A Modest Proposal

by Resonant

Author's Website: http://trickster.org/res

Disclaimer: After writing this story, I own all kinds of new characters, but alas, I still don't own Fraser and Ray. My birthday's coming up, though.

Author's Notes: Thanks to anne for beta, and to anne, Ces, and Livia for saying, "You think you're finished, but you're not."

Story Notes:

A Modest Proposal

by Resonant

  1. This May Sting a Bit

She was strawberry blonde and very tall, and she had this way of giving you a sidelong look through her lowered lashes, like she was plotting some kind of mischief and thinking about maybe letting you in on it. Ray was totally head-over-heels smitten.

Those latex gloves she was snapping on -- somehow they didn't make her a bit less attractive.

"So listen," Ray said, and then hissed as an alcohol-soaked cotton ball hit a shallow cut along his jaw. She tilted her head to one side in an I'm-listening gesture as she pursed her lips and looked at the cut. No stitches on that one, apparently.

Looking past her shoulder, Ray could see Fraser sitting on a chair in his white undershirt. His face was freckled with scratches, and he had a bandage on his cheekbone and four stitches in his left hand. He gave Ray a microscopic frown and an even more microscopic headshake.

"I was thinking," Ray went on, pointedly looking away from Fraser. "I'm gonna go out on a limb here, but I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with me sometime."

"Oh, I don't think so, Detective. This may sting a bit. "

"Ow," Ray said as she numbed a spot right at his hairline and started to stitch it. "I say something wrong or something? Because if I did, I'd like to start over."

"Oh, nothing like that." Her voice was reassuring now, except that it sounded like she was talking to a kid who was scared of a needle. "But I never date patients. It's sort of a policy with me." She clipped off her suture. "Don't tug on the stitches," she said. "They should dissolve by themselves in about a week. You're all set.

"And Detective ... Constable ... I hope I don't need to tell you to stay inside the next time it's raining broken glass?" That was -- that was a wink! She'd turned him down flat and then turned right around and winked at Fraser! Ray was still staring after her in disbelief when the curtain rattled shut.

"She winked at you," he said stupidly. He turned around, still shaking his head, to get an eyeful of Fraser's broad, T-shirted back as he reached for his uniform. Damn, that was some torso on the guy. No wonder he was the one that caught the pretty doctor's eye. "I can't believe she winked at you."

"Did she?" Fraser shook his head and his hair fell smoothly back into place. "I hadn't noticed." The undershirt, Ray saw now, was dotted with blood around the neck, though the heavy red jacket had protected Fraser from the worst of the glass shards. Ray looked sadly at his own perforated windbreaker. Maybe it was time to change his wardrobe.

"You didn't notice. Doctor Legs winks at you and you don't notice." Ray hopped down off the examining table and followed Fraser out into the busy emergency room hallway. Then he had a wicked thought. He drew closer to Fraser, leaned in, and said softly, "Bet you'd notice if that one winked at you." He nodded at the brown-eyed man who was shrugging his broad shoulders into a white lab coat.

It was worth every bit of effort Ray put into that deadpan just to see Fraser blush, to watch him struggle with whether to stop and scold Ray or to hustle him out of the hospital before he could cause any more trouble. He settled for walking faster and saying "Ray!" in a scandalized voice.

"Hey," Ray said unrepentantly, "shouldn't've told me your deep dark secret if you didn't want me yankin' your chain about it. Way I see it, what you did was handed me twice as many chances to mess with your mind."

Fraser rolled his eyes, but Ray knew he wasn't really mad. Probably a relief for him to have somebody to talk to. Ray was willing to bet he was the only person on the planet who knew the details of Fraser's sex life without actually being involved in it.

"I suppose returning to the scene of the explosion would be unwise," Fraser said as they walked back to the car.

"Why, you see something before the glass flew?"

"I didn't have time for a thorough investigation before the greenhouse exploded." Fraser pushed his hat up to scratch the back of his head meditatively. "But I feel sure that I'm missing something. There was something ..." He shook his head. "Do you think the explosion had anything to do with our presence?"

"Can't figure any way it could," Ray said. "I mean, the garage burns, Burgess calls us, we go out there, the greenhouse blows up -- I think it was just, you know, our usual good luck in action, right?" He grinned at Fraser. "But on the outside chance somebody was watching -- well, you and the wolf aren't exactly easy to forget, you know? Maybe we should send somebody else back to interview Burgess tomorrow and see what's up."

2. Zing

Sometimes it looked as if Ray didn't actually want his romantic overtures to meet with success. Fraser was at a loss for any other way to explain why someone would issue a dinner invitation to a woman while she was putting stitches in his face.

Fraser couldn't suppress a wince: Those stitches were perilously close to Ray's eye. Today, like so many other days, he was just grateful that things hadn't been even worse. Fraser's own wounds were less numerous, the heavy tunic having stopped the worst of the broken glass, but the cut on his knuckles would probably leave a visible scar. Ray would probably say he should tell everyone it was a boxing injury.

As for Ray's humor at the expense of Fraser's own love life, well, it was, like so many other things about Ray, simultaneously irritating and endearing. Having his bisexuality treated as an amusing quirk rather than as a "deep, dark secret" was oddly liberating. Apparently, despite all its anarchic power, desire was, like everything else, comfortingly mundane.

Fraser had been careful to keep his own feelings for Ray on the comfortingly mundane level, too, and had been rewarded with one of the finest friendships he'd ever had the privilege of experiencing. And if that friendship was enlivened by a little extra zing of physical attraction -- well, as long as Fraser wasn't harboring unrealistic hopes, such a thing would harm no one.

3. Bulldog

Her multicolored hair was even spikier than Ray's, and her little white T-shirt (with a picture of a chick in dangerous boots) was cropped to show a sliver of smooth, tanned belly. She was walking a big slobbery bulldog on a hot-pink leash. Scary but cute. And the dog wasn't bad, either.

"Hey," Ray said. "Nice dog."

"Hey," she said. "Get lost."

"Hey!" But she and the dog had already disappeared into the crowd. "Did you hear that? That was ... that was rude!"

"It was indeed," Fraser said. "But she may feel that since you're a stranger, your approaching her was rude as well."

Dief snorted. "Now, Diefenbaker," Fraser said. "There's no need to compound rudeness with rudeness. I'm sure her dog's hygiene is none of our business."

Ray ruffled Dief's head. "Thanks," he said. "At least you're on my side." They walked on in silence for a little longer.

"Could it be that there was something in the greenhouse that Mr. Burgess didn't want us to see?" Fraser asked. Man, spring must be early this year, Ray thought, because Fraser was already pushing up his sleeves.

"Greenhouse is a good place for growing things that aren't so legal," Ray said.

"I think I would have been able to --"

"Right, right, I thought of that. What did you smell?"


"In March?" Ray wondered idly if Fraser ever wore a wristwatch. Both his wrists seemed to be the same color, so probably not.

"That's the standard time for starting tomatoes from seed in this climate zone," Fraser said, "assuming that the average last frost date ..."

"Yeah, OK, I believe you," Ray said. "Anyway, Mr. Burgess doesn't want us to see something, all Mr. Burgess has to do is don't call us."

"That was my thought as well," Fraser said.

They walked in silence through the lunchtime crowd. After a time Fraser said, "The fire in the garage --"

"-- stinks of arson, doesn't it?"

"Quite literally, in fact," Fraser said. "Lighter fluid, if I'm not mistaken."

"And did you see the back wall was tagged?"

"But not with the signs of any known gang," Fraser said, and Ray nodded. "So the greenhouse --"

"No way is that a coincidence," Ray said. "We just gotta figure out how it all hangs together."

Fraser smiled. "Precisely."

4. Thank You Kindly

Fraser couldn't quite account for why Ray was taking the dog-walking woman's rejection so much to heart.

"I don't get it," he complained, absently picking at the scratches that laced his forearms. " 'Nice dog.' That's all's I said. -- Hey, Elaine, whaddaya got?" That last was shouted across the room at rather higher than necessary volume, and Fraser tried not to wince. "I mean, I could see her getting pissed if I'd said, 'Nice tits' ..."

Fraser privately thought that Ray's tone had communicated just that, but it seemed impolitic to say so. "She didn't know you," he said instead as he pulled up a chair beside Ray's desk. "And I imagine you're not the first stranger to approach her. She may have thought it best to, ah, clip to the chase."

"For god's sake, see more movies or don't quote anything later than Shakespeare, Fraser," Ray said. "Anyway, she doesn't want every guy she meets to hit on her, why's she dress like that, hm?" Ray sliced his hands toward his belly to indicate the cut of her T-shirt. "I think I had some probable cause there. -- You got something?"

Fraser was struck by the contrast between the voice Ray had used in the park and the one he was using on Elaine. Though he wasn't certain which one was worse.

Elaine, though, didn't seem to see anything amiss. "You're going to like this," she said. "When we went back yesterday to take Burgess's statement, we talked to his girlfriend, too, because she was sleeping over the night of the fire. Chantal Ackerman."

"Yeah? And?" Ray said impatiently. Fraser despaired of convincing him to take a few extra moments for politeness.

"She took out a restraining order eighteen months ago against her ex-boyfriend," Elaine went on, still appearing not to notice Ray's rudeness.

"Yeah? And?"

Realistically, Elaine didn't strike Fraser as a good prospect for Ray: In addition to going against his evident preference for blonde hair, she also seemed like the sort of person who would find his fiery temperament annoying rather than invigorating.

However, he still wished Ray would be more friendly. Both on general principles and because it was good practice.

"Warren Hayes," she said now, looking extraordinarily pleased with herself.

Ray let out a long whistle. "Jackpot," he said. "I knew Hayes was too quiet. He's been out of Joe two years -- I knew his name would come up eventually. OK," he said to Elaine, "get Hayes in here for a little talk. And might as well bring Percival Harris in for a visit, too. Where there's Hayes, there's Harris."

"Thank you kindly, Elaine," Fraser said. Elaine shot Ray a pointed look before she walked away.

5. She Deserves Better

Warren Hayes had the suspicious eyes and petulant mouth of a man who feels that the universe owes him good things and is being unconscionably late in delivering them. Fraser supposed he was attractive enough, with his brass-rimmed glasses and his tousle of dark-blond hair, but an expression of lifelong sullenness could take the appeal out of the handsomest face.

"Don't know a thing about that," he responded to every question, in a tone of aggrieved sincerity familiar to every law-enforcement officer.

But as it turned out, Hayes was so well supplied with alibis that Fraser was forced to consider the possibility that he was telling the truth. On the day Martin Burgess's greenhouse had exploded, Hayes had been on a two-week barge cruise down the Mississippi River. To make matters even more definitive, his driver's license was suspended due to multiple DUI convictions, so he had taken a Greyhound bus to and from the departure site. Which meant that a tremendous number of people could verify that he had been in no position to be destroying private property anywhere in Illinois.

When asked about Chantal Ackerman, Hayes' first response was belligerence: "She's got a restraining order and I've got a record. I'm not stupid." But with further questioning, he moved into a kind of baffled tenderness. "When we broke up, I kind of lost it, man. I broke into her mom's house, yeah, but I was just gonna leave her some flowers. But then -- look, I'm a con, she's classy. She deserves better."

He professed unfamiliarity with Martin Burgess, and in fact did his best to interrogate Fraser and Ray about him: "He clean? He got a good job? He the kind of guy who can make her happy?"

As for Percival Harris, that question got them right back to belligerence. "Guy's a lunatic," he spat. "I don't care if he says I'm whipped. It wasn't just Chantal that made me decide I didn't want to spend the rest of my life taking stupid chances like he takes."

Chantal Ackerman was plump and pretty, with bottle-red hair and a great deal of eye makeup. Fraser supposed that another kind of man would find her fluttery gestures and over-expressive voice enchantingly feminine.

She didn't seem to find it at all shocking that her old boyfriend might be destroying her new boyfriend's property. "Warren," she said in a tone of amused indulgence. "Just the kind of foolish thing Warren would do to make a point. That restraining order -- I'll bet he didn't tell you all of that story."

"He said he broke into your mother's house to leave you some flowers," Fraser said.

"He broke into my second-floor bedroom with a ladder truck Percival stole from the phone company! He pried up the storm window, broke the inside pane, and covered the entire bed with roses, and stuck these lighted sparklers in all my potted orchids. And he would have been gone before Mother and I got home, but he took too long cleaning up the glass, and then the smoke set the fire alarm off, and Percival panicked and drove off. So Warren jumped out the window and sprained his wrist and ankle on the front lawn, and Amy across the street called the cops --"

She seemed to be fighting a certain admiration for Hayes' daring. "He wanted me back that bad. But I told him: You tell me you're not hanging around with Percival any more and I'm back in a heartbeat. It's him or me."

Why didn't she want Hayes to associate with Harris? She looked at Fraser with disbelief. "The guy who thought it was a good idea to steal a truck from the phone company," she explained, as if to a small child. "This is the way Percival thinks. If you can call that thinking." She rolled her eyes. "If it wouldn't have been for Percival, Warren would have stayed out of jail, I believe that. But they egg each other on like little boys."

Did she think Harris was involved in the threats against Burgess? "Wish I could say no," she sighed. "But if Warren's doing something criminal and idiotic, Percival's probably involved."

6. Over and Out

She had blonde hair like a fall of satin halfway down her back, and a sexy, husky voice, and a habit of slipping off her shoes and padding barefooted around Dispatch like one of those statues in the fountains, only with a telephone headset on.

Ray had been going down the back stairs for a couple of weeks to buy his candy at Dispatch's vending machines, instead of using the ones upstairs, in the hope of an accidental meeting like this one. And he was in luck, too, because he'd combed his hair over the stitches, and he really didn't look like Frankenstein any more at all.

"Katie! What a coincidence!" He tossed his bag of M&M's jauntily into the air and figured the gods were smiling on him when he actually caught it.

"Detective," she said, nodding his way, and punched the buttons for a bag of pretzels. She pulled the bag open immediately. Ah, a woman with enthusiasm. This could be great.

"So listen. Been meaning to ask you. You free for dinner Friday? I know this great little Italian place, atmosphere up to here -- "

She swallowed a pretzel hastily. "Um, I don't think so," she said, looking away. "I don't date at work. But thanks! See you later!" And she all but ran out the break room door.

"Hey, no problem, some other time," he called after her like the loser he was.

7. A Modest Proposal

"And I mean ran. She ran out of there. Like I was gonna grab her," Ray said. His mournful expression reminded Fraser of a basset hound he'd once known. " 'I don't date at work. I don't date at work.' Like I'm too stupid to know she went out with, what's-his-name, Kraft, Krause, down in the motor pool," he added over a mouthful of peperoncini.

Fraser considered it a measure of Ray's state of mind that he was allowing a vegetable, however well-pickled, to cross his lips in addition to his usual pizza.

"I got no luck with women, Fraser."

He seemed to be expecting an answer. Fraser tried to think of a diplomatic one, and finally settled on "I'm sorry about that."

"Yeah, well, you're not half as sorry about that as I am, Benton buddy," Ray said. "You know how long it's been since I had a date?"

Fraser pondered treating the rhetorical question as literal, which was usually a good way of distracting Ray, but decided that Ray would probably prefer not to be distracted. So he waited in silence the four seconds it took Ray to answer his own question: "Too goddamned long, that's how long." Ray took another morose bite. "A little companionship, somebody to have a good time with, somebody to hang around with after work, a little snuggle now and then, some physical affection. Is that too much to ask?"

"Not at all," Fraser said in what he hoped was a soothing voice.

Ray looked at him, eyes narrowed. The moment stretched out so long that Fraser ran his tongue along his front teeth to make sure no lettuce was stuck there. No; apparently it was something else. "Yes?" he said encouragingly.

"You hang around with me after work."

"I'm doing so even as we speak," Fraser said, waiting for the point.

"You talk to me at the end of the day."

Fraser nodded agreeably.

"In fact," Ray said, "the only thing missing is the physical affection."

And he looked at Fraser expectantly.

Fraser slid down the couch and gave Ray a one-armed hug, patting his shoulder. Then he went back to his pizza.

Ray rolled his eyes. "If that was all I needed, I could get it from Ma Vecchio," he said. "But then again, if that's what 'physical affection' means to you, it explains your whole sex life right there."

Fraser blinked.

"You want me to spell it out? Kinda makes it less meaningful that way, be better if you got the picture on your own, but --"

Ray was clearly unhinged.

"Ray. You're heterosexual." Perhaps stating the abundantly obvious would get the conversation back into less surreal areas.

"I could change."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said, yeah, I've always been straight, but I could change."

"Why on earth would you want to?"

"Geez, gotta work on that self-esteem thing, buddy." Ray grinned at him.

"What I mean is --" Fraser sighed. It seemed so self-evident that it was difficult to put into words. "We both know I'm not your usual ... preference."

"Yeah, so? You think rejection is my preference? Crashing and burning is my preference?"

"But -- we're friends." Fraser found that he was worrying the stitches on his knuckles. He forced himself to stop. "I'm happy being friends. You're happy being friends. Why should we --"

"But you want more than friends, right? I don't mean --" Ray interrupted smoothly when Fraser began to protest -- "I don't mean I think you're pining away for love of me or anything like that, I know better than that, but you'd take it further if it seemed right to you, right? If it seemed like the feeling was mutual and all?"

Oh, it was like falling down the rabbit hole. "That's exactly my point. The feeling is clearly not --"

"And besides," Ray interrupted again. "You love me. Don't you?"

Fraser blinked.

"Don't you?" Ray prodded gently.

Fraser stopped himself from closing his eyes by sheer force of will. "You know that I do."

Ray ducked his head and gave Fraser a sweet smile. "Thanks," he said a little hoarsely, and rested his hand over the back of Fraser's. "Mutual, you know that, right?"

Fraser nodded, not trusting his voice.

Ray held Fraser's eyes for a few more seconds. "Right," he said briskly, and removed his hand. "See, the thing is," he went on, rubbing vigorously behind one ear, "the thing is, I been looking at my love life, and, Fraser, it's pathetic. I'm going after girls I hardly know, girls I can't trust, girls who don't care anything about me, right?"

It didn't even require an answer. Fraser was very well aware of the pattern.

"And then I got to thinking. Ray, my man, this is just stupid, this is just dumb." Ray leapt to his feet and began to pace, still holding the stem of the pepper between his fingers. "I mean, here I've got this friend, right? Who loves me, who cares about me, who fucking jumps off roofs for me? Only he's a guy and I don't go for guys. But if I've got the jumping-off-roofs thing over here --" he waved the stem at Fraser to demonstrate -- "and the couldn't-care-less-about-you thing over there --" the other hand flapped in the general direction of the front door -- "and I choose that one just because I've always gone for girls, well, then it's nothing but a stupid fucking prejudice, you know?"

Fraser blinked at Ray's unexpected vehemence.

"I mean, when it all comes down to it, the heart's more important than the hormones, am I right?"

It all sounded so sensible. Love over convention, exactly the way a rational person would choose, of course --

He gave his head a quick shake. "That's the silliest thing I ever heard."

Ray stopped pacing in mid-step. "It's a perfectly reasonable solution," he said warningly.

"Human sexuality is hardly reasonable!" Fraser quickly lowered his voice. "A person can't just decide to change his orientation to fit the circumstances."

"Why not? That's what you do, isn't it?"

Fraser gaped. "It most certainly is not."

"Well, I don't know what you call it when you --"

"I've been oriented to both males and females from my earliest romantic and sexual impulses." He was not going to get angry over something so ludicrous. "Whereas you, I imagine, were already picking dandelions for some girl in your kindergarten class."

Ray grinned unexpectedly. "Kimmie Bishop," he said. "She let me kiss her behind the easel, too." He resumed pacing. "So what's your point? Because I had a thing for Kimmie Bishop, I can't have a thing for you?"

Oh, it was too much. Sometimes he felt like he spent his whole life turning down the right gift because it brought along the wrong expectations. "You don't," he said wearily. "You don't have a thing for me. You like me and you love me and you're lonesome. It's not at all the same thing." He put the half-eaten slice of pizza back on his plate; his appetite was thoroughly gone. "It's by no means certain that you could even function with a male partner. You're just not made that way."

"I have no trouble functioning," Ray said through a show of teeth that was more threat than smile. "And how different could it be? Kiss, cuddle, come, kiss some more. Same difference." Ray's chin was up. He was preparing to be stubborn.

"Listen to me," Fraser said. "You want to be in love with someone who's your friend. It's an admirable goal. And one that would best be achieved by going out and making some friends among the gender that nature made you for."

Ray's mouth was tight. "I can take no for an answer, Fraser, I got a little experience with that. You don't want me, just say so. But Nature --" he poked Fraser in the chest with the stem for emphasis -- "is not the boss of me."

8. Functional

OK, maybe it had been a stupid suggestion, but geez, the guy hadn't even considered it. Ray flopped back onto the couch, looking at the closed door in disgust. Surely it was common courtesy to at least pretend you weren't repulsed by the idea of sleeping with your best friend.

And not being able to function. Yeah, right. Ray was so deprived these days that there was nothing that could stop him from functioning. He functioned sometimes twice a night now, thank you very kindly, Constable Fraser.

And OK, maybe it was Katie Pascuali's little round butt that was in his head when he woke up from one of his functional dreams, but that didn't mean Katie Pascuali's butt was some kind of functional must-have for Ray. Fraser probably had a perfectly adequate butt of his own.

Though the length of his uniform jacket made it hard to tell for sure.

9. Debt

"Really, it's intolerable," Fraser said to Dief as they walked home. "To have one's attraction to one's friend called in like some sort of gambling debt."

Dief's ears shifted interrogatively. "Because it's not that kind of relationship," Fraser said sharply. "If I acted on any attraction I felt, regardless of whether or not I thought the infrastructure of the relationship would support it, do you really think my life would look the way it looks now?"

Dief sneezed decisively.

"Oh, you're on the side of taking pleasure without regard to the consequences. Pardon me if I'm not too shocked at that revelation."

10. Are We Good?

When a woman shot him down, Ray could at least steer clear of her until he got over the humiliation.

But ten minutes after Fraser and Dief edged nervously out the door, the phone rang: Welsh, with the news that Burgess had found a note inside his back door that said, "Cheaters don't deserve to live."

Welsh said rather pointedly that Ray was to consider the case his first priority -- or if necessary his only priority. He'd told the same thing to the Ice Queen, he said, which was a phone call Ray would have paid money to hear.

So the very next morning, there they were, yoked to the plow together again. Dief was the only one making eye contact, because Ray and Fraser just stared straight ahead out the windshield all the way from the Consulate to the station. It was a painfully quiet trip.

It took him the whole time to gather his courage. But then as he put the brake on they both started talking at once:

"Ray, I'm --"

"Hell, Fraser, I didn't mean --"

"sorry, I never intended --"

"hurt your feelings, and I'm --"

"make you uncomfortable, I truly --"

Ray felt a grin start up in the corners of his mouth. "No, I'm gonna interrupt you to say this," he said. "It was a stupid, insensitive, jerk thing to do, and I'm sorry."

"As am I."

The relief was almost overwhelming. Ray grabbed Fraser's hand, which was rather cold. "So. We good?"

Fraser looked at him for a long moment. His face was relaxing into its normal expression. "We always are, it seems."

11. Not Good

But "good" was perhaps not so easily achieved. Ray was being so humble and apologetic that it made Fraser nervous. Worse, he kept edging out of Fraser's personal space, or starting to touch him and then stopping suddenly, as though he thought Fraser needed constant reassurance that he wasn't going to be molested.

For Fraser's part, he was finding it nearly impossible to keep his brain from returning to the scene and changing the ending.

He firmly reminded himself that it was insulting to be called in as a sort of second-string replacement. That such relationships were doomed to be awkward and difficult and short. That attempting to turn a friendship into a romance under the circumstances would, more likely than not, destroy both the romance and the friendship. That neither Fraser nor Ray could benefit from throwing their affections away in that manner.

It didn't help.

Fraser still found his mind wandering into a parallel world in which he was a different sort of person, a spontaneous and fearless person who would have said (and the voice in his head was very like Ray's) "Hey, why not?" and borne his friend back onto the couch and --

And it was always at that point that Ray would snap his fingers and say, "Yo, ground control to Major Tom, you with me, Fraser?"

Fraser shook his head to clear it of pictures of Ray's bare skin. He had rarely been so shamefully unproductive. And despite the very best of intentions, they were very far from good.

12. Functional, Part 2

Panting, gasping, sighing. A blur of sensation: hot broad chest under him, soft hair between his fingers, hot mouth on his mouth, on his neck, in his ear. The shoulder under his tongue was muscular and smooth, flexing with tension, and he was close, so close, just a little more and he'd come like a fountain.

A familiar voice in his ear, rasping out "Ray" over and over. A big hand wrapped around his cock, and he threw his head back, unable to be quiet any more, crying out the name with what little was left of his breath: "Fraser!"

It was his own voice that woke him. Breathing hard into his pillow, lying in a warm puddle that was rapidly turning cold. He was wet all over. Even his eyelids were sweating. Jesus christ.

Ray wiped his face on the pillow and turned to squint at the clock just as the radio snapped on. Ah, shit. In a half-hour he would pull the car up to the curb and hear that same voice say, "Good morning, Ray," and he'd have to try to act normal. And he didn't even have time to change the sheets.

Ray dropped his face back into the pillow and groaned. His nerves were still buzzing, and the endorphin high was rapidly changing from euphoria into a kind of restless, free-floating anger. Oh, jesus, what a way to start the day.

13. Dying of Waiting

"C'mon, c'mon, Fraser, c'mon!" Fraser knew he wasn't late, but apparently Ray had arrived early enough to work himself into a state of high agitation. Fraser buckled himself in as quickly as possible.

"Might go in and find out Burgess got another note last night. Hope you're ready." Ray's eyes flicked to Fraser's neck, flicked quickly away, darted back. Fraser ran a finger under his collar -- no, all appeared to be in order.

"Ready? Is there new information to consider since last we went over --"

"Naw, course not, why would -- I mean, do you think --"

"I didn't mean to imply --"

"I dunno, maybe I'm missing something here, if you think --"

"wanted to make certain that we were in agreement as to the purpose of --"

"gonna need to ask some different questions, if you're thinking --"

"Ray. Ray." Fraser put his hand on Ray's arm. "I wasn't suggesting that we needed more research. I was merely confirming --"

Ray jerked his arm off the wheel, dislodging Fraser's hand. "Yeah, OK, all right."

There was a long silence.

"Geez." Ray pushed a hand through his hair. "Sorry. Need coffee. I'll be all right."

Fraser privately thought that caffeine was the last thing Ray needed in his current mood, but decided against saying so.

14. The Partnership

"Goddammit, Huey! Now we've lost him forever," Ray couldn't believe it. Geez, just when they really needed a bit of luck, too. "You wanna trap a rat, you don't walk up to the hole and say, Here, rat, rat, rat, rat! You figure out where he eats, where he sleeps, where he drinks, you put out traps that look like a nice snack, and you wait and don't spook him."

"It's unlikely that Harris would disappear for good," Fraser said soothingly. He was standing next to Ray's desk, hands behind his back holding his hat by the brim. Somehow he could put on and take off that hat all day and never get hat hair. Ray had never figured that out. Maybe there was something different about his hair.

"If he and Hayes are so tight," Elaine put in, "suppose we put out the word that Hayes is a suspect? Would he come back to help out his partner?"

"Dunno about that," Huey said. "My sources are telling me it's not the Harris and Hayes show these days. Say they got into it over Chantal Ackerman and they don't go around together any more."

Ray's eyes went back to Fraser's hair. It looked just like normal people's hair. Probably would feel just like his, only minus the gel. Only it was thicker. And weirdly shiny.

"Then perhaps we don't need to talk to Harris at all," Fraser said. "If they've dissolved their partnership."

"The hell they have," Ray said. "Seven years those guys've been partners, ever since they first met up at St. Charles juvie. Harris tries to go legit, you know? Buys a laundromat? And it starts to tank, and Harris takes this trip to Mexico, and surprise surprise, the place burns down while he's gone! Because Hayes took care of it, because they're partners, right? And then Hayes owes a guy some money, and Harris goes and talks to him and hey! Consider it a gift, no problem, dude, just keep your friend away from me! So this --" He smacked the file on the desk. "If Hayes is involved, Harris is involved. Where you got Hayes, you got Harris. Trust me on this one."

After another couple of hours of Ray glaring at him, Huey trumped up some kind of errand to take him out of the office, which was just as well. Fraser could have taken off, too -- after all, all he was doing was watching Ray pace and listening to him mutter -- but he stuck around. Ray was mostly glad, except that his brain kept cueing up hot little moments from last night's dream, and he had the strangest conviction that somehow Fraser could tell. If the guy could read his mind, he was in big trouble.

So he was even more pleased than you'd think when Elaine came over with a piece of paper and a big smile. "I may have somebody who could find Harris for us," she said.

"His mother? His dealer?" Ray asked.

"Better. His psychic."

Ray squinted at Elaine. "What, she's gonna read his aura and tell us where he is?"

"She's going to read his tarot cards, same as she's done every month for the last five years." Somehow Elaine managed that without looking smug. "From what she tells me, he's so superstitious that the only way he'd miss a reading is if he's dead or in jail."

Ray smiled for the first time that day. "That's good work, Elaine. Creative."

Elaine gave him a narrow look. "What are you up to now, Ray?"

"I can't congratulate a colleague on some very intelligent detective work? Elaine! You'll hurt my feelings!" And he gave her shoulder a little squeeze before walking away.

Fraser was giving Ray another of those strange looks. "Nobody ever said I couldn't learn from experience," he said, and winked. Hey, if he was going to make Fraser nervous, he was at least going to get some fun out of it.

15. In The Cards

Dief yipped dubiously as Ray parked the car, and Fraser said, "Are you sure?"

Ray looked down at his notes. "Not quite what I expected either, but this is the address she gave Elaine."

Fraser stared up at the featureless tower of steel and glass. "It's difficult to imagine the occult thriving in such a --"

"Look." Ray shaded his eyes with his hand. "In that window. Neon."

Fraser could just barely make it out. "Past, Present, Future," he read.

"That'll be her," Ray said. He flipped open his badge for the doorman. Fraser tried not to be too obvious about staring at his hands.

Ray was humming under his breath as he punched the elevator button, and as the doors hissed shut, Fraser began to pick up the words.

" ... got a pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine, sellin' little bottles of -- Hey, Fraser, you think Madam Ruth'd mix me up a love potion?"

"I don't know," Fraser said cautiously.

"Something'd give me some, y'know, chemistry. Make me irresistible."

Fraser swallowed. "You'll have to ask her."

Apartment 1247 had an understated card on the door: Verna Himmelmaier, Psychic. Auras, Tarot, Past Lives. Ring for assistance.

"Jesus, what a name. This poor old woman," Ray said. He pointed at the doorbell with a grin. "She's a psychic, then shouldn't she already know we're --"

The door swung open.

She looked like Grace Kelly on a weekend picnic. Shell-pink twinset, very good pearls, white slacks, cool coil of blonde hair. Fraser glanced over in time to see Ray's mouth drop open.

"We -- ah -- Verna Himmelmaier?"

"Detective. Constable. Do come in," she said, nodding at each of them. A large piece of some polished stone dangled from the keyring in her hand. "Ah, Constable, I see you've brought your familiar. It's nice to meet you, Professor." Dief gave her what could only be described as a bow.

She smiled gently at Fraser's stare. "You do realize," she said, "that Officer Besbriss told me to expect the three of you. And that it's all but impossible to go wrong when speaking of animals who can't contradict you."

"You know, you don't look like a psychic," Ray said as he took the proffered seat on the couch.

Verna pulled a rather nice antique chair out from the wall and offered it to Fraser, then settled herself into a celery-colored armchair that was clearly the focal point of the room. "Yes, everyone says that," she said. "Of course," she added with a twinkle in her eye, "you don't exactly look like a detective, do you?" Ray grinned at her, and Fraser ruthlessly suppressed a surge of jealousy.

"Now," she said when they were settled in with tea and, impossibly, lemon biscuits. "I understand you're looking for a client of mine."

"Percival Harris," Ray agreed.

"Ordinarily, we wouldn't ask you to divulge confidential details," Fraser added. "But as the gentleman in question is already a suspect in an escalating series of crimes, one which began with vandalism and has already advanced through arson to the detonation of explosives in a private building, not to mention death threats -- "

"Oh, I don't consider myself bound by any sort of client confidentiality," Verna said. "I do for my clients what I consider to be in their best interest. And it would certainly be in Percival's best interest not to have any more mayhem on his conscience, assuming he has one, so I wouldn't be sorry to see him in jail. More sugar, Detective?"

"Uh --"

"Cold-hearted as I may sound, I assure you that I wouldn't stoop to poisoning." She set the china bowl down in front of Ray, and after a moment's hesitation, he scooped several heaping spoonfuls into his cup and stirred noisily.

"Now. As I was saying, I'm not averse to helping you find Percival. But first I'll need to do a brief reading on each of you." She looked between them. "Oh, come, it won't take a moment. Is it so unreasonable to want a better understanding of my new colleagues?"

"Him first," Ray said.

16. Past, Present, Future

But he didn't get his way. When she stuck the deck in his face, he gave it up as a lost cause and cut the cards, and she laid out a neat row of three.

As readings went, it was less like a mystical experience than like a therapy session. "You've been spending yourself on futile fantasies," she told him, pointing at a picture of what looked like a girl daydreaming about some wineglasses. "Fragmenting your energies in pointless pursuits -- of a romantic nature, I take it?" Ray nodded, rapt.

"Shit, that looks bad," he said, pointing to the second card, which was a dead guy stabbed all over with knives.

"It's going to feel bad," she said bluntly. "This is a card about sacrifice. About letting go, to put it in a slightly more positive light. In light of the first card, I'd recommend a short-term, or perhaps long-term, break in romantic pursuits. In fact, your third card can be interpreted as a call to focus your attention on your work." It was a guy looking out at some ships in the sunset, which didn't seem to have a lot to do with police work to Ray, but what did he know?

She turned her attention on Fraser, and Ray sighed with relief. Shit, he'd take a tall dark stranger and a journey across water any day.

"I'm going to use a different layout for you, Constable," she said, "because you'll soon be faced with a decision." Her pale-pink nails flashed as she swiftly shuffled, offered Fraser the deck to cut, and dealt out three cards in a sideways V.

Oh, jesus, that first one looked bad -- a plump red heart, pierced with three swords and dripping blood. "Oh, yes, that's an eye-catching one, isn't it," the witch said to him. "We'll come to that in a moment. First, I want to tell you that the decision you'll be faced with is connected with fertility, nurturing, family." And sure enough, the woman did look pregnant, now that he looked at the card more closely. "You're not soon to be a father, are you?"

"Not that I'm aware of." Geez, Fraser looked even worse than he did the day Frannie showed him how her halter top worked.

"Pity," the psychic chick said. "At any rate, I fear that you're going to feel you're making a bad decision no matter what you do -- a shame, since this particular choice will turn out to be more life-changing than you think. You're going to feel unable to follow either your culture --" she laid her finger on a guy that looked like the Pope -- "or your heart --" and she pointed at that awful bloody heart. "It will undoubtedly be very painful."

She gave Fraser a sympathetic look, then gathered up the cards briskly. "Personally, Constable, if a young woman is bearing your child, my recommendation would be to marry her. The single life doesn't suit you, don't you agree?"

"Now," she went on, not waiting for an answer -- and a good thing, too, because Fraser was gaping like a fish. "The upshot of all this is that both of you are going to have some difficulty giving this case your full attention in the midst of these personal crises, but aside from your possibly divided focus, I don't see any reason not to place my full confidence in you. As I hope you will place yours in me. So let me tell you what I know about Percival Harris."

She knew a lot of stuff, none of it very flattering. Ray really didn't relish the idea of explaining to Welsh that they were getting advice from a psychic, but if the guy was as nuts as he sounded, they were going to need all the help they could get.

17. Stitches

Fraser was keeping an unobtrusive watch on the wound on Ray's temple. Every morning in the car, every evening in the car. The cut was long, but not too deep. The stitches had lasted rather longer than the ones on Fraser's left hand -- but then, Ray apparently could resist the urge to tug at them, while Fraser's hard-won outward serenity was often betrayed by such tiny nervous habits.

At any rate, Ray's stitches were nearly gone now. The area was faintly red, but most likely not infected. Fraser could say for sure if he could touch it with his fingers. Or better, with his lips.

To get that close to Ray's hot desert scent. To be permitted to taste --

" -- threats anyways. Fraser? You with me?"

Fraser cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. My mind was ... elsewhere." He could feel Ray glancing over at him.

"I just said maybe there's a good side to Huey's screw-up. If it's Harris, and he knows we're watching him, maybe he'll keep away from Burgess."

"Perhaps." But Fraser and Ray had both read Harris's file, and he didn't sound like an individual who was easily deterred.

"You don't think so."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't. We'll nail him. One way or the other." They were approaching the Consulate now. "Dinner?" Ray said hesitantly.

Fraser was ashamed of making Ray hesitate. But ... "I'm rather fatigued," he said. It wasn't even untrue; Ray's presence was exhausting. Now that he knew that Ray had considered him as a lover -- however briefly, however abstractly, however foolishly -- well. It took something out of him. "Another time."

"Sure," Ray said. "Another time." He ran a hand through his hair and blew out an explosive breath. "I oughta go to bed early anyhow. Need a good night's sleep."

18. Campaign

Oh, christ. Ray had never consciously noticed, but Fraser had his own distinctive scent, and now the car was full of it. Oh, god, this was going to kill him for sure. If he wasn't careful he was going to jump the poor guy in the parking lot.

What he needed was to get laid.

No -- what he needed was to get laid regular, by somebody who liked him.

Ray vowed to redouble his efforts to get some women into his life. Take Fraser's advice, go about it the right way. It looked like his friendship with Fraser depended on it.

19. Making Friends

Perhaps their visit to the psychic had had some supernatural influence upon Percival Harris, or perhaps he was simply not so stupid that he would continue his illegal activities in the full knowledge that the police were looking for him. However it was, the Burgess case had cooled off rather abruptly. After several weeks of near-daily events, nothing new had been reported since the day after Huey had let word of their investigations get out. Fraser tried not to invest too much in the hope that they had frightened him off for good.

It did leave Ray a bit more time to invest in his social life, and he seemed to be ignoring Ms. Himmelmaier's reading, but taking Fraser's suggestion to heart.

He reported striking up a conversation with his upstairs neighbor in the laundry room. ("Cuuute. 'Bout that tall and tough as a tiger, Fraser, you ought to see her.") He actually said "Thank you" to Francesca when she brought him a cup of some coffee-based beverage. Fraser had even once been stunned to walk in on him and Inspector Thatcher having a serious and apparently friendly conversation about the relative merits of various phone-tapping technologies.

"Don't be foolish," Fraser said to Dief. "We should be pleased Ray is taking our advice."

20. Forgotten

Hard to believe it'd been more than a week since he and Fraser had had dinner together, Ray thought as they waited in the empty lobby of the Lebanese carry-out place. But if Ray had hoped the passage of time and more women in his life would take care of this awful awareness, he didn't get his wish. It was like his skin knew exactly where Fraser was all the time, and was calculating ways to get him closer. He kept having to stop himself from edging up on Fraser's heels just to get inside the circle of his body heat.

It made him damned restless, and if he had to wait five more minutes for his baba ghanouj, he was gonna throttle somebody. "C'mon," he muttered. "What did they do back there, start the eggplant from seed?"

Fraser made a calming gesture. Ray hated that calming gesture. "Well, shit," he said. "We called ahead, didn't we? They got no excuse."

"For all we know --" Fraser began, and it was his lecturing tone, and Ray hated his lecturing tone just as much as his calming gesture.

"Jesus christ, Fraser, give it a rest!" he exploded, rubbing his temple.

Fraser was very quiet for a minute or two. Then he said tentatively, "Ray, are you angry with me?"

Ray sighed and scrubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes. "You're the one should be mad at me," he said without looking at Fraser. "I don't know what makes me say stuff like that. I just screw up when I'm nervous, you know that."

"Nervous?" He sounded mystified. "Why?"

"Well, you know, you remember the, uh, the other week, when I, when I sort of asked you out there?"

Fraser stiffened. Literally: All the give left his face and body. "Ah. Yes. Well, I assure you, it's forgotten."

Fraser was mad. Now Ray felt even worse. Fraser was mad at him, and he couldn't explain himself, and even if he could, Fraser didn't want to talk about it.

Ray didn't know how he was ever supposed to make it better if Fraser didn't want to talk about it. But then again, every time Ray opened his mouth these days, something insulting or pathetic came out of it, so maybe Fraser's way was better.

21. Hubcaps

"Hey! Lookin' good!"

Ah, Fraser thought with a mixture of regret and relief, Ray was up to his old tricks. He readied himself to reassure Ray after the inevitable brush-off.

Instead, he heard a cheerful female voice saying, "Thanks! Got 'em on eBay!"

Fraser followed Ray's gaze to an attractive redhead with a smear of grease on the side of her neck. Ray's eyes were sliding from the woman's face to --

"Wow. Authentic hubcaps for a '73 Ghia are hard to find," he said in an admiring tone. "Oh, hey, Fraser, this is Lynn. Her apartment's right across the alley. Lynn, this is Benton Fraser, and just don't ask what he came to Chicago on the trail of, OK?"

As they climbed the stairs, Fraser asked, "How did you and Lynn meet?"

"Saw the car out back when I went to take down the garbage, and it was love at first sight," Ray said. "And then I started to make some stupid crack about body work or something, which it turns out it's lucky I didn't because Lynn woulda brained me with a socket wrench for sure, but I just thought, No, Fraser says I should be friends. So I just went over all friendly-like and asked her what year the Ghia was, and turns out her first car was a GTO too. And then she told me she was looking for parts, and I said I knew where the best junkyard was if she wanted to go sometime, and -- you know."

Fraser had given up trying to talk himself out of these pangs of regret. When one of Ray's new friendships inevitably developed into romance, Fraser would, he was sure, be happy to see Ray happy. But it seemed that no amount of self-scolding was going to make him stop being vaguely -- or sharply, if he was being honest with himself -- disappointed that he himself couldn't be the one to make Ray happy.

And obviously some of Fraser's unforgivable ambivalence had communicated itself to Ray, who was still jumpy and defensive. Fraser missed their old ease with an almost physical ache.

Well. He would just have to redouble his efforts to be a good friend to Ray, and hope that, given sufficient time, he would outgrow this immature possessiveness.

22. Making Friends, Part 2

It was amazing how much easier it was to talk to a girl when you didn't want anything from her.

Back in Ray's post-Stella days, his whole day -- hell, his whole week sometimes -- could crash and burn on whether some pretty green eyes found him worthy of a second look or not.

He could look back now and see how he'd veered between trying way too hard and not trying at all. How one minute his body language would be saying, I want to love you forever, and the next minute it would be sneering, Aah, hell witchoo anyway.

Damn, it was a wonder he'd ever gotten any dates, ever.

But now, when Ray went upstairs and tapped on Jessie Hsu's door and said, "Hey, Jess, darts?" he really did only want to play a game of darts. And damned if Jessie didn't beam up at him and say, "Oh, into public humiliation, are we?" and sling her little purple coat over her shoulder and swing out the door.

It had never occurred to Ray before that a woman could tell when "Hey, cute dog" meant "Hey, cute dog" and when it meant "Are you wearing anything under that T-shirt?"

As a matter of fact, there were times now when Ray knew that if he pushed just a little, he could actually get somewhere. If he stood a little closer to Jessie, she'd invite him up after the game, let him lean in close and use his mouth to nudge her camisole straps off her honey-colored shoulders. If he just happened to open the door without a shirt one Saturday morning, Lynn would push him back against the coat-closet door, and they'd never make it to the junkyard at all.

But he didn't push.

Now Fraser -- Fraser he pushed. Pushed him around, pushed him away, pushed him toward the limits of his temper. Ray's teasing had taken on a nasty edge, and he could hear it but he couldn't control it. There'd be these long awkward silences and then they'd be talking all over the ends of each other's sentences. And Ray said stuff that was vulgar, and stuff that was insulting, and stuff that was weirdly personal, and stuff that sounded like some loser on television and not like him at all.

And then he'd watch Fraser's stiff back retreating from the car into the Consulate, and he'd bang his head on the steering wheel and say, "Stupid, Ray. Stupid, stupid, stupid."

Which was way too familiar.

Apparently he was only a jerk with people he didn't want to hurt.

23. Three of Swords

Ray wouldn't, surely, continue punishing Fraser for telling him no if he had the slightest idea of what that "no" had cost him. Surely he wouldn't be so cruel.

But he was still angry about it, that much was obvious. Perhaps he thought Fraser did it because he didn't value their friendship enough, when the truth was that he valued it rather too much.

Fraser remembered Verna turning over his card, the fat heart pierced with swords, the rain falling down.

Don't be melodramatic, he told himself sternly. You'd think this was the first difficult choice you ever had to make.

24. A Plan

Ray's hopes that Martin Burgess and Chantal Ackerman were safe were shattered when, after a ten-day break, a barrage of notes began arriving. At Burgess's house, scribbled on a Chinese menu: "Nobody blames you for accepting stolen property, but only a fool would try to hang onto it." At Chantal Ackerman's mother's house, scrawled on the back of her electric bill: "Make your baby behave." And in Chantal's office mailbox, on a scrap of note paper: "You got 24 hours to go back where you belong."

Nothing like stalking and death threats to knock a case up to the top of the stack.

And now, now was the torture part. Now they had all their info -- even some stuff from the pretty psychic chick, who turned out to have some info on Warren Hayes, too -- and there was nothing left but piecing together all the information, and coming up with a theory and a plan.

Which meant Ray and Fraser, Fraser and Ray, all day long in a conference room with a table covered with notes and maps and transcripts, all evening long on Ray's couch moving paper from one place to another, trying to beat some answers out of all the stuff they had.

They had been at it all day long, not even leaving for lunch, and he was getting more and more frustrated. At Fraser, who didn't seem to be listening, and was asking the same question after Ray already answered it. At himself, because at the most critical moments, he'd be distracted by the sight of Fraser's blunt strong fingers, Fraser's feathery eyelashes. At both of them for letting a stupid disagreement ruin everything.

They used to smooth over each other's rough spots, fill in each other's gaps. Preparation, intuition, an unbeatable one-two punch.

What if Ray had screwed that up for good? What if they never got it back?

25. Asking the Impossible

Ray was increasingly jumpy and Fraser was increasingly still. It was almost funny, except that it was so very much not funny.

Fraser was still because his muscles were in the grip of an impulse he couldn't control. His body was drawn to Ray's like a compass needle now. If he rose from the couch, he would have Ray backed up against a wall in a matter of minutes, he would be warming his hands in the fire of his friend's skin and prudence be damned, he would be kissing Ray until his pale eyes fell shut with pleasure, until his mouth was --

This was intolerable. Once again he'd drifted off into reverie and missed some question or comment. He was here to work. Lives might be at stake. If he said "I beg your pardon?" one more time Ray would probably punch him.

Ray sank down on the sofa beside him and buried his face in his hands. "Fraser," he said tightly, "my brain's down the toilet. It'd help if yours was on duty."

"I'm sorry. Truly." Ray's hair was half up and half down. Fraser clutched his hands together.

"We are never gonna get anywhere on this," Ray said in that same pained tone. "Everything we need is in this fucking room someplace, but we can't be detectives because we can't even have a fucking conversation -- goddamn it, Fraser, we used to be good at this!"

Fraser looked up from his intertwined hands, stricken. "Ray. This is my fault. I find that I can't --"

"Stop that! Stop it! Stop it!" Ray was glaring at him. "You're not the one that screwed everything up by asking for the impossible here. Just because you like guys doesn't mean you have to like every guy, I totally get that. But, Fraser, I don't think I can do this."

"Do what?"

"This! This!" Ray waved a handful of paper at him. "Work with you, talk with you, drive with you, eat with you every day, dream about you every goddamned night!"

Fraser stared at him. Dream?

"I mean, I look at you and I think about -- Fraser, it's not right to think the stuff I think about you if you're not thinking the same stuff about me. That's creepy. I don't wanna be creepy, least of all with you, but I can't seem to stop."

He jumped up from the couch and began to pace. "I can't stop, and you don't wanna go on, and I can't go off and let it all blow over because it's you every morning and you every night and you all day every day, and --"

He stopped suddenly. Stopped walking, stopped talking, almost stopped breathing.

"And I think," he said, slowly, in quite a different voice, "that if you want me you gotta take all of me. And you already said you don't wanna do that. So I think I need a different partner." And he looked at the still-speechless Fraser, and picked his coat up off the floor, and walked out the front door without another word.

Fraser stared at the closed door for some time before he remembered to shut his mouth.

26. Door

Ray took the steps two at a time with the manic energy of somebody who's just done something stupid that he can't take back. Jesus christ, what a total fuck-up. Sure, it seemed like things couldn't get any worse between them, but did he really want to find out like that? Well, he was going to, whether he wanted to or not.

Right turn, head for the lights. Couple of bars still open, streets wouldn't be dangerously deserted yet. Be safer if he had the wolf with him.

He was never gonna have the wolf with him again, was he. Jesus christ.

Maybe they could be friends again after a little break. Little time apart, new partners all around -- like who? Fraser could work with Dewey. No, Ray was the one who deserved Dewey. Dewey was going to have some comment about all this. Shit.

He was ten blocks from home, and it was damned cold. He zipped up his coat and walked faster, putting his hands in his pockets for warmth.

There were no keys in his pocket.

There were no keys in his pocket.

Damn it, that noise, that noise in the entryway, that was a keys-falling-on-the-floor noise. He had stormed out of his own apartment and locked himself out. "Shitfuck," he said loudly, startling an approaching couple, who carefully avoided making eye contact.

Shit. He couldn't card his own door, he'd made sure of that when he moved in. Could he just find a motel room? No, he didn't have his wallet with him, either. He'd have to wake the landlady up, and it had to be at least one-thirty.

Unless Fraser stayed.

But Fraser wasn't going to stay. Not when Ray had just told him that putting out was a condition of their friendship. If Fraser had any kind of sense, he was halfway to Winnipeg by now. Fuck.

It was a long, cold walk home to an empty apartment he couldn't get back into. How fucking appropriate.

He was shivering by the time he started back up the stairs. Maybe he keys had fallen out outside the door?

Nope. No keys on the floor outside the door. He was going to have to go back downstairs and knock on the landlady's door.

Ray put his hand on the knob in the forlorn hope that maybe the lock hadn't caught when he went out, though with a slam like that, of course it had --

The knob turned under his fingers. The door swung open to reveal Fraser with Ray's keys in his hand.

Ah, geez. Ah, shit. Fraser had waited for him.

Ray stood there and stared until, impossibly, Fraser's mouth twitched. "Come in, Ray," he said. "Make yourself at home."

"Aw, shit, Fraser." Ray didn't know whether to hug him or to punch him. "Aw, shit, Fraser, I say a dumb-ass thing like that to you and you stay? Why'd you stay?"

"Why do you think?" Fraser stepped back far enough for Ray to come in and shut the door behind him, but just barely. There wasn't enough room in the entry even to take off his coat. Fraser was looking at him intently.

"Um, because you wanted to let me in?"

There was that almost-smile again. "Well, yes," Fraser said, and kissed him.

Kissed him? What? "What?" Ray said stupidly.

"I thought I made myself fairly clear the first time," Fraser murmured, "but if you'd like me to go over it again ..." He bent his head toward Ray's again.

Ray evaded the kiss. "Look, you don't gotta do this. I didn't mean it."

"I did." Fraser took a step forward.

Ray took a step back. "You said no."

Fraser took a step forward. "I changed my mind."

One more step and Ray's back was against the door. "You don't like me like that. You said."

Fraser actually looked insulted. "I said no such thing," he said. "I said that I wasn't interested in your settling for me because what you really wanted wasn't available." Fraser took that last step forward, crowding Ray against the door. "As it happens, I do like you like that --" Fraser's mouth was stirring the hair behind Ray's ear -- "very much so, as I believe I told you once before." Fraser ran his mouth and nose down Ray's cheek to his jaw, and Ray closed his eyes.

"Fraser, I'm a shit," he said hoarsely.

"I'll take you anyway," Fraser said softly, and Ray turned his head blindly and caught Fraser's mouth as his hands came up and knotted in Fraser's sweater.

Oh, god, what were they doing, this was a terrible idea -- god, god, god, it was better than he could have imagined, Fraser leaning heavily into him, sighing happily into his mouth. Fraser tasted like he smelled, heartbreakingly familiar, as if his mouth was a home Ray had come back to after a long, lonely exile.

He had to stop. He needed to stop. This was a disaster waiting to happen, this was --

This was something he couldn't survive without.

27. Caution

In Fraser's experience, the difference between a woman's mouth and a man's mouth was rather greater than one expected. So even now he was at every moment bracing himself for Ray to react to the strangeness of the kiss.

But it seemed that, as always, Ray was ready to throw caution to the wind. He flung himself into the kiss with an astonishing hunger, murmuring "Yeah" and "Fraser" and "Finally," hands on Fraser's hips tugging his body still closer.

When Fraser heard a rattle and a rustle, he opened his eyes in surprise to find that he had pushed Ray's jacket off his shoulders.

His hands were already pushing Ray's sweatshirt up. He unclutched the shirt with some difficulty and returned his hands to Ray's shoulders, and Ray slowly opened his eyes and said, rather blurrily, "What?"

"I'm sorry." Now Fraser realized that he was crushing Ray against the door. He eased back a fraction.

Ray frowned. "You change your mind again?" he said, in a tone that was more than a little threatening.

"Not at all," Fraser said softly, and he consciously eased his inner rhythm into something slow and luxuriant. Going slowly would be a kindness to Ray, but it would be an indulgence for Fraser, too, allowing him time to really experience and appreciate Ray, to miss nothing.

With that in mind, he turned them around until his own back was to the door, wrapped his arms loosely around Ray, and began to map out that familiar face with his mouth. He strung kisses along Ray's hairline, brushing the slight rise of the scar tenderly. He mouthed over his temple and cheekbone, dropped a soft kiss on one trembling eyelid, traced Ray's jawline up from his chin to his earlobe.

He could feel Ray breathing rapidly into his hair, and Ray's hands still clutched a double handful of his sweater. Fraser ran his tongue delicately around the rim of Ray's ear.

"Fraser. Jesus," Ray said thickly, and Fraser came back to his mouth -- softly, slowly, learning with his tongue the mobile lips his eyes knew so well.

Ray was making small sounds now, chasing Fraser's mouth with his own, trying to capture it for a deeper kiss. When Fraser gave in and allowed this, Ray let out something so close to a whimper that Fraser had to tighten his hold, pressing their bodies together, one hand coming down to the small of Ray's back. And Ray was hard, pushing back without hesitation, and Fraser pressed against him again and again, all slowness abandoned in his need for more contact.

Then Ray was sinking down, and Fraser opened his eyes to see Ray sitting on the couch, eyes still shut -- Fraser had walked him all the way across the living room. He was being pushy again.

He stopped his hand at the neck of Ray's sweatshirt and straightened a bit, breathing hard. Ray tried to pull him down again, but he resisted, turning his head to one side. The movement bared the long tendon in his throat, and Ray leaned up and licked it.

"Ray," Fraser sighed, and he stood all the way back up.

Ray gave a little grunt of protest. "Fraser, what?"

"I'm sorry," Fraser said breathlessly. "Too fast. Too fast."

Ray flopped back against the back of the couch and looked at the ceiling, pushing both hands through his hair. "Aw, jesus," he said. "I don't wanna push you into something you're not ready for, but this stop-and-go is killing me, here."

Their knees were still touching, and Ray's hair was in even more disarray than usual, and so Fraser wasn't able to answer immediately. And Ray gave him a narrow look, and then sat forward suddenly, grinning.

"You're scared I'm gonna bolt."

Fraser swallowed.

"You are. You're thinking it's all gonna be, you know, kiss and grope and squeeze, and then all of a sudden I'm gonna hit something unfamiliar and go --" he mimed a look of shocked outrage -- "Holy shit! You ain't a chick!"

"It simply seems prudent --" Fraser began, but that was as far as he got, because Ray grabbed the collar of his sweater and dragged his face down. "Listen to me," he said, low and intense. "Don't baby me, Fraser. I know what I'm doing." And without waiting for a response, he planted one shin in front of Fraser's legs, wrapped his other leg around to knock Fraser's knees unlocked, and gave the sweater a great tug. And Fraser tumbled forward into his lap.

He just had time to catch his weight on his hands, which hit the back of the couch with an audible thud. Ray gave him a wolfish grin and tugged on his thighs, sliding Fraser forward, and Fraser gave a most undignified grunt when their groins met. And then one narrow hand was pulling Fraser's head down and the other was cupping his buttock, and Ray's mouth was opening hotly under his.

It was the hungry sound Ray made that recalled Fraser to his senses this time, and when he raised his head he nearly lost them again. Ray was draped bonelessly against the back of the couch, and Fraser had pushed up his sweatshirt and was rubbing a thumb over each nipple. Ray's hips rose and fell rhythmically, and he made that sound again, and Fraser, struck with a sudden desire to just lean forward and bite him, stood up so suddenly he nearly fell over again.

Ray was up off the couch in an instant, all the languidness in his limbs replaced by fury. "All right, goddammit," he said. "Have it your way."

His words were muffled by fabric. Sweatshirt and T-shirt, off in one tangled lump while he toed off one boot without unzipping it. Brief pause while he kicked off the other, which landed with a thunk against the far wall. He shoved his jeans and briefs and socks down all together and kicked them in the same direction, still murmuring, "Fine," and then he straightened and Fraser got the briefest startling glimpse of him, naked, before he tackled Fraser to the couch.

Ray was on top of him, squirming against him, murmuring into his mouth, and everywhere Fraser put his hand, it came down on hot bare skin, and my god, didn't Ray want Fraser to give him some space?

The sweater was wool. That was the thing that finally pushed Fraser past his reluctance. The sweater was wool, and scratchy, and would no doubt cruelly abrade Ray's bare skin. And so when Ray began tugging it up, Fraser let him. Helped him.

The shock of skin on skin drove all the air from Fraser's lungs. Ray took best advantage of Fraser's nudity, never lighting long in one spot, but making his way down Fraser's torso and up again, dropping kisses like slivers of broken glass as he went.

And then Ray planted his elbow next to Fraser's ribs and brought his other hand down firmly on Fraser's groin. Fraser gasped, lifting his head, and Ray looked at him up the length of his own body, and grinned, and gave him one long, slow stroke upward, hand hot through the denim.

Fraser's head fell back again, the image of Ray's avid face burned on his eyes even when he closed them. Ray's hand was still moving, slowly, firmly, up and down.

"Is that a yes, Fraser?" he said in a soft, dangerous voice. Fraser moaned in response, and Ray's hand pressed down harder.

"Is that a yes?" he insisted.

Fraser sucked in a breath and opened unseeing eyes on the ceiling. "Oh, god, yes."

Ray had him stripped almost before he finished speaking. Stripped and pinned and completely paralyzed with pleasure as Ray's strong hand went where Fraser had been trying so hard not to imagine it, all these weeks. All these years.

Still stroking, Ray moved up Fraser's body to look in his face. "Oh, yeah," he said as Fraser bucked upward, pushing him into a faster rhythm. "Oh, yeah, no more goddamned waiting, give me what I need, give it to me now -- "

And it was shameful, but he had no control, none at all, and he pulled himself up toward Ray, crushing their mouths together, holding Ray hard against him, and climaxed almost immediately.

Fraser fell back, panting, to the couch, and opened his eyes to Ray's wide-eyed stare. "I'm --" he began, but Ray said, in a voice full of wonder, "Jesus, Fraser. Jesus christ, that's the hottest thing I ever saw." He looked down between them, smoothing his wet hand in circles on Fraser's belly, and then back up at Fraser's face.

"Ray," Fraser breathed, and Ray closed his eyes and hid his face in Fraser's chest.

Fraser stroked his hair gently until he raised his head again. Without speaking or breaking eye contact, he crawled up Fraser's body and kissed him fervently. After a moment, Fraser became aware that Ray was thrusting rhythmically against him, breathing hard, clearly nearing climax.

Fraser put his hand to Ray's hip to hold him still. "No," he said.

Ray raised his head, wild-eyed. "Huh?"

Fraser could feel his face flush. "I want something else."

Ray raised his eyebrows. "You want?"

Well, it was a good point, but -- "I think I can confidently say it's something you'll enjoy as well."

Ray looked at Fraser a little longer and then a smile crept up to the corners of his mouth. "OK, then," he said. "How do you want me?"

Fraser restrained himself, with difficulty, from giving a full answer to that question. "Sit," he said shortly.

Fraser stood, and caught an expression on Ray's face that was something close to awe. Ducking his head, he quickly knelt on the floor, pushing Ray's knees apart, and Ray's eyes fell half-shut. "Really?" Ray asked thickly.

"Yes." And Fraser tasted him at last.

28. Evidence

Oh. Oh fuck. This was not at all what Ray had expected, despite the number of humiliating fantasies he'd had of asking, pleading, begging for --

For exactly what he was getting: Fraser's mouth on his dick like he owned it, like he was starving for it, like he was the one getting off on this.

It was -- he couldn't -- he needed some kind of anchor, something to keep him from just spinning off into space. And it was like Fraser was reading his mind, because without letting go Fraser reached for Ray's hand and pulled it to rest on the back of his own head, and Ray just buried his fingers in that satiny warmth and held on. Nobody else on earth had hair like that. It couldn't be anybody on earth but Fraser, couldn't be any mouth but Fraser's mouth.

Ray closed his eyes and pictured that mouth the way he saw it every day. And the way he'd seen it five minutes ago gasping out his name. And then he opened his eyes and saw that mouth opening to let the head of his cock slide over Fraser's lower lip, and he made an astonished "Oh" sound and closed his eyes again to stop him from -- god, he didn't know. Coming. Screaming. Crying.

Fraser had one hand tucked up under Ray's balls, doing some unfamiliar thing that somehow pushed everything up to the next level. His other hand had an almost painful grip on Ray's thigh, and Ray could see the pink edges of that nearly-healed scar on his knuckles from the greenhouse glass. He closed his eyes and grabbed Fraser's hand and pressed his lips to that spot, wanting to speak, to tell Fraser how this felt, what this meant -- but all he could do was thrust up hard and gasp and sigh, "Ah -- ah, god, Fraser --" and holy holy fuck come in Fraser's mouth.

There was a long timeless pause and then Ray opened his eyes, not sure whether he'd been asleep or just in orbit.

"Jesus, Fraser," he said without raising his head. "I don't think I wanna know how you got so good at that."

There was a moment of silence. Oh, shit. Now Fraser was going to think he was jealous. He sat up. "Just kidding," he said, well aware of how lame it sounded.

Fraser just raised his eyebrows. He must be getting uncomfortable down there on the floor; Ray said, "Hey, come back up here," and patted the seat beside him, and added, "if you want to," and then he noticed that there was a somewhat creased piece of paper on the cushion. He picked it up and stood up quickly. "Shit. We been screwing all over the evidence." There was a high note in his voice he didn't like much.

A weird screech made them both jump. Ray dropped his papers. It came again -- OK, that's it, it was Ray's wall phone and his cell phone both ringing at the same time.

"Shit." The cell was in his jacket. Where the hell was his jacket? Where -- oh. In the doorway. The leather was cold against his bare skin. "The phone, get the goddamned phone." He snapped the cell open and it fell out of his hand.

"But --"

"What? What? What?" The first one of those was to Fraser, the second into the cell, the third into the cell again after he turned it right-side-up.

"Are you certain you're willing to make a caller aware of my presence in --"

"Vecchio? You there?"

"Fuck it. Whatever, Fraser. Yeah, I'm here, who's this?" Ray could forget he was naked unless he looked at Fraser. He turned his back.

"Walt Alvarez, on the night shift -- sorry to wake you, but there was a note that you'd want to get a call if --"

"Detective Ray Vecchio's residence, Constable Benton Fraser speaking," came Fraser's voice behind him.

"Anyhow," Alvarez went on, "we just got a call from Martin Burgess, says his girlfriend didn't come home this afternoon --"

"Oh, dear," Fraser said. "Do you have any idea where this 'usual place' is, Ms. Himmelmaier?"

"Then a couple minutes ago, we get a call from a Warren Hayes? Says he got a weird phone call from a Percival Harris, and he thinks his ex-girlfriend is in some kinda trouble --" Alvarez said.

"I see. Do you think he poses any danger to her?" Fraser said. "Ah. Well, thank you kindly --"

"But when we start asking this Hayes for specifics, he freaks out and hangs up on us before we can get anything useful, and -- Vecchio? You there?"

"Shit," Ray said. "Sorry, Alvarez. Trying to listen to two things at once. Thanks for calling -- I think we know what's happening here. We'll get right on it." Ray snapped the cell shut and turned, already talking: "So Percival took the girl, and Warren knows where but he ain't telling, is that --" Oh, shit. Fraser was naked. Fraser was standing here in his living room without any clothes on because they'd just -- and now he wanted to -- and Fraser was blushing -- and they hadn't talked about any of this --

"Hold that thought," he said to Fraser, and then he went off hastily to look for his clothes.

He had to go to the far side of the kitchen to find his jeans, and he was almost certain Fraser was smirking when he had to crawl half under the chair to find one boot. When he emerged, he stopped still, paralyzed by the sight of Fraser, with a triangle of white shorts showing under his unzipped jeans, pulling the white undershirt over his head. Geez. How many people could say they'd seen that? Ray felt a glow of renewed desire and a weird sort of pride that he was the one Fraser had trusted with it.

He shook that off, turning his head to give Fraser some privacy. "So. Witch doctor got any idea where Percival's taken her?" A moment later, Fraser, all buttoned and tucked, came to sit beside him.

"She's attempting to get him to tell her, but I think he has some idea of performing a daring rescue on his own," Fraser said. "He let slip something about going where the sparklers were, but she was uncertain whether he meant it literally or figuratively." Then Fraser frowned and reached behind him and pulled a handful of black-and-white photos out from where they had slid behind the couch cushion. Ray nearly blushed, thinking about the two of them rolling around on the Burgess file.

"Hm," Fraser said. Ray looked at him. "I don't recall seeing these."

The first three shots were various views of the debris of Martin Burgess's greenhouse. The fourth was a gathering of scraps of what looked like printed paper.

Ray squinted at it. There was something familiar about it, but he couldn't put his finger on it.

"None of the pieces are big enough to read the type," he said, half to himself.

Fraser leaned over to look. "Not even enough to identify the language with certainty," he said, "though that character looks like Chinese. I could tell you if I could see the bit that's folded over."

"Chinese," Ray said, thinking furiously. "OK, then, that -- that look like a dragon to you?"

"Quite possibly."

"I swear I've seen that somewhere -- why the hell doesn't the PD get with the 20th century and take some color shots? Never mind, don't answer that." He hopped to his feet and went for his coat. "I've gotta see this stuff in person. I'll drop you at the Consulate on the way in."

"There's no need for that." Fraser was putting his coat on, too.

"But geez, it's gotta be four in the morning --"

"It's four forty-five," Fraser corrected, "and the amount of sleep I could get before the Consulate opened for business is negligible. I'd prefer to accompany you, if you don't mind a brief stop at the Consulate so I can change clothes."

Ray shrugged. He knew better than to try to out-stubborn the Mountie. And truthfully, he'd be glad of the company. "All right, then. Let's get a move on."

29. Rat and Dragon

Five in the morning was a sleepy time in a police station. As Fraser and Ray made their way down to Evidence, the night shift officers looked up with the bleary incuriosity of people who were less than an hour away from a much-needed night's sleep.

The scraps proved to be heavy cardboard, silkscreened in a gaudy combination of burnt orange and turquoise. A thoughtful line appeared between Ray's eyebrows when he saw the color, and deepened when a close look proved that the creature was indeed a dragon. "Swear to god I've seen something like this before," he said, and closed his eyes to chase the memory.

He really had the most extraordinary eyelashes.

"Something when I was a kid -- no, it's gone," he said, and opened his eyes.

Fraser smoothed out the largest scrap with one gloved hand. "It is Chinese," he said. "This character is -- well, it's 'China,' in fact. And that one is 'rat.'"

"Firecrackers!" Ray was on his feet, snapping his fingers and pointing. "Rat and Dragon! We used to drive all the way up to Kenosha for 'em -- only place you could get 'em in the whole Midwest -- my dad wouldn't use anything else. It was like it wasn't summer until you were on I-94 with all the windows open headed up to Kenosha to buy some loud noises ..."

Their eyes met over the evidence bag.

"We'll need to bring --"

"Photos of Harris, yeah, I'm on it." Ray was already digging through another file drawer.

"And perhaps of the others involved, just in case." He gathered up the spent firecracker fragments and put them away while Ray banged the drawer shut with his hip.

"All right!" he said. "Road trip! Wanna go pick up the wolf?"

Fraser considered. "I think not. It would be nice if someone got a bit of sleep."

30. Road Trip

It was sixty miles to Kenosha, and after Ray devoured two really excellent chorizo-and-egg burritos and Fraser nibbled dubiously at something that claimed to be a bagel, there was plenty of time for Ray to describe the fireworks of his youth, and for Fraser to express disapproval of the illegal interstate explosives trade, and for both of them to begin to feel the effects of a night's lost sleep.

Fraser was nice enough to put up with the tempo and volume of music Ray needed to stay awake. Other than that, though, he seemed to be drifting off into his own world. Ray didn't mind. The radio was too loud for conversation anyway. But he really hoped Fraser was reminiscing, or dozing, or, hell, doing calculus in his head -- anything but deciding last night had been a mistake.

Even though it probably had been.

Ray knew that when a relationship was in trouble you weren't very likely to make it better by adding sex to the mix. It would have been smarter to end the evening with a sincere apology and a good night's sleep.

But, oh, hell, Ray couldn't possibly bring himself to regret it. Things were a mess yesterday, and they were a slightly different kind of mess today, and they were going to stay a mess until he and Fraser figured out a way to clean them up. But the picture of Fraser's face as he came -- Ray wouldn't trade that for a million dollars even if you threw in world peace.

The exit came up faster than he expected. And there it was, right at the foot of the offramp: Interstate Novelties, just like he remembered. More or less.

"Geez, it looks even worse than it did when I was a kid," he told Fraser. "And it looked like a strong wind would blow it over even then."

The guy behind the counter was the same one from when Ray was a kid, but instead of a youngish man with sideburns he was on the down side of middle age now, and looked like he was feeling every year. It made Ray feel old just looking at him. Old and tired.

Old and tired and stupid, because the guy looked at their pictures and said, "Nope, nope, can't help you." No on Warren Hayes, no on Martin Burgess, no on Chantal Ackerman. And a definite no on Percival Harris. "In my line of work you do meet a lot of people who probably shouldn't be allowed to buy anything that blows up," he said. "But I would have remembered that one. He's got daredevil eyes."

Shit. They'd just gotten up at the crack of dark and driven for an hour and a half for no good reason at all. Ray gave Fraser an apologetic look.

"Hey, you got a john I could use?" he asked. The owner reached under the register and got a key, attached to a bottle rocket that Ray sincerely hoped was a fake, and jerked a thumb toward the back of the building.

When he came back, breathing fast to clear his nose of the stink, the fireworks guy was in mid-rant, and Fraser had that expression of deep fascination that he only got when he was really bored. "Yes, sir, times have changed, young man," the guy was saying. "Loyalty, partnership -- these things mean nothing. There's no one you can trust."

"You may be right," Fraser said, and Ray knew the tone well enough that he mentally finished the sentence: Or maybe you're the one with the problem. He figured he was doing Fraser a favor by rescuing him and dragging him back to the car.

Once there, he gave Fraser a shrug. "Shit," he said. "Wild goose chase here. Sorry."

"It was a worthy idea," Fraser said, and then he stifled a yawn. God, Ray couldn't believe what that did to him.

Could he touch? Was that allowed now, or not?

And if he did, would he be able to stop?

Fraser was giving him an expectant look. Oh, shit, he'd said something while Ray was drifting in fantasyland, and now he was expecting an answer. "Sorry, just -- thinking about kissing you," Ray blurted, and immediately wished for a rug to hide under.

But Fraser flicked his eyes left and right, took a quick glance out the back window, and then leaned over and delivered a slow, soft, wet, thorough kiss, finishing with a little nibble to Ray's lower lip that left Ray lightheaded with desire.

Fraser looked at his face for a long moment, then brushed a thumb gently over his mouth. "Good thought, Ray," he said, and fastened his seat belt. "Go straight out of the parking lot, please."

Ray blinked at him for a moment, and then the request registered. "Huh? No, nuh-uh, we need to go left and get under the freeway."

"I really believe that we --"

"Left takes us home. Straight puts us back on 94 going --"

"Be that as it may --"

"Fraser. Do you know Wisconsin? You do not." Ray flung the car into Drive with more than necessary force, but he didn't take his foot off the gas. "You've probably never even set foot in the state before today."

"That's correct, of course," Fraser said. "However, I believe that this is the direction in which we'll find what we're looking for."

Ray turned his best interrogation-room glare on Fraser for a moment. Fraser gazed back, imperturbably, until Ray sighed and gave in.

"All right. But if it's the wrong way, which I know it is, then you're buying dinner, got it?"

Fraser smiled. "Understood."

Five minutes later, Ray elbowed Fraser and pointed at the highway sign: Interstate 94 North, Milwaukee 28 Miles. Fraser just raised his eyebrows.

"Think I'm in the mood for a steak," Ray mused. "And a shrimp cocktail."

"Then I suggest," Fraser said, "that you stop by a bank on the way home." And he nodded at a billboard at the side of the road.

Ray gaped at the familiar orange-and-blue dragon and rat. "Exclusive Midwest distributors. Fireworks Shack. Next exit." He glared-grinned at Fraser. "You," he said menacingly, but he couldn't complete the threat, so he just put his turn signal on and got ready to exit.

The Fireworks Shack looked like Interstate Novelties minus twenty years and plus a coat of paint, and the guy behind the counter looked like the other guy minus twenty years and plus a new wife.

"Got the Rat & Dragon exclusive the old-fashioned way," he confided: "I married the U.S. distributor." He pointed proudly at a photo of a pretty Asian woman in a business suit. "Brancacca's pissed at me, excuse me --" (that was to Fraser) "because he says it's 'disloyal' for me to take off on my own with Helen. But I've got a livelihood to think of, and his place is doomed because he won't modernize. Want to see my website?"

Ray left the polite No to Fraser, who was good at that kind of thing, and concentrated on the photos. Chantal Ackerman and Martin Burgess drew shrugs. Warren Hayes got a long, narrow-eyed look and a headshake that was slow and uncertain. But when Ray uncovered the photo of Percival Harris, the guy brought both hands down on the counter with a bang that made them both jump.

"Son of a bitch -- excuse me. That's the asshole who keeps breaking into my storage shed! Excuse me. Three goddamned times I've picked him out of a lineup -- sorry -- but the f-- the idiot police can't make a f-- a stupid conviction stick. Kenosha cops. F-- freaking amateurs." Fraser met Ray's eyes, and Ray nodded.

"I didn't observe a storage shed on the property." Nice of Fraser not to say anything about the guy's efforts to clean up his language.

"Naw. Didn't wanna give up the parking. It's about a quarter-mile down that way. Want me to take you there?"

"Would you mind if we went without you? Having non-police observers along while gathering evidence can ... complicate matters with juries." Oh, nice one, Ray thought. Without lying and without promising anything, either. In less than a minute they were walking out with a hand-drawn map and three padlock keys.

31. Tiger

It was no easy feat to make a silent approach on a gravel road, but Ray was making a surprisingly good try at it. The last building before the storage shed -- an abandoned ice cream establishment, apparently, though the sign was long since shattered -- appeared just where the owner had said it would, and Ray parked the car there so that they could walk over a small rise to the shed itself.

When they swung around the building, they found another vehicle parked there. "Holy shit," Ray said. Fraser had to concur.

It was a gold panel van. A creamy-skinned redhead, naked except for a triangle of green satin and a length of gold chain, was portrayed on the side in a splendor of fluorescent airbrush. She was stroking the fur of a very self-satisfied tiger.

After a long moment, Fraser cleared his throat. "Actually, green eyes on a tiger are rather rare." And then the door opened, and Verna Himmelmaier jumped out.

She was wearing blue today, with white capri pants, and her hair was loosely drawn back with a purple scarf. Fraser saw Ray's eyes going from her to the redhead and back to her. She really was an extraordinarily attractive woman.

"Nice van," Ray said. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"I accepted it from a client in lieu of payment," she said. "The interior decorating is quite impressive. And as for being here, I've come to stop another of my clients from adding to a lifetime of regrettable acts."

Ray opened his mouth, but she went right on. "Now, you, as a detective, are of course duty-bound to tell me to stay out of this and wait here, am I right? And naturally I wouldn't be here if I didn't disagree with that position. So I propose that we all just pretend we've already had this conversation. You be on your way and I'll be on mine."

She gave Fraser a hard look. "Constable," she said. "I see you've tried both available solutions to your dilemma. I trust you've found one that was to your liking?" And when his mouth fell open, she added, "You're a methodical man. It was a fairly easy guess. Now, go on with whatever you came here to do." And she slipped the carved-crystal keyring into a white leather purse and took off over the hill.

Fraser and Ray stared after her for a moment, and then Ray turned to Fraser, his face clearly saying, Psychic? What psychic? I didn't see any psychic.

"Well," he said. "Let's get on with it."

32. Sparklers

The shed was a low, windowless metal building with a chain-link fence along two sides. There was no sign of the psychic chick as they came up to one long side, but Ray could hear the voice of Warren Hayes from the other side.

" ... crazy? Perce, you've already been arrested twice for breaking into this place. Even the Kenosha cops can't be that stupid."

"Had to get you your property back," an unfamiliar voice answered.

"I keep telling you, man, she's not like a car or something." But Warren sounded more eager than disapproving. "Where is she?"

"Patience. Patience is a virtue, my man." There was a metallic sound -- geez, bolt cutters, the guy came prepared -- and then a scuffle and a screech. Evidently the door could use some oil.

"Hey," Ray whispered. "Can you see any way we could --"

"I believe so, yes. This make of shed generally has sliding ventilation openings in the roof," Fraser said. "We should be able to gain egress through one of those, if we can find our way --"

"Right up that fence, easy." And it was, though Ray's landing on the flat metal roof wasn't exactly silent. Fraser, on the other hand, touched down as lightly as a cat.

The vent, which lay close to one end of the long building, was more like a sliding door, a couple of feet across and already partly open. Ray looked at it dubiously. "That's gonna make a hell of a noise."

Fraser removed his hat and retrieved a small bottle, no larger than a breath spray. "I had anticipated," he began, and Ray nearly laughed out loud.

"Holy shit. You're packin' WD-40. Remind me to stay on your good side."

With a bit of the Fraser treatment, the panel slid back smooth as a power window, and Ray peered over the edge to take in the scene.

He had half expected the shed to be completely dark except for the strip of bright light that came down from the open vent, but there was dim light from several sources: some gaps in the wall, a couple of extremely filthy windows, and the inevitable glowing Exit sign. And the open door under the Exit sign, through which he could see Warren Hayes and a guy who must be Percival Harris -- all he could see was that he was a little guy with long hair -- standing in a pool of light, still discussing something in voices too soft to hear.

Immediately below, he could make out the figure of Chantal Ackerman crouching on the floor. A high stack of boxes shielded her from the other men's view.

"A resourceful young woman," Fraser said softly. "She's already worked herself free of the ropes around her arms." Ray looked closely and saw that she was crouching because she was unworking a rope from around her ankles.

"Mr. Harris doesn't appear to have a firearm," Fraser went on, "but if I were a betting man, I'd put money on his having a knife or something similar -- wait."

Ray followed Fraser's gaze -- there were now two figures beneath them. "Verna, goddammit."

"Quite." Fraser was feeling around the edge of the opening. "If I might suggest -- these support bars should be more than sturdy enough to support our body weight, which will give us more control over our descent."

"Right. Try to get between the girls and the nutcases. Hey, story of my life -- Fraser?" Ray peered through the opening just in time to see Fraser making some move out of the Olympics. He hung by his hands for a moment, swinging almost languidly, before he made a beautiful arc through the air, over the pile of boxes, to land sweetly on his feet in front of Warren and Percival.

By the time Warren had finished his startled squeak, Percival had a switchblade at Fraser's throat. Held it backhand, too -- the guy knew what he was doing.

Fraser didn't even flinch. "I presume I have the honor of addressing Mr. Harris," he said. "Relinquish the knife, if you please."

"How 'bout I relinquish it right in your jugular? Sound good to you?"

"Perce, you don't wanna mess with him. He's Canadian."

Ray hit the floor hard enough to startle a curse out of him, making both women jump, and then jump again when something hit the floor behind him. "You two stay put --" he said over his shoulder, and barreled around the boxes toward Fraser, saying, "Freeze! Police!" and groping for his shoulder holster.

Which was empty.


Warren's hands were already in the air, but Percival apparently had an instinct for recognizing the unarmed. "Make me," he said.

There was a hiss, a flickering light, and a very familiar smell. Warren looked over Ray's shoulder, and his hands fell. "Chantal? Baby, you OK?"

Ray felt a tiny sting, then another, on the back of his neck. Then Chantal Ackerman stepped past him in a shower of light, looking like the Statue of Liberty. She was holding up a sparkler, and Verna, walking just behind her, had a handful of spares.

"Aww. How sweet. She's come to cheer us on," Percival said.

Chantal raised her other hand, which had something in it. "Put down the knife, Percival. You've got to know how I'd love to light you on fire." She shook the object, and it gave a hollow rattle. Hairspray. The girl had lit a fire and improvised a torch. Smarter than she looked, that one.

"Oh, a high-maintenance girl. Has to look her best for the kidnappers," Percival said. "Take her little toys away, Warren."

But Warren had stepped around behind Chantal, and Fraser, sensing the moment, drove the heel of his left hand into Percival's chin, then, with a single fluid arc of his right arm, deflected Percival's knife hand and twisted it behind him. The knife clattered to the concrete floor.

"How the hell," Ray said to Verna as Fraser put handcuffs on Percival," did you two light the sparkler in the first place?"

She held up the keychain, with the flat, clear crystal catching the light. "I always tell my clients that crystals can focus energy and shed light on difficult situations."

33. Crashing

After ascertaining that Chantal Ackerman was unhurt, and taking her statement, they left her in Verna's capable hands. Verna offered Warren a ride, too -- "You'll have to sit on the waterbed, of course, but it's surprisingly comfortable" -- but he mumbled, "Somebody in LaCrosse I gotta see." From his lowered voice and his refusal to look at Chantal, Fraser assumed this meant he had a woman to visit, which was probably for the best, even if it meant he had to hitchhike.

Verna delayed her departure long enough to Percival a stern lecture on personal responsibility, which he accepted with surprising meekness. She looked as if she wanted to lecture Fraser as well, but thankfully she refrained, making it unnecessary for him to inform her that if all went well, unwanted pregnancies were unlikely to be a concern of his in the near future.

As for Percival, he kept up a steady patter on the theme of his own righteousness and the treachery of women all the way to the state line, until Ray offered to let him ride in the trunk, at which point he discovered an urgent need for a nap.

Fraser's own precarious grip on alertness failed him less than five minutes into Illinois. The next thing he was aware of was Ray slowing down as he left the interstate. He was barely able to muster the energy to assist Ray in bringing Harris in for processing, which in this case meant Ray standing in the middle of the station shouting, "Somebody take this idiot off my hands before I cuff him to the revolving door" -- a novel method of disposing of a suspect, but admittedly a speedy one.

"If you'll kindly drop me off at the Consulate, I'll nap there," Fraser said as they left the building.

"I will kindly do no such thing," Ray said. "It's one o'clock in the afternoon, and if you go to the Consulate, you're not gonna get a minute's peace till closing time, am I right? Place is probably crawling with, I dunno, the Canadian Yodeling Team or something --"

Oh, dear, he had forgotten. "Sixteen members of a high-school marching band, in fact." It made him shudder just to think about it. "From Newfoundland."

"That's it," Ray said. "We can go get the wolf or leave him with Turnbull, but you're crashing at my place."

In the end they decided to leave Diefenbaker in Turnbull's care and go straight to Ray's apartment.

Fraser had an astonishing amount of difficulty removing his boots. When he finally managed to strip down to henley and boxers, he turned to speak to Ray and saw him stretched out flat on the bed, still in his jacket and jeans, already fast asleep. Fraser lay down beside him and faded out immediately.

34. Jazz

It was dark when Ray work up with a sharp pain in his cheek, which turned out to be the zipper of his jacket digging into his face. He dragged the clock radio close enough to read: 11:42. Geez, they'd slept almost twelve hours.

Fraser was still sleeping peacefully, mouth open, hair mussed. It made Ray's throat hurt.

The jacket and jeans were really uncomfortable, though. Ray went into the bathroom to take them off, partly so he wouldn't disturb Fraser and partly because now that he was awake the taste of his mouth was bad enough to bug him.

He'd woken Fraser up after all; they met in the hallway to the bathroom and exchanged sleepy nods. Ray made a quick turn through the apartment to close the curtains, and came back to the bedroom just as Fraser returned, smelling of toothpaste. Fraser gave him a bashful little smile. Ray felt himself grinning back like an idiot.

"Do you suppose," Fraser said, "that we could get not only into a bed but actually under the covers?"

"What, together? You some kind of pervert or something?" Ray pulled back the blankets and made an after-you gesture.

Fraser surprised him by pulling off the undershirt, and when he lay down, that outstretched arm was definitely an invitation to something other than sleep. Ray pulled off his sweatshirt and T-shirt, feeling a flash of deja vu, and lay down beside Fraser, and Fraser immediately began stroking his hand up over Ray's bare back.

Ray smiled into his face. "Some day, huh? Assault with sparkler and hairspray --"

"Yes, today is a day I won't forget," Fraser said softly, cupping his cheek, and kissed him.

Fraser tasted like Ray's own toothpaste, which was so cozily domestic that it made Ray's throat hurt again. "Fraser," he said. "You OK with all this?"

"What, this?" Fraser snapped the elastic of Ray's jockeys. There was laughter in his eyes. "It's -- a better outcome than I had dared hope for." That got him all serious again. "And you, Ray? Is this what you wanted?"

"Oh, hell, yes." Ray paid back Fraser's elastic snap. "I mean, I'm gonna have to have some help on the, uh, specifics here, because with that I'm just making it up as I go along, but --"

"It's not that different." Fraser was smiling again. "And at its best, lovemaking is always an improvisation, isn't it?"

Ray snapped Fraser's elastic again. "So what we're doing, it's jazz, huh?"

"In some dialects, yes."

Ray didn't really think that was a prelude to a full lecture on slang, but it seemed like a good idea to kiss Fraser, just in case. Plus kissing Fraser was just generally a good idea, one of his best ideas, an idea he couldn't believe he had taken this long to have.

Ray's fingers were still tucked under Fraser's waistband, and now he put his whole hand under and grabbed a handful of Fraser's butt. That got him both a laugh and a gasp, so he pushed his hand a little further in and began using his fingertips, and then his nails, to draw patterns over Fraser's butt, and Fraser stopped laughing and went very still, as though he was concentrating.

"You like that?" Ray said softly. "Is that something guys do?"

"I -- no one's ever done it to me. It's -- remarkable." Fraser nudged closer, throwing a leg over Ray's hip, which made his muscles flex in a way that felt really interesting. He ran his hand gently over Ray's chest, circling a nipple briefly, and then slid it down over his belly and along the edge of his briefs.

"I don't need a security blanket," Ray said. "We can take 'em off."

Without a word Fraser pushed Ray's briefs down his hips, then wriggled his own off as Ray used one foot the push them the rest of the way down.

Fraser's cock was an unexpected brush of heat across Ray's belly, and Ray pulled back a bit to get the good look he hadn't been able to slow down for last night. He could sense Fraser watching his reactions as he reached down -- same weird backward angle he remembered -- and stroked gently, exploring.

He looked up to find Fraser breathing faster, still watching his face. "Fraser? I -- can I suck you a little? Would that be OK?"

Fraser's eyes fell half-shut. "Do you honestly think I'm capable of saying no to that?"

That made Ray feel a little better. "But can you --" He was sliding down the bed. "Tell me if you're -- I mean, warn me before -- because I don't think I can --"

Fraser reached down to touch his cheek. "Of course."

"I'm not saying never," he said to Fraser's belly button. "I just don't think I'm ready, is all."

Fraser gasped when Ray licked the tip, and said, "Oh," when he ran his lips down the shaft and up again, and breathed out Ray's name on a long sigh when Ray took the head in his mouth. He was leaking already, slick and salty and thicker than Ray expected.

For the moment Ray decided against trying to go any deeper; girls always said it was harder than it looked, and if he gagged, Fraser would probably never let him do it again.

And even with no more than this, Fraser was starting to move against him, giving him a rhythm to work with, and to breathe out sighs that were half moans.

A sudden though struck Ray, and he let go and crawled back up to Fraser's flushed and hot-eyed face. "You wanna -- I mean, you know, do me?"

Fraser wet his lips. "Yes," he said. "Do you want that?"

"I think so, yeah. Been thinking about it." Way too much, in fact.

"Have you ever done anything similar?"

"Fingers," Ray said. "I mean, finger, one at the time."

Fraser nodded. Then he frowned a bit. "You probably don't have any sort of lubricant, do you?"

Ray knew what it was, but he'd never used it. "Got hand lotion," he offered.

Fraser shook his head. "I think that for the first time -- I would hate to hurt you."

"Yeah." Ray was both disappointed and relieved. "Another time, maybe. You tell me what to buy."

"I'll just bring mine," Fraser said.

Ray grinned. "I'm onto you, Fraser. I know that Pure Product of the Snowy Wilderness thing is all a big act."

Fraser responded to that with the wettest, sloppiest kiss Ray had ever had, a kiss whose carnal intent was so obvious it left Ray gasping. "I trust," he whispered against Ray's chin, "that you've now been relieved of any lingering misconceptions on that score."

He left Ray's mouth and began licking his neck, his shoulder, his jaw, his ear -- not delicately but hungrily, as though he was craving the taste of him. "I never -- said I was -- pure," he murmured, punctuating each phrase now with a bite sharp enough to raise goosebumps. "Just -- selective."

The note of dark satisfaction in Fraser's voice made Ray feel almost dizzy with desire, and he hauled Fraser on top of him and tugged at his hips until he rested his weight on Ray. "Fuck," he whispered roughly. "Oh, Fraser, you feel so good. God, you've got to -- give me something, I need -- something --"

"Yes," Fraser said fervently. "Yes, Ray, anything." And he shifted to lie fully on top of Ray, straddling him, chest to chest and oh fuck cock to cock. "Your hand -- take us both in your hand --"

And that, when he could pry his hand away from Fraser's ass to obey, was so hot and so new it left him shaking. He tightened his grip, and involuntarily they both thrust in unison, and oh jesus the hot slippery feel of it, the sound of Fraser sighing his name ...

"Push up," he hissed at Fraser. "Just a little, I need to see us," and it was the dim view of both their slick cocks sliding up out of his own fist that pushed him over the edge.

"Ah -- ah, god," Fraser said faintly, moving faster, "oh, Ray, Ray," and Ray wet his other hand in the puddle on his belly and wrapped that one around Fraser's cock, too, and when the wildness came back into Fraser's face he was breathless with the knowledge that he had put it there. And Fraser was still saying, "Ray, Ray," when he came.

Ray could hardly bear to loosen his hands, even when Fraser shuddered back from the sensation and reached down to still his wrist. But then Fraser drove the disappointment out of his head by dragging up the captive hand and sucking Ray's thumb into his mouth, avidly.

And then he offered his own finger to Ray.

With the sensation of crossing a boundary that nothing else in this whole crazy experiment had given him, Ray closed his eyes and sucked Fraser's finger into his mouth and tasted it all -- himself, Fraser, the two of them together, the way his life was going to be from now on. The real thing.

That was something Fraser ought to know, he thought, but it was way beyond any words he knew. He opened his eyes and said, tentatively, "I -- I can do this, Fraser."

And Fraser said hoarsely, "You have to."

35. Nice Dog

After a night like that, Fraser reminded himself, he would undoubtedly embarrass himself if he were to spend the next day with Ray at the station.

It didn't help.

Inspector Thatcher had kept him away from Ray with assignments that were little better than busywork, until Fraser found it necessary to rebuke himself: "This is my job. That is my hobby." He quite literally counted the minutes until lunch, and sighed with relief as soon as he and Diefenbaker left the Consulate to meet Ray in the park.

Dief spotted Ray first and set off at a run, nearly knocking the deli bags out of Ray's hand. Ray ruffled his fur and then looked up expectantly for Fraser. Oh, my. Ray had undoubtedly dressed to catch Fraser's eye -- Fraser had been admiring that crisp white shirt in his closet this morning, though he wouldn't have imagined leaving it unbuttoned quite that far.

Fraser could tell the instant Ray spotted him. Ray's face seemed lit from within, lit with joy and mischief and a sort of "I've got a secret" smugness. Fraser expected everyone in the vicinity to be as drawn by that look as he was.

Just as he came within hearing distance, a girl with long yellow pigtails spun to a stop on her inline skates, coming back for another look at Ray, who had dropped to the ground to greet Dief more thoroughly. "Hey," she said. "Nice dog."

Ray opened his mouth, then gave Fraser a glance and apparently changed his mind. "Hey," he said. "Thanks." And he stood up, and slung an arm over Fraser's shoulders, and drew him away without looking back.


Feedback me at resonant8@sbcglobal.net