"I'm telling you, Benny, you have to be more careful with Dief around food."
"I have been trying to do just that, Ray." at was my last doughnut!"
"I don't think that's the point, Ray. Diefenbaker shouldn't be eating -- "
The detective looked away from his irritating unofficial partner, who was himself glaring at his wolf, and stuck his head through the open office door.
"Get in here, and bring the Mountie with you."
Ray stepped forward, not bothering to look back. Benny wasn't deaf. Ray privately suspected the wolf wasn't, either. Ray himself could certainly hear the *click click click* of those wolf toenails on the linoleum.
Inside his office, Lt. Welsh had his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, his tie just slightly rumpled, and a look of extreme irritation in his eyes. Ray relaxed with the knowledge that the world was all just as it should be, then tensed again when Welsh's opening remark made it clear the lieutenant's irritation wasn't just a general state of mind.
"Vecchio, do you know that I have a lot of good officers in this precinct who are just normal cops?"
"I'm sure you do, sir."
"I mean, they've all got their little quirks and eccentricities, and sometimes they even get into trouble. But on the whole, I'd have to say, they're regular men and women who are doing the best job they can."
Ray nodded, looking lost. Fraser broke in:
"Are you suggesting that you feel Detective Vecchio isn't doing his best, sir? If so, I can assure you -- "
Welsh held up a hand, and Fraser's words died off. As they traveled from Ray to Benny, the lieutenant's eyes went from reflecting irritation to reflecting great weariness and irritation.
"I'll bring you into this in a moment, Constable. However…No, I do not feel that Detective Vecchio brings anything less than his best to the job."
"Thank you, sir." Vecchio nodded again, his body waving slightly, betraying dread.
Welsh leaned back, and his eyes glimmered with just a touch of amusement. Ray cautiously relaxed again, though only about half as much as he had before.
"You got fan mail," Welsh said finally.
"Well, that's pleasant news, Ray," Fraser put in.
Welsh shrugged. "I suppose it's inevitable, having the Caped Crusader and his faithful sidekick here at the station, that we're going to attract all manner of…interesting communications."
Ray seemed abruptly to realize he was being played with. "I am to understand that Benny and I have another teenage girl asking for autographed underwear, sir?"
Welsh almost smiled, then glowered in retaliation, and not for the first time Fraser wondered if Welsh weren't keeping such a close eye on Ray's career not simply to "stay on his case so he wouldn't screw it up," as Ray said, but subtly to mentor him. Fraser was certain Ray would make a good supervisor one day, if given a chance. The Mountie was beginning to believe that Welsh knew it too.
Finally, Welsh opened the file on his desk and pulled out a blue envelope, its flap torn, nothing but the station's address written on it, if one didn't count the Chicago postmark over the thirty-two cent stamp.
Ray took the envelope with the unconscious care of a man used to handling evidence and took out the small note inside. By leaning just slightly to his right, Benton was able to read over his shoulder.
*To Whom it May Concern:
I would just like to extend my gratitude to the 27th Precinct for supporting the career of Detective Raymond Vecchio. It's good to know that such a hard-working, honest law enforcement officer is encouraged in his choices, and that this encouragement has resulted in the many cases solved by Detective Vecchio and his "partner," Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP. It makes me proud to know my community is being served by such fine examples of our changing times.
A Fan of Justice*
Even while he was reading through the letter, Fraser became aware that more heat was radiating off Ray's body than usual. This was not an easy thing for him to notice. Detective Vecchio had an extremely high-running metabolism, which itself was easily observable by noting his thin frame and the amount of heavy Italian food that the man ate on an almost daily basis. To say nothing of doughnuts and other far-from-nutritious foods. Fraser had noted Ray's ability to eat almost anything and stay thin on practically the first day they had met. Only later had he noted other indications of Ray's high metabolism, which included the amount of body heat he threw off. Most interestingly for a man who complained so easily of the cold, Vecchio was himself a furnace.
So, considering his proximity to Ray as he stood beside him to read the letter, Benton expected to feel a fair amount of heat against his shoulder and side. If it had not been for the slight flush -- almost unnoticeable -- of color along the man's long neck, Benton wasn't certain he would have realized that his friend had become flushed, either with anger or embarrassment.
"It seems a somewhat straight-forward letter of support," the Mountie hazarded, then watched, as he had suspected even without knowing the cause, as green eyes turned to him in astonishment.
"Benny, are all Canadians so dense? Don't you know what this is saying about us?"
Fraser did his best to reason it out, thinking again of the contents of the letter, now memorized.
"I don't believe you!" Ray ranted, giving the letter back to Welsh as though it were contaminated with concentrated wolf drool. "Why don't you ever see anything?"
"Well, Ray, I don't believe that's a fair assessment -- "
"Benny…" Ray looked at him now with barely managed patience, which was hardly a new expression. Yet underneath it was an uncharacteristic level of trepidation. His friend was in genuine distress. "You gotta understand this. That letter's implying that there…" The long fingers of Ray's hands made an indistinct gesture in the air, then fluttered to his sides. "…that there's something going on."
"Is he always like this?" Welsh asked.
Ray's hands were thrown up as he looked over to his lieutenant. "Yes!"
"Constable, Detective, if I may."
Ray made a "please go ahead" shrug, and Benton focused on the man behind the desk with respect and attention.
"The letter is suggesting that you and Detective Vecchio are engaged in a personal…relationship."
"We do have a personal relationship," Benton countered, feeling very slightly hurt.
"It ain't that personal!" Ray exploded. Outside the office, Elaine turned to the open door with a frown. Ray turned from her, blocking her out.
Benny tried again: "Well, in all honesty -- "
"Don’t be so damn honest!"
"Ray…" Benton's eyes had grown somewhat large. Welsh waved for their attention.
"Constable, the letter suggests a sexual relationship between you and Detective Vecchio."
Fraser blinked, then blinked again. "Ah."
"Yeah, 'Ah,' Fraser." Ray paced over to the wall, glared out between the window blinds at Elaine, who shot him a look before getting back to work, then turned around and slumped down with his arms crossed.
"We aren't having a sexual relationship, Ray."
"Yes, I know that, Fraser. And Lieutenant Welsh knows that."
Welsh nodded, then looked pointedly at the door. "It's been a pleasure, as always, gentlemen."
Ray looked at his feet, then pushed away from the wall and slouched out the door. Benton hesitated, looked into the lieutenant's unhelpful expression, then followed Ray.
Ray was sitting at his desk, looking with satisfaction at its perfect blend of orderliness and mess. He could see Benny getting closer, and knew in a moment they'd have to talk, but for just this second, he let himself feel nothing but the rightness of this moment: his desk, the precinct, the cases he had piled up before him, the knowledge that soon Louise would show up to bust his balls about something or other, Elaine, Louise, Welsh, everyone in their places.
He knew who he was. He knew what he was.
"Ray? I realize you're angry with me, but -- -"
“I'm not angry with you, Benny. Mind you, I should be, but…" He shrugged. "This isn't the first time this has happened."
Blue eyes filled with surprise. "There have been other letters?"
Ray shook his head and pointed to the chair next to his desk. Fraser balanced his hat on one knee while Dief put his head in the jodhpur-wearing lap for an ear rub. Absently, Ray wondered why the wolf hadn't left them yet to scrounge for food.
"No, Fraser, no letters." He rubbed his eyes, then looked up, straightening his posture just a bit. "Look, we're going to talk about this, okay? Then we're not going to talk about it again."
"All right, Ray."
"I don't know how it is with Mounties up in Canada, but down here a gay cop is tolerated, even trotted out on Political Correctness Day for a round of applause, but his life…it ain't easy, Fraser."
Ray nodded. "Now, I'm Catholic, Italian, and quite well known as a ladies' man, so it's not something I've had to deal with before, but I know what it can do to a man's career if certain rumors get started about this man and some other man. The guy doesn't have to come out of the closet for just that, just the rumors, to see that no one wants to partner with him, no one wants him to get promoted, and no one wants him around, you get me?"
"Now, I know this, Huey over there knows it, Elaine knows it, and Welsh knows it. That's why he showed us the letter. That's why he didn't have to do anything except show us the letter. He's leaving it up to us."
Benny obviously didn't get it, so Ray shook him off before he could apologize. "Look, Benny. The truth doesn't matter. Some joker out there thinks we're…" Ray ducked a bit, and his voice was low and quiet. "…an item. Welsh is letting us know we gotta think about the way we act with each other in public. He's leaving it up to us to figure out how to keep this from happening again."
Fraser seemed to get it this time, and Ray was about to breathe a sigh of relief and change the subject when that Canadian cultured voice asked at a volume just to match his own, "What other time has this happened, Ray?"
Ray shrugged awkwardly. "I just meant people have made comments to me before. Nothing major, nothing I wanted to bother you with. They were aimed at me, not you. I'm just saying this isn't an isolated incident."
Benny looked distressed, and privately Ray was amused, and a little relieved, that even Mr. Perfect was bothered by the idea of people thinking he might be light in the mukluks, until Fraser spoke again.
"Aimed at you? Are you saying that your being friends with me has caused people to question your intentions with me?"
"My intentions?" Ray kept his voice down with difficulty. "Geeze, Benny, you sound like you're expecting me to marry you, or something!"
"Well, now, that's obviously not what I mean, Ray."
"I'm just saying that because of…you know…" Ray's hand waved back and forth, indicating the differences between them. "People sometimes need to find something to explain it."
"Explain what, Ray?"
"Explain why you're hanging out with…why we spend so much time together."
"We're friends, Ray."
Ray knew his smile was a little too broad. God, it just felt good when Benny said that. "That's right, but to a lot of guys, a 'friend' is someone you hang out with until you can get a woman back to your place, okay? So they wonder about me. Me and you. Okay?"
"And so Leftenant Welsh is trying to warn you that your perceived behavior towards me might be bad for your career."
Ray finally got to heave that sigh of relief. "That's right. You got it now, Benny." He smiled with approval.
Fraser returned his smile with a simple tightening of his features, then looked down at Diefenbaker. Something passed between man and wolf that Ray didn't get, then Benny stood up and put his hat on his head.
"Where you goin’, Fraser?" Ray stood up too. He'd thought they were headed out for some lunch, but this wasn't how Benny stood up to go eat.
"Well, it seems obvious that my presence here at the station -- "
Ray grabbed his friend's elbow and gave him a little shake, smiling again despite himself. "Don't get all weird about it, Benny. If you think I want some poison pen creep to spoil lunch, you aren't the Canadian Sherlock Elaine thinks you are, and I'll have to break her heart tellin' her so."
Fraser's blue eyes were confused again, but Ray saw the smile lurking in those pretty-boy features. "I just don't like the idea that your career -- "
"My career will be just fine, Benny. We'll just have to stay out of biker bars for a while, all right?"
Diefenbaker barked in agreement, and Ray decided he owed the mutt a donut as he got his coat.
It was always easy to pick Ray Vecchio out of a crowd.
It shouldn’t have been so easy. He wasn’t, for example, covered all the time in red wool, wearing a big hat and being followed by a wolf. But there was something about the way he wove around when he walked that drew the eye.
Welsh sighed. He was tired of having his eyes drawn, and he’d known that letter was trouble when he first saw it.
The detective turned, almost pirouette-style, and wove his way into the office.
“Close the door.”
Startled green eyes and gears turning, trying to figure out what he’d done wrong. The blinds rattled when the door fit nicely into the doorjamb. The noise from the bullpen was cut to a third.
The green eyes were looking alarmed now. Welsh was struck by the man’s silence. Two years ago Vecchio would have been babbling away now, with no idea what was going on yet. Was it just age and experience, or Big Red’s influence?
Damnit, this pissed him off. And he didn’t like being pissed off.
“We received another letter today.” Welsh handed the plastic-wrapped document to Ray, who took it this time with conscious care.
This letter bore no resemblance to the last, other than a shared Chicago postmark, and a certain implied meaning. In fact, it wasn’t even a letter, but a poem.
* A cop and a Mountie went skating
Watching each other's gyrating.
A wolf came along
And wolfed out his song
As they talked of curtains and more decorating.*
It was unsigned.
Ray noticed that the letter was not on blue stationery, that the poem had been printed out in large font -- Benny would know the name of it -- and that the stamp wasn’t the same sort of thirty-two cent stamp as on the last letter.
“Nothing to tie them together but the angle,” he said quietly.
“And the fact that they were mailed on consecutive days.”
“So somebody’s yanking my chain.”
Ray was looking at him now, calm, but twitchy. “They’re being sent here, not to the consulate. Besides, it’s not the same for him.”
Welsh raised his eyebrows. “Meaning?”
Ray looked annoyed with himself. “I just mean, Fraser doesn’t get it. Besides, it’s not the same sort of insult for him.”
Welsh just waited. Age, experience, or Big Red’s influence -- it wasn’t going to overcome Vecchio’s need to complain.
“I’m the guy on his home turf, the guy whose reputation has to stay…Fraser’s Canadian.”
Ray exploded, standing up, hands flailing. “Aw, Lieu. You ain’t even walked down the street with this guy! Women everywhere -- it’s like he’s some sort of god to them! No one’s ever gonna make people think Benny’s bent!”
“But they’ll believe it of you, Detective?”
Ray’s eyes plainly asked why Welsh was making this so hard. “You know nobody has to believe it for it never to go away, sir.”
Welsh nodded, and the sudden dread Ray felt made him think of someone pulling a gun.
“That’s right. It won’t. So you better find some way of dealing with it that’s better than what you got right now.”
“You practically live with him, Vecchio, and neither of you is married. Neither has a girlfriend. Now, you I see dating, and that’s good, but our constable has had -- what? -- one woman anyone knows about, and she turned out to be somewhat less than the gal you want to bring home to mama. Not to mention the time a certain someone’s sister couldn’t even get to first base when she drops her dress in his apartment.”
Ray swallowed down his objection to Welsh’s comments, but couldn’t help noting, “Is this some sort of new training they’re giving you at headquarters, sir?”
“If you’re going to stay his friend, you’re going to get more of this.” Welsh shook the letter, the plastic crackling softly. “You need to come up with an angle on it that works. Now, I assume that the large stack of files on your desk is in some manner connected to the number of cases on which you are currently working?”
“And I hope that these cases are nice, normal cases like my other officers get? No stolen Canadian crown jewels? No black market in wolf cubs?”
“I have three murders, a number of thefts, drug dealing, public indecency, and I just got an arson case, sir.”
Welsh nodded in satisfaction. Ray turned and walked out.
“I’m not sure I quite understand, Ray.”
*You and me both, Benny.*
“What, that the wind was from the southwest?” Ray looked over the blackened waste of what used to be a crummy apartment complex, worse even than Benny’s sleaze pit.
“Well, it couldn’t have been blowing very hard, or the embers would have carried to the neighboring building.”
“Arson squad said the fire burned so hot and fast there weren’t a lot of embers, Benny.”
“Yes, but why use chemicals to make something burn so fast when it was already so flammable, Ray? A gallon or two of gasoline and a match would have done just as well if the owner just wanted the insurance money."
“Well, no one was in here, and I’m fairly certain no one was keeping anything valuable in here, so…maybe someone wanted a good show.”
“Which means they would have wanted to watch it burn, Ray.”
Ray nodded, and together they looked across the street. A small apartment building, upwind, with drab little windows, all currently covered, through which peering eyes would have gotten quite the floorshow.
Fraser sighed and muttered something. Ray leaned forward to catch it, then gestured for the Mountie to say it again.
“The blackout.” The quiet words conveyed a wealth of despair for his fellow man.
“Yeah. No TV, someone decided to produce their own primetime.” He smiled a little, and gave Benny a pat on his red-covered shoulder. “Come on.”
Four hours later they were sitting at Ray’s desk as Ray typed through the preliminary report. The perp was in holding, and would soon be booked.
“I believe you spelled ’karosene’ wrongly, Ray.”
Ray grunted, backed up the typewriter, applied the white-out, typed an “e” over the “a,” and went on. Fraser was jotting down his own notes; the arsonist had turned out to be Canadian. Though he hadn’t appreciated Ray’s jokes about how impolite fires were, Fraser was secretly relieved to have found a way to make his involvement in the case official. The inspector would be pleased. Or at least, she would be less displeased than usual.
Ray pulled the report out of the machine with a satisfied sigh.
“You ready for dinner, Benny? Ma’s making meatloaf.”
“Yes, thank you kindly, Ray.”
“You’re looking lovely this morning, Elaine.”
“No?” Vecchio’s hands were pressed innocently to his chest. “I haven’t even asked anything.”
“Well, it doesn’t mater anyway. You’re wanted.” She nodded her head back.
Ray’s eyes went to the open door.
“Is something wrong?” Elaine asked.
Ray looked at her, then shook himself slightly, clearing the fear out of his eyes. The look he shot her was pure wise-ass. “Whatever could be wrong when you’re looking so fine?”
Elaine rolled her eyes and turned away, but couldn’t help looking up discreetly, following the path Ray made as he walked to Welsh’s office. The moment of fear in those green eyes had rattled her, and she found herself suddenly wondering where Benton was. As a sort of offering for the aversion of disaster, she took the file she already knew Ray wanted and placed it in the center of his desk.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
Welsh looked at him until he walked back and shut the door, then sat down. Today’s envelope was large and had no address. Before the lieutenant handed it over, he threw Vecchio a pair of latex gloves.
Ray snapped them on and sniffed, slightly, picking up bad Mountie habits. But the envelope did smell strange.
Inside were seven photographs, 8X12s, black and white. The first showed him and Benny standing in the middle of the fire yesterday, as did all the others. Ray looked through them again. In each one, he and Benny was standing close to each other, talking and/or looking at each other. The last two were taken when they were gazing across the street at the perp’s apartment. In one, Ray was bending over to hear what Benny was saying, and in the second, Ray was patting Benny’s shoulder.
Ray looked through them a third time, trying to block out Welsh’s patient presence and figure out what any of this could mean.
He had no idea he and Fraser looked like that to other people. He knew, of course, that the person behind the camera had waited for shots that looked…what did these look like? He and Benny were just a little inside each other’s space. But then, Benny had been practically whispering. And that business of patting him on the shoulder, it wasn’t like a hug or a kiss, for Pete’s sakes. So why did it suddenly look so bad?
Ray scowled. So what if he and Benny were comfortable around each other? They’d been to hell together a couple of times, and seen each other at their worst more than once. He’d shot the guy in the back. Benny had once almost ruined his life. Benny’d almost gotten them both killed in a bank vault. Ray had carried him for miles through the northern forest without even much of a thank you. And until yesterday, he hadn’t even been sure Benny hadn’t slept with his crazy sister. For Benny he’d done stupider stuff than he’d ever done for anybody. If that didn’t all mean he could pat the guy on the shoulder, what was the friggin’ point?
Ray sniffed again, putting the envelope to his nose. Smoke. His eyes went to his lieutenant.
“The envelope was discovered in the remains of a convenience store that burned down on Westmont last night.”
“So, somebody’s coming after me and Fraser.” He thought of the performance arsonist they’d put away, but the fire seemed to have been suggested by the circumstances. The pictures and the note and the poem, they were the point here. “But why this way? I mean, why burn down a store to get us to look at pictures of me and him talking? Anyone who wants can see us doing that most days of the week.”
Welsh didn’t answer. Ray didn’t expect him to.
“I’ll need to tell Fraser.”
“Tell Fraser what?”
Ray looked up at the polite voice and wished he could smile or nod or something. He had to settle for a shrug, while Welsh held out a box of latex gloves.
Fraser noted the almost professional quality of the pictures. They had been taken with a telephoto lens, and the angle suggested that the photographer was standing on the second floor of the same apartment building in which they had found their arsonist. However, all the pictures were from the last few minutes that he and Ray had been standing in the fire scene, suggesting that the camera person had not been waiting for them, but rather had followed, and then established their vantage point.
“That still doesn’t explain why they took the pictures in the first place,” Ray grumbled. “I mean, if this person wants to pretend something’s going on with me and Fraser, sir, why not phony up a joint bank account, or get someone to lie about us checking into a motel? These aren’t exactly incriminating shots here.”
“No, just slightly suggestive, Ray.”
Ray’s eyes met his, and frowned.
Benton turned back solemnly to the photos, keeping from his features any sign of how much his own words had hurt him. He’d said nothing but the truth, of course, and it was a truth relevant to this case, as far as he knew. But it had hurt.
There was something so very cruel about this, something that struck directly to his heart. There were so many things he felt grateful to Ray for, and a few of those things were priceless. These pictures were taking one of those special things and twisting it.
How many people touched him? Women stared at him, and made suggestions to him that caused his tongue to stop working properly, but they didn’t touch him. Other men didn’t touch him, and seemed even unwilling to shake his hand. If it weren’t for the hugs Mrs. Vecchio occasionally smothered him with, he’d forget what hugs were like. Even Franchesca didn’t actually touch him, though he was happy with that, actually. Enough damage had been done there.
But Ray seemed to think nothing of patting his shoulder, or slapping him on the back, or even resting a hand on his arm or shoulder when they were talking. Ray, so sensitive to strict codes of masculine behavior in many other ways, refused to follow the dictate “no touching between men.” When a touch was called for, or even just acceptable, he gave it. It almost seemed as if he realized how deeply Fraser craved physical contact, and thus made up for it as best he could, helping his friend in yet one more way.
But there had never been anything more to it than that. The lack of ulterior motive, the openness of Ray’s pats and hand-resting had made the contact all that much more invaluable. Whatever Ray wanted from him, he asked for in words, often shouted and accompanied by eye-rolling and hand gestures. Touching was just connection, not suggestion.
And now these pictures were lewdly suggesting more all on their own. It wasn’t fair. It should be…prosecutable.
“Perhaps the pictures are meant to discredit Detective Vecchio’s testimony in an upcoming trial.”
“I got nothing I’m going to court over where my being -- uh -- into guys would make a difference.”
“Perhaps they’re simply trying to make you generally questionable.”
“Homosexuality isn’t a crime, Constable.” This came in Welsh’s quiet tones, and Fraser almost started. Somehow, he’d forgotten Ray’s supervisor was in the room. Perhaps because he wanted to be alone with Ray right now, to figure out some way this wouldn’t change anything between them.
“Did you tell him about the poem?”
Ray looked at Welsh, then shook his head. Fraser was promptly handed a photocopy of a short poem, a limerick, regarding himself and Ray.
“I assume the part about decorating is a reference to the stereotype of homosexual men being decorators,” Fraser said, almost mumbling.
“What?” Ray demanded, wanting to know what had the Mountie distracted enough that his perfect diction suffered.
Blue eyes looked up. “I’m uncertain why Diefenbaker is featured so prominently in the limerick. I mean, of the few times we’ve skated together, Dief was only with us once.”
The importance of Benny’s words became apparent in the silence they caused.
“About a month ago, the last of the snow,” Ray said. “And I told you I wasn’t going to do it again without softer ice.”
“We were in the park.”
They both strained to think of anything significant.
Ray shrugged. “There was nothing. We were just skating. No case. No witnesses. Nothing strange.”
The fire had been set in the 22nd Precinct, and Ray drove the Riv over without talking much, his eyes on the road, his hands gentle and sure on the wheel.
It really pissed him off. What the hell were pictures of him and Benny supposed to prove? So he touched the Canadian sometimes. Fraser didn’t seem to mind, and neither did he, for that matter. God knows nobody else touched the guy. Ray’d once thought Benny probably didn’t even touch himself, even alone in his bed when everybody was supposed to do it.
Did people have some sort of problem with the fact that two guys were such good friends? Did they have to come dump on it or lose out on their frequent flyer miles?
“I used to work with Ober. He’s all right.”
Fraser nodded. What he wanted to say to Ray wasn’t to be rushed through now that the car was pulling into a space near the 22nd Precinct station house. Besides, he needed to concentrate. Ray didn’t want to tell Ober and Wester about the note and the poem. Fraser agreed that it made things simpler, but it also felt dishonest. And it would make things more difficult later, if they ended up having to explain about the written evidence after all.
Inside, the place seemed strangely familiar, but only, Fraser realized, because it reminded him of the 27th Precinct house. He found his eyes looking into the far corner, as if Ray’s desk should be there. But there were three file cabinets instead, and a bulletin board covered in bulletins and thumb-tacks.
And the noise was wrong too, he decided. Did Diefenbaker sense it as well? The wolf was keeping very close to him and Ray, though it might simply have been the absence of a friendly face. The sounds in the room were too loud, too sharp. The room’s acoustics were unforgiving.
Ray walked towards two men, both in their late thirties, both with dark hair. One had the body of a high school athlete going slowly, but unmistakably, to fat, while the other was very tall and seemed slightly shrunken, as though he were recovering from a long illness. Ray shook the plump man’s hand first, smiling, then nodded respectfully at the tall, thin man as he shook his hand. Then Fraser was introduced.
“Benny, this is Charlie Ober." Fraser shook hands with the ex-athlete. "He once worked with the finest down at the 27th before he forgot about the good life and came here. Charlie, this is Benton Fraser.”
Ober nodded and let go of his hand, and Fraser noted frankness in the dark brown eyes of Ray’s friend. “The uniform made me think you weren’t home-grown,” Ober said.
Ray chuckled. Benny was wearing his brown uniform today, not the red, but Ober was into Civil War reenactments and knew just about every uniform ever made in the history of uniforms. “This is John Wester,” Ray said next, indicating the tall man.
Wester shook Fraser’s hand, then sneezed, excused himself, and blew his nose on a handkerchief.
“So where are the pictures?” Ober wanted to know.
Ray spread them out on Ober’s desk, but it was Wester who really went through them, making comments about the time of day they were taken, and the distance covered by the telephoto lens. Fraser agreed with his comments, and added in his own observations. Ray and Ober watched quietly.
It had been about a year and a half since Ober had seen Ray, and about four years since he’d worked at the 27th. Standing here like this, Ober was able to note how profound, if subtle in their own way, were the changes in his old friend. Ray still looked ready to start talking up a storm, and wasn’t quite standing still, always shifting his weight, ready for action.
But he was…quieter, calmer. His clothes, for example, were still top quality, and obviously chosen with care, but they weren’t so flashy now. More elegance and less pizzazz, not so much of that Italian pushiness. And the Ray he’d worked with years ago would have made five or six comments by now, even if they had nothing to do with anything.
*We’re all getting older,* he thought. *Hope it’s doing me the same amount of good.*
They went in Wester’s town car to the scene, but there wasn’t much to see there, just blackened walls and charred food in melted plastic, nothing even worth looting.
“So, you think the stalker got the idea of the fire from taking the pictures,” Wester said, wheezing slightly in the acrid air.
“Seems a little too coincidental otherwise,” Vecchio noted, kicking at something near the back corner of the store. He frowned at what he uncovered, then turned away.
“But why burn a place down in our precinct when he’s trying to get your attention? Why not burn something that might even have called you to the scene in the first place?”
“Perhaps he felt that allowing Detective Vecchio to acquire the pictures first might have risked the possibility that he would choose not to report them,” Fraser suggested.
Ober glanced at Vecchio, but the suggestion (however indirect) that he might suppress evidence didn’t seem to phase him at all. Ober watched as Ray talked about evidence procedures, and couldn’t even see an extra blink. Yep. The guy had definitely mellowed. Or were he and Fraser more than just friends? Instinctively, he reviewed those photos, but there was nothing there. Just two guys talking, and a friendly pat on the shoulder.
“Maybe he didn’t actually torch this place,” Ray was thinking aloud now. “Maybe he just waited for another fire and slipped the envelope in.”
“Perhaps,” Fraser said. The envelope had been found under the cash register, and it could have been slipped in after the fire. “However, setting the fire in an adjacent precinct does have the advantage of making the photos very public very quickly.”
“And you got no idea who could be stalking you?” Ober asked.
“What did I say that last time you asked that, Charlie? No! All right?”
Smiling at getting an old-fashioned rise out of Ray, Ober suggested coffee.
“Here ya go, Benny. Home sweet fire hazard.”
“Thank you kindly, Ray.” Benton unfolded his body from the front seat, held the door open for Dief, closed it, then leaned through the open window. “Aren’t you coming up?”
Ray shrugged. “I’m kinda beat, Benny.”
“I think we should talk about the day’s events, Ray.”
“Aww, I don’t…” Ray sighed, turned off the Riv’s engine, took the keys, paused, looked over at Fraser, sighed again, opened the door and got out.
Walking behind Benny, watching him say hello to the two kids on the stairs, and trade comments about the weather with Mrs. Gamez, Ray felt disconnected, wanting to fight an invisible enemy and having no way to do it. He’d felt this way with Benny once before, and only once.
Damnit. He was going to have to say her name out loud. He really hated that.
Fraser took off his jacket and made tea while Ray sat in one of the plain little chairs and scratched behind Dief’s ears. He waited until the kettle was safely back on the cooling burner, but Fraser’s back was still to him.
“You think it could be Victoria, Benny? Making trouble for us?”
The Mountie had evidently been thinking along similar lines, because he didn’t flinch or sigh or ask Ray what he meant. He turned slowly from the counter instead, then unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows. “If it were Victoria,” he said finally, “there would be a joint bank account and evidence that we regularly checked in together at a motel.”
He gave one more scratch to Dief’s ears before leaning back and crossing his arms. The wolf’s head stayed in his lap. “Yeah.”
Benny brought the tea to the table, and all those demons came with him as well. Ray felt them sitting there, staring at him and Benny, waiting to see just how much the past could hurt them.
He thought sometimes he’d give everything, his Riv, his future, his life, if he could just reach over and take that bullet out of Benny’s back.
But instead the both of them just sat there, sipping tea, while the things they should speak of sat there and watched them.
*Some hunter you are,* Ray thought at Dief. Too bad the demons didn’t carry Milk Duds.
“Ray.” Fraser’s voice was soft and sad, and the detective braced himself. “I think the letter, the poem and the pictures are meant to target not us, but our friendship.”
Ray half-smiled, too tired to get both sides of his mouth up. “Yeah. Like that would do it.”
Blue eyes met his, smiled just a little. “Understood, Ray.”
Ray drained his tea, keeping his grimace to himself, and stood. It was only a short ride and a shower between here and bed. Benny stood up too, and walked him to the door. When Ray turned to say goodnight, his friend looked very slightly lost, and he couldn’t help the tenderness of his smile. Fraser really was too much. God. He’d never had a friend like Benny before. He thought it very likely he never would again. Like a few stupid pictures would mean anything to him? Please.
Quite deliberately, but not making too much out of it, he brought up his hand and patted Benny’s shoulder until he got a smile, then nodded and left.
Alone with Diefenbaker, Fraser made dinner, forcing himself, once the pasta and meat were stirred together in a casserole, *not* to give his share to his lupine partner. Whoever was doing this had probably just started. He couldn’t skip meals from now until this strange, uninvited case was resolved.
He got down the first few bites before his thoughts wandered, and Dief, who had long since finished his meal, stared at the food as it was pushed around his packmate’s plate.
As a child, Benton had often hoped for more than his grandparents could provide, yet they had truly given him all a young man needed to grow up: a home, guidance, patience, and all the books he could ever read. And he’d had friends, like Mark Smithbauer and Steve Macino, to play with. His memories of his mother were sweet, if a little sad, and his father’s eventual return every year was so reliable that not even death had stopped it.
Fraser realized he was looking around his apartment warily. All was quiet. Diefenbaker seemed hypnotized by the food on his fork. Fraser put it in his own mouth and chewed, sending Dief his most disapproving stare. The wolf whined.
He’d been taught young to rely on himself, so much so that he’d occasionally been punished for making decisions over his life without proper authority, such as boiling one of his shoes when lost in the city as a child. He’d been taught to cherish his friends, but not to rely on them for more than a friend should provide. He’d seen what happened to his father because of a friend, and he’d known more betrayal in his own life than he wanted to think about, especially when he was alone.
He’d also been taught that his life was in his own hands. Superstitions and magic and fortune-telling and the rest all had their foundation in the needs of the human psyche, but they weren’t the powerful, unexplained forces that others made them out to be. His father’s ghost might be a spirit, or, more likely, was some sort of manifestation of his own need to have his father in his life again. Fraser could accept either explanation. What he couldn’t accept was that it was not explainable.
So what was he supposed to make of Ray’s ability to be there whenever Fraser needed him? Even that one time Ray had let him down, by taking the Chevy at the used car lot, he’d still managed to save his life, still come through for him, still been there just when Fraser needed him. And sometimes it seemed as if Ray were behind every tree or counter just waiting to pop out and do just what he needed done, sometimes appearing as if…
“…as if by magic,” he said aloud, just to hear the words. He met Diefenbaker’s eyes. *It started, when? When he came into the diner and brought me home for dinner with his family? That was just good fortune. Or when he showed up at the cabin when he should have been back in the hospital, in Chicago, in America. And since then, how many times has he come to my rescue? How many times has he never once resented my coming to his?*
*That* was the friend Benton Fraser had made, and right at the time in his life he most needed a friend. Was it his fault that his self-reliance had suffered so badly? All he had to do was think about what his years in Chicago would have been like without Ray’s friendship and his vision of himself as moving through the world at one and at peace with himself, helping everyone and needing no one, became laughable.
No, if he’d never met Ray, if he’d been able to stay in Canada and be the Mountie he’d always though he’d be, he would have been fine. But now the thought of a future without Ray’s friendship was almost overwhelmingly depressing.
Scowling, Fraser straightened his spine and made himself finish his dinner. He wasn’t going to lose his friendship with Ray. He was going to deal with whatever their new foe threw at them, and then they would order pizza or see a movie or, most likely, get involved in the next case, and life would continue on. Losing Ray was simply unacceptable.
The phone was ringing.
Ray Vecchio didn’t move anything but his hand and the arm to which it was attached.
“There’s been another fire. Two people were hurt, and there are more pictures of you and the Mountie.”
“On my way, sir.”
It was too early even for his mother to be in the kitchen. He made instant coffee and drank it while tying his shoes. He took a second cup with him in the Riv, and made it to the station house with only a few missed stop signs. Benny would be proud.
Ober and Wester were in Welsh’s office. They seemed surprised, and looked behind him as he walked through the door.
“Where’s Fraser?” Welsh asked.
With a little jolt, Ray realized he should have gotten Fraser, and that he should have known that. “I can go get him for you, sir.”
Welsh shook his head and waved Ray on in.
“Why don’t you just call him?” Ober wanted to know. Ray noted that his old friend was looking at him a little funny.
“He doesn’t have a phone. I’ll fill him in later, okay? What do you have?”
“Pictures.” Were Ober’s eyes just a little narrow? Ray was careful as he turned from them to pick up some gloves from the box on Welsh’s desk and snap them on.
The envelope was red this time, and again stank of smoke. He slid the photos, black and white 8X12s, into his hand, then looked through them carefully.
He and Benny talking in Benny’s apartment last night over tea. The two of them draining their cups. Another of them talking, their expressions serious. Next a picture of them walking to the door. And then, of course, one of him with his hand on Benny’s shoulder. And then another. He hadn’t noticed that Benny looked quite so grateful at the time. And then Benny alone, eating. Then one of Benny talking to Dief that made him chuckle. The next --
Ray jerked his eyes away from the picture, grimacing. “Geeze, you could have warned me.” He shoved the pictures back into the envelope. Like he really wanted to see Benny with his pants off.
Like he really wanted to know there were several pictures after that one.
Damnit. Poor Benny. At least maybe now the guy’d put some drapes up.
“Anybody look for evidence in the apartment across the street?” he asked.
“The fire isn’t completely out yet,” Ober replied.
“So you just rushed over here with the snapshots? What are you expecting me to say? I was at Benny’s place last night. We talked. The important thing here is figuring out why someone gives a damn.”
Ober's eyes were definitely hostile. "Lieutenant Welsh was telling us about a couple letters."
"We don't like being kept in the dark, Vecchio."
"So now you been brought up to speed."
Ray took a step closer. "You got something you want to ask me, Charlie?"
"Gentlemen," Welsh rumbled, "this isn't what we're here for. If Detective Vecchio felt the letters we received weren’t germane to an investigation of the fire, I’m sure this latest incident has changed his mind, and that he is pleased to have you acquainted with all aspects of the case."
“Latest incident, sir?”
Fraser stood in the door, almost at attention, his red uniform bright in the glare of the florescent bulbs, his shined boots a pace apart, his Stetson in his hand. Dief was sniffing the ground a few feet behind him.
“What are you doing here, Benny?”
“I heard about the fire. Mr. Ozekki was kind enough to give me a ride to the station.”
“How’d you hear about the fire?”
“It was on the news, Ray.”
“How did you hear the news?”
“Considering the nature of our current case, Ray, I asked to borrow Mr. Mustafi’s radio.”
“Yeah? What on it needs fixing, Benny?”
Fraser raised his eyes, the first sign of true animation since he appeared. “Well, the clock doesn’t work, Ray, but I’m sure he was unaware of -“
“There are more pictures, Constable,” Welsh announced.
“Ah.” Benny’s head bent down a moment, then turned up again. “I thought there might be.”
“Is that why you got dressed in the closet?” Wester asked.
Benny and Ray both stared at him. “I’m sorry?” Benny finally prompted.
Ober snagged the envelope from the desk where Ray had tossed it, and Fraser got himself a pair of latex gloves before sliding the pictures out into his hand. The first showed him without his jodhpurs, and the second without his shirt. He could then be seen walking into the closet, then emerging in his red longjohns. The next one was out of order and depicted him and Ray at the table, drinking tea, saying goodbye. Benny's eyes slid carefully to his unofficial partner, who was not looking at him or the pictures.
“As I have no locks on my doors,” Fraser said, looking through the pictures again, noting the angle of the camera and the quality of the focus, “I usually get dressed in my closet. I hadn’t considered the advantages before in not being photographed without any clothes.”
Yes, he could see that, just fractionally, Ray relaxed.
“Have you discovered the location from which these shots were taken?” Fraser continued.
“No,” Ray said, his voice showing strain. “They haven’t even looked yet.”
“It shouldn’t be too difficult, considering that these must have been taken from a vantage point equal in height to my apartment. We can find it after we inspect the remains of the tavern with Detectives Ober and Wester.”
“There isn’t much to see,” Ober noted, his narrow eyes darting back and forth between Fraser and Vecchio. “Once you burn ‘em down, one gay bar looks pretty much like all the others.”
Fraser raised his eyebrows. “Well, that may be true, but we can’t be sure we won’t find something of value, particularly since, in each instance, our unknown photographer and poet has been stepping up the level of innuendo regarding myself and Detective Vecchio. These pictures are no more suggestive than the last set, so it may be that there was something more left at the bar for us to find, something perhaps that would not strike the observer as significant until they were looking for it.”
“Like what?” Ober demanded suspiciously.
Fraser blinked. “We won’t know until we find it, Detective.”
“Come on, Fraser, we’ll take two cars and meet them there.” Ray was moving to the door.
“We’ll meet you there after you tell us what’s going on around here,” Ober said, taking a step into Ray’s path.
“You know everything we know now, Charlie.”
“I think there’s something mighty important you know that we don’t, Vecchio.” Ober was in Ray’s face now, and the Italian detective looked to be about one second from knocking him out of the way.
“You got something you want to know, then you ask it!” Ray took a breath, but no one else spoke. “Unless, of course, you don’t want the rest of us to go there.”
“Meaning what?” Ober shouted.
“Ray…” Fraser said softly.
“Charlie,” Wester broke in. “Let it go, man.”
“If we’re protecting the rights of two fags here, I want to know!”
Ray snorted, looking at Ober in disgust and taking a step back.
“Detective Ober,” Welsh said in the calm voice two people in the office recognized as deadly, “please remain in my office.” The lieutenant’s eyes flicked to the red uniform. “Constable, if you would be so kind, please accompany Detective Vecchio to the arson scene.”
“Detective Wester, I would like to speak to your partner alone for a moment, if I may?”
Wester just nodded and walked out the door. After a pause, Ray and Benny followed, closing the door behind them.
Wester, hands in his pockets, stood in the early-morning quiet of the bullpen and looked at the ground. Diefenbaker trotted up to him and nuzzled his ankle.
Ray looked ready to say something, then walked over to his desk.
"Detective Wester, I believe there has been a misunderstanding," Fraser began.
"You don't gotta explain anything to him, Benny!"
"But Ray -- "
"I'm getting in the car now, Fraser. You want a ride or not?" Ray looked at his friend for a half-second, then turned to walk out of the station.
Ray managed two more steps towards the door, then stopped, resting his hand on the door frame. He turned slowly, protesting every inch, then crossed his arms. Wester wheezed slightly but did nothing more to break the silence.
"Say what you have to say, Fraser."
The Mountie looked at Wester, his hat now in both his hands. "Detective Vecchio and I are good friends, but we are not involved in a sexual relationship."
Wester nodded, slowly, then let his eyes travel back to the closed door through which Ober's back could be seen. Something unpleasant glinted, but his voice gave nothing away.
"I have allergies," he told them. "Not AIDS."
"The angle of the photographs suggests the camera operator was on their knees, Ray. Or perhaps just very short."
"Well, no one remembers anybody with a camera, and that includes any midgets."
Fraser nodded, looking out the window into his apartment. It would take a highly skilled photographer to get those pictures of him and Ray from this hallway window. There was no sign of anyone’s having been here.
The last time he'd come here he was looking for Jolly, trying to protect Victoria, desperate to have a second chance, knowing somehow that it could never work. The only woman he'd ever loved had come back into his life, yet she'd never stood still, never allowed him to feel she might be his for the keeping.
And now Ray was looking out the window too, his thoughts wrapped tightly around his thin frame in his loose coat. They hadn't spoken of anything personal at the crime scene, had spoken not at all in the car. This close to Fraser's apartment, Ray could take off and leave him without guilt.
"Why didn't you get me this morning on the way to the station?"
"This concerns me as well, Ray."
"I know that, Benny. Okay? I just didn't think of it."
Fraser said nothing. They watched his apartment some more.
"You gotta get blinds, Fraser. At least for as long as this lasts."
"All right, Ray. Would you mind giving me a ride to the hardware store?"
Ray sighed. "No. I don't mind."
"If you do not wish to accompany us," Fraser told him, "you may return to the apartment. I believe your food dish still has some dried food for you."
The wolf seemed insulted, and turned for the end of the hall. Fraser looked once again at the lack of evidence around them, then followed. Ray's footsteps were quiet behind him.
"Perhaps shades would be better than blinds, Ray."
"I'll be able to roll them up out of the way. Perhaps I'll even leave them there when this is over. I've always been reluctant to cut off my view of the outside, doubtlessly because it's so easy to feel claustrophobic here in the city. You know, the Inuit -- "
They had reached the outside, and Benny turned in time to see his friend make for the car. He thought to follow him, but found that his feet weren't moving. Ray made it to the car and opened the door, saw him standing there, and seemed to be debating whether to drive off on his own.
He closed the door and walked back, not looking at Fraser directly.
"I didn't want you there, Benny. I didn't want you to have to deal with that."
"You were protecting me, Ray?"
Ray shrugged, and kicked at something on the ground. "Can we just not talk about it, Fraser?"
"If we don't talk about it, it will just get bigger, Ray."
Ray looked up at last, his eyes tired. "It will get bigger whether we talk about it or not." He smiled suddenly, the self-hating smile that hurt. "I didn't put it together before."
"Charlie Ober never keeps his mouth shut. Gays, blacks, Hispanics…" He shrugged again.
"That suggests that whoever is behind this knew about Detective Ober's reputation."
"Yeah. Benny, look, it's getting cold. Let's get your blinds and I'll help you put them up, and then you come to my house for dinner, okay?"
Benny smiled, and held it until Ray smiled back, properly.
"Thank you kindly, Ray."
The blinds were easy to install. They were plain and white and rolled smoothly up above the windows, then down below them, blocking the view completely.
"I suppose I'll take the opportunity to change," Fraser noted as he looked unhappily at the white sheets of shiny cloth.
Ray grunted and took his own opportunity to go to the restroom. When he returned, Fraser, dressed in jeans, a dark shirt, and his leather jacket, was rolling the shades back up. Dief had taken an expectant position by the door.
Ray's cell phone rang.
“The Mountie with you?” Welsh asked.
“Get to the station, both of you. Now.”
“We’re on our way, sir.”
“Trouble, Ray?” Fraser watched his friend pocket his cell and unconsciously straighten his holster. It was odd the way it didn’t bother him to be unarmed when Ray was with him, and he had a sudden memory of Ray at his father’s cabin, pouring out a not-so-small arsenal from a small black bag.
“Welsh didn’t say.”
The phone rang again, and again Ray slid it out. “Vecchio.”
“Which one of you likes to be on top, Detective?” a woman’s voice asked. “Or do you switch?”
Ray grabbed the tape recorder out of his jacket, thanking God he’d thought to get it out of his desk.
“Who wants to know?” he asked casually as he pressed “record” and held it up to the earside.
“Are you asking my name, Detective Vecchio? Not very smooth for someone who used to be such a ladies’ man. Or does your partner like the butch talk in bed?”
“What is it you want?”
“To get perverts like you off the force.” The voice never changed its inflection, never stressed one syllable over another. It sounded almost as though he were listening to a sexy version of the weather report. “Next time you’re going down on Canada’s finest, you might think about the people of this city who’d consider that a crime.” The line was cut.
Fraser watched Ray look at the phone, his face slightly pale and quite frozen. The long, nimble fingers moved around the recorder, turning it off, rewinding the tape, pressing “play.” He listened to the woman’s voice and felt something deep inside him guiltily relax.
Ray clicked the machine off, then met his eyes.
“Not Victoria, then,” Fraser said.
“No. I don’t see Victoria working with another woman. This is some new nightmare from hell.”
Fraser shifted, looking uncomfortable. “Normally, I wouldn’t ask, but…”
“We ain’t got all day, Fraser.”
“’Going down on?’”
“You’re kidding me.”
Ray held up his hands. “No, I’m drawing the line here, Fraser. You know how to fly a plane, how to start a fire from a carrot, how to perform brain surgery all from reading some book in your grandmother’s library, but you don’t know any slang about sex? What the hell is that? ‘Cause I really wanna know!”
“A family-oriented library, Ray.”
“I don’t know what it means, Ray. And when you play that tape for your fellow law enforcement officers, they’re going to know and I’m not.”
“What?” Benny, instantly flustered, sputtered out the word.
“Giving the other person oral sex, Benny. That’s what it means.”
“Ah.” Fraser seemed to do some mental calculation. “I see. The slang would seem to reference the manner in which one would approach -“
They got into the car. Ray started it gently, listened to the engine purr, and tried to relax.
Benny’s lips were pressed tightly together. Ray put the Riv in reverse and eased out of the parking space into traffic. Benny’s shoulders shook just slightly. Ray put her in drive and stepped down hard on the gas. Benny wrapped his arms tightly around himself.
“What?!” Ray exploded.
Benny tried to talk over his laughter. “I’m sorry, Ray. It’s just…I now understand…something I heard Willie say to one of his…oh dear…friends.”
Ray’s annoyance level spiked so sharply it somehow turned into laughter. Benny stared at him in shock, then they were both at it again, giggling this time in tight little squeaks that somehow did make things seem a little better, for the moment. Ray ran a stop sign just to feel normal again.
“Of course,” Fraser said several blocks down. “It’s inappropriate for Willie to have made such a comment. I’ll need to have a talk with him.”
“Yeah, I’m sure that will do it, Fraser.”
“There’s no need to be cynical, Ray. Willie has been doing very well in school lately, and has made some comments regarding a desire to improve his family’s financial situation.”
“You tell him I catch him dealing drugs, he goes down just like any other punk.”
“Well, I didn’t think Willie was your type, Ray.”
Ray’s eyes bulged, his head whipping around to stare at Fraser, who was again giggling.
“That ain’t funny!”
Fraser sobered instantly. “Well, actually it is, Ray.”
“You’re making dirty jokes now!” Ray shouted in fury. Benny dissolved once more into giggles. “I teach you a little American slang out of the goodness of my heart, and now you’re making dirty jokes!”
The Riv pulled up to the station and parked between cars, not slowing down until the last possible second. Vecchio got out with a scowl that eased away as Fraser and Dief joined him and walked inside.
He could feel himself closing off, not wanting to be completely aware of his life when he confronted Welsh. His anger was rising up with an almost sweet purity, and he was looking for something, anything, to cross him or threaten him, or even better, to threaten Benny. He’d love to give some little creep a pounding in an interrogation, or even just shoot something.
That, or he just wanted the whole damn world to leave him the hell alone.
He felt things, deeply. He was Italian, for chissakes! But he wasn’t into all that touchy-feely crap. He didn’t need to think about what he felt, he just felt it. Benny was the kind of friend a man could spend his whole life wishing he had, and Ray Vecchio had him. He didn’t want anything else. He didn’t want anyone else. And most of all he didn’t want to explain it to anyone else, including Fraser. And Benny hadn’t needed it. Even now, Benny wasn’t asking questions, wasn’t making things worse, was even making them better, in his own weird Mountie way.
It wasn’t fair. He was a cop. He liked fair.
He liked Benny, and Benny liked him. He didn’t know why, he didn’t question it. He was sometimes so overwhelmed with the gratitude he felt that Fraser could put up with him at all, let alone say he was his best friend, that he could do nothing more with Benny than bitch at him.
*Just remember what his friendship is worth to you, Vecchio, and you’ll be all right.*
It was certainly worth walking into the precinct and bumping into five or six people on the way to Welsh’s office. It was worth the strange look from Elaine, and Huey making some comment about how some people just never seemed to be around doing any work anymore. And it was worth walking into Welsh’s office and closing the door, like he and Benny were in some sort of trouble, before he faced his lieutenant.
“Detectives Ober and Wester have received a call from the 22nd," Welsh said, nodding slightly towards the two men already standing in his crowded office. "I believe you know Ms Carrimore from Internal Affairs."
"I haven't had the pleasure, actually," Fraser said, extending his hand, which she took in a cool, dry grasp as her gray eyes somewhat clinically assessed him. She was in her forties, with shoulder-length dark brown hair and a slight build accentuated by a light blue suit. Fraser took one look at the set of her mouth and knew she exploited her benign appearance only to cover up a sharp mind.
Ray relaxed just slightly at the knowledge that Carrimore had been assigned. He'd known someone from IA was coming, and she was a lot better than most of the nit-picking snoops.
"I received a call as well, sir," Vecchio reported, holding up the small tape recorder.
"When?" the lieutenant asked.
"Just after you hung up, sir." He waited a moment, then pressed the "play" button.
“Who wants to know?"
“Are you asking my name, Detective Vecchio? Not very smooth for someone who used to be such a ladies’ man. Or does your partner like the butch talk in bed?”
“What is it you want?”
“To get perverts like you off the force. Next time you’re going down on Canada’s finest, you might think about the people of this city who’d consider that a crime.”
Ray clicked off the recorder, then opened it and handed the cassette to Welsh.
"The lab will check it against the call they got at the 22nd." Welsh reached over to the reel-to-reel on his desk and switched it on.
"Twenty-Second Precinct," a man's voice said.
"Did you like the fire at the Toolbox?" The lab would confirm it, of course, but it was obviously the same woman's voice. "A few less busts this week with that pit out of business." Despite the words, there was still no inflection. It sounded almost robotic.
"Have you any information regarding that fire, ma'am?"
"The incendiary device included kerosene and gunpowder, and I put it behind the popcorn boxes under the bar."
"Would you like to come to the station and make a statement regarding that, ma'am?" The cop's voice was calm and steady, but just a little slow. Ray could see the guy in his mind, signaling for a trace.
"There's another device in a very busy building in downtown Chicago. Unless I hear that Detective Raymond Vecchio of the Chicago Police Department and his lover, Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have both been discharged for conduct unbecoming an officer by 8 AM tomorrow morning, the device will go off and a lot of people, including some children, I believe, will be killed."
"How will we -- "
"When the queers are fired, I'll know."
The line clicked dead, and there were some beeps and clicks on the line before Welsh switched off the recorder.
Ray was already reaching for his badge, and put it without a word on his lieutenant’s desk.
“We’ve started the paperwork,” Welsh said, “but since we don’t know her source, no one but Ms Carrimore and the sergeant will know it’s not legit.”
“Makes sense, sir.”
“May I borrow your phone, Leftenant?”
“I already spoke to Inspector Thatcher. She’s coming here with legal council.”
“Canadian law does prohibit the firing of anyone for their sexual orientation,” Fraser noted, “as does, I believe, American law.”
“Fortunately, with ‘conduct unbecoming’ we won’t have to get specific for a few days, especially if we drag the paperwork. By then, we’ll know what’s going on.” Welsh rubbed his chin, eyeing the Mountie reluctantly. “Did she sound…familiar?”
“She’s not Victoria Metcalf,” Fraser said flatly. Ray nodded in support. “Detective Vecchio and I also feel it would be unlikely that she’s working with a partner.”
“Who’s Victoria Metcalf?” Ober asked, his voice a little strained and his arms crossed tightly.
“One of Benny’s old girlfriends,” Ray snapped. Let Charlie stew on that one for a while.
“We’re going to put you on Brodad,” Welsh went on, his face giving nothing away. “We’ve got two uniforms there now, and Ms. Carrimore will accompany you. Obviously, you leave the Riv here.”
“I need to get my family out first.” Ray looked at his watch. Ma would be starting dinner now. “I need to call.”
“Where will you put them?” Carrimore wanted to know.
“My aunt in Miami. They’ve done this before.” Ray’s voice was resigned. Fraser wondered if he were thinking about Carver, then had his own memory of being stuck in the car with Dief, unable to stop Ray from crawling into the junked car beside him. He’d thought seriously about dying, but he knew from the way Ray acted that he had something planned. It had been…satisfying then to see his friend.
“I’d like to collect Diefenbaker,” Fraser said, thinking of the way Carver had captured him.
“Isn’t he with someone now?” Welsh asked.
“Yes, someone who will be in no position to protect themselves should Dief become a target.”
“That’s the wolf, right?” Carrimore asked with a small frown.
She shrugged. “No reason he can’t come to the safe house too. But we should get moving.”
“We’ll work the case from here,” Welsh said firmly, meeting Vecchio’s eyes. “You two and the wolf stay put and stay quiet. Since you’ve been targeted, you’re a liability on the street.”
“I got it, Lieu.”
A knock on the door heralded the arrival of Thatcher and Abrams Hanks, Esq. The inspector’s eyes displayed both irritation and concern as Fraser filled her in on the situation. Ray took a moment to snag a replacement cassette from Welsh and sneak a look at the case file so far. There wasn’t much to see. After that he went into the corner and got on his cell phone with his mother. Ober seemed intent on speaking as little as possible. Wester wheezed.
“And you have no idea who is behind this?” Thatcher asked when Fraser got to the end.
Her eyes went to Ray, who shook his head as he got off his phone.
“I’ve been wracking my brains to see if this could be related to a case I did, or a perp I was chasing, but nothing’s come to me. None of this makes sense. There’s nothing to gain from it that I can see.”
“Were you or Constable Fraser involved with any cases lately where a gay man or lesbian was featured in any way?” Hanks asked.
“I busted some prostitutes last week, and some of them were in drag, but they all had records and they’re all back out on the street.”
“Last Thursday I processed a request for a student’s college admission here in Chicago and noted that they were a member of several gay organizations, but the request went through without difficulty. And two months ago I oversaw the arrangements for a delegation from Alberta who were in Chicago to attend a lesbian rally. However, there was again no difficulty connected to my involvement.”
“We’ll need to get moving, if we’re going to get you two settled before dark,” Carrimore urged.
“You’ll contact me when you’re secure at the safe house, Constable,” Thatcher stated.
“Yes, ma’am. First we must see to the safe relocation of Detective Vecchio’s family.”
“Of course.” She turned then, looking at Ray intently. To his surprise, the concern stayed in her eyes. “Tell them…not to worry.”
He nodded to her, then to Welsh, then walked out with Fraser and Carrimore. In his mind’s eye, he saw his mother turning off the stove with a sigh, putting the food back in the ‘fridge, and going upstairs to tell Maria what was going on and pack. Of course she would worry, but it had been nice of the Dragon Lady to think about his family.
The call came in to the 22nd less than an hour after the paperwork for Ray Vecchio’s dismissal came through, but that was long enough for the news to have made it to dozens, if not hundreds of paper-pushers and cops. There was no way to know how she knew. She simply did.
“It’s inside the janitor’s closet at Little Rides Daycare, North and Pine. Have a nice day.”
The officer on the phone tried to get in another sentence, but the line went dead.
Half an hour later there was a small fire in a trashcan outside the 27th Precinct house. At the bottom of the can the firemen found a charred but intact metal box. Inside, Welsh found pictures of Vecchio and Fraser inside the Riv, talking. If they had been taken the last time Vecchio wore that jacket, they were from a week ago. Their heads were together, their expressions serious as they talked. In all the pictures, Diefenbaker’s head was thrust up from the backseat, and he seemed to be paying strict attention to what was being said.
There was also a note, printed out on a laser printer on plain white paper.
*There’s another bomb, another daycare center. The animal is to be placed in a shelter before nightfall, or there will be another fire.*
Welsh didn’t like it, but if the first daycare center had been torched tomorrow morning, they would have lost at least twenty children. He had a friend at the ESPCA. Dief would be treated well.
With his second phone call, the lieutenant doubled the number of men watching the house tonight.
“Damnit. Nothing on but the Braves.”
“There were several films and a variety of American reruns, Ray.”
“Don’t you have anything to read?”
“A thorough search of the house allowed me to discover only several beauty magazines and some paperback romances, none of which particularly interest me, Ray.”
“What? You don’t want to know how to do your nails when you decide to be Ms Fraser again, Benny?”
Benny frowned, crossing his sneaker-clad foot over a jeans-clad leg. Ray privately wondered if he’d picked that red flannel shirt so he could pretend he was still in uniform. “Actually, I was somewhat intrigued by an article which, on the cover of the magazine, promised to explain why men are secretly attracted to women who are overweight. However, the article itself proved to be nothing more than dieting tips in disguise.”
“I’m not sure it’s amusing, Ray. The contemporary female in our society is subjected to a number of influences that seem purposefully designed to undermine her confidence and sense of self-worth. Among the Inuit, women are valued for their usefulness as life-mates. Sharp teeth, for example…”
Ray half-closed his eyes and felt himself relaxing. There was something soothing about Benny’s stupid Inuit tales at times like these, when he had nothing else to do, and nothing else to pay attention to but another Braves game. In fact, Benny’s tale was no more off-topic than some color commentaries he’d heard during a game.
So when Fraser finished his story, Ray said the right things to get him going on another one. This one involved caribou and children, and something about an ice storm.
The story was finished, more or less, when Wester came in.
“Charlie’s back at the 22nd,” he said, his voice sounding clear. His allergies were evidently taking a break. Perhaps, Ray thought, he was one of those people whose reactions cleared up at night. “And I’m heading that way, but I thought you’d like to know your dog is doing fine and they found the second bomb where she said it would be.”
“Has she made any new demands?” Ray asked. “Like me and Benny having to go on Jerry Springer and confess all?”
Wester laughed, and though it was a little strained he seemed to relax a bit. “You guys had dinner yet?”
“Yeah. Pizza. There’s some in the kitchen.”
They went into the next room, Ray grabbing some Cokes out of the ‘fridge and opening them before passing one to Benny and the other to John, who ate a slice quickly, washed it down, then rubbed a hand over the back of his neck.
“We haven’t got much. The calls haven’t been long enough to trace, the bombs aren’t made with anything distinctive, though the style is interesting -- clean and tidy -- no prints, nothing special about the paper, nothing special about the ink or the printer. In short -“
Wester looked at Ray and then shrugged. “Yeah.” He ate another slice.
“In such cases as these one would usually track the motive,” Fraser said, obviously just thinking out loud. “But in this case, there would seem to be no motive, other than this woman’s animosity towards either Detective Vecchio, myself, or both of us.”
“And yet, if she’s so pissed off at us, why attack us this way? Like you said, it’s like she’s coming after our friendship, not us.”
Wester looked surprised. “I was thinking the same thing, you guys. Although, maybe it’s your reputations she’s after. I mean, unless you find some really good way of dealing with this, it’s going to haunt you.”
“It’s going to haunt us no matter what.” Ray growled and paced a bit. “It’s just friggin’ pointless!”
“Well, hopefully she’s given it up for the night.” Wester finished off his Coke and moved out. “I gotta check in, then I’m getting some sleep. We’ve got four guys on the house now.”
“Four?” Ray looked surprised.
“Yeah, Welsh ordered the double after he heard about the dog.”
“Wolf, actually,” Fraser said.
“Right.” Wester looked at them, and then suddenly seemed to be hovering.
“Have you something on your mind, Detective Wester?”
He looked at the Mountie, then back at Ray, then sighed. “It’s really too little to go on, but someone at the lab commented that the bombs are looking a little like something they seen last year. It was a mob hit.” Ray went very still. “But there’s not enough to go on, not even close. I didn’t want to -“
“Thanks for telling us, John,” Ray said.
They watched Wester leave, then Ray flopped back on the couch in front of the baseball game. Fraser thought about joining him, then decided to go for a walk around the house. It was a surprisingly large place, considering the idea was to guard people in it. He supposed they wanted to be prepared to keep more than one person here at a time. Which was fortunate, he supposed. He and Ray really shouldn’t be sharing a bed under the circumstances.
For some reason, the rather impolite thought amused him. Perhaps it was just that such a suggestion would be sure to set off an impressive volley of Ray-fireworks. Perhaps he’d question whether it would be necessary to Ray.
He chuckled, and turned to walk up the stairs.
*Zuko,* Ray was thinking. *Does he hate me that much? Is he taking Benny from me because I took Irene away from him?*
He thought then, of course, to the time he’d come into the hall to find Fraser on the floor, bruised and cut up from Zuko’s thugs beating him. And then a year later, when Benny tried to warn him he wasn’t dealing with Zuko right. Then at the hospital, when he’d told his friend about dancing with Irene. He’d known Benny knew what he was feeling. It had helped.
He’d wanted to puke when he saw Benny on the floor like that. Beating the crap out of Zuko later hadn’t made up for seeing Fraser hurt.
But this was all a little subtle and perverted for Zuko. A mob guy didn’t involve himself in gay stuff, even as a finger-pointer. If Zuko thought he could get away with hurting Fraser again, he’d just have him rubbed. Besides, Zuko owed Fraser.
And why, damnit?
“Ugh.” Ray’s head, which had been drooping towards his chest, snapped up at the sudden sharp heat in his upper arm. But when he tried to focus on the room, everything blurred, and when he tried to figure out what had happened to him, his brain shut down, and a tightness in his chest was all he could feel as his body went limp.
Fraser walked down the stairs quietly and turned the corner to see that Ray was sprawled out on the sofa, asleep. Surprised, he moved forward. He’d thought Ray would be up all night, muttering and complaining and trying to figure things out.
Something white flashed outside the window, as though a furred creature had run by.
Not wanting to wake Ray, he turned and walked silently to the window, frowning at Dief’s stubbornness. He’d had a long talk with the wolf before turning him over to the shelter, explaining that what they were doing was for the civic good. He peered into the darkness.
And then a sharp burn hit his shoulder, the world went blurry and dark, and, though he didn’t know it, he made more than enough noise to wake a sleeping man as his body crashed to the ground.
On the sofa, Ray didn’t move.
His arms were killing him.
It was the pain from his arms that woke him, though the cold might have shaken him awake even without those protesting stabs up and down the muscles of his arms, pleading with him that they couldn’t take his weight anymore and please, please, please move.
So before his eyes had even opened fully to the bright, sterile whiteness of the room, he was moving away from the metal pole and feeling the tightness around his wrists, listening to the metal *clink* his ears knew so well.
*Handcuffs. And probably my own, with my luck.*
He blinked his eyes clear, fighting back a tight, nasty headache, and leaned back further. He was handcuffed to a pipe, and the cuffs had been looped around a joint clamp, so that he couldn’t bring his hands down.
He turned his head, blinked again against the pain, and saw a long, dark shape on the floor.
“Benny!” The shape didn’t move. “Benny?”
He thought he could see Fraser breathing, and it didn’t make sense to kill him and then drag him into this room, wherever this was, but then, if Benny were okay, why wasn’t he handcuffed or tied up too? Ray pulled his arms, then stretched his body out, trying to nudge Benny with his feet. He was just too far away.
Ray growled in frustration, called his friend’s name several more times, then looked at the cuffs. They had been left just a little loose around his wrists. Perhaps his slender hands could be useful. He tucked his thumb inside his fingers and pulled, shouting Benny’s name in excitement when his right hand slid down almost to the knuckles. He pulled harder, twisting his hand back and forth. It wouldn’t quite budge. He licked at the skin, twisted his hand some more. Damn, it hurt!
“Benny! I’m coming, Benny.”
Another twist, then another and another, until his skin was cut on the edge of the cuff and the blood stained the gray cuff of his jacket and seeped into the cloth of his green silk shirt. It also made his hand slippery enough that with another vicious pull it was out. Shouting in triumph, he pulled the cuff through the clamp, then whipped around to scoot over the floor to Fraser and roll him on his back.
Thank God, the Mountie was breathing, though it must have been hard for him with his neck all twisted up before. He straightened Benny’s body out and looked him over. His forehead was warm, though Ray was startled to see blood on the pale skin of his throat, until he realized he’d dripped that blood off his wrist. Hissing at the sudden sting of it, Ray reached into his pocket for his handkerchief and wrapped it around the cut before using it to clean off Fraser’s neck. He’d have a couple impressive bruises there too. The cuff hung heavily from his left hand, and he was careful not to hit Benny with it.
As he listened to the soft sound of Benny’s breaths, Ray looked carefully now around the room.
It was almost completely featureless: four white walls, a white floor, and a white ceiling with a circular light fixture in the middle, the metal pipe, and the faint outline of a door in the wall to his right.
That was it, except that it was cold and the air smelled a little stale.
Ray frowned. It *was* cold, cold enough to remind him of meat lockers and horses. He almost smiled. To think he was so worried about the well-being of a guy who once used him as a human shield!
“Benny? You all right? Benny?” Ray leaned over him, watching as Benny’s eye fluttered open. His mouth worked, and Ray leaned down to hear the words.
Ray smiled almost to his ears. “Hello, Benny. The floor’s real cold. Can you sit up?”
Together, they got Fraser upright and leaning back against the wall. Ray kept a hand on his shoulder until Benny nodded and got back some of his color, then leaned back and looked around, wondering what the Mountie would notice about the room that he’d missed.
“What happened to your hand, Ray?”
“Oh, I just cut it, Benny. How’s your head?”
“Clearing, Ray. Sodium hydrate, I believe, administered with a dart gun.”
“Packs a wallop.”
“Indeed.” Benny breathed deeply for a minute, and Ray waited with something close to a smile. “I’m detecting freon in the air, Ray. This room may be intended for refrigeration. Curiously, I’m detecting no horse meat.”
Ray’s laugh was prevented by the opening of the door.
They both heard the click of a high heel before the woman appeared. A tall poster woman for heroine-chic. Ice-blue eyes, a flat little nose over thin lips, and black hair pulled back in a French twist. Four-inch heels that made her even taller and thinner. And a black suit with no jewelry. Looking at her, both Fraser and Vecchio truly felt the cold for the first time.
“Just can’t keep your hands off each other, can you?”
It was the same voice from the phone calls, though for the first time there was an emotion in it, a trace of ironic disgust.
“You know there’s nothing going on between me and Benny,” Ray snarled. “What do you want, and who the hell are you?”
The woman seemed to think for a moment, and a small movement behind the door alerted the men to the presence of others.
“I’m Ms Socks,” she said finally.
“’Ms Socks?’” Ray demanded, throwing up his hands and almost smacking himself in the face with the cuffs.
She smiled most unpleasantly then and walked towards him. Two men, both dressed in casual clothes belied by their alert hostility and the fact that they seemed made entirely out of muscle, walked in behind her and took up positions at the door. The one on the right was holding a sack from MacDonald’s, and Ray’s nose picked up cheeseburgers.
He was glad for Fraser’s way with faces, because he knew he’d have a hard time recognizing either man again: bland, super-average faces with brown eyes and brown hair and not a scar or mole in sight. Of course, he’d know the noses again. Fraser would have to fill in the rest when they made their report.
*When* they made their report. Ray repeated the thought firmly as “Ms. Socks” leaned over him and took his handkerchief-wrapped hand in a cold little grasp that made his wrist ache. Ray snatched his hand away and she straightened.
“You’ll do, Detective Vecchio.” She looked at Benny, then back at him. “You’ll do very well.”
“I ain’t doing nothin’ for you!”
“Ms. Socks,” Fraser said in his best Mountie voice. “I’m sure you realize both that Detective Vecchio and myself are not engaged in any sort of relationship other than being friends, and that neither of us will abet you in any way. In fact, I’m sure that as soon as the opportunity arises, Detective Vecchio will be placing you under arrest.”
She actually laughed, a breaking sound that seemed disconnected from her, as though she were somehow both ventriloquist and puppet, and stood up.
“If the two of you behave yourselves, you will survive. There’s no need for me to kill you.” She waited for a response, then seemed pleased when she didn’t receive it. “However, I also have no great need to keep you alive. Not both of you, anyway.” She turned slightly and nodded to the men by the door, who instantly moved forward and jerked them off the floor.
“Hey! Watch what you’re grabbing! Don’t! Ouch! Benny, you okay? Hey! You just -- Ouch!”
The men backed off, and one of them threw the MacDonald’s bag near them. Ms Socks nudged it with her foot, eyeing the two men now sprawled on the floor and handcuffed around the metal pipe, and then turned and walked out. The door closed without a sound, but Fraser felt his ears pop slightly. The air was stale, but not that stale. Air must be coming in around the light fixture.
“Are you all right, Ray?”
“Yeah.” Ray’s voice was muffled against Benny’s shoulder. Their arms had been wrapped around each other, with Ray’s cuffs looped through Fraser’s belt and Fraser’s hands cuffed behind Ray’s back. Between them was the metal pipe. Their legs were either bent beneath them or tossed out to the side.
“I’m afraid they’ve purposely made things as uncomfortable and awkward between us as possible, Ray.”
“I kinda noticed that, Benny.”
“She seems determined to maintain her position of a homophobe dealing with two male lovers, even though she’s lost her audience.”
“Noticed that one too, Benny.”
“Which suggests she’s using her fiction to undermine our confidence in each other.”
“Benny, my leg’s going to sleep.”
“Ray, if we ignore the sexual overtones -“
“Benny, this is only, you know, like that, if we make it like that! As far as I’m concerned, we’re just all tangled up and you’re on my leg! Now, get it off of it!”
“But if I move away from your leg, Ray, our groins will -“
“Stop talking about our groins! You’re my best friend! As far as I’m concerned you don’t have a groin, all right? Now, just lift up!”
Fraser brought up his joined hands and managed to wriggle them around enough to grab onto the pipe, then hoisted his body up a few precious inches. Ray pulled his leg out from under him and managed to get his lower half all on one side of the pipe. Benny set himself back down with a sigh and curled his own legs around on his side. Now only their upper bodies were pressed together.
For a long moment, they just rested there, not talking, not turning to look at each other. Perhaps they would never have spoken, or moved, if Ray’s stomach hadn’t decided to protest with a low growl.
“Are you hungry, Ray?”
The thin body fidgeted, then Benny felt a sigh over his neck. “Yeah, Benny. Aren’t you?”
“Yes, Ray. I believe we were unconscious for at least sixteen hours.”
“How far is the bag?”
Benny looked over the distance. They could try wriggling around so that he could reach the bag with his feet, but he didn’t care for the idea of the strain that would put either on Ray’s bruised hands or his own pants. Besides, the bag was within arms’ reach, if he simply leaned into Ray very tightly.
Holding a breath, he squeezed into Ray, admiring again the heat of that slim body, like Dief without the fur, and reached for the bag.
Ms Socks had judged it perfectly. The bag was just a centimeter out of reach.
What to do? Should he ask Ray’s permission before pressing against him more tightly? Or should he say nothing and just do what needed to be done?
Ray’s stomach growled again, and that settled it. He let all the air out of his body, pressed forward as firmly as he could, and stretched his left arm out as far as the cuffs would allow. His fingertips brushed the bag. With a few swipes, he managed to bring it closer. He got the edge of the bag between his index and middle finger, then dragged it forward into his grasp.
Instantly he sat up, which meant he was suddenly looking into Ray’s face.
The green eyes smiled. “Nice going, Benny.”
“Thank you kindly.”
Inside the bag Fraser found two cheeseburgers. He tried to pass the first one to Ray, then remembered that his friend’s hand were handcuffed behind him, through his belt. Without a word, he opened the wrapping and held the sandwich up to Ray’s mouth.
“You eat first, Benny.”
“Actually, Ray, I think -“
“Just eat first, Fraser!”
Cold and greasy, the burger made a lump in Benny’s stomach the second he took his fourth and final bite. He seriously doubted whether the meal held any nutritional value whatsoever. However, it was true that he felt less hungry afterwards.
Ray’s turn now, and he held up the burger as Ray wolfed his down in four bites as well, frowning over the taste.
“No fries, Benny?”
“No. I’m sorry, Ray.”
“Don’t be sorry, Fraser.” To the Mountie’s astonishment, Ray’s arms squeezed him just slightly, and Ray’s voice was tender. “You’re doing fine.”
“Thank you, Ray.”
The detective nodded, then yawned. “We’ve been through nuclear weapons and amnesia and my sister walking into your room with Bat-Girl lingerie. What’s this woman got we can’t handle?”
Fraser had to think for a moment, but managed it. “Nothing, Ray.”
Fraser looked at the white wall, the white ceiling, the white floor.
“It’s kinda like snow, huh, Fraser?”
“Well, hardly, Ray. It’s not nearly cold enough.”
Another moment, and Fraser was smiling this time.
Inspector Thatcher walked into the 27th Precinct without the lawyer this time. Lieutenant Welsh waved her inside his office even as she was dodging around a tall, good-looking black man in a dark suit. She thought vaguely that she should know his name. But surely he was just one of Vecchio’s associates.
She wished she weren’t in evening wear, but there had been a reception tonight at the Brazilian Embassy, and she had rather obviously needed to attend. A little voice whined that *of course* this had to happen just four days before the Canadian ambassador to the UN would be visiting the consulate, but she shushed it.
She’d been coordinating the search efforts with Welsh over the phone for the past two days, including being there when the officers on duty had woken at the hospital. The men had been unable to add any information to what they already knew, however: they'd been shot full of chloral hydrate with a long-range dart gun, and they were absolutely useless. If they’d been Mounties, they would have resigned by now in disgrace.
Welsh held a hand over the receiver as she sat down, taking out her own phone and arranging her files. “Not a trace of them.”
She nodded, and made the first of what would be dozens of calls that night. But there was nothing, no sign of them at all. If it had been anyone besides Fraser and his friend Vecchio, she would have started to wonder by now if they were dead.
But no, this was Benton Fraser they were talking about, and his equally indestructible other half. They were alive, somewhere, and probably causing someone besides herself a very large, very painful headache.
Cam Walters liked his job. Driving the big bus down crowded Chicago streets took real skill, energy, care, and patience, especially when dealing with his passengers.
Take this guy hovering near the door, for example. He didn't know what the loud beanpole was on, but it was mega-high-octane. From the second he'd hopped up the stairs he'd been making noise and hovering and generally being a pain. Every time the bus stopped for passengers, he looked like he wanted to push Cam out from behind the wheel and roar on past.
Right now the guy was about two seconds from a heart attack. Mrs. Westmore, a nice regular who sometimes showed strangers pictures of her grandchildren, was struggling up the stairs. Her skirt was straight, and she was having a hard time getting her legs far enough apart to reach the next step. His passenger opened his mouth, and Cam got ready. One crack from the guy and he’d be walking it the rest of his way home.
To the driver’s surprise, his unruly passenger asked only if he could help the woman up the stairs. Receiving an affirmative, he firmly but gently guided her up and to a seat, then returned with her fare, which he plunked down the machine. Cam found himself back in the road, maybe just rushing things a little. Man, the guy really did look bad, and he wasn’t the sort to look good on his best day. Huge, shadowed green eyes that looked like he thought the whole world was after him, and long, pale hands that shook and seemed to want to touch everything. Later, when Cam was talking to the police, he’d mention those trembling hands several times.
For now, he actually stopped thinking about his passenger for five minutes or so, just weaving around the traffic, until he got to Piper St. and opened his doors. There was a flash of gray wool, and Mr. Hopped-Up Stringbean was running down the sidewalk with his jacket whipping behind him like a cape.
They let him run the last part of the way down the hall, almost flying into the room, holding up the folder of Xeroxed copies, gasping with the need for more air than his lungs would draw in. His eyes saw only that there was no blood, and when Benny called his name, he couldn’t hear it, not the first time, over the thunder in his ears.
“Detective Vecchio,” Ms Socks said quietly. He heard that. “You’ve returned on time. How very good of you.”
He held out the file with his right hand, his left going to his knee, propping him up as he began to get his breathing under control. He’d thought he had caught his breath back in the van, on his knees, blindfolded as they drove him back here from the rendezvous point. The short run here from the garage, or whatever it was, shouldn’t have taken so much out of him.
Benny hadn’t been moved, and now when Fraser said his name he heard it.
“Are you all right, Ray?”
She took the file from him, and he moved forward cautiously, past the table so that he could see Benny’s feet. His shoes and socks were still on the floor, where she’d put them before she gave Ray his instructions. He could see Benny’s toes. Ten of them.
And counted them again, superstitiously. Ten toes. Five on each foot.
“The copy quality could be better,” Ms Socks noted.
“I couldn’t ask for more toner.” Ray’s voice was flat and hoarse. The throat was so dry it hurt. That made it easier to keep himself from complaining, to keep from telling her about how he had to hide in the supply room, sneaking around while he could hear Elaine and Huey talking about some thief who’d tried to bite the arresting officer. He said nothing about standing at the copy machine, almost dying every time he heard a noise. He didn’t mention the little girl he’d almost shoved out into the street by accident when he was running for the van, or the cop who might have spotted him when he was leaving the 27th.
He only stood there and watched her flip through the information she’d asked for: files on the plans for a new parking structure for the 25th Precinct, public information she could have gotten from City Records.
She closed the file, considered for a moment, then nodded. One of the three men -- more of the guys with the plain faces and nothing but muscle under their clothes -- standing about the room moved forward and untied Fraser’s hands. The Canadian said nothing, but brought his hands together in his lap, rubbing at his wrists. He moved slowly, fighting the cramp that came from sitting so awkwardly for three hours. The man knelt and untied his legs, then stood up and resumed his place by the wall.
Fraser flexed the muscles in his legs for a moment, then reached down for his socks.
“Hurry up,” Ms Socks said, grabbing the pruning shears off the table and waiting only until Fraser had just slid on his shoes before she nodded to the man next to her. Ray and Benny were grabbed up and hustled to the cold, white room in which they had awoken so many hours before. The guy who had driven the van walked up to Ms Socks with another MacDonald’s bag, which she threw into the room to land next to a small mattress covered by a thin brown blanket.
“Get your sleep,” she instructed, then closed the door, leaving them alone.
Fraser let himself stare at Ray, not moving towards him, not bombarding him with questions about his well-being or how he had possibly managed Ms Socks’ impossible task. Sweat stained the gray suit, and the smell of it, though hardly offensive, was sharp in the air. The cut, bruised hands were shaking, and there was a new cut on his left hand, as though he’d scraped it along brick. His eyes were slightly wild, and staring at him. Benny found he had to swallow before he could speak.
“I’m so sorry, Ray.”
Ray swallowed as well, and, impossibly, smiled. “Sorry for what, Benny?”
There wasn’t an answer to that one, except to smile back, struggling for it.
“Can I do anything for you, Ray?”
“We’d better eat.” Ray sat down on a corner of the mattress and reached for the bag. “I passed by at least a dozen coffee shops, Fraser. I think it’s some sort of conspiracy they got going, cause they’re all brewing up a storm. You should have smelled them. Even that crummy Starbucks stuff smelled good.” He fished the two cheeseburgers out and handed one to Benny. “And there was this pastry shop -- I couldn’t believe it! They had some sort of cream looking things -- I gotta find out what they were! I bet Ma could make them, but they looked like Heaven.”
“Your mother is an excellent pastry chef, Ray.”
Ray swallowed down half the sandwich in one bite. “Yeah. I wish she’d teach Frannie some of her tricks. You should have been at the house a couple Christmases ago…uh, I guess it was three, come to think of it. Frannie decides she’s going to make this Swedish shortbread stuff with mint. Gawd, it was just about the worst thing you ever tasted! And the smell of it!” He broke off to eat the other half, shaking his head. “I thought we were going to have to call in the toxic waste guys.”
“Would you like part of mine, Ray?”
“Eat your burger, Benny. What? You think she’s going to give us another one? Besides, it must be nice eating dinner without Diefenbaker trying to beg it off you.”
“He does indulge in begging far more than one would expect in an arctic predator, Ray.”
“Well, don’t look at me. I don’t feed him.”
“Well, that’s not entirely true, Ray, though you do pretend not to.”
“What? You calling me a liar?”
Benny opened his mouth, but whatever retort he’d planned died off. His lips pressed together, and his blue eyes looked down. He tried to say something else, then frowned. “No, Ray,” he said finally, then ate the last of his sandwich.
Ray grabbed the paper wrapper out of his hand roughly, balled it up with his own, and shoved it in the bag, which he balled up as well before throwing it against the far wall.
“Let’s get some sleep, okay, Benny?”
Vecchio made no move to take anything off, just lay back on the mattress and rolled over on his side, facing out. Fraser slid in on the other side, trying to give Ray most of the blanket without being too obvious. The problem was, there wasn’t much blanket to begin with, and the room, which had always been cold, was colder than it had been before. He worried about Ray’s sweat chilling him, and he worried about rolling off the mattress and onto the icy floor, and he worried about the fact that Ray couldn’t settle into any position that didn’t make the two of them touch each other, a touch that in each case was emphasized by his friend’s fierce body heat.
“Ray,” he murmured.
The taut body beside him sighed. “Yeah, Benny?”
“I believe Ms Socks deliberately designed our sleeping arrangements so that it will be impossible for us to share the bed without allowing our bodies to touch.”
“What did I tell you about discussing bodies, Fraser?”
“Ray, this is ridiculous!” Benny snapped his jaw shut, fighting down the anger, the hysteria. But as he turned over to look into Ray’s eyes, all he could see was what he’d imagined for three hours: Ray’s face if he returned just a moment too late, Ray’s face seeing him so helpless like that, unable to stop her from hurting them both. Ray must have run a marathon in those three hours, and as for how he’d kept out of sight at the precinct…
“Ray,” he whispered, unable to keep from thinking of the thousands of times he’d caught Ray looking at his back, obviously hating himself for what had been an accident, an attempt to save him from himself, to keep Victoria from ruining his life. What would Ray have felt if he hadn’t made it back in time today? Would those eyes ever have been able to look into his again?
But Fraser would have been all right, even while struggling to stay in the narrow bed made of a thin blanket and a thinner mattress. He would have been able to turn back on his side and pretend to sleep, if Ray’s eyes hadn’t closed in self-disgust, if he hadn’t tried to look away.
“Ray,” he said again, a hoarse rasping version of his friend’s name, reaching for him, needing to center himself in the universe. Ray’s hands fended him off, but before he could protest, those warm hands were on his chest, then sliding down to his hips, then further, down his legs. Ray was sitting up then, the blanket like a tent over his shoulders, and Benny lay passive as his the touch went to his ankles and his shoes and socks were slipped off.
“Just don’t say anything, okay, Benny? Just for a little while.” The warmth of narrow, elegant fingers wrapped over his toes, holding them, keeping them safe, and Benny nodded, biting his lip and saying nothing. He wished the light weren’t so bright, the room so cold. He wished they were safe, really safe, and that there were a fire nearby, or even a movie on the television with the sound turned off.
Eventually, Ray stirred, and Benny wiggled his toes in a successful attempt to coax a smile out of Ray. The detective slipped his socks and shoes back on, then was almost excessively casual about lying down next to Benny, getting their arms arranged so that they fit against each other without really embracing, and then pulling the cover up to their shoulders.
But Fraser needed to speak now. Ray would forgive him.
“Ray, when I almost went with Victoria -“
“Oh, God, Benny! Are you serious? You wanna talk about that now?”
“Ray, it took me a very long time to figure this out, and I need to tell you this before…I just need to make sure you hear this. Now is hardly the ideal time, I agree, but…I need you to hear it, in case of…anything.”
Ray sighed. “All right, Benny. But keep it short, okay? We have to sleep before she makes me clean the city with my toothbrush.”
“I loved her, Ray.”
“I know, Benny.”
“No, I mean I did love her. I loved her the moment she saved my life, perhaps the moment she first refused to give up, perhaps…the first moment she spoke to me. And I loved her when I sent her to prison, and I loved her when she showed up in Chicago. I knew she wasn’t telling me the truth. I knew she wanted to hurt me, that she loved me and that she hated me. My father told me once that a man will sometimes give anything for a second chance, and that’s what I wanted with her, that’s what I needed: a chance to go back and undo the horrible mistake I made, the mistake I almost couldn’t live with.”
Ray moved a hand to his shoulder and held it. Considering the circumstances, Benny was nearly overwhelmed with the sympathy behind the gesture.
“But by the time I was at the train station -- - and this is the part it took me so long to figure out, Ray -- - that had changed. She no longer represented a chance to make things right. She had come to stand for the chance to escape.”
“Yes, Ray. Of course, what I felt for her was an escape from discipline and loneliness, but more importantly, if I went with her, I wouldn’t have to feel guilty anymore about the years she’s spent in prison, and what they had done to her inside. I wouldn’t have to go to my superior officer and explain how I’d let her come so close to ruining my life. I wouldn’t have to face the board of inquiry. I wouldn’t…” Benny broke off and breathed heavily, fighting something. Ray just kept hanging on to his shoulder. “I wouldn’t have to stand guard duty anymore, or stay in a city where you can’t see the stars. I wouldn’t have to watch Diefenbaker go from being a partner to a pet. I blamed myself for his bad habits, and for getting him shot, and I couldn’t stand anymore that I was an exile from my country and the life I had always wanted for myself.”
“And you were in the middle of it, Ray. I owed you so much, and I had given you back nothing but trouble. I didn’t understand it, and in my own way I was as frightened of you then as I was of Victoria. I was ruining your career, and setting you up, albeit unknowingly, to go to prison. And in return you mortgaged your house for my bail and never questioned that I was innocent. I could barely look at you, and when I thought of how much I wanted Victoria, even when I knew she was a murderer and a liar and ready to destroy your life and mine out of spite, I wanted…I wanted to run away from you, Ray. I didn’t want you to see me anymore.”
Ray was silent now, and Benny kept waiting for the hand on his shoulder to withdraw, even though he knew it wouldn’t.
“When she was on the train, escaping me, escaping the trap she’d made for us, calling for me to come with her, I didn’t just see her, I saw freedom, Ray. I saw a chance in one moment to stop being what everyone expected me to be. No more uniform that itches every day of the year, no more hiding every emotion and having no one to share my life with, no more guilt and sorrow and loss and my father and you…you who owed me nothing, who never asked for anything more than just…
“I looked back and saw you, Ray, running towards us, and I just wanted you to leave me alone, to let me run away.”
Ray let a long space go by before he spoke, and when he did it was almost too soft and sad to hear.
“Is that still what you want, Benny?”
“No, Ray. I did want it for a long time, Ray, long after I realized what I wanted, long after I knew I wouldn’t want it anyway. But when that longing finally went, I knew it for certain. You can’t mistake something that painful when it finally leaves you. You saved me, Ray. When you shot me by accident -- and I do know it was an accident, Ray -- when I fell to the ground and had to stay in the hospital, when you saw to it that I was cleared of all charges and helped me back into my life, you saved me. Escaping with Victoria would have seemed like freedom, but now, looking at it…the worst possible prison.
“I would have had nowhere to go, nothing to support me. I would have been trapped, a fugitive shackled to a woman who hated me and loved me and would have made me suffer every moment I was with her because of that love. I think now that I was just so glad to feel something again, after my father’s death, something deep and real, that it didn’t matter how much it hurt. Just *feeling* again was so good. But how long could that have lasted before it was Hell?
“No, you saved me, Ray. You saved me when I first came to Chicago, and you’ve been saving me every single day since.”
“And you don’t want Victoria now? If she showed up and asked you to come with her, you wouldn’t?”
“Quite. In fact, I’d arrest her, Ray.”
“Well, I’m glad about that, Fraser. She was no good for you.”
Ray gave his shoulder an extra squeeze, then released it, but he’d been too silent too long. Fraser could almost feel the build-up of words in his friend’s body.
“You deserve someone you’ll love you right, Benny, who’ll appreciate you and look after you, and get you to move out of that rap-trap and into a real place.”
“Couldn’t she just like my apartment too, Ray?” Fraser’s smile was audible.
“Are you kidding me? No woman’s going to live like that!”
“Well, actually, Ray, Inuit women -“
“Oh, God, no! No Inuit stories, Benny! I just can’t take it right now.”
They were quiet for a long time, but the room was very cold, and the air seemed to swirl around them through the blanket, out and then back over the floor, which Ray was sure now was covered in ice.
“We’re never going to tell anyone about this, right?”
Fraser felt Ray nod, then a clean-muscled arm snaked around his waist and pulled him close, settling him against six feet of long, lean heat. He stifled a sigh, and the two of them curled into the other’s body and finally managed to get some sleep. Both comforted, one more than he could admit, especially to himself.
“I should have realized you wouldn’t be able to help yourselves.” The voice managed to drawl without betraying actual emotion. The two men stirred, then sat up, shivering in the cold air as they lost contact with the other’s warmth. “I suppose I should be a good hostess and get you some condoms.”
“Why don’t you give it a rest?” Ray demanded, standing up and noticing the way the guys at the door tensed and looked ready to beat him to a bloody pulp until he stepped away from Ms Socks to the side of the mattress that now stretched out between him and a silently standing Fraser. “You had those pictures taken, and they were the worst you could come up with. You know we aren’t fooling around.”
“There are all sorts of ways to make love, Mr. Vecchio.” Her thin lips curved up into a technical smile. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Fraser?”
Both men felt the abrupt shift in tensions, the adjusted focus that put Ray in the background. It took conscious thought for Fraser to keep from stepping back.
“Yes, Ms Socks. People express love in many fashions, just as they express many different forms of love.”
She crossed her arms, considering him, then nodded. For once, the men with her did not spring into action. She seemed merely to be deciding something.
“I’m ready for an expression of love, Mr. Fraser. And I think you are too.”
“What…sort of expression did you have in mind?”
“You’re so impatient. I should think you’d welcome the chance to discuss the issue first.”
“Love comes in many forms and makes itself felt in a variety of ways.” Fraser shrugged gently, trying to get his body to uncramp. “You yourself might be expressing a type of love at this moment -- love of your work, love for whomever you work for -“
“Love of watching others express their love?”
It would be so much better, Fraser thought, if only she were actually amused, if only her boredom were feigned.
“I don’t quite see how -“
“I’d like you to express your love for your partner, and I’d like you to do it by telling me of the plans you’ve been making at the consulate for the visit by the UN Canadian Ambassador.”
Fraser’s eyes went wide. “The ambassador’s itinerary is a matter of public record.”
“Well, then I’d say it’s not very loving of you to tell me his itinerary.” Her head began to move.
“Don’t nod!” Fraser’s hands were up as he practically dove in front of Ray. “What do you want to know?”
“Benny, don’t let this bitch -“
“Ray, I really think you should be quiet right now.” Fraser knew he was shaking, and since he had his back pressed right up against his friend's front, Ray knew it too.
Ms Socks smiled, and perhaps this time she did seem amused. “Now, that’s an expression of love, Mr. Fraser. Tell me whether the ambassador will be making a ‘surprise’ inspection of the St. Jude Shelter on his second day.”
“But…I don’t know that.”
The man on her right moved forward a few steps, and suddenly Ray was being smashed against the wall by Fraser’s body; the Mountie’s arms were outstretched.
“Fraser! Damnit!” Ray squirmed.
“Perhaps you could tell me the menu for the reception at the Brazilian Embassy.”
“I don’t know that either. You would need to speak to the Brazilian Embassy. I could place the call if you -“
“Your expressions aren’t pleasing me, Mr. Fraser.” The man on her left advanced now.
“Benny!” Ray gasped out, the sound muffled by a shoulder.
“What day is the trash pick-up at the Canadian Consulate?”
The word echoed slightly in the room. Ms Socks seemed to consider the effect satisfactory, as she nodded again. Then she turned and exited, and the two men with her followed quietly until the door shut behind them.
Fraser stared at the door. His pounding heart hurt.
“Benny? I can’t…breathe.”
“Oh! Sorry, Ray.” He stepped away from the wall and watched as Vecchio straightened his suit. The slim body seemed to gather itself, then he was looking into highly irritated green eyes.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Benny.”
“Are you suggesting I should have let her hurt you *before* it became obvious that I would tell her whatever she wanted to know?”
Ray frowned. “But that’s not true. Your duty comes first. Everybody knows that.” He flashed a flashy smile. “Good thing for me she didn’t actually want anything top secret this time, huh?”
Blue eyes reflected deeply hurt feelings. “Are you suggesting I would have stood by and allowed you to be hurt if she had asked for something more substantial, Ray?”
“Well…I’m only saying I know you would put Canada first, Benny.” The wiry arms shrugged out. “I mean, it’s only the truth, and I respect you for it.”
Fraser didn’t answer, and since there was nothing in the room to pretend to be busy with, it was exceptionally obvious that he didn’t answer.
Ray watched his friend pace a bit, then stand still, then pace again.
“How could you…how could you think I’d let her hurt you, Ray? That I’d just stand there and think about the good of Canada while she had you worked over?”
“Well, I know you wouldn’t just stand there -“
“And what exactly do you know I would do?”
“Well…I don’t know…some Mountie thing!”
“’Some Mountie thing,’ Ray?”
“Yeah, like you did when that woman wanted those bonds, and you refused to give them to her until you could jump her!”
“And from where exactly would I be jumping Ms Socks, Ray?”
Ray gestured wildly. “I don’t know! I never know what you’re going to come up with! I just play along!”
Fraser’s jaw worked. “And what about you, Ray?”
“What do you mean?”
“You walked into your own precinct, Ray, photocopied documents, avoided your superior officer, broke the law.”
“She had pruning shears, Benny.”
“And so you would have betrayed your honor, your code, your position as a law enforcement officer to save me, yes?”
“Yes or no, Ray?”
“Well, obviously yes, Fraser!”
“So what does it mean if you don’t think I’d do the same thing?”
“I don’t think…it’s just that we’ve got our…patterns.”
“Meaning you’re Mr. Do-Right and I’m the guy who breaks the rules.”
“You think the rules matter to me when your life is in danger, Ray?”
Fraser closed his eyes, and seemed to collapse in on himself.
“But only in a good way, Fraser. I mean, the way that lets me break the rules knowing I’ll never go too far, not when you’re there to keep me safe. Aw…geeze, Fraser! Can’t you tell when I’m giving you a compliment?”
Fraser’s voice was very quiet, even in the silent room. “I wouldn’t let her hurt you, Ray. Not if I could stop it.”
“Okay, look, I got it. And I appreciate it.” A warm hand pressed on his shoulder. “I was wrong, okay? I’m sorry.”
“I’d…I’d do anything for you, Ray.”
Ray sighed. “Same here, Benny. I guess that’s why she’s got us here.” That blue gaze, less calm than it should be but still an undeniably Frasarian gaze, returned at last to meet his own. “She’s got something she wants one of us to do, and she wants to make sure we’ll do it.”
“That does seem to be what she’s trying to prove…that we will do what we’re told.”
Ray made a light, furious hiss. “It ain’t right, attacking our friendship to make us defend it. Making us prove stuff that two guys shouldn’t have to prove. Treating us…”
“…like lovers, Ray?”
Vecchio did his best to produce a lop-sided grin. “Yeah, I guess.”
Benny nodded slowly. “I suppose she underestimates Catholic discipline.”
Ray half-nodded, then scowled, taking his hand off Fraser’s shoulder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Only that our code of behavior is governed by a number of factors beyond ourselves, Ray, and that while Ms Socks may be adept at exploiting our emotions, she obviously doesn’t understand the concept of adhering to higher law.”
“But…you’re not Catholic, Benny.”
“Quite true, Ray.” Fraser noted with some distress that Ray was leaning away from him.
“So what has Catholicism got to do with anything? I mean, we’re not lovers because we’re two guys, right?”
“Considering the fact that ‘two guys’ sometimes are lovers, Ray, there would seem to be more to the issue than that.”
“Yeah, we’re two straight guys.”
No doubt about it. Ray was looking at him warily now. Fraser found, to his surprise, that it made him angry.
“Ray, I know you have a tendency to see things in black and white, but even taking your religious beliefs into account, I refuse to believe you subscribe to the arbitrary societal constraint that people are either completely heterosexual or homosexual.”
“Benny, we’re not having this conversation.” Ray turned and walked away all seven steps to the wall, then had to turn back. He just stood there, hands shoved in his pockets.
“Well, considering that this may be our last chance to set things straight, Ray, I think we are going to have this conversation.”
“Benny, you’re a good friend of mine. Why do you need to know more than that?”
“Well, I don’t need to know much more, Ray.”
“That’s something, I suppose!”
“I just need to know if you’re afraid that I’m going to ask you to have sex with me.”
“Because, considering our past relationship, I’m wondering if you might think I’d ask it as a favor, and since you have a habit -- about which I’m not complaining, mind you -- of doing me favors -“
“Benny…” Ray’s faint voice was strangled off as Fraser looked at him. “You…wouldn’t…”
“No, Ray.” The man’s voice was firm and sure. “I wouldn’t.”
Ray’s body went limp in relief.
“I would never ask you to have sex with me as a favor.”
Fraser watched as Ray nodded, then nodded again more slowly. He waited patiently. It wouldn’t be long now. Those large green eyes flicked to his, and tension returned. Benny thought he’d never seen anyone in his life whose body spoke so clearly every thought his mind entertained.
“Benny…you’re not saying…I mean…” Ray’s hands came up, inexorably, weaving something unspeakable in the air.
Fraser took no pity on him, standing there as though on relaxed guard duty, if there were such a thing.
“Benny.” Ray’s voice was the firm and sure one now. “You’re not saying you’d ever ask me for sex for any other reason either.”
“Actually, I can think of a number of instances where -“
“For instance, if it were somehow to save your life, or even, I admit, my life, or perhaps even Dief’s life…I’m not sure about Lieutenant Welsh’s life, although he is a fine officer -- -”
“God, Benny. God, just shut up.”
Fraser was silent. Ray rubbed his hands over his shorn head once, twice, three times, then rubbed his eyes. The Mountie wondered absently if he looked as tired and strained as his partner.
This was the very last place he’d ever wanted to have this conversation, but Ms Socks had begun something he needed to finish now, before the chance to finish was taken from them. He knew, absolutely, that she would kill them, or worse, without concern and without hesitation. When Ray finally spoke, he knew he’d never heard his friend’s voice so thin and small.
“Benny, are you saying you want to have sex with me?”
The green eyes looked furious and relieved at the same time. “Then what the hell are you -“
“I don’t want to have sex with you because you don’t want to have sex with me. Indeed, I wouldn’t want to ‘have sex’ with anyone, not if it weren’t making love.”
Ray just stared at him, looking frightened now. Benny sighed. This wasn’t getting through.
“Ray, you have defined the boundaries of our relationship, and I’ve been grateful for each and every definition. You were the one who brought me home to your family, who invited me to eat bad Chinese and pizza and every other unhealthy food you’ve taught me to crave. You’re the one who followed me north and saved my life from Gerrard, from Victoria, from that plane crash. I’ve never had a friend who defined the closeness you allow. I’ve reveled in it, cherished it. If you had made it sexual, I would have reciprocated.”
“As a favor, you mean?” Ray sounded hopeful, and Benny was tempted to let him off with a lie.
“No, Ray. Not as a favor, as part of our partnership, as just one more way that you would let me enjoy you.”
To Benny’s surprise, Ray shivered. But the room was cold. At least Ray seemed a little calmer. He even laughed just a little.
“This is like that time you dressed in drag, isn’t it? You’re just telling me you weren’t raised with hang-ups about sex like a Catholic Chicago kid was, right? So if we’d wanted to fool around, you would have experimented, like for fun? Another way to explore your feminine side.”
Fraser frowned. “Not really, Ray. I’m saying -“
The door opened, and one of the men -- - the guy with the nose that turned just a little to the left, Ray noted -- walked through with another MacDonald’s sack, which he handed to Fraser. Benny took out the two cold burgers and gave one to Ray. Left-nose watched them eat, took the wrappers, then led them back to the room with the table and the chair and the ropes. It was all Ray could do not to throw up.
On the table this time lay a meat cleaver.
Inspector Margaret Thatcher read once more through the bus driver’s interview, put the file down on her lap, met Lieutenant Welsh’s eyes, sighed, and picked up the file again.
“The only reason I can come up with for Detective Vecchio’s attitude on the bus is that Constable Fraser is being held hostage.”
Welsh let her see his little sigh of relief. That had been his conclusion as well, as well as Carrimore’s, but he wanted her to come up with it on her own.
“I’ve got every available man working overtime, but we’re only coming up empty.”
“I’ve been keeping Ottawa informed, and I’ve been authorized to cooperate with you fully,” Thatcher said. Welsh barely heard her continue under her breath, “As if I would do anything else.”
“Inspector…” Welsh got up and closed his office door, then sat back behind his desk. He rubbed his chin with a mixture of deep thought and discomfort, then looked at her, then looked away. “I need to know if you can offer any insight.” He paused.
“Vecchio and Fraser, they’re pretty tight.”
“Detective Vecchio seems to make a habit of monopolizing Fraser’s time, you mean.”
“They’re good friends.”
Thatcher looked slightly annoyed with herself. “Yes. They are.”
“If they’re being used to keep each other…in line, we need to see if we can ascertain…”
“…how far they’d go to protect each other?”
Thatcher sighed. She was getting a headache again. “I think the more efficient question is simply, what, exactly, are they capable of doing?”
Ms Socks looked again at her watch, shaking her head just slightly.
“He hasn’t made it to the van yet,” she told him. Her man would have phoned in if he had. “The driving time required is, I’m afraid, just a little more than your lover has left.”
Benny didn’t look at the cleaver, or at his hand tied down over the table, his fingers outspread.
“Detective Vecchio will make it back in time if he can.” Fraser’s voice was almost serene. If his ego were larger, he’d have believed that was a frown that flitted over Ms Socks’ face. “If he can’t, then it won’t be his fault. You are the cause of this, and you will be made to pay for your crimes.”
Ms Socks shrugged slightly, then tsked, then looked mildly curious. “Which hand do you like to use on his cock? I can make sure we…apply our punishment to the other.”
“As you well know, Ray and I aren’t lovers.”
She smiled -- - empty, frozen little smile.
“Then you won’t mind when it’s his turn next, and we have to chop off something of which, I do believe, he has only one.”
Ray knew his chest would explode. He knew it with a certainty usually reserved for thinking about the sun coming up, or Benny being polite.
His chest would explode, his lungs would fall out onto the pavement, and his running feet would slip and trip over them, and he’d be dead and flat on his back and oh, sorry, Benny. Did you need that finger for anything?
The van. Where was the damn van?
It was supposed to be at the corner, but he was almost there and nothing was in sight but some crappy old hatchback and a couple of compacts.
The errands she’d given him this time made less sense than the photocopying of public records, but there’d hardly been a chance to argue, or to cheat. He’d bought meat and left it for Dief at the shelter without being recognized, he’d snuck into the Riv and left today’s newspaper in the back seat, crumpled up, and he’d made a phone call from the booth on 18th and Pine to the 22nd, asking for Wester, getting him on the line, and then hanging up.
And now his stupid chest was going to explode and he’d made it to the corner and no van. No *fucking* van!
He was seeing spots and his throat was on fire and someone next to him was asking if he was okay. The van roared up on his left, and he was running out in the street. If it ran him over he wouldn’t have to think about Benny dying of shock anymore. God, he was late. He was late.
The van slowed and swerved, and the side door opened. He threw himself inside, banging his shin something fierce.
“Go go go!” he rasped out as he closed his eyes and got on his knees, putting his hands behind him for the ropes or cuffs or whatever they wanted. He heard the door slide shut and someone reporting that he’d arrived as someone else slid a blindfold over his face. He knew how much time he had left, and how long it took to get them back to wherever Ms Socks had them hidden. He’d screwed up. He’d failed. The cuffs went around his wrists.
“Look!” he shouted, even though his voice was basically gone. “Look!” He was up now, banging his head on the roof, and spinning around. “I can’t tell where you’re going! I can’t count the turns!” He slammed into the side as the van turned left, and the handle of the door jabbed between his ribs like a dirty fighter. “Just go there! Just go!” He kept spinning, landed on his knees, faced the back, gasped, shouted, got up and spun some more. God, he was dizzy, and with nothing left in his stomach anymore he dry-heaved.
The van turned some more, which way he had no idea. He fell down and couldn’t get himself right again. When they stopped, he yelled at them to run the light. The motor died.
He was alert, pointed like a hunting dog, when the door opened he was stumbling out still blindfolded, still cuffed. A hand pushed the cloth down and he was running, out of the carport, down the hall. It would be seconds either way. That bitch would do it with his footsteps coming down the hall, the hall that was twice as long as he remembered.
And then he was there, in the room with the table and oh God oh God no blood, and Benny’s hand on the table with the cleaver and Ms Socks looking at him in surprise.
“You made it,” she said, lowering her watch-wrist. “I didn’t think you would.”
His chest was exploding, and he could barely see. His shoulder hurt like hell and his wrists were still in the cuffs. He could only stare at Benny’s black-spotted face, weaving…or was he weaving? His ears hurt, the roar of blood was so loud.
She’s been repeating herself. He stared at her in terror. She’d picked up the cleaver.
But he’d made it! She said so.
“Mr. Vecchio,” she said now, watching his eyes watch the blade. “Bow down, and stay down.”
Benny shouted something, but he didn’t hear. If she wanted to chop off his head, she’d need more than…oh, his stomach…bent over like this, he couldn’t breathe, and…what was that...?
Ray’s oxygen-famished body rebelled and collapsed, sprawling out on the floor at her feet. Ms Socks nodded in satisfaction, then sniffed slightly, and shook her head.
“He stinks,” she told Jefferson as he stood by the door, holding the key to the handcuffs. “They could both use a shower. And get their clothes clean. We’ll need them presentable tomorrow.”
Jefferson nodded. He had been worth his asking price. As had the others. It was really quite satisfactory.
She turned to the Mountie, again feeling the unaccountable need to smile. He was staring at Vecchio as though nothing else existed in the universe but that scrawny little body.
Quite satisfactory indeed.
Ray stirred even as Ms Socks was walking out. The guy unlocking his handcuffs shook his shoulder to speed things up.
Was that Fraser’s voice, or had some little kid with a cold come in here? Vecchio looked up at Benny, then got himself into a sitting position on the floor. Everything he had hurt.
“You all right, Benny?”
“That’s my line, Ray.”
“I’m fine.” Somehow, he stood up. His bones creaked, and he was still breathing heavily. He looked at the guy standing next to him. There were three others in the room too. He almost laughed. A kitten with a penknife would be too much for him right now. “You gonna untie him?”
The men all seemed to consider it, then one walked to Fraser, grabbed the cleaver off the table and cut through the ropes. Ray had to turn away.
One of the men had left when he looked back. Benny was rubbing his wrists and rolling his shoulders. His own body hurt even more, but it was distant pain. He gave a mental shrug. What was a state of shock between friends?
He’d have to get Benny to let him hold his fingers, like he had his toes. Then he’d feel more connected to the world.
The man who had left returned, holding soap and two towels. Somehow looking at that made Ray’s stubbled chin itch. Benny, of course, didn’t have a whisker on him. He didn’t smell nearly as bad, either.
“I believe we’re to shower, Ray.”
“You think we could get a rub-down and a shave too?”
“We’ll have to check with the concierge.”
Left-nose motioned to the door leading back to the hall, which in turn led to a door Ray hadn’t noticed before. He opened the door and stepped through, only to discover that instead of a room, it was only a spacious shower stall. A state of shock was no match for the dread pouring into his stomach, dread that turned to terror when Benny was pushed in after him. His eyes wide, he turned to object, and saw Left-nose and Bump-nose standing there, waiting.
“What’s going on?”
“I believe they’re waiting for our clothes, Ray.” Benny’s voice shook just slightly.
Ray crossed his arms and stuck out his chin. “Well, they can wait until their mamas call them in for supper. I want privacy when I shower. This ain’t no show!”
Bent-nose stepped forward and held out his hand.
“Screw you.” Ray’s voice was flat and hoarse and hard.
Bent-nose smiled just slightly, and suddenly he had Benny up against a white-tiled wall, one hand on his shoulder, the other on his chest. Ray jumped towards them, only to be thrown against the other wall by Left-nose. While Ray cursed, Bent-nose caught his eye, then slowly, slowly ran his fingers over Benny’s chest, fingering the place he felt the nipple under the shirt.
Ray cursed again, shook off the guy holding him to the wall, and slipped out of his jacket. Bent-nose let Benny go instantly, then watched as Fraser began to strip as well.
When both men had handed over their underwear -- Benny’s Moutie-issue boxers and Ray’s black jockeys -- Bent-nose handed over the soap and walked out with his colleague, shutting the door firmly behind them.
“Hey, there’s a lock.” Ray went to the door and slid the little bolt over.
“It wouldn't hold, Ray.”
“No, but it’s something.” Ray couldn’t make himself turn away from the door. Was Benny looking at him? He was more frightened now than in the van.
No, that wasn’t true. He’d never been so scared in his life as then. He prayed he never would be again.
“Did that guy hurt you, Benny?”
“No, Ray. I do feel quite unclean, though.”
“Well, we should take that shower.” Ray was still looking at the door.
“The controls are over by you, Ray. I believe.”
“Well, I’m not looking at the controls, Ray. I’m looking at the ceiling.”
“Yes. You see, Ray, it’s really quite simple. If we just do this while keeping our eyes on the ceiling, we’ll be able to keep from looking at each other.”
“We’ll trip over our own feet and fall on top of each other.”
“Ah. Well, not if we’re careful, Ray.”
“I need to hold your hands, Benny.”
“Ah. I see. Then, perhaps, we should just look at each other and…”
“…get it over with?”
He turned, and Benny looked down, only as far as his face, then a little farther, to his chest and shoulders.
Well, he didn’t much care for the look of horror in Benny’s eyes, even if he wasn’t a marble statue like Benny was.
“You’re so bruised.” Fraser walked up to him, touching his shoulder just slightly. “Have they been beating you, Ray?” His voice was mournful.
Ray shook his head and stepped back, trying to get away without looking like his skin was crawling -- or covered in goosebumps, anyway. “Nah, Benny. It’s from the van. I’m all right.”
Benny nodded, staring with concern and regret into his eyes. Ray smiled, Benny smiled back, and then, without warning, those blue eyes dropped down. Ray flinched, but Benny was looking over his shoulder now, and his face was red. Ray opened his mouth to cuss him out, and then his own eyes looked down for half a second.
*Dark hair there too. My God. He isn’t cut.*
Benny marched the two steps to the shower knobs and cranked. The shower head was fixed in the middle of the ceiling, and as the hot water rained down Ray could think only of the vault, even though this time there was a drain in the floor, Frannie wasn’t outside, and they didn’t have any clothes on.
Benny turned around and held out his hands. Ray grabbed his fingers and held on.
“She knew we’d want to touch each other,” Benny said over the noise of the shower. “She put us in here, now, just to make it worse.”
“She’s a class-A bitch all right, Benny.”
“Could you do it, Ray?”
The detective frowned. But what was he complaining about? Standing here in the shower with no clothes on, holding on to his sanity only because Benny’s hands were in his, was the Mountie supposed to make sense?
“Do what, Benny?”
“Touch me, Ray.”
“Where, Benny?” Ray’s voice was shaking again.
Benny pulled very lightly on his right hand, bringing it to his body, until he placed it over his chest, where the goon had touched him, covering the offended nipple.
“Get rid of him, Ray,” he pleaded. “Like you did…with Victoria.”
Geeze, he was gonna start bawling if Benny didn't stop saying things like that. And he was all muscle. He’d never felt anything so solid. Thinking about Bent-nose touching him made him want to puke. His head swam slightly. He needed some real food and about a week of real sleep. He reached for the soap instead.
He got the lather going, then cleaned off Benny’s chest, then his shoulders and his arms. Benny moved like one of his nephews, getting food or mud cleaned off him before Maria could see and raise a fuss. He lingered over those strong, safe fingers, then made himself stoop down and do his hips, yes, somehow, lightly over his groin, then his legs, quickly, then his feet, then turning him around, the backs of his legs, lightly again over his butt, then lingering on his back, kneading a bit at the knots and rock-hard tension of him. Then he soaped up that thick hair and rinsed him all off.
When Benny turned around, that pale cock was hard. Not rock-hard, but definitely aroused. Ray refused to notice.
Then Benny was taking the soap from him, mirroring him exactly, spending no more time than he had on every part, getting him just as clean, front and back, then soaping up his head and rinsing him off. Ray smiled at him.
Now Benny was rock-hard. Ray noticed, and spread his hands slightly, his mouth working on some comment that wouldn’t take shape.
“I’m sorry, Ray.” Benny turned, leaning his left hand against the wall, hiding his face, while his right hand stroked viciously, trying to erase rather than ease the tension there.
God. Ray saw that perfect ass flex with each stroke. He saw the way Benny shook. Saw the red flush of shame on alabaster skin. That Benny should suffer was intolerable, after the van.
He stepped forward and pushed Benny’s hand away from himself, covering that long, sturdy, uncut cock with his own hand. It made it easier that the flesh in his hand felt so unlike his own, but he didn’t care about how difficult this was. He felt Benny sob and push hard against his hand, struggling to come.
“Shhhh.” He soothed Benny’s back with a caress, strangely calm himself, considering. Perhaps it was because he wasn't offering anything he hadn't offered before, just in a different way. “It’s okay. Just relax. Close your eyes and relax. It will be okay.”
Benny sobbed again, but did as he was told, closing his eyes, leaning his head back. He took in a bone-deep breath, then another, then relaxed as Ray moved his hand back and forth, using the foreskin, running his thumb over the head once as an experiment, then again and again as Fraser shuddered and moaned, just a little.
“Ray…Ray…I’m so sorry, Ray…”
“I’m not. Shhhh. It’s okay. I promise. Just let go, Benny. It’s all right.”
Benny’s body tensed again, suddenly, almost painfully, from the look of it, then his hips jerked forward several times. Ray held him, stayed with him through it all. When Benny sagged against his hands as they pressed against the wall, Ray helped him stay on his feet, even though he felt almost boneless himself.
He wished he could have seen Benny’s face when he came. He wished he could say something good and make him smile now that it was over.
“Do you…feel clean now, Benny?”
It worked, somehow. Benny turned and smiled, albeit faintly. “Yes, Ray.” Then, inevitably, he frowned, his smooth brow creasing up. “I hope you don’t feel soiled.”
Ray threw up a hand, waving it all away. “It’s not like this is the real world, and we got to worry about the morning after. She’s gonna kill us, Benny.”
“Yes, in all likelihood, Ray.”
Vecchio shrugged and flashed a killer smile. “So what you worried about then, huh? Besides…” He punched Benny on the shoulder and took his own advice. “You’re the best friend I ever had, Benny. Ever.”
Fraser copied the punch, awkwardly. “I…love you too, Ray.”
The Italian grinned in relief. They’d said it. Now they wouldn’t ever have to say it again.
Benny turned off the shower and he slid the lock back on the door before opening it. Bent-nose handed them their towels.
They played the tape a good four times in Welsh's office before they wanted to say they were sure.
"My I speak with Detective Wester, please?"
"Sure. Hold on."
Several clicks, then a slightly congested voice:
A brief hesitation, a slightly in-drawn breath, then a click as the line was cut.
Thatcher knew it would be better from her, but she was tired of being the bad guy and remained silent.
"It's Vecchio." Carrimore said it, finally.
"That makes the meat at the shelter for the wolf, his fresh fingerprints in the car, and this."
"What's the point?" Wester asked.
Meg looked at him, unaware of her stare's withering quality, and decided to put it in terms an American could understand. "He's dancing."
"Dancing?" Wester looked blank.
"While someone shoots at his toes, Detective," Welsh explained heavily. He'd thought Wester had more going on than this.
Thatcher met his eyes. *Or shoots at Fraser’s toes.* She didn't have to say it aloud. He just nodded and looked down at the file on his desk as though he didn't already have it memorized.
Were they lovers? It wasn't the first time she'd wondered about it. But no, the pictures would have been worse then…or better. She fought off the tiny impulse to smile, but couldn't stop the slight shake of her head. Of all the ways she and Fraser might have resolved their mutual…interest, his winding up in Vecchio's arms had never remotely occurred to her…though come to think of it, he had always been a little protective.
She made herself think about it, safe from pain in the lieutenant’s office with so many people watching her. She’d always been best confronting her feelings when there was nothing she could do about them.
Benton Fraser was an incredibly attractive man, and it had been that attractiveness that had made her distrust him. She was embarrassed now that she’d originally taken one look at his stuttering insecurity in her office thought him in the same league as Turnbull. But Fraser’s bumbling disappeared when he was on the job. That’s why things had been best between them when they worked on that egg thing, and on that train, working together to stop Bolt. At the height of their partnership they’d kissed, and it had been a fabulous, soul-searing kiss, no question about it.
But when sanity had returned, so had the certainty that what she felt for Fraser wasn’t good for her. Both of them needed people to love who would draw them from their duties, help them enjoy their lives without the uniform. A personal life with Benton would have brought her happiness of a sort, no question, but they didn’t want the same things.
No, that wasn’t it. She’d gotten it right a minute ago. They weren’t good for each other. She’d seen Fraser behave with confidence and competence when he didn’t know she was there, and she’d seen the painful drain of both when he realized she was in the room. And she, likewise, threw the barriers up so instinctively when he was around that her own competence became harsh, and her confidence became cool and cruel.
Now, a little Latin hot-bloodedness might thaw Fraser out, and she was willing to bet Vecchio appreciated Fraser’s approach to police work better than she could, while that Fraser’s straight-arrow devotion probably balanced out Vecchio’s more relaxed -- usually she would say overly relaxed -- style.
It wasn't that she approved, of course. Vecchio was a loud-mouthed cop with no respect for procedures, or for Fraser's real job. But it was convenient, it made a kind of sense she and Fraser could never have made together, and perhaps, just perhaps, with the awkwardness between herself and Fraser erased by his Italian boy-friend, she and he could enjoy their working compatibility more regularly, and without the need to have their lives in peril.
The smile came, then, thankfully too small to be noticed.
If it were true that Fraser the Legend Jr. had succumbed to something so basic as lust with Officer Wise-Ass Six-Shooter, she would have that over him for the rest of their lives.
Besides, they were the two most annoying men on the planet. They deserved each other.
Ms Socks wasn't satisfied with what she saw, not remotely. Two strong, sane men were watching her watch them, and didn't even seem to mind that they were still wrapped up in towels.
The first thing usually to be fixed was precisely the thing she couldn't touch: their general health. She needed them strong and whole for tomorrow, though taking just a little bit off one of Fraser's fingers really wouldn't have been a bad idea. Nevertheless, she needed to have some trust between them, or they wouldn't perform.
Besides, it was nothing short of extraordinary that Vecchio had made the deadline. That sort of desperation deserved a reward.
And Jefferson -- - from all places to gain inspiration! Too bad she made a point of never working with the same team twice.
"Tomorrow your errand will be a bit more productive," she said. "I want to make sure you you're up for it."
"We get four cheeseburgers this time?" Vecchio wanted to know.
She couldn't help the near-urge to smile. It was really so very solid when everything clicked into place.
She nodded, and Jefferson back-handed him just enough to get him on the floor. He didn't even draw blood. Addams and Truman grabbed Fraser, keeping him in line while Vecchio tried to sit up and Jefferson kicked his arms out from under him, leaving him sprawled on the floor, the towel crumpled to the side. She noticed the detective was already quite bruised; this wouldn't have to last long.
"Stop it!" Fraser was shouting. "What do you want? We've done everything you said!"
Vecchio was looking up at him from the floor now, unable to rise since Jefferson's knee was shoved into the small of his back. "Benny." The name was meant to calm and reassure.
She crossed her arms. Jefferson looked to be enjoying his work. He had his hands on the man's buttocks now, quite large hands that looked larger next to that ass, and had dipped his head down to lick rather wetly along the officer's shoulder. She'd been told Jefferson had a particular hatred for police officers.
He bit at the shoulder and left marks. Evidently she had been correctly informed.
"Stop it! What can this prove? Stop it!" Fraser's vocabulary was failing him, and when Jefferson pulled Vecchio back up on his knees, the normally -- so she understood -- reserved man began screaming incoherently. His friend on the floor had gone pale and dead-eyed, and was panting from the blow Jefferson had landed on his right kidney.
She held up her hand, and there was silence, except for Vecchio gasping some and squirming around on the floor. Even he got the message a few seconds later, and stopped, looking up at her with those dead eyes.
"Feel free to take his place, Mr. Fraser."
That got Vecchio talking again. "You fucking bitch!"
"Ray -- "
"Don't even think about it, Benny."
She looked at Jefferson, pursing her lips slightly, and his hand covered that big mouth, pressing his rear, she noted, into the man's crotch.
She looked over at Fraser again. He seemed to need to work his mouth before he could speak.
"What expression of love are you looking for today, Ms Socks?"
Her eyes flicked down, then back up. After all, if she needed to have Vecchio raped, he would still be…available for the next round.
But Fraser figured it out and dropped to his knees, his eyes saying plainly, *You own me. You own me.* She knew he hadn't even fully realized he'd lost his own towel.
"I want you to be sure to get your sleep tonight." She nodded at Addams, ignoring Jefferson's look of disappointment, then walked out. She had two calls to place before dinner.
Ray wouldn't meet Fraser's eyes. Bent-nose let him up, and he retrieved his towel, only to have it jerked out of his hands. Then he and Benny were simply shoved through the door into the cold, white room with its little mattress and old brown blanket. A crumpled MacDonald's bag was tossed in -- both men wondered who'd been hiding it in a pocket -- and the door swung shut.
"Ray -- "
The detective backed away, looking at the floor and turning his shoulder to Benny. The livid bite mark, the other bruises, the cut of fingernails on that olive skin. Pale, square hands that seemed to Fraser rudely unmarked, unbruised, reached for Ray, shaking and desperate.
"Back off, Benny." The words would have reassured Fraser if they'd been hissed or grunted in simple anger, but they were only whispered. God, his stomach hurt and his body ached and he was going to lose his mind. Somehow, he couldn't stop thinking of a trip through the northern woods over Ray's back, singing and talking about food and never a single complaint about the burden he had become.
"I said back off!" Ray was hissing now, and looked ready to strangle him.
Benny wrapped his arms around himself. "I'm sorry, but it's like with you and my toes and fingers. I need to touch you."
"What? You wanna touch my ass?"
Benny closed his eyes before Ray could see the answer to that question. How had she known this would destroy them? Ray could never want his touches now, not even those simple touches that had passed between them before. She'd forced them together, even if that hadn’t been her intention, but now she knew this would force them to part. And he thought Victoria had been smart to take Ray's back-up gun.
He was chanting. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry…"
"Sorry for what, Fraser?" Ray was suddenly in his face, the face half-flushed over that stark paleness. His cheek was bruised, his eyes two open wounds.
"I couldn't stop them."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean? You *did* stop them! You got down on your knees and let her know you'd do anything, just like she wanted! God, Benny! Don't you realize she knows she's got you?"
"Unlike the way she knows she has you, Ray?"
"I never got down on my knees!"
"You bowed to her! And you lost consciousness before you let yourself straighten up again!"
“She had a meat cleaver!”
“She was going to have you raped!”
“You should have let her!”
Benny stared at him, horror, bewilderment, refusal, rage, sorrow --
Ray turned away again, and seemed ready to walk through the wall. “You’re gonna die in here with me, now, Fraser. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“Did you think before this that I was going to leave you here?”
“I just thought you had some sense, Fraser!”
“Look at me, Ray.”
But Ray didn’t move, just kept staring at the wall. He was shaking, and Fraser could no longer count the dark marks of violence on his body. He felt the hysterical urge to kiss Ray all over simply by tracing each bruise with his lips and tongue, taking away everything, drawing every memory of this place from his body and mind and replacing it with…
With what? What had he to offer Ray anymore, but a friendship forever shadowed by the hot memory of a hand on him, bringing him relief? A favor, in the end, just another favor Ray had done him after all, another act of selfless kindness, and another act for which Ray would be made to pay.
It had felt like this with Victoria, a little. But then, as now, he wouldn’t get a second chance. Ms Socks had seen to that.
And suddenly Fraser realized he didn’t care, just as he hadn’t cared when Victoria had betrayed him, or rather, just as he had continued to want her, to *require* her even after he’d known what she was. His friendship with Ray might be in shreds, but he would take those shreds and paste them back together if he could, or keep them separate. He would take whatever he could, and he still had a few tricks left.
“Please look at me, Ray.”
The tall, lean, battered body shuddered, but he waited without speaking again. Finally, Ray turned and looked at him, expecting…what? Another blow? Something like his father gave him when he “got out of line”?
Benny raised his hand, slowly, as he would to a wild deer, or as he had to Dief, when they were still getting to know each other. By inches, he let his hand go to that wounded face and gently, faintly touch his cheek, prickly with stubble. Ray’s eyes seemed enormous.
“We can’t blame each other for the way we feel, Ray.” Damn. He’d meant to say something better than that. “You are to blame for nothing.” No, that wasn’t it either. “I need you, Ray.” Well, that was probably the best he could do.
“I can’t let her do this to you, Benny.”
“She’s doing it to both of us, Ray.”
He’s managed to find something right to say after all. Ray sagged, but his eyes were human again, and looked at the bed.
“I feel a hundred years old, Benny.”
“That sounds about right, Ray.”
And Ray smiled, a little blessing, a shred that was still more than anyone else had ever given him, and they walked to the mattress and got under the blanket, settling into each other’s loose embrace, suddenly shivering in the heat and pressing their bodies close.
Benny closed his eyes, guiltily savoring it. When would he have a chance to hold a naked Ray against his body again? That amazing heat, and everything slim and strong and somehow delicate too, like the elegant arch of Ray’s slim brows over those sea-green eyes all balanced out by his nose. Did Ray know the pieces of his face were all extremes that balanced themselves out into beauty? It was such a better type of beauty than Benny’s own clean-cut and ordinary features. He saw the way women dismissed Ray when they first saw him, their shallowness and lack of aesthetic sophistication denying them the discovery of the extraordinary handsomeness that was Ray Vecchio.
He shifted, listening to the somewhat determined quality of Ray’s quiet, even breaths. His hand lingered on Ray’s shoulder, and he saw behind his closed eyes not only the blood-lit light of the cold, white room, but also those other hands on Ray’s body, hurting him as no one should ever be hurt, forcing him, forcing them both…and yet, as so often happened, Ray was the one who paid for Benny’s experience. How many suits had been ruined in garbage bins? How many injuries sustained? Sometimes, he was almost grateful Ray had shot him, just to even the score.
“Even Steven,” he murmured, half-asleep now.
“Mph? What?” Ray was stirring. “You call me Steve again, Benny?”
“No, Ray. Go to sleep.”
The detective muttered something more, seemed to drift off, then jerked suddenly stiff, his eyes bearing down into Fraser’s. The light caught itself up in the sparse hair on Ray’s head and shattered.
“Benny? What’s -“ He blinked, stared.
Ray closed his eyes, lowered his head, then turned away. “Sorry, Benny. Just…forgot.”
Fraser’s hands were on Ray’s back. “I’m so sorry, Ray.”
“Stop saying that, Benny. Like you said, it’s happening to both of us.”
“Can I kiss you, Ray?”
“What?” The lean muscles had gone rigid under his hands.
“Just here, on your shoulder, where…he bit you, Ray.”
Ray laughed, sort of. “Yeah, he bit me, Benny.” Then he gasped quietly as soft -- - as if they weren’t human, or real -- - soft and gentle lips pressed onto his shoulder, and the pain disappeared for a moment, like magic. And even when the ache came back, it didn’t matter as much. He shuddered, sighed, held on.
“Do that again, Benny.”
Willingly, eagerly, Benny bent his head to the task, lingering, but not making it lewd, never for a moment wishing to give anything that would remind Ray of those hands on him. If he felt it enough when he touched Ray’s skin, could it be a substitute for whatever it was Ray really needed and Benny couldn’t provide?
He had moved on now to other marks, other signs of what Ray would do for him, the angry graffiti of violence that had no place on this gentle man, kissing, using his tongue, never nibbling, never sucking hard, barely trailing other touches with his fingertips, wishing for the skill to be gentle enough to tame a wild spirit, and to encourage that wildness. He’d thought before, hadn’t he, alone in his room, of what Ray’s passion for life would be like expressed in kisses and touches?
This little white room, frozen and unyielding, had become their whole world. In the morning, she would return and cast them out, and there would never be again the chance for this moment. As with his selfish dive into Victoria’s arms, he sought his own pleasure here, each calmed shiver a peak of ecstasy, each time Ray seemed to enjoy what he did a tiny little orgasm.
The flesh between his legs never stirred. Let it have the memory of a warm hand caring for it while the water beat down. He would no more press his arousal on Ray now than he would have joined in the rape. He was still as yet only kissing his friend’s shoulders, his fingers trailing low, erasing those rough, ignorant hands.
“Ohhhhh,” Ray breathed out. “Benny. God. Benny.”
It became essential that he kiss Ray’s chest now, and with a few touches he rolled Ray on his back, not daring a look into his face, not seeking permission when that would require Ray to make a choice.
No, let this all be his own idea.
He didn’t even dare to approach the base of his throat, his nipples, his stomach. His lips brushed only the expanse of skin over his shoulders, his pectoral muscles, the tuft of hair -- soft and springy and smelling of Ray’s salt and a trace of that soap -- over his heart. His fingers played along the insides of his arm, amazed at the softness of his skin stretched over defined muscle and sharp, lean bone.
He reached for the far shoulder, just breathing in the scent off that impossibly long neck, and felt something more impossible against his leg.
He sat half-up, choking out Ray’s name, looking into Ray’s face to be certain he had been wrong, that somehow he hadn’t felt arousal pressed against his thigh.
Ray’s eyes were dark, heavy-lidded, almost unseeing. His mouth was open and slack with panting. Long, elegant fingers reached for him, then slid away, defeated.
“Benny. Please. God. Please don’t stop.”
Only then could he look down. Ray was so bare, so unprotected, and yet his dark length seemed stronger, and infinitely more exotic than his own pale organ. He thought, somewhat incoherently, that he wanted to sketch out the lines of that flared head, the eager, unashamed, naked way it begged for his touch.
God. *His* touch.
Gentle again, approaching a new wildness his partner had revealed, even if only in desperation, he touched the smooth side of him, tracing the faint outline of a vein. So different from his own blatant purple veins, under his foreskin. The hint of red blushed at his touch, deepened into rose, and his mouth watered.
“Benny.” Ray’s voice broke on the soft rasp.
And then there was only madness, more powerful than any storm of the mind. He knew he should only touch, lightly, that Ray’s wildness needed reassurance and strength. But selfishness had taken over again, and he could think of nothing but Ray’s imagined cries of pleasure and his name becoming reality.
And yet there was nothing forced in the touch of Benny’s lips to that swollen, taut skin. His tongue darted over the curve of his cockhead as though his life would be forfeit to an uncouth caress.
“Benny! Oh, God!” Narrow hips flexed, were restrained, bucked.
“Did I hurt you, Ray?”
“No. No. God.”
“Is this what you like, Ray? Is this any good? I want you to feel good.”
Ray laughed, and there was a trace of reality in it. “Whatever you want, Benny. Just don’t stop.”
“But what would you like me to -“
Benny’s body was fire, freezing a second later, wanting more heat.
“Say it again, Ray. Please!”
“Suck me.” Ray gulped in air. “Please. Suck me -- Oh God!”
Fraser slid the length of him inside, incapable of taking anything less than all of it. Ray’s cock was grotesquely uncomfortable, enormous in his mouth. He didn’t care, and he couldn’t wait for his body to catch up with his mind and get used to it. His heart would measure the difference, and his soul would make it up.
He sucked, hard, devouring, lost now in the sensation of it, lost in the ideal of making Ray come down his throat, the symbol in the idea of redemption gained through such physical, tangible means. If Ray gave him this, he would have it forever, because that’s the way Ray gave things.
His hands moved over Ray’s chest, curling to settle like starfish, finding perch after so long a time being tossed by the sea. Ray was moaning words to warn him, and his excitement spiked. He could have this. He could actually have this.
And Ray came, and he drank in the knowledge of it until that beloved body lay lax beneath him. Gentle hands in his hair pushed him away from the overly sensitive flesh, and a hoarse, relaxed voice called his name.
It was all validated now. Every fumbling caress, every misread feeling, every wanton look from women who didn’t know him and didn’t care about him, even…but no, he didn’t have to think her name now: it was all something now that had led him to this moment. He could be glad of it all, even. Now.
He slid up, taking the boneless body in his arms. “Thank you, Ray,” he whispered against the hot skin over his chest. “Thank you. Thank you.”
Ray laughed, as though they were home in bed. “Thank you kindly yourself, Benny.”
“Ray.” Kisses were dragged lightly through the swirl of hair. “Ray.” The green eyes were drooping in exhaustion, yet he wasn’t surprised to feel a light fumbling over his stomach, then lower. Ray’s eyes opened in concern at what they didn’t find.
“Shhhhh. I didn’t want to, Ray. Not this time.”
The touch became a caress over his flank, and Fraser shivered, causing Ray’s mouth to turn up in a knowing smile. Then grief threatened.
“I should be able to say it’s your turn next, Benny.”
“I only want to hear that I pleased you, Ray.”
Ray got his smile to come back, faintly. “More than anything, Benny.”
He put his head down again on Ray’s chest, relaxing a bit more with each heartbeat. She would kill them tomorrow, but this had happened, had become indisputable fact. Everything in his life validated as a step to this place and time.
A warm hand soothed the hair back from his face, and he felt Ray nod.
“Whatever you say, Benny.”
Go to Part II