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Follow Without Pride

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It started the night Diefenbaker sprained his paw; started, in fact, the moment Fraser ducked out of his office-bedroom to reassure Ray, who had been kind enough to stay. "He's gonna be okay," Ray said at once, his tone hovering halfway between statement and question. Fraser dipped his head in acknowledgment, and Ray relaxed visibly, the tension draining from his shoulders so quick and smooth that Fraser felt some of his own tension ease in response. "Good," Ray said. "Good, that's -- how long before he's back out with us?"

"It's only a sprain." Sodium-white street light fell in stripes on the carpet, illuminating Ray's still-anxious face, and Fraser felt a brief odd pang of regret for his apartment on Racine: Diefenbaker's convalescence would be more comfortable there than here. "His strength should be up in a day or two, and I'd be very surprised if he wasn't walking again by the weekend."

Ray nodded, fidgeting, his body tilted uncertainly towards the exit. He'd been very good to come back here with Fraser -- very good to have been so concerned over Dief's wellbeing -- very good to have, for the most part, skipped lecturing Fraser on the merits of telling Diefenbaker to chase a suspect with a car, and simply given chase in the GTO. They'd found Dief hours later, limping doggedly along the I-90. He was half falling down with each step, shaking with exhaustion, and Fraser had felt rather unsteady himself. All the way back to the Consulate, he had sat with Dief in the back seat, talking to him as calmly as he could manage in the hope that the vibrations of his voice would soothe his friend; would, perhaps, soothe both his friends. Ray had seemed as rattled as Fraser by the ordeal. Now, though, the concern had passed, and Ray was fairly radiating frustration.

"I'll come by the station tomorrow once I've finished my duties here," Fraser added, in case Ray needed prompting.

"I know," Ray said, ducking his head, addressing this to his shoes. He looked back up, and in the half-light it wasn't annoyance after all, it was ... shadowed, not yet definable. "He ever done that before?"

"With a car? Only once. It never even left city limits."

Ray nodded again, a sharp decisive little movement. "Will he be fine on his own?"

"I'd rather not leave him."

"Fine," Ray said, looking up. "He needs, uh, observation, right? Make sure he's not damaged?" At Fraser's nod, he finally slipped from his kinetic stillness and headed for -- the phone? Yes. Ray switched on the desk lamp and used the official Consular phone to order a pizza from Sandor before Fraser had time to protest.

"Keeping an ear to the ground?" he guessed. Ray stared at him. "Gathering information on the whereabouts of our suspect," Fraser clarified.

"No," Ray said. "I am getting pepperoni and pineapple, or anyway I'm getting pineapple if it won't threaten Tony's artistic integrity, and then we, my friend, are eating it, and maybe sharing the leftovers with Dief when he's feeling better in the morning. In the meantime we've got our observation thing to do."

"I'm perfectly capable --" Fraser said; a token protest. Ray's willingness to stay warmed him, and in any case he was interrupted before he could get any further.

"Capable schmapable -- I am not leaving you alone to worry." Ray looked around the hall. "There's somewhere better than this, right? Somewhere with a really awful floral couch?"

"Ah. In here," Fraser said, and he very much doubted that Ray had actually forgotten where any of the downstairs rooms of the Consulate were, but there was something comforting in Ray's normal twitchy energy. Also, the floral couch really was awful. The pattern nearly dared them to sit upon it and eat pizza without regard for crumbs.

So they sat on the couch together, with Diefenbaker sleeping exhausted but safe down the hall. They talked through the case again: there was really nothing to do but run a license plate search in the morning, but Ray had a few theories regarding other leads, one of them even supported by the available evidence, and this kept them occupied through Sandor's arrival with the pizza and through most of the subsequent meal. By the time they were winding down ("I'm perfectly willing to forfeit the last slice" and "I mean it, the candle-maker has to be involved somehow, that guy was seriously off") Fraser had, for the most part, stopped glancing anxiously down the hall every few seconds, and was no longer straining his hearing for the faintest noise of distress. In fact, he was calmer than he'd been in hours, which was of course when Ray chose to pick up an earlier thread: "So he's done this before."

"Chasing a car?" An affirmation. "Yes, but as I said, only the once, and within city limits, which is hardly --"

"But you're pissed off when he does stuff like that?" Ray wanted to know. "When he doesn't listen and almost gets killed?"

Ah. "No -- well, I would of course prefer that Diefenbaker continue living for as long as possible, but he is his own wolf, Ray."

"Yeah, so you say," Ray muttered, shoving the pizza box off the couch. It hit the carpet with a soft hollow thunk. "Know how he feels." And, before Fraser had found the right words, "But he's gonna be okay. Back on his feet, fighting crime, just needs a few days' R and R?"

"He'll be okay," Fraser agreed, and for the first time actually believed it. He allowed himself a small smile, ducking down to pick up the pizza box -- it wouldn't do to leave it lying around, whatever his personal feelings about the décor in this room -- and, straightening, found himself nearly nose-to-nose with Ray.

He froze.

That might have been all right on its own, but Ray froze too, and instantly destroyed all opportunity to deny the moment. They had, in fact, become very good at denying moments: hand-in-hand, brushing shoulders, looking at one another across a table or a warehouse, connecting, but never in any cumulative way, never in such a fashion that the connection couldn't be explained away in a moment. Not so here; here, Fraser was tired, rattled by Diefenbaker's ordeal, and ill-equipped to deal with the fact of Ray Kowalski's sympathetic face an inch from his own, Ray's breath coming in warm and possibly panicked puffs, their eyes locked, both of them frozen.

What Fraser needed, right now, was for Diefenbaker to have some sudden loud emergency.

"Frase --" Ray whispered. The lamplight had turned his irises almost crystal-pale, and it was perhaps only this which gave the illusion that Ray looked scared. He was sitting here, with the remains of the pizza, keeping company. He hadn't dressed down Fraser's irresponsibility. He had stayed.

Fraser leaned forward with the momentum of the inevitable and kissed Ray softly. All other roads had been erased or rendered irrelevant; he took the only path still open. He kissed Ray, and Ray kissed him in return, just as gentle and chaste, following Fraser's lead, just as he always --

Oh God, no.

Fraser pulled away. His heart was racing out of all proportion to the actual event, and refused his efforts when Fraser tried to slow it. He had -- he had -- done something in its own way as terrible as thoughtlessly telling Diefenbaker to chase a suspect in a fast-moving vehicle. If he set Ray on this course -- and, god help him, Ray had responded -- was looking at him now, in fact, and there was a sort of ... resignation on Ray's face. What the hell was he supposed to do?

"Early day tomorrow," Ray said.

Fraser stared at him.

Ray shrugged, a little twitchy hunch, and went on with a certain kind of determination, "I gotta run those plate numbers, and you gotta find time for Dief before the Ice Queen gets in. Full day -- early night."

"Yes, I think that would be best," Fraser agreed.

"Okay," Ray said, standing. "I'll come by? We should get those scumbags together."

"I'd like that." Fraser stood too, a careful distance from Ray. "I'll clean up; as you said, we have an early morning, and you still have to drive home."

Ray gave Fraser a sad awkward little smile, skewing his face into something terribly like understanding, and Fraser saw that they weren't pretending none of this had happened. It had: he'd been foolish enough to kiss Ray, and they would be dealing with the consequences, moment by moment, just as they'd dealt with hitting one another on a lonely dockside and all that happened after.

"See you tomorrow, buddy," Ray offered.

Fraser gave Ray the best smile he could and said his goodbyes mechanically. Seeing Ray out the door, he was still smiling, and Ray was still smiling back, and it all felt much less fraught than Fraser expected; he didn't know what to say, and Ray didn't know what to say, but with both of them smiling helplessly at one another it didn't seem so bad. He closed the door on Ray's retreating form and leaned back against it, listening until the sound of the GTO's engine had faded away and merged into the ambient Chicago traffic.

Even then, though, he couldn't make himself move from the doorway. He had kissed Ray. He had smiled Ray out the door. His heartbeat was still going faster than it had any right to. And this left them ... where they had always been. It had to. Ray had known within the first month of their acquaintance that Fraser found him attractive, without it affecting their working relationship or their behavior around one another. Fraser knew those things that brought Ray joy or pain; he had a rich patchwork knowledge of Ray's history at his disposal, all the personal moments that only a truly close partnership could bring forth; and though he'd made no conscious effort to return the favor, he suspected Ray could say the same of him. This was of a piece with all that: they had kissed, simply acknowledged again in a new way the tension between them, and it would be no more an issue than anything else had been.

This decided, Fraser went to check on Diefenbaker. In his office, Dief seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but something -- the vibrations of Fraser's feet against the floorboards, perhaps -- woke him, and he raised his head a little with an inquisitive whine. Fraser crouched down next to him and settled a hand in his ruff. "I didn't mean to disturb you," he murmured.

Dief didn't mind. He sighed, still exhausted but contented now, and cocked his brow at Fraser. He was curious to know why, when the pack was safe and he was fine, Fraser himself seemed to be so out of sorts.

"It's nothing," Fraser told him, but Diefenbaker clearly didn't believe it. "Well. I just seem to be making a series of unwise decisions today, starting with telling you to pursue --"

He was interrupted by a short growl. Diefenbaker was very emphatic: it wasn't Fraser's fault, and moreover Diefenbaker had been hot on the trail, although he appreciated Fraser's concern.

"I didn't realize I'd instilled you with such a sense of duty," Fraser muttered, but that only made Dief pant a laugh at him. "In any case, you should learn to think for yourself. I'm not always going to be there to pick you up on the highway, and you can't run yourself down all the time. It's irresponsible." He watched Diefenbaker expectantly, but Dief offered no comment, and after a moment Fraser felt compelled to add, "Not to mention it seems to be contagious. What would possess him --?"

Dief made a rude remark regarding pots and kettles.

"That's entirely different," Fraser said, but this already felt like an argument that he wasn't going to win. "Anyway, you should get some rest." This Diefenbaker seemed willing to concur to, so Fraser rubbed his thumb along the soft fur behind Dief's ears, a rare indulgence, and left the wolf to his sleep.

Fraser's own sleep was a long time coming, and when it did he dreamed, inexplicably, of standing on a deserted snow-fallen train platform, waiting and waiting for the dawn.


In the morning the world felt no more or less ordered than it had the night before. Dief's paw was still tender, but he ate ravenously and afterward gave Fraser's hand what might have been an affectionate lick, or instead a shameless ploy for more food, but it wouldn't do for him to stuff himself sick, so Fraser merely murmured something encouraging and went on with his day. There was the daily 10989B report to fill; there was the morning coffee to prepare for Turnbull and the Inspector; there were phones to answer, questions to field, a wolf to check in on anxiously in his free moments, and finally around noon a group of lost Québécois from whom Fraser had to rescue Turnbull after a small translation error. By lunchtime, however, Fraser had things well in hand and had even succeeded in keeping busy enough that he hadn't had time for undue worry.

When the GTO pulled up in front of the Consulate, though, the adrenaline in Fraser's system spiked inconveniently. He'd meant to come by the station himself, but that Ray was here would, under the usual circumstances, have been completely normal. Now ... He was fairly sure he looked unruffled when Ray walked in, but it was still an irritating little self-betrayal, and it made him take a moment longer than usual to notice that Ray was holding something behind his back.

"Hello, Ray," he said cautiously.

"Hey," Ray returned, sidling in. "Uh, I got a -- How's Dief doing?"

"Quite well, considering what he's been through." Fraser stood and came around the desk. A few feet of carpet still separated them. "He ate, and ... Ray, what are you hiding there?"

"Oh," said Ray, rather sheepishly, and from behind his back he produced a stuffed toy. It was perhaps six inches tall, fuzzy-looking, black and white with little beady eyes sewn on, and looked altogether like a cartoonish replica of a ... penguin.

"Oh," Fraser echoed, puzzled.

"I thought," Ray said, shuffling a little closer and holding the toy penguin out like a shield. "I know the wolf likes flowers and everything, which is what you're supposed to get someone when they're not feeling well, but me personally, I figure it's soup or stuffed animals. Saw a garage sale on the way here."

Fraser took the penguin from him carefully. It wasn't as soft as it had appeared at first: it was well-loved and slightly battered. "An ideal hand-me-down for an ailing wolf," he pronounced, and looked up at Ray. "Thank you."

Ray held his gaze for a few seconds too long before shrugging and looking away. "You're welcome. Should we give it to him?"

"Yes, of course." Fraser cast around and, at a loss, handed the penguin back to Ray. "If you would -- I need to finish up a --"

"Of course," Ray said, and went off to give Diefenbaker his present while Fraser made sure the front desk was in order and retrieved his hat. Then Ray was back, looking pleased -- evidently Diefenbaker had appreciated the gesture -- and already talking: "I had Frannie run the license number this morning, but apparently it was abandoned in Beloit, so for all we know our guy's out having a pleasure cruise on Lake Michigan. We got that second lead, though, out of the candle shop --" Here he paused to open the Consulate door for Fraser, and then they were heading down the steps to Ray's car, Ray all the while outlining a reasonable plan of attack. Fraser listened with pleasure: it was all very much par the course, something he could easily apply himself to.

Which was why Ray waited until they were not-quite-speeding down Lakeshore Drive, during a contemplative lull wherein Fraser assumed they were assessing their options, to say, "So about last night."

"Ray --" Fraser tried, but Ray cut him off at the pass, apparently recognizing the tone.

"No," he said, "shut up for a minute." Fraser nodded, but Ray didn't see; his hands were too tight on the steering wheel, and he was staring straight ahead, giving the road more-than-necessary concentration. That was somehow comforting. Once Fraser had been silent long enough that Ray caught the drift of his assent, he went on, "I know we've got a -- thing. A whatsit. A ..."

Fraser desperately wanted to provide Understanding? but Ray had told him to be quiet, and besides, he wasn't sure if that was the right answer at all.

"A thing," Ray said again, giving up. "A risking our lives in bizarre ways thing. A -- a buddy-breathing thing. And it's a you making excuses thing, too, which I get, because believe you me I did a lot of dancing with invisible Stella after I got this job, but you cannot tell me that was nothing. That was a serious something, Fraser, and you did the backing off thing again."

Fraser waited, but Ray seemed to be finished. He watched the flashes of slate-blue lake through concrete and trees, and sorted out the relevant parts of Ray's speech. "I'm not sure --"

"Yes you are," Ray interrupted, with such quiet intensity that Fraser stared at him in astonishment. Ray was still watching the road. "You could've made something up, but you didn't. You just -- backed off and didn't say anything, and it was up to me, but if it's up to me -- if it's up to me I'm not gonna do it. I'm tired of making things up and chasing ... I've done this road before, Frase, so either we're going to do this thing or you're telling me right now, for good, that we're not, and I will drop it, it'll be done."

"Ah," Fraser said.

Ray didn't seem impatient to hear more; he was surprisingly still for once, utterly focused on his driving. Fraser was grateful for that. Fraser was grateful for all of it, Ray's half-articulate fierce honesty not least, and Ray's willingness to give the decision to Fraser. The difficulty, of course, was that it wasn't a decision at all. It was perfectly obvious that they couldn't be anything other than what they already were; Fraser knew from ample experience that to be anything more was to court disaster. His judgment was already at fault for even slipping enough to kiss Ray once, and to do more was -- unthinkable. Where might they lead each other then?

"It's done," Fraser forced himself to say. "Not -- not our partnership, or at least I hope so. But my forwardness was inexcusable. It won't happen again."

Ray nodded. Ray nodded and kept nodding, his hands tightening on the steering wheel and a little muscle jumping in his jaw, but all he said was, "You got it."

The silence after that was awful. Eventually Fraser gave in and turned on the radio in desperation, flipping through blaring sound interspersed with cracklings and newscasters, hoping with great fervency that, once they'd reached the candle shop and resumed their work, things would fall back to equilibrium. It had, after all, always worked before.


It was an hour later, and Ray had run out of rounds.

They were crouched together behind a vat of gently bubbling wax. Ray was swearing furiously, his glasses slipped halfway down his nose, and Fraser was wishing with utter futility that Diefenbaker could have been well and here to help them; the smell of hot wax was overpowering, but even with that disorienting factor Dief would still have been helpful in a tight spot. A bullet pinged off the vat and whined by Fraser's ear.

"Any suggestions?" Ray muttered.

Fraser looked around, but -- "No," he whispered back. "The vat's much too big, and even if we could push it over, it would give our assailants some second-degree burns at most." He was beginning to hear far-off sirens, three blocks away, rise from the ambient city noise, but their opponents would discover their lack of firepower long before reinforcements would actually arrive. "What we need is a diversion."

"Okay," Ray said. "Okay, diversion. What d'you h -- Fraser, no!"

But Fraser managed to duck Ray's out-flung hand and stood up next to the vat, hands upheld. "Gentlemen!"

A last bullet whined by. "And lady!" the one female in their group of four attackers called from the back of the warehouse.

"And lady, of course," Fraser corrected himself. "If we could perhaps resolve this in another --"

"Think we're stupid or something?" one of the men demanded. "Forget it!"

This sounded depressingly final, but the sirens were very close now, possibly even within the hearing distance of less-attuned ears. Fraser tried to give it one last attempt. "If you could put down your weapons --"

The man fired.

Fraser hit the ground hard, surprised, winded, and for a moment only able to focus on the fact that his lower back was a mass of flaring pain. It took him a precious second to sort out the order of things: a shot had been fired, he was on the ground in no more pain than a hard fall would cause him, and Ray was sprawled atop him, frighteningly still.

It took him another long terrible second to register shouts, Chicago PD; get down! and to realize that Ray was breathing, in shallow shuddery rasps.

"Ray," he whispered, faint with fear.

"Fuck ow," Ray returned, and Fraser could suddenly breathe again, huge heady gasps as he sat up, helping Ray with him. Ray was clutching hard at his right arm, blood welling up dark from between his fingers; Fraser could already see that it was a graze, the muscle damage superficial at best, but that didn't stop him from feeling suddenly shaky, as knocked askew and fear-rattled as he'd felt for Diefenbaker yesterday. He wordlessly helped Ray to his feet and set off to find the expected ambulance sitting in the street outside the warehouse.

Five minutes had Ray's arm wrapped tight, Ray sitting not-too-pale on a gurney. Fraser tried not to hover and failed utterly. With Ray done, the medic left them with strict instructions to move Ray as little as possible while Fraser drove him to the hospital, and went off to see if any of the malfeasants needed medical attention. Fraser waited until the medic was out of sight, then sat down carefully next to Ray and made a thorough if unobtrusive examination: Ray's breathing wasn't too labored and the blood seemed to be starting to clot under the bandage, though he would certainly need stitches, but he was still adrenaline-tense, and -- looking at Fraser. Oh dear. This was well and truly being caught out, so Fraser owned up to it and returned Ray's look steadily.

"Do not do that," Ray said quietly.

"If I hadn't done something, they'd have had time to get away."

"So they get away, and we track 'em down again with better backup," Ray told him. "You don't get to do that, not when it's that damn stupid."

Fraser tried to remind himself that Ray was injured. It didn't work terribly well. "If I may point out, I'm not the one who stepped in front of a bullet."

Ray blinked and, astonishingly, smiled, a tight pained little smile. "Yeah, but that time I was wearing a vest. We're talking now -- I was just knocking the crazy Mountie out of the line of fire."

"That's not --"

"Would you not do this for me?" Ray demanded. His eyes were still bright and pupil-blown with adrenaline; he reached out with his good hand, and his grip on Fraser's arm was far too tight. "Would you?"

There was no point in even trying to misunderstand. "Yes."

Ray ducked his head and nodded. "We'd better -- uh, hospital."

"Yes," Fraser agreed, standing. "Yes." He let Ray lean on him as they made their way to the GTO; Ray was almost certainly fine to walk on his own, but Fraser wasn't about to point this out. Ray was warm and solid against his side; Ray was all right -- this time; Ray would come between a bullet and Fraser without a second thought.

Fraser drove them to the nearest hospital, obeying all the posted speed limits. Ray didn't even bother to hassle him about it, just sat quietly, his eyes steady on the road whenever Fraser glanced over anxiously. He'd make sure to help Ray with his incident report, especially since Ray's writing arm was damaged. He would, perhaps, make Ray wear a bullet-proof vest at all times, just as he had that very first day. They arrived at the hospital, and Fraser handed Ray off for the handful of stitches he would need, then sat in the waiting room, his hat neatly on his lap, trying to work it out. On that very first day Ray had come between a bullet and Fraser without a second thought, which was certainly enough to prove his loyalty and mettle -- which coupled with his concern over whether Fraser found him attractive -- added to a demand for trust, and another to know if anything had changed between them -- and a tendency to leap into danger simply to be where Fraser was -- except that Fraser would willingly do just the same for him, and had admitted as much -- and it had nothing to do with logic, and everything to do with --

Lunch. He just needed some food.

Fraser went to the food court, but everything seemed highly unappealing. He'd take Ray home and order them both something nice from the place on the corner that delivered salads and sandwiches. Fraser's restless feet led him instead to the gift shop, full of flowers, inappropriate boxes of candy, and a plethora of stuffed animals. He looked thoroughly, and futilely, for a penguin among the placid well-groomed teddy bears, but in the end Fraser gave up and returned to the waiting room in time to collect a newly-stitched Ray.

"Better?" he asked.

"Mostly," Ray replied, but he didn't try moving his arm in demonstration, and he was subdued for the whole drive back to his apartment. The prospect of salad and sandwiches revived him somewhat, however, so Fraser called to order once he'd seen Ray settled in on a couch. This done, he came into Ray's living room and began abstractedly organizing Ray's dusty piles of magazines until an emphatic and certainly repetitious "Fraser" brought his attention back to Ray.

"Ah. Sorry," Fraser said, setting the magazines aside. Ray patted the couch next to him, somewhat ominously, so Fraser sat.

"I'd like to hear it again," Ray said.

"Sorry?" Fraser offered, halfway between puzzled and contrite.

"No," Ray said, and huffed a nervous laugh. "No. Tell me again what you said in the car. Tell me you really mean it, and we are not doing this thing."

It seemed pointless to feign misunderstanding on this point too. "We --" Fraser said, and had to crack his neck and loosen his collar a little to find his composure. "I've never found -- that is, every relationship I ... They come at a cost. I find them ... detrimental."

Ray looked up at him and nodded slowly. "Yeah. I know that one."

"So it seems --" Fraser tried, and stopped.

He could count on one hand the number of people he'd be willing to do anything for, regardless of consequence; almost as many of them had repaid that willingness with betrayal. But Ray -- all the things Ray had said these past few hours slotted quietly into place. Perhaps he'd figured this out at the hospital, but now, sitting on a couch with Ray watching him, obviously waiting for the blow, it came clear: Ray repaid the willingness in like kind, risk for risk. It was, as Ray said, a serious something.

"It's fine," Ray was saying. "Like I said. We're done."

But, "No," Fraser told him. "Not this time."

Ray blinked. "What?"

"This time," Fraser said, and took a deep fortifying breath. "It isn't detrimental, Ray."

"Tell that to my arm," Ray said, but he said it like an automatic reflex before understanding dawned on his face. His eyes widened a little. "Wait."

"No," Fraser said again, almost heady with it. He could take a day off to be with Ray while Ray's arm healed. He could take a day off to be with Ray because he had an accumulation of sick days and Ray could talk him into it and he wouldn't think, for even a moment, that he was doing the wrong thing, because there was no obligation here, no atonement, and he was already completely unhinged. "No, Ray; I don't want to wait."

He leaned forward, careful of Ray's arm, and this time Ray met him halfway.