Part 1: Balanced
Fraser was about to step out of the shadows between the stacks of lavender-perfumed boxes, when a low voice rasped out, "Move and I'll blow your head off."
The speaker was out of sight.
"Detective Ray Vecchio, Chicago PD. Drop your gun." Ray was also out of view, enunciating his words clearly and louder than was strictly necessary. From the faint echo, and given what Fraser knew of the warehouse's acoustics, it was plain Ray was facing in this direction.
The malfeasant, one James Corduroy Austin, wanted for armed robbery and detonating a bomb in an inner city beauty salon, was not. He chuckled and said, "Yeah, sure. After you, detective."
There followed a deep sigh from Ray, and the clatter of a gun being placed on the concrete floor. "Okay," he called. "I've put my gun down."
"Take three steps back." Fraser peered around the corner in time to see Austin brandishing a Kel-tec P-11 pistol. He couldn't see Ray.
"No." Ray was being recalcitrant, apparently trying to provoke Austin into making a mistake. Fraser looked about him for a weapon, and found only carton upon carton of lavender-scented soap. Austin swore angrily at Ray, and Fraser stepped forward unarmed, into the light.
"I don't think you want to do that," he said as calmly as he was able. He spread his arms, hoping the red serge would hold Austin's attention.
Austin had the Kel-tec trained on Ray, whose hands were in the air. He half-turned to look at Fraser without altering his aim. "Who the hell are you?"
"Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian—" Fraser took a step toward him.
"Stop right there." Austin moved so he could keep an eye on both Ray and Fraser at once. "One more inch and the cop gets it."
"Fraser, don't listen to him." Ray lowered his hands. Austin narrowed his eyes, and retrained the handgun on him, aiming at his head.
Fraser stopped. "What do you want?"
"What does any American want? Life, liberty, wealth, a warm home, a happy family, three square meals a day. My health. You don't got nothing if you don't got your health." Austin waved Fraser over toward Ray, and Fraser reluctantly complied. "Maybe a beach house, and a college fund for my kid. Charlize Theron in a bikini bringing me drinks by a pool." His eyes went dreamy, and Fraser started toward him, but Austin's attention snapped back to the present, and his trigger finger twitched. "Right now I'll settle for life and liberty."
"You won't get away with this," Fraser told him.
"Shows what you know." Austin had them side by side now, in his sights. He waved them back. "I came prepared."
Fraser stumbled over a raised area on the floor, but caught his balance just in time and stepped up onto what appeared to be a low metal platform. Ray wasn't so lucky, and fell back onto it, landing with an Oof!
"Don't move," said Austin sharply. "Don't get up!" He backed toward the door. "It's a pressure plate wired to eighteen pounds of gelignite. You change the pressure, the whole place'll blow sky high." He chuckled maliciously and scurried out of the warehouse, shutting the door behind him.
"Hey! What the hell is this?" Ray yelled after him. "Get back here, asshole!" He waited a few seconds, and then shouted "Hey!" with even more indignation. When that proved fruitless, he lay back on the platform. "Do you think he was telling the truth?" His voice was laced with tension.
Fraser met his gaze briefly, and then inspected the edges of the plate as well as he was able without shifting his weight. "Unfortunately, yes. I don't suppose you have your boot gun?"
"Nope. And my cheapass piece of junk cellphone battery's dead, in case you were gonna ask that next. Jesus! So tell me again, Fraser—why don't you carry a gun?" Ray was wearing his pale blue sweatshirt and jeans, and was sprawled beside Fraser, with one booted foot off the side of the pressure plate. He was wearing his leather shoulder holster but, of course, his firearm was several meters away, well out of reach. Not that it would help them much now anyway.
"I have no jurisdiction as an officer of the law," Fraser reminded him, absently, as he assessed their predicament, "and, frankly, the hunting in the greater Chicago area isn't as good as you might think, especially since I don't own a vehicle and so don't have access to any of the few wilderness areas. There's really quite a scarcity of big game in the inner city. You'd be surprised." There were plenty of counterweights in the warehouse, but none were within reach. He scanned the ceiling. "I've no reason to carry a firearm."
Ray was eyeing their surroundings too. Fraser could sense him weighing and discarding options—probably the same options that he himself was assessing. He sounded as though he were only half paying attention. "It's not about jurisdiction, Fraser. You do cop work. You live in Chicago. People pull guns on you every second day. Are you trying to tell me there's something wrong with defending yourself?"
"No, of course not, Ray." There was a pulley line that passed overhead: at the far end of the warehouse, a net holding several cartons of soap hung from the line. If Fraser craned his neck, he could see the control switch. "I defend myself as I see fit."
"As you see fit." Ray snorted, and looked up at him. "What about defending your partner?" His face grew serious. "Any ideas for getting us out of here?"
Fraser squinted at the edges of the metal plate again, and took a small step forward, shifting his weight cautiously. He listened intently to see if the mechanism made any telltale noises. It didn't. "If I'm correct in my assessment, we can increase the pressure on the pad, but not decrease it. And if it's set up the way I think it is, it won't be particularly sensitive to weight distribution."
He gave Ray a hand up so they were standing together on the platform, which was barely two feet by three feet. Ray's palm was slightly sweaty, his pupils dilated. Other than that, he showed no sign of concern for their circumstance. "No, really, Fraser. What's with the lack of firepower? You looking for early retirement via the graveyard?"
Fraser released his hand and turned away. "Initially—as I once told you—it was the paperwork. But then, well, after a few months I grew accustomed to living unarmed, and I learned to enjoy the challenge of it. It forces me to think laterally." He took the knife from his boot, aimed, and flung it at the pulley switch. "My grandmother used to say that when a man is holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."
The pulley ground into action, but it was moving the wrong way, the net of soap swinging toward the open double door at the far end of the warehouse.
"Shit." Ray pointed at the wall. "The lever's right there. If I had my gun—"
"And your glasses." Fraser glared at the unaccommodating wires moving above them.
"Yeah," said Ray impatiently. "And my glasses."
"If wishes were horses—" said Fraser, and broke off when Ray narrowed his eyes and growled at him.
Fraser opened his belt pouch, searching desperately for something he could throw. The magnifying glass was poorly balanced, the compass too lightweight. A brainwave struck him. "Ray! Give me your shield."
"My what? Oh no, you got to be kidding me." But he handed it over. The metal had a satisfying heft to it. Fraser removed it from its leather folder, and tossed it in the air a couple of times, testing its weight. Then he lobbed it at the switch—bulls-eye!—and the pulley stopped moving.
Ray sighed and leaned wearily against Fraser. "Now what?"
"If you get down on all fours, I can stand on your back and reach the wires," said Fraser. "I may be able to move them manually."
"Oh no, nuh-huh. I'm not being the footstool in this science project. You get down there, and I'll go on top." Ray stopped suddenly, and blinked, his cheeks flushing lightly.
Fraser didn't dare try to interpret the response. This was hardly the time. "All right." He knelt down on the small metal plate, and placed his hands squarely, bending to fit around Ray's legs.
Ray steadied himself with one hand on Fraser's shoulder, then stepped up, his feet pressing into Fraser's shoulders and hips, distributing the weight. Ray wasn't as heavy as Fraser had expected, and he kept his balance even through the stream of cursing and frustration that emanated from him. Fraser resisted the temptation to shift his own stance, to straighten up his back or hang his head: any movement could dislodge Ray and spell disaster. "Any luck?" Fraser asked.
"I got it. I just—fuck! Ow!" Ray wobbled, then caught his balance again. "Keep pinching my fingers in the—Wait a minute." More wobbling. Fraser held his ground solidly. "That's better," said Ray a moment later, and he stabilized again. And indeed, Fraser could hear the rasp of wire being forced through the pulley mechanism. Ray grunted with effort, and Fraser turned his head a little, watching the net of soap jerk toward them, a foot at a time.
There were eight cartons in the net, providing them with a counterweight of approximately 200 pounds. It was enough. When the net bumped against Fraser's shoulder, Ray climbed down and helped him to his feet. "Should do."
Ray held his sweatshirt, streaked with oil, bunched in one hand. He'd stripped down to a black undershirt, and smelled of sweat. There was a black smear on his cheekbone. Fraser glanced at him, then looked away, squaring his shoulders.
Ray jabbed him lightly in the chest with two grease-stained fingers. "The thing you got to remember about Chicago, Fraser, is that this city is full of nails. If there's anywhere in the world you want to be holding a hammer, Chicago is it." He looked at the net full of soap cartons and tilted his head. "So how do we do this? We gotta get the timing right."
"You step off the plate and I'll take the weight of the soap in my arms."
"And then what?" Ray shook his head. "You're just gonna stand here with your arms full of soap until the bomb squad get here? I don't think so."
"There was a forklift by the entrance," Fraser pointed out.
"Okay." Ray gripped his shoulder briefly. "So long as we've got a plan." He hesitated. "Ready?"
"I—" For a split second, Fraser was tempted to unburden himself—to confess his deceptions and the reason for them. This could be his last chance. One slip and they'd both be blown to lavender-scented smithereens. But it was a longer conversation than they had time for now: there was still a chance they could catch Austin if they moved quickly. "Yes."
"Okay." Ray nodded. Their gazes locked. "Let's waltz."
"On three," Fraser agreed, reaching out, preparatory to taking the weight of the soap.
"One...two...three." Fraser clasped the net to his chest, felt the push through his lower back and thighs, down into his feet. And Ray was gone.
There was a moment's silence. Fraser tried to adjust his grip, but his burden was bulky and awkward, the corners of the cartons digging into his chest and cheek. The scent of lavender engulfed him, calling to mind images of his grandmother. You don't need to pretend, Benton, he heard her say, not a ghost, but a memory as clear as a bell. We'll love you anyway.
Ray exhaled loudly nearby. "Made it. Okay. Hang in there. I'll be back in a sec."
Seven footsteps. The small scrape of a handgun being scooped off the concrete floor. More footsteps. Fraser's arms strained. His heartbeat sent tiny tremors through the load of boxes. He told himself he was relieved: they were nearly home free. The bomb wouldn't take them. Ray was on his way.
He took a deep breath, and consciously calmed himself. In the distance, he heard the cough and rumble of a forklift coming to life.
Sweat trickled down his back. The warehouse was cool, but his muscles were already starting to protest the load put on them. Signs of his own weakness. Fraser put the pain out of his mind. He was in a refreshing cottage garden. Lavender. Hollyhocks.
The engine came closer. They were going to have to time this one carefully, too. As he remembered it, the forklift was small, barely commercial grade. If luck was on their side, it would climb smoothly up onto the plate, and stand steady there, heavy enough to compensate for the lack of both Fraser and the soap.
"Ready?" Ray yelled over the rumble.
"Yes." Fraser loosened his grip on the boxes, and tensed his legs ready to spring out of the way. Ray would have to dismount the forklift and let it roll onto the pressure plate without him, fast enough that the weight distribution didn't become too uneven and trigger the bomb, but slowly enough that Ray could lean over and brake the vehicle before it continued off the other side.
"I'm ready," said Fraser. It was a lie, but there was nothing else for it. "Go!"
The forklift rumbled forward at a little over 6 kilometers an hour. Fraser coiled. The pressure plate tilted slightly under the front wheels of the forklift. Fraser sprang to the side, pushing the soap with him, staggering as he landed. Behind him the forklift engine cut out. Silence rolled through the warehouse.
A hand grabbed at Fraser's arm and tugged him away, Ray in front of him, yanking him toward the doorway. Fraser found his feet and shoved Ray, bundling him through the door, into the open. Behind him, there was the slow thud of a net full of cartons colliding with an unbalanced forklift. "Run!" yelled Fraser, taking the lead, dragging Ray away, past parked cars, through a wooden gate in a rusted iron fence.
In the distance, Fraser heard a clang, and then the deafening BOOM and whoosh of an explosion. He threw himself to the ground, gravel grazing the palms of his hands. Ray was beside him, covering his face with his arms, his hip hard up against Fraser's side. Fraser looked back over his shoulder and saw a shimmer of shockwave pass through the gate behind them. The air filled with smoke and heat and dust.
Seconds later, lavender-scented soap rained from the sky.
Part 2: Unbalanced
It was half-past three in the afternoon and Ray hadn't eaten since breakfast. He circled his hands in the air, trying to move things along, but Fraser kept stopping to help people—picking up this guy's dropped wallet, helping that lady fold her baby's stroller so it'd fit in the trunk of her stationwagon. Fraser had his leather jacket slung over his shoulder, and talked all the while. "In fact, there've been a number of turtle-related deaths, Ray, starting with Aeschylus in 455BC, who—"
A huge eighteen-wheeler with a big red Coke ad on the side turned the corner up ahead and growled the wrong way down the one-way street toward them, its horn blaring. Fraser raised his head, and Ray followed his gaze. The truck sped up, plowing through traffic, and cars started crashing into each other to get out of its way. A woman down the street screamed, and an old couple scurried into a diner for safety.
Ray pulled his gun, and glanced around for cover, but Fraser tugged him back into the brick entranceway of the Italian restaurant next to them and that was gonna have to do, because the truck was thundering their way now, and Jesus, that monster was gonna do some damage. Ray got his phone out with his free hand and called for backup. "Better send an ambulance, too. I dunno, maybe he's lost his brakes or something, but—" Ray stepped out onto the pavement and craned his neck to read off the plate, when a kid on a bicycle wobbled past and knocked Ray's cellphone clean out of his hand. It fell to the ground and shattered.
"Fuck!" said Ray. "That cost me two hundred bucks!"
The truck swerved directly in front of him and screeched to a tooth-grinding halt, its front wheels on the pavement. Ray leaped back, the phone forgotten.
"Ray?" Fraser was looking down the street to where a couple were trapped in a scrunched-up car that was wrapped around a telephone pole. The woman had blood streaming down her face, and the guy couldn't get the driver's door open because a delivery van was in the way.
"Yeah. Go! Go! I got it," Ray told him, and turned to the truck driver, who hadn't even noticed him.
The guy was big and round-faced with puffy black hair. He was red around the eyes and looked out of his skull on something, and he was glaring at the menswear store on the corner in front of him and yelling incomprehensibly at the top of his lungs.
"Chicago PD," Ray shouted. "Take your hands off the wheel. Put your hands where I can see them."
The guy ignored him and pulled on his horn, blasting the air and making Ray widen his stance and aim his gun.
"Hey, asshole, you have any idea how much trouble you're in?" Ray yelled, trying to get his attention, and then finally, the guy stopped gibbering at the menswear store and looked around at Ray.
"Chicago PD," Ray yelled again, making sure the guy had heard. The guy waved his hand at Ray's gun and swore loudly, and something in Ray's head went click. What Fraser had said last week about hammers and nails. It didn't have to be like this. In the last week, Fraser had talked down eight people: three drug dealers in a standoff, the crazed mother of the bride at a wedding on Lake Shore Drive, a guy with a knife at the station, two armed robbers at the Aquarium, and a murderous Mariachi in a Mexican restaurant. Ray could do it, too. He wasn't just a dumb cop with bullets for brains, and he was gonna prove it. Ray holstered his gun and stepped closer to the truck.
A part of Ray's brain screamed at him for being an idiot, but another, louder part—a part that trusted Fraser, and half-believed he himself was unstoppable anyway—told him to go for it. He could talk a crazy guy out of a truck without anyone getting hurt. It was the kind of thing Fraser did all the time. And Fraser made it look easy.
"Chicago PD," he said again, flashing his shiny new badge. "Hey, you in the truck! What's your beef?"
"Fucking cop!" shouted the guy. He sounded furious and unhinged. "Fuck the hell off! This has nothing to do with you! I gotta talk to Pierre fucking Cardin. He fucked my wife." The truck's engine revved, and the truck inched closer to the store.
Inside, there was a semi-circle of guys standing around watching. One had his arms full of plastic-wrapped shirts, and another had a bunch of neckties draped over his shoulder. One was on the phone.
"How do you know? Maybe he was, uh, helping her pick out a shirt for your birthday." Ray tried to smile at the guy, to make a connection, but the guy was sweating like crazy, too busy blinking and shaking his head around to pay any attention to Ray.
Maybe if he had a Mountie uniform. "Hey, come on." Ray tried again. "You want to hurt this guy? What the hell good would that do? You want to shake things up? Look around, they're already shaking. Come on, calm down. Get out of the truck, and tell me what's on your mind."
The guy with the neckties came to the door of the store. He had greasy hair and fake tan. "Stevenson," he yelled. "You fucking asshole. What the fuck do you think you're doing? April told me you had a fucking screw loose, but I never thought you'd—"
"Shut up!" yelled Ray. "Shut up and get inside!" Jesus, Ray was starting to have some sympathy for the guy in the truck. "It's okay," he told Stevenson. "Just get out of the truck and we'll sort out this whole shebang."
But the truck engine was revving even louder. Ray moved closer, till he was only a couple of feet away.
"That fucking loser, Jesus, I can't—Touching her, running his greasy hands all over her. My wife! She told me, she told me everything. I can't go home, I can't fucking do anything. I'm gonna kill him. I'm gonna kill his dog. I'm gonna snap every fucking one of his fucking golf clubs. I'm gonna—"
"Listen, you don't want to do that." Ray held out his hand. "Hey, come on. It's not that bad. Get out of the truck and you can call her. Maybe everything will be okay—"
But Stevenson wasn't listening anymore. He was crying, and the engine was growling louder and louder, and Ray didn't think. He threw himself at the cab of the truck, scrabbling to get at the door and stop this guy, but it was too late. The truck lurched into the plate glass of the menswear store. The window shattered, and Ray got flung forwards into the falling glass. He covered his head and rolled into the shop, away from the shards, and something fell at—shit—just the wrong moment, and caught his hand. He brushed it away instinctively, and it sliced into his palm.
For a second it stung. His hand was wet. He couldn't look at it. Then pain and rage rushed in, and he grabbed his gun and switched it—the handle wet with blood—to his left hand, his good hand, and pointed it at Stevenson in the cab of the truck. The truck had stopped, the engine cut out, and Stevenson had his head on the steering wheel, sobbing like a baby, but Ray didn't care. "Face down on the fucking ground now, or I swear I'll blow your fucking head off."
The teenager next to him holding a crisp pair of slacks yelped, and Ray bared his teeth without taking his eyes off the crazy guy. "Chicago PD," he said loudly. "I'm a cop." Blood was running down his fingers onto the ground, and Ray hadn't even taken the safety off, couldn't trust himself to aim right with his left hand, but Stevenson didn't know that.
The door of the cab swung open and Ray dragged his sleeve across his forehead to get the sweat out of his eyes, keeping every ounce of concentration focused on Stevenson, making sure he wasn't carrying.
"Get down!" he yelled again, still on the ground, watching every move Stevenson made, but it was okay now. The guy was broken. He'd given up.
"Hey, Stevenson," said the guy with the neckties, holding out the phone. "I've got April on the line. She says you touch a hair on my head, she's gonna trash your Elvis memorabilia."
Stevenson raised his head, rage washing across his face. He bellowed and hurled himself toward Cardin, his fists raised. But Ray was quicker. He sprang to his feet and grabbed Stevenson as he went past, slamming the cuffs home before Stevenson knew what'd hit him. Stevenson was bulky, though, and moving fast, so he kept going, dragging Ray behind him, until Stevenson slipped on the broken glass and fell to the ground with a deep thud that must've knocked all the air out of him.
Ray clenched his hand—it felt like it was on fire, and the pain was stealing his breath. This whole thing was a fuck-up, and Jesus, his hand. The glass had cut deep, from the ball of his thumb right to the base of his pinky. But he could still move his fingers—that had to be good. He aimed his gun at Stevenson's head.
"You got the right to remain silent," sneered Cardin.
"You! Shut the fuck up," Ray snarled, and then sat down suddenly, feeling dizzy. All the blood was making him lightheaded. "That's, uh, it's the cop that's supposed to say that. Fraser?"
And, thank Christ, Fraser was there, pushing past the Coke truck and into the store. Fraser with a worried look on his face, sizing up the situation and taking control. Ray sat with his back to a display of undershirts, squeezing the cut as tight as he could with his other hand, with his bloody gun on the ground beside him.
Fuck, that was the last time he was ever going to listen to Fraser's grandmother.
Part 3: Coming Clean
Fraser was a liar.
Fraser lied all the time.
He lied so much, he didn't think of it as lying anymore. There were many more palatable words: politeness, diplomacy, expedience, a bid for privacy. He'd lied to Ray Vecchio constantly about his frustration with Chicago, with the RCMP, with his posting. Now he lied to Ray Kowalski about his feelings, about who he was. Why he was the way he was.
He put on a brave front. He embellished. He caused harm.
Ray wouldn't talk about what had happened. He muttered something about nails and hammers in the ambulance, and Fraser deduced the rest from the scene, from the blood smeared on Ray's gun and his left hand, from the wild accusations of Pierre Cardin, the man with the collection of florid neckties on his shoulder, from the subdued—almost catatonic—demeanor of Mr. Stevenson, and from the statement of the store manager, Mr. Vuitton.
Fraser tried to mend matters. "It was admirable to attempt to contain the situation without using your firearm, but you have to defend yourself, Ray."
Ray didn't looked at him. "Yeah. I got that memo. That lady in the car okay?"
Ray's hand was cleaned at the hospital. It wasn't as bad as it had seemed at first—no tendons severed, at least, and the cut was relatively clean—but it took sixteen stitches, and would take several weeks to heal properly. There'd be a scar. Ray was to rest it as much as possible.
"If it gives you any problems, talk to your doctor. You may have to come back in for PT," the doctor said, absently, signing the discharge papers and giving him a prescription for antibiotics and painkillers.
"Yeah," said Ray.
They filled the prescription at the hospital pharmacy, and then went outside where a squad car was waiting to drive Ray home. Fraser accompanied him without asking, concerned more by his subdued demeanor than by his wound.
Ray unlocked his front door with his left hand, the key scraping clumsily across the metal before it slid into the lock, and then they were inside, safe from the world out there, and they were free to talk.
Fraser found he didn't know where to begin.
Ray pushed aside a pile of laundry and collapsed on the couch, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. "Jeez, what a mess!"
Fraser put his hat on a chair and fetched two glasses of water. "Are you okay?"
"Do I seem okay?" Ray didn't move.
Fraser put the glasses on the coffee table and stood by the television set. Ray was pale and drawn, the dressing a white contrast to his grimy blood-stained clothes. "No. You should take a shower."
The corner of Ray's mouth twitched. "You're a bad influence on me, Benton Fraser." He sighed and opened his eyes, looking up at him. "I rag on you all the time for undermining my credibility, and then boom! I go and screw it up all by myself."
Fraser frowned. "I hardly think one incident—"
Ray cut him off. "What am I gonna tell the State's Attorney, huh? How do I explain to IA that I had a gun, I could've stopped the whole mess in a second, but I didn't? I put lives at risk. There were innocent people there, Fraser."
"All the more reason not to resort to armed conflict, I'd have thought," Fraser shot back.
"Christ, you're really not from around here, are you?" Ray closed his eyes again. "Would you sit? I'm getting a crick in my neck."
Fraser briefly considered moving the laundry from the other half of the couch, and then sat down in the armchair instead.
Ray prodded his dressing, and scowled. "Welsh thinks I'm losing it. My report on this is gonna have to be Nobel Literature to make him happy. And, Christ, what if the papers decide to splash it all over the cover? Chicago's Finest Freak Out. Boom! There goes my cover."
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, Ray. Lieutenant Welsh has alerted the FBI. And while it's true that historically people are equally persecuted for doing right as wrong, I'm sure that when he's had time to reflect, the Lieutenant will understand why you acted as you did."
"No, he won't. He thinks I'm crazy. Jesus, I am crazy. And it wasn't right. It was stupid." Ray rubbed his good hand over his face, and lowered his voice. "And even with all that, I couldn't do it, Fraser. Couldn't take him down without my gun. I'm just a dumb carpenter seeing nails everywhere I look."
"That's not true, Ray." Fraser fought the urge to lean forward and touch him, to offer reassurance. "You didn't even take off the safety. You had no intention of firing at Mr. Stevenson."
A small smile curved Ray's lips. "Yeah, there's that at least." He sat up and reached for his glass of water with his good hand. "And, Christ, hell of an adrenalin rush."
"You did good work, Ray."
"Nah, it was stupid." But his frustration had apparently ebbed. He emptied the glass in one long swallow, and put it down on the coffee table with a clunk.
Fraser sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I—" He stopped. This was no way to start such a conversation. He needed to ease into it, once they were both more comfortable. "You should shower, Ray."
"Yeah, in a while. I'm beat." Ray leaned back, and looked at him through narrowed eyes. "What were you gonna say?"
Fraser looked at his own hands, and steeled himself. It had to be said. "I nearly killed a man."
"What?" Ray sounded more confused than horrified. "When?"
"The last time I pulled a gun on a man was when I was hunting down the killers of my father. I found his friend near the site of my father's death, and he confessed. I drew my gun on him. I wanted to kill him."
"Well, yeah." Ray still didn't sound shocked. "He killed your dad."
"No, you don't understand. I wanted to murder him. I wanted his blood on my hands. It would have been so easy." Fraser closed his eyes, remembering. "Not pulling that trigger was the hardest thing I've ever done." He looked at Ray. "I wasn't a Mountie: I was an angry man with a deadly weapon."
"I can't carry a gun, Ray. I can't trust myself." Fraser stood up and walked over to the window. It was early evening. The sun was setting, spilling gold over the city, into the room. Children played with a ball at the other end of the block.
Behind him, Ray said, "I trust you."
Fraser turned around. Ray was leaning forward, looking up at him, his eyes clear and steady. "I trust you, Fraser. You're a good guy." A ghost of a smile played across his face. His eyes were warm and understanding. "But do you think you could maybe stop trying to be perfect? It's, uh, it's kind of hard to live up to."
Fraser stared at him, the wash of golden light across his skin making him beautiful. He smelled of sweat and blood. There were tired lines around his eyes. Ray cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows to silently reiterate the question.
"Yes," Fraser said. His throat felt rough.
Ray nodded, ducking his head. "Don't you get tired?"
"Yes." Fraser turned back to the window, to the world out there. With Ray at his back, trusting him, all things seemed possible. Fraser didn't know if that was a good thing, or merely a dangerous illusion.
"So, uh—" Ray came over and perched on the dining table beside him, watching him. "—why'd you lie to me? That thing about your grandmother and the hammer. What was that?"
"Well, I just—" Fraser tasted deception on his tongue, and swallowed it. "I want you to think well of me."
Ray tensed for a moment, his gaze locking with Fraser's, and then he nodded slowly. "I get that."
Fraser looked away again. Outside, the children's ball rolled into the gutter. A little girl ran across the pavement and picked it up. Fraser swallowed, and focused on keeping his breathing even.
The clouds burned orange. He couldn't move.
Finally, Ray broke the silence. "You know, when we first met, I hit on a lot of girls," he said quietly. "You remember?"
Fraser nodded, not trusting his voice.
"I want you to—I wanted you to think I liked them." Ray was looking at him, he knew, but Fraser couldn't meet his gaze. He glanced at the reflection of Ray's cheek and hair in the window instead, brilliant and mesmerizing. So very dear.
"I see," he managed. "And Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski?"
Ray made an impatient movement. "I loved Stella. I wanted to keep loving Stella—it was easier than—I mean, easier. It hurt, but it didn't—" He took a deep breath and let it out. "I'm gay, Fraser. Mostly gay. Ninety-five percent. Stella was my five percent chance at being normal and I blew it. So—" He shrugged.
"Ray." The word came out low and desperate, and Fraser flushed. "Why are you telling me this?"
Ray shifted his weight. There was barely a foot of space between them. Fraser's arm ached from tension, from proximity to Ray. It was ridiculous—they'd been far closer on many an occasion—but now he imagined he could feel the heat from Ray's body all up his side. Could feel Ray's gaze burning his skin.
Ray cleared his throat. "No more lies, Fraser. I trust you."
Fraser turned and met his gaze. Ray's face was open and serious, saying more than his words. More than trust. Fraser's heart thudded. "All right."
Ray reached out his left hand and touched Fraser's shirt, brushing his fingertips across Fraser's chest. "There's blood on your shirt."
Fraser opened his mouth to answer and found he had nothing to say, and then Ray's lips were on his, gentle and forgiving, Ray's hand was sliding up to his shoulder, to the side of his neck, long fingers against his skin making Fraser shiver.
Part 4: Even Keel
Ray breathed out, letting tension drain from his body. He braced his arms and emptied his clip into the target, absorbing the kickback through his shoulders. The gun felt rough and unfamiliar in his hands after three weeks of disuse, and once he'd finished the round, he pushed the button to bring the target close, and stretched out his palm, the scar still pulling.
The target fluttered to a standstill. He'd hit dead center six out of seven. Not bad. He set a fresh target, and looked over to the next booth where Fraser was standing side-on, arm out-stretched, shooting a handgun for the first time in years. He'd taken his hat off to allow for the ear protection, and he looked strong and confident, not so different from how he'd looked in bed that morning, only with more clothes and neater hair.
Ray waited until he was finished and then signaled to him to take off his hearing protectors. "How's it feel?"
Fraser smiled. "Good, actually." He pulled his target free and held it up. There was a perfect smiley face in the center of the head.
Ray grinned. "I should never have shown you Lethal Weapon. You're a danger to us all." He glanced quickly at Fraser's face, and was relieved to see the creases around his eyes deepen. Fraser knew he was joking. "I have a spare, you know. If you wanted to give it a try. You might like it."
Fraser glanced at the semi he was holding. "This is fine. How's your hand?"
Ray held it up and wiggled his fingers. "Good as new. You done here?"
* * *
They walked out into the sunlight, Dief at their heels. "So, I've got to catch up on those reports for Welsh. You want me to drop you at the Consulate?"
"The park, if it's not too much trouble. I'm not on duty until noon and Dief could use some exercise." The wolf whined, but Fraser shook his head. "No, dreaming of chasing rabbits doesn't count. I don't care what the research says about fitness and positive visualization." He held the car door open.
Dief sneezed scornfully and jumped into the backseat.
Ray and Fraser got into the car, and Ray started driving to the park near the Consulate. "So, you got your license, you got your gun. You're good to go. Next time we're out—?"
Fraser shifted in his seat. "I don't know. I've grown rather used to working unarmed. I prefer it."
"Yeah, but—" Ray pulled up at a red light. "—it's not safe, Fraser. Remember?"
"We could compromise." Fraser smoothed the brim of his hat, thoughtfully, then rested it on his lap. "I'd be willing to carry a firearm if it wasn't loaded."
"You're gonna bluff these scumbags?" Ray waved his hand at the street ahead of them, and then laughed. "The Great Mountie Lie of the Twentieth Century!" The light changed and he drove on.
Fraser shrugged. "Certainly, Ray. That is, I see no reason to confide in them regarding the finer details of my life." He smiled.
"I guess it's no different from keeping us under wraps, huh?" Ray sat back in his seat. This was a compromise he could live with. Definitely better than nothing. Fraser was a master bluffer, as Ray had discovered over the last couple of weeks. And anyway, Ray always carried extra ammo in his trunk, in case of emergencies.
"It's a little different." Fraser's voice was warm and smooth, spreading heat through Ray. "With my gun, there'll be less to it than meets the eye."
"And with us, there's more." Ray grinned and pulled over at the entrance to the park. "Gotcha."
"Much more," Fraser agreed. He got out and let Dief out, and then bent to say goodbye through the passenger window.
"See you tonight," Ray told him. "I'll pick you up at six."
"I'll be looking forward to it," said Fraser, and yeah, there it was. On the surface, mild and polite, but underneath there were promises and possibilities galore.
"Yeah," said Ray, meeting his dark gaze. "You just keep thinking like that." And he drove off into the traffic, thinking life had never been better.