Disclaimer: Possession is nine tenths of the law, and besides, I hid the handcuff key.

Rating: NC-17 for graphic depictions of m/m sex and adult language

Thank yous: to my brilliant, insightful, sharp-shooting betas: Betty, Bone, WP and Maxine. A writer couldn't ask for better.

Notes: This story assumes the episode order as listed at the official DS website, www.duesouth.com.

Spoilers: "Asylum," "Perfect Strangers," "Dead Guy Running," "Mountie on the Bounty."

Warnings: Angst and a certain amount of dysfunction. The road is rocky but the feelings are real.

Standard Caution: Please note that the sex practices portrayed in my stories are not meant to be taken as models of safe behavior.

Damaged Goods

by Crysothemis (crysothemis@yahoo.com)


Part 1: Refuge

As beds went, this one made a good couch. Of course, it was a couch, which was half the problem. The other half was that it was a stiff, stuffy, formal couch, which meant the armrests were made of wood and the cushions were so hard you could bounce a coin off them. Yeah, or a hip.

Ray rolled over, but it was still about as comfy as a bed of nails. Damn it, this was unfair. If Fraser was gonna lock him in, the least he could do was provide a decent mattress.

Fraser. Mattress. Right. Bad idea, thinking about that now. Real bad, with Fraser in his office just down the hall. Probably in those red long johns now, even if he hadn't been walking around in them. He would've changed right before going to sleep. He'd be stretched out on that cot, big and warm, all sleepy and sweet and . . . shit.

He didn't need this. Didn't need to be lusting after anyone, least of all his partner. Christ, Fraser would be worse than Stella -- talk about someone who had his own ideas about The Way Things Should Be. Fraser had handcuffed him. Arrested him for leaving the scene of the murder, and slapped the cuffs on. Yeah, okay, so Fraser had taken them off again, but he'd made his point. Ray was on his turf. Under his orders. Doing things the Fraser Way, like it or lump it.

But the scary thing was, some part of him almost did like it. It was like being sucked into some kind of giant machine, sure, but it was a big machine, and a powerful machine, and it still took the time to look at you and say things about trust and friendship, and damn, that got to him good. Got him where he lived.

Fraser could do that. Fraser was king of the sneak attack, calling him friend for the first time after knowing him for, what, a week? And meaning it. Yeah, that was the worst part. Fraser actually meant all that stuff. He had those sincere eyes, eyes that looked right into you, and crazy as it seemed, didn't seem to mind what they saw. Never mind that he wasn't the real Ray Vecchio. Fraser saw him. The real him. Maybe even saw some things Stella never had. And tonight -- with this whole damn Volpe mess, and him half-panicked and all the way freaked -- Fraser had almost managed to get him to see some of that stuff, too. It was weird. Seriously weird. And the worst part was, it got him going off on crazy-assed ideas, like maybe him and Fraser wouldn't be such a bad combination, after all.

Right, and if he wanted to keep thinking that way, there was a brook in Bridgelyn for sale. Cheap.

No way he was trading in the Mess With Stella for a brand new kind of mess. No way he was getting involved with anyone. So he shouldn't be even dreaming about making a move, because it wouldn't be like the guys he'd been with before. Fraser was his partner. And yeah, okay, maybe Ray didn't have enough experience with guys in general -- what did a couple of one-night things mean, anyway? -- but he knew better than to mess with partnership, didn't he?

Besides, tonight was one of those wrongest of wrong nights. He should be getting some shut-eye so he'd have his brain in gear tomorrow, when Fraser was going to try pulling some kind of Fraserish stunt to save his sorry ass. Tomorrow, when he had to be on his toes, because he didn't know what Fraser was going to do, and the thing he'd told Fraser was still burning in his brain: I don't even know if I trust me.

Yeah, well, the way his crazy thoughts were going tonight, not trusting himself seemed like a pretty good idea. The place his mind was right now, Fraser shouldn't trust him either.

But this stupid couch was making his hip and his back and his neck ache. No way he was getting any sleep like this. And even if he did, he'd wake up a pretzel. Ray sat up and swung his feet down to the floor. Fraser could damn well wake up and find him a better place to sleep.

Ray padded barefoot out into the foyer, and then down the hall to Fraser's office. The tile floor was cold underfoot, and he shivered. He should've borrowed socks along with the flannel shirt and the too-big jeans.

He heard it before he even got to the door: a snore. A rattling, wheezing, snorting snore. Sheesh. Kinda killed the old urges, a snore like that. Talk about something that could make you lose sleep. Ray tapped softly on the door, and the racket got louder for a second, but then quieted with a snuffle and a whine.

Oh. Not Fraser. Dief. All that noise from a wolf.

Dief whined again, and scratched at the door, and there was nothing to do but open it. A damp nose pushed into Ray's hand, and he rubbed Dief's ears absently. In the light from the hallway, he could just make out Fraser on his cot. Breathing soft and deep, but not snoring at all. Nope, quiet as you please.

So much for dead urges.

Ray leaned against the doorframe, feeling his whole body go warm. God, he should leave. Should turn around and leave right now. He shouldn't be standing here staring, even if Fraser was wearing the long johns.

Fraser had a blanket over him, but it only came up to his waist. The rest of him stretched out beyond it, broad and tantalizing in the dim light. Tantalizing, and completely unaware.

Yeah, that was the trouble. Fraser looked so peaceful. So innocent. So far removed from any of the mess in Ray's head. It would be wrong to wake him, wrong to ask anything of him, even if there wasn't a single comfortable place to sleep in the whole damn Consulate.

Ray turned to go, but the door wasn't even halfway shut when Fraser twitched, then half- sat in bed. "Ray?"

Ah, shit. So much for good intentions. "Yeah, it's me. Turnbull went home, remember?"

Fraser sat all the way up and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Right. Of course." He looked up, squinting against the light from the doorway. "Is something wrong?"

"No." He should go. He should tell Fraser to go back to sleep and just go. But the concern in Fraser's half-sleepy voice felt too good. "Well, yeah. Can't sleep. Didn't mean to wake you."

"I see." Fraser rubbed his face and then swung his feet over the edge of the cot. "Would you like something to drink? Some tea, or some warm milk? I can see if we have any--"

Damn it, Fraser wasn't even acting annoyed that he'd been woken up, and that felt . . . wrong. "No, I do not want warm milk. I just . . . you got anywhere else I can sleep? That couch feels like a medieval torture device."

"Oh, dear." It was spoken softly, so softly Ray wasn't sure he was supposed to have heard it. "I'm terribly sorry. I'm afraid Constable Turnbull is rather . . . well, that's not important. Perhaps you would prefer to sleep in the Queen's Bedroom."

The queen's bedroom? What the hell was that supposed to . . . ? No. Get a grip. This was Fraser, the guy who wouldn't recognize an innuendo if it hit him over the head with a clue-by-four. "You got bedrooms here?"

Fraser pushed himself up to his feet. "Only the one, I'm afraid."

"So how come you sleep on a cot in your office?"

"The Queen's Bedroom is reserved for honored guests."

Oh, gotcha. Gotcha good. Guess that proved where he stood in the grand scheme of things. "But you'll, uh, make an exception for me?"

Fraser . . . froze. No other way to describe it. One moment he was headed for the door, the next he was a block of ice stuck to the floor in the middle of the office. "Ray, I . . . that is, I didn't mean . . . well, I'm afraid it simply didn't occur to me to think of you as a guest."

Not a guest. Nope, not in FraserWorld. He was a prisoner here, even without the handcuffs. "Whatever," Ray said. "Look, you think you can find this bed before I fall asleep on my feet?" Or on Fraser's cot. Yeah, that would work. It couldn't be too rock- hard if Fraser slept on it every night. And it would be all warm from Fraser's body. Might even smell like him. Talk about temptation.

"Of course, Ray," Fraser said, and came out into the hallway.

Right. Bed. Queen's bedroom. Not Fraser's cot. So it was cold feet on the tile floor. Cold feet on the stairs. Following Fraser up to the top, where he opened a door on the left and flipped on the light.

The queen's bedroom looked like someplace she'd want to sleep if she were seven years old and addicted to lace. The furniture was white. The bedspread was white. There were ruffles on the pillows. Ruffles under the bed. Ruffles above the bed, on this big canopy thing. Ruffles over the windows, too.

It looked almost exactly like Stella's old room, the one at her folks' place. It even almost smelled like Stella. All that was missing were the dolls and teddy bears piled on the dresser.

Ray drew a long breath. He could do this. He could sleep here. "Turnbull do the decor?"

Fraser cocked his head. In this white-on-white room, the bright red of his long johns was damn distracting. "Yes, actually. How did you know?"

"Lucky guess." Because it was. Who would've thought Turnbull and Stella would have anything in common? Except it was little-girl Stella who'd wanted that room. Grown-up Stella liked trendy, modern furniture, the kind that cost the earth and made your ass hurt if you sat on it too long. Reclaiming my environment, she'd called it. He'd just called it a waste of money. Not to her face of course. Never to her face. "Smells funny in here."

Fraser gave him a look that said he'd just sprouted antennae. "I'm fairly sure Constable Turnbull aired it out yesterday."

Okay, not funny. But . . . floral. Cloying. "Smells like he used some kind of perfume."

"Ah. That would be the potpourri."

Damn. That was it. Stella used to keep a bowl of that stuff -- cinnamon and rose petals, or something -- on her windowsill in her college dorm room. He'd visited her there, three times over four years. It had always smelled like this. Just exactly like this. "I can't sleep here."

Fraser frowned. "Is there something wrong with the bed?"

Ray turned and pushed past him, out of the room, away from that damn smell. He couldn't spend the night thinking of Stella. Not on top of everything else. "Look, I'll just, uh . . . I'll sleep on the floor or something."

Fraser switched the light off and shut the door behind them. "Would you like my cot? It's not precisely speaking comfortable, but it's probably softer than the floor."

Fraser's bed. Christ, he should say no. He should really say no. "Yeah, okay, that works." Dumb thing to say. Selfish thing to say. If he took the cot, where the hell was Fraser going to sleep?

"All right, then," Fraser said.

But it wasn't all right. Ray followed him down the stairs, but it wasn't all right at all. His brain was running too fast and too slow at the same time. And he wanted, wanted, wanted . . . shit, way too much. He wanted to ask Fraser to share the cot with him.

The tile floor was still cold underfoot, but this time his eyes were on the red form in front of him. Those damn long johns were unfairly baggy everywhere it counted. Except the shoulders. They looked nice on Fraser's shoulders. But they'd look even nicer if they weren't so loose over the ass.

They stepped over Dief, who was now doing his snoring act stretched out in the hallway, and made their way back to Fraser's office.

Ray was tired. So tired. Too tired to sleep. But when Fraser opened the office door, switched on the light, and ushered him in, he wanted to brush right up against that red fabric, to see if it was as soft as it looked. Wanted to . . . but didn't. Managed that much control.

"Here you are," Fraser said, patting the cot. Much too hearty for whatever godawful hour it was and the crap they were both going to have to face in the morning. "I'll get you an extra blanket."

Ray leaned against the desk while Fraser pulled two blankets out of the closet. Fraser stepped around the cot -- not a simple maneuver in these cramped quarters -- and shook one blanket out over the one already there.

He was so calm. So confident. Like he thought everything was going to go exactly the way he wanted it to tomorrow. Like he didn't understand the meaning of the word nervous.

Ray crossed his arms over his chest. "So, you gonna turn me over?"

Fraser straightened smoothly. "Not without proving your innocence, first."

Something clicked, then, something weird in his chest, because Fraser was so damn sure of himself it hurt. "It's like believing in truth and justice for you, isn't it? Believing in me."

"Yes," Fraser said, and those level blue eyes met his. Utterly certain, still, like he'd been a couple hours earlier, out in the hallway.

You have to trust me. Yeah, all aboard for the Fraser-ride. It was heady. It was stifling. It was the best and worst of what Fraser was to him, all wrapped up in one tidy package. "You never have any doubts? Never think you could be wrong about me?"

Those eyes were still calm and sure, meeting his. "Never."

Jesus, it hurt. He didn't even know why it hurt, except . . . except . . . Fraser was acting like he knew what he was talking about, and he didn't. And he wanted Fraser to trust him, wanted it so bad it hurt, but this was wrong, because Fraser didn't know what was going on in his messed-up head. Blind trust wasn't real trust at all. "Well, you are."

"Ray --"

"Fraser, come on." It was just so hard, so friggin' hard, to need Fraser like this. To be so dependent on him for everything -- life, liberty, asylum -- and to want him this much, on top of all of that. It felt like . . . ah, shit. He knew exactly what it felt like. "You've seen me with Stella. You know what kind of a screw-up I am."

"I don't see what your relationship with your ex-wife has to do with Andreas Volpe."

Leave it to Fraser to miss the point. But God, that was like Stella, too. She always got ideas in her head, and nothing you could say would change them. "Not talking about that."

Fraser tipped his head and gave him another of those penetrating looks. "Then what are you talking about?"

Damn. Fraser was like Stella. He was exactly like Stella, in all the ways that mattered. So beautiful. So strong. So brilliant, and so blind. Yeah, and he made Ray feel like the same kind of con job. Because the partner Fraser believed in -- honest, up-front, innocent -- didn't exist. Which meant Fraser didn't really believe in him at all.

Ray wanted . . . everything at once. He wanted to rip those rose-colored glasses right off Fraser's face. To prove that no matter what he thought, he didn't know his partner. Didn't know the half of it.

"This," Ray said, and pushed himself up off the desk and right against Fraser's body. He wrapped his arms around Fraser's back and pulled their hips together, and Fraser . . . didn't move. Just stood there. Ray was half-hard already, and the touch, the warmth, the smell of Fraser's body -- that still-sleepy smell, sweet and inviting -- got him the rest of the way there just like that. "I'm talking about this." And he rubbed the front of his jeans against the soft red long johns.

"Ah," Fraser said, soft and surprised. Hell, yeah, Fraser was surprised. He was standing there like an idiot, like he didn't have the brains to push himself away.

"You think you know me," Ray said, sliding his hands down to Fraser's ass. It felt . . . a hell of a lot tighter than that baggy union suit would make you think. "You don't know me, Fraser."

Fraser's hand came up to cup his shoulders. Not pushing him away, but not pulling him closer, either. "Ray . . ." Confusion in that voice. Confusion on that face. "What are you doing?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?" Sheesh, even someone as out of it as Fraser should've bought a clue by now. "Look, this is your cue to take off for the next province, okay?"

More confusion, a furled brow and a tightening of the hands. "Would you like me to go?"

Hell, was that an invitation? It couldn't be. Couldn't possibly be. But Fraser wasn't moving away. Fraser wasn't rubbing up against him either, but . . . damn.

Hope flared, hot and painful. He shouldn't have started this -- God, no -- but now he wanted, needed more. And it wasn't fair to Fraser, wasn't fair to their partnership, but he couldn't stop himself. Not now, with Fraser warm against him and not moving away.

Ray squeezed both hands around Fraser's ass, pulling him closer. Through the layers of clothing, his straining boner felt nothing but smooth belly. No answering hard-on. Nothing at all, except . . . wait, it was lower down. Fraser wasn't wearing jockey shorts, wasn't wearing anything under the long johns, so he had to . . . rise to the occasion.

Ray eased up on Fraser's ass and snaked a hand around between them. Oh, yeah, there it was. There it was, and Fraser was friggin' impressive. Big and meaty as the rest of him, and growing by the moment. Ray squeezed him through the layer of overwashed fabric and Fraser made a funny little noise, a noise like a catch in his throat, like a swallowed whimper. And the hands on Ray's shoulders tightened their grip.

"No," Ray said. "No, I don't want you to go." And he lifted his head to see Fraser's face.

Fraser's cheeks were flushed pink. He had his eyes shut and his lips parted, and Ray suddenly wanted to kiss him. Wanted to kiss him so bad it was a sharp pain in his chest. But if he kissed Fraser he'd be a goner for sure, and, okay, he was being stupid, but he wasn't going to be that stupid.

Ray let his head fall forward, buried his face against Fraser's neck, and fumbled with his hand at the front of the union suit. There were buttons -- yeah, there. He got two undone, enough to slip one hand inside. And Fraser wasn't complaining. Fraser was, oh God, hard in his hand.

"Ray," Fraser gasped. Protest or come-ahead, could've been either.

"I need this," Ray whispered. "I need this."

"All right." Just that. All right. But it wasn't. Wasn't even close to all right. He couldn't be doing this with Fraser; Fraser was dangerous, was totally wrong for him, and he couldn't . . . couldn't . . . couldn't stop, now. Fraser's cock was hot and silky-smooth in his grasp -- a slip-skinned, heavy handful. Ray pumped, and got an answering gasp. And then he felt Fraser's hand at his waistband. "May I . . . ?"

Oh, God. Ray's knees went weak -- desire, and relief. Maybe Fraser didn't need him the way he needed Fraser, but Fraser wanted this. He had to, to make that offer. "Nothing stopping you."

Ray felt his fly pop open, and a big, warm hand dug into his jockey shorts. Got him free, engulfed him, rubbed him up just like that. His own hand spasmed and pumped harder. Fraser leaned into him, cheek hard against his ear, so he could hear Fraser's breathing go gaspy and erratic.

"Yeah." His own voice, strange and hoarse. They were doing this. They were actually doing what he'd been itching to do for months. "Yeah, like that." Fraser's hand was hard and strong around him, squeezing him tight, pulling on him, rubbing him right there, yeah, that was the sweet-spot, the g-spot, oh, yes, and he just had to remember to keep his own hand moving, sliding up and down, giving back what he was getting.

Not like it was a hardship. Not like Fraser felt anything but perfect in his hand -- starting to go damp, now, and part of that was his palm sweating, but part was slickness at the tip, which meant he was doing something right. A lot of somethings, from the gasps in his ear and the shuddering of the body pressed against his.

More fumbling at his hip -- Fraser's other hand, pushing his jockeys down, and then, Christ, coming up to cup his balls. Not a single sweet-spot now, no, he was burning everywhere Fraser was touching him, bolts of pleasure shooting through him, his breathing gone as ragged as Fraser's. And then he felt it: their hands were working in exactly the same rhythm. Matching each other stroke for stroke. Perfectly in sync, and he had no idea who was following, and who was leading.

He tightened his hand around Fraser, and felt an answering squeeze. He pulled harder and Fraser pulled harder. He sped up, and Fraser . . . oh, God. That was it. That was it. He bucked, his whole body out of control, and hit his jaw on Fraser's shoulder -- hard enough to make his teeth rattle, hard enough to see stars. And in the middle of all those stars, the rush hit. Ray staggered, but Fraser was there, Fraser was holding him, propping him upright as he spasmed again and again.

Fraser's grip tightened as his shudders quieted. "Are you all right?"

"Fraser --"

"Ray, are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I'm good. I'm . . ." Shit. His hand was still in Fraser's long johns, but he'd forgotten to hold on, forgotten to take Fraser along with him on the joy ride. He slid his hand back down . . . and felt a rapidly cooling, sticky dampness. Not his. Fraser's. Somehow in the midst of all of that, Fraser had managed to come, too.

That did weird things to his guts again. This was Fraser. His buddy. His partner. The most impossible man on earth. And he'd just . . .

Oh, God. He'd just fucked everything up. He'd just changed everything and he couldn't . . . couldn't . . . oh, God. Couldn't handle it. This wasn't what he'd been expecting. He wasn't prepared for this. Ray yanked his hand out of the long johns, pulled his jeans up, and scrubbed his palm against his thigh.


He wanted to kick himself. What could he possibly have been thinking? Nothing had changed. It didn't matter that Fraser hadn't freaked out. Hell, Stella hadn't freaked out, either, and look where that had gotten him. "Look, I don't want to talk about it."

Fraser shifted on his feet. Ray dared a glance. Fraser looked . . . confused again. Rumpled. And there were two damp stains down the front of the long johns -- one inside, and one outside. "Would you like me to leave, then?"

Christ, he should say yes. He should really say yes, but he couldn't bear to. "Just get into bed."

Fraser looked over at the cot. "Ray, I assure you, I meant my earlier offer. I'll be quite comfortable elsewhere."

That was Impossible Fraser, once again. "Lie down, Fraser." Ray went over and switched out the light. "And scoot over."

The cot frame rattled, like Fraser was actually complying. Ray found it by feel and sat on the edge, then stretched out against Fraser's big body. It was much too narrow for two. To sleep together, they'd have to lie wrapped around each other. Which Fraser promptly did, wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him close, spoon-fashion.

It was wrong. Stupid to want this, when his head was so messed up. Crazy to want anything, when Fraser was so wrong for him, when Fraser was so much like Stella it hurt, when he'd just fucked up their friendship and their partnership by listening to his dick instead of his head. But Ray was so tired he couldn't fight it. His head hit the pillow of Fraser's outstretched arm, and sleep pulled him down.

~ * ~

The cot frame creaked as Fraser tried to shift his weight. It was far too small for two grown men, barely sturdy enough to hold their combined weight. Not that Ray was heavy. But he was a restless sleeper, constantly shifting and rolling, and every time he did, and Fraser rolled with him, the cot frame groaned ominously.

Fraser sighed and settled his arms around his partner once again. It was almost time to get up, anyway. Time to get moving, to check the details of his plan, to brief Turnbull, who would be arriving shortly. But he didn't want to get up. He wasn't at all sure he'd made the right decision last night. He'd been astonished -- shocked, really -- that Ray had chosen to alter their relationship in this manner. But he'd been equally shocked by his own response. He ought to have refused, or at least suggested that they discuss it first. But when Ray had touched him, he'd lost all sense of what was proper and right and logical.

He hadn't expected that, either. The mindless, urgent need. The astonishingly deep sense of connection that was more than pleasure, more, even, than belief. It felt almost like . . . no.

A surge of adrenaline shot through him, banishing sleep. It was not like Victoria. Ray was nothing like her. He hadn't killed Volpe -- Fraser knew that, from external evidence as well as gut-deep conviction. But Ray had said, You don't know me. Just as Jolly had said of Victoria, You think you know her. You don't.

He had been blind to Victoria's true nature. He had thought he knew her, and he had been terribly mistaken. With Ray . . . he was certain, utterly certain, that he knew Ray, knew his soul, and knew it to be honest and good. But if he had been so blind to Victoria, how could he be absolutely sure he wasn't being blind now?

It hurt. It hurt to have Ray's body warm and heavy in his arms, so close, so close, and still . . . he didn't know what he wanted, or what he dared let himself want. He only knew he didn't want to get up. He wanted to hold Ray like this forever, and never be forced to face the difficult questions.

"Ungh." Ray twitched and opened his eyes, looking right into Fraser's face. His hair was still flat on his forehead as he'd worn it yesterday rather than "up" as usual, and his face looked . . . vulnerable. "Oh, shit."

That did not sound promising. "I'm afraid this bed isn't big enough for two," Fraser apologized.

"Fuck." Ray put one hand over his eyes. Not happy. Not in the least. Regretting last night, quite obviously. "Y'know, I was kinda hoping I dreamed all that."

"I'm afraid not." Fraser's arms were still around Ray, and he didn't want to move them. He knew he should, but he couldn't.

Ray rubbed his temples, as if his head hurt. "Look, Fraser . . ."


Ray ran his hand over his hair, mussing it on his forehead, and his gold- flecked blue eyes came back up. "This was a mistake, okay? It's not gonna happen again."

It cut like a knife, sharp and clean. It hurt more than Fraser would have thought possible, considering that he wasn't sure he could rationally assess the situation any differently. "I understand. You were simply in need of comfort last night."

"Comfort. Yeah. That's one way of putting it." Ray rubbed his hair one more time.

"You were understandably concerned."

"Oh, 'concerned.' That's a good one." Ray made a face. "Yeah, I'm just a little concerned about spending the rest of my life playing tiddly winks with a bunch of guys who eat cops for breakfast. Look, that is not my idea of a good career move."

Fraser couldn't help it: he felt his arms tighten around Ray's body. "I will do everything in my power to ensure that we catch the real killer."

Ray sighed, a rise and fall of his chest under Fraser's arm, and some of the tension drained out of him. "Yeah, I know, I . . . look, can we get to it? Like, actually do something instead of laying around here talking about it?"

It was a perfectly reasonable request. "Of course."

For an achingly long moment, Ray just looked at him. Looked at him like there was something more unsaid, and Fraser braced himself for the worst. But then Ray twisted in his arms. "You gonna let me up?"

"Oh. Right. Sorry." Fraser loosened his grip, feeling his face go warm. It wasn't that he'd forgotten he was holding Ray. It was that he'd forgotten he had to let go.

Ray sat up and stretched the kinks out of his neck and upper back. "You got a plan?"

A plan. Ah, of course. Ray was speaking of his impending extradition. And as far as that went, well, there were too many unpredictable contingencies to have the course of action set in stone, but the basic strategy was clear. "Yes."

"Good," Ray said. Nothing more, just that, but it was something. Ray was offering his trust in this, even with everything else that was now between them. "Let's get to it."

Fraser resisted the urge to reach out and touch Ray one more time, and instead pushed himself to his feet. They had a critical showdown coming in just over two hours. It was time to get moving.

But it was astonishing how difficult it was to compose his mind for that, to think of strategy and duty instead of . . . instead of desire.

A mistake, Ray had called it. Yes, indeed, it was a mistake. Because now he found himself wanting things he had never thought to want before, and he had no idea how to make the wanting stop.

He understood, suddenly, what he had done last night: he had opened his personal Pandora's box, letting out pain and fear and need, and now he didn't dare let hope out, too.

"Yes," he said, not looking directly at Ray because he simply couldn't. "Let's get to work."

~ * ~

Fraser did it. Made Cahill and his little bonspiel look brain-dead on city- wide TV, and saved Ray's skinny ass in the process. Did it with style, too, so Cahill cracked, and they got new charges to file against him: assault, kidnapping -- heck, maybe even attempted murder, for pointing that gun at the Ice Queen's head. All of which meant they'd get something to stick on him for sure.

It was a good morning's work. Scratch that, a great morning's work, but Ray couldn't help it. Part of him was still waking up in Fraser's arms, still panicked, still aching, still needing whatever he'd needed last night. Part of him wanted to make that same mistake all over again, to make it twice, three times, a hundred times over. And the worst part of it was, now it almost felt like Fraser might go for it. I understand, he'd said this morning. Like it was no big deal to him, either way. Like he went around jacking his partner off every night of the week, and thought it didn't mean a thing.

That burned. It shouldn't have, maybe, but it did. It made the whole, ugly mistake just that much worse. So when it was all over, when they were out on the sidewalk, chatting with the Ice Queen -- okay, not chatting, technically she was bawling Fraser out -- Ray couldn't help himself. She turned to go, called him "Detective" . . . and he flirted with her.

"Call me Ray." Yeah, okay, it was a dumb line, and it wouldn't have gotten him anywhere even if it hadn't been -- shit, who did he think he was kidding? -- but Fraser was there. Fraser saw the whole damn thing, and got the message, too.

The Ice Queen rolled her eyes and walked off, and Ray was left standing next to Fraser. Feeling doubly rotten, now. "So I guess you gotta get to work on that report."

Fraser looked . . . distant. Distracted. His eyes were still following the Ice Queen as she climbed the steps to the Consulate's front door. "That would be prudent."

"Okay," Ray said, like there was nothing wrong. Like he wasn't dying bit by bit inside. And Fraser just . . . nodded to him, and walked away.

Ray stood where he was, feet rooted to the concrete. Just how had he managed to fuck things up this bad? "Fraser!" It wasn't a conscious decision, but he was moving before he could think about it. He took three steps, then broke into a half-run. "Fraser!"

Fraser turned back, and Ray skidded and dodged and ran right into him. A warm hand came out, like instinct, and steadied his elbow. But just as quickly, Fraser let go. "What?"

"Look, I didn't mean . . ." He broke off. He had no idea what he wanted to say. The mess was too big, the broken pieces too scattered to ever put back together. "I'm just . . . I'm sorry."

Fraser tipped his head. "For what?"

Shit, he ought to know. "For everything," Ray said. "For last night, too."

"We both made a mistake," Fraser said quietly. "We've acknowledged that. I don't believe an apology is necessary."

Right. Ray stared at the sidewalk, feeling deflated. "So we're still partners."

"Naturally," Fraser said.

"And friends?"

"I hope so."

He hoped. Yeah, great. Like he didn't actually know. "Okay, then," Ray said. "Okay."

He let Fraser walk away this time, watched the red back disappear into the Consulate. He felt . . . drained. Empty. Lost.

Fraser had saved his ass in there. Fraser had risked the Ice Queen's ire and a heckuva lot more -- his professional reputation, his honor, maybe even his job. And for what? For a partner he wasn't even sure he could call friend anymore?

Shit. Ray shoved his hands in his pockets. He'd wanted to prove that Fraser didn't know him. Well, whoop-dee-doo, he'd done it.

Good job, huh? Yeah, quite an accomplishment. They ought to give him a medal: For Meritorious Service as the Biggest Fuck-up in Chicago.

Ray turned slowly and slumped his way back toward the street six blocks away where he'd left his car -- what? -- twenty-four hours ago. Just his luck it would've been impounded in the investigation, but he had to check. Kilrea and his buddies were just dumb enough they might've missed it. And it had only been one day.

It didn't feel like just one day. Felt like several years. And right now he wanted to sleep for several years, except . . . except . . .

Except the only place he wanted to sleep was Fraser's arms.

Oh, yeah. Greatness. He'd come running to Fraser for refuge, and he'd ended up with nothing but this ache in his gut.

Did he know how to work a partnership, or what?

Part 2: Strangely Perfect

He was all right. Fraser bent forward over his desk and rested his forehead in his hands. His face was still hot. His eyes prickled. But part of what he was feeling was, admit it, relief.

He'd gone courting under, well, not strictly speaking duress, but pressure. Definitely pressure. His father had made his feelings perfectly clear: he wanted grandchildren. He thought his son should pursue the apparent (but mistaken -- clearly terribly mistaken) interest of his superior officer. And so Fraser had given in, and made the approach.

It was not that he felt nothing for her. He had at one time harbored feelings for her that were quite strong. But time and her insistence that they keep their distance had blunted those emotions. That, and yes, quite possibly his friendship with Ray Kowalski.

Fraser scrubbed his eyes, but he couldn't deny it. While he would not necessarily have labeled his feelings for Ray as sexual, somehow the more time he'd spent with Ray, the less he'd found himself thinking of the inspector. It was not a conscious choice, not even something he was aware of, but now, in retrospect, he could see it.

Ray Vecchio had been a fine partner and a good friend. Ray Kowalski was that, and something else, too, something his previous partnerships had not prepared him for. He was bluster and vulnerability, strength and pain so tightly bound together it was impossible to separate the two. But Fraser wanted to understand, to know what drove his partner at any given moment, and he was well aware that his curiosity went beyond the bounds of a professional relationship. Something about Ray reminded him of Innusiq, when he'd been young. When they'd both been very young.

A mistake. Never again. The words still ached, though it was a week now, since Ray had said them. Since Ray had touched him and opened his eyes, and made him want the one thing Ray now said he couldn't have. Since Ray had made him feel as lonely as he had ever felt in Chicago.

So he'd followed his father's advice and gone courting, or tried, anyway. He'd taken the chance he'd thought was offered, had done his best to forget the one that had been denied. And he'd ended up here, in his office, half mortified and half relieved.

The truth was, if Inspector Thatcher had taken him up on his offer, he wasn't at all sure he would have been able to follow through on it. Dancing, he'd suggested, unwittingly thinking of what Ray would do, what Ray did so beautifully. Not that Ray would ever dance with him. Not that Ray would consider it. But then, he'd never thought Ray would consider sticking a hand in his long johns, either.

Fraser leaned back in his chair, suddenly hot all over. He'd told Inthatch-- Inspector Thatcher earlier that he'd been thinking of a good piece of meat. Of course, he hadn't meant . . . he hadn't meant . . . oh, dear. What had he meant? Because he could still, even now, a week later, feel Ray in his hands. He didn't think of Ray that way. He thought of Ray as his partner and his friend and someone he cared about. But now whenever he was near Ray -- and quite a bit of the time when he was not -- he found himself thinking about that, too.

A good piece of meat. Oh, my. And he couldn't . . . he wasn't allowed . . . he didn't dare ask . . .

There were footsteps outside his office door, and he hadn't even heard them approach. Fraser pushed himself to his feet, feeling warm and flustered and not at all ready for whoever it was. No. Not whoever. He knew that step. Knew exactly who it was.

"Fraser, you got that paperwork on Bowman for me? Welsh says they're not gonna file any . . ." Ray didn't bother to knock, just pushed the unlatched door wide open. "Geez, what happened to you? A bottle of Astroglide explode overhead?"

Fraser reached up to smooth his hair, which he'd had to fight to tame before he'd dared approach the inspector. He'd been forced to resort to severe measures, although not by the means (apparently some sort of styling product) Ray was referring to. "Actually, it's an emollient derived from --" Just in time, he noticed that Ray's face had gone pink, and stopped himself. He had to remember that Ray was squeamish about the oddest things. "Ah, it's not important. I have the general's statement right here."

Ray took the papers from him, shuffled through them, and set them right back down on the desk. "You weren't wearing the gunk earlier, Fraser." Observant, his Ray. Quite observant. "What's up with that?"

"Well, I . . ." He didn't want to explain. He didn't want to lie, but he couldn't tell Ray what he'd been feeling, or why. It was far too complicated, and too . . . dangerous, considering what was between them. Considering the fact that these past few days they'd almost achieved some measure of their normal professional relationship. "My hair was a bit unruly."

"Uh-huh. And?" Ray was fidgeting, as Ray always fidgeted, and his eyes wandered to something on the floor. He bent and picked it up, and Fraser recognized it instantly: a single, bruised chrysanthemum blossom. "Jesus." Ray straightened abruptly and his eyes met Fraser's hard, like he knew what it was, like somehow he could read Fraser's mind and just know. "Never thought you'd be the one playing the field, Fraser. Didn't know you had it in you."

Fraser moved his mouth and tongue and throat, and no sound came out.

"So when's the hot date?" Ray asked in a voice that was just a bit too casual. "Where're you taking her? Better make it something snazzy. She'd be into that."

"Ray, I think you are laboring under a misapprehension."

Ray held up the misshapen bloom. "Yeah, and this just wandered in here on its own. Look, I passed the Ice Queen on her way out the door. She was carrying a bunch of flowers that looked just like this one. So don't tell me you didn't ask her out, okay?"

"I didn't . . ." Well, strictly speaking that wasn't true. "Ah, that is, I did suggest certain recreational activities, but --"

"Recreational activities." Ray let out a dry, humorless laugh. "What, like golf or something?"

Fraser was warm all over, so warm his chest felt tight and his scalp itched. He didn't want to be having this conversation. Not with anyone, and certainly not with Ray. "No, like . . . like dancing." Yes, dancing. That was what he'd discussed with Inspector Thatcher.

Ray tipped his head and slid another step closer. He still had the flower in his hand, rolling the stem back and forth between his fingers, and he looked . . . agitated. Yes, decidedly on edge. "Dancing. Didn't know you danced."

"Well, of course I've never achieved anything near your level of skill," Fraser managed, "but I have been schooled in a number of basic steps." Ray had no cause to be upset. No cause unless . . .

Ray's face was now tense, and the note in his voice went sharper. "Show me."

"I beg your pardon?"

"C'mon. You said you could dance. So dance."

Fraser felt a little rivulet of sweat trickle down his back. He didn't understand what Ray was doing, or why he was doing it. Ray had no reason to be jealous. He was not interested in any sort of romantic relationship. He had made that quite clear, just a week ago. "Well, I'm afraid it would be rather difficult at the moment because there is no music."

"Yeah, okay. How 'bout . . ." And suddenly Ray was touching him, one hand on his shoulder, the other clasping his opposite hand, and the flower was falling, forgotten, to the floor. Ray pulled him close, too close. "I'll hum; you lead." And he began a rhythmic but nearly tuneless melody, soft and wordless.

Ray's touch burned. It felt deliberate, intrusive, and, well, not strictly speaking sexual, but any dance had some component of sensuality, and this one . . . Fraser took a step and stumbled, and Ray's hand tightened on his shoulder, catching him.

"Fraser --"

"I'm sorry." He found his feet again, managed to move them, and Ray moved with him, perfectly in step. And suddenly he found himself wanting to dance with Ray. It might not mean what he had suggested it would mean to Inspector Thatcher. But then again, it might.

Fraser settled his arm around Ray's side and did his best to find a rhythm. His skills were rusty and had never been exceptional, but Ray didn't feel like any dance partner he'd ever had before. Ray felt fluid. Natural. Like all he had to do was think a movement or a turn, and Ray was already moving with him. In Ray's arms he felt light, almost fluid himself. It was supremely irrelevant that Ray's humming had no discernible tune, or rather that what tune it did have seemed not to follow the usual dictates of Western music.

In the tiny space of his office it was turn, and turn again. His hip bumped a stack of file boxes, but Ray balanced him without missing a beat, and they turned again toward the door. It felt right, dancing with Ray. It felt just like . . . just like the last time they'd been alone together in this office, when they'd found a different way to achieve a perfect rhythm.

Fraser stumbled again, and Ray compensated, turning him back toward the desk, dancing him backwards, and it occurred to him that he wasn't leading, after all. Ray was, and Fraser hadn't even noticed when the shift had occurred. His buttocks hit the edge of the desk but Ray kept pushing, pinning him back against that hard cornice.

The humming stopped abruptly. "Fraser, you got two left feet."

"I could not hope to be as graceful as you are."

"Nah, that's not it. You got the moves. You're just distracted or something." Ray's face came closer, inches closer, and Fraser had to swallow hard. "What I wanna know is, who are you thinking about -- her or me?"

Ray had no right. No right to be asking that. "I was concentrating on my dancing," Fraser said, which wasn't a lie so much as a half-truth.

"Sure ya were." Ray shifted his hips so that Fraser was suddenly, painfully aware of his arousal. Of their twin erections, which were now in startlingly close proximity.

"Ray --" Fraser began, but Ray's hand came up to cover his mouth.

"Uhn-uh," Ray said. "Just answer the question. Her or me, Fraser. Her or me?"

Fraser moved his mouth against Ray's hand, tasting work-hard skin. He wanted . . . oh, dear. He wanted to press the advantage. To force Ray to acknowledge that the rejection last week had been premature. "You," he whispered.

Ray's hand slid away, brushed across Fraser's cheek, and tangled in his slicked-back hair. "Say it again."

Fraser met his eyes this time, and spoke up, though breath was short in his chest. "You."

"That's better," Ray said, and leaned in against him. For a moment Fraser thought Ray was going to kiss him, but Ray just pressed his cheek to Fraser's ear and slid the hand through his hair. Ray's hips hitched up, rubbing against him, and Fraser couldn't suppress a little gasp that was half surprise, half pleasure. "Want you thinking about me," Ray muttered against his ear, and his hips hitched up again. "When you're out with her, dancing with her, I want you thinking about me."

Something flared in Fraser's heart. Ray was mistaken, still, in his understanding of the situation, but it was at once gratifying and completely unfair. Ray had said never again. He had certainly appeared to mean it at the time. So now he was either playing dog in the manger, or . . . or he'd changed his mind.

"Ray, I'm not sure I . . ." Oh, dear God. Another hitch of the hips. Fraser turned his cheek to press against Ray's and drew a shaky breath. "I don't believe I understand your intentions."

Ray froze against him, hand still caught in his hair. "Got no intentions, Fraser." His voice shivered, like that was hard to say. "Got nothing but this." And he thrust his hips hard, so hard that the desk shifted beneath them and they both staggered.

"You mean . . ." Fraser braced his hands on the cool, smooth surface of the desk top. "You mean, just this. Right now, and nothing more."

Ray bent his head, his stubble scratching sharp against Fraser's neck. "Yeah, just this. I mean, if you . . ." His voice went unsteady again. "If you want it."

He could say no. Fraser realized that with sudden clarity. If he said no, Ray would leave, and things would be irreparably damaged between them. As they were, perhaps, if he said yes. "Okay, then," he said softly. "All right."

Ray pulled back, then, his hand still on the nape of Fraser's neck, and looked right into his eyes, and Fraser saw the pain on his face. This was hard for Ray, too. Possibly even harder than it was for Fraser himself.

"You sure?" Ray whispered. He closed the distance between them, nuzzled Fraser's cheek, and then nipped his ear. It wasn't a kiss -- not even close -- but it sent a bolt of sensation down to Fraser's groin.

"Yes," Fraser said, because it was too late to say anything else. "Yes, I am."

Ray just grunted in response, grunted and rubbed up against him, hard and hot through all the layers of cotton and wool. Layers that were suddenly painfully superfluous. But Ray felt the same way, or at least close to it, because he slid his hands down between them and started undoing buttons. Not wasting any time. Not even bothering to unfasten Fraser's belt. He just undid the lowest tunic button and slipped his fingers inside the waistband of the jodhpurs, seeking, finding, and releasing the buttons that held his braces. In moments, Ray had both of their flies wide open and was pressing up against him, a sweet-hot shock of skin to skin.

"Mmm," Ray grunted again, rolled his hips from side to side, and slid a hand down between them. "Yeah."

Fraser bit his lip to suppress a groan. It was better than the last time: closer, more real. No less confused -- but he couldn't think about that, couldn't think about anything but the exquisite rub and slide between them, the touch of Ray's hand on them both, warm and sure and surprisingly slippery. Oh. Right. Those were the fingers Ray had had in his hair. Well, it wasn't surprising that the stuff would work for this. It made a fine axle grease, too.

Ray rubbed a thumb over the tip of his glans, and Fraser felt a slickness that had nothing to do with hair oil or axle grease. His or Ray's, it didn't matter. They were both in tune, in sync, like the dancing, like a week ago. The thumb rubbed against him again and Ray rolled his hips at the same time, and this time Fraser couldn't suppress a moan.

"You like that." Ray's smile was warm against his neck.

There was no point in equivocating. "Yes."

"Me, too." Ray's hips drove against him harder, and the desk slid again, slid against the filing cabinet with a scrape and then a jarring thud. Fraser lost his balance and flailed for support, but Ray was still pushing him, and somehow it ended up being easier to just let himself be shoved backward over the desk, the hard edge biting into his buttocks, Ray's panting breath still close to his ear. "Me, too," Ray said again, and now they had gravity working with them, Ray's weight on top of him, Ray's hand still between them, pushing them together, encouraging the bump and glide.

This wasn't what he'd been imagining all week. He'd pictured touching Ray, looking at him, holding him, but never this mindless, hopeless, awkward abandon. But he couldn't think, couldn't protest, didn't want it to stop.

Didn't ever want it to stop.

"Ray," he whispered, and since it was what was in reach, kissed the soft skin of Ray's neck below his ear. Ray made a little noise in response, not lifting his head, but not protesting, either. Fraser licked down the side of his neck, salty Ray- skin, and found the pulse-point right at the base. Kissed it, tongued it, sucked it -- tasting essence of Ray, savoring warmth and salt and the hot flutter against his tongue -- until Ray's head jerked back.

"Jesus, Fraser." Ray's pupils were dilated so wide there was only a narrow ring of iris visible. There was a red mark on his neck, where Fraser's mouth had been. "What're you doing?"

The thrust and roll of Ray's hips had slowed, and Fraser wanted it back. "I, ah, I'm not entirely sure."

Ray stared at him for a moment longer, and Fraser couldn't stop himself. He rocked his hips under Ray's weight, desperate for that sweet friction, and Ray's breath caught. "Yeah, okay, okay. Me, neither. Just don't . . . ," and he thrust forward, sending a jolt of pure pleasure from Fraser's groin to his heart.

"Don't what?" Fraser managed, between gasps.

"Don't . . . don't . . . oh, God." Ray was driving faster, now, shoving against him with long, hard strokes, and it started to burn bright, deep inside. He needed to know what Ray didn't want him to do, but he needed this even more. Fraser wrapped his arms tight around Ray's back, pulling him closer with every thrust. There was something on the desk that was digging into his left shoulderblade, but he didn't care, didn't care about anything but the heat between them.

"Fraser. Oh, geez. Fraser."

Fraser knew exactly what Ray was feeling, because he was feeling it, too. He needed more, infinitely more, but he couldn't hold out any longer. Ray pushed against him one more time, and just like that he was lost, falling, spinning, the pleasure rippling through his body in waves. Ray was still moving, still thrusting against him, and it was sweet agony. The object under his shoulder had sharp corners -- right, his paper-clip holder -- but he couldn't say anything, didn't want to make any move that might interrupt the motion. Ray was panting and sliding faster now, slicker now, and then suddenly his rhythm jerked and stuttered, and Fraser felt another hot spurt against his belly.

"Oh, God." A whimper, right next to his ear.

Fraser raised a hand to bury it in Ray's sweat-damp hair, holding him tight as his body shuddered. The urge to kiss him was back, even stronger than before, but before Fraser could turn his head, Ray grunted and twitched and pushed himself up off the desk. "Ah, crap. Did I hurt you?"

Fraser twitched his shoulders and pushed himself up onto his elbows. "No," he said. It wasn't a lie. Any discomfort he'd experienced was his own fault, since he hadn't said anything or tried to shift them.

Ray frowned, like he didn't quite believe that. "You sure?"

"Of course." Fraser felt his face go warm again. "I would think that my . . . enjoyment was obvious."

Ray closed his eyes, like something about that bothered him. "Yeah, I got that part," he said quietly. But when he opened his eyes again, their expression had gone fierce. "You can get off with me. I'm good for that, when the Ice Queen's not handy."

Oh, dear. Ray was jealous. It hit hard, even though Fraser had recognized it before. He just hadn't thought . . . yes, that was the problem. He hadn't thought. Ray had done this -- all of this -- out of jealousy, and it was misplaced and not the basis one would want for any sort of partnership, romantic or otherwise. "Ray, I'm afraid you have the wrong impression," he said. "My relationship with Inspector Thatcher is purely professional."

Ray straightened fully and fumbled with his fly, tucking himself in and buttoning up. "Do not tell me you don't want to be glazing her doughnut, Fraser. You're the one who's supposed to be all straightforward and honest."

Fraser pushed his body to an upright position as well and pulled out his handkerchief to tidy himself. The uniform would have to go to the dry cleaner's before he could wear it again. "I can assure you, we have no plans to go out on a date."

Ray's eyes narrowed. "Oh, yeah? Then what was all that crap about dancing? And you gave her those flowers. Don't tell me you didn't."

Oh, dear. He didn't want to explain; the chivalric code dictated discretion in such matters. But he owed Ray some measure of the truth. Ray deserved chivalry, too. "It was a . . . misunderstanding."

Anger warred with confusion on Ray's face. "You mean, like an apology or something?"

"Well, not precisely." Fraser stripped off his tunic in order to finish his tidying. "I had misinterpreted something she said as a . . . proposal." He tucked in the damp hem of his henley, fastened his fly, and rebuttoned his braces. "She corrected my mistaken impression."

Ray's jaw went slack. "She turned you down?"

It was a bit more complicated than that, but, "Yes."

"The Ice Queen turned you down? Fraser, that's nuts. She's crazy about you. She's got a thing for you the size of . . . the size of your thing."

Oh, dear. Fraser felt blood in his face, felt more sweat spring out over his still-overheated body. "While it is true that we shared one . . . ah, more-or-less romantic exchange, we have never actually --"

"A 'more-or-less romantic exchange'? What's a 'more-or-less romantic exchange'?"

Fraser closed his eyes. "A kiss."

"You kissed her." Ray's voice was low and hurt. As if he'd only just realized that they had never kissed. "You never told me you kissed her."

"It was before I met you," Fraser explained. "And I owe her the duty and courtesy of discretion."

"Discretion." Ray made a face. "Yeah, you're so discreet it hurts. Look, don't tell me there's nothing going on, Fraser. A kiss is not nothing."

"I don't believe I said it was nothing," Fraser said. "I merely meant that, well, in comparison to what is currently developing between the two of us . . ." The words were a mistake. He knew it as soon as he said them, but there was no way to call them back.

Ray's jaw tightened, but his eyes went wide with something that looked like hurt or panic. "Don't go there, Fraser." Ray hunched his shoulders, looking down, then glanced back up at him, eyes fierce. "This is not a 'more-or-less romantic exchange.'"

The words were spoken. There was nothing to do other than brave it out. "Then what is it?"

"It's a mess, okay? It's stupid. It's wrong. It's not going to happen again."

Fraser felt a slow burn kindle in the depths of his gut. It was hard to imagine that Ray could be blind to the irony of that statement. "I see. Do you mean that in the way you meant it the last time you said it?"

Ray's face went red. "What do you want me to say? You want me to say I fucked up twice? You want me to say I suck? You want me to say I wish I was doing this with anyone but you? 'Cause I'll say it, Fraser. I'll say all of it."

"Ray." Fraser caught him by the shoulders. He couldn't mean that. He couldn't mean half of it . . . but it still cut deep. "Ray."


"I don't want you to say that. I don't want you to say any of it. If you can't think of anything else to say, perhaps it would be best if we both said nothing."

Ray stared at him, chest heaving. "You want to just leave it like that? Leave everything up in the air? That's dumb, Fraser, that's stupid, that's --"

Fraser quieted him by the simple expedient of putting a hand over his mouth. "I would rather live with that uncertainty than risk seeing you break your word." Again. He didn't say it, but Ray seemed to hear it, because he flinched. Ray reached up and pried Fraser's hand away, and Fraser let him.

"Yeah, and you never do anything you're not supposed to, do you? You never screw up, or make a mistake, or forget what you promised. Oh, no, not you. You're perfect. You're god-damned, fucking perfect."

It hurt, as Ray had meant it to. Fraser let his hands fall to his sides. "I never said I was perfect."

"Yeah, well, you don't have to say it. You just do that Super Mountie act and everyone falls at your feet and does whatever you want. Well, not me, okay? Not me."

"Ray --"

"Look, we can't leave it like this. We can't start thinking it's, y'know, maybe gonna happen again, 'cause it's not."

Ray was still standing close enough to touch, and it was a force of will to keep from reaching for him. "Perhaps you would do best not to think about it at all."

Ray's eyes shied away. "Oh, right." His chin came up. "Hey, I tried, okay? I really tried. But I can't stop thinking about it."

Fraser felt something go tight in his chest. It hurt. It hurt to know Ray was as caught up in this as he was, and still willing to deny it. He wanted to grab Ray and shake some sense into him. Or grab him and just hold him. But he had no idea what more he could say. Ray was admitting his feelings only in the context of denying their future and that negated any argument he could think to make. "Well, in that case, we have a bit of a problem."

"Yeah, I know we do. What do you think I'm saying?"

"Ray, we have to work together."

"I know that. I know that. I . . ." Ray bit his lip, and Fraser felt some of the anger wash out of him. Ray's pain was so clear, so overwhelming.

"You have to promise me something," Fraser said gently.

Ray's eyes went wary. "Like what?"

"You have to promise me that this won't affect our work. When I show up at the station tomorrow, it has to be business as always. Partners, Ray. Please?"

Ray met his eyes. Still hurting, but better, somehow. Like that had been the right thing to say. "I can do that. I can do it if you can."

Fraser nodded. "Thank you."

Ray looked down and reached up to rub his temples. "I'm sorry," he said softly.

"I know."

"I gotta go."

"I understand."

Ray gave him one more anguished look, and lifted his hand, as if he wanted to touch. But then he thought better of it, because the hand dropped to his side and he turned away.

"Ray, the statement?"

Ray turned back, his face completely blank. "What?"

"General Bowman's statement. That is what you came here for, isn't it?"

"Oh. Right." Ray turned bright pink and snatched the papers from his hands. "Thanks," he muttered, then turned, yanked the office door open, and disappeared out into the hallway.

Fraser took a step backward and braced himself against his desk. For the first time, he realized he was sore. His buttocks were bruised where they'd been pressed to the edge of the desk, and his shoulder hurt, too. It felt . . . all too fitting.

He should have said no. He realized clearly, now, what should have been obvious before. Saying yes had done far more damage to their partnership than a dozen noes ever could have.

He had no excuse. He'd thought himself rational, clear-headed, but apparently where Ray was concerned, he had no rationality whatsoever. Because now he found himself wanting things he knew were dangerous. He wanted to push. To force his way past Ray's arbitrary, unfair conviction that this was somehow wrong. To push him to consider possibilities that Fraser hardly dared to want, himself.

But Ray was not like Victoria. He trusted that, even though he could no longer trust Ray not to hurt him. But Ray was so easy to believe in. So real and open, even when he was trying not to be. He'd actually admitted to feelings that undermined all his arguments, feelings that made Fraser's heart race. I can't stop thinking about this. Yes, well, that made two of them.

What he didn't understand was why Ray was in such pain. Why Ray wanted to deny what they could so obviously have together. And now that Fraser could see it, he wanted it, with an urgency that was growing with every moment. They had friendship, of course, but now he was aching for more than that.

Now he wanted love.

And in the back of his mind, some demonic voice was hatching foolish, improper schemes, thoughts of finding a way to make Ray jealous again, thoughts of figuring out what it would take to tempt him. And it was surely wrong to be thinking this way, but he couldn't help himself. He knew, knew down to the core of his being, that Ray was wrong. They were good together as friends. Good together as partners. And if Ray would only stop fighting and allow himself to start feeling, they could be good together as lovers, too.

He could feel it in his bones, the resonance between them. When he was with Ray, he felt like a different person -- more open, more alive, more human. And perhaps that wasn't always a pleasant feeling, but it was something he needed. Something he craved. Ray could make him feel as no one since Victoria had.

So now he didn't know if he could let go.

He wasn't blind. He knew he didn't want to repeat what had just happened. The pain outweighed the pleasure, and the potential consequences were devastating. And he knew better than to want to throw away everything he held dear for the sake of a romantic obsession. He'd learned that lesson. He'd learned it the hard way, and he never wanted to have to learn it again.

But he couldn't help himself. Couldn't stop this feeling. Couldn't control the aching. Because he had touched Ray now -- with his mouth as well as his hands. He'd tasted Ray's skin. And for that moment, for that one beautiful, ephemeral moment, it had felt . . . strangely perfect.

Part 3: Running

Ray clipped his badge back on his belt, waved a sour good-bye to Stanley Smith (the little sneak), and turned to head back up the steps to the station's main entrance. He had to talk to Fraser. He really had to talk to Fraser.

He was going nuts. It couldn't possibly be casual or innocent. No way in hell. And he knew he wasn't imagining it.

Fraser had been touching him all day.

Oh, it looked innocent. Deniability, yeah, that was the ticket. A hand on his shoulder. A hand on his chest. A hand over his, when he'd been trying to shut Smith up. But that hand had stayed on his even after it wasn't needed any more. That hand hadn't pulled away . . . not until Frannie came in and bumped them both with the door. Made him wonder what would have happened if she hadn't burst in, even with Stanley Smith there the whole damn time.

It had to be on purpose. It had to. But if it was . . . oh, God, he couldn't take it. Not with the mess that was between them. It just wasn't fair for Fraser to be acting like it was no big deal.

That was the thing that was burning him, that Fraser was so damn casual about the whole thing. One week Fraser'd said yes to him in five seconds flat, the next week he'd made a play for the Ice Queen. It wasn't right, wasn't buddies, wasn't . . . oh, hell. He just never would've thought Fraser had it in him. And yeah, okay, he'd flirted with the woman, himself, but he hadn't been serious, and Fraser pretty obviously had.

The worst part was, it didn't even matter that the Ice Queen had turned Fraser down. It just made it harder to believe that Fraser meant it when he'd said he thought there was something more going on between the two of them. Yeah, well, Fraser hadn't brought him flowers. Even if Fraser had let himself be pushed backward over a desk.

Oh, God. The thought of it made him hot all over again -- Fraser shaking and moaning underneath him, and the sweet, sweet rub of skin to skin. He wanted it again. He wanted more than that. He wanted it to mean something, and he knew he couldn't let it, because he'd be back where he'd always been, where he'd been with Stella.

What kind of guy only fell for the strong, smart, self-sufficient types? What kind of guy always ended up wanting more than he was wanted, needing more than he was needed, following instead of leading because he was already asking too much? He must have a screw loose, somewhere important. Somewhere in his heart.

Yeah, and Fraser knew it, too. He had to. Because Fraser knew just what buttons to push, just how to touch him and tease him and drive him right up the broken drywall, and it was pissing him off, because they'd made those promises, and Fraser didn't even seem to care.

No two ways about it: Fraser was coming on to him. Fraser, Mr. Uptight, Mr. I- Believe-In-Promises. Except the thing was, damn it, Fraser hadn't actually promised to keep it businesslike. He'd made Ray promise, but he hadn't said it himself. A little fact Ray hadn't considered, until today. Until today, when the touch of Fraser's hands was driving him nuts.

Fraser wasn't in the squad room. A quick glance was enough to see that -- one good thing about the uniform: you could spot it at fifty paces, even if you had bad eyes.

"Uh, Frannie," Ray said, because she was handy, and she would know. "You seen Fraser?"

"Oh, he left a few minutes ago. Kinda seemed a little preoccupied. You know how he gets."

"Thanks, Frannie," Ray said, but he didn't feel all that grateful. Fraser just took off without him? After spending the day being all over him, Fraser just took off? It was unfair. Inhuman. Cruel and unusual. Or maybe . . .

God. What if Fraser hadn't been coming on to him? What if it really had been totally innocent, and Fraser hadn't even known he was doing it? Yeah, yeah, he knew Fraser wasn't dumb. Fraser was friggin' brilliant. But about certain things he could be as dense as last year's fruitcake. So it was possible, just possible, that Fraser could've been doing all that touchy-feely stuff and not have meant it like that.

Great. Just great. But he still had to see Fraser. He had to know. Had to - - God -- touch him, even if it was just pseudo-innocent, a hand over a hand.

Okay, it was stupid. It was D-U-M dumb. But he was unlocking his car door before he could figure out how to fight it. It was like being one of those drooling dogs Frannie liked to talk about. Fraser touched him . . . and he lost his head.

Fraser wasn't in the alley behind the station, wasn't in the next block, either. Which meant (assuming he was headed for the Consulate, and where else would he be going?) that there were at least six different routes he could be walking, because it would be the same distance on the grid, and Fraser didn't usually care about taking the shortest way, anyway.

So he ended up combing streets block by block, eyes peeled for a flash of red. Took him three passes, and he was only five blocks from the Consulate when he finally spotted Fraser's broad, upright back, instantly recognizable even if he hadn't been wearing the uniform. Of course, Dief's waving white tail didn't make the identification any harder.

Ray pulled up next to the curb and rolled down the passenger window. "You want a ride?"

Fraser bent to see him, looking genuinely puzzled. "It's only a few more blocks, Ray."

"I know that. C'mon, get in."

"I'm perfectly happy to walk."

"Never said you weren't."

Fraser tipped his head. "Did you want to talk about something? Rankin, perhaps, or Kuzma?"

"Fraser --" Damn it, that was it. That was just it. After pawing him all day, Fraser was acting like he was the one being pushy. Ray shoved open his door and jerked to his feet, and somehow in the process managed to knock his bandaged ear hard against the edge of the door.

Pain shot through him, blotting out everything else. When he could think again, Fraser's hand was on his elbow, holding him up, and Fraser's voice was saying, "Ray, Ray, are you all right?"

"Hit my ear," he said, which was stupid because it was obvious.

"I think you've reopened the wound," Fraser said. "You really should see a doctor."

"No!" He was fine. He just needed to catch his breath and clamp it down. "I hate hospitals."

Fraser let go his elbow to put a hand on his jaw, tipping his head up to examine it. "You're bleeding. You should at least let me look at it."

Fraser was touching him. Not like the way he wanted, but his head hurt and he needed something, even if it was only this. "Okay, whatever."

"There are supplies at the Consulate," Fraser said, and he recognized that voice. It was the Fraser-in-charge voice, the one that sounded like Stella. "I'll drive."

"No." He didn't care if he was dripping blood. There was no way he was giving up the wheel. "You can do whatever you want to my ear," -- oops, that hadn't come out sounding right -- "but I'm driving."

Fraser gave him a calculating look, but all he said was, "As you wish," and went back around to the passenger side to let Dief in and get in himself. Ray didn't wait for him to fasten his seat belt before peeling away from the curb.

Fraser was looking at him, staring while he drove. Like there was something wrong with him. And okay, yeah, he was bleeding, but Fraser couldn't see that. The mangled ear was on the wrong side of his head.

In a matter of minutes they were pulling to a stop in front of the Consulate. And Fraser was still looking at him.

"You got a problem?"

Fraser cocked his head, his expression infuriatingly mild. "Not that I'm aware of."

Right. No problems. Ray lifted a hand and felt dampness on the bandage, right where it hurt. Damn, he really was bleeding, which meant Fraser's offer was on the up and up. "Okay, let's get this over with."

Dief led the way up the steps, and Fraser unlocked the door to the empty Consulate. It was dark and cool inside, just like it had been the night they'd first . . . right. Dumb thinking about that. Dumb thinking about either time, because it wasn't going to happen again. It couldn't happen again. Christ, he was close enough to sunk already.

Fraser sat him down in the conference room and said, "I'll be right back," leaving him to stare at the patterned wallpaper. His ear was throbbing, now, like he'd really done some damage, but Fraser could take care of it. Whatever else was between them, he trusted that.

Booted footsteps sounded from the hallway, and Fraser was back with a bunch of supplies: a first-aid kit, towels, a basin of water, and a jar that looked like that stinky stuff.

Just what he needed, to smell like that again. But he was back in Fraserland, doing things the Fraser Way, and that meant laying back and holding his nose.

"Hold still, Ray," Fraser said, and tugged on the bandage.

"Ow." Fraser was going slow, but it hurt anyway. Stuck and pulled and God, he should have had it seen to properly before, but Fraser hadn't been around, so he'd had to make do with Frannie's first-aid skills, such as they were.

Fraser was close, bending over him, peering at his head while he yanked on the gauze. Close enough to smell, and Fraser smelled good, always good. Fraser could probably run a marathon and still smell like that: warm, woodsy, clean. Like the stench of the city never stuck to him. The only time Ray had ever noticed him smelling different was after . . .

Shit, he was not supposed to think about that.



"I need you to lift your head."

Oh. Oops. He'd let it fall back against the back of the chair, like he'd forgotten what Fraser was doing entirely. Ray straightened and let Fraser take off the last layer of gauze. Fraser did it slowly, but it hurt, and Ray couldn't suppress a whimper.

"That's better," Fraser said, leaning over him. Then, "Hmm."

That hmm thing rarely meant anything good. "What? 'M'I gonna lose the ear?"

"I don't believe so." Fraser turned to get something from the table. "I've seen worse."

"Then what was the 'hmm' for?"

"Oh, nothing important," Fraser said. "I simply noticed that Mr. Kuzma has a slight overbite." He lifted a damp washcloth to Ray's neck. "This will sting a bit."

It didn't sting. It killed. Ray closed his eyes and clenched his teeth and did his best to concentrate on Fraser's warmth and Fraser's smell, and the hand on his chin, holding his head steady while Fraser poked and swiped at his ear. It wasn't so bad like that. It was better than a lot of things: a root canal without novocaine, a kick in the head with a frozen boot, the thought of never touching Fraser again . . .

"Hold still," Fraser said, and he got a whiff of the stinky salve.

"You sure that stuff is necessary?"

"Absolutely," Fraser said, and Ray felt it touch his ear. It stung for a moment, then faded as the smell got worse. "The human mouth harbors an astonishing number of infectious organisms. You wouldn't want to lose the ear to gangrene."

"I got gangrene?" Ray jerked away from Fraser's touch and tried to get up.

"No, no, of course not." A hand on his chest, warm and strong, pushing him back down into the chair. "This concoction is quite effective at preventing infection. If you'll let me finish tending to it, your ear should be as charming as ever in just a few weeks."

Charming? Fraser was calling his ear charming? That was weird. It wasn't like Fraser to be sarcastic. But he couldn't honestly think . . . "Uh, you like my ears?"

"Of course," Fraser said, perfectly matter-of-factly. He reached for the first aid kit and got out a roll of gauze.

"Fraser, they stick out."

Fraser just raised his eyebrows. "They have a character all their own, and they frame your face quite nicely. Here, turn your head."

Fraser liked his ears. Really did, wasn't just saying it. Ray turned his head the way Fraser asked him to. It was nuts to go all gooey inside from such a stupid compliment, but knowing that and stopping the silly warm feeling were two different things.

"There." Fraser finished wrapping his head and smoothed his hair back. It didn't feel exactly clinical. Scratch that; it didn't feel clinical at all. Ray looked up into Fraser's face and saw . . . a softness that hadn't been there before.

"Fraser . . ." He knew he should say something to put him off, but he was mesmerized by the look in those eyes. Fraser was still close, so close they could kiss if either one of them leaned forward. And then, unaccountably, Fraser straightened and cleared his throat.

"Were you actually looking for me, or did you just happen to be in the neighborhood?"

It was so tempting to lie. Say, just passing through, Frase, and leave it at that. But Fraser wouldn't buy it, and if he did, that would be one more thing to feel crummy about. "I was . . . well, yeah, I was looking. I mean, you just split. Didn't even say good-bye."

"I assumed I'd see you tomorrow."

That wasn't an answer. "You pissed off at me for something? 'Cause if you are, I don't know what I did." Not today, anyway.

"No," Fraser said quietly. "No, of course not. I just want to make sure you really want to be here."

Oh, now they were getting somewhere. Ray pushed himself to his feet, invading Fraser's space. "Oh, yeah? Why wouldn't I?"

Fraser met his eyes levelly. "Because you might do something you'd later regret."

Regret. Yeah, he was regretting this already. But it was too late. He wanted too much. And Fraser was driving him nuts with the rational, logical crap. He eased one step closer, and felt Fraser's hands close around his shoulders. Holding him there. Holding him away.

"What do you want, Ray?"

A simple question. The simplest. "I don't know."

"Ah." Fraser's hands were still warm on his shoulders. "That would seem to be a problem."

Ray closed his eyes. He knew better. He really did. But it felt like there were a hundred little strings tied to him, pulling him closer and closer to Fraser's warmth. "Yeah," he said, and leaned in to that heat. "Big problem."

And then, somehow, Fraser wasn't pushing him away anymore. Fraser was gathering him close. They were chest to chest, cheek to cheek. Hugging, like the day they'd met. Only it wasn't like that. Not anymore. It would never be like that again.

He had to remember why he couldn't be with Fraser. Why Fraser was completely wrong for him. That falling for Fraser would mean doing everything Fraser's way from here on out. Being swallowed up and lost -- worse than Stella; it would really be worse than Stella, because Fraser was so strong, so incredibly strong, and Ray wanted some of that strength for himself but he knew better. You couldn't lean on a person, a partner, a . . . lover, without losing something of yourself. Especially when your partner didn't need you in the same way.

"If you're going to leave, Ray, you'd better leave now."

He should go. He damn well knew that. But somehow knowing it didn't make a bit of difference. "I'm, uh, I'm not going anywhere."

Fraser didn't answer him with words, just brought both hands up to his face, one on each cheek, pushing him back so he had to look into Fraser's eyes. Fraser's tongue came out, wetting those lips, and Ray felt his knees go rubbery. Fraser was going to kiss him. The Ice Queen might've got it first, but it was his turn, now.

Fraser's eyes dropped to look at his mouth, and slowly, achingly slowly, Fraser's lips came closer to his. Any second now. Any second, and . . . shit. What was he doing? The instant Fraser kissed him, he would be sunk for good.

"No." Ray jerked his head to the side so he didn't have to look into those hungry blue eyes. His breaths were coming in gasps. "Don't, uh . . . don't kiss me."

Fraser flinched. Didn't pull away, but shivered. "You don't want me to kiss you?"

"I can't, okay? I just can't."

Fraser's hands slid down to his shoulders. "I see."

"Look, I'm sorry. I just . . ."

"Can I do this?" Fraser asked, and spread his thumbs to rub the base of Ray's neck through his shirt.

It felt . . . good. Damn good. "Yeah," Ray managed.

"What about this?" Fraser bent forward, hot breath against skin, and nuzzled Ray's neck above the collar.

"Uh, yeah. That's okay."

"Good," Fraser said, and nuzzled lower, nuzzled closer, and those were . . . those were lips, right at the hollow between his collarbones, and he'd never known that was an erogenous zone before.

Ray let out a noise that could've been a whimper. Fraser's hands were on his chest, now, slipping buttons, and he realized that somehow Fraser had taken over. Fraser was doing everything, and he couldn't . . . couldn't fight it. Didn't want to. Wanted to feel that mouth on him everywhere, on his neck, on his chest, on his . . .

Fraser's mouth was warm through the thin fabric of his undershirt. Fraser's hands were tugging, pushing the undershirt up, and then that eager mouth touched his skin. Ray arched back under the onslaught. There was nothing in the universe but that moving, wet heat, the tongue that was . . . oh, geez, that was a sensitive spot. Pleasure rocketed right down to his balls. He needed this, needed more, needed Fraser.

"Please. Oh, God, please." He didn't want to be talking, didn't want Fraser to think . . . but Fraser was working on the other nipple now, and he couldn't think at all. His ass was hard against the edge of the table, but it was his turn for that, his turn to be shoved up against the furniture.

"Fraser --" It didn't take anything more than that. Fraser's hands were on his waistband, unbuttoning his fly, pushing his jeans down, only they wouldn't go down, because they were still clipped to his shoulder holster. Fraser didn't seem to care. Fraser shoved his jockeys down, tugged him out into the cool air, and then . . . oh, God, Fraser was gonna do it. He was really gonna do it.

He was doing it.

It was all Ray could do to prop himself up with both hands braced on the table. There was moist heat all around his cock. Sucking him in, sucking hard, and it felt like every nerve in his body was singing. Yeah, like that. He wanted it exactly like that. Deep and tight and . . . damn, Fraser knew what he was doing. Fraser really knew what he was doing, because oh geez it was good.

Ray buried his hands in Fraser's hair and held on for dear life, riding the motion, pushing Fraser harder, faster, and he was close already, which was amazing, but this was Fraser, Fraser down on him, Fraser on his knees in front of him, and it was so good, so good he was about to --

Heat and suction vanished, leaving him damp and aching. Fraser's head pulled back, pulling away from Ray's fingers. Shit, what was he doing?

Ray forced his eyes open, forced them to focus. Fraser was still on his knees, looking up at him with an expression that was aroused and urgent and almost sad.

"Perhaps you can answer the question better now, Ray."

Question? What question? "What the fuck?"

Fraser climbed to his feet, still close, but not nearly close enough. "What do you want?" he asked softly.

Jesus. This was intentional torture. It was totally underhanded, and he'd never thought Fraser would have it in him to pull something like this. "What the hell do you think I want?"

"I'd feel better if you actually said it."

Oh, great. They were up against some weird sort of Mountie sensibilities. If ya can't say it, ya don't get it. What was up with that? "I want you, okay? I want you to keep doing what you were doing." God, this was hard. "I don't want to talk about it. I want to do it. To do you. There, are you happy?"

"Not particularly." Fraser cocked his head, and the sadness was still there. "When this is over, are you going to tell me 'never again'?"

Christ. It was blackmail. Coercion plain and simple. They ought to have laws against this. "Do not do this to me, Fraser."

"I think I have a right to know."

"Fraser --"

"Yes or no, Ray? It's a simple question. Are you going to say that to me again?"

Something curled cold and guilty in Ray's gut. Fraser was upset. Fraser had been upset all along; he'd just been hiding it. And that meant Fraser cared about him. Maybe not . . . maybe not the way he was in serious danger of caring for Fraser. But it was something. "Look, I can't promise this is gonna happen again. I can't."

Fraser's voice was quiet. "I'm not asking you to promise that. I'm asking you not to deny the possibility."

"Okay, I get that. I get it." Ray closed his eyes. Fraser really wanted him. For whatever reason. And he knew it was stupid, but he couldn't say no again. He just couldn't. "And I won't, okay? I promise I won't say the 'never again' thing."

"Thank you."

Ray opened his eyes. Fraser's face looked still and grave -- not all that happy, for a guy who'd just won an argument. Which meant . . . he had no idea what it meant.

Damn, this was stupid. He was off the deep end. Fraser gave him an inch, and he was taking it like it was a whole damn mile. But it was too late. He needed Fraser, right here, right now.

"You still wanna do this?" Okay, it was pathetic to be asking, but pathetic was where he was at right now.

Fraser's hand came up to touch his face, a warm, hard palm against his cheek. "Yes. You?"


"Good." Fraser's hand moved down to his shoulder, to his holster, and squeezed.

That was better. That was a whole lot better. Ray reached down and managed to unclip the holster from his waistband, but he didn't get any farther, because Fraser's hand moved down, running along his ribs, and he had to arch to meet that touch. And then Fraser's hand was moving lower, and he could feel the blood pumping back into his dick.

Yeah, he was one of those drooling dogs. Couldn't help himself. Nothing mattered but the hands now fondling his balls, but the mouth moving downward, and he wasn't all the way hard yet, but he was getting there, getting there fast, and when Fraser sucked him in again it felt like he was being slurped up and swallowed down.

And then, God, it was as good as before. Better, even, because Fraser was doing some bizarre thing with his tongue, flicking it side to side, setting off sparks and more sparks until Ray was on fire, the flames leaping and dancing inside him.

"Fraser . . ." He didn't know what he needed. He was being consumed by the fire -- doubts, fears, hope all burned away. There was going to be nothing left of his soul but ashes and he didn't care, didn't care about anything but Fraser's mouth all around him, but Fraser's hand, still on his balls, stroking and toying and adding to the conflagration.

And he knew what he was feeling, knew it in the charred remains of his heart, as if the layers of self-deception were being burned away along with everything else. He was in trouble. In over his head, even if Fraser hadn't kissed him. And maybe it was as bad as Stella, but he didn't care, couldn't care, not with Fraser's hands and mouth all over him. Not with the flames raging all through his body.

Ray laced his fingers into Fraser's hair and held on as the fire burned impossibly hotter. He was pouring sweat and wishing he'd stripped down, but it was too late, too late for anything. The fire went white and the universe stood still. And then he was hanging onto Fraser's head and pounding inside his mouth, and Fraser was still sucking on him, still licking and swallowing until the very last ember died down.

Ray slumped back against the conference table, heart thumping, legs wobbly. God, he was fucked. He was so fucked. He wanted . . . way more than was smart to want.

Fraser climbed to his feet slowly, like his knees were sore. No wonder, considering how thin the carpet was. Guess they didn't believe in padding in Canada. Yeah, well, it was Fraser's turn, and Ray didn't care how hard the floor was. Right now he just wanted to make Fraser feel the way he felt. The way Fraser had made him feel.

Ray got himself upright, pushed himself forward and into Fraser's space, and reached for Fraser's fly. Fraser's fly, which was already open, and already damp.

"Shit." He looked up into Fraser's pink, sweaty face, and felt Fraser's hands catch hold of his. Fraser's right hand was moist and sticky with something that was . . . definitely not sweat.

"It's all right," Fraser said.

Fucked. So totally fucked. "No it's not. It's not all right. What did you go and do that for?"

Fraser's face went bright red. "I didn't realize that you would . . . that you might . . ."

Christ. Fraser thought he was that selfish. It was enough to make him think Fraser didn't care about him, after all, at least not in any of the ways that mattered. Not if Fraser couldn't even trust him to reciprocate.

"Oh, thanks a lot." Ray reached down and tucked himself in, then fumbled with the buttons of his fly. At least he wasn't a sticky mess like Fraser was -- he was clean and spiffy, thanks to Fraser's tongue.

"I can assure you, I didn't mean to offend you."

"You think I'm offended? You think this is what offended looks like? I am not offended, Fraser. I'm completely fucked."

Fraser shifted on his feet, his brow rumpling. "I'm afraid I don't understand."

Yeah, he wouldn't. He wouldn't have any idea what it felt like to be steamrollered by a force the size of his own will, because he never got steamrollered by anyone. He couldn't know what it felt like not to be trusted, because everyone trusted him. "Look, you drag me in here, you put that stinky stuff on my ear, you drive me out of my goddamn mind, and you won't even let me touch you?"

The eyebrows went up in dawning comprehension. "I'm sorry. I didn't think of it like that."

"Well, what the hell were you thinking?"

Fraser cleared his throat and rubbed his eyebrow. "I, ah, I'm afraid I wasn't thinking very much at all. I was simply enjoying the way you taste."

Oh, geez. That was weird. "Fraser, don't say stuff like that."

Fraser's brows knotted again. "Why not?"

He had to say it. It was that or wave the white flag and give it up completely. "Look, this is stupid, and it's wrong. I know that. You know that. The fact that we can't stop ourselves doesn't change anything."

Fraser's frown deepened. "Ray, you promised you weren't going to say that."

Promises. Right. Right now Ray wanted to throw Fraser and all of his goddamn promises out the conference-room window. "No, I did not. I promised I wouldn't say 'never again.' Well, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying it's wrong."

"I see." Fraser clasped his hands behind his back, but he still hadn't done up his fly and the effect was . . . distracting. Even if all Ray could see was the white of his boxers and a narrow brush of dark hair where they gaped. "You know, it's not uncommon or abnormal for two men to feel an attraction to each other. It's a perfectly natural expression of human sexuality."

An attraction. Yeah, if only that was all this was. "Fraser, it's not because you're a guy. It's because you're you, okay?"

Fraser's face . . . fell. There was no other word for it. One moment he looked confused and Fraser-stubborn, and the next he just looked lost. It made Ray want to grab the words back out of the air.


"You don't get it, do you? You got no clue what I'm talking about."

Fraser lifted his chin, and a bit of the stubborn expression came back. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. "No, actually, I have no idea."

"Look, we're apples and oranges, okay? We're day and night. And that's good for work- stuff. It's real good. You know: you set 'em up, I knock 'em down. But for this, it's not gonna work. It's never gonna work, so there's no point in trying."

Fraser took a step closer to him -- real close now. Close enough to kiss. "How do you know that? How can you be so certain when we haven't even tried?"

Oh, God. That sounded . . . that sounded almost like . . . shit. Half of him wanted to ask what Fraser was talking about trying, and the other half wanted to know if he'd said the same thing to the Ice Queen. "I just know, okay? I know. You . . ." He didn't want to say it, but Fraser was so close, and if he didn't say something he was going to do something, and things were a mess enough already. "You remind me of Stella."

Half a dozen expressions passed over Fraser's face, too fast to take in, but none of them looked happy. He shifted on his feet, looked down, and cleared his throat. "While I realize my acquaintance with your ex-wife is understandably less intimate than yours . . . are you sure you aren't imagining the similarity?"

Ray snorted. This was the one thing he wasn't confused about. "Yeah, I'm sure. I mean, look at you. You're brilliant, you're drop-dead gorgeous, and you're impossible to argue with. You think there's nothing dumb about a breakfast date. And maybe . . . maybe that's what I'm attracted to, but I can't do it this time. I can't."

Fraser's face went stiff and still. "I see."

It hurt. It hurt to see Fraser hurting, to see him wanting . . . whatever it was he wanted. It hurt and it terrified, all at the same time, because Ray couldn't . . . couldn't possibly . . . shit, he was fucked. He was fucked either way. "Look, I'm damaged goods or something. I'm no good at this."

Fraser shifted on his feet, looking like he was going to argue again. But then his eyes dropped, and it was like he just gave up. "Ray, I . . . thank you for telling me. I think I understand a little better, now. And I'm sorry."

Oh, great. Now he apologized. "Not your fault," Ray muttered.

"I meant for today. For, ah, for what I did earlier. At the station."

Today. Earlier today. Oh, right. That was how this had started; Fraser had been touching him all day. "You did that on purpose? You hit on me on purpose?"

Fraser looked down. "Yes."

He hadn't been imagining it. He really hadn't. "What the hell were you thinking?"

Fraser twitched and rubbed his eyebrow. "I'm afraid I misunderstood the problem. I thought it might help you to decide what you wanted. I'm sorry."

Right. Fraser was sorry, and he was a mess. Damn it. This was what happened when you did things the Fraser Way. The situation was totally out of control. Fraser didn't have a goddamn clue. And now Fraser was hurt and he was fucked and he wanted so badly to fix things that he knew he didn't dare. He was way too close to cracking, too close to offering up everything -- use me, abuse me, I don't care -- except he did care, that was the problem. He'd tried going that route with Stella, and it hadn't been pretty.

Fraser was looking at him again, that puzzled expression back on his face. "So we'll just . . . continue as we are?"

"I don't know. Look, I can't . . . you won't let me say 'never again,' and anything else is nuts."

Fraser sighed. "If you feel the need to say it, you might as well go ahead."

He couldn't say it. He couldn't, but he couldn't say anything else, either. And suddenly it was more than he could handle. "Look, I gotta go."

"You don't have to."

"Fraser, I got to. I don't want to stay and say something we'll both regret." It was panic, last-ditch, but he was beyond being nice and rational.

"I understand," Fraser said, but his face had gone stiff and pale again, which was a damn weird contrast to the state of his clothing.

"Fraser, your fly?"

Fraser looked down, started, and jerked his zipper up, his face flushing once again.

"Look, I'll see you tomorrow. Businesslike, okay?"

Fraser pressed his lips together, but for once he didn't argue. "If that's what you want," he said quietly. "I give you my word."

"Thank you." It wasn't enough -- God, not nearly -- but at least he didn't have to fight for it. "I can let myself out."

He didn't look at Fraser's face. He couldn't. All he could do was turn and get out of there, head down the hallway and out onto the Consulate's front steps.

He had no idea what had just happened, but something had changed. Something really big had changed, from the moment Fraser had taken over, which might have been the touching part -- damn it, Fraser had done that on purpose, really and truly on purpose -- or maybe just the ear-doctoring part. It didn't matter. What mattered was that he'd lost any control he'd ever had -- over the situation, and over himself.

Okay, so maybe it was his own damn fault, for losing his head over the thing with the Ice Queen and jumping Fraser's bones last week . . . but it was too late to do anything but kick himself for that.

He wanted . . . things he didn't dare want. He wanted to know what Fraser wanted, why Fraser thought they could actually have some kind of ongoing thing, and what kind of thing he was thinking about. But, shit, that was nuts. Certifiably unhinged. He knew that game, and he couldn't play it again.

If he let Fraser take over, he was done for. Fraser would just barrel on, doing things the Fraser Way, leaving Ray to mop up the pieces behind him. And Fraser, being Fraser, probably wouldn't even notice. He'd go back to saying stuff like, "You have to trust me," and never realize that Ray needed to be trusted, too. For himself. For real. And even if he didn't deserve it.

Yeah, that was the worst part: knowing he didn't deserve it, and needing it anyway. It was totally unfair, and he couldn't stop himself: he needed to be needed, too.

It was going to be like Stella. Just exactly like Stella, only this time his heart was already so scarred up he didn't know what would happen when it broke again.

Oh, God. He was running. He was running scared.

Part 4: Bounty

It didn't make a sound.

Or if it did, Fraser didn't hear it.

One moment he was surrounded by noise: Ray's nonsensical but increasingly vociferous accusations; his own less-than-calm protestations. And then . . . nothing.

No sound of waves, slapping at the edge of the concrete embankment. No distant harbor bells. No traffic, no sirens, no squawks and cries of gulls overhead.


There was only the pain in his jaw, sharp but fading, and the pain in his heart, sharp and growing with every breath.

He couldn't look at Ray any longer. He had to turn away. Turn away and face the shattered truth.

Ray had hit him. The argument -- well, it was understandable, if unpleasant, given the way things were between them. But he'd never thought Ray could hit him.

Things had been increasingly difficult, since their last time together. Personally, and now professionally as well. He'd kept his promise to be businesslike, and so had Ray, but it hadn't seemed to help. Just two days ago Ray had refused to heed his advice, and they'd both ended up at the bottom of a garbage chute in less than sanitary condition. A state of affairs that fortunately hadn't precluded their capture of the suspects, but nevertheless he should have seen it, should have done something, anything, to stop what he could see happening, the inexorable destruction of their friendship, their partnership, their . . . love.

Well, of course, he wasn't sure Ray loved him. He wasn't sure he understood Ray at all. The Ray who opened wide for him, who pulled him close and offered his body, seemed an entirely different person than the one who repeated all those variants on "never again."

And wildly different than the person who had hit him.

But then again, maybe not. Ray was . . . passionate. Yes, passionate, in every sense of the word. Passionate in his lovemaking, in his doubts and fears, and in his anger.

And now that anger had consumed their partnership. Their friendship. Any chance they could ever have had at love. With one blow, Ray had made his choice perfectly, painfully clear.

Fraser looked back over his shoulder, but he had walked further than he'd thought. He could no longer see Ray, or Ray's car, or even the lakefront.

He didn't want to lose Ray, but Ray was already lost to him.

Everything was lost, before he'd ever had the chance to understand what they could be to each other.

And they'd never even kissed.

For some reason, that hurt more than the blow to his jaw.

~ * ~

ShitshitSHITfuckpiss. Damn it all to fucking hell.

He'd done it. He'd really gone and done it. Thrown away everything he had with Fraser, good with the bad, babe with the bathwater, adios, sayonara, see ya later.

Only this time, he wasn't sure he would.

Damn it, this was not the way it was supposed to happen. Fraser was supposed to hit him back. Only he knew he shouldn't've expected Fraser to act like a normal guy. Nothing normal about Fraser. Fraser was a freak. Fraser was unhinged. Fraser was . . . gone.

Walking away from him. Couldn't even look at him. Didn't care enough to look back. It made no difference in the end. In one moment, one stupid, out-of-control moment, he'd ruined everything.

Shit. Fuck. Piss.

And yeah, things had been a mess for weeks now, circling the drain, but he could've tried to fix things, could've found the nerve to talk about what was wrong. Only Fraser hadn't been listening.

It had been ten times worse since the last time at the Consulate -- two weeks of "businesslike" that were two weeks of hell. Fraser was doing the steamroller thing worse than ever, calling all the shots, making him jump off a fucking building, and never even looked to see if his partner was with him. Nope, Ray was supposed to trail after him, do everything he said, put up with the assumption that Fraser always knew what was right, Fraser didn't need to listen to him, Fraser didn't need anyone or anything and certainly not him . . . until he just exploded with a fist to that gorgeous jaw.

Last chance to make contact.

Wrong kind of contact.

Damn knuckles hurt like hell.

~ * ~

"I think we're on to something, Ray."

Ray looked over, still breathing hard from the fight. "Oh, yeah, like getting killed." He still seemed angry, as if yesterday's reciprocal blow had stirred up more pain than it had assuaged. But he was working this case. One more case, one more chance. A reprieve -- a coincidence, but a reprieve nonetheless.

It was perhaps absurd to hope, but through all the confusion, some foolish part of Fraser still did. Still loved Ray. Still wanted him. In moments of frightening rationality he wondered if there was something wrong with him, if he was refusing to let go of Ray the way he'd refused to let go of Victoria.

But he couldn't seem to help himself. When Ray had asked him to return the blow, the only reason he'd managed to comply was that he thought that the ritual might somehow cleanse them both.

It didn't appear to have worked that way. Ray continued to chafe and snap, continued to insist they were stale, which was odd, because Fraser wouldn't have thought staleness had anything to do with their difficulties. But perhaps Ray was using the term to mean something slightly different than its ordinary sense. Perhaps he meant it as a more general statement of the distastefulness of their relationship.

Ray turned back to face him, expression still fierce. "Look, I may be damaged, Fraser, but I'm not stupid. There's more to life than dying."

Yes, there is, Fraser wanted to say. There's a good deal more we could have, if you'd only see. But he couldn't say that -- not with things the way they were between them. The last thing he wanted to do was make the situation worse.

"Partnership is like a marriage, Son." His father's voice, from out of the shadows. Fraser turned toward him as he stepped into the light. "Give and take, up and down, who left the empty butter dish in the fridge . . . It isn't easy."

Fraser swallowed and turned back to watch Ray. Like a marriage. The simile couldn't possibly be accidental; no, clearly not. His father, who had just a few short weeks ago urged him to court Inspector Thatcher, was now willing to discuss his relationship with Ray.

"No, it isn't," Fraser said, which was simple truth. Nothing about his relationship with Ray was easy.

His father spoke again, recounting his own experiences with partnership, but Fraser listened with only half an ear. Ray had taken off his jacket and was leaning against the hood of the car, every line of his body radiating pain. Damaged. Yes, perhaps Ray was. But there had to be a way to heal that damage. A way for them both to heal.

"You need the Yank. Swallow the pride, Son."

That was it in a nutshell. He needed Ray. Needed him more than he'd ever needed anyone. So now . . . now he would do what it took -- whatever it took -- to make Ray understand that, too.

Without Ray's openness, his honesty, his . . . passion, there would be nothing left but duty. And Fraser had lived that life before, but it wasn't enough. It was a half-life, and he couldn't go back to it, not without a fight.

He needed Ray, and he needed this case. For the sake of the souls who had died on the Robert Mackenzie . . . and the sake of his own soul, too.

~ * ~

There was water on the floor. Like it wasn't enough to be handcuffed to a pipe and gagged with duct tape. There had to be a friggin' leak somewhere.

Shit, he could die in here. Could die drowning, and that wasn't the way he wanted to go, not him. But it was his own fault, for following Fraser on this stupid quest, for not being able to give it up, even after he'd blown everything to hell and back.

He should've let Fraser go. Should've let him chase the damn Robert Mackenzie on his own. Hell, what did Fraser need him for? All he'd done was get himself hit over the head and handcuffed, and God only knew where Fraser was. Off doing his thing, chasing bad guys, nevermind that he had a partner in trouble.

And then he heard his name. "Ray!" Fraser's voice. Fraser looking for him. He tried to yell back through the duct tape, but nothing much came out.

Didn't matter. The door burst open, and it was Fraser to the rescue. His knight in scarlet armor. For a second that was enough, and he would've offered up anything -- heart, body, soul -- and not asked for squat in return. But then Fraser did the steamroller thing again -- ripping off the tape and half Ray's stubble with it, even after Ray asked him to go slow.

Damn it all. Nothing had changed. Nothing. If he weren't caught in these handcuffs, he'd . . . he'd . . .

The ship was sinking. The ship was sinking? ShitshitSHIT, but it would explain the rising water.

They were going down. Sunk for real this time. And he'd never even told Fraser . . . the things he couldn't tell him now, not when they were sinking.

Not now, maybe never. Oh, God, what was it with him and handcuffs?

~ * ~

Ray couldn't swim. Fraser knew that; it was just difficult to remember, when Ray was so competent in so many other areas. But he had to remember it now, because Ray was turning blue.

Low on oxygen. There was only one thing to do. Fraser turned back and swam to him, grabbed him by the shirt, and . . .

Oh, dear. Ray was going to misinterpret this. But it was necessary. He couldn't let Ray die for some foolish scruple. Not when it was in his power to save him.

Fraser slapped Ray's face three times -- trying to shock some sense back into those stunned, panicked eyes -- and then, steeling himself to make it as businesslike as humanly possible, covered Ray's mouth with his.

Ray's lips were cold and tasted of lake water, but they didn't protest. They moved against his, tightening the seal, which was good. Fraser held on and blew gently, giving air, giving life. And then he had to let go and get that door open, because he had to get Ray to the surface, and fast. He had to turn back, and check, and cut the rope that tangled Ray's foot, nevermind the protests. Ray couldn't give up now. Fraser wouldn't let him.

And then it was sweet air in his lungs, and the sweeter sound of Ray gasping right beside him. Gasping. Still alive. They weren't going down yet.

"What was that, Fraser?"

Reality. Harsh, cold reality, in that tone of voice. "What was what?"

"That thing you were doing with your mouth."

It was as bad as he'd feared. But he hadn't meant it to be a kiss. He'd kept it completely dispassionate -- as much as anyone could who was saving the life of the person he loved. "Oh, that. That's buddy breathing. You seemed to be in a bit of a, well, having a problem. I have excess lung capacity, so . . ."

"Buddy breathing." The accusatory edge to Ray's voice hadn't faded, like he didn't believe the explanation.

And it was vital that he did. Suddenly almost as vital as life itself. Ray couldn't think he'd broken his word. That would be unbearable, now. "Yeah, standard procedure."

"Good . . . okay . . . all right." That was conceded grudgingly, but at least it was a concession. "Nothing's, like, changed or anything, right?"

Unfortunately not. "No."




It was one word, one little, everyday word, but given the way things were between them, it felt like a gift. "You're thanking me?"

"Look, don't get too excited, Fraser. The jury's still out on this partnership thing, okay?"

A gift just as quickly taken back. Something snapped in Fraser's chest. He wanted to grab Ray and slap sense into him, scream what is wrong with you all over again. Or kiss him for real -- until he was gasping for air. "Oh, well, don't worry, Mr. Instinct. I'm not excited."

And Ray gave him a look that said this wasn't over. But if they were going to have an ongoing argument . . . well, at least it was an ongoing something, which was better than nothing.

Much better than nothing.

And they were going to get off this sinking ship and have this argument out, for real.

Ongoing. Going on.

At least, they would if he had any say in it.

~ * ~

Fraser had kissed him. Fraser had kissed him. And part of Ray was halfway pissed, even if it had been just the buddy-breathing thing. But part of him was . . . oh, God.

He wasn't complaining about the damn air. He wasn't. He just wished it hadn't . . . that Fraser hadn't . . . because it had been lips to lips, hands on his cheeks -- okay, cold lips, cold hands, everything tasting like lake, but damn it, Fraser had kissed him.

And now, sitting here crammed up against Fraser's back in this little tin can of a submersible, he wanted Fraser to kiss him again. It was nuts; he knew it was nuts. Nothing had changed. Fraser had even said nothing had changed, which just . . . sucked.

Yeah, okay, it was dumb to think a kiss would be some kind of magical moment that made everything perfect. But damn it, why couldn't it just mean something? It didn't have to mean that Fraser loved him.

Except he desperately wanted it to. Yeah, he was that far gone. They hadn't gone down on the Henry Allen, but he was sunk anyway. Head over heels, the whole nine yards, in love for real. And maybe it was dumb to be admitting it to himself only now, stuck in this cramped sub, pressed tight against Fraser's back, but Fraser had just saved his life about six times over, and he was out of excuses.

He wanted Fraser to love him. Wanted Fraser to need him. Wanted -- so bad it hurt -- Fraser to trust him.

And nothing had changed. Fraser was still treating him like he was just along for the ride. Even now, when Fraser obviously didn't have a clue what he was doing. But he'd never ask for help. Oh, no. Not Fraser.

Damn it, it was wrong. The least Fraser could do was admit he needed his partner in this. "C'mon, Fraser, are we under the creek without a paddle here? Are we lost?"

Fraser shifted against him, which was rank torture in about six different ways. "No, we're not, we're not, uh --" Fraser, at a loss for words. That was a new one.

"Just admit it, Fraser. We're lost."

"No, we're not lost."

Geez, how stubborn could a human being be? Ray gritted his teeth. It was desperation time. If Fraser couldn't even admit to needing him this much . . . "Admit. It."

A quick turn of the head, and a surprisingly un-cool tone of voice: "All right. We're lost."

Relief, quick and sharp. Fraser was giving him something here. Not much, but maybe . . . oh, God. he didn't dare hope. "Okay. Thank you." But it was so damn tempting, he couldn't stop himself. Hope reared its pathetic head. "Go that way." And he jerked his head left.


Damn it, how could one human being be that stubborn? "I got a feeling. It's a, it's a hunch. It's a feeling. Go that way."

"Yes, but there's absolutely no reason why --"

Hope died an ugly little death, shriveling and gasping between them. "Look, Fraser, just this once. Just this once." And suddenly he knew he had to say it, even if Fraser didn't understand. Even if Fraser wouldn't hear him. "I trust you. Every single time, every single time I gotta trust you. Just once, you trust me. Go that way."

"Yeah, but if we --"

Damn it, Fraser didn't get it. Didn't even see that it mattered, that it was killing him here. "No if's, and's, or but's. Just . . ."

He ran out of words, staring at the unmoving back of Fraser's head. And Fraser just sat there. Dead silent. Like there was something weird going on in that convoluted head of his. But Ray had nothing more to say. It was now or never. If Fraser couldn't give him even this much, they didn't have a snowball's chance of making it as partners. Nevermind the rest of it. This was the foundation of everything they'd ever had, of everything they'd ever meant to each other.

"That way?" A soft voice. Resigned. But asking the right question.

Hope leapt back to life in his pounding heart. It was a stupid thing. So little. But it meant . . . it meant that Fraser had heard him, and understood at least some small part of it. "Yeah. That way."

"All right," Fraser said. Still soft. But he was giving in. Trusting his partner in this, if nothing else.

Fraser cranked the wheel around, and the sub turned.

~ * ~

"Every single time I gotta trust you. Just once, you trust me. Go that way."

There was a note in Ray's voice that Fraser had never heard before. Anger, yes, he was used to that. But this time there was desperation, as well.

It was ridiculous. How could Ray possibly think he didn't trust him? Hadn't he proved that, with the Volpe investigation? Hadn't he shown it, every time he'd let Ray touch him, every time he'd touched Ray in return? Ray was being unfair again. Completely unfair. "Yeah, but if we --"

He felt Ray's muscles bunch against him, a shifting against his back. "No if's, and's, or but's. Just . . ."

Ray's voice trailed off, like he'd run out of words. Like he didn't know how to explain himself. And from behind him, Fraser heard his father's voice: "Buck Frobisher and I didn't speak for three years. Then there we were, face to face across the raging waters of the Nahanni River, criminals bearing down on us. He had a rope; I, a grappling hook. The only route to safety was to meet in the middle. You've got to trust your partner, Son, otherwise, nothing will go right."

For a moment it simply burned. His father was taking Ray's side in the matter. Assuming Ray was right, that he didn't trust him. Assuming he was the problem. Well, he wasn't. He trusted Ray. He did. He . . .

He was protesting too much.

Fraser drew a long breath, but he couldn't escape the feeling, the sudden rush of epiphany. He'd stopped listening to Ray. He didn't even know when it had happened, whether it was out of anger at Ray's rejections, or simply his own natural bullheadedness, but either way, he was the one who was ignoring his partner now.

His father was right. Ray was right. If he trusted Ray, truly trusted him, he'd be listening to them both right now.

"That way?" he heard his own voice say.

Ray shifted against him once again, but when he spoke, he sounded . . . almost happy. "Yeah. That way."

"All right," Fraser said. It was such a small thing, following Ray's hunch. It didn't matter if they were well and truly lost. One direction was as good as another. But maybe, just maybe . . .

Maybe Ray knew something he didn't.

~ * ~

They'd succeeded. Fraser leaned against the railing and let the truth of it finally sink in. They'd solved the mystery and arrested Gilbert Wallace and his henchmen with nothing but a detachment of green trainees, a wooden boat, and the element of surprise.

Well, yes, and teamwork -- Ray working with him, finally, not against him. Ray understanding him perfectly, there in the hold of the criminal ship. And communicating perfectly, too, even without words.

It had felt like a revelation, like coming home. But now, standing next to Ray on the deck of the replica H.M.S. Bounty, it felt . . . nerve-racking.

They were talking, he and Ray. Circling the issue, speaking of instinct and logic. But that wasn't the real trouble. No. He understood better, now, since the epiphany in the cramped submersible.

He'd been wrong, all this time. And he'd been angry. It felt odd to acknowledge that now, but it was true. He'd assumed that Ray's anger made no sense, and that this breach between them was Ray's fault. But now he knew it was just as much his.

Every time I gotta trust you. Just once, you trust me.

It had taken awhile for the words to make sense, for him to understand their full meaning. Ray wasn't doubting their teamwork. He wasn't even doubting their passion. He was asking for a deeper kind of equality. And that cut right through all of Fraser's defenses.

Ray had hurt him. He was all too aware of that. But only now did he understand that he'd hurt Ray, too. He'd pushed when he shouldn't have. He'd asked too much, and tried to force issues that shouldn't be forced. And he'd let his pain and his frustration affect their professional relationship, as well.

In his anger, he'd assumed that the problem was that Ray didn't care enough, but now he realized he had no idea how Ray felt. He'd been so blinded by his own needs and fears, he'd never managed to ascertain Ray's. And he had no idea how to fix things, how to find out what Ray was thinking. He had nothing to go on but his father's words: you've got to trust your partner.

What sounded so simple in theory was very much harder in practice. But it had made a difference in the sub. With those words, he had understood what he had to do, and after that, things had started to go right again.

So it was easier, just a bit, to be talking about the things they were now talking about. Even when Ray turned to him abruptly and asked flat out, "You gonna take the transfer?"

There was only one answer he could give. Only one way to trust Ray, whatever Ray's own choice might be. "I don't think so. You?"

For an agonizing moment, Ray just leaned against the railing, but when he spoke, it was quick and dismissive. "Me? No."

A flood of feeling washed through Fraser's body, from his head down his spine and back up again. Ray was giving them a chance. Trusting him, too. Fraser dared a glance at him, but Ray was looking away, like this was equally hard for him. But he'd said he was staying. "All right. So we're, we're still, uh . . . ?" Fraser couldn't say the word, didn't even know what word to use to describe what they were to each other.

This time there was no hesitation. "I think."



"Right you are."

They turned together, backs now to the rail, and somehow Ray was close enough that their shoulders were touching. Fraser felt the knot in his stomach -- the one that had been there for weeks -- start to loosen. They were going to have a second chance. Whatever they made of it, it was theirs to ruin.

His eyes met Ray's and suddenly he was smiling, smiling all the welling relief in his heart, and thanking merciful fate for this boon, this bounty. He didn't know what was going to happen next -- didn't know how far the will to trust could take them -- but at the moment all that mattered was that Ray was smiling back.

Ray was really and truly smiling back.

Part 5: Never Never Land

Michigan was the longest state in the union. At least, that was what it felt like -- pedal to the metal and Fraser not even complaining, barreling down I-75, heading south from the Soo.

The car had been where they'd left it, on the docks at Sault Ste. Marie. That was worth something, and hey, Ray was grasping at straws here, after a night on hard ground, sharing a tent with two Mounties who weren't Fraser. He'd spent the whole night with a tree root digging into his ass and the tent poles shaking from the snores all around him, cursing the fact that he wasn't holed up somewhere, anywhere, alone with Fraser. But he hadn't had the guts -- or the stupidity -- to ask for that. Wouldn't have mattered, anyway, 'cause there was no place to go that was private, and the things he wanted to do with Fraser were really, really private.

Okay, so maybe it was nuts to think everything had changed, but it had. Fraser trusted him. It wasn't just the thing in the sub. He'd proved it again in the hold of the Yankee, first asking if Ray could see to shoot, then asking for the gun. Doing all with hand signals, but damn it, they hadn't needed anything else. And when it was time to toss the gun, Ray had known exactly where Fraser would be to catch it. Instinct, maybe. Only Fraser had known he'd know, too.

Trust. Partnership. They had it down. And it was making him think, oh God, that they had a chance to get all the other stuff down, too. That it might not be like Stella, after all. Because with Stella, he'd never been able to fight back, had never once made her see something she didn't want to see. But Fraser . . . yeah, Fraser had just gone and proved he wasn't like that. That he could listen, if you made your point loud enough.

Ray just needed to know if Fraser was feeling what he was feeling, if it was more than just him. And if the thing in the sub and in the hold was for real.

Ought to be easy. Fraser was sitting right beside him. Alone in the car -- yeah, okay, Dief was in the back seat, but he wasn't that smart, and anyway, he was deaf. So all Ray had to do was bring the subject up. Say, hey, Frase, what's up with this "us" thing?

Yeah, he could do it. Piece of pie. No problem. All he had to do was open his mouth and spit the words out, right?

Thing was, he was terrified. Beyond scared. Moving on to panicked. And it was stupid, first-class dumb, but he couldn't help it. The second Fraser had said he wasn't taking the transfer, he'd felt this buzzing start in his head, and it hadn't shut off yet. Because Fraser hadn't told him what to do. Hadn't even asked. Just said, I don't think so, and turned away . . . almost like he was terrified, too.

And the scariest thing was that Ray was starting to believe it was real. That Fraser was actually giving in. Seeing his side, and letting him take the wheel. And doing it all because he . . . because he might actually . . . Christ, he couldn't even think the words.

So he kept the pedal on the floor and talked about stupid stuff, like where they should stop for food, or did Dief really have to go again, or how many years Gilbert Wallace was going away for and which side of the lake was going to be responsible for getting rid of all the arsenic and PCBs and stuff.

Fraser got off on that one -- going on and on about proper disposal of toxic waste -- and that killed a couple hours right there . . . which was good, because they had hours to kill, what with Michigan being the longest state in the union and all.

It was mercy when they finally crossed into Indiana, a relief when they hit East Chicago and then the Skyway. Except then it wasn't a relief at all, because in next to no time they were heading up Lakeshore, and that meant they had a decision to make.

"So I guess you, uh, want me to drop you off at the Consulate."

Ray was watching the road, but he thought he saw Fraser twitch. Just a little twitch; nothing to write home about. "All right."

Damn. That wasn't what he wanted, and he didn't know if the twitch meant what he wanted it to mean or not. "You want to get something to eat first?"

Fraser did twitch this time, but it was just to look at his watch. "Ray, we ate two hours ago."

Right. Leave it to Fraser to take that literally. "Okay, no food." Why the hell did this have to be so hard? "So I should take you to the Consulate."

"If you wish."

If he wished. No, damn it, he didn't wish. "Could we maybe stop by my place, first? 'Cause, you know, I was thinking I --"


Christ, Fraser was twitching again, and he wanted that to mean what he wanted it to mean, but he still couldn't be sure. "Look, I know it's not exactly on the way, but I just thought --"

"Ray." This time there was no twitch.


"I don't need to be at work today. Inspector Thatcher made that clear."

Like that was an answer. But this was weird -- this whole thing was weird -- because they'd never done it like this. Never gone to his place, and never planned to do it anywhere.

"Okay. Okay, good." Not that it was really good . . . but it was as good as he was going to get, because he couldn't -- no, really, couldn't -- ask flat out. Anyway, he wouldn't know what he was asking. Just like Fraser hadn't known what to ask, on the boat.

Are we still . . . ? Yeah, they were. Whatever it was, they were.

He parked the car and got out, stretching cramped muscles and aching joints. Fraser got out, too, without asking if he should come up, which was a good sign, a real good sign. Fraser was still wearing the borrowed uniform, and it looked good on him -- fit him almost as well as his tailor-made ones, except it was a little tight in the back, over the shoulders, like the guy it belonged to wasn't quite as broad.

Not like that was a surprise. Nobody was exactly like Fraser. In fact, the one thing you could say for spending time with all those Mounties (even the snoring ones) was that it proved Fraser was as much of a freak up there as he was down here. Sure, some of the men -- and women -- in red were pretty good looking. But even in the uniforms and the hats they'd seemed . . . normal. Like if you told a joke, they'd get it; and they wouldn't dot your t's and cross your i's for you. But then again, they probably wouldn't stay on a sinking ship for you, or risk your life in wildly bizarre ways while they were in the middle of saving it, or end up saying nothing's changed when they kissed you.

Ray opened the door to his building and led the way up the stairs. His heart was pounding, and his head was starting to feel light, and it wasn't from the drive, or the lack of sleep, or the exertion of climbing two flights of steps. He wasn't an idiot. He knew exactly why he was feeling this way.

They'd had eight hours to discuss it in the car, and they'd talked about toxic waste and rest stops. They had another thirty seconds to discuss it now, and Ray knew he should say something -- anything -- to start the ball rolling, but he had no idea how to begin.

His hand was shaking as he pulled his keys out -- trusty old key ring with way too many useless things on it. At least he didn't need a handcuff key right now. He just had to get the door key in the lock, get the lock turned, hear the dead bolt click off, open the door.

Dief bounded in past his legs, making himself at home in the living room, and Fraser came in after, a bit more slowly, but God, he looked flushed, too, and no way was that from the stairs.

Ray closed the door behind them and turned to see Fraser still standing there. Still close. Close enough to kiss.

"Fraser, I . . ." God, he had to say it. Had to say something. "I'm sorry I popped you in the head."

Fraser was staring at the tips of his boots, like this was hard for him, too. "It's already forgiven." His eyes came up to search Ray's face. "I'm sorry I gave you cause to hit me."

Oh, geez. That was more than he was expecting. A hell of a lot more. It gave him the strength to say, "Look, it was more than that. I know it was. I fucked everything up, everything since I first touched you."

Fraser was still looking at him, with a peculiarly gentle expression. "I know," he said quietly. "So did I."

The buzzing in Ray's head went louder. Fraser was admitting that. Admitting it was half his fault, which it probably wasn't, but it was the thought that counted. "So, uh, what do we do now?"

"I don't know," Fraser said. Not pretending to know what he was doing anymore. No, that was gut-deep honesty, and it helped. Maybe it shouldn't have, but it did.

"But we're still partners," Ray managed.


"And we're still . . . ?" Shit, he couldn't say it, either.

"If that's what you want."

"Oh, yeah." And suddenly he knew what he wanted. What he needed to do, right now. "You trust me?"

Fraser's eyes were rock steady on his. "Yes."

"You trust me right now?"

"With my life," Fraser said softly.

With his life. Oh, God. Ray needed so badly to hear that. It was almost enough to make him believe . . . everything he wanted to believe. Heart in his throat, Ray leaned forward and did the thing he'd been aching to do for so long, he didn't remember what it felt like to want anything else. He pressed his mouth to Fraser's.

Fraser sighed against him, a little puff of air. Fresh, sweet air, like the buddy-breathing, and that was all Ray needed. He brought his hand up to tangle in Fraser's hair and tipped his head, opening the kiss, welcoming Fraser's tongue with his.

It felt so good Ray couldn't understand why he hadn't done this before. Must've been nuts, to think he could resist. Must've been unhinged.

Yeah, well, he couldn't fight it, not anymore. Ray slid his tongue along Fraser's and licked his way inside Fraser's mouth. It tasted better than lake water. A hell of a lot better. He could feel the clean, sharp edges of every tooth, the ripples of the roof of Fraser's mouth, and he wanted to memorize every inch, inside and out. This was what he'd been missing, all along. Exactly this.

Fraser's arms came up around him, pulling him close, and suddenly he was drowning. Drowning in Fraser, and he didn't care if he ever got air again.

His hands found the placket of Fraser's tunic, and he yanked at the buttons. He wanted it off five minutes ago, but the stupid buttons were stuck or something. He yanked harder.

"Ray," Fraser said against his mouth.

Damn it, he needed skin, and Fraser was wearing way too many clothes.


Ray broke the kiss. "What?"

Fraser was flushed and sweating, his eyes dark, his lips swollen. "This isn't my uniform."

"I know that," Ray said, and yanked again. He was rewarded by a popping sound, and the metallic tinkle of a button hitting the floor.

"I have to return it to its owner." Fraser looked down. "In its original condition."

"Oh." Ray bent to retrieve the button. "Sorry." He reached for Fraser again, but Fraser's hands closed around his shoulders, holding him back. "What are you . . . ?"

"We need to talk," Fraser said. He was still breathing fast and shallow, like he'd been drowning, too.

Ray wanted . . . damn. He wanted a lot of things, but right now talking wasn't one of them. "Couldn't we just kiss now and talk later?"

But Fraser shook his head. "If we don't talk first, we might end up making the same mistakes all over again, and I couldn't bear that. Not now."

Ray swallowed hard. But Fraser was right. He knew Fraser was right. "Okay, okay, me neither," he managed. That was true, even if the thought of the actual talking part was tying his stomach in knots. He took a step back so that Fraser didn't have to be pushing him away anymore. Talk. Right. "Uh, you want a drink or something? I got . . . um, I guess I got water."

"Water sounds delightful."

"Okay." Fraser actually sounded like he meant that, crazy Mountie that he was. "You could, uh, you could go sit down on the couch or something."

"Of course," Fraser said.

There was beer in the fridge, but water was safer. Ray filled two glasses and went out into the living room. Fraser was sitting stiffly on the couch, but he'd taken off his tunic. That had to count for something.

"Thank you," Fraser said, taking the glass. Gone all polite and formal, which was hard. Real hard to take, when Fraser had been so hot and eager in his arms just minutes ago. When Fraser was looking so good at the moment, in suspenders over a white, short- sleeved undershirt. Borrowed, like the uniform, but damn, it looked so touchable it made Ray's hands itch. "I'm afraid I've made myself comfortable. That tunic isn't a particularly good fit."

"Not like I mind."

Fraser went a little pink at that, but didn't make any other response. Just took a sip of water and looked up at him. "Ray, could you sit down? It would make this a bit easier."

Right. Talk. There was no putting it off any longer. Ray sat down on the coffee table. It was closer than the chair, and less intimate than the couch. In case Fraser didn't want him that close.

Fraser set his water down on the coffee table next to Ray's knee and sat back again, rubbing his eyebrow. "Ray, I . . . I need to know . . . that is, I was wondering if you, why you . . ."

Christ, Fraser was worse at this than he was. "Why I what?"

Fraser looked down. "Why didn't you want me to kiss you?"

Oh, geez. Fraser wasn't wasting time beating around the bush. Ray felt his whole body go hot and cold at the same time.

"I thought perhaps it was a matter of preference," Fraser continued, voice still ragged. "I believe I . . . know better, now."


"Please, Ray. I need to know this."

He had to say it. It was only fair, now, and if Fraser decided he was too much of an idiot to kiss again, well, he'd deserve that. "Didn't think I could handle it."

Fraser leaned forward, eyes on his face. "Why not?"

It was Ray's turn to look down. Damn, his rug needed vacuuming. "Too much like Stella," he mumbled.

"Kissing me is like Stella?"

"Worse than Stella."

"I see," Fraser said quietly, but his eyes looked . . . lost.

"Fraser." Geez, he'd put that pain there. All his doing. "Look, I'm chickenshit, okay? I fucked it up and I couldn't face the consequences."

Another look, this one somehow even more hurt, but somehow sympathetic, too. "It's very . . . difficult . . . to lose someone you love."

"Not talking about Stella, Frase."

"Oh." Still lost. Little boy lost -- yeah, Fraser, who was the same age he was. But when Fraser looked like this, Ray just wanted to kick himself in the head for being a part of that pain.

Fuck. He had to say it. He had to tell the whole, ugly truth. "Wasn't fair to you," he managed. "Shouldn't've dragged you into this, and I knew that. I was just . . . I was in a pretty bad place, and I didn't stop and think." No, damn it. The whole truth. "I knew if I . . . if I kissed you, I'd be a goner. Mouth to mouth and I'd be sunk."

Fraser's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "So this has something to do with the buddy breathing. I . . . pushed you into something you didn't want to do."

Give the man a gold star. Except suddenly Ray knew that wasn't it at all. "Nope, didn't matter," he confessed, and then it wasn't quite as hard to force the words out. "Didn't make a difference. I was sunk already. Just too scared to admit it."

Fraser's hand reached out like he was going for his water glass, but he brushed Ray's knee instead. "I was frightened, too."

Heart skipped a beat. Fraser wasn't scared of anything. Ticked off, frustrated, annoyed with him, sure. But not scared. "You don't . . . you can't . . . Fraser, you're like the bravest guy on the planet."

Fraser's eyes met his. "Not in this."

It hit him, then, what he didn't know, what he'd never asked. What he should have asked, a long time ago. "You have a Stella, too?"

Fraser straightened, pulling away, suddenly all stiff again. There was pain again in those eyes -- not just a little pain, a friggin' torrent. "No," Fraser said. "I have not been as successful as you, in love."

That made no sense. "Fraser, I'm a fuck-up. I lost the girl."

More pain. "But you had her. And she loved you, Ray. I've watched you together. Your marriage was no sham."

Oh, Christ, it was impossible. Impossible to believe that there was someone, anyone, out there who could be loved by Fraser, and not love him in return. She -- he, whatever -- would have to have a heart of friggin' granite. "Who was it?" he asked, leaning forward, desperately needing contact, needing something, anything, to wipe that pain away. "What'd they do to you?"

A swallow, and Fraser's eyes shifted right. Staring at his stereo like it was the most fascinating thing in the world. "I made . . . mistakes," he said. "She had every right to hate me."

"Fraser, nobody's got the--"

"I arrested her," Fraser said, his voice gone strangely calm. "I could have let her go, but I chose duty instead."

Jesus. Not what he was expecting. Not even close. "Was she guilty?"

Blue-gray eyes flicked toward him, then away again. "Yes."

It hit, then, what Fraser was telling him. This wasn't the talk he'd thought they were going to have . . . but it was the talk they needed. Because he wasn't the only one. Fraser had baggage, too. Hell, not just a little; Fraser had two overweight suitcases and six carry- ons. And it was weird to realize that, but somehow it helped to know Fraser wasn't perfect. That Fraser had hang-ups, too. "Then you did the right thing," Ray said softly.

"I loved her."

Jealousy flared, bright and sharp. Fraser had loved this woman. She was a criminal, and he'd loved her so much that he still had scars.

Yeah, scars. But Ray knew all about scars. Enough to know that jealousy wasn't what Fraser needed right now, and he never wanted to make that mistake again.

He shifted on the coffee table so that he was just a little closer to Fraser's knees. "You remember when I had to arrest Levon? Remember what you said? You said I had no choice." Yeah, that was better. The jealousy was suddenly just . . . gone. "You were right, I had to do it. We're cops. It's what we do."

Fraser closed his eyes. "I could have let her go. No one knew I had found her. No one would ever have known."

"You would've known."

Eyes shot open, met his.

"Fraser, she was asking you to be something you aren't. If she loved you for you, she would've understood."

"Ray, you don't know her. You don't know--"

"Don't need the details," he said, fiercely. "I know what it's like to love you." The parallel was suddenly so obvious that the knife twisted in his chest. Yeah, he'd made his mistakes, and half of them were because he hadn't understood Fraser at all. "Can't blame you for being you. You are the way you are, like it or lump it."

Fraser's eyes went hot and dark, and for a moment he almost looked like he was in physical pain. But he leaned forward and found Ray's hand, lacing fingers into fingers. "Do you mean that?"

"Hell, yeah. Don't want you to be anyone but you."

"No, I mean the -- the other thing."

Other thing? Ray rewound the conversation in his head, but his mental tape didn't go back far enough. "What other thing?"

"Perhaps you meant it symbolically, or something."

And then he knew what he'd said, what had slipped out when he wasn't thinking. His heart jumped in his rib cage. Yeah, panicking now, when the bag was empty and the cat was halfway to Kankakee. "Never meant it symbolically," he muttered, not looking at Fraser's eyes. "Just too chickenshit to admit it."

For a moment, Fraser didn't say a damn thing. The only sound was the blood pounding in Ray's ears. But then Fraser's fingers squeezed his hand, and Fraser's voice said: "I'm afraid I . . . had a similar problem, myself."

Ray felt a lump in his throat and tried to swallow it down. Fraser couldn't possibly be saying what he wanted him to be saying, but he had to ask. "You mean you, uh, didn't mean it symbolically, either?"

"No," Fraser said. "Although I wasn't entirely aware of the extent of my feelings at the time."

The extent of his feelings. Ray's head reeled. Fraser meant that, really meant that. But at the same time, that meant he was saying . . . "So I guess it didn't mean that much to you, the first time I touched you."

"Ah." Fraser leaned forward, pulling Ray's hand toward him so that their interlaced fingers lay in the space between their knees. Fraser's eyes looked blue, now, blue and intense. "Is that what you thought?"

Ray wanted to look away, but Fraser was so close he couldn't. "Look, I don't go jumping in the sack with just anybody, okay? Maybe it's different for you, but for me, it's gotta mean something. I've tried it the other way, and it sucked."

"It has to mean something to me, too," Fraser said softly. He shifted his grip, then slid his hand up Ray's forearm, stroking gently upward and back down to the palm again. "I never meant to mislead you. I was . . . surprised when you touched me. You made me want things I had never thought to want before."

Oh, right. "Don't tell me I'm the first guy you ever did it with, Fraser. I've been with you. I'm not that stupid."

"No, you weren't the first," Fraser said, and his thumb rubbed the underside of Ray's wrist, right over the veins and tendons. "But it was a very long time ago, and after . . . after Victoria, I believed I would never love anyone again."

Love. Ray's heart did a weird little flip. Fraser meant that. Fraser meant that for him. "You're saying you actually . . . uh, I mean, you . . . ?"

"I'm saying that I love you." The words hung in the air between them, finally spoken aloud, as clear and simple as the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the half-closed blinds. And it wasn't a magic fix, any more than the buddy breathing thing had been, but still . . . it mattered as much as anything had ever mattered to Ray in his life. "And I'm saying that if we . . . that is, if you love me in return, then I believe we have a chance to right the wrongs and correct the mistakes we've both made. Together, Ray. As partners . . ." Fraser swallowed, but his eyes never left Ray's. "In every sense of the word."

"Fraser . . ." Ray was suddenly breathless, and Fraser's hand was still moving on his arm. "Look, are we done with the talking part? 'Cause I really want to kiss you."

"Yes, I think, perhaps, well, for --"

Ray didn't let him say anything more. Just launched himself forward until lips met lips. And Fraser was right there with him -- not surprised, this time. Ready. Fraser's mouth was firm and sure against his, and Ray couldn't help himself. He caught that full lower lip in his teeth, nipped, pulled . . . and Fraser groaned.

"Never thought you could love me," Ray muttered between nips and kisses. "Thought you'd hate me by now."

Fraser pulled him roughly close until he was plastered against that big warm body, pressing it down among the couch cushions. "Never, Ray. I could never . . . I needed you too much."

Oh, God. Too much. Yeah, it was. Too much to feel, too much to believe. Fraser's undershirt was soft under his fingers -- a hell of a lot softer than the red serge. And it was thin enough that Ray could feel the contours and curves of the hard body beneath it. Yeah, and those were -- damn -- hard little nubs, where Fraser's nipples were supposed to be.

He'd thought Fraser was into it, the times before. He'd thought Fraser was enjoying himself. But those times were nothing compared to this, nothing compared to the strength and sureness of Fraser's arms around him now.

Fraser's tongue pressed against his, swiped his lower lip, and his jaw went loose. He wanted . . . oh, yes. Fraser's tongue probed his mouth, mobile and slick. It slid along his teeth, then slipped between them, thick and strong.

It was almost enough to make him believe for real. Ray's head was spinning, and not just for lack of air. But he needed more. He needed . . . yeah. He knew exactly what he needed. It was his turn, now -- two weeks late, maybe, but he could make up for that if Fraser would let him. Ray sucked on Fraser's tongue, pulling it further into his mouth, swirling his own tongue around it, and Fraser moaned.

No need for hand signals, now. He trusted that, the way he trusted the solid body beneath him. He slid his hands down Fraser's sides, never breaking the kiss, just easing up on Fraser's tongue and then sucking hard again. Found the buttons that held Fraser's braces and undid them, then found his fly. He twisted to get better access to the zipper . . . and realized what he was doing. He was shoving Fraser down at a weird angle among the cushions, and maybe Fraser wasn't protesting, but it couldn't possibly be comfortable.

"Fraser, c'mon." He pushed himself up and held out his hand. They could do it right, this once. Not on a desk or a conference table or up against a wall. Not even here on the couch. In a real bed.

Fraser clasped his hand and let himself be pulled up. Didn't even ask what was up, just followed Ray into the bedroom. Trusting him. Oh geez, really and truly trusting him.

Ray turned when they got to the bed, and then Fraser's arms were around him and Fraser was kissing him again, hot and sweet. Ray tugged the undershirt out of Fraser's now- loose pants and slid his hands underneath the soft fabric. Fraser's skin was hot and smooth against his fingers, and he wanted more. He wanted Fraser naked, now.

Ray let go of Fraser's lips and tugged up on the undershirt, and Fraser caught on, lifted his arms, and together they pulled it off. Mmm, that was better. A whole lot better, but still not good enough. "These, too," Ray said, going for Fraser's fly.

Fraser's hand covered his, stopping him. "Boots first."

Oh. Right. Boots. Ray dropped to his knees in front of them. The laces were done up tight, and he couldn't see where they were knotted. Crazy Mountie boots. But Fraser sat on the unmade bed and leaned forward to help. Together they yanked and loosened and got the boots off. But it wasn't home free even then, because the pants were laced up, too. Fraser untied one ankle, Ray got the other, and then it was just a question of loosening the laces, tugging off the socks, and getting Fraser to stand up again so he could pull the pants down.

"Your turn." Fraser was still in his boxers -- was, damn, making quite a tent in them -- but fair was only fair. Ray yanked his ratty seaman's sweater over his head, kicked off his shoes, and let Fraser undo his pants. "Oh, my."

Ray grinned. "Nothing worse than damp jockeys, Fraser."

"Ah. I see." But Fraser didn't seem to mind the bare skin. Fraser just shoved his pants down to his ankles and brought his hands back up, running them up the outside of Ray's thighs.

"Fraser --"

Fraser leaned forward, eyeing Ray's cock, which was kind of eyeing him, too. "Mmm?"

"C'mon. It's my turn. You just said so."

Fraser looked up at him, expression gone quizzical. "I was merely referring to undressing, Ray."

Ray bent and reached down to free his ankles from his pants. "I know that. It's still my turn."

Fraser still looked confused, but he said, "All right."

That was trust again. Real and deep. Ray took advantage of his position and reached for Fraser's boxers. It took a little work to get them down over Fraser's erection, pressing tight against the fabric. But with a little yanking and pulling they were down and off Fraser's ankles, and Fraser was sitting there in front of him, stark naked.

Christ, he was staring. Staring like an idiot, but damn, Fraser was worth staring at. He was smooth and solid everywhere, and right now he was flushed from his chest all the way down to his firm belly. And his cock . . . sheesh, it looked even bigger than it felt -- thick and heavy, with a prominent head that was obvious through the layer of foreskin.


He was past the point of words. All he could do was bend forward and kiss that inviting shaft.

Fraser made a little noise and arched toward him, not pushing into his mouth, but sliding against his lips like he couldn't help himself.

Ray's heart jumped. Fraser was really going to let him do this. No, not just let him -- Fraser wanted it. Wanted it bad.

Ray reached to slide the foreskin back, bent forward between Fraser's knees, and sucked that warm cockhead into his mouth. It tasted like Fraser and ocean water, only more slippery -- musky and salty and sharp against his tongue. And Fraser liked it -- hell, yeah, he did -- because he spasmed against the roof of Ray's mouth.

God, he was a mouthful. A serious mouthful. But Ray could take it. He wrapped his hand around the base and slid his mouth down until his lips touched his fingers. Yeah, that worked. He managed not to choke himself, and Fraser moaned. Ray pulled back up to lick Fraser all the way around, and felt another spasm in response.

So right, so perfect. He couldn't believe Fraser had deprived him of this, before. But it was all right, now. With Fraser hot and salty against his tongue, it was easy to believe it was all right.

A couple more strokes and he was in rhythm. He was doing a dance with his mouth, dip and slide, turn and balance. And Fraser liked it. Fraser really liked it. Fraser was leaking more salty-sharp stuff, and he was grunting and rocking and . . . shit. Fraser shifted beneath him and then pulled away, sliding back onto the bed.

"What the fuck?"

"Please, Ray," Fraser said, and patted the bed beside him. "It will be better this way."

Right. The bed. Ray straightened, felt the sharp pain in his knees. Okay, yeah, Fraser knew all about creaky knees. He could go with that. Ray curled next to Fraser and found his cock again. When he sucked it into his mouth, Fraser gasped and shuddered. Not complaining. Hell, no. But he was barely into his rhythm again when Fraser heaved against him, twisting around until he was lying sideways on the bed. A moment later, Ray felt a hand on his hip.

"Fraser," he tried to say, but his mouth was full and it came out pretty muffled.

"Please, Ray. Please let me do this."

Do what? he wanted to ask, but he didn't want to let go of his mouthful. And then he felt Fraser's hands pulling on his thigh, trying to get him to roll up on his side, and he knew what Fraser was trying to do.

Ah, crap. So much for being trusted. Ray lifted his head, pulling up off Fraser's cock. "Fraser, c'mon. You don't have to do that."

Fraser's face was damp and pink. "You don't have to stop. We could . . . we could both . . ."

Shit, it was exactly what he thought. He should have known it wouldn't last, that Fraser would want to take over eventually. "You ever actually tried this? 'Cause it's not as easy as it looks." He ought to know. He'd tried it with Stella exactly once, and he'd screwed it up by being the first one to cross the finish line. She'd never mentioned trying again, and he hadn't dared suggest it.

"Yes," Fraser said simply, like he actually did know what he was doing. "I understand the difficulties, but I believe that between the two of us we have sufficient stamina and flexibility."

Stamina and flexibility. God, Fraser knew just what to say to get to him. Because he understood that equation, which one of them was which. "You really think . . ."

Fraser's eyes held his. His hair was mussed and his eyes were dark, and he looked utterly beautiful. "I believe we can make this work. It's a matter of coordination -- perhaps not a simple one, but I expect the rewards will be well worth the effort."

Coordination. Okay. Right. Maybe he was wrong about the trust thing. Maybe this was Fraser trusting him more than he trusted himself. "You think we got a chance?"

Fraser's eyes were steady. "Yes."

"You sure?"

"Nothing's certain, Ray."

Okay, nothing was certain. But Ray knew, suddenly, that Fraser wasn't just talking about sixty-nine. He was talking about righting wrongs and fixing mistakes and making this thing work. For real.

Ray closed his eyes. It was trust on its deepest level, and he didn't know if he could live up to it. But he wanted to make this work, wanted it so badly his jaw ached.


He opened his eyes. Fraser's erection had started to soften, and it hurt to be the cause of that. Ray reached for it and stroked the shaft with his thumb, then bent forward and kissed the underside of the head, right where the pushed-back skin was attached.

"Ray?" If anything, that sounded a little more confused.

"I'm gonna do this," he said softly. "If you want to try something . . . I, uh, I won't stop you." And he lowered his head and sucked Fraser's cock back into his mouth.

It was a little soft, still, but as he licked around the head, he felt it grow, pulse by pulse, until it was hard against the roof of his mouth. He sucked harder, taking more and more of Fraser in until he had to swallow to keep from gagging. And then, as he slid back up, he felt Fraser's hand on his thigh again, felt Fraser's body flex against him, curling to find the right position.

Ray shifted his hip to give Fraser a better angle. It was okay. He could manage. He just had to keep his mind on what his mouth was doing, which simply meant . . . fuck.

Fraser's mouth engulfed him, sucked him down to the root, and it was so hot and wet and right he almost lost it right there. Jesus. He braced himself against Fraser's hip and willed himself to think of something, anything other than Fraser's mouth. Fraser's gorgeous, lopsided mouth. Shit.

He jerked his head up, releasing Fraser's cock with a pop. "Fraser!"

Wet heat relinquished him. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No, just . . . go easy on me, okay?"

Fraser's eyebrows quirked. "Are you, ah, . . . close?"

Christ, what a question. "Hell, yeah."

"Good," Fraser said, and sucked him in again. It was all Ray could do to wrap his lips back around the cockhead in front of him and try to actually do something other than twitch and moan around it. But he couldn't do that to Fraser. He couldn't. He tried to remember his rhythm from before, but it was impossible with Fraser's mouth sending shudders of pleasure through his whole body. Yeah, okay, but he didn't have to fight it. He swallowed hard and surrendered to Fraser's rhythm, letting his own mouth give in and follow that beat.

And then, suddenly, he was in the groove, the one he'd found with Fraser before, always with Fraser. Every motion he made with his mouth was matched and magnified by the mouth around his cock. He and Fraser were in sync, perfectly in sync, like they'd synchronized their heartbeats as well as their tongues.

Ray's heart twisted tight, and he understood then, what he'd been missing all along. It didn't matter who was leading. Might be him. Might be Fraser. It was completely irrelevant, because the rhythm was what mattered. The give and take. The mutuality of it. That was the essence of trust. The essence of love.

The epiphany was as strong as a physical sensation, joy and understanding and a pleasure so intense it was almost pain, building at the base of his balls and spreading, spreading through him.

Oh, God, no. Please, no. But he couldn't stop himself. He jerked in Fraser's mouth, spasmed against that big body -- lost, ruined, floating -- but Fraser didn't let him go. Fraser's mouth was still around him, adding wave after wave to the sensation . . . and then Fraser's thighs tensed beneath his forearm.

A flood of bitter saltiness filled his mouth, choked him, flooded again. Oh God. Oh, God. He hadn't fucked it up, after all. He should've believed, should've trusted Fraser, should've trusted trust. Ray coughed and choked and stayed with it, held on while Fraser shuddered and quivered against him and the flood abated.

He didn't want to let go. Didn't ever want to move. He wanted to live this moment forever: relief and release and love so strong his eyes prickled and his whole body shivered. But Fraser twitched against him and pulled his softening cock away, rolled over onto his back and drew a long, shaky breath.

Ray wiped his mouth and hitched himself up, turning so he could take Fraser into his arms. He plastered himself against that hot, heaving chest and buried his face against Fraser's neck, curling hands around those broad shoulders. Not letting go for real. "I love you," he whispered, because he could.

Fraser didn't answer him in words, just wrapped fingers into his hair and turned his head, and then Fraser's mouth was hard against his, tasting salty and bitter and not quite like Fraser.

Oh geez, that was him. Him in Fraser's mouth, which meant he probably tasted like Fraser, too.

He was drowning again, so deep he no longer knew the way to the surface. Nothing left to do but sprout gills and learn to breathe Fraser's wet heat. If he could do that, he wouldn't need anything else. Food, sleep, work . . . highly overrated next to breathing Fraser for the next hundred years.

"Ray," Fraser's voice, shaky against his mouth. "Ray."

"I know," he said.

Fraser's mouth went gentle against his, the urgency fading into something deep and sweet. And somehow that was almost better. He'd craved this, too, this feeling of belonging, of rightness. He'd just never believed he could feel it, not with Fraser. Not with anyone.

"Thank you," Fraser breathed against his lips.

Ah, geez. Ray lifted his head. "Fraser, you don't have to thank me. I should be thanking you."

Fraser smiled up at him, lazy and teasing. "One expression of gratitude doesn't necessarily preclude another," he said. "There's nothing stopping us from engaging in mutual thanking."

Mutual thanking. Oh, yeah, right. But somehow, the tease felt good. Took the sting away, more than anything else Fraser could have said. "Okay. I could be into that," Ray said. "Of course, I could be into a lot of things."

"With you," Fraser agreed.

"Yeah, with you." Ray smiled, then lowered his head to rest it on Fraser's shoulder. Snuggled himself in so he was stuck skin to skin everywhere he possibly could be, an arm across Fraser's chest, a leg over Fraser's thigh. He didn't want to talk, didn't want to break the mood, except now his brain was in gear again, and it was starting to figure out they'd never finished the conversation. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course." Fraser's voice rumbled against Ray's ear.

Ray rubbed a hand over Fraser's shoulder, traced the collarbone. "Who was the guy?"

"Who was who?"

"The guy. The guy you slept with. The first guy."

Fraser's hand slid up to squeeze Ray's arm, but he didn't seem annoyed or anything. "A boy in the village I grew up in. His name was Innusiq. In some ways, you remind me of him. I suppose I should have realized what that meant."

Innusiq. Damn, that name sounded familiar. "You mean the guy that told you about the fake-ear-biting wrestling guys?"

"Yes," Fraser said. "Innusiq was quite wise to the ways of the world. Far wiser than I."

Wise to the ways of the world. And Fraser thought this guy was like him. Wise, like street smarts, maybe. Yeah, okay, he could deal with that. "So what about after him? You been with other guys?"

Fraser shook his head. "Just Victoria."

Whoa. Wait a sec. "You mean, I'm the third person you ever slept with in your life?"

"Yes," Fraser said, and there was no doubting those wide blue eyes.

Holy shit. Well, so much for Fraser ever treating it casually. But still . . . "What about the Ice Queen?"

Fraser frowned. "I thought I told you. We never did more than kiss."

"You asked her out."

Fraser lifted his hand to smooth his left eyebrow. "That was, ah, under duress."

"Somebody hold a gun to your head?"

"Not exactly." Another rub of the eyebrow. It he wasn't careful, he was gonna rub it off. "But my father had hopes for me, and I was under the mistaken impression that she . . . wanted to bear my child."

Oh, geez. That was weird on a bunch of different levels. "Fraser, your dad's dead."

"I am all too aware of that. But his wishes still influence me at times, even when I realize that they shouldn't." The hand that had been rubbing his eyebrow found Ray's hand, and began idly tracing the length of each finger.

It was distracting, that hand. But Fraser's explanation kind of made sense. "So you asked her out because you thought your dad would've wanted you to?"

"I'm afraid it was also because, well, I thought you didn't love me." Fraser's hand turned his over and stroked his palm. "I wasn't entirely rational."

Damn, that touch felt good. "What about kids?"

Fraser met his eyes. "Children are not necessary for my happiness."

"You sure about that?"

"Yes." Now Fraser was massaging each finger in turn between his thumb and forefinger. "My needs are relatively simple. They all appear to involve you."

Ray shivered. It was almost too much to believe. Would have been, if he hadn't felt exactly the same way. "I, uh, know the feeling," he said.

Fraser's hand convulsed around his, squeezing it so tight it almost hurt. "You don't need children, either?"

"Not if I got you," Ray said, and then Fraser pulled him roughly close, in a hug that was as good as the last one. "I love you," Ray whispered again, and Fraser hugged him tighter. And somehow, then, it actually felt real.

Fraser loved him. Fraser wanted to be loved in return. And the mess that had been between them -- well, most of it, anyway -- was because they'd both been too afraid to admit that.

Yeah, well, not anymore. If Fraser loved him, he could face anything.

"Ray?" Fraser's voice, low and warm, right by his ear.


"Is that what you say when you don't say 'Never again'?"

He couldn't help it. He had to smile, even though they were still pressed so tight together he knew Fraser couldn't see his face. "Yeah, I guess it is."

"Good," Fraser said, and kissed his ear. "I like it much better this way."

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. But lying here, pressed tight to Fraser, he suddenly knew he didn't regret anything. Oh, he'd made mistakes, and if he could, he'd go back and erase every one. But if the choice was between this and never loving Fraser like this . . . he'd do it. He'd go through all the crap again, in a heartbeat, if that was what it took to get here.

"Yeah," Ray said, meaning it as much as he'd ever meant anything. "Me, too."


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