“You’ve done it!” Craig exclaimed triumphantly when Fraser reached the window. Sweat was pouring down his neck, but Fraser couldn’t contain the smile.
He wobbled slightly and Craig steadied him with a firm grip on his arm. “Now, don’t ruin the effect by falling,” he laughed gently.
Fraser smiled. He hadn’t expected it to be so exhausting to walk on crutches. His right leg was giving him more grief than the left one, suddenly losing strength or trembling in between steps.
But he had done it. He had crossed the whole length of the room.
He laughed with relief. It would probably take another few weeks before he could walk regularly with the help of the crutches, but Ray would be so surprised. Fraser smiled.
It was deceiving, not telling Ray that he was practicing to walk with crutches, but he wanted to see the pleasure wash over Ray’s face when he saw him walk on his own for the first time.
It was a childish joy, but there was so little he could do without Ray knowing that he really wanted to make this a surprise.
“Our time is almost up, let’s get you seated again,” Craig said with a glance at the clock.
Fraser had hardly touched the wheelchair when Ray knocked on the door and entered.
“Hey, what did I miss?” He smiled.
“Ah,” Fraser rubbed his eyebrow. “We…”
“I just told Benton here about a great play he might enjoy. The critics were very much in favor of it and it’s only in town for another week. But you’ve probably heard about it; are you a friend of the theater?” Craig asked Ray.
“No, sorry, uh, I haven’t heard anything about it,” Ray mumbled, shuffling a little.
“Oh, Benton here can tell you all about it, if you’re interested. I’m sure,” Craig said with another one of his toothpaste smiles.
“Of course,” Fraser said with a smile at Craig.
“Very good, that’s it for today then—and Benton, don’t forget what you promised me?”
“No, of course not,” Fraser said softly. Craig had gotten him riled up enough so that Fraser had snapped he would do the exercises at home and then be able to walk to the end of the room and back next week.
He knew he had been manipulated the moment Craig had clapped his hands, but he had been frustrated enough to speak before he thought about it.
And if he really managed that, then it wasn’t long before he could come home on crutches instead of in a wheelchair. Fraser could already see Ray’s disbelieving smile.
Ray was unusually quiet on the ride home. Fraser rubbed his eyebrow and tried to find something comforting to say. He knew that Ray was under a lot of stress, working a regular shift, always driving him to the therapy and back, cooking, cleaning, and walking Dief.
He’d tried giving Ray some room, so that he could at least relax for a little while in the evenings. Fraser didn’t want to demand his attention on top of everything else. He wished there was more he could do for him, but he wasn’t much help with any of the tasks Ray had to take care of so some peace was more or less the only thing he could offer Ray.
And Ray seemed to need that time to himself, even if it wasn’t always easy for Fraser to leave him alone after waiting the whole day to have him back home. But Ray would sit in front of the television or just sit quietly on the couch, looking tired and small, and Fraser was afraid that if he claimed that time for himself as well than there might be not enough strength left in Ray to go on.
So he sat quietly next to Ray on the couch and pretended that this was a regular evening, like they had had before the surgery. Just a quiet evening in. There also wasn’t much Fraser could tell to keep Ray entertained.
He was doing little else than his physical therapy and talking about his sessions with Craig only seemed to depress Ray.
Maybe Fraser should’ve told him about training with the crutches after all? Maybe it was his – to Ray – non-existent progress that made it hard for Ray to hear about his exercises?
In the beginning, he had recounted his conversations with Craig—even though he was fairly certain that Ray wouldn’t be interested in them, just to have something to talk about. Fraser sighed. But Ray had only looked more lost when he did that so he had stopped boring him with it.
Fraser asked about Ray’s work instead, but either Ray’s heart wasn’t in it or nothing much happened at work, for quite often Ray couldn’t even tell what he had been doing at work. Bringing Fraser back to the problem at hand that Ray was trying to cope with too much.
They arrived back at the apartment and Fraser got settled on the couch. Ray got something to drink and sat down beside him; he was studying his hands for a while.
“So… are you going to the theater with Craig then?” Ray asked quietly.
Surprised, Fraser looked at Ray. He had almost forgotten about the play. It had been quick thinking on Craig’s part to resume their earlier conversation when Ray had come in.
“No, Craig is on a conference over the weekend. What made you think that?”
Ray shrugged. “Just… it sounded like it was something you would both enjoy… do you…” he shrugged again. “Do you want me to go with you?”
Fraser’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You don’t even know which play it is yet.”
“Does it matter?”
Fraser rubbed a knuckle over his eyebrow. “Oddly, yes. I wouldn’t want to drag you to the theater if you didn’t enjoy yourself.”
“I could… come with you just to keep you company,” Ray explained softly.
“Ray, this isn’t really about the play, is it?” Fraser asked gently. He had known Ray for years and not once had he expressed any love for the stage.
“Do you wanna go with Craig when he’s back in town?” Ray sounded close to choking.
“I don’t see why Craig is important with respect to the play,” he admitted with another flick of his thumb over his eyebrow.
“I thought you had so much in common, no? Thought he was such a great guy—why shouldn’t you wanna go to a play with him?” Ray said surprisingly bitterly.
“Ray…” Fraser bit his lip, trying to tread carefully. “Are you jealous?” He felt really stupid asking such a preposterous question, but he usually wasn’t this bad at reading Ray and…
“So what if I am?” Ray said angrily. “He’s tall, with broad shoulders, and stunning blue eyes… he knows all kinds of books, he can talk for hours on end—and there’s probably tons of stuff more that makes him attractive to you, and—”
Fraser raised an eyebrow, feeling mildly confused.
“Are you sure we are talking about my type here?”
Ray stopped abruptly mid-rant. “What are you talking about?”
Fraser pulled at his collar. “I don’t want to flatter myself, but the description you have just given sounds more like what you are always saying about me than a description of you.”
Ray frowned. “That’s my point. He’s got all the stuff in common with you, and he—”
“Ray,” it was so hard to keep from smiling all of a sudden. “I don’t want to be with someone identical to myself. I love you, why on earth should I replace you with someone like myself then?”
Ray gaped at him.
“And… while I think it’s flattering that you think Craig would be interested—”
“Oh, he’s interested in you, trust me on this,” Ray spluttered.
“I’m bound to a wheelchair, I’m— I can’t return sexual interest… I’m not the catch you seem to think I am.”
“Are you unhinged?” Ray sprang up from the couch. “Did the pills make you stupid?” Ray’s eyes sparkled furiously.
Ray was… he was actually serious. He really was jealous. It—it didn’t make any sense.
Ray’s heart had to be blind. Here Fraser had spent weeks, well months, really, agonizing over the thought that Ray would come to the conclusion that loving him was simply more work than it was worth and… all this time… Ray had been afraid Fraser could abandon him? Because… what? Because Ray had thought without the sex he didn’t have enough to offer? That he couldn’t compete with Craig?
“How long have you been jealous, Ray?” Fraser asked.
Ray threw his head to the side and stared out of the window for a second. “It’s not important.”
“Yes, it is,” he contradicted him. “Give me your hands,” he said, all of a sudden.
This brave, loving, idiot of a man.
Confused, Ray stretched out his arms, palms up as if he was still offering something to Fraser.
Fraser took a deep breath and reached for Ray’s forearms, almost at the bend of his elbows. His own elbows were resting almost on Ray’s palms.
“Now hold,” Fraser said and the moment he pushed himself up he knew that Ray had understood; his muscles tensed as he supported Fraser.
Fraser came to a stand in front of Ray, his hands still clasped around Ray’s arms as if he was his crutch now.
“Ben…” Ray whispered. “You’re standing.”
“Yes… I wanted to do this for a long time,” and then he leaned forward a little bit to press his lips to Ray’s.
Fraser pulled back and took another deep breath. He could do this. His hands tightened their grip. Just like with the crutches, he reminded himself.
“Take a step back, Ray,” he murmured.
“Take a step back,” Fraser repeated.
Ray moved his right foot back. His stockinged feet glided smoothly over the hardwood floor.
Fraser looked down at his feet. He could feel the wood against his bare feet. It helped with the exercises if he was barefoot and he was twice as glad now. He flexed his toes.
One deep breath, he thought.
And then his left foot moved forward.
“Another one,” he said to Ray, still concentrating on his feet, and Ray nodded and moved his left foot back.
Fraser braced himself and followed with his right leg.
“One more,” he whispered.
Nodding, Ray obeyed.
Fraser concentrated on his feet as he moved forward, step by step.
His right leg wobbled suddenly, but Ray’s grip on his arm stayed tight. “Breathe,” Ray murmured and Fraser found his balance again.
They moved two steps more.
Fraser licked his lips. “Step back.”
Ray laughed breathlessly. “I can’t.”
Fraser’s head flew up and then his eyes widened. “Oh.” Ray’s back had hit the wall.
Ray’s eyes were soft and shining. “You walked, Ben, you fucking walked.”
“I wanted to surprise you,” Fraser murmured, shyly pleased.
He moved a little closer, until his toes bumped Ray’s. Hoping his legs would carry him, Fraser began raising his left arm—but Ray seemed to know instinctively what Fraser wanted to do. His arm moved with him, safely guiding Fraser’s hand to his shoulder.
They repeated the same process with Fraser’s other arm until he had Ray in an embrace. He leaned in to kiss him again.
Light. He felt so light. His hands tightened their hold of Ray’s shirt, soaking up the warmth of his skin.
Never had he underestimated someone as much as he had misjudged Ray. He deepened the kiss, unwilling to let go.
When they finally parted, Ray was smiling.
His lips twitched into a toothy grin for a second. “How are we going to get back?” he murmured.
“Oh dear. I have no idea,” Fraser laughed quietly.
“Let’s turn around. I’ll walk backwards and you can guide me.”
“Okay,” Fraser smiled.
Walking to the end of the room and back would be a piece of cake next week.
Carefully, Fraser gripped the kitchen counter to arrange the necessary ingredients.
As long as he could reach out to steady himself, he should be fine—
Dief stood in the entrance of the kitchen and whined.
“I thank you for your concern, but I assure you I am more than able to prepare something as simple as pasta on my own.”
The half-wolf grumbled and sat back on his haunches. “I’m not pushing it,” Fraser muttered irritably. “I can walk just fine with the crutches; standing on my own shouldn’t pose much of a challenge.”
Fraser gritted his teeth. He could do this. A look at the clock showed him that he had ample time before Ray would return from work.
He steadied himself with one hand to reach for a cutting board and a knife. His hand still tingled now and again when he gripped something tightly, but it receded fairly quickly.
Chopping the onions went smoothly enough. He reached for the tomatoes and proceeded to cut them into small pieces. A self-satisfied smiled appeared on his lips as he surveyed his handiwork. This almost felt normal.
He placed the knife in the sink and opened the drawer to get the can opener. Okay, now he only had to get the can of peeled tomatoes open and together with the freshly chopped ingredients into the skillet and then the sauce could simmer until it was time for Ray’s arrival—he might even get the washing up done before Ray came home.
He pulled the lid of the can open and turned to the stove to pour the contents into the skillet when his right leg trembled. He had already turned to the side though and the tremor didn’t recede. He wobbled and felt his right leg give way so he made a grab for the edge of the counter, dropping the can on the floor in the process.
Dief barked and Fraser swallowed a curse. He couldn’t even clean up after himself and his stupid leg was still shaking—the oil in the pan was sizzling angrily.
“For the love of—” Fraser snarled and swept his hand over the counter, pulling everything on it to the floor with a crash.
Fraser put a hand over his eyes and breathed heavily. Just great.
Dief whimpered softly and Fraser sighed.
“I’m absolutely useless,” he whispered as the anger evaporated. What a mess…
The next moment, the key rattled in the lock. Fraser pinched the bridge of his nose. Of course…. of all the times Ray could have been early, he thought bitterly.
Ray was grinning from ear to ear on his way back from work. He was humming a song he couldn’t even remember the title of, but Ben had played it on the guitar a couple of times, and it seemed appropriate.
He’d stopped on his way home to buy an assortment of donuts, thinking Dief would probably start a cult for him and Ben really, really liked the ones with the blueberry jam—even though he’d never admit how much.
God, he was so proud of Fraser. It was the second week that he was walking on crutches now and he could even – carefully – walk a few steps on his own as long as he had something to hold on to in case his legs abandoned him. It happened less and less often, though. Ray smiled.
He snuck a glance at his watch and did a little jig. He was early. Fraser would be surprised.
“I’m home,” Ray called and was greeted by Dief who probably possessed something like a pastry-radar. “Nuh-uh. Those are for later,” Ray held the box out of the reach of wolf slobber. “Where’s Fraser?”
Dief flattened his ears and whined. Ray frowned. That didn’t look too good.
Ray deposited the box on the side table in the hall.
“Ben?” he called as he entered the living room.
He heard a sigh coming from the left, from the direction of the kitchen.
“I’m here,” Fraser answered resignedly.
Ray’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch as he saw the mess on the floor. A can of tomatoes had covered the kitchen floor in a mess of scarlet, but somehow Ray didn’t think that the plates and the chopped stuff had all ended up on the floor by accident as well.
He raised his eyebrows and stepped carefully behind Fraser who was still standing right in the middle of the mess with his hands on the kitchen counter, spelling ‘ashamed’ with every line of his body.
Ray’s arms came around him and he rested his chin on Fraser’s shoulder.
“I told you the green stuff you’re so fond of would lead a counter-attack some day,” he said mildly.
Fraser’s lip twitched into a tired smile. “I’m sorry, Ray.”
Ray shook his head. “Don’t be,” he pressed a kiss to Ben’s throat. “What happened?”
Fraser sighed unhappily and rubbed at his eyebrow. Ray thought he could probably guess what had happened.
“I wanted to make dinner when—” he hung his head and Ray translated that Fraser’s legs hadn’t been very supportive of that idea. “The open can slipped out of my hand then and…” he licked his lips and Ray saw a faint blush rising up his cheeks. “I’m afraid my frustration got the better of me. It’s really no excuse—and I’m sorry about the plates, I’ll—”
Ray smiled. It was something so human to do—and so stupid, venting your emotions by clearing the counter. He just never would’ve guessed Fraser could be pushed so far.
He chuckled. “You’re aware that I’ll store that memory away for safe-keeping, right?”
“I’d really rather you didn’t,” Fraser said, embarrassed.
“Too late, Benton-buddy,” Ray laughed. He tightened his embrace and sobered up a little. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, okay? You’re doing great.”
Fraser smiled a little and took Ray’s hand in his. He raised it to his lips and pressed a kiss to Ray’s knuckles.
“No, Ray, please,” Fraser smiled, holding the phone close to his ear. “I’m fine…” he shook his head fondly. Ray Vecchio was extraordinarily stubborn.
“I would really prefer it if you finished your business first before you returned. There is no reason to abandon your project just to see me, I really am fine. Ray is taking care of me—yes…” Fraser smiled, “no, I’m not just trying to reassure you—”
Ray came in and raised his eyebrows in question at the telephone. Fraser mouthed ‘Ray’ and Ray rolled his eyes with a grin.
“Tell Vecchio we need to get to your appointment, he can call back later.”
Fraser nodded with a helpless lift of his shoulders.
“Ray, I really need to go now. I’ll call you back—and don’t worry.”
Fraser hung up and smiled at Ray. “I think Ray is still blaming himself for the whole thing.”
Ray snorted. “Is he already at the airport or what?”
“No, actually that was the reason for his call. Apparently there was some delay with the paperwork and he needs a little while longer to close the deal and I told him it’s fine, they can finish looking for an apartment and he can come visit me when they come back to Chicago to move their belongings.”
“Very sensible,” Ray grinned. “Okay, up and at her.”
Fraser had to admit that, a few months back, he hadn’t thought he would ever be able to walk on his own again. And now he moved almost fluidly again—he could even climb stairs by himself. It felt almost back to normal… he felt Ray’s hand at his back, hardly there at all, but he knew that Ray would be ready to catch him in a heartbeat should he experience problems.
…well, almost back to normal. He still couldn’t…. he hadn’t made love to Ray in all the time since the surgery… he had never again felt the slightest reaction below the waist even though his legs kept on improving.
Today was another one of his medical check-ups. The doctor measured the responses in his legs and nodded to himself. Fraser could take a seat again and the doctor consulted the pictures from the MRT. “Well,” he said in an approving voice, “Corporal, you have either the most extraordinary regenerative powers or a very strong will for survival—”
“Oh, it’s the stubbornness, trust me,” Ray quipped cheerfully and Fraser shook his head with a smile.
“However, as far as I can tell there seems no reason why you shouldn’t be able to regain the full use of your legs—”
Fraser stared at him with wide eyes and Ray jumped up from his seat with an excited cry.
“Are you serious?” Fraser asked breathlessly.
The doctor smiled. “You have regained far more control over your limbs than we had thought possible and I think with another month of physical therapy running shouldn’t be a problem for you.”
The doctor waited patiently until Ray’s stream of swear words had died down. “Sorry,” Ray mumbled, slightly embarrassed. The grin didn’t die down one watt, though.
“I wouldn’t recommend…” he consulted his notes. “Sentry duty, is that correct? At the moment, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to resume your consulate duties in a few weeks.”
Fraser didn’t know who was happier, he himself or Ray. They had been back at home for more than two hours, but Ray couldn’t stop talking about it or touching him and Fraser couldn’t erase the smile from his face either.
Maybe it was the happiness… maybe it was Ray’s carefree smile… but for the first time Fraser didn’t feel embarrassed or apprehensive about being naked with Ray despite his lack of sex drive.
Feeling Ray’s naked body against his own, after Ray had pulled him into the bedroom with a warm smile, was more than Fraser would ever take for granted.
Just kissing Ray, just being able to touch him, would be enough for him. And Ray didn’t seem to expect more from him— he looked so amazingly happy whenever his eyes met Fraser’s that Fraser was really willing to believe that Ray could be happy with him despite his inability to make love to him.
Ray was still murmuring between kisses. “You’re going to be okay, Frase…”
He kissed Ray back with everything he had. “Ray…” there was so much he wanted to say and so little words could express.
Hmm… Fraser closed the book. There wasn’t much left until the end and Fraser thought he knew who the murderer was. Hammett had gone to great pains to introduce a wide variety of suspects—ranging from hitmen, to bodyguards, to other interested parties in the statue known as the ‘Maltese Falcon’— and the police force was hell-bent on convicting Spade himself for the murder of his partner.
And then there was Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the tragically beautiful woman who had hired Spade. He tapped thoughtfully against the book cover. Brigid hadn’t told Spade the truth, not once, since she came into his life and even though Spade seemed to go to considerable lengths for her, Fraser didn’t think he really believed her to be the victim in all of this.
Well, he would find out soon enough. He stretched his legs and looked at Dief. “Are you up for a little walking?”
Dief sprang up and yipped excitedly.
Fraser smiled. Ever since the doctor had told him that he would be able to recover fully he had pushed himself even harder, lengthening the duration of his daily walks and the pace of them.
The last few sessions of his physical therapy were almost over. He shook his head… how quickly those last few weeks had passed. Ray Vecchio’s arrival was due in a few days, he was about to go back to work in a week—at least to his work at the consulate…
It was about time his therapy was finished, though. Ray still seemed to think there might be a chance he would elope with Craig. Just before the last session Ray had again made some disparaging remark about Craig’s investment in Fraser’s well-being. Really… Fraser tried to keep the smile in check.
For despite his disapproval of Ray’s attitude towards Craig he couldn’t help but feel a little bit at ease every time Ray complained about Craig and his supposed interest in him.
It really wasn’t very charitable of him to enjoy it, Fraser admitted, but he was in no position to help it.
Fraser came back to the apartment tired but happy. Taking a shower by himself was probably among the biggest luxuries since he had gotten rid of the crutches. He picked up the book again and took it with him into the bedroom.
He stretched out on the bed and found the page where he had stopped this morning. Spade called the police, telling them he would present them with the murderer. He turned to Brigid and asked her: “You knew you needed another protector, so you came back to me. Right?”
And Fraser could picture her pale, drawn face and the exquisite agony on her face as she answered him. “Yes, but, oh! Sweetheart, it wasn’t only that. I would have come back to you sooner or later.”
Fraser also couldn’t help the shiver when Spade said tenderly: “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” And he slid his hands up to caress her throat. “You’re an angel. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”
So Brigid had been the murderer. He’d suspected that… what he had tried to find out was why Spade had waited so long to deliver her to justice. He had known she had killed his partner from the moment he found his body—why the cat-and-mouse-game? Why had he made it so hard for himself?
Brigid spluttered. “You didn’t—you don’t—l—love me?” But Fraser already knew Spade’s answer to that one.
“I think I do,” Spade replied and Fraser bit his lips and thought maybe that was why he didn’t hand her over right from the beginning. Maybe he had hoped she would provide him with something to redeem her. Something to make him believe that he could save her.
For a moment, Fraser stared unseeing at the page. He thought of snow… even though there was no winter in sight in the story.
His lips formed the words aloud when Spade answered. “I won’t play the sap for you. In my part of the world when your partner gets killed you’re supposed to do something about it. I’m a detective, and expecting me to run any criminal down and then let him go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and then let it go.”
His eyes glided over to Dief’s sleeping form at the foot of the bed without meaning to. Yes, if someone shot your partner you were supposed to do something about it.
He wasn’t having back pain, he couldn’t even say that the scar of the surgery was giving him any grief, and yet he could feel it most distinctly in this one moment.
Brigid would’ve let Spade take the fall for her. She had shot his partner and she had lied to him, over and over again.
Fraser felt his scar beat in time with his pulse. Ray Vecchio hadn’t shot him. Victoria had shot him in the back long before Vecchio arrived on the scene. And if your partner gets shot… you’re supposed to do something about it.
He looked at the book cover in perplexity. Maybe his own experience wasn’t all that original. Maybe it was just another story.
Fraser had understood one thing, though, during those last few agonizing months; he was glad Ray Vecchio had stopped him—even if that meant taking a bullet; and he was glad he had survived. Not once, but twice.
And Sam Spade arrived at work the next morning just like he had every other day. Fraser had done the same thing back when he had arrested her. Maybe that should’ve told him something. He had come through it in one piece and he had left it behind by now. There wasn’t even a bullet left to stay with him as an eternal reminder.
It had been removed. There was nothing binding him to that memory.
Surprised, Fraser smiled. He had always thought of the bullet wound as his mistake—and he had never been sure if his mistake had been loving her, bringing her in that first time, or letting her go that second time. And now it was just that: a memory.