Disclaimers: You know the drill: if you recognize the name, it belongs to Alliance. The city mentioned is completely made up. Anyone who goes looking will deserve a kick in the head.

This is slash, m/m, Fraser/Kowalski (oh yeah), PG most of the way, NC-17 at the end. But you might want to actually read the first part, you pervs.

Special thanks to my betas, Audra and Aristide. Both amazing, and I'm thinking of tattooing the bootprints both left on my ass just for the souvenir value. Also thanks to the 5Ps gang and various individuals both in and out of the fandom.

All Comments maybe sent to rattlecatcher@yahoo.com

All the Comforts of Home

By Denise Raymond

Chapter 1: Raven Sends a Detective

        I didn't take much with me, just a carry-on. With three separate airline transfers between Miami International and Prince Rupert Sound, luggage was just another way of saying, "I didn't need those clothes, anyway, Mr. Baggage Handler, you go right ahead and take them."
        Besides, I could pay less for something better suited to the climate up there. The six-hour layover in Vancouver helped. I loved the exchange rate. And even though I'd have less driving if I'd flown in to Yellowknife, Vancouver was bigger, and if I had to be surrounded by Canadians, I thought it would be easier to do it gradually, you know? Start out with "big city" Canadians, ease into small-town BC.
        Plus, I didn't really take a good look at the map.
        Time away, time to clear my head, that's all I really needed, I thought. Well, that and a high-powered divorce attorney.
        That stopped me.
        Are we really at that point? Really? I sighed, looking out the window at a whole lotta nature. That would be two for two, if we divorced. And down that line of reasoning I did not want to go, not then. No, all I needed was some time away and a pep talk from a guy who had even less luck with the ladies. Not to commiserate, just to talk.
        And maybe listen to some long story about Inuit rituals from the world's foremost authority on decency. Jiminy Cricket, RCMP, who first came to Chicago to remind one and all that not even Armageddon was reason to be rude.
        I smiled and shook my head as I stood on the tarmac outside of the puddle jumper I'd been in for the past hour and a half. Eight months had passed since I'd last seen Benny, telling him to go get his man. I couldn't join him, what with the bullet in my shoulder. Seven months and two weeks since I'd eloped with Stella. We'd planned just to be a few weeks in Florida, soaking up some winter sun. All I had heard about Benny was that he'd saved the day (of course) and was planning on staying in his homeland for a while. He hadn't resigned his post, he was just taking some of the 264 vacation days he hadn't got around to using. He'd even convinced that Polack, Kowalski, to go see some Hand thing, that's all Welsh had said. The Dragon Lady didn't have a lot more to say to me outside of "I'm busy, Detective, ask Turnbull."
        After we'd lost half our savings in what became a black hole, Stella had given me an ultimatum to either make it all better or get the hell out. I got the hell out. I didn't bother to contact Benny, tell him I was coming. Why would I? Benny, the soul of courtesy, would certainly welcome me home. I smiled, wondering if he still had two axes.
        After finishing up at the car rental, I called Stella.
        "So this is your answer?" she asked when I said where I was. Funny, how she sounded like my own head. But it wasn't the bitchy tone from our last fight, it was, I don't know, sad? Surprised, yeah, a little surprised. But it was a tragic voice, no matter what, and on the same wavelength as me.
        "I don't know, babe," I said. "I don't want it to be. But I just need to talk to an old friend, someone who won't say I did everything right, or everything wrong, you know?"
        "I know," she said softly. "Barbara called. She says hi."
        Great, Kowalski's mom. My wife's best friend. But Stella wasn't throwing that out there to bait me. I understood that, and let it pass. It didn't stop me from worrying that Barbara would tell her to leave me and go back to Ray. Dumb, but that's the best thinking most guys can do in matters of the heart.
        "So, what's Canada like?" she asked. We had silence and we had words. Both were painful, but it was nice to know we were still trying.
        "It's beautiful. And no one's shooting at me, so this is definitely better than the last two trips."
        Stella laughed at that, and I let out my breath. "Listen, I don't know how long I'm going to be up here. Maybe a week. Can you hang on until then?"
        "Yeah, sure," she said. Then she sighed. "Maybe when you get back I can take off for a while, too." She paused. "That's not what – I don't want that to sound like I don't want to see you, or –"
        "It's OK, Stel, this was out of left field, and I know it. Go ahead and book your flights, if you want," I said softly. Communication and compromise. I didn't want to lose this woman, not when I had Stanley Kowalski as an example of everything that was wrong with husbands, and Armando Langoustini as an example of everything that wrong with bachelors.
        She said good-bye, and I was on the road once more, with one of those travel-sized packages of Kleenex. You'd think with my nose, I could have blamed it on allergies.
        The scenery, well what can you say? It was Canada in September, so it was a little bit of green with a little bit of red. No snow, thank God. September in the Frozen North wasn't frozen, though it was certainly not the Sponge Bath of the South I was still not accustomed to.
        Nature. Not my favorite place, but I could see where Benny liked it. And it made me wonder how he'd been able to stay in Chicago for so long. I love the place, don't get me wrong, but I don't have any blind spots. I know what it's like. I suppose I was surprised he stayed on after I went undercover, but that's just ego talking, to say he'd been in town just because we were friends. Well, there was that whole exile thing, but still, that had to have blown over. Ma made sure he still felt welcome, like one of the family, which made me happy. Fraser was like a long-lost son to her, stuck in the Yukon before coming home to her, and to me, his brother.
        The guy can make friends with anyone, which is why I was always surprised to be his best friend. And from what they said around the 2-7, Benny got along with Kowalski. They didn't just play at being friends to keep my cover. "I'll give the fake Ray that much," I muttered in the car, "he did his job and no one got hurt while I was gone."
        I'd got Fraser's address by calling the Consulate in Chicago. Thatcher and Turnbull were gone, but my name was in so many files there, I was able to get the liaison officer to help me. Benny had been reassigned to Nupiak, British Columbia. I don't know how long he'd been there, but he had to be happy being back in Canada. Finally have a decent partner for once, too, not some mouthy big-city cop named Ray, Vecchio or Kowalski, take your pick.
        Nupiak was not anywhere near his dad's cabin in the Yukon. Prince Rupert Sound, where Dief saved Benny's life, seemed like the closest airport that offered car rentals. It's a resort town, or at least Canadians think it's a resort town. Nupiak was supposedly about five hours north, halfway between Telegraph Creek and Bennett, as if that meant anything.
        And the 'supposedly' was referring to dry weather, not the deluge that had me sitting in a diner in Hazelton for an hour and a half before tackling worse roads than West Racine. I was glad I'd gone with an SUV. No style to those big boxes, and they eat gas like three Rivs, but I didn't need to worry about any pothole smaller than the Grand Canyon. And even though everyone and his little brother told me the weather would stay clear the rest of the way, I wasn't going to take chances. Not in Canada. The place hates me.
        When I got to Nupiak, I decided to get directions at the local store. Of which there was, don't blink, one. Oh, yeah, this place had to feel good to Benny. I could also get something to take to him, because I might have been dropping in out of the blue, but that was no reason to be empty-handed.
        The store was busier than I expected. Obviously this was the place to socialize. I found some cookies for Dief, and was debating between the three types of cheese (four, if you included Velveeta, which I didn't), when someone called out my name.
        "Hey, Ray! What day is it?" The booming voice was followed by raucous laughter. Once I heard the laughter, I knew it was some other Ray, not me. After all, it's not the most unusual name. Gotta be at least one in every town. And sure enough, another Ray answered.
        "Y'know, Loomis, that joke just gets funnier every goddamned time," a voice said, and my gut turned to ice. Oh, no. Oh, no no no no, I prayed, this has to be a coincidence, some sort of hallucination. Maybe I dropped acid some time and never knew it. Please let it be that, Holy Mother, please let it not be a scrawny rat bag named –
        "Stanley Kowalski?" I croaked, rounding the corner to the front of the store. A man Stanley's size, in jeans, t-shirt and a down vest, froze in place before slowly turning. His hair was longer, I noticed. Not down to his shoulders, but too long to be spiky like the last time I saw him.
        Upon brief reflection, I decided I wasn't mad, I just wanted to kill him. The guy was here to see Benny, same as me, so there went my plans for relaxing and killing mosquitoes while Benny whittled. It sure wasn't going to happen now, not with Stella's ex-husband around. Stella's ex. Oh, great, well, that just made the whole situation even more special, didn't it?
        Kowalski, meanwhile, lost all color. And no one in the store was speaking, just looking back and forth at the two of us. The same sort of thoughts I'd been having seemed to pop up in his face, and in that same split-second, too. But Stanley was a man of action.
        "Oh, fuck!" he groaned, and closed the distance between the two of us. He grabbed my groceries, such as they were, and shoved them into the chest of some big guy in a green checked shirt.
        "Try being useful for once, Loomis," Kowalski muttered, then glared at me. "And you – come with me."
        I didn't have a choice, since he twisted the front of my shirt in his hands and dragged me out of the store. I stumbled out and down the street with him, trying to pry myself free. Damn, he was strong. Suddenly I was glad Frannie had pulled us apart that day at the district house.
        "Stanley, what the – "
        "Don't talk. Do not talk to me. Don't talk. You got that?" he said, his eyes trying to burn a hole in the sidewalk. I wasn't so much afraid of the scrawny goofball as I was able to recognize that there are times you can talk with a guy and times you can't, and this was not the time to talk with Ray Kowalski. I stayed quiet for about half a block, which is when he turned down an alley, pulling me with him.
        "Look, Stanley, I'm just as surprised as you – "
        "One more word and I swear I will kick you in the head. In here," he finished, and we marched up the steps of an old craftsman-style house. It was a duplex. Kowalski chose the door on the right and went on in, not bothering to knock.
        We were now in a lobby, with a couch and a desk separating the office from the waiting area. There was no sign as to what this office was for, just a few pieces of Inuit (I guess) art on the paneled walls. A woman at the desk, Inuit (again, I'm guessing – Benny talks mostly about Inuit, and you start getting the idea that's all there are in Canada, but then he'll throw in a few other names, so you have to listen close just in case there's a test), stood and smiled at the two of us. She had beautiful eyes and full lips, with long hair that Frannie's romance books always called "raven's wing black." A little plump for my liking, but all in all, nice. The smile really pulled it all together, even if she did look a little worried.
        "Ray? Is everything all right?" she asked.
        "Yer dad. Is he here?" Kowalski asked.
        "No, I'm afraid not," she answered, shaking her head and making that shiny fountain of hair shimmer. "He's having lunch with the elders. He should be back soon."
        Kowalski nodded, swallowed. He was nervous. His jaw was clenched.
        "I can't talk with this guy," he said to the woman. He noticed he was still holding on to my shirt and let go. He cleared his throat. What, was he crying or something? "Can you talk with him?"
        "Of course, Ray," she said in a soothing tone. "And Dad will talk with him too. One of us will give you a call later, is that all right? You'll be in town?"
        "Yeah," he said, letting her lead him back to the door. She raised her eyebrows at me with a hopeful smile before turning her attention back to Kowalski.
        "Tell yer dad that if we – that if this needs – I'll understand if things have to be delayed," he said, thoroughly confusing me, as if I hadn't been before. "That OK?"
        "I'll tell Dad that. You take care, now," she said, almost like a mother talking to a kid, and he left, stumbling. When I'd seen him in Chicago, when we were shooting bad guys, he had a little-boy strut and was full of energy. Now he looked broken. And old.
        "Hey! Stanley! What the hell is going on?" I called out the door, but the woman pulled gently on my sleeve.
        "Mr. Vecchio, please come in," she said. I turned to look at her.
        "How did you know my name? What is happening? Is Benny OK?"
        "I imagine the last question is the most important to you," she said. "Benton Fraser is quite well. As to how I know you, anyone who knows Corporal Fraser well enough to have seen the pictures on his mantel will know your face." Her eyes sparkled. "You are also featured in several of his stories about his time in Chicago."
        "Nothing too embarrassing, I hope," I said, flushing in response to those eyes. Ray, you're married, I reminded myself. It's a natural reaction of Vecchio males. When in a confusing situation, a little flirtation seems to calm us. I didn't mean anything by it. And she responded in kind, like it didn't mean anything and wasn't going anywhere. She was kind of like my sisters, if they'd been the kind of sisters I'd wanted. I don't mean that. Yes, I do.
        "Oh, no, provided you are indeed larger than life and more than capable of taking on the entire Chicago crime scene," she said, laughing. It was a nice laugh, the first really happy sound I'd heard since – April, maybe? "We know Corporal Fraser never lies, but we also know how he idealizes people. I imagine you are most likely a good man, but you don't walk on water."
        "Not before lunch," I said. "Look, I hate to chat and go, but I really ought to go see Benny, so if you can just tell me which way to his place, I'd –"
        "Oh, he's not there, Mr. Vecchio –"
        "Ray. Oh! How rude you must think me! I'm Peggy Bluemountain," she said, and we formally shook hands as she blushed.
        "It's a pleasure. But even if he's not home, I'm sure he won't mind if I wait –"
        "He's on patrol," Peggy said. "Three-day stints in the field, then back for three. This is the third day, but I don't think he'll be back any before seven or so, that's normal. He usually stops by to say hello before heading out to his home, so if you care to stay –"
        "Thank you kindly," I said, hoping for the Benny touch, "But like I say, he won't mind me going out there –"
        "I'm sure he wouldn't, but his neighbors might. We've had some trouble with squatters lately, and some of the citizens are jumpy. And it is hunting season. It's really best that you not go out there without an escort, someone the neighbors will believe before shooting at. I'd go myself," she said, and pointed back at the desk, "But I have to stay here and watch the phone, at least until Dad comes back."
        "Yeah, I can see that," I said, finally feeling like I had some answers, or at least some straight talk. "You know, one of these days, I'm going to come visit and not have someone shooting at me."
        She laughed, covering her mouth and trying to look mortified. "I should tell you Canada isn't like that, but you wouldn't believe me. You're just as Ben describes you," she said, going over to her desk. "I'm going to call the RCMP outpost and have them get in touch with him. Maybe they can call him in."
        She was on the phone before I was done thanking her. Now, this is the Canada Benny talks about, I thought. If I could just get the scoop on what was biting Kowalski's ass, I'd – well, my life would still be a mess, but at least I would have been able to concentrate on that, on my life, and not have to think about everyone else's messes. I couldn't even figure out why Stanley was still up here. If Benny had transferred here, well, he'd stopped looking for whatever the hell that hand thing was.
        "It's ringing," she told me, in that soft voice people always use when talking to you while they're on the phone with someone else. "Tell you what - even if they call him in, he's still going to be an hour or so. Stay for lunch?"
        "Sure, best offer I've had all –"
        "Rick? It's Peggy," she said, and I shut up. "Fine, how are – yes, I'll hold. Ray, if you want, go on in through there," she said to me, pointing to a door that in the wall that connected the duplexes. "Washroom's off to the right, and the kitchen's past it – well, it's a house, how lost can you get? Oh, hi, Rick. We've got a situation here. No, no problems. An old friend of Ben's is here from Chicago, Ray Vecchio – exactly," she said, laughing.
        Nupiak being a small town, maybe Benny was the closest they had to TV around here. Peggy waved me through the door.
        "He's where?"
        I stopped, looking back.
        "Nokot Crest. I see. Well, can he come back early? No, I understand. Right. Can you tell him to come by? Thanks, Rick."
        "I take it we won't see him for a few hours?"
        Peggy shrugged. "Hard to say. Nokot Crest is only about fifty miles from here, but he's in the middle of a dispute over traplines. Rick said he'd call him, but you know Corporal Fraser, he's not going to let personal pleasure interfere with his job."
        "That's our Benny," I said with a smile. And then I heard what she'd been saying. "Corporal Fraser? When did that happen?"
        "I don't know," Peggy said. "He transferred in at that rank. He's second in command at the post."
        Good for you, Benny, I said inside. Good for you. I didn't know anyone more deserving of about five promotions, but this was a start. But… I don't know, something didn't feel right. Hunch, cop instinct, call it what you want, but you can't be a detective without it. Or even a former detective.
        I looked up and saw Peggy staring at me, a little different look than before. Not a stare you want to get from a lady, and frankly, not a stare you want from a cop. She realized she was caught, but her response was to stand straighter and keep her eyes on me. The two of us stared, taking each other's measure.
        "What's going on, Peggy?" I asked softly.
        She sighed, tilting her head. "Has Benton told you much of our legends?"
        "Enough to choke a caribou. What's going on?"
        "I think my father would say you were sent by the Raven."
        "I'm some sort of a death figure, so you want to keep me from Benny?" I asked. I'd just about had it.
        "Not death, white man," she said, but she smiled, taking out any insult. "You're thinking Edgar Allen Poe. To us, the Raven is a trickster, someone who … upsets the applecart, as it were. You've come at an unusual time. I'd like to tell you about that, if I am permitted, or my father might be better able to tell you. And there is enough time before Ben is off duty to answer your questions. But Ray, I'm warning you: you may not come away satisfied."
        "You're going to talk to me, though, right?" I asked. "Answer questions?"
        She nodded.
        "About Benny?"
        Again, she nodded. "And about Ray as well."
        "Who cares about Kowalski?" I asked. She looked shocked, so I started talking again. I never claimed to be Mountie-style polite. "I'm kidding. Friend of Benny's, I'm sure he's a nice guy."
        "And their stories are intertwined, to a great extent," Peggy said. "But I'm hoping we can talk about you. We've heard Ben's stories, so I almost feel I know you already. I'd like to see how close I am to the real Ray Vecchio."
        "Peggy, I'd like that a lot. But I really hate eating with someone, no matter how beautiful, if I don't feel I've got all the answers." That's right, Ray, keep flirting, I was thinking; Benny scratches his eyebrow, and you flirt.
        Her smile bloomed at my compliment, and I was hard-pressed to keep my cop guard up. No, I wasn't really flirting, and she wasn't responding that way. But Peggy Bluemountain's smile is something that Canadian tour guides should mention. Friendly and open, welcome to beautiful British Columbia, we're happy to see you.
        "Well, let's get some lunch. Maybe some answers will be sitting on the table," she said and began to lead me through to her home. We were stopped by the figure coming in the front door. It was Loomis; I recognized him from the general store.
        "Hey, Peggy! Ray's chopping wood again! You need any?" he boomed.
        Peggy laughed, shaking her head. "That Ray. Yeah, I may as well. When Dad gets home, I'll take over a truckload, if he's still at it. Where is he?"
        "My yard! Dumb fuck just came in, picked up an ax and got to work!"
        "On the oak?" Peggy asked, eyes wide. She burst out laughing again. "Don't be mean, John, he'll do the cord if you let him."
        "There's only about a rick left – I was gonna do it this weekend, but I don't mind him taking it all," Loomis said, still laughing as he left.
        I looked at Peggy. I could have sworn she was giving me the Big-eyed Inuit Look. That let me know I was sunk, no chance of leaving now.
        "I can give you answers, Ray, but I'd like you to see something first," she said, and led me into her living room to the far window. The room was dark, dark woods and lace curtains letting in just enough light to let me know we were on the shadow side of the house.
        I looked out a window as she pulled the curtain back. The view was of mountains in the distance. Nearer, we had a dirt road about thirty feet away. And Ray Kowalski, on the other side of the road, in someone's backyard, chopping logs into firewood.
        His anger and his energy were both apparent in the wild swings that still managed to connect. His solid chops split the wood like atoms. A few men were standing around, just watching him. Loomis came into view and one of them began helping Loomis load the split pieces into the back of a truck.
        "He does this when he's mad," Peggy said. "He'll keep at it until he passes out or pulls a muscle. Then he'll sleep for twelve or fourteen hours."
        "And you let him do this?" I asked, angry myself. On Kowalski's behalf, too, who'd have seen that coming? But this was cruel, even to me. "Why not find out what's bothering him and get the dumb shit to deal with it?"
        "Well, Ray, we know what he's angry at," she said in a reasonable tone that sounded exactly like Benny. Apparently it's as Canadian as the Hmm's and Ahh's. "He's angry at you. But if we did as you suggest, we'd all be chopping more wood and he'd still be mad. This way, he gets the worst of the anger out, and we get firewood."
        "At me? What did I do? Sorry if I spoiled his alone time with Benny, I wanted some of that myself. But –"
        "Ray hasn't seen Ben in twenty-seven days," Peggy interrupted. That got my undivided attention. "Ray is to be married to someone in this town. Both parties have agreed to a Salish ceremony."
        She turned and walked towards what I thought might be the kitchen, and sure enough, I was right. The place smelled good: food smells, like the bread cooling on the sideboard, and the pot on the stove was promising. We both washed up at the kitchen sink with a bar of Ivory soap, and then she took the lid off the pot, filling the air with an incredible aroma. Some sort of stew. I hoped it was lunch.
        "Married? Well, congratulations, Stanley Kowalski," I said, grinning as cool ripple of relief went through my knees. At least I didn't have to worry about Stella running back to him. "What's a Salish ceremony? That some sort of Inuit thing?"
        "We're not Inuit over here, Ray. In this area, most of us are Salish. I thought Ben had told you about Canada."
        "Yeah, well, I usually tuned him out."
        Peggy laughed at that, giggling and putting down her ladle. Then she took a deep breath and continued dishing up and talking.
        "Well, if you're listening, the Salish is one of the First Nations." She had a tone when she said that, proud. Strong. Benny had said First Nations at some point, but when Peggy said it, well, it was heritage, not history. God, you start hanging around a Mountie, you sound like a book.
        "But to answer your real question," she said, "a betrothal period has been set, during which certain conditions must be met. One of the conditions is that the two parties do not meet for one month. They must also avoid discussion of the other, and people who may necessitate discussion."
        "And I would do that?" I asked, sitting at the lace-covered table in the large kitchen. We'd passed the dining room portion of the living room, with its big, formal table. This was obviously the more common and casual place to eat. But the lace gave me some pause, I gotta be honest. Something made me think of Benny, and manners. The lace made me want to behave. It only takes a few minutes to be courteous…
        "Wouldn't you?" she countered. She placed a dish of the stew in front of me with a spoon, and sliced huge wedges off the loaf of bread. "You see an acquaintance from your own city, and even if you're not close, you're almost obliged to ask about him, aren't you? 'Hello, Ray, what brings you to Nupiak?'"
        "OK, I see your point," I mumbled, taking a bite. Suddenly, lunch had my undivided attention.
        "Is the stew all right?" she asked.
        "It's fantastic!" I said. "How long has it been cooking?"
        "Only since yesterday. I was afraid it was too mild."
        "Nah, it's great. My ma'd be happy to know I got a decent meal up here."
        Peggy laughed. "I've heard about Mrs. Vecchio. Ben's stories had me worried you would hate my cooking."
        "Oh, you're willing to believe he embellished me, but my ma –"
        "– is a saint, except in the kitchen, where she's a combination of Julia Child and God," Peggy finished. Then a thought seemed to occur to her. "Ray said he'd understand if – oh, he's a good man!"
        "What? What did he mean by that?" I asked. Finally, some answers were going to appear. I used a heel of bread to get the sops. I wasn't sure if it was polite in Canada to lick the bowl. I was kind of shocked to see how fast I'd eaten, but then, breakfast had been… six hours ago? I was lucky I hadn't fainted.
        "The task Ray is doing is to last twenty-eight days, a lunar month," Peggy said, bringing over the pot and a trivet and dishing me up again. "Ray has not made contact for twenty-seven. But if something breaks the month, he has to start again."
        My spoon paused halfway between the bowl and my mouth. I raised my eyes to look at Peggy in disbelief.
        "And that meeting at the store ruined it?" I asked. "It was an accident! That's bullshit!"
        "No, that's a judgment call," she said. "As I said, the Raven's a trickster. Your presence at this time is quite interesting. I'm curious as to how Dad will interpret this."
        "Why your dad? Who is he?"
        She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "My father is a tribal elder. He's the… it's hard to explain. He's acting as a spiritual advisor in this matter."
        "Like a shaman?"
        "Let me guess: 'Dances with Wolves' is your only point of reference for anything I say, isn't it?" Peggy asked, snickering.
        "Sure," I answered back, "It's only three hours. Benny takes that long to get warmed up."
        Peggy Bluemountain's laugh had about eight different settings, I'd noticed over the last few minutes. This one was over the top, gut-splitting, a series of high, giggly shrieks, and she really shouldn't have attempted it without a doctor nearby.
        "OK, he's not a shaman, fine," I said when she began to settle down. "So what's the deal?"
         "He's the one who's setting the tasks, like the silent month," Peggy said, sighing a little as she came down from her fit. She took a deep breath, giggled, and then went on. "Dad'll want to talk with you before he can make a decision to see if your visit affects the timing."
        Finally, she sat down as well, bringing her own bowl and a plate of sliced apples.
        "But Ray, isn't it great that Ray said he'd understand if this created a delay?"
        "What, that seeing me meant he had to wait another month to – to what, exactly?"
        "To end the task, of course. I think he's learned a hell of a lot about acceptance and patience, don't you?" she asked, and took a bite of her stew. Her smile returned, closed mouth, but still pretty. "Mmm, and people said I couldn't cook possum like my Auntie Irma."
        The blood left my face before I caught the look in her eyes.
        "Tell me this is moose, or at least something bigger than a damn rat, OK?" I hissed.
        "Ooh, you leave yourself wide open for teasing. You'd better stay a while – it's been dull around here," she said, laughing again.
        "Always glad to oblige a lady," I answered, polite as can be, except for the glare. It just made her laugh more. I liked Peggy.
        The front door opened, and we both turned at the sound. Benny, I hoped, but it was not to be.
        "In here, Dad," she called. I wiped my mouth on a paper napkin and stood.
        "I see another forest is being cleared," said the same voice, and then the owner came through the swinging kitchen door. Peggy's father was about fifty-five, his thinning silver hair pulled back into a braid. Bushy eyebrows over tired eyes and a lined face. Peggy favored her mother, I decided.
        "Ray Vecchio!" the man exclaimed, his eyes suddenly awake and echoing his smile. "No wonder Ray's chopping up Loomis's scrub oak."
        I've always wanted to be on TV and have people interested in me. I now had the feeling that I'd got my wish through Benny. And I suddenly understood why people said to be careful what you wished for.
        "How'd he look?" Peggy asked. "Because I think that alder is cured enough."
        "That oak is gonna take the vinegar out of him, but… the alder will be a good way for him to cool down," the man said, nodding. "Yeah. Take him about twenty, get him to stop and take a break. I need to talk with him. Mr. Vecchio – or should I say Detective Vecchio? It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Mike Bluemountain, not that my daughter will introduce me, or show me the respect I deserve."
        "I got that ugly old moose you killed to give me a tasty stew, Dad. Actions speak louder than words," she said. It sounded like the Salish version of Casa Vecchio. I couldn't help smiling as I shook the older man's hand.
        "Mr. Bluemountain –"
        "Mike. Or Elder Bluemountain, if you piss me off."
        "I'll try for Mike and keep Elder as a fallback. But I'm not a detective any more. I'm retired."
        "Retired? No." Mike's words hung in the air, awkward and heavy.
        "Umm, yes, I – I got shot, and it was severe enough that they offered me my pension."
        "And now?" he asked, looking at me like Peggy had, in the office. Like Dief used to. But Mike Bluemountain's was stronger than the other two combined.
        I always felt that as a cop, I had a good "edge," that rough and dangerous aura perps respected. Benny never saw it, of course. Constable "How Dense Can One Guy Be?" Fraser would just keep talking, never played good cop/bad cop. But ask anyone else, they'd say that Ray Vecchio had an edge.
        But three seconds under Mike's stare and I felt like a first time purse snatcher sitting in Interview One. I felt my face grow red.
        "I run a bowling alley in Florida."
        "Sell it," Mike said. "It's not what you should be doing."
        That put the edge back in place. My ma is the only one who could use that tone on me and get a polite reply.
        "Excuse me, I hate to yell at an Elder," I said, "but what do you know about my life? I'm more than just some stories the Mountie told you, I hope you realize that."
        "I know that men who are happy running bowling alleys don't cross the continent without calling ahead. Especially if it's a new business, which it would have to be – how long you been running it? Six months?"
        "I came up to see an old friend," I said, not backing down. I've kept doughnuts away from a wolf, I can stare down an old man. "Suddenly I'm told, oh, no, you can't go to his place, Ray, he's not there. And you can't talk to the Polack, not that I'd want to, he's chopping wood so he doesn't talk to his fiancée. And now you have the nerve to tell me I should go back to being a cop? Hello? I've had enough lead therapy for one lifetime! Thanks, Elder Bluemountain, I think I'll stick with my current career counselor."
        Mike shrugged. "You've answered your own question on that score, Ray. You feel you've been mistreated and you're angry and confused."
        "Yeah? So?" I asked in the silence as Mike dipped a slice of bread in the stew pot. I felt churlish – why? What business was it of his?
        "Detectives want answers. And they want to know why people say certain things, and don't say others. If you weren't a detective, you'd have either gone up to Ben Fraser's home, or you'd have left town, or just gone over to the diner and not stayed to talk more with my daughter. As it is, you're curious enough about what she told you – and what she didn't tell you – to stick around and see what else she'll say."
        The three of us sat in silence while I thought about this.
        "Well," Peggy finally said, getting up and putting her bowl in the sink. "I've got some logs to haul twenty yards. Dad?" She added something in Salish (I guess). He grunted.
        "Ray, I'm sure I'll see you later, so I won't say goodbye. Don't let Dad frighten you," she finished, kissing her father's cheek as she left through the kitchen door. The two of us stayed quiet a little longer, then Mike took a deep breath.
        "Please," I answered. I'd seen a French press next to the stove when I first came in, and wasn't disappointed when the old man put a pot of water on to boil.
        "Who is Kowalski marrying?" I asked. "Peggy didn't get around to telling me. Not that I'd know any more than I do now, but –"
        "Actually, Ray, you would know quite a bit more than you do now."
        "Not really," I said. "Seeing as how I don't know anyone in town except for –"
        "Ray Kowalski is engaged to Benton Fraser," Mike said, his voice the sound of something carved in stone. He didn't look at me. Instead, he watched the pot, waiting for it to boil. It took a moment for what he said to hit me.
        "Don't even joke about that," I said. My voice started to go up, and my throat felt tight, like I was trying not to throw up. Which was true.
        Mike didn't answer. I waited for some sign, some reaction. I waited to see him grin the way his daughter had when she was kidding about the stew. I knew he was joking, there was no way he could be serious.
        He still didn't answer. Oh, shit, I thought. Cold sweat on my face now caught a breeze, and yet the kitchen suddenly felt too small. The light was fading. My legs seemed weak, but my arm braced on the table wasn't helping, so I sat down, hard.
        Mike still didn't look over. He kept staring at the white kettle on the white stove. Jesus. It wasn't true. No. Kowalski – no. Stella would have said that. With everything else she'd told me about the Polack, she would have mentioned that.
        And Fraser? No.
        My gut was sandbagged by two bowls of stew. It had tasted good a few minutes ago; now I could taste was sourness. I wiped my mouth with the back of my cold, shaking hand.
        "Have some apple slices, Ray," Mike said. "But don't eat the skin if you're nauseous. While the flesh will help settle your stomach, the pectin in the skin can be irritating to the lining."
        "Don't even joke that my best friend is a fucking queer. Do you hear me? Are you listening?"
        I kept talking. I told Mike that this bullshit was pissing me off, but he just got some beans out of the refrigerator and put them in the grinder. Didn't even wait for me to finish before pressing the lid. He wasn't listening. Benny used to do that. He'd let me talk, but he'd do his own thing. I'd thought at first it was Benny, and then when I met Turnbull and the Dragon Lady, I thought it was a Mountie thing. Apparently, it's Canadian. So I shut up and waited. It's the only thing that ever worked, anyway.
        "I never joke about love, Ray. Ben and Ray share one of the surest, steadiest loves I have been asked to witness." Mike turned and looked me squarely in the eye. "And you have power to destroy it, if you choose. Ben would listen to you. He loves you as the brother he never had and as a friend he'd not expected to find in a strange city. He would listen to you, if you told him he was wrong for doing this."
        There was a window on the far wall, the same wall I'd watched Kowalski chop wood. I got up, suddenly needing to move. I could still see Kowalski. His shirt was off, and he was sweating like – well, like a guy who'd been chopping wood for a while. Scrawny, wiry – queer? Had to be. Couldn't be. What the fuck had he done to the Mountie? And Benny – well, whatever was going on, if he'd agreed to this – what the hell was going on?
        And why was I talking like this was a possibility? It wasn't true!
        "Do you really think he'd listen?" I asked. Oh, Jesus, I'm buying this, I thought. I was having a nightmare, and believing it. But from what Mike said, there was a way out. It seemed like my only hope. It was strange: Mike had said they were in love (which wasn't true. It was impossible). But at the same time, he was whispering to me that I could help Benny, get him out of this.
        "He would. Of course, it would be at the cost of your friendship," Mike said, and his voice had returned to that tone he'd used when he said I should be a detective. No arguing with that voice.
        "What's that supposed to mean?" I snapped. I felt I was talking to someone long distance, with a delay between his words and my comprehension.
        "Ben Fraser is simple in his beliefs, Detective. He believes there is right and wrong, and very few gray areas between them. He uses his head to think and his heart to love. Would you agree with that assessment?"
        "Sure," I said, shrugging.
        "Love is not a matter of logic," he continued. "If you tell Ben to leave Ray, he will. On your command, based upon your logical explanations of why he should not be with him. Or any man, since that appears to be a great part of your objection."
        "OK, then, let me talk to him," I said, but Mike went on as if I hadn't opened my mouth. Canadian.
        "Of course, it will tear his heart out. And he will no longer have the ability to love another, not even a friend," he said. Steam was shooting from the spout of the kettle.
        Mike poured the ground beans into the press and added the water. He pulled down two mugs from a tree. We watched the grounds swirl, then settle. He waited another minute to depress the plunger.
        "Do you take anything in your coffee?"
        I shook my head. He got out some milk and splashed it into one of the mugs.
        "You really have only a few choices, Ray," he continued. "You can leave now, and when Ben contacts you, tell him you're no longer friends. This will hurt him; he talks about you often. But he has other friends. The blow will be cushioned. Or you can tell him to leave Ray Kowalski, and he will. You will still lose his friendship. Or you can stay and find some way to be happy for him. That's the closest you will come to anything like a win-win situation. If that's what you want."
        Mike poured the coffee.
        "What I want is what's best for Benny," I said slowly. Yes, I realized, that was true. No matter what, I had always wanted Benny's best interests. I never meant to shoot him, but it did get him away from Victoria. I might have lost him then, but I didn't. Would I have pulled the trigger if our friendship had been on the line? Why was this different? Damn it, Benny, I am tired of following you into danger!
        "And what is best for him?" Mike asked. I didn't answer.
        "I don't understand how this could have happened," I said slowly. "He was straight when I knew him. And Kowalski – well, of all the shit that Stella has said about him, she's never said he was a fa – that he was that way. I would have remembered that."
        "So you've met Stella Kowalski?" Mike asked. Figures he'd have heard of her. Yeah, Benny made a great substitute for television. A regular Aaron Spelling production.
        "I married her!" I shouted. I took a breath, trying to calm down again. "Benny – wait. If you didn't know I married her, that means he doesn't know that, right? And Ray doesn't either, I guess. Oh, Jesus. This just gets weirder and weirder."
        "Ray? May I ask why you came up here?" Mike asked.
        Right. "Yeah, that's a whole other story," I muttered. I sat back down with my coffee, stretching my legs under the table.
        "I wanted to talk with Benny about my marriage. We're having trouble."
        "Why? Ben's never been married."
        "No, but he's always been Benny," I said.
        Mike thought about what I said, and chuckled. He got it.
        I have never known anyone who's been as consistent as Fraser. Stella had been an independent girl, a married woman, and forceful attorney. I'd been Armando for so long, I had needed help being Ray again, and the Polack, well, he'd done so many undercover jobs he made me look steady. Only the Mountie was the same man, no matter the time or place. In jeans and a flannel shirt, the red serge still came up from his skin like aniline dye.
        But that was before I found out he was… Jesus, Mary and Joseph. A queer.
        "He'd bring it back to you," Mike said. "Ask about what you'd done, not what your wife had said."
        I nodded. Mike raised an eyebrow.
        "You do realize that you've been given a lagniappe, don't you?"
        "A what?" I asked.
        "A gift," he said, "an extra –"
        "I know what the word means. My ma doesn't call me Raimondo because she's being cute," I said. "But what's the bonus here? My marriage is in trouble, my business is going down the drain, and now good old unchanging Benny is – sorry. Just tell me what the lagniappe is here, Mike, I'm a little slow today."
        "Must be jet lag," Mike said. "Ben hasn't changed. He loves as honestly as he does everything else and with the same convictions. He would indeed be able to see what you may have done to endanger your marriage. But Ray Kowalski would tell you how to talk with Stella."
        "Oh, right. I am not talking to that skinny bag-lady about his ex-wife," I said, grinning fiercely. "The guy is sleeping with a guy after his wife dumped him, and you really think he's an authority on the subject of Stella? Besides, he and I don't get along well enough on an ordinary day, and this is not an ordinary day."
        "No, but it's the day you're going to talk with Ray," Mike said, standing up.
        "What? Oh, no, he's pissed enough as it is," I said, panicked. "And he's got an ax."
        "If I loan you one of mine, will you chop along side him?"
        It occurred to me Kowalski had been at it a long time. Damn, that's stamina, I thought, I had to give him that. We could hear the muffled explosions of wood flying.
        "He'll go on all night if he doesn't faint," Mike said, looking out the window. "We keep someone watching him, just in case."
        "He's done this before? How many times?" I asked, interested against my will. And stalling, I'll admit it. The chopping stopped.
        Mike shrugged. "A couple. He's not good with anger. More coffee?"
        I looked at him, about to argue, feeling like I was back in Miami, trying to figure out how to swim in the ocean. Rule Number One: You can't fight waves. They don't care if you're strong, they don't even see you as an obstacle. Mike Bluemountain was an ocean. He didn't get cocky, he didn't get angry, but there was nothing to fight and he just kept coming.
        "If you will not agree to talk with Ray Kowalski," he said in the same tone he used to offer me coffee, "you will not be allowed to talk with Benton Fraser."
        "And what's gonna stop me?" I asked, hoping he didn't know I was bluffing. Frankly, he didn't seem to care.
        "People around here know what he and Ray are doing. If I tell Benton to leave town, he will, without question, and no one around here will help you find him. It's your choice, Ray."
        The chopping started up again.
        "You're probably tired. Why don't you go wash your face and lay down on the couch for a while? I'll come get you later."
        I sighed and started to swim with the waves to the shore.
        "Yeah, a nap is probably a good idea. But I'm going to need another cup of coffee later before I have to be friendly with him. Wait – do I have to be friendly?"
        Mike smiled.

Chapter 2: A Couple of White Guys and Not One Damn Inuit Story

        I'm past the first pain threshold. Way past it. Now I got a rhythm going on, and my arms are loose. I'm sweating like a horse, I got rivers pouring down me. Mary Loomis was checking me out when she brought me some water. I stripped off my t-shirt, 'cause I figured that was more of a treat than John Loomis was ever gonna give her.
        Being pissed off at Loomis, that only warms your heart for an hour, maybe two.
        "Hey Ray, what day is it?"
        OK, maybe three hours.
        I'd call him an asshole, or a frigging cocksucker, which used to be two of my favorite insults, but that's just one of the changes in my life these days. Those just aren't insults any more. Oh – that, and I don't talk shit to people as much. Some, sure, gotta keep my hand in, and I ain't trying for perfection. But still, hanging around Benton for this long (and the past eight months of which have been some serious hanging around) tends to clean a person up inside. I don't slouch as much, either.
        Make no mistake: I will wake up sore tomorrow. But who's gonna care? I was less than two days away from the finish line, and the Style Pig pushes it back another month. Another fucking month. Another month of not fucking.
        And let's face it, even if I've cut back on the insults, Ray "Detective Armani" Vecchio makes a nice exception. The anger I'm feeling towards him right now, now, that's a real anger. That's a rage I got going on there. A long-burning pile of Kingsford charcoal briquettes. Loomis? Gone. Vecchio? Now, that's staying power. That'll last a month. At least.
        But now Benton is in my mind, cupping my face in his right hand.
        "He's my friend, Ray," he told me in our tent, on our adventure. Our honeymoon, if you want to do chickspeak, and if camping on icefields is your idea of a honeymoon. It's not for everyone. I had the advantage of a real warm Mountie, but, still, I'm not saying I'm hungry for winter to come back just so I can go camping. "I'll always call him my friend. And if he hadn't gone undercover –"
        "We wouldn't have met?" I said, shaking my head. "Nah, it would have happened. I was looking for a transfer anyway, and the two-seven had a slot."
        "Mm, so we would have met, and perhaps we'd have become lovers sooner. I would have chased after you without any brakes," he said, his grin looking a little too much like Dief's when he spots an unguarded pizza. I remember getting hard at that moment, just from the thought of Benton "chasing" me.
        "But would we have stayed together, do you think?" he asked me then. And he was serious.
        Of course, I thought, of course. After all, I'd just been handed my papers by my one true love, I was doing undercover just to prove I had the balls, my old man still hadn't forgiven me for being a cop, my mom was sighing about no little Stanleys running around (and still tight with my ex). Sure, I was ready for a death-do-us-part scene with a guy who wore a red coat and big hat. Of course.
        And Fraser, hell, that he could look anyone in the eye after that whole Victoria thing went down showed a lot more self-forgiveness (I'd say balls) than I ever had. He was working in the RCMP version of Siberia for a CO slightly more user-friendly than a busted ATM. Virtuous in a world that didn't play by the rules. And oh, yeah – orphan. That was just the cherry on the sundae.
        "Stayed lovers? We wouldn't have been lovers, Benton," I corrected him, stroking his cheek and feeling the tiny bit of stubble he'd produced in three days. I was a carpet. He was fine grade sandpaper. "We'd have been using each other to keep the demons away."
        "And demons always come back, Ray."
        "Right." I nodded.
        And I nodded again, just now, remembering that. Damn it. I can't be thinking about him. I cannot be doing this.
        I don't know how long Peggy's been standing here. I only see her when I finish the oak. I pull my shirt up from where I'd stuffed a sleeve into a back pocket and wipe my face. She tilts her head to point to a stack of bucked logs, gray-green-white bark.
        "Alder?" I ask. She nods.
        "It grows fast, even up here. It's almost a junk wood, but it has its uses. Good for kindling, for one thing."
        "Kindling, huh," I grunt, my hand reaching automatically for the keys she tosses me. I feel the sudden motion, different from the ax swing, and, oh yeah, tomorrow's gonna be a bitch on the muscles. The two guys they got watching me, Loomis and Kenny Royston, laugh at my wince. Not gonna give them shit, though. It's not the first time I've had baby-sitters around to make sure I don't kill myself with one chop.
        "Cut them small – it won't take you long – then stack them outside my kitchen. When you're done, get cleaned up and come up to my room. Dad's gonna want to see you again."
        "But I'm to go to your room," I confirm. She nodded and looked down the road that separated the Bluemountain yard from the Loomis yard.
        "Yeah, he's talking with someone. We shouldn't disturb them."
        She's said that before when I've called to talk with Mike. It usually means Benton's there, but not this time. This time it's Ray goddamn Vecchio.
        But I don't say any of this out loud, I just nod and wipe my face again before getting back to work. She's right – alder practically falls to toothpicks when you split it, so it's only an hour later that I'm walking home, having stacked enough kindling to last the Bluemountain household until 2098, and put Peggy's truck back in the garage. Loomis and Royston split after we unloaded the truck. A different day and I might have gone with them to Sled Dog Dave's for a beer or seven.
        My shoulders are throbbing. They don't hurt yet. And what is home these days is the trailer the Wanamakers live in. They've adopted me - unofficially, of course, although when I head to the States to drop a bombshell on Mom and Dad Kowalski, the Wanamakers, bless their hearts, just might get the chance to adopt me for real.
        I'm staying with them and not at our house. Not until the month (hah! Which month?) is over. Benton's in town, too. His half-sister, Maggie, she's staying out there, house-sitting while she collects her thoughts. She's like her bro – only takes vacation days as a way to track down miscreants. Sort of a hobby for the children of Bob Fraser, you get the idea. So anyway, she's got about six months of Mountie down time she's whittling away at. Glad we could help out, there, Maggie.
        I've been out there a few times since this started. I have to call Peggy, and she calls Maggie, and if Benton's not out there, I can go. Two weeks ago the fixtures finally came in, so we could finish the bathroom. Washroom. Whatever. Sam says watercloset. Anyway, the three of us finished all that, but I told Maggie not to tell "someone" it was done. I wanted it to be a surprise.
        Oh, wait, I gotta say this – that was the day I killed my first caribou. Dumb lunk wandered into the yard. You get over the Bambi Syndrome pretty quick out here, especially when you see the food prices in winter. I'd helped Benton and some of the guys with dressing a few, but this was the first time I was in charge. Maggie cooked up the liver after we finished all the hard work. She said it was tradition. Not an organ meats kinda guy, but hell, it was good with onions, and either she was yanking my chain or she wasn't, either way, it was good. Until I saw she'd put some in some foil and said she'd save it, maybe take it into town later, that "someone" would love a piece of liver.
        And the big, brave hunter, having spent a day hauling porcelain and cutting Bambi into serving-sized chunks, had to go outside and chop firewood before he started to bawl over the Mountie not being there.
        We can't live together during this, but we can't be too far away, either. We have to be able to go about our daily business without each other. No talking to or about him. No touching, obviously. No "coincidental" meetings at the laundry. And no going far enough away that the temptation is removed.
        It's hell. When Mike first gave us the test, I thought, great, I'll go pack up my apartment, figure out quarantine rules for my turtle, get Goodwill to come pick up – what? Here? With him so close and I can't – oh, shit. Not good. I'm gonna suck at this. One more thing I'm gonna suck at. Yeah, Mike, I needed something to fuck with my head, since I appear to be fairly cool now with the whole loving-a-guy story. Thanks.
        And I do suck at this. I do. I'm surly, even by my standards. I want to hit Loomis (though this does not separate me from the mainstream, most days), and whenever I see Dief, I want to cry. We've been at this fifty-seven days, twelve hours and change.
        After five days without Benton, I tracked him down, had my way. Made sure he had his way too, since he's got some pretty inventive ways. The next time it happened (twenty-five days later), he's the one who jumped the fence. As we raided the Wanamaker fridge after three hours of nonstop fucking, he lorded it over me that he had better control 'cause he'd held out longer. That got him another three hours during which he admitted (grunted) he couldn't live without me.
        But here I am, over all the bullshit. I've done this long enough that I've been able to see what Mike's going for, that we needed to know that while life is possible alone, the best it can be is bittersweet. No, scratch that. The best life can be is fucked up but doable. Yeah. I get a good warm feeling thinking about Benton lately. I can go a month alone, I can do anything for him and take any amount of shit life wants to give me, because of the Mountie living in my heart. Got the lesson, Mike. Understood, done, ready to go on to the next test, I can do it.
        I'm just real glad it's over in a few days. Or I was until the Style Pig showed up. Mentally, at that moment when I heard his voice, you know where I was at? Aside from thinking Loomis would look good with a boot print on his skull, I mean. Inside, I was kneeling down and thanking whatever force or god or chance that put Benton and me together, because I doubted all the shit would be worth it for anyone else. (I had another image too, but that involved me kneeling down for other reasons, but that one's a standard. You gotta expect to see sex thoughts in a guy's head, any day, any time.) And who shows up in town?
        "Stanley Kowalski?"
        Oh, he's not my rival. I get that now. Got it a long time ago. Benton's always thought of Vecchio as a friend. Don't know why, but that's our favorite Mountie for you. And to his credit, Vecchio came through for him, time and time again. I admit, I was jealous at first, because I was meeting Ray the Legend, who knew Benton way back when. Or at least back when. And Ray was his first friend in town. The one who drove him to work, the one he used to endanger. The one who called him Benny, that was news to me. And even if Vecchio didn't know about Benton and me (does he now? Oh, shit. Well, it was gonna happen, right? Don't get sidetracked), he knew I was the New Man.
        We made a truce, an unspoken one (we're cops and we're guys, all right? If we could get away with two snorts, a grunt and a ball scratch, we'd have all the conversation we'd need for a lifetime), over "our" desk, over the Mountie. We had a job to do, cops against bad guys, same old story. And as long as we had that, we got along.
        Then he got shot. Not the first time, around Fraser. Taking a long view, working with Benton means someone's gonna get hurt. That was, what? Vecchio's third trip to the hospital?
        And now he's here. Last I heard, he'd been up and intimidating thugs into giving up evidence, which is how the Ice Queen and Frobisher knew to go to Franklin Bay. And that was cool, Vecchio solving the case from that end, us fighting the evildoers up here.
        Once we'd done the obligatory paperwork and cheering, I arranged a three-month leave of absence. I figured at the end of three months, we'd either be near a phone, so I could go for another three months, or back in Chicago, having realized Kowalskis were not made for polar bear country. But I had a hunch Chicago wasn't going to be my home any more. Hell, Benton put up with my jungle, I figured I could deal with his for a while.
        Jesus. Sometimes it hits me – I'm in love with a guy. And not just any guy, not just some guy, oh, no, I'm throwing my lot in with Sergeant York of the Yukon. I wonder what Stella's gonna think. I don't know if I want the wind blown out of her sails or what. At any rate, it's gonna be a while before she knows, since we can't go back to Chicago until I get through one god-damned month of no Benton. It's gonna be winter by then, at the rate we're going.
        Of course, if Vecchio is wise to all this, well, then I guess I've got about three minutes between his shock and the phone call to the two-seven. One flip of someone's rolodex, and Stella's – well, who knows? Could be funny. Wish I could see it.
        Not that it matters, any of it, in the long run. We put running water in already, and we got standing in the community (I'm the token American). And I figure my part in the whole Muldoon affair has got to earn me some major brownie points with the immigration people up here. I may leave off the part about "Marrying a Mountie" on the section of the form where it asks why I wanna leave the states for the provinces. "Like snow. A lot." Yeah, that's better.
        By the time I get cleaned up, I'm starving. I grab a bag of chips and a bag of M&M's – no, they're called Smarties up here (and I have no idea what they call those little sour-fruity things we called Smarties in Chicago) – and head over to Peggy's. It's 3:30, and she and I got a thing for Bob Newhart reruns and junk food.
        Peggy's good people. She's got this really beautiful black hair, and a killer bod. In Chicago, the Gold Coast types would say she's fat, got about 30 pounds to lose. But she's not fat, she's lush, and only an idiot would not find her mouth-watering. Stella was thin and pretty; it looked good on her to be thin. Peg's got some cush and curves, and she smells good, too. It looks good on her to be cushy. Ask anyone but Benton, and they'll tell you I'm never gonna be as nice to squeeze as Peggy Bluemountain.
        And besides, up here, I'm the one with the weight problem. Soon as he sees me, Benton's gonna ride me about eating more, but I don't know if it'll do any good, I burn fat too fast. Like throwing butter at the sun. So I'm colder in winter – just means I get to snuggle closer to the Mountie. We all win.
        It's a good episode, the one where the guys all get drunk on Thanksgiving. Peggy impresses me by naming all the buildings in the opening credits.
        "Guess I talk about them too much," I say sheepishly, reaching for another handful of chips.
        "Do you miss it there?" she asks all of the sudden. I look at her, hard. This is … dangerous territory. It could be a test. But she doesn't back down.
        "When I go back to pack up my apartment, it'll be nice to see the old places," I say carefully, feeling my way, just in case she talks with her dad about it later. "It'll be nice to visit Chicago. But home has more to do with how you feel when you're there, rather than where you are." I smile. I like my answer. "Besides, it's just kind of a thrill to see on TV places you see all the time. Probably no big deal if you live in New York or LA, but it meant something to us, as kids, you know?"
        "I guess," Peggy says. "We get on television when something bad happens, like a tourist gets killed in the woods by walking around in camouflage during hunting season. Makes you glad not to see your home on the news."
        "I can get behind that," I say, pursing my lips and nodding.
        We both laugh, I'm not sure why. But it felt good. Clean. Ever since I saw Vecchio, I'd had a low-grade tension with my high-grade rage. Most of the rage had been chopped away, but the tension hadn't budged until now. My laughter starts to run clean, real clean, then, suddenly, I'm almost crying. No, not suddenly, gradually, but I gotta work hard to stop before there's anything more than some wet eyes.
        You know, if I'd woke up this morning and said I needed to fuck a Mountie, I could be with Benton right now, and everyone would just laugh because I'd screwed up another month. And they wouldn't care. But this wasn't my itchy pants, and it wasn't Fraser that fucked things up, it was the Style Pig, and I really hate that some pencil-necked pencil-dick could fuck things up like this. Could work me into a "not gonna cry" headache of migraine proportions.
        I never understand why they say laughter is near crying in your head. Benton would. God, I miss him.
        I'm rocking back and forth while Peggy's arms come around me, and the two of us rock, sitting on her floor in front of the couch. She didn't ask me to talk about it – no need, and it was just a temptation, anyway. I pinch the bridge of my nose while I rock, and try to breathe normally.
        "All better now?" she whispers.
        "Oh, yeah," I rasp, "I'm golden. I got some issues, but nothing that won't work out in time."
        Peggy chuckles at that, gives me a squeeze.
        "As soon as we get my marital status in order, we're finding you a husband," I tell her as I stand up, stretch, and head for her bathroom.
        "Right. You're the kind of guy who hated matchmakers, weren't you?" she says. "And now, it's all 'Come to the dark side, Peg.'"
        I wash my face. Downstairs, this house is half house and half office for the tribe. Upstairs is where Peggy and her dad live, ever since she came home from college in Alberta. Now she handles contracts between the tribe and outside business enterprises while her dad pretty much runs the council of tribal elders, and sits on the city council, too.
        Mike Bluemountain's a good guy, everyone thinks so. People put a lot of stock in what he says. I think if he'd been against Benton and me, this town would be a lot colder. As it is, no one bats an eye. Of course, today I wish someone would bat an eye, 'cause I'm spoiling for a fight. Gotta do something, wanna do something, even if my arms are starting to ache. Shit.
        "Peggy? I'm stealing some aspirin," I call out.
        "Yeah, a little. It's more my arms, some kind of reminder that they're gonna hurt like a bitch tomorrow. Pre-game entertainment."
        "There's some Ben Gay in the medicine cabinet," she says.
        "You're the best, Peg. Gonna get you on the dark side real soon."
        Benton uses some liniment he makes himself. An old Inuit formula he learned in Inuvik. It stinks, but it works. Peggy uses Ben Gay. Better stink to it. But that's my self-made man, I think as I put my shirt back on.
        When I come back out, Mike and Peggy are in the hallway.
        "Thanks for the kindling," Mike says. His eyes are serious, which is how I know he's laughing at me. Best deadpan around.
        "Yeah, well, you're old, I figure you could use some help," I tell him. That gets me a smile, a little one, just one corner pulled up. But he likes that I don't look at him as some sort of movie Indian, like tourists do when they meet him. I respect him, a lot, but I'm of the opinion that if I can't slang him a little, why should I listen to him? Who wants the advice of a guy with a dead bug up his ass?
        "I want you to talk to Ray Vecchio," he says, speaking of a guys with dead bugs up their asses. I try not to look like my stomach's been kicked all the way back to my spine. "He has some questions and I think you're better equipped to answer them."
        "We have something in common," I say, still couching my words. Just in case the month hasn't been blown. (If it has, I'm sneaking into the RCMP outpost and jumping a Mountie. There is an upside to all this, even if it's short-term.) "I'm not certain we can talk without bringing it up."
        "I can think of several things you have in common," Mike answers easily. "Most likely I can think of more things than you can. But if you are thinking of Benton, Ray Vecchio is aware of your situation."
        No, wait, this is what being kicked in the gut feels like.
        "I realize it's up to you and Benton to make such statements," Mike says as apology. "But in this case, I had reason to believe it was necessary."
        "What did he say?"
        Let's face it – the band-aid was gonna be ripped off one way or another, Mike had just done it the quick way.
        "You'll have to ask him," he answers. "He's down in the living room. We'll try to stay out of your way. Be done by six-thirty and we'll all have dinner."
        "And – if certain … subjects come up?" I ask.
        "If Ray Vecchio brings up certain subjects, feel free. But play nice," Mike warns me, wagging a finger.
        "Mike? Why me? Why not –? Why not –" I still don't know if it's safe to say his name, or if I'm gonna blow it. Come to think of it, I don't have Mike's word that I'm gonna get to see Benton in a day or not. I'm free to talk about him? And what else, Mike? Free to go another month without him? Great freedom.
        "He thinks he needs to talk with Benton," Mike says. "But really he needs to speak with you. You'll be more help. And he'll get to talk with Ben tonight."
        The Style Pig gets to see the Mountie. I don't. Yet another example of Life not playing by the rules.
        I turn to Peggy, leaning on the door sill of her room. I can see my almost completely empty bag of Smarties by the couch behind her.
        "You'll do fine," she says, and her brilliant smile is greatness. I can do this. I can talk to the Style Pig and not beat his face in. Benton will be pleased.
        Ray Vecchio. Style Pig, even in what I suppose are casual clothes for him. His khakis have not been out of the store for more than a week. And he's tan, too, which makes his eyes even greener. If I were still jealous of his friendship with Benton, and I worried there was more than just friendship, it's his eyes that would be my proof. Don't look at too many guys, don't want anyone at all outside of Benton, but those are some pretty eyes on that Italian.
        I talk about his eyes because he's facing me when I come in, waiting for me. This doesn't get to be one of those character studies where you first see the person without them seeing you, so you can build up an image before they speak. But even as we stare at each other, him on the couch, me at the kitchen door, neither of us says a word. I can see the color of his eyes, but I can't read his expression. I wonder if he can read mine. I wonder what I'm thinking.
        Finally, I realize it doesn't need to be a staring contest and I don't need to win. After all, once I get another moon of no fucking under my belt, my life will be jim dandy and peachy keen.
        "So, someone's been getting some sun," I say.
        "And someone's been sucking Mountie dick," he snaps back. The expression is really easy to read now. After all, I do have more than a passing acquaintance with rage. Maybe that's why mine dissipated with less than a quarter cord of wood - there was another user in town siphoning off all the anger. Another thought occurs to me in that split-second: Mike said I could talk freely, if the Style Pig brought up anything Benton-related.
        "That would be me," I reply, polite as can be, and I let a smile settle on me. Remember, I said "asshole" and "cocksucker" are no longer my favorite insults. My problem at the moment is not 'oh, jeez, Ray knows!' but telling my dick to go back to sleep, it's not gonna get any for a while.
        "I can't believe you'd do that to Benny!" he says.
        I gotta laugh. "He's not unhappy with the arrangement."
        "Did they know when they put you in as my cover that you were queer?" Vecchio asks. "Let me guess: 'Hey Frase,'" he says, screwing up his face and doing what I guess is supposed to be an impersonation of me, "'Let me blow ya and I'll keep yer friend's name outta da morgue!'"
        "All right, that's it!" I shout, and no matter how my arms felt (better, thanks, but still sore) I really, really want to hit him. Play nice? Sorry, gloves are comin' off.
        "Let me tell you a few things, Vecchio. No, wait, since Benton's not here, let me apprise you of certain facts. First, what's going on with me and the Mountie is completely mutual. He loves me, I love him. Equal partners, OK? And because he still thinks of you as his best friend, he'd do just about anything for you, unless you asked him to hurt me or Maggie. Or Dief. But then, Dief's always in his own class, ya know?"
        "Yeah, sure," he says, not even interested in the mutt, which moves him up the list of people I don't need to give a shit about. "Who's Maggie?"
        "Oh, that's right – you weren't around for that," I say, and he winces. Round One to Kowalski. Cheap, I know, but it feels so good. "He found out he's got this half-sister. Seems Sergeant Bob Fraser sowed an oat after Benton's mom was killed. Anyway, you're still his best friend.
        "Last thing, Detective Armani," I finish, forestalling his questions, "It looks like Benton and I felt the same way about each other from Day One, but we didn't talk for close to a year, and we didn't do anything until you were done with the undercover."
        At that, Vecchio's eyes popped.
        "You – you waited –"
        "When Fraser blew your cover, you were still in character. And then we had to haul ass to Franklin Bay, but if you want that story, ask Benton, since I was just trying not to die of hypothermia. And after that, we had to make the world safe for idealistic Mounties." I sigh, amazed at how slow life's been lately. Love every moment of it, too. Rather die of boredom than a bullet, and that's the truth.
        "We heard you were back on the job when I called to tell Welsh I was taking some leave time to go on an adventure. And then, and only then, did Benton and I start talking seriously about how we felt." My throat is dry, so I go into the kitchen.
        "Hey, Pegs, d'ya think Mike would mind if I took Vecchio out for a drink? I'm thirsty, and it's not like he'd try anything in the middle of Sled Dog Dave's."
        Peggy, who's chopping carrots, grins and shakes her head no.
        "There's some soda pop in the fridge. Why don't you just replace whatever you take tomorrow?"
        "You're a lifesaver, Peggy," I say, snaking a sixer of cola from the bottom shelf. There are also some amber ales, but those were from Dave's brew that he does for locals, and those are a) Mike's and 2) way too good for the Style Pig.
        But I find I'm angry, not any more. He could insult me six different ways, and I still won't feel mad. Either he's wrong, or he's just calling me names. Doesn't seem to affect me either way. I tell him that, putting the ring of cans between us on the table.
        "The only thing that offends me is that you think I'd put a cop in danger," I say. "You think I'd risk you coming home in a bag for a quick fuck? I don't care what you think about me, Vecchio, but you honestly think I'd do that to your family? Not cool."
        Vecchio has the decency to blush and look away. "OK, that was uncalled for," he mutters. His "sorry" is even quieter, and covered with his first sip.
        "Accepted," I say. Just to piss him off. Hey – I'm not angry. Doesn't mean I love him like a brother or anything. We sit quiet, him on the couch, me in a chair by the window. It's quiet out, finally dark. I wonder if Mike would be mad if I saw Benton walk by, since I'm talking about him anyway. Best not to risk it, I guess.
        "Mike said I had the power to make Benny leave you," Vecchio says after a few seconds. Well, that's not too troubling a thought, now is it? What the hell am I supposed to do with that? I decide to treat it like a test, since it came from Mike.
        "Because you're his best friend," I say. He nods.
        "Best friends have the responsibility to look out for each other," he says. "Even if they don't want to."
        "But you want to," I say. He looks me in the eyes now. Cop stare, with some extra schooling from Dief and the mob. I can see where it would work on others, but this is the Dominion of Canada, and I've been bribing that wolf with Hostess products for a long time now. Vecchio keeps it up. OK, he's good.
        "Yeah," he says. "I'd do anything to keep Benny safe. And screwing around with you? Not safe. I got him out the last time he fucked up, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. He might be unhappy for a while, but he'd understand that I was helping him. And Kowalski?" he leans in, turns on the stare full force. He's very good. "I want to get him away from you."
        He slowly sits back and drinks from the can, still staring at me. And then he breaks it off on his own. It's a good trick, kinda casual. Lets a perp know you don't need to win a staring match to prove who's in charge.
        I take a sip myself, and a nice deep breath. I'm not really affected, not deep down. Like when you get off a rollercoaster. Your body's shaky, but inside, you know you were never in danger. My arms are hurting, and my stomach's in knots because this test might not be over and I just got nailed a Chicago cop stare (best in the business) right between the eyes.
        But Benton Fraser loves me. I'm not Victoria, I'm not a threat, I'm just the guy who's crazy enough to want an unhinged Mountie, and when this conversation is over, I'll get off the ride and laugh at myself for feeling worried.
        "Yeah," I say, and I put some husk in it, that sad sound you make when someone else is right, because Vecchio's not the only one who's talked a perp into giving it up. Oh, and he's buying it! "You could get him out of here, or make him send me away. It's possible. He'd listen to you, wouldn't he?"
        I break off, start to take a drink as I stare into the space behind his left ear. Just when I see him start to speak, I looking him in the eye and start talking again.
        "You could make him listen, and make him willing to go along with your plan, and he'd still do his Mountie best at everything," I said, my voice stronger. Hook, line and Vecchio! I go on. "But he wouldn't be happy again. He'd just put happiness to one side, something that interferes with work, since it would just about kill him to think about it. So, for the rest of your life, Vecchio, you'd have to accept the responsibility for making him feel bad. And you'd never trust him, anyway, because he'd start being friends with someone besides your royal highness and you'd wonder if he was boffing him, too." I smile. "Or maybe just still thinking of me."
        I finish the last third of the can. His mouth is catching flies. Oh, yeah, ride over, please exit to your left.
        "On the other hand," I say after a polite belch, "If you were to come back next year when the damn wedding is supposed to take place, you'd find you do have the power to make him happy. You know, for generic crap, this isn't that bad. You want another?"
        "Did Mike tell you that?" he asks. I shake my head.
        "I know Benton real well now. He's like me in a few things. One is that we're both the type to mate for life. I didn't understand Stella throwing me out, 'cause I thought that was that, you know? You get married, that's it. I don't know, maybe for her, too, but she knew sooner than me that I wasn't her guy for life. I hope she finds that guy," I sigh, blowing out my breath with a click. "She deserves a good guy. How did I get to the topic of the Stella? Oh, yeah – Benton's the type to do or die, right. So if you told him to leave me, convinced him it was for the best, he'd leave me, but he'd leave his heart, too."
        "But you just said you'd found love again, after Stella," Vecchio says, sitting up at the flaw in the argument. Yeah, that was a flaw, wasn't it? And then I laugh.
        "I guess he could, too, huh? Well, that's a relief! If I die before him, he'd probably find someone. That's good. Great."
        "Yeah, but –"
        "Yeah, yeah, yeah," I say, waving it all away, all his wanting to prove whatever the hell it is he wants to prove. I'm just happy to know Fraser won't ever have to worry about being alone. "The truth is, Ray, is Benton's happy, really, truly happy, and he doesn't have to wonder if this is right. And, as happy as I thought I was with Stella, it's not one percent as good as I feel around Benton Fraser. When he tells me how much he loves me, I don't even have to stop and remind myself that the Mountie doesn't lie."
        God, I feel so good! I'm gonna hafta tell Mike how incredible it is to talk about Benton. It might add days on this goddamn trial, but the upside is this incredible rush of love. Like a fucking tide washing over me. Is that chick talk? Who cares? It's great! Come out to all of Chicago? Where's the phone? I'm ready. And Vecchio, he's just stunned. Don't know what he expected, don't care at all. Then I remember something.
        "Hey – Mike said you wanted to talk to Benton about something, but he said I'd be more help. What was he talking about, do you know?"
        Vecchio flushed, and I saw again how tan he was, darker than what I remember from a year ago, and he'd just spent a year in Vegas, or Reno, one of those places.
        "I'm gonna go out on a limb and say you're not contemplating being a lesion at the American Consulate in Toronto."
        "That's liaison, you dumb Polack."
        "Yeah, I know," I tell him. "I'm not big on French, which means I'll get along with most of Canada. So what's the deal?"
        He looks away again, looks at his hands, and shakes his head, putting the soda on the table.
        "I've been in Miami for the past six months," he finally says. "I met someone after I got out of the hospital, and from the first moment I saw her, I was in love." He flicks me this glance. "Too bad I wasn't undercover like you were, and have to be in a holding pattern for a while."
        "It did have some benefits," I agree.
        "Yeah. Anyway, we got married." He stops again and looks at me with some sort of meaning, and I wait for an explanation. "We quit our jobs and moved to Florida to open a bowling alley."
        And again with the look. Am I supposed to have some sort of response?
        "You… don't seem like a bowler," I say, more like ask, because I'm really needing a few more conversational clues.
        "You don't know, do you?" he asks.
        "I know what you've told me," I say, "Which so far hasn't included a name."
        "Let me ask you, Stanley –"
        "OK, I will have to de-spine you if you call me that again."
        "Fine. Have you talked to anyone in Chicago in the past six months?" he asks me.
        "Sure. I told Welsh I was going on leave, that was after we got Muldoon cuffed. And then I told him I was extending the leave, that was… what, about three months ago? Told my folks I was gonna hang out up here for a while, see how things went. Mike told you about the stuff Benton and I are doing, right?"
        "Right, but –"
        "So I haven't been in touch for the past couple of months, 'cause it's kinda hard to talk with people who aren't from around here. Even my parents ask how the Mountie is doing."
        Damn. Nothing like the thought of this dragging on and on to put the glum look on a face. Hopefully it would be over in a few days, and not four more weeks.
        "Hope it's not another month before I can call my folks," I say, giving in to the sad thoughts for a second.
        "Why? Because of this conversation?" Vecchio asks. I nod.
        "Mike said if you brought up Benton, I could talk about him, but… he didn't say whether it would change things or not. I figure, either way, I'm stuck. Oh, hell, we already fucked up twice, we'll get through this."
        Vecchio stares at me before coming to some resolution. Resolution. Jesus. They're gonna bury me in serge.
        "Gotta focus. Ray," he says, his voice full of serious talk. "I guess you didn't hear about this from anyone. I'm a little shocked, but hell, after the atom bomb I got hit with today… Ray, I married Stella."
        "Stella," I repeat, and I'm waiting for the last name – oh, fuck.
        "Oh, excuse me, Mister I-Mate-for-Life," he retorts, pushing me out of his face, which is when I notice I'd gotten up out of my chair. "You don't get a choice in who she marries. But she still talks to your ma, a little uncomfortable for me, but Stella's happy with it. So I would think your own mother would have said something, or Welsh might have –"
        I hold up my hand, looking down while trying to bring my heart back from hummingbird land. "Let's just go to our corners for a second, OK, Vecchio? Let's just – just shut up for a minute," I say, and happily, he agrees without one word. We glare, we breathe loud through our noses (notice how polite I am about not bringing up certain physical defects of certain visitors to Nupiak), and we do our own thing. He sits back, crosses his legs and stares at the window. Don't think he's looking out, just at.
        OK, back to me. Regroup. Think. Let it out, I say to myself, pacing, stopping, pacing again. Breathe in, think again, let it out slowly. Deep breath.
        OK. He's got a point, several of them. Jesus. Married to Stella. Let's take a quick look at the time line: Stella and me get married. Fast forward. Life sucks, only I'd rather not look at that 'cause I'm married to my Gold Coast girl. She puts my stuff in the hall, then she divorces my scrawny ass. Vecchio goes to deep cover as Armando something-or-other, some name that reminds me of shrimp. Hey, Kowalski, wanna cover for a cop? Eat, sleep, and work as someone else? Get out of your miserable life for a while?
        Which all leads directly into my falling so head over heels for a guy. A guy in a red suit and a big hat who licks things. Which leads to poring over Ray Vecchio's files and tossing his bedroom, praying for some small scrap of evidence that he might consider dating within the gender boundary (not that I'd ever slept with a guy, so what I'd've done with the information besides run scared, I have no idea). Which leads to an incredibly painful case of keeping my mouth shut at all costs 'cause it wasn't gonna happen.
        "Ray –"
        "Shut up and let me think," I whisper. Oh, right - forgot to put in the tortured nights of wondering how I could have the hots for a guy, especially after I realized it wasn't just some sort of rebound weirdness.
        And then it hits me – I went undercover and fell in love with Vecchio's old partner. Vecchio comes up from cover and falls in love with my ex-wife. I start laughing.
        "What? What is it?" Vecchio asks, all on the defensive.
        "You and me, Ray, we got some weird karmic shit goin' on," I say, trying not to bust a gut.
        He stares at me as if I'm unhinged (oh, like that's even an issue any more), then he glares at me. Jeez, was he going to stop blushing at any point in the near future?
        "Oh, come on, lighten up!" I tell him. "You gotta admit, it's straight outta Bizarro World."
        "Yeah, whatever," he says. "How is it no one told you? It's been six months, for Christ's sake!"
        "Good question. Why would people be reluctant to tell a guy who is known for keeping the lovelight burning for the Stella that said Stella has remarried, and oh, by the way, did we mention she married the guy whose ass you helped keep alive while he was playing Big Mafia Guy on Campus?"
        "Yeah, I see what you mean. Not exactly a phone call, is it?" he says, nodding. We're both quiet again.
        "Hey – what's the problem?" I ask, trying to fit this all in with Vecchio's appearance in the north country. "You wanted to talk with Benton about this –"
        "How can you call him Benton? The man gets saddled with two last names and you pick the weirder one to call him?"
        I sit down again and relax. The man is so not a threat. "He likes the name. He likes me calling him that. I call him Ben, too, Frase slips out a lot. But Benton's what really turns his crank." I smile a little, just to see how he reacts. Yep. He takes it as innuendo, and looks away, glaring at the window again.
        "So come on, spill already."
        He takes a deep breath and lets it out. I copy him, like it's a reflex. You ever notice that you do that? Someone talks about breathing, all of a sudden it's like your lungs want attention.
        "Like I say, maybe we should have been forced not to do anything for a while," he sighs, rubbing his face. He's not wearing a ring.
        "You got divorced already?" I ask. Part of me is elated, the rest wants to kick him in the head for hurting my Stella. Don't care who she sees or what she says, if someone hurts her, she's my Stella and I'll pound the shit out of the bastard.
        "What? No!" he says, pissed off. I wiggle my ring finger.
        "Oh, that. We don't wear them. We know we're married, we don't need any –"
        "Bullshit. Get the ring, put it on," I say, my jaw set. "What else?"
        His eyes glitter as he debates talking more. When it comes out, it's like he's got bamboo under his fingernails. I wonder what Mike said to him, that Vecchio is actually still talking with me. It's not his own deal, that's obvious.
        "We screwed up. We should have waited, we should have stayed in Chicago. But we didn't, and she's been talking to the DA's office in Miami, as well as some of the law firms, and she's said I either have to get serious or get out."
        I wait. Patiently, I might add. Or maybe not. Not a good judge.
        "And you being here…"
        "Is me looking to talk with Benny," Ray says, his voice firm, which is his way of saying the conversation is now over. Well, it may be over for him.
        "Do you love her?" I ask. I keep going before that bristling look becomes vocalized. "Could you love her when you're just not on the same wavelength for a few days? Could you love her when she works late and is frustrated when some perp gets a hung jury? When she gets bitchy with you 'cause she can't touch the perp? And when she wants to do over the guest room in –"
        "Dusty Rose."
        "Oh, man, it was Norwegian Sunset when we were together," I groan, grinning. "Dusty Rose sounds –"
        "Like shit."
        "Yeah, but if it's what Stella wants, can you go with it?" I ask. "If you can put up with Dusty Rose, the rest will be easy. But she'd be a better mom than she knows, so I hope she hears that womb-clock one of these days."
        "Yeah," he says softly. "Me, too."
        With a pang, I realize he might not get that wish either, and (not that I'm joining the Ray Vecchio fan club or anything) I'm sorry for him.
        "If you really love her, Vecchio, and think you can mate for life, then do it, and shut up with all the mistakes. Go back to Chicago, that sun is gonna kill one or the both of you. Get Stella back to the Gold Coast and put a damn ring on her finger if you want to make her happy!"
        "There are those," Ray says, "who would say that the ex-husband who's now bending over for a guy is not exactly an expert."
        "There are those who would be wrong," I answer, my voice steady and my eyes holding his. He looks away, embarrassed. I win!
        "OK, I was out of line –"
        "Damn right you were," I agree. "But if you think I'm ever going to be embarrassed about Benton, or what we do, then you're not only out of line, but also way wrong. And if you're not careful, I'll up the ante and tell you that the only thing that feels as good as getting fucked by Benton is fucking –"
        "Shut up!" he shouts. Wow. I do believe I got his attention. He jumps up and heads for the can. Well, I played as fair as I could, to my way of thinking. Time for another cola? Yeah, why not?
        Ray comes back into the living room.
        "All right," he says, sitting down again. He swipes his hand over his face, and I realize he splashed water on his head. He's pasty, too, but he wasn't gone long enough to puke or anything. Fuck it. I was playing fair. "I've been out of line. I apologize."
        "Apology accepted, water over the dam," I say.
        "This is not my day," he sighs, looking at the lace curtains. I had to laugh.
        "No, Vecchio, I guess not. But it hasn't been my day for the past 57 days."
        "Yeah, well, I'll do you one better and say it hasn't been my day ever since the bowling alley started tanking."
        "Which was…"
        "About five minutes after we bought it," Vecchio says, and we both laugh, that sort of wounded guy laugh that says sorry you're in trouble, pal, glad I'm not you. It's as close as we're ever gonna get to bonding.
        "Let me ask you, Kowalski," he says as he grabs another pop. "Did you ever – I mean, before Benny?"
        I sigh, never having a really great answer for that. "Not really."
        "'Not really' is not an answer, Stanley."
        "And Stella would make a nice looking widow, Raimondo."
        "Answer the question already."
        I take a long drink first. "If I push myself, I can say there were moments I didn't want to notice that I was noticing guys. But there was never anyone I wanted. Someone might look OK, but I'm wired for a lot more emotions, don't know why. I need to feel some connection, you know? It was why it was so hard to let go of Stella, I think. I can't separate my feelings from my body."
        "You sure you're a guy?" Ray grins, a little snide. Snide enough? Yyyyyes. Just enough. I look him in the eye and lean forward.
        "Ask the Mountie if I'm a guy, Vecchio," I purr, and get that red face I was hoping for. I laugh at that, which, for some reason, doesn't help. Hey, am I Vecchio's keeper?
        "You looking to get your face pounded, Kowalski?"
        "No, I'm just answering your questions, you dumbshit," I say, still laughing. Ah, I gotta let him off the hook, it'll make Benton happy. "So I see Fraser, and I … notice him."
        "Like you'd pretended not to notice how you'd noticed guys before."
        "Wasn't a long list, Vecchio," I mutter, because, well, hell, it's the truth, and once I really had Stella, I stopped thinking about it. Saw guys, saw chicks, wanted Stella. "Anyway, I see him, and damn! He was way too good-looking, all these chicks were hanging off him. I remember hoping he was an asshole, or I was gonna fall far and fast, you know?"
        "And Benny's not an asshole," Ray said.
        "Nope. A regular good guy, except for the all the weirdness factors."
        "Eating dirt."
        "Jumping out of planes."
        "Knowing about larva."
        "Knowing which way champagne wire is wrapped."
        "Eating dirt."
        "You said that one already," I say. He shrugs.
        "Still bugs me."
        "Does it bug you more than the way he'd walk up to thugs with guns and –"
        "And expect you to know he's got a plan?" Vecchio finishes, rolling his eyes. "I never got used to that! And you wanted him?"
        "Hey! I thought it was some weird divorce/rebound shit!" I say. "I wasn't looking for love." And I wasn't. I'd just wanted a nice quiet bit of undercover as a cop. Just get called Vecchio a few times to keep the heat off Armando.
        "But you found it, huh?" Ray asks, or rather, he says, softly, staring at the wall behind me. I can't really read him.
        "He grew on me," I say, scratching my stubble. Always liked that sound. "The first day, I knew I'd have jumped him if I'd been the kind of guy who jumps people. A couple months later, I realized this was a lot more solid than I'd planned. And I started getting mad at the women around the copshop, and at the Ice Queen. And I was getting really mad at you, Vecchio."
        "Me? I never touched the guy!"
        "Yeah, I know." I glare at him. "You never touched any guy. I searched all your files, but there was nothing in 'em to suggest you'd date anything less than a D-cup."
        "I'm sure you'll understand if I don't take offense at that," he retorts. He winces, swallows some air. "How can you say I'm his best friend? I never knew he was into guys."
        "If you'd been around when he discovered how he felt about me, I'm certain you'd have been consulted," I say. "And when you do talk to him, don't be surprised if he goes into some Inuit story about being two-spirited."
        Vecchio stared at me.
        "It's something about being bi, I think. To be honest, I tune out a lot of those stories –"
        "He's still telling them? You're surrounded by Inuit and he's telling you Inuit stories?"
        "Nah, we're surrounded by Salish and he's telling me Inuit stories."
        We both laugh at that. It's a pretty good laugh, too. Not greatness, but we're good. Maybe he wasn't the worst thing to happen today, who knows? And it seems, when I catch his eye, that he might feel the same way.
        "Hey – how long are you gonna stay around?" I ask. "Because if Mike extends this test, that's a whole month you can't talk to Benton, you know."
        "What if he doesn't extend it? When would it end?" he asks.
        "Tomorrow's the last day. If we pass, I'll see the Mountie the day after tomorrow."
        "So, I could rag him for being queer in two days?" he says, grinning. Vecchio's getting way too OK with this. Time to mess him up a little, as my reward for playing so nice. I shake my head.
        "He won't be talking to anyone in two days, if this ends," I say, and give a look that, if we were playing charades, would be interpreted as "Fuck Like Rabbits, Fuck Like Wolves, then Fuck Like Rabbits some More." Vecchio loses color again. Oh, hell, gotta play fair.
        "Still, if you're here for any length of time, you oughtta go stay out at our place. Maggie's out there, keeping an eye on the place. You'd like her. She's a Mountie, too, so Stella wouldn't have to feel worried about you staying out there with her."
        "How far from the house to the can?" he asks.
        "Closer than that shack of his dad's had. Nice job you did renovating, by the way," I say, then go on before that glare gets worse. "You want me to call Maggie?"
        "Well, I bought a return ticket, but it's open-ended," Vecchio says, thinking over his options. He looks up at me. "Are you planning on telling Stella about you and Benny?"
        "What? You didn't call her already? Yeah, I'll tell her," I say, sighing. Like that wasn't gonna be a weird enough phone call before finding out about Vecchio. "I figure once my folks know, she's next on the list."
        "What about Welsh?"
        I nod. "I think he's due an explanation when I give him my badge. He's not the only lieu I had, but he was the best, that's for damn sure."
        "Got that right."
        "Frannie's gonna be tough," I say, scratching my chin. "But I think she's more on Benton's list, since she's a Vecchio."
        "Yeah, let's leave that one alone right now, OK?" Ray asks, wincing. He sees my face and the change is quick. "No, that's not what I mean. It's just – the only person who didn't get the fact that Benny wasn't Frannie's was Frannie. But she's still my sis, and I'm sorry she's going to get hurt."
        "I'm all over that. Frannie's good people, no matter what."
        " Ray? Do you want me to tell Stella?" he asks.
        I think about that, and then think about it again. "If I tell her, most likely it won't happen until Benton and I past this whole month of silence deal. Maybe when we're in Chicago. I didn't wanna do it over the phone, but we're not gonna take a side-trip to Florida. Which means Stella's gonna jump Bogart on you for not telling her sooner."
        "That could happen," he agrees.
        We both think about it. And repeat.
        "Let's drop back and punt," I say. "Ask Mike. I don't want you to get in trouble, but I sure as hell don't want to screw up my stuff, you know?"
        "You know, Kowalski, if it was me, I don't know that I'd want Ange to know."
        "Like I said, Vecchio, I'm not ashamed of being with the Mountie. I'm not looking forward to talking with my folks about it, but I'm not going to hide, either. And Stella's a big girl, she'll either be cool with it and show up at the wedding or scream and cry and never speak to me again. I got no control over –"
        "Everyone still breathing?" Mike's voice cuts me off. He's leaning out the kitchen door. "I think you boys have talked enough. Come eat."
        Peggy always makes these great stews, and we devour one for dinner. Vecchio had it for lunch, apparently, but he's just as happy to have more. He doesn't have to say it, but Stella's no cook, not like Ma Vecchio. I'm thinking it's been a while since he's looked at a soup bowl with enthusiasm.
        Peggy and Mike keep after Vecchio with questions about Benton and Chicago, which is good, because I'm starting to get really sore. No more words, just get me to bed, if I'm not gonna be seeing the Mountie.
        And then the office doorbell rings. Vecchio sits up. He knows as well as I do what happens next.
        "So, have I ruined this test you got going, Mike?" Ray asks as Peggy goes to answer it. I roll my eyes. Thanks, dork, we don't talk about it, OK? Get it?
        Mike stares at Ray, that death stare thing he's so good at. Not even the Chicago Cop Stare competes, and Ray knows that now. He looks down and suddenly finds his empty bowl really interesting.
        "I still don't know what the Raven's up to," Mike says. It's not an answer white guys are good at interpreting, but my gut turns to ice. Action! Need to be busy! I clear the table and run some wash water for whoever's gonna do the dishes. Obviously, I won't be here long enough to do them.
        Peggy comes back in. "Dad? He's here," she says. He nods.
        "Tell him I'll be there in a moment." He stood and comes around the table where I'm frozen, my fingers inches away from Peggy's water glass. Mike puts his hands on my shoulders. I never noticed before, but he's shorter than me by about six inches. But his height has never been important. He's like a stalagmite, or whatever they're called, those rocks that grow up. He's, I don't know, rooted. Powerful, unmovable. I feel like a wheat stalk.
        "Ray, I don't know if this is going to continue or not," he says. "I'm feeling my way through this along with the two of you."
        He's becoming harder to see as my eyes begin to swim. Glasses wouldn't help. I nod and swallow and blink. I don't raise my hand to wipe my eyes, because if Mike takes his hands away, I'm afraid I'll fall over. D-U-M dumb.
        My throat is all clogged. "Well, it's just a month. We got time, right?"
        Mike smiles gently. He lets me go and then heads for the door. Then he stops, turns around as he seems to think about something. I'm wondering how much of this is planned and how much is spur of the moment?
        "If you had a chance to be with him for three minutes," he says, and my heart starts to race at the thought, "would you rather talk, and not touch, or touch and not talk?"
        Oh jeez, don't tease me.
        "Touch, definitely touch," I say.
        "Yeah, you'd kill him if he told you an Inuit story, wouldn't you?" Ray mutters, somewhere behind me.
        "Wait here," Mike says to me, and I nod. I can't obey fast enough. I run my fingers through my hair, not that it does any good. And if Benton's coming from work, it's not like he's had time to beautify.
        I look over at the Style Pig – Vecchio, I mean.
        "You kept me safe, and more important, you kept my family safe while I was gone. Out of respect for that, I got no quarrel with you. I'm still not sure where I stand on all this," he says, his eyes trying for a flat cop stare, but failing, "but if the Mountie is happy, like I said, I have no quarrel with you. But if I hear he's not happy, and you're the problem, I'm ripping you a new one, you got that?"
        I laugh, not a funny laugh, but a tough-guy laugh. "Back atcha, Vecchio," I say. "And if Stella gets one gray hair over you, or if Fraser talks to you and looks upset, I'm kicking you in the head so hard you'll swear you got Rockettes coming out of your ass. That clear?"
        "As a bell."
        We both stare a cop stare, and back away again. We're both tough. We both know it. We're not tight. Might never be, in a perfect world. But we got mutual interests, and I think we've passed each other's tests.
        Mike comes back in, motions for me to follow. I don't say a word, leaving the kitchen, going through the dining room and down the little hallway.
        He's facing the wall, in jeans and flannel. He had time to go home? Oh, who cares?
        "Remember, Benton, no words," Mike warns, so I guess he hasn't told the Mountie much. That seems like a dirty trick, but I don't have more time for thoughts because Benton is turning around. He's lost some sleep, not that anyone else would notice. His surprised face is a blur as I run into his arms and start looking for his lips. I don't know if the aborted "Wha—?" from his mouth counts as words, but I don't want to risk finding out.
        I can't stop crying or shaking. These have to be the worst godawful kisses the Mountie's ever had to face, all salt water and snot, but you know what? He's crying, too. Happy tears, no recrimination. And he smells so fucking good.
        I'm sorry he doesn't have information, but he's doing pretty good on all the instinct talk I've been forcing on him. His hands mirror mine. One up on my cheek, thumb stroking away tears and fears, and the other arm around my waist and up my waist, up my spine. We don't dare go lower than the waist. Even though that morning I'd woken up ready to kill if I had to go one more minute without touching Benton's ass, I knew I couldn't risk it. They'd have to hose us down, and no three-minute rule would have kept us away. Besides, except for the way he smells, this is just not a sexy moment. I need him too much for that.
        Now, if Mike would see fit to extend us another twelve minutes and turn off the lights on his way out, I'd be on my knees in a heartbeat.
        "OK, boys, time's up," Mike says gruffly.
        One last breath and I pull away, more reluctant than Dief leaving a doughnut shop. Those eyes, blue like sky over a snow field (I had to come to Canada to find that color), are full of questions before he stows them away and just takes me in.
        You think he licks things? Smells things? Until this minute, I had no idea how hard he looks at things. I wipe my face and return the stare, trying to flash a look of "It's gonna be OK, Benton, I love you and I miss you and I want to jump your bones like nobody's business." I'm not sure how much of that gets through before Peggy gets in my face. She's got a rueful expression (three minutes with the Mountie and I'm using words like "rueful") as she holds up my coat and leads me outside.
        Yeah, outside. Away from Benton and away from Vecchio. She walks me to the street while I put on my coat. And then, and only then, far enough away not to hear anything in the house, I start to cry again. A short cloudburst, nothing Peggy hasn't seen before, and it's all out of my system. Most of it. I hate feeling so much, like a chick, or something, but it's another one of those stupid lessons I'm learning from all this: the more I feel, the more I can feel Benton. As much as I thought he was inside me, in my heart, or my soul, or whatever, at the start of all this, hell, that was just the start. And for me and Stella, that starting gate was as far as we ever got. That's where I left Stella, I realized, and maybe that's as far as she could take me inside her. This is better, Jesus, Benton, this is so much better.
        I take another one of those deep breaths, put some cold air in my lungs. Winter's coming. My body is as sore as it's ever been. I'm not gonna cry like a chick. I love Benton Fraser. These are about the only things I know right now.
        Something licks my hand, and I snort. "Can I stretch things enough to say hi to Dief?" I ask. Peggy laughs.
        "After today, Ray, I think you could give him Smarties and no one's gonna call you on it."
        Diefenbaker licks my face as I crouch, and he whines a little.
        "It's OK, mutt, we'll be together real soon," I tell him. He jerks his head back to look at me. "I promise," I say to his face. I'm not fully convinced that he's deaf, ditto for the lip-reading. But we're packmates and why should I argue a minor point in a beautiful friendship?
        "Next time, I'll get you a doughnut from the store, OK?"
        He snarls a little snarl. Not good enough, huh?
        "Fine, two doughnuts, but only because I'm sweet on the Mountie." He licks my face again and goes up to the porch and starts scratching on the door. "You better let him in," I tell Peggy. "There's a tourist who'd love to see him."
        We both turn as we hear the door open, and Dief is let in. I turn again, quick, before I'm tempted to look. I hear it shut again, and let out my breath. Lot's wife got turned into salt for turning around.
        "You'll be OK, Ray?" Peggy asks.
        "Yeah, I'm good," I say, taking a deep breath and heading down the road. "Just gonna go home, watch the game, go to bed. New day tomorrow."

Chapter 3: Orders, Questions, Answers

        I waited in silence as I'd been instructed. I can follow orders, even ones I do not like or understand. However, if I had not pledged a form of obedience to Mike Bluemountain, I would have been out the door and running after Ray.
        My body still vibrated from his touch. I'd been told there was nothing wrong. I'd been told not to question. I had been told, further, that all would be explained, but for now, all I'd been told was:
        "You have three minutes to do anything but talk."
        I started to ask a question, but stopped before the words left my mouth. It made no sense – I could do anything but talk? Why? Mike ordered me to face the coat rack and keep my eyes forward. I could not see the mirror nor a reflection in the window. I could hear Mike open the door to the home he shares with his daughter and walk down the short hallway.
        Then he returned with someone else. I would have sworn it was Ray's tread I heard, his boots on the Bluemountain floor. I know the sound of his boots. I know the sound of his brogues and the running shoes he'd ordered from a catalogue as the weather grew warmer. I know the sound of Ray's tread in snowshoes, if I listen hard enough.
        It sounded like Ray's boots, but too heavy a tread, as if Ray were carrying something, or perhaps shuffling, weighted down by bad news. Again, at Mike's word, I turned.
        The sweet light of my soul, I call him, though not out loud. Not any more. Not after the first time.
        He stood in the doorway, looking at me, flicking a look to Mike. Mike nodded, and Ray ran at me, into my arms and kissed away the sound of surprise I began to make. I wanted to know why he was here, but he had his orders, too, and kept his lips pressed against my words.
        In that short moment before, when he was framed against the dark hallway, I memorized his features once again. It's habit, really, but I can't help myself, nor would I want to stop. Once more, I studied him. I saw the half-inch growth in his hair since our last meeting, now long enough to tuck behind his ears. I saw that his hands were rougher than before, and ruddy from recent exertion. His face was much the same, except that his eyes were bloodshot. The skin around his eyes was not puffy, so he'd not been crying, though he'd certainly come close. His face was not softened by his eyes; they were as sharp and cutting as the planes of his cheekbones and jaw. They saw past my uniform and into my soul, I would swear that in a court of law.
        That was all I saw, for he was quick to move, and loathe to lose any time. He was wrapped about me and holding tight to my sweater inside my leather jacket.
        When this trial began, I had yet to take his love for granted. Now, folded about him, our bodies seeming to merge into one comfortable shape, I was still amazed at how right he felt. He was crying as we kissed – why, Ray? What's wrong? I wanted to know. But I was crying too, thankful and hungry and scared to let go again, thus answering my own questions.
        Too full of that lonely ache; I felt little sexual desire. We had three minutes, so this was best. But since then, when people have insinuated that our romance was purely a matter of physical need, no doubt brought on by enforced confinement without women, I've thought of those three minutes, a moment where I merely wanted to reaffirm Ray's presence on my skin. Physical? Without a doubt. But it was partially as a manifestation of the spiritual bond we had, the communal, commingled desire.
        Too soon, it was over, and Peggy Bluemountain, Mike's daughter, came in, holding Ray's coat. One more look, one more chance to study him, and then Peggy stood between us. We could not even make eye contact after that. Ray turned and left, and, out of respect for his obedience, I kept my eyes to the floor.
        "I imagine you have some questions," Mike said when the door was shut, and Ray's footfall left the porch.
        My breath was ragged as I sought to pull myself together again. A deep breath, in, then out, and I listened to my heartbeat.
        "If I do, will they be answered?" I asked.
        Perhaps courtesy is deeply ingrained: what else would explain my calm question at a time I'd have preferred to groan and sigh, growl and curse? What had just happened, and why? These were my questions. But I would not gamble on creating another delay, not when we were so close to the end of this test.
        "Of course," Mike answered. "But I think you'd be better off talking to another."
        With that, he opened the hallway door again and called to someone to come in. He looked back at me. "Another was given the same ground rules," he said. "Tonight you may discuss fully any delicate subject, provided someone else brings up the topic."
        And then he left.
        Another usually meant Ray, as Mike was always careful not to mention his name. But as Ray had just left, I knew he truly meant another, one as yet unnamed. Translation: I could talk about Ray, if this new person did. It made sense, but, as Ray would say, it made better sense if you let go of logic. Which left me with nothing I could understand.
        That was when Ray Vecchio walked through the door from the Bluemountain home.
        You must understand, up until five minutes before, this had been one of the most normal, uneventful days I'd had in some time – besides the emptiness of missing Ray – my Ray, Ray Kowalski – oh, dear. This could become confusing.
        This had been the twenty-seventh day of the test Mike Bluemountain had set before us. It was also our third attempt. We were to complete a month without seeing the other, touching, talking, or even (as much as possible) thinking of the other. The first attempt lasted five days before Ray ran from his temporary home and knocked on my window at the RCMP outpost. I couldn't be angry, even if our testing would be delayed. How could I be anything but aroused by him? He'd scrambled into the room, smelling of summer and outdoors mixed with … Ray.
        I chided him even as he pulled up my t-shirt to lick my belly.
        "Do me a favor, Frase," he'd said, grinning up at me in a way I've never had a strong resistance to.
        "What, Ray?" I'd asked softly. As if he'd needed to ask a favor. As if I'd say no.
        "In about 24, 25 days, stop showerin'. You smell great right now, but after a month of not bein' near ya, I'm gonna want a surround-sound kinda Benton, you know?"
        The next morning, before we made our slightly-shamefaced way to the Bluemountain home, Ray watched as I put a large red "X" on my calendar for twenty-five days in the future.
        "And this time, have some patience," I scolded him.
        "Yeah, Frase, like you really hated me coming over," he said, snickering. And of course, twenty-five days later, I was the one without control. I'd seen him up on the Wanamaker's roof, adjusting their aerial with his shirt off. Four hours passed as I tried to collect my thoughts, and then I remembered that Sam and Lynn had gone to visit their son. I was powerless over my desires, and Ray did not chide me.
        Loving Ray Kowalski has been the greatest disturbance of my life. It makes no sense to me that I could have been so unable to resist him, when a modicum of patience would have meant the end of the test. Only five more days, and I failed, gladly. Ray laughed and laughed at how I was willing to give everything up for one day of pleasure.
        The last time I'd been so willing to gamble on love, my lover was a criminal who hurt me, and everyone who trusted me. Ray had no such motive, save pleasure. That our test had to be continued was funny to him, as well as frustrating, but he was too smug to be truly angry.
        And it slowly dawned on me that my loving Ray Kowalski would not lead to catastrophic change. No one was harmed by the choice of my heart. I returned to the test, not seeing Ray, nor thinking of him (to the best of my uncertain abilities). But naturally I was happy to regain my composure, and everyday, for the past twenty-seven, I'd listened to my urges and convinced them to give me just one day of peace.
        Three days before I saw Ray Vecchio, I had stopped bathing. An RCMP outpost is not an effete institution. No one thought anything of it, except for Diefenbaker.
        "I'm doing this for Ray," I said as he pointedly moved away from me one morning. "Honestly, when did you get this attitude? You've never said anything on the trail."
        But my words seemed to have no impact on Diefenbaker, which was not a new situation, of course. This would change if I brought him snacks, but someone must stand firm.
        And the day had been dull, actually, time dragging as I cast about for something to occupy me. No trouble in town, no reports from the outlying areas. Sergeant Baines, my superior officer, confirmed that I was indeed talking two weeks off, though, in deference to the testing, he did not name the reason. That was the apex of the day, that delicious glow of what I had to avoid thinking about.
        When Mike Bluemountain called and asked me to stop by his office after work, naturally I wondered if it had to do with Ray. But I couldn't ask, of course.
        "Go home, change, have dinner," he'd told me. "I have something here you may be interested in. Just came today."
        "In the mail, you mean?" I asked as we pushed away from the topic of my lover. I was disappointed and relieved. In thirty-six hours, I would be with Ray. I could last.
        "No," Mike's voice said on the phone. "Not in the mail. Call it a gift of the Raven."
        A Salish trickster was sending a present to me? A white man? I tried to think nothing more of it, save to remember that accepting a gift from a trickster is not always a wise choice, although, it may be the only path to wisdom.
        And now, here before me, stood my best friend and old partner, Ray Vecchio. Mike had left the room. Any questions I may have had were forgotten in my surprise.
        "Bluemountain said you were allowed to talk about Kowalski if I brought him up," Ray said. "But I'm not bringing him up. Yet. Oh, Mike also said he didn't know if this would affect your month or not."
        I nodded, taking in the information but remaining rooted. For the life of me, I had no idea what to do.
        "Jesus Christ, Benny," Ray shouted, "I'm up here at the fucking North Pole and you can't even give me a hug?"
        He shouts a lot, I remembered. But he was smiling, and coming towards me. I grinned in return and closed the distance between us. Mike was right. This whole situation was a gift of the trickster. And Ray Kowalski knew this too, knew it when he kissed me, that we might be another month away from bliss.
        From what he'd said about Mike's instructions, I surmised that he knew of the test Ray Kowalski and I had been undergoing. Oh dear, I remember thinking. Well, I knew the day would come, that one day I would have to tell Ray Vecchio I was in love, and hoped he'd at least attend my wedding, despite what he might have thought of my intended partner.
        I felt certain it would not be an easy discussion, which was why I'd hoped to have it in Chicago, where he would have the support of his family to cushion what might be a disastrous meeting. That we would talk on the twenty-seventh day of a difficult task, and perhaps thereby prolong the test, in a town where Ray would have no chance for anonymity or comfort, would have been the least preferable of times and places.
        A gift of the raven, indeed.
        "I'm happy to see you, Ray," I said, and he laughed against my ear.
        "Oh yeah, I bet you say that to all the Rays you meet," he said, then he broke away and held up his hand. "Don't bring him up, Benny. I got one hell of a jones for hanging out with you, and I don't want to get sucked into that discussion." He flashed me a smile. "It's just so good to see you, Benny. Glad I caught you on a day in town."
        "What do you mean, Ray?"
        "Well, Mike said you were out, doing the whole Action Rangers stuff for a few days."
        I was briefly confused, which must have shown in my face.
        "You mean you weren't out of town? I mean, you weren't out of this hell-hole which is supposed to pass for a town?"
        "No, Ray, I've been here for the past few months. It's part of a test I'm – oh," I broke off.
        "'Oh?' What's 'oh' supposed to mean? How does it differ from 'ah' or 'hmm?' Or 'huh?' That was always one of my favorites, Benny," Ray said, shaking his head.
        "Ray, what happened when you first came here?"
        He scowled. "I'll assume you're not talking about past trips to Canada. You only want the present day, right?"
        I smiled, thinking of how happy I'd been to see him at my cabin after we'd first met. Which led into the memory of him blowing it up with smuggled grenades an hour later. Of course, people were shooting at us, so I suppose it was justified.
        "I got into town around noon," Ray said, "And stopped at the ye olde country store for some stuff. I didn't want to come empty-handed, you know."
        "Of course not, Ray."
        "You know, nothing fancy, sandwich stuff, some cookies for Dief -- hey, where is the fur-face, anyway?"
        As if on cue, I heard him whine outside, his nails clicking on the porch.
        "Did you have a good visit?" I asked softly as I let him in. He ignored me as he'd done for much of the past two months. Diefenbaker disagreed with the separation. It made no sense to break up a pack. Of course, Maggie made a welcome addition, and a bitch or two would be, as well, and come to think of it, Dief was thrilled to see Ray Vecchio. But to exclude my Ray, well, that went against all that is right, from a lupine point of view.
        But at that moment, he was jumping rudely on Ray, and I would have admonished him if Ray hadn't been laughing and thumping Dief's back. Now the wolf looked at me, laughing, his tongue hanging out.
        "Guess he misses me, huh, Benny?" Ray asked, and for a moment, he was free of worry and stress, free of all the troubles he'd worn on his face. I was startled to realize I hadn't noticed his pain before. No: I had seen it. But it seemed a part of him, just as much a part as his kind eyes (which tried to look angry so often) and his big nose, and the olive complexion, darker now due to time spent someplace sunnier than Chicago.
        "I think Dief expects you to be part of the pack again," I said by way of answer. Yes, that is indeed what the wolf wanted, I realized after I said it. Ray snorted and shook his head.
        "What? You know I can't take this heat wave, Benny! It must be fifty degrees outside right now. That's even colder in Celsius, you know."
        "So I've been told. Come back in a month and we'll have the weather problem taken care of," I replied. I could feel an old smile settle on my face. "But Diefenbaker's right, it is good to see you."
        He smiled, the sadness back in place. He gave Diefenbaker a final pat and cupped his jaw. "You don't want me here, Dief, you've already got a Ray to sneak you doughnuts."
        Dief whined, then licked his face.
        "Ah, look what you've done, you've gone and ruined that Kodak moment we had!"
        Now that the human equivalent of sniffing genitalia was done, Dief woofed and lay down by the heating vent under the window. So much for arctic survival skills.
        "So, Benny what do you want to talk about? No, scratch that, I know what you want to talk about, but we're not getting to that yet. What else?" Ray asked.
        "Oh. Well, Ray, there's so much to say. How long will you be here?" I asked, taking the chair across from the couch, inviting him to sit down. Ray looked at the couch and scratched his head.
        "Hold on a minute, will ya, Benny?"
        He disappeared into through the hallway. Dief whimpered.
        "I have no idea," I told him. He shook his head, shrugging, his fur rolling about as he whimpered again.
        "Now, there's no need to take that attitude," I said, for he clearly wanted to discuss the continued absence of Ray Kowalski. "I just wanted to know if you had a good visit with him. I know it was short, but – Dief – Dief! Yes, I miss him, too, I should think
you'd know that. And I'll shower when I'm good and ready, not that it is any of your – "
        My face flushed as I turned to Ray, who held one of Mike's coats, and Peggy, who wore a sweater and not-very-well hidden smile.
        "I've been kinda cooped up here all day," Ray said, his smirk letting me know I'd be called to a reckoning later. "Mike said we could go out to your place, he's already cleared it with your sister. I'm going to stay there tonight. We can talk out there, maybe see a few stars."
        "I'm going along as chaperone," Peggy said.
        "Yeah, she has this distrust of Italian cops from Chicago," Ray said.
        "Oh, no, Ray," Peggy said, putting her hand on his arm. "It's not you, it's all white people."
        "Oh, good, so it's nothing personal," he said with a laugh. I was always amazed at how easily he could charm, when he wished. And I wondered what switch he had inside him that could turn the charm on or off at will.
        Diefenbaker yipped as he always did at the thought of going home.
        "Yeah, you're coming too," Ray said, opening the door. "You can ride with Peggy, and Benny and I will take my car. That way you two won't have to put up with an unwashed Mountie."
        To this day, I can hear Peggy's laughter, and strangely, whenever I have this memory, Diefenbaker begins laughing.
        "To get back to your question, Benny, I don't know how long I'm hanging around," Ray said in the passenger seat of the Ford Explorer he'd rented. Had he brought the Riviera, I'm certain he would have braved the drive, rather than have me at the wheel.
        "My first thought was a few weeks. Make a Mountie-sized pest of myself. But, seeing how Mike is sort of giving a special dispensation, I don't want to abuse the privilege and get time added to your sentence."
        "It's not a sentence, Ray."
        "I know, Benny, it's a metaphor, just go with it."
        There was the old tone of Ray nearly annoyed, and I was happy to hear it. I was impatient to ask what he was thinking of my new situation, although I admit I dreaded the ensuing conversation. Instead, I thanked him for his courtesy.
        "Yeah, well either you have to do another month, and figure out how to talk to me without bringing up anything remotely connected to the Pol – to Kowalski, or you'll see him the day after tomorrow and no one will see either of you for a month or eight."
        "Well, now, Ray, I don't think that would happen – "
        I broke off at Ray's look, fully delineated, easily interpreted. I wondered if he could see the reddening of my face.
        "Benny, I got some stuff I wanna talk about with you," he said quietly, and the tone of our conversation had changed in those few words. "We'll get to you and your life soon enough, but me first, OK?"
        "Of course, Ray," I answered.
        "It's good to see you, too, Benny," he said, as if answering my welcome for the long minutes previous. He said nothing for a while, looking out at into the darkness at the rime already forming. September meant nightfall at an earlier hour as the winter sent out warnings of the coming darkness. I was comfortable with this – all my time in Chicago had not thrown off my northern rhythms.
        Another time I would tell Ray Vecchio how good it felt to be home, even though I missed him and his family. Ray Kowalski had shook his head at the long nights, and then the long days, but he'd smiled just the same, at the wonder of this new life. It must make a difference not to be in exile, I imagine, to not view your environs as a prison of sorts.
        "Hey! This is the road I came in on!" Ray said, excited. That seemed surprising to me.
        "Are you certain, Ray? The road to Yellowknife on the other side of Nupiak."
        "Yeah, but I came in from Prince Rupert Sound," he said. "I know, Yellowknife's closer. I didn't look on a map, I just heard them say British Columbia, OK, Mister I've-got-a-map-of-the-world-in-my-head?"
        "Perfectly fine with me, Ray. A very picturesque drive, too," I said. I waited until he was looking out the window before continuing. "And I'm certain the rain storms were highly exaggerated on the news."
        "Laugh it up, Benny. I'm sure Mike Bluemountain would love a picture of Miss Fraser for his office."
        As soon as we arrived, Diefenbaker took off, not even waiting for our car to stop. I called after him – deaf or no, I cannot rid myself of the habit.
        Maggie was in good spirits, and happy to meet the "real Ray Vecchio." I hadn't seen her in a few weeks, though she'd called me at work two days before. She'd been enjoying her vacation, indulging in a hobby of drawing using the colors available in the Nupiak summer. She'd done several chalk pastels which were quite good, some sprayed with fixative, others still in progress.
        "Must be the Fraser genes," Ray told her. "Benny can draw --"
        "Oh, no, Ray," I said, "I just use memory to pull composites. It's nothing more than observation."
        "Mountie training," Maggie said, winking at me. I suppressed a smile. She'd used that excuse on Ray Kowalski a number of times. I made a note to caution her against treating one Ray as if he were the other. They were far from interchangeable.
        "Hey, Maggie, I'd love to see these in the daylight," Ray said. "Do you think I could get a tour of the Louvre of the Frozen North tomorrow?"
        "Certainly Ray, I'd be delighted. I know you and Ben had stuff to talk about, so Peggy and I'll be inside. You two can go outside and get some air in your city lungs."
        She went inside with a warning to watch for bears.
        "She's just kidding, Ray," I said as his face went white. "Believe me, bears are not interested in coming around humans, and we keep all food inside and refuse gets recycled or burned. And besides, dogs are the best early warning system we could ask for."
        "Oh, yeah, I remember how ready they were for Gerrard and his crew," Ray muttered, taking one last look around before looking back in the window at Peggy and Maggie.
        "She's just a female Wonder Mountie, isn't she, Benny?" he asked. How I loved that slight annoyance. Why, I do not know, but it was music to my ears. It was a microcosm of what I missed about Chicago. I didn't answer, I just smiled in my heart and waited for him to begin.
        "I've been living in Florida, Benny," he said after some time passed. He was looking at the stretch of land from our porch to the road, giving me a chance to ponder that small morsel of information.
        Florida? Ray Vecchio separated from his family? I will admit, I was astounded. But I merely remarked that his skin was certainly tan.
        "Yeah. I've been there a while," he replied. "Just after Muldoon was captured."
        "My god, man! Were you even out of the hospital?" I gasped.
        "What? You and the fake Ray get to be glory boys and I don't get to help?" Ray sounded… savage. Angry. At me? And then the fire was gone just as fast.
        "It's okay, Benny, you had a job to do. You and the Pol – Kowalski."
        "Ray, seeing you shot – again…" I stopped and swallowed. "I have never been so tempted to leave the Force."
        He turned to look at me, stunned.
        "Because of me."
        "Muldoon shot you as a way to hurt me," I continued, ruthless.
        "Yeah. And Benny?" Ray interrupted, his usual smirk in place, but his eyes were gentle and kind as always. "I'm the one who cracked a witness and found out who Muldoon was meeting. I'm the one who got the Mounties to Franklin Bay." He paused at a sudden thought.
        "I never did hear how you and the Polack got there. Just that you showed up."
        "Long story," I said.
        "Oh? And that's gonna stop you?"
        "The Polack! That's what you keep calling Ray. Well, what you keep not calling him," I amended.
        "Yeah, I'm sorry, Benny," he said, wincing. "Old habit."
        "How could you have an old habit built up about a man you've barely met?"
        He opened his mouth, then closed it again. "Long story."
        "Ah? Did I hear you correctly? Did you just 'ah' me? Benny, I was beginning to wonder if you'd been taken over by aliens! Thank God you said 'ah,' now everything is back in place!"
        "Ray's said that, too – oh, dear," I muttered. I looked up at Ray, who was leaning on the front door, his arms folded.
        "We'll get to that, Benny, trust me. I gotta lot of questions for you."
        "Yes, I –"
        "Me first, Benny."
        Ray took a deep breath and let it out as he walked to the edge of the porch. "After I checked out of the hospital – and I practically had the doctor's permission – I went to the station to do what I could to protect foolish Mounties and fake Ray Vecchios. And, since I had a few minutes left over, I met this beautiful woman."
        "I won't even ask. Anyway, case closes, bad guys get put away, very little bloodshed besides my own on the part of the good guys. It seemed like a good time to retire."
        "You? You retired, Ray?" I gasped.
        "How many bullets I gotta field before I catch the wrong one, Benny?" he asked. "That last one got me a pension, so I don't have to worry about leaving the force in a box like Gardino."
        "Of course, Ray. I meant no –"
        "I know, Benny," he sighed. He gave me a half-smile. "I'd been playing a bad guy for a long time. I wasn't sure if I could be a full-time good guy any more."
        "I don't understand."
        "That's because you've never done undercover work. Ask Kowalski, I bet he's had some tough detoxes in his time."
        I thought about that, how Ray would sometimes answer the phone with a grunt of "Vecchio," even after we'd come off our adventure and were settled in Nupiak. That was merely a name, and Ray was pretending to be a police officer, a job he was long familiar with. I didn't ask further of this Ray, whose kind and troubled eyes told me nothing and everything.
        "So I took my pension," he said, as I nodded for him to continue, "and I took the beautiful woman for a wild week in Florida. Hence the tan. But one week is certainly not enough time for a serious Coppertone, I know. However, when your cousin's cousin has a bowling alley he's looking to sell and you've just gotten married to the aforementioned beautiful woman, well …" Ray shrugged.
        And then it hit me.
        "Ray? You got married? Well, congratulations are in order, I suppose, or not. I'm sorry it didn't work out, but I am glad you –"
        "What makes you think I'm no longer married, Benny?" Ray asked.
        "Well, you are here alone, that could be seen as a clue. That this is the first time you've made mention of the marriage, so that certainly could be construed in a negative light. But the fact that you have no wedding band – nor any break in your tan to suggest the sudden absence of a ring – well, Ray, I'm certain anyone would have made my same assumption."
        "No, Benny, only you," Ray said, chuckling. "Is that a Mountie thing or just you? It's gotta just be you. I bet your sister wouldn't lick dirt. No, I'm still married. We just never saw a need for a ring. Just a hunk of metal."
        I suddenly felt cold.
        "Benny? You OK?" Ray asked, coming over to where I was sitting on the porch swing. Unnecessary, to me, a porch swing, but Ray saw it in a catalogue and ordered it. I've fallen asleep on it several times, lulled by Ray's arms around me, and the gentle motion of the swing. Sharp as a knife, my memories attacked, and I missed Ray so much.
        "I realize we are not done talking about you, Ray, but that 'hunk of metal,' as you call it, is a symbol of a commitment. You may laugh at my uniform, but you also know I believe in what it stands for, that I will uphold the laws of my country. And next year, I will put a ring on Ray's finger, and he will put one on mine."
        I looked up at Ray, now sitting next to me. I suppose I must have been unduly harsh in my stare, for he moved back a few inches, but this subject was important to me, and I did not want to be misunderstood. I continued to speak.
        "We are willing to wear the other's mark on us, because that symbol is a way to convey to each other and to the world just what we will do for an honorable love."
        Ray said nothing for a long moment, and I looked out at the stars. I wondered if Ray could see them. Most likely not, I decided. I'd heard Sergeant Baines say there was a baseball game on tonight, so the chances were good that Sam Wanamaker and Ray were glued to the television in the Wanamaker's front room.
        "Ray said the same thing."
        I looked back at my friend, who then shrugged.
        "Well, what he actually said was if I didn't get her a ring he'd kick me in the head."
        "He's colorful that way," I admitted.
        "Very," Ray agreed. We were quiet again.
        "So you married this beautiful woman – what's her name?" I asked.
        I laughed at the coincidence, and started to tell him.
        "Stella Kowalski," he said.
        I blinked. "That's – that's quite –"
        "Yes." I nodded. "Quite. And… you met her…"
        "Two weeks before we got married, Benny."
        "And now a bowling alley. Is she still an attorney?"
        Ray shook his head. "We both wanted out, Benny, but I think we both want back in now. Hey – you took sled dogs and a Polack to the North Pole and you wanna judge what I did?"
        "We went to the Beaufort Sea, Ray," I said, "But that's not germane to this discussion. Wait – Ray, are you saying if I'd come back to Chicago, if we'd had a chance to talk about Stella Kowalski, you would not have gone to Florida?"
        "Oh, yeah, Benny, like I'd have taken your advice on women!" he snorted. Then: "Ah, I don't know. There was, maybe a week wrapping up Muldoon, debriefing with the feds, seeing my family… and wondering where the hell you were. So when the Dragon Lady came back, I caught her cleaning out her desk. She said you'd gone on some sort of expedition to find a hand. To be honest, I tuned her out around that point, she's annoying, and she didn't really want to talk to me, either. Guess I should have listened. Seems like I missed a few details. Or maybe she completely left out some big facts."
        "Ray, she didn't know –"
        "We're not gonna talk about that yet, Benny, right?"
        "Right, Ray."
        "I'm not mad that you were gone, Benny, and I wasn't then. I mean, if anyone deserved a break, it was you," Ray said. "If you'd been in Chicago, I might have thought things through. But then again, I might not have. Women, huh?"
        It seemed to occur to him that this might not be my view, and backpedaled. "Oh, jeez, Benny I didn't mean – "
        "Ray, you had to shoot me to get me away from Victoria," I said. I'm hardly in a position to disagree, let alone advise."
        "Oh, sure, throw the whole shot-in-the-back guilt trip in there, Benny, I haven't heard that one in a while," he grumbled.
        "Seriously, Ray, why are you here? Or rather, why are you here alone?" I asked.
        "I need your advice on what to do about Stella." He did not look embarrassed at his contradiction.
        "Wouldn't Ray be the better one to talk to?" I asked, which provoked a string of Italian words I will not repeat. If they were similar to their Latin roots, as I imagine they must have been, it's not language I would care to translate. But the exasperation needed no interpreter.
        It wasn't until then that the pieces of Ray's timeline came together for me.
        He fell in love.
        He heard I was staying in Canada, or at least, not returning to Chicago in the near future.
        He and Stella (my lover's former wife) eloped to Florida, and had heard no more of us than we'd heard of them.
        Ray came to see me, unaware that I'd formed an attachment to Ray Kowalski. Surprisingly, that possibility seemed to have escaped the notice of all our Chicago contacts, but the point is, Ray came to see me. He came to talk with me. Ask my advice. This made me smile.
        "What going on inside that Stetson holder, Benny?" Ray asked.
        "What? Oh, I'm sorry, Ray, I was just – I mean – you had no way of knowing Ray would be up here. That you could seek his advice."
        "When it comes to staying married to Stella, Benny, Ray 'I'm Marrying a Man' Kowalski is not my first choice for advice," he said. He stopped my outburst, and much of my anger by continuing. "But when it comes to how to be a better husband and not fuck up my marriage more than I already have, I do want to hear your ideas."
        In our silence, you could hear much of the world around us. Chirps and cries in the woods, the dogs in the yard, and the women inside my house playing gin rummy, carrying on enough conversation that I knew they were not attempting to listen.
        "So what do you believe you did wrong, Ray?" I asked. It was as much acknowledgment as Ray needed to know I understood the compliment he'd paid me.
        He blew out his breath and sat down on the steps.
        "You tell me, Benny," he sighed. "Two weeks from handshake to marriage license? Has to be some sort of record."
        "Do you love her?"
        "How should I know?" he snapped.
        "Well, Ray, if you don't know –"
        "Benny, she was the first woman I'd said 'Hi, I'm Ray Vecchio' to in a year," Ray cut in. Ah, I wanted to say, but kept quiet as it all came out.
        "Before then, I didn't even say, 'Hi, I'm Armando,' because when you're as big as the Bookman, women know who you are. And they either stay away, or they come closer. Because they want something. I nailed chicks I'd – I mean – " he broke off, flustered.
        Oh, Ray, I sighed to myself, I wish I were easier for you to talk with.
        "Yeah, Benny."
        "You're my best friend," I said softly. He smiled, but he didn't turn to look at me. He studied the stars and the trees across the highway, the moon lighting his face in a three-quarter silhouette. His eyes were shiny.
        "Armando Langoustini was a user. He was a pig," Ray said. "And no one would have bought me as him if I'd been any different. And at first – at first, Benny, I was like a kid in a candy store, you know? I mean, show girls, socialites – I fucked a supermodel, that's gotta score me big points on some macho list, right?"
        "It sounds like quite the adventure," I remarked, thinking of something Ray Kowalski had told me one of the last times I'd risked his life for mere duty. And three days before we'd first kissed.
        "But it wasn't what you wanted, after all, was it, Ray? The kid in the candy store got a stomachache."
        "Yeah," he said. His chuckle was a dry rasp of his usual more nasal tones. "Leave it to you, Benny, to make it sound innocent."
        "The loss of innocence is an old story, Ray," I said. "In fact, in some ways, it's the only story. But it's only the first part. The second is much more intriguing, because that's when we find out what the hero is capable of, now that his eyes are open."
        Ray didn't answer for a moment.
        "Benny, I think that's the longest explanation you've ever given me that didn't have an Inuit in it."
        "Thought you boys might like some refreshment," Maggie said, coming through the door with two mugs. "Coffee for you, Ray, and tea for my brother." We thanked her, and she disappeared just as quickly.
        "Ray, how long did you feel as Armando felt, and saw nothing wrong with your liaisons?" I asked as he blew on his coffee.
        "Benny, you were a liaison. These were one-night stands," he said, taking a sip and looking shocked. He walked to the door and opened it. "Maggie? This is great coffee!"
        "Thank you kindly, Ray. There's more in the pot."
        He shut the door again, shaking his head and laughing. "'Thank you kindly?' That must have been how you knew she was your sister, Benny."
        "I imagine the coffee-making gene came from her mother," I replied in the same vein.
        "OK, Benny, here's your answer: for about four months, I slept with more women than all Vecchio men for the past three generations have ever had a shot at. Combined."
        I said nothing.
        "And then, I realized I was expecting exactly that much from any of them. Nothing more. No idea of anything more than maybe a second round. If one of them wanted more, I had Nero send them home before breakfast. Every woman meant only one thing."
        He closed his eyes. "I was worse than Guy Rankin. Did I ever tell you about him? He –"
        "He's dead," I said, remembering the case Ray promised we'd laugh about some day, the way we'd scooted a corpse all around the 27th District. But remembering Francesca's face upon seeing the body of a man who'd hurt her, well… Neither Ray nor I felt much humor over it yet.
        "Ray, I'm sure you never –"
        "No, Benny, they were all willing, and I never smacked a girl around. But I kept seeing some dead eyes staring back in the mirror when I'd get out of bed in the morning. I was probably two steps away from finding someone who wasn't willing, you know?"
        I thought of a bumper sticker I'd seen once in Toronto. It had read: "All men are rapists at heart." I could understand the anger and betrayal that had forced that conclusion, but I did not believe it. And watching Ray torment himself, I still did not believe it, though I knew – and know today – that we all have a shadow to confront.
        "Ray, the very fact that you saw this within you, that you acknowledged the changes in you, surely this says you would have stopped --"
        "Oh, I stopped, Benny. Luck was with me. The Bookman had a few deals that started to heat up, so I pulled back from the socializing and concentrated on business. But women still came up, still offered, still wanted stuff. A woman offered to blow me during a meeting with her husband."
        "Loss of innocence, Benny – what are you going to do now?" he asked, almost a snarl. He swallowed the last of his coffee and went inside for another cup. I could see what he meant, that perhaps he'd not been ready to be a policeman quite yet. My poor friend.
        "It's not my job to be the hero in your story, Ray," I said when he came out again. "And if you came here to – "
        "I came because I want someone I trust to show me there are good things I can do, right decisions I can still make," he said, calmer now. "I'm sorry I offended you, Benny. I – I needed you to see how far I'd gone."
        "How far – Ray, you didn't –"
        He turned away to look out into the darkness. Oh dear. I sipped my cooling tea.
        "Before I went undercover, I wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer when it came to women," he said. "But I wasn't the dullest one, either, you know? And, win or lose, I was Ray Vecchio, and if one chick wasn't into me, then bring on the next. The next one could be the right girl, or at least the right-now girl."
        "But as Armando Langoustini …" I said, the picture becoming clearer. He nodded.
        "I never lost. It was a rigged game."
        "So you never really won, then, either," I said. Ray nodded, slowly.
        "Exactly, Benny. And the only good thing about always winning is that you learn fast not to be nervous. It's like training wheels on a bike. It was kinda like – kinda like being you for a slice of time, Benny," he said with a grin.
        "Me? What are you – "
        "Benny, you say hello to everyone you meet, whether they're boy scouts or convicts. You memorize the names of people from mailboxes. You complimented the stitching on some guy's merry widow in a leather bar, for cryin' out loud!"
        I didn't follow. "At the time, Ray, you were chastising me for these very activities."
        "Yeah, and I'd do the same thing tomorrow," he answered. My lips twitched.
        "So there is a strong sense of Ray Vecchio within you still," I said, and he laughed.
        "What I mean, Benny, is that you're polite to everyone, and even if it doesn't always pay off, you never stop being polite. Armando could talk to any woman, and seduce ninety percent of them. So for the others, he didn't worry about rejection. That on its own is not such a bad thing."
        "I suppose it would have advantages," I said, but I had my doubts. If you need the powerful position to promote yourself…
        "So when I saw Stella, it occurred to me that I could introduce myself and not just wait to be dismissed."
        "Ah! Like Armando!"
        "Is that what 'Ah' means, Benny? Yeah, just like Armando. And it worked. She liked my confidence. I didn't know much about Ray Kowalski, except for a few pissing contests."
        He flashed me a quick look: did you know? he seemed to ask. I waved him on. Ray had told me, one afternoon as we waited out a storm, how he and Ray Vecchio had fought for dominance with my friendship. I found it – and still find it – silly. As if I couldn't have two good friends. If anyone should have been intimidated, it should have been me, going from no one close to me to two, both so close I could finish their sentences.
        "Besides," as I'd told Ray Kowalski, "he's my best friend. You're my lover. He kept me sane when I thought I'd lost everything. If it weren't for Ray Vecchio, I would have had nothing to offer you."
        Ray's face had twisted into a grin, and he began to nuzzle my ear. "Can't argue with the division of labor, there, Benton, but it seems to me like Vecchio sorta fell down on the job. Maybe that's why I thought you were unhinged when I met you!"
        And then, on the porch with Ray Vecchio, I took a deep breath and a sip of my tea as a way to bring me back from that memory. I tried to imagine surviving another month without Ray –
        "Yes, Ray," I said, feeling my skin flush. Caught. And again, as in the car, Ray seemed to know where my mind had wandered.
        "Now I gotta tell you another thing you're not gonna like, Benny," he said.
        "I know about the rivalry between the two of you, Ray," I said.
        "Well, that's just the back story," Ray said, and peered into his cup. "You sure she's your sister? This is really good –"
        "Kowalski and I – I know you know what he was thinking during the Muldoon-slash-'let's blow Vecchio's cover' days. Now, here's what I was thinking. I was thinking Kowalski's job was done, time to ride off into the sunset, go be undercover somewhere else. Thanks, but I'll be using that name now, thanks for keeping it warm. Hands off my desk, my Riv, and the rest of my life, OK? And once again, I used a little of what I'd learned as old Armando, that you can push your way in to most places, provided you don't care about the people you're displacing." He looked at me, pleading.
        "But Benny, you gotta understand, I was living a high life and I was the loneliest son of a bitch in the loneliest town on earth! Kowalski, he's, he's – he's like one of those people they got at the Oscars, you know, the nobodies that sit down when stars get up to take a leak, so the camera doesn't show empty seats. You get me? I was the star, and I wanted my seat back. Who the hell was this skinny-assed street punk – who looks nothing like me, by the way – to say he was happy where he was?"
        "Ray, he – "
        "Shut up, Benny. I'm not making excuses, I'm telling you what I was thinking, you got that?" Ray asked, his temper high. I guessed he was thinking of those first days back. He took a moment to compose himself again.
        The word "resentment" comes from Latin. Re, again, plus sentire, to live. Resentment was to live again, to relive the past. Ray was re-living, resenting not only those few days, but all the time he spent undercover, grieving for time he would not get back.
        "Frannie pulled us apart after the big fight Ray and I had. I guess it wasn't that big, but then again, if she hadn't been there, who knows? So we went back to our corners. He asked about Vegas. I said undercover was lonely, and he agreed, yes, it is. That's when I realized he'd been pulled from his life, too, to sit in my chair. I could cut him that much slack." Ray winced, rubbed his face.
        "But he had you. As a friend, I mean, I didn't know –"
        "I know."
        "And we laughed about that, weighing the pros and cons of being friends with the world's most annoying man."
        "Glad to bring you two together, Ray," I said.
        "Ah, but Benny, it also sucked."
        Sucked. A word the Rays had in common.
        "'Cause like I said," he continued, "he had you, and he didn't want to give you up. You and me – we were good partners, Benny. The best I ever had."
        "I, too, enjoyed our partnership, Ray."
        "Thanks, Fraser. But I'm not an idiot – when I thought about it, you and Kowalski were good partners, too. I heard it around the station, and I saw it when you blew my cover, the way he just went smooth with it."
        I smiled at the memory. It was a moment of good work with two good friends. I still maintain that both Ray Vecchio and Ray Kowalski could work quite well together, though both insist they are civil only to make me happy.
        "Go on, Ray," I said. He rolled his eyes.
        "Were you always this moony, and I just never noticed?" he asked. "Anyway, back to me and how shitty I acted. People around the 2-7, they said you two had taken off after Muldoon, and started to lay odds on how crazy the case was gonna get. But they figured the odds were good you'd succeed.
        "So what did I do? Did I say, 'of course they'll succeed, they're partners?' No. I got scared I was gonna lose you, Benny. I thought – well, what would anyone think? I'd left without one word of warning, you were probably angry at me. I felt like a ten year-old, but maybe I wasn't your best friend any more. I don't like saying that bugged me, and that I'd acted on that."
        He scratched his head. "And some more Armando-pushing started up inside me. When you and Ray took off for Canada, I wanted to do anything I could to bring you back safe. I saw the Fathers of the Confederation connection, we hauled in a suspected, and then I saw Stella. God, she's beautiful, Benny, you know? You've seen her."
        "I've seen her," I agreed, guarded. Stella Kowalski was not a woman I cared for, in part because of how she'd hurt Ray. Not the divorce itself, but what I'd witnessed her doing to him when I first met her. I knew that much of Ray's pain was Ray's, of his broken heart and not her desire to hurt him. I suppose she had a light inside her that called to one, then both Rays. It did not call me: it only burned. I think I was an irritant to her. While I may have kept Ray busy, I was also willing to champion him – well. Not important now. I did not wish her ill. But neither did I share either Ray's Trojan view of her.
        "I had no idea who she was," Ray was saying in front of me. "State's Attorney Kowalski – who's she? I asked Huey if there was any relation, and he said it was Stanley's ex, it was an ugly breakup, Kowalski still carrying a torch, yada, yada, ya—"
        "And you thought to seduce Stella Kowalski as a way of settling a non-existent score between you and Ray," I said, the pieces falling into place. I barely recognized my thoughts, they were so saturated in rage. I suppose Ray thought that was a quick assessment, from the way his jaw dropped, but he did not deny it.
        "You can blame a dead man for your behavior, Ray, if you really want to. But you and I both know you exchanged sexual favors with women because you wanted to. You were jealous of Ray because you were scared of losing my friendship. And you brought these flaws together to perform a despicable act."
        "Benny, I – "
        "No, Ray, now I get to speak," I said my throat raw with all I was not screaming. "You say the women in Las Vegas wanted something, but what about what you wanted from Stella? And this one you could not be content to bed, no, this one you married!" My voice was high and my words were coming as fast as I could think them. I took a breath, and took another, trying to calm down. "It's a good thing you didn't tell any of this to Ray," I added, quieter.
        "How do you know I haven't?" he asked.
        "Because you're still in one piece!"
        In the sudden quiet came a louder conversation from inside, a polite way of saying I'd been overheard.
        "I admit that's how it started out, Benny," Ray said, much calmer than I'd expected, which took the wind out of my sails. "Remember? I told you, you wouldn't like my story. Innocence lost, right?
        "I'd become Armando as part of my job, and it felt really Jekyll-and-Hyde, you know? After a while, I was either Armando, or I was Ray, but Ray wasn't getting a lot of screen time. He couldn't. Not if I wanted to stay alive. I mean, fuck the operation! I didn't give a rat's ass about organized crime or the FBI or anything but going home. And if that meant not just pretending to be Armando, but really being a grade-A jerk, so be it."
        He repeated the last three words, softly, not letting his gaze waver from my eyes. There was so much pain there, it broke my heart to watch him. I was still angry, still shocked. But this was my friend, come thousands of miles to stand on my porch and tell me a horrible tale. I could not look away from him, not in anger or disgust, no matter how I may feel. Just as I'd honored my Ray before by not watching him leave, I honored this Ray by keeping his stare.
        "But here's where this whole story gets really, really weird, Benny," Ray continued, his voice as unsteady as his words were certain. "Stella didn't play by my rules."
        "What do you mean?" I asked, almost against my will. According to my father's precepts, Ray was behaving like a man. He was not running away, or hiding. He was saying what he had done. And his whole trip to see me had been one for absolution.
        "I mean, I had an agenda. She didn't. OK, she did, but it was the typical agenda, is this a good guy, does he make enough money and shower every day, you know, the usual stuff. She liked my style. I'm a better dresser than Kowalski, Benny, you gotta give me that. And she liked me trying to charm her. She knew I was trying, but she told me she felt flattered that I put such a good face on to impress her.
        "And she'd ask me about being undercover. It was a way of telling me she knew who I was, and who I wasn't. That I'd done a job and it was now over, back to Ray Vecchio, Detective. I'd put my Armando mask on, and she'd keep pulling it off to look at Ray. You know, Benny, even women I'd dated before Vegas weren't too interested in Ray Vecchio."
        "Ray, that's not true! What about your ex-wife, or Louise St. – "
        "Look, Benny, I'm not running them down, especially not Ange. But most of the time, women seemed to see me as Detective Vecchio, or a guy with nice clothes, or a guy who'd make a good husband and provider."
        "And you don't wish to be married, Ray?" I asked, a little confused.
        "No, Frase, it's not that. But I didn't want to just be the sperm-donor-wage-earner, either. And when I was with Stella, I realized she was looking at Raimondo Vecchio, just as I was at the moment she was looking, and she liked who she saw. She liked me enough to think about a house and kids with me, not the other way around, you know, wanting kids and here's a good prospect for father."
        Oh. The anger was gone from me. I smiled.
        "What's that look for, Benny?" Ray asked.
        "I didn't realize you were a romantic, Ray, that's all."
        He glared, but his smile was firmly in place. "Don't tell anyone."
        "Understood. So what you are saying, Ray, is that Stella fell in love with you."
        "And I fell in love with her," he replied, nodding. "You're right, Benny, I was despicable – and you are the only guy who says that outside of Daffy Duck – but look where it got me. Married and in love. Doesn't seem fair."
        "Best laid plans, Ray," I reminded him. "So now you know you are in love with her? You weren't too sure before."
        He drank the last few swallows of his coffee. "Yeah. I do know that now. I love her and I wanna grow old yelling at our grandkids to stop running on the porch, that's what the yard is for."
        "Then, if I may interject, why did you come up here?"
        "Because I didn't know for sure how I felt, Benny, I had to talk to you to figure it out. We've been fighting for a few months and regretting all our mistakes. I mean, a bowling alley? What were we thinking? Florida was bad enough!"
        "But getting married? That wasn't a mistake?" I pressed him.
        "It was premature," he admitted. "But I think we've have been married sooner or later."
        He smiled, but this time the smile had an edge to it. It was the same smile he had when he caught me talking to Dief about showering.
        "Not all of us get the long, silent courtship ritual you and the Polack had in Chicago, Benny," he said.
        I laughed and shook my head. "What did Ray tell you?"
        "Uh-uh, Benny, first, I gotta call a beautiful woman in Florida," Ray said, fishing out his ever-present cellular phone. "Stella? Yeah. Hi. Listen – you know that offer from Davidson? I think if we can push for another two percent, we'll clear in the black. Well, no, I'm not sure, but you can crunch the numbers, right? Stella, listen. We weren't thinking when we started all of this, but I think we can get through this. All we have to do is put our beautiful heads together and come up with some better ideas. Like Chicago. You at the DA, or in private practice, me getting back on the force. That's right. OK, maybe the mayor's office, I don't know, but – yeah. Me, too. No, I know we've got a lot of talking to do, but we're gonna talk. And – I want us to get married again. In a church this time, with rings. I want a tan line. And I want you. Does that fit into your plans?"
        Ray was out and out grinning now. He turned and walked down the stairs, the rest of his words plainly for one listener. Maggie had said the indoor facilities were not quite ready yet, so I walked up to the backhouse before going inside for more tea.
        "You boys getting along?" Peggy asked, laying down a discard.
        "I think he's happier now," I answered, pouring another cup.
        "Benny! Oh, thank God you're here! I thought you'd gone from the can to chasing some-out-of-season whalers and I'd have to follow you," Ray said, his long legs making short work of his walk to the coffeepot.
        "I like him, Ben," Maggie said. "Does he like homemade pemmican?"
        "I don't know. He's doesn't care for grubs or lichen, so his tastes are suspect," I answered. "Also, he's getting married."
        "Yep. And you gotta be there, Benny," Ray said. "Won't be official if the best man isn't wearing some obnoxiously loud red suit."
        "Best man, Ray? I'd be honored."
        "Yeah, yeah. But none of that casual look with the lanyard and the Sam Browne, you hear? I want the gloves and the fancy belt or don't bother showing up at the church," Ray growled, but he was smiling as he went back to the porch with more coffee. "You coming or not?"
        "In a moment, Ray."
        "I thought he'd be calmer than your Ray," Peggy said, and Maggie agreed.
        "A good confession followed by a declaration of love will do that, ladies," I said on my way to the door. "Not to mention strong coffee."
        "When do you think the wedding will be?" I asked as I shut the door. Ray stood at the porch stairs, looking out.
        "Don't know, Benny. Lotta details, stuff women usually do. I figure Stella, Ma, and every other female associated with the scheme will let me know when to show up and that's the most information I'll get."
        He sighed, started to say more, then stopped. I waited, and after twenty-five seconds, he turned around. His eyes were serious, his demeanor ill at ease.
        "So, how long have you been driving stick, Fraser?" he asked.
        I was a little turned around by the change in topic, and said as much.
        "Besides, Ray," I added, "My grandparents only had manual transmission, so this is not – oh. You aren't talking about cars."
        "Never mind, Fraser, unfair question," Ray said.
        Sometimes there was a reasons for when he called me Benny and when he said Fraser. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say our own conversation had reached a line of demarcation, where the friendly intimacy of Ray's nickname (which he alone used) could go no further.
        And yet this discussion was for Ray's benefit. I knew very well that I could lose his friendship, despite his earlier claim. But he would never lose mine.
        And I did not believe it would go so far as my fears suggested. After all, he still wanted my opinion, still wanted –
        "You know I got a big problem with this, right?" Ray asked, breaking into my thoughts.
        "I'm aware you could have, Ray."
        "Italian, Catholic, cop – you're asking me to go against a lot to be OK with you being –" he floundered. He could not even name me, peg me.
        "Ray, I'm not asking you to go against your principles. And I assume you're having difficulty saying something that might insult me? Or are you having trouble with the more innocuous –"
        "I'm walking a line here, Fraser, I'm walking a line," he said, beginning to pace, one hand chopping the air as if clearing it, the other gripping his cup with a white-knuckled intensity I could read clearly by the lantern's illumination. "See, I can't use terms you'd want to hear. I thought I could, I thought maybe I could, for you. But it's not happening. I'm sorry."
        "Understood, Ray," I said softly. My grandmother had taught me to reduce my expectations, and I would reduce any disappointment in my life. I had never had a blueprint for this conversation, or so I had thought. But the disappointment was keenly felt, much as I tried to ignore it. Ray – more sensitive than he would ever admit – could hear it in my tone, and glared, a sad sort of glare, as if he felt guilty. He sighed.
        "I'm not trying to hurt you, Benny, but this is a shock. And I don't know what to say. I mean, I could call Kowalski all sort of things and think nothing –"
        Sometimes movement is automatic. I've seen Diefenbaker jump before the command – all right, request – left my lips. Both Rays could enter a room ready to shoot, and yet wait for a triggering event.
        At what point did I stand? How long did it take for me to rise from my chair, cross to where Ray stood on the steps and place my hand on his shoulder to squeeze, lightly enough to let him know he was in danger, and that I was the danger?
        "Don't call him names, Ray," I said, my voice low and steady. His eyes were huge. It wasn't until I heard his cup drop and shatter that I returned to my usual senses, and then I was frightened. I let go, stepped back.
        "My God, Ray! I'm sorry! I didn't mean –"
        "It's OK, Fraser," he whispered, moving down the steps and away from me.
        "Ray, don't go!"
        "I'm not going anywhere," he said. "I just thought you might need some space, Benny." He shrugged. "Besides, I left the keys on the counter. I think I'm the only guy in my neighborhood who can't hot-wire a car."
        "Ray, I'm sorry – no, don't interrupt. That was wrong of me, on so many levels you cannot brush this off! I could have – "
        "But you didn't," he said. He swallowed, rubbed his hands on his pants. "OK, it was wrong. You don't threaten best friends just for being mouthy. I do. You don't. You pack too much in a look, Benny, it's not safe."
        "Next time, either hit me or take it, Benny, I'd say those are your options," he added, trying to smile and only succeeding intermittently. "Leave the 'or else' threats to me. I'm Italian, we're pros."
        I knelt down to pick up the shattered remnants of the coffee mug. Ceramic tends to break in huge chunks, so I felt confident I had ninety-seven to ninety-nine percent of it. I could leave the shards until the morning – no, I couldn't, I realized, I wouldn't be here in the morning. I sighed and took out a handkerchief and laid the collected pieces in the center. Then I moved the lantern to the end of the stairs and slowly swung it about, looking for flecks of glaze or white-fired clay.
        Ray tried to help, but my mortification was apparent as I waved him away. With his long-legged stride, he cleared the three steps and went to the door. To get his keys, I surmised, but instead, he stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb.
        The lantern shook in my hands, which actually aided my search for small pieces. I concentrated on my breathing, using techniques I'd been taught – oh, the hell with it, I thought. I was angry with Ray, and angry with me. Ray Kowalski now came first in my mind, and I allowed no threat or insult to him in my presence. Yet here stood my friend Ray Vecchio, my best friend, and if I wanted this friendship to continue, I had to allow him time to adjust to these new and unexpected circumstances.
        I suppose I should add, in all fairness, that the timing of Ray's visit provided those feelings which are less than noble to emerge in me. Had this happened one day later…
        "Right, Frase," my Ray laughed in my mind. "Vecchio woulda' been soooo much easier to talk to if he'd dropped in while we were fucking." I could hear his laughter, and I could smell the sharp tang of rut, this image was so strong. I took a deep breath of the night air and concentrated on finding the cup shards. My father's ghost had been easier to deal with than the unbidden images of Ray Kowalski.
        "You know, Benny, and please don't take this the wrong way, I'm begging you here, but Bluemountain and Kowalski, they don't know you that well."
        "Why do you say that, Ray?" I asked with a harsh laugh and a smile I could not control. It was almost amusing: he would escape from danger and then provoke, as if to test my cage.
        "Well, Mike said I was probably the only one who could persuade you to leave Kowalski. I could even make you OK with it, he said. Because I'm your best friend, and isn't that what friends do, is trust someone enough to listen? He also said I'd lose your friendship in the process, but you would still do what I asked since you knew I meant well. Now, I think that's wrong, myself, from start to finish. And the Polack – he agreed with Mike up to a point. His thoughts were, sure, I could get you to walk away by saying this is wrong, Benny, get out, and you'd do it. But Kowalski also said you'd never be happy again and I'd never trust you. But they're both wrong, aren't they?"
        I tied up the corners of the handkerchief.
        "Kowalski's closer. He knows you love him like you're a damn wolf. Mate for life, that sort of thing. By the way, from what I've seen, and from everything Stella's told me, I'd say he's changed, if he's that sure you love him."
        "Stella's opinions may be of interest to others, Ray, but they mean little to me," I said. Rude twice in five minutes. This was not good. I could not even blame it on my mercurial lover.
        "Funny, that's just about what I told Kowalski when he wanted to tell me about Stella."
        "The truth is, Benny, is that I couldn't dislodge you from that skinny Polack's side if I offered you a year's supply of igloo wax."
        I looked up to meet his eyes. He had a little smile on him. Not an ear-splitting grin. He wasn't overjoyed, in fact, he seemed irritated, but he'd come to more of a resolution than he was admitting.
        "Instead, you'd stay with Ray Kowalski, and you'd deck me, wouldn't you? And your heart would be broken because your best friend had asked you to give up happiness. So you see, Mike and Ray know two things about you, and that's jack and shit – and they're wrong about jack."
        I smiled back, breathing easier.
        "And you know me better because you're my best friend."
        "Damn right," he said softly. He gestured to the handkerchief, and I handed him the bundle. He went inside while I caught my breath, expelling it slowly. I heard Diefenbaker in the distance. He'd found a willing partner for the night.
        "Decaf? You're killing me, Maggie! We just met and you're killing me!" Ray yelled, coming through the door again. Ray has always had two volumes, loud and soft, nothing in between.
        "Don't know why, Ray, you'd think it would take more time to want to kill you," Maggie answered, unperturbed.
        "Mind you," Ray said, the door shut and his attention back to our conversation, "to be honest, Benny, when Mike said I could get you to leave Kowalski, I thought that was great. I mean, I come up here to sob on your shoulder, only to find out what you've been up to."
        "What changed your mind?" I asked, trying not to be disappointed in his first reaction. There was, perhaps, something to be said for an omission or white lie. I suppose I could have guessed that would have been Ray's natural reaction, to wish me away from Ray Kowalski. But hearing it took away any doubt my guessing would have allowed.
        Ray pursed his lips after tasting the new coffee, then nodded.
        "It'll do. I am tired, though. Planes, driving –"
        "Ray, I'm sorry, I should leave and let you –"
        "Benny. Mike said we get about an hour. I don't want him calling Peggy to come home, and we're still not clean, OK?"
        "Like this is the first time you've made me give up sleep. Now you're concerned," he muttered. "Anyway – Kowalski and I have a deal: if he ever makes you unhappy in the slightest way, he can look over his shoulder all he wants, he's still not going to see me coming. And if I disturb Stella's serenity by leaving the toilet seat up, he's gonna kick me in the head. Charming turn of phrase he has."
        "That sounds more like a resolution than an epiphany, Ray," I remarked.
        He glared at me. "You wanna try some English, there, Benny? Might be useful."
         "What I mean is that what you just said sounded like what happened after you changed your mind, rather than the deciding factor that made you change your mind."
        "It was," he said.
        "My story, Fraser, I'll tell it my way."
        "Of course, Ray."
        Ray sat down on the steps again, his cup between us. He directed a look to me that seemed to suggest I should not think of breaking this cup as well.
        "When did it start, Benny?" he asked, blunt as ever.
        "It, Ray?" I asked.
        He rolled his eyes. "With Kowalski. When did you – no, scratch that. When did you decide he was –" Ray grimaced and swallowed some air – "marriage material?"
        "Ah. That is easily answered, Ray," I answered, relieved by his specificity. "When we reached Inuvik during our search for the Hand of Franklin, we –"
        "Whoa, whoa, whoa," Ray said, waving his hand. "That's sometime in the past, what? Six months?"
        "Yes, Ray, why?"
        "Nothing, Benny," he answered, a half-smile in place, the one he wore when he would make a breakthrough on a case. "But you oughtta know that Kowalski's got more of a 'love at first sight' view on this."
        "Oh," I said as the light dawned. "I'm sorry, Ray, I thought you wanted to know when I actually decided to marry Ray, have a legally binding partnership with him."
        "Legally binding? You can do that here? Get married, I mean, for real?" His eyes were wide.
        "Sadly, no. But you can hire an attorney to draw up papers giving you the same rights and obligations. But the spiritual bonding of an actual wedding, well, that is, as you know, something not to be missed."
        Ray pondered my sub-clauses, then inhaled, glaring at me before starting again.
        "Swear to God, Benny, a train's got nothing on you when it comes to derailing. So are you saying Kowalski's story is yours? You met each other and bam! That was it?"
        "I don't know what Ray told you," I said, "but for me, there was a strong attraction from the first meeting, yes. It was a shock, and unfortunately, was coupled with the confusion of you leaving."
        "Benny, I wish I could have been there to say goodbye," Ray said, shaking his head. A corner of my mind idly wondered how much of our friendship was founded on guilt. And yet it was a friendship, a solid one. I was certain of that. How could we be having this conversation, if either of us had doubts of that premise?
        "I understood, Ray, I knew the timing was not intentional. But – are you aware no one briefed me of the situation until after Ray and I met?"
        "You mean Welsh didn't –"
        "He was discussing some matter with an agent from the Internal Revenue Service that day," I said. "We didn't have time to talk until that afternoon, when I presented him with irrefutable evidence that Ray was not you."
        I was embarrassed, even in memory. Ray stared, shocked. "I know you look nothing alike, Ray, but everyone kept referring to him as you, until I began to doubt my sanity – "
        "No one gave you a heads up?" Ray demanded, his eyes fierce. He was angry at the injustice done to me, and I won't deny how good that made me feel. But it was nothing to do with Ray Kowalski, and, once it was permissible to speak of him, I wanted to talk of nothing else.
        I stood up from the steps and stretched, taking a few deep breaths while my friend ranted about what a dangerous mistake that had been, how compromising it was for all of us that I'd not known about his undercover assignment.
        I was in a Pavlovian state, thinking of Ray, my sweet, sweet Ray, who had from our first meeting been a strong and courageous man, no matter what he may say. Hot tempered, given more to action than reflection, certainly, but I came to rely on those traits as assets. I trusted his abilities, and he trusted mine. And despite his insistance that he could not survive outside a city, his growing proficiency in camping, mushing and other outdoor survival skills was remarkable.
        Example: a few weeks ago, out to see Maggie, she cooked liver and onions for me. It seems 'someone' had killed a caribou, and this same 'someone' had done much of the work dressing the carcass, the packages filling our freezer. Ray? Oh, yes. He was a better student than he would have others believe. And, as I'd first learned in our tent, a generous and energetic lover, more than willing to learn and teach, no matter how grueling the day may have been.
        "Benny? Are you even listening?"
        "Yes, Ray, of course. I just thought you might have needed to get that out of your system," I said, hoping he hadn't changed topics.
        "Right. Whatever. So, if he'd walked in off the street and said he was Ray Kowalski –"
        "I would have experienced the same galvanic response," I said. "Automatic physical attrac –"
        "Ah, jeez, Benny! Did I ask for a description?" he asked, looking pained.
        "But as he was your cover, I knew I could not contemplate any non-platonic liaison with him," I continued. "I'd never had anything but feelings of friendship towards you – and a good, warm friendship," I added, "I don't mean to imply it is anything less than ideal – "
        "Thanks, Benny –"
        "You're welcome, Ray. But because of that, I knew that changing the nature of our relationship could attract attention. Besides," I added, "it was a bit daunting to find myself having such feelings. And I had no way of knowing how Ray felt, because I couldn't even bring it up, lest an unfortunate rift destroy your cover. I'd have to say, Ray, it was one of the most emotionally challenging times of my life."
        Ray's expression changed as I spoke, softened.
        "Ray?" I asked, the silence and the stare continuing.
        "And you were without a best friend," he said quietly.
        "I don't blame you, Ray. I'll admit I was selfish enough to wish you home, not for only for your own safety, but because I wanted your advice."
        "And yet, Benny, I'd have been the last person you could have talked to," Ray said.
        "Oh? Why?"
        Ray looked incredulous. "Hello? You find yourself having… feelings… over a guy, and you think I'm going to say, 'Hey, Fraser, go for it! It's OK to be gay! Sleep with guys, I don't care!' Benny, do you really think you'd be with Ray Kowalski today if I'd been around for you to talk to about wanting to date guys?"
         "Ray, I wasn't worried about being attracted to a man," I said. We'd now come to the crux of the situation, and I braced myself mentally. Could I explain my feelings and actions in a way that Ray would understand? Ray Vecchio was important to me, but I now had to place new conditions on our friendship.
        "You weren't?"
        "No, why should I have been? I know your feelings are different on this matter, but I don't share your emotions. No, I was far more distressed by other factors, factors larger than issues of gender and sexuality."
        "Wait," Ray said, like Dief on the scent of a potato chip and unable to let it go. "Are you saying you've been with guys before? That this is no big deal? And you never bothered to mention it to a guy you were spending half your workdays with, not to mention just about all of your free time?"
        I waited.
        "Well?" he exploded, slamming down his empty coffee mug and standing to pace.
        "I'm sorry, Ray, I just wanted to make sure you were done," I said, my tone mild to counter his volatility, although Ray has often told me that my lack of response can be seen as a goad.
        "The answer to your first question is no, I had never had sexual relations with a man before Ray Kowalski," I said. "To the second, yes: this was no big deal. And third, Ray, since the issue never came up, I would have to say that I saw no reason to discuss it with you."
        "How can that be, Fraser?" Ray asked, his voice rising in pitch as it did when he was unsure. "How can you look at a guy, get a feeling you've never had about a guy, and have it be no big deal? Wait – is this that, that, what is it? Two-spirit thing?"
        "You know about that?" I asked. As I'd said, the issue had not come up.
        "No, Kowalski warned me," he said, glaring. He sat down on the steps again and closed his eyes tight. This was the six-year-old Ray Vecchio, I could tell, ready to take some medicine.
        "OK," he said. "Go ahead and tell me the damn Inuit story, Benny."
        I smiled, and was tempted to, indeed, tell him a story. Perhaps cross-reference it with mentions of similar stories from the Aleuts, perhaps Mohawk, Klamath, Tlingit, Shoshone, Iroquois… And even bring in his own heritage, and discuss the graffito found on Pompeii. But in the end, I took pity on my old friend.
        "It's just another term for bi-sexuality, Ray. On the Kinsey scale – discredited by many psychologists and sociologists now, but still useful as a simple spectrum of human sexuality – you would be a one, someone who is purely heterosexual, perhaps never even having involuntary homoerotic dreams."
        "Got that right," he muttered. Then he looked up, his face flushing. "Dreams?"
        "You've had dreams, Ray?"
        "I was sixteen!" he snapped. "We were doing a cheerleader! She was the star of it, OK? She was hot!"
        I smiled behind my tea. I'd nearly forgotten how much fun it could be to tease Ray.
        "I think that would qualify as a heterosexually oriented dream, Ray," I told him, "Perhaps the other figure was there as a way of allowing your psyche to experience complete dominance in a masculine setting. Much like Diefenbaker."
        I will admit I was … "making it up, Frase," Ray would say. I was extrapolating. "Bullshitting." The point is, it seemed to calm him down. Comparing him to a wolf did not hurt his self-image, either.
        "Whereas I would most likely be a three," I continued, "primarily attracted to women, but more than capable of expressing deeply satisfying sexual relations with men coupled with durable emotional ties."
        Ray stared at me. "Only you could make sex sound boring, Benny."
        "Ray, I – "
        "No, Benny, you and the Polack can both go express yourselves, OK? Let's get back to the point, here," he said, and I was to understand from this that he meant no more than his usual insult. Which, contrarily, made me feel as if what I missed most of Chicago was now available to me again. Who else but a best friend can inspire both irritation and happiness? I said as much. Ray gave me a deadpan look I couldn't read.
        "Pretty much sums it all up, doesn't it, Benny?" he said, his mouth twitching as if her were keeping back a laugh. Then he cleared his throat and continued. "So, if you weren't losing sleep over wanting a guy, Fraser, what the hell was your problem?"
        Did he really not know? Not remember? I will admit I was shocked.
        "Ray, the last person I'd had such a strong, visceral reaction to was Victoria, and you wonder why I was disturbed?"
        Ray's jaw dropped, and his eyes widened. Oh, his mouth said for the longest time as he listened to me, and looked at me, frozen in place. Perhaps he wished to speak. I didn't allow him to break in.
        He was right. I'd had no best friend to talk with, no one to hear what had frightened me beyond comprehension. The only people I might have talked with were Ray Kowalski, who, for obvious reasons, was not the right man for the job, and my father, who had, thank God, finally found a subject he didn't wish to pursue with me. Even if I'd had other friends, in whom could I have confided without endangering Ray Vecchio's undercover work? Thus did it fall to that same man, much too late for it to do either of us any good.
        "I'd been willing to give up everyone I cared about, everything I believed in, for a woman I thought I loved. No, I did love her, and that was the pity, for it proved my judgment was suspect. And here I was again," I continued, barely noticing the tea slopping over my fingers, lukewarm, "falling in love again. Ray, I – you laugh, and you get angry at what you think is some sort of Mountie stoicism, but I have never in my life been so glad for my ability to remain outwardly calm."
        "Scared you, did it?"
        "To no end, Ray," I said. "To no end. And I had no idea how he felt. Well, I had a suspicion, but on this issue, I couldn't risk asking him if there were any chance I was wrong. You do realize, I'm certain that Italian-American police officers in Chicago have no patent on homophobic – "
        "Oh, so now I'm a, what's the word, a homophobe, Benny? Is that right?" Ray snapped. "I'm sitting here, talking to you, but I'm antigay. I hate how people get labeled, when the truth is – "
        "Is what, Ray?" I asked, finally irritated. "When we began this segment of the conversation, you started by telling me you had a 'problem with this,' meaning, I presume, the fact that Ray Kowalski and I are lovers. You said you couldn't say the terms you wanted to use. What were the terms, Ray? Go ahead, tell me what you'd rather say. Correct me since I seem to want to mislabel you."
        "Damn it, Benny! You're making me look at stuff I didn't expect to have to deal with today," Ray said, slapping his hand against the floor, a sharp and sudden sound in the night, stilling the forest noises. He rubbed his face and sighed. "I tired, I'm wired, my marriage is gonna need more than a phone call, and now I have to decide whether I can still believe what I've always believed but make an exception for you."
        "What does that mean, Ray? You'd say homosexuality is wrong, except in the case of your best friend? And what about Ray? It's all right for me, but not for him, or does he get special dispensation, too? And what about the gay police officer who radios for help?"
        "I wouldn't tank a cop, Fraser, tell me you know I wouldn't tank a cop!" Ray cut in. Peggy laid down the ace of clubs in the discard, announcing this fact loudly. Ray and I retreated to our metaphoric corners, drinking from cold cups.
        "And when I finally did know how he felt," I continued, leaving the current subject for Ray to consider on his own, "We still had little we could say. We risked one conversation," I said, shaking my head at the memory, "out in the middle of the woods on our way back from Sault Ste. Marie, less than three minutes to confirm that there was much to be said at a safer time."
        "Safer? Why? What was wrong?"
        I looked at him. "It was a constant fear of everyone who knew you, Ray, that someday – any day – we would hear you'd been killed. The only fear more dire was that it might have been something we'd said that led to your death, some small slip of the tongue. Your mother let it be known that you'd moved out of the house, so the neighbors wouldn't be suspicious, and even then she had to endure people asking why you hadn't come by during the Christmas holidays. Francesca said she was scared to tell your parish priest to pray for you."
        "Benny, I – "
        "And Ray was at the center of all this," I continued. "The one time he and I talked, it was only to confirm that there was indeed an attraction. He didn't want to speak of love, whereas I felt it was the only topic. But we both agreed no more could be said at that time. In fact, Ray was unhappy even to admit how he felt, as he'd never considered such a situation."
        Ray snorted. It was a familiar sound, derisive and yet an insult he'd only inflict upon friends. "Bad enough you got the female demographic, huh, Benny, you had to charm men, too."
        "Ray had wanted to be a man who only loved women," I said, rubbing my eyes. I'd not been up so late in a long time. My habits had been quite routine for the past four weeks. "He even pursued Maggie for a while."
        "Did that hurt?" Ray asked.
        I looked at him the way I did every time he asked that. "Yes, Ray, it did."
        Ray Vecchio always seems surprised to find I am not Superman, that I can indeed sustain injury.
        "But I think, actually, that that decided it for him," I continued. "Maggie and I share many traits, and I think he hoped that would solve what he saw as a problem. But you see, Ray, by that time, we were not only in love, but we'd spent enough time with each other that we truly loved each other. More than the physi—"
        "Yeah, Benny, I get the picture," Ray said, looking out at the stars again.
        I smiled, shaking my head at his back. The clouds that were suspended over my heart during this conversation – no, this month – were beginning to break up.
        Ray Kowalski loved me. Even if he'd met Maggie first, I knew the outcome would have been the same. We both had too much delight in each other to be able to imagine Ray finding in Maggie a balance of what he loved and wanted. He'd told me so himself, the first time he crawled back up my body, licking his lips as I trembled in the aftershock of an orgasm I still felt in my soul.
        "We spoke in the field for perhaps one hundred seventy seconds, Ray. Perhaps four hundred words between us. And then we went back to our normal lives."
        "Right, Benny, like anyone's gonna believe you've ever had a normal life," Ray grumbled.
        "Understood," I said softly.
        He turned to look at me, his half smile in place.
        "Until after Muldoon, huh?"
        "Yes, Ray says I had to endanger him in at least one more bizarre way before I was sure he'd stay with me," I replied, smiling back at my old friend. "Even then, we knew you were safely out of deep cover, but – "
        "Safely out? You mean the bullet in my shoulder? Oh, yeah, Benny, if that's not safely out, I don't know what is!" Ray laughed. He laughed. I filed this moment away for the next time my lover chided me on my choice of friends.
        "Seriously, though, Benny, you waited until the case was over, didn't you?"
        "Yes, Ray," I said. "By then, it had become personal, I must confess. Holloway Muldoon –"
        "I know, Benny. But you still did it by the book. You brought him to justice," Ray said. "Now, me, or Kowalski, or pretty much the rest of the known universe, we might have found an abandoned mine shaft and allowed Muldoon to break his neck. But you Mounties – always gotta get your man."
        Perhaps it was the situation, perhaps it was the hour, but at that silly and overblown phrase, I couldn't help myself. Ray wasn't even aware of what he'd said until I began to laugh, all my fears falling away. Perhaps Mike would extend our test: it was worth a night that started with three minutes with Ray Kowalski, and ended with my best friend scowling, then laughing at his own unintended jest, the gap between us closed again. All the rancor and bitterness of this conversation – and ones that should have been held a year ago – were swept off the porch.
        Ray stood and stretched before hauling me to my feet. He embraced me, paisan style, he'd say, and kissed both cheeks before letting me go.
        "Benny, I got a lot of work to do," he said, yawning. "I gotta work things out with Stella. I'm going to tell her what I was thinking at the beginning."
        "I have the utmost faith you will do the right thing, Ray," I said.
        "Gotta be honorable and chivalrous, Benny, give her the chance to get out while the getting's good." Ray rolled his eyes. "This must be my life – I'm getting advice on women from a guy who'd marry a rat-bag."
        "Ah, I've been waiting all night for that, Benny, no one can pack a reprimand into a name quite like you. Oh, and I need to work on a more enlightened world view, if I'm gonna be the best man at a gay wedding. I am going to be your best man, aren't I, Benny?"
        "Of course, Ray," I said. "The Inuit have a story about standing witness –"
        "Wow, is that the time?" Ray asked, glaring once more. He did not even need to speak to deliver a reprimand. But he looked at me, a new look, no longer a reminiscing one, no longer a threatening one. "Benny?" He stopped again.
        "Yes, Ray?" I prompted.
        "Benny – that call – it was nice, and all, but I'm still not sure where Stella is with what's going on with us. And she hasn't heard the whole story." He rubbed his face. "It's not a lock."
        He said no more. I put my hand on his shoulder. I knew he would do the right thing, but there is never a guarantee that right action will bring the results we desire. I saw myself, in a room full of candles, so afraid of need that I could only fold my arms about me and make excuses to a dead man. Ray Vecchio had his own candle-lit room.
        Maggie and Peggy came outside.
        "Ben, it's late. You should let Ray get some sleep," Maggie said.
        One more hug, his hand thumping my back, the same as he'd done to Diefenbaker. And then he said his farewell to Peggy while I left the porch and called for my wolf, who, of course, did not answer.
        "I think the MacKecknie's bitch is in heat," Maggie said beside me.
        "I suppose he'll be staying with you, then," I said, trying not to be envious of a deaf wolf free to chase a mate. I saw her nod out the corner of my eye.
        "I'll be in town tomorrow. Maybe he'll come with me."
        "Thank you for taking care of him."
        "Oh, Dief's no trouble. And I don't think Ray will get out of line, do you?" she asked with a smile.
        "Hey! Maggie! Show me where to put my stuff, I'm falling asleep on my feet here!" the man of our subject yelled from the porch. Peggy came towards us, shaking her head and smiling.
        "He's all yours, Margaret," she said. "The Bluemountains are officially Ray-free for the night."
        "Yes, ma'am," Maggie replied, saluting. "Don't let my brother look glum. He's more a man for moping than he let's on."
        Peggy nodded, staring in my eyes. "He has plenty to think about, I don't think he'll mope. He'd better not," she finished, suddenly looking like her father. I understood the proscription.
        "Yes," I said quickly, "I've certainly a full day tomorrow. I really must get back to the Outpost. Maggie, thank you again for taking care of – of the unexpected guest."
        "Good night, Ben," she answered as I turned to Peggy's truck.
        We drove back to Nupiak in silence. I was not to be told if the month was nearly over, or started again. But I am a Mountie. I can follow orders.
        Even the ones I do not like.

Chapter 4: Music in Hell

        I woke the next morning – well, I opened my eyes and admitted I was not asleep, but that's neither here nor there – having no idea as to whether our month was done, or if perhaps it had been renewed. A do-over, Ray Vecchio would say. A not-do-over, the Ray Kowalski in my mind retorted.
        I lay on my cot, remembering the kiss from less than twelve hours before. If all went well, I was thinking, I would see Ray the next day. Or, the month would start over again. Not knowing which Mike Bluemountain would choose made a personal issue rather time-sensitive.
        "Oh, one more day without a shower won't kill anyone," I muttered, and swung my legs off my cot. I washed my face and my privates – on the trail I tried to impress upon Ray the need for hygiene, and he was most appreciative of the lessons. And that memory led me astray once more. It was imperative I keep my mind busy. I sighed. I would feel better, I knew, if I treated that day as any other day, neither an ending nor a new beginning.
        Living at the outpost was certainly more convenient for a commute, but the drawback was that I had more free time in which to think. Idle moments tended to turn my mind to Ray. However, God did not create twenty-four hour days for idle hands, as my grandmother used to say, and so I found ways to stay busy. At first, I used the hours before my shift began for a variety of small repairs about the outpost. But after replacing the washer on the dripping sink in the toilet (and scrubbing the rust stains off the porcelain), oiling the hinges on the supply room door, and redoing the catalog of our manuals, Sergeant Baines asked me to find other diversions.
        "We need to have something for the youngsters, Corporal," he'd said. "How will they ever know they're being punished if you're doing the same work?"
        It had therefore been my pleasurable task to casually patrol the five major streets of our town, Diefenbaker at my side, and chat with the citizens. Though we'd come here not knowing a soul, Nupiak welcomed us. I was very pleased to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Selma Andreson, who had known my mother at school. And in turn, Mrs. Andreson made it a point to introduce me to as many people as possible.
        And Sergeant Bob Fraser had been well respected here. Fifteen years ago – before he'd taken his posting in the Yukon – he'd served in this very outpost. His murder had outraged the people of Nupiak. They felt he'd been a good man in a bad position, and were not surprised to hear he'd tried to fight the dam. No matter where people may have stood on the issues – jobs, environment – everyone understood the sad reality of government corruption. I was gratified to learn that no one believed my father had been capable of taking the bribes, or of any wrongdoing, for that matter.
        I told this to Ray, remarking that they'd not known what had happened with Muldoon. Ray has a way of scowling and smiling that I've never seen duplicated on another face.
        "Frase, we're cops, and we know that being a vigilante is not a good career move," he told me. "But we're human, and we're guys, and we don't like seeing our families hurt. Frankly, Benton, I'm not saying he did the right thing, but I understand it."
        He touched my cheek. When I hear him in my memory, I feel the rough skin of his wind-chapped fingers, and the heavy, oppressive air of the tent during a storm.
        "It's why I'd always get pissed off when you'd go after bad guys with guns. I didn't want you hurt."
        "So you'd kill someone if I were killed?" I asked. I wasn't serious, but Ray had eased my mind about father's image and my feelings towards his actions.
        "Fraser, if someone bumps you on the street and does not apologize with sufficient remorse, I wanna kick some heads in."
        By way of this digression I mean to say I was often greeted warmly for simply being Bob Fraser's son. This town had a mix of Salish, whites, and a small percentage of what census experts used to call "other," which translated to two African-Canadian men and three Chinese families. In some places, a mix means tension. Mounties, are, often as not, a cause of strife instead of the peacemakers we aim to be. And while this was a peaceful place, Sergeant Baines told me I was an asset and a calming influence because of my standing, no matter if I stood upon my father's shoulders.
        So I used the month – or rather, the time away from Ray – to simply stroll, enjoy a cup of tea at the store, and greet my neighbors.
        "Hey, Corporal! What day is it?" John Loomis called as he drove past me that particular morning, laughing as usual. He had what is known as a "rick," or a third of a cord of cut wood – oak, I believe – in his truck bed.
        I could understand Ray's dislike of the man, though he was harmless and apparently quite the hit with the local children in the annual role of Santa. During our first attempt at this month, the one which only lasted five days before Ray lost the battle with his will power, John Loomis had pestered Ray every day, asking the same question he'd just called out to me.
        "I'm not a cop any more, Benton, so it's gonna be hard to convince people he died resisting arrest," Ray had said. "If he keeps it up…"
        Now I wondered, had he kept it up? For two months? Poor Ray. Poor John, if this fast lasted another month.
        "Maybe I should send someone out of town for the safety of John Loomis," Mike Bluemountain commented from behind me. I whirled around, feeling caught in my thoughts.
        "Good morning, sir," I said, not referring to his comment.
        "It is, Corporal, it certainly is a good morning," he answered. He was on his porch with a cup of coffee, and I approached in his companionable silence. "Our Margarets had a good evening, I'm told."
        "Yes, sir, I believe they did."
        He was, of course, referring to Maggie and Peggy. I was not sure if this was an invitation to speak further, but I felt it best to approach lightly and say nothing but responses.
        "Peggy said they heard raised voices out at your place last night," he said.
        Damn. Another month for certain. No, I told myself, that's only speculation, you don't have enough facts – oh, who was I fooling? I gave in to pessimism, feeling my stomach roil in disappointment. But, ever looking on the bright side, I decided that, if we were to be delayed another month, then I would seek Ray out for tonight, and make the delay start tomorrow. I let out my breath, able to hear again.
        "It's quite possible it was just an argument between a raven and a wolf," he continued. "Now, who do you suppose would win such a fight?"
        "It's hard to say, sir," I said, "it's never wise to fight a wolf, but a raven rarely loses more than the battle."
        "And never a war, eh, Corporal? You've learned a few stories in your young life. But the real test is whether you've learned from them."
        I gave him the best smile I could muster, considering the circumstances.
        "One thing I have learned is that the raven usually gets into trouble when he thinks he's learned all there is to know. The wolf gets in trouble because he thinks he needs nothing but his learning."
        Mike nodded, returning his gaze to the street before finishing his coffee. "Well, back to work with me, I guess. Are you going to the concert tonight?"
        Now my smile was brighter, if only because the subject pleased me.
        "I wouldn't miss it. Your niece has a solo, doesn't she?"
        "And a duet," Mike answered with an obvious and understandable pride. "Cora wants you to sit next to her down front."
        "I'd be delighted."
        A word or two more about the concert, and we were done. He went back inside, and I continued my walk, letting out my breath as I wondered if I'd passed the test the old man had just administered.
        "Corporal Fraser!" Edith Winslow (Selma Andreson's daughter), waved from the door of her café.
        (It is a small pleasure, I know, and smacks of pettiness, but I must admit I liked hearing my name pronounced correctly. It sounds absurd, but most of the people I met in Chicago did not seem to grasp the "z" sound in Fraser, and would instead substitute the voiced "zh." Ray says it right most of the time, but will still shorten it to the lazy nickname I now cherish almost as much as his husky growl of my first name.)
        "Cup of tea, Ben?" Edith asked as I came closer. "Take the chill out of the air."
        I accepted with thanks, taking a dollar from my Stetson. She tucked it into her apron pocket with a roll of her eyes. I knew she'd put it in the kitty for her teen son's clothing fund. But I wouldn't take food from an establishment without remuneration, not while I was in uniform. Thank goodness Dief hadn't been with me. Absolutely without shame, that one.
        "I guess there is a bite in the air, at that," I admitted. "Not much of one, but September is wearing thin, I suppose it's to be expected."
        Edith shivered, more than necessary, to my way of thinking. "Surprises me every year," she said. "If it weren't for the 6 AM roughnecks, I'd be curled in bed with my nose poking out of the quilts. And you! Don't even need to be at work for an hour and here you are! You'd better learn some lazy ways, Ben Fraser, get some pleasure in your bones."
        "But Edith, when the snows come, I'll have to get up early just to get to work on time," I joked, finishing my tea.
        "All the same, Ben," she said, taking my cup back and looking deep into my eyes, "you could use a break. Sleep in. Life's too short for too much duty."
        From the kitchen came a crash, and Stuart, Edith's son, yelled for her before I had a chance to respond. Her soft brown eyes had seemed tired a moment before. But now the lines in her face pulled into laughlines, putting the lie to her talk of indolence. The truth was her work and her family both kept her busy and happy. In a word, she lived the life I wanted: to be useful during the day, and to come home at night to love. I suppose, then, I had no reason to envy her. I had only to tame my impatience.
        "Stuart hasn't learned yet that it's easier to get into trouble than to get out. I'll see you later – coming! Oh, Ben?" she asked as she turned towards the kitchen. "Can you help out tonight? I need a dishwasher at the intermission."
        "Glad to be of service – thank you kindly for the tea," I called after her, her distracted wave the only sign she heard me as she went to rescue whatever kitchen appliance had fallen prey to Stuart's inventive ways.
        So far, there seemed to be a theme to my walk, though the exact nature of it still eluded me. Of course, it could all be part of a larger prank. This is not paranoia, but an understanding of life in a small town. Where the society is small enough to know everyone by name and predilection, there will always be practical jokers and gossip. By now, Ray Vecchio's visit of the day before was old news, and the unfortunate timing served only as a way to make it all the more humorous.
        But as I continued my informal reconnoiter, I was once more touched by the kindly nature of the local citizenry. Both Ray and I had apprehensions at the start. After selling my father's cabin (or, rather, the acreage, as Ray Vecchio and I never reached the cabin on that one aborted vacation, and the place could not be said to have survived the gunplay, grenades, fire and finally, a family of raccoons), we purchased a ramshackle place on four acres of heavily forested land three miles outside of Nupiak. As we rebuilt, adding wiring, plumbing and a second bedroom, we didn't know if we made these improvements to make our nest comfortable, or to raise the value for sale.
        Though there are exceptions, small towns can be small-minded. My time in Chicago had prepared me for living in an urban environment, should Ray and I need the relative strength found in numbers. It was a galling thought that two law enforcement officers might not be safe at home, but neither of us could abide the fear of something happening to the other.
        "I already have heart attacks about you working, Frase," Ray told me after we'd christened our new bed and were lying in the sweaty comfort of each other's arms. "The thought that some red neck might take a pot shot when you're here at home –"
        He'd shivered. I'd shivered.
        But our fears had been unfounded, and our circumspect behavior in town fooled no one. It was Sam Wanamaker who had let us know we were indeed welcome as we were.
        "You boys will get a good view in the morning," he grunted, seeing the draft I'd made of our building plans. He was giving us an estimate for welding during our renovation. Ray and I exchanged looks over his head. Neither of us had known what to say. Sam looked up.
        "This is the bedroom, isn't it?" he asked, pointing one stubby, callused finger at the plans. "And this other room's the den?"
        "Y-yes," I said slowly.
        He nodded. "Southwestern corner, that makes sense, but it's also a real pretty view. Something wrong?"
        Ray's eyes were bulging, and his jaw dropped. Sam stared at him, then at me.
        "You two are together, ain't ya?"
        "Yes, we're together," I said slowly, my words tentative steps across ice I did not fully trust. But we would have to have this out, one way or another.
        "Yeah. Thought so," he said. "Small town. Everyone knows everyone's business. You get about five minutes' grace before the gossip starts."
        Mr. Wanamaker said no more about it and went back to his estimations.
        When I'd first reported for duty, I'd stated my situation, not wishing a later disclosure under circumstances less to my liking. Sergeant Baines was disconcerted, not out of any personal objections, but because our outpost, being in a small town, had difficulty attracting qualified officers. His view was that we would have to see if the town would accept the authority of a Mountie in a same-sex relationship.
        "If we cannot maintain the right, Corporal, then I would advise you to seek a posting in a larger city," he'd said. "However, it's my hope this posting will work, and in that spirit, I bid you welcome, mon frere."
        With these welcomes, we slowly adapted to Nupiak, and a life of no anonymity. Ray was often asked how the "Mountie's son" was enjoying his new posting, while townsfolk made no bones about asking after my American. That Mike Bluemountain had agreed to perform our wedding ceremony was simply met with congratulations.
        Congratulations, and a certain amount of mischief, that is. As word of our enforced separation spread, small comments and jokes were dropped into conversations when I least expected them. I took it as best I could, having lived in smaller communities than this. Ray, during our "time-offs for good behavior," as he called them, allowed that he was uncomfortable.
        "It's like when people would ask if Stella and me were trying," he said.
        "Trying, Ray?"
        "You know, Frase, trying," he said, with a thrust of his hips, which could have provided a distraction. But I was not following his words.
        "Was this when you were divorcing, Ray? People wanted to know if there was a chance of reconciliation?"
        "Jeez, Fraser! Did you even get on that turnip truck? They wanted to know if we were trying to have a baby!"
        "Good Lord, Ray! That's a personal question!"
        "Yeah, I kinda felt the same way," he sighed, rolling his eyes.
        Poor Ray. No. Valiant Ray, Brave Ray. My Ray. He left all he knew to be with me, and he has never to this day given any indication that he might have regretted that decision. Certainly there are portions of life in "the wilds of Canada" he would change, but I could make the same remark about Chicago. But I digress.
        That morning was the same as any other morning of the past few months. All that was different was that I could not take my mind off the night before. Sergeant Baines, when I reported back to the post, asked that I take a look at the duty roster, and make certain my responsibilities would be handled in my absence, and evenly distributed among the others.
        "Some of your tasks can wait until you're back, of course," he said, "but the rest of it I'd hate to have unduly burdening the constabulary."
        "Sir, there is a chance I won't need the time off," I began to say, but as I expected, he cut off my response. As I've said, Ray Vecchio's visit, and the possible ramifications of it, were by now old news.
        "Corporal, are you saying you wish to postpone your two-week leave another month?" Sergeant Baines asked sharply. My face felt warm. "You have accumulated leave time of over two months. It is not as if you could not take off time in the future."
        "No, sir, I –"
        "And I do not believe you can view my treatment of your … situation … as less than fair."
        "No, sir, I –"
        "But I must insist that you do not change your request again. Other members of this outpost have made plans as well, taking your leave into account." Baines's rebuke was couched in a calm voice, and yet, for a moment, I felt myself back in the Consulate. Of course, Sergeant Baines, with his shock of blonde hair over a beefy Scandinavian frame could have hardly provided a greater contrast to Inspector Thatcher. He was also quite correct in this matter. Were our positions reversed, I'm certain I would have given the same response.
        The day passed without further incident. This outpost pleased me greatly. The eleven of us provided police services for roughly one thousand square kilometers, most of which was forest and farmland. Seven of us were always in the field, working in the smaller communities for three-day shifts before coming back to Nupiak.
        RCMP community policing policies allow for variations as best fit the needs of an area. We still adhered to the letter of the law, certainly, but if the regulations for Mountie interactions in, say, Toronto, were not practical in Nupiak, then we were enjoined to work with the community to best serve their needs.
        Which is how Mike Bluemountain was able to convince Sergeant Baines that I stay in Nupiak until I'd completed the month without Ray. Though a corporal, I was expected to work the same shifts in the field. For the first month – well, say the first six weeks – this was not a problem, except for the ribbing when I'd been forced to admit I needed an extension. And Sergeant Baines had not said a word against my request. Although, when everyone laughed at Constable Sheila McCoy's remark that I'd better not ask for paternity leave in the next few years, the sergeant caught my eye, still laughing, but letting me know that yes, that would indeed be an unwise choice.
        But we were a peaceful outpost, when all was said and done. And though even a small town has crime, it was nothing on the level of Chicago's, thank God. Ray had not understood that the RCMP provides local police service for many areas, and that I was, indeed, a cop.
        "Gotta say I'm relieved, Benton," Ray said after I explained my new position. "I thought I was sleeping with a fed."
        "And that worried you?" I asked. I could feel my smile, small and fond, as I watched him shift in bed, looking for just the right position for sleeping. He opened one eye and grinned, pulling me over to lie in his arms.
        "Well, you know, my social standing and all. I'm a high-class guy."
        Ray… once more I had to yank my mind back to the present, to the duty roster before me, to a dozen small tasks that failed to capture my mind. I did not blame Sergeant Baines. I would have been irritated by such a request, were the positions reversed. Indeed, my problem was in trying not to read into his refusal any hint of Mike Bluemountain's verdict.
        Two weeks with Ray, my mind drifted… If I had my way, we would not leave the house for a week. If I had my way, we would somehow manage to spontaneously follow a list of ways in which we'd make love. I had such a list in my mind, and though Ray might laugh at my methodical nature, he would not argue with the results, of this I am certain.
        But if daydreams were dangerous at work, this line of fantasy bordered on career suicide. Throughout the long day, I had to pull my mind back to my work.
        I looked up from the front counter to see a fresh-scrubbed young woman in front of me.
        "Yes, Constable Nelson?" How long had she been there? Not long, I decided. I'd last looked at the clock seven minutes previous. It was now five o'clock, and I would be on leave in half an hour.
        "Do you know about the concert tonight? My landlady mentioned it as if it were the highlight of the year," the constable said. I smiled.
        "I imagine she has a relative performing," I told her. Amy Nelson was new here, having transferred in only two weeks before. She was originally from Ottawa, and had yet to settle into the rhythms of a small town. "This is part of the life here, Constable, not only for the local citizens, but for us as well, by which I mean the RCMP, of course. Always endeavor to make yourself part of the community; it fosters better understanding."
        I took a look at the roster in front of me. "In fact, you're on call tonight. You should carry a cellular phone and attend."
        "Will you – will you be attending, sir?" she asked, blushing. Good God, I thought, she knows I'm attached, doesn't she? Doesn't she? She'd only been in Nupiak two weeks, and granted, I am, as a rule, reticent, but certainly someone would have told her –
        "Yes, I am," I answered, deciding to stay with the simple answer. "Mike Bluemountain's niece Cora specifically asked me to sit down front. And I would hate to disappoint a fourteen year-old girl."
        "Fourteen – oh, thank heavens!" Constable Nelson sighed in obvious relief. "I thought you were saying you had a date. Do you suppose – what I mean is – if this is not a breach of protocol would you consider going with me, Corporal?" she asked, the last part all in one breath.
        Oh, dear. This was quite a minefield. Could I answer truthfully and yet not break the strictures of my promise to Ray and Mike Bluemountain? In over two months, this issue had not come up. Perhaps that was odd, perhaps I was lucky.
        No matter: a gentleman does not keep a lady waiting, I chided myself, and cleared my throat.
        "I'm sorry, Constable, but while your request is quite a compliment, I feel I must decline."
        "It was wrong of me," she said quickly, nodding. "You are my superior, we're in a small company, it could be construed –"
        "Maggie, good afternoon," I broke in, relieved to see a familiar face come through the door. I apologized for interrupting and made the necessary introductions. Pleasantries were exchanged, and then a few more as it turned out they had a friend in common stationed in Manitoba. I relaxed as they spoke, and when Maggie turned to me again, I could talk without a nervous stammer.
        "Red serge?" I asked, taking in her formal appearance. She grinned.
        "I came in for the concert. You're going to change, aren't you? At least put on the blue! I don't see how you can stand that old brown thing."
        In point of fact, she was one of the few others to still wear the brown uniform. I did my best not to smile in response. Instead, I scrutinized her tunic with a corporal's cold eye.
        "That wouldn't be wolf hair, would it?"
        Maggie slapped my arm.
        "Dief's still in a tizzy over that MacKecknie bitch. Couldn't be bothered to come into town with me. Oh, I'm sorry," she said, realizing we were both still on duty, "am I interrupting anything?"
        For me, the phone call from Sergeant Baines summoning me to his office could not have been better timed. He had only some last-minute questions for me, so I left the two of them to talk, directing Constable Nelson to assume counter duties.
        "Oh – we were just discussing a matter that you may be better able to answer, Maggie," I said, and ducked out of the room, relieved.
        Ray Vecchio would have laughed. As would Ray Kowalski. As would Dief, I thought later while changing into my red serge. The uniform returned to me my equilibrium, so that when I saw Constable Nelson again, I could be civil, indeed, friendly, but with no sense of embarrassment. Again, both Rays, and my wolf, would have laughed at the sight, calm corporal chatting with red-faced constable. She was disconcerted, certainly, but I was happy to detect no negative reaction to Maggie's explanation.
        The concert was torture, pure and simple.
        Oh, the performances were fine, especially those of the older students, who had been with their teacher for several years, and adults learn to allow for children, beginners, and those of less obvious talent. But how, I wondered, could I have forgotten that Lynn Wanamaker was the music teacher?
        I sat near the front, the third row, in fact, next to Cora Bluemountain. Ray sat one row back, on the other side of the hall. He was second in, next to Sam, and wore his nicer jeans, a long-sleeved shirt he'd bought just before we separated, and his jacket, the light tweed one. In other words, he'd dressed up. I tried not to think about that. But everyone had dressed for the evening, many people wearing much the same as Ray. And though it was not required, every Mountie in attendance wore serge, in tribute to the performers.
        I was grateful for the intermission, when I could disappear into the kitchen and wash dishes. I kept the soapy water as hot as I could stand, painful and distracting. My tunic off and my sleeves rolled up, I pressed against the industrial sinks to hide my erection. I hummed Beethoven's Minuet in G, which seemed as non-sexual a tune as any, and had been played by three different students in the first half of the program.
        As long as I could scald my hands and numb my mind, I would be all right. I was almost certain.
        "Ben? Could I trouble you to bring out another tray of coffee cups?" Edith asked, the noise of the main room a sudden intrusion on the relative silence of the kitchen. Oh, dear. But before I could answer, she spoke again.
        "Oh, look – there's a flat of cups right here. Never mind, Ben. Don't stay in here too much longer, OK? Even volunteers get to take a break, you know."
        "I'll be out in a few minutes, Edith," I called back, turning my head and grinning, as if I'd been lost in an ecstasy of dishwashing. My smile seemed to scare her, as I think back on it. But I was certainly less aroused, so the positive far outweighed the negative.
        "Hey, where do I put –"
        Ray's voice broke off the second we locked eyes. He stood in the open door with a tray of dirty dishes. By his face, I could tell he'd not expected to find me here.
        "I was told to bring these in," he said. The noise in the hall did not abate nor rise.
        We stared at each other another moment before I jerked my head, nodding to the counter next to me. He nodded and came forward, now looking only at the place I'd indicated. He set the tray down with great care, then gripped the edges of the counter. I focused on a smear of lipstick on a glass, scrubbing harder than necessary.
        "This is hell," Ray said. Ah, my soulmate. He began scraping the plates into the garbage beneath the counter.
        "I can do that," I said softly.
        "Know you can, Fraser, it's not tough. This is on purpose, you know that, don't you?" he asked. He stacked the plates beside me as he talked. There were perhaps ten centimeters between us. "Mike and I are talking, Edith comes out of the kitchen and comes over. Mike says, 'Ray, could you do me a favor and clear off a few tables?' And Edith chimes in and says to go ahead and take the dishes into the kitchen. I can't take much more of this, Frase. I'm either gonna implode or hurt someone."
        I took the scraped dishes and put them in the sink. "Rinse, Ray," I said. We were being teased, deliberately, it seemed, and I, like Ray, was not in a mood to play. Do I dare? I asked myself, and leaned in, not quite believing I'd do what I planned. Ray turned to look at me, his gold-flecked eyes bright as they came nearer mine.
        A quick kiss, a peck, a dare. Ray groaned on his exhale, but it was really a deep sigh, bittersweet regret that we could not do more, not here, not now, but how nice, that one kiss. It was enough to keep us to the task of washing dishes.
        "Boys? Intermission's over," Edith called from the door. "You can leave the rest of those, we've got people in place for clean-up later."
        "Right you are, Edith," I said.
        "Be right out," Ray said at the same time.
        It's funny, how one small kiss could make me feel naughty. Not guilty, but like a child committing a crime that will be a treasured memory in later years.
        We dried our hands. Ray, in a shirt and jeans, could not hide the heaviness of his half-formed erection. But then, people were most likely not staring there, as I did. Or as he did, swallowing, his eyes fixed. I quickly put on my tunic.
        "I'mcoldIgottagogetmyjacket," Ray said and walked out the door. I waited thirty seconds before leaving the safety of the kitchen, and promptly ran into Ray's back.
        "One of you boys drop this?" Mike asked, holding up a key ring. I realized the cause of Ray's paralysis now; I shared his reason. We could not move, even to take the house key we'd surrendered to Mike over two months ago as a token of our willingness.
        "It's over?" Ray asked. "We passed?"
        Mike pursed his lips and shrugged. "The two statements are not necessarily linked, but yes, and yes."
        "What about Vecchio?"
        "Ray –"
        "'S okay, Frase. Just wanna know – is he okay?"
        Mike nodded and looked at me. "Sometimes ravens steal the light. Sometimes they just fly overhead."
        He turned to walk away, then turned back. "You're both staying for the second half, aren't you? Lynn says you were a big help, Ray, and Benton, Cora saved your seat."
        "Right you are, Mike," I said weakly.
        "Be right in," Ray said, again at the same time. We both wilted as Mike disappeared into the community room. Ray still didn't turn, facing away from me.
        "The second half's gonna be about twenty-five minutes," he said. I nodded, though he couldn't see.
        "Allow fifteen minutes to congratulate the students –"
        "And then we go home," Ray said.
        "I'm parked at the outpost," I said, and we moved as one, Ray clutching the house key Mike had folded into his hand.
        If the first half of the concert had been torture, the second half was… Well, I do not know if there is a fitting word, though I can say that music is never so intently listened to as by a man trying to ignore his own body. I was relieved when Cora stood up to sing "Where E'er You Walk" in her clear, pretty voice. Also, it was one I remember my grandmother singing to herself as she worked, and the association helped take my mind off the near future. But the last piece of the evening proved a challenge.
        "We are pleased to finish our program tonight with one final selection," Lynn Wanamaker said, "Troy Caplin on violin, and Cora Bluemountain on piano performing Weil's Youkali Tango Haberna."
        Troy and Cora were the two most talented music students in our town. Troy, fifteen, now the tallest boy in his class, proved better at music than he had at sports, while Cora was impatient with the pieces Lynn allowed her to polish, not wanting to wait for her still tiny hands to grow.
        The tango was typical of the genre, I suppose, or at least, the stereotype, full of longing and passion. It was a trial all its own to listen to in my condition. Ray, a dancer, mercurial and thin-skinned, was in agony, he told me later. "Swear to God, Frase, you have never been in more danger of getting fucked in public," he rasped the next morning.
        My Stetson rested in my lap, assisting my tunic in covering what felt exposed. I thought quickly, even as I listened to the cruelly evocative music, about my truck, parked at the outpost, seventy-five meters down the street. The keys were under the seat. Ray might need to stop at the Wanamakers –
        It was no good. The sinewy eroticism of the tango (played by children, for heaven's sake! I admonished myself, knowing that I was reading far more into the music than they intended) invaded my mind. Despite its origin – not from Argentina, but rather France, by way of a German composer – I felt I'd never heard such a musical aphrodisiac. Longing, tension, sadness – could these really be the components of desire?
        "You think too much, Benton," Ray told me months later, when I'd found another version of the song and sat by his stereo trying to puzzle it out. He put the song on perpetual replay and took me to bed to prove his point: "The music makes you want to fuck. Who cares why?"
        Finally, finally, the beautiful and maddening song was over. My applause was far from dutiful. That being said, I was in a hurry to leave. I looked back to Ray – he was stuck between Wanamakers and a long line of well-wishers complimenting Lynn on her students. Ray glared, then shrugged. "Trapped," he mouthed. I smiled, and then turned around at a familiar voice.
        "So you're moving back home, Benny?" Ray Vecchio said near my left ear.
        "Ray! I thought you were leaving – have you decided to stay longer?" I asked, surprised to see him still here.
        Strange how desire can make you begrudge your best friend more than a minute. I looked around and saw my Ray grinning at me. He winked, then gave his full attention to Ellen Faraday, age 8, who had played "Starlight in the Elm Trees" on her soprano recorder.
        "No flight until tomorrow at noon, Benny, so it was either stay last night or find another hell-hole," Ray replied. "At least this one came with a Mountie who can make decent coffee."
        "Our home is always open to you," I said, smiling.
        "Yeah, I'm sure," he said. "Anyway, Maggie and I are gonna get going after this. She got a reservation for a flight an hour after mine. We got a thermos of coffee, we'll keep each other awake talking about you."
        Of course. Of course people needed to leave, return to their lives. And I knew Maggie, who was at that moment saying her good-byes to her new friends in Nupiak, had to go back to the Yukon. I suppose I'm like Diefenbaker. While logic dictates a rational line of thinking (my sister and my best friend had responsibilities elsewhere), deep inside me was an emotional response (the pack must stay together).
        "Will you come visit, Ray?"
        "Hard to say, Fraser, gotta see what happens in Chicago," Ray answered. He turned the question around. "What about you? Gonna be in the States anytime soon?"
        "Yes, we have tickets for one week from today. We have to pack up the rest of Ray's apartment, get his car, and start his immigration procedures." I gave half a smile. "And say hello to your family."
        "Yeow! Look, Benny, let me be there, OK?" Ray asked, swallowing, his eyes imploring. "I got a feeling it's not going to be a pleasant conversation, and I don't think the Polack's gonna be adequate back up."
        "And you, Ray? Are you ready for that?"
        His face darkened for a brief moment, then softened with a grin. "You've been making me dodge bullets and thugs, you make me ruin thirty suits –"
        "Thirty? Is that all?"
        "I lost count after that. But now you ask if I'm up to the job? Benny, I'm your best friend. I don't have to be ready, I just have to be there."
        "Understood," I said, and took his shoulder in my hand. "Pleasant trip, Ray."
        "Thanks, Benny," he said softly. He pulled me into one last hug. "Thanks for everything."
        A tap at my right shoulder was Cora Bluemountain, a girl with both shy and brash natures. Ray turned on his usual charm and congratulated her, introducing himself as my friend.
        "Hey, good job, both songs," he said to her. "Everyone's been talking about you, right, Benny?"
        Cora was immensely flattered that a man from such a cosmopolitan city as Chicago would compliment her performance, but as I took up his theme, and she turned her attention to me, he slipped away. Even as I spoke, I began to miss him. Godspeed, Ray, I called after him in my mind.
        I tried to give compliments to each of the students, especially Cora and Troy. I told the duo I'd never heard either play so well – which was true, but already my mind was elsewhere again, and I wondered how long I'd been babbling about cabaret music in Weimar Germany.
        "But you have other people waiting to praise you, I shouldn't keep you here," I said. Both students seemed to give a tiny sigh of relief. So I thanked Cora for the honor of sitting next to her and kissed her cheek. And Cora Bluemountain, fourteen years old and trying to be sophisticated, swooned. Troy was happy with a hand shake, though he, too, was grinning at the praise.
        "We've stowed Ray's bag in the back of your truck. I hope you don't mind," Lynn Wanamaker said with a wink, coming up behind her prize pupils to shepherd them to other well-wishers.
        I looked around. Ray was nowhere to be seen, and we were now at minute fourteen.
        "Ben, if you don't leave now, Ray's going to start asking me out again," Maggie said, her red serge catching my eye before I turned, then turned again to look for the man in question.
        "He's out at the truck, of course," she said, a mock scowl on her lovely face. "Honestly, I don't think you inherited any smart genes from Dad."
        "You're probably right," I said and kissed her cheek. "Just the lucky ones. Drive safe. Don't let Ray bribe anyone."
        Their laughter in my ears, I was gone out a side door, running down the street and jumping into the truck coming to meet me.
        "Good to see you, Frase," Ray said behind the wheel, his eyes on the road.
        "And you, Ray."
        My hunger for him, abated momentarily, was back, and increased ten-fold.
        "Fraser? What the hell are you doing?" Ray asked a moment later. I looked up from my tunic, confused at his tone.
        "I'm just taking off my – "
        "I can see that. Button up again, will ya?"
        "Do you mind explaining why?" I asked, my breath shortening as oxygenated blood rushed to my groin. He sounded just as husky.
        "Got enough to do trying to drive with a hard-on, Frase, I don't think I can take the added stimulation of seeing yours. At least with the serge, I can pretend it's just how you're sitting."
        "Is that an 'ah' of agreement, Mountie?"
        "No, Ray. It's an 'ah' of understanding, but not necessarily agreement."
        "Jesus, Frase –"
        "Call me Benton," I said, my voice (not by choice) only a whisper.
        With a strangled cry, Ray drove off the road and braked to a skidded halt in David Gilley's pasture. He turned off the engine and unbuckled his seat belt, then threw himself at me, swallowing my mouth. His greedy hands, long familiar with the procedure, unbuttoned my tunic.
        "I was hoping to get home, but you're just not gonna cooperate, are you?" he asked, attacking my neck above the stiff collar. He bit me, sucking at my neck to soothe as he nipped at me, his lips holding an occlusive seal to further mark me. My hands stroked his chest, savoring what they'd long been denied. His taste, his scent, the feel of his erection against my thigh, all worked against the composure I would not miss nor, if truth be told, want back. Except for the flash of headlights catching the rearview. I could not see well, but those lights would have been cresting the rise two miles back, just outside Nupiak. Oh, dear.
        "Ray," I whispered as he now unzipped my pants. "Ray. Ray? Ray!"
        "What?" he hissed, angry. "I know you. Thirty minutes to reload, tops. So I'm gonna taste you now, get a mouthful, and then we're going home. By that time, you'll be ready again, and you can fuck me. You got only one choice in all this, OK? Enjoy it, reciprocate, or start running."
        "That's three choices, Ray," I said weakly. I couldn't stop my fingers from tracing his lips. He smiled, kissed them.
        "Yeah, but one decision," he said, and leaned in for a kiss, a gentle one. Then his hands slipped inside to my boxers. White lights of pleasure were flashing against my eyelids. White lights…
        I did not want my composure back. But if I didn't stop him…
        Thinking became difficult. My hands clenched his shirt, one on his shoulder, the other on his chest. My thumb flicked across the hard surface, finding his right nipple beneath the shirt. Ray stopped his movement, eyes rolling up in his head. I leaned in to catch his lips.
        "Ten minutes and we'll be on our own property," I whispered in his ear, and he caught his breath in a way that made me shiver. "And if you think John Loomis's comments have been impertinent in the past, imagine what you'll be hearing if someone sees us parked here."
        Ray groaned against my shoulder. His hands clenched into fists, and he sat back up with difficulty. He thumped the seat between us with enough force and ferocity that I jumped. But it seemed to work.
        "Not ten, Frase," he said, turning the key. "Eight. And if you don't button up and play fair like a good little Mountie, I'm gonna come in my pants."
        "That wouldn't be the first time," I said, my body angry that we'd stopped. Whatever he might have planned to say was lost as a Ford Explorer drove slowly by.
        "Huh. A rental. Not locals," Ray said. Then he turned and glared again. "You could have had a decent blow-job, but God forbid some strangers see the truck bouncing a little. That's not buddies, Fraser."
        "No, Ray, you're right. Next time, I won't say a word," I said, feeling my skin flush once more.

Chapter 5: Damn Glad to Be Here

        I look over at him in the passenger seat. Jesus. His lips look puffy to me. From only thirty seconds hard work, too. His eyes are shiny, kinda glittery. Fuck.
        Benton Fraser is the most beautiful creature ever put on the planet. How is it he was free when I came along? Stupid question. I should know, I asked him, and he couldn't answer. That's how you know it's a stupid question that didn't need to be asked.
        It's funny, though – he asked me nearly the same question. Sure, he knew about Stella, and how I just didn't feel like dancing after that. But if you ask him what it's like being with me, he'll act like he's won the lottery, or found a year's supply of pemmican. Same difference to the Mountie.
        See, that's the thing that – no. That's one of the things, one of the many, many things that make me love him: he sees me as some sort of gift. There's no use trying to correct him. And for all I know, maybe I am a gift. After all, seeing Benton smile is like hearing Santa in the chimney.
        Damn, but that song got to me! I could never interest Stella in a tango. We were good together, on the floor. She fit so nice in my arms. And if she was feeling in-the-moodish, I could let go a little, so she could feel me getting revved up. But a tango? Nah, not her scene. Too much reliance on that great feeling tension, that way of being kind of chaste (it ain't dirty dancing) and yet make people wonder, gee, are they gonna fuck? Right here? Right now? (Like hell it ain't dirty!)
        You know, I haven't even tried a tango with Benton. He wouldn't mind me throwing a rod, that much is a given. Still gives him a thrill to see it. Coming up on nine months and my dick still hasn't worn out its welcome. Hey, I always knew I was part horn-dog, but Fraser? Wow.
        Lotsa sex. Even the day we knocked out a wall and built a new room. Well, he did ask me to finish spackling first, but I convinced him I needed a five-minute break and some protein.
        And here's a weird thing – since when does a grown man's dick explode without being touched? I'm not talking about friction in my jeans or Benton giving my prostate a happy. I'm saying I was kneeling between Benton and a half-spackled wall, and the sight, sound, smell and taste of him sent me over an edge I didn't know I was near. I don't know, maybe I was asleep the day they talked about this in health class.
        It's why sitting next to him in this dark truck, speeding over roads we'll take with sleds in a few months, I am in danger of losing it. And I really don't want to, not to my pants. I wanna be in his throat, or his hands. I wanna scream and shout.
        I want him to hold me tight and rub my arms and legs. I want him to wake me up tomorrow morning and fuck me, me on my back, legs up, watching his face get sweaty and even more beautiful. Sometimes I wear my glasses to bed, just to see him better. Benton never laughs at that.
        I'd like to listen to him talk while I drive, but that could lead to splatter, so I need a save topic. Not the concert – not with that tango. Even done by kids, it was a mighty impressive piece. Can't talk about work – Mounties are now a turn on for poor, sick Ray Kowalski. Wait – got it!
        "Have a good visit with Vecchio?" I ask. Fraser gasps, and I look over and grin. He gets it. He's been trying to think of a safe topic himself.
        "Yes, thank you kindly, Ray." He stops for few seconds. Then: "Ray, have you ever heard of an expression, 'driving stick?'"
        Driving… OK, segue from Vecchio, so the Style Pig must have said it… My laugh's kind of a bark, short and sudden. Good one, Vecchio.
        "No, Frase, but I'm guessing you were accused of it."
        "A very good deduction, Ray, although I'm not certain… I imagine you're right, it must have been an accusation. Is it an insult?" he asks.
        I shrug. "Have to hear it. But if that's how he meant it, it's a lot milder than what he could have dished out."
        We've gone over a selection of terms used for boys into boys. Not surprisingly, the big brain on Benton's got a grasp of the older ones. "Fag" goes back a few centuries, it turns out. Learn a little every day.
        "Context and tone, Frase – did it sound like an insult?"
        He thinks about it. Mmm, shouldn't look over, even the sight of a Mountie pondering is reason enough to roll the truck.
        "If I had to classify it, Ray, I'd say he meant it as a challenge. And then he saw I wasn't following his parlance and asked… well, that's not important —"
        "He asked why me," I say, and take his hand. I can hear how he feels, he needs a hand. He also needs to get laid and to hit the high notes, but we're still not home.
        "He'll be at the wedding, right?" I ask, and risk a look over. He nods. Once. Then again, a couple of times. Translation: Of course, I think, I hope so.
        "He says he will be."
        "Then he'll be there. Done deal. All over but the paperwork."
        Now, for me, if I were marrying just about anyone else in the world, the attendance or absence of one Ray Vecchio would rate right up there with rats' asses. Hell, if Stella called and said she'd be there for my marriage to Tea Leone (second marriage all around, nice and stable) but the Style Pig had to miss, I'd pick daisies in delight. But it was just my luck to be getting hitched to the one person on the planet who calls Il Vecchio his best friend. Ipso facto, presto-change-o, Ray had to be at the wedding or I'd be pissed off.
        "He just needs a little time, Ben," I say, rubbing my thumb on the back of his hand. He smiles, pulls my hand up to his mouth for a kiss. Well, he lives for danger, we all know that.
        "Should I assume he said worse to you?" he asks.
        "He tried," I say, my smile a deadly little grin that has preceded many a kick in the head.
        "Another 'pissing contest,' Ray?" he asks, as if to say, 'how childish.' I laugh.
        "It's hard to insult a guy who's happy with what you call him."
        "And he called you…?"
        "Uh-uh, ask him yourself." I slow down, seeing our road. One hundred yards and we're good. I sigh. "I wish he'd called me a cocksucker."
        "You get a very dreamy expression on your face when you say that word, Ray."
        "And why do you suppose that is, Corporal?"
        OK. We got home in one piece. The stars are bright overhead, there's a Mountie hard-on within reach and I still got plenty of dick lust happening. We have not vacated the truck. You'd think we'd be making with the naked stuff right now, but this is OK. Just sitting. I should save this memory as a treasure, give it to Vecchio someday when Benton's not there to protect him.
        "Come here," I say after a few seconds, undoing my seatbelt and scooting towards him. The Mountie's lips are still warm. His hand cups my cheek, and I'm glad I shaved for the concert. He moves slightly, and I get a waft of him. How did I miss this before? How did I miss that smell when I was groping him seven minutes ago? Hell, that's a cologne you could sell in finer department stores. Polo, Gray Flannel, 3-Day Frase.
        We might stay here all night, not even get to the house that's twenty feet away, but Dief comes running up, barking. He's happy, happier than last night, but then, who isn't? What, did Mike tell the wolf we'd passed? Oh – Maggie, probably.
        "We should let him smell us," Benton says, and we disengage.
        "OK, but he's sleeping in the living room." The wolf's family – we don't make him sleep in the barn with the dogs or anything, but damn it, I want some privacy tonight. He's watched us plenty of times, I think we can do without the audience for once.
        Dief runs around us, several times, jumping, prancing (acting like a dog if you wanna know the truth, not that I'd say that out loud), while we two-legged types make our way to the door. I swing my pack out of the back with one arm – I'm not nearly as muscle-sore as I thought I'd be. Good for me. No, good for Benton. Greatness for me.
        Oh, this is new: all that oak I chopped? Stacked by the side of the house. Loomis will be allowed to live another day.
        Big mush factor here: we hold hands going up to the porch. Do you get that? I don't. We're a wolf's-whisker away from spilling seed in the truck, and now here we are, holding hands, slowly making our way to the front door, looking up at the stars and agreeing with a deaf wolf that it's nice to be home and happy. How is that possible? Don't know. Don't care. Like it. A lot. Does that make me a chick? Nope. Makes me a happy guy.
        Here's the thing – all month – well, since we first started this – I've had this list going in my head, a to-do list that starts, "When I see Benton…" And the list has items on it like "Fuck like rabbits." That was the first item I put on the list. That would have been Day Three, also known as two days longer than I'd been without Fraser. Maybe a day longer than I'd been without Frasersex in quite a while. You can see why I gave up the fight on Day Five.
        So, by Day Fifty-Seven (the Day of the Vecchio), my list had grown, become itemized.
        Item 1: Get fucked by Fraser.
        Item 2: Fuck Fraser.
        Item 3. Take less than 5 minutes to blow Fraser.
        Item 4. Take more than 15 minutes to blow Fraser, just so he can appreciate the strengths of both.
        By the time I woke up this morning, I'd had twenty-three specific acts, and I was really hoping to do them in order. I figured Benton would appreciate the methodical approach. Oh, sure, the truck sex would have moved Item One down a few, but overall, it's still a good list. 5P's and all that.
        And trust me, in the next few days, all will happen. I won't say I understand the stamina of the RCMP in my bed, but who am I to argue with results?
        I hope Maggie didn't eat the canned pears, or use up all the chocolate sauce. I got big plans for those (Item Thirteen).
        But, as we walk from the truck to the front door, I'm not thinking of future pleasures, mind-blowing as they will be. No. This is a pleasure, this hand in mine. We're home, the family is home and safe. That, too, is a pleasure. Dief gets that, I realize, and so does Benton. He's still as horny as I am – once you know what to look for, a heavy wool tunic does not hide a damn thing – but we've just passed a test, and we both feel kind of proud that we got through it.
        "Still in all, I'm glad it's over," I say out loud. Benton smiles. He doesn't ask what I'm talking about. Then he opens the door and reaches for the lantern sitting on the table. Yes, we've wired the house. Yes, it works. We also have only one income right now, and what the hell – it's another way to make Benton happy. The man likes a flame.
        I just hope...
        "It's warm in here," he says, heading for the bathroom.
        "Blue sky all day, Ben. This place traps heat well," I reply (I'm kind of lying right now. Not that it's not true, what I said, but I think I know why it's warm. My powers of deceit are only being used for the forces making the Mountie feel good, that's all I'm gonna say at this time). "We should get some of those solar things for the roof. Save up some electricity for the winter."
        "I'm not sure we'd get enough sunlight to make photovoltaic cells cost-effective, Ray, but we can certainly – what is that?"
        Oh, thank you Maggie, I could kiss you. She filled the tub, and turned on the gas. She turned it off before leaving, of course, she's a Mountie. But a Japanese tub has great insulation. It's gotta be at least ninety, I'm thinking, looking at it by Benton's lantern.
        "Maggie and Sam and I put it in," I say, putting my arms around him from behind and resting my head on his shoulder.
        "I thought you said –" He breaks off, opening the shower door to find some of my best handiwork. The tiling looks great, but it's the two shower heads Benton's catching flies over. Room for two people, although you'd really want to know your shower buddy. Just a suggestion.
        "You said I could design the bathroom," I say.
        "Ray, I don't see a toilet."
        "Still one back of the barn, same as always." His jaw moves. No sound. I'm getting revved again. I'm also trying not to bust a gut.
        "Do you mean to say we –"
        What's the problem, Mountie?" I ask. "You had me whizzing in negative numbers centigrade, but you're too dainty to take a hike?"
        "We laid pipe –"
        "Mm-hmm, gonna do some more of that, PDQ," I say.
        Benton doesn't get that one.
        "Another sexual metaphor," I tell him.
        "Ray, we fit this place for running water and you didn't install a toilet?" he finally asks. Man! He will not get to the point! And what the fuck is this? He's angry? We're gonna fuck for the first time in a non-fucking month, and he's getting pissed? Oh, this is rich!
        I push him up against the shower door and kiss him, serious tongue 'n' tonsil dancing. Then I pull him towards me, and angle him before pushing him back into a cupboard door, my hand protecting his back from the knob.
        "That's the linen closet," I say, biting down his throat. He's responding, but still carrying that self-righteous attitude that is so gonna melt in thirty seconds. Hmm, melt… I wonder if Benton would think Siouxsie and the Banshees are sexy. In my maneuvers, I shut the door to the living room.
        "Frase?" I ask, dragging my tongue back up his neck. He still has on his tunic. He still smells really good. Seriously good. His reply is a hum. "Look at the wall behind me."
        Even to me, I sound kinda drugged. Overdosing on the Mountie. They'll never get the smile off my face.
        His body language changes suddenly.
        "You see the doorknob?" I ask. "There's a matching one from our bedroom. John, sink and mirror. That close enough for you?"
        His response is to pull me in tight, those arms surround me, envelop me. One snaked up to cradle my head, holding me in position while his tongue inventories my fillings. The other hand is planted firmly on my ass, so I'm plastered up close. I guess he wants to make sure I notice that while he may carry a gun, he is definitely happy to see me. Believe me, several continents of my brain are dedicated to noticing the hard-ons of a certain Mountie. Still, nice to have them pointed out. I'm on a select list of people who get a viewing.
        His hand, my ass – Item One had better be damn soon. I tried to speak, but Benton's voice came out. Escaped, by the sound of it.
        "Yeah, Benton?"
        "You – I need you – need this," he growls, squeezing hard. I'm gonna have a hand-shaped bruise on my right cheek tomorrow. Cool.
        Did I say his words escaped? Oh, yeah. RationalMountie was in a fight with Gotta-Fuck-My-Boyfriend-Benton, and guess who was winning? With Fraser, his vocal cords are tied tighter to his dick than you'd think. By this time tomorrow, he'd be speaking in tongues, and what he just said? Poetry. Not that I'm claiming any sort of eloquence.
        "Need you too, Benton," I whisper, as my hand snakes down to cup his groin. "Need this inside me. Now."
        Christ Almighty, he's growling! For a second, I think it's Dief, but no, a Dief growl does not as a rule turn me on. This sound jump-starts us both. I'm ripping Velcro and attempting to not rip the rest of his uniform, while Benton is holding one arm of mine out in some weird way of getting my jacket off. This is getting too awkward. One more savage kiss on those lips – I'm this close to drawing blood – and I back away, take his hand and drag him through the watercloset, as I've taken to calling it, from Sam's lingo. Burst through the other door and we're in our bedroom.
        Benton's good. He manages to snag the lantern so we can see how… pretty the room is. I'd say it's Maggie's touch, but the sad truth of the matter is that I picked out the snowy white quilt cover, and I can't blame anyone else.
        But I didn't put the sprigs of heather and lavender between the pillows.
        We stare a moment longer, then remember: Hey! This is our bedroom! Time to fuck!
        I look over as he squeezes my hand. The smile I'm looking at has never been seen by anyone but me. I suppose that bitch Victoria might have seen it, but – nope. No way. It is physically impossible to have that smile beaming at you and still have a capacity for causing Benton Fraser, RCMP, a moment of pain. Well, maybe you can, if you're a really fucked up person.
        Maybe it's why he'd start to smile it, when we were first hanging out, and then shut it off. Nothing like finding out you're capable of giving up everything you stand for to make you think twice.
        "What are you thinking?" he asks, setting down the lantern and touching my face.
        I don't get it. Shouldn't we be finishing Item 2 by now? We got a schedule here. Well, that's time spent with Fraser, it's all good.
        I kiss those fingers again. "I was thinking," I say, sliding closer and finish removing his tunic, "about how un-weird it feels to be with you."
        I hang up the serge in our closet. Hello, closet. Haven't seen you for a while. Maggie wouldn't allow me in this room when I came out here alone.
        "Unweird?" he asks, smiling.
        "Yeah. Completely hinged. Sane. Expected. Normal."
        I don't ask what that means, I just watch him put his belt and lanyard in the dresser. His trousers are still undone. Guess he didn't button up after I groped him in the truck. Nice. Very nice, to see the Mountie in his jodhpurs and undershirt, kept decent only by his suspenders. The urge to kneel, open and suck while he's still in that gear is powerful, I won't deny it. But I have an agenda. Benton will have to understand.
        "Ray? Why are you still dressed?"
        I grin and strip my shirts, and at the same time I kick off my loafers and toe my socks. But I only unbutton the top of my jeans. That's a party invitation you can't mistake. And then, just as deliberately as everything else I've been doing, I turn around and bend over to pick up my shirts from the floor.
        I hear him sigh, another Dief sound. Well, either Dief or Peter Boyle in "Young Frankenstein." And as I stand up , still facing away, Benton's hands come around my waist. Broad, warm hands. Half on my jeans, half on my skin. He slips a finger inside the waistband, because he's kind of greedy, can't see skin without wanting more of it.
        I lean back against that chest, making my spine the latest body part to feel happy. I'm slowly being turned in Benton's arms, which means that he's now cupping my ass. Oh, yeah, Mountie Man, all yours. I'm like a rock at this point, and my nose is buried in his undershirt. Heaven.
        "Someone's been skipping showers."
        "I was under orders."
        The thing is, Fraser's got this great smell. He could go a week before anyone noticed. I'd notice, of course. My nose and my dick have some sort of hotline set up.
        "Well, I have washed a little," Benton says. I feel his voice as a rumble in his chest. Oh, no doubt about it, I'm saving this shirt. Queer or kinky, don't know, don't care.
        I undo those suspenders, right side first, awkward, sure, then move over to the left. My left hand is playing with his hair. I smile and kiss him again.
        "Oh?" I ask, raising an eyebrow. Right hand creeps down, slips into those boxers. Christ! I can't believe it! I've missed the feel of starched cotton on my knuckles. Good thing I didn't know that was a turn-on before, or I'd've been arrested for obscene ironing.
        He's in fine shape. Just about good to go. He groans.
        Let me state the obvious: Fraser has yet to make a vocalization that is unsexy. We fight, sure, 'cause some of what he says is unhinged, but the sounds! Words, groans, sighs, gasps, purrs, growls – all greatness.
        He takes a quick and sexy breath in and lets it out slowly while I play some pocket pool, Ray's Rules, his cock bumping my wrist like it's gonna cut in line. Oh, yeah, he's happy to see me, way happy.
        "Yes, Ray, personal hygiene dictates that genitals should be kept – "
        "Whose genitals? Mine?" I ask, grinning. He's got me wrapped inside RCMP-issue arms. I let go of his head and bring that hand down to play with his other head. Give him a friendly tug, love the tremors it sets off. You wouldn't know it to see him dressed, but his knees can quiver like nobody's business.
        "Are these my genitals?" I ask, drawing the word out. Gen-i-tals. Don't be fooled, the Mountie's a big-time romantic, but when it comes to his own dick, he's gotta be might hot and bothered to say anything outside of Gray's Anatomy. It's a pretty good gauge, actually. The fact that he isn't begging me to suck his cock (nearly choked the first time he asked, and yes, he really did say cock) lets me know he could last a while. Hmm. Don't want him lasting too much longer, 'cause I'm about to split my jeans.
        "No, Ray, they're still mine," he says. Kind of a slurred voice starting. Conversation is getting lower on Benton's list of priorities.
        "But I can take 'em out and play with them, right, Frase?" With one hand, I push his trousers and boxers down, which stops his sudden snort of laughter. Hello, beautiful ass, nice to feel you again. Work of art. That extra layer of fat he keeps bragging about doesn't get much of a chance to settle there, just enough to keep him smooth, not bony.
        "Got big plans for this later, Benton," I whisper, and slide my tongue in his mouth as a preview. The Mountie turns the tables on me – suddenly I've got a mouthful myself while he gets busy unbuttoning my fly.
        "You can wait. I've been thinking about this for a month," he growls, his hands inside my jeans and pulling at my ass. He kisses me again. Oh, no, wait – kissing is a couple of pairs of lips, maybe some tongue, usually human beings are involved, and a certain degree of mutuality. This is an all-out lupine assault over which I get no vote and all I can say is fuck me, fuck me, fuckme fuckmefuckmefuckme fuckmenow Benton come on fuck me now!
        Apparently I'm speaking out loud. Don't know when that started, but Fraser's grinning as he turns us and throws me on the bed. He didn't need to do that. I'd've walked the eighteen inches or jumped or flown on my own. That's just his way of making this extra special, I think. No complaints out of me.
        "Fuck!" he mutters while I lay there, my dick poking out and wondering what the hold-up is. I register the language he's using – oh, yeah, we're on the same page now! But his boots aren't. They're still on his feet. Forgot about them.
        New item on the list: Item One – Remove Benton's boots.
        We're both scrambling to unlace them. I tackle the left while he works on the right. (This is not the first time we've teamed up like this.) Where the fuck is my knife, that's what I want to know. My hands are shaking, so he's done first, and he sits back on his ass to remove the boot and sock, then trousers and boxers, all while I'm still on lace duty. If I were quicker, he'd be naked, but tiny strings, horny Polack, not a good mix.
        Fraser takes my hands, one in each of his. I look up into his smile. He kisses my palms. Leaning forward, he kisses my forehead, so I'm getting a great view as his legs spread. White thighs, real muscular with just a layer of that sucut – sub- whatever. The fat layer. Anyway – just enough on his thighs to keep it smooth, like his ass. His undershirt is hitched up and showing off a waist and lower belly I'm putting on the list along with a mental note about raspberry jam. And in between the belly and thighs, oh man, there's the prize.
        I don't have a lot of experience looking at hard cocks. It's been a while since junior high. But from where I'm sitting, it may not be mine, but I'm really lucky Benton lets me play with it. Mine's OK – no complaints. It's not gonna make the Guinness Book of World's Records, but for those who've had contact, it's always been a pleaser. And Benton's pleased, too, so wins all around, just the way we like it.
        I spent a lot of time in Chicago looking at Fraser's face and arms. All naked surfaces got checked out. And I snuck a couple of looks south, too, when I could. But not after the buddy breathing, it got too weird then. So all I knew was that we had foreskin in common, that was pretty much it. Kind of a pink tone to that foreskin, too. Cute.
        I know a lot more now. I know that when Benton is embarrassed, his white skin gets pink, and when he's horny, his pink skin gets red. Not serge-red, but ruddy-red, a hard-working-farmer sort of red. And when the head of his cock comes out to play, that red shade goes a little darker – oh, fuck, like I know colors. All I know is, Benton's cock and I both go red when we see each other. And we both drool, a lot, too. Like right now. I lick my lips, wanting to throw the list out the window along with his boots and just swallow that monster. Choke on it, if I'm lucky.
        Want it. Right now. Fuck the boot.
        Benton snorts at my growl, and catches my lips again. It's a diversionary tactic that will work for up to fifteen seconds. He's timed how long it takes me to start acting up.
        While we kiss, he's still working on that boot. Still. Real tired of patience. Because he's able to do a bunch of things at once, I keep on with his lips and let him worry about the damn footwear. And because I'm able to chew gum and scratch at the same time, I've got one hand reaching for that cock.
        "Ray –"
        How did he know? His eyes were closed! I'm three inches from Glory Central, and he knows what I'm doing!
        Benton's biting his lip.
        "That close?" I ask. He shrugs, then nods. I back off, really. I mean, I scoot back and watch him, mostly-naked guy with one boot holding up my list of things to do. He's still got the undershirt on, but that's not messing any plans. Finally he's boot-free, and pulling off the sock along with the clown pants and boxers. Fraser making a mess, no one's gonna ever believe it. Not gonna tell anyone, either.
        He looks at me, we both grin.
        "Don't be silly, Ray," he says, "not while you're still dressed."
        Oh, yeah. Almost forgot about that. He starts to stand, I beat him to it, but he psychs me out. He's only going for his knees, sneaky Mountie, getting up close and personal with my pants. So I, quick as a sly Chicago flatfoot, grab the hem of his shirt and pull it off with his surprised assistance.
        "If we were playing strip poker, I'd've just won," I say, dangling the shirt like it's my prize. And it is, and this moment is a prize, too, the smell of him, and looking down at him, with that smile he's wearing, and sweet Jesus, he is amazing to look at. Artwork. And all mineminemine.
        "I wanna wear this."
        "Right now?" he asks. But he's no longer looking up at me. Benton's got his eye on the fly and both hands on the waistband of my jeans. His fingers reach inside, slide down center, a thumb flicking the remaining buttons, flick, flick, fli—
        "Ray!" His eyes are big.
        "Yeah, I'm commando. It took you this long to notice?" I gotta laugh, hard dick, naked guy and all. Oh, yeah, Fraser the Observant, except when he's gonna get some, in which case he'd be lucky to notice an earthquake, he gets so focused in.
        "Ray, you were attending a concert. Now, I certainly wouldn't expect the equivalent of red serge, but –"
        Quickest way to shut up a picky Mountie? Wrap his hand around your dick. Or nuts. Just give him some jewelry, he'll get all quiet. Get that look of silent joy, too. Every time.
        I stand closer, lean down and kiss his head, kiss his ear, lick his neck and trace one warm line (it's hell living with a Stan Rogers fan) down his neck to his shoulder. He stands up, and I get his taste and his smell and his arms. Either Hell has frozen over or I've got everything I want.
        Love his taste. I drop the shirt. I can get that later, but right now, I got the real deal. Love his moan, too, and mine, from that hot, gentle touch of his.
        Does he know how good he is? Not a fancy guy, serge and lanyard aside. Skip how much he knows and his weird way of thinking. Benton's a plain and simple guy who makes me so happy I'm willing to put up with the lanyard and weird thinking. Still not sold on the last few months, but what do you expect? My brains are in my commando pants.
        I slide down slowly, my nose resting on the top of his left pec, which, if I'm not mistaken, puts his nipple in easy reach of my tongue. Another groan – not sure whose and the script doesn't say – and I'm sucking gentle, then sucking hard, grabbing with my front teeth to dance my tongue across the very tip while my right hand skims to the other nipple. My fingers are doing a syncopated beat to the bass line my tongue's been laying down. That's me, Ray the dancer. Ballroom, bedroom, who cares if there's even music?
        How long has he been calling my name? His face is flushed. Ingredients for that flush: happiness, slack-jawed sense of pleasure, and some mild exasperation. Nothing new here. Sometimes I get that combo with a side of "I hadn't planned on coming so soon, Ray, but thank you kindly," but this time it's just Benton calling my name.
        "What am I supposed to do with you?" he sighs, shaking his head and kneeling down again to carefully pull my pants down so he can chat with my dick. Oh, sweet, sweet mouth. He swirls his tongue over the tip, and I realize it's the same rhythm as my nipple dance. But it's the fingers, not the tongue he's doing. We're both way too obsessed with each other. We're gonna lose a perp some day, because Fraser will stop looking at twigs and tire marks and start measuring my ass with his hands, and me, well, I'll just be thinking about his mouth around my dick.
        The crime rate is gonna soar.
        That's not a complaint.
        Now that we've got my pants off, he's got a good grip on my butt, as if we're in danger of it running away. Uh-uh, not a worry. He looks up, looking me in the eyes, smiling, and his lips are shiny. This is not such a bad thing, but it does mean that my (scrupulously cleaned) genitals are getting cold.
        His right hand comes forward to jack me a little. Just a tease, though, what he's really doing is putting his spit and my pre-come to good use. Some very sticky-slick fingers trail down my nuts on their way to one of my new favorite body parts. I shift, stand a little wider and bend my knees to give him room. Mind you, while I'm doing this, Benton's moved his mouth back on me. Mouth, hell, I'm feeling throat by this time, and oh, sweet Jesus, he's found a way in.
        Always a dance – first one finger, enough to remind me to breathe, enough to make me a little shocked at just where he is. The walls of my asshole contract around him. It's like everything inside me wants to feel if it's true, he's really there. I can't help it, my ass dances as much as the rest of me.
        Then two fingers – now it becomes a challenge, sort of, a friendly game of "Can you go the distance?" Sure, sure can, even though I hiss and gasp, willing my body to relax. Not really pain, not any more, just that muscle-stretchy feeling. The first few times, sure, it hurt. I mean, I was cherry and a little scared. Not scared of Benton, of me.
        I'd been dreaming about Fraser fucking me. I'd changed the sheets a number of times over that image. But how does a guy who considers himself straight admit that? "Hey, Fraser, when Vecchio gets back, it's gonna be you and my ass, 8 o'clock, my place." Not in the script, OK?
        And much as I'd've wanted to make the Mountie come, I didn't envision myself in pain at the same moment. Not into that.
        That first time, at something that passed for a motel up on the Beaufort Sea… I'm tighter than a drum, not thinking it can be any other way. Benton, loving me to pieces, but exasperated. Patient, too, no surprise there, right? And what he did – OK, that's a story for another day. It's not important for right here and now, as he's easing into a three-finger breaching.
        But he made it OK that night. Not painless, no, but worth it. Worth every fucking second of SnippyMountie, ice fields, wolf hair and washing the sheets. Pain to start with, until he found that spot –
        "Oh, god," I groan, because he's hitting that spot right now, and my knees are officially a Smuckers product. I'm off the memory stroll, we're back to the present and damn glad to be here.
        You know about the prostate? All I think of is old guys and cancer. Wish they'd mentioned this in sex ed in high school. World of difference in what I'd have been doing all those years. Wow.
        Benton's tongue keeps me guessing, A quick deep throat and then all the way out to lick up the sides and back. I'm whining, I'm almost gonna come, and then he backs off again.
        Oh god, this is good, hot mouth, a hand on my ass, and another working on a make Ray Scream project (and the results are outstanding), those growly sort of sounds Benton makes only when he's eating meat or, well, eating me, and a waft of 3-day Frase that's just the butter on my muffin.
         "B-b-b— Fraser! Oh, god, you gotta fuck me!" I'm practically sobbing by now, with that feeling of I'm-down-to-my-emergency-supply-of-holding-on-and-you're-dancing-on-its-grave. My legs are about to give out, and frankly, they want a merit badge for lasting this long. He pulls away from my cock and removes his fingers from my premises.
        "No!" Hey, I never claimed to be logical, only selfish and pretty. Benton laughs.
        "Ray, bed," he commands, like that's supposed to mean something to a guy who's on the far edge of the brink of not coming. But it does mean something, and that husk in his laugh does things to me. I think he's channeling Dief. Or else my ass is in for some big-time slamming. I'm praying it's not the wolf.
        Fraser stands up, kissing his way to my lips. His mouth tastes like me. Damn. I'm leaking plenty, and as long as I'm a guy and not a car, this is a good thing.
        "Come on," he whispers, and pushes me towards the bed. I crawl up and over to my side, because under my nightstand –
        "Frase? Maggie moved the towels," I say, looking at the base of the nightstand, where there's a copy of Ring World. The new one came in, I guess. Sweet, Maggie. But not helpful.
        "Let's worry about that later, Ray," Benton says, and shuts his nightstand drawer. How much harder can my dick get? I'm Pavlov's dog right now. The sound of that drawer opening and closing means he's – oh yeah, he's all over my back now, kissing my spine, and licking. A lot of licking. But the sound of the drawer – and the sound of his hands rubbing together – oh, what those do for me. He's warming the Vaseline, and I tune in to that sound like I'm a fucking stereo and he's Radio Free Fucking.
        It's all we've used for lube, that and what nature provides. Never used condoms, since we didn't stop at the drug store before jumping onto the wing of Muldoon's plane. We discussed all the risk factors and chucked 'em out into the snow our second night on the adventure.
        But no towel, no good. Gotta draw the line somewhere.
        "I wanna feel you against my back, Fraser," I tell him, no fear any more of not looking manly. The next time he fucks me, I'll face him, but this time, I want him over my back, keeping me warm like I've been dreaming of for too fucking long.
        That rumbled "yes" I hear is Benton's agreement. Greatness. Still, I crawl out from under him, and he backs off.
        "Since when did you decide to be Mr. Tidy?" he asks, almost a snarl, as I scurry my naked ass into the bathroom and back with a stack of towels. That's me, the optimist. I drop all but one on the floor.
        "Since I decided we weren't gonna be leaving this bed until tomorrow night," I tell him. His mouth twitches. I think he was about to say "Understood," but he didn't get very far, what with my tongue in his mouth and everything. A few more of those – god, a lifetime of those kisses, those lips, need those lips for the rest of my life.
        I'm like steel or something, one of those metals you get super hot and then plunge into cold water, and you keep doing that over and over to make it real strong. We keep almost fucking and then stop, almost fucking and then stop. I think the cold-water treatment is over. Benton does too, I can tell by the way he's tugging on my right hip while he's kissing me, trying to turn me over with one slippery hand.
        I'm on all fours. I'm waiting for that big paw of a hand to return to my butt. Oh, holy, holy, holy, he's smearing me, working his way back inside. Yes, this is good, his fingers always know where home is. It's not a dance any more; it's a reminder that the curtain's going up.
        "Yes!" I gasp, oh finally.
        The fingers leave, he kisses my left cheek, bites it – as if I am ever gonna offer this to another, Ben! I tilt my ass up, spread my legs further. Go down to my elbows. I'd tattoo a Welcome mat on my ass if I thought he needed a louder message. But he doesn't. No sir.
        Hand squeezing my left hip, warm, big. Knuckles of his right hand press against me as he holds his dick, lining it up, bringing the head forward slowly. Pressure, there, right fucking there, and on my hip too: he's warning me not to try anything cute, like push back. He knows I want to rush this, fuck love and fuck waiting another fucking second, just … fuck … me. I'm quivering. He squeezes my hip again, none of that, Ray.
        It's amazing, the feel of him nudging in, the way we both let out our breath. No matter what may have happened, on any day, the minute Benton and I are fucking, we feel complete. Nothing can be that wrong, if the two of us are here, joined together.
        There is no pain any more, only impatience. Fuck virtue. No, don't fuck virtue, fuck me instead. I push back, but he growls. I have to wait for him to fill me up, to feel more than just width. Which he has, nothing scrawny about this Mountie. His cock has got some girth to it, and that's the only physical description I'm giving out because it's the only one I'm interested in.
        I groan, because he's there now, he's finally all the way in and his hips are resting on my ass. He's right at the old prostate, but he's not moving. That's fine. We're both just kinda amazed that we're here. Here, in our bed, together.
        He lays down his weight across my back. I feel his heartbeat, and I hear the breathing he's trying to control. I pull my head back, and rest my weight on my left hand while the other reaches up and across to clasp his on my shoulder. His head rubs against mine. Our hips twitch, and we both laugh a little.
        "I love you," Benton says, and his voice is nice and unsteady. I kiss his hand on my left shoulder, lick it.
        "My ring's going right here," I say. That's all he needs to hear to know that just as he has me, there, pinned beneath him, I have him, now and for the rest of our long lives (hear that, God?).
        And then, the Mountie begins to move. "Oh, fuck," I whisper, clutching the sheets and hanging on. Neither of us is going to last, not this round, not after all this. What am I saying? This is Benton Fraser we're talking about, the man who carried me up a fucking mountain and gave me air when I was drowning. He's gonna go the distance, and he won't leave me behind.
        Small strokes at first, just his hips pushing as he stays on my back. Little pushes, little growls, little gasps on my part that turn into grunts. I push back. I love him, love him on my back, but fuck it. The best part of the blanket treatment is later, not now. Right now I want Fraser to really put some effort into this, so I push back more. He chuckles.
        He bites my ear.
        "That's a reflection on my parents, Ray."
        "Oh, they're the ones who told you to lay down on the job?"
        "I thought you liked me here, Ray."
        The worst part of this is how he's able to keep the hips moving just a little, just a few goddamn inches, which is sending me into a frenzy but keeping me on a leash. It's not enough; I can't go crazy until he does. But I've got a few tricks up my sleeve, too. On the next in-stroke, I clamp down. Hard. Believe me, he notices. Tries to bluff me by going all snuggly, kissing my shoulder, licking my neck and humming.
        "I could lay here all night," he whispers. My ear has never felt this happy. Okay, deep breath, swallow. Focus. Gotta bring out the Mountie's inner-wolf. Play that final card.
        "Benton?" I say. Husk voice is cranked up to eleven.
        "Yes, Ray?" he says back, that tongue doing things to my ear that just might be illegal in some provinces. I swallow again, inhale through my mouth and lick my lips.
        It only takes an extra minute to be courteous.
        Benton starts moving for real. I can feel the sweat on my back now, because there's air on it. He also reaches around and grabs my dick, which is leaking so much I might as well be coming. I feel him where his body touches mine, the back of my thighs, my ass, and his left hand on my hip for balance. Inside me, again, again, again, and on me, his hand around my cock like I'm around his.
        How many strokes? Five? Ten? I'm too busy screaming to count. Sixteen, maybe. My ass is getting stretched and filled and pounded, Fraser's roaring, or something, I'm a little too locked in on myself to really hear him, and I seem to be going blind, too.
        Oh, god—I'm there he's there it's too much want more it's good the world is going white it's greatness I can't see it's greatness oh god—
        It's greatness. And silent.
        One of us whines, or my hearing's off. It could just be electricity. My whole being is humming.
        I collapse forward, a small corner of my mind noting the correct placement of the towel, which means I've now got Ray jism on my belly.
        "Not the first time," I mutter, and push up to roll with Benton to our sides. His right hand automatically comes forward to cup my dick, some sort of possessiveness thing that's gonna thrill me when I wake up.
        He's still breathing hard. No. He's breathing funny.
        "Benton?" I say. My throat is sore. I'm groggy. Dream come true.
        "It's all right, Ray, lay down – "
        "Frase? You crying?" Not groggy now, no, now I'm scared.
        "It's nothing, Ray."
        "Like hell!" Much as I want to keep him inside me, I shift a bit, and he does too, automatically, and sadly, his cock is free again. I turn over, move up a bit so I can hold him. Yep, tears.
        "What's wrong?" I ask, kissing his head. Damn, even when I've just had the come of the century and want to nap, sweaty-headed crying Mounties are a turn-on.
        "Nothing's wrong, Ray, I – " He looks up at me, wet face, glistening eyes and kisses me. "I think I'm really happy, Ray."
        It's true, he's happy, I can see it. This makes me real happy, too, so I kiss those afterglowing lips and pull back to see his whole face. I take a closer look.
        "Yeah," I say, nodding. "I could see that. Yeah. You got a cool wolf, a great job, a nice looking home and a fiancé who's the hottest fuck north of the equator –"
        "Only telling the truth, Fraser, don't you agree?" I ask. For an answer, he smiles back, eyes already closing, and burrows into my chest. You know you've worked hard when you've worn out a Mountie.
        "I love you," I whisper, and close my eyes. Sleep will be along to pick me up any second now.
        This isn't the end. We got a whole lotta things to do before the wedding. Chicago things, first. But that's not for another week. For right now, I'm back home, with Fraser, the human quilt who's currently draped over me and out for the night. Item two – fucking Fraser – will have to wait for morning. So this isn't an ending, it's just a good place to stop.