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Laid Bare

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When I was sixteen years old, I was sent home from school with a busted lip, a shiner, and most of the front of Nick Turning's polo shirt in my hand. Turning, a Gold Coast guy who was more than a little sweet on Stella, didn't like me, my name, who I was, or who my dad was. He thought I wasn't good enough for Stella, and that she was slumming with me - shit he was only too happy to tell me to my face. I was a no good scrawny Polack named Stanley whose dad worked in the meat packing plant - I wasn't worth the air Stella breathed. Turning was sure to tell me *exactly* why he thought Stella was giving me the time of day. And it didn't have anything to do with liking me for my conversation.

I snapped. I had to defend my girl's honor, right?

I got in three good punches to his two, and when our buddies pulled us apart, it was pretty clear I'd left him the worse for wear. It was worth the three-day suspension.

When I walked in the front door, I was expecting my dad to blow a gasket and start swearing in the hybrid Polish-English that always let us know he was pissed. Instead, he patted my shoulder and stuck a steak over my eye and told me that a man is the sum of his parts, that my roles in life made up who I was, what I did. And the best revenge was not to pop the guy in the jaw, but to be a success - keep my Gold Coast gal, make something of myself. She chose me; that meant something.

My dad, he wanted me to get the stink of the plant off of me, wanted me to make something of myself, become someone respectable.

What did I do? Became a cop, got a different kind of stink on me - dead bodies and bad guys instead of meat and sweat.

Stella ... when we were kids, she fell for the bad boy, and then we grew up and realized we'd changed. Like trying to squeeze an oval in a circular hole -- suddenly I didn't fit anymore. I was too much; fell too fast and too hard for too long for her. When she was upset, I wanted to hold her, she wanted to brood. She wanted dinner at fancy restaurants, cocktails with friends. Me? I was happy dancing till dawn to old records, happy just to have her in my arms. She needed someone who could yuk it up with her colleagues and their spouses about the hassles of corporate life, 401(k)s and messy mergers. I had street stories – robberies and lowlifes, tackling a suspect as he waved a .22. Much as I tried, I could never bleach out my collar enough.

I've spent most of my life disappointing everyone, trying to live up to who they wanted me to be.

That's why I liked undercover - I was never someone long enough to disappoint anybody. And I was good at it, so when the divorce papers came in at the same time as the brass with a job offer, I figured, why not? I'd been a disappointment as a husband and son. I needed something to let me be someone else, to stop disappointing everyone by being me, Ray Kowalski.

Of course, that *was* the plan. But when Benton Fraser walks into your life, expectations go out the window and all bets are off. I agreed to be Vecchio because Ray Kowalski had been about as successful at being what people wanted as the Cubs are at winning the World Series. I thought I could hide Ray Kowalski for a while and just play the Vecchio part, but I ended up being more me than I've ever been.

Fraser busted through, wanted to know me, Ray Kowalski, in all his fuck-ups and triumphs -- from hopelessly chasing after Stella to my citations. He wasn't disappointed. He stood next to me, stood up for me, helped me put to rest some of my old demons when he didn't have to, but that's the way Fraser is -- when he's got his mind made up, a Mac truck couldn't move him.

Take the Botrelle case. My fucking rookie mistakes almost cost a woman her life. When everyone else was counting down her final days, Fraser was following me to the prison, trusting my instinct that something wasn't right and helping me to make it right. As if all that wasn't enough, he sat there in my car with me -- after I left Beth Botrelle in her house, after she forgave me -- rubbing my back, not talking or asking any questions, just being there, being my partner, being my friend when I needed those the most.

I could've fallen in love with him right then and there, if I hadn't already. I could've promised him forever, promised him anything -- to do the same for him, be there for him when he needed me. But I didn't. I still had a role to play. I was still Vecchio and not Kowalski, not yet, and I was afraid, bone deep, that when I stopped being Vecchio and started being Kowalski again that I'd disappoint *him*. I was still figuring him out then, I knew already there were still parts of Fraser I couldn't see, things he kept hidden, like...maybe he was afraid to be himself, maybe he was afraid to reach out.

Like he'd faced disappointment too.

Then Vecchio came back and it was like I was sixteen again. Vecchio didn't like me from the get-go -– he wanted his life, his name and his partner back. And then he called me Stanley to my face.

Now, there were no punches, Frannie stopped us before it got that far, but I still felt like who I was was broken on the floor like a shattered window, glass everywhere.

The irony was, this time, I wanted to stay. I finally thought I'd found out who I was supposed to be. And I don't mean 'Ray Vecchio' - he was more than welcome to have his name back. In fact, I was willing to give it all back. Except for Fraser.

And unlike last time, instead of settling it with punches and getting sent home for fighting, I follow Fraser up to North Iceboxville, Canada on a half-promise of "if you'll have me". Almost died a few times and still I wondered if I'd have to chalk up another disappointment, this time because I didn't fight hard enough.

But like I said, expectations don't go the way you'd think when Fraser's part of the equation. Instead of the 'so long, it was a blast, don't let the door hit you on the ass' goodbye that I was afraid I'd get, I got a 'you're going to have to use a crowbar to separate us' assurance from Fraser--Ben. A very thorough assurance. I was pretty thorough, if I do say so myself, in letting him know the feeling was *very* much likewise.

**--**--**

So life went on, and wouldn't you know, our duet was still in the groove, better in fact as Fraser and Kowalski than it was as Fraser and 'Vecchio'. He sets 'em up, I knock 'em down and life is good.

There are still parts of him, old hurts I can see, but that he can't quite bring himself to talk about, but I understand, I get that - talking, talking like that, it's not an easy thing for him.

Then the call came in, summoning him up to Canada to testify in Muldoon's trial. After he hung up the phone, I caught a glimpse of a naked, hurting man before Benton Fraser, RCMP--logical, strong, the guy who won't share his burden with anyone, who thinks he has to take it all on himself--came back.

He had to do this alone. I *get* that. I had to face Beth Botrelle. I had to walk her through that house and recount the night that I found her husband dead and helped send her to prison. I had to face my own demons. He's got to do the same with Muldoon. Face his mom's death and what that did to his dad and to his life. He's got to put his ghosts to rest. But I'll be waiting outside for him, just like he did for me.

He's finally coming home.

**--**--**

I'm not surprised, as I sit and wait for him at the terminal, that he's chatting up a storm with some business guy and an older lady as they exit the plane. Nor is it out of the Fraser-ordinary to hear that he's using words like "Tlingit," "nuclear submarine," and "ghost ships" as they walk my way. I figure, since he's got a captive and not a glazed-eyed audience, that he passed on telling ear anecdotes.

The old woman gives me a smile and an approving nod to Ben when they see me and of course he wishes them both safe travels before I get a hug not unlike our first one. From the time we leave the airport till we get to the apartment, we're small talking. I tell him about my parents and the 2-7, and he mentions that he saw Turnbull--the poor guy's still in traction. He tells me about Maggie's new guy and how well Dief took to Maggie's husky Elizabeth. Neither one of us mentions the trial.

His hand's in mine the entire way home.

In the apartment we dump his stuff on the couch, and while I'm rambling off dinner options, I feel his hand on my arm and I turn to get his mouth clamped on mine, hungry for contact, needing it. And I am all over that. We're moving back towards the bedroom, not letting go, kissing and holding on like we're back in that sinking ship and our embrace is the only thing keeping us from drowning.

Neither one of us is talking now, not with words at least, but by the way he's letting me hold him, I know what he's saying, what he needs. Tonight, I'm in the lead, tonight I'm going to let him fall apart and piece himself together, and he'll know he's safe the whole time, knows I got his back.

So I dip him onto the bed, start undoing his pants. It's been three weeks that he's been up in Canada--not the longest time either one of us has gone without sex, but this, this *us*, this is still something new, exciting and sometimes nerve-wracking. Because I don't want to fuck this up. So slow and gentle, that's the plan, and slow and gentle I get him unfastened and undone and let him shed his clothes while I get out of mine.

Then it's finally him and me and nothing between us - skin-to-skin and relearning each other's bodies. Relearning how kissing the inside of his wrist gets a sort of fast-inhaled moan, how his tongue and my inner thigh are a sure combination to get a purr out of me that would make an alley cat proud, or how tracing his bottom ribs makes him giggle and squirm like a little kid.

I make sure I give him a million smiles, make sure to kiss his eyelids, let him know he's safe. He's on his back - eyes black, breathing like Dief in summer - and it *has* been almost a month, so I take my time opening him up, getting him ready. Just takes a minute to properly prepare, right? And why rush? This, him, us, I got all the patience in the world for this. The look on his face, how his hair curls from the sweat on his forehead, is worth it almost all by itself.

Then he's ready and I'm in, moving to the slow and sweet rhythm, providing him with a lifeline while he's surrounding me - limbs and body. I hold him close, watch him as he lets go, knowing, trusting that I'll keep us above water. And I do, even as I feel myself go under, my arms sagging until I'm covering him like a blanket, till my brains come back to me and I slip out, shifting onto my back and letting the haze take us for a few.

Finally I reach out and lace my fingers with the hand next to me. One tug and he moves easily, curling into me, his head pillowed on my shoulder, an arm snug around my waist like he's never going to let me go. Which is good, because I have no intention of ever letting him go either, which I tell him.

"I know, Ray, I know," he whispers into my collarbone, his voice a raspy, choked whisper, the kind of whisper I've felt in my own throat, right before the tears.

What can I do to heal a thirty-year-old wound? That scared little boy who lost his mom never really healed, he just put that pain to the side, up behind some enormous walls. Muldoon's trial, what Ben must've heard... we're talking three decades of pain, plus interest.

We need to shower and the sheets should be changed, but not right now, I'm not worrying about that, about any of it. Not when Ben's finally laying it all out, letting me see and love all of him -- flaws and perfection, pain and happiness. Not when he's finally talking -- about his mom, his dad, Muldoon, his life -- when he's finally letting that pain start to heal. I'll listen, and I'll help him any goddamn way that he needs me to, because that's what partners do. I'll hold him when he falls apart and I'll piece him back together again, because that's what lovers do.

And I'll do all that. I'll stand next to him, love him, forever, because that's what I do.