Upon arriving in Chicago, Benton Fraser's first moment of true culture shock occurred when one Detective Raymond Vecchio set a hand on his shoulder.
It was not the touch itself that shocked Benton. Detective Vecchio had already slung an arm over Benton's shoulder and grinned for a tourist's picture while Benton was on duty; but he had supposed that was a harmless thoughtless gesture, much like the gawking of schoolchildren who had come to stare at the Mountie. As far as Benton could tell, nothing of vital importance was kept in the Canadian Consulate -- so the guard outside was standing for show, and for the amusement of the natives. Detective Vecchio had been an amused native on the street.
But at the police station, while Benton looked at the photo Detective Vecchio had pulled up on the database, said detective settled a friendly hand on Benton's shoulder and leaned forward. Benton could feel him grinning. Benton stared at the mug shot, and with some effort of will said, "It's exactly the same nose."
He felt Detective Vecchio's grin get wider.
Benton had some faint memories of being held by his mother. He was fairly certain they were fabricated, patched together from the things he had read in books about how mothers were supposed to be, and one lone black-and-white photograph that went from house to house with him, showing a bundled-up four-year-old Benton out in the snow, held snugly against his mother's hip. His grandparents never carried him -- frail bones, his grandfather said; "Don't be ridiculous, the boy can walk," said his grandmother. His grandfather patted his shoulder, and his grandmother gently touched the top of his head, or gently cleaned the small cuts and scrapes so easily incurred by a small boy playing out-of-doors with his scout troop.
When Benton's father visited, he shook Benton's hand. His father's own hand was dry and warm, his grip very firm and assured. Benton wanted to shake hands like that one day.
He developed a theory: all of Ray Vecchio's casual touches to his arm or shoulder were not general to the American, but specific to the Italian-American, or perhaps to Ray's own family. Mrs. Vecchio shook Benton affectionately by the shoulders; Ray's brother-in-law Tony liked enthusiastic handshakes and manful claps on the back; the various Vecchio children, after the third time Benton visited for dinner, were apt to cling to his legs or tug on his shirt-cuffs while demanding stories.
Francesca Vecchio did not quite fit the theory: her casual touches were more often than not anything but casual, and, to Benton's enduring bewilderment, most apt to settle on his chest. A number of women (he forbore the keeping of an exact tally) tended to follow this pattern, the delicate hand to Benton's chest. He often had trouble breathing when this happened. How did one politely request the removal of a hand from such an obvious place? Benton usually stepped back and drew in.
Drawing inwards -- shielding, wrapping himself in the proverbial cocoon -- was alarmingly easy in Chicago. The smells were often unpleasant. The people had no wish to meet Benton's eyes. Besides Ray, no one made any effort. Benton girt himself, metaphorically and in uniform both, and made the effort instead. He did not catalogue fauna and patterns of migration; he catalogued people, names, hobbies, histories. Some of them met his eyes.
He knew them. They knew the Mountie.
Mark Smithbauer body-checked Benton, threw him into snow banks, yelled gleefully in Benton's ear whenever they were on the same team. Benton yelled back, throwing an arm over Mark's shoulder, and carefully labeled the warm glow inside him joy. The next year, he and his grandmother moved away.
When Victoria touched his chest, her curl-fingered fervency turned all the other women's gestures to mere caricature. Victoria stripped his outsides away, leaving him helpless but willing in the inexorable tide. The warmth inside Benton made him shake, as though with fever. Love, he called it.
She vanished and he lit his candles, counting as he went; one, two, eight, twenty-three, sixty, one-hundred-ninety-two, warm stumps of wax guttering against the windowsill. The warmth in Benton was a banked fire, trembling ashes waiting for kindling, and he knew he had found the wrong word. Need, perhaps. How terrible.
In the hospital, all fires long extinguished by diamonds and lead and the endless saline drip, Benton waited for Ray to touch him again. He was grateful when Ray waited, grateful for the quiet assured professionalism of Jill Kennedy's hands, so terribly grateful he suspected it bordered on the pathetic.
When Ray leapt in front of him, a hand flung across his chest and the impact of the bullet jerking through both of them, Benton did not feel grateful. He felt guilt and horror and remorse and worry and, perhaps, the faintest pleasure at the ironic justice of the universe; later, when they sat together at a window and Ray yanked the pair of binoculars from Benton's hands -- "Even Steven? Nobody says 'even Steven' anymore!" -- he felt something else, too: the clean love of a comfortable friendship.
The other Ray Vecchio did not behave like the first one. Obviously.
This Ray Vecchio behaved, perhaps, as one might after studying the physical habits of the Vecchio clan and extrapolating. Perfectly reasonable as this theory was, though, Benton still had his second moment of true culture shock, Kowalski style: this man hugged Benton after a bare minute of his acquaintance the way Ray Vecchio had after almost a year; this man slung a friendly arm over Benton's shoulder and gestured with expressive hands so that his thumb whispered against the naked skin above Benton's collar; this man jabbed his fingers against Benton's chest and looked him in the eye, from the first moment met Benton's eyes so that despite all the turmoil Benton trusted him.
He found himself echoing the familiarity, leaning towards this new Ray, figuring out the mysteries and the differences not with intellect alone but with determined physicality. Ray Kowalski fell back against him, the impact of the bullet jerking through both of them, and Benton unthinking cradled the new Ray, arm across his chest, eased him down, touched his face, pulled him back to his feet with a warm firm clasp of hands.
Benton supposed Ray Kowalski might be a very good actor.
Benton sat and stood too close to Ray, drawn in the inexorable tide, unwrapped, unraveled, answering all Ray's questions honestly.
He didn't realize the extent of his strange dependence on Ray's nearness until the water-soaked afternoon when, without warning -- with the warning of Ray's angry words and the week of tense mornings with Ray always to one side of him and his gesturing hands never touching Benton -- the only touch was a blow. Benton tasted salt, and knew Lake Michigan was freshwater, and wiped the blood from his mouth with a thumb.
Benton did not want to make a fist and connect it to Ray's jaw. Such a request -- such a demand -- even Steven, Ray didn't say, although Benton heard it -- was furthest from his mind.
He wanted to touch Ray's hair with the curve of his hand while they communicated in whispers between verses of song. He wanted to clasp Ray's cold wet wrists, an imitation of handcuffs until Ray was still enough that the handcuffs might be shot off. He wanted to seize Ray's shirt, skim the surprisingly silky skin of his back, and curl a fist in Ray's belt to tug him through the sinking current. He wanted to lean back against the press of Ray's body in the submersible and breathe in confined rhythm.
He wanted to cradle Ray's head in his hands and give Ray every last scrap of his own vitality.
Ray gasped, flat hair dripping in his face, open half-angry confusion writ large. "What the hell was that?!"
Benton told him the truth.
In the afternoon Welsh gave them a lift as far as Ray's car still parked at the docks in Sault Ste. Marie. The sun drifted down red and dazzling over the water, and Benton calculated the last time either of them had slept. They had been escaping the sinking Henry Allen on the previous evening; all the night before, Ray had broken an appalling number of traffic laws to get them to Sault Ste. Marie on time. Benton had been technically up from six that morning, Ray from perhaps eight -- and it being nearly six in the evening again, they had both been awake nearly sixty straight hours, and Benton doubted they had slept well beforehand.
"Ray --" he started as soon as they were both in Ray's car; he intended to suggest they only attempt the drive back to Chicago after a full night's sleep, but they both seemed to be reading one another's signals quite well without language, because Ray overrode him.
"Let's find a hotel, Frase," he said. "I'm beat."
Benton agreed to this idea with great enthusiasm.
He slept deeply and, he thought, well, but in the morning he awoke shivering a little with cold, despite the rather alarming heat of the cheap hotel blankets sticking to his body. When he sat up, the room buzzed and spun. Benton clutched at his head.
Ray, emerging from the shower in the sailor's pilfered clothing and his hair in damp spikes, saw Benton and stopped moving entirely for a long second. "Morning," he said at length, in a blessedly quiet voice. "Fever?"
"I'm afraid so." Benton tried to push the covers away and had to stop, breathing too hard in an attempt to master sudden pain. He ached all over, the way he had ached after the beating from Zuko's men, but more insidiously, with a burning. "Oh dear."
"Hey," said Ray; and for a moment Benton expected Ray Vecchio's response, pointing out that Benton was human after all, as though he was ever for even a moment unaware of that; and for a moment more Benton expected what might have been this Ray's response of late, a sort of sad savage triumph at Benton's fallibility. But all Ray said was: "Let's get you home."
In the car Benton dozed, beset by fever dreams. His skin, hot as it was, naturally peeled away white at the corners as a sunburn would. In his dream he scratched away at a knuckle; watched a thin sheet of flesh crackle and peel away with the small satisfaction he took from pulling masking tape from packages. He was not in Ray's car and he was not wearing clothes, so there was no hindering the careful satisfying shedding. At the end of it Benton felt like some molted creature, a reptile or a moth; bigger, more suited to his skin, shed of something he no longer had a need for.
When he awoke on the outskirts of Chicago, he felt raw all over and Ray was holding his hand.
"Ray, I thought you said you'd take me home."
"Yeah, and I did, so shut up," Ray said, steering Benton into his bedroom. Benton felt too wrung out and shaky with fever to protest. "Clean sweats in the dresser," Ray added. "They're old, so stretch 'em as much as you like." He got them out and pressed them gently into Benton's hands before Benton could voice any objection. "Now get into bed. I'll, uh, I'll make you tea."
Left no choice, and with no real desire to protest, Benton obeyed.
Ray returned a few minutes later with a mug in each hand, and nodded with apparent satisfaction when he saw Benton carefully propped up against the pillows with Ray's comforter over his waist. He sat on the unoccupied side of the bed and pressed one of the mugs into Benton's hands. The mug had a waddling line of improbably yellow ducks following each other möbius-like around the rim. Benton sniffed carefully at the tea, gauging caffeine content.
"Raspberry," Ray said. "Uh, I hope it's not too sweet. And Echinacea. Stella swore by it -- you drink enough of that stuff and you'll be better in a day or two. And I'm having it too in case you're contagious or anything." In demonstration, he blew a waft of steam off the top of his own mug and took a sip.
Benton closed his eyes and drank his tea in slow soothing gulps. It was not too sweet, not with the bitterness of the Echinacea underneath, and he thought, one small murmur of a pattern of thinking he tried very much to avoid on grounds of pointlessness, that Ray Vecchio would not have done something like this. Ray Vecchio would not be sitting next to Benton in his own bed, drinking tea with him in a determined combat with fever. But then neither would Victoria have done, nor Meg Thatcher, nor anyone from the police station Benton liked so well, not even Frannie Vecchio however much she would like to believe so; nor would Mark have done so when they were children, nor Innusiq, nor Quinn his guide, nor even his grandmother. At most any of them might have sent Benton on the path back towards self-sufficiency. This was not a fault.
Ray Kowalski was unique in the world.
Benton drained his tea and opened his eyes. Ray was holding his own mug with curled fingers; the tea was half-drunk, the mug patterned with stylized turtles. Ray was watching him, without expectation, even without worry. Just ... watching.
Benton licked his cracked lip. "Thank you, Ray."
"'s what partners do," Ray said, ducking his head and setting the mug aside on the bedside table. He looked back up at Benton and raised a now-free hand, pressing his wrist to Benton's forehead. The gesture was unstudied and terrifyingly intimate, as all their gestures had been since ... since -- well. "Fraser," Ray said.
"It did," Ray said. He moved his hand, sliding it down, resting it casually against Benton's burning cheek. "It changed things." And there was no mistaking what he meant, not with his hand a gentle imitation of the way Benton had earlier held his face.
Benton was feverish and exhausted; perhaps Ray was taking advantage of a vulnerable state. Perhaps there was something necessary in that. Benton leaned into Ray's hand and said, reasonably, "It doesn't necessarily --" but Ray was shaking his head, a denial of the offered reprieve, his thumb brushing absently over Benton's overheated oversensitive skin, and God, how had Benton missed this, this embarrassment and abundance of signals now unmixed?
"It changed things," Benton said.
"Okay, good," said Ray, and leaned forward, not uncertain but certainly more careful than was his wont. His lips hovered a scant inch from Benton's and Benton wanted to protest the irresponsibility of spreading his illness, wanted to lean forward and press his lips to Ray's, his mouth already half-open in another imitation of a drowning night. Ray tasted of tea and of blessed cool skin, and he kissed softly, stealing Benton's scant breath and pulling back again.
"Ray," Benton murmured, solidifying the moment into reality.
Ray laughed, his normal half-manic cackle reduced to indoor sounds. "You're gonna kill me, being sick like that," he said. But he must not have minded, because he leaned in again and pressed a kiss to Benton's forehead. "Now get some more sleep, and we'll do this for real when you're better."
Benton considered thanking him. Instead he nodded and slid down in the blankets, and was strangely unsurprised when Ray followed as he always did, wrapping himself around Benton as best he could through the layers between them. The gesture of protection was evident regardless. Benton felt very warm, although perhaps it was just the fever.
He thought he might call it something else.