A post-Victoria's Secret alternate universe -- and this is really an AU, folks. Although it covers the ground of Letting Go and North as aired, this story doesn't leave the guys back at Vault with everything the same. So reader beware.

This story illustrates the hazards of watching Barbara Streisand comedies and thinking they'll translate to DS and somehow remain funny. The plot is stolen, but the angst is all mine.

Thanks to Renny for beta reading and making some excellent suggestions and clarifications. Any errors or confusion remaining in the story are all my fault for ignoring her advice.

For Benny's Sake

by Laura Mason

The pier was dark as Ray stood there, waiting. He kept moving, nervous, imagining eyes watching him from the darkness. Sure, this was dangerous. Not showing up would have been more dangerous.

Whatever happened now, it was worth it. Benny was in a private room, recovering as quickly as could be expected, according to his doctor. Fur-face was there with him, also recovering. Those were the important things.

Of course, even though he'd stopped in to see Fraser every day this week the Mountie hadn't really spoken to Ray,. Well, Fraser needed lots of sleep; he was recovering. Okay. Benny was still angry. Hell, even the wolf was angry; Dief wouldn't even move from his chair to let Ray sit down.

Two figures approached, barely visible despite the spill of street lights and neon all over the city that Fraser always complained about, saying it obscured the stars and moonlight. The dark bulk of the lake really made the night impenetrable, Ray noted, wondering if he would ever be able to bring Fraser out here and show him a night sky more like the one he missed from home.

The men stopped a few paces away from Ray. He watched them closely, trying to stand very still and keep his hands out to the side, open, non-threatening. One was short and thin; the brains of the team. The other was the muscle, big and heavy. Their clothing matched; the usual dark anonymous coat over suit. Ray looked just like one of them in his work clothing.

Ray had no right to be angry himself. It was his own fault, not Benny's. Anyone can fall in love with the wrong person, and Benny wasn't the only one who'd done so.

"Mr. Vecchio. You have a payment for us?" The shorter man spoke.

"I'm unable to make my payment at this time." Ray saw the punch coming from the big goon, but he made no move to avoid it.

One Week Earlier

"I've explained it to you more than once, Mr. Vecchio." The nurse sounded exasperated, but then she paused, took a deep breath, and continued in a kinder voice. "Despite your assurances that the Canadian government will be paying these expenses, Mr. Fraser has not presented an insurance card."

"Then take mine," Ray once again pushed his own insurance card across the counter. "Or take a credit card."

"Mr. Fraser is not your dependent, so your insurance card doesn't solve my problem." She slid the plastic back and Ray slowly closed his hand over it. He found the slot in his wallet for it, then he pulled out his Visa card and slid that toward her. "I tried your credit card already, Mr. Vecchio. They refused the charge."

Ray nodded and tried with shaking hands to put the card back in his wallet. "I'm good for the money..."

"Mr. Vecchio, if you want Mr. Fraser moved into a private room tonight I'll need two thousand dollars cash. It could be a week before we get a letter regarding his insurance coverage and what charges they will honor. If you want him in private care for that entire time, you need to bring me $14,000 in cash."

Ray's head lifted to meet her eyes and he quietly exhaled. "I'm a little short right now..." He'd already re-mortgaged his mother's house for the bail money. That was $100,000 he couldn't afford and should be getting back, but Benny had been getting on a train... Ray wondered if there was any chance he'd really see that money again. Did it matter? Benny might die; that was more important than any damn mortgage payment.

"Mr. Vecchio, I suggest you go home and rest. Mr. Fraser is still in surgery, and he'll be in intensive care once that is finished. Come back tomorrow and we can settle whether he'll go into the public aid ward or not." The nurse turned away, closing the conversation, evidently tired of talking to Ray.

Ray headed back to the waiting room and wearily sank into the chair he'd been in since they'd wheeled Benny into surgery. Lieutenant Welsh had gone back to the station with Huey, carrying Ray's gun and badge, ready to file his reports. Ray knew he'd be on suspension while Internal Affairs investigated the shooting. No paycheck. Not that his paycheck could cover the hospital costs. Hell, it was usually already spent before he could cash it.

As he sat waiting for the news on his best friend, the man he'd almost killed, Ray's thoughts returned to the issue of getting the best care for Benny. Despite his frantic promises to the Admitting Nurse, Ray wasn't sure that the Canadian government would pay for all of Benny's care. He'd heard rumors about endless red tape for the universal health coverage in Canada, but even if those weren't true Ray didn't think someone in Winnipeg would understand that in Chicago, you only get what you pay for. Benny would need his privacy; Ray couldn't imagine him actually recovering if he were stuck in a ward with ten other patients. And the newest drugs and therapy -- did the Canadians know what that cost down here?

It was all Ray's fault that Benny needed this hospitalization, so he'd have to be ready to make up the difference. To fight to see that Benny got what he needed, to make sure he recovered completely. But how?

The house, his only asset -- Ray considered another loan and rejected it. When he'd mortgaged their home for Fraser's bail, Ray had only asked for what he needed. He could have gotten more, but now it was too late. That kind of paperwork took too long. And he shouldn't be risking his family's home any further.

But Benny was the most important person in Ray's life. He had to make it all up to him, somehow. So there was really only one place to turn. It was risky, but Ray needed a short-term loan.

Three hours later, after the doctor finally reported that Fraser was out of surgery and stable, Ray drank a cup of coffee and headed to see his Uncle Lorenzo.

***

"I'm unable to make my payment at this time." Ray saw the punch coming from the big goon, but he made no move to avoid it. No use. It connected solidly in his gut, folding him over. While Ray was puking, the shorter man spoke again.

"My employer doesn't handle long-term loans, Mr. Vecchio, as I think was made clear to you. Payment in full, $20,000, was due today. Now."

"I know," Ray gasped. "But I'm waiting for Canada..." If he had any breath, Ray would have laughed at how that had sounded. But he was on all fours after another vicious punch, waiting for the rest of it. A kick to his ribs had him on his side, trying to roll up and protect himself, but then Shorty motioned the big goon away.

"Very well. Your contract will be sold to someone who can cover your loan. You'll have to work out repayment with them." The two men started walking away, and Ray closed his eyes for just a minute, trying to breathe through the pain.

But he opened them almost immediately to find he was being none-too-gently helped to his feet by another huge goon, while a tiny grey-haired woman fussed over him, brushing off his coat and slacks.

"I always tell them not to damage the merchandise, but do they listen? Gently, Rudolph," she directed the goon when Ray tried to pull away from them both. "Assist him to the car. You'll have bruises to explain, Raymond, but it should be fine for tonight..."

"Excuse me, m'am," Ray began.

"You may call me Mrs. Finch. And I'll call you Raymond. I've bought your contract, dear. You now owe me $30,000."

"Thirty? But..."

"There is always a handling charge, Raymond. After all, you paid five thousand in interest for just seven days, am I right? And I'll be letting you pay me back over several months." The woman smiled at him as she led him toward a van, the goon following closely. "I'm a reasonable woman."

"Mrs. Finch, it will take me several years to pay you back. And I probably don't have a job anymore."

"Yes, you're a policeman, aren't you? Well, don't worry. You can moonlight with me and no one will know, Raymond. We're very discreet. Most of my clients could not implicate you without damaging their own reputations."

She paused while the goon -- Rudolph, Ray remembered -- opened the back doors of the van and lifted her inside. Ray scrambled up after her when she motioned to him, and Rudolph closed the doors, only to reappear a moment later climbing into the driver's seat. Ray was still staring at the rack of clothes, the cell phones, the computer -- all neatly stashed around a built-in desk with a throne-like chair. Mrs. Finch seated herself with a satisfied little sigh.

"Now, Raymond, please take off your coat." He obeyed her, still puzzled. "Oh, very nice indeed. Though you might want to work out, maybe do a few sit-ups."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Don't be sensitive, Raymond. Your shoulders are very nice indeed, if you'll just stand up straight. Go easy on the pasta for the next month or two. Here, rinse your mouth out," and Ray accepted a flask of what smelled like brandy from her tiny hand. He took a healthy swig and did swish it around his teeth before swallowing the mouthful. He handed it back to her with a grateful smile.

"Very good. Now strip." She picked up a phone and started dialing while Ray stared at her. When she realized he wasn't moving, she paused and looked up at him with a raised eyebrow.

"Did you say..."

"Strip, Raymond. Now. You need to change clothes. There is a pair of leather slacks that should fit you, third from this end. And find a silk shirt, nothing too baggy. Red, or maybe that deep rose one."

Ray stood motionless, his brain spinning. This had to be a nightmare. Maybe he was still back on the dock, being beaten to death by Clarizio's goons.

"Does Rudolph need to assist you, Raymond?" The goon turned in his seat, and Ray quickly began unbuttoning his shirt. "Good. No underwear, please. Such a cliche, but the clients expect it."

Mrs. Finch placed her phone call, speaking quietly to someone, setting a place and time. Ray continued to change clothes, trying to forget she was there, telling himself she certainly wasn't watching him. He blushed when he tugged the skin-tight leather up and realized the only fastening was a lace-up leather thong.

"All right, Rudolph, please take us to Lake Shore Drive. 4500 North." Mrs. Finch pulled out boots for Ray, and indicated a short stool for him to sit on while he pulled them on. She came over to him, then sighed as she began to comb his hair. "I think we'll have this re-styled, Raymond. Tomorrow night. Just a nice, close-cropped cut should do. But there's nothing to be done tonight. You've been neglecting yourself."

"I've been a little busy," Ray explained, but then he almost giggled at the thought of the last week, which he'd spent haunting the hospital. It was so far removed from his present reality that it seemed impossible he was the same person.

"Yes, Raymond. Well, it probably doesn't matter. The Judge has never been terribly discriminating, to tell you the truth. He'll be delighted with you, I'm sure."

"Mrs. Finch, what... Who..." Ray stopped. "Could you tell me what your business is?"

"Oh, Raymond, you're a man of the world. Surely you understand how you'll be repaying your loan."

"You're sending me to do a job for you. But I don't understand why I'm in these clothes, or what my hairstyle has to do with it."

"Well, Raymond, my job is to fulfill fantasies. You are in clothes that I believe will make your part of that easier. Do I need to be more specific?" She stared up at Ray's face, watching his mouth move soundlessly for a moment, before continuing. "You are going to have sex with the Judge, Raymond. I will collect the fee, and apply your share toward the loan."

"But that's illegal..." Ray began, then stopped. He wasn't stupid, or naive. When you deal with criminals, you're going to wind up doing illegal things.

"I protect my boys, Raymond. You won't be arrested. Customers are carefully screened. The Judge, for instance, has a ten-year relationship with my business."

"But I've never..." Ray blushed furiously and wondered if he'd ever be able to complete a sentence again. "You know. Not with a guy."

"What?" Mrs. Finch finally seemed upset. "Your uncle told Alphonse Clarizio that the Mountie was your partner!"

"He didn't mean we're lovers! Cops have partners!" Ray shouted, beyond blushing now. This was insane, yet what choice did he have? "I've never -- I'm not -- !" He stopped waving his arms around when Rudolph growled from the front seat.

"Well, that changes everything," Mrs. Finch breathed, picking up the phone again. Ray began to unbutton the rose silk shirt. "Stop that!" Mrs. Finch hissed, then spoke into the phone in her most professional tones. "Judge? I've just learned that your young man tonight is a virgin." Ray opened his mouth, but she waved at him imperiously with a look that could kill. "Yes, you'll be the first ever. Naturally, that changes the price for this evening."

Ray moaned and sank back down on his stool as the van carefully pulled on to the Drive.

***

"I've had prettier boys, but I suppose you'll do." Ray tried to look grateful, though he felt nothing. He was completely numb as he shook the hand of the man who answered the door. Ray recognized Chief Judge Evans -- "but you just call me 'sir' tonight, boy."

Mrs. Finch's instructions were echoing in his head as he accepted a glass of water, then followed the Judge to the bedroom. It wasn't difficult to appear uncertain, as she'd directed him to do. No matter how many times he'd looked at Benny's ass, Ray wasn't gay. He'd never...

Well, there was that time with Frankie, but they'd just been kids, excited while looking at a stolen Playboy. That didn't make him queer. Though maybe his feelings for Benny did. Feelings Ray had to admit to himself after the events of the last month. This wasn't the time or place to be thinking about this.

Ray shook his head, trying to clear it, and then stopped dead as he walked into a room that could have been a set from a porno film. There were mirrors everywhere, a red fur bedspread, some kind of shackles on the headboard -- and yes, on the footboard, too. Ray thought about turning around and running, but he made himself stand still and tried not to look too panic-stricken. But the Judge actually smiled when he saw Ray's wide eyes.

"Don't worry, we won't do anything too rough tonight." Despite the reassurance, Ray wasn't sure he could stop him if things got out of control. The Judge was just about the same height as Ray, and heavier in build. Almost flabby, though it was apparent he worked out to try to keep his weight in control. His hair was a fringe of steel-grey.

The Judge moved to Ray, standing too close to him, and Ray made himself stand still. The man rubbed against him and started to unbutton Ray's shirt. When the Judge directed -- ordered -- him, Ray did the same to the older man, telling himself it was no different from being with a woman. The guy wasn't repulsive, but Ray felt no sexual excitement in any of these acts.

But when both their shirts were on the floor and the Judge pulled Ray's hips toward him, grinding his erection against Ray, Ray's eyes closed and he stopped trying to imagine a woman. Instead it was Benny holding him, rubbing against him. And that was why Ray moaned, writhed, and reached out to kiss the Judge passionately, despite the unfamiliar stubble.

The Judge pulled back from Ray, astonished. "Kissing? None of Mrs. Finch's boys have ever done that!"

"I'm sorry, sir," Ray gasped, stepping back. "I didn't know." If he was sent away, he'd have gone through all this for nothing. And Mrs. Finch would not be happy.

"This really is your first time, isn't it? I didn't trust the old bitch, but you're really..." The Judge stared at him, his eyes wide.

Ray nodded, wondering if he'd just lost his first loan payment. But the Judge launched himself at Ray in a frenzy, driven wild by the idea of truly being his first. Ray closed his eyes again and held on for the ride as his pants were peeled down his body by a very excited man who pushed him down on the bed, yanking off Ray's borrowed boots, then completely removing the tight leathers.

Ray lay back on the bed and opened his eyes just a bit. The Judge looked almost purple in the face. His breathing was erratic, too.

Ray leaned up on one elbow to watch as the Judge finished undressing himself, ripping his own slacks in an effort to get them over his shoes. Ray flushed whenever he caught sight of himself in one of the mirrors, spread out naked, completely unerect. Maybe Mrs. Finch was right about those sit-ups, after all. If Benny saw him like this... Well, Benny wouldn't ever see Ray naked. He'd never be interested in Ray.

The Judge, now naked, climbed on the bed. He was definitely aroused, and still an alarming shade of red all over his body. "Suck me. You've never sucked anyone have you? Good," in reply to Ray's negative gesture. "So suck me now, and then later I'll fuck you." The man was puffing like he'd just run up four flights of stairs as he moved over Ray's body.

Ray tried to get comfortable, tried to figure out what to do. Before he could get ready, he was choking on the Judge's erection, trying to imagine himself anywhere else. It wasn't horrible -- the Judge was clean, and he wasn't huge. But Ray had never even thought about doing this. Whenever he'd imagined himself with Benny, they'd just been kissing.

Again, the thought of Benny was all it took. Ray's eyes closed, his ears blocked out the Judge's voice, and he was holding Benny's beautiful ass in both hands as he kissed, licked, and sucked on him. Benny would taste marvelous, fresh and wild. Benny would moan, would thrust into his face like this...

The Judge stopped thrusting, frozen, and then fell forward, his full weight on Ray 's face. Ray pushed him away, coughing and choking, and sat up. He grabbed at his nose, swearing at the pain. But the Judge didn't move, and Ray finally stopped, caught his breath, and looked at the man sprawled next to him.

The Judge was no longer red, or purple. He was now greenish-white, his eyes were open and rolled back... Ray quickly found his pulse, but it was very weak. He jumped up and looked for the phone, but there was none visible in the room.

He ran into the main room and found a cell phone on the bar. Ray hit re-dial, praying that the Judge's call to Mrs. Finch was the last one stored.

***

"Raymond, you gave the poor Judge a heart attack." He was back in the van, dressed in his own clothing again, holding an ice pack to his face. His nose had been broken by the Judge's fall, and he knew he'd have two black eyes the next day despite Mrs. Finch's first aid.

"But he's going to be okay, right?"

"He'll live. But I've probably lost a very steady, reliable client."

"Honest, Mrs. Finch, I didn't do anything to him."

"Raymond, you were still naked when I got there. The Judge was in the bed. You did something!"

"But I don't even know what I'm doing!" Ray shouted, then dropped his voice as Rudy looked back at him. "I don't think it was my fault."

"Nonetheless, Raymond, I'm reconsidering my purchase of your loan. You may not be suited to this kind of work." She rubbed her forehead, quite distressed. "It's not like anyone wants a virgin heart-attack on the hoof."

Ray nodded in agreement, rubbing his tired eyes. Anything had to be better, right? He couldn't be a prostitute. He didn't know how. He didn't want to. Any arousal he'd felt with the Judge was an accident. No, correction -- there was no arousal, period.

Mrs. Finch was bustling with her phone and her computer. "Rudolph, escort Raymond to the Moretti garage. Bring back the money." And that was the last Ray saw of Mrs. Finch and her van.

***

Benny was safe, and that was the main thing, Ray told himself as he left the precinct again. That crazy doctor hadn't finished what Victoria had started. Of course, Ray was being disciplined for carrying a gun while on suspension, but at least Huey and Gardino had been there so he hadn't needed to fire his gun. If he had, he'd be sitting in a jail cell while his debt piled up higher. Then his family might be in danger, might lose their home.

Ray was tired, he had to admit that, but other than that everything was fine. Everyone was fine. The bullet had gone clean into his shoulder; the wound was healing fast. Much faster than Benny's wound from him. He'd only been in the hospital two days, while Benny was still there. At least the Consulate's insurance had kicked in -- though no refund had come from the hospital for the days Ray had paid for with the borrowed cash.

Anyway, the Morettis didn't want cash. Not that Ray's $15,000 would cover a $50,000 loan. That's what Mrs. Finch, that crooked little old witch, had sold him for. Ray would be carrying packages for the Moretti brothers for the rest of his life, he supposed, though they wouldn't discuss prices with him. He had no idea if each time he carried something to a drop, it was paying off one dollar or a thousand.

He also had no idea what was in the packages, which didn't sit well with Ray. He'd always been a curious guy, peeking at birthday gifts, Christmas presents -- even nosy whenever Frannie brought home a shopping bag. But Ray had no curiosity left. He really didn't want to know exactly how he was breaking the law he'd sworn to uphold.

Ray drove his Buick away from the station and swung onto Western, headed south. A few miles away, the Morettis ran a garage that had never seen a car in need of repair. They sat there in a small office, drinking espresso and running a small-time family. Typical mob stuff, too -- loan sharking, prostitution, small-time smuggling, some minor drug trafficking. Ray just closed his eyes and delivered the packages, as ordered. When told to dress casually, he wore jeans. When told to dress up, he wore a suit. When ordered, he wore a hat, sunglasses, a red carnation.

Today Ray was in a suit because of the hearing he'd attended. Once he reached his car, he took off the tie and jacket and pulled on a soft cotton sweater, red, as ordered. His first day back since the shooting -- and the Morettis had not been happy about his time in the hospital. He'd better do a good job and try to get on their good side.

This had been going on for a month now, and Ray had never felt that they were satisfied with his work. At least he no longer had black eyes. After today, he wouldn't need the sling on his left arm, either. He supposed the Morettis would be happy about him being less noticeable. Ray was just numb.

The only time he felt better was when he visited Benny. The hospital had limited his time there, what with Benny busy in therapy and also spending time each day in the pool. It kept him from having to explain where he went every day, since Fraser had to know Ray was still on suspension. Or maybe not. He'd never asked.

Benny was talking to him again. He'd said they were "even Steven," but it didn't seem 'even' to Ray yet. Oh, he'd put himself between Benny and a bullet, but that wasn't enough to make up for almost killing his best friend. And no matter what he'd said, Benny wasn't treating Ray the same anymore. They talked without really saying anything.

Benny had loved that woman, and no matter what she'd done to him, to Ray, or to her partner, Fraser still wanted her back. Ray wasn't a genius, but he was smart enough to see that. Benny had no interest in his pretty therapist, and almost no interest in life. What life? Getting well so he could go back to being a doorstop with an abusive boss? Living in a flophouse? No wonder he'd run.

Ray wished, yet again, that he hadn't arrived in time to shoot at Victoria. Benny would have climbed on the train. Then what? Lived happily ever after, a fugitive and deserter? Not likely. Would he have captured Victoria and brought her back? Not with her holding that gun. Not that anyone believed him about the gun. In his statement, Benny said he'd taken Victoria's gun away. And even the Fraternal Order of Police rep handling Ray's case said he "understood shooting at someone jumping bail on your nickel." No one else had seen the gun; they'd been behind him, too far back.

Or maybe Ray hadn't seen a gun -- maybe he'd just been too terrified when he saw Fraser running away from him. And wound up almost killing Fraser himself. Maybe he really didn't belong on the force anymore. Ray wasn't sure he could ever fire a gun again. Well, yes, he could -- if Benny were in danger. If Gardino hadn't fired, Ray would have killed Dr. Carter. Even after she'd shot him, Ray would have managed to stop her from hurting Benny.

Ray pulled into the parking lot across from the Moretti garage, then hustled across Western to the front door.

"About time you got here, Vecchio." Leo, the younger brother at age 58, was at the coffee machine, as usual.

"Sorry. I told you I had a hearing today." Ray didn't bother removing his coat; they always sent him right back out. He pulled on a pair of lightweight gloves as he walked back to the office. He wasn't having his prints found at some crime scene. He couldn't support his family from jail.

"Vecchio. Here's the package." Gino Moretti pushed a red Carson's shopping bag holding a large, square box in plain brown paper at him. "Go to Ford City. Entrance number three, by the caramel corn shop. Lose the overcoat. You'll see a blonde in a red hat and raincoat. Swap your bag for the one she'll have, and bring it back here by four o'clock."

"Yes, sir. Mr. Moretti, before I go, may I ask about my debt?"

"Vecchio, this package is very important. Take care of it and we'll discuss tearing up your contract."

"Yes, sir." Ray left the building a little less depressed. He tossed the shopping bag in the trunk of the Riv, then headed south to Ford City. He'd be able to stop by Benny's room tonight, after Ray's own checkup. Lost in thoughts for the evening, the trip to the mall passed quickly.

But when he pulled into the parking lot surrounding the stores, Ray's instincts started screaming at him loudly enough to overcome his distraction. The place was crawling with unmarked squads and plainclothes police. Ray drove right past Entrance Three, and instead parked by the Sears at Entrance Six. He left the Carson's bag in the trunk, out of sight, carefully buttoned his coat over the red sweater, and entered Sears.

Ray bought a bag of candy for Maria's kids and a new flannel shirt for Benny. Then, armed with his bags, he headed down toward Entrance Three. He spotted the woman in the red hat, and kept his eyes on her while he got in line for caramel corn. Despite the wig and hat, he thought he recognized her from the traffic detail at the 14th a few years ago. If it was the same woman, nice promotion. At least someone was advancing in their career instead of being on the verge of unemployment.

Ray bought a small cheese-caramel mix, thinking of Dief, and then headed back to his car. The police were still at all the entrances, in force, but they ignored him and his Sears bags.

It was just after three o'clock when Ray carried the Carson's bag back inside the garage. Leo was now finished with coffee and had a tumbler of what looked like red wine in his hand, as did Gino. Gino was talking into the phone, and both men were smiling.

"He just walked in. Is this great or what? Thirty more minutes and our worries are over. That little prick won't be doing business in Chicago any more!"

Ray set the bag down next to the desk, and waited for Gino to hang up so he could explain. But Gino waved at him, and Leo spoke. "See us tomorrow, Vecchio. We'll tear it up then."

"But the drop..." Ray tried to explain.

"Tomorrow, Vecchio." Gino burst out laughing, and Leo turned away from Ray. Ray pulled out the pad he still carried in his suit jacket for investigation notes. He quickly scrawled: *The cops were all over the mall. The drop was a cop, too. So I brought your package back.*

He set his note in the bag, on top of the box. Leo and Gino were still ignoring him, so Ray left and drove to the hospital to see Benny and Dief. When he heard the news on the radio the next morning, Ray wondered if they'd even looked at his note before they both died in the explosion that leveled their garage and the two city blocks around it.

***

A week later Ray was leaving the hospital when they grabbed him. He was almost relieved; he'd been waiting for this. Someone would have taken over the Morettis' business. Ray was blindfolded and stuffed in a car without being roughed up. They only drove about 15 minutes before the car stopped and he was led inside what felt like a warehouse. The space echoed with their footsteps, but felt stuffy at the same time.

"Ray. Good to see you." Ray knew that voice before the blindfold was removed.

"Zuko."

"That's Mr. Zuko to you, Ray. It looks like you're finally gonna be working for me. And my boys call me sir, Ray." The blindfold was roughly pulled off his face. They were in the middle of an empty warehouse. Zuko was seated before him, his coat draped over the back of the wooden desk chair.

"Yes sir Mr. Zuko," Ray answered, a sneer in his voice as he blinked in the dim light. At a wave from Zuko, the goons who'd grabbed him exited the building. "Now exactly why am I going to be working for you?"

"I inherited some of the Morettis' assets, Ray. They weren't fireproof," Zuko added with a smirk, "But their important papers were in a fireproof box. Including a note on you, Ray, for $50,000."

Ray merely nodded without saying anything, so Zuko continued. "It must have been pretty serious, Ray, to be in to them for that much money. Gambling? A woman? Or a man? Ah, well, that's your business." Ray kept his face perfectly still. He wasn't giving Frank Zuko anything else to hold over him.

"So if you won't discuss it, Ray, that's fine. I expect to be obeyed, however, while you're in my employ." Zuko looked down at his nails, then flicked some lint off his slacks. "And it takes a long time to pay off a hundred thousand dollars, Ray."

"A hundred--" Ray stopped himself, but Zuko still laughed at his expression.

"You bet, Ray. I have expenses. Some of that is money I paid to the others who wanted a cop in their pocket -- the Moretti assets were split among my associates, naturally. And there was hush money to the authorities, to make sure certain people who were fond of the Morettis don't find out their deaths were caused by a bomb."

"A bomb?" Ray gasped. "The news said it was a gas leak. There was a bomb?"

"Oh, that's priceless." Zuko laughed. "You really didn't know? Here I thought you'd found a clever way out of your contract!" He laughed again.

"Jesus, Frankie," Ray exhaled, sick to his stomach. "How long have you known me? You thought I'd -- they're dead!"

"Yeah, and if they weren't, you'd still be carrying junk for them. Right?"

"No. They said I was finished, after that package." Ray couldn't believe he'd blurted that out, and he knew Zuko would never believe him. Still, Zuko looked thoughtful for a minute.

"So it was an accident?"

"Of course."

"You didn't acquire a bomb?"

"No. They sent me out with a package, and when I got there the place was lousy with police. So I brought the box back. But they didn't listen to me when I tried to explain. They were drinking, celebrating something."

Zuko looked even more serious, though his words were light. "I'm sure you're comforted to know they died so happy, Ray. So where was this drop?"

"Ford City." Zuko merely nodded, as if Ray had only confirmed what he already knew. "But why did you think I'd killed them?"

"There was a bomb. We have sources in the fire department, you know. Professional package bomb. Pretty powerful. And I couldn't imagine you were happy about working for them." Zuko stood up and walked away. "So they were drinking?" he asked casually, looking out one of the dirty windows.

"Yeah, and Gino said something about their worries being over soon."

"Well, that was true enough." Zuko stood. "Ray, the package you brought back to them was probably the bomb."

"What?" Ray shouted, then sucked in air loudly, feeling like he was going to faint. "You mean, I killed them?"

"Since it was their own bomb, Ray, meant for some other schmuck, I'd say they killed themselves. You just helped them along. Now, I hear you're headed for Canada."

Ray was dazed at the thought he'd been carrying a bomb in his car. Those bastards! And who was it going to, anyway? Not the drop person. It must have been meant for some other family. No wonder they'd been ready to cancel his debt. They'd made Ray an accessory to murder. He felt sick again.

"Ray!" Ray's head snapped up at the command in Zuko's voice. "Stop thinking about it and pay attention to me. You're going to Canada?"

"It's just a short trip," Ray answered automatically, then stopped himself. "You've been checking up on me?"

"Ray, until your contract is paid off, you're mine. Of course I'm checking up on you." Zuko picked up his coat and put it on. "You're taking the Mountie home, I suppose. You probably owe him that. But you owe me, too. See me the day before you go. I'll have a package and directions. Take care of it, and your contract will be settled."

"One package?"

"Yeah."

"No." Ray grabbed at Zuko's sleeve as he started to walk past. "What's in it that's worth $100,000? I don't want--"

"Ray, no one cares what you want. The package is none of your business." Zuko walked to the door, then turned. "It's not anything you should object to -- not with your new standards. Not quite so righteous any more, are you?"

***

Ray was staring at the camp fire when Fraser stirred in the bedroll.

"Everything all right, Ray?" Great, even Dief's head was up, looking at him.

"Fine, Benny. Go back to sleep. I'm just not tired yet. You're doing most of the work now, ya know. And I was just getting used to the workout of carrying you." He'd tried his best, but he knew he didn't have the tone right. But Fraser remained silent, and Ray returned to his thoughts.

Three days ago, while Fraser slept, Ray had sat up staring at the fire next to the wreckage of their plane and after he'd buried the drugs Frank Zuko had sent to Canada in his carry-on bag. At the time, Ray had been sure that he and Fraser would both be dead soon. With that thought came fear that the wreckage might be found someday and the drugs, which had made him a nervous wreck for the whole trip thus far, would be used to smear Fraser's name.

Ray couldn't bear the thought of Fraser being implicated, even after his death. They'd tried to do that to his father, too -- and Benny didn't have a Mountie son to right the wrong. So Ray had calmly and methodically found a spot far from the wreckage to hide the drugs, buried deep and obscured with loose brush and leaves to the best of Ray's abilities.

And now they were almost back to civilization, the hijacker was dead, and Benny was able to see and to walk again -- and Ray was still a dead man. Well, a quick shot to the head was probably better than starving slowly in the wilderness. At least Benny would be okay. And Ray's family would get insurance -- though he worried about how quickly his body would be found. Surely Zuko knew he wasn't really a cop any more, and wouldn't feel the need to make his corpse vanish.

Ray's final personnel board hearing was scheduled two weeks after their return. He didn't have high hopes for that, either. His FOP rep seemed less than competent. Between shooting Benny, being implicated by Victoria, and then getting caught with his backup gun at the hospital -- well, Ray could find another job. If Zuko would let him live.

Ray shook himself and stood up to stretch.

"Ray? Does your difficulty in sleeping involve regrets?" Fraser was lying flat on his back, not looking at Ray.

Ray's first instinct was to say 'of course.' The last two months were full of regrets, of things Ray wished he'd done differently or could somehow fix, starting with the shot he'd fired at Victoria. But then Ray realized that any regrets Benny was talking about were much more recent.

"No, Benny. Of course not. What happened last night--"

"It was unexpected, I believe." Now he leaned up on his elbows, looking at Ray's face.

"You can say that again." Ray smiled sheepishly.

"My suggestion was merely logical, given that we were both wet and cold. Sharing body heat in the same bedroll is an effective preventive for hypothermia."

"Yeah, it warmed me up." Ray's smile widened.

"Indeed, Ray." Benny's eyes were burning at him now, and Ray moved closer without even thinking. "I'm afraid my subsequent actions were not motivated by health concerns, Ray."

"It was wonderful, Benny. Like nothing and no one else."

"Then, Ray," and now Fraser's voice was husky. "Would you object to sharing body heat again tonight?"

Ray laughed and climbed into the bedding with Fraser. Ray supposed he was going straight to hell. Well, Benny was worth it. He'd never imagined Benny could have any sexual interest in him, but now that the truth had come out, Ray was enjoying it for as long as it lasted. He loved the crazy Mountie; that was what Ray had avoided admitting for as long as he'd known him. He could lie to his police therapist, to himself even -- but he couldn't lie to Benny. One touch, one kiss and he'd caved.

Benny wasn't new to this, Ray had realized last night. Being the inexperienced one, he'd let Benny lead him into pleasure. He knew that if this had happened before Victoria, there would have been soul-searching and questions about how this might affect his job, worries about what his family would think. But not anymore. Those concerns seemed insignificant after almost losing Fraser yet again. And, fairly sure he was facing death, Ray Vecchio was seizing his day.

The warm mouth attaching itself to his own wiped away thoughts of the future and the past. Pure sensation took over as Ray clutched at Fraser and felt that strong body rubbing against him. Clothing was loosened, and soon Ray was gasping as his cock was stroked and rubbed against Fraser's own.

"Love you so much, Ray," Fraser panted into his ear. "Want you -- oh!" And Ray felt the warm spill on his bare belly, felt that large hand stop moving for a moment, then speed up, dragging his response from him.

"Oh, God, Benny!" Ray arched up, lifting Fraser's weight atop him. His voice seemed to echo in the darkness around them, and then they were both laughing and snuggling together, sticky and satisfied.

"Thank you kindly, Ray," Fraser giggled like a kid. "I feel that our bodies have reached an appropriate temperature for safety this evening."

"Benny, our bodies are showing up on spy satellites around the world right now," Ray snorted. Diefenbaker chose this moment to stand up and move further away from them, and both men burst into renewed laughter.

They calmed down, and a few minutes later Ray felt Fraser's head becoming heavier, as though he was falling asleep at last. So Ray was startled when Fraser spoke.

"I wish..." But he trailed off.

"What, Benny?" Ray said softly, holding him a little tighter.

"I never thought you would return my feelings, Ray. I only wish I'd been assured of your interest -- no, affections -- sooner. Before."

"Before she came to town?"

"Yes."

"It might not have made any difference, Fraser. She blind-sided you. Even if we'd been involved, there's no guarantee anything would have been different."

"Ray!" Fraser sat up, looking horrified. "I would never have been unfaithful to you. I love you."

"And I love you, Benny. As I hope I showed you last night."

"As you showed me when you brought me up here, then carried me through the wilderness. As I think you've been showing me in many ways since I came to Chicago." Fraser stretched up and kissed Ray gently.

"But you love -- loved -- her, too. You can't always make a one-or-the-other decision when it comes to love." Ray ran his hand up Benny's cheek, into that pelt of sleep-mussed hair.

"I suppose you're correct, Ray," Fraser hummed, leaning into the caress, then settling back down onto Ray's chest. "But I'd like to think it would have all been different."

"Oh, me too, Fraser. Me too." Ray fell asleep listening to Fraser and Dief and the night, thinking about might-have-beens.

***

The reunion with his family, who'd all trooped out to O'Hare, was as tearful and joyous as Ray could wish. Most of the 27th turned out, too, even though Ray was on suspension. He suspected that was in large part due to Elaine's wish to see Fraser again and make sure he was okay. The story of their kidnaping, the plane crash, and Hogan's death made the paper, though not on the front page. So Ray was ready for the summons from Frank Zuko when it came.

He walked calmly up to the door of Zuko's home. He'd left the Riv at home -- one less thing for Frank to destroy. Besides, it was a good car. Maybe Frannie could get some money for it, to help tide them over. The maid let Ray in, and then Charlie motioned him inside Zuko's office.

"You didn't do a very good job with my package."

Ray shrugged. It wouldn't do any good to plead, nor to mention that he hadn't planned to be hijacked and hike through Canada for days. He thought of those days -- and nights -- with Benny and almost smiled.

"I'm not pleased, Ray." Zuko shifted some papers on his desk. "Of course, your debt has grown. The merchandise you failed to deliver was worth half a million."

"That much?" Ray replied. "I ..." I can never repay that amount, Ray thought.

"Obviously, you can't manage to repay that, Ray. Particularly not as a part-time employee." Zuko rose and came around the desk. "Charlie, leave us alone." He waited until the room was empty to continue. "Ray, I'd like you to come to work for me. The City's going to bounce you anyway. You know that. No matter what you say at that hearing next week, your career is over."

Ray nodded, his throat tight at hearing someone else say what he'd suspected to be true.

"Charlie is thinking about retirement. You work with me, learn the business -- you could become my right-hand man."

"And the debt?"

"You'll pay me back out of your salary. I'll start you at a hundred a year, but you'll only see half of it. Still, that's enough to provide for your mother and sisters, and that deadbeat Tony."

"That's ... generous," Ray stammered, thinking of what his mother would say. She'd always been so proud of his decision to be a cop. And working for Zuko was even more dangerous -- it wasn't like he'd be out of the line of fire in any of the wars that regularly flared up. But the extra money -- over $15,000 a year -- could do a lot for the family. Then Ray thought of Benny.

Funny, he hadn't imagined Fraser's life after he knew Ray was dead. But now Ray was seeing all the horror in the Mountie's eyes, the total disgust when he heard that Ray was willingly working with Frank Zuko.

"I'm a generous guy, Ray. And despite what happened in the past, I've always liked you, Ray." Zuko was standing close, too close. Ray stepped back and hit the desk. Zuko ran a hand up his arm, then cupped Ray's face with his hand. Ray shuddered, then started to go down on his knees. He'd heard rumors about deals with Frankie's father being sealed his way; humiliation was part of the don's power.

But Frankie stopped him and pulled him back to his feet. "Ray, no. That's not part of our deal." Frankie pulled him into an embrace and whispered, "But it could be a fringe benefit." He released Ray and walked away. "Think about all of this. Let me know tomorrow."

He couldn't say no. He owed it to his family to stay alive. And he had no other options. Even if he had to give his body to Zuko as part of the deal, was it any worse than what he'd already done for Mrs. Finch? But what if Zuko asked him to sell drugs, or kill someone? Ray might have already done those things, too, for the Morettis. So how could he think he had other options?

But Benny-- No, Benny would go on, even if he hated Ray. At least Ray would know that he'd done everything he could for his friend. And he'd have the memory of their too-brief love. It was more than he'd ever expected to have.

"There's no reason to delay, Frankie. I accept." And Ray shook hands with Satan to seal the deal for his soul.

***

Later that evening, Ray lay back on the lumpy mattress of his motel bed and tried to sleep. He wished he'd had the presence of mind to grab some clothes -- and maybe some clean sheets -- when Ma ordered him out of her house.

She'd been frantic with worry when he'd arrived back at the house after his meeting with Frankie. When she asked why he'd walked so far in his best clothes, Ray couldn't explain. So instead, he announced he would be resigning from the force in the morning, and going to work for Zuko. Ma's subsequent scream brought Frannie and Maria to the kitchen to join the fray.

They arrived just in time to hear Ma demand, "Working for Frank Zuko -- why would you do such a thing?"

"Sometimes it's just better to resign before you're fired. I don't have a chance at the hearing next week."

"But Benton said he'd testify for you," Frannie whined. "He'll tell them she fired that gun, and there was no way for you to know he'd taken it away."

"I know he'll do his best," Ray began.

"So you go to the hearing and hope for the best. You've never been a quitter, Ray," was Maria's reply.

"But, as I was trying to say, since Benny is also testifying that he was about to hop on the train to join a criminal in her escape, I'm not sure his testimony will be helpful," he snarled at them.

"That's a horrible thing to say," Maria said, while Frannie just looked like she wanted to cry.

"But there are other jobs! Why would you work for such a man?" Trust Ma to get right to the point.

"'Cause I've finally wised up, Ma. He'll pay me more than the damn City ever did."

"Money? You do this for money? What do we need with more money? We have food, we have a home!"

"Well I can think of a few things I'd like besides this old house and lousy polenta, Ma. I'm just looking out for number one, like Pop always said. I finally realized the old man was right."

"You've never believed that, Ray," Maria said with a shocked expression. "I can't believe you'd change now."

"You're just tired; you've been wearing yourself out," Ma pleaded.

"What will Benton say?" Frannie asked, and as Ray tried to block out the images that question immediately brought to mind, Maria gasped.

"You're in trouble, aren't you?" she asked. The cacophony of female voices made it impossible for Ray's denial to be heard, but Maria managed to top them all. "When I visited Uncle Lorenzo last weekend, he said he wasn't surprised you'd left the country. I thought he'd misunderstood about your vacation to Canada, and I tried to explain. But he insisted you were on the lam because of Alphonse Clarizio."

"Raimondo, why would you have anything to do with that horrible man?" his mother asked, sitting down at her kitchen table and starting to cry.

"He's even worse than Zuko from what I've heard," Frannie added, moving to hug Ma.

"It's a business deal, Ma. Nothing you need to know about." Ray hoped she'd leave it alone, but he'd forgotten how his mother felt about the hoodlums in their own neighborhood.

"I won't have a gangster living in my home, Raimondo. I don't know why the law that you've been upholding for all these years suddenly means nothing to you, but you have to choose. Either you're my son, or you're the slime who works for Zuko."

And just like that, Ray had taken off with only the clothes on his back and no cash at all. Thankfully he had a credit card in his wallet, so he'd managed to get a room. A nasty, depressing room in a bad part of town, and it seemed like a haven. Ray wished he could stay there and never face his family or Benny -- or Zuko. So he lay on the mattress in the dark, fully clothed and staring at the ceiling until the sky outside began to glow with dawn light.

***

The pounding on his door woke Ray from the doze he'd finally fallen into around 5 a.m. For a moment he was disoriented, and then he realized he was still at the tacky motel he'd driven to last night. The weight of his life hit him full force when he realized the voice calling his name from the other side of the door was Frannie's.

Ray stumbled to the door and yanked it open, almost getting hit in the face by Benny's fist as Diefenbaker bounded past him and into the room with a bark. Why hadn't he realized that his well-manicured little sister wouldn't have been knocking that loudly?

"Ray. Thank God," Fraser said, looking like he wanted to grab him -- though Ray wasn't sure if that was motivated by a desire to hit him or to kiss him. But Frannie was there, so Ray stood back while they both moved through the door.

"It's about time you woke up, Ray. We've been knocking for ten minutes," she complained as she swept a look around the dingy room. "This place is awful, Ray."

"How did you find me?" he managed to ask.

"Elaine owed me a favor. She traced your credit card. I have to get to work now, it's past nine. I only drove Benton here because I was afraid you'd be gone before he could walk this far." Frannie bent down and gave him a kiss on the cheek and a smack on the shoulder. "Listen to Benton. He's been up all night trying to straighten out this mess you're in." And she was out the door before Ray's tired brain understood what she'd said.

"Fraser, what did she mean? What have you been doing?"

"Ray." The Mountie stood there, staring at him as if it had been a year since they'd been together, instead of just a day. "Your sister was sure you were just hiding out, but I was so concerned you'd done something rash."

"Benny, slow down here. I'm not following--" But Ray's words were cut off when Benny suddenly grabbed him and stuffed his tongue down Ray's throat. Not that Ray minded. He relaxed into Fraser's arms and joined the kiss enthusiastically. It might be their last. Once Benny heard what he'd done, and what he'd be doing for the rest of his life...

Ray cut off his thoughts there and just enjoyed feeling Benny, tasting him, and loving him. It was all he'd done for the last year, really -- love Benny. A love that spread to make his life seem better, his job seem achievable, the past redeemable, and the future bright. Even if it ended today, Ray would always remember what it felt like to love -- and, finally, to be loved in return.

Fraser broke the kiss but continued to hold him close, muttering "Why, Ray? Why didn't you talk to me?"

Ray froze, then backed gently out of the strong arms holding him. "What do you mean, Fraser?"

"I've spoken to your sisters, your mother and your Uncle Lorenzo, Ray. Then I called the hospital and discussed how my bill was paid. I know that you're in trouble because you somehow found the money to pay for my care."

Ray looked into the kind, intelligent blue eyes, then closed his own. "And you know I'm going to leave the police force and go to work for Frank Zuko."

"I know no such thing, Ray, because I refuse to believe that's your only alternative. Please, trust me Ray. I know you have reason not to, after my behavior with Victoria--"

"No! Don't say that. Of course I trust you, Benny. But you can't trust me anymore. You don't know the things I've done, horrible things. I deserve to be in jail, but I can't do that to my family. At least if I do what Zuko asks, they won't be affected. You won't be affected."

"Of course we'll all be affected, Ray. We love you. We can't watch you destroy yourself without trying to help." Fraser sat down on the edge of the bed. "Please, tell me the whole story, Ray. From the beginning."

Almost two hours later, Ray was hoarse as he finished his tale. He was now lying back on the bed, with Dief snuggled next to him on the left, feeling totally drained. "So that's the whole story, Benny. I'm a criminal and a loser, just like Pop said."

Fraser, who amazingly had remained on the bed to Ray's right, asking questions and holding his hand reassuringly, looked angry for the first time all day. "Don't ever say such a thing again. Whatever criminal acts you may have been pressured to take part in, you are *not* a loser. I don't love a loser. I love the man who's always tried to do what's right, and who's made some extraordinarily difficult decisions in the last few months."

"They were the only decisions I could make, Benny -- but they were still wrong. And now I owe Frank Zuko more money than I can ever repay. He's doing me a favor by letting me work it off."

"No, Ray, I doubt very much that's true. I think, from what you've told me, that Zuko owes you. And I'm going to prove it to you."

Ray didn't understand, but he let Benny bully him off the bed and into the Riv. They drove to his house. Ma was there, but she merely kissed them both, then fed them an enormous brunch with lots of coffee. They ate in almost total silence. When even Dief couldn't eat another bite, Benny sent Ray upstairs to shower and change. He was feeling almost human when he rejoined them in the kitchen half an hour later.

"Thank you, Ma. Thanks, Benny. Now I should go to the precinct to see Welsh."

"I believe that would be premature, Ray. They aren't expecting you until your hearing next week. Besides, your mother has already spoken to the Lieutenant today."

"Ma?"

"I wanted to know if it's true. If they're really firing you." She rose and walked to Ray's side, removing a sheet of paper from her apron pocket. "Lieutenant Welsh said you've seen their counselor as ordered. Several Union Station employees confirmed your report about that woman firing a gun, and they even found a bullet fragment in one of the lockers."

Ray looked up at her as she read calmly from her notes. "He said your arrest record last year wasn't the highest, but that it's been improving and he will tell the Personnel Board that you always give your best to every case that is assigned. He knows that they want to discipline you for carrying a gun while on suspension, but that the gun is legally registered to you and you have a permit to carry it. You never fired the gun or represented yourself as an officer during the incident with Doctor Carter."

"In other words," Fraser added, "Lieutenant Welsh thinks you have an excellent change to be cleared of most charges. He even hopes you'll be able to avoid a reduction in rank."

"Wow." Ray couldn't say anything else in his amazement. The case against him had seemed so bleak -- but as he thought about it, Ray realized he'd let his own guilt drag him into feeling hopeless. The Personnel Board didn't care that he'd nearly killed his best friend. They only wanted to be assured that he'd discharged his weapon responsibly in the line of duty. Ray knew his sessions with the Department shrink were full of omissions, mostly because he couldn't admit how much he loved Fraser. He'd been unable to admit it to himself. But he'd gone to all his sessions, and discussed the shooting as ordered.

As for his criminal activities, Ray had no excuse and couldn't forgive himself. But the Personnel Board didn't know any of that. If the Department had found out about any of his recent activities, Ray wouldn't have had to wait for the hearing to be fired -- or arrested.

He looked up at his mother and his best friend, both watching him with so much love in their eyes. "Okay, I guess that maybe I was wrong about the hearing. But I still owe Zuko."

Ma shook her head. "Benton tells me you had good reasons for what you've done, Ray, and I believe that. I know you have always felt it is important to pay our debts. But that man -- I don't trust him."

"Me neither, Ma," Ray protested. "But what else can I do?"

She touched his face gently. "I'll say a prayer for you." She kissed his cheek and left the room, and Ray heard her going up the stairs to her room in the silence she left behind. Fraser moved to him and Ray grasped his hand, holding it next to his face.

"Benny, what can I do? I don't see any way out of this."

"It's time to visit Frank Zuko, Ray, and find out the truth."

Ray followed Fraser to the car, knowing his passive agreement with Benny's decision had the Mountie worried. They left Diefenbaker at the house and drove in silence until Ray parked across the street from Zuko's house. Then he turned to his friend and took his hand once more.

"You're too good for me, Benny. I don't deserve you."

Fraser just squeezed his hand before they exited. Once again the maid admitted Ray to Frankie's house. Charlie looked surprised to see him with Fraser, but after about ten minutes he led them to Zuko's office and opened the door. Charlie didn't accompany them inside.

"Ray." Zuko smiled broadly. "I wasn't expecting you to start work today. At least, not until you've resigned from your other job. Are my contacts at the 27th getting lazy? Have you already been there?"

"No, Mr. Zuko," Fraser said calmly. "Ray is not intending to resign at this time."

"Constable Fraser, isn't it? Been a while. Looks like the scars are healing nicely." Zuko smiled and Ray's fists clenched, but he forced his hands open and tried to look unconcerned. Fraser simply stared calmly back at Zuko.

"Ray agreed to work for you, Mr. Zuko, because he was laboring under the mistaken idea that he owed you half a million dollars."

"That's not a mistaken idea, Constable. It's perfectly accurate. I have Ray's contract right here." Zuko pulled out a tattered sheet of paper with various dates, amounts, and signatures. "You don't know everything about our Ray."

"That is probably true, but I do know about his activities in the last two months. He told me everything."

"Really?"

"Yes. And that is how I know that this last amount is incorrect. There was no half million in drugs in Ray's luggage. I don't know what you gave him to carry, but if it had been cocaine Diefenbaker would have reacted. He has had drug-scenting training."

Zuko didn't reply, but Ray almost did. Dief had nosed around his luggage, but he'd only been interested in the snack foods Ray brought. He certainly hadn't barked at the backpack. Nor had he reacted when he watched Ray bury the package. If he'd only known...

"So I think you should explain to Ray just what that package was, Mr. Zuko."

"Ah." Zuko looked almost embarrassed. "I suppose your dog never makes mistakes?"

"Diefenbaker is a wolf, not a dog. And he is very well trained."

"Figures," Zuko muttered.

"But you said that one package would cancel my entire debt!" Ray exploded. "A hundred thousand dollars. For what -- lugging around powdered sugar?"

"Baking powder, actually. Less noticeable smell," Zuko said in a small voice.

"I know you hate me, but why lie about that? To drive me crazy?" Zuko didn't answer, but Fraser did.

"I believe Mr. Zuko was attempting to repay a debt without confiding that information to you, Ray."

"I don't follow any of this." Without thinking, Ray sat down in one of Zuko's chairs -- the first time he'd relaxed this much in Frankie's presence since they were fourteen. "You hate me so much you'd put me through hell--"

"I don't hate you! You hate me!" Zuko yelled. "You beat me up four months ago, for God's sake. And then I have this perfect chance to bring you to heel, and it's all fucked up!" Zuko sank into his desk chair and put his face in his hands. "I had to make you believe that the debt was being worked off," Zuko began. "And then you came back from being hijacked, and I couldn't just tell you it was okay you'd dumped it."

"You-- I thought I was dead," Ray whispered. "Then you offered me a job, and I couldn't refuse. Anything."

"Oh, Ray, of course you could have refused. But I didn't want you to." Frankie was staring at him so intently, Ray blushed. "Back when we were kids, I always thought we'd work together someday. And now I finally had a reason to bring you in, and I could pay you a decent salary so you could stop slaving for everyone."

"Frankie, I never wanted to work for you and your family. You know that. Even when we were friends, I never wanted to spend my life pushing other people around."

"Yeah? What does a cop do, then?" Zuko asked bitterly. "You just didn't want me as your boss."

"Frankie, I wanted to help people, to protect people." Ray looked at Fraser, standing there so beautiful and with that glowing integrity. "It's easy to forget that's what cops are supposed to do, and I was pretty lost until Fraser came to Chicago." Ray held Benny's eyes a moment longer, then looked back at his old nemesis. "I didn't hit you as a cop, Frankie. I wasn't pushing you around just because I could."

They held each other's eyes a minute longer, and Ray was surprised that he didn't feel embarrassed to have Fraser witness their silent apologies. Well, if anyone could understand how love and hate co-mingled, it was Benny.

Zuko nodded. "Are you really going to be reinstated next week?"

"I don't know. Even if I'm not an officer anymore, Frankie, if I don't have to work for you I'd rather find a different job. But you still haven't explained why I don't have to repay you for the money on my contract from the Morettis."

"I believe I can explain that, Ray," Fraser said softly. Zuko nodded, and the Mountie continued. "You see, that bomb that you inadvertently returned to the Moretti garage was intended for Mr. Zuko."

"What?" Ray looked between them, his mouth open in amazement. "Really?" They both nodded an affirmative.

"You saved my life, Ray. Any debt is all on my side." Zuko held out his hand, and Ray stood up to shake it. For the first time in years, he felt at peace with Frank Zuko.

***

They'd gone back to Fraser's apartment after a quick stop to pick up Diefenbaker and tell Ma that everything was okay. Ray still let Fraser do most of the talking -- he felt too dazed by everything that had happened to explain anything.

"Ray? Would you like a cup of tea?" Benny looked very worried. Even Dief was watching him, Ray thought.

"No thanks. Benny -- how can you still be my friend after everything I've done?"

"Everything you did was for me, Ray. How can I not understand and accept? Particularly since I know how difficult it was for you."

"Then you can still love me?" he asked in a very soft voice.

"Of course, Ray. I'm still your friend. I'd like to be your lover -- your only lover, for the rest of our lives." Ray went to him then, and let Fraser hold and soothe him as he shook in reaction from the emotions of the last few days.

"It was so wrong, Benny. And now, to go back to work and pretend nothing happened..."

"Is there any other job where you would have the chance to make up for some of the harm you may have done? It seems to me your position with the police allows you a chance to atone."

"But I broke the rules, Benny. I betrayed my oath."

"For me," Fraser whispered. Ray couldn't answer, but tried to show his love in a look. "And you'd do it again."

"Do you think I should resign from the police force?"

"Oh, Ray. I can't make that decision for you. But I can tell you that no matter what you decide to do with your life from now on, I want to be a part of it." Fraser kissed him and Ray let himself fall into the sensation, let himself feel the relief that his nightmare was over at last.

There were decisions to make, a future to plan. A Mountie to love for the rest of his life. Starting right now.

The end

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