The Fifty-Second Territory
by Manna LaDroit
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.
Dark water against an almost starless sky: the black-on-black vision was a negative of home. The wind was familiar: coldly biting at his skin. The sand crumpled against the soles of his well-polished shoes. A fine rain misted his blue uniform and Stetson, and, for just a moment, he could pretend.
"Hey! I know this is paradise to Mounties, but I'm freezing here. Could you maybe commune with nature someplace with heat?"
Ray's voice stabbed through the illusion, somehow killing his melancholy as well. Diefenbaker's growl of agreement completed the act of mercy, and he was simply Benton Fraser once more, standing on the shore of Lake Michigan. Ray was right. It was cold and time to head indoors.
"Coming, Ray," he said, and together they walked back to the green Riv -- Ray's third, in point of fact, since they had met.
"I was thinking you were maybe having a relapse," Ray grumbled, pulling his Armani coat a little tighter around his shoulders.
"Not to worry, Ray." Benny nodded as Dief correctly took his place by the car and waited for them to catch up. "Memory and senses are intact."
"Great. Now I only have to worry about you jumping on to speeding vans or climbing the Sears Tower from the outside."
"That's just silly, Ray."
Fraser watched Ray try not to smile as they got into the car, then beam unabashedly when the motor turned over with a smooth rumble.
Ray shot him a look as they drove out of the lot. "What?"
"I believe I owe you an apology, Ray."
"When we first met, I was at a loss in trying to understand your affection for this car. Well, actually, not this particular car --"
"I wouldn't go there, Benny."
"Er. Yes. That is to say, to me, it was just an automobile. But when we entered your vehicle just now, I must say that I was…moved."
"You were moved."
"By the car."
"You wanna explain that, Fraser?"
"I don't believe I can, Ray. It's simply an emotional reaction stimulated by your car."
"You're getting emotional over my car?"
Fraser kept the smile off his face the same way he always did: with great difficulty. "I wouldn't say it quite like that, Ray."
"Yeah, but we both know I don't speak Canadian."
"I'm merely pointing out, Ray, that I equate this car with several satisfactory memories, and that that has developed in me an affection for the car itself. In fact, I suspect it was no accident that I recovered my memory earlier in this car."
"No, now, I'm not saying --"
Ray's cell phone rang. Deftly, he pulled it from his coat.
Fraser looked out the window as the houses passed, well aware that despite his earlier words about taking him home, Ray was actually taking him back to the Vecchio home. Years past, Fraser would have protested the notion of dropping by unannounced for dinner. Now, he relished the knowledge that he would be a welcome addition to a table over-laden with home-cooked food.
How appropriate it was that he and Ray's first real conversation as friends had occurred in a diner.
"Fraser," Ray said quietly, handing him the phone.
Surprised, he put the phone to his ear, straightening in his seat when he heard Inspector Thatcher's impatient voice say his name.
After a great many territorial face-offs over the phone, the meeting took place at the Canadian Consulate. Thatcher, well aware of the political opportunities, stocked her office with gourmet coffee and fresh pastries that Fraser dutifully ignored while Vecchio and Welsh dug in, trading suspicious looks with FBI Agents Val Cornish and Peter Anderson. Their dark suits and regulation haircuts suited her office's décor as well as the occasion, but there was a challenge in the territorial stance they had taken by the window.
Looking somewhat smug in her two-tone Channel suit and Gucci shoes, Assistant to the Mayor Adele Orcade stood alone in the center of the room, somewhat to the left of Thatcher's desk. It was the Mayor's Office that had suggested this triad, and Ms Orcade was making sure no one who mattered forgot it.
The final guest arrived, looking like a member of the Fortune Five Hundred in his five thousand dollar suit - not Armani, but still enough to draw a silent sigh from Ray. Marcus McTernian's sharp blue eyes, salt-and-pepper hair and pink, manicured nails completed the image of power, but his smile was open and his handshake warm as he was greeted in turn by Orcade, Thatcher, Welsh, Cornish, Anderson, Vecchio, and Fraser.
"Transworld Cruise Lines is more than happy to assist in such an important public service," the director told each of them in turn.
"The City of Chicago/Canadian Government/Chicago PD/US Government greatly appreciate your company's cooperation," McTernian was told in return, until he reached Vecchio.
"You guys are stand-up for doing this," Ray said. "We're gonna make sure nothing happens to Mr. Liusa from the second he comes on board to the second he steps foot back on shore."
Fraser nodded in agreement even as McTernian shook his hand, expecting Ray's candor and sincerity to be met with typical discomfort and evasion. So it was with pleasure that he watched the director smile and meet Ray's eyes with an equally candid gaze.
"The idea that our cruise line is being targeted as the scene of this hate crime doesn't just make us shudder at the concept of lost revenue," McTernian said. "However, we're not entirely motivated by social outrage either."
"Meaning we get more than lip service," Ray said with a smile.
McTernian nodded. "Transworld is currently drawing the majority of its revenue from specialty cruises: family tours, couples tours, sports tours, convention tours. The Gay Pride Tour was our top money-generating package last year."
"The good press you got from that may be precisely why it's being targeted," Agent Cornish said. "But our informant is certain the main target is Roy Liusa."
"With his Family connections, his lifestyle's had him marked since he went public," Special Agent Anderson continued smoothly. The two men had obviously been working together for some time. Fraser had a sudden vision of himself and Ray, perhaps fifteen years from now. He blinked in surprise, and it cleared. He and Ray thrived on their differences, not in being - as Ray would call them - government clones. "The whole thing is evidently just too tempting to pass up: Roy Liusa and Gay Pride."
"So where do we fit in?" Ray wanted to know. "We on the crew, or is Benny gonna entertain them with Mountie jokes while I play the spoons?"
"You play the spoons, Ray?" Fraser asked.
Ray's punchline wasn't to be, however, for both the cop and the Mountie became aware of the discomfort on McTernian's face.
"I did think this had been discussed with you," the director said, frowning at Agent Anderson.
"I thought they'd been briefed on this already," Agent Anderson said, frowning at Welsh.
"There hasn't been time," Welsh explained. Fraser felt as much as saw Ray's body tense.
"No," the detective said.
"Detective Vecchio --" Cornish began.
"There are plenty of gay cops out there." Ray's eyes met Benny's, then flicked away.
"And they're known for being gay," Anderson said, "especially in the gay community. And none of the lesser-known are partners."
"You two are perfect," Cornish said, raising an eyebrow as Ray openly bristled. "Constable Fraser's brief fame last year promoted the uniform more than his face, and we got no reaction from passing his or your mug shot around the…er…right places."
"Since the target is from Chicago and the hit's going to be on Canadian soil -- so to speak -- having you two takes care of jurisdiction problems," Anderson went on. "You also act like --"
Neither Anderson nor Cornish responded, and Ray's ears were beginning to redden in fury. Fraser tried to project silent support.
"You're partners and you're friends," Thatcher said finally. "You're comfortable with each other. You should both also be intelligent enough to figure the rest out."
"Look, you're not going to have to paw each other in public," Anderson said. "But you've got the right look." He waved generally at their contrasting outfits: Fraser in his dress reds and Ray in his dark suit. "With some quick coaching, you'll pull it off."
Ray's impending explosion was diverted, and Fraser spoke for both of them. "Twice now there have been references to haste. An assignment like this usually requires a great deal of preparation time." He met Ray's eyes, then looked at Agent Cornish. "May I ask who your original operatives were?"
Cornish hesitated, then Anderson spoke up. "Bridges and Connor, two women from the RCMP in Whitehorse. Long-time partners on the force, good friends. Bridges spent about ten years growing up in Chicago."
"And?" Ray prodded.
"Connor found out she's pregnant two days ago. Her husband, understandably, asked her to withdraw." A smile flickered on Anderson's face before he buried his first sign of humanity. "I think Bridges would have insisted, anyway. Evidently, Connor had been trying for years."
"I don't see why we can't be on the crew," Ray said.
"Because we're pretty certain whoever they'll be using will be on the crew," Anderson said, "probably someone who's taken deep cover, working there for at least six months."
"Unfortunately," McTerian said, "that describes well over half our staff. We have a training program many use to go on to other jobs in the industry. In return, we enjoy attracting many of the best and brightest."
"Any last-minute replacements would be sure to be under the operative's scrutiny," Anderson added.
"Won't last-minute guests look just as bad?" Vecchio was obviously beginning to flounder.
"The reservations have been in place for months under 'Connor, B.,' and 'Bridges, F.' No gender indicated," McTernian said, "one of the perks of the GP Tour."
"The cruise is for six weeks," Anderson said, heading off another of Ray's objections. "We need two people who can pose as gay for that long without cracking. We need two friends who already get into each other's personal space without realizing it, without caring." Again, his gesture indicated them. "We need two good police officers who have had success undercover."
Ray snorted. "No offense, but Fraser can't lie worth a damn."
Cornish frowned, making a show of searching his memory. "According to our files, you two cracked open a car-theft ring while posing as used car salesmen, and Constable Fraser once helped you with trouble at a girl's school by going in drag."
"And while we learned that your last deep-cover assignment was blown by an informant," Anderson said, looking at Ray, "you are the officer who cracked the Warren Phillips case by posing as a heroine addict for six months, are you not?"
"That was a long time ago," Ray said, his eyes sliding towards an astonished Fraser.
Even a Mountie living in Chicago recognized the name "Warren Phillips," a seemingly innocuous man from a white, middle-class family who'd made a fortune as a drug dealer nine years ago before the Chicago PD had brought down his entire business in one bust. He'd committed suicide in jail rather than stand trial, and with his family's full cooperation, the authorities had managed to seize over twenty million dollars in cash and drugs from his three private residences.
Ray had been the inside man on that and never spoken a word.
Six months. Oh dear.
"Nevertheless," Anderson was saying, "no one suspected you were anything but what you said you were right up to the end, even when you were almost shot in the raid. We need someone in this who can keep it together no matter how hot it gets. For all we know, Liusa's going to have his own people there for protection, and we're going to have over three hundred civilians in great potential danger."
"When does the cruise launch?" Fraser asked, well-prepared for the wide, disbelieving green eyes that turned his way. They didn't bother him unduly. Ray was hooked the moment he'd heard the words "three hundred civilians."
"Five days," Anderson said. "We have a lot of work ahead of us."
"Fraser is recovering from an injury," Ray said quickly.
"I feel fine, Ray."
"I have twenty-seven ongoing cases on my desk."
"They'll be reassigned, Detective," Welsh said.
"Who's gonna look after Dief? Fraser won't stand for kennels, and Willie can't keep him that long."
"I'll take him," Inspector Thatcher said, shrugged defensively when all eyes turned her way. "I had a pet once. A Chihuahua."
"I get seasick," Ray all but whimpered.
"I think we should allow them to discuss the assignment in private," Orcade said, breaking her long silence, and with a nod at McTernian, Welsh, Thatcher, and the agents, she led the way out of the room until Ray and Fraser stood alone in the immaculate office.
After a moment of awkward nothingness, Ray turned to the window, looking out over the cold night scene of early Chicago spring.
"What bothers you more, Ray? The danger, the haste, or that we were selected because we --"
"Give it a rest, Fraser, and just tell me what you want to do."
"I don't think that would be wise, Ray."
Ray turned at that, regarding him with irritation. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean that you and I both know we will take this assignment. What's important right now is that we don't pretend we're doing it for each other."
"If you ask me, and I tell you I want to do it, this allows you to pretend you're doing it for me. On the other hand, if you say it first --"
"Who says we're taking this assignment?"
"Well, of course we are, Ray."
"Benny, have you even thought about what this is going to mean? We'll have to parade around on some ship full of fruits and flakes. You're gonna be hit on by every guy there -- and whatever they say about lesbians bein' born that way, I bet the women hit on you too! I'll have to walk behind you holding a machine gun to keep them off!"
Fraser felt his chin snap up. "Ray?"
His friend's eyes turned defensive. "What?"
"You're…you're saying that's all you're concerned with? My --"
"It's a lot more than just 'all,' Fraser! We're gonna have to --" Ray shuddered, gesturing vaguely. "And they'll be all over the place! Probably wanna have some sort of sicko orgy in the disco, or something!"
"Now, Ray --"
"Don't downplay this! And don't think I'm not gonna puke on myself the second we --"
Now Vecchio's mouth snapped shut under startled eyes. Fraser acknowledged that his tone had been rather sharp, but sometimes the situation called for drastic measures.
"Ray, since I have known you, you have proven yourself to be a man of deep compassion and charity for his fellow man. You have never once even hinted at racial prejudice, classism, or even snobbery -- with the understandable exception for your dislike of the criminal element. Yet on several occasions, you've made it clear that you possess little tolerance for gay men."
"Yeah, because they're gay men, Fraser."
"Studies indicate that they --"
"I don't give a damn about studies! A guy who can't keep it out of another guy's pants ain't worth studying!"
"You make it sound so…predatory, Ray."
Ray closed his eyes suddenly, drawing in on himself in a ritual Fraser knew all too well. For the first time, however, he could not respect the distance Ray was asking for.
"We have to talk about this, Ray. If something happened to you when were a…" Fraser had to stop when his throat cleared up. Ray looked over at him curiously, then in horror, then rolled his eyes.
"I don't have some story, Benny. I wasn't jumped at summer camp, or anything. It's just…disgusting!"
"What do you mean, why? It's two guys! It's a guy doing it to another guy!"
"You're making it sound predatory again, Ray."
"It's not predatory, it's --"
"What? What, Ray? What is it?"
Ray shrugged, throwing his arms around, looking ready to bolt. "It's -- "
"It's wrong for two men to love each other?"
"Of course not!" Ray looked insulted. "But that's not how they're supposed to do it! Guys are supposed to…you know…" Ray waved back and forth between them. "They got enough going on without somebody needing…that what's girls are for, and not even nice girls."
Fraser thought his way through Ray's argument with great effort.
"How about gay women, Ray?"
Vecchio shrugged. "That doesn't count."
"I don't follow that, Ray."
"Well, it's two women. I mean, who can blame them?"
Fraser tried not to laugh.
"What's so funny?" Ray demanded.
"Well…perhaps from a woman's perspective, Ray, that how two men together seem."
Ray considered that for a moment, then shook his head. "It ain't right. A guy should be able to trust another guy not to get all over him like that."
"Ray, they're both consenting adults."
"So are two people in a suicide pact. I still blame the saner one of 'em for not being able to figure out what's wrong."
"But how do you know it's wrong, Ray?"
Finally, Ray seemed ready to voice the question he'd obviously been waiting for since the conversation began. "Fraser, are you really saying you don't have a problem with it?"
"Ray, I'm not Inuit."
Ray blinked at him.
"I'm not African American, or short, or blonde, or a woman."
"You spent time as a woman."
"And I believe it made me no less of a man. In fact, I found the experience enlightening."
"I don't wanna be enlightened about what it's like to be a gay man, Fraser."
Fraser frowned at the defeat in Ray's voice. "We don't always get to choose our avenues of knowledge, Ray."
"So what? I'm fated to listen to disco and worship Liza?"
"I see no reason why we have to change our personalities at all on this assignment, Ray. Other than -- " he hurried on at Rat's expression -- "the obvious." Fraser looked at himself. "And the uniform, of course. We need only be ourselves, with perhaps a certain level of increased intimacy suggested by holding hands, or dancing together."
Ray looked ill.
"We have danced before, Ray." Fraser tried a smile that Ray almost returned, before blanching.
"God, we're really gonna do this."
"Yes, Ray, I believe so."
"It'll be hell, Fraser. Six weeks of sheer hell."
"What?" Ray's question was just a grunt now.
"Perhaps you'll be able to relax, and we will be on a cruise."
"Canadian cruise. Icebergs and penguins."
"Actually, Transworld tours exclusively in the tropics, Ray. The business is simply owned by a Canadian company."
"Yeah?" For the first time, Ray's air of misery began to lift.
"Yes, Ray: the Caribbean, Caimans, Virgin Islands, West Indies…"
"Yes, Ray. I hear the food is also quite excellent."
"Lotta seafood, I bet"
Fraser knew his smile was too broad for Ray to allow it much longer, but managed to nod solemnly before his friend sighed, rolled his shoulders, and shrugged.
"We better tell the bosses."
Miccy Camus knew her blue hair and pink eye-shadow instantly labeled her as unimportant for over the half the people she met everyday, but as an undercover cop and lesbian, she found such dismissal quite useful.
But the two standing in front of her now were quite the exception. The lanky Italian one with the big mouth and gorgeous eyes looked ready to crawl out of his Versace, while the blue-eyed cologne ad practiced what was doubtlessly a lifetime habit of projecting a charming aura of sexual haplessness that probably had women throwing themselves at his feet. They seemed actually comforted by her appearance, perhaps because it gave them what they expected.
The Italian, Detective Vecchio, was probably thinking he was going to survive the assignment by sending out "don't touch me" vibes under the guise of being monogamous to his "lover." Constable Fraser over there was undoubtedly counting on the courtesy of "No, thank you."
If she couldn't get them to see the light in four days, they were doomed.
"Okay," Camus said, "let's start with a reality check. You're gonna spend about ten seconds on board before you're labeled a hot couple."
The men looked at her with poorly concealed horror (Vecchio) and embarrassment (Fraser).
"What that means is that you'll be stared at, expected to perform a little. Guys and girls will want to see you together, and you'll both be schemed on, especially you, Detective Vecchio."
Eloquent hands accompanied the nervous flutter of his words. "First of all, call me Ray, right? Second, why the hell would they be coming on to me? I mean, with Fraser…uh…"
"Because you're approachable, and they'll figure you must have something special to be walking around with such eye-candy." She looked over at the Canadian. "Not that they won't be dropping out of skies on you too, Constable."
"My first name is Benton."
"Yeah." She thought a moment. "You gonna use that on the trip?"
"He'll be Ben Connor," Vecchio said. "And I'll be Francis Bridges and go by my middle name, Ray."
Fraser didn't seem to mind Vecchio's bossiness, and for the first time Camus began to see some hope. They didn't read "gay," but they were definitely close.
"You're not stereotypical cops," she said. "You shouldn't try to be stereotypical gays."
There, that had them thinking.
"Gay men are like any type of people: they vary . Some like to be identifiably part of the group, and some don't. You guys are a couple who don't make an issue out of being gay. You're not there to cruise the scene; you're not there to find yourself. You just want to be in love in a place where no one's going to judge you or get in your face. You like to hang out, but you go home together. And the sex part is new, so you're not looking for variety yet."
Vecchio seemed to relax a bit, though his expression was dubious. "Will that fly?"
"Will people believe it? Sure. Will it keep people from hitting on you? No way."
"So…what?" Vecchio looked at her with thinly veiled helplessness. His distress was equally offensive and endearing. "We just bow out when the going gets rough?"
Camus smiled, well aware that her gold tooth made the expression memorable. "Haven't you ever been at a party where some people were doing drugs? You just make it clear you don't want some when it's your turn, and then ignore it. You don't want to be in the orgy, get out of the hot tub."
The men digested that a moment while Camus closed the blinds and turned on the projector for her laptop. A picture of a good-looking, dark-haired man appeared on the Smart Board.
"Roy Liusa is twenty-eight, wealthy, and charming in just that dubious way that gets him a lot of men who don't want to hang around. Definitely the 'no second date' kind of gay."
"'No second date?'" Fraser asked.
"There's an old joke: what does a lesbian bring to her second date?"
Both men shrugged.
"A moving van."
Both men stared at her, then eventually shrugged once more.
"The lesbian stereotype involves a strong nesting instinct. You know, women are supposed to be looking to get married, and men are supposed to be interested in nothing but responsibility-free sex. So the second part of the joke goes: what does a gay man bring to his second date? And the answer is: what's a second date?"
"So Mr. Liusa is promiscuous," Ben said.
"In a word, which means that your best bet for getting close to him is to let him pursue one of you, which shouldn't be hard. He's got a rep for busting up couples. A real home-wrecker. Just stare at each other in devotion when he's around, and he'll be knocking on your door."
"We read the bio," Ray said somewhat testily.
"What's bothering you most about this assignment?" she asked, holding up a ringed finger. "And don't say it's the gay thing. I mean, about the gay thing, what's got you most stumped?"
Ray glared at her a moment, then shrugged. "What the hell am I gonna talk about?"
She smiled. "Good answer. Look, all you gotta do is pick your social category, and I'm thinking, for you, it's gonna be Mr. Doesn't Flaunt He's Gay."
She clicked on her next PowerPoint slide. The picture was of a group of gay men taken at the last Gay Pride Cruise from Transworld. So were the next few pictures. "If I asked you to give me types of women you could meet in singles bars, you could reel off a few without thinking: Ms Light My Cigarette, Ms Don't You Dare Offer to Buy Me a Drink, Ms Would You Like To Dance. And the same with the guys: some are on the make, some are there to girl-watch. Right?"
Vecchio nodded. Fraser sort of seemed to be following.
"It's the same with the gay scene. People feel more comfortable when they can figure out what you're after. If we had more time, we'd go through the scene together and you'd pick your own role. Since we have four days, I'll do it for you. Ben, you'll be one of those political guys who sees accepting his sexuality as just part of saving the world, and, Ray, you'll be a guy who doesn't let the fact that he's bisexual define his personality."
"Bisexual?" Vecchio suddenly looked a little happier.
"Ray," Camus said quietly, "please close your eyes."
With a glance at Fraser, Vecchio complied.
"Describe me as though I were a woman you saw at the mall, someone you're interested in."
Ray sighed, but answered readily enough. "You have short blue hair that matches your eyes, a lot of piercings, but all on your ears. You're wild, but not crazy. Lots of make-up you don't need, great body, long legs. I'm thinking you'd like a G&T."
Camus laughed. "Okay, open your eyes." She smiled into his defiantly beautiful eyes. "I'm guessing it took you about three seconds to come up with my drink order when we first met. You like women, Detective, and it shows. No need to hide it just because the love of your life is a man."
"That's the way I'm supposed to play it? That Benny's the love of my life?"
"Absolutely. You can't believe you're so lucky that such a gorgeous guy thinks you're worth something. And, Ben, you're in a daze because you've found someone who loves you no matter what you look like."
"So we're not honest in our relationship?" Fraser asked with a little frown, and damn if her heart didn't pitter-pat for a beat or two. She might be bent, but there was nothing wrong with her maternal instinct.
"Nah, Ray'd love you even if you were deformed and one-legged, right, Ray?"
"Absolutely." The word was spoken with beer-swilling manliness.
"You being such a hunk is just icing on the cake."
Both of them went into a controlled squirm, and Camus stomped her giggle flat. This just might work after all.
"Okay, let's go over some simple vocabulary next, okay? Do either of you know what a 'beard' is?"
Benton Fraser closed the door to his apartment with the distinct feeling of closing out the world. Visions of words danced outside his threshold: doms and subs, butt plugs and gag cream, bitches and butch, BDSM and Eracism. It was more than one Mountie could be expected to assimilate in one day.
Ray, tired and bewildered as he was himself, had offered to treat them to dinner, but Fraser had declined, pleading his need to sit quietly and assimilate. Ray had barely been able to hide his relief.
Fraser wished he could make this easier for Ray. His own parents had not instructed him on the intricacies of human sexuality. To him, non-familial love and sex were mysteries, revealed only twice in his life: painfully through Victories and joyfully through Ray. He knew he had compartmentalized the two: sex/Victoria and love/Ray, but he was grateful for having known both.
But his relative lack of experience was an odd sort of blessing now. The entire realm of such specialized sexuality was truly little more to him than an intellectual exercise. He found Camus' lectures no more disturbing than, say, a discussion of excrement.
Ray's own background was far more complex than Fraser's, he knew. Ray had been married, had loved many women, including the sister of an enemy. Ray could even engage in something completely foreign to Fraser: a harmless love affair with a friend. Louise St. Laurent and Ray had made sparks through their animosity, then mellowed somehow in a ritual far beyond Fraser's ability to comprehend. Then there had been love, and some sort of connection, and then, most mysteriously of all, there had been an amiable parting of ways when she's been promoted out of the district.
Fraser had known three women four times in his life: an Inuit girl with strong teeth, Victoria, then a woman with wild blue eyes in Moose Jaw, and then, horrifically, Victoria again.
He remembered, so clearly, chasing after his Last Chance at True Love on that train. Victoria had hated him, had loved him, with passion beyond death from snow's frozen tomb, beyond life and good and evil and …and she had been everything he could ever have and never have, and she had accordingly demanded his soul in return.
Ray had saved him from the insanity of that path, and now he could hardly understand the attraction. What had he been feeling? It was almost impossible even to conceive of the inanity of that desire pumping through him as he chased after Victoria's train car.
What had he thought he was pursuing? Certainly nothing real.
Agent Camus, wearing her sexuality as proudly as a neon flag, had spent several hours instructing him and Ray on the politics, lingo, and behaviors of an entire rank of society that had to define itself outside the norm, and now, alone in his apartment, Fraser could not escape the bitter thought that there was no society for people such as himself. It wasn't a worthy thought, and yet it would not go away. He had been both blessed and cursed with one chance at romantic love, and the object of his devotion had proven herself not the woman he had hoped to redeem, but a woman with her own definitions of right and wrong -- someone beyond his powers to reconcile with his views of the world.
If he had not been accidentally shot, what would he be now but Victoria's…thing? Did Ray have any notion how profoundly Benton Fraser had been saved?
He loved Ray, and with the depth of it he was finally beginning to understand his friend's only true prejudice: homosexuality as a betrayal (in so many words) of platonic love.
Ray thought of the love between men as pure, asexual, and…no, "pure" was the only real word for it. Sexuality was somehow a lesser form of desire for Ray than that for the merging of intellect and soul. Ray saw desire as a step down from friendship, and though Fraser did not agree with the hierarchy, he could not help but be flattered to see himself displayed on Ray's pedestal of brotherly love.
For himself, his love for Ray was more pure than any other feeling he'd had. Desire and lust had been buried with dark, curly hair and the knowledge that Victoria was not a women wronged, but the wrong woman.
The upcoming assignment would not be easy, Fraser thought, pulling off his uniform and donning his red underwear for a good night's rest. Dief curled over his feet as he lay flat on his bed, panting down into the warmth of dreams.
It would not be easy, but he and Ray would see it through, come out the other side, and do their duty. That was the strength of their friendship. Into the valley of a Gay Pride Cruise, I shall fear no evil…
Fraser chuckled, pulling his pillow a little tighter under his cheek. He could save the world with Ray by his side one inch at a time, and be satisfied with their results.
"This isn't going to work."
The two men wouldn't meet her eyes.
"I'll call the Fibs," Camus said next. "I'll tell them we can't protect Mr. Liusa because you two don't have the sexual maturity of a squirrel monkey."
Fraser went beet red.
"This ain't natural!" Vecchio was shouting. "Don't make this about us!"
"This is about doing the job," Camus said. "I know what you've pretended to be while undercover before. Is this really so different for you?"
"Look." Vecchio was going all peace-maker now, his hands lightly falling to his sides. "Can't we just be you know, non-demonstrative?"
"Then why would you feel the need to go on a Gay Pride cruise?"
"Ray," Fraser said.
"Ray, it is most unlikely that we will be able to spend six weeks in an environment of this nature and never have to kiss."
"So?" Vecchio's hands were up again now. "We'll just deal with it when it happens. What has that got to do with going into a clinch now?" He rounded on Camus, green eyes blazing. "We'll handle it then."
"You'll prove to me now you can deal with a simple public display of affection," she said, "or I'll call this off."
"All right," Vecchio said, dead quiet. "You want a kiss?" He turned back to Fraser, grabbed the man's head, and pressed a hard kiss dead center. Fraser froze, but didn't protest, and after three full seconds, Vecchio pulled back with a smack.
"Was that good for you?" the detective demanded.
"Well, actually, Ray -" Fraser began.
"I'm talking to her!"
Camus sighed. "This is never going to work."
"What do you want? Tongue?"
Fraser went red again, but held his ground.
"No," Camus said. But then, they'd only had a few days to get ready for this. What had she really expected?
"Are you going to report us as unfit for this assignment?" Fraser asked.
Camus looked them over. Really, even that fake kiss had been a little hot. Maybe no one would notice the neon "straight men walking" signs on their foreheads.
"No," she said. "God help us all."
"Love. We're all born wanting it, and we're all born not getting enough of it."
"So what do we allow ourselves? A little cold grope behind the liquor store? A popper while you take it up the ass? A truly fabulous pair of Cole Hahns? What? All so we can pretend we're not ready at any minute to go down on our knees and beg for a little affection, a moment of tenderness?"
"You go down on your knees and beg for a Diet Coke."
"We yearn for it, ache for it. We need it, damnit, and we don't get it."
"We don't get it by whining about it, that's for sure. You want to take this thing, or shall I just drop it in the ocean?"
"Why can't you and I love each other? That would make everything so…tidy."
"We know each other too well."
Kevin made a little pout over his drink, well aware that it didn't really go too well with his face. A body can't be on stage *all* the time, after all, and it really did make his heart sick, thinking about all his years without anyone to love. Mark was an A-one asshole for not realizing the seriousness of his pain. Kevin sighed.
"If you're going to be so unhappy, you could at least stop hogging all the shade," Mark snapped.
"I hate you."
"We came on this damn cruise, if I remember, because you said you needed the sun. So sit in the damn sun!"
"Jiminy Fucking Cricket."
"Oh my…do you see them? Don't stare! Oh, you'll frighten them away! Oh…both of them…I'm getting faint!"
Mark gave a low whistle of appreciation.
"Now that's worth the price of admission."
"I swear, I think the Italian one has green eyes."
"It's just the sunli…hmmm. Maybe. Look at that ass."
"Take your pick."
"Hmm. You think they're fuck-buddies?"
"I think Mr. Hoffa doesn't like you eyeing James Bond."
"I'm sportin' wood, I swear to Farrah."
"I think my eyes just crossed. What the hell are you doing?"
"They need a place to sit." Kevin smiled even more brightly and fluttered his right hand in true queenly style, the type that commanded, demanded, and reprimanded all at once.
"Er…hello." The dark-haired blue-eyed one spoke first. The Italian looked like he wanted to object, then worked up a smile as both men took seats in the deck chairs to their left. The sea was warm and blue behind them, a perfect complement to their coloring and casually expensive linen shirts. Neither wore shorts, damn it, but their light khaki pants fit nicely and their little toes - especially the fair-skinned one's - were so cute in their flip-flops.
Fair-skin looked them over a little uncomfortably, and the Italian's eyes glistered possessively in the sunlight. Mark made his own smile friendly and unthreatening. "Now that you're comfortable, you must tell us your life stories."
"Wasn't that a fabulous send-off?" Kevin bubbled before either had a chance to answer. "I swear, I still have confetti in my hair."
"Yes," Tall-Dark-and-Dreamy responded, right on cue. "In fact…If I may…" A square, strong-looking hand that had obviously done real labor in its life reached for one of the blue flecks in Kevin's golden mane, then backed off when Gorgeous Eyes growled.
But then the warning noise turned into words, and that forced smile was back. But then, it would be hard to be friendly when you were walking about with that on your arm. "Benny," he said, "you'll ruin his look."
"Benny," Kevin purred.
"Yes," Benny said. "And you are?"
"Delighted to meet you," Kevin answered, gushing now.
Mark went to roll his eyes, then found himself caught up in an incredulous green gaze. Without further signal, the two men burst into laughter.
"I'm Ray," the Italian announced, looking positively cheerful in the face of Kevin's disappointment. "That drink any good?"
Mark looked down at his mostly finished mint julep. "The drinks on this cruise are always good; so's the food. I always gain weight."
"The midnight buffet is the real killer," Kevin said, rebounding with his usual speed. "A million calories, and then you collapse, too full to fuck."
Mark watched Ray and Benny wince, then Ray looked around for a drink boy.
Good Lord, what were these two doing here? But on instant replay, he thought Ray's wince might have been on Benny's behalf. Was someone leading someone else on the wild side? Or were they holding hands and jumping in together?
Oh my. He was falling in love with both of them right here.
"Excuse my French," Kevin murmured, then looked at them book over the rim of his own frosted pink glass.
A boy came up, tray in hand, and listened with perfection as Ray gave his order for a G&T, then looked at Benny, who ordered a club soda and lime.
"So this is your first Gay Pride Cruise?" Mark asked as the waiter went away, buttocks swaying gently.
"Yeah," Ray answered, casually taking Benny's hand. Benny accepted it somewhat stiffly. What was going on between them, anyway?
Oblivious, Kevin launched into a self-serving account of every Gay Pride anything he'd ever been to or head about. Honestly, that bitch acted like whipping it out should get a round of applause. Still, the setting was too luscious to get a cramp over anything, even Kevin at full steam.
The ship was everything he remembered from last year: opulent yet efficient, casual but sparkling clean. Out here on the sun deck, with the sun dancing blue in the pool and every color in the rainbow in dozens of drinks in the hands of dozens of men lounging on white plastic chaises, the professional staff were tending to everyone's needs as though they never had a thought not connected to the passengers' comfort.
Mark knew that same staff was a mix of "touch-me-not" straights and "fuck me now" boy toys. The management didn't care, as long as no one caused any trouble. He eyed Ray's waiters as he approached, tray holding the G&T and club soda, the drinks looking exactly alike, his shoulders so broad in his white jacket and his ass so compact in his tight black pants. As he bent over to dole out the drink, Mark pictured him in the well-appointed stateroom he was sharing with Kevin, spread out over the blue-Hawaiian bedspread and --
"Earth to Mark," Kevin drawled.
"What now, my pet?" Mark drawled back.
Kevin blinked at him in surprise, but Mark was horny as hell and Kevin was always willing. It was time to leave the drama of their new friends and get this cruise started off right.
"You guys going to be there at dinner?" he asked, standing up and holding out a hand to Kevin, who used every muscle in his body to flow into Mark's arms.
"Count on it," Ray said, sitting back in his lounger, still awkwardly holding Benny's hand.
With a little growl he knew Kevin liked, Mark pulled his partner toward the Fiesta deck and a well-appointed stateroom that was about to be put to very good use.
Ray sighed, watching the men leave. "That didn't go so well."
"What is it, Benny?"
"Are they going to…er…"
Benton Fraser did not mediate, exactly, but years of training - and recent marathon stints of guarding the embassy door - had honed a stillness within him that allowed his mind to travel unfettered.
Sitting on his side of the bed he and Ray would share for the next six weeks, Fraser sought that stillness now, and his mind flipped through dozens of images from the day.
Camus' help had allowed him not to become overwhelmed, and thus he was able to appreciate the fine appointments of the cruise ship, nodding and smiling at the overt public displays of physical affection between pairs and groups of men and women. He could even readily agree to Ray's suggestions that they tour the ship and "hang out at the pool."
So far, he and Ray had conversed with three couples, all male, as the women had congregated on the portside pool/deck area: Kevin and Mark, who retired so abruptly to their stateroom; Johnny and Mac, who were taking the cruise for the third time running "because it's just too much wall-to-wall free ass to miss"; and Dexter and Phillip, who had been married in Hawaii at the respective ages of fifty-two and sixty-three and asked Ray if he'd like to be part of a "geezer sandwich."
His mind turned next to he sea, an endless expanse of restless restfulness, and he remembered a comment read years ago in a work by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: "I do not understand how anyone can live without one small place of enchantment to turn to." She had been talking about a garden, but this cruise suited the quote as well, in its way. This ship was more than a stage for a carnival, or a soap-box for the gay community. It was even more than a safe retreat. It was…
His eyes opened and he sought Ray without forethought. The detective was sitting in one of the two chairs by the porthole, reading over the ship's emergency procedures and drinking from a bottle of water.
"Ray? Would you say this ship is enchanted?"
"It has the fairies for it."
His friend looked up from the brochure, catching his mood.
"You mean, it's like some magic place where these people can go and pretend they're normal?"
Vecchio shrugged and sighed. "All right. That they can pretend the world doesn't hate 'em."
"Something like that, Ray."
"I dunno, Benny." Ray sat back, staring at his knees. "It's not that simple. People, they're pretty screwed up in general, and when it comes to love…it just gets worse."
Fraser nodded, listening to the gentle sounds of the ocean against the ship. He could not help but think of Victoria. Part of him, he supposed, would always be chasing after that train. Were the people here chasing something as well? Or had they truly found it?
He asked the question aloud, and Ray laughed, surprising him. "You always think you've found something, I guess, until you realize you haven't. At least we've found Liusa, and that's enough for the first day."
Fraser had to agree to that, and, with that, stood up, gathered his toiletries, and headed for the shower. The small, but well-appointed washroom was slightly steamy from Ray's shower earlier, and Fraser felt a strange domesticity in the moment.
Perhaps the people here were seeking this as well. The cruise couldn't give them world-wide acceptance, or allow them to marry and raise families without persecution. This vessel and its prescribed time of celebration only offered the opportunity for limited freedom. Basically, one was free to display one's orientation without fear of reprisals, and one was free to have sex. Or rather, one to a dozen were free. Or perhaps more than a dozen, if they could all manage to fit on the bed. In any event, it was a community here, domestic in its own way.
Fraser thought of their strategy regarding Mr. Liusa. He had been drinking a highball in the hot tub, looking every inch the Don his orientation would no longer allow him to be. He was surrounded by extremely fit and attractive men who were obviously vying for his attention, and the entire crowd was flanked by two bodyguards, one having a soda at the bar, and the other standing near the towel cabinet.
They had not managed to locate any sign of anti-gay sentiment, though that was to be expected. As Ray said, bashers weren't going to be holding up signs.
Ray. He still felt rather odd about the conversation the two of them had shared while the surveyed Mr. Liusa's situation.
"Ray?" he hd asked quietly. "Are you angry with me?"
"What? Of course not!"
The words were hissed through a smile, and Fraser had seen the flash in his friend's eyes.
"It's just that you seem…tense."
Ray frowned, staring down into his melting drink. "I can't help it. You can't say 'hacksaw' in this place without sounding like you're coming on to someone. Besides, you're still being Mr. Perfect, even when guys are trying to put their hands in your lap. It's hard to live up to, you know?"
"Ray, I assure you that I am intensely uncomfortable."
"Well, you're not showing it."
"Neither are you - or rather -" Fraser rubbed his thumb across his brow.
"You're not showing it in ways strangers would understand."
"But you're not a stranger."
Fraser thought about it: Ray's stillness, his silence, his good manners, his lack of complaints.
"No. I suppose that's why, to me, you seem angry."
Ray snorted. "I am a little, I guess, but not at you, okay? Just at, you know, circumstances."
Vecchio nodded, looking around at the slightly fading light as this first day was turning into their first night aboard ship. "So what say we get some dinner?"
They had walked back to their stateroom holding hands. It was getting a bit easier to maintain that intimate connection, though the second they were alone in their room, they stood as far apart as they could while changing their clothes.
Camus had selected and "mix-matched" outfits for every day of the cruise. The first night, she had explained, they would be expected to wear their "knock 'em deads," which meant tight black pants, shiny red silk shirt and black jacket for Ray, and a moss green silk shirt and comfortable brown leather pants for himself. Fraser wasn't sure how, exactly, but the two outfits were strikingly different, yet complemented each other, and made him and Ray look very much like a "couple."
Fraser didn't mind the clothes -- after all, one of Ray's cases had once called for him to dress in women's clothes, and the leather pants and silk shirt were extremely comfortable, unlike his itchy dress uniform. Ray, however, scowled with displeasure as he dressed, particularly at the tight black pants.
As they regarded themselves in the mirror, Ray's expression turned bleak. "I look like a rent boy."
Fraser hesitated, uncertain how to console his friend. He could say, truthfully, that Ray looked very nice, but he wasn't sure how that would come across.
"I believe you look exactly as Ms Camus intended, Ray."
Oh dear, that hadn't been a good thing to say either.
"This Liusa joker better be worth it," Ray muttered, looking away and unconsciously running his hands over his hips, a sign of how much he missed his loose Armani.
But then his hands stilled, and Ray's innate professionalism put a slight swagger in his gait as he led the way out the door.
The dining room was singularly impressive: vaulted ceilings with lit stained glass, gold and crystal chandeliers, gold-yellow and cream-white walls, highlighted with gold drapery that dampened the happy clink and chatter of the patrons. Circular tables were spaced and scattered to look casual while giving everyone plenty of room and making excellent use of the floor space. A small stage hosted an excellent jazz trio, inspiring many diners to make use of the hardwood dance floor. White tablecloths were set off with dark red rose and baby's breath centerpieces. Prisms of light glittered across silver and glass.
The diners themselves were not to be outdone by the décor. Leather and tight pants and silk shirts were common, as were a wide variety of other styles. In fact, it was difficult to find a style that wasn't represented. Fraser saw Ray glaring at one man in gray Armani - until he realized the wearer was actually a woman, and sat at their table with subdued shoulders and a friendly smile.
Fraser sat at Ray's right and turned to the woman on his left whose soft brown hair reminded him somewhat of Inspector Thatcher.
"Good evening," he said, smiling at her.
"God, you're gorgeous!" she responded, smiling back brilliantly. "Do you swing?"
Thanks to Camus, Fraser gibbered only on the inside. "My partner and I practice monogamy."
"Well, it takes practice to be perfect," the woman's partner put in, dazzling him with extraordinary blue eyes fringed with artistically applied lashes. The eyes flickered over him. "Any chance you'd like to enjoy a little human imperfection?"
"Like the man says, he's taken," Ray growled, his voice rumbling over the table like a living thing. With a well-practiced move, he covered Fraser's right hand with his left while Fraser leaned back into Ray's space.
The blue-eyed woman crooned in pleasure. "The invitation's for both of you."
"Leave 'em alone, Pat," a new voice said across the table. Fraser turned to see a male couple entwined, the two men alike enough to be twins, with close- cropped sandy hair and matching neck-band tattoos. "Can't you see they're in love?"
"Of course I can," Pat called back throatily. "Isn't it divine?"
A waiter came by and poured iced tea in glasses while extolling some of the specialties of the buffet. Fraser met Ray's eyes and slipped away with him from the table, touring through the groups, trying not to stare - or too overtly avert his eyes - from the couples and trios and tables engaged in romance.
Ray jerked, then turned with restrained anger to a laughing man walking with them to the buffet.
"Watch the hands, buddy," Ray growled, rubbing his left buttock.
"Sorry, honey," the man drawled, looking not the least repentant.
Ray stalked the rest of the way to the buffet, but when he reached for a china plate, Fraser gentle took his hand, murmuring, "If we take one of the plastic plates, we can eat out on the deck."
Ray's grateful eyes glittered at him, and Fraser could feel the tension in his friend's body ease slightly.
Soon they were lounging on the deck and watching the sunset. Both held full plates in their laps - the food was indeed excellent -- and made a joint effort to relax. There were others around, but the rules here seemed to be in contrast to those in the dining room. Everyone kept their eyes to their own campfire, as it were, and they were left alone.
Ray smiled as Fraser whispered his thoughts, enjoying the last pink glow of the sun and watching as the stars began to wink into place above their heads.
"I don't know, Benny," Ray said, sighing softly, and his weariness seemed palpable. "I don't think I can take this for six weeks.
"Surely some of the passengers'…er…exuberance will wear off after the novelty of the ship's setting wanes. I think -"
"Oh! Fuck! Baby, that's so good!"
Green and blue eyes locked, decidedly *not* looking to the left and at the origins of that voice.
"Harder…oh, shit, fuck…oh, you bitch, there…oh…OH YEAH!"
Ray's eyes closed, then his body exploded out of the chaise, arms flailing almost comically in desperation. Fraser stood up beside him, catching his arms and pulling him in for an embrace.
"Fraser!" Ray hissed.
"Yes, my….love, let's go…now!" Benny said loudly, then gently propelled Ray backwards towards the steps that would take them below to their deck. Ray stumbled, glaring at him, then caught on and moved quickly towards the stairs.
Without further consultation, Ray continued on to their room, slammed the door behind them, and stalked into the bathroom. After a few moments, Fraser heard the shower turn on.
Now, clean and warm over on his side of the large bed, Fraser listened to Ray's breaths, relieved that his friend had fallen asleep before he was done with his shower. Indeed, they were both entitled to some rest after the past few days, and the weeks ahead promised to provide the toughest challenges yet.
Roy Liusa was not a particularly attractive man, but he had money, and his family had power, so he was never without a handy ass to stick his dick in.
That was his favorite. He knew some other guys preferred head or just jerking off, but there was nothing like the thrill of poking a tight little butt and then shoving himself in so deep his nuts felt like they were going to crack open.
His father should understand him better, really. He'd been fucking people in the ass all his life too -- just not quite as literally.
And speaking of ass…just who were those two guys? He'd never seen them around before. Oh yeahhhh. He'd put them both on the mattress, fucking the one with the big nose while the gorgeous one waited, pulling on his own cock and making little needy noises. Then before he came he'd pull out of the first one and slam it home in his friend.
Shit. Why didn't he have two dicks?
"Damnit, Benny. Do you have to be perfect even at shuffleboard?"
"It's hardly a matter of perfection, Ray. However, the skills required are quite similar to those used in curling."
"God, not that stupid ice thing again."
"Really, Ray, there's no call for you -"
"Throwing rocks across ice and then sweeping up after yourself is stupid, and I ain't gonna pretend it's not."
"Well, when it comes right down to it, Ray, all sports have a certain cultural sufferance."
There was a pause while Ray took his shot, giving Kevin a perfect cue to shiver in delight while catching Mark's eye. Mark rolled his eyes back, but neither of them listened any less acutely to the conversation going on below them on the Fiesta Deck.
They'd discovered this spot last year, while spying on two cover boys who eventually went for a foursome -- only to reveal a ho-hum ability between the sheets so many really pretty boys had: just lying there and allowing themselves to be worshipped.
Mark would bet this month's annuity that Ray would be great in bed, and if Benny just wanted to be worshipped, he and Kevin could certainly accommodate him.
The two men were still a puzzle to him. They were friendly enough, and they bickered with the comfort of an old married couple, but there was something strained, a little sad, between them as well.
Mark tried to shake it off. It was all too serious. He didn't want serious. He wanted another drink.
"You're saying all sports are stupid?" Ray demanded from below.
"Well, that would be one way -"
"Football, soccer, basketball? You sayin' those are stupid?"
"Well, imagine someone's reaction to American football who had never seen sports before, Ray. To them, men would seem to be attacking each other over the placement of an oddly-shaped ball."
"No, no. Fraser, you're not getting it at all. Someone like that -- damnit!"
"Don't apologize for winning, Benny!"
"Sor - er…."
"I'm saying someone with no training or understanding of football would understand it right away, Benny. It's all about territory, about establishing your dominance."
"Oooh," Kevin simpered.
"Some guy straight from the bush would know exactly what was going on," Ray went on. "He'd probably start cheering for the better team."
"Not for the underdog?"
"Nah, a bushman knows 'underdog' is a nice word for 'rhino dinner.'"
"Rhinoceros are herbivores, Ray."
"Yeah? Well, that doesn't they wouldn't go for an underdog in a pinch."
"Yeah. So that's another game, huh? One more?"
"Certainly, Ray. So you're saying that curling lacks the instinctive appeal of football."
"How about shuffleboard?"
"For instinctive appeal?" Ray evidently thought about it. "Gotta have less than curling, even. Except the sticks. Bushman are big on sticks."
"Excuse me, do either of you have a light?" The new voice was husky and blatant.
"Sorry, no. We -"
"No, and you're blocking my shot."
"Down, boy. I'm just looking for some fun."
"Then find your own game."
During another pause, Mark risked a glance over the railing. Ray had turned his back on the intruder -- a buff blonde in his thirties -- and was lining up his shot.
Kevin stood up and smoothed his T-shirt.
"Where are you going?"
"To catch Mr. Light My Fire on the rebound."
Kevin shot him a grin, then sauntered off. Mark thought briefly of joining him, then leaned back, happier just to listen, for now.
"Excellent shot, Ray."
"Well, thank you kindly."
The third night of the cruise, Fraser and Vecchio were again headed to the dining room, this time at the special invitation of the captain. There was nothing unusual about that. All the passengers got a turn at the captain's table, but Fraser couldn't help being surprised that their turn had come so quickly.
The captain knew who they were, and it was most unlikely she would want to call any special attention to them. Were they simply at the beginning of the rotation?
Though he would never admit it, Fraser would have preferred to eat dinner in their stateroom tonight. The stress of their cover was increasing, and he wasn't sure why - except that the people around him seemed increasingly interested in propositioning him and Ray. Camus had spoken about establishing an aura of intimacy that would keep people at arm's length, but in this, so far, he and Ray had failed.
"Well, isn't that interesting?" Ray murmured as they neared the captain's table. Sitting directly to the captain's left was Roy Liusa.
"Coincidence, perhaps," Fraser said softly back. After all, however "hot" a couple they supposedly were, there were surrounded by doubtlessly "hotter" ones.
They arrived at the table, and Fraser quelled any sign of surprise when Ray put a hand on his arm, leaning in to breathe a kiss on his cheek that would look quite intimate to the others. Fraser smiled, ambushed by sudden mischief , and leaned back in to place his own delicate kiss on Ray's magnificent nose.
A puff of surprise feathered his chin, then Ray was looking at him with nothing less than a twinkle, though it was quickly, and regretfully, suppressed. Still, they had managed a moment of genuine warmth in front of their audience for the first time on this cruise, and the victory was most satisfying.
"So glad you could join us," Captain Pepperidge said, standing up and gesturing to two empty seats on her right. She was in dress uniform, and Fraser felt a moment of sympathy for the stiffness of her collar. Her dark hair was cut short, but curled charmingly against lightly tanned cheeks. The men made their way over to their chairs as the captain continued smoothly, "Everyone, this is Ben Connor…"
"Very nice to meet you all," Fraser said.
"And Francis Bridges."
"Please, if you have any mercy, call me Ray," Vecchio said, first making sure Fraser was comfortable in his seat before settling down himself. Liusa didn't even pretend not to be ogling them, but he and Ray both avoided eye contact for now. Fraser looked at him as he picked up his napkin, and they exchanged another uncomplicated smile.
"Mr. Connor, Mr. Bridges," the captain said next, gesturing to the two women on their right, "This is Ms Elizabeth Vylic, and Ms Yi Kroos."
"A pleasure," Fraser said. Ray smiled at the women winningly.
"And this is Mr. Ray Luisa, and Mr. Claude Benz."
"And the pleasure is all mine," Liusa said, speaking exactly one beat behind the captain's introduction." Fraser found himself pinned by slightly puffy brown eyes lit with a sensual arrogance he personally found distasteful. One would have thought that such a renowned playboy would present himself with more charm. His smile was brilliant - capped teeth - but cold and quite unappealing. But he was a powerful man, and there would always be those attracted to power.
"Thanks for the invite," Ray told the captain. "You sure do have a great ship."
"You sound like a man angling for a tour," Captain Pepperidge said, motioning for the hovering waiter to pour the wine.
"Great!" Ray smiled at her as though he'd just won $25,000.
"That would be most welcome," Fraser said, noting from the corner of his eye that Liusa was suppressing a scowl.
"I'll set you up with one for tomorrow," she said.
"We did the tour our first time," Vylic said, and Fraser admired the deft application of purple eyeshadow in multiple shades around her exotic eyes. He would guess her parentage as a mixture of Russian and Polynesian, while her partner looked pure-bred Chinese, from her jet black hair to her vintage jade necklace. The women made a striking couple, and Fraser considered that perhaps they were "hot."
He would ask Ray about it later.
"It was boring," Kroos said. "And the engines were loud."
"Yi doesn't care for much of anything," Vylic said, though her tone was affectionate, "unless she can drink it or lounge on it."
"Works for me," Liusa said, holding up his wineglass. "A toast." He waited until everyone else had lifted their glasses, including the captain, whose face betrayed no sign of distress that Liusa was moving in no her position of host. "To meeting new friends." His brilliant smile flashed at Ray and Fraser.
Everyone dutifully took a sip of the light white wine, and the waiters served up a fresh lobster bisque.
"So, how long have you been captain here?" Ray asked.
"Almost seven years now," she said.
"This is my fourth cruise," Liusa said. "Perhaps you ought to let me have a turn at the wheel, Captain?"
She laughed charmingly.
"Or, at least, let me provide Ray and Ben with that tour?" Liusa blinded them with his caps.
"This sure is the friendliest ship I've been on," Ray said with a highly believable gush. "We had some friends tell us about the cruise, but, I gotta tell you, we didn't really believe them."
"We actually met on this cruise last year," Vylic said, taking Kroos' hand.
"I wouldn't usually do any trip two years in a row," Kroos said, "but it seemed appropriate."
The waiters came up to fill their glasses. Fraser noticed Ray was lost in the cream and aromas of the bisque, steeled himself, and then leaned gently into Ray's space. Wide green eyes - it was always so difficult not to notice the green of Ray's eyes - turned to him, then Fraser leaned the rest of the way in and gently nuzzled Ray's ear. When he leaned back, disconcerted by the warm flush his actions had brought to his own face and stomach, Ray smiled, then playfully kissed his chin, and Benny felt himself relax.
"Maybe we'll have to make a tradition as well," Ray told the table, then finished off his bisque.
Captain Pepperidge gave a brief but entertaining lecture on history of Transworld Cruiselines, and though he was interested, Fraser felt his attention wandering back to what he had felt a moment ago: that unexpected warmth and relaxation that came, he realized, from a sense of total trust never-before combined with a physical display of affection.
But no - it was familiar - something his mother used to make him feel.
It was more than a little ironic that he and Ray had drawn this particular assignment. While he did not share Ray's view of homosexual love as automatically predatory, he certainly understood the nature of the sentiment.
As an attractive, naïve boy growing up in the Territories, Benton Fraser had become a target of sexual attention well before his own sexual maturity. He had never been molested, nor even threatened, not really, but with a population where men so decidedly outnumbered the women, it was inevitable that whenever he lived some place new, he was approached by sexual aggressors.
He had learned early not to agree to be alone with strange men in sweat houses, or go walking with groups of boys he didn't know. He had been too young to understand "signals," but he did know that his maturity belied his age, causing inappropriate attention even from those who probably meant no real harm. In confusion, he had simply locked his body language down, giving no encouragement and refusing to respond in any way to others' invitations.
When his own belated libido finally urged him to pursue his own interests in women, it was extremely difficult to make the transition from sexless non-target to suitor. But, with the advancement of his teen years, he had been making some progress.
But when he turned eighteen, his attention had been focused fully on his education, on getting into the academy and becoming a Mountie. When he had been established as a constable firmly enough to consider dating again, he discovered to his dismay that older women -- that is, women as old as himself at the time -- were no longer the shy and gentle objects of adoration he remembered from his teens. Now it was both women and men who actively pursued him, and Fraser eventually resorted to shutting himself down again, ignoring signals now from both sexes.
And it was in this state that Victoria had found him, and it was to this state that he had returned.
And now here, on this ship, someone had kissed him with love (though not the kind of love the others at the table assumed it to be), and it had been gentle and kind, not aggressive at all.
Fraser brought himself back to the table's conversation with some effort, well aware that he had been gazing at Ray with a fond expression. Waiters came with salads now, and in looking around the table, Fraser met Liusa's aggressive and predatory gaze with aplomb. After all, Liusa could try, but he could never come between the very real relationship he and Ray shared.
And so it was that sitting there amid over two hundred same-sex couples, with his best friend at his side, that a completely unprecedented thought came into Benton Fraser's head.
"Are you crazy?!"
"Please tell me this is some kinda thing!"
"Some sorta Mountie joke, or ritual, or – did you drink too much?"
"I had one glass of wine, Ray."
"Well, that's a lot for you. Maybe you're, you know, having some sort of reaction."
"Now, that's just silly, Ray."
"Too much sun?"
"Ray." Fraser's voice began to show real annoyance. Ray stiffened and backed up almost to the wall of their stateroom, his hands down and flattened.
"Look, Fraser. I hung in there during the whole Ms Fraser thing. I deal with a wolf stealing my food, and homeless people asking for me by name at the station, and being your personal bank. I know your caribou stories by heart, and I'd take another bullet for you in a second, but this…"
Fraser's eyebrow went up. "You'd rather be shot than attempt a romance with me?"
"Ew! Ew! Don't say it again! Agh! You said it again!"
"Benny, I'm just not talking about this anymore. You understand me? Not another word!"
"If that's how you feel, Ray."
Without another word, Ray went into the washroom. Fraser could hear the occasional mutter, sometimes in Italian, as well as loud, echoing impacts as things were slammed and tossed about.
Fraser had already changed into his red union suit, covered in a brilliantly white terry robe courtesy of the cruise ship and worn in deference to Ray's modesty. He himself had yet to see Ray in anything more revealing than his shorts and short-sleeved shirt – a fact that until now had had no relevance for him. Ray slept in brown-and-green-striped pajamas at least two sizes too big for him. When he stood in them, his toes barely peeped out from under the pant cuffs.
On the whole, Fraser thought, the effect was adorable. He'd hoped to share that information with Ray sometime tonight. He'd hoped a great deal about tonight, in fact.
Louder slamming from the washroom alerted Fraser to the pending storm, and he moved quickly into the bed, keeping himself well within his "side."
"I'm turning out the light," Ray said as he came in, not looking at the bed. "You done?"
"Good, 'cause I'm turning off the light." And, a moment later, the room was dark, except for the moonlight coming though the portholes, sprinkled with the ship's lights reflected on the sea. The bed dipped as Ray got in, then a full minute of sheet-shifting began, finally settling down into a disgruntled silence.
How did Ray keep from losing himself in such large clothing?
"Can you just tell me what gave you the idea?" Ray demanded. "Did I…do something? I mean, do I look like – what about me –"
"I didn't think you were making any overtures, Ray," Fraser assured his friend, being careful to make no movements beneath the covers.
"But you felt comfortable making one at me!"
"I felt very little comfort, Ray. Indeed, it's difficult to remember a time I felt more uncomfortable."
"Then what the hell…Benny, help me out, here."
"I didn't expect the permanence of it, Ray."
Ray twitched with impatience, then sighed. "Finish the thought, Fraser."
"I knew we would be seeing, well, happy couples, but I never considered that it would more than what one sees, says, in a nightclub or perhaps a bar. So many here seem…married."
"Well, some of 'em are, Fraser. But it ain't like what I'd call married."
"Because it's not with a man and a woman."
"Yes!" Ray breathed for a while. "And I'm still not seeing what it has to do with anything."
Fraser found himself grateful for the darkness now. "Ray, I have truly loved two people in my life, beyond my family, I mean. You and…"
"So you figure your one time with a woman didn't work out, so you're going to go after your best friend?"
"No. I mean that I love my best friend more than I ever loved the one woman in my life."
"Benny." Ray's voice was so soft with kindness it seemed to melt into the moonlight. "You loved Victoria, okay? You loved her more than anything."
"I loved her, but I loved what I hoped I could find with her more." He couldn't help turning his head to look at the dark shape of his friend. "What I realized later was that I could never have had that with her."
"Yeah? So? I mean, you'll find another woman, Benny. Just give it some time."
"But what if she's another Victoria, Ray? Or another inner-ear infection? We've found each other here and now, Ray."
"We've found a friend, Benny. Not a lover. And you can't just say, hey, let's change that because it's…"
"It's what, Ray?"
Ray sighed and rolled over on his back. Fraser could see the green-tinted sparkle of his eyes centered in the dark swell of Ray's pillow. "I dunno, Fraser. What is this? Convenience? Desperation?"
"I am sometimes…lonely, Ray."
"Aw, Benny," Ray groaned, opening up his arms. Fraser moved into them uncertainly, following as Ray's hands directed him to lie near, but not too close, for a sort of brotherly hug.
"I see what these people have here, Ray," the Mountie told his friend's shoulder, enjoying the warmth. "They've gotten together by following their hearts."
"They've gotten here by following their dicks, Fraser."
The Canadian thought about that, knowing Ray would wait for him. "Men like Roy Liusa are exactly like the predators you described, Ray. And then there are men like Mark and Kevin, both of them tired of being…I believe the term would be 'playboys.' And then…did they not strike you, Ray, as being inevitable for each other?"
"Ms Vylic and Ms Kroos."
Ray's head moved on the pillow. "The girls? At dinner?" Ray seemed to think that over. "Well, they acted married, I guess. But really, Benny, that's just being good friends too – I mean, it's…"
"It's just girls, Ray?" Fraser didn't bother to screen out the censure in his voice.
"All right, that's it." Ray pushed Fraser away and got out of bed.
"Put some clothes on. Something dark." Vecchio turned on the lamp and moved to the chair where he'd folded up the evening's black pants. "Enough of this hypothetical junk. Enough with the women, and following your heart, because that's just bull."
Given something specific to do, Fraser quickly dressed himself, tucking his feet into his new leather deck shoes just as Ray turned from the mirror, his left hand smoothing over his shorn head.
"You ready?" Ray asked.
"Yes. Where are we going."
Fraser nodded in understanding and followed, though he was only somewhat clear on what Ray meant. He'd heard a number of men on the cruise refer to some "down-below" place on the ship, but upon his query, Ray had not explained the term, shrugging it off as "some gay thing." Evidently, Ray felt it was time to clear up the mystery.
Trailing after Ray, as he so often did, with a distinct sensation of being led blindfolded, Fraser kept his footfalls quiet and they walked down the blue-walled corridor to the elevator and said nothing as they rode down to C Deck, the lowest floor on which guests were allowed. The walls here were a soft yellow, clean along the rows of white doors.
He almost spoke when Ray stopped mid-corridor at a fire door, which, contrary to ship's regulations, was unlocked. But when Ray slipped inside, Fraser simply steadied himself and walked through the door as well.
They stood a moment on a dim staircase landing that felt slightly steamy and smelled of soap. The sound of the ship's engines lost its muted quality, and Fraser could feel the thrum of power in the metal under his feet. But there were other noises, very faint, like whispers in wind.
Eyes adjusted, Ray walked slowly down one flight of steps, then turned into a darkened corridor, walked two steps, and halted. Again, Fraser remained quiet as he stood next to his friend, peering into the strange assortment of shapes and shadows even as he heard the whispers now as words.
There were men here, perhaps two dozen, moving amid the shadows and each other with muttered words. To his right, two men were copulating while a third stood by, pleasuring himself. To his left, a large man knelt before a lithe youth who head his hand, rocking the man's mouth on his member as he ordered in hard hisses, "Yes, that's it. Take it. Shit! Yes."
"Yeah, you like that, dontchya, bitch?" another voice growled from a corner, nearly drowning out a high-pitched whimper of pleasure/pain. The slap of flesh-on-flesh, the wet rasp of lubricated openings, and everywhere the stench of sex flooded Fraser's senses, rocking him back.
"Fuck me," a low voice groaned even as Ray's hand steadied him, then tugged slightly, urging him to follow his friend back out of the corridor, through the sound-proofed door, then, finally, back into the clean, well-lit comfort of the passenger area of Deck C.
Fraser blinked, adjusting his eyes, which then turned to Vecchio. Ray avoided his gaze, however, and led the way back to the elevator.
"Just a second."
They said nothing more until the doors slid back and they walked into the car. Ray hit the button for the Fiesta Deck, then leaned back against the dark paneled wall, letting out a breath as his eyes closed.
"I'm sorry, Benny."
"I'm not sure I understand what you meant by showing that to me, Ray."
Sad green eyes opened to stare at him. "That's what it really is, Fraser. That's men doing other men."
"Well, it would be more accurate to say that that is…er…some men…er…" Fraser winced, but could not continue without clearing his throat. "I don't see why such…an approach need be…universal."
"Yeah, Benny?" Ray's voice was so tired, yet his mouth curved upwards with affectionate exasperation. The elevator *dinged*, then opened, and they walked back to their stateroom, standing inside the closed door, before Ray continued. "There's no need here at all, Fraser. Just guys using other guys for something you and I don't need, okay?"
"Ray, some heterosexuals adopt an equally casual attitude towards intimate relations. It doesn't necessarily follow that –"
"You been reading brochures, Benny?" Ray shook his head, shucking off his shirt and pants and stepping out of his shoes. "You'll be marching in one of their parades next."
"Not now, Fraser." Ray got into bed, well over on his side, and announced the end of the conversation by turning away.
It was an odd sense of being underwater that weighed down Fraser's arms and legs as he took off his shoes, his shirt, and finally his pants. Wearing only his boxers and singlet, he slid between the warm sheets, listening to the "I'm sleeping" breaths Ray was measuring out.
When he spoke, it was hard to say which of them was more surprised.
"I don't believe it has to be that way, Ray. But I understand that to you, it is. What I want to ask you is if you think you might consider, that is, possibly, that we can be whatever we want to be to each other. I don't want…that. I know you don't, either. All I ask…all I want is that you tell me if you could want to be more with me."
Vecchio was silent long enough that Fraser began to wonder if Ray truly had fallen asleep, reminding him of another night when he had poured out his heart to his friend, only to realize he was alone.
"What we have right now, Benny…being friends." Ray flopped over his on his back, and again Fraser heard the weariness in his voice. "You're the best friend I ever had, okay? I don't think we should mess with that. I think we'd be idiots to even think about it. I think we should go to sleep and never mention we so much as considered the possibility, all right? Can you just do that for me, Fraser? Huh?"
"If that's truly what you want, Ray."
Mark Rainer wasn't a beautiful man. In point of fact, he simply hadn't aged well. However, in knowing and accepting his limitations and making the absolute most out of what he did have, he was still an attractive man.
And for a very long time now, that had been enough. Enough to get what he wanted, and enough to want what he got.
He wasn't exactly sure when things had changed, but he was sure that they had. He was even glad about it. Old fags who chased after pretty young things and went home alone to cold Chinese leftovers and QVC -- he'd never wanted to be one of them.
He supposed it was simply "time for him to settle down." But what they hell was that supposed to mean? He'd never in his life ejaculated with a partner without wearing a condom, so it wasn't like he'd never thought before how about cool it would be to have a monogamous relationship, but…
Mark sighed into his pina colada and looked out over the ocean, enjoying his sprawl on the deck chair too much to worry about the sun baking the years into his face. Besides, he'd slathered on the lotion before coming out. Kevin had said --
Ah, Kevin. There was an incentive never to "settle down." Kevin was the most permanent relationship in his whole life, and what were they to each other? Friends, sometimes-lovers, but trying to go deeper with Kevin would be like trying to…something or other than meant you couldn't. The man was going to figure out a way to fool around in his grave.
And that was all right. That was what made Kevin the guy he was. But Mark was beginning to wonder if he could ever find what he was looking for when he was always hanging around Kevin. Take last night, and that tangle of arms and legs and dicks Kevn had set up. What was he supposed to do, ask a guy out for coffee? "Oh, fuck me with your hot cock while I suck on this guy's balls and do you like jazz?"
"Where's your friend?"
The voice wasn't addressing him, but Mark looked up. A guy whose name he was pretty sure was Geo was talking to --
"Ray!" Mark called, for the scowling nut-brown daydream was standing there alone. Ray evidently stopped himself from saying something unpleasant to Geo and turned his back instead, smiling -- though it was a little forced, as usual -- at Mark.
"That seat taken?" Ray asked, approaching the line of deck chairs.
Geo made a "well, excuse me" face at Ray's back and walked on.
"Only by you," Mark made sure his own smile was open and friendly and nothing more. "Come watch the sunset with me. Though, I have to warn you, it's a rerun."
Ray dropped down and did his usual half-relaxed sprawl. But without Benny at his side, Ray's mild discomfort had turned acute.
"I was just thinking I could gel in front of a *Streets of San Francisco* right now," Ray muttered, sounding just a little rehearsed.
*Screw that.* Mark thought, sipping at his coconut froth. "So, was Benny's your first dick?"
Ray just about fell out of his chaise, those big eyes staring. Mark smiled.
"I mean, let's be honest here. The guy could turn Billy Graham. But I gotta tell you, if I had that at my side I wouldn't have lips free for my drink, if you get me. But then, I probably wouldn't let him out of the cabin, and then I'd miss all the fun of parading him around."
"I don't parade Benny around."
Mark gave a little shiver at the dangerous tone in Ray's voice, then saluted him with his empty glass. "No, you don't. I can imagine just how much he appreciates that."
A waiter approached the wavering beacon. "Can I get you another, sir?"
"Yes. And a whiskey sour for my friend."
"Make it a Frangelico on ice," Ray said, looking unsettled and intrigued and still a little lonely.
The waiter left, pert ass working for tips.
"You'd never think it now," Mark said with a brief preen, "but I was quite the pretty boy once upon a time."
Ray produced a generic scowl, masking uncertainty. "Good for you."
Mark snorted. "It sucked. I had that white-blond hair and I did a hundred push-ups before breakfast and all that shit. I couldn't walk into a bar without being the center of it all, and my ass got piles before I realized no one gave a fuck what I said, or thought, or felt. Once I looked for it, I realized I was invisible. The only thing worse was when the looks started to go. Now I'm a fucked-out old fag trying to find someone who'll tolerate the occasional burp."
"Is this going somewhere?" Ray demanded, beet-red.
Mark resisted the urge to throttle him. "I'm just trying to let you know, girlfriend, that I might be the only guy on this ship who envies you for the right reasons."
Payoff. Ray swallowed and looked at his feet.
The waiter returned, and Ray signed the tab with a hint of aggression. For a few minutes, they sat there, looking at what was a lovely sunset. Mark caught the hint of hazelnut even through the tropical miasma of his own stereotyped cocktail and wondered just what he thought he was after.
"You're not old," Ray said. "You're not used up. You're just…a little genuine for this crowd."
"Thank you, Ray."
"Nah, I mean it. Benny and I shouldn'tna come here."
"Why did you?"
Ray shrugged. "Seemed like the thing to do."
"So…has he got a brother?"
Ray laughed. After a moment, Mark joined in.
"There's only one Benny," Ray said at last.
"I'll say. Is there any logic to it, you mind telling me? Somebody who looks like that with a heart that big?"
Ray smiled into his drink. "He's Canadian."
"I've bedded more than my share of Canadians, hon. Never saw eyes like that peering up from my sheets."
"His ma died when he was a little kid. His dad was Superman and never home." Ray looked surprised at himself, but kept talking after a bit. "He grew up on an ice cube, and I heard something once about sharp teeth being the height of beauty 'cause you can chew through whale blubber better, or something."
Mark chuckled, believing every word.
"When we first met, he'd just lost his dad, and…I had to do something, you know? I actually remember the first time he smiled."
"Lit up the room, did it?"
Ray shook his head. "I was just so relieved. A guy like that…you don't believe in him at first, and then -- wham, you know? Sometimes I think, if he weren't so annoying…" Ray frowned.
"He's not perfect. He runs up to do impossible things and falls his face, and then he gets up, and there's not a speck of dirt on him and still he wins somehow. And everybody stands around and applauds him and wants to touch the hem of his robe, and I'm standing there like a *pazzo.*"
"Does he give good head?"
"I can't even walk down the street without some girl -- what?!"
Mark sipped delicately, licking a bit of foam off his lower lip. "Nobody can be too insufferable while they're licking your sac."
Ray shook his head, annoyed.
"Come on, sweetheart," Mark cooed. "Sex is the great leveler, right? And he wouldn't have taken the chance on a straight guy if you weren't what he wanted more than he should."
Ray looked at him, obviously thinking hard.
"And whatever some gal says or wants, he's yours, right?" Mark rolled his eyes, wanting to see Ray smile. "That's gotta feel pretty good."
"He's not mine," Ray said. "He's just…with me, right now. One day he's gonna go back to Canada and find some…other guy and make house with him and save the world one-handed and I'm gonna be picking up -- guys in some bar."
"If you want a wedding ring, you'll have to go back to women or vote Democrat."
"Is that supposed to mean something?"
Mark set down his drink, genuinely angry now. "It means you have to be blind not to see the man thinks the world revolves around you. If he were anymore devoted, he'd have to be surgically grafted to your hip. Do you have any idea what I'd give to have anyone -- an-y-one look at me the way he looks at you? The way he turns to you? The way nobody else matters on this whole ship but you? And this is prime rib we're talking about on the menu. He could fuck his way from stern to stem and back again, and he's -- what? Back in the cabin? Greased up and waiting for you?"
Ray shot out of his chair, hands balled into fists.
"Don't say crap like that about him!"
"Ooooh." Mark leaned back. "Mystery solved." He threw Ray's confused rage a wink. "You're not uncomfortable because you're newly homo. You're still pissed that he is."
Ray just sort of breathed hard at him. Mark wondered if he even liked the man anymore. It was bad enough finding this sort of shit in a het. "What did you say when he first offered you that luscious bod? Did you tell him he was perverted?"
"Benny's not a pervert. I'm not a pervert. You're --"
Mark waited, but Ray had reigned something in he wasn't letting back out.
"I'm what, Ray?"
"I believe I admitted that up front."
Ray shook his head again, but it was to make a decision this time.
"I shouldn't be talking about this with you." Ray turned away, then turned slightly back. "I got what you were doing, but that doesn't mean I liked it, okay?"
Mark nodded, feeling sorry for himself a bit now. Ray was leaving and it was night now, time to make a choice to go out and hunt or stay where he was and mope. Still, it felt wonderful to have said something real to someone for a change.
"Maybe…" Ray was looking at the ocean now. "Maybe you should take your own advice."
"What's that? Go back to my cabin?"
"Find somebody beautiful to appreciate."
Ray left then, and Mark sat on the deck until well after midnight, listening to the waves slap the ship as the stars watched over the sea.
"Please, I'll do anything you want."
"Shut yer hole, cocksucker."
Deep in thought on the way back to his cabin, and Benny, Ray rolled his eyes at yet another "scene" being played out in the shadows.
"You'll live to regret this. The Family will see to that."
Ray froze between one step and the next. He knew that voice.
"The Family's the one paying us," another voice said, dark and gruff, calling up images of shoulders that were missing a neck.
Ray crouched down slowly and drew his back-up gun out of his ankle holster. He was near the stairs leading up to the Fiesta Deck, and the voices were coming from the darkened recess that, in the daylight, invited people inside to a breakfast and lunch buffet. The "Midnight Feast" buffet was held inside, near the disco, so in the evening this was a relatively deserted spot.
But the goons had to know they wouldn't go without being interrupted for long. So they were either going to hustle Liusa into some cabin, or they were gonna do him here, quickly.
In the shadows of both moonlight and ship lights, Ray's eyes finally adjusted enough to see that there were three guys, all dressed like bear truckers, surrounding Liusa, who had his pants around his knees. The evidently leader moved his hand, the knife he clutched flashing dimly.
"Since you can't keep it in your pants," the goombah growled, "we're gonna have to take it from you."
"No!" Liusa shouted, but one of the two who were holding him down muffled his mouth with a meaty fist.
The knife-wielder laughed, flipping the knife around little, and Ray almost shouted when he realized a warm, solid shape had come up behind him.
"I found a flare gun in the emergency equipment, Ray," Fraser breathed into his ear.
Ray nodded. Of course. Where else would you find one?
"One…" Ray whispered back. "Two…"
"Three!" they whispered together, closing their eyes to keep from being blinded as Benny shot the flare over the deck.
The hired muscle all grunted and covered their eyes, then grunted some more while Ray took one out with a kick to the side of his kneecap, then held his gun in the knife-guy's face. Fraser got the other guy with a right cross, while Liusa stumbled back, covering up his testicles and crying, "Don't hurt me!" over and over.
Drawn by the flare, crewmen swarmed the area.
"Chicago PD!" Ray shouted, producing his badge from inside his holster. "Everybody stay calm."
By the time Captain Pepperidge had made her way to the scene, Fraser and Vecchio had the three thugs on the deck while security was trying to revive Liusa's bodyguard, found lying unconscious under the stairway. Liusa himself was loudly demanding his rights to return to his stateroom while trying to hide his urine-stained pants under a lifejacket.
"Gentlemen," the captain told the cop and Mountie, "Transworld Cruise Lines thanks you."
To the surprise of almost everyone involved, Ray and Benny's cover remained intact.
They had come out, so to speak, to a majority of the crew, but Pepperidge felt confident in her people's ability to follow orders and keep silent. After all, the main reason for Vecchio and Fraser's secrecy had been carted off to jail via helicopter in the middle of the night. It was not impossible that there would be a second attempt on Liusa during the cruise, but it was decidedly unlikely. The Family could blame some hot-head or other for moving against Liusa without orders after one attempt, but not after a series.
Liusa himself was adamant that "those cops" had to stay to protect him, threatening lawsuits, and since it had always been the plan to have Vecchio and Fraser stay for the length of the six-week cruise, there was no reason to go against the man's wishes.
However reassured Liusa felt, the man nonetheless stayed in his cabin for several days, allowing Ray and Benny to catch up on the kind of sleep one only gets when the danger has passed. Both also write lengthy reports to their superiors, and read over a commendation from Marcus McTernian, thanking them once again for their efforts.
"Great," Ray groused before going back to bed. "Now my file has a gold star beside the case where I pretended I'm light in the loafers."
Fraser wisely said nothing, settling himself in for another few hours of rest.
Almost twenty-four hours after the arrests, they wound up on the Aloha Deck, sipping fruity virgin drinks in front of another spectacular sunset. Stretching his khaki-covered legs against the comfort of his chaise lounge, Fraser noticed two things: Ray had finally managed to relax in public on the cruise, and their fellow passengers were finally treating them as a couple. He doubted the two things lacked a connection.
Oddly enough, he himself had never felt quite so closed from Ray. His insistence that they not discuss the issue foremost on his mind had left Fraser with nothing to talk about at all.
It was a peculiar aspect of human nature, Fraser considered, that one topic -- especially a forbidden one -- could eradicate all others. He found himself with nothing to say about the sunset, the men and women who walked by them, the fresh fruit in their drinks, the prospect of the weeks before them. The things he wanted to say -- that once he had begun to consider Ray in a romantic context, he found he couldn't stop -- that once he had realized what they could become for each other their friendship felt inadequate -- that he wanted to touch Ray, to compose an ode to the color of his eyes, a limerick on the comfort of his humor -- these things had blocked his throat, locked down his tongue.
Words had always been his most intimate exchange with Ray. The rhythm of their speech was truly the music they made together. He had never really understood that expression before. Perhaps that wasn't how others meant it, even. But, looking at the last rays of orange-red as the water extinguished the sun, Fraser realized he detested the silence between them.
Even worse, he feared it.
"You okay, there, Benny?"
Startled, he turned to look at Ray's concerned eyes.
"No, Ray," he said. "I'm not."
Ray's mouth opened to reply, but a new voice cut him off.
"Excuse me, sirs."
Ray whirled his head around at the interruption, looking up, as Fraser did, at two young men with blond hair. They were twins, Fraser realized, smiling at them with identical pretty faces. Both wore only the skimpiest of red Speedo's with matching flip-flops, and both looked barely eighteen.
"What?" Ray barked at them. It only made them smile more. The boy on the left actually giggled.
"We're from Mr. Liusa," said the one on the right. "To show…" Both of them giggled now. "…to show his appreciation."
Ray made a sort of noise. From his position, Fraser could see that the detective's ears had turned red.
"Please express our appreciation back to Mr. Liusa," Benny said, keeping his voice smooth. "But Ray and I have no desire to extend our intimacies beyond ourselves."
The twins looks at him with identical frowns.
"He means we don't want to have sex with you!" Ray exploded, arms waving as he shot out of his chaise.
"How about we just watch?" the one on the left asked.
"Get away from me before I put you in cuffs!"
Matched expressions of delight bloomed on their fair faces.
"Ray! Ben! There you are!"
Fraser stood and turned with Ray once again, this time to confront an even odder vision: Kevin and Mark dressed in black tuxedos, their arms around each other, eyes glowing with joy.
"We've been looking just *every*where for you!" Kevin said tragically. "I was afraid you'd jumped ship!"
"We go before the captain in thirty-five minutes," Mark cut in, his eyes on Ray. "I know it's a lot to ask, but I was hoping you'd stand up with us."
Kevin squealed in delight and pressed a kiss to Mark's cheek. The blonde twins behind them applauded.
Ray just stared at them while Fraser tried to compose a proper expression of congratulations. Odd, he hadn't thought Mark and Kevin were an exclusive couple. But Mark's arm was definitely holding Kevin possessively.
"He said he wants to appreciate me for the rest of our lives," Kevin blurted to Ray, smoothing his well-manicured hand down his lapel. The twins sighed. "And he said you're the one who helped him realize what he wanted."
Ray froze slightly at Benny looked at him.
"Is that right, Ray?"
"Ray made me realize I could have what you two have," Mark told Fraser. "I just had to decide to do it."
"That's so romantic!" said one of the twins. Ray glared behind him as though wishing he could draw his gun. The twins giggled again.
"So, will you, Ray? Benny?" Kevin asked. "It would really mean a lot to us."
"We'd be happy to," Fraser said. Ray grunted, shooting him a narrow look. But of course, they had to accept. Surely Ray could see that.
The twins squealed again.
"Oh, and bring your friends," Mark said, evidently noticing the twins for the first time. "If you like."
Ray found his voice again. "No, we don't like." He rounded on the two "gifts" from Liusa like a hockey player on a fumbled puck. "Tell Liusa we don't need his appreciation, okay? Now, go find some guys who don't think matching shoes and Speedo's is a crime against fashion."
The twins pouted in perfect synchronicity.
"Where's the ceremony to take place?" Fraser asked Mark, somewhat quickly.
"On the Fiesta Deck!" Kevin announced.
"Well, if you'll give Ray and me a few moments to change…" Their khaki pants, pastel polo shirts, and sandals were hardly wedding attire.
"Nonsense," Kevin said, reaching forward to take Benny's right hand and Ray's left, then dragging them along. "You're perfect just the way you are."
Ray came quietly.
The Fiesta Deck, always crowded, festooned, and be-ribboned, shone in the light of the ship and dozens of hurricane lanterns, the candles flickering merrily behind their glass shades. Many people held candles as well, standing in groups and couples, taking a moment from their own adventures to witness someone else's. A buffet laden with fruit and cheese, crackers and cold meats was spread out under yet more lanterns, and the warm evening breeze of the Virgin Islands ruffled hair and danced through the frills of skirts and shirts like a thousand little flags.
Captain Pepperidge stood in her dress uniform at the ship's bow, flanked by her first mate and chief engineer. And before her was a small clearing strewn with red rose petals.
Friends and acquaintances reached out to touch and congratulate Mark and Kevin, then looked with curious eyes at Ray and Benny, who walked a respectful distance behind them. Fraser slid a sideways glance at his friend, but Ray was staring straight ahead, doubtlessly wishing he were someplace else.
Fraser couldn't help a small sigh from escaping. Was it really impossible for Ray to be touched by this impromptu bit of high romance? There were no guarantees that Kevin and Mark would "last," but the smiling spirals of stars above them seem to whisper the promise of eternity.
"Ray!" a woman called out, and they both looked to see Elizabeth Vylic standing there with her arms around Yi, both of them beaming. "You guys making this a double wedding?"
"No," Ray muttered…well, snarled, actually.
His quiet response, unfortunately, did not carry as far as Ms Vylic's question.
"A double wedding?" someone echoed in the crowd, the question repeated several times with growing excitement.
"Hey, hey," Ray called, but he was drowned out in applause as Kevin and Mark turned back to look at them, surprised and pleased.
"We could all four get married and live in a condo!" Kevin called, then looked penitent when Mark frowned at him.
"How about it, Ray?" Mark asked, turning away from Kevin without releasing his hold on Kevin's waist. "You wanna join us?"
Fraser leaned over to Ray's red ear. "You realize this ceremony is not in any way legally or spiritually binding?"
Ray ducked his head, hiding his lips as he spoke. "You sure?"
The crowd was starting to chant, "Do it! Do it! Do it!"
"Apart from the fact that we are not using our real names, the Virgin Islands, in whose waters we are currently sailing, does not recognize same-sex unions. I believe the captain is simply granting our friends one of the optional amenities of the cruise with a non-legal ceremony and buffet, for $750, American."
Ray looked at him, his eyes amused and gorgeous. "You saw that in the brochure, did you?"
"Yes, Ray. And I would add that this would certainly help our cover."
Ray bowed his head, hiding his smile, his eyes closing as he drew in a deep breath, held it, and then let it out before looking over to Mark.
"We'll split the costs with you," he offered. It was on Transworld's dime, after all.
Kevin squealed and threw up his arms, then grabbed Mark for a kiss while the crowd roared.
"Jeeze, Fraser," Ray said, looking around. "It's like the end of that movie."
"Which one, Ray?"
"You know, with that guy."
"Er…which guy, Ray?"
"Just go assume the position," Ray grumbled, shoving Benny ahead of himself.
They wound up with Kevin and Mark to the right and Ray and Benny to the left of the captain, who smiled at them both -- though her expression was somewhat conspiratorial as she caught Fraser's eye.
"Friends and family," Pepperidge began as the crowd quieted. "We gather together this evening to celebrate the union of two most fortunate couples, Mark Jacob Anderson and Kevin Wadsworth Dellery, and Ben Connor and Francis Ray Bridges."
As she continued in the non-binding, non-denominational oration, Fraser found himself daydreaming that they were in Canada, where same-sex couples could marry.
Married. To Ray Vecchio. He could actually introduce Ray as his husband. He could put Ray on his RCMP insurance, name him his benefactor, take him to official functions, wear him proudly on his arm.
And Ray…his daydream promptly came to an end. Would Ray take Fraser to the office? Introduce him as his spouse to Lt. Welsh? Take him home to meet his mother?
He tried to imagine Ray's family's reaction to their wedding and was assaulted by visions of the WWII firebombing of Dresden.
Pepperidge was asking Mark and Kevin for their vows now, and he wondered about the men's own families. Would they find anymore support for their choices than he and Ray would find? If this were real.
Fraser became aware that Ray was shaking.
"Ray?" he asked as quietly as he could.
"Bad memories, Fraser," Ray murmured, avoiding his eyes.
"And now, we turn to Ray and Ben," Pepperidge said. Ray shook a little harder.
"If there is anyone who knows why these two should not be wed," the captain called out, "let them speak now or forever hold their peace."
Fraser realized he was shaking a little as well and locked his knees.
"Do you, Francis Ray Bridges, take Ben Connor to be your spouse?"
"Do you, Ben Connor, take Frances Ray Bridges to be your spouse?"
"Then, by the authority granted me by Transworld Cruise Lines, I now pronounce you devoted partners!"
The crowd applauded.
"You may now kiss."
Ray gulped. Kevin and Mark twined around each other. Benny met Ray's eyes.
If he were truly a good friend, Fraser thought, he would keep this short and chaste, with a closed mouth and perhaps a bit of shielding with his hands on Ray's face to make the kiss look like more than it was. And he was a friend, but he was also a man in love with another man who would never love him back, and he would never, ever get another chance like this one.
He leaned in slowly, savoring the feel of Ray's warm breath on his chin, his cheek. He put his hands on Ray's trim waist, felt the trembling of his lithe, powerful body. Parting his own lips just slightly, he pressed them to Ray's full mouth, tasting, coaxing. There was blood roaring in his ears, and his stomach felt like he was falling.
Something opened Ray's mouth under his -- surprise, perhaps. He exploited the breach with his tongue, gently moving over lips and teeth to invite Ray's tongue to dance. Probably all too aware of the crowd watching them, Ray put his hands on Benny's shoulders, pulling them closer together, then moved his tongue just a bit against his.
Fraser groaned, a jolt of pleasure moving through his arms and legs and then into his stomach, which had stopped falling. He cupped Ray's long neck with his hand, deepening the kiss further, as his body flushed as hot as their mouths.
A hand pressed discretely against his chest, and he ended the kiss with just one…two…three soft little pecks to Ray's lips. But as he pulled back, Ray was looking away, smiling brittle smiles at the people around them as they broke formation and headed towards the food.
"Ray, I --"
"Shut up, Benny." Ray pulled away, standing on his own. "Say thanks, say goodnight, and meet me back at the cabin in five minutes. You got that?"
It was easier to follow Ray's orders than to think. He made his good wishes to Mark and Kevin, was hugged vigorously by Ms Vylic and Ms Kroos, endured a few wandering hands with all the dignity he could muster, then made his quiet escape.
Ray was waiting for him in the stateroom, standing to look out the portal, hands clasped behind his back.
"You wanna tell me what that was all about, Fraser?" Ray asked as soon as the door was closed.
"Er…which thing in particular, Ray?"
Ray turned to look at him, his eyes more startling than ever in his tanned face. To Fraser's astonishment, there was no anger in them, however. In fact, Ray seemed somehow calm, almost expectant. Fraser began to wonder if, having his revenge now planned out, Ray was enjoying the anticipation of something particularly humiliating.
Benton Fraser squared his shoulders. Whatever retaliation Ray wanted for that kiss, he would provide it without complaint. Frankly, those few seconds of heaven were worth it.
Unconsciously, he licked his lips, savoring the tingles still there. Ray's eyes followed the movement, then closed as the detective shook his head.
"You really want it, don't ya?" Ray looked at him now. "You really want to be like that."
"Well," Fraser walked into the room a few steps, careful not to crowd. "Not like that, Ray. Like…us."
Ray leaned his head to one side, looking at him. "That was some kiss, Fraser."
"Yes, it was."
"A guy oughtta warn another guy before he lays a kiss like that on 'em."
"Well, we were getting married, Ray."
Ray seemed to be considering something, but the silence continued.
"Just how mad are you at me?"
"Yes, at me."
"For kissing me like that, you mean?"
Vecchio walked slowly to the other corner of the stateroom, then crossed his arms to look at Fraser again. "I'm not entirely certain I am mad at you, Benny."
"Do you think I should be mad?"
"Well, that is…I did take advantage of the situation, Ray."
"That you did!"
Fraser looked at the floor.
"You see, the things is, Benny. I would have thought I'd be furious."
Fraser looking back at his friend's face.
"I'd have thought I'd wanna deck you for trying something like that."
"But you don't, Ray?"
"No." Ray seemed to consider this further. Despite his best efforts, Fraser began to feel some hope.
"I really do it for ya, huh?" Ray asked. "Me?"
"Very much, Ray."
"All the girls in Chicago, you want me?"
"The irony is considerable, Ray."
"The hubris ain't bad either."
"To say nothing of the onomatopoeia."
"I think I need you to kiss me again, Fra --"
Ray's lips were softer still, and warmer, and a lot more involved than last time. This time, Ray's tongue made the journey across, and Ray's body soothed and excited him sa it pressed against him, their heights perfect to line curved against dip, dip against curve.
"You're perfect, Ray," he gasped between kisses. "Perfect."
"I gotta be out of my mind," Ray groaned, then tightened his embrace.
"Can I please see you naked?"
"You're killing me here."
Fraser grabbed the bottom of Ray's light blue polo shirt and pulled it up and off in one move. People didn't realize Ray's body was so good under his clothes. The tight pecs, the soft chest hair called out for kisses, and he obliged, chanting Ray's name.
In response, Ray helped him off with his own shirt, and they both kicked off their sandals before moving to the bed.
"We'll never be able to make this work," Ray said. "I'm not sure I want this to work."
"Canada recognizes same-sex --"
"I ain't moving to Canada!"
Fraser dropped to his knees and got his hands on Ray's fly.
"We shouldn't change everything over the physical stuff!" Ray gasped.
Benny froze, looking up into his best-friend-hopefully-soon-lover's gaze, then lightly traced his fingertips over the hot length pressing back against the cloth. Ray shuddered and looked upset.
"Tell me this is just physical, Ray. Tell me you don't love me."
Ray opened and closed his mouth, shook his head, whimpered.
"Benny, I love you more than anything."
"And I love you, Ray."
"I can't even figure out just when it was I changed my mind."
"Does it matter?"
"My world turned upside down when I wasn't looking, Fraser! Yeah, it matters!"
Fraser let his eyes drop down, watching as his hands undid the button and slid Ray's zipper down. Ray was trembling again.
"Maybe it's a good time to stop talking, Ray." Even as he reached for the opening, Ray's pelvis shifted and his erection popped out as though seeking air. Long and pink and purple, cut and sweet and straight. Benny's mouth actually watered.
"You're not…you…you're not…" Ray's sputters lost all verbiage as Benny blew softly over the tip of his penis.
"You did this to me!" Ray shouted.
Fraser glanced up again. "You did it to me first." Then he took that precious length into his mouth.
Ray lasted twenty-three seconds, just long enough for Fraser to decide his cock was delicious and his balls were warm weights of silk in his hand. When he exploded in Fraser's mouth, the fluid was bitter and hot and so intimate Benny almost forgot to stop breathing as he swallowed.
Fraser stood up, stripping the rest of Ray's clothes off a boneless body before laying his lover on the bed and getting naked himself.
"Give me a minute to recover," Ray mumbled as Benny gathered him up in his arms.
"You feel fantastic against me, Ray." He took Ray's hand and led it to his own straining length. Vecchio's cool fingers were blissful against his heat. Kissing Ray again, always kissing Ray, he began to thrust into that grip, his whole body singing with this new kind of tempo.
"I can't promise I know how to make this work, Benny," Ray mumbled into his ear.
"I don't need you to promise me that," Fraser whispered. "Just promise you'll give it your best."
Ray pulled back slightly, looking at him so softly he could feel the feather-like touch. "Benny, you are my best."
Those words, more than anything else, pushed him over the edge. For a long while, neither of them moved beyond breath and a few gentle soothing touches.
Then they slept as the party ranged through the ship, and the stars continued to whisper their promises of forever in the sky.
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