was no resistance to his strokes, just Ben's unfettered response, his deepening moans as Ray prepared him.
        His own cock was so hard it hurt, and he could see the thunder of his pulse in its rhythmic twitch. He kept trying to think of things like the amount of work he was going to have waiting for him when he got back to it, desperate to find something to calm himself down, but nothing was working. He was just too present, too hooked in, and if he didn't do something soon he wasn't going to be able to do what Ben has asked him to do because he'd have already come, just from the pleasure he got from pleasing Ben. He soothed his partner's shoulder with his free hand, kissed the back of his neck, licking the razor-precise line of his hair before shifting his lips to his ear.
        "You sure? Really sure?"
        Fraser nodded into the sheet. Hard.
        "Tell me. Say it." He couldn't assume now. Not for a second.
        "I'm certain, Ray."
        His voice was sure. Dark and rough, but sure. Ray shivered all over at the sound of it. Okay. He could do this, he could. He could. He stroked a sheen of lubricant over the his condom-sheathed cock and moved between Ben's spread thighs, slipping his fingers free to fit himself there. He paused there a moment, trying to control the urge to thrust home, hard, only to have Ben look back over his shoulder at him.
        "Now," he said, his voice nothing more than a growl.
        As much as Ray disliked obeying orders, this one was irresistible. He gripped Ben's hip in one hand, held himself with the other, and slid home. And home it was. Even with a layer of latex between him and home, he could tell it was home. Hot, and sweet, and so, so tight. They moaned in harmony. He eased himself deeper. Ben grunted in an intensely satisfying way, a sound sweeter than any feminine moan he'd ever precipitated. Beautiful. God, this was it. It. Why the hell had they waited so long? Why the hell was he still thinking when he had Ben's big, gorgeous body under his, around his, yielding and hot.
        The word was a sibilant plea, shockingly intense. Harder. Yes. He could do harder. Like a wave, pull back, and crest, pull back, and crest, each time a little harder, a little deeper. Suddenly Ben got his knees under him and pushed up, back, until he was on his hands and knees, Ray still buried in him, and yeah, this would work. Harder. Faster. Deeper, until he couldn't get any deeper, until they were one body, fused and burning and sweating and . . .
        Blinding. Pleasure. Joy. Need, Love. Pouring intohimoutofhimhewasn'tsurewhich. Both. Everything. He heard Ben's voice, a wordless, delighted sound, felt him shudder and clench, and they fell together. Those few inches to the mattress felt like miles. Home. Home. Perfect. He pressed his face into the curve of Ben's shoulder, panting, wrapping legs and arms around him, holding him tighter than he could ever have held a woman, and it felt so right.
        "God, I love you," he breathed into the sweat-curled hair at the nape of Ben's neck. "Love you."
        He felt Ben tense in his arms, shaking. Why shaking now? Heard the stuttering catch of indrawn breath, knew that sound. Shocked, and suddenly afraid he reached around to touch Ben's face with his fingertips, found the scalding wetness he'd feared finding. The shaking, the breathing the wetness. . . tears.
        "Oh God. Damn it, Ben, why didn't you tell me?" Carefully, carefully he eased free of the tight clasp of Ben's body, stripping off the condom and dropping it into the wastebasket. " I hurt you. God. I hurt you. Why didn't you say something. . . ."
        Ben turned over and reached for him, pulling him in against his chest, stroking his back, rubbing his face against Ray's hair. "No! No, Ray, you didn't hurt me. It was just. . . just so. . . " He shook his head, wiping the back of his hand across his face. "I have no words, Ray. No words. I've wanted you, for so long, and I never get the things I want, and that's all right, I'm used to that, but I got you, and. . . there are no words."
        Ray wondered if a person could die from relief. He felt like he could. Right now. Thank God. 'Never get the things I want. . .' What a lousy, crappy way to live. Ben deserved so much better than that. He stroked the damp curls at Ben's forehead, hugged him, hard. "Just tell me what you want, Ben, I'll get it for you."
        "You, Ray. Just you."

* * *

        Ben felt like he was walking on air. Had been for three days. Walking in the sky, as his father might have said. His suspiciously absent father. Odd, how he was suddenly on holiday. Probably off in a snit, muttering about how he was never going to get grandchildren at this rate. Still, it was rather a blessing to have him truant right now, when most of Ben's thoughts were filled with either rampantly sentimental or blatantly erotic thoughts about his partner.
        He was on his third and final day of standing sentry, the Inspector's punishment for his having abandoned the Consulate to Turnbull's care that day he'd gone to check on Ray. But every minute was worth it, even when the wind picked up and the damp lake air cut right through the uniform. He'd been far more uncomfortable for far less reason in the past, and he actually rather liked the cold. He didn't mind the duty, either, as it gave him a great deal of time to think. To daydream. To remember. To fantasize. All of which kept him remarkably warm. Occasionally even hot.
         The recent turn of events in his partnership with Ray Kowalski was very nearly too good to be true. Ray loved him. Ray wanted him. Not just the best friend he'd ever had, Ray was also wonderful in bed, a surprisingly sweet and considerate lover. He supposed he should have guessed that, since Ray was often surprisingly sweet and considerate in many ways. He felt his mouth trying to smile as he remembered Ray grinning at him. "On the inside, I'm a poet. Outside, mmmph, shake, bad guy, shake." Yes, he was a poet, with his hands and in his thoughts, if not so much with words, and though Ben wasn't a 'bad guy,' Ray could make him shake right down to his toes. Shake, and moan, and . . . oh dear. Not this again.
        Fraser bit the inside of his cheek to tame his incipient smile and shifted slightly on his feet, hoping the cold air would work quickly. Fortunately, as it wasn't summer, there were no small children on the street of a height to notice his unseemly reaction to his thoughts. It really was very unprofessional. He had to stop this. But it was so difficult. Maybe it was not such a good thing after all to have so much time on his hands, and his mind, as it were. Perhaps if he tried keeping his thoughts on things other than Ray's skills as a lover . . . yes, that should work.
        He wondered what case Ray was working on, hoping he didn't need his assistance at the moment. The one drawback to sentry duty was that he couldn't be at the station with Ray. That was quite frustrating, as he was used to spending more time with him, and now, just as their partnership was developing into something more, he was stuck here 'playing statue' as Ray had once called it. Still, it was his own fault, running off like that, without going through the proper procedure. He knew better. The Inspector had been sympathetic when she'd learned that Ray was ill, but still couldn't allow such a blatant breach of discipline to go without reprimand.
        Their local mail carrier, a tall, sturdy African American woman he knew only by her last name, Johnson, nodded to him as she walked up the steps of the Consulate. Fraser barely stopped himself from nodding back. His inherent politeness sometimes made this duty a little more difficult than it might be for someone else. She flashed a grin that told him she understood as she deposited the mail and went on about her rounds. She too was duty's servant. He thought of their motto and sighed. Some days he felt as if that 'snow, sleet and dark of night' saying should have been snatched up by the RCMP instead of 'Maintain the Right.' He found himself nearly smiling again as that made him remember that upon discovering the RCMP motto, Ray had asked him who maintained the Left.
        The door opened behind him, and he heard someone step out. Turnbull, from the sound of it. He heard the other man take the mail from the box, then he was speaking in a quiet voice.
        "It's four-eleven, Constable Fraser. I'll have tea ready at five, it's a chilly afternoon. Oh, there seems to be a parcel for you. I'll leave it on your desk."
        Fraser didn't acknowledge Turnbull's words, knowing the other man wouldn't expect that of him. The time check was welcome, and he would be glad of the tea as well. He wondered who had sent him a parcel. He wasn't expecting anything. It was probably yet another free pair of pantyhose. He never had figured out how he'd gotten on that mailing list, or how to get off it, either. He was forever getting them in the mail. Having worn them once, he couldn't think of a less welcome gift. As far as he was concerned they would probably be effective tools for torturing international terrorists into revealing their secret plans.
        The remaining forty-nine minutes ticked by with aching slowness as clouds blew in to obscure a sun that was already winter-weak. A few flakes of snow swirled past, and he wished, not for the first time, that the duty uniform for the day included pea-coat and gloves. Ah well. It would, after all, defeat the purpose of wearing the Serge while standing sentry. It was with a sincere sense of relief that he heard the door behind him open again.
        "Five o'clock, sir. Your tea is waiting in the kitchen."
        Fraser resisted the urge to sigh in relief as he turned and entered the comfortable confines of the consulate, flexing his cold-stiffened hands to warm them. "Thank you, Turnbull. That's kind of you."
        "Not at all, sir. I know how chilly it can get. Would you like biscuits with it?"
        "No, I'm having dinner with Detective Kow. . . Vecchio." He was startled by that near-slip. He had so thoroughly separated the two men in his mind that it was difficult sometimes to remember that he was still supposed to call Ray, his Ray, 'Vecchio.'
        Turnbull studied him for a moment, then he smiled, and leaned in a little confidentially. "Very good, sir. I hope you have an enjoyable time with the detective. And may I say that I'm pleased you seem to have found such an, ah, such a good friend here. I've always felt that you deserved that."
        If it hadn't been for the slight hesitation in Turnbull's statement Fraser wouldn't have thought a thing about it, but as it was, he wondered what, exactly, the other man had meant. He found himself staring at Turnbull speculatively, but the other man merely returned his gaze with his usual bland vacuousness. He mentally shook himself and headed for the kitchen and his tea, wondering if there was more to Turnbull than usually met the eye.
        The kitchen was warm and a little humid from the steam of the tea-kettle. Fraser stood there for some time, warming his hands on his mug, sipping idly, enjoying the sensation of slow thaw. There was always something a bit nostalgic about coming in from the cold to a warm kitchen. Some of his earliest and most cherished memories involved that little ritual. Finally realizing that Ray would be there soon, he pushed himself away from the counter and headed to his office to change. As he put his mug down on his desk, he noticed the package Turnbull had mentioned. It definitely wasn't pantyhose.
         He picked up the box, read the return address, and smiled. 'William Boisy.' Billy. Of course. With all the upheaval in his life of late, he'd forgotten that Billy was sending a copy of his band's compact disk. He opened the box and removed the contents: a copy of the 'Spin' magazine issue that had featured Billy's band and a CD with a yellow post-it note stuck to the case. 'Ben, know it's not your style, but give a listen to track twelve. -- Billy.'
        He glanced at the listing on the back of the case: track twelve was something called 'No Going Home' and the composer was given as B. Tallent. Interesting. Unwrapping the disk, he put it into the CD drive on his computer and selected the correct track. As it began to play, he unbuttoned his tunic and removed it, turning to hang it in the closet. The song was rock-ish, but not offensively harsh. A woman's voice started the lyric, and he froze, instantly, listening.

        You faced up to reality,
        What you expected it to be
        But what you thought the truth was
        Wasn't real to me
        Don't you know reality
        Ain't what we think it is
        Guess you never understood
        It only takes a kiss

        He smiled a little sadly, remembering that conversation, remembering Billy's comment 'I think there's a lyric in there somewhere.' Apparently there had been. And he'd been right, too. Reality hadn't been what he thought it was. Reality hadn't been what any of them thought it was; not him, not Billy, and not Ray. Thank goodness Billy had found him when he did, and thank goodness Ben had found the courage, or the insanity, to kiss Ray! The next phrase started, the chorus harmonized with a man's voice, Billy's, he suspected. It confirmed to him that the song had been written with Joe in mind.

        You expected me to hear you
        When you never said a word
        You couldn't wait and ask me
        About what you had heard
        It wasn't cold, not really
        But I felt it to the bone
        You're the one who left this time
        Now there's no going home

        There's nothing left of what we had
        Except the part that bleeds
        A stranger holds me in the dark
        I give in to my need
        I think I could have loved you
        But you couldn't let me see
        It wasn't just about the pain
        But really about me

        He closed his eyes, trying not to tear up, thinking how much it must have hurt Billy to write that, hoping that it had been cathartic as well as incredibly painful. It felt quite peculiar knowing he was that stranger. It seemed so unreal to him now, so out-of-character but at the same time, it had been so terribly necessary. Not just for Billy, but for himself. If the encounter with Billy had never happened, then Ben would never have been moved to act on his need, his desire, his . . . love . . . for Ray. Billy had provided the catalyst, and he would always be thankful for that. The chorus repeated, and a new verse began;

        Finally now I'm learning
        To live without the pain
        To maybe find a life again
        Somewhere in all this mess
        Though part of me went with you
        I think you left the best
        With a little help things are
        Starting to make sense

        Making sense. Yes. He was glad that Billy had come to a place where he could say that. Ben's own life was finally starting to make some sense as well. He hoped the potential battle over Billy's daughter would not interfere with that process of 'making sense.' It seemed terribly unfair to him that Billy should be prevented from getting to know his own child. Perhaps because his own father had been so distant, it seemed doubly important to Ben that a child should know its parents. He felt an itching below his eyes and rubbed at them, a little surprised to find his face was wet. He hadn't thought he'd cried, but he had. He straightened, and reached for the closet doorknob to put away his tunic.
        "Ben? You okay?"
        Startled, Fraser turned to find Ray standing there, looking at him in concern. He must have been concentrating so hard on the music that he hadn't heard him come in.
        "Yes, yes, I'm fine. I'm sorry, I didn't hear you, did you knock?"
        Ray looked a little sheepish. "No, Turnbull said you were expecting me so I just came on back. I guess I didn't think. . . well, anyway, sorry. I'll knock next time. You sure you're okay?"
        Ben nodded again. "Yes, I'm sure. The song lyrics were just a little . . . unexpected."
        Ray squinted at the CD. "That's the new Jenifur CD, isn't it? Not your usual style. Thought you were a country and classical kind of guy."
        "Well, in general you would be correct, however as it was a gift I felt I should listen to it."
        "Ah," Ray said, shrugging, accepting the explanation at face value. "So, you about ready to get out of here?"
        "Yes, just let me finish changing."
        Ray nodded and sat down on the corner of Ben's desk, picking up the magazine and leafing through it. Ben sat down in his chair and began to remove his boots. Moments later as he stood back up and started to strip off his jodhpurs he heard a sudden, sharp intake of breath. He smiled. Considering how often Ray had seen him undress now, he would have thought it might have lost a bit of its shock value. He glanced around at Ray, and was surprised to find him not grinning the suggestive smile he'd expected, but in fact, looking a little pale.
        "Ray?" he queried, concerned, and puzzled.
        Ray stared at him, his eyes a little . . . wild, the pupils contracted far more than the light level in the room would account for. Usually that look meant he was distressed about something.
        "Is anything wrong?"
        Ray blinked, seemed to shake himself. "Wrong? No. What would be wrong? Just hungry, and waiting for you to get a move on so we can go eat. That's all. Pitter patter. I'll be waiting out in the car, okay?"
        Ben nodded. "I'll be right out."
        Ray went to the door, stopped there a moment, turning back as if he meant to speak, then he shook his head as if thinking better of it and left the room. Ben gazed after him a moment, a little puzzled, then shrugged it off and finished changing.

* * *

        Ray dropped heavily into the driver's seat and put both hands on the wheel, gripping it tightly to still the shaking in his hands. He knew he'd probably just weirded out Fraser, but he'd just had to get out of there before he gave the game away, had to have a minute or two to think. He rested his head against this hands and forced himself to breathe deeply, trying to calm down. Okay. Breathe. Think. Don't just react. Reacting without thinking only gets you in trouble, you know it does.
        The magazine. The CD. Ben's reaction to the music. He'd looked so sad when Ray came in, had actually wiped away tears, despite his insistence moments later that he was fine. There had to be a conclusion other than the one he was jumping to. Okay, go back through it. Start by noticing the magazine on the desk, wondering why Ben had an old copy of Spin. That was as odd as his having a hot-list CD playing. Then he'd realized the CD and the magazine both featured the same band. Jenifur.
        Two chicks and three guys. The women were okay, a surly brunette Chick Lead Singer type and a blonde who sort of looked like Scully from The X-Files in a really bad dress and a bandana. Two of the guys were nondescript, one beefily cherubic, the other a Beat Generation wannabe. The third guy had seemed oddly familiar though. Tallish, lanky build, bad posture, triangular face, stubble, 'up' hair, looked a little older than the others.
        He'd flipped through the magazine, finally locating a name to go with the picture. Billy Tallent, a Canadian guitarist who had replaced the band's former axe man. That first name had sent a little shiver through him, but hey, there were a lot of guys on the planet named Billy, right? Funny, though, the name, other than the first part, hadn't rung a bell, but he was sure he'd seen the guy before.
        Idly he'd picked up the CD to look at the track listing and he'd seen the note to 'Ben' signed by 'Billy.' The note had asked Ben to listen to a specific track, and a quick glance at the track listing had told him that song was written by B. Tallent. Billy signed the note, Billy wrote the song. The box on the desk that had obviously contained the magazine and CD was return-addressed to somebody named William Boisy. Billy. Jenifur. Canada. Los Angeles. Ben.
        And then it hit him. He knew where he'd seen that face before. In the mirror. It was his face. Almost. Subtly different, perhaps a little younger, definitely a little thinner, but Jesus. . . they could've been separated at birth. He'd remembered then, could almost hear the bartender at Grady's: "You had a guitar case with you . . . You were having lunch on your way to the airport, about to leave for Los Angeles . . . I distinctly remember Constable Fraser calling you by name, Billy." And he'd known. No doubt at all. Fraser's stranger in need was Billy Tallent.
        Every insecurity Ray had successfully beaten into submission over the past few days resurfaced with a vengeance. Christ. The man was a fucking rock star. On magazines, store displays, posters, the radio, even MTV! How the hell was he was supposed to compete with that? For three days now he'd been going around in a kind of daze, subconsciously waiting for the other shoe to fall.
        Well, fall it had, with a kick like a mule, forcing him to face the fear that Billy hadn't been a substitute for him, but rather that he had been a substitute for Billy. He was just your average Joe, in an average job, and if Fraser was going to fall for somebody wouldn't it most likely be the guy with the exciting job and life? And Fraser had asked if he'd knocked. Wait, what? Where had that come from? Why had he thought that?
        There it was, hiding down there in his subconscious, coming up to bite his ass like a sewer-dwelling alligator. He'd never knocked before, and Fraser had never asked or expected him to. The idea that Ben suddenly wanted privacy disturbed him. That he'd wanted to hide his upset from Ray, that he'd somehow not mentioned that his one-night-or-however-long stand was a damned celebrity. All that was disturbing; more than disturbing.
        Fraser had never, well, almost never, been secretive. Not like this anyway, not in a personal way, unrelated to a case. That was what really bothered him. He could deal with the rest. Well, eventually. But it was the way Fraser was acting that was the real problem here. He couldn't stand the idea of Ben going back to wearing the Mountie Mask that Ray couldn't see behind.
        Movement at the top of the Consulate stairs caught his eye and he saw Ben step out, Diefenbaker at his heels. He was wearing those almost-too-tight jeans that made Ray salivate, and that almost-ratty ivory sweater, and his buffalo-plaid jacket. Good enough to eat. Fraser looked up and down the street until he spotted the car, and his face just lit up, which melted a little of the ice that had started to settle around Ray's heart. Ray sighed. This was what he hated about being in love: getting whiplash from the damned emotional roller-coaster that swooped so unpredictably between joy and terror.
        He tried to tell himself he was overreacting. Maybe Ben had just been embarrassed at getting caught with his emotional pants down. After all, he wasn't the kind of guy who went around with his feelings on his sleeve. Don't jump to conclusions. Give him a chance to explain. Surely he couldn't look like that if Ray was just a substitute. . . surely. But . . . No, give him a chance. Ray took a deep breath, and mentally forced himself back into 'normal' mode as he door opened and Ben put the seat forward for Dief, who jumped in and headed for Ray's ear, as usual. Ray fended him off, shaking his head sternly.
        "No. Didja forget that only Ben gets to lick my ears now, wolf?"
        Dief whined sheepishly and Ray let him go. Ben slid into the seat next to him, chuckling. "He'll never remember, Ray. After all, you never objected before."
        "I never had you before. And I don't want wolf-spit on my ears if you decide to go for it."
        Ben tilted his head a little. "As if that would stop me."
        Ray had to laugh a little, shaking his head. "True. I don't know what I'm worried about. So, where do you want to eat? Tortelli's? May Wah? McDonalds?"
        Ben looked at him, disgusted, as Ray had known he would be.
         "Actually, Ray, I was thinking perhaps we could get something and take it ho. . . ah, to your apartment."
        Ray almost dropped his teeth. Had Ben really just almost called his apartment 'home?' He was so shocked he just sat there staring, until Ben cleared his throat uncomfortably.
        "Is something amiss?"
        Ray shook himself. "No, no, nothing. That would be fine. We'll go by Whole Foods and hit the take-out bar. Get something healthy."
        Fraser stared back at him, looking as surprised as Ray had felt a moment earlier. "Are you sure you're feeling all right?"
        No, he wasn't, but he wasn't going to admit it. He brazened it out. "The things I do for you, Mountie. Endanger my life in wildly bizarre ways. Watch curling. Eat healthy. I hope you appreciate it."
        "More than you can possibly imagine," Ben returned, his gaze holding Ray's steadily.
        It was awfully hard to be insecure in the face of what he saw in those eyes. Okay, okay, just let it go. Ben must have had some reason for not telling him who Billy was, for not telling him they were still in contact, for getting emotional about that damned song. He must have. Just because Ray couldn't think of what it might be didn't mean there wasn't a reason. Probably some weird, Fraserish reason that made sense to him but not to more than five other people on the planet. Well, that look was certainly worth getting take-out from Whole Foods for. And actually their veggie lasagne was pretty good.

* * *

        Something was bothering Ray, which in turn bothered Ben. The change had started at the Consulate, though Ray had quickly masked it. Ben should have realized that Ray's flight from the office meant something more than that he was hungry. All evening Ray had been distinctly quieter than usual, and Ben had more than once caught his partner watching him with an odd expression-- unusually thoughtful, slightly sad. It worried Ben that he couldn't determine what the problem was. Ray was usually so open, so quintessentially honest, that the idea that he was hiding something was painful. Ben had tried several times to get him to talk, but each time Ray brushed off his questions with assurances that everything was fine.
        Ben knew better, though, and that realization left a hollow feeling inside him that made it hard to eat and harder to respond to Ray's almost desperately normal conversational forays. Apparently Ray had lost his appetite as well, since his own dinner went mostly untouched. After a slightly awkward silence Ray picked up their plates and took them to the kitchen, and they retired to the couch, which for the past few nights had been a prelude to deliciously sensual explorations. Tonight they simply watched a special on Antarctica on the Discovery Channel. He almost reached for Ray several times, but could not bring himself to follow through, not with this strange distance between them.
        He could almost feel their newfound accord slipping through his hands, and he had no idea why,or how to prevent it. It was just another example of how terrible he was at any sort of intimate relationship. He'd thought that this time, finally, it was going to work, that his long-established friendship with Ray would make the difference, that it would make this work, but evidently it was not to be. When the special ended and yet another awkward silence developed between them, Ben abruptly stood up.
        "Well, I should go," he said, unable to bear it a moment longer.
        Ray looked surprised. "Go?"
        Ben nodded, trying for a bluff and hearty tone. "We've got a busy day tomorrow, we should get a good night's rest."
        Ray studied him, puzzled. "No busier than today was," he said, frowning a little.
        Ben was at a loss then. He was sure Ray did not want him to stay, but neither did he seem to want him to leave. Suddenly Ray's expression changed, tightened, and his gaze fell.
        "Oh. Busy tomorrow. Rest. Yeah. Guess you probably want to get back to your place, hunh? Got stuff to do there. Okay. Lemme get my keys, I'll drive you back." He lurched to his feet and crossed the room to grab his coat and keys off the wing chair, babbling all the while. "Kind of late to be walking all that way. Might get mugged." He moved to the closet, got out Ben's coat, then suddenly stopped, like a wind-up toy that had run out of spring. He was facing away, his shoulders hunched as if he were cold, or expecting a blow. Ben stood frozen in place, trying to figure out what he should do, what he should say, then abruptly Ray was turning, holding out his coat.
        "Well? Coming?"
        Ben nodded and moved to take his coat, slipping into it, feeling as if he were keeping the cold in, instead of out. What was wrong? Why was this happening? He didn't understand, couldn't bring himself to ask again, not when he knew it would be met with a purposefully blank stare, a shrug, and a lie.
        "I'm ready, Ray," he said quietly. Ready to leave. Ready to soldier on and pretend nothing was wrong, that his world wasn't crumbling around him. Ray just nodded and headed out. Ben followed, ignoring Diefenbaker's whine of concern at the sudden strain in the air.
        They settled into the car, and after a few blocks of oppressive stillness Ray reached over and turned on the radio. For once Ben was grateful for the noise. Music segued into commercials, back to music, more commercials, then when the next song began Ben sat forward a little, startled. It was Billy's song. The one from the album. On the radio. The lyrics pulled him in, just as before, only this time they hurt more. "There's no going home." No, there wasn't. Why couldn't he seem to learn that? He felt a lump rise in his throat, felt his eyes tear, and quickly turned toward the window to hide his loss of control.
        Ray swore suddenly, and snapped off the radio. The silence seemed explosive. Neither of them spoke as they drove the last few blocks and Ray finally pulled up to the curb in front of the Consulate. He didn't kill the engine. Ben reached for the handle and stopped. He couldn't leave things like this. He couldn't. Whatever it was, he had to know. He was about to turn and ask when Ray spoke, startling him.
        "Why didn't you tell me?"
        Ben turned. "Tell you what?" he asked, puzzled.
        Ray stared at him for a long moment, then shook his head. "Damn, you do that good. Never mind. You don't want to tell me, I guess that's your business. But I can't compete, Ben. I can't. I'm just me, just plain old Ray Kowalski. Hell, not even that."
        Ben felt as if he'd stepped into an alternate dimension. "Ray, I'm sorry. . . I don't-- I don't understand. . . what didn't I tell you? What can't you compete with? What-- what did I do wrong?"
        Ray turned away sharply, rested his forehead on the steering wheel as he sometimes did when he was particularly distressed. "Please, Ben, don't. I can't do this. I can't go through it again, trying to be someone I'm not because the me I am isn't good enough. Did it in my marriage, live it in my job, I can't do it with you too. I'm sorry."
        And there seemed to be no answer to that. Nothing at all. Ben still didn't understand, still couldn't seem to make the pieces fit. He didn't want Ray to be someone else. He only wanted, needed, Ray. For who he was. All of him, from the cocky, anti-authoritarian, instinctive risk-taker parts to the caring, loving friend parts, and even the wounded, needy parts that were also him.
        Finally it came to him. There was only one thing that he had asked of Ray that had not already been part of their relationship. He'd known he shouldn't ask that. Known he should hide it. Known better. Yet he'd done it anyway, selfishly, putting his own needs first. No, not even need. Just. . . want. And ruined the best thing he'd ever had.
        "I'm sorry, Ray," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I'll just go."
        Ray nodded against the steering wheel, silent. Ben blindly pushed the door open and exited the car. He was about to close the door when Dief barked and he remembered to put the seat forward and let him out. He shut the door carefully, so as not to make Ray think he was angry, and made his way up to the consulate. This was so familiar. Deja vu.
        He unlocked the doors, let Dief in, then stepped inside. Back to this. At least he could take comfort in the routine. He could pull his job around him like a shield and pretend nothing mattered. Or perhaps it wouldn't be pretense, not any more. He went to his office, sat down in his chair, not bothering to turn on the light. Sat there for a long time in the darkness. Diefenbaker sat staring at him, intent, but oddly silent. The silence seemed to fill him up, spill out of him. His hands started to shake. He clenched his fists. It's only pain. Pain can be borne.
        For some reason he thought of Billy, and that night. Of Billy, trying to hold in all that pain, of his hand against the window. A shudder went through him. He reached out and turned on the desk lamp, scrabbled in the drawer until he found the piece of paper he needed. He looked at the number for what felt like hours, then he picked up the phone and dialed. It was answered on the third ring.
        Ben closed his eyes, partly from relief, partly to stem the tears that threatened. "It's Ben."
        "Hey Ben!" Billy sounded genuinely pleased. "What's up?"
        "Can we . . . I just need to . . . talk."
         There was a moment of silence, then words. "I'm here, Ben. Talk to me. Tell me. Everything. I'm here."
* * *

        "Ray? You're not getting sick again, are you?"
        Ray looked up at Frannie and sighed. "No, Frannie. I'm not sick. I'm just stupid. Way past stupid, and clear into moron."
        For once she didn't jump on that and agree with him. She just looked at him for a long moment, eyebrows raised. He didn't explain. No point. She wouldn't want to know anyway. She really, really wouldn't want to know. After a moment she put her hand on his arm and squeezed gently.
        "Ray, if you want to talk. . . ." she let her sentence trail off suggestively.
        He nodded, avoiding her gaze. "Yeah. Know that. Thanks."
        She stayed a moment longer, then sighed and went back to her desk. Ray wondered if his life could possibly get any worse. Was there a limit on the number of times a person could totally screw up their lives? He hoped not, because if there was, he was in trouble. God. He'd thought, he'd really thought, that Fraser would be the last person on earth to want him to be someone he wasn't, but Ben hadn't even pretended Ray was wrong. He'd just said he was sorry, and left. Guess that said it all.
        Ray had spent most of the night staring at the ceiling trying not to be angry, trying to remember that for all that he was exceptional in a lot of ways, Ben was pretty inexperienced. He probably hadn't meant to do that, to expect Ray to be someone else for him. He wouldn't have done it on purpose. And that just made it that much harder.
        Two desks away the phone rang and Dewey picked it up, listened for a minute, then nodded.
        "Yep, we got one of those here, just a second." He covered the mouthpiece and looked at Ray. "For you, transferring."
        Ray nodded and looked at his phone expectantly. It rang and he picked it up. "Twenty-seventh, Vecchio speaking."
        "Detective Ray Vecchio?"
        "Yeah. That's me."
        "Tallish, skinny blond? Blue eyes?"
Ray frowned, puzzled. He didn't recognize the voice and it was a pretty weird question. "Uh, yeah, why?" Whoever it was ignored his question. "You a . . . friend . . . of Ben Fraser's?"
        That question hurt in a very unexpected way. He had to clear his throat. "Who wants to know?"
        "Another friend of Ben Fraser's."
        "Look, get to the point here, you're starting to annoy me," he said loudly, and then suddenly realized that Dewey was watching him. So was Frannie. He turned toward the wall and hunched over the receiver a little as the reply came back.
        "Tough shit. I plan to do a lot more than that, asshole."
        Ray was getting mad now. He sat forward, both feet firmly on the floor. "Now, listen, bud. . . ."
        "No, you listen. You hurt him. You hurt him a lot. I don't know what the hell your problem is but what you did to him was totally fucked up."
        Ray nearly dropped the phone in disbelief. Not because some anonymous guy was yelling at him, that wasn't all that unusual. No, what stunned him was that Fraser had obviously talked to someone, told them, about him, and . . . it was just nearly beyond belief. He told someone? Impossible. Fraser would no more kiss and tell than he would . . . kiss and tell. But he had. He'd told Ray, because he said it was important that there be no secrets between them. That meant that this was someone else who knew. And that meant only one thing.
        "Who is this? You know who I am, now you tell me who you are."
        "Name's Billy Tallent."
        Ray's anger and outrage was subsumed in a wave of pain. Ben had called Billy Tallent. Talked to him. Told him things. He wouldn't ever have called Ray like that. Not even before. God, that hurt. He found his voice somewhere, flat, and wrung out. "You."
        "Yeah. Me."
        The voice was cocky, full of attitude. Ray could almost see the expression that went with it. Grasping at what little self-respect he had left, he attempted to muster a little attitude of his own. "Don't know where you get off calling me at work."
        "It was the only place I knew of to call you since he wouldn't give me your number. He told me not to bother you."
        "You listen good."
        "So do you, since you couldn't hear what he was saying to you. Jesus Christ, the man loves you. He loves you. That was hard for him to say. Probably the hardest thing he's ever done in his life, and you just fucking threw it away! Incredible. It's a good thing I've got to be on a plane for Vancouver in two hours or I'd be heading out to Chicago to pound your ass. Do you have any idea how rare that is? I'd have killed for someone to say that to me."
        Ray closed his eyes. "Then maybe you shoulda stuck around."
        Billy got quiet. "You don't get it, do you?" he asked after a moment. "Someone like Ben doesn't come along every day, and he doesn't say that to just anyone. And he's sure as hell not going to say it to me."
        Ray felt as if he'd been flayed, every nerve exposed. He was holding onto his facade with both hands, nails dug in hard. He couldn't let it slip now, couldn't let Dewey, or Frannie, or Welsh see him bleeding on the floor like this. He found his voice, rough, almost a whisper.
        "Why wouldn't he say it to you? You're a god-damned rock star. You're someone."
        The man on the other end of the phone growled, frustrated. "Because, idiot, he doesn't know me, and he doesn't love me. He loves you. Every time he mentioned your name, every time he thought about you, he lit up like a damned candle. Just glowed. And he finally finds the guts to do something about it and you throw it away because you can't handle fucking another man?"
        What the. . . Ray felt like he was living in a Twilight Zone episode. "What? I what?"
        "You know what I mean. He told me you said you couldn't be someone you're not."
        "Yeah. Yeah, I did. But that-- that had nothing to do with-- see, it's just, I couldn't be . . . you."
        There was a long silence. Then, finally, the other man spoke in a softer voice. "What?"
        "I couldn't be you. Too much pretending in my life already. Couldn't do that one too," Ray whispered into the phone, praying the noise in the bullpen was masking the conversation. He didn't want to explain, to anyone.
        More silence. Ray was about to hang up when Billy spoke again.
        "Me? He asked you to do that?"
        "No, 'course not. He never asks for anything, not for himself. If you know him at all you know that. But you were. . . first. An' I know I look like you."
        There were several more seconds of dead air, then Billy spoke again, explosively. "Jesus Christ! And you think that means he loves me?" Billy sounded incredulous. "Get it straight, stupid! You don't look like me, I look like you! He's known you for years, he's known me for a couple of days. We had a fling. So what? Can you really tell me you never fucked anybody you just plain liked, as opposed to loving?"
        Billy clearly expected an answer. Ray finally managed one. "No."
        "I didn't think so. And don't tell me it's okay for you but not for him. Look, Vecch. . . Ray. I think I can call you that, right? I mean, technically we've sort of slept together, since we've both been with Ben. Anyway, Ray, this would be funny if it weren't so damned sad. You really think Ben's that shallow? That he could do that? That he could really sub you for me?"
        Suddenly it sounded ludicrous. In the cold light of day, in the bullpen, with this intimate stranger on the phone, Ray knew it was asinine. Ben wouldn't. He just wouldn't.
        "Christ," Billy continued,"you two are both nuts. I can't believe this. You think he loves me, he thinks you can't handle the sex, and neither one of you bothers to just ask? My shrink is right; men suck at communicating. Maybe you guys ought to try talking to each other instead of whatever the hell you've been doing. You're headed for real problems if you don't."
        Even if he was right, Ray didn't much like being told that, or Billy's attitude. "What gives you the right to. . . ."
        "I care, that's what gives me the right," Billy interrupted again. He did that a lot. "Ben helped me out of a very bad place. I'd probably be dead right now if he hadn't, and I mean that. Look, I know about this. I know from experience. I don't know how much he's told you about me, but in my case, not communicating led to somebody I love putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. I don't want that to happen to Ben, and I don't want him to have to know what it feels like to be the one left behind either. Either way it's fucked. Do you love him?"
        Ray actually rocked back in his chair, shocked. Did he? Absolutely. Had forever, it felt like. Could he say it? He had to Ben. Could he admit it to anyone else, or was he that shallow? He swallowed, wished he had something to drink. He tried, failed, tried again. "Yeah. I do," he managed, low-voiced, close to tears. Not here, not in the bullpen. With his back to them, he had no way of knowing if Frannie or Dewey were still watching, and even if they weren't he couldn't let it happen here.
        Billy was quiet for a moment. Ray thought maybe he'd just surprised him. Finally he spoke. "Good. That's good. But you can't just think it, can't just feel it. He doesn't get it, you know, doesn't think he's worth loving. I don't know why, but I think it's been there a long, long time. So you're going to have to be the one to break the impasse, because he can't. If you love him, you have to do this." There was a noise Ray couldn't identify, and then Billy was speaking again. "Damn, my ride's here. Am I done playing marriage counselor now?"
        Ray couldn't help it. He laughed, in spite of wanting to cry. "Yeah. You're done. I got it."
        "Good. I didn't figure Ben would hang around with you if you were too stupid. Look, I do not want to get another late-night phone call from him, unless it's asking for sex tips, okay?"
        Ray knew that one was supposed to be funny, but strangely it hurt. "How do you do it?"
        "Do what? You really want sex tips?"
        Billy sounded shocked, which would have been funny if Ray hadn't been serious. Ray shook his head, though he knew Billy couldn't see him. "No, no. How do you get him to . . . talk. To talk to you. To let you in like that. He doesn't talk to me like that, not really. Not about the deep stuff."
        "What is that, some Canadian thing? Ah? He does that too. What does that mean?"
        "It just means I'm thinking. And I'm not sure really, why he talks to me, why he let me in. Part of it's because I don't take 'no' for an answer. . . "
        Ray snorted rudely. "No, really?"
        Billy chuckled. "Yeah, well, it works for me. But besides that, I think. . . I think sometimes it's easier to talk to a stranger. That's why so many people see therapists. They're strangers. With people you know and care about it's harder, because you might hurt them, or disappoint them, or shock them. It's probably even harder for Ben because he seems to think he has to be perfect."
        "Yeah. The Mountie Mask. I know that one. That's what I want to get behind."
        "You already are behind it. I doubt if anyone's ever gotten so far beneath his surface before. If you weren't, he wouldn't have called me. If you weren't, he'd have gone home a long time ago. He stays because he needs you."
        Ray closed his eyes, remembering the deck of a wooden ship, sails creaking in the wind above them. Partners. God. Remember that. The way they had been just dead-on perfect that day. Communicating without words, almost mind-to-mind. Remember that. Get that back. Communicate. Yeah. "Billy?"
        "Thanks. I mean it. I ever need my ass kicked, I know who to call."
        Billy chuckled. "That's right. And I will. And, Ray, make him happy."
        Before he could respond to that, the call disconnected. He held the phone a moment longer, gathering his thoughts, then put the receiver down and turned, prepared to find Dewey or Frannie watching avidly. He was surprised to note that neither of them was in the bullpen. He'd figured they would be waiting to pounce. Their absence was almost enough to make him believe in a higher power. He checked his watch. Three-forty-five. Pretty early to leave work, but what the hell. He could say he'd had a relapse. He had something more important to do. A lot more important.

* * *

        "All right, all right, hold your horses," Fraser muttered irritably as he buttoned his tunic over his henley. He'd been in his shirtsleeves in his office doing paperwork to keep from dwelling on his wretched personal life, when someone had started knocking and ringing the bell as if they were being chased by a knife-wielding maniac and the Consulate was the only available refuge. From past experience Fraser suspected it was either someone out proselytizing for an obscure religious sect, or a lost tourist. He was rather hoping it was the latter, as he wasn't sure he had the mental stamina for a debate on religious matters.
        Straightening the tunic, he realized he'd left his Sam Browne in the office. He almost turned back for it, then decided he simply wasn't going to do it. It was after hours, and it was highly doubtful that whomever was on the other side of the door would know that he wasn't properly in uniform. He supposed that would probably earn him a dressing down from his father, but since he was still conspicuously absent, Ben wasn't going to worry about it. Funny how he could be annoyingly present whenever a crime was in progress, but let Ben need help on something personal and he was nowhere to be found.
        He yanked open the door with rather more force than it really needed, drawing breath to speak, then let it out in surprise. There was no one at the door. He glanced up the street, down the street. No one. Odd. He was about to close the door again when he realized that there was something on the step. A cellophane-wrapped gift basket. Apparently the delivery person had not wanted to wait. Perhaps he or she had not wanted Canadian currency as a tip. He picked up the basket and carried it in to the reception desk, then went back and closed and locked the door.
        He was about to take the basket in to the inspector's office when he saw that the tag tied to the handle with a piece of twine was addressed to him. Puzzled, he studied the handwriting. Unfamiliar, but distinctly feminine. Hmm. Perhaps Billy had sent it, via a wire-service, to cheer him up. He untied the red and black ribbons that held the cellophane closed so he could examine the contents, aware on some level that red and black were rather unusual colors for gift wrapping. Almost ominous.
        The contents of the basket were slightly peculiar, as well. Beef jerky, a tin of herbal tea, bottled Canadian glacier water, a box of maple-sugar candies, a bag of dried apple slices. Even odder was the plastic bag containing what appeared to be dog biscuits. Then there were the other truly strange items. There were two toys: a small black squirt gun and a plastic sailing ship. Buried under all that was a gift-wrapped box, about three inches square. He unwrapped it, and opened the box. And nearly dropped its contents on the floor as a flood of feelings washed over him. Fear. Anger. Regret. Betrayal.
        Carefully, hands shaking, he set the snow-globe down on the desk and took a deep breath, wishing he had not been so careless in opening the basket, or the package. If there were fingerprints on the wrappings, he might have just obscured them. He stared at the snowglobe, and after a moment he realized there was a small piece of paper stuck to the bottom of it. He took out his handkerchief and carefully turned the globe over to find a post-it note on the underside with a few words on it, written in that same unfamiliar feminine hand. 'Meet me in the park at nine. Come alone.'
        Nine. That was only an hour away. And she hadn't said which park. He could guess, though, since there was only one he frequented. His back ached dully in a place he hadn't thought about in quite some time, as if just the sight of a snowglobe could conjure the pain. He supposed it could. The mind was, after all, capable of many things. He flicked a thumb across his eyebrow. Somehow that helped a little, stilled the urge to be ill in the middle of the hallway.
        Victoria was back. In Chicago. He'd never expected to hear from her again, see her again. It stunned him that she had the audacity to have returned, to taunt him so blatantly. Yet who else could it be? Save for the dog biscuits and the toys, the contents of the basket were a civilized mirror of the things on which they had survived Fortitude Pass. They hadn't had much. Just water, a little sugar, pemmican, and some dried fruit. Once he'd found a few shriveled rosehips and had made tea from them for what little vitamin content they held.
         The presence of the toy ship implied she knew about the Whaling Yankee incident. Of course, that had made the papers, but the implication left him reeling. It clearly said she knew about Ray. The squirt gun was a clear and unmistakable threat. Victoria was telling him that she knew about Ray, and that if he failed to comply with her desires, Ray Kowalski would become as much a victim as Ray Vecchio would have been. More, since she had never threatened his former partner's life, just his livelihood.
        The personal nature of the threat to Ray spoke to her obsessive nature. It meant she had to have been watching him. . . watching them. Long enough to know that Ray was not what, or rather who, he pretended to be. Long enough to know about their . . . he stopped. He didn't know what to call it. 'Liaison' sounded so cold, 'affair' so tawdry. He supposed the best he could do was 'relationship,' though at only a few day's duration it was hardly that either.
        The timing of her approach implied that she also knew about their-- another pause, another search for the proper term. It hadn't been a fight, nor could it properly be termed a break-up, not after only a few days. Falling out, perhaps. In any case, clearly she knew he was very vulnerable right now and had chosen her moment. He supposed the timing could be coincidental, but he wasn't going to bet on it. Where Victoria was concerned he'd stopped believing in coincidences some time ago.
        Strange. A year ago, even six months ago, his heart would have leapt in painful anticipation at the thought of seeing Victoria again, but no more. Not since that night with Billy, that moment of revelation when it had come to him that he was truly 'over' her. There was no more wistfulness, no more of the confused neediness that had enabled him to overlook her faults. He had been a fool. The infatuation was gone, obliterated by the very real and deep feelings he had for Ray.
        Even if he never again was able to hold Ray, to express the love he felt, it was very real and very much healthier than that which he'd had with Victoria. The difference between love and obsession. It was difficult to admit that about himself, admit that he could be so foolish and blind. Loneliness shouldn't be an excuse for idiocy. Dief whined and nudged at his hand, and he looked down, shaking his head.
        "No. For all I know she's poisoned them."
        The wolf whined, and Ben sighed. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid you'll have to stay behind. I won't risk you, not again. You know what happened last time. She nearly killed you."
        A sharp bark answered that, and he rubbed his eyebrow again, shaking his head. "Well, technically that was Ray Vecchio, not Victoria. But you're right. It nearly cost both of us our lives, and nearly cost a good friend his home and badge. I shall be more careful this time. At least now she has no emotional hold over me."
        Dief barked, and Ben looked at him sharply. "I'll thank you not to take that tone with me."
        The wolf stared at him for a long moment, then walked away. Fraser sighed. This time he would be better prepared. He would leave nothing to chance, or assumption. He knew Victoria now, knew her darkness. A darkness he had helped to build, a darkness he had deliberately ignored. No more.
        He reached for the phone to call Ray, then stopped. Despite everything that had happened, he knew very well that Ray would not let him do this alone, not even now, and having Ray along would put him at risk. In fact, knowing Victoria, she probably intended that. The threat was tacit, and unmistakable. No. No call to Ray. This was his burden to bear. She was his creation, in a way, and he would have to deal with the consequences of that, alone.
        Still using his handkerchief, he put the snowglobe back in its box and replaced it with the other things in the basket. That done, he took a sheet of stationery from the desk and wrote a short note, which he addressed to Ray and placed on top of the basket. Should anything happen to him tonight, his friends and co-workers deserved an explanation. Returning to his office he methodically stripped off his uniform and changed into civilian clothing, knowing that he might be forced to actions at odds with what his uniform represented. Finally he unlocked the cabinet that held his gun.
        The Smith and Wesson .38 sat familiarly, even comfortably in his hand. He regularly took it out to clean it or clean it or to practice at the range with Ray. This time was different. This time he was taking it out with the full knowledge that he might have to use it against a human being, might even have to take a human life, should it come to that. It probably would, knowing her. She had killed before, had plotted and planned thoroughly, capably. He had to be prepared for that.
        Though it went against nearly every principle he held, he could not take the chance that she might ever be able to hurt Ray, and he knew she would do that, given half a chance. He doubted her anger would be satisfied with his death, should she manage that. He had to be prepared to make certain she could not hurt anyone else. Methodically he loaded the weapon, placed it in his coat pocket, picked up his hat and set out.
        The walk to the park seemed darker than usual. Perhaps it was the season. Moving toward the winter solstice, the nights had lengthened considerably. Perhaps it was simply his mood. It seemed somehow appropriate that he should have to deal with this now. St. John of the Cross' oft-invoked 'dark night of the soul.' The universe's black-humored way of emphasizing to him that he was not meant to be mated, to anyone. This time he would learn that lesson. No more trying. Just live with it. As Ray would say, 'dot it, sign it, stick it in a box marked done.'
        He shivered a little, not from cold, but from thinking how much colder his life would be without Ray. Why had he pushed? Why couldn't he have simply let things stand as they were? At least then he'd had Ray's company, his friendship. That should have been enough. He should have left well enough alone. A few perfect days were not worth this pain.
        Thoughts of the soul's dark night reminded him of Milton, so appropriate now. 'In darkness, and with dangers compass'd round, and solitude; yet not alone, while thou visit'st my slumbers nightly.' A half-smile tugged at his mouth. He might not have Ray in his arms, but nothing could take his dreams from him. That was, perhaps, not a particularly healthy thing to do, but then he had never laid claim to an excess of sanity.
        The park stretched ahead, a large, dark shape surrounded by well-lit buildings. A few lights cast quickly-dispersed pools of gold onto the sidewalk at regular intervals. Fraser zipped his coat closed and headed determinedly into the park's shadowy confines. Ten steps later, he stopped, sniffing the air. Smoke. Not a building fire, definitely, the smoke held no acrid stench of treated wood or plastics. This was the simple, homey scent of woodsmoke.
        A fire. In the park. He frowned. It took a special permit to be allowed to have a fire here. Of course, Victoria had never had overmuch respect for regulations. Following the scent, Ben quickly found its source without much difficulty. It was the same place where he'd camped a month or so back. In fact, the fire burned, apparently unattended, in the firepit he'd built.
        He stopped a little way away, far enough that he could not be seen, scouting the area. She had to be here somewhere. The fire interfered with his night-vision, which was regrettably not particularly good to begin with; probably a lack of beta carotene in his formative years. Finally he made out a figure leaning against the tree behind the fire, face in the shadows. It seemed tall for Victoria, but that could be a shadow-born illusion. It also seemed remarkably careless, but then she was nothing if not supremely confident.
        Fraser slipped his hand into his pocket and eased the revolver free. He circled around the clearing, staying well out of the fire-glow, keeping to the cover of trees and shadows until he was within a few feet of his prey, who had, frustratingly, shifted so the tree was between them. He closed his eyes for a moment, steeling himself, and then he moved around the tree, quickly, surely, wrapping one arm around the slim body, finger on the trigger as he brought the muzzle of the gun to the back of her. . . .
        With a shock Ben realized that the body he held was too tall, too hard, and had short-cropped, light-colored hair. He let go, fast, and Ray whipped around, fists up, in fighting form. They stared at each other for several seconds, breathing hard. Ray recovered faster, dropping his hands, looking from the gun in Fraser's hand to his face, twice, his expression one of sheer disbelief.
        "Jesus Christ, Fraser! What the . . . is that a gun?" his voice held just as much incredulity as his face.
        A tremor started in Ben's hand, spread rapidly until he was shaking all over. Ray took the gun from his lax fingers, checked it, and eyed him narrowly as he put the safety back on and slipped the gun into his own pocket.
        "Talk to me, Ben."
        Ben sucked in air desperately, swallowing back the bile that threatened to erupt as it sank in that he could have shot Ray. Had he been at all less observant, or more easily startled. . . Bewildered, he looked around, still trying to understand. Why was Ray here? Where was Victoria? Was she going to kill them both? Oh God, and he'd just let Ray have his gun.
        "Ray, you have to give it back to me. Where is she? How did she get you here?"
        Ray frowned. "She who?"
        Ben spun, staring into the darkness, trying to find her. "Victoria," he whispered.
        "Victoria? Victoria who? Wait, you mean that Metcalf chick?" Now Ray was alert. He had a hand in his pocket as he too searched the darkness. "She's back?"
        "I got a basket. It had to be from her."
        Ray swung back around, staring at him, startled. "A basket? Like, with goodies in it?"
        Ben nodded. "Exactly."
        Ray's expression was very odd. "Ah, Fraser. . . uhm, that wasn't from Victoria."
        "I'm sure it was. It could have been no one else. Who else would have known to put in the same items with which we survived Fortitude Pass? She told me to meet her here, and implied a threat to your safety if I didn't comply. And I couldn't allow you to come to harm, Ray."
        Ray cleared his throat, looking vastly uncomfortable. "She's really not here, Ben. The basket was . . . well, it was from me. I wasn't sure you'd come if you knew it was from me so I had the girl at the store write the note and the tag. But I'm pretty sure she didn't threaten me. I just told her to write for you to meet me here."
        "But why did you choose the contents? The snow globe? The ship in the bottle? The squirt gun?" Ben asked, still trying to understand.
        Ray was blushing hard enough that it was visible even in the firelight. "Um, thought you'd like that stuff. You're not into the candy and gourmet thing, so I tried to think like a Canadian. Just thought the snow-globe would remind you of home. And the ship an' the squirt gun. . . well, that was kind of dumb. Guess I hoped it might make you think of . . . us. On the Whaling Yankee, throwing the gun-- that 'Dominion of Canada' stuff. Communicating. You know."
        It was clear Ray was telling him the truth. Victoria wasn't back. She hadn't threatened Ray. Relief rushed through him, chased by a wave of horror. He had almost killed Ray. If his reactions had been a split second less quick, or less controlled, he would have. He would have killed his best friend, his lover, his soul. A flash of overactive imagination showed Ben that scene, Ray's dying body in his arms, the wet heat and iron tang of blood on his face, his hands, and knew that had he done that, the next shot would have expiated that sin.
        It was too much. Too much. He couldn't keep it in, couldn't keep it down. He stumbled a few steps away, sank to his knees and vomited until he was dry-heaving. He was vaguely aware that Ray was beside him, a warm hand stroking the back of his neck and his hair, speaking to him in a low, soothing voice. Ben could not force the sounds to become words. They were just meaningless noise. All he could hear were his own thoughts, the realization of how close a thing it had been.
        He felt Ray shake him, heard his name spoken, sharply. He didn't respond, just knelt there shivering, though the retching had finally subsided. He lost his balance completely as he was pulled against Ray's body, which seemed to shield him from both the cold and his own pain. Fingers parted his lips and several small, round, hard things were pushed between them, and then intense sweetness exploded on his tongue, chasing away the sour taste of bile. The shock of it brought him out of his fugue, and he realized Ray had put several pieces of candy in his mouth. He bit down, tasted chocolate, and almost laughed. Ray's solution to all of life's problems. Chocolate.
        Ben chewed slowly, swallowed, and somehow Ray was right. He felt better. He leaned into Ray's embrace, arms coming up around him, holding him hard, afraid that if he let go, he would be back in that place where he hadn't reacted fast enough. He lifted a hand, stroking Ray's face, feeling the reassuring rasp of stubble against his fingers. Real. Warm. Alive. He shuddered. Ray's arms tightened, and finally the sounds began to become words.
        "Shhhh, it's okay, Ben, she's not here. She can't hurt you any more. It's okay."
        "It's not that, not her," Ben whispered against Ray's throat, rubbing his nose along the tendon there, breathing in the scent that reassured him he wasn't dreaming, that Ray was here, holding him, soothing him. "My God, Ray. . . I almost killed you!"
        The hands stroking his back stopped for a moment, then resumed. "Yeah. I got that. Good thing you got good reflexes."
        Ray sounded so matter-of-fact that Ben pulled away a little, until he could look into his face. He looked relaxed too. Almost serene. "How can you be so calm?" he whispered.
        Ray grinned. "Not sure. Guess I already went through the whole peeing myself thing when I was a kid, figured it'd be redundant here."
        "But. . . I could have killed you."
        "Enough, Ben. You didn't. It's okay. It'll be okay. We just have to talk more, communicate more. We're partners, we need to get back in that groove. We can't let it get lost by not talking clear. I know you, in here. . ." Ray put his hand on Ben's chest, over his heart. "You know me, too. That's what matters."
        Ben looked down at the hand on his chest, looked up into Ray's eyes, oddly golden in the firelight. "Ray, why did you ask me here?"
        He could feel the rise in body temperature as Ray blushed again, lashes shuttering his gaze for a moment, then they lifted again and Ray took a deep breath. "Had to tell you I love you. And that I'm sorry. I thought. . . I thought, when I came in and you were playing that song, and I saw that guy, Billy, on the magazine, and I was just kind of . . . freaked. Thought it was him, you know. Not me."
        "Thought what was him?" Ben asked, completely confused.
        Ray refused to look at him, though he still held him. "Thought it was him you loved, wanted. He was first. Thought you wanted me to be . . . him."
        That took a moment to really register, but when it did, Ben pulled back, trying to look into Ray's eyes, lifting his hand to caress his face. "Oh, Ray. No. Never that. I didn't. . . I'm sorry, I had no idea. I would never ask that of you. Never. It was always you, always."
        Ray nodded against his hand. "Yeah. Know that now. Just took a little while to get it through my head."
        Ben eased back a little, still worried that Ray was uncomfortable with the change in their relationship. He had to make sure that Ray knew it was all right if he didn't want to continue that, so long as they could still be friends, and partners. "Ray, we don't have to . . . I mean, if you would prefer it, a physical relationship is not strictly necessary. I have always been honored and happy to be your friend, and if you would rather. . . ."
        "Ben?" Ray interrupted conversationally.
        "Yes, Ray?"
        "Look me in the eyes, Ben. I want honesty here, one-hundred percent. Do you or do you not want to keep fucking me?"
         Well. There wasn't much room for weaseling out of that question. He lifted his gaze to Ray's and tried, really tried, to lie, but in the end he couldn't. "Yes. Yes, I do. I want you, I need you, so much. In every way."
        The smile that lit Ray's face was almost bright enough to blind. Pure joy. Unmistakable. It felt so good, so right, that a sob nearly escaped him. He fought it, but it won, and then he was leaning against Ray's shoulder and crying, for all the hurt, and confusion, and loneliness in his life, and for that smile, and the unmistakable surety that Ray felt as he did. He reached up, blindly, to stroke Ray's face, feeling once more for that reassurance, and he felt wetness there. Startled, he drew back to look and saw tears there, gleaming in the firelight.
        "Ray?" he managed, his voice thick and throaty.
        Ray shook his head, wiped at his eyes. "It's okay, Ben. Dumb, I know, but I'm just so damned happy we're on the same page, finally. We just have to make sure we stay there. No reading between the lines. Right?"
        Ben nodded. "Right. Right."
        Ray smiled again and Ben wanted to kiss him so much it was a physical ache. However having just been vilely ill he didn't think Ray would much appreciate that so he settled for leaning in and pressing a kiss against his face, just above the scratchy line of stubble. Ray turned his head so their lips met and when Ben would have pulled away, he slid a hand behind his neck and held him in place, those long fingers cupped around the back of his head. Ray kept the kiss light, just soft, parted lips, no tongues, and it felt like heaven. When he finally let go and their mouths parted, Ray was smiling.
        "Yeah, I know. You didn't want to kiss me because you just tossed your cookies, but I can deal. That's what the chocolate was for anyhow."
        Ben stared at him. "I thought it was for my blood sugar."
        "Well, that too. But you're not the only person to ever lose their lunch, Ben. Been there, done that, know what it tastes like. Hoped we'd end up here so I did a preamble strike."
        "That too."
        "Of course."
        They sat for a moment, quietly, just being together, then Ray took a breath, and looked at him a little uncertainly.
        "So, uh, guess I won't run you in for not having a permit, but what the fuck did you think you were doing coming out here with a loaded gun, even if you did think it was the Hellbitch who was waiting for you?" As he spoke, Ray started to scowl, obviously warming to his topic. He sat back and crossed his arms. "For that matter, why didn't you call me? Or if not me, anybody at the station? Why didn't you get backup? Were you trying to get yourself killed?"
        Ben stared guiltily at his hands, trying to compose a reply that made any sense. Looking back at his actions, he really had no rational explanation. And perhaps he ought to just say that. Ray was right, they had to be honest with each other or their relationship stood no chance at all. "I'm not really sure what I was doing," he admitted, dully. "I thought you were being threatened, and I'm afraid I reacted emotionally to that, rather than logically. It was . . . ." he stopped suddenly, startled by the huge grin on Ray's face. "What?"
        Ray shook his head. "You reacted emotionally?"
        "You weren't logical?"
        "Not at all. It was an unforgivable lapse on my part, but I have been a little overwrought of late, what with. . . ."
        "Hang on here. Let me get this straight. You thought I was being threatened," Ray interrupted. "So you reacted emotionally. You . . . fuck. I don't believe this. You would have shot her, wouldn't you? To keep me safe?"
        Ben felt lower than dirt. "Yes. I'm sorry, Ray. I would have."
        The next thing he knew he was lying on his back on rather cold, frost-rimed grass, with Ray's warm, solid body pinning him down, and there were hands on his face holding him in place and that mouth was on his again and this time not stopping at lips. A cinnamon-flavored tongue slicked across his, combining intriguingly with the residual hint of chocolate in his own mouth. All thought of protest fled in the touch of that tongue, the warm heat of lips and their mingled breath, the weight of Ray against him, strong, comforting and arousing. Suddenly Ray pulled his mouth away, and propped himself up so he could stare down at Ben sternly.
        "Do not do that again, you got me? 'Cause I do not want to have to visit you in prison, you crazy Mountie! I'm not into sharing and your ass is way too pretty to be left alone in the slammer, so next time you decide to act before you think, don't. You got me?"
        Ben stared up at him, startled, but also warmed by that vehemence. "Ah . . . yes, Ray. I got you."
        Ray nodded. "Good. Good. So, if you think somebody's going to fry my ass, you let me in on it, right?"
        "Absolutely, Ray. Without hesitation," Ben replied solemnly, telling himself he would, next time, he really would.
        Ray nodded again. "Okay. Well then. Okay." Ray sat up, and held out a hand to brace Fraser to an upright position too. They both moved a little closer to the fire, and then Ray looked over at Ben.
        "So, what's with the snow globe? How come that set you off?"
        Ben sighed. "It's a long story, Ray."
        Ray grinned. "They always are, Ben, they always are. We got time. Tell me. I want to know. It's part of you, so I need to know."
        And miraculously, Ben knew that he meant that. And that Ray would listen, and not fall asleep, and that he would not have to fear telling that tale, when it was time. But it wasn't time. "I want to tell you, and I will tell you, but. . . not right now. Right now I just want to forget her. I want to be with you."
        Ray cocked his head to one side, studying Fraser, then he grinned wickedly. "You, uh, mean that in the biblical sense, Ben?"
        Ben somehow managed to look him right in the eye, feeling his color rising. "Yes, Ray. That would be correct."
        Ray laughed out loud. "Guess we'd better put out the fire, then, 'cause I am way too old to screw around in a freezing cold park."
        "Actually, Ray, it's quite mild tonight, I'd hazard it's barely below freezing, and. . . ah . . . yes, I'd be happy to assist you with that fire."
        Ray chuckled, and Fraser mused on the realization that Ray hadn't even had to say a word. He'd understood simply from a look. That was communication. Yes. They were back on track. Definitely back on track. They smothered the fire to Fraser's satisfaction and set off toward where Ray had parked. Halfway there Ray suddenly stopped and looked around.
        "Where's Dief?"
        "Back at the Consulate. I wasn't entirely sanguine about his safety."
        Ray nodded sagely. "Yeah, don't blame you. If it really had been her. . . Well, I read what she did." He shrugged, then looked up, eyebrows lifted. "Hey, did he like his present?"
        Ben looked at him blankly. "Present?"
        "The milk-bones. Yeah, I know he's a wolf, not a dog, but the thing of it is they don't seem to make wolf-biscuits."
        "Ah. That. I'm afraid I didn't let him have them. Since I thought the basket was from Victoria, I was afraid she might have poisoned them."
        "Boy, he gets left behind and doesn't get a treat to make up for it? Poor Dief! You know he hates being left out. Come on then, let's go get him and head to my place. He can hog the couch and eat his goodies while we hog the bed and I eat your goodies," he said with a wink.
        It took Ben a few seconds to process that remark, but when he did he found himself gaping foolishly until Ray put a finger under his chin and pushed his mouth closed.
        "Catching flies, Ben. Let's go."
        Ben didn't move, he just stood there, shaking his head, smiling. "Ray, may I say that you never cease to surprise me?"
        "Good. Keeps us fresh. Now, car. Inside. Go fast. Get home. Make out."
        Smiling a little, Ben complied with the somewhat disjointed order. When they arrived at the Consulate a few minutes later, Diefenbaker was overjoyed to see Ray, greeting him in his usual enthusiastic manner. Ray greeted him in return with almost equal enthusiasm. Not only did Dief like Ray, but Ray obviously liked Dief in return. Since Ben had no family, their mutual affection was strangely warming. Suddenly the wolf stopped in mid-lick and turned, muzzle lifting as he scented the air, then he left Ray and came to Ben, nosing him in obvious concern. Feeling a little choked up, Fraser knelt to reassure his companion.
        "No, Dief, I'm fine. It was simply a misunderstanding. She's not here, and everything is fine, really. And Ray brought you a present." He straightened and reached for the baggie of dog-biscuits in the basket, dislodging his letter in the process. Ray bent and picked it up from where it had fallen on the floor.
        "What's this?"
        It was a perfectly innocent inquiry, but Ben had to consciously stop himself from grabbing the note out of Ray's hand. "Nothing important. If you'll just give it to me, I'll dispose of it."
        Ray looked from him to the folded paper and back. "Nothing important?"
        "Not any more, no," he said, somehow managing to sound halfway normal even though the sight of the letter brought back all the visceral horror of realizing he had nearly killed the most important person in his life. He started to shake again, felt his stomach roiling. Ray took one look at him and grabbed his arm, steering him quickly and firmly toward the bathroom.
        He didn't bring up anything more than bile this time, there was nothing left in him to lose, and when he finally decided he was finished, Ray held him in his arms on the bathroom floor until he had stopped shaking. Apparently satisfied that he was calming down, Ray wordlessly wet a towel and cleaned Ben's face, and got him a paper cup of water. Ben drank it gratefully, trying to wash the taste of fear from his mouth. Ray watched him for a moment, then dug in his pocket, extracted a somewhat worse-for-wear bag of candies and offered it to him with a half-smile and lifted eyebrows.
        Ben couldn't help but respond to that. He smiled a little and held out his hand. Ray shook some of the bag's contents into his outstretched palm, and Ben picked one up and put it in his mouth, sucking the coating off, letting the chocolate dissolve slowly over his tongue. Ray sat down with his back against the bathroom door and slipped the letter from the pocket of his coat. Ben stiffened as Ray opened it, reading, watching him tensely, waiting for an explosion, but when Ray finished, he simply refolded the letter, then deliberately tore it in half, in half again, and again, until the pieces were small. Then he dropped the torn paper into the toilet and flushed. Finally he looked back at Ben.
        "Over and done. And if she ever does come back, you tell me. I'll be with you every step of the way. I won't let her hurt you. I won't let anyone hurt you. And if I ever hurt you, you've got my permission to shoot me."
        "Ray!" Fraser protested.
        Ray shook his head, and pulled him close again. "Mean it, Ben," he said against Ben's ear. "I never want to hurt you. Never. Come on, let's go home. I'm going to put you to bed and feed you all that invalid stuff you brought for me. Ginger tea and soda crackers."
        "I'm not really ill, Ray," Ben said, though Ray's wide, comfortable bed, and a cup of ginger tea, and a plate of crackers, actually sounded desperately wonderful.
        "You are if I say you are. Come on. Pitter patter. You need to be home with me, safe and warm."
         Safe and warm. Home. With Ray. Ben had had none of those things for so long, surely he was allowed a little indulgence now.

* * *

        Ray woke up at his normal time, a few minutes before six, and reached over to turn off the alarm before it could sound and wake Ben, who was still sleeping soundly, as amazing as that was. Fraser had barely stirred all night, a rock-solid warmth taking up more than his share of the bed. Ray didn't grudge him that, knowing he usually had a space about a foot and a half wide to 'stretch out' on. Nothing had woken him, not Ray getting up to go to the bathroom, not the near approach of an emergency vehicle with sirens and lights on, not even the time Diefenbaker had decided to join them.
        Ray had sternly ordered him to the floor, knowing Ben would if he were awake. Dief had grumbled but complied. Ray thought that was the first time the wolf had ever done what he'd asked without looking to Fraser for confirmation. It made him feel like a pack-mate or something; included. Kind of cool.
        He turned onto his side and propped his chin on his hand, just watching Fraser sleep. God, he was so fucking beautiful, so giving, so loving. No wonder he hid all this behind the stiff formality of wool and leather, and the rigid persona of The Mountie. If he didn't hide it, everyone would want to take it from him, steal it for themselves. It frankly amazed Ray that he had all that now, freely given. Benton Fraser was a gift he would never give up, never give back. He had him now, and he intended to keep him. No more stupid insecurities, no more idiotic miscommunications. They had it all. Friendship. Partnership. And . . . love.
        An involuntary shiver shook him. Ben loved him. He really did. Had been willing to kill for him, and it seemed from that letter he'd found on that damned basket, willing to die for him. And that might be kind of fucked up, but it was real, and true, and deep, the same kind of love Ray felt. Love finally, finally felt right. Felt like a matched set, equal, balanced. He'd been looking for someone who could feel that way for him for so long, and he wasn't about to give that up any time soon. He had it, and damn it, he was keeping it. Forever, if he could, though he knew sometimes forever didn't work. Still, he was going to do his damnedest to make it happen this time. No matter what it took. He would succeed here, with Ben. He would.
        Ben stirred a little, dislodging the covers from his upper torso and making a soft sound in his throat. The same rough, wordless sound he often made during sex. Ray's body stirred instinctively at that sound, and his eyes swept the newly revealed chest and abdomen, noting the tautness of Ben's nipples, the quickened rise and fall of his belly as he breathed. His gaze slid lower, to his partner's blanket-concealed groin. The covers did nothing to disguise the bulge there. He smiled. Ben must be dreaming something good.
        Well, they hadn't gotten to that 'biblical' stuff last night, it hadn't felt right, not after Ben had worked himself into such a state, twice. So they'd just held each other, letting the fear ebb in the sheer, physical comfort of nearness. And that was okay. It had felt good, to lie there with his head on Ben's chest, to hear his heartbeat and feel the steady rise and fall of that broad chest beneath his cheek. But now, well, he always had liked morning sex the best. The lazy, languid eroticism of waking to desire. Yeah.
        Ray gently tugged the covers lower, and lower, until he had bared his still-sleeping lover to mid-thigh. Ben's cock was half-hard, a thick, rosy shaft, lying against his pale thigh. Ray wondered what he was dreaming, as he watched the strong thighs tense and relax, saw the indolent thrust of hips. Oh yeah, dreaming something good. Very good. He leaned over and blew gently on Ben's belly, watched his breath stir the line of dark hair that arrowed down from his navel, watched the skin beneath it rise in goosebumps. He had to work hard not to laugh, then above him he heard Ben sigh a word so faintly he wouldn't have been entirely sure he'd heard it right, except that it was repeated, three more times.
        So familiar. So sweet. Ray's eyes teared, but they were good tears. How had he doubted this? Doubted Ben? Never again. He reached out and touched his index finger to the tip of Ben's hardening cock, barely revealed as the foreskin slowly drew back with erection. It jumped a little in response to that faint touch. He licked his finger, tasting the alkaline tang of arousal, and smiled with his eyes closed, savoring it. He reached out again and stroked the back of one finger lightly up and down the hardening column of flesh, watching it respond, watching Ben's hips arch into the touch, watching him bring one knee up and to the side, opening unconsciously. Ray grinned, shaking his head. Even three-quarters asleep, Ben was a bottom.
        That thought made him wonder why, what it felt like. Had to be good, or he wouldn't want to do it, right? Ben might be stoic but he wasn't really a masochist, so it had to feel good. He knew that single finger Ben sometimes teased him with felt great, but, well, it was just that a cock was a hell of a lot bigger than a finger. But if the statistics they'd been quoted in diversity training were right, one in ten men were gay, and they couldn't all get off on pain, right? So, what would it feel like, to be entered, to be taken like that, to willingly submit his body to Ben's? The thought sent a shudder of arousal through him. God. Some time he wanted that. He just didn't know if Ben was into trying it like that, since he seemed to really like the other way. Though he had said he wasn't a virgin in any sense of the word, so maybe that meant. . . Yeah. Maybe so.
        Ray waited for the insecurity to come, after that thought. Waited for the jealousy. Was surprised when it didn't happen. He felt a grin steal across his face, ridiculously pleased at that.
        "What are you smiling at?" Ben asked, his voice husky with sleep and arousal.
        Ray looked up to meet Ben's warm blue-gray gaze and his smile softened into one of welcome. "Everything," he said. "Just. . . everything."
        "Ah," Ben replied.
        Ray grinned. "Yeah. Ah. That's a pretty versatile word there, 'ah.'"
        Ben smiled. "Indeed."
        Ben caught his breath suddenly as Ray stopped petting his cock with the back of one finger, and instead slid his fingers around the fully erect shaft, stroking slowly, loosely. Ben's head fell back against the pillows, his throat arched, taut. Ray leaned in and licked the long, clean line of a tendon, tongued the hollow at the base of Ben's throat, then fastened lips and teeth around one tight nipple. Ben arched and moaned. God he loved that sound, loved the deep, utterly animal need it voiced. He released that nipple and retraced his route back up Ben's throat, up his jaw to his mouth.
        Ben's hands came up, fingers curling into his hair almost painfully, tilting his face, holding him as he latched onto his mouth, broad, flat tongue licking into his mouth, sliding across his own in a slick, silky rasp, curling upward to tickle the sensitive spot on the roof of his mouth, slipping out again, coy, teasing, waiting for Ray to follow, which he did. God, how could he taste this good at this hour? Impossible, amazing Mountie. So damned good. He shifted his body over Ben's, sliding one knee between Ben's legs, straddling one of his thighs, rubbing his cock over the satin-soft skin of Ben's hip, and thigh, and finally against the straining heat of Ben's cock. He pumped them together, the wet slide of pre-cum easing the way.
        The kiss got desperate then, and Ben's hips curved up, his thighs spread wider, one knee coming up to give better access. Ray groaned, wanting to do that himself, wanting to feel Ben's thighs between his, feel his gorgeous, fat cock sliding into him, showing him what he'd been missing, because he was sure he had been. Ben's hands were on his hips, pulling him tight against his body, and Ray reached back, finding one of his partner's hands, guiding it onto his ass.
        Nobody ever said Benton Fraser was dense. He lifted his hand, sucked on his fingers, then put them back where Ray had guided them, and stroked slowly up, down, up again. Big, blunt fingers, slippery with spit. Ray pushed back against them, burying his face in Ben's neck, panting. Come on, come on . . . oh, yeah. There. Finally, a fingertip gently slipped into him, eased back, then in again, deeper, slowly progressing deeper, until it was comfortable, and so damned good. But not enough.
        He slipped his hand down there again, found Ben's fingers, pressed another one against him. Ben hesitated. Ray humped his cock against Ben's, distracting him with pleasure, still urging that second finger to make the attempt. Finally Ben yielded to his insistence. Ray forced himself not to gasp, afraid the slightest sound could be misinterpreted and Ben might stop, but, God! Hurt a little, just for a few seconds, but then it eased up and damn . . . yeah, he could get into this. He really could. Slowly those fingers stroked into him, searching, finding. Oh fuck that was good. He groaned and thrust against Ben, helplessly, panting again. He lifted his mouth, caught enough breath to speak, and put his lips against Ben's ear.
        "Want you," he gasped. "Want you to do me."
        He felt Ben go tense beneath him, his whole body absolutely iron-taut. Ray started to get worried as Ben used his free hand to push him away enough to stare into his face with an expression of utter disbelief.
        "You. . . you want me to . . . ."
        Words apparently failed him then, he just stopped, looking stunned and helpless. Wow. Fraser without words. A first. Ray knew he had to take it from there.
        "Yeah," he managed, somehow. "I do. I want you to. Want to feel that, feel you." Suddenly self-conscious, he blushed, ducking his head. Now he understood Ben's hesitation that first time-- it was kind of hard to ask somebody to do that to you. "I mean, if that's okay, 'cause you know I . . . ."
        The rest of his sentence was lost as Ben's hand gripped his chin, lifted his mouth, and claimed it, hard, deep, and wet. Ooooh yeah. No problemo. None. He felt Ben stretch and flex beneath him, moving both of them about four inches to the left, then the hand left his chin and reached, straining, for something above his. . . oh. Ray started to laugh against Ben's mouth and reached out himself, his longer arm easily snagging the bottle of lubricant off the night stand.
        "Looking for this?"
        Ben nodded. "Yes. Thank you."
        He took the bottle from Ray's hand, then kissed him again. Midway through the hot, wet, almost fierce kiss, he felt a startling coolness spreading into him and he gasped into Ben's mouth, not understanding until he felt the new ease with which Ben's fingers slid inside him. God, that was. . . that was. . . he moaned wordlessly, wondering how long he was going to last if every sensation was this much better than the last. Some last, lonely rational thought reminded him there was something else they were going to need off the night stand and he didn't want anything to interrupt them once they got started, so he reached, grabbed an entire strip of condoms and slapped then down onto the bed triumphantly.
        Ben turned his head to see what he'd done, and smiled. "I really think we'll only need the one at the moment, Ray."
        Ray grinned unrepentantly. "Proper preparation . . . "
        ". . . prevents poor performance," Ben finished with a wicked grin and a twist of his fingers that made Ray close his eyes and see stars.
        "Oh, fuck, Ben. That is so damned good,"
        "Mmmm," Ben breathed against his ear, almost a purr. "It gets better."
        Ray wasn't too sure how it could possibly get much better, because at the moment it was as much better as he had ever guessed possible. It was like . . . like coming, only without coming, and it kept going, and he wondered mindlessly if you could die from too much pleasure.
        "Do you really want to do this?"
        Ray had to think, not an easy task with someone doing the most incredibly wonderful things to places you didn't even know you had. He'd almost forgotten what he'd asked for, lost in the tangles of rapture Ben was weaving around and inside him. Finally he remembered. Oh, he remembered. And almost moaned.
        "Oh God, yes."
        Ben nodded solemnly, and those wonderful, talented fingers slipped gently out of him and he was being turned onto his side so Ben could slide out from beneath him and move to his knees beside him. He heard the crinkling tear of plastic, heard a soft intake of breath from Ben, and he turned his head to watch as Ben smoothed the translucent film down over his darkly flushed cock. He reached over and tangled his fingers with Ben's, slickening them with leftover lubricant before freeing his hand and stroking it down the latex-covered shaft as Ben had done for him once. Ben shuddered and moaned, catching his wrist in strong fingers.
        "No, please, Ray. I'll never make it if . . . if you touch me."
        Ben's voice was ragged, and the hand on Ray's wrist shook. Startled, Ray looked up and saw the effort of control written in the tension on Ben's face, and realized for the first time just how much this must mean to Ben. And with that realization he also knew why it meant so much, and it made him wish he'd done it sooner, though, perhaps it was best now, after everything that had happened, to reestablish the trust between them in this most intimate way. Carefully he unwrapped his fingers from around Ben's cock, and nodded.
        "Love you," he said simply, his own voice hoarse with emotion.
        That drew a sound, a harsh, short sound that was heartbreak and ecstasy combined, and then Ben was over him, his lips against the back of his neck, his shoulders, his spine, soft, licking, sucking, biting kisses all down his back, along the side of his hip and over his ass. He gasped and bucked. The sensation was wildly erotic. Nobody ever kissed him there before. In fact, no one had ever touched him the way Ben did, all over, turning his whole body into a playground, leaving nothing unloved. Then those fingers were back, sliding between his cheeks, easing into him again.
        It was pretty easy this time, didn't hurt at all. Ben found that place inside, and stroked and pushed him and pushed and pushed until he was making the kind of noises he usually heard out of Ben, little grunts and breathy moans, and humping the bed because it just felt so damned good. Then another flush of cool slickness startled him, aroused him, and fingers were sliding out and oh. . . fuck, he was a lot bigger than fingers. He slid a hand beneath the pillow where Ben couldn't see it and wound his fingers in the sheet, holding hard, breathing deep, consciously willing his body to relax and accept this. Then Ben's hand slid under the pillow too, pulled the sheet from his fingers, his big, warm hand curving around Ray's, strong, and tight. He should have known he couldn't hide anything from Ben. Don't hide anything, let it all show.
        A sound slipped from him, a faint protest, and Ben froze.
        "Ray?" His name was said uncertainly, a question, waiting.
        He felt lips against his neck again, gentle brushes, soft. Felt the tremble in the body that held still, barely within his, waiting for permission, or denial. And suddenly he felt that relaxation come, melting through him like warm butter, and yeah, yeah, he could do this. He could do this. "Okay," he whispered. "Okay. More."
        Ben's hand loosened around his, then tightened again in a reassuring squeeze. "You're sure?" he asked against the back of Ray's neck, breath a hot, humid breeze.
        "Yeah, oh yeah, I'm sure. More." Ray remembered suddenly, their first time together, the sound of Ben's voice, hot and demanding, as he had trembled like that, afraid to move. He smiled. "Now."
        Ben was no more resistant to that order than Ray had been. He obeyed. Hot, hard slide of flesh in flesh oh god so amazing, to feel this . . . this connection, this oneness, this . . . partnership. Yeah. Move into me, become me, make me you, and you me, lose me in you, lose you in me. Easy. So easy. He couldn't believe he'd ever thought he couldn't do this.
        Ben shifted above him, and then he was there, his cock stroking the little nub that made him feel like heaven and each stroke was harder and deeper and he just wanted it to go on forever but it couldn't. It was too good to last. Each push of Ben's body into his brought a wave of pleasure from within and without, and he could feel the rush building, feel it gathering somewhere near the base of his spine, and then it coiled and sprang, ripping through him like teeth of some beast that brought pleasure instead of pain. Ben clutched his hips in both hands and shuddered, a hoarse, panting cry joining Ray's.
        After a few minutes, after their hearts had slowed and their breathing evened, Ben turned them onto their sides, kissed his shoulder and eased free, rolling away for a moment, then coming back to wrap arms and legs around Ray, holding him in the cradle of his body. Ray scooted both of them back so neither of them were lying in the substantial wet spot and waited to see what came next. It felt good. Right. He reached up and put his hand over Ben's where it rested against his belly, stroking lightly.
        "Mmm?" Ben sounded sleepy, which was unusual, given the time.
        Ray grinned. "Want to call in sick?"
        Speechless with surprise, Ray craned his head around, trying to see Ben's face. He looked simultaneously wholesome and sensually replete, like some debauched farm-boy. "You mean that?"
        Ben rubbed his nose along Ray's shoulder, and nodded. "Mmmhmm."
        "Okay, who are you and what have you done with the Mountie?"
        Ben opened his eyes, mischief gleaming in them. "Ray. It's Saturday."
        Oh. Right. Duh. He eyed Ben narrowly. "Anybody ever tell you you're a smartass?"
        Ben looked inordinately pleased. "Why no, Ray, I don't believe anyone has. Thank you."
        Ray shook his head, grinning. "You're welcome, freak."
        "You know, I think you're the only person I know who uses that word as an endearment."
        "Hey, that's me, unique."
        Ray felt the warm press of lips against the back of his neck, and they lay in lazy silence for a few moments, until Ray's brain managed to finally fasten on what was bothering him. "Um . . . how we going to do this, Frase?"
        "I believe we already have a good grasp of the basics," Ben said, sounding amused. "Or was there something in particular you wanted to try?"
        Ray pushed back against him until Ben rolled onto his back, then he laced his hands together across Ben's chest and propped his chin on them. "Not that, wise-guy. We got that down. I mean . . . everything else. 'Cause everything's changed except for like. . . stuff." He shook his head, frustrated, knowing he wasn't saying it right. But Ben was Ben, and he got it anyway.
        "You mean how do we handle the change in our relationship, outside these walls?"
        "Yeah. Exactly."
        "A good question, Ray. And a difficult one. As I see it, we have three choices. The optimal choice would be honesty, or it would be were society more accepting of same-sex relationships. Unfortunately that is not the case, especially not within the American law enforcement community. That leaves us with two other options. We could be secretive, and hide it. Or we can simply carry on our day-to-day life in the manner in which we have already established. We are both competent professionals, and I see no reason why that should change simply because we are also lovers. Since we already spend a great deal of our off-duty time together without arousing untoward speculation, it should cause no comment were that to continue."
        Ray found himself smiling as Fraser finished his disquisition. "Wow. You're amazing, you know? I could listen to you for hours. You been thinking about this a lot, haven't you?"
        A faint hint of pink crept into Ben's face, and his tongue flickered across his lower lip. "Ah, yes, actually. I have. It is, I'm afraid, in my nature to try to prevent problems from occurring in the first place rather than to try to fix them once they have occurred."
        "Works for me," Ray said, shifting one hand out from under his chin to reach up and touch the spot on Ben's lower lip that he habitually licked. A tongue-flick against his fingertip ensued, just as he'd guessed it would. His smile became a grin. "So, what you're saying is the best defense is no defense, right?"
        "That would be one way to put it."
        Ray nodded, tracing his fingertip back and forth across that sensual lower lip, having a great deal of fun watching the tongue try to keep up. "Sounds like a plan. We just keep doing what we've been doing an' so long as you don't forget yourself and have me over my desk in the bullpen we'll be fine, right?"
        Ben suddenly caught Ray's finger in his teeth, holding it there for a warning second before releasing it so he could speak. "I should never do such a thing, Ray," he said reproachfully. "The bullpen is far too public a place. Lieutenant Welsh's office on the other hand, has blinds, and a lock . . . " he let his sentence trail off suggestively.
        Ray gaped at him, stunned silent.
        Ben smiled slowly, sensually, and reached out to put a finger under his chin and push upward. "Now, what was it again. . . ah, yes. Catching flies, Ray."

* * * FINIS * * *

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