Disclaimer: Do you really think I think they're mine? (Fraser, that was one of them rhetorical questions.)

Pairing: Fraser/Kowalski

Rating: NC-17 for explicit sex between two men and slightly worse language than my usual

Thank yous: To Bone, WP, and Maxine, for amazing beta and much- appreciated support.

Warnings: This story is basically a retelling of "A Likely Story" and "Odds." As such, it contains massive spoilers for those episodes. Expect my usual quota of angst.

Note: Vast quantities of dialogue have been lifted wholesale from the episodes in question. Some of the dialogue has been compressed, and some has been slightly edited to make sense in context -- for example, a pronoun might be replaced by a name for the sake of clarity. Gestures and settings have also occasionally been slightly altered in order to work within the flow of the narrative. My poetic license is on file with the bureau. ;-}

Unlikely Odds

by Crysothemis (crysothemis@yahoo.com)


Part 1: The Story

"High atop Sulfur Mountain in his lonely stone cabin, Looooouuuuuuu Scagnetti heard a knock at the door."

Fraser drew the syllables out, putting his heart and soul into the narration. They were out here by the campfire because he had asked Ray to accompany him, because he had needed the proper setting to tell this story. He needed to tell it right, to tell it perfectly. Everything hinged on Ray's response.

Not that it was exactly a straightforward declaration. No, no, of course not. But it was, at least, a story about the meaning of love and how it could change a person. And perhaps when he finished he would find the courage to explain more, to speak of himself, and matters of the heart.

It had never been his strong point. Whenever he tried to talk about his feelings, his heart nearly choked him and his tongue turned to flannel. But he had to say something, and soon. This ache in his heart, this physical pain he felt whenever he looked at Ray, was only getting worse with time.

"And there on the stoop stood the beautiful princess from the valley below."

It was the little things that did it. Always the little things: Ray's face lit with the joy of hitting a home run; Ray's eyes meeting his, talking about his parents. Ray had a straightforwardness he envied. An openness he craved. And the more Ray shared with him, the more he seemed to need.

So it had finally come to this, to sitting here with his heart thumping and his palms sweating, hoping he wasn't making the worst mistake of his life. Because he understood the odds. Even by generous estimates, no more than ten to fifteen percent of the male population would even consider a romantic liaison with another man. And Ray had never given him any indication that he might be among that ten percent. Ray had, in fact, been married, a marriage that had lasted nearly ten years. So it was unlikely -- highly unlikely -- that Ray was even capable of returning his sentiments, much less actually interested in doing so.

But if he never declared himself, he would never know. If he didn't take that risk, he would never have even a slim chance of feeling Ray's mouth against his, of holding him, of feeling that strength and energy and Rayness focused on him . . . for him.

It shouldn't be so hard. He knew it shouldn't, because he trusted Ray wholly and completely. Ever since that moment, the moment by the lake, when Ray had betrayed his trust.

It was illogical, of course. He knew that. But the crack of Ray's fist against his jaw had changed everything. In the flash of that moment, he had felt more pain than he'd known since Victoria's betrayal . . . and he'd realized with sudden, awful clarity that Ray meant as much to him as she once had, and for the same reason.

But Ray had earned back his trust, had risked his life for their partnership, and had managed to make Fraser see -- just the two of them, alone in that tiny submersible -- that real trust went both ways. That the blow to Fraser's jaw had been a plea for him to listen, not a betrayal. And Fraser had come to realize that his heart was well and truly lost. Because Ray was not Victoria. Ray deserved his trust. And if he did . . .

If he did, Fraser knew he should trust him in this matter, as well.

"For the first time in his life he didn't know what to do. He didn't know whether to kill her and eat her, or whether to bake her some of those tarts he was so fond of. The ones that featured choke cherries and brown lichen with little bits of dust --"



"What are you doing?"

Oh, dear. He couldn't explain. He wasn't ready to explain. "I'm telling you a ghost story. It is customary to exchange ghost stories around a campfire in the wilderness."

Ray made a face. "We're not in the wilderness."

"It's an approximation of wilderness." It was, in fact, just a city park, as Ray proceeded to inform him in no uncertain terms. But it was as close to wilderness as he was likely to get right now. Well, he couldn't exactly ask Ray to take a trip home with him. Not without explaining himself, first. Not without full disclosure.

But he wanted that, wanted it so badly it made his teeth ache. To show Ray a real Inukshuk, in the tundra where its use and meaning were part of the landscape. To show Ray caribou, the northern lights, and the treacherous beauty of an ice field. He wanted these things almost as much as he wanted to taste Ray's skin or feel Ray's body against his. Possibly more. But none of them were a possibility while his feelings remained unspoken.

There was the sound of tinkling bells in the distance, and Dief bolted toward it. Of course. It was nearly nine o'clock, which meant it could only be Mr. Tucci's pretzel cart.

For once Fraser almost resented the kind-hearted old man. He needed to finish his story. He desperately needed to finish. But instead of a simple distraction, events turned to tragedy, and an hour and a half later they were on their way to Mr. Tucci's wife's -- widow's -- house on a mission no police officer ever relished.

They pulled up into the Tucci's drive, and Fraser got out of the car to walk up to the house with Ray.

A young woman answered the door, looked them both over, and in a low, husky voice, said, "Yes?"

For a moment, Ray was silent, and Fraser turned to see what was the matter. Ray was staring at the young woman, his mouth half-open, expression vacant as if he'd lost all higher function in his brain. After a painfully long moment, he came back to himself with a twitch. "Uh, Mrs. Tucci? We're with the police."

"Come on in."

Ray was still staring. Still staring like he'd seen a ghost. Or . . . no. Fraser knew exactly why Ray was staring.

Pain lanced through him, sharp and clean. He had not declared his feelings, and now he was being forced to watch Ray gape at this . . . well, objectively speaking, she was certainly a lovely young woman. But they were not here to socialize, and Ray would do well to consider that.

Ray gave him one glance and a funny little half-smile, but Ray's eyes were all for the young woman as he crossed the threshold, close enough to touch her, close enough to kiss her. Though neither made a move toward the other, their awareness of each other was almost palpable in the cool night air.

Fraser brushed by her, following Ray inside. He could not . . . would not allow himself to continue this line of thought. They were there to deliver their grim news, not for any other purpose, and he would do best to remember that, himself.

~ * ~

She looked like a deer in the headlights, a little one, a fawn, with long fragile legs and a sweet, bruised look about the eyes. She had beautiful golden hair that swept down her shoulders, and that smooth-fitting top wasn't doing a thing to hide her other assets.

Damn, she was gorgeous. Drop dead. Take your breath away. And, double-damn, Fraser was staring at him, which probably meant he was drooling.

"Uh, Mrs. Tucci? We're with the police." It was a dumb thing to say, because there was no way this was Mrs. Tucci. Fraser had said she was old and sick. This had to be her daughter or her caretaker or something, and he'd just made a total fool of himself. But she didn't seem to notice. She just gave him a look that made his spine tingle and said in that husky voice, "Come on in."

Fraser was staring at him again. Oh, great, that was just what he needed, Fraser getting all weird about him having urges like a normal guy. Sheesh. It was like hanging around with a monk, sometimes. Made you start to wonder what was normal, after all.

They went inside, down the hall and into the kitchen, and it was a sticky bit of business delivering the news. This was not the way he liked to spend an evening. Shit, he hated it, hated everything, from Mrs. Tucci asking him to repeat himself to the soft gasp from the gorgeous blonde. Not that he didn't want to hear her gasp or anything, but he'd kinda prefer different circumstances.

Real different. He managed to get her name before they left: Luanne Russell. A pretty name, unusual, and it suited her. He liked that. He smiled a good-bye and then let Fraser out the front door.

He made sure to close the door firmly behind him before he said anything, but he just couldn't help himself. "Wow."

Fraser, block of ice that he was, just said, "Wow?"

There was no way Fraser could be that dense. "She's something else."

But Fraser just gave him a look and went all snarky. "Ray, if you don't mind me saying, that is a staggeringly insensitive remark considering the circumstances."

Oh, great. He did not need a guilt trip right now. "Look, Fraser, I'm very sorry for Mrs. Tucci's loss and I will make every effort to find the killer of her husband, but the fact remains she is a very beautiful woman."

They reached the car, and Fraser went around to the passenger side. "Possibly," he said, like it was up for debate.

Ray slid in behind the wheel. "No possibly about it."

"Well, that's a matter of opinion, Ray."

They pulled out of the Tuccis' driveway, and Ray glanced over. Fraser had a weird stubborn set to his jaw, as if he was really worked up about this. As if he hadn't liked Luanne Russell at all. But what wasn't to like? She had this sweet brittleness about her, like she'd break if you dropped her. It made him want to go all protective. Made him really want to not screw up with her like he'd screwed up with Stella. He could feel it that strong already, and she hadn't said more than ten words to him.

Yet. But he could hope, couldn't he? "Fraser, your opinion doesn't count."

Fraser turned to him with this puzzled, blank expression. "It doesn't?"

"In this case, no. It doesn't. You paid more attention to Mrs. Tucci than to Luanne."

"Well, she was the one who suffered the tragedy, Ray."

"I know that; I know that. I just . . . look, you had your pulse checked recently? Cause you might wanna make sure you still got blood pumping around in there."

"Because I felt sorry for Mrs. Tucci?"


"I fail to understand what that has to do with my blood pressure."

It was absolutely impossible that any red-blooded American -- okay, Canadian -- male could be like Fraser. "See, that's exactly what I'm saying. You don't get it. You don't even get what you don't get."

Fraser leaned forward in his seat, one hand pinching the bridge of his nose. "Despite what you may think, I'm not entirely naive about such matters."

"Yeah, and Al Capone wasn't entirely crooked."

"Well, actually, Ray, it's not widely known, but Capone founded and financed a number of charities, including . . ." And Fraser, in true Fraserish fashion, went off on some weird tangent about the Untouchables.

Ray let him babble all the way home to the Consulate. Hey, he had other things to think about. Things like long golden hair and soft doe eyes. And it was easier thinking about them, about her, without having Fraser actively trying to argue him out of it. Hell, yeah.

Of course, if Fraser didn't go for her, it just meant he had a better chance, so he really wasn't going to start complaining. Except, now that he thought about it, Luanne hadn't seemed to pay Fraser much attention at all. She'd looked at him. And the way she'd been looking, it was almost as if she liked what she saw.

That was weird. He was used to women going gaga over Fraser, starting with Frannie and ending with Mrs. Tucci. And he understood that. Hell, Fraser was gorgeous . . . and yeah, he'd had that thought a couple of times, himself -- not that he would ever do anything about it, not that it was even a remote possibility with Fraser the Perfect, Fraser the Monk. But at least it meant he understood where the chicks were coming from, when their jaws dropped and their eyelashes fluttered.

The thing was, Luanne Russell had been looking at him. Not at Fraser. At him.

Ray dropped Fraser off and headed home to sweet dreams -- real sweet, judging from the way his thoughts were headed. It had been so long since he'd gotten any, so long since his fantasies had been anything but the bitter half of bittersweet, that he figured he deserved a little satisfaction. And the way Luanne Russell had been looking at him . . . well, something told him there was a chance he'd be playing a role in her fantasies tonight.

Hey, he wouldn't mind. He wouldn't mind at all.

~ * ~

Fraser had thought he'd changed the subject effectively last night, but Ray's mind was still . . . well, in that same place where Ray's mind apparently often went. By the time they made it to the station, he was back to nosing around the subject like Dief with a bag of potato chips, as if last night's conversation about sensitivity had never occurred.

"I don't know who has less sex, me or you, but at least I still think about women. Is that better or worse?"

Women. Oh, dear. Yes, that was the problem: he wasn't thinking about women. "It's an interesting question," Fraser managed. At least he achieved something approaching an even voice.

Fortunately, Ray was caught up in his own train of thought. "Thank you," he said, low and smug like he'd won some sort of prize.

"Vecchio!" That was Lieutenant Welsh, calling from across the squad room. "Where do we stand on the Tucci homicide?"

It was a relief to be distracted. This was not the sort of conversation he wanted to be having with Ray. Not at all. But the sort of conversation he wanted to have was quite inappropriate to the current setting. Fraser suppressed a sigh and turned his full attention to the lieutenant. Right now there was work to be done. There would be time for stories and declarations later.

They spent the day on legwork, questioning witnesses, obtaining an artist's sketch of the suspect, reconstructing events. They ended up dividing tasks in an attempt to get more accomplished, so Fraser expected that it would be easy to slip off to check on Mrs. Tucci alone. But as he was heading out of the station that evening, Ray caught up to him and asked where he was going, and he couldn't very well lie.

At the Tuccis' house, Ray jumped at the chance to interview Miss Russell, leaving Fraser to speak with the elderly widow. Not, of course, that he minded Mrs. Tucci's company. In ordinary circumstances he would have quite enjoyed talking with her. But these circumstances were far from ordinary.

Fraser did his best to phrase his questions gently, making it a pleasant conversation about Mrs. Tucci's long-lost son, but he could see Ray just down the hall, talking with Miss Russell in the kitchen. Ray's whole body was inclined toward her, his usually on-and-off smile a near constant feature. He was making notes, so Fraser could only assume he was actually questioning her about the case, and not, and not . . .

Right. Well, they had a case to solve, and he had to remember that himself. He forced his gaze back to Mrs. Tucci, forced himself to accord her his full attention. The sooner they solved this case, the better for all concerned, and after what she'd been through, Mrs. Tucci deserved everything they could do for her.

That thought was still in his mind when, as they were about to leave an hour and a half later, Mrs. Tucci began to worry that whoever had killed her husband was now after her.

"No one would have any reason to kill you," he assured her.

But she was still distraught. "Well no one had any reason to kill Franco either. Oh, I am afraid."

Fraser moved to comfort her with a hand on her shoulder. "Don't be afraid. Nothing will happen to you, I promise." And there was one way he could ensure that. "Ray, I think it would be a good idea for me to bivouac here for the night."

Ray just looked at him blankly. "You're gonna what?"

"I'll explain later."

But as he explained it on the way back to the Consulate to get camping supplies, Ray was not amused. His face went dark and agitated, and by the time they got back to the Tucci's house, he was ready to let rip.

"Hey, I know what's going on here."

It knifed straight to Fraser's gut. Ray had no idea what was going on. No idea whatsoever. "Ray, please."

Ray's whole posture went belligerent. "Look, you just can't stand it, can you? You just can't stand it that she's more interested in me than she is in you."

No. Oh, no. Ray had the essential detail wrong. It wasn't Luanne's interest he cared about. "You're embarrassing yourself."

"Look, I'll be back here. Six-thirty sharp."

He couldn't help himself: a tiny spark of anticipation lit inside him, as it always did at any thought of when he'd see Ray next. He watched Ray drive off with hope and pain vying for possession of his gut.

When the GTO had disappeared around the corner, he went to rap softly at the front door and tell Miss Russell to inform Mrs. Tucci that he would be there, watching out for her. Then he proceeded to the back yard, where he laid out his bedroll and set up a rudimentary camp with a bit of assistance from Dief.

It was essentially a stakeout, although one on which he was fairly certain he would not encounter any trouble. Nevertheless, he couldn't help thinking how much more . . . enjoyable it would have been, had Ray been there. Yes, well, he hadn't asked, and Ray hadn't offered. And after all, Ray was the one who complained about sleeping on the floor, the one who said he got a skin condition whenever he left the city. Of course he would not be interested in camping out, even if it was only in Mrs. Tucci's back yard.

Fraser rolled over on to his back and looked up at the sky. It was a cold evening for early October in Chicago. Not cold, of course, in an absolute sense, as it wasn't even freezing. But colder than it had been in previous weeks. It was almost enough to make Chicago feel like home. Well, not exactly like home, but like an approximation. He sat up to rearrange the blanket over him.

"Well, it's a nice clear night," he told Dief, settling back down. "Nice sleeping under the stars . . . such as they are."

Dief barked a warning bark, and Fraser twisted in his blanket to see what he was concerned about.

"I hear it." He found his flashlight and shined it on the fence in time to see a familiar form scramble over the latticework and drop gracelessly to the lawn. His heart went suddenly warm. "Ah, Ray! Glad you could join us."

Ray came over, his arms full of bedding. "Oh, yeah, I bet you are." He knelt beside Fraser -- right beside him, in the whole of the wide, grassy lawn -- and proceeded to spread out his bedroll. "Anything happen?"


"You get called in on, uh, any emergencies?"

Ray was close, so close their bedrolls were now overlapping. So close Fraser could . . . no. No, he shouldn't even think about that. "No, it's been, ah, it's been very quiet."


Ray squirmed and twisted to settle his comforter over him, and Fraser could feel every movement as though they were touching. It was astonishing that Ray would choose to be so close. The last time they had slept in each other's vicinity, the night with Bruce Spender in Turnbull's old apartment, Ray had chosen to sleep across the room from him. But then, so had Ray Vecchio, that time when they'd been hiding out with Gerrard in an old warehouse. It was apparently the normal way these things worked, among American men.

So why was Ray so close tonight? Was it possible, even faintly likely, that Ray actually felt some sort of . . . physical closeness to him? Some desire to share warmth? Some need not so far removed from Fraser's own?

Hope was heady, and made him reckless. He knew full well that Ray was already . . . interested in Luanne Russell. But if there was any chance, any chance at all, he couldn't let her just walk away with Ray's heart. Not without a declaration, at least, so that Ray would understand the choice he was making. Fraser found his flashlight and shined it up into his face -- a childish gesture, perhaps, but he needed to set the mood, needed to make Ray smile.

"Looooooouuuuuuu Scagnetti looked across the stone table at the beautiful princess, and he said to himself --"

But Ray wasn't in the mood for stories. "Fraser --"

Ray didn't want to hear his declaration. It was illogical to think that way, but knowing that didn't help. Ray didn't want to listen to him, and that was all too close to the same thing. "What?"

"You think she had something to do with it, don't you?"

Ray was thinking about Miss Russell. Well, of course he was. Fraser put the flashlight away with an aching heart. "Well, I try not to prejudge people Ray." He could not let his personal feelings affect his judgment. He would not.

"You do. Come on."

Fraser crossed his arms across his chest, anything to keep his hands from . . . straying. There had to be something he could say. Something that was truth, and nothing but. "Well, all I will say is that I detected a certain, well a -- almost a musk- like animal wariness about her."

"Musk? You're talking to me about musk?" Ray squirmed and adjusted his bedding, close, so close. "I detect a certain kinda musk here, myself."

Fraser's heart skipped a beat. Ray couldn't possibly . . . no, his sense of smell could not be that keen. He had to be referring to something else. Yes, that was it. And in that moment, Dief whined, and Fraser felt himself turning to trace the source of that sound, up near the house.

One of the second-floor windows was lit, and through the curtain they could see a clear silhouette -- a silhouette of Miss Russell, who was in the process of undressing.

"Oh dear," Fraser murmured. Beside him, Ray's body went rigid, transfixed.

"Oh yeah."

Dief whined again, and Fraser forced himself to turn away, not to look at Ray, or what Ray was looking at. He cleared his throat, loudly, but Ray didn't take the hint. Ray was staring at that upper window, staring like he'd lost every modicum of good sense he'd ever had.

Like he'd lost his heart.

"Ray," Fraser said. He couldn't bear this, not for another millisecond. "Ray. Ray. Ray."

Ray finally lowered his head. For a moment the pain ebbed, but then Dief whimpered, and Ray's head lifted once again.


For an agonizing stretch of time, Ray didn't move, and Fraser's heart hurt too fiercely to speak again. But then, mercifully, Ray lowered his head and made rustling noises that sounded as if he were burying his face under his covers.

It wasn't a relief. There was no relief. Ray had made himself abundantly clear this evening, never mind how close he'd laid his bedroll.

Fraser lay wide awake, his back to Ray, staring off at the fence that surrounded the Tuccis' back yard. The fact that Ray could have no idea why he wanted to tell the ghost story was irrelevant. Ray hadn't wanted to listen to him. Ray had wanted to talk about Miss Russell.

It was too late. Ray's affections were already engaged. He'd had his opportunity, and he'd missed it. He knew he should simply accept that, should take Ray's friendship as the gift it was and forget all about wanting anything else, but as he lay there in the crisp evening air, his head ached, his guts hurt, and his heart burned.

Ray was right here beside him, and he'd never felt so lonely in his life.

~ * ~

"Ray, Ray, Ray." The voice was like a fist pounding on his skull -- which already ached enough from the cold and the frustration. He should've jerked off last night. Would've, if Fraser hadn't been there, if Fraser hadn't sounded like he was awake the whole damn time. Hey, talk about provocation, maybe he should've gone ahead and . . . And then something really did hit his skull. Something that felt like Fraser's boot.

Geez, Louise. Kicked in the head. That was supposed to be his move. Ray dragged his chin up, got his eyes mostly open. "Time?"

"Six-thirty," Fraser said. He looked all spiff and perky, in full uniform already when Ray was pretty sure he'd been in civvies last night. Damn, that was unfair. It was too early in the morning for anyone to look that good. "Coffee?" Fraser offered.

Coffee. Yeah, that sounded like a good idea. And Fraser must've made it special for him, because he rarely drank the stuff himself. Ray reached for the mug. "Uh, anything happen?"


No, of course not. What could've happened, after that slow strip tease? Nothing, with Mr. Pure around acting like it was perverted to have blood pressure. "You sleep?"

"Very little. You?"

Yeah, that was what he'd thought; Fraser hadn't slept either. Which only went to show that Fraser did have hormones, after all. He just liked to pretend he didn't. "No." He nodded toward Dief, still sitting by Luanne's window. "What about him?"

"I don't think he's moved."

Ray sighed. Jealous of a wolf, now. It was a sad, sad world. "He saw it all?"

Fraser nodded.

"Dogs, huh? They have all the fun."

Fraser did a funny little bounce on his heels, like he still wasn't comfortable with the subject. "It would seem so." He glanced at his watch. "Well, Ray, we should get going."

Ray grimaced into his coffee cup. "Look, Fraser, I'm wallowing. Give me a little time for a wallow."

"Right you are. Do you take sugar when you wallow?"

"Uh, one."

A sugar cube dropped into his cup. Perfectly on target. Yeah, perfect, like everything else about Fraser. So perfect he didn't need anyone, or at least didn't cop to it if he did. It was enough to drive a guy nuts.

Like, how was anyone else supposed to live up to that? And why couldn't Fraser just be . . . human, for once?

Right. Now he was wallowing for real. Wallowing about Fraser, which meant he was seriously unhinged. Ray pushed himself up, got his knees under him and looked around. It was morning, all right. Fraser had already packed up everything but the little camp stove and the coffee pot, and by the time Ray had hauled himself to his feet, rolled up the old comforter that had served him as a bedroll, and tucked his pillow under his arm, Fraser had taken care of those, too.

On the way to the station, the coffee jolt kicked in, the brain got into gear, and Fraser's stiff superiority started making a bit more sense. It wasn't just that Fraser was still self-righteously miffed about him watching the show last night. Fraser was busily adding up twos and fours and getting nasty little sixes. Musk-like animal wariness. What the hell was that supposed to mean?

In Fraserspeak, it was clearly nothing good.

But the thing that didn't make sense was why Fraser was so down on her. He'd disliked her from the start, hate at first sight. Like he thought there was something wrong with her.

"Let me see if I've got this right, Fraser," he said as they made their way into the station. "Luanne is a beautiful woman, therefore she must be bad. And since she's a really beautiful woman, I mean, she's gotta be really bad. Is that how it goes inside your brain?"

Fraser had the nerve to look innocent. "Are you sure it's my brain we're talking about?"

Oh yeah, he was sure. He was real sure. But then Frannie interrupted them with the artist's sketch of the suspect, and the conversation went south from there. Fraser started talking about false mustaches and disguises, and even though he refused to say what he thought straight out, Ray knew.

"And I suppose that, uh, that cassette tape you found in the living room of her reading Sword of Desire -- she used that to fool Mrs. Tucci into thinking that she was sitting in a comfy chair, reading to her from across the room."

"Thereby providing her with an alibi so she could slip out to the park and shoot Mr. Tucci. But as I say Ray, this is just the purest of speculation."

Purest of speculation? In a pig's eye. There was nothing pure about it. "Right. So why don't we just bring her in here and grill the snot out of her?"

"Without cause, that would violate her civil rights."

Ray shook his head in disbelief. Fraser was being so . . . so . . . so Fraserish. He wouldn't rise to the bait. Oh, no. He'd just insinuate and imply. But Ray wasn't going to be convinced. Not without good evidence. Not without giving Luanne a fair chance.

Oh, yeah, he could out-fair, out-reasonable Fraser. He'd show him. And while he was at it, maybe he'd bring Mr. Perfect down a notch or two.

~ * ~

Mr. Tucci's will was quite straightforward. Fraser read it through carefully, but it was easy enough to explain in one sentence. "Mrs. Tucci, it would appear that your husband has left everything to Franco, Jr."

Mrs. Tucci nodded fondly. "Ah, Frankie. Frankie will take care of me. My Frankie."

Miss Russell took the news with considerably less composure. Her eyes dropped, and she blinked several times. Then, without excusing herself, she turned and fled for the door leading out to the patio.

Ray's eyes followed her retreating form. Well, of course they did. Where else would Ray be looking? He shifted on his feet, then reached to squeeze Fraser's arm. It was just a light squeeze, a signal, but Fraser felt it burn through the serge of his tunic sleeve. Ray's hand dropped almost immediately, and he went to follow Luanne.

"Mrs. Tucci," Fraser said, leaning toward her. His arm still tingled. "Do you know of anyone, anyone at all, who might know how to contact your son?"

Mrs. Tucci shook her head, but she was still smiling fondly. "My Frankie will come home. He will hear the news and come home."

Fraser murmured something soothing, but his mind wasn't in it. His mind was still on Miss Russell, and her reaction. She had been surprised -- shocked, even -- by the contents of the will, and Fraser was suddenly certain that she had not been feigning that dismay. It was curious. Quite curious. Because, logically speaking, as a mere employee she could not have reasonably expected to be named in the will. Which meant she was upset about its contents for a different reason.

It was not evidence of her guilt or innocence, of course. They were still missing too much information. But it was definitely food for thought. Her motive for murder, which before had seemed reasonably clear, was now quite muddled.

And now she was out there on the patio, out there with Ray, who was undoubtedly comforting her. Ray, who was so certain she was innocent.

Of course, Fraser wasn't certain either way, himself. It didn't matter what he wanted to believe; as a professional, it was his duty to remain neutral until the evidence presented itself. But he hadn't violated that, hadn't said anything to Ray, except . . . well, he had made that one insinuation about "animal wariness."

He felt a twinge at that, a twinge that might be regret or guilt. But he hadn't passed judgment, and Ray hadn't believed him, in any case. And now Ray and Miss Russell . . . were out on the patio. Still talking to each other. Still alone together.

By rights he ought to leave them to their privacy. By rights he owed Ray that much. But rights weren't meaning as much as they ought, in this one, small matter.

"You'll come tomorrow?" Mrs. Tucci was saying. "To the wake?"

"Yes," Fraser assured her. "We'll be there. I'm afraid at the moment we should be going."

"Yes, yes, you should go."

He went to open the sliding glass door, and froze. The two golden-haired figures were facing each other -- standing close already, eyes only for one another. And then Miss Russell turned and twisted on her ankle, and Ray caught her. Holding her up. Holding her close.

They were going to kiss. Fraser knew it with sudden, dreadful certainty. He slid the door open, but he was too late. Ray had already bent his head to meet Miss Russell's lips.

Ray kissed her with sweet intensity, as if he were offering his soul with each touch of his mouth. His eyes were closed, his face still, his every movement hesitant but heartfelt. Fraser swallowed hard. Ray would never feel that way about him, would never do that with him. Ray would never even consider it.

Fraser's head buzzed and his legs trembled. He couldn't ask for that. He couldn't. But he needed . . . so very much.

He coughed, and the two figures pulled apart.

"Ray, I'm sorry," Fraser said, and he was. Sorry for having interrupted them, and sorrier for himself. "I'm afraid we really should be going."

Ray gave him a look that would have frozen a polar bear at forty paces. "Uh, yeah, okay." He turned back to Miss Russell. "Luanne, I'll see you later, all right?"

She gave him a soft, pained smile. "Of course." And then she lifted her head, and her eyes met Fraser's.

She knew. He didn't understand how, but she knew. Those eyes were a direct challenge, a claim, a stake. He's not yours, they said. You can't have him.

"Fraser," Ray said, impatience rising in his voice, "c'mon. Thought you wanted to get going."

"Yes, of course, Ray," Fraser said. And with a polite nod, "Miss Russell."

She didn't say good-bye, just dropped her eyes, blinked, and looked away. But he'd gotten the message, and he was sure she knew it. He followed Ray's tense back through the Tucci house and out to the GTO.

"Fraser, what was that?"

Oh, dear. Fraser slid into the passenger seat as Ray eased himself behind the wheel. "I'm terribly sorry, Ray. I didn't realize I was interrupting anything."

"Something wrong with your eyes?"

Fraser swallowed hard. He was in the wrong here, and he knew it. "Not that I'm aware of."

Ray grimaced over his shoulder as he backed out of the Tuccis' driveway and onto the street. "You think I screwed it up, don't you? You think I crossed over that line."

It was a way out, at least. A rational excuse for his actions. "Well, Ray, she is at least nominally a suspect in our investigation."

"Oh, 'nominally.' That's good. That's just great. You think she did it and you won't even admit it."

It was tempting to let Ray believe that, but he couldn't let it go this time. Luanne Russell deserved a fair chance, whether she was guilty or innocent. He just wished he didn't have to remind himself of that so sternly. "We don't have enough evidence to draw that conclusion."

"Right," Ray said, but he didn't sound like he believed that. His jaw was set, watching the road with more concentration than he usually needed. But after a few minutes, he said, "Yeah, okay, I get it. You're right. I shouldn't've kissed her."

"Ray --"

"Look, you don't have to rub it in, okay?"

As a victory, it was decidedly hollow. Ray's feelings hadn't changed. He was just feeling guilty, now. "I am truly sorry I interrupted you," Fraser said.

Ray shot him a glance, a glance that looked like he almost believed that. Well, it was better than nothing. Even if Fraser wasn't sure he believed himself. "Yeah, okay. Done's done."

"Thank you." It wasn't enough. Not nearly enough. But at least he hadn't hurt Ray to the point of doing real damage to their friendship. Fraser settled back in his seat. He would have to be more careful, because the last thing, the very last thing, he wanted to do was drive Ray away.

~ * ~

It wasn't Fraser's fault this time. It was his own damn idiocy. He'd read the book cover to cover, and now it was the only thing he could think about. The plot matched, character for character, with the Tuccis. Okay, it worked only if you ignored the fact that they were missing a Gandolfo. But that wasn't important. What was important was that if the book matched up with reality -- and it was Luanne's book, after all -- then it meant she was guilty as sin.

But Fraser -- of all people, Fraser, who already thought she was guilty -- just looked confused. "Are you suggesting that she left the book sitting around here in some sort of subconscious desire to be caught?"

It hurt to admit it, hurt to believe, finally, that Fraser was right. But he couldn't stop himself. "Well it sounds dumb but you got a better idea?"

Fraser's voice went infuriatingly mild. "Maybe she just forgot it."

Right about then he noticed that Fraser was fiddling with the pile mail on his desk, which consisted of a pile of fast-food menus and a fax from the National Crime Database about Luanne. Fraser handed the fax to him.

"Phone fraud, mail fraud . . ." he read down the list with a sinking heart. The book was right. She was in on it. "She's a con-artist?"

Fraser looked up at him. "She has been. She may not be now."

But that was just Fraser pretending to be fair, and he'd seen through that act already. "She's a con? She likes me? What does that mean?"

"I'm not sure it means anything, Ray. I'm sure she's not the only person who --"

"Fraser, save the therapy, okay? If I wanted to have my head shrunk, I'd go to Ecuador." He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. If Luanne was guilty, it was their job to prove it. "C'mon, we got work to do."

~ * ~

Duty and a peculiar sense of guilt got Fraser through the rest of the day, and the next. He watched Ray with Miss Russell at the wake -- they spoke only briefly, but the air shimmered between them. Heat and tension, on both sides. Even believing she was guilty, Ray was drawn to her. Helplessly. Moth to the flame. Ray's very pain in her presence was a declaration.

A declaration like the one Fraser had never made.

He had lost track of the number of times he'd tried to say something, to bring the subject up through the Lou Scagnetti story, or even, as desperation grew, through any vaguely relevant topic of conversation. But somehow Ray always found a way to stop him before he got to the point, and he didn't know how to fight that. Didn't want to fight Ray. Didn't have the courage.

But he understood more, now, and watching Luanne Russell glance his direction, and then away again, he knew. That musk-like animal wariness was real . . . and it was directed at him.

She'd sensed his . . . possessiveness from the start. She'd known what she was up against, on a subconscious level, if not explicitly. She'd circled around him, staked her claim, and triumphed, as Ray reacted to her.

And he'd bristled right back. He'd taken every subtle chance he had, not crossing the line, never lying, but nevertheless toying with Ray's convictions with insinuations and hints about her wariness.

And if Ray was seeing less than clearly in this case, well, at least he was honest about it. At least he hadn't hidden his feelings, or his bias.

Well, he owed it to Ray now to solve the case, and quickly. Fraser threw heart and body into investigating the mysterious appearance of Franco, Jr., who had just happened to show for the wake. They split up again, Ray following up leads from the phone log while Fraser followed Franco, Jr. Who turned out not to be Franco, Jr. at all.

He was back at the station when Ray called in. Francesca handed the phone to him.

"Ray, where are you?"

Ray's voice was slightly crackly, and there was noise in the background that suggested he was in his car. "Franco, Jr.'s real name is Wayne Fahey. He's the P.I. Mr. Tucci hired to find the long lost son. It's a scam."

A scam, yes. No less than they'd been expecting. But there was another piece of the puzzle that fit, now. Wayne Fahey had known about the will, because he would have found out about it from Mr. Tucci. Luanne Russell had been genuinely surprised when the will was read aloud. There was no reason to believe she in league with Fahey. No evidence whatsoever against her. "I don't think Miss Russell --"

"Look, I'm going over there right now to pick her up."

"Ray, wait --"

But Ray's voice was sharply self-mocking. "I can pick 'em, can't I?" And he hung up.

Oh, dear. Fraser set the receiver back in the cradle. But, no, he had to try again. He picked up the phone and dialed the number for Ray's mobile phone.

"We're sorry. The cellular customer you are trying to reach is not answering their phone, or is temporarily out of the service range."

Fraser set the phone down with a heavy heart. Ray must have switched his phone off, on purpose or by mistake. And if he was already on his way, there was no way to get to the Tucci household before him.

Fraser closed his eyes. He'd failed Ray twice, now. First, by goading him into his suspicions, and now, by failing to allay them. His . . . jealousy -- yes, call it what it was -- was quite possibly going to cause Ray to accuse the wrong person, and if Ray did so he might very well lose any chance he still had with her. Ray had no evidence but his instincts, and his instincts were wrong this time, wrong because Fraser had manipulated them.

It was too late, too late to fix anything. All Fraser could do was get there as soon as he could. He set the phone back down and turned to go find Detectives Huey and Dewey. There was no time to spare.

~ * ~

They were at the Tucci house, both of them. Mr. Wannabe Millionaire and his beautiful partner in crime. His beautiful, treacherous partner.

Ray had believed her. Up until the book thing, through all of Fraser's hints and insinuations, he'd believed in her. And now he saw her for what she was. A criminal on the wrong end of his gun.

"Put the gun on the ground!" The false Franco Tucci bent to place it on the floor. "Slowly. Kick it over here. Kick it!"

Ray bent to pick up the weapon and straightened, tucking it into his waistband. It was ripping his heart out. She was so beautiful, like a hurt thing, a doe. "What I wanna know is, which one of you pulled the trigger?"

Luanne froze. "What?"

The impostor spread his hands. "She did it. The whole thing was her idea, I swear."

Those doe eyes were wide now, wide and imploring. But it was like the book. Just exactly like the plot in that stupid book. "Okay, both of you, on the floor."

Luanne's voice rose in shocked protest. "Ray --"

He couldn't listen. If he listened, he'd start believing her again, and he'd do something stupid. "On the floor! Both of you. Hands behind your head. Interlock your fingers. Get down!"

~ * ~

They were too late. Too late to do anything but take Wayne Fahey into custody and then attempt to explain the full story to a tense, heartsick Ray.

"When Mr. Tucci showed Fahey the photograph of his son, Fahey's resemblance to Franco, Jr. was obvious, and that was the genesis of his scheme. He would murder Mr. Tucci; then he would impersonate the son and lay claim to the money that awaited Franco, Jr."

Ray took it all in with the same pinched, hurt expression. "So she had nothing to do with it."

Fraser shook his head gently, but Ray wasn't looking at him. Ray was fighting his own inner demons. And then Ray lfted his chin, took a deep breath, and pushed by Fraser and up the steps to where Miss Russell was waiting on the front porch.

Fraser turned to watch. He couldn't possibly look anywhere else. Ray had his head bent, his whole posture speaking volumes of apology and abasement. Fraser couldn't make out his words, but he didn't need to hear them to know the essence of what he was saying.

It came down to this: his heart on the line as much as Ray's. But he couldn't wish Luanne Russell ill, not now. He couldn't even wish for her to be angry. It felt like half his heartache was with Ray up there on the porch, was for Ray, and for the mistakes they'd both made.

Miss Russell's face was set and still, not giving anything away. She looked up at Ray with those big eyes, spoke to him twice, and then turned to go inside. Ray followed her, every line of his body radiating hurt and confusion. And then she turned back, and gave him a cold, brittle smile.

She was rejecting him. Rejecting the apology, and the overtures. She was relinquishing the claim she'd staked, of her own free will. She glanced sideways, and for an instant her eyes met Fraser's. And then she turned and slipped inside, closing the door in Ray's face.

It was worse than being rejected himself. Fraser felt the pain of it in his chest and throat. Ray didn't deserve this; he deserved to be loved. To be well and truly loved, by whoever . . . whomever he chose to love in return.

Fraser understood, then, what he'd never fully fathomed before. It was Ray's choice that mattered. Not his own wishes. Not his foolish desires. Ray's heart was the one he cared about.

Ray looked lost and broken, up there on the porch. He turned around and scanned the yard but never met Fraser's eyes, as if the pain were too raw for that, now. As if he needed something, no, someone else.

Fraser swallowed hard. It was too late, as he should have known the moment Luanne Russell had first answered the Tuccis' door. Too late for declarations. It didn't matter that Miss Russell had rejected Ray, that she was now out of the picture now, because she was what Ray wanted.

Ray turned and came down the steps, passed by him without looking up. He was slumped, hurt and tired, wearing his heart on his sleeve. And Fraser saw it, then, the one thing he'd been overlooking: Ray was not deceitful; his every emotion showed on his face. He hadn't hidden anything from Luanne Russell. He'd just . . . responded to her. He'd smiled at her and spoken with her and made his interest painfully obvious.

Fraser swallowed down the lump in his throat, but it was undeniable. Ray had never behaved that way toward him. Ray had never given him any sign of interest that couldn't just as easily have been a sign of friendship. And it was obvious, now, that Ray would have. If Ray wanted something from his partner, he wouldn't wait around for a declaration. He'd take action. He would say something, or do something, to make his feelings known.

It felt . . . oddly freeing, knowing that. It took some of the weight off Fraser's shoulders. Because somehow, in the space of time between Ray's phone call and Luanne Russell's rejection, he'd come to the realization that what he needed was what Ray needed. Whatever Ray needed, whether it involved him . . . or not.

Fraser turned and followed Ray to the car. Declarations were unnecessary, now. Baser desires could be suppressed. Ray needed comfort, and friendship, and support, and Fraser could supply that, in his own way.

He might not be what Ray needed, but he would be whatever he could.

~ * ~

The worst thing about it was, it wasn't even Fraser's fault. Okay, Fraser had said the thing about "musk-like animal wariness," but he'd never actually accused Luanne of anything. He'd only described her as "nominally a suspect." And Ray had had to go and make assumptions.

He'd assumed all over the place. Yup, made an ass out of U and me. Deserved what he got, too, which was a kick in the gut.

So they were out here in the park again, because he was down and needed to talk. He'd dragged Fraser this time, his idea, and he'd even made jokes about cooking spaghetti -- jokes which Fraser, head case that he was, had decided to take for a challenge.

Yeah, well, he'd eat smoky spaghetti, if it meant a chance to get all this crap off his chest. He'd do pretty much anything to be out of his apartment and with somebody -- no, not just anybody, Fraser. Fraser, who'd tried to warn him, tried to steer him straight, and he just hadn't listened.

"Why couldn't I trust her?" he asked, not really expecting an answer. Hey, he was here to wallow, so he was going to wallow. "I mean, if I trusted her I would be sitting with her instead of . . . sitting out here in the wilderness."

Fraser was leaning forward, stirring the fire with a stick. "We aren't actually in the wilderness, Ray. We're in a park in the middle of downtown Chicago."

"It's not you, you know. Those things I accused you of?" He looked up, and found Fraser looking at him. Looking at him with something that looked like . . . sympathy. "It's me. I mean, I looked at her; she's drop-dead beautiful. She looked at me; she's actually interested in me, and right away I click. I start thinking, 'Okay, what is wrong with her?' What kind of guy is that? What does that say about a guy?"

Fraser wasn't looking at him anymore. Fraser was looking at the stick in his hand, at the end of it, where an ember glowed in the darkness of the Chicago night. Fraser's chest rose once, and then Fraser looked over at him, his face still serious, way too serious for the words that came out of his mouth.

"Loooooooouuuuuu Scagnetti looked at the princess who sat across the stone table in the stone cabin high atop Sulfur Mountain."

Damn, this was not what he wanted.

He didn't want to listen to a ghost story. He wanted Fraser to comfort him, to say he was sorry, and it was okay. To talk about their friendship like it meant something to him, something more than having a handy ear to talk to when he wanted to tell tall tales. He wanted Fraser to put an arm around him, and . . . oh, yeah, right. This was Fraser, Mr. Weird and Stiff. He might lock lips with you on a sinking ship to save your life, but he was not the kind of guy who went around casually touching people, offering hugs right and left. Nah, Fraser was the kind of guy who told ghost stories that made no sense at all.

"The Princess smiled at him. And for a brief second, Loooooouuuuuuu Scagnetti could hear his own inner bell ring as though it were rung by a thousand angels."

Wait, maybe Fraser did understand. He was talking about that love-at-first-sight thing, like he understood it himself. Like it meant something to him, for real.

It hit hard: he had no idea if Fraser had ever been in love. He'd said that thing about still thinking about women as a joke, but Fraser had taken it seriously, had sounded like he agreed with it. But if Fraser didn't think about women . . . well, why didn't he?

It couldn't be . . . no. There had been one woman. That Janet- chick, the bounty hunter. Fraser had been downright cut up when she'd left. And she'd stayed over at the Consulate; no telling what had happened then.

So maybe Fraser did understand about love. It was almost a comfort. Not as good as having Fraser hug him, but, well, he wasn't going to get that, so he might as well enjoy what he could get. And at least Fraser was paying attention to him, talking to him, telling him a story.

"And Loooouuuuuuuu --"

Ray smiled and joined in with an "Ooooh."

"-- Scagnetti vowed that never again would he kill and eat another princess as long as he lived."

Yeah, okay, he got that. The story had a point. You weren't supposed to eat damsels in distress. And that wasn't exactly a comfort -- like what did Fraser think he'd been beating himself up for, anyway? -- but at least it meant Fraser did understand, and Fraser knew he'd changed his ways, and he wouldn't be going through this mess again.

"Well, unless of course she were covered in choke cherries and brown lichen with a sprinkling of dust --"

Say what? What the hell was that supposed to mean? He was only reformed until the next temptation? "Fraser!"


"That is one dark story."

Fraser glanced down, and for a moment something dark and nameless crossed his face, something like pain. "Yes, it is," he said softly. But the moment passed, and he leaned forward, for all the world the same composed, together Mountie-guy he always was. He reached for the grill at the edge of the fire. "Spaghetti's ready."

It looked like a lump of sticky strings, all heaped together, and it didn't smell much better. "Mmmm." He glanced up, but Fraser was still weirdly serious, spaghetti or no spaghetti. Oh, well. He'd take a serving and slip it to the wolf on the sly. Except . . . he looked around. "Uh, where's Dief?"

"Otherwise engaged, I'm afraid," Fraser said, with another slightly pained look, but this one at least looked a bit more normal. After all, Fraser being miffed at Dief was the natural order of things.

And knowing Dief, it just meant he was out looking for love. He'd probably come home with some pretty afghan hound, and Fraser wouldn't know what to do about it. Ray grinned at the thought. Oh well. If Fraser wasn't getting any, and he wasn't, at least somebody was.

Dogs, huh? They had all the fun.

~ * ~

One dark story. Yes, perhaps it was. But he'd had to add the last bit, the bit about the choke cherries. It was vital to the story, because no love was perfect, nor ever had been. No love was blind to temptation.

And Ray . . . seemed to understand that, at least in part. Ray didn't even blame him for anything, though Fraser wasn't entirely sure he was blameless.

The problem with temptation was that it was never as obvious as choke cherries and brown lichen. Sometimes temptation came in the guise of jealousy. Sometimes neutrality -- declared neutrality -- wasn't neutral at all, not to someone as good at picking up his nuances as Ray was.

But Fraser was trying to apologize, in his roundabout way. He was trying to show Ray he understood. And if Ray didn't understand the true meaning of his intentions and his story, well, that wasn't important right now.

Ray's comfort was his comfort, and right now that was all he needed.

Part 2: The Fall of the Cards

Denny Scarpa was a piece of work. Lady Shoes. Yeah, well, she might have the shoes, but she wasn't much of a lady. Raking in the cash, taunting the losers, and doing it all with that flirty look and that smooth smile so they left the table not half minding that she'd just taken them to the cleaners.

She was nothing like Luanne Russell. Okay, so Luanne might've had a con or two on her record, but she never could've been this hard, this slick. Denny Scarpa didn't have a fragile bone in her body.

It made it easier to be here, playing the player. Made it easier to be working at taking her down. And now they only needed one more hand. One more hand for the jury.

Ray was doing his thing, playing aimless, pacing the perimeter, when the wall exploded.

His back hit the corner with a crunch that hurt all the way to his shoes, and the world went gray. Explosions. Flying debris. It was a take-down, a friggin' take-down. Yeah, a guy in a mask with designs on the cash. Ray raised his gun, and had it kicked out of his hand. Shit, the guy was gonna do it, gonna ruin the whole damn bust.

Ray surged to his feet. No way he was letting this butt-plate get away without a fight. He jumped him from behind, got a choke hold around his neck, and yanked off the mask. But he didn't get a look at the guy's face. All he could see was his hand -- thin but hard, with a long, lacquered black nail on his smallest finger.

That was weird. Not the kind of thing you'd expect to see on . . . shit. Pain exploded in his gut: elbow to the solar plexus. Jesus, it hurt. It hurt, and he couldn't breathe. Air. Air would be good about now. Air was good . . but it was too late. By the time he was on his feet, the gunman was already taking a dive out the window.

He was gonna catch hell for this one. Talk about a plan gone wrong. But then his backup was there: Mountie to the rescue, pushing his way through the room and peering out the broken window.

"Fraser," Ray cautioned, "I would not --"

Too late. Fraser had already jumped. There was a crashing sound like falling timber, and Ray got to the window in time to see Fraser roll to a stop on the ground below. "-- do that."

Oh, great. Ray dashed for the corridor and hurtled down the stairs. The gunman was just getting into his car. Ray fired seven rounds at his tires, and missed every one. Figured. He wasn't wearing his glasses.

Fraser was still on the ground, which was kind of weird. "You all right?" Ray crouched beside him. Fraser couldn't be seriously hurt. Fraser jumped out windows all the time.

But Fraser just grimaced and jerked, and then grimaced again. "I'm not sure, I got . . ." He twisted, and there was a cracking noise. "My back."

It couldn't be that bad. He was just bruised or something. He had to be, because if he was really badly hurt . . . no, don't go there. "Y'know, Fraser --"

Fraser clenched his teeth. "Mmm hmmm?"

"From the second floor, there's always the other option."

"Which is?" Fraser raised a hand, as if he wanted help up.

"The stairs." Ray grasped Fraser's hand. It felt warm and hard in his. Big and strong and hard, like normal. But everything was normal. It had to be.

"Oh, right." Fraser's grip tightened, and Ray braced himself and yanked, pulling Fraser to his feet. "Well, I'll remember that."

"You get the plate?"

Fraser wrenched himself backward, and there was the sound of vertebrae popping. For some reason that was reassuring. Fraser wouldn't be doing that if he was really badly hurt. "No, I was . . . indisposed."

"Great. That is greatness. Another night wasted. All night, for nothing."

Dief chose that moment to appear, along with Scarpa's fluffy little poodle, who was named something dumb like Ante. They were followed by Dewey escorting Scarpa herself, a hand on her elbow like she was a date instead of a collar. Sheesh.

Fraser was looking at Dief, who was making wolf-eyes at Ante. "Where do you think you're going?"

Scarpa -- no handcuffs, nothing -- went over to pick up the poodle. "My poor baby." She lifted her head out of the white fur and aimed those saccharin-sweet eyes straight at Fraser. "She hates explosives."

And Fraser shifted on his feet, went all stupid and tongue-tied, and finally managed to say, "Most animals do."

Damn, that was a dumb line. No, it was an idiotic line. But it was a line. Fraser was treating her like . . . like a woman, a beautiful woman. Like he actually noticed her. A freakin' card shark.

Jesus, after the thing with Luanne, he'd just about decided Fraser was immune to beautiful women. Looked like he'd been wrong about that one. Fraser's eyes followed Scarpa as Dewey took her and her dog over to the paddy wagon.

"Dief, she's out of your league," Fraser said

Dief gave a woof that was half whimper.

"Well, she is."

Ray leaned back against the hood of the nearest patrol car. Out of his league was one way of putting it. No, wait. That was backwards. Fraser was out of Scarpa's league. Way out. Fraser was smarter than her, a better person. Shit, he was a lot better looking, too. "What's with Dief?"

Fraser shrugged. He was still holding his back, like it was bothering him. "I'm not sure. Might be love. Then again, it might just be worms."

Love or worms. Yeah, given his own recent track record, Ray could see that. "What's the diff?" Not that he wanted an answer to that. Hell, no. That was one of those rhetorical questions. And, anyway, he had other things to worry about right now. Like the fact that, as they were talking, Fraser had turned back to watch the paddy wagon again. Watching it leave. Watching for her. Damn.

"Please." Ray forced a smile, trying to make it a joke, but it didn't feel like a joke. Not like a joke at all. "Don't tell me you got a thing for her."

Fraser just got that blank expression, the one that usually meant something else was going on. "For who?"

"You know who. Lady Shoes."

Fraser made a face and spread his hands, still doing the innocent act. Like he thought Ray hadn't noticed him looking, before. "I don't know her."

Yeah, he didn't know her. And someone like Fraser wasn't equipped to know a shark like Denny Scarpa. "Exactly, and you never will. She's a card player. You never get to know a woman like that."

"Ah. If you say so."

"Well, yeah, eh, mmm --" Damn it, Fraser wasn't supposed to give in that easily. "That's what I just said."

"Well, I know. I heard you say that."

Had he gotten through? Would it make a difference? He wasn't at all sure, because Fraser, brilliant as he was, was a dunce when it came to women. "Yeah, forget about it."

He didn't get a chance to say anything more, because his phone rang, and it was Welsh, bawling him out for letting the gunman get away. He didn't get a chance to explain to Welsh, either, but at least the call was short. Ray pocketed his cell phone and slid behind the wheel, expecting Fraser to be getting in beside him. Only Fraser wasn't. He had one hand on the top of the car door and the other on the back of the seat, and it looked almost like he couldn't jackknife himself enough to actually sit down.

Ray leaned toward him. "You okay?"

"I just need to . . ." he arched his back and cracked it, then collapsed into the seat with a loud "Oof."

Damn, that didn't look good. Ray put a hand on Fraser's shoulder. "You wanna see a doctor?"

Fraser's chin jerked toward him, and his expression looked . . . odd, for a moment. Vulnerable. "No, I'll be fine."

It was weird seeing Fraser vulnerable. It did funny things to his gut, made him want to go all strange and protective. Over Fraser. Who was usually so damn perfect he didn't need anyone. "You sure?"

Fraser glanced down at his shoulder, at Ray's hand still resting there. The strange expression was back. "Yes, of course. I . . ." Ray pulled his hand back, and Fraser's eyes rose to meet his, then just as quickly glanced away. "Thank you for your concern."

For his concern? That was weird, too. But then, things with Fraser had been a little weirder than normal for two weeks, now. Ever since the Tucci case. Fraser seemed . . . almost hesitant with him. Not about work stuff; no, the team still had the touch. It was more the personal stuff. Because now that he thought about it, Fraser hadn't asked him to do anything outside of work in the past two weeks. Oh, they'd gone and done stuff -- they'd had pizza last Tuesday, and they'd spent half of Saturday with Dief in the park. But he'd been the one asking. Not Fraser.

Ray fastened his seat belt and started the car. It wasn't that unusual. Fraser wasn't always the one who initiated stuff. So maybe it was just a coincidence. Yeah, okay, Fraser had been a little weird about the thing with Luanne, but he'd gotten over it.

Hadn't he?

But it ate at him on the whole drive back to the station. Fraser getting snarky with him. Fraser looking at Denny Scarpa. And somehow those two things got mixed up together, like somehow Fraser was looking at Scarpa because he didn't want to look at him, and, well . . . that was nuts, wasn't it? Unless Fraser was trying to pay him back or get even or something . . . but that would be so unFraserlike, it was unthinkable.

No, it was all in his head. Fraser was just being naive. So he owed it to Fraser to do his job right and make sure Lady Shoes got put away for a long time, so she'd be out of the picture.

Out of sight, out of mind. Yeah, that would fix it. Unless Fraser decided to visit her in prison.

Damn. He hated this. Hated thinking like this. But Jesus, he was almost starting to understand why Fraser had gotten so pissy about Luanne. Except Luanne had been sweet and fragile. Scarpa was . . . well, whatever she was, she sure as hell wasn't good enough for Fraser.

Ray gunned the engine and squealed tires turning into the parking lot at the 27th. Yeah, well, she wasn't going to get him, either. She was no innocent suspect. They had her red-handed. And if Fraser couldn't see that . . .

Sheesh, if Fraser couldn't see that, he had to have it bad.

~ * ~

His back was killing him. He hadn't wanted to admit it to Ray, but the GTO's seats weren't exactly contoured for proper lumbar alignment, and by the time they made it to the station, the sharp twinge had become a deeper burn, with additional pangs sporadically shooting down his legs. Standing helped, but he kept turning wrong, and the steady burn would erupt into a flare that made him see stars. It happened again in Lieutenant Welsh's office, as they were discussing Miss Scarpa's uncooperativeness. For a moment he couldn't speak.

The Lieutenant turned back to him. "What? What? Back?"


"Back." This was obviously a problem Welsh was familiar with. "Put both hands on the desk . . ."

"Mm hmm," Fraser managed, following suit.

"Uh-huh, take a knee."

Fraser sank down slowly, and the pain shot down his legs. "Mmmmm."

"Now breathe."

"Hoooo!" He expelled the air.


It helped. He didn't know how it could, but it did. He took another deep breath and looked up to see Ray's feet, propped up on the desk in front of him. Ray was watching him, concern deepening all the lines of his face. Ray's eyes met his, and Ray's shoulders heaved. "Hoooo," Ray said, expelling air as he did. Breathing with him. "Hoooo!" And somehow, that helped more than the position or the knee or even the breathing.

He didn't want Ray feeling sorry for him. He didn't want to burden Ray with his needs, even in this. But it helped that Ray still cared about him. And maybe it was foolish to cling to that, foolish to even think about it, but it was the only thing that made the pain go away.

He took one more long breath . . . and heard footsteps approaching the office door. Two sets of footsteps, walking in perfect tandem. He managed to turn his head enough to see them: federal agents.

Welsh took one of his arms, and Ray took the other, heaving him up to his feet. Welsh's grip was perfectly friendly, big hands wrapped around his elbow, but Ray . . . Ray was holding him almost at his underarm, where the flesh beneath his tunic was far more sensitive. Or maybe it was just that it was Ray, so close . . . closer than he'd been in weeks. Closer than Fraser had let him.

It was his own fault, this distance between them. After that night in the park, he just hadn't felt right asking Ray to do things with him. Every time he thought to make an overture, he found himself questioning his motives, wondering if he was doing it for Ray or for himself, and it troubled him that he didn't know the answer. So he'd simply . . . avoided issuing invitations.

If Ray had noticed, he hadn't said anything. Hadn't even hinted. He'd just turned around and made invitations himself, out to dinner, to take Dief for a walk. And it had been easy to accept, then, because Fraser knew it meant Ray wanted his company.

But now, with Ray so close, he wasn't so certain any more. He felt raw and open and needy, like Ray could sense his every emotion through the sleeve of his tunic. Like Ray would know . . . no, that was just the pain speaking. He was all right. They were all right. The pain would pass, and his head would stop spinning, and everything would be back to normal. He just had to remember to breathe.

The agents were here about Miss Scarpa, naturally, and Lieutenant Welsh agreed to turn her over to their custody. It didn't appear that the lieutenant had a choice, however little confidence the agents themselves inspired. They were interested in Scarpa as bait for their hook; they were seeking a bigger fish by the name of Alex Farah.

And that was where it should have ended. He and Ray should have gone home to get much-needed rest, and he might have even have had a chance to put a hot compress on his aching back. But the federal agents misstepped and lost Scarpa, and once again he and Ray were on the case.

Not that he was complaining, of course. It was a chance to be with Ray without the complication of worrying about his motivations. And his back was . . . feeling a little better, now. Yes, feeling a fair bit better.

~ * ~

They found out where Scarpa lived by following the dog, Ante. Following the dog, who would have thought of that? Well, Fraser, obviously. The man was nuts, but he was a certifiable genius.

Ray opened the apartment door with his credit card: don't leave home without it. The door swung open and he looked up . . . into the face of Lady Shoes herself. All wide-eyed and freaky, not that he believed it was for real. But Fraser seemed to. Fraser was staring at her, all wide-eyed himself. Like the sight of Scarpa in bare feet and a bathrobe was doing something for him.

It made Ray want to gag. "Look, generally it's not a great bet to come back to your place of residence once you've escaped police custody."

Scarpa didn't say anything to that. She didn't have to. A guy burst from someplace behind them and ducked out the door, too fast for Ray to see his face. Fraser snapped out of his stupor and took off after him, and Ray started to follow. But two steps into the corridor he remembered: Scarpa. No way she was getting away again. He drew his gun and went back.

She was in her bedroom, still in her bathrobe, pulling a pair of pants out of the closet.

"Think you're going somewhere?" Ray asked.

"A lady hates to feel underdressed."

"Too bad," Ray said. No way he was falling for any of her shenanigans. "C'mon, over here." There was a sturdy table by the entryway, heavy, so she couldn't take it with her. He cuffed her ankle to the table leg, said, "Don't even think of going anywhere," and took off after Fraser.

There was no sign of a red coat on the street. No sign in the alley. But there was a car coming toward him, a car that had to be a getaway, because it wasn't stopping.

Shit, it really wasn't stopping, and he had nowhere to go. The alley was too narrow, and there was no way he could outrun --

There was a tremendous yank at the back of the collar, and he was lifted high into the air, dangling like a kitten by the scruff of the neck. Fraser to the rescue, and just in time. The car passed beneath him, and Fraser's grip changed.

"I'm sorry," Fraser said, and let go.

The pavement hit him ass-first, hard enough to knock his teeth together. He looked up in time to see Fraser slip off the pole he was clinging to and tumble down next to him with an ungainly and unFraserlike flailing of arms and legs.

Ray found his breath. "Damn it, Fraser, if you were gonna drop a guy, you gotta say something first like, 'Ray, I'm gonna drop ya.'"

"I'm sorry Ray, but with my back being the way it is, it was extremely difficult to hang on."

Right. The back. He hadn't forgotten that. He hadn't. "Okay, I guess I'll let it go this time." He just wasn't used to thinking of Fraser like this, as anything less than superhuman. Ray heaved and got himself up to sitting. "You get a plate?"

Fraser pushed himself up, too, a lot more creaky than Ray was. "No, I was otherwise occupied."

Ray climbed to his feet. "I guess I gotta do everything."

"Oh, so you got the plate then?" Fraser was still on the ground, so Ray reached for his hand to help him up.

"No, I did not get the plate, Fraser, but . . ."

It took two heaves to get Fraser vertical. "Well, what did you get?"

Ray glanced up at the apartment building towering above them. "I got the girl."

"Ah," Fraser said. "That's good work, Ray."

Fraser's hand was warm and strong in his. Fraser's hand . . . was still holding his. Didn't need to be, anymore. But was.

It was weird. Really weird. But it was like Fraser had forgotten they were holding hands, just like he had. Well, shit, of course he'd forgotten. He didn't . . . didn't want to . . . didn't want to let go.

Didn't want to let go, which meant he had to, because if he stood here any longer holding Fraser's hand, he didn't know what he'd do. Really and truly didn't know. So he gave Fraser's hand a squeeze -- a little squeeze, just for, well, whatever -- and pulled his own away. "Left her cuffed to a table," he said. "We better go get her."

Fraser twitched all over, like Dief shaking off water, and then met his eyes. Looking a little dazed, which was from his fall, right, and his back and everything. "Right," Fraser said. "Let's go, then."

So they went up to get Lady Shoes and take her in for a second time. Ray let her get dressed this time, but no way was he skipping the cuffs. They took her down to the street and Ray left Fraser to keep an eye on her while he went to get the GTO.

By the time he got back, they were strolling around the alley together, chummy as you please. She had her hands crossed in front of her, so you wouldn't notice the cuffs if you weren't looking for them. Real slick. And Fraser . . . oh, God. Fraser had a hand around her arm, like he was escorting her to the dance floor, not the lockup.

Damn it, Fraser was as bad as Dewey. No, worse, because Fraser was the one who usually had no hormones, so this meant . . . shit, he didn't want to think about what it meant.

The two of them saw him arrive and strolled their way on over, still gabbing like it was a cocktail party. Scarpa was talking about how she got started playing cards. ". . . put my textbooks in the garbage can, and I never looked back."

Fraser tipped his head, looking at her. "Do you regret it?"

She looked from Fraser to him, and then back to Fraser again, like she knew which side her bread was buttered on. "After this thing? Yes."

Ray opened the car door for her and got her into the back seat with a "Watch your head." He shut the door and straightened to face his idiot of a partner. "Don't tell me, Fraser. She is one great lady. She feeds starving children, so we're gonna have to stick out our skinny necks."

Fraser had the nerve, the nerve, to try that innocent schtick. "Oh, I'm not sure about the starving children Ray, but --"

"You're a good guy, Fraser, and one of the good things about you is you take people at face value." Yeah, that was a diplomatic way of putting it. He turned and faced Fraser over the roof of the GTO. "She's different. She is a card shark."

But Fraser just leaned forward across the car. "Ray, we know that this man is dangerous, and that he probably came here to eliminate a witness, and if that's the case he'll undoubtedly try again." Worried about Scarpa's safety. Honestly worried. "Furthermore, in the absence of a hard and fast deal if we hand her over to the federal agents it's unlikely that her protection will be a high priority."

It burned. It burned bad. "Do not fall for her, Fraser."

"We have to protect her."

He pushed his sunglasses down to force Fraser to look into his eyes. Trying to get through, any way he could. "Do not fall for her."

Fraser's eyebrows went up almost to the brim of his hat. "I'm not."

Okay, okay. Fraser didn't lie, right? And even if he did, or if he didn't understand how deep he was getting, there was nothing more to say. "All right. What's the plan?"

They got into the car, and Fraser turned to acknowledge their prisoner in the back seat. "I believe Miss Scarpa will be safe at the Canadian Consulate."

Oh, shit. Ray put the GTO in gear and peeled away from the curb with more juice than was strictly necessary. Fraser wanted to take her home, like he'd done with the bounty hunter. Take her home and do . . . oh, geez, and Scarpa would do it, in a New York minute. Scarpa would be all over him.

"You really think that's necessary?" he asked, between clenched teeth.

"To ensure her safety? Yes, I do."

Jesus, Fraser was just being so reasonable about this. It was driving him nuts. And it was just that much worse because it was so weird -- Fraser the monk, who usually ran like a rabbit any time a woman gave him the come-on. So what was different about this one? What was so goddamned great about Lady Shoes, that it was making Fraser go for her?

She wasn't even that pretty. Okay, she had long blond hair; that was nice. But she was hard as nails, no way she'd let you see the real girl underneath. No way Fraser could know a thing about her -- sure as heck not enough to be inviting her home, to be contemplating . . .

He didn't want to think about it. Didn't want to picture it. But he could see those slender, too-wise hands peeling Fraser out of his uniform, pushing the red tunic off his arms, going for the suspenders. She'd make quick work of it -- yeah, she was that smooth -- and she'd be real happy with the package she was unwrapping.

Okay, well, who wouldn't? Hey, he'd seen Fraser change clothes a few times, and, damn, it wasn't just his face that was pretty. The shoulders fit the uniform, and the ass . . .

Oh, God. He was driving a card shark to the Consulate, and all he could think of was Fraser's ass, which he'd only seen through the boxer shorts, anyway. But they'd been damp boxer shorts -- damp from lake water in the cargo hold the Whaling Yankee, and even if he'd only gotten a brief glimpse, he still remembered what that wet fabric had looked like, clinging so tight to that ass it looked pink everywhere it was touching skin.

Shit. He'd sworn he wasn't going to think about Fraser like that. He knew it was pointless, and stupid besides. And anyway, he had lots of other things to be thinking about, like who would be after Scarpa, and really, how much it was worth worrying about. They should just hand her over to the Feds and be done with it, forget Fraser's scruples and play it by the book for once.

Not that there was any chance Fraser would go along with it. When he got pigheaded like this, there was no point arguing with him. No point doing anything other than going along with the flow, even if it was driving him nuts.

He didn't want to go along with this. He wanted to dig in his heels and fight, or just take over and phone the damn feds without asking Fraser's permission. But this was his partner. He couldn't do that to Fraser, even if he thought he was wrong, and even if he thought he was in danger.

Partners meant backing each other up, and this time it looked like he was playing the supporting role. Whether he wanted to or not.

~ * ~

It hadn't meant anything. No, of course not. Ray had grasped his hand to help him up, and if he'd held it a bit longer than strictly necessary, well, he'd probably just been distracted. But it had felt sweet, so sweet. Fraser hadn't wanted to let go.

Of course he realized, now, that it was not a cause for hope. Ray had certainly not said or done anything to indicate that it meant something. And in any case, it was all a muddle, because Ray was still convinced he was falling for Denny Scarpa

It was bothersome. Fraser didn't know what he'd done to make Ray believe that. Well, of course he'd shown an interest in her, but she was the subject of their investigation; surely Ray understood that. And she was, as Ray kept telling him, an expert at bluffing. The only way to see through that bluff was to earn her trust enough to make her drop her guard. So he was working on that in the only way he knew: by giving her fair reason to trust him.

But Denny Scarpa was a puzzle, and one Fraser intended to figure out. If he was not mistaken, "scarpa" was Italian for "shoe," which suggested the name was assumed. Part of the mystique, perhaps. Or perhaps for another reason. Fraser gave her a clean pair of long johns to wear and let her change. He had paperwork to attend to, anyway. He'd spent his night and most of the day now working on the gambling case, and Inspector Thatcher had some delicate matters she'd asked him to see to personally.

He had just sat down to fill out the forms when a flutter of cards landed on the forms in front of him. Three aces. Miss Scarpa sat down on the desk and spread out the full deck, so he turned a card, the jack of spades. She turned one herself: the queen of hearts.

It couldn't be marked cards, unless she'd done the marking very quickly. The deck was the Consulate's own, complete with Canadian flags on the backs. "You handle cards very well."

She smiled. "That's what I do."

He tried a probe: "Are you naturally lucky, or do you cheat?"

"That depends on how you define cheating." She gave him a little smile, then looked over to the left, where Dief was lying cuddled up with Ante. "Looks cosy, doesn't it?"

Fraser turned to look, half-rose from his chair, and felt his back seize up. He couldn't suppress a grunt of pain.

Miss Scarpa was behind him in a moment, her hands on his shoulders, kneading his muscles. "Is it sore? Is it here?"

Her hands felt . . . good. Skilled. Ah yes, quite skilled. "Yes."

"I used to do this for my Dad when he'd get home working late," she said, hands pressing lower, pressing into the soreness. It hurt and soothed at the same time. Fraser leaned forward and let her talk. It was seemingly aimless patter about her younger brother, but he stored it away for future reference. There was no telling when she might reveal something potentially useful.

She was reaching the truly tender parts, now. Fraser found himself twitching and moaning under the onslaught. She was strong, and she knew what to do with those hands, but he couldn't help wondering what it would have felt like if it had been Ray touching him instead.

No, he shouldn't be thinking of such things. He should have his mind on the case. "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"


"Are you protecting someone?"

She bent closer, until he could feel her breath on the back of his neck. "Just myself and my dog."

"Sounds very lonely."

"You tell me."

Lonely. Yes, he could tell her a thing or two about being lonely. "Are you suggesting our situations are similar?"

"Both outsiders, one step ahead of everybody else. Yeah, I think so."

It was an interesting assessment. He couldn't tell if she believed it or not. But it wasn't entirely true of him. Oh, the outsider part was true enough. All too true, lately, since . . . since he'd let his needs come between himself and Ray.

But one step ahead? No. It felt more like being three steps behind. "What do you plan to do about the FBI and Mr. Farah?"

"If I can cut a deal, I'll face Farah." Her hands were insistent, and he let himself relax one more notch under that touch, not thinking of Ray. Not daring to think of Ray now, when he needed his wits about him. She was talking about taking risks, but she sounded supremely confident. "I'd want to have someone with me. Someone I could trust."

Ah. Now she was showing one of her cards. "Someone like me, you mean?"

She leaned forward until he felt something -- her chin? her mouth? -- touch his hair, but her hands never stopped moving. "You would be perfect."

He knew then, knew exactly what she was doing. She was under the same mistaken impression Ray was, that his attentions toward her were somehow more than professional. And she was attempting to take advantage of that with every movement of her hands.

They were talented hands, and they were easing the stiff soreness of his back. But they were her hands, not Ray's. As much as he was enjoying the massage, he didn't want anything more.

Not from Denny Scarpa, anyway.

A sharp rap sounded at the door -- seven quick blows. Fraser lifted his head. "I should answer that."

Her hands kept moving. "You're bluffing, right?"

She was close, close enough to kiss him, cheek against his hair. Working the moment for all she was worth. He straightened against her. "No, I never bluff. Excuse me."

The knocks sounded louder as he crossed the tiled foyer, and his heartbeat picked up. It sounded like Ray. Just exactly like Ray.

He opened the door quite eagerly.

~ * ~

After what felt like fifty knocks, Fraser finally opened the Consulate door. Ray pushed Tommy inside and closed the door behind him. Fraser was still in his Mountie pants, but he had stripped down to the undershirt and suspenders, and there was something odd about him, something in his manner or his eyes that looked . . . softer than normal. Just a tiny bit rumpled.

"This is Tommy, our sketch artist," Ray said. And then he glanced past Fraser to the foyer desk.

Denny Scarpa was sitting there in Fraser's chair, wearing Fraser's red long johns. For a moment Ray couldn't breathe. Fraser half- dressed, Scarpa undressed. Shit. And the images were back with a vengeance: her hands, reaching to undo Fraser's belt; her eyes, laughing as she stripped off her shirt, teasing him, tempting him; and Fraser gone human like everyone else, giving in, pulling her close.

Fuck. He couldn't think like this. Shouldn't think like this. But it felt so wrong. Of all the women in the world, why did Fraser have to go for her?

Ray tugged at his tie to give himself a little air. "Uh, don't you feel a little, uh . . . naked without the long johns?" Naked. Shit. Fraser, naked.

Fraser looked over at Scarpa and said in that annoyingly mild voice, "I have several pair."

Right. Several pair. Soft red long johns hanging up in his closet, waiting for damsels in dis-dress to come along and hop right into them. "Mm," Ray said. He wanted . . . God, he didn't know what the hell he wanted. He wanted to beat sense into Fraser with a stick. But he didn't have a stick and there were witnesses, so he gave Fraser a quick briefing on ballistics and then went to set up the sketch artist with Scarpa so he could take down her description of the suspect.

When they were ready-set-sketching, he dragged Fraser aside. "Fraser, uh, you know what the hell you're doing?"

Fraser looked at him and tugged on his ear. "What is it you think I'm doing?"

Like Fraser honestly thought he didn't know. "Uh, you tell me. You're the one who's got a shark swimming around in your underwear."

But Fraser was still in innocent mode. "It's purely a matter of practicality, Ray. Her clothes were not particularly conducive to sleeping."

Sleeping? Oh, yeah, like that was all that was going on. "Oh, so you just had to take 'em off."

Fraser met his eyes, voice still mild. "No, she managed that all by herself."

Okay, okay, so his worst-case flight of fancy was wrong. Fraser wouldn't lie to him. He trusted that, the way he always had. "Look. Fraser, all I'm trying to say here is this woman is a dangerous customer. I mean, she's covering angles, she's looking at the odds, she's looking for insurance. This is not the, y'know, little girl from the igloo next door."

Fraser took the whole damn lecture with a sweet, thoughtful expression. "You think she's protecting someone?"

Protecting someone? Hell, yeah. She was protecting herself. But if Fraser wanted to believe something different, well . . . "Yeah, maybe. Boyfriend."

"But we have no proof of that."

"Oh, man, is she reeling you in."

For the first time, Fraser started to look annoyed. "Well, why do you say that?"

"Would you be so diplomatic if she wasn't such a beautiful woman?"

With cool, solid sureness, Fraser answered: "Certainly."

It hurt, and the worst of it was, Fraser wasn't lying. His chivalry went that deep, and left him that wide open. "Awful thing is, I believe you."

They were interrupted by Tommy, then, which was probably a good thing. It wasn't like the conversation was going anywhere. And in another minute, Ray might have been forced to do something drastic to Fraser, like . . . like . . .

Like kiss him.

Oh, God. He hadn't just thought that. He hadn't. He'd never felt like that about Fraser. Well, okay, maybe a couple of times, but not like anything he'd actually do something about. He'd have to be nuts. Fraser was untouchable. Perfect. Pure.

Except Fraser wasn't. Fraser was human. Between his back and this thing with Scarpa, he was seeming all too human, lately. But the weird thing was, somehow that made it . . . almost possible to imagine.

Jesus, no. If he started thinking like that, he'd be sunk. He was already teetering on that precarious point halfway between hero worship and complete exasperation. Fraser was impossible, unpredictable, and selfish as hell sometimes. The last thing Ray needed was to have some kind of unrequited crush on him.

He was still thinking crazy thoughts when the Feds showed up. He did his damnedest to cover their asses -- Fraser's ass, Fraser's nice, firm ass -- shit -- but he couldn't help it, he was almost relieved when Scarpa blew it and turned herself in.

Not that he liked being bested by a couple of agents from the Federal Bureau of Idiots, but at least it meant she was going to get locked away properly. Locked away where she belonged, and where she couldn't sink those cat claws into Fraser.

Hell, anything would be better than that.

~ * ~

The light in the men's room was harsh, glaring. It was two nights without sleep, now, and Fraser's body felt heavy and slow. But Denny Scarpa had shown him another piece of her hand. She'd talked about her younger brother again, and Fraser was willing to wager -- not with money, mind you, but nevertheless -- that this game with Farah had something to do with her brother's death. And then she'd kissed him. Testing him. Testing her hold on him.

Fraser bent over the sink to splash cold water on his face. He heard footsteps, and knew them instantly. When he raised his head, he could see Ray in the mirror. Ray looked . . . tired, as well, but he'd untied his tie and rolled up his sleeves, and the effect was quite . . . fetching. Even now, when Fraser knew he shouldn't be thinking that way. Even now, when he owed it to Ray to be friends foremost. "You know, my father used to say that duty was a passion, maybe the only one that really counted."

Ray shifted on his feet. "You got no duty here, Fraser. All you got is risk."

Risk. Oh, yes, he knew all about risk. But next to risks of the heart, this poker game seemed inconsequential. "Well, I'm aware there are risks."

Ray looked down, then met his eyes in the mirror. "Y'know, Fraser, when I was in college, I used to go to the track and, uh, play the horses. One day I was down there, and I met this chick from Albany. She had a good line, and I bought it: hook, line, sinker. Y'know, before she left, she'd taken everything."

It was a variation on the theme Ray had been harping on for two days, but this time, somehow, Fraser didn't feel the same pain. Ray didn't understand, it was true, but he cared. Cared enough to worry, and that was what mattered. "You think I'm confusing duty with passion."

"No, I think that, um, there's a lot of things you can do with a woman like this, but trusting them isn't one of them."

Trust. Oh, yes, he understood about trust. "Who says I trust her?"

Ray looked a way for a moment, sighed and turned back to him. "You telling me everything?"

Fraser dropped his head. He couldn't face Ray, couldn't answer that. Because the only answer was no. There was something vital he'd never told, something some part of him still needed to tell, something he would never mention, not without some sort of sign from Ray. And if he began to talk about Scarpa, and what he suspected . . . no, he couldn't, because he'd end up having to explain exactly why he felt immune to her charms, and that would skirt far too close to the danger zone. It was safer to stay excruciatingly neutral, even if that meant keeping his cards to himself.

Ray was looking at him intently. "You can back out, you know."

He couldn't back out. Couldn't leave Ray. Couldn't do anything but continue with the course he was on, confusing duty with passion every day. Anything else would be impossible. Anything else would mean losing the most important piece of his heart. "I can't do that."

Ray met his eyes in the mirror and nodded. Not understanding, but caring just the same. "All right, then. Okay." He touched Fraser's shoulder briefly. "Don't worry. I'll be there to back you up."

~ * ~

They put Fraser in a tux. Huey's tux, which shouldn't have fit him half so well, but it did. Outlined those broad shoulders, made him look slim everywhere else. Not skinny. Nah, that wasn't Fraser's style. More like solid, strong, big . . . okay, not big like really tall or anything, because Fraser was actually just about the same height he was. But that was nice, too -- it would make it real easy to kiss him; wouldn't even have to . . . shit.

It wasn't going away. They'd been up all night trying to teach Fraser to play poker, and all Ray had been able to think about was how good Fraser looked in that Henley undershirt and suspenders. He'd had the top button undone, and Ray had spent long minutes when he should have been thinking about the game imagining undoing the rest. Yeah, and the suspenders could go, and the pants, and then . . . oh, God.

But Fraser was in a tux now. Not his uniform, a tux. And he looked . . . classy. Distant. Untouchable once again. Not like the kind of guy you could have fantasies about.

Not that it was stopping him. He got to be the last one to talk to Fraser before the game was on, passed him the info from Frannie even though he didn't understand it. Farah had killed some guy named Packard in a poker game in Bakersfield. Yeah, and? But Fraser seemed grateful for the tip. He even looked like he was about to explain, before Welsh cut him off. Ray had time to give him a nod before Welsh dragged him inside the room with all the cops and feds.

They had the game room wired: mikes, cameras, zoom lenses, everything. They watched as the players arrived, first some guy from Oklahoma, then Fraser. Looking . . . confident, and a little, well, almost goofy. Ray didn't get that. He watched Fraser take a glass and call it cider. Not cider, you idiot, he wanted to shout. That's whisky. But Fraser sniffed it, said, "Whoa, stiff apples," and set it down again, and Ray finally twigged to it.

Fraser was doing it on purpose. Playing the rube. Not really lying -- not Fraser -- but playing up his ignorant side. Trying to disarm the card sharks all around him. Trying to make them underestimate him.

Ray wondered, suddenly, how often Fraser did that. He seemed so clueless sometimes, but how much of it was an act? It had never occurred to him to think that, before. But then, there were a lot of things about Fraser he hadn't really thought about.

He hadn't figured on Fraser being human. Well, sure, he knew Fraser got pissy sometimes, and he knew Fraser had felt all cut up and lonely when the bounty-hunter chick took off. But he just hadn't thought about what might be underneath that self-contained, cocksure Mountie surface. That Fraser might possibly have needs like everybody else. That Fraser could get hurt, too. And then Denny Scarpa had waltzed into the picture.

He still didn't get what Fraser saw in her. Confusing duty with passion? Hell, yeah, that was what he thought. But the message Frannie had phoned in was making him think again. Fraser was working another angle. So maybe Fraser had finally figured her out, after all.

The players were seated at the table, now, and Fraser was telling stories. "As a matter of fact, I once knew a man who lost the crotch of his pants on a barbed-wire fence, and later that night, a particularly harsh night, he almost lost his . . . but that's a, that's another story."

Oh, geez. Fraser talking about crotches was not doing good things for his blood pressure. But this was Fraser playing the rube again. Doing it for a reason, a specific reason now, if only he could figure out what it was. Unless it was some kind of signal. Damn, was that it? "We better go in," Ray said.

"It's not the protocol, Detective," Agent White said.

"It's not the what?"

White and Exley explained in their usual two-bodies-with-half-a- brain fashion. "We've got witnesses lined up to testify against Farah." "No one will testify until he's in custody." "So we'll nail him on gaming." "But to get this charge to stick . . ." "Farah's got to take a pot."

Fraser was still playing dumb, calculating odds out loud, placing his bet. But then the unthinkable happened: he won.

"There is something compelling about having vast quantities of money coming in one's direction, isn't there?"

Ray laughed, then realized he was the only person in the room who had. Oh, well. If they couldn't get Fraser's sense of humor, it was their loss.

"You're known as 'Lady Shoes,' I believe," Fraser said, chatting once again as the bets were placed.

Scarpa looked . . . uneasy. "Some people call me that."

"And your last name, Scarpa, that's not your name from birth, is it?"

No, it wasn't idle chit-chat. Fraser was up to something.

"Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't."

"If I'm not mistaken, your given name was actually Packard."

"Packard," Ray repeated. Packard. That was weird. That was the name of the guy who was murdered in Bakersfield.

"A truly fascinating game, poker. So often the real stakes far exceed what's actually on the table."

Bakersfield. Murder. Farah. Shit. Ray turned toward the door, ready for action. "He's showing his hand. We gotta go."

"We sit tight," White said.

Fraser thought Scarpa had something to do with the Bakersfield murder. Fraser thought there was something more going on here, something beyond the poker game and the sting. And then Ray saw it: the guy seated across the table from Fraser was scratching his face with a single long, black fingernail. A fingernail Ray recognized.

"This is the guy from the take-down."

Agent White looked at him blankly. "What are you talking about?"

It was suddenly crystal clear. "It's a set-up, you morons! Packard was her brother. Denny's here to take out Farah, and this guy is the trigger man. Let's move. Now."

But White still didn't get it. "We sit tight."

He was endangering Fraser with his idiocy. They all were -- risking Fraser, who'd put his gorgeous ass on the line for them. Fraser, who really had managed to see through Denny Scarpa. Ray grabbed White by the lapels and snarled into his face. "We move. Now!"

But it was hopeless. They were like robots, programmed for one possibility only. Ray shoved White out of his way. If they weren't going to save Fraser, he was. He pushed his way out of the room and ran for the stairs. In minutes he was on the roof, on the skylight, looking down on the game table.

Right where Fraser needed him. And Fraser somehow knew he was there -- Ray had no idea how, but he did. Fraser gave the signal, thumbing his nose just like Newman and Redford.

Ray thumbed his nose back. He was good to go. And then he had to go, because Farah's henchmen drew their guns.

No time to think, just to move. Ray launched himself feet-first through the skylight, coming down with glass raining all around him and hitting the card-table ass-first. Shit, shit, shit, it hurt. But he had surprise on his side, and he had Fraser. He scrambled to his feet and threw himself at Scarpa's toady, pinning him against the wall. No way the guy was going to get away. Not this time.

Fraser was taking care of Farah. "Thank you, Ray."

"No problem, Fraser." He was breathing hard, he hurt in fifteen different places, and he'd never meant anything more sincerely in his life.

Yeah, he'd jump through windows for Fraser. He'd risk his skinny neck. He'd been doing that for months, now, and it was always easy, always right.

Partners, yeah, that was it. Partners and buddies and, okay, he wanted something more, but that wasn't important. What was important was being here, and being trusted, and . . . damn. Why hadn't Fraser told him?

Fraser had had his suspicions earlier. He'd asked Frannie to look that stuff up, and never mentioned why. He'd been playing dumb again, playing dumb with his partner.

That was weird. Really weird. In fact, it felt downright shitty. Ray handed his prisoner over to Dewey and looked around, but Huey had Farah, and Fraser was gone.

Fraser didn't trust him, after all. Fraser had had plenty of chances to tell him, and hadn't said a thing. And now he'd run off to do something else without telling him.

He was halfway through with being ticked off and moving on to pure panic when he saw movement across the room: the window opening, and Denny Scarpa coming through it into the room, followed by Fraser.

Ah, geez, he was just plain pathetic. Inventing crazy scenarios, when all Fraser had done was go after Scarpa. Well, what else would he have been doing? It wasn't abandonment; it was teamwork. And from the look on his face, well, Fraser didn't exactly seem enamored of Lady Shoes any more.

The sick thing was, that made him feel a whole lot better. Fraser had learned his lesson. Fraser was his again. Well, okay, not his, but, you know, whatever.

And that was when he knew it was too late. Somehow seeing Fraser walk into that game room -- walk into that den of sharks, acting like a fool and leaving himself wide open -- had pushed him over the edge. Fraser had needed him. Him, not the Feds. Yeah, okay, he hadn't said so, but Ray had felt it, all the way to his guts.

Fraser needed him . . . and it felt damn good.

And now he wanted more, wanted it as bad as he'd ever wanted anything in his life. He wanted Fraser to love him, and, damn, that was stupid, but he couldn't help it. When he fell, he fell hard -- he'd always been like this. Fast and hard.

It was just like the thing with Luanne Russell, only ten times worse. Worse because it was even more hopeless, and worse because this was Fraser, and he . . . he already knew he loved Fraser. Belly-deep, heart-strong. Even when Fraser was being snarky. Even when Fraser was going off and doing his own thing. He cared even then, which meant . . .

Which meant it was a whole different ball game. Luanne Russell had pushed his buttons and set him hoping. Fraser already had hold of his heart. So if he screwed up, offended Fraser or hurt his feelings, it would hurt worse than losing Luanne had.

A hell of a lot worse.

This wasn't poker he was playing. There were no points for bluffing, and the stakes . . .

The stakes were as high as he could imagine.

~ * ~

It was late when they finished all of the requisite bookings and paperwork, and it seemed perfectly natural to be sitting at Ray's desk, playing poker. Sleep was overrated when he could have Ray's company instead.

Ray shuffled the deck. "Well, she's off to club Fed."

Fraser chuckled. For all his insistence to the contrary, Ray had quite a way with words.

Ray was dealing out the cards. "Five card, one draw. What tipped you off?"

It was a question he could answer, at least. "Well, there was something about her manner in the hotel room that suggested she wasn't truly in any mortal peril. Also, she claimed to have been a medical student at New York University, but there was no record to support that claim." Fraser picked up his cards. "What's the ante?"

"I don't know. We'll, uh, play for air."

Air. Ah, well. That was better than any of the things he might have thought of, but never suggested. Safer, anyway. "All right. Ante is in. In addition, when she was kissing me --"

Ray's chin jerked up. "Wait a minute. You kissed her?"

For a moment Fraser's heart stopped. But no, there was no reason to interpret that as jealousy. Dislike of Miss Scarpa, perhaps, but not jealousy. "Well, no, she kissed me."

Ray's voice went almost wistful. "What was it like?"

"The kiss?" It wasn't you, he wanted to answer, but couldn't. He could only say something meaningless, like, "Delightful."

But Ray . . . looked almost hurt. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Oh, dear. That really did sound almost like jealousy. "That the kiss was delightful?" Fraser asked, trying to calm his now- hammering heart.

"Not the kiss, not the kiss. That you suspected her."

Ah. Of course. Naturally, it wasn't . . . anything like that. "Oh. Well, I wasn't sure. And as you had instructed me, there are certain cards that are better left hidden until they are absolutely needed."

"So you were . . . bluffing."

Was that really what he'd been doing? "Evading," Fraser tried.


He hadn't meant to lie. He'd been holding back for Ray's sake. "Delaying."


But he hadn't told him the full story. Hadn't told him half. "Equivocating."



"Thank you." Ray said it perfectly dead-pan, and went on with the card game. As if he didn't mind. As if he accepted the deception, and didn't need to know anything else.

They played the hand out and he won again -- pure, random chance, of course, no bluffing involved. Ray stared with good-natured dismay at the crowded home -- crowded house -- full house -- and then bantered with him about paying up. It felt good. Almost relaxed. Almost back to normal. Until Ray looked over at him and asked, "So how's the back?"

He couldn't bluff or equivocate. Not now. "Somewhat improved."

Ray's eyebrows went up. "That bad, huh?"

"I believe it's healing. In another day or two, I imagine I won't notice it."

But Ray just tipped his head, his expression speculative. "You want me to rub it for you?"

Oh, dear God. It wasn't an overture . . . was it? Was it possible? "I'm sure I'll be all right."

"Fraser . . ." Ray was out of his chair. "Look, don't be an idiot." And then Ray was standing right behind him. Standing close enough to touch.

He wanted it so badly, he no longer trusted his judgment. "Ray, I . . . I don't think you should . . ."

"What's the matter, you don't like to be touched?"

"No, I . . ." He didn't know what Ray was trying to do. He couldn't tell from Ray's manner or his words. But suddenly he desperately needed to find out. To accept this offer for whatever it turned out to be. "I would very much appreciate your assistance."

Ray chuckled at that like he'd said something funny, and then hands closed warm on his shoulders, kneading strength into tired, aching muscles. Hands that were the ones he wanted, hands that were strong and honest and right. Fraser leaned forward with a moan. He should never have agreed to this. He could no more hide how he felt than a black bear could hide in an ice field, and he needed to be able to, needed to be able to put Ray's needs first.

But Ray . . . Ray wasn't putting his own needs first. Ray was doing this for him. For him. Oh, dear God. Fraser suppressed another moan and lost himself in the pleasure of Ray's touch.

~ * ~

Fraser's back was a mess, a bundle of knots Ray could feel even through the layers of his shirt and undershirt. Tense with pain . . . and maybe something else. But then, it couldn't be easy, being Fraser and trying to bluff. Holding his cards to his chest. Fooling his own partner.

It still hurt, just a little, even though Fraser's explanation had seemed reasonable enough. He just didn't quite get why Fraser couldn't have told him. Unless there was something else going on, something deeper. Something else Fraser wasn't telling him.

Ray used his thumbs to get the spots right beside his neck, and Fraser groaned. "That sore?"


Ray eased up the pressure. "Sorry."

"No, it's . . ." Fraser rolled his neck forward. "It was good, before. It felt good."

He couldn't figure what Fraser would want to keep from him, anyway. Some mistake Fraser had made? The fact that he'd really had the hots for Scarpa? That didn't make any sense. After Luanne, Fraser couldn't possibly think Ray would blame him for stuff like that.

Ray increased the pressure of his hands, and Fraser made a tiny whimpering noise. "You sure that's okay?"

"Yes." And Fraser grunted.

Ray closed his eyes. He had his hands on Fraser, which was exactly where they wanted to be. The other stuff . . . could take a chill pill for awhile. Because the Fraser beneath his hands wasn't bluffing, wasn't hiding from him. No way; those moans were for real. "Fraser, can I ask you something?"

Fraser lifted his head, and he was close, so close his hair brushed Ray's arm. "Anything."

"You ever, uh, you ever hear from that Janet chick?"

Fraser's eyes were closed, his head lolling back, his mouth slightly open. "Janet?"

"Yeah, you know. The bounty hunter."

"Oh." Fraser's head straightened a little, and Ray moved his hands a bit lower, sliding them beneath the straps of Fraser's suspenders. "Yes. I mean, no. No, I haven't heard from her."

It would be so easy to kiss the top of his head. Bend forward and it was done. But he was pushing his luck already. Ray dug his fingers in lower still, and Fraser arched against him with another moan. "You think about her a lot?"

"Not recently, no."

"What about Lady Shoes?"

Fraser twitched. "Ray, we just arrested her for attempted murder."

"I know, I know. I mean, what if she'd been straight-arrow for real? Feeding starving children or whatever. Would you have gone for her?"

His heart was suddenly in his mouth, waiting for the answer. Say no, his heartbeat pounded out. Please say no.

"No," Fraser said.

His fingers felt giddy with relief. He worked them against the knots near Fraser's spine with renewed strength. Glad, fiercely glad, that that wasn't what Fraser was hiding. "You sure about that?"

"Yes, Ray. She wasn't . . . isn't . . . couldn't be what I need."

Wow. Fraser had needs. Fraser admitted it. Success made him reckless. "Oh, yeah? So what do you need?"

Fraser bent forward with another groan. "I don't think we . . . ah, that is, I feel it would be better if we didn't talk about this."

Damn. That wasn't even evading or bluffing. That was a frigging road block. "Oh yeah? Why not?"

Fraser let out a sigh. "Because I, that is, you . . . because I can't. It would be counterproductive."

He was going tense under Ray's probing thumbs. Tenser, because he was already in knots. Counterproductive. Yeah, Ray could see it. Talking about this was undoing all his hard work. Ray drew circles with his fingers, moving back up to Fraser's shoulders. He couldn't quite get at the knots as much as he wanted. There were too many layers in the way. "Fraser, could you, uh, d'you think you could take your shirt off?"

Fraser . . . froze. There was no other word for it. Knots became masses of taut, hardened cords. "I don't think that would be appropriate."

Appropriate. What the hell was that supposed to mean? He hadn't meant that as a come-on. Not really. Okay, maybe. But Fraser was all stiff, Fraser was refusing to talk about his needs, and, damn it, Ray wanted to know why. "Whattaya mean?"

"Ray, we're in the middle of a police station. I don't believe that a . . . a shirtless massage, even a medically advisable one, is appropriate for the venue."

"Right." Okay, he could buy that. He could . . . "You wanna go to my place?"

The words were out and hanging in the air like smoke, or the smell of stale beer. And Fraser was still stiff as a board under his hands.

"Look, you don't have to. I was just . . . I mean, if you don't feel comfortable here, I thought you might . . . uh, never mind."

Fraser's back rose and fell under his hands: two long, deep breaths. And then Fraser said, "All right."

"You mean, 'All right, never mind,' or 'All right, let's go'?"

Fraser pushed his tongue out across his lower lip, and Ray felt his knees go weak. "All right," Fraser said. "Let's go."

~ * ~

Good sense . . . had taken a holiday. Resolutions, convictions, good intentions were all scattered to the wind. Fraser had no idea what Ray was doing, but he no longer cared. He needed to have Ray touch him again. With his shirt or without it; whatever Ray wanted.

Whatever Ray wanted. Nothing mattered but that.

Dief and Ante preceded them into Ray's apartment, jumped on the couch, and curled up together. It looked cozy, as Denny Scarpa had said. It made Fraser think impossible thoughts. Sweet, sweet, impossible thoughts.

"You know, you really shouldn't presume," Fraser told Dief. "Ray might want to sit there, himself."

But Ray was right beside him. "Nah, we'll be better off on the bed. That way you could lay down."

Fraser's heart was hammering in his chest. But Ray was open. Ray was direct. If Ray actually wanted . . . that . . . he would give him a sign. A clear sign. "I'm sure the couch would do just as well," he babbled.

"Couch has dogs on it, Fraser. Besides, it's not long enough. I know; I sleep on it all the time. And you're pretty much the same height as me."

"I see." His mind had deserted him. But Ray was right, they were just about the same height. He liked that. He had always liked that.

"Fraser, c'mon," Ray said, and took him by the elbow, steering him into the bedroom.

Ray's bed was made, which, given the state of the rest of the apartment, was actually surprising. Ray led him over, hand still warm on his elbow, and sat him down. And then Ray's hands went to his bow tie.

Ray was undressing him. Undressing him like a child, or . . . like a lover. Fraser lifted his hands to his shirt front. "Ray --"

"C'mon, Fraser, I can't do it right with the shirt on."

"I understand. I just . . . I think I can handle the buttons myself."

Ray pulled the tie loose and then popped out the first stud. "Goes faster with two," he said, and went for the cuff links.

In moments Ray had his braces undone and the shirt and undershirt off him. It was warm in the apartment, but Fraser shivered.

"Okay, lay down. Yeah, like that. That's good. Scoot over." Ray was sitting beside him on the bed, so close Fraser could feel the warmth of his hip. And then Ray's hands touched him.

Felt through two layers of cloth, Ray's hands had been intoxicating. On bare skin they were electric. Fraser's back tingled under the touch. Ray's hands moved, and he felt a deep warmth spreading from every place they kneaded. It was almost too much to take. Too much to feel. Too much to resist.

Fraser buried his face in the pillow and bit the inside of his cheek to suppress his moans.

~ * ~

Fraser was here, in his bed. Fraser wasn't protesting anymore. Whatever he was hiding . . . no matter what it was . . . Fraser had chosen to give him this much.

Fraser's skin was smooth and hot. He hadn't actually relaxed, but the knots were easier to work, now. Ray set to work on them in sequence: first the shoulders, then the neck, then lower . . . and felt something funny. A lump. A pucker. A scar.

He slid his hands down, kneading more carefully now. He'd been a cop for too long not to recognize what he was looking at. It was a bullet wound. Probably several years old. But close, damn close to the spine.

Oh, God. This was why Fraser's back was bugging him so bad. For a moment he couldn't believe he could have known Fraser all these months, and not have known this. It hadn't been in Ray Vecchio's files. It couldn't have been. He'd've . . .

Shit. It had. He remembered, with sudden clarity, the brief, incoherent file. The one that said Ray Vecchio had been exonerated by the shooting team, for accidentally injuring his Canadian partner.

He hadn't imagined that it could have been this bad. The file had been so short, and so dry, he'd assumed it was a flesh wound. But this . . . this was damn close to the spine. Fraser had been nearly killed, or at best nearly paralyzed. And it had happened well over a year ago, which meant . . . which meant Ray could have lost him, before they'd ever met.

Ray rubbed the silky skin below the scar, and his heart went tight. He couldn't imagine what his life would be like if he'd never met Fraser. Never got dragged off on all those cockeyed schemes. Never had his life endangered in wildly bizarre ways. Never had his skinny ass saved, just as often. And the little stuff, the crazy stuff, like going out to dinner or working late at night, or being dragged into that dumb baseball case and ending up hitting a home run. Somehow, when he was with Fraser, he liked himself better. Liked who he was, and felt like he could do anything.

He owed all of that to Fraser, owed it to the fact that somebody was a lousy shot and the bullet had hit just inches left of center. So, okay, it was nuts to be scared in retrospect, but he was. Fraser was human, just like everybody else. Fraser could die, too.

And it wasn't like he'd never thought that before, but it just hit hard, now, with Fraser's skin so pliant and warm under his hands, with Fraser's beautiful, muscular back spread out beneath him. Fraser had walked into a den of murderers, just hours ago, with no one but idiot Feds for backup. Idiot Feds . . . and him.

Ray slid his hands upward, rolling the flesh beneath them, and leaned closer. Yeah, him. He was Fraser's real backup, his real protection. And damn it, it didn't matter if Fraser didn't tell him everything, if Fraser wanted to bluff him, too, every once in awhile -- he'd lay down his life on a moment's notice. He'd always felt that way, right from day one. So if that was love . . .

Yeah, it was. He knew that. Knew it all the way down to his soul.

Ray leaned closer still and took a deep breath. Fraser smelled good, which was crazy, considering everything they'd been through these past two days. But he smelled warm, like vanilla, maybe, or apples. Only not really like that at all, just . . . edible. Kissable.

The pull was like gravity, impossible to resist. Fraser had his eyes shut, his cheek buried against the pillow, and he was making tiny little whimpering sounds as Ray's hands moved. It was so easy to lean the rest of the way forward. So easy to touch lips to the soft skin at the back of Fraser's neck. So right to taste him, to taste salt and almost sweet, the sweet that was Fraser, that was exactly how he smelled.

Fraser didn't move. Didn't make a sound. Didn't push him away -- which could've meant anything, like maybe Fraser was half-asleep, or was so gone on the back rub he wasn't paying attention. Or maybe Fraser just didn't want to hurt his feelings.

Ray pulled back, finally, his heart pounding in his gut. He knew with sudden, awful clarity that he should never have done that. And then Fraser's hand came up to cover the spot he'd kissed, and Fraser twisted to look at him.

Fraser's eyes were dark with . . . shock. Yeah, shock, pure and simple. His face was practically white. "You, ah . . ." He licked his lips and cleared his throat. "You kissed me."

It wasn't what you'd call a ringing endorsement. "Yeah, I guess I did."

Fraser closed his eyes, like he was in pain. Like maybe he was trying to figure out what to say, and it wasn't going to be pretty. Ray jumped to his feet and paced half the way to the bedroom door. He'd fucked up. Fucked up big time. Jumping through glass wasn't enough to make it right with your partner. You had to know when not to jump, too.

Ray crossed his arms over his chest, not daring to look over at that long form stretched out on his bed. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? I don't know what came over me."

"Ah," Fraser said, and the bed creaked. "I see."

Damn, his heart was dying in his chest. "I wasn't going to jump you or anything. I swear."

"I understand," Fraser said, low and furry. He was close. Real close. Ray turned, and was suddenly face-to-face with that bare chest. All that skin. The small, dusty-rose nipples. And . . . no exit wound, to match the scar on his back.

"They get the bullet out?" Ray asked.

Fraser blinked at him, confused. "Bullet?"

"The one in your back," Ray said. "They ever get it out?"

"Oh," Fraser said softly. "No. It was too close to the nerve. They decided it would be safer to leave it."

Damn it. He wanted to hit something. For almost losing Fraser, years ago. For almost losing him a few hours ago. And for really losing him now.

"I imagine it would be best if I left, now," Fraser said, his voice still soft.

"Yeah, you should go. I'll drive you home." But Fraser didn't move, and neither did he.

"It's late, and we haven't slept."

Damn. Now Fraser was making excuses for him. "I'm not real sleepy."

"No," Fraser said.

"No," he repeated like an idiot. But Fraser was so close. So damn close. And he wasn't moving away. Ray leaned closer, waiting for him to flinch. But Fraser's tongue just came out to wet his lower lip.

It was too much. Way too much to resist. Ray leaned the rest of the way forward, and covered Fraser's lips with his own.

Fraser's mouth tasted better than his skin. The same sweetness, and something else, something pure and fresh like he'd just had a drink of water, only Ray knew he hadn't. For a moment there was just that -- sensation, taste, soft lips against his. And then those lips moved.

Not pushing him away. Tilting to get a better angle. Pressing, sliding, moving . . . opening.

Fraser was kissing him. Fraser was kissing him. Not Lady Shoes. Not the bounty hunter. Him. And, oh shit, oh God, Fraser was an amazing kisser, Fraser's tongue was against his, was inside his mouth, and Fraser's hands were coming up, one on either side of his face. Holding him there, like Fraser thought he was going to run away.

But he wasn't running. Hell, no. He was . . . oh, geez. He pulled away for a second, leaned his forehead against Fraser's and caught his breath. Fraser was afraid he was going to run. He was the one who had started this, and Fraser thought . . . Jesus, was this what Fraser was hiding? Did Fraser actually want this, want him?

There was only one way to find out. Ray wrapped his arms around Fraser's bare back to pull that big body against him, groin to groin. It was sweet pressure against his straining erection even through two pairs of pants, and there was . . . oh, yeah. He could feel the hard ridge lower down against his leg -- Fraser's cock, trapped in his boxers, but hard as Ray's own.

Fraser wanted him. Fraser honest-to-God wanted him. It was astonishing. Inconceivable. But real.

Ray caught Fraser's mouth with his own, and Fraser's tongue met his, met urgency with urgency, slid inside his mouth, smooth and questing. Fraser was into this. Into doing this with him. Mr. Perfect, Mr. Pure . . . was a friggin' animal.

Ray slid his hands down to Fraser's waistband. He wanted . . . yeah, he knew what he wanted. The tuxedo pants were snug, but not too tight. Ray slipped one hand inside, down inside the boxers, too, and cupped his hand around the firm hemispheres of that ass.

Fraser bucked against him, fingers tightening in his hair. "Ray . . ."

"Something wrong?"

"No!" The word exploded against his lips. "Do you . . . could we . . . ," and he pulled away just long enough to glance over to the bed.

Could they? Hell, yeah. "Anything you want." Hey, if Fraser wanted him to stand on his head, he'd do it in a second.

But Fraser pulled back. Pulled back and looked at him, that broad chest heaving. "Are you sure?"

It was mind-blowing. Fraser, unsure of himself. Fraser, who could have anyone he wanted and didn't. Until now. "Does the pope shit in the woods?"

Fraser's brow furled, and Ray wanted to laugh. "Not that I'm aware of," he said, and Ray did laugh.

Ray eased his hand out of Fraser's pants and took his hand instead. "C'mon," he said. "Bed's waiting."

Fraser followed him to the bed, didn't protest when Ray went to work on his fly, then pushed the tuxedo pants down. Ray reached back up to do the boxers, but Fraser's hands were on him, pulling his tie off, unbuttoning his shirt. Working damn fast at it, too. They scrambled to get out of shoes and socks and all the rest of it, and then they were both naked. Both deliciously naked, both - - Jesus -- ridiculously hard.

For a moment, Ray couldn't do anything but stare. In the soft light from his bedside lamp, Fraser looked like a painting, like one of those old Italian or French ones, with all the light and shadows and the impossibly perfect bodies. And like a painting, Ray couldn't take it all in with one glance: the curve of Fraser's hip, the angle of his shoulder, those tempting nipples, the smooth contours of his belly, the soft puff of dark hair around the base of his cock. And his cock was . . . thick, heavy, uncut, dark pink. Ray bent forward, feeling the gravity pull once again, and kissed it.

It tasted different than Fraser's mouth. Different . . . but also good. It quivered against his mouth, then shuddered as Ray pushed his tongue around to explore the soft edge of the foreskin.


He lifted his head. Fraser's face and chest were flushed bright red.

"You shouldn't . . . I don't need . . ."

"You want something else?"

Fraser nodded jerkily and reached to pull him up. Ray twisted and pushed him down onto the bed, finding his mouth once again, and Fraser's arms came up around him, like that was what he wanted.

What he wanted. God. Fraser had wants. Wants and needs, like anyone else, and it was astonishing, still, that those needs seemed to be something Ray could help him with, but, Jesus, he could get used to this. Yeah, he wouldn't mind getting used to this at all.

Fraser's body was hot and solid underneath him. Ray shifted, and felt Fraser's cock slide against his. It was good. Everything was good. Ray let go of Fraser's lips and just panted for a moment. Panted and slid, back and forth, back and forth. And then Fraser lifted his head, cheek against his, and he felt warm breath and then teeth. Teeth along his jaw line, on his earlobe, on his cheek. Teeth closing tight, just this side of pain.

"Fraser --"

Teeth abandoned him, which was not what he wanted, not at all. "I'm terribly sorry, Ray."

"That was fine, Fraser, that was good, that was . . ." But he had to ask it, because he didn't have a clue. "What do you want?"

"You," Fraser breathed against his ear.

"I got that," he said. "I mean, I know I can be pretty dense, but I already figured that part out."

Fraser lifted his head and kissed Ray's cheek, right where he'd bitten it. Like that was an answer.

"Fraser, c'mon. You don't want me to blow you. I got that. So what do you want?"

Fraser pulled back and looked up into his eyes. "It's not that . . . it's not that I don't want it. I just . . ." Fraser closed his eyes for a moment, dark lashes brushing against pale cheeks. And then he took a deep breath and opened them again. "I want what you want, Ray. Whatever you want."

Oh, geez. Fraser was putting him first. Fraser wanted to please him. Like he had no clue how simple that would be, right now. "Hey, I'm easy," Ray said. He bent down and -- fair was fair -- nibbled on Fraser's earlobe.

"Ray, please."

That sounded almost distressed. Ray pulled back and looked into those blue-rimmed eyes. "What?"

Fraser swallowed. "I need to know. I need to know what you want."

Okay, he got that. Fraser wanted him to take the lead, here. Or at least to share it. "I want this," he said, and rocked forward, sliding his cock against Fraser's. "And this." He dropped his head and found Fraser's mouth with his.

Fraser's arms came tight around him and Fraser's body heaved against his -- heaved hard, and it was so good it almost hurt. Fraser wanted what he wanted, and suddenly that was the easiest thing in the world to understand. Ray matched his rhythm to those heaves, sliding back and forth, and the heat began to build. Fraser's breath went a little ragged, his mouth a little sloppy against Ray's, and Ray picked up the pace, moving faster, moving farther, rocking all the way back and forward again. And then he slipped, and his cock went between Fraser's legs.

"Shit! Sorry." Fraser hadn't asked for that. Fraser really hadn't asked for that. But Fraser's arms came around him like steel bands, holding him down, and he didn't know exactly what his cock was pressing against, but it was hot and tight.

"Ray, please . . ." Fraser's voice was raw, his breath gone totally haywire now. And, oh, geez, he was asking . . . yeah. That was exactly what he was asking for.

"You want that?" He had to be sure. He had to be absolutely fucking positive.

"If you do," Fraser whispered.

If he did. Jesus, that did weird things to his guts. "Yeah," he managed, "Yeah, I do." He wanted to. God, yeah. But he needed . . . damn. He wasn't going to be stupid. Not with Fraser. And he had to have condoms somewhere in the apartment. "I'll, um, I'll be back in a sec."

He scrambled to his feet, pushed himself away from the tempting warmth of Fraser's body, and stumbled to the bathroom. He had a box of Trojans, yes, there, and, right, he needed lube. Water- based, which meant the Vaseline Intensive Care was out. Shit. Ray rifled through the contents of the medicine cabinet. Toothpaste, shaving cream, liquid soap -- God, no. He had to have something. Anything. Wait.

Aloe vera gel. That was water-based, right? He checked the label, squinting. Yeah. That was cool. And maybe it wasn't Astroglide, but no way was he running out to the drugstore and leaving Fraser to wait for him.

He made it back to the bedroom, and Fraser was waiting for him, all right. He'd rolled over onto his stomach and he had one knee bent, spreading that beautiful ass, and there was no doubt, not even a hint, what he was asking for.

Ray dropped the supplies on the floor, picked them up again, dropped them on the bed. He stretched out next to Fraser's body, feeling the blood pumping back into his cock. He couldn't remember ever wanting anyone like this, not since Stella. Not since Stella in the early days, and it was so long ago, so hazy, that he didn't even know if he could make the comparison. Fraser was nothing like Stella. Nothing like Luanne, either. He was dark and cream to their gold; solid and firm to their fragility. But Fraser . . . had his own vulnerability. Not on the surface. Not that he showed to a lot of people. But it was there. It was real. It was right here in bed with them.

"You okay?" Ray whispered, kissing his cheek.

"Yeah," Fraser sighed.

"Good." He was hard again. Rock hard, and Fraser hadn't even touched him. Ray pushed himself up, found the condoms and tore one open, then rolled it onto his dick. He got the gel out and squeezed out a dollop, squeezed a lot, because it was kind of thick. But when he reached to smooth it onto Fraser's ass, Fraser flinched. Oops. "Sorry."

"It's just a little cool."

Damn. He should have warmed it up in his hand, first. He just hadn't thought. "This okay?" he asked, touching the edge of the puckered opening again.

"Yes," Fraser said, and relaxed against his hand.

Right. Well, as Fraser would say, proper preparation prevented poor performance, which meant . . . okay, he didn't want this to hurt. If this was what Fraser wanted, he wanted to make it damn good. Ray drew a deep breath and pushed his finger and some of the gel inside Fraser's body.

It felt hot and silky smooth in there. Good. Really good. And Fraser wasn't complaining. Fraser was moaning again. Ray took that for encouragement and eased another finger in, and Fraser spasmed around him.

"Please, Ray."

"You're ready?" It was too soon, he knew it was, but he didn't know how to resist that low, hungry voice.

"I need you . . . I need you now, Ray."

Jesus. He felt that all the way to his cock. Which was still all hard and happy. Hard and hopeful. He slid closer, eased his way into that warm crevice. He could do this without hurting Fraser. He'd just have to hold himself back. But then Fraser heaved against him, pushed back, and, damn it, he was inside, and Fraser was still pushing. He tried to brace himself on Fraser's hips, but it wasn't working, Fraser was still moving, and then he was all the way inside, rammed to the hilt, and Fraser was up on his hands and knees with a groan.

He wrapped his arms around Fraser's waist and held on, held him close, just getting used to the feel of it, so tight and perfect. He bent forward to kiss Fraser's now sweaty back, and then he couldn't help it. He had to move.

He pulled out, then slid back in again, and it felt like coming home. Fraser pushed back again and moaned, right on cue with the stroke. Like it was doing something to him, inside. Like he could feel what Ray felt. Ray heaved again, hard and fast, and groped for Fraser's cock. There, in his hand now, hot and slippery, which meant Fraser was leaking already.

That did him in, did him in completely. He was out of control, thrusting, pumping -- inside and outside at the same time, and he was panting right in Fraser's ear and hearing Fraser pant right along with him. He squeezed, squeezed Fraser's cockhead hard, and felt it spasm, felt it hot and wet and sticky in his hand.

He was there, almost there. He thrust into Fraser, feeling the spasms tighten around him, and then he was gone, too, in a rushing that took over everything -- sight, sound, even taste -- and when he was back inside his head again, he was lying on top of Fraser, still inside him but sprawled out across the bed.

"Aw, geez." He pushed himself up, pulled out, rubber still intact. "You okay?"

Fraser rolled over and looked up at him, his features soft and quiet. Just looked at him, for the longest moment. And then Fraser said, "Yes," like it was the easiest question in the world to answer.

There was jism all over the bed, all over Fraser's stomach. Ray got out of bed and found a box of tissues, wrapped one around the condom and threw it away, then took them back to the bed. He got the worst of it off the comforter -- damn, he was going to have to do laundry before his mom showed up next -- and let Fraser take care of himself. Fraser made quick work of it, neat and efficient like he always was. But when Ray slid under the covers next to him, Fraser rolled toward him and put his arms around him, and it wasn't the Fraser he was used to at all.

All this time, and he'd never known this Fraser existed. This needy Fraser. This desperate Fraser. But having seen him now, he knew he never wanted to give this Fraser up.

This Fraser was real. This Fraser was human. This Fraser was . . . perfect.

~ * ~

He wasn't in his office at the Consulate. He knew without opening his eyes, because it smelled like Ray. And the warm weight in his arms . . . was Ray.

Fraser opened his eyes and remembered everything. Ray kissing him. Ray making love to him. Ray snuggling close, afterward, and not moving away.

It was impossible. This was Ray, who had been in love with Luanne Russell just a few short weeks ago. Ray, who was still half in love with Stella.

Fraser closed his eyes. He was imagining things. He'd finally put a hole in his bag of marbles and had started having waking dreams. Dreams that felt, and smelled, and -- he turned his head and kissed Ray's sleep-flattened hair -- tasted like reality.

"Mmmm." Ray stirred in his arms, feeling astonishingly genuine. He turned, lifted his head, looked down into Fraser's eyes, and smiled a heart-stopping smile. "Guess I didn't dream it, after all."

Fraser swallowed. It couldn't be real, could it? "It would appear not," he temporized. After all, if this Ray was his hallucination, he was the one doing the dreaming.

Ray's smile went three degrees sweeter. "Good," he said, and leaned forward for a kiss.

His lips were warm and soft, his stubble sharp against Fraser's tender skin. Tender from . . . all that kissing, last night. If this was a hallucination, it was an astonishingly logical and detailed one.

Ray pulled back and looked at him, looked at him with an expression that was strangely tender. Open, completely open. And Fraser knew, suddenly, that it was real. Even his overactive imagination could never have come up with this.

Ray's hand came up to stroke his hair. "You're not freaked or anything, right?"

He found his voice. "I don't believe so."

"Good," Ray said. "Good. 'Cause I was kinda hoping you could, you know, sleep here again tonight."

Fraser closed his eyes. Ray wanted him, wanted to have him here. "I'd like that."

"Okay," Ray said. "So maybe tomorrow night, too."

"If you wish," Fraser said. He couldn't possibly say anything else.

Ray shifted against him, one hand on his hip. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Why me?"

For a moment, that made no sense whatsoever. "Why you?"

"Yeah, why me? Fraser, you got people drooling over you every day of the week. You could take your pick, but you never do."

He would have thought it was obvious. "Well, I don't love them, Ray."

Ray propped himself up on his elbow, his face still serious. "You saying you love me?"

The time for bluffing was long over. "Of course."

Ray's face broke into a delighted, heartfelt smile, and Fraser felt another strand of worry ease in his heart. Ray didn't seem to mind being loved. Didn't seem to mind at all. "How long?" Ray asked.

Fraser settled his head back in his pillow. "Well, I'm not exactly sure. I believe it happened quite early. I was simply unaware of it until you punched me in the jaw."

Ray's smile disappeared. "So you, uh, you're saying you love me because I hit you?"

"I thought I'd lost you," Fraser explained. "I was devastated."

"Oh." Ray's face went thoughtful. "Yeah, I guess I was pretty devastated, too." His hand slid up Fraser's side to his chest and rested there. "So why didn't you tell me?"

"I tried," Fraser said. "I just . . . it seemed that every time I brought the story up, we got interrupted. And then I saw you with Miss Russell, and I . . . well, I suppose I gave up."

Ray frowned, but his hand started moving over Fraser's chest, back and forth, hypnotic. "Story? What story?"

It was a relief, finally, to be able to explain. "The story I was telling you about Lou Scagnetti."

Ray's hand stopped. "Wait, you're telling me that every time you told that crazy story about the guy who eats princesses for lunch, you were trying to say you loved me?"


"Fraser, you're unhinged."

Yes, perhaps he was. As a plan, it had certainly been less than successful. "It's a story about love, Ray. About having your inner bell rung as though by a thousand angels."

Ray dropped his eyes and snorted. "Jesus. I thought you were trying to tell me I eat women for lunch."

Oh, dear. "I certainly never meant to imply that."

"Then why'd you say the part about the choke-cherry things? The part where he said he'd never eat another princess unless she was covered in all that weird stuff?"

Fraser sighed, and felt Ray's hand, still on his chest, start to move again. "I was referring to my own mistakes, Ray. I was trying to apologize."

"You mean, about Luanne."


"Wasn't your fault."

It was gratifying that Ray believed that, even if it was not entirely true. "It was in part. I certainly did not try to alleviate your suspicions."

Ray frowned. "You know she was innocent?"

"No, of course not."

"Then you didn't do anything wrong." Ray bent forward and kissed his cheek, like he was offering absolution. "Look, it's not like I'm complaining or anything."

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely, positively sure." The kiss migrated to the corner of his mouth. "I got no idea how long I've loved you. Could be months, now."

Fraser looked up into sky-blue eyes that were so close he couldn't quite focus on them. "When did you know?"

Ray grinned and kissed his nose. "Yesterday."

A surge of panic shot through him, mindless and shocked. Fraser sat bolt upright, shoving Ray off him. It was too soon. Far too soon. Yesterday was a whim, not love.


"How can you possibly know what you want?" Fraser whispered. "How could you be so sure, after just one day?"

Ray's hand touched his back, tentative but warm. "Look, it wasn't like that. I mean, I already loved you. I just . . . I thought you were too perfect."

That made no sense in any logical calculus he knew. "Too perfect?"

"Yeah, y'know, like your shit don't stink." Ray's hand caressed his ribs. "You can't love somebody like that. I mean, you can love them, but you can't love them."

It was still a helpless muddle. "So you realized only yesterday that I'm imperfect enough to love?"

Ray chuckled, and his hand stroked back and forth. "Never thought you needed anyone, Fraser. Never thought you could need me."

And finally, finally that made sense, because he felt it, too, the need to be needed. "I do," Fraser said softly. It was a relief to admit it. A heart-lifting relief. "I need you."

"I know," Ray said. And then Ray's mouth touched the back of his shoulder.

Fraser twisted under that touch, threaded fingers into Ray's hair, and tipped Ray's head back to claim that mouth with his. And suddenly he was sure that Ray did know. That Ray knew him, all the way to his heart, as if Ray had somehow managed to share the gift of openness, just by being who he was.

"Ray," Fraser said against that warm mouth.


"Thank you." For everything, he wanted to say. For this.

Ray pulled back and looked into his eyes, and Fraser knew he'd heard it all, even the unspoken part. "No problem, Fraser," Ray said, and leaned in to kiss him again.

Ray's mouth was hard and warm, his hands as sure and insistent as his heart. Fraser felt the last strand of worry loosen and then float free. Ray needed him. Ray loved him. Ray understood him.

It was more than he could ever have hoped for. It was triumph against the unlikeliest of odds. Fraser closed his eyes and let that conviction seep through him. He had what he needed, exactly what he needed, and the truth of that reverberated through him like a deep, sweet music in his blood.

He recognized the feeling and almost laughed, but there were no better words to describe it.

His heart was ringing as though rung by a thousand angels.

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