Rating: PG
Pairing: Fraser/Kowalski
Thanks: Many thanks to Sprat and Woolly for beta
Notes: For rruthlessly, for her birthday

Confirmation Bias

by china_shop

Fraser paused in the hallway outside the lunchroom of the 27th precinct. The door was only a few inches ajar and inside, unseen, Francesca was addressing someone. "You might as well take it. Go on. I'm not going to eat it now, am I?"

Fraser raised his eyebrows and pushed the door open, but Francesca appeared to be alone, talking to herself. For a moment he wondered if she was haunted by the ghost of her father, too. He cleared his throat, and she started and glanced around with a guilty expression which resolved into relief when she registered it was him.

"Benton," she said, in an urgent undertone, "you'll help him, won't you?"

"If I can," said Fraser promptly. "Who?"

Francesca stepped back so he could see the table. It was clear but for an empty plate littered with crumbs and half a cup of burnt-smelling coffee. She frowned and gestured at the empty room, opening her mouth to reply, but Lieutenant Welsh entered with his empty coffee mug. "Have you called Felix and Sons like I told you?"

Her chin came up and her hand went to the back of her neck. "No, and I still think it's inhuman to bring in those murderers—"

"This is a police station, Miss Vecchio, not a Disney cartoon, and Felix and Sons are a reputable firm with a good record." The Lieutenant poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and glared at her. "I want them in here by the end of the day, do I make myself clear?" He nodded to Fraser. "Constable."

Fraser nodded politely and watched him leave.

"Did you hear that?" Francesca looked distraught. "He wants me to call in those assassins, and set them loose without making a single attempt to save the little guy's life."

Fraser tilted his head. "Little guy?" Perhaps the person in peril was a child or a dwarf.

"He's so adorable and helpless," Francesca told him. "I can't bear to think of him—"

She broke off again, this time interrupted by the arrival of Detectives Huey and Dewey with cardboard packets of Chinese takeout which, judging by the smell, contained at least twice the daily recommended intake of monosodium glutamate. They spread the sports pages out and settled down at the next table, and immediately began to argue about the Chicago Cubs' chances this season.

Fraser was about to correct Dewey's rather loose description of their performance so far when Francesca grabbed him by the arm and dragged him across the hallway and into the supply closet.

Fraser pulled on the light cord immediately, but it seemed that, for once, Francesca had no designs on his virtue. He relaxed a fraction.

Francesca clasped her hands at her breast. "Benton, an innocent life is at stake!"

"Of course, I'll do what I can," said Fraser, "but I can hardly believe that Lieutenant Welsh is part of a conspiracy to persecute a blameless party. In my experience, the Lieutenant has always been characterized by sound judgment, a strong sense of justice and an unfortunate relationship with the IRS."

"Not in this case," Francesca told him. "It's a terrible misdemeanor of justice. He's ordered me to call Felix and Sons, and they'll kill him!"

Fraser raised his eyebrows. "They'll kill Lieutenant Welsh?"

"No, no, no, no, no!" Francesca flapped her hands, then took a deep breath and tried to explain. "Felix and Sons will trap him and murder him. I don't know how they do it — maybe they'll poison him, or maybe they have some kind of zapper, sort of like the electric chair only smaller. But either way, he'll be eradicated and it's just not fair."

"Francesca," said Fraser slowly and clearly, "whose life is at risk?"

She gazed up at him with dark, tragic eyes. "Sparky's."

"Ah." Fraser waited to see if she'd explain further, but in the end was forced to prompt her. "And Sparky is—?"

"A squirrel." Francesca's eyes filled with tears. "A beautiful red squirrel with the most gorgeous fluffy tail you've ever seen. Harding found him pillaging his desk and he nearly bust a kidney yelling for me to call the exterminators, and now we are Sparky's only hope."

"I see." Fraser patted her on the arm awkwardly. "Well, not to worry. We can capture him ourselves and set him free in the wild where he belongs." It was a good thing he and Ray weren't in the middle of any pressing cases. Ray was writing up reports, and Fraser was merely present to lend moral support and because he was in no particular hurry to return to the Consulate.

She sniffed and nodded. "Yes, we have to. I'm so glad you're going to help, Benton! I can't do this on my own."

"There's no cause for alarm," he told her. "Where else has he been sighted?"

Francesca filled him in on all the squirrel's known haunts, and Fraser suggested they enlist Diefenbaker to help with their search.

Francesca looked anxious. "Dief won't hurt Sparky, right?"

"Not if we tell him Sparky's a friend of yours," Fraser assured her, perjuring himself with barely a second's hesitation. He pushed all thought of the Vecchios' late red bubble-eyed goldfish firmly from his mind.

"Okay, good," said Francesca. "Come on."

He held the door open for her and switched off the light. As he followed her out into the hallway, he came face to face with Ray. Well, in actual fact Ray was standing twelve and a half feet away, at the T-junction by Interrogation Room One, but the astonishment written on his face was so vivid, Fraser felt it palpably, even at this distance.

Before Fraser could do anything to find out why Ray was so shocked, Francesca turned back and put her hand on his arm. "We'll have to get Harding out of his office," she said under her breath.

Fraser bent his head, the better to hear her, and nodded. "Perhaps a diversion is in order. You know, we might find Ray to be a useful resource in that regard."

"No!" Francesca shook her head sharply. "You can't tell him. We can't trust anyone. I heard Ray and Huey talking about vermin and mousetraps just last week." She took a shaky breath. "And poison! Promise me you won't tell anyone."

Fraser glanced at Ray, who was nearly upon them, and reluctantly gave Francesca his word.

She nodded. "We need to keep this just between the two of us."

"Hey, Frase, what's going on?" Ray seemed to have recovered from his confusion and now sounded elaborately casual.

Fraser swallowed his misgivings and replied blandly. "Nothing to speak of, Ray." He nodded a non-committal greeting and escorted Francesca to the squadroom.

He could feel Ray's gaze on them as they walked away.

Francesca's ideas for a diversion consisted of fire, flood and very probably rain of toads, but Fraser managed to dissuade her from such drastic courses of action by pointing out that not only would Lieutenant Welsh's fury be unpleasant in the extreme, but there was every chance that Sparky would be harmed in the ensuing chaos.

In the end they settled on a simple ruse whereby Francesca was to inform the Lieutenant that there was a team of television reporters in the lobby.

"That's a sure flame way to stick a cracker under his butt," Francesca said confidently.

Fraser, relieved that this plan would at least cause no structural damage to the building or its inhabitants, nodded. "How long will we have?"

Francesca narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. "Five minutes to get to the lobby, two minutes to realize there's nothing going on and grouch at the desk sergeant, four minutes while he notices he's been drinking lousy coffee all day and needs to go to the bathroom, five minutes while I delay him in the hallway with a question about the weekly reports, then another minute for him to get back here. How long's that?"

"Seventeen minutes," said Fraser. It would do. Fraser stayed out of sight while Francesca put the plan into action, but even from his position by the file cabinets in the recess at the back of the squadroom, Fraser could hear the Lieutenant's irascible shout. "Not in my precinct, they don't! What the hell do they want this time?"

He pushed forcefully through the double doors and Fraser signaled to Dief. They were about to slip into the Lieutenant's office when Ray stepped into Fraser's path.

"Ray, I—" Fraser fumbled for an explanation and came up empty-handed.

Dief sneezed in disgust.

"How's the Schaeffer report going?" asked Fraser, attempting a recovery.

Ray shook his head and jabbed two fingers into his chest. "Don't try to distract me. Something's going on with you."

"I can't say I know what you mean," Fraser told him, and was about to launch into an anecdote about Gung-ho Geoffrey of the Yukon and his failed attempt to design a pig-drawn sled after he developed an unfortunate allergy to dogs, but Francesca came to Fraser's rescue by the simple means of shoving Ray bodily aside.

"Stay out of it, bro," she said, and hauled Fraser into the Lieutenant's office, slamming the door after them. Fraser looked back over his shoulder in time to catch a glimpse of Ray peering through the window before Francesca snapped the blinds shut.

A cursory examination of the scene revealed evidence of squirrel behavior under the desk, in the top left desk drawer, in the second drawer of the right-hand filing cabinet and behind the couch. Dief was briefly distracted by the Lieutenant's half-eaten lunch, but once he'd gotten that out of the way he joined in the hunt with enthusiasm. Between the three of them, it didn't take long to determine that the squirrel had left the office by way of the air vent installed high on the wall behind the desk.

An air vent that was unfortunately far too small for even Dief to enter. Dief sat below the vent and whined in frustration, and Fraser turned to Francesca and suggested they adjourn to the lunchroom again, to see if Sparky could perhaps be tempted there with the offer of nuts or seeds, assuming Huey and Dewey had finished up and left.

Francesca looked at her watch. "Yeah, we should get out of here, anyway. Harding will be back any—" She broke off as the door opened and the Lieutenant burst in.

"Miss Vecchio, I don't know what you're playing at, sending me down to the lobby on a wild goose chase," he barked. "Is this some kind of bid for unemployment, because if it happens again, it's going to be extraordinarily effective."

Francesca was impressively stoic in the face of the threat. "The reporters weren't there?" she asked. "They seemed pretty bone-doggish when I was down there."

"Not only were they not there, but the desk sergeant hadn't seen hide nor hair of them." Welsh twitched the blinds open again, and shooed them out of his office. "And I don't want to see hide nor hair of you until you've called Felix and Sons and had all of the vermin in this building thoroughly exterminated."

"But, sir, he—"

"Get out!" said Welsh, his cheeks flushed either from fury or the exertion of descending and climbing two flights of stairs to no gain.

"But—" Francesca tried to argue, but Fraser put his hand on her back and steered her rapidly out of the inner office, calling Dief to follow them. It seemed wise to be a safe distance away when the Lieutenant discovered his lunch had vanished.

Ray was waiting outside, perched on the edge of Detective Brown's desk. "Fraser, I got to talk to you."

"I'm afraid this isn't a very good time," said Fraser, and hustled Francesca out of the squadroom before Ray could insist. They headed for the lunchroom, but before they reached it, they heard a clatter, a thud and a woman's screech emanating from Interrogation Room Two.

Francesca and Fraser exchanged glances, and took off running, arriving breathless on the threshold in time to see ASA Meadsworth picking herself and a collection of files up off the floor while a young man in a hooded sweatshirt laughed himself silly.

Fraser offered ASA Meadsworth a hand up, but she waved him away, so he turned to the young man. "You know, son, it's not worthy to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others."

"Worthy?" said the youth. "Listen, man, I just got arrested for spray-painting graffiti on my ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend's car. Right now, I'm taking my laughs wherever I can get 'em." He looked Fraser up and down, and winced. "You break out of a brass band or what?"

"Not at all." Fraser straightened his spine. "My name is Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I first came to Chicago on the trail of—" He continued his recitation automatically, while listening in on Francesca's conversation with ASA Meadsworth.

"I fell over something. Something soft and furry. I think it was a rat." ASA Meadsworth shuddered eloquently.

"Actually," said Fraser, interrupting himself, "I think you'll find—"

Francesca elbowed him sharply and talked over him. "We don't know anything about Spark— whatever you're talking about. A rat, you say?" She wrinkled up her face. "That's disgusting."

ASA Meadsworth nodded. "And unsanitary! I'll have to talk to the brass about it — we can't have the precinct infested. Just think what the media would say if they got wind of it." She sketched out an imaginary headline with her hand. "'Holding cells plagued with pests, unfit for human habitation.'" She clutched her briefcase and turned back to the youth. "I'll find out what Jessica's willing to offer and see if we can swing you a bargain, Weston. Talk to you later, okay?"

The youth shrugged. "Sure, if you can swing it."

Fraser and Francesca backed out of the room and left them to it.

"How did Sparky get into Interview Two?" asked Francesca.

Fraser scratched his eyebrow. "I suspect the air vent shaft runs directly from the Lieutenant's office, via the interrogation room, and along to the lunchroom."

"We should stake out the lunchroom next, then." Francesca looked at her watch. "We have to find him before Harding figures out he can call the exterminators himself."

"I heard that, Miss Vecchio," said a gruff voice behind them, and they both jumped guiltily and then turned to face the Lieutenant. "This is no time to be soft-hearted — that squirrel ate my lunch. Call Felix and Sons now or I will."

"You'll have to, then," said Francesca, apparently having decided to throw caution to the winds. "I can't betray him. I'm not a Jezebel and I won't summon his executioners!"

The Lieutenant sighed deeply. "I'm trying to run a police station here, not a home for waifs and stray animals." His exasperated gaze landed on Fraser. "Speaking of which, don't you have anywhere better to be?"

Fraser squared his shoulders. "Not really, no."

The Lieutenant sighed. "Have you considered joining a book group? Some kind of arts and crafts? Never mind. Just get this sorted out, the two of you. If there are still rodents in this building by six o'clock tonight, I'll be having words with your superior officer and you—" He pointed at Francesca. "—will be looking for a job."

"Yes, sir," said Fraser. He waited until the Lieutenant had disappeared into a sudden throng of detainees dressed in superhero costumes. "You know, Francesca, he may have a point. The City of Chicago deserves to be represented in clean, uninfested buildings where law enforcement officers and arrestees alike can come together without interruption to get to the root of injustices and crimes."

"Benton, this would be an injustice," said Francesca. "Sparky hasn't done anything wrong. He's just a squirrel — he doesn't know he's not supposed to be here. We have to save him!"

Fraser took a deep breath. "Of course. Well, then, shall we—" He waved her ahead and they hurried toward the lunchroom.

They passed Huey and Dewey in the hallway, apparently having just finished their lunch and deep in a debate about the ideal line-up for the Cubs for the remainder of the season. "If you had unlimited funds," Dewey was saying. "You can pick anyone but God."

"Do they have to be alive?" Huey asked him. And then, as they disappeared around the corner, "Hey, is something going on with Fraser and Frannie?"

Luckily, Francesca didn't seem to hear Huey's speculation. The lunchroom was deserted, and she went straight over to the corner by the snack machine and peered behind it. "He came from over here."

Dief sniffed the area and confirmed that there was indeed an entranceway in the wall behind the machine, and Fraser borrowed some loose change from Francesca and bought a packet of salted peanuts from the vending machine. They opened the packet and put some peanuts on the floor, and waited.

And waited.

After a few minutes, Francesca started talking about Maria's new job at the beauty salon across the road from their church, but Fraser took the first available opportunity to remind her that talking, or any human noises at all for that matter, would only discourage Sparky from making an appearance.

They waited some more.

Then Dief's ears pricked forward and his nose twitched.

Fraser kept his gaze fixed on the vending machine and tried not to notice how Francesca was inching surreptitiously closer every time she shifted in her seat.

Finally a small reddish-brown face peeked out from behind the machine. Fraser stayed absolutely still. Even Francesca was quiet and patient.

Sparky hopped over to the peanuts on the floor, picked one up in both paws and nibbled on it. Fraser saw his chance. He lunged forward and scooped Sparky up in his hands.

Sparky squeaked in alarm, wriggled free and hurled himself at Francesca, who shrieked and clutched him tightly to her chest. He started kicking and scratching, his plume of a tail fluffed up in distress, and Fraser immediately began to unbutton his tunic, since that was the nearest cloth to hand.

"Hold onto him." He pulled the lanyard over his head, unbuckled his Sam Browne and took off his tunic.

And then the door opened behind him and someone gasped. "Fraser!"

It was Ray.

Fraser cast his tunic at Francesca to cover the squirrel and turned on his heel to face Ray. "What is it?"

"Uh." Ray's eyes were wide, his brow furrowed. "Uh, nothing. I just." He held up his cup. "Coffee. And you're taking your clothes off? With Frannie? Is she—?" He ducked sideways to look at Frannie, who was red-faced and draped with the RCMP dress uniform tunic. Ray blinked hard a few times, as if trying to clear his vision, and then looked back at Fraser and held up both hands. "Hey, don't mind me. Whatever buttons your muffler, I'm all for that."

He put his dirty coffee cup on a nearby table with a clink and backed out of the room, seeming completely discombobulated.

Fraser considered this for a split second and suffered a sharp pang of hope, and then Francesca requested his help with the tunic, since she had her hands full of squirming squirrel. "Of course. Sorry." Fraser turned his attention back to the job at hand and helped her wrap Sparky in the tunic as well as they could.

Fraser stuck his head out the door and looked both ways. There were three clowns and a woman with a life-sized inflatable alligator, but no sign of the Lieutenant or Ray. He beckoned Dief and Francesca to follow and they did, Francesca hugging the bundle of tunic and squirrel. She had a scratch across her collarbone, and Fraser made a mental note to offer her an antiseptic unguent once they'd released Sparky into the wild.

"Stop skulking, son." Fraser looked up to see his father standing by the water cooler with a paper cup in his hand. He was dressed for the arctic, up to and including his fur hat "A Mountie never skulks."

"Dad, please. We're trying to perform a rescue operation," said Fraser. He glanced at Francesca but she was several steps ahead of him now and didn't seem to have heard.

"A rescue, eh? That reminds me of Corporal Bruce McFadden who was captured by the Russians during a winter patrol, and—"

Fraser tuned him out and hurried to catch up with Francesca and Dief, but his father kept pace, talking all the while.

"Of course, once we'd found out that the Russians had arrested him for illegally smuggling live lemmings, we realized we'd been hasty to help him escape and we never saw him again."

"You let him go?"

"Here? Are you sure?" said Francesca, and loosened her hold on the bundle of serge before Fraser could correct her.

"He tricked us, son." Bob Fraser shook his head. "We thought he was one of us."

Dief barked a warning, and then there was a orange blur and Sparky was on the loose again. Fraser threw himself bodily toward the top of the stairs to prevent his escape, and Dief headed him off from the corridor back to the squadroom.

Francesca flapped the red serge at him, and Sparky backed into the niche by the elevator, cornered. He bared his teeth and had a wild gleam in his eye as if determined to go down fighting.

"Oh, look! A squirrel!" said the lady with the inflatable alligator. "How cute!"

Detective Charleston from Vice stopped to look. "All those teeth," he shuddered. "I never liked squirrels, not since I was a kid."

A crowd gathered with astonishing speed, perpetrators, witnesses and law enforcement officers all craning to see Sparky, who looked increasingly desperate. Fraser knew the feeling.

In the distance, he heard a bellow from Lieutenant Welsh. "Constable! Miss Vecchio!" He was getting nearer.

Fraser scanned the crowd and the immediate environs for an escape route. If only they could make it to the air conditioning hatch they'd be home free, but it was high on the wall and besides, there were too many people in the way. He turned to his father for advice, but he'd vanished.

"That's very helpful, Dad," muttered Fraser, and tried to formulate a Plan B on his own.

And then Francesca reached out her hand, leaned over the cornered Sciuridae, and pressed the elevator call button.

Relief made Fraser light-headed. He nodded at her. "Good thinking."

She smiled. "Thank you, Benton."

The Lieutenant's profane complaints were close now although he was still hidden by the crowd of squirrel admirers. "Let me through," he said. "Get out of here. You, get back to work."

But it was Ray who pushed through the crowd first. Ray with an apple danish in one hand. Sparky sprang toward him — or the danish — and Fraser darted forward to intercept him. Francesca grabbed a bag from the mail boy and emptied it of letters and memos in one swift move, and Fraser caught Sparky and dropped him into the bag as though he were dunking a basketball.

Francesca zipped the bag shut triumphantly. The crowd applauded.

"What is this, a circus?" asked Welsh of the group at large. "Break it up!"

"Fraser, what was that?" asked Ray around a mouthful of pastry.

The elevator dinged open in the nick of time, and Fraser, Dief, Francesca and Sparky all tumbled gratefully through the doors. Francesca hammered the button for the first floor. "It's not important, Ray," said Fraser as the doors slid majestically shut on Ray's raised eyebrows and Welsh's narrowed glare.

The last words they heard from the Lieutenant were, "That pest ate my lunch!"

In the safety of the closed elevator, Fraser gave Dief a reproachful look. "You're going to have to confess sometime," he said. "You're letting an innocent party take the blame for your misdeed and you know you can't sleep when your conscience is troubling you."

Dief whined and looked away.

"Fraser?" Francesca handed him his tunic, which had suffered in all the excitement.

"Ah." Fraser gave it a quick once over. There was nothing that couldn't be mended, but he was going to have to replace several buttons. He put it on anyway and made himself as respectable as he could before the elevator reached the first floor. Then he and Francesca, accompanied by Diefenbaker, carried the mailbag full of squirrel out to the parking lot.

"We can't just let him go here," said Francesca, looking at the expanse of asphalt skirted with chain-link fence.

Fraser nodded. "The park."

The park was only two blocks away, but Fraser felt every step of it. He'd rarely been in public with his uniform in such disarray. Still, it was in a worthy cause. Canada, surely, would not begrudge Sparky his freedom.

Francesca spent the walk reeling off a litany of unorthodox pets that she and Maria and Ray had kept as children, unbeknownst to their parents. As her recollections were jumbled and liberally interspersed with complaints about her shoes being ill-designed for hiking, Fraser nodded politely at appropriate times and instead thought about the replacement Ray, and the expression on his face as the elevator doors had closed between them.

They released Sparky in the park. He gave Fraser and Francesca a disappointed look, as though he'd expected to be given a packed lunch as well as freedom, but then Dief crouched down to sniff him and Sparky bounded up a tree, his tail wafting behind him like a banner.

Dief sneezed, and Francesca sighed with satisfaction. "Just stay out of the precinct," she called to the squirrel, perched high above their heads. "Next time, Welsh is going to call for your head on a silver spoon."


* * *


When they got back to the precinct, all signs of the commotion had disappeared. Fraser gave Francesca his antiseptic ointment and advice on how to apply it, and successfully evaded her attempts to repay him for his assistance — offers ranging from a neck rub to a candlelit dinner at Le Petit Chanteuse. He sent Dief to the Lieutenant's office to confess, and then went looking for Ray.

He was sitting at his desk, his head bowed over the report he was writing.

Fraser cleared his throat, and Ray looked up, took off his glasses, folded them and hooked them on the neck of his sweatshirt. "We need to talk."

"All right." Fraser had been about to suggest exactly that himself.

There was a determination in Ray's eye that set Fraser's pulse thumping, but he kept his expression bland and followed Ray past Interrogation Room Two and the lunchroom, and into the men's room. Ray checked the stalls were clear and then turned to Fraser and folded his arms tightly across his chest.

The fluorescent light glinted off his bracelet, creating a halo of his hair. He was agitated. He hid it well but Fraser knew him, had studied him meticulously — at first out of necessity, because Ray was his new partner and they had to understand each other to work together. And later, because he couldn't help himself.

He watched Ray's sweatshirt rise and fall, and waited.

Ray's arms tightened around his torso and he jerked his head to the side in a gesture of acquiescence that Fraser couldn't make sense of. And then he spoke. "Okay, fine. I get it. You've got something — some thing going on with Frannie. I get that. I even understand it, kind of. I mean, she's a good person. She's a good person and you—" He made a gesture that seemed to encompass the uniform while excluding Fraser himself, then tucked his hand back away. "—Canadian. And God knows, she's been after you like a bulldozer. It's not surprising you crumbled."

Fraser raised his eyebrows. "It's not?"

At that, Ray snorted. "Yeah, okay. It is." He shifted his weight and finally met Fraser's eye. "I didn't think you — think you swung that way. But I get it. You do. You do and I'm happy for you. And it's none of my business, obviously—"

"Well, I wouldn't say none—" Fraser began.

"—since you didn't tell me." Ray stopped and looked away, suddenly subdued. "You didn't tell me. I thought we were friends, Fraser. Forget partners, forget partners for a minute. I thought— You can tell me that stuff, okay? Just — tell me."

Fraser cleared his throat and held his ground. "What stuff, exactly?"

Ray blew out a deep sigh of frustration. "Making out in the supply closet. Getting hot and heavy in the lunchroom. Romantic stuff. Feelings."

"Ah." Clarity rang like a crystal bell. Fraser had guessed that Ray had been misinterpreting the afternoon's events. He now recognized that he himself had purposely done nothing to disabuse him. And Ray must have been so distracted by his suspicions, he hadn't even noticed the squirrel. A clear case of confirmation bias — the phenomenon of only seeing the evidence that supported one's theory. Well, now was the time to present the counter-evidence.

"I am all ears," said Ray. "I'm ready and listening. Shoot." In truth, he looked hunched and awkward, and Fraser couldn't bear to see him like that, to be the cause of that when he had the power to remedy it. Still, he couldn't be one hundred percent sure. He had to proceed with caution.

He took a step forward and asked, "What on earth makes you think I was kissing Francesca in the supply closet?"

Ray frowned. "Why else would you be in there with her?"

Fraser didn't point out that the supply closet was a routine meeting place at the precinct when privacy was needed. "I'm not at liberty to disclose the nature of our exchange—"

"See?" Ray dropped his gaze and nodded rapidly. "Exchange. I knew it! You were giving her, uh—"

"—but I can assure you, it wasn't a lover's tryst." Fraser watched as Ray assimilated that, as his hypothesis began to crumble.

Ray pushed off the cubicle and circled the room. "What about the lunchroom?" he asked, as though interrogating a criminal. "Taking your uniform off?"

"Ray, an innocent life was at stake." Fraser turned to follow his movements.

Ray pounced. "Whose? Give me a name!"

"I can't say," said Fraser. "I gave my word I wouldn't disclose the details. But I can say that Francesca seems to have developed a deep bond with him, and—"

The tension visibly drained from Ray's body. "Okay." He sighed and rolled his shoulders.

"In addition, since you've given me permission to speak freely regarding certain—" Fraser shaped his hands to indicate the realm of private emotions. "—things of a personal nature—"

"Uh-huh?" And now the tension had come back. Ray was clearly bracing himself for unwelcome news.

Fraser hoped he wasn't misreading the situation. "I can admit that while I never wanted to kiss Francesca, in the supply closet or elsewhere, I have thought about— I do think about—"

Ray froze for a second, then eyed Fraser with studied casualness. "What?"

Fraser looked over the precipice, weighed the risks and jumped. He walked right up to Ray, noting how his pupils dilated, how his tongue slipped out to wet his lips as Fraser approached, and he raised his hand to Ray's cheek, brushing his thumb lightly across Ray's jaw. "You."

The connection was like electricity coursing down his arm. And Ray wasn't pulling away. His scent was in Fraser's nostrils, his heartbeat fluttered rapidly at the base of his throat, but Fraser was only half-conscious of Ray's reactions, overcome as he was by his own.

He'd known he loved Ray, that he wanted him. He'd been aware of that for some time. What he hadn't known was how powerfully Ray would affect him once Fraser finally allowed himself to declare it.

Ray's lips formed a silent "oh", and Fraser was helpless to resist. He leaned in and pressed his mouth to Ray's.

For a glorious moment Ray kissed him back, carefully at first. Sweetly, then deepening into heat and passion, his body pressing forward. Then he stiffened and pushed Fraser away, breathing hard. "Are you crazy?"

Fraser's stomach plummeted. "I'm sorry, Ray. I hoped you— Please forgive me."

Ray shook his head. "Look around, Fraser. We're in the men's room. You want to come out to the whole station? Because all it takes is—"

The door opened and Lieutenant Welsh came in, a rolled up newspaper in his hand. His gaze stuttered when he saw Ray and Fraser standing close together, but he only said, "I trust we've seen the last of our furry friend, Constable."

"I believe so, sir," said Fraser, aware that his spine had straightened as soon as the Lieutenant had entered. As well, he was vividly aware of the lingering sensation of Ray's lips on his, the scent of Ray's skin, and the nervousness with which Ray was shifting his weight as if he were trapped in a spotlight and desperate to escape.

Welsh regarded them both with a jaundiced eye for a long moment. Fraser tried to focus on maintaining a slow and regular heartbeat and Ray drummed his thumb against his thigh.

Finally Welsh shook his newspaper at them and said incredulously, "Are you waiting for permission to leave the bathroom, Vecchio? Get out of here!"

In a blink the tension dissipated.

"Yes, sir," said Ray.

"Thank you, sir," added Fraser. He held the door for Ray and followed him out.

They came to a halt in the hallway outside, and turned to each other.

"Supply closet," said Ray, pointing at Fraser's chest.

"Supply closet," Fraser agreed, and led the way. He closed the door after them with some apprehension, unsure of Ray's reactions, whether he'd returned the kiss willingly or involuntarily. How much he wanted this. But before Fraser could voice his concerns, Ray pushed him against the door, leaned in and captured his mouth in an undeniably deliberate — not to mention sexual — kiss, a kiss that set Fraser alight with desire almost before it began.

Fraser tugged Ray closer still, licking into his mouth and pressing their bodies together hungrily, one arm around Ray's waist and the other circling his shoulders. Ray answered him point for point. He slid his fingers into Fraser's hair, held him and kissed him without reservation, and Fraser's heart sang and his body burned. After an eternity he broke away and murmured in Ray's ear, "Take me home with you."

Ray's hands tightened and he kissed him again as though he couldn't help himself. As though he were starving. "Yeah," he said against Fraser's mouth. One of his hands traversed Fraser's tattered tunic, slid down his side and settled low on his hip. "Jesus," said Ray. "Wanted this so long. Didn't know, couldn't tell. Wanted you too much to think straight."

"Evidently," Fraser deadpanned and laughed when Ray smacked his upper arm.

"You're up for this?" Ray was suddenly anxious. "You want it?"

"You." Fraser pulled Ray into a bear hug, buried his face in the side of Ray's neck. "I want you." He infused the words with all the meaning he could muster.

Ray's groan was muffled but sounded heartfelt. "We have got to get out of here."

Fraser took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Indeed." His body objected, but commonsense and the law had to prevail. "Ray?"

Ray was still holding him tightly. "Promise this isn't some trick of the light. We're not going to step out the door and boom, this never happened."

"I promise."

Ray nodded. He didn't seem fully convinced — it was a sudden turn of events, after all this time; Fraser could hardly blame him — but after all, what choice did they have? They could hardly spend the rest of their lives in the supply closet.

Fraser pressed his lips to Ray's again, and then he heard a small scratching sound and froze. "Ray," he breathed, "don't move." He reached past him and pulled the light cord.

The supply closet flooded with light, revealing rows of stationery, bags of coffee grounds, old uniforms and several bundles that were either fishing nets or coarse-woven hammocks. And on the highest shelf, peering down at them and quivering, three red-furred faces: one mature and two tiny and blurry-eyed as though they'd not yet learned to focus.

Fraser stared at them, his attention still tangled up with Ray, with kissing, with the further pleasures the evening might yet bring. But those small faces— "Oh, dear." He pointed up at them. "I'm afraid there might be a short delay before we can leave the station."

Ray squinted up at them, then grinned at Fraser. "Squirrels? Huh. I should've known it couldn't be this easy."

"I'm afraid not." Fraser smiled too, ruefully. "If I'm not mistaken, that's Mrs. Sparky and the Spark babies."

Ray shook his head. "Okay, so we rescue the damsel in distress, and then— we get a reward?" His eyes gleamed.

Fraser kissed him quickly and let his hand stray lower on Ray's back, making him surge forward into Fraser's arms. "I guarantee it."

"Okay." Ray winked at him. "Okay, then. You got a deal."

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