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Swimming Pool Anonymous

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 Cover by Surya

The smell of chlorine was thick in the air and every breath he took felt like inhaling a damp towel. When he closed his eyes he could almost pretend he was standing in the middle of a rain forest and that the air was moist from the thick undergrowth and heavy foliage…not that he had ever been to a rain forest. 

Ray opened his eyes and sighed. He’d probably never see one either; he just wasn’t the kind of guy who did stuff like that, become an explorer, go on a quest. Which was exactly why he was here, now, at a public swimming pool in the park area.  

Nervously, Ray flexed his naked toes against the sweaty tiles. He’d show her, he could do this. Although…he supposed that Stella didn’t care anymore whether he finally followed through with this. Swallowing hurt. It had been months since the divorce had been finalized, but it didn’t feel all that long to Ray. His partner, Paul, over at the 17th police precinct, a brown-haired man of medium build with the beginning of a pot-belly, had told Ray countless times that he should move on; get it out of his system. Well, Ray said ‘get’— Paul had actually said something more along the lines of ‘fucking it out’.  

And maybe he was right…but Ray couldn’t help it; it felt like cheating when he thought of picking up another woman. As if he only had to wait patiently and then Stella would come back to him. Even though she had long since had other boyfriends and dates. That was just typically Ray; the only one unable to let go. So Ray figured he needed to do something for himself and he had always boasted that he could learn how to swim if he chose to do so. Truth was, he was kind of scared shitless about it, but you couldn’t admit something like that…not to someone above the age of 5.   

This was already the second time he had come here…he hadn’t made it into the water the last time either. Exhaling a defeated sigh, Ray flopped down on one of the stone benches at the side of the pool. It looked so effortlessly when he watched others. Some of the people he remembered from last time; they probably did laps as a regular exercise, always coming here at the same time on the same days…maybe he could be one of them some day. 

A dark-haired man who splashed into the water with only a minimum of disturbance caught Ray’s eye. Ray recognized him from the last visit, too. For a while Ray simply watched the man swim. His movements were measured and smooth and it looked more like floating or gliding than actual work the way he cut through the water.  He had probably learned how to swim really early. Although he swam like it was natural for him, he didn’t have the body of a swimmer. He was too broad and the muscles weren’t as lean. He looked more like someone who wrestled bears in his spare time. Ray grinned. 

The old lady pulling along in the next lane with steady breaststrokes moved like a turtle in comparison. He made it look so easy.  

Ray bit his lip for a second and then carefully approached the water’s edge. He felt self- conscious, standing around the pool with nothing but a pair of swimming shorts on— and his weren’t exactly cutting edge either. But they did their job and Ray wasn’t here for a walk on the catwalk anyway.  He was pretty sure that everyone could tell that he didn’t belong here and it made him even more apprehensive. It was like going undercover, acting as if he fit in, and Ray could have done without feeling like a perp. For once, Ray would’ve just liked to be plain ol’ Stanley Raymond Kowalski. Stella had always wanted him to meet and greet people she worked with and he had to dress up for it and was supposed to impress them or something. But that wasn’t Ray’s game; he only ended up feeling like a guest in his own skin….but he had tried…it just hadn’t changed anything in the end.   

Lost in thought, Ray stared at his reflection in the water as it wobbled with the movement of the passing swimmers. Ray supposed it was meant to look soothing with the blue tiles lining the pool, making the water look blue, too. He thought it looked ominous…and kind of deep. Ray went back and resumed his spot on the bench.  

At some point, the dark-haired man climbed out of the water and Ray’s gaze was hooked. He had pale skin, but that only made the hair look darker in comparison, kind of striking. His swimming trunks clung to his body; they were of the deepest black and he seemed quite at ease in them.  Ray smoothed his hand over his own red-and-white swimming shorts, feeling even more foolish than before. Stella had never liked the shorts, but Ray thought he looked stupid in swimming trunks, like one half of a chicken wing.  

The man smiled politely at him on his way to the showers when he noticed Ray’s look. Ray’s gaze went back to the pool, but watching the old lady fight her way along the lane like some rusty bulldozer wasn’t half as entertaining.  Why was it so hard for him to do this? Trying to prove to himself…and all of sundry…that he could do this wasn’t turning out so well. He was rather bringing himself down with his performance or lack thereof. 

When he arrived at work the next morning, some of the tightness inside of him eased. He really didn’t know how he would cope without work. Especially since one of his colleagues had taken on an undercover job at another department and the gossip just kept coming. Ray wouldn’t have minded being offered a clean slate either. They might even have picked him, but Ray had been involved in another operation at the time and they had needed someone a.s.a.p., so the role had fallen to Duck Walters. No one was really all that clear on the specifics, but someone had to go undercover to act the partner of some daredevil Mountie— it sounded like the kind of harebrained idea one would concoct under the influence of some hallucinogenic drug, but apparently the story was legit. The Mountie was apparently a bit of an odd-ball so no one Ray knew was actually friends with the guy. 

This morning, the whole bullpen was abuzz because someone had news of Duck’s latest case and it involved a— Ray’s face widened with incredulity— a ghost ship? Yeah, right. Stolen gold, of course. Just keep ’em coming. He was pretty sure that the stories were wildly exaggerated, but that didn’t mean they weren’t entertaining.  Apparently, Duck had gotten himself handcuffed to a pipe in the hold of the ship when the whole thing began to sink. That Mountie either had superpowers or he was the world’s luckiest bastard because they both made it out of there alive. 

Paul only grinned when he saw Ray’s dubious expression. “Sorry you’re only partnered with boring old me?”  “Nah, thanks. I’m too old for ghost stories.” “And you wouldn’t cut such a fine figure onboard a sinking ship, now would you? What with all that evil water around.” Paul smirked. Ray glared at him. “Thanks for the reminder.”  

The next time Ray entered the swimming pool area, he promised himself to get at least into the water. Swimming wasn’t exactly a skill you could grasp from watching someone else do it. The old lady wasn’t there this time, but Ray recognized a younger woman and the dark-haired man from last time. 

Ray only allowed himself time until the man had finished ten laps and then he would get into the water…did the guy have to swim so fast?  He counted to ten quicker than he would have liked and shuffled awkwardly to the edge of the pool. Come on, just the shallow end. Afraid of getting wet, or what? Ray encouraged himself. 

Scrunching his eyes closed, Ray reached for the railing and moved his foot onto the first step. The water was cold but not freezing and Ray hesitantly moved another step lower, and another, until he was completely down the steps and the water reached his chest. 

 

The ground was hard and real underneath his feet and Ray could feel the slightly rougher texture of the gaps between the tiles. Carefully, Ray moved a little deeper, until the water sloshed against his collarbone. Close enough to the edge that he could still make a jump to grab a hold of it.  

Small waves suddenly broke against his skin and Ray looked up to see that the dark- haired man had reached the end of his lap and was about to start on the next one. Apparently he noticed Ray standing there like some piece of decoration because he smiled briefly before he dipped underneath the water again and pushed with strong feet against the wall of the pool to propel himself forward. Ray watched him glide endlessly below the surface. Didn’t the guy need to breathe?  He had almost reached the other side before he resurfaced and Ray felt a small burst of relief when he saw him above the water again. Ray watched him turn on the far side and then he vanished from sight again.  

Fascinated, Ray watched the body loom closer shortly before it broke the surface. It looked beautiful and daring and Ray wished he could swim like that… or at all. Really, at all would do just fine. The man’s fingers reached the rim of the pool when his look grazed Ray. Confused, he stopped in mid-turn and planted his feet back on the floor of the pool. 

“Good evening,” the man smiled. “I’ve seen you quite often lately.” “Hey, yeah… I… you too,” Ray made a grimace at how lame that sounded. 

“Are you enjoying the water today? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in the pool before.” 

 “So what? You saying I only got a right to be here if I do laps?” Embarrassment always made him defensive. 

The man rubbed at his eyebrow. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean anything by it. I was merely attempting a conversation, but I have been told it’s not one of my better skills.” 

Ray deflated a little at that. “No, it’s— I can’t swim,” Ray confessed in a heated outburst, wondering if he was telling the stranger just because he was willing to listen and because lately people weren’t all that big on lending an ear to Ray’s whining. 

 

“Oh.” The stranger said, surprised. “That, ah, is a very good way to start. Getting into the water, I mean.” Ray grinned. “No kidding? I had attempted learning it on my living room floor.” The man opened his mouth as if to explain and Ray hastened to add, “I was joking.” Relief showed in the man’s blue eyes and he nodded with a slightly embarrassed smile. “Understood.”  

Ray held his hand out. “I’m Ray Kowalski.” The stranger smiled and shook his hand. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ray. My name is Benton Fraser.”  

They looked at each other for a second and, when the silence continued, Benton— what kind of a name was ‘Benton’ anyway— flicked a glance at the other side of the pool. “Well, I should—” “Sure, you need to finish your laps. It’s been real,” Ray smiled. The other man looked confused. “Real as opposed to unreal?” Ray’s grin was actually hurting his face. “Yeah, really real, Benton-buddy.”  “Ah.” He had no idea what Ray was talking about and Ray couldn’t remember having this much fun in ages.  

If you didn’t do anything in the water it was really freezing, Ray concluded after watching Benton— Fraser, maybe he could call the guy ‘Fraser’? He just wouldn’t be able to stick with ‘Benton’ and keep a straight face. Maybe he had a nickname to go by? Anyway, after watching Fraser do a couple more laps he waved goodbye before his lips could turn blue and took a steaming-hot shower. At least he had made it into the damn pool, Ray thought with a small glow of satisfaction. 

The next days were hectic at the station for which Ray was truly grateful, because it gave him less time to wallow in his misery, even though it meant missing one of his regular nights at the pool. When he returned to the pool the next evening, his gaze scanned the swimming pool, but there was no Benton Fraser to be found. He was a tiny bit disappointed and wondered for a moment if he was really that lonely that he missed seeing an almost complete stranger at a public swimming pool. God, it wasn’t just the divorce that was depressing. It was his life.  

Getting into the water cost a lot less effort than the last time. He splashed around a little and eyed the bobbing plastic balls of the lane line. He wanted to hold onto them and move deeper, but the lifeguard had no sense of humor as Ray had found out on his first evening when a kid had tugged on the line. Ray figured his ego probably wouldn’t survive it if the lifeguard reprimanded him for attaching himself to the floating bobbles. 

A sudden splash behind him caused Ray to turn around and a moment later Fraser shot to the surface.  “Hey, Fraser.” The name slipped out automatically. “Hello, Ray.” Apparently, he wasn’t unused to being addressed by his last name. Ray wondered if maybe he wasn’t the only one bewildered by that first name. “You’re kinda late,” Ray remarked with a nod towards the clock hanging on the wall above the pool. “Yes, I’m afraid my duty lasted longer tonight than the accustomed time.” 

Duty? What was he, military? Come to think of it… not so unlikely. “What’s your duty?” Fraser looked the tiniest bit unhappy when he answered. “I first came to Chicago…,” Fraser took a deep breath, but seemed to change his mind halfway through. “Well, it’s not important right now, but for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I stayed, attached as liaison, with the Canadian Consulate.”

Ray stared at him. He was kidding, right?  “You’re Canadian?” If in doubt, always state the obvious.

“Yes,” Fraser said in a tone that sounded as if he was used to apologizing for it.

“And you work for the Consulate?” “For the time being, yes.” 

“Okay… so, what’s it like? You have to show tourists around town or what?”

“The job consists mostly of, well, actually my work is mostly administrative.”

“Ugh, paperwork.” Yep, Ray’d been there.  Fraser’s eyes crinkled.  “May I ask what your profession is?” Ray shrugged. “I’m a cop.” And he was still proud of it, dammit, and he didn’t regret his choice even if it wasn’t good enough for Stella in the end…no, that wasn’t true. That was just his bitterness talking.

Stella had never thought a cop to be beneath her and she had never said that it wasn’t good enough for her anymore. But she was meeting all these important people and wearing expensive suits and spending ages perfecting her makeup and then Ray wasn’t allowed to kiss her anymore because he might ruin her efforts. And Ray just wasn’t the right guy for that. He wasn’t cut out to be the society husband and he also didn’t want to be. Maybe they had both changed… or reality had finally caught up with him. His Gold Coast girl…he couldn’t keep on lying forever. 

He had wanted them to… hell, he didn’t know. Maybe he had wanted them to stay 26 forever. He didn’t even know if he had really wanted kids or if that had just been a last ditch effort to bind them together or maybe even just one more issue to cause a problem because Ray wasn’t good at leaving an itch alone. He always had to pick at it and tear at it until it broke.  

“I’m sure you are a very fine officer.” From anyone else Ray would’ve thought this was just hot air, small talk, and maybe an effort to be nice. Coming from Fraser, though, he really seemed to mean it. Wow, it had been a while since someone else thought Ray was good at something. And Fraser didn’t even know him. 

“Know what? Let’s not talk about work.” Ray’s whole life consisted of work these days. It would be nice to have something else beside that. “As you wish.” Fraser’s smile looked a little relieved. Maybe this guy could do with a little less work and a little more life, too. 

“Pity my cop skills are not asked for here and I’m not so good at swimming,” Ray grinned self-deprecatingly. 

“Everyone has to start with the first step, Ray.”

“Yeah…hey, I’ll just bob up and down here a little, get a bit better acquainted with the wet element. You go do your laps— I don’t want to keep you from your workout.” 

“If you are quite certain,” Fraser replied dubiously.

“Sure, I am.” 

 Ray watched him swim with a touch of envy. It wasn’t all that long before Fraser paused again and swam up to him. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, when is the swim class you are attending? Because you are here quite frequently, but I can’t remember ever seeing an instructor.” 

The flush washed over his chest despite the cold water. “Uh, there isn’t a class…or anything.”

“I see,” Fraser said, but it didn’t sound like he was judging him, just thoughtful. “I certainly don’t mean to impose, but if you want some guidance do not hesitate to ask. I have been told I am a very patient teacher.” A knot inside of Ray unwound. Any kind of help was appreciated. “Yeah, what did you teach?” 

“Mostly tracking and survival skills, but I did teach a friend chess and, well, I taught Diefenbaker some rudimentary understanding of Inuktitut. However, I’m afraid his interest wasn’t very lasting.” 

Did all Canadians have funny names?  “Diefenbaker?” Ray asked.

“My wolf; half-wolf, actually.” Maybe Fraser wasn’t as stable as he had seemed at first.  “You’re a freak,” Ray said, because, really, there was no nice way of breaking it to the guy. “Understood,” Fraser said with a small smile. 

Ray shook his head. His cop instincts were usually pretty good and he had a good feeling in his gut about Fraser… he didn’t seem like a loony— at least not like a dangerous one.  Hell, Ray wasn’t exactly prime material for the human gene pool either. They could be freaks together. After all, Ray wasn’t so far away from coming up with an imaginary friend himself.   

“So, could you give me some pointers on how to do this?”  Fraser rubbed his eyebrow and looked oddly shy all of a sudden. “In my personal experience swimming is better learned with direct assistance than helpful suggestions. But I don’t want to presume—” “Would you help me?” Ray interrupted him.  “Yes, of course.”  Ray smiled and Fraser smiled back. 

For the first time in ages, Ray would have described his mood as ‘good’ when he came in to work the next morning.  

They figured out a schedule and Ray felt a wee bit guilty that Fraser was sacrificing his free evenings for him like that. Judging from Fraser’s smile, though, the man couldn’t think of anything he’d rather be doing. Maybe Fraser was just as lonely as he was? 

Ray was a little early for their first lesson, mostly on purpose– if he were honest he would have to admit it was just to watch Fraser swim for a little. The man finished his last lap and didn’t even look out of breath. His gaze went around the pool side until his eyes hit upon Ray. He smiled, and Ray stood up from the bench and joined him in the water. 

The texture, the strange balance between something you could touch and something you could never grasp, and the feeling of being enveloped— those were all things Ray liked about being in the water. It was just the thought of not being able to breathe, of going under, that made him constantly touch for the ground with his feet. 

“It may be best if you simply got a feeling for what to expect first.” “Uh, sure,” Ray shrugged. He was actually nervous about this, but he didn’t want to admit it to Fraser. “Give me your hands. I’ll swim backwards and pull you along so that you can get used to keeping your feet off the ground.” 

For a moment, Ray stared at Fraser’s outstretched hands. Wasn’t that kind of…dunno…weird? Ray glanced around, but no one was paying them the slightest bit of attention and Fraser was looking at him all earnest and expectant.  Ray swallowed and placed his hands in Fraser’s.  

They started in shallow water and Ray thought it felt kind of nice. The water drifted past him as he glided weightlessly through the pool. With the help of Fraser’s hands it was really easy to keep his head above the water.  

Slowly, Fraser pulled him into deeper water. Ray thought he felt the water getting colder which was probably ridiculous. It was most likely fear. Ray swallowed hurriedly. He reached down with his foot, hoping to somehow feel the ground somewhere there— he felt his head dip lower into the water as his body strained towards the ground and Ray gasped, suddenly struggling to keep above the water— but there was nothing beneath, nothing to reach for, nothing to— “Ray, Ray, Ray— I won’t let go. Remain calm. It’s just like before.”  

Fraser kicked harder with his legs, moving them faster through the water; Ray’s head was pulled up a little by the increase of speed and he stopped struggling for the ground. His heart was going a mile a minute, but true to his words Fraser’s hands were still holding on to him. 

They turned around and it wasn’t long before Ray could actually stand in the water again. With a small smile, Fraser released his hands. “Well done.”

Ray quirked a smile. Trust the Canadian to be polite about Ray’s embarrassing display.  

During their next circuit, Fraser started talking. And while Ray thought it was mostly for his own benefit it seemed that Fraser could talk for hours… and apparently he didn’t have many listeners either. Somehow, that just seemed wrong. And his friend didn’t seem the divorced type, Ray could smell those by now; this faint veneer of misery and the scent of dejection that hung around them like a cloak while they tried so awfully hard not to be so desperate that it almost hit you right in the face just how desperate they were… yeah, Ray recognized them from looking into the mirror each morning. No, Fraser didn’t give off any of those signals. 

“Hey, Fraser, I really appreciate you spending your free time helping me with this,” he said, maybe meaning more by it, but he didn’t want to put the other man on the spot.  “It’s my pleasure,” Fraser said as if he meant it.

“What do you do when you aren’t keeping flatfoot Chicago cops from drowning?” A frown graced his buddy’s face.

 “I used to spend a lot of time with a friend of mine,” Fraser said slowly. “But for a while now he…” he licked his lips. “He hasn’t been quite himself lately. It’s just not… it’s not the same.”

Ray winced. He knew the feeling, when something long gone was irretrievably lost.  “There must be something else that you like to do, right?” 

It was easier not to think about the depthless water beneath him when they were talking. Fraser pulled him effortlessly along and, like that, it felt like floating. Really nice, actually.  

“Well, I enjoy a good book now and again. My father kept journals for most of his life and I like to flick through their pages every so often. Sometimes, I even join a few ladies for their book club and we enjoy a nice cup of bark tea and discuss something that we all read. And I play chess in the park with Mr. Hanrahan now and again…” he paused and Ray wondered if that was really all he had been able to come up with. A little chess and a book now and again. 

“What about you, Ray?” “Uh…” Suddenly Ray couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Everything he could have said somehow also involved Stella, like dancing, or cooking— hell, what had he been doing for the last couple of months? “I have a turtle,” Ray began, thinking that was hardly a hobby. “I grab a game on TV when the Hawks are on…and I, er, like a good game of chess, too.”  They were both pathetic. It felt better than being pathetic on his own, though, like maybe it wasn’t so pathetic after all if someone else lived like that, too. 

“We could play a game of chess sometime,” Fraser offered quietly.

“Yeah, we should.” 

They were quiet for a while. “Ray, I believe your hands are about to shrivel.” “Huh?” Surprised, Ray looked at his hands that were still in Fraser’s firm grasp. He hadn’t even noticed.  “Your lips aren’t even blue yet,” Ray pointed out.  Fraser smiled. “I have more subcutaneous fat than you do.” Ray couldn’t figure out if that was an insult or a compliment. “…you saying I’m a skinny guy?”

“Well, Ray, by Arctic standards…” “Okay, okay, I get it. Out.” 

Fraser kicked them lazily into the shallow part of the pool again. “I’ll do a few more laps, I think,” Fraser remarked.  Ray nodded. “I’ll see you again on Thursday, right?”

“Right you are.” 

Since he had met Benton Fraser his life had been a whole lot more livable. And underneath all that freakishness was actually a damn nice guy. Of course, the man said ‘thank you kindly’ and he held open doors for just about anyone who wanted to enter or leave the pool, or the showers, or the lockers – everywhere, really – and he always looked preserved somehow, as if not even a nuclear detonation would get his hair to be disorderly. Ray’s experimental hair resembled a drowned rat when it got wet and Fraser simply gave a dark-haired impression of the guy from the Blue Lagoon. It was unfair.  

“Your hair looks fine to me, Ray,” Fraser murmured amused once Ray’s grumbling had subsided. Fraser thought that it might be a good idea to take the fear of drowning from Ray. So they had sat on the bottom of the swimming pool in a part where Ray could still stand until one of them –Ray, obviously –ran out of air.  “You,” Ray pointed two fingers at him, “are in no position to talk. People whose hair doesn’t dare misbehave do not get a vote in this.”

“Is that another American-Canadian thing?” Fraser asked with a straight face. Ray reached out to shove him and suddenly they were both shoving at each other and splashing water in all directions and Ray had no idea when he had last laughed this much.  

“Gentlemen, this is a public swimming pool. If you could desist from your childish behavior— people would like to swim here,” the lifeguard informed them snippily. “Of course, we are terribly sorry,” Fraser responded with an embarrassed look, but Ray was pleased that the smile returned when Fraser looked at him.  

Fraser chuckled and then mimed a cough behind his hand to get it back under control; Ray had seldom felt so good as he did right that very moment, just because he had made Fraser let down his hair a little. 

“Ray, I don’t think you ever told me why you didn’t sign up for a swimming course.” 

“You have to ask?” Ray stopped in mid-motion of shaking water out of his ear. “C’mon, I’m way over 30— can you think of something more humiliating?” 

Fraser frowned. “I don’t see why it should be embarrassing to learn something new.”

“Trust me, the only thing more embarrassing than a guy who can’t swim is a whole group of them staying on the surface with the help of these floating sausages.”

“I think it’s admirable,” Fraser said quietly, as if he was saddened by Ray’s attitude. Gee… now Ray felt bad for making him sound like that. 

“Well, thanks and everything, but you’re not exactly representative, buddy.” “Why not?” Fraser sounded honestly troubled by this. 

“You kidding? You’re the nicest guy I’ve ever met— how many people would’ve helped me when they barely knew me?” 

Fraser was quiet and Ray hoped he hadn’t said something wrong, but then Fraser spoke. “Would you like to meet Diefenbaker?”

“Can I?” Ray asked a little startled. Fraser talked a lot about his imaginary friend, but Ray hadn’t thought he would have to pretend meeting him.

“Certainly, he is quite keen to meet new people. Would you like to… well, I haven’t eaten yet and if you’re hungry you could accompany myself and Diefenbaker to dinner?” Ray smiled like a child finding its favorite dish on its plate. He was so sick and tired of eating alone. “Yeah, that would be great.” 

Ray felt a little awkward about showering together. He knew there was nothing wrong with the way he looked, but compared to Fraser he didn’t really feel up to scratch. Besides, he hardly knew him. Showers were a weird borderland between intimacy and anonymity. Everyone was equally naked, joined by the rush of the water and the steam coming off the tiles, and yet it functioned like an elevator: you didn’t talk to each other and you didn’t look.  

Fraser was already pulling off his tiny black swimming trunks while Ray was still fiddling with the string of his swimming shorts, trying to decide how to play this. It seemed that they did things differently where Fraser came from because he had no such qualms. He reached out and placed warm hands on Ray’s biceps and pulled him underneath the deliciously hot spray. 

“You’re shivering, Ray. It’s important to keep warm or you’ll catch a cold,” Fraser explained unfazed, starting the shower next to Ray and working up a lather between his hands. “Uh, thanks,” Ray mumbled, feeling himself blush at Fraser’s unselfconscious display. He turned to the wall and shoved his shorts down. The hot water beat onto his shoulders and only now did Ray realize how tense he had been during his swimming lesson with Fraser. 

A low moan, full of gratitude, escaped his lips before he could stop it. He glanced at Fraser, feeling his face heat with embarrassment, and found Fraser already looking at him. His eyes were full of warmth and his mouth pulled up at one corner. “There’s nothing quite like a hot shower after physical exercise.” “Yeah…” Ray agreed, trying not to stare too much at Fraser’s exposed body.  

Ray had always liked men. But there had been Stella for so long that it took him by surprise to find that he still noticed when someone else was attractive. And Fraser was attractive, very attractive— not that Ray made anything more of it. He had found a lot of his friends attractive and it had never meant anything more than that back then either.  

It was just…shocking…to realize that he could feel attracted to someone who wasn’t Stella. After their divorce, it had been even worse because all of a sudden she was all he could think of and he remembered their good times and how they had been when they were younger and how his whole world had revolved around her, ever since he was a teenager and the divorce had put that into stark contrast. 

He concentrated on finishing his shower.  

They went outside and Fraser turned to him. “Don’t be alarmed, Ray. I assure you he is very friendly. It’s only his enthusiasm that makes him a little aggressive in his greeting.”

“Uh-huh,” Ray said, hoping he could keep a straight face when he had to talk to thin air. Fraser put two fingers into his mouth and gave a piercing whistle. There was a rustling in the bushes surrounding the parking area and something white shot out in their direction.

Surprised, Ray took a step back, but the white flash had already zeroed in on him and got ready for a jump. In his haste, Ray stumbled backwards and landed with his ass on the concrete.  The wolf took that as an invitation to make intimate with his ear and all efforts of pushing him aside were in vain. “Fraser! What’s he doing? He’s doing disgusting things to my ear! Get him off me!”

“I told you he’s deaf. You have to enunciate very clearly.” “GET OFF ME EXCLAMATION MARK!” Ray shouted and the wolf let off with something that sounded like a laugh. Ray wiped at his ear. Urgh, wolf slobber. “Diefenbaker, this is my new friend, Ray Kowalski. Ray, this is my companion, Diefenbaker. He is half Arctic wolf.”

 Ray reached out a hand and ruffled Dief’s fur. Okay, so the wolf was real. Didn’t make Fraser any less of a nutcase what with talking to the wolf in public and claiming he was deaf but could lip-read. And what was that about teaching him some Inuit lingo? Ray didn’t even want to go there. 

Still, he did feel good for Fraser that he actually had a real friend. Ray supposed Dief was a more enthusiastic companion than his turtle although that was hardly turtle’s fault seeing that it had such a difficult time keeping up with everyone around it. “Nice to meet you,” Ray told the wolf and was surprised to realize that he meant it. 

God, maybe it was a Canadian thing? If this continued he might have a few Duck Walters stories of his own to tell in the near future. 

A few days later when they were again in the swimming pool, Ray realized that he had seen Fraser almost every other day.  “Hey, Frase, how is that friend of yours— the one that’s not been himself lately?”

“He’s fine. Why do you ask?”

“But he’s still not back to normal?” 

Fraser sighed. “No, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.” He forced a smile on his face. “I’m sure it’s all for the best. He’s a good man and I enjoy working with him…but the way things are now simply cannot replace the friendship we’ve had.” Ray studied Fraser’s lost expression for a second. “I know how it is to lose a friend,” he said quietly. 

“I’m very sorry, Ray.” 

Ray shrugged. “It was over months ago… years ago, really. I just didn’t want to see it.” “What happened?” Fraser asked.

“I dunno,” Ray said and after all this time he still didn’t. “I was married until last November…I was so sure we were made for each other.” Fraser’s smile was commiserating. “Sometimes it needs more than that.” 

Thoughtfully, Ray nodded. “Yeah…yeah…maybe it does. I think we grew up to be two different people and then all we did was fight and make each other miserable. And still I’d never have been able to walk away from it, but Stella? She was always the stronger one of us. Sometimes you lose your whole life when you lose someone.” Fraser looked constricted when he said “Yes, sometimes you do.”   

“That’s why I wanted to learn how to swim. I wanted to prove something, maybe find something just for myself, but I can’t let go and I can’t stop thinking and I don’t think I’m making much progress here,” Ray finished, frustrated. 

“Hm.”

“What do you mean ‘hm’? Is that a good ‘hm’ or a bad ‘hm’?”

“It’s just a sound, Ray. I was merely considering the possibility that you need to trust yourself and your own abilities and that it is the lack therein which is holding you back.”

 “Uh-huh. And what do you suppose I should do about that?” Ray asked doubtfully. 

“Do you trust me?” “Yes,” Ray said without pause; belatedly, he thought he should have at least considered the possibility of saying ‘no’. Fraser’s smile was blinding when he held out his hands. “What now?” Ray responded.

“We’ll practice buoyancy.”  

Suddenly, Fraser’s hands were underneath his back and he was maneuvered into a lying position.  “Uh, Fraser— ” “Relax, I’ll keep you afloat for the time being. Close your eyes.” And Ray did. 

His ears were suddenly filled with white noise as water lapped against them. It was a strange sense of quiet because it was oddly loud. He spread out his arms, letting the water carry them and concentrated on the soft movement of his body, the way it rose and dipped with every breath that he took. 

Fraser’s hands were steady underneath his back, their touch barely there at all, just a slight, warm pressure against his skin whenever his body sank a little. Almost as if Fraser was keeping him afloat with some sort of force field coming off his hands.  Ray’s lips curled into a grin. He had read too many science-fiction comics in his youth.  

With his eyes closed, there was nothing to distract him and because the pressure of the water kept his ears closed he couldn’t hear anything either. It was just him, and the water, and Fraser’s steady presence. The smell of the pool filled his lungs, moist and chemical.  Slowly, he felt one of Fraser’s hands shift; it glided gently from the spot between his shoulder blades to the small of his back where Fraser’s other hand rested.  For a second, Ray’s body dipped an inch lower. Automatically, Ray took a deep breath and his body rose again.  

Safe; he felt safe. It felt almost like a caress when Fraser’s fingers stroked over his lower back before they left his skin. Ray almost expected to sink like a stone without the power of Fraser’s magic fingers. But he didn’t. His legs sank a little lower, but he kept floating, on his own, right at the surface. 

Droplets of water hit his skin and then wet fingers touched his temple. Ray opened his eyes and looked right at Fraser’s proud smile. 

“You’re doing it,” Fraser said and his voice sounded distorted and dull to Ray’s half- submerged ears. 

Fraser stretched out next to him, easily floating on the surface as if he could suspend his body at will. And maybe for the moment Ray looked just as weightless. They didn’t talk; the only thing Ray heard was the lapping of the waves when swimmers from other lanes moved through the water. Sometimes, their fingers brushed against each other.  

The whole next day at work Ray remembered that feeling. As if there had been no one else in the whole wide world except for them. If Ray concentrated on it he could even still hear the sloshing of the water, feel the soft rise and fall of his body.  

“Ray, are you with me or what?” Ray’s gaze refocused on the report in front of him. God, he hated paperwork. He had simply zoned out. “Yeah, sorry, Paul. What did you ask?”

“Are you all right? You seem kinda out of it today.”

“I’m just not…I’m just not angry today,” Ray said, surprising himself. 

Paul stared at him. “What? You found some kind of support group?” Ray grinned. “Oh, you’d like that, huh? Don’t worry, if I’m looking for a support group I’ll ask you to recommend one.” 

Paul guffawed. “Sorry, I don’t think you would fit in at Sexaholics Anonymous.” Smirking, Ray balled a sheet of paper up and threw it at his partner. “Doofus, just imagining to have that much sex doesn’t count. You actually have to fuck people to register.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault all the hot ladies are taken.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Ray snorted.  

Ray’s day stayed good until an hour before his shift ended. He was on his way to the restroom when the door of the interview room opened. “Stella!” Ray exclaimed with surprise and a skittering heart. “Not now, Ray,” she sighed, making a beeline for the Lieutenant’s office. “How, uh, how are you?” He cringed and fell into step beside her. “I’m fine, thank you, Ray. Can we not do this every time I come to the station? Some of us have work to do.”

“Maybe after work…we could go for drinks— for old time’s sake?”

“Ray, please.” Ray was left standing stupidly in the middle of the bullpen as the door to Lieutenant Brower’s office shut in his face. 

God, this hurt. And he didn’t even know why he did it again and again every time she came to the station. Some part of him really had to be getting off on being humiliated. 

Paul smiled at him sympathetically. “She’s probably just having a bad day. I heard the guys on that jewelry case forgot to mirandize their collars or something.” “Probably,” Ray agreed, even though they both knew that Stella was always like that…especially since Ray’s little stunt when she had dated that Alderman and Ray had followed them around everywhere. He winced. 

He was due to meet Fraser after work, but he wasn’t sure if he was such good company. He would probably just end up depressing his friend, but he was too needy to cancel their meeting. The distraction was also preferable to sitting at home watching turtle feed on a salad leaf— anything was preferable to sitting at home. 

The smile on his face was forced, but he didn’t think that Fraser deserved to be subjected to yet another Ray-Pity-Party. He thought his front wasn’t even half bad considering how it looked inside.  Halfway through their meal, Fraser suddenly stood up. He had been telling a story and Ray had tried hard to look interested and nod at the right places, but going by the look on Fraser’s face he hadn’t fooled him. “I’m sorry that I am boring you tonight. I know that the significance of caribou fur in such an area as the McKenzie Pass cannot be of much interest to you and I apologize. Please don’t feel like you have to pretend to take an interest in my affairs. I know that I have the tendency to ramble— ” “Fraser!” Ray said louder than he had intended. At least it made him shut up. “I’m not— gee, will you sit down? You’re not boring me, I just— I just had a bad day, all right? And the thought of spending the evening alone at my apartment depressed me so I met you anyway and I’m sorry that I’ve been such an ass tonight, but it’s got nothing to do with you.” 

Fraser looked abashed and he dropped to his seat as quickly as he had stood up.  “My apologies for presuming too much. You could have told me, Ray. I would have listened.”  Ray watched the hurt move fleetly over his friend’s face. “It’s not ‘cause I didn’t trust you…I just didn’t want to drag you down with me.” 

Fraser smiled the tiniest of smiles. “Nonsense, Ray. I’m happy to listen. My grandmother always said that an open ear halves most troubles.”  As long as he lived, Ray would never get this man. How could a grown man run around quoting his grandmother and not sound like an idiot?  “Tell you what, let’s get out of here and I’ll take you to that coffee place I told you about, my treat. And then I’ll talk your ear off.”

“Lead the way, Ray.” 

“Sometimes I just don’t know what I am supposed to do with my life now, you know?” Ray admitted after another gulp of coffee. “There was always Stella…hell, for as long as I can remember, and when I look at a calendar now I can’t even imagine what I’m going to do with my time. How am I supposed to face Christmas without everything that made it special for us or— god, New Year’s Eve— can you imagine anything more depressing?”

Fraser bit his lip. His sad eyes were kind and Ray was glad that Fraser didn’t tell him to be a man about it or fuck it out of his system or all that crap his colleagues had been telling him. 

“Take it one day at a time, Ray. You don’t have to make any plans for next month or next year. When it’s time for Christmas you can think about how you want to celebrate it. For now, why don’t you try focusing on the immediate future instead?”  

Ray took a gulp of coffee and moved that thought around in his head. That wasn’t a half bad idea, actually. “One day at a time, huh?” Fraser smiled. “Or one hour at a time, if a day seems too long to face.”

A chuckle unexpectedly rose in Ray’s chest. “Heh, that’s —that’s good.  Hey, maybe my partner was right when he said I was seeing a support group.”

“A support group?” Fraser asked, surprised.

“Yeah, you know, like Alcoholics Anonymous?” “I see.” There went the knuckle over the eyebrow again, Ray thought with a smile.

“Well, there is much to recommend their 12 step program.”

“Yeah? What’s the first step?”  Fraser’s lips twitched. “One day at a time.”

“You’re kidding!” Ray exclaimed incredulous. Fraser shook his head. “Well, actually, ‘one day at a time’ is their slogan or mantra, if you will. The first step is admitting that we can’t control our compulsion.”

“Huh….” Ray thought about that.  

The waitress came and refilled their mugs and when she had gone Ray finally said, “Like saying that I am unable to control my behavior around my ex-wife and that I am unable to let go of our relationship?” Fraser nodded with a small smile. “Yes, just like that.”   Ray grinned wryly. “Well, guess I did learn something over the last few months. Okay, what’s step two?” “Finding a higher power to place your trust in.” 

Ray frowned. “Uh, I’m not really religious or anything…I mean, sure I prayed now and again, but…I don’t think I’d go that far.” Fraser smiled. “Then it’s a good thing we aren’t Alcoholics Anonymous. And taken literally, the second step doesn’t say you have to find God, Ray. You only have to recognize a power which you believe is able to give you strength.” 

For a long time, Ray stared into his coffee. “I’ll have to think about it.”

“Certainly, Ray. That’s what the steps are about, to think about yourself and your life, to recognize what is amiss and to acknowledge ways to right those things.” 

What counted as a higher power? Ray wondered again during his lunch break a few days later. He didn’t believe God would get him through his divorce— what was He supposed to do? Send him a hot supermodel to rebuild his self-esteem? With Ray’s luck God had a sense of humor and would send him Alzheimer’s as an answer to his prayers of leaving it all behind him.  

“Hey, Janey,” Ray asked the civilian aid on her way to the coffee machine. “What counts as a higher power?” She didn’t even miss a beat before she answered. “Love, of course.” Er…that was out.  “Thanks,” Ray said, thinking ‘for nothing’.  

Maybe he should have asked Fraser.  Hmm… it wasn’t exactly a higher power, but Ray did believe that his friend would get him through this. Fraser; couldn’t he use Fraser? Not like the real Fraser or anything. Just the sort of moral compass he personified, sort of like asking himself ‘what would Fraser do’ and then acting accordingly to what Ray believed the correct response was. And Fraser did the whole super-ego thing, the conscience thing, beautifully. It would be worse than going to confession— telling Fraser he had fucked up and watching the disappointment on his face. 

Yeah, why not? Unless Ray was surprised by some sort of religious episode that could fill the higher power thing Ray might as well consider Fraser's friendship some kind of authority.  

The next time he met Fraser at the pool, Ray was already looking forward to their meeting. Until Fraser told him what he had in mind, that was. "I'll drown like a bag of rats," Ray stated. Was that a smile on Fraser's face?  "Nonsense, Ray, I would never allow you to drown."

Ray looked along the length of the pool. "You know, I'm not the literary kind and all that, but I remember we read something by some German guy in high-school and even though I don't remember what it was about, one sentence stuck with me: trust is an especially beautiful way to die." 

He didn't know what he had expected. Maybe for Fraser to laugh. Instead, Fraser looked at him intently for a moment, almost on the point of asking or saying something. He did the lip-lick thing he did so often and then he said, "That's very perceptive, Ray." Ray's cop senses told him that that wasn't all Fraser had wanted to say.   

Somehow, Fraser's quiet and his solemn gaze did more to convince Ray to try this than any form of pleading could have achieved. It was— somehow he just didn't want to let him down. "Okay, let's do this." Ray shrugged in an imitation of a boxer getting ready for the big fight.

 Fraser looked years younger when he smiled, Ray noticed.  "Think of yourself as a flower that opens by day and then it closes down at night."  His arms demonstrated the movement Ray was supposed to imitate. "All right, okay. What do I do with my feet?"

"Just kick," Fraser seemed to search for the right kind of flower to go along with that. Ray hoped it wasn't something complicated. He had no idea how a flower would move if it had legs. "Remember when you told me that it was all about the correct attitude?" Fraser asked abruptly. "Sure," Ray nodded. "Kick as though you were interviewing a suspect." That Ray could picture. 

Ray was pretty sure he would drown somewhere along halfway across the pool—and wouldn't that be depressing? Dying in some piss-pool surrounded by good old reassuring Chicago concrete and his body would be recovered by a bunch of five-year-olds who had mastered swimming before they could even talk.  

"You're doing well, Ray," Fraser said next to him as if he had read his thoughts. "Yeah?" He pressed out, trying not to panic when water sloshed over his chin and sprayed over his lips.  He felt only marginally more successful than a dog, but he wasn't drowning and he could see the stone-wall at the end of the pool come closer with every stroke. 

Ray stopped blooming with his arms in favor of reaching for the edge of the pool only to realize that he had underestimated the distance. He began to flounder and now his rhythm was off and he couldn't get his legs and his arms coordinated— damn, he could see the end of the lane! It was almost in his reach— and the ground was forever too far away beneath his feet and his arms didn't hold him up and— 

Fraser’s strong hand gripped his biceps and pulled him closer to the edge. "You're fine. You're safe," Fraser said as calm as you please and not as if Ray had been a heartbeat away from drowning. "Thanks," Ray struggled to get the words out over the rapid beating of his heart. He would climb out of the pool now. He had it with the damn swimming. One experience like that was quite enough for one day. No one could make him swim back. 

"If you make it back to the other side you can choose the topping on the pizza—," Fraser remarked casually next to him. He would not fall for it. He would not— "You're on. Your favorite topping is probably blubber and lichen." The lines around Fraser's eyes deepened incrementally.  "Better safe than sorry, I'd say," Fraser replied gravely.

"Jerk," Ray hissed out of the corner of his mouth before he kicked off— especially before he had any more time to think about how deep the water underneath him was. It wasn't exactly a laugh, but Ray would've sworn that Fraser was enjoying himself. Somehow that made him feel ridiculously good about himself. 

This getting something to eat after the swimming lesson had somehow developed into a ritual of theirs. Ever since Fraser had first offered getting dinner together that's what they did.  It was probably the high point of Ray's week, those evenings with Fraser, but he didn't want it to sound so pathetic. It wasn't just because he was lonely— he would've enjoyed Fraser's company anyway. It was just that since Ray didn't have anything better to do, these times were all the more significant for him. 

They had just ordered the pizza when Ray had a spur-of-the-moment idea. "Hey, Tony, would you make them to go?" Fraser looked at Ray with surprise.

"Do you need to be somewhere? I'm sorry, I had assumed— " Ray interrupted him, successfully drowning out the wolf’s whine at the possibility of ending up without any pizza when he was already that close to getting some. "No, I got nothing better to do. Do you want to come back to my place?"

Tony raised an eyebrow at him as he held the pizza box out to Ray.  Ray could feel the blush stealing up his neck. "Thanks," he muttered.

"So?" he asked again. In for a penny, in for a pound.  "I'd like that very much." Something in Ray relaxed. 

As he opened the door to his apartment he began feeling twitchy and nervous.  "Uhm, I'm not sure if this is such a good idea...I have a turtle..." And? Ray wanted to smack himself upside the head. What? Fraser couldn't come in because he had to feed the turtle? "...and the wolf and the turtle are natural enemies, grrr...." he finished lamely.

"I assure you, Diefenbaker has no interest in the turtle." Fraser reached out and pushed the door open.  Ray hung his head and followed. He couldn't exactly put his finger on why it was so important that Fraser liked his apartment or at least didn't hate it. …it just was. And Ray wasn't all that much of a house-keeper.  

Fraser peered into the turtle tank and took another look around before he turned back to look at Ray. "This is very nice. It's bigger than I had expected." Ray looked around his apartment and tried to see it through some stranger's eyes.  Nope, wasn't happening. His apartment was still cluttered and rather small. "Uh, bigger? Where do you live, a cardboard box?" 

Fraser took his leatherjacket off while he answered. "I live at the Canadian Consulate since my apartment building burned down."

"Oh, shit, I'm sorry," Ray said earnestly.

"It's not your fault," Fraser reassured him.   

Once their pizza was demolished, Ray was rather reluctant to let the evening end. Sure, it was getting late and they both had to work in the morning, but their next lesson wasn't before Thursday and Ray wanted to feel not so alone for just a while longer.

Fraser finished his story about watching an empty cabin while wrapped up in a caribou carcass –and Ray didn't even really want to know— and seemed equally in no hurry to leave.

"Are you up for a game of chess?" It was the first thing that came to his mind. Fraser nodded and even the wolf came over to get a good look at the game's proceedings.

"He just wants to make sure that neither of us cheats," Fraser explained.  "Yeah?" Ray asked. Looking at Dief, he could almost believe it. "Yes, he is very definitive when it comes to justice." Look who's talking, Ray thought but didn't say. If he'd ever met someone who could be a live ad for the Boy Scouts it was Benton Fraser.   

They played in silence and when Ray captured one of Fraser's pawns he finally asked, "Remember when you told me about this 12 step thing?" "Of course, Ray," Fraser said, momentarily looking up from his contemplation of the board. 

"What's the next one?"

Fraser gave his eyebrow a quick polish. "Well, if we don't take the religious approach we can sum the steps up. The next one would then be— " And without ever interrupting his sentence, Fraser took Ray's knight. Ray tried not to let the monumental lapse in his judgment show on his face. Damn! He hadn't seen that opening— “to examine past errors with the help of an already experienced member." 

"Huh," Ray answered, to both the chess problem and Fraser's reply. "So...are you? Someone I could talk to, I mean." Fraser seemed so intent on Ray's move that he wasn't sure if he had heard him at all. After a small eternity Fraser's shoulders seemed to slump. His "Yes," when it came, was so quiet that he almost didn't hear it.

Fraser took a deep breath, as if he needed all the air he could get to even manage the first word. "There was a woman once, Ray. I tracked her up above the 62nd parallel to a place called Fortitude Pass." 

Ray listened, the chess game all but forgotten. He moved his pieces but it didn't seem as important as was memorizing every bit of that story. When Ray realized that he had actually won, it was a last, and unnecessary, clue to just how important the story was for Fraser. Even after he had left, Ray kept thinking about it. Would Fraser recognize that poem if he heard it again? He tried to imagine her voice, "the most beautiful voice you ever heard," Fraser had said, but no voice seemed to match.  

He tried to picture a tragically beautiful woman. Maybe like Grace Kelly with dark hair— because ever since Fraser had talked about that darkness inside of her Ray had imagined her with dark hair and pale skin. But all he ended up seeing was Stella with dark hair and that wasn't right 'cause Stella was always full of light. ...sometimes more of a harsh glare, truth be told, but there was no darkness surrounding her. Ray had brought enough midnight demons for them to wrestle to last them a lifetime. 

Maybe they indeed were a support group, Ray mused, watching the closed door of his apartment through which Fraser had vanished more than an hour ago. The Broken-Hearts-Club or something. Maybe Fraser's grandmother was wrong about the shared troubles. Ray certainly didn't feel better that his buddy carried the same kind of shit around with him that he himself was lugging along.  

He would've liked to help...but Fraser didn't seem like the kind of guy who needed much. So Ray couldn't really think of anything to give to him to make him feel better. In the end, he entered the pool on Thursday without being any wiser. How did you tell someone that you understood? Really understood? Sure, Ray hadn't had an ex-lover that had tried to ruin his life, but he got how it felt. Losing everything. Being in love that much. Hurting so bad. 

"Hey," Ray smiled at his friend. "Hello, Ray." 

They did a few exercises — because Fraser was all over doing exercises —  sometimes Ray thought Fraser's whole life revolved around practicing stuff to be perfect when it mattered - and Ray was the last person to say 'no' to some human contact. 

Was it exploitation if he enjoyed Fraser's hands magically letting his body float? Or the way his smile looked upside-down? Pathetic, he'd told his turtle, that's how low he had sunk— but what if he wasn't the only one?  He saw Fraser's lips move, but the only sound he heard was the lapping of the water. Fraser didn't seem to mind that he couldn't understand a word he was saying... maybe he could ask Dief for some pointers on lip-reading? God, he was turning into just as much of a freak as Fraser. 

"I would deem it prudent to attend a little more to your leg-work. What do you say?" Fraser proposed, once Ray was vertical again. Somehow, Fraser's ideas always sounded innocent enough, but Ray had figured out pretty early that he should listen up whenever it happened. Most of them had a trapdoor he hadn’t seen coming.  "Yeees," Ray stretched the word, making it two syllables. "How?"

 Fraser offered his hands, palm up. "You'll push me to the other side of the pool using only your feet." A small smile crept over the corner of his mouth. Ray looked to the end of the pool and back to Fraser. "Maybe my question wasn't clear enough. How?"

The sharp tooth at the corner peaked out as Fraser's lips tried to resist stretching into a grin. "Take my hands; I'll keep you above water. You just kick."

"Just kick," Ray muttered, grabbing Fraser's hands with something akin to bad grace.  The fingers were strong around Ray's. He could see the muscles in Fraser's arms bunch as he supported Ray's weight.  

His face, however, portrayed nothing but calm. Fraser looked almost serene, he seemed so supremely undisturbed by Ray's potential inability to get them to the other side...or perhaps he simply believed that Ray wouldn't fail. Now, there was a thought. Kinda novel, too. Someone believing he could actually accomplish something. 

No. No, that wasn't true...was it? Stella had always believed in him...it had only been Ray himself who'd doubted it. Puzzled, he concentrated on Fraser's face. Fraser with all of his always-believe-the-best-of-everyone and trust-until-proven-otherwise (and when did that ever not happen— that man was a positive scrapbook of times people had turned out to be disappointing) and this whole stick-out-your-neck-for-the-sorry-causes attitude was kind of making him rethink a lot of things.  

Ray's best friend at school had always boasted that you only fought for the lost causes— now, Fraser on the other hand...he didn't even believe there was such a thing as a lost cause.  It made Ray feel...huh, when was the last time Ray'd actually tried to put a name to his feelings? Anyway, he made Ray feel protective. 

"Good job, Ray."  Fraser’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts. Confused, Ray realized that they were actually on the other side of the pool. How...when...gee...somehow he was almost sure that Fraser had distracted him on purpose. 

Ray had never believed in this stream-of-conscious shit every good book apparently had to have so why did his mind have to play the same tricks on him? He prided himself on staying focused, on being 100% in the game.  

"Are you okay?" A frown appeared on Fraser's face, finally pulling Ray out of his stupor. "Yeah, yeah, I am. I was just...amazed." "That you made it?" Fraser asked, sounding equally surprised. "Yeah...." Ray replied vaguely.  

A few laps later, they were standing underneath the shower-spray together— Ray carefully not looking at his friend. "Ray, do you know how to play poker?"

"Sure, why?"

"Do you think you can teach me?" Funny, when Fraser asked stuff like that it always sounded like a real question, as if Ray might actually say no. "Yeah, I don't see why not." 

Now, he did see it. "Fraser, you stink."

Offended, Fraser looked up from his cards. "Of what?"

"Of the truth," Ray said around a tooth-pick. It was true, too. How were you supposed to play poker with someone who refused to bluff? Fraser had folded more cards than they had games and once Ray had explained that you didn't fold every time you got nothing it was even worse. A lot of the time it actually turned out that what Fraser deemed 'nothing' was actually 'something'. It was indecent and disgusting how much the cards could love someone. 

After two hours of being torn between frustration and exasperation, Ray finally remembered to ask. "Why actually do you want to learn poker?" Fraser gave his eyebrow a short rub.

"I promised a friend to help out and I figured that I wouldn't be of much help if I didn't know how to play."  Ray nodded his head in assent.

"It's kind of how I got to play poker the first time. A buddy of mine, Jack Spade, he needed someone to fill an abandoned spot on his poker table so I jumped in. Didn't have a clue of what I was doing…." Ray trailed off with a grin.

"So you won?"

Ray's grin widened. "Naturally."  

When they finally called it a night, Ray placed his hand on Fraser's while they were busy shuffling the cards. "You'll do fine."  He didn't know why it was important to reassure Fraser. Maybe it was a way of paying him back for the way he had trusted Ray. "Thank you kindly," Fraser said, looking a little relieved. 

It was funny, Ray thought a couple of days later, how life was suddenly easier to take. This one day at a time thing Fraser had taught him was making it easier to bear; there was no thinking about how empty the apartment would be on Friday evening with no one but his own weary self to dance to the music coming from the speakers. No nightmares about how much of a failure he would feel like one year from now, getting older and still stuck in the same place.  

"What are you grinning about?" Ray asked his partner as he dropped a stack of folders onto his desk.  Paul said "Did you know that there's a truth behind the saying that red-heads are fierce in bed?" 

Ray rolled his eyes. "Nope, that I didn't know— but I'm sure you'll tell me all about it."  Listening to Paul brag about his one-night-stand, Ray wondered if that might not be such a bad solution. Just sex. No hurt feelings. No commitment. No expectations.  

"So, you're going to see her again?" he asked before he could be made to listen to more of the sordid details. 

"What? No...no, I'm more of a, you know, a lone wolf." 

"Uh-huh." Ray wasn't born yesterday. The chick had probably left a phony number— if she hadn't been too drunk to even remember the night in the first place. Paul usually made it sound like it was up to him, but Ray was a good enough cop to read between the lines.  

"Did you get anywhere with the witness from the robbery?" Paul not so subtly changed the subject.  "Yeah," Ray rustled through the papers in front of him. "The store-owner gave a pretty good description— well, as far as witness descriptions ever go."  On days like this, Ray sometimes wondered if Fraser really could be any more bored doing his job than Ray was with his.  

"Oh, hey, did you hear the newest piece about this crazy Mountie?"  Ray swiveled around to look at Paul. "Shoot, what happened this time?"  

Paul cackled. "There was an undercover-op, illegal gambling, and the Feds fucked it up— of course they did—" Ray and his partner shared a smirk. "So, get this, Duck was supposed to cover the roof, keep an eye on things through the skylight, that kind of thing. Anyway, the Feds must've overlooked something because when things got hot a bomb went off— taking part of the roof down. Duck toppled down and in all the commotion their main witness— incredibly hot chick from what I've heard— " 

"Paul— " Ray tried to keep him on topic. 

"Sorry, well, she took off. Out a window!" 

"And then what?" 

"The Mountie followed her out the window onto the ledge! Can you fucking believe it? Like some kind of balancing artist you’d see in a circus act...and he actually brought her in."  Ray whistled softly through his teeth. That guy had to have a few screws rattling around loose in his brain. He couldn't imagine how anyone could work with someone that weird. Then again, apparently almost everyone else thought so, too.  

It was a fine afternoon, so Ray decided to actually walk to that sandwich shop a couple of blocks up the street for lunch.  

On his way back, Ray sat down on one of the benches in the nearby park. He took a bite and looked around; people walking past, joggers panting along, a few children hooting with laughter somewhere beyond the hill. And then he saw her. 

 The cafe on the other side of the street. Stella. He could barely make anything out because the hedge was limiting his view, but he would recognize her anyway. Straining his neck, Ray tried to make out with whom she was sitting. She was smiling at something somebody must have said and Ray saw the sunlight glint in her hair.  

It was a woman that was sitting with her, maybe a colleague or a client, just as smartly dressed as she was and Ray felt almost relieved.  

A bout of shame traveled down his spine as he remembered the way he had followed her around on her dates, almost crazy with jealousy. Heh, almost? Zombies-ate-his-brain-crazy, more like. Wasn't he beyond doing shit like that now?  

Ray watched them for a while longer, not really sure what to think or feel. There was still hurt... and he was still very much ashamed of his prior behavior... but there was also something else, something almost wistful. Melancholy? Or maybe it was simple nostalgia. A longing to have his future back, the one he had always envisioned he would have with Stella.  

Contemplating his sandwich, he pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket. It didn't take more than three rings before somebody picked up. "Canadian Consulate, Constable Benton Fraser speaking. How may I be of assistance?" 

"Hey, Fraser..." 

"Ray," Fraser sounded surprised. Ray hoped Fraser hadn't only given him the phone number of the Consulate out of politeness, like people sometimes did, without really expecting you to call. It was the same with fixing vague dates with people you only ran into every so often. Someone would say 'hey, let's have coffee sometime' and the other would agree and say 'that's a great idea, let's' and in the end no one would call the other and both sides were secretly glad that neither did.  

"Is everything alright?" Fraser asked concerned. 

"Yeah, no worries. I was just wondering...would you like to come over tonight? We could get Chinese, grab a movie." Feeling all of 6 years old again and hoping the other kids on the playground would let him play with them. 

"Should I bring Dief?"  Ray smiled and shrugged before he could help the pointless gesture. "Sure, I think turtle likes him." 

"Well, in that case I'll ask him if he wants to join us," Fraser said, and there was something in his voice that made Ray wonder. Was Fraser humoring him? He sounded...as if he was having fun.  

Of course Dief wanted to tag along. Ray grinned as the two followed him into his apartment.  

Between them, the Chinese food vanished quicker than the GTO could get from 0 to 100. 

Ray swallowed the last mouthful before the need to get it out there in the open became too much. "I saw Stella today."  

"Oh." Fraser placed his carton of fried noodles back on the coffee table to give Ray his whole attention. "Did you...have words?" Fraser asked carefully. 

"Nah," Ray waved him off. "She didn't even know I was there. I wasn't…." he sighed deeply and hunched his shoulders, almost as if that made him less receptive to hurt, made him a smaller target. "I used to follow her around all the time, you know? Like some nut-job stalker. I watched her whenever she went out on a date." He flicked a hesitating glance at Fraser, afraid of his reaction.  

Fraser looked intent, with a small frown on his face. "...were you trying to protect her?" A short bark of laughter escaped Ray. Here Fraser went again, always assuming the best of people. "No...yes…I mean, I did want to protect her, but mostly...I just didn't want any of those scumbags touching her..." 

"I understand." 

"...but it doesn't make it okay," Ray sighed again. 

"No, it doesn't. But you recognized that yourself." Fraser's hand clasped his shoulder for a short moment.  

"It's just— " Ray rose from the couch and started pacing. Dief tracked his progress from the floor, wagging his tail in time to Ray's strides. "How do I stop? I can't really trust myself around her— I'm always making things worse— and I can't help thinking...thinking that..."  "What?" 

Ray looked at Fraser then. "That things might have been different."  

"Ray—" Fraser licked his lips, about to say more, but Ray had a feeling he wouldn't like what he had to say so he just talked over him.  "No, I get it— I can't go back in time, can't change how things turned out... but I don't get why— why can't things be different? Why can't I make it work if I want to so badly?" 

"Ray, I can't tell you that...sometimes, you just need to let go." 

"How, HUH?" Ray flared up and he did realize, in some remote part of his brain, that he was talking way too loud. "HOW DO I STOP?" he shouted, staring wild-eyed at Fraser, who really wasn't to blame for any of this and who deserved better than to be shouted at, but there you go.

"Stop imagining how happy you might have been?" Fraser asked, to clarify what Ray meant, still perfectly calm. 

"Hurting," Ray croaked. God, the pressure on his chest was way too tight and his eyes felt as if he had rubbed glass shards all over them. Fraser's eyes went soft. He looked just as sad as Ray felt.  

"They do say time heals all wounds," he said quietly, but he didn't hold Ray's gaze and Ray didn't think Fraser really believed that himself. Bone-tired, Ray dropped back onto the couch next to the other man. 

"What if it doesn't?" 

"It has to."  

Surprised by the defeat in his friend's voice, Ray looked over at him. For the first time, he really understood that Fraser was hurting just as much as he was. Maybe it wasn't just the murderous ex-girlfriend, maybe it was also Fraser missing his best friend, who had changed into someone Fraser didn't recognize anymore, and being thousands of miles away from home. It had to get better because you couldn't live like this. 

"Yeah," Ray heard himself agreeing. "You're right. It has to." He tried a smile and Fraser looked up from where he had contemplated his clasped hands and nodded.  

It was the last thing either of them said for the night. Ray got up and came back with two beers and sat down again, a little closer than he had before. A little closer than strictly necessary. So that their shoulders brushed every so often. They clinked bottles even though Fraser didn't drink from his and they both pretended to watch whatever it was that was flickering over the TV screen.  

Looking at the screen was just a pretense. Perhaps even an unnecessary one, but it allowed them to take comfort from each other's proximity without the need to talk.  He must've dozed off, for the next thing he remembered was blinking into a dark room with something soft underneath his cheek— Fraser's flannel shirt. The warm smell of skin and fabric softener and something woodsy, an aftershave perhaps or just something uniquely Fraser.  

Sleepily, Ray raised his head and squinted at the digital clock underneath the TV, but he couldn't make it out. He felt Fraser stir underneath him. "Mh-wh," Fraser mumbled, apparently just coming awake himself. He turned his head and found himself mere inches from Fraser's face. Soft lips and unfocused blue eyes greeted him and for the first time, Ray wondered what kissing him might be like.  

He could see it perfectly clear in front of him. The quiet hum of the TV in the background, just a bit of blue-ish light on Fraser's face, and he'd angle his head and their lips would touch...he could imagine the gentle give of his lips. The soft sound he made as their mouths came together... Fraser's head came infinitesimally closer. And then he woke up fully. 

"Ray?" Blue eyes focused on his face before they flicked away to look around. "Oh."

"Yeah," Ray replied dryly though his heart was beating too fast in his chest. The moment so vividly burned into his mind that he didn't know what was more unreal: the fact that it hadn't actually happened...or the fact that he had thought of it at all.  

"I should go," Fraser murmured and made a move to stand up at the same time that Ray's arm shot out to pull him down again. A breath escaped him as he dropped to the couch again.  "You should stay." 

"Hm."  Fraser didn't seem particularly concerned either way. Or maybe his brain wasn't all that awake yet. Ray almost grinned.  

"It's 0-dark-whatever. Just get comfortable, I'll get you a blanket." He yawned. 

"I wouldn't want to inconvenience you." Ray thought that the only inconvenient thing was that he was getting big-ass words thrown at him in the middle of the night. "Friends, Fraser. Buddies." 

"Ah. Thank you." Fraser gave him a small smile that somehow got mixed up with the thought of kissing him and Ray threw him a spare blanket before he dragged one of the pillows from his bedroom over to the couch.  

"Dief?" Ray asked, stifling another yawn.  

"Will be fine," Fraser assured him. 

"Good. Sweet dreams," Ray mumbled, watching Fraser get settled. As he shuffled over to his own sleeping quarters, Fraser's "Good-night, Ray" followed him.  

When the alarm rudely ripped into Ray's – admittedly – rather confusing dream, he felt momentarily lost.  After a moment of inner debate whether having to get up this early constituted a good enough reason for suicide, he dragged his ass out of bed and stumbled into the living room.  

He peered at the couch, but it was empty. Fraser's presence, however, was unmistakable. Ray smiled. The blanket was neatly folded, with the pillow placed on top, and a note lying on it that said 'Thank you kindly'.  Freak, Ray thought, in a better mood than he had been in a long time, and went to make coffee.  

The thudding of his feet on the moist tiles of the pool echoed from the walls as Ray reached the swimming area. It was so stupid...and he didn't know why Fraser sleeping on his couch should've changed anything, but...he was nervous about seeing him again. It was probably just insecurity after having let down his guard. A male thing of keeping face or whatever...yet it wasn't entirely unpleasant and that made Ray even more nervous. If that made sense. 

He squinted at the clock and realized that he was early. Approaching the water's edge, he scanned the swimming lanes and struck gold at the second one. He dipped his feet into the water and sat down, watching Fraser glide along with smooth, powerful strokes.  

Fraser noticed his audience on his second return since Ray had sat down. His face resurfaced to get some air and even though the moment was only the length of the batting of an eye, he noticed Ray sitting there. A short smile flashed over his features before his face was submerged again. Once he reached the end of the lane, he climbed out of the pool and came to sit beside Ray.  

"Hello, Ray. Have you been waiting long?"  "Nah," Ray answered without even looking at the clock.  Fraser was dripping and Ray was already shivering just from having his feet in the water, but the other man was still radiating warmth. That subterraneous fat had to be a pretty good shield from the cold. With a glance, he gave Fraser a once-over. No idea where exactly all that fat was supposed to be, though.  

"Ready for the next lesson?"  "Ready when you are."  

They were just swimming lanes— and Ray couldn't help but feel a bit awed that he could actually say that about himself "just swimming a couple of lanes". With Fraser right next to him in case Ray developed a spontaneous case of drowning he felt almost safe.  

When they took a break, Ray finally found the guts to ask. "So, I'm guessing there's loads more to tell you, but the way I see it you can only dump so many shortcomings on someone else at a time—"  Fraser looked about to interrupt so Ray raised his hands, palm up to forestall him. "I know, you would listen until your ears bled. Believe me, I know...but...it's also hard to talk about some of this stuff, you know?" 

"Of course, Ray. I understand." 

"So, I was thinking, what's the next step? Anything I can work on while I get ready to tell you the next thing?"

"The next step is about making amends for your past errors." 

"Huh." 

"Exactly." Fraser almost smiled at Ray's plight. How was he supposed to make it up to Stella? She wouldn't even talk to him for more than ten seconds.  

Later, when Ray was back at home on his couch, he pondered his newest problem. This 12 steps thing was more work than Fraser had made it sound like in the beginning. Surprise, surprise. Ray almost smiled; Fraser had a gift for understatement. 

The important thing was that this wasn't supposed to be about Ray. It wasn't about what would make Ray feel better or how he wanted to atone for past transgression; it was about Stella and how Ray could make it up to her.  

He still wasn't any wiser when Stella next appeared at the station— until she breezed past him with a brusque "Hello, Ray, please not now". For a second, Ray was offended until he realized that his usual action had been to jump up and trail after her, pestering her with questions about a private meeting.  

So that was exactly what Ray didn't do. No matter what it cost him, he kept seated and said nothing more than, "Hey, Stella."  It felt like his body would explode into tiny little bits from the sheer effort of sitting still and keeping his gaze on his paperwork, but he did it.  On her way out, Stella slowed down at his desk.  

"Ray," she said, half puzzled and half apprehensive, as if she was already regretting her action. Ray steeled himself. He could do this. He wanted to get over her. They had both agreed to this divorce because it just didn't work anymore. And he got that, he truly did. It was just hard to let go.  

"Hiya, Stella. Trouble again?" He wanted to say so much more. He wanted to apologize— he wanted to ask her how she'd been, what she'd been up to— if she was seeing anyone...but he swallowed it all.  Her delicate eyebrows drew together. "Not more than usual. Just that if your colleagues would take their paperwork more seriously my job would be a whole lot easier." 

Ray grinned and raised his hands as if to say 'wasn't me', and it wasn't... this time. "You got everything sorted out then?" 

"Pretty much," she said and she watched him as you would watch an animal that has gotten out of its cage and you didn't know yet if it had a taste for you or not. 

"That's good, really good," Ray mumbled. Keeping all of the stuff he really wanted to say inside just made him sound stupid, but there were so few words left that were safe to use.  "Yes...Ray, is everything all right?" she asked. And it wasn't just suspicion, there was concern as well. 

"Yeah, I'm...better...." was what he finally settled on. It was true at least. Stella gave him a small smile. It only hurt a tiny bit to see it in this context. "I'm glad to hear it...take care, Ray." 

"You, too, Stell."  

He watched her go. It was a conscious thought to stay seated, but he managed it. When the doors fell closed behind her, he breathed a sigh of relief. 

At that moment, Paul came back from the break room and placed a cup of coffee in front of him. "Are you okay? ...I saw her leave." Paul had always been careful not to use her name around Ray. Given how volatile Ray could be at her mention he couldn't exactly blame him.  

"Yeah...thanks." Ray took a sip from the coffee. 

"She didn't look too pissed off," Paul probed carefully. 

"No, I didn't do anything to piss her off this time." Was that what pride felt like? Oh, yeah. Ray could go for some of that. This was a nice feeling for a change. He wanted to have a parade in his honor to celebrate his triumph, he wanted to say a toast, he— should probably stop right there.  

Paul's eyebrows climbed into his hairline. "You didn't?" 

"Nu-huh." 

Paul's eyes narrowed. "Were you momentarily rendered mute? Deaf? Deaf and mute?" 

Ray smirked. "Nope, I just managed to control myself." 

"You? Control yourself? Since when?" And if Ray hadn't felt so good about himself just then he would have been offended.  

That night, he treated Fraser to dinner.  

He recounted his run-in with Stella, probably with a little more heroism than was strictly true, but what did it matter? He'd done it!  Fraser smiled at him— a real smile, Ray could even see that crooked tooth at the corner. Their faces had come closer together during Ray's animated speech, but Fraser didn't seem to be bothered by that. He kept looking at Ray's face and smiling at him and Ray had a sudden flashback to his vision of the two of them kissing.   

"Uhm," Ray straightened a little in his seat, moving a tiny bit further away from Fraser and Fraser in turn suddenly seemed to realize their proximity. He cleared his throat and sat back.  "So, I'm kind of hoping it wasn't a one-time thing." 

"I'm sure you'll do just as fine the next time you see her." 

"Yeah?" 

"I don't see why not. I can understand that it takes a lot of effort, but I'm sure it will become easier with time."  

The sudden urge to tell Fraser that it was hardly any effort washed over Ray and he hoped he wasn't blushing. What, now he was trying to impress Fraser? Making him believe that Ray was well over Stella? Why?  

He looked at Fraser, taking in his blue eyes, and that open smile, and dread pooled in his gut. Was this feeling some sort of rebound-thingy? Did he feel attracted to Fraser because he was the first nice thing that had happened to him since his divorce? His smile dimmed, he could feel it melting off his face. Apparently, Fraser noticed it, too, because his smile also wavered before it was replaced by a hesitant half-smile.  

"I have faith in you, Ray," Fraser said, trying to gauge if doubt had been the cause for the disappearing smile. 

"Greatness," Ray tried to force a smile on his face.  What if...really...what if everything he thought he felt for Fraser was just being on the rebound? Sure, okay, hoo-ray, he might be on the rebound, so that was good. Was Fraser really nothing more than that, though?  

Ray figured if anyone understood that it would be Paul, because Paul was constantly on the rebound. In fact, if you asked Ray, Paul was the damn ball in a pinball machine— always bouncing from one woman to the next and the longest he stayed was for a couple of bangs before he was off to the next target.  

He waited until they were in the car— more excuse not to look at him while he asked. "Paul, if I told you that I met someone and told you that I found someone attractive...what would you say?" Paul stared at him. A moment later, a grin was splitting his face. "Congratulations, about damn time, that's what I'd say."  

Ray frowned at the street ahead of him. "You wouldn't, dunno, caution me to be careful or anything?" 

"Depends...is she a mass-murderer?" 

"Nope." 

"Thief?"

 "No." 

"Compulsive liar?"  Ray almost choked on his laughter.

"No," he said very decisively.  

"Okay, then why should I warn you?" 

"It's just...couldn't it be that I'm just on the rebound?" A shrug was Paul's initial reaction. "So what?" 

Ray flung a glare at his reaction. "Whadd'ya mean, so what?" 

"I mean," Paul stressed, "what does it matter? So maybe you're just using her to get over Stella... and? If that's the case you can simply move on afterwards."  

The frown felt almost etched onto his forehead. "What? I just use them and then I move on?"  "Sure, why not? ...nothing's made for the long haul anyway." Now, Ray felt thoroughly depressed. 

 So that was all Fraser was? A distraction? A means to get over Stella? At least the friendship was real. It was simple, really, he just wouldn't do anything about his attraction and they'd be safe.  

They were almost on the scene when someone jumped over the hood of a parked car and ran full-tilt away from the scene of the crime. The tires screeched as Ray hit the brakes.  "GogoGO," he shouted at Paul, already halfway out of the car as he gave chase. His gut feeling was pretty good, if that guy had nothing to do with the crime then Ray'd join a convent.  

Paul was slower than he was, but he could trust him to stick on his trail and relay their location.  

The man with the green jacket and the black sweater threw a hasty look over his shoulder and when he saw Ray he cut over the busy road and into a small alley. Ray cursed and followed. He saw the car coming at him and heard the blaring of the horn, but he didn't stop, he urged his legs to go faster and he heard breaks slam— but by then he was already at the mouth of the alley and he saw the fugitive almost on the other end.  The robber turned left and Ray darted sideways at the last moment, trying to cut him off from the other direction. His hand scratched the rough concrete of the wall to use the momentum to pivot and then he was shooting down the street parallel to the one his perp had taken.  

With a burst of speed, he reached the next intersection and turned the corner at a sharp right—lo and behold, the guy he was looking for had just entered the alley. By the time the guy realized that he was running straight into Ray's arms and tried to change direction it was already too late.  

Ray crashed into him, taking a couple of garbage cans with him as he took the robber down. As soon as he had slapped the handcuffs on the guy's wrists, he heard the tell-tale whine of a police siren heading his way. Good ol' Paul, right on time with the cavalry. Ouch, now that Ray had his hands free he had time to actually feel them. His right hand was bleeding from numerous scratches, with bits and pieces of concrete embedded in his palm. Greatness.  

They got their perp back to the station. The paper trail on this one was a nightmare. On the other hand, finding the culprit to a whole series of robberies was always especially satisfying in Ray's book.  

Getting the booking done and everything took ages and by the time Ray made it home to his couch he felt twice his age. 

He had just sunk into the cushions with a groan when a knock came from his door. Stifling a curse, Ray got up again and flung the door open, a very polite, very friendly, very Chicago answer already on the tip of his tongue for his unwanted visitor.  

"Fraser!" He swallowed his ready-to-use reply. Fraser inclined his head in a manner of greeting. He removed his weird hat and held it protectively in front of his leather-jacket, spinning it restlessly between his fingers. "You, ah, you left a message that you couldn't attend our swimming lesson due to an unfortunate injury." 

"I said a scratch, Fraser." 

"Nonetheless, I thought it prudent to offer my assistance should it be needed." 

"Prudent," Ray laughed under his breath. "Come on in."  

"Hey, where's the wolf?" Ray asked after a quick look into the hallway. 

"He's visiting a friend of his." 

"A dog friend?" With Fraser and the wolf you never knew. 

"Yes, a poodle by the name of Ante."

"Cool...take a seat. I've only been home a couple of minutes so make yourself comfortable, 'kay?"  

Ray went to the bathroom and put on a fresh shirt. He got some supplies from the medicine cabinet and carried them back into the living room. He wasn't so good with his left hand, so he fumbled a little with the bottle of disinfectant.

"Ray!" Only now did he realize that Fraser had probably been saying his name for a while now.

"What?" 

"Might I assist you?" Fraser nodded towards Ray's hand.  After a moment's hesitation, Ray nodded. "Sure, knock yourself out."  

Gently, Fraser took Ray's hand in his. With deft movements, he picked up a pair of tweezers and began removing the shards of rubble from the gashes.  Ray winced and Fraser looked up quickly. "I'm sorry, I'm trying to be gentle." 

"It's okay," Ray murmured. Fraser's hand on his was warm...he couldn't remember the last time someone had taken care of him.

"This might sting a bit." Ray nodded and bit his lip as Fraser poured some of the disinfectant on a bit of cotton and cleaned the wound.  

Their eyes met again and Fraser's gaze was searching, as if he was trying to assess whether Ray had any other injuries he was hiding.  Finally, Fraser started to wrap Ray's hand. "There, all done."  

"Thanks," Ray's voice was quiet. "I'm sorry our lesson couldn't take place." 

"That's quite all right, Ray." He squeezed Ray's fingers. "Did you have time to eat yet?" 

"No, I, uh, there wasn't time between booking the guy and getting back home...." 

"I know a very nice restaurant, actually not far from here." 

"Sounds good. Lead the way."  Fraser smiled and took his hat.  Fraser was way too nice to waste on a rebound.  

That night, Ray lay awake in his bed and stared at his bound hand. He sighed and turned on his stomach, embracing his pillow with his good arm as he did so.  

He wasn't so much thinking as watching pictures drift by, memories mostly. Stella and him...they'd been good together. Almost fated, Ray smiled as if that was some sort of inside joke. He'd always thought they were destined to love one another...stupid, he knew that now.  

They'd been happy. So much stuff they'd gone through together. His estrangement from his father, dropping out of college. The exhausting time as Stella went through law school while he walked a beat. Good times.  

...and a lot of bad times the more recent his memories got. About Ray's boxing, about her hours...about kids. He had always assumed she would want children. Finding out that Stella didn't feel ready for that, that she preferred her career, at least for the moment...that had come as a shock.  

If he was honest he didn't even know why he hadn't been able to let it rest. Maybe he'd gotten things mixed up...thinking it was some kind of choice between her job and him. It had been unfair to her. It wasn't just that, though. They had changed. Their worlds had never been the same one, but they had always lived in the same space...until they hadn't anymore.  

Fraser was right. Sometimes it took more than love to work. Did he want her back? He swallowed the automatic 'yes' because after a lifetime together it was like muscle-memory, she was always in his future. Did he really want her back?  

He sighed and turned onto his back. Thing was, he hadn't been happy either during their last two years. Did he think either of them could change enough to make it work? ...nope…not in a way that wouldn't change who they were now.  

Tentatively, he tried the thought for size: I don't want to get back together with Stella. He almost expected the ceiling to drop down on him or for brimstone and fire to rain from the sky. Nothing happened... that was kind of disappointing. He had expected his world to break at the mere idea.  

Did he still love her? Ray almost smiled. Sure he did, he yawned softly, what kind of stupid question was that? Never figured his subconscious to be a fan of rhetorical questions. That probably wouldn't ever change. She was interwoven with a big part of him and the person he was growing up, growing older. Not loving her would mean blanking out a big part of who he was.  

Did it still hurt? Hell, yeah...what was it with these rhetorical questions? And he wouldn't put it past himself to make a fool of himself yet again the next time she came to the station...it was kinda hard to break the habit of a lifetime. One could try, though. Fraser had thought it admirable to learn a new trick at his age...why not up the ante and learn another one?  

Two days later, when Ray came back from work, Fraser was waiting on his doorstep with a pizza box in his hands. Surprised, Ray walked up to him. "Hey, Frase. Did I forget something?" 

"Ah, no." Fraser rubbed at his eyebrow and scanned the sidewalk for a second before he looked back at Ray. "I hope I'm not intruding?"  Disbelieving laughter escaped Ray before he could stop himself.

"Yeah, right. You brought pizza; that puts you right up there with other miracles, got it?"  "Understood." Fraser smiled a little.  

Munching on a slice of pizza, Ray felt watched. He tore his gaze away from the TV to find Fraser watching him. Another half-smile flitted over Fraser's face before he turned away again and Ray followed suit a second later.  

A flutter, very much like nervous excitement, had Ray drumming an uneven rhythm on his thigh with the tips of his fingers. Something in that gaze...he leaned forward and reached for his beer bottle. He took a small mouthful and turned to face Fraser.

"Can I ask you something?" 

"Of course, Ray."  

Fraser's blue eyes looked so sincere it made Ray feel kinda small being the center of their attention. The jaw-line was strong even though his mouth was gentle— Ray's eyes flicked back up again. "You ever experience something and you were unable to tell whether it's real or just in your head?" 

For a second, Fraser's eyes widened. He cocked his head and Ray was powerless to stop himself from tracking the movement of Fraser's tongue as it came out to touch the corner of Fraser's mouth. 

"Yes." 

"Okay, so...how did you know?" 

Fraser sighed. "I don't." 

"Oh." That wasn't the answer Ray had been prepared to hear. 

"I'm sorry." 

Ray absent-mindedly shook his head in a quiet 'not your fault' gesture. He reached out to give Fraser a reassuring squeeze. Ray's fingers closed over the soft material of Fraser's shirt, feeling the hard muscle of his arm underneath.  

It took a conscious effort to open his fingers again and let go. Fraser was watching Ray intently.  

Ray swallowed hastily and broke eye-contact. Whatever he thought he had read in the line of Fraser's body, and despite what he thought he saw in those eyes...this was too important to lose. He wasn't ready...yet. He wouldn't use his friend, not even if Fraser let Ray use him. What if he only felt worse afterwards? What if their friendship went down the drain just so that Ray could fuck it out of his system, as Paul had urged him to do? 

...and there was the niggling worry that he might be reading Fraser all wrong. God knew his friend was lonely— didn't take a genius to figure that out. Maybe all those looks didn't mean more than that Fraser was grateful to have Ray as a friend.  

"You want something to drink?" Ray jumped off the couch, ignoring his half-full bottle of beer.  "No, ah, I'm fine, thank you," Fraser said, slightly puzzled. In his need to make his flight a little less awkward, Ray filled a glass with water and counted to ten in his head.  When he came back, he was careful not to look too long at Fraser for the rest of the night.  

During his lunch break the next day, Ray went to the little flower shop on Washington Street and ordered a bouquet of purple amaryllis to be delivered to Stella's workplace. He went for a plain white card and after debating what to write on it for a couple of minutes he sighed and simply penned 'I'm sorry' on it.  

Ray figured there was too much to apologize for to fit onto any one card and words had never been his friends to begin with. Stella was a smart woman, she'd figure it out.

She did. Exactly one day later.  

Ray almost froze in his seat when he saw Stella's determined look as she crossed the bullpen. He had a short moment of panic in which 'uh-oh' floated loud and clear through his head, but it was already too late to pretend he wasn't there.  

"Uh, hi, Stella," Ray mumbled nervously. Stella's exquisite face looked troubled. She sat down on the chair in front of his desk. 

"Ray, are you all right?" she asked, and there was this look on her face that he'd seen a million times whenever she thought Ray was being an idiot or reckless or in need of a supportive ear. 

He almost smiled; it was such a familiar look. "I— look, I just wanted to apologize for all the crazy shit I put you through after... you know...after the divorce...." Stella's expression was soft as she prompted him, "And?"

"I wanted to let you know that I...that I understand." Words had never felt more inadequate than at that moment.  

Stella assessed him as she would a client that wasn't telling her the whole truth. "Can we not have this conversation here?" She looked at her watch. "I have 20 minutes until my next appointment. Let's get a coffee and you can tell me on my way what caused the sudden insight."  

They didn't talk until they both had a paper cup full of coffee in their hands. Ray was careful not to walk too close and Stella seemed intent on putting a sort of buffer zone between them as well. Ray almost laughed; it was the exact opposite of their relationship. They had always worked like magnets...and now it seemed that the poles were rejecting each other.  

"I appreciate the gesture, Ray, I really do, but really, what's going on here?" Ray sighed and ruffled his hair. "...Stell...how did you know you were over...." and just because he knew he was right didn't make it hurt any less, "me?"  

Her coffee cup seemed to be the most fascinating thing she had ever seen. After a moment, her shoulders dropped a little. "Who said I'm over you?" She didn't sound upset. She had always been good at calling things by their name.  

"You're not?" Ray stared at her wildly, old hopes jumping up, maybe just from habit, but there nonetheless. "Ray, we were childhood sweethearts. I don't think I'll ever stop loving you, but...." 

"There's always a but," Ray grumbled, almost amused because while it was an old conversation it also echoed his own thoughts from not so long ago. She had always been smarter than him.   

"But," she repeated with a hint of steel in her voice, "that doesn't make it work. We weren't good for each other anymore, it wasn't—" 

"I know," Ray interrupted. "I know. It took me a while, but I think I'm beginning to see it... when you met Orsini—"  

"Ray, we went over this. I am not discussing him with you." 

"No, no, that's not what I meant. It's just... how did you know, what made you think you could try with him?"  

Stella sighed and took another sip of her coffee. "I don't know. I guess I just wanted to take a chance with him. He made me feel in a way that made me think I might be able to move on…." Suddenly she looked at him. Her green-blue eyes pierced Ray and he had the tingling feeling as if she were x-raying him. "Have you met someone?" 

 Damn perceptive woman.  "Uh...it's not...." Ray made vague motion with his hand, hoping it was better at expressing something than saying 'like that'. For a short second, her hand rested on his. "It's okay, Ray...I want you to be happy, too…you know that, right?"  

He nodded dumbly. It still hurt, knowing that she was ready for him to move on. And it didn't really help all that much with his current predicament.  

Ray spent the rest of his afternoon shift moping quietly and Paul was clever enough not ask what was wrong...half the station was walking on eggshells after watching him trailing after Stella that morning.  

By the time five o'clock rolled around Ray had come to a decision. Hiding was stupid. He called the Consulate and after a very frustrating, very confusing conversation with a guy called Turnbull, Ray had left a message for Fraser asking if he was up for their next swimming session. His hands were healed again and just because Ray was rediscovering his libido didn't mean he couldn't have friends...if Fraser ever got the message was something else altogether.  

The traffic light had just jumped to red as his phone rang. "Ray," Fraser's breathless voice greeted him. "I just came back. Constable Turnbull relayed your message." 

"And? What do you say?" 

"I'd be delighted." Ray couldn't help the smile at Fraser's fervent affirmation.

"Greatness. I'll just go and grab my stuff."  

Ray waited on one of the stone benches at the side of the pool for Fraser's arrival. He breathed in deeply, funny how a pool possessed such a distinctive smell. You couldn't smell anything else— even the people right next to you smelled like pool.  

He turned his head and saw Fraser entering the pool area. He smiled when he saw Ray and adjusted his course. The small swimming trunks left nothing to the imagination, clinging wetly to Fraser's powerful frame— because Fraser was a good citizen who showered before entering a public pool, of course he did. His whole chest was glistening, dripping further onto the already midnight-black soaked fabric that covered his groin.  

Ray was pretty sure that people would be able to feel the tremors in the water caused by his heartbeat. He wanted to stomp on it just to make it stop. There was no need to feel nervous— especially not this giddy, almost excited nervousness...that was for dates or sex or— 

"Fraser!" Ray tried for a casual grin even though he was pretty sure that Fraser could read his thoughts on his face as plainly as tracks made by very heavy, muddy boots on a pristine white carpet...sounded just like one of his most spectacular performances at his in-laws' place. Ex-in-laws— now there was a cheerful thought.  

Fraser simply appeared glad to see him though. They dipped into the water and Ray was careful to keep his distance, not to get too close because there was something about the silky-wet feel of that body in the water that was near irresistible coupled with an excuse to cling to a piece of that broad back whenever they hit the deep end.  

"I was thinking," Fraser began and flicked a knuckle over his eyebrow. "It is often customary for a man to prove his newly acquired skills in a ritual that marks his mastery." Ray waded through the Fraser-ish wording and summed it up: "Like a rites of passage?" 

"Mhm." 

"What did you have in mind?" Ray asked, and if it sounded a tad cautious that had nothing to do with being afraid. At least not afraid of drowning...he trusted Fraser to know mouth-to-mouth— now here was another cheery thou— anyway, it was rather his manly dignity that he was afraid of. Losing it, that was.  

"Boy Scouts have a test in which they have to jump feet first into water that reaches over their heads and then demonstrate their ability to swim a certain distance and also that they are able to float on the surface."  

"...I do that I want a badge; a I-risked-drowning-in-a-chemical-bathtub-badge."  Fraser's lips quirked up. "I'm not a certified instructor, but I'll see what I can do." 

"Good." Ray grinned back. It wavered though when he realized that Fraser was looking kinda expectantly at him. "...what? You meant now?"  

Ray stared at the dark depth, toes curling slightly at the edge so that the water lapped at his feet. Funny, how his life had changed since he met Fraser. This would have intimidated the hell out of him just a short while back. Now it mostly annoyed him that Fraser could make him take the leap without so much as an encouraging smile.  

The air whistled softly as he took a deep breath. And then he jumped. The splash of the water sounded explosive and he felt the water crashing down upon him as the pool swallowed him up. It didn't take more than a few seconds before his feet collided with the floor. He pushed and kicked himself off, rapidly approaching the surface with just a few kicks. The sudden onslaught of noise was almost unreal after the deafening silence of the water. Eagerly, he gasped for air as he tried to blink the water out of his eyes.  

Fingertips brushed him and Ray focused on Fraser's outstretched hand in front of him. He gripped the offered hand and Fraser pulled him to the edge of the pool. 

"Well done, Ray." Ray felt like swimming the would be one of his biggest accomplishments in life. People should build him a fucking monument. It was reassuring to feel Fraser's gaze and know that it wouldn't take Fraser more than two seconds to reach him should he ever need help.  

He kept his eyes focused on the other side of the pool while he was swimming and that made it easier, somehow less scary, to see how the distance became increasingly less. True, the swimming on his back part was a little funny, but it was only and it was kind of peaceful to watch the ceiling go by.  

He came to stand in the shallow part of the pool again and felt Fraser's strong hand clap on his back. For a second, Fraser left his hand on Ray’s shoulder and his dexterous fingers massaged the tight muscles. It tingled. Ray couldn't stop smiling. "I did it!"

"Yes, you did," Fraser confirmed. "Only one task left to do."  

They stretched out next to each other and Ray took a deep breath and let the water carry his weight. Their fingers brushed and Ray marveled at the deja vu. Had it really only been a couple of weeks? Closer to two months now, but still way shorter than it felt. Had he really known Benton Fraser for such a short time?  

The spray of the shower was heaven on his tense shoulders...didn't help him to relax them though...just the fault of the gloriously naked Boy Scout of a man under the spray next to him. Ray knew how to do undercover, how to fly under the radar, but if he had learned one thing, it was this: never let your body do the talking. Speaking of which...he could practically feel a set of eyes peeling away his skin.  

He frowned in confusion and glanced over— meeting Fraser's blue eyes over the steam of the shower.  Fraser twitched a little, caught in the act, and Ray noticed a flush spreading down that chest. Drops went flying as Fraser jerked his gaze away. His fingers fumbled, turning off the tap. "I, ah, I'll meet you outside," Fraser murmured, just a tad hurriedly, before slinging his towel tightly around his hips.  

Ray bit his lip and closed his hand to a fist as he willed his body not to react to that heated stare. This was so the wrong place for this. He cursed and shut the water off as well. The towel provided an almost tantalizing friction for his curious cock, so Ray held it closed with his fist in front of his groin, hoping to at least make it a little less noticeable.  

True to his word, Fraser was waiting for him outside. Ray had almost been afraid his friend would bolt. However, the way Fraser was scratching Dief behind the ears didn't convince Ray either. This looked too much like a way of not having to look at Ray.  

When Fraser finally looked up, he didn't look particularly happy. "I should—" he started, but Ray didn't let him finish. 

"Let's go celebrate." 

Fraser's stance relaxed a little and he gave Ray one of his rare smiles. "As you wish."  

They had steak at a small pub not far from the pool and Ray enjoyed a couple of beers— and then he realized that he was mostly drinking them because he was nervous. His mouth was constantly dry and he couldn't keep his hands still; having a glass in front of him that he could hold on to helped.  

He couldn't remember what they had talked about. But he could recall –quite vividly, too— the way Fraser had looked under the low lighting; he saw his mouth form words and the way his tongue touched his lips now and again.  

Okay. He had been a little buzzed by the time they had called it a night. But he had felt pretty damn good and Fraser was such a warm constant at his side. And then Ray had stumbled a little on his way outside and Fraser's arm had come up to steady him. Ray had laughed then; he could still hear the sound. He had turned around to say something to Fraser— it had been funny, too, even though Ray couldn't remember what it was he had wanted to say. And Fraser’s face was right there, just...right in front of him and so close and the laughter had been stuck in his throat. Fraser's lips had parted the tiniest bit, maybe he had wanted to say something, too, or maybe he had said Ray's name, he couldn't remember.  

All he knew was that he had felt magnetically drawn and that he had inclined his head, angling his face closer. His breath had hitched a little when Fraser closed the distance and brushed his lips against Ray's.  

Oh God. He had kissed Fraser. And it hadn't stayed with that innocent brush either. Ray's fingers had tangled in Fraser's hair, holding him in place, even though Fraser made no motion of going anywhere. The press of his lips tightened and the flick of Fraser's tongue against his lips sent a jolt through him that nailed him to the concrete.  

Letting Fraser in felt like being in the water again. The rush of blood through his ears and this feeling of falling, of going under, but Fraser's warm hands were a constant, one cupping his jaw and the other splayed over his back, pressing Ray firmly closer with the press of his fingertips.  

Then someone catcalled and someone else laughed and Ray sprang back, followed by more good-natured laughter from the group of youngsters that had just left the pub. One of them called "get a room" and Ray stared at Fraser and watched him blush fiercely; his fingers twitched uselessly at his side as if they didn't quite know what to do now that they weren't holding on to Ray anymore.  

"I gotta go," was the only uttering that Ray got past his strangled throat. He turned on the spot and... fled, was probably the best word for it. Walking so fast it was almost a flat-out run and he didn't remember that he left his car in the parking lot in front of the pool until he was almost back at his apartment. Which was probably just as well seeing that he had been in no condition to drive.

Ray covered his face with his hands and tried to become one with his couch. What had he done? Kissing Fraser had been a monumentally stupid idea. Ray was...damaged— and he didn't yet know if he was even one jump— one step? One whatever it was that you got over someone, over Stella yet.  

It wasn't fair to Fraser. This was just Ray's body thinking 'I wanna get me some of that' and it probably could have been anyone, hell, it could have been the new civilian aid at the station for all Ray knew. Some part of him, and Ray strongly suspected that that part of him began with a 'd' and ended with 'ick', just felt able to get back on the horse again. Fraser didn't deserve that.  

A tiny part of him whispered that maybe Fraser was just lonely and using him as well...yeah, Ray bet it was the same part of him speaking again. That thought was almost worse, though. Being a pity fuck instead of a rebound...or maybe it was the same, Ray thought after a long time of staring at the wall.  

It didn't matter. Friends didn't let friends use someone or be used. And somehow he didn't think that Fraser would sink that low. He was a lonely guy far away from home, but somehow Ray didn't think he had been that desperate for a fuck that he would have used Ray. No one put that much work and effort into a pity fuck.  

Great. So that left just Ray trying to use Fraser to feel better about himself.  

By the time Ray left the station the next day he had 5 messages from Fraser. One on his answering machine at home, 1 delivered by one of the civilian aids at the station, and 3 more on his cell.  

It wasn't so much that he was avoiding Fraser as that he...was avoiding Fraser. Ray hung his head.  

The truth was he didn't know what to say. He couldn't just call Fraser and say 'sorry, I was just using you as a rebound and figured it's not worth it'. And after what happened outside the pub he couldn't exactly act as if nothing had happened.  It didn't stop him from listening to the messages again.  

The note left for him at the station was a curt, professional, and polite 'Please, return my call'— as was to be expected. Of course, it was Fraser leaving the message so it had covered the whole post-it, but essentially it didn't say more than 'call me' if you left all the 'This is Constable Benton Fraser working for the Canadian Consulate' and the 'Kindly relay my message to Detective Stanley Raymond Kowalski, major crime division' aside.  

The messages he left personally told a more elaborate story.  7:34 AM ‘Ray? This is Benton Fraser. I— my apologies, you are probably on your way to work. I shouldn't call you while you are driving. I, ah, you can reach me at the Consulate.’ 9:11 AM ‘Hello, this is Benton Fraser again. I was wondering whether you received my earlier message... I just wanted to make sure that you are all right. Would you call me?’  

Ray sighed. The question didn't sound particularly hopeful on Fraser's part. Guess that meant Fraser knew him rather well, Ray thought.  3:30 PM ‘Ray? If you're there could you please pick up?’ There was silence for a beat or two and Ray heard Fraser sigh. ‘My grandmother always told me not to jump to conclusions and it might well be that a pressing case prevents you from talking to me. Forgive me for saying this, but I rather think you are avoiding me. Can we talk about this?’  

The worst one, though, was the one on his answering machine. Fraser had left it yesterday night, probably within the hour of getting back. Ray had put the phone on mute as soon as he got home and he hadn't bothered checking for messages until he came back from work the next day.  

You have one message: ‘Hello Ray, it's Benton Fraser. You left so quickly I wanted’ — there was whining in the background and Fraser corrected himself – ‘we wanted to make sure that you are all right. Since you are not home yet I am assuming you are not. I....’  Ray could hear the lip-lick even if he couldn't see it. ‘I'm thinking tonight must have come as quite a shock to you. Trust me when I say that I cherish your friendship more than you can possibly know and if what happened between us makes you uncomfortable then please know that I will never mention it again if that's what it takes. I just...I won't judge you. You are my friend, Ray, nothing will change that. Good-night, Ray.’  

Well, fuck. Ray might have been an insecure mess and damaged goods, but he wasn't an asshole.  

It also wasn't the problem Fraser expected it to be. Wasn't as if he had a problem with Fraser being interested in him in a little more carnal way than just buddies— the problem was that he wanted to be more than buddies, too.  

It was just that Ray wasn't so good at this letting go thing once it was all over but the crying— Fraser could just ask Stella if he didn't believe him.  

Once this rebound thing wore off, there wouldn't be a friendship to go back to because Ray had never been good at comparting— compartmenting— dammitcompartmentalizing his feelings and that was just the thing about a rebound; it was mainly a long one-night-stand— one bound to end.  

Risking their friendship for a relationship was one thing. He'd done it with Stella and they had been married happily for too long for Ray to regret taking that risk. It had been worth it and not even knowing how it turned out would make him mourn the fact that they hadn't stayed 'just' friends.  But, c'mon, throwing it all away for a couple of fucks and an ego boost? No way.  

He watched the red 1 on the display of his answering machine. Fraser had truly sounded miserable. As if it had been him that had fucked up... just because Ray hadn't been able to find the right words— and hadn't this whole thing begun with talking about past mistakes? Time to own up to one more.  

It took him a while to work up the nerve to actually call. Imagine his disappointment when no one picked up. Hadn't Fraser told him he lived at the Consulate? Okay, fair enough, it didn't mean he had to be there around the clock. Ray frowned at his phone.  

The next morning, he tried calling him again. Now that he had reached a decision, he was itching to get it out of his system...not that he was particularly looking forward to the conversation of 'I swear it’s not you, it’s me'.  

When someone finally picked up it was only Turnbull, who informed him that Fraser had already left. Where to? Turnbull wasn't instructed to disclose that information. When will he be back? Turnbull was very sorry, but justice had its own time-frame.  

Ray stared at his cell with some consternation. Did they allow mentally deranged people to work official posts in Canada?  

Frustrated, Ray dumped the folder on his desk with a little more force than necessary. Paul watched him over the top of the computer screen. "You all right there?" Ray shrugged. "I'm in too deep." 

Paul cracked up. "How is that news?" Against his will a grin appeared on Ray's face. "Got me there...so is there anything around here to help me get my head screwed on right?"  

As if he had waited for exactly that question, Paul handed him another case report.  "What's that?" Ray asked, even as his eyes flicked over the page. "Homicide?" Ray looked at Paul.  "Mhm," his colleague made an affirming noise. "My bet? It was the wife. We could go, check out her alibi." "Pitter-patter, let's go." 

On their way through downtown, a radio call came in, asking someone in the area to pick up a guy who was causing some kind of trouble in front of a night-club. Ray was briefly considering taking the call, but it wasn't his district and a few seconds later someone from the 27th radioed in to say they were on it.  

How could a guy cause trouble for a nightclub in the afternoon? Ray shrugged, wasn't his call to figure it out. He had enough things on his plate without trying to understand every whackjob in the greater Chicago area.  

It turned out it wasn't the wife. Ray negotiated the streets with practiced ease on his way home. Sometimes shit just happened. It had been bad luck; some sort of rare allergy and there never had been cause to have the husband checked out. It had been their anniversary... he had wanted to surprise his wife and had cooked something exotic. The medic had said it was a severe allergic shock. Had someone found him in time, he might have still been alive.  

Sometimes life just fucked you over... there were too many wasted chances, Ray mused pensively.  He pulled his cell out again and tried the Canadian Consulate again as he climbed the stairs. No answer.  

Why would Fraser ignore him after pestering him with those repeated calls? It didn't make any sense. The cop in him was getting a bad feeling about this. Sadly, there wasn't much he could do. Turnbull hadn't sounded as if Fraser had disappeared off the grid and Fraser didn't have a cell phone to call.  

Ray had no idea how he got through the following day. With lots of fidgeting and checking his phone for non-existent calls, that much was for sure. Paul had probably been an inch away from popping him one.  

He checked the address again. He should reach the Consulate in a few more minutes. If Fraser wasn't there then...he swallowed the twinge of fear in his gut. The building looked innocent enough. The metal plaque at the front proclaimed that it had closed half an hour ago— Friday obviously not being the biggest work day of the week in Canada.

Not one to be easily turned away, Ray raised his fist and started beating on the heavy front door. It took almost a minute until anything happened and Ray was almost prepared to come up with a plan B, which would have probably involved his trusted credit card and some handy lock-picking skills, when the door was opened.  

Ray caught his hand in mid-motion— he literally froze on the steps as he took in the sight in front of him. 

 "Oh Lord," exclaimed Ray, his mouth opening in shock.

"Hello, Ray," Fraser said and winced when talking reopened the cut on his lip. Ray pushed him inside and gave him a quick onceover. 

"What the hell happened to you?" He snapped and maneuvered Fraser so that he could sit down on the desk in the front room— hall— visitor area.  

"I stood up for what I believed was right." 

"You ran into a fist or two while you were at it?" Ray said angrily. 

"5, actually," Fraser said with an attempt at a smile. 

"Fists?"

 "Men. Well, four men and one woman to be precise." 

"Okay," Ray went into cop-mode. "Can you describe them? We can make a report, I promise you—" 

"Ray, the police are already informed." 

"Why didn't you call me, dammit?" Ray shouted, and then he flushed bright red as he realized that Fraser had called him before this had happened and Ray had refused to talk to him.  

"I'm sorry," Ray winced. "I— I would have helped you." 

"It wasn't official police business, Ray. A man hit a waiter and I couldn't stand by and do nothing. The man had connections to organized crime and I...I might have underestimated the situation." 

"Ya think?" Ray glared at his friend. Carefully, he raised his hand to touch the dark bruise on Fraser's cheekbone with a gentle brush of his fingertips.  

With a practiced eye, Ray catalogued the visible injuries. Someone had already patched Fraser up. There was not much Ray could do at this point.  

Looking at Fraser and telling himself that Fraser was going to be okay, Ray finally noticed how hard his heart was pounding. It almost hurt and Ray tried to breathe through it. He was scared and angry and relieved and still Fraser's injuries flashed before his mind's eye, the cut at his lip, the violet-black bruise on his cheekbone, the brown-black of a shiner, the gash across his forehead...Ray swallowed thickly and tightened his hold around Fraser's shoulders.  

Fraser winced slightly and Ray breathed out and tried to loosen his grip. 

"I'm okay, Ray."

"The hell you are!" Yeah, okay, still angry. "Let's go." Ray let go of his friend and turned towards the door.  

"Ray?" Fraser asked, puzzled. "Where are we going?" 

"To my place," Ray stated as if it should have been obvious. "You don't think I'll leave you here, right?" Fraser looked endearingly confused. 

"You sleep on the floor!" Ray said, a little louder than strictly necessary. Wasn't that enough of an explanation? 

"I sleep on a cot," Fraser corrected, reaching up to flick his thumb over his eyebrow, but he aborted the movement halfway through. He’d probably learned that it wasn't such a good idea at the moment.  

Ray glared at him and the muscle in his jaw twitched. Fraser was okay. Fraser was okay. He took a deep breath and slumped forward, catching himself on the desk. He looked up at Fraser and was met with a look full of concern that Ray definitely didn't deserve.  

When he finally managed to get the words out, his voice was soft. "I was an asshole and I'm sorry, 'kay?"  Fraser opened his mouth to interrupt and Ray shook his head at him. "Nu-huh. I was. I'd like to make up for it— remember? That step you told me about? That was all about toning."

"Atonement," Fraser said quietly.

"Yeah, atonement, right. So, uh, let me take care of you?” It was an agonizing ten seconds before Fraser nodded.  

Ray relaxed fractionally once he had Fraser settled down on his couch. Dief took the easy chair in the corner and it almost felt like a million regular evenings they had had.  "Are you hungry?" Ray asked softly, feeling a little out of place despite his insistence that Fraser come back with him. 

"I could eat." Dief backed that up with a woof and Ray smiled. "Chinese it is."  

Even though Fraser moved very gingerly, it seemed as if he was at least more or less comfortable.  In between, Ray noticed him rubbing his shoulder.  

"Somethin’ I can help you with? I could give you a back rub?" Ray offered. "I'm good with my hands," Ray wiggled his fingers in confirmation. 

A half-smile tugged at Fraser's lips and Ray stopped wiggling his hands with a chagrined expression. "That came out wrong." 

"You really don't have to, Ray—"

"I get that. I wanna help."  Fraser looked at his face as if looking for clues.

"Well, if you are quite certain... I prepared an ointment that helps with the stiffness in my shoulder. I would be grateful if you could help me administering it." 

"Sure," Ray said a lot more casually than he felt.  

Ray got up and fished the tub of cream out of Fraser's bag and by the time he came back into the living room, Fraser had shrugged halfway out of his shirt, leaving him in just his undershirt. 

Trying not to show how nervous he was, Ray climbed up onto the couch behind Fraser and stretched his legs out to either side of him. He unscrewed the lid and dipped his fingers into the white goo. It smelled strongly like...something disgusting. He opened his mouth to ask what the hell this stuff was, but decided against it. He already had it on his fingers; he'd rather not know what exactly it was.  

He warmed it between his fingers before he reached out and gently smoothed the salve over Fraser's right shoulder. There was the tiniest intake of air as Ray touched Fraser's skin. Sitting this close behind Fraser meant he was almost too close to have a good overview, but it was enough to see that they did quite the number on his back as well. He was mottled with bruises and Ray winced in sympathy.  

Careful not to press on any of the contusions, Ray massaged the ointment into Fraser's skin.  A soft sound escaped Fraser, almost too faint to hear, and Ray was suddenly feeling greedy; he wanted to hear more.  

He left one hand on Fraser's shoulder while the other explored his spine, gently kneading downwards before climbing back up. Fraser's head dropped forward and a low moan left his lips. Ray bit his lip and closed his eyes for a second. What kind of game was he playing here?  

His fingers danced over Fraser's skin. He wanted so badly to get to know the history of every scar and every imperfection. If he could...Ray would love to leave an imprint on his body.  "...stop...." Fraser's voice was low and it took Ray a second to obey. "I, ah, that was really helpful," Fraser murmured. "Thank you, Ray." Ray felt the soft tremor that went through Fraser's body underneath his fingertips.

"You're welcome," Ray said, sounding a little hoarse. He could almost watch Fraser pulling himself together in the way his body tightened. Fraser shrugged his shirt back on and turned around slightly, wincing a little as he moved too fast. 

"Careful," Ray cautioned.  Fraser nodded.

"I've been in worse shape, but... thank you, for your hospitality." 

"You don't have to thank me. We're friends, Frase."  The smile he got warmed him all the way down to his toes.  

It also caused Ray's carefully rehearsed speech to be stuck somewhere between his collar bone and his tongue. He wanted to let Fraser know that this thing between them wasn't really real and that Ray therefore couldn't act on those impulses...he really did.  Just maybe not now?  

Because Fraser seemed willing to let it drop— seemed even content to go back to the way things were before. Ray didn't want things to get awkward. Maybe they didn't need to?  

He put Fraser up in his bedroom after some discussion. Ray fell asleep on the couch to recollections of Fraser's warm skin.  

Ray dropped Fraser at the Consulate on his way to work because apparently Fraser didn't know the meaning of calling in sick. Ray asked him if he didn't at least want to have a lie-in, but Fraser told him something about getting into uniform and opening up the Consulate, which seemed to translate into ‘Canadians don't get sick’.  

Fraser refused all of Ray’s attempts to get Fraser to spend another night at Ray's apartment. It all sounded very polite and bullshit-y to Ray, but when he fell into bed that night and hugged his pillow, everything smelled like Fraser. Maybe it was less about being polite than about self-control.  

Ray shivered and inhaled deeply. God... he was so screwed.

It was weird, Ray reflected about a week later, how easily they had fallen back into their old rhythm. They went swimming, they met for a game of chess, they had dinner together— they laughed, and talked, and spent time together as if that kiss had never happened.  

Some moments, though, Ray could feel the electrical charge between them. It was in the way they never showered together anymore. Fraser excused himself every time, saying he wanted to do a couple more laps, and sometimes there were these odd lapses in a conversation. It happened to Ray constantly; Fraser was telling him something and Ray would watch that mouth talk and have a sudden flashback to that kiss and it would zing through his gut with a ferocity that left him slightly breathless with just how much he wanted that again.  

Ray didn't have much experience with being on the rebound...but he had begun wondering if that really felt like this.  

He had considered asking Fraser for his opinion. It was just...they had never discussed the night of the kiss again and Ray was afraid of bringing it up. Fraser didn't bring it up and he was also careful to keep at least a minimum distance between them.  

Ray wasn't sure, but he thought that might have been caused by his massage, because if he had been in Fraser's shoes he would've interpreted that as the kind of I'm-heterosexual-I-just-wanted-to-prove-that-I-have-no-problem-with-touching-you demonstration. Of course, that might also have been just in his head...there was no way around this. At one point, Ray would have to talk about it.  

"Don't forget about this thing tonight," Paul pushed Ray's coffee aside to make room for his own cup. Ray jerked out of his trance. "What? What thing?" 

Paul smirked at him. "Boy, you sure aren't all here lately. What's eating you?" 

Ray waved an eloquent hand at him. "Same old. So, what did I miss?" 

"Remember the assassination attempt on that Canadian country singer, Tracy Jenkins?"  "Sure, so?" 

"MacAfferty, you know? The dark brunet with her desk in the corner over there?” Paul gestured to the empty desk right next to the water-cooler. “She fit the description so she went undercover for the 2-7 and got shot for her troubles. She was released from the hospital at the end of last week and the 27th considered this as good a time as any to celebrate the successful interrelation between our department and theirs. So, they're throwing a party and we are invited….seeing as it was one of ours who got shot it’s really the least they could do."  

Ray mulled that thought over for a second. "Basically, the brass thinks we could use some good publicity and the fact that we saved an international star is just what they needed?"  "Yep."

"One more boring affair I could care less about."  

"Hey, aren't you interested in meeting the Mountie? It was Duck's case, you can bet your ass they will be there." Okay, see, Ray was a curious guy and that just might turn out to be interesting. 

He'd never been to the 2-7 before, but it looked remarkably like any other police station he'd ever been to.  

A couple of faces were familiar so Ray killed a half-hour making small talk with old colleagues. The food wasn't even half bad considering it was an office party, and there was free beer— what more did you need?  

Going by the loud laughter and the occasionally spilled drink his colleagues were really taking advantage of the free booze.  At some point, Paul and he met on their way to the buffet.  "Not too bad for an office shindig, is it?" Paul said with a nod at their surroundings. "Nope—" Ray was momentarily distracted by a flash of red over Paul's shoulder. Paul noticed his look and turned around. Funny, the uniform looked just like the one Fraser and his colleagues at the Consulate wore.  

"Oh hey, there's Duck," Paul pointed towards the man next to the bright red uniform. "I mean, Ray Vecchio," Paul made air-quotes around the name. Duck saw them and grinned. "Paul! It's been ages." At the sound of Duck's voice, the uniform turned around as well. And Ray froze in mid-step. Fraser? Fraser looked just as pole-axed for a second before he started to smile.  

Ray didn't even get a chance to say something because Paul was already taking over the introductions.  

"Duck, this is my partner, Ray Kowalski." 

"Nice to meet you."

They shook hands and then Duck pointed to the man next him. "This is my partner, Constable Benton Fraser— he's the liaison officer with the Canadian Consulate." 

"Really?" Ray said in mock-surprise and extended his hand. They shook hands and Ray seriously hoped that the smile wouldn't break his face.  

"Yes, I'm afraid it's a rather long story." Fraser's eyes were alight with merriment.

"You guys have been up to some crazy shit," Paul exclaimed, awed.  Fraser frowned. "In what sense?"  Ray swallowed the laughter that was bubbling up. So many of the stories he had heard made sense now. They had one thing wrong, though. Fraser wasn't an oddball; he was just a bit of a freak.  

Duck laughed and gladly recounted a few of their cases for Paul's benefit. 

"What do you say we go get something to drink?" Ray asked Fraser. 

"I'd say that's a wonderful idea."  

Ray took a sip of his beer and looked at Fraser over the rim of the paper cup. 

"So," he began conversationally, "you’re that Mountie. How come you never mentioned that?" Fraser looked confused. "I did tell you that I was with the RCMP." 

"Yeah, you also told me you were with the Canadian Consulate. I thought your job was all paperwork and confused tourists." 

Fraser rubbed his eyebrow. "Ah, I see how you might have come to that conclusion. Well, I am not an official member of this police department. My job is in fact with the consulate. People have accused me of not knowing what to do with my free time, though."  

Ray shook his head. In all that time... you'd think as a cop he should've caught on to that a lot quicker. Fraser didn't look like a paper-pusher. His whole demeanor had screamed military right from the start. Ray just hadn't put two and two together.  

"So all those times you said you were helping someone...?" 

"I was helping friends, Ray." 

"And your friend who hasn't been himself lately, that's...?" 

"Ray Vecchio." Fraser looked a little wistful. 

"I can't believe I've been this dumb." 

"I'm sorry, I have not been trying to deceive you...I just didn't think it was important. You didn’t want us to talk about our professions so I didn’t think it germane to discuss my function as a liaison." 

"No, no, no, I was just stupid. You did tell me and I heard stories about your cases, I just never made the connection." Because the stories hadn’t sounded like Fraser. Fraser was funny and kind and...yeah, he was a bit strange, but a good kind of strange. They had always made him sound like some kind of standoffish weirdo.  

They continued talking and Ray's colleagues proceeded to get drunk. Ray tried not to let the beer go to his head and he remembered with a sudden jolt that the last time he had been tipsy he had ended up kissing Fraser.  

He looked at the man. That didn't sound like such a bad idea. They were interrupted by Paul, who was pissed as a newt. 

"Paul," Ray grinned at him. This would make for some good ribbing in the near future. "Ray, my man. You're missing all the good chances. Look around you, the women are just waiting to be approached." Paul waved an unsteady arm around.  

Fraser's brows drew together. "Are you proposing that Ray should make advances to one of the inebriated female officers here?" Paul squinted at him and Ray covered his laugh behind a fake-cough. 

"Yesh," Paul slurred after a second of consideration. 

"Why?" Fraser asked, sounding somewhat affronted. Ray didn't know on whose behalf, his own or that of the 'female officers'.  

"See, he's on the rebound and he's been stuck on that someone he met a while ago..."  Fraser's gaze zeroed in on Ray and Ray felt all of his breath leave his body in one rush. 

"He has?" Fraser asked curiously. 

"Fraser—" Ray tried to intervene, but Paul was having way too much of a good time. 

"Tell me about it!" He sloshed beer around, trying to emphasize his point. "And he didn't want to do anything about it because he was worried it was just being on the rebound, you know? Right, Ray? So, he really needs to meet someone new to get over that crap."  

Fraser's eyes seemed to look right down to the marrow of his bones. Ray swallowed. 

"Maybe he just needs to trust himself," Fraser said softly while still looking at Ray. And Ray wasn't sure if Fraser was actually talking to him or to himself.  "Thank you, Paul. It's been a pleasure to meet you." 

"Likewise," Paul said, reaching a little unsteadily for the proffered hand.  

Fraser made his way outside and Ray followed, feeling kinda twitchy. The fact that Dief was circling them as if he wanted to make sure no one got hurt didn't exactly feel reassuring either.

The parking lot was deserted; everyone seemed to be inside, at least judging from the level of noise coming from behind the doors. 

"Ray—" Fraser started once they were outside. 

"Fraser, listen—" 

"Is it true?" Fraser's hands were toying with the brim of his fancy hat and he didn't look mad and he didn't look disappointed. He looked nervous and weirdly small for all that the uniform added quite a bit of bulk. 

"Yeah," Ray released in a huff the breath he had been holding. "I've been meaning to tell ya... the reason I freaked out...” Ray lowered his voice, “wh-when we kissed...." he rubbed the back of his neck. "I was afraid it was just a— a fluke or somethin’." 

Fraser looked absolutely rooted to the spot. "And now?" His voice was quiet, but it carried over the parking lot of the 2-7 nonetheless.  

"I don't know." Ray leaned against the nearest car in defeat. "How do I know if it's not just being on the rebound, huh? You don't deserve that, Fraser—” Suddenly, Fraser had a firm grip on Ray's arm and he pulled him along until they were around the corner of the building. Ray squinted into the near-darkness, trying to make out the expression on Fraser's face.  

Before he could be sure of anything, Fraser's lips were on his. Fraser's arms came around to hold him and in his surprise Ray stumbled back— his shoulder knocked against the concrete of the building, but that was okay because Fraser's body covered him again a second later.  

Their breath fogged in the night air, but Fraser's mouth was hot enough to dismiss the cold around them. Ray met Fraser's tongue and he invited him back into his mouth, tightening his hands on Fraser's biceps when he felt teeth against his lips— he gasped and Fraser pulled back slightly.  

"You want this?" Fraser asked in a low voice. 

"...yeah...god, yeah…." And Fraser's mouth was back, but this time Fraser's hands came up to cradle his face and he slowed the kiss, making it deep and meaningful and when he finally pulled back Ray wasn't sure he would be able to keep on his feet for much longer.  

"You wanna...." Ray tried to get some motion-control over his tongue back. "Come back to my place?" He would have sworn he was just a hairbreadth away from a heart attack.

"Yes." Fraser kept Ray's heart from jumping out of his throat by sealing his lips with another kiss.  

Fraser drove them back to Ray's place and Ray watched his face as he drove. There was the constant shadow of a smile on his friend's face that seemed almost alien on the usually earnest face. Happy, Ray's brain supplied after a little consideration.  

Ray smiled. There was still the barest hint of a blush on those cheeks and Ray, thoughtful, rubbed his lips. "Ray, can you not do that?" Fraser asked, only flicking him a sidelong glance. Ray's fingertips stayed frozen at the corner of his mouth. 

"Your fingers. Well, your mouth." Fraser inclined his head slightly. "Well, your fingers on your mouth. It's terribly distracting." A sly smile crept onto Ray’s lips. He brushed his fingers over his bottom lip once more. "You don't say?" 

"Ray." Fraser’s voice was a low warning murmur that had Ray shivering.  

They made it to Ray's apartment, pulling at each other's clothes and snatching kisses that meant the whole trip took at least twice as long as usual, but Ray couldn't stop touching and Fraser seemed disinclined to let him get further than a step away. Dief made a noise like a snort and curled up on the couch, and Ray vowed to get him a donut first thing tomorrow.

They half-fell through the bedroom door and Fraser's hand at the back of Ray’s neck protected his skull from connecting rather painfully with the closet.  

Ray wanted this— hell, he needed this. He had only a few vague ideas of what he was actually doing, but Ray had always been good at improvising. Plus, you didn’t exactly need that college degree to figure out how gay sex worked. His fingers uselessly attacked Fraser’s uniform but there always seemed another clasp that you had to open or another button that had to be taken care of.

Fraser seemed a whole lot more successful in divesting Ray of his clothing. There went Ray’s sweater, finding a snug spot on the floor and then those hands and –god– those lips were all over the newly exposed skin. Ray gasped and grabbed with one hand behind himself to steady himself against the wall and his other hand found its way into Fraser’s hair— finally something of the man you could touch without reading a manual first.  

A wave of heat washed over his chest when Fraser’s sure hands popped the buttons of his fly. “F-Frase….” Ray stuttered, not sure where he wanted to go with this speech. It was interrupted on a sharply indrawn breath anyway when Fraser, he—nuzzled— Ray, through his shorts. Okay, Ray was gone. Finito. Let the Mountie do what he wanted because he seemed to have a hell of a good idea what that was. 

Ray’s jeans dropped to the floor around his ankles and Fraser leaned in. If swooning wasn’t a total chick thing to do Ray would’ve done it right then and there. This amazing man was on his knees in front of him – on his knees in full uniform – and there seemed no place he’d rather be. 

“Ah… Jesus…” Fraser’s tongue was scorching. And everywhere. Heat and wet and Fraser’s nose pressed against Ray’s skin, almost at the root of his cock and Ray felt himself jerk in sheer helpless overload.  “Frase… Frase… oh… God…” Ray panted, head dropping back to rest against the wall while his hands held onto strands of Fraser’s hair. He could feel the climax approaching… perfect, with every slurp from Fraser’s perfect mouth, in a perfect counterpoint-rhythm, and Ray knew it would take Fraser absolutely no effort at all to let him come.

 But Fraser was too far away somehow and Ray wanted to have him right there with him when he came. He started tugging on Fraser’s hair, but the Mountie wasn’t so easily deterred.  

Ray was fine with that; he was the king of the forceful interruption. The direct approach had always been his best friend. “Fraser…” he gulped in another breath and felt a tremor run down his leg. Getting close. “…fuck me…”  With a wet sound, Fraser released Ray’s cock.

Wide-eyed was a good look on him. “Ray.” He sounded surprised. Without wasting another heartbeat, Fraser had Ray in another hug, kissing him, touching every spot he could reach.  “C’mon,” Ray urged. He couldn’t keep himself from rubbing against Fraser.

Fraser bit his lip. “Are you sure? I wouldn’t want—”

“God!” Ray groaned and struggled to kick his jeans and underwear off. Once that was accomplished, he pulled on the stringy bit of Fraser’s uniform, forcefully dragging him to the bed. “Please, fucking please, get out of this thing— there, I even said the magic word. That should tell you just how damn serious I am about this.” Ray attempted a daredevil grin which was probably ruined by his undressed state. His heart fluttered a little nervously, but maybe it was just excitement anyway. Who could possibly tell the difference? 

It took Fraser all of one second to kick into motion. His mouth snapped shut and suddenly the uniform was dismantled with science-defying speed.  Ray had all but time to get rid of his socks before Fraser was finished with undressing. And what a sight that was. So familiar and yet so new.  

Ray was good at playing the guy who already knew everything. But looking at Fraser he didn’t have to pretend to be anything; he wanted to finally reach out and touch that man, explore what made him moan. He didn’t need to pretend to be anyone and he didn’t need to act as if he knew what he was doing. A body was a body and everyone was different so you had to begin anew each time around anyway. Man or woman made no real difference to that concept. 

“C’mere,” he murmured. He pulled Fraser with him on the bed and stretched out next to him.  

Long, graceful fingers followed the curve of Fraser’s jaw, the dip of his collarbone, the gentle indentations between his ribs. Fraser shook ever so softly and somehow that made it easier for Ray to go on exploring. He followed the trail with his lips and heard Fraser’s stifled moan.  

He sucked one nipple into his mouth and finally dared to reach lower. His fingers curled around Fraser’s erection and he gave it a few experimental pulls. He’d never had another man’s dick in his hand but this was quite possibly the hottest thing he’d ever done.  “…oh…” Fraser’s hips came off the bed and Ray sped up the movement of his hand, caught up in watching the expression on Fraser’s face. 

 “Ray…Ray….” Fraser’s hand came up, pulling him down for a kiss and Ray’s hand faltered, distracted by what Fraser was doing with his tongue. When Fraser used Ray’s state of mind to switch positions Ray got the sneaking suspicion that Fraser had counted on this result.

“That was a dirty trick,” Ray informed him, panting. A low chuckle was the only answer he got at first. And then Fraser’s hand did the talking, slowly wandering up the inside of Ray’s thigh. Suddenly serious again, Fraser asked him: “Do you have some form of lubrication?” “Yeah, there’s…uh…massage oil in the drawer.” Ray pointed somewhere to the right side of the bed.  

After a little rummaging, Fraser’s hand returned triumphant from its quest. Ray got another heated look before Fraser dipped his head down to taste Ray’s hipbone. He settled between Ray’s legs and treated Ray’s cock to another lengthy exploration by his tongue. When the first finger slipped in, Ray arched his spine. Weird…weirdly great.  

Fraser’s mouth closed around the tip of his cock and sucked gently; he pressed a second finger in.  “Hah… Jesus…” Ray spread his legs a little wider.

“Good?” Fraser asked quietly.

Ray nodded fervently. “Yeah…” The rhythm of his fingers was way too seductive not to roll his hips. And that tongue was back, mostly teasing, just tasting him. A low whine escaped Ray’s throat. More. Moremoremoremoremore. 

“Impatient,” Fraser smothered his smile in a kiss to Ray’s thigh, but it didn’t interrupt Ray’s babbling. 

The third finger rubbed against his entrance and Ray pressed down to urge Fraser on. The third was more of a stretch, but it felt good, full, and when Fraser’s lips tightened on his cock it took Ray all of his willpower not to simply shoot down his throat. “Stop—” Ray gasped. “C’mere, you gotta—”

“Shhh,” Fraser soothed, slowly withdrawing his fingers.   

Suddenly Fraser loomed above him. A small smile on his face and Ray reached out and pulled him close for a kiss. He pulled his leg up to give Fraser more room and Fraser hooked his arm into the bend of his knee, drawing it further up. “Ray.” Fraser’s lips reached for Ray’s own again, and the next moment he lined his cock up and pushed in. One smooth, slow stroke and Ray tightened his hold on Fraser’s back, breathing out until Fraser was all the way inside. 

A soft tremor worked its way down Fraser’s arms, but he held perfectly still. Gently, his lips nipped at Ray’s bottom lip. “Are you alright, Ray?” God, he sounded like sex; the smoke of a smooth scotch and the roughness of gravel. Ray’s cock twitched in answer and Fraser smiled slightly. “I take that as a yes.”

“And if you don’t move soon I swear I will kick you in the head,” Ray panted, tightening his leg over the small of Fraser’s back. Fraser drew in a sharp breath. “Understood.” 

At least no one ever had to tell the man twice, Ray reflected when stars burst across his vision. There was this spot that Fraser was rubbing against and it felt almost like an itch that was directly connected to his cock.  “God… Ray…” Fraser moaned, biting Ray’s shoulder, and the sharp sting made Ray’s cock throb.  

Had he known that it would feel like this, hell, he’d have jumped into the sack with a guy the first chance he got. Precome left a wet smear between their bodies and Ray felt so close to boiling over that he left half-moon crescents on Fraser’s back. “I… Frase… I need,” Ray gasped.  Fraser nodded and closed the gap between their lips for a brief taste. Fraser’s hand curled around his cock, lending desperately needed friction to the already slick heat between their bodies. 

“Ah!” Ray threw his head back. “Faster—please—” and Fraser complied. With a cry, Ray spilled over Fraser’s hand. The powerful snapping of Fraser’s hips became frenzied and his teeth closed around Ray’s neck, stifling the sound his climax. 

Languidly, Ray’s hands roamed over Fraser’s back. A couple of moments later, Fraser pressed open-mouthed kisses along his throat and shoulder. Ray tugged on his hair, pulling Fraser’s face up to his own. The kiss they traded was slow and lazy. Ray had never in his life felt this bonelessly good….

“Ray?” Before Fraser could ask if he was alright Ray smiled.

“Thank you.” He pressed another kiss to the soft lips. The crooked tooth flashed at the corner. When Fraser pulled out to stop crushing Ray into the mattress, it was a weirdly empty feeling. As if his body was already missing Fraser. Well, if someone asked him, Ray was all about trying this again soon. 

He chuckled and Fraser’s brows drew together, creating a small crease between them. 

“I just…Frase…I might not be on the rebound….” Ray amended.

Fraser’s frown cleared. “Is that so? I am certainly relieved to hear it. Though I am touched that you went to such lengths to protect me from yourself.”  His tone was gently amused and Ray weakly shoved his shoulder. “I was being selfless and sacrificing. Do not mock me.”

“I would never mock you, Ray.” Fraser said earnestly, but the smile persisted. 

Ray gave it up as a lost cause. You let a Mountie have his way and you pay, and pay, and pay.  

Ray grinned at him. “You do know that I’m a nightmare to get rid of again?”

“Oh dear,” Fraser said, sounding not particularly concerned. 

“And I haven’t even finished the twelve steps yet. I might still go crazy.”

“You know, Ray, the next step is living a new life, one guided by what you have learned.” “Yeah?” Ray considered his friend and the earnest happiness on his face. “Think you’re up for the task?” 

Fraser bit his lip and then kissed Ray instead of grinning. When he released Ray’s lips again he had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “The last step of the program is to help others who are suffering from a similar affliction.”

Ray’s lips twitched. “And?”

“Ray, I believe I might be in need of therapy.” The grin broke free despite Ray’s best efforts. “That so?”

“Yes, you see, I seem to have become terribly fixated on a man with wildly experimental hair.” Ray chuckled. “I might know a thing or two about that.”

Fraser pulled him closer then and nuzzled his hair. They were quiet for a moment. After a few minutes in enjoyed silence Fraser spoke up again. “Ray…you might want to ignore Diefenbaker in the morning.” 

Puzzled, Ray stared at him. “Why’s that?”

Fraser rubbed his eyebrow. “He believes that it was his plan all along to make you part of this pack and he is terribly insufferable when he is able to tell you ‘I told you so’.” Ray presented Fraser with a crooked grin and smoothed a hand through his hair. “That’s okay, I can live with a smug wolf if that’s what it takes.” 

This would be his new life from now on? Bring it on.