Disclaimer: he guys, wolf, etc. belong to Alliance.
Author's Notes: This story takes place after series two, but carries on in complete denial of series three and four.
Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman Benton Fraser forced himself not to look at the clock again. How many minutes had passed since he'd last looked? Too few. Of course, he wouldn't know exactly how many unless he indulged himself and took another peek. And in the interest of perfect knowledge... Seven minutes. And this wasn't peeking, this was staring. Staring hard. Eight minutes. Nine. He blinked hard as his eyes watered under the strain, warping the image of the timepiece on the wall, then kept blinking until the clock cleared in his vision again.
"Constable." Was that for him? "Constable Fraser." Lieutenant Welsh moved to stand before him, deliberately blocking the view. Ben slowly raised his head.
"Go home, Constable."
"Go home." Ben nodded obediently, stood, felt light-headed, sat once again. Welsh sighed, shook his head.
"I'll leave as soon..."
"Do that, Constable." Welsh paused, his well-worn expression appearing particularly...well worn. For the first time since Ben had known him the man looked his age. Older. How many minutes older? He squinted past Welsh to see the clock. Another nine minutes.
"I'll be going now, Sir," Ben assured him, this time standing slowly and avoiding the buzz. As he walked from the squad room he was aware of the glances, could almost read the minds. But this wasn't giving up, this was a tactical withdrawal before Welsh had him physically removed.
The brisk chill of early evening Chicago wrapped itself around the Mountie as he left through the 27th Precinct's parking lot. Ben found himself staring again. To one side of the lot, tucked away, 'Evidence' stickers generating their own exclusion zone around it, stood a green 1971 Buick Riviera. His feet automatically took him to the car, and beneath his impassive exterior he was in turmoil as he scanned it, looking for... There was nothing about the appearance of this car that was not permanently committed to his memory. A patrolman had found it in an alley six days ago, the fresh damage to the left wing leading to the conclusion that it had been forced off of the road. The engine was cold to the touch at that point, denoting a time lapse between 'The Incident' and the car's discovery. The vehicle was empty, the driver's door hanging open. There was no sign of the driver, just a faint smear of blood on the steering wheel. No sign of Detective Raymond Vecchio.
Ben turned away, swallowing hard at the nausea, battling to force it back down into the hollow pit of his gut. Ray...
Two weeks ago Ray had been lauded as a hero, his actions instrumental in bringing the perpetrators of a massive drugs ring to justice. This had been one of the few occasions since the inception of their friendship that Ray had managed to keep Ben at a distance; his concerns had been vehemently presented - with even more force than one of the vociferous detective's usual tirades - and Ben had respected his wishes, albeit paying scant attention to his own work as he accompanied his friend in spirit if not in body. The pride he felt when Ray successfully brought in the top echelon of the ring still warmed him when he focused on the memories.
"You understand why I had to leave you out of this, don't you, Benny?" Ray had asked as he drove Ben home after all the fuss at the Station House had died down. "These were scary people and I didn't want you in the firing line."
"I understand, Ray. But if I used the same argument you'd never be able to do your job."
"That's right, my job. My job. I've had enough worrying about you because we're both doing my job."
"You listen to me, Benny. I had hair before you turned up. You have single-handedly worried my follicles to death."
"Didn't anyone ever tell you it's not polite to interrupt?"
"Good thing." They sat in silence until they reached Ben's apartment on West Racine. Ray parked up but didn't make a move to leave the car.
"We're friends, Benny. Best friends - you started that, not me."
"Best friends, Ray."
"And one of the ideals of friendship is not to let your best friend get hurt. Or worse."
Ben bit back the dozens of logical rejoinders that sprung to the tip of his tongue and kept quiet. He realised without it being spelt out to him that aspects of this case had frightened Ray badly, and Ray was by nature a brave man. Ben decided to bide his time, knowing that after a few routine cases Ray would be bored driving around by himself and they could return to normal - normal being unofficial partners.
Ben had noticed that Ray was unusually edgy for a day or two after the drugs bust, but he'd eventually stopped looking over his shoulder and everything felt fine. Better than fine. It wasn't often that Ray got something so right that there wasn't a word of criticism levelled at him from any quarter, but this time he'd cracked it, and he was as good-humoured as Ben had ever known him. Six days ago he'd dropped Ben and Diefenbaker off at the Consulate before heading for the Precinct headquarters, and the last mundane conversation echoed through Ben's mind repeatedly.
"Have a good day, Benny. Take care of yourself."
"I'm rarely in great peril at the Consulate, Ray."
"Hey, don't cheek the cop," Ray had grinned. "I've never known anyone who could find trouble like you, Benny." Ben had smiled back, declining to be drawn into a spat, however jovial. "Be a good Mountie and I'll pick you up the usual time, okay?" Ben thanked him kindly, mentally acknowledging that the question was delivered like an order he wouldn't dream of disobeying. "And you, be a good wolf and look after the Mountie." Ray started to drive away, rolled a few feet then braked, waiting until Ben came over and was framed in the opening of the passenger side window.
"We'll do something special later. Your choice if it doesn't include ice or ruin a suit!"
And with a casual wave he'd left.
At a little after midday Ben had received a phone call at the Consulate from Detective Jack Huey, asking whether Ray was with him. At the sound of those deliberately nonchalant words Ben's stomach had somersaulted. Inspector Thatcher had been professionally concerned and allowed him to leave for the Station House immediately. When he arrived the squad room was full of personnel, the atmosphere wired; Ben wandered through the cacophony in a daze to Ray's vacant desk where he sat in what he took for granted as 'his' chair. His inactivity had not lasted long though: it took five minutes for the reality of the situation to sink in, then he was presenting himself to Welsh, demanding (in his own particularly polite Canadian way) to be a part of the investigation.
At two-forty that afternoon the Riv had been found and Ben had ridden with Huey to the crime scene. Just thinking of it as 'The Crime Scene' had shaken Ben deeply, and the sight of the damaged, abandoned Riv was more distressing than he ever could have imagined it would be. Ray loved this car, felt safe cocooned within it, *shouldn't have been alone in it*. They stood back and watched as the scene was photographed prior to the car being moved to a location where it would be tested and scrutinised for any forensic evidence; once they were allowed closer it was only Huey's quick reactions that stopped Ben touching his fingers to the blood on the steering wheel.
As they rode back to the 27th Ben's mind created scenario after scenario, trying to explain the blood with a minimum of damage to Ray, even attempting a version of events that saw the perpetrator being hurt instead of the victim. Victim. Ray as a victim didn't equate. This was Ray Vecchio he was thinking about.
Six days. Not a whisper, not a rumour, not a hint of a sighting since. The usual informants had proven reticent to become involved; even Ray's long-standing snitches had backed off so far you needed binoculars to find them. And all the while there was an undercurrent that whispered about drug gangs and retribution; it would have taken a brave man to mention aloud that as there was no ransom note they may as well assume that Detective Vecchio had been murdered to set an example, but it didn't stop people thinking it. Ben saw it in the eyes of the other detectives before they looked quickly away, determined not to expose their fears to the observant Mountie: after all, this could have been any one of them.
And now Ben walked, deliberately counting his steps to prevent his mind drifting, finding himself automatically heading for the Vecchio house where Diefenbaker patiently waited with the fraught family. No. No, he couldn't face them: they expected too much of him, needing him to turn off his own emotions and concentrate on comforting or reassuring them, and he was too tired for that: worn down and aching to his bones, desperate for sleep yet scared to doze in case he missed...anything. But he was nothing if not a realist, and he picked up his pace as he made for West Racine, knowing that he had to make himself eat and make himself sleep and make himself ready for another painful day.
Well, you can force a meal down your throat but you can't switch off and sleep to order. Ben sighed in the darkness, stretched out and fidgeting restlessly on his bed, unable to find a comfortable position that would ease any of the aches he'd accumulated. He counted the cracks that laced the ceiling, guessed by the sound of the engines the make of the cars passing outside, strained to listen to every word of the songs coming from an overloud radio on the floor below his. But every diversion led back to Ray. Was he alive, was he hurt, was he alone? Alone was a painful concept for Ben now; a state he'd lived in - accepted without consideration - for most of his life, one he thought he'd become conditioned to until Ray had wormed his way into his affections. Having opened his heart to the cop and his family (for, he quickly learnt, they came as a unit) the concept of returning to loneliness was frightening.
"I'd know if he were dead," Ben told the stillness, sure that the cracking of his voice on the final word was a result of dehydration, as opposed to an emotional weakness on his part. "I'd know..." The words, now whispered, slid into the gloom. Did he believe that? Was the link between them so robust that... A single tear crept from the corner of Ben's eye and slid down the side of his face. Because he was tired. Tired. Not emotionally unstable, not now, not when Ray needed him to be particularly strong. He was tired. He turned his face so the moisture was absorbed into the pillow. Tried to relax, closed his eyes, felt the loneliness rush in to suffocate him.
Six days. In a few hours time it would be a week. Then a fortnight. Then a month. Then, maybe...maybe the rest of his life.
Ben didn't know he'd fallen asleep until he woke up. It had only been a couple of hours, but it was much-needed rest and, thankfully, it had been dreamless. He sat on the edge of his bed and wondered about the day ahead: Station House or Consulate? Or perhaps another day following his own instincts? Re-phrase that - another fruitless day following his own instincts. He wasn't sure he could bear much more of this. He'd never know fear to be so...physical. But now he felt it weighing down every limb, coursing through every vein, clogging every pore.
"Be strong," he told himself, then said it again inside his head, using Ray's voice. Of course, then it had to have 'Benny' on the end. Or a mispronounced Frasier. Why hadn't he ever stopped that? Because he didn't want to put an end to the familiarity of it. Ben smiled, swallowed hard, felt the emptiness carry on eating away at him. Now... He would collect Dief and go to the Consulate, find things to occupy himself. If he was no use to Ray he may as well be use to someone; Inspector Thatcher probably had a list of duties as long as her arm for him. If there was news, Huey would call. From the Station House. Or the hospital.
Or the morgue.
It was still dark as he approached the Vecchio house, and he wasn't at all surprised to see a light burning in the front window: since Ray had gone missing there was always someone up at night, ready, waiting, and Ben felt an affinity with his adopted family that he would never have credited a week ago. It was still hard to enter the house as if he had any right to be there though, and he turned his key over and over in his fingers, deciding whether or not to use it. He could tap on the window. Sure, frighten whoever was sitting there out of their wits. A light in the sky caught his eye as he stood deliberating, and he glanced up in time to see the final moments of a shooting star, unconsciously smiling to himself because Ray believed in the power of shooting stars and the wishes they bequeathed. He remembered their discussion about the phenomena, with Ray's argument being on the lines of he believed it so as far as he was concerned it was true. Logic flew out of the window when Ray believed in something. Or believed in someone.
"I wish Ray would come back," Ben murmured as he stared at the spot where the star had disappeared. "I wish Ray would come back."
Then he was aware of a commotion inside the house and the extraordinary sight of an entire family of Vecchios trying to exit the front door at precisely the same moment.
"Benton," Mrs Vecchio's voice cut through the din. "Benton, they're taking him to the hospital,"
"Ray? Ray's been found?" Ben asked stupidly as she reached his side.
"Thrown out of a car at the 27th," the detective who had been keeping the family company filled in as she passed them.
There was another strident family conference at the cars when decisions were hastily made about who was staying, who was going, and Ben found himself being manhandled into the back of the unmarked squad car. But all he could focus on was the mantra rushing through his mind: 'Ray's alive, Ray's alive, Ray's alive...'
It was hours later when the fuss finally died down: the Vecchios had been filed past their damaged loved one, reassured and dispatched for some much-needed sleep after a week of hell; unsatisfactorily vague preliminary statements had been cajoled from the withdrawn cop. Now Ben was able to take his place at Ray's bedside. He stood studying the sleeping form: his friend was thinner, unshaven, seemingly covered in one massive bruise, but he was alive, and in one, albeit battered, piece. Ben's pounding heart began to calm, the loneliness trickled away, the panic subsided. He placed one hand carefully over Ray's bony fingers.
"You know, Ray," he whispered, "you were right about shooting stars." He paused, smiled a relieved smile. "I hope you can hear this; I know how much you like to be right."
Ray's fingers twitched and Ben took them into his hand, relishing the contact, watching as Ray fought to open his eyes. It took a while for him to focus on the Mountie, but Ben was a patient man.
"Benny," Ray whispered coarsely.
Ray didn't respond to the smile Ben offered him. His brow winkled, pain filled his expression; when he spoke his voice was broken.
There was more waiting, much more, before Ray was in a condition to explain his earlier words. He insisted on Ben being present when he gave a full statement to Welsh, Huey and Dewey. Ray explained how the Riv had been forced from the road the previous week and how he had fought against the men dragging him from the driver's seat before being beaten senseless, eventually waking up tied to a chair in a cold, dark cellar. His captors hadn't spoken to him for days, punishing his demands for information and tirades of insults with further beatings, causing him to lose consciousness several times. It was only yesterday when he had been addressed and 'sentenced'. The assumption that the drugs mafia had somehow been involved proved correct, but it hadn't been enough for them to kill Ray, to cripple him, or even to force drugs on him until he was addicted and facing the pain and trauma of withdrawal - all punishments that had been utilised before with troublesome cops.
"They shot me up," Ray admitted with more than a little difficulty.
"The doctor says the tox screen is negative," Welsh assured him.
"They're looking for the wrong thing." Ray ran his hands over his shorn head, a quick, desperate gesture. "Blood." The word was barely audible. Ray cleared his throat, tried again. "Blood. They shot me up with blood. Infected... Y'know... AIDS." The stunned silence that met Ray's statement seemed to gel around the men, unbroken until Ray's quiet voice reiterated his earlier statement: "I'm dead."
Only now did he look up, prepared to make eye contact, and it was Ben he looked to. The Mountie was uncharacteristically silent, but Ray watched as turbulent emotions churned under the barely contained facade, wondering if he would see much the same expression on his own face if he found a mirror right now.
"I'll talk to the doctor," Welsh muttered as he headed for the door.
"Can you give us anything?" Huey demanded the moment Welsh was out of earshot.
"A place, a name?"
"Someone we can pin down and kick the living shit out of?" Dewey fumed.
"Gimme some time to think. See if anything comes back. I've still got a thick head, you know?"
More time passed, filled with conversations about further blood screening and offers of counselling. Ray listened patiently at first, refused everything, rapidly began to lose patience.
"I think Detective Vecchio would appreciate some time alone," Ben eventually stepped in, recognising the danger signs of Ray on a short fuse. He ushered everyone from the room, pausing in the doorway and glancing back at his friend. "Would you like me to..."
"Stay," Ray finished vehemently.
Ben stepped back inside the room, feeling the silence settle once again. Ray sat hunched in the bed, knees drawn up, arms tightly hugging them; Ben wondered how to comfort Ray, wished he was better at dealing with life's emotional content. He crossed to the bed and gestured.
Ray gave a tiny nod and Ben sat on the edge of the bed. It had been easy enough to take Ray's hand when he was asleep, why not now? He started to raise a hand, dropped it, felt useless. Ray glanced at him, then away again as quickly, but not before Ben had registered the despair and fear. The loneliness. Ben raised his hand a second time, gently ran the back of his fingers along the bones of Ray's wrist, didn't miss the sharp intake of breath. Ben wanted - needed - to hold his friend, as much for his own sake as for Ray's, but as he started to reach out his courage deserted him. He rested his hand on the hump made by Ray's knees. Ray's head slowly turned and drooped until his brow was pressed to the back of Ben's hand, and Ben was painfully aware of the tears dripping onto his skin.
Ray stood gazing out over the blank expanse of white, not actually focused on any one thing, just allowing himself to be lost in the sheer desolation of the icy landscape.
"Ray. Come in now," came Ben's voice from behind him. "Ray?"
Ray savoured a deep breath that seemed to freeze every last scrap of oxygen in his lungs, then turned and followed Ben back into the warmth of the cabin. As he peeled off the outer layers of windcheater and coat Ray hummed softly to himself; for the last two weeks Ben had waited for the expected outburst of understandable fury but it had never emerged. Ray was introverted, preoccupied with his own thoughts, unnervingly quiet except for the semi-tuneless humming that Ben didn't think Ray knew he was doing. When Ben had suggested they come to the cabin for some time out he had braced himself for the usual rapid-fire sarcasm at the expense of all things Canadian; Ray had mentally deliberated for a few minutes before answering with, 'Sure, Benny', and a hint of a smile.
Ben served up their food and called Ray to the table. The companionable silence that once calmed Ben's nerves now grated because of its prolonged length, and he was determined to draw Ray into a conversation, whatever it took. He'd made pasta and one of Ray's favourite sauces, deliberately unbalancing the seasoning and using the wrong herbs: a month ago Ray would have considered this a capital offence, and Ben waited with anticipation for even a hint of the usual reaction. Ray ate a first mouthful, paused. Then carried on eating without comment.
"This isn't quite right, is it, Ray?" Ben prompted.
"Too much basil." There was no basil in it and Ray would have known that by the aroma before he even got a forkful to his mouth.
"Maybe," Ray answered evenly, and Ben felt defeat twist at his gut. He wanted the real Ray back. The wonderfully irrational Ray who would throw up his hands in horror at the thought of vegetarian lasagne and sneer at the man who couldn't tell fresh pasta from dried.
After dinner they sat by the fire, sipping hot toddies that Ben had prepared with liberal doses of brandy from the morning's trip to the stores. Getting a man drunk to make him talk was underhand and inexcusable and Ben was counting on it. Ray wasn't a big drinker - barely a drinker at all - just maybe a glass of wine with dinner, a beer when the guys came round to play poker, so there was every chance that a generous dousing of alcohol would undermine his defences. Ben had felt cheap and nasty when he considered his intentions, but the ever-present desperation tipped the balance: how could he help if Ray wouldn't talk?
When Ray finally did loosen up, a little before midnight, what he chose to break his silence with wasn't at all what Ben had expected.
"Benny...Benny, can I ask you for something?"
"If it gets really bad can we come back here?"
"If I'm ill and dying and I can't stand it anymore. I could just go out there..." He vaguely waved a hand at the door, "...and walk until I dropped. You said hypothermia wasn't a bad way..."
"It isn't going to come to that, Ray," Ben tried to make his voice sound positive but it simply exposed his anxiety.
"But if it did." Ray's eyes met Ben's and held them for the first time in weeks. "You wouldn't let me go on suffering and suffering, would you?" Ben's mouth could barely form words. "I don't think..."
"Who else can I ask, Benny? Who can I trust?"
"You should have taken the test," Ben finally managed to force out, "and then at least you would have had some..."
"I'd just had an AIDS test for work, not even two weeks before."
"But a fresh one could have..."
"What difference would it have made? I've still got to wait six months for a reliable result." Ray paused, thought, groaned. "Six months. I don't know how I'm gonna go six months not knowing if it's in me."
"You could still be clear. Listen to me, Ray..."
"No, Benny, not this time. I can't listen to you trying to make me feel better because it breaks my heart to hear you lying through your teeth."
"I'm not lying."
"But you don't know. We don't know. Do we?"
Ben struggled for a moment before admitting the truth. "No. We don't know." Ray smiled fondly and took another mouthful of his drink. "Why have you been trying to get me drunk, Benny?"
"So you'd talk to me," Ben admitted sheepishly.
Ray let out a sharp laugh. "That'll teach you! What exactly were you hoping to hear?" Ben shrugged. "Not what you got."
"The doctor said you were in shock. That talking would help, and as you refused a counsellor..." Ben's voice faded away to nothing as, for the first time, he logically considered what he would have to listen to if Ray decided to unburden himself. Now he was being honest with himself he conceded that he was frightened, and his greatest fear was that he would not be strong enough for his friend to rely on.
"Okay. What would you like to talk about?" Ray asked deliberately.
"How do you feel about going back to work?" fell out of Ben's mouth. Very clever. This was one of the questions he had planned on cunningly working around to. Never drink if your mouth's driving, Benton Fraser.
"Going back to work..." Ray mused, and despite the relaxed tone of his voice Ben knew him well enough to see the tension twitch through his body.
"There are a lot of people who will be glad to see you," Ben offered.
"And a lot of people who'll think I..." The tension crept into Ray's voice and he bit it back, bit the words back, took another sip of brandy.
"Who'll think what?" Ben sat up, moving a little closer to Ray. "What will they think, Ray?"
"That I got this illness another way."
"You haven't definitely..."
Ben hung his head, reminded himself yet again to drop the comforting platitudes.
A long pause ensued. Ray tried to get back to the calm place. Ben topped up their drinks - neat alcohol this time, no pretence of a cheerfully harmless hot toddy.
"Who will think you got it another way?" Ben eventually asked.
Ray shrugged, knocked the brandy back in one go and poured more. "People."
"Anyone whose opinion matters knows what happened to you."
"Yeah, but in six months, it'll just be, 'Vecchio's got AIDS' and a whole heap of conclusions being jumped to."
"They'll think I'm gay, Benny, and I'll be harassed by some, ostracized by others, but won't be able to trust any of them to back me up on the street ever again. You know what cops are like. Hell, what people are like." Ben drew breath to speak and Ray jumped back in. "And don't give me any bull about logic or setting people straight - no pun intended - or enlightened views that nobody in the entire Chicago PD has ever heard of."
"I can't believe..."
"Don't second-guess me over people I know better than you ever will!" Ray shouted as he struggled to his feet, needing to pace, fighting and losing to the huge swell of anger he'd been bottling up since that needle had slid into his vein. "Shit, shit, shit! I don't deserve this, Benny, I don't fucking deserve this! My whole stinking life I've played their games and been so damn careful, I've been so fucking careful. I don't deserve to be ill. I've been so fucking careful!"
Ray crossed and threw open the cabin door, storming out into the frigid air. Ben was after him in seconds, turning back immediately to pull boots onto his sock-clad feet, hoping the time he had no choice but to take would not be crucial.
"Ray! Ray, wait!"
Ray didn't get far. He'd not left the cabin after sundown before now and the unexpectedly ferocious cold knocked the fight from his system in seconds. He stopped walking and stared at the dark, feeling drunk and very pitiful. Shit, he was freezing to death here! Where was his coat? Where were his boots? Where was his Mountie?
"Ray," came the familiar voice as he was bundled up in a blanket and ushered back to the cabin. "You know how quickly a man can succumb to the elements here. I don't care how angry you get, you don't walk off."
"Understood," weakly Ray parroted Ben's typical response, limply allowing himself to be manoeuvred to the fire. Ben vigorously rubbed the wiry arms and bony hands, forcing the blood to circulate.
"How are your feet?"
"No, no, kidding. Warming up. I'm warming up. You can leave some skin." Ben looked down to where he was frantically massaging Ray's fingers. And stopped. But he didn't let go. "I'm a very morose drunk," Ray told Ben carefully before squinting hard at his friend. "On the other hand, you are a very sober drunk."
"You scared me sober."
Ray looked down at where their hands were still joined and a wash of emotion threatened to drown him. He murmured a few choked words that Ben struggled to hear.
"What was that, Ray? I didn't..."
"No-one..." Ray swallowed at the lump in this throat. "I'm never gonna have this again," he whispered. "Not a touch... No-one's ever gonna want to hold me again."
The ingrained reserve that had been hampering Ben buckled at the tortured words, and he gently pulled Ray to him, holding him close and wishing he could leech the pain from him. He felt Ray's arms slowly encircle him, his head fall onto his shoulder.
"No, Ray, no," he insisted vehemently, "that's not true, it's not true."
"Who's gonna want me?" The words were muffled but still clear enough to tug at Ben's heart.
"You're a fine person, and it would take some kind of fool not to see that because of an illness."
Ray's head lifted. "But it's not an illness. It's the illness." He took a deep breath and a step back from the embrace. "I gotta sit down. Any more brandy?"
"I'll get you some." Ben retrieved Ray's glass and topped it up, making tea for himself and pouring a little of the hot water onto the brandy to evaporate some of the alcohol. "Here."
Ben was halfway back to the chair he had occupied earlier when he changed direction and sat at the opposite end of the couch from Ray. He approved of his actions, hoping that the instincts that had guided him well for years were getting over the shock of the past month and kicking in. He was close enough to be of comfort to Ray, not too close to stifle. Now the protracted silence was welcome and calming, and the alcohol he'd consumed earlier began to take effect; Ben slid down in his seat, finding a well-worn snug spot in the corner of the couch and settling into it, resting his head back and closing his eyes. He was almost asleep when Ray cleared his throat, asking for attention in as polite a way as he knew.
"Ray?" Ben rolled his head in Ray's direction, peering through half-closed eyes.
"Can I tell you?" Ray didn't look like he wanted to tell anyone anything: his face was tense, his expressive eyes troubled. Ben sat up and gave him a reassuring smile. "I tried to fight them, you know that? You know I wouldn't just let something...happen."
"I was strapped in that chair all the time - they wouldn't let me up for anything, I mean anything. Jeez, I couldn't stand the stink of me..." He paused, angry at his embarrassment, at having to tell his best friend this. "It was one of those big wooden chairs with the arms, you know?" Ben nodded. "Bolted to the floor. And my arms were strapped to its arms. On that last day they came and tightened the binding on my left arm with tape so I couldn't move it at all. You see, they didn't want me wriggling it around so they'd have to hurry." The memory forced Ray to a halt once more and it was all Ben could do not to move closer and take a grip on the hands that were shaking with the telling. "When this guy explained what was going to happen I freaked. I was screaming and struggling and he laughed, Benny. He laughed. And then he was coming with that needle and he pushed it into the vein on the back of my hand. Real slow. Real slow because he was enjoying it so much. And I watched him press the plunger and empty that shit into me. Real slow because he was enjoying it so much."
Ray drank, holding the glass in both hands to steady it. Ben wanted to say something but knew anything coming him from would be insufficient, and if by some stroke of unlikely genius he could find the right words he didn't trust his voice to be able to say them without betraying his emotions. So he shifted a little closer to Ray and left his hand between them. In case it was needed. He selfishly hoped it would be needed. Drink finished, Ray put the glass aside and turned back to Ben, eyes flickering down to take note of the offered hand.
"I knew I was watching my life end, Benny. The life I knew. And a totally bizarre thought came into my head. You wanna know what?" Ben nodded again. "Why couldn't this have happened before I knew you. Because before you my life was a total fuck-up and it wouldn't have mattered."
"It would have mattered," Ben contradicted him automatically.
"Now it matters. You turned my life around..."
"All right, you made me turn my life around. And I'm a better person for knowing you. And now I'm dead." Ray made a fist and pounded the arm of the couch, accompanying the action with a string of expletives. Then he stopped as suddenly as he had started, breathing heavily. Without looking he clutched at where Ben's still hand lay between them, catching it at the second attempt, visibly calming as his grasp was reciprocated. "I'm sorry..."
"I'm so goddamned tired. Can we talk more tomorrow?"
"If it's what you want."
Ray gave a weary nod. "It helps. I think it helps."
Ray sat forward on the couch and slowly rose, holding onto Ben's hand until it was physically impossible to do so any longer and stand up straight. He weaved around behind the couch, headed for the bed, stopping and laying his hand affectionately on Ben's head for a moment.
"I love you, Benny."
Tears sprang to Ben's eyes. "And I you, Ray."
Ben waited until Ray was in bed and his breathing even in sleep before kicking out his bed roll in front of the smouldering fire. His insides were still churning from Ray's words, and the injustice bit hard into him: such a friendship was rare and he was going to lose it because some bastard... No, he reprimanded himself firmly, be positive. He had to be optimistic for Ray. The next six months were due to be hell. Be strong. Be strong.
Despite Ray's indication that they would talk the next day, apart from a few basic necessities the silence returned for the best part of a week. Ben understood more now and didn't press his friend to speak, just made sure he was there whenever Ray needed him. He was aware that Ray was becoming more dependent on him, wanting to know where he was, or was going, what his plans were for the forthcoming hours; he also noticed that of an evening Ray was gradually inching his way along the couch to him, sitting slightly closer and making himself more comfortable with each passing day. Ben didn't mind, indeed he felt flattered that Ray chose him to turn to. It made him feel...family.
"Y'know, Benny, sometimes I just want to scream." Ray was staring out at the swirling snow again, his body language tranquil despite his words.
"Well..." Ben joined him at the window. "If you waited until the snow stopped, wrapped up warmly, used snowshoes and took all necessary precautions, you could take one of the trails and find enough privacy to do just that."
"I bet nobody ever accused you of being spontaneous," Ray grinned.
"In fact... Sorry."
"Sorry. No, not sorry." Ben took a deep breath and began again. "I'll stop apologising. I know you find it a fault."
"It's not a fault."
"It's a fault."
"You have no faults, you're perfect."
"Hardly, Ray. On more than one occasion you've called me the most irritating man in the world."
"Sure, but you have it down to perfection." Ben deliberated whether to take advantage of Ray's apparent good mood; Ray watched the mental deliberation with amusement: he could read this guy like a book. Well, almost. "Ask it."
"What you want to ask. Or do I need to be soused for it?"
"Something you said..."
Ben stopped as Ray's smile faded and a glimmer of the haunted touched his eyes.
"It can wait."
"Ask the question. What did I say?"
Ben turned his back on the window, leaning against the wall and re-running the words in his head.
"'My whole stinking life I've played their games and been so damn careful.' Whose games?"
Ray let out a snort of laughter. "Oh, yeah, I need to be drunk. Hugely drunk. Get the bottle out tonight and you may have half a chance. You may even find out what I did to get kicked out of Marcia Kebble's birthday party."
So, several hours later Ben did just that, fixing hot toddies and not being surprised by the look of irritation Ray gave him when he placed one in front of him after dinner.
"We're not going there, Benny."
No. If he was honest, Ben didn't think they would be.
"You mean I have to get in touch with Marcia Kebble personally?"
Ray deflated at that, shook his head, sipped his drink.
"Think we should go home?" he asked after a few minutes.
"Are you ready to?"
"The family..." Ray muttered half-heartedly. "And don't you miss Dief?"
"Yes, I do. But we both understood why you and I needed this time alone." They sat through another empty pause. "Should I start securing the cabin tomorrow?"
"No. I don't want to go home. Ever. Is that practical?"
"I wouldn't imagine so."
"A few more days then?"
Ben agreed with a smile, collected the brandy bottle and headed for the couch. Ray automatically followed, sat that little bit closer than last night and Ben almost commented on it, but was wary of Ray assuming it meant he had to keep his distance, as opposed to approval of the contrary.
"So, do you still want to scream?"
"Oh, yeah," Ray answered quickly, holding out his glass for a refill.
"You could just...do it. If you wanted to."
"It isn't something you just do."
"There's no-one for you to disturb."
"Except for you, and you've been looking disturbed enough."
"You thought you were hiding it so well, huh? Well, maybe from other people, but not me."
"I didn't mean to cause you any more distress, Ray."
"I should be distressed that someone beyond the Vecchio gene pool cares so much? I don't think so."
The memory of Ray's absence resurrected itself unbidden: yes, he cared all right.
"Ray... When you were missing..."
"Ah, no, Benny..."
"When you were missing I had a lot of time to think. I hadn't truly appreciated everything you do for me until that point."
"You force me to do stuff?"
"It isn't that I force you. I don't question whether or not you want to do it."
"If I don't want to do stuff I say no." Ray waggled his glass for another shot of brandy. "I've always been up for this. We're cool."
"Can I just say thank you?"
"Not in that snitty voice."
"It's not... You're in a strange mood today, and I don't think it's anything to do with Marcia Kebble."
"She'd be greatly relieved to hear that."
They clinked their glasses and drained them, discussed old cases while polishing off the remainder of the bottle. Halfway through his musings on the repatriation of native works of art Ben realised Ray was too quiet to be conscious, even by recent standards.
"How often have I bored you into a stupor?" he asked the comatose figure beside him, reaching out to tip Ray toward him and straighten out the long neck that would otherwise have one hell of a kink in it by morning. With Ray's head settled comfortably in his lap he reached behind him and pulled an old blanket from the back of the couch, clumsily covering them with it. Ben's fingers itched to stroke the closely shorn head, having speculated so often how it felt when Ray did that. Just one little... That felt nice, no wonder Ray... The man in question stirred and Ben whipped his hand away, finding himself stifling drunken giggles at the thought of getting caught. Shut up and sleep, he told himself firmly, before you wake Ray up. Ray needs his sleep, especially if... The thought brought the giggles to a halt, and an inebriated swing of emotions had him picking his way through a minefield of fury and fear and sorrow. Biting his lip until he tasted the metallic taint of blood, he carefully placed a protective hand back on Ray's head. God help the man that did this to Ray.
Ray woke after a couple of hours, tried to stretch, landed squarely at Ben's feet. He looked up, dazed, slowly figuring out where he had been and why he'd been so warm then, and why he was feeling the cold now. Damn, how did he get back to where he was? All he wanted was that warmth again but if Ben woke up he wouldn't get it, he'd be sent to bed and however warm that was it wasn't Mountie warm. He could feel where Ben's hands had been because those areas were feeling the chill more: he'd had one hand on the back of his head, the other on his shoulder. At least someone was still prepared to lay hands on him. Now he felt colder still, he was freezing. Freezing. Ice was forming in his veins as the truth of his predicament coursed back into his mind. Oh, God, no, not AIDS. What had he done to deserve that? Nobody deserved that. He could face being shot down in the street far easier than knowing that death was creeping through him, filling him, taking him. He was being eaten alive and had never felt such fear. Ray's shoulders heaved as a sob tore into him, terror and misery finally superseding the denial and anger.
"Ray?" came a sleepy voice from above him.
"I'm...I'm..." The okay lie refused to be spoken and an instantly awake Ben was sliding to the floor beside him, gathering him up and hauling him close. Ray clutched at his friend, at his heat, knowing that if anyone could rescue him it would be his Benny, who could do the undoable, save the unsaveable. It took a while for him to realise that the distraught weeping was coming from him, but once realisation set in it was just a matter of time before the tears hiccupped to a halt. No softly spoken pearls of wisdom this time, Ray noted, letting his friend gently rock him, inwardly acknowledging the comfort of it, wondering if Ben felt it, needed it too.
Ben was woken the next morning by the sounds and aromas of cooking; Ray was a good cook and Ben looked forward to the rare occasions that he made the effort, and now he prised himself up to peer over the back of the couch to see what was being prepared. Approximately every scrap of food in the cabin, Ben judged at a glance. That was fine, they could go to the store later. Unless Ray was using up the perishables because they were packing up and heading back to Chicago. That would be fine too. Just not as fine. He smiled as he heard the humming start, and for a change he recognised a tune, which made him smile harder.
"Good morning, Ray," he greeted cheerfully as he drew alongside his friend, the despair of the night a long way away.
"And a good morning to you too, Benny. I hope you're hungry because I have cooked for six precincts."
"It looks excellent. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Tea and coffee."
"Are we going back?" Ben asked after the enormous breakfast was polished off. Ray gave Ben a long look and a brief nod.
"I think I'm ready."
The welcome home Ray received from his extraordinarily loud family and one low-flying wolf made him think twice about whether he should have left the peace and security of the cabin, and he backed into Ben in alarm.
"You knew it would be like this," he heard Ben say under the racket of the Vecchios.
"I'd forgotten! How could I have forgotten! Does your mind go first?" It was a joke, Ben knew it was a joke, but it stung like hell and Ray saw that on his face, instantly chastising himself and giving Ben the 'sorry' smile. Ben 'okay' smiled back and they turned to face the fray, certainly better together than they were separate.
If home was bad, with people pussy-footing around like Ray was crawling toward his open grave, then work was enough to make Ray throw up his hands in despair.
"I don't know what's worse," he complained to Ben when they were ensconced in the stationary closet. "The pity of the people who know the truth, or the sideways looks of people who are catching the rumours."
"I'm sure things will get back to usual if you wait a while."
"No, they won't. And you know why? Because Welsh won't put me on the street. I'm stuck behind a desk with less of a job than the guy who fills the sandwich machine!"
"Perhaps it's a temporary measure."
"I don't understand it. I get the worse piece of crap happening to me - nothing I can do about it - and I'm punished for it."
"I doubt that's true. Lieutenant Welsh may feel that your frame of mind is particularly..."
"What? I'm cracking up now?"
"Well, support me here. Some mindless bias would be appreciated."
"I shouldn't have come back. How many months have I got of this until that damned test and then I'm pushed out of the force completely?"
"I don't think that's possible."
"I'm sorry, Ray, but I can't agree when I think you're wrong, especially when any agreement on my part will add to the feeling of injustice you're already suffering from."
"And I'm paranoid."
"I didn't say that."
"No, I did." Ray drew in a long calming breath and sat heavily on a box of Xerox paper. "If I had to go out I wouldn't trust them to back me up."
"The guys on the street. The ones who pass through here looking at me as if I'm sprouting horns."
On impulse Ben reached out to Ray, running his hand over the cop's scalp. He felt Ray lean into the touch and marvelled at how they'd changed in a few short weeks: he wouldn't have been so bold before Ray's abduction and Ray would never have encouraged such familiarity. Now they gravitated together as if the only support they could count on or needed was from one another.
"Mmm...no horns." Ben groped the finely shaped head. "No, hang on, what's this..."
Ray snickered and ducked away.
"Now you develop a sense of humour."
"Let's get out of here, Ray."
"Boy, Benny, don't let any of the guys around here catch you saying you're ready to come out of the closet."
"I would appreciate some assistance at the Consulate during Inspector Thatcher's absence."
"Yeah, sure, I can be purely decorative there instead of here. I'll just run it past Welsh."
While Ben waited for Ray he studied the notice boards, acknowledged various officers, and grew increasingly aware of what Ray had been talking about, until he realised with a start that he was under a similar scrutiny. Damned by association, he supposed. Or was it more than that? He wasn't na*ve enough to think that eyebrows had never been raised over his friendship with Ray - they were, quite simply, an unlikely partnership - and it made sense that people of a certain mentality, particularly those with certain prejudices, might presume... Oh dear.
Ray joined him at that moment, smiling brightly, looking forward to escaping the Station House; he put a genial hand on Ben's shoulder, left it there a little too long for some. Ignoring the feeling of being studied like a laboratory specimen, Ben returned the smile and they headed for the exit where the newly repaired Riv awaited them.
Ray entered the Consulate like he owned it, taking a good look around under Ben's watchful gaze and finally installing himself in Ben's office.
"So, what is there to do?"
"I thought you were purely decorative, Ray."
"That's like saying you're short and Chinese. C'mon, gimme a job."
"In all honesty, inviting you here was a ploy to remove you from the pressures of your own workplace."
"Shock, horror! The Mountie pulls a fast one!"
"Ray...you seem unnaturally cheerful."
"No. It's just that under the circumstances..."
"You think I'm cracking up too," Ray laughed, failing to hide the desperate edge beneath the humour and falling into the trademark pacing. "Well...you'd be just about right, you observant little Mountie. How long's it been? Best part of a week, right? And I've been scrutinised for every second of it. They're all waiting for me to lose it so they can shake their heads and do the knowing looks and pay out to whoever bet I'd take precisely this long to freak out."
"Perhaps you're misinterpreting their concern."
"I am not fucking misinterpreting anything," Ray screeched, wrapping his arms around his head. "And have you seen the way some of them look at you? At us?" He groaned and sank into a convenient chair. "God, Benny, we shouldn't have come back. We shouldn't have come back."
Ben took a breath to respond, stalled, tried again.
"I don't know what to say."
"Things finally got that bad, huh?"
"Everything I say seems to make you feel worse."
"No, Benny. You're the only sanity in my life right now."
Ben crouched at Ray's side, laying a comforting hand on his wrist.
"We could be back at the cabin by morning."
"More rumours," Ray said weakly. "I don't want you caught up in this."
"I don't care, Ray," Ben responded vehemently. "What people think, what they say. I know where my priorities lie."
Now Ray looked at Ben, such defeat in his expression that Ben knew the here and now decisions were purely up to him. Within the hour he had contacted Welsh and secured Ray more leave, made arrangements to cover his own work, and driven - yes, driven - the Riv to his own apartment then to the Vecchio house, collecting belongings and informing anyone who should be informed of their intention to head back to Canada, this time for a prolonged stay.
Weeks passed, a combination of silent calm, brooding rage, screaming fury, and bouts of irrational mirth at intervals when the tension broke. Ray was a no-go zone of wildly swinging moods and emotions and Ben was at a total loss as to what to say or do. He had never felt so useless - and that included the time spent waiting without doing after Ray was abducted. Christmas came and went without an acknowledgement; Ray loved the Vecchio clan Christmas, and it was an indication of his preoccupation that the holiday and associated collection of family traditions didn't even occur to him, as opposed to being deliberately ignored. After all, there was little to celebrate.
On the fourth Tuesday at the cabin Ben woke to a new feeling: something had changed and he could sense it, like the first day of a thaw after a spell of particularly harsh weather. For the first time since they had arrived Ray was not hovering, waiting for him to rise. A good sign, providing Ray had not slipped out with Ben's rifle to put a swift end to his misery. Ben shuddered and shook off the frankly unbelievable thought, but rose and dressed quickly, leaving the cabin and scanning around for his friend. It was easy to follow Ray's meandering tracks and Ben eventually found him perched on a fallen tree overlooking a favourite vista. He seemed at peace and Ben was loathe to disturb him, but he couldn't just walk away, it wasn't in him, not after the past months.
"How are you, Ray?"
"Good. I'm good."
Ray brushed the snow from the area next to him and Ben took it as an invitation, sitting as close as he thought acceptable bearing in mind Ray's excessively volatile nature recently. Without so much as a glance Ray closed the gap, leant against him.
"You're always warm, I'm always cold."
Ben instinctively put a protective arm around Ray, rubbing enthusiastically.
"You shouldn't sit around for too long out here."
"Circulation drops, I keel over, freeze to death; yeah, I know, you've only told me three hundred times a day."
"Have you eaten?"
"No, I was waiting for you."
"Come back and I'll cook breakfast."
"No. *I'll* cook breakfast."
"Fed up with oatmeal?"
"Absolutely. We're having bacon and eggs and pancakes and a whole loaf of toast and whatever else doesn't move fast enough to get away."
"The last time..."
"We're not going back, Benny. Last time I thought I was ready, this time I know I'm not." Ray smiled at Ben, an easy smile that didn't automatically make Ben think that something was about to break. "It's okay. I'm good."
The remainder of the day was as relaxed as that early conversation. Ray cooked and cooked; they ate and ate. Later they took the hired four-wheel drive to the store and stocked up for another few weeks, Ray buying a couple of bottles of brandy - something Ben had been too wary of during this stay because of Ray's erratic emotional state. In the last hours before sundown they took another walk, straying further from the cabin than usual, barely talking, enjoying the tranquillity and solitude. They strolled, shoulder to shoulder, Ben unconsciously directing them until they emerged from the trees to the rear of their temporary home.
After dinner Ray settled on the couch with bottle and glass while Ben washed the crockery and utensils, tidying the tiny kitchen area. Ben stopped what he was doing at the sound of the humming, turning and leaning against the counter as he studied Ray, glad to see the boneless posture he had assumed as he sank into the well-worn cushions. As Ray's concentration slipped he lost his place in the song, restarted in the wrong place, stopped. Ben crossed to the rear of the couch, leaning over him and singing softly.
"All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey. I've been for a walk, on a winter's day. I'd be safe and warm..."
Ray's giggles caught up with him and he gave up trying to sing and laugh at the same time.
"God, why that song?" Ray demanded when he was able to talk. "Of all the great songs I know the words to, why pick that song? Obviously some deep-seated need to make a total jackass of myself."
"Maybe I chose it."
"Good, let's blame you. At least you had the excuse of being temporarily insane."
Ben fetched a glass from the kitchen and moved to join Ray, at the last moment sitting in the chair as opposed to the far end of the couch, curious as to what Ray would do. For a while he did nothing but then, as the several drinks he'd had took effect he looked from Ben to the couch, Ben to the couch, Ben to the couch, using a big-eyed Italian look with guilt-production powers that Dief would have been proud of. Ben relocated. Ray's smug expression gradually gave way to one reflecting serious thought.
"I want that you should have the Riv."
"I'll die, Frannie will wreck the Riv, I'll turn in my grave for eternity. You have to take the Riv."
"You're not going to die, Ray."
"Aw, come on, Benny..."
"Even if you're...if you've got...I mean... New drug combinations can keep the full-blown illness at bay for years."
"Thank God I'm not the only one struggling here."
"You're not alone in any respect, Ray. It's important that you remember that." Ray finished another drink, topped up; Ben declined the offer.
"Could you live here indefinitely, Benny?"
"Here? Precisely here, or Canada here?"
"In this cabin here."
"Yes. I've always hoped to have the chance to do exactly that." His brow creased into a frown. "Not that it would be as easy now as it would have once."
"Well...it would be hard to leave..." How could he say this without sounding too clingy? "I have made friends in Chicago it would be hard to leave."
"You can stop fishing, Ray. I would find it hard to leave you. In fact, it will be impossible if you are ill."
"But I could come here."
"You, here, permanently?"
"But you hate the cold."
"I'm adapting, I'm adapting," Ray protested.
"But, your family."
"I can't live with their pity. You saw the way they were with me."
"They need a chance..."
"And I need a bigger one. Look, you'll get a transfer back here, I'll get early retirement-" Ray stopped short. "I'm assuming too much here."
"No. No, you're not."
"Even if I stay in Chicago I can't face walking into the 27th every day knowing what they think."
"You know what I mean."
Ray couldn't meet his eyes. "Us."
"Ah. This pertains to what you said several weeks ago about the manner in which some of your work colleagues 'look' at us."
"Look at us, as in..."
"As in look at us, yes, I got that." Ben paused, thought. "Before all this happened, did they already assume that you and I..."
"I don't know. But they don't have friends like you and me are friends so... I don't know. They don't understand." Now it was Ray's turn to pause and think. "I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to, you know, back off." There was the big-eyed Italian look again. "You want to back off?"
"I'm shocked you feel you have to ask that," Ben retorted indignantly. "And if anyone chooses to assume that about us I for one refuse to be ashamed of the association they have contrived."
"Hey, Benny, I'm half a bottle up on you here. Once more in English."
"I don't care if they think we're...well..."
Ray stared, blinked hard.
"You're not angry about that?"
"What, it doesn't bother you?"
"It bothers me that it bothers you."
Ray couldn't fight back a huge grin.
"Universally acknowledged gorgeous SuperMountie who every woman wants isn't bothered about being associated in that way with this total screw-up?"
"I don't know which part of that massively inaccurate statement to address first."
"Then leave it all alone and let me wallow in amazement."
"In fact, it could have its advantages. Do you think Francesca would believe it?"
Ray threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"Benton Fraser, you are a piece of work!"
"There are times, Ray, when I swear I would publicly marry you to stop her advances."
"She'd never speak to me again."
"It doesn't matter," Ben grinned, "we'll be living here."
Ray laughed again but the laughter was short lived; his features contorted with pain and he turned away from Ben. Tears squeezed from the screwed up eyes. Ben was at his side in seconds.
"Morose drunk," Ray whispered hoarsely, attempting to wave Ben away.
"It's not that, I've seen that. Tell me, Ray, talk to me." His voice dropped to softly persuasive and he slipped an arm around Ray's shoulders, offering comfort and hoping he wouldn't be rejected. Ray shrugged away from him, sitting perched on the edge of the cushion, face in hands. Ben waited patiently as Ray slowly recovered, knowing that any encouragement to talk from him would only succeed in closing Ray down totally.
"You're too good," Ray whispered after the best part of an hour had passed. "You deserve a little honesty."
"You don't need to..."
"Yes, I do," Ray snapped. "Stop trying to protect me. You have to stop it." Ben nodded and moved back to his end of the couch.
"It's...it's too close. To the truth. And I know you're joking but it makes me... I'm sorry, Benny."
Ben fought the urge to return to Ray: he was no longer used to coping with his friend's pain at a distance, even if it was only a few feet. He was accustomed to being at his side. That was his place and he knew it. If only he had the right words to get himself back there.
"You've done nothing to apologise for, Ray."
"Yeah?" Ray's voice was stronger, tinged with anger, but Ben knew it wasn't directed at him. Then Ray was on his feet; the familiar pacing. "Shall I tell you something that I should've been honest about a long, long time ago? Huh? When I turned around in that holding cell and saw the idiot asking for Detective Armani I thought all my wet dreams had come true. The reason I was so off-hand with you was because I thought every gaydar in the precinct was going off." Ray paused, waiting for the backlash. Nothing. "I used to get to the Consulate early so I could just sit in the Riv and look at you. It was the only time I could stare and stare and you weren't in a position to fix the Mountie's all-seeing eye on me. I'd fantasise about what I'd like us to do when we got to your apartment. Sometimes I still do." Pause. Backlash? Nothing. "It would be easier if you got up and punched me out, Benny."
"Now it makes sense," Ben said quietly, remembering.
"What?" Ray's voice reflected his bewilderment at the lack of reaction.
"You said, 'My whole life I've played their games'. Played at..."
"Being what's expected of me, being straight, fitting in, that's right. There were times I thought I could do it; shit and damnation, I was doing it, but... Since I've known you it's been so fucking difficult. I'm sorry, Benny, I'm so sorry."
"I'm not angry, Ray, I don't want you to be sorry."
"You really know how to make a guy feel worse."
"It wasn't my intention."
"Stop being so fucking nice!"
"I'm not about to start ranting just to make you feel better."
"I suppose you want to think about it," Ray taunted sarcastically.
"Maybe I do. And that tone won't work with me, I know you too well."
Ben's words wiped out Ray's bluster and the energy seeped from him. He leant on the back of the couch and stared at the curve of Ben's neck; he could look but he couldn't touch any more, not in passing, not out of legitimately harmless affection. Ben glanced toward him and Ray looked guiltily away, switching his attention to the brandy that sat on the floor in front of the couch.
"I shouldn't have opened that bottle. Certainly let the genie-of-the-stupid out." Ben smiled and Ray felt guiltier still. "I'm tired. Gonna try to get some sleep." Ray took two steps toward the bed, stopped, spoke without turning back. "You still trust me though? You know I wouldn't try anything."
"I trust you, Ray. It would never have occurred to me not to. Whatever the circumstances."
"You're too good."
"In the scheme of things, Ray..."
"Yeah, I know what you're saying: life's too short." He gave a short, mirthless laugh. "Hell, maybe literally."
Ben listened to the familiar sounds of Ray getting into bed, settling - trying to settle - and was aware that Ray was having an understandably hard time getting to sleep. He respected Ray's decision to make a tactical withdrawal but wished he could ask any of the dozen questions buzzing around in his head. Ray's admission hadn't shocked or appalled him, barely surprised him so far as Ray's inclinations went: Ben rarely took anything on face value, including people's personal proclivities. What Ray had expected - wanted - shook him far more than the revelation: if he had leapt up, outraged, and pummelled Ray to a pulp, his friend would have let him without defending himself, he was sure of that and didn't like it one little bit. Ray must know he would never...
"Do you think I'm homophobic?" was out aloud before Ben could stop it.
"No," Ray sighed, still very awake. "But there's a difference between...between...oh, damn, I know what I want to say, I just don't know how."
"Between the general and the personal?"
Fair enough; Ben could see what he was saying, just didn't like or agree with it when it came to him. He spent a few minutes trying to remember any occasion or remark that would cause Ray to think of him in those bigoted terms; he couldn't, quite understandably, because that attitude wasn't a part of his make-up.
Ben knew he was skirting around the central point of Ray's outburst: that his friend and partner was sexually attracted to him. Okay, he'd thought the words, he'd done that. Ray wanted him. Good grief, those words felt pretty strange together, after all, this was Ray. Ben had never understood why Ray was so unlucky with women because he thought his friend was extraordinarily special. Too special to want him. The part of his ego that hadn't been humiliated into submission by the amount of people who wanted him because of the way he looked in Mountie mode but weren't interested in him as a person fought back. Fairly unsuccessfully. He wasn't what he'd heard described as 'a catch', he knew that. Boring was closer to the truth. Oh, God, it was just physical attraction and that hurt. But then again, they were friends - best friends - and Ray liked him well enough to have just spent the past couple of months inching closer to him, emotionally as well as physically. Or was he fooling himself?
"It isn't just lust, is it?" Did his tone of voice have to sound quite so pathetic?
"God, no. Maybe at first."
"Well, you didn't know me at first," Ben helped Ray along, sounding, to his own ears, ever more needy.
"It would have been easier if it had stayed that way."
"Or perhaps not."
The room fell silent again. Ben tried to push the emotional aside - if it wasn't just lust that meant...oh dear...he couldn't cope with that for the moment - and consider the physical. Yes, the physical. He swallowed hard and wondered how many miles that particular swallow had been audible for. It wasn't that it was Ray, it was purely that he didn't dwell on sexual matters - those kinds of relationships were invariably disastrous for him to either a lesser or greater degree - and as far as he was concerned, gender had never made the slightest difference. And if he screwed it up with Ray he'd be losing more than he'd ever lost before. He couldn't go there. He couldn't. But now the subject was uppermost in his mind he had to admit he'd always admired Ray; the wiry strength, the admirable features, he certainly wouldn't be averse to sweeping his hands over that sensual crew cut again: how would that feel during a kiss? Don't go there! Shifting irritably Ben tried to banish the thought, tried to get back to the safety of dead from the neck down.
Ray knew he was dreaming. He recognised the dream and knew his part in it. What he'd never found was a way out before he ended up freaking out and turning the bed into a tip. This was so not what he needed right now. 'Oh, yeah, here it comes,' the Ray who was awake in his dream although he knew he was dreaming being awake thought. 'Here's Benny, here's my Benny, and here I go again.' And Ray saw himself reaching into Dream Benny and grasping the bullet that was still lodged in him - Ray's bullet - grasping the bullet and tearing it out. Saving Benny from that damned bullet but killing him at the same time because you couldn't just put your hand into a man and pull out a bullet. Dream Benny was writhing in agony and turning grey-white and he was dead again. Ray's bloody hand held the bullet. And Benny was dead. 'Oh, fuck, shit, no, this is a dream, wake up, Benny, Benny, wake up, fuck, no, ohmygodohmygod, Benny...'
Ben shot awake at the cry from behind him, dazed for a few seconds before realising that Ray was dreaming, or rather he was nightmaring. He stumbled to Ray's side, grabbing out blindly and pulling him out of the horror and into his arms, rocking him for five minutes until he was capable of speech, reluctant to let go when he tried to pull back.
"I killed you," Ray choked, "I killed you again."
"I don't think so, Ray."
"It means something."
"It's just a dream. It can't harm either of us."
"I can though. This...thing in me. I could kill us both. You shouldn't be so close."
"You can't catch AIDS through touching, Ray, you know that. And we don't even know that you've contracted it."
"Hey, Benny. Benny. Walk away. I'm giving you the chance."
"Why would I want to do that?"
"I'm the biggest fucking disaster in your life, I shoot you, I tell you things I shouldn't tell you, I let you down..."
"You let me down?"
"I don't want to fight over this," Ray groaned.
"Neither do I, Ray, but if you're going to be irrational..." Ray stopped Ben's words temporarily by burying a hand under his sweater, yanking the shirt beneath out of his jeans. "Umm...Ray..." The singlet was next, and then Ray's hand was on his skin, reaching and skimming over his back until the fingertips rested on the scar left by his bullet. "Ray..."
"You feel this? You get pain from this?"
"Not noticeably. Your distress is far more painful." Undermined once again, Ray let his head tilt forward and rest on Ben's shoulder; Ben turned his face until the soft bristle of Ray's hair brushed his cheek. "Is that what the dream is about?" Ray nodded and Ben smiled at the sensation of Ray's hair on his face. Ray attempted to speak, couldn't, cleared his throat and went again.
"I take it out. The bullet."
"And you hurt me?"
"Kill you. I'm covered in your blood and you're dead."
Ben hugged Ray tighter.
"You forgave me for what I did to you, and I could have destroyed your life. It's little enough for me to forgive what you did to me."
"I forgive you."
"I forgive you. Please forgive yourself."
Ray nodded again, knowing he would try, may even succeed. Until the dream came again. Ben felt Ray freeze and knew he'd finally realised that his hand was still buried under Ben's clothing, gently stroking his back. The hand snaked away and Ben registered a muttered apology, but his attention was drawn by the feel of that hand moving over his skin: such an unfamiliar feeling for him, such a moreish one. But it was wrong to be thinking about this. It was wrong. Wasn't it? What was he thinking, of course it was wrong. Ray finally managed to shrug him off, refusing to make eye contact.
"I'm gonna try to get back to sleep. I didn't mean to disturb you."
This polite, conciliatory Ray disturbed Ben. The comfort Ben was prepared to offer stuck in his throat as Ray turned his back on him, shutting himself off, suffering alone. His hand dithered back and forth for a moment before he laid it gently on Ray's shoulder, ignoring the sensation as Ray tried to shrink away from it.
"Sleep well, Ray," Ben whispered.
It was one of those occasions that Ben experienced every so often: one minute he was fast asleep, the next he was fully awake. Worried, already. That isn't any way to wake up, he chided himself, sounding horrifically like his father. What had woken him? Ray. Ray? He was out of his bed roll within a second, on his feet, dressing. Out of the door within minutes, following footsteps in the snow. He found Ray sat on the same tree as yesterday, joined him and took a deep calming breath.
"You think I'd sneaked off to hang myself?"
"No. But you can't blame me for being a little concerned."
"Still concerned. That's something."
Ray gave him a tense smile, turning immediately back to the view. Ben arranged the words he'd practised before sleeping last night.
"Ray... I don't want anything coming between us. What you said..."
"Can we forget about what I said, Benny? Put it down to drunk and stupid?"
"How can we dismiss something that obviously causes you great anxiety?"
"There are worse things." Ray sighed a deep sigh. "I can't lose you as a friend, Benny. You're the only real friend I have. I'd be lost without you."
"I know that feeling," Ben admitted self-consciously. "When you were missing..." The intensity of those past feelings unexpectedly swept back and stole Ben's breath. Ray knew, understood. Without stopping to debate the action with himself, he put a friendly arm around Ben's shoulders and gave a squeeze.
"We're here and we're okay. Business as usual. We're good. What are we?"
A slow smile transformed Ben's features.
"Yeah, we're good."
They trudged back to the cabin, vociferously debating whose turn it was to prepare the breakfast and whose it was to clean up. The good humoured squabble was a welcome relief and both men were prepared to shunt any reservations about how easy it would be to carry on with business as usual to one side. They were surprised to see a visitor sitting on the cabin steps waiting for them: the son of the storekeeper. He rose as they approached.
"Is everything all right, Danny?"
"There's a phone message for you, Constable. Dad said I should bring it straight away."
"Thank you kindly." The young man handed over a folded sheet of paper which Ben opened and scanned quickly. "Thank your father for me," he smiled distractedly at Danny, who nodded and wandered back to the store's van.
"It's for you, Ray," Ben told him grimly, handing over the paper and scrutinizing Ray's expression as he read. He watched his friend turn pale.
"They got him."
"The guy who..."
"I've got to ID him."
"I'll make breakfast and then we'll pack up."
"I think - I think..."
Ray managed to run a few yards away before heaving and bringing up his first thing coffee. Hearing Ben crunching toward him over the snow, he waved him away before heaving again. Ben accepted the direction and headed into the cabin, instantly but unhappily setting about securing the cabin ready for their departure.
The plane trip felt ten times longer than usual. Ray had clammed up completely and the only contact Ben was aware of was the constant pressure of Ray's shoulder and arm as he leant against him. It was only now that Ben forced himself to face the horror of what Ray had been through when he was trapped in that cellar, taped to that chair; what he had felt then, what he was feeling now. The thought of his friend living in fear day after day, never knowing when or how it was going to end made his insides knot in empathy. Had he waited for Ben, expecting his partner to find him, gradually realising that it wasn't going to happen, that he'd been let down again? Guilty and shaken, Ben took a quick glance at Ray: his head was laid back, his eyes were closed, he seemed fairly relaxed. But his fingers were wrapped tightly around the arm rests as if only by holding on so forcefully he could stay in that seat, going in the direction they were headed. Ben put his hand over Ray's, resting it there; he didn't get a response - he didn't expect one - but he was happier just making contact.
A quick phone call before they left Canada ensured Huey was waiting for them at the airport. 'Hey,' was the only word Ray spoke to his colleague, leaving Ben to pick up the slack and tentatively ask about the circumstances of the suspect's arrest.
"He did the same to another cop over at the 21st," Huey explained, "but the bastard didn't realise the cop had recognised one of his heavies. Dumped the cop, cop sends his division out, the whole thing was wrapped up within a couple of hours."
"And how is he? The officer?"
Huey hesitated, thought of Ray sitting silent, traumatised, in the back of the unmarked.
"Like you'd imagine."
Ray couldn't believe this was happening, couldn't believe he was staring through the two-way at the scum who had turned his existence upside-down.
"Number four. He's the guy that injected me," Ray said flatly, barely recognising his own voice.
"Witness identified the suspect, Michael Hespetti," Huey stated for the record.
"Michael Hespetti," Ray repeated under his breath.
Three more line-ups and the four people who abducted and assaulted him were formally identified and being charged prior to their return to the 21st.
"That's it, Detective," Welsh told him from the doorway. "Go home."
"Lieutenant. When do you want me back?"
"When you're ready and not a day before. Vecchio...you look like hell."
"And after such a great holiday!"
Coincidence dictated that Ray and Hespetti came face to face as they were headed in opposite directions through the station. Ray froze, Huey took a step in front of him, hand out ready to put a quick end to any scuffle. Ben moved protectively to his side.
"Hey, it's one of my boys!" Hespetti called out. "How you feeling, Vecchio?" Ray flinched, fought to control his anger, listened to the cops on either side of Hespetti growl out warnings to their prisoner. "I'm only showing natural concern," Hespetti grinned. "Hope you're being careful fucker, Vecchio, what with your condition and all."
Ray lunged toward the shackled man, blocked with some difficulty by Huey, but it was impossible to stop the flash of red that was the incensed Mountie, and Ben struck Hespetti so hard he bounced off the nearest wall and then crumpled to his knees. They were rapidly surrounded by officers; Ray and Ben were securely held back as Hespetti was unceremoniously hauled to his feet, blood pouring from a jagged cut on his mouth. He sought Ray's eyes in the crowd.
"Given it to the overprotective boyfriend yet?" Hespetti spat, his gaze shifting pointedly to Ben.
"Don't dignify that with an answer," Ben told Ray firmly.
"Yeah. Don't worry. I'm finished here."
Ray borrowed the unmarked Huey had collected them in and drove to his house. He asked Ben to move their luggage from the present car to the Riv and then ordered him to stay with the car; he greeted his family, collected a few extras from his bedroom and an overfed wolf from the kitchen, said farewell to his family, and was back with Ben in twenty-five minutes. Soon Ray was parking outside of Ben's building, turning the engine off but making no move to leave the Riv.
"Are you coming up?"
"Let me see your hand," Ray automatically changed the subject. Ben offered his right hand and Ray examined the reddened knuckles carefully before looking up with an unforeseen smile. "Way to go, Benny!"
"I shouldn't have hit him." Ray met his eyes questioningly, and Ben couldn't stop the shameless grin that was already on its way. "But I'm glad I did." Ray chuckled and released the hand. "Are you coming up?" Ben repeated.
"Do you mind?"
"Why would I mind? You know you're always welcome here."
Dief agreed without hesitation: no-one at the Vecchio house brought doughnuts home.
"How welcome? I can visit welcome, or I can stay welcome?"
"You can stay."
Once in the apartment Ben organised himself, ran the tap for a few minutes to clear the stale water out of the pipes, organised coffee, tea, milk and mugs; organised Dief's bowls and gave him a brief lecture on unhealthy eating, trying to find a good reply to Dief's protestations that it would have been rude to refuse what had been offered; organised the unpacking, with a little help from his wolf; the only thing he couldn't organise was Ray, who wandered aimlessly, looking lost.
"Are you sure you want to stay here, Ray?"
"Changed your mind?"
"I don't know how comfortable you're going to be."
"I'll be fine." Ray came and sat at the kitchen table, watching Ben as he finished making the drinks before sitting opposite him. Ray cradled the hot mug, inhaling the richly scented steam that rose from it, knowing that Ben brought the expensive coffee just for him and doubted if he'd even offer it to anyone else. He noticed a bruise starting to show on Ben's knuckle and he wanted to make it better, kiss it better. Following the line of wrist, arm, shoulder, neck to the face he adored, it was all he could do not to blurt out an admission of love that he knew he'd regret the minute it was past his lips because Ben would be kind and supportive and say all the right things, just nothing he wanted to hear. What if, just once, that beautiful mouth said yes to him? Ray took a sharp breath and Ben's eyes darted in his direction, concerned and attentive. "Thanks," Ray said softly.
Ray nodded at the damaged hand.
"And what you said to Hespetti. Made it very clear to everyone in earshot where we stand."
"'Don't dignify that with an answer.' Made it very clear you're not...I mean, we're not."
"Oh. What I was actually referring to was the possibility that you would ever put someone you cared about at risk. You would never knowingly do that to me."
"That's right, I wouldn't." 'Even if that beautiful mouth did say yes to me,' thought Ray as his heart broke just a little more.
Ben saw where Ray was now looking, unconsciously licked his bottom lip and could have kicked himself as a wounded expression touched Ray's face and his focus changed.
"It's ridiculous to think we can ignore it."
Ray's head snapped up at Ben's words.
"Don't, Benny. We've done okay up till now."
"Only because I didn't know there was anything to ignore. It's a part of your life, Ray, and concealing it must be very difficult." Ray conceded the point with a nod. "So, talk to me. When was your last relationship?"
"Benny, I can't..."
"Friends talk, Ray." Ray paused for a moment, unsure about this. Ben persisted. "When?"
"You don't mean one of the women I've made an idiot of myself over, do you?"
"Why do you do that, Ray, if you know..."
"Because I'm some sort of fool. I have this romantic dream that I'll meet the perfect soul mate and, God help me, it'll be a woman and everything will become easy. Easier. I spent years wishing I'd wake up straight, Benny, that I wouldn't have to be paranoid around the family, at work - work's the scary one."
"Did Angie know?"
Ray cringed at the mention of his ex-wife.
"I don't know, maybe she guessed toward the end. But I tried so hard with her, to be a good husband. I did love her. Still do. In a kind of..."
"Thank you, platonic way."
"And the last man?"
"I don't believe I'm having this conversation with the Mountie," Ray laughed awkwardly. "Okay, okay, I can do this." He took a deep breath, composed himself. "Way back. Have to be about four years ago, lasted a few months."
"Were you happy?"
That surprised Ray: apart from his mother, no-one ever asked him if he was happy.
"Why did it end?"
"Because I didn't trust him. I was being careful but I didn't think he was so I couldn't take that risk."
"He was...seeing other people."
"Seeing, feeling, jumping, you name it." Ben bristled at the thought of someone betraying Ray like that; Ray saw the reaction and felt warmer, nudged Ben's calf under the table. "Hey, Dudley, you don't have to feel bad about it, it was years ago." Ben nodded, giving up the indignation with some difficulty. "I hope you don't get into trouble for hitting that guy," Ray switched the conversation to what he hoped was a safer subject.
"If I do, then it still will have been worth it."
"I'm beginning to know what all those lost causes you pick up feel like." The grin became a chuckle. "You see him bounce off the wall? How many cops shared that magic moment? You're going to be flavour of the month."
"It was just for you, Ray."
"I know. How cool is that? I actually know."
Ben glanced at his watch, seeing by the time it was no wonder he was hungry; that was a good sign - a few hours ago he'd have bet he'd never have an appetite again. He got up, opened the refrigerator.
"Don't bother cooking, I'll call for takeaway. Takeaway..." Ray sighed appreciatively. "Chicago, one; frozen armpit of the North, nil."
Dief's head appeared in Ray's lap. Did somebody mention takeaway? A quick debate between the three of them led to a call to their favourite Chinese restaurant and Ben made fresh drinks while they waited for it to be delivered, found cutlery and chopsticks. Ray stretched out in his chair and absorbed the pleasant aura of domesticity. He even gave an unsuspecting Ben a long appreciative look from head to toe and back without feeling too guilty. But, hey, he was only human.
After dinner Ben made the bed up for Ray, busying himself elsewhere while his friend stripped off to his underwear and climbed in. Then he did the same with his bedroll, not realising how exhausted he was until his body began to relax.
"Hey, Benny." So softly it was barely audible.
"Hey, Ray." Replied in kind.
"I thought I'd lost you."
"Not a possibility."
Ben returned to work the next day, Ray the day after. By the time a week had passed Ray felt able to withstand the crushing concern of his own household and moved back to his home. On the surface life appeared to have returned to normal: Ray was reinstated to normal duties when Welsh considered him to be back to his semi-reliable self of old. Gossip came and went, the curious looks ceased, everybody went back to tolerating Ray and perking up or ducking for cover when the Mountie came around to get Ray mixed up in something he should have had enough sense to lay down and avoid.
Beneath the surface was a different matter. Ray accepted that Ben would be his best friend forever and nothing more than that, but his disappointment was outweighed by his gratitude that his friend had stuck around despite...well, everything. He rarely any longer woke up in a hot sweat at night because of erotic dreams about the Mountie, nowadays waking in a cold sweat as the fear he managed to batten down during the days exposed itself during twisted nightmares. He hated being alone at those times and clung to memories of their time at the cabin and at Ben's apartment, when he would be extracted from a sleeping hell by strong arms that would surround him and protect him, gentle words that never failed to sooth him. The countdown to the test was continuously running in his mind and he only hoped he would be able to keep it all together when he heard the result, which he knew would be positive.
Ben was scared, haunted by possibilities. Now he knew of Ray's feelings for him it was hard to be objective about their relationship. Logically he knew he mustn't take risks with their friendship - how unbearable would it be to become lovers for long enough to know that it wasn't going to work out, then not be able to go back to being friends? But he did, just in passing he told himself, visit a local health centre to pick up pamphlets about AIDS and safe-as-possible sexual relationships, spent time discussing hypothetical situations with the case workers, soaked up information until he felt he had an answer to every objection Ray could throw his way. If it ever came to it. Which it wouldn't because they both had more sense. Didn't they?
Confined to the Riv one evening, bored by the current stake-out which was going precisely nowhere and proving an absolute waste of time and energy, they were discussing previous cases that may give clues as to where this one was headed. Ray was explaining an intricate fraud, methodically presenting the details, when Ben found himself zoning out the words, looking at his friend and wondering what the future held. The emotion that filled him - love for Ray, compassion for his terrible situation - was powerful enough to cause him physical pain. He turned his face to the side window, hiding unbidden tears that he furiously tried to blink away.
"So, you see any similarities or is it just me?" Ben shook his head, not able to trust his choked throat with words. "Well, it was just a thought." He sighed a heavy sigh. "Jeez, this is boring. You wanna get something to eat? Benny?" Ben felt a tentative touch on the back of his hand. "Benny, you okay?"
Ben cleared his throat.
"Tired, that's all."
Ray immediately started the Riv's engine.
"Hey, I'm sorry. Let me take you home."
"No. I'd rather stay with you."
"We don't have to both be here. Face it, the guy's not going to show. You don't pull off something that smart and then screw it up by going home to pick up a toothbrush before skipping the state."
"Got any good coffee in?"
"Well, you just got yourself some company."
Ben was deep in thought as they rode back to West Racine. What did he say when they parked up? 'Sorry, Ray, you can't come in because I love you and don't want to live without you, and all I want to do is rage in private so I don't distress you.' He risked a glance at Ray, who was chatting away as usual, oblivious to the Mountie's mood. He looked good: focused, happy, healthy. And if it was all a facade then Ben could throw up a front just as convincing. Business as usual.
In the apartment Ben left Ray making their drinks while he went and hung up his tunic, taking a few private minutes inside the closet to release the tension in him and slump against the wall before regrouping and fixing his expression into something appropriately positive. He emerged and closed the door, leaning against it as he studied his friend, who was presently deep in meaningful conversation with a wolf who was feeling the pressures of sugar deprivation.
"There's nothing here, Dief. I promise. Yeah, I know what you think about healthy eaters. Look..."
Ray started with the refrigerator and worked through the drawers and cupboards, displaying their lack of confectionary to the frustrated wolf. He abruptly stopped, re-opened the last drawer, curiously pulled out the leaflets Ben had been reading about his potential condition. Ben watched, tensed, waited for the verbal explosion. Instead Ray sat down at the table, opening the first sheet and reading. Ben knew this was an example of how far Ray had come to accepting what had happened to him; when he'd been offered a test at the hospital he had thrown the offer of literature back in the workers faces with barely suppressed fury. Ben returned to the kitchen and finished making the tea and coffee, putting the mugs on the table between them and sitting in silence as Ray read the pile of pamphlets from top to bottom. Finally he looked up, met Ben's eyes with a thoughtful expression, pulled out his phone.
"Sounds good." Dief gave a few pointers toward perfection. "Can you ask for extra pepperoni?" Ray smiled and did as he was told.
It was just as well that they ordered Dief's favourite as he ate most of it. Ray was preoccupied by what he'd read, Ben was preoccupied by Ray's silent ponderings. When Ray rose to get back to his stake out Ben reluctantly watched him leave, not offering to accompany him because he knew that his friend needed time alone. But two minutes after he'd left Ray's head poked around the door again.
"Is it okay if I stay here tonight, Benny?"
"I'll be a couple of hours." A wide grin broke through the solemn expression. "Don't wait up, honey." With the first truly genuine laugh Ben had heard in a long time Ray was gone.
At two in the morning Ray crept in, picking his way past the over-affectionate doughnut junkie and the sleeping Mountie, stripping off his outer layers of clothing and settling onto the bed with a groan of satisfaction; another groan as his back muscles unclenched and he stretched out, inhaling deeply at the faint scent of Ben that clung to the pillow. It was almost as if his brain registered that scent and equated it to safe and secure; unfortunately another part of his anatomy registered it too with a rather more base reaction, and he determinedly ignored the response, reminding himself over and over that this was his friend he was lusting after, and he deserved better. 'Go to sleep, go to sleep,' he chanted inside his head before channelling the message to the rather persistent erection. 'For God's sake, go to sleep!'
Ray woke up cold. Very cold. He understood why as he made out the sounds of Ben fiddling with the radiator.
"Heating down?" he asked.
"Seems so. I'm sorry, I didn't want the low temperature to wake you up. I know you're very sensitive to it."
Ray tried to find more blanket to snuggle into.
Ray shivered and burrowed further. Then he froze for a completely different reason as he felt Ben slide into the bed behind him.
"What are you doing?" he hissed.
"Ssh." Ben spooned behind him and the cold was forgotten as the Mountie-shaped hot water bottle moulded to his form, thawing him right down to his toes.
"There's a great advantage to being in bed with someone the same height as you," he murmured as he pressed the soles of his feet against the tops of Ben's.
"Ssh," Ben repeated. "Go back to sleep." But Ray was gone before the words were out.
Ray had forgotten he was sharing the bed so it was a bit of a shock for him when he stirred again later. His primary reaction was to get away from the body that was far too close. Then it came back to him where he was, with whom. His secondary reaction was to get a little closer to the body that was a fraction of an inch too far away. At the slight shift Ben put his arm around Ray, resting his hot hand on Ray's solar plexus; the movement changed the angle of Ben's head and Ray melted as he felt the soft sleeping breaths tickle his neck. Heaven. This was heaven.
Ray woke again an hour later as Ben was trying to extricate himself without disturbing his friend. Ray's hand shot out and stopped him.
"You're so...warm," Ray explained. He'd almost said 'hot' but had bitten the word back, however true the statement was in every sense.
"I think you'll find the heating is back on."
"I don't care. Indulge me. Pretend I'm a stray puppy if it'll make it any easier."
"Let a man ruin a few suits for you and you pay and pay and pay..." Ben teased as he moved back to his earlier position, sliding an arm securely around Ray and rubbing his face against the tantalising bristle of hair on back of his head.
"You like the cut, huh?"
"It has more than a certain je ne sais quoi." Ray chuckled, quietened; Ben could actually feel him become serious.
"That AIDS stuff, Benny. Did you get it for me?"
"Yes," Ben lied, then thought better of it. "Actually, for both of us. Hopefully it won't be necessary, but on the off-chance..."
"On the off-chance?"
"We both need to understand the condition."
"Why both?" Ray knew the question was stupid even as he was saying it.
"Because we're in this together."
"I don't know if that makes it easier or tougher."
"Well, we'll take it a day at a time..."
Ray pulled away enough to turn in the bed so he could talk to Ben face to face.
"Benny, I can't explain... I feel like - like... Like I've got a ticking bomb inside of me, and any second... I'm no good at taking things a day at a time, I need to know what's happening, where I'm going..." Ray stopped, swallowed hard. "I'm so scared."
Ben looked into the frightened face, drew a breath to speak, knew he didn't have the words and released it. His hand reached to stroke the back of Ray's neck, gently sliding up to cradle his head. A gesture of comfort became a touch of love, and Ben leant forward and gently pressed his mouth to Ray's.
Ray didn't believe it was happening even as it happened, even as Ben's lips touched his, even as his whole physical being came alive in an instant at the feel of that beautiful mouth he was so fixated on. He was being kissed. By Benny. Delicate, tender kisses that didn't make demands, just gave love, openly and honestly. It was all he wanted. Everything. Almost everything. Not enough. Too much. His hand cautiously touched Ben's hip, trailed onto his stomach, up to his chest...and pushed him away.
"No, Benny." Ben said nothing, lost in the sweetness of this contact, reached for another kiss, "No!" This time Ray's voice was vehement, his body taut. Ben placed his hand over the clenched fist Ray still had on his chest.
The fist loosened and Ben worked his fingers into it, drawing it up to rest against his mouth.
"We can't do this, Benny, I can't put you at risk."
"You can't catch it through kissing, Ray."
"I'm not prepared to take a chance. For God's sake, what's the matter with me? I shouldn't even be here with you!"
Ray twisted away, throwing back the covers, grabbing at his clothes and beginning to dress. Ben was up too, beside him.
"Ray, you mustn't overreact."
"How can I help it?" Ray demanded, trying to keep his voice down. "You know what it would do to me if - if... Shit, I can't even say it!"
"You read the literature..."
"I don't care, all right? I don't care." Up and pacing now. "The only safe way is no way."
"For fuck's sake, don't argue with me on this one! Just because you've got an intelligent answer doesn't mean I want to hear it!" Ray heard himself shouting, stopped, caught his breath. "You have no idea quite how I feel about you." His words were now soft, shaky, full of emotion. "And I won't take chances."
"I don't get a say?"
"No, you don't."
In the emptiness that followed Ray finished dressing, accepted the coffee that Ben made, left without more than a difficult, 'Bye, Benny'. Ben sat on the edge of the bed, ran his fingers through his hair, missed Ray already. His voice barely broke the silence.
"And you have no idea quite how I feel about you."
Okay, it had been a week. 'The longest week of my life,' Ray claimed to himself. No sign of Ben, no contact except the carelessly revealed fact of his daily phone calls to Elaine to check up on his friend. Ray thought about calling back but he didn't know what to say, couldn't find the words to apologise to Ben for the way he had reacted - overreacted - that last morning together. God, the man had offered himself to him, knowing what he did about his health, selflessly putting Ray first. 'Ever wonder why I adore you, Benny?' It was so tempting, excruciatingly so (my God, he'd just spent a week humping his hand over those tantalising kisses, what if he had the entire Mountie?) but how could Ray accept a future that would risk Ben's life, even if Ben was prepared to gamble? Now he had to find a way to say sorry, miss you (and the wolf), love you too much to...love you, can't live without you. 'Why don't you put all that in a note and sign it 'Drama Queen'?' Ray demanded of himself.
Forcing himself to put aside the self-pity and the resounding feeling that he was presently the rightful and undisputed king of jerk city, he put his highly tuned detective's mind to finding the right path back into the Mountie's good books. Highly tuned for detecting he may have been, but reconciliations and romantic gestures seemed to have passed him by. What would he have liked if it had been the other way around? If Ben had thrown such a perfect gesture back in his face before sulking and leaving with barely a word? God, that made it sound appalling! And why? Because it was appalling: he was an ungrateful shit! Whereas Ben was... No wonder Ray was paralysed with indecision - this was the most important person in his life he was trying to make up with. It was while he was still deliberating with himself that he spotted a denuded stalk that was defiantly clinging to its identity as the bullpen pot plant. He remembered Ben talking about the language of flowers when he had found pressed petals in between the pages of a book at the cabin, and knew immediately what would appeal to his friend. Ray thumbed through the local Yellow Pages and phoned several florists until he found one with the requisite knowledge, then picked their brain to find the right potted plant (as opposed to cut flowers - Ben wouldn't like watching them die) to convey his message. And tonight he'd take him out somewhere special and spoil him. Then apologise, grovel, beg, whatever it took to be a part of his life every day.
One whole week, Ben registered as he stared at the calendar instead of getting on with his work. One whole week regretting, yet not able to regret what he'd done. Kissing Ray hadn't been planned, it was just the natural thing to do at that moment - and what a sweet moment it was, transforming weeks of repressed longing into minutes of bliss - but he hadn't wanted to upset Ray, just...be a part of him. No longer convinced it could be dead from the neck down, his body had prompted imaginings of them together that had thrilled, sometimes amazed Ben, and he wanted it all, he wanted it now. And they hadn't even spoken for a week. Ben had to find a way to say sorry, miss you (as does Diefenbaker), love you too much to not love you, can't live without you. 'Why don't you put all that in a note and sign it 'Desperate of Canada'?' Ben demanded of himself.
A distinctive polite tap on the door attracted his attention and he called for Turnbull to enter. His subordinate did so, and with him he brought a flamboyantly wrapped pot plant.
"This just came for you, Sir. I signed for it but took great care to avoid seeing details of the sender."
"You don't usually check the paperwork of what you're signing for?"
"Scrupulously, Sir, unless it's obviously personal. And this would appear to be. Personal. Obviously. It's a plant, Sir."
Ben took the plant - a magnificent fern - and dismissed Turnbull, wondering, not for the first time, how and why. The card was good quality, plain and white; one side bore the message, 'Speak my language?', the other side a time: 7.30. It could only be from Ray: relief washed over him and he couldn't stop himself grinning like a fool. He spent the best part of an hour finding an encyclopaedia that detailed the language of plants and flowers, then sat caressing the beautiful fronds as he read: 'The exchange of a maidenhair fern expresses a secret bond of love.' Perfect, he told himself happily. It occurred to him that perhaps he should return the gesture; Ray would be...roses, deep red roses that said 'I love you' and 'implied unconscious beauty'. Unconscious beauty, yes that was Ray. An unbidden imaged leapt into his mind: Ray, him, naked on a bed of velvet-soft rose petals. Oh. Oh, dear.
At one-thirty that afternoon Welsh called Ray into his office.
"Sit down, Vecchio."
That wasn't good, was it? Sitting down in the Lieutenant's office usually meant bad news. Constable Ben has been found dead following a severe allergic reaction to a pot plant? Nah, he'd hear the women of Chicago mourning as one. He sat.
"Detective..." Welsh stopped, looked around. "Where's your Mountie?"
"I believe he's doing something for Canada today, Sir." Your Mountie? Did he really call him your Mountie?
"Shame. I thought you might want him to hear this."
"DNA tests results have been confirmed regarding the hypodermics found at the Hespetti house." Welsh paused as the colour drained from Ray's face; Damn, he knew he should have waited until Ben was around to prop the cop up. "Are you all right, Detective?"
"Yes, Sir. I'd forgotten about that is all." The syringes - seven in all - had been found, preserved like precious mementoes, marked up with the names of the abducted cops and several members of a rival drugs empire who had suffered a similar fate.
"The syringe with your name on it contained enough trace to test, and the blood in it was your own. The blood in the other syringes has also been tested and corresponds to the name on the label." Welsh paused once more, waiting for a sign that Ray was taking this all in. "Do you understand, Detective?"
"Yes, Sir." Ray's voice was a whisper.
"Further interviews with Michael Hespetti have been held and he has admitted that blood was taken from victims when they were unconscious and portrayed as being that from an AIDS sufferer."
"When I was at the hospital, they found puncture marks," Ray said, his speech quiet and thoughtful as he tried to assimilate the new information. It was unbelievable. "Sir...he could be trying to avoid an attempted murder charge, these don't have to be the same syringes he used."
"I know that, and you should go through with the AIDS test, but now Hespetti's talking, his people are talking, and they all say the same. They thought it was funny, torturing individuals with their own blood."
Ray leant forward, feeling sickeningly light-headed, hoping he wasn't going to pass out on the Lieutenant's floor. Dare he start to hope... Welsh was at his side with a glass of water, which he took gratefully with trembling hands.
"You think it's true, Sir?"
"I hope it is." Ray's head spun again and he shut his eyes, now fighting back nausea. "Let me see if I can find Constable Fraser for you," Welsh said a few minutes later as he lifted the telephone receiver from its cradle, but Ray was already recovering and certainly didn't want Benny worried.
"No, Sir, it's okay. Cup of coffee strong enough to melt the spoon and I'll be fine."
"You'll be seeing him later then?"
There was something in Welsh's voice that made Ray wary. God, he knew, didn't he? 'Act normal,' Ray ordered himself, 'don't overreact, not this time.' Would he be seeing Benny later? Under the usual circumstances...
"I'll be seeing him later."
"That's good." Ray looked up at him, his expression on his face one big uneasy question. "Detective...I remember you before Fraser came along, I've watched you since. It's been a reminder that some...friendships, however they're perceived by third parties, are worth pursuing." Their eyes met and Ray was calmed by what he saw there. Acceptance.
"Thank you, Sir."
"That's okay. Now, if you want to leave early I don't have a problem with that. You'll want to share this news with your family."
"I think...I think I'll get the second result before I tell anyone anything. Just in case, you know?"
"That's probably a very wise decision, Detective, and positively unnerving coming from you. So, are you working?"
Ray stood. "I'm working, Sir."
"How many files on your desk at present?"
"Any chance there'll be less by the end of the day?"
"Very little, Lieutenant."
"Well done, Detective Vecchio. It feels like things are finally back to normal."
The Riv was parked outside Ben's apartment a quarter of an hour early. Ray sat wondering what, if anything, he should tell Ben about the afternoon's conversation with Welsh. It had been a constant battle all afternoon not to get on the phone and break the potential good news to his friend, but he knew what that would suggest to both of them and was reluctant to either build hopes or submit pressure. And what if they had been duped by Hespetti? What if he was denying what he had done in the hope his victims would spread the virus to their loved ones? He needed that test. Ray closed his eyes, luxuriated in the memory of Ben's kisses, wondered if a few more would build him up or break him down. Sighing deeply, he began to wish he was a selfish bastard who was only out for a fuck instead of wanting heart and soul, but you couldn't help the way you were, right?
At Ben's door he paused again, heart racing, butterflies in his stomach. One brisk knock and he was invited in to be greeted enthusiastically by Dief, who virtually frisked him for doughnuts. The closet door was open and Ben, in singlet and brown uniform trousers, was standing staring in.
"I didn't know what to wear," Ben admitted without even glancing at Ray.
Ray smiled: it was mean to ask for smart when he knew the extent of the Mountie's wardrobe.
"No, sorry, whatever. I didn't book anywhere. I was going to then something came up and made me think and I thought I'd let you choose. Or you choose what and I'll pick where."
Now Ben looked at him, smiled.
Ray was already reaching for his phone as they nodded in unison. Ben stepped into the closet and paused to listen to Ray on the phone, deciding his was the best voice he'd ever heard in his entire life - not that he was biased or anything - before pulling on a flannel shirt and heading for the kitchen; Ray stopped him as he passed, leaving his hand on his arm just for the contact after seven long days apart. There was a momentary pause.
"I'm sorry," they said together.
Their eyes met, Ben's hand came up to caress Ray's cheek. A 'Please do, please don't' mantra raced through Ray's head as it looked like Ben was going to kiss him, but Ben just gave him the gentlest, heart-melting smile and moved on to the kitchen, leaving Ray both disappointed and relieved. 'Get it over with,' he told himself, not wanting the evening to be one tortuous lead up to a discussion on that kiss.
"I wish you'd done it before all this happened," Ray said, knowing Ben would understand what he was referring to. "Why didn't you do it before?"
"I didn't know I could. You didn't tell me I could."
"How could I tell you?"
"You could have told me."
"I thought you were straight."
"Gender has never been a consideration for me."
"You knew that, I didn't. I wasn't going to take a chance on something I didn't know and alienate my best friend."
"It wouldn't have alienated me even if I were strictly heterosexual."
"You don't know that, you may have been a different person if you were straight."
"I don't think so, Ray. And what if I had made some sort of gesture and you had been straight? This works both ways."
"But why didn't you know? About me? You manage to figure out every other damn thing."
"I wouldn't have speculated on something so personal to you. I respect you too much."
"Finally, there's something you'd simply never presume."
"That's right, Ray, I wouldn't."
Ray paced away, paced back. He had to ask however much he didn't want to.
"Did you do it because you felt sorry for me?"
The shock on Ben's face was enough of an answer.
"You think I have so little strength of character?"
"No. No, I think you have too much." Ray took the last few paces to Ben, throwing his arms around him and hugging him tightly, acutely aware of Ben's hands slipping under his jacket to hold him back. "Can you not say another word, just listen. I can't tell you how it makes me feel, knowing you'd take a chance despite everything. Don't say anything, just let me tell you I love you, okay? I love you, Benny." There was perfect moment of stillness as they held each other in silence; Ray knew it was too good to last. This was, after all, the Mountie.
"Will you shut up! You are truly the most irritating man I have ever met in my entire life!" He felt Ben's shoulders shudder as he tried to suppress laughter and pulled back, trying to be cross with his friend. "What? What?"
"I think they recognise you and prioritise."
There was a rap at the door. Ray reluctantly let Ben go.
"You're the only psychic in the world especially tuned to pizza deliveries."
"He sings on the stairs; the way he misses certain notes is quite distinctive."
Ray paid for the pizzas, tipped the stunned teenager, dumped the boxes on the table, besides which Dief impatiently waited. Ben watched all the while, the voice in his head reciting his good fortune: 'He loves me, he honestly loves me, he wants me for the right reasons, he'll never hurt me, he'll never leave me, he loves me...'
Over their food they talked about their weeks, catching each other up on life at the Station House and Consulate; Ray explained the circumstances of one particular case that he found baffling, knowing that talking it through with Ben would help him sort out the facts in a way he found impossible in a Mountieless state. What he really wanted was for Ben to offer to come along tomorrow, but he wouldn't ask, refused to put even that much pressure on his friend. Ben knew what Ray wanted, and he'd deliberately held back in recent weeks, wanting Ray to regain his former confidence when out alone; in honesty, they'd both needed to get over residual anxieties from the abduction. But it was getting harder and harder to not be with him, for a multitude of reasons. As he listened to Ray, Ben stretched out a sock-clad foot under the table, finding Ray's shoe and sliding up and over, tucking his toes under the hem of Ray's trousers and stroking his leg. Ray smiled, fell silent, just...looked at him. Ben had never seen a look so full of love directed at him and he felt positively humbled.
"Thank you for the fern."
"You like it?"
"Yes, I do. Very much. Especially what it means."
"And you think I never listen to a word you say."
"I know you listen- Ray, can I kiss you?"
"Once. I won't ask again."
"You're not being fair, Benny, you know I want to say yes."
Without waiting for anything more definite, Ben rose and moved around the table, dropping to his knees by Ray and swinging him around in the chair to face him. Edging forward until Ray was forced to part his legs to accommodate him, Ben pressed close, running his hands over Ray's arms, shoulders, neck, caressing his face. Ray's eyes shut as he concentrated on the feel of Ben's fingertips, and he gave a quiet moan as moist lips settled over his, as delectable and enticing as he remembered. Ben's hands dropped to Ray's legs, sliding firmly from knees to thigh before they were brought to a standstill by Ray grabbing his wrists.
"Let me," Ben whispered against Ray's lips.
"You're going to drive me insane," Ray snapped, pulling away from Ben, edging the chair back to introduce a little space between them. He stared longingly into eyes that were dark with desire. "You're not thinking straight, Benny. Probably because all the blood due for your brain has been diverted south."
"Oh, yeah, I think."
Ray couldn't help but smile; in his wildest dreams he never imagined Ben to be like this. He'd thought shy, conservative, maybe even a lights off type of guy, certainly not capable of relentless pursuit. God, what would he be like in bed? A jolt of lust shot through his body and he extricated himself from the situation, pacing until he calmed a little. Ben sat back on his heels, gazing after him. Mentally groping for a diversion, Ray recalled what he'd left in the Riv and turned to the door.
"You're not going, Ray?" There was distinct panic in Ben's voice.
"I got you something; I have to fetch it from the car. I'm gonna take the stairs very slowly. Give you time to calm down?" Ray finished pointedly.
Ben stood and cleared away the pizza boxes, absent-mindedly throwing a few remaining crusts to Dief. Turning and leaning against the sink, he surveyed the apartment; everything was the same yet nothing was the same and he felt in a positive daze. His body seemed to be far more alert than his mind at this juncture, and he couldn't remember ever needing physical contact quite so urgently; still, he was happy to be frustrated because it meant he was becoming whole, real. He listened at the door for a few seconds, ascertaining that Ray was not back in the building yet - probably sitting in the Riv trying to do exactly what he'd told Ben to do, i.e. calm down - before removing and hanging up his uniform trousers and pulling his jeans from the closet. He hesitated before putting them on, tempted to carry on stripping off and wait for Ray in bed, naked and blatantly ready for him in every sense; shuddering pleasurably as the fantasy in his mind played on, he dressed, belatedly reminded of how tricky it was to fasten tight jeans over an erection that showed no intention of waning.
"I can't cope with this," Ray told himself as he sat in the Riv, hands on the steering wheel, head on his hands. The amazement and flattery he had felt at Ben's enthusiasm was morphing into exasperation at the unfairness of the situation. Sitting back he bashed at the wheel with his fists. "I could've had him a million times. I could've..." Calm down, calm down. Question: was it possible to die of sexual frustration? Question: if they were really really careful would it be okay if they just fooled around a little? Killer question: how callous a bastard was Hespetti? No. Ray knew that even if he went back to Ben with the intention of having sex in any shape or form, the moment he saw the man's face he'd be stonewalled. He would never take a chance with somebody he loved so much.
Ben was sitting at the table, freshly made tea and coffee beside him, when Ray re-entered the apartment. After exchanging a glance of mutual sympathy, they rifled through the contents of the box Ray had brought up.
"Phone, smart card, battery, charger."
"I don't need..."
"Yes, you do, Benny. I want us to be able to keep in touch."
"We're rarely out of touch."
"I picked you the smallest phone they had - it'll disappear into that bat utility belt of yours and will in no way obstruct the cause of Canadian justice. It's billed to my phone account, I'll even pay the electricity bill for charging the battery if you'll just take it."
"You think you could have phoned me that day. Before they took you." Ray took a sharp breath. Paused in thought, wondering how right Ben was.
"Maybe. Well, no, I didn't have time to do anything. I want us to be in touch. And there have been times when you've been in trouble and you could've done with a phone - tell me I'm wrong."
Now Ben took a few minutes to think. He didn't need a phone, but if it reassured Ray...
"Thank you kindly, Ray. It's very considerate of you."
The worried kink between Ray's eyebrows disappeared and he smiled at getting his own way for once, quickly showing Ben how to assemble the phone and use the charger before programming his own cell phone number and that of his work phone into the memory and demonstrating how to use that too. Ben wasn't even looking at the phone.
"You're not taking too much of this in, are you?"
"I confess I am a little distracted."
"Should I go?"
"No!" Too sharp. "I mean...please stay."
"Promise to behave?"
"Well, I can't promise, Ray, but I'll try. Don't leave. You've done too much of that recently."
Ray laid his hand palm up on the table and Ben took it.
"Do you think this is safe enough? Or should I put my gloves on?"
Ben chuckled and Ray joined in, close, secure, happy. Together.
They spent some time discussing the cabin, debating the pros and cons of buying a generator, which seemed a highly practical improvement if they were going to spend more time there in the future; they considered ways of improving the rudimentary bathroom that had been built on when Ben and some of his Inuit friends had repaired the fire damage, and how long it would take to roof the new bedroom that was still under tarpaulin and presently unusable.
"You hated it the first time you visited," Ben mused, thinking about the peace and contentment they had found there more recently.
"Yeah. Can't think why." He noticed Ben's look. "That was not sarcasm. You know, I realise you still think of it as your Dad's place, but I think of it as our place. D'you mind that?"
"No. The contrary."
"We going back soon?"
They both knew what Ray was asking. When they were last at the cabin they had discussed returning when Ray had received the results of the test: whichever way it went, he - they - would need time and space to work through some very powerful emotions.
"Soon." Ben renewed his grip on Ray's hand, stroking the silky skin of his wrist idly with his thumb. "It'll be fine."
The mood was subdued for a while as they both dwelt on the prospect of the test, but a long walk with Dief buoyed their spirits, and on the virtually deserted back streets they chose, their linked fingers went unnoticed.
Ray had come in for a coffee before he went home, and now he stood staring blindly out of the window, wondering why Welsh had been so understanding, if he had got his estimation of the people he worked with so wrong. What if Welsh really had meant his and Ben's platonic friendship, and his paranoia had added the implications? Bullshit, he'd called him your Mountie. Ray smiled. Your Mountie. My Mountie. God, he thinks I've had him. For a few mean seconds Ray wished that Welsh would tell that to all the women who drooled over Ben. Mmm...what would Frannie look like when she'd pulled all her hair out? Strong arms slid around Ray's waist from behind, hands slipped under his jacket, fingers spread to take in as much surface area as possible. Ben's body met his, and Ray shivered at the kisses Ben laid on the nape of his neck before nuzzling the back of his head, still fascinated by the feel of the crew cut. Ray relaxed against him, covering Ben's hands with his own.
"My Mountie," he whispered smugly.
"Undeniably," the soft reply tickled his scalp. "Mmm...you always smell so good."
"Compared to some of the stuff I've seen you sniffing I'm not surprised."
"What I'm really looking forward to is the first taste."
That thought zipped straight to Ray's groin and he couldn't stop the giveaway intake of breath. Ben withdrew his arms and turned Ray to him, cupping his face and trying for a kiss. Ray dodged and turned back to the window.
"One kiss, that's what you said earlier. You wouldn't ask again."
"I wasn't asking." The kisses now trailed over Ray's scalp, down to his very sensitive neck. He shuddered and Ben held him tighter, pressing into him so Ray could feel how aroused he was. "So..." Ben murmured between kisses, "after that moment in the holding cell when you turned and saw the idiot..."
"I shouldn't have said that, I'm...I'm..."
"Did you think of him when you got home? In the shower? Maybe in bed that night?"
"You know the answer to that."
"How did you think of him?"
"Don't, Benny," Ray groaned.
"Were you fucking him or was he fucking you?"
Ray's defences shattered, whether it was the image - choice of images - or simply that word coming from Ben's mouth, but he abruptly twisted to face him. There was suddenly a hand at the small of Ben's back, another firmly cradling his head, and now he was the one being manhandled close as Ray's mouth found his, kissing him passionately, his tongue pressing for admittance and sliding into Ben as his lips willingly opened. Ben reciprocated, receiving that first taste he had been longing for, absorbing the unique flavour and basking in the intimacy of this act. It was over too soon, as Ben knew it would be, when Ray's conscience finally stopped him pursuing further. Ray backed off, breathless, hopelessly horny but protecting Ben with his innate sense of decency.
"I've gotta go, Benny."
"I'm gonna go."
"You know... That was the first time you've ever kissed me. Before, you were just letting me kiss you, but that was..." Ben slowly shook his head, unable to find a word that captured the sheer eroticism of Ray's action. "I want you so much."
"I...have to go." Ray managed to skirt Ben and get to the door; he turned to find Ben stalking him. 'Business, business, business,' rattled through Ray's head and he tried to drag his brain out of his trousers. "So, Benny, tomorrow. You wanna come along with me? I could certainly do with your help."
"Let's see..." Ben was nose to nose with him again. "Tomorrow. You want me to...come with you, is that right?"
"Benny, what are you doing to me?" Ray smiled weakly.
"Ensuring you don't change your mind about us." Ben returned the smile but Ray knew the words were deadly serious.
"I'm not gonna change my mind, Benny, I promise. If you want me you can have me. Think about it: you've always had me."
"And any interpretation you want to put on that is fine by me."
"That's very generous, Ray."
"My mind, my heart, my soul, all the mushy stuff."
"I'm...touched." Oh, the insinuation in that voice!
"I'm also ready to fuck the living daylights out of you."
"Please, Ray." Ben's lips brushed Ray's once more.
"Can't believe I said that, I didn't say that, all right?"
"Not the big-eyed Mountie look! When it comes to it I will make love with you. If and when it's safe we will make love. Now let me out, I'm only human!"
Ray was halfway home when the phone rang. He pulled over by the side of the road and answered it, rightly suspicious about who was calling.
"Hello, Ray," Ben purred. Purred? Yes. Shit! Ray swallowed hard. "Do you want to know what I'm doing now?"
"You want to know what I'm doing, Benny? Crashing the car!"
"What are you going to do when you get home?"
"That's not entirely true, is it, Ray?" Ray laughed and shook his head. "Is it, Ray?" taunted the Mountie's disembodied voice.
"I'm shaking my head here."
"Good." Ben's voice became serious. "You didn't give me a chance to say what I wanted to earlier, Ray. May I now?"
"Thank you." There was a brief pause as Ben chose his words. "I love you, Ray. I'm in love with you. I wanted to thank you for giving me the chance to find that out. Giving me the chance to be whole. I promise I'll never let you down again."
"Goodnight, Ray. Drive safely."
"G'night, Benny." Ben could hear the tenderness in his voice, could imagine the expression on his face. "Love you."
It was two in the morning. Ray was awake, worried. Now the euphoria of Ben's advances had passed he was starting to think more clearly. And the word he found himself thinking more clearly about was 'why'. Why was this too good to be true? Why did Benny want him, claim to love him? Why had he never suspected that Benny would be...approachable? Okay, the gaydar thing was a bit of a joke but somehow, when two men were of the same proclivity, they found out; he had known lots of men that he knew were gay just because - well, just because he knew. But never Benny. If he was honest with himself, despite the fantasies he'd entertained from the moment they'd met, he'd never considered Benny to be a sexual creature at all until Victoria had shown up. And God only knew what happened there! It was as if Benny had been obsessed, not in love. So was that how Benny was?
Ray wasn't comfortable with being an obsession. The aftershocks of Victoria still unnerved him and he didn't want to affect Benny like that, make him desperate like she had, and there was something desperate about the way Benny had pursued him earlier. 'Ensuring you don't change your mind about us.' What did Benny think he had to give Ray to make him stay? His love? His body? His health? His life?
Restlessly throwing back the bed covers Ray sat up, ran his hands over the crew cut that Benny loved: grinned at the sensation and the knowledge. Another why: why was his suspicious nature attempting to undermine the best thing that had happened to him in years? Just because he'd been dumped or rejected more times than he cared to count? Yeah, but his skill at picking people who anyone with an ounce of sense would know were wrong for him couldn't help - how many times had his mother, or Frannie, or Maria met his latest and looked at him with amused yet pitying eyes? Of course, he'd never brought a male date home: that would cause a reaction he'd run across the state to avoid!
He thought about Adam, the man he had told Benny about. Ray had been on his own for some time before they'd met and after just a single date Ray had begun to entertain hopes of a future together; this didn't actually make Adam particularly special and the hopes were certainly nothing new: Ray wanted to be settled, safe, monogamous and in love. There were times he had been so lonely he would have forced himself to love anyone if it meant the seclusion would end. Now it had been two years since he'd felt that way. He'd met Benny and life had been instantly better, even taking all those ruined suits and the amount of times Benny'd gotten them into trouble into consideration. Ray hadn't had to force a thing: love had come naturally, continuing to grow until it was solid and unshakable: the foundation of his existence. He could never have felt that way about Adam. Then Ray remembered them in bed and grimaced. Feeling unable to trust Adam, he had been reticent, physically uncommitted: small wonder his uninhibited lover had looked elsewhere. But, even with his entire body, Adam couldn't push the buttons that Benny could manage with a single kiss.
Ray laid back down with a sigh. He would put the brakes on Benny, force him to think with his head rather than with his...his...don't even think about... Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
Next morning Ray picked Ben and Dief up outside the Mountie's apartment; both men felt the restoration of the status quo and there was a discernable undercurrent of 'us against the world' as they fell back into old ways and, as far as Dief was concerned, bad habits. Thanks to Ben's acute olfactory senses the troublesome case was solved by mid-afternoon and the solution was presented to Welsh, who seemed to take the resumption of their partnership for granted. Paperwork completed, the trio visited a local diner before Ray drove Ben home.
"Coming up?" Ben asked conversationally.
Ray had been expecting the invitation, but still experienced a buzz of surprise. All day Ben had been the Mountie of old, the public face of Canada, giving Ray the eerie feeling that he'd dreamt yesterday's events and there was nothing more than a sound friendship between them. But what about in the privacy of Ben's home? He had to know, had to have the chance to kiss those perfect lips once more before finding the strength to plead the 'go slow' argument.
The all-out advance Ray had expected the moment they were behind closed doors failed to materialise; Ben put the kettle on, removed his tunic and boots, assigning both to the closet, watered Dief, made coffee and tea, all as Ray watched in beached confusion. Or was it frustration?
"Hey," Ray said softly, immediately distracting Ben from an ongoing debate between Mountie and wolf. The hopeful look on Ben's face spoke volumes, so much wanting to be wanted, needing to be needed. The affection in Ray's eyes was all the encouragement it took, and Ben crossed the kitchen in record time, cupping his hands around the back of Ray's head and pulling him into a kiss, running his fingertips through the tantalising bristle. Ray mentally ordered his hands to behave as they rested lightly on Ben's waist, itching to explore further, but they were quickly dislodged as Ben began pushing his jacket off, starting on his tie before the dark grey Armani hit the floor. Ray was thoroughly shaken by Ben's speed, and was half out of his shirt before he had gathered his wits sufficiently to grab Ben's wrists.
"Whoa, Benny! Too fast, too fast!"
"Ray, please, we can be safe."
"I'm not talking safe now, Benny."
Ray backed off a step and began rearranging his clothes, throwing his jacket over the back of the nearest chair; Ben observed, the expression on his face akin to pain.
"You don't want me?"
"You're kidding, right? I want you like crazy, but I need you to think about this. Us."
"Benny... Two weeks ago you'd never considered this."
"Hardly two weeks, Ray."
"Look, if I had a spare hair I'd let you split it..."
"I should have been more forthright with you at the cabin when you told me of your attraction toward me. I started thinking about us then. I haven't stopped since."
"Maybe you're just lonely, Benny, and there I go putting this idea about us into your head."
"I can't deny any of that statement, Ray, but the implication is that I would have reacted this way to anyone in the same situation, and it's patently inaccurate. You've always been special to me. And, on consideration, if I'd been of a mind to court anyone it would have been you."
"Court me? Court me?" Ray grinned. "That is gorgeous! Oh, God, I sound gay; forget I said gorgeous, I'll think of something else."
"But it never occurred to me to pursue you. To pursue anyone. I only became involved with Victoria because of a perverse blend of romantic delusion, guilt and sexual frustration."
"And I simply thought you'd gone crazy."
"I had. I'm not used to letting my emotions run away with me. When they do, when I get involved... I'm a disaster area, Ray. I recognise that, I abhor it, and I try to avoid it."
Ray hated the anxiety marring Ben's features; he moved close and took his friend into his arms, smoothing his hands across the strong back, unconsciously steering clear of the bullet scar. Ben relaxed into the comforting embrace, linking his arms loosely around Ray's neck.
"You're not avoiding it now."
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't alarmed by what's happening, but I trust you more than any person I've ever known. If anyone can contain the disaster, it's you."
"This is no disaster," Ray smiled, and Ben gave him one gentle kiss.
"But you want to slow down?"
"We have no choice, you know that." Ray reciprocated with an equally tender kiss. "Still...if you get really wound up, you know I'll help you out. We can do that safely."
"You know what I mean, I don't have to draw you a picture."
Ray slipped his hand around to Ben's groin, massaged the semi-erection that turned to iron beneath his skilled fingers. Ben gasped and dropped his head forward, leaning his forehead against Ray's.
"Like this?" Ray whispered knowingly. Ben nodded against him, speechless for once. "You want more?"
"I want you," Ben's voice was hoarse with desire.
"You can't have me, but I can still make you feel good." Ray's free hand came around to begin unfastening Ben's fly; all the time he was racking his brains trying to remember what was in those damned leaflets. Was it safe for him to go down on Benny without a condom? If kissing was safe, then saliva was safe, then... Oh, shit, shit, shit, why couldn't he remember? He was inside Ben's jodhpurs now, caressing him through his boxers, feeling the dampness of his excitement on the uncompromising material. A distinct tremble made Ray stop and think. "You want to lie down?"
"Before I fall down?" Ben joked shakily.
"Before you fall down." Ben loved to hear Ray's voice when was it was sweet and full of humour, but now it reminded him of the one-sidedness of this encounter and he resisted Ray's coaxing toward the bed. "Hey, come on, Precious," Ray murmured, and at the sound of the unprecedented endearment Ben caved immediately, allowing himself to be ushered along, not helping but neither hindering as his suspenders were eased from his shoulders and his jodhpurs manoeuvred floorwards, before he was persuaded to sit on the edge of the bed.
"Yes, you can."
"This should be..."
"No, it shouldn't."
"I'm sure you do, but this is okay for now."
Ben groaned and sank back as Ray's hands travelled over his boxers and into the waistband, inching them down until they were teased out from under him and off. Fingertips traced over Ben's erect penis as Ray contemplated replacing them with his mouth, all the while mentally debating the rights and wrongs while physically aching to taste his love for the first time.
"Come here," Ben implored. "Come and kiss me."
That was an easier decision. Ray swung Ben around so he was fully on the bed and knelt beside him, peeling off his singlet to leave him naked bar his socks, leaning over to follow through Ben's order. As their lips met, his hand journeyed back to Ben's erection, grasping it more firmly now and finding a smooth rhythm up and down the silky shaft. Ben moaned into his mouth and the sound zeroed in on his own cock, reminding him that he was wearing good Armani trousers that were never intended to be covered in bodily fluids. He broke away from Ben.
"Sorry, sorry, I just have to get out of these..." Ray reassured Ben as he backed off of the bed, toed off his shoes without untying the laces, and shed his trousers. Still breathing heavily, Ben leant up on his elbows to watch.
"I don't get to ruin another suit?"
"As soon as I stop relying on my mother to take my suits to the cleaners. 'And what is this stain, Mrs Vecchio?' Ooh, don't want to go there." He saw the way Ben's eyes were raking his body. "You're gonna behave, right? Keep your hands to yourself."
"I have some condoms, Ray, the ones the health centre recommended."
"Let me guess: industrial strength, equivalent to a heavy gauge tarpaulin. I'd be more comfortable with you just doing as you're told."
"Could you keep your hands to yourself in a similar situation?"
"For God's sake, Benny, just lie back and take it like a Mountie. I'll look after the both of us."
"That's the problem," Ben muttered as he collapsed. "I want to take it like a Mountie."
Ray grinned and climbed back onto the bed, settling alongside Ben and letting his hand meander along the firm body until his fingers wrapped around their present favourite body part. His mouth skimmed his neck, tongue leaving a moist trail down to his shoulder, collar-bone. The attention to Ben's cock grew more insistent, and clear pre-cum spread over Ray's fingers as he mercilessly teased the sensitive glans; a few more firm strokes and Ben's entire body tensed and he came with a strangled cry, bucking under Ray's hand. Ray found he was holding his breath, overwhelmed by his lover's beauty at the moment of his release, brought to the very edge himself by the sheer eroticism of making this perfect man lose control. Now able to taste Ben safely he brought his hand to his mouth, and as he licked the semen from it he instinctively pressed forward against Ben's hip, so intensely aroused that he came instantly, silently, his whole body clenched as if unable to relax and enjoy without fear or inhibition. As he took a deep, deep breath and forced his muscles to unknot he became aware of the first shudder as Ben's resolve cracked and he began to sob. Instantly alert, Ray reached out, gathering Ben up and cradling him, scared to ask a new 'why' although he was fairly sure he already knew the answer.
"Oh, Benny, don't." Ray kissed Ben's temple; whispered into his ear. "Benny, you're beautiful, you're so beautiful and I love you like crazy. Please don't..."
"I can't lose you."
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm here, I'm yours."
After ten minutes of stroking and soothing the worst of the outburst was over and a degree of control was regained; Ben pulled away slightly so he could look into Ray's face.
"When they took you, Ray, when I thought I'd lost you..."
"Ssh, it's finished with."
"My life was over. I came up against something I knew I'd never recover from. I didn't know then that I was allowed to love you this much, but I knew that I couldn't be alone again, I couldn't live without you."
"And now you don't have to."
"Listen to me, Ray. Listen. I don't care about being careful, do you understand? Because wherever you go, I want to follow."
"I'm not listening to this," Ray told him firmly, the shock audible in his voice.
"You have to."
"Stop this now! No more stupid talk!"
"You don't want to live without me? Well, you're going the right way about it. One more word of this and I'm out of that door." Ben drew breath to speak, saw the manic glint in Ray's eye and thought better of it. Ray wiped the tears from Ben's face with the corner of a sheet. "Look at you. How do you do this? Anybody else cries for twenty minutes and they look like an explosion in a snot factory. You? You look like an elegantly distressed movie star. You're so fucking gorgeous you make me cringe!" Ben started to laugh, bit his lip. Ray smiled, kissed him, slumped back onto his side of the bed. "So...you're not much of a one for afterglow." Ben turned to him, snuggling up and burying his face in his friend's neck, tickling him with breathy giggles. "You finished going nuts, Benny?"
"Yes, Ray." For now.
"You know I'm not laying another finger on you if that happens every time I bring you off."
"I think I needed to say it."
"You've got it out of your system?"
"Yes." Ben kissed Ray's neck. "Thank you kindly." Another kiss. "For everything. It felt so good, Ray. I'd forgotten." Several kisses. "I'll want you all the more now I've been reminded."
"We're meant to be slowing down," Ray sighed. "I promised myself that nothing would happen. I'm still scared, you know?"
"I know. And I've been behaving very selfishly. You see - put me in a personal situation and I can't think straight."
"Well, I'll have to think for both of us."
"What happened here is exceptional and it's not going to be a daily event. But I meant what I said: you need me badly enough I won't let you down."
"Would a kiss be considered too subversive?"
Ray wriggled down and around to face Ben, allowing his friend to torment him with a dozen luscious yet undemanding kisses before insisting they both cleaned up and dressed.
"No work tomorrow, Benny, how about a late movie?"
"Can we hold hands in the dark?"
"Are you serious?" Ray laughed.
"Okay. Okay, we hold hands in the dark." A disgruntled mutter came from beside them. "And, yes, we can bring home doughnuts!"
For Ray, the thrill of being able to be himself with Ben transcended all the complications and anxieties in his life. The cold night sweats lessened as the hot variety reasserted themselves, and Ray's mental countdown was no longer a dread-filled march toward a damning test result, but an impatient sprint to a liberating all-clear. Meanwhile he managed to keep Ben safely at arm's length, occasionally by avoiding him altogether, but remained astounded at the transformation in his friend. It would have been easy to think that the naivety he exhibited in his everyday life was an intricate act, but Ray found that there were two distinct and completely genuine Ben's: the Mountie who belonged to the RCMP, his duty and general do-gooding, who still missed the alluring glances of women who found him irresistible, failed to understand the punchline of risqu jokes, and refused to accept that even the worst criminal was all bad. And then there was his Benny: the sensual being who had been liberated by a man he knew he could trust unreservedly, and once given permission to love and lust, was luxuriating in his new-found freedom.
And Ben? Following Ray's example, he pushed the health issue to the back of his mind, and experienced a time of unadulterated joy, impervious to any amount of sentry duty (more time to think about Ray), sarcastic wolf (pathetically jealous of him and Ray), and the Dragon Lady (irritated by his level of distraction, although she had no idea whom said distraction was). He endeavoured to resist pestering Ray for anything more than kisses and the most innocent of touches, and allowed himself to wallow in the romantic aspects of their relationship, finally recognising that he had never felt true love before in his life. He was immensely glad that he had waited for Ray.
Life was great. For an entire month.
It couldn't last.
Scarily happy Ray was sat at his desk plonking away at the report he was typing, as per usual keeping the makers of white-out in business, when the civilian aide covering Elaine's duties during her vacation wedged a sheet of paper from the fax machine under his elbow.
"Thank you kindly, Connie," he smiled, reinforcing the young woman's impression of what a nice, polite detective he was, and why couldn't a few more of them be like him, eh?
"It seems kind of important, Detective," she verbally nudged when he showed no sign of taking a look at the page.
"Yeah, don't they all! I'll get around to it."
Report finally completed, Ray zipped it from the typewriter and tossed it into it's folder before turning to the fax. He skim read it the first time. Then he read it more thoroughly. Finally he took it word for word, letting the information sink into every cell of his being.
"Oh, Jesus. Jesus."
It was barely more than a whisper, but everyone in the entire bullpen seemed to hear and turned in his direction in time to see him drop his head despairingly into his hands. Maybe it was the sound of his world crashing in on him that caught their attention. There was an awful few minutes when a whole lot of people knew they should be saying or doing something to help, but not one of them could even raise the courage to cross the room.
"Timing, timing, timing," Huey was heard to murmur as he caught a flash of red out of the corner of his eye.
Ben felt the atmosphere as he entered the room and he faltered in the doorway, before seeing Huey trying to catch his eye. Contact made, the detective nodded in Ray's direction and that was all it took to bring the Mountie up to speed. He determinedly approached Ray's desk, hesitating for a second time as he experienced the palpable wash of desolation radiating from his friend, glaring at the room in general to send people back to their work. Ben dropped his Stetson on the desk and came to Ray's side, crouching close, trying to engender a little privacy whilst knowing that every curious/concerned eye was surreptitiously trained on them.
"What's wrong?" he asked softly. "Ray?" Ray gave a brief shake of his head, leaving Ben to take the obvious step of reading the fax on the desk in front of Ray. His heart didn't know whether to pound or stop. "Ray," he tried again, resting his hand on the nearest bony wrist. Ray jerked away.
"Don't touch me, Benny," he hissed. "It's happening. We've been had and it's happening. I've got that fucking disease."
He rose awkwardly and pushed past Ben, almost knocking him flying. Alerted by the eerie silence Welsh was in the doorway of his office in time to see Ray hurtle past to the exit, and the rest of his department staring after him in shock or sympathy or pure nosiness after hearing his last words. He looked around, expecting and finding Ben.
"In my office, Constable," he gave the shaken man an escape route. "And the rest of you..." The department leapt back into action before he had a chance to finish his sentence, and he ushered Ben into his office and closed the door and blinds. Ben slipped the fax onto his desk and waited as the lieutenant read.
"Are you okay, son?" he asked as he came to the end of the few damning lines.
"Those two men are the first of Hespetti's victims to have a six-month test?"
Ben's world shifted sideways and he wasn't sure he could hang on to his footing.
"Sir...may I sit down?"
"Yes, sit, sit," Welsh gestured toward the chair where Ray had sat not so long ago to hear his alleged good news. "Sure you're okay?" How could anyone be that pale and still have circulation?
"I will be, Sir." Ben paused, forced his mind to think in a straight line. "I take it there will be enquiries to ascertain whether there was an independent source of...of..."
"Infection," Welsh managed the word that Ben couldn't. "I would imagine the 21st are already onto it." The lieutenant felt pity bite into his gut as he looked at the devastated Mountie. "Can I leave you alone for a few minutes, Constable?" Ben nodded vaguely. "I just have to go and find out who was stupid enough to give this straight to Detective Vecchio, and then I'll have the pleasure of throwing them out of my department."
Composure regained - on the surface at least - and oblivious to the commotion beyond his cocoon of misery, Ben collected his hat, noticed and picked up Ray's keys from the desk, exited the Station House. He found the Riv and climbed in; trusting that Ray would head for sanctuary, he drove slowly and carefully to West Racine.
He found Ray slumped at the kitchen table, arms crossed on the surface, head bowed onto them. During the drive over he'd lectured himself: 'Don't fuss, don't crowd, don't cry, don't overreact, be logical...' But the moment he saw Ray all that he wanted to do was hold him and tell him everything was going to be fine. He didn't however. He checked himself, went through the usual routine of putting the kettle on the stove and setting out mugs, preparing coffee and tea, though it was with shaking hands that he could not persuade to still. Coffee made, he placed it at Ray's elbow. There was no response, and Ben needed one, whatever it was. He reached out and ran a hand over the back of Ray's head; the effect was instantaneous: Ray jerked away, out of the seat, but wasn't prepared for Ben's lightening reactions and found himself bodily shoved up against the nearest wall, pinned there by the Mountie's solid form. He attempted to free himself but found it impossible to match Ben's strength; he settled for glaring furiously.
"Don't reject me," Ben told him firmly. "You need me."
"Let go, Benny."
"Not until you agree we can discuss this rationally."
"Oh, right! Do I seem rational at the moment? Is this a good time?"
"This is the best time." Ray fought the screaming fit that was bubbling under the surface, swallowed against the nausea, threw his head back against the wall with a resounding thud in an effort to find some physical pain to detract from the emotional. Ben's hand shifted, cupping the back of his skull before he could do it again. "Please, Ray. Please." Soft words that could undermine the firmest resolve. The hold that was Ben restraining his friend became Ben supporting him, and as Ray's fight ebbed away he became weak, boneless, allowing himself to be manoeuvred back to the table before he slid down the wall.
"I can't do this now, Benny," his voice was raw, choked.
"Then why come here? My home is hardly the best place to avoid me."
"I don't want to avoid you. I just... Do we have to talk about it?"
"Yes, I think we do. We have to talk our way past the fear."
Ray stared at the table where their hands were locked together. He wanted to withdraw, protect Ben; recognising irrational panic didn't make it any less real.
"They were both positive."
"I know that."
"I have to stop touching you."
"Yes, Benny. Humour me?" Ben reluctantly let go and Ray sat back in his chair, crossing his arms and tucking his hands away. "I know it doesn't make sense. I know that."
"I think your reaction is more about how close we have been, than how close we are at this particular moment." Ray winced. Oh, God, why did he have to be as accurate as a Mafia stiletto? "You think you've put me in danger."
"I...I was lulled into a false sense of security," Ray admitted slowly, before continuing to tell Ben about his conversation with Welsh about Hespetti's hypodermics and their contents. "See, I wanted to believe it was all going to sort itself out. I took risks."
"But you didn't, Ray. We've been many times more careful than we needed to be."
"There you go, being rational again!" Up, pacing. "I know - not I think, or I feel, or I guess - I know I should have stopped this before it started."
"It wasn't all you."
"If I'd've laid off the bottle when we were at the cabin I would never have been drunk or stupid or brave enough to tell you how I feel. And if I hadn't said what I said there, what happened here would never have happened here. And when you kissed me that first time, I should've made sure it was the last time."
"I wouldn't have let you."
"You shouldn't have even been thinking about it! You've admitted that you never even went there before I put the idea in your head!"
"This subject is totally unproductive. There's no reason for recrimination, and we certainly can't change what has already happened."
"But we can change what happens from now." Ray paused, caught his breath. "We go back to being friends, nothing more."
"That's it, decision made."
"I have no say in this?"
"I can't just..."
"Yes, you can, Benny. And unless you're prepared to slam me up against the wall every time you want something you're gonna have to let it go."
"Maybe I'm prepared to do just that," Ben retorted, catching Ray completely by surprise. "I may simply have to."
"That's...that's not in you."
Ben studied Ray's face as memories flooded into his friend's mind, and he knew the episode with Victoria was replaying at record speed, reminding Ray that he'd barely scratched the surface of Ben's complex personality. Obsession. Think obsession. No, Ray couldn't afford to think about it now - he couldn't think about anything other than getting out before this got any worse.
"I'm leaving, Benny, and I don't want any strong-arm tactics, okay?" He pulled out his phone and went straight to memory 222, ordering a cab and ignoring Ben's attempts to catch his eye. As soon as the call was finished Ben dipped into his pocket for the keys to the car.
"The Riv is downstairs."
"You can't be serious."
"I can't? Every time I'm in it I remember stuff I don't want to remember. It's where it all started."
"But you love the Riv, Ray." Ben gave a short humourless laugh. "Probably more than you love me."
Ray turned on him furiously.
"There is nothing, nothing, I love more than you." Unshed tears glittered in his eyes, and the effort it took not to simply explode into a strident, flailing ball of fury was enough to make him tremble from head to toe. "This is not the time to turn smart-mouthed on me, Benny."
"I'm sorry. Truly sorry."
"I'll wait out front."
"Understood. Call me when... Just call me."
Ray was out of words. He gave a quick nod and left, wondering what the hell he was doing, where he was going. In the street he automatically turned to where the Riv was parked; he strolled around it to where the latest damage had been repaired, studying the work dispassionately before turning his back and leaning against the bonnet. 'This is me sitting on Benny's car,' he told himself with a sad smile. 'Hey, Benny, cool car. Really cool. I always wanted one just like it.'
Ben didn't think he would make it through the first day without Ray. Then he thought a week would be impossible. Coming up on a month he was still going through the motions of his life, insensible to stimuli, lost in memories that brought him more happiness and misery than he had ever experienced. Inspector Thatcher tried every trick in her formidable repertoire to get a Fraser-esque response, from unprecedented flattery to verbal abuse that would have terrorised a squadron of marines, but nothing could touch him or rouse him. He'd simply pay attention in that strange vague way he'd developed, carry out orders without question or debate, then, when he was left to his own devices, he'd lapse into taciturn depression. Or water the plant.
Ray felt like every nerve in his body had been screwed over and was throbbing with pain. Sure he was showing the first signs of his illness he didn't mention it to anyone in the hope that a) it would go away of its own accord, b) he'd drop dead so fast he wouldn't have time to think about it, or c)... Shit, only his Mountie could heal him. This was Canadian deprivation of the first degree. He'd lost count of the amount of times his hand had been on the phone, ready to dial the Consulate, or Ben's cell. What could he say? 'Can I just look at you for a while, because that's all I'm allowing myself to do?' He'd only seen him once since...since...yeah, that day, and it was behind the wheel of the Riv. He'd smiled at that: Ben driving the Riv, and driving it well with a little practise and without the threat of Ray's brooding scrutiny hanging over him. They'd been travelling in different directions at an intersection, Ray in an unmarked with smoked windows that left him free to stare without being spotted, and Ben had looked worn, tired... 'Oh, be honest with yourself, Vecchio, he looked heartbroken. You did that.'
One month and heading into an unbearable second when Ray's cell phone rang at three in the morning, shooting him awake from a dream that he was frankly grateful to be out of.
"Vecchio," he said dopily.
Ray was instantly awake.
"I'm sorry for waking you."
"No, no, don't be sorry. I'm glad you did. Great timing."
"Yeah. Look, are you okay? No, don't answer that, it's the dumbest question I ever asked."
There was a hollow pause before Ben spoke again.
"I've made a decision, Ray."
"You have? What about?"
"I've been offered a transfer..." Ben hesitated at the sound of Ray's breath hitching. "I've decided that if we can't be together I'll take it."
Ray was up and dressing.
"Benny, the test..."
"Regardless of the test results. We're together, or I leave. I don't mean to be cruel but I can't survive here alone."
"If we get it wrong, I could kill you."
"Ray...I'm dying now. Inside I'm dying."
"Don't say that."
"How has your month been, Ray? What degree of hell?"
"I hope we'll talk again before I go."
"Benny, don't you hang up on me! Benny? Benny!"
Ray sneaked out of the house as quietly as he could, and was opening the car door when he heard his name hissed behind him.
"Maria, what are you doing? Get inside before you freeze to death."
"You're going to see Benton?"
"Yeah, I got this call and he sounded really weird."
"Ray..." Maria glanced back at the house before speaking conspiratorially. "Take a chance, Ray, and don't blow it."
"We both know what I'm saying here. For God's sake, be brave!"
Maria patted his cheek in a 'your sister always knows best' kind of way that she hadn't used since he was nine years old before scurrying back to the front door, leaving Ray considering just how surreal a moment that was.
He parked behind the Riv outside Ben's apartment building, automatically giving his - no, *Ben's* - car an affectionate glance as he ran toward the entrance, taking the stairs two at a time once he was inside. He nervously tapped at Ben's door, and on receiving no reply, cautiously entered. Ben was on the bed, staring listlessly at the ceiling, feet tucked under Dief's snoring form.
"Hey, Benny." Although quietly spoken his words sounded incredibly loud. "I was worried about you," Ray continued, ever more softly. Ben didn't acknowledge him in any way. He hesitated, took a few steps into the room before saying what he really wanted to say. "I can't accept that you'd leave."
"It's something that always happens, Ray. A month ago you left me. In another month I'll leave you."
"No, please. Please, Benny, I'm begging you here." Ray crossed and sat on the edge of the bed, gently turning Ben's face to look at him. "I'm sorry I shut you out. I know it sounds ridiculous but I only did it..."
"Because you love me," Ben finished for him flatly.
"So why does it feel like you don't love me enough to trust or respect me?"
"Come on, you're the one person I do... What? Get out! Benny, your wolf has his entire head in my pocket!"
"You made that particular rod for your own back," Ben sighed, covering his tired eyes with his forearm. "Doughnuts, pastries, candy..."
"Shame he wouldn't touch the breath mints - will you get off! Thank you! Now see what's happened? Come here, you stupid mutt, you're back-combed! So, are all the best wolves going bouffant this year?"
Ray smoothed Dief's fur and rubbed behind his ears before shooing him away and turning his attention back to Ben, surprised to see the tail end of a smile on his face. That beautiful mouth... God, why was he being so dense about this? What was the point in wanting to live if he alienated the one person who made life worthwhile? 'Take a chance, Ray, and don't blow it.' Ray shifted, leant closer, touched his lips to those he admired so devotedly. Ben jerked in surprise before accepting the kiss and sliding his arm around Ray's neck, easing devotion into passion as his tongue sought entrance to Ray's mouth and was instantly given what it demanded. Ray shuddered with pleasure and relief: it was bliss, it was fireworks, it was winning the World Series, it was...it was coming home. He slid his hands over the cloth covering the Mountie's chest, finding buttons, opening, entering; Ben groaned as he felt the cool hands on his hot flesh, the gentle scrape of nails that made him squirm and goosebump, the teasing strokes tracing muscles and bones. Ray's mouth travelled down Ben's neck, sucking and marking, onto his chest where it explored and aroused one nipple then the other; licking the shape of his rib cage, biting the skin over quivering stomach muscles as it continued its descent. Ray was suddenly yanked away by a hand grasping the rear of his collar.
"No," Ben croaked, before clearing his throat. "No."
"You'll do this, behave as if everything is back to normal, and then you'll leave me again."
"This is me loving you, Benny, not trying to pull a fast one. I promise we'll be together, if you promise not to ask for too much too soon. But you've got to know that when the test comes back positive..."
"If the test comes back positive I'll always have problems with us because I'm scared for you."
"But you'll stay with me?"
"You have my word. I'll stay with you, live with you, tell the world, even ask the wolf for your hand! Just tell me you understand the limitations."
"I understand." Ray stood and shrugged off his coat, throwing it over a chair. Ben followed every move with his eyes, smiling at the attire as it was revealed. "I've never seen you in that before."
Ray glanced down at the sweatsuit.
"I've taken up running, been trying to wear myself out so I could sleep through eight hours."
"Has it worked?"
"Nope. I'm looking forward to dying just so's I can quit."
"Joking, joking, joking!"
Ray kicked off his trainers and laid down beside Ben, his own arousal soaring at the expression of lust and expectation on Ben's face, running a proprietary hand over his exposed stomach before dipping under the red material and inching toward his groin.
"Tell me you love me."
"I do, Ray. I love you with everything I am."
"You sure you want me to touch you?"
Ben's breath caught momentarily.
Ray's fingers found their eager target, exposing it to the thin yellow light that crawled in from the street, and he explored every enthralling inch with loving fascination before his touch became more insistent and Ben was trembling with the exertion of making this last.
"You want to come for me, Precious?" Ray whispered, and those words were almost enough to tip Ben into orgasm. Speechless, breathless, Ben gave a quick nod. Ray shuffled down the bed a couple of feet, touching the tip of his tongue to Ben's cock and closing his eyes to concentrate on first contact, savouring and learning the unique flavour of his love, memorising contours with his mouth. Ben hissed his name and Ray felt fingers raking through the hair on the back of his head, knowing what Ben wanted but recognising that he was too polite to add the necessary pressure himself. Ray took Ben deeply into his mouth until he felt the head of Ben's cock nudge the back of his throat, then repositioned himself slightly and took Ben further, hearing a gasp of excitement as he swallowed and his throat muscles closed hard around the intrusion. Despite the mouthful of cock Ray still managed to smile at Ben's groaned reaction: he knew this felt exceptionally good, and as he'd never met a woman who could do it the chances were that neither had Ben and this was the first time. He also knew he'd taken Ben too far to expect him to control himself and, pulling back slightly, he sucked hard as Ben bucked against the hands holding his hips, releasing streams of hot, bitter semen that Ray held in his mouth to experience fully before slowly swallowing.
Ben lay in a positive daze for several minutes, his entire system overwhelmed by the strength of his orgasm. Ray carried on exploring, his caring licks and touches bringing Ben floating down as opposed to the usual plummet and emptiness. Then Ben's head cleared sufficiently for him to realise how selfish he was being, and he was reaching down, grasping Ray by the shoulders and pulling him back up the bed.
"Oh, no, not a chance in hell."
"Just..." Ben laid his hand over the pronounced bulge at Ray's groin, squeezing gently. "...like this." Ray was already lost to the sensation and gave in to Ben without so much as the pretence of a struggle, returning Ben's kisses distractedly as his body screamed for much needed fulfilment. Ben withdrew from the kiss and moved his lips to Ray's ear. "Soon you'll be tasting yourself in my mouth," he whispered sweetly, and found himself with a groaning cop clinging to him as he came so hard he almost blacked out.
They lay snuggled together, dozing until dawn broke. In the murky half-light Ray stirred and repositioned himself so he could stare at Ben in comfort. 'You are all I have wanted for as long as I've known you,' he thought to him tenderly before images of what he'd done to his friend earlier hurtled into his mind, and he blushed with pleasure. 'I can't believe I have you, this was never gonna happen, never in a lifetime.' As a little more light seeped into the room Ray could distinguish marks on Ben's pale neck; he barely remembered making them but was glad he had. His fingertips brushed against them and Ben stirred.
"You're mine." The words were even better aloud. "Benny, you're mine. You know how long I've wanted to say that?"
"Holding cell?" Ben murmured.
"You mind me thinking that?"
"Why should I? It's true." Ben's eyes flickered open, saw where Ray was still looking. "Made your mark?"
"I should've been more careful. Not sure your collar will hide it."
"And you love it," Ben chuckled.
"Yeah, I love it," Ray grinned in response before trailing kisses from the dark red stain up to Ben's lips. Before he could get too involved a recollection hit him and he had to share. "Benny, I have to tell you: Maria knows."
"Maria. She knows."
Ben nodded sagely.
"I thought so."
"Do you remember when your mother was given those garden ornaments and we were helping her decide where to place them?"
"My back remembers them intimately."
"Well, Maria came into the garden to help and...she saw."
"What? Two guys positioning a water-spouting gargoyle so they must be doing each other?"
"It isn't a gargoyle, Ray, it's a gothic boss..."
"I was going back to the house to fetch your gloves and you stopped me to tell me where you'd left them."
"'Kay...I'm missing something significant here, ain't I?"
"I saw Maria see."
"You took my hand."
"I took your hand?"
"Men don't generally take hold of another man's hand to get their attention. They verbalise, tug a sleeve, throw things..."
"I took your hand."
"And what did you do?"
"I squeezed your fingers. Affectionately, yet without due thought or consideration under those particular circumstances."
"And Maria saw."
"I saw her see."
"Did she see you see that she saw?"
"She smiled - not at me, to herself. Ray...I think she already knew."
"Now she knows about us."
"How do you know that she knows?" Ray explained about the short conversation he had had with his sister as he left home. "That's...that's quite touching, Ray."
Ray stopped to consider the implications for the first time. He'd always expected any member of his family to go ballistic if they found out the truth about him.
"Benny...she's okay with it, my sister's okay with it!"
"She approves of us. You and I," Ben sounded positively bewildered.
"What do you expect? They all think you're it. If we ever did bust up full time it's you they'd want to keep!" Ben shut his eyes tight but not before Ray had seen the tears well up. Ray stroked Ben's cheek with one finger. "Tell me."
"Being a part of something... Part of a family. I never thought..." Ray leant forward and kissed the frown from his face.
"You've been a part of my family for a long time, Benny. Maybe you've been so busy thinking you're on the outside looking in that you haven't noticed you're one of us. You want me to get Ma to adopt you?" he teased. "You'll have to be hyphenated: Benton Fraser-Vecchio. Benton Vecchio-Fraser."
"I... That sounds so wrong when you say it."
"And that sounds so right."
"What were you going to say?"
"What was I... Oh, non-sequitur."
"No, that would be secateur."
"Right. You trying to change the subject?"
"Why can't you just say you're changing the subject?"
"I'm changing the subject."
"See, that works for me."
"The talk of family led me to think about my father, which brought the cabin to mind, reminding me that there are arrangements to be made..."
"This is about the test," Ray sighed. Ben nodded, finding a hand to cling to and clutching it to his chest, unconsciously stroking the long fingers. "It's booked. Two weeks."
"If I hadn't have called you, would you have gone to the clinic alone?"
"I may still go alone. It's hardly family day out material."
"And after the test?" Ray shrugged. "We had plans. I hope we still do." Ben saw Ray's resolve waver. "We could go to the clinic, then head straight for the airport..."
"Have I shown any kind of ability to say no to you recently?"
"Don't go there! It's the fifteenth at nine-thirty. Clinic, airport, Canada, cabin, primal screaming. Book the tickets." Ben wasn't aware of how much he'd tensed up over the previous few minutes, but with Ray's rapid capitulation he took a deep breath and relaxed. "Five and a half months," Ray said thoughtfully. "I couldn't see me getting this far without going crazy. Maybe I have been crazy at times. I must have been crazy to hurt you again. Can you forgive me?"
"If we're at the end of the craziness."
"I promise you. Any more craziness and we'll go crazy together."
"Then there's nothing more to say about it. I forgive you; of course I forgive you."
Ray kissed Ben gratefully before turning carefully in the narrow bed, wriggling until he and Ben were spooned together and Ben's arm was wrapped securely around his waist.
"Oh, God, this is good," Ray murmured sleepily. "You make me feel safe, you know that, Benny? My hot Mountie armour. Hot, hot, hot."
Ben smiled and pressed his mouth to the back of Ray's head, catching the short hairs between his lips and running his tongue pleasurably along the blunt ends, all the time listening to Ray's breathing deepen as he drifted into sleep.
What if Ray had called his bluff? There was no offer of a transfer and he had absolutely no intention of leaving Chicago alone. What if Ray had said go? What if... It didn't bear thinking about; Ben ordered himself to stop the morbid train of thoughts and get some sleep, reminding himself that he was, apparently, hot Mountie armour and obviously had the responsibilities that went with the title, and that he needed to be rested and awake in a few hours when his...umm...protectee would need him. He rested his cheek against the bristle and closed his eyes.
"I love you, Ray," he whispered. "I'll take care of you. Whatever happens."
The entire personnel of both the 27th and the Consulate breathed a mass sigh of relief as it became obvious that their colleagues were back in good sorts. Welsh would often emerge from his office on little or no pretext to surreptitiously watch them together, hoping that the positive front they were presenting would see them through the next stage of the ordeal. Ray's test date was marked in his diary and he had desperately hoped to have encouraging news about Hespetti's other victims to offer him before it came about, but after the first disastrous results, the cops at the 21st had had great difficulty in persuading anyone to cooperate with their enquiries, rapidly finding themselves more preoccupied with stemming the wave of hits being negotiated on Hespetti and his associates.
The days passed at remarkable speed and it seemed too short a time before Welsh was watching them walk out of a deserted bullpen the evening before the test, having completed the paperwork on Ray's desk or passed the remaining files to other officers prior to leaving the country. Unaware that they were being observed, Ray put an arm around the Mountie's waist and pulled him close, whispering into his ear. Welsh cleared his throat and diplomatically averted his eyes as they started, leapt apart and turned.
"Detective...I wanted to wish you good luck."
Ray smiled and turned back to shake his Lieutenant's hand.
"Thank you, Sir, I appreciate it."
"I also wanted to assure you that there's place for you here for as long as you want it. I won't let you be pushed out by hysterical bureaucrats. Or hysterical cops for that matter."
"I'm going to think about my options once I know the result. See how I feel in myself, you know?"
Welsh nodded pensively, wondering who this unruffled stranger was and what he'd done with the real Ray Vecchio.
"We'll be in touch, Sir," Ben added, taking the Lieutenant's offered hand.
"I left the contact address for the cabin with Elaine should you need it," Ray said with a final smile, backing toward the exit and drawing Ben and Diefenbaker along in his wake. Welsh nodded and dismissed them with a gesture, heading back to his desk and wondering if he would ever set eyes on either of them again.
Outside the Station House Ray stood and watched as Ben unlocked the Riv and opened the driver's door before hesitating and looking back to his partner.
"Hey, Benny. Mind if I drive your car?"
Ben laughed one of his rare laughs and Ray grinned as the keys came hurtling in his direction. They climbed into the car, turning to look at one another with knowing glances.
"This is right," Ben pronounced, settling back into the passenger seat, accepting a few comments from Dief in the back. "Any excuse to celebrate! You've turned into a good-time wolf and it's got to stop."
"Too late for Italian?" Ray asked, throwing the question at Dief rather than Ben. Apparently Italian sounded great, and Ray started the engine, lovingly caressing the steering wheel. "Listen to that purr," he sighed. "Yeah, Benny, you were right again."
"I do love this car more than you."
A statement which he subsequently disproved, beginning his seduction of Ben the second they set foot into the Mountie's apartment and, for the first time since they had renewed their commitment, making love to him with as much abandon as he safely dared; Ray knew that by ten-thirty the next morning he would be too scared to touch Ben for a very long time and had to make this night special. Post-coital and entwined, they talked about work, about the cabin, about everything they could think of that would keep them from talking about what they knew they should be talking about.
"Does Lieutenant Welsh know?" Ben asked after considering the man's demeanour earlier that evening.
"I'm pretty sure. He implied it that other time, you know, when he spoke to me about Hespetti and the hypos."
"Cool," Ray finished for him. "He's cool. Sometimes...sometimes these days I actually can believe he likes me. And I know he likes you because without you there wouldn't be this me for him to like."
"I doubt that's true, Ray." Ben rolled onto Ray and kissed him hard. "I think you're eminently likeable without any help from me. Although if the Lieutenant decided to 'like' you as much as I do, I'd be a little...irritated."
"Well, I would hope so too," Ray grinned between kisses. "C'mon let me up. I've gotta spend some time with the family tonight - well, what's left of tonight."
"Oh, Ray..." Ben wheedled.
"Benny, you're gonna have me to yourself for weeks."
"Yes. Yes, I'm sorry. I'm being selfish."
"Yes, you are, you're a disgrace to your uniform, to your country, to all mankind, and I love you for it." He ran his fingers through Ben's hair, stared deep into his eyes. "I don't think I tell you that enough."
"That I'm a disgrace to my uniform, my country..."
"I love you." Ben smiled and kissed Ray again, softly now. "If I turn into something unapproachable and beyond the power of rational thought or speech for the next six months, remember it won't you? That I love you. Even if I change, that won't."
"I'll remember. I'll know."
"I don't remember a time when I didn't love you. You know how happy you've made me?"
"A fraction of how happy you've made me?"
"I wish it had happened before. When I could have given you everything you want."
"You have. You have, Ray. I promise."
Ray swiped at a tear that was threatening to escape.
"God, would you listen to us!"
Another kiss, Ben making the most of it, making it last until he was pried off amid a variety of contrary protestations from both men. Ray replaced the minimal amount of clothing he'd removed before they'd hit the bed, finding the car keys in the pocket of his jacket. He studied them, remembered.
"Still as bad?" Ben was quiet, reticent, wary of the answer.
Ray thought some more, looked at Ben lying half in and half out of the sheets, beautiful, concerned, his.
"Not still as bad. It was worth it."
"I have you. Because of what happened I have you. I would never have told you..." His voice trailed to nothing and he moved to Ben, kissing his face and mouth repeatedly. Finally he stopped, took a deep breath, still slightly tearful. "I'm going. Tell me you love me."
"I love you, Ray."
"See you tomorrow."
"I'll walk round to the house in the morning; it will give you more time with your family." Ray hesitated. "No argument, Ray. I'll get there for eight-thirty."
"Okay. I appreciate it."
"Everything will be fine."
Once Ray left Ben rose and wandered to the window, watching his friend reclaim the Riv and drive away. He knew it was going to be a tough evening for Ray, dealing with his family's highly emotional fears, and an equally tough night, alone and facing what was possibly the most daunting day of his life. He'd appreciated why Ray wanted some time to himself - locked away in his room he could hope, despair, rant, or pray without an audience - and was comforted by the knowledge that if he was needed, Ray would come to him, at any time of the night: only three days ago Ray had gone home early then reappeared at two in the morning, slipping into bed beside him, draping an arm around his waist and falling asleep without a word. It had been a moment of great satisfaction - confirmation that their relationship had become so secure they were beyond explanations and permissions.
He felt the weight on his legs as Dief decided he'd had enough of the floor and joined him on the bed, stretching out alongside him with a satisfied sigh. Ben automatically laid a hand on the solid head and rubbed behind an ear, comforted by the familiarity. Tapping on Dief's nose to get his attention, he leant up and asked if he wanted to come with them to the cabin or stay with the Vecchios again. Dief pondered, debating homemade lasagne versus dog biscuits, but the feeling that his packmate somehow required his presence won out, and he magnanimously agreed to take the trip. Ben threw back the sheets and headed for his cell phone to make arrangements.
Ray shut the door of his bedroom, leaning back against it and fleetingly wishing he'd be an only child - no, make that an only orphan. Two hours of assorted trauma before he'd been able to climb the stairs and seek solitude, two hours that made him genuinely consider whether he should be honest about the result of the test. Could they cope with knowing he was positive? Could he cope with their weeping, wailing, teeth-gnashing version of coping? Turning the key in the lock he stared around the room, wondering how he could feel so vulnerable in the space that had been his bolt hole for decades. Simple, he guessed: no Benny, no peace. This time tomorrow he would be at the cabin; blissful solitude, room to think and feel and centre himself. Him, Benny, and he doubted if Furface would be left out of the party for a third time. Family, Ray smiled. His other family. The family that would make his illness bearable because it would be accepted and dealt with and he would still be allowed to be Ray, rather than the shadow of Ray that was the dead man walking at the Vecchios.
Time dragged by as he lay on the bed and considered the past and present, reliving the pain in his life along with the many joys; facing the future was harder, plagued with uncertainties. He fixed on the one thing he was sure of and clung to it: Benny. Closing his eyes and concentrating, he could smell his lover, taste him, recall the feel of his skin beneath his fingertips. The most irritating man in the world; the most perfect. And his. For life, for eternity. At a quarter to four in the morning Ray sat up and opened the drawer of his bedside cabinet, bringing out the rosary that he had been given at his confirmation. He slid to his knees and passed the well-worn rosewood beads through his fingers. He prayed for his family and his friends, briefly for himself, at length for his partner. Never did he pray to be free from the disease, only that Benny be protected, safe and healthy.
Ben arrived at the house early the next morning, glancing at his watch and wondering who would be up and if he should knock or wait or use his key, as he was always being encouraged to do by Mrs Vecchio. He was sitting on the steps debating the issue when Ray was suddenly sitting beside him, close enough to touch but without being obviously touching.
"Ray," Ben acknowledged softly, warmly.
"Get any sleep?"
"Not a wink."
"Me either. Dief coming with us today?"
"Yes. I've made arrangements."
"Thought you would." They glanced at one another and smiled. Ray saw the worry and fatigue on the face he loved and instantly questioned his actions in all of this. Words he didn't want to say started coming out of his mouth unbidden. "You know, Benny, no-one would blame you if you thought better of all this."
"What do you mean?"
"If you decided you wanted out. If it's all too much."
"You're not serious?"
"I'm serious. I wouldn't think any less of you, or care any less. I'd understand."
"I'm going to pretend you didn't say any of that, Ray. I didn't lower myself to emotional blackmail a fortnight ago so I could renege now."
"Evidently not enough!"
"Keep your voice down."
"Sorry. Look, Ray, I know you think me terminally polite so I'm going to disappoint you now. I am telling you not to mention this again. It's not a request, not a suggestion, I'm telling you."
"Right, I'm told, I'm told." Ray held up his hands in a mock gesture of surrender.
"But I don't mean it disrespectfully." Ray laughed and shook his head. "I know, terminally polite."
Ray leant closer to whisper in Ben's ear.
"You are so fucking adorable, d'you know that?"
Ben cleared his throat.
"Humour me, for once I know better than you what I'm talking about."
"Yes, Ray, I am aware that you have experience I am lacking. Not that I mind. In fact I find it very arousing that you are more experienced..."
"You know what I'd like to do to you now?" Ben gave a quick shake of the head, afraid to turn and look at Ray because of what he would see in his eyes, and how irresistible it would be. "Give you a clue. It involves a lot of inexperienced flesh and an experienced mouth."
"You know, when I left you last night I didn't eat anything, drink anything. Just so's I could keep the taste of you for as long as possible." Ben's only response was a loud gulp. "Think we've got time to..."
"Benton! Why didn't you come in?"
"Good morning, Mrs Vecchio."
"I'm starting breakfast, boys, I want you washed up and at the table in ten minutes."
"Not today, Ma."
"Yes, today, especially. Benton, talk to him, make him see sense."
Ben glanced at Mrs Vecchio's departing back.
"I think you have to make an effort, Ray. For the family's sake."
"Yeah, I know," Ray sighed. "Ah, shit, Benny. It's starting. Today's really starting."
"Try to stay calm. At least until we leave the house. For..."
"The family's sake, I know, I know."
Breakfast was strangely quiet, most of the emotional outpourings having been exhausted the previous evening. Ray prodded food around his plate under the concerned gaze of his mother and Maria, while Francesca opted not to waste the opportunity of having Ben at close quarters and chattered away to him about nothing in particular, which was as well because he didn't listen to a word she said.
After breakfast Ray and Ben went upstairs to finish Ray's packing. Ray was going in ever-decreasing circles until Ben stepped in, sat his friend on the bed, and packed for him with only occasional consultations. Francesca stood in the doorway, watching Ben far too lasciviously for Ray's liking; he kept biting back the comments which were perched on the tip of his tongue until she made the mistake of stepping over the threshold and slipping her arm through Ben's as he stood mentally debating the thermal qualities of several thin layers versus less thin and a thick.
"So, Benton, will you miss any of us in particular while you're away?"
"For God's sake, Frannie, will you give it up?"
"What? I don't know what you mean. Do you know what he means, Benton?"
"I'm about to go and do this test and all you wanna do is hit on my Mountie?"
"I'm not... What did you call him? Your Mountie? I don't think so."
Ben tried to extract his arm; Frannie doggedly held on, now more intent on spiting her brother than making up to Ben.
"Francesca..." Ben started, wanting to warn her about the imminent explosion, but it was too late, he could see the rage in Ray's eyes and knew this wasn't going to be pretty.
"Tell her, Benny."
"Tell her what?" Francesca demanded.
"Tell her who you're in love with and why you'll never so much as glance in her direction."
"I don't think..."
"Tell her, Benny."
"You, Ray. Only you."
Ben eased away from the stunned woman, turning his back on the wreckage, not wanting to see the anger and pain.
"What did you say?"
"You heard, Frannie. Now if you can just take your mourning outside..."
"In love. In love? You mean... You don't mean..."
"Yeah, we do mean. You bet."
"In love. The two of you?"
"I don't believe it! And the two of you... Oh, God, tell me you don't...you know."
"Oh, yeah, Frannie, we you know all right."
"Oh, my God," Frannie whispered as the news finally began to sink in. "Oh, my God. Ray, how could you?"
"This coming from the woman who's been all over the Mountie like a rash from day one. Fucking hell, Frannie, how *couldn't* I? You were willing to fall on your back if he gave you a second look; maybe it's a Vecchio thing."
"Fuck you, Ray!"
"Run along now, be as hysterical as you want and do it with my blessing. Tell who you like that your brother's a fag cop who's spending the rest of his days, however few or many, with a fag mountie. Get whatever mileage you can outta that. Do whatever you want, but if I see you touching him in an unsisterly fashion one more time, I'm gonna break your fingers." There was another frigid silence as Francesca stared at her brother with absolute incredulity. "Will you just go already? I gotta get ready to find out I'm dying and you're not doing much for my state of mind."
As Francesca backed out Ray stood and slammed the bedroom door in her face before falling into the habitual pacing.
"That was unnecessarily harsh, Ray."
"But it sure felt good. I've wanted to say it for a long time. To all of them."
"All of them?"
"Every woman who's given you the look."
"You've been jealous?"
"I don't encourage them."
"I know that. I don't blame you." Ray could feel the guilt emanating from Ben across the room and intuitively knew what he was thinking. "I don't even blame you for Victoria and, Jesus, Benny, that nearly killed me."
There was a long brittle pause before Ben had to say something.
"Francesca didn't know she was hurting you, Ray."
Ray sank onto the bed, dropping his head into his hands with a groan. "Shit, Benny, I shouldn't have done that, should I? Poor Frannie, she didn't deserve that."
"Perhaps she'll understand that you're very upset about the test and, unfortunately, she was the person you took it out on."
"If someone else talked to my sister like that I'd beat the living shit outta them."
"There isn't time for this now, Ray. We have to go if you're going to make your appointment on time."
"Oh, shit, shit, shit..."
Farewells said, Francesca nowhere in sight, the pre-booked cab arrived to take Ben and Ray to the clinic; the journey passed in total silence.
In the bland, sterile corridor of the clinic, Ben waited. And waited. And waited. For what seemed an eternity. It was akin to being thrown back in time, mentally revisiting where this had started all those months previously. Clock watching. Waiting for Ray. Wondering if Ray was okay. He paced for a while, such a Ray thing to do. This was taking too long; far too long for, 'Negative, Detective Vecchio, have a good vacation'. At last Ben began to comprehend Ray's fears without the cushion of mindless optimism; he knew absolute terror but resisted the effect, knowing that he had to be ready to support and protect the man who trusted him to be impervious to weakness; panic threatened and was forced away; a familiar mantra echoed through his mind: be strong, be strong, be strong... Finally his friend turned the corner of the corridor and approached him, took the offered hand, squeezed it, didn't look him square in the face once. His eyes were red, he was wiped out, willing to be led. Ben asked the nurse at the desk to call them a 'dog'-friendly cab and, when it arrived, sat Ray inside with Dief while he helped the driver load the luggage. As far as Ben was concerned, they couldn't get away fast enough.
The cabin was a revelation to Ben. Unbeknownst to him, Ray had followed their discussion on improving the facilities with action, and on their arrival they found a newly installed generator, improved bathroom, double bed with electric blanket in the finally completed bedroom, and a collection of appliances still in their packaging, including the highly essential coffee maker, and a CD player complete with a stack of discs.
Ben fired up the generator and, for the first time at the cabin, threw a switch and had light. He found power points in the kitchen and set about making coffee for Ray, only to find his friend fast asleep on the couch by the time it was ready. Ben stood for some time, gazing at the still form, unconsciously registering the sound of every breath he took. Shaking himself out of his daze, he made up the bed, switched on the blanket, and guided a somnambulistic Ray to it, removing his outer clothes and settling him down. On the inside of Ray's elbow was a Band-Aid covering the site where blood had been taken for the test. Ben pressed his mouth to it, kissing along Ray's arm until his lips rested on the pulse at his wrist, and his whole being seemed to fall into rhythm with the potent beat. He began to weep, wrestling to retain a degree of control, silent in the silence, wondering if he would ever be strong again.
Ben woke slowly, turning toward Ray and reaching out for him. Already gone, Ben dozily registered. Five of the seven mornings they'd been at the cabin had been the same; soon Ben would rise and follow Ray's and Dief's footsteps to the fallen tree that overlooked Ray's favourite view. Once there he would spend an hour coaxing his monosyllabic friend back for breakfast and another day of long silences. There was no discernable tension within these silences; Ray didn't want to talk but was not rejecting Ben in any way: he accepted affectionate touches and hugs with genuine smiles, listened to anything Ben cared to talk to him about with quiet interest until his attention drifted, which it invariably did. He cooked for Ben, remembering his favourite meals, enjoyed Dief's antics whilst taking long walks with this family, during which he slipped his arm into Ben's and kept him close. And, predictably, he hummed.
That evening Ben studied Ray as he leafed through one of the books he'd brought with him - a gift from his nieces and nephews about Canadian wildlife. The sound of the pages turning, and the crackling and hissing of the log fire were the only sounds in the room. Ben kept reassuring himself that Ray would eventually emerge from this passivity, that this withdrawal was Ray's way of coping with life's bigger traumas. Funny how he could be so vociferous and impassioned about day-to-day irritations, yet when one expected him to yell and hit the wall he fell into this...depression? No, he didn't seem depressed, he was just...quiet. Ben knew he'd been looking forward to coming back here, but how could he be so serene under these circumstances?
"Talk to me," Ben said after an hour, when he felt his loneliness peak.
"Am I ignoring you? I don't mean to, Benny."
Ray held out an arm and Ben joined him on the couch, taking the offered hand and refusing to relinquish it. Ray just smiled, and turned the pages, more awkwardly, with the other hand.
"Are you ever going to kiss me again?" Ben said aloud, surprising himself because he thought he was only thinking it.
Ray just leant in his direction, gently kissed his cheek. Ben tried to move his mouth to those lips but they were gone too soon. With an effort he stopped himself taking that face and turning it back to him, but he allowed himself the concession of snuggling closer and laying soft kisses on Ray's neck. Rapidly losing interest in the book, Ray laid his head back and enjoyed the attention as Ben licked his way to Ray's ear and traced the outer curve. Ray shuddered pleasurably before raising a hand and easing Ben away.
"No more, Benny. Not yet."
Ben reluctantly sat back.
"No, don't apologise. Gimme a week and get me drunk - you know, like the good old days."
"I have no intention..." Ben saw the smirk and ceased his protestations, giving Ray a wry smile.
"You know I love you, Benny, and you know I want you. I just need time to get my head around some stuff."
"Talking won't help?"
"I'm not ready to talk. But I have found out that if you get outside and scream long and loud enough, Dief will join in howling. I think he's having you on about being deaf."
"You've been screaming?"
"Oh, yeah, I've been screaming. Screaming's good."
"I haven't heard you."
"It's about timing and distance and exactly the right place with the right acoustics." Ray could see Ben's mind working, trying to figure it all out. "Benny, let it go. I think I'm all screamed out anyhow."
"It has obviously helped you."
"Like I said, screaming's good. But I'm not ready to talk."
Ben nodded, an unspoken agreement to back off.
"Is there anything at all I can do?"
"Be there when I need someone to lean on." Ben unconsciously shifted closer. "Metaphorically." Ben gave Ray a defiant look, challenging him to create some space between them, a challenge Ray had no intention of meeting.
"Can we talk about something unrelated?"
"About when we return to Chicago? Actually, there's a chance you won't consider this to be unrelated."
"Keep going, I'll let you know."
"It's about living arrangements. Whilst I appreciate that you find me irritating at times, Ray, and occasionally I find your volatility a little wearing, I believe that we do...I mean, I think that we could...that is..."
"You want us to get our own place?"
"I'm not attempting to pressurise you, Ray."
"I know that."
"But the time we spend together..." Ben's voice faltered as he searched for a way to convey his immense feelings. The subject was too overwhelming; he opted for simplicity. "The time we spend together is the best time."
Ray squeezed his hand, nodded his understanding.
"We need our own space, Benny, that's cool. It was getting to a point when I couldn't sleep without you anyway, so I've spent plenty of quality insomnia time thinking about it. I'm ready. Don't look so shocked, I'm ready. And after what I said to Frannie before we left, I'll have been disowned by the majority of my family, which is pretty great incentive for not living with them, you have to admit." Ben took breath to speak. "And I don't want to talk about the family, so move on."
"Understood. I had thought you'd be concerned about what people would think if we cohabited."
"A couple of months ago I would've been. But when you've been to hell and back it puts a few bigoted cops into perspective. You worried?"
"I never was, Ray, except for you. I was - still am - happy to keep our relationship strictly private. But in this I think I'm the realist; you're the romantic."
"How d'ya mean?"
Ben searched for a short, simple example.
"I want to hold your hand at the movies where it's dark and no-one but we would know. You want to hold my hand when we're walking down the street in broad daylight."
"But I don't."
"I know you want to."
"Okay, I want to but I don't." A spark gleamed in Ray's eyes. "If we stayed here we could. When we go into town nobody bats an eyelid over how we act, or what our living arrangements are."
"You'd be willing to live here permanently?"
"We did talk about it once."
"You could take that transfer you were offered. You could come home. Benny, I'd be happy for you."
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
"Ah. Ray... There was never any transfer."
"But you said..."
"There was never any transfer."
"You lied? The Mountie lied?"
"You lied to me! You blackmailed me!"
"Please, don't be angry."
"Angry? Who's angry? Balls to angry, I'm impressed!"
"Don't be. I'm not proud of myself."
"I am. You did that to keep me. Who else would have done that for me in my entire life? Lying to show me some sense isn't bad lying."
"I would have done more than lie, Ray."
"That is so not you." Ray knew how hard it would have been for Ben to behave in such a 'dishonourable' way. He turned and kissed Ben's mouth, tentatively, not wanting to build hopes but needing to show his appreciation. "Thank you, Benny."
"So is that the way to win you over? Behave badly?"
"Sure. Take off and hot-wire a moose, that'll get you on a promise."
"Understood," Ben replied smartly, springing from the couch and fetching his coat.
"What? What? Benny..."
"Can I assume a caribou would suffice if I have trouble finding a moose this time of night?" Ray began to chuckle at the well-played gravity, breaking into laughter as Ben patted his pockets, muttering about bolas and skeleton keys. Halfway out the door, he turned back. "Don't wait up, honey," he grinned, and was gone.
Ray leapt to his feet, clumsily pulling on his boots and coat, following Ben out onto the porch. Still giggling he fell into Ben's arms and hugged hard; the embrace was instantly reciprocated by his Mountie, and the familiar surge of joy and well-being filled him. This was a physical synonym for safe, secure, loved.
"This is great," he told Ben. "You're great."
"As long as we're together we can cope with anything."
Ray recognised the reference as if it were signposted in Day-Glo, and he knew he should say something about...that. Stop Ben wondering - he'd been pretty cruel to leave him hanging, he knew that. And maybe it would seem more real if he said it aloud instead of letting the doctor's words run through his mind in a continuous loop. Ben's hands covered his ears to protect them from the cold, massaging gently.
"You're always thinking about me, Benny. What about you?"
Ben paused before speaking.
"Would it sound melodramatic to confess that without you there is no me? If I'm thinking about you, looking after you, I'm tending to a fundamental part of myself."
"God, I'd have paid you to say that. We're so ussy, ain't we?"
"Us first, foremost."
"Ah. Definitely ussy." Ben glanced down as he heard a grunt at his feet. "I'm sure ussy can accommodate a third party, Diefenbaker." They fixed their joint attention on Ray, waiting for confirmation; now he had to contend with the big-eyed Mountie look, and the big-eyed adorable wolf look. But contend he could.
"Sure. Me, a Mountie, a debatably deaf wolf. It's the us I always dreamed of."
It was precisely a week later when Ben returned from town with a fresh load of supplies and a letter stamped Chicago PD. He looked around the cabin for Ray, found him gone, knew instantly where to look. Trudging through a new fall of snow to what he now thought of as Ray's tree, his mind raced with possibilities regarding what news the missive held. His main concern was that the date for Hespetti's trial had been brought forward and that they would have to return to Chicago much sooner than previously anticipated; he wouldn't be able to vouch for Ray's state of mind should that happen. He wouldn't be too sure about his own.
Ray looked frozen to the spot; Ben shook his head: this was a man who had dreamt longingly of Florida's heat, yet nowadays could barely be kept in by the fire for a few hours at a time.
"Hey, Benny. Get everything?"
"Would you like to come and help me unpack?"
"Sure. Gimme a half-hour and I'll be with you."
Half-an-hour would stretch to the remainder of the daylight, Ben knew, and he couldn't wait that long to know: he took the letter from his pocket.
"This came for you."
He offered the envelope to Ray, who glanced at the stamp and turned back to the view.
"You read it."
"I don't think..."
"Read it, Benny. Give me the edited highlights."
Ben brushed away the snow and sat alongside Ray on the tree, opening the envelope with less care than was usual and practically dropping it in his hurry to remove the letter. He read quickly, re-read slowly.
"It's from Lieutenant Welsh. He sends his best wishes and hopes you're well." Ray grunted in response. Ben carried on, trying his best to keep the emotion from his voice. "Officers at the 21st Precinct have finished their enquiries regarding Michael Hespetti's first victims. They have found an independent source of infection; the two men shared the same mistress, as did a third member of their organisation, who has also been diagnosed HIV positive. Secondary tests have been carried out on all further victims, including the detective from the 21st, and they've all been found to be negative." Ben pushed the letter back into his coat with shaking hands. "Ray?" No response. "Ray?"
Ray pulled off his gloves and dug into the inside pocket of his coat, pulling out two sheets of paper that looked as if they'd been unfolded and refolded a thousand times. He stared at them for a long moment then handed them to Ben, who carefully opened them and read the contents. Clear. Two clear tests. He didn't know whether to holler for joy or give in to the anger that surged in his gut. Then he looked at Ray's face, and found himself stunned by the emptiness he saw there. How had he missed the obvious? The man was still in shock.
"You think they're accurate then?" Ray asked quietly.
"Yes, Ray. They're accurate. You're clear, you're well."
"Because I didn't know if it could be true, you know, Benny, and I'd got kind of used to the idea of having that shit in me and I just didn't know what to believe." Ray's voice was picking up speed, betraying his inner turmoil and desperation. "I'd always been so careful, all my life I've been careful and there's no-one I have to be more careful with than you so what if they were wrong and I gave something to you, Benny, because that would kill me more easily than this other stuff." Ray whooped in a breath. Ben reached for him but he was up and away and pacing in a trough in the snow he had established through steady use. "And it's like I've been standing back and watching all this shit happening and I know what I should be thinking, I know what I should know, and sometimes I want to shout at myself for being so fucking out of it and stupid - some fucking loser like my father always said - but I can't stop wondering and being scared and believing that someone somewhere is laughing at me and waiting for me to give in to what I want to hear and just give in to what I want and I'll be giving this shit to you. I know, I know, I fucking know why people put a gun against their heads, Benny, I know why they blow their fucking brains out."
Ray came to an abrupt halt, wrapping his arms around his head and screaming. Real screaming. And as he screamed Diefenbaker howled. Ben was stunned into inaction, unnerved by the noise in this silent place, frightened by Ray's despair, wondering how he could have misread the situation so badly. Now he had to force himself to act rather than turn and flee. Be strong, be strong, be strong... He ran the few steps to Ray, pulling him into his arms, taking his friend's weight as he sagged against him, his entire body heaving with the effort of the sobs that had replaced the screams. Ben hushed him, made comforting noises, knew he was getting nowhere and that he had let his friend down again; how could he notice the most minute of clues at a crime scene, be sensitive to the sub-text of a stranger's words, yet miss the massive trauma being contained by the person he thought he knew best in the world, the one person he loved? How dare he be angry that Ray had kept the truth from him? Guilt and sorrow and misery sapped the strength from him, and the two men crumpled into the snow, Ben still cradling Ray.
"I'm sorry, Ray," he choked, his resolve broken, tears streaming down his face. "I'm so sorry. I was never strong enough for this."
An hour later, when they were trembling, almost numb with the cold, they stiffly prised themselves from the icy ground and slowly returned to the cabin. As they walked Ben reached out, taking Ray's hand in a firm grip, gratified as he felt the pressure returned. Their tears were long past, but they had left a hollow void in their wake that neither man seemed able to surmount. Once indoors Ben automatically began to tidy their supplies away; Ray shrugged off his wet coat, leaving it in a heap on the floor, and, scattering clothes as he went, headed for the bedroom, closing the door behind him, turning on the electric blanket and climbing into bed. As the warmth infiltrated his frozen body he switched off and passed out.
When Ray didn't wake up all the next day Ben went through his clothes and possessions, looking for sleeping tablets that he thought the doctor may have given him. He found nothing and was forced to surmise that Ray's body knew best, and that this was a part of the healing process. At midnight Ben climbed into bed and lay on his side, watching Ray sleep. How could he have believed the...nothingness of the previous week had been Ray coping? Now the man finally looked at peace; his eyes were still - mercifully no dreams - and his breathing was deep and even. Cosy and relaxed, he looked remarkably healthy. Ben scolded himself: he was healthy. That damned Hespetti had screwed with both their minds. Ray was well, and he would stay well if he had anything to do with it.
"I'm going to spend the rest of my life keeping you safe," he whispered. "Want to argue about that? You don't want to argue? Makes a nice change." Ben leant forward and kissed the velvet skin of Ray's temple, being rewarded by an unintelligible murmuring that he softly shushed.
At three in the morning Ben woke in a cold sweat, throwing an arm out to find Ray, to prove he was alive and in one piece, that however tempting the thought had been there was no way he would put a gun against his head and blow his brains out. The sheets beside him were cooling and, after a moment's shocked delay while he tried to figure out if he was still dreaming, or awake, or dreaming he was awake, he scrambled from his side of the bed and out of the bedroom. Ray was standing in the kitchen, casually leaning against the counter, a mug of coffee in his hand. He looked at Ben curiously, still slightly groggy. Ben fought to control his breathing.
"I had the worst dream," fell out of his mouth instead of the casual words he had hoped for. Ray's brow furrowed and he put down his coffee, heading for Ben with open arms.
Ben leapt at the offer, finding himself in a living, breathing, comforting embrace that rapidly quelled his anxiety. As he calmed he dwelt on the endearment.
"Precious?" he asked.
Ray loosened his grip sufficiently to be able to look at Ben.
"Sorry, it just comes out." He scanned Ben's face, and Ben saw a depth of love and concern in his eyes that had been missing for a fortnight. "You are precious to me, the most precious thing in my life. But I won't..."
"I don't mind," Ben interrupted. "It's just not something I'm used to." Emboldened by the affectionate words, Ben brushed his lips against Ray's, heartily gladdened when the action wasn't rejected. He steeled himself and asked the million dollar question: "How do you feel, Ray?"
"I understand. After such an emotionally demanding time..."
"No, Benny, empty. I didn't come out here looking for the meaning of life, I was after a sandwich."
Ben drew Ray over to the kitchen, finding the ingredients and preparing him a sandwich the size of a minor Appalachian peak.
"You should've woken me for dinner. Wasn't I supposed to be cooking?"
"You weren't ready to wake up, Ray. You've just slept for a solid thirty-six hours."
"Thirty-six hours. Unless it was one of your more elaborate devices to stop me telling you Inuit tales." Ben smiled at Ray; Ray smiled at Ben. "Here."
Ben brought Ray's sandwich to the table and sat to watch him attempt a full-scale assault, fetching him more coffee when an amount of washing-down was called for.
"So...what did you do yesterday? Apart from keep checking to see if I was still alive."
"I walked with Diefenbaker. Cleaned what I could clean quietly. Spent a long time staring out of the window. I began a new journal."
"Reading or writing?"
"That's cool. Can I read it?"
"Okay. Incidentally, where are you keeping it in case of emergency?"
"What nature of emergency are you referring to? A police raid perhaps?"
"I won't read it. Cop's honour."
Ben sat in thoughtful silence for a few minutes, trying to decide how honest to be. Totally won out.
"I...umm...I have no-one to talk to about what we've - you've - *we've* been through. I thought that exploring my feelings in writing would be cathartic. This experience has brought me closer to you but has left me feeling ostracised from everybody else." Ray had stopped eating and was paying close, sad-eyed attention. "People have expressed concern, Ray, and not always the people you'd expect: Inspector Thatcher has asked after you repeatedly."
"The Dragon Lady?"
"An assault on a fellow officer, albeit one attached to another force, draws out the strongest feelings of camaraderie, Ray."
"Well, I'll be... Carry on, Benny."
"Even with people expressing their concern, I haven't found myself able to discuss our situation with them - I don't mean our...romantic situation, of course, I wouldn't discuss that with anybody regardless. I needed an emotional outlet and chose this way; my reasons for beginning the journal were perfectly selfish..."
"Self-indulgent then. And possibly temporary. When all of this is behind us I may feel happier throwing the journal away. Meanwhile I don't want you reading a catalogue of my weaknesses."
"Weaknesses are okay, you know. But then it helps if you have SuperMountie to lean on. I promise I'll be there for you in future, Benny. Or more there for you."
"I gave you six months grace, Ray. You have five-and-a-half to go before I can justifiably feel neglected."
Now it was Ray's time for some deep thought.
"Can you tell me something without thinking I'm some sort of idiot?"
"I'd never think..."
"That a yes?"
"Are those tests ever wrong?"
Ben reached out and took the closest available hand, gently caressing Ray's fingers.
"They're extremely reliable, Ray. You have two clear results. You do not have HIV or AIDS."
"When the first test came back negative I didn't believe it. The doctor kept talking at me and quoting facts and figures and all I could think was they'd screwed up. I made them do the second test and when it came back negative again I fell to pieces. You'd think I would've left that place jumping for joy but I sorta...lost focus. I'd made up my mind to accept a certain reality and it was snatched away and somehow I had nothing left to fix my sights on. Does this sound a load of bull?"
"The last half-year... It's been like existing in limbo, stuck between living and dying, not knowing what to think or to believe." Ray frowned, fingers tightening over Ben's. "I'm still not sure, Benny. You think you should have a test? In case they did screw up mine and..."
"I had a test a while back, Ray, and..."
"Whoa, whoa! You had a test when?"
Ben paused, flushed.
"After Victoria. Six months after Victoria. It was negative."
"You went through that alone?"
"I could hardly have asked for your support."
"Yes, you could have."
"I wanted it done with a minimum of fuss."
"I don't always fuss. You tell me not to fuss and I don't fuss."
Ben decided not to begin a debate on that questionable statement.
"As I was saying, Ray, I had a test some time ago and as I have not been in contact with anyone who has the virus I don't need another one."
"To be safe."
"We have taken care, Ray. Even if you had've been infected the chances that you would have passed it on to me are infinitesimal. But you're clear. We're clear, we're safe."
"God, Benny, why can't I get my head around this? Why can't I enjoy this time: this is when it should be getting better." Ben didn't try to answer what he guessed was a rhetorical question. "I'm a wreck. How can you want to be with me?"
"Let me explain... When a fag cop meets a fag mountie..."
A grin broke out on Ben's face and Ray started to giggle.
"Holy shit, I can't believe I said that to my sister. You gonna keep me on a tighter leash in future?"
"It's an option."
"Was that sexual innuendo? Wow, Benny! Any more surprises where that came from?"
The smile faded from Ben's features.
"I don't think you're ready."
"For banter? Hey, I give great banter."
"I want to take you next door and make love to you, Ray." Ben saw the sudden yet expected panic on Ray's face. "But I know you're not ready for that, so perhaps it's better that we try not to get too...wound up."
"Let me do something for you, Benny."
"No. I want to wait. Really."
"Okay," Ray conceded after a long pause. "You look tired. Want to go back to bed?"
"You can sleep?"
"Don't think so. But I can hold you while you sleep." A thought occurred to Ray and a wide smile lit his face. "We got our own bed, Benny. Our own double bed. That's really..."
Ben hadn't expected to have to spend time every day reassuring Ray that the tests were accurate, but it wasn't something he particularly minded: every time he said the words it felt like he was reeling Ray a little further in, and gradually the long silences became shorter and not so intensively silent.
Ray was finally persuaded to contact his family with news of the negative test result. His mother was as thrilled as he'd expected, and the recriminations regarding his relationship with Ben never materialised, leaving Ray wondering if Francesca had kept quiet about his revelations. The thought that his youngest sister had shown that level of maturity, protecting both him and his mother from the trauma such an announcement would cause, made him feel worse than ever about how he'd treated her. He resolved to make it up to her when he eventually returned to Chicago.
Ben continued to write as therapy and bought Ray a journal for his own thoughts; after dismissing the idea out of hand, Ray took a couple of days to pick up the book and start writing, but what filled the pages was not a diary, but random thoughts in abstract prose, often written when he parked himself on his tree or wandered off on his increasingly confident excursions. Ray didn't have Ben's problems with sharing the contents of his journal and it wasn't uncommon for Ben to commandeer the book of an evening so he could spend a fascinating hour puzzling over what had been in Ray's mind that day.
It was a month later when Ben opened the book to the latest page to find two short, simple pieces that needed no deciphering:
His mind sparks my dreams.
His eyes find my way.
His heart pumps blood through my veins. His every inhalation ensures I breathe. His perfect skin protects my frayed nerves. His flexed muscles are my strength.
His love is my existence.
His existence is my life.
His life contains my soul.
His soul expands my being.
Treasure for my treasure, precious for my precious.
Ben wavered between pride and humility, running the words through his mind until he felt forced to speak them aloud. When he did, Ray turned back from the kitchen and crossed to him, leaning on the back of the couch and listening as Ben recited what he'd written, not once but four times. Ben handed the book to Ray.
"Say them for me."
Ray did as he was asked, smiled at Ben's awestruck expression.
"They're just words, Benny."
"No, they're not. They're the...the essence of what we mean to one another."
"It's not all metaphorical, you know."
"No?" Ben frowned.
Tossing his book aside, Ray went into the bedroom and emerged a few minutes later looking extremely worried and clutching something in his fisted hand. He sat beside Ben, stood again, paced, sat.
"Okay. I'm freaking out enough for two here, so don't feel obliged to join in."
"Okay, okay." Ray took a deep breath, calmed himself. Took another look at Ben's expectant face. "Oh, shit, forget it."
Ray tried to stand and move away but he found his wrist grabbed and let himself be coaxed back down. Ben stroked the white knuckled fingers until they unfolded, and in the palm of Ray's hand lay two plain gold rings. His heart almost jumped through his chest wall.
"Treasure for my treasure," whispered Ben, understanding fully now.
"What am I at this moment? More embarrassed or more needy? Couldn't tell you."
"I knew you were the romantic."
"Tell me this is plain stupid, Benny. Tell me I'm outta line. Tell me...something."
"You once said you had a dream of meeting the perfect soul mate. Does this mean..."
"It's you, of course it's you. It's always been you. Soon as I got to know you I realised I'd been kidding myself with the others." Ray paused, unsure of himself. "You can say no, I'll understand. I've never figured out why you want me in any case."
"'Humbly proffered,'" Ben quoted. "'Silent vows.' Must they be silent?"
"They have been until now. I never let myself believe... You want to do this? I mean, it's not like in a church or anything, but I'm serious about what it'll stand for. Benny, do you really want to do this? It's my insecurity we're pandering to here."
"I'm already committed to you, Ray." He offered his left hand to Ray. "A symbol of that commitment would be very welcome."
"You don't want time to think about it?"
"What makes you think I haven't?"
"Really?" Ray squeaked in amazement.
Ben wiggled his fingers at Ray as a prompt. Shakily, Ray took the larger band and eased it onto Ben's third finger. Then he gave a nervous laugh.
"Can't think of a thing to say now it matters."
Ben reciprocated Ray's actions with the second ring and joined their ringed hands.
"You've already said it, Ray. And if I may use your words... Your love is my existence. Your existence is my life. Your life contains my soul. Your soul expands my being."
Thank you, Benny. Thank you so much. For your caring and your patience and for wanting me in the first place. I know you're too good for me and I don't deserve you but..."
His words were silenced by Ben's mouth: a tender kiss that reminded him of the first time. Well, the first time without the panic, overreaction and general loudness. A beginning. And just how did Ben manage to put so much love into a kiss?
"Ray..." Ben whispered between kisses.
"Ray, if this - we - are to work you have to promise me something."
"Anything, Prezioso, anything."
"Forget everything your father ever told you about being a loser." Ray backed off in surprise; Ben grasped his shoulders and drew him close again. "It's his voice in your head telling you you don't deserve me, and I won't allow his indoctrination to undermine us."
"You must appreciate how important this is. If you feel unworthy of this relationship you'll never be able to trust me fully."
"I see what you're saying. But it's pretty tough to undo that kind of - of..."
"It's hard to get over, even for the best of reasons."
"Am I a better man than he was?"
"You need to ask! Better by several thousand percent."
"Then listen to what my voice says about you, what my love proves you to be, and tell his voice to..."
"Go fuck itself?"
"I couldn't have put it better myself."
Ray considered, knew Ben was right, but also knew what a challenge he was being set: he'd spent all of his adult life trying to justify his existence to his father's ghost.
"I can't forget, Benny, but maybe we can get past it. No, no maybe. We'll get past it. I promise."
"He was wrong, Ray."
"Y'see... No-one's ever really said that to me before."
"He was wrong."
Ray snuggled up to Ben, stroking the hand with the ring.
"I bought you a neck chain. I thought you might prefer to have it out of sight when we go home."
"That ring is staying where you put it." Ben shifted, wrapping his arms around Ray and closing the unacceptable half-inch gap that briefly opened between them, planting a kiss in the crew cut. "Ray...did you really think this through?"
"See, you're beginning to have doubts already."
"No doubts, Ray. Just wondering about claiming conjugal rights."
"My God, how they change when they get a ring on your finger! Turns out I married an insensitive brute." Ray's words took a few minutes to sink into his own head, then he hugged Ben hard and buried his face in his shoulder. "Fucking hell, Benny, fucking hell! Married! I really feel it!" Ben grinned at the muffled words, and the grin broke into a laugh. Ray looked up, spoke softly. "Hey, Spouse."
Ray took a sharp breath; the sense of newness was a physical thrill, the knowledge of permanence an aphrodisiac.
"Ah, Jesus, Benny..."
For the first time in what seemed an eternity, Ray felt able to take the initiative, and his enthusiasm for the burgeoning kiss had him pressing Ben back into the corner of the couch as he crawled up the sturdy body until he covered it with his own. Ben wriggled into a more comfortable position before sliding his hands down Ray's back and over the well-shaped buttocks.
"Ray...Ray...you never answered my question," Ben gasped as he came up for air.
"About the idiot outside the holding cell."
"You're never gonna let that go, are you? You're like a wolf with a Danish."
"You said you thought about him when you got home that night but you wouldn't tell me how." Ray shut Ben up with another kiss, harder still, far more passionate. But Ben just had to ask that question and he eventually evaded Ray's mouth. "Are you going to tell me now, my love?"
"Were you fucking him or was he fucking you?"
Ray shuddered and glared ardently.
"God, Benny, you want me to come in my pants here?"
"No, Ray. I want you to come in me."
The image was as shocking as it was desirable. Using all of his self-control, all of his strength, Ray managed to prise himself away from Ben and into the far corner of the couch.
Ben slowly stood in front of Ray, staring challengingly. First he pulled off his sweater and tossed it aside. Then he took his time unbuttoning his shirt, Ray's gaze following his hands down his body until it was unfastened and he was able to shrug it off.
Ben peeled off his singlet, his pale body glowing gold in the firelight. He heard Ray's dry swallow and smiled. His hands went to his fly, unbuttoning and unzipping.
"Benny, gimme a break. I'm not ready."
Ben crouched by him, running his fingers over Ray's obvious erection before letting him squirm away.
"Some parts of you seem readier than others, Ray."
"God help me, I've created a monster!"
"Do you know what I want more than any other thing?"
"I've got a fairly vivid idea."
"I want to see you naked."
"Naked?" the squeak was back.
"Naked. I've never seen you naked."
"'Ain't much to see, Benny. I'm like a broomstick with a nose."
"I'd like to form my own opinion." The expression on Ray's face was painful for Ben to see. "You think you're not good enough."
"You're going to be disappointed."
"No, I'm not. This is what I was talking about earlier. You have to trust me. You're not a loser or a screw-up or a disappointment. Trust me."
"Later, Benny, okay? If I get naked now I know what'll happen because I can't say no to you any more and I'll feel like shit afterwards because I'm not ready."
Ben sighed deeply and accepted the situation, knowing he would never push Ray into doing something he would regret. He stood and stepped back, refastening the button on his jeans before picking up the other discarded items of clothing.
"I'm going to bed. Will you join me?" He held out a hand; gold glinted. Ray felt an intense wave of guilt. Hell of a wedding night. He took the hand and let Ben pull him to his feet, allowing himself to be drawn into a one armed embrace. "Don't worry," the sweet Canadian voice whispered into his ear, "I'm happy. With you I'm happy." And that understanding only made the guilt worse. Ray ran his mouth over the smooth skin of Ben's neck, tasting him, inhaling him, wanting him so, so much, feeling weary with the fear that he couldn't shake off or logic his way through. "You go on. I'll finish up in here." Ben eased away with a smile before moving away to switch off the lights, make sure the fire was safe and wish Dief goodnight. Ray went into the bedroom and sat heavily on the edge of the bed, pissed off with himself and his freaky preoccupations. He turned the gold band on his finger, round and round. Ben deserved better. Ben would get better. And he'd never have to know about the emotional repercussions: Ray had spent his entire adult life hiding behind lies, now he would use that experience to conceal his anxieties from Ben. He could do it. For the right reasons. And the best reason in the world walked through the doorway at that point. He stopped and looked quizzically at Ray.
"Just doing some serious thinking."
"Don't do the 'ah' thing."
"That doesn't help any either."
Ben folded up the clothes in his hand before stripping off what was left on his body, leaving everything tidy before climbing into bed, propping himself up against the headboard with pillows so he could keep an eye on Ray.
"Have I ever told you how proud I am when we're out together?" Ray asked.
"Just being seen with you gives me a real buzz. People must wonder what I'm doing with the most beautiful man in Chicago."
"Don't you mean they wonder what *I'm* doing with the most beautiful man in Chicago?"
Ray gave a short laugh and shook his head.
"If nothing else, that proves love is blind. Which is probably just as well." Ray steeled himself, rose, turned towards Ben and slowly began to undress. Usually he would disappear into the bathroom and come back clad in silk pyjamas, but tonight he stood before his love and shed his armour. Ben watched in awe, heart pounding so hard he was sure Ray must be able to hear it across the room.
"Ray..." slipped from him in an intense whisper as the final items were shed and Ray just looked at him, self-conscious and seeking approval. With a smile Ben held up a hand and made a twisting motion with his finger. Ray tried to smile back but it didn't quite come off; he turned on the spot, a slow circle. Ben didn't want to stop staring. Ever. But he knew his heated gaze wasn't enough to keep Ray warm and he threw back the covers on Ray's side of the bed. With deep relief Ray scooted in, covering himself rapidly for reasons other than warmth.
"Warned you," he attempted to joke, only to find an extremely horny Mountie all over him in an instant, kissing him demandingly, pressing his gorgeous Mountie erection at his hip. After a generous ten minutes Ben broke the kiss, staying nose to nose, admiring the finely shaped green eyes.
"Oh, Ray, you are so...so... I don't have the words."
"This is worth knowing. All I have to do to shut you up is strip off. Wonder what Welsh and the Dragon Lady would make of that."
"Feel how hard I am for you?"
"That's no joke."
"I think I'm going to kiss every perfect inch of you."
"That's nice," Ray's voice rose several octaves.
"Very nice," Ben muttered, already making his way down Ray's neck. "Very nice indeed."
Ray was shaking uncontrollably by the time Ben reached his navel, whether from lust or stress he couldn't tell. Every time his lover's mouth claimed another patch of skin he wanted to grab him and fuck him, grab him and throw him aside, love him, run, scream, scream, scream. He didn't feel safe, he didn't feel right, he was going to give some terrible disease to the man he worshipped. He felt Ben's breath on his cock, his full, rampant, eager cock that was sending out all the wrong signals. It was all, 'Come and get me' when it should have been, 'Danger! Hazard!'. Ben skirted the obvious, gently biting the inside of one thigh, and Ray gasped with regret and relief. He had to stop him. He wanted to stop him. He wanted to come, oh, God, he wanted to come, he wanted to fuck his lover and come and come and come.
"Benny...Benny...up here," he choked out.
He felt Ben's hesitation, his reluctance to leave a mission he was obviously relishing. But Ben crawled back up Ray's body, coming to rest half-covering it.
"You want me to be careful?" he asked softly. Understanding. Tears sprang to Ray's eyes and Ben was quick to kiss them away.
"Please be careful, Benny."
Ben turned away and leant out of bed, reaching under and coming back with a box of condoms. He flicked it open, removing one and turning back, diving under the covers and rummaging about until Ray gasped with the sensation of cool rubber being gently unrolled over his hot cock. It was almost more than he could bear, these soft touches that tormented his frustrated body, but Ben knew, could read every shiver and twitch. His mouth was suddenly there, taking Ray in, making it clear by his insistent actions that Ray didn't have to restrain himself, didn't have to wait. Ray clutched at the sheets, trying to find something to cling to as he spun out of control; one strong Canadian hand presented itself and Ray grabbed on with both of his, feeling connected, feeling safe, feeling precious metal, feeling...feeling... He was overtaken by a ferocious orgasm, crying out and writhing as his body tried to turn itself inside out.
Ray woke to the sensation of ticklingly light kisses on his face. He smiled and turned towards the beautiful mouth that was bestowing these gifts.
"You passed out, Ray. I hope it wasn't through boredom," Ben teased.
"Thank you." Ben languidly kissed the offered mouth. "You taste of rubber."
"So did you." That reminded Ray of his responsibilities, and with a supreme effort he reached for Ben's penis. Ben caught the hand, kissed that too. "It's okay, you don't have to do anything."
"Yes, I do. I'm not one of these selfish..."
"No, I mean it. I came when you did. I was just so excited I couldn't contain myself."
"Excited over me?"
"Excited by your excitement, excited by being its instigator. Excited that you were willing to do this for me despite your fears, which I think translates as being excited by your love for me."
"Fairly excitable all round then."
"Yes, Ray." Ben gazed at his lover adoringly, studying the changes to his face. "You look at peace, Ray, for the first time this year."
"That's you, Benny. You're my peace. You're my quiet place." Basking in love and satisfaction, Ben settled down more comfortably by Ray, ready to sleep, one arm protectively draped over his spouse. "Hey, don't pin me down yet, I've got to get cleaned up."
Ray lifted the covers and peered beneath: no condom.
"You were careful?"
"Yes. I was thinking... We should make an appointment at the nearest hospital for you to have another test. It may finally put your mind at rest."
"Let's do that." He paused. "Benny...if it was positive..."
"We've been careful, we'd continue to be careful. Once you were on a drugs programme your health prospects would be very good. Your condition wouldn't be permitted to disrupt our lives any more than the speculation about it already has."
Ray considered again, nodded, settled to sleep. 'It worked,' Ben thought to himself in surprise. 'Denying makes Ray worse, dealing with makes him better.' He wished he'd figured that out a long time ago.
The test was quickly arranged once the circumstances were explained to the relevant people, and it was only a matter of days later when Ray was emerging from the hospital with a clean bill of health. The jumping for joyness he'd missed out on in Chicago was certainly in full flow now. Because this time he did believe the negative result: Canadians didn't lie - how many times had he used that argument? There had only been Benny's brief flutter with deception for the purpose of keeping them together, and that was actually pretty cool.
Ray had had to spend time with a counsellor before the test and, he grudgingly admitted, it had been liberating to talk about the whole wretched experience with someone who was sympathetic but not emotionally involved. He hadn't realised quite how much he'd bottled up inside himself, but the skilled therapist had teased it all out like unravelling a ball of knotted string, generously devoting the entire morning to him before offering more time if he needed it in the future.
All these months after Hespetti's men had dumped him Ray finally felt free, the abduction was finally over and he had himself back. Oh, he wasn't foolish enough to believe the nightmares would instantly stop, or that he'd be able to get behind the wheel of the Riv without suffering a minor flashback, but he was ready to move forward: he'd had enough of purgatory and was taking the first flight out. And when he thought of who was waiting for him...
Enjoying the novelty of being back in the land of the living, Ray spent some time wandering around the stores, browsing, occasionally buying, thinking how strange it was to be on his own. It had been Ray's unequivocal decision to attend this appointment alone, a resolution that had brought his usually unflappable friend to the point of flapping like a - what was it? Anas platywhatnot? 'Ray. Duck!' God, he'd pay him back one day for all the times he'd made him feel like a total schmuck! As Ray reached out to check the quality of a shirt he was considering buying for Ben, his ring glinted in the light. How would he pay him back for all the times he'd made him feel like a total god? No longer the loser, the screw-up, the waste of space. Forgetting the shirt, Ray pulled out his phone and flicked it open, pressing memory one. The call was answered in seconds.
"How did it go?"
"You were right, you've always been right. I'm fine."
"And you trust this result?"
"Are you on your way home?"
"I'm heading for the car as we speak."
"But fast. Carefully but fast."
"Just get here soon."
Ray smiled at the passion in Ben's voice.
"I'm on my way, Prezioso, you better be ready for me."
"Oh, I'm ready for you, Ray. Believe me, I'm ready for you."
Ben was on the porch waiting for him when Ray got home, the expression on his face open and full of love and expectation. In his mind Ray had seen this meeting as an impassioned rush into open arms but now he felt awed by his own good fortune and shy with his friend. His lover. As he slowly crunched across the snow to the cabin he was aware of his heart pounding fit to burst.
"This is when I wake up," he said, loud enough for Ben to hear. "This is when I wake up and find I just dreamt some of the worst and best moments of my life."
Ben came towards him, just as slowly.
"And what will happen when you see me today? Will you take a chance? Will you tell me about the idiot outside the holding cell?"
"Maybe I'll tell you the whole dream. Explain why I'm looking at you as if I could eat you alive." They stopped, a breath apart. "What will the Mountie say?"
Ben thought, smiled.
"I'll probably thank you kindly for the look. Then I'll ask you - very politely, of course - if you'll be so good as to take me home and fuck the living daylights out of me."
They bundled up the porch steps, kissing frantically all the while, and once inside the front door clothes were dragged from bodies and discarded in all directions. Ben all but carried Ray into the bedroom, stripping the last remnants of clothing from him before pushing him onto the bed, pinning him down with body weight and intense kisses, kisses that quickly moved over face, neck, chest...
"Don't stop me, I want to taste you."
"Then just do it, don't let me think."
Ray gave an embarrassed laugh, pushing himself up on elbows so he could see Ben.
"Oh, yeah, still jumpy. Stupid, huh?"
"No. Not stupid. It will take a while to get over what's happened."
"Think we should stop?"
"Ray...let's face it. Many a true word is spoken in jest."
"You've lost me."
"You married an insensitive brute! Now, I feel I have to live up to this label by viciously subjecting you to hours of intense sexual pleasure."
Before Ray could answer Ben dipped his head, taking Ray's cock into his mouth; Ray gasped and fell back, mind instantly wiped of concerns other than the feel of that hot wetness sliding luxuriously up and down his shaft, the clever tongue exploring his glans and teasing the slit until he was shaking with the sheer and utter delight of it. Ben pulled back, smiling at the ferocious groan that quietened as he licked Ray like a lollipop, pausing only to tell him how wonderful he tasted. At last. Then Ben felt Ray's fingers entwine with his hair, easing him away.
"Too close, Benny," Ray panted.
"But it's safe..." Ben began patiently.
"I don't want it to be over yet."
"Oh. Understood. After all..." Ben crawled up the bed, "...wasn't there some talk of you fucking me?"
"Shut up, shut up, shut up!"
Ben grinned and kissed Ray's neck, nuzzling tormenting lips against his ear
"I've been waiting so patiently, Ray. To have your magnificent cock inside me."
Ray pushed Ben back down the bed without ceremony, closing his eyes against the look of triumph on his lover's face. The all-encompassing heat was back, radiating through his body, melting his brain and bones and muscles. One long, deep suck, one light touch to his sensitive balls was all it took, and Ray was coming hard and fast, filling Ben's mouth with his own heat.
Ray eventually came down from the ceiling, peeled an eyelid back to see Ben laying beside him, still and contented, the very picture of Mountie innocence unless you happened to know what he'd just done with that talented mouth. The mouth that now came to kiss him, delicately, chastely.
"You're going to be disappointed now," Ray muttered. "Suppose you're expecting me to have the turn around time of an eighteen year old."
"No, Ray. But I can wait a while longer." Ben deepened the kiss, letting Ray taste himself on a tongue the texture of silk. "I told you it was just a matter of time," he whispered between kisses, "before you tasted yourself in my mouth." Ben felt Ray smile under his lips, wriggled closer, onto him, leisurely grinding his erection into whatever piece of flesh presented itself.
"You want me to..."
"Uh-uh. I'll wait."
"You don't have to wait. I mean, you don't have to wait for me to make love to you."
"You wanna make love to me?"
Ray felt a tremor go through Ben, head to toe, and thought something on the lines of, 'Ohwowohwowohmygodohmygodhe'sgoingtofuckme'. Ben took a deep breath.
"No?" came out in disappointed squeak mode.
"You first. Because of my lack of experience, that's all, Ray. I'll learn from you, and then I'll feel confident enough to...reciprocate."
"I remember you saying that you were turned on by my experience. That true?"
"You sure? I mean, a lot of people like the idea of being first."
"I don't need to be the first. But I intend to be the last."
Ray smiled, approved, snuggled.
An hour later Ben roused himself from a shallow doze, stretching awkwardly as he tried not to disturb his husband, as he easily thought of Ray now. Ray opted for the more ambiguous 'spouse', but he liked husband. Dief approved of 'provider' but Ben wasn't having any of that, jelly doughnuts or no jelly doughnuts. Husband summed up the way he thought of Ray: warm, loving, generous, protective, dependable, strong, so pro Benton Fraser that it made his toes curl...
"Husband," he whispered to the man in question, enjoying the mild but immediate response as Ray's fingers flexed over the flesh of his stomach. "Husband," he repeated, and this time all of Ray stirred. Ben glanced down in satisfaction: yes, all of Ray had stirred. His hand encompassed Ray's burgeoning erection, stroking fondly and with a sense of ownership that still fascinated him. "Mine." He remembered Ray testing out the word some time ago and finally appreciated the satisfaction that came with it. "Mine."
"Oh, yeah, Prezioso, yours."
"Now, Ray? Please, Ray?"
Ben wanted to catch Ray before he woke up completely and began getting jumpy again; he kissed him and touched him, groaned with desire as the kisses and touches were reciprocated, groaned some more as Ray finally started to assert himself. Ben reached under the bed to his stash of necessities and brought out a tube of lubricating gel, offering it to Ray with shaking hands. Ray accepted it with a frown.
"Sure you want this?"
"I am so sure. You're supposed to be a detective, can't you detect I'm sure?"
"You wanna get smart, huh?"
Ray rolled onto Ben, beginning a passionate assault the like of which Ben had never experienced before. This was the Ray he loved with cherries on top. Everything the man did was perfection, whether it was with his mouth or his hands, and Ben felt, relished, learnt. On the verge of losing his mind through lust he was faintly aware of the tube of gel being rediscovered and... He lay his head back, waiting, hmmmming for calm.
"Want to turn over? It'll be easier."
"I want to see you," Ben murmured, ignoring the fact that his eyes were presently tightly closed.
"Good. That's good." Ray paused. Ben ventured a squint and was given a look of affectionate amusement for the effort. "You trust me?"
Ben gasped as gentle hands caressed and opened his legs, caressed and opened his body. Half-an-hour, three gel-coated fingers later, Ben was in danger of hyperventilating and begging wantonly.
"Watch. Watch, Benny. This is it. This is us."
Ben struggled to open his eyes, and blue met green in an intense moment as Ray's slicked cock pressed into Ben for the first time. Carefully. Slowly. Mind-blowingly.
"Ray. Ray. Yes. Yesyesyesyesyes..."
The sultry stare Ray fixed on Ben was as erotic as the measured invasion of his body; Ben grasped at him, fingers digging into the muscles of Ray's arms, fervent encouragement as he endured this exquisite torment. He was ready to explode when Ray stopped, fully inside his body. Ray carefully lowered himself, freeing one hand to slide behind Ben's head, pulling him into a sensual kiss.
"My love. My sweet, sweet love," he murmured, and Ben's attention abruptly switched from the physical to the emotional, his heart lurching at the adoration in those simple words.
"I love you, Ray," he replied intensely. "My best friend. My saviour." His eyes swam with tears. "My husband."
"Oh, yeah," Ray sighed on a contented breath, and he began to move, as easily as before, unrushed but relentless.
Ben hadn't known what to expect, but it certainly wasn't this. Nerve endings all over his body were tangoing in rhythm with Ray's unhurried strokes, and his last remaining brain cells began to disintegrate as Ray slowly rolled his hips. Ray watched Ben's eyes flutter shut as he concentrated on the sensations coursing through his body, and it was with the unmitigated joy of giving that he shifted the position of his hips, thrust a little harder, and hit the spot. Ben's eyes snapped open, his whole face lit up with raw pleasure. Tenuously clinging to his own self-control, Ray rolled and thrust again, being rewarded by his lover jerking uncontrollably beneath him as he came without so much as a touch. The spasming muscles of Ben's body tightened around Ray's cock and he gratefully gave in to the glorious sensations, blasting his semen into his lover's body with a blissful sob.
Ben pulled him down and they lay entwined, recapturing their breath and descending from one phenomenal high.
"Still jumpy?" Ben eventually asked.
"I'm okay. In fact...I've never felt safer in my life."
Ray cringed when he heard his name belted from Welsh's office; it had been one hell of a month since he and Ben had got back from Canada, filled with familial histrionics, workplace insecurity and punches being thrown at least once when the comments about him and Ben had become too obnoxious. He entered the Lieutenant's office to come face to face with two of the most irritating geeks the FBI had ever sent the department's way. They'd been sniffing around for the best part of a week and Ray was growing increasingly suspicious of their interest in him personally.
"Close the door, Detective." Ray did as he was told, bracing himself for whatever, knowing it wouldn't be good. "You remember agent's Brice and McCloskey?"
"Yeah, I've had the pleasure," Ray smiled, deliberately unsettling the two men with his civility.
"Well, they have a proposition for you."
Ray listened intently as the geeks ran through the most preposterous scheme he had ever heard, involving long-term undercover work, people he would never go near in several millennia, and their plans for a certain cop who was the spitting image of one recently deceased Armando 'the Bookman' Langostini. As Ben would have said: oh dear.
"You gotta be kidding."
"It's a great opportunity for you, Detective Vecchio," Brice offered.
"A great opportunity to get killed, sure!"
"Think how it will reflect on your career." That was McCloskey.
"Have you read my record? Have you seen what I've been though in the last year?"
"It proves your ability to cope with exceptional circumstances."
"I didn't cope through temperament, I had no choice but to get on with it. Now all I'm looking forward to is a quiet life and the vague possibility of old age."
"If you're concerned about your family..."
"Yeah, right, family. I can't do it, I can't leave my partner."
"Wouldn't she understand? Surely she could manage without you for what? Six months?"
"Well, I can't manage without him for a single day. I'm not your man."
Brice and McCloskey exchanged a look, wondering how that particular information had got past them; the agents allowed the interview to hiccup to a halt, eventually taking their leave, already discussing some poor schmuck in Seattle who might fit the bill. Ray turned back to Welsh, who had remained inordinately quiet throughout.
"Sit down, Ray." Ray? He called him Ray? Was this how cops got fired? By their first names? Ray sat. "How're you doing?"
"Great. Okay. Not great. Hell, you always thought I was a total dropkick, and I've proved you right."
"Where did you get that impression?" Ray shrugged, feeling distinctly foolish. Welsh nodded towards the squad room. "Is there anything I can do to make things easier?"
"Write me a good reference?" Ray suggested, only half joking.
Welsh studied him thoughtfully for several uncomfortable minutes before reaching into his desk and bringing out an envelope. He silently handed it to Ray.
It had been a good year. Strike that. It had been a great year. It had been the best.
Ray waited patiently on the cabin porch, listening for the sound of Ben's jeep, smiling to himself as the low rumble cut through the twilight: you could set your watch by the Mountie.
When Welsh had handed Ray that envelope fourteen months previously it had been with great trepidation that he had taken it back to his desk and opened it, expecting...well, he wasn't quite sure what, maybe even dismissal, but finding a list of contacts and business referrals in this area of Canada - their area of Canada. He never knew how many favours Welsh had called in to furnish him with such a lucrative opportunity but any thanks had been brushed aside as if inconsequential. Ben's transfer back home had been easier than expected to arrange and, although he was little busier than he had been in Chicago, at least he was no longer standing sentry duty or running errands: he was a police officer with his own legitimate police officerly duties and he felt like a real Mountie again. In his off-duty hours he enjoyed working with Ray in an unofficial capacity as the Security Consultant's consultant, and in the back of both their minds they knew that one day Ben would become a full-time partner: they liked being together too much not to take that path. Once the business had taken off Ray had been able to broaden his horizons, and had travelled the breadth and length of adopted country, often with Ben, but just as often without. Ray doubted that the 'without' would last much longer. Mind you, the reunions when he came back from his trips were quite spectacular.
They'd had a second cabin built to house the highly lucrative Consultancy, and it often doubled as a guest house when family or friends visited. But at present it was just the two - sorry, three - of them. Dief had stayed home with the Provider today to meet a new client, and now he enthusiastically bounded out into the snow to greet the Alpha male as he emerged from his vehicle.
The sight of this wonderful man coming home to him never failed to start Ray's heart pounding, and he followed Dief to Ben's side, taking the opportunity to press him against the side of the jeep and kiss him soundly as the light faded around them. The persistent grumbling of a wolf waiting on his dinner motivated the couple; hand in hand they walked to the cabin. At the top of the steps Ray turned back and took a deep breath, mentally saying goodnight to the outside world for another night.
"Hey, Benny, did you see that?"
Ben smiled, remembered a different star a long time ago, a star that granted his wish. He slid his arms around Ray and kissed his neck.
"What are you wishing for?"
"No. Really. I'm not."
Ray leant back, managing to get half-an-inch closer to the source of his contentment.
"I wish...I wish this could last forever. Us, here, being this happy."
Ben used a finger to turn the animated face toward him, relishing the joy he saw there.
"I promise, my love," Ben whispered, feeling the words in his heart and soul. "This is one wish I promise will come true."
"Thank you, Benny. Want to sign something legally binding to that effect?"
Ben chuckled and went back to kissing the smoothly irresistible neck, knowing he existed for this man - this life - and he would, without a shadow of a doubt, see his promise kept.
He knew what it was to be strong enough.