Turn down your lights (where applicable)

This is part I of a novella entitled Near Wild Heaven. It's over a megabyte in size so it's been separated, with reluctance, into three parts. Part I is Losing My Religion; part II, Sweetness Follows; and part III, Near Wild Heaven. This begins directly after Three Christmases and, naturally, the episode Good for the Soul.

I owe a debt to Mary Renault and her book, The Charioteer, which I felt explained a great deal to me, but I have always wondered exactly how her characters resolved the future and dealt with some practical realities. So this is an attempt to explore some of those thoughts in a Due South universe.

This story does - must - take place in an alternate universe. CotW does not take place, at least not as it did on the show, and Fraser has more sense than to live at the Consulate for very long and this time he has found an apartment with a bathroom inside it. All characters belong to Alliance/Paul Haggis/Paul Gross. If they belonged to me I'd set 'em free to compete in the marketplace.

Soundtrack: R.E.M., the CDs Out of Time and Automatic for the People and the song World Leader Pretend from Green; The Cure, A Night Like This from Head on the Door, The Lovecats from Japanese Whispers, and Boys Don't Cry from Boys Don't Cry; Depeche Mode, The Sun and the Rainfall from A Broken Frame, Get the Balance Right from People are People, and World in My Eyes from Violator; Style Council, A Solid Bond in Your Heart, You're the Best Thing, and My Ever-Changing Moods from Singular Adventures; Bruce Springsteen, No Surrender from Born in the U.S.A.; Alanis Morrissette, Head Over Feet from Jagged Little Pill; Bruce Cockburn, Pacing the Cage from The Charity of Night; The Bangles, Be With You from Everything; Thomas Dolby, Flying North from Golden Age of Wireless; ABC, The Look of Love and All of My Heart from Lexicon of Love. It's a long soundtrack. It's a long damn story.

Eternal thanks to Kellie Matthews for her patience, HTML help, and last-minute gritted-teeth run-throughs.
Max, Melis, Surf ... you asked for it. Be careful what you wish for.

To Cheryl Barnes for her infinite patience, insight, and beta.

Not much action, sorry. I'm a dialogue person. Sex. Yeah. F/K (duh), M/M (double duh) and NC-17 (now we're talking...)

Losing My Religion
(Near Wild Heaven, part I)

© July 1999 AuKestrel

        I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream, just a dream
        "Losing My Religion," Out of Time, R.E.M.

        Welsh and I help Fraser clean up a little, not much. He's too polite to let us wash dishes or anything like that. He makes coffee, then, real coffee, and of course tea for himself, and we sit an' talk a while longer. Welsh and me trade stories about Christmas presents, good and bad, and Fraser listens. He seems really interested. Doesn't seem resentful that he never got stuff. And I am twice as glad that we went back and faced down Warfield. At least he has friends, if not memories.
        Welsh finally leaves, muttering something about one more stop, and he and Fraser exchange an odd look, knowing on Fraser's part, guiltily resigned on Welsh's, and Fraser says, out of the blue, "An excellent idea, in my opinion, sir."
        "What've I told you about conduct unbecoming in a junior officer, Constable?" Welsh says, trying to sound gruff again and not quite succeeding.
        "Yes, sir." But although he's doing the meek thing, his eyes are anything but.
        "Merry Christmas, Constable, Detective." He hesitates a moment, and then, showing weakness, says, "Thank you, Constable. You went to a lot of trouble."
        "No trouble, none at all," Fraser says instantly.
        They shake hands, then Welsh, overcome by emotion or something, shakes my hand too. And leaves, fast.
        "C'mon, Frase," I say, heading for the kitchen. "I know your decorum won't let the lieutenant wash dishes but you got no excuse for me, I got no standards to maintain."
        "Really, Ray, it's not a problem. There aren't many and the Consulate has a dishwasher," he says, following me down the hall.
        It's a token protest, I know, so I don't bother pointing out that the job will go faster with two. And I do want to help. Want to put off thinking about what I'm gonna have to think about, when I'm alone. Because the realisation has shaken me, and the implications are just starting to sink in, and I don't want 'em to. Not tonight.
        And right now, being in the same room with him, exchanging a word or two here and there as we work, being able to watch him when his back is turned, is just perfect. And I wonder what it would be like to kiss him . . . and shake myself outta that daydream, real fast, before he picks up on it with one of those scary psychic moments he gets from time to time and runs off north to Canada without stopping to get away from Freak Cop.
        And move my mind away from that thought too. Not gonna think about that, either. It's Christmas and I'm gonna enjoy myself.
        But we're finished, probably no faster than he would have finished alone, and now I got no excuse to stay. And I try not to read anything into the fact that he's offering me more coffee. He's much too polite, even to me, who's always yelling at him about it, for me to take that offer as an indication that he wants me to stay. He looks tired. His lip isn't a whole lot better, and he's got to ache.
        "You oughtta turn in, Frase. Had a rough couple of days. Need a ride?"
        "No, thank you, Ray. Dief and I are staying here temporarily. Inspector Thatcher felt that the Consulate shouldn't be left completely unattended."
        "You sleeping in your office again?" I shake my head.
        He grins at that. "It's temporary, Ray."
        "Yeah, that's what you said last time and it took me months to convince you that it wasn't."
        "I have an apartment this time, Ray, so you may rest assured that it is indeed temporary." And he smiles at me again, and I try not to think the warmth in his eyes, almost tenderness, means anything more than friends and partners, because I know it doesn't.
        "Well, okay, see ya. Thanks again," and I open the front door.
        "Thank you for coming," he says, all serious again, as if he's trying to tell me something he can't put into words. And I kinda know what he means. It's a happy Christmas memory for him, now. I let myself smile at him, let the warmth show for a moment or two. His face lightens and he smiles back.
        "Whatever. Later, Frase."
        "Good night, Ray."
        I head to the GTO. But I stop before I get there. I don't feel like going home. I don't know what I feel like. Wind's cold on my face and I turn against it, letting it hit my back. I feel like a walk. Need one. Get my head together. Still don't wanna think about the implications of my more than friendly feelings for Fraser. Not tonight. Tonight I just wanna hug that realisation to myself, and maybe let myself wonder sappy stuff like how long I've really felt this way and how great he looks in that leather jacket. Well, he looks great in anything, one advantage of being handsome enough to stop traffic on the parkway or at least a herd or two of stampeding caribou.
        I stick my hands in my pockets - my bracelet always gets cold fast and I got no gloves with me - and head off down the sidewalk. The streets are, strangely enough, deserted, and I grin to myself, no one to share my sarcasm with. It stopped snowing during dinner and there are a couple of fresh inches, just the right depth to scuff through.
        And I wonder how long I've really felt this way. Shit, I should've guessed when he and Quinn were being held hostage. That motorcycle thing was a totally insane, desperate act, and the fact that it worked doesn't excuse that. Yeah, I got that lecture. More than once. From him and Welsh. But, hell, it worked. And if they tried to make me promise I wouldn't do it again, I couldn't.
        And Volpe. I knew then, must have. I knew Fraser wouldn't let me down. And he was the only person I could think of turning to. Partner and friend. And let's not even talk about the buddy breathing on the Henry Allen, or how I'll jump off buildings for the guy into the lake he calls Michigan when I can't even swim.
        But, shit, I'm not queer. Can't be. Just because I screwed up with Luanne and, of course, Stella in a major way, doesn't mean I didn't actually want them. 'Cause I did. No question. So howcome I want a guy? Is it any guy? It's not, though. It's Fraser. It's those eyes. It's that soul in those eyes. It's the way he makes me feel about me. And the way I feel about him. And I have to admit, however reluctantly, that I'm wondering how that skin would taste. If it's as soft as it looks. What he'd look like getting that neck kissed. And I reach down without really thinking and grab a handful of snow and dump it down my back.
        "Shit," I say, and shake myself. "Shit!" I yell to the sky. I don't know which are worse, the implication thoughts or the romantic thoughts. Well, be honest, Kowalski, the sex thoughts. Yeah, I know what guys do. I worked Vice a while. Never tried it, though. Never thought that was an option for me. I mean, I had Stella. And, hell, I know it's not an option for Fraser. The guy has no sex at all. A tall. That Victoria chick a couple years ago. That's it. I don't think he slept with the bounty hunter, although I'm pretty sure he was falling for her. And he was never in any danger of falling for Shoes. I know she made a real play for him but he's the kinda guy I would think would want love, not just sex, so I'm guessing he didn't sleep with her either. Especially when he seemed to have been onto her little game all along. And she was pretty hot to look at. So what chance would a guy, especially one like me, have with Mr. Straight-and-Narrow Mountie?
        I've come about two blocks with these thoughts when I hear a 'Woof!' and look down to see Dief bounding towards me. And look over my shoulder to see Fraser coming up fast, about a half a block away. I stop and wait. My stomach hasn't felt like this since I was thirteen.
        He's got a shy smile. "I'm sorry, Ray. Diefenbaker needed a walk."
        "Don't be sorry. I'd've asked you along if I knew I was coming on a walk." Yeah, a walk in the snow. With Fraser. Tonight it just doesn't get any better.
        "Is the snow optional?" he asks, with that quirk of his lips. His perfect lips, that I already know are soft, and warm, even in lake water, and, like I said, perfect.
        "Snow?" I think for a minute he's read my mind, and then I feel the remains of my attempt to regain self control trickling down my back. "Oh. Yeah. Optional."
        And my reactions are quick enough to sidestep the snowball that follows a split second later.
        "Oh, Fraser, this means war."
        He laughs out loud. You never hear him do that. "No, no, Ray. I promise to stop. It was simply too tempting."
        Dief, pretty far ahead, stops and barks.
        "Bossy wolf," I say.
        "Yes, he does have a tendency to be," Fraser agrees, falling into step beside me. We walk in silence a while. We been friends long enough to do that. We're comfortable together. More comfortable, I gotta admit, than me and Stella. But that's Fraser. He just takes things as they come. Yeah, gets stubborn, gets bent outta shape over Bad Things and Injustice, but the stuff that drove Stella up the wall he doesn't even seem to notice. Mismatched socks. Holey jeans.
        I realise with a start that Fraser's humming. Then he opens his mouth and starts singing wordlessly. Then, finally, like he doesn't know he's doing it, he starts singing. In French. The song is O Holy Night but it sounds way different, way cooller, in French. The moon's hanging low in the sky, the park is covered in fresh snow, Dief is leaping up and down through the drifts, and Fraser's beautiful voice is cutting through the silent star filled night without a trace of embarrassment. Feels like we're the only two people in the world.
        "Minuit, Chrétiens, c'est l'heure solennelle . . ."
        And I lose myself in his voice and the night. The best Christmas ever, Frase, Fraser, Benton buddy. Ben. He stops walking to hit the notes on the 'night divine' part, except in French it's "Noël, Noël," and he does, his eyes closed. No question that he would. He looks so beautiful it takes every ounce of my willpower not to move over to him and cover those lips with my own.
        He catches my eye as the last note lingers in the air, and smiles, a little embarrassed.
        "Thanks, Fraser," I say, softly, seriously.
        Right thing to say. He smiles happily, no trace of embarrassment now.
        "Thank you, Ray. For putting up with me."
        "Hey, know how it is. Sometimes I gotta dance."
        We start walking again.
        "Got another one, Frase?"
        "Not yet," he says.
        After a while, he says, like he's just figuring something out, "We're friends, Ray."
        "Yeah, Frase, I know. Friends and partners."
        "No. I meant real friends."
        "So'd I."
        He takes a breath, patiently. "I meant, someone with whom I can be myself. Sometimes."
        I wanna hug him. Wanna kiss him, hold his hand . . . and all of that will follow from the hug, so better not to risk it, not to risk the friendship, the best one I've ever had. Sounds like one of the best ones he's ever had too. Hope so. Hope I can do that much for him.
        "Takes a freak to put up with one," I say. He glances at me sideways and grins. You got any idea how gorgeous you are, Fraser? If you did, I don't think you'd be so unselfconscious. And I definitely don't think you'd grin at people like that, me included, if you knew what kinda effect it had on 'em. If you knew how much danger you were in, right this second, of being pushed into that snowbank and having your best friend's tongue in your mouth.
        And realise that I've been looking at him way too long. His grin has turned quizzical.
        "Another one, Frase? You know Joy to the World?"
        And that goddamn Mountie, the one who's lived in igloo land all his life without television or, probably, a stereo, opens his mouth and sings, "Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine . . ."
        I'm laughing so hard I can hardly hear him, but I manage to join in on the chorus. It's a two person song anyhow. You gotta have someone to sing the percussion. Not that I sing, but I can do ba da bom as well as anyone. And I can't not join in on the making sweet love verse, as long as I don't look at Fraser, who's singing as unselfconsciously as always.
        Dief has stopped to stare at us as we finish, and Fraser shakes his head at the wolf. "It's human howling, and I know you know that."
        If Dief was human, he'd shrug, but as it is he just flicks his tail kinda and bounds off again. Arctic wolf, arctic Chicago. And suddenly I shiver, involuntarily.
        Fraser notices. Not that it was a subtle shiver. "Cold, Ray?"
        "Well, Frase, it's winter. So, yeah, cold is usually what people do in winter, outside. And don't tell me this is skinny-dipping weather in Canada because for one I won't believe you and for two we're in America." Skinny-dipping. Fraser. The mind is not behaving itself tonight.
        "In the course of my preparations for dinner, I came across the ingredients for hot chocolate at the Consulate," Fraser says, back to Mountie mode, but his eyes are still warm and there's still a smile on his face.
        "No coffee?" I know he doesn't drink coffee. Just making conversation.
        "Not at this time of night, no."
        I could stay up all night. For you. And kick myself, mentally. If I'm not careful the mouth is gonna open up and let loose with one of these double entendres and the warmth in those eyes is gonna be replaced by shock, fear, coldness, and rejection. Hard for me to imagine, 'cause the only time I've ever seen shock directed at me is when I socked him by the lake and even then he didn't go further than that with the coldness and rejection . . . but even scarier to contemplate it actually happening.
        "Fraser, you're tired."
        He shakes his head, his hand going almost involuntarily to the cut on the side of his mouth. "I had planned to have some in any case, Ray, so your solicitude is misplaced."
        No, it's not, but we won't go there.
        "'Kay, works for me."
        He makes hot chocolate like none I've ever had before either. Surprise. Uses half and half, real chocolate, cream scalded just right.
        "This is, uh, incredible. Way too rich. The arteries are hardening just looking at it, Frase."
        He lifts an eyebrow across the table at me, stirring his own mug almost absently. "It's not a recipe for every day, that's true, Ray. But in a normally active lifestyle in the Territories one needs both fat and calories."
        "Oh, so the half and half is a compromise? Gonna tell the Mounties on you, Frase."
        He grins at that, finally, and abruptly gets to his feet.
        "I think I would be more comfortable on the sofa," he says.
        Oh, shit.
        "Yeah, sure, Frase." And I follow him to the Consulate's idea of a living room. He and Turnbull call it the parlor. He's moving a little stiffly and I'm shaken by unexpected anger at Warfield's goons, and at myself, for not staying with him, not watching his back. He settles at one end of the couch, me at the other, far enough away so I can't even smell him. "Feeling better or worse?"
        "No, I'm fine."
        I want you, Fraser.
        "Yeah, Fraser. Bruises and shit are always worse a couple days later."
        "Language, Ray." Resignedly.
        How's this for language, Fraser? I wanna fuck you. I do. Wow.
        "Sorry, Frase."
        He smiles and leans his head back against the couch, closing his eyes, his mug resting on his leg. Oh, this is so good. So not good. I can drink in the sight of him. I start wondering what the hell is wrong with me and push that thought outta my head. Not tonight. Tonight, my Christmas present is my realisation, and I'm not gonna spoil it with second thoughts, not until tomorrow. No, tonight is for being happy, looking at that face, that jaw, that collarbone, wondering if he tastes like he smells. Lake water being what it is, I didn't get much of a taste of him in the Henry Allen. And then I feel one part of my body reacting predictably to my thoughts. Not such a good idea after all, and I concentrate on snow. Lean my head back against the couch too. Try to think of a safe subject.
        Dief wanders into the room and settles by the door with a soft whine and a thud after turning around three times.
        "So tell me about those northern lights," I say. "What causes 'em?"
        And finish off my chocolate, put the mug down, and lean back again, eyes closed, as he talks about atmospheric conditions and refraction and light indices and the changes in the earth's magnetic field. I let his voice wash over me. I think I hear him mention subatomic particles. I'm not sure if I'm listening slower or he's talking slower but pretty soon I'm not aware of anything at all.
        We wake up at almost the same instant. It's already light out, so it's later than he usually sleeps, I know. We grin at each other. He's still in the corner of the couch. I worked my way down with my head on the other arm and my feet resting against him. I wanna wake up with him every morning. I do? I thought this was just a physical thing. Shit, I can't handle many more of these realisations. Hopeless realisations, anyhow. Hopeless thoughts. He looks just as wonderful in the morning, rumpled and a real subtle five o'clock shadow and all . . . I wonder if his beard tastes different from the rest of his skin . . . damn, Kowalski, get the hell off this subject and stay off!
        "Sorry, Frase," I say gruffly. "Now you'll be even stiffer."
        Shut up, Kowalski!
        He stretches, a big long stretch complete with a groan, cracks his neck, and smiles again. "It's actually probably more comfortable than the cot, Ray."
        "Yeah, that's true." I stretch too, then lean my head back and close my eyes again.
        "I'll put some water on," Fraser says. "You wallow."
        "Coffee. Yeah, I can do that."
        "And tea," he says, and I don't have to see his face to know he's quirking that smile at me. He smiles a lot, lately. A lot more than he ever has. I probably do too. It's weird but nice to be friends like this, friends with someone who understands me, and who I sometimes understand, friends who can be so comfortable together that sometimes words are superfluous. If that means what I think it does. And I must be nuts to wanna risk this friendship, this once in a lifetime thing, over sex. Sex that I can get anywhere, theoretically, anyhow. Friendship that I can't. Yeah. It's the day after Christmas. Time to let reality in. Time to take a good hard look at myself, freak, and a good hard look at what I can and can't have.
        I sigh and get to my feet and follow him to the kitchen. He's rummaging for the coffee. Put it away last night; didn't think he'd need it again this morning. The Consulate has a coffee maker but the tin of tea and the tea kettle are always on the stove, every time I've been here, and the coffee maker is usually in a cabinet.
        He's found the filters and the coffee. The Consulate doesn't spring for whole beans. No one drinks it here, why would they? I don't spring for it either, but I like it. I take the coffee and the filter from him. I need strong, this morning, and the coffee that Fraser made last night after dinner won't do it for me.
        Judging by his face as he counts the spoons I put into the filter, this is a new idea for him.
        "Perhaps we should just boil it on the stove?" he says.
        "Oh, funny."
        "I'm not sure that mud is good for the coffee maker."
        "That's what coffee makers are built for, Fraser. Although if you want real coffee you gotta get a French press. But that wouldn't make enough for your diplomatic functions."
        "We have a percolator for that," he says. "Would you like me to fetch it?"
        "Just because I'm a cop doesn't mean I drink coffee by the gallon, wise guy."
        "Quart, yes. Gallon, no. Imperial quarts, of course." And he starts chuckling. Canadian humour. God, I love to watch him smile. Love the way his nose crinkles just a little.
        Snow, Kowalski, snow.
        "You need to get out more, Fraser."
        "I'm sorry, Ray, it's simply that I thought perhaps when you were in a hurry you just ate instant coffee directly from the jar."
        I whip around and stare at him, my eyes wide in mock dismay. "Jeez, Fraser, how'd you know?"
        His eyes widen too and then he gets it.
        "Hidden camera," he says solemnly. "Now, to continue the cholesterol theme from last night, how do bacon, eggs, and biscuits sound?"
        "Sounds okay, Frase."
        We're eating a good breakfast . . . Fraser can do bacon and eggs, over easy the way I like 'em, and the way he likes 'em too . . . when I get stupid and bring up real conversation. It starts out with an idle question of Fraser's about Stella and Christmas. After I answer him, I ask my own.
        "You believe in a Ms. Right, Frase?"
        I'm not prepared for the sudden darkness in his eyes, and I sit back a little.
        "No," he says, looking down quickly at his plate. "No."
        "Specifically or generally?"
        "Oh. Specifically. That is to say, I couldn't say whether you or Detective Huey or Constable Turnbull might have a Ms. Right. Certainly I hope so."
        "But not for you? Howcome?"
        He's quiet for a long time, and it's not a comfortable silence. "I . . . I'm simply fairly convinced that there's not. Not any more. I believe it's easier to think you're in love than to admit you're alone."
        "So you gotta go without love?"
        "Duty and honour are more important, Ray. For me. I have learned that."
        I can only stare at him for a minute. "You're not serious, right? You mean you stopped looking?"
        He ducks his head at that. "I've never really looked, Ray. When it happened, it just happened." Uh, yeah. I am all over that.
 "Well, what's to stop it happening again?"
        "Because I'm prepared now."
        "You're lying to yourself, Fraser. No one's ever prepared for something like that."
        He tries to lighten the mood. "I've always suspected that you were a closet romantic, Ray."
        And I try hard not to grin at the way I take that particular statement. Looks like I'm a closet lotta things, Fraser. Somehow. And somehow, looking at Fraser, I don't mind as much as I thought I might, today. My new freakiness probably hasn't sunk in completely, yet, that's all.
        And instead of going home, like I should, to think some sense into myself, I go with him and Dief for a morning walk. He talks me into skating. I haven't skated since I was a kid. We find a place that's open and rent skates while he tells me I have to buy a pair. He wants someone to play hockey with, he says. Like an American can hope to match a Canadian. But I haven't forgotten how to skate and we end up having a great time, open air, watery hot chocolate, hard ice, and all.
        We get Chinese on the way back to the Consulate, and later on we play some poker. For air, again. Not exactly what I want to play for, but I'm getting better at quelling these thoughts before they take over my brain and the rest of me. Finally, later in the afternoon, I decide I seriously need a shower, and so does he. But he makes me promise to come back for leftovers. And what's the harm? Leftovers and more poker, yeah. And that bigos'll taste even better today than yesterday.
        Get home and the answering machine's blinking. Mom and Dad, probably. Better call before I go back to the Consulate. I get a shower first though, some clean clothes, jeans, before I get messages. First one, surprising the hell outta me, is from Stella. Almost friendly. Almost wistful. Not quite though. Sounds like she's a little sorry. "Hi, Ray. I'm just checking in on you. Call me so we can wish each other Merry Christmas in person, or at least on the phone." Checking in? Must be between boyfriends too.
        Feel kinda bad for a few seconds. Her parents must be in Gstaad again with Bill and she's alone in Chicago. I would've been too, if it wasn't for Fraser.
        Next two messages are from Mom and Dad and I get to hear the niece and nephew and my brother even. One of the kids is shrieking, "Pierniki!" in the background, emphatically demanding. So Mom took some. Good. I should've known. Mom always comes through in the food department.
        Next message, from late last night, is from Stella again. "Hi, Ray. Merry Christmas." Abrupt. Ticked at me for not being home. Christmas wish definitely not heartfelt.
        And another, from this morning. "Ray, I thought I merited one phone call," she snaps into the machine before hanging up.
        How can she still do this to me? Why do I let her? I'm over her. Gotta be. And then there's Fraser . . . who hasn't receded far enough into my subconscious to make me feel comfortable about picking up the phone to call Stella.
        She's home. No kidding.
        "Hi," I say. Brilliant.
        "Hi, Ray." She doesn't sound as ticked. I start in before she can work herself up.
        "Sorry, Stella. I haven't been home. I called as soon as I got your messages." Abject apology always worked with her. And it does now. She doesn't quite snap her next question.
        "Where have you been? I thought you must have taken the holiday shift."
        "Uh, no. Fraser made Christmas dinner. Canadian goose. Invited me and Welsh."
        "It's Canada goose, Ray."
        "Actually, it wasn't, Stel," and I can't hold back a chuckle. Purely domestic and legal.
        She's quiet for a few seconds, and then, in a softer voice, says, "That's . . . that's good, Ray. Very kind of Constable Fraser."
        Yeah, that's what he does, Stella.
        "You don't know half of it. He got us going on our childhood Christmases, Stel, and when we got there he had a bunch of German and Polish food."
        "And Canadian goose," she says, and I can hear the smile. "Bigos?"
        "And pierniki."
        "That was nice of him."
        Nice? He's freaking perfect. For a freak. "Yeah."
        Awkward silence. We break it at the same time.
        "Stella - "
        "Ray - "
        "You first."
        "Oh. Well, then, just Merry Christmas, Ray. Is Constable Fraser feeling better?"
        "Yeah. Well, you know how that stuff is. Hurts worse today than it did two days ago, but Warfield's going down so he don't care." That slips out accidentally on purpose. Stella hates my casual approach to grammar more than anything else. To my surprise she doesn't correct me. Guess she doesn't have to worry about it now everyone knows she's not responsible for me any more.
        "That's good. You guys did well. A little unorthodox but that never surprises me, coming from you."
        "In this case, Stella, the end definitely justified the means."
        Another awkward silence, before I remember to say, "Merry Christmas to you too."
        "Thanks, Ray."
        "Stella - "
        "Um, you merited a phone call. I mean, I woulda called you sooner. Just because, you know, wanna feel like we can still talk."
        "Thanks, Ray."
        "And if you believe that, maybe you wanna come to the Consulate for leftovers?"
        What the hell am I, nuts? Stella and Fraser never have gotten along. Fraser's a little protective of me, just like every cop's partner is. And when she isn't being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past Stella wants to pretend that I never existed, or at least that she and I never did. This is a dumb dumb dumb idea, Kowalski, and pray to God or whoever that she's got plans.
        "I believe that, Ray." She doesn't. Hope I can square this with Fraser.
        "Cool. I'm, uh, heading back over there now. You want I should pick you up?"
        "No, no, it's very much out of your way. Thanks, though. I'll - I'll see you at five?"
        "Are you sure it will be all right with the constable?"
        "Lotsa leftovers," I say. Hope it will be.
        Then she smiles, I think, into the phone. "I dibs the bigos."
        "After me, Stel, after me."
        I never can think out how to say things. As soon as he opens the door, I blurt it out. "Stella's coming."
        A little flicker of - hurt? - in those eyes? Nah. Can't be. Exasperation, probably. And I never would've asked her, except that I knew, thought I knew, that he'd understand. That she's lonely and hurting too. But I'm not trying to get back together with her. I ought to tell him that but that'll sound funky, so I don't.
        I hate explanations. I don't have to, Fraser doesn't expect them, but I can't not explain. "She left three messages on my machine. In two days. So I called her, y'know? So she knew I wasn't punishing her for the party."
        He clamps those lips together a little tightly and I know suddenly that he is clamping back uncharitable words, or at least uncharitable thoughts. That sends a tingle of happiness through me.
        "And when she heard about the bigos . . . "
        His face relaxes a little. "Certainly, Ray. And there is more than enough for everyone."
        "Lemme help you set the table."
        "It's already done, Ray."
        I shake my head. "Too much, Frase."
        "Does Stella drink coffee or tea?"
        "Both, probably."
        "And I believe there is some wine left . . ."
        We've hashed out the drinks problem, pretty much, by the time Stella arrives. It's hard to tell Fraser a lot without sounding disloyal to Stella, but on the other hand it's hard to explain that one day she likes red wine, Lambrusco even, with goose, with anything, with chicken, with macaroni salad, as long as it's with me, and the next day it's nothing but a white wine with poultry, and it's gotta be Pouilly-Fusé Chardonnay or whatever the hell it is and I don't even know what kinda glass to put it in.
        But I'm not nervous. I just figure she'll like it or she won't. It tasted fine with the bigos and the goose to me. And maybe we'd have gotten along better if I'd let her worry about what kinda glass while I worried about the beer. And maybe that's another indication that I'm over her. I hope.
        She's actually friendly with Frase, a little nervous, which I only know because I know her. And she of the perfect upbringing brought wine. A red, and I see Fraser look a little happier as he glances towards me.
        He's apologising for the leftovers as he herds us to the table. She's doing her no, not at all, sorry for the inconvenience routine. I don't know which one is funnier to listen to and I don't wanna laugh at them so I go into the kitchen and start bringing food in. Fraser reheats stuff right, in the oven and on the stove, even though the Consulate has a microwave, and it all smells as good as it did yesterday.
        Stella makes a beeline for the bigos. She wasn't just being polite. She did like it. Did miss it. And makes no crack at all about the Canada goose, and I'm grateful to her. Fraser could get a little defensive, with her, about his beloved Canada, and she wouldn't miss that. They've never gotten along all that well. Stella hates anything to do with me and it rubs off on Fraser.
        We make a sizable dent in the leftovers and Stella's on her third glass of wine, relaxed, occasionally funny. I'm not matching her drink for drink. Someone might have to drive her home.
        She and Fraser get started on me in college.
        "Yes, the hair was longer then but still experimental," she's saying.
        And I close my eyes, an unexpected memory, Stella in blue jeans, no makeup, a ponytail, meeting me on the Quad for lunch, smiling, me with both backpacks, and a picnic of Twinkies, apples, and Coke. Studying for finals in the drinking room on campus. Not as bad as it sounds; one of the few A's I got, that quarter. I figure the beer relaxed me a little. And Stella, leaning against me, eyes closed, her finals done, me still studying for my last one. Trying to. Because her hands weren't exactly still, even though we were in sorta public in a deserted drinking room.
        "Yeah, parted in the middle, down to his ears. It actually looked sensational," she's telling Fraser, who looks politely not bored although he does glance at me with a puzzled look. Typical backhanded Stella compliment, I think, and push the memories away. Get up to start clearing the table only to be headed off by a determined Mountie.
        "No, Ray, guests don't work."
        "I'm not working, Frase, I'm trying to get the last of the bigos before Stella does."
        This makes him laugh, and amazingly Stella too, and she gets up to start helping. Fraser really can't handle that and clears the table in record time to get us outta the kitchen. Stella makes a tentative move towards the dishwasher and Fraser sends us both firmly but politely back to the dining room to get coffee cups.
        We sit back down and she smiles at me. Gotta smile back.
        "Thanks for inviting me, Ray. I always liked your mother's cooking."
        "Who doesn't?"
        And before the silence gets too bad Fraser's back with coffee. In a silver coffeepot. For Stella, I know, but he's looking at me. So I wink at him, and he grins back, then, tenseness gone. And brings in the rest of the cookies. Stella's eyes widen at the sight of the pierniki. I didn't realise I left any. Lucky for her.
        "I hated this when we got married," she says, taking two. "Now it's not Christmas without it."
        It's not much of a Christmas with it, for Stella, I know.
        "Where are they this year?" I ask.
        Fraser sits down, a cup of tea in front of him, looking from her to me.
        She shrugs. "Gstaad."
        "You didn't feel like skiing?"
        She shrugs again. "Getting the time off was a hassle. You know how understaffed we are."
        "Tell me about it."
        She stares into her coffee for a minute or two.
        I pull the cards off the sideboard. "So how much you owe me now, Fraser?"
        "Canadian or American air?" Fraser asks, with a grin. And I am jolted by that grin, back into the reality, a little fuzzy with the distance of Stella, of my attraction to him.
        And I can't stop myself from saying, "Canadian, Fraser. Better exchange rate for me."
        Stella looks at us, a little puzzled. "Three handed poker?"
        Stella's not much better at poker than Fraser, but they both get unexpected runs of luck. And hell she coulda turned into a LadyShoes, I haven't played poker with her in years.
        "If the stakes are air, I'm in," she says, pushing her sleeves up.
        It turns into a pretty good game, and at some point Fraser puts on the Consulate stereo, soft music in the background, Christmas stuff. Stella's still putting away the wine and makes inroads on the bottle she brought. I have a little more than I should and figure that as usual it's up to Fraser to shoulder the burden, drive her home. Switch to coffee in an attempt to atone but it's too late, my clarity and judgment are already affected, and I lose three hands in a row to Fraser, Mr. I Can't Bluff to Save My Life. He doesn't have to, with the kinda cards he's drawing now.
        Stella's playing desultorily now, swaying with the music. Fraser excuses himself to go to the can, where I just went a little while ago.
        Like his absence is a relief, she rolls her shoulders and gets to her feet and stretches, and then sways some more, to the music. I can't help it . . . I can . . . but love to dance, dance with Stella, and I go around the table and put my arms around her. She steps into time with me, like we danced yesterday instead of last year, and we're trying a modified waltz, when Fraser comes back. She doesn't seem to notice, and he just looks at us, me especially, gives his head a little shake, his face unfathomable, and goes into the kitchen. Not a happy Mountie. Thinks I'm falling for her again.
        And, shit, can't lie, it does feel good to hold her. But it always did, even when we fought, feel good to dance with her. And think harder about that and realise that I'm starting to separate, or maybe have separated, the Stella I was in love with from Stella the person, the one I can talk to and dance with. When, that is, she's in human mode. Once per person per year, right? Maybe I made a lotta progress this year. Well, hell, of course I have, if you can call falling for your partner progress. Your admittedly gorgeous partner. Your admittedly male partner. And wonder how it would feel, really, to have that broad, solid chest against mine. And think I'm fucking nuts, dancing here with Stella pressed against my chest and thinking about Fraser.
        Music stops and I let her go. She's leaned up against me, eyes closed, and I know she'd let me kiss her, but I really don't want to, surprising myself, and I pretend not to see, pretend to stumble a little so she can blame me for not seeing and not feel embarrassed, and sure enough, she does, with a sharp little exclamation.
        "Sorry, Stel."
        "Two left feet," she murmurs, but not too snarkily, and it's an old joke between us anyhow, so I can grin at her.
        "Time to get you home, Stella."
        "Ahhh." She stretches and groans. "I'd better call a taxi."
        "Nah, I'll take you, Stel."
        She gives me a puzzled look outta the corner of her eye and I realise too late how that can be misinterpreted, especially since I didn't pick up on the kiss hint.
        "Ray, I don't think you're in any condition to drive either." Fraser has come into the room, watching us quietly.
        "Been drinking coffee," I say. Token protest. The Mountie'll never let me drink and drive, and maybe I was counting on that to keep me away from Stella. The spirit and the flesh, all that stuff. "And your driving sober's worse than mine, drunk."
        "I very much doubt that," Fraser says, trying to look prim and succeeding only in looking more beautiful than ten Stellas.
        Stella's getting impatient. "You know, Ray, I take taxis all the time. It's not a hardship."
        She means it. Not a problem for her. She's a modern woman.
        "It's out of the question," Fraser says firmly.
        He means it. Definitely a problem for him. Victorian man.
        And there goes Stella's jaw into stubborn mode. She's gonna lash into the Mountie.
        "Stella, Stel. Let Fraser drive you home in your car and we'll take a taxi back. We'll order one now. Not a problem, 'less you want it to be. And I can take the taxi home after that."
        It makes sense and it lets her save face. After a few seconds she nods, and Fraser looks at me, briefly, with that unfathomable face again.
        "And after you see how he drives, you'll wish you'd settled for the taxi," I add, trying to get her to lighten up and realising too late that Fraser can take that teasing in a hurtful way. With Stella around, we aren't doing the communication thing as well as we usually do, and that worries me a little. A lot, actually. I'd rather cut my tongue out than hurt the Mountie, even by accident, and I slant him a look, trying to apologise. And he catches it, and unexpectedly smiles, just one half of his mouth, and I wanna kiss that dimple and whoa! Stella is standing not two feet from me and could I have any stupider thoughts with Madam Assistant State's Attorney right here, observant even when she's had a few? Not to mention Fraser, who usually misses nothing anyhow and this'll be hard enough as it is, hiding it, not spooking him, without gratuitous leers like that one.
        "That's as may be, Ray," Fraser says. "Perhaps you'll be less apprehensive in the back seat with Dief, so it's just as well courtesy demands your presence there."
        Dief in Stella's car. Oh, God. This is too funny. And Stella is too polite to protest that. I wonder how many hours she'll spend vacuuming her car tomorrow. Sometimes karma is good. And I find hair karma especially suitable after her crack about mine earlier.
        She's pretty quiet on the drive there and Fraser, who's not a bad driver, really, for a Canadian, just a bad driver for a Chicagoan, is pretty quiet too. And I'm not the kind to keep the conversational ball rolling with one sulking partner, let alone two.
        The taxi pulls up while we're saying our good byes to Stella and I'm thankful for the timing. Avoids messy stuff like come up and have a coffee while you wait and more awkward silences. And Stella reaches for my hand and squeezes it and says, "Thanks, Ray," and kisses me on the cheek before walking into her building.
        "Perhaps I'll see you tomorrow, Ray," Fraser says, and starts to walk away.
        Shit. Dief. No taxis. He's gonna walk all the way back to the Consulate? "Uh, Fraser . . . "
        He turns and smiles, that rare smile. "Ray, I like to walk. And Diefenbaker has had very little exercise today. Go home. And thank you for your company." And he turns and begins walking again, that swinging Mountie stride that can, it's true, cover a lot of ground.
        He means it. And my concern for and care for him, not completely related to my feelings for him, war with my certain knowledge that he doesn't lie, that he does like to walk, that Dief needs exercise, that Fraser knows what he wants. And he doesn't want to be rescued. But it's miles to the Consulate and he won't get back for hours. I hate compromises, but I'm not walking back all that way. I lean down and slip the cabbie some money, tell him what I want. Tell him what Fraser's doing. His eyes widen, but he looks at Dief and shakes his head. Another twenty. He shrugs and grins. "Call it a Christmas present," he says.
        And I turn and run to catch up with Fraser. Who is, of course, miffed.
        "Ray, please go home. I am aware that my predilection for long cold walks is shared by no one in this city except Diefenbaker."
        The cabbie pulls up then and says, gruffly, "Get in. I'm off duty anyhow and I'm heading home. I can't take you all the way into downtown but I can drop you at Martin's bar."
        "He's got a wolf," I say.
        "I don't see no wolf."
        Fraser looks from me to him, suspicious, of course, but unable to determine how much of it is a set up.
        As I open the door, Fraser says firmly to Diefenbaker, "Consider it a Christmas present. Do not get accustomed to this. Very few taxi drivers are so willing to bend the rules, even at this time of year."
        And, still suspicious, Fraser insists on paying the fare. It's better, though. We're only about a mile from my place, three from the Consulate.


        ". . . so the car somehow lost its - its molecular integrity."
        I try not to show my surprise. This not-so-subtle but admittedly quieter sarcasm is a slightly different method of interrogating eyewitnesses for Ray.
        "Isn't the truth of the matter that you used the vehicle this morning in the commission of a felonious act and now you've only reported it stolen to absolve yourself of responsibility in connection with said vehicle?"
        "What?" the man says, confused, not nearly as confused as I am.
        This is a different Ray, a calmer, more professional Ray, one I have been seeing glimpses of more and more since Christmas, and it is entirely without thinking that I turn to him and say, "That was a beautiful paragraph."
        "Thank you," he says, seriously. Accepting the compliment. And we are interrupted by the squeal of tires behind us as I look back to see the car, the stolen car, suddenly approaching us from the other end of the alley.
        Later, in Lieutenant Welsh's office, I see the old Ray, briefly, as he reminds the FBI agent that this is his collar, his collar, his face in her face, the tendons in his neck standing out. And I follow him to the lock up fully prepared for him to start threatening to break jaws and kick people in the head, in time to intervene with her partner and send him packing with some of my usual incomprehensible babbling about the Canadian softwood industry while Ray asks the suspects if they are all right. If they would like sodas. And tells Officer Miller to get them sodas and let them use the facilities before bringing them to the interrogation rooms. He gets testy with the officer at his look of surprise, mirrored by my own, but that is entirely Ray.
        And as I pass his interrogation room on the way to mine he is sitting, not quite still, he is never that, but quietly for him, talking seriously to his suspect. I am trying to analyse this and establish a rapport with my suspect when Francesca, who has been acting oddly for a day or two, interrupts.
        She takes me to the hall and tells me that someday I will meet the right person, who for some reason will climb mountains and/or repair snowmobiles. And that I need to face the wall. In an attempt to lighten the moment, I do so, but exasperatedly she turns me back around and indicates that it was a metaphor for reality. And then she tells me she is getting married. The day is getting stranger. I was unaware that she is dating. And I am happy for her. I know that marriage is important to her.
        I mention this later to Ray, in his car, on our way to van Zandt's 'Eskimo' operation.
        "Frannie married?"
        "Why not?" And I know I sound defensive. "She's a bright, attractive, intelligent young woman."
        "You're talkin' every day?" And he slants a look at me, a wicked look.
        "True enough." But my real question, the one I didn't get a chance to ask him, is the right person question, hearkening back to our conversation in the Consulate kitchen the day after Christmas.
        Later, in the restaurant, playing back up to Ray and Francesca, I am unable to hear most of their conversation although I do hear the words Pluto and Fraser mentioned. Not, unfortunately, an altogether uncommon confluence of ideas I seem to inspire in many people. I am able however to deflect the gentleman exhibiting an undue interest in Ray and Francesca and we make our respective escapes.
        Ray brings up Pluto as we juggle photos in the doorway of the lieutenant's office. Do I know how much a pound of nails weighs on Pluto? "The same as a pound of cheese," I say, puzzled. "Six point four ounces."
        "You know what's right under your nose, Fraser?"
        I almost welcome the seemingly inevitable advent of the bouga toad and the subsequent trance for time to work through these odd things happening both inside and outside my head. Francesca's words . . . that I am hiding behind duty and honour . . . resonate in my skull. I am not hiding. I was brought up to think - I always thought - that duty and honour were the be-all and end-all of existence, mine, at least. And then my father, or my subconscious manifestation of my father, tells me that it's not duty and honour at all. It's all in my heart. Love, and obligations. My father is rarely consistent. And in the mumble of voices and through Dief's excited licking, only one voice is clear in my head, Ray's voice asking if someone can get his phone.
        The voice fades somewhat in the ensuing weeks. Since Christmas, Stella Kowalski has been rather nicer to Ray than previously, though if I may state the obvious, that isn't saying much, as Detective Dewey would observe. One fairly civil interchange in the bullpen results in an actual appointment to go dancing, although as he watches her leave, he doesn't look as delighted as I thought he would. In fact, he looks slightly lost, and more than a little confused. He catches me watching him, shrugs, grins.
        "Women. Who knows?"
        Indeed. An apt comment, for that particular woman, at least. She never has seemed, to me, to know what exactly she wants from Ray, or what she wanted. He, on the other hand, and I try hard not to allow my bias to interfere, has always seemed to be rather clear about his wants: eternal love, partnership, children, and dancing. And not, of course, necessarily in that order. Rather a large order to fulfill, of course, but not a complex one; and large because it's Ray and that is how Ray is. He aims for the moon and if he falls, he embodies a Latin motto with a shrug and an assertion that at least he got higher than he would have if he had played it safe and aimed for something a bit more reasonable.
        With a start I realise Ray is still talking. " . . . at least . . .dancin', you know? Been a while."
        He looks around, realises Detective Dewey is not making any pretence at not listening, and jerks his head towards the exit. I fall into step beside him as he continues to talk in his soft, rapid voice.
        "And told her at Christmas that I hoped we could at least be that, that we could at least say hello without snarling."
        "You seem to have effected a rapprochement."
        He rolls his eyes and grins, a quick flash of self deprecation.
        "Today, sure. Tomorrow, who knows? And that goes double for after dancing."
        Yes, well, there's the rub. After dancing, previously, meant one thing for Ray and Stella. And as much as I would like him to be happy, I don't think that is the best way to achieve it. It can only add, later, to the regrets, but I cannot say this to him. Cannot imagine discussing intimate affairs with him, and he has an odd loyalty to Stella still which makes me think that he would not discuss, even in a roundabout fashion, such things with me.
        "There are probably things that can be resolved, now, that couldn't be resolved before because the emotional distance had not yet been achieved."
        "Yes, Ray?"
        "You ever get tired of sounding like a textbook?"
        His smile is warm and his eyes are dancing and I am puzzled momentarily by the warmth of my answering grin. Infectious, that's the word for Ray's smiles.
        "Yes. Frequently," I hear myself answering, honestly, knowing he will understand.
        "Yeah. Well, I don't." Grins again. I knew he would understand. He is silent for a moment, pausing beside his car. I am not sure where we're going. Too early for dinner, too early to actually leave work. Perhaps he has some calls to make.
        "Emotional distance. Like the sound of that, Fraser. Like to think I did that. That I can do that. Not so much that I don't care if I ever see her again, you understand. Just enough so that we can talk, and then I can watch her walk away and know she doesn't belong with me any more, and that I'm okay with that now."
        I am the antithesis of a physically demonstrative man but wish for an insane moment that I were, so that I would have an excuse to give him a hug, because he doesn't sound 'okay' with that, although I can tell he thinks he is, and he wishes he were more so. This was also probably part of the problem with Stella. Ray is physical, very much so; and Stella strikes me as the type who is a bit restrained, not quite comfortable with the amount of touching and physical closeness that Ray is prone to demonstrate on a daily basis with me, and probably on an hourly basis in a relationship. Certainly her upbringing, which sounds similar to my own in some respects, would have reinforced her unfamiliarity with touch, and her discomfort with it probably increased as she grew older and more convinced that her reactions were the only 'right' reactions.
        I give myself a stern shake, metaphorically speaking. I don't even know the woman well. I only know her through my observations of her effect on Ray's soul, heart, mind. Naturally these observations are skewed and probably wildly inaccurate, filtred as they are through my reactions to, and bias in favour of, my friend and partner.
        Ray takes my long ruminative silence for disbelief, and says, insistently, "I am okay with that now, Frase. I am." He is staring at me, unblinking, as if he is trying to tell me something more, but it is clear to me that he doth protest too much.
        "Of course, Ray."
        He blinks again, as if I gave in too easily. "Okay, then. Come on."
        "Fraser, left your brain in your other hat today? Dief's you know whats."
        I have opened the door automatically and just as automatically let Diefenbaker into the back seat as Ray slides into his seat. Diefenbaker's shots. I have been concentrating so hard on one partner's emotional well being that I have forgotten the other partner's physical well being.
        "Ah, yes. Thank you. And thank you for being discreet. I don't think he saw you."
        "You forgot? You forgot?"
        "No, of course not. I simply . . . it slipped my mind for a moment."
        "That's not funny, Ray."
        "Neither is that."
        "Diefenbaker and I can walk, you know."
        "Nah, you need me along to help drag him in there."
        Well, that much is true; Dief can be more than stubborn about such things as needles, which he regards as a completely unnecessary assault on his perfect wolf immune system. And he may be correct in that assertion, but as I tell him repeatedly and with no discernible effect, laws are laws and health regulations are health regulations and there simply is not a lot of wriggle room, especially for a barely tolerated half wolf in an urban American setting.
        And sure enough, these arguments have their usual effect, which is to say, none, as Dief plants himself firmly on the sidewalk before the entrance to the office. Ray lounges against his illegally parked car, watching with his arms crossed, a grin on his face. A very attractive grin, and he doesn't seem to be embarrassed that I am yet again talking to 'the wolf' in public, and I wonder apropos of nothing how Stella could leave him. I find that for myself, returning to Canada at this point would be rather more difficult than it had previously been.
        Ray takes my prolonged gaze as a plea for help, and unfolds his arms as he walks over to crouch next to Diefenbaker. He murmurs something in a quick, low voice. Dief continues to ignore us both. Ray shakes his head. "And a hot dog. With everything."
        My protest dies as Diefenbaker gets to his feet and trots to the clinic entrance.
        "What else did you promise him? What sort of discipline is this?"
        "The sort that doesn't have all night while you two do the stubborn Canadian thing at each other," Ray says, following Diefenbaker. "No chocolate. Just a doughnut. And a cookie. And a hot dog."
        "With everything," I mutter, and realise that I sound a trifle put out. Ray does not, however, seem to take it amiss. He just glances back at me and grins again. And I think that despite his temper, he is easy to get on with, for me at any rate. He takes things as they come, he is quick to act and to react, and he is over his angry or bad moods almost as quickly as they have begun, whereas I can be in a funk, a well hidden one, of course, for days or even weeks.
        "And I reminded him that you'll talk at him all night, if I know you. Even a needle's better than that."
        This surprises a laugh out of me, and Ray grins happily, and the remainder of the visit follows without incident. So too does dinner, with the requisite hot dog, followed by a cookie. And last of all, on the way back to my apartment, Ray stops at a 'cop shop,' an all night bakery, and gets a doughnut for Diefenbaker. Dief will be insufferable for days and I am unable to say a word, and ought to feel more resentful than I do.
        "Sorry, Frase," Ray says, a little guiltily, as we get out of the car. "It's only once every coupla years."
        "It's quite all right, Ray. It was a good solution to the problem."
        Ray leans back, looking a little surprised, no ready comment to hand. He undoubtedly mistook my introspection for anger.
        "And thank you for keeping your promises to him," I say, in an attempt to recover the distance.
        At that he regains his equilibrium, and snorts. "Promise? To a wolf? Next you'll be saying I talk to him, Frase. See ya tomorrow."
        "Good night, Ray." And try not to think, tonight, or during the day following, about Ray and Stella and dancing. And after dancing.
        He grows increasingly touchy as the day progresses. Not exactly nervous, not exactly upset, but apprehensive and, understandably, a little sad. Finally I can bear no more; I truly dislike, not the woman, but the effect she has on my partner and friend; and I excuse myself on a pretext, one which normally Ray would see through in a heartbeat, but today he says simply, "Have fun, then, Frase."
        "You as well," I say, and walk away, to another lonely dinner, another lonely night, more lonely dreams. Even my father would be some comfort tonight, which is why, of course, he fails to appear.
        In the morning I have an early sentry shift and time passes slowly as I think, yes, possibly fret, about Ray, and whether or not he and Stella have reached a better understanding of their relationship. Most of all I worry about how Ray is feeling today.
        It is difficult to judge that, when I see him. He's back to cocky, always a defense mechanism, but he's lacking the abrasive overtones that generally mean he's been hurt. I can't ask him very much without seeming to pry, and I am lost in this conundrum of wanting to pry and being unable to do so, staring at his desk, at my Stetson on his desk, when he comes back. He drops a few files on edge of the desk and says, "What's with the brooding, Red?"
        "I am not brooding, Ray. I am pondering a conundrum."
        "What's that Canadian for, smart guy?
 I say softly, although no one is nearby, "That's Canadian for I'm worried about you, Ray." He freezes for an instant, his eyes suddenly shuttered, his hand's involuntary movement towards me dying a stillborn death.
        "C'mon," he says abruptly. "C'mon, Dief, you need a walk." He picks up my hat and shoves it at me. "C'mon, Frase, let's go, let's go."
        Somehow Diefenbaker sensed the part about the walk and is already heading towards the door as we follow. There is a small park not too far from the division and Diefenbaker is heading for it.


        How the hell does he do that? I'm sitting there getting my act together with him just fine, not fine enough to go home with Stella, dammit, because all I can think about is my freaking Mountie partner, and then he just pops out with, obviously, exactly what he was thinking. He was thinking about me, and he was worried about me, and God why doesn't he want me like I want him? Howcome all I get is worry? Howcome I'm not grateful for worry, for friendship?
        He's quiet now, too quiet. C'mon, Frase, say what you're thinking again. I know you can. What are you worried about? Me and Stella? Us getting back together? Us not getting back together? Us doing the horizontal tango? Not that he would worry about that for the reasons I want him to, but for those unselfish psychobabble self help reasons, just like that emotional distance crap. Which, surprise, he was right about, we were able to talk a little last night and it helped. No anger, not much recrimination, an okay time had by all. Until I piss her off again, we'll get along okay for now.
        "Worried, Frase?" He deflects a lot; sometimes blunt is the only way around it.
        "Not as such, Ray, I know that you can, of course, take care of yourself . . ."
        "Worried, Fraser?"
        He sighs. Giving in. That wasn't as hard as it usually is. He must be worried. "You were quite unsettled yesterday, Ray."
        Yeah. I bet. No kidding, Frase.
        "And today you . . ."
        "You wanna know what happened, doncha, Frase."
        "Well, naturally, Ray, I would never dream of prying . . . "
        "Oh, no, of course not, Mr. Perfect Mountie. And you were right, you know. About the emotional distance thing."
        "So you talked to Stella?"
        "Yeah. She talked. I talked. We danced. We kissed. You know?"
        Fraser looks into the distance, almost rude.
        "But you know what I figured out, Fraser?"
        He comes back to me, a slight frown on his face, and makes a small affirmative noise.
        "My dad, when I was a kid, got a Mustang. A new one. It was a big deal for him. First new car. But 'cause it cost a little more, he didn't get everything. He figured he was getting the dream car, why quibble?"
        Fraser is staring at me openly, manners forgotten. He doesn't know how we got from Stella to cars. I try not to laugh.
        "It's okay, Fraser. The sad part's coming up right now. You'll like it. So you know what? He's had this car for twenty-five freaking years. Can you believe that? And it wasn't what he wanted. And all he had to do was shell out a little more dough, let himself be happy. But he didn't because it meant a few extra dollars."
        Fraser shakes his head slowly. He's not getting it. I'm not good at this stuff.
        "It's like, you know, when you're in the mood for a nice bottle of wine, you don't want beer. So don't buy a six pack of beer. Grab the bottle of the stuff you want and you're finished. If you buy the six pack it's gonna taste okay for a while, but you're gonna be thinking about that wine part of the time. And, later on, all of the time. Because the wine was really what you wanted. And it's not worth it, in the long run."
        He's looking a little surprised now. Surprised that was going somewhere after all.
        "Stella's my six pack, you know?"
        He nods, slowly. Wish I could tell him who my bottle of wine is.

        Life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no I've said too much
I set it up
        "Losing My Religion," Out of Time, R.E.M.

.         Ray continues to be in my thoughts more and more often these days. Since Christmas, and especially since the odd six pack conversation. We can generally comprehend each other without words, but this time I can't make sense of what he was getting at, except, of course, that he thinks he is over Stella. Which, selfishly and un, is a good thing for him. Selfishly? Why did I think that? Probably because it's harder to work with Ray when Stella is blowing hot and cold; he is, understandably, of course, more volatile than usual.
        He's more relaxed than usual too, and a little less edgy now. We spend more time together than we have before, and he's even making efforts to be friendlier towards Constable Turnbull and Inspector Thatcher. He and Turnbull discover a movie they wish to see, invite us all to it, and despite the fact that their eager faces make me feel older than my father, I can't say no and neither, evidently, can the Inspector.
        My head needs clearing after the movie and it is almost with relief that I note a man watching a young couple who spent a great deal of time in the movie not exactly watching it. I was trying to tune the sounds out and so spent a great deal of my time observing the other patrons as well as Ray's reaction to the movie, which he wholeheartedly enjoyed, as I expected from his personality.
        I sense danger, and despite his quibbling about shoplifters Ray feels it too, and I hear him behind me as I follow the couple and the man. But by the time we get outside, the boy and girl have gone down the street and the man I thought was following them has gone up the street. We are about to go back indoors when we hear the squeal of tires and the girl screaming. The boy, in what I can only admire as an inspired performance, manages to grab the bumper of the car and hangs on for almost half a block before the car loses him in a sharp turn, and I am in time to roll him out of the way of an oncoming truck. Fortunately, because I like this boy. He would make a good Mountie. He is obviously intelligent, quick thinking, and quick to act.
        Taking his statement, at the station, the conversation somehow moves off the track of the incident and onto the topic of true love, love at first sight, and all the attendant emotions. This sort of digression is not an uncommon occurrence in this office and so I listen with only half an ear. Not surprisingly Francesca is in the ardent camp, as is Turnbull, and Inspector Thatcher and Lieutenant Welsh are solidly on the other side. I am not, it's true, paying much attention. I am watching Ray talk to the boy, Davie, and reviewing the details of the car in my head, when Francesca interferes with my train of thought to enquire as to my opinion on the existence of the phenomenon of love at first sight.
        Still watching Ray, I open my mouth and the details of the car which kidnapped the young girl spill out without conscious thought as my brain grapples with Francesca's question. She is walking away when my brain catches up with the question and the lightning bolt hits me. I realise it sounds dramatic, but that is how I feel inside. Outside, I manage, I think, to sound logical and rational. "And yes, Francesca, I do believe it happens."
        And I recall Ray turning from that very desk, a welcoming smile on his face for me, a complete stranger, and then a generous hug. Probably, however, the actual love began after he scared me almost senseless with his bulletproof vest, and the smile, that rare happy smile, that crossed his face when he said, "You called me Ray!" An odd response, I thought at the time, for someone who had just stepped in between me and a bullet, but an engaging and gratifying one.
        And I have been silent, and staring, far too long, and I quickly join Francesca at her computer.
        I have confused love with friendship, before this. And certainly I have confused egomaniacal, insane, tortured hatred with love, before this. Victoria did not, I believe, subscribe to the traditional definition of love. I am not sure that I do either, or that I know what it is. All I really know is how Ray makes me feel: complete. Content. At times, annoyed. And he is undoubtedly the best friend I have ever had. So perhaps I am confusing this deep friendship with love. Or with lust, as Lieutenant Welsh holds. However, for the first time, consciously, I allow myself to wonder how Ray's mouth would taste. What his lips would feel like under mine, without cold lake water to interfere.
        These thoughts are causing a definite bodily reaction. This brings me back to sanity at once. These thoughts are ridiculous, probably untrue, and even if true impossible to act upon. I may be able to face myself, what I obviously am, with a clear head, but there are very few others out there who can do so, and furthermore, Ray would, to every outward appearance, seem to be of the heterosexual persuasion. Emphatically so. So much so that he would undoubtedly flee to somewhere like Arizona in a Manitoba minute if he suspected my feelings. And I firmly turn my thoughts to the situation at the church where the car is registered.
        In the course of our investigation, however, the subject of love comes up repeatedly, not surprisingly since Davie and Eloise seem to be both the most romantic and the most star-crossed lovers since Romeo and Juliet. At least, they think they are; and judging by the obstacles put in their way by Eloise's parents, whom I don't entirely trust, they have some reason to think so. And indeed, Eloise's love appears to be so genuine, and her parents appear to have so little for her that I also begin to be convinced that not everything is as it appears. The appearance is that Davie murdered Addie, and while attempting to work this problem out in my head, I let myself be distracted into yet another conversation about love. By Eloise, this time.
        "But how could I be so wrong about him? About everything?" she asks, clearly confused, and clearly believing that she is not wrong about him. And her belief does much to reinforce my own doubts in the matter.
        The words that come out of my mouth in response to her question resonate in my head for long moments. "It is difficult to know people, particularly if you lack experience." And I do. Experience in the matters of the heart is what I lack most, and my father's ghost and his journals have been very little help in this regard. With Victoria, I was told duty was paramount, and indeed I believe that to be so. Recently, however, first with Ray in the Volpe episode, and later, less specifically, during the van Zandt operation, my father's ghost seems to have been leaning towards the heart side of the equation. The common factor in these two cases is, and can only be, Ray. So why is my heart needed to make decisions when Ray is involved, but the rest of the time I must use my brain and disregard my feelings?
        It is typical, very much so, that my father can confuse me even when he is not around, and I shake my head and get to my feet, nodding to Eloise's suspicious bodyguard as I murmur words of departure.
        And later, after Davie has been shot and as I attempt to reveal the nature of the itinerant preacher from Arkansas to his trusting flock, I watch Ray carefully, and even proudly, as he secures the bodyguards with little fanfare and even less fuss, though he can't resist tossing what appears to be a hymnal in front of one and mouthing, "Repent!" at him before moving off to find the other one. Ray dislikes hypocrisy, as do I, and seems to have much the same attitude towards organised religion as I have, though of course neither he nor I would go so far as to condone human sacrifice.
        And I am becoming clearer on my feelings, on the status of my heart, as I watch Ray. I am certain that this is more than friendship. Certainly it is more than I have ever felt for, say, Raymond Vecchio, who was the brother I never had. Ray, however, seems to be the part of me that I never had. He was right. You are never prepared for it when it happens, and it has happened to me. I should say again, but it seems almost disgraceful to compare Ray to Victoria, his golden heart to her black one. It seems to be a different sort of feeling, as well. The desire is there, of course, but I do not see Ray through rose-coloured glasses. He annoys me and charms me as he always has; and yet I want nothing more than to be annoyed and charmed by him for the rest of our lives. And I can't imagine that he would ever ask me to break the law for him, although, knowing my weakness in this regard, I would probably have a hard time saying no if he were to do so. But he wouldn't so that is a pointless line of thought. Except for the fact that he is male, my heart has chosen wisely this time, because in all other regards he is my opposite self, my perfect fit, my soul mate . . . and the fact that he is indeed male, and aggressively heterosexual, makes all of these other feelings entirely and appropriately moot.
        This is driven home by our conversation as we leave the hospital.
        "Young love," Ray is saying. "Cute, but it won't last."
        "It might," I say, perversely. Knowing that mine will last for ever.
        "It's possible." It's possible that a Mountie could fall in love with a Chicago policeman, after all.
        "Occasionally." And occasionally we do find our soul mates, Ray.
        "Not on my planet."
        Catching up to us, Dief moans.
        "Dief believes it will."
        Ray's only response is a slant-eyed glance at me and a slightly wicked grin. Surprising me, a little, since he was so emphatic about the non-permanence of love. But then, he has reason to believe that. I have the feeling the world is changing, again, and I'm not quite sure why, or how, or when it began, or what I am to do about it. And the discovery, a few weeks later, that I have a sister, a family, and incidentally that Ray is attracted to her, is yet another indication of the changing world I now inhabit.

        That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no I said too much
I haven't said enough
        "Losing My Religion," Out of Time, R.E.M.

        This is so much harder than I thought it would be. Thought I could handle it. Handle it, hah. I never realised that Fraser has no concept of personal space. He's always there. He always was, of course, but lately even more so. Or lately I'm just more worried about betraying myself, and he's still there, right next to me in the hall when we stop to talk to someone, his hand on my shoulder, or my arm . . . damn, if I wasn't so sure he was into women I'd think he was making moves on me. That's ridiculous, though, because no one in his right mind would call these moves. These're just crazy Mountie raised by Inuits who gotta snuggle with caribou or musk ox or something to keep warm moves.
        And Fraser doesn't understand what's wrong with me. We're getting tense again with each other, just like before the pirate ship. And I don't wanna go there. Never forget how he looked when I socked him. So maybe if I tell him what's going on with me, he'll be weirded out enough to back off the personal space thing. Or maybe he'll never speak to me again.
        Or maybe he'll lean that head towards my lips and open his own . . .
        Shit. I had enough. Enough of this. Either Fraser is okay with me how I am or he's not. And he doesn't gotta know it's him. Just that I got these feelings. And I talk about everything with him anyhow. Just about. So why should this be different? And maybe he'll help me sort it out myself. That, or I'll get an Inuit story. It's a 50/50 chance. No. This is Fraser. I give it 20/80. And it's this or sock him again, and I can't do that. It's not his fault. Not his fault the Chicago flatfoot wants to experiment with more than his hair.
        Came over for breakfast, a walk in the park, a chess game. Pretty much our typical Saturdays nowadays. Sometimes we skate. Yeah, I bought skates. Like I thought I wouldn't. Practising hockey. Growing up in Chicago, at least I know a rough and ready kinda skating and which end of a stick is which.
        Got a song in my head today, listening to the slash of skates on ice, watching Fraser skate backwards effortlessly, something I'm still practising. "That's me in the corner, that's me in the spotlight, losin' my religion . . ." He cocks a quizzical head at me. I'm singing out loud, if you can call it that.
        "What religion is that, Ray?" he says, hitting a quick stop with just a side edge of the skate, stick on puck. "Mithraism?"
        "Yeah, Chicago Bulls, Frase. Nah, just a song I can't get outta my head. You know how it is. Except yours is probably Holy Night." And flush, stupidly, self-consciously.
        "Or Joy to the World." And grins that heart-stopping blindingly beautiful grin at me. Holy shit. I turn quick and knock the puck out from underneath his stick, take off. Hopeless because I can keep up with him on skates but no way can I defend the puck. I can't keep up with him. No way. I glance back and he's still standing there, a funny look on his face.
        "Givin' me ten, Frase?" I call back, and he does an almost-start, like he was in a reverie, and zooms from zero to sixty in six seconds. A fast chase, these are fun, I like these. I usually keep ahead for about ninety seconds and then he gets competitive and starts running on the freaking skates. And it's awesome to watch, and hard to skate fast and watch at the same time, so I usually end up on my ass, and he always stops in time to keep from plowing into me. Those Mountie reactions come in handy. And this time's no exception - I hit the puck in a wild swing to the right and whap throw myself into a snowbank to the left.
        "Coward," Fraser says, halting almost without missing a beat, skating backwards to retrieve the puck, still watching me.
        "You're a big goddamn Mountie on sharp skates," I say, pushing myself to my feet. "Little intimidating, there, Frase."
        He shakes his head, exasperatedly, like he can't believe I think he'll believe that. Yeah, oughtta know better. But I can't tell him the real reason - that I wanna watch him skate, fast and furious, see the muscles tense and release under his jeans, see the unfettered joy on his face, see the face without the control. See Benton Fraser, maybe, instead of the Mountie.

        Every whisper
Of every waking hour I'm
Choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no I've said too much
I set it up
        "Losing My Religion," Out of Time, R.E.M.

        We usually end up back at Fraser's place, since it's so close to the park, me with a beer, Fraser with his mineral water or whatever, talking some more, and this time's no exception. We talk a lot. Never seem to run outta things to say. That's hardly surprising, considering my best friend is a walking encyclopaedia. So I figure I might as well take the plunge, sitting at his kitchen table. Made up my mind, after all. It's now or never. Before I lose my nerve. True confessions, yeah, Frase.
        "Fraser, you're my best friend. And you're . . . pretty open-minded. An' nonjudgmental. So I got a hypothetical question to run by you."
        He raises an eyebrow. "Hypothetical, Ray?"
        He knows me too well now.
        "Pretend it's hypothetical, okay? Because this is pretty hard for me to say, anyhow, and I don't think I could say it to anyone but you."
        He gets serious. "Of course, Ray. I'm sorry."
        "Open minded. Nonjudgmental. I've thought about that a lot, Fraser, so I'm hoping I read that right."
        "I try to be," he says, still serious.
        But I can't look at him, takes all the courage I have to open my mouth and make the words come out.
        "What would you think . . . how would you feel . . . if a friend . . . a guy friend . . . told you that he maybe had feelings for other guys?"
        Fraser is quiet for a long minute. I can't look at him. I look at my bracelet instead, twisting my wrist a little to make it move. I can't breathe. He's shocked. He's too stunned to talk. He's way weirded out. Nice fuckin' job, Kowalski. I watch the light glint on the metal, think about nothing but light and metal. Light moving on metal.
        "Surprised," he says, and I realise then that he was considering the question with his usual solemnity, taking in all sides before he opened his mouth to talk. We really are polar opposites. He's talking. Still can't look at him. But I can breathe again.
        "Perhaps a little disbelieving," he adds a few moments later. "After all, this hypothetical friend has been, I believe, married, and in the time I've known him has sometimes relentlessly pursued members of the opposite sex, and has certainly displayed an attraction to my own sister."
        "Not shocked, shocked?" Hoping he'll get it.
        "Well, on the other hand, this hypothetical friend did once tell me that he would try anything." I look up quickly at that and see a smile on his face. He got it. Utter relief washes over me. He doesn't hate me. Isn't scared of me. At least I read that right, that part of him that is honest and values honesty and because of that doesn't judge other people's honesty.
        And then he surprises the hell out of me when he asks, "Any one in particular?" Quirks that eyebrow.
        Hell, yes, Fraser! But no way can I go there. No way he'd ever go there.
        "Uh, no. I don't think so."
        "Yeah, Frase."
        "You know that you are a terrible liar, don't you?"
        "Hey, Fraser, I am a much better liar than you. Much better. So don't tell me that. I know it's just 'cause you're jealous."
        He smiles but continues, "Yes, you are. A terrible liar. You have a very open face."
        "Well, shit, there goes my interviewing technique."
        He refuses to be distracted. And then he cracks his neck.
        "A very open face. And a very attractive one. Are you prepared to act upon those feelings?"
        What the hell?
        "Is it your turn to be shocked, shocked?"
        "No, just one, for me, Fraser." I can't believe it, my brain can't process any of this. What the hell is he saying? "What the hell are you saying?"
        "Oh, it's all right for me to be open-minded but not you? That's somewhat of a double standard, Ray, in my opinion."
 I hold my arm out. "Pinch me, Fraser."
        "I'd really rather not, Ray."
        "Dammit, Fraser, pinch me. What the hell are you saying?"
        He closes a hand over my wrist, over my bracelet, encircling the whole thing in his big, warm grasp.
        "Is that enough to bring you back to reality, Ray? Because I really don't want to hurt you."
        There is, finally, something in his voice that makes me look up at him and I realise that I am probably hurting him. But I got an excuse. I never expected this and I'm floored. And the hope in his eyes makes my heart start to pound.
        "Me? And you?"
        And I hear relief in his voice as he says, "Oh, me? I thought perhaps you were confessing to feelings for Detective Dewey."
        "I wasn't confessing to feelings for anyone, you stupid Mountie, just trying to tell you something." Grin a big grin. Suddenly too happy to pretend.
        "Oh, well, in that case, erase the entire conversation from the terrible liar part." He grins back.
        "Are you serious?" Lost the grin. Suddenly I'm scared. Not about what he said, just now, but what we just said, just now.
        Fraser shakes his head, sighing. And then, without warning, pushes his chair away from the table and gets to his feet in one movement, the chair falling to the floor behind him, and pulls me into his arms and presses his lips against mine. Oh God. And I close my eyes and open my mouth, deepening the kiss right away, the way I could have done, should've done, on the Henry Allen. Yeah, I know I was drowning. So what? I was also being kissed by Benton Fraser. Am being kissed by Benton Fraser. And the thoughts bring me back to the present. His lips are just as warm and soft as I remember them and his tongue is even better than I imagined. And just like in the Henry Allen his hands come up to the sides of my face and turn it a little, improving the angle.
        And suddenly we are moaning in the backs of our throats and I am already hard, and my hands go down over his ass to push him against me, so he can feel me. And I can feel him, through both pairs of jeans, and . . .
        "Shit, Fraser!" I push him away, shaking.
        His face falls instantly, before his expression disappears into impassive Mountie mode.
        "No, jeez, Fraser, it's not that." I gulp, and breathe. Still shaky. "Too much, too soon."
        He's still looking like nothing happened. Still hurt.
        "Fraser, stop. Kiss me again. Let me kiss you. But, shit, I just didn't think . . . I didn't know . . . I didn't expect to feel this way, this fast."
        He looks at me for a long moment.
        Hell, I told him. I'm the one who told him. I wanted this, remember? I kissed him back. So I close my eyes and grab him and pull him towards me. He resists for about three seconds, and then that warm perfect mouth opens again and again I'm drowning in the sensation of his lips moving on mine, his tongue thrusting against mine and the panic wells up again. How can he make me feel like this? So hard, so fast, so outta control, so exciting?
 I pull away again, resting my head against his cheek, breathing into his ear, his arms around me like mine around him, his body trembling slightly. "Fraser, how do you do that?"
        "Do what?" His voice is just as shaky as mine. Good.
        "This . . ."
        "How do you do that?" he asks. Which is his way of telling me he feels the same. Wow. That's better. That's much better. That's better enough to risk another kiss, another rocket launch to a different reality. Sixty seconds and six days later I break it off again, turning my head into his neck. Licking his neck, just a little, hearing his gasp at the feel of my tongue. He tastes even better than he smells, better than I ever imagined. Relaxing, a little, into his chest, and feeling him relax, a little more slowly, into mine, our heartbeats slowing. And, yeah, his chest is even better than I imagined it . . .
        "Ray . . . "
        "Yeah, Frase?"
        "Oh, now you get it, you dense Mountie."
        "I'm not a six-pack?"
        "Fraser, you're a bottle of Scotch whiskey. A thirty-three year old single malt Scotch whiskey."
        "I imagine that's a compliment."
        "Well, only if you like Scotch."
        "Do you? Like Scotch, Ray?" A little teasing. A little unsure. How can he be unsure?
        There's only one answer to that, and I nod quickly before leaning in to kiss those perfect, perfect lips again, running my tongue over them first, feeling him shudder; and then he open his mouth, warm and wet, his tongue seeking mine already.
        Somehow, not too much later, we've ended up with unbuttoned shirts already, standing in the middle of the room, our arms around each other and our legs braced to keep our balance, every so often one of us threatening to topple both of us when we shift our weights to rub our groins together. I'm not sure how long it's been . . . the sun is taking on that late afternoon look. But all I can think of is Fraser, his eyes, his lips, his hair, his hands, and, finally, his chest, bare and pressed to mine, also bare.
        "Fraser," I whisper. "Fraser!"
        He opens his eyes to look at me, half lidded, passion-drugged.
        "You know where this is headed, Fraser."
        He smiles at that, and tips his head towards mine, his hands dragging me up against him in a renewed surge of lust.
        "C'mon, Fraser, snap out of it," I say hoarsely. "Is this what you want?"
        He closes his eyes, briefly, like I'm from another planet. "No, Ray, this is taking place entirely against my will." His voice is a little unsteady, but the note of humour is still there and that comforts me more than anything else.
        "Is that why you only got a bed, and no couch?" I say, leaning in to grab his ear in my teeth, not quite gently, and he shudders a moment, has to swallow before he can answer.
        "Proper preparation . . ."
        "Fraser, I knew you were gonna say that," I interrupt, and finish the interruption by drowning out the rest of it with my mouth on his, feeling his laugh push into my mouth, my lungs, giving me his laughter, his life. And the scared feeling is mostly gone as we move towards his narrow bed.
        Then I feel his hands go to my pants and start unbuttoning my jeans. He's serious. I'm serious. Freaky. Two freaks. Wow. Is it possible that he really wants me? That he's not gonna take off to the Klondike like it's 1897? Well, we both gotta be naked for this to work so I put my hands down to his jeans, which are zip front and a lot easier to get him out of than mine are to unbutton, so even though I got a late start, I've already got a hand in the waistband of his boxers by the time I feel him pushing my jeans and briefs down over my hips. The feel of his naked ass in my hand is so exciting that I almost forget we're getting undressed and fall behind in that department again and it's only the fact that he is trying to crouch down, and I won't let him, that brings me back and prompts me to kick off my boots, one after the other, and then step outta my jeans.
        "C'mon, Fraser, your turn," I mutter, nipping at his chest as we both bend down to work on his hiking boots. "Hiking boots, Jesus, Fraser. Next time you plan to drag me to your bed, make sure you got nothin' on those feet." I've already gotten one untied and partly unlaced. His hands are trembling a little and I put mine over them and he raises his head to look me in the eye. I'm not sure what I see there, but it touches me, and I lean in to kiss him, softer than we have been, while my hands cover his and make short work of the second hiking boot too. And the kiss gets harder, rougher, as we stand up together and he helps me push those ridiculous starched boxers off along with his ironed jeans. Which he leaves in a pile on the floor as we finally meet, skin to skin, tongue to tongue, fully naked, and Christ he feels even better than I ever imagined. Don't know what's happened inside my brain, or my heart, that I want a guy but I do and for some reason he's sexier than Stella ever was. Maybe because we're alike. Or maybe because he's just incredibly fucking sexy. And maybe that's circular reasoning but who the hell cares?
        "Ray," he whispers, moving those lips along my jaw to my ear, sending my head spinning - I knew, I should've guessed, that those perfect lips were more than just show - as he flicks his tongue in and out, like he's tasting my stubble. Like I wanted to taste his. Maybe I'll get the chance tomorrow . . .
        "Ray," he says again, around that tongue, that talented tongue. And the laugh is back in his voice, so I pull back a little and look at him with a grin on my face.
        "Yeah, Fraser?"
        "Ray, I'm going to drop you."
        And with that, while I'm still too surprised to laugh, he tumbles us both onto his bed. Dief, who was under it, whines and I hear his nails scrabble on the floor as he gets out and with a mutter and another whine kinda heads off disgustedly to the kitchen and his water bowl.
        "Okay, the warning was good, that's good, it shows Mounties can learn," I say between fits of laughter. He's laughing too, a Fraser I've never seen before, one I can't get enough of and one I hope never goes away. Close to but better than the guy I watched skating this morning. Fraser. Frase. Benton. Ben. And I get serious, feel serious, and try to shake the mood off. But my mouth won't stay closed, and I breathe his name as I reach up to kiss him again. "Ben . . ."
        He moans again, his mouth open wide and his body pressing me down into the bed and now I'm more than marginally aware of the fact that we're naked and our cocks are thrusting against each other almost by themselves, or at least without conscious thought on my part, or, probably Fraser's. Ben's.
        Hard to believe this is Fraser, hard to believe this morning we were hanging out like always in the park, hard to believe that he returns my feelings and that he's fallen into bed with me . . . no, dropped me into bed. Lot more intense than I would've thought and he's not exactly thinking clearly right now. Me either, and I don't want to. Been wanting this since at least Christmas and I can't explain how or why this happened but it did and that's the important thing, happened to both of us, and that's all I need to know.


        I am not thinking clearly. In fact, I may not be thinking at all. I am existing, quite happily, in the moment, revelling in the physical feelings being evoked and in the emotional satisfaction of knowing that Ray wants me too. That we both have these feelings and are, moreover, prepared to act upon them. And that his feelings for me, as mine are for him, are evidently a little more than just sexual, judging by the way he breathes a name, a nickname for me. A name which I don't think I've heard cross his lips before. A name that manages to be intimate, loving, and sexual, from him, from his voice, all in a word of one syllable.
        And though I imagined how this would feel, how it would be to lie skin to skin with him, feel his hard chest against mine, his long legs, with their muscular thighs, moving against mine, the reality, as we thrust hungrily against each other, the reality is far different. Far more real, far more compelling, far better in every way. It has been so long . . . far too long . . . and I must think, now, of Ray, of his blue eyes, of the light in his soul, of how different he is, in every way, from Victoria. How different, in the most important way of all: in his heart. On the inside he is, yes, a poet, but it is I who shake from need, and desire, and want, and love, and he is trembling a little as well, from, I imagine, much the same feelings, although I cannot voice them. Probably he can, and will, and the thought makes me smile involuntarily. He's watching me, closely, a trifle worried, unable to believe that his affection is reciprocated. I understand that fear. I could drown in his mouth, and for once I permit myself the indulgence of acting on those wants, knowing that he wants it too and he welcomes the touch of my lips eagerly, drinking me, as I taste him.
        Taste. And smell. And I realise with a rush of pure lust and the sheer terror of love that I want to know every inch of him, physically and mentally. And realise, with relief, that I already do know a great deal about him, mentally, and physically, yes, now. His hands seem to be everywhere, and I try to follow them with my own. He slides one corner of his mouth up in the smile that makes the groove appear in his cheek and puts his hands on his own body, waiting for me to follow them there, down his chest to his abdomen and lower, lower, through the dark gold thatch at his groin . . . and as we touch him he jerks and then groans, honestly, openly, into my mouth.
        "Yeah, touch me," he breathes. "Touch my cock, Ben."
        Perhaps I was simply waiting for permission from some dankly polite corner of my brain but I have dreamed of this and there is no hesitation as I do so, fondling, stroking, providing counterstroke to his thrusting.
        I am lost in this, in the expressions on his face, and his body's movements as he lies half beneath me, in the thought, almost unbearably exciting, that it is I evoking these responses from him. All too soon he stops me.
        "God, Ben, uh, no." I drop my hand to the sac beneath his penis and hold that for a moment, gently moving it in my fingers.
        "No, Ben, shit, not 'ny better. Stop, God, feel like I'm sixteen again . . ." He is not quite coherent and he forcibly pulls my hands from his body as he takes deep breaths.
        I want to drive him wild, to convey to him through my hands what I am feeling, what he is making me feel, in my heart and in my head, but perhaps he is not as comfortable with this as he thought he would be. As I am, for whatever reason. I breathe, too. And try not to touch him . . . but I can't keep my hands away from him and think that possibly his face is a safe place. That, however, leads to more kissing, and inevitably to more thrusting, and he is shaking his head again.
        "God, Fraser, what you do to me . . ." And he smiles at me, one hand pushing against my chest, the other tangling his fingers with mine. And his smile is so warm, and he is so attractive when he smiles that way, that I feel a surge of excitement and I want to make him feel that too, want to see his face in ecstasy . . .
        I feel not quite present in my body as I lean in to kiss him again, a growl coming from somewhere inside me, something wild wanting release. And to my surprise he growls back, deep in his throat, abandoning what restraint he had achieved, his mouth claiming mine with a fierce and utter joy that I am gratefully familiar with and this time he does not stop my hands, or, a few moments later, my mouth, as I move to his chest, his nipples, the flat planes of his abdomen, and further than that . . .


        "Fraser!" I can't stop my mouth from going off as I pull my head up to watch in shock, amazement, disbelief, and, hell yes, lust, as Fraser keeps going, down into my crotch. He grasps my cock and looks up at me, not even remotely shy, a wildness in his eyes, an incredible smile on his face and then his tongue swirls from one corner of his mouth across his lower lip to the other before he pulls it back in. The sight of that almost makes me come then and there, and I jerk backwards and collapse onto the pillow so I miss the first sight of Fraser taking me into his mouth. There's no way this is happening. No way that damned uptight Mountie is kissing me, naked in bed, going fucking down on me, and yeah he's good at it, so good I can't keep my ass on the bed. Hot, wet, just the right amount of suction, and then the flick of a tongue on the tip before he engulfs me in a steady rhythm. Lets me thrust into his mouth, doesn't try to hold me down or slow me down . . . oh fuck . . .
        I don't even know what I'm saying. "God, Fraser, don't stop!"
        Of course he stops, raises his head, and comes back into himself, but not much. Still so happy. "Ray, that was the furthest thing from my mind."
        He doesn't wait for a response, which is good, because by the time my disconnected brain has figured out what he just said, he's back at it and I can tell this is not going to be impressive time here because I can feel it building already, shit, just looking at that dark head, eyes closed, beautiful eyelashes, beautiful man, sucking me, making me lose it completely, trusting him with me, with my body and my heart, and no, no fucking way I can stop it now . . .
        "Fraser!" Can't formulate the words to warn him. Seems to know what he's doing but still . . . "Ben! Damn! Now, stop, please!"
        And thank God he raises his head to look at me, and I can't figure out the puzzled look he's giving me. Christ, doesn't he jerk off? And that thought does it and I feel the spasms start and then his perfect mouth is on me again . . .
        Yeah, I yell, all the stuff you hear about, his name, every other word outta my mouth fuck for about thirty seconds. The mouth was exciting enough but to feel it around me when I come, to know that he's not just fucking licking me, he's sucking enthusiastically, swallowing too, is too damn intense and my brain stops trying to think and lets my body take over, finally, and enjoy itself, and he stays with me 'til the end.
        "I can't believe you did that, Fraser," I say, finally, when I can talk, when the words come out of my throat instead of lying there in a hopeless jumble of syllables.
        He smiles lazily and kisses me. I smell and taste myself on him and close my eyes as a shudder runs through my body.
        "I wanted to, Ray."
        "Oh, yeah, Fraser, I wanted you to too. No, I mean, I can't believe you let me . . . oh, shit, you . . ." The Mountie is gonna turn three shades of red. " . . . you swallowed . . ."
        Yup. There he goes. And ducks his head onto my chest so I can't see him.
        "I wanted to, Ray," he whispers in a strangled sounding voice. A pause, and then another, quieter whisper. "I liked it. Tasting you . . . I've wondered about it. I'm sorry if you didn't like it."
        Damn, didn't want him to feel self-conscious. That's the last thing I want. Just surprised the hell outta me. Stella didn't like . . . oh, don't wanna go there . . . but comparisons are hard not to make. Fraser's coming out on the good side of 'em, anyhow. Taste me, yeah, I can see where he'd want that.
        "Fraser. Frase. I got no complaints." I stroke the side of his face with a finger. "God, no. You are in-fuckin'-credible." I hug him hard. And that feels incredible too. I can squeeze the hell outta him and not hurt him. God, I thought this would be hard and instead it just keeps getting better and better and my brain is just going along for the ride, so far, which is even better than good, it's great. And the hug I get in return, the hug that could crack a rib on a chick, is the best yet. "And it's not like I haven't seen what you'll put in your mouth. Heck, it was probably better tasting than mud. I hope."
        He makes a kind of snort and a gasp, and then, his face still buried in my neck, starts laughing, shoulders shaking. "Much better," he manages to get out. "And now I will never view mud in quite the same way again."
        I pull his face up to mine and kiss him. "And I wanna try it too," and I gotta whisper, because suddenly the voice doesn't work right, and kiss him again. His eyes widen in surprise and then close again as I slip my tongue back into his mouth, swirling it over his teeth, trying to taste myself still in there. Suddenly he gets it and he opens his mouth wider, letting me in, and his breath is coming in short shaky gasps with some incredible little throaty moans from the back of his mouth. "How's now sound?"
        "Ah . . . yes . . . as you wish . . ." He's not quite all there. Never would have thought Fraser would, could surrender so completely to passion. His self-control is so important to him that I thought for sure it would carry over. But he's surprised me about lotsa things . . . especially lately . . . and these kinda surprises, I like.
        Put a hand on him and he jumps a little, moans again. Pull the foreskin back off the head with a gentle stroke and rub my thumb right where the head goes into the shaft, and that brings him almost up off the bed as he moans again, my name kinda mixed up with please and then my name again.
        Feels a little weird, little emotional baggage from high school to get over before I can take him in my mouth. Don't know why his cock turns me on, but it does, and hearing him inhale, hard, as I take him in my hand helps me get over some of that baggage. Because whatever it makes me, I do wanna taste him, do wanna feel oh god yes that hot smooth slickness on my tongue . . . Lick him, first, and the taste is a little salty, a lot sexy, and I get over the rest of my baggage in a damn fucking hurry as I slide down the rest of him, feeling the hot heavy hardness in my mouth, in between my tongue and my teeth. Slide back up, and he thrusts upwards, trying to stay with me, making me almost lose my balance.
        I put a hand on his stomach and in my mouth his cock tenses and seems to get even harder, twitches a little, and shit not much happening here, Kowalski, nothing like he did to you, so give myself a mental kick and start to suck, just the head, stroke him with the hand that's not on his stomach. The foreskin must be what's giving my hand a lot more play than I'm used to feeling on the shaft but after a few seconds I get the hang of sucking on the down stroke. The hand on his stomach I just keep moving, pushing down from time to time just to feel his cock twitch again. I'm surprised at how well he fits into my mouth. How good he tastes. Not good-good but hot good. Tastes like Fraser and sex and his sex is in my mouth and holy shit I'm starting to get hard again. That's it. That's the last of the baggage, right outta the airplane without a parachute and I'm not sorry to see it go even a little bit because Fraser is groaning under my mouth, his hands trying so hard to be gentle, trying not to push my head down. I know that because he does push a little and then recovers and eases up and then forgets and starts to push again.
        Lift my mouth off him to look up at him and then down at his cock, so like me and so not, then look back up at him, his head arcing back, his neck exposed, his cock thrusting unashamedly into my hand. He looks so vulnerable and so fucking beautiful that I almost feel like crying and think what the hell is wrong with me? God, I want him, want to make him come, yeah, in my mouth, and swallow it all and that rational voice in the back of my head is finally fucking gone as I almost-growl and lean back down to his cock, sucking and stroking harder than before, because somehow I already know what he's going to look like when he comes and I wanna do that to him, for him.
        He's so far gone he's forgotten to be polite and his hands are on my head urging me on as he thrusts up, hard, fast, and on an upstroke I see his head moving restlessly from side to side, his mouth open a little, sexier than ever. He jerks a little and under the side of my hand on his cock I feel his balls lifting towards his body oh god yeah here it comes . . . and then he stops. Freezes. I look up quick, feel a frown on my face. Did I hurt him? Doing it wrong? No. He's got a panicked look on his face, I don't know what's wrong, and hell, what kinda control does the goddamn Mountie have to freak right now, of all times? Keeping my hand moving on him, just a little, me and my other hand slide up his body for a second and I pull his face towards me, looking into his eyes, and then I say, soft, "Hey, Ben," and then close my own eyes and kiss him.
        Right thing to say. Right thing to do. Feel the breath leave his body in a gust into my mouth and he's back with me, thrusting hard and wild into my hand shit gonna miss my chance and quick slide back down to take him in my mouth just in time to feel his cock start to spasm and hear him groan deep in his chest as I taste the first spurt of his come. It's warmer than my mouth, almost warm enough to be hot, and it's thick and bitter and it's God it's Fraser, I'm tasting Fraser, and I hear a fucking whimper come outta my own throat as I suck almost hungrily at it, can't get enough. And then gentle my mouth, remembering how intense everything feels right after I come, and as he softens in my mouth I just hold him there for a few seconds, enjoying the contrast from the hardness a few moments ago, the contrast between wild and sweet. And I'm lost, completely and forever, in this man, and I kiss the softness now just like it's his mouth, and he shivers and gasps my name again, his hands reaching for me, trying to pull me up, and I finally let him.
        We hold each other for a few minutes. Saw tears in the corners of his eyes. Man. Don't know what happened with him. Know what happened with me. Head over feet doesn't come close. I turn over onto my stomach and lay half across his chest, feeling the hardness and smoothness beneath me. I could stay here forever. Put my hand on his upper arm, moving my thumb in little circles. Feel him bend his neck, kiss my forehead. Easier to talk without looking at each other. Always was for me, anyhow.
        "Don't do the mud thing, Fraser, but I'm pretty sure that was better."
        He chokes, like I surprised a laugh outta him, and I feel better. Maybe can tackle the panic.
        "Scared me for a sec, there, Frase."
        His arm across my back tenses. So does his chest, under mine. His heart beats a little faster.
        "Wanna tell me? Did I hurt you? Somethin' wrong?"
        Tense. Quiet. Push my tongue between my lips and lick his neck. Arm on my back gives me an involuntary squeeze.
        "No, you didn't hurt me. On the contrary." But there's no laugh in his voice now.
        "What, then?"
        "I . . . I don't know."
        "Got 'ny ideas? Or should we talk about mud some more?"
        After a long, long moment, he says, really quiet, "I wasn't prepared for that."
        Shit. Knew he wasn't. Knew he wasn't thinking clearly. You scared the hell outta him, Kowalski. But he keeps talking. Now, finally.
        "To feel that way. It's . . . it's been a long time since I . . . since I let go . . ."
        Oh. Oh Christ that's better. Okay, Frase, I can do that.
        "Pretty intense, huh?"
        "Yes. Yes. Yes, you could say that."
        "It's okay, Frase. We're buddies. You got my back, I got yours."
        Silence again. Wait a few. He's not talking.
        "Ohkay, guess we're back to mud."
        "Ray . . . " He sounds a little helpless. "Was it too intense? For you?"
        "Actually I was kinda wondering if you had any plans for the rest of the day and night."
        Finally an honest to goodness chuckle. Relaxes a little under me.
        My turn. "Too intense for you?"
        "Ray, I don't know. You make me feel . . . "
        "Feel is good, Fraser. Trust me. Feel is real good. I like to make you feel."
        I feel the unspoken question in his body's tenseness. Repeat myself. I do that. "I like to make you feel. I was with you all the way. 'Kay? I'll be with you all the way. You don't have to worry."
        A big long sigh. Puts both arms around me, rocks me back and forth for a sec in a hug. Feels so good. Turn my head into his neck and lick him, right there, right above the collarbone. Just because I can. Just to remind myself this isn't a dream.
        His arms tighten a little bit and he says, a little breathy, "I like that."
        "Like it, too, Fraser. Like the way you taste, all of you." Raise my head to lick all the way up his collarbone to his shoulder. He shivers.
        "Guess we should get under the covers," I say.
        "It's not that," he says immediately.
        Lift my head and grin. "Yeah. I know."
        Finally getting a smile outta him. Move all the way on top of him, my hardening cock pushing against his stomach. He closes his eyes at the sensation for a second and as I push down my body I lean into him for a kiss.
        The kiss starts out soft but rapidly gets hard and hungry again. I've somehow slid down his body a little, one leg on either side of his thigh, thrusting into the hollow between his hip bone and his cock. Didn't know it could feel like this, not the same as a woman, but feels damn good anyway, and somehow he's found a similar place on me and he's hard again, shit, how'd he do that already? He's thrusting up against me, his hands holding my ass in place, his lips hungry, his tongue hot and twisting. Jesus. Horny goddamn Mountie. Horny goddamn cop.
        He pushes a little at my hip, trying to get me to move over. Takes me a second to figure out what he wants. Move over a few inches, shift both my legs between his, and feel the scratchy silky hair under my cock, and then his cock next to mine, and he moans, "Yes. Right there," and starts thrusting steadily, holding me right where he wants me, encouraging me to thrust with him, gentle pressure on my ass. Damn, he's got great instincts, this feels fabulous, and even better with lips, tongues involved, so I brace myself on his shoulders a little while he holds us, thrusting, getting the rhythm just right, and our tongues are thrusting into each other's mouths with the rhythm too. "Oh God Ben," I say breathlessly less than a minute later. "Shit . . . Ben!"
        Don't know if this was really what he wanted this time or not but he thrusts a few more times into the hot wet slickness I just contributed and arches his head back again, and this time I can watch his face when he comes, no hesitancy at all this time, and yeah he looks just like I thought. Oh, God, Ben, I love you. I wanna make you look like that every day of your life. Two or three times a day probably isn't out of the question, the way he reacts. The way I react to him.
        His breathing is finally slowing. So's mine. Heartbeats slowing too. Feels so good to be here with him. Can't get that thought outta my head. God, he wants me. Don't know why, but he does. Take a big deep breath of air and close my eyes in happiness. Open my mouth and almost fucking say I love you. Shit. Not sure he'd be okay with that. This is enough. Way more than I thought. Snap that mouth shut before it gets me into real trouble. Things've gone so incredibly unbelievably good today, it's about time for my luck to break.
        Sweat's cooling on my body, so's the stickiness between us, and I'm finally starting to get a little chilly. Fraser's apartment is never what you call warm anyhow.
        "Wanna shower, Frase?" I ask, lifting my head to look at him. For some reason, that turns him red. I feel a big grin hit my mouth flying.
        "No one who gives a blowjob like that has the right to blush over a shower, Fraser." Love those blushes.
        "Er, yours was, er, equally . . . nice."
        "Nice? Oh yeah that's Canadian for incredible, right?"
        And he suddenly pulls me back down for another wild hot kiss. I'm a little dazed when he finally breaks it. Guy can use that tongue. It's wasted on mud. Wasted. "Yes, Ray," he whispers finally. "Nice."
        "A shower would also be nice, Ray."
        "Yes, Ray."
        "I don't know about you, but I'm gonna need a few minutes at least. Maybe some dinner. And that's not gonna happen if you don't stop saying 'nice' like that."
        "I'll stop saying 'nice' if you'll refrain from mentioning 'mud.'"
        That surprises a laugh out of me, and I lean down for a quick kiss. And stop, after starting to sit back up, and look at him. And he looks at me. We're both real serious all of the sudden. Can't take it, break the look, finish sitting up and then am on my feet in the same motion.
        "C'mon, Fraser." Hold my hand out to help him up. Wonder if he knows how he looks. Looks like Ben, not Fraser. Hair finally disorderly, dammit, and lips soft and blurry at the edges from all the kissing. Kissing another guy. Kissing Fraser. Shower, dammit. Kiss in the shower, yeah, we can do that.
        The shower is another new experience. I'm having trouble keeping my hands off him. Not wanting sex, not right now, just exploring his body, where he's like me, where he isn't. He's doing the same, touching my nipples lightly, almost curiously, watching with his head cocked as he brushes a finger across one and I gasp reflexively as it hardens, and then he bends to lick it, then suck, a gentle little pressure.
        "Um, that's nice, Frase," I say hoarsely, holding his head in place. "You think . . . you think you'd like that?"
        "Undoubtedly, Ray," he says gravely but he can't hide the smile in his eyes as he raises his head to look at me again.
        Touch him, then. Different from Stella's, a lot smaller, a lot harder, just as responsive though when I lick a nipple, then tug it with my teeth. His hands are at my face then, pulling my jaw up, my mouth to his, love that tongue, those lips, soft, firm, beautiful, and the water pouring down on both of us. Love the fact that we're almost the same height; think it's sexy, don't know why.
        Finally, reluctantly, we break apart.
        "Soap," I say.
        "Yes, I fear I might be forgetting the primary reason for our presence here."
        "Understood." He turns and pulls a bar of soap from the dish and a washcloth from the towel rack next to the shower.
        "I kinda thought 99 and 44/100ths wouldn't quite be pure enough for you," I say, watching him lather up, quick, Mountie efficient, rinse, head back under the spray.
        He grins at that and starts lathering me, easily, comfortably, and I'm taken aback again at how easy this seems, how happy he is, how natural this is. "It was my grandmother's only choice, and of course my father's. I've never thought about it in any other way." He turns me around, starts working on my back.
        I think about what he just said. A happy memory of home. He doesn't have too many of those. I'm not gonna tease him about the ones he does have. "I like it, Fraser, it's you."
        He pulls me back against him, his hands coming around to my front to continue soaping, with close attention paid to that area between my legs that is, incredibly, becoming aroused again, and the hardness I feel against my back only feeds my excitement. His lathering slows and his stroking increases in time with his cock pushing in between my cheeks.
        "God, Fraser, I just can't do this again. . ." I say, a little hoarse.
        "Shall we stop?" he whispers.
        "Later, maybe. Guess there's a lot to be said for enforced abstinence."
        "Enforced?" His thrusting slows a little as his Mountie brain puzzles that one.
        Feel myself fucking blushing now.
        "Well, shit, Fraser, kinda hard fer me to do a chick when all I can think of is Mountie."
        "You mean you didn't . . . in Acapulco . . ."
        "Fraser, that would be telling."
        "That would be a no." And he renews his thrusting with a happiness I can almost feel, renews the stroking too so that's about all I feel a few seconds later.
        "God, you feel good, Ray," he moans in my ear, moan followed immediately by tongue, tongue followed immediately by teeth, makes me jump and moan myself. I got one hand braced against the tub wall, the other on his hip, so I can meet him thrust for thrust, and he's got one hand on me and the other holding his cock in place between my cheeks, slick water, slick soap running down, slick hand on me, faster, faster, and damn there are a whole lotta nerve endings back there . . . I stiffen and he pulls me closer, his head over my shoulder, I should've known the Mountie would wanna watch and that sends me over the edge, my head thrown back on his shoulder, my voice gasping his name in an unfamiliar, strained kinda noise.
        And watching works for him too because even in the aftermath of my release I'm conscious of his strained gasps and the feel of his cock pulsing against my ass, his arm tight around me suddenly, his head buried in my neck.
        "So damn good, Ben," I whisper, a little trembly. He's a lot trembly, and I turn sideways, take some of his weight, I'm braced against the wall so it's easier for me to stay standing.
        He doesn't say anything, just heaves a huge sigh, eases back a little on his feet. The kiss that follows, tender, gentle, happy, warm, feels so natural, so much better than anything I've ever had before, could go on forever and I wouldn't mind . . . but we've used up about all his hot water and I shudder involuntarily as the cooling water hits my skin. He reaches backwards without letting go of me and shuts it off in a quick efficient move. So Ben. So Fraser.
        I lean against the wall to towel off my front, I'm about wiped out and starving to boot and my body is just damned happy to be alive today but too tired to react much to anything else right now, which is good, because Fraser drying off is a wonderful sight. Sees me watching and blushes a little. Not used to having someone else around, I know, but I'm not gonna stop watching him and I meet his eyes with a little raise of my eyebrows, a little challenge, and he grins then, ducks his head a little, tucks the towel around his waist. I finish towelling my hair and he leaves, comes back in a few seconds with my clothes, grimacing a little at their wrinkled condition.
        "It wouldn't take me long to heat up the iron - "
        "Fraser. Soon's I sit down in 'em they're gonna be wrinkled again, so what's the point?"
        "You probably don't make your bed every day either."
        "Got it in one. I mean, what's the point? You're just gonna sleep in it again that night."
        He shakes his head, smiling. "Have you labelled your keys yet?"
        "Threw some of them away," I offer, smiling back.
        "That's progress of a sort, I imagine," he says, leaving again.
        I finish dressing and go back into the room at the same time he's pulling on a sweater. We look at each other and I feel a little shy. Can't think of anything to say. He sees the difficulty and nods at the bed with a smile. "I'm about to change the sheets, if you'd like some practice with hospital corners."
        The tension lessens as I walk over to stand next to him. "Dunno, Frase. You might wanna hold off on that until after dinner."
        Makes him blush, knew it would.
        "Dinner?" he says, with a sidelong glance that would seriously get my engine going if it hadn't already been in overdrive three damn times.
        "Out. I mean, dinner is out. We're eating out, dammit, quit snickering at me."
        "No pizza?" Dief raises his head at that, whines.
        "No pizza, Fraser, we're going out. Somewhere we have to sit and behave ourselves, 'cause like I said, I need time if you don't got other plans tonight."
        "I was thinking of writing a comparative monograph on . . . mud."
        I cannot believe my ears. This is a fuckin' dream. This cannot be Fraser, Mr. Straightlaced himself, teasing me about blowjobs. About sex. About us. This cannot be Fraser, who turns thirty shades of red if a chick so much as blinks at him, giving me a look under his eyelashes like they give him. This cannot be Fraser, turned on for Crissakes' by me, Stanley Raymond . . . er, Vecchio.
        "Mud sounds nice, Frase." And know, just know, that a split second later I'm gonna have the Mountie's tongue in my mouth again. Yeah, called that one about right.
        "Could kiss you forever, Frase," I say after a good minute of his mouth on mine, my tongue in his. Still a little freaked. Mr. Control Freak, outta control. Sex and the Single Mountie. Sex and the Single Mountie and Me. "You like it?"
        He pulls back, frowns, looks at me like I've lost my mind. "No, Ray," he says patiently. He does deadpan good. Real good.
        "Oh, sorry. Guess I'll go home then." Can't keep my face quite as straight.
        He backs to the apartment door, arms crossed over his chest. "I knew dinner was a ruse. Give me your phone, we're having pizza. Here."
        Dief's interested now, gets to his feet, walks over to Fraser.
        "I eat too much pizza, I hear. Let's get something healthy."
        "Phone, Ray."
        "Come and get it, Red."
        Big mistake. Don't think I could get a hard-on right now if my life depended on it, and big fucking Mountie bearing down on me with the libido of a teenage boy is probably all ready to go again. I'll never learn to keep my mouth shut but I can move pretty fast and I put the bed in between us, him grinning at me, me grinning like a maniac at him. He moves to the left, and then the right, and I know what's going through that head, in a few seconds he's coming over the bed, and as he dives, I shift left, duck, and roll, and he tries to twist in midair and comes down on the other side of the bed with a grunt, expelling all the air from his lungs. Dief barks at us both, jumps up on the bed. Yeah, wolf likes to roughhouse too.
        "Guess we're going out for dinner," I say innocently, getting to my feet. He doesn't stand up, just bunches up and then lunges for my legs, tripping me and bringing me down on top of him.
        "Pizza, I believe," he says, tugging the phone off my belt as he rolls us over, pinning me down.
        I'm laughing so hard that I can't talk for a minute. "Fuckin' insane, horny Mountie," I finally manage.
        "Sssh! Language, Ray," he says, primly, still on top of me, looking one-handed for the pizza number that he knows is stored in my cell's memory, the other hand still cradling my head, where he put it so I wouldn't hit when he rolled me over.
        "Believe me, Tony's heard all my language," I say. "It's 347-1111, Frase."
        He grins again, dials it one handed, and holds it to my ear.
        "Hey. Yeah, it's Ray. The usual. No, the Mountie's place. Molson's is fine. And if Tony leaves off the pineapple I'm gonna pop him. 'Kay, thanks, Sandor."
        Fraser hits the end button and sends the phone skittering across the floor without even looking because he's too busy looking at me. I hear the wolf give one of his grumbles as he jumps off the bed and snuffles around us for a minute, then heads back to his blanket.
        "I don't feel like sharing tonight," he says, and he's half-serious.
        "Yeah? Well, maybe I don't feel like pizza."
        "I'm sorry, Ray. Perhaps you'll enjoy the beer."
        "Kidnapped by a fuckin' Mountie. And starved to death. I should've told Tony to send back up. I don't know if they'd've believed I was being pinned to the floor and forced to order pizza by that nice polite Mountie."
        "That reputation has its advantages."
        "Yeah, I'll just bet. I bet it does."
        Suddenly he sighs happily, and drops his head down to the floor, next to mine.
        "Am I too heavy for you, Ray?"
        Turn my head, drop a quick kiss on his cheek. "Not at all, Frase. You're just right."
        He shifts off me a little, anyhow, and I shift too, rolling more to my side so I can get my other arm free, free to push my fingers through his hair, feels like it looks, yeah, only so much better, even softer but still totally Fraser. He smiles, eyes closed, and tightens his arms around me. He cuddles too. God, I can't believe this.
 "Hey, Frase, you okay? You think it'd be more comfortable on the bed?"
        "It's perfect here, Ray." Then one eye pops open, worried. "Unless you're - "
        "I'm fine." And I am, more than fine, the North Pole's got nothing on me for being on top of the world right now. And more on top of Fraser, as he shifts onto his back and tucks one arm underneath his head while he pulls me with him so I'm on his chest, good call, Frase, good cuddle move. And feel my eyes drifting shut, feel the rise and fall of his chest beneath mine, the warmth of his arm around me, could die happy right this second.
        We stay like that, almost asleep, not quite, until Dief raises his head and looks at the door, looks back at us and whines.
        "Pizza alarm. Gotta get me one of those," I mutter sleepily, happily. Fraser chuckles, raising himself to his elbows with just his stomach muscles. Sometimes forget how goddamn strong the guy is as I roll off him onto the floor, sighing, and get to my feet at the same time he does.
 Already got my wallet out by the time we hear the knock, Fraser's heading for the Stetson on the kitchen table. "My treat, Ray."
        "I think you already treated me enough," I say, winking at him. He blushes and I take advantage of his momentary speechlessness to open the door and hand over the cash, quick, with a grin and a joke for Sandor - and a hefty tip. Fraser's there, taking the box and the six-pack, with his own thank you kindly, and he's got the pizza on plates and the beer open almost before I finish turning around. And my jaw drops for about the ninetieth time today as he plops a slice into Dief's dish. Dief looks at him, looks at the pizza, looks at him again, and then at me.
        "Go on," Fraser says with a touch of impatience. "A treat now and then is not unheard of, you know. I do have a heart."
        Dief, not being stupid, grabs that pizza and takes off into the other room with it.
        "I expect your mess to be completely cleaned up," Fraser calls after him. He turns to me and smiles, sitting down, pushing my plate closer to me. "Eat."
        "Frase . . . you just . . . hell, never mind. This is all a big dream anyhow, and I'm gonna wake up as soon as I take a bite of the pizza, pizza with pineapple, it really is a dream."
        "Ray." Patiently. "Eat." And he reaches out and holds my wrist again, his hand curving over my bracelet, just like he did hours ago, aeons ago. Whispers. "It's not a dream."
        Can't look away from him, from those eyes, and feel the pizza fall back to the plate from my nerveless hand.
        He picks it up and puts it back in my hand, closing my fingers around the crust.
        "Eat, Ray." Normal voice again.
        "You saying I need my strength, Fraser?"
        "Something like that, yes." And a brief flush colours his skin as he dips his head to take a bite. I have to concentrate hard on my pizza, on the fact that my stomach is plastered against my spine. Want that man, need that man, could watch that man eat pizza, lick mud, lick me, just about forever.
        Dief shows up as we start on our second pieces, staring at the table intently. I wait for Fraser to get up and feed him his normal dinner, cod liver oil and kelp and all the other stuff he puts in there, no wonder the wolf craves pizza and doughnuts. Fraser, after ignoring him for a few seconds, tosses another slice of pizza into Dief's bowl without even looking.
        "He's very quick to take advantage," Fraser says to me. Dief's eating it in the kitchen this time, obviously accepting the fact that Fraser has lost his mind, and determined to enjoy it while it lasts. Yeah, Dief, I am all over that.
        "I hear wolves are like that. Mounties too."
        "Really? Interesting. I haven't heard that."
        "You've lived a sheltered life, there, Frase. Sheltered."
        "Obviously," he says, and grins at me, heart stopping. Not so sheltered, oh God, not with that tongue, and I grab another piece of pizza and stop talking.
        Between us we finish the pizza off and Dief's waiting by the door, patiently, as I ditch the box and Fraser piles the plates in the sink.
        "No run tonight," Fraser tells him firmly. "And no nonsense. I'm not inclined to be overly patient."
        Dief grumbles. Fraser shakes his head. "You are extraordinarily contrary."
        "Look who's talking," I mutter.
        Fraser spins on his heel, grabs me, and puts that mouth to work again. Even after pizza he tastes like Ben, and pizza, and pineapple, and damn if I don't actually resent the wolf for a second when he whines impatiently again.


        A walk is, despite my reluctance, a good idea. A time for space, reflection . . . anticipation. I allow my eyes to slide sideways. Ray is walking along, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched, a strange small smile on his lips, containing elements of disbelief. I am in a similar frame of mind. And in the next second, remembering the taste of Ray combined with the taste of pizza, feel my face flush and my body react rather predictably. It's amazing how quickly my body has managed to get used to the idea of sex, of sex with Ray, again. Equally amazing is that he wants me, that he is open, passionate, responsive, that I can make him happy. That he makes me happy. That I feel not quite in my body right now and certainly am more than a little out of my mind.
        I look at him again, sideways, and he looks at me, also sideways, grins that lopsided grin.
        I should have known that a public walk, admittedly in a deserted park, would not restrain him from talking about it. At least the 'wow' implies no second thoughts, not yet. The miracle continues.
        "As you say."
        His eyes resume their forward cast.
        "Been wanting you since Christmas, Ben. Longer than that, probably."
        Courage and honesty. And a very real, albeit unconscious, charm. My heart certainly couldn't have chosen better this time. Despite that, my complexion betrays me yet again with another blush.
        "I'm glad you told me." Inadequacy, always my specialty in interpersonal relationships.
        "Uh . . . yeah." Another glance, another smile, a glimpse of tongue between teeth. "I'm . . . uh . . . glad the feelings are kinda . . . mutual."
        "More than mutual, in my opinion," I say swiftly, not wanting him to doubt that for a second.
        He stares at me for longer than a moment, a little puzzled, then shakes his head.
        "You're too much, Ben."
        In a public park there is absolutely no reason that I cannot control myself, but every time he says my name I want to tumble him to the ground and make him experience the ecstasy I am feeling. There must be something in my face that betrays this.
        "Want me?" A big smile this time. "I shouldn't have let you out in public, Frase, alluva sudden every thought you have is right there on your face. Pizza was definitely better than out."
        I struggle, more successfully than not, for control, for my mask.
        "That's better, but I didn't mind. There's no one around and I kinda like the way you looked."
        "How was that, Ray?" I ask, and can't help the hoarse note that drops the end of my question at his name.
        He leans over and whispers, "Like you just got laid, Benton Fraser."
        The mask shatters into more than a thousand pieces, my world narrowing to a small focus whose locii are two blue eyes and the most sensual mouth I have ever seen in my life.
        "Fraser, do not even think about kissing me in a public park!"
        Good God. He is right. Shaken, I take a step back.
        But he's smiling, and doesn't seem angry or even perturbed. "Sorry, Ben. It's my fault for being provocative."
        Extremely hard to remember, at this juncture, that we are both men, that the world frowns on our sort of relationship, that there are those who actively hate people who love outside the fairly rigid confines of contemporary Western society. Extremely hard to remember that we are both law enforcement officials, especially with those blue eyes glowing at me, luminescent in the gathering darkness, that mouth smiling at me in a way that would have driven da Vinci mad . . . and I continue to lose my mind as I cast a sharp look around us and then bodily drag Ray behind a large screen of bushes. Because I know if I don't touch him, feel him, taste him within the next thirty seconds this dream will dissolve like snow in the rain and I will wake to a lonely bed and the sound of Dief snoring in the darkness nearby.
        He frees his lips with a reluctance that does my soul good and whispers, "You're a crazy Mountie, you know that? What're you gonna do if a bicycle patrol spots us? Every damn cop in the city knows you, you idiot. Now, stop. Enough. Let's go home."
        But he leans in for one more kiss, a quick one, before he rakes a hand through his hair and sticks his hands in his pockets and ducks out from behind the bushes, leaving me to take a deep breath and follow. Secrecy is, yes, essential, paramount, and the rational part of my brain must regain control soon. Now. Not now. Tomorrow. Or Monday. Right now the irrationally happy part of my brain is enjoying, and should be permitted to enjoy, free rein.
        The energy between us is fairly crackling by the time we return to my apartment, and it has grown increasingly difficult to remember where we are, who we are. Ray pauses beside his car, and looks at me, then at the ground. Hesitant.
        "Um . . . not quite sure what your plans are, Frase," he says, in a soft diffident mutter.
        Plans? The only plan I have at this moment is to push him against the car and plunder his mouth, hear him groan, feel him harden against me . . .
        He glances at me, eyes pausing to take in the expression on my face, grin widening.
        "Uh, yeah. Okay. Well, okay, but I gotta run to my place. Don't think any of your clothes'd fit me."
        "Who needs clothes?" I follow that outrageous question with, yes, a literal and surprising growl. And come back to myself, temporarily, to see Ray staring unguardedly at me with passion and astonishment in his eyes.
        "Shit, Ben, how the hell am I supposed to answer that?"
        I motion towards my building with my head. "Perhaps in private?"
        He laughs. "My place isn't too bad in the privacy department, Frase."
        "It will take too long to get there." I'm surprised at how intense I sound. But his reaction is worth the intensity. His lips part, his eyes flare, his reaction to me so very gratifying, so very like mine to him.
        "I can drive. . . fast," he says huskily, swallowing, leaning back against the car.
        "I can move fast."
        "I like slow."
        "Slow is . . . nice."
        "You sound confused."
        "You sound . . . provocative."
        "You sound fucking sexy."
        "Ray, get in the apartment now."
        "Gonna make me?"
        "If I have to."
        He looks me up and down. Then he looks up and down the street, and looks back at me with a small grin. There are two people walking towards us. His look clearly, plainly, says, "Now what?"
        Softly, the word barely audible to my own ear, my lips part and I say, "Now."
        Echoing my movement, his lips part and he says, even quieter, "Fuck, yeah."
        I am not sure which of us moves first, but I am sure that we both outpace Diefenbaker in the race up the stairs, and that our arrival at my door is a dead heat, both of us laughing almost too hard by the time we arrive there to actually open said door. Our hands touch on the doorknob and almost instantly I sober, feeling that instant sharp warm contact as a pulse of something, life, electricity, love, I am not certain; and I want more, more contact, more touching. He sobers as well, looking from our hands to my eyes with a question in his, a question I answer by tightening my hand on his and turning the knob, watching his eyes surrender to the passion in my own, the question forgotten or answered.


        Wake up, sleepy and tired but good tired, need a shower, morning breath, and turn my head to see Fraser. Sitting by the bed. Watching me. Watching me sleep. He looks tired too, but happy. Happier than I've ever seen him look. He's dressed. And I smell coffee. Probably what woke me. Stretch and grin at him.
 He grins back. "Coffee?"
        He went out. Went out and got me Starbuck's, for Chrissake.
        "What time is it?"
        "Considering the fact that you are wallowing less than usual, I think you may safely assume that it's not an ungodly hour of the morning."
        I fumble my watch off the chest. Shit. "It's almost lunch time. How long you been up?"
        "A few hours. I had to walk Diefenbaker. I - " and he stops, suddenly, swallows, blushes.
        Put the coffee on the chest, grab his hands fast, pull him down three inches from my mouth. "No second thoughts here, Frase."
        He closes the gap, a little tongue action before I push him away.
        "No, Fraser, let me brush my teeth, at least. Yuck."
        "You taste wonderful."
        "God, I hope so, because I just remembered I don't even have a toothbrush here."
        "Yes, you do. And clean clothes." And he blushes again.
        This is a fucking dream. No way. "At least tell me you took the GTO."
        "Diefenbaker and I enjoyed the walk."
        "You're too goddamn much, Fraser. Too much. Thanks."
        "It was the least I could do, Ray."
        "True. Considering that it was not even an option last night, there, Cave-mountie."
        Bright red again. "I . . . I do apologise, Ray. I . . ."
        "Fraser. Ben. Do I look mad? Did you have to knock me on the head and drag me back here?"
        "No. In fact, I distinctly recall having a little trouble keeping up with you on the stairs."
        "All right." Lean back, another sip of coffee, shower to come, maybe shower with Fraser. He's watching me again, sees my body's reaction to that thought, and grins, sexy grin, not blushing now.
        "Shall I turn on the shower, Ray?"
        "If you lose some of those clothes on the way, Fraser, I'll know for sure I've died and gone to heaven."
        Coffee's outta my hand and on the table in point three seconds as I get a real kiss and the full effect of that Mountie mouth. He didn't shave yet. Break the kiss, close my eyes, lick the stubble, rub my cheek against it, lick it again.
        "God, Fraser. I can't believe this. You are so fucking sexy."
        He pulls back, a little honest surprise on his face. "I was thinking almost the same thing, Ray."
        "That I can touch you . . ."
        "I need to touch you . . ."
        "That this is a dream . . ."
        "That this is real . . ."
        "Please don't let this be a dream," and I almost whisper it, too serious, voice trembling a little. "Want you, wanted you, Fraser, and having you is even better than wanting you."
        He looks at me a minute, his eyes searching my face, his mouth working a little and then he gives a strange little sigh and pulls me over to him in a gentle hug, a soft kiss, like he's run outta words, hard to believe the Mountie could run outta words. Hard to believe any of this, though, so I'm not going to draw the line right here at disbelief. And believe, right now, fast, that I want a shower, him, lunch, and coffee, all at once, and what I'm probably gonna get is him, shower, coffee, then lunch, in that order, as my hands urge him up on the bed with me.
        He pulls back though, shakes his head, grinning. "No, Ray. You wanted a shower."
        "Want you too."
        "I really don't see that the two are mutually exclusive . . ."
        "Big words turn me on, Fraser."
        "Really? Had I known that I would have used quite a few during the term of our partnership."
        "Oh, I think you used plenty."
        "All right, then, I would have used more. More frequently." And he grins again as he gets to his feet, holding a hand out to me.
        "You probably should have, I'd've jumped your bones a few months ago maybe."
        "We'll have to make up for lost time," he says, pulling me towards the bathroom with him.
        "I am all over that, Fraser."

        Once upon a time
when we were friends
I gave you my heart
The story ends
No happy-ever-after-now-we're-friends
        "All Of My Heart," Lexicon of Love, ABC

        I kinda lope into the precinct, I'm already late, and late for meeting Fraser, what's more. I shoulda done the breakfast thing with him but, damn, I was so tired, I don't know how he pulled himself outta bed to walk Dief. And then in the shower all I could do was stare at the water with a goofy grin on my face. So no wonder I'm late this morning . . .
        I head into the bullpen and see Frannie sitting at her computer sobbing, all kinds of people around her, Welsh included, giant grins on everyone's faces. Welsh sees me first.
        "Of all the days to be late, Kowalski . . ."
        And I look past him to see a tall, dark, balding guy with a big nose standing in the middle of the crowd. I've seen that face before, on a postcard. Didn't realise he was so tall. Taller than Fraser.
 Frannie crying, hearing my real name . . . I'm a little clued in. Vecchio's back.
        "Vecchio back?" I ask and Welsh looks a little surprised.
        And Frannie starts crying harder.
        "Kowalski, my office," Welsh says, outta the blue, as people crowd around Frannie again as she blows her nose, hard.
        "I imagine it's going to be hard to answer to your own name for a while," he says, closing the door.
        "A little. Not much. I like my name better." Don't have to hide that reaction from Welsh, he knows.
        "Siddown. I tried to get you before you left, but I guess you were in the shower."
        Uh oh.
        "Part of the deal was a transfer anywhere you wanted," Welsh says, no preamble. "Where do you want to go?"
        "Where can I go?"
        "Anywhere. Pretty much. I don't know how many strings I can pull for, say, East Bufu, North Dakota, but I got a connection in Willison. And any big city."
        I have never thought about that. Know it's hard to believe but I've been so busy finding myself, and Fraser, that I just never thought about tomorrow, about this.
        "How about Chicago?" I hear myself saying.
        He looks at me, sharp, narrow eyed.
        "Where in Chicago?"
        "27th? Major Crimes?"
        He sighs. Almost sounds relieved. Then smiles. "I definitely got connections there. You'll have to take some time off. Paid. To set it up. Vecchio managed not to blow his cover, so we can't screw it up now."
        "Time off with pay? I dunno, Lieutenant, that's a tough one."
        "Starting now, Kowalski. And try to be inconspicuous when you leave." He sounds gruff but I know him well enough now to know that he's giving me time to come to terms with losing my identity. What I gotta worry about is losing Fraser. Partners, yeah, he and Vecchio. But Fraser's bed action is inspired and somehow we don't talk a whole lot when we're there. Do I have to worry about Vecchio? Vecchio and Fraser, I mean? But Ben's not the fickle type. And he sure seems to feel the same way I feel.
        "Thanks, sir."
        And it's his turn to be surprised at my unusual politeness.
        "I said now, Kowalski! I'll tell the Mountie where you are." And grins, real quick, before frowning.
        No sign of Fraser in the bullpen. Frannie's still crying. People still talking and laughing excitedly as they drift back to their desks. Most of what I overhear seems to concern how dumbfounded and happy Fraser is gonna be. Shit. So I go home. Think. Not think. Wait for Fraser to call.
        Fraser doesn't call. At first I'm not surprised. He's catching up with Vecchio. Yeah. So I call Frannie. She still sounds distracted, more so than usual, and even the mention of Fraser doesn't bring her back to earth.
        "Frase," she says, spacy. "Yeah, he called, Ray. I think. This morning. Before Ray came back."
        "Frannie. Frannie! You listening?"
        "What, Ray?"
        "If he calls again, tell him to call me at home or on the cell. You got that?"
        "Call the Consulate, Ray," she says, and hangs up.
        Shit. Call the Consulate. Get Turnbull. Oh brother. He seems to have the idea that Fraser is on some kind of top secret assignment, tells me that he can't tell me anything about Constable Fraser, not that he's admitting that there is such a person, but if there was, he would be entirely too busy for the next day or two to waste valuable time on the telephone. Turnbull's never forgiven me for that curling crack. So I make another one before hanging up, just to rattle his cage. Toy with the idea of going over there, but might run into Turnbull or, worse, the Ice Queen, and Fraser really isn't there, probably, because Turnbull doesn't seem inclined to lie any more than my Mountie.
        Spend a lotta time, the next day or two, out. Hanging in places from my life before I was Vecchio. Picking up some threads that were in danger of being lost when I had to use another man's name. These kinda people wanna know who they're dealing with and Chicago PD fucking with names and badges and fake ID's worries them, so it was better not to worry them than to try to get 'em to accept it. So no, I'm not home a lot. But I got my cell phone. And Fraser knows the number. But he doesn't call. And at the Consulate, Turnbull's sticking to his story.
        And I'm not getting worried. I'm not. Fraser wouldn't dump me. At least, he wouldn't dump me without one of those rational explanations and a caribou story maybe about a narrow ledge. But silence . . . yeah, silence is a thing he does, a place he goes to work things out. And maybe we're not working out for him. Maybe Vecchio's return is giving him second thoughts. So I'm not gonna play the jealous lover dude out of a Shakespeare play and hammer on his door. He wants me, he'll call.
        A day or two after that, I buy the first pack of cigarettes I've bought since Stella and I split up. And in a scary coincidence, Stella calls. Been a little nicer to me since Christmas, since emotional distance, since dancing. Asks if I wanna go to a show with her. Needs an escort is what she's saying but we might dance and it's dinner so I say, "Sure." I mean, I wasn't good enough for her but at least when she liked me, it was for me and not because I was someone else, and when she dumped me, it was for me, and not for someone else. So there's a kinda continuity in there that's oddly comforting. Got that rug pulled out from under me, all right. Be careful what you wish for, moron.


        I enter the bullpen at the 27th, nearly frantic with worry, worry that I hope I hide well. Being sent to Toronto with hardly enough time to arrange with Turnbull to deliver Dief to Willie and to pack my spare uniform was difficult enough, but although I left a message with Francesca at the division I have not been able to reach Ray on his cell phone for three days. Nor has he been at his apartment, at least not when I've had leisure to call, and his answering machine was evidently full of messages because after interminable beeps, it cut off abruptly.
        And in a terribly confusing and heart wrenching déjà vu there is a tall slim figure bent over Ray's desk, but the build is wrong, the back is wrong, and the shorn head is entirely wrong, and I am breathless with surprise, happiness, and worry underlying it all, worry about Ray, that is, my Ray. Still, I submit to an embrace, a delighted outpouring of "Missed you!" and "You haven't changed a bit, Benny!" and so on. I am nearly speechless but this does not seem to surprise Ray Vecchio. He takes my delight at his return for granted and soon is discussing cases with me as if he left yesterday. This adds to my disorientation: these are cases Ray Kowalski has been working on, with me. And there is no additional desk here. Ray Kowalski isn't here and I already knew that. I would have known even if I hadn't seen that his car was missing, outside. I am certain I would have sensed him if he had been here.
        I am more grateful than I have ever been in my life for Francesca's interruption.
        "Fraser! Where have you been? We've missed you!"
        I stare at her, feeling almost as confused as the day I returned from the north, so many months ago, to find a stranger calling himself Ray Vecchio, a stranger who has since rekindled a golden flame in my heart, a stranger who became my best friend and my lover; a stranger who was a stranger to me for less than an hour before I realised that he was a friend, a kindred spirit.
        "Francesca, I called you. The morning I left, I called you and told you that the inspector was sending me to Toronto immediately. And I asked you to inform Lieutenant Welsh and Ray - " I glance quickly at Ray Vecchio, " - er, Ray Kowalski. Who was at that time still going by the name of Ray Vecchio and was still, in pretense at least, your brother."
        I am, yes, angry. While I can understand her real brother's unexpected return might temporarily drive such an important message out of her head, that it could have done so completely is unbelievable to me. But then, I never have understood women's minds, least of all Francesca's.
        And her face falls in honest shock and bewilderment. "Oh, Fraser, you did. Oh, Fraser, I forgot. I am so sorry!"
        I have forgotten everything else for the moment, Ray Vecchio included. "Where is Ray? Has he transferred out already?"
        "I don't know, Fraser." She grits this out between her teeth, guilt warring with her irritation at me. "Welsh sent him home the morning Ray got back. To maintain Ray's cover, right?"
        The lieutenant. Where is he? I look around and at the wrong moment Ray Vecchio chooses to interrupt.
        "Benny, what about lunch? I'm starving! My treat, just like always."
        And I stare at him for just a moment, honestly confused. Usually my brain can handle many separate and distinct tasks, but at the moment, all of it is bent on Ray, my Ray, where he is, what he is thinking, what he is feeling . . . because I know, in a way that has nothing to do with my love, in a way that is much more basic than that, what a difficult struggle Stella was for him to get over, and the blow to his ego, his self esteem, his essential self, that that episode was for him. And I know what effect three days of silence on my part after what we have shared and not talked about has undoubtedly had on him.
        "I ate on the plane, Ray. Thank you. Perhaps tomorrow." I seize upon an excuse, because at least I am not completely lost to all sense as to harp on Ray Kowalski's absence. "I have to fetch Diefenbaker, I'm sorry."
        "Okay, Frase. Want me to come?"
        No. Oh, please, no. And fate intervenes again with the advent of Detectives Huey and Dewey. "Lunch, Vecchio! Our treat!"
        And Ray Vecchio looks at me, smiles, shrugs a little. I smile back, incredibly relieved. I had not counted on having to deal with Raymond Vecchio so soon in this new relationship, if relationship it indeed is, at present, and I cannot even begin to think about his likely reaction to the news. It will be unwelcome, certainly; and our friendship may not survive the revelation. He is, as most police officers are, slightly if not more than slightly homophobic.
        At last they leave and I see that the lieutenant is in his office, alone. He nods at my request to come in, and looks almost pleased to see me. We hardly have time to get two sentences out, both oddly involving Ray Kowalski - "Is he transferring out?" I ask and "Have you talked to him?" Lieutenant Welsh asks me - before Francesca is knocking on the door.
        "Urgent phone call, Frase. It's your boss."
        I listen for a moment, my heart sinking. Back to Toronto on the afternoon flight.
        "Yes, sir. Yes, I am aware of the location of the airport, I believe. No, sir, I will stop on my way for the reports."
        I hang up and it is with an effort that I raise my head. "May I use your phone, sir?" I must reach Ray. Just to hear his voice, and of course explain that Inspector Thatcher has temporarily lost her mind and assigned me as security liaison to a trade conference in Toronto . . . it sounds so simple, but I don't even know what he wants. If he wanted more than we had.
        "Of course, Constable." But he makes no effort to excuse himself, and this makes the ensuing conversation no easier. And the relief when I hear Ray's voice is superseded quickly by the realisation that evidently I was right, and second and third thoughts have had time to occur to him after three days of silence and perceived rejection, and in all honesty I cannot blame him for being angry and hurt and wanting no more to do with me.


        So I'm hanging out, late afternoon, in my apartment when the phone rings. To my surprise, it's Fraser. Guess he remembered Bell's invention and he hasn't seen me in days and noticed, eventually, that I wasn't around.
        "Hi, Ray." He sounds tentative, but his voice is warm.
        Shake my head, get a grip.
        "Oh, hi, Fraser." Cool. Casual. I'm better at this than I thought.
        He's a little taken aback, starting to get a little worried. "I haven't . . you weren't at the station today and I just got b-"
        "You mean since Vecchio got back?" Took back his life, probably his lover, and incidentally lost my heart somewhere in the shuffle. "Yeah, had stuff to do. Took a couple personal days. In fact, gotta take some time off." Didn't Welsh tell him that? Of course, Welsh isn't really dependable in that area . . . oh, by the way, Fraser, there's a new Ray Vecchio now: how hard could that have been? And spared me an unheard confession in a burning car, at least.
        "Ah, yes." Unsure. Voice a little less controlled. How I can tell that from two syllables, I don't know, but I can. Love does that to you.
        Long silence. I'm not gonna help.
        "I thought perhaps we could . . . talk this afternoon? In a few minutes? At your apartment?" He's rambling now, not quite babbling, but close. Why does he sound so panicky?
        "Uh, no thanks, Fraser, I'm kinda booked. Taking Stella to some show or other she wanted to see." That much is true. And it was a godsend. I hate lying to the Mountie. Yeah, real rational of me, when he can do what he can do to me, but there it is, and I never claimed to be rational.
        "Oh. Stella is . . . Oh."
        "So I'll see you around, okay, Fraser?" When hell freezes over. Or at least after my heart freezes over.
        "Ray . . . I don't understand . . ."
        Did he think I was gonna make a big scene? Break up with him at the precinct, in front of everyone? Did he think that I was gonna give him and Vecchio the satisfaction? And hell, he oughtta know I'm not into these mind games. What you see is what you get with Ray Kowalski. And why does the pain in his voice make me wanna lose it, tell him to get his gorgeous Mountie ass over here and we'll have pizza in bed? This is why it's dangerous to even talk to him, let alone see him. I got no self-control where that man is concerned. No is a word my heart just doesn't understand when it comes to Fraser.
        Steel myself. "Fraser, I'll see you around. Can't hang out at the 27th right now. There can't be two Vecchios." Welsh and Fraser obviously got the same old communication issues they had since my day one. "I gotta go."
        And, knowing it's rude, but not knowing how I can listen to one more word, cut him off by the simple expedient of hanging up the phone.
        He calls back. I don't answer and he doesn't leave a message. Not much to say, to each other or a machine, I guess. He doesn't call again, and he doesn't come over. I'm a little surprised, but not a lot. Saw his face, when he got that postcard from Vecchio. He was in a world of hurt, and he forgot it for a little while with me, but now Vecchio's back and so's Fraser's world.
        Welsh calls a few days later. Tells me I'm transferring in from some other district, ostensibly, in about two weeks.
        Welsh doesn't mention the Mountie and I don't ask. So I'm surprised, a few more days after that, to get another call from Fraser. Not so happy, this time, in fact, pretty darn sad, but trying to hide it.
        "Ray, I just wanted to talk to you," he says, fast, no preamble. He sounds tired too. "In between flights."
        What's he talking about? He always is incoherent, or nearly so, when he's upset and this is no exception.
        "Fraser, what else is there to talk about?" Sound like a chick from a soap opera. No, Stella didn't watch 'em. But my mom did, of course. I hear a loudspeaker in the background. He must be calling from the airport. Maybe he got a transfer. Shit. Holy shit. Cold hands, heart break.
        And I can see his blush as he almost whispers into the phone, "Us."
        I'm not hampered by being at a public phone, so I indulge, let loose.
        "I kinda got the impression there wasn't an us," I say, colder than before. Might as well go for the whole soap thing while I'm at it.
        "Partners and . . . "
        Oh, do not go there, Fraser. Do not do this.
        " . . . friends?"
        "Friends don't let friends sleep with friends," I say, and wait. I can see him getting control of himself. I'm being damned nasty to him, especially given the fact that he can't answer back freely. But what the hell is his problem? He's gone for days at a time, not a word, and then a hurried phone call from the airport? If this is all I rate, maybe the friendship part was overblown too.
        "I see." I can see his face in my head. Seen that look before, when I socked him by the lake. Pretty much says it all. Very softly, so I can hardly hear him, he adds, "I'm very sorry."
        "Not as sorry as I am," I say, and try to sound nasty, and end up just sounding pathetic. Never see him again. Is that possible? Was it that bad, that scary, or is Vecchio that important?
        "Understood," he whispers.
        I say nothing.
        "That's my flight," he says, a little louder. "Goodbye."
        At least I didn't hang up on him this time. "Yeah, Fraser."
        My hand shakes as I light a cigarette and I smoke two in rapid succession, staring at nothing.

        The airport sets up a chain of thought in my head. Airport. Arizona. Phoenix. The niece and nephew I've never seen. The reiterated invitation in every Christmas card, probably never meant seriously. But Mom and Dad are out there for a few weeks, visiting. Go, get outta Chicago a few days, maybe clear my head, let me look at what happened.
        I know what happened.
        But maybe let me deal a little better.
        So I'm sitting in the plane. It was too easy. I didn't even have to tell anyone. Left a message on Welsh's voice mail is all, just letting him know I was going outta town for a few days and when I'd be back. He said I had a couple weeks anyhow, so I know I got time. Maybe I should have left him my brother's number. Nah. He's got my cell.
        And that starts off another train of thought. My cell. It occurs to me that I haven't had to charge it in days. And then I realise I haven't gotten any calls on it in days. I pull it outta my coat, quick, and look at it. I can't turn it on because we're in the air. Shit. I'm pretty sure, though, that it's not working.
        It's not working and Fraser probably did try to call.
        It's not working and Fraser did try to call and here I am on my way to goddamn fucking Arizona.
        It's not working and Fraser did try to call and I treated him like shit when he did finally reach me and here I am on my way to Arizona and there's no way for him to reach me. And if I'm good at jumping to conclusions, the Mountie's not bad himself. Hell, I steered him right off this particular cliff, and in a way that he's probably pretty vulnerable to. I mean, he opened part of himself to me; maybe his heart, maybe not. But let me get pretty closer, closer than friends; and now thinks I dumped him. I left him. Which I'm doing, right now. Just like Vecchio left him. And I close my eyes, hard and fast, to stop the burning in 'em, and I'm glad there's no one in the seat next to me on this part of the flight.
        And it takes me a long time to think about what to do. I can't turn around and go back; already told my parents that I was off for a couple weeks, assignment was over. No work-related excuses to get my ass back to Chicago, find Fraser, let him sock me if that's what he wants, and then screw the hell outta him. Like he'll ever want to see me again.
        I gotta go out there and pretend everything's fine and nothing's happened except that my assignment is over.
        I pick up the phone in my seat and call the Consulate. I get Turnbull, again. Still playing his fucking games. And I can't yell at him, the way I could get through that thick skull if I was alone in my apartment.
        "This is serious, Turnbull. Where is Fraser?"
        "That's need-to-know, Detective."
        "Would that be need-to-know as in you need to know I'm gonna kick your ass if you don't tell me?"
        "No, that would be need-to-know as in if you need to know how to say please and thank you, I would be delighted to assist you. Or if you need to know how to organise a bonspiel, I would be more than delighted to assist you."
        "Sorry, Turnbull, I got no time for housework. Please will you tell me where Fraser is before I kick you in the head?"
        "Constable Fraser is not at present on the premises."
        "Yeah, think we established that, Turnbull. Where the hell is he?"
        "I'm not at liberty to say, sir."
        "Turnbull. I am gonna take you on when I get back. That's a promise. Will you give Fraser a message?"
        "If he calls and when you say please, certainly, Detective."
        I really, really hate Turnbull, but his stubbornness reminds me so much of Fraser that I grin involuntarily.
        "Tell him I'm in Arizona. Tell him my cell is broken."
        "What was that?"
        "Please, Turnbull."
 "I didn't quite hear you."
          "Turnbull, you're gonna hear the sound of your ass hitting the pavement so hard it'll crack. This is important!"
        A long silence. "I'll relay the message, Detective."
        "Thanks, Turnbull."
 "You're welcome."
        "And I already know how to organise a bonspiel, thanks to you and Fraser."
        "It's a pleasure to know that our time in Chicago hasn't been entirely wasted."
        I hang up, trying to think who else I can call. Frannie's a washout. Welsh? Welsh's not one to get involved in his officers' personal lives, and I must be nuts to even think about going there with him; he's my freaking boss and undoubtedly as weirded out as everyone else about two guys. Wish I knew Willie's phone number. Fraser is sure to stay in touch with him. Worries about that wolf almost like it's his kid. Or his best friend.

        Phoenix is every bit as bad as I thought. The niece and nephew are great, of course, and my brother's wife has let my mom in the kitchen, so that's good, but as usual there's no connection with my brother, or his wife, who's a career type like Stella. They got a freaking au pair - probably where Stella and I would've gone, if we'd had kids. And my brother's just as handsome and smart as ever. Talks a lot, makes everyone think. All I could ever do was make everyone laugh. He still smokes though, and we share a few outside on the deck. Yeah, Stella never would let me smoke in the house either.
        But my dad's found another car. A nice one, a '67 Corvette. Not surprising; he attracts them. And, much to my brother's embarrassment, I'm sure, he's rebuilding the engine in the four-car garage. Mess is where the neighbours can't see it, of course. And my dad found someone to lend him an engine hoist, unless he carries it in the trailer. Wouldn't surprise me. Never know when you're going to need to lift an engine, after all.
        So I end up out there with him a lot. My brother was never into this. Never understood the fun of putting pieces together, making things work. All he saw was the sweat and the grease. And yeah, lots of that, but even the freaking garage is air conditioned or swamp cooled or whatever the hell they use out here so I'm not complaining too much. And the kids like to watch, especially my niece, even though she's a little too young to know what's what. And doing the familiar work side by side with my dad in our usual silence helps me sort stuff out with Fraser. My dad would keel over of a heart attack if he could hear those words in my head, but he can't. Get it straight, finally.
        Fraser's not fickle.
        Fraser's probably glad Vecchio's back. They were friends.
        Fraser's the best friend I ever had.
        I'm the stupidest guy on the face of the earth.
        Cell phones suck.
        I suck.
        Yeah, getting it sorted out.


        To my surprise Turnbull is still at the Consulate, despite the lateness of the hour, and he takes my knapsack and bedroll from me with surprising dexterity.
        "What on earth are you still doing here, Turnbull?" I ask, stupidly, I realise.
        "Inspector Thatcher asked me to remain tonight to ensure that you arrived safely."
        "I'm going home now," I say, confusion mounting.
        "No, sir, you're not." He sounds oddly sympathetic. "In fact, sir, I don't understand why you don't just remain in Toronto until the end of the conference."
        Neither do I, but I cannot say that aloud, and I have begun to understand that I am to leave again in the morning. How much are we spending on plane tickets? The conference must be picking up the costs.
        "I need to go home," I say, without thinking. Snow. Trees. My cabin. Solitude.
        And to my surprise, again, Turnbull understands. "Civilisation has that effect on me too, sir." He turns and heads down the hall towards my office. "I've taken the liberty of setting your cot up again. I'll wake you in time for your flight."
        I follow him and sit almost blindly on the cot, exhaustion warring with thought in my brain. "Ray."
        Turnbull has turned out the light and is standing in the doorway.
        "He called, sir."
        Fatigue is stealing over me, and I fight it back.
        "Who called?"
        "Ray. The old Ray. Who I suppose is the new Ray, really, now that the old Ray is back."
        I close my eyes and fight back both sleep and frustration.
        "Ray Vecchio or Ray Kowalski?"
        "Both, actually, sir. Detective Kowalski called from Arizona to tell you his cell is broken."
        Obviously sleep is winning the fight.
        "He said," Turnbull repeats patiently, "that he is in Arizona. And that his cell is broken."
        Too tired to think clearly, my brain seizes on the only part of Constable Turnbull's statement that is fairly easy to comprehend. Arizona. He transferred after all. Without a goodbye. He left. And I am not surprised, not really; there was nothing to hold him here. There is no reason that my fate should differ this time. And I let hopelessness and despair wash over me as sleep succeeds them, blessed darkness and absence of thought.
        A hurried phone call to Ray Vecchio in the morning does little to lift my spirits although I am glad to hear that he is fitting back in to his old life. He mentions that the lieutenant has told him he is to have a new partner in a few days, transferring in from somewhere else. He doesn't seem to know anything about Ray Kowalski's transfer to Arizona and I know better than to do more than enquire casually. He is sharper even than he was before he went away, I can tell that in the short periods of time I've managed to spend with him. And he has a harder edge, his soft heart either well hidden or perhaps injured beyond repair from the events of the past year.
        I hang up and get up from my desk.
        "You have a few minutes," Turnbull says from the door. "Don't you want to try Detective Kowalski too?"
        I am still confused, obviously.
        "In Arizona?"
        "He probably has his cell phone fixed by now. It's a satellite network, sir, you know that."
        "Of course I do. But I see no reason to call him."
        "He said it was important. Important to tell you that he was calling from Arizona."
        "I assume he wanted me to know about his transfer. So consider the message delivered, Constable, and thank you."
        "He didn't mention a transfer, sir. In fact, in the course of his, er, colourful conversation, he said that he was going to, er, take me on when he got back. And made, of course, a slighting reference to curling."
        I cannot help myself. I put my head down briefly, my fingers pinching the bridge of my nose, trying to force reason and comprehension back into my brain. However, the hope that is sluggishly stirring there is making reasoned thought difficult. That, and of course, fatigue, and the continued proximity to Turnbull's extremely odd sense of humour.
        "The taxi is here, sir." Turnbull picks up my knapsack and walks out of my office. He has a kind heart. More than kind: he prepared my uniform for me, this morning or last night. And he seems genuinely concerned about Ray Kowalski. Or me. However, it is difficult for me to believe that he could be right, and I wrong, about the transfer. I shake my head, harder than I should, and follow him to the taxi.


        Next time I call the Consulate, right before I leave Arizona, Turnbull is a changed man.
        "Detective Kowalski, how very pleasant to hear from you."
        "Yeah, sure, Turnbull. I'm not joining your curling team so quit buttering me up. Fraser in?"
        "No, sir, but he will be."
        "Yes, quite probably."
        "So, what, he's got today off?"
        "I doubt it."
        "Is he gonna be there tomorrow at six or not, Turnbull?"
        "Yes, Detective."
        "Was that hard? Was that so hard? See, we can coöperate. I'll call. See ya tomorrow."
        "Oh, good. We can cover the strategy for the upcoming bonspiel; you'll be delighted to know that you're to be the lead."
        "Yes, Detective?"
        "You listening?"
        "Yes, Detective."
        "Sweep!" I yell as loud as I can, and slam down the phone. My brother, walking in the room, looks at me with his patented I-got-the-weirdest-brother-in-the-world look. He's had it since he was about ten, near as I can remember. "You like curling?" I say.
        "You know. Housework on ice?"
        "You haven't changed much," he says, and walks out of the room again.
        "You either," I mutter.

        Turnbull came through. The voice that answers Fraser's phone is, finally, Fraser. I waited until five-thirty to call him. It was hard to pick up the phone.
        "Hey, Frase."
        Silence. Probably stunned. But calm-voiced, when he finally does answer me. "Ray."
        "Lissen, we gotta talk. Be over at six to get you, 'kay?"
        "Ray, I really don't think - "
        "Oops, gotta go, Frase. See you soon."
        And I turn off the cell so he can't call back and cancel, light a smoke, and take the GTO out for some gas. Don't wanna face Fraser, but I do. Want him to maybe pop me, make up for my stupidity. It's not gonna be fun, but it has to be done, no point in running. I know he doesn't wanna see me, but if maybe I can apologise, explain, he'll know it wasn't his fault. Was mine, mine and the stupid cell's. My insecurity, jealousy, all that crap. All that crap that makes it even more incredible that Fraser ever wanted to be pals in the first place and . . . face, suddenly, the reality that I might not even get pals back, let alone . . . well, what we were. Partners. Friends. Lovers?

        I lift my hand to open the Consulate door and it opens at the same moment and the Ice Queen comes out. She looks way surprised to see me. She's probably the person who's enjoyed the last few weeks the most. But she says hello. Almost, but not quite, friendly. And then she says, "Constable Fraser is just finishing up. It . . .it's very, er, thoughtful of you to, er, resume giving him rides home."
        What the hell?
        "Uh, sure."
        Is she saying he missed me? Is she saying she's glad to see me? No way.
        "I understand that Detective Vecchio has returned," she ventures. "I'm quite sorry that I had to send Constable Fraser to Toronto so often at such a time."
        What the HELL?
        "Fraser went to Toronto?"
        She looks puzzled. "Well, yes. I thought that's why we hadn't seen much of you. Security for some trade negotiations for the Canadian softwood industry, and I thought it a good opportunity for him to rub shoulders with some of the brass, and of course a chance to get home for a little while, although it is not the same as permanently."
        So Thatcher's tardy attempts to make nice with Fraser totally screwed up our relationship. Well, that and the fact that I suck and so do cell phones. Our three days, that is, if you can call that a relationship. And I couldn't feel any stupider if Turnbull walked up and handed me a feather duster. I've been quiet too long. She's looking at me funny.
        "Carry on," she says, almost sharply, and walks away. I step inside the still-open door.
        Minutes go by. Days go by. I try not to think about what we have to talk about, 'cause I'll just wanna run again. I stand in the Consulate hallway for a long moment, remembering and trying not to remember . . . here . . . partners and friends. Where I started to really believe him. Where I tumbled helplessly, hopelessly, head over heels in love with him without even knowing it. And Fraser steps out of his office, sees me, and puts his Mountie mask firmly in place on that impassive face, no emotions in those clear blue eyes. I try cracking a lame joke: "Wanna get a six pack, Fraser?" and realise, instantly, wrong thing to say. See a look of shock, bleak despair, and hopeless pain before he manages to shove those emotions back down inside somewhere again. And wonder where he puts 'em, and how he keeps 'em in.
        "Sorry, Fraser."
        He stands in the door of his office, contained, his face partly in shadow.
        "I'm back."
        "I see that, Ray."
        "Went to Arizona." Now I'm babbling.
        "So I was given to understand." Cold. Unyielding.
        "We gotta talk, Fraser."
        He is quiet for so long, unmoving, that my panic turns to sickness.
        "No, Ray," he says quietly. "Upon reflection, I think that would be a mistake."
        "Fraser, please - "
        "Ray - " and suddenly I hear his voice shake as he actually interrupts me, that polite to the death Mountie, overrides me, "please. I am not punishing you. I simply . . . I simply can't. I can't talk. I'm sorry, Ray." And he turns on his heel, guilt, fear, and shame warring in his eyes, and walks back into his office, his Mountie back straighter than I've ever seen it. Dief whimpers at me and then follows him at a trot. Fraser carefully does not slam the door behind them.
        I wanna yell at him, wanna run after him and sock him. Where does he get off saying stuff like that and just turning and walking away? I blew it. Blew it big time. He's making it real clear how he feels about us, or, rather, not-us, not partners and for sure not friends; friends don't let friends sleep with friends, my God, did I say that to him, and to my horror I feel tears start to my eyes. God, no. Not here. Not in the Consulate. Not in front of Turnbull, who's undoubtedly here somewhere. Gotta get control. Gotta get to the GTO.
        Seeing him again . . . I don't give a damn if he doesn't wanna have sex again, if only I can see him and talk to him. I'm so pathetic that I still love him. I wanna beg him to be friends, or at least acquaintances, at least try to get back on the same footing that I have with, say, Stella, where I can call her to ask her a simple question about work or something. I have no pride left. All I want is Ben. And I can't have him. Threw him away. And I never even got to tell him that I loved him. I don't think it would matter.
        He's got Vecchio. He doesn't need me. Maybe never did, except as a substitute.
        I don't know what to think any more and I head to the GTO.
        Drive to the lake. And wonder if the undertow is as dangerous as Fraser always said it was. And remember the Henry Anderson. Drowning wasn't so scary. Everything just kinda got black there at the end. Wasn't too bad, after the first panic was over. I park the car, lock it, and set off towards the water, kinda on autopilot, chain-smoking on autopilot too.
        I smell snow on the water and snow sets off a chain reaction in my mind leading inevitably back to Fraser. Everything in my head, everything in my life leads back to Fraser. I stick out my tongue to taste the first few flakes as they begin to fall. Oh God they taste like Fraser. And then I'm sitting with my back against the cold breakwater and the snow is burning my eyes. I know snow's cold. It's so cold it burns like tears.


        Seeing Ray, here in the Consulate, was torture, torture akin, I am sure, to some of the mental and emotional methods utilised by the Spanish Inquisition. And although I want nothing more right now than to talk to him, listen to him, something inside me is frightened to death. I am close to genuine despair. There is nothing we can say, now, to make it right. How can words change our feelings? It has been too difficult. I have managed to deal with the pain until now. I do not think I could deal with the pain of simply talking to Ray and then having him walk out of my life again. Thoughts of oblivion have been haunting me upon occasion; in such a scenario I do not know if I would have the strength left to disregard or ignore such thoughts. And yet part of me wants to turn back, to run, to find him, to beg forgiveness, to at least be allowed to look at him and listen to him again. After these weeks without him, I would be content with that. But he no longer needs me, if he ever did. Perhaps all he needed was a warm body, for a time. Certainly love was not an issue at all. For him.
        As I walk slowly back to my lonely, dark apartment the cold, stinging wind brings tears of pain to my eyes. I am grateful it is not snowing. I need no further reminder of how dangerous love is.

        misjudged your limit
pushed you too far
took you for granted
Ithought that you needed me more
        "Boys Don't Cry," Boys Don't Cry, The Cure

        I am brooding. The word is appropriate. I prepared Diefenbaker's dinner and my own, and now I can think of nothing. That's not entirely true. I am trying to think of nothing. As hard as I try not to do so I think of Ray and no matter how firmly I push him from my thoughts he continues to intrude.
        I do not know how long I stand at my window, staring at the darkness, unable to see the pavement that I know is there, watching the first few flakes of snow swirling through the air, when finally Diefenbaker barks at me. He rarely does that. He barks again, and looks at the window too.
        Ah, snow. Of course. And it's not very late. Activity will help. It always does. "Good thinking, Diefenbaker," I tell him as I get my coat.
        As we walk to the lake an ugly word intrudes in my thoughts. A word that I shrink from facing but a word that is applicable nonetheless. That word is cowardice. If Ray has something he needs to say to me, I must listen. I owe him that. I have the strength to listen and to watch him walk out of my life again. I am a Mountie.
        Diefenbaker is overjoyed by the fact that it's snowing. Spring is on its way and he knows that. He is determined to make the most of this weather while it lasts. He runs in circles around me, huffing delightedly, as we head towards the water. "No swimming," I say sternly. "Yes, I realise that it is balmy compared to Prince Rupert Sound but I am not the possessor of a fine fur coat and I do not wish to effect a rescue at night in 34 degree weather." He runs at the small waves anyway. Willful. There is no other word for it.
        "Diefenbaker," I call sternly, knowing it is useless. I begin to walk up the beach towards the next breakwater. Diefenbaker keeps pace with me, occasionally running up to me as if to invite me to frolic with him in the waves. I find a flattish rock leading up to the park and sit to watch. Diefenbaker is puzzled by this. The waves are much more interesting to play in than to watch. After a few moments he comes to sit in front of me, his head cocked, and although he is wet and smells of the lake, I am overwhelmed with love for him and I uncharacteristically hug him and then continue to hold him until he grows impatient. I take Diefenbaker for granted far too often. He is the one constant in my life.
        He is circling now, casting, having picked up an interesting scent. He finds it and heads up towards the next breakwater. I only hope it's not a particularly pungent fish. Last time it was a dead gull, not quite as bad as a dead caribou, but in the confines of my apartment almost as hallucinogenic. On the other side of the breakwater he barks, twice, sharply, and then is silent. Rolling in the fish, or gull, no doubt. Wolves can be so predictable.
        After a few minutes, he barks again, and his head appears over the rocks. I stand and motion to him, calling him at the same time. He is not close enough to read my lips, so I begin to walk towards him. He leaps over the top of the breakwater then, and trots towards me. I am relieved that he is not preceded by the scent of anything worse than the lake water and we turn and head back down the beach together. After a few moments I reach to pet him on the scruff, and I feel a damp spot. A warm, damp spot, too high on his neck to be from the water. Curious, I lean down to sniff it, and then taste it. It tastes salty. Odd. Very odd. Where did Dief . . .? And then I place the scent overlaid on his own, a familiar scent mixed with an unfamiliar overtone of tobacco smoke, and without a word to Dief I turn and run towards the further breakwater.
        There is no one there, of course. But I can feel the warmth in the rock that indicates someone was there quite recently. I lean down to sniff it and know that I am right. Ray was here. Ray was so close. And yet he left, though he must have heard me. I lean down to the rock and press my lips to the fading warmth. To the casual observer this might appear to be a romantic gesture but I am trying to judge with the most sensitive part of my body how long Ray has been gone. Not long, I am sure. And I turn, quickly, and begin running towards the parking lot. Diefenbaker quickly catches up to me and I mouth to him as we run, "Find Ray." This is probably difficult but on the other hand Ray was just petting him so some scent trace should linger. Diefenbaker casts a moment and then heads off to the right, to a path leading to a northerly parking lot.
        A few more minutes and Ray comes into view, head down, hands buried deep in pockets, shoulders tense, walking fast but not running.
        Dief barks and bounds forward. Ray freezes for an instant and then walks faster, trying to ignore thirty-seven kilograms of determined wolf bent on slowing him down.
        This gives me time to catch up to them.
        He looks at me with a heart-wrenching tremble in his face.
        "Your wolf's making intimate with me again," he says, in a show of bravado, an attempt at humour.


        Dief's licking my hands all over. Guess he can't reach my face.
        Fraser is silent for a moment. I don't know why. Almost like he's steeling himself for something, but when he opens his mouth the words are not ones that seem to need that.
        "When you suggested that we talk, I said no. I was wrong. I am sorry, Ray. We do have unfinished business. If you still wish to talk, I imagine, given your tendency to volatility, that this talk should occur where we might expect some reasonable degree of privacy." He rubs an eyebrow with his knuckle as he says this, and despite the fact that he's being so damn cold and formal that's enough to show me that he's more affected than he's letting on
        "Good plan," I say. Got control over my voice again. Head for the car, Fraser walking in silence next to me.
        Man, it's just too weird, walking like this, hearing his voice; can imagine for a few seconds at least that the last few weeks never even happened. I risk a glance at Fraser but can't tell anything from his face.
        Without thinking I light up a cigarette after we get in the car. Catch a quick sideways glance from Fraser, startled, almost shocked, definitely unhappy, before he remembers, and stares ahead again, seat belt fastened. Shit. Yeah. He's not gonna like the smoking, knew that. But it probably doesn't matter. This conversation is mostly just an ending, I think. Emotional distance. Gotta get me some of that.
        Two cigarettes later we pull up in front of Fraser's place. I'm smoking them fast and ostentatious, trying to get a reaction outta him. He manages to restrain himself. Damn. I was hoping for a Mountie tongue lashing, polite of course, as only Fraser can give them. Anything to get him started talking.
        We walk up the steps to Fraser's place, my heart getting heavier as we go. I don't know how to talk about what we need to talk about, how to begin to overcome the wedge I've driven between us. Don't think I can.
        Fraser opens the door. Nothing's changed. A campstool, a table with two chairs, an armchair, a stool/table, his dad's trunk, a bed. The bed. "Have a seat, Ray," he says. "I'll make some --"
        "Twig tea, I know," I finish. "Yeah, whatever. And feed Dief," who is gazing hungrily at Fraser's red Mountie back.
        "He's been fed. He's just begging shamelessly."
        He busies himself with the tea kettle, the homely tasks he does with all the grace and efficiency I remember. The silence grows longer and longer. He's not gonna make this easy on me, after all.
        But I've never seen him so cool, so composed, and I'm starting to get freaked out. And I know -- I know this iron self-control is nothing new, but this ruthless application of it is. No one, but no one, is going to be allowed to get close to him again. Especially not me.

        It doesn't occur to me until after the silence has gone on for a long time that I am not making things easy for him. For this talk. But I have grown used to silence, and although I will never grow used to the loneliness it has been such an integral part of my life that I am comfortable with it.
        How to tell Ray -- and I realise I can't-- that just having him here, talking instead of ranting, being able to look at him, hear his voice, catch a whiff, every now and then, of the scent that is peculiarly his own, that all this is more than I've dared hope for in the past few weeks. That I am hoping perhaps we can at least salvage a friendship from the debacle that sex became. But I begin to understand that he is more than nervous; undoubtedly he feels guilty, and above all thinks my silence is punishment. Finally I look at him.
        "I wasn't aware you smoked." I say the first thing I think of, in the forefront of my brain, and realise too late that I sound cold and quite critical.
        And he sits back, his eyes shuttered. Then he suddenly leaps to his feet, says, "I can't do this!" in a strangled voice, and walks to the door. I sigh inwardly. I knew it had been too much to expect that we might find some common ground, some way to bridge this horrible gap between us. I look back down at my tea, and realise that my shoulders have slouched. I straighten them with an effort. Then I feel his eyes on me as he reaches the door and I force myself to sit up even straighter, to meet his eyes. Abruptly he walks back over to the table and stands, looking down at me for a long moment.
        "I can't talk with you looking at me with those eyes, " he says harshly. Reflexively I close my eyes. Amazingly, he snorts at that and I open them to see him grinning at me. How I've missed that smile.
        "No, Fraser, not what I was thinking," he says, still grinning.
        I could look at him all day, the planes of his face, his hair, those eyes - but I know that that's because I love him, and that's not what he wants to tell me.
        "We could sit back to back," I suggest, pointing at the bedroll. I, too, know how difficult it can be to speak under such circumstances as these.
        "Yeah," he says after a moment. "Good idea."
        I carry my tea over and sit, cross-legged, realising that I still have my uniform on but not wanting to destroy the fragile mood by leaving to change and knowing that changing in the room is out of the question. He will either interpret it as indifference, or worse yet, as some kind of taunt. I feel him settle down at my back, cross-legged too. We sit for a while in an almost companionable silence. He is, as always, the first to break it, and his question is not what I expect.
        "When did you go to Toronto, Fraser?"
        I blink, taken aback.
        "I've been there quite a bit in the past few weeks, Ray. Inspector Thatcher is evidently attempting to rehabilitate me in the eyes of the RCMP. I left a message for you with Francesca the day I left. The day Ray Vecchio returned, I understand."
        "And you called me."
        "We . . . we didn't talk then. And then I had to go back for over a week. When I returned, you were gone."
        A few moments later, he says, quietly, "Thought you didn't want to be with me any more."
 "After we . . . after you and I . . ."
        He rescues me. "Yeah," he says simply.
        I knew that. Knew that my actions have caused this incredible misunderstanding. I try to slow my breathing, my heartbeat, to calm down. My misery returns in a full, black wave. I hope that an apology might get through this time. Quietly I say, "Ray, I'm the one who owes you an apology. I'm so sorry. This is entirely my fault. I didn't realise . . ."


        I can't believe my ears. Is the Mountie apologising? To me? "Damn it, Fraser," I yell, startling us both, "how the hell is it your fault that I'm a jackass?"
        I turn while I'm yelling, grab him by the shoulders - shoulders my hands remember all too well - and give him a little shake. He stares at me with those blue eyes, a lingering look of despair in them, still holding his emotions in check. His cheek muscle twitches as he looks back at me.
        "It is, Ray," he says with that stubborn set to his jaw. "Not that I for one second think you're a . . ." he blushes, can't bring himself to use such a word, "it is my fault. You see . . . " he struggles a moment, then gets it out, "Victoria left. Ray - Ray left. " He's beginning to lose some of that iron control, that muscle in his cheek jumping now.
        I don't need him to finish the sentence. And me. So it's his fault that he chooses rotten, selfish people to love?
        "And I thought perhaps you had transferred to Arizona. I . . . misunderstood." Quietly. Like he's confessing to a major sin.
        "Yeah, well, get that idea outta yer thick head, " I snarl. And I see the bleak pain wash over his face before he blinks, regains control.
        I stand up fast, walk over to the window. Can't believe after all I've done to him he can sit there and blame himself. Unbelievable. And suddenly nothing seems more important than stopping that guilt, at least the part that I caused, right here and now. I feel his eyes on me and turn, surprising a warm expression off his face. I don't have time to process that look.
        I say rapidly, "I've been stupid. Nothing new. I suck, you know that. I just found out that you went to Toronto; and my cell phone was broken. I just found that out too. You did call. You did try to explain and I didn't listen. I'm sorry, Ben." I see the shock grip him at the sound of his name, the name I know I've forfeited all right to use. I'm looking for the right words. "When I think . . . instead of just reacting . . . I don't think that you are capable of that kind of behaviour."
        He gets to his feet in a rush, comes to stand in front of me for a long moment, his clear blue-grey eyes searching my face. And incredibly I see a glow of happiness begin in those same eyes and I feel myself begin to breathe faster. Somehow I found the right words. He reaches out, tentatively touches my arm, and then draws his hand back. I try to ignore the warmth of that touch.
        "We got more to talk about, Frase," I say as I walk back to the bedroll and sit down again, my back to him. A long moment, and then I hear him come over, sit down -- and lean his back gently against mine. I relax into his back and think about where to start.
        Predictably, I start with Stella. But that's pretty familiar territory for Frase and me. Still, it's gotta be said, and I don't want to tackle the hard stuff yet. The sex. Or maybe it won't be so hard. Maybe it was Toronto, and not me. My voice trails into silence, my last reassurance about Stella and me bringing a nod from him that I can only feel.
        I feel him relax back against me. I want to talk about Vecchio. But I don't want to bring him up. And I sure don't want to bring up sex.
        "Dinner, Ray," Fraser says suddenly, getting up. "Omelets?" It's growing dark, and he lights the lantern, sets it by the bedroll.
        "Sure, whatever, Frase," I agree. And sit, watching him, until they're ready. We eat 'em out of tin plates, still sitting back to back. I hardly taste it, although I'm sure that it's excellent, 'cause Frase just doesn't do anything badly.
        We sit for a while longer in silence. And I gotta spoil it.
        "So tell me about Vecchio, " I say.
        "Well, actually, Ray, you've probably heard a great deal about Ray Vecchio in the last year or so," Fraser says, sounding surprised.
        "No, I mean, since he got back." And what was your relationship with him, before I came along? But I'm too scared to ask that, 'cause I don't wanna know the answer.
        "Oh. Oh, I see. Ah. Yes. Everyone is delighted to have him back, of course. As I am. It's a trifle . . . a trifle difficult to make this adjustment, especially as I seem to have to fly to Toronto at every turn."
        What's he talking about? What adjustment? For a guy who can talk so well, Fraser doesn't always make a lot of sense.
        "Well, from being part of the, er, Mob to being part of the police force again. Part of a team again."
        Ah, I get it. A partnership. Again.
        I stretch my legs out and lean back against him, glance at my watch. Seems like we've been here half the night, but it's only nine-thirty. Then I hear a step in the hall. Fraser stiffens: he obviously recognises it. So I know who it is before I even hear his voice.


        "Hey, Benny, ya home?" I don't knock, just walk in, still talking, wanting to belong somewhere again and Benny's the safest place I know to do that. New apartment, same old open door policy. "I thought I'd see if you wanna -" and I stop dead, taking in the two sitting back to back on Fraser's bedroll, the empty tin plates, the lantern, the silence I interrupted. I get nervous, get mad, try to hide it. These feelings are things that can't be allowed to control me. Not any more. I walk over to stand by them. The blond guy must be Kowalski. The guy who took over for me at the 27th. He doesn't look like me but I hear he was an okay cop. And having him here made what I was doing there possible. So howcome I don't like him? Right away? Is it the clothes, the attitude, or the fact that he's buddies with my Mountie, my best friend who I haven't seen in over a year?
        "Hello, Ray," says Fraser finally, with a note in his voice that makes me look at him sharply. I sigh inside. Fraser likes this guy. I knew that. I'd have to be blind not to see that. Can't see why the friendship of this scruffy-looking guy is so important to Fraser, but I'm glad that he found someone to watch out for him while I was gone. I am glad.
        "This some kind of Inuit ritual, Benny?" I ask.
        "We were talking, " says Kowalski, getting to his feet. "You must be Vecchio. The real deal." He holds out a hand, a little tentatively, a silver bracelet swinging from his wrist. I wait a long moment to take it, to take control of the situation and him, and wish I could shake this Mob crap, wish I could be myself again. His eyes narrow. He knows what I'm doing, and the clasp of our hands is cursory at best. He's shorter than me, hasn't shaved in a couple of days, favours tight T-shirts and a shoulder holster. Yeah, pretty scruffy. And what's with the bracelet? It's not like a St. Christopher medal or anything.
        "The one and only," I say, and hear, again, not-my-voice come out of my mouth. Fraser, getting to his feet, looks at me oddly.
        "I hear my transfer's still in the works," Kowalski says.
        "I don't hear much about it," I say. I made sure of that. I made it clear I wasn't interested in what went on before. I have to move on with my life now. And Welsh never did share much with me. But I don't want to betray my ignorance by asking where Kowalski's transferring to, and I wonder if Fraser knows. I doubt it, or he'd have mentioned it.
        "Well, paid time off, never a problem for me," Kowalski says with a twisted grin. "Keeps me outta trouble." He's got a funny kind of voice, a little raspy, talks fast.
        And Benny looks at him with a real smile and says, in a tone of voice he used to reserve for me, "As if anything could."
        "Well, you hang in Toronto, how're you gonna know? Unless you check in with Stella," Kowalski says. His voice is teasing but there's a sharpness in his tone, almost a challenge.
        A brief flash of darkness of Fraser's face but he responds in kind. "I believe that the travelling is over for the nonce."
        "For the what? English, Fraser, please."
        "Perhaps the Americans ought to make the effort to learn real English," Fraser says to me, trying to include me in the conversation.
        I don't bite. I want Kowalski to leave. But I can't be overtly rude or Benny'll get upset with me, and that's not what I want to happen. So I just smile a little Family smile and nod at both of them.
        Finally Kowalski picks up my vibes. "Anyway, Frase, I got some things to take care of. I'll see ya, huh?"
        "Yes, of course, Ray."
        I roll my eyes, fast, so Fraser doesn't see me. Not sure why Kowalski has to ask permission to see Fraser. Maybe they're not such good buddies as everyone seems to think. And I know for sure that they haven't been hanging out together at all in the past couple weeks, when, that is, Fraser's not in Canada.
        "Hey, you don't have to leave on my account," I say, enjoying goading him.
        "I'm not," Kowalski says, pretty calm, as he pulls his jacket off a kitchen chair and walks to the door, shaking a cigarette out of a pack in his pocket as he goes. Fraser follows him, then looks back and says, "Excuse me for a moment, Ray," and steps into the hall after Kowalski.
        "Night, Vecchio," Kowalski calls back.


        Seeing Fraser again, seeing his eyes warm up again instead of being ice blue, makes me feel invulnerable, like I can handle anything, even Vecchio. I wanna touch Fraser -- wanna kiss him goodbye -- but that's insane. We're not there yet, if we can ever get back to "there," and Vecchio's probably got his ear glued to the other side of the door.
        Which reminds me. I fiddle with my lighter.
        "Maybe you should, um, call me Stan now."
        Fraser looks really confused, his attention distracted by the lighter.
        "Ray? Ray?" I say patiently.
        "Oh." He thinks for a moment. "Ah." Another silence. He shakes his head. "I am afraid, despite my initial, er, reluctance, that I cannot think of you as anything else except Ray."
        Secretly I'm a little relieved. Gone by Ray since college, where it was practically a matter of survival. Even my parents use it now. Sometimes. Dad mostly calls me Stanley when he's trying to make a point.
        "'Kay. I'll see ya, Frase, " I say, smiling at him. And he smiles back - that incredibly sweet, shy smile that makes my heart turn over -- and mouths, "After work?" at me. I nod, and then realise that he too thinks Vecchio is listening. And realise also that he hasn't - doesn't know how, probably - told Vecchio about us. Not that I could. Wouldn't know where to start. And, hell, there isn't an us any more, anyhow, thanks to me. But maybe still pals. At least that.
        We gaze at each other for a moment longer and then I walk away, taking refuge in the familiar routine of lighting up.
        Oddly enough, I go home to find a message from Welsh on my machine. The transfer's fixed. I can come in the next morning. It's a damn good thing I've started to patch things up with Fraser because with Vecchio's hostility it's gonna be a lot harder than it had to be. And Fraser's talking to me. He's talking to me. At least we got back to there.

When your world is full of strange arrangements
And gravity won't pull you through
You know you're missing out on something
Well that something depends on you
        "The Look of Love," Lexicon of Love, ABC


        Fraser comes back in, the shadow of a grin on his face, like an echo. Been a long time since I've seen that. I'm sitting at the table again, scratching Dief. I raise my eyebrows. "So?" I say.
        "Hmm," he says, and I feel myself slowly go crazy.
        "Hmm? Cut it out, Benny. What's up?"
        Fraser looks at me, a little startled. "What do you mean, Ray? We haven't seen much of each other with the Toronto conference. He took some time to go to Arizona."
        I want to know more. Wanna know what they talked about, where Kowalski's going, why Fraser looks so content again - but I know questions are generally useless. Still, I try.
        "What was it all about, anyhow? The precinct's pretty sure you two had a falling out."
        Fraser grins then, and shakes his head. "A comedy of errors, I'm afraid. I am glad that the trips to Toronto are finished."
        "Who's Stella?"
        "His ex-wife. You've met her. Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski."
        "Oh, yeah. Guess there couldn't be two people with that name. That's pretty weird. So they getting back together?" I don't really care, I'm just trying to get Fraser to talk. But I hit a nerve, obviously.
        "No." Firmly. "I don't think so." Not quite so firm.
        "What's it matter, Frase? It's not like you got designs on him," I say, grinning, and nudging him.
        Innocent Mountie looks startled for a minute, and then relaxes, slowly. "Uh, no, er, not exactly, I mean . . ."
        It's all I can do not to laugh at him. I'm surprised he even got the joke, but he has been in Chicago a while now.
        "It's simply that, er, Ray, Ray Kowalski, that is, has had a difficult time getting over her. And I don't think she still loves him. I don't understand it. But I do understand - and this is between us, Ray - that he has told me in the past that he is still in love with her."


        As I say those words to Ray Vecchio, despising myself for their disingenuity, I feel a lance of pain in my chest. Ray Kowalski has never said he loves me. And undoubtedly he doesn't. But I can settle for that, now. The past few months have taught me that giving love is better than having none at all. And if I can look at him, talk to him, that will be enough. It's more than I thought possible, two days ago. To have him in my life again, even as a friend, is more important than anything else I can think of at the moment. To have him here, talking, even smiling . . . I am aware now, through its absence, of a pain that was far deeper than I had cared to admit to myself.
        "Yeah, she's pretty good-looking," Ray agrees. "And you know I was just teasing you about the other. He doesn't seem the type, and we all know what a straight arrow you are."
        These words pain me, of course. I don't doubt that I don't seem to be "the type." And I think, actually that I'm not, just that the person I love happens to be the "wrong" sex. But Ray's words drive home the impossibility of the situation. And I am grateful that neither of us seems to be "the type," if we were to embark on a life filled with subterfuge. But that's definitely taking too much for granted based on one, brief conversation.
        "What do you think about the Edmonton case, Ray?" I ask, attempting to change the subject as Ray gets one of his beers out of the refrigerator.
        "We'll have it cleared up soon," Ray says, with atypical confidence. "Kowalski did good leg work. Looks like, anyhow. We'll see when the chips are down."
        I try not to let that hurt. Ray Vecchio doesn't know Ray Kowalski. Hasn't been under fire with him. Hasn't been trapped on a sinking ship with him. Hasn't watched him drive a motorcycle through a window. Hasn't played hockey with him. And again I wonder at Ray Vecchio's hostility.
        He sips his beer, staring moodily at the floor. The moodiness at least hasn't changed.
        "What's with the bracelet?" he asks suddenly.
        I blink. I've never thought about it. It's just a part of Ray Kowalski that I've accepted. An essential Ray oddity that, in fact, I enjoy. Not to mention the purely sensual effect of seeing the silver beads encircle his finely-boned wrist . . .
        Probably not a good idea to think those sorts of thoughts right now, for more reasons than one.
        "I don't know," I say. "Why don't you ask him?"
        "If I get the chance I will. Where's he transferring to?"
        Evidently not Arizona, I think to myself, and am suddenly much happier than I ought to be. "I forgot to ask him," I say, and think that I must rectify that omission as soon as possible. I am not unreasonable, I think, to hope that it is at least in or around Chicago.
        He apparently thinks that's enough time to waste on Ray Kowalski and brings up a new subject.
        "Hey, you know Elaine's getting' married? To my best buddy from the Academy? My second partner? Carl Oberst?"
        Yes, I was aware of the upcoming nuptials although unaware of Ray Vecchio's involvement, if it may be called that. Elaine and I have kept in touch, cursory, at times, but touch nonetheless. "I believe she told me a month or two ago," I say calmly. "She has asked me to contribute to the ceremony." I wonder if I ought perhaps to purchase a guitar. It would not, after all, be an indulgence. Well, not much of one.
        "Oh." He fidgets a moment, then says, "You met any of her bridesmaids and stuff?"
        "Not that I'm aware of, no, Ray."
        "I have. I'm dating one. Her name's Laura. Laura Cella."
        "That's interesting, Ray." I smile at him, teasing. "Quick work, too."
        "We hit it off. " He shrugs, a little uncomfortably.
        "A nice Italian girl?"
        He finally grins at that, a little ruefully. "Ma likes her, yeah."
        "Oh, so she's been invited for dinner?" That generally means, or meant, a year ago, that Ray was doing more than flirting.
        "Yeah." He doesn't meet my eyes. "Spent too much time in the past, running, Benny. Running from things I wanted because I wasn't sure if they were right. Missed a lot of chances. So I figure I gotta go into this one with both eyes open, see if it works. Give it every chance. Hell, Fraser, I'm getting old. I'm thirty-seven."
        "It sounds like a well thought out course of action."
        "Yeah." His mouth twists in a bitter grin. "Thinking is something I got pretty good at, Fraser."
        "Ray . . . "
        "And planning. Shit, I'm alive. You gotta figure I figured out the planning."
        "I am quite glad you're alive and back," I say, simply and honestly.
        "Me too, Benny."
        But he's not back all the way. Time, perhaps, is what he needs. Time to remember who he is, who he was.
        "So you wanna meet her?"
  "Need you ask?"


 I'm seeing things. Can't believe my eyes. Kowalski is here. Walks in, cocky attitude and all, just like I never came back. Welsh waves him in; guess he expected him. This is not good news. Not for me, anyway. Guy just rubs me the wrong way. But I know Benny'll be happy.And then right on cue, Fraser shows up, calling cheerfully, with a voice I haven't heard in quite a while, across the silent room, "Good morning, Ray," and then suddenly realises something's going on. Realises the whole room is staring into Welsh's office, as phones ring unanswered. I watch his eyes widen as he recognises Kowalski, but by the time he looks at me again, I can't read his face. I thought he'd look happier, somehow, but he just looks neutral.
        Welsh is looking pretty happy. He pushes a piece of paper across his desk to Kowalski, who signs it after a cursory glance. Welsh almost snatches it back then stands up, shakes hands with Kowalski, and moves towards his door. The room suddenly breaks into activity.
        Welsh opens the door, bellows, "Vecchio! You 'n the Mountie! My office!"
        I look at Fraser again but his face is still impassive. Courteous as always, he stands aside to let me go first. I try to ignore the prophecy of doom in my head.
        Welsh still looks happy as he closes the door, but then looks at Fraser and sobers abruptly. Fraser's in full Ice Mountie mode, enough to chill anybody. I feel a surprising amount of tension coming off him and I worry at that for a few seconds, trying to figure out what's wrong.
        "Constable Fraser, Detective Kowalski is officially transferring in from the 32nd. I'm pretty happy to get to keep a cop like him, because a fat division is a happy division." What the hell does that mean?
        Fraser raises his eyebrows and politely waits. But I can feel the tension start to leave him. Something Welsh just said surprised Fraser and relieved him too. Welsh isn't noticing it. But Welsh seems the same as ever, his voice just as gruff as usual.
        "As deputy liaison, I'd like to know if you'd mind having two partners for a while, until I figure out where to put Detective Kowalski." I see Fraser stiffen in shock. And then look over at Kowalski and see that he's gone pale, and know he wasn't expecting this, didn't ask for it. Doesn't make me feel better. But I come with the territory now, the Mountie Territory, and I know what Welsh is saying is that I've got a partner now, an official one. Don't know if I can do that. Especially not with that attitude to get around. His and mine.
        Fraser clears his throat. "Sir, as deputy liaison, my primary responsibility is to work with local law enforcement offices. Local practices are up to the local departments." He's babbling, a little; I think he's nervous, can't blame him. He and Kowalski haven't spoken to each other in weeks until last night. Is that it, is that what the tension is about? Because the tension isn't all gone, not by a long shot, although it's better than it was when Fraser first saw him walk in here. And if so, how's Kowalski going to fix it? Because working with Benny wound tighter than a coiled spring is gonna be worse than working with Benny who's not quite there and hasn't been since Kowalski went on leave. Benny doesn't make friends easily, and whatever that fight was about, which I can't get him to tell me, big surprise there, he's been walking wounded lately. And I can't imagine Benny doing anything that would make me walk outta his life and not talk to him for days, let alone weeks, but obviously Kowalski's got his own definition of friendship.
        Welsh nods, clearly expecting an answer like that. He opens his mouth but Kowalski interrupts.
        "Just a minute, Lieutenant." He turns to face Fraser. "Constable Fraser, you an' I had a misunderstanding. Over Toronto and my stupid cell phone. I'd like to be your partner again, if you'll have me." He stretches out his hand. "I'm sorry."
        Fraser turns beet red, shakes the outstretched hand, and begins to stutter. "Apol - apology accepted. Thank you. No, that won't be necessary . . ." Yup, spring thaw.
        "Thanks," Kowalski says, and turns to Welsh, "but I'd just like to make it clear that Constable Fraser doesn't have to accept me as a partner." Yeah, make it clear that I don't have to accept you as a partner and everything'll be just great, Kowalski. Don't know why he gets under my skin, but he does. Nope, I always go by first impressions, and my first impression of Kowalski is that he's a freak.
        "No, sir," Fraser says swiftly, before Welsh can react.
        "Detective Kowalski, staffing decisions are mine." But he's gone all gruff. Hates emotion. So Kowalski doesn't seem to take it personally. Wish someone'd ask me. But they won't. So now I'm stuck with cocky Kowalski, and I'd feel worse about it if I couldn't tell that Benny was happier than he'd been in days.
 "Detective Vecchio, see if you can get Detective Kowalski up to speed on your case files," Welsh says. "He probably forgot how to find his way here, after three weeks, let alone important things like cases he should have finished before he left."         "Sure, Lieutenant," I say, trying to put a good face on it. Grateful for my upcoming vacation. Hoping I can get through a day without decking Kowalski. Not only would Benny not like it, but also Welsh'd be pretty upset.
        To my surprise Kowalski grins at Welsh, a real grin, not a sarcastic one. "Knew that good cop stuff was too nice to last."
        "Yeah, Kowalski, and you don't have Vecchio's name to hide behind any more. Any screw ups from here on out are on your watch. Happy faces. Fuhgeddaboutit."
        Is Welsh teasing Kowalski? Lieutenant Stand-Up-Straight-And-Don't-Even-Think-About-Smiling Welsh? For a minute I think maybe I'm dreaming and I'm still on assignment. That would explain a lot.
        "Sounded good at the time." Kowalski shrugs, glancing at Fraser.
        Welsh actually cracks a smile. "It wouldn't have fooled a deaf wolf, Kowalski."
        "Didn't have to, Lieutenant. All it had to fool was IA."
        And then they look at each other again and start chuckling together. "I gotta admit the line up was inspired, Kowalski."
        At that Kowalski's chuckling turns into a full throated laugh.
        "Of course, you're damn lucky they didn't pick you out by the smirk on your face."
        "Ah, hell, I was going down anyhow."
        I look at Fraser, trying to gauge his reaction, trying to see if this is at all unusual, if this is the same Welsh Fraser and I knew. But Fraser has a faint smile on his face, no surprise or indication that he finds the interaction out of character for Welsh. It's a lot to take in. I feel like a stranger, now more than ever, and I smile meaninglessly at all three of them and turn and walk out of Welsh's office.


        I don't know whether I'm standing on my head or my heels. I knew Ray was trying to repair our friendship, but I hadn't expected such a handsome apology. I hope no one can see the joy I feel. It would certainly be inappropriate. And I know, too, that Ray Vecchio is not particularly happy about the turn of events.
        After venting his unaccustomed brush with happiness at Ray Kowalski's return by indulging in a few more jibes at both Ray and myself, Lieutenant Welsh dismisses us, and we walk awkwardly, through a room trying to look busy and so full of curiosity it's almost a tangible haze, to Ray Vecchio's desk.
        "Dunno when Welsh is gonna get you a desk," Ray Vecchio from his chair says without looking at Ray Kowalski, "but we can share this one for a week, anyhow."
        I want to stay; want to help them through this transition; but I'm due at the Consulate. "I'm glad you're back," I say to Ray Kowalski. Then to Ray Vecchio, "I'm sorry. I have sentry duty."
        Ray Kowalski says, "One day you're a security liaison and the next you're doing the cigar store imitation?" He sounds a trifle angry.
        I do not, however, pretend to understand Inspector Thatcher, so I simply say, "It's a duty, Ray, one that we all share."
        "Kowalski, don't you know yet that the Dragon Lady lives to yank his chain?"
        Ray Kowalski grins involuntarily at that nickname. "You mean the Ice Queen."
        "This is entirely inappropriate," I say.
        "If the name fits . . ." Ray Vecchio says.
        I feel so happy that I just grin at him, and include Ray Kowalski in that grin. I know we still have talking to do; but as always he is a man of action and his actions speak quite clearly, today.


        After the Mountie leaves, there's an awkward silence. Vecchio doesn't try to break it. I know he hates this. Hates me. But the look in Fraser's eyes sustains me. I go first. "Did ya get the skinny on the Edmonton file? Or have you solved that one?"
        "No, " he says. "No. Let me fill you in on that case, first, then." I get up to move so he can get around his desk, and look right at Frannie. She stares at me. Doesn't say anything.
        "Hi, Frannie," I say uncomfortably.
        She's real nervous about something. Opens her mouth and closes it a few times.
        "Ray - I mean, Stan? What am I supposed to call you?"
        "I've gone by Ray for years, Frannie. "
        This distraction didn't work too well. She starts again. "Anyway, Ray, I - I . . . Fraser called me and told me he was going to Toronto and to tell you. And I forgot."
        I stifle the words that wanna come outta my mouth.
        "It's understandable, Frannie. No harm done."
        She looks at me a little strangely, and then smiles tentatively.
        "I missed you." And hugs me. I know that's not cool with Vecchio but he doesn't say anything, doesn't even look particularly angry.
        "Okay, okay, Frannie," he finally says. "Go away. We're working. Or trying to."
        Somehow we get through the day. Huey and Dewey take me to lunch, to catch me up on the gossip, I guess. But it's nice of 'em. Huey at least seems pleased that I transferred back, so to speak. I kinda missed everyone so for once I don't mind Dewey's gossip. And it's a relief to get away from Vecchio. Businesslike, remote, and occasional grouchiness, with chances of abrupt mood changes. Fun. Not to mention the crack he makes about my bracelet, right smack in the middle of one of those squad room silences, like he timed it so as to get the maximum amount of listeners. What's it to him what I wear, how I dress? Detective Armani. The thought of that incident, one that Welsh let me in on once in a rare expansive mood, buoys me up, lets me ignore the crack and the few curious looks that follow it, even lets me ignore Dewey's open stare and minor smirk. As the end of the day approaches, I wonder if Vecchio is still giving Fraser rides home. Don't know how to ask. Don't think he is, or Fraser would have mentioned it yesterday. But Vecchio brings it up.
 "Fraser's been gone a lot lately. And I've been busy. You can take over limo duty, if you want." He doesn't look at me. Thank God, 'cause I don't know how well I can hide my feelings. It's a handsome offer, given the fact that dislike is not too strong a word for what he feels about me.         "Okay," I say, not being stupid enough to look a gift horse in the mouth.
        "Dragon Lady's been keeping him late. I dunno. Anyhow, he's supposed to get off - "
        "At six, yeah," I say. "Okay. See ya Monday." And I almost run outta the building. I'm in the GTO and driving before I realise that I haven't had or wanted a cigarette all day. Red serge beats nicotine patches any day, I guess. And I find a stick of gum in my pocket. Back to gum and toothpicks. Know there's no way I can keep smoking around the Mountie; probably'd mess with his incredible ability to taste things. And shake myself, sternly, for that thought. Problem is, smoking is something to do with my hands. Need to take up woodcarving or something, I guess.
        I get to the Consulate well before six o'clock, anyhow. He's not on sentry duty now; Turnbull is. Wonder why he got reprieved, or what Turnbull did to get late shift two days in a row. Vecchio's right; it's about quarter after before I see the familiar red uniform descend the steps, slower than it used to. Turnbull's long since gone. Fraser doesn't look around, doesn't see the GTO, so I beep the horn.
        He looks up sharply, finally sees me, and walks over, still slowly. I'm a little hurt and then I remember I have no right to any feelings.
        "You need a ride, Frase?" I offer.
        "Actually, no, I don't need a ride, Ray. I'm perfectly capable of walking." He smiles suddenly. "However, I'd be happy to accept one."

 We go back to Fraser's place, in unspoken agreement, and in silence.         "Ray . . ." Fraser begins, and then stops. Stares around his room. Pats Dief on the head. Clears his throat, changes the subject. "Would you mind if I change? There is mineral water and milk in the refrigerator, and possibly some beer as well, if Ray, er, Ray Vecchio, that is, didn't finish it."
        I suppress the pang of jealousy that remark evokes, and say, "Sure, go ahead." And then I get a bottle of water and sit down on the bedroll, thinking about talking. And trying not to think about Fraser changing.
        Fraser comes back from the bathroom in jeans and a red and black flannel shirt, looking more handsome than I remember from five minutes ago. He feeds Dief, gets himself a bottle of water and sits down behind me. We lean back against each other.
        To my surprise, Fraser begins. "I meant to ask you, last night, about your transfer."
        He sounds pretty happy.
        "I forgot you didn't know." Add it to the list, more crap for Fraser, more pain, the guy I'd've taken a bullet for within hours of meeting him. The guy I socked. The guy I took off to Arizona in a childish temper tantrum on. Guy I raked over the coals for no damn reason in a public airport.
        "I'm glad the lieutenant allowed you to remain."
        "Surprised me, a little."
        "You're a good officer, Ray." Quiet. Sincere. Almost resigned. Yeah, we been down this road before, Frase and me.
        "Just drop it, Fraser. I know what I know and I know what you think. 'Kay?"
        Drop it. Like that ever works with the Mountie.
        "I don't believe you should allow residual guilt over our misunderstanding to colour your perception of your abilities."
        "Fraser, where the hell do you get this stuff? And it was a little more than a misunderstanding. I was damned nasty to you."
        Long silence.
        "You were hurt, Ray."
        "No excuse to hurt back, Fraser."
        "Entirely understandable and well-deserved."
        "Fraser, what the fuck are you talking about?" I hear my voice rising in anger. Shit. He is without doubt the most stubborn, frustrating man on the face of the earth and why the hell I'm not on my way to Rio Linda, California, is beyond me.
        "I should have known. I should not have assumed - "
        "Oh, now you're supposed to be omniscient too? How could you know Frannie would forget? That my cell broke?"
        "Ray." His voice is stern, his back tense. "I should have tried harder." Unrelenting, unforgiving. He can forgive everyone but himself. "The fact that you are here at all speaks quite clearly as to which of us is more mature. I certainly would not have made such a move."
        This is unbelievable. "Fraser. Shit. Fraser, you did try. I wouldn't let you explain. Of course the ball was in my court." I stop, trying to gather my thoughts. "I caused you enough pain, enough trouble. I never wanted to add to it, to be one of the people you oughtta hate."
        Fraser sighs. " You know I don't blame you for my . . .my feelings."
        "You don't blame anyone for anything. Except yourself. But maybe you oughtta indulge in some hate towards all those people who loved and left you."
        I feel him stiffen in surprise. "You mean . . .Victoria?"
        Yeah, Frase. And Ray Vecchio. And that bounty hunter bitch Janet. And me.
        I wait for him to go on after he says, "Victoria," then realise that that's the list. I turn and look him in the eye. "Fraser, how many people have you been in relationships with?" I ask and I can hear my voice rising. Gotta stay calm. Guess we're gonna go headlong into the sex thing.
        He considers. "Including my grandparents?" I shake my head. "Including the, uh, time that Victoria spent here?" I nod, ignoring the pain in my middle that that question causes. "Including my friendship with Ray Vecchio?" I sigh. "Well, then, um, three, it would appear. Including you."
        I'm stunned. Can't even talk for a minute. He looks worried, then downcast.
        I finally manage to say, "I thought . . . I thought more. Well, at least one more. Maybe another guy." Holy shit. What's Ben gonna be like in bed in three or four months? Three or four years? Years is a panicky thought. Push that away. We're not even back to sex yet.
        He blushes fiery red then. "No, Ray. No. I'm not . . . I don't . . . I've never been . . ." He's still so cute when he babbles. He starts over. "I believe that's part of my problem, Ray." Realising what he's just said, he blushes again, and flounders some more. "I don't mean being in . . . uh, attracted to you, of course, I mean the paucity of my experience in peer relationships."
        "Wha-?" I say. "English, please." I'm teasing him. But even though a drum in my head keeps telling me I'm dumb, dumb, dumb, it's just so great to talk to him again. To see him. See those lips smile. Try not to think about those lips on mine . . .
        "What I mean, Ray, is that - "
        I cut him off. "I know, Frase. I was just teasing." I get serious again. "It was just that you - " and the memories make me catch my breath before I can go on, "you seemed so . . . so comfortable with it all. I jumped to conclusions. It's what I do best."
        He puts his head in his hands. I can't figure out what's wrong until I realise that he is probably tired of blushing at me. "It was you, Ray, " he mutters from between his hands.
        It takes a minute for it to sink in. I touch his shoulder.
        "I-I-I mean, " he stutters nervously, "that it felt right. That- that- that I trust . . . trusted you, and-and-and I-I-I simply didn't think. About it. About us. Except for us." He is growing more and more incoherent, and I hear enormous pain in his voice, feel his body beginning to shake. I pat his shoulder. Real effective, Ray, I think sourly. And have to admit I'm pretty shaken by this revelation myself. No, there wasn't a whole lotta thinking going on there. I didn't think there needed to be. Guess I was wrong.
        He is trying hard to hide his emotions from me. His face is buried between his bent knees, his hands in his hair, his back tensed up so tight it's gotta hurt. I don't know what to do. Don't want to impose on him. Don't want him to suffer alone. "Frase," I say quietly, "S' okay. You don't have to talk about it. I shouldn't have brought it up. I was just trying to explain how dumb I am. And you already know that."
        At that lame joke I feel a shudder go through him and I can feel how desperately he is fighting for control, how hard he's trying not to break down. I kneel beside him and hold him, not able to think of anything to say, not wanting him to be alone.
        "Don't," he chokes out. "Don't . . . watch me . . . please . . ."
        "I could watch you forever," I say, but so quietly I doubt he hears me. Then turn my back and sit against him again, while he struggles for control. I can feel his body trembling against mine. I've never felt so helpless, so guilty. Wanna hit something. Smash something. Throw myself in front of a truck. Or better yet, throw someone like the Metcalf bitch in front of a truck. My hands are clenched in tight fists and I feel my body shaking in reaction. I gotta let it out or explode.
        And somehow, in his pain, Fraser senses this, turns, and holds me. I feel the rage ebb away and for a moment I succumb to my weakness and rest my head on his chest, still heaving from his struggle for control. I feel his breath in my hair and close my eyes 'cause it feels so warm and sweet. Then I feel his lips moving in my hair. "Ray," he whispers. "Ray." How he can he sound so happy and so sad at the same time?
        Don't understand him. Don't understand how he can stand to be in the same room with me. And sure as hell don't understand why he still wants to hold me. And it feels so damn good I indulge myself for one more minute before I pull away. I hear him murmur something. But he won't repeat it for me. It sounded like "All I want is you." I'm afraid of what's coming next. Know I won't be able to control myself if I feel his mouth on mine again. I know he takes my withdrawal for rejection. I can tell by the way he stiffens right away, sets his jaw. But right now it's better than the alternative. I think. What am I, nuts? I turn my back, settle against his back again. After a moment he relaxes against mine. We sit like that for a long time. I can't think of anything to say, and guess he doesn't have anything to say right now.
        And when I'm lost in a dream
You are all I can see
All alone in the night I'm waiting
For you
        "Be With You," Everything, The Bangles

        Pretty soon the Mountie comes back to himself. "Omelets, again, I'm afraid," he says apologetically, "but I did get fresh vegetables this morning." He busies himself at the two-burner stove and despite my mood I have to admit it smells pretty good. I light the lantern and set it up on the kitchen table so it throws light on the bedroll.
        "You ever hear of Ben Franklin's discovery, Frase?" I say. "It's pretty cool. You flip a switch, and there's light."
        He turns and smiles right at me. My knees go weak. Now I know what that expression means. "I like the lantern," he says simply. "And I do have electricity, Ray."
        "Never seen you use it. I'm surprised you use a stove. And don't get your water in a bucket," I tease.
        "Well, there are some privations I must endure to live in the city," he says with such a straight face that I almost buy it.
        We manage to talk about cop stuff through dinner. Me catching him up on some of the cases I was catching up on today. Helps to go over them with him. Always has. And we stay off the heavy stuff. I'm sure it's bad for the digestion. Tonight I can taste the omelet and my guess last night was right. It is, naturally, excellent. But after dinner, the awkward silence falls again. Fraser's just staring at me with those eyes; looks like he's memorising my face.
        We lean towards each other, so slowly and almost unconsciously that I don't realise it at first. I wanna lose myself in those clear, deep eyes. I wanna lose myself in his mouth . . . I sit back. "No, Fraser. We got stuff to talk about. And I don't know about you Mounties, but I can't talk and kiss at the same time." And God he still wants to kiss me. I am fucking insane to turn that down.
        He draws his breath in sharply and I see a flare in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Ray," he says humbly. "Perhaps we should sit back to back again."
        I get to my feet and go to the window. He stays on the bedroll, his eyes following me. "Frase, how do you feel about me?"
        I hear him take a deep breath, and expel it in a gust. "Ray. I thought you knew. I thought we-"
        I cut him off. "You're talking about before. Before I went all teenage girl on you. Before I threw us away. I don't understand how you can even be in the same room with me. I don't understand why you don't hate me. Shit, after what I said when you called me from the airport I figured you'd be in the Yukon by now."
        "Well, Ray," he says, like I'm a kid he's explaining two plus two to, "because I knew it wasn't your fault. I knew that I had somehow caused this. And my supposition turned out to be correct. I . . ." Then he falters. "You must have been extraordinarily hurt at my silence and absence. I was extremely rude, especially in light of the, er, previous circumstances." Guess that's Canadian for sex. "I should not have relied on other people, or telephones. I should have taken a later flight. I think that I would probably have reacted in a similar fashion, had the circumstances been reversed."
        This is so ridiculous I can't help laughing.
        "No, Ray," he says, sounding hurt. "And I'm glad to know, now, what it is I'd done."
        The rage flares up again. I turn and race across the room towards him. "You didn't do any thing, Fraser!" I yell. "Get it through your thick head! How can someone so smart be so dumb?"
        He gives me what Vecchio calls that big-eyed Mountie look. Gotta admit Vecchio nailed that one. The one that makes me see red and almost lose my mind. "Oh, damn," I say, and grab him, and kiss him. Hard. Urgently. His response is slow, tentative, as if he isn't sure that this isn't a dream.
        And it is a dream, to feel his mouth on mine again, to feel those warm, soft, perfect lips part beneath mine, feel his warm, wet tongue in my mouth, feel his hands move around to my back, to touch me, gently at first, and then hold me, increasing their pressure. It's everything I remember, and more, and I lose my mind for a few minutes, kissing him gently, then urgently, then gently again, exploring his muscles through his shirt. He's doing the same to me, and I only come to my senses when I realise that he is moaning those little moans into my mouth, and I'm doing the same to his, and we are stretched out full length on the bedroll and one of us had better remember where we are (an apartment with no lock) and what we're trying to do (repair a friendship). I pull away, trying to catch my breath. God, want him, want him so bad.
        "Fraser," I say, "this won't solve anything. Might even hurt you more. I think we need to get back to where we were before." But it's hell to pull myself away from that big, warm body, those lips, those eyes. Although he could stop me, he doesn't, just watches me sit up, trying to get a grip on myself.
        "I'm sorry, Ray," he says quietly.
        "And just stop that!" I snap. "Stop apologising for everything! I started it! I kissed you! What in hell are you apologising for?"
        He doesn't say anything, but the light goes out of his eyes again as he sits up.
        "Come on, Fraser," I say in a more normal tone of voice. "You know . . . you must . . . you'd have to be blind to miss it . . . that I want to kiss you. Wanna do more than that. But what kind of idiot are you, to wanna trust me again? Can't you see I'm looking out for you, you big dumb Mountie?"
        He grins at that, and the light is back in his eyes. "I can take care of myself, Ray," he says with perfect gravity.
        "How do you know I'm not gonna leave you again, take off to Arizona?"
        I see the fear in his eyes, a desperate terror, before he masks it. "I . . . I don't," he says in an unsteady voice.
        "Then what are we doing here, Ben?" I say quietly.
        He is silent for so long that I think he's forgotten we're talking. Finally he speaks, trying to control his voice, but it wavers every so often. "I think it's . . . it's because I've been alone all my life. I don't mind it. I . . . sometimes I need it." I file that away for future reference. "But then I met Victoria again. And after she . . . after she . . . left . . . I discovered loneliness. I'm not . . . lonely . . . when you're around, Ray. And I've decided that if that's the risk I have to take, then I have to take it," he finishes in a rush. He looks at me anxiously. Probably thinks I'll despise him for his weakness or somethin.' If only he knew how much I admire his courage.
        "God damn it, Ben," I say hoarsely just before I give into temptation and lose myself in his arms again. We kiss hungrily for a few minutes and we're right back down on the freaking bedroll again. "Jeez!" I moan in frustration. "We can't do this, Fraser!" And then, unexpectedly, embarrassingly, I burst into tears. Too much, too fast, all I can do is the chick thing and I should have expected him to not do the guy thing. Instead he cradles me, whispers in my ear, soothes me, forgives me. Holds me. And finally we both sleep, worn out by emotions.
        Some time in the night, I wake to a feeling of wrongness. Something's out of kilter. Fraser's body is shuddering beside mine; he's sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees again. It's too dark to see his face, but I know what he looks like.
        "Ben?" I say softly.
        I can feel his whole body slump as he heaves a deep sigh. "I - I'm sorry, Ray. I didn't mean to wake you. I . . . I don't know how to make it right . . ." He sounds desperate, miserable.
        "What's going on, Ben?" I say quietly.
        His voice is husky. He's fighting back tears. Sounds so miserable. "I - I was . . .was . . . er, frightened, Ray. I have no real experience. I thought I knew Victoria. I didn't know if my . . . my observations of you . . . of us . . . were valid. I didn't know if what I thought, what I experienced, was what you felt." He's crying. I feel the tears on my skin, burning.
        A long silence. Bells in my head, a voice saying, "I knew it. Knew it! Knew it!" And suddenly realise I have to remember to breathe. I gasp out a breath. My heart is pounding.
        "So you see, Ray, that I do need to apologise. I . . . Victoria . . . I thought she loved me. Or that my love was enough, to make us right, and - and it wasn't. Oh, God, it wasn't. And I didn't know if it was enough for . . . for us, either. I . . . I still . . .don't . . ."
        Can't believe my ears. The world is spinning. Don't know if I heard what I just heard. Maybe this is a dream. He's never, but never, mentioned Victoria to me before. I know he knows I know about her: had to read Vecchio's case files, and I got a good memory for stuff like that. Psychotic bitches putting the hurt on my Mountie, yeah, I kinda remember stuff like that.
        "S' okay, Ben," I say unsteadily. How come I feel like crying too?
        "It's not 'okay,'" he says, voice angry and harsh. Not a voice I've ever heard from him before. "It's not 'okay' to inflict the fear of abandonment on people. To inflict that sort of pain on people. It's never 'okay.' It was nothing more than cowardice on my part, nothing more than an attempt to avoid pain and fear. And I should have been able to tell you that, you of all people."
        How do I get through to him?
        "Ben," I say, sitting up, "I already told you. I know, and I knew then, that you weren't. That you wouldn't leave without an explanation. That you wouldn't dump me without a caribou story, at least."
        He doesn't even stiffen at that. Shit.
        "Ben, I knew it."
        "How did you explain my prolonged silence to yourself?"
        Oh fuck. I forgot for a half second that the man's got a brain that's more than a match for those looks.
        "Shit, Ben, we're not talking about that . . . "
        "I thought so."
        "All right, damn it, I thought that you were having second thoughts. That I wasn't good enough. Is that what you want to hear?
        A shudder goes through him. Fuck shit fuck shit . . . so close to keeping him. So close to losing him.
        "Ben. Listen. I thought that you were thinking about it. I know that's what you do. I knew I'd hear from you, and I did."
        "That's quite a rationalisation," he says, and I am surprised to hear a note of sarcasm. From Ben? When he's not talking to the wolf? "Especially when you consider that it was I who heard from you, in the end. You ask how I can trust you again. I ask you the same."
        I lean forward, hear him catch his breath. I kiss him, gently, loving him, trying to pour that love out in my kiss. "'Cause, damn it," I say, forcing the words past a hard knot in my throat, "I love you, Ben." And then kiss him again and again, on his mouth, his eyes, his mouth. He is perfectly still, frozen, and I don't know what's wrong, so I say it again, giving his shoulders a little shake: "I love you, Ben," as panic starts in my stomach. He blinks, finally, and somehow I have his hands between mine and our fingers interlace as I reach to kiss him and finally, slowly, wonderingly, he kisses me back.
        And he's crying, tears pouring down his face, and I hope they're washing away some of his pain. "I . . . I love you, too," he gasps, trying to catch his breath.
        "I know . . . and if I was smarter I'd've known that from the beginning," I say. Wish I could see his eyes, but I feel his other hand come up and cradle my face. And we kiss again. No passion, no urgency. "All I want is you," he says out of nowhere, and kisses me, so tenderly, that I feel tears come to my eyes and squeeze 'em hard, blinking fast. We lie back down on the bedroll and hold each other and kiss, and talk quietly, about nothing, until we sleep.


        I wake, groggily, to Vecchio's voice outside the door. What the hell is he doing here so early? It's not even seven yet. "Yo, Benny," he's shouting. "Up an' at 'em!" A cold panic steals over my brain. Did we . . . Are we . . . and I realise with relief that not only are we both dressed, but during the night we ended up back to back on the bedroll.
        "C'mon, Benny, coffee and doughnuts, on me!" Vecchio says, then stops dead as his eyes take in the scene. I pretend to just be waking up. "Wha -?" I say sleepily.
        Fraser really is just waking up from sleep. He sits up, looks around with a puzzled frown. I see a little twinge of relief in Vecchio's eyes. Fraser looks at me and manages a small laugh. "We must have talked ourselves to sleep," he says. I follow his lead, acting groggier than I feel. "Yeah. Boy, am I gonna be stiff . . . ya can't have wall to wall carpet like normal people, Frase?" And I see his eyes shine at me for just a moment before he looks back at Vecchio.
        "Wolf hair," Fraser says solemnly. "And I don't have a vacuum cleaner."
        "I doubt you even have a broom, Benny," says Vecchio, joining in the teasing with gusto spiked with relief as he evidently decides that nothing's going on that his macho attitude needs to be worried about. "I think you clean this place with a toothbrush."
        "Only when I have word that Inspector Thatcher is coming," Fraser says, getting to his feet with a grin. "Excuse me for a moment." And he heads to the bathroom. Vecchio looks at me sharply. I yawn and stretch, then get to my feet and stretch again.
        "Next time I'll have to have caffeine," I say. "That floor is not exactly soft." Hope I'm not overdoing it. Evidently not, because he dismisses me from his mind. It's spooky. I can almost watch it happen.
        "I'll be back in a few with coffee and doughnuts," Vecchio says, and leaves, exchanging good-byes with Fraser as he goes.
        Fraser goes to the sink and fills the kettle and puts it on the stove. Then he comes back, sits down next to me, and sighs.
        "I'm sorry, Ray," he begins haltingly, after a quick glance at my face. "I . . ." he swallows, then goes on, "I would be lying if I said I hadn't given some thought to this sort of problem cropping up. In the past. Especially the past day or two. But even if we . . . I don't think he would understand. And . . . I . . . I would prefer not to lose his friendship. I think I will, because of this. Some day. Some day I will have to tell him. I don't have the courage to do it today. And I won't have the courage tomorrow, either. I know I won't."
        I try to ignore the pain I feel. Pain I have no right to feel. I knew this was how I was gonna be. Jealous of everybody 'cept the wolf. But the Mountie's still talking, his heightened colour making him look even more beautiful than he usually does. And then I smile involuntarily thinking of Vecchio's reaction to that thought of mine.
        "And I think that if we . . . if our . . . if you and I . . ." he looks at me helplessly.
        "Our relationship," I say, exaggerating the big scary word.
        "Yes, thank you, Ray. Our relationship, er, progresses, that is to say . . . "
        "I know what you mean, Frase," I finally say gently. And then lean over to kiss him, quick, can't help myself.
        He returns the kiss but it's brief. His brain is going full speed, he's got that look in his eyes. He clears his throat, then swallows, looking away from our intense gaze for a moment. "The conclusion I have reached is to strive for a bland assumption of innocence, coupled with a refusal to change our normal behaviour, and perhaps our, er, reputations as - as not being 'the type' -" and suddenly I somehow know that he's quoting Vecchio there - "could probably serve to quell most suspicion and make the subterfuge more effective."
        I try to ignore the fireworks in my brain. Ben's thinking about a future. Wow.
        "So you're saying just play dumb?" I ask, and then grin at him to take the sting outta my words. He looks at me finally, a spark of a smile in his eyes, nods, then says, "You and I know that people often see what they expect to see. Thus a criminal may give himself away through certain unconscious expectations of behaviour from those around him, not to mention his own usually askew Weltanschauung - "
        I can't believe I'm gonna get a lesson in criminal psychology when all I really wanna do is grab him and kiss him, feel those soft perfect lips beneath mine again, taste him, smell him, hear him moan into my mouth . . . "Yeah, Frase, uh, right," I say, quick, before he starts in with an Inuit tale by way of illustration.
        "There are, moreover, two practical problems," he says, and I catch his eyes on my mouth before he swallows quickly and looks back up at my eyes. Can't wait to hear this.
        "Only two?" I say.
        "Possibly three, although I don't know if the third would actually fall under the category of practicality-"
        "Fraser," I interrupt. "Two? Problems? And they are?"
        "Ahem. Yes. Privacy, for one." He runs a nervous hand through his tousled hair, looking even more adorable than he did a minute ago. And right on cue, we hear Vecchio coming back with the doughnuts, and thank God, I smell coffee.
        Fraser busies himself at the sink as I sit on the camp stool and lean back against the wall, my head in a whirl. "Y'know, Fraser," I say as Vecchio comes in, "you need some more furniture, man."
        Vecchio looks almost pleased at this comment. "Exactly what I'm always telling him. Even Mounties are allowed to have sofas, I say."
        "I have an armchair," Fraser observes mildly. "But perhaps a third kitchen chair would be a good idea," he says, turning and seeing my choice. "I'll remember that."
        "Jeez, Benny, no! No more garbage picking! It's almost worse than you tasting stuff," Vecchio groans.
        "There is no need to throw away perfectly good furniture. I clean it thoroughly prior to use," Fraser says.
        Vecchio's getting out the doughnuts and Fraser's working on the coffee. He dumps two spoons of sugar in the one he hands to Vecchio. Then he pulls open a drawer and I see him drop some small, brightly coloured candies into the one he hands me. I feel like I'm gonna burst. "I'm afraid they're not M & Ms, Ray," he's saying as he hands it to me, then pours himself his twig tea. "We have Smarties at the Consulate. Constable Turnbull's sister sends them by the case, and he's quite generous." Can't believe Fraser, who thinks that candy oughtta be outlawed or something, actually has some. For me. And had them.
        "Euwww," says Vecchio. "That's disgusting!"
        "Revolting is, I believe, the term I commonly employ." And Fraser smiles over his cup at me, at us both, before saying sharply to Dief, "No. No more junk food." As he turns his back to fix Dief's breakfast, Vecchio slips the wolf a doughnut under the table. "Ray," says Fraser without turning, "I've told you before . . ."
        "Yeah, well, he expects me to," Vecchio says. "I don't wanna feed him my hard earned doughnuts, Fraser." Dief swallows the doughnut in one gulp and looks at Vecchio again. A soft whine comes from his throat.
        Fraser turns, puts down the dish, and says, "Here, Diefenbaker, is your breakfast. No more doughnuts." The wolf whines again and then walks over to his food in apparent resignation. Then sits, without eating.
        Fraser shakes his head as he sits down. "You pay and you pay and you pay," he mutters. Vecchio grins an intimate little grin at him. I'm jealous, of course, but alluva sudden I see what Frase was trying to say. I'd probably be too self-conscious to grin at him like that. But I could. And I should. Because it's the little restraints like that that people are gonna notice, at least people as sharp-eyed as Vecchio.
        As I sip my coffee I realise I'm looking forward to hearing what the second practical problem is, not to mention the third, impractical problem.
        Vecchio is the first to break our communal silence. "Remember, Benny, three o'clock sharp. Jeans are fine for the rehearsal." I look at Fraser, a little puzzled. He doesn't notice.
        "I haven't forgotten, Ray," Fraser says calmly. "I'm going to take Diefenbaker for a run by the lake."
        Vecchio shakes his head. "Dunno how you have the energy, Benny."
        "Diefenbaker is the one with the energy," Fraser points out. "How about you, Ray?" he asks me.
        Been a long time since we've been running together. Hope I can keep up. "Sure," I say, "but I gotta go back to my place for some real shoes."
        Abruptly Vecchio gets to his feet, less and less happy with me. "Anyway, Benny. Laura's got plans for us today that undoubtedly involve a lot of errand running for Elaine. I'll see you guys later."
        "Certainly, Ray," says Fraser, and Vecchio's gone. Finally.
        He looks at me apologetically, and says, "I'm afraid it's going to be a Diefenbaker run. Not real exercise."
        I finally grin. Can't help myself. "Maybe I can keep up then."


        I stomp outta Fraser's place, kinda ticked off and not wanting to admit that I'm jealous of Kowalski. Feeling guilty, too, 'cause I know I've been neglecting the Mountie and anyway he deserves more than one friend. Why it has to be Kowalski I dunno. And why he has to be there when I'm trying to make up to Fraser for my neglect I don't know either. Try not to think about him as I drive to Laura's.
        Laura's already waiting when I get to her place. She kisses me, a warm greeting, and asks, "Did you have a nice breakfast? Did you remind him it's at three o'clock?"
        "Yeah, babe." Sometimes she's still clueless about Benny the Perfect. I can't imagine that Elaine hasn't shared a whole lotta Mountie stories but Laura has only met Fraser once with me and maybe once or twice with Elaine. Gotta get them together. "Had a nutritious coffee and doughnut breakfast." And I don't know why I add, "Kowalski was there."
        "That early?" she asks with a little frown, maybe picking up my hostility. I don't see what she's getting at.
        "Sure," I say, looking at her funny. "He ended up spending the night."
        Her eyes widen and then she says something I can't make sense of for a minute. "I never guessed that Fraser was gay. Elaine never mentioned that."
        I stare at her as the words sink in. I try to control my anger. After all, she doesn't know Benny from a log in a swamp.
        "He's not!" I say. "I'm his partner, I know him better than anyone!" Benton Fraser? "Jeez, Laura. Jeez. I don't think he even knows what 'gay' means." I shake my head, look away from her, frustrated with the attempt of making her understand.
        "I'm sorry," she says carefully, looking strange. Her temper's as bad as mine and it's surprising me that she's being careful over this instead of giving it right back to me. My uneasiness increases and I try to calm down.
        "Laura, I've known him for years. He's just - he's just different. He's Canadian. He's a Mountie." Shit, how to explain Victoria? How to explain Fraser's peculiar Code? "I think . . . I think he's a romantic, Laura." There. That, she'll get.
        And she does grin a little, finally. "Romantic has it over grouchy any day, Ray."
        "Grouchy. Yeah," I say. "I didn't explain it right. They were just asleep. Still dressed 'n everything. Guess they had so much to talk about - " hate, just hate the thought of that - "they ran outta energy before they ran outta words. It's happened to me a couple of times."
        "Next time maybe it can happen with me," she says, really close to my ear, and then she's gone, over to the passenger side of the Riv. The fourth goddamn one I've had to get since meeting Fraser. And I got a dumb ass grin on my face at her words, words that take away the sting, for the moment, of the thought of four Rivieras.


        Fraser talks all the way to the lake. I'm not really listening, just enjoying the sound of his voice, and thinking my own thoughts.
        Dief bounds excitedly as we do some stretches in the parking lot.
        "Come along," Fraser says to me. "Or perhaps your reluctance stems from a fear of being unable to keep up," he says with a grin, and jogs away.
        "Come on, Fraser, you said it was a Dief run!" I catch up and we shadow box for a minute, until we hear a plaintive bark from Dief, who's never content just to run in the park. Oh, no, he has to get half of that damn lake they call Michigan in my car, too.
        "We'll let him swim first," says Fraser, jogging quickly ahead. He worries about the undertow here. I think it would take more than that to endanger Dief - maybe a couple of polar bears or a shark - but I shake out my legs a little and follow.
        Later on we have settled into some serious jogging, which I am hoping will dry Dief off, when I suddenly remember our unfinished conversation of the morning. "So, uh, Frase, you said two problems. What's the second?"
        "If you'll recall, Ray, we didn't actually finish talking about the first problem." He slows down to more of a jog than a run, which I take to mean he wants to talk.
        "Yeah, privacy. We have none. Next problem."
        To my surprise, he blushes. "I'm afraid if I start locking the door that almost unprecedented action will give rise to the very suspicions we are trying to avoid." He stops and bends over to get his breath. And suddenly I know why he's out of breath. A wave of happiness washes over me and I can't help laughing.
        "Ah," I say, mimicking him.
        He's doing some stretches and I miss the look on his face.
        "So what's the second? And the third?" I start doing stretches too.
        He blushes again. Gotta be some kinda record. In a low voice he says, "I - I think we've already discussed the third problem."
        "Jeez, Frase, aren't you even gonna tell me what it was?" I tease.
        He doesn't look at me. "Motivations," he mutters. He clears his throat. "Which is to say, er, feelings. That is, reasons. "
        "Okay, okay," I say, trying to catch his eyes. "I get the idea." I don't, really, but he's so uncomfortable that clearly it's something not to discuss in a public park. I see a hot dog cart up ahead. Dief's already there.
        "Mmm, lunch, Frase!"
        "Ray, do you have any idea how bad nitrates are for you? Not to mention the fact that this sort of convenience item has far too much sodium and cholesterol . . ."
        I just grin and walk faster. "My treat, Frase."
        And ignore his "No, no, no, Ray."
        We sit on a bench to finish our lunch. Dief is under the bench in the last throes of wolf heaven: a swim, a run, a hot dog with everything. A silence falls, but it's not uncomfortable. Fraser's looking out over the lake. Thinking of Canada. His eyes are blue-grey, like the sky, as he looks into the distance. "What're you thinking about, Frase?" I say quietly. "Home?"
        "Canada," he corrects me. "Right now . . ." and he looks right into my eyes, so deep I feel like he's looking into my soul, "home is here."
        I can't breathe for a second. How could I have been so blind as to miss the evidence of his love? To my dismay, I feel myself turning red. Totally uncool. And I can't think of a single cool thing to say. "Yeah," I manage after a minute. "Me, too." And look out over the lake, my heart beating so hard I think he can probably hear it.
        "So where's this rehearsal?" I ask as I drive Fraser back to his apartment. "You need a ride?"
        "Oh, no," Fraser assures me. "It's at St John Cantius, on North Carpenter. Not far at all."
        Not far at all? After running at least five miles this morning? I shake my head in wonder. "You're nuts, Fraser. I'm gonna get a shower and come back for you." And try to tear my imagination away from the memory of him in the shower.
        "Really, Ray," he protests, "you don't need to. I am used to far more activity than this,"
        "Yeah, in Canada," I say. "You're in America now, and in America we drive everywhere. Get used to it."
        "Yes, I've noticed that. In Canada, of course, we place a peculiar dependence on snowmobiles. Or dog sleds, depending upon your preference."
        We pull up at his place. "I'll see you in a few," I say, and floor it as I drive away.
        Shower and change in record time. I know Ben hates to be late. He's waiting when I pull up. We've got 20 minutes. I'm not worried. He's wearing a flannel shirt and that leather jacket, clean jeans, and the Stetson, which I haven't seen all day.
        "Thank you, Ray," he says as he gets in. "I find the prospect of a ride more welcome than I thought."
        "No problem, Ben, all I've got to do today is laundry."


        He grins a mischievous grin at me as we pull away and I can tell that he is still mixing lights and darks and expecting me to comment. So of course I do, trying to hide my feelings. I feel an upswelling of happiness so intense I am not sure I can function normally. And I must. I must not think about the fact that Ray loves me. That he used the word "relationship." We are about to meet up with sharp-eyed Ray Vecchio, and equally sharp-eyed Elaine Besbriss, not to mention Francesca. It's better not to get too intense right now. Ray was probably thinking along the same lines. He's got his black leather jacket and his biker boots on, and his sunglasses on so no one can see his eyes. I have to speak to myself very firmly to keep from touching him. I want to touch him, kiss him, lick and taste his jaw . . .
        "Where's Dief?" he asks.
        I come back to myself. "It would appear that he actually obtained enough exercise for once. He's fast asleep. I don't know if he even heard me say good-bye, " I say.
        He shakes his head. "You are the only person I know who says good-bye to his wolf."
        "Undoubtedly I'm the only person you know who has a wolf. Or who is had by a wolf. I wonder how Diefenbaker sees it? Silly question. Of course from his point of view he has me." I stop abruptly at the grin on Ray's face. "What?"
        "You nervous, Frase?"
        "Don't be silly, Ray. I will admit however to never having been in a wedding."
        "Well, don't look at me. Me either. I mean, aside from, you know, being an active participant."
        "However, I am sure that Elaine will have organised everything efficiently, as is her wont."
        "Her what? Speak English, Frase - " and the familiar bickering fills the time to the church.
        We enter the church, and Ray slips into a pew near the front door. He's still got his sunglasses on, and he's slouched in the seat. I recognise Ray the Attitude and don't know whether to be nervous or to laugh. I hail Ray Vecchio with the hat I've just removed from my head.
        "Benny!" he says. "You're early, and I'm so surprised! Elaine's here somewhere, with Frannie, but the priest isn't here yet." He continues talking as we walk up the aisle.


        Fraser sees Elaine, carrying a guitar case, and clasps her hand warmly while kissing her cheek and taking the guitar case. She smiles up at him and then turns to say something to Vecchio. Don't understand, myself, how she can look at anyone but the Mountie, but she can. I can't and am glad I thought to leave my sunglasses on. The priest isn't yet here and after chatting for a couple of minutes, they apparently come to some agreement. Vecchio walks over to stand with Frannie, who obviously hasn't noticed me since she hasn't been over to scold me, while Fraser gets the guitar out of the case. Instead of handing it to Elaine, as I expect, he begins tuning it. Figures. Figures that not only can he play the guitar, he can tune by ear. I watch his big hands as they hold the guitar and fight back the sheer lust that overwhelms me. I'm in a church, for Crissakes!
        He sings the song he's doing for Elaine all the way through. Sounds pretty good. Priest still isn't here. Fraser doesn't put down the guitar, although Elaine has walked over to her fiancé, who's standing shooting the breeze with Vecchio and Frannie. Now Fraser's playing a different song. I can't quite hear the first verse, but his voice rings out in the chorus, and I see a huge grin break out across Vecchio's face. "We're going to ride, forever, can't keep horsemen in a cage . . ." Vecchio joins in, even though you can tell by his face that he knows he can't sing. "When the angels call, it's only then, we might pull in the reins . . ." Fraser stops playing, starts laughing. Vecchio joins in. I feel like an outsider. But it's my choice.
        Still no priest. Fraser's still clowning -- hard to believe that word can ever apply to the Mountie -- with the guitar. He starts on an old folk song from the '60's. "I had a dog and his name was Blue, betcha five dollars he's a good dog, too . . ." He does the whole song, with the rock and roll at the end. I sit in the back, loving him, my heart so full I don't think I could even move. "Well, thank you, " says Ben to the polite applause. "After all, that was a satire." They don't get it. I do. And wonder why Fraser doesn't have a guitar. Did Victoria destroy that too?
        Finally the priest arrives, hurried and flushed. Fraser and Vecchio and Oberst go over to talk to him. I see Fraser's back tense and I snap back into cop mode. The priest is telling him something that has nothing to do with the wedding. Finally Fraser nods. I know he's saying, "Thank you kindly," or words to that effect. The conversation obviously shifts to the wedding, and they talk a minute longer, then get started with the rehearsal. And I take comfort in the darkness of my sunglasses, watching Ben to my heart's content.
        End of rehearsal. I hear beer and pizza mentioned. Figure Fraser'll get a ride home from Vecchio, so I get up to leave. Oughtta know by now the Mountie won't let that go. "Ray, Ray," he calls across the church, waving, "aren't you coming with us?"
        That does it. Frannie sees me, and rushes over to hug me, scolding me the whole time . I'm trapped. Can't not go. Don't wanna hurt her feelings. I can tell by the look on Vecchio's face he's not happy, thinks I'm pushing in where I'm not wanted. Wanna tell him I don't wanna be here either. I wanna be alone in my apartment, thinking over the last couple of days.
        We go to a little Italian joint near the Vecchio house. I end up between Frannie and a uniform I don't know too well. Everyone's talking so fast and loud no one notices me being quiet. I have some pizza, a couple of beers, catch up on the news. Fraser and Vecchio are deep in reminiscences when I slip away, telling Frannie to tell everyone goodbye. I find the GTO and climb in. Still smells like wet wolf. I grin to myself and pull out
        Apartment's dark and empty. Emptier than before. Kinda actually like the fact that my jacket still smells like wet wolf. Turn on the kitchen light, put on some music, nothing loud, some early R.E.M., music I gotta think about instead of thinking about Fraser. Restless, can't settle. Oughtta be tired, it's been a long day and I had that run and two beers . . . but I don't feel tired.
        Okay, I'll make myself tired. I'll go stare at the ceiling, at the dream catcher Fraser made for me when we met, stare at nothing until my eyes fall asleep in sheer boredom.         So I leave the music on and go to my bedroom. It's hard to think of nothing tonight. I can feel Fraser's mouth on mine like it was five seconds ago. It's so much softer than it looks and he tastes so much better than he looks, which is saying a lot, I realise. And he feels incredible, soft skin, hard muscle . This is not getting me any sleepier. But the memories of what we did together are too strong to push away tonight - I groan and roll over. I get up and go to the kitchen for a beer. Take the beer back to my bed and sit up staring at nothing while I drink it and think about everything and nothing. The moonlight falls across my bed and I'm probably dozing off when a sharp rap on the door makes me jump a foot off the bed.
        "Shit!" I nearly spill the beer.
        But the rap is repeated and it can only be Fraser, even though it's oh dark thirty in the morning. I don't even remember getting to the door, suddenly I'm just there, fumbling with the lock, and it is him, no shit, Sherlock, and he pulls me into a hug.
        "I was thinking about you," I whisper, just before his lips find mine.
"I know," he whispers back. We kiss for a long moment, before I remember to close the door.
        "I'm terribly sorry to bother you, Ray," he says softly. "I hope I didn't wake you. I didn't see you go. I wanted to make sure everything was all right."
        I grin, and try not to laugh. I'm even touched. So of course I shake his shoulder. "Jeez, you can't just call, Frase?" I'm walking him backwards to the bedroom. We both know why he's here. Thank God.
        "No, Ray, I couldn't just call. Because then I couldn't do this -" and he tilts his head to kiss me again, "and this -" and he runs his warm hands up my back, under my shirt, pulling it off in one smooth motion, "and this . . ." And we tumble onto the bed. "Ray, I've wanted you . . ."
        "God, Fraser, you think I haven't?"
        To feel his warm body covering mine - and his lips - and his hands - I'm not sure that I haven't fallen asleep and that I'm dreaming. He can't get enough of me and I can't get enough of him, his feel, his taste, his smell. We kiss for what seems like hours, me loving the moans he's uttering into my mouth, our hands everywhere. Pretty soon we're both naked, both trembling, both desperate for touch, for love, for warmth. And it's too soon, way too soon, but when I feel his naked cock straining against mine, I lose control and hold him tight as I spurt between us. To my surprise, he joins me, his head arching back, his face heartbreakingly beautiful and happy.
        "Wow," I whisper, touching his face. "Wow."
        "It's . . . been too long," he says apologetically, and lowers his head to kiss me, gentle, before resting it on the pillow beside mine.
        "Wow," is all I can say. "Ben - " at the sound of his name, he smiles so happily that I have to hug him, " - are you sure? Are you sure we're . . . back . . . yet?"
        "I'm back, Ray," he says. "I hope you are too." He looks at me swiftly, anxiously.
        "Well," I say with a grin, "looks like you've come up with a solution to the privacy problem, long's Vecchio doesn't take to dropping in on me." And I push him over onto his back and begin to kiss him, touch his arms, his chest. "I can't get enough of you," I say just before I take him in my mouth again.
        "Nor I you, Ray," he gasps, and then moans as I suck the full length of him into my mouth, hard again already, tastes hot and salty and so fucking good. Been a long time, too long, since I've smelled him and tasted him and felt him, and guess I'm a little wild, it's not too long before I can tell he's close, and me, I'm humping the sheets and letting him fuck my mouth until he moans loud and long, jerks, and I catch it and swallow it all. As soon as he can lift his head he pulls me up onto him, lets me hump him instead of the sheets, sends those hands places Stella never thought of touching and I come, hard, again. As we hold each other, drifting into sleep, belly to messy belly, I hear him murmur again, "All I want is you."
        "Ditto, Ben," I say drowsily, my head on his shoulder, his arms around me. I've never been so happy. Can't think about anything but the fact that I'm in bed with Ben again, and he loves me.
        Ben mutters and shifts a little restlessly. He doesn't wake up, but it's enough to wake me. I'm too damn happy to sleep, anyway. I watch his face a while. He is smiling again, and he's still holding me. I can't resist moving my head so I can kiss his chest . . . and lick . . . and nibble. I hear a groan and feel Ben's arms tighten around me. "Hey," I whisper, grinning up at him. He smiles back, pulls me half up on top of him, and I lose myself in his kiss, his gentle lips, the little sounds he makes in the back of his throat. We kiss like that for a while, without passion. On my side, anyhow, it's happiness. The L word. And I'm pretty sure he's feeling the same way about now.
        "You know, Ray," he says idly after a while, his fingers toying with the beads of my bracelet, "we've never settled something that ought to have occurred to one of us by now."
        ;He doesn't answer for a long moment, and the movement of his hand on my wrist stills. Feel him start to tense and move my head to look up at him at the same time I feel him blush. I do. Got my cheek on his chest, and I feel the heat as the flush rises to his face. Wow. That's kicky.
        "Yeah?" I ask.
        He closes his eyes for a long moment and then, still closed, like it's less embarrassing to mention this way, he says, "Er, uh, safety. Which is to say, er, possible, er, consequences."
        Takes a minute to sink in. Have to admit I never thought about it. "Well, what we're doing isn't gonna get either one of us pregnant, Frase," I say finally, trying to tease him outta this embarrassed mood. Ought to know by now that won't work, only makes him redder. And it does. Does it ever.
        "I . . . I wasn't referring to that particular problem," he finally manages to say sternly.
        "Yeah, I know, Ben. I just didn't think about it. Know I'm safe, hell, get tested four times a year, and you and I both know how little sex either of us gets. Got, I mean. So I knew you were safe too."
        "You ought not to assume things like that, Ray," he says firmly.
        I stretch up to kiss him. "Fraser, I know you love to endanger my life in wildly bizarre ways but I don't think this even remotely qualifies so you don't get to count it towards your Mountie Rescue badge."
        He tries to suppress a laugh and ends up snorting instead, then choking. I take pity on him and kiss him again. After all, someone had to think about it and it figures it wouldn't be me. He pauses after a while, just as things are starting to heat up again, and says in a voice he's trying to control, "We - we never finished talking about the second problem, Ray."
        It's starting to get light out. I look at his eyes to see if he's teasing me. He's not. "Jeez, Fraser," I groan in frustration, and roll off him. He catches me before I can get up.
        "Ray, I promise you, I wouldn't bring the subject up now if it wasn't important." He reaches up to kiss me gently again. I sigh heavily.
        "Okay, Frase, spit it out. What's so important?"
        He takes a moment to respond, his hands burning into my skin. "Come, on, Frase," I say impatiently. "The second problem is what?" But now I'm starting to get curious because I didn't quite get what he was saying about the third problem either.
        "I can't quite think how to phrase this," he says slowly. "It involves the, uh, concealment of, er, evidence."
        That shakes me. What in hell is he talking about? He feels my alarmed reaction.
        "Oh, no, no, no, Ray. No, not criminal evidence! Good God, Ray, you would never think I would do something like that!" He sounds so horrified I have to laugh.
        "No, 'course not, Frase, but you're worrying me here." I relax back against him. "You oughtta know that's like waving a red flag in front of a cop or a bull or something."
        "What I am, er, referring to is the, uh, evidence of, uh, for lack of a better word, er . . . passion." The word hangs between us like a feather floating down to the floor.
        "You mean, when we kiss . . . " I say hoarsely, leaning over to kiss him, alluva sudden getting hard again. "And lick . . ." I lick down the column of his gorgeous neck to where his pulse is beating at the base of his collarbone.
        "Yes," he agrees in a strangled voice. "And . . . don't bite, Ray!"
        I stop, a little hurt.
        "No, Ray, it isn't that I don't like it." I put my teeth down to his neck again, and he shudders. "I think, actually, that I love it," he mutters, repressing a moan. "But . . . oh, Ray . . . if . . . oh . . . Ray - Ray Vecchio, that is - notices, he . . . oh . . . oh . . . " His self-control breaks for a moment as he pulls me up to him, almost roughly, and kisses me, hard, his warm tongue stroking mine. I don't know which turns me on more, the tongue or the fact that I broke his control, and I kiss him hard, give him a dose of my tongue. Then his body goes rigid and I hear him take a deep breath, realise he's regained control. He pushes up on an elbow, still holding my hand, and looks away as he tries to continue. "He might guess. He knows me too well. He's too observant." I know without looking at him that he's bright red again.
        I sigh. "So, no privacy. No kissing. No biting - at least not where Vecchio can see. Do I have this straight?" I'm starting to get a little mad. Not at Ben, except for him having a stupid sharp-eyed Italian cop partner. But Vecchio, yeah. It always comes back to him.
        "Ah, yes, Ray. In fact, I think you've summed it up quite concisely." He pulls me back against him, knowing I'm starting to get steamed. "Ray, I don't know how to handle this. I obviously didn't think things through when - when we - when I kissed you, that morning." He feels me begin to protest, puts a finger to my lips. "And I don't want to engage in this subterfuge. But you know as well as I do that our liaison could ruin your career." His voice drops to a deep note that sets off those fireworks inside me again. "All I know is that I l-love you. And I want you. And I don't want to think about tomorrow. But I . . . I must balance these . . . desires . . . against possible harm to you."
        "Ben," I breathe, "you . . . you're a dream come true. I would go through a hundred stupid careers for you. Don't you tell me I can't kiss you," and I reach over and kiss him again, hard. He resists for a moment, and then as if he can't help himself, I feel his tongue reach for mine even as his arms go around me and our legs entwine. "Cold water, or possibly ice would help," I hear him mutter before I lose all ability to think under his touch.

Part II of Near Wild Heaven is Sweetness Follows.