The Way That We Used to Be
By Starfish © Jan2002

Rated R for accounts of m/m sex.

Note: If you haven't seen "Bird in the Hand", you may not recognize the Fraser that is depicted herein. But this is my take on what might have happened if things had gone somewhat differently in that episode.

Thanks to Mary and Rowan for beta and advice. And for putting up with my prolific nature. A special thanks to Rowan for not being afraid to wield the Big Scissors of Subtlety. All mistakes are mine alone.

Disclaimer: All characters are fictional. The ones you recognize belong to Alliance/Atlantis.




Oh, I've made a mess
And I know it's just my carelessness
All my life is falling apart
I've got to walk away
        "Begging You to Let Me In,"
Blue Rodeo




I'd like to say I knew he was trouble the minute he walked into the place.

Unfortunately, I can't, because when he first walked in, I was busy trying to convince my bad leg not to give out while I wrestled a new soda cylinder into place, and cursing my afternoon bartender's wife for having the bad timing to have her baby that day. Add to the equation the waitress I'd gotten to replace Shelley when she went on maternity leave - a complete air-head who couldn't tell the difference between a rum and coke and a Bloody Mary - and you get one very cranky person. Me. Nice to meet you.

When I did notice him, it was because the aforementioned air-head was draped all over his table like the tablecloths I don't use 'cause it's not that kind of place. Darlene's got nice . . . assets . . . which I'm not supposed to notice 'cause I'm her boss, but it's kind of tough not to, the way she displays them. In fact, I've had to ask my manager, Mary, to talk to her twice now about the length (or shortness) of her skirts. I think Darlene sees this place as a sort of dating service. At least I hope that's all it is. I find out she's charging for it, I'll be only too happy to give her name to my old buddies in vice.

Anyway, she was draped all over the table, and her other customers were getting peeved 'cause she had their beer on her tray. Since it was still early, she only had one other table, but they were regulars, and I hate to piss off a steady income. So I wandered over to remind her exactly what is and isn't part of her job description, and I finally got an eyeful of the guy.

And my first reaction (suppressed, but just barely) was to shove Darlene aside and crawl into his lap myself.

Dark hair, maybe black, longish and wavy - almost curly but not quite. It was just over his collar, and I wanted to touch it so bad my fingers were twitching. A hint of stubble on the jaw, maybe a day or two without shaving. The face was perfect, gorgeous (I'd say 'to die for', but I'm just not that kind of guy), but the look in his eyes made me want to find out who had hurt him and stomp them into the pavement (I am that kind of guy).

The other thing I noticed about his eyes was they didn't have the vacant look usually brought about by close proximity to Darlene and her wonder-bra. You know, the look that says, 'I'm sorry, all circuits are busy. Please try again later, when all the blood in my body isn't concentrated south of my belt-buckle.' And while I wasn't completely positive, it seemed like a pretty fair indication he might be playing for my team. Oh, happy day.

"Darlene, " I said sweetly, "table six is waiting for those two pitchers. Would you mind . . . ?"

"Oh, no, that's fine; knock yourself out, Ray." She slid the tray over toward me.

Did I mention she was thick as a brick?

I slid the tray back to her. "No, that's your job, remember? I'll take this gentleman's order; you go give Carl and his buddies their beer. Okay?" The way my leg still felt, there was no way I was going to take a chance lifting a tray, even if I wanted to. She flounced off without spilling a drop, and I had to pause and admire the skill that went into it before turning back to the table.

"Sorry if I spoiled your fun, but somehow I didn't think you were having any."

He chuckled. "No, I wasn't. Thanks for the rescue." He studied me for a second or two and then said, "Can you sit?"

I liked the way he said that. Things were definitely looking up. "I wish I could, but I gotta get back behind the bar." I gave him a look to make sure he knew I was interested, and added, "You could, uh, join me there, if you'd like."

"I'd like." His voice was - God, how do I say this without sounding like an idiot? It was like the good Scotch I keep for really special customers. It got into your blood and made you think things maybe you shouldn't. Naked, sweaty things.

He followed me across to the bar and sat right at the end, next to the pass-though. He was carrying a guitar case and a large duffel, the kind sailors use. Interesting. My bar's close enough to the docks so we get some guys off the boats in occasionally, but I've got a reputation for not allowing fights in my place, so the rougher element tend to avoid me. It doesn't hurt that the beat cops know me from back when, and I'm pretty much priority one with them.

I had to go down to the far end to give Old Marge a refill on her vodka and tonic ("two limes and a shot of Rose's, dear"), and when I got back to him he asked, "Are you injured?"

I smiled. "Yeah, about 5 years ago." He looked puzzled, and I explained. "I got shot in the leg. It tore up the tendons, and I never got back full use of it."

"That's terrible. Was it a robbery?"

"Hostage situation. I took down the guy that did it, though."

Now he looked confused. "I'm sorry, what?"

"I was a cop. A detective. Until I got pensioned off. They call it -"

"A golden bullet."

My eyebrows climbed toward my hairline. Not too many people off the street would know that. "How'd you know?"

He smiled, but not like he meant it. "I was also a police officer. Unfortunately, I was not pensioned off. I . . . resigned."

I could tell there was a lot more to that story, but if the last five years behind a bar have taught me one thing (besides the advantages of having a baseball bat handy), it's the art of not asking questions. The next thing he'd do would be to change the subject back to me.

"So you became a bartender? Isn't that rather hard on your leg as well?"

Bingo. If there was an advanced degree in this, I'd be a full professor.

"I started tending bar to pay the bills after I realized I couldn't quite make ends meet as a private investigator. The guy that owned the place wanted to retire, and he sold it to me cheap 'cause he said I reminded him of his son. We keep in touch."

"So you're Mr. Duffy, then?"

I shook my head and held out my hand. "Duffy's the old guy. Ray Kowalski."

"Benton Fraser." He carefully grasped my hand and shook it quickly, but not so quickly I couldn't feel the calluses - the kind you get from pulling ropes and fishing lines in cold, wet weather.

"Nice to meet you, Benton. Do people really call you that?"

"My father does - did. Most people call me 'Fraser'."

"Which do you like better?"

"I don't really have a preference. It doesn't matter."

I didn't believe that for a second. "So, Benton, what can I get you?"

"Oh. Perhaps a club soda?"

Now there's a puzzle for you. Why would a man go into a bar and order a club soda? Two reasons I can think of right off. One, he doesn't drink, in which case what is he doing in a bar? He could go to a grocery store and buy a bottle of the stuff. Two, he has nowhere else to go but not a lot of money either. Bars may not always be clean, well lighted places, but they're open late, and they're warm.

And call me a big softy, but I'm a sucker for a sailor in distress. So I lied. "Sorry, all out. You like Scotch?"

He raised an eyebrow, because of course we weren't out of club soda. "I don't think I have quite enough cash on me to cover that." Possibility two was looking much more likely.

"My treat."

"Indeed." He looked thoughtful for a minute. Then he said, "You don't have to get me drunk, you know. I'm a sure thing."

Hooooly shit, I thought. He did not just tell me he was a rent-boy. That would be a third possibility, I suppose.

Suddenly all the fun had gone out of the conversation. He must have seen the look in my eye, because he turned red. "I may have phrased that badly."

"You think?"

He smiled then, and it looked a bit more like a real one. He lowered his voice, although there was no one around us, and said, "I was trying to let you know I was . . . attracted to you. That you didn't have to waste time dancing around, 'getting to know me'. I'm sorry if it came out sounding like I -" He stopped then, and I filled in what I had thought.

"Like you could be bought for the price of a drink or two?"

He nodded.

"Okay. Let's start over. We're gonna pretend that you didn't just embarrass yourself and insult me, and go back to what I can get you to drink. On the house, no strings."

"Are you having one?"

I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes until my evening bartender came in and I could go back to my office and work on the endless stack of paperwork that sat on the corner of my desk. Or . . . not.

"Yeah, I think I am."

"Well, then . . . thank you. Whatever you're having will be fine."

No question what I was having. I pulled the bottle of Laphroiag out from its hiding place and dusted it off. After I poured our drinks and slid one over to him, I said, "For the record, it wouldn't be a waste of my time, getting to know you. Unless you're shipping out in the next two hours, that is."

He looked up from his drink, startled. "No, I'm not going anywhere right now. I'm, ah, between jobs at the moment."

"Between places to stay also, or have I jumped to a conclusion?"

He studied the grain of the wood on the bar intently. "Yes, well, I'm used to roughing it. I'm sure w- I can find some suitable spot to bed down for the night. There's a park a few blocks from here, I believe." He took another sip of his drink.

He was pushing every single button I had, but for the life of me I couldn't see any indication that it was on purpose. "It's like 20 degrees out there. You'll freeze to death. Don't you know anybody in town?"

"I did try to look up an old friend, but his sister told me he was out of town indefinitely." His mouth did that not-smile thing again. "And then, rather predictably, she invited me to stay anyway."

"Obviously you turned her down."

"Let's just say that Francesca makes Darlene look subtle."

"Ah."

"Yes. And - there's really no one else."

"Forgive the stupid question, then, but - why Chicago?"

He laughed, a short, sharp barking sound. "You know, I used to have an answer for that. Would you like to hear it?" I nodded, and he went on. "I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father, and for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, I remained, attached as liaison to the Canadian Consulate." He looked down at himself, at the ripped white sweater and worn, stained jeans, and shrugged. "Obviously that's not true anymore."

"So, you're Canadian?"

"Yes. I was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I was given an opportunity to work with a Chicago Police detective on my father's case."

"What happened?"

"I - or rather we - found the person responsible for my father's death and sent him to prison. A year or so later, he escaped. I tracked him down again, and this time . . . I killed him."

I had almost been expecting something like that, but to hear him say it so baldly shook me a little. He drank some more of his Scotch and went on with his story.

"The ATF and the FBI had gotten involved. They needed his testimony, and they had warned me that if anything happened to Gerrard, it would be 'my ass' on the line, not theirs. But I didn't trust any of them, so Ray and I -- that was my partner's name, Ray Vecchio -- we took Gerrard to a warehouse to hide him until the trial. Somehow it all fell apart, and Gerrard wound up with Ray's gun. He took a shot at Ray, and I threw my knife - the only weapon I had. Gerrard turned at the wrong moment, and instead of hitting him in the shoulder where I had aimed it, the knife sliced his carotid artery open. He bled to death right there in front of me.

"After that it was imperative that I leave Chicago. I resigned my post and left on the first freighter heading north. This is the first time I've been back in almost three years."

I found my voice. "Jesus H. Christ - tell me I'm not aiding and abetting a fugitive here, please!"

He shook his head firmly. "No, of course not. I was exonerated by the Inquiry board - I had acted to save the life of a fellow officer, against an armed felon. Everyone agreed it was an accident."

I took a sip of my own drink, which I had been neglecting. "So why leave? I don't get it."

He looked me right in the eyes then, and I could see how he was hurting. "Because I was glad. I wanted him dead so badly, wanted him to suffer for taking my father from me . . . so how can I be sure I didn't do it on purpose? It haunts me - the look on his face when he realized what had happened. It took him only five minutes to die. And - I just watched."

He tossed back the rest of the Laphroiag and set the glass back down carefully. "And after that I found I could no longer perform my duties as a member of the RCMP. So I left. Now aren't you glad you took the time to get to know me? Thank you kindly for the drink."

I looked around and suddenly realized we were still at the end of the bar. Maybe ten minutes had passed, although it felt like a day had gone by. He was standing up, settling his bag over his shoulder. I grabbed his arm to stop him. "Where are you going?"

"I'm sorry," he said politely. "Did you still want to fuck?"

"No . . . I mean yeah . . . I mean - Jesus! Just don't leave, okay?"

He opened his mouth, probably to argue, but I didn't give him a chance. "Sit back down, Fraser. Put your bag back on the floor. My bartender should be here any minute, and when he gets here, I'm taking you somewhere we can talk. Maybe have dinner. When was the last time you ate?"

"I had a very nice breakfast," he said. Something in the way his eyes cut away from mine made me dig a little deeper.

"When?"

"Pardon me?"

"When was this 'very nice breakfast' you had?"

"Well, it was at, er, breakfast-time, of course." He was still standing with his bag over his shoulder, and I was still grasping his arm tightly. There is not a man alive who can out-stubborn me. I heard the back door slam, and I knew Jimmy must have come in. About time.

"How long ago? What day of the week, Benton?"

He sighed. It was good to know I still had some of my old interrogation instincts intact. "Yesterday," he mumbled finally.

"Ha! I knew it. Okay, you're coming with me. Sit your ass back down on that stool for five minutes, finish my Scotch, and wait while I talk to Jimmy. And don't even think about leaving. I can put out an APB on you with one phone call."

He sat down and muttered, "My, my, my, aren't we butch."

"Don't be an idiot." I would have expanded on that, but Jimmy came in from the kitchen, rubbing his hands together briskly.

"It's gonna be a cold one tonight, Ray."

"Thanks for coming in early, man."

"No problemo. So what'd she have?"

"Don't know yet, Dave hasn't called. When he does, tell him I said congratulations, and don't name it after me."

"Will do, boss. Hey, there's a big white dog out in the alley - you want I should call somebody about it?"

I hated to call the pound, but I couldn't have a mean dog in my alley, either. "Is he bothering anybody?"

"Nah, he's just sitting and watching the sidewalk. It's like he's waiting for somebody."

"Really. That's weird." Big white dog . . . .

Suddenly, light dawned. "Thanks, Jimmy, I'll take care of it." I passed him the towel I'd thrown over my shoulder. "The bar is yours. We're going to grab some dinner. Call me on the cell if you need me, otherwise I'll see you tomorrow."

"You got it, boss."

I walked around the end of the bar and sat next to Fraser. "So, kinda interesting, huh? Big white dog waiting for someone in the alley?"

He continued to stare at his crossed arms propped on the edge of the bar.

"By any chance is he a friend of yours, Mr. Fraser?"

He snapped his head around to stare at me. "How did you know that?"

"Two plus two, and I remembered a couple of stories I heard from my old cop buddies. But he's not a dog, is he? Half wolf, if memory serves."

"Genetically, the two species are virtually indistinguishable."

"Thank you. I'll make a note of that for the next time I'm on Jeopardy. Come on." I stood up, bent down and picked up his duffel bag. I started walking toward the back door, snagging my coat on the way, and he followed me with his guitar case. My car was parked in the alley and I unlocked the trunk and threw in his bag. When I turned to look, he was standing by the passenger side looking at the wolf. God, what a beautiful animal. The four-legged one. Well, both of them, really.

I approached carefully. "Can I pet him?"

"I'm sure he'd enjoy that."

I let him sniff my hand first, then I scratched behind his ears. That was well received, so I crouched down and got up close and personal with him. Next thing I knew, I was getting my face licked. Yeah, just like a dog, all right. I stood up again and said, "He's great, Fraser. Will he be joining us for dinner?"

Fraser raised an eyebrow and said, "Diefenbaker ate most of a side of beef three days ago. I can't imagine he'll be hungry again so soon."

"Most of a side of - Jesus fuck - does this have anything to do with why you're out of a job and stranded in Chicago?"

"In a word, yes." I unlocked the doors so they could get in while I thought about that. I went around to the driver's side, got in and started the motor.

"So you got kicked off your boat -"

"Ship."

"Whatever - kicked off, fired, booted - because your wolf ate the crew's dinner." I pulled out of the alley and turned right. I bet he'd be really pissed when we got where we were going, but if I kept him talking, maybe he wouldn't ask questions. "Am I right?"

"You know, I really admire the way you can extrapolate the facts from so few clues."

"I got shot in the leg, not the head."

"Ah. Of course."

"Or did you think I made detective 'cause of my looks?"

"My apologies. I didn't mean to imply anything of the sort."

"I know, it's 'cause I don't talk like I'm educated, right? I say 'gotta' and 'gonna', so you figure I'm dumb."

He gave me a pissy look. "I said I was sorry. And I thought I made it clear that I think you're far from dumb."

"No, you made it sound like I'm one of those . . . shit, what's the word - this always happens when I'm trying to make a point . . . hah! Idiot savants. Like I was a trained seal who could pick out the blue ball, or something."

"I most certainly did not!"

"Nah, you didn't."

"In fact, I - what did you say?"

I gave him my cheekiest grin - the one I practice in front of the mirror. "I said you didn't imply any of that stuff. I wanted to see how far I could push you until you cracked."

"Cracked?"

"Stopped being so polite."

"Ah. Why would you want to do that?"

"I told you - or at least I implied it - I want to get to know you. And I can't do it if you're just going to be nice all the time."

"Maybe I am 'nice all the time'."

"I think I just proved otherwise. So, what do you want for dinner?"

"I, ah, really don't feel comfortable letting you buy me dinner."

"What the hell is this? You can ask me if I want to fuck, but I can't buy you dinner first? You, Benton Fraser, are the cheapest date I ever had."

"Oh. I was, well, that is, earlier, when I said that . . . "

"You were just trying to get out of there, and you figured I'd be offended or shocked or something and let you leave. No dice. I don't expect any repayment, for the Scotch, the dinner, or the accommodations I'm about to offer you. Just shut up and take it like a man."

"Accommodations? Where?"

I pulled into the driveway. "Here." I got out of the car and went around to get his bag out of the trunk. When I closed it, he was standing on the sidewalk looking warily at the house.

"Whose house is this? Yours?"

I started up the walkway to the door. "Kind of. I grew up here, anyway. I'm house-sitting for my parents. They're in Arizona for the winter, making my brother's wife crazy and spoiling the grandkids rotten. So Stanley gets put in charge of making sure the pipes don't freeze." I picked up the mail and unlocked the door, giving the key that special jiggle by habit.

"Who's Stanley?"

"According to my mum, I am." He gave me a disbelieving look. I reached out and pulled him inside. The wolf had already followed me in, and I shut the door and started turning on lights and hanging up coats. "Oh, yeah, my dad's sense of humor at work. Stanley Raymond Kowalski. Made his day when I married a girl named Stella."

He stopped and stared at me. "You're married?"

"Yeah, well, I was. Divorced about five years now. That's a story for later. Come on, I'm starved. Let's raid the freezer." I led the way into the kitchen.

My mum refuses to believe I can cook for myself, or maybe she thinks I'll just live on the food at the bar. She cooked non-stop for a week before they left. The freezer was crammed with neatly-labeled containers of pierogi, galumki, and bigos. And those were just the ones in front.

"Any preference, Fraser?"

"I don't have any idea what I'm looking at," he said.

"Hmmm. Is there anything you will not, under any circumstances, eat?"

"Nothing I can think of."

"Fine. Bigos it is." I took out two containers and put them on the counter, then looked at the wolf. He was staring up at me wistfully, so I got out another one. Whatever didn't get eaten would be even better as leftovers.

Fraser was standing in the middle of the floor, looking a little lost. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Well, me and the microwave can handle dinner. If you want to, you can start a fire in the living room - through the door and to your left across the hall. Light switch on the right of the doorway."

"All right. Dief. Dief. Dief. Dammit, Diefenbaker." The wolf just ignored him, still staring at me and the food.

I started opening the stew and popping it out of the plastic into a casserole dish that would fit in the microwave."I think he's pissed at you."

"No, he's not. He's deaf." He raised his voice. "Which is not my fault."

The wolf didn't even twitch an ear. "Why would he think it's your fault?"

"His eardrums ruptured when he dove into Prince Rupert Sound and pulled me out." He raised his voice again. "For which I have thanked him, over and over again."

I put the cover on the dish and set the microwave to defrost. "Um, Fraser?"

He sighed. "He reads lips. I know, it sounds odd. I've been told so, many times."

"I was just going to ask why you keep raising your voice if you know he can't hear you."

"Oh." He smiled then, a genuine grin, and said, "I suspect it's mainly frustration."

I started filling a pot with water. We could have blueberry pierogi for dessert, my favorite. The hot water gave me an idea.

"Hey, Fraser, you want to take a shower?"

He looked ready to bolt out the door at the idea, and I realized how it sounded. "You. Not us. We got twenty minutes 'til dinner's ready, I thought you might like to get cleaned up."

"Thank you. Yes, that would be . . . nice."

"Cool. Come on, then. You can use my brother's room. Bring your bag."

After I showed Fraser where the bathroom was, and gave him towels and stuff, I went back to the living room to light the fire and think. Fraser'd gone from a very obvious come-on at the bar to acting extremely skittish back there in the kitchen. I was willing to bet he had a few issues to deal with.

But first, we'd eat. I could tell him the Story of Me. Make it easier for him to understand - he's not the only person to ever fuck up. Or to be fucked-up.

I could smell the bigos, so I got off my ass and went to go stir it. It was close to done, and I gave it five more minutes and got out the bowls. Homemade bread, butter, and the bowls went on a tray ready to be brought into the living room. To drink we had the choice of beer (Canadian, how appropriate), milk, or soda, and I honestly couldn't predict which he'd go for, so I left it for him to choose. Opened a Molson for myself and grabbed spoons and napkins.

The timer beeped at the same time he walked back into the kitchen. His hair was wet and slicked back, and he'd taken the time to shave, which was kind of disappointing. There are some people on whom scruffy looks good, and Benton Fraser's on the cover of their calendar. I dished up the stew and sternly told my dick to go back to sleep.

"Excellent timing, Fraser. Get a beverage from the fridge - glasses in the cupboard to the right - and let's eat." I was keeping it as low-key as I could, just two pals hanging out, but he still looked nervous. Must be losing my touch.

"What's wrong?"

He shook his head like he was about to tell me nothing was wrong, but when he opened his mouth what came out was, "Why are you doing this?"

"Which part? Forcing you to help me eat the food my mum insisted had to be gone when she got back? Or treating you like you're more than just an easy lay?"

"That - that one."

"Well, aren't you?"

"I didn't intend -" He stopped with a frustrated look on his face. Sometimes there just aren't words.

"Yeah, I know. I know, Fraser. Come on - we can talk in front of the fire while we eat. Get something to drink." I picked up the tray and walked into the living room. After a second I heard the fridge open, then the cabinet. He came in with a big glass of milk and sat on the floor in front of the couch, right next to me. The wolf woke up and looked at the food, but he caught Fraser's glare and put his head back down on his paws.

The way Fraser tucked into the bigos, I was glad I'd made extra. Maybe the wolf wouldn't get quite as much as he thought. I waited until Fraser was mostly done with his second helping before I started talking again.

"So, what's it gonna be? You get your choice of embarrassing personal stories tonight, Fraser. We have the time I peed my pants in front of a bank robber, the time I almost destroyed evidence at a crime scene, or the night Stella told me she wanted a divorce."

"I don't understand."

"You know what? That's okay. I'm gonna pick."

"But -"

I rode right over his objection. "No, you told me about Gerrard. I owe you one. And maybe when I 'm done, you'll understand why I'm doing this.

"First things first, though. You want more food?"

"No, thank you. This was sufficient. And very good. Your mother is a wonderful cook."

"I'll tell her you said so. She'll be thrilled. Now, get comfy. You want to move up to the couch? I'm gonna, my butt doesn't have enough padding to hack the floor for too long."

"Oh. Yes, certainly."

We rearranged ourselves more comfortably. I sat in my usual sprawl that even my mum can't break me of; one leg thrown over the arm of the couch, the other foot tucked up on the cushion. I rested my beer on my thigh and watched Fraser arrange himself - back straight, knees almost touching, feet flat on the floor. I imagined him in the Dudley Do-Right uniform and nodded to myself. He really needed to relax some of his control, but it was probably all that was holding him together.

"Okay. Once upon a time . . . there was a boy named Stanley, and a girl named Stella. And they - we - were best friends, even though girls and boys can't be friends. And we stayed best friends all through high school. And after we'd both dated a lot of other people, we decided to get married, 'cause neither of us had found anybody we connected with like we did with each other. And that was enough, for a while.

"And I was a cop, and she was a lawyer, and it worked pretty good; 'cause even though she didn't get everything I was doing, she knew enough to get by. She knew how it felt to work for three weeks trying to take some scumbag down; only it didn't matter because when you got him to trial, the witness had conveniently come down with a severe case of amnesia."

I took a second to work on my beer, and think.

"So, you get that part, right?" He nodded. "So . . . it went on for a while like that. No huge fireworks between us, just connection. I knew her, she knew me, we were cool. Then I get shot - the hostage thing I mentioned earlier. Me and my partner both went down. Not the first time I ever took a bullet, but it was the first time I came close to dying. She was scared out of her mind. They told me I was in surgery for five hours while they tried to put my leg back together. I woke up in the recovery room, and there was Stell. Her eyes were all red - I could tell she had been crying. So I think, wow, she's really worried. I say, 'Hey, Stell, I'm okay, don't cry, babe.' And she looks at me and says, 'Ray, I want a divorce.' And then she starts crying again, and crawls up on the bed and just grabs onto me and won't let go for anything."

More beer, and then the bottle was empty. I considered another one, but I couldn't stop the story then, so I just kept going. Fraser hadn't said a word, but I knew he was listening.

"Once she got calmed down and she could talk again, I find out what's going on. She's been watching me come out of the anesthesia for like an hour, and it looked like I was trying to say something, so she's listening real close, and what comes out of my mouth is my partner's name, and not hers. Which gets her all nuts, because now it comes out that she'd been jealous of me and him for a while. I try to tell her there's nothing going on, that I'd never cheat on her, but it doesn't matter."

"She knew? That you were . . . "

"Bi? Yeah, of course. I told her everything, back when we were just kids. She was cool with it. We even did the same guy once - not at the same time, of course - that would've been way too weird. Nah, me being bi wasn't the problem. See, she knew we didn't have fireworks between us. And instead of figuring what we had was pretty damn good, like I did; she got all stressed that I'd meet somebody and find out I had fireworks with them. Like pre-emptive jealousy, or something. And I couldn't fight that. Couldn't fix it, either.

"And it really hurt to think she didn't love me enough to trust me; didn't think enough of what we had to even try. So after the divorce was final, I decided that if I was gonna do the time, I at least wanted to have done the crime. I started sleeping with anything that walked, talked, and smiled at me. Men or women, it didn't matter. If they'd go home with me, I'd have sex with them. Just to prove I was still alive, still attractive . . . still worthwhile. But after a couple of months, I stopped enjoying it. I kept doing it, though. Couldn't stop. Had no reason to, really. It was like I was an alcoholic. Instead of Courvoisier-sex, the good kind; I was having Boone's-Valley-Farm-sex. Cooking-wine-sex. Nothing there to savor, just cheap and easy.

"Then one day I wake up with yet another stranger, only this one's going through my wallet. That was a big kick in the head. I mean, he could just as easily have killed me first, right? That was the last time I did it.

"So that's why I did it. Now I want to talk about why you do."

He looked surprised, like he hadn't figured out where I was heading. "Come on, Fraser. Ben. At the risk of sounding like a cliché, you'll feel better if you talk to somebody about it. And now you know I've been there. So what was it? Who hurt you?"

The only sound in the room was the fire popping and hissing. I leaned over to put my empty bottle on the table, and then I looked at him again. His eyes looked real bright and shiny, and then I saw a big fat tear roll down his face.

"Ben?"

He let out a huge sigh, one of the ones that catches in the middle. I decided it was time for some shock therapy, so I scooted over next to him and put both arms around him and just held on. His head dropped down, and then he slowly turned toward me and rested his forehead against my shoulder. I started rubbing his back, very gently, and I finally felt him relax a little bit. His arms snuck around my waist, and he sighed again. Then he started to talk.

It was an incredible story, like one of those movies-of-the-week that you can't believe ever actually happened. What it boiled down to is this: the last time he thought he was in love, she almost destroyed his life. Only he didn't say it like that. He took all the blame for it on himself. Said he'd betrayed his best friend, his partner.

"And after it was over, Ray and I - we never really talked about it. I was too ashamed of what I had nearly done. I was just so grateful that he would still want to be my friend . . . ."

He stopped for a minute and pulled back a little. I let go, and he reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. He stuffed it back in his pocket and tried to pull away more, but there was no way I was going to let him turn back. We were almost there. I grabbed his arm and yanked, leaning back at the same time. We wound up flat on the couch, which was my intention. I think it shocked him that I was strong enough to do it, but I wrestle drunks and beer kegs for a living. It's all a matter of balance.

Speaking of balance, I had him right on the edge of the cliff, metaphorically speaking. It was only a question of whether he would let himself trust me enough to take the leap. I went back to the slow circles on his back and pushed his head back down to my chest. Maybe if he didn't have to look at me, it would be easier. It took a minute or two, but then he went on with his story.

"After Gerrard; after I left, I was . . . I felt so alone. The men on the ship with whom I was working were pleasant enough, in their own ways, but to them I was some sort of over-educated freak. I was left mainly to myself. And so when we reached port and I was invited along to a bar with them, I was happy to go.

"I didn't realize, at first, what kind of a bar it was. When I became aware that there were very few women, and that men were dancing together, I was quite surprised that my shipmates would frequent such a place. I know now they had expected me to react badly in some way, but I am used to maintaining my composure. I merely politely declined all the invitations and suggestions."

I'm sure it took about fifteen seconds after he walked into that bar for the sharks to be all over him. Maybe less. Sometimes I really hate people.

"They soon tired of their game, and we left to return to the ship. On the walk back, one of the younger men dropped back from the crowd to where I was walking alone. He asked if I knew what had been going on. I continued my 'oblivious' routine, and he rejoined his mates. I heard them laughing at the 'dumb Canuck'."

My hands stopped rubbing for a second, I was so shocked by the venom in his voice. He sighed again, and shifted slightly, trying to move some of his weight off me. I held on, and he gave up.

"It would have shocked them all, no doubt, to have seen me return to that same bar an hour after I'd left it. They assumed, you see, that I was a complete innocent; that I wouldn't know what to do with myself in such a place. But even then, I was not a stranger to same-sex relationships. In fact, Victoria was a complete surprise to me, as I'd never truly been attracted to a woman before. And the invitations I had received earlier had awakened some old memories.

"I wanted to feel someone . . . possessing me. I wanted to know that it was me they wanted, and not just revenge. It would be strangely honest, just the release of physical passion, with nothing of the deeper emotions to get in the way. I needed it. And yet . . . when the time came, I felt all desire leave me. I didn't want to disappoint my partner, so I let him . . . have me. He seemed concerned when he noticed I hadn't . . . reached completion . . . "

He stopped, searching for the right words. I tried to help a little. "So he tried to get you off?"

He seemed grateful for the assist. "Yes. But he wasn't able to, and we both . . . it became quite awkward. I finally got dressed and left. I thought about what had happened, and I put it down to nerves. He'd been very pleasant, and I couldn't think of any other reason for my failure. Except . . . "

"Except it happened again."

"Yes. Only this time I was able to simulate pleasure, when I realized what was happening. Or rather, what was failing to happen."

I couldn't stop myself from interrupting. "You faked an orgasm?"

He moved then, picked his head up off my chest and frowned at me. "Well, yes. It avoided an awkward scene I had no desire to have replayed."

"Jesus, I'm in awe."

"Don't be. It's hardly a skill I'd recommend developing."

He was getting snippy again.

"Sorry. Please go on."

"Thank you. Since you were so insistent on hearing it . . . " He seemed to consider moving again, but in the end he put his head back down. I liked the feel of it there. A lot.

"Ray?"

It was the first time he'd said my name. It shouldn't have made me feel like I'd just been handed the keys to the city, but it did. I knew I was really getting in there now. "What?"

"Am I too heavy?"

"No."

"Because I don't want to make you uncomfortable."

"You're fine. Keep going, I think we're almost there."

"So do I." But he didn't continue.

"What's wrong, Ben?"

"What happens when we . . . get there?"

"I hope it'll make you feel better about yourself. Then maybe you can start to deal with what happened, and think about what you want out of life."

"What if . . . "

"What?"

"What if I want . . . this?"

I smiled. "You got it."

"And . . . more?"

I couldn't breathe, and it had nothing to do with his weight on me. I forced my lungs to move. "How much more are we talking about?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe . . . a lot."

I closed my eyes and stroked his hair a couple of times, then put my hands on his back again. "Sounds good to me. I'm not going anywhere. You let me know when you decide."

"Thank you. Where was I?"

"Faking it."

"Oh. Yes. Well, after that night, my ship sailed again, and it was two weeks before I found myself able to try again. I had run through my two disastrous experiences over and over in my mind, and I finally determined that each time, the problems began when my partners kissed me. I had no explanation, but I was willing to try an experiment. I went out, allowed myself to be picked up, and politely explained that I didn't kiss. And it worked. I was able to maintain my erection, and I achieved orgasm. It was a welcome release, and I was happy to have solved my problem so easily."

"Ben, you're going to think this is a totally strange question, but have you seen a movie called 'Pretty Woman'?"

"Why, no, I don't believe so. Is it germane?"

I smiled. He can go to a dive, pick up a stranger and get fucked by said stranger, and still use words like 'germane' and not sound pretentious. Definitely not your average guy. "Just an idle thought. Please continue."

"All right. But there's really not much else to tell. I had other . . . encounters of the same nature whenever I was in port - I would find a suitable bar and follow the pattern I had established."

"Okay. Dumb question time. You use protection?"

"Of course I did. I'm not suicidal."

"Glad to hear it. For the record, so did I. Any of them hurt you?"

"No. I was . . . very careful in my selection of partners."

"Good. So . . . I guess, on one level anyway, you know why you do it. One more dumb question, Ben. Do you enjoy it? I know it feels good when you come, that's not what I mean. Is it ever more than a 'welcome release', or is it all just mechanical?"

"I have a feeling you know the answer to that one already."

"Yeah, I do. Do you want to hear it?"

He looked up at me again. "No."

"Tough. You don't enjoy it, do you? No more than I did. Because it isn't real. You might as well be jerking off. And that really sucks, Ben. It's no way to live."

"I know," he said softly.

I sighed. The big-money moment was upon me. "I think the situation with Victoria really tore you up inside. But trusting someone, trying to help - that's either a part of you or it's not. Unless you're completely jaded and cynical, it's human nature to want to believe that people are good and decent. Add that to whatever feelings you might have had for her, and there's no way you could have seen through her. She lied, and manipulated, and killed. But it was her that did it, not you. Your friend Ray, he knew that. You have to learn it too."

His eyes had closed when I said her name, but he opened them again and just looked at me.

"One more unsolicited opinion, Ben, and then I'm done for the night. The situation with Gerrard? He tried to kill your partner. You did the right thing when you threw the knife. If I was Ray Vecchio, I would have been grateful. Was he?"

Ben nodded. He was back to not talking again.

"Would the outcome have been better if you had hit him where you aimed, and he had escaped again, or killed someone else?"

He shook his head.

"How long did it take the ambulance to get there? Ten, fifteen minutes?"

Another nod.

"No way he could have lived, even if you had tried some kind of emergency medical techniques. He would have died anyway."

The words burst out of him. "But I didn't even try!"

"Jesus, Ben, I can't think of anybody who would have tried to save the guy who took their father away. Stop beating yourself up for this. At least for tonight, okay? And tomorrow you can talk to a friend of mine if you want. She's an actual doctor, and she's better at this than I am."

He laughed once, and said, "I can't imagine anybody better at this than you are, Ray."

"Yeah, well, just wait 'til you meet her. She taught me everything I know."

He was still face to face with me, and suddenly he moved forward and then stopped, his lips about an inch from mine. "Ray?"

"Yeah?"

"I . . . I believe I've decided. Can I - may I kiss you?"

"Absolutely. Yes. Please d-" And then he was.

Kissing. Tongues, teeth, lips. But I knew it was more than just that. Because -

Look, I don't want to sound like some bizarre mushy romance novel here, but I swear - I saw fireworks. And when he pulled away from me, I thought he'd felt something too. From the surprised look on his face, I was almost sure of it. So I leaned closer and kissed him again. Just to make sure, you understand.

Yeah. Fireworks. Definitely. How 'bout that?



We're lying in my old bed now. It's only a twin, so we're really close together, but I don't mind. He fell asleep an hour ago, and now I'm just watching him.

We didn't go any further than kissing tonight. It'll probably be a while before we do. See, we both know how it feels to have sex. I want to remind Ben how it feels to make love. And for that, I can wait.

I have a feeling it'll be worth it.





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