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A hall. A number of doors, all looking the same. He hesitates at the top of the stairs, which he's taken rather than the elevator because it wouldn't do to get soft.

He clenches his jaw and walks resolutely to the right door. He hears faint music, something for jitterbugging.

When his hand comes up in front of his face to knock on it, he pauses. His grip on his own teeth loosens and his hand falters. Instead of knocking, he reaches up and takes off his hat.

Standing there, he looks down at the hat he holds in his hands. He turns it slowly, in minute movements, inching it around and around.

A tiny bit of hair sticks up in the back of his otherwise brush straight, regulation short, polished black hair, now that he's removed his hat.

The music has segued into something lilting and slow. Definitely not for jitterbugging. Something more like the sad marathon dances for cash prizes during the depression, or for which men paid some women a dime to dance with them -- longer, slower songs. What men would have considered long enough and slow enough to get a dime's worth. Holding the women close, so close, too close--

His lips thin as he presses them together.

Suddenly, he hears the buzzer of the doorbell inside the apartment, which startles him. He almost drops the hat. He hears a chair scrape across the floor inside the apartment, then heavy foot falls across hardwood flooring, the dampened sound of those feet on a rug. Then he dimly hears the sound of the front door being buzzed, a heavy metal sound of locks freeing, feet heavily trudging up stairs from the ground level, the quiet whoosh of the elevator as it is called down to the bell ringer.

Before he can gather himself, prepare himself, muster something appropriate to say, he hears the foot falls returning, coming closer, closer on the other side of the closed door in front of him. He takes a small step back as the door swings open inward with a gust of air he can feel on his reddening cheeks, but clenches his jaw again.

The tawny blond and brown spikes are facing him as Ray comes abreast of the doorway because Ray is looking down at his hands, counting his money. Fraser can tell the moment Ray realizes out of the corner of his eye that someone is standing in front of him, because there is just the slightest flinch, and then Ray's head swings up. Their eyes meet, Ray's soft gray in the light of the hall, steeling blue in the milliseconds it takes to interpret Fraser's clenched jaw, slowly turning hat, red cheeks.

Caught. He's caught, like a moth. To the flame -- if only. No, caught and awaiting the approaching pin, no chloroform to ease it, no painless way to be pierced by the look Ray gives him.

Oh, he could have rung the bell. He could have let Ray know he was coming. He could have phoned, or mentioned something earlier.

But that would have meant admitting. That would have meant admitting he'd been planning -- planning and then vetoing -- the long walk up all the flights of stairs to Ray's apartment.

That would have meant intent.

That would have meant more than just "in the neighborhood."

That would have meant more than "thought I'd drop by."

He sees the muscle in Ray's temple move like a heart beat, as Ray clenches and unclenches his jaw. Ray's eyes, locked onto Fraser's, dart away just as his lower lip thrusts infinitesimally outward in a subtle display of temperament and stubbornness. They look at the hat, the boots, Fraser's hair, flit around the hall, apparently looking for Dief. Ray's hands have frozen at his sides, counted tens and fives in one hand, uncounted in the other. He is wearing a tight, white, sleeveless ribbed T-shirt and his work pants with the top button unbuttoned. The sheer volume of skin he displays is in sharp contrast to Fraser's high collared, long sleeved red tunic.

Ray's eyes settle uneasily back on Fraser's just as Fraser drops his, feeling his cheeks flush even redder.

"Ray--"

Ding. The elevator. A barrel chested man in a green fleece whose face is clearly tired from a day job, steps out and begins to walk down the hall, looking at numbers on doors, and then noticing Fraser and Ray. Because it's Chicago, and because it's night, his body language immediately becomes wary, although his look becomes curious. He walks slowly down the hall, continuing to look at door numbers, judging whether odd numbers are on the right or left and whether the numbers go up as he walks down the hall, or go down.

As he approaches Ray and Fraser, Fraser steps back more fully from Ray's door.

"Good evening, sir," he says heartily, hoping to lessen the tension with a cordial greeting.

"Uh-huh," the guy says, eyeing Fraser doubtfully, then looking at Ray. "You order a pizza?"

"Yeah," Ray says diffidently.

"Kowalski?" the pizza delivery guy asks.

"Yeah," Ray answers, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

Fraser steps back to give the two men more room for the appropriate exchange of food for money. No. Fraser steps back because he was hesitant to come as it was, started up the stairs and then turned to rush back down them, paced in the foyer a few times, until it became apparent an elderly female resident on the first floor might be inclined to report him to the police as a suspicious person. After which he took off his hat and nodded at her, and bounded up the steps, only to stop at the landing, and resume the hesitation and pacing.

"Pineapple?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ray says, "how much?"

"Twenty three forty seven."

Ray scowls, presumably at the price. He returns to counting, eyeing Fraser briefly just before counting out one ten and three fives. He hands them to the delivery man. While the delivery guy removes the pizza from the insulated hot delivery pouch, Ray stuffs the remaining fives and tens he had into his back pocket, then accepts the pizza from the delivery man, balancing the pizza in one hand like a bar tray. There is just the slightest hesitation in the man's character.

"Oh. Keep the change," Ray adds.

Fraser clears his throat, looking at the floor, his hat, his own knuckles.

Ray sighs and scowls, digs in his front pocket. He finds two crumpled singles and hands them, crumpled, to the delivery man.

"Thank you," the man says, folding the insulated hot pouch and putting it under his arm as he turns to go.

Ray holds his pizza, and looks at Fraser reproachfully.

Fraser looks up from the floor, his hat, his knuckles.

The elevator dings as the door opens to accept the delivery man for his trip back downstairs.

Ray is shaking his head, closing his eyes, as if to say he has the patience of a saint but he won't forever.

"It was--" Fraser begins.

"I know it was only--" Ray interrupts, then rubs his eyes with the hand not holding the pizza. "Look, with the other two singles it was fifteen percent, I'm not that cheap--you distracted me, and--" He cuts himself off. "I just couldn't think for a sec, is all," Ray adds, more quietly but sounding slightly more ornery.

"I'm sorry." Fraser speaks truly apologetically.

"Frase--stop--don't apologize." Ray closes his eyes under his hand, clenches his jaw, unclenches his jaw, runs the hand on his eyes through his hair and opens his eyes to stare moodily at Fraser. "Get in here."

He swiftly turns and steps back into the apartment, walking down the wooden hall way with a determined gait, his boots making very heavy and hollow sounding foot falls on the wood.

Fraser hesitates at the door way, then tucks his hat under his arm, and pulls slightly at the front edges of his red tunic, straightening it.

He steps in.

"Close the door, unless you want every critter and some of the people in here pursuing my food. Our food."

Just the slight change in the possessive warms Fraser.

All is not lost.

He walks, less heavily, down the hallway, to where Ray has ended up: in the kitchen.

Ray is opening cabinets, looking for plates, tearing off paper towels, pulling out drawers, getting a spatula and fork and knife. The latter two are not for himself -- he'll eat with his hands -- but for Fraser.

If it were just Ray, he'd need only the paper towel and the pizza in the box.

You're the one who was raised by a wolf, Ray said the first time Fraser asked for a plate and silver-ware. Isn't this good enough?, he asked, his gesture taking in the pizza box, two paper towels, kitchen table, them.

But Fraser knows he doesn't have the kind of metabolism -- certainly not in this city where he gets far less physical activity, although he does his best to compensate -- to eat the pizza as Ray does. Wolfing it down. Fraser knows a fork and knife will force him to slow down, eat methodically, taste the food, feel his fullness before he's overstuffed.

Surprising how many colloquialisms make use of the word wolf.

Ray could eat like lions in the Sahara: one very large meal every few days. In many respects, he does.

They sit at the kitchen table, taking comfort in predictable routine. This is a ritual they know; they have done it a hundred times; Fraser hopes they will do it a hundred more.

A thousand more.

Endless numbers of times.

Now that he has had it a hundred times, give or take, he can not imagine a future without it. High fat and cholesterol of the cheese be damned.

Ray's body feels angular and tense across the kitchen table but he sets the plate down quietly in front of Fraser, laying the fork and knife on top of it. Were he angry, he'd snap the plate down and drop the silver-ware, clattering, on the plate. Were he in "the high" of one of their better solves, he'd hand the plate to Fraser and then hand Fraser the fork and knife, and their fingers would brush as Fraser took them, and Ray wouldn't notice how Fraser's body would thrum.

Ray sets his plate in front of him, opens the pizza box, folds the lid back under the box, sets it back down, and sticks the spatula under a piece.

"Outside or inside?" he asks Fraser.

That, Fraser thinks, is a good question, but he doesn't mean pizza when he thinks about it.

"Er, outside."

"Why? You're not the one who needs a handle on his food," Ray comments, taking an outside piece with the spatula and putting it on Fraser's plate. The cheese stretches in a number of long, melted strings, and Ray severs them with the spatula before getting his own outside piece. "You should eat only inside pieces, since you have actual food holding equipment," Ray grumbles quietly.

Fraser knows Ray is just making noise, the way he himself prevaricates. He does not reply.

Ray takes his piece of pizza by the crust and holds it in front of his face. He blows on it repeatedly.

Fraser is cutting his piece of pizza and is absorbed -- letting himself be absorbed -- until he realizes Ray is still blowing slowly on his pizza.

When Fraser raises his eyes and meets Ray's, he flushes again. The expression on Ray's face is wary, cautious -- tense.

"Pizza's hot," he says to Fraser, still pursing his lips to blow. Fraser watches Ray's lips, then feels the heat crawl further to his hairline. He drags his eyes from Rays' mouth to Ray's eyes, and Ray's expression changes slightly, as if he cocked his head to the side--but he hasn't.

"I-is it?" Fraser falters. He has stopped cutting with his knife, pinned under Ray's gaze again.

"Yeah," Ray says, shoving the piece into his mouth, letting his face slide into a bored look and dropping his eyes. "You gonna eat in that?" He gestures at Fraser's tunic with the bitten piece as he chews, but doesn't look at Fraser.

"Oh." Fraser pauses. He had wondered why he felt unusually tense eating in front of Ray, and had assumed it had to do with unsettled feelings regarding this afternoon. But nothing about his uniform makes relaxation possible.

He sets down his knife and fork beside the plate, and stands. Swiftly, he undoes the collar, all the buttons, the Sam Browne, and is out of the serge and has it hanging off the back of his chair. Fraser can do this quickly and efficiently the way a soldier can clean and assemble his gun.

He glances at the table only to find Ray eyeing him -- inscrutably. When caught looking, Ray -- unlike Fraser -- does not blush. He just keeps looking at Fraser, chewing laconically, saying nothing.

Fraser sits and resumes cutting his pizza.

They eat silently, if not companionably, for a few minutes. In the time it takes Fraser to eat one piece with fork and knife, Ray has eaten three. Fraser tries to keep his eyes on his plate, but every time he senses Ray's gaze directed elsewhere, he glances at Ray. These stolen looks, however, are almost always quickly perceived by Ray, and his eyes snap up to challenge Fraser's.

Their chewing is loud, although Ray doesn't chew with his mouth open.

"Beer? Nah, you always say no," Ray scowls again. He sets down a crust he's trimmed of pizza with his teeth alongside the other two on his plate, and pushes his chair back from the table. On the way to the fridge, he tosses over his shoulder, "Root beer?"

"Thank you," Fraser says faintly, watching the muscles in Ray's shoulders and upper arms and back move as he bends and reaches into the refrigerator. This is facilitated by the tight ribbed sleeveless T. Ray reminds Fraser of a race horse, a greyhound, of a wild wolf--ever ready, alert, agile, watchful, focused. The rummaging in the refrigerator moves sinew under the skin of Ray's shoulder, and Fraser's heart skips a beat. He is no longer hungry. For pizza.

"Here it is," Ray murmurs. Beer for himself, he keeps in the door. Root beer for Fraser -- because Fraser refuses it sometimes, because of the calories, yet can't resist it other times, like a child with ice cream in the summer time -- is kept wherever it's kept in Ray's refrigerator. This usually means at the back, where it's been pushed by a number of takeout cartons with various levels of edible and inedible food. Fraser cleans Ray's refrigerator once every two weeks, but not so that he can find the root beer. He knows there will always be at least one in there. He cleans it to get rid of mold growth.

Root beer sought and found, Ray pulls himself half out of the fridge, lets the door shut by itself, and steps to the counter to rummage in a drawer for a bottle opener. Ray prefers bottled beer, although in a pinch he will drink canned, Fraser has noted. He has considered buying Ray beer a few times. He has considered buying Ray a lot of beer a number of times. He has never actually bought Ray beer of any kind.

The bottle caps pop off with satisfying fast clicks and fizzes, and Ray steps across the small kitchen to set the root beer quietly next to Fraser's plate.

Ray, however, does not sit back down. He leans back against the counter, props one hand on it, and drinks his beer, watching Fraser.

Fraser immediately becomes nervous. He is not in a position to look Ray in the face unless he turns his head (which would be obvious) and continues to stare (which would be obvious). He finishes the second piece he was cutting and eating as quickly as he can.

"Don't rush yerself," Ray murmurs. Fraser glances up at him, dabbing the corners of his mouth with the paper towel, and notes a certain satisfied smirk in Ray's tone, if not his actual expression.

Fraser clears his throat. "Delicious, as usual, Ray," he begins. "What do I owe you?"

"Ferget it."

"No, Ray, I insist."

"You can't buy pizza here with that money."

"But I can pay you back."

"I can't change that money at my bank."

"You can change it downtown."

"Fraser, the pizza's on me. Like always."

"I insist on paying for my half. Like always."

Ray shakes his head, looking at the floor. "Well, I'm not taking it from you. So you'll just have to leave it in all those little weird places you've found, like my bathroom cabinet, between CDs by the stereo, between RingWorld issues--yer lucky I didn't just throw them out in a pile, or I would've lost the money. And under the coffee maker."

Ray tilts his head back, tipping up his beer and swallowing several times to finish it.

Fraser knows this Ray behavior. This is the beginning of, All right, Fraser, I'm going to ignore what you did earlier, I'm not going to talk about the more and more wildly bizarre things you do to me, I'm going to just drink, and drink, and drink, and listen to you babble about nature or curling or hockey while we channel surf and we don't talk about any of what is going on between us.

"Ray," Fraser blurts out before he can stop himself, just as Ray is setting the empty bottle on the counter, turning towards the fridge and opening the door.

"What?" Ray looks over his shoulder at Fraser, puzzled.

"Don't drink any more b-beer," Fraser manages to get out before feeling the heat of a blush creep up his face again. Ray's glance over his shoulder narrows and Fraser cringes.

But then Ray just shuts the refrigerator door and looks at Fraser thoughtfully.

"You done?" he asks Fraser bluntly.

"Yes, I--" Fraser rises from his chair, picking up his plate.

"Put that down. Don't touch anything in here. We'll do that later. You always do that. One night it won't kill you to wait."

Fraser realizes Ray has come to some sort of decision within himself, and this accelerates Fraser's heartbeat.

"All right," he replies, his mouth suddenly dry.

Ray eyes him shrewdly, then gestures to the living room with a thumb. "Get in there." He pauses. "Take the root beer, if you want."

Fraser hyperventilates slightly as he walks into the living room, cool root beer in a brown bottle in his hand. But Ray is not immediately behind him. Fraser looks around, and realizes Ray has cleared away everything. There are no open CDs, no old issues of Ring World, no crumbs of fried rice, no crumpled paper towels, no grease spots on the wooden coffee table. There is nothing on the table but the television and cable remotes.

Just as he's about to reach for the remote, Ray calls from the kitchen, "And don't turn on the TV."

Fraser can't bring himself to sit down. To sit would be to choose how close to be to Ray, and Ray isn't in the room yet and Fraser isn't sure he wants to choose. If Ray chose it would make things so much easier.

Fraser walks to Ray's window and stands looking out at the twilit city street. He sips from the root beer, but the fizz is just a bit too much and he sets it down on the window sill to lose some of its carbonation.

He hears Ray come into the room behind him, hears Ray not sit on the chair, hears Ray not sit on the couch. The expectant silence between them grows.

"So," Ray finally says.

"So."

"This afternoon."

"I'm sorry."

It's reflexive. It's as if I'm sorry, Excuse me, I beg your pardon, and variations such as Terribly sorry were the first words he ever learned.

"Did I accuse you of anything? Did I say anything yet, but 'this afternoon'?"

"No," Fraser says quietly, still looking out at the bluish early night. He feels the cold of late autumn through the uninsulated window before him, winter waiting to quietly catch it unawares.

"I realize, Frase, you know a lot more about anatomy and physic-- physio-- muscle than me," Ray begins.

Fraser's cheeks warm.

"But, you know, it was my ankle I twisted."

Taking a deep breath, Fraser begins. "Ray, you have every right--"

"Did I yell at you yet, Frase? Did I? Did I make an actual complaint yet? Did I say what specifically bothered me?"

"Well, when you said it was your ankle, you intimated th--"

"I intimated, uh, nothing. Let me finish."

"How long will this take?" Fraser was surprised to hear himself sound plaintive and desperate.

"I don't know, I'm not finished yet--"

"Because I would just as soon have it over with--"

"Fraser, gimme a chance--"

"I understand completely--m-my hands were, were possessed of their own, their own--"

"Fraser, shut up and let me finish."

Fraser stops, blood rushing to his face. He has not once turned around yet, although he no longer sees the street because he has his eyes squeezed shut tightly and his hands in fists as he stands at parade rest by Ray's window.

"As you wish," he finally says, rather stiffly.

"Frase, I been seeing, uh, I been noticing, you got this thing. This thing about, about touching me. An', y'know, that didn't really bother me at first, because I'm like that, I grew up that way, maybe not like Francesca, but it's casual, it was nothing major."

Fraser says nothing.

Ray adds, "At first."

Fraser clears his throat, but finds no words.

"But, y'know, I started to realize that you don't even know yer doing it sometimes, you don't even know, like, that you're moving into, uh, territory you can't be touching."

"I understand," Fraser gulps.

"In public."

"I'm terribly sorry--"

"Shut up, Fraser. Just listen."

"All right."

"Did you hear what I said?"

"Yes. You said I--I was moving into, er, territory I can't be touching." The heat he feels radiating off his cheeks is so great, Fraser opens his eyes to see if the window is fogging.

"No. That's not what I said."

"It is what you said, Ray. I heard you." Fraser notes that there is some very fine condensation on the window in front of him.

"No. You heard part of what I said."

"You said--" Fraser tosses his head impatiently, frustrated and cringing inwardly.

"I said that you're moving into territory you can't be touching. In. Public."

Fraser stills.

"Now, most people know where the ankle is. And, yes, I twisted it. But you had this whole elaborate bizarre thing about alignment, and why you felt the urge to do that in front of Huey and Dewey and some uniforms, I have no idea; all I'm saying is, if you want to align my ankle, knee and hip, you need to do it on a chiropractor's table or something like that."

"Oh."

"Or... here."

"Oh."

"Not in front of Huey and Dewey and a bunch a uniforms and with Welsh showing up eventually."

Fraser hesitates, unsure what exactly he is being granted permission to do.

"And this is because...?"

"This is because you're not a chiropractor, Frase, but I know you think you can be anything you've read about in books. And because it's gonna look pretty queer to everyone else because... it's pretty queer."

Fraser presses his lips together, tasting the beginnings of bitter, of this close and no closer.

"You know what I'm saying?"

Fraser turns slowly, helpless to decipher what he hears.

"No, Ray," he begins slowly, wishing he had his hat so that he could turn it and turn it in his hands. "I don't know what you are saying."

"I'm saying--" Ray walks slowly, deliberately toward Fraser.

He draws very near, definitely invading the culturally accepted norm of personal space around Fraser.

The living room is near dark, because it is past twilight and street lights are on outside, but no lights are on in Ray's living room.

"I'm saying--" Ray's voice comes more hoarsely. "--this you cannot do in public."

He puts a hand on Fraser's hip.

Fraser inhales sharply but doesn't move.

"I'm saying, you can't touch me here in front of those guys." Ray leans over slightly and put his hand on the inside of Fraser's thigh, midway between the knee and the crotch. This brings his head close to Fraser's stomach.

Fraser begins to tremble and feels the heat and tingle of blood stiffening him, starting on the inside.

"I'm saying, if you do this in front of them," Ray kneels and slides his hands slowly down Fraser's legs, on the outside from the hip to the knee, on the inside from the inner thigh to the inner calf, "--it's gonna look pretty queer."

Fraser hopes the weakness in his knees wasn't palpable to Ray, whose hands are now sliding slowly back up to their original positions. Fraser is speechless, having expected any number of reactions--laconic protests, bitingly sarcastic shredding, exploding fury, icy withdrawal and cool distance. This--this--he did not expect.

Fraser has always longed to have an excuse to touch, to truly hold, Ray's hands--and so rarely did, except perhaps when he'd fallen pursuing Ladyshoes' assailant in the alley, and Ray had given him a hand up.

Finally, Fraser's throat moves, although he had commanded it to do so rather some time before. He looks down at Ray in the dimness of Ray's living room, seeing mostly the slight gleam of Ray's wide open eyes and the light spikes quivering as he kneels near Fraser. Too close to Fraser. In too--unseemly a position. One that--yes, all right, Fraser has imagined, has fantasized, has dreamt of Ray taking--in impossible reveries, hazy daydreams that vanish at the sight of Constable Turnbull or Inspector Thatcher and any 3467/B forms.

"Ray--what--what are you--" He feels the throb trying to take him over, trying to reduce his focus to just down there; but fear keeps it from succeeding.

"I'm touching you, Frase," Ray interrupts quietly before Fraser can finish. "Exactly how you touched me this afternoon."

"You--you were laying on your back, on the ground, after you'd fallen--"

"And that makes it better? More appropriate for public consumption?"

"N-no--that isn't--but you--"

"I'm doing the same thing you did. I'm just doing it in a different environment."

Fraser swallows.

"Why can I do this here? And you can do it anywhere but here?" Ray asks him, his voice almost fierce.

"I--I--because--I thought you'd injured--"

"Fraser..." Comes the exasperated reply.

"And because I-I wanted to be sure--no fractures--"

"Frase. Ray here. Give it up, already."

"What? What are you--" Ray rises slowly, releasing his hands from Fraser, but pressing his body against Fraser's thigh, then stomach, then chest.

Chest to chest, Ray speaks to him quietly. "You want to do it here too. You just won't let go and do it."

Ray's eyes shine in the near dark, and Fraser's eyes cannot waver from meeting Ray's.

Fraser gulps again, panicked thoughts going in opposite directions. This is fantastic--this is terrible--this is--

Unprecedented.

He feels a hand on the small of his back, pulling more of him against more of Ray. Now not only are they chest to chest, but their stomachs meet, staggered and slightly off-center to each other.

Ray straddles his thigh.

Dear God.

"Fraser. What is wrong with you?" The words are harsh, but Ray's whisper is gentle.

"W-what do you mean?" Fraser replies in a hoarse whisper.

"I'm here. You're here. They're gone."

Ray leans in, just a little harder, just a little farther, pressing himself against Fraser from the waist down. Fraser feels Ray's erection.

"Touch me," Ray whispers.

Fraser's fists loosen.