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Ray had a hard time getting Fraser to leave, to stop beaming at him and take his new partner and just give Ray a few fucking minutes alone. But after the clean-up team dealt with the goons in the bathroom and he'd given Fraser what little updates on Muldoon he had (and made sure to say "Benny" every third word or so because it made the new guy do something weird with his mouth every time), Ray finally managed. He told Benny, forcefully, that he needed a few minutes to make some calls, and urged them out the door.

What he needed a few minutes to do, really, was go back in the bathroom that now stank of bleach, and throw up.

Because when he'd opened the door and seen Fraser, his first thought was "Oh, thank God, it's Benny and I'm home," but that was his Ray voice, his Chicago voice, and he'd gotten used to letting that run on, pretty background music he couldn't afford to listen to.

And his next thought was Bookman, was Vegas, was maintain cover at any cost; the voice he'd learned to obey every time if he was going to survive, if he was going to get out of this some day, some year, Jesus, ever; and that one said, "He's really pretty; too bad you're going to have to shoot him."



I managed to say it to him once, by the campfire, before the Ice Queen hauled Fraser off: that I'd get it if he wanted to partner with Vecchio again when we got back to Chicago, that Vecchio seemed like a good guy. But Fraser came back with some vague bullshit about his dad and Frobisher being partners even when they were on opposite sides of an iceberg, or something, and that could mean anything. That could mean "I would never consider splitting up, Ray, it's you and me," or "Well, actually, Ray, I'm staying up here, and you can be my partner in spirit down in Chicago, enjoy," or "Why yes, obviously I will be teaming back up with Ray Vecchio; to commemorate the death of our partnership, Ray, why don't we roast a small animal on a spit?"

But it took everything I had, to say it that once. And I was pretty sure that Fraser would end up going with option B or C, because he'd known Vecchio longer, because Vecchio'd come back a big fucking hero and taken a bullet for Fraser again. But mostly because I had a habit, a history of being unpicked option A.

Fuck if I was bringing it up again, though. Fraser wanted to get rid of me, Fraser was gonna to have to do the work.




Those first few days with Stella, Ray was prepared to write it off to having just been shot. He'd gotten to be kind of a collector of near-death experiences, partnering with Benny, and he'd realized that anytime you expected to die and didn't, the next few days had a glow around them; everyone you met was beautiful and fascinating and perfect. After a couple of awkward incidents he'd learned that it was a bad idea to propose to anybody within a few days of almost dying.

So he kept waiting to wake up one morning and discover that no, Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski wasn't actually that pretty or good-smelling or graceful or smart, that she was a perfectly ordinary woman who'd had an aura of "Holy shit, I didn't die!" making her feel like something more.

But it didn't happen. She kept being pretty and good-smelling and all that, and Ray was starting to think, hey, this could actually be good. He'd been with a lot of women (a lot of people, but he really wasn't thinking about that right now) in Vegas, but they were all with him because of who he was--and considering that was who he actually wasn't, it hadn't been much of a compliment. And this maybe was.

When he really fell for her, though, was one morning when he halfway woke up and--sometimes, on the edges like that, falling asleep or waking up, he wasn't quite sure where he was. Or when, or--who. So he came partway awake, enough to register that there was somebody else in the bed, and before he could sort out who he was now he'd barked out an order, just snarled "Coffee." Which, in Vegas, would have resulted in whoever it was leaping out of bed to go fetch him some coffee that fucking second.

But the person in the bed was Stella--right, right, Chicago now, Ray now, right--and Stella gave him an evil eye that would have flattened a priest. And said, "Why, yes, I'd love some, no cream, two sugars, asshole," and Ray laughed and got up and went to make coffee.

He got out the grinder and started trying to remember where he'd put the coffee beans—-hadn't really sorted out where everything should be in the new apartment. He'd kind of surprised himself by moving out of the house--figured he'd get home, he'd want to be in the bosom of his family for a long time, wacko bosom though it was. But somehow--every conversation he got in with anybody at home, especially if he was tired or they were arguing with him (and they were Vecchios, they were always arguing with him)--it just got strange. He must have been making some new expression they weren't used to or something (and, okay, that one time he grabbed Frannie's wrist a little hard, but he had a nasty fucking headache and she would not shut up)--anyway, every conversation seemed to end up with "You're scaring me, Ray."

He'd heard that a lot.

But Stella--"Two sugars, asshole," he murmured to himself, and grinned. Put her coffee on a tray, and went back to crawl into bed with someone he couldn't frighten.



When he geared us up for this quest I figured, this was a big symbolical good-bye. One last serious attempt to get us both freakishly killed, for old lang syne, you know? And then, if we happened to survive getting frozen and crevassed and attacked by ice weasels, that would be it, ending things on what Fraser, the freak, would think of as a high note.

The bright thing to do would have been to go ahead and take off home pre-questing. Partly for the smaller likelihood of dying, and partly because--letting go right then would maybe be a little easier than after a few weeks of the two of us alone.

So, of course, I said, "Sure, Frase, sounds fun, let's quest! Quest me up!" Because my skills at not letting go are legendary. I am in the Not Letting Go Hall of Fame. People stand in front of the trophy case and read my stats and say "Holy shit, could that guy ever not let go."

But the first few days of the expedition all I could think was, this is an elegy. Or a eulogy. Or whatever it is that they say at--this is a funeral.

So I guess I wasn't as "wow, gee" about the landscape and all the nature as he was expecting--he kept showing me stuff and getting all worked up and happy about it and all I could think was, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to stare at a big shaggy boring deer-type thing because we are putting Team Fraser-and-Ray in the ground, ashes to ashes, pierogis afterward at Ray's mom's house." I was not the best companion, maybe.

Finally one day he just snapped after I was not excited enough about some lichen. "Ray," he said, and he got that awful sincere concerned look that made it pretty much impossible to lie to him, which I have always thought he does on purpose. "What's wrong? You don't seem to be--enjoying--would you like to go home?"

"No," I said. "No, I don't want to go home. I don't want to go home to the apartment and the turtle and--whatever happens post-Vecchio, okay? I don't want to go back and find out that, hey, for my next assignment the Chicago PD thinks I would make a really convincing Chinese mathematician. I don't want to go home and, and have this be over. This--thing, this you and me thing. But, fuck, it's over, isn't it? Vecchio's back, so you don't need a Vecchio anymore, and--it's dead."

Fraser stepped a little closer and his expression got--different, new, softer. And he said, "I was hoping less for 'death' and more for 'metamorphosis.'"

I opened my mouth to ask him why the hell he was talking about bugs, but then he started--taking off his gloves, okay, something was happening here, so I shut up.

He took off his gloves, slowly, frowning, and put them in his pockets, and then he reached up one hand and sort of wiggled it in between my hat and my scarf, worked it into the edges of both of them until he had his hand flat and warm against my (really scruffy) cheek.

And talking about bugs suddenly made sense because I was pinned like one, all of a sudden I couldn't have moved for anything, his hand was the only real thing, the only thing I could feel, holding me there against the sky we were walking in; so I was quiet and still and just for once waited, and that was a good thing to do, such a good thing, because then he moved closer and kissed me.

I'd dreamed about that. I hadn't dreamed about our week's-worth of stubble grinding against each other's faces, or about my ear feeling like it was going to freeze solid and just fall off where he'd shoved my hat up a little on that side, or about doing this while standing at a Scenic Lichen Overlook, but fuck, it was worth it, it was so worth it, and I moaned and opened my mouth and pressed into him as much as I could with all the poufy layers between us.

I'm not sure how long we were like that, but eventually Dief got a serious grumble going from the front of the sled, and Fraser pulled back, looked at him, said, "You're quite right, shelter first."

And then Fraser--Fraser!--gave me this wicked look, and said, "Then fucking."

Jesus. All the blood left my head and went somewhere else so fast I kind of doubled up at the waist, and I was looking at the dogsled over there and realizing I was over here and that was a problem, and it took me a minute to work out, oh, yeah, walking would solve that.

I staggered over and sat in the sled, and Fraser stood behind me and got us going. After we'd built up some speed I tilted my head back, ground it against him a little and got a nice groan out of him, said, "Fraser?"


"Shelter fast."

"The first decent spot I see, Ray, believe me. Possibly even an indecent spot."

"I sure hope so," I said. And yeah, he found a good spot really, really fast, and then we set some speed records getting the tent up and the dogs taken care of. And then--then we took our time.



It turned out that somebody not being scared of Ray was not actually enough to base a permanent relationship on.

Go figure.

The first few days they were in Florida Ray left all these cheery messages for Fraser at the precinct and the consulate--call me, I gotta talk to you, I got great news, a shiny new thing.

But by the time Fraser got back from his leave, weeks later, and called--there were already a few cracks in the shiny new thing. Cracks from Stella mostly, about did Ray have anything else to talk about besides the magic Mountie and the days of old. And he felt like telling her, yeah, I could tell you about what it feels like to order somebody kneecapped and wonder exactly how much monster you can put on and ever take it off again, and at the same time still feel like it's not ENOUGH and you're probably gonna get found out and shot because when did the Bookman ever mess around with crippling before, when he could have just had the guy's head blown off?

But he thought she might like that less than the Mountie stories.

So Fraser called, and Ray was trying to sound like it was still great when he told him about taking up with Ms. Kowalski.

Ray wasn't expecting to hear Fraser'd taken up with Mr. Kowalski.

Stupid, really. Because Ray knew Fraser swung both ways, or around in a circle, or whatever way it was you weren't supposed to swing. But--

Ray'd kind of thought it had just been for him.

"That's--that's great, Benny," he said, because Fraser really did sound so fucking happy. "Unexpected, okay, but--great."

After he'd made noises like that for a while, Stella was giving him this "What is going on?" look. He handed the phone off to her and Kowalski got on to talk, and wasn't that the weirdest piece of convenience ever, that they could take care of it with one phone call.

" what?" Stella said, and Ray took himself off to bed, because he didn't think he could stand to have that conversation AND a conversation about the conversation on the same night.

He was still awake when she came to bed but pretended not, and he was pretty sure she was pretending to believe him; probably she didn't want to talk about it either.

He would have preferred to be asleep, because what he was doing instead of sleeping was remembering stuff he had tried really hard to forget. Remembering going out for a drink with Benny the night after the thing with the Bolt clan, the one with the explosives and the double poncho and the semaphore. And Benny was so fired up and excited that he actually had a drink, an entire beer, and Ray had, well, too many. Enough that he went beyond bitching about the Ice Queen playfully to--not playfully, to telling Fraser that he needed to stay the hell away from her because she had designs on him, and what was that about? He ought to be thrilled if Benny had a chance of getting some from, okay, kind of a bitch but not a complete psycho at least, and he was drunk enough that he tried to actually explain that, apologize for not being, "Hey, go for it!" even though he wasn't sure why he wasn't. And somewhere in that drunk fucked-up non-explanation they'd left the bar and--he wasn't even sure where his car was, that was how drunk he was, they were walking just randomly down the sidewalk maybe in the wrong direction, and he stopped to ask Fraser to pull out his compass and give him the degrees of his car, but instead what came out was, "What was that last thing you waved at her that made her grin like that?" Huh.

"I told her red suits her, Ray."

"Well, it doesn't," Ray said, "It makes her look big and red and ugly and stupid," and Jesus, when did he go back to third grade?

"Ray," Fraser said reproachfully, and then stopped walking and just stared at him, made an "Aha!" sort of face, but there was nothing for him to "aha" about right now, they weren't mid-case, what?

"Ray," he said, and that was not reproachful voice, that was--what was that? And then Fraser took a step, two steps closer, put a hand on the back of Ray's neck, and--oh, that was the way Fraser said your name when he was about to kiss you, apparently.

He kissed Ray hard, backing him up against a car, and then they both jumped when the car alarm went off; their mouths bashed together and Ray tasted blood.

"Where's my car, Benny?" Ray said, and Benny took out his compass, flipped it open, took the lead. He kept looking back at Ray, but he was quiet for a long time, for Fraser; it wasn't until they reached the Buick and Ray handed him the keys that he came out with, "Ray, that was unfair to spring on you, you're impaired and--"

"Shut up, Benny," Ray said.

Fraser, for once, shut up. For a second.

"Where are we--"

"We're going to your apartment," Ray said. And he could never figure out, later, how exactly sex with Fraser had gone from something he had never even thought of to something he had to have right now, how exactly his brain had gotten totally rearranged in two minutes of kissing and a screaming alarm and blood, but it had, and if Fraser didn't drive faster Ray was going to have to kill him.

The next couple of weeks were really, really strange. Because after that first time he thought, wow, okay, that was weird, got that out of my system and we can go back to normal. Except that the next night there he was in Fraser's apartment again, no excuses left; not even drunk, not even able to say, well, never done that before, I was just curious.

The next night and the next, and during the day he'd be trying to concentrate on paperwork, slogging along at his desk, and Huey would say, "Vecchio, where the fuck is your head?" and he'd snap back to attention to realize he'd actually been sitting there thinking about Fraser under him, the way Fraser moaned and moved, the way sweat collected between his shoulder blades and Ray could lick him there, taste the salt.

So maybe this wasn't some sort of freakish temporary insanity, maybe this was something he actually had been thinking about in some part of his brain where he didn't hear it, maybe this was who Ray was now, this was his life. Which was okay while he was doing the sweat-licking thing, not so much okay while he was at work wondering if Huey could tell he was thinking about the sweat-licking thing, and really not okay when he was eating his Ma's polenta and wondering if she could tell he was thinking about the sweat-licking thing. Jesus.

Those few weeks were at the same time the best thing ever and wrecking Ray's whole damn life. And then dumbass Fraser managed to get his head bashed and his memory fucked up.

And Ray was ashamed of himself. Because in those first few seconds when it got clear to him that Fraser's brain was pretty much wiped, that Ray was just some random guy to him now, he was all concerned about Benny, yeah, but mixed in with that was a surge of relief, of "this never happened, I can go back to being me."

When Fraser got himself back, when Ray could see the guy's whole history landing back in his head--he looked at Ray, and there was nothing mixed up in that look. It was all relief and happiness and lust and good stuff, and Ray had a lot of that too, but--not all of it. Some of what he had was, "Oh, fuck, we're starting this again, I have to be somebody new who's--not who I thought I was." And that was scary and he wasn't sure if he could do it, but he sure as hell couldn't not do it when Benny leaned into him, made offers in his ear that he wouldn't have thought the guy knew how to do let alone how to say.

And that made Ray even more ashamed--that he had all this mixed-up swirling stuff in his head about what they were doing, about the kissing and the fucking, and--it didn't look like, at least, Fraser was mixed up about it at ALL. And Ray wasn't gonna ask him--but he couldn't stand it, the idea that Benny was all the way in this, deserved Ray to be too, and he wasn't, couldn't be, maybe couldn't ever be; and maybe he needed to be somebody else again, a long way from here.

He studied hard on the being somebody else thing. He crammed everything the Feds told him, good and hard, because that was going to keep him alive. Silk suits, check; buttermilk, check; really, really doesn't like to lose, ever, check. But it turned out they didn't know everything, that there were some things the Bookman had played close to his really fucking expensive vest.

Because they'd told him about the four-nights-a-week deal, that one of the things Armando's staff took care of for him was lining up the girls. So he wasn't surprised that first night when he walked into his bedroom and there was a naked woman in his bed, but he was a little worried, because what if things didn't work right, anymore--what if he'd accidentally--converted, or something? But she was hot and seriously good at her job, and Ray worked just fine. Like he did with the next girl and the next girl, and this was a perk he could get used to, because it's not like he could finish up a day of freaking complete terror and just go to sleep anyway, so this was a good way to wind down. And a good way to stop thinking about Fraser--Ray'd already started to figure out, in the first couple of days, that this was probably the stupidest most dangerous thing he'd ever done--but while he was fucking girls he wasn't thinking about fucking Benny, so maybe this dangerous, stupid, stupid thing was at least working.

And then toward the end of that first week he walked into his bedroom, and everything the Feds had impressed on him about not reacting with surprise to anything in the Bookman's life went right out of his head, and he spun on his heel and marched back out into his foyer and yelled at Stevie, "Why the fuck is there a naked guy in my bed?"

And thank god Stevie was the dumbest guy in the entourage, no real competition there. Stevie just blinked at him slowly and said, "Uh, because it's Saturday?"

"Right," Ray said. "Forgot," and bit off the "sorry," because the Bookman didn't do that.

He went back into the bedroom and sat on the end of the bed for a while, put his face in his hands and his elbows on his knees and laughed for a long time, because this reinvention, this new Ray, this forgetting all about Benny, was working out so well. And when the (seriously hot, probably really good at his job) guy said, "Everything okay?" Ray said, "Just great," and started taking off his tie.

The guy gave him a practiced smoldery look from underneath his floppy blond hair and said, "You can call me--"

"Shut up," Ray said. "I'm calling you Benny."



Ray and Stella never quite recovered from that phone call. Ray was really pissed off about how upset she was about it, and he really, really didn't want to talk about how upset he was about it, and Stella was probably doing exactly the same thing.

So it was just a couple of months before they were packing things into separate boxes, again. Ray'd never even gotten all of his unpacked. Stella said she'd find a new place down here, look into selling the bowling alley, let him know how that went. "Thanks," he told her, and didn't know what else to do, so he gave her a hug. They leaned into each other for longer than he expected, and then she said "Be happy, okay?" and he said okay.

He thought he really didn't have a destination when he got on the road, but he found himself heading back to Chicago. He was telling himself he wanted to see Ma and Frannie and all the little Vecchios, and knowing that what he needed to see was how Fraser and Kowalski looked at each other, that he just needed to see that that was real and Fraser was happy and taken care of, and then he'd be fine.

It turned out this was completely wrong. He went to their apartment--both their names on the buzzer and everything, Jesus--and he saw them looking at each other, saw that Fraser was happy and taken care of, and it fucking killed him. Because it had taken Fraser two years to get around to looking at Ray that way and--what, after Ray bailed Fraser just left that look lying around and Kowalski picked it up?

That was totally unfair, that was complete assholery on Ray's part, and he knew that, knew that the proper response was (again) "All right, Benny's getting some! Good for him!" Knew that every time he went over there Kowalski wanted him gone, knew that the best thing he could do for everybody was get gone. And Benny kept inviting him over, and Ray kept showing up.

Ray would sit a little too close to Fraser on the couch, and part of it was just to watch Kowalski twitch and struggle not to say anything about it. But part of it was that Benny smelled so damn good, always looked so happy to have Ray there. And one night Ray was trying to concentrate on the basketball game on tv and it just wasn't working, and he finally stopped fighting it, just reached up and put his hand on the side of Fraser's neck, stroked a thumb across his collarbone in a way that he knew Fraser loved, did Kowalski do that for him?

Fraser jerked in a breath and Kowalski was on his feet, grabbed a fistful of Ray's shirt and yanked him upright. "You're crossing a line, there, Vecchio," he said.

"Crossed that one a long time ago, buddy," Ray said, smiling, and yeah, he knew he was being an asshole but he didn't know he was dropping a bomb.

"You--what?" Kowalski said. He let go of Ray's shirt, flattened his hand on Ray's chest and gave him a shove so he sat back down on the couch hard.

"Him?" he said to Fraser.

"You said that you didn't want to know any details about--previous lovers, Ray, you told me that--"

"I would have wanted to know about him," Kowalski said. "You know I would have wanted that."

"I--yes." Fraser said, and looked at the floor. "I did know that. But I--I didn't want to discuss it. I'm sorry."

Ray really did feel a little bad, seeing the two of them not looking at each other, not passing those gooey glances he'd been having to put up with for weeks. He really did feel some of that. But there was a squirm of dark glee in him too, and he found himself leaning back into Fraser, breathing in the smell of his hair, brushing his lips softly along Fraser's neck.

"Ray, God, what are you--stop," Fraser said, and he sounded confused and angry and miserable, but some other stuff too, and he wasn't moving away, wasn't pushing Ray away, wasn't making him stop. So Ray didn't stop, opened his mouth and sucked a little, got a moan out of Fraser, looked up at Kowalski from under his lashes while he was sucking.

Kowalski looked down at the two of them, at Ray not stopping and Fraser not making him, and said, "You bastard," and Ray wasn't sure which one of them he was talking to. Kowalski shuddered where he stood, then said "Fine," and surprised the hell out of Ray by dropping onto the couch on the other side of Fraser, and, Jesus, bending to kiss Fraser's neck.

After that it was like some really fucked-up game of follow-the-leader, because everything Ray tried Kowalski did too, and then Kowalski would start something and Ray would do it on his side, and the whole time Fraser was looking panicked and bewildered and turned on out of his mind, arching and moaning and gasping out "Ray" over and over, and wasn't that just fucking convenient for him.

Ray noted with satisfaction that Kowalski seemed startled by Fraser's loud response when Ray dragged his teeth gently across Fraser's nipple--ah, hadn't thought of that one, huh? He kept feeling smug as they worked their way down in tandem, peeling Fraser's clothes, nuzzling and nibbling ribs, but when they got his pants and boxers off--tricky, because by that point his hips were rolling, arching off the couch and down again in a sweet rhythm with his gasps--when Ray got his hand around Fraser's cock, Kowalski gave him an eyeroll. Grabbed Ray's wrist hard and Ray's fingers flexed open and Kowalski just dove, just took Fraser's cock into his mouth like--like it was no problem. And Ray wanted to kill him, because Ray had never done that with, for Fraser, because he was too busy thinking about what that would make him, that would make him a cocksucker, wouldn't it? Liking having it done to him was fine, who wouldn't, but if he did it and he liked doing it--and here Kowalski was, sucking cock and liking it, in front of another guy, smiling at him, and the little sign on the buzzer said Fraser and Kowalski, both their goddamn names were on it, and Fraser made a beautiful noise and Kowalski was swallowing, swallowing at Ray, and Ray had never wanted to strangle somebody so much and never felt like such a fucking coward.

He made up for it the next night. He didn't wait to be invited, didn't figure Fraser would call him, just knocked on their Fraser-and-Kowalski door and Fraser let him in, gave him a long unreadable look and said, "Would you like some coffee, Ray?" and Ray grabbed him, pressed him up against the wall, fell to his knees fast and painfully, and was working Fraser's pants down by the time he heard Kowalski walking out of the bedroom behind them.

Ray didn't stop, gave it his best shot and only choked a little, and--yeah, he liked it. Which, it turned out, didn't make him feel less angry at all, because, fuck, it would have been really nice if he could have figured that out a year or so ago, wouldn't it?

Fraser slumped against the wall, shuddering, and behind him Kowalski said, "Nice. Good job. Get out."

Ray silently got to his feet and got out, because maybe that would make Kowalski look at least a little bit like the asshole, here.

He tried to stay away, because this was nuts, this was just not going anywhere good; but the next couple of months he ended up on their doorstep night after night. On their doorstep, on their couch, in their bed, in Fraser. He wasn't doing anything with his days, because he couldn't imagine doing anything but being a cop, and no precinct was going to take him back after that last bullet as anything more than a desk jockey. He sure as hell wasn't going to sit around a station pushing paper and watching guys go out the door on the real jobs; most especially he was never going back to the 2-7, where the guys he'd be watching were Kowalski-and-Fraser. So he was just riding his pension, waiting out the days, sleeping till noon sometimes.

A lot of times he woke up thinking about Fraser, and he was used to that, that was old hat now, and he'd slide his hand down in his pajamas and finish himself off--never took long, with Fraser in his head. But after weeks of whatever this fucked-up thing was, he started waking up thinking about, jerking off to thoughts of Kowalski doing Fraser, and that was new and he didn't like it, and then one afternoon he woke up, hand already on his dick, thinking about doing Kowalski. Jesus.

He went over to their place that night anyway. He couldn't remember the last night that he hadn't, and when Fraser opened the door Ray noticed for the first time that Fraser wasn't looking so great, these days. He'd lost weight, and he was gray under the eyes, and he just looked really--tired.

Fraser wasn't getting to sleep until noon, was he? Fraser was getting--gone at from both sides some nights and passed from Ray to Ray most nights, for hours, because he was--he was the contest and the prize all at once. And that was after standing guard at the Consulate all day, and he never said no, to either of them, because that wouldn't be fair, would it? Ray closed his eyes against the sight of Fraser looking like that, and had a weird moment of hearing his Ma's voice, his Ma staring sadly down at Ray and Frannie and the plastic machine gun they'd just managed to snap in half fighting over it, and saying, "Well, now neither of you gets to play, are you happy?" Jesus.

Ray opened his eyes, opened his mouth to say, "I'm sorry, I'm taking off, going somewhere Colorado Mexico Cuba anywhere," but then Kowalski came up behind Fraser, put his hands on Fraser's hips and his chin on Fraser's shoulder and glared at Ray, and damn it, Ray wasn't going to keep doing this to Fraser but he wasn't going to lose here, either, he really really did not like to lose, ever.

He shouldered past them into the apartment, slammed the door closed behind him, grabbed Kowalski's wrist and pulled him close and kissed him for the first time, just softly. Kowalski gasped and he and Ray both turned to look at Fraser, and Fraser looked--like he was getting it, like he got that this was the only way this fucked-up thing could maybe end up working, he looked hopeful.

Ray grinned, and kissed Kowalski some more, harder, and then Kowalski's hands came up behind his neck and their hips ground together and Ray forgot this was for Fraser, forgot to catalog the ways this was the same as and different from kissing Benny, because something about Kowalski's taste and tongue and slender wiggle in Ray's arms made him think about those boys in Vegas, what they expected from Ray, from Armando. Ray grabbed Kowalski's jeans and spun him around, slammed him against the wall and their teeth knocked together. And the Vegas boys had just taken it, probably they got hazard pay up front, but Kowalski pushed back, dug his hands into Ray's ribs hard enough to bruise, bit at his lips a little, got his hands in the back of Ray's hair and pulled.

Ray groaned--this was good, this was really good, slamming his hips into Kowalski's, Kowalski's head was bouncing off the wall, things were rattling on the bookshelf, Kowalski was grinning at him, and somewhere there was another noise going on and on but Ray couldn't sort it out until a new hand landed on his shoulder and it was Fraser, saying over and over, "Ray, Ray, stop, God, you're hurting each other, stop."

They stopped. They were shivering, shuddering against each other, but they stopped. Ray tried to stop shaking, to get words together that would make Fraser get that it wasn't fighting over him, that it wasn't angry at all, but--fuck, maybe it was. Ray wasn't sure he could tell anymore.

Fraser dropped onto the couch, put his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, said, "I can't keep doing this." And then looked up at the two of them. Ray realized he still had his hands in a death grip in the waistband of Kowalski's jeans. He unclenched them, dropped them, looked at Fraser hard, and couldn't see any decision there.


Fuck. There wasn't any decision there. He wasn't going to decide, because he really, truly couldn't.

This is how stupid I am: I was surprised. Even after the weird shit of the last few weeks. Even after he let Vecchio in, every time, even after he never once turned him down, I had thought--I was the one who came out to Stella for god's sake. I was the one who'd called the phone company to get his name put on the line, too, who'd sat there trying to figure out if the phone company lady's voice changed after I said, "No, wait, don't just put "B. Fraser; it's Benton.'"

I was the one who had to keep working at the station after the guys stopped making fag jokes about me and Fraser. Which meant they'd figured out we actually were. (Well, Dewey never stopped. I guess he thought realism just made it funnier.)

So, yeah. I was surprised.

I let go of Vecchio's shirt. Went and threw a few things in a duffel bag, and Vecchio watched me with a cool blank look and Fraser watched me miserably, but neither of them said anything, Fraser didn't say anything.

Until my hand was on the knob, and then--there were a few things he could have said that might have made a difference, but what he came out with was, "Ray. It's your apartment."

"Not anymore," I said.





Kowalski slammed the door and Ray was alone with Fraser. After a minute Fraser stopped staring at the door and turned to look at Ray, blinked and looked startled.

"Ray--what?" he said, and Ray realized that, fuck, when the door slammed he'd started smiling, which had to look strange to Fraser. He shook himself and rearranged his face quickly, sat down on the couch and put his arm around Fraser. "Sorry," he said. "I'm just glad you didn't kick me out." He pulled gently until Fraser's head was on his shoulder, started stroking his hair. "I'm sorry I fucked things up," he said. "I just, I want to stay with you, Benny, I want to be with you." He kept talking, and Fraser leaned against him for a long time. Ray talked until his throat hurt and the arm behind Fraser's shoulders had gone numb, and finally, finally Fraser raised his head up and kissed him.

They had three good weeks, after Kowalski left. Well, not quite good, but they were getting there. Ray was doing every damn thing he could think of to please Fraser, including (this time) remembering to let the guy sleep once in a while. And he found masking tape and a Sharpie in the junk drawer, went downstairs and taped over the words by the buzzer, took a deep breath and wrote "Fraser and Vecchio" on it.

Frasser smiled a little at that when he saw it, the first real smile Ray'd seen out of him when they weren't fucking. And he seemed to be going off somewhere else in his head less, and over the next few days, when they were fucking and Fraser was panting "Ray," in his ear, Ray was pretty sure he actually meant Ray.

Then it somehow all went wrong, over a poker game.

Nobody invited Fraser to those anymore, because they didn't want to have to play for candy or matches. So Ray went alone, and came home really flush with cash and grinning like a loon--not that he needed the money, it had just been so hilarious.

He was recapping the game for Fraser, and he could see Fraser figuring odds for different hands in his head and nodding at Ray kind of proudly, because Ray'd gotten pretty damn good at the game, playing the Bookman entourage all the nights there wasn't a naked somebody waiting. "And so then Dewey thought I was bluffing, the dumbass, and when we laid the cards down he stood up and kicked his chair over and said, 'That was my fucking car payment.'"

Ray tossed the big wad of cash on the kitchen table, couldn't stop smiling, said, "They're probably going to repossess his car, the dumb fuck."

Fraser, though--Fraser wasn't nodding any more. He was just looking at Ray, eyes wide, and then he said, "Oh," and dropped into one of the kitchen chairs. And said, "That's not really a happy smile, is it?"

"What?" Ray said, and his stomach was getting cold, because something had just shifted, something was going badly wrong, here, and he had no idea what it was.

"It's not even an 'I won' smile," Fraser said. "It's a 'somebody else lost' smile."

"What are you talking about?" Ray said.

Fraser looked up at him and Ray's knees almost buckled, because that was the worst look he had ever seen from Fraser in all the years he'd known him, just a destroyed look, a my-best-friend-died look, what the hell?

But when Fraser opened his mouth, all he said, softly, sadly, was, "Get out."



I could hear it was Fraser coming across the room, but I wouldn't look up until he was standing in front of my desk.

Everybody got really quiet, and I shot some glares around until all the guys at nearby desks got up and left.

"What?" I said. "Kind of busy here."

"I know," he said. "It's just--you haven't answered my messages."

"Yeah, well, Ye Olde Budget Motel is not great about giving them to me," I said. Which was true, but I wouldn't have answered them anyway.

"Ray, you shouldn't even be there, I already paid the next month's rent on your apartment, I can clear out of it in a matter of hours, you should--"

"Fraser. Why are you here?"

He sagged a little. "I just wanted you to know that Ray was gone."

I breathed evenly. "Is there something you expect me to do about that?"

"I neither expect nor deserve it, no."

Extra-formal. He was really fucked up. Good.

"I just thought you should know--what I meant was, Ray's been gone. He was the only person who I ever would have let--do that to us, to you, and--he was never even there."

"You wanna translate that out of crazy for me, Frase?"

"The person that I knew, before. That I--loved--"

He must have noticed my flinch, because he stopped, fidgeted with his hat, said, "Past tense, Ray. He's--different, now, and I have every reason to believe will remain so, and--there's nobody else, I would never let anybody else--there's just you, Ray."

"Thanks," I said. "Good of you to let me know. I've got a lot to do here, Frase."

He ducked his head, stood silent for a minute and then walked off.

I tried to sit tight. I really did. I held on to the edge of my desk, and wrapped my ankles around the legs of my chair, and thought about pride, and spines, and--limits.

And then I muttered, "Who am I kidding?" and got up and walked after Fraser. Because apparently I don't have any of those things.

I caught up with him just outside the station, and he whirled around at my hand on his shoulder, gave me a look that had about fifteen things going on in it but one of them was hope.

He opened his mouth a couple of times but couldn't seem to get anything out, finally managed, "Duet, Ray?"

"Sure," I said, and shrugged. "I set 'em up, you fuck me over."

"God, Ray," he said. "I'm so sorry."

"Yeah," I said. "Let's go home."





Sleeping until noon turned into three and then to seven, which left him awake all night watching infomercials. But they were actually kind of funny when he was drunk, and he'd found a liquor store that delivered. A great concept to begin with, and then it turned out that the delivery guy on Tuesday and Thursday nights had a sort of sideline going, would stay a few minutes for an extra twenty.

The guy kept a little throw rug rolled up in his backpack, to spare his knees. Talk about prepared.

So Ray had almost no reason to ever leave his apartment. About the only time he did, now, was for Sunday dinner at the Vecchios. He wondered how long he'd keep doing even that, though, because it was pretty obvious that he made everybody nervous, even Ma, that they had a hard time figuring out what to talk about when he was there. They didn't ask any more questions about Vegas (because one time he'd answered them) and they didn't talk about Stella or about Fraser; apparently he hadn't responded to those questions well either.

So, lately, all they talked about was long-ago stories, which everybody seemed comfortable with. Little-kid Ray stories, and high-school Ray stories, Ray on the basketball team and Ray learning to drive and Ray's first job bagging groceries.

He nodded, and smiled, and laughed at the right places in the stories, and thought: Sounds like a nice guy. Wish I could have brought him back for you.