MCLD'S Round Robin

"Welsh says we're getting more cuts this year."

Ray Vecchio, Chicago PD, looked up in irritation. It hadn't been enough to pick the darkest corner of the diner and even put his back to the door like a rube. He thought about sticking his fingers in his ears and humming. He just wanted an hour away from perps and forms and kissing up. Was it really too much to ask?

Ray took a bite of his greasy burger and reflected that the real problem with this strategy was that it had worked too well. Terkel and Bolland had taken the booth next to him without realizing he was there and sounded for all the world like they were settling into an hour-long dissertation on every last bit of the comings and goings concerning the 27th Precinct.

"What are we supposed to give up next?" That was Bolland. "They gonna ration our shoe leather?"

Ray rolled his eyes and scrunched closer to his fries.

"It's even worse over at the 24th," Terkel was saying now. "I hear the only way those guys are getting promotions is if someone dies."

"I guess we should be glad for the unpaid labor."

Ray took a particularly large bite of his burger to make his lettuce scream. The squeaking pickle was a bonus.

"Really." The men laughed. "And Vecchio counts for a cop and a half...I mean, if you factor in the wolf too." More laughter.

That wasn't an insult per se, but Ray was forcing down that bite and getting ready to turn around and tell them to shut it when Bolland spoke again.

"How do you figure it with those two, anyway? I mean, you seen a less likely couple of buddies on the planet?"

Ray almost strangled and spilled lettuce on his silk shirt. He grabbed a napkin and rubbed frantically at the catsup stain.

"Oh, it ain't that hard to figure, really. Think about it." Terkel paused to gulp some Coke. "I mean, there you are, right? Some Mountie doing your job, and you gotta come down here and -- he was looking for the guy who got his father, right?"

"That's what I heard."

"And now you're stuck here working as a secretary or whatever he does and you can't be a cop no more. You saying you're not gonna hang around some guy who lets you work real cases with him? Even lets you bring your dog along? Not to mention the free taxi service. Think about it's all I'm saying. I mean, Fraser don't even gotta buy the guy dinner."

"That Riv's a sweet ride all right," Bolland said. "You ever been in it?"

Terkel's voice was high and lispy. "No, but if you ask him nicely I'm sure he'll take you to lover's lane."

"Get stuffed."

"Your mama."

"You gonna eat your pickle?"

"Do I look like I'm gonna eat it? Do I ever eat it?"

"Hey, so my mother raised me to ask before I scrounge off my partner's plate. Sue me."

"Your mother raised you to wash your hands before you eat, man?"

Bolland's answer was lost to Ray as he moved out the side exit, a ten-note left behind on the table, his coat collar pulled up around his chin to keep out the biting wind. The sidewalk was obscured by slush and his feet chilled instantly in wet socks.

*Idiot.*

But it wasn't enough to think it.

"Idiot." He walked a few more steps, knowing full well his feet were taking him away from the station.

"Idiot. Moron. Damn fool screw-up pea-brained jerk."

His steps slowed. Where did he think he was going?

"Idiot."

There was a good place to look for ties across the street. He darted through traffic, skidding on ice. A look through the window proved tantalizing, and he was inside before his breath finished fogging the glass.

"Detective Vecchio," the clerk beamed.

*Yeah, when you blow a paycheck here once a month, you get called by name. Idiot.*

"Whatchya got new today?"

The clerk led him to a rack of silk ties in muted grays and blues. One would look great with his gray Armani. He held it up to the light, checked over the seams, flinched slightly at the price tag, and handed it back to the clerk.

"I'll take it."

The clerk beamed some more. Ray felt the urge to check him for outstanding parking tickets, but just handed over his card.

*Jerk.*

"Are you feeling all right, Detective?"

Ray got his face to smile. "Yeah. Ate lunch too fast, I think maybe."

The clerk nodded as though his customer had made some sort of wise observation, and Ray grabbed his bag before getting back out in the slush. He had seven more reports to finish before he could head home.

By the time he reached his desk, his stomach was curled up so tight each step hurt, and no amount of cussing under his breath was loosening things up.

"You all right, Ray?"

Not snapping at Elaine's question almost made Ray's eyes burst out of his head and roll around on the desk.

"Yeah. Ate lunch too fast."

"You want some Rolaids?"

"Got 'em in my desk, thanks." He plastered on a smile for her. "Wanna help me with my reports?"

"In your dreams." She walked away, but at the last step before her own desk her dark eyes shot him a glance over one elegant shoulder. Ray met her look, then cranked a sheet into his typewriter and got started.

A few hours later, his hands were steady, his guts were quiet, and the reports were done.

*See? You just gotta work through it, is all. Just like everything else. You're still a jerk, but hey, that's hardly news, huh?*

Time to go home, anyway. He put the reports in Welsh's basket, wrapped up in coat and scarf and put his hat on, then walked out to the Riv. One turn of the key and she started up sweetly. One look at the dashboard clock, and he knew he'd be right on time to pick Fraser up after work.

For the first time ever, the thought brought him no joy.

"Aw, Benny," he found himself whispering to the steering wheel, like a schmuck. "Damn it to hell."

The ache in his gut returned two-fold. Ray fought the urge to curl around the pain by gripping the steering wheel tight enough to feel the vibrations of the idling engine travel up both arms.

"Is that all I am to you, Benny? A free ride and a meal ticket?"

He'd been going over it in his mind all afternoon and had come to one inescapable conclusion. Whether Fraser did it intentionally or not, that's exactly what he was. Not just that, of course. He also had provided the Mountie a mildly amusing distraction until the big-shot Canadians finally came to the inevitable conclusion that they had screwed up letting Fraser go. Sooner or later they would insist that he return to the place and the work for which he'd been born. Then, with a tip of his hat and a 'thank you kindly', Fraser would be off into the wild north and all of the pain and trouble Ray had been put through in his exile would be regulated to an occasional postcard and a non-denominational season's greetings at Christmas time. .

Ray tried to reach out for some righteous anger but all he could find was a creeping kind of self-disgust.

What kind of loser lets himself be used that way? he thought. What kind? I'll tell ya what kind. The kind my old man always told me I was, that's what kind. Maybe he was a lot smarter than I gave him credit for. Ray winced as his stomach knotted even harder. He glanced at the box on the seat beside him. The same kind of sad sack that blows half a week's salary on a tie. The kind that dresses far above his means in a rather pathetic attempt to prove to the world he wasn't a loser. Losers, of course, never wear Armani.

"Shit. Shit. Shit." Ray said, no longer bothering to whisper. He rubbed his tired eyes and ran both hands over his shorn scalp in an attempt to get himself under control.

"Come on, Vecchio, shake it off," Ray admonished himself. So while he'd been driving Benny around it had really been the Mountie taking him for a ride. He'd never figured that Fraser kept hanging around for his charm and good looks, anyway. It wouldn't be the first time someone he cared about had taken advantage. Nothing new about that. Sitting here talking to himself like a moron wasn't going to help anything.

Ray carefully negotiated his way out of the parking lot and onto the street. Almost without thinking he slipped into the left turn lane and swung around the corner that would take him to the Consulate. He knew the way so well that he could drive it in his sleep. He probably had a time or two, if the truth be told. For a moment, some small part of himself took pride in the skillful way he maneuvered through the heavy traffic despite the icy conditions. Driving, he mused, was the only thing he was ever really good at.

With grim determination Ray turned his thoughts back to the matter at hand. He had some heavy duty thinking to do before he got where he was going. He let his mind drift back to when Benny had first come to Chicago. There the guy was, stranded in a strange city in the wrong country. No family, no friends. Was it any wonder that he had grabbed hold of the first person who offered a helping hand? Of course the fact that this person happened to be a fellow cop who didn't object, at least not too strenuously, to a wolf in the back seat of his car didn't hurt. On top of that, he had no love life to speak of or any real friends to take up his time, so there was no problem there. And despite living in a house full of family, he was so gut-wrenchingly lonely that he was nearly defenseless against any offer of friendship, real or imagined. Seeing that the offer had come from someone as intriguingly different and mind-blowingly beautiful as Benton Fraser, well, he knew he never stood a chance.

"Schmuck", he muttered aloud and drew one hand again over his head, letting it rest on the back of his neck for a moment. Sleet had begun to bounce off the windshield, and although the wipers kept the traffic ahead in clear view, memories danced in front of his eyes like a picture show.

With crystal clear intensity he could remember the first time Fraser had called him his best friend. He had been stunned and, he had to admit, utterly delighted. He couldn't believe it. He'd found himself questioning it even then. Oh, but he'd wanted to believe it. To be completely honest, he still wanted to believe it. That someone like Fraser, Mr. True Blue, the Super Mountie with an IQ off the scale would choose him out of the three million other souls in this city to be his best friend? Of course, it didn't make sense. It didn't make sense then and it still hadn't this morning. At least not before he had overheard Terkel and Bolland and all the pieces of the puzzle snapped into place.

Christ, why couldn't those fucks have gone someplace else to eat? Ray would have figured it out on his own eventually. Even he couldn't fool himself forever. But given half a chance he might have tried. All he wanted was one untainted memory. One moment of pure joy that didn't turn out to be just another illustration of his own stupidity. Was that too much to ask?

The sound of a car horn on his right brought Ray's attention back to the road ahead just in time for him to swing around a double parked taxi, narrowly missing the bumper.

"Damn." The word came out along with most of his breath. Gradually, as his heart rate slowed to somewhere near normal, he relaxed his white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. God, he had to pull himself together or he was going to end up wrapping the Riv around a telephone pole.

Come on, get a grip. So you've been letting Fraser take advantage of you, so what? What else is new? Ray rolled his head on his shoulders and felt some of the tension pop in his neck. Who was to say that Benny even realized it? After all, where he came from it was only natural to expect a helping hand and to give one in return with no payment expected on either side. Just a matter of survival up in the Great White North.

It's not like it would ever occur to Benny what that looked like here in the city, a place where asking for help was a sign of weakness but to give it was worse. To offer help with no obvious sign of getting something in return was to brand yourself a fool or even worse, an easy mark..

Still, Ray could handle being thought of as a sucker. "God knows I been called worse," he muttered again. He could maybe even handle actually being one, although that went down a little harder. It was the other thing that the jerks in the diner had implied that really got to him. Ray felt a wave of anger roll over him. Those assholes had implied that by giving Benny rides and letting him work cases, he wasn't just bending over backwards for a friend. No, they thought he was just plain bending over.

So, Raymondo, are you pissed because they think you let the Mountie do you? Or are you pissed because they're wrong?

Again Ray's anger turned inward because he knew it was the truth. Sick and twisted, maybe, but the truth.

Ray closed his eyes for a moment as he sat behind a line of cars at a red light. He opened and closed his fingers around the steering wheel and took a couple of deep breaths.

*Okay, now the question is, just what am I going to do about it?*

But he knew what he had to do. The stakes in this game had become frighteningly high. There was no way to win, so his only alternative was to fold his hand and leave the table. He'd walk away a loser, but hey, that was par for the course, right? At least he'd still have the shirt on his back and what little was left of his self-respect.

Now, having finally come to a decision, Ray felt a new emotion wrap around the knot in his stomach. Apprehension. He dreaded the upcoming confrontation with Fraser.

The Consulate was only a couple of blocks away now and suddenly he needed to go someplace else. Anywhere else. He had to fight the urge to make a right at the next corner and drive away. Back to work, home or straight into Lake Michigan, it really didn't matter. Just so it was anywhere but the Consulate because the closer he got, the more he realized just how much letting go was going to hurt. The knowledge that the move was necessary didn't make it any easier. Already Ray could feel the pain of it swelling inside him. As irritating, demanding and annoying as Benny could be, losing him wouldn't be like setting down a heavy burden. No, it would feel more like amputation.

The sound of a horn from behind startled Ray out of his reverie and he looked up to see the light had turned green.

"Yeah, I see it, I see it!" He threw a glare into the rearview mirror and nudged the car forward a few feet closer to the Consulate and Benny who was waiting for his ride.


For the fifth time that afternoon, Benton Fraser closed his eyes and stretched his neck. This inability to concentrate was unacceptable and annoying. He'd almost always been able to lose himself in his work, but until very recently his work had been outdoors and physical rather than this pencil-pushing, paper-shuffling nightmare. He drew in a breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm himself.

All afternoon, he'd been assaulted by doubts. Just as he'd been preparing to leave his office for lunch, he'd paused by the door to check his cash. While there, he'd overheard Ovitz, officious bureaucrat that he was, speaking to some unknown party on what Ben could only hope was personal call. He shuddered at the possibility that Ovitz had been speaking in an official capacity.

"I'd better go; Fraser's due to come out for lunch any minute."

"Who, Fraser? Not bloody likely!! Though God only knows what that Detective sees in him!"

"I meant other than that. I mean the guy has no life to speak of, just those endless Inuit stories of his."

"God yes, it's like someone jammed a pole up his ass."

Ovitz had emitted a particularly nasty laugh:

"Well that just might explain it, Charles. It sure would be one hell of a way to shut him up! I do seem to remember that Vecchio used to work vice. I bet he learned a thing or two there! It'd explain the way he dogs Fraser's every move, though."

Fraser felt the blush beginning already even though he was completely alone in the room. Ovitz seemed to be implying that there was something more than friendship between he and Ray.

"Are you kidding? The Constable isn't remotely interesting. I'm sure that's the only reason Vecchio comes around. I'll bet public speaking isn't the only thing he can do with his mouth. I mean, he tastes everything! Talk about orally fixated!"

More evil chuckles drifted through the door.

"Yeah, well, why else would Vecchio haul his sorry ass over hill and dale? Not to mention the wolf! Though if I had my choice, I'd choose the wolf. I mean at least he's quiet and keeps to himself."

Fraser always knew that Ovitz didn't care for him, but he'd had no idea that the man's dislike ran this deep. His stomach twisted unpleasantly and he abandoned his lunch plans. Diefenbaker whined at him as he sat back down at his desk.

"No, I'm not going out, but you're welcome to some kibble if you like."

The wolf hybrid groaned his refusal and curled up on his rug again.

Ben tried to concentrate on the reports, wishing that he'd never heard the assistant's words, but try as he may, his mind kept drifting to Ray. Why did the Chicago cop spend time with him?

There was a great deal of truth in Ovitz's words he soon realized. He did tell quite a few Inuit stories and yes, they usually did irritate Ray. In fact, Ray often referred to him as irritating. And it was true, he depended almost entirely on Ray for his transportation. What kind of friend had he been? Fraser could think of little he'd done to improve Ray's lot in life, while Ray was central to his own. He couldn't even begin to guess how he would have adjusted to Chicago without the native's advice and guidance. Not that he always heeded that advice, he chided himself bitterly.

Fraser knew in his heart that Ray was his best friend. The fact that he was Ben's only real friend didn't lessen the intensity of emotion he felt for the passionate Italian with a penchant for stylish clothes. He wasn't so sure what Ray felt for him. Ray had been incredibly generous with his time and resources and Ben had so little to offer in return. Perhaps it was only pity for a man who'd been rejected even by his own people. Was it possible that he'd misinterpreted Ray's friendship? That Ben had simply clung like a limpet to the first person who'd shown him a kindness?

His mind drifted back to Ovitz's innuendo with regards to their relationship. Was it possible that Ray wanted something more from him than mere friendship? Did Ray "dog" him, whatever that meant? Fraser took another deep breath and admitted his own attraction to his friend. He'd buried it deep within himself, sure that the attraction was one-sided and born of loneliness and isolation rather than genuine passion. Now he brought his thoughts to the surface for further examination.

When had he first realized that he was attracted to his best friend? Was it when he'd seen Ray emerge, wet and dripping from the shower? When he'd rescued him from the trunk of the stolen car sunk in Lake Michigan, carrying him out of the water? He knew then that Ray meant more to him than he'd realized, fear gripping his guts as he searched the murky water. Was it when Ben first recognized the sexual pleasure he derived from Ray's casual touch on his arm or shoulder? He'd never really been attracted to a man before, so he wasn't entirely sure what it would feel like. It was a different feeling from being attracted to a woman, but Fraser did realize that he liked the way Ray's clothes draped over his lean frame. Ray's eyes fascinated him, large, expressive and a beautiful shade of green. His skin was stretched over a delicate, but strong and masculine bone structure and his hands were graceful, with long tapered fingers. Fraser physically shuddered as he thought about what those fingers might do to him.

Ben opened his eyes and looked at the clock, ignoring the fine sheen of sweat that had broken out on his forehead. He'd better pull himself together, Ray would be here shortly. Fraser took comfort in the familiar routine of ending his workday. Documents needed to be secured and his desktop ordered, then he checked his appearance in the mirror inside the closet door. Nothing was grossly out of place, he noted, but there was a tightness around his eyes that didn't seem to fade. Fraser shrugged into his navy pea coat, jammed the Stetson on his head and with a hand motion to Dief, opened his door and strode out and down the stairs with military precision.

The timing couldn't have been better if they'd synchronized their watches. The Riv glided to the curb just as Fraser closed the consulate door behind him.

As soon as he entered the car, Ben could practically smell Ray's agitation. The sharp tang of anxiety tainted the air. Diefenbaker whuffed his own commentary and quickly made himself as small as possible in the back seat.

"Good afternoon, Ray." He said, testing the atmosphere.

"Yeah, right, whatever," was the dispirited reply.

One look at the Mountie and Ray felt his determination drain away. Concern was writ large on Benny's handsome features. Why did he have to seem so damn sincere?

"Thank you for picking me up, Ray." No time like the present to start expressing his appreciation. "You really don't have to do this. I'm perfectly capable -- "

"You're damn right I don't have to," Ray growled.

It should have made him feel better, like he was taking the first step towards standing up for himself. Instead it made him feel petty and petulant. After all, he was the one who'd insisted on picking Fraser up from work every night.

"Well, if it's inconvenient, you can just drop me off here." Ben indicated the next intersection.

"Like hell, Fraser. In case you haven't noticed it's sleeting out." Ray's stomach was making a valiant attempt at folding over on itself, a painful and disconcerting sensation.

This wasn't going well at all. If this was the right thing to do, why was his body betraying him?

"I assure you, I'm accustomed to inclement weather." He paused, considered his friend's mood. "Ray, have I done something to upset you?"

A single, simple, straightforward question. This was his opportunity to unload on Ben, tell him everything he'd decided this afternoon. He looked across the car at his soon-to-be-former best friend. Even Fraser's brief exposure to the elements had magnified the man's unique scent and it permeated the car. The always sexy smell of good leather combined with wet wool and whatever the Canadian used to keep his dark hair orderly was working its wonders on Ray's subconscious. Anger drained away like water down a drain, replaced by a gnawing feeling of defeat and resignation. He was a loser, weak and easily manipulated by a pretty face.

"Naw, Benny, it's not you. Just having a bad day is all," he said quietly.

"Ah." Ben relaxed a bit, then brightened considerably.

Perhaps there was some way he could help his friend, be of some use to him, rather than a burden.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

Ray had finally arrived at Fraser's apartment building, guiding the Riv to the curb.

"No, I don't think so. It's just something I have to deal with on my own." Ray still sounded low.

"Ray, you know that I would help you in any way I could," Ben's face was open and serious. "If you need anything, please ask. I'd be delighted at the chance to repay your kindness."

Ray looked into the Mountie's clear eyes and realized he'd just fallen in love. In fact, Ray's eyes widened as the full realization of the thought sank in. "I love him. I'm 'in love' with him."

Looking at Benny he suddenly knew he'd been in love with him for a long time. He just hadn't known it. He hadn't wanted to look that closely at it. At himself. But he knew it now. At this moment, sitting in his Riv, with tiny shards of sleet pinging off the roof, gazing at this man not two feet from him, he knew.

*Christ,* he thought and knew this dawning realization explained a lot.

*No wonder I've been playing the fool. No wonder that lately I've been hornier than I was at eighteen, jerking off twice a day like a...like a kid. A goddamn kid.*

"Ray? Is something wrong?" Benny repeated as he watched the myriad emotions swimming in the wide green eyes. "If it's something I've done, Ray, I would appreciate..."

Ray jerked his gaze away from Benny's worried expression, causing the Mountie to halt in mid-sentence. He put both hands on the steering wheel, gripping it tightly and drew in a deep, shaky breath. He closed his eyes. Although the temperature outside hovered near thirty, Ray could feel sweat beads popping out on his forehead.

"Nothin's wrong, Benny," he lied. If he could only make some sense of it all. What was wrong with him?

If he just gave it a few more minutes his stomach would settle, he'd take Benny home and he could stop thinking all these crazy things about "love" and "sex" and...

*No,* he thought. *It's not love. It's...it's something else. I'm just a patsy, a fucking patsy for a sad story and a pretty face.*

Ray hung his head lower. The ache in his throat hurt all the way to his knees. *Love shouldn't hurt. Not like this.* He groaned inwardly as his tumbling emotions, mixed with his physical state, settled in his stomach like a bag of rocks. *I just need to get laid. And I need it pretty soon. God, it's been so long...That's all it is. That's all.*

"Ray?"

The sound of his name came from somewhere far away, like from a long, hollow tunnel and he tried to ignore it. *Leave me alone, Benny. Don't do this. Don't pretend with me. Please don't make me think things that can never be, should never be. I'm not like that. I don't "want" men. Don't make me want you like this. You don't mean any of it and I'm a goddamn fool to think you do. Stop it, just stop it!*

Ray gripped the wheel so tightly he could feel the hard ridges through the thick gloves. His clenched teeth made his head hurt and he let it hang between his outstretched arms.

Benny sat stock still, staring at Ray. He could see, and in the close confines of the automobile could even smell, that Ray was in extreme distress. He wanted so badly to help, to say something to break the tension, but he was afraid anything he might say would just make matters worse. *It is most likely my fault,* he thought to himself. *Something I've said or done, or quite possibly something I've failed to say or do. Oh dear...*

He wished Ray would move, look at him, give him a clue to what it was. Benny knew by pure instinct that another word from him might cause a volatile reaction. But Ray looked so miserable, almost sick. He decided to chance it.

"I'm sorry, Ray." The soft words seemed to fall on deaf ears. Ray just sat, gripping the wheel, and Benny could see the muscle in his jaw twitch, a trickle of perspiration at his temple. He waited.

Ray was so lost in his own musings he didn't hear Benny's apology. Or if he did it didn't register.

The knife blade hit his midsection with incredible force. A loud gasping groan escaped his lips and he pressed one arm to his stomach.

"Ray?!" Benny quickly put a solid hand to his shoulder, but even that couldn't keep him upright.

Another hard stab. This time it made him double over almost completely in two. He vaguely noticed his forehead knocking against the steering wheel as he wrapped both arms to the fiery agony that was his stomach.

"Ohhh, goddd..." The painful moan was loud inside the car.

"Ray!" Both Benny's hands were moving now, gripping Ray's shoulders, feeling the shudders that wracked the thin man beneath them. Ray was breathing very shallowly and every breath held a low moan.

"Ray, what is it?! What's wrong?!

Ray shook his head and Benny noticed how deathly pale he was.

"Hurts...Ohhh..."

Benny tried to gently pull Ray towards him but a sharp yell of pain stopped any more movement. "I'm going to call for help, Ray," Benny said as he yanked the mike down from the ceiling and pressed the button.

"This is an emergency!" Benny barked into the mike and didn't even try to keep the panic from his voice. "Officer in need of assistance! This is Constable Fraser...Please send an ambulance to 221 West Racine. Detective Vecchio needs emergency assistance!"

"Fraser?!" It was Elaine's voice.

"Elaine! Oh, thank God. Elaine, Ray needs an ambulance quickly. He's ill..."

Another cry. Ray doubled up even further, clutching his stomach, and fell slowly into Benny arms.

"It's on its way, Fraser. What happened, is he hurt?"

"He seems to be very ill, Elaine. Please tell them to hurry."

"Oh, shit...Benny...God..." The rasping moans tore at Fraser as he held the huddled form in his lap.

"You got it. They should be there right away." She was a professional, but Fraser could hear the worry in her voice. It was nothing compared to his own. He could feel Ray shudder against his legs, and he tucked his body protectively over him.

"Thank you kindly, Elaine." Benny hung the mike back in its place and cradled Ray's head in his hand.

"Help is coming, Ray. Elaine is sending an ambulance." He whispered close to Ray's ear and hoped the words would help somehow. He heard Dief whine and looked up quickly, directly into the wolf's face above him.

"I assure you, if I knew what to do I would be doing it. He'll be all right Dief. Help is coming."

Diefenbaker whined again and sat at alert on the back seat.

"I'm gonna be sick, Benny..."

"Oh dear."

"I'm gonna throw up, Benny. Get me out of the car." Ray moaned.

"I don't really think it's wise to move..."

"Get me out of the goddamn car! Ohhhhh..." Ray's yell and loud groan next to Benny's ear almost made him give in. But his fear of Ray hurting himself further made him sit tight.

"Ray...Ray...It's all right, I'll clean it."

"No, Benny, please..." Ray begged and tried to look up into his face.

Benny heard the sirens in the distance. "Ray, help is almost here, just a few more moments..."

Just then Ray leaned over the edge of the seat and heaved. The force of the cramp made Ray scream. He heaved again. And again.

Benny hung on tight to the thin shoulders as Ray's stomach emptied onto the floor of the Riv. The sirens were getting closer, the red flashes just beginning to dance off the frozen windshield.

"They're here, Ray," Benny tried to soothe the shaking man in his arms. He laid his cheek against the stubbled head. Ray choked once more and groaned as Benny pulled him slightly back into his lap. The smell of vomit was strong inside the car, and Benny fought a wave of his own nausea.

"Benny..." Ray gestured slightly with his head towards the mess.

"Don't worry, Ray. It's nothing."

Ray groaned again and squeezed his arms tighter, drawing his legs up against them. "Your boots," he managed to squeak out.

Benny felt tears prick the back of his eyes. "Shhhh, Ray, my boots are fine."

Benny spared a glance at his splattered boots, and almost shook with the horror of what he saw.

It wasn't the common evidence of Ray's retching that made his nausea return with a vengeance. It was the blood.

Blood!

Fear gripped Ben as firmly as a steel trap ensnaring a beaver. It paralyzed his thoughts, knotting the muscles of his arms into useless appendages. Fighting against terror, he twisted frantically to examine Ray closer. Moist red bands streamed from his friend's mouth to trail down his chin, irreparably ruining the silk of his stylish shirt and Armani jacket in crimson blotches.

Automatically, Ben searched in his jacket pocket for his handkerchief even as he tried to comfort Ray's pain-wracked body with the other.

"Steady, Ray, steady. Everything will be all right," Ben crooned, hearing with dismay the way his voice cracked and trembled. He gently mopped the square of white cotton across Ray's sweating brow, then refolded it to clean the gore from the side of Ray's face. xTo his horror more blood continued to trickle from the downward corner of Ray's lips, restaining the pale, sickly, yellowish skin.

Blood! Ray's blood! He stared at the scarlet soaked cloth as he continued to stroke Ray's contorting shoulders. He tried to make his brain categorize Ray 's symptoms, tried to match them against the facts memorized from all the many medical books from all the various libraries he had visited in his entire life. His mind wouldn't cooperate. He could only hear Ray's cries of pain, feel the agony in the thin body as he held Ray's head on his lap, and see Ray's blood slip away in life stealing rivulets.

All of his knowledge of compresses and tourniquets was useless when confronted with internal hemorrhages. If the blood loss was too severe Ray could die...

His heart cried in protest. Not Ray! Not Ray, too! He couldn't take the loss of yet another loved...He stopped thinking and gathered Ray's body closer to his chest, heedless of the blood and the vomit that would be smeared onto his serge and navy pea coat as he rocked the tortured body. Ray's breath came in harsh gasps between the moans as he tossed and squirmed for relief from the pain, but the Italian American didn't try to disengage himself from Ben's arms. Ben longed to take Ray's pain into himself, to siphon the agony away so that Ray would be spared.

Someone pounded on the car window with enough force that it rattled the car, shaking both himself and Ray. Startled, Ben raised his head from Ray's to see several familiar faces peering through the ice-frosted glass. Their muffled voices penetrated the layers of steel and vinyl with concerned questions and offers to help. Too wrapped up in visions of Ray's death, he couldn't even attempt to reassure them with a smile.

One of the gray-clad figures tried to open the car door but the lock thwarted the effort. It was Mr. Mustafi, his face half hidden by a fur lined cap and high collar. Ben made out his words through the window.

"Fraser! The ambulance!"

Straining to turn without disturbing Ray, Ben followed the line of the elderly man's pointing finger to a distance behind the car. Belatedly, he realized the flashing red light that had glinted through the iced window shield had stabilized and now he could see the approaching EMTs. The crowd reluctantly gave way to the two striding figures, both warmly dressed in the familiar cold weather garb of the emergency medical teams. They appeared mismatched: the male medic quite tall with an imperious edge to the swing of his arm as he cleared a path through the onlookers while the woman was shorter, stouter, and burdened down with the accouterments of the position.

Ben's fingers tightened convulsively on Ray's shoulders. "Help is at hand, Ray, the medics are here."

Ray's head lolled back on the gore-soiled serge covering Ben's thighs. The eyes that sought his were dull green with apprehension and misery. Despite the presence of the blood that laced his lips, Ray appeared to be working hard to moisten a dry mouth. He rasped, "Benny, don't leave me."

"Never, Ray." The words came out more impassioned than he intended. Why was Ray asking him this? It was almost as if Ray was afraid that he was going to be leaving him forever instead of just assurance that a familiar face would accompany him to the hospital. Taut lids clenched over the pain clouded eyes even as he watched, and Ben knew that he had answered the tone of Ray's question. He would never leave Ray.

Another sharp tap rapped against the glass and Ben saw the tall medic, his face and body hunched tightly against the cold and sleet. Thompson -- according to the name on the brass name tag adorning his jacket pocket -- tersely professional, asked through the window, "Can you open the car door, sir?"

Ben nodded and complied quickly, flipping the lock on the door to the open position while warning Ray. "I'm staying with you, but I need to let the medics in. Do you understand, Ray?"

"All right, Benny..." His voice trailed off as his lips drew together tightly.

The freezing air rushed in as the door creaked open, and just as he feared, he felt Ray's muscles tense against it. He scooted backwards out of the car, carefully placing Ray's head on the seat. Just as he gained his footing on the sidewalk, Ray heaved again. A torrent of blood, bright red, gushed from Ray's mouth. It splashed over the seat to pool with the gory mess on the floor board.

Ben froze, torn between his desire to comfort Ray and the knowledge the medics were waiting.

The EMT made the decision for him. Ben found himself pushed firmly to the side while the man slipped quickly onto the front seat of the Riviera. Thompson quickly leaned over Ray's body to flip the lock on the driver's side to allow the woman access. He winced as the medic knocked her metal supply box against the dashboard, noting the gash she left in the finish. He knew that would only agitate Ray further if he were aware of it.

Ben dropped to crouch by the open door, intent on observing them, on keeping his promise to stay with Ray. Mr. Mustafi pressed against him as the older man attempted to peer into the car, and the light weight of Mrs. Gamez's hand rested comfortingly against his shoulder.

"Sally, be careful of the blood. Gloves, please." Thompson's voice modulated to a soothing level as he snapped on the protective latex that the woman handed him. "Detective Vecchio, isn't it?"

Ray affirmed weakly and then attempted to reply to Thompson's questions. No, he had not been involved in a fight. He hadn't received a blow to the stomach or chest. He hadn't eaten anywhere new today, but lunch hadn't set well with him. He had eaten too fast.

Ben could see the two of them tear away Ray's silk shirt to expose his torso, obviously searching for signs of bruising or external abrasions. The olive skin was abused by nothing more than goosebumps against the freezing temperatures and Ben sighed with relief when they closed Ray's coat about him again.

When Thompson attempted to ascertain more facts, Ray's voice faded away and the tall medic twisted to ask them of Ben. "Has Detective Vecchio a history of stomach pains? Cramps?"

Ben answered numbly, trying not to see the blood that smeared the elastic surface of the gloves on Thompson's hands. "No, Ray hasn't complained about any abdominal pains in the past several years that I have known him. Well, other than occasional overeating. His mother is a good cook." He offered the last lamely.

Dief whined from the back seat and the woman referred to as Sally, brown wisps of hair sticking out from under her cap, sat back suddenly. "Hey, doggie. Where did you come from?"

Ben refrained from correcting her. "This is my wolf, Diefenbaker. Dief, they are doing their jobs. Don't be alarmed, ma'am, he is only concerned for the state of Ray's health." He couldn't keep from adding, "As am I."

She smiled reassuringly at him. "We should be able to do something for him."

Thompson interrupted her and they spent several intense minutes working on Ray. Ben heard Ray groan and then scream in pain. He bit his own lip, holding himself back as he heard Ray cry. He desired nothing more than to fling Thompson out of the way and bring Ray protectively back to his chest. Ben fought the suspicious hint of moisture along the edges of his eyes as Ray cried out his name, not only once but several times.

"Who's he calling for?" Thompson mumbled.

"Me." Ben didn't hesitate at offering the information. "I'm Benton Fraser, Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

Thompson grunted. "Umm. I believe he is stabilized enough to move now," he announced. "Constable, come here and see if you can keep Detective Vecchio calm while I get the stretcher."

Ben eagerly resumed his place next to Ray, his heart sinking, however, at the ghastly shade of Ray's face. He shook his head when Sally offered him a set of latex gloves but asked for some of the toweling he saw had been used to wipe away Ray's vomit. He began to clean the spittle off Ray's chin. Sally asked him kindly, "You two been together long?"

Ben glanced up at her. "I've known him ever since I came to Chicago on the trail of my father's killers. He helped me bring them to justice, and upon my continued employment at the Canadian Consulate, Detective Vecchio has been kind enough to allow me to partner him in a variety of cases."

He noted that his reply seemed to confuse her, frown lines puckering her forehead. "You mean you're not --- uh, you're police partners?"

"Not officially, since we work for different police departments . . . ."

He broke off as he heard Ray protest weakly. "Benny..." He groaned again, catching at his stomach. More crimson trickled from the corners of his lips.

Ben bent over him, bringing his fingers to rest on Ray's cracked lips. "Shhhhhhh, Ray. Don't talk."

"We're *partners*, Benny." Weakness rendered Ray's voice practically inaudible, but he seemed possessed by a new agitation. His bloodied hand reached outwards, and Ben grasped the fingers even as Ray moaned heavily in protest as another internal spasm took him.

"Ray!" Ben cried in alarm. "Of course, we're partners." He found himself saying anything to calm Ray's puzzling nervousness. "Despite all the efforts of the Inspector to discourage me, or Leftenant Welsh's pointed confusion over my continued presence, we *are* partners, indeed."

That seemed to satisfy him, and Ben felt the fingers under his relax.

Thompson returned with the stretcher and Ben insisted on helping them place Ray upon it. A blanket was immediately tucked about him and Ben held the edge of it over Ray's head to protect him from the stinging sleet. The crowd seemed to surge forward about them, all anxious to check on the well-being of Detective Vecchio, and Ben began to ask them, kindly, to give them room.

Several of the neighbors, Mr. Mustafi and Mrs. Gamez among them, followed right behind the stretcher all the way to the ambulance. Dief, having bounded out of the Riv, paced back and forth between their legs, but didn't interfere with the medical team. His soft yelps and inquisitive whining expressed his concern as concisely as the questions that pressed in on Ben from all sides. Ben kept his voice as courteous as he could, but he could only state again and again that he had no answers for them.

As the stretcher paused in front of the ambulance door, Ray struggled to speak and Ben ignored everyone else to catch the soft words. "The Riv...stain..."

Ben wanted Ray to forget about the automobile -- Ray's life was paramount. "Cars, even the Riviera, are replaceable, Ray. You aren't. Don't worry."

There was a hint of a wry smile about the edge of Ray's mouth. "...gotta. You don't."

"Your well-being is my first concern at the moment, Ray."

"You know how...long I had to search...for the right shade of carpet..."

Ben knew that anything that had to do with the Riv had the potential to upset Ray as much as the question of their partnership. He hastened to promise, "I'll take care of the car, Ray."

With smooth efficiency, the stretcher was placed inside the ambulance. Sally hopped in after him, and Ben could see her retaking Ray's vital signs.

Thompson pulled a thick set of keys from his pocket as he spoke. "Are you coming with us, Constable? I believe you should."

Ben was determined to accompany Ray, but the vow he had just made to look after the Riv caused him to hesitate. He blurted, "The blood. It will set."

Thompson's lips compressed in impatience. "We need to be on our way, Constable."

Mario, Mrs. Gamez's boy who had unexpectedly formed a strong alliance with Ray, picked up the cause of Ben's concern quickly. "You worried about Detective Vecchio's car, Constable Fraser? We'll wash it."

Ben blinked down at the boy, and noticed how Mrs. Gamez had abruptly drawn the youngster back into her protective embrace. Her words, however, echoed Mario's generosity. In her heavily accented English, she urged, "Yes, Benton. Mario is right. You go with the detective and we'll look after the car."

"But the blood...the gore."

She laughed briefly and shooed him forward. "I'm a mamma, Benton. This is what I do! Go, go!"

They were right, and he thanked them, aware that more emotions than he wanted to show choked his throat. He sought the wolf. "Dief, stay here with Mario and help him clean the Riv."

Dief whined in protest.

"I know you want to be with Ray, too, but I don't have the time to argue with the hospital personnel to let you in. You can help more by staying here and directing the cleaning operation. You know how cranky Ray gets about his car. This is the way you can show him you care."

Dief grunted and yipped in aggravation but acquiesced at Ben's continued resistance.

A call for expediency from Sally had Ben bounding through the ambulance doors and Thompson slammed them shut before heading toward the driver's seat.

Ben settled into place, noting that the medic had already inserted an IV into Ray's forearm, the needle bound into place with wide strips of white adhesive tape. The tubes led up to the bag of saline solution that hung from an appropriate ceiling hook.

Sally slung her stethoscope about her neck and smiled reassuringly at Ben. She had removed her cap to reveal a head full of thick brown curls. "I've given him something for the pain. He shouldn't suffer any more cramps for a while."

He thanked her gravely even as the ambulance's engine roared into life and the vehicle began to nose its way out into traffic. The whir of the siren was loud in his ears, louder than the siren on any of the police cars, American or Canadian, that he had ever ridden in before. He wondered how Sally could make herself understood as she pulled up a mike and began to confer with the hospital. The medical jargon limited his ability to follow, but in essence he received the impression that Ray would receive a blood transfusion soon upon arrival.

He felt the vehicle pick up speed but still take corners with more care than Ray's careening. That made him smile to think of the irritation that Ray would have expressed at being compared to an ambulance driver. He studied Ray's lean form, noting how the green eyes opened and closed without focus. His Armani bore no resemblance to the neat and tidy lines that had graced his figure not too long ago. Torn silk under his chin and blood splotched, Ray looked even worse than he had when he had taken the bullet from Carter's gun...another bullet that had been meant for him.

His heart contracted and he found himself reaching out to straighten a rumpled line on Ray's coat.

"Benny?" Ray shifted his head to see him, the word still as soft as a sigh.

"Right here, Ray." Ben tried to twist to allow Ray to look at him easily. The eyes were as lucid as they had been in a while, even if the drug working its way through his system was dulling his response. The lids were heavy over the green irises. "I'm sorry, Benny. What a lousy way to end a lousy day."

Ben forced a smile. "Don't worry, Ray." To keep the mood light and distract his friend, he told Ray about leaving Dief to supervise the Riv's clean up.

Ray chuckled but that brought on a cough. Fortunately, only a few specks of blood sprayed from his lips this time. Once again, his hand seemed to reach out blindly for Ben's and Ben moved to grip it.

Ray's eyelids fluttered close and Ben could tell the Italian-American was succumbing to the sedative influence of the drug. The thin lips seemed to be moving determinedly, however, and Ben leaned closer to hear him. Forcefully blocking out the siren and the rage of the ambulance's passage, he heard Ray 's almost somnolent whisper, "It'll be all right, love. Benny, caro, it will be all right."

****

"Yes, Ray," Fraser echoed, while part of his mind boggled over the words Ray had chosen. Riddled with shame, he recognized a slight flush as a sensual reaction to Ray's words. Surely, though, were Ray not in such an extreme state he would never say such words to him. "Caro"? "Love"? Ray must be confusing him with someone else.

"What's your blood type?" Sally shouted, looking up from the tab in her hands.

Fraser looked up at the woman blankly.

"Your blood type?"

"O positive."

She nodded. "Same as Vecchio," she announced. "You want to be a donor?"

Fraser found himself nodding. He had given blood last month, as was his usual routine, passing the tests required. It was still somewhat odd that she had asked.

He looked down to see Ray smiling, and leaned forward to hear his friend mumble, "Didn't know that about us, Benny."

He could nothing more than hold Ray's hand and nod, hanging on through all the miles to the hospital.

@@@

It wasn't morphine. Ray knew that much.

But it was close. Whatever the doctors had pumped into his IV made him all giggly and stupid and floating higher than a kite. He'd had a kite, a couple of times there, when he was a kid. Frannie and he had flown one once that had gotten all the way up past the buildings and just hung in the sky like an emerald. Damn, it had been so pretty.

"Blue skies," Ray murmured.

Fraser looked up from his magazine, a somewhat obsolete issue of *The Journal of the American Medical Association.* He had found the article on the world's first artificial heart quite interesting, especially in its projections, but the current article on allergy medicine was, he had to admit, somewhat dull.

"So pretty," Ray said next.

Fraser couldn't help looking up with some satisfaction to the bag of blood slowly dripping down into Ray's body. The Band-Aid inside his own left shoulder itched slightly, a reminder of the all-too-small service he could do his friend.

A bleeding ulcer. The doctors said the rupture had been working in Ray's body for some time, but that within the last twelve hours his stomach lining had been breached by the excess acid, causing blood to enter.

"I'm not going to whitewash this," Dr. Ukal explained while Ray lay unconscious in his bed and Fraser hovered over him, wondering when someone from Ray's family would finally find the message he had left on the telephone answering machine. "He has been experiencing extremely severe pain, and he will again if we don't get this under control."

After that had come detailed information on Ray's diet, a strict regimen of medication, and prescribed bed rest. Fraser had already notified Leftenant Welsh about Ray's condition, and explained to Inspector Thatcher that if he hadn't been relieved by Ray's family that evening, he would have to miss work to return to Ray's side in the morning.

Now he had but to wait until a large, noisy crowd of Vecchios come to the hospital. Now he had nothing but old medical journals to distract him from the central question:

What had caused Ray so much stress as to bring about an ulcer?

And then there was the other central question.

Was he, Benton Fraser, the cause?

"So high," Ray murmured now. "Even Frannie was impressed."

Ray wasn't actually hallucinating, not exactly. But he was in a highly...disoriented state. He was feeling no pain, which was all Fraser cared about.

"Did I do this to you, Ray?" Fraser wanted to ask.

There was no question in Fraser's mind anymore that what he felt for Ray was deep, abiding, sexual and romantic love. If Ray's affection were at all similar, there was also no question but that the existence of such emotion in Ray would have to generate a great deal of emotional stress. Ray's cultural, religious, and emotional backgrounds would all have made such sentiments loathsome, if not sinful, in Ray's mind.

And then, Fraser admitted, there was the stress he may well have caused Ray simply in his own comportment. If Ray had been looking to him for signs that his sentiments were being returned, Fraser was certain his friend had seen little in the way of encouragement. Fraser was, by his own choice as well as through the consequences of his upbringing, an undemonstrative man. It was not his nature to touch, to...dote, to bill and coo.

Fraser realized he was smiling at himself in some derision. If he had ever so much as attempted to bill *or* coo around Ray, he would not have been able to stop the post-rant ringing in his ears for a week.

"Use the good wax, for Pete's sakes," Ray groused.

"I love you, Ray," Fraser said, just to hear his own words out loud.

"I love you too, Benny," Ray said, then began to murmur something about his cell phone.

He sat there smiling for a long time after that. Somehow, they would have to work this out.

"Mr. Fraser?"

A young nurse stood in the doorway.

"Yes?"

"Telephone call for you. You can pick up at the nurses' station."

Fraser quietly followed her out, aware that visiting hours had long ended and wondering whether he would be allowed to return to Ray's bedside when the call was over.

He picking up the phone and punched the line at the nurse's direction.

"Constable Fraser here."

"It's Welsh."

"Yes, sir."

"Vecchio's family is in Florida. They're going to drive back tomorrow, but they won't make it back until the day after."

"I'll stay with him tomorrow, then, sir. I have already informed my commanding officer."

"Did you get any more out of the doctors?"

"It's not life-threatening, sir, as long as he receives proper treatment and obeys his doctor's orders to the letter."

There was a mild pause on the other end of the line, then: "I'm sure you'll see to it, Constable."

"I will indeed, sir."

Fraser would have made his farewells then, but the next pause from Welsh seemed somewhat commanding, and he waited patiently.

"Fraser."

"Yes, sir?"

"I don't get involved in my officers' private lives as a rule."

"Am I to understand you're going to be making an exception, sir?"

"You and Vecchio work, Fraser. I benefit, so does the 27th Precinct, so does the City of Chicago. As long as you don't join any marches or get matching tattoos, I think that will cover it. Do I make myself clear?"

Fraser wanted very much to say something blank and uncomprehending, but there was a time to assume the worst and face the consequences.

"Yes, sir."

"Keep me advised."

"Yes, sir."

Welsh hung up, and Fraser replaced the receiver, and laughed.

The nurse looked at him in surprise.

"Matching tattoos," he told her.

She frowned. "They're really quite a health risk."

He nodded. "Indeed."

When he got back into Ray's room, the man worth any risk at all was still sleeping, still mumbling, still alive. Fraser found that he had taken Ray's hand without thinking, and help onto those long, elegant, city-soft fingers as though the universe should never dare to consider taking them away.

NEXT?