Work Header

Work Text:

He pulls the door open, one hard yank with a grind of metal on metal, and he steps through and yanks it shut, and just like that, just like every time, he's in another world. The minute he steps through that door, he's in a different world and he's somebody else.

It's always been that way, it's one reason he's always kept coming back to this gym. He walks in here and, just like always, he leaves it all behind: the cop, Kowalski or Vecchio or whoever the hell he is today, he leaves him behind. He leaves behind mom and dad and Stella, he leaves behind the rulebooks and the reports and the lieutenant and the badge. And especially, today, he leaves behind Fraser.

And as always, just like every time he steps through that door, everything stops for a second, the voices go quiet, the heads swivel around quick, the eyes take him in, and then they slot him into place, Oh yeah, just that crazy fucker Ray, and they slide off him again, they look away and everything starts up again like usual. He walks on, cutting his way through the pounding of the rap music and the trash-talking voices and the clanging of barbells, through the reek of hot sweat and cold iron. Some of the guys give him a little nod as he walks past them, past conversations he'll never be part of, not really, lives he'll never really understand, and it's a nod that measures off the distance between him and them. They let him in the door but he'll never make it all the way inside, and whenever they look at him or talk to him or spar with him it's always there in their eyes. White boy. Stranger. Freak.

He wonders if this is how it is for Fraser all the time, everywhere.

But he's not going to think about Fraser right now, in fact thinking about Fraser is exactly what he came here to get away from. He heads on into the locker room and gets changed, trying for casual, trying so hard to move just exactly the way he always does that he gets tangled up in his own shirt. Once he's got his street clothes off he takes a furtive sniff of himself to see if he smells any different, moving his hand to waft the air up his body, but all he can smell now is himself, and soap, from the long long shower he took this morning, when he woke up in a bed that smelled different.

He puts on his shorts and his tank top and walks back out, and just like usual the eyes drift over him and away again, a touch on his skin as light and cold and blank as the wind chill in the breeze off the lake. When he was a kid, back at Englewood High, an earnest young English teacher made them read The Invisible Man, and it didn't get his attention back then, no more than any other book they tried to make him read, but now he can dig it, kind of. It feels weird sometimes that no one here really sees him, sees Ray, that no one ever sees a millimeter past the white skin and the blond hair and into him, but today it's what makes this a safe zone. If they could ... if they could see what's going on inside him, if they could see what exactly he was up to just—he can't stop a quick glance at the clock—just eighteen hours ago...

He came here to stop thinking about that shit, right? Things are freaky enough already without thinking about that shit. So he puts a little extra attitude into his stride, a little Bo-Diddly I'm a man swagger, as he heads over and grabs a jump rope and starts warming up, in a shadowy corner of the big room.

It's always dark in here, except for the glare of the ring, and the faces are always dark— faces, arms, legs, chests. When the other guys are in the ring, under the lights, he's noticed how black guys look different from white guys when they sweat. They gleam, in some different way, the light on the sweat-sheen highlights their muscles, makes them look good, instead of just wet and pasty, the way he looks when he sweats.

Not that he's been looking at guys. Fuck no. That is not something he does.

He keeps going with the jump rope, hating it, it bores him out of his mind, but he's pulled enough muscles since he went sailing past 35 to pay attention, reluctantly, to all that shit about warming up.

And sure enough, after a while he starts to get warm, get settled, he starts losing the chills that have been shaking him all day at random moments. He alters his rhythm just a little, picking up the pace of his wrists and his feet, until he's in synch with the guy working the speed bag a few yards off, and with the rap music pounding through the thick air. In synch, in rhythm, his body moving the way it knows how to move, and at long last he can feel his brain going quiet, he can feel all the words and thoughts and shivery memories start to shut up, at last.

This gym is where he goes when he needs to make sense of things. Fraser, when he needs to make sense of things, he probably goes off and reads the encyclopedia, or sits down and constructs a set of logical syllogisms, or something. He uses his brain, his brain is his friend. But Ray's always made sense of the world through his body, and it's not something he can explain or that words can make sense of. It's like the way bats fly at night with their ears instead of their eyes; Ray moves, into the shadowy places of life, and the feel of that motion, the way it reverbs off everything around him, tells him where he is and what to do. He moves, he keeps moving, and the words come later, they're just the froth spun off by the churn of his motion through life.

He talks, sure, he's always been fast with his mouth, throwing the words out scattershot. He can do cop talk, any time. And he can do hard-guy talk, of the mostly-learned-it-at-the-movies variety. But the words don't really count. When he's got a perp in the interrogation room, and he's working the case, it's not the words that get him what he wants. It's the way he says them, the way he holds himself, the way his body talks the language of attitude and nerve and don't fuck with me. That's something he learned early on, back on the streets—he, Ray Kowalski, skinny four-eyes Polack meatpacker's kid, could make the bigger guys take a step back, sometimes, could put the fear in them, make them turn away and look for someone else to beat up. It's a lesson he's never forgotten.

So it doesn't matter that he can't ever really talk the talk here, no matter how much he might have tried to show off to Fraser. (Not thinking about Fraser, damn it.) He never sounds more white than when he's trying to talk like the black guys, so mostly (except when he's trying to show off for Fraser) he doesn't try, he lets his body do the talking for him here, and it's a language they all understand, enough to get by with..

Hasn't always been that way. It was pretty tough at the beginning, all those years ago. The first time he walked in the door, with his chin up and his leather jacket zipped tight, he could see—he could feel, with his cop senses on high—all the heads swivel around to stare at him. He could hear all the conversations, all the yelling and laughing and the shit flying back and forth, go quiet, so that for a long minute there was only the music, pounding away. He just walked on through to the locker room, throwing out every particle of attitude he could pull together, feeling the eyes tracking him, feeling his white face and his pale hair burning in the dark funky air like a neon sign. And then behind him he heard the voices start up again, like they were shutting a door behind his back.

It took him a while to get that door to open a crack, not that that was a big surprise to him. A lot of bad history, and a lot of it not even history, not even past, just what they all lived with every day, him and the others, out on the streets. They looked at him and they weren't seeing Ray, they were seeing the generations of white men, white cops, hard-fisted big-bellied Polack Southside headthumpers. And his eyes weren't 20-20 either, he knew that when he looked at them he wasn't seeing Marquis and Rashad and Deandre, he was seeing all the cocky kill-you-as-soon-as-look-at-you gangbangers he'd smacked around and cuffed and frisked and sent to jail.

He'd hung in there, taken the hard looks and hard punches and kept getting up and coming back, week after month after year. The first time one of them had called him "faggot"—in a casual, needling, just-pulling-your-fucking-chain kind of a way—he knew that in some strange way he'd arrived, he'd been taken in and given a place, the kind of place they gave each other when they called each other "nigger." It stung, sure, and there was still a razor-edge of danger in it, but it meant they were past the cop and the Polack and the back-alley beatdowns and he was just the skinny pretty white boy with the blond hair and the quick graceful feet, who for some inexplicable reason liked to hang around the gym. They'd knock him down and help him up and sometimes slap his ass or cuff him around a little, playfully. Taunt him in sweet falsetto voices, and then laugh at him in rich dark chuckles.

Things had even gotten good, for a little while, when he'd been training Levon. But Levon was gone now, he'd quit the boxing and turned Muslim and gotten a job, and he was married now, no doubt to one of those nice Muslim girls who wears a head scarf and mostly stays in the kitchen. Ray wouldn't know, he hadn't been invited to the wedding the way the other guys had been, and while that had stung a little, he knew you couldn't let it get to you. Whatever'd been good between them, the fact remained that he'd cuffed Levon and taken him in, he'd sent Devlin to jail, and that wasn't the kind of thing a man could pretend never happened. That had broken some things past fixing, and the eyes had brushed cool over him ever since. But he'd kept coming back, all the same.

He's broken a sweat now, he's as warmed up as he's going to get today, and it's time to put in some work, time to do what he came here to do. As he's hanging the jump rope back on its peg, there's a voice close behind him, "RAA—aaayy," a high-pitched sing-song, and he whips around, but it's just Marquis, grinning at him, teeth and gold neck chain flashing in the dimness. "Ray, you looking so fine today," Marquis croons, "you been hittin' the bleach again? I swear, you lookin' just like Billy Idol," and he yells back over his shoulder, "Yo, we got Mr. Billy Idol doin' us the honor of a visit here."

It's just the usual shit, and usually he'd go with it and volley some shit right back, but today he's too screwed up, it throws him right off balance. He can feel himself hardening up all over, putting on the hard cop stare, and Marquis sees it, and it just makes him grin wider. "So pretty, makes me want to just mess you up some," and he puts out a hand to ruffle through Ray's hair, and without even thinking Ray knocks the hand away, with one quick hard swipe with his arm. Marquis hoots and jumps back a step, putting his fists up in an elaborate pugilistic stance. "You ready to go a few rounds, white boy? Want to spar? You get your gloves, I show you a good time." He dances around, miming snake-quick punches at Ray's face.

It's tempting—Ray wants to hit something, somebody, hard, and keep hitting—but he's got twelve years on Marquis, and Marquis's got thirty pounds on him, and he'd likely get put on the mat in under a minute, and that's not a problem, he can take a beating, has before and will again, but he knows all of a sudden that if he gets hit today ... he's feeling like the water balloons he used to throw when he was a kid, like he's carrying around something inside him so big and so heavy that he can barely hold it in, and if he gets hit he's going to bust wide open and spill it all, whatever it is, all over the gym floor. And that's not something he can do. Whatever this is going on inside him, it's not something he can let anyone see.

So he just waves Marquis off. "Later, homes. I'm gonna work the heavy bag a while."

"Aw, now that's a good idea, Ray, you got to build up that power of yours, right?" And with a slap to the shoulder that rocks him, Marquis heads off toward the barbells, and Ray pulls on his gloves and walks to the corner, where the heavy bag is waiting for him. He walks right up to it, take a hold of it, and just leans against it for a moment, smelling leather and sweat, feeling the solidity, the mute obdurate weight of it. And then he steps back, and takes a deep breath, and starts to hit.

Working the speed bag—that's like foreplay, it's all about tease and timing, getting your moves right, finding the rhythm that each of you needs to move together in grace. Hitting the heavy bag is like fucking. Driving hard, over and over, full body, no brain. It's about giving up everything you have, all your strength, all your passion, knowing that the bag will absorb them, take them in, and make you stronger for giving them up. When you're through you're spent, sweaty, shaky, clutching the bag as close as a lover, grateful.

Ray loves to dance with the speed bag, and he's always been better at it, more agile than powerful. But what he needs, today, is the heavy bag. Needs to just pound it, hard—jab, jab, and then right cross, slamming it, grunting a little with each blow.

There's no way he could do the speed bag today anyhow—what he's got inside him, this feeling that he can't put a name on, it's too heavy, it slows him down, dragging at his arms and his legs, leaving him as leaden as he'd been last night, lying spilled out on the mattress, after—after...

He pounds the bag hard, heavy blind blows, right and left and right, uppercut and hook and a couple more jabs. It doesn't matter how hard he hits, cause he'll never be able to break the bag open, no matter what he does the bag'll take it and never show a mark.

(Although he'd seen the Sugarman break the bag once, back when he was still training here. Week before a big fight and Devlin had been riding him hard, snarling and taunting and pushing. Sugarman'd been pummeling the bag, with a small crowd watching in awe at a safe distance, and Devlin right at his shoulder, growling "Little pussy, harder, damn it, my baby girl could hit better'n that—" Sugarman had grunted and slugged until finally Devlin screamed, "Damn it, man, you hittin' like some fuckin' faggot," and Sugarman had reared back and reached down to the soles of his feet and delivered an almighty blow that had split the leather wide open. He'd stood there, panting, while the bag swung wildly, and Devlin had reached out and draped an arm around his sweaty shoulders and led him off, hugging him, patting him gently.)

If feelings were all it took, Ray would have shredded the bag himself, by now, but he keeps punching anyway, wilder and harder, panting, until all the pictures, the snapshots from last night that've been cycling through his head all day like some crazy slideshow, fade to black, until there's no more room in his head for words and no need for them.

He never knows the right words anyway, to frame up what he's feeling, the words that'll hold it all together and straighten it out and make it make sense. Like what he felt for Stella, from the first day he met her, that feeling inside him that was so huge, that big quivering mess of intensity that he could barely keep in his own skin, that kept wanting to break open and spill all over. He'd called it love 'cause he didn't know what else it could be, that was apparently how people felt when they fell in love, and so he kept calling it that, even when it turned different, angry and fearful and terribly needy, like a black hole trying to suck everything in. But she'd told him that wasn't love, that couldn't be love, and so he'd stopped trying to find a word for it and just lived with it instead, lived with the way it took over his body and cramped up his belly and burned in his legs, and he'd kept coming back to this gym. Not as often, and not to fight, but just because hitting something helped him keep it all together.

When he'd quit boxing, quit using the other guys as something to hit—it had been because of Stella, all right, but not because she thought it was uncivilized or anything like that. He knew better, he knew that his uncivilizedness was something that, deep down, turned her on. Back then, anyway. Was part of what she'd married him for. Good girls dig the bad boys. And then they can't help trying to turn them good.

No, it'd happened after they'd been fighting one day, back when things were starting to go sour, one of those crazymaking Stella-type arguments where he couldn't tell from one minute to the next what the hell they were even fighting about, and he'd finally grabbed his coat and she'd grabbed his arm and he'd said he was going to the gym, and she'd backed off a few steps and he'd waited for her to start whanging on him about that too, but instead — she'd put on her reasonable voice, her lawyer voice, the one he hated most, and she'd said, "You know, Ray, you might consider examining the nature of your attraction to that environment. It's curious, isn't it? I mean, you tell me that you love me, you keep saying that, and that's nice, but what you actually do in your free time, when you have free time, what you choose to do, is to go hang out with a bunch of men. Big, sweaty, muscular, half-naked men." She'd seen him flinch, and augered in, head to one side just like she was in court. "Actions speak louder than words, Ray. Don't you agree?"

He never hit Stella, not then, not ever, but he'd never wanted to more. He got out of there instead, and after pounding on the steering wheel for a while he'd gone to the gym and found some guy so pig-ugly and disgusting that not even the most desperate queer in the universe'd touch him on a bet, and they sparred for a while, went several rounds, Ray got in some good punches, hit the guy hard, and then he'd gone home and grabbed Stella away from the papers she was working on, and he took her to bed and fucked her hard and angry, and she'd fucked him right back, and afterward, lying together spent and sweaty, it'd been good, for about ten minutes. He'd whispered to her, "So, OK, I won't fight anymore. OK?" And she'd nodded.

He kept his promise, mostly, he dropped out of the league and stopped sparring, but he'd kept going to the gym—just to work out, he'd told himself, just to stay in shape. Not nearly as often as before, and he told himself that was cause he was busy, cause the lieu was piling the work on him, cause he should spend more time with Stella. But he knew better. It was because she'd put a bug in his head. The worm of doubt, Father Gregory had said once in catechism class, and that was what it was like, a little worm that crawled around in there when he was at the gym, in the locker room, with the other guys. So he didn't go as often, and when he did he just worked the bags and the weights and kept to himself. He dumped a big pile of dirt on that worm and kept his mind away from it, and life went on. Other stuff stopped—Ray-and-Stella stopped; Detective Ray Kowalski, Twelfth Division, three commendations, stopped—but life kept on going, and he kept going to the gym, and he kept his mind the hell away from that pile.

And then one day, just one ordinary ratty day at the new station house, he heard his name called, he looked up, and there was Fraser. There—oh yeah—was Fraser. Looking at him, eyes cutting right past all the others like they were strangers, looking right straight at him, taking him in. And what it should've been, Fraser should've been just one more new guy in that whole roomful of guys who didn't know him from squat, just one more occasion to crank up the let's put on a show machinery that Ray was, to be honest, already starting to get damn tired of.

He was used to it, by then, putting on an act for all the other eyes aimed his way, the other looks: the smirky little let's-pretend looks from everyone at the 27th, and the icy cold eat-shit-and-die eyefuck from the perps, and the sad impatient you're-not-what-I-want looks from Stella, and the taunting little white-boy-faggot glances from the guys at the gym. Sometimes the act was a hit, and sometimes he flopped, but he could always crank up the song and dance for one more show.

But Fraser, who, god knows, would've had every right to give him the let's-pretend, or the cold glare, or even—especially—the you're-not-what-I-want look ... Fraser had seen him. With those big confused eyes that were looking, yeah, Ray could tell, looking for someone else, but had seen him instead.

It jolted him. Ray knows how to take a jolt, you shake it off and bob and weave and keep your fucking guard up, but the way Fraser kept looking at him made him punchy enough that he kept finding himself babbling all sorts of crazy shit about duets and partners and do you find me attractive? Leaving himself wide open. And Fraser had just kept looking at him, not letting all the fancy footwork distract him an inch. Ray might not have been what Fraser'd been looking for, but Fraser had seen him anyway. Had seen past the feints and the jabs and the chatter, right down into him.

Had seen, maybe, even, all the way down through that pile of dirt ... which would explain, maybe, why last night ...

He takes a deep breath and drives in hard on the bag, right left right, snarling and slamming it deep in its guts, over and over, until he can't hit any more, his arms are burning and his lungs are heaving, and he has to stop for a minute, panting and shaking, resting his head against the bag, with some dim stupid hope that he's fought it out, fought it to a standstill. But the minute he lets his eyes shut it all comes charging right back on him, full color and surround-sound, and he's too damn tired to hold it off, shut it up, keep himself from remembering ...

It'd been a crappy week, for starters. Huey and Dewey had both come down with the crud that was going around, and half their caseload got shoved onto Ray's desk, on top of which Fraser'd been nailed down tight at the Consulate, all week long, grinding out the annual budget figures. So Ray had hauled his sorry ass solo through what felt like a month's worth of fourteen-hour days, reflecting, when he had a spare minute, on how much it sucked to be doing twice the work with half the manpower.

Less than half, really, was what it felt like—he didn't know just when he'd gotten so damn used to having Fraser there. Not just the brain, although he appreciated Fraser's brain as much as anyone; and not just the way he could put words together, get them out in some way that Ray couldn't have done if he'd had a year of sensitivity training and Roget's Thesaurus imprinted on his cortex, that way of talking that got even the toughest hardass scumbags to open up and spill. No, it was just—just having someone to lean on, someone who could steady him out, someone he could flail away at with his pissed-offedness and his impatience and all his half-cocked words that never seemed to go the way he meant them to. Fraser'd just soak it all up and hang in there and never show a mark. Unbreakable. Solid. That's how it had been, ever since that crazy shit with the boat, and Ray hadn't realized how much he'd come to lean on it.

So Sunday'd rolled around, and Ray had been hoping like hell for a day off, just one little day, please god, but instead his phone had rung at 2:00 p.m., right in the middle of the Bears game, fresh homicide, sorry, detective, hate to do it but you know we're shorthanded. He'd flopped back on his sofa, groaning, and stared at the ceiling for a minute, and then on impulse he'd dialed up the consulate. Fully expecting some regretful Fraser-babble about spreadsheets and deadlines, but glory be, the budget was done, and Fraser would be delighted for the opportunity to resume his liaison role, perfectly delighted, and he did indeed sound so delighted that Ray didn't spare more than a second to feel like a shitheel for dragging him out, when god knows the man deserved a day off as much as anyone.

When Ray pulled up alongside the black-and-whites outside the crime scene, Fraser was already there (how the hell did he manage that?), waiting for him, standing at parade rest, facing the way Ray would be coming from, and his eyes latched onto Ray the moment he stepped out of the GTO, cutting right through the crowd of gawkers and uniforms. He lifted a hand in greeting, and Ray nodded back, and just like that, the crappiness of the week eased off from full-bore F5-Twister-scale suckitude to ... general okayness. Something almost good. Back to normal.

It wasn't until he got up close that the normalness frayed a little, when he could see that even though everything about Fraser from the neck down looked as steam-pressed and parade-ready as usual, his face looked ... tired. Something about the eyes, the look of a guy who hadn't been sleeping well, hadn't had a good meal in a while. It only made sense, Ray supposed, given that he'd been cooped up in the mausoleum all week, crunching numbers, Thatcher riding his ass. But he still didn't like seeing it on him.

Fraser seemed glad to see him, anyway, however much of a wrung-out mess Ray might have looked, giving him a little smile, a genuine smile, not the Fraser-being-polite one. Then he frowned over at Dief, who was scamming a bagel from one of the uniforms, and led them both inside and up the stairs, giving a summary of facts ascertained thus far like he was testifying in court, one hand tucked in behind his back and the other making that strange typical Fraser-gesture, palm up and moving gently, as if he were balancing something in his hand, weighing it.

They made their way down the hall past the rubbernecking neighbors and ducked under the yellow tape across the apartment door and Ray did a quick look-around. Older guy, on the scuffed wooden floor of the living room, beaten to death, beaten bad, but at least fresh, thank god, the week-old ones were the ones you really dreaded. There wasn't much else in the apartment besides the body—bare linoleum kitchen table with one wooden chair; a single ratty armchair with a lamp beside it; a narrow bed in the corner, with the sheets messed up; and, lining the walls, rows and rows of bookshelves, filled with orderly rows of books. No pictures, no rugs, no knicknacks. Pretty bleak, to Ray's eye. A sad kind of place to die.

The forensics guys needed to take their pictures and count the bits of brain splatter, so Ray and Fraser had gone to talk to the neighbors for a while, most of whom were as blind deaf and dumb as people usually are in that part of town when a cop comes to the door. They were all shocked, they were all regretful, they all said he was a hell of a nice guy, friendly, helpful, and not one of them had zip to say about why someone might've beaten his head in.

But there was one woman, ground floor front, the kind who if you're a cop you always pray to have as a neighbor as long as it's not in your building, the kind who keeps a logbook on everyone who goes through the door. She'd clearly been thrilled to have a chance to give them an earful, most of which was the same old same old they'd heard from everyone else, sweet guy, helped her carry in her groceries, always so well-spoken, not like most of the trash in this neighborhood. But even though she said he didn't talk much about himself, she'd managed to weasel some stuff out of him—figures, Ray thought—and she said he'd used to be a teacher over at the university, till he'd got sick or something and had to retire. Didn't have any family. Never seemed to have any friends over.

"Except," she said, "except for them. His little guests." And she gestured with her cigarette, like they were supposed to understand what the hell that meant.

Fraser waved his notebook, discreet-like, to fan the smoke away, and said in his most encouraging voice, "Can you say more about that, ma'am?"

She batted her eyes at him, and said, "I mean the boys, of course." Leaned over toward him, letting her ratty old housedress billow open a little. "It took me a little while to figure it out, but, you see, twice a month his pension checks would come in—" Ray could picture her, snooping through the broken-down mailboxes in the lobby. "And he'd go down to the bank, and sometimes I'd go with him, so I could do my banking—he was always so nice about it, and lord knows I just don't feel safe going out there by myself any more, now that they've all moved into the neighborhood. Terrible." She clicked her tongue, and Ray drove his hands down deeper into his pockets and gave her one hard nod, not letting himself glance over at Fraser.

"And he'd get cash out, you see, and then we'd come back again, and sometimes we'd stop at Czerniak's so I could get some of Wally's kolackies, which I must say have not been the same lately, I think he's drinking again—" She seemed to sense a certain lack of response in her audience, and cleared her throat. "So, then, as I was saying, those same nights—not every time, but some of the time—he'd go out in the evening. And when he came back, later, he'd have a boy with him. They'd go upstairs, and then an hour or so later the boy would come back down and leave." Ray and Fraser shot each other a quick look, doing the math, and she waggled her eyebrows up and down and added, "Not nice boys. So I guess it wasn't a big surprise that it ended up like this."

They'd managed to get a pretty good description out of her of last night's visitor, Fraser scribbling away in his notebook in his weird Mountie shorthand, and then she lit up a fresh cigarette and said, "Poor man. I'm sorry for him of course, I know he was terribly lonely. But the way this turned out—I'm not saying it's what he deserved, of course, but what in the world did he expect? Carrying on that way?"

She'd been talking to Fraser, but he sat there staring down at his notebook and pretty much ignoring her, which wasn't like Fraser at all, but she didn't know that so she just swung over to Ray and kept talking. "I mean, maybe he had urges, lord knows we all have urges—" and she let out a ribald little chortle that had startled Ray, who was already startled enough by the way Fraser had apparently checked out of the conversation. "But if you've got those kinds of urges the best thing you can do is just keep them under wraps, you know what I mean? You don't go around ..." She fluttered one hand in the air. "I'm sorry about what happened to him, but he was asking for it, wasn't he?" Her hand fluttered over to her hair and fluffed it. "Like I say, I know he was a very lonely man, I mean, my lord, how lonely would you have to be, to do that—and that's a shame, but if you're—if you're wired that way, you should just find some other way to deal with it, don't you think, officer? I mean, he had many gifts and talents—you know how artistic those people are, he could have volunteered down at the community center, or—"

Ray had been nodding in that cop way that indicates neither agreement nor disagreement but merely keep moving your mouth and maybe something useful'll come out of it, when all of a sudden Fraser stood up, without even a thank-you-kindly, and walked out of the apartment.

Ray tied things off in about two sentences and hoofed it out after him and found him standing in the hall, staring at the Certificate of Occupancy like it was the Mona Lisa, shoulders set like rock, and all Ray could think of to say was "What an old bitch, huh?" Which didn't seem to help at all, not that he'd expected it to the minute it left his mouth. So then he said, "Let's go scope out the apartment, OK?"

Fraser just nodded, and they went back up and Ray phoned in the description and then made like a detective, opening drawers and going through papers and stuff. But at one point he'd looked over to see what Fraser was up to, and—he'd just been standing there, doing his statue impersonation again, but not looking at Ray, not looking at anything as far as Ray could tell, not picking anything up, not tasting anything, just standing there, with his hands locked up together behind his back like he'd been cuffed and a look on his face Ray had never seen there before. It freaked him.

And then he got a call on his cellphone from one of the uniforms, saying they'd picked up the kid at a diner on Kedzie, all coked up and babbling, bragging to his buddies about what he'd done. Ray steered Fraser down to the car and drove them to the station and got a statement out of the miserable little piece of shit in thirty minutes flat, and the whole time Fraser didn't say a thing. Which freaked him even worse, so he left all the paperwork sitting on his desk and took Fraser back out to the car, put him inside, gently, with Dief making little whuffy worried noises, and drove him home to the consulate, trying to make some kind of half-assed light conversation the whole way, feeling like he was dropping pennies down a dry well, and Fraser not saying a word.

He pulled up in front of the consulate, at last, put it in park, and waited for Fraser to get out of the car and get himself inside and carry on with whatever weird thing he needed to do to get himself out of this funk he was in, process some forms or whittle or what-the-fuck ever. But Fraser didn't move an inch. He just sat there, in the darkness, staring at the dashboard, with his face closed tight and his hands in his lap clenched up together in one big white-knuckled fist.

Ray doesn't always get words, but he can read body talk just fine, even Fraser's, which usually takes some decoding. He just put 'er back into drive and peeled away from the curb and drove to his own place, and not even Dief made a sound the whole way. He'd always wondered just what it'd take to make Fraser crack, not that he'd really wanted to know the answer, but it looked like he might find out.

He got them into his apartment, Fraser stepping along like some kind of tin robot, and got him seated on the couch, and brought him a glass of water, which Fraser took and then set down on the coffee table and ignored. Fraser looked like his brain was in Katmandu instead of Ray's messy apartment, like he was working out four-dimensional trigonometry somewhere in his head and the answer was spelling out the doom of civilization, and Ray couldn't stand it, he sat down on the coffee table across from Fraser and grabbed him by the forearms, said "Fraser, what the fuck is going on with you?" and gave his arms a little shake for punctuation. Which it turned out wasn't needed because Fraser started shaking all on his own, arms, shoulders, everywhere, and still not making a sound, just shaking, like he had a little private earthquake going on right there on Ray's sofa.

Ray said "Fraser," again, louder, not knowing what the fuck else to say, and then Fraser lifted his head up and looked at him, in some way that was different from all the other million ways Fraser had ever looked at him. Looked into him, with eyes that were wide open and full of pain and not in Katmandu at all any more but right there, right there, lasering their way into Ray's head. Then he stood up suddenly, jerking Ray to his feet, knocking the coffee table backward. Ray almost lost his balance, but Fraser grabbed his shoulders and held him, still staring into him, in that scary way. And then Fraser pulled him in tight and clutched the back of his skull with one big hand and started kissing him, kissing him like they were drowning again and Ray was his last hope of oxygen on this planet.

Everything went weird then, time went slow and hazy and Ray's brain was going flubbety-flubbety-flub like someone'd shot out all four tires at once. There were words running around in there, words like What the fuck?! and Cut it out! and This is NOT what I had in mind, Fraser, but apparently his mind, and the words bouncing around in it, didn't matter at all, because his body was running things, and his body was zooming along on four Michelin racing tires and a V-8 turbocharged engine, his body was shifting up into overdrive just like the GTO when you took it out on the freeway and mashed the pedal and felt the engine roar, and his mind was just some nervous passenger along for the ride.

And he wasn't even driving, oh no, Fraser had grabbed the wheel and was driving blind, off-road, off any road Ray'd ever known. And the words—Fraser was talking nonstop, a torrent of words into Ray's hair, Ray's neck, Ray's mouth, words that rushed past like air past the windshield, like the jabber of the car radio, and he couldn't hear them over the roaring in his ears, over the scream of the engine. Couldn't make them out at all.

At one point Ray discovered they'd gotten into the bedroom somehow, and there was an interlude with a lot of yanking and shoving of clothes, during which Ray basically stood there panting and making a few fumbling movements and getting his hands pushed away, along with everything he had on, and then Fraser had shoved him onto the bed, and Ray had landed so hard the breath went out of him for a minute, and before he could get it back, before he could get anything back of himself, he was surrounded and covered and damn near smothered in Fraser, an avalanche of solid bare flesh. That's what it'd been like, like that show he'd seen one night on the Discovery Channel about a guy who was caught in an avalanche, knocked down and picked up and swept away, down down down the mountain, helpless, not knowing which way was up or if he'd live through it. The guy had said Nothing you can do but just go with the ride and hope you're still breathing at the end of it, and that's what it'd been like.

It was actually pretty lousy sex, by any technical standard Ray was accustomed to applying—clumsy, and messy as hell, and over way too fast. But it wrecked him inside, the way he'd almost forgotten sex could do, it'd been so long since sex had been so new, so strange. So strange ... not just that it was with a guy, and not even just that it was Fraser (although, Jesus Christ on a crutch, Fraser?), but rather ... OK, Ray knows how sex works with women, he's done it plenty, and every time, always, no matter how strong and smart and independent a woman is, even if she's made the moves and she wants to be on top and run the fuck—always, there comes that moment when she leans back, and he's got to step up to the plate and deliver the goods. She turns over the wheel, and he's got to figure out how to pilot her to the finish line. He loves it, don't get him wrong, there's no pleasure in the world like feeling a woman shiver and come under his fingers or tongue or cock, knowing that he brought her there. He loves it, and he's always been good at it, bed being one of those few places where he can count on his body to do all the talking, and say everything right.

But this time ... there'd been nothing he had to do, nothing he could do, absolutely nothing. Nothing he could say. All he could manage was to lie there, flat on his back, and try his damndest to hold himself together, try to keep his mouth from saying the things that he knew his body was screaming: just do it, just take it take it, have it, have me. And Fraser had him, pinned and spread out, and was driving against him hard, full body, over and over, holding him down, hands like iron, shit he was strong, and Fraser's words flowing like water, over and around and through him and away again, with no more meaning to them than the sound of the blood whooshing in his ears. So fucking strange—Fraser's cock was grinding and shoving right up against his, a fierce hot hurt that turned him on harder than anything he could remember, and there was nothing at all for him to do but take it, take it in, all of it. Do it do it, just do it do it do it ...

Then Fraser shifted, kneeing Ray's thighs further apart, grabbing and tilting his hips, and Ray suddenly knew that he would let Fraser have anything, do anything, anything whatsoever that he wanted, and with that thought he jerked and yelled and came so hard the world went red behind his squeezed-shut eyelids.

Dimly, slowly, the red faded to black and he came to himself, back to whatever knocked-on-its-ear version of reality this was, to find he had a cramp in his neck and Fraser limp on top of him, limp all over, and a big blob of hot wetness between them. Fraser was quiet, at last, finally out of words, just lying there breathing like a steam engine, squishing Ray a little more with each inhale. Ray shifted a bit, trying to get some air, and Fraser jerked himself up onto his elbows, with a gasp, and then just hung there, inches over Ray's body. Ray had cracked his eyes open, just a sliver, to find Fraser staring down at him, with a look like ... he'd had to slam his eyes shut again, it was all he could do to hold himself together as it was, and if he had to see Fraser looking at him that way he'd just lose it completely, he'd just break wide open.

Finally Fraser had begun talking again, just a whisper—"Ray. I'm so sorry. I'm so terribly sorry, Ray, I didn't mean to—" and Ray had managed to pull himself together just enough to mumble, "Shut up." Quiet, then, for a moment, while Ray listened to the blood hammering in his temples, and then he felt Fraser start to tense up all over, all those hard muscles tensing, like a pond freezing up, and he hated that even more than the apologies, so he grabbed for a few more words out of the blur, and licked his dry lips and whispered, "It's—it's OK, Fraser. S'OK. Just shut up."  OK was a hundred miles away from whatever it really was, entirely the wrong word, too much or not nearly enough or something, but it was the best he could do.

They lay together like that for another minute. Ray could feel Fraser's thumb smoothing over his temple, stroking the short hair there the wrong way, over and over, and it was trying to tell him something, something he couldn't decipher, so he just let it go. The thumb felt nice. But then it left, and Ray felt big movements, shifting and tilting of the mattress, and then Fraser pushed up and off of him, pulling apart all the sticky wet places gluing them together.

He lay there, hearing Fraser padding around the room, and then the sound of water running in the bathroom sink. His brain was telling him Open your eyes, get up, mop off, say something, but he couldn't move. He had no idea what he would look like, if he opened his eyes, or what Fraser would look like, or the whole freaking world. Maybe he was on Mars. He didn't want to see; didn't want to see himself, he felt ripped open, and he had a nervous insane fear that the wet on his belly might actually be blood, that his insides might just be hanging out there to the world, whatever world this was that they were on.

Water off, more padding sounds, and then the mattress tipping again, as Fraser sat down beside him. He still couldn't make his eyes open, or find any words, but he yelped as something hot and damp and rough touched down on his belly. A washcloth. By god, Fraser was cleaning him up. He really had to open his eyes, or do something besides play dead here, but it was just beyond him. Not Mars ... Jupiter, maybe, one of those big planets where the gravity was way stronger than Earth's. He was fucking cemented to the mattress, nothing in his entire body was moving except his heart, which was thumping away. But as Fraser finished wiping him off, with slow careful strokes that didn't tickle at all, he managed by huge effort to get one forearm lifted up off the mattress, groped blindly, caught hold of Fraser's wrist, and gave it as hard a squeeze as he could. Solid, strong, big-boned wrist. Then he let go and his arm flopped back to the mattress, as dead as the rest of him. He waited through the faint whispery sounds of Fraser putting his clothes on, and the distant sounds of Fraser letting himself out, and then he fell into sleep like someone falling off a cliff.

He'd slept like the dead, and jolted awake at 6 a.m. to a bed that smelled strange, that didn't smell like him and didn't smell like Stella, not at all like Stella, and he'd jumped out like the mattress was on fire and stripped the sheets off and taken a long long shower, scrubbing hard. He'd put on the toughest clothes he could find, jeans and his ratty old Harley Davidson sweatshirt and his head-kicking boots and leather jacket, and gone down to the station early.

He'd headed straight to his desk and started in on his reports, doing all the paperwork from the case, and then for good measure starting in on the stack of files that'd been sitting in his basket for days. It was hard, infuriating work, poking at the keys, trying to get the words to come out and line up right and make orderly report-type sentences, but it had been good, it took up all his brain and kept him from thinking, most of the time. Kept him from thinking about how it had felt when Fraser had grabbed him, the way his goddamned fucking body had responded when Fraser held him down and whammed against him. The way Fraser had looked at him, looked all the way clear down through him, a look that ripped him right open and spilled him out all over the mattress.

He kept his brain busy with words, and the words kept those other thoughts away, mostly, and he worked straight through lunch (not like he could've eaten anything anyway), keeping his head down and ignoring the phone. Frannie took his messages and gave him some worried looks, Welsh picked up the files and gave him an approving look.

But he couldn't handle anyone looking at him just then, in any way whatsoever, so he'd finally grabbed his jacket and gotten the hell out and come here instead, to the gym, the one place where he can count on nobody looking at him, not at him, not at Ray Kowalski, where he can be somebody else—some other somebody else—for a while.

But he hasn't gotten away at all, of course. It's still just him, just Ray, with the shaky skinny arms too tired to launch one more hard punch, the tottery legs. Fucked up as when he walked in the door, full of something too big and messy to begin to make sense of, and not one single cold clue about any answers. He's fought himself to a standstill, all punched out, and the one and only thing he's figured out is that there's no way to fight this, whatever it is. It's got him beat. No more, no mas.

He pulls his gloves off, one at a time, and lets them drop to the floor—thud, thud—and before he bends down to pick them up he rests his bare hands for a moment on the heavy bag, leaning into it. Smooth and solid, tender as skin, hard as muscle. He didn't put even the slightest mark on it anywhere, for all that he damn near killed himself pounding it.

It's like he was never here at all, and he realizes, it hits him in that moment, that he could turn and walk out the door and never come back here again and no one would miss him, no one'd go looking for him, no one would even notice. It's not like he ever belonged here anyway.

So he rests, just having a little invisible moment, pulling himself back together, listening to the voices all around him, the shouting and whooping and jiving of all the guys who know each other. Until he hears something different behind him—not a sound, a sudden quietness, a drop in the chatter and yammer, that quietness he hears for just a moment every time he steps into the gym. Even before he turns around, he knows, with a lurch in his gut, what he's going to see. Who he's going to see.


There he stands, feet planted and hat tilted back, catching just the edge of the light-glare from the ring. He's solid and upright and buttoned to the chin, buttoned in all the way up to the eyeballs, but the eyes...there's something in there, even at this distance Ray can see it in there, something that, if you hit it, it'd break into a million pieces.

And those eyes are looking, right past everyone else and straight at Ray. Looking for Ray, for him, for nothing and nobody else.

It all goes quiet then, inside Ray, all the words he's been trying to scramble together in his head to make sense of it all, they just fade out the exits. It all goes very quiet. Then one word comes whispering into that silence, one word that makes no sense at all and makes sense of everything. The word is joy. All of a sudden, finally, he has a name for it, for that huge messy feeling roiling around in him.

And with that word the feeling gets too huge for him to keep inside his skin another moment. It's the knockout punch, square in the gut, the one that splits him wide open, puts him down for good.

It splits him wide open. And everything he is spills out, onto the dirty gym floor, under Fraser's eyes.