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"Come on, Fraser, your dry spell is turning into the Sahara." He shook his head, honestly puzzled. "It's just not natural."

"I am perfectly satisfied with my life as it is."

If he didn't know better, he'd swear Fraser sounded . . . hurt. He also sounded like he was, if not lying, then at least exaggerating some. Fraser was not perfectly satisfied. It occurred to Ray for the first time that maybe Fraser really didn't know how to approach a woman. Sure, the guy was not as naive as he liked to put on. But he spent so much time running away from women, how would he ever get any practice convincing them?

"Hey, look, it's no crime not to be Don Juan. Not everybody has my talents with women."

Fraser raised his eyebrows and looked at him steadily.

Okay, so he struck out with the women at the precinct. Even so, he'd spent twenty years with Stella, one way or another. Sometimes it seemed like a whole half of them were spent trying to trip her into the sack. He had a buttload of experience in that direction. "First, you've got to get them in the mood." He was a blue-ribbon expert at that. "Send flowers, take her out to dinner. And don't forget -- candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker." He winked, and smiled at the memories *that* brought to mind.

"I fail to see what imbibing alcohol has to do with attaching a woman's affections." Fraser's voice was getting tight.

Ray laughed. "You don't drink it, you pour it into her."

Jeez, that was nasty stinkeye.

"I'm serious, Fraser, if you want to break out of your goodie-free existence, and you don't want any of the babes who think you're made out of velcro and they're the loop side, you gotta pick one you like and go for it."

Fraser did a stop, drop and roll, as usual. "They are not 'babes,' Ray."

Ray snickered, thinking of the women he'd seen melt at Fraser's feet. "Oooh, yes, they are."

Fraser's glare could have peeled paint. "I simply don't think I'm suited for this sort of thing, Ray." His eyes were as screwed-down as his lips, now. As bad as Fraser was squirming, this was important, so Ray wasn't going to let up. Somehow, some way, he was going to see his best buddy get satisfied.

"All right, I get the picture. I can't explain how to do it just by saying stuff, and it's not something a man can do at an advanced age with no practice." He drummed his fingertips on the steering wheel, considering.

"I couldn't agree more." Fraser had 'long-suffering' honed to a fine edge.

"You need to have firsthand experience." He nodded decisively. "I'll pick you up at seven tomorrow, Fraser. Be ready."

It was good to know that Fraser looked just as stupid sitting there with his mouth open as everybody else did. It didn't take him long to recover, though.

"No. Certainly not. I will not spy on you and some hapless, unsuspecting woman while you take her on a date!"

Ray burst out laughing, and Fraser turned on the outrage full bore. The guy honestly looked mad as hell, something Ray'd never seen, and it shook him a little, but . . . "Oh, yeah, I can just see you at the next table -- " The image of Fraser lurking, poking his head out from under the tablecloth, maybe taking some notes, peering through that tiny telescope thing Ray knew he had somewhere, was just too good. He waved his hands, trying to brush off Fraser's anger, but that and the bubbles of laughter he couldn't choke down didn't help at all.

The sight of Fraser's stone face killed the last chortle.

"Uh," he tried to wipe away what was left of the smile with the hand that scrubbed over his lips, "that's not what I meant." The last thing he needed in this project was to have the guy pissed off at him from the get-go. That really would be too much like dating Stella.

"And what did you mean, pray tell?" Nice even tone, but he was still looking like he wanted to break boards with his forehead. Jeez.

"You. Me. Night on the town. It's a simple thing, Fraser."

Fraser's face melted. It was kind of scary to watch.

"Ray. Ray. Ray." Unlike his usual sharp delivery, he sounded mechanical. "You're -- you're planning on making an example . . . of me? You're going to teach me seduction by 'showing' me?" Ray could hear the finger quotes go up for that one. "I really think . . . "

"Keep your pants on, Fraser. It's only symbolic, or something. I can't explain it, it's intuitive, you know? I'm just going to have to give you the works."

Fraser gave him a look like he was off his friggin' meds -- the same kind of look, really, that he'd been giving Fraser pretty much every day for a year now. He already knew the guy moved like a stick -- well, this was a good impression of a two-by-four. That was okay. He could do carpentry. Fraserfied Industrial Arts I: the blind man who picked up his hammer and saw. Ray was just the man to hand him the hammer.

"I can assure you that although I have at times acted the part of a woman, I have no interest in being treated as if I were one while I'm not acting." He wasn't even sure how the words got out from between Fraser's stiff lips.

"That's because you've never dated me." Just thinking about it cheered Ray right up. The glee was just about splitting his face. God, he really had Fraser up a tree on this one, and how much fun was it? "Don't worry, just prepare to be swept off your feet." Ray gave Fraser a little push to get him out the car door, because he didn't seem to be moving too fast. "Now haul it, I've got a lot to do."

All the way back to work, he was bobbing like a cork over knowing something Fraser didn't. He'd show him, all right. Payback time for all those long-winded explanations. He had a zillion vacation hours, and it was dead meat for a change at the 27th, so Welsh okayed his afternoon off with a wave and a grunt. He had to get his act together, and quick. First of all, a decent restaurant, the kind that wouldn't let him in on most days.

A first date should be romantic, and romantic meant nice. Well, shit, why not the Drake? Nice restaurant, nice hotel. More than nice. In fact, there couldn't be a better seduction setting in the free world. Not just a restaurant, but a bedroom too. If he was really going to show the man how it was done, he had to provide a little follow-up. There was nothing like dessert, a little glass of liqueur to warm up with, and a gallant offer to relax in a more private place -- one that just happened to be only an elevator trip away.

Not only that, they could watch the Hawks in comfort for a change, instead of from his crummy beat-up sofa. Maybe get a room with a jacuzzi. Hell, he hadn't had a night out since following Stella with that Orsini asshole, and that hadn't exactly been the highlight of his life. Tomorrow night was good, it was great, because it had to be a Friday night date -- no messing with work in the morning or any of that shit. This was going to be strictly fantasyland. Fantasyland was, after all, the Land O' Love.

In fact, why not get a new suit? The suit he had reminded him of the bad old days every time he had to appear in court. Of course, Stella had picked it out. He'd never liked it in the first place, but damned if he was going to dump cash on a goddamn new suit for no reason. This was a good excuse, a twofer.

Flowers. Let's see, bring them along? No, better at work the day of. Women went nuts when they could let their coworkers drool over the bouquet. What kind of flowers would make Fraser's heart go pitter-patter? That was a tough one. He was pretty sure he couldn't get an arrangement of lichen in the shape of a caribou, even at the ritziest flower shop in town. Roses? Too boring. Tulips? Too wimpy.

He needed a gift that made a statement.

Maybe Fraser wasn't really a flowers kind of guy. There had to be something.

He let it perk while he picked out a suit at Field's, and while the tailor measured him up, and while the salesgirl sweet-talked him into a new shirt. It was one of those band-collar ones, so he didn't have to wear a tie. He paid extra to have the slacks hemmed by five tomorrow, but it was worth it.

Finally, he decided that what Fraser needed was a tree. It wasn't that tough to find a flower shop that would sell him a little potted pine. It was getting close to Christmas, after all. They even stuck a fake bird in it, and tied a red ribbon around it for him. Then he remembered that little Canadian flag on a stick, the one he'd swiped from some Consulate shindig. Sure enough, when he ran back to the car and dug around in the glove box, there it was.

It took him longer to find a box of maple sugar, and he had to drive halfway across town once he hit the jackpot, but he wished he could see the expression on Fraser's face when he opened it. On his way back past the florist's, he stopped in and got them to wrap it and deliver it with the tree.

In spite of his inner poet, he couldn't think of a damned thing to write on the card except, "Thinking of you." Oh, well. Sometimes that was as good as it got. He spent the rest of the afternoon running errands, but he still had a satisfied smirk on his face at the end of it.

***

"Benton Fraser." Turnbull ran an index finger along the edge of the embossed envelope taped to the florist's wrappings. "Constable Fraser, there's a delivery here on the desk for you!"

"You have full command of the obvious, Turnbull."

"Why, thank you, sir!" His subordinate glowed, not at all damned by the faint praise. It certainly didn't take much to make the man happy.

The package had arrived at promptly at nine, as he unlocked the door. He'd taken it from the delivery woman himself, reaching curiously for the card with his name, until he recognized the writing as Ray's whimsical scrawl. He recoiled. His first thought was to simply drop the offending package -- card, wrappings, and all -- into the nearest trash bin, unopened.

It would seem that Ray was determined to continue this charade, this ludicrous 'date,' and was, in fact, doing exactly as he'd promised. Trust Ray to keep his promises, he thought sourly. He had no intention of going along with this ridiculous start, and so he would inform Ray in no uncertain terms when his partner appeared this evening.

He shoved away an iceberg of resentment. It wasn't Ray's fault that he wasn't privy to Fraser's deepest secrets. In fact, Ray's lack of understanding showed admirable restraint, and possibly even a modicum of acting ability, on Fraser's part. He ought to be glad -- no, overjoyed -- at this bit of proof. Instead, being sent flowers on such a paltry basis felt much more as if Ray were heaping insult upon injury.

For hours, the lump sat on the corner of the reception desk, looming bigger every time he glared at it. In his mind, it had taken on the size and gravitational pull of a small planet. If he could not open it to inspect the contents, neither could he relieve himself of it.

"Where are your investigative instincts, sir?" Turnbull's square-jawed smile seemed even more vacuous than usual. "Aren't you dying to know what it is?"

With great difficulty, Fraser restrained himself from snapping. "I think it's safe to assume that the package contains flowers, Turnbull." A simple enough deduction, when the paper was strewn with the logo of a well-known city florist.

"Then why leave them covered in paper here on the desk? They'd bring a lovely spot of color to the reception area."

Why, indeed?

"I fear this gift is more in the nature of a . . . joke," he replied flatly. "One at my own expense." It was more than he should have said.

Turnbull looked mystified, not that that was unusual. He tilted his head toward the package. "Ugly flowers, sir?"

If he ground his teeth any harder, they could very well crack under the pressure. "I can hardly hazard a guess."

"Ah, Constable, exactly my point!" The smile turned upon him again, a blaze of white in the dark-paneled entryway.

Fraser considered the options available. He couldn't throw the package away; that would be outrageously wasteful.

On the other hand, taking it into his office -- his bedroom -- to unwrap in private would be placing much too much importance on it -- as if it were a real gift of the heart, to be savored in secret.

Really, the only face-saving option was to open it in public, in full view of anyone who might happen by, as if it were of no particular importance. At least Inspector Thatcher was absent for the moment. Fraser stifled a sigh. His life seemed so often to consist of choices between unappealing options.

"Very well," he said ungraciously.

Curiosity danced in Turnbull's eyes as Fraser pulled off the card, opened it, and read the words 'Thinking of you.'

If only that were the case. No signature, as if he would not be able to guess the origin. "It seems that I have a secret admirer."

"How marvelous for you!" twittered Turnbull, as Fraser wished him to Hades.

In a two-fisted grip, he wrenched the paper away, feeling too put upon to take much care for the fragility of flowers -- only to be completely taken aback by what he found.

Turnbull, of course, was delighted. "It's a Fraser fir! Tiny, but well-formed. A lovely specimen. What a perfect choice! Your admirer has fine taste."

The faint tang of fir tickled his nose, and he breathed it in deeply. Once again, Turnbull was right on the money.

"Oh, that clever bird, with real feathers!" Turnbull sighed in genuine appreciation. "And Her Majesty's flag." Observant of him. Perhaps there was a reason why he actually managed to hold a job with the RCMP. "Look, there's another package underneath."

Right about that, too. Promote the man.

Flustered, Fraser grabbed the second the package, aggravation fueling his haste. It had to be -- he needed it to be -- the expected box of candy. With numb fingers, he ripped at the paper and exposed the box. It jolted him to find a tin of maple sugar. He hadn't tasted that precious sweet from his childhood in . . . more years than he cared to count. There were rows of tiny sugar maple leaves, five across and five down, in two layers.

"I wish someone would mock me that way." Fraser looked up to catch a flash of sadness in his subordinate's eyes, quickly covered by the usual mindless enthusiasm. "Ah, I mean -- it's a very nice gift, sir."

It was a very nice present, far different than he'd been expecting. Fraser's irritation had disappeared like a puff of smoke with Turnbull's glum words. Ray's friendship was something he never took for granted. He was grateful every day for such a lavish boon. It fulfilled all his needs, if not all his dreams. Blindly, he offered the open box of candy. "Help yourself, please." Leaving it on the desk, he turned and walked with measured steps down the hall to his office.

"Wait! Don't you want . . . " Turnbull's voice faded behind him as he closed the door.

Seated safely behind his desk, all became clear. Fraser had underestimated his opponent. Ray was a man of his passions; how could he have forgotten that? In order to make a conquest, Ray would exercise every opportunity, utilize every bit of knowledge at his command. As good a detective as he was, Ray had plenty of knowledge. And Ray wanted to teach Fraser how to make a conquest of his own -- by example.

Ray, it appeared, was a very good teacher.

In essence, the man he cared for most in the world was courting him. How could he respond to such a thing in any way short of wholeheartedly? It seemed impossible. Ray's approach was irresistible -- at least to someone with as few defenses against love as himself seemed to have. Ray had just scattered the last of them to the four winds with a simple gift. How foolish and useless were his so-called defenses, breached at the first attempt.

Why not bend, when the wind blew? In the end, he would survive. So would their friendship. He already knew full well that the whole scenario was a farce, instigated by a good friend who had only -- well, mostly -- the best of intentions. At the end of the 'date,' there would be no hard feelings. There were only so many ways, after all, that his heart could break. He was fairly sure he'd already encountered them all.

He might as well enjoy just one evening of loving Ray.

***

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and he was looking forward to relaxing over a nice dinner with his best friend. The almost eerie calm of the Chicago streets lately made for a long and tedious week. Last time that happened, saber-toothed tigers roamed Chicago, cleaning up the streets in their own special way -- and they didn't do paperwork. Dammit, his butt was sore from sitting on it all week. No help from Fraser, either, so no relief from the boredom. It was definitely not buddies to call the guy up and ask him over to fill out forms.

Of course, the two of them still had to make it to the restaurant. The way Fraser'd acted yesterday, You'd have thought Ray was inviting him for an exciting evening of hot pokers in the eye. Jeez, it wasn't like his company was that bad. Fraser seemed perfectly happy with it all the rest of the time.

He wasn't sure what would be waiting when he got to the consulate. A stubborn, bullheaded Fraser, hunkered down like a stripped Lincoln Continental? Fraser ready to go out on the town, dressed in signpost red? Although what he'd wear instead, Ray couldn't imagine. Fraser must have a pair of khakis or something. It didn't really matter; if you looked like Fraser, they'd let you in anywhere.

Of course, he hadn't said where they were going, so that could be a problem. Just talking the man out of the Queen's woolies might take more energy than he had. He'd have to try, though; he really didn't want this evening to be about work. No reminders. He needed a break, and Fraser could for damn sure use one.

He was halfway up the walk to Consulate door when Fraser came out. Obviously, the guy really didn't want to be treated like a woman.

That thought fell out of his head when he took a good look. "Wow!" He was staggered. He had to be; he was pretty sure he'd never said "Wow!" to another guy before. "You look great! How'd you get a suit?" Like there wasn't a fancy store on every corner in downtown Chicago, and three in between. But this was Fraser. He wasn't a shopping kind of guy.

"Through the auspices of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

"They made you buy a suit? What, you caved under torture, or what?"

"There was no torture involved, Ray," Fraser assured him, dignity oozing from his well- dressed pores. "I was required to wear a suit as part of the NAFTA Conference plainclothes protection detail last year. I purchased it with Consulate funds, per the orders of Inspector Thatcher." He rubbed the edge of a dark blue gabardine cuff between his fingers, staring down at it. "It was just good fortune that it was at the cleaners when Greta Garbo burned my apartment building."

"It's, uh, really nice." The RCMP had forked over an awful lot of funny money for that suit. Or maybe it wasn't the suit itself, just the way Fraser looked like a million bucks in it.

Fraser looked up from this hands. "Thank you, Ray." It was a real 'thank you,' with real pleasure, and a real smile, not one of those courtesy mindfucks that Fraser was so good at. "You look especially attractive yourself."

Wow. Again. Fraser really did think he was attractive. He didn't lie. It wasn't just Ray's stupid asshole imagination. It made him feel like . . . a stud. Fraser was almost always right, about everybody and everything. He did kind of hate that about Fraser, but not right now. Fraser was playing along, being a good sport. Telling Ray he was attractive. Well, hell.

He had started out thinking this would be the Magical Mystery Lecture Tour, with him going on all the time about then tell her how hot she is and don't pick your nose. Even though he knew Fraser would never pick his nose, he would have said it anyway, just to be a jerk. But he didn't care about being a jerk anymore. He couldn't even remember why he wanted to in the first place. Sure, he still thought Fraser would be happier if he had somebody, but it wasn't really any of Ray's business.

He had a better idea.

This would be a different kind of night.

There was never a time he could remember that he ever got to show affection to anybody except Stella. Not more than a kiss on his mother's cheek, anyway. It just wasn't . . . well, it just wasn't. You didn't. Nobody did.

Still, who was he if not somebody who could look at everybody else and tell them to fuck off? This was a matter of pride. He was Ray Kowalski, a man who did what he wanted to do. He could show affection to anybody he damn well wanted. Never mind what other people thought, with their straight-assed lives and their small worlds after all.

He could grin back at Fraser and take his elbow and say, "Let's go." He could open the car door for him and not cover the top of Fraser's head while he got in, like his inner cop told him to. He could be nice to the valet, instead of yelling, "Careful with my car!" as the kid drove away with his baby. He could put a hand to the small of Fraser's back and feel the warmth through the nice suit as they followed the maitre d' to their table. It felt . . . really good.

When Fraser looked around from their table in the quiet corner he'd asked for and murmured, "I fear you're going to great expense simply to prove a point, Ray," he could smile and say, "It's not just about that."

***

He stared at the dark wood appointments along the eggshell dining room walls, looking at anything in order to avoid looking at Ray. In this way, he quelled the desperate urge to demand of Ray just what it was about. His half-formed wishes were running away with him, and he couldn't let them. Ray was an emotionally voluble and straightforward man. If there were something more than friendship, and possibly a bit of one-upmanship, involved, surely Ray would have made his interest more explicit.

All right, then. For the first time in his life, he would live for the moment, and enjoy this evening for what it was . . . whatever it was.

A soft voice tapped at the door of his thoughts. "Ben. Ben." Ray was trying to catch his attention. When he came fully out of his abstraction, he registered Ray calling his name -- his first name. He was surprised for a moment, and touched. Only his closest friends, what few there were, ever called him 'Ben' anymore. Then he remembered the circumstances.

Of course. How foolish of him. No man would take a love interest to an exquisite restaurant and call her by her last name. He felt a pang at this reminder of the meaning of their 'date,' but thrust that reminder away, grateful for his ability to ignore what he didn't wish to dwell on.

The sommelier was standing at his elbow.

"So, Ben, what do you think about the wine part of this wining and dining thing?"

"Ah. I don't actually drink, Ray."

"You don't mind if I, uh, indulge, do you?"

"By all means."

While Ray discussed wine with the sommelier -- obviously Ray had heretofore unknown-to-Fraser talents -- he took the time to observe his partner. Ray looked much his usual self, aside from the rather flattering aspect of the well-cut black suit, but there was something slightly different . . . perhaps it was an air of relaxation, not often found in or near Ray's whirlwind.

His face was open; his full lips turned up at the corners as he spoke, and the fine lines around his eyes had all but disappeared. A close shave made him appear younger and more vulnerable than the heavy stubble he ordinarily sported. Perhaps that was the very reason he favored it. Ray wasn't one to advertise the sweet nature he carried inside. As Fraser watched him talk, he noticed that Ray's mobile hands still spoke for him, but the sharp gestures were gentled and graceful tonight.

"Uh, why not?"

He lifted his gaze away from those expressive hands to Ray's face, confused. "Why not what?"

"Why don't you drink?"

Fraser narrowed his eyes suspiciously; although Ray treated him to a certain amount of sarcasm or derision, neither were apparent now. "It was the milieu in which I grew up. The advent of liquor in the far north had very much the same impact on the native cultures as it did in the United States." He straightened his shoulders in the unaccustomed fit of the suit. "I saw many people whose lives were the worse for it."

"You knew them, and you felt bad for 'em."

Ray was always one to reach straight for the pulse of the matter. "Yes." That, and he didn't know if there was that much difference, as much difference as skin color seemed to suggest, between the Inuit and him. They had a need for forgetting, for the dissolution of what was available to them day after day. The release or relief of liquor held something they could not stay away from. Even as a youth, he had wondered: if he, as Ray said, indulged, would he ever be able to stop? He had feared he would not, and it was one of the few fears he'd ever held to his heart.

Perhaps it was time to stop being afraid.

"I believe I will sample the wine. May I taste yours?" A passing waiter had taken his wine glasses, red and white, away.

"Listen." Ray punctuated his word with a gesture across the tiny table, a table so small that their knees nearly touched beneath it. The gesture ended with a hand wrapped around his biceps. He could feel the handprint clearly, warmly, through both the wool jacket and the sleeve of his crisp white shirt, and he couldn't help but tense slightly. "I didn't ask you to come with me to get you to do stuff you don't want to do." He could almost taste the wine on Ray's breath, they were so close.

"I want it." That was nothing less than the truth.

He wanted so very many things that were foreign to him.

As Ray rather hesitantly handed him the glass of wine, holding it by its delicate stem, their fingers brushed. The reaction that slid across his skin extended far beyond their actual touch. "Delicious," he assured his partner, although he was not sure if he referred to the surprisingly palatable wine itself, or the phantom taste of Ray's lips on the edge of the glass.

Ray leaned back in his chair, obviously comfortable once again, and waved for one of the ubiquitous wait staff to bring Fraser his own glass. "So," he said, "tell me something about you."

"I, ah," he should have expected this, but his mind was temporarily blank. "You already know all there is to know about me."

"That's just silly, Fraser." Ray's gleaming smile was unnervingly inviting, making him wish he were the type to share confidences. "I hardly know anything about you."

"You know that I grew up in the Northwest Territories, and that I came to Chicago on the trail . . . "

"Yeah." Ray's fingertips touched his wrist, along the edge of one white cuff, displacing the tiny hairs there. It was far more effective than his usual interruptions. "Yeah, I know all that." His palm covered the back of Fraser's hand, pressing it gently down against the tablecloth. "But I don't know what it was like to grow up there, or what you did for fun, or how old you were when you got your first kiss."

Ray's slow smile warmed him, and the wine must have emboldened him. "My first kiss was very special to me."

"Who was it?"

"Well," he backtracked, "truthfully, it wasn't my very first kiss, a mere peck on the cheek, that was special. My very first kiss was from June, the female third of our tiny scout troop. But that was not the kiss that counted." He inhaled shallowly. Ray might as well know, after all this time, exactly with whom he was dealing. It could stop this parody of a date in its tracks, but that would probably be for the best. "My first real kiss was that very same evening, only moments later, with her brother, Innusiq."

He was quite surprised, and a bit unsettled, when Ray's only reaction was the slight upturn of the corners of his mouth. The hand that held his moved away, after a brief caress of thumb against knuckles. He shivered as Ray reached for his glass of wine.

"Why'd you kiss Innusiq?"

Fraser slanted him a tolerant look -- one that should have annoyed the hell out of him, and, with luck, distracted him from this line of questioning. "Well, Ray, he could hardly kiss his sister, could he? As broadminded as they are, like most cultures, the Inuit have taboos against intrafamilial, er, affections. It would have been completely unfair to leave him out of such important experimentation."

"Hmm." From a slouch, Ray considered his words. "Why was that the real kiss?"

His diversion had not worked. Abruptly, his sangfroid crumbled. "Because he . . . " No, he couldn't say that. "Because I . . . " No, he really didn't want to say that, either.

Ray took pity on his obvious discomfort. "Never mind, that's okay. I didn't mean to, like, strip you naked or anything."

The very idea made his throat close up, even more so than the admission, unvoiced but obvious, that he was . . . moved . . . by Innusiq, and not by June. He could feel his face flame, and he was sure that the entire restaurant was staring. Ray just smiled and squeezed Fraser's hand, where it still lay on the tablecloth. Apparently his hand wanted to be near Ray, and would do as it wished independently.

"Hey, I had a way worse first kiss than you did."

"You . . . you did?"

"Jesus, yeah. How about after school assembly, in full view of half the junior high?"

"What?" Fraser was taken aback. If anything, he would have imagined some dimly lit alcove where Ray held Stella close, cupped her pointed chin, lifted her delicate face to his --

"Terri, I can't remember her last name, hell, I didn't even know her last name then, she just walked up to me, I think it was for some kind of initialing, you know, a get-into-a-club thing. And not only that, she had braces; she cut my lip."

Ray's left index fingertip smoothed lightly over his bottom lip, back and forth. Fraser followed the motion hungrily, every micrometer of it. He felt his tongue imitating it along his own dry lower lip. "She had to kiss the bad boy in front of everybody. Which, y'know . . . I didn't know whether to feel good or bad about that." He looked down, then up, mouth quirked, old confusion in his eyes.

"Ray. Ray." Fraser turned his palm up, still underneath Ray's hand, and squeezed back. "You were an attractive boy, just as you are an attractive man. I suspect that initiation rites did not really motivate that girl."

"Thanks, Fraser. You're a good guy." Ray was blushing, something Fraser had never seen before. He gazed in fascination at the spreading pink before shaking himself out of his momentary stupor. Ray withdrew his hand, which was only appropriate since the salads had arrived.

Fraser ate his greens without tasting them. Since they had salads, at some point he must have ordered an entree. His meal would be a surprise when it appeared before him. Ray poured him another glass of wine from what must have been a fresh bottle, since it was full.

Drawing the glass to his lips, reaching out with the very tip of his tongue, he followed the rim as he slowly turned the stem between two fingers. He wondered what it would be like to draw Ray to him in the same fashion, to sip and taste, to savor the edge of his upper lip, or the corona of his -- oh, God, stop. Stop now.

There could be no more. No more.

He lifted his head, moving his lips as if smiling, in the manner that he had perfected just for Inspector Thatcher. "So," he said. "How about those Cubs?"

The conversation drifted off in a less memorable, but considerably safer, direction. During an incredibly mundane and surprisingly civil, albeit teasing, discussion of which was more dull, baseball or curling, and exactly why, Fraser began to calm down. He enjoyed fine food, even though he didn't have much occasion to encounter any. The wine turned out to be a wonderful accompaniment to the meal. Eventually, the pressure at his zipper turned into something completely different. Erotic reverie had given way to basic necessity, and he excused himself.

***

Never was he happier to see Fraser walk off to the can. He needed a minute to review here, to regroup. Dammit, he needed to think. Holy fuck. Fraser just told him he was gay. Or whatever gay was when you wanted hot bank-robber chicks, too.

Okay, it wasn't Fraser who told him. Fraser did not talk about shit like that. It was Ben who told him, Ben who was at the Drake with him, having a glass of wine, eating a nice meal . . . Ben, who was with him on a date.

Ben, who knew it was a fake date.

A fake date that felt . . . real.

He hoped that Fraser -- no, Ben -- needed one hell of a long bathroom break, 'cause he needed to examine the evidence.

Exhibit A:

When Fraser said what he said, it was way more of a shock to hear it come out of the guy's mouth than to know it.

How long had he known, or suspected, Fraser wasn't interested in women? Liked 'em, yeah, but didn't want 'em. Only one answer to that -- forever. Frannie was a ditz, but she was a sex-kitten ditz. Any man would kill to get his hands on that. Almost any man, since the one she tried to climb like monkey bars didn't want any.

What about Fraser's boss? She was a bitch, all right, had Stella flat on that one, but she wanted Fraser bad. And Fraser wasn't playing in her sandbox either.

Okay, so Ray knew. He always knew Fraser didn't want a woman. Thing was, Fraser wasn't interested in anybody else, either. The guy knew a lot of people, but he didn't have any friends. Well, one friend. Fraser, it seemed, was a one-person person. It didn't take E=MC Hammer to figure out who that one person was.

Exhibit B:

Ray was at the Drake, paying for one fuck of a big dollar dinner with the guy he spent every day with, pretty much day in and out. Ray had sent him presents, and was pouring him booze. He had a goddamn room. It was seduction, pure and simple.

All this, done supposedly so Fraser could learn to put the make on some chick Ray already knew would never exist.

He tried to see it how Fraser had to see it, from outside looking in. With his nose pressed against the glass, dinner looked bad. Really bad. He'd tagged his best friend, who probably wanted him, maybe even loved him, and set the guy up. All of the buildup, none of the payoff. From outside, dinner looked less like teaching and more like teasing. Gee, sorry, buddy, didn't really mean it.

What a shitty thing to do to anybody, much less Fraser.

And Fraser was here . . . why? He wondered what the hell was going through Fraser's head right now. Fraser trusted him, yeah, but he wasn't an idiot. Some part of him, maybe all of him, had to know exactly what was happening here. For whatever reason, he'd agreed to go along anyway.

The evidence was stacked. Exhibits A and B left Ray looking like a brass-balls bastard. It wasn't like that! So what was he doing here, messing with his friend's head? His best friend, no less, a guy he loved more than . . . more than . . .

Loved.

There was Exhibit C, right there.

Ray loved Fraser. He wanted to show him a good time. He wanted to treat him right, wanted to give him something he never had before. Attention, respect, a night on the town. A decent meal . . . which he really wasn't sure, given the shit Fraser ate by choice, that he'd ever had up until now.

There were more pieces to it than that, though.

D would be that thrill that crawled up along his spine, the one that started when they talked about kissing, about Ben kissing a guy and liking it. E was the heat flowing below the belt while Ben was sucking off a defenseless wine glass. F was the way he kept holding Ben's hand and didn't want to let go of it.

After a closer examining of the alphabet, it was possibly time now to admit that what he wanted to give Fraser only started with a meal and a hockey game.

The fake date felt real because it was real. Now what the hell was he going to do?

Stupid question. He'd already decided the answer to that one before he ever got in the car tonight. Ray was going to show affection -- love -- to the person who needed it most, the person who most needed him. To the person he needed most. And he didn't give a shit who thought that was wrong.

***

As he washed his hands, he contemplated the evening. Taken all in all, so far, so good. When he'd shown his last card, Ray had barely blinked. He didn't know quite what to make of that, although at least he felt comfortable with Ray in a way he hadn't, ever since . . . ever since he'd begun to realize that it was his friend's presence that dominated his dreams.

This was so very . . . close . . . to everything he wished for.

He felt an instant's temptation to enter a stall and live his fantasy in the only way he could. Perhaps it would help him to better cope with being so close, and yet so far away. Sadly, however, that was not acceptable. A modicum of wine could not overcome his propriety.

Undoubtedly, that was why people often drank more.

He was strong. He was immutable. He was Ray's friend -- and only his friend.

When he got back to their table, he discovered that he'd ordered some kind of fish. It was very good indeed, even if he had no idea what, exactly, he was eating. He did not care enough to ask the waiter. He also emptied the third glass of wine. Ray refilled it for him, as a proper host should.

"Ray," he said between bites of fish, "do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Ask away," Ray replied, grandly scoring the air with a wave of his fork. He seemed more animated than he had earlier. "That's what we're here for."

So that was the solution to the mystery of the evening, he thought wryly. Still, he'd take his opportunity while he had the courage. "Are you still in love with Stella?"

For a moment, Fraser thought Ray was going to spit out his food, but then he swallowed with some effort. "Jesus."

"Ray, I'm sorry, I shouldn't pry, it's none of my business -- "

"Of course it's your business, are you stupid?" The man must be feeling his wine, as well.

"I assure you, I meant no -- "

"Sorry, Fr -- Ben. I didn't mean that. You're the smartest guy I ever met." Ray fumbled with his napkin, looking less sure of himself than he had all night. "It's just that it's . . . you should know these things. I should tell you. It's not like it ought to be a secret." Ray shoveled a forkful of something white, most likely garlic mashed potatoes, into his mouth, and spoke around them. "You're my partner."

If Fraser wanted to read more into that statement than was meant, he felt the powers that be might forgive him. "Ah." Or perhaps the wine was affecting him more than he knew.

"Don't give me that 'Ah' shit, and don't correct my language, either." Ray stabbed at what looked like pork tenderloin and sawed it viciously, much more so than necessary for the tender cut of meat.

"I didn't mean to upset you, truly." And he hadn't. He just wanted to know. Once and for all, if only for this moment. He wanted to know whether right here, right now, Ray was in love with Stella.

"No."

Fraser jerked, wondering whether he had heard quite right. Ray's one syllable had been rather pointed, but -- and he usually meant what he said, but --

Ray's eyes were full, again, with much the same confusion he'd shown over the girl from twenty years ago. Did he not know quite where his feelings lay? "I . . . fuck, I loved Stella ever since the day I met her. And it'll probably never go away all the way, even if that's not what I want anymore."

"I understand, Ray." For the first time, Fraser reached out, taking Ray's hand in his own, palm to palm. "I'm sure I'll always care, in much the same way, for, ah," even after the wine he'd drunk, he stumbled past the outright admission, "my first love."

Ray smiled somewhat wistfully, and made no move to pull his hand away. It was just as well that their attention to each other could not easily be seen by the nearby diners. He felt sure Ray would react badly to that.

"What do you want for dessert?"

Fraser groaned inwardly at the innocent question. "I did walk past the dessert cart, but nothing on it really struck my fancy." He'd had plenty to chew on over the course of the evening, thank you very much.

"Well, hey, that works. I'm pretty stuffed." Ray checked his watch. "We're right on time for the Hawks game."

"Isn't it a bit late for that?"

"Nah, they're playing out west tonight, puck drops at 9:30. You wanna watch it with me?" Ray, his head cocked to one side, looked oddly like Diefenbaker begging for dim sum. Good heavens, what with everything, he'd forgotten all about the wolf.

"I'm afraid I really must get back to the consulate. Diefenbaker will be wanting a walk by this hour."

"I, ah, I talked to Turnbull this afternoon." Ray paused in the act of folding his napkin into accordion pleats. "I asked him to stop by and walk the wolf, as a favor, since I was taking you out on the town tonight." Ray could have no idea how winning his smile was. "He, um, he asked if he could just take Dief home. He told me you let him other times, so I said it would be all right. Uh . . . you don't mind, do you?"

Fraser closed his eyes, unaccountably stunned. He took a deep breath, carefully, through his nostrils. It all just seemed too much. It had nothing to do with Turnbull, really; there was nowhere that Diefenbaker would be safer or more doted-upon. The wolf's meal tonight would have rivaled Fraser's own. It was just that . . . Ray had everything, now. He held dominion over everything Fraser had ever, even tangentially, thought of as his own. First his job, then his private thoughts, now his wolf.

"Hey, are you okay?" Ray examined him worriedly, brow furrowed.

"I'm fine," he managed. "I'm sure Diefenbaker will be happy to spend the night with Turnbull."

"That's great!" Blue-gray eyes lit with pleasure. "Then you can come up and watch the game with me."

He wasn't sure he'd heard right. "Ah . . . up?"

"Yeah, I got this great room for us! We can kick back, watch a game in the lap of luxury, you can crash on a real bed for a change." His wink was arch. "It'll be a peak experience."

It would be; oh, it would be -- Ray was offering him heaven with both hands. There was nothing he wanted more than to take it. Then Fraser realized that there might be a fine line between heaven and hell.

***

Shit. Shit. Shit. Whatever he'd said, it was the wrong thing. Really, really wrong. The blazing smile that rocked Ray's world snuffed out, just like that. Now Ben looked like somebody dipped him in wax -- too pale, and with no moving parts. He looked like he'd never move again.

Fuck. Fuckity fuck.

Whatever made the guy look like that, it couldn't be good. Something about the room, and that was bad. The room had become very big in the night's plans in the last fifteen minutes. He had to get the flying fuck out of here before he heard the word no. It was the better part of something he was too fucked up to remember. Once no got out of Fraser's mouth, the rest of the night was history, and with it his only chance. Until no, there was still maybe. "I'll be right back. Gotta take a little break, y'know? Right back, yeah. Don't go away." Ray almost knocked his chair over backwards getting the hell away from the table.

One hand against the wall above the urinal, he considered his tactics. This might not be his only chance, but it sure felt like it. That was a good enough reason to act fast. Ray knew he had to trust his gut. He already had the advantage, right? He was Napoleon on the perfect campaign of seduction. Canada was going down. He'd gotten closer to Fraser in a couple hours than he ever had before; he'd made it all the way to Ben.

Except for the last five minutes, where he fucked up bigtime. If Ben was a girl, Ray would have said he was scared shitless.

So, say he was scared. Benton Fraser, nervous virgin. It was a tough thing to picture, but then again, what was there in the world to be more afraid of? It was plain as the mole on his ass that his buddy did, and did not, want to go up to that room with him. Maybe he was scared Ray would find out, that Ray would know what Ben didn't know he already knew. If he could get the guy to relax a little, convince him to come upstairs, then nature would take its course.

He'd made it this far; he wanted to make it all the way. Tonight.

How could he give it a push, though? With Fraser so wary now, the guy might not get within a yard of him. They weren't two kids at the movies, where Ray could pseudo-casually put an arm around Ben's shoulder and lean over for a kiss. If he could only get Ben to kiss him, they'd be okay. Because then Ben would know. Everything would be okay. He was sure of it.

***

No.

He would not do it, not for Ray's amusement nor for the sake of his own weakness. It was intolerable. The whole idea was intolerable, eclipsing everything that he'd allowed to happen already tonight.

It was only the more ironic, he thought, that this had been the most delightful evening of his life. He wasn't sorry for having done it, but he was annoyed at himself for the eagerness with which he'd leapt at the opportunity. Was there no end to the foolish things he would do? He'd just participated in a lowering performance in which the man he loved taught him seduction -- using him as the object lesson. The ease with which Ray had done so left a bitter taste in Fraser's mouth.

Oddly, nothing Ray had done had even remotely smacked of condescension or mockery; he wasn't sure exactly why this was. Ray had suggested the evening with just those mischievous overtones. Even this . . . he had seemed serious in asking Fraser to accompany him upstairs. Had he truly booked the two of them a room? Why? Such a thing seemed outrageous, far beyond the boundaries of this supposed learning experience.

If Ray had gone so far -- too far -- it was certainly grounds for Fraser taking his own ounce of flesh. A petty voice insisted on some kind of revenge, no matter how small. As to payback, he had his own ideas.

One kiss. One tiny taste of revenge for Ray's lack of true romantic interest. That was what he wanted, it was what he needed, and he counted himself well-deserving. Once taken, that tiny taste could be passed off as a practical joke, part and parcel of the whole evening, regardless of Fraser's earlier admission. Ray was hardly likely to question him -- he already believed Fraser to be deranged.

If he did pry for answers, Fraser could easily deflect him. In the worst-case scenario, he'd do it with questions about Ray's own motives, the faint but stinging questions which he himself had been forced to flick away like mosquitoes. Why had his partner led him into this odd and inappropriate situation? Could there be something more behind his gestures than camaraderie and goodwill? Ray would not want to examine such ideas.

Those questions were only a last resort. Even Fraser feared where they might lead. He would be seen as questioning Ray's sexuality, thus his masculinity; Ray would respond forcibly. He tended to do that when anyone impugned his manliness. Fraser had no desire to end this 'date' with a hard right to his jaw.

He would stop this foolishness on his own terms, and he'd stop it soon. There would be no spending the night in a hotel room with Ray, no matter how much, under other circumstances, he might wish to.

He would have his taste. He rubbed at his cheek where he imagined Ray would slap him, his shocked friend wide-eyed with offended innocence, and laughed aloud. That notion was every bit as ridiculous as all that had transpired this night. He lifted his last glass of wine in a silent toast to his absent dinner partner, and drank it down. He would have his taste. He could only hope the having wouldn't leave him more sorry, in the end, than to have gone without.

***

By the time Ray got back to the table, Fraser looked perfectly normal -- except he was looking like Fraser. He might as well be wearing the uniform, he was that stiff. Ray wasn't sure he could do anything about that except cross his fingers and hope. At least the guy didn't look like he belonged in a haunted house. All Ray needed was a few more minutes. All he needed was to get Fraser in the door.

"Whaddya say we blow this popsicle stand?" Ray signed the Visa slip with a flourish. "There's a TV upstairs with our game on it."

Fraser smiled, but it wasn't exactly a "Boy, are we gonna have fun!" smile. "Of course, Ray. I'll gladly accompany you upstairs."

"Terrific! You're taking the elevator, for once." Ray was surprised not to get a bunch of lip about how much healthier it would be to climb the stairs, but in the end, it was a mistake anyway. He spent the silent elevator ride trying not to look like he was staring anxiously at Fraser's reflection in the buffed metal walls. Probably it worked -- his partner might as well have taken a flying leap to Pluto, with that goddamned pound of nails. Ray thought it was a bad idea to ask where Fraser's head was.

There was nobody in the burgundy-and-cream hallway when they got to the sixth floor. Too late to go out to dinner, too early to come back. He found the suite without any trouble and had the card key in the door when Fraser put a hand on his shoulder. He turned around, grinning in relief. "Back to earth, space cowboy?"

"Yes, Ray." Fraser was looking at him with . . . the closest Ray could come to the expression on his face was grim determination. It wasn't quite what Ray was expecting.

"What's . . . " He waved a hand at the attitude.

"I cannot accompany you into your room, Ray. However, since this has been a very traditional date, I feel that all your effort and expense deserves the traditional finale."

He was still trying to unscramble the channel when Fraser leaned in and went after his mouth like dinner was just an appetizer. Ray's knees gave with no warning, but Fraser's hands around his upper arms held him up against the door. He wasn't going anywhere, not that he wanted to. Moving was no object.

Ray was lost in a world of warm, wet and tasty. Teeth clicked against his as Fraser's tongue made itself at home. His mom always used to say, "Home is where the heart is." Guess she was right about one thing. He'd call her up, except he was really busy right now. And christ, his mother? -- oh. Heart. Heart in the right place. Fraser's heart, right next to his, thumping away. It was a good place for both of them.

His mouth was definitely the right place for Fraser's tongue. He tried to make Fraser's tongue happy; it sure as hell was making him happy. Ray had his knees back in working order, sort of, but the starch in his legs was migrating into his dick. He couldn't move, damn it! He couldn't reach up, he couldn't wrap his arms around, he couldn't do anything but take it. So he did, clutching at Ben's muscular forearms.

His hard-on was hot enough to melt his zipper. That would be bad. Then Ben would have to rip Ray's jeans off with his teeth. That would be good. Ben could do that. Ben had talented teeth. Ben could do anything. Ray was moaning, he could hear himself, and trying to drag in air through his nose. If he passed out he'd miss the peak experience which was peaking right here, right now.

Ray needed to get a grip. What he needed to get a grip on was Ben's ass. He wanted to feel Ben wanting him, the hot and heavy of Ben's hips grinding against his own. He had to get loose to get tight, so he pushed at Ben's arms. He didn't have much leverage, but he didn't need much -- especially when Ben jerked back almost hard enough to take Ray with him.

Ben was dazed, but he didn't look like a happy kisser. He should look happy. Ray knew he looked happy. He didn't need a mirror; he could feel his swollen lips and the blood rising up to the whisker burn. Who knew Ben had enough whiskers for that? But it didn't matter when his partner looked at him empty-eyed.

Ben's face looked like a vacant lot after all the stickball kids went home.

When Ray could get his lips to move -- they felt so strange, like they didn't work any more if Ben wasn't attached -- he tried to get some answers. "The fuck?"

Ben wouldn't look at him. The guy was barely inches away. It was amazing how many other things there were to look at within a foot of Ray's face. Ben's arms hung down at his sides, shoulders slumped, but when Ray reached for him, he grabbed air. Fraser was walking off without a word. No way in hell was he getting away with that!

"Hey! Where d'you think you're going?"

Ben slowly turned back to him, and Ray could see the building-up load of crap that was about to spill out. He had better uses for that mouth. Crushing a lapel of Ben's nice suit in one hand, he managed to get the door open and pull the card key out with the other. Not bad when he couldn't see what he was doing. With his back to the door, all his attention was aimed at Ben. Who was not getting away. He managed to haul them both in, helping the door shut with his foot.

The immovable object formerly known as Fraser was no match for Ray. The Irresistible Force was with him. Ben was moving real slow, but he wasn't running away. He tried to make a joke of pulling the guy into the room with a half-assed smile. "Man invites you in. 's only polite you should come in."

"Nothing I want to do to you right now is polite, Ray." Ben's eyes weren't empty anymore.

"Fuck Miss Manners."

"I don't want to do that, Ray."

For once, he didn't make the effort to blanket his real feelings with naivete. He suspected Ray could smell the hunger on him. Great gusts of emotion had battered him all day; he felt like an old house at the mercy of the elements. For many years he'd been locked up, secure. Now, with the shutters banging and roofing wrenched away in strips, he was in danger of being torn apart.

All the way up in the elevator, a trip which seemed much, much longer than the few minutes it could actually have taken, he'd tried to clear his mind of all outside influences, to stay calm, to retain control. He'd concentrated on his breathing.

It had almost worked, until he noticed Ray's reflection -- how Ray seemed to be staring at him, and how he could not read Ray's intent in that stare. He was used to knowing Ray; knowing, in Ray's own cant, "where he was at." Somehow, tonight, this understanding had deserted him.

Was Ray's interest a farce? Was it real? If it were real, what were the limits of it? He could not keep his mind from traveling to the outermost possible limits of that interest . . . to dim sweat-scented bedrooms, to rumpled sheets stained with ejaculate, to the flesh and bone of Ray. He was grateful for the suit jacket, which concealed the strength of his desire. He slowly inhaled and exhaled as if air were at a premium.

When he announced his intentions at the door of Ray's room, he almost, for a moment, felt sympathy with Ray's incomprehension. Then he was immersed in a pleasure so deep it was akin to pain. The kiss was uncareful, unstilted, mindless of Ray's wishes. All thought vanished when Ray's mouth opened; welcoming, inviting, giving. He plundered the riches so generously offered without heed or prudence. He had long stopped expecting the slap when it came.

It was not, of course, an actual slap, or even a punch, and all the more humiliating for it. A mere push brought Fraser to his senses, rendering his mind clear, his body cold, and his surging need limp and pathetic. He didn’t know why Ray had changed his mind. He didn't have to know. All that he needed to know was that Ray did not want this.

Fraser opened his mouth to speak, but what threatened to come out were the sullen protests of a disappointed suitor. There was no call to abuse Ray with his own blighted hopes. He knew better; he had always known better. He had no excuse. He most certainly would not explain. He didn't even care to claim that the kiss was a prank; he'd lost all heart for that. Closing his mouth again, he turned away, struggling to remain upright. The end of the hall, the end of this wonderful, terrible day, was in sight.

At Ray's exclamation, he turned back, trying to formulate an apology. He was sorry; in some ways, most sorry indeed. In such a strained moment, surely it could only help to say so. The next thing Fraser knew, he was inside the room and Ray was chaining the door, murmuring something about politeness through a knowing smile. The words echoed oddly in his head.

"Fuck Miss Manners."

"I don't want to do that, Ray."

Ray was not at loss for an answer. "Then take what's available."

He found some words down at the bottom of his throat. "But . . . but you're . . . "

"Too sane to be with you?" Ray raised an eyebrow. He hadn't even known Ray could do that. "Nah. I think we're about even up."

Fraser stared, unblinking. "That wasn't exactly -- "

"Shut up."

The words held no heat, but Ray's lips did. Their heat and gentleness comforted him in places he'd never felt warmth before.

Fraser had always suffered from want. Or, at least, he had endured it for so long that it felt like always. The want that tormented him was . . . to be wanted. For as long as he could remember, he had endured this privation as stoically as possible. It didn't pay to call after the wind.

His grandparents had wanted him, of course, but their want was sharp-edged with other things. They wanted him to be this, they wanted him to do that. His father wanted him more in death than he had in life. The RCMP had wanted and then rejected him; they expected him to value silence over truth. Ray Vecchio had accepted, even worked for, Fraser's friendship, and then thrown him away on a quest to fulfill his own thwarted idealism.

Of them all, it was only Ray Vecchio that he had the remotest sympathy with.

Along with what -- on some days -- seemed to be a parade of women, Francesca Vecchio wanted his body. What Margaret Thatcher wanted of him was anyone's guess. Victoria had surely wanted him. She wanted his complicity; she wanted him in ways and for reasons he couldn't even begin to understand.

And still he wanted, needed, yearned for someone who could want, need, and yearn for him. Someone who liked him, whose interest wasn't solely based on physical appearance or perceived abilities. Such a nebulous wish had found a focal point one tumultuous Chicago day in the form of Ray Kowalski, a man whose name he did not even know, but whose desire he longed for. This need, this craving, had teased at him ever since the first touch -- the first moment of Ray's arms around him.

It should have withered and died. He'd tried to make it wither and die. His emotions, in this, would not be gainsaid. They would not perish. They were constantly fed by the nearness of Ray, his vibrance, his . . . life. Every day, Ray gave life to Fraser's need, until it became something with a will of its own. He needed Ray's lips on his. He needed the hard line of Ray's thigh against his own.

He wanted the contest of wills that thrilled him, the meeting of minds that exhilarated him. He wanted to be challenged, and baffled, and appreciated by this man. He wanted to be loved.

It seemed that fulfillment of his desires was nearer than he'd ever imagined. He could feel the warmth of Ray's breath against his cheek, and it raised more than gooseflesh. It raised his hopes. Would it would be all right to sift the ash away from the embers, just this once? He might be loved -- if not now, perhaps in the future. He didn't know enough about the nature of love to be certain. He couldn't understand why Ray chose to kiss him, but he was not above taking advantage of it, not above reciprocating, not above . . . hoping.

Ray's hand slid along his jawline and into his hair; Fraser's breath caught. The narrow palm and long fingers held just as much pleasure as he'd always thought they might. It made him swallow, hard, though his mouth was dry. He saw Ray acknowledge his movement.

"It'll be good," murmured Ray with a small smile, as if Fraser were protesting.

It was so hard to speak. "I know."

***

Now that he was up close and very, very personal, Ray could see what he didn't notice before. The signs weren't super obvious; he was just a little pinched around the eyes, a little twitchy at the jaw. Those were things that didn't go with the way Ben almost vibrated under his hands. Hell, as long as he'd gone without, Ray was lucky the guy hadn't just imploded with the first kiss. What was important now was taking that uncertainty off Fraser's face. Honest to God, he'd never seen it before and he never wanted to see it again.

Fraser was a mutant, he specialized in making insane shit look easy. Jump out the window? No problem. Second story? Good as gold. Even better, make it a grain elevator, and try to drown your partner while you're at it. It was all in a day's work for SuperMountie. Ray couldn't help but wince at the memory of it all, but it was over now, and this wasn't anything like that. He didn't have Fraser here, he had a man who was worried about the splatter.

"Relax. It'll be all right, I promise," he whispered into Ben's ear. That made Ben shiver, so he kissed the lines of the ear, following the curved edges with his tongue. Ray's nose was pushing into that thick, so-perfect hair, and now he knew the biggest secret of all: it wasn't quite as soft as it looked. They used the same brand of hair gel. Ben's hair wasn't naturally bulletproof; it was a hair product flack vest.

Ray would never have to worry about head shots again.

He cracked up.

Ben staggered back from him, hands scrabbling against the door, a dull red crawling over his face. Ray tried to stifle it, but no go. After all the weird shit that happened today, it was too much. Ben must have thought he was having hysterics -- he sure looked like he wanted to whap Ray a good one. Or maybe he was just plain pissed. He reached out and wrapped his arms around Ben and held him there while he laughed.

This was no way to seduce anybody.

Finally, Ben's mouth curled up too, and his hands crept around Ray's back. They were nose to nose, shirt buttons clicking together, snuffling and snortling. "Your hair -- " Ray rasped, when he could get the words out. They squeezed between his laughter.

"There's nothing -- wrong -- " Ben caught his breath first, but even he had a tough time, "with my hair." He was . . . yeah, he was giggling. Like a kid. Beautiful. His handsome face just lit up, laughing like that. Blue eyes bright and shiny, cheeks pink, he looked like he'd waited a long time for a good laugh, too. He'd lost that pinched, twitchy look.

"No, it's just that -- " Ray wheezed a couple more times, and then said, "Never mind. It was nothing bad." He reached up to touch Ben's cheek. Ben tilted his head to Ray's fingers. His lips parted like he wanted another kiss. That tiny move made Ray melt where he stood. In a second, he'd be a puddle on top of his once-dusty dress shoes. "Look, it's our first . . . date. Maybe we can start over."

Ben nodded, apparently ready to go with the flow. Maybe a slower flow was the answer. They'd come up to watch the game, after all. He tugged at Ben's hand, and was rewarded with a firm clasp and movement toward the big white leather couch. He grabbed the remote off the coffee table and clicked on ESPN. It wasn't twenty seconds before he realized that this was going to be an audience participation game instead of a spectator sport. The leather squeaked a little as he sank onto it under the touch of Ben's hands.

From behind him, Ben whispered hoarsely, "Just . . . let me, Ray,"

"Anything." He couldn't get much out. Words were almost too heavy to lift. "Whatever you want." Making a small noise, Ray tipped his head forward, giving Ben the back of his neck. Sucking kisses there had nerve endings that were unused for years begging for more. The feel of his jacket sliding down his arms made him hard again. The tip of Ben's finger at his throat, drawing a line down into the open collar of his shirt, made him squirm.

He grabbed the hand, holding it prisoner in his own, and thumbed along the sturdy fingers. They were strong and straight, and he shivered, thinking of them on his bare skin. Ben didn't pull his hand away, but of course he had something to say, even though his voice was wobbly in Ray's ear.

"I thought it was whatever I wanted."

"All's fair, buddy." Ray kissed the Y between Ben's thumb and forefinger, then bit gently at the same spot. Ben's jacket was gone now too, and he smiled to think of their jackets crumpled together on the floor. He undid Ben's starched white cuff, rolling the sleeve back. The inside of Ben's arm was even paler than the rest of him. The blue veins stood out in low relief as Ben's hand tightened on his.

Arms circled him. Ben hefted Ray almost into his lap, holding him tight against that broad chest. He didn't just feel hugged by Ben's arms, he felt hugged all over. It should have been strange, leaning back against a man, somebody just as big and tall. Ray'd always loved to be the man; he loved how little Stella was and how it made him feel bigger than life. But that was nothing, now. Ben wanted him. Ben needed him. That was the biggest feeling he ever had.

"Oh, Ray." The hair behind his ear was warm with Ben's words.

"Yeah," he mumbled. "I know."

Now he could feel the hardness against his ass.

It was okay. Different, but okay. He exhaled slowly. He had to. It made him dizzy.

It was different, too, when he unbuttoned Ben's shirt and flat-handed him down on the white leather. Ben looked so different, he was so different, lying in the yellow pool of lamplight, lips shiny from kissing Ray -- one sleeve rolled up, shirt open, chest bare. His hair stuck up in tufts. His shoes and socks were on the floor with Ray's. Shoes and jackets and shirts, oh, yeah. Skin and lips and kisses.

Ray didn't think he could ever get enough of seeing Ben like this. With the tip of a finger, he stroked the line of Ben's cheekbone. "You're . . . unbelievable."

Ben's voice was quiet. "Believe me." Shaking fingers undid Ray's shirt. Strong arms weighed him down for more long, silky kisses.

Nobody had ever wanted him like Ben did; he wasn't even sure how he knew that. Maybe it was the quivering tension in the flat stomach. Maybe the hard grip when Ben forgot himself, and how his fingers almost creaked easing up. Everything in Ray screamed for harder and faster, but no way was he going to. Whoever Ben was right now, that was the Ben he'd have, and nothing less.

Their bodies warmed up the leather and the smell came up to him in a rush, full of animal and hair gel and the sweat of him and Ben together. It was . . . he was going to be one of those guys that started on fire all by himself. And now he knew why it was always guys. Women had their own thing, they lived with it all the time, they knew how to keep it and use it. Guys like him needed the -- the -- accelerant. His was Ben. Ben, moving under him, looking like all he ever prayed for by himself at night was Ray's cock next to his.

The fuse was lit.

Long time ago, he thought, his mouth clamped on the curve of Ben's neck. Every smartass comment, every mind-meld, every . . . touch . . .

God.

Ben was moving, moving him, Ben was on top; he was trying to get Ray's pants off. God, yes, and he helped as best he could, letting Ben make them into a tangle of arms and legs and pants, and he wasn't much help. Then they were there, goddamn! Incredible. Bareass. Naked. "Fuck," he breathed, and Ben covered him, all of him, mouth with mouth and body with body. So hot, so hard, so heavy, and he was fucking smoldering, naked and needy and about to explode.

With his next breath, fire broke out.

He panted, heaving gasps that pushed at Ben, too. He wanted to keep it, to never let go, it was too soon, not enough -- never enough --

Ray lurched up with the force of it, almost whacking Ben in the face. He didn't hear himself shout, but he felt the rasp of it in his throat. Then all the other feelings knocked it away. He knew he was in the same place, pinned under the weight of Ben, but it was like being lifted. Like he could rise with Ben on top of him until they stopped at the ceiling. Pins and needles ran up and down his arms. He didn't want to come back to earth.

It was worth it, though, to be with the program enough to watch Ben tense up in the first wave. Ray saw the spark in his wild eyes, that same spark that ignited Ray. Ben slammed against him, sliding harder and faster in the wet mess on his belly. He didn't make a noise at all. He just came, eyes closed, with a soundless oh that turned into a jaw-clenching scowl. On Ben, it was . . . beautiful.

Soft, unfocused eyes opened to look into Ray's. Ray smiled, but not much; his mouth wasn't working again. He held on until Ben's movements slowed to molasses. Then he put a hand on either side of Ben's face and kissed him gently. Slowly, his partner came to ground too. He smiled a little, but it was unsteady, just like Ray's. They stared at each other and traded soft kisses until Ray was almost asleep.

A worried whisper stepped on his comfort zone. "Ray! Ray!"

"Huh? What happened?" Was Fraser freaking out? He'd been so warm and content, half covered by a big body, and his slide into dreamland felt so good with somebody else along.

"We, ah . . . we should perhaps clean up."

Nervous. Ben was nervous about something. "Why?"

"Well, for one thing, we're both covered in semen and may want to wash before we can't separate from one another."

"Don't wanna." He smiled and ran two fingers along Ben's not-so-smooth jaw.

"For another thing," Ben looked away, "I fear we may have stained this, ah, lovely couch. Which is, I might add, in a very public place."

Then he got it. Ray crowed, "You think everybody'll know that you did it! That you got some on the couch!"

Fraser eyed him sternly, up on one elbow, all composed and serious now. "It's not right to damage hotel property."

Ray blinked. How could he even do that with no clothes on, lying half on another naked guy in a swamp of drying come? Ray had to admire that, as useless a talent as it was, but admiration didn't keep him from leering outrageously back at Ben. "Well, then, I think we'd better be using the bed for the rest of the night, my friend."

Another look away. "Ah. Yes. Yes, of course."

***

Fraser sat on the edge of the bed, gazing at the wall. He could slide under the covers and forget his fears until the light of day. God knew he wanted to. But . . . no. He couldn't bear to wake up tomorrow with Ray scant inches away, yet somehow farther from him than ever. He needed to make sure of his future welcome now. Otherwise, morning would arrive and find him adrift, without the courage to ask questions.

There had to be a yes or a no. He could not walk blindly into . . . this. He had learned his lesson in the hardest school. Yesterday, he was a sure and solid man who knew what his world could encompass. Today, he was not quite so certain.

His voice faltered and cracked, barely allowing the words out. "You must know, now, that I have, ah . . . feelings."

Ray's lazy voice rose from the pillow. "Knew that."

Yes, unlike anyone else he had met in the last twenty years, his partner had always known. Some days he was convinced that Ray could see straight through him. Now, however, Ray's words were no help. An unexpected hand rubbed the chill from his back. At the same time, it shored up his determination. He cleared his throat; nonetheless, all that came out was a whisper. "To be more specific, I have . . . I have . . . feelings for you."

"Duh." Then Ray relented. "Yeah, I got 'em, too. For you. Same ones." Ray thumbed the back of Ben's neck soothingly, as if he were a wild animal that must be coaxed. "Come to bed."

And that was all it took. A tug on his shoulder had him falling, and Fraser didn't resist. He didn't have to any more. He tipped backwards, turning into the warmth as Ray flipped the covers over both of them. He arched greedily toward the softness of skin as wiry arms reached around his back.

"Nails are like people, Fraser," Ray mumbled, pulling him closer.

He wasn't sure how to respond to such a bizarre statement. Certainly it had nothing to do with the topic of discussion. No doubt it was another example of the reach of Ray's mind, which sometimes left Fraser stymied. It seemed that the man might fall asleep as Fraser stared blankly into the darkness, but then Ray spoke again.

"Say I'm at the hardware store, and there's nails all over the place, right? There's all kinds, all new and shiny. I might look at a lot of different ones, and think about 'em. But I need the ones that are the best for me, the right kind, the ones I can work with. I wouldn't take 'em home with me if they weren't. I sure as hell wouldn't bang on 'em if I wasn't building something I wanted to keep."

Fingers tilted Fraser's chin up for a brush of lips more tender than lusty. That alone reassured him more than anything Ray could have said. Satisfied, he moved to a better spot on the firm muscle of Ray's chest. He could trust his partner to keep his promises.

There was still one thing. "Ray?"

"Mmm."

Lips pressing against chest hair, he exhaled gently across the skin beneath it. "I'd take it very kindly in you if you were to send Turnbull flowers."

 

 

Epilogue

I looked up at the steps to the Canadian Consulate and groaned. Jesus, I didn't even feel like I could make it up to the door. It was only Monday, and already it'd been a long week. Every week was a long week since Derek dumped me. A day of doing the books for Mom and Dad's shop felt like a day breaking rock on the chain gang. My sister'd been after me to take a vacation, but the holidays were coming up, and that's when a family business needs all hands on deck.

Scrubbing my palms on my jeans, I tried to work up enough energy to get out of the car. Two minutes, max, and I could go home and stare at the TV. I thought about going to the Hawks game. Janie had offered me their tickets, but nah. I just couldn't. Too tired. I'd been sleeping a lot lately. She gave me a worried look when I turned her down. She knew that on a normal day, I'd kill for tickets right behind the bench.

There's a huge drawback to working with your family -- they're always around to be giving you looks.

Stupid last minute rush order. I was on the way out the door at 4:30 when a hot-looking blond guy blew in, cheekbones to die for and a smile that just about knocked Janie on her butt. I heard him pleading for a delivery today, and there was no way she could say no. I knew I'd have given him anything he wanted. The delivery kids were all out on their last calls, and Janie needed to get home, so I told him I'd take it. At least it was worth one of those killer smiles.

I sure as hell hoped somebody would still be in this joint at -- I checked my watch -- nine minutes after five. That was usually enough time for people to get their acts together and hightail it home. If not, I'd have to take this huge freakin' arrangement home with me and try again in the morning on my way to work. Hot Stuff had to have the biggest display in the cooler. Must be somebody here he really liked.

The envelope on the card said the flowers were for one Renfield Turnbull. It was enough to give me some hope just knowing that Mr. Sex On A Stick was sending flowers to another guy. If Renfield was a man's name. Who could tell, these days? Maybe Renfield himself would be here. Then I'd find out who rated the giant bouquet. That, and the knowledge that I'd get to go home as soon as I was done, finally got me out of my car.

I'd rung the bell twice and was about to trudge back down to the car when the heavy door opened and a man appeared. Tall, blue-eyed and broad-shouldered, he was the best thing I'd seen in months, even including Mr. Sex.

"Happy holidays, and welcome to Canada," he said with a big, toothy grin. It seemed like he was going to start some spiel. When he realized what he was looking at -- a huge silver-papered package that I could barely see over the top of -- he just went blank, like something really important fizzled out of him.

"Constable Fraser is not here at this time. However, I'll be happy to sign for the package if necessary." Happy wasn't my first thought, with the look on his face.

"I don't need a Fraser. This is a delivery for a Renfield Turnbull. Is he here?"

"Why yes, he is, for I am he." The change was surprising, even though I'd just seen it happen going the other direction. Renfield Turnbull was the little kid who'd just found the pony under the pile of shit. "Please, come this way."

It was kind of dim in there, and it was hard to see around the flowers, so he guided me down the hallway with a hand on my arm. Man, his hands were big. I couldn't help wondering what they'd feel like on the rest of me, but then I remembered. Mr. Sex was this guy's boyfriend.

When I put the enormous package down on the desk, I had to hide a smile at his eagerness. This was the one reason I used to like doing deliveries when I was younger; it was always nice to hear the oohs and ahs. He ripped the card open, and I waited for him to be thrilled. He wasn't. He just stared at the card. I couldn't figure it. If Mr. Sex bought out the florist for me, I'd be plenty damn happy.

"Somebody really likes you," I prompted.

"Despite appearances, this gentleman's attentions are directed elsewhere." Renfield Turnbull sounded so mournful, it might as well have been a funeral display. Maybe those were goodbye flowers.

There was no stopping my mouth. "He's not as bright as he looks, is he?"

"Oh, if you knew -- " he stopped and looked up, looking me in the face for the first time. He took a good look.

I managed to keep from nervously smoothing my hair down; I stuck my hand out instead. "Jeremy Roenick." Renfield's hand was warm and firm, about the size of a baseball glove. It felt good. He didn't let go right away.

"Do you really think so?"

Huh? Jesus, everybody's a comedian. "Yeah, I know I'm Jeremy Roenick."

He was even more confused than me. He dropped my hand and I saw the blush creep up his neck. I hadn't seen a man blush . . . ever, maybe. "No, I meant . . . "

"About Mr. Sex?" He knew exactly who I was talking about. For a second, I thought he was going to defend his ex, but then he nodded. I looked him up and down, making it plain that I liked what I saw. "Dumb as a box of rocks," I assured him with a wink. Renfield looked almost pathetically grateful. That guy must have been a real asshole. On the upside, his loss could be my gain.

"Listen, would you like to go to the Blackhawks game with me tonight?" Then I added the clincher, or so I hoped. "They're playing the Canucks."

"Why, Mr. Roenick, I . . . uh . . . " Shit, he was totally dumbfounded. That was not the reaction I was hoping for.

"Never mind, I was just -- it's okay, never mind." Shrugging, I turned to go, but he put a hand on my shoulder.

"Wait, it's just that -- " Renfield was digging for an excuse. He was so polite, he wanted to let me down easy. "I . . . well, you know, we Canadians know very little about the sport of hockey." I stared at him, probably with the same expression on my face that he'd just had on his. Then his lips twitched. We both burst out laughing at the same time. "Perhaps," he continued, when he could keep a straight face, "you could explain the finer points to me over dinner."

"I know just the place, only a few blocks away from the arena."

"I'd enjoy that very much."

It turned out to be a good day, after all.

Fin