Oh, The Places You'll Go

Cosmic Rays DVD commentary

Notes: This is a DVD commentary for Cosmic Rays. The original text can be found here. I loved writing this fic so much that I couldn't help but write about it.


A larger picture of the spaceship Riviera can be found here.


So what did you do with your August, cat? Well, I wrote a daily space opera starring characters from the TV series due South, how 'bout you?

It happened like this:

Way back last October my husband went to hospital. Being the good wife I am, I picked him up a couple of magazines, including the New Scientist. Somewhere in there was an article on cosmic rays and, being slap bang in the middle of a Ray/Ray obsession my mind immediately went to AU places. Didn't do anything about that then because I was busy with some Lost and Found 'verse stuff. The Power of Grace, I think. But then some stuff happened and I nearly flounced out of lj, at least away from my catwalksalone identity so I made myself this back up journal, somewhere to go and be peaceful. It ended up with the name ultracosmicrays (cosmicrays was taken. Damn.). And then I calmed down and forgot all about it.

*does little weavy time moves on thingy with hands*

Then the summer holidays arrived and with them bad weather. I had plenty to do. Podfic to record, another Lost and Found 'verse story all outlined and ready to go, thoughts about things in other fandoms. But then revbiscuit directed me to www.galaxyzoo.org and me and TB spent an evening classifying galaxies and talking about space. I was already thinking about the Rays because of potential fic and something must have pinged.

Because before I knew it this happened.

The first time the grav field went down Kowalski booted.

Christ. Ray turned graceful somersaults in the ship's recreation space, collecting globules of puke in a plastic cup in a well-rehearsed dance. Why does Welsh keep sending me these dweebs? he thought. I'll give him six weeks and he'll be back home to whatever shitty facsimile Earth he's from in the first place.

I adore the mental image I get of Vecchio collected Kowalski's puke. It's gross but graceful at the same time. And I can just see the look of exasperation on his face. *beams

"Fucking piece of shit machinery," he heard Kowalski mumble as Ray glided past aiming to get the last piece of vomit before it got sucked into an air vent and lingered. He had to agree with that one.

Oh sure, the Contingency might have their fancy spaceships with state of the art CommuniComs and Transphasing Utilities so the Administrators could get to their important consults on time, but the guys that did the real work, the hunting down of the low-lifes and scumbags, space pirates and end-of-the-galaxy assholes, they got the technical equivalent of a bum's rush. Rust-buckets held together by luck and InSoluTape. Nav systems that were eccentric at best and apparently perversely evil at worst. Escape pods that didn't. Oh yeah, it was all glamour being part of the Contingency's Operating Protocol Surveillance. COPS, people called them, and the way they would spit the word out made it clear it wasn't a term of endearment.

And the weird thing was that all these words just poured out of my head. I didn't even have to stop to think 'now what can I call this?'

Ray capped the cup and bounced off the walls to get to the hatch that separated the recreation space from the engine room.

"Frannie!" he yelled. "Some gravity might be nice. Today if possible. Because I've already seen Kowalski's lunch and I do not want to be seeing breakfast. Capice?"

"You know what, Ray?" His sister's voice floated back, loaded with sarcasm. "I was thinking you'd put on a few pounds since landfall. All that home-cooking of Ma's. I thought you'd feel better if you weighed a little less. Of course I'm fixing it, you idiot! Though it'd be quicker if you bought those new shift-links like I asked."

I chose Frannie to be the mechanic because a) I love her, b) I love the relationship she has with Ray and c) I wanted the ship to have a family dynamic and how better to create that than with family? I wanted her to have talents and her own place in the world. *there you go Paul, fixed that for you*

Ray rolled his eyes and pushed off from the hatchway, heading back towards Kowalski who was now just floating in midair, spinning slowly and looking green.

"Hey, Kowalski," said Ray, tugging on his arm, "you might want to anchor yourself, you know, for when-"

There was a whirr, a strange feeling of the world being put right and then a dull clang as Ray's body hit the metal floor followed by a thud as Kowalski landed on top of him.

Any excuse for contact!

"-the grav field kicks back in," finished Ray unnecessarily. Kowalski lay slightly limp across him, sharp spikes of hair prickling Ray's chin. "Yeah, well. Emergency over. No need for anchoring any more and next time, use a door handle or something," said Ray, conveniently forgetting that he'd been the one doing the grabbing.

Kowalski went stiff and scrambled to his feet, backing away from Ray.

"I didn't mean ... I'm not used to the ... I gotta-" He turned and fled.

"Four weeks," said Ray and stomped off to check in with his pilot.

Vecchio's the main man here. Yes, the story is about him and Kowalski, but he's the captain of the ship, the world-weary, irascible, disillusioned officer who's seen too much and knows it yet still keeps keeping on. He was my point of entry into this story, so even though I switch points of view, it's his head I'm in the most. Which is kind of nice because it means I get to fall in love with Kowalski along with him. Yay! When I'd figured out that this ficlet was actually going to be 'something' I wanted Vecchio to be similar to how I see post-Vegas Vecchio. No, he didn't have Fraser in his life and he didn't go undercover with the equivalent of the mob (or did he?) but his experiences with Frankie, with his job, with Stella, have all brought him to the same kind of point.

It was at this point I promised several of my flist that yes, there would be zero-G sex. Because! Rays! In Space! What else would they be doing? I didn't know quite how far off it was going to be. They are very patient, all of them.

***

I read the first section to the Beloved and he loved it. We started talking spaceships and what would go where and how big it would be and where would the engine room be in relation to the cockpit and how would they move around it and a thousand more questions. I have to see it in my head to write it, I told him. And it's complicated. So he drew it. He drew me a spaceship! He drew me a spaceship and spuffyduds named it Riviera! *hearts* And I think it was at that moment I decided I could really do this thing.

I planned the whole thing out whilst lying on the beach. It's a hard life. I had a whole bunch of backstory and a vague plotty framework but I wasn't sure how it was going to work out. So I figured, I'm on holiday, I've got time, why don't I go experimental? I decided to post in bits, unbeta'd to ultracosmicrays and announced it to a filtered group on catwalksalone asking them to kind of beta on the hoof — let me know if I was straying too far from the herd of in characterness or if my Britishisms became too unwieldy, that kind of thing. I wanted to see if the challenge of posting daily would keep momentum up and keep me going. It really did.

Climbing the ladder into the cockpit, Ray could hear furious mumbling.

"MacDonald!" he yelled. "You blocking up the com channels with your FOIL crazies again?"

The mumbling stopped.

"Would I do that?"

"Yes. Yes you would," said Ray, slumping into his seat at the front of the cockpit and swinging it round to face his pilot, seated behind banks of instruments on a raised dais.

Ian MacDonald smiled at him, dark eyes round with attempted innocence. Ray considered providing examples to back up his argument, but it made him tired just thinking about it. He swung back around to stare into the star-filled blackness.

"When's the next scheduled stop?"

"If we swing round Oberon and use the momentum to sling us back out of orbit we could make it back to Ganymede as long as we're not called. If we're called we might end up floating, dead in the water, spinning endlessly in the void. Or not." Ian's voice was relentlessly cheerful.

"Let me repeat the question. When's the next scheduled stop?"

"Oberon. Port 7XJ. Thirty-six hours. Give or take."

"Thank you. Was that so hard?"

Ian didn't answer. They sat in silence. Ray liked it that way. It didn't happen often enough as far as he was concerned.

"The new guy seems kinda edgy," Ian volunteered after a few minutes.

"They always are. No one joins the COPS for fun. Something's got him here — just don't know if it's enough to keep him. Can't even keep his food down when the grav field fails. Noob."

Hints! I love hints.

"I joined the COPS for fun. And also because I wanted to see the solar system and because my father was the Prime-Lieutenant of Contingency CourtShip 4 so obviously I had to become involved in law enforcement despite the Toronto Fliers begging me to join their ranks because it turns out I'm the only pilot in existence who can fly through the Asteroid Belt blindfolded."

"Sure, Ian," said Ray, examining his fingernails. "You joined for fun. It had nothing to do with you being caught stealing a ship when you were a kid and ending up indentured to the COPS for life."

"If you're going to get all literal about it-" started Ian but was interrupted by a harsh, repetitive buzzing. A red light flashed on the console to the right of Ray.

Ian. Oh, Ian. I know some people hoped Fraser was going to be the pilot but as soon as I realized I was actually doing this thing I knew it had to be Ian. For one thing his canon 'involvement' with aliens makes him perfectly suited to a future!AU, for another he drives Vecchio batty which makes for fun and games and for yet another he's this great character, all bluster, bombast and fast-talking yet underneath he's romantic and kind of a woobie and that makes him interesting. Plus, writing his ridiculous lies was a whole lot of fun.

"Ah, damn," he said and flipped a switch. A small screen set into the console flickered and lit up. The craggy face of COPS-Captain Welsh crackled into focus.

Oh, yeah. Keeping track of the switches, buttons and screens? Not easy. Bet there's a ton of errors scattered through this.

"Vecchio."

"Sir."

"Got something for you. A terrorist group calling itself JIM has blown up a hospital wing in Lysander. As if this weren't tragedy enough, the wing they blew up contained both neonatology and pediatrics. They killed children, Vecchio. They do not do that on my watch. You understand?"

"Sir, yes, sir!" Ray's stomach plummeted. Piece of shit terrorists, didn't care who got in the way. But kids! He tuned back in.

"You're the closest team I have. Get down to the surface, liaise with the local law enforcement and catch these bastards."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, and Vecchio? If you could find it within yourself to keep hold of this partner for, let us say the foreseeable future, this would be extremely beneficial to my blood pressure and, indirectly, to you."

"But, sir-"

"No buts, Vecchio. Kowalski has an excellent record. Short, but excellent. He could be a real asset to the COPS. Do not run this one off."

Welsh is great. I wish there was more of him in the fic but he didn't really fit in to anywhere. Maybe future installments. For some odd reason, he really reminded me of Colonel K from Dangermouse. (And now you're looking at me oddly. Can't blame you.) It's the video screen thing, I think, not the blustering in a posh British accent.

The screen fizzled and went blank.

"I don't run them off," said Ray to empty air. "They run themselves."

Behind him, Ian muttered something that may or may not have been "You keep telling yourself that, Ray."

More! Hints!

"Okay!" exclaimed Ray, clapping his hands together and getting to his feet. "Ian, get us to Oberon as fast as you can. Find the closest port space to the hospital in Lysander. Permissions will be taken care of. I better go brief Kowalski."

"Sure thing," said Ian and started tapping into a keyboard. He pressed a button, leaning over and speaking into a small microphone. "Frannie, we're gonna need those thrusters to be ready to go full whack. You've got three hours."

Ray didn't hear his sister's reply; he was already down the ladder and on his way to Kowalski's cabin.

All the Worlds mentioned in this fic are real moons. We sat down and looked at statistics (seriously) and decided which of the moons could probably have been terraformed and thus sustain human life. The amount of time TB spent talking me through various aspects of real science vs. sci-fi had to be seen to be believed. He was brilliant. Listened to every chunk of the story (although now he thinks 'blahblahblahblah' is a literary device used to describe man-sex) and helped me out no end. I am so lucky.

***

"We always get left behind," grumbled Frannie as she watched the triker disappear into the seething chaos of the port. She heard increasingly insistent blares of the horn and her brother yelling incomprehensibly and shook her head. Always the same.

"You really want to go and see the site? All little kiddie parts scattered around? Reminds me of the time when I was in the Horsehead Nebula and the Katarons had taken the Sylvithian Emperor's children hostage. Of course, being formicacious he had, like, a zillion. It was this whole big thing, I had to act as go-between because after the Eternal War I was the only non-arthropod the Katarons and Sylvithians would trust."

The word formicacious is hated by my spell-check. So is Frannie, which seems unfair. *pets Frannie*

Frannie turned and looked at Ian, eyebrows pulled down low and lips pursed.

"I don't think so," she said. "You have a point, though. I don't want to be looking at those poor, poor babies," she sniffed. "Maybe I'll go shopping. Some new shoes would be nice. Pink ones. Though I don't suppose I'll get the chance to wear them."

"Can't," said Ian. "We have to refuel and you have to mark off the stores. They'll be here any minute. See?" He gestured towards a man walking purposefully towards the ship. Bobbing alongside him was a hover platform on which was stacked several crates. The whole thing had a precarious look about it. Frannie found herself holding her breath.

"Tell you what," added Ian. "When we're done I'll let you in on the latest research I've been getting in."

"Warped gates?" asked Frannie, her voice low and confidential.

"Warp gates. Yes. Them's the ones."

"Excellent!" Frannie stamped her feet with excitement. Then, pulling out a single curl from her ponytail and strategically unfastening the top couple of buttons of her jumpsuit, she sashayed down the ramp to meet the delivery guy. When you didn't have much money, you used whatever bargaining power you had, and Frannie had a lot. The delivery guy didn't stand a chance.

You'll have noticed a lot of short scenes. These 'jump-cuts' were a deliberate choice on my part. I wanted to give a wider view of the world and the cast, almost as if it was a TV pilot, broad brush strokes to welcome you into the world and also setting up things that would be important later on. Because of the amount of time I'd already spent talking about and thinking about the 'verse even before writing, I think I wanted to get across some of the reality of it and that seemed to work best with brief, inter-cut interactions. I think I was also worried about abandoning secondary characters and B plot (or C). I know that it made it difficult for some people to get into the story at first.

***

Ray watched Vecchio picking his way through the wreckage, sifting debris through gloved hands. A couple of times he would lift something to his nose and sniff it before putting it down or slipping it into the evidence bag. Once Ray could have sworn that Vecchio's tongue came out, as if he was going to taste the rubble, just like- Ray cut that thought off at the pass. Vecchio's tongue retreated, unused.

I love how this would mean nothing to people who've never seen due South, but everything to people who have. That's one of the wonderful things about fanfiction.

The Captain of the local Oberon Law Enforcement Hub was yakking in Ray's ear about warnings and evacuation procedures and how his wife's cousin's best friend's sister's daughter had almost been in the wing because yesterday she'd had a bad reaction to a skeeter sting. Ray got the terror, understood how important it was to find even a tenuous link to the explosion, because that way it could be reduced to a single point and the horrifying enormity of dead children, unrecognizable even to their loved ones, could be kept at bay. So he didn't tell the guy to shut up like he wanted to, he nodded and hmmed and listened, keeping one eye on Vecchio.

It occurred to Ray that Vecchio hadn't moved in some time. He was crouched down, body mostly turned away, but Ray could see that he was gripping something in his hands. Even from a distance Ray could see that the guy was radiating tension. He supposed he ought to check it out.

"One second," he said, holding up a hand to stem the flow of the Hub Captain's monologue. The man was well-trained, shut his mouth immediately and nodded.

Ray scrambled over the shattered building, dust clouding around him with every step. Every now and then his foothold would tip underneath him, leaving him flailing wildly trying to regain his balance. There was no way his approach could have been described as subtle but Vecchio did not move. Ray got to within a couple of strides of him and stopped. He could see now. Vecchio was holding a child's doll in his hands. It looked home-made, lovingly sewn together by nimble hands. Now its dress was torn and dirty, and the head hung half-way off, one eye sewn on slightly higher than the other, giving the doll a permanent look of surprise. Vecchio's hand was stroking the disheveled woolen hair over and over again, soothing it, bringing back order where there was none.

Ray cleared his throat.

Vecchio turned and Ray saw striped cheeks where tears had carved paths through the dirt and grime. Vecchio looked blindly at Ray and Ray could tell that for a split second Vecchio had no idea who he was. And then he turned away, rubbing his face with his sleeve and dropped the doll.

Tough decision that, making him cry. I know that there's a tendency to react against randomly weepy and declarative men by making them totally stoic and never ever saying the words 'I love you,' but sometimes a man's gotta cry, right? And if family-loving Vecchio can't cry over dead babies and children, then what can he cry over?

"Any clues?" he asked, not looking round, voice thick with dust and grief.

"Not sure," said Ray, stopping as he heard yells from the Hub Captain still standing at the edge of the wreckage. Ray twisted round to see the man jumping up and down and waving at him. "Who needs a Com when you've got interpretive semaphore?" said Ray. "Come on, Vecchio, I think we may have something."

***

"You ever heard of this JIM before?" asked Kowalski, lounging on a chair back at the Hub while they waited for the suspect to be brought in.

The switching POV thing made it easier to tell the story. And I was thinking about it from a very visual standpoint so it was almost like the camera was changing its focus from following one character's journey to another. The thing I had to do was make sure I established who was 'Ray' at the start of each of Kowalski's/Vecchio's sections or that just got confusing.

Ray shrugged. "Nah. You?"

"New one on me. What's it stand for anyway?"

"Justice through Independent Measures," said the Hub-Captain, juggling three cups of chava and a bag of pastries. "Catchy it is not." He dropped the bag on the table and handed round the cups.

Food. Animals. Days. Units. Names. That was the hard bit. What would there be in the future that we didn't have now ñ what would there not be in the future that we do have? Not stealing deliberately from Firefly or a whole bunch of sci-fi series and films. Drove me quite demented at times, that did. Chava is obviously coffee. Which you knew. Because you are bright fangirls.

Ray took a long sip. The drink was almost too hot, but the bitter, sharp taste was just what he needed after what he'd witnessed. Something stronger wouldn't have gone amiss but they were on duty. Destroying the images of blasted baby parts that had been burnt onto his retina one cell at a time would have to wait.

"There's been news over the Filter about other explosions on other Worlds. Nothing official, just rumor and speculation. I think the Contingency is trying to keep it on the down-low, doesn't want people running scared. They've only hit Contingency-linked buildings so far, this hospital, the Central University in Tranquility, some random office buildings in Acis."

"Do they give warnings?" asked Ray. The Hub-Captain looked only too pleased to be asked.

"We got a Link over the Filter, but it was scrambled so we couldn't trace the source. The Techs think it probably came from off-world. By the time we worked out the message it was too late to evacuate." The Hub-Captain's face fell as he remembered the victims.

"They got the same for the other bombings?" inquired Kowalski, beating Ray to it. "All scrambled, all a little too hard to work out?"

"You thinking what I'm thinking, Kowalski?" asked Ray.

"They want to be seen as making a good faith gesture, giving time for evacuations, but they make the warning so complex there's no way the buildings will be cleared in time. They get civilian deaths, with luck they get to kill some of the emergency services too, they get to blame the local law enforcement for being too slow and they get publicity for their cause. They win. We lose. That what you were thinking?"

Ray was impressed, despite himself. "Yeah," he said. "Give or take a couple of changes in punctuation."

A perfect, disembodied voice appearing from the middle of the room announced, "Suspect is processed and ready for interrogation."

Ray got to his feet as Kowalski looked wildly around for the source.

"How do they do that? It's freaky."

"The wonders of technology," grinned the Hub-Captain. "You get used to it. I'll show you the Interro-Suite."

Despite its high-class sounding name, the Interro-Suite turned out to be a small room with a table and chair screwed into the floor in the middle of it. One wall held three flat monitors and the opposite wall appeared to be missing. Kowalski wandered over to the space and started to peer into the room beyond. He seemed to bounce back off some invisible barrier and landed on his ass, head narrowly avoiding the table. Ray laughed.

"Yeah, har, har," griped Kowalski. "What the Mother was that?"

"I beg your pardon, Detective, that would be the InvisiWall. You're not the first one to be caught out. Sentinel Taurus broke his nose on it. It's a new installation. Strong as steel, but entirely transparent. Allows us to continue to interrogate a suspect in here whilst monitoring the level of pressure being applied to a separate suspect in the other room. Make sure no Pan-System laws are being broken. The fact that it may precipitate early confession is a pleasing side-effect."

"What do you mean 'pressure being applied'?" asked Kowalski, getting to his feet and giving his nose a sharp twist. He winced.

"Torture," said Ray, his voice even and quiet.

Kowalski met his eyes and they held each other's gaze as the Hub-Captain blustered something about Pan-System treaties and definitions of acceptable force and the Greater Good.

"Stop you there," said Ray, still looking at Kowalski, beginning to feel like maybe here was someone Ray might think about trusting. "You lost me at Greater Good. Suspect now?"

Now Kowalski might not be averse to kicking a suspect in the head and Vecchio might not be averse to punching one in the nose, but deliberate torture? No way. And I like that they recognize that in each other.

***

Frannie swiveled in her seat, head tipped back, enjoying the flash of blue sky that zipped past outside the cockpit window on every turn. It was a happy surprise every time they made landfall. Frannie only ever dreamed in stars.

"Washington think they have something solid this time?" she asked as Ian came and went in her eye line, reorganizing the figures on his console for the millionth time.

I just drop that stuff in there. There's a whole bunch of exposition I donít bother with. I don't think it detracts from the story that you don't know what/where Washington is. I think that a) the people who read this can probably make a good guess, b) it's not really important, it's what come out of it that carries the information.

"Absolutely," enthused Ian. "There's an area of space perturbance about zero point five parsecs from the Edge. No one has come up with a feasible explanation for it — it's been driving the instruments crazy. It has to be a warp gate, Frannie. It has to."

Frannie stopped swiveling.

"Will they be allowed to investigate this time?"

"Try and stop them. Mort's readying a probe."

"Tell me what this means, Ian."

"Again?"

"I love to hear it."

"We find the warp gate and the universe is ours. Not just this dumb solar system with its Contingency and its restricted set of sentient life forms."

"If you mean humans, just say humans."

"We could come out of the gate anywhere, Frannie. Planets and planets of strange creatures, weird races that communicate through modern dance, technology that we only dream about. Aliens. Real, honest to Mother aliens."

Frannie grinned. "I thought you'd already met aliens, Ian. Didn't you assist in the birth of the Racharta race, mixing your DNA with the dying Grulags?"

Ian had the grace to look ashamed for a brief moment. Then he shrugged. "Mother knows this ship needs some color," he said. "But seriously, this is it this time, Frannie. I swear. People are gonna have to stop writing off FOIL as a bunch of tinhat whackjobs. We're getting close."

Hee. FOIL. Tinhats. Another stupid pun I couldn't resist. I'm not sorry.

"To the Greater Truth," Frannie affirmed.

"That and hot alien sex."

This was one of the times Frannie regretted not having an extendable punching arm.

***

The suspect turned out to be a red-headed, pasty-faced kid, several months off his last encounter with a washcloth. Looked like he could barely dress himself in the morning, let alone be part of a terrorist organization. Still, Ray knew better than to judge by appearances.

Ten minutes into the interrogation and they hadn't got more than a grunt out of him. Ah, teenage hormones. He leant against one wall, watching Vecchio take his turn.

"Sparky," said Vecchio, leaning onto the table and smiling a smile that got nowhere close to his eyes. "You don't mind if I call you Sparky, do you? Seeing as how you're not exactly forthcoming with the details."

Mmmmm, angry Vecchio. So hot. *ahem*

No response. No surprise.

"Sparky, your bag was stuffed full of B92, already identified as a component in the hospital explosion. That's enough to get you a severe Contingency Punishment. Imagine how bad it would be if we could link you to all those dead children. You should've seen them, Sparky." Vecchio got into the kid's face, voice still measured and calm. "Severed limbs, caved-in heads, some of 'em looked like they'd just fallen asleep, not a scratch on them. Only they didn't wake up when I shook 'em. No more school for them. No more games of COPS and outlaws in and out of the precincts. No more 'I'll show you mine' and skinny-dipping in the river. No more nothing. And here's you, shit deep in the middle of it and proud. Well fuck you, Sparky, I'm gonna have you taken to the bombsite and given the full tour. Let those memories stay with you all the way to hell."

The kid blanched and his tongue flicked out and licked his lips.

Ray pushed himself off from the wall. He touched Vecchio on the arm and without looking Vecchio moved away from the table, falling behind Ray. Tag. Ray didn't have time to think of how easily they seemed to work together, it was his turn.

"Look, kid," he said, turning on his sympathetic smile. "My colleague here has been through a lot today. No one wants to send you for Punishment. Because you have a totally good reason for being stupid enough to think you're getting through a Port Check with a backpack full of explosive on the same day a bomb goes off in the city. Don't you?"

"I..." started the kid and then clamped his mouth shut.

Ray amped up the wattage of his smile. He took a small, white packet from a pocket and laid it on the table, batting it back and forth between his index fingers. The kid's eyes widened a little. Ray quirked an eyebrow at him — scratch my back, I'll scratch yours kind of deal.

Nothing.

Ray began to pick at the paper on the packet.

The kid's tongue came out again. He was looking hungry.

"Got something to tell me?"

"I ... I'm into fireworks, okay? I make 'em at home; take 'em out to the North Gate at night. Sometimes I sell 'em, sometimes I just watch 'em burn in the sky. It's not illegal or nothing, no wait yeah it is but it's not like anyone cares. I've had Sentinels buying them on the sly before now. They weren't exactly busting a gut to get me to lockdown."

"You live near the Port?" asked Ray pushing the packet half-way across the table towards the kid, keeping one finger resting lightly on top.

"No."

"You wanna tell me what you were doing there?"

"I'd just got the B92 from my supplier and I know that's not illegal, they use it in fertilizer and I swung by the port to pick up a package from my grandparents that was due in on a trade ship from Titan. Perfectly innocent, man, I swear."

Ray flicked the packet the rest of the way across the table. The kid picked it up, turning it over wonderingly in his hands. He began to ease the paper wrapper apart, slow and careful. Ray knew he was trying to make it last. He left him to it and walked over to Vecchio and muttered in his ear.

"That kid would kill his non-existent grandparent for a couple lumps of sugar. What kind of fucked up world is that?"

The fact that the kid is so pleased by the sugar is an indication of his poverty. I didn't want to say it explicitly so I hope it came across.

Vecchio nodded. "He's bullshitting. Spend enough time with Ian and you too will have the useful capacity to spot a yarn at three parsecs. Break?"

"Yeah," said Ray, who was starting to feel cooped up in this little room.

Back in the offices the two Rays grabbed another cup of chava and reported their progress — or lack of it — to the occupants of the room. A dark-haired man with a sharp face looked up from the Slab he was reading.

"Take him next door," he suggested, "that'll get things moving."

"No," stated both Rays in unison.

"That's not what we do," clarified Vecchio. "What you do is your own damn business but we do not do that."

He put a hand on Ray's shoulder. Showing solidarity, thought Ray.

"He's quite the handful, isn't he?" said an affable looking man. "He was causing a rather high level of disturbance at the Port for such a small individual. I found it difficult to apprehend him and return him to the Hub. He has a great deal of spunk."

Ray and Vecchio exchanged glances.

"Excuse me, Sentinel ..." Vecchio paused.

"Turnbull, sir. Sentinel Turnbull."

"Thank you. Excuse me, Sentinel Turnbull, are you telling me that the suspect resisted arrest?"

"That he did, sir. And he wasn't playing by any rule system that I've ever read. I do believe one Port Official received a bite to the chest area and there may also have been gouging."

I'm quite fond of Sentinel Turnbull. I wonder if I can work out a way to get him into any more of the stories.

"Uhuh. Ray?"

Ray stood up a little straighter and took a step towards Turnbull. "Get me a list of all ships that have left port since you arrested this dink. NOW!"

Turnbull scurried off with Vecchio yelling behind him, "Put a block on all departures until I say otherwise!"

He turned to Kowalski. "Goddammit, what is wrong with these people?"

The list turned out to be short: two known trade ships, one Contingency Maintenance vessel and one private ship had left the Port following the arrest of the suspect. Ray and Vecchio easily discounted the first three — no traders would risk their necks and the attacks were all aimed at the Contingency, why would they harbor the terrorists? And with ships needing to know precise weights to calculate lift off there could be no stowaways.

That last sentence? The result of a half-hour conversation about spaceships and gravity and physics and god knows what else. All for seventeen words. Sheesh.

A search of all the landlocked ships turned up nothing. It looked like the ship calling itself Subura was the one they wanted. It had logged a course for Titania. Ray and Vecchio were half-way out of the building when they saw the kid being dragged down the corridor back to his holding cell.

"Sorry, Sparky!" yelled Vecchio. "Turns out we didn't need you. Your friends are gonna get what's coming, we'll make sure of that."

Suddenly the boy came to life in his captor's hands. Pulling violently at them his face curled into a snarl and he spat towards the two COPS.

"No one can stop us! We are righteous! We are many! You people, you think we're happy? You think we asked to be born chained while the Contingency gets fat and lazy? Independence. We will have it whatever the cost!"

He was borne away, still screaming.

Ray and Vecchio looked at each other, grim. They had a ship heading to Titania and they had the first flickers of understanding. Now they were getting somewhere.

***

Waiting for the return of the Rays Ian flipped idly through the Filter bands, searching for any mention of the space perturbance. There had been a lot of excited chatter from the FOIL guys but it was mostly going round in circles. Ian felt itchy, he wanted to do something, not just sit there and wait for other people to make all the interesting discoveries.

He'd promised Ray no more hacking, but Ray was chasing down terrorists and Ian was really bored. It couldn't matter just this once, could it?

It didn't take him long to get inside the Contingency's Space Anomalies mainframe. Why would it, when Ian had once roamed the solar system as a spy for the secret Elite Force, trained to go where no man should go in both real and cyberspace and tutored in hand to hand combat by the great Golgamesh himself? Or, you know, long hours holed up in his room with his crappy connection and his mom yelling for him to get outside and find some friends already.

Ian started flipping through the data pages. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Woah! He flipped back and stared at the wiggly lines on the screen. They resolved themselves as easily for him as letters or numbers. He checked the co-ordinates. Less than two days travel from here.

Excitement began to pool in Ian's stomach. He opened up the data file Marlo had managed to sneak out of Washington. Switching back and forth between the two sets of data Ian found himself bouncing in his seat. There was a clear correlation between the two sets. He started punching in co-ordinates, plotting his course. This was it! He was going to find a warp gate; he was going to take the Riviera into space that no man had ever seen before. He was going to be the most celebrated man in the galaxy!

The Com crackled into life. Vecchio's voice filled the cockpit.

"Okay, we're back on board, give us five to lock down the triker and then take us out of here. Plot a course to Titania, I'll tell you more when we're done here."

Ian's smile faded for a second and then reasserted itself. So they had to go to Titania? The anomaly wasn't that far out of the way, he reasoned. They could do both, Ray need never know.

"Yes, sir," he replied and readied the ship for flight.

***

Kowalski lay stretched out on the floor of the recreation room, one hand pillowing his head, one slowly rubbing his slightly distended belly. He had long fingers, thought Frannie and resolutely did not consider where she might allow Ray to put them.

I thought about it. Not going to lie.

"Man, your brother can cook," he said. "Me, I just shake out the nearest packet and add water. Sometimes I remember to heat it up."

"Ma taught him," Frannie replied from her cross-legged position on the grimy, faded, blue bench that curved the length of the window. "I was too busy fixing junk with Pa, Maria was too busy chasing boys and Nino ñ well, we don't talk about Nino."

Why don't they talk about Nino? Is it because I like to add random mystery? I think it might be.

"You miss your folks?"

"Pa's dead," said Frannie, her voice tight and clipped, waving away Ray's attempted apology. "He wasn't the world's best but he was good to me."

"How'd he ...?"

"Buy the smallholding? Mine accident."

"Ouch."

"Mmmmm."

Frannie had decided a long time ago that living in the present was far better than living in the past, so she closed off the memories that were threatening to surface and concentrated on the shift of Ray's jaw as he chewed on a toothpick. It was a good jaw. Frannie might even go so far as to say beveled. No, not beveled, but something to do with tools. Chiseled, that was it. Ray's jaw was chiseled. Frannie wondered if he had a girlfriend.

I can never decide if I want to write Frannie mis-speaking or not. I personally think it's quite cute and nothing to do with her intelligence at all. I think her mind's always so busy with a million things (men, the shoes she saw for $50, men, whether or not anyone will ever take her seriously, men, is there going to be another row at home tonight or if she brings home cannoli will everyone be happy, men) that she doesn't always pay attention so she picks up the complicated/unusual words but she doesn't always make the right associations in her brain, so they get mis-filed. I may be overthinking this. It's a possibility.

"Sooooooooooo," she began. "What made you join COPS?"

Ray's hand stilled. So did his jaw. Frannie immediately became acutely aware of the silence all around them. Even the rumbling engine seemed to stop and wait. She found she was holding her breath.

"Lost someone."

And you all knew who this was straight away, right? And that gives it added weight. Which is why this is fanfiction and not original fiction. Well, that and the fact that I nicked the characters and stuck them in my world.

The simple words settled on Frannie like a cloud; their weight oppressive. Her shoulders bowed slightly under the pressure. She knew she shouldn't ask, but she did anyway.

"Someone close?"

Ray leapt to his feet and started pacing the room, his face completely closed down. With his spiked blond-red hair standing up like raised hackles, he reminded Frannie of a trapped animal. She wished she could take the question back.

"Yeah. No. Yeah. Partner."

And of course that just hooked Frannie further. What partner? In what sense? What about their death sent Ray to the COPS? Still, she'd learned one thing — whatever the details, this thing was about love. She recognized the signs.

"I wonder if Ian's okay," she said, trying to lighten the mood. "He hasn't even come down for food."

Ray stopped abruptly and whirled round.

"You guys dating?"

Frannie could see Ray was trying to pull himself back to normality so she didn't bristle as she normally would but laughed instead.

"Me and Ian? I don't think so. Could you see it?" Frannie mimicked Ian's voice, "Darling, I bought you the most beautiful ring, it had a diamond that shone like Sirius but unfortunately on the way back to Riviera I was attacked by a gang of criminal masterminds who needed the diamond to energize their Invisi-Ray." She giggled. "I like to know that up is up."

Frannie was delighted to see the beginnings of a smile on Ray's face.

"Besides," she added. "Ray doesn't like franter-, fratra-, screwing around on the ship. He used to be all for it, but that was before Stella."

"Stella?"

Frannie bit her lip and studied her nails.

"Look, fair warning. My brother's been through six partners since she left. Maybe seven, I lose count. He's too hard on them, no one lives up to her, you see?"

More hints! I know it's odd that we Ray/Rayers spend a lot of time explaining how the shared background of Fraser and Stella is one of the things that brings the Rays together and here I've taken both those away. It didn't seem to matter ñ there were other things they shared ñ loss, a job and, unknowingly, Zuko/Volpe, a sense of humour. I hope that worked for people.

Ray's puzzled expression suggested that no, no he didn't, but Frannie ploughed ahead.

"I like you, Ray," she said, peeping up through her eyelashes. "I think you'll be good for me. Him. Us. Don't let him get to you."

"Thanks," said Ray, sweeping a hand through his hair and looking a little lost. "I'm gonna-" and he swung himself down the ladder and out of sight.

A shiver ran down Frannie's spine — a grave moment, Ma always said — and went in search of the warmth of her engine room.

***

Ray tapped on the keys in front of him, running another sweep. He and Kowalski had been taking turns to monitor the vast emptiness surrounding the ship. So far they'd had a couple of false positives that had turned out to be a garbage pod and a small meteorite, but of the Subura there had been no sign. The sweep was negative, no blips on the monitor. Ray rubbed his eyes, and rolled his neck, letting his head fall backwards. This was not one of his favorite parts of the job — all wound up with tension because the bad guys were getting away mixed in with the boredom of hours doing nothing but running sector scans and watching. So. Much. Watching. He closed his eyes, figuring he'd watch the insides of his eyelids just for a moment or two. Or possibly three.

"Sleeping on the job, Vecchio?" Ray's eyes flew open and he tracked Kowalski to the seat next to him. "I should write you up for that."

"That's 'sleeping on the job, sir,' to you and if there's any writing up to be done it'll be me writing up you for sneaking up on a superior officer."

"Now that depends on your definition of superior, doesn't it?"

Ray scowled. Why did the guy have to have such a smart mouth on him all the time? It only made Ray need to slap him down a peg or two and he was too tired to be delivering his best quality smackdowns.

"I'll be giving you my definition of my foot in your ass if you don't shut your mouth and run a complete sector scan. I'm going to bed. MacDonald should be back up here in a couple of hours, if not you have my full permission to wake him in whatever way you see fit."

Kowalski had already set the scan running by the time Ray got to his feet and stretched out, bones clunking in his spine. Ray made it halfway down the ladder when Kowalski called out,

"Wait."

"This better be good, Kowalski," grumbled Ray, clambering back up the ladder. "Last person who tried to keep me from my bed ended up becoming the newest member of the Asteroid Belt."

"You need to see this."

Ray craned over Kowalski's shoulder, a large mass showed on the screen in front of him.

"That's no garbage pod," said Ray. "How long before we can eyeball?"

"Ten, maybe fifteen. We're heading straight for it."

Ray leaned past Kowalski and opened the Com.

"MacDonald!" he yelled. "Stop dreaming about sex with many-tentacled aliens and get up here now!"

Static. Followed by a sleepy response.

"'m comin'.'m comin'."

"That we did not need to know," said Kowalski.

Ray couldn't help but grin. He slid back into his seat, staring intently out into the black. "Where are you, little fishie?" he crooned under his breath.

Neither Ray nor Kowalski moved or spoke in the couple of minutes it took Ian to get to the cockpit. Neither Ray nor Kowalski noticed the surprised look that flitted across Ian's face when they explained they may have the terrorist ship in sight.

"I got it!" Ray followed the line of Kowalski's finger. Straight ahead, a ship looking no bigger than family class. As they got closer, it was clear the ship was in trouble, it spun lazily around like Frannie in her favorite chair.

"That's not right," said Ray, not taking his eyes off it. "That's really, really not right. Ian, hail her."

"I'm not picking up a distress signal," said Ian. "I'm not picking up anything at all."

"MacDonald. Hail her."

"This is COPS Watch 23. Please respond." Pause. Nothing. "This is COPS Watch 23. Please respond." Pause. Nothing. "This is COPS Watch 23. Please be advised that repeated failure to respond will be recorded as a violation of Pan-System Code 478K2 and you will be boarded. Repeat, you will be boarded."

Nothing.

By now Riviera was close enough to the unknown ship to see that it had no markings, nothing to check against. Sure, this could be the terrorists but Ray knew flying without official registration was not unusual with nomad families and it seemed like the temperature in the room dropped as he contemplated what they might find on board.

He turned to Ian.

"Match rotations and prepare to dock," he said. "Kowalski, with me."

***

I love writing the Rays together. I love writing the snark and banter and have it mean more than they even know it means. They are so ridiculously hot together it makes me want to jump up and down and clap my hands. I know some people have a hard time slashing Vecchio and yes, he is rampantly heterosexual but can you say 'closet'? I know you can. All I can say to those who are unconvinced (and won't be reading this anyway) is it really is your loss. Hot. Like. Burning.

"Well," said Ray, "It's not like I was expecting them to have a doorknocker and a welcome mat, but this is not good."

He was considering resorting to bashing on the hatch and yelling 'Open Sesame!" It couldn't fail any more than anything else they'd tried.

That actually worked once. My dad said it in a lift that was stuck and the doors opened. I thought he was magic. *looks around* Yeah, maybe I'll save that story for another time.

Kowalski smacked his helmet with his glove. "Duh, I am such a bonehead. Wait there."

"Yeah, sure, Kowalski!" shot Ray at Kowalski's retreating back. "I'll just hang around here using up oxygen while you act all mysterious."

"Works for me," came Kowalski's voice in Ray's ear. Ray could hear the slow, curling smile in his voice. It made him mad. He bashed his hand against the metal door and then shook it in pain, cursing under his breath. Stupid, stupid. He never remembered that the pressure suits weren't as padded as he thought.

He waited. And waited. What the hell was Kowalski up to now anyway? Ray couldn't figure him out at all. He was new to COPS and to the ship. He was supposed to be all wide-eyed and 'whatever you say, sir,' but no, he was confident, a little cocky even, used his own initiative which, Ray grudgingly admitted, was not altogether a bad thing, and worst of all spoke to Ray like they were equals already. Ray considered ways he could show Kowalski exactly who was senior officer round here.

"Get a move on, would you?" he growled to relieve his frustration.

"Genius can't be rushed," returned Kowalski from wherever the hell he was.

Ray groaned and began to bang his helmet off the door and did not stop until Kowalski came back into view. He was grasping a long, thin metal object, curved and clawed at one end.

This visual, of Ray bashing his head repeatedly off the door, was so clear and made me grin until I tried to write it and then couldn't quite get it across. I hope you got the image.

"A crowbar? You think you're gonna jimmy this thing with a crowbar? You got super strength or something?"

"Watch and learn," said Kowalski, pushing past him.

Ray watched as Kowalski ran his fingers over the left edge of the hatch. He repeated the action twice more and then inserted the crowbar the tiniest fraction at a point just over halfway up. There's no way he's got enough leverage, thought Ray, but Kowalski simply pushed at the curved head, a little grunt the only sign of exertion.

Ray didn't even have time to develop his scorn into a thought before the door popped open. He made a noise that could only have been translated as incredulous.

"Handy hidden release mechanism," said Kowalski. "I've been around a ship or two like this in my time."

"What? When you were developing your breaking and entering skills?" Just what exactly did this guy do before he joined up?

Kowalski shrugged.

"Door's open, Vecchio. I broke. You enter."

Cliffhanger! That was another thing I loved about writing this as a daily series. The chance to leave it at a point where I was hoping the reader would be squirming and going 'And? And?' On the other hand, last lines are always hard and I had to write 22 of them. Gah.

***

"Yeah, well," said Ray, stepping through into the airlock, "using a crowbar around a pressure suit could lead to a potentially fatal leak."

"Just admit you're impressed."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Open the damn door already."

The porthole window of the internal door was grimy. Kowalski wiped at it with his glove, succeeding only in smearing the dirt further.

"We know what we're getting into?" he asked as he began to haul on the rusted doorlock wheel.

"Surprise party? I hope they have cake."

"Vecchio."

Ray shrugged, which was not easy in the pressure suit.

"Honestly? I don't think it's the guys we're after. I've seen this kind of thing one too many times before. Nomad family taking risks to get to landfall, not enough fuel or the wrong kind or no spares or the oxygen pipe blows or the wiring gets shot. Ship goes kaput, family follows. Not pretty."

"We're going in why?"

"You think this place should be a graveyard? Nah, we do for these people, like we would want someone to do for us. Besides, there are laws. You remember laws, right?"

Vecchio is a good man. How good is he? THIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIS good.

Kowalski's head twisted towards Ray for a second before he hauled on the door for the last time and stepped through. Ray thought he must have imagined the look of grudging respect on Kowalski's face. He followed Kowalski into the ship.

The corridor was lit by emergency lighting, the dull metal walls reflecting dim, blue light and producing an eerie atmosphere. There was no noise. No thrumming engine, no excited voices, no whirr of countless unknown machines at work. It freaked Ray out a little bit. He checked his instruments.

"She's got gravity and I get within range readings for oxygen," He tapped a button on his wrist. "MacDonald? Biohazards?"

Another hour long conversation to figure out how to get into the ship, how they would scan, what for, when/if they would take helmets off. Logistics, baby. You know, when I did a computer test thingy for careers when I was at school, it said I should be a logistics manager. I don't think this was what they had in mind.

A brief pause.

"Scan's clear. You're good to go. Bring me back a present. I'm thinking a nice lead on alien tech would-"

Ray tapped the button again, cutting Ian off mid-sentence.

"We're okay. Let's get these damn helmets off."

As soon as he lifted off the helmet, Ray was assaulted by a fetid, decaying smell. It took all his willpower not to give in to the nausea that swept through him. He bent double, trying hard not to breathe through his nose. Judging by the green tinge to Kowalski's skin he was feeling exactly the same way.

"No, no, no, no, no," muttered Kowalski, rubbing a gloved hand through his hair.

Ray turned a general look of enquiry on him.

"I did not want you to be right. Me and death, we're not exactly buddies."

"No? Well I like to have him around for tea most days off. We play old-style chess. It's quite the thing."

Y halo thar, Ingmar Bergman.

Kowalski shot him a look. In the gloom Ray couldn't work it out exactly, but for some reason it made him feel ashamed. He straightened up and looked away.

"Let's get this thing over with. You search that way," he pointed down the corridor, "and I'll search this. Sooner we get the bodies tagged and ready to go; the sooner we can call Maintenance."

Kowalski nodded and headed off around the curve of the corridor. Ray started his own search. A few strides in he stopped. He had the weirdest feeling, like he was being watched.

"Knock it off, Kowalski, you're creeping me out."

There was no reply. Stupid, game-playing jerk. Ray started walking again. The smell was getting worse, choking his nostrils and Ray was finding it difficult to think past it. Shoulda kept the helmet on, he thought. Just ahead of him to the right was a door. Ray pulled out his weapon from the holster on the leg of his suit. His stomach squeezed as he reached out a hand to open the door and then something barreled into his arm, spinning him around, sending the ionizer pistol skittering across the floor. Before he could reorient himself there was a blow to the back of his knees that swept his legs out from under him and he crashed to the floor, smashing his head against cold metal.

The pistol? Weaponry is complex, dammit. Still, TB knows how it works. He kept saying things like 'If anyone asks about the X tell them Y'. I didn't say 'Honey, stop talking in letters,' I said 'Honey, no one's gonna ask.' Thank goodness I was right.

A weight dropped onto his chest and then fingers closed on his throat, throttling the life out of him. Panicking, Ray scrabbled at the hands that were killing him, trying to prize the fingers away, but the gloves of his pressure suit made him clumsy and he couldn't shift them. He twisted and bucked under the shadowy mass but it held on tight. It was screaming now, words that held no meaning for Ray. The pressure on his neck was unbearable, Ray tried to breathe through his nose but the rotting air caught at the back of his throat and the resulting wave of nausea brought scalding bile up into his esophagus, his own body working against his survival.

Black spots started to swim before Ray's eyes, this was it. The end. Ray's body went limp.

And then, suddenly, there was a crack and a thud and air — sweet, corpse-rotten air — began to flood into his lungs. Ray's chest heaved as he dragged oxygen kicking and screaming back into his bloodstream. His vision swam and began to clear. In the dim light and through the receding panic, Ray made out Kowalski standing by him, crowbar in hand.

"You're impressed now, right?"

Ray croaked his agreement. He was. "You saved my life."

Kowalski reached down a hand to help Ray into a sitting position. Mother, it hurt.

"Partners, right? It's like a rule or something. No get-out clause if you don't like the guy. 'Sides, Frannie would kill me if I let you get whacked."

Ray put his hands to his throat, he couldn't shake the feeling there were ghost fingers still there, squeezing. Would they ever be gone? Kowalski crouched down in front of him.

"You okay?"

What answer was there to that? No, I'm not okay; I just nearly had the life strangled out of me by some crazed lunatic. No, I'm not okay, my neck feels like I've been put through a blender and my lungs think they've taken a bath in a vat of acid lined with wire wool. No, I'm not okay, because I owe my life to you and I'm not comfortable with that, especially when you look at me like I'm personally insulting you by trying to die on your watch.

"Yeah."

"You good to go?"

"Yeah."

Ray knew Kowalski knew that it was a lie, but there was still a job to do and it had just got murkier.

For the first time, he looked over to the crumpled heap that was his attacker. It was a guy, maybe in his late forties, his appearance wild and disheveled. His clothes were filthy, his hair and beard obviously uncared for, skin grimy and stained with streaks of something that Ray could not recognize in the poor light, but instinct told him was blood. Ray caught sight of one of his hands, broad, stubby fingers ending in filthy nails. He put his hands to his neck again and shuddered.

"You kill him?" he asked.

Kowalski toed the body over on to its back. It went as easily as a rag doll.

"He's breathing, but I don't think he'll be coming around any time soon. You want to get this done?"

"No. I want to get the hell away from this Motherforsaken shithole and forget the whole thing ever happened."

Kowalski looked startled by Ray's honesty. Almost as startled as Ray was.

"Come on."

Stepping over the supine body, Ray stood against the wall, swinging the door open as Kowalski readied himself to go through, weapon in one hand, crowbar in the other. The stench of putrefaction swept out of the room as if it had been desperate to escape. Kowalski's horrified yelp suggested why.

Ray followed him in.

It was a small room, the shelves lining the walls indicated some kind of storage area, but they were empty. The only thing the room was storing was three bodies, all female, lined up neatly in order of size, the smallest a girl who couldn't have been more than seven or eight. There was hardly anything to them but even so chunks had been carved out of the scant flesh, dark stains coloring the floor around them. Ray was grateful for the lack of light. Kowalski was vomiting neatly in a corner. Ray couldn't blame him, fighting off his own desire to throw up, flares of pain shooting through his neck as he swallowed repeatedly.

"Did they die of starvation first or did he kill them to eat?"

"Is either way better?"

"No, but I know the Pan-System laws on homicide; cannibalism I am less familiar with and I want to read the bastard his rights." Ray's throat ached with the effort of speaking.

There was a scuffling noise from outside the room and Ray whirled around in time to see his attacker reach Ray's ionizer pistol, hold it to his own head and shoot. The body slumped sideways, still twitching, the weapon clattering to the floor.

They were at his side in an instant, Ray grabbing his pistol and checking the setting. "He's not coming back from that. Shit! I can't believe I left my weapon unattended. What is wrong with me?"

"What's wrong with you? You nearly died, that's what's wrong." Kowalski punched his fist into the wall. "What's wrong with me? I shoulda had the guy tied up. Talk about rookie mistake."

"You are a rookie," said Ray, suddenly so very tired. He slid down the wall and came to rest with a bump.

"Here, maybe. But I should've known better. Fraser would've-" Kowalski cut himself off. "I'm sorry, Ray, I fucked up. What do we gotta do now?"

Ray allowed himself a few seconds to get over the shock of the apology.

"There's no case to answer so Maintenance will do a DNA ident and make arrangements for the family and the ship. You just need to tell them where and how many. Welsh will need a report — you okay to give that too? I just-" His voice, which had been getting increasingly hoarse, gave out.

"Whatever you say, boss."

And now Ray was convinced he was already dead.

Nothing like a bit of danger to bring our two heroes closer together. I did worry after writing that it came off a bit like the Reavers from Firefly. I mean, there's no way I can deny Firefly as an influence because, hello, clearly it is but ripping it off wholesale is not how I want to go. I think I came down on the side of the angels, leastways no one has said different.

***

Back on Riviera, Ray shoved Vecchio into his cabin and summoned Ian to help him take off his pressure suit. As Ian stowed it carefully, Ray didn't bother to dress as he helped Vecchio out of his. The man was white as a sheet, dark circles ringing his green eyes and livid bruises beginning to adorn his throat like a particularly unpleasant collar. Vecchio stood and let Ray undress him, his passivity unnerving. Ian stood in the doorframe babbling in horror as he saw the state of his senior officer. Vecchio merely turned pleading eyes on Ray.

"Ian," said Ray, as he took off the second glove and set to work on the body of the suit, "you have to stop talking now. I'm going to need our co-ordinates. Get them."

Ian certainly stopped talking. He didn't move though.

Ray started working the suit over Vecchio's shoulders and down over his chest. He raised an internal eyebrow. No wonder the guy had so little hair on his head, it was all down here. For a split second he wondered what it would feel like under his hand, smooth or rough? Warm or cool?

"Co-ordinates, Ian? Co. Ordinates. Where we are? With the x and the y and not forgetting the z."

I actually had to check how many dimensions there would be. I am rubbish. Time and space, cat. Four dimensions. Duh. I blame the hot boys for making me forget stuff.

Ray glanced towards the pilot who was looking slightly pale. Obviously cared more about Vecchio than Ray had thought. He unhooked the internal belts, pushing the suit past Vecchio's waist and it slid the rest of the way unimpeded, pooling around his ankles. Vecchio just stood there, head angled slightly, staring at Ian.

"Step out of the-"

"Ian." Vecchio's voice creaked and threatened.

Ian turned and fled, scaling the ladder as if the devil was at his heels.

If the devil wasn't, Vecchio certainly was as he made a charge for the door. But he had forgotten the pressure suit constricting his movements and tripped and fell. Ray grabbed at him and they tangled in awkward embrace, half in and half out of the cabin, the shock of Ray's skin against someone else's almost knocking the breath out of him.

It was at this moment that Frannie decided to come out of her cabin, bleary-eyed and yawning, showing a little midriff as she stretched.

"What exactly is going on here?" she squeaked, blinking rapidly.

And a minor bit of farce just for fun. Now if the vicar could come out of one of the other doors, that would be good. More tea?

Ray could only imagine the picture she was getting and swiftly put Vecchio back on his feet. In the commotion that followed Frannie's realization that her brother was hurt, Ray worked out two things.

Firstly, that Ian had taken them someplace they weren't supposed to go and second, he was cold. He wasn't sure clothes would fix the second one.

***

Vecchio had refused to stay in his cabin. Frannie had tried to argue him down, even going so far as to pull out the 'What would Ma say?' card, but it did no good. Ray caught the haunted look in Vecchio's eyes and knew only too well that the guy just did not want to be alone right now.

"Hey, hey, hey," Ray had chided. "You gotta hold that card in reserve for when it really matters. You can't be brandishing your Ma about like some all purpose Punishment waiver. Words have got power, see? But you gotta use them right."

Quietly, Ray had taken charge, making sure Vecchio got dressed in some warm clothes, following him up the ladder in case the shaking hands he was trying so hard to conceal made him miss a step, installing him on a seat in the rec room from which he couldn't see the nomad ship.

Taking!Charge!Kowalski. *loves* Any time he'd like to take charge of me. Just sayin'.

So now he stood by the cooking facilities, making a cup of hot, sweet chava and watching Frannie cycling through yelling at Vecchio, hugging him fiercely, crying loudly, laughing with an edge of hysteria and then back to the yelling. It was an impressive sight. Not just for the four seasons in point one hour, but because it made it very clear just how much Frannie loved her brother. And how much her brother loved her back. Because despite the shaking hands and the rolled eyes, Vecchio's kiss dropped tenderly on Frannie's head when she clung to him spoke more than words.

Ray stirred another lump of sugar into the chava and was surprised to feel a sting of jealousy as he looked at the two of them, Vecchio's arm wrapped tightly around Frannie as she sobbed and laughed into his chest. Ray hugged himself briefly before picking up the cup and handing it to Vecchio.

"I'll go make the, er, reports," said Ray.

Vecchio nodded.

"Right. I'll do that then." Ray found himself oddly reluctant to leave which was dumb because Frannie was taking care of Vecchio and there was no danger now and anyway Ray might have some respect for the guy but he wasn't sure he actually liked him or anything.

Ah, but we know better, dear reader, don't we? You do so like him, Kowalski, you just wait.

Vecchio nodded again and he pointed up to the hatch and then drew his index finger in a sharp line under his chin.

"I got it," Ray grinned.

Ray felt Vecchio's eyes on him all the way up the ladder.

***

"Stay," Kowalski said to Ian as he stepped into the cockpit.

Ian blanched and sat on his hands which were twitching with nerves. He'd had plenty of time to think and he had this great cover story about the Nav system and its potential infection by nanites picked up from the delivery guy in Lysander but when he opened his mouth Ray just glared at him and he shut it. Ian hadn't known Kowalski long and he'd never seen him mad before. Now he realized what a blessing that had been.

He sat still and listened as Ray called Contingency Maintenance and then COPS-Captain Welsh. He could feel his eyes getting bigger and the knot in his stomach tightening with every detail. He ate them? Kowalski rescued Vecchio with a crowbar? Ian was horrified, but a little part of him was already sorting and storing the information — this was too good a story to miss.

Ray finished what he was doing and swiveled round in his chair. "Just answer me this one thing," he said, voice conversational. "What exactly were you doing?"

"I-"

"D'you think we could get the real answer without having to go through 'Ian's Primer of Made-up Shit' first?"

Ian was confused. Where had angry Kowalski gone? He told the truth, he couldn't seem to help it. He explained about the information from the Washington Space Station and about his own observations, conveniently leaving out the hacking. He tried to explain about why warp gates were so important but Ray stood up and came to lean on Ian's console, idly picking up one of the figures that adorned it and twisting it in his hands.

"You have to stop with this warp gate thing, Ian. You want to be responsible for the deaths of who knows how many people if these guys get away?"

Ian blinked.

"I hadn't thought of it like that."

"You hadn't really thought at all."

No, Ian, realized, he hadn't. Seventy-two had been reported dead from the hospital explosion. If something similar happened on Titania because Ian had been chasing interstellar fantasies ... He shuddered.

"I'm sorry."

"Try to remember that, Ian. You strike me as the kind of guy that forgets."

And then conversational Kowalski was gone and angry Kowalski was back.

"And if you ever, ever, endanger the lives of any of the crew again," Ray brought the figure up in front of Ian's eyes and then snapped off the head, dropping the pieces on to the console where they rolled and bumped to a stop.

Ian swallowed hard. That had been a near-mint condition OctoFierce. Ray clearly meant business.

The action figures thing? It's uncomfortably close to Wash and his dinosaurs but it seemed fitting for Ian (we could call it an homage, maybe?) and I liked the way it gave Ray a way to demonstrate how angry he was without having to shout the odds.

"I understand, Ray."

"Good." Ray's mood shifted again, now he was completely professional. Ian was finding it difficult to keep up. "Next thing is to get back after the terrorists and hope to Mother that the trail's still warm. You caused this problem, can you fix it?"

"We can make time."

"How."

"We can max out the boosters. We'll pick up more speed and carry more momentum. Only problem is that it's going to push us to the limit safetywise, but if you want it, you got it."

Another ridiculously long conversation about how spaceships actually move through space. Bless, TB, he'd tell me one thing one day and the next I'd be asking him to explain it again. I am such a goldfish.

Ray hit the Com button on the console.

"Frannie, we're going to need you in the engine room, Ian wants to fire boosters on max."

"I'm looking after Ray!" Frannie yelled without the assistance of a microphone.

"No, you're not; you're doing what you're told."

Ian could hear a mini-scuffle and a stifled yelp. He imagined Vecchio had just stopped Frannie demonstrating exactly what she thought of Ray's comment. He stifled a grin.

"I'm going, I'm going!" yelled Frannie, her voice just a couple of degrees above freezing.

"Thank you so much. Vecchio, you may want to hang on to something, this might get interesting." Ray tapped the button again and turned to Ian. "Okay, undock us and let's get the hell out of here."

Ian was only too glad to comply.

***

"So if we continue at this current speed, how long will it take us to catch up?" Vecchio's voice only cracked a little now.

"Another twelve hours or so?"

"By which time the ship will be where?"

"Coming up on landfall."

"And if they land, we lose them?"

"Probably."

"Then we need to speed up."

They'd been in pursuit for two days now, long enough for Vecchio's bruises — mostly hidden by the collar of his shirt — to begin to change color, outlining the edges in grey and green. Long enough for the life to start returning to his voice. They had congregated in the cockpit to discuss the next move, a disheveled and dirty Frannie hanging over Ian's shoulder monitoring the flight path and the fuel readings. Ian looked tired too, with boosters firing on max he couldn't switch to autopilot, it was too dangerous.

Ray knew he and Vecchio looked rested in comparison. They'd spent the time doing small maintenance jobs, working out, playing card games and sleeping. Vecchio hadn't said much — couldn't — but that was fine by Ray and Vecchio knew just enough signs to get what he wanted to across. Some of them weren't even rude.

*clears throat* *sings* 'Getting to knooooow you, getting to know all abouuuuuuuuut you,'

"We are speeding up. We just can't speed up more," said Frannie. "The engines are designed to give us uniform accelerated motion so that it matches the gravitational field. If we keep pushing the boosters we'll get faster but only at a constant rate."

There were diagrams. And things flying through the air. And demonstrations involving the Millenium Falcon and random stuffed animals. True story.

"I heard 'blah blah blah blah blah'," said Ray.

And that was pretty much my reaction.

"Like this," said Frannie, maneuvering Ian's forearms so they made an axis. She wiggled the fingers of his horizontal hand. "Time." And then the other. "Speed." Coming around the chair and perching on Ian's lap, she placed her own forearm so that it lay diagonally between Ian's. "It's a straight line, see? No matter how far time stretches, it's always going to be a straight line."

Ray scratched his head. Frannie looked hopeful. He opened his mouth and then shut it again as the only thing he could think to say was 'Fire bad, girl pretty.' Physics was not his thing.

Vecchio, on the other hand, was getting up and walking over to them.

"So what we need, sister mine, is for the line to do this." He reached over the console, grabbing Frannie's fingers and bending them upwards, turning her straight line into a curve. She yanked them away, narrowly avoiding hitting Ian in the process.

"Ow! Jackass." She scowled.

"But I'm right?"

"In theory. The engines are programmed not to for a good reason."

"Which is?"

"The grav field can't compensate, gravity will increase, there'll be more pressure on the structure of the ship, more pressure on the engines. It's risky. Very risky."

"Can you bypass the programming or not?"

"I can do anything," Frannie shrugged. Ray knew she wasn't exaggerating.

"Do it."

"But, Ray-"

"Do it."

Frannie slid off Ian's lap and tucked an escaped strand of hair behind her ear.

"Okay, okay, okay," she said. "But don't come crying to me when you're a gooey puddle on the ground." She disappeared down the ladder.

"Hey, I never signed on to be a puddle," Ray interjected.

"Ignore her," said Vecchio. "She's always been overdramatic. When she was a kid she lost her favorite doll. The way she carried on about it you'd think there had been a death in the family. Neighbors brought cake. It was embarrassing."

"I heard that!" Frannie yelled. "I didn't hear you complaining when you were eating your way through your third shakala cake."

Vecchio smiled. In fact, Ray would go so far as to say he twinkled. It was the first time Ray had seen a smile cross Vecchio's face since his close encounter. Ray couldn't help but smile back.

"Can I put my arms down now?" whined Ian.

"No," they said in unison.

Ganging up on Ian. It must be true love!

***

"I'm ready," Frannie's voice came over the speaker.

"I'm ready," agreed Ian.

"I'm giving us fifteen, that's all," said Frannie. "That'll get us close to the maximum velocity Riviera can take without falling apart at the seams. If I were you, I'd get on the floor."

Standing by the window of the rec room, Ray rolled his eyes. Always with the exaggeration, that girl.

"Just get on with it."

"I'm not cleaning up the goop," said Frannie. "Remember that. Here we go."

Ray turned to say something to Kowalski but his body didn't seem to want to respond. He felt heavy and sluggish. He tried to lift up a hand; it was like pushing through the slurry pools back at the mine at home. So much effort for so little gain. He watched as Kowalski's legs folded under him and he hit the ground with a bump. Ray joined him. Frannie might have had a point about the lying down.

Stretching out on the floor took an agonisingly long time as the pressure in the ship continued to rise. Next to him, Kowalski was doing the same thing. Everything seemed to be going so slowly. Ray could feel the force on him getting larger and larger, crushing his chest, making it difficult to breathe. And then he wasn't on Riviera any more, he was back on the nomad ship with a dead weight on top of him, fingers squeezing his neck and he couldn't lift a hand to fight it off, couldn't fight, couldn't save himself. Ray could hear choking gasps and he knew he wasn't getting enough oxygen, knew he was going to pass out, and he tried to move his legs, shift this mass off his body, but it was on them too, it was everywhere and, though his whole body was screaming at him to move, he couldn't escape. It was too much.

"Stop," he gasped. "Stop."

Just then he felt a subtle touch on his arm. It moved up and down the merest fraction of a millimeter and Ray found that he could focus on it, use it to ground him in the reality of his situation. His breath started coming easier, his heart slowed and the minuscule motion against his arm did not stop. Ray began to think he could make it through the whole fifteen minutes.

See, if this had been me, the second the gravity went back to normal I'd've thrown myself on top of Kowalski and kissed the life out of him. Not Vecchio though, oh no. What is wrong with him?

He didn't have to. There was a loud wrenching sound and vibrations juddered through the metal floor and Ray's body. At the same time, the weight forcing them down vanished as if it had never been and Ray realized he was able to move. He could've cried with relief but settled for staying where he was, panting and thanking whatever deities he could remember for the ship's inability to do as it was told.

See. Rust-bucket. Earlier description proving useful. Woo!

The gentle touch on his arm became fingers encircling and squeezing lightly.

"You okay?"

Ray turned his head to see Kowalski eyeing him with concern. "You knew?"

"I guessed. That was bad enough without ... Without."

"Thanks for, you know." Ray rubbed his eyes. "Seem to be thanking you a lot."

"It's not a contest, Vecchio. I'm not keeping score."

At that moment, Frannie came out of the engine room, wiping her hands on a greasy rag.

"Well, the engine's-" she stopped when she saw the two men, Kowalski's hand still wrapped around Ray's arm.

"Am I interrupting again?" she asked with what Ray recognized as her mischievous smile. "Because really, just once more and I'm calling it as more than coincidence."

Oops, there go my trousers. Anyone for tennis? (Am I being ridiculously British right now?)

Kowalski yanked his hand away as if Ray had suddenly lit on fire. Ray sat up.

"What happened?"

"Told you it was dangerous. External power relay blew. It looks like I lost two turbopump seals as well."

"What does that mean, exactly?"

"It means that we're going faster, just like you wanted, but we can't use the engines again, we can't turn, we can't slow down, we can just keep going at humonculous speed until we crash into something and I die, never having seen my child's face."

The two Rays looked at each other.

"Humonculous," mouthed Ray,

"Dramatic," mouthed Kowalski.

"Presumably the rest of us die too?" asked Ray.

"Yes. And as it's all your fault I won't be sorry."

"You'll be dead. You won't have time to be sorry. Look, Frannie, can you fix it?"

"No."

"Ah."

"But you can."

***

Ray's finger hovered over the button.

"You going to boot this time?"

Reader, we call this call-back. Or comedians do. So I should maybe call it something else then.

Kowalski punched Ray lightly on the arm.

"How many times I got to tell you? It was unexpected. I wasn't expecting it. Gravity-light I can handle. I can talk the space talk and walk the space walk same as you."

You know that thing where you worry and worry that the voices are right and that the characters are saying what they should say? The unexpected/expecting thing? — no worries at all.

Ray grinned.

"Just asking."

He pushed the button and the door slid open, nothing standing between them and the empty void of space. It never failed to take Ray's breath away. He stood right at the edge, twisted around and reached up to find the ring above the door. He clipped the krab he was holding through it and tugged to test the connection. It held.

"Okay, you follow me," said Ray.

"Like I have any choice." Kowalski indicated the cable that linked them together.

Ray gave it a tug.

"Be a good boy and you can have a new chew toy later."

"Oh, the wit. It burns."

JUST GET INTO BED WITH EACH OTHER ALREADY!

"You just wish you were so talented. Sure you don't want to give me the toolbox, have both hands free?"

"You think I can't cut it just come out and say it." There was an edge to Kowalski's voice now. Ray backtracked.

Ah, Vecchio, you blew it again.

"Don't get your panties in a bunch, I was just being chivalrous."

"Chivalrous?"

"It happens."

"I'm good, thanks."

Ray swung out of the door, stepping into nothing. He loved the feeling of weightlessness, of being a mote of dust in the enormity of space. Some people freaked out when they realized their own insignificance in the biggest of big pictures. Not Ray. It made him realize the importance of every single living thing. He was the smallest of cogs in the big machine of the Solar System but whether he was there or not made a difference. To his family, to the bastards he put away, to the people he interacted with along the way. Not a big difference, but Ray was of the opinion that every little counted. He had to be. The idea that all these billions of tiny cogs working away, day in day out combined were still just the smallest cog in the biggest machine of them all — that blew his mind. Years ago he'd believed in some kind of Higher Power, now he just believed in ... in this.

This is kind of Vecchio's statement of purpose. He's not one of those that looks into the void and goes mad, he's one that looks at it and feels connected. I think it's something to do with how connected he is to his family and to his job — despite how jaded he is by it. He's insignificant in the big picture but it's a good insignificance. Mostly.

Being careful not to push off, Ray crept around the outside of Riviera to get to the exposed guts of her that covered the back of the ship, the cable unreeling as he went. Kowalski followed. Corrugated pipes ran up and down, feeding into the ship in different places. In the hollows created by the pipes were sealed metal boxes, each coded with labels engraved into them, though in many cases the labels were worn and difficult to read. In some places lubricant had leaked or been sloppily applied and it plastered to the ship in sticky rivulets. Rivulets that had collected proto-ecologies of space dust, dirt and who knew what else.

Something that frustrated me while writing. This whole world is so clear in my head — it's Technicolor, surround sound, the lot and getting any of that down on the page is so very hard. Especially since world-building has never been my thing. I read the passage about the ship and I see it so vividly but it's hard to separate myself from that and interpret it through the reader's eyes. I hope you got at least a sense of what was in my head when I saw it.

"Frannie?"

"Yep?"

Her voice sounded muffled. It was strange to think she was only a few feet away; her engine room separated from them by little more than a couple of thicknesses of sheet metal. Ray had a sudden memory of them playing at being space pirates, their sophisticated Com a couple of cans and a piece of string. Things were more complicated these days.

Space pirate ninjas? With monkeys?

"What were we looking for again?"

Frannie sighed.

"I give you one simple job ..."

"Box 9B/2-4, am I right?" said Kowalski, hauling himself around to join Ray.

"Absolutely." Frannie's voice purred. "If only all men were such good listeners."

"And this box would be where?" said Ray, biting down all the insults that hovered on the tip of his tongue. Frannie was world class at making his life difficult when aggravated and it was quite hard enough as it was.

"It's in the curve, where the wings kick out to the pods. You should see two pipes crossing each other; they've got red insulation tape on but no covers. The external power relay is just below them." Ray heard a clang and then a curse. "I'm a little bit busy here, Rays. Get there, take the lid off the box, let me know."

"Yes ma'am."

In slow, controlled leaps they made their way up the back of the Riviera. Kowalski spotted the pipes first and pointed them out to Ray. The box was exactly where Frannie had said it was. It was filthy. Ray drew a finger through the dirt to uncover the label, double-checking. 9B/2-4 — this was what they wanted. Ray clicked the guard over the cable reel. Kowalski attached magnets to the toolbox and placed it in the sheltered alcove bordered by the pipes and the top edge of the relay box.

"Let's get this baby open," he said.

That turned out to be harder than expected. Some of the screws were rusted and did not want to come quietly. Problem was that because of the position of the box, the only way they could work on it was by suspending themselves in space, using one hand to anchor them to Riviera and the other to work on the screws. It was a two man job alright.

They worked in silence for a couple of minutes, then Ray's magnetized screwdriver slipped and narrowly missed ripping Kowalski's suit.

"Mother! Frannie shoulda maintained these better."

"No big deal," said Kowalski. "She works her ass off, you know she does. How'd she get to be such a great mechanic?"

Ray bent once again to the task at hand.

"Pa used to collect all this useless junk. Was sure that it was gonna be his way out of the mines. Fix stuff up, sell it on. Never worked though. Frannie, she was this snotty-nosed little kid and she'd be toddling after him and she'd cry if he brought her back to Ma. So in the end he starts showing her how things work, how they don't, how to make 'em better. She lapped it up. Last useful thing Pa did was get her apprenticed with the Engineers at the mine."

Settle down, dear readers, for here comes your exposition of backstory. Seriously, it was important for Vecchio and Kowalski to know more about each other, to start to understand each other better and that meant the almost obligatory 'talking about our past' conversation. I'd like to think it comes across as fairly natural and not too info-dumpy. If you must disillusion me, do so gently.

He placed a freed screw in Kowalski's hand.

"So what's she doing here?"

"You plan on asking her out or something?"

***

Inside, Frannie wriggled a little as she extracted the faulty seal. Ray was asking questions about her. Maybe she'd fix him some food later, find some clean clothes, maybe break out the talliver soap she'd gotten from Maria last visit.

She started to hum, then stopped herself. Be inconvenient, Frannie, let them forget you're listening in.

Awww, Frannie.

***

"Just interested."

"You know how it goes. You wanna go places you gotta be the right somebody. Gotta know the right people, say the right things. Frannie, she may have been one of the best mechanics they ever saw but her Pa was a drunk and one brother was a- Not to mention how she had tits instead of balls. Small towns. Small minds. She wasn't happy. So when my mechanic got sick I offered her the job. Two reasons — she's a natural and why the hell should I suffer alone?"

See what I did there? With the brother? Is it Nino as previously mentioned or Ray not saying something about himself. Mystery! Hint! Oh I am just that good.

"Small towns suck," said Kowalski, taking the screwdriver from Ray and beginning to work on his side, "Especially mining towns. Where I grew up you had three choices: mine, work security or become part of the sprawling criminal element."

"Same here. Worst definition of choice I ever heard."

"So you picked the COPS instead?"

"What was I gonna do? Pa was dead, we needed to eat. The mine killed him, I wasn't gonna follow. No security vacancies. Frankie seemed convinced we were going to be rising stars in the world of organized crime. I disagreed."

And halo thar, Frankie Zuko. Little mention. Might be hiding something big. Might not. I do like to keep you all on tenterhooks.

Ray stopped. Here he was, as natural as anything, telling Kowalski about his life. Telling him about Frankie. And the oddest thing was that it didn't feel odd at all. It was just a conversation. A conversation that two buddies might have over a beer at the end of a long day. So maybe they were choosing to have it whilst simultaneously dangling in and hurtling through space but it was definitely a buddies conversation. When had that happened?

"So?" prodded Kowalski.

"So the COPS came by. Recruitment drive. You know the drill, right? 'See the 'verse,' they said. 'Help us make the Worlds better'. Looked glamorous on the poster, all shiny ships and smiling men and women in neat uniforms. And it was a regular paycheck. Couldn't turn it down. So I joined up. Didn't take me long to figure out the truth."

"What's that?"

"That for every bad guy we put away, there's another two popping into existence somewhere else. That for every guy we lose — to a weapon, to corruption, to indifference — the ones that are left have to fight harder, be better, be braver and stronger. And sometimes that's too hard."

Oh, Vecchio. Marry me now. Wait. I wrote this. I'm not supposed to be drooling. As you were.

Kowalski's earnest, understanding gaze was burning into Ray. He felt strangely itchy and wriggled his shoulder-blades inside his suit.

But see? Kowalski gets it too.

"Also, the dress uniform? Not my color."

And here we have humour as a defence mechanism. Do I love that? Yes I do.

"Last screw," said Kowalski, placing it safely into a container.

Together they levered up the lid, the rusted hinges resisting. Ray could feel the force pushing against him and braced himself harder against the ship so that he did not fly off in reaction. Kowalski obviously had not prepared himself for a struggle and the next thing Ray saw was Kowalski zooming past, heading off into space.

"There's always one," said Ray.

"Can it," said Kowalski, no hint of fear in his voice.

Grabbing onto a pipe with both hands Ray bent up and braced his feet on the ship. The cable linking him to Kowalski tightened and pulled. As it reached maximum extension Ray could see the vibrations along the length of it.

"Twaaaaang," he added, as space didn't provide sound effects.

Is it wrong to say I laughed when I wrote that? If it is I don't want to hear it. Such a great mental image.

As soon as it stopped tugging, Ray let go with one hand and began to reel Kowalski in. He let his feet drop down again as Kowalski sailed closer. Ray pulled until Kowalski bumped gently off him and came to a standstill.

"Heel," said Ray.

"Woof fucking woof," replied Kowalski.

Call-back again, viewers — oh yes, I'm a master craftsman. Mistress craftswoman?

"Shall we get on with the job now? Are you done with your break?"

Kowalski demonstrated the manipulatory properties of his glove. Ray chortled.

They lifted off the lid.

"Yeah, that's definitely fritzed," said Kowalski.

"What gave it away?" asked Ray. "The molten lump of metal in the middle or the bit where all the wires have fused together?"

"Intuition."

"Frannie!"

***

"Okay," said Frannie. "I can give you the long version or the short one."

"Short," said Vecchio.

"Yank it out, stick the new one in."

"Little bit longer, maybe."

Ray heard a definite snort from Frannie before she began to explain how to replace the external power relay in a manner that suggested she was speaking to a small, not particularly bright, child.

"...And then you connect the load connection to the NC connection. Easy. Want to repeat it back."

This is how dedicated I am to my craft. I went on the net and researched power relays and eventually found some information on how to connect one up. Everything you read here is, therefore, true. As if you would even know (except the one of you who knows freakish amounts about electronics — there's always one)

"Yank it out, stick the new one in," said Ray before Vecchio could tell her where to shove her repeat.

"I've isolated the power circuit and switched it off, so you shouldn't fry yourselves or anything. Tell me when it needs to go back on. If I don't hear you, just shout; it's going to get noisy in here for a while."

The two men looked at each other.

"We can do this," said Ray, not sure if he was asking a question or making a statement.

"We hope," said Vecchio, extracting pliers from the toolbox and placing them in Ray's hand. "All yours, Doctor Kowalski."

"The technical term for this operation is 'yank it out'. Watch and learn, Vecchio. Watch and learn."

"Consider me in awe," said Vecchio. "And not at all scheming to put the blame on you should this not work out."

"Classy."

"Always."

Ray felt Vecchio watching him as he worked. Determined not to show himself up, he wielded the pliers like a pro, only just stopping himself short of twizzling the tool and holstering it. What a dork.

"You're a natural." Vecchio slipped his hand under the wires and tried to shift the relay. Nothing doing. "You done stuff like this before?"

Ray added his strength to Vecchio's. Hanging on tight, they attacked the ex-relay.

"I got around."

"Yeah?"

It was an invitation, Ray knew. Vecchio had opened up a little; let Ray see parts of him he usually kept well-hidden behind a prickly wall that was two parts sarcasm to one part bluster. Ray should return the favor. Wanted to. But some things, he wasn't sure how he should say them. Or if he could.

Woobie!

"This isn't working," he said, stilling his hand.

Vecchio stilled too, gave him a funny look. He did realize Ray was talking about the relay, right?

"Let's try something different. Hand me that chisel."

"Yes, Doctor."

"Okay, I'm gonna need two hands here. Flying off into space each time I hit the thing I do not need. So here's what we're gonna do ..."

When Ray finished, Vecchio just stared at him.

"You think of a better way?" Ray challenged.

"No," said Vecchio and began to move.

He swung behind Ray and pulled in close. He reached around to the front of Ray's belt and Ray felt the cable krab slide around to the back and then a hand on his back as Vecchio connected the two krabs together so that they were as closely linked as possible. No give. If one went, the other went.

"Ready to brace?"

"No."

Good to know Vecchio was on board.

Ray felt Vecchio's legs cradling his own, lifting towards the surface of Riviera.

"I feel like a hammock," muttered Vecchio.

"Hammocks don't wriggle."

"Do the job already."

Gratuitous making the boys get close to each other scene. Close physically to mirror the emotional closeness they're about to feel. See? I think about these things, I really do. Sometimes I even think about them before I write them and not as an afterthought — Oooh, that's what I meant. Who'd'a thunk?

Okay, so Vecchio had a point. This was weird. He was practically lying on the guy and despite the fact that at no point were their actual bodies touching it was strangely intimate. It had been a long time since Ray had been this close to someone. He reached for the hammer.

"Here we go."

Ray struck the chisel with the hammer and could feel the resistant force trying to push him out into space. But Vecchio's body was behind him, hands and feet bracing against the ship and he wasn't going to let Ray go anywhere.

For a while there it looked like the relay wasn't going to budge, no matter how hard Ray hammered. But eventually it pinged out and flew off into the black. Ray wasn't sorry to see it go. Vecchio cheered and then let his feet drop, Ray floating back down with him. He felt, rather than heard, the disconnect and then Vecchio's arm was sliding back around front.

"You're breathing kinda hard there, Kowalski." Vecchio's voice was teasing.

Homage!

"It was a classic battle. Man versus relay. Someone will write a song about it."

"Whatever. Just don't use up all your oxygen. We're only halfway there."

Vecchio appeared in front of him again. He peered into the box.

"I declare Operation Yank It Out a success," he said. "How about we move on to Operation Stick It In?"

About a thousand dirty jokes ran through Ray's head at that moment. He couldn't pick and then it was too late — the moment had passed.

Or was it that I couldn't think of a good enough joke? I think you'll find it was.

"Ground terminal first, yeah?" asked Vecchio as he placed the relay in the box.

Ray nodded and they got to work. Somewhere along the way Ray found himself humming a tune; it was a cheerful little ditty about ice and snow and hunger and cold. One of the songs Fraser used to sing. 'To keep the spirits up,' he always said. Ray was never sure if he was serious. The only spirits that would be kept up were those that couldn't sleep what with all the singing about death and woe, Ray had replied. That got him a cryptic smile. Ray missed that smile. And all the others.

You may notice that 'what with' is one of my favourite constructions. I could not tell you why this is, merely offer it to you as a fact.

"What the hell is that? Is that supposed to be a tune or has a fly come to life in your helmet?"

Also 'what the hell'. Very fond of that.

And just like that, Ray realized that he was sick of carrying this whole thing by himself. Tired of waking up sad and frustrated and angry. Always angry. And maybe it was better Vecchio knew the truth about him, give him a chance to cut and run before they got to be buddies. Although maybe it was too late for that.

"My last partner, he used to sing it. Whatever life vomited up at us, he had a song to match. Most of them involved ice at some point. Ice was his thing. He liked ice." Ray didn't even try to keep the affection out of his voice. He hoped Vecchio would ask the question.

"What happened, if you don't mind me asking? Frannie told me ... well, she told me. If you don't want to-"

"Nah, it's okay." Oddly, Vecchio giving him a get-out just made him want to talk more. He started to connect the live wire to the V terminal.

"I ship-hopped off-world soon as I could. Mom always said my feet were too itchy to stay on the ground. I was all 'ooh space' and skill-free back then which wasn't going to get me far or fed. So I picked stuff up, did a little this, did a little that. Bobbed, weaved. Bobbed and weaved. Even weaved and bobbed sometimes. It was a whole bunch of fun until it wasn't."

Ray moved on to connect the temperature sensors.

"Some bad shit happened and I wound up on Europa. Broke, hungry and cold enough to cause a full-scale retreat if you know what I mean. And then I stumbled into Fraser. I mean I actually stumbled into him. Wasn't looking where I was going and ended up on my ass. He was all polite and 'can I help you, sir?' and I was trying to hustle him, get some money for a meal and a bed. How was I supposed to know the guy had this crazy helping complex? Ended up back at his place, belly full of stew, snoozing on the couch with a big lump of fur called Dief cutting off the circulation in my feet. Power, Frannie!"

***

Frannie counted to three before replying. That way they wouldn't know she'd been listening in. She could do subterranean with the best of them.

"It's coming. You guys doing okay out there?"

"We'll see when the power comes back on, won't we?"

"Turns out Kowalski's nifty with a pair of pliers. Who knew?"

Frannie was sure Kowalski was nifty with a lot of things. She flipped a couple of switches.

"You're on. Be careful, I don't want you frying the circuit."

"Pump seal replaced yet?"

Turbopump seal? Broke on one of the space shuttles. My Google-fu is fierce, my friends.

"Good as new. Better even."

Looking down at her filthy nails, Frannie wondered whether she should get cleaned up. But then she'd miss out on hearing about Kowalski's past and if she was working towards breaking Ray's rules regarding fratricide on the ship that was something she needed to hear. She decided to clean her tools instead. Settling down, she grasped her wrench and a rag and began to wipe the metal in smooth, long strokes.

"Mid setpoint, low setpoint, high setpoint. That right?"

At Kowalski's voice, Frannie stroked a little faster.

Seriously, send it now.

"Uhuh. I'll be here if you need anything. Anything at all."

Really. Anything at all.

Frannie listened.

***

Ray attached the voltmeter and started to adjust the setpoints.

"Where was I? Oh yeah. With all that no-eating and being inappropriately dressed for the climate, Ray I got sick. Big shock. The green-stuff-hacking, sweating-when-you're-cold, hallucinating-giant-robots-who-call-you-Bob kind of sick. It was pretty gross. Fraser took care of me. He was a stand-up guy. So it made sense when he said he was in law enforcement. Me, I'd been on the wrong side of the law more times than I could count but I figured if this guy was working on the right side then there might just be something to it."

He switched the connections over.

"The first time he suggested I work with him I nearly died laughing. Literally. Forgot how my lungs were still full of crap. But he worked on me, kept telling me I had a sense of natural justice, though how the hell he worked that one out I don't know. I gave in in the end. I mean, I was eating his food, using his heat, drinking his disgusting herbal medicines. I owed the guy. Had to do some basic training and then we were partners."

Ray moved on to the final setpoint.

"I had a blast. He showed me all this survival stuff and we'd spend weeks out on the ice, tracking down a murderer here, a rapist there. Even picked up one of the Shan family one time."

Name drop. Mystery!

Ray didn't need to look to know that Vecchio was impressed. He took a deep breath; this was getting to the hard part.

"Thing was ... Fraser was special. Sure he was stubborn and manipulative and snippy as hell, but he was also kind and loyal, thoughtful and smarter than anyone I'd ever met." Ray breathed deep again. Have to watch out for that oxygen.

"And hot. So very hot." he finished in a rush. He didn't wait for a reply. "Frannie, I'm connecting the switch to the COM, right?"

There was no response but Ray heard a crash and what sounded like a muffled scream.

"Frannie? You okay?"

There was a pause.

"Yes." Frannie's voice sounded a little odd. "My wrench slipped, that's all. I was busy doing something with my wrench and it slipped. I may have — I mean it may have — broken something. What did you want?"

Poor Frannie. No need to practice with that wrench any more. *pets her*

"Switch. COM. Yes? No?"

"Yes."

"You sure you're okay?"

"Yes, Ray. Now if you'll excuse me, I have things to do."

Ray looked up to exchange a 'your sister, she crazy' glance with Vecchio but what he got was an intense stare that was like a punch to the stomach.

"You fell in love with the guy," said Vecchio. It wasn't an accusation, just a statement of fact. At least he hadn't unclipped the cable and sent Ray spinning into space.

I never for a second considered that Vecchio might freak out about that. Because he is a compassionate man and even if I'm reading him as totally straight in canon (which, no way, he is so in love with Fraser whether he knows it or not) I don't read him as homophobic. I think he'd deal. So he's dealing. Plus, you know, the whole Frankie thing.

"Yeah. It was pretty hard not to. I didn't say anything — who wants to get shot down? — but after a while I thought maybe it wasn't just me. So I kissed him. Dumbest decision I ever made."

"He tell you to beat it?"

"No. He kissed me back."

Ray couldn't look at Vecchio any more. He got on with the job.

"So what was the problem?"

"We were after this guy, went by the name of Volpe. Not his real name, no one knew what his mother had called him. Dangerous bastard, linked to the Shan family. He was wanted for all kinds: arms dealing, murder, extortion. We had a good lead so we were camped out on an ice-plateau not far from his last known hiding place. It was night; no one in their right mind would have been out unless they were willing to have an ice statue made out of their body. It was snowing. It was quiet. I was edgy. I kissed him."

Ray made the final connection and signaled Vecchio to help him put the lid down. Vecchio got to work with the screwdriver, Ray placing screws for him one at a time.

"He kissed me. Let's just say things snowballed from there."

Vecchio huffed a laugh and a knot in Ray's stomach eased the tiniest fraction.

"We were ... not careful. No one in their right mind would have been out but Volpe, he was not in his right mind. Not in any kind of mind." Ray rolled the rhyme around in his brain for a second. This was like vomiting your guts up after a night on the bottle but he didn't know if it was going to be the kind where you felt better afterwards or just wanted to keep throwing up until you were wearing your insides on the outside.

OK, so that's a disgusting metaphor but I really like it. It seems Kowalskiesque.

"So there we are, two grown men behaving like rutting animals and Fraser's on top of me telling me stuff that I didn't think anyone would ever say and then there's this dark shadow behind him and that sound — phhhhhhht — and Fraser slumps down and he's twitching on me and there's the noise again and this time I see the shot and I know I'm gonna get it only there's a blur of white and a yelp and then I'm alone in the tent because Fraser and Dief are gone. They're gone. Dead. And. Gone."

*cries for dead!Fraser and dead!Dief*

Ray cursed the pressure suit because he didn't know what to do with his hands. He wanted to shove them in his pockets, run them through his hair, anything to stop them trembling at the memory. Vecchio reached for the next screw himself.

"What happened after that, it wasn't pretty. I tried to track Volpe down but he disappeared — poof — and I couldn't get anyone to talk to me. I lost it for a while. I lost it for a long time and then one day I woke up and I was almost back to where I'd been when Fraser found me. Guy saved my life, I got him killed and now I was pissing away the life he saved. That's disrespectful. I cleaned myself up and got myself across to the COPS recruitment office. And here I am and I swear, Vecchio, I'm gonna find him. I'm going to send him to Punishment with a song in my heart and a kick in the head."

"Is that all you're here for? Revenge?"

"Hey, I'll do my job. I'll do it right. But if he comes my way I'm not letting him go again. Okay?"

"Okay." Vecchio patted the box. "I'm done here. Let's go."

Neither man spoke as they made their way back to the airlock. The second the door was sealed Ray pulled off his helmet, and breathed a sigh of relief at the freedom. Vecchio followed suit. Ray tried to read him, but failed.

*sings* 'Getting to liiiiiiiiiiiike yooooouuuuuuuuu, getting to hope youuuuuuuuuu like meeeeeeeeeeee.'

"So, you know, with the thing. Are we still ...?"

"Yeah, we're still." Vecchio pressed the Com on the wall and called Ian and Frannie to come and help them. He opened the internal door.

More! Homage!

"Falling in love with your partner's a dumb thing to do, huh?" And now Ray was pushing it. Why couldn't he keep his damn mouth shut?

"And yet we still do it," said Vecchio, stepping into his cabin without looking back.

Ray saw dark hair and blue eyes flashing with life. And yet we still do.

Woooooooobie!

***

"I can't believe he's gay. Why does this always happen to me?"

"It's not happening to you, Frannie. It's happening around you. Kowalski didn't wake up one morning and think 'I know, I'll like guys because one day it's going to piss off a frizzy-haired mechanic who sticks her nose where it doesn't belong.'"

"But I-"

"If you're going to tell me you already named your children I don't want to know."

Frannie shot Ray a glare.

"I'll just go and check the engines then. After all, I'm just a frizzy-haired mechanic with a healthy sense of curiosity."

"You do that."

Frannie made another failed attempt to kill him by stare before letting herself out of the cabin and clattering noisily up the ladder. Ray shrugged. He was antsy. He knew he should be kinder to Frannie but he wasn't in the mood. Must be all that floating about in space leaving him restless. A run would do him good. Clear his head — with all the thoughts that were bubbling away in there he felt like one of Frannie's potluck casseroles. He dressed in comfortable sweats and an old, faded t-shirt that bore the legend 'Have you seen the size of my weapon?' It had been a joke gift from Stella a long time ago and Ray had never been able to bring himself to throw it out. It was a reminder that they'd been able to joke. Once.

The t-shirt is such a bad joke. But it's a plot point. Bad t-shirt as plot point. I live on the edge.

Grabbing a towel, Ray headed up to the gym. At the back of the rec room the floor and ceiling sloped upwards as the wings rose to meet the pods. A set of steps were set into the floor on each side, leading to the gym. This was a simple metal platform suspended over the curved part of the room with railings bordering all sides and supported by two pillars. The equipment was basic: a treadmill, rowing machine and exercise bike, a weight bench next to a locked chest full of free weights and, often most importantly, a punch bag. Everything was bolted to the platform as randomly floating equipment could play havoc with an exercise regime.

Climbing the stairs, Ray realized he wasn't the first to have the idea to work off some energy. If the thwaps and grunts he could hear were anything to go by he had to feel sorry for the punch bag. Briefly he wondered if this was going to be awkward and his foot paused fractionally over the next step before he told himself to be a man and grow a pair.

A pair of what, Raimundo? Shoes?

Kowalski didn't acknowledge Ray's arrival and the scowl Ray could see even from his profile was as effective as a ten-mile quarantine. Ray laid his towel over the railing and started the treadmill, jogging slowly to warm up. Usually he would plug himself into a playlist of music appropriate to his mood and how far he wanted to run. Today he didn't, distracted by Kowalski's grunts and yells, distracted by the sight of him, dancing on tiptoes, attacking the bag like it had badmouthed his mother. Zero points for style, Ray decided, but ten out of ten for enthusiasm.

There's a joke here about first time boy-sex. I'll let you all make it yourselves.

Kowalski was dressed in singlet and shorts and Ray found himself appreciating the view this afforded him. It was years since Ray had studied a guy the way he was studying this one. The way it ended with Frankie had seen to that. But it was as if Kowalski's confession had unlocked a door so buried that Ray had almost forgotten it existed. So now, faced with a subject that was well worth hours of study, Ray looked. And looked and looked.

A skinny guy was Kowalski. Not that wilt-when-you-put-it-in-a-pot-of-boiling-water kind of skinny, more wiry. His body wore muscle in exactly the right places. Ray could see the curves and shadows of them as his arms moved, saw his calves bunching and relaxing, thighs that were solid and strong without being heavy. An ass that-

Another thing I seem to have an obsession with? Hyphenated descriptions. I loves me some of them. Why? Once again, I have no idea. Add it to your fact-file.

Woah! Ray stopped himself there. It was one thing to maybe find a colleague aesthetically pleasing; it was another to be fixating on his ass. Maybe running was a bad idea. Maybe the tanks on the pressure suits had been depleted and now he was oxygen-deprived and just making things worse by running. Yeah, that made sense. He hit the button to stop the treadmill and stood, hands on hips, trying to gulp in some air. He didn't feel out of breath, but bodies were tricky things.

Ray didn't know how long he'd been standing there when Kowalski reached out with both hands to still the bag, his own body going as rigid as the pole the bag rested on.

"You like what you see?" His voice was low with a hum of threat.

Oops. Busted!

Ray cursed internally; there was no graceful way out of this.

"I was just-"

"What?" snarled Kowalski, spinning on his heel and taking a step towards Ray. "You think just because I fell in love with Fraser I'm gonna drop to my knees in front of any guy that wants a piece?"

Ray bristled but he told himself to stay calm, that Kowalski was probably regretting ever opening his mouth and that Ray had, in all honesty, been staring at his ass. Accidentally, but there it was. He held up his hands in a placatory gesture.

Accidentally. Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, Vecchio.

"Yeah, okay, I was looking," he admitted. "But I wasn't planning to bend you over the nearest available surface and fuck you into next month if that's what you're worried about."

Kowalski stepped closer, eyebrows pulled down in a frown, lips curved in a snarl. Lips that Ray didn't want to be thinking of different uses for at the moment, thank you very much, libido.

"Although, on a good day I'm told I can manage next week."

There was a twitch at the corner of Kowalski's mouth and he seemed to be having trouble maintaining the frown. Ray took this as a good sign.

"Seriously, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-"

But Ray was interrupted by a guffaw from Kowalski and two fingers jabbing towards his torso.

"No. Can't say I have," he said and it took Ray a moment to figure out he was looking at the slogan on the t-shirt. He hoped he wasn't blushing.

"We could always do something about that," said Kowalski, getting right up in Ray's personal space, pointing fingers turning into a flattened hand on Ray's chest. His voice was low again, this time with a seductive edge.

Ray was totally wrong-footed. Could this guy turn on a pinhead or what? He looked at Kowalski and Kowalski looked back, chin up, eyes challenging. This was wrong, this was all kinds of wrong and much as Ray's mind tried to lead him astray with crystal clear images of Kowalski's mouth doing things to Ray that he hadn't had done to him in more time than he cared to remember, he was not going to help Kowalski damage himself more than he already was.

"Well?" demanded Kowalski, moving so close to Ray that he could feel the heat pouring off of him.

Ray couldn't stop himself licking his lips as he tried to get his mouth caught up to his brain. What was he supposed to do now?

"Ray! Ray!" Ian's excited voice came over the speaker. "I see them. Subura. I have visual confirmation. We got them!"

In a flash, both men were running down the stairs and Ray had only a second to spare for relief before he was back in command.

Had to ramp up the tension there. It was important for Vecchio to recognize that Kowalski's story had done something to him. And it's important for you as readers to have more hints dropped about Vecchio's past so that his attraction to Kowalski isn't out of the blue, even if it kind of is to Vecchio. I also wanted to show Kowalski's mercurial nature, the way he shifts and changes, letting his environment and whoever is around him affect his mood and temper. He's a chameleon, that one.

***

"Show me," demanded Vecchio, bursting into the room with Kowalski hot on his heels.

"Nice outfit." Ian grinned. "Is it regulation issue?"

Vecchio looked down at himself and then at Kowalski.

"How much time we got?"

"Are you worried they won't take you seriously if they see you dressed like that?"

"Tick, tock, MacDonald," Kowalski chimed in. He seemed agitated. Ian made a quick calculation and decided not to push it.

"You've got time to get cleaned up. It's not going anywhere I can't follow."

"As much as I hate to admit it, that's true," said Vecchio. "C'mon, Kowalski."

"See," muttered Ian to his action figures as the two men disappeared, "My genius is legendary. Across the galaxies many-limbed creatures thrill to the name of Ian MacDonald." He thought for a second. "Of course, I wouldn't say no if some of the normally-limbed human female variety did some thrilling in my direction."

By the time the men returned, Frannie had joined Ian in the cockpit and sat perfectly still, staring out of the window.

"Must be important, Frannie isn't even swiveling," said Kowalski.

"Shut up, Kowalski," said Frannie with just a hint of a snap.

Ian raised his eyebrows. Last thing he knew Frannie prefaced all her communications with Kowalski with a minimum of one dimple and a flutter of eyelashes. What had he missed?

Vecchio stood forward, one hand resting on his chair. In the distance was a small craft looking exactly like one of the models that hung in Ian's cabin. Unlike the models, this ship was getting steadily larger as they gained.

Ian has model ships! He probably has glow in the dark stars stuck to the ceiling of his cabin as well. D'aww.

"Right," said Vecchio, turning to face them all. "Here's the plan. We gotta force them down. Find a place to land where there's no cover. We don't know their capabilities and we can't have them getting near populated areas. I'm not risking a martyr complex."

Logistics again, people. Here was another lengthy conversation about how the guys could achieve their goal. Something to do with diagonals and direction thrusters. It was a whole thing. Also, coming up with the idea of the virus as a way of controlling the ship. A little bit Independence Day, maybe, but the guys went one better, they went wireless. Because the problem was why would the terrorists not just use escape pods, send a distress call or martyr themselves? So there had to be a way of Riviera taking complete control so that the terrorists could be brought to justice.

Ian felt his stomach twist a little. He loved the chase. This was going to be fun.

"We don't have shipboard weapons, do we?" asked Kowalski.

"Not exactly," said Vecchio.

"We've got something better," added Ian.

"Oh, we do." Frannie's smile was full of mischief.

"Maps, Ian. Let's see what we got."

"What? What do we have?" Kowalski's voice was plaintive.

Ian brought up the data on Titania, forwarding it to all consoles.

"First to spot a good place gets off dish duty for a week," said Vecchio.

"What do we have? What?"

"Two weeks."

"Ten days."

"What?"

"Ten days and you cook the winner a meal of their choice."

"If you're negotiating, you're not looking."

"WHAT. DO. WE. HAVE?"

Did I say I love winding up Kowalski? No? I love winding up Kowalski. Also, I like the dynamic of the three who've been working together for some time, the easy way they have with each other and the way they snap to it when the situation calls for it.

Ian, who had been looking and negotiating — multi-tasking was his middle name — was shocked to find himself lifted half off his seat, Kowalski's fist twisted in his shirt.

"Hey, man!" Ian brushed Kowalski's shoulders. "We weren't ignoring you, we were just Ö okay, yeah we were ignoring you. If you wouldn't mind putting me down I'll explain."

Kowalski looked puzzled, flicking his gaze between his fist and Ian's face. He shook his head a little, letting go. Ian dropped back into his seat, heart pounding.

"Sorry. It's been a day. You know?"

"Yeah, yeah," said Ian, trying to sound reassuring. Looked like Vecchio might be right — this one wasn't going to make it either. It was a shame, he liked Kowalski, he was starting to fit in really well.

"It's like this-" he started.

"Got it!" exclaimed Frannie.

One of the screens in front of Ian flickered briefly and resolved into a detailed map of an area of Titanian terrain. Distracted, Ian leaned in towards it. He waved vaguely in Kowalski's direction.

"In a minute," he said. "Frannie, this is perfect."

"It is," agreed Vecchio, leaning over, grabbing her face in both hands and planting a kiss on her. "No dishes for you."

"What are we looking at?" asked Kowalski. He sounded perfectly reasonable now but Ian wasn't taking any risks. He curbed his natural inclination to invent a more glamorous answer and gave it to him straight.

He pointed to the screen. Kowalski leaned in over his shoulder.

"See this grey area here? That represents flat land. The lack of extra coloration shows there's no vegetation or habitation. The surrounding browny-greeny kind of bits, that's mountainous terrain. The darker brown they are, the higher the mountains. You can see they're ringing the flat land. We bring them down there, there's no escape. Unless they're, you know, taking a one-way trip."

"I like it." Kowalski nodded. "But I still don't get how we can get them to land there. Do we send them a cake and a note saying 'Pretty please?'"

"We don't have any cake left after somebody got the midnight munchies," said Frannie, pointedly. "Is that ship supposed to be getting so big so fast? We're going to fly straight past."

"You make a good point, Francesca," said Ian, flipping a couple of switches and taking hold of the steering paddle. "I'm firing retro-boosters, if you feel like holding on feel free to do so. The management denies all responsibility for injuries caused by anyone being dumb enough to be standing up in three seconds."

Kowalski sprinted for his chair as Ian counted down.

"Firing retro-boosters."

He pressed the button and the Riviera slowed. Grace and elegance, thought Ian. Other people might say you're a rust-bucket, but I know you've got grace and elegance.

"Hey!" Kowalski twisted around, affronted. "I didn't feel nothing."

See? Winding up Kowalski. So much fun.

"I am just that good," said Ian, smiling widely.

"Don't congratulate yourself too soon." Frannie pointed.

A small cloud flared from the side of the ship and it shifted out of view to the left.

"They made us," said Kowalski. "Now what?"

"Now this."

This was what Ian was geared up for. This he could do all day and never get tired of. He locked on to the ship on his radar screen and fired the maneuvering thruster. Game on.

No one spoke as the two crafts dodged and moved in zig-zagging motions across the empty void in a demented version of Follow My Leader. Ian didn't raise his eyes. He didn't need to look outside, didn't need to see anything except the green blip on the monitor in front of him, all those hours playing on the Filter when he was a kid paying off. What would he need to see the ship for? Real life was so overrated.

That last sentence? Ian may or may not have been channeling me. I couldn't possibly comment.

Distantly he heard Vecchio speaking.

"We're getting close; I'm going to open a channel. Ian, can you hold her and upload at the same time?"

Ian didn't blink.

"Ian!"

Frannie's shriek penetrated Ian's zone of concentration. He looked up, slightly bleary. Vecchio repeated his question.

"Yeah, Frannie will help, won't you, Frannie?"

"Can I press the thing?"

"Sure."

"Then I'll help."

She scurried over and stood by Ian's shoulder.

"What can I do?" asked Kowalski.

"You? You can look pretty. I'm going to find a wave to hail them on. Tell them to land, give themselves up, blah, blah, no glory in death if no one knows about it. Tell them you're the food delivery guy if it'll keep them talking. We need time."

Ian concentrated on keeping as close to the craft as possible, dogging its every move. Everything was set.

The fourth channel Vecchio tried was patent. A hum replaced the static of dead air.

"Subura. This is COPS Watch 23. Please respond." Kowalski waited a couple of seconds. "Subura. This is COPS Watch 23. Please respond."

He waited again. "You know, if it was me being tailed I wouldn't respond either. Except with maybe a two-fingered salute."

Vecchio shrugged. "Try something else," he said.

"Subura. This is COPS Watch 23, we wish to negotiate. We have something we think you will be interested in. Please respond."

There was another pause and then a voice, high and reedy.

"What do you have?"

Vecchio stretched out an arm and pointed towards Ian and Frannie, wiggling his index finger. Ian looked up at Frannie and nodded. She pushed a button. Out beyond Subura Titania hung, rapidly expanding. They needed to get this done. Now.

"Shit, you're just a boy ... I mean, we have a prisoner on board that we are willing to exchange for the explosives that you are carrying."

"You don't know that we've got-" His voice got a little muffled, as if he had turned his head from the microphone. "Wait, I'm handling this, I think they have Mikey- No, you shut up-" The volume rose again. "Please state your terms."

"Um, we ..." Kowalski faltered.

Vecchio made a keep-it-going gesture. A few seconds, that's all they needed.

"We will send you co-ordinates for landfall. You will land and empty your ship of explosives. We will examine the ship. If you have done as we asked we will release Mikey-" Ian saw Vecchio grin at Kowalski's use of the name, "into your care."

"No! We choose the place."

"That is not negotiable."

"Then we don't have a deal."

"Wait!" But the channel was cut. Kowalski slammed his fist into the console. "I nearly had him."

"It's okay," said Vecchio, resting his hand briefly on Kowalski's shoulder. "Least, I hope so. We get it?"

Ian's grin spread from ear to ear.

"Oh, yeah. We got it."

"Then bring 'em in."

Ian got to work. The chase had been cake. This part was icing. And if it helped everyone forget the little incident with the nearly-dying and the aborted search for the Warp Gate then so much the better.

"Watch this, Kowalski, you're gonna love it."

Vecchio ran a finger along a whole bank of switches.

"Attention, Subura. You will find that all your communications are blocked and you can no longer access your shipboard computer. We have uploaded a virus into your system and you are now under our control. We will be bringing you into land in approximately-" he turned to look at Ian who held up one finger. "One hour. Until then I suggest you relax, read a Slab, get cleaned up, mutually pleasure each other in desperation or whatever it is you terrorists do for fun. I'm looking forward to making your acquaintance."

Vecchio took way too much pleasure in that little speech.

He ran his finger back the other way.

"That was fun."

"A virus. That's cool. That's sneaky. I like that. How's it work?"

"I'm delighted we please you, Kowalski. Shortwave signal. Gotta get in real close and they have to be dumb enough to open a channel and stay on it, but it works great."

"So now?"

"Now Ian brings us both down. We'll be on the ground ahead of them so they can't cut and run. Three options. They come out and surrender, they come out and fight or they sit in that tin can until they starve."

"I vote for two."

"You know what? I do too. Let's go arm up. Ian, you got it from here, right?"

"Sure thing, boss."

"Frannie, check the landing gear."

"Please."

"Frannie, check the landing gear, please."

"No problem."

"Can I have a shotgun and my ionizer pistol?"

"You can have whatever you want."

"How about some minor explosives? You know, beat them at their own game."

"How about I beat you about the head?"

"How about I bet you I take more of them prisoner than you?"

Banter! *love*

The voices grew fainter and then stopped as everyone disappeared.

Outside the window, Titania glowed pink and Ian watched her growing closer and closer. He made some minor adjustments to their course then leaned back, hands behind his head and sighed, enjoying the peace. Soon he would have to land two ships almost simultaneously and then there was going to be some kind of shootout if the Rays had their way, might as well enjoy the calm while he had it.

He wondered if Vecchio would let him have a gun this time.

It was interesting writing such a long section from a secondary character POV. There was no way it could be any other way because this was Ian's time to shine — he's the pilot of this ship and it was all about what he could do. And it was also his redemption. Only fair he got to star in that story. It was also an opportunity to have a different view of the other characters which can throw up some interesting things.

***

This whole section was told and retold in bed the night before it was written, each time with a new detail. It was like The House That Jack Built. I'm just amazed that I remembered it in the morning.

A cloud of pinkish-grey dust billowed around Ray as he leapt the few feet from the hatch to the ground. He coughed and wiped his streaming eyes, blinking furiously to get rid of the grit. Behind him there was a roar and a thud as Riviera set down echoed by a smaller thud as the hatch touched ground.

"Looks like those extra couple of seconds were well worth it." The reverb the bay leant to Vecchio's voice amplified the sarcasm.

"Get out here, Vecchio. We got terrorists to catch."

"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses. They're not going anywhere."

Ray thought about conceding Vecchio's point and then he saw it. Subura cutting down through the air, coming in to land. It was lit with a strange, orange glow and for an instant Ray thought the terrorists had set fire to themselves. Then he noticed the blurred edge to the light and realized it was almost SOL-set. They were going to have to move quickly if they wanted to get this done by dark.

SOL actually stood for something at some point. It may come back to me.

He strode across the distance that separated the two ships, ionizer pistol drawn and shouting into his Com.

"Get out, get out, get out! Hands on your head. Hands on your head. Get out now. Get out, get out, get out!"

The Beloved was totally insistent on the impatient, yelling Kowalski thing. So that bit's for him. *hearts*

It wasn't the proper procedural spiel but Ray always favored a more direct approach. And it appeared to be working for him too. As Subura touched down the hatch began to open. Ray trained his pistol on the dark opening. Bring it on. There was a rumble of vibrating metal and then a triker raced along the ramp which was still a couple of feet off the ground, the bounce as it hit dirt the only reason that the shots fired at Ray missed their mark. Ray flung himself out of the way as the triker made straight for him then veered sharply, heading for the hills.

"Yeah," muttered Ray, face down in the dust, "Didn't see that coming."

There was a screech of brakes and a shadow fell over him. Ray lifted his head and squinted. Vecchio loomed above him on their triker. He quirked an eyebrow. Ray leapt up and got on.

"Don't say a word," he said as Vecchio gunned the engine and they screamed after the escapees.

"They're following us!" Ray heard one of them yell. Then the air was filled with the monotonous rat-a-tat of bullets firing off one after the other, none of them managing to find their target. What the hell kind of terrorist has no weapons training? thought Ray.

Ray unholstered his gun, keeping it as steady as he could as they bounced over the rocky terrain. He fired off one shot, then another. Nowhere near. Dammit. He patted himself down. Where were the damn things? Beside him Vecchio reached into his top pocket and pulled something out. He waved it under Ray's nose.

"Looking for these?"

Ray decided to leave asking what exactly Vecchio was doing with his glasses until later. He took them and put them on, blinking as everything came into focus.

I leave it to your imagination as to what Vecchio was doing with Kowalski's glasses.

"Mother! They're just kids."

"I know." Vecchio's voice was grim.

This bit took an aeon of discussion because I wasn't sure I could make it work. Writing action is hard to do convincingly. Especially when everyone is being choreographed in your head. What I should have done is got out some of TB's many action figures and random spaceships/vehicles and blocked it out. I could have had them falling over and ending up in compromising positions. And then I could have photographed it and had a blooper reel. Ah, hindsight.

Despite the head start there were three suspects on a vehicle meant for two. The COPS gained ground, Ray taking shots only when he felt safe he wouldn't accidentally harm any of them, hunkering down behind the visor in between. The only problem with getting closer, Ray realized, was that it would make it harder for the terrorists to miss. The way they were shooting he'd probably die from a bullet meant for Vecchio. That didn't seem fair. Ray felt something whistle past his ear, proving his point.

"Okay, I've had enough now."

He leaned out to the side, down low, the ground speeding past underneath him. He took aim and fired. There was a loud bang and the triker in front lurched and veered to one side, flinging one of the suspects off. His head met rock with a sickening crack that could be heard above the roar of the engines. The boy lay still.

Ray sat up, horrified. That was not good. That was not meant to happen. They were supposed to stop. They had almost caught up now; there was no way they could run. But still they charged, torn rubber flapping uselessly as the wheels span. The remaining shooter had stopped, was casting wildly about him. Ray reckoned he had maybe ten seconds before the boy reloaded. He took a deep breath, stood in his seat, aimed and fired again. There was another bang as he took out the other rear tire and the triker stumbled to a dead stop.

Vecchio screeched to a halt beside them and Ray leapt from the triker, knocking the shooter off his perch and barreling him on to the ground. The gun flew from the boy's hand and skittered to a stop in the dust. Ray slammed him onto his front, wrenching his arms around to the back and binding his wrists together.

"You have some rights," he snarled. "I forget what they are. Make 'em up."

YAY!

To his right there was a blur as the driver started to run, followed by a thump as Vecchio's feet hit the ground a couple of feet from Ray.

"Stop!" Vecchio yelled. "There's nowhere to run."

The boy did stop. He swiveled round, knife in hand. Vecchio stopped too.

"Come on," he said, holstering his pistol and holding out his hands in front of him. "Don't do anything dumb. Drop the knife."

But the boy put it to his own neck. Ray winced.

"I'll kill myself. I'll ... I'll be a martyr and people will talk about me and they'll see we're serious. I die for the cause!"

Vecchio took a small step closer, then stopped as the boy backed off.

"Couple of things, kid. First, look around you." Vecchio's voice was soothing and gentle as he gestured at the empty plain. "Besides us, who's going to know you're dead? You think we're going to give anyone a chance to care? The only reason people will talk about you is because your sister's mad at you for leaving her with all the chores and not coming back for your mom's birthday. Not exactly what I'd call martyrdom."

He took another step closer. This time the boy didn't back off.

"Second, what the hell kind of cause is worth dying for? You all go killing yourselves there won't be anyone left to explain what you're fighting for in the first place, let alone benefit if things pan out your way. Which, incidentally, they won't because you're terrorists. What is wrong with logic and reason, anyway? Why do you idiots always resort to bombs?"

He moved closer again. Ray held his breath.

"Give me the knife, son. Your mother went through hell to give birth to you. Don't you go making it a waste."

Vecchio stepped into the boy's personal space, hand held out flat. Somehow he managed to look commanding and totally non-threatening at the same time. Ray was impressed.

"Give me the knife. Your buddy here doesn't need another fallen comrade. Come on." Vecchio's voice thrummed with empathy. It was irresistible and made Ray wish he had a knife to hand over.

Slowly, not taking his eyes off Vecchio, the boy laid the knife across Vecchio's palm.

"Thank you," said Vecchio, still in the same tone of voice. "On your knees."

The boy knelt and Ray realized exactly why Vecchio would never have any difficulty getting laid.

Vecchio is very, very persuasive. Very. And hot with it. I like that Kowalski's figuring that out.

***

It had been slow going back to the ship. With the prisoners tied to the back of the triker they could only go at walking pace. They had stopped at the third suspect but there was nothing they could do, the fall had broken his neck and cracked a hole in his skull the size of a fist. Ray and Kowalski had balanced his body across the back of the triker and Kowalski leaned over the back of his seat, holding it in place until they got back to the ships.

By the time they had returned, dusk had given way to gloom had given way to pitch black, the only lights the soft glow from Riviera. With brisk efficiency Ray and Kowalski had stowed the dead body on Subura and closed up the ship. Now one of the boys was safely locked up in the holding cell and the other sat on the walkway outside, tied to the ladder whilst an argument raged up in the rec room.

"We can't put them in together, I don't trust them."

"What, you think they're going to conjure up a scheme to overpower us with their peach fuzz?"

I had bumfluff in here originally, but it doesn't seem to be a common expression in the US, which is a shame. Because I think it's a great word. Peach fuzz will have to do.

"No. But I don't want them working each other up into doing something dumb. You saw how high strung they were."

"We can't just leave the poor boy tied to a ladder. It's inhumorous."

"What?"

"Mean."

Ray rolled his eyes. "I'm not intending to leave him there. It violates all sorts of human rights codes. He's going in a cabin."

"Not mine!" came the chorus of three followed by an indistinguishable clamor of why exactly it couldnít be theirs. It was no less than Ray expected. He walked away and started to make himself a cup of chava. Eventually the hubbub died down but Ray kept ignoring them until he was sure all eyes were on him. He turned and smiled. This was evil and he was going to enjoy it.

Vecchio in charge. Gives me chills. It must be an in charge thing. Kowalski, Vecchio, it doesn't matter, just order me to do stuff. /tmi (also patently untrue: order me to do anything and I'll probably tell you to fuck off. Unless you're Vecchio. Or Kowalski.)

"Obviously Frannie can't be expected to share with any of us as she's of the female persuasion." Frannie punched the air. "Which leaves the three of us. And as I'm senior officer I'm taking the executive decision that MacDonald will bunk in with Kowalski. There will be no arguments. Ian, clear out anything movable or valuable and put it in the storage cabin. Oh, and find a bucket."

Ian beamed. "This will be fun. We can have slumber parties and tell stories in the dark and ..." he was still chatting as he disappeared.

Ray looked at Kowalski who glared back and pointed at him. "You'll get yours. I will see to it."

Ray grinned. "I can deal. I'll have had a good night's sleep."

Kowalski's eyes narrowed. Ray's grin widened. He was enjoying this far too much.

"Come on, Kowalski, suck it up. Take one for the team. I'll even make dinner by way of a thank you. How's that?"

Kowalski twitched his head to one side. He looked slightly mollified. "It's a start."

Ray nodded and opened a cupboard.

"But if I have to hear one story about how he rescued some alien princess from some other alien evil foe and was rewarded by alien sex that involved any kind of alien tentacle-related device then I am killing you as you sleep."

"That's fair."

***

What with filing reports, making dinner, checking on the prisoners and a whole bunch of random stuff that always fell Ray's way, it was late by Titanian time by the time he got to bed. He felt fully entitled to sleep the sleep of the just. Only it wasn't happening, his brain and body were still buzzing from recent events. It had been one thing after another and Ray was struggling to remember when the last time he'd had a decent sleep cycle was.

He tossed and turned, his only solace the grim enjoyment that Kowalski must be having just as bad a time trying to get to sleep in a bed containing an over-excitable Ian. There had to be something he could do. Maybe if he- Ray slid a hand into his shorts and gave himself an exploratory stroke. That felt good. He stroked again, and he felt a little light-headed as his blood decided to abandon his brain for more interesting regions. Yeah, this might do the trick; jerk off, ease the frustration, sleep the sleep of the just-laid, even if it was by his own hand. He closed his eyes.

Sleep of the just/Sleep of the just-laid. I should not love that pun so much. Yet I do.

And saw Kowalski, dressed as he had been for the gym, only this time he wasn't punching anything, he was pulling his singlet over his head, exposing taut, pale muscle. Ray's hand stilled and his eyes flew open at the same time as light spilled across the bed and he turned and looked. There was Kowalski in the doorway, naked but for a pair of shorts, light haloing his hair, face cast in shadow. Ray froze.

Aaaand if you had enforced sleeping arrangements as an avenue towards teh hot sex check your bingo card now.

"What are you doing?" At least he couldn't be intending to kill Ray in his sleep, what with him not having any.

"I'm killing him. I swear I'm killing him. I'm doing it nice and slow, taking my time. First I'm shoving my fist down his throat and ripping out his vocal cords."

Kowalski advanced into the room, shutting the door behind him, plunging them into pitch darkness which was a pity because in a bizarre, panicky way Ray had been enjoying the almost-nakedness. Ray felt his bed sag as Kowalski sat on it.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm getting into bed. I thought about the rec room but no, I've had enough sleeping on floors to last me a lifetime and I thought maybe you would disapprove if I tried to bunk in with your sister. Move over."

Ray moved before he realized what he was doing.

"No! Go back to your cabin."

"Nu-uh," said Kowalski, pulling the covers down and sliding in. "Will you move? I know I'm skinny but I don't just take up negative space."

Ray suddenly remembered where his hand was and why and he twisted violently round, getting as close to the wall as he could manage. He hoped Kowalski hadn't noticed.

"Just tonight," he said. "I'm too tired to kick you out. Tomorrow you're going back in with Ian."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

Ray lay perfectly still as Kowalski fidgeted behind him, bits of limbs brushing up against Ray as Kowalski went through what appeared to be a whole encyclopedia of sleeping positions.

"I'm not."

"Do you ever stop moving?" Ray demanded, throwing a hand out behind him and clamping it on what he thought was Kowalski's side. Only Kowalski had moved again and Ray found his fingertips grazing the top of Kowalski's thankfully fabric-covered ass. It was not an altogether unpleasant experience. In fact it was- He snatched his fingers away and smacked himself quietly in the head with the heel of his hand. This could not end well.

But Kowalski said nothing. He fidgeted some more and then seemed to resign himself to the fact that the only way they could both fit comfortably into the narrow bed was by lying on his side, facing Ray. Ray'd done this with Stella plenty of times. Only then it was him in Kowalski's position, arm around Stella's waist. There wasn't really anywhere else to put it. He wondered what Kowalski would do. Kowalski shifted again and Ray felt the press of a forearm along his back, fingers resting lightly against the outer wing of his shoulder blade. Oh, it was going to be so easy to sleep now.

"G'night, Vecchio," mumbled Kowalski.

"One night only," reminded Ray. Not least because it was prisoners who were supposed to get the sleep-deprivation, not their captors.

"Sure." Kowalski's knee bumped against the back of Ray's sending a shiver up Ray's spine.

And now Ray was going to get to spend the night wondering if Kowalski was doing this on purpose. They never mentioned this in the brochure when he signed up. 'Badly-designed ships will lead to inappropriate work-crushes tormenting you sexually to make sure you take out the tension on your prisoners. This leads to earlier confession and resolution of cases.'

Somewhere in the middle of his internal diatribe Ray fell asleep.

Haha! Subverted! Shared a bed with NO SEX. *wins

He woke some hours later, nose pressed to the wall, as the natural light timer clicked on.

"Man, I need to take a leak," he heard and groaned quietly. It hadn't been a dream.

Ray felt the bed shift as Kowalski stood up. He heard the door open and couldn't resist twisting around and leaning up on one elbow to take a peek. Kowalski stood just outside the door, turned towards the sanitation cabin. He yawned and stretched, scratching his belly, the shorts riding down low enough to let red-blonde curls escape over the waistband. Ray's dick liked this. Ray told it to shut up and reminded it what had happened with Stella. It didn't shut up.

Mmmm, curls. Stella. Hint!

Across from Kowalski another door opened and Frannie came out.

"Morning, Ray."

"Morning, Frannie."

Ray actually saw the double-take as Frannie figured out whose room Kowalski had come out of. He saw her smile freeze and her eyes try to figure out where exactly she could look.

"Three times," she said, staring resolutely in the direction of the storage cabin. "I'm calling it. Hurt him and you die. Got that?"

Woo! The farce is back? Would you like a cucumber sandwich? What do you mean the maid is your mother?

"Frannie, you got it wrong," Kowalski tried to explain but Frannie had already swept past him and shut herself in the sanitation cabin.

"Man, I need to take a leak," repeated Kowalski.

Ray pulled a pillow over his head and whimpered.

***

"Well, that was awkward," muttered Ray as he hovered, unsure of what to do next.

He could stand out on the walkway and wait for Frannie to vacate the sanitation cabin but the metal floor was cold under his feet and goose bumps he did not do. He could go back to his cabin and wait, but he wasn't sure he wanted to risk finding himself at the end of a blow by blow recount of Ian's dreams and queries as to where he spent the night. He could go back into Vecchio's cabin and get back in bed until Frannie came out. Except for the part where he had woken up with his arm around Vecchio's waist, his face tucked into the hollow between Vecchio's neck and shoulder and the woody he was sporting pressing neatly up against Vecchio's back.

That hadn't been a shock.

The shock had been realizing he didn't want to move. It was comfortable. It was warm. It was good. He wanted to stay there. Instinct had told him to move in closer, to nuzzle against the curve of Vecchio's neck. Ray kicked instinct in the head. If instinct just wanted to share the warmth of another human then instinct could go out and buy it in the next port they hit and not fuck things up with this guy Ray was starting to believe was his friend.

Nice bit of internal monologue to shift the thinking along a bit. This is why you need multiple POV because if it was just told from Vecchio's perspective it would be a lot harder to understand/feel Kowalski's increasing attraction to Vecchio considering the Fraser situation, especially as we have no clue as to timescale. Thought that's my fault, 'cos I never wrote it in. Oh noes! Lee Golberg is right! Fanfic is people! Um, not proper writing!

Moving with extreme care Ray had started to extricate himself and was rewarded by absolutely no change in the combination deep-breathing snoring that Vecchio was trialing. He kept going until he was lying flat on his back, half off the bed and lay there willing his erection away. It was not an easy task and Ray had only just achieved his goal when the light came on and Vecchio stirred. Not ready to meet Vecchio's eyes Ray had made his escape only to be thwarted by Frannie.

No, he couldn't go back in there.

Maybe he should go up to the rec room, start breakfast, surprise Frannie. He was sure he'd seen some pancake mix in one of the cupboards. Nobody could resist pancakes, could they? He could feed her pancakes and tell her in words of one syllable each exactly why she was wrong about him and Vecchio. Explain how there was a difference between guys who worked together and were friends and guys who worked together and fucked. And he'd tell her how she should know her brother wasn't into guys, he was still pining over Stella, and then there was the mysterious Frankie. No, he wasn't into guys, except for that time that Ray caught him checking out his ass. And the other couple of times he'd thought maybe he'd gotten an interested vibe. But apart from that. Then he'd explain that yeah, he liked guys, but he wasn't into Vecchio that way. Except for the thing with the voice yesterday, which was undeniably hot, and the whole snuggling thing last night. Okay, this was getting complicated. Maybe Ray wouldn't make breakfast. So now what?

And the classic name mistake. Stella's a woman so Frankie must have been too. Yay for heteronormativity (for plot purposes only.) and confusion.

It was his lucky day; he'd dithered for so long that Frannie came out and scurried past him, not meeting his eyes. Ray dived for the sanitation cabin, breathing a sigh of relief as he shut the door behind him.

Having relieved one kind of pressure Ray found another kind niggling at him as he stood under the shower. Turned out his morning wood had come back with a vengeance. It had obviously been lying in wait for him, killing time until Ray was in a position to take it in hand. Ray figured what the hell; at least there'd be one relaxed person on board. He squeezed the gel-tube on the wall and spread it over his palms. Leaning back against the wall he parted his legs slightly and wrapped one hand around his dick, letting the fingers of the other hand cup his balls, squeezing and tugging gently.

In the UK, the term is morning glory — I like that so much better. I had a lovely sentence all worked out with that in and then I had to change it. Damn.

He began to stroke, loosely at first, finger and thumb encircling the shaft, skin shifting and twisting around the hardness at his core. Yeah, this was what he needed. Ray closed his eyes picturing Fraser in his apartment, bare-chested and tending a simple scratch he'd gotten, skin glowing in the soft lamplight, blue eyes dark and glittering, smiling at Ray. Pale pink nipples, chest of cool marble, like a beautiful ice statue. Ray groaned and his hand sped up, more fingers encircling now, gripping tighter, other fingers, clever fingers, pushing against the track of sensitive skin hidden behind his balls. Push and pull, push and pull, Ray found himself falling into the rhythm, toes curling and uncurling with the want of it, thighs braced against the inevitable.

Little bone there for the F/K shippers. As it were.

Push and pull, push and pull. Ray couldn't wait, was racing towards his goal, whole world closing in to the breathlessness of now. Behind his eyes, Fraser smiled and then bowed his head. Ray's hands were on his shoulders, stroking down, pushing something off them. Only the shoulders weren't as broad as they should be and the marble chest was gone and Ray's head told him to stop, twist the dials, retune the picture but his body was a runaway train and he didn't want to stop, not really and then Vecchio looked up with that slow smile of his and Ray's orgasm ripped through him and he exploded, hard and fierce and desperate.

Panting and shattered, Ray reckoned he knew how that terrorist bomb must have felt, except he was only responsible for the death of several million of his little soldiers and not, you know, real people. Which was good. The Vecchio thing, though. That was not good. Far from good. Very, very ungood. The way Ray figured it he had three options: talk, act, repress. Talking? Too girly. Acting? Too risky. Repressing? Just right.

Ray cleaned himself up, watching his junk mingling with the water and swirling down the plughole and off to the recycling tank. It gave him a certain grim satisfaction to know that in a day or two, Vecchio could be drinking his spunk. Purified and filtered, for sure, but still. It might be the closest he'd ever get.

And the credit for that delightful final image lies with TB. The man got seriously involved, I'm telling you. Even gave me ideas on how the Rays could stop talking and get to the sex already. I ignored him but the enthusiasm was there.

***

The hardest thing sometimes when writing this was what to leave out. What was important to the story and what could be told through reported speech or flashback or whatever. I had a long struggle with whether I should show the guys investigating the ship or if that would just be a way to put them in the same room for more banter without advancing either their relationship or the plot. I chose to skip it, and I think that works fine. Said what I needed to say in two paragraphs rather than several hundred words.

What with feeding, watering and hosing down the prisoners, turning over every inch of Subura and organizing the impounding of the ship as evidence, Ray had no time to feel awkward around Kowalski. And Kowalski, he seemed ... focused, relaxed, which should have pleased Ray but didn't because it made him feel like he was spooking at things that weren't there.

The search of the ship had turned up enough explosives to take out a small town and blueprints of both the hospital in Lysander and central Contingency offices in Nuorlayon, the biggest city on Titania. They'd have no problem securing a conviction off the back of that. What they didn't find was anything proving that these guys were anything more than an isolated cell, acting on their own. No propaganda, no Links, no records of incoming or outgoing Coms. No nothing.

Ray had forwarded the ship's details to the stilo-pushers over at COPS Central Command. Let them follow the trail, see if they could find who was financing this. He and Kowalski had another job to do.

"I don't know any names. I don't know how many more times you want me to tell you. I don't know."

Ray let his head bang back on the door in frustration. They'd been at this for hours, him and Kowalski switching off on the prisoners, taking it in turns to play good COPS and bad COPS. Thing was, Ray was getting so tired now that he was forgetting who he was supposed to be with which kid. This was the one in the holding cell so he was playing the tough guy right now, was that right? His stomach rumbled. Mother, he was starving. He'd wolfed down something vaguely edible before they searched Subura but he'd had nothing since. It must already be dinner time. At least. Well, there was one way to find out what kind of guy he was supposed to be.

"You hungry?" he asked, all friendly.

The kid looked shocked.

Yeah, bad guy.

"I'm just asking, you hungry?"

The kid nodded. He had his sleeves pulled over his hands and was hunched into himself as if he was trying to occupy the smallest amount of space possible. His dark eyes were ringed with darker circles and he looked sallow. Ray had to remind himself that this, this child was at least partly responsible for the deaths of tens of kids just like him and not just some runaway from his neighborhood.

For some reason I had Mick from ReGenesis Season 1 in mind when I was writing this kid.

He opened the Com.

"Frannie?"

"Yes, Ray? Is everything all right?"

"Sure. You wanna fix the prisoners some food?"

"Anything special?"

"Yeah. Whip 'em up a six course banquet, will you? Show these boys a good time before they go up for Punishment."

"There's no need to be like that. Sarcasm is not your friend."

"Just make 'em some food."

Ray returned his attention to the prisoner.

"Give me a name. Yours will do. Or, I don't know, tell me about how a sweet guy like yourself gets himself involved in a cause that ends up with him blowing the heads off fucking babies!"

Ray was right in the boy's face now and he scooted as far back on the bed as he could go, cowering in a corner, head buried against his knees.

"Just. One. Name. Tell me who set you up with the ship. Tell me who set you up with the goddamn ship. Tell me who the fuck set you up with the motherfucking ship!"

The boy said something, but it was muffled and Ray couldn't catch it.

"What was that?"

Raising his head, the boy looked at Ray, lips trembling but somehow still defiant.

"My dad. Gave it to me. To tool around in."

Ray threw up his hands and turned, pounding his palm into the wall.

"Do not give me that crap. Just don't." He pushed against the wall, arms stretched, head drooping. He needed a break. It must be nearly time for him to switch and be the good guy again. Pretty soon they were going to have to reassess either their tactics or whether they believed the boys knew anything useful at all.

"Look at you," he said, pushing himself upright, gesturing vaguely at the kid's clothes, a sneer curving his lips. "You want me to believe you got a rich daddy? Unless there's some new trend for hand-me-downs and mismatching that all the cool kids are into these days — 'hobo chic', maybe — the only way you're gonna have a rich daddy is if some entitled scumbag impregnated the maid and shirked his parental responsibilities."

My Vecchio does a lot of speechifying, doesn't he? I like it.

The door opened and Frannie stepped into the room, carrying a sealed bag and a cup. Ray held out an arm in front of her to prevent her from giving it straight to the boy.

"You want this food?"

The boy's eyes lit up and he nodded vigorously.

"Then give me a name."

There was a definite tremble as the boy clamped his lips shut.

"It's easy, just open your lips and give me a name!"

The boy burst into tears and in a flash Frannie had pushed Ray away and was on the bed, arm around the kid, soothing him and shooting venomous glares at her brother.

"There, there, don't mind him; he can't help being an insensitive pig."

"Frannie!"

"Well, you are. Look at him! Poor baby. All hell has broken loose around his ears and he's lost his brother and you're getting at him. You should understand. I do."

Mystery!

Ray opened his mouth to protest but Frannie shushed him. He stored that away for future reference.

"Oh, honey," she said, pulling the boy's head onto her shoulder and patting his hair gently, "I'm so sorry you're having such a bad time. You must be so scared right now, I know I would be. And you didn't mean to hurt anyone, not really. They told you that no one would be in the building, didn't they? You were only trying to be heard."

The boy wriggled his cheek against Frannie's shoulder, snot and drool soaking into her shirt. Ray pretended this didn't please him.

"If you would just tell us who made you do it, sweetie. We could help you then."

The boy sat up straight and looked at Frannie with red-rimmed eyes. She gazed back steadily, lips pressed together in a sympathetic smile. At that moment the door opened.

I'm so proud of Frannie here. It's not clear how much she's acting on instinct and how much is calculated but it doesn't matter because she gets the result.

"Hey, you wanna switch, I've-"

Ray raised his finger to his lips and Kowalski shrugged, sidling in and lounging by the door.

"You can trust me." Frannie reached out and tucked a strand of the boy's lank hair behind his ear. "Really you can."

"I don't know much. We were meeting this guy. He was supposed to tell us what to do. He was supposed to help us."

"Who?"

"Zuko."

Ray froze. No. This was not happening. He looked at Frannie who had turned large, astonished eyes on him.

"You did good, kid," he said, not looking at the boy. He felt a little light-headed. Must be the lack of sugar. Ma always swore by regular meals.

"Ray," said Frannie, in the same gentling tone she'd used with the kid.

And then there were too many people in the room, Ray couldn't breathe. He pushed past Kowalski and stumbled to his cabin, ignoring Kowalski's demands for an explanation. Closing the door behind him, he slumped to the floor, head in hands.

Zuko.

If he believed in Fate this would be about the time he declared himself its bitch.

And of course, fans get straight away that Frankie=Zuko. Kowalski doesn't. I like that we know something they don't know sensation. It creates an interesting kind of tension. Kowalski wasn't supposed to be in the room at that point, I can't remember why now. But it works better this way, I think.

***

The kid had told Frannie as much as he knew, including his own name, and they'd left him to sleep. Once he'd convinced the other kid that Davey had talked, Ray'd had no problems confirming the story. He had a contact, a place and a time. They couldn't move now. By the time Davey spilled his guts it was already dark. Nuorlayon Port was on lockdown after SOL-set, a precautionary measure in place across all the major ports of the System. The Contingency were not great risk takers. They would have to wait until morning.

Ian had cooked dinner and they'd eaten a quiet meal, Vecchio conspicuous by his absence. Frannie had taken his food downstairs but he hadn't answered so she'd left the containers outside the door. She'd pushed her own food around her plate and hadn't said much. For once Ray had been grateful for Ian's nonstop chatter.

Oh noes! Another night! Sharing a cabin! Surely there must be the sex now. Get your bingo cards ready.

After they'd cleared away and made sure the prisoners were settled for the night there were no excuses left. Ray had to find out what was going on whether the Vecchios liked it or not. Someone had to do their job.

"You wanna tell me about this Zuko guy?" asked Ray, lounging on a bench, bouncing his knees up and down.

"Not really, no," said Frannie, both hands wrapped around a hot cup.

"Zuko? Why are we talking about Zuko?" Ian lifted his head from the Slab he was reading and looked at Frannie. Ray couldn't quite figure the expression in his eyes. What was going on here?

And here Ray's confusion is your confusion (hopefully). Because Ian and Frannie are gatekeeping Vecchio's story and the reader is only one step ahead of Kowalski in knowing that Frankie and Zuko are one and the same.

"He's the contact for the prisoners. They gave him up."

"Zuko? Seriously? But he's not a terrorist. He's a criminal, for sure, illegal fingers in illegal pies all over the place, but a terrorist? There's nothing in it for him. Terrorists fight for a cause. The only cause Zuko has is himself."

"You know him?"

"I know about him. I know that he's more slippery than a stove-eel that's been coated in engine lubricant. If you manage to catch him he wriggles out of every charge. Shares representation with the Shans."

"What's that got to do with Vecchio? He pissed that he can't keep hold of him?"

Ian and Frannie exchanged another look.

"It's Ray's story," said Ian. "You'll have to ask him."

"Maybe I will."

"I'm going to bed." Frannie stood abruptly. "Do we have a plan for tomorrow?"

"Way I see it, we take the ship to Nuorlayon. Me and Vecchio we go track down Zuko. You and Ian dock with the CourtShip and transfer the prisoners then come back and pick us up when we're done. Sound okay to you?"

Frannie shrugged.

"You'll have to check with Ray, but yes, fine. Whatever. See you in the morning."

Before she could make it as far as the ladder, Ian had leapt up and grabbed her in a big hug. He murmured something in her ear and she nodded against his shoulder, lips set in a tight line. Ian let her go and turned towards Ray.

"Shoot some hoops? I'm too wired for bed."

This whole thing was weird. Ray knew he should go talk to Vecchio but for some reason he balked at the idea.

"Sure. Let's play ball."

Ian lifted up a piece of seating and retrieved the ball from a storage cabinet.

"Speaking of bed, what happened to you last night? One minute I was telling you about the time I was asked to become a flight tutor despite having only been at the academy for two weeks and the next you were gone."

And now Ray remembered exactly why he was reluctant to visit Vecchio in his cabin. He needed his mind on the job and there were certain unruly parts of him that were likely to cause a distraction. Stupid unruly parts.

"Come on," he said, snatching the ball from Ian's grasp and bouncing it across the rec room to where the hoop was attached to the edge of the gym platform. He shot and scored. Raising his arms and grinning he caught the ball on the second bounce and passed it off to Ian.

"Insert trash talk here," he said. "I'm not wasting words on someone who'd going to LOSE so hard."

Ian bounced the ball around him in a circle while Ray danced in front, blocking him.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I won the one on one record in the Junior section back in school by thirty points? No? I have now."

"In your dreams, MacDonald," said Ray but Ian had already dodged past him and slammed the ball through the hoop. Ray collected the ball, looking impressed.

"Would this be one of the times you're not lying?" he asked.

Ian smiled enigmatically.

"You'll never know."

The hoops shooting is kind of random but I wanted Kowalski to work off some of his energy as well as the any distraction is good thing and also I liked the idea of Ian and Kowalski bonding a little. So there it is.

***

The game left Ray buzzing despite his heavy defeat and after a quick shower he was ready to face Vecchio. He had mastery over all his parts, ruly and unruly; he had a job to do. Besides, it was that or get into bed with Ian which was an even worse idea than yesterday seeing as how he'd now have victory-crowing to add to Ian's Epic Adventures.

"Don't wait up," he told Ian and went next door.

There were empty containers outside Vecchio's cabin which if Ray looked at it one way was a good sign, he'd eaten so it couldn't be that bad, or if he looked at it the other way was a bad sign, the guy wasn't in the mood for visitors. Tough shit. Ray knocked and then entered without waiting for a reply.

The light was on but Vecchio was hunched under the cover, back to the door, sleeping. Or at least that's what he wanted Ray to believe. Ray wasn't buying. He decided to go with the subtle approach.

"Who the hell is Zuko and why's he got you all bent out of shape?"

See what I did there? Subtle like a sledgehammer. \o/

"Fuck off, Kowalski."

Ray shut the door behind him and went to sit on the bed. He pulled the cover off Vecchio's head.

"Nah. You're going to have to up the threat level a little. Maybe stretch out the eff nice and long. Put some venom into it. But I'm warning you, it's been a long time since 'fuck off' made me shake in my boots."

"Do I look like I'm in the mood for your feeble attempts at humor?"

"Who's being humorous? I'm teaching you something here. I teach. You learn. You learn. I teach. It's a whole teaching learning symbiwhatsit thing."

I like how Kowalski handles Vecchio with the needling. And that he won't take no for an answer.

Vecchio shifted round to face Ray. He looked irritated. Now they were getting somewhere. Irritated, Ray could handle.

"Symbiosis."

"That's right, mutual benefit. I get the pleasure of imparting my wisdom; you get the benefit of my great experience."

"How about I get the pleasure of seeing you vanish before you get the benefit of my fist in your face?"

Vecchio sat up, illustrating his line of argument with a pointing finger that transformed into a curled fist. Ray smiled.

"That the best you got? Vecchio, I'm ashamed of you. Fist in my face. That's not a comeback; it's an admission of defeat. Tell me about Zuko."

"Kowalski."

"Tell me. We're partners, we're going after this guy and I need to know. I got a right to know."

Vecchio rubbed his hand across his face. He looked tired. Ray wished he didn't have to push it. He gripped Vecchio's upper arm.

"Talk to me."

Vecchio nodded and Kowalski let go.

"Okay, fine, but we're doing this in the dark."

"What? Why?"

"Because that's where this story belongs. Because I can't tell you if I can see you looking at me. Because ..."

Ray got this, he really did. Vecchio was putting up a barrier, keeping himself safe. Safe from Ray's reactions, safe from his own. He nodded.

"Whatever it takes."

He stood and began to undress.

"What do you think you are doing?" Vecchio's voice got squeaky toward the end. Ray couldn't help but grin.

Hee. I bring the pain to Vecchio. And I'm supposed to love him.

"I figure this might be a long story and it's already late. Might as well get settled before we start."

"You're sleeping with Ian."

"I am not."

He shucked off his sweats.

"We talked about this. You shouldn't be here."

Ray had to concede the point. He could rationalize it as much as he wanted saying that Ian was driving him nuts or Vecchio seemed like he needed a friend right now but this was a remarkably dumb idea considering the happenings of the morning. Somehow the unruly parts of his body had gained control and he was helpless in the face of them.

"No, I shouldn't," he agreed affably, pulling back the covers and getting in. He shoved Vecchio gently. "Hit the light."

Vecchio hit it. Hard.

It took a minute to get organized, Vecchio flat on his back whilst Ray leant up on one elbow, facing him. It was too dark to see, of course, but somehow it mattered to Ray — he wasn't hiding from Vecchio even if Vecchio was hiding from him. The silence began to stretch out between them and Ray wondered if he was going to have to ask again, to get things going. But then Vecchio cleared his throat and started talking.

"Frankie Zuko moved into our neighborhood when I was seven. His dad transferred from off-world to work as a safety officer in our local mine. There was plenty bad feeling, everyone figured the job shoulda gone to one of our own. We didn't understand, we were kids, all we knew was what we overheard. But some of the boys cut up rough at school, started whaling on Frankie because of his dad. He was just a little guy, skinny and scared with a round face and floppy hair. I pulled 'em off, gave 'em what for, helped Frankie get cleaned up. After that we were best friends."

"We ran together for years. He was some fun was Frankie. Always thinking of new things we could do, new trouble we could get into. Always thinking everything was a game. I think I knew which way he was heading even then; I just chose not to see it. Like the time he had us fake-kidnap his kid sister, Irene. Ransom note and everything. His ma was frantic, had everyone in the neighborhood searching high and low while we had her stashed in his den, feeding her shakala and telling her stories to make her laugh. When he got bored he 'rescued' her. He was the town hero for weeks. Irene never said a word. Frankie's ma wouldn't let her out of her sight after that, would get anxious if she didn't know exactly where she was. Frankie thought it was hilarious. I wasn't so sure, but it was Frankie, so I didn't say a word."

Vecchio shifted, cursing as some part of his anatomy thunked against the wall. Ray found himself a little confused. Vecchio had mentioned Frankie before, when they were fixing the relays and Ray had been sure that he was a she. How had he gotten that impression? He racked his brains to try to remember the conversation but then Vecchio started up again and he let it go.

"So we got to fourteen still alive by some miracle and ... fuck ... I can't do this, Kowalski, I can't."

Ray's stomach squeezed at the pleading tone and he reached out letting his hand rest across Vecchio's shoulder.

"You can."

He felt his hand raise as Vecchio took a deep breath.

"Frankie, he meant everything to me; there was nothing I wouldn't do for him. Nothing. And he was the same. Best friends, comrades, brothers in arms. One day we broke into his pa's homebrew and ended up drunk assed and on the floor. I don't know, I don't know, I don't know how it happened but he was kissing me or I was kissing him and it was like that was how it was always supposed to have been. Because he may have turned into a sad, twisted fuck but he loved me then and I loved him."

Ray clenched his jaw in an effort not to move his hand. Vecchio and Zuko had been lovers. That's why his brain had been computing that Frankie was a she. Something in the way Vecchio had talked about her — him — and the way Frannie'd talked about Stella, Ray had lumped them together in his head.

"Kowalski?"

Ray patted Vecchio's shoulder.

"I'm still listening."

Ray felt warm fingers gliding over his own as Vecchio's hand covered his for a moment before dropping away.

"We ... we were together for three, four years. No one knew. Small, God-fearing mining town that kind of thing is frowned on no matter how acceptable it is in other parts of the System. They were used to us holing up in our rooms, plotting mayhem. If anyone had bothered listening at the door they'd have heard a damn sight less talking than before but that was the only difference. But we were growing up, changing. I let ... my feelings for Frankie blind me to what he was becoming. He'd bring me presents, things he stole, and he'd be so proud I didn't have the heart to tell him to stop. Maybe that's why he thought I'd agree; thought I'd say sure, Frankie, let's lead a life of crime and violence, that's just what I want.

"I said no. He tried to change my mind but I said no, I can't, I won't, it's not right. And he said you don't love me so I said you know I do, Frankie, you know how much. And he said prove it so I kissed him and we ... I let him ... he had his ... he was fucking me and he kept saying I love you Ray, do you love me? And he was all I could hear and all I could see and then his pa was there screaming and yelling and pulling him off me and shoving me out of the house, throwing my clothes after me."

Air hissed over Ray's tongue as he drew in a sharp breath. He began to rub soothing circles into Vecchio's skin.

"I thought he was going to tell my parents, I was going to get the hiding of a lifetime from Pa, but nothing happened. Nothing except I didn't see Frankie for a month and when I did he was on the doorstep, flowers in hand asking for Frannie. I'd been frantic. I wanted to ask him what he was doing, what had happened to him, what was going on, what was going to become of us but he made sure we never got even a second alone. Next thing I know he's taking my little sister on a date and I'm standing by the window upstairs spitting with jealousy spying on them when they come back.

"So he's leaning in close and she's giggling, you know the way Frannie does, and he puts his hand on her cheek and she looks up at him and I know what's going to happen because he's put that move on me enough times and then they're kissing and I don't know who I want to kill more. Only then Frannie tries to pull away but he pulls her in closer and he's kissing her hard now, he's putting his hands all over her. And I'm still thinking how could he do this to me? Making it all about me. But it's not me that's struggling and it's not me that's finding hands getting under my clothes and it's not me that's being pushed up against a wall. It's my baby sister. And I'm running downstairs as fast as I can but by the time I pull him off her he's got her panties down, his dick out, one hand over her mouth and the other between her legs.

"I pull him off and I beat him. I beat him good. I know my Frankie; he's always been a coward at heart, needing someone to stick up for him. I was through with that. I beat him and kicked him and things broke. Many things broke. He was going to- In front of the whole neighborhood. Just to prove- I can't. She cried for three days. I sat outside the bathroom for hours while she tried to get clean. I don't know what I thought I could do."

"Mother, Vecchio! What happened to Zuko?"

"Smuggled off world to live with some aunt before he could face charges. Fulfilled his ambition of becoming a crime overlord. Or at least an underlord. He's been on the periphery of some things I dealt with. Never seen him face to face though. Not since that night."

"And now you gotta ..."

"And now I gotta."

Ray had no idea what to say now. 'I'm sorry,' couldn't even begin to cover it, and it wasn't like it was his fault anyway. Everything else he could think of sounded meaningless as soon as it tripped across his brain.

"C'm'ere," he said, sliding his hand across Vecchio's chest and tugging at his side.

"I don't-"

"Don't be a dumbass, Vecchio. You need this. Come here."

He tugged again and this time Vecchio rolled round with him sliding his arm under Ray's. Ray slipped his other arm under Vecchio's neck and pulled him close, holding him steady. He felt Vecchio's grip tighten around his back and the soft fuzz of his hair as Vecchio buried his head against Ray's neck.

"It's okay," he said. "I got you. I got you."

There was no response from Vecchio beyond a choked sound and an even tighter grip. Ray decided maybe he'd figured the right thing to say anyway. Score one for the ruly parts. He held on.

The whole section where Vecchio is talking about Frankie actually physically hurt me to write. I knew it was coming, knew about the father finding out and about the attempted rape of Frannie, but the details only started coming out as I was writing it and it all seemed so horribly real. And I think what hurt me most was when Vecchio said 'I know my Frankie' and I realized that as much as he hates Zuko now is as much as he loved him then, but he still can't separate the two things. And maybe it sounds odd that I didn't know that before I wrote it but it just came out and it felt true.

***

Ray woke to find himself sprawled across Kowalski's supine body, arm encircling Kowalski's chest as Kowalski's encircled Ray's shoulders. He had none of that 'Where am I? Who am I?' disorientation to ease his passage into wakefulness, he was immediately fully alert with complete recall of the previous night. Head resting in the crook of Kowalski's neck, Ray's heart sped up a little at the memory of telling the Zuko tale. He didn't know what reaction he had been expecting but it wasn't the kindness Kowalski had shown. This guy — the hopeless newbie guy Ray had given six weeks — this guy was turning out to be something else.

HAHA! Subverted again! Still no sex via bed-sharage. I win at stalling slash bingo.

I should wake him, thought Ray. Kowalski had filled him in on their findings at some point before they had fallen asleep and they needed to get going. He reached up and tugged at Kowalski's hair and found his wrist grasped firmly and his hand returned to its previous position.

"Fi' more mi'u," mumbled Kowalski who was more awake than Ray had assumed.

Ray thought about complying but at some point this would stop being two guys sharing a too small bed who had ended up tangled up together and start becoming two guys sharing a small bed who had ended up tangled up together and that way perdition lay. He rolled back a little, drew up his knees and shoved.

There was a creak and a thud and then Kowalski's outraged face popped up over the side of the bed from his new, floor-based position.

"In what passes for your mind, how did kicking me out of bed become the action of choice?"

Ray stretched and grinned.

"Woke you up, didn't it?"

"Cup of coffee? Breakfast in bed? Gentle music playing in the air? Any of this ring a bell?" Kowalski stood up and brushed himself down. "Jeez, Vecchio, if this is how you treat your dates I'm not surprised you never get any. Where's the class?"

"First off, you're not my date. Second off, how do you know what I get? Third off, I have more class in my pinky than you have in your entire body. I'm just choosy who I spend it on," Ray shot back, climbing out of bed. "Now come on, sugar plum, shake that cute little tush of yours, we've got to get to work."

"Oh, nice," said Kowalski, opening the door. "Very nice. Sexual harassment in the work place. I'm calling a meeting."

"Let me know how that goes. Oh, and here," Ray swept up Kowalski's clothes and shoved them in his arms. "You might want these for your one stride of pride."

"Walk of shame," Kowalski tossed back as he opened his own door.

"You keep telling yourself that, Kowalski. You keep telling yourself that."

Ray closed his door and leaned against it. This day he was not looking forward to, but the gloomy prospect of confronting Zuko failed to kill the buzz he got from sparking against Kowalski. He shook his head and smiled. There would be time enough to think about what that meant.

BOYS!

***

"We should inform local law enforcement," said Kowalski, clipping a magazine into his gun and sighting along it. "They can pick Zuko up for us; you won't have to go near the bastard."

Ray checked the charge level on the power pack for his ionizer pistol. One hundred percent, good to go.

"No. No telling anyone. Zuko will have people everywhere; all you need to buy an LE officer is a nice holiday in Callisto and a note in his locker telling him you know where his kids go to school. We wanna get the drop on him we go in quiet."

Kowalski threw Ray a glance. He shoved another magazine in his inside jacket pocket. They were dressed casual to avoid detection but Ray found it hard to believe Kowalski could walk ten foot from the ship without being noticed. He wore a faded and slightly too tight grey t-shirt under a fitted cloth jacket that was all pockets and a pair of heavy-duty khaki pants that should have been too loose but somehow clung to his ass in a way that was quite ... distracting. Add to that the sunglasses that hung on a rope around his neck, the customary red-blond spikes and a mouth that said 'please', Kowalski was quite the sight for, hell, for anyone with a pulse.

You know the t-shirt, right? You're picturing it now. With the holster. And the belly. And. *falls over*

"You're the boss, boss."

Ray grunted and tried to concentrate.

Docking was uneventful. Ian slid them into one of the bays kept open for official business. The necessary clearances were made and then Frannie and Ian stood at the top of the ramp, seeing the Rays off.

"You sure you know what you have to do?" Ray asked his sister, gripping her arms.

She rolled her eyes. "Yes! We take the poor boys to the Contingency CourtShip and hand them over for Processing."

"They know you're coming, they're expecting you?"

"You know this. Ian called them."

Ray looked at Ian.

"I called them. I swear. On my mother's grave. Only she's not dead so I'd have to swear on her potential grave and then I don't know if that carries as much weight so I'd have to-"

"Ian!"

"Sorry."

"And what must you not do, Francesca?"

Frannie's arms came up between Ray's, pushing them off her. She stuck her hands in the pockets of her overalls.

"I must not enter the cabins of the prisoners without my super strong escort here because the poor children are only tied up and could easily overwhelm pathetic, feeble me."

"Correct," said Ray. "I'm only looking out for you, you know."

Frannie's expression softened. "I know. Be careful, yes?"

Ray nodded.

"Pitter patter," said Kowalski. "Time and some shit wait for no man."

When I read this aloud to TB he said 'About time Ray said "Pitter patter." Call yourself a fan?' Reader, I did not clip him about the head with a laptop.

"Okay." Ray clapped Kowalski on the shoulder and started to walk down the ramp. He looked back. "Ian, if anything happens to Frannie you are going to be the sole focus of my blame and that is a place that you don't want to be. Got it?"

"Got it."

Ray turned back again, squinted at the sunlight, reached into his pocket and retrieved a pair of sunglasses. Putting them on, he walked out into the Port.

*

I was talking earlier about world-building and my difficulty with it. When I started to write this section the Port and the people in it, how it smelt, how it sounded were all there in my head, perfectly clear. And here we were, on a strange world, and you guys needed to know something about it. There were two problems with that. First, I didn't think my descriptive skills were up to the job. Second, this is in third-person limited and doesn't fit itself to poetic description. So I had to somehow figure out how to get the essence of the world across whilst still retaining the Vecchioness of the narration. It was tricky to pull off. I'm pleased with the end result, though.

Ray kept close to Kowalski as they dodged through the crowds of people. Sauntering delivery guys; freight unloaders hanging around in groups, picking their noses while they waited for orders; families sundered and remade as passengers hurried to and from their ships; hustlers yelling, bargaining, selling their goods, their mothers, their souls; self-important businessmen thinking they could clear a path by sheer force of being there. This was a port, alright. The air hung heavy with the scent of food so fast it would rush away before you could catch it, the sharp smell of sweat and honest work, the delicate, interwoven odors of a hundred different spices from all over the System brought here to sell at extortionate prices to people that pretended they knew better. The place hummed and throbbed, crawling with life.

The SOL shone steady in the sky and Ray could see it glinting off the silver City-Rides away in the distance. He pulled at Kowalski's elbow.

"This way."

They changed direction and a huge, black man barreled into Kowalski's side, sending him sprawling against Ray who staggered back in turn, hands automatically grabbing Kowalski to steady him. The man reached down, broad hands pulling Kowalski's jacket, setting him back on his feet.

"So sorry, man, so sorry," he grinned, showing perfect, white teeth. He turned away and began to run again, waving and yelling at the top of his lungs.

"Marisa! Marisa!"

Ray watched as a slight woman with her hair in neat corn rows spotted Kowalski's would-be assailant and stopped dead, arms outstretched. In just a second the man had covered the ground between them and had lifted her up in his arms, laughing as she clung around his neck and kissing every available piece of skin that he could reach. Ray felt a momentary stab of envy. It all seemed so simple.

"Vecchio, come on. We don't have time to be perving on strangers."

Kowalski gave him a shove. Ray shook his head to clear it. He was back in the game.

They reached the City-Rides without further incident, if you chose to ignore the peddler who spat on Kowalski's feet when he'd insulted the 'magical sickness bracelets' the guy was selling. Ray chose to ignore it. He tapped on the door button of the vehicle. It slid open with a gentle shush, three steps unfolding in a smooth motion down to ground level.

"After you," said Ray and ushered Kowalski on.

He followed Kowalski up the steps and into the sleek capsule. The front section beyond the door was separated from the rest of the vehicle by a sheet of glass. There was one seat behind it and a window providing a panoramic view beyond that. The rear section had bench seating along both sides and curving around the back wall. The pattern was mirrored by the windows that stretched continuously around the capsule.

"Where's the driver of this thing?" asked Kowalski.

The glass flickered and then, on the seat behind it, Ray could see a woman dressed in a neat black uniform, neat black hair neatly parted.

Holograms. We talked for what must have been SIX YEARS about holograms. How they were made, the likelihood of a Red Dwarf or Star Trek hard light hologram (nu-uh), the possibilities of a hologram carrying real memories from its look-a-like human. This was all in the context of future plot points as well as the description of Chen. Fascinating. And extremely frustrating. Because I made the decision way back at the beginning to handwave as little as possible. I wanted this world to be set in a very possible future so it had to be based on hard sci-fi. No faster-than-light travel, no jumping through gates, no random aliens. And that meant that the whole way I was tied by the laws of physics. Damn them. So yeah, good ideas had to go flying out of the window so that I could retain the internal consistency of the 'verse. I probably did that more for me than for the reader but I think it benefits the story in the long run.

"Neat," said Ray. "Who are you?"

"My name is Chen, please state your destination."

"Firrenz. Main Street will do."

"May I advise you on another destination, sir?"

"No, you may not. Firrenz. Main Street."

"Oh, but, sir, Nuorlayon holds many delights. We have museums and parks, beautiful architecture and great theatres. Unfortunately none of these delights are in Firrenz."

"We're not paying you to be our travel guide, you, you-" The woman appeared to phase in and out. Kowalski knocked on the glass and she steadied again. "You hologram."

"To be perfectly accurate, sir, you have not as yet completed payment. I am sorry if I have offended you. I am programmed to provide interesting and useful advice to travelers as well as pointing out points of local interest as we pass." Chen gestured woodenly towards her window. "I can turn off the relevant subsection of my programming if you prefer."

"Nah, don't bother on my account," said Kowalski, slouching off and slumping on one of the benches leaving Ray to deal with payment.

"Firrenz, Main Street," he repeated as he pressed his thumb against the screen to the right of the glass.

"Thank you, sir. Your payment has been accepted. Please be advised that the journey will be commencing shortly. Passengers are requested to remain seated at all times."

"You're a real snappy talker, Chen. You know that?"

Ray went to sit across the aisle from Kowalski. The door had started to close when a man put his hand out to stop it, holding it open for what Ray assumed was his family. There were three children, all equally tow-headed, decreasing in height, followed by a woman, built for comfort not for speed, who puffed onto the Ride, baby tucked under one arm, bag tucked under another. Last on came the man, an affable looking guy, bearded and balding, bending under the weight of what Ray thought must surely be all their worldly goods.

Kowalski leapt up to help the woman get seated whilst her husband dealt with the baggage and with Chen who appeared delighted to have passengers that wished to partake of Nuorlayon's many delights. One of the tow-headed children came to stand next to Ray, staring up at him in that frank, appraising way that kids always seemed to have. The smallest one clung to his leg.

"Oh, I'm sorry," said the woman, settling herself and the baby who cooed and smiled. The familiar pain twisted in Ray's gut. "Shlomo, stop staring at the nice man. Carta, please leave his leg alone and come over here."

Mystery!

Kowalski dropped onto the seat next to Ray. He looked at Shlomo.

"You know, kid," he jerked his thumb towards Ray. "He could be a nice man like your momma said, or he could not. You wanna take that risk?"

Not taking his eyes off Kowalski, the boy grabbed his little sister and pulled her off Ray's leg.

"Come on, Carta," he said. "Mom wants us." He backed away until he bumped into his mom's legs.

Kowalski grinned. Ray took off his sunglasses and stowed them in his pocket. "I am a nice man," he said to Kowalski.

"That's what they all say," said Kowalski, winking at Shlomo who buried his face in his mom's skirt.

The City-Ride started to move and Ray watched the family get themselves settled with admonishments to keep all feet off the seats and to sit on your bottoms please you are not heathens. Just like Ma, Ray thought.

They passed through the Port gates and out onto the main route into the city. There wasn't much to look at at first, scrub land and the odd rusted heap of metal, unloved carcasses of machines long past their useful life. Chen was quiet. Ray wondered if this was because the guy had requested she shut off her programming or if she couldn't think of anything interesting to say about this particular part of the journey. He didn't blame her. Ray's insides started to churn. He wished he could blame it on a bumpy ride but the City-Ride wasn't even touching the ground.

Ramshackle dwellings began to appear by the side of the track with faded signs offering fresh food for sale. Lean-tos propped up by the house or vice versa, the odd table and chair outside, a wilted flower in a vase to try to make it look inviting.

"Where are you guys going?" Ray asked the father, trying not to look at the mother who was happily breast-feeding the baby.

"I have a conference in the Central Contingency Offices. I thought I'd bring the family along for a holiday."

I liked the idea of having a human face on the tragedy that had been (hopefully) averted. Not that Ray and Ray needed reminding, but it's so easy to reduce tens, hundreds of deaths to statistics. Here was a family that could have potentially been ripped apart — a sign of the good that the Rays were doing in the world.

Ray felt a nudge from Kowalski. Yeah, he knew. This guy would probably have been blown to smithereens if they hadn't stopped the kids. Could still be if they didn't do their job right. Four kids, no father. That wasn't right.

"I'd skip the conference," he said. "They're all the same. Increase productivity, decrease cost."

The father smiled his agreement.

"Take those gorgeous kids of yours out instead. Much better way to spend your time."

"You know I might just do that." The man ruffled the hair of the middle child who was pressed up against his side. "How about you two? Where are you headed?"

"Firrenz," said Ray.

The man's eyes widened.

"Really?"

"Business," confirmed Kowalski.

The man and his wife exchanged furtive, worried glances that Ray pretended to ignore. He looked out of the window. The houses were multiplying now, the gaps between them shrinking to dark, narrow alleyways. The place had a grubby, uncared for look about it. There were boarded up windows, peeling paint, shutters hanging off at crazy angles. Here and there a property had been given a new lick of paint and they stood out like beacons. There were a few people on the streets, none of them seemed to be going anywhere with any sense of purpose.

"Nice place," said Kowalski.

The City-Ride slowed to a stop. The door opened.

"Firrenz," announced Chen. "We have arrived at Firrenz, Main Street. If you're sure."

Ray stood and scowled. He had no choice. He had to be ready for this. Only he wasn't sure he was.

"Yes, we're sure."

He nodded a goodbye to the family as he made to get out but neither of the parents would meet his eyes, the man wrapping an arm around his wife and pulling her in tighter.

"What's with them?" asked Kowalski as the City-Ride pulled away.

"They don't like where we are."

"And where are we?"

"Here."

"Not helpful."

Ray started walking, fast. Kowalski strode beside him. "What are we doing?"

"Getting off Main Street."

"Why?"

"I want to work out where we're going without people looking and thinking 'Oh, there's a guy who doesn't know where he's going. Let's mug him.'"

"Let 'em try. We're packing."

"Yes," said Ray, taking Kowalski's elbow and steering him around a corner. "Because that's how we're going to stay inconspicuous, by pulling a gun on an unsuspecting mugger. Good plan."

He stopped and leaned against the wall pulling out a PocketSlab. He keyed in a few details and a map appeared on the screen. Kowalski leaned in next to him to get a good look.

"So we're here." Kowalski pointed to a circle on the map. "And we want to be here." He pointed to a square. "Easy. Left, right, left, left, right. Sing a little song, do a little dance." He shuffled his feet. "We're as good as there. Come on."

He moved off but Ray pulled him back.

"I'm going in on my own."

"No, you are not."

"I'm going in on my own, Kowalski. I can bring him in, I know I can. But I gotta do it on my own. Understand?"

Kowalski twisted away from Ray, took a couple of steps away from him, turned on his heel back again, opened his mouth, closed it, ran his fingers through his hair then kicked the wall.

"Yeah," he said.

Kowalski got it. Ray was grateful. He showed it the only way he knew how.

"Asshole."

Ten minutes later they'd sung Kowalski's little song, danced his little dance and were standing on the edge of a dusty road, across the street from a bar, watching a painted sign of a stylized fox swing in the slight breeze. The bottom dropped out of Ray's stomach. They had arrived.

So the fox was there as a clue, if you wanted it. Because Volpe means fox. So the sign on Frankie's bar signified that Zuko = Volpe. It was a bit of a conceit on my part, but hey, if you can't fuck around with your own fic what can you fuck around with?

*

"Francesca Vecchio!" A tall, grey-haired man dressed all in black came to a halt in front of where Frannie and Ian hung about in an empty corridor, waiting for the appropriate releases to be signed. He extended his hand and Frannie took it automatically. He shook her hand with vigor and a smile that reminded Frannie of the feral dogs that roamed the fringes of her home town.

"Ian MacDonald," said Ian, sticking out his hand. The man ignored it. Ian put it away again, shrugging his shoulders.

"My name is Thornton Hawkes. I work here in- Well, let us just say that my brief is wide-ranging. I have a proposition to put to you, if you would come with me."

Frannie screwed up her nose. When strange men made proposals to her it usually meant one thing. But this guy worked on a CourtShip, he must be illegitimate.

"I have to get the releases and get back to Titania. My brother is expecting us."

"We won't take up much of your time, I guarantee. Please." He indicated that she should walk with him.

Frannie looked at Ian. He stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned back with a resigned expression.

"I'll just wait here then. Kick my heels. Maybe rewrite the laws of physics in my head. I can do that, you know. I generally choose not to what with it tending to cause the collapse of the Universe as we know it but I can."

Thornton Hawkes raised one eyebrow. Ooh, nicely shaped, thought Frannie. I like a man who takes time over personal grooming.

You will notice that I have a tendency to call Thornton Hawkes Thornton Hawkes. Some people just need their whole names. Like Titus Bramble (English footballer). Can't call him Titus or Bramble, it has to be Titus Bramble. Brilliant name, isn't it? Except now, if someone googles Titus Bramble they might end up with a fic about two gay men in space with random author's notes. Oops. *looks shifty*

"I am glad you are able to occupy your time so productively. Shall we?" And Thornton Hawkes turned his attention back to Frannie, gesturing down the corridor.

Frannie flipped a little wave to Ian as she set off, Thornton Hawkes by her side.

They made their way along the gleaming corridor, passing matching sets of doors on either side every so often.

"What's behind those?" Frannie asked. She'd never been further onto a CourtShip than Processing before.

"Offices. Mostly. This way." Thornton Hawkes tapped a code into a keypad by the side of a door and it opened into a small, square, metal room, barely wider than the door.

Frannie briefly wondered why this nice man wanted to show her a box before realizing that this was, in fact, an elevator. She stepped in. The descent was short. As the elevator came to rest, Thornton Hawke's finger hovered over the button that opened the door. He looked at Frannie.

"Are you ready for this?" he asked.

Frannie had no clue what 'this' was, but Thornton Hawkes seemed to be expecting a response and she was nothing if not obligating.

"Yes, I am," she said, straightening her overalls.

The door slid open and Frannie gasped.

"Oh, it's beautiful!"

Mystery! This whole scene was partly a way to divert attention from the Zuko thing. You know, make the reader wonder what was happening back on the ground. Partly it was a way to give Frannie something that was all about her and partly it was to set up for Vecchio's rant at the end. I like how it worked out.

***

This was another section that took a ridiculously long time to work out. I kept coming up with suggestions for locations and choreography and TB kept blowing them out of the water with his insistence on being in character. Pshaw. He was right, though, so we kept coming up with ideas and discarding them until we finally settled on this. I'll take all the credit if you think it works and hand TB all the blame if you think it doesn't? What? It's my fic, I make the rules.

Ray took a deep breath, collected himself.

"Right, I'm going in. If I'm not out in ten call the local LE, tell 'em to make it subtle. And you, do your best to look inconspicuous, don't set off the Muscle Twins over there," he jerked his head towards the two, large specimens of alleged-manhood that stood either side of the entrance to the bar, expressions so vacant they should have a 'For sale or rent' sign attached.

"I can be inconspicuous. I can do that."

"That's reassuring, Kowalski. Truly it is." Ray resisted the temptation to grab Kowalski's hand and squeeze it for luck. Wrong time. Wrong place.

He crossed the road without looking back.

The muscle didn't flicker an eyelash as Ray walked past them and into the bar. Five steps led down from the entrance and from the top Ray got a good overview of his surroundings. The bar had pretensions of old-school grandeur. The wooden counter itself swept in an undulating curve along two-thirds of the wall to Ray's left. Ray figured it wobbled that way so the patrons would forget if they were drunk or sober. High-backed booths lined the right wall and small, round tables broke up the grubby floor space here and there.

The light was dim and filled with smoke. Loud music throbbed from a screen in one corner and Ray could smell the sharp scent of sweat mingled in with the duller aroma of stale alcohol. Over on the far left, a man leaned against the bar, reading. He wasn't going to do his eyes any good like that. There weren't many other people in the bar, a couple of old men playing chess, the barman who was wiping glasses and chatting to the reading guy, a handful of heavies picking their teeth and shooting the breeze and over in the back, more curves. This time belonging to a woman whose behind pushed against her flimsy dress as she leaned forward onto a table in one of the booths. She was out to impress. Ray thought he knew who.

He ducked his head and walked down the steps, avoiding looking in the direction of the woman and her companion. He went up to the bar and stood staring down at the grain of the wood until he heard a cough and looked up to find the barman looking back at him.

"Welcome to Reynard's," he said. "How may I serve you today, sir?"

Reynard's. See? See? Fox!

Ray licked his lips. Here we go, he thought.

"Right becomes might when might becomes right." He kept his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

Did you know that passwords are really difficult to invent? I have a whole new respect for gatekeepers and the military.

The barman looked surprised. "You're older than I expected," he said.

"Yeah? And you're uglier than I expected. Where is he?"

The barman smiled, apparently mollified by this exchange of pleasantries. Ah, the power of the insult.

"He's back there. Currently in ... consultation with Starla. He's expecting you, though. Go right over."

"Thanks."

Ray turned and now he could see Frankie clear as day, the profile that Ray'd messed up only feet away. For one wild second Ray thought he was going to puke but he pulled it back together and headed towards the booth, hand moving slowly towards his pocket. Frankie had obviously spotted him coming out of the corner of his eye because he was lifting Starla's hand to his mouth and kissing it, patting her on the rump as she turned to leave with a giggle and a hair-flick. Starla was just going to have to stay home and wash her hair tonight; her date would be otherwise occupied.

Before Frankie could do so much as look his way, Ray slid onto the bench next to him and pressed his pistol up against Frankie's side.

"Don't move," he said, low and pleasant. "Don't think about raising any kind of an alarm because if I'm gonna be dead you're gonna be dead too. Capisce?"

"Ray," Frankie breathed out his name, almost as if it was a relief. Ray clenched his teeth and pushed the gun in further. "I knew I'd see you again one day."

Does Frankie still care about Vecchio or does he only care about himself? I leave that to you to decide.

Frankie turned his head and smiled. It was the same arrogant smile that Ray used to kiss off his face way back when. It was the same Frankie, give or take a broken nose and the lines that come with wear and tear. Ray was shocked by the powerful jolt of feeling that shot through him, a jumbled mixture of hate and disgust, love-that-was and despair, blind rage. It took all his concentration not to flinch.

"Zuko. I'd say it was good to see you but that would make me a liar and my ma taught me to tell the truth."

"Then tell me the truth about what you are doing here, Mundo. And why you are threatening my life. Isn't revenge a little ... overdue?"

It was amazing how civil a gun between old friends could make you. Ray smiled back.

"This is not about my sister, you twisted bastard and you don't get to think of her, you understand?

He laughed a little to throw anyone watching off the scent. "I'm here to arrest you in connection to the planned bombing of the Contingency Offices in Nuorlayon. Be a good boy, Frankie and come quietly."

"But, Ray, what would I have to do with terrorism? I'm a businessman. I run my bars; I go home to my wife and kids. I pay my dues. A model citizen, that's me."

A wife and kids. So Frankie had gone straight. At least in one way.

La la la, pun.

"We got proof. Don't fight this."

Frankie pressed his hands together, steepling his index fingers and pushing them against his lips. Ray shoved the gun into him again and he dropped his hands back on the table.

"You are so jumpy. You should relax, we're old friends here. So you can't work for LE here, you must be one of those COPS, am I right?"

Ray nodded.

"What do you make in a year?"

"None of your fucking business, Zuko."

"I'm sure that your mother would appreciate a little extra sent home each month. I heard your pa passed away. It must be difficult for her."

"Swear to Mother, Frankie, I will add bribery to the list of charges. Don't push me. I wasn't going to be one of your boys then and I'm not now."

"Oh, but you were my boy, weren't you, Mundo?" Frankie's voice dropped lower, purring. "You were very much my boy. Don't you remember how you used to feel when I was inside you? Don't you remember how you used to beg me not to stop? Don't you remember how I'd put my mouth on you and suck you until you were dry? It was good. We were good, weren't we?"

I could pull the trigger, thought Ray. I could pull the trigger and then he'd be dead and yeah, so would I but then I wouldn't have this pulling at me, tearing me. It would all just stop.

"Let me go," Frankie was saying. "Just walk away and we'll pretend this never happened. You go your way, I'll go mine. Old lovers, parting on friendly terms."

His eyes were wide and innocent looking. It was hard not to punch him in the face right then, but Ray managed it.

"You got some nerve, Zuko. You think you can use that on me? You think I'm gonna say 'Of course, Frankie, you go right on aiding and abetting terrorists to blow up innocent people because one time you sucked my cock and didn't quite rape my sister.' Are you insane?"

Frankie's expression closed down. He sneered. Here was the real Frankie at last.

"I'm perfectly sane. It's you who's the crazy one. You really think you're going to get away with arresting me? You really think there won't be reprisals? You're an idiot."

"It's a risk I'm willing to take."

Ray was implacable. Frankie rolled his eyes.

"It won't stick. Nothing ever sticks. Dirt just rolls off me — saves a fortune in cleaning bills."

"The only way you're getting out of this one is if you gift-wrap us some vital information and tie it up with a bow. You know, some part of me was hoping you'd do the decent thing and confess. I always was a hopeless romantic. But really, this way is better. This way I get to shoot you if you so much as look at me funny."

Ray withdrew the pistol the smallest fraction of an inch.

"Now, my partner, he'll be getting bored. Man's got the attention span of a stunned hurtle-bee. And if he gets bored there's no answering for what he'll do so what's going to happen is this. We are going to leave here just like we were going off to do whatever it is you would have taken the kids off to do. And let's just say I don't want to go there for many reasons. You are going to walk ahead of me. You will say nothing to anyone. If you do, you will die. You will walk past the Brain-dead Twins out there and straight into the lovin' arms of my partner. You'll know who he is, he'll be the one mumbling to himself and jiggling about on the spot. You do not deviate from this plan, if you do, you die."

Ray gave Frankie a long look, his bravado was slipping and Ray could see the old, cowardly Frankie coming through, eyelids blinking a little too fast, breath coming shallow.

"This clear to you, Zuko?"

Frankie nodded.

Ray palmed his pistol and moved aside to let Frankie by.

"You know, Mundo," said Frankie, pushing past Ray's legs. "If you'd wanted to see my ass you could have just asked."

"Move, you fucker," Ray ground out, casting a general smile at the occupants of the bar as he stood up.

It was interesting to see if I could get the dichotomy between Ray's words and his actions. The pleasant tone of voice and the smiles versus the gun in the ribs and the calm ordering of Zuko. To me it reflects the split in Ray between the way he once felt about Frankie and the way he feels now. Or, you know, something slightly less wanky.

The walk to the door seemed to take forever. Ray ducked his head and did his best to look like an insignificant worm following the great and mighty crime-lord. No one gave them a second glance. They walked up the steps and into the harsh SOL-light. Ray squinted, trying to adjust. He reached for his sunglasses but before he could retrieve them there was a roar and a blur as Kowalski took out Zuko, knocking him to the ground.

Ray felt the sudden movement from behind as the Muscle Twins leapt to the defense of their boss. Without hesitation he flipped the switch on his pistol and fired noiselessly once, twice and two unconscious bodies dropped like sacks of grain. He turned his attention to the scene in front of him.

What I like about this is Vecchio has no hesitation in taking out the guys who are about to attack Kowalski. He doesn't even think about it, it's automatic. No one hurts his man. Only he doesn't realize that's why he's doing it.

Kowalski was straddling Zuko, one fist twisting in his shirt, the other holding a gun against Zuko's cheek.

"You bastard!" he was shouting. "You fucking bastard! You are so dead, you hear me. So fucking dead."

And Frankie? Frankie looked like he'd seen a ghost.

"Kowalski!" said Ray.

No response.

"Kowalski!" he repeated. "Kowalski, what the fuck is going on?"

Cliffhanger! I thought probably quite a few people would work out why Kowalski had gone crazy but it was worth leaving it for those who didn't. And making them wait 24 hours. I may have gone a little power mad.

***

This was the first time I slipped backwards in time when changing POV. There didn't seem to be a way of giving the scene enough build up and power without doing it. Because we hadn't seen Kowalski in the last part at all and the last we knew he was standing around being concerned. I wanted to show the change between his restlessness and worry for Vecchio with a little hint of humour and the rage he felt when he saw Volpe. I liked how it worked and it didn't jar with the rest of the fic as far as I was concerned.

Ray had exhausted his repertoire of hanging about possibilities. He'd tied and untied his bootlaces. Twice. He'd patted himself down in an over-exaggerated 'search' for his sunglasses doing his best 'what a relief' mime as he found them around his neck. He'd window-shopped in the one shop that was open just up the street from the bar. It wasn't until he'd been staring vacantly into the window for a few minutes wondering what was going on inside the bar that he realized it was a shop specializing in frou-frou dresses for the non-discerning frou-frou female and now it was too late to step away without some kind of embarrassment. He thought about making the most of it, hitting on the Muscle Twins, but Vecchio probably wouldn't approve. He wandered a little further up the street, looking round the corner, finding a quiet place to call in law enforcement — better be safe than sorry.

He began to saunter back towards the bar and that was the moment the door opened and a man came out. His shape was familiar and Ray felt a kick to the stomach. The man started walking towards him. Ray pulled off his sunglasses to get a better look but before they even hit his chest he was running, white hot fury pouring through him.

Acting entirely on instinct, Ray launched himself at the man and they slammed into the ground, Ray grasping the man's legs. Wriggling, the man tried to free himself from Ray's grip but Ray straddled him and pinned his arms to his sides. He pulled out his gun and shoved it into the guy's cheek. He knew he was yelling; he hardly knew what. The world blurred around him.

"Kowalski!"

Ray heard the voice but it wasn't until Vecchio was crouched in front of him, pale and shocked, that Ray was able to pull together a response.

"Volpe," he said.

And hopefully, for some people, that there line would have been a kick in the guts.

Vecchio's face twisted in confusion. "This is Frankie Zuko, Kowalski."

"This is Volpe, Vecchio. You think I could mistake the guy who murdered Fraser?" Ray's voice nearly broke on the last word and he tightened his grip on Volpe-Zuko.

The guy blanched. He should. His life was almost over.

"I didn't. Don't kill me. I don't know what you're talking about. I've never seen you before. Mundo, get him off of me. I have children. Don't. Please. Don't."

Ray was disgusted. This sniveling coward was the guy he'd been chasing? The cold-blooded killer? The master criminal? He spat in Volpe's face.

"Say your prayers. Not that anyone's gonna be listening for you."

"Kowalski, don't. Don't kill him."

Ray looked up at the sound of Vecchio's voice. Don't? What did he mean, don't? Didn't Vecchio realize this was why Ray was here? He shook his head and aimed his gun at Volpe's forehead.

"Ray, please," said Vecchio. "You can't kill him, you're not a murderer. You're not like him. You're a thousand times better. A million. Fraser wouldn't want revenge; he'd want justice, wouldn't he?"

He was using the voice, Ray knew he was using the voice and he tried to resist it because seeing Volpe's brains blown half-way across the street and his blood soaking into the dust beneath him, that was something Ray wanted so badly to see. But as much as he wanted to shout, to scream "What do you know about what Fraser would want!" the truth of Vecchio's words burned into him. Fraser had believed so fiercely in the power of Justice, even when his face was shoved in the dirt of its failures. Ray couldn't let him down now.

Vecchio was looking past him now, holding up a hand.

"You're gonna wish I had killed you when they're through with you," He pushed his gun towards Volpe once again, relishing the look of terror on his face, before pulling it back, twirling and holstering in one easy movement. He leapt up and off Volpe, kicking him in the ribs.

"Tie him up," he said.

"Sure, Kowalski."

Ray found he was shaking. He put his hands on his hips and breathed deep, looking around him. He saw the Muscle Twins out cold on the floor — when had that happened? — and turning round further he saw a group of three uniformed men, standing in a huddle and looking at him funny. Ray's fist curled and he had to stop himself striding over to wail on them just so he could get some of this fucked-up energy out.

Vecchio, meanwhile, had Volpe-Zuko tied and on his feet and was holding him at arms' length. He was signaling to the uniformed men — must be the law enforcement Ray had called. They strolled over, avoiding meeting Volpe's eyes. One of the guys, a pasty, overweight, middle-aged man with the purple nose of a drinker stopped just by Vecchio's shoulder leaning in to mutter in his ear. Ray didn't catch what he said. Vecchio looked cross.

"Yeah, we're sure. Mr. Zuko otherwise known as Volpe otherwise known as scum-sucking dickweed is under arrest. We will be transporting him to the CourtShip at our earliest convenience for his permanent inconvenience. Now let's get out of here before those idiots wake up or anyone else interrupts this cozy little scene."

The officer shrugged.

"On your head be it," he said. "Transport's this way."

"Some help here, Kowalski," said Vecchio, snapping his fingers in the direction of Ray's face.

Ray blinked and looked at him. Vecchio raised Volpe's arm and flapped it about. Ray got the hint. He walked over and took Volpe's other arm, squeezing tight. Just let him complain. Just let him. He'd give his nose another kink to match the one Vecchio beat into him all those years ago.

***

This scene brought to you by 'oh shit, there's no way the ship would be back yet and anyway they need to talk'

It was an uneventful journey back to the Port. Leastways, Ray assumed it was; he was barely aware of any of it. Vecchio had them taken straight to the Port Detention Facility where Volpe was unceremoniously dumped in a holding cell. He was making noises about lawyers now. Slamming the door shut in his face sorted that one out. Vecchio had thanked the law enforcement guys and sent them on their way, ignoring the dire warnings about 'messing with the natural order of things'.

Left alone by the Port officials, Ray dropped onto a bench outside Volpe's cell, foot tapping and fingers twitching. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. Vecchio paced the corridor, trying to reach Riviera.

"MacDonald," he said for the fifty millionth time. "This is Vecchio, state your position."

There was a sound of something being fumbled and then Ray heard Ian's voice.

"We're still at the CourtShip."

"You not got the prisoners handed over yet?"

"Oh, yes," Ian sounded proud. "That's all done; we have the releases and everything. They're very efficient up here, you know. I was quite impressed. It reminded me of the time-"

"Good, good. Why are you still there?"

"Um. Things are happening?"

"Things are happening?"

"Yes."

"What things?"

Ray could tell Vecchio's temper was rising from the increased speed of his footsteps.

"I don't know. Frannie things."

There was a splat that Ray recognized as Vecchio's hand smacking his forehead.

"Tell my sister to finish up yesterday and get down here. We got Zuko."

"You got him?! That's great!"

"It would be greater if we could make him someone else's problem. Capisce?"

"I'll raise Frannie. We'll be there quicker than you can spit. Well, not quicker, but-"

"Thanks, Ian."

Vecchio clicked off. Ray felt the soft whump of air as Vecchio sat down next to him. He opened his eyes and glanced sideways. Vecchio looked tired.

"I'm sorry," said Ray.

Vecchio twisted sharply and frowned at him. "What're you sorry for?"

"This," Ray gestured helplessly at himself. "Because it was you and Zuko and me being the strong, silent type. Now it's me and Volpe and me being the homicidal wreck type. I'm trying- I mean I want to- It's hard."

Ray knocked his head off the wall to punctuate his point. Always with the way with words, he thought and then rubbed the back of his head where he'd banged it. Vecchio smiled and gripped Ray's shoulder, shaking him lightly.

"Idiot," he said. "It's not like you planned it or nothing. Anyhow, stopping you flipping out is giving me something to do."

"I'm still flipping out here. See me out-flip. You're not doing a good job. You need quality assurance."

"I thought I'd see how far you could go before I reeled you back from the edge. Stopped you killing him, didn't I?"

Ray turned and met Vecchio's eyes, open and frank, searching Ray's face for something. For what?

"Yeah." Ray's head dropped in a nod. "Thanks for that."

Vecchio shrugged. "De nada. I only just broke you in. Think I want to start all over again with some unwashed, underfed dweeb while you cool your heels in Punishment?"

Ray was all out of snappy comebacks. A wave of tiredness swept through him and he thought he would drop right there. He let himself droop forward until his forehead rested against Vecchio's shoulder.

It was a brief occurrence only, but Ray was sure he felt Vecchio's cheek rest against his hair. Of course, he could have imagined it. But he definitely didn't imagine Vecchio's murmur.

"You're too good for that, you dink."

The thing is they need to talk but not talk and they need to flip out whilst still somehow thinking of each other and Kowalski needs to be all up in his own shit about Fraser while still caring about Vecchio. Fine line, people. Fine line.

***

It was another couple of hours before Riviera made it back to port. Chewing Frannie out for her unexplained disappearance would have to wait, Ray needed her in the engine room and well out of sight when they stowed Zuko on board. He was damned if he was going to expose her to that creep, prisoner or not. She didn't argue or complain which Ray might have found suspicious if he wasn't so caught up in worrying about her and Kowalski and ignoring the part of his brain that wanted to sit him down and bawl like a baby.

"I don't care how busy you've been," he told her, leaning against the doorway to Frannie's domain. "Just get this ship ready to turn round and get out of here. I'm not having him here one more second than we have to."

"I'm with you there, big brother." Frannie pulled her hair back into a ponytail and twizzled something pink and fluffy around it to hold it in place. She squinted at him. "Are you doing okay?"

Ray considered this for a second. He really didn't know.

"I really don't know. You?"

The repetition of really don't know makes me so happy. For reals. I have no clue why.

"I'm good, Ray, honestly. I got past it a long time ago. It was you he really screwed over, stupid cycle path." Frannie gave Ray a quick hug. "Tell Ian we'll be ready in five."

Cycle path also makes me happy.

"Thanks."

Ray turned and almost bumped into Ian who was standing stock still staring upwards towards the gym.

"What's with Ray?" he asked.

Ray became aware of the rhythmic pounding and dull, grating shuffle coming from above. Something was getting a hell of a beating.

"Turns out Kowalski knew Zuko in a former life. He sure gets around. Like syphilis."

"What? How?"

"Zuko killed Kowalski's partner. Don't ask him about it, it won't end well."

Ian's eyes widened. "Zuko is Volpe?"

Ray scowled. Was nothing private on this ship? Were even his bowel movements safe?

"You know about Volpe how?"

"I, erm, I ..." Ian shifted from foot to foot, eyes scouting around for an escape route. "That is, I may have- Um." He shot a glance towards the engine room.

Of course, Ray realized. Thanks, Frannie.

"Yeah, well, never mind that now. You've got three minutes to be in your seat and prepared for take-off."

"Right. Will do. But can you believe that? There's your whole history with Zuko with the thing and the other thing and all of that and now it turns out that Ray has history with him too and his is kind of the same as yours only it's different and then you're both called Ray and you end up on the same ship and it turns out that you are the two that bring him down, it's one whole wild bunch of coincidences after another. You should write it down; it'd make a great-"

Because somebody had to say it. Right? Oh, I am so meta I cut myself.

"Two minutes."

Ray turned on his heel and left Ian babbling. Either everything in life was a coincidence or nothing was. He couldn't see the middle ground. And he couldn't see why anyone would care either way.

"Kowalski!" he yelled. "We're taking off in two. Sit down or fall over, it's up to you!"

He climbed the ladder to the cockpit and strapped himself into his seat, staring out of the window and seeing a blur of buildings on the far off horizon that may or may not have been Firrenz. He wasn't sorry to be leaving it behind. He flipped the lever to tilt the seat back.

"Thirty seconds," said Ian. "Port Control, please release the locks on COPS23, we are ready to depart."

"Released. Good journey, COPS23, come back soon."

"Let's not and say we did," said Kowalski, sliding into the seat next to Ray.

Ray glanced across at him. Hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat and dark patches stained his t-shirt but the planes of his face seemed less hard, smoother.

"You going to clean up before we get to the CourtShip? The way you smell they're gonna think I'm dropping you off for vagrancy. Or possibly prostitution."

"Ten seconds."

Frannie slipped into the final seat with a gentle "Oof".

"High-class escort. I ain't cheap."

"You're a what?!" Frannie exclaimed.

"Five."

"Your brother wants to buy me."

"Four."

"That's poor business sense. Why pay for what you can get for free?"

"Three."

"Fuck you, Vecchio."

"Two."

"I think that's what he's aiming for."

"One."

"Frannie!"

Go, Frannie!

Frannie stuck her tongue out as the force of the take-off pushed Ray back into his seat. She was lucky he couldn't reach over and clip her round the ear. The blue outside the window blurred to white and then black as they breached the atmosphere.

By the time Ian docked with the CourtShip for the second time that day Ray and Kowalski were both smartly dressed and raring to go. The sooner Zuko was off the ship, the happier everyone would be.

Leaving Ian and Frannie on board, they frog-marched Zuko to the Processing Service Reception which was effectively a short, metal counter set in the wall a little way past the docking bay doors. The pane of glass that separated the internal workings of the Processing Office from the rest of the world was dark.

I'm telling you in advance, I loved writing this scene. Just the idea of Vecchio getting increasingly wound up by a hologram had me and TB giggling like ninnies. Plus I like the night manager. She was cool. And it was good to be able to break the tension with a bit of silliness.

Ray rapped on it. Nothing happened. Ray did not like this. He found a buzzer at one end of the counter next to a small sign that read 'Please Press For Service.' Ray pressed. Nothing happened.

"See that?" said Ray. "I pressed. There should be service. Where's the damned service?"

"Look at all this trouble," said Zuko. "It's not worth it, Mundo. You'd be so much better off letting me go."

"Yeah, straight through the nearest airlock," muttered Kowalski.

"Shut up, Zuko and stop calling me Mundo."

Ray rapped on the glass and pressed the buzzer at the same time. The glass lit up and a small man in a neat red and blue uniform appeared behind it.

"I'm sorry, sir, Processing Service is closed. Please return during CourtShip-adjusted business hours eight through five except for high days and holidays. Thank you for your enquiry."

"It's only just past five. This won't take long."

"I'm sorry, sir, Processing Service is closed. Please return during CourtShip-adjusted business hours eight through five except for high days and holidays. Thank you for your enquiry."

The man began to flicker. Ray smacked his palm hard against the glass and the hologram steadied.

"I'm sorry, sir, Processing Service is closed. Please-"

"Yes!" snapped Ray. "I get that, you freaking jobsworth. What with having perfect hearing and not being an idiot. What I want to know is what do we do with our prisoner?"

"Officers are advised that non-Processed penal clients are accommodated in the CourtShip at their own risk. Penal clients remain the responsibility of the arresting officer at all times."

Penal clients! *snigger*

Ray was not an impatient man. Okay, sometimes he was an impatient man, but usually he'd at least give patience a try. Unfortunately today his well was dry. He was fairly sure it was impossible to intimidate a hologram but he was going to do his best. He leaned in opposite the dapper little man, nose almost pressed to the glass. He enunciated slowly and clearly filling each word with venom.

"What. Do. We. Do. With. The. Prisoner?"

"Do you wish to leave him here?" chirped the receptionist.

"Yes," said Ray, stretching the 's' out into a hiss. "If it's not too much trouble we would very much like you to lock up this murdering scumbag until business hours," he spat the words, "are resumed."

"You should have said so in the first place, sir. That should provide no difficulty. I shall inform the night manager of your arrival."

It was only Kowalski's hand on the back of Ray's neck that prevented him punching through the glass and strangling the hell out of thin air.

The hologram blinked out and the glass went dark. Before Ray could curse he heard footsteps and turned to see a woman in an identical uniform — except made from material and not photons — walking towards them.

"This need locking up?" she asked, jerking her thumb at Zuko as she came to a standstill.

"Please. Take him off our hands."

"Troublesome?"

"Not as much as he'd like to think," said Kowalski, shoving Zuko front and centre. "He just doesn't fit in with the general ambience of our ship. You know how it is. Four law-abiding citizens, one murderous jerk-off. Throws the whole aura out of whack. Or something."

The night manager raised her eyebrows and smiled.

"That so?" She took a small machine from a pouch attached to her belt and looked at Zuko. "Thumb," she said.

"I want my lawyer," whined Zuko.

"Thumb."

"I demand my lawyer."

"Thumb."

"Did you hear me?" Zuko's voice was getting strident. Ray and Kowalski exchanged exasperated glances. "I want my-"

"Yes," interrupted the night manager. "I heard. Thumb tonight, lawyer tomorrow. Possibly."

Zuko subsided like a pricked balloon and pressed his thumb to the screen. The night manager keyed a few buttons, looked at the screen and then pursed her lips and whistled.

"Wow. Was the phrase 'charges dropped' invented just for you, Zuko? You're quite the man — I've got just the cell for a guy of your stature. Come this way."

Aaaand a little more call-back, ladies and gentlemen.

She turned and beckoned.

"Mr. Zuko to you," snarled Zuko.

"She can call you whatever the fuck she wants," said Ray, giving him a push to get him walking.

"My vote's on Esmerelda," said Kowalski.

"Really? I saw him more as a Flopsy."

"Dumpling," the night manager's contribution sailed over her shoulder.

A few seconds later she stopped and hauled open a door on the left.

"There ya go. All the comforts of home."

Ray helped a reluctant Zuko into the cell. It was small, about eight feet by four, with a single bed, a pan and a bare strip light. There was no light switch or handle on the inside of the door.

"See you then, Zuko. Sleep tight."

"You can't leave me here. Don't you know who I am?"

"A sad, sad, little man," said Ray stepping out of the room and waving at Zuko's outraged face as the door closed on him and was locked. As soon as he was out of sight a wave of relief washed over Ray. He felt somehow cleaner.

"He'll be fed and watered as per," said the night manager. "No beatings will be administered without the prior permission of the arresting officer, yadda, yadda. Just kidding! Don't look so horrified. You guys want directing to the mess?"

"Nah. We'll go back to the ship. Long day."

"Whatever floats your bizarrely constructed spaceship. He'll be okay here, I promise. Have a good night."

"Thanks. Come on, Kowalski."

They set off back the way they had come.

"Ambience? What the hell was that all about ambience? And auras? I'm banning you from talking to Frannie."

"Hey, Vecchio, did you hear the guy? Penal clients! Maybe these guys are the high-class escorts, whadda you think?"

"I think you're overtired." Ray cuffed Kowalski round the back of the head. "Let's go home."

Cute! I know I wrote it myself but cute!

*

Dinner was a much happier affair than the previous night. Ray noticed Frannie stealing glances at her brother but he was too relieved at having Volpe behind a heavy steel door with no hope of escape to care too much about it. Vecchio was quizzing Ian about his warp gate obsession and there was cake. Things were okay. Things were better than Ray had expected.

Frannie! Mystery!

"But you can't seriously believe that we can just leap through some sort of hoop in space and appear light years away in some random quadrant."

"Why not? Look. We've already worked out a way to fold space so that we can send radio waves through otherwise it would take hours to get a message from here to, say, Ganymede. A conversation could last for months. Nothing would ever get done. Why shouldn't we be able to do the same thing with matter?"

Aha! Not handwavey! Real science. Or real potential science.

"Have we not been trying for years?"

"Well, yes."

"Are we any closer to getting there?"

"Um. No."

"But you think that some ancient civilization solved the problem that's been taxing the best human minds for hundreds of years and came up with these warp gates?"

"Yes."

"And then failed to use them for any purpose like, say, coming to visit? Or did they leave the gas on back home and then forget about us when they accidentally exploded their planet?"

"Well ..."

"I'm closing the case, MacDonald." Vecchio leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head, smug smile playing across his lips.

"But ..."

"Closed."

Ray grinned. He hadn't expected to enjoy this job, he'd had his goal and that was it. But there was no way these people weren't going to grow on him. And not in the fungus way either. Frannie, with her mixed-up words and her kind heart and her genius hands. Ian's surprising basketball skills, his non-stop chatter, the little nuggets of truth scattered between the whopping great lies, his hopeless enthusiasm. And then there was Vecchio. Screwed-up, sarcastic Vecchio. Funny, frank Vecchio. With the bluster and the hiding, the confidence and the caring. Yeah, Vecchio had definitely grown on him.

Kowalski loves them for the same reason I love them. Funny that.

"You okay there, Kowalski?"

Ray started, embarrassed at having been caught staring. "Sorry. Zoned out. Tired."

"Me too. Think I'm gonna hit the sack. Gotta keep business hours or the world as we know it may come to an end."

Ray snorted.

"Ray, can I have a word?" Frannie blinked anxiously at Vecchio as he stood to go.

"Not now, Frannie. I only got two words I understand right now. 'Bed' and 'sleep'."

"But ..."

"Tomorrow."

Frannie shut her mouth and twisted her fingers together as she watched Vecchio heading off to his cabin. "Oh, shit," she whispered.

"What's up, Frannie?"

"Oh, nothing." She flapped a hand. "Really. Don't worry about it."

Mystery!

Ray was a simple man. At least when he was tired. He took her at her word.

Five minutes later he was also in his cabin, sitting on the edge of his bed, stripped to his shorts. He was going to get in. Soon. He was going to get in soon.

He got in.

And then out again.

And again in advance. I had so much fun writing this next bit. You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out, you find yourself a Vecchio and you shake him all about... I did vacillate in terms of POV. Originally I thought in terms of Vecchio, but in the end it worked much better coming from Kowalski. Again, because Kowalski's journey here is bigger, sort of. He has to realize all sorts of things whereas from Vecchio's POV it was more of a case of him sitting there and trying not to do anything. Because he's effectively senior, so he can't.

Also, for those of you keeping score with your slash bingo cards, see how I subverted you yet again. They're not sharing a bed any more so NOW they have sex. \o/

This was weird. It had been a bad day. Ray was tired. Here was a bed for sleeping in. A whole bed. No need to worry about someone else talking or snoring or taking up most of the room. A whole bed to himself. Great. He should probably get back in it then. Ray slid one leg under the covers and immediately pulled it out. He stood up and paced a little but there wasn't much room so it started to make him dizzy. He sat down again.

What was wrong here? Maybe he should ask Vecchio. Ray's hand was on the door almost before he'd had the time to complete the thought. Oh god, he wanted to see Vecchio. He couldn't settle because he was a Vecchio missing. Of the Ray type. His stomach lurched. This was bad. Wasn't it? It wasn't good. At least he didn't think so. Maybe he should ask Vecchio.

And then Ray was out of his cabin and wrenching open the door to Vecchio's only to find him standing right there, hand outstretched as if he was just about to come out. And that made Ray smile and take a step forward, right into Vecchio's personal space, close enough to hear him swallow. And he was going to ask if it was okay, he really was, but then Vecchio's tongue flicked out and Ray couldn't wait any more so he took hold of Vecchio's face and kissed him. And it turned out that Ray didn't need verbal or written permission because Vecchio's mouth opened under his and kissed him back, one hand reaching behind him to swing the door closed, one hand sliding up Ray's bare back, leaving a burning trail in his skin.

Ray backed them towards the bed, pushing Vecchio down so that he half lay, half leant against the wall. He followed without letting go of Vecchio's lips, straddling his thighs, sliding a hand down Vecchio's chest and through the hair that curled there. Soft and warm. So that was one question answered. Vecchio shifted underneath him, pushing his hips up so his dick brushed against Ray's, their hardness mirror images. Ray sucked Vecchio's lower lip into his mouth, biting it lightly and Vecchio's hands grasped Ray's shoulders and his waist. With a swift move he twisted Ray round and onto his back, leaning over him with a wicked smile on his face.

Ooh, sex-linked call-back. *wins hard*

Bending down, he nuzzled into the crook of Ray's neck, his warm breath making Ray shiver, Ray's hand coming up to rest on Vecchio's head, a benediction, following Vecchio as he kissed and licked his way along Ray's collarbone to the sharp notch in the middle. Hands stroked down Ray's sides as Vecchio's mouth mazed across Ray's chest. Neurons fired like tiny balls of lightning across his skin and Ray couldn't stay still. His hands grabbed at whatever they could reach, the sheets, Vecchio's shoulders, his arms. His mouth wouldn't stay shut either. Ray found himself chanting yes, yes, yes, yes as Vecchio trailed further down, tongue circling Ray's navel, teeth nipping at taut muscle.

Vecchio ran his tongue along Ray's belly just where his waistband met his skin. Tease. Ray's eyes rolled in his head and he pushed up into Vecchio's face. Vecchio lifted his head and grinned at him and Ray didn't spare a thought to wonder how that smile could make him even harder, he simply squirmed again and hoped he was looking sexy rather than desperate.

A choked laugh escaped Vecchio.

"Pouty, Kowalski. Did someone remove your coglioni? I'll check."

And then Vecchio's fingers were sliding into Ray's pants and Ray didn't care any more how desperate he looked. He raised his ass to help and the rush of cool air over his dick as it was freed was at the same time a shock and a relief.

"God, Kowalski," said Vecchio, hoarse, kneeling up between Ray's thighs. "No one removed anything, did they?"

"One hundred percent Kowalski."

Vecchio was looking at him as if he was a banquet. Ray's chest expanded sharply and he tucked his hands under his head, pretending more cool than he felt.

"It's been ... I want to ... I don't know if ..."

Ray's heart squeezed. Fuck, it was time he started thinking of something past his own pleasure. He reached down and took one of Vecchio's hands and laid it over his dick.

"It's okay to touch me," he said. "There is no shame here. None."

Vecchio's chest rose and fell quickly and he met Ray's eyes as Ray helped Vecchio's hesitant fingers to curl around Ray's dick.

"That's right. Feels good."

Still guiding, Ray slowly drew Vecchio's hand up and down again. Up and down. Not taking his eyes off Vecchio's face, trying to show him how good it felt. How much he wanted this. Up and down, Vecchio's fingers getting slippery under his. Ray relaxed his grip, let Vecchio take control. He held his breath but there was no need because Vecchio kept right on stroking, thumb cresting over the head of Ray's dick with each upward stroke. Ray couldn't help but push up into Vecchio's hand, tell him he was doing good, better than good, he was doing great, Ray felt great, he felt fantastic, he felt ... empty.

His hands were empty and he wanted them to be full. Vecchio's other hand was rubbing up and down Ray's thigh, sweeping further up and further inside with each stroke. Ray grasped Vecchio's fingertips and pulled, climbing Vecchio's arm with his fingers until he had a firm hold on his elbow and could tug him down beside him. Ray turned his head to face Vecchio and smiled, finding his lips, sliding his hand down Vecchio's side and pushing down Vecchio's shorts. There was a brief, fumbling hiatus while Ray and Vecchio rearranged themselves to their satisfaction and then Vecchio's hand was back around Ray's dick and his other hand was in Ray's hair and he was kissing the life into Ray while his dick was making intimate with Ray's hip.

Ray let his hands drift over Vecchio's ass, pressing him in closer, urging him on. Vecchio was handling Ray's dick as if he'd been doing it for years and the earlier balls of lightning were coalescing to electrify Ray's whole body. If his hair wasn't already spiked it would have stood on end with the power of it — Frannie could plug him into a fuel cell and they'd be good to go. Vecchio dragged his mouth away and rested his cheek against Ray's, breathing ragged.

"Fuck," he gasped, speeding his movements, rhythm fracturing and reforming.

Ray could feel the muscles of Vecchio's ass clenching and unclenching under his hand as he drove his dick along the slippery track between Ray's hip bone and Vecchio's own hand. Ray wondered what it would be like to have that ass clenching around his dick and, already balanced on a knife edge, that thought sent him sliding down the sharp side and he split in two, coming in hard spurts that streaked his belly, warm like blood. Vecchio's hand slowed and slackened, his forehead pressed against Ray's neck now, driving himself to his own completion.

Barely sensible, Ray slid one hand under Vecchio's hip and wriggled it down and behind his balls, stroking the delicate, smooth skin with his fingertips. Vecchio struggled to get his hand out from between their bodies and grabbed at Ray's arm with slick fingers, anchoring himself as he pushed once, twice, three times and shuddered as his orgasm hit him. He collapsed against Ray, lips pressed against his neck, huffing out hot breath through his nose. Ray smiled, loose and relaxed, feeling his heart and Vecchio's slowing to normal. He lifted a hand and circled it round Vecchio's neck, absent-mindedly tracing the faded bruises. Vecchio did not flinch.

First, coming up with new metaphors to use in porn. So not easy. Second, I wondered if I was underplaying Kowalski's angst here. But I don't really think he has any at this point. Volpe is behind bars and he's kind of numb about that but he's got all this restless energy that needs to go somewhere and Vecchio's his good focus, if that makes sense. Plus he's mourned Fraser. A lot. And fair enough, he's not moved on, but the death isn't in the recent past so it's perhaps not as angsty as you might think. I'm happy with it. Third, four words 'Vecchio did not flinch.' That says so much in so little. I am so pleased with that line.

Ray knew he would probably regret not cleaning up, but he wasn't ready to move and, judging by Vecchio's heavy, loose limbs, neither was Vecchio.

"You know," he said, finger and thumb gently tugging at Vecchio's earlobe, "it's a good thing we're back in our own cabins."

He felt Vecchio's smile stretch into his neck.

"Yeah, it's for the best," he mumbled.

"Wouldn't want anything to happen."

"Bad for morale."

"That's right."

"See you tomorrow then."

"Mmmm."

Ray drifted off to sleep and did not dream of ice.

Again, I think that last line says a lot in a little. And it all links to what I said above.

***

I had POV thoughts again here, but it was better to stick with Kowalski because he can't figure out Vecchio and neither can we. So then when we/you read Vecchio's rant later you can think 'ohhhhhh, now I get it.' Or that was the plan at least.

There were better ways to wake up than the sudden sensation of twenty or so layers being ripped from your skin. There were better ways to wake up than seeing the guy you'd swapped body fluids with the night before dragging himself away from you without even a good morning grunt. Ray was prepared to give some thought to those better ways but what with the stinging skin and Vecchio's towel-covered ass on its way out the door he was having trouble with thinking beyond the now.

"Where you going?" he asked, his voice coming out a little more gruff than he'd been expecting.

Vecchio turned and smiled.

"Just going for a shower, numbnuts. It may have escaped your notice but there were some shenanigans occurring here last night that have left us in a noticeable state of disarray. There's probably a Processing regulation says we can't be seen if we don't adhere to hygiene rules six through forty-two. Let's not give them the pleasure, eh?"

I have an almost unhealthy delight in the word shenanigans. This is not the first time it has appeared in fic I've written and I'm damn sure it won't be the last.

Ray raised himself up on one elbow and looked around wildly.

"There were shenanigans? Here? Dammit, I always wanted to catch one of those in the wild. Promised my mom she could make a pillow out of the skin."

Vecchio snorted and walked back to the bed, leaning down to drop a kiss on Ray's hair and nimbly stepping out of the way as Ray took advantage of his proximity to try to attempt towel removal. Damn, thought Ray as his hand succeeded in only brushing over the fabric, that would have been one of the better ways to wake up.

"Not now, Kowalski," said Vecchio and there was something in his voice that wasn't quite right.

Ray let his gaze snap upwards from where it was resting on the subtle shifting of Vecchio's towel. Vecchio smiled but didn't meet his eyes and then was gone. Ray let himself fall back, slamming his head on the pillow. Last night: hot sex with the residue to prove it. This morning: a kiss and the brush off. Was Vecchio going through buyer's remorse? Had Ray pushed him too far too fast? Why did it matter? And wasn't Ray supposed to be feeling like he was betraying Fraser's memory or something? Why wasn't he?

See? Even Kowalski wants to know where the angst went.

There were better ways to wake up than thinking yourself to death. Ray stopped thinking.

***

Frannie came along with the two men to Processing. To keep them company, she said. Vecchio had pointed out that there would be lots of hanging around in corridors but she stayed firm. She was coming and that was that. Vecchio didn't put up much of a fight. Ray wondered if that was because Vecchio wanted Frannie standing in between him and Ray. Frannie's motives he couldn't figure either. There was definitely something going on with her, the way her eyes kept straying to her brother and then skittering away when Ray caught her at it.

Frannie! Mystery! Yes, OK, I'll stop saying that now.

Reaching the Processing Service Reception again, Ray could see real people moving behind the glass, going about their daily business. Vecchio's fingers drummed on the counter.

"So help me god they better let me talk to one of those and not another hologram or you might have to find me a cell somewhere in here."

"Chill out, Vecchio," said Ray. "You'll pop an aneurysm and then Frannie'll have to tell your Ma and I got no good suit for your funeral."

Vecchio took a deep breath and pressed the buzzer. A smiling, rosy-cheeked girl appeared at the window.

"What are you? Twelve?" Vecchio blurted out. Ray grimaced. Way to get off on the right foot.

Smooth, Vecchio. See, this is me showing not telling. Vecchio is anxious and on edge. Can you tell?

The girl stopped smiling.

"No, sir. I am not. How may I help you this morning?"

"I'm sorry," Vecchio apologized in his smoothest voice. "That was inappropriate and unprofessional. It's that flawless skin of yours, gives an ageless impression."

Ray saw a simper. The girl actually simpered. He leant up against the counter, back to the screen, elbows resting on the cold metal. If that happened to mean his arm touched Vecchio's then it was all purely accidental, wasn't it? Vecchio shot Ray a look that was a mixture of confused and amused.

"We came in last night. Got a prisoner in over-night custody. Frank Zuko? He needs to be Processed."

Ray noticed that Vecchio was just using his regular amount of smooth now. That was better.

Aww, vaguely jealous Kowalski. Be still my beating heart.

There was a moment's quiet where Ray figured the girl was doing something. He waggled his eyebrows at Frannie who stuck her tongue out in return.

"Boring," she mouthed.

Ray shrugged. She'd been warned.

"Ah, yes, sir. I see him here. It appears that Mr. Zuko spent a quiet night in his cell. You'll need to fill out your arrest report before he can be screened and interrogated. You'll find everything you need in the room three doors down on the right. My name is Hally and it has been a pleasure to serve you today. If you need further assistance, please do not hesitate to ask."

Hally not named after a comet, oh no. Also, keeping track of the rooms on the CourtShip? Difficult. I need diagrams. And possibly flow charts.

"Thank you so much, Hally." Vecchio slapped the counter with his palms. "We'll get straight on that."

Ray pushed himself off the counter, following Vecchio down the corridor. Frannie nudged him and mouthed 'it has been a pleasure to serve', pursing her lips and batting her eyelashes. Ray grinned and put his hand under his chin, doing his best wide-eyed, blushing girl routine.

"Don't hesitate to ask," he mouthed back.

They both dissolved into giggles. Vecchio rounded on them.

"This isn't school!" he yelled. "Will you for one second take this damn thing seriously?" He stared at Frannie. "This is Zuko." And then at Ray. "This is Volpe. Do you not get that this is important? What part of this exactly is fun and games?" He flung his arms in the air in a passionate gesture of disbelief.

And then Ray was crowding him up against the wall. Vecchio did not get the monopoly on righteousness here. He did not get the monopoly on freaking out.

"It's called relieving the tension," he growled, hand twisted in Vecchio's shirt. "It's called escape. It's called finding a way not to split apart because the guy in the cell down the hall shot your partner in the back when he was fucking you. Frannie's got her own reasons. You do not get to sit on the moral high ground and judge us. You do not."

Ah! There's the tension. Mmm. All sorts of tension.

Vecchio's face twisted and his hand came up — Ray could have sworn it was headed to his face — and settled on Ray's shoulder.

And a cautious Vecchio.

"You're right. Too much tension. The sooner this is done the better. Let's go do those reports."

Ray relaxed his grip and took a step back, smoothing down the creases in Vecchio's shirt without thinking about it. He caught Frannie's secret smile and chose to ignore it.

"I hate reports."

"Shame. They always speak highly of you." Vecchio opened the door. "Frannie? After you."

Ray really did hate reports. But they turned out to be the least of their problems. And Vecchio turned out to be really, really good at yelling.

"What do you mean we can't interrogate him?!" Vecchio yelled at a tall, angular man who pushed a hand anxiously through his hair in the face of Vecchio's bombardment.

Ray slumped in a chair in the office they had been assigned, Frannie standing behind him, hands on his shoulders. This had been going on for some time now. Vecchio had sent pleasure-to-serve-Hally off in tears and this new guy, her supervisor Ray assumed, had come in to take the flak.

"I'm sorry, sir. As Miss Temoc has already explained, we have experts on board who will be carrying out the interrogation. Those are rules stipulated in Contingency Law for cases of presumed treason."

Temoc. Not at all comet backwards. No, sir.

"It's our case." Vecchio was nothing if not stubborn.

Ray trod the fence here. He wasn't sure if he could trust himself to interrogate Volpe without doing some serious damage to him but this was their case and Vecchio seemed to really want it.

"Your involvement in the case was terminated when you signed your arrest report. The latest update to the COPS Procedure Manual details these changes to law."

"Yeah? Well, excuse me if I'm too busy catching the bad guys to read up on the bureaucratic bullshit."

"I'm sorry, sir." The man clasped his hands behind his back, rising on his toes and dropping again. Ray thought he looked like a little kid trying to placate an angry parent. "These are the rules. There can be no exceptions. We will keep you informed as best we can, though anything that may be considered a risk to System Security will, of course, be classified."

"Of course," said Vecchio, getting very quiet. "Of fucking course." He looked towards Ray and his eyes were cold. Frannie's hands tightened on Ray's shoulders.

The man cleared his throat.

"Mr. Kowalski will be required to provide a statement regarding Mr. Zuko's involvement in the death of ELEO Fraser."

"You can talk to him direct, you know. I don't take five percent off the top."

The man flinched a little and turned to Ray.

"You will be-"

"Required yadda yadda, I heard you the first time."

So this was it. The whole closure thing. Felt more like a kick in the head. Or a knife in the gut. Frannie's hands slipped off as Ray stood up.

"Now's good for me." He turned to Vecchio. "You'll be here? Right?"

Vecchio gave a sharp nod which didn't make Ray feel any better. But then, as Ray passed him on his way out Vecchio reached out and momentarily laid a hand on his arm, which did. Ray braced his shoulders.

Time to shine.

The original idea had been to have the boys interrogate Frankie and come up with nothing. I also had planned to have Stella on board. But I felt that would all be too much, especially considering that the story arc was coming to an end and Stella would just be opening a whole 'nother can of worms. The removal of all responsibility for Zuko seemed to me a good way of taking Volpe/Zuko out of the equation so he wasn't this constant reminder of bad things to the Rays as well as helping to set up future arcs. It also gave Vecchio something else to be angry at, to fight against which helped to set him up for his final rant. Removing Stella and the interrogation meant I had to come up with some other solution for getting the news of the new terrorist attacks across. I think the idea of a news report on the Filter worked well. Certainly allowed for effective info-dump. Because that's what news is.

***

Ray breathed out as the door shut behind Kowalski. He stared at it uncomprehendingly for a few seconds before blinking rapidly and shaking his head. His case. It was his case. Presumed treason, his ass. This was the Contingency's way of getting guys like him to do all the hard work and then taking the glory for the result. People like Stella, in their smart suits, waiting up on high with their legs crossed and their experts at the ready while he and Kowalski grubbed in the dirt and the sweat and the blood below. Taking the risks, taking the hits. Bastards.

"Ray?" Frannie's voice was soft behind him.

He turned round slowly, rubbing the back of his neck and caught sight of the Filter screen on the table. He picked up a stilo and clicked the end. The screen flickered into life.

I really like that call-back. Ray mentioned stilo-pushers waaaaaay back and here's a stilo. In use. Very handy things they are. Not quite as useful as a sonic screwdriver, but they are multi-purpose.

"Ray, can I talk to you?"

Ray clicked a couple of times and a flash of colors, bright oranges and yellows filled the screen. What the fuck?

"Not now, Frannie. Look."

Frannie came around the table as Ray adjusted the volume.

"... suffered a devastating blow as a bomb ripped through a large part of the residential quarters of the station. It is believed the terrorists wished to take out the K2 power source but were somehow thwarted in their goal. Current injury counts stand in the hundreds with confirmed fatalities at seventeen and rising. Many more nearly lost their lives as engineers rushed to prevent the space station from hurtling out of orbit and into the Asteroid Belt. A terrorist organization known simply as JIM is claiming responsibility for these killings. They have given no official statement beyond this confirmation."

How long to name the space station? HOW LONG?

Ray stared in horror at the blasted wreck of K2, blackened and twisted girders jutting out at angles that were just plain wrong. Debris floating away into space. Debris that almost certainly included body parts. Frannie clutched his hand and held it tight. He squeezed back

I could not in anyway make that description do justice to what I was seeing in my head. This annoyed me.

The scene changed then to another one of devastation, the pink, swirling sky glimpsed through the black smoke telling Ray that now they were looking at Callisto.

"God," said Frannie. "That's Arcas. Ray, look, that's where Tora's workshop was. Oh god, Ray."

Ray let go of Frannie's hand and circled her waist, pulling her in close to his side. The newscaster was talking again.

"Almost simultaneously another explosion destroyed the port of Arcas on the popular holiday destination World, Callisto. Due to the nature of some of the materials stored on the Arcas site, emergency services have been unable to make headway with rescue and damage limitation efforts due to extreme temperatures and noxious emissions. It is believed the fire will not be under control for another several hours. All areas in the immediate vicinity have been evacuated. The death toll here is expected to rise to the thousands. Again, JIM have claimed responsibility for the explosion.

"The Contingency have urged people across the System to remain calm but to be vigilant at all times. They have neither confirmed nor denied that these are not the first terrorist attacks by JIM. Rumors are circulating that a hospital in Lysander, Oberon, the Central University in Tranquility, Lunar and Contingency office buildings in Acis, Ganymede that have all been destroyed in apparent 'natural incidents' in the last few weeks were also targets of JIM."

The screen flashed quickly between the other explosion sites. Ray's head spun. All this devastation, all this death. Why to Mother would Frankie get himself mixed up in this? It wasn't like him. It wasn't the way he operated. It was out of his league. They should've let Ray get his hands on Zuko. That was how they were going to get to the bottom of this.

"... refute claims that the attacks are aimed at destabilizing the Contingency. Administrator Carl had this to say."

The small, pointy face of one of Ray's least favorite politicians filled the screen. He clicked the stilo and the screen cleared.

"Oh, Ray," said Frannie, leaning her head against his shoulder.

"Yeah, I know. I know."

This was bad. Very bad. Ray wondered if any COPS were on scene yet. Was Welsh going to call them in? Would Kowalski's head be in the game if they were? Would Kowalski even be there? Fuck.

Leeetle bit of fore-shadowing there. Or penumbrating as my mother would say. Why? Because that's the kind of mum she is.

Ray shot out of the office and into the corridor, scanning up and down. A young man in CourtShip uniform was scurrying along, anxiously looking at a Slab in his hand. He had an air of officialdom about him. Ray stepped in front of him, Frannie right behind.

"Ray, can I talk to you?"

"Not now, Frannie."

Hopefully, by now, you are getting as anxious as Frannie about her getting to talk to Ray.

"Hey, you," said Ray and the man stopped in his tracks, looking up at Ray, blinking owlishly behind his glasses.

"Yes, sir?"

"Who's working the case?"

"What case would that be, sir?"

"The Zuko case. Which of your so-called experts is working the Zuko case?"

"I'm afraid I don't know that, sir."

"Then find out. And tell them," Ray ran a hand over his just-present hair. "God, tell them that it's not about ideals. Zuko doesn't have ideals. There's stuff going on here we're not even beginning to understand. They're using kids. Someone is using kids and maybe even, Mother forbid, maybe they're even using Zuko as a fall guy. Just find out. Tell them. No ideals." Ray grabbed the young man's upper arms and shook him lightly to drive home his words.

And that's where I make sure you know that it's not over. Even if the story is coming to a close, it's not over. The terrorists are the Transformers of the System — there's more to them than meets the eye.

The young man looked slightly alarmed but nodded and shot off down the corridor.

"Yeah, you'd better run," muttered Ray wishing that Kowalski was here to back him up.

In fact, wasn't it time that Kowalski got done? What was there to say? I was in a tent. I was busy. Volpe shot my boyfriend and his dog. Easy. Twenty words or less. There was a light touch at his elbow.

Another man was heading towards them now. This one was older, striding with confidence, a smile on his lips.

Thornton Hawkes!

"Ray, I need to talk to you now."

"Frannie, seriously, it has to wait."

"It can't wait, Ray."

The man drew to a halt and held out his hand to Frannie who took it. Ray looked between them and frowned.

"Ah, Ms. Vecchio, have you given some thought to our proposal?"

The guy oozed so much charm that Ray checked the floor, half-expecting to see a trail of slime.

"What proposal?" he asked, immediately taking up a protective position in front of his sister.

Frannie pushed him away. "Exactly how old do you think I am, Raimundo?" she asked. "Ray, this is Thornton Hawkes. Mr. Hawkes, this is my brother-"

"And boss."

"And boss," Frannie rolled her eyes. "Ray Vecchio."

Thornton Hawkes looked at Frannie expectantly. "Well?"

Frannie patted at Ray's arm, playing with his cuff.

"Spit it out, Frannie."

"They want me to ... that is ... I've been offered a job."

"You have a job."

"Yes," said Frannie patiently. "A different job. Here. They want me to come and work here as Assistant Chief Engineer."

"They want you to go be their Assistant Chief Engineer?"

Frannie drew herself up to her full height and blazed. "And what's wrong with them wanting me? I'm a damn good mechanic. I'm the best you'll ever see and you know it."

Here comes the rant. *offers earplugs*

"Yes!" Vecchio yelled back because that was it now. There were final straws and there were final straws and this straw was going to break his back never mind the damned camel's.

"Yes, you are the best mechanic I'll ever know. And the best sister too. But that doesn't matter, oh no. You go off and do your thing, Frannie. You go and be the medium cheese in the big mousetrap, you go and do that. Just head for the CourtShip and don't look back. Don't mind me. I mean, that's where you all go in the end anyway, isn't it? There was Stella. Riviera was never good enough for her. She wanted more than a junk-bucket of a ship and a dead-end job, didn't she? Made that clear enough. First chance she got she jumped a CourtShip and now she's fucking the PrimeLieutenant and no, the irony of the language is not lost on me thank you very much."

Ray was gesticulating wildly and resisting all attempts by Frannie to grab his arms and calm him down. No, this had been a long time coming and he wasn't stopping now.

"Stella's gone and now you're going to go and I know I tease you Frannie but you've got to know how important you are to me. Next thing Ian will be flying this damn thing and if you ever tell him this I will kill you but I'd even miss him and his stupid aliens and of course Kowalski's gonna go too and then I'll be left floating in a tin can while more people come who are just going to leave. What is the point?!"

Oh, Vecchio. I would never leave you. Take me on board your space ship and I promise I'll be there forever. *ahem* Where was I? And now Ray's deepest fears are on view and by equating Kowalski to Frannie and Stella you can see how much he's come to mean to Vecchio, even though he's not going to say it. Everyone gets it anyway. Even Kowalski.

"Hey, hey, hey!" Ray spun around and saw Kowalski stepping out of a room some way up the corridor, looking worn but calm. He started walking towards the little group.

"Vecchio, they can hear you yelling on Deimos, swear to god. Where am I gonna go?"

Kowalski was right up close now and Ray found it hard to breathe. Must have been all that oxygen he'd used up on his last sentence. He shrugged.

"Don't know. But you're gonna leave. You're done. Case closed. Your whole life just opened up in front of you." Ray made a little whooshing gesture with his hand. "Lucky you."

Kowalski stepped even closer and if Ray thought he'd lost it before now he was perilously close to losing it completely.

"Is that why you've been an idiot today? You think I'm gonna leave? Just like that?"

"Ahem."

Ray swivelled his head round. He'd forgotten all about Thornton Hawkes. Talk about making yourself invisible.

Ray thinks of him as Thornton Hawkes too. It's an epidemic.

"Francesca? A decision?"

Frannie looked from Ray to Thornton Hawkes and back again. Ray pulled his lips tight in a little smile. He nodded at her. You do what you gotta do, sister. She mirrored the gesture and turned back to Thornton Hawkes.

"I'm tempted. I mean, the engine room is beautiful. So shiny and new." She turned to Kowalski. "Even the dirt is the clean type." He smiled at her.

Ray held his breath.

Frannie shook her head. "I can't. I'm sorry."

"Oh, thank Mother," said Ray in a rush and grabbed her in a hug.

WOO! I did consider having her say yes. But only for a few seconds. Couldn't let Frannie go. But it doesn't do her brother any harm to see that her abilities are respected elsewhere.

"That is a shame," said Thornton Hawkes. "Don't hesitate to let us know if you reconsider."

As Thornton turned to walk away Frannie said something muffled into Ray's chest that could have been 'I will' or 'I won't''. Ray chose to assume the latter. He hugged her again, looking over the top of her head at Kowalski.

Kowalski smiled, a slow, steady grin that set Ray's heart beating faster. "You don't get rid of me that easy, so just forget about it."

Ray was extremely happy to oblige.

***

The second time the grav field went down Kowalski didn't even blink.

Right from the beginning I wanted to start the last section with an echo of the first. I like that kind of thing. Brings it round full circle. End where you started. Only with less puke and more sex. Still body fluids.

Also, Kowalski off on one whilst stripping? I love that image with my whole heart. And here I hopefully deal with some of the Fraser-angst related stuff that I was worried about earlier.

"This is the thing," he'd said, charging past the door which Ray had deliberately left open, an invitation, not an imposition. "The thing is this. What I think I should be feeling is fucked-up because Volpe was my purpose. Finding him was what kept me getting up in the morning."

He'd shut the door and started undoing his bootlaces. Ray could only sit and watch.

"And we found him. It was easy. I looked and there he was. Okay, he was being someone else but that's not the point. What is the point?"

Kowalski'd finished working on his boots, toeing them off and began to work on his clothes.

"The point is I should feel cheated because now what? I got my justice. It's done. So what's the rest of my life for? Or I should feel vindicated or something. Fraser's spirit is free to go wherever it goes. I can let go. But I don't want to do that. I don't want him gone."

And Kowalski had stood naked and glorious before Ray, erect cock curving proudly towards Kowalski's belly. Ray couldn't help himself.

"Jeez, Kowalski, look at you. You're all skin and boner."

Okay. I admit that before I started writing this fic I said someone should write a fic with that line in it but I didn't write this whole 43000 word story just so I could use it. I promise. But it just fit in so well. How could I not?

"Shut up, Vecchio. I'm not done with the serious."

"I'm listening, I am. But you gotta know that the nakedness is distracting. I'm doing my best here, but you're not helping."

Kowalski looked thoughtful, as if he hadn't considered the effect of his ready-to-play body on Ray's concentration skills. Ray spread his legs, partly to ease the discomfort of his own erection, partly to make Kowalski aware by the bulge in his pants of the extent of his difficulties.

"Okay, I'll be quick. Where was I?" said Kowalski, now seemingly having his own problems with concentration.

"You don't want Fraser gone," said Ray and felt a million tiny pinpricks all over his body.

"No, I don't. Not gone. Not ever gone. But I want ... Look. Volpe was why I got up in the mornings but now I'm getting up in the morning and the afternoon and the evening and the middle of the freaking night," Kowalski grabbed his cock. "See? And it's you. You're the reason for that and you got to tell me that this is okay. That we're buddies, we're partners, we're whatever this is. 'Cos I know Zuko fucked you up for guys and I know Stella fucked you up for fraternization or whatever the hell and that screws me both ways from the middle. And I think I know but you got to tell me and you have to do it now."

So that was really important for me. That it's acknowledged that Fraser will always be important to Ray, that he loved him and makes no apology for that, doesn't want to change it but he's ready for something new. That being in love once does not preclude being in love again (if that's what he is/ is going to be). It's not an either or. It doesn't have to be a choice between them, choosing Vecchio =/= turning his back on what he had with Fraser. And it also sets up the equality of his potential relationship with Vecchio — they're partners, with equal scars.

Ray's heart thundered hard in his chest and his mouth felt dry. All these rules he'd set up, all these ways to make the pain hammered into him like nails more bearable. This man; this beautiful, fucked-up, supernova of a man ripped right through them as if they'd never meant a thing.

And that's where Vecchio gets it.

"Kowalski, if you don't come over here and fraternize with me right now I am not going to be responsible for the consequences."

Kowalski's smile lit the room.

Ah, zero-G sex. I made a promise way back at the beginning that we'd have zero-G sex. And who wouldn't want that? But omg, it's complex. What kind of room do they have to manoeuvre, how bendy can they be, what kind of motion, if there's no weight they can't hold each other down, how does that translate to what they can do to each other? Oh, and can I keep it sexy at the same time? Possibly the most difficult porn I've ever written, certainly from a what goes where and when perspective.

They were making out like teenagers under the covers ("Mmmm, clean sheets") when the grav field went down. With Kowalski's hand loosely playing with Ray's cock he wasn't paying much attention to anything else, except his own hand exploring the fascinating terrain of Kowalski's ass.

The first indication that anything was off-base was the covers sliding off and downwards which was nothing unusual except they were apparently disappearing down the side of the bed that was attached to the wall. The second indication was the gentle bump as they collided with the ceiling.

"Um. We appear to be floating," said Ray, pulling his lips from Kowalski's with some reluctance as they drifted off at an angle and bounced off a wall.

"I thought that was supposed to be after great sex, not during."

Bounce.

"Turns out both. Who knew? Do you think we should stop?" Ray's hand tracked the cleft of Kowalski's ass and Kowalski convulsed a little, twisting his foot as they hit the wall and sending them off at a different angle.

"Stop? No way. Riviera's trying to tell us something."

"Oh well, if you insist."

Ray's mouth covered Kowalski's and they kissed, grappling with each other, tongues licking and sucking, moving in an intricate dance of give and take. The smallest change in balance, in angle of mouth on mouth, mouth on neck, hands stroking and squeezing sent them tumbling lazily round and round. First Ray was on top, then Kowalski, then Ray again, the two men anchoring themselves to each other with arms and lips, hands and thighs.

Ray's mind, Ray's heart floated weightless with his body. He felt completely free and completely bound at the same time. Maybe the ship was trying to tell him something.

You are so in love, Vecchio. Just give it up already.

"Ouch," said Kowalski, as his head bumped into the corner of a shelf. "We're like that game. You know. That old one. Pinball, that's it. We're human pinballs."

"There's a pun there. About pinning balls. I'll think about it later when my hands are less full," Ray replied, giving Kowalski's balls a tug.

Aww, I missed a punning opportunity. Damn.

They kissed again and it was strange, the way the pressure was building from Kowalski's lips, Kowalski's touch but if Ray closed his eyes it was as if no one was there, no weight on him or under him, just sensation. He opened his eyes again. He wanted to know exactly who he was with.

"Did anyone ever tell you you're good with your hands?" Ray tried to buck up as Kowalski stroked his cock but only succeeded in drifting them up to the ceiling again.

"Better with my mouth." Kowalski let go and floated down Ray's body with one, gentle touch.

Ray had only a second to realize that no weight didn't mean no warmth and to miss the sensation of Kowalski's skin on his before Kowalski was grabbing his hips and pressing swollen lips to Ray's cock, sliding them over the head, tongue gently flicking round the rim of his shaft. And god, if Ray hadn't been literally bouncing off walls he'd have metaphorically being doing it now because that felt so good. So incredibly good.

He spread his arms and legs out wide, opening himself up, letting Kowalski do whatever he wanted. He felt Kowalski's knees nudging against his buttocks, almost massaging them as he took Ray's cock deeper, letting go of his hip with one hand to circle around the base of the shaft, twisting and squeezing. Kowalski's expert mouth pressed and released around Ray's cock head as he sucked and licked and Ray let the sensations pour into him, fill him up. He was on a cloud on a warm, sunny day, he was in space with bright stars forming a hammock around him, he was floating in a salt sea, cool and delicious, he was here, now, in this room with this man sent by the god he didn't believe in.

I wrote that and then wanted to go into space. Immediately. Zero-G me up now. With added Kowalski if at all possible.

Kowalski's lips slid off Ray's cock and his tongue licked its way down the shaft and over Ray's balls, pressing deep against the skin just behind them. Kowalski's hands shifted, grasping Ray's thighs from underneath, feet hooked up under Ray's shoulders, cock lightly resting on Ray's back and face buried in the cleft of Ray's ass. He licked. Mother! Ray shook and the movement sent them tipping from side to side. His hand brushed the wall and Ray steadied himself not wanting to miss a thing.

Kowalski pushed Ray's legs further apart and licked again, his tongue running the length of Ray's cleft, pushing in deeper, flicking against the hole. Ray tried hard not to squirm with the strange, highly pleasurable sensation but he couldn't help kicking out with one leg accidentally pushing sideways off the wall and spinning them around, a lopsided eight-limbed cartwheel. Kowalski detached with the sudden change in motion and Ray twisted in the air, grasping a foot and pulling him back on top of Ray with ease.

They ended up with Kowalski's hands back round Ray's thighs but his ass in Ray's face and Ray couldn't resist exploring, stroking down into the cleft with his thumb, biting each perfect cheek. Kowalski's cock rubbed over Ray's chest and Ray groaned as Kowalski bent over further, giving Ray an even better view and taking Ray's cock back in his mouth. Ray groaned again and was thankful that there would be no sore muscles in the morning.

His tongue painted broad brushstrokes along Kowalski's ass and neat little patterns around the pucker of skin. Kowalski wriggled backward, urging him on. Ray reached round to take Kowalski's cock in his hand, something old, something new. He pushed against Kowalski's hole and then he was in there. His tongue was inside Kowalski. He was fucking Kowalski with his tongue and it felt better than he could have possibly imagined. He hummed a laugh and was rewarded with a tightening of lips around his cock, Kowalski redoubling his efforts, pushing Ray's cock head against the roof of his mouth, teasing the slit with his tongue. Mother! Ray couldn't take much more of this.

He sped up, tongue and hand matching stroke for stroke. They spun over and over, hit the walls, ceiling, floor, even managed to make contact with the bed once or twice but Ray didn't care. Every last nerve was focused on these three things, his tongue in Kowalski's ass, hand on Kowalski's cock, cock in Kowalski's mouth. In these three things were past, present and future rolled into one and Ray was going to burst with the knowledge of it.

This is kind of Kowalski as the Holy Trinity. Only he's made of sex, not spirit.

Kowalski's hand squeezed Ray's balls, tight and full and ready and he couldn't wait any more. Couldn't wait. He dragged his mouth away from its new favorite place.

"Don't swallow," he panted. "Don't know where I been."

Kowalski's mouth left Ray's cock and now he knew how abandoned Kowalski must feel. He reapplied himself.

"Got to. Think of the ventilation."

Call-back. In the middle of sex. To puke. I win!

And Ray hummed another laugh and Kowalski was surrounding him, hot and wet and he came so hard he was surprised he didn't shoot across the room with the power of it. It was only sheer force of will that stopped him flaking out right there and then but Kowalski was milking him dry and he owed him if nothing else so he kept pumping and licking and pushing and was rewarded with a wordless grunt as warm threads splattered on his hand and chest.

Ray gave Kowalski's ass a final kiss and let his head drop back. He was about to say something but a familiar voice filled the room.

"Vecchio, drop whatever you're doing, I have a job for you."

\o/ Total James Bond moment (so named by TB when I told him the only place in the fic I could see where the zero-G sex would fit in would be at the end. The slipping off sheets are in homage to him.)

Ray had a moment of panic when he thought Welsh could see his hand wrapped around Kowalski's cock followed by beautiful relief as he remembered his ComCam was busted.

"Sir, yes sir."

It was at that exact moment that the grav field kicked back in and Ray and Kowalski dropped like stones, hitting the edge of the bed and tumbling to the floor.

"Fuck!" exclaimed Kowalski. "That hurt!"

Ray was too busy trying to figure out whose limbs went where to worry much about Kowalski's pain.

"Vecchio?" Welsh's voice was sharp. "Is that Kowalski? You haven't done anything stupid have you?"

Ray grinned, straightening himself up.

"You mean have I harmed Kowalski in any way that might cause him to dissolve our partnership, sir?"

"Yes. It would seem that the two of you have made a highly effective team. I would not want anything to jeopardize that."

"Sir, you were right. Kowalski is an excellent officer. You have my full assurance that I have not yet harmed him or in any way will do that in the future. He's just a little clumsy, is all."

Oooh, get me with the double meanings.

Kowalski punched Ray's arm and pulled a face. Ray punched him back. This was the way it was going to be and Ray was good with that. More than good.

"My doctor will confirm that is wonderful news, Vecchio. I may even throw the little blue pills in the trash. Now, here's what I want you to do ..."

And here we go setting up for the next fic.

The Worlds moved on.

The End. Thanks for watching. I've been your author, catwalksalone and this has been Cosmic!Rays. More will be coming to a journal near you at some point in the future. We're in negotiations with cast at the moment. Expect your regulars plus one or two surprises.


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