by anonymous co


Author's Notes:

Story Notes:


Disclaimer: Aren't mine, don't own 'em, thought they were cute and might like to have some fun. Besides, talk about subtext. This is JiM's fault, and Bone's. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. But..

To JiM who sends me good stories or sends me to find good stories when I need something to read.....


By Anonymous

I'm AWOL, MIA, on the lam, and my skin feels itchy, like there are people after me. Far as I know, though, Canada doesn't have any kind of medical extradition treaty with rehab hospitals, so that's just paranoia kicking in, and when the guy with the bomber jacket comes over to me, I reach down and grab the duffel bag.

"You Ray Kowalski?"

American accent. I'm flying into the Northwest Territories with an American pilot and for some reason that strikes me as funny. Funny peculiar and funny ha-ha, and I drag my right hand out of my pocket and manage a decent handshake. "You Tom Ellery?"

"The same." He takes off the aviator shades. "Owlcreek, huh."

"Yeah. They tell me you're the guy." It's been almost a week since I checked myself out of the hospital-well, since I took off from the hospital, anyway, I didn't exactly follow standard procedure there, and it's taken me this long to figure out how to get to where Fraser is.

His eyes are paler than mine, the color of ice. He gives me a long look, and he reminds me of someone, reminds me of Fraser's buddy Quinn, never mind he's American, has long blonde hair wrapped into a ponytail and more beard stubble than me in a bad week. "Got business there?"

"Got a friend." I want to get moving, get into the plane and off the ground even though flying up to the great White North in a small plane isn't exactly my idea of fun.

He just looks at me. "Friend?"

Okay, fine, I think, and I'm tired and my shoulder hurts and it's freezing here. "Benton Fraser."

Something changes in his eyes. "Ah, got it. Come on, I wanna get out of here before the weather comes in."

I'm game, I'm good, and my hand is shaking enough I stick it back in my pocket.

Once in the plane, I can't help asking, "How is he?"

He's going over the checklist, glances up at me from behind those sunglasses. "Fraser?" Surprised tone. "He's fine." That look lasts another minute. "You don't talk to him?"

"Been a little out of circulation, so I got behind." Keep the voice nice and easy, nice and calm.

He nods, turns back to the checklist, and then, too soon, we're in the air, and my left hand is white knuckled on the armrest.

The first part of the flight's rough, lot of turbulence, lots of bumping around, and I'm glad I didn't have breakfast, too nervous to eat.


In all the movies, when the cop gets shot bad, but survives, you never get to see the whole story. 'Course, in the movies, they can't show that, because it spoils the story, so you don't get to find out all the nitty gritty little details like bleeding out, or physical therapy by Iron Maidens or three months in a hospital bed, some of that in physical rehab.

You don't get to find out that sometimes, if the cop bleeds out enough, it can do major hurt to all kinds of different body parts, and that means sometimes that the cop thinks it might have been better to die.

Only sometimes.

I got a second chance, and I'm taking it, and even if banging around in turbulence is scaring the shit out of me, it was still worth being alive.

The Iron Maiden is going to be pissed, though, and the doc, and right at the moment, I don't give a shit.

I'm too busy trying to remember the Act of Contrition the Sisters taught me in second grade.

When the air smooths out, I drop like a rock, just sink under so fast and so hard it's a wonder Ellery doesn't think I died from terror.

He wakes me up just before we land. "Have a look." Almost friendly.

I have a look. Wild country, but not as wild as what Fraser and me traveled on the quest. "Owlcreek over there?"


I look again. Nice little town, looks like Fraser's cup of tea, I think, and then Ellery starts down and I see the landing field.

All of a sudden, I'm awful glad I remember the Act of Contrition after all, but he sets it down soft and smooth.

Doesn't matter, my stomach still flips and rolls and I'm still glad I haven't eaten anything all day. Nerves. I'm doing what needed to be done a year ago, and I'm done being chickenshit, and even though that's true, I'm still nervous.

I almost kiss the ground when I got out of the plane.

Ellery watches me haul the backpack over my left shoulder and pick up the duffel with my left hand. "Hang on, I'll give ya a ride into town. Gotta unload m'cargo."

I look at him. Then, apologetically, "I, uh, can't help much."

He nods, like it's no biggie. "Figured."

I wish I could see his eyes behind the sunglasses. "How come?"

He pops the hatch, leans in. "VA hospital."

I have to swallow hard at that. Yeah. Viet Nam vet, figures. And he doesn't sound like he feels sorry for me, he just sounds like it's no biggie, but he gets it.

So, I wait, and we're pretty far north, it's dark by the time he gives me a ride into town, which is bigger than I figured, but still small enough to make Fraser happy, drops me at the bottom of a hill. I can see the cabin at the top.

He points. "Fraser's place."

My hands are shaking again. "Think he's home?"

"Light's on."

I like this guy, I can't help it. Polite enough, yeah, he's been up here, but he still talks American. I wonder what he'd think if he knew just why the fuck I went AWOL and flew up to the end of the world to find Fraser.

No sense worrying about it, I pop the door open and get out, dragging the duffel and backpack with me. Backpack's got music and boombox, duffel has clothes, and it's all I need. Left a note for my folks, who were looking after the apartment and my turtle, didn't even tell 'em I was taking off, and here I am. "Thanks."

"See ya around," Ellery tells me, and I slam the truck door and start up the path that leads uphill.

See, this is the deal. We went on a quest, me and Fraser, and even if we didn't find the Hand, we had an adventure. By the time we were done, I knew I was in some deep shit. Or thought I was. Which was the problem, the way I see it now, I only thought I was, and that was D-U-M dumb. Well, okay, maybe I am, but not the same way I thought back then.

I dare anybody, anybody, to try sleeping in a double sleeping bag with the Mountie and not react.

I reacted. Hell, I already loved the guy, only I'd been thinking it was like a brother, which is funny because I never was that close to mine. So when I started realizing that he turned me on, and I started waking up with a stiffie, it weirded me out completely, it turned my head inside out.

I rabbited. I went back to Chicago like I had something to go back to. Fraser got a promotion and stayed in Canada, and that was that.

Only, you know, sometimes you realize things even if it takes dying to do it. Lying in that hospital bed, I realized that Fraser wouldn't freak out. He might feel bad, not feeling the same way, but he wouldn't freak out. He'd tell me some Inuit story or something, and that would be it.That will be it.

Sometimes it takes dying to figure it out, like I said, and hey, I might be breathing and walking around, but I fucking died. Three times. At least that's what they tell me.

Halfway up the hill, I have to stop to get my breath and calm down. Fraser's not gonna to hate me, I tell myself, like a prayer. He's not gonna hate me, no matter what else he thinks. Maybe I'm wrong to tell him, maybe I'm wrong to lay it on him like this, I hope not.

The door opens as I get to the crest, and a blur of white shoots out and I plant my feet to keep Dief from knocking me over, which doesn't work, and I'm flat on my back, pain shooting down between my shoulder blades and I don't much care, cuz the damn wolf is getting plenty intimate with me like he really missed me.

Pain or not, I'm laughing, pushing my fingers into white fur, and I can't tell if I'm trying to push him off or hug him. I'm trying to hug a damn wolf, that's where I am now, and still laughing like a loon. "Dammit, Dief, no licking! It's cold out here!"

"Ray?" Disbelieving tone, and then, "Dief, down!"

Dief ignores this, or maybe he just didn't see it,

Pushing myself back up, I grin up at Fraser, a lot cockier than I feel. "Hiya, Fraser."

He just stands there. Mouth open. Dief takes his tongue out of my ear and starts dancing around the two of us and Fraser says, finally, "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray--Ray, how did you get here?"

"Dog sled," I tell him, smart-ass to the core. "Surprised to see me?"

He keeps staring at me. I can't tell what he's thinking, or if this is a bad time, or if I should haul my ass right back down the hill and find someplace to sleep. I'm bone deep tired, and now I can feel my bad shoulder and arm again, and he says, "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray-" again, which doesn't help a lot.

"Uh, I guess it's not a good surprise."

His expression changes pretty fast then, he shakes his head. "No, no, indeed, it's a very good surprise." He smiles finally, a real smile, and I feel better. He sticks out a hand, and I take it, using it to balance as I get up.

We stare at each other for a minute, only he's still smiling, so my stomach settles down again. "Don't tell me, Fraser, I finally left ya speechless."

He shakes his head. "It does appear so. But I must point out--"

"Don't ruin it, Fraser." Gleam in those eyes, and then it's really okay, I think, we're both laughing, and he's still clasping my hand, puts his other hand over it, still laughing.

Dief, still dancing around us, barks happily. At least I think it's happy, if the amount of wolf spit in my ear means anything.

Fraser lets go of my hand, and bends over to grab my bags. I grab the duffel before he can get it. I might be damaged and proud, but I'm not stupid. CDs and a boombox weigh more than my skivvies and jeans. "How did you get here?" he demands, "How long are you staying?"

I feel a whole lot better, and maybe just a little dizzy. "I got here the normal way, instead of falling out of a plane-well, if you call flying up in a bush plane normal, I'm telling you, Frase, that guy Tom Ellery has a death wish, I even remembered how to say the Act of Contrition on the way up here. And I'm here until you decide to throw me out."

He stops in the doorway, looks at me, his face completely blank. "What?"

Okay, it's official, Doc Heatherton is right, I'm still emotionally unstable. My smile fades away fast, and my throat gets tight. "Um. Yeah, I sorta quit, Frase. I'll tell ya about it, but not now, okay? I don't feel like talking about it right now. And I was kidding about waiting until you throw me out. You know, maybe a couple of days, weeks, whatever's good for you."

He frowns and gives me that laser look like he's taking in all the details. "Ray, are you all right?"

"I'm good." I shrugged, made myself smile. "Unless ya plan on making me sleep out here in the yard."

Mountie look. "Don't be ridiculous, Ray, the temperature drops considerably at night, and while winter may not officially begin until-"

I'm freezing, but happy again. Yup, Heatherton is right, there's a hole in my bag of marbles, but it's okay, this is Fraser. "Fraser, I'm cold, here, think we can talk about seasonal variations some other time?"

He blinks, smiles again and nudges me past him, Dief shoots past both of us, and it's warm and bright in the cabin.

There's a whistling sound, Fraser's teakettle, I'm sure, and he closes the door, puts my backpack on the floor and goes off to take care of it. "Would you like some tea? I don't have coffee, but we can obtain some from the general store tomorrow. I was just heating up some stew for dinner, have you eaten? I can make some biscuits, if you like, or there's bread, that's simpler--" Fraser is practically babbling, for a Mountie. Or at least for this Mountie.

Weird. But it makes me feel better, like maybe it is a good surprise after all. "Tea? Sure, but not that bark stuff you like, Frase."

"Earl Grey or Darjeeling." He's got his back to me, opening a cupboard. "Grey, I think, you liked that on our, ah, quest."

I drop the duffel, and lean against the wall, a little shaky from being tired, give the place a once over. "Nice place, Frase. You got indoor plumbing yet?"

He turns around, smiles, and points. "That door there, Ray."

"No shit." I'm impressed. "We must be getting' old, Fraser, if you've got a flush toilet."

"I suppose it's true that neither of us are young, precisely, but I would not call 39 or 40 old, Ray."

God, I missed that 'mind your manners, Ray' tone. I stare at him, just watching him move from the cupboard to the stove. He's got the brown uniform on, practically casual for the Mountie, and the sleeves of his shirt are rolled up.

"We sure ain't kids," I mutter and push off the wall. "I gotta test your facilities, Fraser, be right back."

The bathroom's pretty modern for Fraser, which means it's like my grandmother's, clawfooted tub and all, old time shower head, one of those curtains that goes around the tub. But, the toilet flushes, which is good, way good, I'm way better, but I'm not so good that I feel up to going out in the freezing dark to take a piss at one in the morning.

I look at myself in the mirror and see what Fraser must see, a skinny guy who looks like he's been beaten to shit. Dark circles under my eyes, and my hair is every which way instead of standing up like it should, and even I can see the shirt I'm wearing is too big. Hey, radical diet, golden bullet, and what the hell, I look like more of a loser than usual, but I'm here. I'm here, and that means I'm not a loser, I had the balls to face up to me and come up here.

Amazing what death does to a guy.

I come out and he's standing near the stove, his back to me, doing something to the mugs, flicks me a quick smile when he hears me.

"And a shower, too," I say, picking up where I left off. "God love ya, Frase, I figured I'd have to do that snow bath thing again."

I unzipped the parka in the bathroom, and now I'm trying to shrug it off without waking up the hurt again, and when I look up, I see Fraser watching me.

I pretend I don't. I'm not ready to talk about anything yet, too tired and now I think about it, too hollow. Nothing to eat since last night, no wonder I'm dizzy, and Fraser points at the kitchen table, sets the mugs down.

I hang the parka up on one of the coathooks near the door and sink in to the chair, glad to be off my feet. Great, something hot, gets cold early up here, I forgot. Cold and dark."

"Ah, but at this latitude, our summer days are long." He slides the mug over to me. "The stew should be ready in just a moment."

The mug is hot, feels good on my hands. Cold makes the right one stiffen up more, and the heat feels better than good to my fingers. I wrap my hands around it tight. "Smells good."

He's standing there, looking at me with that worried look again, rubs his eyebrow. "Ray, how did you get hurt?"

Might have known. Mountie doesn't miss a trick, never has. I look into the cup, take a sip. Hot and sweet, and I have to blink hard, he remembered my sweet tooth. "I told you, Fraser, I'll tell ya about it, just not this minute." I have to clear my throat, tip him a grin that only covers my mouth, doesn't go anywhere else. "So, tell me about the quiet life up here."

He frowns at me, but finally nods and starts into a story about a wild Saturday night in Owlcreek, pipeline roustabouts and drunk fishermen and hunters. I'm so tired, about half the details make it through to my brain, but I can't stop watching him as he moves around the small kitchen. He gets plates and silverware and a loaf of bread, and then fills my plate with something that makes my mouth water and is a lot more than I can eat.

Even Dief gets a little, which is cool, but Dief would rather keep checking me out, and I'm feeling so damn soft about that, I don't have the heart to push him down when Fraser tells him to get down.

Like always, Dief ignores Fraser, and I think maybe I'm not the only one feeling soft on Dief.

Fraser sits down, and keeps talking, telling the story, and I manage to eat something, but it's all catching up and I'm so fucking tired that I'm starting to zone out and I can't finish, even though it's better than a lot of Fraser's trail cooking.

Finally have to push the plate away and give him an apologetic look. "Sorry, Fraser, that's about all I can manage. My, uh, appetite hasn't been all that hot lately."

He looks at the plate and then at me, but I can tell he's decided not to get pushy. "Not to worry, Dief will enjoy it."

Dief puts one paw on my thigh and whines. "You got it, Dief," I agree, "As long as you don't lick me again, deal?" Another whine and I put the plate down, moving slow and careful.

Fraser's expression goes weird on me. I'm not sure what to think, what to say, and I cough, clear my throat again. "Look, Fraser, I know I kinda dropped in on you, no warning, I don't have to stay here, it's not like-"

He did one of those hand things he usually does with Dief. "Stop it, Ray, you are always welcome here." Kind of sharp, but it's okay, at least he's not being polite. "Always." He says again, a lot more like Fraser, lot more polite.

I feel relief. "Thanks, Fraser. I mean, I can pull my weight, buy the groceries-hell, if I want any beer, I know I have to buy that." I manage to grin, the groceries part is all right, I've got months of back pay sitting in a bank account in Chicago, and Fraser will know how I can get to it from here. "And if I get to be a pain in the ass, just tell me to hit the road."

"That won't happen. More tea, Ray?" Starts out sharp, with a little frown, but then eases back to polite again. "Or perhaps something sweet?"

Fraser has something sweet? I blink, but I'm so tired my stomach feels iffy. "Tea would be great, but I can't eat another bite." I notice some envelopes on the table, over by Fraser's plate, and I can see the handwriting from here, even if I can't make it out. "You got a letter from Frannie?"

He's at the stove again, fiddling with the kettle. "Yes, Francesca writes to me regularly."

No, I think, she didn't tell him, he wouldn't keep looking at me like that, wouldn't have asked me, would he? "Ah. She, ah, have anything to say about me?"

He's frowning at me again. "Ray, you know I can't discuss the content of Francesca's letters." My heart thumps hard. "That would be rude of me. She usually keeps me abreast of the news, but lately she's been remarkably unforthcoming."

Asshole, I tell myself, Frannie wouldn't break a promise, she's too good a Catholic. "Oh. Well, you know Frannie, Fraser. She's a little single focused, and she's been focused lately on her mystery guy. They must be speaking the language of love, because this guy doesn't speak much English."

He chuckles. "I suppose that the unspoken language of lovers must suffice."

I look at the couch in the next room, thinking how good it would feel to stretch out. "Yeah, suffice. God, Fraser, you even have furniture."

He chuckles again. "The house came furnished when I bought it. And the couch folds out to a bed, Maggie was thrilled, she said she slept on the floor enough in the line of duty, she was going to be comfortable if she was visiting family."

I grin at that, just because I like Maggie. A lot. "Go, Maggie."

"Maggie is a strong minded individual," he tells me, as if that makes sense.

"Like her brother," I agree, and rub my chin. That couch is calling my name, no doubt about it, and I finally give up. "Fraser, if you don't mind, I'm gonna stretch out on your couch."

That gets me another funny look. "I don't mind at all. I'm sure I don't have your musical collection, but I do own a CD player these days, if you'd like to put on some music."

Wow, that rocked me. Fraser, with a luxury. "A CD player?" I shake my head, amazed. "You, Benton Fraser, have a CD player. I'm gonna look for the Four Horses next."

He gives me that Mountie look again. "The Four Horses?"

"Of the whatyacallit." I get up, try to roll my shoulders. "You know, the end of the World."

"Ah. Apocalypse. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse."

"Yeah. Whatever." I look down to see my plate clean as a whistle, didn't take Dief long to clean it. I start to lean over to get it, but Fraser's hand comes out and stops me.

"Ray. Go lie down. You look exhausted."

I know I look exhausted, I feel exhausted, and I get the plate anyway, hand it to him, stubborn Polish bastard. "I can pull my weight, Fraser."

Stern look. I remember that look from the quest when he thought I was trying too hard and risking shit. "Go."

Sometimes that look and that voice makes me mad, and sometimes it cracks me up, but when he's right, he's right. "Yes, Constable." My dad didn't raise any dummies, that couch has my name on it.

"Corporal," he corrects me.

I grin, like I haven't forgotten that he got promoted again. Memory's like one of those baskets with all the holes these days, I can't even play chess.

Music first, I dig in my backpack, find Fraser doesn't just have a CD player, he's got a stereo. Not a great stereo, I'd totally freak if I came up to find Fraser into tweeters and woofers, but a nice mini stereo. And tunes, Fraser has tunes, which is almost as boggling as the stereo, and it's got better sound than my boombox, I find out when I turn it on. So, hey, maybe we rubbed off on each other in Chicago, or on the quest, or something.

Music, and the couch is comfortable underneath me, and I'm totally out of it, totally zoned, practically asleep.

And my goddamned shoulder hurts again. There's pills in the duffel, not many and they're old, left over from the first time I got shot, but I'm damned if I'm taking them in front of Fraser. He's already doing that worried partner thing, and I'm mostly okay, it's just getting banged around in the seat on the way up. I'll be good to go in a while, a little rest, something hot inside me, and I'll be good to go.

Hell, I'm good already; imagine Fraser having decent furniture, and God, it's a relief to let some of my guard down, let myself just plain feel tired without anybody nagging at me, let myself finally relax, let my eyes half close while Fraser washes up.

Click of claws on wood and Dief puts a paw on the couch, leans up to check on me. No licking this time, he remembers the deal. "Hey, Dief," I say lazily, "I'm good, how 'bout you?"

A sort of whuffle and Dief settles beside me on the floor. I think about shifting to scratch Dief's ears, but that means lying on my right shoulder and that is no way a good idea. Maybe later. Santana on Fraser's stereo, and the only complaint I have is that I'm a little chilly and wish I had my parka. But the rest of me feels too damned good to go through the agony of getting up again to get it.

Fraser, imagine that, is humming to the music. To Santana. I let my eyelids slide all the way shut and grin at the darkness behind my eyelids. Fraser's just full of surprises today. Tonight.


I feel like I'm home, finally, after years and years of being trapped with Iron Maidens and pain and doctors.

So I sort of drift, listening to Fraser's hum, to his low voice talking to Dief and it's good, it's better than good, it's greatness, and then something warm settles over me, Fraser looking after me.

It doesn't make me mad, this is buddies, just Fraser, not someone fussing over an invalid, and there's a light touch on my hair, light as the brush of a butterfly's wing. Too far under to open my eyes, I sigh at that, more comfortable than I've been in what seems just about forever, and the blanket settles more snugly around me.

"Rest, Ray." A whisper, like a secret, and another touch and God, it's good to be here, I've missed him so fucking much.

He's missed me, too, seems like. Doesn't mind I dropped myself on him like a bad penny or something. No more hospital, no more worries. I'm free, just like I promised myself, and Fraser's here to watch my back. To let me just be.

That's more than enough to let me slide under and sleep.

"Ray." Soft voice and a hand on my face wakes me up, and it takes me a minute to figure out where I am. Only a minute. Iron Maidens never wake you up that nice. "You need to wake up a little so I can make up the bed for you."

Oh, yeah, I'm home. Now, how do I tell Fraser that? And if I do, does he let me stay? I shift, grumble, but not for real, manage to move the wrong way and ouch. "Oops, not a good idea."

"Would you like a hand?"

Short bark of a laugh, for some reason that strikes me as funny. Yeah, throw in a new shoulder, too, and while you're at it Fraser, my right leg's a little iffy when I get tired. "One that works? Sure thing, Fraser." I wriggle around, push myself up with the good arm. "Nah, I'm good, just takes me a little more time than usual these days. Man, I slept hard. What time is it?"

He smiles, glances at the clock, which tells me it's eleven. "Time for bed."

Shit, I slept for like four hours. But if he doesn't mind, I don't, and I grin. "Oh, good, I woke up just in time."

One corner of his mouth does this quirky thing, and then he laughs. You don't get to see Fraser laugh too often, but I figured out how to do it on the quest. I'm addicted. He offers me a hand, and it was worth taking the help to touch him again. Fraser isn't a touchy feely guy, he was raised different, but he lets me get away with it a lot, don't know why. "Hey, Dief, you can sleep with me if ya want." When I really want to suggest double sleeping bag to Dief's boss.

Fraser gives Dief one of those long looks. "Don't encourage him." He does this shooing thing with his hands to get me out of the way.

Makes me mad for a second. "Hey, I can help."

"All right." He pulls the cushions off the couch and hands them to me, stacks 'em in my arms, daring me to complain about that. "Stack these over next to the closet door."

It's hard to tell some days whether he's more stubborn than me, or I'm more stubborn than him, but I give way, like I do a lot. Damn Boy Scout.

When I turn around again, he's got the bed pulled out and is straightening the supports, gives me an innocent Mountie look and points to a stack of bedding by the fire. "Sheets."

Hospital corners, too, I bet, and I'm right, but that makes me grin a little. I'm moving a little stiff, but mostly, I feel better than I have in a long time, maybe just being here, maybe from the nap and the stew, and I look up to find him watching me again, little line between his eyebrows like he's worrying again.

Gotta give him credit. In the old days, he probably would have just driven me batshit until I told him everything, but maybe he knows me enough to know I will, I just hate talking about it.

We get the sheets on, and he does this snap thing with the blankets that I couldn't do in a million years, and they settle right into place. "You'll doubtless want something warm to sleep in. Do you have anything?"

I grin. "Brought my thermals, Fraser buddy."

For some reason, that pleases him. "Excellent. The silk and wool?"

"Yup, from last time." Maybe he didn't think I'd keep 'em, plan on using 'em again. Whatever it is, I can tell he's happy about that.

Being Fraser, he doesn't say it. "Then I'd suggest putting them on."

I laugh again. "I'm wearing 'em, Fraser. Been wearing 'em practically since I crossed the border."

Something flickers behind those laser eyes. "I'm going to get an extra quilt for you just in case."

I wonder if he's thinking about how hard a time I had with the cold first time I was up here. "Thanks, Mom." Roll my eyes. "I'll be fine."

Proper Mountie expression. "I'm sure you will, but the weather forecast includes a drop in temperatures tonight and I haven't yet relit the furnace for winter."

I wince, think about that. "No furnace, huh. Okay, okay." Sit down on the edge of the bed and start with the laces on my hiking boots. "So what do ya do for fun up here, Fraser? Besides talk to moose?"

He heads over to the closet. "It's very difficult to hold a satisfactory conversation with a moose, Ray."

Dief is lying on the floor by the fire, nose on his paws, watching me. I grin. "Harder than having a conversation with a lip reading wolf?" Crooked grin.

He comes back with something that looks more like a high dollar down comforter and spreads it over the bed. "Much."

I almost ask him to marry me. But I'm having trouble with my right boot, hand isn't cooperating much and I finally give up and use my other foot to push it off.

"Ray." Careful voice and I turn my head to look at him. "I don't think it will cause irreparable damage to your reputation if I give you a hand. Only you and I will know, and I think you know you can trust me with confidences."

Ouch. I try not to think how hard it's been for him to keep his mouth shut all night if he's that worried. "Oh, hell. I'm not even kidding myself, Fraser. Sure, give me a hand, what the hell."

He comes around and kneels at my feet, and believe me, my wildest dreams having the Mountie kneel at my feet did not include playing nursemaid. But he gets the other boot off hip hop, and doesn't make a big deal about it. "Ray, will you tell me what happened?"

Fuck. Well, I knew it was coming. "Yeah, you deserve to know. Especially since I just dumped myself on you." I sigh. "I got shot. I was working a con artist, pretty low level, he was taking some of the old folks on the south side, and that's all I was doing was checking around his favorite spots, asking some questions. I asked the wrong person a question, jumpy kid, lookout for a drug deal going down in the back of the bar, I guess. I...I got hit pretty bad. Got out of the hospital and came up here, figured maybe I could take you up on that invite."

He goes white. I mean, you could take it as flattery, but I hate making him look that bad. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"

Hard question. "I dunno at first. And when I-well, when I could talk to anybody, I asked 'em not to. Hell, nothing you could do, and I know you, you'da gone all the way to Chicago, screwing your own life up again just when you got it where you wanted it." Sounded lame, even to me, with those eyes on me, so I try again. "I made 'em swear to me, anyone who came to the hospital-I made 'em swear they wouldn't tell you. I didn't want you to know until I could tell you myself."

He doesn't like it. Stands up fast. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray." Like he's mad, too mad to even say what he's thinking. Stares at me for a minute, mouth working like he's trying to find words anyway. Then, "That's not buddies, Ray."

Oh, shit. Solid punch right to the gut. "Jesus, Fraser." I can't see for a minute, rub my face with both hands. Never thought he'd take it that way.

He sits down beside me, and I feel his fingers touch my arm, just getting my attention. "It's not important now, Ray, you're here, you've told me." Sounds like he's trying to convince himself. "I'm sorry, I have no right to be angry, it was your best judgement at the time."

Hurts, hurts, hurts, worse than anything. "Anyway, I got chewed up pretty bad. Fucked up the nerves and muscles, they had to do some fancy work, I guess, to put the everything back together."

He looks like he feels a little sick. "Ah."

Wish I could translate that. "Yeah." I try not to look at him. "So, I get a choice, I guess, retirement on disability or some kinda promotion up to a full time desk job. I'm a cop, Fraser, not a goddamn paper pusher."

He clears his throat, rubs his eyebrow. "Ray, I don't know what the doctors have said, but nerves can and do heal, it just takes time."

For just a minute, I feel like laughing. If he'd seen me....well. "Yeah. Maybe they will. But I can't do pie in the sky, Fraser, I got to decide what to do with the rest of my life."

He nods, serious face, puts his hand out again, and his fingers circle my right wrist. I stare at those fingers, they're warm and damn, Fraser's touching me without any reason, that kills me, and I have to blink real hard for a minute until I can look at him again. "I'm glad you came here, then, to think about it. I meant what I said, Ray, you are always welcome here. You always have been and always will be."

Oh, boy, that almost sets off the waterworks. I swallow hard. "I guess I kinda let you down, not letting anyone tell you."

His fingers tighten a little. "No. It was selfish of me, that's all. I would have wanted to be there, you're right." He manages a little smile. "Entirely selfish, you see."

Damn him, he can make me feel better when I should be trying to make him feel better. "Yeah?"

"Absolutely." I half expect him to say 'Mountie's honor' he looks so solemn. "I'll have to trust that Francesca stood proxy for me."

I think about that, figure I can get away with changing the subject a little. Ham it up, Kowalski, and I let myself fall back on the bed. "I thought she was gonna drive me out of my mind."

He laughs a little. "Fussing?"

"Fussing, coddling, you name it." I fold my hands on my belly. "When you're lying there with tubes and drains and needles in practically every goddamn orifice, there's not a helluva lot you can do to stop her, either."

He says, in this little dry voice. "I'm amazed you survived."

"Me, too." I push myself up again, grin. "Almost as bad as getting' shot, you ask me."

"I don't doubt it for a moment." He gets up off the bed. "Into bed with you, you look tired."

"You noticed." Drily. "Sorry, I'm still getting my legs under me. Um, Fraser, I need to tell you something in case somebody does call ya. I sorta checked myself out of the hospital without telling anybody."

He stares at me for a minute. "Ah."

Damn, I wish I knew what that meant. "Um, Doc Heatherton is probably going to be really pissed, but I left a note for my folks. Doesn't mean Heatherton won't be on the warpath." I can't make out what he's thinking, he's got that blank expression again. "I'm good, Fraser. I mean, Jesus, I can stand up and walk around by myself, I may be hurting a little, but I'm not a cripple any more, I can manage."

"I can see that." Looking at me.

My face goes hot, and I swallow hard. Fraser, old buddy, don't turn me in, okay? Don't..don't take Heatherton's side, please. "Well, except for my boots, maybe."

He shakes his head suddenly. "You're tired, that's all, and pain becomes more acute when the body's energy level is down."

I'm that close to crying like a kid, wave a hand at him. "Okay, okay, I'm being a jerk. I'm just so damn glad to be out of that hospital, no more casts, no more drains, no more needles-it just takes some getting used to, not being one hundred percent."

He nods, touches my shoulder again, real light. More Fraser touches tonight than I expected, not that I'm complaining. But I have to be tough on myself not to read stuff into those. "Time," he says, "You just need time, Ray, my friend, and you'll have that here, my word on it." Long look, long, long look, and I have to look away, shit scared that my feelings are showing.

He pats my shoulder again. "It's late, we both need to get some sleep. Ray..." I look up again. "I'm glad you came."

Oh, boy. I blink hard again. "Thanks, Fraser." And the words just don't seem to mean what I'm trying to say, but he seems to get it.

"No, Ray." Another Fraser smile, the kind that makes my knees wobble when I'm standing up. "Thank you, thank you very kindly."

He's thanking me? I make myself laugh a little. "Night, Fraser."

"Good night, Ray."

I figure it's going to take me a while to get to sleep, but once I'm in bed, I'm warm and the firelight is flickering and Dief jumps up on the bed and lies down next to me. "No licking," I tell him, and then I'm sleepy again, my hand's in his fur, and I'm good, I'm better'n good, I'm great and that's the last thought I have before I go under again.

//....the kid isn't more than eighteen, and there's a few other kids hanging around near the door of the bar, which I don't like. Working with Fraser too long, I'd let it pass before, but now...

Just a few questions, I tell the kid, and the kid steps back, into the doorway, looking a little panicked, yells something through the door...

I grab hold of his arm, look, Ace, I just wanna know about this guy, flashing the mug shot under the kids nose, and he jerks free, rabbits, all in a coupla seconds, and then all hell breaks loose, gunfire all around, and for a split second I freeze, trying to decide whether to stick and pray for backup or run like hell.

Something punches me hard in the shoulder and chest, knocks me right off my pins, and I'm cold, numb, except for this hot-freezing spot where I got punched, and that spot spreads down and out and that's all I can feel, I can't get my breath, and God, God, God, it hurts like nothing I ever felt, not even when I got hit in the warehouse getting that kid out.

So don't breathe, might not be a good idea, close your eyes, Kowalski, close 'em and try not to breathe, just let it go, let it go...

Bright light, too bright, hurts my eyes, and that's saying something, cuz there's nothing but pain, big pain, fucking huge pain and there's people around shouting stuff I can't understand, and I'm shit scared, can't keep focused, can't breathe...

"This guy's not going to make it," somebody says, real close to me, and I can hear somebody cryin', a woman cryin', and I can't make out what she's sayin'.

"His chances aren't good," somebody else says, "Come on, move it, move it, we gotta get him stable."

They're talking about me, I realize, and shit, shit, shit, a fuck up all my life, and I let Fraser leave without trying to stop him, without ever telling him how I felt about him, without ever letting him know that he was the most important person in my fucking wasted life, and now I'm dying.

He's gonna blame himself, too, that's what really sucks, he's going to blame himself for going back where he belonged, and that's worse than the pain that's eating me up, and I have to tell somebody, but all the faces over me look strange, I don't know any of 'em, and then that pain is so fucking huge that I can't hold on any more and wham, I'm gone...//

"Gah!" I sit up, shaking and sweating, something cold and wet sweeping over my ear and cheek.

Diefenbaker, naturally, and he's standing over me, head tilted like he's asking me if I'm all right. "Jeeeeesus, Dief, don't do that." Hoarsely.

Dief whines anxiously and lies down again, head on paws and not real happy. I put shaky hands over my face, wipe it off, trying to stop shivering, but I hate that fucking dream, I can't tell if it's what happened or just a damn dream, but I hate it either way.

Last thing I want to do is remember dying, and I can't fucking erase it from my brain. My thermals are soaked with sweat, and when I get a whiff of myself, I stink. "I hope Fraser is asleep," I tell Dief, and shake my head. Definitely from working too long with Fraser, I'm talking to a deaf wolf.

I swing my legs over the side of the bed, feel the cold of the floor right through my socks and shiver again. Fraser wasn't kidding, even though the fire isn't dead, it's cold in here. Takes me a minute to get my spare thermals and clean underwear, and I head for the bathroom.

Dief jumps off the bed and follows me, but I stop him at the door. "I draw the line here, Dief."

He doesn't like that, but he lets me shut the door without complaining at me. The furnace might not be working yet, but Jesus, there's nothing wrong with the water heater, imagine Fraser having a hot water heater. I thank God, just in case He exists, for letting Fraser get soft enough to have hot water, because the spray feels great.

Lather and rinse, lather and rinse, lather and rinse, and I still can't get clean of the damn dream, and looking down at myself sure as hell doesn't help, I look like a damn Frankenstein monster. Bullets and drains and tubes to deal with all the shit that went wrong with me when my heart shut down, I guess, so it ain't pretty. The dream doesn't help, the scars give me the creeps. Like X marks the spot, here's where I got killed, or maybe here, or maybe here, and maybe I'm not really alive and this is all some kind of weird life after death and that's why Fraser is so damn glad to see me.

Freaky thinking, and maybe it's just the ache in my arm and shoulder that brought the dream on, that happens sometimes, and even though I don't like taking pain pills, maybe it's time for one. Hell, I don't even know if they'll work, they're two years older than God. Couldn't very well ask Heatherton or the Iron Maidens for a prescription, though, so what the hell.

Once last rinse, for me and the soap, and then water off, I shake my head like Dief coming out of the lake, open the shower curtain and the bathroom door opens all of a sudden, scares the shit out of me, and I almost fall on my ass. "Shit!" A little high pitched since my balls just jumped up into my body. "Shit, Fraser, don't do that, you nearly gave me a heart attack!" I'm not kidding, my heart's doing ninety to nothing, and I put out a hand against the wall to keep my balance.

He gives me one of those Repentant Mountie looks. "I'm sorry, Ray, I heard the shower and remembered I hadn't shown you where the towels were." He holds the bath towels out.

My pump's banging against my palm. "Jesus." Shaking a little, and then I see Fraser's eyes, see him looking at the scars, looking at me, and being naked in front of him is weird enough, having him see the scars makes my knees wobble. I grab a towel from the stack he's holding and bury my head in it, rubbing hard. "'S not as bad as it looks."

"I very much doubt that, Ray." Steady voice, but he doesn't keep at it, he puts the towels on the back of the john. "I'm sorry I startled you, Ray."

I put the towel around my waist, trying to get the courage to look him in the eye. "No problem." I sound cold, almost pissy, and I hate that sound in my voice, he's Fraser, my buddy, my partner, not some stranger. Finally get my eyes up to meet his, but he's already turning around, and he looks like I never want him to look, he looks like the half-assed reasons I didn't let anybody call him when I was finally together enough to think they might've.

Knowing the Mountie, he's probably doing that guilt thing, but he's on his way out again, closes the door behind him, and I feel like shit, snapping at him when all I really want is to climb into a Fraser hug, not that Fraser hugs, exactly.

I'm the hugger, not him. Always have been, just the way we were raised, I guess.

I'm shaking again, I skin back into clean thermals in seconds flat, get the door open and I'm out before he shuts himself back in his room. "Fraser, I didn't mean to bark at ya." Christ, even my voice is shaking.

Fraser turns to look at me. Looks at me for a long time, not saying anything, and like most times, I'm not sure what he's thinking, and my knees go wobbly again. But Fraser, being Fraser and full of surprises tonight, comes over to me, and boy, I get that hug I've been wanting, I get hugged hard and tight. I want to hold on like for a year or two, and I want to ask him, 'Who are you, and what did you do with Fraser', and I don't do either, but I do hug him back hard, taking advantage while I can.

"''M good, Fraser," I mutter, feeling like a jerk.

He draws back a little, eyes me. Uses my words again, like he can't find his own. "Are we good, Ray?" Real quiet.

I have to blink real hard. "We're good." Hoarsely. "Hey, if you can put up with me being a jerk, we're better than good." Trying to make a joke of it.

Fraser smiles again, but it's kind of sad. "I think I might well be a jerk if someone startled me out of several years of my life." He lets go of me and pats my good shoulder. "I'm going back to bed, try and get some sleep."

"Tell Dief to keep his nose off my face." Dief, still lying on the bed, growls at me.

Fraser lifts one eyebrow at me. "I told you not to encourage him, he'll be insufferable."

I move back toward the bed, laugh a little. "Nah, he can wake me up from that kind of dream any day." I look back again in time to catch that expression on his face again, mad and sad and like it hurt. I wish biting my tongue would help take the words back, I don't like that expression on his face.

But all he says is, "May the rest of your dreams tonight be more pleasant." And then he's back in his room, but the door isn't closed this time.

I get shaky at that and get back into bed, bumping up against Dief, who whines at me. "I'm good, Dief."

Dief eyes me like Fraser did, then closes his eyes.

That hug did more than any damn pain pills could do, I yank the blankets up again, turn out the light and my eyes close the minute my head hits the pillow.

Best of all, no more dreams, at least not that kind.

Next time I wake up, it's getting light, not quite full daylight. Dief isn't there any more, and lying snug under that comforter, I hear small sounds coming from the kitchen, poke my head out to see Fraser standing at the stove, neat and clean and looking like he just stepped out of some Mountie Recruiting poster.

I think he's talking to Dief or maybe himself. Even Fraser isn't freaky enough to be talking to the stove.

I yawn and stretch, trying to work out a few kinks that aren't going to work out, and push myself up.

He turns and looks at me, like he's been listening for me. "Go back to sleep," he tells me, frowning. "It's early yet."

Well, he's got that right, but I get up anyway, haul my skinny ass to the bathroom and take care of business. Even brush my teeth before I come back out.

He's back at the stove again when I come back, and I come up behind him, scratching a scar that itches through my shirt. There's nothing but water in the pan. "Hot water?"

He gives me that innocent look again. "Oatmeal."

Hell, better than some of the other stuff he's fed me. I yawn again, popping my jaw. "Mighta known. Throw some in for me."

"That was my plan," he says, Fraser dry, "Remembering how fond you are of oatmeal."

I grin. "Better'n pemmican."

Long look. "Hmmmm."

I think that means he thinks I'm a goof. I bet he likes pemmican better. I grin. "Mind if I go in with ya? I gotta see what a primitive Mountie post looks like."

"It's not all that primitive, Ray," he tells me, and I recognize the lecture tone, "Since the 1950's, the RCMP has worked hard to make even the remote postings livable and comfortable. Here, there are even attached quarters, and--."

I cut this off or I'll hear about construction materials. "How come you aren't living there, then?" He measures out the oats, and I take the wooden spoon to stir for him.

"I turned them over to my subordinate. Constable David Brett, he's married and the quarters are quite modern and comfortable."

He's got a subordinate? This town seems so damn small. "You aren't the only Mountie in town?"

Startled look. "No, Ray. Owlcreek has a population of just less than 1800; there are two of us. Even in Owlcreek, I'd seldom get any rest if I were the only officer posted. Technically, we have three slots here, but Constable O'Hara just rotated out, and it's sometimes difficult to get officers for these remote posts. Constable Brett is on leave at the moment, but he'll be back at the end of the week, and I can get a relief officer from Whitehorse if I need one."

"Weird." I poke the spoon at the oats, he tosses in a pinch of salt and I stir the whole mess. "Oatmeal, huh."

One corner of his mouth lifts up a little. "Jack should have fresh eggs in by the end of the week, but as I recall, you weren't overfond of powdered eggs."

No shit. "Gah, not." "Rather eat oatmeal."

He looks at again, this time like he can't quite believe I'm here. But he doesn't say anything embarrassing, he says, "You have ten minutes to get dressed and presentable so I can introduce you around town." Like he's talking to Dief, which is okay, it means he doesn't think he's got to treat me like he's walking on eggs.

Or something. Ten minutes, I can do that. "Yeah? Okay, but if you dish up before I'm done, but I want lotsa sugar in my oatmeal."

He smiles, like he remembers me bitching. On the quest, he finally decided the extra calories were good, but we had to fight about the sugar, refined glucose. "And some strong tea, that might help make up for no coffee."

Gah, I forgot. "Oh, yeah," I agree and go off to rummage through my bags.

I'm not sure how presentable I am when I'm dressed, the jeans hang off my hips if I don't cinch in the belt, but the thermal shirt and sweatshirt are bulky enough I don't look like a damn scarecrow, at least.

"Hey, Fraser, think it's gonna snow today?"

He turns and gives me one of those real smiles that make me wobble. "Not today, Ray. But by Wednesday, yes, I believe we'll have some come in. I can smell it on the wind."

Dief makes a sound and Fraser looks at him, his expression surprised. "Well, yes, Dief, I suppose that's true."

Like the wolf talks. "What?" Suckers me every time.

For some reason, he goes bright red. "Ah, well, he was reminding me that you are a part of our, ah, pack."

Damn wolf. Damn Fraser, and I have to get busy half-assed making the bed to keep from falling apart on that one. Part of the pack. Finally manage to say, "Hey, you know it, didn't we do the quest?"

"Right you are, Ray." Warm tone.

God. Dief comes over and nudges me, like he's doing the Fraser thing, worrying about me. "Hey, Dief, I'm good."

I'm not sure he believes me.

Oatmeal and damn if Fraser doesn't actually have some cinnamon and he puts that in mine and it's like being a kid, tasting cinnamon and sugar on a winter morning before I have to leave for school. Except my mom didn't make tea strong enough to stand a spoon in, and it's not coffee, but it's not bad, I can feel the caffeine starting to hit and my brain cells start coming back to life. At least the ones that still work right.

Great. Greatness. I feel practically normal. No more Ray Kowalski, long term medical project, just me, the guy who made it through the quest without losing my toes to frostbite, freaky ass falling in love with his Mountie partner-and for once, that's not bothering me a lot, and I'm thinking I was right the second time, Fraser'll tell me an Inuit story and maybe I won't get what I want, but I'll still keep Fraser. If that makes sense.

Owlcreek is a little bigger than I expected, at least main streetwise, and it's cold enough this morning that my breath comes out in white puffs like smoke.

Fraser says hello to the few people on the street and introduces me, and damned if I can remember the names, but I shake hands, make nice, and then Fraser drags me across the street where there's this little tiny woman standing at a door, holding it open.

"Good morning, Fraser," she says, and waves to invite us in. "This must be your friend, Ray. Tom Ellery said he dropped him off at the bottom of the hill last night."

Jesus, I wonder how many people he told.

Fraser beams. "He is indeed, Rosie, I'd like to introduce Ray Kowalski, my friend and partner from Chicago." He actually puts a hand on my shoulder, squeezes. "Ray, this is Rosie McKenzie, co-proprietor of the general store."

She holds out her hand, and I hold mine out and Fraser's eyes drop. "Ray, where are your gloves?"

Oh, boy. "Forgot 'em."

Rosie McKenzie gives me a look, like she's trying to decide if I've got what it takes to be Fraser's buddy. Smiles. "Any friend of Constable Fraser's is more than welcome here, Mr. Kowalski." She shakes my hand.

Mr. Kowalski. Jeez, that's my dad, or me in trouble, one of the two. "Just Ray, ma'am."

"Just Rosie, Ray." I like her smile, though, she's good people, I can feel it. "Now, you know, I would never try and subvert an officer of the law, Fraser, but your friend here looks as though he could do with a scone or two."

Scones? I swear, my mouth starts to water.

Fraser looks pleased. "I think you're quite correct, Rosie," and he gives me a sideways look, "Perhaps even three. And I believe I do need some supplies after all."

Coffee, I hope. Dief whines hopefully.

Rosie laughs softly. "I think perhaps Dief would appreciate a scone as well. Surely, you'll join us, Fraser." Wicked gleam of mischief in dark eyes.

He nods. "Thank you kindly, I believe I will."

"Go right on back, then, and I'll get a notepad, we'll make a list." She winks at me.

It's nice and warm inside, and it's bigger than I thought, and Fraser touches my elbow and points to a door at the back.

"Are we going to buy coffee?" I can't match the pleading Mountie look, so I try to just look hopeful.

"Right you are, Ray. I don't know if Rosie stocks precisely the kind of candy-"

Hey, I remember from last time I was up here, and there's a bag of Smarties right where I want 'em, I pick it up and grin at him.

Instead of lecturing me on chocolate and sugar, he just smiles happily. God, that smile, I swear, can melt glaciers.

Rosie gives us a funny look, funny peculiar. "Jack favors coffee in the morning, I've got a pot on right now."

She can look at me any way she wants, I decide. "Oh, yeah, that would be....great."

Fraser nudges me forward, through the doorway at the back of the store, into Rosie's kitchen, warm and sunny, windows along the back wall and one of those long tables and there's a guy bigger than Fraser sitting there reading a paper and drinking, God, coffee, and the whole place smells like my mom's kitchen used to on Saturday.

The guy glances up from the paper, nods at Fraser, nods at me, and goes back to reading. Fraser pries me out of my parka and takes it, and I sit down and then there's a mug of coffee in front of me, yeah, and I drop the Smarties into it and look up to see Fraser and Rosie and even the big guy watching me.

Fraser looks happy, the big guy is eyeing me like I'm a freak, and Rosie just hands me a spoon.

I can feel my face getting hot, but Fraser just says mildly, "He likes chocolate in his coffee, Jack."

The big guy nods, goes back to reading and Rosie pushes a plate over. The scone's still warm from the oven, and I almost whimper biting into it. Look, the stew was good, but Fraser's cooking isn't exactly like Mom's. Mom never cooked musk ox for one thing, and Fraser doesn't bake, and after months of crappy hospital food carefully picked out by another Iron Maiden, this is like a little bit of heaven.

"So what brings you up north here, Ray?" Rosie sits down with us, sits next to the big guy.

Gee, Rosie, I came up here to tell Fraser how I really feel, and maybe because I'm wimpy enough to need his company while I'm totally fucked up, and say, hey, maybe, just maybe, if he's openminded, to stay here for a while so I don't have to look into any more faces that show me pity. Naturally, I don't say anything like that. "Just a long vacation, ma-Rosie. Fraser invited me up when I was in Chicago and I finally decided to get my..." I grin at Fraser, "Get my bad self up here."

Fraser chuckles. "Dief was so pleased to see him that he knocked him down."

Jack looks over the top of the paper, grunts. I am all over that, I think, let's move on to a subject other than Mrs. Kowalski's boy Ray.

No such luck.

"He does need a bit of feeding up," Fraser says, like he's translating this. "You know how it is in the city, Jack."

I have no idea what that means, exactly, given that Fraser thinks I eat too much junk food, but I'm so glad he doesn't talk about why I'm really here that I just nod. "Hey, I'm a lean, mean, street machine," I say, patting my chest. "We don't come as big as you guys." I take another sip of coffee and practically hum. "Oh, Rosie, this is great. Greatness. Just what I needed."

She smiles over the rim of her mug. "You did look like a man who needed coffee," she teased.

I grin. "I had that crazed coffee deprived expression?"

Her eyes gleam. "And your hair was standing on end."

"Oh, it always does that." I put a hand up and make it stand up more. "You should have seen it two weeks ago, it was longer and didn't want to."

Jack sets the paper down. "So, you're a constable in Chicago?"

"Detective. I was. I, ah, I'm kinda on-" I can't think of the word, look at Fraser.

"Sabbatical," he says, "He's on sabbatical from the department. Voluntarily."

I look at him, wondering what the hell he said that for, but Rosie and Jack nod.

"Yeah." Man, the coffee is good. "Yeah, sabbatical."

Rosie turns to Fraser. "Well, Fraser, what do you think you'll be needing?"

He smiles. "Coffee, of course. Let me have a look at the shelves-no, stay here, Ray, enjoy your coffee and scone."

"I'll take care of it," Jack mutters. "Sit, Rosie, Fraser and I are old hands at this."

Rosie watches them go, and turns back to me. I thought Fraser had laser sights, but the look she aims at me is like my Mom's. Shit. "You've been ill."

"Um. I got hurt. Line of duty." I really do not want to talk about this, and Rosie's cool, she lets it go, just nods.

"Try another scone," is all she says.

"Um, I had oatmeal at Fraser's, I don't think another scone'll fit."

She grins, gets up. "I'll just send some with you, then. For when that settles."

Fraser wouldn't accept, I don't think, or maybe he would, and I'm not man enough to turn down fresh baking, not when it's as good as this. "They're great," I tell her awkwardly, and then she asks me about Chicago and things smooth out fine, I start telling her stories about how Fraser and I worked together, and she's laughing at Fraser measuring my nose and the putty sandwich when Fraser comes back in again. "Get everything you need?"

He nods, gets my parka, and holds it out. "I think so."

"I haven't finished my coffee." I complain.

"Take it with," Rosie suggests, and she's putting scones into a paper sack. "Make sure he gets some of these, Fraser, don't let him feed them to Dief."

Dief makes an offended noise. Fraser eyes him. "Well, if you weren't so greedy, you wouldn't be judged that way."

I snicker and get up, stick my arms into the sleeves of the parka and reclaim my coffee. "Um, I'll bring this back later, thanks, Rosie."

"My pleasure." She winks at me. "Jack takes my coffee for granted."

"I'll have Davy bring the groceries up tonight, Fraser," Jack says, "He'll be back in time for that, keeps you from having to carry it up the hill."

"Thank you kindly, Jack."

Rosie laughs. "If we let him take it to the office, he gives a lot of it away."

"Sometimes others have greater need," Fraser says.

Same Fraser. I grin, and take the sack Rosie hands me. "Thanks, Rosie."

"Just come back and tell me more stories about Fraser in the big city." She gives Fraser a wicked grin.

Fraser gives me a look. "Now, Ray, there's no sense in rehashing old history."

Rosie twinkles at him. "Oh, we'd love to hear them." Definitely a wicked look.

I feel a little guilty, though. "I was just telling her how we started working together."

"Ah." His mouth quirks up a little. "Understood."

I can't decide if that means he doesn't mind, or if he wishes I wouldn't, but I figure I can ask him later when we don't have an audience.

We walk down the street, and Fraser is telling me the name of each little shop and building, and we get to a building that stands apart, and I know it's his post.

Cleaner than most police stations, but dirt wouldn't dare show up in Fraser's offices, I'm pretty sure of that. Smell of lemon oil, like he polished the desks, and from the gleam on the wood, I'm right.

He hangs his hat and coat up, and then gives me another one of those happy Fraser smiles and I have to sit down suddenly, try to cover it up by taking a swallow of coffee.

"It's good to have you here, Ray."

I risk a look at him, and I can see he means it in the second before he turns around to open a file cabinet.

I look at the bigger desk and nearly choke on my coffee. Fraser has a computer on his desk. I mean, not that he doesn't know how to use one better than me, but it wasn't what I expected to see up here. "Fraser, that's a computer."

He turns around again, holding a file. "Why, yes, Ray. I told you, this is a fairly modern post, and of course, we're connected to-"

"I didn't expect to see a computer in here, that's all." Wow. "You got internet access? We could send Frannie some email."

He goes as red as his red serge, and I can't figure out if that's about Frannie or what I said about not expecting a computer, but he nods. "Actually, Ray, yes I do. Er, rather the post does, it makes communicating with other posts much easier for those times when urgency isn't required."

I translate this. Fraser-speak for keeping in touch with other Mounties when it's not one of his usual life or death situations, I think, but why that should make him blush is something I can't figure out and it's not that big a deal, but I keep finding myself wondering during the day.

He turns on the second computer and lets me play solitaire while he does paperwork, and I've never been big on computer games. I get bored after a while and go stand at the window, looking out at the street. "Hey, Fraser, it's snowing a little."

He looks up. "Just flurries. Ray, would you like something to read?"

"Left my glasses at the cabin," I tell him, even though that's not quite the whole reason. I still have trouble taking in what's on the page. They told me that was pretty normal, teaching the brain cells that weren't starved of oxygen, it's going to take a while. Hell, I was lucky. Not much worse than having one of those learning disability things, and if I go slow enough, I do fine. Just have to go slow. Hey, I always was more of a hands on kind of learner anyway, so it's not that bad, but I still don't want to go into it. I can talk now, no slurring, I can think, and even if I've got holes in my memory, I'm mostly okay now.

He chews on that lower lip. "I'm sorry, I know this isn't very interesting, Ray."

"Doesn't have to be, Fraser." I come over and lean on his desk, facing him. "I'm where I wanna be, don't get weird on me."

Little smile. "As you wish, Ray."

"But maybe I'll take a walk, keep from getting on your nerves."

"Take Dief with you," he suggests, and it's a good idea, I get lots of quiet hellos, but nobody's pushy, I say hello back and Dief ambles along beside me until we sort of reach the edge of town, where he darts off. It's still snowing a little, and I stuff my hands in my pockets again, keeping warm, sit down on a stump and wait for the damn wolf.

The air is cold and smells a little like pine trees, and it's quiet, quiet I remember, even though town is just at my back, and this feels good, a lot like some of the days on our trip, just me and Fraser and the wolf, and even though he's in the office, he's here, and this is his place, and I shrug the parka hood over my head.

I remember waking up in the hospital and feeling, I don't know, maybe like I was paralyzed, but that's not quite right. Couldn't sort out my head, had a terrible time talking. Slurred words, and my folks were there, and that's the only time I ever saw tears in my dad's eyes before.

Never want to see 'em again.

At first, I thought it was right after the warehouse, I kept asking about the kid, and Dad didn't get it. It wasn't until Welsh showed up and figured it out that they told me that was a long time ago. Frannie came by practically every day. She might drive me batshit sometimes, but she's good people, too, and she'd read to me.

Gotta thank her for that, even if romance novels don't do much for me.

Stella didn't come. I didn't get that at first, because I was thinking we were still married, but things started coming back to me. Finally remembered that she married Vecchio, the guy whose life I took over to keep him alive, and that set off a crying jag that didn't quit 'til they pumped me up full of tranks.

I was lucky. I am lucky. I could be lying in some hospital all drawn up in a fetal position, getting turned every few hours to keep from getting bedsores. I know that. The Iron Maidens tell me all the time, just in case being lucky escapes me.

That really pisses me off, you want to know the truth, because I'm not stupid, I effing know how lucky I was to come out of it with most of my marbles and on my feet again.

Doesn't make it easier to deal with the shit that's left, though. Now, Fraser makes it easier, he just acts matter of fact.

I finally get up and go in search of Dief, find him investigating a burrow of some kind. "Hey," I say, "Yo, Dief, don't go looking for trouble."

I swear, he gives me an apologetic look and bounds back to me, and then we head back toward town, another stroll through the place, and I'm getting plenty chilled, I go back to find Fraser putting on his coat.

He stops, and he looks relieved. "I was starting to get concerned, Ray."

I wave my hand. "Dief was exploring."

He gives Dief a long stern look. "You know better."

Dief whines, and I swear, even that sounds apologetic.

"Very well, but I expect you to remember in future." Still stern, and he takes off his coat. "Something hot to drink, Ray?"

I don't even mind if it's tea, and I nod, suddenly realize that I'm colder than I thought I was. When he brings me the mug, our hands touch, and he frowns suddenly, puts his hands over mine. "Ray, I've got an extra pair of gloves at the cabin you might use."

I go still when his hands fold over mine, I want to just soak that in, just make it last forever, but I'm scared I'll give myself away, and yeah, I came up here to tell him, but I'm not exactly ready to hit him with it in his office. "Fraser, my hands just got cold, I'm okay, quit worrying so much."

He looks me dead in the eye. "I called Lt. Welsh."

Shit. Shit. Shit. "Why?" And man, my temper flares up like a housefire. "Why the hell-did you think I was lying to you, Fraser? Like I ever have?"

"I did not believe you were lying to me, Ray, I believed you were seriously understating the nature of your injuries and I was correct, wasn't I."

Not even a question and he's still got his hands over mine, so even if he thinks I suck, he doesn't hate my guts, and he's not letting me off the hook, either, he's got me in that laser sight of his, and even if he doesn't sound mad, he sounds disappointed.

In me.

And that takes the mad away, and I just feel like shit again. "Didn't seem to be much point in all the gory details." I drop my eyes and stare at the mug, at his hands around mine, both of us holding the mug.


I'm not just a medical case, I'm not just a gimp, I want to say, but that sounds like major pity party, and that's the one thing I can't stand to see in Fraser's eyes, I know I can't stand it.

"Well," he finally says, when I won't look at him. "At any rate, Lt. Welsh will make sure your parents know you arrived safely, and has agreed to have your medical records sent up here to the medical clinic."

I didn't think it was possible to feel worse, but he's reminded me that I left my parents a note and disappeared and that my mother has to be out of her mind with worry. And, yeah, I'm upset about the medical clinic. "Fraser," I start and then stop. What's the point, there is no point, the one safe place I had is gone now. "Thanks, Fraser."

He rubs my hands a little, lets go. "Ray, you are my friend, you know that. You cannot expect me to allow a friend to behave in ways that are self-destructive without attempting to intervene."

"What the hell does that mean?" Not even mad, just tired all of a sudden. "I'm not being self-destructive."

"Perhaps that was too strong a term." I finally look up and he's rubbing that eyebrow. When he sees me look up, he cracks his neck in that way he has. "But you do require continued physical therapy, according to Lt. Welsh. I know it cannot be pleasant, I've been through it myself, but Ray, it's necessary."

That's what this is about? I take in a deep breath. Think about it. "I know." Manage to say it calmly. "It's just-I get tired of this shit, Fraser."

"I do know." That serious Mountie expression. "I do apologize for not telling you ahead of time that I was going to call Lt. Welsh, Ray. That was deceptive, although I didn't intend to deceive, I was merely concerned for you."

I take a swallow of tea. No sugar. That means something. You're a detective, Kowalski, detect, I tell myself, and realize that it means Fraser was worried enough about telling me this that he forgot I like sugar. Which makes things better, don't ask me why. "Okay." I take another deep breath. "Okay, I guess I'm good with that."

His relief makes me feel better, too. But I don't have the heart to tell him what Heatherton tells me, that Heatherton thinks I've made as much recovery as I can, that there's not going to be much more. Heatherton tells me I'm lucky to be alive. Heatherton says I should be grateful for that much.

I am grateful, I guess. I'm just sick of hearing it. And I'm tired again, and my shoulder and my arm and hand are tired, and I have to keep my left hand wrapped around the mug so I'm drinking two handed like a little kid. "Fraser, I'm going back to the cabin, put on some tunes."

"Take Dief," he starts to say, but I cut him off and get up.

"Nah, Dief's a crimefighter, I'm just going to take it easy."

He doesn't look completely happy. "As you wish, Ray."

And then I'm out the door again, and on the way back up the hill.

First thing I do is wash up the dishes from breakfast. Hot water feels good, takes away some of the ache in the right hand, and I get reckless, I fold the couch up again, which isn't a good idea, because I twist or pull something just under the right side of my collar bone and even though it's not really pain, it does make me think maybe I oughta get some rest.

I wrap myself up in that comforter and sack out, and yeah, that's good, I'm warm and the cabin is warm-guess Fraser lit that furnace sometime when I was asleep, because the there's warm air blowing from the ceiling vent and I'm out, out, out...

At least until I wake up, freaking, from another nightmare about dying and roll off the couch, knees smacking hard on the wooden floor. "Shit!" I use a lot of other language that would make Fraser look at me wrong, but he's not here, and I decide fast that maybe it's time to take a pain pill, because that place under my collarbone feels hot and that heat goes all the way down my arm to my fingers, and maybe those nerves were damaged, like Doc Heatherton said, but it sure feels like being roasted over a slow fire.

Takes some work to get the childproof cap off, and I'm chanting "Fuck, fuck, fuck," before it finally pops off and the pills spill out on the floor. Deep breath, and then I get one pill, stagger back upright and into the kitchen. Cold water in a glass, and I swallow it, have to lean against the sink for a minute to try and keep it down.

Something about the vagus nerve, Heatherton tells me, and when it's acting bad, it makes me want to puke. "Deep breath, Kowalski," I tell myself shakily. "This ain't bad, you've had worse." More deep breaths, rubbing the hot spot. Around Fraser too long, and I'm talking to myself, but if it keeps me from puking, I'm okay with it.

My knees stop aching, hell, that was just a smack, no worse than bumping against my desk, and that helps some, even though I'm still hot and queasy. Never ate anything after breakfast, and that's probably a good thing right now. Another wave of heat and I taste acid in the back of my throat, lean over and turn the cold water tap on, stick my face in it.

Just my luck, the door opens then, but it's the cold air I feel, I don't hear it, and then I do hear my name.

Fuck, fuck, I did not want Fraser to see me like this, not sick and whiny, and I reach up, fumble for the tap, bad, bad idea, I nearly puke because I forget, use my right hand.

"Ray!" Strong arm hauls me up and over to the couch, careful of my arm. "Head down, between your knees."

Yeah, I know the drill, and I don't have a lotta choice, not with a hand pressing down between my shoulder blades. "'M okay." Faintly. "I'll be okay," which is mostly true. Been here, done this, got the t-shirt, but I left it at the hospital.

"Hmmm." Fraser kneels beside me, easing up since I'm not fighting him. "Any better?"

I took in a deep breath. Still kind of sick, but not hot any more. "I think so."

"Ease back, slowly, slowly, put your feet up, there, like that." Fraser's voice is gentle, Fraser's hands are gentle. "Deep, slow breaths, Ray, you know how."

Yeah, I do, learned that trick the hard way at the hospital. "'M okay," and all of a sudden, I think I might be, the pill's starting to kick in, strong as hell even if it's old. Makes me wonder what they gave me back then. "It's just that nerve, Fraser, it sorta makes me feel sick, that's all."

He does that hmmmm thing again, gets up, leaves for a minute. Comes back with a cool, damp washcloth, puts it across my forehead. I laugh, shakily and my voice cracks. "I don't have a goddamn fever."

"It will help." Fraser's voice seems distant. "Did you take any pain medication yet?"

"Just now." Actually, looks like the Mountie's right, the cloth helps, except for the ache in my shoulder and arm, I feel almost normal again. "It's kicking in."

"Good. Let it." Fraser's expression was somber.

Goddammit, I don't want Fraser feeling sorry for me, hell if I do, and I say it out loud instead of thinking it, and have to wince at Fraser's expression.

"Feeling concern for you is not the same as feeling pity for you, Ray." Gravely, and while it makes more sense than Fraser sometimes does, it still makes my eyes go blurry.

"Yeah." I try to ease myself up, use the wrong arm, and feel my stomach do somersaults. "I'm down, I'm down," as Fraser reaches for me. "Maybe I better stay down for a while."

"One of your better ideas of late," Fraser tells me, and yeah, I hear definite disapproval in Fraser's tone. "Testing one's limitations is admirable under most circumstances. Doing so when recovering from injuries of this severity is not."

That cracks me up, I started laughing and laugh until I've got tears in my eyes, or maybe they were there already and I'm laughing to keep them away,I don't know. He's worried now, I can see that, and still can't get hold of things.

"Easy, Ray" he says softly, and somehow, his hand cups my face. I can't help it, I turn my face into it and manage to get a deep breath. "Easy, Ray. Let the pill do its work."

"I'm so fucking sick of this." Another breath, and I'm blinking hard.

"I know that feeling very well." Somber again, and I remember suddenly that Fraser's still got a bullet in him from when Vecchio shot him.

Warm fingers tangle with mine, a little awkward. Like I said, Fraser isn't much on touchy feely, and that makes it even better, way better, and I settle again, manage to shut my face and stop whining. "Thanks, Fraser." Being weak sucks, but hey, I hope I'm still man enough to thank a buddy for his help.

Fraser squeezes my hand gently. "My pleasure." Sounds like he means it, crazy Mountie.

I blink hard again, manage not to go off on another laughing or crying jag and oh, man, the pill is definitely kicking in, that sharp edge's getting duller by the minute, and my mouth's dry as hell. "Fraser? You mind getting me a glass of water?"

"Right here, Ray." He holds up the glass.

Fucking Boy Scout, I think, but not in a shitty way, that's just Fraser, Proper Preparation and all. "Trust you," I say, hoarse voice, he slides an arm under my shoulders, big hand cradling the bad one, eases me up enough to drink, and he's not letting go. I drink it all, stopping only once to get a breath, then nod thanks at him. "I think I'm good, Fraser, but I need some help to sit up." Humbly.

"You've got it." Careful touch, steadying me, not just hauling me up, and then I'm mostly sitting up against the arm of the couch, a pillow under my head. Fraser perches a hip on the edge of the couch, eyeing me. "Better now?"

Matter of fact tone, like I haven't done anything to embarrass myself.

Maybe I was just being a jerk. I take the cloth off my forehead and wipe my face. "What a fucking mess." Apologetically.

"Time, Ray." Fraser tells me sternly, like he's talking to Dief. No, he doesn't usually get that stern with Dief, but he lets my language pass.

I nod, not quite up to meeting his eyes. "Yeah, time."

"Time spent not doing things that will cause further damage," he insists, practically growling.

Damn, of course he'd figure it out, how stupid can you get, Kowalski. Couch is folded up, and he wouldn't let me do it last night. I finally look at him and those eyebrows are drawn together. Boy, the Mountie's on a tear, maybe I really am being a jerk. I pull a face. "Yeah, well, it was a dumb thing to do, but Fraser, if I don't work the muscles they aren't gonna get stronger."

Those eyebrows stay drawn together. But I can see him thinking it over, struggling with it. He hates not always being right, always did. "Understood," he finally says, not happy about it. "But I suggest better choices of how to exercise, Ray. And that, I'm afraid, is why physical therapists go through long term education."

In other words, Fraser-speak translated, you dumb fuck, do it right.

I'm not mad, exactly, because maybe he's part right. "Look, I followed their orders all the way, I did the PT until I wished the damn bullets had killed me, I had to get outa there, Fraser, before I lost my mind." Tired of trying to explain, but taking a shot at it, because if anybody understands, I figure it'll be him. "I'll try to be careful, Fraser, but I can't turn into a couch pumpkin."

He blinks. "Understood. But, ah, Ray, if I recall the idiom, it's couch potato."

"Pumpkin, potato." I lean back into the pillow. "Whatever."

One corner of his mouth lifts. "Ah. Both something one turns into?"

"Exactly." But, he does understand and that makes me choke up again.

"Well, I have little fear of that, Ray. You were gone almost an hour on your short walk today." But he's smiling, not stern. "And Ray, I neglected to give you a message from Lt. Welsh, I'm to tell you that you're on temporary disability for the moment, not permanent. You have time to make those decisions you talked about."

I let out a breath, stunned. "Temporary, huh?"

Fraser nods. "According to Lt. Welsh, yes."

My face feels hot again, but this time I'm embarrassed. "Oh. Great." I'm still a cop, sort of, not just a cripple.

A real grin then. "I told him I believed you would be pleased."

I wish Fraser was still holding my hand. Swallow hard at that thought and call myself an asshole. "I'm definitely good, Fraser." Light a tone as I could manage. "Go on doing whatever it is you do at this time of day."

"Actually, that would be preparing dinner." He gives me another long look. "Ray, I don't know how to convince you that my feelings about you do not include pity."

Oh, boy, my face gets hotter. But like always, my mouth insists on working before my brain has kicked in. "Feelings?"

"Affection. Trust. Exasperation." Light slap to my kneecap and Fraser gets up. "You're on my territory now, Ray, and my orders are for you to lie there and do nothing until that pill takes effect."

"Yeah, well, once it does, I ain't gonna be good for anything." I sigh, but I'm not really complaining.

Unreadable look. "Don't sell yourself short, Ray."

I'm not sure what that means, but my face gets hot again.

The pill has definitely hit, I'm sleepy, don't even mind settling back to watch Fraser move around the cabin, small tasks again, kitchen sounds, and it reminds me of the night before, of how weird it is to feel like I'd come home after all, and I was an asshole to get so worked up about everything when it's Fraser facing me down, not the doctor who drove me batshit, not Welsh, not my folks.

Fraser doesn't fuss or act like I'm a cripple, he just says what's what. My eyelids feel heavy again and damn, I'm getting tired of fading out all the time, so I fight it, listening to Fraser sounds. Claws on hardwood again, and Dief presses up against the couch, I put my hand out, let it rest on Dief's fur for a minute, drifting a little and having to drag myself back.

Fraser's turned on the CD player, but music doesn't help me stay awake, it's mellow, one of my own CDs, and I half-smile, crack open my eyelids to see Fraser back in the kitchen, let 'em fall again, let myself float on the music until good food smells pull me back in.

Dief's deserted me, my hand's tingling from hanging over the edge of the couch, but I'm good, better than I expected, nothing more than a dull ache now, and I push myself up, wobble into the kitchen to stand next to Fraser, who's stirring something in a pot.

Faint smile. "In honor of Chicago, we're having spaghetti, Ray."

I try to imagine Canadian spaghetti and can't wrap my mind around it. I hope he didn't use Canadian bacon and lean over to inhale. "Well, it smells good anyway."

He gives me that little quirk of the mouth. "Ye of little faith. It has to simmer a bit longer." He shifts to face me, so damn close I want to lean in on him, get another one of those hugs. "How's the shoulder, my friend?"

I look into the pot, pretending I'm just checking out dinner. "Better. Guess I shoulda left the bed alone."

"Probably." Mild tone and Fraser puts a hand on my shoulder, magic fingers hitting the worst knot. "Sit down, I think I can do something for that."

I blink, open my mouth to say no, but can't think of any reason that he'll buy. Hell, I'm not some dumb some sixteen year old kid who can't control myself, I decide. Just because he's going to give me a shoulder rub and I have about fifteen different fantasies that start out that way....

I sit down, shoving the door shut on those thoughts.

Behind me, I hear Fraser open a cupboard, look over my shoulder to see he's got a jar in his hand. "That's not that pregnant moose stuff is it, Fraser, cuz I gotta tell you, that's going to make me puke tonight."

Quick grin. "It is not."

I eye the jar. "Does it stink?" Most of his concoctions do, even if they work.

Patient look and he opens the jar, holds it out. I sniff cautiously. It smells like herbs and something kind of sharp, but it doesn't set off my gag reflex. "Okay." Grudgingly.

"Take off your shirt." Fraser gestures.

Danger, danger, Will Robinson, oh, boy, and I still can't think of a good reason to tell him no. Maybe it's the pill, but I finally shrug and work both shirts off carefully. Fraser's hands are warm, one thumb finds a trouble spot and presses firmly, and I groan. "Yeah, right there," I agree, letting my head hang down.

"I thought so, the way you were holding it." Easy tone, and even if the stuff in the jar makes me shiver a bit, Fraser's hands feel so damned good. "It's natural to try and protect against pain, but I think it's put things out of balance, Ray. Each group of muscles works together..."

I grin senselessly and just let the words roll over me, it's Fraser at his best, long explanation in dry tones, while those hands work magic. It feels almost like old times, not that Fraser's ever given me a backrub before, not like this. I lean into those wonderworking hands, feel knots loosen that've been there for what feels like forfuckingever, the stuff from the jar makes my skin tingle hot and cold and he still doesn't think I suck, even if I've been acting like a jerk. Crazy Mountie.

The pill's making me loopy, being this close to him is making me loopy, his hands are making me loopy, and God, I just want to stay there for, say, six or seven years or so. "Hey, Fraser." I raise my head, let it fall back on his belly, feel firm muscle that doesn't let me fall, and Fraser doesn't seem to mind, Fraser's hands keep working steadily, shifting down my shoulders.

Fraser'd said affection, I remember that, even if I'm stoned and have a Swiss cheese brain. Affection and he meant it, and this big ball of warmth swells up in my chest. Maybe....maybe I can trust in it no matter what I tell him. Yeah, I already figured that part out, but I've still been scared that once I tell him he'll get weird on me about me touching him and I touch people, that's what I do. I mean, even if you feel personally flattered when someone says, hey, buddy, I love you, you know they have to wonder what you mean when you add, and it's not your Bud Lite I want. Maybe Fraser wouldn't care, wouldn't get any freakier than he was already. Or, being Fraser, maybe he'd just accept it like the chocolate candies in my coffee, or my dancing or the turtle and tell me some weird story about caribou or moose or Inuit like I've been thinking.

Maybe it's the warmth of Fraser's hands, maybe it's that feeling that I am home, and maybe, maybe it's just being stoned, but I open my mouth again without putting the brain in gear. "You remember that day you said something about human sexuality and feeling being a spectrum or something?"

Fraser's hands stilled for a moment, just a moment, like he was trying to place the conversation. "A continuum?"

Oh, yeah, trust Fraser to remember everything. The Gay Pride parade, and the two of us standing on a street corner, waiting to cross, I can't remember why now. I smile, eyes half-closed. Fraser can always put his finger on the right word. "Yeah, that's it. Not two points, but a continuum. I didn't get it then, but I do now."

He freezes. Stone still, fingers still on my shoulders. Oh. Shit. Nobody ever said the Mountie was stupid, and I always thought he was a lot less innocent about what his female admirers wanted than he liked to pretend.

"Ray." Very softly, but I'm shaking. "Do you?"

There's something in Fraser's voice, yup, you fucked up, Kowalski, that oughta teach you to let your mouth go on automatic, oh, Jesus, what the fuck, I've done it now, I've done it for sure, I start babbling some bullshit that makes no sense at all, even to me. Fraser's hands tighten for a minute and I try to get up, he pushes me back down and moves around to crouch beside the chair, one hand coming up to cup my cheek. I can't tell what he's thinking, hell, I can't see, and I'm so scared, and I take in a deep panicky breath. "Look, Fraser, I'm-"

He puts two fingers over my mouth with his free hand. "It's all right, Ray." Dead serious Fraser. "It's all right."

I'm shivering, afraid to meet his eyes, but I finally risk a look up from under my eyebrows and oh, God, thank you, God, if you exist, he doesn't look upset, doesn't look worried, doesn't look unhappy.

He understands, and he's not upset. And there was something more, something I want to figure out, but I'm still way too shaky.

Fraser keeps looking at me, Fraser's fingers sort of stroke my cheek and then I get it, I get it, take in another shaky breath. Everything I wanted, everything I hoped, and it's like standing in front of a Christmas tree, looking at a package you just know has your heart's desire. Shaky or not, I reach out for it. "Yeah." And my voice cracks a little. "I get it." Wonder for a minute if I'm dreaming or if Fraser really is looking at me the way I think he's looking at me. Just like me looking at him, like a kid standing in front of that Christmas tree, like someone who sees everything he ever wanted appear in front him.

Swallowing hard, I put my hand up, touch Fraser's. Still scared.

Fraser's thumb strokes over my cheekbone, I shiver again, and then Fraser smiles at me, and I thought I knew all his smiles, but this is different, a new Fraser expression to store away, and my heart is really banging hard against my ribs. "Let me finish this up, Ray, and you can put your shirt on."

I blink hard. "Fraser?" Shakily. Not sure what I'm asking. Not sure what Fraser hears.

Fraser leans up, just a gentle brush of his mouth over mine. Warm dry lips, and I feel dizzy again, but not dizzy sick, just dizzy relieved and amazed, scared out of my mind, and happier than I remember feeling in my entire life. He draws back a little and I want more, don't quite know how to ask, so I lean forward into another genuine Fraserhug, and oh, man, I am all over that, it feels so damn good. I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding, rest my forehead against Fraser's. "Shoulda known it would be okay." Muzzily.

Warm hands on my back. "We both should have."

We both should have-the words knock around the inside of my head and my eyes burn.

He touches my face again. "I should have known better." Open expression, withholding nothing. "I'm sorry I didn't."

I lean in again, hold on tight. "Yeah. Me either." Another shiver. "Fraser, this is-"

"I know." Fraser sighs. "Very different."

I manage to chuckle. "I was gonna say freaky."

"Understood." Fraser hugs me again. "I think further analysis can wait until I finish this and we've eaten."

I rub my face, wondering if I'm so stoned I'm hallucinating all this. "What I wouldn't give for a beer."

"Not on pain medication." Reprovingly, and it cracks me up, the world might be tumbling down around us and Fraser would be Fraser. And hey, what's a little sexual confusion compared to the end of the world, of course Fraser's still Fraser. Fraser just looks at me, not the perfect and unapproachable Mountie any more, but a tired man wearing those weird trousers and a Henley and suspenders and an expression on his face that's almost....tender.

Maybe I am hallucinating. I shiver again, lean forward and give it a try, brush my mouth over Fraser's, those warm lips and a day's beard stubble and it is freaky, really freaky, but it's also great....better than great. "Dinner, huh."

Slow smile that lights everything up behind Fraser's eyes. "Dinner." And Fraser gets up, leans down one more time to test that kissing thing again, and this time the tip of his tongue sweeps lightly between my lips. I feel a jolt of something I'd forgotten about since getting shot, like electricity, and Fraser, dammit, backs away to finish my shoulders.

My mouth tingles. Hell, my dick sits up and takes notice. I smile like a loon, let my head fall back against his belly again. "Dinner, huh." Like a moron, saying it again.

One of Fraser's hands slid up the side of my throat, a thumb stroked the sensitive spot beneath my ear, the vampire spot. "Dinner." Warmly.

I snicker. Hell, I know about subtext, and the two of us have always had our share of weird conversations that say one thing and mean another, but we're both saying dinner and what I think we mean is 'dessert'.

I think.

I'm not sure, not completely sure, but it feels good, Fraser's hands feel good, and screw wasting any more time worrying about shit and turning out to be dead wrong.

Yeah, Heatherton's at least part right, I'm definitely still not one hundred percent, or I'd grab the Mountie and wrestle him to the floor. Before getting shot, believe me, I'd had plenty of fantasies, some of 'em welcome, but some of 'em scary. I haven't since, nearly dying shifted things from what I think my dick wants to what the rest of me wants, and I sure as hell haven't had any spare energy, and maybe that's good and maybe it's bad, but Fraser kisses the top of my head which is a clue that maybe it's good.

Maybe it's not just about what his dick wants either. What am I saying, this is Fraser we're talking about, the last of the depressed romantics. Of course it's not just about his dick.

Fraser draws back, finally, gives my bad shoulder a final pat. "Put your shirt on, Ray."

If he insists, I think, and pull the t-shirt over my head. Between the pill and the rubdown, it's definitely easier to raise my arm. "Thanks. That's a lot better."

Another touch to his cheek and boy, I'm in a bad way, I turn my face into that touch, put my lips against his palm, wanting more, hungry for it, and as if he reads that, Fraser leans down from behind, hugs me hard again. "When it comes to pasta, I venture to say that you have more expertise, would you care to take charge of that, Ray?"

I'm in such a bad, bad way, I give Fraser a goofy grin. Even if he's just humouring me, it's damn fine not to be treated like I was broken. "Can do, buddy."


Dinner's freaky, too, and even if the red sauce isn't anything somebody from Chicago would dare call Italian, it's still good. Everything's good, and Fraser pumps me for stories from the 2-7, and it's no hardship at all.

Something pops into my head as I finish a story about Dewey. "Oh, and ya gotta hear this, Fraser-Stella's pregnant." I look up and something darkens his face. "What?"

He frowns. "I'm sorry, Ray, I know you wanted children."

I think about that, rub my cheek, remembering his touch. "Maybe I did. I dunno, Fraser, maybe it was-maybe it was a way of hanging on to Stella, too. I had a lotta time to think lately-and maybe underneath I thought it was a way of making things better, of welding us back together." I sigh, took a drink of water. "I like kids, Fraser, but I dunno that I need to have one of my own. My brother has kids, my dad has grandkids. I'm just happy to be alive."

Fraser glances away then, just for a moment.

I worry about that, it hits me that he considered Vecchio his best friend, and that Vecchio, that prick, didn't tell him.

"I wish-" Fraser starts, and then clamps his mouth shut tight.


Fraser shakes his head, looks back at me. "I wish I'd been there for you, Ray." Not quite grimly.

I can't think of anything to say, I swallow hard and look back at my plate, push the last few bits of spaghetti around. 'That's not buddies, Ray,' he'd said, and that told me how bad it'd hurt him. "I didn't want-" And the lump in my throat blocks anything else for a minute. I swallow hard again, shake my head, trying to think, trying to shake sense loose: 'I didn't want you to see me that way' isn't gonna work, 'I didn't want you to watch me die', is closer to the truth, but I don't even want to think how Fraser might react to that, and besides, it sounds so fucking much like a pity party, even if it'd been crystal clear in my mind at the time. "Fraser, I dunno. It wasn't that I didn't want you there, it was just too hard." I feel helpless, I never was good with words the way he was, and now that there are holes in my memory, I'm even worse.

"It's all right, Ray." Quiet voice and his hand comes out, fingers curling around my wrist again. I like that, turn my wrist up to put our hands palm to palm, even if my heart thumps hard again.

We sit like that for a little while, neither one of us talking, and my pump slows down, he likes it, too. Finally, I sigh, push at the plate with my free hand. "I'm done, can't eat another bite. Okay if I let Dief have it?"

Fraser frowns. "Tomato products have an unfortunate effect on him, Ray, you should remember that."

"Worse than potato chips and pizza?" I snicker and Fraser gives me a stern look.

"Uncontrollable flatulence, Ray. Possibly the vitamin C in tomatoes has something to do with it, and of course, the sodium level isn't good for him."

I crack up again, finally have to put my head down on the table. From true confessions to dog farts, and I can't stop laughing, even when it dies down, little riffs kept escaping, and Fraser is looking worried. But it's okay, no jag, just feeling good, and I haven't laughed like that since...well, maybe since our quest, and I wipe my eyes. "God, Fraser, I missed this."

One of those eyebrows goes up, I can tell he doesn't get it, really, but he's trying to. "This?"

I roll the dice, take a chance, bet it all. "You," I said, "I missed you. I missed being with you."

Fraser understands that all right, Fraser lights up like a goddamn Christmas tree. "And I you, Ray." Softly.

My face gets hot again. Once past all the bullshit and terror, I can't not think about touching him, I can't not think about just wanting to climb into Fraser, just move on in, baggage and all. I can't not wonder what a real kiss is going to feel like, beyond the weird sensation of stubble instead of smooth, and it being Fraser instead of a woman.

Fraser gets up, picks up the plates and then leans in suddenly, ambushes me, and maybe it's not a real passionate kiss, maybe it's too gentle for that, but Fraser's tongue teases my mouth and it still jolts me right down to my toes, sends blood rushing to places it hasn't visited for a while. I hear myself make a sound when he draws back, get another kiss for reward, a little more intense, and Fraser's tongue is silky hot and strong, and this time I complain louder when he pulls back.

The plates go back down on the table, he takes hold of my face and kisses me a third time, open-mouthed and hot and hungry, and I am all over that, I try to pull Fraser down, and Fraser resists, pulls me up, and no way am I going to complain about that, not body to body. I'm not sure how long it lasts, but my dick is standing up and taking notice again, and I can feel his, hard against my thigh, and things are going fast enough to be both fan-fucking-tastic and totally scary.

Fraser pulls free of my mouth after while, licks the corner of my jaw, and I squirm in harder against him. He bites the corner of my jaw, works down the side of my throat, sucks on my earlobe, and I make a stupid stunned sort of sound and try very hard to merge into Fraser, holding on for dear life.

But Fraser's slowing down, breathing hard and trying to get control, and while my vote doesn't swing that way really, maybe standing in the middle of the kitchen isn't the best place to do this, especially since I'm as flexible as I used to be.

"Unh." Another stupid sound from yours truly. "Couch." There, that's coherent. Maybe not eloquent, but coherent.

"Couch," Fraser agrees, breathing hard into my neck.

I put my good arm up, tangles my fingers in Fraser's hair. "Now."

Hiss of breath, and Fraser straightens, not looking Fraser like at all. Looking....hot, looking damn near nuclear, and my knees wobble. "Now," Fraser agrees again, looking at my mouth like he's wondering if eating me whole is a good idea. I'm telling you, Dief doesn't look at donuts that way, and Dief loves the damn things.

Neither of us let go. We stand there, breathing hard, and if there's anything scarier and hotter than having all that Fraser intensity trained on me, I sure as hell don't know what it is and I don't think I want to know, I'm not sure I can live through it.

"Now," Fraser repeats and takes in a deep breath, slowly releases my body, but grabs my hand. "Bed."

I actually whimper. Feels like I'm standing too close to a fire, my skin burns under my clothes, and I can't get the words out, settle for nodding. Not only yes, but hell yes--and then he's pulling me toward the Inner Sanctum, and I don't particularly want gentle, but Fraser's giving me a chance to back out, I know that like I sometimes know other things about him when I'm thinking clear. Once through the door, though, Fraser's done with that, Fraser tumbles me down on the bed like a wild man, which means he's forgotten I'm not a hundred percent yet, and that's so good, and so hot that I almost forget I'm not a hundred percent, but even that's still not as good as the silky-hot feel of Fraser's tongue on my lips, on my mouth, on my throat, on my goddamn collarbone, and he nips me there.

Who knew a collarbone could be a hot spot? I arch up under him, making those stupid sounds again, try to reach up for his suspenders, but he whaps at my hands, leans in and bites my jaw.

Mountie knows what he wants, you don't argue with him, I learned that a long time before. So I settle for tugging the Henley free of Fraser's whatd'y'callems, groan into his mouth at the feel of his bare skin under my fingers. I want more, dammit, and want it now, and finally push Fraser away. "Take that off!"

For a minute, I think he might growl like Dief, but no, I only get nipped again and Fraser straddles me, knees on either side, pops off those suspenders and yanks the Henley off so fast I'm amazed it doesn't rip. Oh, God, better than my fantasies, definitely better than my fantasies, and who knew I was going to have a sexual epiphany pushing forty? I put my hands up, stroke Fraser's belly up and down, put my palm against the visible swelling. It feels...weird. And normal. Different and the same, and hotter than hot, and Jesus, I fumble with buttons and Fraser does growl, sort of, takes hold of my wrists hard, almost hard enough to bruise, bends over me and kisses me hard, long, passionate kiss, and we're pressed together so close air can't get between us and it still isn't enough.

I try to arch up and free my hands, and then he pulls away from me, he's gone. His hands aren't gone, though, and no, his mouth isn't gone, either. My shirt gets yanked up, and then his tongue's on my chest, licking from one nipple to the other, and I nearly come up off the bed when he puts those lips around one nipple and sucks hard on it. "Fraser," gasping, "Fraser," and if this keeps up, I'm only going to last about a minute and a half at the outside, which isn't what I had in mind, coming off in my pants like a damn high school kid.

Fraser lifts his head, looking about half in his right mind. "Ray?" Hoarsely.

"Unh." Another intelligent line. Great, all the blood that usually feeds my brain has gone south. I wouldn't complain, but right now I'm a little verbally challenged at the best of times, and I can't figure out what happened to the words I know that I know. I find a couple. "Shirt. Off." And I wriggle desperately, trying to get my own shirt off. Once I manage that, of course, I want the jeans off before I have some permanent damage, thank you very much, never mind they're roomy, the goddamn things have a zipper, I want them gone and I want the bottom half of the long johns gone, and since I can't seem to get the zipper undone, I'm glad Fraser has somehow managed to get the picture and gets it down. Oh, God, even unzipping my jeans is getting me hotter, and of course, the bastard reaches in and squeezes me and I nearly explode right then.

Jeans off, long underwear off, and oh, God, he's pressed down against me, scratchy wool against my cock, and even that feels incredible. Then, while I'm gasping and squirming and clutching at him, he's gone again. Mouth and hands, too, this time. "Unh," then, "Hey!"

"Boots." Fraser's voice is a little desperate.

Laughter bubbles up from out of nowhere, and I'm hard as a rock and laughing my ass off. I lift my head, see him leaning over the edge of the bed, muttering to himself. I hear "Bloody hell," emerge from those pure lips, and that sends me right over the edge from laughing to out of my mind again. I push myself up from the bed, slide a hand down Fraser's bare back and under his waistband to feel the curve of his ass and oh, God, I wish I had a knife to offer him to use on those laces.

Popping sound, more muttering, and Fraser stands up, managing all those mystery buttons and such with supersonic speed and oh, wow, my mouth goes completely dry in the second and a half Fraser lets me get a good look. Then he pounces again, this time, oh, God, this time it's perfect, both of us bare skinned and hot and I can't decide what I want to touch first.

Not that Fraser gives me a lot of choice, I'm trying to get to various parts of his body, but he holds me down and explores me with that same unhinged focus he gives to crime investigations. That tongue, God, on the inside of my elbow, on the spot where my thigh joins up with my body, the inside of my navel, and God, God, I'm making incoherent noises again, hell, I'm babbling like a Holy Roller on Sunday morning. Pull at Fraser's shoulders, but Fraser's taking his time, and he's enthusiastic enough that I completely forget that my body looks like shit, and which, in the one corner of my mind that's still tracking anything but that tongue, says very good things about what Fraser's been thinking about while he was up here and I was down there, and we weren't together.

And then, just as I decide pleasure is going to kill me and hell, that's a better way to go than dying of gunshot wounds, Fraser's mouth comes up again and we're body to body, hip to hip, cocks rubbing together, I'm kissing him, I'm tasting him, drinking him in, licking my way into kiss after kiss, stroking any bit of his skin that I could reach and pulling him harder against me.

It still isn't quite enough, so I stretch out under him, spread my legs wide as I can and raise 'em to hook over Fraser's, push my hips up hard and he bites me on the chin, bites my throat and sucks hard and Jesus, I'm coming, I'm coming and I explode, hot and slippery and out of breath and all I can see is the colors inside my eyelids, and all I can feel is that wrench and Fraser when he comes, more hot and slippery.

Reaction hits, I'm shaking like a leaf, panic revving my heart until my own heartbeat's all I can hear, but I hold on, wait it out and Fraser's all around me, a living blanket that keeps me warm, keeps the cold out of my heart and soul and hell, yes, my body.

"Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray," almost prayerfully. "Ray."

"S'good." It's all I can manage, but something more seems necessary. I'm not good with words, he knows that, so I put my face into his throat, breathe in the scent of Fraser and sex and shiver again. Fingers tangle in my hair and I close my eyes, breathing hard.

Fraser starts to shift and I tighten my grip, heart revving again. "Stay there." Hoarsely.

"I'm not going anywhere, Ray." Fraser's...Fraser's petting my hair or something and damned if it doesn't feel good. "But I'm heavier than you and this mattress is rather firm and I don't want to-"

"Shut up, Fraser." I sigh, smile against Fraser's skin. "'S good, just stay there."

Fraser does, and I feel his head turn, more kisses. My fingers loosen on Fraser's shoulders, he wasn't going anywhere, he says again that he won't and I'm fading, fading fast, nearly crack my jaw yawning and I nip Fraser's neck. "God. Sorry, Fraser, I'm losing it."

"Shhh." More hair petting and I nuzzle the stubble on Fraser's throat, stop worrying and let go.

After all, Fraser's here to catch me.

If I dream, I don't remember it when I wake up. Fraser's gone, though, and he's wrapped the quilt around me and I feel childishly let down that he's gone.

So I grab the quilt to keep it around me, get off the bed and get up. He's in the front room of the cabin, sort of crouching by the fire, staring at the pill bottle in his hand.

Erk. My pills. Odds are, I'll get a lecture for taking old medicine. "Hey," I say grumpily.

He turns to see me, smiles at me. "Ray."

I'm still grumpy. "You, um, left."

He blinks. "You were asleep, Ray. I was just clearing up."

Yeah, Kowalski, you jerk, grow up why don't you. "Oh."

But I'm too nervous to take another step forward. What if he's having second thoughts? What if he, ah-oh, shit, I never thought of this before, what if it was a charity fuck, Fraser's a soft touch underneath all that red serge.

He stands up, starts toward me, hesitates, and my stomach does a roll that isn't very happy. Then, all of a sudden, he has hold of me, arms wrapped tight, the man hugs like a bear, and even though we're close in height, he's broader and I make a sort of 'oof' sound as he squeezes. Okay, so much for second thoughts and charity fucks, but I feel this stupid grin show up under my nose, so I say, "Just wondered what was up."

He's practically rocking me against him, Fraser who is like the total white man without rhythm, never mind he can sing like nobody's business. "I stopped to check on the fire, but I was coming back in."

I have to admit, it feels kind of nice to be...oh, I don't know, cherished maybe. I tell the grumpiness goodbye. "Nice fire."

I feel his smile against my cheek. "Yes, it is."

I'm totally comfortable again, schizoid fuck that I am. "Shame to waste it."

"Well, strictly speaking, it's not going to waste, Ray, it does help keep the cabin heated."

Wait a minute, I think. "I thought you had a furnace."

"Such as it is." He rubs his cheek against mine. "Actually, the furnace works very well, I simply enjoy a fire. Would you like some tea?"

Okay, note to self, nuzzling is very good. Nuzzling with Fraser is better. "You got any hot chocolate? I'm about done on tea for a couple of days, I think."

He nips at my earlobe. "Actually, I do. Davy McKenzie brought our groceries up this afternoon while you were napping."

"I wasn't napping. I was just...waiting for the pill to hit." I yawn again. "I think, yeah, hot chocolate sounds good, if I have coffee, I won't get to sleep later."

"Actually, Ray, hot chocolate contains theobromine, which is chemically very close to caffeine."

"Fraser." I draw back, trying not to laugh. "Hot chocolate doesn't keep me awake."

Man, that smile of his is incitement to riot. "Strictly speaking, of course, what I have is cocoa and milk, if that will do."

I thump my forehead on his shoulder. "That's fine, Fraser." Strangled voice.

He nuzzles again, and looks surprised when I kiss him. Whoa, I get that back with interest, one of his hands sliding inside the quilt and cupping my ass, but that doesn't last long, he breaks free laughing. "Ray, I'd suggest you put some of my sweat pants on, at least. And socks."

I yawn. "I got sweats, Fraser."

He gives me a nudge toward my bag. "Hot cocoa it is, then."

I amble over to the duffel, still sitting on the floor near the fireplace. I pull the sweats on, and a pair of warm socks and a t-shirt, rewrap myself, and Dief makes room for me on the couch. I'm a happy man, even though I know I'm fucked up and will probably find something to obsess about in no time.

I watch Fraser messing around at the stove. "You need a television," I tell him.

Dief whines, and I like to think he's agreeing.

Fraser turns and gives us both a look. "I have a number of books you might enjoy."

I squirm a little inside. "I'm functionally illiterate." I get a pull-the-other-leg look and try to decide whether or not to come clean. "Well, see, there's a little problem there."

He adjusts the flame on the stove and comes to sit down at my feet, grabs them. "What kind of problem."

I squirm again. "Never mind, it's not important."

He nods absently, rubs my feet. Jesus, nobody ever did that and I'm stunned with pleasure in about a minute and a half, practically purring like a cat, it's a wonder Dief doesn't eat me. I can't help gasping, "You gotta thing for my feet, Fraser?"

"To be perfectly accurate, I have a thing, as you say, for every part of you." He gives me a butter-won't-melt smile and runs a thumb down the sole of my left foot.

"Hey!" I jerk it free, but halfheartedly, and he grabs it again. "Watch the feet, watch the feet."

"Oh, but I am." He gives me a long look that starts out smoldering and then shifts to something more businesslike. "Ray, I want to ask you something about the shooting. You said you were checking out some confidence game, looking for the perpetrators."

"Asking questions, yeah." I'm wary all of a sudden. "Why?"

"I'm not sure," he admits. "Do you remember what happened? Would you mind talking about it?"

I'm not sure I want to. I mean, Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, and maybe I'm not actually in denial, but I sure as hell don't want to spend all my time, or his time, thinking about it. "I dunno, Fraser. I think-I dream about it, ya know, and I'm not sure if that's remembering it, or if it's from somebody telling me about it."

Another long look. "What do you think you remember?"

I rub my face with both hands, sigh. "Okay. Yeah. There's a little bar down on the South side, old-fashioned kinda place, I drove down there to see what I could dig up. There were some kids hanging out by the door, it was open, and I said something to them about being underage." I frown, think about it. I can't see his face in my mind, there's just this blank space. I can't see what he's wearing, I can only see his shoes, highdollar athletic shoes. And I'm not even sure it's the right kid's feet I'm remembering. "I think I ignored all but the biggest one, big kid, mighta been about eighteen, maybe less. Showed him the mug shot, I think, or tried to. I think he freaked out a little when I said I was PD." My head thinks about whether or not I need a headache, small throb near the temple. "I think-he yelled something, turned like he was gonna go inside the bar, I mighta grabbed at him, maybe missed him, I dunno." Shake my head. "That's all I'm for sure about, Fraser. I think that's when the shooting started."

He nods at Ray, absently, considering the details. "Not surprising, Ray, considering how seriously you were injured."

Maybe I do need to come clean. "Did Welsh tell you everything? I mean, about, ah, me?"

"Mmhmm. He told me everything he knew." Brief sidelong smile. "I was interrogating him."

I'm relieved, no need to talk about it, he knows, it's not important. "Yeah? Wish I'd heard that."

The kettle starts making prewhistle sounds, and he looks over that way, lets go of my feet. "You weren't working with a partner, then?"

"Nah, I was working with a new guy, but he was out sick, had the flu." I see something flicker behind his eyes. "What, you think I was set up? Couldn't be, Fraser, only Welsh knew I was there, and Welsh is clean, he's got to be, he was dirty and wanted to get rid of me, he could have let me swing in the wind on that-"

He holds up a hand, his expression alarmed. "No, no, I don't know what's bothering me, precisely. Something doesn't quite feel right, and I can't put my finger on it."

Oh. I relax again. "Well, when it comes to you, let me know."

"You may count on that." Very seriously and he goes back to the kitchen.

I pull my legs up a little to make room when he comes back.

He gives me the mug and stands there a minute, just looking at me. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray." Softly, smiling the glacier-melting smile again.


"Lean up," he suggests and then I get it, I slide forward and he gets on the couch behind me, me between his legs and leaning back against his chest, and I actually wonder if I did die and this is like some sort of Ray Kowalski heaven or something. "That's better," he says.

"Yeah, at least I know you aren't one of those foot pervs." Smart ass mode, even though my throat hurts from just plain happiness. I think about that, and his fingertips stroke the inside of my wrist. Maybe he feels this happy, too. "Benton," I say, testing it.

His thumb rubs the inside of my elbow. "Yes?"

I feel stupid, but good. "Ben. Benny. Vecchio used to call you Benny."

"Yes, he did. You didn't seem to like it."

I ignore that. I didn't like Vecchio, and that was before he eloped with Stella. Guess that should have told me then what my priorities were. "What did your family call you?"

He wraps an arm around me. "Usually, Ben. Sometimes Benton, particularly if I were in trouble."

I smile a little, put my hand on top of his, and slide down a little to put my head back on his shoulder. "Mind if I call you Ben? Seems weird to call you Fraser in bed."

I hear his breath catch. "As you wish, Ray." Only not his usual 'as you wish', this one is soft and warm and I shiver.

"I wish. Ben's a good name." Oh, brilliant, Kowalski.

"I can't complain." He's nuzzling me again, and I can't complain either.

"Yeah, you coulda been Stanley Kowalski," I tell him.

"I suppose that's true. Although, you know, Ray, it does show some imagination on the part of your parents."

"Or an obsession with Marlon Brando." I take another sip of cocoa, it's just sweet enough, and richer than any hot chocolate I ever remember having. "'S good."

"My grandmother's recipe. I'm glad you like it."

I take in a breath. "You, uh, really okay with this?"

"More than okay." Then I feel his muscles go tense. "And you, Ray?"

Oh, shit, I worried him. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm good." A little shakily. "I'm better'n good. Ben."

He relaxes again. "Oh." Relieved.

"This is great." I'm tongue-tied again. "It's greatness. It's beyond greatness." I feel him start to shake, hear the soft chuff beside my ear and I realize he's laughing. "Hey, that's not funny!"

His arm tightens. "No, indeed. It's wonderful."

Two saps together. I guess that's better than just one of us. "You need a TV, Ben."

His beard stubble catches on my hair. "Ray, if a television will make you happy, I'll get three."

Guh. I mean, what do you say to that? If you're dumb Ray Kowalski, you say, "I can only watch one at a time, Ben."

And he's laughing again.

We talk about televisions for a little bit, he tells me there's actually cable in this neck of the woods, and I do mean woods, which boggles me more than the computers and Internet access for Mounties. We talk some more about old friends at the 2-7, and we talk about what winter is going to be like here. He doesn't mince words, he wants me to understand what's it going to be like. Frankly, I don't much care. Let me think, stuck in the dark in a cabin with Fraser or down the street from Fraser versus being stuck in a rehabilitation ward-that one's a no brainer even for the brain damaged, like me.

I finish my hot chocolate and rub my foot on his leg. "Bed." Firmly.

"Mmmhmm." Dreamy sort of sound, like he doesn't care if he moves again in his life. But I look at the clock and sure, it's only about 10, but I've got plans for the Mountie, and he gets up at the crack of sunrise.

"Bed," I say again, more firmly and take his empty mug. We have a brief tug of war. "I think I can handle putting them in the sink, Ben-ton." Irritably.

He starts laughing, then, just cracks up and it's the first belly laugh I have ever heard from Constable Benton Fraser. I get up, look at him and he's holding his sides.

He shouldn't have told me they called him Benton when he was in trouble, I think and grin before taking the mugs to the sink. Hey, I have to practice that tidiness thing if I'm going to be the Mountie's roommate, right?

And then we're in bed again, skin to skin, and it's slow and lazy kissing, and he feels good, kisses tender, and I decide it's my turn to do some exploring.

Warm body, and I'm taking my time, and he's not used to this, I can tell, he's a little tense at first, not like he doesn't like it, but like he's not sure what to do, and so I figure it's just going to take some work.

Heh. Work. No pain on my part, he even tastes good, and I start to appreciate his thing about tasting stuff. Taste all down the inside of one arm, and I nuzzle his armpit, which makes him catch his breath a little, and then I find out that his nipples are as sensitive as mine, and they get hard against my tongue. It's like riding a wave, because I'm half on top of him and he's moving like the sea, one arm around me. I keep taking little breaks to suck on his tongue, and he appreciates those, too. One thing about a guy, he can't pretend he likes it if he doesn't, and he's hard against my thigh and I start working my way down. Treasure trail, and even though I'm way nervous, I'm all over the idea of tasting his cock, and finally wrap my fingers around the base, trying to remember everything I like. He's slick, dripping, and I get a head rush just from knowing it's because of me, Frankenstein body or not. He tastes kind of salty, kind of sweet and I close my lips over the tip, just working the rim, and he just about comes off the bed when I flick it with my tongue. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray." Practically babbling.

I'm not great at this, and for the first time, I wonder how in the hell women manage to do this, like, is there an underground network passing on information about how to keep your teeth out of the way and your jaw from starting to ache? Fraser doesn't have any complaints, obviously, and he's got a hand on each side of my head, holds me there loosely, and he's groaning. I feel the muscles in his belly tense, and I know he's trying hard not to push in hard, and even though I'd probably choke at this stage of the game, I think it would be so hot if he'd just let go and fuck my mouth.

And then, his usual impulse strikes and I'm flat on my back, getting the breath kissed out of me, and while that's really great, I'm a little pissed. Which isn't fair, maybe I wasn't doing such a hot job, and whoa, wait a minute, that's apparently not what it is, because he's stretching out the other way and there's a Frasermouth wrapped around my cock, and I'm stunned stupid for about thirty seconds before I grab the Frasercock near my face and swallow it down.

It's a little distracting, that's what it is, even if I feel like I'm doing total meltdown, and not only does he kiss like nobody's business, he's giving head, and so am I, and I have to hold on to what little brain still works to keep from scraping him with my teeth when his finger, wet with spit, slides up my ass and hits, bingo, the magic button.

Don't get me wrong, I knew it was there, I'm not as stupid as I look, and besides, any guy's ever had a doc say 'turn your head and cough', knows the damn thing is there, even if the doc doesn't show anyone a good time, but nobody ever told me it could do that.

I'm groaning and moaning around the cock in my mouth and it slides in deeper, and I know I'm going to come in about ten seconds or less, and all of a sudden, I want him to come in my mouth, I pull at his ass, wanting him to just let go, fuck worrying about whether or not I choke, crazy Kowalski strikes again, getting my life endangered in wildly bizarre ways, although this one never occurred to me before.

He jerks his hips forward and somehow, I've got the rhythm, I'm in the groove, and I'm taking him deeper than I thought I could, still using my fingers to milk him, and then who the fuck cares, I try and scream around his cock, I'm coming, and Jesus, I thought it was intense before, this blows the top of my head off, and I feel him shuddering and then I do choke, a little, I swear, some comes out my nose-not the ideal, believe me-but I don't care yet, won't care until later, because he's licking me, gentle mouth, and Jesus, I try and hold on to that so I do the same, and it's thick and hot and leaves a tingle on my tongue and in the back of my throat. Hey, brain damaged or not, there are definitely nerves still working, and I'm shuddering myself, holding on to his ass with one hand to keep from shaking apart, and he's softening in my mouth, but still thick and I let him slip free, take in a deep breath and cough, and there's still a warm mouth on me, kissing me very gently.

I'm so sensitive from coming that I shudder again. And keep shuddering and then Fraser's all around me again, holding me tight, gentle kisses everywhere on my face, and I come out of my coma long enough to take a deep hot one from him. Jesus, I can taste me, which means that he can taste himself, and I quiver again.

"Ray," he keeps saying, kissing me each time on whatever he can reach. "Ray." Kiss. "Ray." Kiss. "Ray."

I'm all over that, I think I know just where he's coming from and that goes double for me. Unfortunately, I can't remember how to talk at the moment, so I just keep kissing him, whatever bits I can get. And I manage somehow to shop the shaking.

Interesting, in a way: get shot, die a couple of times, and your nervous system goes bonkers when you come. Hey, at least I'm not having seizures, which was another happy possibility back when I was still in really bad shape.

He strokes his palm down my back and over my ass, pulls me closer. "Am I dreaming this?"

Like a kid, seeing magic, and I'm so fucked up I start crying a little, because if there's anything Ray Kowalski ain't, it's magic. I manage to stop that shit pretty quick because he is totally alarmed, and I still can't get my brain in gear enough to tell him I'm okay, so I just keep kissing him.

He settles down after that, and just holds on to me, gets us both covered up and it's warm, like a nest. "Oh," I finally manage. "Wow."

He quivers. "Are you-"

"Better than good." Slurred voice, and I've got myself draped over him, how bad can it be?

He relaxes again underneath me, fingercombs my hair. "Great?"

"True greatness," I tell him, or rather I tell his left nipple, since I've squirmed down there.

Deep breath underneath me. "Right you are, Ray." A little shakily.

"More than greatness." I can hear his heartbeat, steady and strong. Good strong heart, big heart, and damn the soul of everyone that taught him he had to keep it all locked up, but bless them because that meant he was still alone when a wildman Chicago flatfoot showed up.

He shakes again, but that's laughter and I raise my head, look at him suspiciously. He puts a finger over my lips. "Greatness to the tenth power?"

I consider. "Maybe even more."

He rubs that fingertip on my upper lip. "Oh, Ray." Oh, jeez, another new smile, and this one makes me want to spend the rest of my life-if it takes that-to get another one just like it. I kiss his breastbone, squirm up and kiss the hollow of his throat, up a little more and I have that sensational mouth under mine again.

I want to spend the rest of my life kissing this mouth, and I'm wondering if somehow, someway, God, if he exists, might take a look down here and say, oh, well, he's earned it and let me make it happen.

Maybe I need to start saying the Act of Contrition more often.

Or something. My mother was always a big believer in the rosary, I could try that.

"Penny for your thoughts," he says softly, very softly.

"Canadian or American."

He shakes again. "American, they're worth more at the current rate of exchange."

"I'll give 'em to you free," I tell him and settle again, my head on his shoulder. "Just thinking how great it makes me feel when you laugh." Not quite a lie, but hey, I'm not ready.

"You bring me laughter, Ray." Serious voice. "You bring a lot of things into my life that I didn't realize I'd missed until you were gone and I didn't have them any more."

"Yeah." My throat is tight again. "Same here." And then, just because he said I could, I add, "Ben."

That earns me a kiss, and more nuzzling and I hate that I was hurt and that I'm still not back, because damned if I'm not doing the stereotype guy thing and getting sleepy again. I mutter something, and he kisses my eyelids and starts into a story about seal maidens, which are better than Iron maidens any day, and I drift off, seeing pictures of the sea behind my eyelids.

//...somehow, I know I'm dreaming, and that doesn't stop it, and I'm falling, my face is pressed against rough cement and I'm watching myself while a gang of uniforms and paramedics work over me and I really, really, really don't want to have this dream, and even though Fraser once told me how to change a lucid dream, I can't get anything to change....

And then it does, but not the way I want, there's this older guy standing next to me in full Mountie gear, and he's got hold of my arm. "No, no, son, it's a little disconcerting to watch, you really shouldn't."

I blink at him, and I know I know him, he looks too damn familiar, but he's not Frobisher, and that's the only older Mountie I can think of, and all of a sudden, we're standing in snow up to my ass, only it's not cold. "Yeah, trust me, I'd rather not." Shaky. "Where are we?" This reminds me a lot too much of Fraser hauling me up and down a mountain, and I know I was pretty far-gone then, too.

"You'll be all right, son," he tells me kindly. "You know how this comes out."

Yeah, I do, and I'm not any happier about that.

I try to figure out who he is without asking. I mean, it's my dream, I should know, shouldn't I?

"I made a lot of mistakes as a father," he tells me, only he's in that Mountie stance, never mind he's in snow up to his ass, "But Ben turned out well, I think. He's got a good heart."

I can agree with that, but I'm poleaxed. "You're Ben's dad," I say accusingly. "I oughta punch you in the head."

He just smiles. "You'll do," he says, approvingly.

"What the hell were you thinking about, leaving him alone after his Mom-do for what?" I'm now confused again, and we're standing on a beach. Cold fucking beach, it looks like the Bering Sea.

He just nods and starts to vanish like that cat in Alice in Wonderland, only it's not his smile that stays, it's this bugfuck fur hat that pops out at the last...//

And I'm awake, snickering into Ben's chest, still more asleep than awake and still seeing that stupid hat. It's dark, he's turned out the light, but he stirs a little, makes a questioning sound.

"...weirdest dream," I breathe and shift closer, put my arm across him. Warm and toasty Mountie, miles and miles of it, I think, and that makes me snicker again.

He puts his hand on my arm. "Hmmm?" Still half asleep himself.

I smile against his skin. This is real, not a dream, and hey, bugfuck dreams are hardly a problem. "Dreamt about your dad," I tell him drowsily and close my eyes again. "Mmm, he was talking to me when I got shot. After I got shot." I yawn, and settle again, and then he goes board stiff on me.

"My father?"

Wide awake voice, and it's like a bucket of ice water, I come all the way awake myself, and I've lost track of what's going on, and why he sounds that way. "What?" Totally out of it, zoned, and I can't tell if something just slipped past the damage or if I was just more asleep than awake. "What?" And I sit up, adrenaline rush, heart pounding. "What?" Fuck, fuck, fuck, what did I lose? What did I miss?

For a minute, it gets worse, I'm not sure where I am, but I know what that is, that's just the adrenaline, been there, done that a lot in the hospital. I remember how I'm supposed to breathe, wonder if there's a paper bag anywhere, stop worrying about where I am and the light comes on, making me squint.

Oh. Yeah. Fraser, oh, yeah, I'm all over that, warm and one arm around my shoulders. "Ray." Calm voice. "Ray, I'm sorry, I startled you awake." I grab hold of the calm and hang on to it, let it bring me back down. Heart slows down, panic starts to wash away. I do the breathing, nod and lean into his arm until I can think again, and okay, maybe I didn't lose anything.

"'M good, 'm fine." Finally.

He's frowning at me, not mad frowning, worried frowning. "What just happened here, Ray?"

I flap a hand at him. "Panic attack," I mumble. "Still happens. Nothing to worry about, I can deal."

His mouth goes kind of funny and tight. "Oh."

Eyebrow rubbing follows, and now I'm worried again. "S'okay, I just woke up sudden, Ben, it's no biggie."

More eyebrow rubbing. "I woke you up suddenly." Not quite harsh.

Oh, I am so not going to do this shit. "Wanna borrow some guilt, Ben? I've got plenty to spare." Snarky.

He looks like I slapped him. Stares at me.

But yes, like I said, Doc Heatherton wasn't totally off the beam, I'm on a roll now. "It's a fucking panic attack," and he doesn't even interrupt me to say anything about my language. "You said Welsh told you everything, did he forget to tell you this? First fucking time it happens, I thought I was dying, but hey, I was getting used to that, so I was pretty happy to hear it's just a combination of brain damage and post traumatic stress." Snarl, snarl, and oh, Christ, now he looks like he did when he said 'that's not buddies', and if I could tear out my own tongue, I would. I take a deep breath. "Sorry, sorry," I mumble. "Still high, I guess."

"He didn't tell me about brain damage," he says, tight unhappy voice.

Oh, fuck. I pull my knees up, put my arms around 'em and put my face on top. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Featherlight touch. "Ray. I'm sorry."

I'm not sure Humble Fraser is an improvement, but it lets me unclench enough to practically climb into his lap. He wraps his arms around me, and I'm not sure we're past it, but I'm not shaking and he's not shaking, and he puts his face against mine. "I'm sorry." Still humble, but more like himself.

I swallow hard. "Yeah, me, too."

He kisses my temple. "Will, ah, you tell me about this dream?"

It's fading already, like ink in the rain, and I sigh. "It was just freaky. I was talking to your dad, he took me away from the dream about--" I shrug. "I was trying to do that lucid dream thing you told me about and your dad shows up."

He doesn't say anything at first. "How annoying." I'm surprised to hear real temper in his voice. "Never mind," when I pull back. "I'm not angry with you, Ray, I'm annoyed with my father."

I blink at him. "Hey, it was a dream."

That bland Mountie look. "Perhaps." And then the bland Mountie is gone, and Ben is back and I get a very nice kiss. "I truly am sorry I woke you so suddenly."

"Well, if you kiss me again, I'll forget about it." Generously.

Oh, that gets him going, I see a hint of wickedness in the way that eyebrow lifts. "That hardly seems ethical. Bribery is-"

I lean forward and kiss him to shut him up. Works, and he turns out the light and we're settled down again and now that my heart has slowed down, I can relax again. I slide my hand down his belly, and he catches my wrist, laughs under his breath.

"Go to sleep, Ray."

"Spoilsport." But I'm asleep pretty quick anyway, so maybe the Mountie was right again.

I get a kiss in the morning when I'm barely awake, a murmur that coffee is ready for me anytime I'm ready for coffee, a bribe if I stay in bed and go back to sleep, and I roll into the warm spot Fraser left and go back to sleep.

When I wake up, it's definitely daytime, and the place is quiet. I consider going back to sleep, just getting it all out of my system, but I'm feeling pretty damn good, and I decide to get up.

Coffee's still on hold, and it's a little strong, just the way I like it. Dump some Smarties in, find the scones Fraser remembered to bring home last night, and eat a couple, then a couple more. Wow. I'm hungry, not just empty, I always knew that anything that felt as good as sex had to be good for you.

I mosey around a little, taking my time, shower and shave and listen to some music while I have another cup of coffee, and then, just because I can, I put on my parka, find Fraser's extra gloves in the pocket, and get my bad self down to Fraser's office.

Rose McKenzie is standing outside saying goodbye to someone and waves at me, so I change course to say hi and thank her for the scones again. There's actually a reason for the street, there's a pickup truck in front of the store, and it pulls away as I cross.

Rosie twinkles at me. "Did you eat them?"

"Every one of 'em," I tell her, a little guiltily. "I pigged out."

She laughs. "I'll send some more, don't look like that, I wouldn't let Benton Fraser go without, or you either, for that matter. You know, we've heard a lot about you."

Uh-oh. I think my mouth must have been open, because she grinned, tapped my chin. "You didn't think he'd talk about you?"

I think about it, and I'm still surprised. "Didn't think about it, I guess."

She chuckles. "May I offer you a cup of coffee?"

I shake my head. "Gotta show Fraser I'm still alive, I was dead to the world when he left."

She laughs and waves me on, and I head on down to the office, open the door and there's some strange guy in Mountie red leaning against the edge of Fraser's desk talking to him.

He looks toward the door when I open it, and the poor bastard he's talking to might as well be invisible, and sweet Jesus, I feel about ten feet fall and ready to wrestle mountain lions from that look. Me. Jesus.

The other Mountie-I can't think of his name even though Fraser told me, more holes in the head-turns around and looks curiously at me. Blinks.

"Ray," Fraser says, standing up. I swear, I can almost see him wishing he could hug me, and shit, I want to warn him not to look so....naked in front of this guy. "Did you get something to eat?"

"Just had breakfast," I tell him, then, "I, ah, ate all the scones."

I can tell he approves, hell Dief jumps me to look for crumbs.

"Dief! Down."

I ruffle Dief's ears and the other guy is still studying me. "Ray, I'd like you to meet Constable David Brett," says Fraser, oblivious to the fact that he's doing that glacier melting thing. "Constable, my friend and former partner from Chicago, Ray Kowalski."

Brett nods, looking enlightened suddenly. "Ray Kowalski," he says and shakes my hand, "An honor to meet you, sir."

Sir? Oh, weird, this guy looks about twenty and barely old enough to shave suddenly. "Thanks," I say, tongue tied again. "Anything interesting happening?"

"Not today," Brett tells me, and Fraser points at a chair. "Thankfully, it's been quiet for my holiday, which is good, I'd have felt terrible if things had been busy while I was gone."

Uh oh, a Fraser wannabe. I nod, take the cup of tea Fraser insists on giving me and sit down. Oh, this is sweet, somebody's been thinking about me, and if that doesn't show how unhinged I am right now, getting sappy over tea with sugar, nothing will. I look over at Fraser, and I'm gone, then, I nod and say stuff in all the right places, but I feel like I've got my Fraserdetector on and every time he shifts, even though he's trying to look attentive, I can feel the heat coming off us in waves.

So much for worrying about Yukon being cold.

Brett finishes his conversation with Fraser and goes back to work, and I scoot my chair closer to the desk and then grin idiotically. "Hi."

He smiles. "Did you sleep well?" Smolders at me.

God, the Mountie can smolder, I feel myself reacting to that and I'm damn glad I'm too scrawny for my own jeans, and that I'm wearing one of his sweaters. He takes note of that, I swear he does, and smolders harder. "I'm just going to make the rounds," he tells Brett, without looking at him and gets up.

Brett glances up from his work, nods, and goes back to it.

I swallow some more tea, watch Fraser put on his coat and hat, and then, pitter-patter, I'm following him out. I grin at him once the door closes. "Crazy Mountie, you trying to get us arrested?"

He raises an eyebrow, nods politely at someone across the street. "You look...splendid."

I look splendid, I think, and get those eyes on me, and forget what I was going to say, something smartass, I'll bet. "Unh."

That satisfies him, I swear, alpha wolf all the way. Wonder what that makes me. We walk down the street, not even saying anything, and heh, maybe sex is good for damaged nerves, too, because my Fraserdetector is working like nobody's business and I'm warm from head to foot, I almost feel good enough to dance. "So, do I get my reward?"

Sidelong look. Hot, hotter, hottest. "Oh, yes, I believe you've fulfilled all the conditions I set out."

Heh. He told me he couldn't fulfill all his lurid fantasies if he was worrying about me being rested. Hey, I was never on the pad in the PD, so hell if I'm going to turn down a bribe like that.

"Great. Greatness." I hum a little Santana, do a little Kowalski move that catches him off-guard and sweet Jesus, the look that gets, like the sun rising over the Bering Sea, and I can't even say a word, it hits me so hard.

"You look splendid," he says again, a little tightly, runs his finger around his tunic collar.

Tell the truth, I feel pretty damn splendid. "So do you," which is true, and I haven't felt this good in forfuckingever. I grin. "So, great. Greatness. What sounds good for dinner."

He blinks at me. "What?"

"Hey, I can cook, Ben." I do that move again, and his eyes glaze. Music in my head, and music in my feet, and fuck Heatherton's gloom and doom, I'm good, I'm really, really good. "Shit, I'll have to see what you've got, I didn't think to check. I pat my pocket, yeah, wallet's there. "What sounds good, Ben?" I can do this, how much stamina does cooking take? I grin at him again.

We're at the end of the street now, and I don't even know how we got there.

He looks at me and his lips hardly move, I can just see a hint of his teeth. "Do you have any idea of what I want to do to you right now?" Practically soundless.

I blink, my dick goes instantly hard and I'm very damn glad I'm wearing the parka, and I feel like my skin is sunburned. My brain, unfortunately, is completely blank.

He gives me another tight smile. "Whatever you like, Ray. I'm sure it will be very tasty."

Fuck me, my legs are wobbly all of a sudden and my mouth is stone dry. "Unh. Sure. Okay."

We walk around town for another little while, and I don't know how I make it, because all I can think of is that glimpse of...alpha wolf and I'm going to have the worst case of blue balls by the time he gets home. We go back to the office, and somehow I manage to make polite conversation with Brett, he introduces me to his wife, who insists on making me a sandwich, and Fraser must look normal, I must look normal, but he's watching me eat and I'm half afraid he's going to leap over his desk and jump me right there.

Only half.

Another walk back to the cabin, I check the fridge Fraser keeps in the utility room and find all kinds of stuff, some of it normal food, not like Nanook of the North food.

All frozen packages are neatly labeled in Fraser's handwriting, I decide even I can do fish, so I go for it. A little music on the stereo, and I manage to cool off a lot, manage to lose myself in the music, and by the time Fraser gets home, the kitchen smells pretty good, if I do say so myself, and I'm moving in the livingroom. Not limber exactly, not great moves, but I'm dancing, and the music is loud enough that I don't hear him come in.

I've got Marvin on, Sexual Healing, to be exact, and I'm laughing at myself because I'm thinking that yeah, Fraser's done more for me in 48 hours than the last month in the hospital, and when I turn around there's a Mountie standing there looking like that damn sunrise or the aurorawhatsis, and he looks so damn naked and vulnerable that I'm going alpha now, and I think I'll just rip out the throat of anybody who ever makes that light dim.

Not going to be easy, not with two guys who both want to be alpha, I guess, but we've gone through that before and maybe I can think of a better way than punching each other in the head. So I grin like a doof and slide over the hardwood floor in my socks, and oh, yeah, Fraser, I'm all over hugs like this, and I think maybe I'm teaching him it's not a crime to like that.

He buries his face in my neck, laughs against my skin. "I fear I'm becoming quite unhinged, Ray."

"You always were," I tell him, still grinning. "But if you think I'm going to complain when I get the benefit-"



"Shut up." He lifts his head again, and there's that wicked glint in his eyes, and I wonder how long he's been waiting to say that.

My jaw drops, for sure, and then I get kissed, damn alpha, and Dief scratches at the door and we have to let him in.

He gives Fraser a reproachful look, like Fraser forgot him, and Fraser says, "If you will insist on chasing every scent you catch, you can wait until I open the door."

Dief ignores this with dignity and trots into the kitchen to get a drink of water.

"Willful," Fraser mutters and turns back to me again. "Something smells very good."

"Nothing fancy, found some fish, threw some stuff together."

"Ah." He hugs me again. "I think I'll get out of this uniform."

"Can I watch?"

Little flick of his tongue on his lower lip, and he's smoldering. "That might be, ah, dangerous, unless dinner can wait." I think about that, looking at that smolder. Dinner can wait, I think, and he laughs softly, kisses me hard. "Dinner." Pokes me in the ribs. "You need a bit more padding on those bones, Ray."

I give him a look. "Ben-ton, you have gotta stop worrying about me every minute. Did I break last night?"

"Hmm." He's thoughtful, the smolder banked down. "You have a point."

Jesus, he didn't exactly back down, but he's listening, and I think about that, and it makes me feel goofy again. "Okay, if it makes you feel better to watch me eat first, fine. I'm feeling mag-ah, generous."

Faint smile. "Magnanimous?"


So he grabs me, swear to God, alpha again, we wrestle our way into the bedroom, and I'm laughing my fool head off, only all he does is wrestle me down on the bed, which I made, kiss me hard and leaves me there.

"Bastard." I roll over to watch him undoing buttons.

"My parents, I assure you, were legally married." He's giving me that wicked look again.

I wonder if he'll let me stay here forever. He keeps letting me see more and more of what's behind the Mountie shield, and I've got it bad, want to just plain plug him into my veins and ride that high. Let's see, what can an American in Canada do to make a living, and how long before I get kicked out for no visible means of support?

"Penny," he says, watching me.

"American or Canadian," I say smartly.

"We established last night that the rate of exchange-"

"Thinking about you."

He stops in the act of hanging up the red serge, looks at me. "Perhaps you'd care to elucidate."

I laugh. "Talk dirty to me, Ben, I love those fifty dollar words of yours."

Arched eyebrow. "Ray."

My face goes hot, he's not letting me off the hook. "Just wondering how long you'll let me get away with mooching."

Sober, sober Mountie, and he's back on the bed, nose to nose. "Mooching?" Fingertip on my eyebrow.

Boy, it's hard to meet those eyes sometimes. "Well, you know-"

"Not mooching," he says firmly, then, because he knows I'm a moron, "Well, I suspect I have a high tolerance, and as you say, we aren't young any more, so...." Kisses me.

That's good. Nothing bad about that response, and even if he's not cutting loose, we both get about half hard, and I'll take whatever I can get of him, touching him, him touching me.

And then he kisses my eyelids again and rolls off the bed. He's facing away from me when he says, "Ray."

"Yeah?" I'm feeling lazy, rubbing my finger over my lips, liking how sensitive they are.

"Wolves mate for life." His back's to me.

Like I said, I know about subtext, but this floors me, scares me, gets me high. I'm having trouble getting my breath, and I know what he's saying, and I'm suddenly scared shitless, because Ray Kowalski has already fucked up one relationship, and I don't want to ever hurt him. He looks around finally, once he's got jeans on, and his face is flushed, and he looks-he looks naked and vulnerable again, as scared as I am.

"Yeah?" I manage to say, and think, oh, great, intelligent, brilliant, he's going to think you're blowing him off, and then I add, "Sounds pretty fanfuckingtastic to me." Okay, so it's not hearts and flowers, it isn't sweet, but like I said, we have a lot of these weird conversations, so he must be reading me the way I'm reading him, because he's looking plenty relieved, and a lot happy, and I can see his hands shaking a little when he pulls his shirt on.

I put my face in the bed because I'm little kid scared, and if I start bawling again, I'm going to punch myself in the head. Pretty soon, I feel the mattress dip and a big warm hand on the back of my neck. "Ray?"

I really, really don't want to look at him until I've said my say, squirm over and put my face against his thigh. "Ben." Throat hurts, and I have to swallow hard. "You-I want to do right by you, but you know what a shithead I am, and I don't ever-"

"Shhhh." He sounds calm again, easy. "Ray, stop it."

"I can't stop it." I'm babbling. "Because I want this, Ben, I want you, but you're this big alpha wolf-" I try and pull my thoughts together."

"And you don't want to show me your throat?" He sounds amused and confused at the same time.

I lift my head. "Hell, that's not it, I do that all the time, but Ben, will you? Can you? Because I'm not easy to live with, I know that, believe me, I know that, and-" I run out of words, lose track of what I'm saying, and he's looking down on me with that little line between his eyebrows and then he hauls me up and puts two fingers on my mouth.

We look at each other for a minute. "It won't be easy," he finally says, "Not always. I-quite the contrary, Ray, you seem to me to be very easy to live with, you ask very little of me, and I, ah, take shameful advantage of that by asking a great deal of you." He doesn't sound happy about it, he sounds a little embarrassed.

I think he's nuts and I tell him that.

He sighs, closes his eyes for a second, then opens them, smiles at me like morning and lifts his chin, baring his throat.

Oh, Jesus. All the blood in my body goes shooting south, and I knock him down, straddle him, kiss him.

He puts his hands on my face, real gently, not alpha this time, more like he's just memorizing me. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray." Softly.

"You don't ask all that much of me, Ben." I kiss his eyelids like he does to me. "I don't know what the hell you want with a scrawny fucked up Polack, but hey, I'm here."

His eyes are bright, too bright. "Indubitably here," he says huskily and rubs his thumb on my eyebrow. "And Ray, kindly stop referring to yourself as fucked up."

I start laughing. "Okay, Ben, I'll try. Dane bramage and all."

He blinks, gets the joke, but doesn't seem to think it's that funny. Whacks me on the ass, but the angle's wrong and he can't put much behind it.

A little more necking, and then I lift my head and sigh. "Okay, dinner, right?"

He has this sort of glazed expression. "Hmm? Oh, yes, dinner."

So we manage to get untangled and go out into the kitchen, but we end up eating Ray Kowalski style, tangled up on the couch, or at least leaning against each other. He insists on cleaning up after, since, "You did the cooking, Ray, it's a fair exchange of labor," and I wrestle Dief for my share of the couch, which earns Dief a look from Fraser.

I think that's pretty funny. "How many alpha wolves in a pack, Ben?"

"In this pack?" His eyes glint. "Too many, I'm afraid this is not an ordinary pack."

I decide right then that the wicked glint is a major turn-on, and I leave the couch to Dief and go into the kitchen to start bothering him while he's finishing up. Slide my hands down the back of his jeans, and he makes this funny smothered kind of yelp, but can't quite get at me to stop me.

"Someone" he tells the kitchen sink, "Is looking for trouble."

I squeeze his ass, warm and pretty silky under my hands, firm muscle underneath smooth skin. "Yeah? What kind of trouble."

"Serious trouble," he says thoughtfully.

Never dare a Kowalski. I pull my hands out, slide my arms around his waist and start unbuttoning his jeans.

"Very serious trouble," he adds and pushes his ass against me.

I'm snickering against his back, slide my hand inside his shorts-starch, I ask you, who starches their boxers?-and oh, yeah, warm flesh in my hands, already thickening. Ben's cock, I think, in my hand and whoa, that's a concept, ladies and gentlemen, I never much thought about it, but kind of figured the only cock I'd ever be holding was my own, and there's something scary and hot about that idea, too. I rub my thumb over the very tip, and he shudders, his cock gets thicker fast and if you think it's not a turn-on to know I'm doing that to him, you're smoking crack.

I'm grinding myself against his ass, but all my attention is on what I'm holding. I wonder what it's like to get fucked, and have to hold on to him to keep from falling down, my knees get that wobbly, and I bite the back of his neck, which makes him shudder again. "Serious trouble." Thick, aroused voice, thick aroused cock, and he pulls the plug on the sink to let the water drain, not that I'm paying much attention to that, I'm too busy acting like a lunatic, stroking and pulling at his cock and humping his ass.

Sexual healing, I think and my knees wobble. Oh, yeah, Marvin, no shit, you knew what you were talking about, and that's about all I have time to think because alpha Fraser's back, he whips around so fast I have to let go of him so I don't do major damage, and the bastard grabs me, leans down, and wham, he's doing a fireman carry, and my mouth is hanging open in surprise, all the blood that's not parts south is going to my head.


He growls. And I'm so turned on that my hair is standing up straighter, and I'm laughing my ass off, and I'm thinking, wolf pack, wolves, and neither of us is even hairy enough to be a wolf. I'm on the bed and buck naked before I can practically get my breath-well, pants off anyway, and that mouth is all over me, which pretty much turns off thinking, and then, when he has me totally brainless, he gets the sweater and shirt off me, and works his way down again.

I take it back, there's one part of my brain still tracking and the only thing it's good for is throwing up pictures of what might have happened if I'd ever pulled this on a stakeout, clothes flying everywhere and then Fraser pushes my legs further apart, and dives down and I nearly come off the bed when his tongue hits me. There's just enough oxygen getting to my brain to let me think I'm very glad I showered earlier, and then I'm just a pile of quivering flesh, legs drawn up while his tongue strokes me open and I'm making these ridiculous noises and jerking my ass up with each flick of that tongue. The things Fraser puts his tongue on, and he's fucking me with it now, and I hear myself finally begging, "Fuck me, fuck me, please, Ben, please, please-"

Believe me, the Mountie is long gone, and the only guy left in there is wolf, he lifts his head and he looks-Christ, like some pagan god or something, and he slides a finger inside me, searching until he finds the magic button and my cock spurts a little, but I'm not quite coming, but the noises I'm making are enough to make me glad this cabin isn't in town.

"Fuck me," I rasp, and he bends down and takes my balls into his mouth, one by one, and another finger joins the first and it hits me, he's stretching me, getting me ready and that's it, the brain melts down.

It's not that easy, the second finger burns a little, but he knows what he's looking for and I'm writhing on those fingers until they pull out and I'm dry-mouthed and scared and so turned on I can't stand it. "Ben!" Weak little voice. "What the fuck are you doing?"

Because he's off the bed and over at his dresser, comes back with a tube of something cool and slick and those fingers slide in easier now, way easier, and I'm mindlessly working myself on them again, he's got my cock in his mouth while he works me.

That's not what I want, I put one heel on his shoulder to get his attention. "Fuck me," I growl.

Smoldering look. "I will."

Oh, unh. Fine. Thank you kindly, Ben, Fraser, Corporal Fraser, sir. A third finger and I'm almost off the bed for a minute, little burn there, little more than before, but it's slick and he lets me get used to it, and since his cock has got to be thicker than that, I figure it's a good idea and settle back down to more mindless humping.

Not for long. When the Mountie says he's going to do something, by God, he does it, and my legs are over his shoulders and there's something thick and hot pushing against me, and I take in a deep breath, let it out, my fingers white knuckled on the bedding.

I don't know how the fuck he's going so slow, he looks like he wants to just drive in, spike my ass, hammer me again and again with his cock, but he pushes in, gives me a minute to get my breath before he pushes again.

Definite burn, and I want to bite my lip, but he's watching my face, and I don't want the Mountie to change his mind at the last minute, I want this, even if it hurts, and then he's all the way in, right up to the root of his cock, leaning over me and panting. Thick, hot, and I reach down, feel where I'm impaled and shudder. The burn's sort of easing up, and he moves, slow and easy, lots of slick down there, and Christ, he moves just right, at just the right angle and who the fuck cares about the burn, do that again, and I'm babbling it like a loon, he does it again and that's it, I'm all over that, I push my ass back into it, and he has to stop a minute, get better leverage, and his slippery fingers close over my cock, which wasn't exactly sure about this a minute ago, but is rapidly getting stiff again.

Okay, yeah, it's like dancing, find the rhythm, Kowalski, and I do, and I'm pushing back into him, and he's pushing his hips down a little harder, a little faster, jerking my cock with one hand while his other hand grips my left thigh, up almost to my hip. Leverage, and Christ, we're in the groove, moving together, and if I thought last night was good, this is going to be nuclear, I'm not sure I'm going to live through it.

Sweat drips from him to me, pools on my belly and even that makes me crazy, I twist and arch up and fuck, fuck, fuck, he's hitting that spot again with his cock and I feel it start at the base of my spine and I'm practically screaming now, fuck me, fuck me.

He's growling and I'm gibbering, and I swear, I come so hard I nearly black out, and what pushes me over that edge is I swear I can feel him starting to come, hot and slick, inside me.

When I can see again, when I can breathe again, he's leaning over me on his arms and I grab him, pull him down. He's starting to slip out of me, and even though I can tell it's going to be a little hard to sit down for a while, I hate that, so I hold on to him instead, and his weight feels good.

One thing about fantasy, you can't get that, it's all imaginary sensation, and this is the real thing.

He turns his head, kisses me deep, and I suck on his lower lip, nip his upper lip and he sighs into my mouth. Oh, yeah, buddy breathing, and I breathe back for him, and he tries to roll off, so I lock my legs.

Kiss on my throat and I feel him shake a little, think he's laughing.

He's not, there's something hot and wet on my neck and that scares the shit out of me. "Ben?" A little shaky.

He kisses my throat, nuzzles, and raises his head. "You," he says and stops, shakes his head, eyes wet. Tries again. "Ray," husky voice, then, "I cannot imagine what I've ever done to deserve you."

Okay, now my eyes are wet. "Bad karma," I tell him, and he bites my chin, not real gently. "Ow!"

He smolders at me a little. "Good karma," he growls and then kisses the bite. "Hot bath?"

"You having one?" Really, I'm ready to crash, never mind that I'm sticky and slippery from chin to crotch. But if he wants a hot bath with me, he gets one.

"Of course." Another kiss to my throat, and he shifts, looks down at us both. Laughs a little in his throat.

"Messy," I say and yawn, and watch him sit up. Heh. I've marked him, just above his left nipple is a suck mark. "Mine," I say and point.

He looks down, and I swear, he smirks at me. "Marking territory?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm all over that territorial thing, Ben."

He grins, leans over me, and kisses my mouth. "You're all right?"

"Ben-ton." Warning him.

Get nipped for it, too, and he gets up, stretches. Fuck, beautiful man, sex on legs, and I think he mostly doesn't have a clue about that. Something hits me, and I push myself up. "You done this before? With a guy, I mean?"

Surprised expression. "No, Ray. Why do you ask?"

I look around, point at the tube. "You, ah, kinda know what you're doing."

He goes red all over when he blushes. "It requires only a little research, Ray, to determine the optimum method, Proper Preparation-"

"Research doesn't include having this," I say, feeling wicked, and tap the tube. "And it's not new, you've used some."

Another wave of red. "I'm sure if you use your imagination, Ray, you'll be able to determine why."

Heh. "Thinking of me, were you?"

"Every day, Ray. Every day." He leaves, still flushed all over, and not just from the sex.

I grin and shift a little, wincing. Yeah, I'm going to be a little sore, but it was worth it.

Definitely, it was worth it.

Hot water and we just barely manage to get both of us in the tub, old fashioned or not, but I'm not complaining, feels good on sensitive parts, and Ben's behind me, wallowing, he calls it, in lazy luxury. "Ray," he says, a little tentative, "Will you tell me what Lt. Welsh didn't?"

I think about that, sigh. Feeling good today makes it easier, I mean, I was dancing. Probably shuffling, but hell if it didn't feel great. "I was in pretty bad shape, Ben. I don't remember a lot of the early bits, those are just gone, out of there. I guess I practically bled out before they got me to trauma, and when that happens-and my heart quit a couple of times, that didn't help." I shrug. "You know, brain doesn't get enough oxygen, shit happens. No blood volume, other stuff shuts down, not just the brain. Saw a kid once, got stabbed, some dumbfuck fight, nearly bled out, and he's in a wheelchair, has trouble talking, they had to do something to his tendons to keep him from, um, I don't know what they call it, it's like the tendons draw up and get shorter. Brain damage."

He's very still behind me. I lean back against him, just to remind me none of that happened to me. Well, mostly, anyway. "I think the first thing I remember is my folks. And that fucking respirator. Christ, I was totally zoned and I hated that thing, they kept me tranked pretty good to keep me from fighting it. First good thing I remember is getting rid of that thing. But I was pretty gone for a while, couple of weeks, they weren't sure I was going to, ah, come out of it." I hear my voice, pretty clipped, matter of fact. "Coma." The word comes back to me, "Yeah, I was in a coma." I laugh a little, because there is something funny about that, even if it's dark, soap opera city. "No head injury, just blood loss. So it took me a while to get back." Do I really want to tell him about struggling to talk, to find the words that got lost in the dark? "Took a while." Sitting in a wheelchair looking at pictures and trying to tell the doc what the pictures were. Finally getting memories back, which they didn't expect to happen. Being able to say Dad and my dad's tears when he hugged me after that. "Um. Did Welsh tell you when this happened?"

"No." Very soft voice, and his thumb is drawing a pattern on the inside of my elbow.

"This is October, right? It's been-um, six months. I'm Heatherton's miracle patient, he says, too damn stubborn to lie down and die. I should still be in a wheelchair, learning to talk again, she says."

That makes him shudder and his arms go around me. Wolves mate for life, I think, and it's not fair for me not to tell him just what he's getting himself into. "I'm still not back all the way, Ben." This is harder to talk about. "You know, even if I get to where I can pass the physical, I still got some problems."

He doesn't say anything. "Difficulty processing written language," he murmurs.

How does he do that. Well, he detects, Kowalski, and maybe I can take some comfort that he's observing me so damn close that he already has it figured out. "Yeah, that's one." I sigh again. "Panic attacks, shrink thinks that might be as much the respirator and coma as getting shot. You know, being restrained and tranked and all that shit. Heatherton says I'm unstable, the shrink says maybe a little, Heatherton thinks it's the damage, the shrink says it's post traumatic stress shit." I sigh again. "They don't much like each other."

"I think I find the psychiatrist's explanation more plausible." He kisses the back of my neck. "I admit to some prejudice, but you always have been emotionally volatile, Ray, and if the damage were organic, I would expect to see greater loss of control."

I have to admit, that makes me feel good. "Yeah?"

"Indeed. And there is the fact that the psychiatrist has far more experience at determining emotional patterns."

There is that, I think. I'm not a fan of shrinks, hey, but I'm smart enough to know when I'm fucked up, that damn shrink knows everything. Even about Fraser, and how I feel about him. Maybe I should at least call him and tell him I'm okay.

I decide to think about it later. "And I've got a leaky memory, never know for sure what's going to stick with me, what I'm going to lose. So if I start telling you any stories you've already heard, stop me." Joking with him.

"Understood." I get another kiss on the back of my neck.

My eyes sting. "Ben, you've gotta promise me you're not going to freak out every time I have a panic attack or forget stuff."

"I'm unlikely to freak out, as you say, if I understand what's happening." Easy tone, matter of fact. "Thank you for telling me, Ray."

"Freak," I say and lean back against him.

Low rumble of laughter. I love his laugh, I squirm against him, even though there's about zero chance, given how hard I came and how tired I am right now. "Ray," he says happily, "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray."

Okay, neither of us has used the L word, maybe, and we're guys, maybe we won't actually ever get to saying it, but I know how I feel, and I can hear how he feels. Wolves mate for life, he says, and just like that, I am one big puddle of happiness. "Ben," I say back, "Ben, Ben, Ben." And we're both laughing, then, and he hugs me and then it's all business, he's washing my back, and I squirm around and soap him up, and we're both loons, that's all I can say.

Okay, I think, lying in bed with him spooned up behind me, I got past it all, I told him everything, and the damn fool Mountie doesn't have sense enough to run, who am I to try and make him? Damaged, but not stupid, and I'm not throwing this away, and I put my hand over the arm he's got wrapped around my belly and close my eyes.

Maybe I can be happy after all.

The days follow into a kind of rhythm, after that, like we've gotten past something that was holding us back. Fraser actually brings home a television, and two days later, after some work by Jack and Davy McKenzie, and Fraser, I'm watching more than just CBC, I'm getting American sports-which, let me tell you, is a relief, because curling is the most totally mind numbing sport to watch. Maybe it's more exciting live. I hope so, because if it's not, the Mountie and Turnbull were more unhinged than I thought.

It snows just when Fraser said it would, so we're tramping around in the snow after that, and I forgot my Mukluks, have to call my folks anyway, so I ask my mother to pack some stuff up and ship it. I ask my dad if he'd mind getting my apartment packed up and in storage, since I'm not exactly sure when I'll be back. I tell my dad that anyway, because I know I'm not ever going back. I'm damaged, not stupid.

They agree, mostly because they're so damn relieved that I'm fine, I'm doing better, Fraser tells them he thinks that Heatherton was dead wrong, though not in those words, and my dad gets choked up on the phone when he's talking to me.

I call Merriman, the shrink, and he insists we have a session on the phone, makes me promise if the panic attacks start getting worse to see somebody up there, tells me he'll try and settle Heatherton down, make things good so I don't get my ass in a sling pension wise. He even makes me feel like I did the right thing, coming up here, and I'm not sure why he thinks so, but it's kind of nice to have somebody say, yeah, Kowalski, you're a little fucked up yet, but you're sane. Not in those words.

Somehow, word gets around that I have a clue about engines, and Fraser thinks that's funny, teaches me about the barter system. So, I help out there, and Fraser calls Thatcher, who thinks better of him than I thought, they get some of the nastier paperwork rolling on making me Canadian.

Hey, I'm still American, it's just that here is home. That's what I get for falling for a crazy Canadian Mountie.

So, I settle in, and whatever anybody figures out, nobody says anything to us, and Fraser, in a post this small, gets called out, and I get to know Brett and his wife Mae a little better and life is good, damn good, it's greatness.

Mae's a pretty girl, maybe 24, which makes me feel ancient, and she's got the first bun in the oven, and she fusses over me as much as Rosie does. Maybe it's a Canadian woman thing, I didn't get this much fussing as a kid from my own mom.

I know for sure Rosie and Mae have it figured out, I can tell by their eyes, but Fraser-he's just oblivious.

Besides, both Rosie and Mae have said things, like they're trying to let me know without offending anybody, that they don't give a shit about whether or not Fraser and me are more than cop buddies.

Life is greatness, even if it's dark most of the day, now, as we head toward Christmas, and I've got the banking situation sussed, my pay gets deposited about forty miles away, and we go down to get it.

First time, Fraser gives me the keys to the jeep, I just look at him. "Er, Ben, there's a problem."

He arches an eyebrow, and I'm too aware of David Brett, working at his desk. "A problem, Ray?"

"I, ah, I'm not supposed to drive." It's embarrassing is what it is. Brett gives me a quick glance up, looks away pretending he didn't hear anything.

I have to tell you, Canadians are polite, even if there's hardly anybody like Fraser. Brett comes close, he's pretty earnest.

Fraser's doing that eyebrow thing again. "Oh."

"Pardon me, sir, but if you were to drive over to Whitehorse, you could pick up some things from the post there, things they were going to ship out next week." Brett actually blushes, just because he has to sort of admit that he's following our conversation.

Fraser looks relieved. "Right you are. If you'd be so kind as to give them a call, let them know to expect us."

"Glad to, sir." Brett reaches for the telephone and Fraser reaches for his coat.

He doesn't say much until we're on the road, and I'm a little nervous. "Why can't you drive, Ray," he finally asks me, but he's not mad, just curious.

I relax. "Heatherton, basically. I mean, I couldn't drive then, hell, I could barely remember how, but it sort of ended up on official records." Which completely pissed me off at the time and I had a shouting match with Heatherton that gave him some support for the instability thing.

"Hmmm." His mouth goes a little tight and funny. "In another week, you'll see the doctor at the clinic. We can get that cleared up."

"Don't count on it," I tell him drily, "Not if he's got Heatherton's records."

"We'll see."

Now he sounds pissed. "While I'm certainly grateful to Dr. Heatherton for saving your life, I will not continue to allow his shortsightedness to curtail your activities."

That's so Fraser. I put a hand on his thigh. "Chill, Ben, it's okay." Nice to know we're both alpha about watching each other's backs.

I get a narrow look at that, but I feel the muscles under my hand relax after a few minutes. "So," he says, sounding happier, "We'll take a bit of time and look around Whitehorse, then, shall we?"

"Sounds pretty damn good to me," I tell him, and hey, we're good.

Whitehorse isn't big like, say, Chicago is big, but it's bigger than I thought it would be, and I have to admit, by the time we leave, I'm tired, I'm not used to so many people, and they worked my nerves bad. Still, we got the stuff for the post, we even got some stuff Fraser thought I needed, and we ate at a real restaurant. Not to mention taking a little time while Fraser was picking up official Mountie stuff to pick him up a few presents, since it is almost Christmas.

We get home, and Brett greets us and helps Fraser carry in Mountie stuff, and Davy McKenzie shows up with Tom Ellery.

"Fraser," says Ellery, nodding. "Got some boxes for Kowalski. Thought I'd wait, give you guys a hand carrying 'em up the hill."

Fraser blinks, smiles. "Thank you kindly, Tom."

Davy, a big rangy kid of about twenty, has his mother's dark eyes and his father's build, and he grins at me. "A lot of boxes," he tells me. Oh, shit, I think, let's hope my folks didn't pack up everything in the apartment. "And that stuff you ordered got here, Fraser, Tom and I loaded up his truck."

I give Fraser a questioning look, and he blushes. Eyebrow rubbing, neck cracking, hmmmm, and all my radar is going off, he's up to something.

Something big, from the shade of red he's turning.

So we unload the truck, and not one of the bastards seems inclined to let me carry anything they think is too heavy, and even though that jerks my chain a little, it's not too bad, because they do load me up with anything they think I can handle, so I'm really wiped by the time we get done, but I do figure out Fraser's got a building project of some kind going on.

And on top of that, Davy McKenzie comes in at the last, grinning, carrying what looks like a casserole dish. "Mum says she figured you'd been getting' in late, Fraser, and since she thinks Ray still needs feeding up, she sent this up. She says just heat it up in the oven."

Fraser's honestly surprised. "Tell her thank you kindly, Davy. He lifts the lid and whatever it is smells great. "Oh, my."

Davy grins, nods at me, and then he's gone, the door's closed and Fraser looks over at me. "Hot bath," he prescribes, no-nonsense voice.

"Oh, yeah, that'll help," I tell him and roll my eyes. "I'll be gone in no time, won't be awake enough to eat."

"I'll make certain you are." Brief glint and my cock gives a little twitch. Wicked Fraser is fine, oh, yeah, very fine.

"Tease," I accuse.

Innocent expression. "Adding cold water to the tub would be useful, as well."

"Never mind." I give up, open one of my boxes. Clothes. Worse yet, summer clothes. I'm snickering and Fraser comes over to look. Dief sticks his nose in, too, sniffs, and gives me a look.

"Oh, dear," Fraser says, but his mouth quirks.

I shake my head. My mom, I swear, and I go to another box. "Oh, yeah," I say happily, "Jeez, this must have cost a fortune to send up here."

"They shipped your stereo?" He's thunderstruck.

I'm laughing again, but it's pure delight. "Oh, yeah, yeah, this is total greatness. Heh. We can put this in the bedroom. Or we can put yours in the bedroom. Or whatever."

He smiles at me, happy that I'm happy. Another box has the VCR, and I don't get to the tub until after we eat because I'm sorting through videos and mortified that my mom might have seen some of my more colorful ones. Translation, porn.

Memory like a sieve can be a bad problem in cases like this. "Jesus," and Fraser takes a look again, coming back out of the kitchen.

He doesn't get it, mostly because I have them in plain old blank tape cases, but when I tell him, I get that belly laugh again. "Ray, I hardly think she watched them."

"Please, God," I say fervently.

He thinks that's pretty funny, so I e-lucidate. "Ben, it's guy on guy porn."

Oh, he blushes all right. Blushes, probably, right down to his toes. "Ray!" A little shocked.

"Well, I had to figure things out," I tell him, a little defensive. "Hey, I knew how the other worked, Ben."

He's still blushing, but he's belly laughing again all of a sudden, leans down and kisses me. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray." Nips at my mouth. "We'll have to watch them together."

Oh, unh. Definite twitch there, and a throb. "Oh, boy. What's with the construction materials?"

He grins. "Converting the storage room."

"To what?"

"I thought it might serve as a guest room for us, and for anyone with any curiosity, your bedroom officially." And then, just before I get pissy, he smolders at me. "But only officially."

I follow him back into the kitchen. "Ben, I hate to break this to you, but I think Mae and Rosie, at least, have figured things out."

"I'm sure they have, Ray. Rosie and Mae are very observant, and I believe they're both kindred spirits." He doesn't sound surprised. "And very discreet as well."

Discreet. Good point, I think, but it annoys me anyway. Even though I know Fraser's a cop, and the RCMP can't be any better than Chicago PD when it comes to what Fraser calls nonstandard sexuality. I go back to the boxes.

Fraser's family didn't raise a dummy, but I knew that already. He comes back after a while and crouches down beside me. Looks me in the eye. "You're bothered by the need for deception. So am I, Ray. Not only is it contrary to my nature, but it offends me to pretend that I don't love you."

Oh, shit, the L word's come up. Like it should be a big deal, wolves mate for life. I knock him down and we're rolling around the floor while Dief watches us.

He finally drags his mouth away from mine. "As a matter of scientific curiosity, Ray, I have to ask what I said to elicit that response."

"Oh, nothing," I say and kiss him hard again. He's laughing into my mouth, which tells me he's figured it out, and weird, I feel shy with him after we've been bumping bones for the last nearly six weeks. "I love you," I mutter into his mouth. "Freak." Fine, he can build me a separate bedroom, if he wants, hell, I'll use it, just don't let me lose this, God, don't let me fuck this up, okay?

Yeah, life is good, I think later, sprawled on the couch with Benton Fraser on my chest, he's reading and I'm watching this CBC series that's hooked me, and I think, hey, we're really rolling, there's nothing more hanging over us, nothing more to worry about.

But I'm wrong.

Once a month for a week, the government of Canada flies in doctors for the little medical station, and the rest of the time, there are three nurses who live in Owlcreek. Fraser's already had me down there to see them, just to touch base, he insists, and they seem to think I'm doing pretty well, even after my records get there and Janet MacDonald, who's in charge, looks them over.

Miraculous, she says, which makes Fraser smile now.

"You are a miracle," he tells me that night, when I'm dozing off.

"Freak," I tell him affectionately.


Sweet talk for guys, sickening as it is. He's telling me he's nuts about me, and I'm telling him he's crazy, but thank you kindly, Corporal Fraser, and if you don't have anything else planned, how about I stick to you like KrazyGlue for the rest of your life, and he's telling me it's fine with him.

Like I said, sickening.

But I'm nervous when I go into the clinic to see the doctor. He's older than Heatherton, maybe in his mid-fifties, Heatherton's a hotshot Yuppie doctor, and I relax pretty quick. Standard sort of tests, standing on one foot, touching my nose with my eyes closed, yadda yadda, old shit I know inside and out, and the more he does, the more he frowns at the records he's got on the counter.

I find myself wondering if Fraser put a fix in, but that's nuts and I know it. More prodding, more poking, and then he tells me I can get dressed, come on down to the office, and I do, and of course, Dudley Do Right is there looking innocent, standing outside the office like he's waiting for me.

"How was Dr. Campbell?"

"Okay, I guess." I roll my eyes at him. "I mean, he's a doctor, Ben, I'd rather have you stick pins in me."

"But I have no desire whatsoever to stick pins in you, Ray," he tells me.

Like I thought he did. "Ben-ton," I growl.

Only the glint in his eyes gives him away, and we go into the office and sit down.

I eye him. "Don't take this the wrong way, Ben, but why are you here?"

"I have a vested interest in your welfare." He looks away, looks back at me and smiles a little. "I thought you might like the company."

I can buy both, but I can tell he's being honest. I relax, he's not there to make sure I don't lie to him, he trusts me. So I'm okay with it.

Campbell comes in, puts my records on his desk, sits down, and folds his hands on top of them. "Mr. Kowalski." Stops and clears his throat. "I'm not a specialist in these types of injury, Mr. Kowalski. It does seem to me, however, that perhaps..." Stops again.

My stomach does a lazy roll that makes me queasy. "Just spit it out, Doc, I'm used to this stuff."

He doesn't look entirely happy. Clears his throat again. "I would ordinarily not presume to question another doctor's diagnosis when I was not involved in treatment of the original injury. However, I do believe, perhaps, that there was some mistake, er, in determining the original extent of brain injury."

I blink. Is he saying what I think he's saying? I look at Fraser, who's wearing the toughest look I've ever seen on Fraser.

"What kind of mistake?" I finally ask. Safe question, no assumptions.

He looks at his hands for a moment. "I believe that you may have suffered much less damage than was originally thought." You can tell he doesn't like saying it, doesn't like contradicting Heatherton the Wonder Kid.

And my jaw drops.

Campbell looks at me then. "Again, Mr. Kowalski, I am far from a specialist in these matters, I'm a general practice physician, and while that entails a broader range of experiences in this part of the country, I'd feel a good deal better if one of my colleagues in Calgary made the final determination. She specializes in this area, and of course, there are other neurologists with whom you might feel more comfortable, but-"

I'm stunned. I nod blankly. "Whoever you think, that's fine."

He looks relieved. "Fine, fine, I'll contact Dr. Yee. You're staying with Corporal Fraser, eh?" He looks back at Fraser. "I'll call you and see about setting an appointment after I've spoken to him."

I nod again. "I don't get it. How-" Can't figure out what to ask.

I look at Fraser again, and he nods, leans forward. "Dr. Campbell, if I may, I think Ray is wondering how this might have happened."

Dr. Campbell looks uncomfortable again. "I'm not sure I can tell you that, I'm sorry." He nods at me apologetically. "If, in fact, I'm correct, it may be that Mr. Kowalski's symptoms were somewhat misleading. Despite what we would like to think, medicine is still something of an art rather than a science. And brain injury is a conundrum, I'm afraid. The brain is both fragile and resilient, a contradiction, I have seen amazing recovery in some cases, and tragic consequences in very similar cases." He nods at me. "We cannot honestly say why this happens. We use words like 'fortunate' or 'lucky' to explain it, but we can't be sure why. I may be quite wrong, and the diagnosis quite correct, but I would prefer to allow Dr. Yee to have a look at your records. Regardless, I think Dr. Yee should see you, I should hate to think I've overlooked anything." He smiles suddenly, and I notice my heart is thumping hard. "Despite all this confusion, Mr. Kowalski, I'm pleased to tell you that your recovery seems to be coming along very well. I note some continuing muscle weakness...."

I'm nodding like I'm listening, but I'm too numb to pay attention. Besides, Fraser will probably remember it all better than I do anyway, and probably even understands it all better.

He's sufficiently concerned about me to walk me back up the hill. It's about two, and he takes off his red serge and opens a can of soup. "Ray," he finally says. "Tell me what's wrong."

Dief whines.

I'm staring out the window. "Um. I dunno, Ben." And I don't. Not really. "Everybody thought Heatherton was so damn good, Ben."

He comes to me and puts his arms around me from behind, almost rocking me. "He kept you alive."

There is that, I tell myself. "Yeah, well, I'm not complaining, exactly." Maybe not, but there's this little flare of anger deep inside at all the times Heatherton acted like I was so damaged I wasn't ever going to make it back. I let myself feel it. "He was an asshole."


He doesn't even correct my language, and I lean back against him. "Almost Christmas."

"Yes, it is." He nuzzles my hair. "I'm afraid I'm feeling appallingly sentimental, this is all I want for Christmas." Hugs me.

That lifts my mood. "Yeah? Well, tough luck, you get more."

He chuckles. "And when would you have found time for that?"

"You might be surprised," I tell him smugly.

And then he tugs me back into the kitchen for soup.

Dief gets to clean out the pan.

//...no biggie, just another day in the 2-7, except it's a day that Fraser's not here, just another damn Fraserless day and I sit down at my desk, my own desk.

Yo, yells Dewey, and I flap my hand at him, take a drink of coffee, and open a file. Cop shooting, I read, and then flip to the photo and the guy looks familiar, too familiar and I feel myself shiver.


I hear my name, turn my head, and there's a guy coming toward me, and he's got his weapon drawn, aims it at me and I'm moving, I'm up and moving and reaching for my own...//

And I'm awake and right smack in the middle of the worst panic attack I've had since leaving the hospital. And I'm on the floor, not in bed, and my tailbone hurts a little and Fraser is kneeling beside me, holding me hard.

"Ray, Ray, Ray," he murmurs and then murmurs it again.

Talk about horror show, I'm shaking and it's dark and my hand hurts. "Okay," I gasp, trying to get a breath. "Okay, 'm awake."

Boy, am I ever. He leaves me for a minute, I hear the bed squeak, his lamp goes on and I can see why my hand hurts, it's bleeding across the knuckles, and the lamp on my side is on the floor, shattered. Fraser's back, checking me for other cuts, gives me a hand getting up and pushes me back down on the bed. I'm too busy concentrating on breathing for a little while to notice what he's doing, but he comes back into the bedroom wearing sweatpants, sits down, and starts cleaning my knuckles.

I can breathe again, and feeling stupid is the least of it. "Sorry." Mumble it.

He looks highly pissed, you want to know the truth, and I'm shaky enough right now that look is bad news. "Ray, who is Varney?" Not looking at me.

Varney. Doesn't ring a bell. "Got me, why?"

"You were calling that name. Varney." His hands are gentle, no matter how pissed he might be.

I stare at him. I can't figure out who Varney is and why he's pissed, but he leans over quick and kisses me. "Are you feeling better?"

I'm feeling totally lost. "What happened?"

"I would suspect a nightmare of some sort," he tells me and goes back to cleaning the cuts. Whatever it is, it stinks, but it doesn't sting too bad. The cuts aren't deep, and they aren't right on the knuckle, and he whips out some Bandaids. "I was asleep, of course, and I'm not precisely sure, but I heard you calling out the name Varney, heard the lamp fall, and then you were on the floor."

I lean in, look hard, and there's a small bruise forming at the corner of his jaw. Not bad. Probably smaller than when I punched him out by the lake. "Did-did I do that?"

He rubs his jaw absently, a little surprised. "Ah. Well, you were still asleep and I couldn't see what I was doing." Warm look and another kiss. "Please, Ray, I gave you worse when you asked me to hit you back, more than a year ago."

I'm not sure I feel better about that. But it would take somebody stronger than me to resist when he puts an arm around me and pulls me close. "Well, that was interesting," he finally says, trying to lighten things up. "Off hand, the only Varney I can think of is Varney the Vampire."

I can't keep myself from laughing, even though I'm feeling a little sick at heart. I haven't even had a minor panic attack since, jeez, like November, and this feels like ten big steps backward. "Varney the Vampire?"

"One of the earlier Gothic novels," he tells me and goes into a discussion of the evolution of the Gothic novel until I shut him up by kissing him again.

I never heard of Varney the Vampire. And the details of the dream are mostly fading. I remember Dewey is all, and looking at a picture in a file and that's it. No more, nada, zip.

I pick up the broken pieces of the lamp base while Fraser goes to get the broom and dustbin, thinking about it.

Nothing comes clear, and then we're in bed again and I'm shaking, aftershock, and I turn to face him, rub my hand down his belly, and cup my hand between his legs. "I n-need you."

"Ray," he whispers and kisses me, and I hold on hard enough to bruise him again. "Easy," he breathes, "Ray, it was a nightmare, that's all."

I don't believe him, exactly, I mean, it's in my head whatever it is, but he's Ben, Fraser, Dudley Do-Right, and I want it out of my head, I don't want to think about it or worry about it. His mouth is just as sweet as it always is, just as sweet and as hot, and even though he's not sure about it, I want him to fuck me, and I have to straddle him before he agrees, straddle him and hold his hands above his head. Of course, he could break free, but he won't, instead he takes his time getting me wound up and ready and then it's like he knows what I need, he slides inside and gives it to me as hard as I want it, I don't want to think about anything tomorrow but whether or not I can sit down.

His mouth is hot, he fastens on to one nipple, and strips my cock as fast and hard and oh, sweet Jesus, that doesn't take long and I explode, screaming his name, his arms go around me hard and I hear him cry out, and then I just collapse on top of him, and like the headcase I am, I start bawling like a damn fool, clutching at him.

Now there is one seriously alarmed Mountie underneath me, and even though it's two fucking am, we end up in a hot bath together.

Dief thinks we're both nuts and goes out to sleep in front of the dying fire.

"Headcase," I say.

"Post traumatic stress," says he, stroking my wet hair. "You need a haircut."

Somehow, that lifts my spirit. "I didn't know you liked my weird hair."

"Strictly speaking, Ray, you could shave it all off, and I wouldn't care," he says, "But I confess to some fondness for the style."

The Mountie knows his prescriptions, I have to say, the hot water combined with him-well, it beats being tranked out. "Yeah?" Pleased.

"Very definitely." He's spiking my hair even as he says that.


"Understood." Almost lazily.

The water stings my knuckles a little and I lift my hand out of it, start peeling off the Bandaids. Clean cuts, not deep, not bleeding. "Sorry about the lamp."

"Fuck the lamp."

I nearly slide under the water in shock, turn around, and stare at him. "Benton Fraser!"

Innocent look. "Yes, Ray?"

I narrow my eyes. "Is this shock treatment?"

"Did it work?" He looks mildly pleased.

"Jeez, I guess." I turn back and lean against him. "I'm going to have to wash your mouth out with soap, you keep that up."

"I suppose that means I'll have to give up the notion of using such language frequently."

"Wouldn't be shock treatment then." I rest my head on the hollow of his shoulder.

"Essentially the sentiment remains the same. A lamp is only a lamp, Ray."

I grin. "And a cigar is only a cigar?"

"Unless it's a phallic symbol." He strokes me suggestively.

"Freud sucks."

"He may have, although it seems doubtful."

Oh, he's on a roll, he is. I lace our fingers together. "I know I don't say it a lot, Ben, but you're the best thing that ever happened to me in my whole fucked up life. Well, except maybe for my parents, they were good parents, even if my dad did spend several years not speaking to me."

"I like your parents," he says mildly, "And I like your father even better for having had the good sense to apologize to you for his behavior."

I turn my face into his neck. "So, Corporal Fraser, what's your opinion on this latest shit."

He shifts. Doesn't answer me for a minute, and I can't tell if he's thinking about it, or if he doesn't want to say. "I think, Ray, that you may have remembered something your conscious mind has suppressed. The mind is a powerfully strong influence on the body, and I believe I agree with Dr. Campbell that Dr. Heatherton's diagnosis and certainly Dr. Heatherton's prognosis were in error. I believe that Dr. Heatherton failed to look for the emotional component, and I believe that there is an emotional component."

I think that over, sorting it out. "Why?"

"Not all your nightmares are so spectacular that you wake."

Now that's informative. "How do you know I'm having them, then?" I ask, feeling contrary. "Ben, everyone has nightmares."

"I know about them because I wake." He puts his hand over my mouth to keep me from saying anything. "Ray, I've spent most of my life sleeping alone, and I'm well attuned to the night sounds of this cabin. I assure you, you are not disturbing my sleep." Yeah, right. But he's still got his hand over my mouth. "Usually, I need only touch you and you shift from REM state, and I go back to sleep immediately."

Okay, he put his hand over my mouth to keep me from apologizing. I nod and he removes it. "So what does that tell you?"

"That your psychiatrist, Dr. Merriman, was quite correct in diagnosing post traumatic stress disorder. And that you may very well have some buried memories that are beginning to surface."

I think about that. "Okay, look at it this way, why would I have buried memories? I mean, that means that whatever it is scares the hell out of me, and what the hell would scare the hell out me so bad I don't remember it. I used to be with Narcotics, Ben. Drug dealers don't scare me, guns scare me, unless I'm holding 'em. People shooting at me scares me, but I remember all the other times that happened, and getting shot scares me, but I do remember when I got hit a long time ago, when I got that kid out of a warehouse."

He nudges me up and I push myself to my feet, step out of the tub. The scars are looking better these days, but then Fraser insists on applying something to them every night-something that doesn't stink, for a change-to make the scar tissue more supple, he says. Whatever it is, they're fading, so I'm looking less like shit, and I've actually packed on about ten pounds. Fraser prescribes at least ten more at a minimum, he says, and adds that he thinks about twenty more would be right. I'm just glad I can't count my ribs as easy any more.

A towel settles over my shoulders and a kiss settles on the back of my neck. I hear the water start to drain while I'm drying my hair. "Ben?"

"I'm thinking, Ray." He doesn't sound like whatever he's thinking makes him happy. "It need not be something that frightened you. It may be something that struck to your very heart, some betrayal, or some loss."

I poke my head out. "Huh?"

He gives me a troubled look. "I think perhaps we should call Lt. Welsh tomorrow and ask him if the name Varney has any significance."

I'm not sure why, but my stomach rolls. "Not tomorrow."

"Why not?"

"Hey, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. If I'm going to get lousy news, I'd rather wait until after, I didn't even think I'd be alive this Christmas, let alone have this." I gesture at him, at the walls of the bathroom.

He gives me that million wattage smile. "As you wish, Ray."

Good thing I've been fucked hard and wiped out, that's all I can say, because he looks good enough to eat. "Bed."


Christmas Eve and it's snowing like crazy, and yeah, Ray Kowalski, sucker for Christmas, is trying to make bread pudding.

Seems to be coming out all right, if the smell from the oven is a good indicator. I've been asking Fraser questions for weeks, trying not to be obvious, just about Christmas traditions, and there aren't a whole lot, at least not that he'll tell me, so I call my mom for some simpler things, even somebody with an unspecified amount of brain damage can follow a recipe, I just have to memorize it on the phone, which, since I use Rosie McKenzie's telephone, causes general McKenzie hilarity.

Hence, as Fraser would say, bread pudding, after all the craziness on the phone with my mom, Rosie tells me Fraser loves bread pudding. God, I'm starting to think in Canadian, now that's fucking scary.

Something tells me that while Fraser was definitely loved by his grandparents, his Christmas celebrations haven't always been magic memories. So, I'm going to make some for him. At least that's the plan.

This isn't exactly Christmas tree country-these are big fucking trees here-but I get some pine branches on the mantel over the fireplace, glitz em up a little with some ornaments Rosie sold me a week ago, and figure out what to do with venison, again with help from Rosie. Dief declined to go with Fraser this morning, so he keeps me company while I wrap up the presents I snuck into the house, including one for Dief.

D-U-M, dumb, but we're a pack, hey, so I look sternly at Dief. "No peeking."

Fraser gets home looking a lot like Frosty the Snowman, I gotta say, and comes in to beam at me. Bach's playing softly on the stereo, and I got reckless with a few candles here and there for atmosphere and he stands there looking at the, heh, Christmas mantel with eyes like a kid's.

Amazed. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray."

That used to drive me batshit, but this is how far I'm gone, I like it now. Of course, half the time when he did it in Chicago, he was trying to reel me back in, so what the hell. He's not trying to reel me in now.

I grin, feeling like a doof. "It's Christmas Eve, Ben, gotta do something special."

I'm just lucky he takes his coat off before he jumps me, I guess, and we neck like kids on the couch for a while before he finally lets me go. Get this, necking with me is more important than the uniform. That'd be scary, except it cracks me up. The timer Rosie lent me dings before things get too serious and intense, and I have to start yanking stuff out of the oven and putting other stuff in.

When I turn around again, he's shed red serge and pushed up those Henley sleeves and is watching from the kitchen archway. "Ray." Soft voice, and his eyes are too bright again, and I guess that's okay.

I close the oven and jump him, more or less, still standing up. Lick my way up out of a kiss and grin. "Long way from last Christmas for you, too, huh?"

"Oh, yes." Solemn Mountie. "Kilometers. Miles. Light years. Parsecs."

I put my fingers over his mouth before he comes up with more. "In the Kowalski house, on Christmas Eve, we got to unwrap one gift before we went to bed. So, ah, you get to choose one gift to unwrap."

He arches an eyebrow. "Only one? I don't believe in Santa Claus or Father Christmas, Ray."

"Doesn't matter, we can't break traditions. We can make 'em, but we can't break 'em."

He thinks about that. "Do I get to touch the packages before I decide?"

"Oh, sure. You can shake it, you can poke it, you can smell it, hell, Ben, you can even taste it." I grin.

"Hmmm." Wicked Fraser glint time, and I wonder what he's thinking. "I'll have to ponder that, I can see. What is it that smells so wonderful."

"Well, we'll have to see if it tastes wonderful, never cooked venison before." We do some more lazy kissing. "Now go choose your present."

"I can't," he objects, "All the presents aren't, er, on the mantel yet."

I look at him suspiciously, but his expression is back to mostly Innocent Mountie with just a little glint.

"And when did you have time to arrange for other gifts?" I use his own words back at him.

"I have my ways." Now he's absolutely smirking.

I scowl at him, he licks the tip of my fucking nose, for God's sake, and pushes me back toward the kitchen. "Finish up what you need to finish, Ray, while I make sure we're actually ready for Christmas traditions."

I narrow my eyes at him, but he threatens to lick my nose again, and if I'm going to be licked, I've got several other spots that come first on the list.

Besides, it's not fair play not to give him a chance to do what he wants to do, and it's obvious he's been planning something.

I just hope it's not musk ox or something.

So I fool around with stuff in the kitchen and get the table set, and pretend I don't hear interesting noises coming from the other room.

Dief comes in and looks at me hopefully.

"Later," I tell him. "The boss gets his first."

Dief snorts at me and lies down, trying to look pathetic.

"Sorry, Dief, that doesn't fly," I tell him.

Fraser reappears in the kitchen, nuzzles my neck. "Do we eat before or after we continue this tradition."

"Before. We don't do the actual unwrapping until just before we go to bed." I rub myself up against him. He smells like fresh air, snow, woodsmoke, and Fraser. "Okay, we're set. You wanna sit down?"

"Gladly," he mutters and takes the plate of biscuits I hand him. Okay, so biscuits aren't fancy, we're talking Ray Kowalski. I can cook, even if it's not gourmet, and fancy bread is beyond me.

Fraser's already sitting down when I get the rest of the stuff to the table. He gives me that gigawatt smile again. "You're happy here, Ray?"

I look at him like he's unhinged. "No, I'm miserable, of course I'm happy here, if I was any happier, I'd be maniac."


"Whatever." I narrow my eyes again. "Don't go there, Ben-ton. If you can't tell how happy I am, we're going to have to really go yuppie and get couple's counseling."

And then I pull a teapot over and pour him real tea, not teabag tea, and his eyes get about as big as Dief's when Dief catches sight of a donut. I can see he's a little doubtful, but he'd rather have bamboo splinters under his nails than hurt my feelings. "Relax, Rosie showed me how."

Not a hint of what he's thinking on his face. "Ray, your resourcefulness never ceases to amaze me." Solemnly.

I hope the bread pudding tastes right.

"Ah, Dr. Campbell called, Dr. Yee will be in Whitehorse on a consultation in January, and would be happy to see you then. January 18, to be precise."

"It's Christmas Eve," I tell him, "I'm not talking about anything unpleasant tonight." I'm suspicious suddenly. "Did you call Welsh?"

"I did not." Little line between his eyebrows shows up.

Nice, Kowalski. "Of course, you didn't," I mutter, "Sorry, Ben, I know better than that."

The line disappears and he leans in and kisses me quickly. "I gave you some reason to doubt it," he tells me gravely.

Not really, he didn't, he told me right away, but hell, if he'll let me off the hook for being an asshole, I'm going to take advantage of it.

The venison tastes good to me, and Fraser actually has two helpings, and the potatoes turned out great, and he's lingering over his tea when I get up and get the bread pudding and the custard sauce. Hey, I cheated, making that stuff from scratch is another thing that's beyond me, but Rosie told me about the canned stuff.

He's stunned. "You made this yourself?"

Heh. It's worth the trouble. Love getting that surprised look. And by this time, he knows I'm not going to give him food poisoning, so he digs in. "Ray, I'm going to get fat if you keep feeding me this way."

"Oh, like I'm not putting on weight from your cooking," I tell him. Fraser at home cooking is a lot tastier than Fraser on the trail cooking, and I secretly suspect he's getting ideas from Rosie, who seems sure I'm going to blow away.

"You needed it," he says and then licks the spoon, and my eyes glaze.

That mouth, that tongue, that body. Maybe brain damage includes a trip back to being sixteen again. Sure feels that way.

"Close your mouth, Ray," he teases me.

We wash up together, I insist even though we've been splitting chores according to the Benton Fraser Courtesy Manual.

"Tom's pretty happy with the work you did on his truck," he tells me, "And Constable Brett swears that the Jeep has never run this well."

"Brett's the only Mountie I ever met almost as polite as you, Ben." I'm wrapping food up and carrying it out to the fridge.

"No, but he's right," he calls.

I grin. Hey, I know I'm good with stuff like that, my dad and I used to work on cars together. But I have to admit, I get a warm fuzzy when Fraser tells me he's capable of only the most basic repair and that he's impressed.

I come back as he's finishing up, last dish in the drainer, and put down a dish with venison for Dief.

"Ray, he's going to get fat, too."

"It's Christmas," I tell him and scratch Dief's ears when he raises his head in a thank you. I don't want to admit to anybody how much I love this damn wolf.

Fraser gives me a look, shakes his head. "You indulge both of us terribly, Ray. I'm afraid we don't indulge you enough."

I look up at him, grin. "You can make up for it tonight."

"I hope to," he says seriously. "And if tonight is insufficient, I suppose I'll just have to continue with a long range plan."

Guh. Wolves mate for life. "I'm all over that, Ben."

That gets the top of my head rubbed, and he pulls me up for a kiss. Hot kiss, lazy kiss, and then he pulls away, takes hold of my shoulders and turns me. "This way, please."

I let him nudge me into the front room, and the fire has been built up, more packages on the mantle and he pushes me down on the sofa. Grins like a kid and goes back to the front door.

I sprawl, watching; he opens it, steps out, steps back in again, and the lunatic has gotten from somewhere, a small pine. Of course, it's got a rootball, he's got it in a pail, that's my Mountie.

I feel an idiot grin appear on my face. "You maniac."

He arches an eyebrow at me, but he can't keep it there. "It's possible," he agrees.

So, we move the ornaments from the mantle to the tree, just because. Fraser gets the comforter out and we sprawl in front of the fire watching, to his obvious confusion, Christmas videos. He does enjoy the Grinch, but by the time we get to Mr. Magoo's Christmas, he's completely baffled.

"Never mind," I tell him. "I'm a closet cartoon maniac."

He's just a maniac, he starts unlacing my hiking boots somewhere during the Ghost of Christmas Past, and has worked up to my sweater by the time we get to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. I'm trying to pretend I'm not interested, which ain't easy, because the Mountie's usual unhinged focus on finding all the best spots to bite or kiss keeps me pretty well revved up.

By the time Mr. Magoo is taking a bow, I'm naked, he's naked, and believe me, I'm hanging on to my resolve by a fingernail. "Ben," I finally gasp. "Wait, wait, wait-" I must be insane, he's licking my navel with a lot of focus.

He raises his head. "Yes, Ray?"

"Wait, you've gotta pick out a present," I say.

"I already have," he says and moves down farther.

There's no way I can think that one through with his mouth on my cock. So I just go with it-I'm damaged, not insane. We have a brief squabble over who gets fucked, he's been bugging me because he wants me to and I'm scared shitless to do it. He takes hold of my face. "Ray, why not?"

Why won't I, even though the idea makes my dick throb? "You already deal with enough shit from me," I say, "I don't want to hurt you."

His brows go up. "Do I hurt you?"

He's got me. "Jesus, no." I grin a little. "But you did research, Ben."

Skeptical look. "Ray."

Okay, this is ridiculous, I can't believe we're having a serious discussion about this. "Okay. Okay. I can do this."

"It isn't a trip to the dentist," he growls, and then seduces me all over again and hell, okay, he gets what he wants, I'm being chickenshit, because-because why? Beats the fuck out of me, I'm so turned on my hair hurts, and I'm still scared stupid.

Well, not totally stupid, although I get a belly laugh at how much slick stuff I'm using. He groans and then I see his face when I find the right spot, and it's full speed ahead. Forget being scared, this is more like the roller coaster when I was six, and he's very enthusiastic about it, and I'm still nervous, but sweet Jesus, he's urging me on hard enough that I'm having trouble remembering to go slow at first and his flesh is snug on me, and this is Ben, and Jesus, total brain meltdown, and I catch my breath, look at his face, and he hooks a leg around me-don't ask me how, I have no idea, and then I'm in all the way and babbling, "Don't move, don't move."

He's sweating and I'm sweating and he gives me this smoldering look. "Why not?" Growling.

I'm thinking of bodies in the morgue, taxes, Heatherton, until I get used to the way he feels. "Okay, forget it," I tell him, a little hoarsely. "Move all you want."

He does and I do, and then his eyes go to slits, "Ray!"

I think that means good, so I keep that rhythm and he finds it and I've got his cock, hot and silky in my fingers, which are still slippery and if there is one thing I'm not, it's scared. I'm moving and he's moving with me, and it's infuckingcredible, and we have the lights off, there's only candlelight and firelight on Ben's skin, and he's almost golden with it underneath me. So beautiful, I think, and can't believe he's with me, wants me, funny looking Polack kid, and then I can't think any more, it's too intense, and he's so hot in my hand and all around me. It's like I can feel his heartbeat, and it's like I thought a long time ago, I've climbed into him, baggage and all, and he cries out, my name, "Rayrayrayray," and comes, hot and slippery on my hand, and his body clenches on my cock, and the look and smell and sound of him tips me over the edge and I'm falling, falling, thrusting in again and again until I can't breathe and just plain collapse on him, panting.

We're both panting, I can hear his heart racing and then he pulls my face over for a kiss hard enough that I feel a throb in my cock, even though I'm slipping out.

"Mmmm." I'm past verbal into total, what did that fuck Heatherton call it?-aphasia. Hand signals, I'll have to use hand signals, and we both shift to our sides, mess and all on the comforter, and I manage to lay a few kisses back on him, and the great thing about being with Fraser is that we're both guys, so we both drift into a coma for a while.

I finally try and punch his chest, but even my arm is limp. "You didn't pick a present."

"Yes, I did, Ray." He somehow manages to sound alert and awake. "I unwrapped you."

I snicker. "Ben, that is so sappy." But I nuzzle him to let him know I'm only pretending to be tough. "So pick another one."

"You're already unwrapped."

Well, what do I say to that? I swarm back on top of him for a few minutes making sure he knows how I feel about it, then roll over and stretch out to snag a package from under the tree. "Here."

He looks amused. Shakes it. Squeezes it. Smells it. He offers it to Dief for a lick, and I lean up on one elbow and give him a threatening look. So he opens it.

"Edna St. Vincent Millay," he says softly, and opens the book, thumbing through it until something catches his eyes. "When we are old and these rejoicing veins//Are frosty channels to a muted stream, And out of all our burning their remains// No feeblest spark to fire us, even in dream, This be our solace: that it was not said // When we were young and warm and in our prime, Upon our couch we lay as lie the dead, Sleeping away the unreturning time.// O sweet, O heavy-lidded, O my love, When morning strikes her spear upon the land, And we must rise and arm us and reprove // The insolent daylight with a steady hand, Be not discountenanced if the knowing know // We rose from rapture but an hour ago."

Fuck me. I used to think she was kind of a girly poet, but when I was hunting for presents in Whitehorse, I opened this one up and saw this. Hell, we're starting to read each other's minds. It's a good thing I'm wiped out or I'd be all over him. Or maybe it's a bad thing.

He looks over at me, eyes shining in the firelight. "Ray." Softly and then wow, do I get kissed. There are like some unbelievable number of words for snow in the native languages, including the Inuit, and Fraser has an unbelievable number of different ways to kiss me.

I'm lying there drugged by that when he comes back, blushing, to give me a package. "I'm afraid we're beginning to think along similar lines."

It's a book. I grin a little, now that there's a chance I'm not stupid for life, just recovering. Open it up. No, not a book. A book on tape. And man, I can't see for a minute, it's Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Where in the hell did he get poetry on tape, I wonder. "Ben, this is so great-" And it is, he's the only poet I remember liking from high school. I take a breath. "This is greatness." Choked up. He looks a little worried, so I hug him hard. "The only poet I liked when I was a kid."

He hugs back.

And we end up soaking a hot bath with him reading Millay to me.

I'm having variations on the same dream now for a week, and even though I'm not having any more panic attacks, exactly, it's still freaking me out. I have this mental image of Fraser lying awake and watching me, catching me in time to keep the panic away, but when I ask him, he denies it.

"That's just silly, Ray, when would I get any sleep?" he says mildly.

"Those thirty second power naps of yours," I tell him grumpily.

The awful truth about being on temporary disability is having too much time to think about things. I guess while I was back in Chicago and Fraser was here, I had plenty of time to get straight, heh, with what I felt and what I wanted, because it's more the weirdness of being in darkness all day long than the weirdness of sleeping with a guy that gets me. Let's call a spade a shovel, getting fucked doesn't seem to freak me out, which is pretty freaky all by itself. Fucking Fraser freaks me out more, but as we're getting through that. I used to say I'd try anything once, I guess, but fucking Fraser is weirder because I'm used to women when I'm on that end of the deal.

Maybe I need to find a shrink up here.

Or not. ;

Anyway, Fraser tells me that most of the people I've met up here are Tlingit, not Inuit. I knew they were Native-I guess I can't say Native American, and the white Canadians in Toronto seem to call them aboriginal peoples, but nobody here seems to have a special term, they just call 'em by name. First Nations, that's one thing I hear sometimes. According to Fraser, Tlingit names are private, sort of, and the names he uses to introduce them are public English names, and sometimes they might have more than one Tlingit name.

If I think of it like baptismal and confirmation names versus what you go by day to day, it doesn't seem strange. Rosie McKenzie has some native blood, about four or five generations back, but I haven't had the balls to ask her what tribe. What nation, Fraser says.

I let him tell me these stories most days, where I'd have cut him off in Chicago mostly because it's good for me to know this stuff up here, and he's not using the stories like, oh, parables I guess.

Two weeks after Christmas, I'm scrubbing the engine grease out from under my fingernails when he comes in the door fast and yanks open the front closet. Winter gear, real winter gear, like he used on the quest, and he's talking fast. "We have a situation, Ray, I may be gone a day or two." He's shedding the serge, goes into the bedroom and returns carrying a bundle of clothes. "I'm sorry, I don't have time to fill you in."

And my heart is going ka-thumpety, thump, and the instinct to grab a gun and start dressing is pretty strong. "I'm going with you."

"You can't, Ray." Rueful tone and he sits down to take off his boots. "You're an American citizen, and you can't carry a gun here."

I know he's right, but it still pisses me off. I focus on my hands, rinse 'em, and pick up a towel. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

Man can get dressed faster than anybody I know. Shit. I'm going to have to get used this, I know, but knowing that doesn't make it easier.

He's a cop. I know the drill. I just never figured on being the one waiting at home.

Weird. Shitty. But I don't scowl at him, I try to be matter of fact, and he grabs me for a quick hard kiss before he's out the door.

Dief stands looking at me, like he can't decide.

"Go," I tell him harshly. "Watch his back, Dief." Yeah, I'm crazy, talking to a wolf.

But with Dief with him, at least I don't feel quite as nervous.

I spend two days alone, spend the days working on Jack McKenzie's old truck and Jenny Atlin's snowmobile. Spend the nights on the couch in front of the fire, dreaming about some guy trying to shoot me at my desk at the 2-7.

Stress dream, Merriman used to say. Makes sense to me.

Third day, it starts to snow again, which doesn't ease my state of nerves. Mae Brett's waiting, too, and I check on her on her special that day, just to see if she needs anything from McKenzie's before the snow gets too heavy. She makes me lunch and we sit talking over a cup of tea.

"They'll be all right," she tells me, but she's getting pretty pregnant, and I can tell she's worrying.

"Yeah, they will," I tell her. "Fraser's sharp, Mae. Believe me, he can handle himself." Of course, how the Mountie handles himself is what worries me. There's a limit to courtesy.

Mae closes her eyes for a minute, puts her hand on her belly. "Oh. Sorry. Just..." Pained face, and she takes in a sharp breath.

Ka-thumpety, thump. It's her first baby, and when I was a uniform, there was a Chicago style blizzard, woman and her husband got stuck in a snowstorm, and my partner had a clue and kept me from panicking, but we ended up delivering that kid with help over the radio from paramedics. Well, he did, I mostly kept Dad out of the way, Reason I think of it now is that she kept saying she didn't think she could be in real labor, thought it was just practice contractions, whatever the hell those are. "Mae?"

Lasts a minute longer, and then she can breathe again and she's embarrassed.

I take my courage in both hands and leap in. "Stupid question, Mae, how long have you been having those?"

"Oh, a few days," she says and her face is tomato red. Didn't think she'd be discussing her anatomy with the crazy American lives with Fraser. "It's all right, Ray, the doctor said these were normal, and the baby isn't due for six more weeks."

I nod, but I'm doubtful. My mother used to tell the story of how I was born early. "Sure. Mind if I have some more tea, Mae?"

She doesn't mind, I think she's glad of the company and she gets up and starts her kettle again. She's still measuring tea when another one hits her and I think, oh, shit, shit, shit, shit. How bad is the weather, how hard can a snowmobile be to drive, and jeez, can we make it to Whitehorse in time if she's been having these a few days?

This one is a doozy, she's leaning against the counter when I come over and put my arms around her. "This way, Mae," I tell her. Ka-thumpety, thump. Weather's too bad for flying, is there a midwife in town, and maybe Rosie can tell me that. I settle her down on the couch and crouch down. "Um, Mae, I think the baby has a different timetable."

She shakes her head, but she's scared. "No, no, Ray, it's too early, I can't have a baby here."

I try and figure out how scared she is, take hold of her hands. Think of Reilly and how calm he kept that woman. Confidence in his voice, calm, and he kept telling her not to worry, everything would be all right, wasn't the Christ child born in a stable? Back of a patrol car wasn't so bad, he kept telling her, teasing her a little about having to tell the kid that later.

Even got her laughing. I don't think I'm good enough to get Mae laughing, and Canadians are different fish than Americans, but hey, I'll give it a shot. There's a knitted blanket on the back of the couch, and I tuck it around her. "Hey, Mae, it's going to be okay. I'm going to go over and get Rosie, she'll know what to do. And hey, I helped to deliver a baby in my day, part of being a Chicago cop."

She shivers. "I can't do this here!" Panicking a little.

"Sure you can," I say, trying to sound as confident as Reilly did. "If you have to, Mae, you can do anything. David picked a good wife, you're strong, you're smart, and everything will be all right. Besides, how many Canadian moms can tell their kid a Chicago flatfoot delivered 'em."

That gets a teary smile and she folds her fingers over mine. "Oh, Ray."

"I'm going to go and get Rosie now," I tell her. "And hell, maybe she's got experience, too. Sit tight, I'll be right back."

I keep a calm face while I get my coat back on, but once I'm outside, I'm practically skating across the street on the new snow. Or skiing, or something, and I must look panicky because Rosie, who's stocking shelves, comes over to me right away.

"Mae," I tell her, "Jesus, Rosie, I think she's in labor."

She doesn't say a word, goes back through to the kitchen, and I follow her. Jenny Atlin and Davy are sitting there talking, they're the closest thing to an item in town, unless people are talking about me and Fraser, and Rosie says, "Jenny, I need you to go and get your mother, Mae Brett's in labor."

Davy stands up. "I'll go get her, Mum, Jenny you go with Mum."

Rosie's already off down the hall that leads to the rest of their quarters, Jenny follows her and I'm turning again, I told Mae I'd be back, and panic isn't going to do her any good.

It's a very long afternoon. Rosie's calm infects Mae, she gets Mae into a nightgown, and Jenny tells me what to do, weird stuff like scrub the step stool from the kitchen with soap and then bleach.

Weirdest of all, Mae's decided that I'm the man for the job and if I step out of sight, she gets agitated, but the contractions are coming hard and fast.

I spend a lot of time just holding her hand and reading her childbirth book so I can tell her how to breathe. Or walking her around the apartment, Rosie's instructions. She won't walk for Rosie, but she'll walk for me, go figure that one out. Even in the middle of a contraction.

Christ, no wonder Stella didn't want kids. I can't figure out how my mom did it twice.

Mary Atlin finally arrives about eight, and she's tired and cold, she and Davy had a helluva time getting back. Jenny fixes her some tea and she washes up at the kitchen sink with, I swear, some kind of strong antiseptic soap, a nailbrush, and water hot enough to scald.

Mae is getting tired, and Mary fixes her some kind of tea, insists that she drink it. I'm not tired, Mary's arrival is relief enough to rev my energy back up, and by now, I don't have to check the book to tell Mae how to breathe.

I'm telling her Chicago stories, mostly about Fraser, and she's not the only one seems to enjoy them. And then things get hard and fast, and the walking is done.

"Ah," Mary says, "It's almost time."

And instead of getting her to bed, Mary has her sit on the step stool from the kitchen, which has a sheet draped over it. "You get behind her," she tells me quietly, "Support her."

This is getting freakier by the moment, and it's nothing like Reilly, and it feels even freakier to be holding onto a pregnant woman. She smells like sweat and hard work, and she grips my forearms hard, she's panting like Dief in a Chicago heat wave and then she makes this scary keening noise and Mary is muttering something to Jenny, and I'm holding on with all my strength to keep Mae steady, and she's leaving bruises on my arm, I can't see what the fuck is going on and then this amazing thing happens, Jenny leans in with a pair of scissors and there's this choking sound that turns into a thin little wail that turns into a full fledged howl.

Jesus. Mae sags back on me, panting again, and I'm babbling something like, good job, good job, breathe, whatever, who the hell knows.

Jenny holds the kid up in a clean towel, and it's a he and he's hung like a bull, especially when you consider he's not as long as my forearm is, and he's still wailing, but Mae lets go of my arms and takes him and he stops.

I start to let go of her, and Mary barks, "Stay there, you." And then gives me a quick smile to let me know she's not pissed, just busy, and now I'm perfectly glad I can't see what's going on, but I can see that little scrap of life, and I'm pretty fucking amazed.

Now I really can't believe women do this on purpose, but I'll tell you, I'm feeling pretty jazzed that I was here. I may be fucked up, but I'm still, hell, competent, I guess.

Mae's laughing and crying, and the kid has the right number of fingers and toes, and it's all good and then I'm freaked out a little when Jenny helps Mae open her gown to let the kid nurse.

I'm, ah, wondering where to turn my eyes, and worried about whether or not I should even be here right now, and Rosie pats me on the shoulder.

I look at her, and she's watching the kid, smiling this soft little smile. "You were wonderful, Ray."

I was wonderful? All I did was walk around holding Mae up, I think. Christ, Reilly did more than I did.

But Rosie looks at me, eyes narrowing. "You did a great deal, Ray." Like she's reading my mind.

Which is freaky, but hey, maybe she guessed. "Yeah, just don't tell David, he'll shoot me."

She laughs a little. "I doubt that."

Jenny starts carrying stuff away, a bloody sheet-which sort of makes my stomach turn-and Mary gets to her feet. "She must rest now."

Mae's not a big woman, and I figure maybe I can carry her, if someone takes the kid, and I say so. Rosie takes over there, and Mae puts her arm around my neck, and I use my right arm under her leg, and the damn thing is working better, no fear there, and I carry her down the hall to her bedroom.

She grabs my wrist as I start away. "Ray-" Eyes shining.

I lean in and kiss her cheek. "Happy Mother's Day, Mae." I tell her, grinning. I mean, you can't stay freaked out when somebody looks at you like that.

That's that, I think, and I say good night to the women, put on my parka, and go back out into the snow. It's not as heavy now, and I'm careful, because I'm tired, and I make it back without any trouble.

I'm good. I'm better than good. I feel-Christ, I'm competent, and I remember Reilly with a grin, tip an imaginary uniform cap to him. "You taught me good, Reilly," I say to him, couple of thousand miles south.

I'm about half asleep in a hot bath when I hear the front door open. I leap up in the tub, heart thumping hard.

"It's me," Fraser calls, probably figuring I'm in bed and about to have a heart attack.

"I'm in here," I yell back, and start to get out of the tub, but he appears in the bathroom door, still covered in snow, three days of beard stubble.

"Stay there," he says, "I'll join you."

Sounds like the plan to me, and he goes back out, I hear claws on hardwood and Dief comes up and puts his forepaws on the edge of the tub, I lean down to let him lick my face against my better judgement and tell him, "Good Dief."

Fraser comes in, half dressed, and on his way to undressed, strips off the three bottom layers, leans down and kisses me hard before climbing in behind me.

I don't want him behind me, I want him face to face, I want to kiss him back, but he's not letting go, he's kissing and nipping the back of my neck. "I missed you," he mutters.

I'm squirming, trying to turn around, and he finally lets go and lets me kneel between his legs, lolls back against the back of the tub. He looks tired, but he smiles at me. "Tell me about you."

"Nothing exciting," I say, "Tell me what happened."

He sinks down in the hot water. "Illegal hunt." Eyes half-closed. "They fought among themselves, I believe it's one of the rings out of Alaska, they provide animal parts to Asia. They butcher the animals and leave bodies to rot."

He's really tired. I take the soap and start doing the work for him, get a contented sigh, and he takes hold of my wrist, sits up and kisses me again. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too," I mutter, trying to continue washing him.

Maybe he's not that tired. We end up in bed, and I'm glad that his stubble is almost soft after three days, or I'd end up sandpapered, because it's Alpha Fraser again, holding me down.

He raises his head suddenly. Smiles at me almost smirkily. "I nearly forgot. David sends his sincere thanks, and I'm afraid the baby is going to be named Christopher John Raymond Brett."

My jaw drops. "What the-you've been there already?"

He kisses my left nipple. "Of course." I swear, he's grinning from ear to ear, you'd think it was his kid. "Rosie says they couldn't have done without you."

"Jesus, Ben." I'm totally embarrassed. "It's no big deal."

"Quite the contrary," he begins and I sit up and turn the tables on him.

He's definitely not too tired after all.

I'm like an official Owlcreek person now, people are stopping me to say hello, ask me how I'm doing, how I like Owlcreek.

Fraser just gives me that Mountie smirk.

I think David Brett might be grateful, but he's also figuring shit out and he's a little uncomfortable with me. Trying not to be, because of Mae. I can dance to that one, I know what ambivalence means. He's polite, of course, he's Canadian. He had Mae up in Whitehorse as soon as the snow stopped, and the roads were passable, and looks like everything's okay.

The kid--well, you know, he's still a little squashed looking, and it's kind of hard to know what to say when Mae's so proud. They call him Kit, which seems weird to me, but he's their kid, and how much weirder is Stanley Kowalski, after all.

"Hey, kid," I say, when Mae and David get back and I pay the namesake visit after Fraser nudges me. "Look at you." Little fingers curl around my finger and I remember my brother's kids, grin a little. "He's got a grip going here."

David grins at me. "He's an impatient little bugger."

Mae rolls her eyes. "He is, I swear, he thinks he's dying if he has to wait to eat."

I laugh at that. "He's impatient, all right, had to get here early."

"Hmm." David does that Fraser Hmmm thing, but this one sounds like he's agreeing with me.

"Gonna have your hands full, Mae," I tease her, "Just ask my mom."

She laughs, David laughs, and for a minute it's completely relaxed, so I take off before it gets uncomfortable again.

I'm heading back down the street when Tom Ellery pulls up. "Ray," he says, "Need something to keep busy? I could use some help on the plane engine. Gotta pull it, do some maintenance work."

I consider that. "Never worked on one before, Tom. Car engine stops, you're stuck in the road. Plane engine stops, you fall like a rock."

He grins. "Internal combustion's internal combustion, Ray. Don't worry, I'll check it over." He leans across, pops open the passenger door and I hop in.

Tom isn't the most talkative guy, but I like him, I think he's good people, and so is his wife Cass. Cass grew up, get this, in the Cabrini projects, she's from Chicago, and Tom's probably the only guy in town whiter'n me and Fraser, and Cass is this drop dead gorgeous, tall black woman--oops, African-American, woman--and they live outside of town in this amazing house.

He's got this little hangar, and some space heaters, so we're not standing up to ass in snow on the airfield, which is not something I think I'm up to. So Tom's showing me the engine, and we're working on it, and he's really mostly right, internal combustion is internal combustion, and he says, "Think you'll stay up here?"

I risk a close look at him, but he looks like he's just making conversation, except Tom doesn't make conversation. "Uh, yeah, I'm planning on it, unless the Canadian government takes exception to my ass."

He chuckles and then doesn't say anything for a while. "S'good. You look a helluva lot better than you did the day I brought ya up. Half-afraid I was gonna have to carry you up the hill."

I make a face and try to get a grip on the bolt I'm loosening. Wrench slips, and I bark my knuckles, but I get it on the next try. "Yeah, I was pretty wasted still."

So the next twenty minutes goes by, and we're mostly just talking mechanic talk, and then he says, "Good for Fraser to have somebody."

Whoa. I can feel the blush go all the way down to my socks. Duck my head into the engine and check one last bolt. "Got it. You ready?"

He looks at me like I'm whacked. "Need the block and tackle, Ray."

Doh. "Yeah." Like I remembered that. Then, because he's good people, I say, "Thanks." Really quiet.

He nods, matter of fact and that's the end of that conversation.


I tell Fraser about it when I get back. He's already got something cooking for dinner and I have to scrub off the engine grease, and I'm feeling high because we got that thing humming for Tom, and I learned some stuff I didn't know, and he says it took him about half the time it usually takes.

Fraser doesn't know Tom real well, Tom keeps to himself, but it's obvious they respect each other. He looks at me now, frowning a little. "He said that?"

"Yeah." I use the nailscrubber on a stubborn bit under my thumbnail.

"That must have been disconcerting."

Trust Fraser. Sounds like it disconcerted Fraser more than me, though.

I rinse my hands, grab a towel and lean in to kiss him. "You freaking out on me, Mountie?"

He rubs his eyebrow. "No, I don't believe so. But it is somewhat uncomfortable, I admit. I have to be concerned about how the RCMP is perceived here, Ray."

That is so Fraser. "Fraser, these people love you. At least most of 'em do, the ones I've met."

"I think you're exaggerating, Ray." He shakes his head, turns back to the pot of soup or stew or whatever it is. I peer over his shoulder--ah, soup, I think, something thick and looking like it'll stick to my ribs. I can smell biscuits in the oven and my mouth waters.

"Did you eat anything today?" He's eyeing me.

"Breakfast." I grin, a little embarrassed. "But I ate a lot, Ben, don't freak out."

"Hmmm." He stirs the soup. "Next week is--"

"Dr Yee, I know." I have very mixed feelings about that. Very mixed. "I know I'm still underweight, Ben, but I've always been underweight. I was a skinny little four-eyed geek as a kid, and you gotta remember, I'm never going to be built like you. Quit worrying."

One corner of his mouth lifts. "I'll try."

"Good." I steal another kiss and get bowls and plates out, start setting up for dinner. Equal split of labor, I tell him all the time, and even though he'd just as soon I sat down with my feet up, he can't argue it, it's part of the Benton Fraser Division of Labor manual. Dief is underfoot, I finally settle down with him on the floor, ruffling him.

He puts up with that from me, where he'd probably give Fraser a look like 'Are you unhinged', and Fraser looks sidelong at us. "You're indulging him."

"Why not?" I lean back against the cupboard. Hell, I'm practically underfoot now myself. "You jealous?"

He looks down his nose. "I am assuredly not jealous of Dief." A little miffed.

"Yeah?" I grin.

He jumps me, and we end up lying on the kitchen floor while Dief scrambles out of the way. "You see," he says, and bites my jaw lightly, "I get you later on."

Oh, yeah, I think. Worse than being sixteen, I tell you, and we neck for a few minutes while Dief sulks in the other room.

"Dr. Yee's office called to confirm that all your medical records have arrived from Chicago," he says suddenly and rolls off me to get up.

"Ben, don't get your hopes up," I tell him. "Campbell might be right, but I still might have gone as far as I can." Which ain't all that bad. Holes in the memory, but my right arm and leg are stronger, shoulder doesn't bother me too often. I'm alive, I'm here, I'm happy, and fuck worrying about the rest.

"I don't believe it." Stubborn edge in his voice.

I push myself up, take the hand he offers me, and pull myself up. It suddenly hits me, he's as nervous as me about this appointment, and I'm such a sap, I hug him hard. "Hey, don't worry about it. I'm good, really good."

I get held tight for a minute, just standing there, and then the soup is ready.

I just hope he's not too disappointed with whatever Yee tells us. I hope it doesn't make a difference to him. I don't really think it will, but that's one of the reasons I'm nervous.

I just hope.

Just for mischief, after dinner, when we're lolling on the couch, I turn on one of the porn vids my mother accidentally packed. Fraser's reading, and this time he's leaning back on me, and he doesn't look up until some of the terrible dialogue penetrates whatever he's reading.

"What are you watching," he begins and then goes dead silent. I can tell he's watching it, and the guy who looks a little like him-the reason I bought the damn thing in the first place-is just stripping down.

Now that I know what the real thing looks like naked, the resemblance really breaks down.

"Oh, dear God," he says, sounding stunned.

"Hmmmm?" I'm grinning bigtime.

The blond kid he's about to do doesn't really look like me at all, he's a pretty kid, but he's a little on the skinny side, and I rub the back of Fraser's neck, ruffling the soft hair there. His skin feels hot, and I hear him swallow. "Ray-"

I hit the remote just in time, and I'm getting ground into the couch and believe me, I am all over that.

He's working on my clothes, and I'm working on his, and I'm wearing a pair of sweat pants that are too big for me, his, and he's got those off and oh, Christ, he's got his head between my thighs like he's sure what's he's going to lick first. It makes it hard to get his shirt off. Yes, I can chew gum and walk at the same time, no, I can't undress Fraser and get blown at the same time, and I finally push him up. "Wait," I pant, "C'mon, Ben, get those clothes off and do me."

He gives me a look. "Isn't it my turn?"

Okay, so I'm still being somewhat freaky. I whimper. "Please?"

Yeah, I'm a bottom, okay, I can deal with that, but let me say that if anybody else knew how good he is at this, the sexual orientation of the male population of Owlcreek might change overnight.

So, he stands up taking his time, and I'm touching myself, which makes those eyes get darker, and then, wow, he's on top of me, hot skin against mine, and I'm rubbing myself sort of mindlessly against him and then, shazam, he's pressing against me, and boy, am I ever glad my mother packed those tapes even if I still hope she didn't try and watch any of them.

We've been doing this long enough now that it's easy to get the rhythm, and my legs are over his shoulders, and somehow, he's going deeper than usual, and he feels so fucking good inside me, and I'm begging and making these whimpering sounds.

And he's not touching my cock, he's stroking my thighs and my ass, and holds me open to push in even deeper and wham, really hits that spot hard and I'm screaming and coming and he hasn't even touched my dick. In the little bit of my brain that's tracking, I can't believe that, and it feels like I can't stop coming and then Fraser groans and growls and then shouts my name.

So we're lying there sticky and naked and wiped out and he kisses me, sweet kiss, tender kiss, gentle kiss, and leans up on his elbows. "Ummm. Thank you kindly, Ray."

I hook my legs over his. "Ditto." Still short of breath.

He traces my cheekbone with a fingertip. "I cannot imagine what I have done to deserve you," he says thoughtfully.

"Bad karma," I tell him and get pinched, not gently. "Ow! Hey!"

"Good karma," he murmurs and kisses me again.

And even though I'm embarrassed, it's a pretty damn good feeling. I want it to last. Maybe those rosaries aren't such a bad idea.

Dr. Yee is a tiny Asian woman, and I don't get to talk much to her until my third day in the hospital at Whitehorse. In hospital, they say up here.

Three days of tests and most of them unpleasant, and I feel like a pincushion with legs. Cat scan and MRI and she even made me get my eyes examined. She sits down in a chair near Fraser, and she's got this monster stack of test results and a file, and Christ, even some x-rays.

"I've been over the results of all the tests, Mr. Kowalski," she says, "As well as your medical records. Based on what I'm seeing here, I must cautiously agree with Dr. Heatherton that there was some degree of insult to the brain caused by loss of blood volume. However, I must respectfully disagree with his prognosis."

I can't decide whether or not to feel good. "I have trouble remembering things, and I can't, uh, read real well these days."

She looks back down at a sheet. "Hardly surprising. However," and she goes into this whole drill that I know almost by heart, brain injuries are strange, modern medicine can't explain everything, yadda yadda.

I listen to this and glaze out for a minute, tune back in as she saying, "The muscular weakness on the right side of your body certainly appears to be linked, but I must cautiously agree with your Dr. Merriman that the aphasia appears to have been the combination of physical injury, a certain amount of post-coma confusion, and emotional shock." She looks down at her stack and then back at me again. "Generally, aphasia caused by brain injury, is not resolved so easily or quickly. It's apparent, Mr. Kowalski, that you have little difficulty expressing yourself." Her mouth quirks a little. "And there are no apparent speech impediments."

I'm sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing sweats, no shoes. I look at my socks for a minute. "What about the reading thing?"

"Reading is a function of memory, really. For example, people who speed read are actually utilizing pattern recognition rather than reading each word. We internalize language patterns as very small children, and then when we learn to read, we internalize the patterns of the written word." She's serious again. "I think that the memory loss may be contributing to your difficulty, but," and then she grins again, "Most of the problem is that your eyeglasses are not the proper prescription according to Dr. Moffat. He has a new one for you, and I believe that he can ship them to you in Owlcreek within the week. He tells me that in addition to astigmatism, ah, your eyes are suffering the natural changes of getting older."

I swear, my jaw drops. "My glasses?"

"A large part of it, I believe." There's a definite twinkle in her eye for a minute. "Now, as to prognosis, I believe that Dr. Heatherton was unnecessarily conservative. You will need to continue some kind of physical therapy, but it's apparent that muscle tone and strength continue to increase appropriately. I believe I can safely say that you can anticipate a good recovery, however-"

Here it comes, I think, always gotta be a 'But-"

"I cannot say that your recovery will be complete enough to allow you to resume your position with the Chicago police department."

That's it? That's the worst bit? I look at Fraser to see if I'm hearing her right, and he's beaming.

"I thought as much," he says happily.

"You're saying I'm not as brain damaged as Heatherton told me?" I'm still afraid to believe it.

"I'm saying that yes, there was some degree of injury, but not to the extent that Dr. Heatherton feared. I cannot tell you precisely how much, of course, and as I said, the muscle weakness-"

I pump both fists in the air. "YES!"

She starts to smile, and I realize that she's really a beautiful woman when she smiles, and hop off the bed to shake her hand, even though kissing her is my first choice.

She takes this, still smiling. "I must say, I'm relieved, I was afraid you would feel it was bad news."

I feel like dancing. "Doc, I got used to thinking I was going to end selling pencils on the street, this is great news."

She gathers her stack and stands up. Fraser shakes her hand. 'Thank you very kindly, Dr. Yee."

She blushes a little. Yeah, Fraser has that effect. "You're very welcome, gentlemen. I treasure the moments I can give welcome news."

"Yeah, well, I'm going to treasure this one, too, Doc." I can't stand still, shake her hand again.

She laughs and nods at Fraser, and then leaves the room, going down to cut me loose. Fraser shuts the door and grabs me, I grab him back, and we do a liplock even though we've been so cautious and careful here for the last three days.

He looks like Christmas again. "Ready to go home?"

"Home," I agree. "Yeah, let's go home." Home.

It takes a while to get the paperwork done, and then we're on the road again. "I'm never leaving Owlcreek again," I tell Fraser, laughing, "Well, except maybe to visit Chicago."

The look he gives me is hot enough to melt asphalt. "Truly, Ray?"

"Truly, Ben." I sigh happily, reach over, and squeeze his thigh. "Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben." Grin when he gives me a questioning look. "I just like saying it."

He blushes, which revs me up again, and we spent the next hour with me teasing him and him fending me off with dire threats of tossing me in the snow and ravaging me.

I get myself pretty heated up, too, but have to be on my best behavior, because we've got to stop at the post.

David Brett looks up questioningly when we come in, and I give him two thumbs up. "Best news," I tell him.

He grins. "Excellent."

"As I suspected," Fraser says seriously, "Ray's injuries, although very serious, were not as serious as he was led to believe."

"In other words," I say, smart ass Kowalski, "I'm only slightly brain damaged, instead of seriously brain damaged."

"Consequently, the muscle weakness on his right side," Fraser adds, and takes some papers from Brett. "Ah, quiet the last few days. Good."

"Very quiet." Brett's happy about that, I bet, time to spend with Mae and the kid. "And we're due some snow tonight, so I anticipate another quiet few days."

Fraser gives him a grin. "A mixed blessing at times."

"Right you are, sir." Brett rolls his eyes, but grins.

"If you need me," Fraser says, and goes to put the papers on his desk, "I'll be at home."

"Excellent, sir. Ray, congratulations on the news. Mae will be pleased to hear it, too." He gives me a genuine smile.

Maybe he's getting used to the idea. I grin back and then Fraser and I walk back to the cabin.

Celebration time.

Oh, yeah, we're home.

//....he's back, and we're all sitting around laughing our asses off at the bar at this story he's telling about playing hearts with one of the biggest baddest motherfuckers in Chicago.

He turns to look at me and says, hey, Ray, good to see ya again.

I reach out to high five him, and there's a gun aimed at me and I say, oh, shit, and then he fires and it's cold, so cold, and I'm lying on the cement....

.....and I'm in the squadroom, looking at a file, murder victim, crime scene shots, and the victim is me...//

I jerk upright in bed, shocked wide awake, and feel Fraser's hand on my arm. "Jesus!" Sweating.

He pushes himself up. "The same dream?" Sleepy voice.

"No." I lick my lips, wipe the sweat off my face. "Oh, fuck." I don't want to think about it, but I'm not that chickenshit. "I think maybe I was set up, Ben."

He doesn't say anything, but the light goes on and he's squinting at me. "What did you dream, Ray?" Wide awake voice.

"There was a guy I worked with in Narcotics, good friend." No, I have to be wrong. It's a fucking dream, for Christ's sake. But...."I dreamt he shot me, Ben. I dreamt-" And it's hard to breathe suddenly, panic attack from hell, and he's out of bed, comes back with a battered paper sack and we do that for a few minutes until I can breathe and think again.

Then, I lean back against the pillows. "It can't be right. It can't be. This is a stand up guy, this is a good cop." I wonder if I sound as lame to him as I do to myself.

"His name, Ray?" He's leaning in, his gaze intent.

It takes me a while. "Jack Barnaby." Reluctant. "But we called him Barney."

His eyes widen. "Not Varney, Barney."

"It can't be-" I object, "It was just a fucking dream!"

"Perhaps," he agrees. "Perhaps there's something about him, perhaps the real perpetrator reminds you of Jack Barnaby."

I snatch at that like Dief goes for doughnuts. "Yeah, that's gotta be it. Barney's a good cop, dammit."

He touches my cheek. Solemn face. "I think," he tells me, "That it's time we spoke to Lt. Welsh."

I've managed to put this off too long, I think. "Okay. Tomorrow."

He nods.


Chicago looks like-Chicago. Not quite like home. Not quite not home. After the clean air up north, I notice the stink of the city, wrinkle my nose.

We have to wait for Dief to get unloaded, and boy, is he one pissed wolf, he sulks and sticks close to me.

"You insisted on coming," Fraser tells him, "And you knew full well what that entailed."

Dief growls.

My dad's there to pick us up, he gives Dief a wary look even though they've met before. Fraser nudges me to sit in the front seat, and gets in back with Dief.

Dad and I hug, and he frowns at me. "You sure you don't want to stay with us?"

Well, sure, Dad, and by the way, this is the man I love, and can he stay, too? "Nah, Dad, I don't know how long we'll be here, and we'll be at the precinct anyway."

I can tell he doesn't quite buy that as a reason to stay in a hotel with Fraser, but hey, whatever. This is the least of my problems now.

And of course, the only hotel that lets us keep Dief with us is higher dollar than Fraser's used to, so we have a short intense squabble about who's paying. I pop for it, mostly because I'm so not staying anywhere Fraser would find acceptable.

I hate cockroaches. Fraser probably believes they're a snack, and of course, we can't stay at the consulate.

We get a double for appearances and I sink down on the bed while my dad stands at the door eyeing me. "You look good, son." Awkwardly.

"Thanks, Dad. Fraser's been force-feeding me."

"Of course I haven't, Mr. Kowalski, I've merely encouraged him to eat healthily."

My dad grins a little. "You use a gun?"

Fraser gives me an innocent look. "I resorted to other means of persuasion."

Oh, do not do that, I tell him silently.

He looks back at my dad and says, "Rosie McKenzie's scones."

"Your mom wants both of you at the house for dinner." Dad looks at Dief. "Er, does he have to come, too?"

Fraser looks around the room doubtfully. "It would probably be best, I'm afraid."

"That's okay, the yard is fenced."

Dief whines. Fraser looks at him. "Well, of course, if you'd prefer-on second thought, Mr. Kowalski, I think he'll be fine here."

I'm home, I think, and wonder why it doesn't feel like home, rub my face with both hands.

Maybe my internal compass has found true north.

I know my heart has.

It's way good to see my mom and she's made everything I loved as a kid, she cries when she hugs me and tells me how good I look, and how much she loves me, and I get choked up, and Fraser kindly draws my dad aside and for all I know, he's telling Dad Inuit stories, but my dad looks sort of interested.

I swear, I eat and eat until I'm about to pop and then lean back in the chair and just grin. "Man, I'm going to explode."

They all just look happy, practically beaming at me.

"Being up north's been good for you," my dad says gruffly, and shoots Fraser a funny look.

I wonder about that, but then Mom starts talking about my brother and his wife and kids and gets pictures out to show Fraser and I'm wasted by the trip and too much food and by the time I'm alert enough, my mother's clearing the table, and I try and help her, but Fraser sends me into the livingroom with my dad.

"So what brings you back, Ray."

I didn't tell them much on the phone, just that I needed get back, Welsh needed me. "I'm starting to remember things, Dad. Um, about the shooting."

He looks away for a minute. "Oh." Rusty voice. "That's good, I guess." Quick look at me. "Isn't it?"

Hell if I know. "I guess." And then I feel better. "But, hey, Dad, I saw a doctor up in Canada, she thinks Dr. Heatherton was way wrong about how bad the damage to my brain was."

He snorts. "Of course he was, look at you." Brief glint in his eyes. "And the way you took off, I knew you were doing better than that doctor said you were."

"You didn't like Heatherton a lot either, did you," I ask slyly.

He makes this grumpy sound. "He saved your life." Grudgingly. "Hard to dislike a guy who did that."

I sink back in the couch. "He was a prick."

He laughs, looks around to make sure my mom can't hear. "Don't talk like that around your mom."

I'm grinning. "He was. He is."

He's laughing again, under his breath. "Yeah, okay." His eyes glint again. "But a smart prick, he saved your life."

"Okay, I'll give him that." I yawn suddenly, and feel all the tired catch up with me. "Jeez, that trip wears me out."

"Yeah." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a set of keys. "Figured you'd need a car while you're here." Then, grudgingly, "Let the Mountie drive, Ray, you look beat."

As if he's listening, Fraser appears. "You do indeed, Ray. You've a full day tomorrow, perhaps we should return to the hotel."

I nod, push myself up, and get a hug from my dad, this time a hard one. "Dinner tomorrow night," he tells me. "Here."

"If we can, Dad. There's a lot going on." I hug him back and then hug my mom, who is standing in the doorway, drying her hands.

"You're going to get all wet," she says, but lets me. Kisses my ear. "I love you, Ray. Don't ever forget that."

That's weird, coming from my mom. Don't get me wrong, I always knew I was loved, even when my dad was so pissed he didn't speak to me. But this is-unexpected.

I draw back, frown. "Mom, I'm good, I'm better than good."

She smiles, touches my cheek. "I know. I can see that." Quick look at Fraser and she smiles. "Now go get some rest."

"I'll talk to you tomorrow, one way or another," I promise, and then we leave.

In the car, on the way back to the hotel, I look at Fraser. "My parents seem weird to you?"

Startled look. "They seem like very good, very loving people, Ray."

I laugh. "Yeah, they are, but I mean weird for them."

"I don't know your parents very well, Ray. They've missed you, certainly, and worried about you." He smiles out at the street, keeping his eyes on the road. "I was able to reassure your mother considerably by telling her of Dr. Yee's conclusions."

I let myself slide over, let my head rest on his shoulder. "Good." I wonder what she'd think if she knew the scoop with me and Fraser, but thinking about that makes me sad. "I want you."

"You have me." Mild tone.

"You know what I mean."

"I believe I can accommodate you there, too." He turns his head, I feel his shoulder flex and a quick kiss on my hair. "I love you, Ray."

Everyone is sentimental tonight. "Lunatic." But then I lean up and kiss the spot under his ear. Whisper. "I love you, Ben."

Of course, he does accommodate me, and quite nicely, too.

So nicely that I'm feeling great when I shower in the morning. I've got an appointment with the department's approved doctor to determine whether or not I'm fit for duty. Seems that the brass are somewhat doubtful of my claim, which has totally pissed Welsh off and sent him on the warpath.

Fraser is looking doubtfully at the room service breakfast when I come back out. "Ray, these prices are quite inflated."

Dief has assumed the hopeful posture of a wolf seeking doughnuts. He whines and without looking at him, Fraser says, "No, you may not, you have a perfectly good dish of food on the bathroom floor.

"Live a little, Ben." I pull on some sweats and sit down. "Appointment's not until ten, we going to the 2-7 first, right?"

"Right you are, Ray."

So we eat, talking about anything but Welsh, Barnaby, or the fact that I should probably be dead.

The squadroom goes dead silent when we walk in. Until Frannie catches sight of Fraser and Dief and practically squeals with delight. When she sees me, her eyes get big, and, heh, I get the first hug, surprise, surprise.

Of course, Fraser gets one, too, and people I don't recognize are staring in amazement, some at Frannie, some at Fraser's Stetson, and some at Dief.

Welsh comes out of his office and stands there with his hands on his hips. "Kowalski." Same old growl. "You still malingering?"

I do a mock salute. "Not me, sir, I'm here as ordered."

Another surprise, Welsh gives me one of those quick guy hugs, manly man hugs, just to let me know he was worried about me. Then he shakes my hand. "Never thought I'd see a day I'd be glad to see you, Kowalski."

I grin, feeling like a fool. "Gee, thanks, Lt."

Welsh turns to Fraser. "Constable."

"Corporal," I say, and get a look.

Fraser's trying not to smile. "Er, actually, Ray's quite correct, sir, I'm Corporal Fraser now."

"Corporal." Welsh looks narrowly at me. "What have you been feeding him."

"Whale blubber, sure, it's very good for the skin and for energy-"

"Corporal." Welsh looks around the squadroom like he's challenging someone. "In my office."

I look at Fraser and grin. Just like old times.

Inside, I'm not getting chewed out, so maybe it's not quite as much like old times as I want to think. Dief sits down at my feet, he's as protective as the Mountie these days.

Instead, Welsh hands me a folder full of forms. "For the doc," he growls and leans back in his chair, arms folded. "You really are looking good, Kowalski." He sighs. "Damn good. Jesus, you were stick thin last time I saw you, and you were never what anybody could call beefy. As always, Cons-er, Corporal, you do excellent work. How the hell did you do it?"

"As much as I would like to take the credit," Fraser tells him mildly, "I'm afraid that all I did was provide the venue."

Heh. Not quite all, of course. "So what the hell does IA want from me?" Welsh told us on the phone that IA was getting ready to make some busts internally connected to the shooting, including my former partner Tim Rainsford, and thinking of Jack Barnaby makes my stomach. Not Barney, I tell myself, not Barney, it's something else, some freaky tip from my freaky unconscious mind. "I-ah, I don't remember much even now, Lt."

Fraser shifts in his chair. "You know, Ray, I was thinking of that on the flight down. If you recall, there was a case of ours during which the use of hypnosis-"

I know where he's going. "Fraser." My stomach rolls again. I take in a breath, get up and pace the office. Stupid, stupid, stupid, and I trust Fraser. Welsh watches me silently, but doesn't say anything, and neither does Fraser. "Okay. Okay. But I can't handle it now, not before I have to go see that doctor. This afternoon, okay?"

"Certainly," Fraser agrees promptly.

Welsh looks like he's thinking about it. "That sounds good to me. Lt. Jefferson at IA wants to talk to you, preferably today, but I might be able to push it off until tomorrow." Long look. "Like I said, Tim Rainsford's been suspended. They can't connect him to your shooting, Kowalski, but my gut tells me that Jefferson's on the right track."

I stand with my back against Welsh's door. "Yeah, but why? I don't get it, I barely knew the guy, I don't know fuck all about him. I'd only worked with him, what, four months?"

"Yeah, I know." Welsh broods about that for a minute. "He came out of Narcotics, like you did, Kowalski."

That makes my stomach roll. "What the hell does that mean?"

Welsh unfolds his arms and leans forward. "It means, Kowalski, that you may have known something you didn't know you knew. You might try thinking over your cases back then, see if anything seems hinky now."

"I partnered with Jack Barnaby," I tell him, and for just a minute, it's hard to breathe.

Welsh is watching me, too close, real close. "Yeah, I remember reading that in your file."

Okay, now I'm going to puke. "'Scuse me a minute," I tell them both and then I'm out the door and heading for the bathroom.

Yup, breakfast ends up swirling down into the sewers and Fraser comes in when I'm washing my face and rinsing out my mouth.

Dewey follows him, practically on his heels, so Fraser stands about an arm's length away from me. "Hey, Ray, you okay?"

"Yeah." I rinse out my mouth again, spit. "Something I ate, I think."

Dewey's watching me like Welsh did. "You want a soda? Might settle your stomach."

Jesus, no wonder I ran for Canada, everybody wants to nursemaid me. I take a breath and feel bad for that thought, nod and rinse my face again. Dewey trots out, and Fraser moves closer, puts his arms around me in a brief, very welcome hug. "Ray?" Softly. Not pushing.

Sometimes Canadian reserve is a good thing. "I'm okay, I dunno what happened there." I manage a shaky laugh. "Better go back in before the Lt. starts thinking I'm more unhinged than he already does."

Another brief, hard hug.

We meet Dewey coming out and he gives me the soda. "Hey, you need anything else, just yell," he says, embarrassed, and takes off before I get a chance to thank him.

Jesus, everyone really is a nursemaid, he brought me something lemon-lime. I pop the can and take a sip, and it does seem to help.

Back in Welsh's office, this time without Dief, who is sucking up to Frannie and wheedling snacks from Dewey.

Welsh is standing up, rubbing the back of his neck. "Look, Kowalski, I know this isn't easy."

Now I'm really embarrassed. "Look," I say and manage a grin. "You know my head's messed up, Lt. This shit happens sometimes, beats the hell out of me why."

He nods seriously. "I wish I hadn't had to ask you to come back, but when you called, and IA was on my ass, I figured better to get it over with."

Fraser isn't saying anything, he's just looking thoughtful, like there's something on his mind. "Ray, where is the doctor's office? You might wish to leave soon in order to arrive in time."

Welsh suddenly looks embarrassed. "Ah, by the way, Ray, I didn't realize, but Ms. Vecchio was hanging on to some of your things, I had her give them to me." He goes back behind his desk, rummages in a drawer and pulls out one of those padded mailing envelopes. "Meant to ship them up there, but forgot."

I tear the envelope open and grin. My watch and bracelet. "Man, I thought these were long gone," I tell him, and I can't stop grinning. "This is some kinda omen, Fraser."

He's smiling, just a little, but I can see beyond that to his eyes. "A good one, I trust."

"Gotta be." I slip the watch on one wrist, wrap the bracelet around the other. The watch is even running, Welsh must've replaced the battery. "Damn, you're right, it's getting late and this guy's across town. Why don't you and the Lt. catch up, I'll come back here when I get done."

"An excellent idea," Fraser agrees gravely.

"I'll see ya then, Lt." I'm embarrassed again, touch my watch. "And thanks."

He waves, like it's no big deal.

I give Fraser one quick warm look and then I'm out the door, feeling good again.

The good feeling lasts even though the doctor's appointment. He's impressed with Dr. Yee's careful work, and once we get past the tap-dancing, allows he agrees with her, which is a good thing. He also fills out the ninety zillion forms the PD insists on having, and talks to me a little about what I plan to do, and then it's pitter patter, up and at'er, I'm driving my own car again, and heading back to the 2-7.

Of course, by this time, it's just past noon, and Chicago lunch hour traffic sucks, so it's nearly one when I get back in.

Frannie is still working, so I sneak up on her and put my hands over her eyes. "Guess who."

She laughs happily. "A certain scruffy detective, right?"

"Right you are, Frannie." God, I'm starting to sound like Fraser. I rest my hip on the edge of the desk for a minute. "Hey, Welsh told me that you, ah, kept hold of my stuff for me."

She blushes. "I kept forgetting to give them to your mom and dad, Ray, I'm sorry." She studies me closely. "So how are you liking Canada?"

"It's cold and dark and snowy, what's not to like?" I get up. "Fraser still with Welsh."

She blinks. "Oh, Ray, they went to meet with somebody in Internal Affairs."

That pisses me off a little, but maybe they had to. "Where?"

She holds her hands up. "I don't know, Ray." Helplessly. "Lt. Welsh never tells me these things."

I chew my lip, frowning a little. "Can you get me somebody in Internal Affairs?"

"I can try," she says, and looks up the number.

While I'm waiting, Huey comes over and claps me on the back. "Man, when Dewey told me you were here, I thought he was on crack."

I grin. I don't miss a lot about Chicago, but I do miss the people at the 2-7.

Frannie's talking to someone at IA, and shakes her head at me, helpless shrug.

"He's not there?"

She covers the phone with her hand. "She says Lt. Jefferson is out of the office this afternoon."

Fuck. Huey's telling me some story about how the comedy club went bust, and he draws me over, and I end up shooting the shit with some of the other guys, which is good, because it keeps me from flaming out.

I wander back to Frannie's desk after a while, and even though I'm trying not to get pissed, it's getting harder, it's just past two-thirty. "Frannie, I need to go get something to eat. Do me a favor, and tell Fraser I'll meet him at his hotel. If Welsh needs me, tell him I'll come in tomorrow morning."

"Sure, Ray." She gives me another smile. "You got it."

So, by the time I get back to the hotel, I'm completely pissed off. Too pissed off to eat, really, and I have a couple of sodas while I'm waiting a) for Fraser to come back, or b) for Fraser to call, or c) to really get pissed enough to go back to the 2-7. And I miss Dief.

Unfortunately, I'm not too pissed to sleep, and the phone wakes me up. I grab it. "Yeah?"

"Hey, Ray." A voice I don't recognize. "It's me, Tim Rainsford. Heard you were back in town."

"Yeah." I'm wondering how the fuck he knew where to reach me, and my mouth goes dry. "What's up."

"Listen, partner, we need to talk about that Mountie friend of yours." He doesn't sound real friendly, even though he's calling me partner. "You, you've fucked me up but good."

"I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, I don't even remember you," I tell him, but my hands are sweaty. Fraser's more than competent, but if he thought-would he hunt Rainsford up? Would he? Damn whacked out Mountie, he doesn't carry a gun, and if Rainsford is this dirty, would he-"What about Fraser?"

"We need to talk," he growls. "In person. Meet me downtown on the corner by Haggerty's. Two hours, I got stuff I gotta deal with first."

I really don't like this, I don't like this at all. I hang the telephone up, wondering who I can trust. The answer is, I don't fucking know.

So instead of calling the 2-7, like I should, I call one of my high school buddies, a guy who didn't quite stay on the right side of the law, but who either never got caught or never quite got on the wrong side.

"Hey, Max," I say, "It's Ray Kowalski." I have to talk through the usual bullshit, because I haven't seen him in more than a year. "Look," I say, "I need a favor, Max. I need to know if you know anybody can get me a gun and a vest."

There's a silence. "A gun and a vest," he says, like he's trying to decide if I'm running one on him.

My hands are sweating so much that the phone feels slippery. "Yeah, I've got some trouble, Max, and the fact is, I'm not a cop any more, and I can't trust the guys I used to work with."

There's another silence. "Come on out and see me, Ray. We'll talk. Remember the old Embers?"

"Yeah." Place was a dive back then, a local tavern, and I wondered if it was still a dive.

"I own it now." Max clears his throat. "I can't help you personally, but I might be able to get you in touch with someone who can."

"I need it in an hour." I'm sweating again. "Hour and a half tops."

"I'll see what I can do. Come on out."

"Yeah, okay, give me about twenty minutes." Time ticking away.

And then, once I hang up, I shake for a minute until it occurs to me to call the 2-7. Maybe I'm coming unhinged, my brain's not working at all-but Fraser isn't there.

"I thought I saw the Lt. come in," says some stranger, whose voice I don't recognize, "But I think he was alone, and he's just stepped away.

I trust Welsh. Welsh might be the only one I do trust. "Okay, let me talk to Detective Dewey," I say.

I don't distrust Dewey, but my mind keeps going back to my dream. I'd have trusted Barney with my life once and now everything's shaky. "Hey, Dewey. Do me a favor, when you see the Lt. tell him I'm meeting an old partner down at Haggerty's, have him meet us there."

"An old partner?" His tone is blank. "Sure thing, Ray. What about Fraser?"

"Yeah, if Fraser shows up, tell him the same thing." I'm sweating again.

"Who you meeting?" Dewey's just plain nosy, but now everything sounds weird, sounds shaky, sounds untrustworthy.

I open my mouth, and "Jack Barnaby," pops out, and I don't even know why the fuck I said that.

Dewey says, "Before my time, I guess. Have a beer for me."

"Hey, yeah, when you get off, swing on by." Fake cheer, and then I'm out of the hotel room so fast I almost get a nosebleed from the g force.

Okay, I'm moving, and once I'm moving, being scared isn't as bad. Welsh came back alone, I think and shudder. Goddamn Christless stubborn Mountie, what the hell was he thinking?

Christ, I have to stop and clean out my savings, Max is a friend, but this shit doesn't come free.

I'm getting images as I drive, maybe memories, real clear conversation on the cell phone I used to have. Rainsford, yeah, I ain't gonna make it in, partner, feeling pretty lousy, already talked told Welsh, thought I'd let you know.

Me, I could care less, this guy's not my partner, Fraser's my partner. I remember being relieved at not having the guy around for one day, remember feeling guilty about that. It's a nothing case, anyway, unless you count the victims, and Rainsford thinks we're wasting time, and Fraser's voice in my head is talking about justice, truth and democracy, and so I'm hunting for the con artists anyway.

The Embers tavern looks a little like it got a face lift, but underneath it's still the same old whore; Max is standing behind the bar when I get there, he nods at me, starts back for the office. I follow him, and so does the guy by the bar, skinny guy like me wearing a black overcoat a little too classy for the Embers.

Guy's got eyes like stone, but Max talks to him quietly, and the guy nods.

The vest is police issue, but I pretend not to notice it. The guy warms up a little when he figures out it's not a sting, and my hands are shaking as I take off the shirt I borrowed from Fraser this morning and the thermal shirt under it. I've got a t-shirt under that-hey, it's cold even in Chicago, this time of year.

Max is sitting behind it. "Jesus, Ray, you look like shit."

The vest is cold from being outside in the guy's car, and I shiver, fumble with the straps. Guy looks from Max to me and gives me a hand, snugging it like he knows what he's doing. "Gun," I say, short and hard.

"Shoulder holster, ankle holster." Guy's got a briefcase and I have to fight the urge to laugh. Opens it, shows me. Hope to Christ Rainsford's not so paranoid he's going to pat me down, and the ankle holster looks a little smarter.

Nice Sig, compact, got some kick, oughta work fine, I strap the ankle holster on and look at the guy.

He looks at me. "I want the vest back."

"You got it." If I'm alive, I guess, which I intend to be, but shit happens. Fraser, I think, and my gut rolls. He wouldn't kill Fraser, would he? Big time trouble, international trouble, but Canada doesn't have a death penalty. "Assuming he doesn't shoot me in the head. How much I owe you?"

Max is still watching, eyes narrowed. "He's a friend." Gruffly.

Guy looks at him, shakes his head. "Too fucking soft, Max," he mutters and names a figure lower than I expect.

Cash changes hands, and it's weird, really weird, because now I'm on the other side of the law, more or less, and I nod at Max, jittering and jiving, I'm wound up and can't let myself slow down. I can't make any mistakes.

Wish I hadn't told Dewey I was meeting Barney, for Christ's sake, I can't decide if that was good or bad or smart or stupid-smart.

"Leave the vest with Max," the guy says, and slips out.

Max is looking at me. "Ray, you need any help?" Quietly.

I shake my head. "Max, I gotta go alone, I think they've got somebody that matters to me."

He's got a toothpick he's playing with, gives me a troubled look. "Bad thing, you can't trust your own buddies.

I'm moving toward the door, stop a minute as another image flashes. Rainsford, sitting in the back of a bar, looking up at me, surprised. Hard to breathe for a minute, even though I can't place it, and I shiver. "Yeah, real bad thing." I turn back. "Max, I owe you bigtime for this." Can't let myself break, can't let myself feel anything too much or I'll fall apart.

He nods, walks me out. "Take care of yourself." He's still troubled. "You need help, Ray, you call me."

I'm already heading out.

Haggerty's is another dive, downtown, ratty part of town. I get there early, go in, and look around. I think I might recognize Rainsford, now, bits and pieces in mind, and my heart's hammering ninety to nothing. Bar's warm, I disgust the bartender by getting a Coke, nurse it, watching the time, and then shrug back into my parka.

Thank God it's winter, parka disguises the bulk, hey, if my face wasn't so thin I'd look damn healthy. I can see myself reflected in the window when I go outside, and Max is right, for somebody who looks a lot better than I did, I still look like shit.

I feel like shit.

Fraser, I think and the wind cuts through the layers I'm wearing, adds to the chill.

Stand there on the corner, waiting, and a guy crosses the street, vaguely familiar. Beefy young guy, and he looks at me. "Kowalski."

Rainsford. "Where's Fraser?" I keep my voice low, mild. "You said you wanted to talk about Fraser."

He shrugs deeper into his coat. "Not here," Looks around. "This way."

Fuckhead. "I ain't moving, what about Fraser?"

"What the fuck you been telling him, Kowalski?" He's practically whining. "My ass is hanging out in the wind, he's got Welsh all over me, and they fucking suspended me, IA is on my back-"

"Fraser," I say again, and my voice doesn't shake, it's steel, it's cold. "What about Fraser?"

"He's causing a shit load of trouble, Kowalski. You're causing a shitload of trouble." He's got his hands in his pocket, and I'm glad I've got the fucking vest, wish maybe I'd taken the chance on the bulk of the shoulder holster.

"Ray, old buddy!" Voice from just beyond him and I look up and guess who's coming down the street?

Yeah, my old partner, my friend, Barney.

Heart hammers again, hard enough to feel. No, I think, and no. Not Barney. How stupid am I? I told Dewey I was meeting Barney, and look at this. Fuck me, even Dewey?

Barney comes up, grabs my arm. "Let's take a walk, Ray."

And it's coming back now, coming back in slo-mo flickers in my mind. I start to dig in, and something tells me that's not a good idea. "Barney," I say, and glance at Rainsford.

Yup, hands are still in his pocket, but one side has a funny bulge, and I don't think he's glad to see me. In fact, he looks scared and pissed and stubborn. "Go, Kowalski."


....Kid takes off into the bar, and I follow him, pissed off, grab hold of him. ID, I snap and turn my head, taking a slow look around.

Familiar faces in the back. Gang faces, three of 'em, guys we haven't been able to get behind bars yet, and one mob guy, Calucci, and isn't that interesting, and then I see the two guys at the table with 'em.

Rainsford. Rainsford looks like I just knee'd him in the balls, and the other guy is turning, turning, big smile for me.


He gets up, greets me like there's nothing weird going on, and I want to puke, I know he's narcotics, but Rainsford isn't, and what the fuck is going on here, and then Barney reaches inside his jacket while I'm still looking at him like a moron, and....

Now I remember. Gee, and Fraser didn't have to put me under.

I remember getting off a few shots before I went down, and I remember lying on the sticky floor of the bar, knowing I'm a dead man, and a lot of voices shouting, and the pain of getting dragged back outside on the street. Remember Barney's voice giving orders, even though I can't remember what they were.

"Barney," I say, and let him walk me down the street to the alley.

"Shoulda stayed in Canada, Ray." He sounds almost sorry. "Stubborn bastard, you shoulda been dead."

"Barney," I say again, and my chest hurts. "What the hell is going on?" Playing stupid.

"It's just a matter of time," he tells me, and there's grunge and slush and it's squishing under my feet, and we're going deeper into the alley, and I only thought my pulse was hammering before, that's all I can hear.

All I can think, looking at Barney is that I'm even stupider than I used to think I was. And sometimes a dream really is giving you a message. When am I going to learn?

He grins, teeth showing white in the dark beard. "Sorry, Ray, nothing personal. Honest. But you know, I'm in business." Dirty cop, and he was my friend, once, my partner, and now he's got eyes colder than the guy who got me the vest.

"Why?" I ask, and I'm not sure if I'm asking why he's dirty or why he shot me, or why he's going to kill me now, and anyway, all three are stupid questions. "Where's Fraser?"

His eyes flicker a minute. "The Mountie? Shit, I don't know, Ray, probably over at IA trying to put the nails in my coffin. They're looking at me pretty hard, and so far, they don't have the evidence." Almost regretful. "But they've got you, Ray, and without you, all they got is ideas."

Rainsford looks like he's going to shit himself. "This ain't gonna work, they're going to find out I talked to him, IA's already on my ass."

"So you're going to kill me." He doesn't have Fraser, I realize and boy, how much stupider can I get? Stupid fucking Polack, I think, and I can't get to the ankle holster now, but if he fires....I'm planning my moves, only half my attention on Barney, stalling, stalling...

Barney grins at Rainsford. "Sure they will, Tim. That's the whole idea." Barney shifts suddenly, fires, and Rainsford's face explodes in blood.

I'm already moving, twisting, and down the alley, hoping I don't take a bullet to the back of the head, and I'm in better shape than I thought, I dodge the crap in the alley, feel cement chips spray when Barney misses.

Somebody on the street is shouting, and I'm about two hundred yards from the street and wham, hard punch in the back that knocks me forward, off my feet...

Cold, greasy asphalt under my face and it's hard to catch my breath, more gunfire, and fuck it, it's just as well that I'm down, but I've got to at least fucking crawl, he's not going to cap me in front of witnesses. I don't think.

Somebody running in front of me, and Dewey's voice, loud and pissed, "Officer down, get a fucking ambulance."

Dewey, and I flinch, wondering if this is when I get the bullet in the back of the head, and Dewey runs toward me, puts a careful hand on my back. "Easy, Kowalski, we got ya, hang in there."

Okay, okay, Dewey's not part of it. The shooting's stopped, so I raise my head, and risk a look back. Couple of uniforms, one of 'em crouched down, and looks like Barney's the one went down for real. "I got a vest, Dewey, I'm okay." Hoarse.

Dewey looks down, takes in a breath. "Shit, you scared the hell out of me." Rubs his forehead. "Fuck."

Man, I am soooo in agreement with that. My heart's still going ninety to nothing, and even though I'm lying in slush and Christ knows what else, I'm not sure I'm ready to get up, I'm not sure I can get up. "Gimme a minute, Dewey."

"Sure thing." He's patting me nervously, and I can see sweat beaded on his face, never mind it's winter in Chicago. "Fraser called looking for you, and I told him you were meeting Barnaby, and he tells me IA is all over Barney, and-" He takes in a breath. "Jesus, ya dumb Polack, what the hell were you thinking?"

"I was thinking Rainsford was small potatoes," I tell him, which is mostly true. Can't very well say, I thought he had Fraser, and I was gonna trade myself. "And besides, I had a vest."

"Good thing Barney didn't shoot you in the head." Brutally and he scowls at me.

Screech of tires and a door flies open, blur of white and then, oh, thank you Jesus, it's Fraser, Barney was telling the truth, oh, shit, it's Fraser, he's with Welsh, he's going to kill me. Or something. "Okay, I'm ready," and Dewey gives me a hand up.

Fraser stops dead, and even in the alley I can see how pale and shocked he looks. Dief just jumps at me, paws on my chest, and only Dewey keeps me from falling down again.

"I'm fine," I tell Fraser and unzip the parka, unbutton the flannel shirt. "See?"

I can't tell what he's thinking, but I'm thinking my back hurts, and I feel like I should get down on my knees and thank God for that. I move stiffly forward, and there's Welsh, looking dangerous.

"Kowalski," he growls and I'm suddenly glad I'm still on temporary disability, because I have a feeling I'd be getting some nasty assignments if I wasn't.

Fraser still hasn't said anything, and his mouth has a funny set to it.

That doesn't feel too good, but I don't have a chance to ask him, we're standing around with a gazillion people, and there's an ambulance for Barney, and the paramedics think I should get checked at the hospital, and Fraser doesn't have much to say.

I'm stiff from the bruise in the middle of my back, but going to the hospital is not in my plans for the near-or far-future. We have to go to the precinct so I can give Dewey my statement, with Welsh sitting there frowning at me, and Fraser playing statue.

All I want to do is a) get out of here, and b) ask Fraser where the hell he's been and c) climb into his arms and thank God he's alive and I'm alive and my memory's back. Oh, and take a hot shower, eat Chicago style pizza, and put on some clean clothes, not necessarily in that order.

So we're finally free and back at the hotel and we're standing in the elevator, and the mute decides to speak. "It was extremely irresponsible of you to meet with Rainsford alone, Ray." Cold tone.

Like striking a match and dropping it in gasoline. "Yeah, well, I had good reason." I snarl it. "And by the way, where the hell were you? I spent the afternoon trying to track you down."

"Lt. Welsh and I were meeting with members of the Internal Affairs division," he says, still cold and flat and real controlled.

He's pissed at me? I spend the afternoon thinking that fuck Rainsford's got him somewhere, and he's pissed at me? "About what?" Okay, energy's back, I'm practically dancing from one foot to the other, mad as hell. "About Rainsford? About my case? About me? Gee, you forget to tell me something?"

The elevator opens then, our floor, and he doesn't answer me. Too damn polite to make a scene in front of the people waiting for it, so we get off, and I'm steaming, it's practically coming from my ears.

Fraser, he's ice, cold wind off the Bering Sea.

I close the door behind us, toss my keys on the dresser. "Well?"

He takes off his hat and jacket and leans against the wall, arms folded. I'm looking at him and I don't know who this guy is, or what I've been doing the last four months, because there's nobody behind those eyes that I know. "You endangered your own life, Ray. I was working with Lt. Welsh, he was attempting to convince certain IA investigators that it would advance their investigation if they shared certain information with him."

Nuclear, I'm nuclear, and I'm about to melt down. "Where was I?" I don't even take off the parka, I'm jittering and jiving all over the room. "Let's see, Fraser, I had a doctor's appointment this morning, and then I'm free for the rest of the day, so don't tell me you couldn't take me along, these bastards set me up, and you can't take me along?"

"It's for precisely that reason you should not have been involved, Ray." Pig stubborn expression. "This case was personal."

"And your father's murder wasn't?"

Standoff. "This is irrelevant. What is relevant is that you chose to take an unnecessary risk that could have meant your murder, and certainly contributed to Rainsford's death."

Oh, the Mountie can fight dirty after all. "Don't you put that on me, you bastard, Rainsford contributed to his own death!" I snarl. "And what is relevant, Fraser, is that you went off on your own again without so much as telling me where the fuck you'd be. And don't tell me I endangered myself, I'm a cop, I know the risk, I was here being a cop while you were still up in the frozen tundra listening to Inuit."

Arms still folded. "My life was not in danger."

Oh, like I knew that. "Not this time. How many times have you fucking gone off on your own to defend justice and nearly gotten yourself killed? And how many times did I fucking follow along to keep your ass covered for you? I was there, dammit, and that's more than you can say today."

The Mountie isn't the only one can play dirty. I think I see a tiny flinch, but not much, he's zero degrees, and I'm hotter than hell.

I'm bouncing off the walls, and Fraser's still a pillar of ice. "This is not acceptable," Fraser says, "We can't continue this way."

Fuck. It's like he just ripped out my guts. Meltdown begins, Jitter and jive. "Right." Trying to breath past pain and rage and betrayal. "You fuck, I came up to Canada because of you, you let me open up to you, you give me this shit about life, and now this. I thought Rainsford had you, that's why I met him, I thought he had you, and I was gonna trade myself for you, and you tell me we can't continue?" My voice is rising, pure flame, and I can hardly catch a breath.

"You came up to Canada to hide," he says, and for a minute I see his control crack, but only for a minute and the ice is back. "We cannot continue this way," he says again, still frozen.

"Fine." I'm dying again, that's what it feels like. "You bastard, you want it that way, fine." And I'm out the door, I'm going down the stairs, pitter patter, all seven flights, and it's not until I'm standing by the car that I realize, I left my fucking keys in the room.

I'm bleeding, I have to be bleeding, nobody can hurt this much and not be bleeding, but of course, I'm not. I sit down on the curb for a minute, put my head in my hands, trying to think my way around it, but it all blew up so quick, so fucking quick, and what was I supposed to do? I can't find Fraser, and Rainsford says he wants to talk to me about the Mountie?

And none of it matters, because it's over. Because, what, I endangered my life. Sure, Dewey's right, I could have taken a head shot, but I didn't go in there unarmed, and I didn't go in there without a vest.

Slush is soaking through my jeans and my ass is cold, but not as cold as Fraser.

Fuck it. I'll take a cab to my folks house, but first I'm going to get a drink. Maybe several.

"You want me to call you a cab?" The bartender looks like he's seen it all, and he's been watching me warily since I came in.

"Sure." Nothing worse than a morose drunk, I think, and swallow down the last of the whiskey. "Sure." Slurred. Yup, I haven't had anything alcoholic in quite some time, and I'm still a little underweight, and I haven't eaten since Rainsford called me and I'm seriously bagged. "Sounds good."

He vanishes for a little while and then presto, there he is again. "Cab's out front."

I blink. "Wow," I say, "That was fast," and he gives me this look like I'm some kind of freak.

The cab is waiting, and just to make sure I vacate his premises he walks me out, and I get in back, pull out my wallet to make sure, yup, I've got enough, and then we're off to the suburbs.

The GTO is parked in my folks' driveway. I try and puzzle that one through, but let's face it, my brain cells are seriously handicapped by my blood alcohol level, and I pay the driver, tip him generously, and weave my way to the front door.

I have my hand raised to knock when the door gets jerked open and I nearly tumble into Dad's arms.

"You're drunk," he growls.

"Worse, Dad. I'm shit-faced." For some reason, I think that's pretty funny and I manage to get my balance and step into the house.

Dad doesn't look happy. I'm even less happy than that when I see Benton Fraser sitting in the livingroom. "Fuck."

"Watch your mouth," Dad says. "You don't use that kind of language in front of your mother."

Sheesh, I didn't see her standing there, she's getting her coat out of the closet. "Come on, Damien," she says and hands my dad his.

"Where're you going?" It's like Alice down the rabbit hole or something, Fraser's here, and they're leaving.

My dad looks at me, disgusted. "You've got a lot of things to work out, son." He looks over at Fraser. "Good luck, in his condition."

Well, double fuck. I take some careful steps into the livingroom and slouch down on the couch, wait until the door closes.

Fraser looks miserable. For a minute, I feel terrible about that, and then I feel glad, at least I'm not the only one feeling terrible at the moment. "Ray," he says carefully, "I think perhaps-I hope-that there's some misunderstanding. When I said we cannot continue, I was referring to our quarrel."

Maybe I'm not as drunk as I thought. My head clears a little and I think back what we said to each other and maybe..."Oh." Then, because really, even if that's true, we've still got trouble, big trouble. "We still have a problem, Fraser."

He's got that Stetson in his hands, and he's turning it, turning it, turning it. Watching him makes me a little dizzy. "I know." Quietly. "I said some unforgivable things. I apologize for blaming you for Detective Rainsford's death, you're most certainly correct, you were not to blame."

"Damn straight." I lean forward, rest my arms on my elbows. "I'm not a fucking doll you can keep in the house to play with, Fraser. I'm a cop. I've been a cop for a long time.

That gets a little temper going, I see his eyebrows pull together. "I'm aware of that, Ray."

"I'm not broken, I'm not fragile, I'm not a woman!" I'm standing up again, jitter and jive, but weaving a little. "Do you get that? If that's what you want, Fraser, you'd better look someplace else, because I can't play that way just because I like you on top in bed."

Another flinch. "Ray, I don't want that, and I don't think of you that-"

"You have this thing for the wounded, Fraser. Is that why this all happened? I come up there and I'm not in great shape so it's okay to love me then? Because I'm broken?" I can't believe I'm saying these things, I can't believe I've been feeling them. I sit down again before I fall down. "We aren't wolves, Fraser."

Another flinch, and I know I'm not making sense to him. Even though I can see it crystal clear. I try again. "Fraser, what happens to wolves when they get feeble or sick."

His head turns, he looks right into my soul. "They die, Ray."

Fuck, now I'm not making sense to myself, and it was so clear a minute ago. I put my head in my hands. Never do the angstarama when you're drunk, Kowalski.

"Okay, scratch that." I think hard, which ain't easy to do. ""What is it you love about me, Fraser?"

He looks at me, and he's trying so hard to figure out what the hell I'm trying to say. "I love everything about you-" he begins, but I shake my head.

"Break it down."

He's really confused now, but he's game, he's willing. "Your courage," he says and turns the hat again, "Your sensitivity to other people. Your brashness. Your willingness to laugh at yourself, and your sense of humour. Your honesty." He looks at me to see if I'm satisfied.

Well, I am, I can barely talk around the lump in my throat. "What do you think I love about you?"

Now he's really confused. "I, er, I don't know, Ray." Humbly.

God, I hate that. I put my head in my hands. "I didn't go up to Canada because I needed your protection, Fraser. I didn't need somebody to take care of me. Maybe in some way I was hiding, hell, I got sick of seeing people feel sorry for me. I wanted to go somewhere where nobody would. I didn't think you would. And you didn't. But I think you saw me as weak, Fraser. You're a sucker for the wounded, you want to take care of them, fix them, protect them."

He's trying not to be offended. "I didn't see you as weak, I saw you needing to heal." But then he thinks about it, really thinks about it. Sighs. "I apologize for saying what I said earlier about your coming to Canada, as well. I was...angry."

And then we sit for a minute. He clears his throat. "I don't think you're weak, Ray, you're one of the bravest people I know. I don't-I don't think I want or expect you to be weak." But he sounds troubled. "I think perhaps I'm simply terrified of losing you. Perhaps--" And he stops, looks down at his hat, turns it. Turns it again.

Only Fraser. Only Fraser can do this to me. "Do you want to know what I love about you?" I finally ask, and I feel hopeful for the first time.

He looks at me again, a little nervously. Nods finally.

"That you aren't always perfect. Sometimes you fuck up. That you admit it. You're an idealist, and you make me a better person when I'm around you. Cops are cynics, but you make me want to believe again because you believe. I love that I can't always tell when you're kidding, and that you always let me know. I love that you're so fucking smart and want to believe that everyone else is, too. I love that you've got a heart bigger than the fucking Northwest Territories, and when somebody else wins, you feel like you won, too."

He's staring at me, blinking hard.

My throat hurts. But the pain I got drunk to drown is gone, presto. "You wanna try this again," I say. "You promise not to try and turn me into a lapdog, I can learn to be the town mechanic."

His lips part, he licks them nervously, rubs his eyebrow and cracks his neck. Looks down at his hat. "I would very much like to try again," he says.

So, drunk as I am, and knowing how little he cares for alcohol, I go and climb into his lap. Maybe, for a change, I'll have to be the smart one, at least about this stuff. Maybe he doesn't know how. I guess I'll have to learn better, too. He can be the expert on the Inuit, I'll never be able to learn all that.

He makes this sad little sound and clutches at me hard. Presses his face in my shoulder. That's okay. I did my share of crying in the darkest corner of that bar tonight, and my eyes feel boiled, or would if I was sober. I figure tomorrow, I'm going to feel like death walking. Gather ye rosebuds and all that. We sit together like that for a while and then he takes a deep, shaky breath. "Ray, I'm so terribly sorry for the things I said."

I kiss his ear, which is about all I can reach, and it's probably just as well, my mouth probably tastes like a distillery. "Yeah, I didn't like myself much either." Kiss his ear again. "I was a shit."

He raises his head. "I'm not trying to feminize you, Ray."

I translate that. "Good. Because I'm not ever wearing drag, not even for you."

He snorts, swipes at his eyes. "Um. Ray, I think there's something you should know."

"I already know about your stint in a dress, Fraser."

Another snort. "No, this is serious."

"Okay." I brace myself.

"Your parents have figured it out."

Thank God I'm drunk. "What?" Feeling stupid. And then it hits me. "They've what?"

"I didn't tell them," he says earnestly, "I swear, I didn't."

Oh. Fuck. Me.

On the other hand, that means I don't have to tell them.

"What, I mean, why do you think they figured it out?"

"I don't know why they figured it out, when your mother explained it to me, I couldn't imagine how they'd made that deduction from the available evidence," he says.

I consider banging my head on the wall. "No, I mean, what did they say."

He blinks. "Your mother was very straightforward. She said she thought your father would take a long time to fully accept it, but that they were so very grateful that you were alive that they really only wanted you to be happy."

I try to imagine my mother discussing this subject with Fraser and fail. Then I try to imagine my father discussing it and want to throw up. "And my dad?" Faintly.

He clears his throat. "Well, he, ah, didn't discuss it directly with me. He said rather elliptically that I'd better look out for you in Canada."

I'm trying to process that my father knows I'm in love with a guy and that it follows that he must also have some glimmering of an idea that I'm fucking this guy, and my balls are trying to crawl up into my body. I get off Fraser's lap and weave toward the kitchen. "I'm just going to leave them a note," I tell him blearily. "And then I think we should get the hell out of here."

He follows me in. "They seemed to be quite calm about it, Ray."

I shudder. Find a notepad and a pencil and scribble something I hope my mother can read. "Out. Now."

I'm a cop and I'm still wearing the ankle holster with a highly illegal gun and I'm running away from my parents.

Maybe we never really grow up.

Maybe Fraser and I can grow up together.

In the car, I look at him. Obviously, he's driving.

We're not over.

That's great. Greatness. It's also fucking scary. I don't want us to tear at each other like that again. I have to get smarter, I tell myself, and then maybe I can teach Fraser, the way he teaches me about the Tlingit.

Maybe I'm just a die-hard romantic. But Fraser's a depressed romantic, so one of us has to be the die-hard. "You don't have to be so fucking alpha all the time, you know."

He must think I'm still drunk. "Ray, I don't really believe that we're wolves. That's merely a metaphor-"

"How stupid do you think I am?"

"I don't think you're stupid at all." Bewildered again.

"But you're still hooked on that alpha thing. Maybe it's a guy thing. I think I'm alpha, too, but you think I'm beta, and I think you're too alpha, and maybe you could be beta once in a while."

He thinks about this as if it's sane thing to say. "I'll certainly try."

So I slide over and put my head on his thigh. "I'm just drunk," I tell him, "I don't need to be taken care of."

His hand comes to touch my hair. "I'm so sorry you were afraid for me," he says quietly. "I never thought-it never occurred to me."

And then we tear each other to pieces, I think sadly. "Maybe that's why I flamed out. I was so fucking scared, Ben."

He makes a sound in his throat. "I saw you on the ground," he whispers.

And then I realize what he thought. "We were both relieved," I tell him muzzily. "And therefore, assholes."

I hear a shaky laugh. "Indubitably."

I fall asleep at the next red light, conscious of an even greater relief. We aren't over.

We aren't over.

Am I hung over in the morning? Count on it.

I wake up to Fraser-warmth all around me, and stubble against the back of my neck, and while that's ordinarily a nice enough feeling that it wakes all of me up, including my dick, this morning all it does is make me hope I don't die from the morning after the night before.

My mouth tastes like shit, my back aches, my head feels like someone is drumming on the inside of my skull, and I'm definitely, definitely queasy.

I manage to slide out of Fraser's arms without waking him up, pad shakily into the bathroom to take care of business, then peer at myself blearily.

Oh, boy. I look really shitty, hair every which way, bruised look to my eyes, and out of control stubble. Turning around, I manage to peer over my shoulder and sure enough, there's a huge bruise just to the right of my spine, just above my kidneys. That explains the back pain. The rest is just alcohol poisoning, and I'm having trouble deciding if a shower would make me feel better or kill me when Fraser appears at the bathroom door.

"Feeling under the weather?" he asks mildly.

"Yeah, six feet under." Rustily. "I think I'm going to take a shower." Sitting down. Lying down would be better, but I'd drown.

He nods, reaches out, and brushes my cheek with his knuckles. "I'll order some coffee, shall I?"

My stomach rolls, but I know it'll taste good once I get myself to taste it. "Sure." Just don't let me smell it yet, I think, and turn on the hot water before I chicken out.

I'm sitting in the tub letting the hot spray hit me when Fraser gets in and decides to wash my hair. Well, hell, I think, tilting my head back, maybe I'll live after all.

Hair washing leads to other washing, and by that time, I'm feeling better enough to steal a few kisses, and even though I feel too shitty to do much else, that feels pretty damn good.

He's alive and he's here, and yeah, maybe I was a stupid fuck, but I was scared. I've been scared before, he throws himself out there into situations, and yeah, so do I, and maybe we both need to realize that it's going to hit us both harder these days when that happens.

Out of the shower again, and I'm back in bed, drinking coffee and working on some toast, watching Fraser eat eggs and toast, but the eggs make my stomach turn. Dief gets 'em, so he's happy enough, and Fraser unearths some aspirin from somewhere and the pounding in my head takes a turn for the better. "We going to the precinct?"

He nods at me, pulls a shirt over his head. "Lt. Welsh called while you were in the shower."

"Ah." More coffee, more coffee, and I'm about to haul my ass out of bed and get some when Fraser brings the pot over. "You're a god."

Brief smile. "Hardly." He sits down on the edge of the bed, puts the coffee pot on the nightstand. "Ray, we still have things to discuss."

Yeah, I figure we do. For one thing, I'm going to have to take some licks on the whole thing last night, only maybe this time we can both fight fair. "Yeah." Grudgingly.

He rubs his chin. "Where did you get a gun and a vest? I asked Detective Dewey, and he seems to believe that you didn't get it from the 27th."

"Favor from a friend." I sink back, wishing I had M&Ms or Smarties.

He looks at the cup, gets up and goes to get his coat, rummages in both pockets and comes back with a battered vending machine packet of M&Ms. "I'm sorry, I forgot I had these."

"You are a god, Ben, don't try and deny it."

In spite of his obvious determination to discuss the vest and the gun, he grins. "Not even a minor demi-god, Ray, or I would have had better sense."

I shrug, drop M&Ms into my coffee. Ever prepared, Fraser hands me a spoon. "Maybe we both needed better sense," I mutter. "Look, I'm willing to admit that maybe I went off half-cocked, Ben. But I had reason. I talked to someone at the precinct who said Welsh came back from IA alone."

He winces, looks away for a moment. "Yes, well, he did, in fact. He'd called ahead and Frannie told him you'd said to meet you at the hotel and I had him drop me there."

Christ, what a cluster fuck. "Oh." My turn to look away.

His fingers close around my free wrist. "Ray." Softly. "We both made mistakes. Can we agree on that?"

My throat aches. This is the trouble with the morning after, I tell myself, and nod before I change my mind. "Yeah, I can agree on that."

It's worth admitting it, he raises my hand, kisses the palm. "I cannot promise you that everything I do is going to be safe, you know that." Worried.

"Ben, when you're at home, you're at least armed, you've got a fighting chance." My vision's blurring again. "Here-you can't leap into the fire like that, and I know, you didn't, I just thought you did." I take in a breath. "But you have to admit, Ben, I had reasons, and not just what Rainsford said to me. You've done it before."

He's still holding my hand and now our fingers are linked. "Yes, I suppose, Ray, that's what it would look like." Slightly troubled tone. "You see, the difficulty is that I never lacked confidence that-but then, I suppose that's arrogance of a kind." He looks away again, but his gaze goes farther than the wall of our room.

Dief, who has been pretty subdued since last night's fight, comes up on the bed and lies down next to me. Fraser's thumb rubs small circles on my palm and finally he sighs. "Yes, well. As my father has pointed out on more than one occasion, I do tend to arrogance. I can only promise you that I have every reason to take care for my own safety." He looks back at me, smiling a little. "I'm very pleased with the way my life is turning out."

Hell with the coffee, I'm in his lap, practically, kissing the life out of him, he has to rescue my mug himself, but he's kissing me back very enthusiastically. Very enthusiastically.

Fortunately for Welsh, I still feel too much like shit to do much more than kiss him.

He's still holding me when he says, "I know this is difficult, Ray, but you're a civilian now yourself. You can't-" He takes in a breath, rubs his cheek against mine. "You can't take these kinds of risks now." And his voice cracks a little.

I tighten my arms around him. "I played it mostly smart," I mutter, but I know how he feels. It's how I felt, thinking Fraser had blundered into something that might kill him. Something that had almost killed me. "And I don't plan on it happening again."

"Good." He nuzzles me again. "Finish your coffee. More toast?"

I let go reluctantly. "Yeah. I think maybe I'm ready to try some of that jelly on it."

He grins, shakes his head. "Signs of recovery."

"Oh, yeah."

The day is full of surprises. Welsh gives me some shit, and some of the other guys do, too. Frannie just scolds, and then, when she looks at Fraser and me looking at each other, she gets this weird expression on her face and leaves the room for a minute.

The DA tells me that, of course, we'll have to come back for the trial, or stay until then. We will have to stay until the grand jury is done. Lots and lots of indictments coming down, especially since I included my shooting in my statement last night.

Welsh walks us back out to the car. Idle chitchat on the way down and out, and then he puts his hands in his pockets, not quite looking at either of us. "So, Kowalski, you going back up north?"

"Yeah." No sense in playing games with Welsh. "I am."

He does look up then, sticks his left hand out. "Well, I won't pretend to understand it, but if it works for you both-"

Fraser has turned faintly pink, but he shakes Welsh's hand. "It does indeed, Lt."

"Good. Keep this lunatic out of trouble, Corporal."

He gives me an affectionate smile. "I'll do my best."

"Your best is more than good enough for me." Welsh looks at me again. "You were a damn good cop, Kowalski, even when you were a loose cannon. Don't ever let anyone tell you different."

Boy, that hits the emotional buttons. I nod, not quite trusting my voice. "Yeah. Maybe I'll see you next time we come down."

"You'd better," he tells us gruffly and then he's gone back in, and I'm sitting in the front seat with Dief getting wolf hair all over me.

It's time to face the music, I decide over lunch. "After we drop that vest off," I tell Fraser, "We need to go see my folks." Dreading it. Last thing in the world I want to do is talk about my relationship with Ben. Especially with my folks.

"All right," he agrees. "Would you prefer talking to them alone?"

Oh, Jesus, not only no, but hell no. I shake my head. If my dad has figured it out, he's too polite to say anything in front of Fraser. Fraser has that effect on people. A lot.

"As you wish." Faint smile, and he examines his fat free turkey sandwich for mayonnaise, which he doesn't eat.

When did I start knowing all these things about him? I think back, and start to laugh. "Hey, Ben, remember the Greta Garbo thing? Chasing her in a burning car?"

He nods. "Of course, Ray. It was, essentially, our first case together, even if I was highly suspicious of you at that point."

"Yeah, well, I tried to tell you in the car, but you couldn't hear me, you were on the roof." I grin, take another bite of my burger.

"True, the wind and the engine were a bit loud." He grins suddenly. "Is that what you were trying to tell me? That you weren't Ray Vecchio? I knew that already, of course, but by that time, I have to admit, I was questioning my own sanity a bit."

"Can't blame you." I rub my ankle on his under the table. "Remember, I told you not to touch my inner thigh?"

He thinks, nods, still smiling a little bit. "Now that you mention it, yes, I do."

"Maybe I was already, uh, in trouble, you think?"

He laughs out loud. "Perhaps we both were." Eyes glinting. "Perhaps I was unnecessarily thorough in my search for the trigger."

I nearly choke on my next bite, but he gets up and pounds my back less than helpfully.

Last thing I want to do is see my folks. I want to go somewhere and be alone with him. I want to jump him, I want to wrap myself around him, I want to move back inside him, I want us to be home.

Damn. We're going to be here a few weeks.

We drop off the vest and the gun, and Fraser accepts my request that he stay in the car.

Max brightens up when I come in, waves and I gesture toward his office.

He leads the way. "Saw the news last night." Eyeing me.

"Yeah. Well, it all turned out all right." I hand him the bag with the vest and the gun. "Give this back to him, okay? And Max, I owe you big time. I'm going back to Canada again when this is done, but if there's anything I can do."

He gives me a long look, nods. "Old time's sake, Ray. You okay?"

I grin. "Got a bruise on my back looks like the state of Nebraska."

He laughs. "Not as big."

"And a helluva lot better than a hole." I can't keep from shivering at that thought. I remember all the pain from last time too damn well. I shake his hand, and then we do that kid hug, all manly men, slap on the back. "You keep out of trouble, Max. I wanna see you next time I come down."

He grins. "Yeah, yeah, I do my best. Canada, huh?"

"Yeah, got a friend up there, and it's brought me luck." I pat my chest. "I'm practically healthy again."

"How come you still look like shit," he razzes me, and we walk back out. Another handshake and then I'm back out in the car, and boy, no way am I really ready to face my folks, but hell, if I can face dying, I can face my dad.

Can't I?

I guess I'm about to find out.

My dad's pissed, but he doesn't talk to me about it. In fact, he makes polite conversation with Fraser out in the garage leaving me to face my mom alone.

"You took a terrible chance yesterday," she tells me, sitting at the kitchen table. She's not quite looking at me. "I don't understand what you were thinking."

Well, hell. "I thought they had taken Fraser." I say it carefully. "I couldn't let them kill him. I thought-"

She looks up at me. "Did you think your father and I wouldn't see the news?"

Oh, fuck. My stomach ties itself into an awful knot. "I'm sorry." Faintly.

She puts her hand over mine, and I look down at it. Hard working hands, hands that washed and fed and raised a family, and helped my dad keep the family running, and I'm having a hard time not crying. "I'm sorry," I tell her, whispering. "I was so freaking scared, I thought they'd kill him."

She squeezes my hand. I know she doesn't know what to say. It can't be easy to have your almost forty-year-old kid suddenly fall for another guy and then sit practically blubbering at your kitchen table.

At least I think that's what she's thinking until she opens her mouth. "Ray-I talked with your dad, and I think the two of you should stay here. There's no point in paying for a hotel."

Do I nearly fall off the chair? I do. Do I nearly pass out? Well, maybe not. But my jaw drops. "Huh?"

"You can both sleep in the guest room." She's continuing like I haven't said anything. "And you know, I don't mind having a dog around."

Fortunately, Fraser chooses this moment to come in from the garage. He gives me what he calls a speaking look, and I stammer something stupid to my mother and we go out into the livingroom. "Ray, your father insists that we check out of the hotel." He looks as close to poleaxed as I've ever seen him.

I honestly can't find any words. I shake my head, feeling a little dizzy. "Um. Yeah. My mom said the same thing." Down the rabbit hole, I think crazily. "Um. Jeez. Let me go and talk to my dad."

He arches an eyebrow. "I told him I would discuss it with you. Perhaps you should stay here, and I should stay somewhere else."

Something stubborn rises up inside me. "Screw that." Okay, I can do this. I'm pushing forty, I can face my father.

And I walk back through to the door to the garage, and open in. Step into the garage and close it.

Dad looks up from what he's doing, which is sanding wood. No wonder Fraser was out here so long, although this looks more like it's going to be a bookcase or something, and Fraser does the woodcarving thing.

"Hi." I clear my throat and try for more than that. "Um, Dad-"

He goes back to sanding, by hand naturally.

"Um, Dad, Fraser says you, uh, invited us to stay here."

He makes a sound I take for yes. Or something.

I'm sweating even though the garage is on the cool side, even with Dad's space heater. "Are you, um, sure?" Maybe Fraser's imagining things.

He looks back at me. Sighs. Puts down the sanding block and goes over to the refrigerator.

Comes back with two beers. "Hair of the dog that bit ya."

I look at it, shrug, and open it. We sit down on the concrete step at the door. He takes a drink, not looking at me, but our shoulders bump together, which is a hopeful sign, he doesn't think I'm repulsive or anything.

"I don't understand," he finally growls. "But you know, you watch your kid dying, and you start realizing that the time together is worth something more than ya knew. I let too many years go by, wasted 'em. Not gonna do it again." He does look at me then, scowls. "You ever do something as stupid as you did last night, though, you're going to find out you're not to old to get whalloped."

I'm taking a drink of beer when he says that, and I'm not sure if I was laughing or starting to cry, but beer up the sinuses really puts a stop to either.

He pounds my back a minute, and I have to fend him off, because he's hitting that motherfucking bruise. Finally manage to get a breath. "Sorry." Choked voice. "I don't think you have to worry about it, Dad."

We sit for a little while, and then he clears his throat. "So, you're happy."

Jeez, I'm going to start bawling in a minute. I nod. Take another quick swallow.

"Good." He pats my knee suddenly. "So get out of the hotel, it's costing you money."

I try to imagine sleeping in the guest room down the hall from my parents. Fraser's going to have to gag me if he touches me. And then there's the sheets. Maybe I can steal some towels from the hotel.

I must be insane.

"I'm not missing any more time," Dad tells me again, sternly.

There's no arguing with Damien Kowalski. Or Benton Fraser. "Okay, Dad." I sigh, and even though I'm freaked out, there's this weight off my chest I didn't know was there. I get choked up again. "Thanks."

He shrugs, not quite looking at me. "Get outa here, go pick up your stuff, your mom is cooking special again tonight. We figure if you're gonna do boneheaded stunts like last night, we better take the chances we get to spoil ya some."

I nod again, manage to make it back into the kitchen without doing anything too lame.

Fraser and Mom are, get this, looking at a family album. I feel a moment of pure terror. Do I want him to see the picture of me missing my front teeth?

I don't think so.

"Yo, Ben, we need to check out of the hotel before my dad blows a gasket."

He turns in his chair and looks at me questioningly for a moment, but he can see I'm close to losing it, and nods, gets up. "We'll be back shortly, Mrs. Kowalski, and I look forward to seeing the rest."

I make it all the way to the car before I do start bawling, and Fraser has to drive.

But it's not a bad kind, it's kind of a relief. Because, see, the worst things are over. My dad doesn't hate me, my mom doesn't hate me, I remember what happened, the guys are going down, and I've still got what I wanted the most, a life with Fraser.

"Are you all right?" he finally asks, giving me another worried side-glance.

I put my arm on the back of his seat and ruffle the edge of his hair. "Oh, Christ, yes, I'm great." And I roll the window down so Dief and me can put our heads out. "Hey, Chicago," I yell, "It's a great fucking day!"

And even though he probably thinks I'm unhinged, Fraser starts laughing.

One week and the grand jury is finally done, indictments all over the fucking place, and the media's having a fucking field day, corruption in the Chicago PD, and I get calls from reporters trying to interview me, and I pretty much tell them to fuck off, only Fraser's had an effect and I say it more or less politely.

Probably less.

Two weeks, and I make Fraser go back home, so he doesn't end up getting screwed over by the RCMP again. Then the trial gets rolling with amazing speed and I go ahead and stay the third and fourth week so I can testify, and it's finally fucking over as far as I'm concerned, and I kiss my folks goodbye at the airport and tell them to come up in the summer. Fraser says Dad would love the fishing, they have great fishing discussions.

I'm so excited to be going home that I practically kiss Tom Ellery when he picks me up, and this time, I'm leaning over and trying to see down through the clouds, and Tom is actually making conversation with me these days.

I tell him about the trial and remembering and I must be babbling because he grins suddenly. "You and Fraser. He's earth and air, you're fire and water. Good match."

Which is downright talkative for Tom, and then he shocks me again by trying to talk me into learning some carpentery, and since I know the basics, I finally allow that might not be a bad idea, and we spend the rest of the flight talking about the house Davy McKenzie wants to build, since he's finally gotten something about Tlingit clans straightened out and Mary says he and Jenny can get married.

There's nobody at the field when we land, but just as Tom's handing me out my bag and several boxes of stuff my folks didn't mail-I sold the rest, gave it to Goodwill, sent my bike to my brother's oldest kid, and now it's just what I've got at the cabin and here-when a battered jeep rattles down the road and across the field.

I can feel this incredibly stupid grin on my face.

Tom laughs a little, says, "I'm going through the checklist, knock yourself out, Ray."

By which I think he means a little PDA isn't going to make his eyes cross, so when Fraser gets out of the jeep, I practically leap on him, and kiss him hard enough to bruise us both.

He doesn't say much. Just hugs me hard, kisses me harder, and keeps pulling back to look at me, making sure I'm all right or that I'm here or whatever. Then, "You know, I had myself half-convinced I'd imagined all of it. Us. You here." Huskily.

"Freak," I tell him and hug him hard again. "I'm home, Ben. For good." And laugh a little at the expression on his face.

As a secretly die hard romantic, I'd have to say that there are stars in his eyes. I'm too tough to say it out loud, though. And he's a depressed romantic, he'll never admit it.

"Home," he says softly, and it's like the smiles and the kisses and the damn Inuit words for snow.

There's so many layers there, I'm glad we've got a lifetime to figure them all out.

Oh, yeah. Not bad for a guy who died two or three times, a guy who never thought he'd have any happiness at all again.

Not bad at all.

"Home," he says again and kisses me.

Layers and layers, and all the time we need. Who can ask for more?

Not me.

"Winter Night"

"Pile high the hickory and the light log of chestnut struck by blight Welcome-in the winter night

The day has gone in hewing and felling, sawing and drawing wood to the dwelling, For the night of talk and story-telling

These are the hours that give the edge To the blunted axe and the bent wedge, Straighten the saw and lighten the sledge.

Here are question and reply, And the fire reflected in the thinking eye. So peace, and let the bobcat cry."

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay


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