by Laura Jacquez Valentine

Author's Website:


Author's Notes: muchas gracias to Deb for ideastorming
and Bas for her usual fantastic beta work.

Story Notes: for Speranza

"I swear to God I will punch you right in the face. Fair warning." "Well, what does that mean, you're going to punch me?" "Just look, I'm going to punch you in the face! Why don't you listen to me?" --Mountie on the Bounty

Fraser told me once, when we were on stakeout, about a fight he got into just after he joined the Mounties. He was nineteen, he said, and some other cadet wouldn't leave him alone, kept teasing him and punching him in the shoulder. So he hit the guy. Bam! Just like that.

Said he didn't want to. Said he didn't like losing his temper.

Yeah, well, I can understand. I've been hit by Fraser, and you don't want to lose control of a punch like that. That's the kind of weapon you keep under wraps.

I talked to Frannie about her brother a lot. Trying to get a handle on the guy. Protective, she said, and got a mean streak. Fists of fury, that's Ray Vecchio. I can do that. That's easy. Shake, bad guys, shake.

Fraser's got a mean streak that he doesn't show. He buries it under that uniform and the polite thing and the naive thing and the obsessive thing. You gotta dig to find it.

I dug.

I dug with words which as anyone knows are not my best friends, and I dug with yelling at him every chance he gave me which was a lot, and finally I dug with my fist. Bam! Just like that.

And hell if it didn't put a hole in that armor of his. I didn't expect that, not knowing how stubborn he is. Hell if he didn't look like Dief had just bitten him.

That was part of the problem, actually, that look. Fraser's got this whole I-am-the-leader-of-the-pack thing, and he thinks I'm just going to roll over.

That I don't get. From what I know of Vecchio, he wouldn't've rolled over. So why should I? I'm not the type anymore than he is. For Stella, maybe, but I've done a lot of stupid stuff for Stella.

OK, so I do that for him, too. OK, so the stupid stuff I do for Fraser usually ends up risking my skinny butt, which the stuff I do for Stella rarely does, but the point here is that I do it for Stella because I want to, not because I got railroaded.

These days I gotta keep myself from picking fights with Fraser. I keep wanting to see that mean streak, that tight furious look on his face when he comes after me. I wanna see all that stuff he keeps locked down come right up to the top, fists of fury and the whole deal.

Maybe I can't take him but I bet I can hold my own. Bam!

"I don't care what you'd rather not do. Just do it." "Why would I want to hit a friend, Ray?" --Mountie & Soul.

The four of us were in Welsh's office--me, Fraser, Stella, Welsh--and it happened again, me losing a word. "The guy won't ID his, the fighter, the bad guy, the pugilist, the--Fraser, what's the word for the guy who beat up the other guy?"

"Assailant," he said, with that puzzled look he always gets when I don't have a word.

"Assailant! The assailant, the guy won't ID his assailant, but we have security camera footage and an eyewitness, so we're good."

The meeting went on, except I caught Stella watching me with that sad look she used to get back when we were married.

I narrowed my eyes at her and she cut it out. She worries too much.

I thought about the way we caught this guy, me coming at him from in front, and Dief and Fraser covering the sides and the rear. He was dumb as hell and took a swing at me, and I slugged him one but good. Maybe I shouldn't have, because he lawyered up and he's screaming "brutality" and my knuckles are all cut up, but Fraser backed me like always and it's not like I beat the guy up or anything.

Just one punch, bam! Damn, it felt good. Been spending a lot of time boxing again, which is good because next to dancing, it's my favorite way to waste time. Also, being hit by Fraser made me think I needed to get my act together.

I mean, I got on the wrong side of Fraser's fist once. Twice. Asked for it, too, even the second time, knowing what kind of a punch the guy had on him. Yeah, well, Stella always said I got no sense. She'd laugh when she said it, her hand on my arm or my cheek, until when it became not funny any more, after I got in that car accident, about a year before the divorce.

Not that I blame the accident. Cracked my head hard enough to make me see the cracks in the marriage, that's all.

Fraser's fist was like that, the first time. Him always arguing with me, not trusting me, pushing at me. He hits me like I tell him to, and it was like that car accident again. Cracked my head. Cracked what we got wide open, only he didn't know it.

He's pretty dumb sometimes, for a guy that smart.

"All of a sudden, I, uh...I, uh...don't know how to talk to you." "It's not all of a sudden, Ray. It took years." "Yeah."
--Strange Bedfellows

After we got out of the menage a quatre in Welsh's office, Stell put her hand on my arm and asked me if I was doing OK. Like me losing that word was some great tragedy--she never got it, did she, that it's not some issue for me like it is for her. "Yeah," I said. "I'm good. Better than good."

She looked hurt at that and sniped at me. She does that, runs hot and cold on me. Well, that's fair; I do it to her.

Fraser asked me if I wanted to go eat, and I did, so we collected the wolf and went for Chinese.


I looked up from my plate of General Tso's, which sucked and which I was considering having wrapped for Dief. "Spit it out, Frase."

He put his hands on the table and frowned. "I don't mean to pry, but are you and Stella...well. All right?"

I frowned right back at him. "We're fine. We're as good as we ever are. She worries about me sometimes. She's weird."

"Does she have cause to be worried?"

I looked at him, and he had that earnest-Mountie thing going. He looks like a little kid when he does that, like he used to look a few years ago. I've seen pictures of him when he first got to Chicago, and Lord he looked young. This town's been hard on him. You can't see it most of the time, because he's kinda pretty and so it doesn't show much. Me, you can look at and see I'm heading for forty. I got my life all over my face. Him, it's just his eyes and the way he looks tired even in the mornings.

Anyway, earnest or not, the guy's my partner. I sucked the sauce off a piece of chicken and put it back on my plate. "Not that it's any of your business, Fraser, but you ever notice I got trouble with words?"

"Some, yes."

I shrugged. "I didn't always. Then some punk kid joyriding smacked into my car. Head injury. I got, whatsit. That thing where sometimes you can't get a word out." I ate the cherry they put on the plate as garnish and grinned at him. "I told you I was damaged."

Fraser picked at his fingernail, concentrating awful hard on it. "No, you didn't."

"Yeah, I did. Illinois Lake Freight. The Henry Anderson."


"Allen, whatever."

"Ray, I had no idea you meant that literally. I'm--"

"Shut up, Fraser. So sometimes I miss a word. Big deal. Could've been worse. Stella's just a freak about the whole thing."

He pushed some broccoli around on his plate. "Understood." He pushed his tongue against his lower lip and then smiled at me.

Great. Just great. Now I got Fraser worrying, and he worries worse than Stella. Trouble is he's got this whole steamrolling thing going, this whole school of human interaction where you just run over people until they do what you want, and that's not my scene. I don't like being steamrolled, I don't roll over, I don't like being bossed by a guy without enough sense to keep his tongue out of electrical sockets. Even I got more sense than that.

Like I said, he's pretty dumb sometimes.

"Do you agree these are the facts of the scenario?" "Did I just say that or do I have a head injury?" --Asylum

I fed Dief my leftovers in the car, which my dad would kill me for if anyone ever told him, and Fraser managed to squish me by trying to climb into the back seat, God knows why. Last time I got squished by Fraser we were in that damn yellow thing. "Fraser. Fraser. What are you doing?"

"I'm attempting to--Diefenbaker, would you--nothing, Ray." And he drops back into proper shotgun position and stares out the window. The guy's a nut.

Anyway, squeezed into the yellow whatchamacallit, submersible, him staring at me like I'm unhinged, me arguing back at him like always, bulldogging at him, steamrolling at him like he always does me, I had this thing, this epiphany.

This whole obsessive argumentative son of a bitch thing he does, that's armor. Probably Vecchio thought it was funny or cute or something, but me, I don't. I'm not Vecchio, no matter what I say on the phone. I got this whole duet thing going with myself, sometimes Vecchio, sometimes Kowalski because Kowalski's got this whole backstory himself, Stella and the Botrelle case and that jerkwad Marcus Ellery.

Fraser tapped his fingers on his leg. "Ray--"



"Man, are you ever annoying. Dief, how do you put up with him?" The wolf wasn't paying attention, though, because he was eating his General Tso's. I grinned into the rearview mirror and he caught the motion and looked up. "The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."

Fraser frowned at me, but Dief licked his chops and I swear he grinned right back. I turned the car on and drove them home.

Fraser was quiet the whole way, and then when I pulled up he goes, "Thank you for telling me, Ray."

"You're unhinged," I said, and his eyes got big for a second, and then he smiled at me. This particular smile was the "I'm not worried anymore" smile which I was glad of because he really is worse than Stella when he gets going, no lie.


And there it was, us, right there, in that second before Dief decided I needed to be licked from chin to ear.

"Gerroff!" I shoved Dief out the door, and Fraser closed it. I watched them go inside and thought about wolf packs and partnerships.

The idea of me and Dief and Fraser as a wolf pack was funny as hell, because all we do is fight, which is no way to run a pack. Besides which it would make Dief the top wolf because he's the only one who gets laid around here. I bet he knows it, too.

Partners, though, partners is good. Partners is equal. Partners and a wolf, that's us, and Fraser's the best partner I ever had. I mean, aside from the obsessive thing, the guy also wears dumb like armor, street-dumb, city-dumb, polite-dumb. All of that. That's not him; he's too smart for that. He knows it, I know it, he knows I know it. We got a partnership, Fraser and me, a one-two punch and a kick in the head, not to mention a wolf what'll jump you from behind.

No partnership was born perfect, I know that. You gotta work it, you gotta shake it out, dance out all the kinks. I read the files, I knew what I was getting into. Vecchio got this Canadian partner who happens to be his best buddy. Right, so partnership I can do. Friendship I'm not so good at. Buddies, there I suck. You ask Stella. She got all our friends in the divorce 'cause no one could stand me, not that I blame them.

Like I said, I may be damaged, but I'm not stupid. I know what kinda hell I can be to get along with.

He's no peach himself, got me?

"This is Constable Benton Fraser. He first came to Chicago on the killers of his father, he's Canadian, you don't wanna know. Bare-knuckle fighter." "Uh, no, Ray. I only wrestled bears."
--Mountie & Soul

A coupla days after the whole thing in Welsh's office, Stella cornered me at work and dragged me into an interrogation room. "Are you all right, Ray?"

I shook my head, looking down at her nails, which were painted maroon or plum or some color like that. "I don't have a problem, Stell."

She pressed her lips together and took her hand off my arm. I wish she'd left it. I miss stuff like that, just being touched like that. Her and my mom are the only ones who do that--you gotta have women around to do that, because guys don't. Fraser touches, but only in the line of duty, like if he's trying to find a trigger or doing that buddy breathing thing or whatever. Which I gotta admit is a little weird since most guys wouldn't touch where he does the way he does even in the line of duty, but this is Fraser. Like anyone understands what's in his head anyway.

"I think you do have a problem," Stella said, and I looked down at the floor. I hate upsetting her, but dammit--it only happens every now and then. It's not something that messes up my life. I gotta live with it, is all, but Stella can't see that. She worries too much. She always did.

So I tell her that, and she says, "I'm not talking about your aphasia, Ray," which surprises me because what else is this about? "I care about you," she says. "And you're acting strangely."

I try to figure out what I'm acting strangely about, but I can't, so I just shrug, and her lip shakes like she's about to cry. Which I was not gonna fall for because I know Stella and waterworks.

"I know you care," I said, and kissed her on the cheek. "If something was wrong, I'd tell you, Scout's honor."

She smiled a little and went to leave. When she opened the door, Fraser was on the other side. He nodded at her as she brushed past but didn't say anything to her. I don't think he thinks much of her. "Ray," he said, "would you like to go get something to eat with me?"

I grinned at him. "You walked all the way here to ask me that?"


"There's this great invention called a phone, Fraser."

He smiled, his eyes all crinkly at the corners, and goes, "Really? I've never heard of it."

See, that, right there. When I say things like that to Stella, she gets all hurt. Like saying a breakfast date is a dumb idea--bang, hurt Stella. Took me two hours of replaying that talk in my head to figure that out. Tell Fraser something like that--that he's an idiot for walking, or that paying him air is dumb, and he gets playful.

Wish I knew if that was some other kind of armor, that playing, if he's hurt underneath like Stella is. I don't think he is. It is. I think he's OK.

I think that makes me glad.

"Hey, Frase?"

"Yes, Ray?"

"You think I'm acting strange lately?"

He looks at me for a long moment, and wrinkles his forehead and pushes his lip with his tongue. Which if you can read Fraser means "What are you on about?" so I didn't even wait for him finish saying "How do you mean, Ray?" before grinning at him.

"Stella said I was. I figure you know me better than anyone."

"You haven't been acting oddly that I've noticed." He had that earnest thing going again, and I did a little shimmy there in the hall, which got us a look from Huey and Dewey. "Well," Fraser said, his eyes doing that crinkly thing again, "no more than usual."

"I'm unhinged," I said. "Like you."


"Dancercize?" Dewey said, behind us.

"Gotta be," answered Huey.

"Not as unhinged as them," I said, and Fraser laughed.

"Love's miracle enough."
"Armor, Prince, is stronger stuff."
--James Thurber, The White Deer

Fraser's an utter freak about women. I spent time thinking, OK, maybe he just doesn't like girls, given how weird he is with the Ice Queen and with Frannie. And saying I was attractive, though to be fair I asked him that one. But that "all women are our sisters" line, what was up with that?

Then I noticed that the Ice Queen has this whole thing going where she makes a pass at him and then pretends she didn't, and he hates it. I think he cares about her but by now he's hating her, too; he doesn't like being jerked around. I get that.

Frannie doesn't jerk him around, but he's always weird with her. Like, he likes her, but he doesn't like her. Or maybe he can't have her because of her brother, or maybe he's got some guilt thing going about moving in behind Vecchio's back. I mean, I wouldn't stop him, but maybe Vecchio did. Or maybe she just comes on too strong and he doesn't like being steamrolled. That I can see. He can dish it out but he can't take it.

Still, I felt bad when he gave her that carving for Christmas and she went to kiss him and he jerked away like that. I mean, that was uncalled for; that was just insensitive. You get your best buddy's sister a present, she's entitled to kiss you on the cheek. Even I know that, and I got the social skills of a rock.

I gave him a lift afterwards and I bawled him out for hurting Frannie's feelings. He did that thing he does sometimes where his answers don't always seem connected to what I'm saying, like he's got a whole other set of things he's answering to. Responding to. Whatever.

"Are you unhinged?" I said. "Why do you have to be like that with Frannie? I mean, she's a nutcase, I'll give you that, but c'mon, Fraser."

"There's nothing wrong with her," he said, "just that I don't think she's--no, I am not going to pursue a relationship with her!"

"I didn't say you were going to. Will you listen to me? You gotta listen to me, Fraser. You can't just--"

"This has nothing to do with that. Will you be quiet?"

"No, I will not!" I glared at him for a second. "What the hell is with you, anyway?"

He looked at me, looked into the back seat at Dief, and then rubbed his eyebrow. "I'm sorry, Ray. I don't mean--I'm sorry."

I frowned at the road ahead for a while before answering. "Yeah, well, you had a rough night. You and Dief wanna stay with me tonight? I got a fold-out couch, plus I'd feel better if I could keep an eye on you. You got pretty beat up, Frase." I didn't mention that he'd had plenty of time since being beat up, that he'd gone back to the Embassy, the thing, the Consulate, right, and changed and everything. I didn't mention that if anything really bad was wrong we'd know already.

"I'd like that," he said, not mentioning it either, and then under his breath he goes "Shut up, Dad", and cuts his eyes over at me.

I pretended I didn't hear him. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and I thought about him and Janet Morse, and he didn't act clueless with her, even I could see that although I bet Frannie missed it. He stood close, like when they brought the kids to me to watch, and he flicked his eyes down her like he wanted to know her skin to skin. And I thought about him and Lady Shoes, and how it just goes to show he's not blind. Or, what's the word, impervious. "Delightful," he'd said, and this is Fraser, he puts everything into words like that. "Delightful" in Fraser-speak means "I'd've jumped her bones if I could've, not to mention I did in fact kiss her back even though she started it."

And I thought, what the hell is wrong with him that he goes for a shark? He's a freak. Although I was the one ran off to Mexico with a girl I arrested, so what do I know.

I got him back to my place and onto the fold-out, which I bought just after Stella and I split, before I got around to getting a bed. I got him hangers for his uniform and then I went to bed myself.

Couldn't sleep at first, so I turned on the radio and danced a bit. Not much room in my bedroom, but enough. Part of what I like about this place. Some DJ's on a swing kick tonight, and I go with that, triple swing right now, moving with it.

Fraser being out on the fold-out reminded me of the times Stella and me would fight and she'd go sleep on the couch, only she wouldn't sleep, she'd cry. Same kind of thing with this, me not supporting my partner, him getting hurt. Yeah, he's a son of a bitch and he's gonna get me killed someday, but even so. I gotta get him to quit obsessing. He thinks it protects him but it doesn't.

We're idiots, him for thinking the world should go the way he likes it and me for thinking I can get under his armor and make him see it's stupid.

I think about those guys working him over, and it makes me mad. Mad at him for being such a jerk, mad at them for hurting my friend, mad at me for not being there, mad at Frannie for hitting on him when he was too hurt to stop her, and then I'm right back at being mad at him for hurting Frannie, which is dumb. Yeah, who's obsessing now, Detective?

I kept dancing until I got it out of my system and crashed sometime around midnight.

'Have gun, will travel' reads the card of the man A knight without armor in a savage land. --"Have Gun, Will Travel"

I'll be damned if Fraser's sister isn't just like him, only little and blonde and a woman instead of big and brown-haired and a guy. Nice kid, Maggie; too young and pretty to be a widow. It's a shame, not even twenty-eight years old yet and her husband's dead.

I mean, twenty-eight, I was married to Stella, had been for three years. We had another eight years together. And she's here, she's still here, she's not cold in a grave because some piece of bad news murdered her. On the grand scale of losing people that's not so bad.

Maggie's sweet and she likes teasing Fraser as much as I do. Another time, I might have made a play for her, a real one, but not after I found out why she was hunting these guys. I mean, yeah, flirting, but that's all.

She's just like her brother there, too. You make a play for her, and she's all dumb with you, like she's got no clue what you're doing. You back off, you act friendly and tease a little, and she warms right up, chums right up to you.

We get Maggie off, and Fraser goes, "You kissed my sister, Ray."


"You did."

"We were just yanking your chain."

So he looks at me, his eyes narrowed, and I cave. "Well, OK, but no tongue. And we were yanking your chain. You jealous?"

He chuckled a little at that. "Maybe. Having a sister is new to me. You," and here he frowns and gives me that look that means he means Vecchio, not me, "you were always very protective of your sisters, even with me."

I shrugged. "I think she can take care of herself, Frase."

He rubbed his eyebrow. "I know," he said.

"Yeah," I said, and whapped him on the arm. "I'll buy you dinner. Dief too." I looked around for Dief, who had vanished like he does sometimes. "Dief! Hamburgers!"

"Ray," Fraser said, and he sounded, what do you call it? When you don't really approve. Reproof! Reprove. Reproving. But gentle, like he knew it was a lost cause, like he was just going to roll over on this one and let me and Dief win.

I looked at him and thought, yeah, he's like Maggie, but he's also like me. Heading for forty, years humping this hellish job, alone and tired and heading back to a lonesome place after the job.

We're partners in that, too. Well, when all you got is each other, you'd be dumb to pretend you didn't. "I'll cook," I said. "C'mon, get the wolf. We'll go buy stuff and I'll cook and you can have the fold-out."

I go towards my car, and he's not with me. I turn around, and he's just standing there like a dope, his eyes closed. "C'mon, Frase! Pitter patter, let's get at 'er!"

He shakes himself and follows me to the car. Crazy guy.

Me, too, I guess. Neither of us got the sense to stop being alone, to get ourselves something other than each other and Dief. Crazy.

Or maybe not. I got Frase, what else do I need?

"How do you know? How do you know? How can you be so sure?" "Because I know you. You're my partner. And you're my friend." "Was that hard to say?"
"Not in the least."

My place, chicken and rice with a can of mushroom soup over top. Nothing fancy but Fraser looked happy and I fried up an extra chicken breast for the wolf, who ate it and then pretended he was starved, which he was not.

I gave him some rice anyway and pushed him off the sofa so Fraser and me could watch "Mystery, Alaska." I rented it because it's about hockey, which I like, and cold places, which Fraser likes.

"You dress like that, up in those Northwest Areas?" I asked him, waving my hand at the bundled-up guys on the screen.

"Territories, Ray, and yes, sometimes."

"Really? You wear that stupid--"

He glared at me and elbowed me in the side, so I punched him in the shoulder and he turned his head and looked at me, his eyes wide open. "Sometimes," he said, and then he changed whatsit, directions, tacks, all of a sudden and said "You kissed my sister, Ray," and I frowned at him.

"Yeah, so?"



And then he frowned back and said "So--" and kissed me quick.

Kept his mouth closed, but it was still a kiss, not that buddy breathing stuff which anyway he'd have no reason to do seeing as how there is plenty of air in my apartment.

I just stared at him. I couldn't believe he did that. That wasn't buddies, that wasn't partners, that wasn't--

--what the hell am I saying, I thought. Didn't I just say we didn't have anyone but each other? So. What the hell.

"You, uh, you wanna..." I waved my hand out into space. "...sleep with me?" I put my head to the side, laid it on my hands like a kid going to sleep. Could feel my hands shaking, hoped it didn't show. "I'm kinda tired, how 'bout you?"

"Exhausted," he said, and got up and followed me into the bedroom.

"You know, Fraser, being your partner has certain drawbacks." "Such as?"
--The Call of the Wild

Dief woke me up, licking my hand. I cracked an eye open at him, and he mumbled something in Dief-speak. Fraser was still asleep next to me, which was pretty weird and it's been a long time since anyone was sleeping next to me. Well, except him, on stakeouts and in Mrs. Tucci's backyard.

Not the same as in a bed, though. Dief whined and I scratched his ears and got up to open the window out to the fire escape. When I got back into bed Fraser wrapped his arm around my waist, then opened his eyes and jerked backwards.

"Jeezus Keerist, Frase, give a guy a complex, willya?"

He relaxed, and I kicked him in the shin. Giving him an opening, because hey, if I was him I'd need an opening. He took it, too, punching me in the shoulder which meant I could jump on him and pummel him, which if you remember being thirteen you also remember means "time for some vaguely homoerotic body contact".

Only when you're hitting middle-age and lonely and the guy you're getting the homoerotic body contact from is your partner, and neither of you has gotten laid in a coon's age it gets un-vague pretty damn fast.

He worked his hand into my boxers and wrapped his other hand around my neck and said, "You still owe me that air, Ray," and I dropped my head down and kissed him for real, open mouth, the whole shebang.

The whole shebang, yeah. Who put the bang in the bang shebang shebang, and can I bang Fraser?

Hell yes, said Fraser's mouth and Fraser's shoulders and Fraser's hips, which was nice to hear after way too long of people's mouths and shoulders and hips saying "my dog has a foot fungus" and "it wouldn't solve anything" and "not if you were the last man on earth."

Turns out you get Fraser naked and all of sudden he's got no armor at all.

Bang shebang shebang.

Baresark, n. 1. Scand. Legend. a berserker, or Norse warrior who fought without armor, or shirt of mail. --adv. 2. without armor. [1830-40; var. of berserk, as if bare + sark]

So this of course opened up whole new avenues of teasing, like saying "you're breathing kinda hard" over the phone when he's running up stairs. And of course whole new avenues of stuff that sucks, like when you're thinking your partner who you are also sleeping with is throwing you over for his old partner who is you, or the guy you're supposed to be.

Which actually was kinda dumb for me to worry about because like I said I suck at the buddies thing but partnership I got down, and Fraser I guess agrees.

I stared at him across the fire up in the Northwest Areas and said, "So, if we live through this, er, we get back to Chicago, I guess you'll partner up with Vecchio. That's OK 'cause he's a good guy. You worked with him for a while." Trying to tell him, yeah, you know, it's OK, I'll be OK. Which I wouldn't.

And he said some cockamamie thing about his father and Buck Frobisher, which was fine because I can read Fraser like a book, so I recognized the look on his face which was "Ray, you're being an idiot but I'm too polite to tell you that."

The Ice Queen dragged him away just when I was trying to work out where we stood, and then she tried to kiss him. Dief kinda took exception, though, and he started all the dogs howling. And Buck Frobisher, who I think has some damage of his own. Fraser's head whipped around and Thatcher nearly fell over, which was funny as hell.

I think I owe the wolf a pizza or something for that one, even if he did blast my eardrums out by howling right behind me.

Fraser came back to the fire and grinned at me. "You're jealous, Ray."

"I'm gonna kick your ass," I said, and he sat down next to me.

"If we get through this," he said, bumping his knee against mine, "do you really want to go looking for the Hand of Franklin?"

I bumped him back. "Yeah. You think you can tolerate me? I mean, I'm messed up, I'm no good at conversation."

He looked at me, all in armor except for his eyes which were hurt and angry and lost. "I can tolerate you, Ray," he said, real soft, and Dief licked my hand, the hand I hit Fraser with, more'n once. Same hand I tangle up in his hair when he goes down on me, same hand I use to hold his jaw when I kiss him.

I punch him in the shoulder, not hard, and he smiles at the fire. It's too damn cold out here, and there are too many people. He's not gonna take off the armor, not tonight.

Doesn't matter, 'cause I get it, I get why he wears it and it's all good.

We're partners, Fraser and me, a one-two punch. Bare knuckles, without helmets, bad cop, polite cop: shake, bad guys, shake.

The End