NC-17 please; this is slash!

This story is in response to Jeannie Marie's Hallowe'en Challenge. Hopefully you'll be able to spot all the elements she listed (black cat, candy corn, carmel apples, jack-o-lantern, and a witch). This story is set a year after "Flashback," in what I think of as the Manna Universe (Season 3? What season 3?).

October

by Laura Mason

The Vecchios' annual apple-picking outing was an Event. This year, for the first time, Fraser's work schedule permitted him to be part of the excitement. So he accepted Ray's invitation, and found himself swept into plans and preparations. Fraser had nothing in his own family to compare with this. The Frasers were calm, methodical people. Holidays had been much like every other day during his childhood. But the Vecchios were more likely to make every day into a holiday. Certainly everyday events required more shouting, laughing, and arguing than Fraser had ever heard in his grandparents' home. Every meal Mrs. Vecchio served in their crowded house would be considered a feast in Tuktoyaktuk.

Never had Fraser dreamt of making such a fuss with his family. Their lives had followed a routine, awaking before the sun, keeping busy with the many chores necessary to keep the household running smoothly. But even something as simple as waking up in the morning seemed traumatic to the Vecchios. Tony moaned and groaned about waking up at 5 AM on a weekend, while Maria complained that he should wake even earlier and help get the children dressed. Francesca fussed over what clothing was appropriate for picking apples, even though she'd been going to the orchard every year since her childhood. The children chattered excitedly about how long the drive was and fought over who would ride in which seat. And even Mrs. Vecchio fussed, insisting that Fraser spend the night in their guestroom so he'd be ready to depart bright and early with the family.

Ray alone seemed relaxed. He agreed that his nephew and two nieces could ride with him in the Riviera, surprising Fraser. Francesca quickly offered to take Diefenbaker and Fraser in the station wagon, but he politely declined. Diefenbaker was visiting with Maggie's latest litter for the weekend, and Fraser knew he would be most comfortable in his usual spot -- the front seat of the Riviera.

The morning dawned bright and clear, and Fraser soon found himself beside Ray, Stetson on the dashboard, enjoying the ride very much. Ray drove carefully with the children in the car, and Fraser's fears about their behavior proved groundless. The children thought it a great treat to ride with Uncle Ray, and they didn't mash crayons into the upholstery or misbehave in any way. The girls had coloring books and Tony Junior had a book to read, but those amusements didn't last very long. Ray then suggested car games for them, starting with looking for out-of-state license plates, then shifting to livestock hunts as they moved out of the suburbs and into farm country.

The family's ritual included following the same route they'd always used. Ray exited from the interstate highway long before it became necessary, leading Francesca and the others, and wound instead along slower, smaller roads. This meandering route kept the children entertained, and seemed to relax Ray as well. Fraser was reminded of his homeland, and the sharp pain of those thoughts only faded when Ray spoke.

"You okay, Benny?" The warm eyes were on him, and he knew his feelings showed on his face.

"Fine, Ray." And he was, now that he'd been reminded with one word that he had a friend in his exile. True, it had seemed odd the first time Ray called him by that name, and he still didn't allow anyone else to use it. But he loved hearing Ray call him Benny.

"Good. You're gonna love this place." Ray's own smile was back, and his elegant hands danced lightly on the wheel in the sunshine pouring through the windshield. Fraser congratulated Theresa when she excitedly pointed out a cow, then returned to contemplating his friend. Ray was dressed far more casually than during the work week. Fraser couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Ray in khaki slacks, or if he'd ever seen him in such sturdy footwear. But Ray still looked very nice, even in such a casual outfit.

For a warm, sunny October day Ray's shirt and sweater seemed heavy, and Fraser smiled as he glanced at the jacket on the seat between them -- Ray's, of course. It was true that Ray always felt the cold more than he did. Images of Ray's white lips when they were locked in that meat freezer still made Fraser shiver. He'd given Ray his hat, hoping to help his leaner friend stay insulated. But there had been moments during that ordeal when he'd been sure Ray was going to die. He'd never doubted that he would survive, somehow. But Fraser was sure that he'd managed to kill Ray. That no one he cared about would ever stay with him, stay alive. Despite Ray's ability to survive being blown up, shot at with automatic weapons, locked in a submerged car, trapped in a wreck about to be crushed -- despite all this, Fraser still felt his friend was -- fragile, somehow.

He knew Ray would laugh at that. He was tough-guy Ray Vecchio, always armed, a highly effective cop in a dangerous city. But Fraser saw a different Ray, the one who was so openly on display today. Fraser had always seen past the fast-talking, flashily-dressed, hard exterior. He remembered their first meeting, when he'd used that knowledge like a weapon. Ray's eyes had changed, opened up, just as soon as Fraser stated that his father was the "dead Mountie." Ray regretted his careless dismissal, and it showed in every line of his body as he sat at his desk. But Fraser wasn't in a forgiving mood. He'd traveled thousands of miles, had waited patiently for the red tape to be cleared away, and at that moment he'd felt just petty enough to want to hurt the Chicago detective. So he did.

*Like you, he is pretending to be someone he's not.*

Fraser knew Ray had taken those words as a criticism on his job performance. Sometimes it seemed that Ray was still trying to prove, either to himself or to Fraser, that he was a good cop. Fraser wished he knew a way to convince Ray to stop taking unnecessary risks, to simply relax and be confident in his abilities. Maybe when they'd met Ray was burnt out by the piles of cases that crossed his desk, but he'd never stopped doing his work. And now his caseload was just as high, but his record had earned him a promotion to Detective First Grade. But nothing Fraser said mattered, and neither did official commendations or Lieutenant Welsh's praise. Despite his bluster about street-smarts, hunches, and doing things the American way, Ray actually seemed to attribute all their success to Fraser's involvement, not his own skills.

So Fraser had reinforced Ray's own insecurities -- and his father's denigrations -- with those words. Such an inauspicious start to a friendship. When Fraser thought of those words now, what he remembered was how Ray had been pretending to be someone who didn't care, who didn't give a damn about anyone or anything. And how quickly Fraser had learned the truth and seen the real Ray Vecchio.

Ray still pretended at times, still called on that hard-boiled attitude that was just an act. His "edge." Now that they were friends, Fraser accepted when Ray felt the need to hide, without trying to poke holes in his defenses. Instead he'd play along with Ray's criticisms and complaints, and remember times when Ray didn't wear any masks with him. Times like today, when Ray seemed completely comfortable in his own skin, confident and happy.

Ray's chuckle pulled Fraser's thoughts back to the noisy car with a start. "Woolgathering again, Benny?"

"I'm afraid so, Ray."

"Don't worry, Frannie didn't wear that outfit for you. She's looking for a hunky farmer, she told me."

"That thought never crossed my mind, Ray." Though Francesca's outfit was alarming, particularly the height of the heels on her boots, Fraser knew they'd finally reached an understanding. Francesca knew he wasn't interested in dating her.

"Hey, hey, what's that?" Ray turned toward the back seat, left hand still on the wheel but right reaching back. "I heard cellophane. Tony?"

"Ray - the road?" Fraser calmly reminded him. Ray turned back, but his eyes were now in the rear view mirror, which he turned down so he could see the children.

"If I have to pull over to talk to you, there'll be no hot cocoa before picking," Ray threatened.

"Sorry Uncle Ray," Sofia, the youngest, choked out, holding her hand over the seat. Fraser caught the package as she dropped it, and displayed it for Ray in his palm.

"Candy corn?" Ray whined. "At seven o'clock in the morning you're eating candy corn? In my car?" But Sophia sniffed audibly, and Ray's outrage evaporated immediately. "Okay, fine, don't cry. You know the rules, Sophie. No eating in the Riv, period."

"Yes Uncle Ray."

"Good girl. Okay, we're almost there guys. So now, whoever spots the sign gets two doughnuts for breakfast."

"Yay!"

"Cool."

"Okay."

"Doughnuts?" came from the front seat, in a far different tone than the chorus of approval in the back.

"Yes, Benny, doughnuts. They make them at the orchard shop. Hot and fresh." Ray sighed his long-suffering, how-did-I-get-a-Canadian-for-a-friend sigh. "It's one day a year, Benny. It won't rot their teeth or corrupt their morals."

"Of course, Ray." There was a silence in the front seat for the next few minutes, though the usual chatter continued in the rear. "I was surprised, Ray, that the children ride in your car as part of this ritual."

"It's not a ritual, Benny. We aren't rubbing walrus fat on ourselves and climbing into a sweat lodge. It's an outing."

"Yes, Ray."

"And ya notice, they ride with me on the way TO the orchard. Not on the way home, when they're filthy and full of green apples, cider, and other apple-related products."

"Ah. Very wise, Ray."

"I'm no fool, Benny."

"Indeed." Fraser smiled to himself and watched the landscape, which was now more heavily wooded, pass the window. He noticed Ray was decelerating very slightly - no doubt to give the children a chance to spot the sign ahead. Fraser had never been on this road before, but the sign showed a cartoon apple, speaking. What else could it be?

"I see it, I see it!" Sophia called happily, candy corn transgressions forgotten. "Look, Uncle Ray!"

"Oh, there it is!" Ray answered her. "Now, apple crew, who can read me the sign?"

Tony spoke up first. "Wauconda Orchards u-pick, turn right ahead."

"Great, great. Are you ready?"

"Yes!" a chorus replied, and Ray swung the car into the dirt road that led to the orchard.

***

Hot cocoa and doughnuts demolished by her family, Sophia Vecchio sat at the picnic table guarding the huge pumpkin her grandchildren had carefully selected from the mound of gourds outside. A hand-lettered sign had announced the roped off area as "The Punkin Patch," and when Fraser felt compelled to teach the children that pumpkins didn't grown in piles alongside old barns, Ray announced that Constable Fraser would be the judge this year.

"You've got the expertise, Benny. Now you've got to use it." So Fraser had climbed in with the children, helping them move the larger pumpkins and decide which one was prettiest, straightest, and would make the best jack-o-lantern in their neighborhood. Then each child picked a smaller one, which they'd carve themselves. The large pumpkin, young Tony explained, was a family event - Gramma cut it open and removed the seeds to be cooked, and everyone took a turn adding features to the face.

The pumpkin dilemma done, the children dragged their mother and father away from the coffee the other adults were lingering over, demanding to see the petting zoo and walk the corn maze before they went into the orchard. Francesca and Ray went along as far as the beer garden, to check the music schedule for today. And Fraser sat beside Sophia, duties temporarily complete.

It was a surprise to see his father there as well. Actually, his father's ghost, though sometimes Robert Fraser seemed more alive to his son now than he had before his death. For instance, today he was carving an apple.

"Your great-grandfather taught me this, son."

"Ah."

"Yes, Benton?"

"Oh, nothing, Mrs. Vecchio. I think I'll just stretch my legs for a moment."

"Fine. I'm just resting here, and thinking about how many pies to buy for the Halloween party next week. The children always eat through a couple, and the adults who drop them should have some..."

Fraser smiled at Mrs. Vecchio's continued discourse with herself as he walked toward the fence overlooking the orchards. She'd feed everyone who entered her home, as always. His father tagged along behind him, still carving at the apple in his hand.

"She's a fine woman. You shouldn't be rude."

"Dad, if you weren't talking to me in front of her, I wouldn't have appeared rude."

"Fine. Blame me. You always do."

"No, dad, I didn't blame you for anything. I just... sometimes... wish things were different." Fraser thought about Ray's father, who'd at least been at home sometimes. "You were a good father. And your job was important, I know that. It's not your fault mom died." He looked out over the trees that stretched down beyond the fence, their leaves already turning vivid colors. "It's not my fault, either."

"Of course not, son. Did you think that?" His father's face was startled, but then it split into a grin. "Here you go, son. Apple Annie." He'd carved a woman's face in the flesh of the apple.

"That's beautiful dad."

"Take it." He held the apple out to Fraser.

"I would, except it's imaginary."

"Ah. Well. Imaginary or not, apple carvings only last a short while, son. The air will turn her brown, age her, in just a few minutes."

"Yes, I imagine it will."

"Unless you dunk her in caramel and make her a Candy Apple Annie. But that's not the point, son."

"Is there a point, dad?" Fraser asked, less than politely. Well, the man was dead after all.

His father pitched the carved apple out over the fence, down into the orchard. The trees were stirring in the breeze, Fraser told himself, that wasn't the sound of the apple falling through the leaves.

"Things can seem perfect, son, but they're not impervious to the ravages of time. Carpe diem."

"And what is that supposed to mean?" Fraser turned, but his father -- as usual -- was gone. Whenever he wanted the man, he wasn't around. Fraser sighed and headed back to the table. Carpe diem, indeed. He wasn't like his father, always chasing around doing his duty instead of being with people he cared about. For instance, had his father ever gone on an outing like this? As he approached the table, Fraser tried to restore his face to his usual calm.

As he approached Mrs. Vecchio he suddenly realized just how many years he'd known the family now. Of course the children had grown but he'd always ignored the changes in the adults, himself included. Today, in the bright sunlight, he noticed how much grey was now in Sophia's hair, and the many lines on her face. Mrs. Vecchio was inspecting a pile of items on the table beside her, obediently brought over by Ray and Francesca, who were looking tired already.

"Enough, Ma. We're not here for the whole neighborhood." Francesca's voice was firm. "I want to have the energy to dance this afternoon." It was as if his father had given him glasses. Francesca, too, wasn't the same girl he'd met at that first dinner with the Vecchios. She'd grown, changed - and not just that she'd stopped flirting with him.

"Just two more frozen jugs of cider. They'll fit in the cooler, won't they Raimondo?"

"Sure, Ma. I'll get 'em." Ray smiled at Fraser, his genuinely happy smile, then walked off. Fraser watched him go. Well, Ray he always observed, didn't he? He'd been looking at Ray in the car, noting his clothing and how his hands moved on the steering wheel. But his father's words were having some effect. Still slender, Ray was so graceful, so...

"Benton, is everything alright?" Sophia asked.

"Fine, m'am. I was just thinking about ... perfect things." Fraser flushed then, wondering if he was losing his mind. "I'm afraid I'm distracted..." He swayed, actually dizzy.

"Sit down here for a moment." He let himself be pulled down beside her. Felt her warm hands touch his cold ones. "Francesca, get Benton some cold water."

"No, please don't bother. I'll be fine in a moment." *Just as soon as I reconcile myself to being in love with your son...* Fraser bent forward and put his head between his knees.

"Benny? What's wrong?" The gaggle of voices might have distressed him another time, but today, even as the world swirled and dipped around him, he found himself listening for Ray's voice. Cherishing the concern he heard so clearly. Concern that surely would turn to anger if Ray knew... *I'm a fool.*

Then somehow it was quiet again, and when he finally lifted his head, he was alone with Ray at the table. The packages of food were gone; the family was gone.

"Ray?"

"Yeah, Benny?" Ray was facing him on the bench, one leg crooked.

"Where is everyone?"

"They've gone into the orchard to pick some apples. They'll be busy for hours. Then later they'll come back here to eat lunch and listen to the band."

"The packages..." Fraser actually couldn't think of anything intelligent to say. He kept staring at Ray, watching his every movement, seeing him with new eyes.

"In the trunk of the Riv. I put a cooler back there this morning, so everything will be fine until we get home."

"Ah." He tried to nod, but it just made him dizzy again. "Ray, I'm... unwell."

"We can head back to the city right now if you're not feeling well." Ray was bent toward him, and then he reached out and touched his face, gently turning it so their eyes met. "Do you need to go to an emergency room? I can find out where the nearest hospital is..." There was so much tenderness in Ray's wonderful eyes.

"I don't believe that's necessary, Ray." Surely they'd always be friends, and that would be enough.

"Then just relax here for a few minutes, Benny. Maybe you'll feel better." Ray stood and pulled Fraser into a reclining position on the wooden bench. "Here." And his wool jacket was stuffed under Fraser's head as a pillow. "Just rest, Benny."

He lay there, smelling Ray everywhere around him, feeling the sunshine and the breeze, listening to the faint noises from the shop and the parking lot. There were occasional voices as people passed by, and even fainter car noises from the road. Fraser squeezed his eyes shut so tightly that he saw vivid colors explode behind his eyes.

How had this happened? When had it happened? Fraser didn't believe that he'd just fallen in love with his partner today. It must have happened slowly, over the years of their friendship. And he'd been willfully blind to it, until today his father's words and the very existence of Ray made it all painfully, wonderfully clear.

Surely it was wonderful to finally love, to be in love, with someone so very worthwhile? Ray wasn't anything like ... her. Ray wouldn't try to take his soul; Ray wouldn't willingly harm Fraser in any way. Just remembering Ray's guilt when he'd accidentally shot Fraser was proof of that. When Ray cared for someone, it never ended. His feelings for Irene, his love for Angie, long past their brief marriage -- even the brief, impossible romance with Suzanne Chapin showed how deeply Ray loved.

Fraser opened his eyes to see the bright, clear blue of the sky overhead. It was dazzling. He turned his head and there was Ray, sitting beside him on the grass, petting a black cat that evidently had decided Ray's lap was a good place to sun itself. Ray was more dazzling, even in such a serious, thoughtful mood. Then Ray saw Fraser was awake and the pensive look left his face instantly.

"Benny! You feeling better now?" Ray's happy smile pulled a return smile from Fraser.

"Yes, Ray, I believe I'm quite recovered now." Fraser sat up and Ray moved to assist him. The cat meowed plaintively and stalked off, tail twitching, only to flop in a sunny spot and show its belly. Fraser stood, feeling much better, as Ray paced and fussed, jingling his keys.

"We can head back right now, Benny. The family will be fine, and I'll get you home right away."

"I'd prefer to stay for a while, Ray, if you don't mind."

"Mind? No, as long as you're all right..."

"I'm fine now. We don't get outside of the city often enough, Ray. It's beautiful here today. I'd like to walk in the orchards. We don't have to pick fruit, do we?" He picked up Ray's jacket and shook it out, then offered it to his friend. His love.

"Naw. The kids pick enough for everyone." Ray took the jacket and stared at Fraser very intently for a moment, then smiled again, satisfied. "C'mon. I'll show you the lake."

***

Fraser judged from the angle of the sun that several hours had passed while they meandered around the lake and through the trees. The Vecchios would be back at the beer garden now, listening to the band. They might even assume he and Ray had gone back to the city, until they reached the parking lot and saw Ray's distinctive car still parked there.

Fraser was seeing a side of Ray he'd never imagined. Ray's reaction to the Canadian wilderness had never led him to expect to see Ray truly enjoying nature. Admittedly it was a much tamer form of nature than his home in the Northwest Territories. Still, it was very different from Ray's beloved city. Yet Ray wasn't complaining about the soggy shore of the picturesque lake nestled among the trees, nor about the leaves dropping gently on their heads. In fact, he seemed to like crunching the leaves underfoot. Fraser realized that Ray had dressed so warmly in expectation of this kind of walk. From what Ray said, it was something he'd done every year since he was old enough to walk off by himself during the annual outing.

Fraser tried to imagine that young Ray, coming here with his family. Sitting in the back seat as Tony had today, while his father drove them along the winding roads past farms and forests. He could see them -- Mrs. Vecchio younger, though still careworn, proud of her family. Little Francesca, the baby, sneaking candy corn out of her pocket. Maria in the middle, reading a comic book but looking up every time one of the boys pointed out a cow. Ray, his eyes enormous as he peered out at the passing scenery. Ray's brother... No, he couldn't picture that mysterious, long-dead older brother. Nor could he picture Mr. Vecchio, though he'd seen a few fuzzy snapshots of the man during dinners at the house.

He watched Ray staring out over the water, following the movements of a family of ducks, and suddenly remembered that Ray's brother had drown in Lake Michigan; a diving accident when he was 16. Ray would have been 14 then. Just old enough to go off on his own during apple picking. Fraser moved closer to his friend, his love, wanting to ease his pain and make him smile.

"Duck, Ray."

Ray spun to look at him, eyes flashing. "You trying to get me to dive face-first into this mud, Fraser?" But then he saw the teasing sparkle in Fraser's eyes and laughed aloud. "Fool me once, Fraser," and he laughed more as he moved away from the lake shore.

Fraser realized he'd gone from being terrified to being totally, ridiculously happy. The day seemed to glow, and the easy camaraderie between them had never been sweeter. He loved Ray, and whether Ray could ever or would ever return that love, Ray gave him happiness. Ray was his best friend and he generously shared his time and family with Fraser. Asking for more seemed greedy.

Caught up in his happy reflections, Fraser continued strolling with Ray, not talking but just following the path between the trees, heading away from the lake. Wildlife chattered overhead and occasionally passed among the trees within their sight. Fraser was too content to even feel homesick. When Ray stopped walking, Fraser didn't realize their enchanted day was over.

"That's odd. I've never seen that house before."

"It's obviously quite old, Ray." The house was wooden frame, missing most of its paint. The roof seemed whole, for the most part, as did the wavy antique glass of the windows they could see.

"Sure is. Looks like it's about to collapse. I guess I've never come this way before. Did we leave Wauconda's property? I didn't see any signs or fences..." Ray didn't seem terribly concerned if they were trespassing. Of course there was no need to be. Fraser had his compass handy, ready to find the Riviera.

But then Fraser heard faint cries coming from inside the ruined house, and he ran toward it, ignoring Ray's call from behind him.

"Hey, Benny, wait for your backup, would ya?" Ray came running up beside him a moment later, a gun in his hand. Fraser almost stopped moving toward the house.

"You brought a handgun here, Ray? With the children in your car?"

"Habit. Anyway, we don't know what's going on here. When you're out with a Mountie, it pays to be prepared for anything..."

"Ray, Ray." Fraser realized the calls for assistance were becoming fainter, and he moved more quickly toward the steps leading to the porch and the front door.

"Benny, you go knock politely. I'll head around the back."

"Understood, Ray." Fraser proceeded to the door and did knock, once, very politely. However, he didn't wait for a response, simply turned the handle of the door and entered. "Hello, is someone here? Are you in need of assistance?"

Fraser saw no wall switches and realized the house had no electricity. There were a few pieces of furniture, covered in dusty cloths. Though the house was dim, he was sure there were no other footprints in the thick dust on the floor, either, until he reached the steps from the upper level. There, a single set of smaller footprints crossed itself, up and then down again, leading toward the rear of the house. Where Ray had gone.

For the first time, Fraser felt uneasy. Ray should be inside by now, shouldn't he? Calling for Fraser, or speaking to whoever was in this house. There should be some sign of life. But the house was perfectly still.

Fraser walked further, following the footsteps that led to an old kitchen. The wood burning stove reminded him of home, and if he hadn't been so worried about Ray he might have smiled at the realization that he could see an outhouse through the window. The footsteps led out the back door, and he moved through it carefully.

"Ray?" he called, and then there was sharp pain and sudden blackness.

***

"Are you finally awake, Ben?"

Fraser's head was pounding, his ears were ringing, and his eyes were not yet open. But he knew that voice. He'd heard it in his dreams - and nightmares - for years.

"Victoria?"

"You know, I thought getting rid of Vecchio would be the hard part. But then I watched you together, and I realized he'll follow you anywhere. And you're easy - you listen to my voice. Then a cry for help and you come running."

His eyes had cleared, and in the dim light he saw her, rocking back and forth as she crouched against the far wall of the room - no, the shed. They were in an outbuilding; Fraser could see light between the boards of the wall. No insulation, no windows.

He looked around for Ray, but his... Ray was not in the shed with them.

"He's not here, Ben. We're alone at last. You can come with me tonight, and we'll be together forever. I still love you, you know. You must love me, too -- you came when I called you to this place." Her rocking never stopped as the voice droned on, beautiful even without inflection. Her eyes were black holes in her face. Fraser was the one Ray shot, but Victoria was the one who was dead. Drugs? Life on the run? He doubted she could tell him, or even attempt to explain why she'd come back for him again.

"Where is Detective Vecchio?"

"He'll never bother us again," she crooned.

*No!* Fraser forced himself to stay silent, to appear calm. To gather whatever information this wreck of the woman he'd known could offer. "What have you done with Ray?"

"You were coming with me, Ben, but he ruined it. He shot you. Yet you stayed here, working with him. I don't understand." She stood up and began aimlessly pacing in the cramped space. "I suppose I should be grateful for your stupidity. It made this much easier. And I'm so tired sometimes, Ben."

"Can you untie me?" Fraser looked up at her, his face calm. "We can go somewhere more comfortable to talk. You can rest."

"Can I trust you, Ben? I know we can't trust Vecchio, but can I trust you?"

Fraser met her eyes. "You know I'll always do what's right."

Her laughter was bitter. "So I can't trust you yet. You'll try to save him, won't you? Even though he's hurt you, betrayed you, ruined your life."

"Yes, Victoria, I'd try to save you both." Fraser's eyes followed her random, angry movements. "Please untie me."

"Do you love me, Ben?" She crouched in front of him, close enough to kiss. "Tell me you love me."

"I will always care for you, Victoria. What we shared was very precious to me." Fraser hoped he was doing the right thing. "But I am in love with someone else."

And then she had a gun in her hand and was shoving it into his jaw, rubbing it up and down. "I am in love with someone else," she mocked. "I should kill you right now for trying to lie to me. There is no one else for you, Ben. Never." She tossed the gun aside and moved forward to put her arms around him. "You are mine. Forever." And she kissed him roughly, then bit his cheek, marking him.

"Untie me, Victoria," he whispered. "Make love to me."

Her mad eyes met his, and she reached behind him to untie the ropes. As soon as he felt his hands were free, he reached forward and wrapped his arms around her still-slender body, pushing her backwards and covering her.

"Kiss me, Ben," she sighed, and he did. It was sex as violence, and he felt her hands raking his body, reaching under his shirt to claw his back. He pulled back and stared down at her, his eyes glowing.

"Where is Detective Vecchio, Victoria? What have you done with him?" She didn't answer, and he slapped her cheek, then shook her. "If we're together you tell me everything. Now where is Ray?"

"In the root cellar of the house." Her eyes glittered with hate. "He'll freeze, or starve - something painful. He deserves it for the years he took from us." She reached up to kiss him again, and Ben lowered his head as if to meet her lips, then slammed his fist into her temple. He pushed himself off her unconscious body, pausing only long enough to tie her with the ropes she'd used on him.

She'd always been a loner, but he picked up her gun just in case there was another Jolly - some expendable muscle recruited for the job. After all, she was a slight woman, yet Fraser had been moved while unconscious.

He left the shed and was surprised at how much light was still in the sky. Thought it felt longer, it had only been about an hour since they came to the old farmhouse. Despite his fear for Ray's well-being, he carefully examined the footprints in the yard. Yes, there were Victoria's smaller boots where she'd ambushed him. And Ray's sturdy walking shoes, coming around the house. Being met by another man, heavier, in gym shoes.

Fraser followed the gym shoes to the door of the cellar. The wooden door was open, and he faintly heard a voice. He crept to the edge and looked inside. He could hear an angry voice and the sounds of flesh impacting on flesh. Then he heard Ray's voice, a choked curse ending in a groan. He had to stop this, but there was no way he could enter without being seen. Well, Victoria had thought he'd be a willing party to his own abduction. Fraser tucked the gun in the back waistband of his jeans and openly walked down the wooden steps.

The small room smelled of vomit and blood. Ray was in a heap on the floor, his hands also bound behind his back. His face was a mess, but when he looked up his eyes were merely angry. Until he saw it was Fraser, and they instantly turned hopeful. The goon whirled and saw him, too.

"Oh, it's just you. I guess she's with you now."

"Victoria says it's time to go," Fraser said. "Just leave him."

"Benny?" Ray's voice was small, but Fraser forced his face to stay impassive.

"I want him first. I hate cops," the man growled. "She agreed I could kill him, as long as you didn't get hurt."

"She said to let him starve," Fraser barked. "But if you want to walk back, fine." He half turned, keeping his eyes fixed on the man. "We're leaving right now."

"Shit. Well cop, I wanted to make it hurt more. But this'll have to do." The goon pulled a gun out of his own waistband, but Fraser was on him before it was cocked. He tackled the man, knocking him to the dirt floor as the gun went sailing. They struggled, exchanging blows, and Fraser was aware that Ray was moving, too. But until he rolled atop the goon and pinned him, he didn't see that Ray had gotten his hands in front of him and was holding the gun.

"Okay, asshole, freeze or I'll blow your head off."

"Ray, is that kind of language called for?" Fraser gasped.

"Yeah, Benny, it is. Take my belt and tie up this goombah, would ya?"

"Certainly, Ray." The man who hated cops was surprisingly docile with a gun pointed at his head. Fraser had him well-secured in a few minutes, and Ray folded over with a huge sigh.

"Geeze, Benny. Victoria?"

"She's in the shed, Ray, also secured."

"I didn't know what the hell was going on, or why this jerk was hitting me." Ray stayed crouched, his hands still bound in front of him, his head hanging down.

"Ray, do you require medical assistance? Ray?" Fraser, concerned, put his hand on Ray's back and realized his friend was shaking. "Let's get out of here." Fraser simply picked Ray up and half dragged, half walked him up the steps and out into the afternoon sunshine. Ray took deep breaths and tried to smile at Frasser as he removed the duct tape binding his hands. The bruising on Ray's

face would only get worse, and he was filthy. But he was beautiful to Fraser. Alive.

"Is that any better, Ray?" He pulled out his handkerchief and tried to wipe some of the blood off Ray's face, remembering how much his friend hated being dirty.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Are you all right, Benny?" Ray's still-trembling hands came up to hold his head still. "Your face is bleeding. What did she do to you?"

"She wanted me to run away with her. It appears she blamed you for keeping us apart." Fraser spoke matter-of-factly, but Ray looked guilty at his words.

"You turned her down?" Ray asked softly, sounding shocked, his hands dropping to his side.

"Ray, I thought she'd killed you. Do you think I'd willingly go off with her and not even assure myself you were unharmed?" Fraser wanted to shake him, but as he stared in Ray's eyes he remembered running for a train, leaving Ray to answer the questions and charges. Of course Ray thought that he would go with Victoria. What else could he think?

"Thanks, Benny. That means a lot to me." But there was a sadness in Ray's eyes. "Hey, can you search them for a cell phone or car keys? There's got to be some faster way out of here than walking back to the orchard to find a phone." Ray sank to the ground, cross-legged. "I'm not sure I can walk that far right now, anyway."

"Right." Fraser moved off quickly, concerned about Ray's physical condition. He needed to be examined by a doctor. As for Ray's emotional condition, or his own, Fraser was truly helpless. Any thoughts he'd had of declaring his feelings for Ray were gone. Victoria had come between them again.

***

It was late before they finally made it back to Fraser's apartment. The Vecchios, after much crying and hugging, had been sent home with their apples and goodies. He and Ray stayed to give reports to the local police, and to call the RCMP and Lieutenant Welsh. Victoria had refused to speak, she simply sat and rocked as she was questioned. However, her accomplice was quite willing to talk about their time together, in hopes of getting a deal from the local District Attorney. He'd been with Victoria a little over a year, and claimed she'd masterminded several robberies. Fraser wondered if it were possibly true - the woman in the holding cell didn't seem capable of such complex thinking. Still, even in that shed she'd had moments of lucidity, sounding perfectly normal. It was not for Fraser to decide, after all. They finally left for home around nine o'clock.

Now they just sat in the car, Fraser in the unfamiliar driver's seat for once. Neither man seemed willing to leave the comfort of the Riveria. Ray's face was a rainbow of bruises in the light from the street lamp, and one eye was swollen badly. Fraser had watched while the paramedic examined Ray; his torso was also quite colorful. The Mountie remembered how he'd felt the night after Zuko's men had beaten him, and wished he could offer Ray some comfort. Then he stopped himself from even thinking such things. He couldn't hope for Ray's love. He had no right to even express his own feelings, not with Victoria's shadow between them.

"Ray, I cannot express how very sorry I am that you were hurt today."

"It's not your fault, Benny." Ray said tiredly, his head resting against the seat.

"Of course it is, Ray. My past once again caused you and your family distress." Fraser lowered his voice in shame. "Victoria believed we came to her because she called me. She said I still listen to her voice."

"But you didn't, Benny, or I'd be dead and you'd be halfway to Argentina now, with her." Ray sat forward now, leaning toward Fraser, looking so intent. "We wandered off without paying attention. It was my fault; I was having so much fun I didn't care if we ever went back." Ray looked chagrined. "I walked right into their trap."

"It was a good morning, wasn't it?" Fraser asked wistfully, remembering how beautiful the day had seemed. How wonderful.

"Benny, any day I spend with you is a good one." Amazingly, Ray blushed faintly as he said the words, and Fraser suddenly found courage.

"Would you like to come upstairs and rest here, Ray? We can call your mother from Mr. Mustafi's apartment so she won't worry." His own face was red, too, but he hoped Ray couldn't see him quite as clearly.

"Yeah, if I go home right now it just means endless fussing. Sure." Ray heaved himself out of the seat, and Fraser followed, careful to lock the car behind them. He insisted Ray take the unreliable elevator, and he walked up, watching in case anything went wrong. Ray stopped off to use the phone and Fraser continued down the hall. When he finally reached his room, he was struck with how little comfort there was to offer Ray. No sofa to recline on; no television to make comforting noise. The only other time he'd felt any lack was with...

No, he would not think of them together. Ray was completely unlike her. To cover the shaking of his hands, Fraser started water for tea.

Twenty minutes later both men sat at the kitchen table, sipping chamomile. Ray's grimace as he added sugar was so normal, so right, that Fraser laughed aloud. "Your mother was there?"

"Yeah, she said as long as you're taking care of me she won't worry."

"Really? I would have thought that after today, she would doubt my abilities."

"Benny, no one blames you for what happened today. That woman is a psycho, and the guy she'd hooked up with has a record longer than the wait for a Cubs win." Ray stood up and began to pace, his arms swinging. "I can't believe you're so guilty over me getting knocked around a little. Ya know, last time Victoria came to town I shot you, for God's sake. Today you saved my life, and you feel bad?"

"Ray, I know you weren't attempting to harm me that night. You thought Victoria still had a gun. You thought I was chasing her, not running away."

"Yeah, well I don't know anymore what I thought then." Ray's voice was defeated, angry, and Fraser thought his words were like music, his voice more beautiful than Victoria's had ever been. "What I think now is that I still owe you."

"We're friends, Ray. Friends look out for each other." Fraser stood and blocked Ray's restless movements.

"Yeah. Friends." Ray tossed his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "That's all we are? You're like part of my family, Benny. We see each other every day, we work together, we do things together."

"Is there another term for what we are to each other, Ray?" Fraser was standing very close to Ray, feeling his body heat, wondering how he hadn't seen it before.

"Just friends, I guess," Ray whispered, his eyes fixed on Fraser.

"Unless you'd like us to be something more, Ray." Fraser's face was red again. "Today, at the orchard, when I became so dizzy..." He moved closer to the detective, and put a hand on his shoulder. "I knew, Ray. I knew I love you, and I didn't know what to do."

"What, you got sick because you love me? That's very flattering, Benny." Ray looked shocked, not angry, despite the harsh words. But Ray's words were never what mattered. Fraser looked into his stormy eyes, and smiled.

"That's right, Ray. Loving you makes me dizzy." And he put his other hand on Ray's other shoulder, leaned forward, and kissed him lightly. "What does loving me do to you?"

Ray just gaped at him for a moment, then pulled him into a fierce hug. "Makes me crazy, Benny, that's what it does."

Fraser smiled as their mouths met again, deeper this time yet still gentle. A true sharing of emotion as their mouths meshed and tongues explored. No need to explain, no justification or clarification. Ray loved him, had loved him for some time now, and Fraser was finally able to see it all clearly. Victoria wasn't between them unless he allowed her there. Ray had forgiven him years ago.

He pulled back from the kiss and looked into Ray's dazed eyes. "I want to make love to you, Ray."

"God, yes." With that permission, hands began exploring, slowly uncovering treasures. Shirts came off first, and smooth skin was rubbed, muscles mapped, nipples teased with fingers and mouths. A brief intermission to remove shoes and socks, and to turn up the heat and pull down extra blankets, and then kisses were joined again, sweetly swollen lips pressing together again as they lay entwined on his bed.

Then the heat truly grew between them, and Fraser laughed to think he'd believed a seduction would be necessary, or soul-searching about what they wanted. This was so easy, so natural.

"That laugh is wicked, Benny. Very un-Mountie."

He stopped Ray's mouth with his own, absurdly pleased that even half-crazy with lust, Ray his lover sounded just like his teasing friend. When he'd reduced Ray to moans and inarticulate pleas, Fraser rose and removed the rest of his clothes.

"God, Benny. You are so beautiful..."

"Shh, Ray." He lowered himself over Ray, carefully easing his full weight onto him. Their bodies fit together perfectly. His hands clasped Ray's; his mouth covered Ray's, and then he rocked his hips forward, into Ray's cloth-covered groin. Even through their kiss, he heard Ray's shout, and pulled back slightly. "Do you want something, Ray?"

"Oh please, Benny, please..."

"Shall I remove these slacks, Ray?"

"Yesyesyesyesyes..." Ray whimpered as the khakis and his boxers were carefully removed. Then skin met skin, hardness to hardness, and Fraser rolled them so Ray was atop him. He thrust up, and heard himself moan now. Then Ray lifted himself and sat back, trapping Fraser's legs. With a salacious grin, Ray licked his palm, took both penises in his hand, and began to stroke them, whispering softly. "I want to fuck you, Benny. But for tonight, let me do this. Let me see you come."

Fraser howled, his head thrown back, and felt a fire start in his toes and run through his veins until his whole body was one nerve ending, wired to Ray's warm hand, moving on his flesh.

"Do you feel how good this is, Benny? My cock and yours, dripping wet and so hot together. Are you dizzy now, Benny?" Hand moving faster now, Ray leaned forward and bit at Fraser's neck. Sweat dripped off Ray and onto Fraser's skin, burning him.

"Yes, Ray, yes!" Fraser shrieked, and his body exploded into bliss. Ray's face, hovering over him, froze with pain and ecstacy, his eyes locked on Fraser's. Ray's whole body shook as they came together, their hot semen splashing onto Fraser's stomach, chest, and even his face.

The last thing Fraser remembered was Ray kissing away a string of semen from his face. He tried to speak, to poke fun at Ray tasting something for a change, but he was gone before he could speak.

***

The sun was pouring in his window at an alarming angle when Fraser woke Sunday morning. It was much later than he usually woke. Of course, there was a very warm, softly snoring reason for that lying right next to him. Ray's bruises were incredibly purple this morning, and Fraser was glad he still had the ice pack in his freezer from his last sprain. And aspirin, a new addition to his cupboard, would surely be welcome, too.

But first, coffee and some food for his lover. His love, his lover, his friend. Ray. Fraser inched out of bed carefully and pulled on a pair of sweat pants. They'd both been too tired, too stressed for more sex last night. But every time they'd moved or woken, there had been soft kisses, sweet touches. And only one caustic comment, about buying a larger bed as soon as possible.

Fraser lit the burner under a pot of water and smiled. A larger bed sounded very nice. Maybe they could keep this one, too, ostensibly for Diefenbaker to sleep on. After all, Ray Vecchio understood tradition and ritual. If Fraser told him that every October, after apple-picking, he wanted to make love in the old bed, Ray would understand.

The end

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