The Warmth of Spring

The Warmth of Spring
a due South slash story by fuzzi cat
Pairing: V/K
Rating: NC-17 for m/m interaction
Warnings: Mild violence, profanity

Spoilers: Takes place post-COTW, so basically the entire series, but nothing *too* specific.

Summary: When Fraser leaves on a soul-searching solo trip into the North, the two Rays discover they have more (and less) in common than they thought.

Acknowledgments: With fawning appreciation and gratitude to Anagi, SubRosa and SummerRain 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.

PART ONE

*** *** ***

"Ray, please try to understand."

"I do understand, Fraser."

"This is something I feel I have to do."

"You told me, Frase." Stanley Raymond Kowalski returned his friend's troubled gaze, hoping that his own face did not reflect the conflicted misery he felt. It was true that Benton Fraser had explained to him that he was going away; where he was going, when he was going, and for approximately how long he was going. What he had not explained was *why.*

Stan hadn't asked. Not in so many words.

He'd hoped Fraser would tell him anyway. Now, at the last moment, as they stood in the dingy, noisy, and momentarily empty corridor outside the Major Crimes squadroom, it seemed as though he might be trying to.

Ben wore the red serge uniform he'd had on when Stan first met him nearly one year ago. He was bareheaded, and his normally clear blue eyes were clouded as he looked into Stan's bluish-grey ones. Stan couldn't understand it. Ben had seemed to be looking forward to his journey with enthusiasm, and now, on the eve of his departure, he looked as if he was on his way to a funeral.

But Stan was used to that. Not understanding Benton Fraser was an everyday part of his life.

Or it had been.

Now Ben was leaving. The reason for his presence in Chicago and consequently in Stan Kowalski's life was gone. They had apprehended the man responsible for the death of his father, and Fraser's three-year quest was at an end.

Fraser's soft voice startled him out of his thoughts. "I'll be back, Ray."

Again the question rose in his mind. Why? *Why?* Why go, and if you're going, why come back? It suddenly seemed that the answers to these questions might be critically important, if only he could bring himself to ask them. He looked into Fraser's eyes.

And then the Mountie did something astonishing. He opened his arms and pulled Stan into them.

Stan could feel himself flushing, his mind so confused he wondered if he could form a coherent sentence. Fraser had never done anything like this in the twelve months they had spent as partners and friends. Friendly hugs, slaps on the shoulder...but this, it was almost an embrace. And here, at the station, where anyone could come down the hall at any moment and probably would.

Stan slipped his hands around Ben's waist reflexively and rested his cheek against his friend's shoulder. Ben's arms tightened around him momentarily, and then released him slightly. Stan pulled back to look into Fraser's face, willing his body not to tremble, his heart not to pound in his chest.

"Ray," Ben said, and his voice was almost a whisper. "I would have asked you to accompany me if it were at all possible. I want you to know that."

Ben's time was short. Emboldened by the circumstances, Stan lifted his head and met Ben's eyes. "Why didn't you, Frase, huh? I thought...I thought we were partners." He couldn't keep the faint thread of hurt out of his voice. Let Fraser hear it, maybe it would penetrate that perfect unrufflable Mountie calm for once.

"Ray. We *are* partners."

And Ben's right hand slid down and rested on Stan's waist just above his hip.

His left came up, slowly, to Stan's face, fingers just brushing the line of his jaw.

Stan was frozen. He no longer heard the sounds around him or cared that the Lieutenant himself might at any time step out and see him standing here with his arms around the big Mountie's waist and Ben's hand all but cupping his cheek. He stared into the blue eyes, trying to let the intense emotion he felt show on his own face, praying that Ben would recognize it. He had long ago stopped trying to get his feelings out by talking. He had never been good at it even when he was comfortable with someone, and for all the wild, dizzy, blissful, thrilling, and beautiful emotions Fraser aroused in him, comfort was not one of them.

Ben leaned towards him and Stan's breath caught in his throat. Ben's voice was low and as serious as Stan had ever heard it. "There are things I want to tell you, Ray. But I don't know quite...how, yet. When I come back--" He broke off suddenly and straightened up, lifting his head. Stan realized that someone was about to emerge from the squadroom and he waited for Ben to pull back, to remove his hands from Stan's body. But Ben did not, just turned his head slightly and looked down the hall to see who it was who had just banged out of the squadroom door.

Stan didn't look. He didn't care. He stayed where he was, waiting for the person to realize they were interrupting a private moment and get the hell out. He heard Fraser's indrawn breath, and sensed his sudden tension. The hand brushing his face was withdrawn, but then it slipped down to his waist...and tightened there.

Utterly confused, Stan turned his head and glanced down the hall where Fraser was looking.

Detective Raymond Vecchio stood just outside the squadroom door, regarding them silently, his expression unreadable. For a moment he looked straight at Fraser, and Ben's chin lifted. He returned Vecchio's gaze steadily. Then the dark eyes flicked to Stan's face.

Stan felt his eyes narrowing. He'd actually begun to get used to Vecchio during the past few days, but as the detective stood there openly watching them he felt the irritation and annoyance of their initial meeting rise up. A sardonic comment rose to his lips, but before he could open his mouth Vecchio flashed a last look at the Mountie and pushed his way back through the squadroom door, letting it shut behind him with a bang.

Ben withdrew his hands from Stan's body as if they had never been there and straightened up to his full height. Stan felt a surge of desperate frustration. They had been on the edge of ...something, and the moment had passed. He couldn't even properly blame Vecchio, although he felt like it. They were in a public corridor; it was simply the wrong place and the wrong time.

So why had Fraser chosen this setting for their goodbyes?

Stan shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest, facing his friend. "Frase," he tried, a last-ditch attempt. "You know you can tell me...tell me anything you want to. I'll listen. Don't I listen to you?"

"I expect to return in a few months' time, Ray," Fraser said, and Stan inwardly sighed at the formality of his tone. The momentary intimacy, or whatever it was, was gone. "I'll look forward to seeing you again then. And we'll...we'll talk, Ray." Ben frowned suddenly. "Although...I don't think I'd best call you by that name, any longer. I shall try to remember."

They stood silently for another moment. Then Stan said softly, "I'll miss you, Frase. Won't be the same."

Fraser smiled, every inch the handsome, charming, utterly unreachable representative of Canada's pride, the RCMP. "I shall miss you, too...Stan. And I...I." He stepped back. "I must be going. Good-bye, Stan."

"Bye, Frase."

Fraser turned and strode down the hall without looking back. Stan closed his eyes and leaned against the dingy, paint-peeling wall. The normal sounds and smells of the precinct came back into being around him. He heard phones jangling and keyboards clicking, smelled burnt coffee on the air. He breathed deeply and steeled himself to get back to his desk and the jumble of reports and printouts that made up his current caseload. There were at least three situations requiring his focused attention, and focus was something he did not have at the moment. He pushed thoughts of Benton Fraser out of his mind as far as they would go, and rubbed a hand over his haggard face.

A few more minutes and he'd be okay. Maybe he could step out, walk around the block, get some air. A twinge behind his eyes warned of an oncoming headache. God, could this day get any worse?

On cue, the door banged open behind him and a familiar voice bellowed, "KOWALSKI!!!"

Apparently it could. Stan sighed, squared his shoulders, and headed back into the abyss.

*** *** ***

Ray Vecchio sat in the back booth in the darkest section of the seediest dive he'd been able to think of within a short cab ride from the station. He'd left the precinct after a curtly worded call home to his mother to tell her not to wait dinner, and headed downtown with his mind grimly focused on one goal: drinking enough to wipe the image of that hallway tableau--and especially Stanley Kowalski's insolent, prettyboy smirk--the hell out of his memory.

Two hours and two indifferently sipped whiskies later, he realized he'd better pick up the pace.

He stared before him at a shredded cocktail napkin, waiting for the slow-moving waitress to get around to approaching him again, his thoughts chasing themselves in the same bitter patterns they had since he'd walked in.

He'd known, of course, what Kowalski was the minute he'd laid eyes on him. Ratty clothes worn deliberately tight, accentuating the litheness and catlike grace. Carefully scripted scowls and pouts, tough-guy slang spat incongruously from that smoothly chiseled face; the colorless eyes without expression and coldly beautiful.

It made him sick. And once he'd known what Kowalski was, he'd known what to expect of him.

What he hadn't expected was Benny.

His stomach tried to clench up at the image of his former partner's face and he steered his thoughts away determinedly, focusing back on the first few days after the Muldoon case had been resolved. He'd been getting along with Kowalski all right, staying out of his way for the most part. There were, after all, a multitude of other things in his life which took up his concentration. The reunion with his family, as heartfillingly wonderful as he'd known it would be, but troubling and difficult at times, as well. The ways in which he had changed during his year living another man's life were brought home to him in subtle and not-subtle ways, and he struggled with the effort of making sure his transition back to his former self did not cause unnecessary pain to those around him.

During the long months undercover, he had imagined over and over what it would be like, wondering whether it would be easy or hard to slip back into his old identity and pick up the threads of his work and his life. He'd wondered if his job would still await him, if his friends and associates from his former working life were still around. He'd even considered the wrenching possibility that the face and mind and body that most persistently occupied his thoughts, filling his heart and brain with warm images, might have vanished by the time he was able to return. He'd had no real way to communicate with Benny, and no clear conception of what he needed to say, anyway. But he'd allowed his mind to get used to the idea that he might not have a chance to tell him anything at all--that by the time the real-life drama Ray was currently acting in was played out, Benton might have accomplished the task he had set himself three years before and stridden out of Ray's life the way he had come into it, backpack over his shoulder, wolf at his heels.

But not even in his darkest imaginings--wherein he saw himself returning to the precinct triumphant and free, needing to share his joy with the one person in his life who mattered the most, only to discover that Fraser was gone--had he ever pictured the possibility that his entire former life would be...*stolen.*

That a slimhipped, spikehaired stranger with hustler's eyes would slink in like a thief in the night and usurp his name. His desk. His caseload. His hard-won reputation and working relationships with those around him. His position as a member of the departmental 'family.' His best friend. His partner. His lover.

Well.

Almost lover.

Ray lifted his glass, swallowed bitter dregs of alcohol and melted ice. Closed his eyes and saw a scene from the squadroom, a few days before today's horror show.

He'd been going through his desk, shoving papers and files and supplies back into their appropriate places, when he chanced to glance up and catch sight of Benny on the far side of the room, standing with Frannie and a middle-aged couple. They were talking, and Ben and Fran appeared to be trying to explain something to the visitors. A dirty shaft of sunlight was slanting through the grimy windowpanes, illuminating Ben's head and shoulders. His dark hair gleamed with gentle russet highlights, his handsome face all but glowing. Ray had felt a smile touch his lips. He was used to seeing Ben like this, but his beauty still had the power to steal up on Ray occasionally and stop his breath.

Then he'd sensed a presence a few feet away to his left, and looked over. Stan Kowalski was sitting behind the desk he'd been reassigned to, his feet propped on it lazily, a file open on his lap.

He hadn't been looking at the file.

He'd been staring straight across the squadroom at the group by the door, his face for once not wearing a trace of slyness or toughness. Instead his expression was open, clear, plainly readable for anyone who chanced to see.

Ray's first thought had been: Sweet Jesus Christ in a chariot, he's got it bad.

His second: My god, did *I* look like that, two years ago? Do I still? Holy mother of god, the entire fucking precinct must have known. Did they? *Do* they?

Remembering it now, Ray smudged the ghostly shapes of rings in the pitted tabletop with his finger, frowning. He'd actually nearly felt *sorry* for the guy. And then, a strange sense of...almost kinship.

//Been there, done that.//

Then Stan had turned his head with a swift movement and caught Ray looking at him. The streetwise, know-it-all expression had slammed back into his face almost audibly. He'd scowled at Vecchio, scooped up the file in his lap, bounced out of his chair and left the room.

Ray rubbed a hand across his eyes. He hadn't been surprised to find out that Kowalski was attracted to Benny; Benny had that effect on so many. But he'd been convinced that it was a matter of a hopeless one-sided infatuation, even more hopeless than his own. He could see nothing in Kowalski that he could imagine Ben being drawn to, aside from the obvious physicality of the man; and he knew Ben wasn't that shallow. Not by a long way.

Convinced, that is, until today.

He finally caught sight of the gum-cracking, heavily eye-linered waitress and signaled to her. His drink arrived and he swallowed two-thirds of it in a choking gulp that burned like hot lead all the way into his stomach. //Vecchio, has it occurred to you that you don't drink? Never mind. Forget I asked.//

There they'd been, standing in the middle of the goddamned *hallway*, practically in each other's arms. Benny splendid in full dress uniform, minus the hat; Stan in his customary threadbare athletic shirt and jeans that hugged his hips and lean, rangy legs. The contrast was at once striking and strangely compelling--they looked good together. The rational part of Ray's mind acknowledged the fact even as his heart screamed.

And the look in Ben's face. The touch of his hand on his lover's cheek.

Ray allowed himself to picture what he might have walked in on had he timed his exit from the squadroom a few seconds earlier or later, and gritted his teeth through the resulting shiver of revulsion. They either had been kissing or were just about to.

And in the middle of the *station*! Christ, did everybody know? And even if they did, what had happened to Benny that he would engage in that kind of behavior in a public place? //What have you *DONE* to him, you fucking tramp white-trash piece of scum?! He had honor, he had *class*. He wouldn't even have a serious *talk* with me without ducking us into a closet...away from prying eyes...//

Abruptly the memories rose up in his mind and he pressed the heel of one hand against his eye, willing them away, blinking back the hot sting of tears. He was not going to lose it in the middle of this godforsaken dump.

He sat back in his seat, releasing a slow breath, eyes scanning the filthy ceiling tiles and slowly rotating fans without seeing them. Instead he saw Benny's deep blue eyes turning to look straight into his own, registering no surprise, no embarrassment. He had not jumped back or made any attempt to conceal or deny what he and Kowalski were doing. As Ray watched, he had deliberately slid his hand down Stan's side and closed it possessively around his waist.

And Kowalski. At first he hadn't even seemed to notice Ray's presence, he'd been so wrapped up in whatever he and Ben had been talking about. Then he'd turned his head, and slit his glittering eyes at Ray's face.

Ray had gotten the hell out before Kowalski could spit some cutting comment at him. He'd scooped up his things, made a quick phone call, and bolted out of the station.

Ray stood, threw some bills on the table, and walked out. He wasn't that far from his own neighborhood. He looked around for a cab, saw none, and began to walk through the misty evening, hands in his pockets, head down. He was sick of thinking about it, but he had to. There were too many things about this whole situation that were troubling to him, beyond the obvious ones. He needed to pick it apart, to find out what was really going on here, no matter how it pulled at his gut. He was used to heartbreak.

He passed pawnshops, redemption centers, liquor stores. The streets were littered and cracked, the few people he saw likewise walking with their heads down, not meeting his eyes. The cool air cleared his head slowly, and the simmering anger he felt began to dissipate. Realizations began to crystallize in his mind one by one, and he considered them carefully, making a deliberate attempt to discard assumption and irrational belief. Unconsciously, he was approaching the events of the past few days as he would a casefile, sorting evidence from fallacy to assemble the clearest factual picture that could be made.

Realization number one was that he was wrenchingly, painfully, heartsickeningly jealous. He did not blame himself for this honest emotion, but it was hard to feel it and know he was feeling it, helpless to stop.

Realization number two was that he himself was largely responsible for the state of the relationship, or lack thereof, between himself and Benny. There had been some events of the past three years over which he had had no control, but ample ones over which he had. And no shortage of opportunities in which he could have attempted to take their relationship in a different direction. For one reason or another, he had not. And then there was his reaction upon meeting up with Benny again after a year's absence. Whatever Benny's expectation for their reunion had been, it must have been a slap in the face to him to have Ray suddenly treat him as if he blamed him for doing what was only his duty as he saw it. They had spoken since, of course, and things were smoothed over, so he'd thought. But he hadn't taken into account the depth of his friend's hurt, and it was entirely his own fault.

Something else nagged at him, but he was not ready to look it in the face.

Looking up, he saw he was within a few blocks of his own house. The lighted windows beckoned. He could not go in there with this roiling mess inside him. He turned deliberately in another direction, and found himself heading into a small park, filling with dusk's shadows. He threw himself onto a splintered bench and stared into space.

During the past year he had found himself losing sight of Raymond Vecchio, slipping more and more easily into the role of Armando Langoustini. This eventually included not just adopting the man's mannerisms and style of dress but even in a strange way his attitudes and code of ethics, such as it was. He had tried to block this process as he recognized it happening, not always successfully. Since his return he had caught himself on a few occasions *thinking* like the Bookman, and it had taken a conscious effort to snap out of it and reach for his old identity.

It scared the hell out of him.

Sitting here now, with the unaccustomed whiskey burning in his gut and the cooling sweat of rage on his face, he allowed himself to consider that "Armando" might have been influencing his thinking once again. That the *real* Ray Vecchio was under the surface, quietly sending a signal that he had something figured wrong here.

He listened to the wind in the trees, to the faint sounds of traffic floating from the street, and waited. The ache in his heart did not ease, but some of the confusion in his mind cleared. And then he knew, or allowed himself to know.

//The real Ray didn't make cheapshot assumptions about people based on kneejerk reactions to their appearance and entirely personal motives like guilt and jealousy. And...//

And he might be being just a little unfair to Stan Kowalski.

Or a lot unfair.

He spotted a beer bottle lying on the grass near his bench and for a moment wished violently that he were not a cop, so that he could pick it up and hurl it at the nearby stone War Memorial, just for the satisfaction of hearing it shatter. Anger and resentment swirled around the edges of the clear place in his mind, his heart heavy with frustration.

Yet he felt a curious relief at hearing himself make this admission about Stan, and it was impetus enough to continue the line of thinking, however difficult. The pain and jealousy were not lessened, but he knew now that he was dealing with honest feelings and an objective look at the situation, instead of venting his agonized hurt at a too-convenient target.

What did he really know about Kowalski? As he considered the actual evidence, the feeling of shame deepened, and he drew a shaking breath, thankful he'd had the guts to snap himself out of it.

Kowalski was a decent cop. It had been obvious from the beginning, he'd seen it, denied it to himself, told himself Stan was sloppy and hotheaded. //Yeah, Vecchio. Sound familiar?//

He was young and good-looking and moved with an easy, sexy grace.

He had atrocious taste in vehicles.

And (Ray took a deep breath) he was apparently involved with a certain Mountie in a way in which Ray himself would kill to be.

Only the last was a legitimate reason to resent the man. None were grounds for hating him.

Ray went over it a few more times in his mind, feeling the rightness of it. It was only an academic deduction at this point; his emotions were still too tangled up for him to be able to picture Kowalski's face without wanting to do anything other than smash it. But after sitting in the growing darkness for half an hour, he was sure he would be able to face the man without feeling the sick disgust. He knew, in his heart if not at the forefront of his mind, that the vicious accusations he'd made to himself about the man's character had mostly been a product of the tainted hindsight of the past hours.

Eventually, Raymond Vecchio stood up. He felt like hell. His heart hurt, his head ached. His feelings about Stan Kowalski were still profoundly mixed, and he prayed that they wouldn't be thrown together too much in the coming days. But Armando the Bookman had retreated, banished back into the farthest corners of his mind; he was Vecchio enough to go home, and kiss his mother, and sit at her table.

So he did.

*** *** ***

Stan Kowalski found plenty to occupy him over the next weeks, and the busyness of his life helped a little to keep obsessive thoughts of a pair of blue eyes and gentle hands on his body from taking over his waking hours.

The first new development was a break in a years-old narcotics case which led to a sudden frantic flurry of investigative brainstorming and pulled in most available hands in the department. Stan found himself willingly sucked in to the complex history, poring over the extensive file and chasing down the new leads. He stayed long hours at the precinct, eating bad takeout, losing weight, not sleeping. In a way, he felt content.

The second was Welsh's brilliant decision to partner him with Raymond Vecchio.

Neither man had reacted with enthusiasm to this move, regarding each other with carefully neutral faces across the small space of the lieutenant's office. But Stan had had no objective reason to refuse the assignment, beyond the vague feeling of discomfort he got when he recalled the way he sometimes found Vecchio's eyes on him, and of course the recollection of Ray's interruption of his last meeting with Fraser. Apparently Vecchio couldn't come up with any objection compelling enough to bother raising with the lieutenant, either; so they had settled in together, the critical stage of the current case keeping them amply enough occupied with work-related matters to avoid dwelling on the nebulous friction they sometimes sensed between them as they worked.

And Stan found with no great surprise (he'd heard Fraser enthuse about Vecchio's skill and dedication often enough over the past year) that Ray was a competent and experienced caseworker. He had a tendency to let some of the, to him, less important details of investigative work slide; but the swift-thinking way he was able to scent out the big picture, sort the real players from the small-timers, impressed Stan. And as it was Stan's nature to execute meticulous follow-through, to chase down longshots and tie up tedious loose ends on the odds that sometimes the critical clue was to be found nowhere else, they complemented each other.

After the first few days their relationship began to develop more of a personal side. It was obvious to Stan that Ray was making a deliberate effort to be civil and even friendly, and Stan found himself responding. During stakeouts and lulls in activity, on lunch breaks, they would chat about non-work topics--sports, politics. Ray told him, in carefully edited and emotionless fashion, a little bit about his experiences undercover. Stan filled Ray in on some of the highlights of the cases he'd handled as "Detective Vecchio" over the past year.

The one topic of perhaps most commonality between them was never broached by either man. They simply did not talk about Benton.

At first, Stan was puzzled as to why this was. He himself was reluctant to bring up Fraser's name for the plain reason that the Mountie was, at the moment, a painful, confusing subject for him even to think about. But was this true for Vecchio? Surely he'd be interested in hearing about how Stan had fared with the man who had been his own partner for two years.

As time passed he felt himself growing curious as to the status of Ray's friendship with Fraser. Of Fraser's strong regard for the man he had no doubt; it had been apparent in any number of ways for as long as he had known Ben that the Mountie missed Ray, thought highly of him both professionally and personally, and that they had shared a singular closeness as partners and friends. But when they had been reunited, albeit under horrendously stressful circumstances, Vecchio had not exactly run to Ben with open arms.

Then there had been Vecchio's curiously hostile-seeming reaction to his farewell scene with Ben in the hallway. The incident seemed to be of no importance to Ray; he had never referred to it. But Stan still asked himself what Ray had been thinking as he stood there; what had been the meaning of the look Fraser had shot him.

And then, one night when they were returning from a long, exhausting day of surveillance, he figured it out. It was about two weeks after Ben's departure, two weeks during which he and Ray had managed a professional, comfortable, if not particularly close, working relationship.

They were in Stan's car headed back to the station, Stan driving, Ray alternately chatting desultorily with him and staring morosely out the window. Their route took them past the Canadian Consulate, and a momentary snarl in traffic stopped them directly in front of it for perhaps a minute.

Ray had fallen silent, and Stan shot a glance at him as they waited. The man was staring out at the sidewalk, at the unfamiliar sentry in a too-familiar uniform. Then he turned his gaze to the road before them, his face for a moment wearing an expression of unguarded misery.

Stan snapped his eyes back to the road as the traffic started to move, his heart beginning to pound in a sick fashion in his chest. The look on Ray's face had been haunted, deeply painful. *Familiar.* What he should have known weeks ago came crashing down around Stan's head, and his hands gripped the steering wheel with white-knuckled tightness.

They were lovers, Ray and Fraser. Or they had been, before Vecchio's undercover assignment. And now?

Everything fell easily and horrifically into place, and he had to consciously will himself not to tremble. While some questions that had puzzled him now seemed to have answers, others had sprung up to take their places. And he had to deal with the uncertainty, the confusion of not knowing. Had to deal with it while spending ten-plus hours every day in Ray Vecchio's presence.

Somehow he got them to the precinct without Vecchio appearing to notice that anything was amiss. He sat at his desk long after Ray and everyone else from their shift had deserted, staring unseeingly into a case file, his heart a tight knot of pain in his chest, his eyes glittering in the cruel light of the desk lamp.

*** *** ***

The day that Ray Vecchio's hard-fought calm and togetherness began to crumble dawned grey and rainy. They were within a week, possibly a few scant days, of the ultimate break in the narcotics case, and he was on edge. His reputed temper had been much in evidence during the past 48 hours, although he congratulated himself that he was directing it pretty much equally around the department and not primarily on Stan's undeserving shoulders.

Buried in a faxed report, on his fourth or sixth cup of evil-smelling coffee, Ray suddenly felt his mind tangent away inexplicably. His vision was momentarily full of a much-loved and remembered face, with startling clarity of recall.

Ray closed his eyes and allowed himself, for a few brief bittersweet seconds, to feel the emotion Benny evoked in him. Then, mentally shaking himself, he opened them again and glanced around the crowded, chaotic room.

His partner was staring at him.

There was a look on Kowalski's face Ray couldn't interpret, and he stared back, confused. Stan's eyes widened, his expression almost shocked.

Something passed between them.

Ray's gut tensed up. Kowalski *knew*.

Somehow, he had given something away, allowed some unbidden feeling to show on his carefully professional exterior. And Stan had seen, and Stan had realized.

What was more, he thought, as he stared back as if frozen into the pale eyes, Stan knew that *he* knew.

There was no going back now. It was out, it was there. The threat to their working relationship could not have been more pronounced if they had brought up the whole subject of the Mountie and discussed him in meticulous detail.

Stan dropped his eyes to his desk, but a flush stained his cheeks. Vecchio felt his jaw tighten. He didn't know what exactly Stan was thinking at the moment, and he very much did not want to find out.

He had a sickening fear that Stan's feelings might include pity.

*** *** ***

Things disintegrated with lightning speed after that.

Stan tried hard to continue their work as if he'd never stumbled upon the awful knowledge that night in front of the Consulate building. But he could no longer look at Ray without seeing mental images of him and Frase, kissing, touching, making love. His mind presented these scenes against his vehement will, particularly the latter category, but he was helpless to stop them.

And the fact that Ray's and Ben's relationship was now open, if unspoken, knowledge between them created an awkward barrier. He now asked himself twenty times a day what Ray was thinking of him after the scene he'd witnessed on the day of Fraser's departure. Was he *blaming* Stan? What did he think he had seen, anyway? Were he and Fraser in contact? What, if anything, had Fraser told Ray about him?

The case was in its final chaotic countdown towards what promised to be a gigantic bust, and tempers were flaring all over the department. Vecchio seemed constantly to be in Stan's personal space. They got in each other's way, snapped at any slight provocation, launched into each other for any real or perceived misstep in the work of the case. Stan recognized what was happening, knew the reasons for it, yet was helpless to stop his reactions. He could only watch, as a bystander might, as the positive working relationship they had begun to build was stripped away from its crumbling foundations.

They were moving towards an unavoidable climax, and he only hoped they didn't blow the department sky-high when it inevitably came.

*** *** ***

Lieutenant Harding Welsh looked up from the cluttered interrogation table. The room had been commandeered as a temporary conference and file area for the current case, and he sat around it with Detectives Huey and Dewey, going over strategy.

A moment ago, a resounding violent argument--the second in as many days--had erupted between Kowalski and Vecchio in the squadroom. They'd been nearly nose-to-nose, shouting, ignoring the efforts of their colleagues to separate them. Finally, Kowalski had slunk off to the file room, snapping off a sarcastic comment over his shoulder, and Vecchio had swept up his coat and slammed out of the department, nearly knocking the door off its hinges.

Welsh frowned deeply. He was sick and tired of this crap. Vecchio's irascibility was at least expected, if noticeably more pronounced than usual. But he'd come to depend on Kowalski's easygoing nature in times of departmental madness, and it ticked him off that he seemed to have lost it.

Lieutenant Welsh thought he knew why.

Rubbing his fingers over the bridge of his nose, he lowered his voice and said tiredly, "God, I hope Kowalski's boyfriend gets back soon from wherever the heck he wandered off to, so's things can get back to normal around here."

Dewey spit coffee back into his cup. A shocked silence fell around the table. The detective cleared his throat and ventured timidly, "Uhh, Lieutenant. I think you got it wrong, here. Kowalski and Constable Fraser aren't--"

"Yeah," piped up Huey. "I always thought the Mountie was *Vecchio's* boyfriend."

The silence returned. Welsh was just about to pick up a case file and plunge back in when Huey's quiet voice startled him. "Hell. Maybe *that's* their fucking problem."

Welsh rubbed the bridge of his nose again. This, he did not need.

*** *** ***

Stan emerged from the file room empty-handed. He'd only ducked in there to get out of Ray's face and take a few minutes to calm himself down. The few had stretched to thirty, but he felt a little better. He started down the hall, heading back towards the pileup of work on his desk.

He almost ran right into Ray, who was just returning. They stopped short and glared at each other, and then Stan dropped his eyes and heaved a quiet sigh.

"Ray, look. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have gone off like that, but you--"

"Save it, Kowalski." Ray's eyes were hard. He didn't look at Stan's face.

Acting on sudden impulse, Stan grabbed his partner by the lapel and pulled him alongside him. Vecchio was so surprised that he didn't resist at first, and Stan dragged him several steps down the corridor. They came to the supply closet, and Stan pushed open the door and pulled Ray inside.

"What the *fuck*, Kowalski?" But Ray didn't move to leave, just stood there in the near darkness, breathing heavily, waiting for Stan to say whatever he had to say.

"We can't keep doing this, Ray. I can't work like this. If you'd just--"

"I agree. I can't work like this either, so we're not going to. I'll go tell the Lieutenant now. Boy, won't he be thrilled with me." He stepped towards the door, but Stan put a hand on his arm. Ray glared at it and Stan tensed, but he did not let go.

"We're almost through with this bust, Ray. Can't you wait until we wrap it up before you dump this on him? I don't--I don't think I've done all that badly. My work's pretty fucking good, actually, and I don't see what the hell your--"

"It's got nothing to do with that and you fucking well *know* it, Kowalski." Ray's furious eyes held his, and then they suddenly softened. Stan was so startled he released his hold on Ray's arm. "You're a good cop, Stan. A damn good one, and I know what I'm talking about. But I can't work with you. I. Can't. Do. This. Any. More. Do you get me?"

Stan sighed. It was inevitable that it should come to this. He was surprised at the regret he felt at what was undoubtedly going to be a sensible move for both of them.

He opened his mouth to say something more, to try to get Ray to consider holding off just a few days. But before he could speak, they heard a commotion drifting from the direction of the squadroom.

"VECCHIO!! KOWALSKI!! I swear, if you hotheads took off outta here without authorization your asses are MINE! Front and center!!"

Ray shouldered open the door and took off down the corridor, his partner right behind him. Stan was furiously formulating apologies to offer the Lieutenant, who'd sounded as if he was ready to take their heads off. But he was brought up short by the look on Welsh's face when he reached the squadroom.

Welsh's ruddy countenance bore an excited expression, and he waved a sheaf of papers in one hand. "It's come down, we got it! Tip on a scheduled meeting tomorrow, the warehouse in West Falls. I need you two down there *tonight* to stake it out, we don't have the word yet what time it's going down, could be as early as five in the morning."

Frannie was at Stan's elbow suddenly, handing him several slips of paper. "I gotcha room at the Maplewood Motel, kinda sleazy but it's all they had room at, convention in town or something, anyway, here's the address, here's the directions..."

Stan tuned out the rest of her chatter and looked over her head at Ray, who was still staring at the Lieutenant. Welsh made an irritated hand gesture at them. "Why am I still seeing your faces? Go!"

Ray looked at his partner, his dark green eyes hooded, his jaw tight. Stan stared back. A heartbeat of silence, and Vecchio jerked his head sideways.

They headed out of the doors into the night.

*** *** ***

Ray drove the requisitioned car, and Stan sat in silence in the passenger seat. They had anticipated the eventuality of stakeout as the case wound down, and each had kept a small case with a change of clothes at the precinct.

Ray felt a churning, sick rage whenever he considered the man beside him. It no longer helped to tell himself that Stan was basically a decent person, a good cop, a competent partner; or that he was not to blame for the present sorry state of Ray's emotions. Something was building inside him, something huge and violent he felt helpless to control, and what was worse, he could not blame this reaction on Langoustini's influence. He knew instinctively that this was a purely Raymond Vecchio production, a side of himself he was not proud of but could not deny.

Several times he tried to open his mouth to say something to defuse the tension, and each time he changed his mind. There was nothing left to say.

They sat through the hour-long trip into the suburbs, the only sound the occasional nervous cracking of Kowalski's knuckles.

*** *** ***

"Back it off, Vecchio. Right now."

They stood in the garishly decorated two-bed motel room. Stan was at the foot of one bed, his case opened. He had been about to bend and start pulling things out of it when he felt Ray behind him, close enough so that his breath brushed Stan's neck.

Ray's voice was low, deadly. "You got a problem, Kowalski?"

Stan felt the hairs rise on his neck and arms. A pulse beat in his neck; his fingers slowly curling. He said without turning, "We've been here twenty minutes and you haven't let me alone yet. Every time I turn around, you're in my face, you're up my ass."

Ray drew a trembling breath, the moment at hand, a wild, expectant exhilaration flowing through his veins. Dropping his voice yet another notch, he almost purred into Kowalski's ear.

"That what you want, Stan? Could be arranged."

Meltdown.

Stan whipped his elbow down and back with sudden, stunning force, catching Ray squarely in the solar plexus. Fully anticipating him, Ray's muscles were clenched and he staggered back only slightly with the blow. Kowalski swung around to face his partner and delivered a solid right hook, connecting with Ray's upper chest. The impact traveled up Stan's arm, triggering a wave of pain. His body awash in adrenaline, he moved in on Ray, alternating uppercuts with low hooks, raining glancing blows off his chest and ribs.

Vecchio felt a surge of almost joyous energy, his body registering the impact of Kowalski's blows without seeming to process the accompanying pain. He caught at the man's forearms, momentarily stopping his assault, shoving him backwards with brutal force. Stan's face was a grimacing mask of concentration, but an answering light sparked in his eyes. He fell back, landing on the bed and knocking his case off the edge.

Bouncing up immediately, he danced towards Ray on the balls of his feet, fists up. Vecchio swung a slow, lethal roundhouse right directly into his stomach, connecting with a sickening thudding sound. Stan doubled over, staggering back. Ray advanced, delivered a vicious backhand cut across his cheekbones. Stan's left eye immediately squinted shut and he felt the rush of blood to the surrounding tissue.

"Fucking...bastard." Stan panted with effort, struggling to straighten up. Vecchio stood with his arms fisted at his sides, his eyes predatory. He watched until Stan was almost entirely upright; then grabbed him by the shoulders, swung him around and threw him bodily against the low chest of drawers.

Stan landed on his back on the piece of furniture, one arm flailing up over his head, striking the wood-framed mirror suspended on the wall. He gained his balance and rolled painfully to his feet, seconds before the mirror dropped and fell forward, shattering with a tremendous crash.

The sound seemed to galvanize both men. Stan launched himself at Ray with a deep, throaty yell, wrapping his arms around his partner's waist. His weight bore both of them to the carpeted floor, where they grappled momentarily, their breathing loud and ragged. Stan rolled out from under Ray when it became apparent he was about to be pinned, and bounced a little less springily to his feet once more. Waiting while Vecchio grunted upright and turned to face him, Stan took careful aim, his years of streetfighting and boxing experience coming unconsciously to the fore as his right fist swung forward and connected with Ray's jaw, the smacking sound shockingly loud in the room, the heavy ring he wore splitting Ray's lip. Blood spurted.

Ray wiped the back of his hand against his mouth, his narrowed eyes watching Stan. Kowalski tensed, bracing himself, spreading his body out, his arms outstretched, his knees flexed. Vecchio lowered his head and charged, driving Stan backward into a round table. The heavy ceramic lamp on it shot across its surface, smashing against the wall behind it, the bulb breaking with a flash of light and a popping explosion. The room was suddenly plunged into half-darkness.

Stan hit out at Ray, some of the sureness leaving his blows, the adrenaline rush degenerating into a jittery frantic sensation. His wrist was caught in a crushing grip and he was pulled to his feet, swung at the nearest bed. He landed on his back, fighting for breath, his left eye blind. Before he could gather strength to roll to his feet, Vecchio dropped six feet and one hundred seventy pounds of furious detective squarely on top of him. The bed squeaked alarmingly.

Pinning Stan's wrists over his head, Ray breathed down into his partner's face. His hips pressed down against the other man's, his thighs holding him immobile beneath him. Ray was aware that he had a raging, pulsing erection; a side effect of the fight hormones flooding him. He deliberately ground it against the other man, seeking reaction, some expression to break the stubborn mask of Kowalski's face. He was successful; Stan actually managed a half-smile, and his own hips lifted against Ray. Vecchio felt a grudging admiration for the man's bravery.

There was no sound in the room but their ragged, panting breath. Then Ray licked his injured lips and hissed: "How long, Kowalski? Huh? How fucking long?"

Stan stared back at him, uncomprehending. He thrust his hips back against Ray's, his hardness evident. "Kinda...personal question, wouldn't you say, Vecchio? You really wanta know how long it is, you can look--"

Vecchio slapped him across the face. Stan shut up, but his eyes sought Vecchio's and held them, clearly not intimidated. His hips slid up in another lazy, slow roll.

"How long you been *screwing him*, you cheap slut bastard?"

Realization dawned. Ray saw it in Stan's one open eye, which widened in shock and then narrowed. An insolent look came over Stan's bruised, starkly handsome features.

"Whatsa matter, there, tough cop? Someone put his hand in your cookie jar?" Ray's mouth twisted bitterly and Stan knew he had scored. He felt an upwelling of gratification...and then, suddenly, without any warning, a crushing, sorry shame.

This should not happen.

He, Stan Kowalski, was not going to allow it to continue one moment longer.

He watched Ray's face and knew that his partner had seen something in Stan's expression. Ray frowned, looking down at him. His grip loosened around Stan's wrist, and Stan eased his hand free, reaching out, placing it gently on Ray's chest.

Ray sat back uncertainly on his haunches, looking down at the man beneath him. He heard Stan's gentle voice.

"Ray. Hey. Listen to me, all right?" Stan paused, winced, drew breath. "You--you got it all wrong. Ben and me...I'm not sleeping with him, Ray. I swear I'm not. You believe me?"

Ray's face relaxed a fraction, but his voice was still coiled, tense. "I saw you. Practically makin' out in the damn hallway."

Stan shook his head. "Wasn't...wasn't what you thought. He was saying goodbye to me."

Ray closed his eyes, felt some of the tension leaving his aching muscles. He shifted sideways, lifting himself off his partner, and sat down beside him on the edge of the bed.

"Believe me, man," Stan was saying. "I get how it is with you and him. I don't move in on existing relationships."

Ray looked at him.

Stan looked back.

"Kowalski," Ray said, his voice cracking slightly.

"Yeah."

"I'm not sleeping with him either."

A silence fell.

Stan sat up halfway, propping himself on his elbows. He squinted into Ray's face. "Not...ever?"

"Not ever."

Ray got unsteadily to his feet, but swayed almost immediately. He sat down abruptly on the floor in between the two beds, and leaned back against one of them.

After a moment Stan slipped down and joined him. They sat shoulder to shoulder, breathing noisily but slowly.

Ray flicked a glance at the man beside him, took in the trembling tenseness, the way Stan's hands gripped his knees tightly. Several relatively silent minutes passed, during which both men began, bit by bit, to relax. Ray's own trembling eased, but his arousal did not subside. He did not need to look at Stan's face to sense his partner was in the same state.

"Kowalski," Ray began, picking his words. "I--" He swallowed. "I had to do this."

"Yeah," Stan said after a moment. "I guess you did."

"I'm--Christ. I'm sorry." Ray hoped the sincerity he felt was audible in his voice.

"Save it, Ray. I--I wanted it."

Ray shot a look at him. He couldn't be sure, but it looked as if Stan were blushing.

Then Stan lifted his one good eye to Ray's face. Ironically, the purpling bruise around his upper cheekbone seemed only to accentuate his looks. He gave Vecchio a tentative smile. "Helluva line you got there, Ray. 'That could be arranged.' I liked that."

Ray smiled involuntarily, then immediately winced at the pain in his mouth. "Yeah? Thought that was pretty good myself."

A not uncomfortable silence fell between them.

"Ray?"

"Yeah, Kowalski."

"I just wanted to say--that is--I've liked having you as a partner. You're one of the best I've ever had, actually."

"You think you can put up with me?"

"I think so."

"You got me."

Stan smiled.

After a moment he became aware that Vecchio was staring at him. He looked back, confused. Ray's eyes were deep green, and warm. "Kowalski."

"What, Ray?"

"Let's go."

"Huh? Go where?"

"Anywhere. Out of here."

"Why?"

Ray drew a slow breath, and looked directly into his partner's face. "Because, Stanley, if we don't get out of this room in the next two minutes, we're going to end up in bed, and I really don't think--"

Stan bounced to his feet in one lithe motion. He stuck a hand out to Ray and helped him up. "I hear you. Go wash your face, Vecchio--you're all bloody."

Ray stumbled into the bathroom, splashed water, avoided the mirror, came out again. Stan was tucking his wallet into his back pocket. "Ready?"

"Where we going?"

"Bar downstairs."

"Kowalski, we're on duty."

Stan snorted laughter. "The hell we are. We haven't had sleep in 24 hours. We're officially on-shift at..." He paused, considered..."Make it 4 A.M. Plenty of time."

Vecchio was too tired to argue. Stan was smiling at him.

"Gonna get you stinking drunk, Vecchio."

Ray gave him a considering look.

"You can try."

*** *** ***

Two hours later they sat side by side in a corner banquette, the tabletop littered with empty shot glasses and a single wine goblet. Ray squinted around the smoky room, quietly marveling at the lack of any obvious interest in or reaction to their appearance. Apparently guys with messed-up faces were a commonplace around here. Come to think of it, nobody'd come to investigate the ruckus in their room, either. He wondered wryly if gunshots would get some attention.

Stan was mumbling drunkenly beside him, his voice a low drone, background noise. Ray felt the cushioning haze of alcohol and exhaustion numbing some of the painful emotions of the past days, and he gingerly allowed his mind to consider the man next to him, looking his feelings full in the face.

With immense relief, he found that the bitter hate and anger were gone. He knew there was still a kernel of jealousy, but he could deal with that. He felt a glow of gratitude that he had not screwed things up; that he was apparently going to be allowed to enjoy Stan's friendship as well as his partnership, to get to know him better.

He had a feeling he was going to appreciate that.

He listened idly to Stan's ramblings, not really paying attention, and then suddenly rolled his eyes and dropped his voice to a stern whisper. "Get your hand off my leg, Kowalski."

Stan nudged him with his shoulder. "You're thinkin' about it."

Ray wondered why he didn't feel enraged, angry, or even mildly irritated. "Thinking about what, you pervert?"

"You're *thinkin'* about it, Vecchio." And Stan lifted his one good eye and delivered a purely flirtatious look from under heavy lashes.

Vecchio stifled a smile and put on his most threatening expression. "Kowalski. Knock it the fuck *off.*" Stan looked up at him and then dissolved into helpless giggles.

"Come on, idiot." Ray slapped him on the shoulder. "I'm putting you to bed."

"Thought...thought you'd never ask."

"That's *putting,* not *taking.*" Ray eased out of the seat, cringing as the muscles in his side protested. "Dammit, Stan, I think you cracked a rib."

"Sorry, Ray." Stan was on his feet, blinking owlishly. Ray left a twenty on the table and put a hand under his partner's elbow, steering him out of the lounge and, with some difficulty, up a flight of stairs and into their room.

Once inside, Stan headed into the bathroom and Ray surveyed the shambles they'd made, shaking his head. The shattered mirror was the only real danger and he pulled a bedspread off one bed, wrapping it over the remains on the floor. Stan wandered out, toothpaste smudged on one cheek, naked to the waist. Ray brushed past him and took his turn, suddenly needing all his concentration to perform his simple nightly routine.

The split lip was now quite swollen, but it had stopped bleeding. He carefully brushed his teeth, and pulled off his shirt to examine the damage to his midsection. He'd have some fine bruises tomorrow, but he didn't really think he'd cracked any ribs.

Silence outside the door. Ray pushed it open carefully, onto darkness. "Stan, you in bed?"

An arm came out of nowhere and wrapped him around the waist, pulling him back against Stan's laughing body. Ray allowed himself to feel the press of the other man's warmth against him for a few seconds, unable to keep the smile from his face. "Kowalski, you're out of your mind."

"I know. I can't help it. I haven't slept in over a day, my partner almost kills me, I'm falling down drunk--"

"Well fall down then, already, and let me sleep!"

"Want you."

Ray shook his head, but he was still smiling. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he cast another rueful look over the room, mentally calculating the probable damages.

"Shit, Stan. We coulda just...talked this out."

He felt Stan shake his head behind him, his arms still looped firmly around Ray's waist. "No, Ray." Slightly muffled tone. "We couldn't have done that."

"Why not?"

"Be*cause*, Ray," Stan explained as if to a small child. "We're *guys.*"

A beat of silence, and suddenly that was the funniest thing Ray'd heard in a long time. He threw back his head and roared, and Stan started up right behind him. They both doubled over in pain at the same moment, gasping laughter and wincing at their respective injuries. They couldn't stay standing and Stan pulled them over onto the nearest bed.

The spasms passed gradually and Ray knuckled a tear away from his eye. He was lightheaded, utterly drained. The lack of sleep, the reality of his physical injuries, the unaccustomed alcohol were combining to drag him downwards into unconsciousness. Floating warmly beneath the surface of this giddiness was a strong, persistent arousal. He felt Stan fit his warm body against his back spoon-fashion, and sighed as his partner pressed his jeansclad hips up against Ray's ass, and slid one hand slowly along his thigh. He heard Stan's quiet voice in the darkness.

"Ray. Really. You want me?"

Ray drew breath, let it out. "Yeah, Stan."

But something in his tone made Stan look at him. "Are we going to...?"

And Ray looked back, his expression firm. "No, Kowalski. We ain't."

Stan slumped on the bed behind him, but he was smiling. "Aww, Vecchio. You're no fun." He got up, padded over to the other bed, shucked his jeans and slid under the sheets.

Ray smiled, pleased with himself and with his partner. He undressed and pulled his own bedclothes up.

"Ray."

"Yeah, Stan."

"Thanks."

Ray chuckled. "For what? Not screwing you? Beating the shit out of you?"

"Yeah."

A pause.

"You got a hell of a right hook, Vecchio."

"Thank you, Kowalski. You've got a hell of an ass."

An intake of breath. "Don't fucking start, Vecchio."

"Not startin' nothing." Ray tried his damnedest to stop grinning, his lip was threatening to break back open.

"I could come over there--"

"I've got a nine-millimeter under my pillow, Kowalski."

"Tease."

"Doof."

"Night, Ray." And Ray could hear the smile in his voice.

"Night, Stan."

Darkness descended swift and sure, carrying them both into sleep.

*** *** ***

Lieutenant Welsh stared incredulously at the two men seated in front of his desk, looking from one to the other, temporarily at a loss for words.

Vecchio's upper lip looked as if he'd run into a door full-tilt.

Kowalski was sporting a shiner that would make Evander Holyfield proud.

Both men sat gingerly and stiffly, as if they'd fallen down four flights of concrete stairs. Or gone four rounds with the aforementioned Holyfield.

The most unbelievable thing was their expressions. Vecchio kept trying to assume a serious, pissed-off scowl, but a smile was tugging at the corners of his swollen mouth.

Kowalski was frankly smirking.

The only thing preventing Welsh from knocking their heads together was the obvious fact that they'd done a bang-up job of that themselves, already.

Looking down at the rumpled invoice he held, headed "Maplewood Motel" and itemizing over six hundred dollars' worth of property damage, Welsh suddenly found his voice.

He opened his mouth and commenced tearing into them.

*** *** ***

Stan Kowalski sat in the lieutenant's office with his supervisor's irate words flying past his ears, attempting to paste an appropriately respectful, penitent expression on his face. After a few tries, he thought he had it down.

If he just didn't look across at Vecchio.

(...what the hell did you two clowns think you were doing...I could have your badges ...ten years on the goddamned force, Vecchio, you planning to grow up anytime soon?...what did I ever do to deserve...)

They had arrived at the station a little past eight in the morning. The anticipated contact meeting had not gone down, and after an hour's surveillance Stan's cellphone had shrilled, calling them off the stakeout. Welsh had been in the squadroom when they had walked in, shot them a look and jerked his head in the direction of his office.

As they followed him, Stan had heard an excited gabble of voices start up behind them.

(...conduct unbecoming...obligation to uphold...not a damned playground, assholes...six hundred forty eight bucks...every red cent outta your next paychecks...)

The lieutenant was winding down. Stan sat up straighter in his chair, trying not to wince. He was in agony. His knuckles were swollen and sore, his cheek stung, his stomach kept threatening to toss up his breakfast.

He felt great.

Welsh stopped waving the invoice around and sat back heavily in his chair, sighing gustily. He looked from one to the other of them, his face furrowed with regret.

"All right, boys." Tiredly. "I'll scramble around the partner assignments somehow. Give me a couple days to work something--"

Vecchio leaned forward, clearing his throat. "Sir, that's not really necess--"

At the same moment, Stan blurted: "I think we've managed to work, uhh, work some stuff out. Sir."

Welsh closed his eyes. Opened them again.

Flapped a hand at them.

Released, they shot out of the door like schoolboys escaping the principal's office.

*** *** ***

The excited, buzzing hum of voices in the squadroom sank instantaneously as they appeared.

Ray stopped short inside the doorway, his partner beside him. He looked around the room.

Every face was turned in their direction. Expressions ranged from eager curiosity to hastily assumed nonchalance to frank and open gaping.

Ray drew his brows together in his patented what-the-fuck-do-you-think-you're-looking-at glare and drilled his eyes into them one by one.

The silence deepened. Eyes dropped hastily. Even the phones seemed to be holding their breath.

Stan was attempting to mimic his partner's expression, but he was failing. An irrepressible snort of laughter threatened, and after a few tense seconds, it escaped.

Vecchio glared at him. Stan looked back.

For perhaps ten seconds, nobody moved.

An involuntary smile quirked through Ray's glare. He shook his head, reached out a hand and clapped Stan on the shoulder.

The room erupted around them, cheers, catcalls, whistles, applause, threaded through with a hearty wave of laughter. They stood there and took it for a few seconds, wearing identical bemused expressions, and then Ray waved his hands at his colleagues. "All right, you knuckleheads, show's over. Knock it off."

He sat down with his partner and got down to work.

END PART ONE

Go on to part two