Ray Vecchio, detective first grade, Chicago P.D., looked up as his 'unofficial' partner entered the squad room. He smiled as he saw Fraser coming toward him. He and Benny were partners off the job as well, and Ray thanked God every day for bringing the Canadian into his life.

There was no real defining moment when they had fallen in love. Ray preferred to think of it as growing into love. They had been partners and friends for some time before their relationship took a romantic turn, and even then it had been gradual. A touch that lasted longer than usual, a hand on the shoulder that stayed there rather than being removed right away, a hug that somehow seemed more intense than before. Finally, Ray had just gone ahead and kissed Benny, and they'd both known that this was right for them.

It hadn't all been smooth sailing. Ray valued his privacy and would not tell anyone about his and Benny's new relationship. He wouldn't tell his family, and he wouldn't tell his fellow cops. He knew that this bothered Fraser, but the Mountie went along with it, though not without several complaints.

Ray looked at Benny approaching and noticed that his partner seemed to be moving a bit stiffly. When Fraser arrived at his desk, he asked, "Something wrong, Benny? You look a bit stiff."

"My back hurts; that's all. It's nothing serious," replied Fraser.

"Your back? Is it...?" Ray didn't finish. Is it my bullet? he wanted to ask. The bullet that he had fired at Victoria Metcalfe, the one that had landed in Benny's back in a place where it couldn't be removed. The bullet that could have killed his partner.

"Ray," said Fraser, "my back hurts. That's all. I'm not as young as I used to be. I'm nearly forty years old. There's bound to be some damage from all of the strain that I've put on it over the years."

"I hear ya, Benny," said Ray, trying not to let his concern show too much. "Some mornings I look in the mirror and I wonder who the old guy looking back at me is."

"Your age must be affecting your memory, Ray, if you don't recognize your own reflection," Fraser teased.

"Sure, rub it in," Ray complained good-naturedly as he and Fraser exited the bullpen. When he was certain that no one was in earshot, he added, "I'll give you a massage when we get to your place, okay?"

"I look forward to it," Benny answered as he slipped an arm around his partner's waist. Ray quickly pushed the arm away.

"Not in public, Benny —  remember?"

The Canadian quickly removed the offending arm and clasped his hands behind his back to better resist the temptation to touch his lover. "Of course. How could I forget?" he murmured.

The Italian sighed. He hated it when Fraser put on what Ray privately referred to as his 'long suffering martyr' expression. He couldn't afford to be outed, especially not at the precinct. Gay cops were targets of abuse, harassment, even threats. He wouldn't take the risk that one day he would call for backup and none would show up.

Once they were at Benny's apartment, Ray's bad mood lessened. He helped his partner undress, and then Fraser lay down on the bed with Ray straddling him. As he rubbed Benny's sore muscles, Ray couldn't help glance at the scar that showed the location of his bullet. He noticed that the area around it seemed a bit swollen. "Benny, how long has this swelling been here?" he asked.

"Swelling?" asked the Mountie. "What swelling?"

"The swelling around your bullet wound." Ray carefully touched the swollen area. "It feels a bit hot, too. You have some inflammation here."

"I'm sure it's nothing," Benny said dismissively. He didn't like to think about the bullet in his back. It was a constant reminder of his failure where Victoria was concerned. He'd betrayed Ray, his partner and best friend. He'd almost run away from Ray, from his job, from Chicago entirely. Ray's bullet had prevented him from making what would have been the biggest mistake of his life. It was a small price to pay. But Ray didn't see that. He blamed himself, and he couldn't seem to stop beating himself up over having shot Fraser. Sometimes Ben even wondered if Ray had become his lover out of some sort of feeling of guilt or obligation. He seldom said, "I love you." Considering that his partner was normally a demonstrative man, Benny found that unusual. He himself found the words difficult to say; he hadn't heard them when he was growing up, not since his mother died. His father frowned on expressions of love, even going so far as to say he would have hit his son if he'd said he loved him.

"Benny, you should have a doctor check it out. There might be something wrong," Ray said in a concerned voice.

"I really don't have time to see a doctor," answered his lover. "My schedule at the Consulate is quite busy lately. I doubt Inspector Thatcher will be able to give me any time off."

Ray frowned. "I'm sure that the Dragon Lady would understand if you needed to see a doctor." Then he added, "Or is it a money thing? Can't you afford to go to the doctor?"

"Money isn't a problem, Ray. The Canadian government covers medical expenses for all members of the RCMP, no matter where in the world we're stationed."

"Oh, right. I forgot." The idea that anyone in Canada could go to a doctor without having to worry about being able to pay for it was something that he didn't always remember, but it sounded pretty darn good to him. Maybe when he retired, he and Benny could move to Canada.

Wait a minute. When he retired? He realized that he had just made the assumption that he and Benny would still be together then. Ray smiled. He really hoped that would happen. Maybe tomorrow he'd talk to Personnel about diverting more money from his paycheck into his retirement plan. He might be able to retire sooner that way.

Noticing the time, Ray rose. "I'd better get going, Benny. I'm late for dinner as it is."

Fraser caught his hand and gazed into his eyes. "I wish you could stay," he whispered.

"I wish I could too, Benny. But you know why I can't."

"I know why you say you can't."

"Benny, we've been over this."

"I understand why you can't be out at work, Ray. But your family loves you. I would think you would want to share your happiness with them. That is, if you really are happy with me," Benny added.

"Benny, if I told my family about us, can't you see what would happen? Ma would be devastated to think she's raised a gay son. She'd blame herself, think she'd done something wrong. Frannie would go ballistic thinking I'm taking you away from her. Maria might try to keep me away from her kids. I don't want to risk it."

"Isn't our relationship worth the risk?" Fraser asked.

"I don't have time for this now, Benny. I've given you my reasons. If you can't accept them, maybe we should rethink this relationship. I have to go." And Ray walked out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him.

Fraser watched him leave, his mouth hanging open in shock. A sick feeling started in the pit of his stomach. Ray had left him. He'd said they should rethink their relationship. Ray didn't love him. That thought repeated itself over and over. Ray didn't love him.

Later that night as he lay in bed, Ray tossed and turned. He'd regretted his angry words to his partner almost as soon as he'd said them, but he'd been both too proud and too ashamed to go back and apologize. He'd just been tired and frustrated. He'd told Benny so many times why he didn't want to come out to his family, but the Canadian kept pressuring him to do so. Why couldn't he leave it alone?

The more he thought about it, though, the more he considered the possibility that maybe Benny was right. He shouldn't have to hide his love for his partner. Benny deserved more than kisses snatched when no one was looking, quickies in the afternoon after work, weekends spent with Ray's family that Ray couldn't even enjoy for fear that his and Benny's feelings for each other would show. Their relationship shouldn't be hidden like some dirty secret that he was ashamed of.

He realized that he hardly ever told Benny that he loved him. He knew that his lover was uncomfortable saying the "l" word himself . He had his upbringing to thank for that. So Ray didn't say it, for fear of making Benny uncomfortable. But Ray didn't need to hear the words to know that Benny loved him. The Mountie showed his love in so many ways. He'd risked his life for Ray more than once. But did Benny know that Ray loved him? Ray was so busy trying to make sure that no one saw them touch each other or heard them express their feelings that sometimes he didn't touch Benny at all, or tell him how much he loved him, how happy he was that they were together. Well, he'd change that. Tomorrow he'd call Benny at the Consulate and arrange to take him out for lunch. He'd apologize for the things he'd said today, and tell him that he loved him, no matter who was in earshot. And in the morning he'd talk to his Ma and his sisters about Benny.

By noon the next day Ray was getting impatient to see his partner. He wanted to tell him that he'd come out to his family. It had gone better than he'd feared. Ma was more disappointed than anything, he thought. Ray's being in a same sex relationship didn't really fit with her hopes for him, but she told him that she loved him, no matter what. Maria had simply shrugged and said that she was surprised, but it was Ray's life. Frannie had been a bit tougher. She still held out hope that one day Benny would fall madly in love with her, and now it didn't look like there was much chance of that happening. She wept and wailed and threw a temper tantrum, but finally calmed down once she got it out of her system. "Are you happy?" she finally asked, with a sniffle.

"Yeah, Frannie, we are," her brother told her.

She fixed him with a stern look. "If you hurt him, Ray, you'll have me to answer to."

Ray hugged her. "I'll remember that, Sis. And, Frannie, you'll find someone one day."

Francesca shooed him out of the house. "Go to work already so you can keep your lunch date."

Meanwhile, at the Canadian Consulate, Fraser wasn't feeling well. He'd barely slept the night before. His argument with Ray had kept running through his mind. And his back hurt. He couldn't ignore it. He hadn't told Ray, but the pain was centered around the place where the bullet still sat. Maybe his partner had been right. Maybe he should see a doctor. He headed toward Inspector Thatcher's office.

"What is it, Constable?" asked the Inspector distractedly.

"Sir, I'm not feeling well," he blurted out before collapsing.

Meg Thatcher remained calm. She called an ambulance, then tried to make her Liaison Officer as comfortable as possible until it arrived. She loosened the restrictive uniform and asked Constable Turnbull to fetch a blanket, which she used to cover Fraser. She wasn't able to answer many of the paramedics' questions, unfortunately. She simply didn't know why Fraser had collapsed. "He said he wasn't feeling well, then he passed out," she told them.

As the paramedics prepared to take Fraser to the hospital, Meg thought of another call she should make. She picked up the phone and dialled the 27th precinct, asking to speak to Detective Ray Vecchio.

"Vecchio," Ray answered the phone.

"Detective, this is Inspector Thatcher at the Canadian Consulate."

Ray sat bolt upright. The Dragon Lady was calling him? Something must have happened to Benny!

"Y-yes, Inspector, what is it?" he stammered, his heart in his throat.

"Constable Fraser collapsed at work today. He's at St. Francis Hospital. I don't know what his condition is. I'm on my way over there. I see from his personnel file that you're his emergency contact, so I thought I should let you know what happened."

"Thank you, Inspector," Ray managed to mumble before he hung up the phone. Benny had collapsed? Benny was in the hospital? Damn it, he had told the Canadian to see a doctor. Yelling over his shoulder to Elaine that he was on his way to the hospital to see his partner, he rushed out of the precinct.

The detective broke all the speed laws in Chicago on his way to the hospital. Once there he flew down the hall to the admitting desk and demanded to see Benny. The nurse told him that the doctors were busy examining Fraser and that Ray would just have to wait. Muttering under his breath, Ray waited.

In the examining room, Fraser drifted in and out of awareness. He was not quite conscious, but not completely unconscious either. He was vaguely aware of his surroundings, of people poking and prodding him and sometimes trying to talk to him, but he didn't feel able to respond. Not that he really cared. He just wanted to be left alone. Ray didn't love him. Nothing else mattered. He wanted to sleep. He wondered if dying was anything like falling asleep. Maybe he could just go to sleep and not wake up again. That would be easy, he thought. He wouldn't cause any trouble for anyone that way. Maybe a few people would miss him, but not for long.

Ray didn't love him. If he did survive, he'd ask for a transfer out of Chicago. But where would he go? There wasn't anywhere in Canada he'd be welcome. He drifted into unconsciousness again.

After what seemed to Ray like several years, a doctor emerged to talk to him.

"Constable Fraser has a massive systemic infection, and it's causing his body's systems to shut down," the doctor, whose name was Fisher, said. "It seems to have been caused by the bullet in his back. The site where the bullet is lodged has become infected, and I guess he ignored the signs, because the infection has spread. I'd like to take a chance on removing the bullet, but I'd prefer it if he were a bit more stable first."

"But they said when he first got shot that they couldn't remove the bullet," Ray protested.

"I realize that. I've read the records, though, and I think that it can be removed safely, as long as we take the right precautions. But first, as I said, I would like him to be more stable, and we can't seem to get him stabilized. We have him on intravenous antibiotics and some painkillers. He's drifting in and out of consciousness. He seems to be fighting us. It's almost as if he doesn't want to get better."

He doesn't want to get better?. Ray thought of the things he'd said yesterday, the angry words about "rethinking this relationship." Had Benny taken them seriously? Did he think that Ray wanted to break up with him? "I have to see him."

"He's not really in any shape to have visitors right now, Detective," the doctor protested.

"I don't care. You said he doesn't want to get better. There's a reason for that. I'm the reason. He thinks I've abandoned him. You have to understand, Doctor, everyone that Benny's ever loved has left him. He needs to know that I'm not leaving him." Ray didn't know why he was telling this to a complete stranger. He hadn't wanted to come out to his own family, and now he was coming out to someone he'd just met. But Benny was that important to him. And the doctor had to know it.

Fisher sighed. "I'm willing to try anything if it will help my patient. Go ahead and talk to him." He directed Ray to Benny's room.

Fraser drifted back into awareness. He wasn't entirely awake. He felt as if he were floating. The medications he was being given were probably the cause of that. He was vaguely aware that someone had come into the room. The newcomer approached his bed and sat down. Ben could feel anxiety practically pouring off this person. A hand reached out and took his. "Benny?" said a familiar voice.

Ray! Ray was here. Why was he here? Maybe he felt guilty. Fraser wanted to tell him not to. It wasn't his fault if he didn't love Benny. You couldn't just decide to love someone or not love them.

"Benny, I'm sorry for what I said yesterday about rethinking our relationship. I didn't mean it. I don't want our relationship to change, except that I want other people to know about it, about us. I told my family, Benny — Ma and Frannie and Maria. They all know. They know that I love you."

Love? Ben wished that someone would come and check his ears for him. He thought he'd just heard Ray say that he loved him, but that couldn't be right. Ray didn't love him.

"I know I don't say it often enough, Benny, but I love you. Please don't leave me, Benny. Stay with me. Fight this infection or whatever it is. I need you."

If Fraser hadn't been feeling too tired to move, he would have shaken his head or slapped his ears, anything to clear up his hearing. He couldn't possibly be hearing what he thought he was hearing. But the catch in Ray's voice sounded genuine. Then he felt his hand being lifted to his partner's face. He felt some wetness on the other man's cheek. Ray was crying?

Ray was crying.

Fraser had never seen Ray cry before, not even when Irene had been killed. But here he was now, sitting at Fraser's bedside, and he was crying.

Ray really did love him.

It took almost all of his remaining strength, but he managed to gasp out his partner's name. "Ray."

Ray jumped up and leaned over the bed. "Benny? Can you hear me?"

"Ray.... I love you."

"I know you do, Benny. I've always known that. But it's good to hear. I love you, too. You stay with me, got that? Don't you dare leave me."

Fraser managed one more word before he fell asleep again. "Never."

Over the next few days Fraser's condition gradually improved. The medication was working, but it was Ray's presence at his side that really made a difference. He had other visitors: Thatcher and Turnbull, some of the detectives from the 27th precinct, and the rest of the Vecchio family.

But Ray never left. He stayed right by Fraser's bed, sometimes napping in a chair, but never far away. He didn't care who saw him there, and he even touched his partner or held his hand when they had visitors. Fortunately Mrs. Vecchio brought food with her when she visited, because Benny thought that Ray wouldn't even leave him long enough to get something to eat.

Then the day that Ray had been dreading arrived. The doctors decided that Fraser was well enough to undergo surgery to remove the bullet from his back. "I won't kid you," said the surgeon. "It's a risky procedure. Constable Fraser could come out of it unable to walk."

Ray and Benny thanked him, then asked for some time alone before they took Fraser to the operating room.

"Ray, if anything happens — if I become paralyzed — I don't expect you to stay with me," Fraser said carefully.

"How can you say that?" exclaimed Ray. "I love you, you crazy Mountie. I won't leave you — no matter what."

"But if I'm paralyzed, there will be things — you know, intimate things — that I won't be able to do with you."

"You think I care about that? About sex? Benny, as long as you're alive, that's all that matters. Anything else is a luxury. I don't want you to be paralyzed, but if you are, I'll accept it. I'll stay with you and I'll take care of you for as long as we have together. I'll take early retirement so I can be with you all the time."

Fraser said nothing as he absorbed his partner's words. Then he lay back on his pillow and closed his eyes as the sedatives he'd been given began to take effect. "I love you, Ray," he whispered.

Ray kissed him. "I love you, Benny. I'll see you soon." And then the orderlies came to take Benny to surgery.

Ray waited, pacing the hall, for hours while the surgery went on. He couldn't help but think of the first time he'd waited for Benny to come out of surgery. The time he'd shot Benny. Then there had even been the risk that Benny would die. If Fraser hadn't survived, Ray had known that the next bullet to leave his gun would have taken his own life. Fortunately, it hadn't turned out that way.

When the doctor finally came out, Ray cornered him in the hallway. "What's the news?" he wanted to know.

"Constable Fraser is in recovery. We were able to remove the bullet with a minimum of trouble," the surgeon answered. "As for the question of paralysis," he added before Ray could ask, "that's still uncertain. We'll have to see how he feels when he wakes up."

Ray sighed and thanked him. More waiting. He hated waiting. But what else could he do? He'd promised Benny that he'd take care of him, and he would, no matter what. But he hated to think of Benny in a wheelchair. In a wheelchair because of him. How long would it take before Benny started blaming him? Before his lover couldn't look at him without thinking of the shot that had changed everything?

He told himself he was borrowing trouble, to use an expression he'd heard from his Ma. He didn't know yet if Benny would be paralyzed. Maybe he would be all right.

He stood and watched his sleeping partner. I'll never hurt you again, Benny. Never.

Fraser slept for the rest of that day and most of the next. He woke briefly a few times, obviously in pain, and Ray would give him a drink of water, hold his hand, and talk to him until he went back to sleep, usually with the help of the pain meds that were being delivered by a helpful intravenous pump.

When he finally woke up, Benny found Ray at his side, the same way the detective had been since he had first been admitted more than a week earlier. "Ray, have you gone home at all since I've been here?"

Vecchio shrugged. "Nope," was his reply.

"Now that's silly, Ray. You need to sleep, and shower, and spend time with your family."

"I sleep here. I shower in your bathroom over there. And you are my family."

"But Ray ..."

"Shush, Benny. I'm not doing anything I don't want to do. Now, how are you feeling?"

Fraser knew it wasn't any use lying to his lover. "It hurts," he said simply.

"Well, that's no big surprise. I'd be more worried if it didn't hurt. At least this means you can feel something."

"I don't know yet if...." Ben started to say.

"That's okay, Benny. We'll wait and see what the doctor says about whether you can walk or not, okay?"

"Okay." But the doctor was held up with another patient, and was not able to see Fraser right away. Eventually, the Mountie fell asleep again, Ray still keeping watch over him.

Finally, Dr. Fisher arrived to see Benny. Ray hovered impatiently as the surgeon performed some simple tests to check the Mountie's reflexes and see how much feeling he had in his legs.

"Do you think you can stand up, Constable Fraser?" the doctor asked.

Ray jumped up, ready to support his partner if he fell. The doctor motioned for him to stand back. Fraser had to try standing on his own. And he did. He was a bit weak and shaky, but he stood without assistance.

"Now, can you walk a few steps?" the doctor requested.

Fraser took a few steps toward Ray before he stumbled slightly. Ray caught him in his arms and hugged him hard. "You did it, Benny!"

Fraser gave him a slightly self-conscious smile. Ray helped him back into bed then waited to hear what the doctor had to say.

"You'll need some physical therapy before you can go back to work, Constable, but it looks like you're going to be just fine. There's no permanent damage." He paused, then asked curiously, "By the way, how did you get shot? I assume it was a criminal, but I'm a bit confused, since you were shot in the back, and normally a shooter wouldn't be behind a pursuing police officer."

Fraser didn't answer. Ray finally said, "It wasn't a criminal. I shot him."

"By accident," Fraser added quickly.

"It's a long story," Ray mumbled.

Realizing that the subject seemed to make the two men uncomfortable, the doctor changed topics. "Constable Fraser, I understand that you live alone. I don't want to release you from the hospital unless you have someone to look after you."

"He'll be staying with me," Ray stated. "My mother and sisters will help me look after him."

"Good," said Dr. Fisher. "Constable Fraser isn't ready to leave us just yet, but before he does I will give you any instructions you need to help you take care of him." And the doctor left them alone once more.

"Ray, how do you expect me to stay in your house with you and still hide our relationship?" Ben asked his partner.

"We don't have to hide it. I already told Ma and Frannie and Maria about us. They don't have a problem with it. And even if they did, I don't care."

"When did this take place?" the Canadian inquired.

"The day you got sick. I was planning to call you and take you to lunch so that I could tell you that I came out to my family."

"What made you change your mind about telling them?"

Ray sighed. "I couldn't stand to see how much it hurt you every time I avoided touching you, or stopped you from touching me, when we were around my family. And the things I said to you the night before, about rethinking' our relationship.... I was so ashamed of saying them, and I realized how much it must have hurt you. It just seemed like every time I made an excuse for not telling them I hurt you more. I don't ever want to hurt you again, Benny."

"What about the precinct?" Ben wanted to know.

"Well, I didn't make any announcements or anything, but I figure that since I took a leave of absence to stay here with you, and I've been right here beside your bed every time Welsh or Huey or Elaine comes to visit, they must have figured it out by now."

"Are you all right with that?"

"Benny, I could have lost you. You could have died thinking that I didn't love you. Everything else is insignificant next to that. You're here and you're okay. That's all that matters to me."

"I love you, Ray."

"I love you too, Benny." And he didn't care if anyone heard him say that, or if anyone saw him bend over and kiss his partner directly on the lips.