The Heat of Summer
a due South slash story by fuzzi cat
Pairing: That would be telling. ;) V/K to start out with, anyhow...
Rating: NC-17 for m/m interaction
Warnings: Mild violence, profanity
Sequel to The Warmth of Spring. Yes, you do need to read that one first. :)
Spoilers: Takes place after COTW, so basically the entire series, but nothing *too* specific.
Acknowledgments: With fawning appreciation and gratitude to JR, Anagi and SubRosa for beta above and beyond the call of duty. :)
Legal Stuff: All characters appearing herein are the copyrighted property of Alliance Communications Corporation, CBS Television, and CTV. No infringement is intended, and no money is being made from this work of derivative fiction.
Summary: Ray and Stan are in love, a killer's on the loose, and Our Favorite Missing Mountie is headed...due south. (Uh oh...)
*** *** ***
"Hey, don't fall asleep on me, here."
Stan shifted in his lover's arms, raising his head a fraction. He smiled in the darkness. "I'm not, Ray. I just--don't want to move."
"My arm's asleep, babe. Not to mention I'm getting permanent creases in these new threads, here..."
Stan chuckled and shifted back, lifting his weight. "Sorry, Ray." They sat up slowly, untangling limbs, stretching. Stan swung his legs over the edge of the couch, scrubbing a hand through his tousled hair.
Ray watched him, a fond smile touching his features. His partner looked back at him, eyes glimmering softly. "Hey, welcome home, Ray. Missed the hell outta you."
"Me too, partner. You don't know how much." They looked at each other a moment longer, an odd but not unpleasant shyness suddenly between them. Then Ray cast a look around the apartment, finger-combing his remaining hair. "I'm...hungry."
Stan flashed him a grin. "I'm starving."
"There any food in this place?"
"There's lots, actually. I was gonna cook dinner, and then I sorta ended up sitting in the dark for four hours freaking out and I couldn't--couldn't eat anything." Stan dropped his eyes as Ray instantly moved closer to slide an arm around his shoulders.
"It's all right now, okay? Here." He shifted back, shrugging out of his suit jacket. Began unbuttoning the silk shirt. "Gimme that T-shirt."
Stan raised an eyebrow at him. "Uhh, Ray. Why don't we wait until we get some food--"
"Same old pervert, Kowalski. I don't want your body, I want your shirt. Come on."
Stan pulled his rumpled T-shirt off. Ray threw it over his own head. "Smells like you." He smiled. "All right, I'm gonna throw some pasta on. You can help, if you don't get in my way."
Stan picked up Ray's shirt and slid the glossy fabric over his hands. "Do I get to wear this, then?"
"Don't touch my clothes, Kowalski. You'll stretch out the shoulders. And I don't want that shirt anywhere near your kitchen. Come on, let's get chow on."
Stan followed him into the narrow room, naked to the waist. "Ray, sit. I can do it, you been on the road all day."
"You make it too mushy." He peered into the refrigerator. "Eeesh, Stan! You still eating tomato sauce out of a jar??"
"I'm not waiting around while you press garlic and mince olives, Vecchio. It won't kill you for once."
"You don't own garlic or olives."
"Actually, I do." Stan caught his partner's astonished expression, smiled back at him. "So I picked up some stuff today. Dunno why, just felt like it."
"There may be hope for you yet."
They moved easily around the cramped space, getting the pans on the stove, the plates on the table. Sat down opposite each other, waiting for the water to boil. Ray gave his partner his gentle smile.
"Four hours, huh? What's going through your head anyway, Stan? You okay?"
Stan sighed."Yeah. I was doin' fine, going to just kick back, you know, and wait for you to show up...and then I saw that envelope in the mail. Fraser's handwriting. It just--knocked me on my ass."
"Well, it's not that surprising that he would write. And it's about time for him to be getting back, anyway, isn't it?"
"I know that, Ray. I just--wasn't expecting it. I wasn't expecting how I'd react to it."
"I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. I sat there with the thing in my hands and I--I couldn't breathe. I was--I dunno, Ray. Scared."
"I still don't know what you were afraid of, babe." He did, of course, but it would be sweet music to hear his lover say it.
"I just suddenly felt this...threat. And I couldn't open that letter. Didn't want to know what he felt. Until--until I could see you." He dropped his eyes. "I love you, you know that?"
"I know, Stan."
"Weeks." He smiled.
"You never said anything."
"It wasn't time. You had to figure out your own mind, babe."
"I've figured it." He lifted his eyes, smiled. Ray winked at him.
*** *** ***
The hot food relaxed Stan still further, a drowsy contentment stealing over him. Ray flashed him an easy grin. "All right, Stanley. You wanna tell me what I missed the past three days, besides you?"
"You don't wanna know, it's been a fucking zoo." He shook his head. "The press is still all over that home invasion."
Ray pointed a fork at him. "It was *not* a home invasion, it was--"
"Sheesh, *I* know that. But that's what they're callin' it. That is when they're not callin' it a 'suspected gangland-style slaying.'"
"Oh, even better," Ray grumbled around a mouthful of pasta. "Who're they talkin' to that's giving them that line of crap? Not *you*?"
"Of course not. I don't take press calls, you know that. Well, when I can duck 'em, that is." He grinned.
"What else came in on it, anythin'? You get done talkin' to all those snooty relatives?"
"Most of 'em. There's dozens, seems like. They're all flakes, too. *Rich* flakes." He mopped pasta sauce with a crust of bread. "I put the contact sheets in your inbox, but there's nothin' there, Ray. They're not gettin' that this wasn't--"
"I know, I know." He sighed. "I'm lucky I got to go to this conference at all, I guess, with this hangin'. Not that I even *wanted* to."
"Department'd already paid for it." Stan grinned at him.
"Yeah. Thanks for carryin' the ball, Stan. I bet you got all the tedious background shit outta the way for me, too."
"I saved you the juicy parts."
Ray smiled and tried to concentrate on his food and the pleasure of being with his partner again, but his mind was already slotting into cop-mode, reviewing the status of the current high-profile case in order to hit the ground running tomorrow.
Several days before Ray'd left for the three-day conference, he'd been on the catching shift at the department when word came in that two bodies had been discovered in an expensive bungalow-style residence near the Gold Coast area. Patrol was already on the scene; Ray was next in the rotation for incoming cases, and he and Stan had gone up to check it out.
His heart began to beat fast when the victims were identified as a banker and CEO of a small investment consulting firm and his society wife. Etienne Delorme was prominent enough for his name to ring a bell even with Ray, and he vaguely recalled that his wife Marguerite was rumored to have some kind of highborn family connections. Their names alone would guarantee heavy media attention, and if the killings turned out to be contract hits or something even juicier like a scandalous crime of passion, it had the potential to be a career-making case.
Ray's initial excitement had dampened, however, when their preliminary survey of the scene indicated a scenario that was disappointingly undramatic. The couple had been vacationing abroad for the last several weeks. They had originally intended to return a week after the killings, but adverse weather conditions had caused them to cut short their trip and catch an earlier flight home.
Their bodies were found in a hallway leading to the master bedroom, each with bullet wounds to the chest. The wife's carry-on bag was beside her; both wore light jackets. They had apparently walked in on a burglary in progress. Ironically, the murder weapon, also found at the scene, turned out to belong to Etienne Delorme. Tens of thousands of dollars' worth of Marguerite's jewelry was missing.
Following the crime scene unit's processing of the forensic evidence, Ray's initial suspicion that this was anything but a planned hit solidified. He and Stan privately agreed on this; the job had all the hallmarks of a commonplace burglary in which the perps had been unpleasantly surprised, had panicked and shot the witnesses before fleeing. The manner in which the perimeter alarm had been disabled suggested a certain degree of experience and skill, and the thieves had also known precisely where to find the valuables. But the use of the victim's own weapon indicated they had not been armed themselves, and therefore, that they had not expected to find anyone at home.
The families of both victims, as well as the media, were full of speculation. The husband sat on the boards of a few corporations, was an executive with a local bank, and for the last several years had owned and managed Crown Consulting. Marguerite's family, it now turned out, spanned two continents and several countries, was hinted to be of ancestry traceable back to the French aristocracy, and had connections to everything from perfume manufacturers to fashion design houses. It seemed unacceptable that two such fascinating lives could have come to such a pedestrian, pointless end.
Ray and Stan, who well knew that lives came to such ends all too frequently, whether they were bigshot financiers or street mutts, commenced processing the case as they would have any other. Ray fielded the blizzard of media inquiries with good grace, but by the second day, even he was sick of them. As the trail cooled without immediate leads, it became more and more certain that the case would only be solved after a long, systematic investigation, unless they were to turn up a break. While Ray had no objection to such work, it tended to go a lot easier without the constant interruption of the phone and the press.
"Hey, Vecchio. Quit thinkin' about it, I got it covered. I'll fill you in tomorrow, I promise, okay? Nothin's movin', anyway. You want seconds?"
"Nope." Ray got up, pushing his chair in, and stepped towards him, extending a hand to pull his partner to his feet. Stan rose gracefully, slipping his arms easily around Ray's waist. They stood for a few silent moments, foreheads touching.
"I guess you must be exhausted, Ray. Flying and all that."
"Yeah." His voice was low. "I'm beat, all right."
Stan tilted his head very slightly, whispering against his partner's lips. "Well. You want to get goin', that's okay, Ray."
"That's very understandin' of you, Kowalski." Ray's eyes closed. His hands slid up along the bare, warm skin of Stan's back, feeling his partner shiver under his touch. Stan's lips hovered teasingly just against his own, their warmth a promise.
Ray licked at them, a darting, feather-soft touch.
Stan pulled him firmly against the lean hardness of his body. "Vecchio. Make up your mind, like, *now.*"
Ray smiled against his lover's mouth, leaning into him to capture his lips in a penetrating kiss that left no doubt of his intentions. "It's made, Stan," he whispered when they finally broke apart. "Let's go."
*** *** ***
"What....hey. Ray." Stan's voice was soft. He lifted his chin, shivering as Ray pressed a trail of hot kisses down into his neck. "Tell me...tell me what you want."
"Nothin', Stan. Just--" he shifted his weight over his partner's body, took one of Stan's wrists, lifted it above his head. "Just what we're doin'." His tongue flicked against the warmth of Stan's skin.
They lay wrapped together beneath a single sheet, cocooned in warm air. The frantic urgency that had invariably characterized their encounters prior to this night was noticeably absent, their hands slinking slowly over every reachable inch of each other's naked bodies on a gentle, wondering voyage of exploration.
Ray lifted his head, eyes soft in the darkness; drew a slow finger along the line of Stan's jaw. His voice was a whisper. "You're beautiful." He smiled shyly. "Wanted to tell you that forever."
Stan felt the blush touching his cheeks, closed his eyes. He arched himself slightly beneath Ray's pressing weight, his hands coming down around his lover's shoulders to feel the movement of the muscles beneath his heated skin. His hips lifted, the warm length of his arousal pressing into the other man's stomach.
Ray shifted back, his mouth at his lover's neck again. Stan could feel the gentle smile curving his lips. "Easy, baby. We got all night." He slipped a hand between them, fingertips sliding lightly over Stan's taut stomach. His partner wrapped a graceful leg around his hips, pulling them together. Ray nipped at him, chuckling softly. "You tryin' to tell me somethin', Kowalski?"
In answer, Stan's warm fingers slipped under his chin, lifting his face to meet his partner's twinkling grey eyes. They smiled at the same moment, leaned forward to kiss through soft laughter. "Bout time I got a kiss outta you, Vecchio. Jesus, you don't know what that did to me, all these weeks--"
"It wasn't easy for me either, you idiot." Ray teased Stan's lower lip with gentle nibbles, captured the fullness of his mouth, rejoicing in his partner's instant responsiveness, the warm intimate sweetness of his kiss. Stan wound his arms around his lover's neck, played with the silkiness of Ray's hair. Without conscious intent, his hips picked up a rhythmic, steady rocking motion beneath Ray's weight, one slim leg still wrapped around him, the other entwined with his partner's.
Ray moaned in his throat, sighing heavily against his lover's mouth. He felt Stan's tongue invade him, his warm and rapid breath. All at once his arousal kicked into high gear, his erection pressing with heated insistence into his partner's lower belly. Stan's hands slid firmly down his sides, tracing his shape, pulling them together.
They moved against each other, the friction eased by sweat and their own leaking slickness. Ray felt the man beneath him tense, and groaned as Stan rolled them sideways and over, settling his own weight on top of him, thrusting steadily, looking down into Ray's wide, deep-hazel eyes.
"This--this is all I want from you..." Stan whispered, his hips never losing the building, driving rhythm. "Just--just to watch your face, when we do this. To--" he shuddered all over, ground himself harder against his partner's body. "To kiss you, when--when--"
His mouth was taken fiercely, savagely, Ray's hand hooking itself around his neck. A bare minute's continued thrusting and Ray tore his mouth away, his voice harsh in Stan's ear. "Baby, can't hold on. If you--ahh, Jesus, I can't--"
Stan lifted his upper body, bracing himself, gazing raptly into his lover's face. Ray wrapped his arms around his waist, head back on the pillow, eyes tightly closed, jaw lifted. His lover resisted the compelling impulse to nip at Ray's exposed neck, needing to see his changing expressions. Stan bit his own lip, feeling his climax rising, a sweet, ecstatic tension shuddering through his body. "Ray..." he ground out, not expecting response. "Don't--don't pull away from me, after--"
Ray's hips slid upwards sharply, a cry escaping his throat, a hot, spreading slickness flooding between them. Stan felt himself shoot rapturously over the edge a second later, his breath gasping out of him, his arms shaking, suddenly unable to support his weight. He collapsed heavily against Ray's chest, feeling his lover's embrace tighten around his shivering body. "Don't let go of me." The words were panted raggedly into Ray's neck. "Don't leave. You always leave me alone..."
"Sshhh, love. Never again. You've got me, okay?" Ray's breathing gradually slowed, his trembling hands stroking Stan's sweat-dampened hair, caressing his back. "We're together now, for real, if that's what you want."
"It is, Ray." Whispered against his skin. "It is."
*** *** ***
They stood at the apartment door, looking at each other. Stan drank in the expression on his lover's face, relaxed and open, a sweet, gentle smile curving the full lips. The eyes held only a hint of wistfulness. Stan read the unspoken question there, knew Ray would never ask it.
"I might get to that, uh, piece of mail tonight, Ray," he said softly.
"You wait till you're ready, love. Don't feel pressured." His smile widened. "Ten to one it's a stack of new tribal legends anyway. And pictures of Dief in the snow."
Stan smiled back. "You're probably right."
Ray hesitated, stepped closer, slid his arms around Stan's waist. "Then again, Stan. It could be--he could be telling you--"
Ray looked into his face. Stan raised a hand, cupped his partner's chin firmly. His words were slow and measured. "I don't care if it's a proposal of marriage. It won't change anything--*anything*--between us. You believe me?"
Ray dropped his eyes, shook his head away from Stan's touch. "You don't have to say things like that to me."
"The hell I don't. If you don't feel you can trust me yet, that's okay, Ray. I'm just telling you how *I* feel, and what *I* know."
"Stan, I do trust you. It's just--I do trust you, okay?"
Ray sighed and released him. "I better get outta here, partner." He leaned forward, kissed Stan gently, almost shyly. Stan squeezed his hand briefly, giving him a reassuring smile. Ray pulled open the door and walked out almost abruptly, head down.
Stan closed the door softly and leaned back against it, his heart beginning to pick up speed. He ran a hand through his tousled hair, wet his lips.
The envelope was lying where he'd left it in the drawer of the nightstand. He lay back in bed, holding it, just sliding his fingers along the heavy, creased paper. His gaze drifted around the room, taking in the rumpled bedclothes and other evidence of their lovemaking. Burrowing deeper into the pillows, he caught Ray's scent lingering there and felt a smile touch his lips.
The thickness of paper in his hands no longer felt like a tangible threat. Yet he could not ignore it. He drew one deep, steady breath, and slid his trembling fingers under the flap.
*** *** ***
This makes the third or fourth time I have taken my pen in hand and tried to tell you what I so desperately must. It gets harder, not easier, the longer I put it off. So I am determined that this time I shall finish this letter, and more than that, put it in the mail to you. My time here is short; I must accomplish my tasks without further procrastination.
I am well; Diefenbaker is well. When I see him frolicking in the snow I feel regret that I did not realize how much he missed his home; the open spaces, the cleanness of the air. I was selfish and unthinking, where he was concerned, while I was in Chicago, Ray. In fact, I have come to realize, I was that way about a lot of things.
I am ashamed.
I could tell you, I suppose, what I've been doing here, these past months. Perhaps you would be interested. I like to think that you would be; that you've been wondering, maybe, what I've been doing. As I have wondered, about you.
As I have missed you.
But what I have to say is more important than an account of my recent travels, Stan. And the story I must tell you begins long before I left you.
In fact, it begins before we ever met.
The story has much to do with my partner, Ray Vecchio. The two of you didn't get on as well as I would have hoped, I regret to say. It puzzles me, because you are much alike. I assume you are keeping out of each other's way for the most part. Perhaps that is for the best.
I told you quite a bit about Ray, as I recall. How he worked; how we worked together. As much as I knew about his family, his background, as was necessary to assist you in taking over his identity. How we were friends...good friends...at one time. Perhaps you are thinking you know all there is to know, about me and him.
But there is something I never told you.
I never told you I was in love with him.
I never told him, either. I couldn't. He would not have wanted to know.
Or perhaps that is a lie. Perhaps it was I who did not want to know; I who was afraid to discover what his feelings were. Afraid to discover they might be the same as my own.
It would have been too hard. Too complicated. Too hopelessly distracting, from what I needed to focus upon. I used to tell myself that, Ray. I used to lie in bed at night, talking to Dief although he couldn't see my lips in the darkness, of course. I told myself that I was not in America to indulge my own heart, but to achieve my goals.
What shames me today is the fact that I nearly believed myself, then. But I lied. Deception and cowardice, Ray. Two shameful qualities that make me unworthy of my own uniform. The uniform that has always been my life's objective, my banner, my shield, and my pride. Pride. That's another one.
It is not pleasant, Stan, believe me, to sit here and knock myself down this way. But I deserve it. I have had it coming for a long time, and as no one else ever saw fit to set me straight about myself, I have had to do it myself.
That was why I left you, Stan. Why I had to get away.
I no longer knew myself. I was lost; I had no bearings, no center. I was forcing myself to stay in Chicago, to keep focused on the ultimate tasks I had set myself--first to find my father's killer; and then somehow to avenge his death, to make it meaningful. But it became harder and harder. My home called to me, to my soul. I felt it, Stan, felt the pull in my heart. And more than wanting to get away, I felt I needed to. As if that were the only chance of reclaiming who I once was, who I was meant to be.
Two things held me back. My quest, my sworn duty.
Our friendship has become very important to me, Stan. Please believe me when I tell you it was difficult for me to leave you to come on this journey. But you were part of the reason why I had to make it. I wanted to find myself again; the entirety of who I am. You deserve better for a partner than the man I was when I last saw you, my friend.
But I was telling you about Ray. The other Ray, the real Ray. Another example of my insensitivity. I have never really considered, Stan, until these last weeks, what it must have been like for you. To give up your own self and become someone else. An imitation of someone else; someone whom you must have realized was very important to me.
How hard it is for me to write this. I am not afraid of hard work, as I believe you know. But I would rather pull a dogsled across twelve miles of tundra than force myself to put these feelings onto paper where I cannot help but look them in the face.
I will do what I must. I have finished with avoiding the more painful parts of my duty in favor of those which are easy to perform.
I loved Ray Vecchio, Stan, for almost three years. I may love him still. As you can see I have not lost my cowardly streak, though I am working hard at it, because I cannot even bring myself to ask my heart that question. By the time I see you again, perhaps I will have. Perhaps I will know.
Have you ever had your heart broken, Ray? Do you know what that expression truly means? And here I am being insensitive again, for as soon as I had written that sentence I remembered. Of course, you have. You see how much easier it is for me to recall my own hurt, my own history, than that of people close to me. I am a self-centered man, Ray, in the worst possible way. It has served me--and my quest--to be so.
(I have just looked over what I have written and I see that I have slipped and called you Ray all over the place. I dislike crossing things out, so I will not correct them. And after all, it is how I still think of you, how I always thought of you. I can understand fully that you wish now to resume your own identity, and I promise you that I will correct my habit before we meet again.)
I was hurt, as you were, Stan, by a woman, in a way I never saw coming, in a way I never would have believed could have happened to me. I know that my experience is hardly unique and neither is my reaction to it. I used my pain to build an impenetrable wall around my spirit; to block it off from vulnerability, from ever being exposed that way again. After----...I have just tried to write her name and my pen stuck itself into the paper and would not move. Oh God, oh God. I will do this. After Victoria, Stan, I was so changed to myself that I could not recognize the person I had become. And when I began to come back to myself I was terrified. Of Ray, of anyone who might make me feel that sense of losing my own soul. I pulled back from him; I destroyed any chance we might have had. Out of cowardice.
It was foolish of me. I know now, and indeed knew then, that Ray was nothing like Victoria. But my own fear kept me from believing it.
I loved her. There are tears in my eyes now, but it is necessary to unbury the past, if only for a brief moment. For the sake of the future.
By now you have likely asked yourself who this stranger is who has taken pen in hand to send you these ramblings. I assure you, this is Benton Fraser. I would not be surprised to learn that you are shocked by what I have told you. I am very, very good at keeping things hidden. It is a skill I cultivate, as necessary to who I am as my devotion to duty and my belief in what I know to be right.
If you are still reading, Stan, as I know you are--even if you are confused, upset, uncomfortable, as you must be--you must also be asking yourself why it is that I feel it necessary to tell you these things.
And this is where I must tell you something else that will shock you. I have put it off as long as I could, hoping that the right words would come to me. My fingers are cold, the fire is dying. No matter. I will sit up all night, if that is how long it takes, to tell you.
I never knew, in my heart, how Ray felt about me. At times I would be sure he loved me; and then I would become uncertain again. Had I really tried to determine what his feelings were, I am confident I could have discovered them. As I have told you, I never had the courage to do so.
But this is not the case where you are concerned, Stan. You see, I know that you are in love with me.
I have known it for a long time.
You are readable as Ray was not, you are open and honest with your emotions. You do not hide things. You are not afraid.
If you only knew how much I admire you.
I did not let you know that I was aware of your feelings, Stan. In fact I made certain you would not find out that I was.
I am good at that, as I have already said. But it is not an ability that I take particular pride in.
And now you are wondering what else I haven't told you; what feelings I have hidden beneath the uniform, beneath the calm, collected expression I put on every day as easily as I do my hat. It is false, Stan, as false as the naivete, the appearance of blissful ignorance. I am not ignorant, I am not naive. But for many years now, it has served me to have people believe that I am.
That is over with.
The past is over; my quest is over. And I believe, Stan, that what I hoped to accomplish over the past months has come to pass. I am beginning to know myself again, to be the man I want to be.
I learn from my mistakes, if nothing else. I will not repeat them.
I believe that I hurt you by leaving as I did, and even though I have explained my reasons, I regret that. I wish I had been able to work out my problems without having to leave your side, to interrupt the partnership I value so much. But perhaps it was for the best. When we meet again, it may appear to you that I have changed. But in reality, I will simply be allowing you to know me in a way I deliberately did not permit, before.
Yes, there is a man beneath the uniform, Stan. He misses you.
I have timed the posting of this letter so that you should receive it a few days before I return to the Consulate. I have arranged to stay in my old quarters there for an indefinite period. I have it in mind to resume my liaison post with the District, if they will have me. If you will have me, as your partner.
I am not so egotistical as to presume for one moment that you will want to take up our friendship as if I had never left. I walked out of your life, without explanation; you have not heard a word from me in over two months. I fully expect that you have gone on with your life. Perhaps there is someone new in it; someone to replace me.
I am prepared for that possibility, Stan. But I intend to return to Chicago, to return to you. Our friendship, at the very least, is too valuable to me to lose. As I lost Ray's.
If I knew the exact day of my arrival I would tell you, but I don't. I will telephone you from the Consulate as soon as I can. And I hope that you will want to see me, as I want so badly to see you.
I have said over and over again in these pages that I have changed; that I am conquering my cowardice. Now I shall prove it. Pay no attention to the way my pen strokes are wobbling across the page, Stan. My hands are shaking, but my heart is unafraid.
I love you.
*** *** ***
Ray read through the same arrest record for the fourth straight time, the content penetrating his brain no more thoroughly than it had the first three. Slapping the file down on his desk, he pulled a legal pad covered with untidy scrawlings closer, and began to make additional notes with impatient, heavy strokes of his pencil.
The point broke.
Drawing a slow breath through a jaw that was beginning to clench, he jabbed the pencil towards the electric opener, knocking the three-quarters full, steaming cup of coffee beside him with his elbow. A swift grab saved it from disaster, but hot liquid slopped over the rim, staining the case file, his desk blotter, his--God DAMN it!--shirtsleeve.
Ray jumped, splattering coffee anew. He jerked around, deliberately notching the building fury in his expression down to what he hoped resembled no more than his customary irritation at being interrupted. "Sir?"
Welsh frowned at him from the door of his office. His eyes scanned the squadroom, coming to rest on Stan's empty chair. "Where's your partner?"
//I don't know.//
"Running a little late, I guess, Lieutenant. Want me to track--"
"Soon's he gets in, I want both of you in my office."
"Uhh, yes sir, right away." The lieutenant had already turned, shutting the door behind him.
Ray gritted his teeth and mopped his desk with a paper napkin. Pulled the file towards him again. Glanced at the telephone, then determinedly away from it. Turned a page. Picked up his mangled pencil. Reached--
A blur of denim and jingling keys blew by him and dropped into the adjacent chair. Stan threw a swift glance into Ray's face, gave him a brief, nervous smile. "Hey, Vecchio."
"Where you been?" Ray's voice was steady.
Stan was already reaching for a stack of paperwork, spreading it out before him into a collection of apparently meaningful stacks and piles. He pulled open a desk drawer, rooted inside it and snagged a bunch of index cards. "Forgot to set the alarm, I guess. No big--"
"Welsh wants us."
Stan dropped the cards, shot another look into his partner's face. "For real? Shit. When did he--"
"Right now." Ray stood up. Stan grimaced, sighed, pushed back his chair and followed him.
*** *** ***
"Glad you could join us, Kowalski," the lieutenant said pointedly. He motioned towards the chairs.
They sat down, not looking at each other. Ray had already noted the pallor of his partner's face, the faint smudges of exhaustion under his eyes. Welsh did not keep them waiting.
"Seen the paper today, boys?"
"Ahh, not yet, sir."
Welsh slapped it onto his desk, opened to the second page of the Metro section; turned it in their direction. Vecchio leaned forward. Bold headline type proclaimed, 'Still No Arrests in Two-Week-Old Delorme Killings.' Beneath that, slightly smaller, 'Thirteen days after double homicide home invasion, police report no definitive leads.'
"That's bullshit, sir. Whoever it was didn't talk to *me.*"
"What, an update from the one I gave you three days ago? Sir, this was a simple break-in that got ugly, as we've been sayin'. It was small-time shit pulled by small-time hoods, and as soon as--"
"Then you've abandoned the investigation into the possible connection with the wife's family's business."
Stan cleared his throat. "We haven't abandoned anything, Lieutenant, but as Ray's sayin', we--"
"The D.A.'s on my ass on this one, boys."
"So what the fuck else is new!" Ray exploded suddenly, bouncing up and pacing a tight circle behind his chair. Welsh regarded him with a look of quiet astonishment. Stan winced and rubbed a hand over his face, resisting the strong impulse to shoot Ray a warning glance.
Vecchio, fortunately, didn't need one. He stopped his pacing and looked at Welsh. "I apologize for my outburst, sir. It's just that--"
"Sit down, detective."
"Uhh, yes, sir." Ray did so.
Welsh leaned forward, steepling his fingers. "I know you boys have been runnin' your asses off on this one, and I also know you got plenty of other stuff on your plates. But because of who these people were--"
"They ain't any more important than any other poor slobs that get whacked every month in this city in the course of armed burglaries, Lieutenant, but I hear you loud and clear. Come on, Stan, let's--"
Welsh's voice was cool. "The press doesn't seem to buy the idea that this was a burglary."
Ray blinked at him. "Yeah, well I'm sorry if that reality isn't exciting enough for them, but the evidence is plain. And since when do you care--"
The lieutenant stood up. "I don't, but the mayor's office does. And if you two tell me this was a burglary, that's good enough for me. But for God's sake, use some of that *plain evidence* and get me an arrest. Like, *yesterday.*"
Both detectives rose. Welsh rummaged briefly on his cluttered desktop and handed Ray a few typewritten sheets.
"What's this, sir?" Ray scanned the list of foreign-sounding names, followed by the addresses and phone numbers of expensive local hotels.
"Marguerite Delorme's relatives, just arrived. From Paris."
"What, *more* of them?"
"They want to tell us about a feud in the family dating back to the eighteenth century. Apparently, they think this is--"
"Oh, for God's sake! Do you honestly expect--"
"Come on, Ray." Stan addressed him directly for the first time since they'd entered Welsh's office. "We got it covered, Lieutenant, thanks."
Welsh gave them a brusque nod and turned back to a pile of paperwork on his desk. Stan touched Ray's elbow, drawing him out the door.
"This is bullshit, Kowalski." They walked side by side down the narrow hallway in the direction of the coffee area.
"Yeah, I know it is, Ray, but he's under pressure--"
"So am I!"
Stan shot him a look, dropped his eyes again as they entered the room. "Come on, Ray. Coffee's...coffee's on me."
Ray sighed, slumped in a chair. "Better make it a decaf."
Stan turned, grinned into his face, was rewarded with a wry smile. He put Ray's cup on the table before him and reached out a hand. "Gimme that list."
Ray handed him the papers. Stan pulled them free of the staple, gave his partner two sheets and kept two for himself. "We'll split them up. Be done before you know it. Okay?"
"Yeah, Stan, okay. How's your French?"
Stan chuckled at him. "Nonexistent." He dropped into a chair and sipped at his own coffee.
They sat facing each other across the table. Ray noted again the tension in his partner's face, belied by the ready smile. He flicked a glance towards the doorway, then back at Stan. "Hey, you okay?"
"You don't look so good."
"Gee, thanks, Ray. You're beautiful too."
"Come on, Stan. Are you--"
"I didn't sleep so good, all right?" He took a swallow of coffee, closed his eyes.
Ray shot another look at the empty corridor outside. "This wouldn't have anything to do with--"
Stan put the cup down, sighing. "Yeah, I read it, Ray."
Vecchio felt an instant tension in his gut. "There anything we need to talk about?"
"Yeah, I guess there is. But Ray." He looked into Ray's face, leaned towards him across the table. "Don't--"
Two uniformed patrol officers strolled in, chatting. Stan pushed back instantly. His eyes sought his partner's, but Ray was already standing. "Catch you later on, Kowalski."
He turned and strode out without looking back.
*** *** ***
Stan finished typing up the last of his notes and squinted at the blurred monitor, devoutly hoping he'd just entered the command to save and print the file rather than to delete it. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, stretching his arms up over his head.
Every nerve was strained; every muscle ached. He'd spent the day feeling like a scruffily dressed lower-echelon civil servant who had somehow wandered into a royal palace and was being given the third degree. Ironic, considering these people had effectively demanded that an officer on the case of their murdered relative visit them to hear out their cockeyed theories.
Wryly, he reflected what a perfect assignment this would have been for Fraser. That train of thought brought the events of last night back into focus, and he heaved a tired sigh. He and Ray had to talk. And from Ray's reaction in the coffee room earlier, he'd be none too receptive to what Stan had to tell him.
He heard vaguely encouraging sounds coming from the direction of the printer in the next room and pushed to his feet. He walked through the doorway and stopped.
His partner was standing at the machine, the printed sheets in his hand, scanning them. He looked up and caught Stan's eye. "Looks like your day was as a big a waste as mine."
And he gave Stan a weary smile.
Stan felt something loosen in his chest. "That bad?"
"Oh, I dunno, Kowalski. I got a free lunch out of it, real foie gras, imagine that. And some blonde bimbo of a niece with a yappy poodle under her arm made a pass at me."
"Well, she was definitely checkin' me out."
They smiled tiredly at each other. Stan stepped away from the doorway as another officer entered. Ray approached his partner and thrust the stack of printed pages into his hand, leaning surreptitiously close to his ear in passing.
"Can we get the fuck out of here now?"
*** *** ***
In the parking lot they stood beside the GTO, as close as they dared. "Hey, Stan. I'm sorry."
"Huh? For what?"
"This morning. I was on edge. Let's get some hot food into us, and then we can talk if you want, all right?"
Stan sighed. "That sounds wonderful, Ray. I'll, uh, get something on the stove if you--"
"Fuck that. You get your ass home, I'll pick something up. We're wiped out."
"Yeah, okay." Stan slit his eyes, shot a surveilling glance around them.
Ray picked up the movement instantly. "Kowalski, watch it. Don't--"
"All right, all right." He stepped back, smiling. "Just--just remember what I said last night, okay, Vecchio? Like I tried to tell you before you took off on me this morning, don't worry."
Ray gave him a careful smile, his eyes revealing nothing. "Meet you there."
*** *** ***
"So, Kowalski. You engaged?"
The coffee table before them was littered with half-empty takeout containers. They had deliberately kept conversation to the subject of the case while they ate, bringing each other up to speed on the largely unfruitful results of the day's work. The meal over, they nestled together in a loose cuddle on the couch, and Stan was just working up courage to broach the topic on both their minds when his partner spoke.
He grinned at him. "No, Vecchio. Nothin' like that." He was relieved to hear that Ray sounded relaxed, but he knew from experience that his lover's moods could change like a flash of lightning, and with as little warning. He drew a slow breath and let it out. "Ray. I...I want to tell you...well, as much as you want to know. But there's some parts of it, that..."
"Stan, I don't want to hear anything you don't want to say."
Stan squeezed Ray's fingers. "I'm gonna tell you as much as I can. I don't want you worrying."
"I'm not worried." He spoke casually, but there was a faint edge to his tone. They sat quietly for a few minutes, Stan collecting his thoughts, Ray's fingers tracing soft circles on his arm. Eventually Stan began to speak, his voice low and careful.
"He's coming back, Ray. Soon. Could be any time now. Going to stay at the Consulate until he figures out what he wants to do. And I guess that's going to depend on...well. Partly, on me."
Ray's arm tightened almost imperceptibly around his partner's shoulders, but he said nothing. Stan went on hurriedly.
"He--well, hell, Ray. I don't know how to say this."
"Just tell me." His voice was steady.
"Okay. Um." Stan closed his eyes. "He knows, Ray. How I feel about him. Well, felt. He says he knew for a long time."
"Son of a bitch."
"Yeah, that's what I said." Stan smiled shakily. "There's more. He, uhh, kinda knocked my socks off all over the place with this thing. It was like it came from a different person."
Ray slid his hand along his partner's arm in slow, soothing patterns, keeping quiet, just waiting. Stan sighed, marveling at the man's consideration, his self-control. If their positions were reversed, he'd be peppering Ray with questions, demanding to see the letter for himself, he was sure of it.
"He says he had to go off alone to...well, it went on for pages but what it boiled down to, far as I could see, was he wanted to get his head on straight and figure some stuff out, and he had to be alone to do it. Or, away from us, anyway." Stan stopped. "He mentioned you, Ray. There was...well, actually a lot about you. But--"
Ray held up his hand. "I understand. It was written to you, not to me."
"It's--Ray, it would be like telling his secrets. I can't do it. I feel bad about it, but--"
"Didn't I just say I understood, Kowalski? Forget about it. Tell me what you feel you can, and that's it. I'm not as burning up with curiosity about this as you seem to think I am." But Stan noted the thread of tension that had crept into his voice. He felt a sudden nervous chill.
"I'll tell you what he said about me, all of it. Well, as much as you want to listen to, anyway. I mean, I don't want to--" He broke off. Ray's fingers had closed almost cruelly around the flesh of his arm.
"How about I guess, Stan? He's decided he wants you. Or loves you. Or intends to make an honest man of you at last. He couldn't before, because he was too singlemindedly focused on the Pursuit of Honor and Excellence, and the Fulfillment of Duty. But now that that annoying business with blowing my cover assignment and collaring Muldoon and scoring one for the Side of Truth and Right is all over with, why, he's prepared to come galloping back into your life, and sweep you up onto his white charger or whatever the hell they're mounted on these days. But unfortunately--unfortunately, Stan, he's just a couple months too damn fucking well late." Ray's eyes were glittering, hard. His voice had dropped almost to a whisper by the end of his tirade, but the tone was intense and bitter.
Stan had slowly pulled himself upright on the couch, away from the circle of Ray's arm. He stared at his lover, eyes filling with pain. "It's not like that, Ray. He's...he's hurting."
"Aren't we all."
"No, *we* aren't. *I'm* not. I was feeling pretty damn *good* until about fifteen seconds ago." Stan's eyes flashed a challenge at him.
Ray's jaw set in a stubborn line. "Don't let me interrupt. Tell me where I've got it wrong."
"Well, you--all right, dammit." He crossed his arms over his chest, looking directly into his lover's face. "He wants to continue our friendship, and our partnership. I guess--well, I guess it didn't occur to him I'd be assigned an official one."
"So that's what I am."
"You son of a bitch, Ray. Don't do this."
"I can't seem to help it. Come on, let's have the rest of it so we can get this done. *Say it,* Kowalski."
Stan hitched in a tense breath. Held Ray's eyes with his. "All--all right, if you have to know. I think he wants something beyond friendship, with--"
"BASTARD!" Ray was off the couch, pacing the darkened, cramped space. "God *DAMN* it!" He curled one hand into a fist, gazed wildly at his partner. Stan rose slowly, his body picking up Ray's tension, his eyes narrowed to slits.
"You gonna maybe break my face again, Ray? How about you smash a mirror or two, that oughta help."
Ray gritted his teeth, drawing hissing, strained breaths. "He's done it to us again. Never...fucking...fails. He's going to break us, Stan, it's not gonna work. *Look* at this." He closed his eyes. Stan could actually see him trembling.
"*No*, Ray." Stan's own voice was steely, controlled. "Uh-uh, no way. You're not putting this on him. This is *you.* One hundred percent. *You*, not trusting *me.* Plain...and...simple."
Ray knotted both hands, released them slowly. "Stan. It's not *you* I'm angry with."
"*Bullshit.* You're half a blink away from taking a swing at me. You haven't even *asked* me what the hell all this means to *me*, because you think you don't have to. You think you already fucking well *know.*"
"You would, if you calmed down enough to actually think about it." Stan held Ray's furious gaze for a long moment, and then he was moving towards him, reaching out, unafraid. He stepped closer, until they were mere inches apart, and slid his arms around the other man's waist.
Ray stood rigidly, hands at his sides, his breathing labored. "Stanley." His voice was icy, tense.
"I have to ask you."
"Ask me anything."
"Are you still in love with him?"
Stan looked directly into the troubled hazel eyes, his face serious. "No, Ray. I'm in love with you. Are we clear, now?"
"I'm...I'm so fucking jealous and terrified I can't see straight."
"I figured that out, Vecchio."
A few more seconds passed, during which Ray felt his trembling body begin, infinitesimally, to relax.
"You're...you're right up in my face, here, Stan. Cuddling me. Like I deserve it, or something."
"You do, Ray."
Slowly, Ray dared to slip his own hands around his partner's waist. He released a long, shivering breath and rested his forehead against Stan's. "Jesus. Don't let me do this. I scare my fucking *self,* sometimes."
"You don't scare *me.* Piss me off, yeah."
Ray could only hold him, feeling the tension leaving his body, the fury in his mind replaced by a quiet shame. "Stan." Whispered.
"Listen, you idiot. I'm gonna finish what I have to say, and you're going to let me, and then we're going to put this whole subject the fuck behind us. Well, that is, until he shows up, at which time we *will* deal with him." Stan spoke slowly, confidently, no longer worried that his words would spark a violent outburst. "He admitted that he has feelings for me, and he knows I had them for him, and he went on for paragraphs about all the good reasons why nothing ever happened. But." He paused, lifted Ray's chin with a finger. "He knows there's a chance I might not want the same thing. And he said if all he could have was my friendship, he wanted it. And Ray. I want--" He sighed, caressed Ray's jaw with gentle fingers. "I want it too. I don't want to lose him entirely, over this. You understand me?"
Ray's voice was a bare whisper. "Yes. Love. God, I'm so sorry." He ran a hand through his sparse hair, shaking his head. "He's...he's beautiful, Stan. You'll excuse me if I felt just a little, uhh, overwhelmed by the competition, here."
His partner sighed. "You have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?"
"Yes, damnit, I do, all right? I can't help it."
Stan regarded him, a gentle expression coming over his face, a faint blush touching his cheeks. "Is this where I'm supposed to tell you your eyes look like seaglass when they're in the sun? That I wanted to kiss you for months before we actually did it, just 'cause you got this--this incredible mouth? That your skin is so dark against mine it like, gives me chills to look at us together?"
Ray gave his partner an incredulous look. Long seconds went by as they gazed at each other, the pinkness on Stan's face deepening. "Vecchio, if you think I'm sayin' all that again, you got another think--"
"You don't need to."
Stan was relieved to see the familiar quirk of a smile appear. He grinned himself. "Are we done, here? Cause I was hoping we'd get a chance to, uhh, cuddle or something, tonight, and--"
"I love you."
"I know that, you doof."
"You love me."
"Still not breaking any new ground, here, Vecchio."
"I think I'm finished with my insecure-asshole tantrum now."
"Well, glory hallelujah. I'm still waiting for my cuddle."
"I'll do better than that, baby."
*** *** ***
Ray loosened his collar button, tugged his tie downwards a fraction. He lifted tense shoulders, rolled them back. Wished, not for the first time, that central air conditioning could be something other than a hopeless pipe dream for the department.
Over twenty relative interviews. Ballistics reports. Print screens. Hair and fiber analyses. Coroner's reports. Tire impressions. Dozens of photographs. Responding officer reports. Neighborhood canvass forms.
The relative interviews pointed in over twenty potential directions, each as implausible as the next.
The remaining evidence pointed exactly nowhere. Or rather, it pointed at what had the potential to be a depressingly lengthy and tedious process of elimination.
The problem was not a lack of prior offenders with M.O.'s similar to that employed in the Delorme case in the county database. The problem was that there were hundreds.
Devoting as much time as they reasonably could in between the demands of their alternate case loads, they had begun the systematic procedure of pulling together the names of individuals whose past histories included incidents with similar characteristics. Narrowing this dauntingly long list would be accomplished only via the familiar, time-tested method of tapping into the street network to determine the recent whereabouts and status of every offender listed, as well as their known accomplices. Protocol also demanded that they not allow their own hunches to blind them to the remote possibility that a business associate or family connection could be involved, and so they were doggedly tracing those leads as well.
Ray was frustrated by the necessity of paperwork which kept him and his partner off the street and away from what he considered the only real sources. They spent as little time as they could at the station, but there were times when it was impossible to avoid it.
They were absorbed by the case for the very challenge of it, and the hot July days began to pass, busy, hectic, tiring and tedious by turns. Through it all, Ray felt the sweetness of the connection between them, still fragile with the newness of their own admissions, yet strengthening with every passing hour.
*** *** ***
The telephone's jangling shrill interrupted Stan's train of thought for the sixth time in the last five minutes. Stabbing the glowing line button down with an impatient finger, he all but snarled into the phone. "Kowalski."
Ray flicked a look at him from his desk a few feet away. He'd rarely seen his partner so irritable, but it wasn't surprising considering the day they'd had. The renewed press coverage on the Delorme case, which now included footage of interviews with various teary-eyed, French-accented relatives, had triggered a small barrage of follow-up calls. In addition, word had gotten around that the police perception of the case was a burglary gone wrong, and that several expensive items of Marguerite Delorme's jewelry were missing. It seemed that every two-bit hood currently incarcerated in the Cook County correctional system had "information" they wanted to deal, and Stan and Ray had been fielding inquiries from fleabag attorneys all afternoon.
Stan slammed the phone down and rubbed rough fingers through his hair, making the spikes stick up in riotous confusion. He stared at the steno pad where he'd just made half a page of notes, and suddenly tore the paper off and crumpled it into a ball, chucking it. It bounced off a teetering pile of similar balls in the wastebasket and rolled to the floor.
"Three-point shot, Kowalski."
Stan managed a tired smile for his partner. "This sucks, Ray. I can't get anything done. If I have to talk to one more of these slimebag ambulance chasers..."
Ray himself was sorely tempted to sign out an armful of files and hole them both up in Stan's apartment to sort them out, but they couldn't ignore the possibility that a usable lead might result from one of these phone calls. And there was no one else to take them but themselves.
The phone jangled again and Stan reached out an automatic hand, but his partner was beside him. Ray scooped up the receiver, simultaneously hitting the "hold" button. He looked into his partner's face. "Tell you what, Stan. I'll go get us some coffee--the *real* stuff, not that swill in the breakroom. And when I get back, we'll forward your extension to mine and I'll take them for an hour. Give you a chance to string two thoughts together. Okay?"
"Thanks, Ray, but you don't have to do that. I can handle--"
"I want to. I need you on this, Stan. We were makin' good progress with that list of possibles before all this shit started, and you're faster at goin' through them than I am. I want to see what you come up with." He punched the button to release hold, handed the phone to his partner. Stan gave him a tense smile, pulled his pad towards him again. "Kowalski. Yeah, that's right. No, we ain't--I'm not at liberty to say. Is that so?..."
Five minutes of blessed, relative silence later, Stan was beginning to cautiously hope that the newshounds had given up for the day. He spread his index cards out in a pattern that would have appeared utterly random to the casual observer and frowned over them, chewing the end of a pencil. Groped for a red pen, didn't find one. He yanked open a desk drawer, peered inside--and felt a smile touch his lips.
A fresh package of Smarties was nestled between a box of paperclips and a tangle of old rubber bands. Stan chuckled to himself as he recalled Ray rummaging in here earlier today, ostensibly in search of staples.
The unexpected sweetness of the gesture took him by surprise, and he felt himself begin to relax. Putting the candy on his desk blotter in anticipation of Ray's return with his coffee, he pulled a file towards him and began reading through it slowly, feeling his mind focus on the material, his brain reaching instinctively for the connections it was trained to make. When the phone rang yet again, he did not jump nervously but simply reached out a hand, his eyes never straying from the printed pages. He answered calmly, almost pleasantly, ready to deal with whatever dirt-hungry reporter or bullshit-peddling con lawyer it turned out be. "Kowalski."
Of course, it was neither.
*** *** ***
Stan's fingers tightened on the receiver, his heart beginning to thump in his chest. He felt himself draw a shaking breath, and turned in his chair, his eyes scanning the room. No one seemed to be looking at him.
"Fraser? That--that you?" He'd recognized Ben's eternally familiar voice instantly, but his scrambled brain was unable to come up with a more intelligent reply.
"I arrived in town this morning, Stan," Ben said. "I thought--I thought I would call and let you know."
His voice was gentle, but he sounded as nervous as Stan felt. Stan bit his lip, the knowledge that the Mountie was, at this very moment, a few minutes' drive away causing his pulse to race in a way that was both exhilarating and terrifying. "Well, jeez, uhh, welcome back, Frase. Missed you."
"I missed you as well, Stan." Ben paused. "Is this--is this a bad time?"
"No, of course not." Stan swallowed. "Well, that is, I am kinda busy right now, but what else is new, huh?"
"Well, I wouldn't want to disturb you. I just thought--"
"You ain't disturbing me, Fraser. How, ahhh, how've you been?"
"Well, I'd like to tell you about that, if I may, Stan. Would you like--that is--I could come by the station, if you're not too busy? It would be nice to see everyone again. Perhaps--"
"Ahhh, Fraser. That might not be--things is kinda crazy around here right now, you know?"
"Oh, I see. Well, as I said, I wouldn't want--"
Stan closed his eyes. "I could, uhh, I could come by the Consulate after my shift, if you'd like, Frase. That be okay?"
He could hear the relief in the Mountie's voice. "That would be lovely, Stan. I'll--I'll see you then. It's good...it's good to talk to you again."
"For me too, Fraser." Stan felt a sudden flush of nervousness. Ray was heading towards him, a smile on his face, a brown paper bag in his hand. "See you then." He replaced the receiver, hoping his hand wasn't visibly trembling.
Ray noted the high color, the agitation in the pale eyes. He reached into the paper bag, handed his partner a double mocha in a tall paper cup. "Tough call?"
"Uhh, you could say that." Stan shot a glance around the squadroom, then flicked a look back into Ray's face. Understanding instantly, Ray reached back to his desk for a case file, rolled his desk chair close to his partner's and sat down. The two of them hunched over the file, heads close, talking in low voices.
"He's back." Stan found his voice beginning to tremble with a delayed reaction.
"You okay?" Ray turned a page, cast a look around the room.
"Yeah, sure, Ray." Stan paused. "I, uhh, said I'd stop by and see him after work."
Ray looked into his face. Their eyes met.
"Ray? You okay with that? I mean, I can--"
Ray stared back down at the file. "Of course I'm okay with that. Sheesh, whaddaya think, Kowalski. See anybody you want to."
"*Ray.* He isn't just 'anybody' and we both know it. If you--"
"Kowalski, go. Give him my regards, willya?" Abruptly, Ray pushed away from Stan's desk and rolled back to his own.
Stan sighed, realizing that they should have talked about this eventuality before it happened. He stared down at the scattered index cards, unable to force his thoughts into any kind of order. He took a sip of coffee, closing his eyes, feeling the soothing warmth of the steam against his face.
His phone rang.
Gritting his teeth, he reached for it. "Yeah. Stan Kowalski."
He shot a glance sideways. Ray had his back to him, hunched over his own desk, phone to his ear.
"Look, just--will you call me afterwards? Whenever you get back. I--I don't care how late it is."
Stan put a hand over his eyes. "Ray, for God's sake. I--of course I will."
Ray put down the phone, picked up a file, and proceeded to bury himself--and his thoughts--as far inside it as he could.
*** *** ***
"Why, it's Detective Ray Vecchio."
"Uhh, no, actually, it isn't, Turnbull. But it's nice to see you, really." He gave the bewildered constable a sunny smile. "Is Fraser here?"
Turnbull frowned, adjusted his tunic. "He is. Who shall I say, then--ahhh." Stan grinned as he watched the light dawn on the man's face. "*I* remember. You're not Ray any longer, the other Ray is Ray, now."
Stan rolled his eyes. "Somethin' like that, Turnbull, yeah. If you could just tell--"
The voice came from a few feet behind him, in the inner foyer beyond the reception area. It sent an instant chill of recognition down his spine. Stan turned around slowly. He had the presence of mind not to gape like a landed fish, but had no thought left to spare for the expression in his eyes and face.
Ben stood before him at the foot of the staircase. Feet apart, arms crossed over his chest, he regarded Stan with a warm, almost amused expression. He was not in uniform. Dark, new-looking jeans, without a single crease; a heavy cotton t-shirt in a shade of forest green. Stan calculated with a dim corner of his mind that Ben had put on at least ten pounds since they'd last met; and most of it seemed to have landed in his upper arms. Rounded, defined, they spoke of physical labor, hardships overcome, challenges met. The dark hair was nearly two inches longer than Fraser's customary close-cropped style; a fringe of it feathered softly over his brow. Insanely, Stan found himself wondering what it would feel like to run his fingers through it.
Fraser's eyes, bluer even than he remembered, were frankly twinkling at him. Stan recalled where he was with difficulty, pasted what he hoped was a friendly, casual smile on his own face. "Hey, Fraser."
Turnbull cleared his throat behind him. "Uhh, Detective--Detective..."
"Kowalski," Ben supplied, striding forward, holding out a hand. "You may address Ray as Stan Kowalski from now on, Turnbull."
Stan took Fraser's outstretched hand, found his eyes pinned by deep blue. He stared back, praying that his cheeks weren't as flushed as they felt.
"Well, he's--he's here to see you, Sir."
Ben turned his head in Turnbull's direction and gave him a smile. "Thank you, Turnbull."
"I, uhh, well. Yes." Turnbull sat down behind the desk again.
Stan realized that he still had hold of Fraser's hand. He released it and stepped back, shooting a glance around the foyer. Anything to get out of the path of those vivid eyes.
"Stan?" Ben's voice was amused. "Would you care to--"
"Let's go for a walk, okay, Frase?" Stan stepped further away from him, folded his arms. "It's nice out."
Ben looked only momentarily surprised. Smiling warmly, he bowed slightly and held out a hand for Stan to precede him out the doors. Called out to Turnbull over his shoulder. "I may be late, Turnbull. Don't feel obliged to wait."
Stan set his jaw, drew a slow, calming breath. They headed out into the late afternoon sun.
*** *** ***
They walked side by side down the busy sidewalk, not speaking. Stan's mind was spinning, the thousand-volt impact of seeing Fraser again for the first time in over three months only just beginning to recede. His thoughts, which had been organized and confident on the way here, had scattered to remote corners of his brain. He felt them begin slowly to recoalesce, his heart rate gradually resuming something approaching its normal steady cadence.
He felt Ben's gaze on him, and hoped he did not notice the faint pinkness Stan felt on his own face. He risked a glance into his friend's eyes, was met with a disarming smile. Stan cleared his throat.
"It's, uhh...it's been a long time, Fraser." He looked forward to navigate through a small knot of people. Ben kept at his side.
"It has, Stan."
Half a block passed in silence. Then they both spoke at the same moment: "What have you--"
Fraser stopped, smiling. Stan rushed on, trying to keep his voice steady. "Aahh, Frase, you know. Same old stuff. I think I'd rather--I'd rather hear what *you've* been doing."
"Very well, Stan. I'd like to tell you." He paused. "It's...a long story."
Good, Stan thought desperately. Listening to the Mountie ramble would give him time to figure out how the hell he was going to find the words he needed to say.
"I'd like to hear it." An idea struck him and he stopped walking, looked into his friend's eyes. Found himself smiling. "Hey, Fraser. When's the last time you had a decent eggroll?"
"Ahh. That would be about three and a half months ago."
"What, they didn't deliver out on your ice floe?"
"I wasn't on an ice fl--." Suddenly, a blinding smile broke out on Ben's face. "That is, no, Stan. They didn't deliver."
"Okay, then." Stan chuckled at him. "Let's go."
*** *** ***
"Well, by this time it was the end of April, just about." Ben tipped his head to one side thoughtfully. "Yes. Must have been. Did you know that that time of year is named in honor of seal pups, Stan? It's true. The birth of the new crop of seals was of momentous importance to the indigenous peoples, and still is today. In fact..."
Stan sat back in his chair, feeling Fraser's warm, confident voice wash over him. The restaurant was dim and uncrowded, faint Muzak drifting in the air, the fragrance of tea and saffron rice floating around them. The Mountie had kept up a steady stream of chatter since they'd been served, which was fine with his companion. Stan listened with one corner of his mind to the unwinding story of Fraser's visit to the village of his childhood, his renewal of old friendships, his participation in traditional ceremonies. The rest of his brain was frantically occupied with two equally worrying concepts.
The first was a so far utterly fruitless attempt to come up with an opening in the conversation into which he could somehow introduce the quiet bombshell he had no choice but to drop.
The second was a slowly dawning, incredulous certainty that Fraser was...*flirting* with him.
Stan was a master at the game himself, he knew all the signs. He had never, as long as he had known the man, seen Fraser exhibit *any* deliberately seductive behavior. The scores of women he apparently felled by the simple expedient of coming within ten feet of them were never the objects of any direct effort on the Mountie's part. And as various females' attempts to flirt with Ben himself had always appeared to be met with a singular obliviousness, Stan had always assumed he did not even understand what the concept entailed.
That assumption, it seemed, had been grievously in error.
Ben leaned forward over the table, his long fingers caressing a delicate china teacup. He sipped, lifted deep blue eyes to Stan's face over the rim. "Stan? Are you listening to me?"
"Yeah, Fraser," he said automatically, groping for the napkin in his lap, wiping his lips hurriedly. Ben put the cup down and shifted back in his chair, giving him another of those head-tilted looks.
"Is there anything in particular you wanted to know?"
Stan speared a pineapple chunk with his fork and regarded it thoughtfully. "Frase, you been tellin' me about...about the Great Seal Pup Hunt and your friends' weddin' and Dief meeting that lady wolf and--I still don't know, Frase, what you went there for."
Ben leaned slightly forward and glanced around the room. He looked into Stan's eyes. "It's difficult to explain that, really, Stan. I tried to tell you some of it, in my letter."
Stan's fork chattered against his plate and he laid it down, took a hasty swallow of water. Put the glass on the table before the tinkling ice cubes could betray his tension. "Uhh, yeah, I guess you did at that, Frase." He felt Ben's eyes on him, probing, but he could not lift his face.
"Yeah, Frase." Stan kept his eyes on his plate.
Ben did not speak further. After a moment, Stan looked up at him.
The Mountie was slowly and deliberately licking sweet red duck sauce off his fingers.
Their eyes met. Stan knew his expression was one of shock and could not hide it. The spectacle of the impeccably mannered Benton Fraser eschewing his napkin and *sucking* on his own fingertips in a public restaurant had effectively blown every gasket in his mind. It could mean only one thing, and that was an equally unfathomable concept.
Fraser withdrew his fingers and gazed at him. He smiled suddenly. "Am I making you uncomfortable?"
"Yes," Stan blurted without thinking, and immediately closed his eyes. To his astonishment, Fraser laughed out loud. When he opened his eyes again, the Mountie was motioning to the waiter.
"What do you say we go to your place, Stan? I think we have some things to talk about, wouldn't you agree?"
Warning bells went off in Stan's mind. But he could come up with no excuse that would not raise a raft of suspicions in Fraser's mind, and after all, there was no point in putting off what was to come. They couldn't have this discussion in a Chinese restaurant.
"I guess we do, Frase."
The waiter arrived with the check, and Stan snagged it. He cast a stern look into Fraser's face. "Put that away."
The Mountie had his wallet out. He raised an eyebrow.
"I said, put that away." Stan dropped some bills on the table and stood up, suddenly nervous and impatient. "Let's go."
*** *** ***
"Place hasn't changed much," Fraser observed. He stood in Stan's living room, his imposing presence somehow making the space seem even smaller than it was.
Stan watched him, on edge, his mouth dry. He'd brought a stack of files from the station to work on at home, and he hugged them protectively against his chest. His knees felt suddenly weak and he sat down unthinkingly on the sofa, only to immediately wish he'd chosen a chair instead.
Fraser dropped down beside him and turned a confident, almost mischievous smile in his direction.
They looked at each other.
Fraser put his head on one side thoughtfully. "You look different, Ray. Almost as if--oh dear. I knew I was going to do that sooner or later." He smiled. "I've been making a conscious effort to remember. But if I don't think about it, I forget. You prefer Stan now, don't you?"
Stan placed the files in a careful pile on the coffee table. "Uhh, well, it seemed easier, Fraser...at the station, and all, with..." He drew a breath, praying that Ben would not pick up on his tension.
Fraser looked at him a moment longer, then shifted very slightly closer. "You haven't told me, Stan, what you thought of my letter. Did it--did it disturb you?"
"Of course not," he said automatically. He was fast losing the ability to concentrate on Fraser's words, his entire awareness taken up with the nearness of the Mountie's body, the unmistakable expression in his darkening eyes. Ben extended his arm along the back of the sofa, and Stan felt his heartbeat ratchet up. There was no longer any doubt where this situation was headed, no way to put off the inevitable. He gathered his thoughts and his voice and his will, opened his mouth to speak.
Fraser's fingers brushed the back of his neck, a touch as light as a butterfly's wing.
Stan shot up and off the couch in a single movement, avoiding a collision with the coffee table by sheer inches. He turned to look down into Ben's face. The Mountie's surprised expression was rapidly changing to a quiet, knowing amusement. He returned Stan's gaze steadily.
"You, ahh, want some coffee, Fraser? I'm gonna make some." He turned and bolted for the kitchen, knowing full well it was a transparent attempt at escape, not caring. He fought to get his breathing under control, unable to believe how badly he was handling this. Cabinets banged open, mugs clattered on the counter. He concentrated on the mundane task of filling the coffeemaker with water, determined that before five more minutes had elapsed he would say what he needed to say.
Ben stood in the doorway, watching him, a faint frown touching his forehead. "Can I help?"
"No, I got it, Frase. Have, uhh, have a seat."
Ben remained standing. Stan pressed the button on the coffeemaker and turned to face his friend.
Ben looked at him a moment longer. Something dawned slowly in his face, a wistful expression coming over his handsome features. "Ah. I...I believe I see."
"You've--you've met someone, Ray. I'm almost sure of it."
Stan blinked at him. "You--how did--"
Ben smiled gently. "You're different, with me, Stan, that's all. I can sense it."
"Fraser, I'm just getting used to you being...even back in my life, here. I'm sorry if I'm acting--strange."
"I told you I was coming back, Ray." For the first time, Ben's eyes were touched with hurt.
"Yeah, I know you did. I know that."
Ben stepped away from him and walked to the opposite side of the tiny kitchen, turning his back momentarily. Stan watched him, noting the tension in the broad shoulders, the way Ben's hands wrapped themselves around his elbows. After a moment's silence, Ben asked without looking at him:
"Is it Stella, Stan? Did you get back together with your ex-wife?"
Stan's breath escaped in a rush. "Frase, no. Nothing like that. Jeez...I haven't...I haven't even seen her in...it must be months." Haven't thought about her either, he realized with dawning wonder. //Oh, Ray. What you've done for me.//
Ben turned to face him, his expression open, thoughtful, hopeful. He stepped forward, hesitated a bare second, and then slid his arms around Stan's waist as he had done three months before, catching the man in his arms as completely by surprise as he had then.
Stan's hands slipped around Ben's waist, but he felt the stiffness in his own body. He waited, at a loss for words, feeling himself shiver. Ben drew back to look into his face. "This all right, Stan?"
Stan sighed, shifted ever so slightly back. "Frase, I don't know. You're making me...a little nervous, here."
"I don't mean to be. This is...I don't know what I'm doing, Ray. I never have, in matters of the heart. *Stan*. I do apologize. I'm having an inordinate amount of trouble with something so simple as a name. It must be because...because, Stan..."--and his arms were tightening around the man he held, pulling him back irresistibly against the solid chest; his voice had dropped to a husky whisper--"...you *distract* me."
Ben's mouth came down upon his before Stan realized what was about to happen. There was no time for even a quick breath. Heat, hard against his mouth; the sensual, eager caress of Fraser's lips. Stan felt his entire body go rigid in Ben's embrace, his hands sliding back to clutch at Ben's upper arms. Fraser's tongue slid inside his mouth and Stan gave a strangled moan, pushing back with force, separating them, tearing his mouth away. "Fraser. Ahh, God. We can't do this." He heard the breathlessness in his own voice and forced himself to meet Ben's eyes, the shocked hurt clearly readable in their blue depths.
Ben stepped back, withdrawing his hands from Stan's body. Stan felt the loss physically, a shiver running over him as Fraser's warmth left him. He took an involuntary step forward. Ben put up a hand, shaking his head, drawing deep, unsteady breaths. Stan froze, closing his eyes, the look on Ben's face tearing his heart in two. He forced himself to open them again, half convinced that Fraser would be headed for the door.
He was not.
He stood motionless just out of Stan's reach, his jaw set, his body obviously tense. But his breathing was slowing, and after a few seconds he turned his troubled blue eyes to Stan's. "I'm sorry. Forgive me. I shouldn't have assumed--"
"Goddamnit, Fraser, don't apologize. It's all right."
Ben looked at him, then flicked a glance at the kitchen table. Abruptly, he walked over and took a seat on the opposite side of the table from where Stan stood. He looked up at his friend, motioned for him to take the other chair. "Please, Stan. Could we...talk for a while? I won't touch you."
Stan felt a tightness in his throat. He sat down, looking across the table into his former partner's face. Ben's eyes met his and held them.
"It's serious, then."
Stan dropped his gaze, then made himself look up again. He felt his chin lifting, heard the steadiness and sureness of his own voice. "Yeah, Fraser. I think it might be." No more than the truth. No more than Ben deserved to know.
Ben closed his eyes for a bare second, then lifted his lashes, allowing Stan to see the hurt and disillusionment in his face. Stan reached across the table, felt his fingers taken and held. They looked at each other for long silent moments, a wordless acknowledgment. Stan felt the future of their friendship balancing on the knife-edge of the next trembling seconds.
Finally, Fraser released his grip on Stan's fingers. He passed a hand over his eyes and sat back in his chair. Stan watched him, his heart full of a slow, burning ache.
"Frase. I want--" He stopped, reaching carefully for words. He did not want his meaning misinterpreted.
And Ben lifted those eyes to his face. "Stan. I believe I understand. I too want our--friendship--to continue. Not quite the way it was, but--am I correct, Stan? Do you want that too?" It was almost a plea.
"Yes." It came out in a whisper.
Ben managed one of his gentle, heartstopping smiles, and Stan used every scrap of his control to resist the compulsion to slip around the table and pull the man into his arms.
Fraser flexed his fingers and leaned forward again over the table to give Stan a shadow of his former twinkle-eyed look. "How do you feel about me applying to liase with the Division again, Stan? Have you missed our partnership? We could have that again, couldn't we?"
Stan sighed, his jaw tensing. "Um, Frase. I--I have a partner. The lieutenant reassigned me, after you left."
"Oh." Ben blinked, drew back. "I see. Well, of course. How stupid of me not to have thought of it." He stared down at the table. "Is it anyone I might remember?"
Stan dropped his own eyes, his heart knocking uncomfortably in his chest. "Yeah, Frase. They put me with...well, he'd just got back, and I'd just lost you, and we didn't have anyone to work with, either of us, and I guess Welsh figured that--"
Ben's voice was astonished. "Ray *Vecchio*? You're *partners* with him? Oh, my."
Stan was seconds away from dissolving into helpless shaking. He opened his mouth. "Fraser, there's something--"
"How are you getting on with him, then? It seemed--it seemed you couldn't say two words to each other without--bickering."
And Stan looked up, into Ben's intense blue eyes. "We're--that is--"
"Oh, my God."
"Fraser. What is it--" But he knew. He felt himself push his chair slowly backwards, his muscles once again picking up a nervy tension.
Ben had gone white. His eyes squeezed shut, his big hands pressed flat on the table. When he spoke again, his voice was raw and so full of shock and pain Stan almost wept.
"You and Ray. *You*...and Ray. My God."
"Fraser. Please. I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't *know*--"
Ben rose in one swift motion. "I have to go, Stan." He flashed tortured eyes into his former partner's face, dropped them again as if it hurt to look at him.
Stan stood, stifling the protests that rose to his lips, knowing they were futile. "I, uhh--aww hell, Frase, I understand. Let me call you a cab--"
"That won't be necessary."
"Fraser, you'll never--let me drive you back, okay? I want to..." But his voice died at the look on Ben's face.
"I'm--I'm sorry, Stan." Without another word, he pulled open the apartment door, and strode out.
*** *** ***
The door had closed behind him with a soft, gentle click. Stan sank back down into the chair he had just vacated and crossed his arms on the table to rest his head on them. "You suck, Kowalski."
Moving on autopilot, he retrieved the small stack of files and spread the stuff out on the kitchen table. He knew better than to believe he'd be able to concentrate enough to have any brilliant ideas, but the familiar process of consideration and elimination put his brain into a working rhythm and broke the unhappy circle of his thoughts.
An hour later, his phone shrilled from the living room. Ray. Shit, he should have called him. He bounded into the room and scooped it up, mind already scrambling for what he would say. "Kowalski."
He dropped heavily onto the sofa. "Fraser?"
Ben cleared his throat, paused a moment. "I wanted to say I'm sorry for walking out. That was exactly the sort of behavior I'm attempting to grow out of, Stan. I thought--I thought I had put it behind me. Just turning and running when I feel pain. Not very admirable. Or productive."
"Frase, for God's sake. I understand. Stop beating yourself up."
"Somebody has to, Stan. Believe me, it's for the best. It's just that I was--well, stunned would be the word. I thought I had prepared myself for--for any eventuality. If it had been anyone else that you were--"
"You gotta--you gotta understand how it happened, Fraser," Stan said miserably. "I didn't mean to hurt--"
Ben laughed shortly. "Of course I understand how it happened, Stan. It happened to *me.* Twice."
Stan winced, scrubbing a hand through his tousled hair. "How do you feel, Frase? You want to talk about this at all, or--?"
"I've been better, to tell you the truth. But that is not your fault. And I--I always want to talk to you."
Stan felt a faint smile touch his lips in spite of himself. "I miss that. I miss the way you used to tell me stuff."
"You certainly complained enough about my stories." To his relief, Fraser sounded as if he might be smiling too.
"Aww, I didn't mean it. I was jealous because you were smarter than me, that's all."
"*Stan.* That's utterly untrue. You're one of the most intelligent men I know, and one of the most capable officers. Why, I remember--"
"Frase, cut it out. You sound like Ray." Stan wished the words back as soon as they'd left his mouth, but Ben seemed undisturbed.
"I'm not surprised that he's impressed with your work, Stan. I always was."
Stan lay back and closed his eyes. "Thanks, Fraser."
A short pause. "Stan, I need...I need you to tell me I haven't ruined everything, between us. I don't want to lose--"
"You didn't ruin anything. This--this whole night was my fault. I should have handled it better. I just couldn't--dammit, Frase. I didn't know what to say to you."
"I understand, Stan." Ben paused, and Stan could almost hear him gathering his thoughts. When he spoke again, his voice was low and intense. "I want to be able to see you."
Stan gripped the phone in tense fingers. "Uhhm, well, I want to see you, too."
"You know what I mean."
Stan threw an arm across his eyes, drew an audibly shaky breath. His throat felt tight again.
"Stan? What is it?"
"Fraser, it's--it's you. You're so different. This conversation--"
"I'm sorry, Ray--err." He paused. "I'm...I'm not going to hide who I am anymore, Stan. From you, or from myself. It's over with. I had hoped...that you would appreciate that. That you wanted to know who I was, really."
"Fraser. All I wanted--" He felt his voice begin to tremble and could not stop it. "All I ever wanted, was for you--for you to let me in."
"I couldn't do that, Stan. Not then. I'm sorry."
"I guess I understand that now, Frase. S'okay. I'm glad--I'm glad we're talking about it now." His eyes felt hot.
"I wanted to let you in, Stan. For a long time." Ben paused, then went on, his voice low. "I also wanted to make love to you."
Stan pulled the phone aside and drove a fist into his mouth. Bit cruelly at his own knuckles, his breath coming in painful, hitching gasps.
"I must apologize again. It was wrong of me to tell you that." Ben did not sound particularly regretful.
Stan deliberately steadied his voice and his breathing, spoke as sharply as he could. "I'm in love with him, you know that, don't you?"
"Oh, yes, I realize that, Stan. I saw it in your face as plain as day." Ben sighed. "That's probably why I'm resorting to throwing barbs like this. Because I am hurt. Petty. Typical of me. You must be sorely tired by now of hearing me go on about how I'm improving myself. I'd best let you go and perhaps we can talk again sometime when I'm not behaving like a fifteen year old."
"I won't let you come between us, Fraser. No matter how much I value your friendship." There. He'd said it. He found himself suddenly able to breathe again, his chest filling. The trembling in his fingers eased.
Fraser took the rebuke without protest. "Quite right, Stan. What I would expect of you. And despite how it may look, that is not my intention. When I said earlier that I wanted to see you, I didn't mean...well...in that way. I just want to be able to pursue our friendship, Ray. It's--you're--oh, God." For the first time, Stan could hear a tremor in the Mountie's voice. "You're the reason I came back, Stan. Why I couldn't stay away. Tell me there's something left between us. Please." His voice had dropped to a whisper by the final word.
A knock at the door. Loud, startling. Stan sat up, nearly dropped the phone.
"Fraser, I need to go. There's...there's someone at the door."
"I understand, Ray."
"I'll--that is, we'll--" But Fraser had already broken the connection.
*** *** ***
Stan blinked rapidly, running a hand through his hair. He drew a steadying breath and pulled open the apartment door.
Ray brushed past without looking at him, his eyes hooded, his jaw set. Stan slid the bolt with shaking fingers, turned slowly around to face him.
They looked at each other. Stan felt an irrational nervous guilt, knew his cheeks were flushed. "So, Vecchio. You staking the place out, or something?"
"Tried to call. Line was busy."
Stan felt a chill down his spine at the tone of his lover's voice, its low, deadly intensity. He spread his hands, fighting to control his expression. "Look, I'm sorry. I should have called you earlier, but--"
"He try anything?"
Stan allowed his mouth to drop open. He shot his lover a look of outrage--an inadequate cover for his sick confusion and pounding, racing heart. "Ray, for Christ's sake! What kind of question--"
Ray watched him, and the glittering emerald eyes suddenly narrowed. "He kissed you. That son of a bitch. I'll be goddamned to hell, he *kissed* you. I oughta break his jaw."
Stan backed away from him, his face draining of color. "Am I wearing a neon sign or something, Ray? How the *fuck*--"
"You may as well be." Ray closed the distance between them in two strides, shot out a hand, fisted it in his partner's shirt. Pulling them together roughly, he bent his head and took Stan's mouth with brutal, possessive force. Stan felt his lips bruising, his gasp of shock smothered by his partner's plundering tongue. Ray's arms slid inexorably around him, the muscles like hard iron. Fighting for air, Stan got a hand between them and pushed at Ray's chest, utterly without effect. The steel bands around him did not loosen. He managed a strangled cry into his partner's mouth, twisted his face away with tremendous effort.
Instantly, Ray's fingers gripped his jaw like a vise, forcing him to look into his lover's furious eyes. "He do that for you, huh, Kowalski? Like that?"
Stan hissed at him. "You--you--"
Ray gave him a cynical half-smile. "Say it."
Stan glared back at him. "No. I don't--I'm not the one who calls people cheap names."
"Of course not. That would be me."
"Ray, God *DAMN* it! We don't have to do this! You don't--"
Ray pulled them together again to capture his partner's mouth, cutting off the angry flow of words. The kiss was marginally gentler this time and Stan moaned helplessly, suddenly glad of the strength of the arms that held him. The bewildered anxiety in his mind was swiftly being replaced by a familiar sureness as his body reacted to his lover's nearness and touch. Ray slid rough hands down his back, cupping his ass, pulling his hips sharply against him. Stan felt his lover's arousal hard against his own, triggering a shudder of lust. Stumbling back as Ray pushed him forward, Stan dimly felt the couch behind him, tumbled backwards onto it as his partner's weight landed all over him, pinning him mercilessly into the cushions.
Stan shifted back, his slim thighs wrapping Ray's hips automatically, his body arching. Ray's hot mouth slid along his jaw, then down into his neck, his teeth just teasing the sensitive skin. Moaning in his throat, Stan slid his hands over Ray's back and began to pull his shirt free.
Ray froze against him, shifted back slightly. "No."
Blinking in confusion, Stan felt his forearms gripped and lifted over his head. Ray stared into his face for long, silent moments, eventually releasing his grasp. Stan left his hands where they were and lay there breathing heavily, watching the man above him.
Ray sat back, his fingers slipping his own buttons one by one, his eyes never leaving his partner's face. Stan bit his lip, his heart knocking in his chest. His hips lifted involuntarily, and he stifled a cry as Ray's thighs flexed around him in response, holding him down.
Ray slipped the shirt off with a graceful shrug, revealing his slim shoulders, the deeply olive-toned skin swirled with dark, silky hair. Stan reached out a hand, stopped it inches away from his lover's chest, lifting a cautious look into the dark eyes. Ray took hold of his hand, pulled it against his heart, pressed it there. He stared into his partner's eyes until they closed.
Abruptly Ray's weight was lifted from his lover's body. He pulled Stan to a half-sitting position, snagging the flimsy fabric of his shirt and pulling it up over his partner's head. He divested both of them of their remaining clothing with practiced, efficient movements, not allowing his partner to assist him. The entire operation was accomplished in near-silence, their accelerated breathing the only sound.
Stan lay back, feeling a sick, confused jumble of sensations. The shivering, ecstatic response of his body to Ray's unerring touch was tempered by a soul-deep ache in his heart whenever his gaze happened on his lover's face, catching the naked pain in Ray's eyes. Instinctively, he knew Ray was handling his terror and rage in the only way he could, and he went along with it, praying he could find a way to convey with his touch what Ray seemed incapable of hearing from his words.
Stan closed his eyes again as Ray slipped a hand between two couch cushions, withdrawing what he needed. Despite Ray's simmering anger, which emanated from his tense body almost in waves, his fingers were careful as they probed at him, and the realization made Stan almost give in to the impulse to shift upwards and pull him into his arms.
Instead he slipped his slim legs over his partner's shoulders as Ray's hands pulled his hips up sharply; bit back a gasp of pleasure/pain as his lover thrust inside him with a single unfaltering stroke. Ray's warm, slick fingers closed around Stan's cock almost delicately, teasing the straining shaft with slow, expert touches.
Ray rocked against him in a steady, powerful rhythm, the expression in his eyes alternating between fury and despair, steely determination and open fear. Stan stared back at him, trying desperately to convey love and reassurance in his own face, but he was fast becoming hopelessly distracted by the effect of his partner's lovemaking. His cock throbbed almost painfully in Ray's grip, his hips urging the driving thrusts deeper.
Ray's hoarse, panting voice in the darkness.
"Tell me, Stan. You think--you think he can do this for you?"
Stan felt a bitter, angry reply rise to his lips; opened his mouth to hear only the whispered truth escape. "No."
"Who does it for you, baby?" Tone full of arrogance. Eyes full of pain.
He closed his eyes. "You do, Ray."
Ray's hips shot forward, his head thrown back. His thrusting sped up, his breath coming in harsh, ragged gasps. Stan felt himself harden in his lover's grip, the unmistakable buildup of sensation gathering. Instantly, Ray released his hold on the shaft. Stan moaned, shot a look of hurt confusion into his face. His lover stared back at him, jaw fiercely set, eyes burning. Stan reached downwards towards his own aching hardness, only to have both wrists caught up cruelly and held immobile in Ray's shaking hands. Arching upwards, he strained against Ray's thrusts, a keening sound of need in his throat. His partner drove deeply and surely, yet kept the angle of his penetration just slightly off what he knew Stan needed, denying him the crucial final edge. Their eyes locked furiously, Ray's fingers digging into his wrists; and suddenly Ray closed his eyes, lifted his head back. A groan and a shudder, and he unleashed a hot flood inside his lover's body.
His hips slowed their thrusts almost immediately, his fingers not releasing their grip. Stan stared into his face, no longer attempting to move against him. Ray held his eyes for silent, beating seconds...and let go of his hands.
Stan let them fall to his sides, slipping his slim legs off his partner's shoulders as Ray slid out of him. He lay back, his erection nearly purple and twitching with need, but made no move to touch either himself or his lover. Ray shifted forward, placing his hands on either side of Stan's body. Leaning over, he lowered himself so that his lips just brushed Stan's face.
Stan closed his eyes and turned his head to one side, swallowing a building knot of tears. "Ray--"
"Shhh." And he slipped downwards, the silky hair on his chest teasing his partner's skin, raising goosebumps and shivers. Despite himself, Stan gasped softly at the sensation. He felt his swollen hardness taken in Ray's warm fingers, squeezed gently. He bit his lip, lifted his hips instinctively. Started to draw a slow, shivering breath--and then the air was rushing into his lungs in a gasp of shock as Ray dipped his head downwards and slid him without hesitation down his throat.
"Vecchio, *Jesus*!" The cry was torn out of him, the unprecedented action on his lover's part driving all coherence from his mind. He thrust upwards, his movements beyond control, the heat and slickness engulfing him. He felt Ray's ragged breath against his skin, warm fingers wrapping his rigid shaft, stroking steadily in time with the rhythmic caress of his lips and tongue. In scant seconds, Stan was back on the edge, his chest heaving in a vain effort to get his breath. He moaned, driving himself into Ray's mouth, feeling the rush of sensation, his hips finding a steady, strong beat--and then abruptly, Ray lifted his head, his fingers gripping the pulsing hardness, not stroking. For a furious second, their eyes met, and then Stan's head fell back against the cushions as his lover took him deep again, the rhythm stronger, faster, the intensity of the pleasure threatening to overload every nerve ending in his body. Ray brought him to the dizzying precipice of release, only to hold him suspended on the edge of it, teasing him with flutters and licks and maddening suction before picking up the rhythm again, the motion of his hand strong and sure. Stan fought for air, his gasps becoming louder, and then it was building, relentlessly, unstoppably, his cock hard and thick and throbbing within the hot wet cavern of his lover's mouth, his entire body tense and shuddering. He lifted his head back, his throat unlocking, uncontrollable cries of desire and ecstasy rising, echoing off the walls, he was screaming his lover's name, desperately, mindlessly; and at the last possible second Ray lifted his head again, but his hand continued to stroke him, hard, his eyes glittering in the darkness, watching as the pearlescent liquid shot upwards in an amazing spray, spattering Stan's chest and stomach and shoulders and face.
He lay there for what felt like minutes, all muscle control gone, his heart threatening to gallop out of his chest. Pulled air into his lungs in harsh, shaking gasps. Awareness came back slowly, and he shifted up on his elbows, turning searching eyes into Ray's face.
His lover was sitting at the end of the sofa, just out of his reach. Ray flicked an unreadable glance at him, looked away again. Swiped a hand beneath his eyes, wiping away moisture that may have been sweat.
Stan's heart did a slow roll in his chest. He shifted his weight slightly, and held out a hand to his partner.
Ray looked into his face again, his lips set in a grim line. He shook his head tightly. "I don't deserve it."
"Fuck that." Stan's voice shook.
Ray stared into his face, the hardness in his eyes dissolving all at once, the pain clearly visible. He hesitated a bare second longer, and then slid forward into his lover's arms.
Stan pulled him tightly against his chest, feeling the heat of his face as he buried it against Stan's neck. Stroked his shoulders slowly. "Ray. You don't have to be doing this, don't you understand that? I wish you could trust--"
"I know that, goddamnit." His voice was muffled against Stan's neck. "I know. Oh, baby. Just--don't let go."
*** *** ***
"Ray." Murmured gently against his partner's neck. They had shifted around, made half-hearted attempts to clean up assorted stickinesses with a handful of tissues, rearranged themselves into an exhausted cuddle. Ray was stroking his back with a fingertip in slow, lazy patterns, a brooding look on his face.
"Yeah, Stan." A sigh.
"I stopped him. Like, immediately. I pushed him away."
"I know you did."
Stan lifted his head. "Why don't you just tell me where the surveillance cam is, okay, Vecchio?"
Ray smiled in spite of himself. "No camera. I trust you."
"Oh, is *that* what it is. Coulda fooled me." But Stan rested his head back on his lover's chest.
"It's my own damned luck I don't trust, love." Ray closed his eyes. "I thought I was gonna be okay. Took some stuff home from work. House was empty, they'd all gone out to eat. I sat there by myself, tryin' to concentrate, and it got late, and my imagination--shit, Stan." He sighed. "I know the effect he has on people, he had it on *me.* And when I walked in here, and saw that look on your face, I just--knew."
Stan frowned. "I need to do something about the way my entire life is an open book, here."
Ray's arms tightened around him. "Don't. It's what I love about you. You don't hide things."
"Well, all right. I suppose I can live with my heart on my sleeve, as long as you don't miss the big picture, here."
"Ray, he came on to me. Full Mountie charm. Those eyes, those hands, that mouth. He came out and told me he wanted to make love to me, can you believe that? I could be in bed with him right now, probably."
Ray drew a shocked, hissing breath. Ignoring him, Stan went on. "I'm not, do you notice that? I pushed him off me and told him I was in a serious relationship. And that I wasn't going to allow him to come between us, no matter how much I valued his friendship. My exact words, Vecchio. You *getting* this through that Italian skull of yours?"
"No need for ethnic slurs." But his voice was almost...awed. "Kowalski?"
Three minutes of silence. Stan was about to lift his head to look into Ray's face when he felt his lover slide out from under him to sit beside him on the couch. Ray took Stan's hands in his and stood up, pulling his partner with him.
Stan started to rise, wincing slightly as a tense muscle in his back protested. Ray picked up the expression instantly. "Baby. What is it?"
Stan straightened up and pressed a hand to his back. "Nothing, Ray."
"Oh, God. Was I--" His voice was a whisper. "Was I too rough with you? Jesus Christ on a crutch, Kowalski, you oughta knock my *fucking* lights out."
"*Vecchio.* I'm fine. It's my back. It tenses up when I'm, uhh, when I'm stressed." He squinted into his partner's face, attempted a tired smile.
Ray looked at him, felt his jaw tightening, a telltale stinging in his eyes. He bent to pull on his trousers. "Go get cleaned up, Kowalski, you got stuff all over you." Brusquely. Stan looked at him a moment, moved off in the direction of the bathroom.
Ray turned abruptly and walked into the tiny kitchen. A few minutes later, Stan appeared in the doorway, tying a robe around his waist. He took in the saucepan of milk on the stove, the box of cocoa on the counter. Gave his partner a weary smile. "I do have the microwave stuff, Ray."
"I know you do, Stan. Sit down." He poured steaming milk into a mug, added a generous scoop of chocolate. Set it before his partner and watched Stan curl his fingers around its warmth. He took a chair opposite him, waited until his lover had sipped his way through half the sweet concoction before he spoke.
The pale, tired eyes lifted to his.
Stan sighed. "Ray--"
His partner held up a hand. "I know. I know you're sick to death of hearing me say that. *I'm* sick of saying it. And I'm telling you, right now, that this is the end of it. All this--this *bullshit* you're getting from me, over this. It stops here."
Stan watched him. Ray set his jaw, shaking head. "You've done nothing to deserve this, Stan. I'm putting you in the middle, and it's not fair. I *know* that, I just--go over the edge sometimes, baby."
"Ray. I understand--"
"You probably do, love, and I appreciate it, but it doesn't excuse it. I can't help feeling jealous and insecure, but I can sure as fuck help acting like I did tonight. So, no more. I just--that's all I wanted to say."
Their eyes met for long seconds. Stan flexed the fingers of one hand on the tabletop. "You're not the only one who gets scared, you know."
"I know, babe. You just handle it better."
Stan looked at him. "It--it really hit me hard, today. Seeing him again. I'd almost forgotten--well." He glanced down into his mug. "He made me nervous and excited and confused. But under it all...I knew, Ray. I just knew, without a doubt, that--" He looked up at the ceiling, shook his head. "I wish--I wish you could believe me."
Stan gave him a sad half-smile. "You don't seem to--"
"Tell me." His voice was almost inaudible as he looked into his lover's face.
Stan was startled to find real warmth in his partner's eyes. And suddenly, he felt his smile becoming mischievous.
"Vecchio, believe me. When you're being practically--practically *chased* around a room by an amorous Mountie and all you can think about is this--this grouchy, moody, Buick-obsessed, clotheshorse, pain-in-the-ass prima-donna of a cop, well, Ray, that's--that's love. Like it or don't like it, accept it or don't accept it. That's how I feel."
Ray folded his arms. "*Clotheshorse*?"
"You spend more on drycleaning in an average month than I do on food, Ray." Drily.
"Well, excuse *me.* At least one of us has a wardrobe that consists of something besides five-year-old jeans that are more hole than cloth."
"You like it when I wear those."
Three seconds of silence.
"You--oh, that does it." Ray was out of his chair like lightning, but Stan anticipated him. Nearly upsetting the cocoa mug, he gave a whoop and bolted out of the room, his partner right behind him. Stan vaulted over the sofaback one-handed, bounced on the cushions, never slowing. Ray finally cornered him in the bedroom, catching him easily around the waist and dropping him onto his back on the narrow bed, pinning him with his own weight. They wrestled playfully for a minute, exchanging nibbled, giggling kisses. Ended up wrapped warmly in each other's arms, mutual exhaustion creeping up on them.
Eventually, Ray lifted his head.
"I, uhh. I should get going, partner." He tried to shift up, but a strong arm pinned him.
"Stan, I don't like to get back too late. Wakes people up."
"Phone's over there somewhere. Tell her not to wait up."
"I'm tired of waking up alone, Ray."
Abruptly, he was wrapped in Ray's enfolding arms, pulled against his lover's chest. Stan snuggled close, nuzzled under Ray's chin.
"Can I ask something?" There was a sudden mischievous note in Ray's voice. Stan lifted his head warily. "What?"
"You won't deck me?"
Stan narrowed his eyes. "Well that depends. What do you want--"
"He kissed you."
"Yeah, he did, Ray, for all of about two seconds before I--"
"Well, I always wondered. How--how was it?"
Stan stared into his face for perhaps five incredulous seconds and then they were both laughing. Stan felt hours of tension melt away from his muscles as Ray held him, stroking his back, his hair. He muffled giggles against Ray's neck, wiped his eyes. "Vecchio, you're certifiable."
"I know. Well?"
"You won't deck *me*?"
"No, I'm through with my caveman tactics for one night. Spill it. He any good?"
"Thank heaven for that, I'm exhausted. And--well, yeah." Stan giggled.
Ray slid his arms more tightly around him. "Well, that figures, I suppose."
"He's nothing like you, Ray."
"I knew that." But he smiled. "All right, Kowalski. Where'd you put that phone?"
*** *** ***
They sat over coffee and toast in Stan's kitchen, Ray wearing his lover's robe, scanning the morning paper with a slight frown. He folded it up with a sigh of relief. "No mentions. Maybe the lines'll stay quiet next week."
Stan was reading through the sketchy notes he'd managed to make the night before. "I nixed five more of these guys and there's three here we need to check out, I thought maybe I'd--"
"It's Saturday, partner. We've had a hellacious week. Why don't--"
"Ray, our--our personal lives got nothing to do with it. We've pulled weekend shifts before on somethin' important like this, and--"
He sighed, held out a hand. "Let's see the three you want to check out."
Stan rooted, handed him the files. Ray flipped up the rap sheets and immediately shook his head. "I don't want you in these areas without backup, babe. Bad news. I think--" He knew he'd screwed up even before he felt his partner's eyes pinning him like laser beams.
"What the hell is *that* supposed to mean?" Stan was staring at him, his jaw setting in a belligerent line.
"Oh, Christ. All's I meant, Stan, is wait until I can go with you. I got some stuff I gotta do today, so--"
"I think I can figure out when I can conduct an investigation on my own and when I need my partner with me, Vecchio. I do think I can fucking figure that out. I only been doing it for--"
"Shit! I didn't *mean* that, Stan, dammit, can you give me a break here!"
Stan watched him, arms crossed over his chest. Ray's voice dropped and became placating. "I know you can take care of yourself, babe. I've worked with you for three months, I *know* that. I just--didn't like the idea of it. I was wrong, okay? It's gonna--it's gonna take me a little while to adjust to this. I just...think of you differently, now."
"We can't be partners if you can't trust me, Ray, and that means trust me to watch my own ass as well as yours. I'd miss working with you, but I'd give it up in a heartbeat to save what we have. That's more important. Now you gotta let me know--"
Ray was silent for a long moment. When he spoke, his voice was low and serious. "I will. I will let you know, if I ever feel that--look, you're not the only one that's thought about this, okay?"
Ray sighed, leaned toward him across the table. "Tell you what. I got some errands to do for my mother this afternoon, but afterwards...you want to take a drive around, knock on some doors, I'm your man."
Stan smiled. "Deal. I wasn't gonna go by myself anyway, you asshole. It just ticked me off when you thought--"
"All right, all right! I'll get my head on straight eventually, Kowalski, okay." He looked into Stan's eyes, his expression suddenly gentle. "You know, Stan. Maybe you should...go see him."
Stan blinked, let out a breath. "Today? I dunno, Ray. I dunno if--"
"He must have been pretty upset when he left here, right?"
"Well, yeah. He called me afterwards, we talked about it. I think we're still friends, but--"
"Call him. Really. I want you to." Ray gave him a thoughtful smile. "I know what it means to have him for a friend, Stan. There's no way I'm gonna take that away from you, or be responsible for you losin' him, if there's any way to avoid it."
"Ray. He thinks--well, he's got this idea that he lost what the two of you had. That--that you don't consider him a friend any more, that he did something wrong."
Ray shook his head slowly. "My fault, probably. I don't know what to do about it at this point, Stan. Maybe there's nothing *to* do. That's why I don't want *you* to screw up with him. It--it hurts."
The sadness in his partner's eyes took him by surprise. "You...you miss him."
"Well, what the fuck do you think, of course I miss him." He scowled into his coffee cup.
"Ray, Jesus. Do you--do you want to see him?"
Ray sighed heavily, frowned. "That I don't know. I guess I'd better not, Stan. Part of me--part of me's still pissed off at him. I know I don't really got a reason to be, he just--puts my back up. I'll get over that, but let's just leave things how they are for now, okay, love?"
"You can see him when you want to. I mean that, I'm over all that horseshit. I won't mind." He looked up, into Stan's eyes. "I might piss and moan at you a little bit, but that's just the way I am. You just go. You hearing this, Kowalski? I really mean it."
Stan eyed him thoughtfully, gave him a gentle smile. "Okay, Ray."
END PART ONE