by anonymous co

Disclaimer: 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

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 that wicked JiM again who sends me good stories or sends me to find good stories when I need something to read even if they aren't ordinarily my fandom........


Tom Ellery's wife Cass says that life is like a tapestry or something, like one of those blankets or rugs she weaves. She says tapestry, I can't get past ninth grade history and that, er, Bayou Tapestry, and I know that's not right, so when I ask Fraser, he tells me. Bayeaux, he says.

So he asks why I'm asking, and I tell him about Cass and her tapestry theory and he goes all thoughtful, and that somehow leads up to him talking about getting a transfer somewhere out of Owlcreek.

Fortunately, Maggie is visiting and helping me finish up the fancy touches in the second bedroom, so instead of exploding in a fury, I work.

Maggie, being related to Fraser, sometimes points me in the right direction.

And sometimes she sees way too much. "Are you and my stubborn brother butting heads again?" she asks me.

I look up from nailing baseboard to the wall and squint at her. All the furniture in the room is pushed into the middle, and there's tarp over it that hasn't seen so much as one single drip, and Maggie herself is paint-free except for one spot. "You got paint on your nose, Maggie."

She grins. "Ah."

I hate it when they do that. Both of 'em. It's worse when they do it together. Which has happened. "Has he talked you to you about his latest totally unhinged plan?"

"Yes." She sobers a little. "You just have to keep telling him, Ray. For what it's worth, I told him, too."

I roll my eyes and go back to the baseboard. "Maybe he'll listen to you."

She considers it. "You know, Ray, you've loosened him up considerably since I first met the two of you."

I have to blink hard at that. "Yeah?" Some of the pissed off feeling evaporates. "Well, you know, I'm unhinged about him."

"I think the feeling is mutual," Maggie tells me, and I hear laughter in her voice again. "You just have an affinity for things Canadian, Ray."

An affinity. I grin at that, pound the last nail and get up. Stretch out my shoulders, working out the kinks. Lots better these days. Hurts sometimes when the weather changes, and the right arm ain't ever gonna be as strong as it should, but it's so far from where I was and where I thought I'd be....hell, so Fraser's thickheaded, who the fuck cares, he's here, I'm here, and like I told Maggie, I'm unhinged about him. "Quittin' time, Maggie."

She's sitting perched on a ladder, finishing up the upper corner of the last wall. Gives me a look. "I'll be done in a minute. Why don't you go down and drag Fraser out of the office."

I grin again. "I would, but Brett's pretty comfortable these days, and I don't want to rock the boat."

She snickers, waves me away. I pack up the toolbox before I go get a beer and take it out to the porch. Maggie says this mania I have for rebuilding the cabin is nesting. I tell her it's not just my mania, Fraser's just as bad.

Yeah, he's loosened up a lot. Indoor plumbing, television, and when I think about that, when I think about the fact that even his latest freak idea is because of me, I guess I can dance to it. He thinks I need a city, and I think the only thing I miss is takeout.

Okay, maybe I had a harder time last winter than I expected. I was feeling pretty good all summer, and the second winter here hit me hard, but I lived through it. Our electric bill was monster, but I always have to wear a lot of layers in the winter. As Fraser keeps telling me, I don't have enough insulation, even though I try to eat my fucking weight in all the food he pushes on me.

My beer's about half gone when I see Fraser coming up the hill.

He looks up and smiles when he sees me sitting there, and what am I supposed to do, he's got about a million different kinds of smile these days, and I can't get enough of any of 'em. I smile back.

Dief bounds up, tries to lick me all over like he didn't just see me in the morning before he followed Fraser down to the office. I push him down finally, and Fraser tells him to get down, and he finally sits down, panting, at my feet.

When Fraser sits down next to me on the porch, I lean in and get a kiss, even if I am drinking a beer.

"We need to talk," I tell him, breathing the words into his kiss.

"Do we?" He draws back, looking a little worried. "About what?"

"This transfer thing of yours." I rake my fingers through my hair, and between paint and sawdust and whatever else is in it at this point in the day, it stands up even straighter. "You know, it's my life, too, Ben. I think I should be able to have some say in where we end up. I mean, if you can't stand Owlcreek any more, great, but don't you think you could ask me where I'd like to end up?" Then, before he can start worrying any more, "I'm going with you, no matter what, but it's not fair to just choose without listening to me."

Solemn look. "I know."

That takes some of the wind out of my sails. I stare at him for a moment. "You do?"

"I haven't sent in the request." He puts his hand on the back of my neck and pulls me closer for another kiss. "I thought about what you said last night. I just-Ray, I don't want to short-change you." Worried again. "You've made all the adjustments, Ray, you haven't really asked any of me."

"The hell," I say, but I'm not pissed, I'm grinning like a doof. "You gotta put up with me, remember?"

"Oh, yes, truly a hardship." Gleam in those eyes, and even if it's been nearly two years, it makes me shiver. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray."

The hell with it. I put the half-empty beer aside and just climb into his lap. Anybody coming up the path could see us, and I don't give a rat's ass. Maggie is likely to walk out any minute, and I don't care. We're both fully dressed, and we're on our own front porch, and if two guys kissing is going to cross their eyes, fuck 'em. I kiss him, hard.

He's laughing into my mouth, but his arms go around me and hitch me closer and I hook my ankles around each other behind his back. Well, sort of, I'm not quite in good enough shape enough to be a pretzel. "Ray," a kiss, "Ray," another kiss, "Ray," and yadda yadda.

"So," he finally says, resting his forehead against mine. "What's your choice?"

"Well," I tell him honestly, "I'd like us to stay here. But if you really don't want to, then how about Nunavik."

"Inuvik," he corrects me automatically, and laughs a little. "Ray, has Maggie been working on you? I know she'd like us to be closer geographically."

"Nope." I grin at him. "So, what do you think?"

Slow grin that makes his eyes light up. "I think we'll stay here in Owlcreek." Comfortable tone, warm tone. "You've convinced me."

Boy, all I feel is relief. This is my home, now, I've got friends, we're part of this community in ways that I'm not sure Fraser sees. "Great. Greatness." A little lightheaded. He listened to me, I tell myself. He wasn't just pushing ahead stubbornly, he listened to me instead of doing that pigheaded, self-sacrificing noble Mountie thing. Shit, I'm going to fall for him all over again, and it's not like I'm not already as unhinged as I told Maggie.


I get pretty thoroughly kissed, and the creak of the door lets me know that Maggie's come out and we really are making a spectacle of ourselves, and I don't much care. Fraser lets me go, but doesn't push me off his lap, so I sit there, still grinning like a doof and grin at Maggie. "We're staying here."

Maggie grins back. "Good."

Fraser gives her a mild look. "Well, as long as he's happy here," he says and his arms tighten again. "He's given up a great deal to come up here."

"Payoff's worth it," I tell him comfortably, "So cut it out."

We start talking about dinner, and what sounds good, and Maggie and I end up chopping vegetables while Fraser changes his clothes. A nice stew, venison, and that shows where I am, I've actually gotten to like venison.

Maggie goes to bed early, and I'm yawning, even though it's still light. Of course, it's still light at midnight, so I don't bother waiting for the clock. We were all up early, Fraser has the habit of getting up early to get to the office, Maggie's a Mountie like her brother, and it's gradually taken hold of me.

It's hell in the winter, though. Which is why our electric bill was so fucking high.

So I go in to take a shower and get the day's dust and paint and what all off me, and who should climb in with me. Heh.

Mostly the shower is about washing, but I make sure and point out to him what a luxury it is to have my hair washed when I'm perfectly capable of doing it myself.

"I like doing it," he tells me.

"So, don't give me any more yap about me giving shit up." I catch hold of his face for a minute, give him the Kowalski, don't fuck with me cuz I mean business look, and he actually, I swear, blushes there in the shower. "Okay?"

That just gets me kissed again.

One of the first projects after the second bedroom was done was to basically tear into the back wall of our room and give us a more private, heh, entrance to the bathroom. It also gave room for a walk-in closet. Fraser unfortunately uses it to sneak out early without waking me up, but I'm wise to him, the minute that light clicks on in the closet, no matter if the door is closed or not, Dief whines at me and I'm up.

My dad said no more wasted time, and hell if I'm going to waste any here, either. Took too long to get my courage up.

Anyway, we take the kissing from the shower into the bedroom, and Dief whines at us like he's got his legs crossed and is hopping around.

Fraser looks at him. "Oh, fine, I asked you thirty minutes ago, and no, of course not, you couldn't go then."

I grin and just stretch out across the bed. "You pay and pay and pay..."

"And pay," he finishes and finds a pair of jeans to pull on. Commando style, will wonders never cease. Pair of worn slippers and he walks Dief out, I hear the front door open and close and Fraser never stops grumbling at Dief the whole time.

Dief will probably make him pay. Or else he'll make Dief pay, by leaving him out there until he's damn good and ready to let him in. Either way, it's funny, because I swear, the damn wolf does it on purpose.

Sometimes I think they grumble at each other just because it's fun.

I'm reading when Fraser comes back in, buck-naked and lying across the bed, my nose buried in a book. That lasts about a minute, because he strips off the jeans and simply lies down on top of me.

Warm skin under the jeans, cool skin where his chest was bare, and I still can't figure out how he can go outside shirtless. Even in July, 70 degrees is like the high for the day. Whatever that is in Celsius. I don't have the knack of converting it, and he knows it drives me batshit, so we have an outdoor thermometer that has both readings on it.

Not that it makes me feel better to know that it's like 3 degrees on November 28th, but hey, knowing is better than not knowing.

I shiver, hold out my arm. "Look what you did?" Complaining half-heartedly.

"You needed to be shocked awake," he tells me, and then rubs his hand over it, smoothing away gooseflesh. "Perhaps you're right, perhaps I do indulge you too much."

"Huh." Scornfully, and I try to roll over, he rolls off first and we're facing each other. He leans in and licks my lips apart and that's it, no more smart ass, I've got my arms full of Mountie, and I'm a happy man. Oh, wow, warm and aroused Mountie, and yeah, he can give me goosebumps any time.

I'm making little noises in my throat and he draws back. "Do I have to muzzle you?" Wicked gleam in his eyes.

I squirm a little closer. "Probably, if you're going to keep doing this."

He smiles. "Hedonist."

"Pot, meet kettle," I tell him, quoting my mom, of all people. Jesus, please don't let me turn into my mom. I was worried enough about turning into my dad at one point, but-

He kisses me again, cutting off that freaky line of thought. Draws back again. "What's your pleasure tonight." Smiling again.

"I'm easy," I tell him lazily. "You can have your way with me."

Brief glint again. "Oh, really?"

I grin.

Truth is, I'm still not sure what he likes best. I'm not sure he has a preference, over all. Oh, sure, just like me, there's times he's singleminded about one thing or another, but I sometimes think as long as he can touch and taste me, he doesn't much care how we get off. Me? Well, it changes from time to time. Sometimes I just want to bury myself in his body-yeah, and it's weird to remember how freaked I was about that at first-and sometimes I want to just eat him up, and sometimes I want to get fucked, hard or easy, slow or fast, doesn't matter.

And sometimes I don't much care, just as long as he's touching me.

Couple of saps, both of us.

And like he's reading my mind, he leans in again, gives me this gentle kiss that gets hotter and deeper. I'm all over that, my dick is definitely awake and wanting a little attention and I push against him. But he's taking his time, moves down my throat with licks and nips and it's a lot like the first time, all that Mountie focus, like he's just gotta figure out what makes me hottest. He keeps his hips away from mine, even when I try to reach for his dick, laughs in his throat, and sucks hard on my nipple.

By the time he pushes slippery fingers into me, I'm biting down on the heel of my hand to keep from making noises that would wake the dead, not to mention his sister in the next room. I feel almost drunk, and if it wasn't for the fact that he'd be mortified, I wouldn't care if Maggie woke up or not so long as he's the one touching me.

And then he's inside, slow and easy, and the burn feels good, like a relief, even though yeah, it's there, and he's rocking me, more slow and easy and deep.

He's talking to me, soft voice, and it's one of his languages, and I wish I understood them, because the tone of his voice is melting my bones, and I want to know what he's saying, but maybe I don't need to know, maybe his touch and his mouth against mine are enough to tell me, and I'm caught between feeling too much inside and feeling too much outside, and then he breathes into my mouth, "Come for me, Ray," and that's it, like one of those dogs, the bell rings, and instead of drooling I come, bucking into the fingers that grip me, locking my legs around him, biting his shoulder to keep from yelling.

Or screaming.

He bites me, too, when he comes, just a minute or two later, in the crook between my shoulder and throat, and he sucks hard, marking me, and that's so fucking hot I swear I'm coming again, even if that's impossible.

Quiet kisses after that, and he retrieves the towel I dropped on the bed and carefully wipes us both clean.

I'm yawning by the time he's done, ready to curl up against him.

"I love you," he says suddenly, sounding fierce. "I love you, and Ray, I only want you to be happy."

My eyelids pop up again, and I frown at him. Touch his face. "I am, Ben. God, better than ever in my whole fucking life." He does that blank thing, like he does when he's trying to work something through without bothering me, and I hate that, I fucking hate that, I sit up and look down at him. "What's going on? Something at work?"

The blankness is gone again, just that sudden, and one corner of his mouth lifts up. "No, nothing, everything is fine, Ray." He tugs me back down across his chest, and I squirm up so my head is next to his, I punch my pillow up so I can look him eye to eye. "Everything is fine."

"This is me, Ben." I'm getting a bad feeling. "Talk to me."

"I am. I will." He kisses me again, just a brush of his mouth over mine. "I just-I just want you to be happy. I want you to be doing what you want to do with your life."

Oh. This is more of that what Ray needs shit. Can't get angry at a man who wants that for you, but sometimes I wish I could do the telepath thing and just tell him once and for all. Permanently tattoo it on his brain. "Ben, you'd know if I wasn't happy. You know me well enough."

He grins then. "I suppose that's true." Quick nuzzle. "And you know me well enough to know I'm simply-"

"Single focused," I tell him, a little relieved. Sure, we have bad days now and again, days when I bitch about no takeout and he bitches about me leaving my shoes in the middle of the room, and even if I sometimes feel the urge to stuff those shoes in his mouth, there's something good about the fact that he lets me see the side of him that isn't always so fucking polite.

He always did, now I think about it.

It's gotta mean something, doesn't it?

"Okay, let me put it this way, Ben." I touch his face again, bite back a yawn. "You up here, me down in Chicago, driving myself batshit, doing security work or something weird like that, missing you, wanting you. Sure, your life would be more peaceful, but mine would suck."

Serious look. "I would not be up here if you were down there."

God. I'm so sleepy that I'm about to fucking crash and I gotta kiss him for that. Hug him hard. "Freak."

He chuckles into my hair. "Understood."

"If you were in Chicago, you'd end up crazed," I finally say and give in to another yawn. "Vecchio's in Florida, I'm on retired on disability, you wouldn't have a good Chicago cop to work with, you'd end up running errands for whoever the fuck they put in down there, and you and Dief would be homesick, and I'd feel guilty, and we'd end up coming up here anyway, because as long as you're around, Ben, I'm good, I'm great."

His fingers ruffle my hair. "You know, I'm not always easy to live with, I'm aware of that, Ray."

I sigh. "Ben, nobody's easy to live with. I'm not easy to live with, Dief isn't easy to live with."

Whine from the floor, and I raise my head. "You, go to sleep." And then it's okay, he's laughing into my neck.

"Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray." But the tension is gone, and he tugs the blanket over me, the coldblooded half of this partnership. Kisses my eyelids one at a time. "I love you. Go to sleep."

I'm smiling and halfway to sliding under. He spoons up behind me, which is nice, because he's like having your own fucking power plant. I fold my arm over his and man, I'm gone, gone, gone.....

I wake up and he's gone, and it's still only 4 ack emma, theoretically zero four dark zero zero except that this is the Yukon in July, and that gets me up when nothing else would at that time. I pull on clothes, socks and sweats and unlaced, beat-up athletic shoes, and now I'm caught between being worried and being totally pissed off.


He's sitting on the bench on the porch, sweatshirt and jeans, and those slippers, and he looks up from a steaming cup, his expression going apologetic. "Did I wake you?"

"Yeah, kinda." It's still pretty goddamn nippy at this hour. "What's going on?"

"Nothing." He laughs a little. "My word of honor. I woke up early, decided to get up." Long look at me. "I'm fine, Ray." One corner of his mouth lifts a little. "Are you going to start worrying about me now?"

"I always worry about you," I tell him grouchily, and when he reaches, I go ahead and sit down on the bench next to him, get a warm body up against mine, get a kiss on my temple.

"I didn't start the coffee yet," he murmurs, against my skin. "And it's early yet, why don't you go back to bed."

I don't really want to. The grouchiness is easing up, and it's so clear and quiet this morning that I'm happy just to sit with him. "I'm good."

We sit there and I slump down a little so I can let my head fall back on his shoulder. Comfortable silence, except for one thing. Fraser never sleeps late, but you can practically set the clocks in the house by his sleep cycle. In other words, he never sleeps late, but he almost never wakes up early, either. "So," I finally say, "What do you think caused this wakin' up early stuff?"

He snorts. "In spite of the fact that I was born in the north, Ray, I do sometimes find that my diurnal rhythm suffers a bit of disturbance around midsummer."

Midsummer, huh. I think about that. "So that's all?"

He sighs. "I believe so, yes. Or perhaps-I received a letter from Ray Vecchio yesterday."

Aha. Bingo. I stay exactly where I am. Been a long time since Ray Vecchio bothered me, and if that's what's worrying Fraser, it's time to fix it. "Yeah? How they all doing?"

He's silent for a minute. "Apparently, he and, ah, his wife have returned to Chicago. And they're, ah, currently separated."

"What happened to the bowling alley?"

"Oh, they evidently sold it. It was, ah, evidently not quite to her tastes."

Yeah, I figured. Wondered about that a little in the last year and a half. Bowling alleys are strictly blue collar, in Stella's book. Just the way she was raised, and besides, she always had ambitions to show her folks that she didn't need their money, she'd be successful on her own. "That's too bad. How's he takin' it?" Not only am I not bothered, I find I'm feeling kinda sorry for Vecchio. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

"It's hard to say." His thumb rubs my shoulder lightly. "He's coming up here on his vacation, evidently. You know, sometimes mail gets delayed, Ray, and, ah, he's going to be here in a few days."

Now I'm bothered. I sit upright and look at him. "He's what?"

Boy, does Fraser look uncomfortable. "He's coming up here. He feels the need to touch base, to reconnect."

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. "Ben, does he know about-" I gesture between us.

He shifts uncomfortably. "I don't believe so, no. I tried to call immediately, once I'd read the letter, but he'd already left, apparently. There was a message on his voice mail."

Oh. Fuck. I'm pissed and I'm upset and none of it has to do with being jealous of Vecchio's ease with one Benton Fraser. "Ben, if he says one shitty thing to you-" I take in a breath. "I swear to god, I'll punch him in the head."

He smiles suddenly, and I look at him, sure that he finally is unhinged. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray." Affectionately, and he pulls me back against him. "You can't punch a guest in the head." But his voice sounds lighter, less worried. "If he has difficulty-he's my friend, Ray, and I think he'll understand eventually. But I suspect it may be difficult at first."

I think about it. "Ben, there ain't a damn thing he can say to me that I didn't say to myself while I was tearing myself to pieces about how I felt. And you know what? Fuck it, It's all bullshit." He touches my lips, silent comment on my language. "Why the hell do you think I'm so happy up here? We've got each other, we've got friends who don't care about any of that crap, my folks are fine with it, screw it. We'll deal with Vecchio." I sigh. "He's not a bad guy, Ben, I know that. If it hadn't been for how weird it was, him coming back, and him marrying Stella, we coulda been friends, maybe." Coulda, woulda, shoulda. It was true, though, once I thought past maybe losing my best friend because it had all been a let's pretend.

Once I knew that wasn't true-"We'll deal," I tell him again, even more firmly.

He chuckles and tightens his arm. "Understood." Happily.

I lean back up, take hold of his hand. "Come on back to bed, you got at least two hours before you need to go in."

He gets up with me, but he's laughing a little. "I'm not sure I could go back to sleep."

"I think you can," I tell him, and I know just how to do it. Heh.

And as it happens, I'm right.

Maggie leaves a day later, going back home loaded with McKenzie scones, Mary Atlin's remedies for various ills, new mukluks-a lot more than she arrived with, anyway.

Tom Ellery flies her out, up to Inuvik, and he's going to be gone overnight, so I mosey on over to the post to have a look at the jeep. David Brett says it's acting up again, and then tried to imitate the sounds, which left Fraser biting his lip and turning red to keep from laughing.

If Fraser's rubbed off on me, I think I've rubbed off on him, too. He sometimes has trouble with that Mountie mask.

About one, he comes out to the post garage to see what I'm doing. "Lunch," he tells me firmly.

"You still tryin' to feed me up?" I wink at him. "I think I had enough protein this morning to last me."

He waits out his blush. "Actually, there's far less protein than you might think," he begins, sounding a little like somebody's spinster aunt lecturing about nutrition, and I crack up.

He finally laughs with me. "Lunch."

"Okay. Home?"

"No, Mae's kindly offered to feed all three of us." He gives me that almost smirk he does so well. "Uncle Ray."

I thump my head on the hood of the Jeep. "Oh, thanks, keep reminding me." He grins and we go in, and a short person toddles up to me shouting, "Rayrayrayrayray."

Kid thinks it's my name, he hears Fraser say it that way so often.

"Kitkitkit," I greet him and pretend to stagger when he grabs my legs. He's got Mae's coloring, sort of reddish brown hair and fair skin, but looks like his dad all the way. "You bein' good for your mom?"

David Brett makes a sound in his throat that sounds like maybe Kit's not.

"Mum!" Kit crows and then babbles something I don't quite catch.

Fraser makes that ridiculous puffin face at him, which never fails to crack the kid up.

"Kit!" Mae comes to the door that connects their quarters to the office. "Kit, what have I told you-"

I hear something odd and tilt my head to listen just as Fraser does. "Tom's on his way to Inuvik," I say, frowning, but it's definitely a small plane.

Fraser frowns, heads for the door, and then we're both standing like a pair of yokels, shading our eyes like we've never seen a plane before.

His eyes are better. "It's not Tom," he says, and then looks at me. "I suppose the Jeep isn't running yet."

"Nope. I'll see if we can borrow Jack's truck." I head over to McKenzie's, get the keys, and come back with the truck. Fraser jumps in, and we racket out to the field, where a strange plane has landed and somebody's climbing out.

Somebody who looks familiar.

Jesus Christ, it's Vecchio and, oh, fuck, he's got the kid. He brought the kid? "He's unhinged," I mutter, and Fraser stops staring long enough to look at me and frown.

He gets out of the truck, and they do the long lost friends hug, and then there's some chitchat, and Fraser seems to be admiring the kid when I finally decide that maybe it's best just to get out of the truck.

Vecchio looks at me like, like I don't know what.

Shocked, yeah, and surprised, but underneath all that is something else, like maybe he's not as shocked and surprised as he seems, and maybe he's disappointed. That stings a little, but hey, I know there's going to be some problems to get through, so I keep the peace, just nod at him.

"Kowalski," he says, like it hurts his mouth. "Frannie said you were up there."

Oh ho, I think to myself, but I manage a smile. "In the flesh." I walk up to them. The kid is a little younger than Kit, and he's got Vecchio's Italian looks, no hint of Stella. I grin. "Good looking kid, Vecchio."

Vecchio shifts the kid to his other arm and something in his expression softens. "Hey, I think so." Gets a smile from the kid. "Hey, kiddo, this is the guy kept your old man's life going while he was gone."

"Benton," Fraser says, and I can see his face turn red. "They named him Benton."

"I call him Benny," Vecchio tells me, and there's something funny in his voice. Something kind of sad and angry at the same time. "His mom's a little more formal, she calls him Benton."

Something's definitely wrong there, but it's none of my business. I feel sorry for Vecchio anyway.

"You mind takin' him, Fraser? I need to get his stuff."

"Hey, I can do it, I'm an old hand at it these days," I say easily, "Still not great at hauling stuff, but a little scrap of a kid like Benny I can handle."

I get a long look, like Vecchio suddenly remembers that he wasn't the only one got a pension for getting shot. "Yeah," he says finally, and hands the kid over to me.

I'm not kidding, maybe I didn't get a lot of practice with my brother's kids, but Fraser and I took care of Kit when we sent Mae and David off on a long weekend on their own, last spring. So I take Benny over and dandle him and talk to him, and he's kind of interested in me, but he keeps looking back at Dad.

I stay close, and it suddenly occurs to me that maybe he's got an awful lot of bags for a guy coming up to visit a friend on vacation. I start to get this feeling in my gut, this really uneasy feeling, and the way the kid watches his dad, like he's afraid to lose sight of him, it gets worse.

I tell myself that I'm just jumpy, waiting for Vecchio to blow a gasket. I tell myself that several times, and we load the back of the truck up with a lot of baggage-get this, including one of those portable crib things, and then Fraser drives us back. Vecchio sits near the window with the kid in his lap, really uncomfortable, and I wonder if it's because he has to sit next to me.

That nearly makes me laugh, so I have to bite down hard on the sudden urge to put my hand on Fraser's thigh, just to jerk Vecchio's chain.

Not nice, I tell myself, and when Fraser stops the truck at the foot of the hill, I'm able to say, "Well, here we are, home sweet home. You wanna grab whatever bag has his stuff in it, Vecchio, sling it over my shoulder, I can handle that. Think he'll let me carry him up?"

Fraser looks at me, and I see trouble in his eyes. Maybe he's got the same feeling I've got. Whatever, I'm not going to stew about it, I'm just going to take care of right now, so when I get out, I let Vecchio sling a couple of bags over my shoulders by the straps, grab the kid and head uphill.

Once I get there, they're still down below, so I get a blanket out and set the kid in the middle of it. He screws up his face like he's going to start howling, so I give the old puffin face a try.

Benny considers that for a moment, sticks a finger in his mouth. Not laughing, but at least he's not howling.

"You miss your mom, do ya?" I ask, very softly.

"Mama?" Hopeful little voice.

Oops. That's not good, I tell myself. "Mama's back home," I tell him, all fake cheerfulness. Quick, a distraction, Kowalski, and I check the bags, find some toys, and put them in front of him.

Vecchio comes in, beams at his offspring. "There ya are, champ. Practically like home, huh?"

Benny keeps the finger in his mouth for a minute, then gets to his feet and toddles over to Vecchio. Not very well, at that, kind of like he has trouble keeping his balance. I look at Fraser, wondering if maybe I'm just used to Kit, who's a little heller, walking before he was a year old, but his eyes are resting on the kid and there's still trouble there.

Weirder and weirder, I think.

"Coffee?" I look at Vecchio and now I can see some real exhaustion there. "Sit down, Vecchio, you look beat. I'll getcha some coffee, and then get the guest room ready."

He's looking at the kid, and boy, there's some mix of feelings there. Love, that's there for sure, and some pain, and I feel like I'm looking at him naked, I have to look away.

So, coffee first, and then I get clean sheets, leaving Fraser and Vecchio alone to talk, and trying real hard not to hear them. Fraser's carried that portable crib thing in, and I go ahead and set it up, use one of our sheets to wrap the little mattress up comfortable.

When I come back out, they're both quiet, and Fraser looks unhappy. He glances at me and then away and Benny's practically snoozing in his dad's lap.

"Crib's ready," I tell them. "Why don't you guys take a nap," I tell Vecchio. "I'm going back down to the garage," I tell Fraser.

And then I do.

Whatever's going on, there is true weirdness floating around in that house, and the hell of it is, now I'm worried about Stella.

I guess you never get past having that connection, no matter what happens, and even though I feel for Vecchio, I'm worried.

And I stay worried, because when Fraser comes back down, he stays in the office, like he's afraid to talk to me about it.

Vecchio comes out when the smell of food cooking makes it into the guest room. He looks a little bit less like hell, but still tired.

I'm sitting on the couch reading, and Fraser is still at the office, which wasn't exactly what I'd hoped would happen. Vecchio nods at me awkwardly.

I ask him, "Sleep good?"

He rubs his face with one hand. "Yeah, I guess." Tired man. Unhappy man.

I feel awkward again, nothing I can say to him he'd want to hear, nothing I know to say. "How about a cold beer?" I ask and get up.

"Sure." He drops into the armchair Maggie gave us, rubs his face again.

I get two bottles, come back, and hand him one before sitting back down on the couch. He looks at the bottle, pops the cap, and fiddles with it. "So," he finally says, "This why you and Stella split up?"

Takes me a few minutes to get it. And even then-"Me and Fraser? Hell no, Stella and I were over before I even met him."

He's still fiddling with the cap. "I, uh, I mean-" He gestures, not looking at me. "Guys."

I still don't get it for a minute. "Stella? God, no!" Then I get it, and have to take a deep breath to keep from flaming out. "Jesus, Vecchio, I never cheated on my wife once. Not once. And not that it's any of your fucking business, but Fraser's the first-" Well, except for fooling around when I was a kid, and damn little of that. I'm so mad I can't sit still, I get up and walk to the door, take a quick swallow of beer. Hell, hell, hell, it's not his business anyway, and I can even see why he might think it, but dammit, dammit, dammit.

"Sorry." He sounds worse. "Sorry, that was outa line, Kowalski. It's just-see, the thing is, Benny has some problems. Something happened when he was born, Stella had to have a C-section, they had to get him out quick, but he still....I was kinda hoping that's why you broke up." His voice trails off and when I turn around, he's sitting with his arms on his knee, head hanging down, and he's staring at his feet.

My stomach does a quick roll. "Not enough oxygen," I finish and go back to the couch. Christ, Christ, what do you say? Frocked if I know. I rake through my hair, rub my eyes. "Look, Vecchio, whatever they tell you, you can't buy it. That goddamn doctor in Chicago had me believing I was never going to come back. Yeah, I may not be 100 percent what I was, but I'm good, firing on most of my cylinders at least." Trying to make it a joke, but the poor bastard looks up at me, and I see hope in his eyes.

"That's what I think, but Stella-" He gets up, paces again, and I wonder where in hell he's finding the energy. "She's a little high strung, ya know." My jaw almost drops. Are we talking the same Stella here? Stella's about as high strung as a tank, and Vecchio sounds apologetic, like he feels bad for being disloyal. "It's been hard, ya know, on Stella, we have to work with Benny a lot, lotta doctors, lotta physical therapy, all that. And she's trying to open her practice, takes a lot of time, there's this place she wants to send Benny, works with kids like this." Talking fast, like he's trying not to hear what he's saying.

My stomach does another roll. Look, Stella and I were wrong for each other, and yeah, she's got a cold side, but who doesn't? That's how she keeps herself strong, I think, although I didn't figure that out until we were over. Plain fact is it sounds like she can't cope, and then I think about some things from the past, quick replay of memory, and I feel a little sick. Stella always wanted to prove that she didn't need her folks, that she could make it on her own, that she could be a success in her own way. Wanted a perfect world, a perfect life, and one of the reasons we broke up is that Ray Kowalski, kid from the wrong side of the tracks, didn't fit into that world and life.

No surprises, that's Stel.

Of course, I can't say this to Vecchio. I just nod at him, like I know what he's talking about.

"But Benny-he's doing good." He walks toward the back bedroom, tilts his head like he's listening again. Comes back and drops into the chair, looks at the beer like he can't remember where it came from. "She doesn't see it."

No, I get that. "It's hard," I tell him. Feeling incredibly stupid. Fraser would have a story for him, I think, or at least some sane advice. I don't have anything, but man, I feel for him. I feel for him a lot.

It was my kid, I'd be fighting for him, too.

He nods again, distracted. "So that's why I asked-I was hoping it was something like that, instead of...." Voice trails off again.

Vecchio might not be the most sensitive guy in the world, but nobody said he was stupid. You can't do undercover and get away with it for a year if you're stupid. He's asking me if this is a part of Stella that doesn't work right and that's why we broke up.

I wish I could tell him why we didn't make it. I wish I knew, at least for sure. But can you ever see into anybody else's head?

"All I can tell ya, Vecchio, is what it seemed like to me," I say slowly. "Stella and I did most of our communicating, um, you know. We didn't seem to be able to communicate any other way, so all I can tell you is that it looked like I didn't fit into her world any more. Hell, we met when we were kids, I fell in love with her and never wanted anybody else. Maybe that's because she was like this....quest, or something. The golden girl. And maybe for her, I was safe. She knew me, and I was safe, and maybe she wanted to show her folks, bring home the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Who the hell knows any more? So we both grow up, she takes a look at the kid from the wrong side of the tracks and she doesn't want that any more, she wants some guy wearing a suit, smooth and slick, and look at me." I try and grin, but some of this shit still stings, even though I'm long past mooning over what went wrong.

His shoulders sag a little. "Yeah." Sad sound. Poor bastard loves her, loves the kid. Won't give up one for the other, and for the first time I really like him, I admire him.

Can't say I wouldn't be doing the same thing in his shoes. Makes my stomach turn again. "But Vecchio, she's not made of stone. She acts like it, tries to keep from hurting, you gotta just keep trying, just like with Benny." I rummage in my memory. "They told me, back in the hospital, that it's easier with kids, that they can get other parts of the brain to take over. Old guys like me, that's tougher, but look at me, I'm good, I'm better than I expected."

Wan look and he nods, takes a sip of beer. "When Frannie told me about you and Fraser, I was pretty ballistic at first." He tries to smile a little. "But ya know, I got bigger fish to fry."

Or something. "Yeah, I can see that."

Little sound from the bedroom has him on his feet, beer set aside. Comes back with the kid and this is weird, a little tiny set of shoes and braces built together. Kid's all flushed with his nap, making soft little kid sounds, and Vecchio's talking to him like he understands those sounds.

For all I know, he can. Fraser catches more of Kit's babble than I do, and I know for a fact that Kit's actually talking because David and Mae can translate it in a snap.

Kid sticks out his legs one at a time when Vecchio puts those ridiculously little braces on, makes a little sound of complaint until Vecchio lets him slide down.

Now he's mobile, and damn good at it, although he's kind of shy with me.

I grin at him, even though I don't feel like it, and he grins back, puts a finger in his mouth. Vecchio strokes the soft, dark hair, and boy, this is a guy in love with his kid, it makes my chest hurt a little, thinking of how hard it's gotta be.

"Dinner," I tell them, looking at the clock, and like he hears me, Fraser suddenly appears.

He looks a little unhappy, but manages a smile for Vecchio, and a better one for the kid. Then, like the sun coming out from the clouds, I get one quick one, and somehow, despite all the tension, things seem better.

We eat dinner, and the kid sits on Vecchio's lap, soft babble now and then in between bites of the baby food Vecchio feeds him.

Imagine Vecchio with a baby on his knee. Kind of mind boggling. Mr. Style Pig himself, but he's not wearing Armani at the moment. Just plain jeans, and a sweater looks like it's seen better days, and he doesn't even flinch when the kid gets baby food on it.

Fraser talks to Benny like all this soft babbling is perfectly understandable. Makes me a little sad. Fraser'd be a good dad, he's good with kids. I've seen him before with kids, back in Chicago, and up here with Kit, and he's good with 'em, really good with 'em.

It's obvious Vecchio and Fraser have more to talk about, so I take the kid after dinner, tell Vecchio he'll be fine, and take him outside with Dief.

Kid's fascinated with Dief, even if he's a little scared, and I put him on my knee, let Dief investigate him thoroughly. Benny starts giggling after a while, seems to understand when I tell him to be soft with Dief. Loves the fur, wants to slide off my knee after a while and toddles around the yard with Dief while I watch like a hawk.

I think about Stella while I'm watching him, and for the first time in years, I wish I had a cigarette. Poor kid, poor Vecchio, poor Stella. Tough situation, but I'm damned if I can give Vecchio advice. Like I succeeded? Not.

After a while, Vecchio comes out, tightlipped, almost mad. Nods at me and goes over to talk to Benny and play with him. My Ben comes out, looking pretty miserable, sits down beside me on the edge of the porch. "Stella doesn't know he's here." Flat voice.

Uh oh. I look at him. "Ben, stay out of it."

"I can't, Ray. It's a matter of law, now. They're fighting over custody." He sounds tired and sad and mad, and rubs his face with both hands. "This is parental abduction, Ray."

I think about Volpe, about Fraser putting me under arrest in the Consulate because he believed in me. "You think he doesn't know it? He's a cop, Ben, give him some time, let him call her himself. It's domestic shit, yeah, I know, it's wrong, if I have to, I'll call Stella myself. But she knows he's not going to just vanish, she's gotta know that. He loves her, I know that look, he loves her so much it hurts." He shakes his head, but he's not looking so sure of himself. Looks like I can press him a little. "Give him a little time, Ben. That's my advice."

He sighs. "I can give him until we hear something officially, Ray. How long do you think that will be?" A little snarky when he says that.

Knowing Stella, not long. But I don't say that. I put a hand over his, squeeze quick. "Doesn't matter. That's his problem. Give him the time. Look at him, you think he doesn't love that kid? Stella's just messed up right now, it's not easy either way. Let them work it out."

He sighs again. "I'll do what I can."

I nudge him. "You believed in me," I remind him, "And hell if you didn't have less reason back then."

Faint smile. "That's not true."

"Matter of opinion." But it's going to be okay, at least for now. He doesn't want to betray his friend, but he's the law, he'll wait until he has to do something. I know him.

I hope that's enough, at least for Vecchio.

The little guy fades fast, must be the trip and trying to chase Dief and the fresh air. Vecchio puts him in the little portable crib and comes out, still looking tired, makes some small talk.

Fraser's trying, I give him that, even though he's not sure I'm right, even though he's feeling caught in a bad place, and he and Vecchio trade some stories about old times, and then I leave them to it, figuring they need to talk without me hanging around. Besides, gotta be easier on Vecchio if we don't both disappear into the bedroom at once.

I'm nodding over my book when Fraser comes in, in fact, I'm close to going out completely, only thing that wakes me is when he pulls my glasses off my nose. "Shh," he murmurs, and I blink, realize he's turned out my lamp and only the closet light is on. "Go back to sleep."

I shake my head muzzily, try and tug him into bed. "C'mon, you're tired."

"I am. I know." Still softly.

When he slides into bed beside me, I fold myself around him. "You okay?"

He's quiet for a minute. "I'm concerned."

"I know." His hair is soft, almost silky under my fingertips. I kiss the nape of his neck. "Thanks for listening to me."

He puts a hand over mine, squeezes. No words, but I think it's okay. At least for now. It's going to hurt if he has to do something official, but maybe I can talk to Vecchio.

But just in case I'm wrong, I kiss the back of his neck. "We okay?"

Another hand squeeze. "Yes, Ray."

Good. Great. Greatness. I let myself slip back under again.

He's gone when I wake up in the morning, again, but this time he's not on the porch. It's not quite as early, it's about six, and I roll over grumpily and decide I'm going to have to give Dief a hard time.

I'm up and sitting on the front porch drinking coffee when Vecchio emerges, carrying the kid. It's still on the early side, about seven, and I nod at him. "Coffee's in the kitchen."

He looks relieved. "Oh, great." Crooked grin. "Figured I'd have to make do with bark tea."

"Not on my watch," I tell him mildly. "You need anything? Help yourself, there's some scones in the breadbox, Rosie McKenzie makes 'em, and they're great."

He nods, goes back in. He's inside for a while, and I'm okay with that, because it's weird, talking to him. Weird knowing that Benny is Stella's kid and it doesn't sting, really. Maybe I just haven't taken it in.

After while, Vecchio comes back, gives me a sidelong look. "You mind keeping an eye on him while I take a shower?"

I get up, I need more coffee anyway. "Sure. Towels in the front closet, next to the bathroom door." Benny's sitting on the blanket on the floor, carefully trying to wedge shapes into this ball thing. Seems pretty good at it, I decide, watching him, so whatever else might be wrong, it doesn't look like he's got a hole in his bag of marbles. I sit down after while, open the ball up, and shake the shapes out again, and he watches me intently the whole time.

Hell, maybe he's just a quiet kid. Maybe the docs are as wrong about him as they were about me. Which makes me think about Dr. Yee.

Okay, so I'm a marshmallow underneath.

Fraser decided we needed a phone last winter, so when spring arrived, we had one installed in the kitchen. I nixed having extensions, I'm getting spoiled not having to answer the phone. My folks were thrilled we did it, I think my mom is spending my dad's pension on phone calls once a month. Well, less, we call them, too, but at the moment, I'm still thinking of Dr. Yee. I rummage through the kitchen drawer until I find my last appointment card; she wrote her Calgary number on it, and I punch them in.

Takes a little time, but I get through to Dr. Yee, who listens patiently to my explanations. On the blanket, it looks to me like Benny's trying to figure out how I got the shapes out, and he's doing his damned best to imitate what I did.

"Pediatrics isn't my area of specialty," she finally tells me, "But I believe I know of someone who might be more qualified, Mr. Kowalski. Let me speak with him, and see if he can work the little one into his schedule."

"Great," I tell her, "Greatness, thanks, Doc."

She laughs, we exchange some chitchat and I'm hanging up when Vecchio comes out of the bathroom. Kid stops struggling with the ball and gets up, makes a little sound like Kit does when he's excited, kind of a crow, and heads toward Vecchio.

Vecchio's face changes again, goes soft when he bends down to talk to his son.

I have to admit to myself, that stings a little, and not just for Fraser's sake. But what the hell it is, I think, is that old Mother Nature tricks us, programs us to want to reproduce, she tricks us and it's not something we need, and that's what I tell myself.

Besides, I'm an honorary uncle and that means I get the fun part and don't have to worry about toilet training, or lending the car, or bailing anybody out of jail.

I refill Vecchio's mug and carry it over to him. "Listen, I just did something, you might want to punch me in the head later, but I called my doc in Calgary. She says she doesn't do pediatric, ya know, but she knows somebody's a specialist, says she can see if she can get Benny worked in."

He gives me a long look, half-pissed, half-sad, looks back down at the kid. "We've seen specialists."

"Yeah, I figured. But I figured it couldn't hurt, Vecchio. Yee's pretty amazing, you ask me, I'd take her rec." I shrug. "You don't have to take him."

His mouth does something funny. "What the hell do you care?"

I look at the kid. "In case you're forgettin', I got written off not too long ago myself."

He turns a dull red, puts his hand on the kid's head. "Nobody's gonna write Benny off." Rough voice, but he has to blink hard.

"Good, cuz I'll tell ya, Vecchio, I think he got Stella's brains and your looks. He's pretty quick, he watched me pull that ball apart, and went after that like white on rice."

He laughs a little, kinda shaky. "Yeah, yeah, he does. Can't decide if that's better or worse than my brain and Stella's looks."

"Better, Vecchio, definitely better. Only way better for Benny is if he got both from Stella." I wink to let him know I'm kidding. "So, what's your plan today? I'm more or less free, wanna meet some of the folks around town? Show off the kid?"

He looks at me again, blinks hard. "Show him off, definitely."

"Great. Greatness." I grin for real. "And there's kids, too, Benny. You like other kids?"

"He hasn't been around many," Vecchio says, kind of reluctantly. "He had kind of a hard time early on, he's still catching up."

I let that one pass, mostly because I don't have any good answer, and he gets the kid cleaned up while I take a shower and shave.

Rosie McKenzie's already heard about Vecchio arriving, naturally, and I'll bet everybody around for about 100 miles has heard about him already, too. I leave Vecchio to make small talk with her while I survey the shelves and pick up a few things we're running short of.

Coffee, mainly, and some other odds and ends, and Davy McKenzie comes in, eyes me. "You workin' on anything today, Ray?"

"Nope, not today." I don't really have to work, but hey, what am I going to do, sit around, and drink beer all day watching curling on the CBC? No way. "What you got in mind, Davy?"

"Need some help framing." He grins. "Got to put an addition on the cabin, and I figure with all your experience...."

Yeah, right, I learned the hard way with Tom Ellery helping, but hell, sounds good to me. And then it sinks in. "Addition?"


Rosie laughs at my expression. "How do you think I feel? I don't feel old enough to be a grandmum."

Jeez, is everybody breeding? I shake my head, shake Davy's hand. "Congratulations, man. But count me out at the delivery."

He laughs, Vecchio gives me a funny look, and Rosie takes Benny from Vecchio to dandle him.

Somehow, we make it down the street, slow progress, I belong here now, and people stop and talk, and I can see Vecchio's totally amazed.

"You know," I tell Vecchio, playing it casual. "You really oughta call Stella, let her know you guys are all right."

Stubborn look, and he scowls. "She doesn't need to know where we are, we got joint custody."

"At least let her know you're okay." Patiently. I don't blame him, like I said, it was my kid, I'd be fighting for him. But I think he's losing sight of the forest for the trees. Or something. "It'll keep Fraser from feeling caught in the middle." Oh, yeah, definitely the right thing to say, he looks like that makes him feel guilty.

"I don't want her figuring out where we are." Half-heartedly. "And you know, if anybody's got the contacts to trace the call-"

"So we'll drive into Whitehorse." I shrug. Grin. "Fraser's birthday's coming up, I needed to do some shopping anyway."

"You mean you don't go out and kill a moose, give him the antlers?"

Nice one. "Sorry, can't shoot any more, just can't get the hang of doing it left handed."

He turns red. "Sorry, I-" Helpless shrug.

"Nah, don't worry about it, I'm over it."

Benny, who's been kind of toddling between us, reaches up to his dad and says, kind of whining, "Da."

Vecchio picks him up. "So, you got a vehicle?"

"Kind of." I look at the kid. "Tom Ellery lets me borrow his SUV, but you know, we need one of those car whatsis for him, if he's going with us."

"Back at the house," he says, juggling Benny.

I squint up at the sun. "Okay, I'll head over to Tom's, ask Cass if I can borrow it. You head on back, I'll meet ya there in a little bit. Might wanna bring some stuff for the kid, it's a long ride for a scrap."

He looks at me for a long minute. "Okay." Finally.

He's confused, I guess. Not sure why I give a shit. Truth is, I can't explain it to him, not really.

Sure, I hate to see anybody written off like Heatherton wrote me off, especially a little kid with an entire life ahead of him. And maybe Vecchio and I aren't going to make it to second-best friends, not while I'm sleeping with his best friend, and he's married to the woman I thought was my best friend once upon a time, but he's a decent guy, he loves the kid, and he loves Stella. I wish I thought that was going to turn out better for him, but Stella's folks....

Let's just say they didn't like me, and I never warmed up to them, and I'm not going to start now. I'm about willing to bet my pension it was them came up with the idea of sending Benny to this care home or whatever it is. Stella's dad wouldn't like having a grandson that wasn't perfecto.

Cass is home, and lets me have the keys, although I have to give her a quick and dirty telling of why, and I have to promise to introduce her to Fraser's first American partner. Won't be hard to get him over, Cass makes a mean, almost Chicago style pizza, I'm trying to talk her into going into business, but I'm not sure I wouldn't be her only customer.

Well, except for Tom, but he'd eat up any profits she made off me.

I get back to the bottom of the hill, and Vecchio's sitting on a rock, talking to a handful of the twenty or thirty Atlin kids around town. No school today, summer vacation, and Benny is watching the bigger kids wide-eyed, like he didn't know there were other people who were smaller than adults.

"Hey, Ray!" Johnny Atlin, about ten, "Tommy broke his leg!"

Figures. Tommy Atlin doesn't know the meaning of fear. He's Jenny's, what, first or second cousin, I think, although I lose track. Lots of Atlins and Snows, all Tlingit, or some mixture, and Fraser says it's a good thing about the clan rules, so they have to go looking elsewhere for people to marry and have kids with. "How'd he manage that?"

"Diving off Flatrock," he tells me. "Just like you said he would."

"Oh, boy," I tell him, shaking my head. "See, I hate making predictions, sometimes they come true."

Johnny laughs, like any kid that age. Thinks he's indestructible. "You stay off that damn rock," I tell him and push the driver's seat forward. "Here, Johnny, hand me the kid seat."

Johnny jumps to get it for me, and Vecchio's looking at me like I've grown a second head. I fasten it in smooth enough, we got some practice with Kit's when Fraser sent Mae and David off for their long weekend alone. Then, I stand aside to let Vecchio pop the kid in. He's got one of those diaper bags with him, and Benny's got what I call a pacifier and Fraser calls a dummy in his mouth, sleepy eyes.

So, we're off. Benny falls asleep practically the minute we hit the highway, and Vecchio and I gossip like a couple of old spinsters about all the people we knew back when.

"I heard about Jack Barnaby," he finally says.

Barney got convicted on about fifteen different charges, attempted murder (mine), murder (Rainsford and a couple of penny ante dealers), conspiracy to commit murder-mine, again. I forget what all else, but he got hammered. In January, Welsh dropped us a note telling us he was dead, somebody slipped a shiv into him in prison. Ran into some old enemies from the Aryan Brotherhood, I guess.

"About him getting convicted or him getting knifed," I ask.

He looks surprised. "He got knifed?"

"Yeah, Welsh told us in his yearly note."

"Welsh knows about you guys?"

I give him a cocky grin. "Hell, yeah. You think Fraser's gonna lie to anyone?"

He looks kind of poleaxed about that. "What did he say?"

"Wished us luck. Told Fraser to keep me out of trouble." I swear, I'm laughing up my sleeve, he looks so stunned.

He shakes his head after a minute. "Okay, I know it's none of my business, but you said Fraser was, ah, the only guy-" He turns bright red when I look at him. "And I know for a fact, Benny's had, ah, relationships with women. Crazy women, but women."

I can't help myself, I give him this shit-eating grin. "Ben says that human sexuality is a-" What, what was it? Oh, yeah. "A continuum, not two separate points."

He looks like he just swallowed a golf ball. Looks back out the window. Shifts his shoulders like he's waaaay uncomfortable and wishing he hadn't opened his mouth.

"Look," I say, taking pity on him. "Nobody was more surprised than me, Vecchio. I had a hard time with it, rabbited all the way back to Chicago and pretended I didn't feel anything. Until I got shot." I look at him again, find he's watching me, this little line between his eyebrows. "Then, it just seemed fucking stupid that I nearly died and never told him what I felt. If it makes you feel any better, I had no fucking clue that he felt the same way until then. I freaked, figured at first that he'd go ice on me, but then I got sane again and remembered how he deals with stuff."

Vecchio's mouth quirks, and I swear, we say it at the same time. "Inuit stories."

And we both crack up, maybe comfortable for the first time since we met face-to-face back in Chicago.

Rest of the ride goes fine, we talk about the weather, what it's like living up in the Yukon, what's good about it, what's not so hot about it. And when we get to Whitehorse, and I pull into a gas station to fill up the tank, I finish up by saying. "No bag ladies, people take care of their own, kinda nice, even if I can't get takeout in Owlcreek."

He looks back at Benny, still asleep and looking a lot like a television ad baby. "There's a pay phone." Not quite looking at me. "I'll call from here, then maybe we can brainstorm Benny's birthday."

Which means he's planning on still being here. Jeez. On the other hand, what the hell. He hasn't thrown up, punched me, or made any remarks that were too insulting. It might be okay after all.

I pump gas and watch Vecchio head toward the pay phone like he's getting ready to face the firing squad. Looks like maybe he is, after a while, looks like he got hold of Stella and even though he's got his back to me, I figure from the tight set of his shoulders, and the gestures with the free hand, it ain't going well.

Stella's as strong-minded as anybody I ever met. And temperamental, like I said.

Benny wakes up while I'm pumping, so I make puffin faces at him through the window while I finish filling the tank.

Vecchio comes back looking seriously bent out of shape. "I gotta tell you, Kowalski, I hate Stel's parents."

He means it, I can tell, it's not just a case of not liking somebody. I guess I can't blame him, under the circumstances. "Their idea?"

He nods, not looking at me, and gets back into the passenger seat. I go in, take care of the gas, and that's it, he's made the call, I can tell Fraser he made the call, and that'll keep Fraser from getting his sense of honour in a twist.

The rest of the afternoon is okay, mostly, we stop and get something to eat before heading back, late lunch, and Benny is one helluva good traveler, puts up with a lot without getting too fussy, and I find the things I wanted to get Fraser. Vecchio picks up some stuff on his own, looks like for him and for Benny and for Fraser, but I don't ask, and he's not saying.

I start wondering just how long he really is planning to stay. Stella has to be blowing a gasket, even if she does know the baby's okay now.

Back in town, I drop him and the kid, take the truck back to Cass, and head over to the post.

David's on the phone, I nod at him, and grin at Fraser. "Hey."

Mild look. "You've been busy today, I hear."

I slump into the chair in front of his desk. "Yeah, I have been." Feeling kind of pleased. "I took Vecchio shopping in Whitehorse. He called Stel, Ben."

He narrows his eyes at me. "Did he?"

"He did. Seemed to go all right, I guess." Okay, so I'm stretching the truth. But really, come on, if Benny were really screwed up, I could maybe see Stella's parents wanting the best care for him, but the kid has a few problems, he's basically rowing with both oars far as I can tell. Maybe Dr. Yee's friend will tell us different, but for now, I'm siding with Vecchio on this one. I smile at Fraser like a choirboy, which only makes his eyes narrow more.

"You seem to be taking a great interest in this situation, Ray."

I can't figure out what that means. "Hey, Vecchio's all right. And Benny's a good kid, he's okay, Ben. He doesn't need an institution."

He frowns suddenly. Nods. "Well, I'm glad he's called her at least." He fiddles with the pen in his hand. Sighs and rubs his eyebrow. "How is he, ah, behaving?"

"Vecchio? Fine, fine, we're good, Ben, don't worry about it." He doesn't look reassured. "Honest, Scout's honor."

That gets a smile. "I thought you weren't ever a Scout, Ray."

"So, I know the drill." I smile at him. "And you know, I don't lie to you."

That warms him up a little, I get a hint of a smolder. "No, that's true, you never have."

"Anyway, I'm going to be working with Davy McKenzie this week, unless you've got anything else you need me to do. He's putting an addition on the cabin."

He brightens a little. "Ah, for the new arrival."

"Exactly." I pull a face at him. "What is it with all these babies being born?"

"Spring," he says and grins. "Count backward from Kit, Ray, and you'll see what I mean."

"You get me pregnant," I tell him, pitching my voice low, "You'd better make an honest man of me."

Startled look, and then he outright laughs. "Ray, I fear you've become unhinged."

"Takes one to know one," I tell him comfortably. "What sounds good for dinner?"

He arches an eyebrow. "Isn't it my turn to cook?"

"I was lazy today. I'll cook."

One corner of his mouth lifts again. "It doesn't sound to me as though you were lazy. It sounds to me like you've been very busy keeping me out of difficulty."

I grin at him again, get up. "And myself, Ben. And myself." Maybe Cass is right, and this is just weaving new threads into our particular bit.

Fraser's still smiling when I leave the office and head for home.

Vecchio's sacked out in the guestroom, kid on his chest. Fresh air, I think smugly, and start trying to figure out what sounds good.

I wonder how venison burritos would taste.

Couple of days pass, and things settle down. Tom comes back, and he joins me and Davy framing in the new addition, and Vecchio does whatever it is that Vecchio wants to do during the day, and all is calm and bright.

Well, maybe not totally calm, but definitely bright. It's just past midsummer, as Fraser points out, and if Fraser's a little on edge, I think maybe it's just that we've got a pipeline crew in town and payday is coming up for them.

Willie Thibodeau and his wife run the small caf in town, which sort of doubles as a tavern and pool parlor, or what passes for one in this neck of the woods. Most people up here don't call it pool, but Tom and I do, and one night, after we quit working, all three of us head down there for a cold brew and a game of pool.

Pipeline roughnecks are having a few brews themselves, and a couple of them are a little worse for wear. Lizzie Snow is in there, and I know for a fact she's underage, but Willie's keeping an eye on her, she's not getting anything more than a burger and soft drink.

She's seventeen going on twenty-four, though, and I'm keeping an eye on the roughnecks watching her. One of 'em, maybe in his late twenties, is making remarks to her that I can't hear, but which make her blush and giggle. The blushing makes me nervous, but the giggling means she's not scared or upset, so I ride it out and keep playing.

I'm not the only one keeping an eye out, though, so is Davy, and he's not looking thrilled, he's looking downright ready to rumble, but Lizzie's not upset, and he's obviously keeping his temper with an effort.

So, we keep playing pool, and Tom's watching it now, eyes flicking back and forth between the rest of the crew and the loudmouth, who's decided to sit down with Lizzie.

She's still laughing at him, but I'm getting a vibe, I'm getting a vibe that maybe she's getting a little nervous, and Davy's looking that way.

Davy saunters over and leans over the table, says a couple of words real quiet to Lizzie, who gives him a grateful smile.

"Hey," says the roughneck, "I'm talking to her. Go find your own girl."

"Got a wife at home," Davy says, even tone. "And don't you think she's a little young for you?"

I'm getting a very, very bad vibe now, a Chicago cop vibe, and I start toward them. The guy gets up, and he's about as big as Davy, who is bigger, believe it or not, than Fraser. Taller, anyway.

I miss what Davy says to him, and I'm so busy watching the other pipeline guys that I don't catch what he says to Davy, and it's all happening so fucking fast and when I get there, there's a gun pointed at Davy.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Deeeeee-escalation time, pronto, I think, and instead of getting into the assholes face like I would have once upon a time, I says, practically meek, "Hey, guys, come on, this is getting out of hand."

Davy's gone stone still, and Lizzie starts to cry.

This guy is waaaay out in the zone, I can tell by his eyes, and if beer's all he's had, I'll eat the boots I'm wearing with some of Fraser's moss and lichens. So I keep my hands in sight for him, and say again, "Hey, come on, this ain't necessary."

Guy's breathing hard, and Davy has sense enough not to say anything. One of his buddies says, "Hey, come on, Tyler, back off, boss doesn't want trouble."

Tyler takes in a breath, eyes glittering, and I think, okay, yeah, he's going to back down, going to put the gun away, and it's going to be all right, and what the fuck do I think I'm doing, I'm not a cop any more, and Fraser's going to have a stroke, and just as I think that, the door opens and David Brett comes in.

Bet one of the Snow kids took a peek in and saw what was happening. Small town life, it's got ups and downs.

The guy turns his head, sees cop, and his arm starts to go around, and it's like watching instant replay in football, all slo mo, and I'm grabbing his arm, and Davy's getting Lizzie out of the way and going for the guy's other arm, and like I said, this guy is bigger and heavier than me.

Loud noise, too close to my ear, and something hot streaks down over my left calf, and I think, fuck, fuck, fuck, but at least the gun doesn't go off again when it hits the floor.

Lots of yelling here and there, and I'm hopping on one leg, cursing a blue streak that would make Fraser wash out my mouth. Davy and Tom have the roughneck over the table for David Brett to cuff, and the other pipeline guys grumble, but nobody makes any real complaint at all.

Something warm is running down into my boot and I hobble over into the light by the pool table. Good sign, I can hobble, no broken bone, at least.

Tom's over there quick, taking a look, and I grin at him like a loon. "Just a flesh wound," I tell him and we both cackle like maniacs, I swear, both of us laughing our heads off.

Fraser shows up about then, and boy, does he look grim, he and David take the guy to the little lockout behind their office, and that means I don't have to talk to him about my damn fool stunt.

Lizzie goes and drags poor Janet out to the clinic to bandage me up after Tom hauls me over, and it's nothing, just a bloody groove, only grazed me. So I get a couple of stitches here and there. I'm still high on adrenalin, and Tom buys me a second beer before he walks me home to make sure I make it.

I'm not drunk, just kind of giddy, and I'm still laughing to myself when I go inside the house to find Vecchio and Fraser both looking grim.

Ah, I'm in for it now, so I sit down meekly to take my punishment.

Fraser doesn't stop until he runs out of words, which in Fraser's case, takes about forty minutes, and I think that's only because he was so upset he's started to repeat himself. Unarmed and reckless and what did I think I was doing, and I'm keeping track of how many ways he can say the same thing, and not getting pissed because if he did the same thing, I'd be chewing him out but hard.

"I'm all right," I say, about forty or fifty times, "I was watching him, Ben, I wasn't about to let him shoot David."

Vecchio looks like he'd tear out his hair, if he had all that much left. "You aren't even carrying a piece!"

I give him a look to warn him, a look like he hasn't earned the right to put in his two cents, and he shuts up.

Fraser stalks around the front room a couple of times until Dief whines at him.

Boy, he is really pissed.

I haven't seen him this pissed since...since Barney and the alley.

I'm a freak, what can I say. This makes me feel good. He's pissed and we still haven't torn each other apart, he's keeping hold of his temper, too, even if he's furious. I look at Vecchio. "Take a walk," I suggest and get up.

He scowls at me until I'm about arm's length from Fraser, and then gets it. Takes him a while, but he gets it, and he's gone, and I'm kissing Fraser hard, if only to keep him from talking again.

He holds on to me hard, and I let him, I'm just so damn glad we're not doing what we did back in Chicago after that alley. "Don't," he starts to say and swallows hard.

He knows damn well this is how I felt a lot in Chicago, when he'd leap into the fire without a gun, without backup, without anybody but a blind as a bat Chicago flatfoot running behind him.

Finally, his arms loosen. "You're all right." As if he's assuring himself. "Lizzie said you were bleeding."

I can't help it, I start to snicker. "It's a flesh wound."

I always thought that was the dumbest fucking thing anybody could say. Of course it's a flesh wound, you got shot, asshole, even if it cracked bones and tore nerves apart, that's all part of your flesh.

He bites my neck lightly. "Stop that."

I manage to stop. Kiss him. "I'm okay, just a graze, and I won't rag on you any more about feeding me up, I needed about fifteen more pounds to get his arm where I wanted it."

"You need to quit working so strenuously," he mutters and his arms tighten again just for a minute, almost too hard. "I'm sorry. I just-"

"I know." We stand there together, almost rocking against each other. Not sex, just comfort, for both of us. "I know, Ben, believe me, I know."

It's okay then.

Vecchio comes back in with Dief a little while later, and we're sitting on the couch, and we're sitting together, not making out or anything, just sitting comfortably against each other, I'm watching television, and I'll bet any money Fraser is brooding.

That gets an uncomfortable look, but Vecchio acts cool about it, sits down, and starts watching the show with me, and that's about the sum total of excitement for the rest of the evening.

At least until we get into our room and the door is closed.


It's not smoldering, of course, it's more than that. He knows it and I know it, and when he touches me, it's gentle at first, and then rougher, and I am all over that, it's nice to remember that a) I'm alive, and b) the worst thing I've got is a six inch graze on my left calf, and c) we didn't tear each other to shreds.

So we're kissing and biting at each other, and it's not anger, it's hunger. No argument about who's on the bottom. Just like the first time we did this, and I came back to life again, I want him inside me, and he's not complaining at all.

He slides in deep and fast, and I have to find the space to breath for a minute, until the burn turns into something better. No words, not tonight, he's total alpha wolf, claiming his mate, and I start laughing at that thought, so turned on I can't think, and I'm laughing and he's biting my throat. He folds his fist around my cock and strips it pretty ruthlessly.

Still no words, just that hotter than volcanoes look, and his mouth and fist and cock, and I have to stuff a corner of the pillow into my mouth to keep from making noise when the top of my head blows off.

Figuratively, of course.

Must be the adrenalin, I feel like this one is a nuclear preemptive fucking strike, and lasts forever, and then he's sagging over me, kissing my mouth hard and deep, but gentling fast.

Then his face is in my neck, and he's all around me. Both of us sticky with sex, and sweat and I stretch underneath him, sigh a little when I feel him softening inside me. "Hey, have I told you lately just how much I love you?" I mutter and turn my head to lick the curve of the ear closest to me.

He sighs against my throat, leans up on his elbows again. Smiles a little. "I do believe I remember words to that effect just a day or so ago."

"Good." I feel wiped out, no more adrenalin pumping through my system. "Just so's you know."

The smile gets rueful. "I do," he whispers, but it sounds more like a prayer than a fact. "And I, you."

"Even better than good. Great." I stretch again as he shifts to his side. "Greatness, in fact."

His fingertip traces my eyebrow. "To the tenth power?"

"Nah, we're way past that," I tell him, and he somehow finds the energy to get out of bed and wash up, brings back a damp towel for me. "Twentieth power," I tell him fuzzily, already drowsy.

Aftermath of adrenalin rush, I know.

His expression goes soft, almost tender. "That much?"

"Maybe more." I yawn and fold myself around him when he gets back into bed. "Maybe lots more."

Shows what I know.

It's still on the early side, about seven, when I wake up, and when I gimp out into the kitchen, Fraser's still sitting there over a cup of tea, talking to Vecchio and the kid is playing on the blanket in the livingroom while, get this, morning cartoons are playing on the television. They both give me the narrow eyed look, and Vecchio uses his foot to push a chair out.

"Sit!" he says, pointing.

Fraser gets up and pours me a cup of coffee and drops some M&Ms into it before giving it to me.

"I'm only going to say this once, Kowalski." Vecchio scowls at me. "That was a damn fool hotdog stunt, but you did good."

Fraser's head snaps that direction. "Ray!"

"Well, he did." Vecchio holds his hands up. "He did it smart and not stupid, Benny, he didn't do it alone."

I have to stare into my coffee cup to keep from snickering when Fraser looks back at me narrowly. "Do not let this encourage you."

I stick my left leg out. "Believe me, Ben, I ain't encouraged."

Vecchio does snicker, gets another glare from Fraser.

"Dr. Yee called yesterday evening," Fraser tells me. "She's managed to get an appointment for Benny with her associate, Dr. Reeves. I'm going to drive Ray and Benny into Whitehorse to catch a flight down to Calgary."

That perks me up a little. "Yeah?"

Vecchio nods. "Yeah." He gives me a long look. "Might not make any difference in the long run, but I'm game. Besides, having a doctor up here makes it look a lot better for me in court." A little bitterly. "Since Stella's raising hell in Chicago."

I blink at that. "Oh." That might help explain why Fraser's so wound up this morning, I think. "What's, ah, going on?"

"Dueling lawyers," Vecchio growls and takes another drink of coffee. "So far, anyway, mine is ahead. Benny's regular doctors are rooting for me, so far, that's something."

Custody battles are ugly, I've seen some of the results. I don't like to think of Stella doing this, but hell, she's gotta be upset anyway. Given the pressures from her folks, given the way it must feel to go through having a kid with problems-and I still can't quite get it. Whatever else I might think about Stella, I still believe she's basically got a warm heart, that she's a good person, that she's just freaking out right now. "Sorry, Vecchio," I mutter. "I know it's gotta be hard."

Boy, do I. Fraser gives me an unreadable look and finishes his tea. "Try not to overdo today," he tells me.

"It's a graze, Ben." Patiently, and I take another swallow of coffee, feeling the caffeine hit the brain and start to percolate through my system. "God, that's good."

I get a faint smile for that, and when Vecchio gets up to get the kid ready to go, Fraser checks the horizon, leans in and kisses me. Smiles again. "Nevertheless, don't overdo. Ray's going to be in Calgary overnight."

Oooh, promise in that smile. I grin slowly. "Oh. You got it, Scout's honor."

He chuckles at that. "I'll be back in town before noon. Come have lunch with me."

"I'll see what I can do." Oh, yeah, we got through another fight without doing it wrong, and that feeling gets me moving, gets me going. I have just about enough time to shower and shave and wolf down some cold cereal before meeting Tom Ellery at the bottom of the hill.

I get some ribbing at work from a couple of the Snow brothers, who have unexpectedly shown up to help us with the walls today. Nothing I can't handle, and I joke about being underweight, which brings a good laugh.

I head back into town a little after noon, not just to have lunch with Fraser, but because Janet threatened to send the Mountie after me if I didn't let her have a look at my leg today. So I'm in the clinic, with my jeans off, when all hell breaks loose.

We can hear the shouting first, and Janet actually looks up from poking the groove in my leg, frowning.

Then I hear gunshots, and I am off that table and back into my jeans so fast that I'm finishing the buttons as I head out the door.

I'm crazy, not stupid, I don't just jump out into the street, but when I poke my head around the corner of the clinic, wishing I had a gun, I hear the screech of tires and see an unfamiliar truck heading out ninety to nothing.

What I see next is worse.

Mountie brown shirt, big splash of red and I'm kneeling beside him before I realize it's not Fraser, it's Brett, and that's almost as bad, and he got hit high in the chest, again in the neck. I put my hands over the chest wound and I feel the pump of hot blood on the palms of my hands.

In a heartbeat, everybody at the clinic is out in the street, all four of the nurse practitioners: Tim, Kate, Janet, and Diana. Tim moves me gently out of the way so he and Janet can get to work and I look around for the other two, see them kneeling on the ground by the steps that lead into the post.

More Mountie brown, and I don't know how I get there, but I'm kneeling beside Fraser and he's fading in and out.

And all I can feel is this terrible shame, because even though I'm scared shitless, I'm so relieved that he's not hit as bad as David, just below his ribs, and when Diana does this lift and roll, I see a clean exit wound, looks like straight through, no ricochet off ribs, just straight through. No extra damage, no bouncing around off bits of shattered bone, and he's bleeding pretty bad, but not like David. No artery hit, and I'm so ashamed of myself for that relief.

"David," Fraser says, and gasps a little.

I just take his hand, and I'm babbling stupid shit, you'll be fine, just relax, all the stupid shit that every stupid civilian says.

"He's getting care," Kate snaps, "Just lie still, Constable, you aren't going anywhere."

Fraser's fingers curl over mine. "God. Ray, call Whitehorse. Tell them-"

Another gasp.

Tell them what? I have no fucking clue what went down here.

His fingers tighten. "Call," he says urgently, and then Kate does something that must be painful, because he bites his lower lip until it starts to bleed.

I peel away from him, look back toward David, and oh, God, Mae's out there, she's kneeling by her husband, and Tim is trying to get David to breathe.

I know how bad he was hit, I let go of Fraser's hand and head inside for the phone. I can feel what's coming in my gut, and the only good thing is that I'm inside when Mae begins to scream.

It doesn't take long to get reinforcements, at least it doesn't seem long to me. Helicopter comes in with 'em, takes Fraser out, and with the paramedics or whatever the hell they call them up here, there's not any room for me to go, even if I was stupid enough to wreck Fraser's career by whining that I'm his significant other. I lean over him before they load him in, I just squeeze his hand and bend down and tell him I'll be there, soon as I can.

I'm moving on automatic, mostly, my brain isn't working too hot.

David Brett is dead.

I can't wrap my mind around that, I keep wanting to figure out why that happened, why I lived through what I lived through in Chicago, and David died on Owlcreek's main street, and none of it is making any sense to me.

Dief is gone, I don't know where, I don't know why and I don't know how. Just one more bit of bad news in an already fucking awful day.

Janet gave Mae a shot right after, and Mae's out for the count. Rosie's got Kit in hand and Jack McKenzie comes over to where I'm sitting on the post steps, sits down next to me, and hands me a small silver flask. "Drink it." Gruffly.

My hand, I notice, is shaking and I have to take in a deep breath to get steady enough to take the flask from him. Straight whiskey, and it burns going down, but I feel numb from the inside out.

It's four fifteen in the afternoon and David Brett is dead.

Fraser's in surgery, probably, or about to be, and I have to wait to ask if I can borrow somebody's vehicle because the official Mounties are here and they're not going to be too eager to let me take the jeep.

David Brett is dead. Kit's dad is dead. Mae's husband is dead. Our friend is dead.

Broken threads.

I swallow again, long and deep, and hand the flask back to Jack McKenzie. "Thanks." Rusty voice. "Does anybody know what happened here?"

"Still piecing it together," Jack tells me and takes a sip himself. "That guy last night at Willie's, a few of his friends showed up when Benton and David were getting ready to take him up to Whitehorse for arraignment. They had guns."

Yeah, that much I figured. "This is Canada," I say, and shake my head, trying to get it clear in my mind.

"We've got our share of black hats, Ray." Dourly. "Gets worse, Lizzie Snow is missing."

The whiskey promptly tries to make a return appearance, and I end up hanging over the edge of the steps, puking into the scrubby grass.

This is wrong. This is Canada, not Chicago. Not the mean streets. Fraser shouldn't be shot, David shouldn't be dead, and seventeen-year-old girls shouldn't be abducted and raped and murdered. Not that she's dead, I tell myself, breathing through my mouth, I won't let myself think it.

When I straighten up, somebody's leaning over me with a cup of water, somebody in a Mountie uniform, an unfamiliar face. "Are you all right, sir?" Studying me with worried eyes, just a kid, younger than David Brett.

David won't get any older because David's dead.

I taste acid in the back of my throat, but the water helps and so do shallow breaths. "I'm good." Hoarsely.

He's not convinced. "Any of that blood yours, sir?"

I shake my head, numb to the bone. No, I think, it's David's mostly, with a little of Ben's, and when I look down, I see why he's worried. Blood on my shirt, blood on my hands, up to my wrists almost, and that almost makes me puke again.

"Come on," Jack tells me roughly, "Let's get you cleaned up and on the way to Whitehorse."

"David's dead," I tell him.

He nods grimly. "I know, Ray."

So I get up and follow him over to the store, and through it, and Rosie's eyes are puffy and red, and Kit's asleep in the back bedroom taking his nap.

Rosie makes me take one of Davy's old flannel shirts to change into and pushes me into their bathroom. I have to use the nailbrush on my hands and arms, and there's blood on my face, like I put my hands up to my temples. That takes scrubbing my face and part of my hair and I'm still scrubbing when Jack comes in and takes the scrub brush away from me.

"Enough," he growls. "Come on."

I look at the clock in the kitchen as we walk out, and I'm amazed, it's nearly six, and Fraser's probably there and in surgery already, or maybe even almost done, because it wasn't that bad, it can't be that bad.

And I'm ashamed again, ashamed of my relief that it wasn't Ben, that it was somebody else. I'm ashamed that I survived, and David didn't, and now Kit's never going to get to know his dad, and there must have been something I could have done last night to keep this from happening.

Which is whacked out, I know that even when I'm thinking it, so I don't say anything out loud. I just follow Jack out to his truck, and get in.

We don't talk much on the way. I'm still replaying the night before and trying to think what I could have done differently, what any of us could have done differently, and Jack's the only one who knows what he's thinking.

There's a handful of Mounties there waiting, so I keep it quiet, let Jack do the talking, the woman who looks like she's in charge says Fraser's still in surgery and we have to go sit in the waiting room.

Jack looks at me. "Coffee, Ray?"

"Yeah. Coffee's good." I'm sitting there alone when I hear a voice.

"It's not his time, son, don't look so worried. Benton's strong."

I turn my head, and then I realize I'm completely unhinged, because sitting on a chair in the corner of the small waiting room is the guy from my dream, Fraser's dad, and he's wearing the red serge, and a Stetson like Fraser's instead of the bugfuck hat.

I stare at him. "Finally happened," I whisper, "I'm stone cold loony."

"That's as may be," says Fraser's father tartly. "I only dropped by to assure you that he's going to be fine. Oh, and to tell you there was nothing you should have done differently."

"Easy for you to say," I mutter, even if I really am unhinged.

"Possibly, possibly." He gets up and walks over, looks down on me, and I'm scared to look up, because I can hear footsteps coming down the hall, and if anybody walks in and sees me talking to thin air, I'm going to end up in a rubber room. If I'm really seeing things, maybe I should be, but not until I know for sure that Fraser's going to be okay.

"You can't go around second guessing yourself, son. You did what you thought was right at the time you did it, or so Benton always told me."

I really, really don't want to look up. So I sort of shrug, and nod, and that tells me that yes, I'm truly wigged out, completely and totally whacked. I can't resist answering my own imagination.

The footsteps get closer and closer, and then Maggie walks in. I look up at her, blink hard and she comes over to me and hugs me hard, crouching a little in front of me. "He's going to make it just fine," she tells me and then looks sideways and sort of up. "What are you doing here?" she sort of hisses, out of the side of her mouth.

I can't decide if this makes me feel better or worse. Maggie can see him?

"His mother asked me to drop by again. You know how mothers can be, Maggie."

I do look up, finally. He's looking at Maggie fondly, and she's pretending she's not looking. "You can see him?" Boy, I really don't know whether or not this is good.

She's startled. "You can see him?"

Is there an echo in here? I stare at her, completely confused on top of being numb and sick to my stomach, and scared, and I don't know what she sees in my face, but she hugs me again. "It's all right, Ray, it's just Dad."


Jack comes in then, carrying two disposable cups of coffee, hands me one and tells me to drink.

I drink, taste whiskey. He must still be carrying the flask. "Jack? Is Maggie here?"

He gives me a long look, takes the cup away from me and gives me his. "Yes, Ray. She's right in front of you."

So I punch myself in the face, hard enough to make my eyes water, because now I'm not sure he's really here.

Jacks spills his coffee. Maggie says something I don't catch and grabs my wrists. Hard. "What in the world are you doing, Ray?"

"Just wanted to make sure I'm tracking." The guy in the hat is still there, he shakes his head chidingly at me. I close my eyes tight, and Maggie hugs me. I hear her hiss, "Dad!"

When I open my eyes again, Fraser's dad has vanished, and I take in a shaky breath. Maggie gives me this desperately worried look. "Jack, would you mind terribly asking the staff for a coldpack? It's starting to puff up."

Jack nods. "Ray," he asks, "Are you all right?"

Hell if I know. "I think so," I tell him cautiously, but the jury's still out so far as I'm concerned. Seeing dead people is not an indication of being all right, not that I ever heard.

He frowns, puts the cup aside and goes on out into the hallway.

"Ray," Maggie says, taking my face in both her hands. "I know it's a bit shocking, but, uh, apparently you can see Dad."

Oh, boy. David Brett is dead, Fraser's in surgery, and Maggie and I are seeing dead people.

"Ben sees him, too," she tells me, still desperate. "It's odd, I know, but it doesn't mean you've lost your mind."

I cut my eyes sideways, and there he is again, sitting in the corner. He smiles and lifts a hand at me, and I close my eyes again.

"Dad, you aren't making things any better," Maggie says, and I swear, she sounds exasperated. "Will you go...look in on Ben or something."

"He's going to have a nasty bruise around that eye-no, you're right, I thought perhaps he needed a bit of reassurance, and Ben's mother was concerned."

"Dad!" Even more exasperated, and Maggie's hugging me again.

"I'm gone, I'm in orbit, I'm way beyond Pluto" I mutter, wishing I couldn't still hear him. Hearing dead people, seeing dead people, thanks, but I'd rather pass.

Still, Maggie's always seemed sane. Fraser's a freak, but not that kind of freak, and maybe it explains why he was always talking to himself.

I squint my eyes open a little and peer around the room. We're alone now, me and Maggie and she tilts my head into the light, making little tsk tsk noises as she checks out the bruise I can already feel.

Jack comes back with an ice pack and a doctor wearing surgical scrubs and a white coat. The doctor looks tired, looks at the three of us like he's trying to sort things out.

Maggie stands up straight. "I'm Corporal Fraser's sister," she says.

He looks relieved, nods, and launches into a stream of medical jargon that I can't quite take in, except for the fact that he expects Fraser to make a full recovery, and that Fraser's resting comfortably now, and we can see him in about thirty minutes.

That's all that matters to me, anyway.

I hold the pack to my face, Jack tells us to give Fraser his best, and leaves, and finally, after what seems forfuckingever, somebody comes to get us.

"Only family," the nurse says, looking from me to Maggie and back again.

Maggie's mouth gets thin. "He's family," she tells the nurse sharply, and the nurse backs off.

Fraser wakes up a little when I lean over him. Licks his lips and tries to focus on me. Still too punchy, but I kiss his temple and take his hand anyway.

I'm so fucking glad I didn't let anyone call him when I got hurt. It would have ripped him apart, I know that, I knew it then, but this clinches it.

I can't decide if I want to go out and kill someone, or throw my head back and howl like a three year old.

"David," he breathes.

I blink hard, look at Maggie. She's on the other side of the bed, understands instantly, and takes his other hand. "You don't worry about that now," she tells him firmly. "You don't have any job now but taking care of yourself."

He licks his lips again, and his eyes go glassy for a minute, he just zones out for a minute. Still way, way under, but he surfaces. "Thirsty..."

Maggie hands me a cup of ice from the tray and I give him a little spoonful. He sucks on it, eyes closing, and then sinks under again.

"He'll be in and out for quite a while," Maggie tells me softly. "Ray, sit down. I'm going to see about getting us something to eat."

"Not hungry," I tell her, but I sit down, carefully take Fraser's hand.

"When did you eat last?"

I try and remember. Shrug. "Breakfast, I think. I was supposed to have lunch with Ben." Some of the numbness eases, now that I know for real that he's going to make it, that he's going to be okay, and I look up at her when she comes around to stand beside me. "This is all wrong, Maggie, this isn't Chicago, this shouldn't have happened."

"Bad things happen, Ray, even up here." But her eyes are sad, and that reminds me that she wasn't as lucky as me, that her husband died. Was killed. Murdered.

I put my head down on the bed as she walks out and I ache and ache and ache for Mae, but I'm still shamefully glad that Ben is still with me. And I don't know how to make the two things fit.

Broken threads.

"You look like shit." Vecchio's voice wakes me up and I peer at him through one swollen eye and another one that wants to close out of sympathy. "Who hit you?"

"He did," Maggie says wearily and I lift my head up.

Vecchio hands me a cup of coffee and a paper sack. "Eat hearty."

I blink at him stupidly, take a sip from the coffee. There's chocolate in it, and when I look at him, he's giving me this almost frown, like he's waiting for me to give him some shit or something.

I don't have the heart. "Thanks," I tell him softly and look at Ben, who's out again. I lean back in the chair, again, take a sip of coffee. Blink again. "Where's Benny?"

"Charming the nurses," Vecchio says and rubs his face.

Ben blinks suddenly, and turns his head. "Wha-" Confused.

I'm up like a shot. "Easy, Ben, take it easy, it's okay. You're okay."

He frowns a little. "Ray?" Slow blink. "What happened to your face?"

My face gets hot. "Nothing important."

His eyes close again for a minute. "God." Just a whisper. "Some water?"

I hold the cup for him, let him drink his fill through the straw. I remember this too well from the other side, and it's been more than a year. He sinks back, sighs. "Maggie, what news?" Turns his head to look at her. "How is David?" I can hear dread in his voice.

Maggie gets up, takes his other hand. "Ben, I'm sorry, David was hurt too badly, he didn't make it."

Raw pain, grief, and yeah, this is Ben, guilt. "Oh, Maggie." Brokenly.

I'm even more ashamed, I thread my fingers through his, trying to reassure with touch.

"They're not going to escape, Ben." She's trying to hold his gaze. "We're going to get them."

I know that feeling, too. But I also know it's no comfort to the people left behind. Well, not much comfort, anyway. It's not going to be comfort to Fraser.

Or for Mae.

She leans in quick, kisses his cheek. "I've got to get out there, Ben. I'm overdue, but I wanted to be here when you woke up." Sweet smile.

My throat hurts, seeing it. I wonder how long it will be before I see the original of that smile on Ben's face.

"Yeah, I gotta run, too, Benny." Vecchio gets up, comes around the bed, and gives Fraser something that's a cross between a pat on the shoulder and manly Italian hug. "Promised your doc I'd have the place ready for you. Says if you listen to him and do what he says, you could be outa here in less than a week."

Fraser tries to smile. "You're a good friend, Ray."

"Damn straight," he agrees and looks at me. "You take it easy, too, Kowalski. He needs ya to stay on your toes for a while."

I nod at him. "Count on it." Roughly.

He gives me that long look again, then nods, his expression satisfied. "Eat, eat. I brought those all the way from Calgary for ya."

Yeah, and he put M&Ms in the coffee, too, I think and have to blink hard again. "Thanks, Vecchio."

"I'll call ya tonight, Benny." Vecchio looks at me. "And you, too. I got some stuff to tell you about this Dr. Reeves."

"Good or bad?"

He grins a little at us. "Mostly good. Nothin' as spectacular as what that Dr. Yee told you, Kowalski, but Reeves not only agrees with Benny's regular doctor, he thinks the specialist Stella got is full of shit."

"Her dad's payin' him," I tell him drily.

"Yeah, I guess." Vecchio's mouth thins for a minute. "Well, anyway, you get some rest, Benny. I'll talk to you later today."

Fraser's already got that pinched look around his mouth. I push the button for the nurse as Vecchio leaves, lean over him. "You want some more water?"

He looks at me again, frowns. "Ray, what happened to your eye?"

Boy, do I feel stupid. Really stupid. "I, ah, kind of freaked out, Ben, hit myself in the face." I touch his lips with one fingertip when he starts to say something. "I wasn't thinking real clear, I needed to make sure I was awake and thinking clear and..." Really, really stupid.

He sighs against my fingertip. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray." Weak voice, tired voice, but hearing him say that makes my knees wobble a little with relief. Makes more than my knees wobble, to tell the truth, I've been strung out all night, nightmares, waking up to see him sleeping, and hearing that...

It hits me hard, then, that he made it, and I'm so fucking grateful, and so fucking ashamed and guilty because I'm glad it wasn't him that died. I sink down into the chair and put my face in the bed, close my fingers over his and let myself cry, not making a sound.

After a minute, he pulls his hand gently away and puts it in my hair. We both fall asleep that way, and I don't wake up until the nurse comes in with his shot.

Six days, and they cut Ben loose from the hospital. Vecchio comes into Whitehorse to get us, the crazy bastard actually bought an SUV up here. Well, hell, he's got his pension, but he's also got a messy divorce, unless things have taken a turn he hasn't mentioned.

I don't worry about it, it's not my checkbook, and I'm thinking about Fraser, not Vecchio.

Fraser's quiet, too quiet, but that seems pretty normal from what I remember. And I didn't feel guilty about anyone else, either. He does. And we're both worried about Dief, too. Nobody's seen him, Vecchio's been looking, he said, and putting out food.

The drive back to Owlcreek about wipes him out, and I think about that fucking hill with a kind of dawning horror. Vecchio just looks at me when I mention it, and when we get there, pulls around the hill and up a sort of driveway somebody dug out with a backhoe, behind the house.

No lost trees, it fits right up behind the house, and somebody's put up a lean-to for the SUV.

"Wake up, Ben, we're here," I say, so relieved that my voice shakes. You rock, I want to tell Vecchio, you fucking rock, but who knows what he'd say to me, so I just nod appreciation at him.

Ben wakes up, looks around, sleepily surprised. "We are?"

"Yeah." I get out, go around, and open his door. He's doing good, but he's still moving slow and careful, and probably will for a while. Vecchio doesn't even blink when I put my arm around Ben's waist, grabs the bags, and takes the other side.

Fraser laughs a little shakily. "Ray, I think I'm afraid to go inside. You haven't installed an indoor swimming pool, have you?"

"Not enough room," Vecchio tells him, grinning a little. "Now, the full size entertainment center, that's another story."

Fraser laughs again, coughs, and we get him inside.

Vecchio, God bless him, has the place spotless, or else arranged to have it spotless, just the way Fraser likes it. There's food on the table, several pots and casserole things, and my throat gets tight.

"Oh, Ray." Fraser stops and looks at that. "You shouldn't have let them."

"Couldn't have stopped them, Benny." Vecchio's matter of fact. "So I hope you're hungry."

Fraser looks at the table, laughs weakly, and heads for the couch. Sinks down on it with a wince. "Ray, have you talked to Maggie?"

"Not today, Benny. She's out with the others." Vecchio carries the bags into our rooms, comes back, and looks at both of us. "You both look like hell, c'mon, Kowalski, he oughta be lying down, and I'm not so sure you shouldn't be lying down with him."

I stare at him for a minute, then hold out a hand for Fraser, who closes his eyes for a minute before he gets up.

Vecchio gives him a shoulder again, and we make it into the bedroom.

Fraser sits down heavily on the edge of the bed. "I believe you're right, Ray. We both do need to rest."

I swallow hard, give Vecchio a sideways look. He's nodding. In agreement.

I wonder if I need to punch myself in the face again, but Vecchio goes out the bedroom door, closes it.

So, instead, I crouch and get Fraser's boots off him. Hiking boots, not Mountie boots, but he sighs. I had to battle to get him to wear sweats home, I remember too well how awful regular clothes felt, and jeans would have killed him.

Not literally.

I finally get him to stretch out. "Rest."

He gives me a look. "When you do." Firmly.

Yeah, he's definitely on the mend, I'm caught between wanting to punch him in the head and bawl like a kid.

"Ray." Firmly again.

I sigh and stretch out next to him very carefully.

He turns his head and looks at me. "Ray."

God, he's a stubborn bastard. I scoot a little closer, trying to figure out where to put my arm so it doesn't rest on him. He takes my hand and pulls it across his chest, above the healing wound. "There." Satisfied sigh. "Much better."

Maybe for him.

I lie stiffly for a minute, scared I'm going to forget and hurt him, and he finally shifts onto his side to face me. Kisses me very gently. "I'm not breakable," he says softly.

And just like that, I'm leaking at the eyes again. "Yeah," I tell him, "Yeah, you are. You just don't know, Ben."

He leans in and kisses me again, and I put a careful arm around him and kiss him back, trying to pull my act together.

Not a chance.

He ends up comforting me, and even though that sucks and I hate it, it works, and we end up falling asleep together, tangled together more like kids than lovers.

//....the old guy, Fraser's dad, is back, and I'm sitting next to him on top of the goddamned mountain that nearly got me. "You worry too much," he tells me mildly.

I nearly fall off the mountain. "What the hell are you doing here? Forget that, what am I doing here?"

"I was trying to find someplace neutral." He gives me a long look. "Don't hit yourself in the face again, son, it makes you look lumpy. Not at all appealing."

"Why are you haunting me?" I edge away. "Look, where I come from, dead family members don't just drop by for a chat."

"I'm not haunting you." He looks a little offended. "Can't a father take an interest in his son's mate? I scarcely know you, after all, I just like to make sure that things are working out. Benton deserves some happiness."

I guess I can understand the first part of that, and I definitely agree with the last part. "Just don't keep showing up," I finally say grudgingly.

"I don't plan to," he agrees. "Just checking in on you once in a while, surely that's not too much to ask."

"Yeah, well, I'm not used to dead relatives, could you like time it better?" I can sort of see the family resemblance. Although I think Fraser looks more like his mother in most ways. And even though there's a part of me knows this is a dream, I'm still talking to his dad.


"And no popping in at those, ah, private moments. Somehow, Ben turned out to be pretty warm under all that ice you guys put around him, and I don't want that messed up."

He looks shocked. "Of course not!"

I lean forward to see the bottom of the mountain. Last time, I was so whacked out, I didn't remember much of the down part, but it looks pretty fucking scary and amazing, and I lose my balance and yelp and then I'm falling....//

"Yaaah," I wake up with a start, stare into Fraser's eyes. "Tell your Dad to leave me alone, okay?"

He's still more asleep than awake, but he frowns. "Dad, leave him alone."

Okay, we're all whacked out, or else me and Maggie and Ben all really do see dead people. Not like the kid in the movie, oh, no, I get Ben's father. Christ, a father-in-law. Giving advice.

"Meddling," says Fraser, as if he's reading my mind. But no, he's still talking to his dad. "You're addicted to meddling. Why aren't you spending time with Mum instead?"

Yeah, really. I scoot closer again, nuzzle his throat. "Never mind, he's okay. I was dreaming."

"I can only hope." Grumpily.

I nuzzle some more. "You hungry? We got enough food out there to feed a herd of Mounties."

His mouth curves a little. "I don't think, strictly speaking, Mounties come in a herd."

"Probably not." I drooled on the pillow, I must have been tired, I think, and I roll off the bed. "You want something to read? That book I got you in the hospital?"

"That would be very nice, Ray." He shifts up carefully, props himself up with pillows and sinks back again. "If you wouldn't mind, perhaps some tea?"

"You want it, you got it, Toyota." I head on out and find Vecchio talking to Maggie in the front room. Maggie's still in uniform and she looks tired, but I get a big smile and a hug. "Go on in, Maggie," I tell her, "He's awake, and hungry and wants tea."

"That's a definite sign of progress," she teases and goes in.

Vecchio looks over at me, narrowing his eyes. "You doin' okay, Kowalski?"

Well, I think, aside from Ben's dead father showing up, I'm great. "Yeah, thanks. You want some? Where's Benny?"

That gets a half-smile. "Takin' a nap. Like you guys. Sit down, Kowalski, you still look beat to hell, what's the Mountie feel like eating, you think?" He comes over to the kitchen table. Lifts the lid of one casserole. "Hmmm, what d'ya think this is? Moose stew?"

I laugh a little, lean forward. "Maybe venison. People know I'm a finicky eater, they usually stick to the safer stuff for city guys."

Sudden scratching at the door. Vecchio and I look at each other and then dash for the door. Dief almost knocks me down, and I swear, I'm close to cryin', and Lizzie Snow is standing there shivering and looking beat to hell and too thin and I haul myself up and pull her in.

"Dief came and got me," she's saying and she's crying pretty hard. "I had to bring him home."

Maggie and Fraser come out of the livingroom, and he leans against the doorjamb, closes his eyes for a minute and when he opens them, they're too bright. Maggie's wrapping a blanket around Lizzie, and I'm trying to stay out of the way.

I don't know what happened to Lizzie, and I'm damned well not going to panic her if what I think happened happened.

Dief has left off being intimate with my left ear and is all over Vecchio, who is protesting wolf hair half-heartedly and hugging Dief hard at the same time. That lasts about a minute, and then Dief is over with Fraser, who carefully lowers himself to the floor and buries his face in Dief's fur.

My throat hurts, and I need to be doing something. I get on the phone in the kitchen and call the post, and the kid on duty gets excited and says he's sending a constable over. I tell him Maggie is here, but I thought they needed to know, and could he please send Janet over from the clinic?

He's so excited he's practically stammering, says he will and I hang up. Vecchio and I actually beam at each other for a sec, and then Benny wails from the other room, and I go over to my Ben and put my arms around him while he's hugging Dief.

His shoulders are shaking a little and he draws back from Dief.

I'm catching about one third of what Lizzie is sobbing out to Maggie, but it sounds like Dief did some fierce good work, and now I look closer at Dief, I see what looks like a bullet graze along his flank, and his fur is full of pine needles.

"Good Dief," Fraser says, and there's a lot more in his voice than those two words can say, and I find myself hoping that Dief can feel the vibration at least, that Dief knows.

Vecchio emerges with the kid, and smiles at everyone in general before heading to the kitchen. Jeez, I think he's actually making tea.

I put my mouth to Fraser's ear. "I love you, Ben." Unable not to say it.

His arm goes around my waist. Serious Mountie look. "And I, you."

And for just a little while, I'm content to just sit there with him held close.

Lizzie and Dief, two threads we didn't lose.

Thank God.

Lizzie survived.

That's what I keep telling myself, even after Janet reports back from the clinic. Annie, her mother, was down there with her, and Maggie and one of the borrowed constables took a statement. Mostly Maggie, Lizzie freaked over having a stranger in there.

She was assaulted, but she's alive. She might not ever be the same again, but she's alive, and she wasn't too badly hurt, slapped around, and raped by Tyler, but he didn't break any bones, and she's home.

I'm back to wanting to kill something or someone, and Fraser's concentrating on getting well and getting back to work.

Three guys. Mounties got the names from the pipeline boss. Jason Tyler, Aaron Clark, and Hank Larsen. All three have sheets going back a while, at least in the US.

Lizzie says Dief tracked them, and when they stopped to make a cold camp in the woods, Dief played some Dief tricks on them, lured two of them off, and took a good chunk out of Tyler at the site, which let Lizzie get away.

Then, being Dief, he circled back and herded her the long way around back home to avoid the bastards.

So, at the border, they're watching for a Ford pickup with three guys, one with a great big wolfbite out of his ass and thigh, Lizzie thinks.

Fraser just looks at Dief like Dief walks on water these days, mostly. Not so many snarky comments, even when Dief's being willful. Dief gets a lot of treats these days, even Vecchio's gone soft on him.

Lizzie's alive.

But I want these guys caught even worse. Seventeen years old, and I can't imagine how you get over that. I'm still getting over my former friend and partner trying his damnedest to kill me.

And Mae....

Mae was flown out two days after David and Fraser were shot and I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye, to tell her....whatever I would have told her. She's home someplace in Ontario and we haven't heard from her, although I sat down and wrote a rambling and horrible note.

Gave it to Maggie to see what she thought, and Maggie mailed it without giving it back. She says it was good, that I wrote what I felt, and that was good. She says it was a note she'd have wanted to read when her husband was killed.

I guess that makes me feel better. Not much, but a little.

Maggie says to give Mae some time, we might still hear from her.

Fraser's lying on the couch napping, with Dief lying on the floor beside him, looking self-satisfied, and I'm sitting on the floor entertaining Benny.

Can you say panic attacks?

I tried to go back over to work on Davy's house a few days ago, and ended up having one, wondering if Fraser was okay. This is so not going to work. I've got to get past it.

None of this is about me, this is Fraser's healing time, just like he was there for me when I needed mine.

So I tell Vecchio, that night, after Fraser's crashed, "Kick me in the head, willya?"

He gives me a funny look. "For what?"

"I suck." I brood on that, staring at the television without seeing what's on.

"There's such a thing as too much information," he says smartly, and then laughs when I scowl at him. "Joke, okay?"

I flex my right hand, remembering too many panic attacks. "I'm fucked up, Vecchio, I admit it." And I tell him the whole story, about going AWOL from the hospital, coming up here, panic attacks, finally getting my memory back. "And I'm still halfway to being a fucking headcase, I had a panic attack when I was working the other day."

He's looking at me, but he's not looking like he's thinking about kicking me in the head. Instead, he almost looks like he's thinking over what I've said real seriously. "Getting shot ain't exactly a walk in the park, Stan. And I didn't get hit as bad as you, I didn't have to go through what you did." He glances away for a minute. "You think maybe it's just, you know, flashback?"

I jerk my head up at that. Nobody calls me Stan any more. Not that I mind, exactly, but it's weird. And Vecchio's making sense to me.

Jeeeesus, maybe we're bonding. That's a scary thought.

I nod. "Yeah, I thought about that. A lot. Ben was pretty upset that nobody called him when it happened, and I think he still is, a little. But when I saw him in the hospital-" I have to swallow hard at that thought.

He nods, somber face. "Yeah. I know that feeling. Hell, I put him there once."

We sit silently for a minute, but it's almost comfortable.

He sighs and gets up. "Give yourself some time, Stan. You guys feel about each other the way Benny says you do, I'd be surprised if you weren't shaking in your shoes still." That last is almost grudging.

I'm still amazed.

"You want some coffee? A beer?"

"Beer sounds good," I say. "Thanks." For more than the beer, I mean, and he looks at me for a minute, nods like he gets that.

So, we each have a beer, talk idly about nothing much except football, music, and a few other things for a while, and then he gets up again. "I'm going to bed." Narrow look. "You should, too. And don't be so fucking hard on yourself. You're doing all right."

I nearly fall down, honest.

This is Vecchio, right? The man who married my ex-wife and probably has heard less than flattering stories about me? Who probably is still a little freaked out about my relationship with his former partner? But you know, it feels good.

He's a good guy.

I nod and reach out for his beer bottle, hoist myself up and take both of them in to the recycle bin.

He goes off to his room, and I go off to mine, and Fraser's asleep, all warm, smooth skin, and I curl around him, feeling a little bit better for the first time in days.

I just don't have any real feeling it's going to last. I'm still the same fucked up headcase in a lot of ways, I just didn't realize it, things were going too smooth. But I can't let myself go there, I have to be here for Fraser. It's the only way I can give back what he's given me.

He sighs, shifts back against me, one hand coming to rest on my thigh. "That's very nice," he breathes.

I smile against his shoulder, kiss it. Maybe Vecchio's right.

Vecchio needs to go back to Chicago, and he's worried. "See, if I take Benny back with me, I don't know what Stel's lawyers might pull," he says.

"So leave him here," I say, my eye on the kid. Yeah, like I said, I'm a marshmallow, and they've been here almost a month, and he's not so shy with us any more, in fact he toddles over to get me to open that damn shape ball again.

Uncle Ray, the ball-opening utility.

Vecchio thinks it's funny, watches me do it with this funny little quirk to his mouth, and you gotta laugh when you see this serious little kid sitting down to stuff those shapes in all over again. We really need to get him some more toys, he's going to turn out to be as obsessive as me, and he's not even related.

"He's got your number," Vecchio says, shakes his head.

"Sure." I roll my eyes. "Why shouldn't he? Dief does." But I'm not really grouching, I'm resigned at this point.

Vecchio chuckles, then gets serious. "I don't wanna park him on you if it's going to be a strain for Fraser."

"He likes him." I look at Vecchio, a little surprised. "Besides, if you think I'm letting him lift so much as the fucking telephone receiver, you're crazier than I am."

He starts laughing. "Good luck."

We both start laughing. "Yeah, but I'm getting trickier, like Dief," I tell him.

His eyes go back to the kid, who's talking to himself or the shapes or whatever, like little kids do. His face does that soft thing again. "Okay. If you're sure."

I nod and take another sip of coffee.

It turns out this Dr. Reeves is like some specialist in the area of the kind of brain injury that Benny has, and he seems to think that the worst for Benny is the motor functions. He'll need speech therapy, probably ongoing, and physical therapy ongoing, and there's some things he's going to be behind on because of the lag in getting the physical stuff, but Reeves says the kid is bright, that he sure doesn't need a special care home, not when his father wants to keep him home.

Vecchio's feeling a little less like he's saving the kid from certain death by coming up here, but Stella's folks have money and clout, and as he says, he's a Chicago flatfoot. A retired Chicago flatfoot, no less. He says that, rubs his hand over the top of his head, and always adds, without the weird hair.

So it's settled, and Vecchio leaves for Chicago and I wish him luck. Sincerely. Best thing would be if Stella could deal with her own feelings, but that ain't gonna happen, and that thought makes me sad.

If she knew Benny was up here with us, which Vecchio hasn't told her, she'd probably think I was getting back at her, but I swear, I've thought and thought about it, and I don't think that's any part of it.

Fraser's resting a lot, and grimly determined to get back on duty, and there's a small problem.

At least I think it's a problem.

The new guy arrived, he's about thirty and has a poker up his ass, and there's another new guy to replace David, and he's just a kid himself, maybe mid-twenties, and somehow, news has gotten out that the NCOIC has a guy living with him and yeah, the atmosphere in the post has gone colder than the Northwest Territories in winter.

I stay out of the way, these days, Maggie was the only Mountie I was really talking to, and she was only here temporarily, she wangled that assignment so she could help me ride herd on Fraser to keep him from trying to go too fast.

I hate telling her goodbye, but she's got her own post to take care of, and Fraser's doing pretty good, overall.

Having Maggie leave and Benny up here gives me a good excuse to stay out of town and out of the public eye.

Which hopefully will ease things up for when Fraser does go back on duty. At least whatever they've figured out, nobody's talking to the brass.

All of which still makes me very nervous, because I'm not sure Fraser has ever really realized just how much trouble our relationship could cause him, and even if he did, he'd do that Fraser thing like, why should it make any difference, it's obvious that the people in Owlcreek have a lot of respect for the RCMP, and be totally clueless even as the brass flushed his career.

I don't know what the rules are, but it doesn't always matter. Shit happens, and sometimes the cop getting shut out goes on a call and doesn't get backup. I've seen it happen in Chicago, long time ago, when I was a rookie.

Don't know if things are exactly the same in the RCMP. Doesn't always have to be a rule for somebody in the top row to piss on you and your career or even your life.

"Ray," Fraser says to me the next morning, when I'm unpeeling my eyelids over a cup of coffee. Don't ask me how a guy recovering from getting shot and having surgery gets up at the crack of sunrise, but he does, so I do. "Ray, you don't have to get up this early."

I blink at him. "I'm good, Ben." What am I going to tell him? That I don't want him out of my sight? Sure, that's going to make him feel good when he's working hard to get fit and get back on duty. "Took notes from my dad, see, not gonna miss a minute."

That gets one of those killer smiles that melt my bones. We grin at each other.

"You're not sleeping well, though." He takes a sip of tea, eyes me.

I'm really pissed off all of a sudden. "You shouldn't be awake to know how I'm sleeping!"

That takes him back. "I'm not!" Snaps it. "But you come to bed late and get up early, and you've got dark circles under your eyes, which tells me what sleep you're getting is not precisely satisfying."

Benny looks up from his blanket where he's pretending to read one of those baby books, pop the muffin or something. Big dark eyes. Worried eyes.

I swallow hard and take a step back myself. Roll my eyes like it's no big deal. "Yeah, well, you know me, Ben. It'll pass." I put a hand out, run a fingertip over the back of his hand apologetically. "Sorry."

That smile again and he turns his hand, catches hold of mine. "I'm fine, Ray. And I'm doing better day by day. I don't want you worrying."

"Can't help that," I say, and it's hard to see for a minute. "I just...you know, I wake up from some stupid dream or the other, and it's good just to listen to your breathing. Could have been a lot worse, and I know it."

"You lived through a great deal worse," he says quietly.

So it's either going to be a full fledged panic attack, thinking about him going through everything I went through, which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, or climbing in his lap, which isn't such a good idea at this point anyway, he's still healing.

He narrows his eyes at me, and I settle for scooting my chair closer and leaning over to kiss his temple. "I'm just a headcase," I tell him, blinking hard.

"No." Firmly, and he tries to pull me over, and I resist, because I may not be hefty, but I'm still a full-grown guy, and he doesn't need to pop any sutures.

"Compromise," he finally says, laughing a little at me, "I suggest the couch."

I am all over that, Vecchio's gone and I don't have to worry about making him uncomfortable, and snuggling up to Fraser is the best idea I've heard in weeks.

So we go over to the couch and do just that, with him on my chest, and he's warm and alive and real, and what the hell else could I want?

Well, a perfect world would be nice, where seventeen year old girls don't get abducted and raped, and where guys like David Brett get to live to be old and see their grandkids, and guys like my Mountie wouldn't get shot.

"Stop brooding or I won't seduce you when Janet removes these sutures." Comfortable voice, with just a hint of sex in it.

Goes straight to my dick. "Tease."

"Indeed." He squeezes my thigh.

I settle for nuzzling his hair and neck, breathing in his scent. God, I'm getting as bad as him and Dief, I'm going to be licking things next, I think, and I do actually lick him.

Low chuckle. "Behave yourself, there's a child present."

Benny's back to looking at his book, but he gets himself up and toddles over to show something to Fraser. You know, he doesn't have that much trouble with his words, I'm getting to where I can understand him most of the time, and maybe Fraser really does. Bright-eyed kid, beaming at Fraser when Fraser reads the book to him. "Pat the bunny," Fraser reads out loud.

"That's so lame," I mutter. "Kid needs some Green Eggs and Ham."

"I beg your pardon?" Fraser sounds confused.

"A book, Dr. Seuss. 'I would not eat them with a fox, I would not eat them in a box, I would not eat them here or there, I would not eat them anywhere, I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them Sam I am.'" At least that's how I think it goes, I'm completely amazed I remember that much.

He pushes himself up a little and looks back at me, amazed. "I think I need to hear more of this." Mouth quirking.

"Well, if I can get him the book, you'll hear more of it than you ever wanted," I tell him, laughing.

Dief, still perfectly happy to get his share of attention, nudges up against Benny and gets some from both of us.

I stay right where I am until we're heading on to lunch time and Benny gets a little fretful and it's raining outside so it's a good comfortable day to stay inside anyway.

Fraser and Benny crash again at about the same time, so I get the kitchen cleaned up and take a long, hot shower, working some of the kinks out of my neck and back. Fraser's right, I'm not sleeping any too well, and I'm paying for it, but how the hell can I?

The groove in my calf is healed over, and I scratch it idly once I get out of the shower. I could probably snip the sutures myself, but do I really want to piss Janet off?

Nope, I do not. I do not have a death wish.

So, while they're both still asleep, I write Fraser a note and tuck it under his hand and haul my ass downhill before I chicken out.

I go around the back way to the clinic, that's how paranoid I am right now, and poke my head in. Not too busy, a handful of sniffly kids and older folks waiting to see somebody, and Diane's out front, she gives me the narrow eye. "You're about two weeks late." Severe tone. "This is going to probably hurt a little."

"Sorry," I tell her, "I've been a little busy."

She hmmmms at me, goes back and Janet's not busy at the moment, so she points me back.

Janet looks up at me, frowns. "Sit."

I give her a mock salute. "Yes, ma'am. You want the jeans off first?"

"Easier that way." She goes to get the necessities and comes back in, eyes me. "You don't look too good, how's Benton, eh?"

"He's doing great, really. All things considered." I think about it. "I don't think he's brooding about David, but I know he's grieving, sorta."

She nods, her eyes a little sad. "And you?"

Nightmares, anxiety attacks, and paranoia, I think. "Good. I'm good as I can be. Thinking about it makes me sick, so I try not to think about it too much, I'm just trying to count my blessings."

Another nod, but she gives me a long look after she snips through the sutures. Diane's right, it definitely stings, a few drops of blood show up. "You let these wait a while, eh?"

I shrug, a little embarrassed. "Truth is, Janet, I forgot about it until it started itching this morning."

"Well, maybe that's a blessing, too. It healed very cleanly. She presses the remaining thin scab. "Just keep it clean, you know the lecture."

So I'm out of there, suture free, and Janet won't have my head on the gatepost, and I skirt the post again, and cross the street to pick up some things from McKenzie's. Rosie gives me a hug and Jack shakes my hand, and Davy doesn't seem to hold it against me that I'm a headcase and haven't been helping with the addition lately.

So I pick up a few things, including some Dief snacks, some special Fraser indulgences, and some more coffee. With two of us drinking it, it goes faster, and yeah, I know Vecchio might be gone a while, but what the heck. Rosie sends me off with home baking and reddened eyes.

Fraser's awake when I get back home, rumpled and sexy, and making himself some tea. I chase him out of the kitchen, and he laughs and goes back to the couch, stretching out and looking totally edible.

I finish the tea, pop a few scones on a plate, and take them over to him.

He eyes the scones. "Ray, I think you're overfeeding me. I'm sure that I'm getting a bit too well padded."

"Wouldn't let that happen," I tell him, "And didn't you tell me that healing takes a lot of energy."

He narrows his eyes at me, but I keep the innocent look going until he takes the plate. So I sit with his feet in my lap and rub his feet while he's stretched out.

Stupid lunkhead from Chicago, and look what I got. Don't know how I did it, don't know why God thought I deserved, or maybe He didn't, maybe Fraser deserved it and I just got lucky in being who Fraser wanted.

Either way, I'm not complaining. I know what he's worth, even when he's driving me nuts.

We talk about nothing much, just talking, and then all my good intentions just dissolve when he gives me one of those glacier-melting smiles and I get off the couch and kneel beside it and kiss him.

Lots of kissing, and he's liking that a lot, and believe it or not, he's doing good in the healing department, he's about half-hard, and I figure, what the hell, it's not like I'm on top of him or anything, and I reach inside the sweats and stroke him all the way hard before I take him in my mouth.

He starts to protest a little, but that shuts his mouth, more or less, because he's making the most incredible sounds in his throat, but none of them are words.

It doesn't take all that long, not nearly long enough for me, and he tastes a little different, medications and stuff I guess, but not a lot different, and I swallow him down and gentle my mouth as he softens against my tongue.

He's trying to reach for me to reciprocate, and I'm not having any of it. "Your job," I tell him, remembering what Maggie said, "Is to get well."

He smolders at me. "Take the jeans off now."

Just then, Benny makes a sound from the other bedroom.

I swear, for just an instant, it looks like Fraser wants to punch me in the head.

I start laughing, even though I figure I'm hard enough I'll have blue balls later, and that's that, I tuck him back together neatly, get the breath kissed out of me, and it's time to get the kid out of the crib.

Not a bad way to spend the afternoon at all.

Even if he glares at me for a while, until I snuggle down with him while dinner's cooking. He dozes then, warm and heavy against my chest, and Benny talks to himself and Dief and does what little tiny kids do, which is mostly playing, with some help on the side from me, and then an exploratory trip into the kitchen.

The phone rings right about the time I'm thinking that's not a good idea, and Fraser startles awake, leans forward so I can get up and answer. Nick of time, too, Benny's thinking about sampling Dief's food and I scoop him up as I say hello.

"Hey, Stan, how are the Bens doin'?" Vecchio.

Him calling me Stan is kind of weird, nobody calls me Stan any more, but I can see why he'd rather do that than call me Ray. Bad enough having two Bens in the house. "Well, the big one was sleeping until the phone rang, and the little one was thinking about fighting Dief for his kibble."

"What, you starvin' my kid?"

I sling Benny over my left arm and laugh. "Not hardly. He must be getting ready to shoot up an inch or something, he eats more than Dief."

Vecchio laughs back. "Well, it's done, it's over, and the good news is that Stella listened to reason and Doc Reeves."

I think about that. "The bad news?"

"I'm a three time loser in the mating game." Dry, but I can hear the pain underneath. I remember that pain, even if that guy does seem like somebody else nowadays.

"Ya know, Vecchio, they have girl Mounties, too," I say, before my brain catches up with my mouth.

There's a brief silence, and then he just plain cracks up. "You're a loon."

"Understood," I say slyly, imitating Fraser.

"I'll see you guys tomorrow, I'm spending the night in Calgary. You know, this ain't a bad place." Then, tweaking me back. "Even got Chinese takeout."

"Screw you," I tell him, laughing. "Just for that, Benny gets the kibble."

"No thanks, you ain't my type, Stan. Hell, if it makes him grow, let him have the kibble."

Little more chit chat about his timetable and I hang up, carry the kid back into the livingroom, where Fraser is stretched out on the sofa, pillows behind his back. "Vecchio'll be back tomorrow night, he thinks. And no worries about Benny any more. I don't know what he means, but he says Stella listened to sense and Reeves."

He looks pleased at that. "Does that mean they'll be getting back together?"

"Ah, no." I grimace. "Guess Stella went ahead with the divorce."

Some shadow crosses his face. "That's a shame."

"Yeah." I sigh. "He was crazy about her, I can tell that." Quick grin. "Been there, got over that, and like the Mounties, I got my man. I was lucky." That makes him brighten again, and the stubborn bastard smolders at me for a minute, just long enough to lure me into kissing his mouth. Benny complains, so I straighten up and heft him again. He crows happily. "Let me get the kid something besides Dief's kibble to gnaw on, and I'll dish up supper."

"Leave him with me," Fraser suggests.

"I think he weighs more than fifteen pounds," I tell him, "And you still have sutures." I look at the kid. "No bouncing on the Mountie, you hear?"

Benny babbles something, I catch about half, and he's talking about Dief. "Okay, but no bouncing on Dief, either. Ya gotta be soft with Dief."

Benny grins. I shrug at Ben and put the kid down, watch him for a minute while he crouches beside Dief.

"I'll watch him," Fraser mutters. "He'll be fine, Ray, I'm not an invalid."

I point at him. "Just barely past it." And I grin to take the sting out of it, but I see a shadow behind his eyes again. "Hey, I'm just being a smart ass, Ben." I sink down, rest my hip against the edge of the couch. I remember how I hated being treated like I was a cripple or something, remember too well, and I don't ever want to do that to him, no matter how much I worry. "I don't get to spoil you that often, you're like the Iron Mountie or something."

The shadow doesn't completely go away, but he smiles, snags my hand for a minute, rubs his thumb over my palm. "I know."

I'm feeling nervous, and I'm not sure why. "Ben?" Worried. "What's the matter?"

He rubs his eyebrow, a definite sign of trouble. "Nothing, truly. Well, I am a bit worried about Ray Vecchio and how he's taking all this."

Oh. He's worrying about Vecchio. That's my Mountie. God knows, he listened enough to me when I was whining about my broken marriage. I lean in quick, give him a kiss at the corner of his mouth. "Yeah. He'll come through. Want some more of that tea?"

"That would be very nice." He squeezes my hand, lets go of it. Smiles, this one a little better.

"You got it." But I have to admit, smile or not, I'm a little fidgety in the kitchen, wondering about that shadow.

Vecchio gets back in late afternoon, bringing a ton of stuff in. Groceries of various kinds, Italian, Chinese, even Mexican, and man, I'm all over that, even if Vecchio can probably do Italian better than me.

Benny gets lots and lots of stuff, kid clothes, toys, and now our front room looks like a day care center. Fraser gets a shirt he wouldn't be caught dead in, and I get a blanket. Don't ask me, maybe Vecchio was afraid I'd get too grateful or something.

He also brought some of his mother's lasagne, and I am definitely all over that. It was obviously frozen, thawing fast, and I put it in the oven practically before Vecchio has it out of the cooler. And cookies. Vecchio's mother makes cookies even better than Rosie's scones, let me tell you, even the Italian bakery can't make anise cookies like Mama Vecchio.

Benny is babbling to his dad, and bright-eyed with delight, that kid loves his dad. It's not just vice versa, it just shines out all over them.

Fraser's watching them, and I suddenly wonder if that's what the shadow is, if he's wishing maybe he'd made some different choices.

It settles my mood a little, so I'm a little quiet during dinner, trying to pick up clues.

Vecchio's telling us about his meeting with Stella, and even though he makes jokes, I can see what he's feeling. Been there, done that, wore out the t-shirt.

Fraser's quiet, too, like he's tired, and he did take a walk outside today, so maybe I'm reading too much stuff into everything, and maybe it's just part of the old insecurity and maybe that's just the fact I'm a headcase.

I send Vecchio out to keep Fraser company while I clean up after dinner. I can hear them talking and laughing, and for some reason, I'm feeling depressed. It's not that I mind Vecchio, hell, I like the guy. I like him a lot, actually, but I should have realized he was a good guy, Fraser's picky about who he lets close to him.

I don't know why I'm feeling down. Headcase.

So, I finish up in the kitchen and turn out the lights before heading out to the front room.

Fraser and Vecchio are sitting on the couch, and this is how lame I'm feeling, I feel sort of shut out, even though I wouldn't necessarily push our luck with Vecchio by snuggling up in front of him. I'm such an asshole sometimes, I tell myself and sit down on the floor with the kid, who toddles over to my and sits down in my lap. Takes about five minutes and he's zoned, just out like a light, head against my chest.

"Hey, Vecchio," I say and point.

He grins. "Guess I lost track of time." He gets up off the couch and crouches next to me, carefully peeling the kid off. "C'mon, baby," he croons, and does something careful that turns the kid around with the small head on his dad's shoulder. Another grin at me and he straightens carefully. Looks over at Fraser. "I'm going to call it a night, I think Benny's got a good plan."

Fraser smiles. "You've been driving all day, I think that's an excellent idea."

Vecchio gives me another grin. "Night, Uncle Stan."

I flip him off, and Fraser gives me a shocked look.

Vecchio just laughs and heads for the second bedroom.

And I'm feeling weird again, don't know why, and it scares me. "Hey," I say softly. "Are we okay?"

He gives me a blank look. "Of course." Like he thinks I've lost my mind.

I probably have, relief bubbles up inside and I lean over to kiss him just as he gets up. Jesus, I feel about twelve again, clumsy and dumb and confused.

I get up fast, and don't look at him. "I'll take care of Dief, Ben." Talking just as fast and I grab my jacket, open the door. "Just let him out for a run, I'll be in when he's done."

And I'm outside in the night, clear skies, the only sounds natural ones. Dief goes off to take care of business, and I sit down on the edge of the porch, wondering if I'm losing what's left of my mind.

When Dief comes back, I ask him, but I don't speak wolf, and I can't very well ask Fraser to translate.

"I suck," I tell him and rub my face. Am I so fucked up that everything has to be about me? I'm losing it, losing it, losing it, and if Fraser's dad shows up again any time soon, I'm going to run screaming into the woods and never come out again.

By the time I go back in, I'm feeling a little saner, at least.

Ben's in bed, already dozing, so I just quietly go about getting ready for bed. Slip under the covers beside him and turn out the lamp.

He sighs and turns toward me, and boy, that helps, that helps a lot, I must just be losing my mind. "We really okay?" I ask, before I can stop myself.

"Of course." Drowsily.

He doesn't lie. So it must be true, and I'm a fruitcake. Which is okay, because finding out that I'm a fruitcake is better than finding out that my craziness has real reason. I nuzzle him, he nuzzles me, and then he's asleep.

But whatever's going on in my pinhead, it takes me a long time to get to sleep.

Days pass and Vecchio doesn't make any going home noises. Part of me is glad, and part of me's uneasier by the day.

With Vecchio back, there's no good reason for me to stay home all day, so I head on back to Davy's, join the guys working on the addition. Nobody's ribbing me today, but nobody asks me any awkward questions, and it feels like I haven't been gone at all.

I manage to work all morning without any panic, and even a little bit into the afternoon. Fraser's home when I get home, and he's wiped, taking a nap in our room. I walk in, look at him sleeping, and walk out again.

Vecchio's on the telephone, talking in Italian, he looks up at me, lifts a hand to say hello and then does a double take.

I still haven't figured out why when he hangs up the phone, gets up from the table, and comes toward me. He's staring at me like there's something weird going on, and walks toward me like he's afraid I'm going to bolt. "Stan, you okay?" A little strained.

I blink at him, confused. "I'm good."

Okay, now he really looks worried. "Sit down, willya."

I look at him, puzzled, and then at my hands, which are shaking pretty bad. Oh, sez I to myself, that one snuck past me. Things must be getting bad up in my head, I guess, and that's really bad, really bad, and then I'm sitting on the couch and Vecchio's holding a glass of water to my mouth.

"They give you any tranks for this? Any of those, whattya call'ems, anti-anxiety pills?" He looks terrible. Pale and worried, and this is so freaking weird, because it's like I'm off somewhere apart from my own body, and I can't figure out why he looks so terrible.

He's holding on to my arm, says, "Easy, Stan. Whatever it is, can't be that bad. C'mon, talk to me."

I'm totally confused, I shake my head. And then, slam, I'm back in my body and I'm shaking. "Shit, I don't know, I was fine, I don't know."

"Easy, easy." He's patting me now. "Easy. Okay, we can do this, just think back, you looked okay when you came in, you walked back to the bedroom. Benny's okay, right?"

"S-sleeping." My teeth are chattering. And now I can remember I checked to make sure he was breathing before I came back out. "Fuck, I hate this."

"Jeez, I can't think why." Kind of sarcastic. "Let's see, you manage to survive when you shoulda died, you watch Benny getting shot, practically. Can you say that Post Traumatic stress thingy? I knew you could."

His tone of voice brings me down, and I start laughing through my nose, trying not to make any noise that would wake Fraser up. "I'm coming unfuckingglued."

"The two of you, I swear, ya both need a keeper." He shakes his head, holds up the water. "Your head on right now?"

I manage to nod. I can't quite make the connection between finding Fraser asleep and freaking out. "Yeah, I think so."

He takes a drink of the water. "I thought you were havin' a heart attack." Grouchily. "Or something."

I laugh through my nose again, and even I can tell it's awful close to falling off the edge again. "Sorry." Between one breath and the next, the adrenalin crashes, and I'm sitting with my head in my hands. "I'm going nuts."

He gives me a look. "You know what your biggest problem is? You're Polish. If you were Italian, like me, you'd know that it's okay to have e-motions." He raises a hand and actually thumps me on the head. "Jesus, you're going to drive me nuts you don't stop driving yourself that way."

I'm caught between really and truly wanting to punch him in the head and listening to him. I've been around Fraser too long, I listen instead. Even if I am scowling at him.

He leans forward. "What did I just say to you? Just a few minutes ago, huh? What did I say to you the other night, you dumb fuck? You didn't even tell me the half of it, Benny filled me in. Give yourself a fucking break. You don't do it in front of Benny, you ain't trying to make him feel bad-I don't see you wearing blue and red with a big red 'S' on your chest, so get over it."

I can't decide now whether punching is still a good option, or if laughing is better, or maybe I should just go and shoot myself now.

He gives me this look. "Look, I don't pretend to understand it, but you love him, right?" Not quite as grouchy. "Yeah, well, I don't love him the same way, but when I called the post from Calgary and they told me he'd been shot, I was pretty fucking upset. You've been so damn busy making sure he's all right, you ever once just let yourself fall apart a little? Because even though I don't like Stella a lot right now, if it had been her, and I had her back in one piece, I think I'd come a little unglued." He pats my face kind of sharp. "So pretend you're Italian, Stan."

I knuckle my eyes like a kid. "Did that. Got the t-shirt."

He rolls his eyes. "Yeah, and once a Vecchio, always a Vecchio."

I look up at him quick. Blink hard. Nod finally. Christ, this is scary, maybe we're actually friends now, not just two guy who love Fraser in different ways. I have to clear my throat before I can say it. "Thanks. For not calling the guys in white coats."

One corner of his mouth twitches. "Hey, Italians have to stick together."

We're both laughing then. I go into the kitchen and wash my face with cold water. Sane moment again. Hope it lasts.

I go back into the bedroom and find Fraser sitting on the side of the bed, like he's thinking about getting up. He looks up at me, smiles a little. "You're wet."

"Just washed my face," I mutter. "How was today?"

He shrugs. "It was fine. I'm afraid I wasn't particularly useful, but both of them seem to be good men."

I sit down on the bed next to him, say it fast before I can change my mind. "I know I asked you last night, Ben, and I wouldn't ask you again, but I know you'd never lie to me about this." At least I think I know. He's also damned considerate and polite, and no, don't start down that path, Kowalski, you will really end up nuts. "And I know this is selfish and shitty, but I can't stop myself. Are we okay? Is there anything wrong between us? Cuz if you're just dealing with everything, I can handle that, I've been there. Lost my first partner when I was a rookie, been shot a couple of times myself, and I do know." I run out of words looking at his face. My stomach sort of clenches, because he looks sad.

"Are you happy here, Ray?"

And I feel like I'm going to puke. I don't answer him, just stare at him. Take it like a man, I tell myself, a little desperately. "Yeah." It's almost a whisper. "You?"

That startles him. Like he wasn't thinking about himself. "Of course. Well, except for all this-" He gestures vaguely at himself and in the direction of the post. "But that has nothing to do with us."

I've got my fingers dug into the duvet that covers the bed. White knuckled. I nod at him.

"I keep asking myself if I've been selfish," he says softly. "I see you with Benny, I saw you with Kit, and now Stella's free."

It takes a while for that to process inside my thick head. Fraserthink. And I thought I was losing my mind. "You're unhinged." I blink at him. "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

He blinks back. "I sincerely doubt it."

I'm relieved and pissed at the same time. Okay, so my instincts weren't completely off, he's been brooding about this, and that's what I was feeling. "Let me run this by you and make sure I understand. You think I want a kid so bad that I'd throw us away and go back to Stella?"

All at once, he looks embarrassed. "Well, not precisely-I've just wondered if I'm not being selfish, if I should...." His voice trails off and he looks at the ceiling as if something really interesting suddenly appeared up there. "When you put it that way-perhaps you're right."

"About what?" If his dad shows up at this point, I really am going to run screaming out the door. Maybe all the way to Inuvik, across the Bering Straits to Russia.

"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." Very seriously.

I unclench from the duvet and let myself fall backward. "Okay, let me put it in simple terms. Yeah, I like kids. I like Benny a lot. I like Kit a lot. In fact, I'm downright fond of both of 'em. I like Johnny Atlin a lot. Would I trade what we have for any one of 'em? Not only no, but hell, no. Where the hell did this come from?"

He rubs his eyebrows, cracks his neck, and finally just lowers himself down next to me. "Perhaps I haven't been thinking very clearly." Apologetically.

I'm just relieved that maybe I'm not really losing my mind. Instincts, I tell myself, trust those instincts. I turn my head to look at him. "You're unhinged."

He's still staring at the ceiling, but I can see his mouth curve. "Understood."

We lie there like that, side by side. "Where was I?" I ask him.

"Hell, no. Where the hell did this come from?" I can hear a hint of laughter under his voice.

It's easy to forget that the Mountie has the same kinds of worries and doubts that crazy Ray Kowalski has. I oughta know better, but there you are. I roll onto my side and touch his face lightly. "Listen, you big dumb Mountie, I'll tell you something. If Stella showed up on this doorstep begging for me, I'd tell her no. Not because I want to get even, not because I don't still care about her, because I do, but because even when we're idiots, what we have is better than anything that Stella and I had. That was a dream, a kid's dream. Stella and me, well, I think we built up pictures in our head, and when we didn't fit those pictures of each other, it went sour. Had to go sour, it wasn't real."

"You loved her very much." I can't believe it, he's arguing with me.

"I loved the person in my head, Ben." As gently as possible. "Sometimes Stella was that same person, and sometimes she wasn't. Same for her, I think, but who the hell knows. Doesn't mean don't care about her, just means what I felt for her doesn't hold a candle to what I have with you." I feel a little prickle of fear. "Do you want me gone?"

He turns his head, eyes wide. "God, no!"

Okay, last worry gone. "Well, good. Cuz I don't want to go." He reaches out for me, and I lean over, rest my forehead on his. "I sort of freaked out earlier. You might be better off if I did go."

He sighs. "I heard Ray talking to you."

I close my eyes, mortified. "Shit."

His fingertip grazes my mouth. "Language." Teasing a little. Then, serious tone. "I think I'm beginning to understand why you wouldn't allow anyone to call me when you were hurt."

I sigh. "I mighta been wrong about that." I think about Merriman, the shrink back in Chicago. "Think maybe it was just that I've been spooked the last few days."

His fingers curl around mine. "Mr. Instinct." Drily. "I really haven't been thinking clearly."

I stretch out beside him. "Maybe not. Be careful, I'll let Vecchio yell at you. Ben, you don't have to be perfect."

He frowns. "What does that mean?" A little snarky.

"It means as long as we keep communicating we're okay. Remember?"

He stops looking at the ceiling and looks at me. Sighs. "Old habits are hard to break."

Oh, boy, do I feel better. "Yeah, I got that." I squeeze his fingers and think about Merriman again. "Maybe we're doing that deflecting thing Merriman always talked about."

Somber Mountie. "Very possibly."

I wish I could erase the pain I see in his eyes. I know I've got some in mine, too. We lost a friend, he lost a partner, and instead of somebody knows what they're doing, he's got me. I tell him this out loud, and he closes his eyes for a minute.

"Don't underestimate yourself, Ray." Very softly. "You can't imagine what you've done for me in this, you don't understand what you do for me all the time."

Now I've got a lump in my throat the size of Chicago. I rub my thumb over his knuckles. I'm too aware of the open bedroom door to wrap myself around him, but I lean in and kiss him quick, nuzzle his temple. "No more crazy ideas, okay? From either of us."

This time, it's a real smile, even if it's awful faint. "Understood."

"I ain't going anywhere. Period. Dot it. File it." His mouth curves again and he says the next words with me. "Stick it in a box marked done."

"Smart ass," I tell him.

"Well, you have a way with words, Ray, I've told you that before. I remember the first time I heard you say that, and quite fondly, too."

"You are unhinged," I tell him, feeling pretty fond myself. The dreamcatcher he gave me that day is hanging over our bed these days. I'm superstitious.

"Hey," from the bedroom doorway, "If you guys are done e-moting, mind coming out? I gotta couple ideas I want to bounce off you."

We both lift our heads, and then, for no reason I can think of, we both crack up.

Turns out, Vecchio got this wild hare, he's been talking to Willie, who wants to sell his place and move the rest of the family down further south to be closer to his oldest daughter and her kids.

Trying to imagine Vecchio permanently up here makes my jaw drop, and I can tell Fraser's doubtful, although he's not throwing cold water on the deal. We talk about it over dinner, through dinner, and by the time we get done, I take kitchen duty again to keep from hearing about the bureaucratic necessities.

I swear, sometimes Fraser amazes me, he knows the ins and out of immigration stuff like nobody else. Probably from getting me set up here, but jeez, there's stuff I forgot about that he's telling Vecchio.

Wouldn't be so bad having Vecchio up here, I think. More threads of Cassie's tapestry, and that's really sticking in my mind, but the tapestry I see is a little different than the Bayeaux or whatever the fuck it is, it's more like something with a lot of colors.

Benny, still wearing some of his dinner around his face, comes toddling into the kitchen. "Stan!"

Oh, jeez. I roll my eyes and wet a corner of the dishtowel, crouch down in front of him. "Ray," I tell him. After all, he doesn't call his dad Ray, how confusing could it be? I wipe his face clean and he stands still for it patiently.

I wonder where he gets that patience. Not from Vecchio, and sure as hell not from Stella. "Maybe from your aunt Frannie," I tell him. "Hope ya got your mom's brains and your dad's heart, not the other way around."

He grins at me, little kid grin, goofy as hell. I give him one of the cookies from Mama Vecchio and set him up on the counter with me. He babbles to me about Dief and the dishes and my shoes, and whatever else catches his eye until I get finished and carry him out to the front porch, where Fraser and Vecchio are sitting.

It's coming on close to September already, and the days are getting shorter. It's a little cool outside, and I decide bringing the kid out wasn't a great idea. "You want some tea, Ben?"

He glances at me, looks back, and smiles. "That sounds wonderful, Ray."

Boy, I'd kill for that smile. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, but still-Benny stretches out, holding his arms out. "Da!"

Vecchio gets that goofy dad grin on his face and takes the kid from me. "Hey, where you been?" Wraps the kid in his jacket.

Fraser's eyes are still on me and man, just for one minute, I wish Vecchio would vanish in a puff of smoke. I reach out, just touch his hair real light while Vecchio's looking at the kid, and go back in, feeling better than I have in days.

I wonder if Mama Vecchio will give up any of her recipes. Vecchio learns how to make Chicago style pizza with pineapple, I'll sponsor him myself.

Anyway, they come in while I'm waiting for the teakettle, and Fraser comes into the kitchen, puts his arms around my waist from behind. Comfortable hug, but I'm such an animal, my dick twitches, feeling him against my back. Just like the damn dogs in the experiment, bell rings, dick gets hard.

Especially when he kisses the back of my neck.

I let myself lean just a little, not much, and he rests his chin on my shoulder. "How does a bath sound?"

"You allowed?" It sounds great, but Fraser's got a habit of pushing himself a little hard, and let's face it, we aren't kids anymore, takes a little longer to spring back.

"I am indeed." His arms tighten. "Janet clipped the sutures, everything's healing as it ought to."

It does sound great. Better than great. "What about Vecchio?"

"I think he can take his own bath." Suppressed laughter under the mild tone.

I pretend to elbow him. "You know what I mean."

"This is our home." He nips my earlobe, let go of me and leans against the counter so he can see my face. "If he's going to live up here, Ray, he'll get past it. Or he won't. Discretion may be necessary in public, but I will not live in my own house and be a prisoner to someone else's view of what's right."

Oooh, just a wee bit snarky. Wondered if the poker faces in the office were getting to him. "Okay," I tell him. "I just don't want to mess up here, Ben. Ever."

Faint smile. "You don't."

I don't.

I wish that were true, but I have to admit, we've come a long way since our terrible fight in Chicago after Barney tried to kill me. Couldn't do it by myself, no matter what I thought then. We've both gotten smarter about this relationship thing, I think. "I think a bath sounds great," I tell him, leaning in to steal a kiss.

I get pulled into a hug, and we're still standing together like that when Vecchio returns from putting the kid to bed. I start to back away, but Fraser's not letting me. Shit, I think, and I'm nervous again.

It's about more than just messing up Fraser's friendship with him. Maybe it's about messing up mine. If we're friends.

I can't see Vecchio's face, but his voice sounds easy enough. "So, you think it could work?"

"I don't think you'll get rich," I say, and turn my head a little.

"Nah, rich isn't the deal. Want someplace that's my own, and let's face it, as much as I love my family, they wanna coddle Benny. I want him someplace he can learn to stand alone."

I turn around, but Ben's still holding on, so I lean back a little against his chest. Vecchio looks embarrassed, like he's telling too much, leaning against the kitchen doorframe. "Get some of your mom's recipes," I tell him. I'm amazed, he's not even blinking at me and Ben.

Vecchio grins crookedly. "Yeah, teach these folks about good Italian food."

I grin back. "Fraser won't have to growl at me to eat more then."

"You're doing better," Fraser allows. "If you had seen him when he first came up here, Ray." His arms tighten a little.

"I looked like Death eatin' a soda cracker," I tell him cheerfully. "Felt like it, too."

Vecchio looks at me, sober face. "Yeah, Frannie told me."

I think about that.

Weird. I lived this guy's life, sort of, had to pretend that his family was my family, played big brother to Frannie, and that's some weird common thread anyway. Then, we've got Fraser, too, and weirdest of all, Stella. "Frannie," I say, "That Frannie-you know, she came every day, they told me. Even when I was, um, really gone. Coma."

"Hey, she drives me nuts, but she's a good kid." Vecchio's tone's affectionate.

"That she is," Fraser agrees and lets go of me. "As for your plan, Ray, I can't deny that I'd be very pleased to have you and Benny nearby. I just want to be sure you have all the facts before you make the commitment."

"Hey, I got married and bought a bowling alley in two weeks." Vecchio looks amused. "I've been thinking about this since I got up here and Stan showed me around the place."

Fraser chuckles. "Well, then, I can see you're taking your time." He lets go of me, pushes himself back up. "Bath. Bed."

Vecchio does look a little uncomfortable at that. Hell, I feel weird myself. But I nod, play it cool. Tell Vecchio good night and he nods, goes out to the front room.

So, fifteen minutes later we're sitting in a hot tub, and he's against my chest for a change, and we're not talking much, just sort of soaking in the heat of the water and the comfort of being there.

At least I am.

The Mountie, of course, can't shut his brain off unless he's under anesthesia, so I finally poke him gently. "Penny."

He makes a soft sound in his throat, lets his head fall back on my shoulder. "I'm afraid I was brooding about Mae."

I nuzzle him. "Yeah. I have been, too. I hope she's doing okay." Except how can she? If it had been Fraser-I clutch at him suddenly, just around his shoulders, hold him tight.

"I'm fine, Ray." Softly. He understands, he puts a hand over one of mine. "I'm here and I'm fine."

"I know." I nuzzle him again, and then we talk about other things, Davy's addition, Vecchio's plan, what I'm going to give him for Christmas this year.

"You know, Ray, we could visit your parents this year." We're getting out of the tub when he springs this one on me.

Stalling for time to think, I grab a towel and start drying him off. He laughs and bats me away, takes the towel from me. "Two can play at this game."

I'm laughing. "Hey, hey, don't get rough, I don't wanna have to explain to Janet that we were having a towel snapping fight and reopened that."

He looks down at his midsection. "Hmmmm. You have a point." Wicked glint in those eyes tonight, no shadows. He settles for drying my hair as if I was Dief, and then we're in bed, stretched out next to each other.

It's early still, of course, barely nine, but it feels almost sinfully good to be lying together like this behind closed doors. Even better, because he's not worried about Vecchio, he's leaning into a kiss and he tastes and feels so damn good.

I make this sound in my throat, I'm practically purring, and his hands are on me and mine are on him. But I'm not letting him get too frisky, even though he seems to want to. I mean, I love making him lose control, but I can wait until he's one hundred percent. So I make love to him with my hands and my lips, slow and gentle, and he's so fucking beautiful, scars and all, and I make like a Mountie with completely obsessed focus on every bit of skin I touch.

He's trying not to make too much noise and arching and twisting to get closer to me, and he finally gets impatient and I have to wrestle with him a little, and we're both laughing until he gets me where he wants me, which is mainly across the bed in a careful sort of 69, because I don't want to rest any weight on him at all.

And after that, I'm not worrying about weight on him or on me. Let's face it, his mouth gets on me, my brain melts down, and all I can focus on is the feel of his tongue on my cock, and the way he tastes.

Takes more concentration, this does, than just letting go and begging him to fuck me, but it's okay, it's like reminding myself that he's alive, that I'm alive, and that we're both here, this isn't going to go away. I never want it to go away, and I'm not just talking about the sex. It ranges from good to fucking cataclysmic, and every shade in between, and yeah, there are times when I think I'm going to lose my marbles if I don't get him naked, but this is about more.

Buddies. Partners. Friends. Lovers.

Maybe like Fraser's dad told me in my dream, mates. Lifemates. I like the sound of that.

So one part of my brain is drowning in sensation and the other part is thinking sappy shit like this, and then I know I'm going to last about a second and a half more and try to warn him. Jeez, I should know better, like he's going to pass up a chance to taste me. All I can say is that it's a good thing I was never a slut, not even after the divorce, and that he was pretty self-contained in his sexual needs, because he won't pass up the chance to swallow me down, and it's rubbed off on me. Heh.

And then I'm coming, Christ, I'm coming and I wrap one arm around his ass and just hang on, colors behind my eyelids, moaning in my throat, which sets him off, and then I'm swallowing, licking and he tastes more like he always does, no more taste of medications. Fucking beautiful man, stretched out with his head on my thigh, one hand cupped over my softening cock, face taut with pleasure as I gently lick him clean.

He's the one always wraps himself around me after, but I don't want him to spoil the afterglow by hurting himself, and I'm up, wrapped around him and I pull the blankets over us.

Get pretty thoroughly kissed, and I'm not complaining. He tastes like me and I taste like him, and that never fails to make me throb, even right after. A little more making out, and I'm not going to have any trouble at all sleeping tonight, the air is clear, my gut tells me that and I swear, my skin tells me that. We're good, we're better than good, we're great, even if I do feel a little sad that he's been thinking this shit for the last several days.

Or maybe longer, even before Vecchio came up. When he found out they were Splitsville.

It's too much of a relief to know I'm not completely whacked, so I let it go. I stretch out against him. We're practically the same height, I'm just a little shorter, so we're almost eye to eye, and he looks...what's that word...oh, yeah, he looks sated. Gorgeous. Depraved. Debauched.

His mouth is still puffy from sucking my cock and from kissing, and I figure I probably look pretty debauched myself. "Ben," I whisper, "Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben."

His mouth curves against mine. "Yes, Ray?"

"You just remember something for me, okay? I don't care what you think is fair to me, the only way you ever get rid of me is you cut my heart out and hand it to me."

He takes in a shaky breath. "Ray," and then stops. Just kisses me again. "Forgive me." Finally.

"Nothing to forgive, Ben." I kiss him back, lazy now, and getting drowsy. "Not a freaking thing. Just want you to remember it."

"I will." It's a promise.

The Mountie never breaks his promises. I close my eyes and nudge him over on the pillows again, and I'm not sure which of us goes under first.

I finally risk going into the post when Vecchio chivvies me into it.

"Look," he says, "You gotta live here. These two guys, they gotta live here. Fraser's practically got his own private fan club in town, you think they're going to cause him trouble? How they going to prove a damn thing? Hell, I'm living there now, at least until I get things settled, and I'm sure as hell not sleeping with him."

I roll my eyes at him. "Yeah, but he's got to work with them, he's got to be able to count on them, dammit. You know what it's like if you can't count on your backup."

"Yeah, I do." He gestures vaguely. "Which is why we're going to take Benny in there and snow the living shit out of them."

I can't help laughing. No wonder he did good at undercover. "Schmooze 'em?"

"Schmooze 'em, snow 'em, Trot out the dog and pony show." He's obviously feeling kind of wired today. Too much espresso.

But I gotta admit, he's convincing me even against my own better judgement. So we walk into town, pick up some stuff we need from McKenzie's, and then mosey on over to the post. I'm a little jumpy about that, but I follow Vecchio in.

Vecchio is all over the map, shaking hands with the two new guys and introducing himself and the kid, telling them he's going to be living in Owlcreek, going to be taking over from Willie, and I swear to God, he's charming 'em, against their will, but charming them.

Of course, Benny is charming them, too.

Fraser's watching this as if he can't believe it. Finally, almost reluctantly, he joins the conversation, confirming that Vecchio was his partner in Chicago, and I'm hanging back a little. Vecchio manages to work in that me and Fraser were there when Muldoon went down, and that we, in fact, took him down, which isn't quite the truth, but isn't quite a lie.

Fraser did it.

Fraser is watching Vecchio with slightly narrowed eyes.

Vecchio throws an arm over my shoulder. "All this," he adds, "While he's playing me so I don't get capped undercover."

The younger guy blinks, like it's not something he expected. I get a long look from the other guy, like he's thinking it over.

I can feel my face heating up, look down in time to keep Benny from trying to climb on Dief. Dief gives me a long-suffering look, but that's Dief. He's pretty good with the kid, but there's no sense in tempting fate.

Somehow, I lose track of the conversation, I look up at Fraser, and he's not looking entirely happy, and I'm starting to figure that maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

Vecchio's still schmoozing, as only Vecchio can schmooze, and I give Benny a little nudge toward his dad, straighten up and lift a hand apologetically at Fraser while I back toward the door. "Hey, Ray, I gotta catch Davy, I'll talk at you later."

Fraser's frowning a little at me.

I smile, play it cool, and get outside where I can breathe again. It wasn't completely a lie, I do have to get over and finish up Davy's addition, but he's not working on it today, he's driven into Whitehorse to pick up stock for the store.

Deep breath, and I feel better, let some of the tension ease out of my shoulders. It's a fantastic day, we still have a few before the winter sweeps in. Colder though, day by day, and I think about some things I want to get done in our house before winter closes things do. More weather-stripping around the enclosed part of the porch, and I need to make sure that the new ducts work to get the heat into the second bedroom. Mundane stuff, and it keeps me from worrying about Vecchio's overkill.

I make a few stops, have a few conversations that remind me why I like it here, and that me and Fraser have a lot of good friends, and then I head home.

I'm putting up the weather stripping when Fraser and Vecchio come up the hill with Benny between them, and Fraser doesn't look unhappy anymore, he looks secretly amused.

Vecchio looks pleased, gives me a high five as he goes by. "Paperwork's going through smooth as silk, Stan," he tells me and then hustles Benny in for a nap.

Fraser takes off his Stetson and leans in to kiss me. Just a hello kiss at first, but somebody's feeling his oats today, pretty soon it's a turn-Ray's bones-to-water kiss, and I defy anyone to try and walk away from that. "What was that for?" I ask, when I can breathe again. "Not that I'm complainin', Ben."

He just grins. "Ray has successfully deflected the, ah, judgemental attitude of my subordinates, I'm afraid."

"You're afraid?"

"Yes, now they're sure he's an underworld kingpin." That wicked look is back. "I set Constable Hays to checking Ray's 'record' to show them the error of their ways."

I crack up. "Does he know this?"

"You know, Ray sometimes appears to be oblivious." He's enjoying himself. "This should prove to be quite amusing in the long run. And he's right, his paperwork is going through, apparently Inspector Thatcher had some hand in it, although I cannot imagine how or why."

"The Ice Queen? Whoa." I blink at that. "What do you suppose that means?"

He kisses me again, and this one is just a brief hello kiss. "I told you, Ray, I cannot imagine." Still glinting at me.

Boy, I can't wait until Vecchio is out of the house. That glint gets me every time.

"Give me a moment, I'll change, and we can do this together." He nods at the roll of weather-stripping.

I look at that, finally nod. Hey, worst he can do weather-stripping is hitting his thumb, I figure it's safe enough.

Maybe Vecchio'll take a nap, too.

Next time I go into town, which happens to be just a few days later, when I get my projects done, I run into the younger constable, Hays. I nod at him politely, and that's all-I'm in Ben Snow's hardware, self-indulgence time with the stock catalog, and I'm toying with the idea of putting in a separate shower stall, never mind that Fraser looks horrified when I mention it.

He's got a point, the bathroom is nice, but it's not that big. Gee, I'd have to build another room for it, and heh, I'm actually thinking about it. I'm getting good at this.

"Mr. Kowalski?"

I almost don't answer, but it's because Mr. Kowalski's my dad, not me, and I finally connect the words with me the third time Hays says it.

"Oh, hey." I turn. "Sorry, didn't hear you." Way to go, Kowalski, alienate the guy Fraser's gotta work with.

Hays blushes worse than Fraser ever did. "Ah. Well, I was simply saying hello."

God, now what? I manage to nod politely-hey, I can do that now, I'm Canadian. "Nice to see you again. Things settling in for you?"

He nods, still pretty red. "Yes, sir, thank you."

I'm not sure what the hell this is about, but hey, if the kid wants to be polite, I can dance to it. We chit chat about settling into a new place, and it turns out he's older than he looks. I wonder if it's a sign you're getting older when nobody looks like they're old enough to shave. He and Campbell, the other Constable, are both single, and since they're willing, and the RCMP hasn't gotten around to building more housing in Owlcreek yet, he and Campbell are sharing the NCOIC quarters.

"Well," I finally say, picking up the catalog again. "I hope you enjoy Owlcreek."

"Thank you, sir," he says awkwardly and goes back out.

What the hell was that about, I wonder, but it's not worth worrying about.

So I head on out to Davy's.

We break for lunch around one, and I'm sitting on the front porch eating a sandwich when Jenny brings me a beer. "How are you doing these days, Ray?"

I swallow and shrug. "I'm good." I eye her belly. "No offense, Jenny, but I'm not going to help deliver this one."

She gives me a bittersweet smile. "Now, Ray, you did so very well."

I grin in spite of the sadness. Tom comes out from the kitchen and sits down on the porch next to me. Jenny ruffles my hair and goes back in.

"How's Fraser," Tom asks me, takes a sip of beer. "Don't see much of him lately."

I shrug again. "About the way you'd expect. Still gets tired too easy, still feels guilty, still broods about the whole thing."

Tom nods. "Wish they'd find those bastards."

I nod. "You seen Lizzie lately? She doing okay?"

Faint rueful smile. "'Bout the way you'd expect. Good days and bad days. Working with Cassie helps, maybe it's just the work of casting pots, eases her mind some."

I nod. Sandwich feels like lead in my stomach. "Any luck, they'll have gotten themselves so lost, winter'll snap them up like a wolf."

"Wolves don't snap people up." It's an old joke between us.

"Tell that to Dief." I find a grin inside and flash it at him.

Tom chuckles. "Dief can do no wrong in Lizzie's eyes."

"Hell, Fraser's still spoiling him."

He flashes me a sidelong look. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Hurts that bad shit happens here like it does in Chicago." I shrug. "This is kind of my dream, you know. Someplace clean."

"Yeah, well, it didn't start here, it was imported." Harsh tone. "I've thought about it. If they don't catch these guys, maybe it's time to go hunting."

"Don't start with that, you remember how Fraser ended up in Chicago." I grin a little.

Tom grins suddenly. "Hunting, was he, eh?"

"You've been up here, too long." I take another swallow of beer. "Yeah, he was hunting. You don't want to end up in Chicago again, Tom."

"Truth," Tom agrees cheerfully. "You gonna actually get some meaningful work done today?"

"Hey, it's not my fault Davy's been in Whitehorse." And with that, we get back to ribbing each other about various failings and keep it up for the rest of the day.

I feel a little guilty about life moving on. I feel like I should be doing something else, feeling something else. David's dead, Mae and Kit are gone, and that should be like, I don't know, a big hole or something. Instead, life seems to seal off that hole and keep on keeping on.

Cassie's tapestry. She says when these things happen, new threads have to get woven in.

I'll have to think about that, I decide, but then I head home to my own little corner where my threads are all unbroken, new ones and all.

Maybe that's how we heal, letting those new threads find their place.

Fraser's definitely getting friskier.

It's October now, and definitely winter is heading toward us and I put the flannel sheets back on the bed, and he likes those. Likes me spread out naked on them. And I'm still worrying about him doing himself some damage, so I've been holding the line against anything too athletic until Vecchio gets himself and Benny into Willie's place, which is above the caf or bar or whatever it is.

So the day he does, we celebrate by lounging around in front of the fire after dinner and making out like a couple of horny frat brothers on Hell Night. Nice, nice, nice, let me tell you, and he's more or less behaving himself according to the Ray Kowalski rules for Convalescents, until I decide that the floor isn't as comfortable as the bed with flannel sheets, and drag him in there.

After a couple of months of being inhibited by Vecchio's presence in the next room, I'm making all the noise I can, just because I can, and Fraser's not exactly being silent himself, and we're all but rolling around on the bed, drawing things out just because we can, finest kind of torture that exists.

He gets me pinned down on my back, supposedly to prove to me that he's perfectly healthy these days, and then opens me up with that tongue, Jesus, that tongue, and I'm just one big bundle of nerve endings, legs over his back, while he licks and sucks everything between the cleft of my ass to my cock. Or vice versa.

I'm so hard I'm leaking, and I'm clutching at the sheet, and then a slippery finger slides inside me, and I swear, I come up off the bed so that I'm practically suspended in air. I'm using language that would ordinarily get me a finger over my lips or a chiding look, just chanting "Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck," and working myself on that finger, and then there's another one.

It's been a few months, there's a little bit of burn, but Jesus, what the hell do I care, and I can't even give him a hard time about athletics, I'm the one bouncing all over the bed, and then the hot thick head of his cock is up against me, slow push in, stretching me open and filling me and yeah, it burns and yeah, I want it all, want him all the way into me, all the way to the root.

All the way in, and he takes my hand, pulls it down so I can feel where we're joined. Feel the weird silky coarseness of pubic hair against me, and he moves, and I feel the soft weight of his balls. I groan and rub my other hand across my chest, touching my own nipples, run that hand down my belly to grasp my cock.

His eyes are dark, pupils dilated until there's only a thin rim of blue. "Mine," he growls, and I wonder, in one little corner of my mind, if he knows he's growling. I rock up into his thrust, push my cock through my fingers until he pulls my hand away and replaces it with his own. It feels too good to last as long as I want, there's no way I can hold on that long, and I lose track of my own name and scream his when the first jolt goes through me.

Good thing Vecchio's not in the next room, I think, when I can think again. Fraser's breathing hard, dripping sweat on me, and I carefully pull him down, kiss him hard. I tell ya, you think about nearly losing somebody, and getting crushed into the mattress feels damn good. "Tryin' to prove something to me, Ben?" I finally ask, laughing into his mouth.

He nips my lower lip. "Perhaps to myself." Still breathing a little ragged, and I rub my hands on his shoulder blades.

I ain't complaining, that's for damn sure. Not me, Mr. Mushball, I'm all over him, believe me. Fingers in his hair, soft, and stroking over his shoulders, I'm kissing what bits I can reach with him on top of me, and then when he slips out, I sigh.

He seems to know what I'm thinking, kisses me, sweet kiss, not hard and hot, and then shifts to grab one of the towels from where we tossed 'em.

He does that now, tosses a towel on the floor, lets it go until the important stuff is done. I grab one corner and try and help, and he starts laughing at me, just plain happy. If I don't do anything else in my life, making Benton Fraser laugh with that delight is just about enough. Sappy thinking, but hell, I admit it. I'm not perfect, I'm messy and fucked up, and I'm a sap, and being able to give him something makes my day. Makes my life.

Maybe the honeymoon won't last forever, maybe I won't always feel like I gotta have him the minute I think about it, or maybe he won't, but I'm starting to think that maybe wolves know what they're doing, this mating for life thing. We even fight smarter, he tries harder not to build that Mountie faade, trusts me not to rip him to shreds, and I'm smarter, too. He's been hurt a lot, by people who didn't even mean to hurt him, including me. I think he knows now that if I can make it up, I will, if I can avoid it, I will.

And he folds himself back around me, face to face, our legs all tangled together.

"Mushiness alert," I tell him and put my face in his neck, breathing in the scent of us.

"Mmmhmmm." Happy sound. "I'll consider myself forewarned."

I laugh a little. "Think it'll always be this good?"

He chuckles, deep in his throat. "If we work at it. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do."

"Good." I kiss his throat. "Me, either. Beats the hell out of any other alternative."

His arms tighten almost too tight. "I don't know what I was thinking," he mutters, "My mind hasn't been working properly."

I think about that, decide he's talking about that whole thing about me taking up with Stella again. "You've had some things on your mind."

He draws back, props his elbow on the bed, chin on his hand. "It is good." Solemnly. "Even if we have our moments."

I think about that, too. "Not a lot of them," I say slowly. "Not really. I mean, sure, we have the little nits that I think everybody has. Toothpaste." I grin. "Towels on the floor."

One corner of his mouth twitches. "Shoes in the middle of the front room."

"Ironing shorts." A little laughter is trying to bubble up inside me.

"And here I thought you enjoyed the starch," he teases.

"Crisp," I tell him, and he rubs my eyebrow. Don't mind that, it's just a caress, not like when he rubs his own.

"We do very well, I think." Solemn Mountie. "Even if you wished it, Ray, I'm not sure I could, after all, let you go easily."

He couldn't say anything better, far as I'm concerned. "Fight for me, would you?"

"Oh, yes. With all my heart."

Yeah, oh, yeah. I lean up and kiss his eyelids, one at a time. "Good. Cuz if I'm ever that dumb, I'd want you to."

Christmas smile, like a kid, like more than a year before when I wasn't sure I could trust what I was seeing, was scared to death. "Well, there you are," he says, which doesn't make sense, but I'm not about to tell him.

We sort of wind around each other again, and then crash. I rise and fall, and on one of the rises, I reach out blindly and get the lamp, sink back into darkness that feels and smells and tastes like Fraser.

Not a bad thing at all.

Mushball, like I said. I stay away from the post in this mood, cuz all I'd have to do is walk in and it would be like taking out a full page ad, or putting up a billboard, and even if I'm happy and proud, I do not think rubbing the RCMP's nose in it is a good idea for Fraser's career.

Still can't figure out what the hell was up with Hays the other day. I mention it to Vecchio, who shrugs. "Canadians," he says, "They're just polite."

True enough.

We're both behind the bar at what used to be Willie's place and which is now Ray's, only he's holding Benny, which is definitely a new thing for this place.

Not much difference. Tablecloths. Red and white, like in Chicago. He's getting a pizza oven from the States, supposed to be in soon, and he's adding to the menu a little. Nothing too fancy or ornate, just a little difference for people who want it. He's taking it slow, and I'm glad to see it.

Gets a lot of people in for coffee these days, checking out the American, checking out Benny. Ben Snow, Lizzie's uncle, sends over his daughters on the weekends to help keep an eye on Benny during the day, and Vecchio's got a little kid corral behind the bar. And a shotgun, don't ask me how he did that legally, but he swears it's all legal.

It's kind of funny, I think. These are his people now, too. Fraser has that effect on a guy, I guess. Even on us cynical former Chicago cops.

Lizzie comes in, her expression a little shy, a little apprehensive. First time I've seen her in a couple of weeks, and she's still got some weight to put back on. But the bruises are faded, mostly, and she's got that glossy black hair pulled into a pretty plait and there's something about her eyes that's reassuring, like she's going to make it out of the shadows eventually.

"Mr. Vecchio," she says, still shy. "Uncle Ben says you were needing someone to take care of the baby. I'm done with school, now, and I have lots of experience with little ones."

He leans down on the bar so he's not towering over her. "That right? You looking for a job, then?" He smiles, warm, has a kind of teasing sound in his voice. "Cuz I'm looking for someone good for Benny. And your uncle says you're pretty da-darn good."

She kind of flushes, smiles at Benny and nods. "Saving up money for school."

"Hey, that's great." He beams at her, and she relaxes.

Got to admit, Vecchio can be a charmer. They talk a little bit more, and even I can tell what he offers her is a lot more than she'd get from most people, but Vecchio's like me, compared to most of the town, he's downright wealthy, what with the pension. They agree on her duties, mostly just some light housework, taking care of Benny, and he walks her upstairs to show her around, leaving me to watch the bar.

Tom Ellery comes in, does a fake double take. "You working here now, too, Ray?"

I grin. "Gotta keep busy."

"Good, because Cassie wants a new and bigger kiln." He grins at me.

I roll my eyes. "She couldn't think of that this summer?"

"Didn't have a partner this summer. Lizzie's doing a lot of work with her. Got some great native designs incorporated. Setting up a website." He's chuckling.

Boy, the twentieth century has hit Owlcreek with a vengeance. Telephones, Internet, dot coms, and I'm laughing with him. "Good for her. When you want to start?"

"Sooner the better, before winter hits." He orders a beer, and what the hell, I draw it for him, set it down as Vecchio comes downstairs. Tom slides the money across the bar, grins at Vecchio. "When's that oven coming in?"

"Soon I hope," Vecchio tells him. "You tryin' to lure away my help?"

"He's going to be part of a new corporate expansion."

Vecchio's eyebrows rise. "Here?"

They joke about that for a while, and I kind of zone out, just thinking my thoughts until Vecchio snaps his fingers in front of my face. "Earth to Stan."

Tom grins. They're getting used to Vecchio calling me Stan, too. "You still with us?"

"Yeah," I say. "Weird, I never thought I'd like this kind of life. Figured I was city born and bred, thought it would drive me nuts. But you know, I like it here."

Tom snorts, takes a swallow of his beer. "Shows you're smarter than you thought."

The door opens and Constable Campbell comes in, looking a little damp.

"Started raining," Vecchio comments. I cut my eyes sideways at him, and slip around the bar to sit down next to Tom. No beer, I stick to coffee, and Vecchio slides me a mug while he's making chitchat with Campbell, who orders a cup of tea. I cut my eyes at Tom and he nods, picks up his beer and we move to one of the tables across the room.

"He's not so bad," Tom tells me, seeing too much. "He's just not David."

"Yeah, I know." I do know, really, but knowing it doesn't help. Maybe that's most of my problem with these two new guys.

"He's a little stiff." Tom takes another sip of beer. "Can't be easy coming in to work with Fraser, what with his reputation. Hero of the North."

I grin a little at that. "Yeah, he's definitely something." But I think about it.

"Then there's the fact that David was..." Tom sighs. "David was a friend. Gotta be hard when nobody talks to these guys."

Good point. I remember pretty well how hard it was to feel second best when I was playing Vecchio. Guess I'm glad Fraser's retrained me in Canadian so I was decent to Hays the other day. "You think it's that bad for them?"

He considers. "Probably not. I know Rosie's tried to make 'em feel welcome, and Jack. But some folks are a little standoffish, only want to talk to Fraser."

"Ouch." I wince at that. Lizzie's voice drifts down the stairs in back, calling Vecchio, and he excuses himself. I'm such a doof-when Campbell turns awkwardly to look at the room, still holding his mug, I lift mine at him, like, come on over.

Tom grins at me sidelong, and it's so damn dumb, I'm on the wrong side of forty these days, and I feel good, feel warmed by that.

Campbell hesitates a minute, then comes over, leaves his hat on the bar. "Thank you kindly," he says, and boy, does that jar a little.

Don't be an asshole, I tell myself, and take a sip of coffee. "Any progress on the pipeline guys?"

His eyes rest on me for a minute, considering the question. Maybe he's reminding himself I was a cop, I don't know, can't tell. "Nothing substantive," he finally says. "They don't appear to have crossed the border, but who can tell. There are certainly places they could have slipped across without notice. We've had some reported sightings here and there, mostly in Alberta, but can't confirm them."

"Damn." I sigh.

He nods, sips at his tea. "I would imagine," he begins, sounding awkward again, "You find it quiet here."

I grin suddenly. "Oh, yeah. But I like it. Quite a change from the mean streets."

He nods, almost smiles. "My last post was Toronto, I quite understand."

"This is quite a change," Tom says, and I flick him a grateful look. Being decent is one thing, carrying on an entire conversation with this guy is another, and Tom draws Campbell out a little about Toronto. Turns out he was looking for something a little more satisfying. Toronto cops and Chicago cops aren't all that different, he was getting burnt out on the streets, needed someplace where he could see some results.

Vecchio comes back down and joins us, sits talking over coffee and Campbell finally sighs, excuses himself. "Time for me to get back to work, I'm afraid. Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure. Mr. Vecchio, how much for the tea?"

Vecchio waves it off. "On the house, Constable."

Little frown. "I insist."

"Just take it," I say, "He'll probably charge you double next time when he gets his monthly budget done."

Vecchio smirks at me. "He's on to me, Constable."

At that, Campbell flushes a little, laughs. "Well, then, thank you kindly."

"See, he does that, too," Vecchio tells me. "Gotta be a Canadian thing."

"Or a Mountie thing," I agree.

Campbell isn't quite sure whether or not to take offense, decides not to, and laughs before he retrieves his hat and goes out into the rain again.

"See," Vecchio tells me, "Not such a bad guy."

I roll my eyes at him. "Never said he was."

But Vecchio's gotten to know me better than that, he just grins.

I head on out, back home, and catch up with Fraser, who is talking seriously to Dief, I can tell from the tone of his voice.

"What's up?" I ask smartly, falling into step with him.

He smiles at me happily. "Nothing of importance. I was just explaining to Dief that it might be a good idea for us to bring the dogs down from my father's place. I thought perhaps we could keep them at the post, and both constables are in favor of the idea."

Anything that pleases him that much is a good idea to me. I nod, thinking that maybe Tom and Vecchio are both right, maybe these guys are a little stiff, but maybe they're okay. "That's great, Ben! I need to get back in practice, anyway. Been too long and I think I'm getting fit enough these days."

"My very thought." His eyes are alight, not quite the kid at Christmas look, but definitely happy. Don't think I ever saw that kind of happiness in him back in Chicago, and I have to admit, it feels good to know I'm part of it.

So we go home, just like any other afternoon, and he's definitely getting fitter himself, he doesn't crash right away, and he's up to three quarter days.

So I take advantage of him until he does take a nap. Heh. Painful duty, but somebody's gotta do it.

I'm damn glad it's me.

I gotta admit, it's good to see the dogs again, they remember me, and that startles Campbell until I explain about the Quest.

He gets a kind of dreamy smile. "Ah, I envy you." And that's all, I mean, we don't do buddy buddy, he goes back inside, leaving Hays to ruffle fur and scratch ears, and Fraser's just happy and getting the dogs set up. The post garage is pretty freaking big, considering there's one jeep, two snowmobiles, and one truck, so the back end is now sort of penned off to create a little shelter for them and a place for their food and water.

I spend a little time with the dogs and Fraser, mostly because it gives me an innocent reason to show up at the post, heh, and then head on over to the Ellery cabin. Tom's got the stuff in and he and I are putting together Cassie's new kiln.

So we spend most of the day working on it, and by the time I get home, I'm pleasantly tired, and as I'm walking the short way back, through the trees, I'm not thinking about anything more taxing than what we're going to have for dinner when something spooks me.

I'm not sure what it is, and I stop, listen.

Finally decide I'm losing it and turn to keep going, and I swear to God Fraser's dad is standing there, big as life and twice as real. "Fuck!"

"Language, son, language. Profanity isn't necessary." He gives me the look Fraser used to give me. But now I only get a finger over my lips from Fraser, and from Fraser's dead dad, I'm getting the Look.

I'm looking at Fraser's dead dad.

My heart's going ka-thumpety, thump, I'm sweating and about two thirds sure I've flipped out.

"You handled Benton very wisely, by the way, I'm actually impressed. He gets these things in his head, I suppose letting my parents raise him wasn't the wisest choice I ever made."

Okay, fine, I've lost my mind. "I'll say," I tell him and continue toward home. Nuts or not, I think, he needs to know what he did to Ben. "You know how bad you hurt him? Leaving him alone all that time?"

"I think I have a good idea," he tells me seriously and sighs.

"I mean, I'm sure your folks loved him, but they didn't hug him, they didn't..." What the hell am I doing. "You suck."

"Well, I suppose as a father, I did." He doesn't sound upset. "I will admit, I was surprised when he became so attached to you, it speaks well of his character. I was tremendously concerned about him after that Metcalf woman."

"You should have stopped him." I am growling at a ghost.

And I'm getting closer to home. Fraser steps out of the gloom, smiles at me and then frowns ferociously. "What are you doing here?" Accusingly.

Okay, we're both nuts. At least I'm not alone.

"Just checking in on you. Your mother worries." Mildly.

Fraser rolls his eyes. "It would appear to me that you're blaming Mum for a lot of your meddling lately, Dad."

"Don't be absurd, you may not remember, son, but your mother is very strong-willed."

"Is this really happening, Ben?" I ask.

"I'm afraid so," he says regretfully. "I used to think perhaps he was a figment of my imagination, coupled with loneliness and guilt arising from my subconscious, but Maggie sees him, too. Well, and Buck Frobisher, but it was Maggie that really convinced me."

"That's true," says our ghost.

I look at Fraser's dad. "Don't you have anything better to do these days? I mean, Muldoon is gone."

"True, son, true." He purses his lips.

And I look at Fraser again. "What am I supposed to call him, Ben?"

Fraser looks blank, like he'd never considered the problem of introducing his lover to his dead father. Amazing. I figured he'd have thought of everything.

"You could call me Robert," says his father helpfully, "Or Bob, or I suppose it wouldn't be completely amiss to call me Dad."

Fraser rubs his eyebrow, runs a finger inside his collar, and cracks his neck. "Dad." Strained voice.

That's so seriously weird. "I, ah, I think I'll stick with Bob. So, uh, Bob, why are you here?"

"My very question," Fraser says grimly.

"Your mother knows you're accustomed to me, and as I said, she just gets concerned about you. Mother's intuition, she claims." Robert Fraser sighs. "You're being careful these days, I told her, but she just insisted I check."

After a moment, I see Fraser's mouth twitch. This is seriously weird. Do I want to know this much about the afterlife? And there's something I've got to know. "Were you really there when I got shot, or was that just a dream."

Weirder still, to see a ghost look acutely uncomfortable. "Ah. Well."

"Well?" Sharp tone from Fraser. "Does that mean you were? That you knew?"

"Well, yes, actually." Bob looks at me, almost apologetic. "I didn't tell you because the Yank didn't want you to see him in such condition."

My jaw drops. Fraser looks angrier than I've ever seen him. Ever. Ever. He turns on his heel and stalks away, and I have to trot to catch up. One sidelong look at his face, and he's beyond just furious.

"Hey, Ben, Ben..." I catch hold of his arm, swing him around. For a second, I think he's going to deck me, but he's not angry at me, and he just puts his hand up to cup my cheek.

Grim face, and he looks behind us. "If you think I'm going to forgive you for this, you're sadly mistaken," he tells his father, or the night, or whatever.

I don't see Bob Fraser on the path now. Can't decide if I'm relieved or not. "Hey, it's over, long time again, don't be mad."

"Of all the times he chooses not to meddle," he grates and suddenly pulls me close, wraps his arms around me. Long hard hug, and I feel a lot like I just stepped into the Twilight Zone.

We stand there for a minute. Finally, I let go of him, pull my head back. "Hey, I hate to, ah, point this out, but he's dead. Won't do a lot of good to get mad at him now."

"Oh, this is just the tip of the iceberg." Grim still.

Boy, he is seriously pissed. At his dead father.

"I think you need some tea," I tell him, and take hold of his hand. "You can fight with your dad, later."

He glares for a minute, but hey, he's got a sense of humour, his mouth starts to twitch. "No doubt." And he half-grins. "You worked late today."

"Nearly got the kiln done. You oughta see the work Cass and Lizzie have been doing. Gorgeous stuff." It is, too, and I've got my eye on a few things for him for Christmas.

We walk back toward the house, and when we get to the porch, he pulls me against him again for a kiss. Not hard and hot, but sweet and long. He kisses my face, kisses my eyelids, my cheeks, touches me tenderly. "Do you understand what you mean to me?" He whispers it again and again.

Wow. I wrap my arms around him. "I'm here, Ben." Shaky. "Don't do this to yourself, I'm here and like I said, I'm not going anywhere."

It only takes a couple of minutes for him to calm back down, he looks embarrassed. Touches my face apologetically and then we're inside and Dief is lazing in front of the fire with, you guessed it, Fraser's dad.

Ever watch a ghost try to have a discussion with someone who's not speaking to him? It's pretty funny in a Twilight Zone sorta way.

"I was respecting the Yank's wishes," Bob Fraser tells him.

Fraser ignores this, hangs up our coats and follows me into the kitchen. So does his dad. "Really, son, this is no way to resolve this. I kept an eye on him."

Fraser's jaw tightens. I decide it's better for me to stay out of it and go out to get the last of Mama Vecchio's lasagne from the freezer for reheating. I'm not sure I'm up to handling dinner from scratch while Fraser's fighting with his dad.

Which in itself is so weird, I can't believe I'm thinking it.

"He was in a bad way," Fraser's father is admitting, when I come back into the kitchen. "I admit it. But he's a good deal tougher than I thought at first."

"Did you know he was going to live?" Fraser loses the not speaking battle and turns on his father. "Did you?"

His father looks taken aback. "I'm dead, son, not omniscient."

"You should have told me." Fraser's got two bright spots of color on his face. Uh oh. He's really and truly enraged.

"Ben," I say, "Ben, come on, you're always telling me the past is past, let it go."

"He meddles," he tells me sharply. "And the one time in my life I needed his meddling, he told me nothing."

Boy, this evening is getting stranger and stranger. "That's not fair," I tell Fraser softly, "He was right, the way he saw it. I didn't want you there, I didn't want you to see me like that. I didn't want you there because I figured I wasn't going to make it, what few times I could think at all on the way to the hospital."

He gives me an impatient look. "You don't understand, Ray."

I can't argue with that. "You wanna fight with him, fight with him about why he left you alone so long. Little kid loses his mom like that, and then his dad disappears."

He gives me a long look. "I can understand that, Ray. I do understand that."

"That's a relief," his father says, but his tone is kinda dry.

Fraser ignores that. "My mother was dead at the hands of someone he had trusted. Buck says he was half-mad with grief, and then there was the fact that everywhere he looked, he saw her."

"All I'm saying, Ben," I risk, "Is that it's not completely fair to be mad at him for not meddling when you don't want him meddling to begin with. And even if I was wrong not to let anyone tell you, which I think I mighta been, he was respecting what I wanted."

"But I'm his son," Fraser says and then looks confused. "Well, that's beside the point, I suppose."

"The Yank's smarter than he looks, son," Bob says, smiling a little. I think he's joking, but Fraser turns on him again.

Fraser goes stone-faced. "He has a name, Dad. It's Ray, and yes, Ray looks just fine, Dad. And yes, you're right, he's quite intelligent, and I'll thank you not to make remarks about him."

And I thought having Stella's folks around made for tense times. This isn't as bad, at least, because I've definitely figured out that Bob likes me. Approves of me. Whatever.

It's pretty bizarre to be glad that a dead guy approves of me. But then the dead guy's son is the guy I love, so maybe it's not.

"I think that was a joke, Ben," I tell him, "Okay, time out, go to your corners. Fair fight."

Fraser gives me this growl. Bob Fraser nods approvingly. "I knew I liked him," he tells Fraser. "Your mother does, too, by the way."

Fraser stands there, frowning at us both.

"Fair fight," I remind him and put the lasagne in the oven. "You know what I mean."

Couple of times, we've had to do this ourselves, but not for a long time. Like I said, we're both getting smarter.

"Ray, I cannot believe you're standing up for him," Fraser says, "Do you realize that when we were after Muldoon, he advised me to leave you to die in the snow?"

That takes me back a step, I look at Bob Fraser, who somehow looks embarrassed. "I admit to that, but if you'll recall, I also told you that I wasn't myself, I couldn't help myself. And didn't I stick with both of you and advise you? Besides, I didn't tell you to leave him to die in the snow, I said I didn't think he was going to make it, that you might have to leave him behind."

We're beyond weird and bizarre now. I tilt my head. "Did you say something about partnership, and going on through the pain and the cold? I mean, when we were on the mountain?"

Bob nods at me. "I rather thought you'd heard me, although I wasn't sure why."

"You were blithering," Fraser tells me irritably. "And in very bad condition, besides. It's hardly surprising you heard him."

Okay, I am so out of here, they're going to have to referee themselves. "Okay, I'm out of here," I tell them both. "I'll be in the bedroom when you're done," I tell Fraser. "I don't need to be in the middle of this."

And then I leave them to it, take a long hot shower to get cleaned up after working outside all day. Sweats and socks and I stretch out on the bed with Nine Princes in Amber, one of my long time favorite books. Corwin's a guy I can relate to, never mind this is science fiction and zany.

Fraser comes in looking a little sheepish, sits down on the bed. "I'm sorry," he tells me. "I should count my blessings that you don't run screaming in fright when he appears."

I can't help it. My mouth twitches into a grin. "In-laws," I tell him, kind of offhanded.

He puts his head in his hands, but laughs anyway. "He's just so....aggravating."

"Like my dad isn't?"

"Not to me." He raises his head. "And, of course, your father's alive, which makes it vastly easier to deal with him."

"I can dance to that," I admit. "You still mad at him?"

He shrugs, but I can see that he is. "As you say, it's rather pointless, he's dead."

"And more important, I'm not," I tell him.

Slow smile. "No, you aren't. Thank God."

And the book goes flying because Fraser doesn't so much pounce as spring. "Oof," I say, and then, "Oh, yeah, I'm all over this," and then nothing at all, because he's very busy using that tongue in my mouth.

The lasagne gets a little overdone, but the rest of the night is quiet and peaceful.

"I still think we should visit your parents at Christmas," he says, after we're in bed for the night and the light is out.

"Sounds good to me." I yawn. "Mom likes the idea, she's going to call me and let me know if it works for them. My brother invited them to Arizona." I spoon up behind him. "And believe me, you don't wanna go from here to the desert, even in December."

He chuckles, brings my fingers to his mouth, and kisses them. "I'll bear that in mind."

And then, I'm gone, smiling a little bit at just how weird my life has gotten ever since I met a certain Mountie.

Life continues on in this wildly bizarre way, and we get snow, a lot of snow, and the days get shorter, and Vecchio actually seems to be adjusting pretty well, overall.

He does keep his place lit up kinda like I keep our place lit up, but hey, he's Italian. He needs the light.

Some of the rough edges have worn off on the new guys, so when Fraser requests leave for Christmas, Campbell seconds it by telling Fraser he doesn't mind staying, and Hays is sweet on one of the Snow girls, so he thirds it.

Thing about winter up here is that when it comes in fast and hard, it sometimes seems like it goes on forever. This year, though, what with travel plans and all, there hardly seems enough time to get things done.

Tom and I finished Cass's kiln before the weather really hit hard, and since then I've mostly been keeping busy working on the RCMP vehicles and doing repair stuff around the house. Well, and giving Vecchio a hand sometimes.

Not that he needs me, really, but it keeps me from hibernating, and he says it keeps me out of trouble.

I think he means it keeps me from getting myself tied up in knots worrying about stuff, and even if it's annoying to have him recognize that, I have to admit he didn't make detective on his charm.

Finally, in November, one of the guys involved in the shooting, Larsen, is picked up by Michigan State Police just south of Cadillac Michigan, which is way up north at the top of the mitten. Turns out, it's the guy from Willie's, the guy who started the whole fucking thing. Ottawa gets involved, of course, but it looks like there's not going to be a problem with the extradition.

Cop gets killed on either side of the border, it's a big deal.

The other two are still missing, and number one ain't talking. No death penalty in Canada, and I'll bet he's not too worried. If I flew down there, I'd make him worry, and I spend a couple of days still wishing I was a Chicago cop until Vecchio whacks me around a little to straighten my head out.

"Nothing you can do," he tells me quietly, one afternoon when there's only a few people in. "You know it, I know it, and you should remember that you gotta let some things go. "

"I know." But I scowl at him. "Bastards killed David, could have killed Ben."

He nods, and his eyes go distant. "If you let it eat at you, you're gonna get more whacked out than you already are. Believe me, I know."

I wonder suddenly what he had to do while he was undercover. Decide not to ask, and I let it drop, try and let it go and not think about it.

By the time Christmas comes, Vecchio's been more or less accepted in, which is interesting. Sometimes I think Fraser has a lot to do with the fact that Owlcreek adopted me so quick, and I think maybe that's why Vecchio's Chicago style doesn't keep people away. Besides, he really can charm the socks of most people.

Vecchio flies down to visit his family a few days before Christmas, but Fraser's leave doesn't start until the day before Christmas Eve, and our flights get snarled by weather, so it's practically Christmas Eve when we get into Chicago. Instead of my dad and mom, Vecchio's there, looking smug.

"It was late, I told your folks I'd do the honors," he tells me.

I've been asleep for the last leg, and I'm grouchy from all the delays, and we left Dief at home, since we're only going to be gone a week, and I'm still having mixed feelings about that, and to top it off, the long delays and airport chairs and airplane seats have stirred up my shoulder so that it aches like a bastard. I growl something at Vecchio, we mosey over to pick up our bags, and then Vecchio drives us over to my folks.

My dad's snoozing in his chair, but my mom's wide-awake, I get the life hugged out of me, and then Fraser does.

I think it startles him a little, but he goes with it, and at least my dad just shakes his hand. I get hugged, though, and he pats my back, smiling. "You're lookin' good, son. Livin' up in the Yukon must be good for ya." Sad to say, I'm still so grouchy that it's hard to react enthusiastically. I think he takes it as me being tired, and turns to Fraser. "Looks like you did good."

Fraser gives him this rueful sort of look. "Well, I'm afraid that lately, he's been looking after me, Damien."

Dad looks at me questioningly. "Yeah, since he got shot," I say without thinking and then wish I'd bitten my tongue out. "Um. In the summer." I didn't tell them. First off, I was too whacked out, and then I didn't want them worrying that the Yukon had turned into a hotbed of criminal activity.

I tell them this, pretty damn quick, because my mom is looking shocked.

Fraser, bless him, sidetracks any talk on this subject. "Ray, get your coat off, let me see if I can do something for that shoulder."

I'm tempted to fall at his feet in gratitude, but I'm not sure how my folks would take that. It's one thing to accept the fact that your son is sleeping with a guy, but another thing to see public displays of affection. But I have to admit, I'm a little surprised when Fraser nudges me into the livingroom.

I sit on the floor in front of him and he uses some of that miracle rub he keeps, something Mary Atlin makes up. I take off my sweater, and I'm wearing one of his old Henleys under it, and all he has to do is tug the back of the collar to give him room to work on my shoulder.

My dad watches this for a minute with this sort of perplexed look for a minute.

"The muscles and nerves still act up a bit," Fraser tells him mildly. "It's been bothering him most of the day."

Me, at this particular moment, my dad could be upset and I'm too tired to care, those magic fingers are working out a nasty knot, between my shoulder and neck, and I'm letting my head hang forward and practically groaning in relief.

But my dad nods and says gruffly. "You guys want anything to eat or drink?"

"A cup of tea would be delightful," Fraser tells him. "Ray?"

I think about it. "Mom, you got any hot chocolate? Don't want coffee this late."

She chuckles, looks at my father. "You see, I told you. Your dad was ribbing me when I bought the cocoa, said you'd probably prefer a shot of whiskey to warm you up."

Fraser's fingers are magic, and my grouchiness seems to be evaporating. "Hey, hot chocolate is comfort food."

She leans over and ruffles my hair, then goes on into the kitchen.

Fraser chuckles softly at me and continues working those knots a while longer. I'm slowly being jellified, and it's a good kind of thing, even if my dad is starting to laugh at me for the way I'm sitting. When Fraser stops, I lean back against his legs, not even thinking, but my dad doesn't seem to mind, so I stay there.

Fraser's telling him about my various jobs in Owlcreek, and I can see my dad is actually a little impressed, which is freaky and a little embarrassing and pretty damn nice. Of course, all I do is shrug and say, "Keeps me busy."

I'm too comfortable and a little too tired to do much talking, so I mostly listen and put a few words in, and when my mom comes back, I drink the hot chocolate. Old fashioned kind, and while it's maybe not quite as good as Fraser's, it's still pretty damn good and reminds me of winter and Christmas when I was growing up. Jeez, I'm old enough to be nostalgic, but thinking that reminds me of Fraser's long ago Christmas toast where he said he remembers Christmas in his childhood with a certain amount of horror. He said fondness, too, but you know, that might have been when I first knew I was in some serious trouble. Well, not knew, exactly, but when I first started admitted to myself that I was feeling pretty deep.

I think he likes Christmas better now.

Heh. I kept telling myself I loved him like a brother, back then, and instead of letting that memory bother me, I think it's kinda funny and put my head back against his knees. I got a second chance, after all, God must exist, and so when my mom suggests going to midnight Mass, I agree without so much as pulling a face.

I'm getting soft. Or soft in the head. And it's the Mountie's fault.


So we chit chat with my folks for a while, and then we carry our bags to the guest room, and I'm mellow enough that it doesn't freak me out that it's my dad leading us down the hall. Dad gives me another hug before he leaves us there, and when I turn around Fraser's just grinning at me. "I knew this was an excellent idea," he says.

"I never said it wasn't." I drop my bag and move toward him. "So no I told you so, Ben-ton."

He just grins bigger. I push him back on the bed and we end up mostly just holding each other, because we aren't kids anymore, and it's been a long day, and it's almost two in the morning for two guys used to getting up waaaay early.

"Bed," he finally says firmly and rolls away, bends down to pull off my boots. I consider protesting that, but what the hell, I can do turn about when he sits down, and that's just what I do.

Then we're under the blankets, both of us wrapped around each other and his hand rubbing the small of my back. "Just don't get any ideas," I say, into his neck, "We're not coming back to Chicago permanent. I like where we live."

He sighs, but it's one of his happy sighs. "Understood."

And then I'm out like a light.

I wake up in the morning and Fraser's gone, and there's definitely the smell of coffee in the air. I pull on some sweats and socks and pad out to the kitchen where my folks are sitting at the table while Fraser regales them with a Ray story.

I cross my eyes at him and get myself a cup, sit down next to Fraser and realize that I don't have any M&Ms. Damn. Well, there's sugar, but Fraser looks at me as I'm contemplating that, and leaves the table for a minute, comes back with a bag of Holiday M&Ms.

I squint at him, at the M&Ms. "How'd you do that?"

"Your mother did it." He grins. "I just suggested that she have some on hand when we arrived."

I give him what I hope is a smoldering look and pour some into the coffee.

My dad rolls his eyes. "Spoiling him rotten, sounds like."

"Not at all," Fraser tells him seriously. "Ray wouldn't permit it."

That sets my dad back, and I decide I'm staying out of it. Unless Fraser gets huffy, because I remember him barking at his dad. Which thought is pretty weird here in my mom's kitchen, with two very much alive parents.

So, as if thinking about that sends out some sort of psychic call, guess who is suddenly standing in the kitchen doorway. I choke and manage to breathe coffee out through my nose, which isn't pleasant, and Fraser helpfully pounds me on my back until he looks up and sees his dad.

His face goes kind of frozen, and he looks back at me. "Are you all right?"

I'm still coughing. "Fine, fine." I don't dare look back at the kitchen doorway again.

"Good people," says Bob Fraser. I twitch. Fraser launches into another story of Owlcreek, and I hide in my coffee again, managing not to choke this time.

Bob Fraser moves from the kitchen doorway to one of the two remaining empty chairs at the table. Apparently just listening.

I'm saying a Hail Mary and pleading for intercession, please don't let Bob say another word, God, please, because if he pisses off Fraser again, my parents will think Fraser's ready for the funny farm, and probably me, too, because I'm not entirely sure I can stay out of it.

And yes, now I'm convinced there's a God, because he does keep his mouth shut, and having a dead sort of father in law is just about more than I can handle, but I can't leave Fraser here alone to handle this, that would be low, and finally Fraser finishes his story and excuses himself to take a shower.

Bob Fraser goes with him.

I try not to think of the conversation that is going to take place in the bathroom, and finally tell my parents the story of Fraser getting shot, and we talk law and order for a while, and then I escape and hit the bathroom.

He's standing in his underwear and shaving by this time, scowling at himself in the mirror. No sign of Bob. I ask, "What was that all about?"

"Meddling." He says it tightly. Yup, they're fighting again.

Jesus. I thought once you were dead you got past all that.

So I go back out and get some clean clothes, return to the bathroom. "So, what's on the agenda today?"

He sticks his tongue in his cheek to run that wicked looking razor over it, and shoots me a dire look in the mirror.

I shrug, and decide maybe he'll be less irritable when he's done shaving. The water is hot and when I look down, I'm pleased to see that the scars are just that these days, I haven't thought about them in a long time. Fraser's are still pretty red, but I've been rubbing his magic salve into them every night, and knowing the Mountie, he's been doing it, too, so they'll fade.

At least on the skin.

Between one breath and another, I'm down, low, and I know it's just because my dead father in law appeared and pissed off my lifemate. Doesn't help.

I mutter under my breath, "Timing is everything, Bob."

Mr. Hypersenses hears me. "What, Ray?"

I scowl at the soap. "Nothing, I was just talking to myself."

Silence from the other side of the shower curtain.

I finish up and turn the water off, and when I open the curtain, Fraser's fully dressed and sitting on the toilet. Well, the closed lid. Looking as low as I feel at the moment.

I grab a towel and work on my hair, eyeing him. "What did he say this time?"

He shakes his head. "Sometimes I think he provokes me just because it's more of a relationship than we had when he was alive."

My mom used to say that I misbehaved when I was little to get their attention. I shrug. "Well, maybe now that he's dead, he regrets not having a relationship with you."

"It's a little late for that," he snaps, and then does that eyebrow-rubbing thing. "Forgive me, Ray, I'm just annoyed with him."

"I know," I tell him and step out of the tub. "I mean, I wish he hadn't shown up, either. Maybe he just doesn't want to leave while you're still pissed at him."

That gets me an amused look, then a thoughtful one. "I suppose that's possible." Then, like the morning sun, he smiles. "You see? You see what you give me? Sanity."

I can't hold on to the low mood with that aimed my way. "You're a freak."

Big grin. "Understood."

I steal a kiss and rummage for my shaving kit. "So what's on the agenda today."

He watches me, and his expression softens. "Oh, I thought we could touch base with some old friends, and I have a few things I would like to do in preparation for the holiday, and don't forget, Ray would like us to stop by this afternoon at the Vecchios."

"Gotcha." I've got my shorts on, and I'm shimmying into yet another of his Henleys.

He eyes me. "Isn't that mine?"

I grin. "Yeah. So?"

He tugs at the hem. "I think it's rather too big for you." Dissatisfied look down at himself. "I think I'm getting a bit out of shape."

"That is nuts." I point my toothbrush at him. "Don't even go there."

He laughs, leans up, and steals a kiss back. "For the moment, I'll accept your judgement."


I get another kiss on the back of my neck, and he goes back out. When I finally emerge, I can smell bacon and something else, and sure enough, it's Fraser's pancakes.

Like I said once, Fraser's at home cooking is a lot better than his trail cooking, or maybe I just prefer the fare at home. Whatever, I snarf down a stack of pancakes and munch through some bacon and my dad is watching me like he's damn pleased to see it.

Of course, my mom isn't quite sure what to think of Fraser taking over her kitchen, but I think she enjoys having someone else cook for her for a change. We toss around plans, and Fraser, while I'm getting more coffee, makes secretive chat with my folks, who are clearly plotting something.

So ultimately, we take the GTO and my dad takes his car, and they're going to pick Fraser up at the 2-7 to go off and do some secret things, while I go off and do whatever I want. I poke at Fraser when we leave to get some hints, but I should know better, the Mountie won't give up someone else's secret on pain of death.

Anyway, we're bearing gifts when we get into the 2-7, and at this point, I don't give a fuck if anyone figures it out, Welsh already knows, and Frannie, and they're the only people whose opinions I'd give a rat's ass about, so hell with it.

We walk in and it's the usual controlled chaos until a head turns and somebody notices. That somebody says something to Frannie, who turns and looks and her eyes get real big.

She hurls herself at us with a shriek, and boy, do we get greeted. Fraser blushes under this attack, and hell if I'm not blushing, too.

Welsh comes out of his office at the shriek, and he's trying to keep a stone face, but a grin breaks through and he comes over to give us both a back slap and handshake. Dewey's out, but Huey's there, and he gives me a high five.

Lots of new faces, but I've been gone a while, and that's not too surprising. We end up sitting in Welsh's office with people filtering in and out, exchanging stories and laughing until Fraser looks at the time, gives me a grin. "Ah, I would imagine my ride will be here momentarily."

At this point, it's only Frannie and Welsh, squadrooms being what they are. "He's helping my parents plot against me," I tell them.

"Someone has to," Frannie razzes me. "Don't forget, Mama wants to see both of you tomorrow afternoon. And your parents are invited, Mama called them."

My parents and the Vecchio clan. The idea is mind warping. I look at Fraser, who laughs, pats my arm, and gets up. "Stay out of trouble," he tells me, and that glint is in his eyes again. "And remember, Ray wants us to stop by this afternoon sometime, so I'll see you back at your parents, unless you'd rather meet there."

"I'll see you at Mom and Dad's," I tell him and smirk. "I have a few secrets to keep myself."

He grins and goes, and I stick around for a little while longer, just shooting the breeze.

Frannie finally goes back to work and Welsh regards me thoughtfully. "You're looking damn good these days."

I grin. "Thanks. Clean living, and of course I don't get to eat much junk food."

His mouth twitches. "Yeah?"

I nod, pull a face. "I don't know that I'm ever going to get everything back, ya know, but hell, I'm firing on all pistons, and I can do most of what I want to do. My left hand is sort of taking over, I'm going to end up left handed."

"Not so bad." He looks pleased, looks....like maybe he's glad to know things have turned out all right. I think maybe he is, he spent an awful lot of time at the hospital when I was there. "Now, what's up with the guys shot Fraser."

I'm honestly surprised. "Vecchio told you?"

He smiles a little. "Yup. Wanted to make sure if these guys showed up here, we knew about them. Nobody's run across them, but in a city this size..."

"Well, they got one of them in Michigan. I expect he's going to shipped up soon as the lawyers get done fighting. Still looking for the other two." Tyler's the one I want them to find.

He nods and we sit silent for a minute. "Well, I better head out. I gotta pick something up for Vecchio's sprout."

He chuckles. "Strange, both of you ending up there."

I laugh a little. "Oh, yeah. Vecchio seems to think he's got to keep us out of trouble."

"Keep him out of trouble, too." He gets up, walks out with me. "Take it easy. I'm planning on taking some time off next summer. Good fishing up your way?"

"So they tell me." I'm a little nervous. "You know, you're welcome to stay with us. Just don't move to Owlcreek, people will start thinking it's an alien conspiracy."

He sends me off with a slap on the back and a belly laugh.

I do a little shopping, just odds and ends, something for Benny, who probably doesn't need it, some music for my Ben, some nice aged Scotch for Vecchio, and a few female frivolities for Frannie and Mama Vecchio.

Then, since I finished early, I head on out to the old neighborhood, stop by the old Embers to see if Max is in. Checking on those damn threads of Cassie's, I guess.

He's in, behind the bar, and he does a double take, grins at me. "Jeezus, Kowalski, you look great, the great white North must be good to you."

"I'm doing okay," I allow, and shake his hand. "Just wanted to say thanks again for your help last time, Max." I say that last quiet, just for his ears.

"Glad to help." Max grins at me. "Let me buy ya some Christmas cheer."

I think about it, nod. "Sure, but just one. I gotta meet Mom and Dad, touch base with an old friend from the 2-7."

He nods. "Hang on, I'll be right there."

He goes back behind the bar, says something to the girl who works for him, and she nods, he grabs a bottle and a couple of glasses and waves me over to the table in the corner. We sit down, he pours, and we just basically shoot the shit, old stuff from high school, who's stayed clean and who hasn't, what happened to the girls of our dreams back then.

Then, he looks at me. "I hear Stella's back in town."

I roll my eyes. "Yeah, I know. She married that friend of mine from the 2-7, dumped him later."

He holds his glass up. "Women."

I laugh. "Stella, at least." Touch my glass to his.

There's some commotion at the other end of the bar, somebody's had a little too much Christmas cheer, sounds like, and Max turns around, frowns.

I look over his shoulder, see somebody at the bar hassling the woman behind it. Max gets up and starts slowly back behind the bar, moving carefully, and I see his hands go down. Fuck. He's reaching for a gun back there, and maybe he's checking out the drunk, too.

I so do not want to be here, suddenly, and I look back at the drunk. There's something weirdly dj vu about the way he's standing and the tilt of his head. I don't recognize him, exactly, but there's something, something I can't pinpoint, and I'm wondering if he's some bad-ass I took down when he turns just enough I can see more than the back of his head.

Ka-thumpety thump, and I'm flashing on the bastard from last summer, flashing on Tyler, and maybe it's just talking about him with Welsh. But this guy has long scraggly hair and a beard, and I'm not sure enough of myself to know if I'm recognizing something about him, or just flashing.

I can't tell. I get up and move toward the bar, staying out of his line of sight, but trying to get a better look.

Max says something to him, soft and low, and things go bad in a hurry.

It's like watching things under a strobe. The guy reaches out and grabs the girl's wrist, Max says something sharp and gets there in a hurry, and the guy, ta-da, pulls a piece, and Max stands still for a minute.

Only for a minute, because the guy is wired, wired too tight, and he looks like he's taking aim, and what the fuck is it with these loons, what is there to gain-Max reaches, comes up with a shotgun.

I can't get my breath. Shotgun trumps a handgun every time, I tell Tyler silently, and then, please, God, let him drop it, I'm not armed, and I somehow get the feeling it's not a good idea if he sees me, but I can't back away, I can't run and hide.

I won't, damn him.

Everything is in slo mo again, I swear to God I see his hand tense, see his finger curl tighter on the trigger, and I say, "Hey, asshole, don't I know you?"

Okay, so intelligence isn't my big virtue.

He jerks around-guy is a bomb, just waiting to go off and it looks like I should have waited for the bomb squad-and sees me, and his eyes get big. Face to face, I can see it's Tyler, I'm not just imagining it, or flashing, and he says something too low for me to hear, and I can see the muzzle flash even as I'm spinning and turning to dive under a table.

Let's face it, bullets are fast. Really fast. And I'm not as fast as I used to be. But something, someone gives me a hefty shove and instead of diving, I'm thumping my head against the floor under the table hard, and something hot streaks across my hip before I get there, there's a blast from Max's shotgun and that's it.

I'm not all there, I hit the floor hard enough to make the world fuzz out just enough that I swear I see those damn Mountie boots in front of me, and I'm sort of hanging there trying to decide if I can get back up when the floor comes up to meet me, wham.

And that's about all she wrote for Damien and Barbara's boy, Stanley Raymond Kowalski, at least for the moment.

Which is probably just as well.

I wake up in the ambulance, and nobody seems too worried, and even though my hip hurts a little, it only hurts like my calf did last summer. Bastard got me twice now, I think blearily and try and sit up.

Medic makes me lie back down, of course, and I'm thinking, oh, shit, not at Christmas.

"How bad is it?" Patting down around my hip, but she grabs my hand, gives me a look.

"Not bad, Mr. Kowalski, it's bleeding a little, and you may need some sutures, but you were a very lucky man."

That's me, Mr. Lucky, I think bitterly, and then I realize she's right. Start to snicker. Oh, hell with it, I was flat out giggling.

She gets worried and checks my eyes with one of those little penlights, but doesn't look too worried about what she sees.

Of course, my ass is going to be grass when Fraser and my folks get to the hospital. "Anybody else get hurt?"

She gives me another look. "Unless you count the guy who shot you, no."

That's good news. Very good news.

I get even better news at the hospital when one of the uniforms tells me that there was another guy there, trying to slink out the door when Max noticed and held him there at gunpoint.

Guess who.

Yup, it was the third guy from Owlcreek. So he's going back to Canada, too, and as morbid and grim as it sounds, I can tell Lizzie that the guy who raped her is never going to hurt anybody again.

I'll tell her about Max, too, I decide, and maybe when we go to Mass tonight, Max gets a candle of his own.

I look like shit, of course, I've got a lump on my head the size of a golfball, although it's going down some under the icepack. I've got to stay some for observation, the doc tells me, and I'm gearing up to fight that when Lt. Welsh shows up, looking peeved.

"Kowalski, can't you ever stay out of trouble?" And then I get chewed out like I was still on the force.

Like that's not enough, Vecchio shows up after about thirty minutes of this, and I get another tirade, and I'm starting to feel like I've got too many friends and too much family and Fraser comes in, white to the lips.

Vecchio and Welch melt away and Fraser takes hold of me and pulls me against him.

"Not my fault," I mutter, "I was just having a little Christmas cheer with an old buddy."

He doesn't say a goddamn thing.

But somebody else does. "He's telling you the truth, son."

Oh, not now, I think and put my forehead carefully on Fraser's shoulder, waiting for the explosion.

"I believe him." Tightly.

And then I flash on the Mountie boots I thought I saw at the bar, just before I went out. I jerk my head up so fast that I fuzz out again for a sec, have to hold on to Fraser before I can turn my head. "It was you!" Surprised. "You pushed me!"

Bob Fraser looks a little embarrassed. "I wasn't entirely sure it would work. I, ah, overdid it a bit."

I'm sitting there with my jaw hanging open and Fraser's head turns, he stares at his father.

Bob Fraser looks even more embarrassed now. "I just had a feeling, son, that's all. I told you, I'm not omniscient. And I didn't want to leave things with us the way they were, so since I was still around, I thought I'd just, er...." Really, really embarrassed.

I'm still goggling at him when Fraser says, his voice pretty hoarse. "Thank you, Dad."

Bob runs his finger inside the collar of his tunic. "I'm just glad there was something I could do this time." Coughs, looks away. Looks back at Fraser. "Merry Christmas, son."

Fraser's eyes are way too bright. I want to tell him that it wasn't that close, but I don't know that for a fact. I was moving, and I still got hit, and now I don't know what to think. I'm not complaining, though, I've got stitches in my hip and a bump on my head, and I swear to God that if Canada lets me, I'm going to start carrying a piece again because this is getting too fucking weird.

Bob looks at me. "You take care of each other," he tells me, and he's getting sort of...see-through.

I nod at him and then I get hugged hard again. "No more of this," Fraser tells me. "Maybe it's time to consider a different career path."

"We aren't moving to Toronto," I tell him firmly.

"No, of course not." He finally releases me. "I leave you for one afternoon," he chides.

It takes me a minute of scowling to figure out that he's ribbing me. "I'm starting to think I've got a target on my chest."

"Good thing they seem to have been poor shots," he says drily, and then shudders. "God, Ray, when Lt. Welsh called....What happened?"

He doesn't know. Nobody told him. Oh, boy, I think, and blink hard. "It was Tyler, Ben."

He stares at me. Blinks and stares some more. "Good lord."

"Something," I agree. "I'm starting to think that there's no such thing as coincidences. And the other guy, what's his name, was with him. So that's it."

His mouth quirks. "That almost defies belief, I think. I'll be a lot more grateful when I've gotten past being terrified, I think."

"Get me out of here," I suggest, and put the ice back on my forehead. "And protect me from Vecchio."

"That I will not," he tells me, pretty tart, but he goes out to find out what the doc says and if they're going to try and nail me down for observation.

They want to, but even the medical staff is no match for the combined powers of the Vecchio and Kowalski clans, and if you throw in a pure at heart Mountie, you gotta figure they were doomed to lose.

So an hour later, I'm finally cut loose, and we're on our way to the Vecchios, because every single person in that waiting room swore an oath to God that they would watch me like a hawk.

My dad looks kind of worried when he sees me hobbling out, but that doesn't stop him from giving me a bear hug. Mom just cries a little, which makes me feel bad, and I keep telling them that the last thing I wanted was to look for trouble. Damn threads of Cassie's.

I think it's time to go on the lam, and I've got a headache that won't quit, and the last thing I want is to be surrounded by the Vecchios. I mean, I love 'em, mostly, but they aren't exactly quiet.

Which is understatement. Frannie comes up and hugs the life out of me while she's chewing me out in her usual weird way. Mama Vecchio gives my cheek a sharp slap and then hugs the life out of me. The rest of 'em, including the kids, are making noise, talking in Italian and English, and telling me I have to be more careful, and finally Vecchio takes pity.

"Okay, okay, everybody just shut up!" Oh, yeah, he's sort of head of the family when he's home, everybody settles down fast, and Mama Vecchio wants to give me a glass of wine, but Fraser won't let her, and then I get cookies and a small cup of coffee that I don't drink because I think it will make my headache worse.

Vecchio winks at me, steers me and Fraser to a corner of the couch, and between kids coming over to talk to Fraser, and adults fussing over me, that headache gets worse.

I sneak off after about an hour to take a nap with Benny.

There's a nice double bed against the wall in one of the bedrooms upstairs. I put Benny on the inside and lie down. Benny takes a while to get to sleep, and then I'm out, out, out.

I wake up to two small hands on my chest and "Rayrayrayray." Great, even Benny's picked it up. Of course, since he's just a sprout, it's more like "Waywaywayway," but I know what he means.

"Bennybennybennybenny," I mumble and crack one eye open. Goofy, doofus kid grin. "Can't you sleep a little longer, kid?"

He crows and goes into this long kid babble about the big tree in the house, and all the kids and I don't know what all else, because I'm not tracking all the way.

He bounces on me. "Down!"

"Gimme a minute, Benny." I tip him backward on the bed and play tickle the baby for a minute one-handed while I try to get my head clear again.

Headache's not as bad, and Benny's happy to play, he was just bored because I was sleeping.

And then it hits me hard, right smack between the eyes.

Four years ago, I was a guy with no family and few friends, a guy who jumped at the chance to live some other guy's life because the alternative was thinking about making a midnight snack of my gun, and even I was saner than that.

When did I get so attached to this kid? When did Vecchio and I become friends enough that he's treating me like a kid brother, never mind we're only a few years apart? When did I get woven into so many lives?

I obviously wasn't looking.

It shakes me a little.

Now, I have everything. I have Ben, I have friends who care a lot about whether or not I live or die, I'm part of a community, and two families, and I have Dief, who thinks I'm a packmate, this kid, who is right now watching my index finger zero in on his ribs and cackling like a maniac. Stella's kid, and that doesn't bother me at all. Why the hell should it?

I'm his uncle. I laugh softly through my nose at the idea of Vecchio as my brother, but hell if it's not so. Big brother, comes down to the ER and chews me out for nearly getting myself killed. Frannie's the kid sister, it beats the hell out of me how I ended up with two mothers, but I'm snickering and Benny doesn't care, he thinks it's about playing pounce on the baby, and he's squirming and perfectly happy.

"Ray." Soft voice from the doorway, and I turn my head to see my Mountie smile at me. I'm hiding up here and my family's downstairs. Families.

He comes over and sits on the edge of the bed, pretends to save Benny and makes the puffin face for him. Benny goes for Fraser like a shot, climbs up over me, and I shift fast to keep him from waking up the ache in my hip.

Fraser catches him before he hits that spot, and I push myself up a little on the bed.

Get that look that never fails to turn me inside out, that look that says he can't believe he's here, he's happy, and that I'm with him. Me, Ray Kowalski, half-blind, still damaged, but no way stupid. Maybe I'm not as damaged as I thought.

Damn sure I'm lucky, though, Mr. Lucky Kowalski.

"Ray," he says softly, and leans in to kiss my mouth very gently. Benny watches this with interest, points at me and explains something to Fraser, who listens seriously. I miss about half this time, blink, and Fraser nods.

"You're right, Benny, Ray does have a big ow."

I can't help laughing at that. "I must look like shit if the kid notices."

"No, in fact, you do not." Those eyes, I swear, those eyes. "In fact, I would venture to say that you look quite beautiful." He's very serious and he holds my gaze for a very long minute until Benny gets restless again.

God. Four years ago, he had nobody but a dead father. The RCMP didn't want anything to do with him, would have booted him out except for the simple fact that he was right, and they knew it.

Vecchio's his brother, too. Older, younger, I can't remember, but Vecchio's the streetwise one, and my Ben's the logical, but idealistic one. There's something reassuring about the fact that facing up to myself and running off to Canada brought him the same things it's brought to me.

Friends. Family.

It's also brought a lot of weirdness, but it's a good kind of weirdness. This time, I lean up and kiss him. "Yeah, well, you're prejudiced, Ben."

"Not at all," he murmurs and then we both pretend to tickle-attack Benny, who squeaks and scrambles to get away, laughs at us with his back against the wall.

"You guys torturing my kid?" Vecchio's leaning against the doorframe, smiling.

"Only minimally," Fraser says, straight face.

"Well, okay, as long as it's only minimally." Vecchio saunters over and sits at the foot of the bed. Benny crows and scrambles for him, climbs into his dad's lap.

Save me, save me, I think he's saying, and I grin.

Vecchio gives me a long look. "How you feeling, Stan? Headache better?"

"Like I got hit by a truck," I tell him promptly. Which is true, no sense in bullshitting. "But mostly okay," which is also true. Then, for reasons he can't get unless being around Fraser too long has taught him to read my mind, I say, "Thanks, Ray."

Maybe he can read my mind. He nods, like he does get it. "Yeah, you, too, Stan." Soberly. Reaches out and pats my ankle. "What the hell, maybe it was destiny, you go into a bar and the same guys are there."

He's apologizing for barking at me at the ER. I know it, he knows it, and Fraser knows it, and I just nod, like it's no big deal. "Yeah, who coulda figured?"

The three of us share a grin. But Benny's getting impatient, he's sounding a little fretful with his "Daddydaddydaddydaddy" Vecchio gives us another look. "Dinner's ready. You up to eating?"

"Yeah, I'm good." It's bubbling up inside me, then. "Especially if it's your mom or my mom cooking."

He grins, stands up with Benny on his hip, and gives us a thumb's up. "Good. Come on down. You will not believe how much food they've got."

Fraser watches him go, his eyes too bright. "I'm a very fortunate man." Huskily. Looks at me again. "An incredibly fortunate man."

Long kiss, but he's careful of my hip, and I don't give a shit, I'm all over the kissing thing, warm skin and soft dark hair, just now showing a few flecks of silver here and there.

Damned if Cassie isn't dead on right. Life is a tapestry, and if we're lucky, we get woven into the right place, and I think that's why I'm lucky, and why he's lucky.

The Weaver decided that our colors suited this spot best, and twisted our threads together, and that's pretty fanciful for a hard-headed ex-Chicago flatfoot with experimental hair, but I like it. I've liked it for a long time. Greatness. True greatness.

I touch Fraser's cheek when he draws back. "Great. Greatness." And I grin. "To the 100th power or something." And I thought the 20th power was good enough.

One eyebrow goes up, but he doesn't question it. "I must remember to thank the Weaver." He's read the same book that Cassie read, I think, because he knew this all along.

Then we're laughing softly, and he helps me up, and down we go.


End Tapestry by anonymous co: JimPage363@aol.com

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