Fraser was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He'd never been closer to having everything that he wanted in a relationship, and yet, he knew that the last bit, the last puzzle pieces of his and Ray's lives, were likely not going to fit. And if previous cases were anything to go by, that meant the whole thing might be thrown out, no matter how well the other pieces matched.
He sighed, dragging his mind back to the parsley he was chopping. The knife needed sharpening, and he made a mental note to do it later.
"Hey, Fraser, I'm home," Ray said cheerfully. Fraser heard him toeing off his boots in the hall and hanging up his jacket. "You wouldn't believe what happened today."
Fraser raised his eyebrows. "Try me."
"Okay, I take it back. You'll believe it. But nobody else would." Ray came in and looked down into the simmering pot, then took the spoon lying on the counter and stuck it in the pot for a taste. "Mmmm. This is so good. Anyway, there was a snake loose in the station. It came with a circus artist who'd been brought in for assault, and it was all sluggish at first, so nobody thought to watch it. But I guess it warmed up, because there it was, crawling around the bullpen."
"Poor thing," Fraser murmured.
"You would say that," Ray said, gesturing with his spoon in the air. "Anyway, if you ever wanted to see a whole room full of detectives standing on their desks, that was the time." Ray grinned.
"Did you catch it?" Fraser finished chopping the herbs and stirred them into the stew.
"Me? No, you think just 'cause I have a turtle that I know how to handle all reptiles? The circus artist caught it." Ray stuck the spoon in again to taste.
"Uh-huh," Ray nodded, the spoon still in his mouth. Fraser gazed at him standing there, leaning against the counter in his Bulls t-shirt and his stubble and his dear, expressive face. Ray broke the eye contact, blushing slightly. "Um, I'll set the table."
Fraser moved over to the sink, rolling up his sleeves and starting to wash up. Sometimes he wished he couldn't read people so well. But he had observed Ray closely for a long time--indeed, couldn't help doing so--and he was quite sure that Ray was sexually attracted to him. Fraser had, several times, deliberately broken up situations that might lead to Ray making a move that would upset the balance of their relationship.
It was cowardly of him, he knew, but he was not looking forward to explaining matters to Ray.
No straight guy would hold your gaze that long. Well, unless he was interrogating you or something, but this was a whole other situation. Ray set the table, mind still on Fraser and his couldn't-possibly-be-straight gaze. They'd been standing close together, too.
But why didn't he make a move? To be fair, Ray hadn't made a move, either, even though he really, really wanted to. He was just trying to...take it slow. Maybe Fraser was in the closet. Except a guy who was in the closet and trying to hide that he was gay wouldn't move in with his partner, would he? For Christ's sake, they had shopped for beds together, and Ray was 99% sure the salesman had thought they were a couple. Ray only wished.
And besides, Fraser of all people wouldn't be ashamed of his sexual orientation anyway, would he? He was all about respecting everyone regardless of race or gender or religion or whatever. Maybe he just hadn't been with a guy before, and was nervous about it.
"Right, the table's set," Ray said, putting down the second glass with maybe a bit too much of a thump. Frustration could do that to you.
Fraser came over with the food, putting some of the stew in Dief's bowl, and they ate. Ray stuffed himself. Sharing an apartment with Fraser had really improved his eating habits, and it was more fun to cook himself when he had someone to cook for, too. His mom approved, though she did hint from time to time that he should find himself a nice girl. At least she'd finally accepted that he and Stella were over.
"Any new cases today? Or progress on the old ones?" Fraser asked. He was due to liaise tomorrow, which, thank god.
Ray dragged his mind from the eternal Problem Of Fraser, and turned it to the actual Fraser in front of him.
"Yeah. I wrapped up the Pawlak case." Ray smirked, just a little.
"Really? Was I right?" Fraser raised his eyebrows.
"Almost. It was the brother, but the sister-in-law was in on it, too. She confessed when I confronted her with the evidence."
"Good work, Ray." Fraser beamed at him, and Ray felt it like something glowing inside of him, bright and warm.
"Uh, thanks. Anyway, I guess we should get on with that robbery tomorrow, the one with the jewelry."
They discussed it for a while, until Ray said, "Right, enough work talk." He stretched his arms up over his shoulders and then stood up to clear the table. "You going to watch the game tonight?"
"Of course. I wouldn't miss a chance to see the Blackhawks beaten by Canadians." Fraser smirked, and Ray narrowed his eyes and mock-punched him, a blow which was efficiently blocked before it reached Fraser's midriff.
It was a good game, and the Blackhawks weren't actually beaten too badly, enough that Ray could feel Chicago had some self-respect left. He nodded at Fraser. "Good game."
"Indeed." Fraser was slouched down beside him on the couch, smiling his happy, relaxed smile, and Ray smiled back. Fraser's thigh was only a few inches from his, and Ray felt the closeness in his whole body.
He should do it. It was driving him nuts, and he had to know. Ray mentally counted to three, then lost his nerve again. He sat up, taking a sip of his beer to relieve his dry mouth. Then he counted to three again, his heart pounding, and turned to Fraser again.
"Fraser--" he said, leaning in a little. He saw Fraser startle, draw in a breath, but then Ray was doing it, he was kissing Fraser on the mouth--
Ray's mouth on his.
Fraser stiffened. He'd known it would come. He put his hand on Ray's shoulder, whether to push Ray away or pull him closer he didn't know. Ray's lips were soft, his breath warm, and the thing was, Fraser did want this closeness, this intimacy. But it carried with it so much expectation of other things, and he couldn't allow Ray to think that he could promise those things.
He let himself stay close to Ray for one short, glorious moment, but when Ray opened his mouth, pushing for more, Fraser broke it off, pushing Ray gently away. "I'm sorry, Ray."
Ray drew in a sharp breath, then looked away, his whole body hunching over, closing in on itself. "Sorry. Sorry, I--"
"You don't have to be sorry," Fraser began.
But Ray stood up. "I thought you--but I guess not. Just forget it, okay? Forget it ever happened."
"No. Would you let me explain?"
But Ray was already moving towards the hall, undoubtedly headed towards his room. Fraser stood up, grabbing Ray's arm and turning him around.
"Look, can you just let me be embarrassed in private, okay?" Ray said, pushing Fraser's hand off. "You don't want me, I get that. And it's fine. Just--"
"Would you listen to me?" Fraser pushed Ray up against the wall with a thump. Ray's mouth opened, then closed.
Fraser went on before Ray could get away. "I do want you. Just--not that way."
"Not what way? Are you trying to tell me you're straight?" Fraser could feel Ray's chest under his hand, the rapid beating of his heart.
"No, I'm...I'm asexual."
Strangely enough, Ray seized on the first part of that sentence. "So you're not straight?"
"But you're...asexual. What does that even mean?"
"A lack of interest in or need for sexual acts. Alfred Kinsey denoted it with an "X" in his scale of sexuality." Fraser was ready to go on with more information if Ray needed it--he himself had certainly found it helpful to read the literature on the subject. But Ray held up his hand to stop him.
"So, okay. Let me get this straight." Ray wasn't trying to get away to his room anymore, and Fraser took his hand off Ray's chest with some regret--having it there made him feel as if he had his hand on the pulse of Ray's feelings and could somehow sense his reactions.
"Right," Ray continued, looking intent. "You said you wanted me. What do mean by that? I mean, if you don't want me in the, um, sexual way."
"Well, I want to be close to you. I care about you. I, well. I love you." Fraser held Ray's gaze with some difficulty. He felt exposed, laid bare, but he would not weaken his declaration by avoiding Ray's eyes.
"Are...are you in love with me?" Ray asked, looking right back into his eyes.
"Yes." He didn't qualify the statement, although there were any number of things he could have said--how did one define the difference, anyway? But in his own mind, he was sure.
"Right. Uh, I love you, too. I mean, I'm in love with you, Christ, I've been in love with you for ages."
Fraser let out a breath, but Ray went on, rubbing a hand through his hair.
"I gotta think about this. I mean, I don't know how I can do this if you...do you know how to do this?"
Fraser assumed he meant a relationship without sex. "No. Well, I experimented in my youth, but none of my experiments were exactly successful."
"You're sure you don't--I mean, have you tried it? Sex?"
"Oh, yes. And yes, I'm quite sure. But that doesn't mean that I wouldn't be willing to--" Fraser looked away, unsure of how to phrase it. "What I mean is, there are compromises in every relationship."
"So you'd, what, lie back and think of Canada? No thanks." Ray folded his arms across his chest.
Fraser huffed out an exasperated breath. "It's not as if it disgusts me. It's just not something I do by natural inclination."
"Well, I'm glad it doesn't disgust you. Just--I need to think about this, okay?" Ray did head for his room, then, and Fraser didn't stop him.
Instead, he washed up the dishes, which was properly Ray's job, since Fraser had cooked dinner, but he needed something to do with his hands. Ray hadn't reacted as badly as he might have, and he had even seemed to be considering that they might...well, Fraser wouldn't let himself hope yet. Ray was in his room, and clearly wanted to be alone. Still, Fraser couldn't help constructing elaborate conversations with Ray in his head--what Ray might say, or do, when they talked.
Before he went to bed, he looked at Ray's door. Still closed.
He hesitated, then knocked.
"May I open the door?"
Ray was lying on the bed, taking off the headphones of his Walkman.
"I...my grandmother always said never to go to bed upset without talking."
"Yeah, so did my mom." Ray smiled faintly. His hair was ruffled and some of the spikes had lost their spikiness. Fraser wanted to stroke them, but stayed in the doorway.
"Don't worry, I'm not upset," Ray went on. "I just needed some space."
"All right. I'm not, either. Good night, Ray," Fraser said softly.
Fraser closed the door and went to his own solitary bed.
"Aww, you didn't need to do the dishes. I was going to do it," Ray said, gulping down his coffee and waiting for the caffeine to do its thing.
Fraser shrugged. He was already pressed and starched and dressed for the day's work. Brown uniform today. "It was no hardship."
"No, but--just as long as you're not doing it to make me feel bad that I hadn't done it yet."
"Oh. No, that wasn't what I meant. I just needed--" Fraser made a vague gesture. "--something to do with my hands. A distraction."
"Oh, okay. Good," Ray said, because if there was something he couldn't stand, it was guilt-tripping, which, yeah, Fraser had been known to do. Stuff like that had to be nipped in the bud. Then he remembered why Fraser had wanted distraction last night, and he looked away. Yeah, there was the elephant in the room, big and purple and flapping its ears.
Well, now was not the time. Ray swallowed the last of the coffee and rinsed out the cup. "Coming?"
"Yes." Fraser looked in the mirror, straightened his tie, and they were off.
They spent an hour doing perfectly normal casework, gathering evidence at a jewelry store that had been robbed, but of course that couldn't last, not with Fraser around. When they were driving to Fraser's favorite Chinese restaurant to get lunch, Fraser suddenly stiffened, turning to look out the window.
"Stop the car, Ray."
Ray slammed on the brakes and swerved in to the side of the street, and Fraser was out, running for all he was worth with Dief at his heels. Car horns blared behind them. Ray ignored them and got out of the car, all his senses tuned to Fraser's whereabouts.
Fraser was up ahead, headed towards someone lying on the ground. A running figure was disappearing into an alley.
"Ray!" Fraser paused long enough to point towards the prone figure, then ran on. Dief and Fraser split up at the mouth of the alley, Dief heading into it like a white streak, Fraser climbing up on a low roof, the red lining of his peacoat flashing for a brief moment like Superman's cape. Ray grinned despite himself. Fraser and Dief were a well-oiled team, and they'd obviously left the victim for him to deal with.
It was weird--Fraser was so, well, forceful was maybe the right word for it. He saw stuff, he acted on it, he dragged people along on his own course. Which could be damn irritating when you were trying to get him to listen to you, but it was also hot. Ray'd always thought (well, okay, fantasized) that that forcefulness of Fraser's might translate into him being that way in bed, too. But nope, not going to happen, and he might as well get used to it.
Ray slowed down when he got to the woman on the sidewalk, who was now sitting up.
"Ma'am?" Ray said. Fraser must be rubbing off on him.
"Fuck!" she said, bent over and rubbing at her leg. It sounded heartfelt. She looked up and saw him. "Oh, sorry."
"No problem," Ray said, and showed his badge. "You all right?"
"Yeah, except he got my purse and I hurt myself when the guy pushed me over."
"Don't worry, my partner is on it. If anyone can catch the guy, he can."
"Thanks for the help." The woman was middle-aged, with short brown hair, and was wearing some sort of official-looking clothing that Ray couldn't immediately place. Not police, though.
"No problem. You need to get to the hospital?"
The woman was tugging up her pants to reveal her shin, which was already darkening into something that was going to be a hell of a bruise. She touched it and winced. "No, I don't think so. Nothing's broken or bleeding, anyway."
"Right." Ray looked around. No sign of Fraser yet, and Ray wouldn't be any help at this point in the chase anyway. "I'll take your statement while we wait."
They were halfway through that when Dief trotted up, tail high and self-satisfied, and then Fraser a few minutes later, flushed with running and with a scruffy teenager in tow and with the woman's purse under his arm. The teenaged guy was looking contrite, which was probably for Fraser's benefit. Ray could just picture Fraser lecturing him on the evils of crime.
Ray wasn't fooled, though. He read the guy his rights--Fraser was just making a citizen's arrest, after all--and Fraser took him to the car.
"Right, I'll just need your contact information in case we have more questions, and then I can let you go," Ray told the woman, handing her the purse back.
"Sharon Kaufmann," she said, spelling it out for him, then giving her address and phone number.
"Thanks. Do you need a ride anywhere?"
She started to shake her head, then winced as she took a step. "Well, if it's no trouble--I work at the customs office, down by the docks."
"Sure," Ray said. It was a big, official-looking building down by the lake, with a couple of trucks waiting for inspection (Ray supposed) and a ship at the quay. Fraser, the freak, insisted on walking her to the door, and Ray fondly watched him tip his hat to the woman in goodbye. He was glad she hadn't plastered himself to Fraser the way some women did. And huh, now that he thought of it--the way Fraser acted around women who obviously wanted to get him into bed, that made a lot more sense now.
They drove off to the station. Dief was sharing the backseat with the perp, who nervously leaned away from Dief as he gave a bark, pawing at the seat.
"Don't worry, he's not dangerous," Fraser said. "He's just voicing his opinion that he deserves a doughnut for his role in apprehending you."
Ray glanced in the rearview mirror to see the perp looking skeptical. "Dogs don't talk."
"He," said Fraser sagely, "is not a dog." Dief whuffed in confirmation.
The perp looked confused, and Ray took pity on him. "He's half wolf. And don't worry, he won't eat you. He only eats junk food. And Dief--yeah, I figure that's worth a donut."
Dief's tail thumped against the seat, and Fraser sighed.
"I figure he worked off the calories in the chase," Ray said. It didn't hurt to keep on Dief's good side.
The rest of the day was quieter--the wacky cases that resulted from having Fraser as your partner always ended up in more paperwork, and they had a backlog. At least Fraser was happy to help with that.
"You hungry?" Ray said as they were driving home.
"Yes," Fraser said. He still looked outwardly neat in his uniform, but even Fraser got sweaty after running like he'd done earlier in the day. Ray always wanted to lick his neck, see what he tasted like. Maybe Fraser wouldn't even mind if he did. Huh, there was a thought.
He brought his eyes back to the road. "My turn to cook, but since we missed lunch, I'm voting for take-out. How about you?"
They got Chinese food at the place they'd planned to go for lunch, a place in Chinatown where Fraser had apparently saved someone from kidnapping in one of the earlier cases with Vecchio. Ray was pretty sure they always gave Fraser double portions, but hey, he wasn't complaining.
Ray did some general clean-up in the kitchen while Fraser took a quick shower and then went to the living room to read. If he looked out the kitchen door, he could see Fraser's wet dark hair and the pale back of Fraser's neck, bent over the book. Fraser read in the same way that Ray watched TV, to relax.
Ray let himself daydream then, just a little bit, while he was wiping the counter, about Fraser. About sex with Fraser. Not that that was unusual--thinking about sex with Fraser was pretty much how he'd spent all his jerk-off sessions during the latest year. But now, Ray was thinking about how he'd show Fraser how to enjoy sex, how Fraser's eyes would widen in surprise and then fall closed as Ray touched him, his little sounds of pleasure.
Then he took a deep breath and admitted how silly the fantasy was. Ray's Magical Cock: Makes Even Asexual People Pant For It. Ray snorted. Yeah, right.
He went into the living room, pausing in the doorway. Fraser heard him and looked up, a little crooked smile on his face that made Ray's heart thump unevenly. "Hello, Ray."
Ray sat down on the couch armrest, swinging his foot. "What're you reading?"
Fraser turned the book over with a slightly embarrassed look on his face, like Ray if someone caught him watching Dancing with the Stars or something. "Call of the Wild. I know it's rather dramatized and inaccurate, but I'm afraid I imprinted on it when I was young. I reread it sometimes when I feel nostalgic."
"Hey, I'm not judging you."
Dief thumped his tail on the couch next to Fraser. "Is he judging you?" Ray asked.
"No. He's fond of it as well--it helps that it has a canine hero, of course. Once we tried to see how much of a load he could break loose on a sled, actually. Sort of a recreation of a scene in the book."
"And could he do it?"
"No. As I said, not entirely accurate." Dief whuffed.
"Oh, I'm not saying you're not as good as Buck. Certainly not," Fraser said. Dief sat up and growled a little.
"He's just teasing you, Dief," Ray said. "Don't fall for it."
Dief collapsed back on the couch again, turning his butt toward Fraser this time.
"Now you've done it," Ray said.
"Indeed. Perhaps it's time for bed anyway."
Halfway through brushing his teeth, Ray realized that the ball was in his court. Fraser had told him about the whole asexual thing, and Ray had said that he needed to think about it. Well, he had. Not consciously or analytically, but in that way he had where his mind chugged away beneath the surface, and then gave him the answer when it was done.
A relationship was more than sex--if he was honest, Ray missed the touching and the bed-sharing and always having someone there to count on just as much. It would be chickenshit not to give it a chance. And what the hell, he could always jerk off. He wasn't going to let himself count on the stuff Fraser had said about compromise, because if Fraser genuinely didn't enjoy sex, Ray didn't feel right about it. Maybe that was going to end up too much of a problem, but he wouldn't know if he didn't try it, right? And it was far too late to pretend that he hadn't already fallen for Fraser, and when Ray fell for someone, he tended to stay that way.
So. Ray took a deep breath and went up to Fraser, who was just heading for his room. He hoped what he was about to do wasn't going to screw this up--Fraser hadn't wanted to kiss him before, but that had been a kiss with tongue, a kiss that was hopefully headed towards nakedness and sex. If he just...
"Um. Good night," Ray said, and then kissed Fraser on the mouth, a sweet, chaste kiss with his lips closed. Fraser's mouth was soft against his, and Ray could feel the short stubble on Fraser's chin brush lightly against his own. He held the kiss long enough that it wasn't just a peck, then drew back, heart pounding, to meet Fraser's eyes.
Fraser looked like Ray had given him the world. "Oh," he breathed. Then he tugged Ray back in with a hand on his shoulder and kissed him back, a light little kiss like Ray had given him. "Good night."
Ray hesitated a moment, unsure whether they were still going to be sleeping in separate beds--he didn't have a handle on the way this was going to work at all, yet--but after a slight awkward pause, they ended up in their own bedrooms.
Ray couldn't stop seeing that expression on Fraser's face, like unexpected happiness, as he lay in his bed. He wondered if Fraser had thought Ray would say no. Ray touched his lips, still feeling Fraser's warm mouth on his own.
Fraser awoke with the knowledge of happiness like a lingering sweetness in his mind, and then remembered why. He smiled where he lay, then got up, taking care not to make noise that would wake Ray--the walls were rather thin--and did his usual morning run with Dief. His steps felt light.
He got back, brewed coffee, and then knocked on Ray's door. "It's time to get up."
There was an incoherent noise from within.
A slightly less incoherent noise, and the sound of Ray's feet hitting the floor. Then the door opened, and Ray came out in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, squinting at the light. He grabbed the mug of coffee and took a sip from it. "Thanks. You're the best."
His hair was tousled. Fraser checked his impulse to reach out and touch it, hesitated, and then did reach out. Ray's hair was soft against his fingers in its un-spiked state.
Ray blinked at him, then smiled. "You like my hair, huh?"
"I do." Fraser cleared his throat and stepped away. "Well, I need to shower."
"Uh, wait. Can I--?" Ray stepped in close, hesitated, and then dipped his head, touching his tongue to Fraser's neck in a soft, wet little swipe. He drew back, his face reddening. "Sorry, that was probably weird. I just--"
Fraser put his hand up to where Ray's tongue had been. "You're entirely welcome to lick my neck."
"Just...wanted to see what you taste like. When you've been running."
Fraser understood the impulse, although perhaps he didn't, after all--he wondered if it was sexual in nature for Ray. Then he felt the corners of his mouth twitching up. "You do realize that you no longer have any grounds to complain when I lick evidence."
"Oh, come on. That is so not the same thing." Ray took another mouthful of coffee, looking more awake now. "Besides, I don't complain about that--I mean, so long as you don't lick dog turds or something. I've gotten used to it."
Which was true--Ray didn't usually comment on it any longer.
"Right, go have your shower. I need one, too. I can start your oatmeal if you want."
"Thanks." Fraser took his shower, and then Ray took his, taking rather longer than Fraser had. Fraser suspected that Ray was masturbating, which he often did--the smell was quite distinctive, although Fraser wouldn't dream of embarrassing Ray by saying so.
Fraser's thoughts strayed to the pick-pocket they'd apprehended yesterday. There had been something off...not about the thief himself, but about the victim, perhaps? They'd driven her to the customs office, and then...
Fraser frowned, trying to bring up the detail that had set it off.
"Hey there. Did you leave some oatmeal for me?" Fraser shook his head in slight irritation at having his train of thought interrupted, then said. "Ah, yes. It's on the stove."
Ray had taken to sharing Fraser's oatmeal in the morning, although liberally slathered with jam. "Something on your mind?"
"Yes. There was something strange at the customs office, and I'm trying to figure out what it was."
"Huh," Ray said, dipping his spoon in the raspberry jam. "Sight, sound, smell?" He grinned. "Taste?"
"Smell," Fraser said decidedly, then, "Glue."
"Yes. There was a truck standing by the office--I assume it was waiting for inspection--and the door was open. The driver's compartment smelled like glue." Fraser closed his eyes, seeing the scene in his mind. The dark blue upholstery, the Snickers wrappers lying beside the seat, the jacket crumpled on the passenger seat, the package of cigarettes. Then he saw it.
"The roof and the ceiling. They didn't match."
"Match how?" Ray frowned, then got it. "You think there was a hidden compartment between them?"
"Exactly." Fraser leaned forward, his oatmeal forgotten. "The ceiling was much lower than it needed to be."
"And the glue..."
"...must have been from the recently put-together compartment, yes," Fraser finished.
Ray grinned. "Welsh is gonna love this."
Welsh did, indeed, react much as Ray had said. "Glue, Constable?"
"Yes, sir. Glue."
Welsh sighed. "And now I suppose you'll want to sniff at every truck in the greater Chicago area."
"Oh, come on, Lieu," Ray said. "You know Fraser can sniff out crime from a mile away."
"Just call the customs office and tell them, all right? It's their job, not yours."
Fraser straightened. "But you see, whatever they were smuggling--hypothetically smuggling, that is--it would most likely be headed to Canada. You'll understand that I take a certain interest."
"All right. Compromise--you can go down to the office and tell them in person if you want. And if you happen to look around you on the way into the office, I suppose I can't stop you. But let them take it from there, okay?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Welsh leaned back in his chair, and Fraser caught the slightest hint of a smile on his face, but knew better than to return it. He suspected the Lieutenant rather enjoyed these little negotiations.
They drove to the Customs office, and at the front desk Fraser asked, "Hello, I'm Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I wonder if Sharon Kaufmann is available?" They could have spoken to anyone, he supposed, but since they had met Ms. Kaufmann before, it seemed reasonable to speak to her.
The man raised his eyebrows in the reaction Fraser had become used to. "Yeah, I'll check." He made a phone call, then said, "Take the stairs to the second floor, then go to the left. You'll see the name on the door."
Sharon Kaufmann, when she opened the door, seemed surprised to see them. "Hi. Is this about yesterday? Do you need anything else from me?"
"No. But we observed something suspicious when we dropped you off, and thought we should let you know."
"Suspicious how?" She frowned.
"You know the truck that was standing in front of the office when we got here?" Ray asked.
"Yeah? I inspected it after you left. It was clean."
"Well, it smelled of glue," Ray said.
"Glue?" Sharon Kaufmann's reaction was not the same as Welsh's had been. Her expression sharpened, but then she laughed a little. "The docks have all sorts of weird smells. You wouldn't believe the things I've smelled around here."
"Also, it seemed to me that the dimensions of the truck did not match up," Fraser said.
"So you thought there was smuggling going on." Sharon Kaufmann folded her arms. "Look, cab roofs can come in all kinds of sizes, and sometimes the drivers decorate them so they look different. I checked that truck myself, and there was nothing wrong with it. Thanks for taking the trouble, but we know what we're doing here, okay?"
Fraser flicked a glance at Ray, who nodded minutely. "Thank you for your time, ma'am."
They said nothing until they got to the car. Then Ray said, "Ha! It was clean, huh?"
Fraser grinned. "You caught it too, then?"
"Course I did. How did she know it was the roof? You didn't say that, I didn't say that."
"Exactly, yes." Fraser felt the warm glow of being perfectly in sync with Ray. They didn't have any proof yet, of course, but their instincts were in full agreement that there was something untoward going on with Sharon Kaufmann.
"Heh, Welsh is going to love this one, too."
"I'm afraid it will have to wait, though. I have duties at the Consulate."
Ray's face fell. "Yeah, well. I've got other cases I need to do some grunt work on, anyway. Drop you at the Consulate?"
"Yes, thank you."
Ray went to the gym after work, wanting to work off a little energy on his own. It was a neighborhood place, kind of run-down but it worked for Ray. He nodded to a few people he often saw there, but didn't talk to anyone, just concentrated on getting his reps in, sweat running down his face. He knew he probably wasn't going to get up to Fraser's standard--Christ, the guy was just so solid, and Ray'd always been kind of scrawny--but he was doing his best.
When he came home, he was too worked-out from the gym to jerk off in the shower, which he often did to handle the sexual frustration of living with Fraser like he did. Nice and clean, no evidence.
They spent the evening each doing their own thing, Ray catching a movie on TV while Fraser went into his room to read. It was nice, having lived together long enough that they could both just relax into it without needing to pay attention to each other all the time. Ray liked the feeling of just knowing Fraser was there, a calm, solid presence. Halfway through the movie, Dief came out of Fraser's room, claws clicking on the floor, and curled up next to Ray on the couch.
"You'd rather watch the movie, huh?" Ray asked. Dief made an agreeing kind of noise, and Ray scratched him behind the ears.
"That there is the bad guy," Ray told Dief pointing at the TV, and Dief growled a little bit. "Yeah, right. Betcha he's going to kidnap the girl soon, cause that's the way these kinds of movies go."
Dief huffed. "Yeah, it's kind of stupid, I know," Ray replied. He didn't even feel weird having a conversation with Dief nowadays. And hey, Dief was nice to watch TV with.
"What are you reading?" he asked Fraser when they both started getting ready for bed.
"A history of logging in the Yukon, and its environmental consequences," Fraser said. "And a little in my father's journals, too. I'm trying not to read them too fast--he wrote almost a hundred of them, but still, I'm going to get to the end of them some time."
"He's still gone?" Fraser had told him about his father's ghost a while back, but apparently the old man had left after the Muldoon case. Ray still didn't know what to make of it, but Fraser had said Buck and Maggie had seen him too, and who was Ray to doubt someone else's ghost, anyway?
"Yes. He was sometimes rather a nuisance while he was around, but I miss him now."
"Yeah, I get that."
Ray left the door a little bit open when he went into his room. He remembered the goodnight kiss from yesterday and really wanted a repeat, but Fraser was still brushing his teeth and Ray couldn't linger in the hallway forever. God, he was overthinking this.
He got into bed, read a little bit in "Call of the Wild", which Fraser had lent to him and kept saying he would love if he just stuck with it past the first bit.
Then Fraser was at the door, dressed in those red long johns he had for sleeping in. "Ray?" Fraser saw what he was reading, and his face softened into a smile. "Are you enjoying it?"
Ray tipped his hand back and forth in a so-so gesture. "So far it's just about this pampered dog getting kidnapped and beat up."
"It gets better, I promise," Fraser said, looking so earnest that Ray promised himself to stick it out and read at least half the book. It wasn't that long, after all.
Fraser leaned against the frame of the door, looking uncertain.
"Um. Come on in?" Ray said, patting the bed beside him.
Fraser did, and with a little hesitation, he lifted the covers and got in beside Ray. Ray put away the book, heart pounding, and turned towards Fraser. He put his hand on Fraser's chest. He could feel the beating of Fraser's heart under it, fast like his own.
"Ray?" Fraser breathed.
"Yeah," Ray said, looking Fraser in the eye and then away again. He knew Fraser as a partner, they were good with that now, closer than they'd ever been, but this was a whole new kind of closeness.
Then Fraser was pulling him close and hugging him tight, and yeah, solid was the right word. He was warm and firm and alive and wrapped all around Ray. It wasn't like they were naked--Fraser had those long johns, and Ray had a t-shirt and boxers on, but still, it was the most intimate Ray had been with anyone in a long time. And yeah, that included those half-drunken blowjobs with that guy at the bar that had been the last time he'd had actual sex with anyone.
Fraser dug his face into Ray's shoulder and took a deep breath. "Mmmm. You smell nice."
"Um. You, too." Ray was inevitably getting turned on. Fraser had to get that, right? He couldn't wrap himself all around Ray, with all that warm body and Fraser-smell and soft hair in Ray's face and expect Ray not to be turned on. He moved back a little, so he wouldn't poke Fraser with his hard-on. "Uh, sorry. I know you don't..."
"No need to apologize." Fraser's low deep voice did not exactly make him less turned on.
"Right. Okay, let me just..." Ray turned over, rolling around so that his back was to Fraser, who pulled him close, fitting their bodies together. Their clothes were thin enough that he could feel Fraser's cock against his ass, but no, Fraser was not hard, and it was just a soft bulge pressed against him.
"May I--stay for the night?" Ray could feel the rumble of Fraser's voice in his chest. "Although of course, you don't have to--"
"Yeah. Yeah, stay," Ray said, cutting off Fraser's words.
"Mmm." Fraser nuzzled his neck and dropped a kiss on it. "Good night."
Ray had thought he might be too turned on to fall asleep, but he was tired, and he felt himself start to drift off. One of Fraser's legs was thrown across his, and he felt Fraser's arm wrapped around Ray's chest grow heavy and his breath against Ray's neck slow down. Ray felt something unwind inside him, something that had been tight since the last time he'd slept in a bed with Stella before their breakup. He sighed and relaxed against Fraser, dropping into sleep.
Fraser woke, warm and more relaxed and content than he had been in a very long time. Ray was still asleep, and Fraser lay still so as not to wake him. His hand was resting on Ray's chest, and he could feel the rise and fall of Ray's breathing, and the warmth of his skin underneath the thin fabric of his t-shirt.
It was a strange thing, touch. Many people seemed to think it was their prerogative to touch him in a sexually charged way, especially women, and Fraser usually disliked it in the extreme. It was part of a game he didn't and couldn't play, the game where he, as a man, was assumed to welcome all advances from women. Indeed, he was assumed to view their sexual interest as a conquest on his part, a score in a game, even though the first move was invariably theirs. He'd seen such behavior occasionally in both Rays, and never understood it. Indeed, he wished his own looks were not so attractive to all and sundry--or was it the very fact that he didn't play the game that attracted them?
But that didn't mean he didn't want touch at all. He wanted Ray's touch, very much so. He'd soaked up the feeling of Ray's skin against his like a plant welcoming the sun in the spring. It had been so long.
Ray stirred, burrowing his face into Fraser's shoulder and mumbling something incomprehensible. Fraser could feel Ray's penis stirring to life against his thigh, too. Then Ray rolled away from him, clearly embarrassed. "Uh. You want the shower first?"
"All right," Fraser said, a little saddened by the way Ray distanced himself.
It was a relief that Ray didn't appear to think there was anything wrong with Fraser for not wanting sex--in Fraser's previous experiences with relationships, people had usually seemed to think so--but neither did he want Ray to feel bad for wanting it. Fraser truly was willing to oblige him in this, but now did not seem the time.
He got up and tucked the covers back around Ray, and looked at the alarm clock. "Oh dear."
"Huh?" Ray started awake.
Ray propped himself up on one elbow and squinted at the clock. "It's only seven."
"Yes, and we start work at eight. That means I won't have time for a run with Dief."
"Oh. Did you, um, sleep well?"
"Very much so." Because he couldn't resist, Fraser leaned down to kiss Ray on the mouth. Ray blinked at him, then smiled, looking almost shy.
Dief was at the bedroom door, looking in at them. "Why didn't you wake me?" Fraser asked him.
Dief looked up at Fraser with his ears cocked. "Well, thank you, but that doesn't mean I should neglect our exercise. We'll go out for a short walk now, and I promise we'll go out at lunchtime, too."
Dief was, of course, perfectly aware both of Fraser's feelings for Ray and his lack of interest in sex. The latter he wrote off as one of Fraser's human oddities, no more or less strange than his apparent obsession with paperwork.
"Well, I'd better go dress," Fraser told Ray. His clothes were, of course, in his own room.
Ray rubbed at his eyes. "Yeah. I better drag myself out of bed, too."
They rushed through their morning routines, and when they got to the station, Ray nodded towards Welsh's door. "Should we talk to him now?"
"Could I borrow your phone first?" Fraser said. "I'd like to call Ray Vecchio and see if he has any information that could be helpful."
"Sure, go ahead." Ray waved towards the phone and headed towards the breakroom, and Dief followed him, presumably in the hopes of finding unguarded donuts.
Two rings, three, then, "Ray Vecchio, mob squad."
"Benny! I was just thinking about you. Kowalski given you food poisoning yet?"
"Not yet, no. Although I did find some interesting fungi in the--well, that's not important. How are you?"
"Keeping busy. You know we set a date for the wedding, right? Ma is going crazy over it. She has opinions, Stella has opinions, Frannie has opinions. I'm trying to keep out of the way."
"Congratulations. I'm very happy for you both."
"Thanks. Anyway, you got something for me? I know you, Benny--you wouldn't call me at work unless it actually was work-related."
"I do, actually. Ray and I suspect there's a smuggling operation going on down by the docks."
"There's always someone smuggling something in Chicago. You got any more to go on?"
"Very little, I'm afraid." Fraser laid out their scanty observations.
"Hmm. Let me get back to you, okay? I'll pull some strings and see if anything turns up."
"Thank you kindly, Ray. I appreciate it."
"Aww, it's nothing. See you, Benny."
Fraser hung up, and Ray put a mug of tea in front of him. "Vecchio know anything?"
"Nothing immediate, no. He said he'd ask around. Thank you," Fraser said, and sipped at the tea.
"Time to tackle Welsh, then?"
"I suppose so, yes."
There was something about Lieutenant Welsh that made Fraser think of a long-suffering schoolmaster, and himself and Ray schoolboys called in to answer for some prank.
"...so what you're saying is, your whole case is based on one word."
"One quite significant word," Fraser pointed out. "And the suspected hidden compartment, of course."
"Hmm," Welsh said, leaning back with his arms crossed. "You know, it's not a popular move to accuse people of corruption. I'm thinking the Customs office will think this is rather flimsy evidence."
"Oh, I'm quite aware that it would be an unpopular move," Fraser said wryly.
"It's not like we were planning on just waltzing in there and accusing her," Ray said. "We just wanted to look around for some more evidence. See if there's actually a case here, you know?"
Welsh pursed his lips, considering.
"Oh, come on, Lieu," Ray wheedled. "Who has the best solve rate in the station?"
Welsh stifled a smile and then masked it by sipping at his coffee. There was a knock on the door, and Fraser turned around to see Frannie. "Hey Frase, my brother's on the phone. It's for you."
"Excuse me," Fraser said to Welsh. "It's quite likely that this pertains to the case."
Welsh waved him off, and Fraser went to Ray's desk. "Yes?"
"I might have something for you, Benny."
"One of our snitches heard something about a weapons smuggling operation. Not one of the big families, just a small operation, a sideline, you know? We were going to check up on it, but we have bigger fish to catch."
Fraser frowned. "What makes you think this is the same operation?"
"One, it was going by boat to Canada. Two, he said they had someone on the inside, not one of their own, but someone they had some kind of hook on."
"Hmm. Yes, that does sound interesting." Sharon Kaufmann hadn't struck Fraser as a career criminal. "Anything else you can tell me?"
"Yeah, they had something planned for the day after tomorrow. Some bigger shipment coming through."
"Thank you, that's very helpful."
"You need any help with this, Benny?"
"I'll let you know if we do."
"Right. Never thought I'd say this, but I miss your wacky cases sometimes." Fraser could hear the smile in Ray's voice. "Oh yeah, Ma is asking after you and Kowalski. Says you should both come over for dinner on Sunday."
"I'll tell Ray. It was good to talk to you."
"Yeah, you too."
Fraser went back to Lieutenant Welsh's office armed with the new information, which convinced Welsh to let them go ahead with the case with only token reluctance.
"Okay, so, I have lunch plans," Ray said, looking at his watch. "I'm going to catch up with Stella."
"I suppose I should head over to the Consulate anyway," Fraser said.
"Want me to drop you off? It's on my way."
"No, we'll walk. We didn't get any exercise this morning, after all."
"Right, okay. See you."
Fraser walked off in the direction of the Consulate, a bright red head-turning figure with Dief at his side. Ray smiled to himself as he followed Fraser with his gaze until he turned a corner, then shook his head. He hoped he wasn't being as obvious as it felt.
Ray navigated the Chicago traffic, heading for Stella's workplace in the fancier part of the city. The no sex thing should probably feel weirder than it did--it was probably going to be a problem in the long term--but so far he was still high on knowing that Fraser loved him. That Fraser was in love with him.
A horn blared behind him, and Ray blinked and realized that the red light had turned green while he daydreamed about waking up with Fraser wrapped around him. Do not think about Fraser while driving, Ray told himself.
Stella was waiting for him outside the building, and Ray parked the car around the corner.
"Hi, Ray." She gave him a half-hug with one arm around his shoulders. "Sushi okay?"
"Yeah, sure." She was looking gorgeous and styled to the tips of her fingers, which he knew wasn't for his benefit--it was just her normal work getup. Ray had his Bulls t-shirt and a pair of jeans, which was his normal work getup.
"Did you hear about the wedding?" Stella glanced at him quickly, gauging his response, but she needn't have worried. Not that he blamed her--he wasn't proud of his stalker days, but he was long over that now.
"Yeah, Fraser told me."
She raised her perfect eyebrows.
"He heard it from Vecchio."
"Oh. Well, we set the date for June. I know it's when everyone gets married, but I wanted a June wedding. I don't know if you want to--" She looked a little hesitant. "I mean, I understand if you don't..."
Ray searched his mind for a twinge of jealousy. He didn't find any. Nostalgia, sure. A little sadness, maybe, over the drawn-out trainwreck of their divorce and the time after. He didn't even wonder what Stella saw in Vecchio, because Vecchio was a good guy, and Ray always knew Stella had a weakness for Armani suits that he wasn't ever going to satisfy.
He remembered the feeling of aching desperate need that he'd used to feel for her. It'd hurt, but he'd wanted the hurt, had welcomed it. And then, after a while, it had hurt less, but he'd still held on to it, like the pain was the only thing he had left of her. But even that had faded by now. She stood there, lovely as always, but he didn't belong to her anymore.
"Yeah, Stell. I'll be there."
"Oh, Ray." She smiled up at him. "I wasn't sure you'd want to come."
He shrugged. "Yeah, well, a year or two ago I wouldn't have. But I'm happy for you."
They got to the sushi place, which had a big glass window with tiny high bar stools looking out over the busy street. The sushi was good, though.
"So, how are you and Fraser doing?" Stella asked.
"Fine," Ray said automatically, then ran the question through his mind again. He knew Stella, and that tone of voice--"Wait, what do you mean?"
She frowned a little. "You and Fraser--are things working out for you? I just assumed, well--you live together, and I've seen the way you look at him."
Ray had a brief impulse to go on the defensive, deny that anything was going on. But Stella knew him. She'd been there for Ray's epic crush on Steve McQueen, his thing for Leo DaVinci in high school, that time they'd had a threesome with a guy in Stella's class...not to mention all the times she'd fucked him with a strap-on, which wasn't gay, exactly, but still.
Which, wow, that was kind of awkward to think about now, when he'd started to think about Stella in a different way. Ray stared down into his sushi so he wouldn't have to look her in the eye.
"Um, yeah. You're not wrong," he told her, and let her think his embarrassment was over admitting to the Fraser thing.
"Really? I'm so happy for you, Ray."
"Yeah. It's kind of...new. I mean, we weren't together when we moved in together. We were just roommates then. And partners, of course."
"Huh. I would have thought...you're always in each other's personal space."
"I didn't think I was being that obvious."
Stella smiled. "You're not. I think it's just that I know you." She picked up a piece of sushi with her chopsticks, making it look elegant. "He's...a bit different? I mean, I wouldn't have thought he was your type."
Oh, you have no idea, Ray thought. But he felt protective of Fraser somehow, or maybe of his relationship with Fraser. He actually would have liked to talk about the asexual thing with someone, but not Stella. They knew each other, yeah, but he needed that little bit of distance from her now.
Instead, he just said, "We were pretty different, too." Come to think of it, Fraser handled chopsticks in that same competent way that Stella did.
Stella looked rueful. "You're right. I didn't mean to criticize or anything. I really am happy for you."
"Don't spread it around, okay? I guess it's going to come out sooner or later, but I'd rather it was later."
"Of course not."
Ray wasn't worried--Stella knew how to keep her mouth shut.
She glanced at her watch. "Oh, I've got to go. I'm sorry--it's just that I've got a meeting that they moved up fifteen minutes. I thought I'd have longer."
"No, it's fine. I'm done."
"I promise I'll make more time for you next time," Stella said. They left the sushi place, and Stella waved as she walked into her fancy office building.
Vecchio better make her happy, Ray thought. But Stella's happiness wasn't his responsibility any longer.
In the afternoon, Ray spent some time trying to find a good place they could use to stake out the customs office, and found some empty office space in sight of the building. Vecchio hadn't known more than the date, so they'd probably have to spend the whole day there. He hoped it wouldn't be more than that. Christ, but he hated long stake-outs.
He got home before Fraser did, and cooked pasta carbonara, one of the dishes he could probably make in his sleep and still get right. Fraser got home while he was setting the table.
"Hi," said Ray, smiling like a fool.
"Hi, Ray." Fraser took his hat off, then stepped close to Ray for a kiss, his lips cold as they brushed against Ray's.
"What, you can't kiss someone with your hat on?"
"Well, if you like--but it's generally considered good manners to take your hat off indoors. Besides, it would be in the way."
"Uh huh." Ray pulled him in by the belt and kissed him again. He smoothed his hand down the rough wool along Fraser's back, and wondered if Fraser liked tongue in his kisses. Maybe not, considering that first kiss, but he could try...He parted his lips cautiously, the tip of his tongue coming out to play. Fraser turned his head a little, his mouth opening for Ray. Their tongues touched, just at the tip, and Ray's knees felt weak. His eyes fell closed as the kiss went on, slow and careful. Fraser's hand came up to cup the back of Ray's neck, and Ray made a little sound in the back of his throat, pressing a little further in.
It was--different. It never developed into the kind of hot and heavy making out that Ray was used to, the kind that was basically a prelude to sex. And yeah, obviously Ray would've been happy for it to head that way, but he got that it wasn't going to happen.
Fraser kissed lightly, gently, but not like he was shy. He kissed like it was an art form, his hand sliding down Ray's back and then up again inside the t-shirt, his palm warm and firm and calloused. He nosed Ray's neck while Ray drew his hands through Fraser's hair against the grain, ruffling it. Then Fraser breathed against his ear and sucked Ray's earlobe into his mouth.
Ray moaned, breathless. He was turned on like a light now. How the hell was this not foreplay? He got his hands on Fraser's shoulders and pushed him back a little, trying to get a bit of distance.
"Uh, what are you doing? I mean, you gotta know that's going to turn me on, right?"
"Well, I apologize if--" Fraser said, frowning.
"Damn it, I don't know where your lines are." Ray held on to Fraser's shoulders, like he could somehow pin down Fraser and his frustrating ear-sucking. "So, uh, you like kissing or not?"
"Yes. But not--well, not too...deep. Not with too much tongue. But I like your lips against mine." Fraser's cheeks were a bit red, but he was still looking Ray right in the eye. "I like kissing your neck, your skin there, the way it's so soft. I like the way you smell."
Now Ray was blushing, too. "Fine, okay. And you like my ears. Wait, don't tell me--you like my ears like Dief likes my ears. But let me tell you something, that turns me on. I mean, not Dief, but you, that turns me on when you suck on my ears. And I don't know what to do with that."
"Understood. I didn't mean to tease you. Although, yes, I do like your ears." Fraser hesitated, then said, "I meant what I said earlier, when I offered to..."
Ray held up his hand. "And I said no, okay?" He wasn't going to do it if Fraser didn't enjoy it. Ray took a deep breath. "Uh, the food's getting cold."
Fraser frowned, and Ray leaned in to plant one last kiss on him. "Hey. Let's eat, okay?"
Fraser drew in a breath as if to say something, but then he let it go. "All right. Let me just go change."
Ray finished setting the table while Fraser changed into jeans and a flannel shirt, which was no less hot than Fraser in uniform. Damn.
They ate, and by that time Ray had pretty much got himself under control. After dinner Ray sat down in the couch with Call of the Wild, determined to finish it. He knew Fraser loved this book, and he wanted to find out what made Fraser tick.
"Do you like it better now?" Fraser asked, sitting down at the other end of the couch with a book of his own.
"Yeah, getting better." Ray tucked his cold toes under Fraser's thighs and went on reading. And yeah, it was pretty gripping. By the time he got to the part where Buck was almost dead in his traces and Thornton came along to cut him loose, he couldn't stop reading. And when he got to the bit where Buck broke the thousand-pound load loose for Thornton and pulled it a hundred yards, he poked Fraser's leg with his foot.
"I think I got to the bit you were talking about. The bit where he breaks the load loose."
"Ah." Fraser's face was hard to read.
"It's pretty moving."
"It is." Fraser's face relaxed, like he'd been waiting to hear Ray's response.
"It's--loyalty, yeah? Partnership. Well, maybe not partnership exactly, because it's between an dog and a man, but..."
Dief, lying on the rug, growled a little and sat up.
"Sorry, Dief. Maybe it is partnership. I've just never had it with--with someone who's not human, you know? Just with--" he glanced at Fraser.
Fraser cleared his throat. He looked at Dief, then at Ray, and Ray thought he was going to say something, but he just smiled that quiet little inward smile of his.
"Right, I'm going to finish this," Ray said, burrowing his feet in under Fraser again.
Ray actually did finish the book that night. When he'd read the last page, he threw it down. "The guy dies in the end? They had that--that bond, and then he just dies?"
Fraser just nodded.
"I thought that was going to be the point of the book, you know? Buck and Thornton. And then he just--"
"I know. But Buck does find something else."
"The wilderness, yeah." Ray thought about the call of the great snowy wilderness and if that was the point of the book for Fraser. "But--" He shook his head. He'd seen Fraser's wilderness when they were up north chasing Muldoon, and yeah, he could see why Fraser loved it. But that couldn't replace human ties.
"There's a sequel that you might like better," Fraser said. "White Fang. It's about a half-wolf who starts out wild, but ends up finding a human partner. They move to California."
"Huh. You like that one, Dief?" Replace California with Chicago, and that could basically be Dief's story.
Dief whined softly, and Ray could almost swear he understood what Dief was saying.
Fraser put his hand on Ray's calf, warming him through his jeans. "Bed? It's getting late."
Later, in bed, Ray lay there in Fraser's arms, trying to sleep and really not succeeding. The pent-up arousal from earlier had returned, buzzing along his every nerve. He sighed.
"Ray?" Fraser murmured into his neck.
A pause, like Fraser was considering his words. "I meant what I said earlier."
"You know what I mean. About sex."
Yeah, Ray knew what he meant. He squirmed around to face Fraser. "Look, it feels weird, okay? Sex is supposed to be mutual. I mean, I'm turned on and you're not."
"Well, yes. But if you were hungry and I wasn't, I'd still want to give you food if I had it."
Ray huffed out a breath. "That is so not the same thing, and you know it."
"I think there are enough parallels that it's a valid comparison," said Fraser's calm deep voice in his ear.
Ray sighed. He felt like shoving Fraser off the bed. "You're trying to convince me with logic? What's that got to do with anything? Christ, you are the most frustrating man in the world."
"So I've been told." Fraser smoothed his hand down Ray's chest and stomach. Ray's cock twitched, and okay, he kind of wished Fraser would continue on down. But of course he didn't--Ray hadn't said yes.
Fraser was silent a while, but apparently only to regroup. "When you had sex with--with Stella, you didn't do it only for your own pleasure, did you?"
"'Course not. I wanted her to feel good," Ray said reflexively.
"Exactly," Fraser said, and yeah, Ray supposed he had a point there.
Of course, it wasn't as easy as that, even without the whole asexual thing. There'd been times when he'd wanted sex and Stella hadn't been in the mood, and she'd still given him a quick blowjob. And times when she'd just said no instead. Fewer times when she'd been in the mood and he wasn't, but that'd happened, too. He'd never felt weird about any of that, except towards the end, those times when he'd kept at her, thinking if they could just get into bed again the magic would come back. It hadn't, though. That, he still flinched away from, mostly because he didn't want to think about himself nagging someone for sex like that. He didn't want to be that person.
Fraser's hand was resting on his chest now, big and warm.
"I truly don't mind," Fraser said. "I can't say that I understand it myself, sex, that is, but I know it's important for you."
He sounded so damn earnest, and that along with his hand, stroking little circles on Ray's skin, finally did Ray in. He was not nagging Fraser for sex, here. Fraser was offering.
Ray gave up fighting it.
"Okay, fine, you can touch me. But only if you want to, I wouldn't want you to do something you don't want to do, okay? I mean--nnnnh." Fraser's hand had slid down to cup Ray's cock through his boxers, and Ray couldn't help bucking up into his touch.
It turned out that Fraser was not, as Ray thought he would be, hesitant and shy about this. He got Ray's boxers down, and then he licked his palm to get it good and wet. And then he proceeded to blow Ray's mind. Which, okay, wasn't hard to do given the amount of sexual frustration Ray had built up over the last couple of days (or maybe more like the last year).
But Christ, Fraser's hand felt so good, stroking him just right, no teasing, just long firm strokes that had Ray babbling grateful nonsense into Fraser's neck. Fraser threw a heavy leg over his to keep him still, and yeah, that turned Ray's crank. He felt his orgasm build inevitably while Fraser kept stroking him, and then he tensed up and came for what felt like forever, Fraser's hand gentle on him now, stroking him through it while he shuddered in reaction.
"Christ," Ray gasped. "Oh fuck, that was good. You--"
"Yes?" Fraser murmured. He almost sounded smug, the bastard.
Ray brought up his hand to touch Fraser, and felt the sticky wetness. "Uh, sorry, I came all over you."
"No problem." Fraser slid out of bed, and Ray could see his silhouette in the dark, stripping off his long johns. Well, in that case...Ray's boxers were already around his knees, and he shucked them off, along with his t-shirt. Fraser slid back into bed, and Ray wrapped himself around him. He'd always been a cuddler after sex, and God, Fraser's warm muscled body felt so good. He felt the soft nudge of Fraser's cock against his own, and it was almost a shock--it was like he'd been trying to pretend Fraser didn't even have one. But Fraser didn't seem to mind it--he just hugged Ray back and held him while he came down.
Ray in the aftermath of sex was pliant and warm and sought Fraser's own body with an intensity that was different from the intensity he showed during sex. He stroked his hands along Fraser's back, making unintelligible little noises of appreciation, and nuzzled into Fraser's neck. Above all, he was there, seeking closeness and contact, and Fraser held him with tenderness and just a touch of protectiveness.
"Hey," Ray murmured.
"That was not the first time you did that."
"Well, of course not," Fraser said, slightly amused. "I'm not an innocent. I told you I experimented in my youth."
"Huh." Ray sounded sleepy and relaxed, all the tension and restlessness leached away by orgasm. Then he focused, turned his head to look at Fraser. "You all right?"
"I'm all right."
"Okay, good." Ray relaxed against him again, and Fraser stroked Ray's hair, feeling his limbs twitch a little as he gradually fell asleep.
Fraser had to admit that he'd dissembled just a bit when he'd convinced Ray to have sex. It was true that he wanted Ray to feel good, but that feeling was not, as it undoubtedly was for Ray, sexual in nature. It did not turn him on to watch Ray aroused. Rather, he felt as if Ray grew distant from him, absorbed by the more and more urgent demands of the body until he reached the final crisis of orgasm.
Still, it was paradoxically Fraser who had pushed them into doing this. He couldn't stand the tension arising from not doing it, from having Ray sexually frustrated and obviously needing this. And it was equally obvious that Ray would not have asked for sex, therefore, it was Fraser who had to offer it.
Ray was sleeping now, his breathing deep and even. Fraser's arm was asleep, even if the rest of him wasn't, and he carefully extricated it from beneath Ray's body. Ray shifted a little, moving to close the distance between them. He could feel Ray's genitals against his thigh, now soft and relaxed like his own.
Fraser lay there, matching his breathing to Ray's until he, too, slept.
In the morning, Fraser woke at his usual time, despite not having set an alarm. He was an early riser by disposition; it was not particularly a virtue, although it was useful.
"Fraser?" Ray mumbled.
"I'm sorry, I was trying not to wake you."
Ray blinked, watching him move around the room. "Wow. You're beautiful."
"Ah, well," Fraser said, glancing down at his nude form. The sentiment, if not the nudity, discomfited him. "An accident of genetics, I suppose."
"Huh. Don't forget all those morning runs."
"Of which I am taking one right now. You're sure you don't want to come along?"
Ray shook his head, clearly only half awake still. "Going to sleep some more." He turned over and tangled his limbs in the sheets, spreading out to take up the newly available space, and Fraser went to his own room for his running clothes. Dief was on the couch, but came down expectantly when Fraser went to the door. He might pretend to only care about fast food and watching hockey, but he did need quite a lot of exercise.
He and Ray were not due to liaise today, which left Ray with the work of setting up the surveillance for tomorrow. Regrettable, but Fraser had duties at the Consulate, even if they were mostly paperwork. Occasionally he did have the satisfaction of helping Canadian citizens in distress, and he spent the morning setting up an emergency passport for a man who had had his original passport smoothly stolen in a department store and only noticed it the day after.
After lunch, Frannie called him from the 2-7.
"Yes?" he said, wondering at her agitated tone of voice. "Is something wrong?"
"Ray left a note that said we should call and tell you, but it got lost, and we only found it now."
"Not my fault, okay? It had to do with the Lieu's pastrami sandwich which had a really sticky dressing, and..."
Fraser interrupted her, which was rude, he knew, but he needed the information. "And? What does it say?"
"He said my brother told him that the thing you thought was going to happen tomorrow, which I'm assuming you know what it is, because I don't, is happening today instead. He tried to call you, but Turnbull said you were busy helping worthy Canadian citizens."
"Where is Ray now? Has he called in?"
"No. We tried calling him, but he didn't answer."
Fraser frowned. "Have you called your brother?"
"Yeah, and he's not answering his phone, either."
That was odd, not to mention worrying. "Tell Lieutenant Welsh I'll go down to the customs building to investigate."
"All right." Frannie sounded dubious. "Sure you don't want help?"
"I'll keep you updated."
Dief was on his feet before Fraser had hung up the phone. "Yes, you're quite right--the desk duty is over for today. We need to find Ray and Ray."
In answer to Dief's query, he said, "I hope not. But that's what we need to find out."
Fraser took a moment to change into civilian clothes--sometimes the red uniform was a bit too conspicuous. He dropped by Inspector Thatcher's replacement, who was a rather forgettable man in his fifties, to advise the Inspector of his absence, and then called a taxi. He usually took public transport when neither Ray was there to drive him, but there was a thread of worry in his mind that drove him to make haste.
A block from the customs office he saw the GTO and Ray's latest replacement green Riviera, communing together on a side street. He stopped the taxi and got out, walking around the cars. The hoods of both were cool, so not recently arrived, then. Dief sniffed both cars, then turned towards the lake.
"Yes, I assume so. Hmm. What was your impression of Ms. Kaufman?"
Dief whuffed and wagged his tail.
"I was thinking more along the lines of her moral integrity, but yes, I suppose her German Shepherd might be worth getting to know."
They were walking towards the customs building, and Fraser saw no sign of either Ray. He would gamble on the direct approach--he had no patience for subterfuge at the moment, not when his partners might be in danger. He would also gamble on his impression of Sharon Kaufmann as someone who was not a criminal by inclination.
"Is Ms. Kaufmann on duty?" he asked at the front desk, and on being informed that she was, he headed towards her room.
She started at his appearance, which might be an indication of guilt, or not. "Constable? What are you doing here?"
"Ms. Kaufmann." Fraser took off his hat. "I wonder if you have seen my partner today?"
"No. Why would I have? You told me you wouldn't need me any more."
"Not for the mugging case, no." Fraser closed the door to her office for privacy. "But we have reason to believe that you might be involved in a smuggling operation." He held up his hands to indicate silence when she stood up and began to say something in outrage. "We have no proof, and I'm not here to arrest you. I ask because I believe that my partner and a friend of mine may be in danger."
He looked steadily at her. She looked back, her jaw clenched and the line between her eyes creased in a frown.
"Please," he said, in a softer voice, gripping the brim of his Stetson.
Sharon Kaufmann opened her mouth, closed it, then said, "Damn it. You already know, so there's no point..." She ran a hand over her short hair. "It wasn't my idea. I don't even--I mean, I care about my job, I don't want you to think I'm the kind of person who takes bribes, because I'm not. I've been offered cash under the table lots of times, but I always turned it down."
"My brother, Danny. He was almost back on his feet again--he'd gotten out of prison, and he had a job, and Christ, I was so happy for him. Then he came to me and said, just one more job. He owed money to the gang, and they said if he didn't help him, they'd tell his employer he'd been in prison--God, why did he lie about that? And he'd go back in again. Danny begged me, and I--I just couldn't say no to him. Not even when I was risking my own job." She shook her head.
"I understand." Fraser wanted badly to ask what she knew about Ray and Ray, but he needed to keep her talking.
"Yeah? Well, I hated every minute of it. It's done now, and I suppose you should just go ahead and arrest me." Her mouth twisted.
He couldn't keep it in. "Do you know where they are?"
"Your partner? You mean he was here? Today?"
"Yes. Ray and a former partner of mine--their cars are parked close to here. They'd been tipped off that it would happen today, and they came here. They haven't called in, and their phones aren't working. I suspect they must've been on that boat."
Sharon's mouth opened. She hesitated, and then said. "I heard something, before I left the boat. There was a disturbance of some kind, but I didn't stay to see what it was."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't know. But I saw the boat leaving the quay."
Fraser's heart went cold, and he pictured Ray tied up on the smuggler's boat, bleeding, unconscious. Dead. Then he felt a sting of remorse that in that first moment, it had been only Ray Kowalski he had seen. Both Rays were very likely on that boat, and to lose either one of them--
For a moment he wanted to shake Sharon, for looking the other way, for not taking responsibility. Then he took a deep breath and thought, as penance, of Victoria's reaching hand, and how he had run towards her. He was not immune to the lure of partiality.
"I'm sorry for you and your brother's situation, but I must go immediately. Do you know where I can find a boat?"
She stared at him, and he could see her coming to a decision. "Yeah. I'll come with you."
Fraser used her desk phone to call Lieutenant Welsh and let him know what was happening. The Lieutenant told him to wait until backup arrived, but he had no intention of doing that. Anything could be happening on that boat.
Meanwhile, Sharon reached into her desk for a gun, shoved it into a holster and grabbed her jacket. "Christ, I hated it," she said as he hung up the phone. "I hated myself, for walking away. And Danny--God damn you, I can't help you anymore by keeping quiet."
"How many in the gang?" Fraser asked, following her as she walked briskly down the corridor. Ray told him sometimes that he was too quick to trust, but Sharon Kaufmann had everything to gain in cooperating now, when the game was already up.
"Four besides Danny," she said. They walked down a flight of stairs and came out on the customs pier, where a couple of motorboats were tied up. They climbed onto one of them, and Sharon got the engine going. The wind was up, and there were small white caps of foam on the waves out on the lake. Dief stood in the front like a figurehead, scenting the wind.
They steered out from the pier, and as they got out on the open lake Sharon revved up the engine, and the prow rose from the water as they gathered speed. Fraser scanned the horizon, his eyes watering from the wind. He felt better to be moving, to be doing something. God, what was happening on that boat?
"You armed?" Sharon shouted in his ear.
"No," he shouted back. "Not as such."
"I'm not armed."
"I heard you. Why on earth not? Thought you were a cop."
"I'm Canadian. No permit."
She stared at him, her mouth open. "God help us."
"Do you know where they're going?"
"Yeah. The Sault Ste. Marie route. If they weren't lying about that."
Fraser shut up and let her pilot the boat, straining to see ahead. They passed a few boats and bigger ships, but none of them seemed to be what they were chasing. Worry and adrenaline twisted his stomach.
"That's them," Sharon pointed. Ahead of them in the spray was a boat, almost a ship, larger than theirs. Sharon slowed down.
"Gonna tell them I'm here to warn them," Sharon shouted against the wind. "Tell them the Canadian side is onto them. You hide in the cabin for now, okay? You and the dog both."
Fraser did so. It was a good plan, and he didn't have a better one. He mouthed it at Dief, not bothering to speak aloud, and they both ducked down. Fraser knelt with his knees on the cold hard deck and felt like a penitent in prayer.
He felt the boat slow further, and the bump of it as they went alongside.
"Hey, what do you want?" a male voice said, presumably from the deck of the other boat.
Then Sharon's voice: "Just here to warn you."
"I got a call from the customs on the Canadian side, and they're onto you. You better steer clear of Sault Ste. Marie."
"Right, I--" The voice cut off in mid-sentence, and Fraser took that as his cue to look around the edge of the cabin door. Sharon was holding a gun on the man. He was alone, with the other smugglers presumably in the interior of the boat or at least on the other side of it.
Fraser ducked out the cabin door. Sharon was saying in as low a voice as the wind permitted, "You make a noise, I'll shoot you. Go for your gun, I'll shoot you. C'mon, down here."
The man was glaring daggers at her, but he clambered down into the smaller boat, losing his balance as he hit the heaving deck. Fraser took a bundle of twine from the pocket of his jacket and tied the man's hands securely behind his back.
"Quick," Sharon said, glancing nervously at the larger boat.
Fraser dragged the man into the cabin and tied his feet, then saw a roll of duct tape lying among the odds-and-ends in the tool drawer, and ripped off a piece to put over the man's mouth.
He emerged again to see Sharon having tied their boat to the larger one with a sturdy piece of cable.
"One down," Fraser said. "Good work."
"Thanks," she said, with a sudden grin that looked nervous but exhilarated. "I used to work in security. Before I switched to Customs."
"Let's go," Fraser said, clambering up the side of the smuggler's boat. He clung to the railing, swinging a leg over the side as the spray from a wave soaked his jeans. "Aren't they undercrewed for a boat of this size?"
"Yes," Sharon said with a grunt as she climbed up beside him. "There's got to be at least one steering, up in the cabin."
"But I don't think they can see us from up there; it's a dead angle," Fraser said. "And there must be at least one in the engine room."
"Yeah. And my brother. Don't know where he'd be--he wouldn't know much about boats. He's probably just here to provide some extra muscle. God damn it, Danny, why'd you have to get tangled up in this?"
Fraser wondered for a brief second where Sharon's loyalties would lie when they encountered her brother. But no, he trusted her. Not as he would have trusted either of the Rays, of course, but he thought her intentions were sincere, and her actions thus far had borne it out. "I believe he was here to secure your cooperation."
"Don't rub my nose in it, okay?"
"I wouldn't--" Fraser was cut off by the sound of gunfire.
"Any bright ideas?" Vecchio said.
"Get out of the handcuffs?" Ray suggested, trying to adjust his shoulders for comfort and failing. They were stuck in a small room somewhere in the hold of the boat, and he could feel the engines revving up and the boat gathering speed. His bruises from the fight were starting to swell up, but Vecchio and him had silently agreed not to talk about it. Getting caught out like that by a bunch of two-bit smugglers was just too embarrassing for words.
"Really? You know, I never would have thought of that." Apparently danger made Vecchio sarcastic, but he still kept his voice down. There could be a guard outside that door. "Any bright ideas for getting out of the handcuffs?"
"Yeah, I've got a spare handcuff key. It's in my jeans pocket. Can you get to it?" Ray whispered.
This turned out to be harder than it sounded. They were cuffed back to back, stuck to the same sturdy pipe running along the wall. Ray twisted, trying to get his pocket closer to Vecchio's straining hands.
"You know, they might be back any minute to knock us out and dump us into Lake Michigan to sleep with the fishes," Vecchio muttered as he dug around in Ray's pocket.
"Well, the last time I was handcuffed to a boat, it was sinking and the water was rising over my head and I almost drowned," Ray said. "So I'd say we're still better off."
"So far," Vecchio said darkly. "When was that?"
"Last summer. When Fraser and I ended up on that sailing ship. He tell you about that?"
"Yeah, sure. The one with the ghost ship, right?" Vecchio said. "Could you, like, stand on your toes or something? "
"Yeah, that's the one." Ray strained to get higher. "Ghost ship. I guess this one will turn out to have vampires on it or something."
Vecchio grunted, doing something with his hands that was probably painful. "Got it," he finally said.
"Don't drop it," Ray couldn't help saying.
"You're full of helpful advice, Kowalski," Vecchio said. "Give me your hands. And hold still."
Ray did. He heard the scratch of the key and Vecchio hissing in a breath in concentration. Then there was a snick, and his hands were free. He grabbed the handcuffs so they wouldn't clatter to the floor and make noise, then shook out in shoulders in relief. "Christ, I hate handcuffs. When they're on me, I mean."
"Yeah, well, I'm still in mine. You don't think you could see your way to getting them off me?" Vecchio tugged at the cuffs.
"Sure," Ray said, and made short work of them.
"Glad you had that key," Vecchio said grudgingly.
"Proper preparation," Ray said, grinning. Vecchio grinned back, and Ray felt a spark of kinship with him. They had Fraser in common, and he was beginning to see what Fraser saw in Vecchio.
"So," Vecchio said, glancing at the door. They both knew it was locked--they'd heard the key turn.
"You think we should try to pick the lock?" Ray asked.
"If there's anyone outside, it's going to give them warning. Besides, do you have a lockpick?"
Ray shook his head reluctantly. "So I guess it's waiting time, then."
They raided the small room for weapons. Ray found himself a ratchet wrench, and Vecchio a fire extinguisher, and then they settled down by the door.
Ray wasn't good at waiting at the best of times, and this definitely wasn't the best of times. When a couple of minutes had passed, he hissed to Vecchio, "You think they're coming soon?"
Vecchio gave him a look. "What are you, five years old? 'Mommy, are we there yet?'" he mouthed.
Ray gave Vecchio the finger. He almost said something about how he could see why Fraser had gotten himself a new partner, but didn't. He wouldn't have wanted to be in Vecchio's shoes in Vegas, and besides, he didn't really know Vecchio that well. Ray could be the better man.
"I wonder if Fraser's on his way," he said instead. He had a nagging sense of worry that maybe Frannie had accidentally fed his note to the ducks in the park or something.
"He must be," Vecchio said, with a sense of conviction that made Ray like him better again.
"Hey, these schmucks are smuggling weapons into Canada," Ray said, smiling, because the thought of Fraser was enough to put him in a better mood even when locked in the hold of a boat with a bunch of bad guys on it. "Fraser's gonna come down on them like an avenging angel."
He almost regretted the word "angel", because who referred to another guy as an angel? But Vecchio didn't comment on it.
Christ, Fraser. Where was he? Ray hadn't really talked to him after last night. He'd just fallen asleep on him like some sort of stereotype of a guy who'd finally gotten laid. Sure, he'd asked if he was okay before he zonked out, at least he thought so, but Ray still felt a little bad about it. And in the morning he'd been his usual pre-caffeinated self, and they hadn't really talked about it then either.
A key turned in the lock, and they both tensed up.
There were two of them, but the first man who came in really wasn't expecting to be hit on the head with a ratchet wrench, and he went down without a word. Vecchio whacked the second guy with the fire extinguisher. Ray yanked the guy's arm and he tripped over the high threshold of the door, falling on his face. Vecchio followed him down, twisting his arm up his back.
"Whew," Ray said, closing the door. "You think we've got our dignity back now?"
Vecchio grinned at him and started to drag his guy over to the wall. "Yeah. And hey, we've got the handcuffs right here."
"Fuck you," the guy spat, trying to get loose.
"Original," Vecchio said. "Never heard that one before."
Ray bent down to check the first man's pulse and run his hand over his head. He seemed to be fine, which was a relief--Ray'd been a bit worried that he'd actually bashed the guy's head in. He dragged him over to join Vecchio's guy over by the wall.
"No guns on them?" Vecchio asked.
"Nah," Ray said. "Overconfident. But hey, here's the handcuff key." With a smirk, he dangled it in front of the thug who wasn't unconscious.
"C'mon, let's get out of here," Vecchio said.
The corridor was empty. "Which way?" Vecchio asked.
Ray shrugged. "This one?"
They made their way along it, trying to listen above the engine noise for more thugs. At the end of the corridor there was a door. He put his ear to it. Nothing.
"You ready to go through?" he asked Vecchio, just to be sure they were on the same page. Vecchio nodded.
With Fraser, he'd only have had to exchange a glance--it felt like a long time since Ray had partnered with anyone else.
They burst through the door, trying to check out every corner of the room. But it was empty. Empty of people, that is, but there were piles of boxes. Ray opened one and whistled.
"Oh hey, look at this," he said. It was full of Sig Sauer pistols, a couple of different models.
"Nice," Vecchio said. He was grinning.
Ray sifted through the packing material. "No rubber duckies, though," he muttered.
Vecchio shot him a look that clearly meant Ray was deranged, then grabbed a gun of his own.
"I'm going to feel a lot better once I've got this thing loaded," Vecchio said, opening other crates and sifting through the contents. "Here we go."
He pulled out some ammo and handed it to Ray. Ray took it, loaded the gun he'd chosen and hefted it. Lighter than he was used to. But hey, it was going to be satisfying to get the smugglers with their own guns.
"You see a lot of guns like this in Vegas?" Ray asked, then almost wanted to take it back. He didn't really want to imagine what Vecchio had had to do undercover.
But Vecchio answered easily enough. "Nah, not really. Armando had a classic Beretta, but he wasn't really the hands-on type. His goons had some heavy weaponry, though."
"Right." Ray put his glasses on and hefted his Sig. "You ready to go?"
Vecchio nodded. Making their way out of the hold, Vecchio said, "Uh, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," Ray said cautiously.
"So, um. You and Fraser? Are you..." Vecchio kept his eyes up front and didn't meet Ray's eyes.
Theoretically, that sentence could've ended in anything, but Ray resigned himself to the obvious meaning. "Yeah." He put a bit of bite in the word, like "what's it to you?"
"Right." There was a pause, then Vecchio went on. "If you hurt him, I'm going to kill you."
Well, that was rich, coming from him. "Ditto. With Stella, I mean."
Vecchio actually laughed. "Guess I had that one coming."
They reached a door, and Ray peered through the salt-encrusted window out onto the deck. He looked at Vecchio, who shrugged, and Ray eased the door open. The wind made his eyes water, but he didn't see anyone on deck. They went out.
Then Ray realized his mistake as he heard someone shout "Hey!" from above. He looked up reflexively. There was some sort of high place with lots of windows--the bridge? Well, whatever they called the place where you steered the ship from, which really didn't matter right now because someone was shooting at them from it.
Ray ducked around the side of where they'd just come out, taking shelter and returning fire. He heard glass splintering, not as loud as you'd think in the noise of the wind and water. The railing was just beside him, and the waves were high enough to drench him in spray.
Ray cautiously squinted up at the bridge, then drew his head back quick at the crack of gunfire. Where was Vecchio? He seemed to have gone the other way. Ray hoped he was okay.
And then he was slammed against the railing, and Ray cursed himself for not keeping a lookout behind him.
They both struggled for the gun, but it fell into the water, and then it was just the two of them. The guy was big and burly, probably twice Ray's weight. Ray could feel the railing at his back, giving way, and all the cold, deep, endless expanse of Lake Michigan behind him. And then his feet left the ground as the guy pushed him over the railing.
Ray hit the water with a shock that took the breath out of him, and went under.
Fraser saw Ray fall, and there was no thought. He acted on instinct, pulling off his jacket and vaulting over the railing. The water was cold, but he expected it, pushed himself through it to the surface, dashed the water from his eyes.
The waves were high, enough to obscure his view.
"Ray!" he shouted. No reply.
He took a moment to unlace his boots and push them off, down into the deep. Relieved of the weight, he swam more easily.
"Ray!" he shouted again, feeling his voice break. He took a few deep breaths. Concentrate, damn it.
He'd jumped a little later than Ray, but not by much. They should be close together. If he followed their course backward--he glanced at the boat and found it, farther away than he'd expected, and turned around and swam away from it.
He crested a wave, trying to see ahead, but to no avail. Ray was not a strong swimmer, to say the least, and Fraser wished now that he'd pushed Ray to learn, but surely he could stay afloat until...the alternative didn't bear thinking about.
He tried a third time. "Ray!"
There was something--yes, an answering shout, and Fraser swam towards it with all his strength. He could see Ray now, at the crest of a wave, until he disappeared again. But Fraser knew where he was now.
Ray was low in the water when Fraser reached him, and Ray grabbed him with the strength of panic, pulling him down.
"Ray. Ray. Ray," Fraser repeated, trying to dislodge Ray's grip. "Don't panic."
"I am not--" Ray coughed and spluttered-- "panicking, okay?"
"Ray, please let go." Fraser kept his voice low, projecting calm as if nothing in the world was amiss, despite the fact that they were in the middle of the lake they called Michigan with no vessel in sight any more. The water was cold, and he tried to calculate their expected survival time. Perhaps half an hour?
Ray let go, slumping in his arms. "Bloom, close," he muttered.
"Are your boots still on?"
Fraser dove down to untie Ray's boots and tug them off, then got him to turn around so that Fraser could hold him by the armpits.
"Just concentrate on keeping afloat. Moving around will lead to more heat loss."
Ray did so. "I knew you'd come," he said in a low voice, hardly audible over the wind. "Turned up out of nowhere."
"Hardly. I'd just boarded the boat when I saw you fall."
"Huh. Got my note?"
"At long last, yes. Ray Vecchio?"
"Christ, I hope he's fine--if he's not, Stella's going to kill me. Anyway, we both got loose. Found some sweet guns. How'd you get here?"
"Ms. Kaufmann. I convinced her to help me."
"Huh." A tremor shook Ray's body. "Damn. I could sure use some of that subcutaneous fat right now."
"I'd share if I could," Fraser said. He was still holding his own, but he knew it was only a matter of time before the cold leached the life out of them both.
"If--if we d-don't--" Ray's teeth were chattering now--"don't make it out of here, I just--"
"There's no need--"
"Yes there is!" Ray struggled in his arms, and Fraser shook him, reminded him to relax. Ray went on, "I just want you to know that I love you, okay?"
"And I you."
This sounded awfully like a last declaration, and Fraser had lost sensation in his feet by now. Well, he could think of worse ways to die than with Ray in his arms, and doing his best to protect him.
It was almost a shock to find how few regrets he had, should things end here.
And then, just as Fraser had almost given up, he heard the hum of the approaching boat. With the last reserves of his strength, he raised his hand in the air and waved it.
They were dragged over the railing like sodden bundles of laundry. In the windchill, Fraser was wracked with shivers that shook his whole body, and he couldn't seem to stop. But he didn't let go of Ray.
There was a warm tongue on his cheek. Dief? Someone shook his shoulder. "I said, get into the cabin!" He vaguely recognized Sharon Kaufmann's voice, and when she tugged at him, he followed, his hand clenched in Dief's warm fur.
Out of the wind, his head cleared somewhat, and he had enough presence of mind to accept the blanket Sharon tossed them.
"You okay? I need to steer," she said.
"Yes. Thank you," he said between chattering teeth. She went out, closing the door. Dief whined in worry, but Fraser had eyes only for Ray.
"Ray?" Fraser shook him. "Ray? Ray!"
A groan. Fraser began to strip Ray's clothes off, his fingers numb and uncooperative, then laid him down on the blanket. He did the same to himself, then wrapped them both up together. Dief lay down beside Fraser, his body warm and solid through the blanket.
"Dief, please. Ray needs you more."
Dief's eyes met his, warm and brown, and then he got up and went to Ray's side instead, lying down against him. Ray's skin was cold and clammy, and he wasn't even shivering. Bad sign. Fraser plastered himself to Ray, trying to share what body heat he had. "Ray?"
"Please, say something. Anything."
All right, that was progress. Fraser held tight while their bodies fought the cold away, inch by slow inch.
The roar of the motor decreased, but he found he had no energy to rise and find out what was going on. Even the thought of opening the blanket and letting any of their hard-won precious warmth slip away made him shudder. He drifted, disoriented. For a moment he thought he was in the north. Dief had saved him from drowning in the Beaufort Sea. No, he was with Eric, that time they'd gone through a patch of rotten spring ice on the MacKenzie, that he never told his grandmother about for fear she'd forbid him to go ice fishing.
"Benny? Benny!" A hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"
"You don't sound okay."
He tried to concentrate. "The smugglers?"
"Yeah, don't you worry about that. We've got backup here. I'll deal with it. You guys need to go to the hospital?"
"No, thank you. We'll go home."
"You sure? I know you, Benny--you wouldn't go to hospital if you were bleeding to death."
Ray stirred beside Fraser. "Fine."
Ray Vecchio rolled his eyes. "Two stubborn idiots, just what I need."
"I have extensive experience with hypothermia," Fraser told him.
"I just bet you have. Fine, if that's the way you want it."
"The Goat?" Ray croaked beside Fraser.
Ray Vecchio sighed. "You're in no condition to drive. Give me the keys and I'll get her over to your place, okay? You owe me, Kowalski."
Ray relaxed. "Thanks. Jeans pocket."
Ray Vecchio took the keys, then said, "Let me just get you another blanket. Don't move, okay?" Ray pointed a finger at them as if to pin them in place, and left.
That was when Fraser realized that he and Ray (Ray Kowalski, that is) were rolled up close together in the blanket with their wet clothes beside them. To be sure, it was standard procedure to undress and share body heat in cases of hypothermia, and it should be nothing to invite comment, really. But he knew that there would most certainly be comments if they were seen this way, and Ray Vecchio was most likely trying to protect them from gossip.
"Here you go," Ray said, tossing them a blanket. "Uh, get a little more decent, okay?"
"Thank you," Fraser said. He'd never actually said anything to Ray about his relationship with Ray Kowalski, but he suspected Ray already knew.
"There's a squad car waiting to take you home. Take a hot bath or something, all right?"
"Actually--" Fraser began, about to explain the perils of quickly heating up a victim of hypothermia, but Ray was already gone.
He coaxed Ray Kowalski up to a standing position and wrapped him in the new blanket, then left him propped against the cabin wall while Fraser bent to pick up the sodden clothes. He felt his legs trembling as he did so, and as they left the shelter of the cabin, the wind set his teeth to chattering.
"Come on," he told Ray. "Just down to the pier."
Ray grunted and got off the boat, stumbling a little. Fraser grabbed him before he could fall into the lake again.
The driver was a young uniformed officer. "Fell into the lake, huh?"
Fraser, shivering, hair dripping, considered not replying to this statement of the obvious, but politeness won over. "Yes, we did."
"Right. I'll get you home." He turned up the heat, and Fraser's opinion of him rose.
They dragged themselves up the stairs to their apartment barefoot, with Dief yipping in encouragement.
"He thinks that's helpful, right?" Ray asked.
"I'm afraid so."
They were too tired to do more than fall straight into Ray's bed, with Fraser's Hudson's Bay blanket piled on top for extra warmth. As Fraser slid down into sleep, wrapped tight around Ray's naked body, he felt the mattress dip as Diefenbaker jumped up to settle beside him.
Fraser woke by slow degrees in the morning. Warm. Dry. Ray's body against his. Wolf breath in his face.
He wrinkled his nose and pushed Dief's muzzle aside. Ray stirred beside him, and got a lick in his face.
"Uh, Dief? Stop that!"
Fraser met Dief's eyes, and the worry in them softened his tone. "We're all right. I promise."
"He doesn't usually sleep in the bed, does he?" Ray grumbled.
"No. But I believe he was worried about us. He's seen me almost die after falling into ice-cold water before."
"Was that when he saved you from drowning? When he went deaf?" Ray scratched at Dief's ears. "Hey, buddy, we're fine now, okay?" Dief whined and leaned into Ray's touch.
"Yes. It was."
"I get that." Ray shivered.
"You're not still cold?" Fraser asked, touching his chest. It was, if anything, warmer than usual.
"No, I was just--fuck, we could be at the bottom of Lake Michigan right now," Ray said, as if the realization had just hit. He reached for Fraser and held him close, almost desperately so, and Fraser tightened his arms around Ray. His skin was warm against Fraser's, the muscles under it firm. His hair still smelled of lake water, although it was long since dry. Above all, he was alive.
Ray's mouth sought Fraser's, open and wet, and Fraser yielded to his obvious need, although his passion did not take that form. Ray was hard against his hip. And then the drawing back, the hesitation.
"It's all right," he murmured to Ray. "It's a natural consequence of escaping death by a narrow margin."
He meant to reassure Ray, perhaps amuse him, but there was a faint shadow of hurt in Ray's eyes.
"It's not--I mean, you make it sound so clinical."
Fraser sighed. "I'm sorry. I suppose that's because I don't understand it myself."
"Mmm." Ray sighed, too, then slid down until he was lying on Fraser's shoulder, with his nose tucked into Fraser's neck. He was still hard against Fraser's thigh, but he made no move to do anything about it.
"Hey, we didn't really talk, you know, after we..." Ray made a gesture. "I just fell asleep on you."
"I didn't mind."
"Yeah, okay, but--did it feel okay with you? The sex? I mean, I know you don't get turned on by it, but I don't want you to be turned off either, if you know what I mean." Ray sounded uncertain.
"Turned off as in...repulsed?"
Fraser tightened his arms around Ray. "I certainly don't feel that way."
"So how does it feel?"
"I feel...rather distant from you in the act itself, I suppose," Fraser confessed. "It's as if you're in the grip of something I can't share at all. But no, I'm not repulsed by it, and there's a certain satisfaction in giving you something you need."
"Huh, okay." Ray sounded neutral, attentive, and Fraser wondered if he was hiding disappointment or hurt. He went on. "But I do enjoy the aftermath. Sex seems to make you..."
Ray huffed out a breath. "Clingy? Cuddly?"
"So, you like cuddling, huh?" Ray was smiling a little now.
"Very much so."
"Okay, that's good, because so do I." Ray wrapped himself around Fraser, octopus style, and sighed. They lay there for a while, Ray's face tucked into Fraser's neck. Ray's erection had flagged while they were talking, but the increased closeness seemed to have brought it back. He neither drew back nor drew attention to it, though, just lay there with the whole length of his body pressed against Fraser.
Fraser slid his hand down to Ray's hip. "May I?" He wanted, in part, to apologize for dismissing it as a mere bodily urge before. He knew it was far more than that for Ray.
Ray drew in a breath. "Uh, if you want."
"Do you want me to?"
He thought Ray might equivocate, tell him it wasn't necessary, but he only breathed, "Yeah."
Then Ray went up on one elbow to address Dief. "Uh, Dief, would you get out? Sorry, but..."
Dief whuffed and jumped off the bed, padding out to the living room.
Fraser's first gentle touch brought a soft sound of need from Ray. Fraser stroked him slowly at first, until Ray's quickened breathing showed his heightened arousal.
"Do you want my mouth on you?"
"Your--oh, fuck." Ray's eyes widened. "You don't have to do that."
"I'd be happy to."
"Christ, okay, yeah."
Fraser dove into the warm space beneath the covers and sought out Ray's erection. He was unwashed, but not too unpleasantly so, and the sound Ray uttered as Fraser took him in was reward enough.
It was rather like riding a bicycle--not something you forgot how to do, even if it had been a long time. And Ray gave him plenty of non-verbal cues as to what he needed. Ray's hand rested gently on his head, and his hips moved only in minute, abbreviated thrusts. He needn't have been so careful--Fraser wasn't going to break, after all. But he liked it, that gentle hand.
"Oh God, I'm gonna--" Ray gasped. Fraser appreciated the warning. He pulled off, and caught Ray's semen with his hand as Ray shuddered and came. Fraser didn't mind the taste of it, but he found the texture unpleasant.
He wiped his hand off on a tissue from the bedside table, then crept back under the covers with Ray, kissed his mouth, his forehead, with tenderness.
Fraser was stroking his hair, and Ray just lay there in his arms, still in a kind of post-orgasm haze. Christ, Fraser's mouth on him.
"You've done that before," he murmured.
"You said that already," Fraser said into his hair.
"Yeah, but--" You didn't get that good at blowjobs without practise. But no, he wasn't going to ask. He did wonder, though, what Fraser's previous relationships had been like. Ray felt weirdly protective of him, like, he hoped no one had taken advantage of him. Well, okay, Fraser seemed to know what he wanted and didn't want, but when he was just a kid, with his looks--no, he wasn't going to ask, not if Fraser didn't volunteer to talk about it.
So what else had he done, with those other guys (girls?) in his past? One thing was clear--Ray was never going to expect Fraser to let him fuck him. That just seemed too--invasive, for someone who didn't actually enjoy it. Besides, what he'd fantasized about, before he knew about the asexual thing, wasn't really him fucking Fraser, but Fraser fucking him. Maybe he could ask Fraser to finger him some time. Or hold him down. Or tie him up and then finger him. That would be--yeah.
After all, if sex was an alien kind of thing to Fraser anyway, maybe he wasn't going to be more weirded out by tying Ray up and sticking a finger up his ass than by giving him a handjob. Well, he could hope.
Fraser shifted, moving his arm from under Ray. "Penny for your thoughts?"
"Uh, nothing." Ray felt himself blushing, and was pretty sure Fraser wasn't fooled, but he wasn't really ready to bring up what he'd been thinking about.
Fraser obviously had something on his mind, though. "I understand if--I mean, if it's not the same. To--to have sex with someone and not be able to reciprocate." Fraser's voice was low and halting. Ray waited, because it seemed like he was heading somewhere with this, even if it was taking him some time.
"So I would understand if you needed to--at some point, if you wanted to have sex with other people," Fraser finished in a rush.
Whoa. Ray tried to clear his head, because this was a doozy of a conversation to have when he was still all sleepy from morning sex. He and Stella--well, they'd tried that, when Stella was in college, and once it had worked, but there was also that time it blew up in their faces. Which had been partly because of Ray's jealousy, so it wasn't like he had a leg to stand on there.
"Uh, give me a minute here. I need to think about this, okay?"
Ray tried to sort out his thoughts. Then, because it was easier to do that while talking, he said, "I see what you're saying, okay? I mean, sure, I do miss that. And it's not really fair to expect you to--have sex with me every time I want it, either. But not--not right now. I don't really want anyone else right now. This is still so new, you know?"
Ray stroked his hand down the warm skin of Fraser's back. "So, I don't know. Let's wait and see?"
"All right. That seems like a good idea." He felt Fraser relax under his hand, like he was relieved to have gotten the topic out in the open and out of the way. Then the muscles bunched again, as Fraser moved to throw the covers aside and sit up. "Well, it's late. I imagine Ray must be wondering it we're all right."
"Hey," Ray said in half-hearted protest as he was bereft of the covers. Then he glanced at the alarm clock. "It's nine o'clock?"
"I suppose we needed the sleep. How do you feel?" Fraser began to dress, and Ray watched him, because he was pretty sure he could never get enough of seeing Fraser naked. But he tried not to be too obvious about it.
"Fine. Not cold, anyway."
"Good. We should probably report in."
"Yeah, I guess." Ray dragged himself out of bed. They had a quick breakfast, then drove off--Vecchio had parked the Goat on the street outside for him, and dropped the key through the mail slot.
They stopped by the Consulate so Fraser could give the Ice Queen replacement guy a quick report, and then headed for the station.
"Hey, there you are!" Vecchio said as they came into the bullpen. "You all right?"
"Yeah, we're fine. We just needed some sleep and a warm bed." Ray felt himself flushing, even though he hadn't actually said that they'd slept in the same bed. But Vecchio already knew, anyway.
"Good, that's good," Vecchio said.
"Thanks for dropping off the Goat for me."
"Aww, no problem. You'd do the same for me, right?" Vecchio looked at Fraser. "See, some people understand the value of a good car."
"I'm glad you both are bonding," Fraser said, and looked like he meant it, too. Huh.
"So how'd it go yesterday?"Ray asked. "We were kind of out of it after the whole being pushed into the lake thing."
"Pushed? You mean you didn't miss your step and fall?"
"It went fine," Vecchio said. "I got in a hit on one of the guys up there, just about the time you went in. The other one up there gave up when he realized he was the only one left. I'm pretty sure he thought there were more of us."
"What about the guy who pushed me in?"
"That Sharon chick got to him. He was apparently her brother."
"Wait, her brother? So that was the angle they had on her. Huh."
And then Fraser chimed in with his side of the story, which he hadn't told Ray yesterday on account of the whole hypothermia thing.
"Anyway, they're all yours now," Vecchio said, spreading his arms. "It's not really a case for the mob squad."
"Gentlemen?" The Lieu was ominously crooking a finger at them from his office door.
"Uh, yeah?" Vecchio said, turning around, even though he wasn't even at the 2-7 anymore. Old habits died hard, apparently.
They all crowded into Welsh's office. He leaned forward at his desk, those deep lines of worry on his forehead. "I'm glad to see you all alive, and I'm glad you closed the case. But--" he held up one meaty forefinger "--have you ever heard of this little thing we call back-up? It's very helpful, keeps people alive."
"Um," Ray said eloquently. "It was just--the heat of the moment? We didn't have time--"
"Time," Welsh said, "is exactly what you won't have if you die far from your fellow cops. Next time, follow standard operating procedure. It's there for a reason."
"Yes, sir," Fraser said, and Ray and Vecchio nodded.
How exactly did someone who cared about the rules as much as Fraser did end up in these kinds of situations so often, anyway? It was a mystery.
"Thanks for assisting the 2-7 on this case, Detective Vecchio," Welsh said. "I hear good things about you from the mob squad."
"Thank you, sir," Vecchio said, grinning. "Speaking of which, I better be getting back there."
He headed for the door, then turned. "Don't forget Sunday dinner, all right? Ma wants you both there."
"We'll be there," Fraser said, and Vecchio left.
"Right, you both have a suspect waiting for you," Welsh said. "We took care of the goons on the boat, but this Ms. Kaufmann seems a more complicated case. ASA Kowalski will be by soon, and you can consult with her."
"Thanks, we'll deal with it," Ray said, and they went to see Sharon Kaufmann.
She was sitting by the table in Interview 1, biting nervously on a pencil.
"Hi," she said when they came in, straightening.
"Want a coffee?" Ray said, which got a small smile out of her. He set it down in front of her.
"Right," she said. "Nobody would tell me anything until you guys came in. What's the deal? Any chance I can get out of this? I was stupid, I know...you don't have to rub it in. And I know I did wrong, not like I'm going to deny that. But..."
"But you did help us," Fraser said. "We might not have caught them without you."
She looked a little less tense. "I'll give you what I know about the gang, all right? And so will my brother, if he knows what's good for him." With that look on her face, he'd better.
"We can't give you any promises right now, okay? I mean, I'll talk to the ASA, put in a good word for you.
Sharon took a deep breath. "Right. I guess that's all I can ask. And...thanks. I know it sounds weird, but despite everything, I'm glad they didn't get away with it."
"I don't think that sounds strange at all," Fraser said, all serious.
She held out her hand, and Fraser shook it, then Ray did.
Leaving the interview room, Ray caught sight of Stella over by his desk.
"Ray! There you are," Stella said, walking towards them with her heels clacking decisively on the floor. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, sure," Ray said, spreading his arms. "What, you worried about me?"
She shot him an mock-annoyed glance. "Yes, Ray, I did. Ray told me you had hypothermia after falling in the middle of Lake Michigan."
Ray sobered, squeezing her shoulder a bit, then letting go--he knew from experience that she didn't like hugs at work. "I'm fine, Stella. Thanks for asking."
"You also dragged my soon-to-be husband along on your wild adventure," she said, frowning.
"Look, he's a cop too. He doesn't need my help to risk his life, okay?"
Stella huffed out a breath, then smiled ruefully. "Yeah, I don't know why I married another cop." But the smile that tugged the corners of her mouth said that wasn't really regret in her voice. Then she straightened, all business again. "So. That suspect you've got in there?"
"Yeah, right." Ray let her in on the details, with Fraser filling in his part.
"If you could go lightly on her, we'd appreciate it," Fraser said.
"I'll see what I can do," Stella said.
"See you on Sunday?" Ray said.
Stella raised her eyebrows, then said, "Oh, right, the Vecchio Sunday dinner. Ma Vecchio is going to be over the moon with so many people there. Yeah, see you."
She nodded to them both, then strode off towards Welsh's office.
"So. Paperwork?" Fraser said brightly.
"Freak," Ray muttered. He didn't even want to think about all the forms waiting for them after this case.
They were both tired that night, and Fraser didn't even make a token protest about ordering pizza with extra cheese and pineapple, not even about Dief getting his chunk of it.
The pizza was getting slowly digested as all three of them watched some hockey. It was only mildly interesting, because neither of them had a stake in who won, but still, it was good.
"Mmm. I needed some downtime," Ray said.
Fraser grunted in agreement, then stretched until his back made a cracking noise.
Ray leaned over to squeeze his shoulder. "You tense? I could give you a backrub."
"Oh--" Ray thought at first that Fraser would say no--that habit of self-reliance that he had--but he didn't. "Thank you, yes."
"On the bed. Come on."
Fraser lay face-down on the bed, and Ray went to get some lotion. "Shirt off, okay?"
Fraser obediently stripped off his shirt, and Ray straddled him, one knee on either side of his ass, and spread the lotion over his upper back. Ray thought he was pretty good at this--he'd done it often for Stella, after she'd stayed up late with her neck bent over those brick-heavy law books.
Fraser's back was sure different from Stella's, though--big and solid and muscled, with pale smooth skin. Ray started with broad, sweeping movements, trying to loosen up the muscles, because yeah, Fraser was tense.
"Stay away from the scar on my back," Fraser murmured.
"Sure." Yeah, Ray had seen that scar. Low down on his back, not that big, really, but it looked ugly, maybe because he knew what had made it. Ray'd never really asked Fraser about the Victoria thing. He wondered what the deal had been there, because he was pretty sure Vecchio had thought Fraser and Victoria had been lovers.
Maybe it just went to show that you didn't need sex to go completely nuts over someone.
Ray started to dig deeper, moving his fingers in tight little circles in the muscles between Fraser's shoulder blades. Fraser groaned. Ray stopped.
"All right? Too hard?"
"Good. Very good, in fact."
Ray grinned in satisfaction. He hadn't lost his touch. He started up again, moving methodically up Fraser's spine on one side, then down on the other. He could feel Fraser relaxing. And it felt good, to be able to give Fraser this. Sure, it wasn't sex, but it was something physical.
Although Fraser sure was making noise like it was sex--low, breathy little moans that he might not even know that he was making. And obviously, it was turning Ray on. Which probably had something to do with straddling Fraser's ass, too.
But this was for Fraser. Ray concentrated on the backrub, searching out the knots in Fraser's muscles, working at them until the muscles relaxed. Christ, those long sentry hours must really be doing a number on him.
Ray shifted, adjusted himself in his jeans. In a way, this reminded him of those long, drawn-out make-out sessions he'd used to have with Stella, back when they were just kids and hadn't had sex yet, shy and unsure. Ray remembered being achingly hard while they made out for hours in Stella's room with her parents downstairs. Foreplay as its own pleasure. Or maybe that was a nostalgic reconstruction, and he'd just been desperate back then.
He finally finished the backrub, ending up by working his way up Fraser's neck to the base of his skull.
"All done," he said, dropping a kiss on Fraser's neck. Fraser stirred.
"Mmmm. Thank you. That was--" he finished the sentence with a satisfied sigh.
"Made you inarticulate, huh?" Ray was pretty proud of that.
"Mmmmm." Fraser turned his head, blinking at Ray with a sleepy smile. His eyes flicked down to Ray's hard-on, which, yeah, must be pretty obvious. Ray squirmed. He was going to have to do something about that.
"I just, uh, need to go to the bathroom. Be back soon."
"If you need to masturbate, I don't mind if you want to do it here."
Ray flushed. Yeah, he'd been pretty obvious there. But Fraser had just sounded matter-of-fact, and, well. Doing it in the bathroom just felt kind of sordid sometimes, and if he could do it here with Fraser instead--
"Uh, if you don't mind..."
"It's all right." Fraser closed his eyes again. Apparently a backrub made him sleepy.
Once he got his hands on himself, he realized that it wasn't going to take long. Fraser's eyes were closed, so he didn't feel self-conscious about watching him, the firm muscled lines of his back, the swell of his ass...
Ray wanted to rub up against Fraser, come on him, but Fraser hadn't volunteered for that. He could ask, but--and then it was a moot point anyway, because at the thought of spurting all over that smooth creamy skin, he was coming, stroking himself through it.
He cleaned himself up, and then Fraser was tugging at him, tucking him under his arm and spooning up around his back. Fraser's hand came up under his shirt, warm, resting on his belly. Fraser's nose was tucked into his neck, and Ray could feel his slow breathing.
Apparently they fell asleep like that, because Ray woke later, needing to go to the bathroom. He got Fraser awake enough to get his jeans off, and under the covers.
"What are you reading?"
It was the evening of their well-deserved Saturday off, and Ray was perched on the back of the couch, looking down at Fraser. Dief was sprawled on the soft carpet under the coffee table.
Fraser tilted the book up so that Ray could see.
"South!, by Ernest Shackleton," Ray read out loud. He raised his eyebrows questioningly at Fraser.
"Ernest Shackleton was a British polar explorer."
"Yeah? Like that Franklin guy you told me about when we were up north dealing with Muldoon?"
"Yes, but Franklin lived during the 18th century, and he tried to get through the Northwest Passage. Shackleton was much more recent. He tried to get to the south pole, but didn't succeed."
"Wait. I can tell this is going to be a long story." Ray climbed over the couch to sit on it in the intended way, his long legs stepping over the back easily. "Okay, so was he the guy who got to the pole and then froze to death on the way back?"
"No, that was Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton was after that. He was the leader of an expedition in 1914, on the ship Endurance, that was to cross the Antarctic continent from coast to coast."
"Huh," Ray said. He stretched out, putting his feet in Fraser's lap. "Read to me?"
The moon appeared in a clear sky. The wind shifted to the south-east as the light improved and drove the boats broadside on towards the jagged edge of the floe. We had to cut the painter of the James Caird and pole her off, thus losing much valuable rope. There was no time to cast off. Then we pushed away from the floe, and all night long we lay in the open, freezing sea, the Dudley Docker now ahead, the James Caird astern of her, and the Stancomb Wills third in the line. The boats were attached to one another by their painters. Most of the time the Dudley Docker kept the James Caird and the Stancomb Wills up to the swell, and the men who were rowing were in better pass than those in the other boats, waiting inactive for the dawn. The temperature was down to 4° below zero, and a film of ice formed on the surface of the sea. When we were not on watch we lay in each other’s arms for warmth. Our frozen suits thawed where our bodies met, and as the slightest movement exposed these comparatively warm spots to the biting air, we clung motionless, whispering each to his companion our hopes and thoughts. Occasionally from an almost clear sky came snow-showers, falling silently on the sea and laying a thin shroud of white over our bodies and our boats.
Fraser fell silent, and Ray was silent for a while, too. Then he said in a low voice, "So they're on row boats in the middle of the icy sea? How'd they get out of that?"
"Well, they managed to get to a place called Elephant Island, where they sheltered on the shore."
"And after that?"
"Shackleton brought all his men back alive. He and two of his men set out in an open boat, navigating 1,300 kilometers over open ocean to South Georgia, and they walked for thirty-six hours straight, over uncharted mountain ranges and glaciers, until they got to a whaling station. They got help, and rescued the other men."
"Huh." Ray said, when Fraser paused. Ray's eyes narrowed. "So, like--is that your ideal, or something? Kind of hard to live up to."
Fraser flushed under his scrutiny. Ray was right, in a way--he supposed he'd imprinted on stories like this as a boy and young man. He cleared his throat, answering with another question. "Do you think so?"
"Well, duh. I'm an ordinary guy here, okay? Not some kind of invincible wilderness survival hero."
"You rode a motorcycle through a window for me, right into a hostage situation." Fraser said, his eyes still looking down at the book.
"What? That's not the same thing."
"No?" He looked up and met Ray's eyes, feeling naked. "And you did climb a mountain range with me."
Ray was the one who flushed now. "Yeah, and you carried me half the way."
"But you came with me. You got up on the wing of that plane with me. You were with me every step of the way, even though you had no experience of the north." It seemed an impossible thing to demand, for Ray to risk his life, follow Fraser into the teeth of winter in the north. And yet, Ray had done it.
Ray gave a little shrug. "You're my partner. You're my..." he trailed off, apparently not knowing what word to use. "I love you."
Fraser swallowed, trying to get control of his voice. "And I, you."
Ray smiled, that quick, unpredictable smile that lit up his face. "Hey, you jumped into Lake Michigan for me."
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
"I know." Ray reached out to squeeze my hand. "Read some more?"
When he stopped, they sat silent for a while. The faint sound of traffic penetrated the building, alien after Shackleton's descriptions of the polar landscapes.
"I think about it sometimes," Ray said softly.
"The north. What we saw up there."
"I thought you got a skin condition if you left the city."
Ray gave Fraser a quick smile, but then sobered again. "Yeah, well...I hadn't seen it then. You hadn't shown it to me. How it just--goes on. How it's sharp and clear and--and cold and just doesn't care about you at all, but it's still so beautiful you just can't forget it. I can see how you could imprint on it." He looked a little sheepish. "Yeah, I'm only a poet on the inside."
"On the contrary," Fraser murmured. He waited to see if Ray would say more, and then, hesitating, he said, "Would you--want to return some time? To travel up there?"
"Sometimes I think about how cold I was up there, and then I think I'm nuts. But--yeah. Yeah, I do."
Fraser didn't try to hide his smile, which felt so wide it almost made his cheeks ache.
"You look like you did up there," Ray said. "When we'd jumped from the plane."
"Yeah." Ray grinned.
"Let me fetch some maps, all right?" Fraser said. Possibilities filled his mind, of all the things he could show Ray. He came back from the bookcase with several maps, one large map of Canada and several smaller, more detailed ones of areas in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.
They spread the Canada map on the living room floor, pushing the coffee table out of the way. Dief woke up with a disgruntled whuff, then padded over to see what they were doing.
"We're going up north," Ray told Dief. "Land of reindeer and polar bears."
"Actually, reindeer are native to Eurasia, not North America, although there is in fact a small herd of--"
"Shut up, Fraser," Ray said fondly.
"Right you are," Fraser said, not even bothering to hide his smile. Dief eyed the map with interest.
He pointed to Franklin Bay on the map. "Here's where Muldoon's sub was, approximately, although the map isn't detailed enough to show the way we came."
"Right. So where's Inuvik?"
"Over here." Fraser showed him the routes of his grandparents' traveling library, then pointed to Qurluqtuq. "That was my first posting."
"The one on the edge of an ice floe that you told Elaine about?"
Fraser huffed out a breath before he saw Ray grinning. "You can't build a community on an actual ice floe, Ray. Although it is on the shore of the Arctic Sea. The first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage went by there, actually."
"So who did get through the Northwest Passage, if Franklin didn't?"
"Roald Amundsen. He was a Norwegian, and had a small fishing vessel called the Gjøa, with a crew of only seven." Fraser traced Amundsen's path on the map. "Compare that with Franklin's expedition, which had a crew of a hundred and thirty-four, and two ships which were very well equipped for the time."
"Huh. And nobody knows what happened to them, right?"
"Well, some remains have been found. But nobody knows where the ships went down."
"So let's go up there and find them."
"I hardly think--"
"Come on, where's your sense of adventure? You gotta think big, right?" Ray poked Fraser in the chest. Dief woofed, as if to support Ray.
"All right then," Fraser said, getting into the spirit of the thing. "Remains of the expedition have been found on King William Island, so we know they were there. I suppose we could follow the coast westwards from there, and see if we find anything." He traced his finger on the map, and Ray followed it.
"That is quite a long stretch of land without any settlements, though. I think we should work up to it."
Ray nodded. "Makes sense. Like I said, I'm not the wilderness survival type."
"I think there are sled dog kennels up in Wisconsin. We could see if it's possible to go out on the weekend, and you could learn to drive and handle the dogs."
Ray looked surprised. "Huh. Yeah, good idea. It's funny, I always thought of dogsledding as something you only got up in the north. But I guess we get a lot of snow down here, too."
Fraser nodded. "And we could practice camping as well."
They talked about it well into the night. When they finally went to bed, Fraser lay awake listening to Ray's slow quiet breathing beside him. He could almost hear the whistle of an Arctic wind, and above them, he saw the endless stars of a northern sky.