*How You See Me*


Manna LaDroit

Pairings: Fraser/Vecchio
Rating: NC-17 for m/m sex
Warnings/Notices: I use spoilers for all sorts of episodes, in my universe the series ended with "Flashback," and there's major hot Mountie love ahead.

Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP, finished filling out the first set of forms needed to process the Canadian insurance through the American hospital's bureaucracy and reflected that it felt odd to be in a medical facility when neither he nor Ray had been injured.

"Is anything wrong?" the male, somewhat weary nurse asked him as he passed the forms over the counter.

Fraser hunched just slightly, acknowledging the loss of control in the sigh he had released, causing the man's concern, then straightened his extremely tired, somewhat aching back. The bullet was making its presence known today. The bullet. Never "Ray's bullet." Not that Ray would ever believe that. Not that they would ever speak of it so he could call it "the bullet."

"I'm just a little tired, thank you kindly," he said with a firm smile. "Is there any news on Mr. Gonzales' condition?"

"He woke up a few minutes ago. Your partner is talking with him, but he can only have one visitor at a time."

"I'll wait outside."

"He won't last long with what they've put in him," the nurse warned, looking over a chart and wincing, even in the midst of his professional boredom. The tearing, Fraser knew, had been severe.


Fraser walked down the hall to the elevator, then up to the level he needed. Was his imagination working strangely at two in the morning, or could he detect the faint trace of Ray's bergamot cologne? He could certainly smell the disinfectant, the fear, the blood, and pain…pain had a smell, he was convinced of it. His back throbbed as that particular odor filled his nostrils.

It was a relief to exchange the narrow box for the narrow corridor. Beige walls made him smile slightly, and he thought of Diefenbaker, left back at the precinct when he and Ray had been unable to find him before rushing to the scene.

Ray had mentioned it first, in the car, making it a complaint.

"Too many of these lately, Benny."

Fraser had tried hard, had strained, really, to offer up a pattern. Having the number of rapes double within a two-week period suggested a serial rapist, but no similarity in MOs -- other than the obvious -- would announce themselves. Fraser could find no similarities between the victims, nothing to connect them in any way.

There had been two teenagers, but one was a suspected prostitute and one a social worker; this latest victim was a male, the last two he knew of were women. There was no evidence of someone hunting in a particular age range, no specific area where the frequency of the incidents was located, nothing but just more rapes than there should be.

Fraser frowned at himself, taking a stand outside the door to this latest victim's room. There "should be" no rapes at all.

He could hear Ray's quiet voice, but not the words. The door swung open, bringing out a nurse holding a covered steel tray. She smiled at him without special meaning, and he nodded back, relieved and exhausted.

He could not remember the last night he'd had seven hours sleep.

It had been the first thing about Ray's police work that had truly impressed him, he was ashamed now to admit, the overwhelming case load, the sheer amount of work Detective Vecchio, Chicago PD, was expected to process with nothing more than a badge, a gun, a car and occasional help from Elaine. And even in the beginning he hadn't appreciated what those forty-one open cases on Ray's desk meant. They weren't the product of his negligence, or an aberration of the season. Forty-one cases was a standard case load for Ray. Sometimes he had even more. He almost never had less.

In fact, Fraser was guiltily aware that his own presence had only added to that load, as Lieutenant Welsh now thought nothing of assigning Ray cases as he would to a partnered team.

Rape wasn't nearly as common in Canada as in America, though it was hardly unheard-of. Fraser had worked several rape cases in his career, including two back-to-back in Moose Jaw: two of the many crimes that had contributed to his inability to "adapt to an urban lifestyle." He couldn't help but wonder what his superiors there would think if they could see him now, unofficially partnered with one of the finest police officers he had ever met, helping to solve murders and thefts, fraud and kidnapping, and yes, rapes.

The victim had managed to chew through his own bonds and walk over two miles in a state of shock before a patrol car had seen his blood-caked pants and transported him to the hospital.

Extraordinary, the level of violence one person could inflict on another.

The door opened silently, and Ray came out, his eyes swollen and his face tight, his clothes immaculate. For Ray, this was the beginning of a new day, two o'clock in the morning or not. For Fraser, an inability to sleep simply made the hour very late.

"He knew the guy," Ray said. "Neighbor's kid."


Ray nodded sideways: his universal gesture for apology, for acceptance, for being up in the middle of the night and knowing he would not find rest before he saw yet another round of everything men and women were capable of when they were angry, desperate, or greedy.

"You could have stayed in bed," Ray said next.

Fraser shook his head.

It did not take long to get a warrant, but the "kid" in question proved not to be at home. It took them five hours, just two hours before Fraser's guard duty shift would begin, to find Mr. Peter Valdez at the Denny's on Pier Avenue enjoying a Grand Slam with grapefruit juice. He protested loudly, but not violently, and when the uniforms put him in the backseat Fraser caught a glimpse of eyes filled with equal parts outrage and shame.

"Feel like breakfast?" Ray asked as they watched the squad car pull away.

Fraser's guts tightened at the thought of his own Grand Slam, but he nodded.

Ray, however, headed for the car, smiling slightly at the relieved sigh his partner couldn't help issuing as he unlocked the passenger door.

They wound up at Ray's house, his mother fussing over them while Francesca got dressed, Maria and Tony argued about whose turn it was to pick the movie tomorrow night, and the children complained about getting ready for school.

The food included French toast and oatmeal, eggs, bacon, fruit, juice, and cups and cups of strong, sweet coffee. Fraser filled an almost endless emptiness both with what he put in his mouth, and with the sight of Ray's gentle recovery.

In fact, it would be hard to say which of them watched Ray more closely during the meal: his friend or his mother. More than once, his eyes met Mrs. Vecchio's, and once she sent him a smile of pure camaraderie. He smiled back, cheered as she was by the brightness that had returned to Ray's eyes, the fractional ease of stiff shoulders, the minute flush of color in his face.

"Uncle Ray, which is worse, killing somebody, or cheating on your taxes?"

"Worse in doing or worse in getting caught?" Ray held up his plate to intercept the overflowing spoonful of eggs his mother was arcing downwards.

Tony Jr. giggled.

"Now, Ray, surely the question is a moral issue above all else."

"Sure, Benny. It's every citizen's duty to contribute to the tax base, Tony."

"What are you doing, making a criminal in the family?" Maria demanded, turning from a somewhat bewildered Tony Sr. "It's not bad enough he has to walk to school through a neighborhood of thugs, you gotta confuse him about what's bad?" She glared at her son. "Murder's the most awful thing there is, and finish your juice."

His partner's eyes met his for only a moment, but Fraser felt the connection to the limits of his consciousness. Murder was not the most awful thing.

"No, thank you, Mrs. Vecchio," he said now almost instinctively at the brush of heat near his shoulder. "I simply cannot eat another thing."

"You ready to defend Canada, Benny?"

"In what limited fashion I am afforded, Ray."

Ray drained his cup, kissed his mother, ruffled Tony Jr.'s hair, and slung on his overcoat while Fraser did no more than get his hat. By the time the Mountie made it to the car, the engine was already rumbling.


Lieutenant Harding Welsh ducked his chin just slightly and checked the time on the watch currently tucked underneath the long conference table. 2:46 PM, and he personally had accomplished nothing in the last one hundred and six minutes except develop an even deeper hatred for zone review meetings.

Well, that wasn't completely true. He'd also learned that Paters at the 23rd was unable to keep a temp, that Kelley at the 24th was addicted to TV lawyer shows "because they're like train wrecks with well-dressed corpses," and that Arsenio at the 18th had gotten a new dog that liked to piddle on the floor whenever they had company.

The main purpose of the meeting, as far as Welsh was concerned, should be to compare notes on the recent proliferation of rape cases, but everyone else's concerns seemed to go no farther than having all their T's crossed for the Commissioner's Annual Report due next month.

"…course, if I had a Mountie begging around my precinct for spare cases, I'd stick him on it," Kelley was saying.

Welsh rolled his head Kelley's way, wondering what Fraser had to do with watching *Law and Order.*

"I mean, he'd sniff the wind, and suddenly I got detectives with arrest records like Kojak." Kelley laughed, drawing limp smiles from about half the lieutenants at the table.

"As I understand the matter," Welsh said quietly, "Constable Fraser's abilities are currently being employed by his government's need for a doorman. But if you like, there's a Constable Turnbull who, I believe, may be able to give you a spare hour every other Thursday."

"It's not a bad question, actually," Richardson piped up. "How did you end up with unpaid labor?"

"He's Vecchio's friend."

"What about Vecchio's real partner?" Kelley asked.

Welsh let his gaze linger. Kelley knew Vecchio didn't have a "real" partner.

"Vecchio was working alone when he met Fraser. I see no reason to hop off a free ride."

"The Consulate has no problems with the time one of their men puts in helping the 27th?" Commander O'Neill asked, and the mood change in the room almost shifted the shadows.

"Not as long as his regular duties are unaffected," Welsh answered, turning to the woman at his immediate left.

The Commander looked down at the open folder she'd spread on the table at the beginning of the meeting and not yet referenced. "We have over double the number of sexual assaults across our zone than usual for this time of year. Hell, for any time of year. We need an interdepartmental task force, and considering that several of the victims have been Canadian, do you think the Consulate would be receptive to an official request for Constable Fraser's assistance?"

"If we phrase it politely enough."

She nodded. "You have a problem with pulling Vecchio off his other cases?"

"None." Huey would bitch. Addards would make comments about favoritism. Besbriss would probably put in another request for overtime. But he'd learned long ago that while Vecchio could brag and preen with the best them, it only lasted for about five minutes. Put Huey on a special task force, and the guy would be wearing his commendation on his lapel for six months. Vecchio's inner demons wouldn't allow him to feel smug for the time it took him to grab the next file off his desk.

In fact, Welsh welcomed the opportunity to give Vecchio a shot at some special recognition. The man was a workhorse, and Welsh was uncomfortably aware that his own treatment of the detective years ago had been driving the man into burn-out. He'd even seen Vecchio on the top line of more than one IA report and had been seriously wondering if maybe the guy was a little bent…until Fraser showed up.

With the exception of the flack over that Medcalf woman over two years ago, Fraser had made all the difference in Vecchio's career. Though even during that, considering everything, Ray had behaved exceptionally well. Of course, Welsh still thought the guy was nuts to mortgage his house for Fraser's bail, especially considering what the lieutenant thought was the very good chance that Fraser had been trying to leave on that train.

Vecchio would never tell anyone, though. It was the detective's place to make a stink about it, and he hadn't. For his own part, Fraser had forgiven the bullet in his back, so there you were.

The weirdest part of it was, they worked better than ever together. Welsh was still impressed with Vecchio's handling of the Carver affair, to say nothing of his unsung role in stopping the Bolt Brothers not once, but twice. It was something that could never be spoken of at the 27th, but while Welsh kept his role steady to keep from throwing Vecchio off, he was more than willing to let the man follow up his cases by sniffing the wind, or some dog's butt, if it came to that. If that sometimes made him feeling like that Skinner guy on *The X-Files* while Mulder and Scully went chasing after ghosts, it was a small price to pay for having, as Kelley had so helpfully pointed out, a crackerjack cop working for free in his precinct.

But the commander was shaking her head over something, and he realized the open folder contained not only briefs on the recent rape cases, but also a report on several officers' recent arrest records. Vecchio's was currently on the top, with several cases bearing a red "F" next to them in the left-hand margin. It was an unexpectedly fanciful notation, and Welsh felt his insides melt a little.

"They're an unlikely pairing, and colorful," she said. "I'm not sure we want the attention they would draw."

Welsh shrugged. It wasn't his place to fill in the blank the commander wanted, and Paters and Arsenio were falling over themselves to assure her that attention was just what they did want, a show of "putting their best" on a threat to public safety. Welsh tuned out the politics and found he agreed.

In the end, Schwab from the 23rd and Bronski from the 18th were added to "provide assistance when necessary," and the damn meeting was at last allowed to draw to a close.

"Lieutenant," Commander O'Neill murmured as they were breaking up, "if you'll stay a moment."

Welsh nodded at the expected request. She waited for the doors to close.

"Vecchio and Fraser…" She fingered the file folder awkwardly, then took a breath and met his eyes firmly. She didn't smile. "Are they sleeping together?"

"I don't believe so."

"That's the sort of attention this case doesn't need."


She held his gaze another moment, then nodded, closed the file and handed it to him.

"I want to know what's going on, Harding. If it's Family, will Vecchio know?"

Welsh restrained himself from asking what the Mafia could possibly get out of raping people. "He's got the best chance of anyone on my team of finding out."

"Fraser's awful clean for something like this."

Welsh couldn't quite stop his grim little smile. "Fraser and Vecchio walk through garbage with the best of them, sir. It's costing us a fortune in Armani."

She smiled back, and his guts twisted right on cue. "Tell him he finds out why we're suddenly the top-ranking city for sexual assaults, and Chigaco will treat him to a tux."


It was their second case of the day, way down in the 20th Precinct. Fraser looked around at the unfamiliar streets with interest, noting the expensive homes and well-manicured lawns.

"Hate this neighborhood," Ray muttered, surprising his partner.

Diefenbaker whined.

"What's his problem?" Ray pulled a sharp left.

"He senses you're upset, Ray."

"I'm not upset. I just don't like it here. Besides, since when does he care if I'm upset?"

"I believe he usually cares about it, Ray, though it's more typical of him to keep it to himself. However, I believe he's now allowing his feelings to show more overtly, as he feels the responsibility on his shoulders as a member of a special task force."

Vecchio grinned. "You feel happy about being official for a change, there, Fraser?"

"Yes, Ray."

"Well, can't says I blame you for that. I wish they were letting you carry, though."

"It makes a welcome change from my more regular duties, Ray, and I believe I should tell you that I have noticed you're carrying a third firearm."

Ray said nothing. Several blocks passed.

"Why do you hate this neighborhood?"

Ray shrugged sideways. "People here think they're above crime, complain about everything. They eat dinner with politicians they're always threatening to call if they don't like the way you walked across their lawn. Of course, it's no good telling them their good buddy's own criminal behavior makes what happened to them look like a picnic, or that having no leads means we've got absolutely nothing to tell them."

"People tend to feel safer in a neighborhood like this than they do downtown, Ray. It's human nature to resent having one's illusions shattered."

Vecchio came to a full stop at the sign and turned to Fraser with wide eyes. "That's a bit more cynical than what I expect from Mounties, Benny."

"Mounties know all about being lulled into a false sense of security by our surroundings, Ray. The most beautiful expanse of snow and hills hides the deadliest traps. I knew someone at the academy, a man who died during his first year on the job because he walked out into a bright, sunny day in the Territory rather than taking his car. When the blizzard hit, he was cut off, and though two search teams were sent out, it was spring before his body was found."

Ray was driving again. "Well, these people weren't expecting this blizzard, Benny. This is gonna suck."

The victim was a fourteen-year-old girl, living with her mother, younger brother, and two older sisters in a somewhat modest-for-the-neighborhood white stucco house near the cul-de-sac on Abrahms Boulevard. Miss Valerie Downing was still in the hospital, currently under sedation and the watchful eye of her father and his current wife. According to the report faxed to the 27th that morning, the mother had been with her daughter during the questioning.

A tired, pale woman answered the door. The house behind her was silent as a tomb.

"Ms Downing? I am Constable Benton Fraser of the RCMP, and this is Detective Raymond Vecchio of the Chicago Police Department. We're members of a special task force assigned to investigate what may be a series of related crimes in the Chicago area. May we speak with you?"

She looked him over, noting his unfamiliar brown uniform, then scanned Ray's long, dark Armani overcoat. She lingered on Ray's face.

"And if my daughter's crime isn't part of this series, will you still help with her case?"

"Figuring out whether your daughter was assaulted by the same person who's gone after others will already help her case, ma'am," Ray told her.

"The policemen at the hospital told me they probably wouldn't catch the guy because my daughter won't tell us what happened to her."

Fraser took his turn. "Different detectives have their own approaches to pursuing information, Ms Downing. Detectives Bennet and Kentwood may only have been attempting to address their desire to have your daughter speak about the case by expressing the value of her account. However, there are many other avenues of investigation we can pursue at this time, and Detective Vecchio and I will do all we can to bring her attacker or attackers to justice."

The woman regarded them narrowly. "And if he's not on your personal agenda? If eliminating him crosses my daughter off your list?"

"You certain he's a man?" Ray asked, surprising her. "The report says she's got scratches, and deep in some of them they found traces of glitter nail polish. Now, the attack happened half a mile from here, and I'm thinking a transvestite would stick out in this neighborhood. Your daughter isn't talking, and for some women, being overpowered by another woman is more shameful than being attacked by a man."

Ms Downing flicked her eyes over Ray's suit once more, then stepped back, opening her door further.

The living room featured several small, dysfunctional pieces done in the style favored by The Bombay Company, while the framed prints on the walls were mass-produced, passive depictions of windmills wreathed in tulips and east coast seascapes. Everything was clean, but the walls could do with fresh paint. At 9 AM, Ms Downing was wearing a red silk blouse and gray pleated pants complimented by styled hair and a solid layer of Mary K cosmetics. Her nails, however, had been lost to gnawing teeth, the cuticles reflecting years of abuse.

"Would you like some coffee?" she asked, her voice flat.

"Yes, please," Ray said, and Fraser nodded.

She disappeared for a moment, then came back with mugs of coffee. Fraser sipped. Yuban, brewed within the hour.

"I know what it's like when you want to protect people you care about," Ray said quietly.

"Are you suggesting my daughter was attacked by someone she knew?"

Ray waited a moment, looked over at Fraser for her benefit, then told her, "Purple glitter nail polish isn't an older woman's usual choice. Also, some of the scratches showed traces of the polish, some didn't."

Ms Downing's eyes were growing scared, and her voice was high. "What are you saying?"

"You're somewhat new to this neighborhood. Valerie's a freshman in high school with girls who have known each other since kindergarten."

"Are you trying to suggest that her school friends did this?" But even in the midst of her outrage, the mother of a girl whose grades had plummeted from As in middle school to Ds in high school began to cry.

Later, in the car, Ray didn't bother asking if Fraser wanted lunch, and they wound up in a trattoria on the west side.

"You've never taken me here before," Fraser commented as they were left alone with their menus. Benny noted Ray didn't touch his bill of fare, and was leaning back with comfort in his chair.

Ray's smile was genuinely amused, and Benny felt his stomach actually getting hungry for lunch. Perhaps it wasn't healthy to have so much of his own physical well-bring tied to Ray's moods.

"I usually save it for dates, but it's been so long since I was here, I thought I'd run reconnaissance."

"Reconnaissance?" Fraser put his menu down.

"Yeah. Nothing worse than telling her you're going to some great little place you just happen to know about, and then realizing since your last visit they've changed chefs."

"Like I'd ever leave the only place my mother gets to eat for free?" a hearty voice demanded.

Ray grinned up at the voice's owner, then indicated his partner. "Benny, this is Pinky Marino, second only to my mother in the art of alfredo."

"Your mother would weep to know the secrets of my alfredo."

Ray waved him off. "Pinky, this is a good friend of mine, and current partner in crime, Ben Fraser."

"Yeah, the Mountie." Pinky shook hands like he was pounding steak. "Where's the wolf I keep hearing about?"

"Left him in the car with the promise of a doggy bag," Ray said.

"Ah, bring him in here. Never seen a wolf."

Ray tossed Benny his keys. "He's only half-wolf, you know."

"And you're only half-grown, you skinny bastard." Pinky himself was approaching two hundred kilos, Fraser noted as he rose from the table. Ray's retort followed him through the small room of well-dressed, mostly Italian men and women, and he shivered just slightly in the cold, wet afternoon.

Diefenbaker seemed almost incredulous when Fraser released him from the Riv.

"The chef is allowing you in because he's a friend of Ray's," Fraser instructed. "You need to be on your best behavior."

Inside, however, Ray was sitting alone at the table. The menus were gone.

"Pinky's got a thing for dogs," Ray said as Dief settled under the table. "Didn't know it stretched to wolves, though."

"What did we order?" Fraser asked as he tucked his napkin into his collar.

Ray shrugged. "Pinky didn't say."

"Do you think she'll move her family away from there?"

"For the kid's sake, I hope so. But I'm thinking there's no way this case is connected to anything else, except maybe some shoplifting at the mall and a general reign of hairsprayed bitchiness."

Fraser nodded, watching as their water glasses were refilled by a young man of Italian descent whose eyes, perhaps, were somewhat like Pinky's.

"My grandmother and I once discussed the responsibilities of being a parent or guardian."

"Guilt trip?"

Fraser frowned. "I don't believe so, Ray. She wanted me to understand the nature of her role towards me as I was growing up, what she could do for me, and what she couldn't."

"Guilt trip."

"My grandparents never made me feel any other way than welcome in their home, Ray."

"Listen to yourself, Benny. 'Their home.' It was your home too."

Fraser thought that one over while small salads were placed before them. Fraser was unprepared for the spicy-sweet dressing, and welcomed this small, pleasant surprise.

"However else I may have felt, Ray, I was concerned and curious at the time about the responsibilities of raising a child. She was honest in her response, and thorough. And because of that…" Fraser paused, looking at his salad and wondering what was prompting this confession when Ray's background would hardly look upon it with favor. "Because of that, and because of my relationship with my father, I have never personally known the desire, or rather, the drive one might expect to have children of my own."

Ray looked stunned, his fork hovering and his mouth open. He put the fork down. "No kids? Really?"

"I enjoy children, Ray, and admire parents greatly, but the numerous needs of one's children cannot be met casually, or on a part-time basis. Unlike my own father, I'm not of the opinion that a mother should be left on her own to fulfill those needs, nor am I a believer that my duty to my profession would not greatly curtail my own abilities as a parent."

Ray blanched slightly at that, and Fraser rushed on, "Unlike you, Ray, I have no extended family to provide guidance, babysit and provide company for any children I might have."

"You've got my family, Benny. You think Ma wouldn't be all over any rugrat you brought home? You think Maria's kids wouldn't be good company for your kids?"

Fraser smiled, and made it an apology. "I think perhaps I simply do not want to live with the idea that I wouldn't be there for him or her, personally."

Ray looked at his plate. "Me and Ange, we talked about having kids. Cases like the one this morning make me glad we didn't."

Two plates of seafood pasta with dried apricots and figs came steaming out of the kitchen, Pinky following with a small plate of liver and bits for Diefenbaker.

"Friendly for a wolf," Pinky said while Dief licked his face.

"If you'd brought him cannolli he'd want to marry you," Ray snorted.

When Pinky went back to the kitchen, conversation continued on undeterred to work.

"Near as I can see it, our biggest problems right now are finding a pattern when at least fifty percent of them's bound not to fit that pattern, and having no idea what sort of pattern we're looking for."

"True enough, Ray. However, we do know the sort of pattern we're *not* looking for."

Ray nodded and lifted a tightly twirled wad of pasta to his mouth. It was something uniquely Ray, the way he chewed with his mouth open and was still discreet. "Whatever this is, it's not just one person."

"Could it be some group of people targeting a group of people?"

"Maybe, but that group couldn't be determined by race, income, or location, or the computers would have nailed it." Ray took another bite. "Could it be some sort of contest? One gang racking up points against another gang?"

"Perhaps, but that would require a high level of organization across a number of gang neighborhoods. Has there been any sign of such a thing recently?"

Ray though about it, but shook his head. "I'll ask around, but I'm thinking it's too big, especially for some of those neighborhoods."

"We could check to see if the rates are higher or lower in high-profile gang neighborhoods."

"Yeah." Ray scraped the bottom of his plate and looked disappointed. The pasta was excellent. Fraser would have offered some of his own, but his plate was just as empty as Ray's.

"Could it be a sign of some new sort of popular street drug?" Fraser offered next. "Perhaps something that inspires sexual violence?"

"Maybe, but we're not getting anything weird in the tox screens we've been running. We should ask, see if anything might be out there they're not testing for, or if they're pulling up anything they're not understanding."

"This could prove quite challenging if it's something that gets lost quickly in the bloodstream." Fraser broke off a piece of bread to wipe up the last of his sauce.

"Too late," Ray announced as he stared down between his legs, and for a moment Fraser fought a most inappropriate smile. Then Vecchio looked up, beaming. "That was fabulous, Pinky. You gotta add it to the menu."

"Gotta have just the right kind of fish," Pinky sniffed, setting a small plate of cannolli on the table, then another on the floor for an ecstatic wolf. "But I think I'll make it a special tonight."

"You're spoiling him," Fraser acknowledged sadly.

"Someone so beautiful deserves a little spoiling," Pinky said, watching with approval as the wolf and his human friends all made quick work of their pastries.

"Check, maestro!"

"You know your money isn't good here, Ray."

"And you know if I ever leave here without paying, Chelsie's gonna come after me with a cleaver, and I'm just too attached to them."

Pinky considered this, then reluctantly drew the prepared check from his apron. "You know my wife too well, Detective."

They all laughed. Dief groaned.

"Well," Fraser said to the floor, "perhaps next time you might draw breath between bites."

They were walking to the car when Vecchio asked, quietly, "What makes a group of teenage girls do that to one of their own?"

"I don't know, Ray. I doubt they have any idea themselves."

Ray nodded. When he was behind the wheel, he offered, "Maybe that's it, though."


"Girls, kids, everybody…does stuff because it's popular, because other people are doing it."

"You think there's might be something making rape popular, Ray?"

Ray looked at him then, eyes glinting with something lost even as he looked. Ray shrugged.

"I think I wanna talk to those girls once they're rounded up."


Kacki didn't like working at night, but it paid time and a half, and he was trying to get himself a better set of wheels. He was the only person he knew who actually drove a Dodge Dart, and the joke was as old as the car. He had his eye on a nice, gas-guzzling SUV, maybe something with that CD system so you got a set of controls no matter where you sat.

At least he wasn't one of those people who couldn't make the sleep adjustment. He had a bedroom with heavy drapes over a window that faced a brick wallfront and quiet neighbors.

But the building he guarded was creepy: long halls and that lame buzzing "Exit" sign in red letters on the second floor, like it led the way to some Vegas hell. And the floors creaked with cheap linoleum over warped floorboards.

It was a good building, though, old and functional. In the daytime, it could look nice, what with that fountain in the front and the shiny silver letters, AxTrax, Inc.

He'd tried wearing a Walkman his first couple weeks on the job, but it had just made it creepier not to be able to hear what was going on. Besides, he was supposed to be listening for suspicious noises as well as thieves breaking through the window.

Something thumped upstairs, up on the second floor, but he shook it off. He still had the first floor to check through, each office door to test: locked and move on, or unlocked, go inside, and check around.

There was a surveillance system he could access in the security room in the back, but the cameras didn't show squat, and it was horrible, actually, just staring at those screens all day…or all night, whatever.

The Xerox room smelled funny. Someone had left their lunch in here, maybe someone with fruit. They'd get bugs if he didn't take it out, and he hated bugs.

Flipping on the light to start up that flicker-snap fluorescent lightshow, he squinted and located the trashcan. Yeah, fruit salad and yogurt, looked like. He gathered up the top of the plastic bag and tied it off before hefting it up and taking it out the back to the dumpster.

Shit, it was cold out. The wind was a bitch. He all but ran back inside.

Up to the second floor now, and he could hear that *buuuuuuuuuzzzz* before he even swung open the access door.

His face slammed into the floor, and his feet were heavy. His nose exploded back into his face, and the edge of a floor square caught up under his clawing right hand.

Claws were at his waist now, but he twisted, kicking out against the weight on his legs, jabbing down with his fingers towards glittering eyes. Someone grunted in pain and he scrabbled up, off-balance, jamming his finger against the panic button on his cell phone a split-second before it was slapped from his hand, before he was thrown back against the wall and something in his brain began to slow down.

Hands now, on him, forcing him down. He fought back, escaped, ran down the corridor and was caught again.

"Fuck off!" he screamed. "Fuck off!"

A boulder fell on him, a boulder with arms and legs and fingers that wrapped around his throat and would not let go. He hurt all over and his head was floating. It was so fucking dark.

His face was in the floor again, and his legs were cold. His ass was hot with pain. Oh God. Oh God.

"No, God, please." The words tore his abused throat.

"Police officers! Freeze!"

Feet, heavy, and so much light his eyes ached with it. The boulder was removed, and there were more words shouted, and then a gentle voice in his ear spoke. Said something.

A pause, and his legs were warm again.

"It's okay. You're all right. You did good, man. You did real good getting us here."

He was going to throw up, when he had the strength. He was going to puke for the rest of his life.

And then the voice was closer, quieter, barely heard:

"It was just his finger, okay? Like something a doctor would do. Just his finger."

He looked up now, ashamed, disbelieving, and saw some ugly guy with a big nose. But then there were kind eyes, like from a priest or something. And there was a hand on his shoulder, like absolution.

"The Lord is my shepherd," Kacki whispered. "I shall not want."

The guy nodded. "He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters."

Kacki nodded, and the guy nodded back, whispering, "Not much goodness and mercy in the world sometimes, huh?"

"You got him?"

"He's down in the squad car now. It's just you and me here…and Benny."

"You're cops?"

"Yeah. Well, I'm a cop. Benny's a Mountie."

"Ray, Mounties are also cops. In fact, the term is an acronym for 'constable on patrol,' which sums up both a Mountie's being and his duties."

The guy, Ray, rolled his eyes, but his hand on Kacki's shoulder hadn't left him. The nightwatchman made a move to get up and felt dizzy.

"Take your time. In fact, why don't you just roll over here, on your back? Take a load off."

Kacki rolled over carefully, Ray's hand resettling on his other shoulder. He was getting used to the hall light someone had turned on.

He saw the other guy now, kneeling on his other side. Benny. He didn't really look like a Benny. He had a brown uniform on, like a park ranger. That fit "Benny" well enough, he supposed.

"What's your name?" Ray asked.

"Kacki Jefferson."

Ray smiled. "Great name. Kacki, I'd like to look you over here a bit, okay? See if you got broken ribs or anything. Would that be okay?"

Kacki breathed in. His ribs hurt.

"I don't think anything's broken."

Ray nodded and didn't make a move towards him.

"My lower ribs hurt, on the left side."

Ray waited, then lifted up his hand in plain sight, before touching him lightly, carefully, briefly. Handshakes were more personal.

"Anything else hurt?"

"Hand." Kacki held it up, and they saw together that two fingers were pointing the wrong way. The pain flared up like a son of a bitch.

"We have an ambulance downstairs," Benny said.

"Near the squad car?"

"He'll be gone down to the station now," Ray said, his voice nothing pointed or sharp.

Kacki nodded, and they helped him to his feet, helped him down the stairs, helped him out to the quiet night.

"How'd you guys get here so fast?" he asked later, watching the EMTs bandage his hand, waiting for his boss to show up so she could watch the place and he could go to the hospital.

"Benny and I are working on a series of crimes around here. We've got a pattern down, we think. Anyway, it was working tonight, and we were just around the corner when they got your SOS."

"Series? This guy was some sort of…" Kacki realized he had no word for it.

"We don't know," Ray said. "We think it might be some sort of point scoring thing. We don't know." Ray looked at him levelly. "But maybe with your help we can find out."

Kacki nodded, and set his shoulders back. Benny nodded at him with approval. His boss showed up a minute later, and the ambulance took him to Cook County.


Fraser felt the sudden quiet like a pressure change. Ms Conner had disappeared into the AxTrax Building, the ambulance was long gone. It was an oasis to stand here in the alley with Ray and do nothing.

Ray was holding the moment longer than Fraser would have expected, and eventually it was he who turned to usher them to the car.

Fraser blinked and stared, caught himself, and tried to stare less obviously at his friend.

"Ray?" He put his hands out as though to catch him, but Ray had walked away. Fraser followed when he could, and the car was the same, smelled the same, felt the same. But now that the surprise had worn off, his stomach had filled with sorrow.

He looked at Ray now and saw nothing of the grief that had twisted his face in the alley. Fraser looked away. He respected Ray's privacy, but couldn't help resenting being shut out like a stranger. After all, Ray did occasionally make revelations so personal they left Fraser stunned. Which did mean he had meant to make…Ray wasn't starting the car.

He turned back, refusing to pretend he wasn't concerned at the sight of Ray's head slumped almost to the steering wheel, his hands clenching tight, his breaths careful and shallow.


Ray shook his head. "That wasn't good, Benny."

"You handled him extraordinarily well, Ray. I believe you softened the horror of the incident a great deal."

But Ray didn't answer, and Benny didn't understand. In the three days they had been assigned to this task force, he and Ray had investigated seven rapes and been at the scene for three of them. They had managed to stop this case at attempted rape, though Mr. Jefferson certainly was the victim of sexual assault, and Fraser would have thought that Ray shared his satisfaction that at least the worst had been prevented.

He kept himself from trying to distract his friend, or over-manage him. He sat now as he had once in the waiting room of a hospital, ready to listen to words or silence, just being there as best he could for whatever Ray wanted or needed.

"It was looking at it."

Fraser waited, running through a hundred scenarios that would give those words meaning.

Ray looked at him, eyes dry, mouth straight, and every bit of him in pain.

"It ain't right, Benny. I shouldn't be doing this."

Fraser spread his hands just slightly. "I don't understand, Ray. Do you mean feeling grief? You can't expect to keep yourself from being touched by what we see."

Ray looked furious, then confused. "Touched?" Ray looked away, fingered the door handle as though he wanted to escape. "It's obscene."

Fraser went back to waiting, but Ray reached for the ignition.


"Coffee, Fraser."

Relieved that his presumption hadn't led to reprimands, Fraser sat quietly as Ray roared up and down streets to an all-hours diner, killed the engine, and then stared through the windshield at the brightly lit red leather stools and long, clean counters.

Before Fraser could decide to speak again, Ray was out, and everything was easy and automatic until they had their coffee and were sitting by the window, leaving their coats on, feeling the cold in their arms near the trace-frosted glass.

"A cop looks at something, he should see what he's looking at. A victim deserves that much, deserves to be seen only for who they are." Ray looked at him cautiously, and Fraser knew Ray still hadn't committed himself to saying all there was to be said. "We gotta do that for the perp, right? We gotta take some scumbag and dance around his rights, so the victim should get that and then some."

"We're human, Ray. We can't make ourselves react just like we should every single time."

"You including yourself in that?"

Fraser braced. "Of course."

But Ray wasn't interested in lashing out. His eyes were fixed on inner demons.

"Well, you don't know what you'll think about until it's there, right in front of you. I saw it, Benny, I saw something I saw twenty-five years ago, and instead of looking at Kacki Jefferson, instead of being there for him, I saw…" Ray's gaze sank to the table.

"Ray, whatever you saw, it's difficult for me to see how you could have been any more 'there' for Mr. Jefferson."

Now those green eyes rose to his, seeking something.

"Ma wasn't feeling so good. She didn't say nothing, but she just stacked the dishes, you know? I was gonna do 'em, but Pop, he didn't like it so much when he caught me doing housework, you know? So she starts feeling worse, I can tell, and Pop's not home. It's real late now, and I'm supposed to be in bed, but I start thinking, if I can get Pop to come home, then he can watch her, you know?

"So I head to Finelli's, because I know that's where he is, and he's not there. He's out in the back and he's watching this friend of his who's puking, and the two of them are laughing."

Ray shook his head and looked around the diner. A woman on a laptop was sitting in the far corner, her fingers sounding a little like rain as they flew and halted over the keys.

"I shoulda gone home then, but it made me mad, Benny. Ma was home being sick, and here was this old guy barfing in the alley and Pop's laughing…I went up to him and told him he needed to come home, that Ma wasn't feeling well. That's when I saw how drunk he was. He started saying stuff, you know, about me, about what kind of man I was, and this guy…I never did find out what his name was. I never saw him again after that night, and I'd never seen him before -- anyways, this guy starts in on me, mixing it up a little, and I give him what for and tell Pop he needs to come home.

"Then I walk away, and I'm almost out of the alley when the guy grabs me. I figure he wants to go at it, and I've just started growing, losing the weight. I'm all feet and elbows, and when I swing at him, he clips me so hard I go down. I'm not thinking too good at this point, except maybe that Pop's gonna tell the guy to lay off, and then I realize my pants are around my knees."

Ray buried his face in his coffee cup and Fraser realized his own hands were shaking. The joints in them ached, too, from the way he was gripping the table. His whole body hurt, actually, and a sharp little need inside wanted Ray to stop telling him this.

"It was Pop saved me."

Fraser felt the little chill of relief, but it didn't go down very deep.

"I was so out of it. God knows what the guy thought was happening to him. I mean, Pop really took him apart. In the end, I was pulling him off the guy. I get Pop home, clean him up. And we never speak of it again."

Fraser got his throat unlocked. "The experience didn't help bring you to a better understanding?"

Ray's laugh held no humor. "I tried to thank him, that night, but when he…it was clear he didn't want it. I wasn't so young then that I didn't understand it just fine."

Fraser waited.

"That's how he saw me, after that: his son, his weak son laying there in an alley with some drunken faggot's fingers up his ass. Nothing I was ever going to do after that would get rid of it."

Ray was looking out the window now. "I lost my virginity when I was fourteen to a prostitute. I told her my name was Jake. She said hers was Lolita. I was eighteen before I understood what that was supposed to mean. Anyway, it was Pop set it up. When it was over, he was driving me home. He asked me how I liked it. I went on for, like, an hour about how it was the greatest thing ever. I didn't say nothing about feeling dirty or wanting to puke when I realized she basically just lived in that room and let guys ride her all day for forty bucks a shot. My pop, you know? He was always one for going cheap."

A man on a bike purred by the window, his helmet black and shiny in the streetlights. The motor's vibration rattled the cold window.

"And after that Pop relaxed about it. I was weak, you know, a victim, but I wasn't some guy's bitch anymore in his eyes. And like I said, we never spoke about it again, after that night."

"You weren't weak. You were a child."

"I was angry at him."

"Well, your father may have --"

"No." Ray waved his hand, wiping it out. "Not Pop. Jefferson."

Fraser considered it quickly. "For being weak?"

"For bringing it all up again. For making me see me there instead of him."

"Well, however you felt, Ray, you acted with exemplary decorum. I don't believe it's possible anyone could have handled it better. In fact, I think you should be proud of the way you have managed everything connected to what happened to you."

Ray shot him a disillusioned look.

"Think about it, Ray. You grew up to become a police officer, and now a detective first grade. You got married --"

"And divorced."

"Do you see that as related to what happened behind Finelli's?"

Ray jerked in irritation. "Sometimes it seems like everything is related to that, Fraser. I mean, look at me. I marry young to a woman I don't hardly know. My first real girl is daughter and sister to the Zukos, and I'm such an asshole when I see her again I get her killed." Ray made no pause for Fraser's frown of protest. "I fall in love with some undercover agent because she smiles at me after she runs me over with her car. I chase after Louise until I catch her, and then I don't know what to do with her. I'm so crazy for someone to love I feel like I could run over to that gal in the corner and propose marriage."

"You love lots of people, Ray. And lots of people love you."

Ray looked disappointed in him.

"And one day, you'll find someone --"

"I found lots of someones, Fraser. They're not the problem. I am."

The waitress came by and poured them both another cup. Fraser wondered if he'd sleep for days when he finally came down from all the caffeine.

Ray didn't talk again for seven minutes.

"I figure I let that one thing determine my whole life, like after that I had no more choices about who I'd be with or what I was supposed to want, that I had something to prove, something to take back from the world, whether I wanted it or not."

"About women?"

"About me and women."

Fraser knew if he were guessing wrong, it would take days for Ray to forgive him. A loaded pistol had nothing on Ray's empty eyes.

"Do you think that incident may have repressed desires you may have had towards other directions?"

Impossibly, Ray chuckled. "When you want to dance around something, Benny, it's a sight to behold."

Fraser waited.

"I'm saying things used to be easier. I'm saying I didn't used to have to listen to people talking about exploring things all the time. I never explored, I never chose. I never let myself look, never thought about anything but I was supposed to go out and bed however many women I could. That makes me a jerk, Benny. I don't like being a jerk.

"It wasn't why we broke up, but me and Ange…we used to have fights about it would scare the neighbors. I had to be in control. She couldn't touch me all kind of places. I didn't even like it when it was her idea. At the end, I tried to change, but she wanted me to get therapy. I mean, back then I didn't even know what kind of therapy she meant! And we were married five years, Benny, and I couldn't even tell her what I'm telling you now, why she couldn't touch me places, why I couldn't let anyone else be on top.

"That was my marriage, Benny. And now I see some poor jerk on the floor, and I almost start crying before I can get out the handcuffs. I spill my guts to you when I know you need to go home and sleep. I freak out so bad I take the best friend I ever had and tell him crap he would have paid real money not to hear, stuff that'll make him see me that way now, because for some reason I suddenly can't keep my mouth shut."

Ray pushed his hands down on the table and began to shift his weight up, until Fraser's hand on his wrist stopped him.

"I could never see you that way."

Ray shrugged.

"I mean it, Ray. Never."

"Aw, Benny. I'm sorry, you know. I shouldn't have brought it up." He stood up with intent now, and Fraser let him go.


Inspector Margaret Thatcher's eyes noted Fraser's stifled yawn, but felt no need to upbraid him for it, even silently. Fraser might look a little tired, but Vecchio's face was a lined smudge. When he'd walked through the door, she'd gotten the impression that his suit was holding him up.

"And you feel it couldn't be a point system because Mr. Pelter has no gang connections?"

"This is his third felony and his first sexual assault, and he's not talking," Vecchio said. "A guy like Pelter spends his whole life hustling to be something better."

Welsh shifted in his seat, perhaps a little uncomfortable sitting to the side of the desk, rather than behind it. Thatcher could sympathize, even though comfort was irrelevant at the moment. "Are you suggesting he's raping his way to the top, Detective?"

"He attacked a security guard on patrol, gutsy but not the wisest move on the Monopoly board. He may have been trying to impress someone."

"Have you gotten any further into the matter of the girls who assaulted Valerie Downing?" Commander O'Neill wanted to know, looking down at the impressive and depressing number of files on her desk.

"She's still not talking, but the mother's got some idea who a couple of them might be. I put Ellen Schwab on talking to them. If there's something there, Ellen will find it."

"So who's impressed by rape?" Thatcher asked, running through her own answers. "Gangs? The Mafia?"

"Pelter's not high-class enough for Family, and this seems too well-organized and far-reaching for gangs. Too many territories."

Thatcher suppressed a look of distaste. "Will you be able to use your connections to confirm it's not the Mafia?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm hoisting a beer with the Godfather this afternoon. I'll ask him."

"Detective Vecchio will make every effort to determine the word on the street," Welsh rumbled. "I take it you have determined the next likely area of assault?"

"Yes, sir," Fraser put in. "Detective Vecchio and I plan to patrol the area tonight."

"I trust you and Detective Vecchio will see to it that you get some sleep before the sun goes down?" Welsh asked, making Thatcher bite her tongue to keep from pointing out that it was her responsibility to tell Fraser to get some sleep.

"Understood, Leftenant."

Vecchio nodded as his cell phone rang. He pulled it out of his coat and flicked it open. "Vecchio….Yeah? Okay." The snap-shut phone was returned to position. "That was Huey. I got a snitch wants to talk."

"At the station?" Fraser asked.

"No. We're gonna have to change. If we're done here, sirs?"

Thatcher nodded along with the others, and Fraser and Vecchio left.

O'Neill waited until they were alone, then looked at Welsh, then her.

"They've covered quite a bit of ground."

"Agreed," Thatcher confirmed.

"The Commissioner has asked me what I think of viewing their work on this case as a field test."

"Detective Vecchio's work is highly valuable to the 27th," Welsh said in the tone of a man who senses a threat but would never show his claws in present company. Thatcher felt herself bristle at the knowledge that she wasn't getting the whole picture, but suppressed it.

"I don't believe anyone has the intention of removing him from a precinct where he has been put to such good use," O'Neill said, sliding her eyes towards the inspector.

"Constable Fraser's work at the Canadian Consulate is also greatly valued," Thatcher announced, doing her best.

"Would that be his duties as doorman or visa-stamper?" O'Neill asked, her tone the opposite of the insult in her words.

Thatcher reigned in her temper and opened her mouth, only to end up looking at the commander's raised hand.

"You're right. That was out of line." O'Neill took a breath, and shot Thatcher a woman-to-woman look. "There's just so much to be done in this city that the idea of someone as useful and effective as Constable Fraser's not being employed at every opportunity strikes me as a waste."

"I believe everyone here is aware of why Constable Fraser came to Chicago," Thatcher said. "If his interests in diplomatic channels were more sincere, I would perhaps have more duties for him than I do at present. I *have* offered him a transfer back to Canada one several occasions."

Welsh looked surprised.

"To some station above the Arctic Circle?" O'Neill inquired.

"He likes it above the Arctic Circle!"

"After conferring with Lieutenant Welsh, it's my opinion that Constable Fraser likes being able to act like a police officer. It's the Commissioner's opinion that providing Constable Fraser with an opportunity to do just that while remaining here in Chicago is a golden public relations opportunity."

Thatcher was angry enough not to go for the carrot -- almost.

"In what sense?"

"That can be something we all work out together, but the Commissioner was thinking that the urgency of instigating Constable Fraser's official capacity for this task force has left us on the right side of a lot of red tape. There's no reason his official status couldn't be extended for an indefinite period, particularly considering that he would not need to request to carry a firearm, that he has a long history of unofficial duty with the city, and, quite frankly, because we could use him."

With concealed effort, Thatcher produced an expression of consideration. She had been dreading this moment for two years, ever since she had read over the reports on her new staff and found a hand-written letter from Sergeant McCloud, Fraser's superior officer in Moose Jaw.

*Were I lost on an iceberg or dealing with a matter involving tribal law, I can think of no one I would rather have rescue me or stand for me than Benton Fraser. However, his understanding of law enforcement in any town whose population is over a hundred souls will no doubt result in the loss of life, especially his own. I recommend that he be posted only to the remotest stations within the RCMP's purview.*

And this was the man whom she had found waiting for her at the Chicago Consulate: the legendary throwback son of the legendary Bob Fraser.

She had tried to rid herself of him, offering him very nice positions in what was supposed to be his homeland. She had tried to oust him through attitude and meaningless assignments. She had then realized she was over-compensating for a pointless attraction, and, after the train, had simply been keeping her distance and making the best she could out of the publicity gained from his exploits. That this had allowed the presence of a mild flirtation between them had also been acceptable, if not a little exciting.

But this…

She hadn't understood at first why Fraser was always getting into (and out of) trouble with Vecchio. The men had so little in common. She still had no notion of what fueled their mutual loyalty or what made them such good, if difficult, partners.

So she had observed them, particularly after the affair with LaCroix, and the conclusions she had drawn were unsettling.

Fraser may have been born to be a hero, but in an urban environment, that heroism turned into fool-hardiness that needed, quite frankly, a guardian angel. It was this unlikely role that Vecchio filled. It was plain (though never directly stated) in so many of the reports CC'd to her: Fraser saved at the last minute because Vecchio just happened to be there to catch him, guard him, or draw a gun on whoever was threatening him.

Thatcher had read about Vecchio's previous experiences before Fraser came to Chicago in reports Welsh had made available to her: an impressive array of arrests coupled with numerous complaints about his comportment. He had received a number of commendations and disciplinary notices, and had gone through quite a number of partners until Welsh had taken over at the 27th and assigned him to working alone.

They were misfits, the pair of them, who together were somehow much more than they were separately.


If Fraser were given special privileges as a law enforcement officer here in Chicago, how long would it be before she was at some press conference explaining why he had done something dumb enough to get killed? Or worse yet, had embarrassed all of Canada by driving some dogsled down the freeway in pursuit of a broken tail light?

Welsh didn't want to lose Vecchio, but without him, Fraser was a public relations nightmare in a bright red uniform.

"You said their present assignment could be looked at as a test run," Thatcher said. "I agree that we shouldn't make any decisions until that is completed."

Welsh looked a little relieved, and Commander O'Neill's lips went a little tight. They wrapped it up soon after, however, and the inspector made good her escape.


Fraser settled back on the barstool, soothing the chill of his hand on the soft warmth of the denim over his thigh. Half the ice in his soda and lime had melted, but Ray hadn't moved.

In local parlance, this was a real dive. Smoke and sweat clung to the pitted wood of the walls and settled into the cracks of the floor. There was no lipstick on his glass, but a short hair from one of his ice-cubes was now being buffeted by the last desultory bubbles of the soda.

Ray was twenty feet from him, staring down into an untouched beer. The man they had come here to see was late, but not late enough to cause Ray's twitchy version of patience to emerge.

Fraser found it almost impossible to care. It wasn't fair of him, but Fraser couldn't shake himself out of the depression his friend's disclosure had hitched over his shoulders like a harness. The idea of it, the knowledge that Ray had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child, wouldn't leave him, wouldn't assume its place with the several billion other bits of information that filled his and every other human's brain.

He had already known, of course, that Ray's childhood had had its troubles. Considering the matronly authority of Ray's mother, Fraser had assumed that his father's physical abuse had not been extreme, but rather a few drunken swings mixed into a great deal of verbal abuse and near-constant neglect. Never had he imagined that added to this would be another incident, another memory burned through the tough exterior down into the gentle soul of his friend.

Fraser had had cause more than once over the past three years to marvel at Ray Vecchio's ability to reach adulthood uncorrupted by the crime, violence, and…noise and clutter of his childhood. Ray had confronted head-on and without much guidance the very "evils" Fraser's grandmother had scrubbed, swept and scolded out of the house. Yes somehow Ray matured into a man whose actions of generosity and love had taken Fraser's breath away approximately fifty-three times since they had met.

Seven times had already occurred by the night they had gone together to Mr. Lee's restaurant. At the time, Fraser had been wondering vaguely if Ray's overt demonstration of his affection were not, in fact, a veiled form of flirting. He'd known more than a few gay men in his life, and had fended off unwelcome advances from some of them just as he had from some of the women he had known. There was, in fact, a gay man living in the second floor of his apartment building, Mr. Valdez, who seemed to go through quite an array of lovers. Mr. Valdez had introduced himself, made a somewhat direct inquiry, and then left him alone with a friendly smile.

That night at Mr. Lee's, however, Fraser had been no more uncomfortable with the idea of Ray's possible interest in him than he had been with ordering from the menu. In fact, the idea had not…been arousing, not really, but it had been oddly free of intimidation.

But no, and the thought was strangely sad, Ray had had no interest in him beyond friendship: the best friendship he had ever known. Perhaps it was not to be imagined what Ray would be like as a lover.

A habitual drug user sat down next to Ray and scratched at his bare arms. They talked a few moments, and Ray gave the man some money. The "snitch" left, and Ray left as well a few moments later.

Fraser waited seven minutes, then followed, walking five blocks to the site where Ray would now be with the car. He slid into the passenger seat and felt his body pressed back into the cold leather as the Riv accelerated into the street.

"Nick says someone was paying for points, but he's not sure who and he doesn't know why." Ray snorted and swung left. "Thing is, the money dried up after the first few days, but word's still going 'round about it."

"Where are we headed?"

"Drop-off point Nick knew about was on Kinzie by the Mart. We'll get Bronski to watch it tonight, but I wanna check the layout."


"You know, two years ago, I thought Nick looked like a corpse. Now he looks like what you got left over when you take the corpse part away."

"Have you tried talking with him, Ray?"

"Nick Palmers ain't the 'talking to' type, Benny."

"Drug counseling has --"

"You gotta wanna be counseled first. Nick don't."

Fraser closed his mouth, regarded Ray's tight profile, and finally put it together. "You have tried talking to him then."

Ray hunched his shoulders and hooked around onto to Kinzie Street. The drop point proved to be a covered bus stop. Ray parked down the block and they watched the site through the ever-clean windshield.

"So why does someone wanna pay others for rape?" Ray lobbed.


Ray shrugged. "Then you'd wanna see it, not just hear about it."

"There's no accounting for taste, Ray."

"I guess. You ever see *Murder by Moonlight*?"

"Brigitte Nielsen, Julien Sands, 1989, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg."

Ray turned to ogle him.

"It was on television after I had fixed Mr. Mustafi's set."

"Benny, that film is a piece of garbage."

"Well, it was somewhat lacking in dramatic --"

"A major piece of garbage."

"Is there some reason you mentioned it, Ray?"

Ray sat back, looking again towards the bus stop. "When they're looking for the stuff on the terrorist, they realize he must have hidden something on the station."

"Actually, it was the security officer who had hidden the evidence, Ray."

"Yeah, but the point was that he hid it in plain sight. That way people would look at it and not know what it was. He got the idea out of that book."

"*The Purloined Letter.*"


"You think someone might be trying to hide their crime amongst other crimes?"

Ray shrugged sideways, then started up the car. "Maybe."

"I doubt we'd be able to get much by tracing the money. But they might have more trouble hiding their tracks when they were broadcasting their intentions."

Ray nodded and radioed in his instructions to Bronski, then took them both to his own house, where Dief had been left in Tony's care. Both the man and his charge were parked in front of the set in the livingroom, a bowl of popcorn between Tony's legs and a beer in the hand not holding the remote.

Dief rose to great them. Tony nodded.

"You look beat," Tony offered.

"We gotta get some sack time," Ray said. "You going out tonight?"

Tony nodded. "Got a shift five-to-midnight."

"Wake us up before you go."

Tony nodded again, eyes drifting back to the set.

They stopped by the kitchen for cold pasta salad and hot chocolate, then headed upstairs with the wolf in tow.

"You wanna shower first?" Ray asked, throwing him a towel.

Fraser made it quick, and by the time Ray came back from his own shower dressed in striped pajamas he was snug in the sweats Ray had left over a chair and had staked out his spot on the floor. Ray threw a blanket over him, drew the heavy curtains, and crawled into bed.

It had been a long time since he had felt so comfortable. The floor was much softer than he was used to, what with the carpeting, and the gentle sound of Ray's breath. Dief's panting joined in, familiar

What would he have done if Ray had been flirting? Was there a possibility that Ray had felt some interest towards him, interest that his wounded spirit negated automatically?

What would it be like to make love to Ray, anyway? He'd never really thought about it before, not even when the possibility of it seemed…possible.

There was such a delicacy about Ray's body, the graceful bird-like bones, the spare flesh, the length of his fingers and the extraordinary quality of his eyes. His was the most expressive face Fraser had ever seen, and he had seen it happy, sad, angry, calm, and almost every way in between. What would it look like during passion?

Was Ray a moaner? Would he be playful or domineering in bed? Fraser was willing to bet -- a gentleman's bet, of course -- that Ray was a fabulous kisser.

He closed his eyes to picture it: Ray's turtle-bare head softened on a white pillow, his eyes green, his lips parted slightly. That strong, slim body beneath his would be all bones and -- oh dear.

Fraser knew what the onset of an erection felt like. The heat and heaviness below his metaphorical belt was as familiar to him as a stitch in his side. He knew how to avert any further onset of such symptoms.

But instead he let himself imagine Ray's breath on his neck, the smell of his skin, and just what it would be like to be allowed to kiss and touch his friend until…oh dear…

It was wicked to lie there on the floor with his body tenting the blanket. It was sinful to listen to Ray breathe as he ached to touch himself. He was reminded of Victoria, and in a moment his body was calm and the delight of everything had paled.

But then…was this an epiphany? He would have to ask Ray. But it felt like an epiphany, and the simplicity of the formula was almost Biblical: atonement. Ray could be his atonement and his reward.

And a plan formed.

*Knock! Knock!*

Fraser jerked out of his too-short nap, resentful not a bit of the lack of sleep.

Tony stuck his head through the door.

"Ma's home. She's making you meatball sandwiches and stuff to take with ya."

Ray scratched his head and rubbed sleep out of his eyes. "Have a good shift. Lots of tips."

Tony nodded with a grin and closed the door.

Fraser laughed, and it wasn't even quiet.

"What's so funny?" Ray grumbled, smiling like he couldn't help it.

Fraser sobered and stood up.

"Well, you might not like it."

"Since when have I ever liked anything you've said? Let's hear it."

"Your pajamas are very large on you, and your eyes are all sleepy."

"So?" Ray bristled.

"You're so…" Fraser struggled for the right word, then produced it with triumph: "Cute."

Dief stared at him. Ray looked stunned. Fraser chuckled, reaching for his pants.

"What -- what did you just say to me?" Ray was out of the bed and in full flail.

"It was just an observation, Ray."

"Well, it was a weird observation!" Ray's eyes flashed with something other than outrage, and Fraser paused, in buttoning his flannel shirt over his T-shirt, all of which would eventually go under his white sweater. But Ray sniffed and turned away, padding into his closet.

"Just go downstairs and get something to eat while I make myself beautiful."

Fraser smiled, slipped on his shoes and socks, and led Diefenbaker out into the hall.


The innuendo in that voice was as familiar as the lack of subtlety. Bracing himself, he turned to see Francesca standing there in a blue dress. Or perhaps it was a blue handkerchief. Fraser wasn't sure.

"Francesca, I would like to talk with you."

She smiled, and like her brother it was a full-bodied event. Unlike her brother, it looked forced and showy.

"May we speak in your room for a moment?" he asked.

"My room?" She seemed stunned.

"Only for a moment. It would be better than addressing this issue out in the hall."

His tone warned her, but even as her eyes narrowed her lips stretched the smile even further.

"Certainly, Benton."

Her bed was neatly made, and there was an obvious organization to the dozens of cosmetic bottles and jars on her vanity. She stood by one of the tall posts at the bed's corner and posed, one hand on her hip.

"Francesca, in the past your…interest in me has been both flattering and…er…"

She waited.

"…well-focused. I have on many occasions attempted to establish a mutual acknowledgment of any lack of understanding between us. I had often desi -- wished for there to be a friendship between us unaffected by any other overtones."

A slight frown was forming behind her rather large eyes. Fraser tapped his reserves, and faced her.

"I am afraid that now I must insist."

She waited, then put up her eyebrows. "Insist on what?"

"I have never wished to mislead you, Francesca, regarding my intentions or interest in you, romantically. However, I have not pressed the point because my interests, while never matching yours, were never at cross purposes with yours. Now, however, that has changed."

"What has changed?"

"I am interested…indeed, I have 'set my sights on' someone very close to you. If I am successful, in fact, one might say that you and I would end up being related."



"Susan Aluggi? Third cousin, once removed? You met her last Easter?"


"Cessily Vecchio?"

"That is…"

"It's Marie Tillibry!"

"Francesca, the person in question doesn't yet know of my intentions, and I wouldn't want to share the information with anyone else until they're aware, and hopefully, accepting of my plans for our future. However, my heart has been fully engaged."

Francesca's frown had deepened considerably.

"Why do I get the feeling that you're asking for my permission?"

He shrugged gently. "I would prefer your acceptance, if I cannot have your endorsement."

"It's not Susan or Marie…it's not Ma. You wouldn't go after Maria…"

Fraser did not fidget.

"You're not…"

His own eyebrows rose.

"You're not…thinking of…"

Diefenbaker woofed outside, and dimly they could hear a child laughing.

"This isn't Ray you're talking about?"

"I really don't wish to speak of the matter --"

"Oh my God!"

Gracelessly, she slumped down to sit on the bed. It hurt, but he made no move to comfort her. It was essential that she understand this, and he knew all too well that the slightest sign of weakness on his part could be misinterpreted.

"You said Ray doesn't know."

"I cannot discuss this with you. I'm sorry. I simply wanted you to understand that our relationship needs to change. I wanted to make sure this didn't hurt you."

"You think Ray would be that with you?"

"I really cannot discuss --"

"You really think *my brother* would…" She looked him over and slumped further, looking down at her bright blue pumps. "If it doesn't work out, with you and Ray…"

"Francesca, I was hoping to have the honor of thinking of you as family."

"Why him?" She stood, eyes bright and hands raised. "Why him and not me?" She took a step forward.

Fraser backed somewhat painfully into the chest of drawers. Bottles wobbled.

"I really can't --"

"Just make me understand that much, Benton! Why him?"

Fraser stared at her, but there was nothing he could say.

She turned away and went to stand by her window, arms crossed, hands holding her elbows. He thought of leaving, but when he moved her head snapped around and her eyes pinned him to the wall.

"This person, okay," she said. "This person, whoever it is. You love this person?"

"Very much."

"Then you gotta go for it." Her chin came up. "You gotta follow your dreams."

"I do care very much about you, Francesca."

She shrugged, a Ray-like twitch. "So you should. We're family, right?"

"Yes, please."

A moment later, he slipped out.

Continue to Part 2

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