The Easiest Choice

by CL Finn

Author's webpage:

Author's notes: This is the story Fraser said he wanted me to tell first. Sorta like starting at the end of the story. I stole a little something from Kellie Matthew's "Stealing Light"... Ray as the fox. I fully admit the theft.

For Beth, who shares my obsessions, and who did a great job of beta.

All feedback, good and bad, is encouraged and appreciated.

The Easiest Choice
By C.L. Finn
(c) September 2000

There is a lower level of controlled chaos than an average day in the squad-room when I walk in. But it's just before 5:00 on a Friday, and one shift is winding down, while the next shift hasn't arrived yet. Various detectives greet me, as does Lisa Cruz, the new civilian aide. I really must stop thinking of her as new. She's been here since Francesca left four years ago.

"He's in Interrogation Two, finishing up with Decker," Lisa offers, as I notice Ray is not at his desk.

"Decker?" I ask. I don't recall the name from any of the cases Ray has spoken of lately.

"Small fish in the Maloney pond."

"Ah," I say and leave her to her work, making my way to the observation room, where I can watch Ray work. Since that first day with Zoltan Motherwell, I've been fascinated by Ray's interrogation techniques.

Elaine Besbriss is there, watching Ray question the suspect. She's been back at the 27th District for a year now, and is by all of Ray's accounts, an excellent detective.


"Hey Frase," she says in greeting, then turns back to the scene on the other side of the glass.

I still love watching him. Interrogating a suspect or sorting laundry, it's of no consequence. He's a beautiful creature.

The past eleven years haven't changed that fact. Age sits well on him. The laugh lines framing his mouth have deepened, and delicate lines radiate out from the corners of his eyes, behind the glasses that he now wears almost constantly. Creases on his forehead are the only thing on his face that show the harder side of life as a cop.

He wears suits now-- or more precisely, he leaves the house with a jacket and tie every morning. By this time of the day, the jacket is nearly always gone, his sleeves rolled up, and his tie loosened, or stuffed in a pocket somewhere. Today, it's still around his neck, but tugged awry, the top button on his dark blue shirt undone. Sometimes I still envy that ability to disregard outward appearance for the more important realities of work.

His hair also began the day somewhat tamed, but is now askew, the victim of his energy and his inability to keep his hands away from it. He has more gray than I do now, but that fact is not readily apparent. His gray is woven throughout his hair, making his blond look lighter, as if it was bleached unevenly. He jokes that he looks like a surfer these days. My own gray is concentrated at my temples, but is much more obvious in contrast to my dark hair. Neither of us has lost very much of it.

"Come on, Decker," he says, sitting down on the corner of the table, moving into his conciliatory tone of voice-- the one that says, I'm really your friend, I can help you. "We can protect you. You know as well as I do the minute you walk out of this building, you're a walking target. He's already thrown you to the wolves. Don't you know, the ultimate 'Fuck you' is to join the pack. You help us... we'll help you. And Maloney gets a helping of his own back in the process."

I can see it the minute Decker wavers. So can Ray, because his smile suddenly becomes genuine and he slaps Decker on the shoulder. Ray is so good at this-- making a suspect his friend, or scaring him into talking. He always seems to know which tactic will work and exactly when and how to use it. And he loves doing it. He may not be on the street every day anymore, but he has become a master of the interrogation room.

But Decker's still shaking his head and keeping his mouth shut.

"Okay, buddy," Ray says, his hand still on Decker's shoulder. "I can see you're a smart guy. Me? I just wanna get the heck out of here. So we're gonna set you up with a nice private, safe place to sleep, and give you the weekend to think about it. You can tell the State's Attorney whatever you want to tell her on Monday."

Before Decker can answer, Ray nods at the young detective who's been patiently leaning up against the wall, then he walks out. I leave the observation room and meet him in the hallway. He grins when he sees me there.

"Good afternoon, Sergeant Fraser," he says politely, his grin growing.

"Good afternoon, Lieutenant Kowalski," I answer.

Elaine has followed me out, and Ray turns his attention to her. "Good work, Elaine. Take him down and get him booked. Make sure they put him in one of the protective custody cells. Then go home. That's an order, Detective."

"Yes, sir," Elaine mock salutes him and then disappears into the interrogation room.

I fall into step with Ray as he heads back to his office. "Nice work in there."

"He didn't talk, Fraser."

"He will."

Ray looks over at me, and grins again. "'Course he will. And it looks like we might actually get enough to take down Maloney finally."


"Thanks, Frase. 'Bout damn time. Hey, Lis, get A.S.A. Hansen on the phone for me."

Ray flops down in the chair behind his desk-- the desk that was once occupied by Harding Welsh-- and props his feet up on an open drawer. Ray took the job five years ago, after Lieutenant Welsh died of a heart attack. An explosion two months before had damaged Ray's corneas just enough to get him off the street. At the time, the promotion seemed like a consolation prize to him. But it wasn't long before it became clear that leadership suited him. His detectives all love him and the upper echelons of the Chicago PD grudgingly respect his squad's record.

I sit down on the ancient couch and start attempting to put the newspaper which is scattered across the couch back in order. I imagine him sitting here this morning, drinking coffee and poring over the paper in his disorderly manner.

"You're here early," Ray says, watching me suspiciously. "What's up?"

"Nothing is up, Ray. I was simply finished with my tasks for the day, and Constable DesGeorges is perfectly capable of taking care of routine business and closing up the Consulate." All very true, but not the whole truth.

"Uh huh," he answers and winks at me. "Couldn't stand another second of it, huh? Way too much time spent behind the big desk this week."

"Well... yes." The protest doesn't even make it to my mouth. I've spent the past week overseeing endless meetings about an upcoming reception for the soon-to-be Princess of Wales, who is visiting Chicago next week for the express purpose of going to an American baseball game. Apparently she's a Cubs fan.

There are times when I dislike my posting intensely.

Ray opens his mouth to respond, but before he can hold forth with his opinions on the diplomatic aspects of my job, or impugn the young woman, Lisa sticks her head into the office and points at the phone. "She's on."

"Hey Sara," Ray says cheerfully when he picks up the line. "I got good news and bad news for ya. What do you want first?" He laughs at her answer. "The good news is, we picked up Decker and he's gonna squeal on Maloney." He pauses again, grinning over at me. "Well, the bad news is... he hasn't squealed *yet*."

"Hey, hey... don't worry. He'll talk. He just needs to stew for the weekend, figure out just where he stands in the universal scheme of things. But I guarantee you, he'll be spilling his guts by Monday... You don't gotta do nothing. Talk to your boss about putting a good deal together, and then sit back and wait for a call... All right. You have a good weekend, and I promise I'll have a present for you on Monday... Me?" Ray asked with a grin and looks over at me. "I'm gonna take my Mountie home and let him feed me." I smile back at him. Sara Hansen has become a good friend of ours, as has her lover, Kat.

Ray laughs at Sara's response and says goodbye, hanging up the phone. "I think she wants Maloney worse than we do."

"As well she should, Ray." Sara prosecuted Maloney on a murder charge last year. His verdict was 'not guilty', but the PD and the State's Attorney's office were pretty sure there had been some jury tampering. They were simply never able to prove it.

"Yeah," he answers absently as he shuffles the papers on his desk into something resembling a pile, before standing up abruptly. "So, Mountie."

"Yes, Ray?"

"Take me home and feed me."

"Right you are."

When we exit the building, Ray heads directly for the driver's side of my Jeep Cherokee. The GTO is in the shop being detailed, which is why I'm picking Ray up at work. He looks over the top of the car at me and I toss him the keys. It's my car, and I've had an American driver's license for many years now, but Ray still prefers to drive. It's one of the many issues we've negotiated between us over the past eleven years. Ray likes to drive, I like an orderly house. It's a peaceful treaty.

Most of the time.

I stretch and lean back, cracking my back, while I wait for Ray to unlock my door. It has indeed been a long week spent behind my desk, with very little physical activity. I find that weeks like this leave me stiff and restless, aching for physical release. Perhaps I can find a way to work this energy off after dinner.

I climb into the car and Ray starts the engine while pulling his tie off. He tosses it over to me and I fold it, placing it inside my Stetson on the dash board.

"What would you like for dinner, Ray?"

"Dunno." He pulls out of the parking lot while changing the stations on the radio, maneuvers the jeep across several lanes of traffic and takes a left turn on a light that can only marginally be called yellow. "No need to cook though. Takeout? No, wait... don't we still have some Bambi stew left in the freezer?"

"Yes, I believe there's a whole container left." I've given up trying to convince Ray not to call venison "Bambi." It took some coaxing to get him to try it in the first place. He will never be a hunter himself, but he looks forward to the stew I make with the meat Maggie sends us occasionally.

"That'll work."

We drive a while in silence, Ray tapping his fingers to the music on the radio, me watching the city go by outside the car. I've come to care for Chicago. It's my home almost as much as the Northwest Territories. Perhaps because it is Ray's home. Perhaps because it has accepted me. I'm not entirely sure why. But there are days like today when I miss my first home. When I miss space and cold, clean air. When I miss quiet.

I can feel Ray looking over at me, and I know he is reading my thoughts.

"Three months, two weeks, and four days, Ben. Not so much time, really."

"Not at all." I smile at him, and feel the need to remind him once more. "I don't regret a single choice, Ray."

He rolls his eyes at me, but smiles back, then turns back to concentrate on his driving. In three months, two weeks, and four days, Ray's retirement will be vested. He's already put in notice of retirement. He was ready to quit and move to Canada back when they took him off the street. I convinced him to take the promotion and stay. I knew he would do good work as a lieutenant, and I knew, deep down, he wanted to give it a try. And the truth is, I like my job at the Consulate. In between the receptions and 'diplomatic butt-kissing,' as Ray calls it, I've done some meaningful work on putting together some cooperative and successful police efforts between our two countries.

But I do miss the North, and I have to admit that when Ray announced his intention to take retirement as soon as he was vested, I didn't put up any protest. It makes it easier that Ray seems to like my home as well. We've rebuilt my father's cabin over the course of many holidays up there, and he's become extremely proficient with the dog sled and snowshoes. He's acclimated to life in the Territories much quicker and easier than I did to life in Chicago.

"Have they made a decision on your replacement yet?"

"Nah, it's all political. I want Howard... but I've got a feeling they aren't going to give it to her. They wanna bring O'Connell over from the 9th. Brass are finally getting rid of the Queer Lieutenant... can't wait to get a knuckle-dragger in there."

I open my mouth to reply, but Ray cuts me off. "Whatever. Not my problem in a few months."

I stay silent. He knows my opinion of his superior's attitude towards our relationship. Both my stated opinion and my less than polite unspoken opinion. We both have dealt with our share of prejudice regarding our relationship, but Ray has had a much harder time at the CPD than I have with the RCMP. He stopped reacting to it years ago, and his record as both detective and lieutenant have kept the disapproval to a dull buzz.

But I also know that he doesn't really think it's not his problem. I know that it's making him crazy that his squad may be turned over to someone who is a bigot, or who won't have the same loyalty to the detectives that Ray does.

Ray pulls into the driveway and looks over at me. "Home again, home again." He reaches over and pulls me toward him by my collar and kisses me fast and hard, then just as quickly releases me and hops out of the car. I grab his tie, my hat, and some files I brought home for the weekend and follow him into the house.

I have to admit that even after four years of renting it, I have a hard time thinking of this house as anything but the Vecchio's. When Ray Vecchio moved to Florida with Stella, he took his mother with him. Maria and Tony moved to Evanston a year or so later, and the house became Francesca's. A year after that, Francesca married Turnbull, and they lived here with their two children until Turnbull was transferred to Regina.

Transferring Turnbull wasn't an easy thing to do, but he wanted his children to get to know their Canadian grandparents. As irritating as he was in the beginning, he turned out to be was the most efficient deputy I've had. And I've had three since he left. They have a tendency to request transfers not long after arriving. I believe they see me as an anachronism-- my insistence on the uniform being only one of the things they chafe at. My current deputy seems to be settling in better. She's the daughter and granddaughter of Mounties and understands the importance of history and duty.

Ray wasn't very happy about losing Francesca, either. Lisa is more efficient at her job, but, as Ray says, she's just not Francesca. It's true that you don't really appreciate someone until they're gone. The house belongs to Francesca-- her brother gave it to her as a wedding present. She didn't want to sell her family's home when she and Turnbull moved, so she convinced us to rent it. It didn't take that much convincing, really. The house is far too spacious for our needs, but I appreciate the yard with its trees and Mrs. Vecchio's small vegetable garden I rescued from the weeds two summer's ago.


As soon as Ray opens the front door, he's practically bowled over by the other member of our family.

"Hey, fur ball." He laughs and pushes the dog that greets him back out of the doorway, while still allowing her to lick his hand. "Missed us, huh, Gin?"

I get almost the same treatment when I come in the door and stop to greet her. Ginger is actually a granddaughter of Diefenbaker, offspring of the litter he fathered with Maggie, the neighborhood husky, years ago. Her owners gave her to me after they'd heard of Diefenbaker's death. She resembles him in some ways, though she has more brown and red markings on her white fur. She has little to no wolf instincts in her, and I worry about how she will fare in the Territories when we move. She only occasionally accompanies me to work, and is more of a pet than a companion. But I am nevertheless extremely fond of her. Ray, of course, adores her.

Diefenbaker's death was very hard on both of us. He was already nearing the end of his lifespan when he was diagnosed with a tumor near his spine. It was causing him quite a bit of pain and the veterinarian recommended that he be put down. I knew it had to be done, but I couldn't tolerate allowing it to be done in a sterile vet's office. Ray understood and he took emergency leave and made arrangements for us to take Diefenbaker back to our cabin. I was in shock and not handling the news very well.

The doctor gave me some pain medication to keep Dief comfortable and we took him home to Canada.

He slept between us and enjoyed being back in the wilderness as much as he could for three days before I was able to do what I had to do. I spent time talking to him, telling him how glad I was that he chose to walk his life's path with me, how much I appreciated that he was my friend when I had no others, and how pleased I was that he loved Ray as much as I did. I thanked him for saving my life many times over. He, in turn, thanked me and asked me to let him go.

At dawn on the fourth day, Ray fed Dief an extra pain pill inside a homemade pizza and we took him up a hill near the cabin. Ray went with me, but he couldn't watch, so he stood behind me with his face buried in my back. My shot was perfect and Diefenbaker died instantly. He's buried on that hill.

Ray cried for two days, and I barely spoke. I had exhausted my tears the night we came home from the vet's office. We helped each other through the grief.

I miss him still. Some days I catch myself reaching out and expecting to encounter soft fur or a wet nose as I walk down the street.

I bury my face in the fur at Ginger's neck and inhale her scent. Her scent doesn't match Dief's, but it gives me comfort. I smile and pull away as she licks my ear, only to find Ray watching me with a sad smile. Once again, he knows where my thoughts have wandered.

I stand up and hang my hat on the rack and trade him his tie for his holster, which I hang next to the hat. He leans forward and scratches my scalp with his fingers, then places a soft kiss on my nose, before pulling away and heading up the stairs.

"I'm taking a shower. You work on feeding me and the mutt."

"Yes, Ray. Right away, Ray," I call after him as I take off my brown uniform jacket. I hear him snort and mutter something, likely impolite, just before the bathroom door closes.

Dinner is easy enough. I turn the small radio in the kitchen on and set it to a country station I enjoy. Humming along with the music, I fill Ginger's bowl with food, and give her fresh water, then pull the tupperware dish of frozen stew out of the freezer and put it in the microwave to thaw and heat. I sit down at the table and sort through the mail Ray brought in-- mostly bills and advertisements. Ginger looks up at me with some disdain at the fact her dinner doesn't smell half as appetizing as ours. The phone rings and the microwave beeps at almost the same moment.

"Hello," I answer while pulling out the container and stirring the stew before putting it back in for a few more minutes.

"Hi Ben. It's Barbara." I smile at that. It's not as if Ray's mother needs to identify herself to me.

"Hello, Barbara. Ray's in the shower. He'll be out in a moment. How is Phoenix?"

"Way too hot. Other than that, not bad. How are you and Ray doing? I miss you boys."

"We're good. And we miss you too. Ray says my golabki aren't nearly as good as yours." Ray was complaining about missing his mother's food last week, and I made her cabbage rolls for him. It cheered him up, but it wasn't quite the same.

"Nonsense. The truth is, they're better than mine. He's just used to them being too salty. He's not working too hard, is he? I called his office first and they said he'd left already. Out of the office by 5:30 on a Friday. That must be a record for both of you."

I laugh and pull the stew out, taking down two bowls and spooning it out. I know she's fishing. "It was a long and very boring week, mostly. No shootouts or bombs, I give you my word. Perhaps a few papercuts between us."

"That's what I like to hear, Benton."

"So I take it you're settling in?"

"Mostly. Terry got me a membership at a Country Club here, thought I might like to take up golf. I gave it a try. Found it about as boring as one of your diplomatic functions. But there's a Polish-American Club here and I'm getting involved with them."

I listen to Barbara talk about her activities as I butter several slices of bread and pull drinks out of the fridge-- a beer for Ray, milk for myself. I enjoy talking to her. I find I miss having her around the house. After Ray's father died, she moved in with us for a couple of years. Ray's father had never really accepted our relationship. He tolerated it, and I believe he even grew to like me, but he was never comfortable with the reality of who his son chose to sleep with and love. Barbara, on the other hand, took an immediate liking to me, and I to her.

After Damien died, she and Ray got the chance to become much closer. He loved having her here, as did I. In some ways, she fills a place in me that has been empty since my own mother died. She calls me her son-in-law, and I admit that it pleases me. Barbara left three weeks ago and moved to Phoenix, where Ray's brother has bought her a condo near him and his family. She wanted to spend time with her grandchildren, and I suspect she knew Ray was thinking about retiring and moving to Canada.

While I'm telling her about the upcoming reception, Ray comes in, damp and flushed from his obviously hot shower. He's wearing an old pair of sweats and a faded Calgary Stampede t-shirt he got years ago. He tucks into the bowl of stew I set out for him, and raises an eyebrow when I tell Barbara that I'm not letting him get out of dressing up and attending the reception. I hear him mutter something under his breath having to do with a police emergency, but I ignore it. I say good night to Barbara and hand the phone over to Ray.

"Hey, Mom," Ray says, leaning back in his chair comfortably. "How's things in the land of the sun?"

I finish off my own stew and milk as Ray listens to what are undoubtedly the same stories I just heard. When I'm done, I take my dishes to the sink, and stand for a few moments trying to decide what to do next. I'm still restless. My skin itches with the need for physical exertion. Ray will be on the phone for a while, I'm sure, and what is called for is some good exercise. That decided, I head upstairs, grabbing my uniform jacket on the way so I can hang it properly.

I change into sweats and sneakers, hanging my uniform carefully in the closet. I take a few seconds to wipe some dust off the ship model that sits on the dresser. It's a wooden replica of the HMS Bounty. Ray found the model many years ago and apparently spent about six months putting it together here in Francesca's basement before he gave it to me as a birthday present. He says it was intended to be a Christmas present, but it took him longer than that to get it done. It always warms me to think of Ray, with all his nervous energy, sitting down and working on this whenever he had a free hour or two away from me.

Of all the presents Ray has given me over the years, this one is my favorite. He told me when he gave it to me that it was on the deck of that ship, after capturing Wallace and his men, and after informing me that he wasn't going to take a transfer, he realized for the first time that he was in love with me. I admit it took me longer, but then I've never been as self-aware as Ray. I'm pretty sure now that I loved him from the moment I read his file, but I didn't admit it to myself until I watched him have the courage to walk into a prison and face Beth Botrelle before she was to be executed.

His courage continues to take my breath away.

Of course, we didn't admit our feelings for each other until after we went off in search of the Hand of Franklin. We didn't find the hand, but we found each other. And it's been quite an adventure.

Going back downstairs, I find Ray still talking to his mother, now stretched out on the couch in front of the muted television, the radio in the kitchen switched off. He's telling her about last weekend's little league game-- he coaches a PAL-sponsored team and at present they are leading their division. I call for Ginger and Ray looks up at me, sees my running clothes and makes a silly face at me. I smile and wave before heading out the door with Ginger at my heels.

Starting out slowly, I head up the street toward the local park four blocks away. Ginger runs beside me, stopping occasionally to sniff a bush here and there. When I get to the next block, I pick up speed, intending to get a full cardio-vascular workout as well as working the knots out of my muscles. By the time I get to the park, I have found a good rhythm and settle in to take at least five laps around the park.

The exertion feels good and helps me to begin shedding the stifling feel of my office and the many layers of polite and efficient Mountie. As I do, I can't help worrying at what has so clearly been on my mind since I walked into the squad room this evening. I can't help but question our decision to move to Canada. Or more precisely, Ray's decision to retire from the force.

When I watch him at work, interrogating a suspect or working closely with the detectives under his charge, I see how much he loves his job. He once told me that he didn't always want to be a cop. But whatever brought him to law enforcement isn't important. What is important is the fact that he's a good cop. No, a fantastic cop. And he loves it. I can't help wondering what it will do to him to give up the work, and to hand his squad over to someone else. I know that he is gritting his teeth at the idea that O'Connell may be in charge of the men and women he has mentored and protected.

And then there is his mother. She's in her seventies now and may not be around for many more years. I know that she moved to Arizona so that he won't feel bound to this place, so that he would feel free to take me back to Canada. He's been missing her terribly since she moved. How can I allow him to move so far away from her?

We have a life here in Chicago. A very good life, with good friends and a nice home.

But for all of that, I haven't been able to bring myself to tell Ray no. To say, I don't need to move back to Canada. My home is where you are, Ray. To ask him to take back his retirement, and to take back my own request for transfer. They've already approved the transfer. I'm going to be posted not far from Inuvik, close to our cabin. And close to my sister, Maggie.

I am happy here in Chicago. But ever since Ray told me he was going to take his retirement as soon as it vested and he wanted us to move to the Territories, I've been thrilled. I yearn for the clean, white endlessness of an ice-field, tall mountain peaks shadowing ancient glaciers. I miss it all now as I haven't missed it for years. Try as I might, I can't seem to bring myself to act unselfishly. I'm terrified that Ray will change his mind, that he will want to stay.

I don't have his courage. And I dislike myself for that at present. I'm going to have to find it somewhere... and soon.

By the time I've made my sixth lap, my muscles have begun to ache and my lungs are burning from exertion. Ginger has already given up and taken up residence under a tree near the track. As I pass, I whistle for her and turn back onto the street, heading for home.

When I get back, Ray is no longer on the phone and the TV is turned off. In truth, we watch very little of it. Ray used to watch a lot more when I first knew him, but he seems to find other pursuits more rewarding now. I find him in the back yard, stretched out in the hammock he put up earlier this summer, a bottle of beer-- likely the same one he had at dinner-- tucked between his thighs, reading a book on Tsimshian culture.

The book was a gift from Eric. He sent it and several others to Ray after our last visit to the Territories, when we told him we were planning on moving home. He and Ray have been talking about some things Ray could do to help out at the school for troubled First Nations' youth Eric now runs. I'm not entirely sure what Eric's plans are for Ray, but I have a feeling he has some kind of plan. I admit to some unease at the prospect of what Eric could get up to with Ray.

Ray met Eric on a trip North, the year after we entered into a sexual relationship. Eric took one look at him and said, "Ah, that makes more sense. I see you finally found your mate."

He later explained to me that he'd had a vision about me when we were younger. In it, I was mated to a fox-spirit named Ray. He said he was very confused when he met Ray Vecchio, because he was clearly not the fox. I laughed and told him about my own confusing introduction to Ray Kowalski, who was at the time masquerading as Ray Vecchio. Since then, Eric has called Ray a changeling. He seems to be very fond of him, though, so perhaps there is no cause for concern.

I lean up against the open back door and guzzle a glass of cool water. Ray looks up from his book, then his eyes travel over my entire body, his nose twitching slightly. I've found that sweat is an aphrodisiac for Ray. He meets my eyes and quirks a half-smile in acknowledgment that I am also watching him. Instead of doing anything more, however, he takes the last drink out of his beer and looks back down at his book.

He's going to make me work for it tonight.

Ginger curls up on the grass underneath Ray with a sigh and I roll my eyes. She's more slothful than Diefenbaker ever tried to be.

"How many laps did Her Highness make tonight?" Ray asks.

"Almost three and a half," I answer and watch him smile at the reproachful tone in my voice. "Lazy bitch," I say, and am rewarded with an even bigger grin. Ray loves to hear me curse, though he doesn't seem to understand that when applied to Ginger, the word is not a curse. That assertion usually amuses Ray even more, so I don't bother.

I take my empty glass back into the kitchen and stack it with the dishes from dinner. One of us will get to them before going to bed. Deciding it's time to move forward with my plan of attack, I jog upstairs and collect my Sam Browne, my boots, and my neatsfoot oil and rags. The leather is due for some work.

More or less.

I set myself up on the back porch in Ray's direct line of sight, and set to work on cleaning and polishing first the belt, and then the boots. When I sit down, Ray looks up and his eyes widen. His mouth quirks up briefly and then he goes back to his book. I pay no attention to him, just work diligently on the leather in my hands. I can feel him looking up at me every few minutes. I imagine he hasn't read a word of his book.

Ray has a... thing... for my leather accoutrements.

Of the many things we have learned about each other over the years, we know precisely how to arouse the other. As I said, Ray loves the smell of my sweat. I love the smell of Ray just out of the shower-- he's sweet, and clean, like snow. I love to watch him in movement. It doesn't matter what kind of movement-- working, coaching baseball or hockey, dancing. I admit to a particular fondness for watching him dance. Nothing gets me as bothered as that. I'm embarrassed to admit that I actually lured him into a storage room at Francesca and Turnbull's wedding reception, after watching him dance with both Francesca and Stella.

But more than anything, I love to taste him.

Just the thought makes my mouth water and I lick my bottom lip, wishing I could taste him there already. I can see him shift in the hammock in my peripheral vision. The book is now laying open on his midsection, ignored, and his fingers are tapping an impatient tattoo against his thigh. His eyes are glued to my hands as I work the leather straps of my belt. I can't help but smile.

It works every time.

I finish off by spit-shining the brass buckles with a soft cloth and decide to forego the boots. They can wait until Sunday evening. I'm not sure I can. Gathering my things together, I take them back inside with only a glance in Ray's direction. Setting them aside in the lounge, I go into the kitchen and begin washing the few dishes from dinner. Within a few seconds, I hear the back screen open and close, then the door closes with a decisive snap, followed by the sound of the lock. I track Ray's movement as he drops his book on a table and goes to lock the front door as well.

I can hear his bare feet on the wood floor, then the carpet in the lounge. I hear him sort through his stack of CDs and put one in the player, followed not long after by the sound of BB King. A favorite of mine. A few seconds later, I can feel him standing behind me in the doorway to the kitchen. I smile to myself but don't acknowledge his presence. I just wait for him. Air moves against my back, followed by warm breath against my neck and then soft lips. He snakes warm hands up under my t-shirt, strong sure pressure against my back as he strokes up to my shoulder blades, then back down and around to wrap around my midsection, pulling his body up flush with mine. He inhales deeply, taking in my scent.

"You are not a subtle man, Benton Fraser," he rumbles, and I can feel the vibration of his voice against my back and neck. It makes me shiver.

"I'm not sure what you mean, Ray," I answer in my best polite Mountie voice, which makes him chuckle. I like that vibration even more.

"Fuck the dishes and dance with me."

I can't resist an invitation like that. Not that I would want to.

"As you wish."

Turning off the tap, I leave the last bowl in the sink and turn around in his arms, moving with him as he steps back and begins to follow the music with his body. He leads me in a slow, waltz-like step, moving around the kitchen gracefully, his eyes closed, his mouth curved up faintly.

Dear God, I love this man.

He is a part of me. Our libidos have cooled over the years and we have settled into what Ray calls "old married couplehood". And I like it that way-- the ease, the comfort of it. But there are times, like tonight, when I am swept with that same overwhelming feeling of love, of desire... of gratitude... that I felt the first times he kissed me, touched me. I stop breathing, frozen with the urge to laugh or weep, not knowing which.

Ray feels it. He opens his eyes and looks into me, then moves to within millimeters of my lips. "Breathe, Ben," he whispers.

Good advice. Instead I close the distance and take his own breath into my lungs, finally tasting him. He tastes of venison stew and beer, chocolate ice cream he must have had while I was out running, and that flavor that says "mate" to my senses. Salty and bitter and sweet, all at once. When neither of us has any breath left, he pulls back, panting lightly.

"What do you want, Ben?"

"You," I whisper against his neck as I taste his jaw, salty and rough with today's beard growth, and his neck, saltier and layered with residue of soap and hair conditioner.

"Duh," Ray says and laughs, rubbing himself against my hard groin. "What do you want to do with me?"

"I thought you said I wasn't subtle."

He laughs harder and pulls back to look me in the eye. "Uh huh. You know you gotta ask for it. Properly," he adds, hands straying downwards to dip into my waistband.

Eleven years and he stills gets a thrill out of this. Reaching back, I grab both his hands and bring them around to cross behind his back, then carefully but surely lead him backwards until he is pressed up against the wall, neck arched back, hips forward.

Leaning in, I bite into an ear-lobe, hard enough to make him gasp and buck against me, but not hard enough to cause damage. Licking the wound, I lower my voice and whisper, "I want to fuck you, Ray. Long and hard, until you come inside out and can't recall your own name."

He shudders against me, then grins against my lips as I claim his mouth, devouring that intoxicating flavor. The word "yes" is drowned inside my own mouth. When he's limp against the wall, I release him and step back.

"Upstairs, Ray. Now," I command. I watch him take a deep breath, his eyes moving over me from head to toe, and then he grins, the lines around his mouth and eyes deepening, throwing into relief the map of his beloved features. He pushes off the wall and saunters by me, rubbing against me as he goes. As soon as he leaves the kitchen, I can hear him break into a run, barreling up the stairs to our bedroom.

I briefly consider washing that last bowl, and discard the idea just as quickly. Turning off the kitchen light, I follow his path up the stairs, not much more slowly than he did. Ray is nothing if not fast when he wants to be. I find the covers on the bed tossed to the end, and him, stripped as well, his glasses on the bedside table, and stretched out, his arms behind his head, legs spread just enough to show how ready he is for me-- hard and leaking already.

"Took you long enough."

I don't respond, just toe off my running shoes, pull off my shirt, sweats, and boxers, then climb onto the bed to kneel over him on all fours. He wiggles under me, his eyes filled with laughter.

"Absolutely shameless," I mutter and pull his hands out from behind his head, moving them up and wrapping them around the bars of the old iron headboard.

He makes a sound that can only be called a giggle, though I would never call it that to his face. I'm no fool.

"Have I mentioned how much I like it when Alpha-Ben shows up?" he asks.

"Once or twice." He doesn't show up very often-- Alpha-Ben. Ray says that for a guy who's such an alpha-dog out in the world, it's amazing how much of a bottom-boy I am in the bedroom. I don't know why that is. I only know that I get so much pleasure from Ray being in the lead that I don't see the logic in not giving him the reins. Except when I'm in this particular mood-- when all I want to do is devour him, mark him.

I stare down at him, trying to decide where to begin as his breathing gets shallower. It doesn't really matter where I begin, because I intend to taste every inch of him. Deciding that the logical place to start is the top, I move up and attach my mouth to a wrist, tasting the slight metallic residue from Ray's watch. He moans and shifts under me, knowing that we have a long way to go from here.

And it is a long way. Ray often seems to me to be all limbs, lean with strong, capable arms and legs. I love to have him wrap me up in those limbs. But right now, I just want to taste. Moving from his wrists, I track the lines of his shifting muscles down his arms, stopping to bite and suck at the sweet skin on the inside of his elbow. His armpit is salty, his scent so much stronger there. His hair is crisp and soft against my face as I nuzzle and suck at his neck and ears. A bite, followed by strong suction on his collar-bone, causes a louder moan.

I trace the sharp-flavored silver of his necklace with my tongue, sucking the charms into my mouth and looking up into his eyes. The necklace he wears was a gift from me-- a pewter hand I had designed not long after we came back from our adventure in the North, after he had told me he loved me and I had chosen to stay in Chicago. It is the hand of Franklin, reaching out from the Beaufort Sea. For the past seven years, the hand has shared the chain with my mother's wedding band. The platinum and pewter clink together inside my mouth and I release them, letting them fall to rest in the hollow at the base of Ray's throat.

"I love you, Ray." I feel the need to say it tonight.

His body stills and his eyes clear as he smiles back at me softly, warmly. "And I love you."

Returning his smile, I blink and return to my task. I am nothing if not thorough, tracing his ribs, dipping my tongue into his navel, tracing the crisp hair down to taste his penis thoroughly before moving on. I leave marks on his inner thighs that have him muttering and groaning any number of obscenities. The hair on his calves is soft and the balls of his feet taste subtly of the grass in the backyard.

"Turn over," I tell him and he obeys, but not without comment.

"Come on, Fraser. God dammit. Fuck me already."

Ignoring his plea, I follow the same path back up his body, leaving more marks on his buttocks, in the hollow of his back, on his shoulder blades, before reaching into the bedside table for lubricant. By the time I am inside him, his words are nonsensical, made up only of moans and growls punctuated here and there by consonants. He is sweating and shaking, but so am I. I pull his hands away from the headboard and pull him up onto his hands and knees, then back to sit on my thighs. Wrapping my arms around his torso, tangling with his own arms, I bury my face in his neck and begin to move.

I don't know how long we last, perhaps longer than it feels like, perhaps much less. I only know that my nose is filled with his scent and my legs are burning with the strain. I am lost in the rhythm and spiraling pleasure of being inside him. Finally, he takes my hand, moving it down to wrap around his own cock. It only takes a few strokes before he is shuddering in my arms, yelling "Oh fuck!"

I follow him over, groaning into the skin under my teeth, before collapsing and rolling off him.

When I can rub two brain cells together again, I am aware of sweat cooling on my body and Ray's hand spread over my heart. He is still on his stomach sprawled out next to me, his face buried in the mattress as his breathing calms.

"Holy shit, Frase," he says with a half groan, half laugh.

"You're quite welcome, Ray," I answer with a smug grin. He laughs, then quiets. I trace the bones of his hand and listen to the sounds around us. The CD has long ended downstairs and the house is quiet, save Ray's and my breathing. I can also hear Ginger snuffling in her sleep out in the hallway, one paw scratching against the floor as she dreams of running or hunting, or whatever gives her joy in her dreams. If I strain, I can hear the fan on the refrigerator kick on in the kitchen and the slow drip we've never been able to fix in the guest bathroom.

It sounds like home. Like peace.

My thoughts from earlier intrude into the peace and I turn to look at Ray. Maybe I can find the courage I need. I must.

"Ray?" He turns his head to look at me and makes an inquisitive grunt. "Ray, are you sure you want to retire right now?"

"What?" he asks, struggling back towards cognizance.

"Are you sure you want to take retirement? Do you really want to leave your job and Chicago and move to the Arctic Circle? We can stay. I'm happy here."

Ray takes a deep breath and smiles. Taking his hand away, he rubs at his face, sits up and looks down at me seriously. "I was wondering how long it was going to take you."

"Take me?"

"You've been worrying at this for three weeks, since Mom left and I put in my notice, haven't you?" he asks, as if he already knows the answer.

I don't know how to answer that, so I look down and take his hand back, wrapping my fingers around his. They are so different, his hands and mine.

"Ray..." I begin, but he cuts me off.

"No, dammit, Ben. Listen to me." He straddles my midsection and holds me down with both hands on my chest when I try to sit up. "You remember what you said to me eleven years ago when you decided to stay in Chicago?"

"I'm sure I said quite a few things," I answer wryly, trying to change the tone of the conversation.

"Smart ass. What about seven years ago when they offered you Buck's old post? You took the promotion here instead. Remember what you told me? You remind me of it often enough."

"Yes," I whisper, knowing now where this is going.

"Say it now," Ray commanded me, pushing against my chest to get my attention.

"I don't regret a single choice. I chose you, Ray. I choose you."

Ray smiles briefly, then pushes at me again, harder.

"How old am I?"

I blink at the apparent non sequitur, but answer him. "Fifty-one."

"Am I mentally retarded?"

"No, of course not, Ray..."

He pushes at me again and cuts me off. "Am I stupid?"



"Well... I have had occasion to wonder."

He grins and pushes at me again. "Then explain to me why I'm not capable of making my own choices."

I open my mouth to speak, but I don't know what to say. He has a point.

"Why don't I get to choose *you* for once? That's not buddies." And I can see, for the first time, a hint of anger in the question. Ray is very big on fairness, and nothing gets him angry quicker than thinking that I am not treating him as an equal. And he is right. All of my concerns have been based on protecting him, on what *I* think he wants and needs, instead of taking him at his word.

"I'm sorry, Ray."

He rolls his eyes and pushes against me again, then pokes a finger into my chest. "I choose *you*, Benton Fraser."

I... oh... I can feel his words deep in my chest. I don't know what to say, so I take the hand he has poking my chest and bring it to my mouth. I kiss the palm and he smiles down at me.

"And if that's not enough, let me be very clear about this. Yes, I like my job. I like my squad, and I hate like hell to hand it over to some moron who kisses the brass's ass. I'm gonna miss my mom, but that's life. I was lucky to have her here for a few years. She made *her* choice to move. I know you're happy here. You'd be *happier* up there. But..." He pushes against me again. "I love Canada. I love the Territories. I love our cabin. Hell, I fucking love your precious ice fields. I'd like to be able to enjoy it up there before I'm decrepit.

"And dammit, Ben. I love *you*. Okay?"

I know that I have an entirely ridiculous grin on my face by the time he finishes. The weight I've been carrying around for the past three weeks is suddenly gone. "Okay." I nod, then add, "Freak." He throws his head back to laugh, then leans forward and settles on top of me, kissing me softly.

"We freaks gotta stick together."

He kisses me again and I wrap my arms around him, rolling us onto our sides. He wraps his limbs around me, holding me tight with his body just the way I like. We spend several minutes kissing slowly, touching each other in comfort, not arousal. Eventually, he moves back and pulls the quilt up from the bottom of the bed, turns out the bedside lamp, and curls up next to me, head tucked into my shoulder, arm across my chest.

"Man," he says, stretching against me, "I am not going to be able to sit down at the game tomorrow."

I grin into his hair. "Sorry about that."

"No, you are not."

"Well... no."

He squeezes me, then relaxes and grows quiet. I run my hand along his arm and trace the edges of his tattoo, enjoying the quiet, thinking about having him in Canada. The stillness is disturbed slightly when Ginger jumps onto the bed, curling up at the end, near Ray's feet.

"You got plans on Sunday?" Ray asks, already sounding sleepy.

"No. Why?"

"We should get out of town. Take a picnic, drive out to St. Paul Woods. Let Ginger run around."

"That sounds wonderful, Ray."

"Good," he answers, already slipping into sleep. He is fully asleep within a minute, but I'm not ready to let go yet. I stay awake and listen to him breathe, listen to Ginger snore softly, listen to the sounds of the house, and imagine the sounds around the cabin. I think about all the arrangements that will have to be made before we can leave in three months. Before sleep claims me, I think about how the easiest choice I've ever made is to be here with him. And I think I am a very fortunate man.