Disclaimer: Yeah, yeah. As usual the boys (Boys? Hell, these are men!) & all things due South belong to Alliance/Atlantis not me. Don't sue me for playing in your sandbox, please. Rated NC-17 for graphic m/m sex. Requires strong suspension of disbelief and the ability to invoke magical realism at will. No psychiatrists were harmed (or even consulted) in the writing of this story, though a psychologist may have been slightly maimed.

Thanks to a whole raft of folks: AuKestrel, Betty, Beth, Denise, Journey, Judi, Kass, LaT, and Otsoko who have given me invaluable advice, enthusiasm, support, and beta commentary on this long (Goddess, has it really been over a year?) strange trip. Thanks for not laughing at me-- too much. Special thanks to my sweat-lodge consultant, Richard Hartnett. ;-D

Soundtrack: Three Doors Down: Kryptonite. Five For Fighting: Superman. Barenaked Ladies: When I Fall. Madeline Peyroux (and of course Edith Piaf, first): La Vie En Rose. Jann Arden: "Blood Red Cherry," Hanging By a Thread, Gasoline, I Would Die For You, Never Give Up On Me. Dougie MacLean: Turning, Feel So Near, and Broken Wings. Bonnie Tyler: It's a Heartache. Peter Kater & R. Carlos Nakai: Stating Intention, Flight Song, Becoming Human. Coyote Oldman: NGC2997, Mars Lasar: Kuyu Ancestors, Merymere Falls Trail. Lifehouse: "No Name Face" (yeah, the whole darned thing, and thanks to Laura Kaye for turning me on to this CD).

In darkness we do what we can
In daylight we're oblivion
Our hearts so raw and clear
Are turning away, turning away from here

--Dougie Maclean

© 2001 Kellie Matthews

The boy ignores the loud voices outside the cabin, and chooses a colored pencil carefully, selecting just the right shade of red, drawing with it equally carefully, trying to copy the flower in the gardening book as closely as possible for his six-year-old fingers. He's pleased with the result. It even looks like a rose. Mostly. He's never seen one so he's not entirely sure. Not this kind of rose anyway. He's seen the wild kind with their five petals and star-shaped yellow centers; which bloom, then fade, and swell to create the rounded rosehip berries to be collected for winter teas. But the fat, ruffled, domesticated rose doesn't grow anywhere he's yet lived, so he's had to rely on books for that.

He chooses a new pencil, blue, because it's a nice contrast to the red, and prints his 'To' and 'From' neatly above and below the flower, then puts away the pencils and gets down from his chair, carrying his picture with him as he goes to find its intended recipient. He wonders, finally, why the grown-ups outside the cabin are being so loud. He hasn't been paying attention because he's been concentrating on his drawing, but now he realizes that both his parents sound . . . upset. His father is angry. The other man sounds angry too. His mother sounds. . . he doesn't know what to call it, he's never heard that sound in her voice before. It scares him. He puts his hand on the door latch and pushes down, opening the door just as a deafening sound roars out.

He drops his picture and puts his hands over his ears. When he opens his eyes from his involuntary flinch, he looks outside and sees . . . . a man, a familiar man, he's been here before. He's carrying a shotgun, running fast toward a dogsled not far away. His father is kneeling in the snow. In the . . . red . . . snow? His mother is lying on the snow beside his father, in the same red snow, and there's red snow melted all over her parka, staining her favorite blue scarf. Her sweet, homely features are distorted in pain, her breath is a bubbling whimper, and a thin runnel of colored water trails from her mouth. She looks past his father to where he stands on the step. Her blue eyes are full of tears and she lifts a hand, fingers outstretched toward him. He takes a step forward.

The scene shifts. He sits at a table, no longer in a cabin, though; no longer a child, but a man in borrowed finery. He looks into a gleaming metal tray, sees a familiar, beloved face reflected in the tray's surface from the skylight. Instead of the reassurance he expects to feel, he feels fear. He wants to shout, to warn Ray not to do it, that he could be hurt, but he can't, he has to play the scene as written. A moment later there is shouting, and gunfire, and glass shards raining all around him as Ray comes feet-first through the skylight and drops into the middle of chaos. He tries to make his way to Ray's side, to get him out of harm's way, but he's too late, Ray is on his feet, and suddenly a rose blooms, red, on his chest, and he staggers, looking at Ben, pain in his eyes, red on his mouth. He lifts a hand, long fingers outstretched toward him. . . .
I sit up; heart pounding, drenched in sweat despite the cool temperature of the room and the fact that my blankets are lying on the floor beside the cot rather than on it as they should be. Diefenbaker lifts his head and whines a question. Ignoring him, I scrub my hands over my face, shuddering. How many times do I have to have this dream? How many times do I have to wake like this, terrified, trembling, aching? Why do I keep dreaming this, the same, over and over?

It makes no sense. My mother died of natural causes. Ray survived his impulsive leap through the skylight with only minor cuts and bruises. There is no reason why I should keep dreaming about my mother dying in such a horrible fashion, but that doesn't change the fact that I've had this dream, off and on, for as long as I can remember. More recently it has become an almost nightly occurrence, and acquired the even more disturbing epilogue of Ray-- dying.

I can't think about that. Can't. I stand up and cross the room to the window, looking out at the filthy snow which barely reflects back any light from the gibbous moon above. I hate this place. Back home this much moonlight on snow would make the night nearly bright as day, and the aurora would light the sky in hypnotic pulses and trance me to a dreamless sleep. Not here, though. Here the only thing that pulses is the constant sound of traffic, and the heartbeat of my own loneliness. Not that the last would be different elsewhere. That's the one constant in my life.

It's also what keeps me here in this place I hate, past sense, past wisdom, because as much as I hate the place, I don't hate its people. These strange, loud, prickly people who have made room for me in their lives in ways no others ever have before. To them, my many strangenesses are no stranger in degree than their own, just in type. Their grudging acceptance of me helps mitigate my loneliness much of the time, although sometimes it only makes things worse, makes me more aware of how much I don't have in my life. Still, I. . . like these people. In fact, in one case it is more than like. Much more. Frighteningly more.

A shiver shakes me, though I'm not cold. I'm rarely cold here. Chicago doesn't know the meaning of 'cold.' No, that shiver had nothing to do with temperature, and everything to do with terror. I do not, cannot, feel this way. It's too dangerous. The last time. . . no. I don't want to think about that, but the thoughts come anyway, and I know, I can see, and feel that even that had not felt like. . . this. That's what makes me so afraid. This is so much more. I can only vaguely recall ever feeling anything even close to this before, and those feelings are accompanied by such a wrenching sense of helplessness and loss, the feeling that something infinitely precious has been torn from me. I can't stand to feel that again.

Every time I care for someone, I lose them. That's what I fear now. Loss. Losing something-- no, I must be honest with myself, not something, but someone who means the world to me. Intellectually I am fairly sure the dreams don't really have so much to do with my mother, as with the fear of loss her death represents to my subconscious, which is apparently frozen somewhere in a six-year-old's pain. They do, however, have to do with Ray. And consciously I can't face that, which is why I'm dreaming.

I know fear can be faced and overcome. I've done so on more than one occasion. But how to face this one? How to overcome it, when to all outward appearances the cause of the fear has already been faced and overcome? That is, as Shakespeare said, the rub. Outward appearances leave a great deal of uncertainty, since one can never really know what another person is thinking. One can guess, one can even ask, but never know for certain for any answer can be wrong, or a lie.

I have nothing concrete to work from, just a feeling, a sense that I am losing him. To all outward appearances, since we both declined our respective transfers Ray and I have reestablished a our working relationship, have even reestablished our previous friendship, seemingly even stronger than before. But sometimes, with increasing frequency, I find myself feeling as if there were a barrier between us, keeping us apart. As if an invisible force field from that exceedingly loud film Ray recently took me to has been slipped between us, transparent, but unmistakably a barrier.

Often, of late, and especially since Quinn's visit, I sometimes look up to find Ray watching me with a strange, thoughtful, almost distant expression on his face. The few times I've been able to bring myself to ask if anything is amiss, he has just laughed it off, but I know there is something, I can feel it, unspoken, but unmistakable, eroding the fragile structure of our harmony. And that, I know with utter certainty, I cannot bear. It is weak and even petty to think of myself this way, as well as egotistical, I know, but sometimes it seems as if all the weight of the world's need for hope rests squarely on my shoulders, and the only thing that makes that endurable is. . . Ray.

Most of the time I can bear the weight, bear the responsibility of finding good where so little exists, but I can't do it alone. Not any more. Overly dramatic or not, I sometimes feel that if I lose Ray again that will be proof that there's no hope in this world, and it will kill me. I know that. In my less rational moments, I imagine myself battling demons that are only kept at bay by the spark of hope that is Ray, and without it, without him, I will lose the battle and give in to them, satisfy their dark desires with my own flesh.

If it comes down to that, I'll try to be considerate, it would be inexcusable to leave bad memories for anyone else to have to cope with. I pray to a God in whom I don't really believe that such a step won't become necessary, because in some ways I'm a coward. Even more, I pray it won't be necessary because I don't want to lose Ray.

I move from the window with a revoltingly Heathcliffian sigh (and detesting Wuthering Heights makes it that much worse), and sit down on the edge of my cot, staring at my bare feet, elbows on my thighs, hands dangling laxly between my knees. Tired. I am so tired of being alone. The days are bearable because I'm with Ray much of the time, and that keeps the loneliness in check, but at night, here, alone, I feel it deeply, viscerally. I'm thirty-six years old, and have been alone most of my life. I probably always will be. The thought depresses me unutterably.

There are so many ways of being alone, too. Alone in mind, alone in spirit, alone in body. That's something else I feel far too strongly, at times. It's been easier since Victoria, because I can use her to remind myself of just how terrible consequences can be, but even so there have been times that the hunger for touch has become so strong that I've actually thought of hiring one of the men or women who make the street corners their marketplace, but fortunately or not the urge rarely lasts longer than it takes me to remember the hopeless blankness in their eyes.

I don't want that. I want communion. I want companionship. I want the bright, sparking life I see in Ray's eyes, the sweetness of his rare, open smiles, and . . . Oh, God. There it is. I've been dancing around it all night, and not letting myself think it, and now I have, and I know it's all downhill from here. I know how it will end, how it always ends, with the loneliness of my own touch. Alone. As always. As if to contradict me, Diefenbaker nudges one of my hands and I look at him and smile a little.

"Yes, you're right. I do have you, and I do appreciate that, though I may not always show it in the way that you might deem appropriate. You know that doughnuts really aren't good for you."

I lean back with another disturbingly theatrical sigh, and close my eyes, trying to will myself back to sleep, because tired of being alone is not the only kind of tired I am. The increasing frequency of these dreams -- nightmares really -- have left me physically tired as well, worn to the bone. In fact I've been surprised that no one has yet commented on the strain in my face, the dark circles beneath my eyes.

I think Ray has noticed. He's been more than usually solicitous of me, and several times he's looked at me and I've seen him draw breath as if to ask, then stop himself. I'm not sure why he stops himself, but I am grateful for it, because I can't talk about this with him, can't explain it. He's too smart, too sharp, and he knows me far too well. I push that thought away and steady my breathing, slow and deep, trying to relax as much as possible. Breathe in slowly. Release, slowly. Breathe in slowly. Release slowly. Exhaustion rises around me, warm, comfortable, like a blanket. Sleep.

A slight rattling sound and a welcoming whine from Diefenbaker make me tense as I realize I'm no longer alone, then I relax momentarily as I stare at the intruder silhouetted in the doorway against the hallway light. I know who it is even though his face is in shadow. I know him by his scent, and even if I didn't recognize that, his hair alone would identify him to me.

Fear threads through me. Not another dream of Ray dying. Not one set here, in my only safe place. Please. Not again. Then the scrabble of claws and the bump of a furry tail against my knee makes me jump, and I realize it is no dream this time. Dief's joyful greeting reinforces that as Ray leans down and tries to hush him.

"Sssh, shhhhhh! Stupid wolf, don't wake him up!" Ray whispers, stroking Dief's head soothingly..

"Ray?" I ask, surprised.

Ray straightens and steps forward a little, and I can finally see his face. He looks diffident, and . . . odd, his normally bright eyes shadowed, worried.

"Yeah, Frase. Sorry I woke you. I didn't mean to. I . . . uh. . . let myself in."

He holds up a credit card with a sheepish smile, and I remember that I meant to change the locks the last time this happened. I wonder briefly why I haven't yet. It's been quite some time since Ray demonstrated how easily the locks here can be slipped. Perhaps this is why, actually. Perhaps a part of me has hoped this would happen again. No, no perhaps. I know that's it. I clear my throat, trying to sound normal. "It's quite all right, Ray, I wasn't actually asleep. Is something wrong?"

It's so easy to fall into my normal pattern, formality and solicitude my shields against the world. I'm genuinely concerned, though, because Ray doesn't normally come to visit in the dead of night. Or. . . does he? I wonder suddenly– Ray said he hadn't meant to wake me. Why not, if he's here? Why wouldn't he wake me? An odd feeling goes through me at the thought that Ray might sometimes come here at night and watch me sleep. I'm not entirely sure if what I feel is anger or arousal or some strange combination of both, but whichever it is, it's disturbing on many levels.

"No, nothing's . . ." Ray begins, then he stops himself, shaking his head. "Oh, hell. I guess people don't usually show up on your doorstep at two a.m. when there's nothing wrong, hunh?" Ray smiles a little, clearly embarrassed. "It's stupid, Fraser, really. I was just. . . I had a . . . well, I guess it was a dream. You were in that coffin again at the funeral home, only this time it was for real. No more toy soldier. You were dead. And it was so fu. . . er . . . darned real, that I couldn't shake it, couldn't shake the feeling. I kept trying to talk to you, to reach you, but you were . . . and I couldn't . . . Christ. I had to come see, make sure . . . ."

He looks away suddenly, rubs the corner of his mouth with his thumb, and I see that his hand is shaking. I'm on my feet instantly, reaching out, putting a hand on his arm.
"I'm fine, Ray, see? Fine."

We're standing close now, very close, but Ray doesn't seem to mind. He just looks at me steadily, his brow furrowed. "Yeah, now you are. But you. . . damn it, Fraser, you're always doing crazy stuff. Jumping out of buildings, walking up to guys with guns, taking toad-poison. . . I looked that stuff up on the Internet, Fraser, it could have killed you. So could that damned casket, Jesus, airtight. That was close. Not to mention trying to reason with mobsters. And it all scares the crap out of me really. Sometimes it's like. . . I don't know. . . ." He shakes his head in frustration, ". . . like you want to get killed."

I let go of Ray's arm as if it were hot, and turn away so I don't have to face those searching eyes. There is a moment of silence, heavy and uncomfortable, then Ray speaks again.

"Shit. Fraser. Benton Fraser. Shit. No." I feel Ray's hand on my shoulder, pulling me around with almost painful force, then gentle fingers under my chin turn and lift my face until I meet his gaze again. "You want that?" Ray asked, eyes wide and shocked. "You want that?"

I unfocus my eyes, unable to bear his horrified blue-gold gaze. I take a breath, try to answer as honestly as I can without admitting the worst. "It's not that I want it, Ray, not as such. It's just that sometimes I think . . . I wouldn't mind."

Ray stares, draws in a ragged breath. "Why? Jesus, why?"

"I . . . ." I can't bring myself to say it. It sounds so self-pitying, so stupid, when I try to put it out in the open. I shake my head, shrug.

"You have to have a reason. I know you, you have a reason for everything. You've been acting funny ever since Warfield had you beat up, and now I find out this? You talk to me, now, Benton Fraser. You tell me. Don't you dare shut me out." Ray shakes me by the shoulders a little, his voice a hard, harsh growl. "You tell me. Because I swear to you I will lock us both in this room until you do. However long it takes."

A little flare of anger stirs in me, compels me to point out the ridiculousness of that idea. "Ray, the door locks from this side. It would be impossible to lock us in here unless you were telekinetic, or had an accomplice on the other side."

"I've got a gun," Ray says simply. "And I know how to use it."

I can't help but smile at that. "If I wanted to die, wouldn't that be playing into my hands?"

Ray grins back, ferally, his eyes narrowed and hard. "Nobody says I have to kill you, Fraser. I can just. . . wing you a little."

He looks. . . serious. I don't see the light in his gaze that would tell me he's joking. Looking into his steady, somber gaze I hope fervently that he has his glasses with him. My mouth is suddenly a little dry, and I swallow, trying to coax moisture back into it. The intensity in Ray's eyes is. . . disconcerting, the ferocity of his reaction even more so.

"I . . . we. . . could we sit?"

I hate the stammer in my voice, it shames me, but Ray simply nods. I sit back down on the edge of my cot. To my surprise he doesn't take the desk chair across from me, instead he sits down on the cot, right next to me. So close that I can feel his thigh alongside my own, and am forcibly reminded that I am wearing nothing but thermal underwear. I feel intensely vulnerable, so much so that I stare at the floor, at a loss for what to say or do next. Ray shifts a little; he is, after all, constitutionally unable to be still for more than thirty seconds.

"Well, I'm waiting," Ray announces.

He deserves an answer but I have none that I can speak. I try a diversion instead. It's a tactic that rarely works with him, but for some reason I keep attempting it. "Why should it matter, Ray?"

Out of the corner of my eye I see Ray's jaw drop, then his mouth snaps shut in a thin line. He makes a couple of abortive stabs at speech, and finally manages it. "Because you're my friend, Fraser, that's why, and that's what friends do. They . . . care. I care. A lot. What else would make me drag my sorry ass out of bed at two in the friggin' morning to come check up on you because of a damned dream? But I guess you don't care, hunh? Guess I just thought you did. Guess it was all just a show, for you, pretend, that I was your partner, and your friend. So much for that honesty thing."

Ray's voice starts out hard and harsh, nearly belligerent, but by the time he finishes it's hollow and thin, and when I steal a glance at him I find that he too is gazing at the floor, his expression taut and unhappy. Pain lances through me, sharp, and clean as a knife. Pain from causing pain. Endless circles. I can ease his, at least. "Of course not, Ray!" I say firmly. "I meant every word."

Ray gazes at me speculatively at that, and I can almost see some sort of plan taking shape in his mind, but Ray's thoughts are often hard to follow, so I'm not prepared for his next words.

"So, friends don't talk to each other up in the Northwest Areas? They just keep it all inside, they just bottle it up and pretend nothing's wrong? Guess it's more polite that way, nobody gets their feelings in a twist. But you know something, Fraser, you're not in the Northwest Areas . . . ."

"Territories," I correct automatically.

"Whatever. You're not there now. You're here, in America."

"Actually, at the moment we're in Canada, Ray."

Ray picks up my pillow and holds it up threateningly. "Fraser, if you don't shut up I swear I will gag you with your pillow case."

Knowing Ray rarely makes idle threats, I decide discretion is the better part of valor, and refrain from further replies. Ray waits a moment, glaring, then apparently decides I've complied and puts the pillow down. "Good. Okay. Now, wherever the hell we are, you're with me, and you're my friend, and friends talk about things, so talk, damn it!"

I glance at the pillow, eyebrows lifted questioningly. Ray shakes his head and smiles wanly at me, rolling his eyes. "Only if you get all smart-mouthed on me again. Fraser, please. Talk to me. I want to help. I want to be here for you, like you're always there for me. Always. Jesus, Fraser . . . ."

Ray huffs out a breath, clearly frustrated, then to my utter shock he reaches over and pulls me into his arms. I can't move. I can only sit, stone-still, wrapped in those long arms. Ray's embrace is hard and fierce, taut with the energy that always seems to flow under his skin, an aurora unto himself.

That pulse seems to leach into me as the moment goes on, and I want to return the embrace. More, I want to turn his face to mine, to taste his mouth, the curve of cheek, the rasp of stubbled jaw. No. No, I can't. I gather strength to push him away, but before I can Ray turns his face toward the side of my neck and rests there for a moment, and my strength deserts me again. The feel of Ray's breath against my skin sends strange shivers through me.

A moment later I feel something crawl down my neck, ticklish, like an insect, but it's winter and most insect life is dead or dormant so that makes no sense. Puzzled, I reach up with one hand, put my fingers against the side of my throat, feel them slide on wetness there. I lift my fingers to my mouth, taste . . . salt. Salt. Stunned by that discovery I shift a little on the cot, turning in toward Ray, daring to slide my own arms around him as I wanted to, but no longer driven to do more than hold him. We sit like that for a long time, wordlessly, until Ray drags in a deep, shuddering breath, and pulls back a little, avoiding my gaze as he wipes his eyes, a flush of embarrassment washing across his sharp cheekbones.

"Sorry. I'm sorry. Last thing you need when you're down is someone else sogging all over you."

"I do. It is," I say, my voice a rough whisper, because I can't trust it not to break.

Ray looks at me then, frowning, confused. "You do what? It is what?"

"I do need it, it is what I need." Still rough, still whispering.

Ray continues to stare at me for a moment, then he shakes his head, a hint of a smile lurking on his mouth. "Yeah?"

"Yes," I manage. "It's. . . I can't do that. Do it for me."

For a moment Ray looks at me as if he is pretty sure my elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor, then I can see the understanding come into his eyes, and he swallows hard, and nods. "Yeah. Yeah, I get that. Okay."

I look at my hands, feeling guilty for causing him so much concern. I never meant to. I didn't understand that he truly cared. I'm not used to people. . . feeling. . . for me. To most I am an object, not a person. I should have known he would never see me so. He's my friend, and I must remember that, treat him as such. I'm just not used to having one. "I'm sorry," I say quietly. "I didn't mean to worry you, I never meant to, I just didn't know you felt . . . so strongly." I look up from my apology in time to see Ray blush again, looking away from me just as I manage to look at him.

"Yeah, well, I do, okay? Just didn't . . . I mean, it's not . . . normal, I know that. Didn't want to freak you out. Should have known you'd be okay with it. Nothing fazes you. Freaks me the hell out, but doesn't faze you."

I frown, a little confused myself now. "There's nothing abnormal in caring about someone, Ray. I fail to see why having such feelings for me should cause you to 'freak out.'"

Ray looks surprised, and that 'I'm talking to a lunatic' look creeps over his face for a moment, then disappears behind another blush. He spends a moment composing himself before replying, though it still comes out hesitantly. "Um, well, because. . . you're a guy. And I'm a guy. And we're cops."

Ah. I understand now. I understand because I wrestle with the same problem myself, though in greater degree, I think. "I realize that American men are not encouraged to show emotions," I say, gently. "Frankly, neither was I. My father and my grandparents, were taciturn in the extreme. And granted, we are officers of the law, an occupation wherein the open expression of emotion is somewhat out of the norm. That said, though, I see nothing wrong with us caring about one another."

Ray stares at me and his eyebrows look as if they are trying to locate his hairline. "You don't? You. . . Jesus. Fraser, are you telling me. . . you feel. . . are you saying you. . . like me, too?"

The question cuts like a knife. Clearly my previous attempts at reassurance have been less than convincing. That isn't fair to Ray. It's not his fault that I am. . . the way I am. I feel badly that Ray should have to ask that after all this time. I had hoped he knew I cared. I've assured Ray twice before this that we are friends, thought we were past this uncertainty, but apparently I'm incapable of showing enough simple affection to be convincing. Something else I have to atone for now, taking away the surety that he is liked for who he is. I put my hand on Ray's shoulder lightly, look in his changeable, doubt-filled eyes. "Yes, Ray. I like you very much."

I thought I'd seen all of Ray's smiles. I was wrong. This is a new one. This one almost . . . hurts. . . almost makes me close my eyes against its brilliance. The pain of it transmutes quickly to a warm frisson of desire that makes me clench my fists against it. Thankfully, sadly, it's gone far too quickly, replaced by an almost-shy lowering of startlingly long eyelashes, and a quick look away.

"Whoa. I . . . um." He clears his throat. "Okay. Cool. But, um, that's not what we're supposed to be talking about, Fraser. One thing at a time. We have to deal with bad before good, right? So, you gonna tell me why you're sitting here thinking stuff like that, and how long you've been thinking stuff like that, and why you haven't ever said you sometimes think stuff like that and asked for some help with it?"

It takes me a moment to puzzle through that, but when I get it, it removes the last lingering inappropriate response to Ray's smile. I sigh. "I try not to think about it. It's self-indulgent."

"So? You never indulge yourself, Fraser, and since not thinking about it isn't working worth a damn, maybe you ought to think about it. And talk about it. And do something about it. Spill."

Can I do this? I owe it to Ray. I can't just drop a bombshell like that and expect that Ray will let it go. Ray does care about me. I know that. Perhaps the distance I thought I had sensed between us is simply a figment of my imagination, like that image of my mother in my dreams. I stare at my hands some more, think hard, and compose a careful reply. "I . . . sometimes it just seems so . . . hard, Ray."

"Life?" Ray asks, and at my nod, he let out a long sigh. "Yeah. Yeah, it does sometimes, doesn't it? And we get to see the worst of it, day in, day out. But you always seem to be above that, Fraser. Like it doesn't touch you. Not where it counts."

"I try not to let it," I acknowledge, then I too sigh. "But it does. I'm not above it at all, and sometimes it seems as if the end of the tunnel is a very long way away."

Ray's gaze snap up to my face, worried. "End of the tunnel? What tunnel?"

I'm puzzled by his reaction. "The light at the end of the tunnel, you know. It's just a metaphor."

"Oh. Oh that." Ray looks relieved. "I thought you meant that tunnel they talk about that people see when they die. Yeah. But Fraser, there's light all around, really. You know that. You made me see that. People are lights. Even when they're not all good, there's usually some good in them. Some people are more light than others. I know I'm not much, but you . . . you're. . . you've been . . . God, sorry, sap, but when the Beth Botrelle thing happened, you were my light, Fraser. You lit my way out of the dark like one of those Twentieth-Century-Fox lights."

I smile at that, I can't help it. "I'm glad I was able to be of assistance, Ray."

Ray rolls his eyes, but the expression somehow looks more affectionate than exasperated. "Yeah. Assistance. So, what can I assist you with, Fraser? I'm more like one of those flashlights they use on The X-Files than a searchlight, but what light I got, it's yours."

It's strange, I know, very strange, to react to his statement by bursting into tears like a child, but that is what I do. It's as if there was a hard, tight ball inside me, and those words just crack it open and let the pain come flooding out, washing through me in bitter, agonizing waves. I try to pull in, pull back, to hide myself away, but Ray will have none of it. I am held, and rocked, and soothed with gentle strokes on my back, my hair, until the sobs fade, leaving me wrung out and silent. At that point Ray pats my shoulder and gets up and leaves the room.

For a moment I fear my hysteria has exceeded even Ray's tolerance for freakishness and driven him away, so I'm ridiculously grateful when he returns moments later with a roll of toilet tissue from which he tears a strip, which he places in my hand. I'm not quite sure what I am supposed to do with it until Ray tears off a second strip and mops his eyes, then blows his nose. Ah. I imitate him, though my handkerchief would be more ecological. I don't want to slight Ray's offer of comfort.

It strikes me suddenly that it's a shame that Stella had not wanted children, because Ray would have made a good father. I feel a momentary pang of disloyal guilt at the realization that I wish my own father could have expressed his emotions so generously. Ray tosses his used tissue into the wastebasket and resumes his place on the cot beside me. After a moment he speaks again.

"Fraser, get up for a sec, okay?"

I comply without questioning why, and Ray shifts to sit with his back against the wall, his legs stretched out, spread as widely as the narrow cot allows. He pats the cot between his legs. "Okay, sit here. Lean on me."

"Ray. . . ." I begin to protest, embarrassed that he thinks I still need to be held, but Ray holds up a hand, silencing me.

"Just do it, okay?"

Unable to summon the spine to argue, I nod and take my place there, though I can't quite bring myself to lean. Ray has other plans, though. He reaches out, winds his arms around my chest, and pulls me back, refusing to allow me even that distance. The position isn't comfortable. The angle is wrong, and I'm too tense to really relax. Ray sighs and shifts again, pulling and pushing at me until I'm half-turned toward him, and then he pulls me in again, my cheek against his shoulder, his hand in my hair, stroking wordlessly. It's comfortable now. No doubt Ray's years of marriage have taught him how to share a small space comfortably with another person. I have no such training.

"Okay?" Ray asks after a moment.

I nod, embarrassed, but unwilling to move, unwilling to give this up just yet. If this is all I can have, I'll take it. It's more closeness than I've had in longer than I care to remember. And at least Ray won't hurt me, not like . . . others. Ray is quiet for a few moments, then he speaks again.

"Funny, most times you won't shut up to save your life, but now that I want you to talk, Dief's got your tongue."

Dief makes a sound, as if confirming Ray's comment, and we both chuckle a little.

"Ray." My voice sounds strained, hoarse. "I'm sorry. I'm not good at this."

"Who is?" Ray asks ruefully. "Women maybe. Not guys. It's okay."

"You seem quite good at it," I say, hoping he didn't notice how wistful I sound.

Ray laughs softly. "That's cause I'm not the one falling apart for once. Jeez. I didn't even know you could fall apart. Shatter my illusions there, Fraser."

I tense. Just as I feared. I push away, or try to, fighting Ray's arms. He's stronger than he looks. "Ray, please. I'm sorry. I didn't mean . . . ."

"Fraser, chill." Ray says firmly. "It was a joke, okay? What the hell was that all about? Like you're not allowed to have a bad day now and then?"

"No," I say, then regret it a moment later when Ray tips his head to look at my face.

"No? You're not?"

I shake my head. "No. I. . . can't."

"Why not?"

"It's not in my nature."

"Oh, bullshit, Fraser. Tell me another one. Why not?"

"You said it yourself, Ray. It shatters people's illusions," I say attempting to deflect his curiosity.

"So? Boy, saying that a lot tonight. So? Maybe it'll do them good, shake things up a little. Make 'em see the real you."

I sigh, and shake my head again. "Ray, no one wants to know the real me."

There's a long silence, then Ray speaks quietly. "I do."

I look at him in puzzlement. "Why?"

Ray looks back at me, frowning. "Because I like you. I like you a lot. You're my best friend. You're. . . um. . . " he clears his throat. "You're very important to me, Fraser. Friend and partner. Okay? I'm sure lots of people want to know the real you." He smiles. "Frannie, for one."

I shake my head. "Francesca least of all, I suspect. She wants a version of me that never existed. Most people do."

Ray thinks about that, nods. "Hm. Don't know about most people, but yeah, you're probably right about Frannie. What makes you think most people want that, though?"

"Experience," I say quietly.

Ray sighs. I can feel his breath stir my hair faintly. "You got some bad experiences. It's not all other people though, Fraser, I mean, I'm not saying it's all your fault because it's not, but it takes two, you know. Part of it's that. . . armor . . . you wear."

I frown, puzzled, and look up. "Armor?"

"Yeah. Armor. It's red, and it's cloth, but it's armor. And that's on top of the other armor. Six inches thick and I used to think the only thing that could get through it is kryptonite. Not that I blame you. Letting things through hurts. I know that. But something got through, hunh? Talk to me, Fraser. Tell me why you're up at all hours, thinking about taking the easy way out."

I concentrate on the question, trying not to think about what else he said, knowing he's right, and not wanting to know it. I can't tell him all of it. I don't think I even know all of it, and I'm absolutely certain he would not want to know all of it. But. . . part of it I can admit. Part of it's safe, and will probably be enough to satisfy him, because I know he's as tenacious as a terrier when he gets something into his head and I have to give him something or he will be here all night, and I'll probably break if that happens.

"It's not easy," I feel compelled to point out. "If it were, I wouldn't be here now."

He sighs. "Yeah, I know. Been there a time or two. I shouldn't have put it that way. Come on, Fraser. Talk to me." He smiles a little, with an odd edge of wistfulness. "I'm glowing as hard as I can, here."

Yes. Yes he is. And that's what keeps me going. "I have recurring dreams," I admit finally.

"Dreams?" he asks, puzzled.

I nod.

"Like, bad dreams? Nightmares?"

I nod again.


I start to speak and my voice breaks. Appalled, I try to cover it with a cough but he's staring at me with narrowed eyes, and I know the attempt is useless. "My mother," I say, and my voice sounds like someone else's. Deeper. Rougher. Shot through with the pain I never let myself express.

"Your mum?" he echoes questioningly.

I've always been intrigued by the fact that he often calls his mother 'mum' rather than the more traditionally American 'mom.' Oddly, I often do the opposite. As if we sometimes trade dialects for that one word. Strange. It binds us, somehow.

"Dreaming about your mum is a nightmare?" he asks, puzzled.

"I've been dreaming about. . . . her death."

His eyes meet mine, dark with sympathy and understanding now. "Oh, man. Fraser, I'm sorry. That had to be hard for you. More than hard. I mean, you were just a little guy. I know how I'd've felt, losing my mum. Jeez, even now that would really suck, and I'm a grown up."

I find myself nodding. "Yes, Ray, it did indeed, as you say, suck."

He nods back, and one of his hands moves to rest on my shoulder, warmly, comfortingly, his thumb moving gently in an absent, circling motion. "You, um, want to talk about it? You've never said how she died."

I don't want to talk about it. I do want to talk about it. "That's the strange thing, Ray. I don't seem to remember."

He thinks about that. "Well, you were only six, right? Guess it's not that strange that you'd forget."

"No. I suppose not. Though it seems odd to me that neither my grandparents nor my father mentioned it at some point after I was old enough to remember."

"Well, 'scuse me for saying it, but your family doesn't seem to have been real big on communication, if you know what I mean. Doesn't seem so odd to me, when you take that into consideration."

He has a point. My father only began talking to me on a regular basis long after he was dead. My grandparents were good, strong, sturdy people of high intelligence, practical to the point of obsession, generally good-humored, but with strong opinions about what was and was not proper. A discussion of their daughter-in-law's death long after the fact would not have been something they considered useful.

"She died pretty young," he muses. "Car accident maybe?"

I shake my head. "No. I don't think it was an accident. It must have been an illness. The most common diseases which claim women in their prime are heart disease and cancer, but neither of those seems right."

"You remember anything at all, any clue to go on?"

I shudder, nodding. "Yes. One thing." It's in the dream, every time. That sound.

"And it is?"

"I have a memory, very vivid, of hearing her breathing in a wet, labored way. As if she were breathing through water."

Ray frowns at that. "Like maybe she drowned?"

"It was full winter when she died. It would have been virtually impossible to find a body of water large enough to drown in that wasn't solid. And I know it happened at the cabin, so it seems unlikely."

"Hmmm." He thinks some more, looks up, snapping his fingers. "What about pneumonia? I had that once, when I got shot. Felt like I was drowning."

Pneumonia. I think about that, and nod slowly. "It's possible. In an isolated environment, untreated pneumonia is often fatal. It makes sense."

"What happens in your dream? Is it always the same?"

"Yes, well, for all intents and purposes," I prevaricate. He doesn't need to know about the last part.

"And?" he prompts.

I breathe deeply. Swallow hard. "She dies in the snow outside the cabin, felled by a shotgun blast." There. I've said it. I'm not sure how, but I did it. I swallow back the nausea that saying it brings to my throat. He startles; I can feel it in his body against mine. His hand tightens on my shoulder, his other hand comes up to cup the back of my head and hold me against him in a startlingly intimate gesture.

"Jesus Christ, Ben! No wonder you're feeling like crap. God!"

Ben? He's never called me that before. Never. Occasionally he'll call me Benton. Never Ben. I don't say anything, afraid if I call his attention to the fact, he won't do it again. As soon as I think it, I feel guilty for putting my own desires so high. I try to pull away and he won't let me, holding me in place with gentle but firm pressure. After a moment I stop trying, and let him have his way. It seems less intimate than struggling.

"How long you been having this dream?" he asks after a little while.

Oh, Ray. There's a reason you're a good detective. I sigh. "A long time."

"A long time?" he repeats.


"How long?"

"Since I was a child."

He's quiet for a bit. "You . . . never said anything before," he says finally.

There's something odd about his voice. Something that makes me think of him in the GTO, watching his ex-wife walk away; of another time, and his voice as he spoke of being responsible for a woman's death. I pull back a little so I can look into his face, and I find him staring across the room at nothing, his clear gaze distant and unseeing, tension around his mouth. I've hurt him. I don't know how, but I know I have.

"Ray, I . . . ." I begin to apologize.

His gaze sharpens, he's seeing me now, and he shakes his head. "It's okay, Fraser. I just wish you could . . . ." He stops. Sighs. "But I know you can't, so it's okay," he finishes.

I have no idea what it is that he wishes I could do, but it astonishes me that he can say it's all right that I hurt him. "Ray, it's not okay."

His gaze pins me, too close, too knowing. "What? That you don't know how to have a friend? That you can be the best friend I ever had, but you won't let me be one back? No, it's not okay. It sucks. It really sucks. But I know it's not your fault, so I can't be mad about it. I just have to keep showing you and hope it sinks in. How long has it been since you got a good night's sleep?"

I'm confused, tired. "I . . . I don't remember."

He shakes his head. "I should've figured. Go to sleep, Fraser. We can talk more when you're rested. I can't expect you to make sense right now. Things'll be better when you've slept."

Still confused, I nod, and try to get up so he can go home. He doesn't release me.

"I said go to sleep," he says quietly.

It takes me several seconds to realize he has no intention of leaving. The realization shakes me, and I'm so out of control I can feel tears well up. I try to remember the last time someone held me as I slept. Realize it was a woman who got up after I fell asleep to clean every trace of her presence from my apartment. His touch is much sweeter than hers. And I am tired. So tired. I close my eyes.

* * *

He's gone when my internal alarm wakes me at five. He's smart enough to know that since my bedroom is also my office it would cause speculation for him to be found in 'bed' with me, even fully clothed as he had been. I can't believe I slept through him leaving. Nor can I believe I had no more nightmares. They always come back. But not last night. He stood sentry and refused to allow them into my sleep.

Though I feel a little better after several hours of uninterrupted sleep there's still a heaviness inside me. I think back over the last few things we said last night, and that heaviness deepens. My chronic reserve and uncommunicative nature distresses him, and it's unfair when he offers so much of himself. I wish I knew what it is about me that makes it so hard for me to accept what others offer. What had he said? That I don't know how to have a friend? He's right. I don't. Because I have no experience with intimacy of any sort that has not left me bruised and bloody. And that's what put me in that armor he says I wear.

Ray has no armor. He flings himself naked into every battle like some ancient Celt, his hair stiffened with lime, his body marked with woad. . . I can't help but smile as I realize how appropriate that simile really is, between his hair, his tattoo, and his fierce, fierce spirit. They would have loved him. I, on the other hand, have no idea how to remove the armor that's rusted rigid, leaving me stuck in place like the Tin Man in the Oz books. An all too apt simile as well, since like him, I also appear to need a heart.

No. No, that's certainly untrue. If I had no heart, it couldn't break, and mine is so shattered that I can't manage to convince a good man, a friend, that I care about him. His actions last night only compound the ache I feel when I think of losing him. He couldn't know, of course. He was only being kind. A friend. A good friend. While I can't even seem to show him that I consider him such. Probably because I'm afraid that if I do, I will eventually let it slip that what I feel for him is so much more than that. Friendship is the least of it.

I shy from the word I know I want to use, and skip over it to need, instead. A much safer word, even though it too makes me confront things I wish I could pretend didn't exist. I want him in my arms, I want to taste his mouth, I want him naked and sweating and moaning beneath me in a splay of lust and need. And what shakes me is that I suspect even if I did tell him that, he would still want to be my friend. That he wouldn't turn away from me. He's not like anyone I've ever known. He doesn't judge me. Everyone else does, but not Ray.

It's strange that I can know he doesn't and would not judge me, yet still feel that somehow he's slipping away from me. It's as if I'm dangling off the edge of a cliff and he's trying to keep me from falling, but gravity is steadily eroding our grip and one can't fight a force of nature. I feel a sudden need to hear his voice, to have him assure me that we are still friends, as if last night wasn't assurance enough. I almost reach for the phone to call him, but then I remember the hour, and stop myself. If I know him he's home trying to make up for the sleep he lost here with me and I don't want to disturb him a moment earlier than his alarm will no doubt do on its own. I'll see him at the 27th, on his own time.

I spend a moment smiling fatuously at the thought of him sprawled out on his rumpled bed, probably still dressed, probably snoring, then I shake my head and get up to prepare for the day. I have work. He has work. We'll meet later to discuss our cases, as usual, and I will try hard to let him see how much he means to me, without letting him see how much he means to me. A balancing act I'm not certain I can manage, but know I must at least try.

* * *

My daily routine serves to occupy my mind-- I have little time to think of anything but the duties assigned to me by Inspector Thatcher. I manage to finish them all by three and head for the station feeling a combination of trepidation and anticipation. After last night I'm not sure how Ray will receive me, but when I walk in he looks up and his face lights up, as always, perhaps even more than usual, actually. The relief I feel is acute. Dief greets him with his normal disgraceful abandon, and is rewarded with something out of a drawer. I frown as he crunches whatever it was, and am about to make a comment when Ray opens the drawer further and shows me the box residing within, and I close my mouth on the rebuke. I lift my eyebrows instead.

"I wasn't aware you enjoyed snacking on dog biscuits, Ray," I say in my mildest tone.

He snorts. "Oh yeah. They're great for those days you don't have time to brush your teeth."

"Ah," I respond cryptically, as if I believed him. I see a smile lurking around the corners of his mouth and feel pleased to have put it there.

He starts to ask me something, then looks around and motions me to follow him into the break-room. I do so without reservation. Well, without many, that is. The fact that he wants privacy is a little worrisome. He pours two cups of coffee, as usual, one for each of us though he knows I don't drink coffee. It's a little game he plays. One of these days I may drink a cup, just to see his face when I do. The room is empty, save for us, and he sits down at one of the tables. I take a place across from him, holding the warm cup between my palms. He studies me carefully, and I school my face to a neutral, pleasant expression.

"So, you better today?" he asks quietly.

I nod. "Yes, much."

His eyes narrow a little. "No more bad dreams and . . . stuff?"

"No, I'm fine. I slept well, thank you." That sounds so insufficient that I attempt more, though it's difficult for me. "I . . . I'm very glad you came by last night. And I'm glad you stayed."

He smiles at that, and his gaze falls momentarily only to rise again, holding mine. "Good, that's really good. I'm glad too." He takes a deep breath and his expression goes serious again. "Okay, now, you gonna talk to me next time you get messed up, or do I have to play like I'm a fortune-teller and figure it out on my own? Cause if that's the case, I need to get me a crystal ball."

"I . . . I'll try, Ray. But really, I'm fine. It was just a momentary aberration."

"Aberration. Jesus." He sips his coffee, sighs a little, then glances around as if to assure himself of our privacy before he lifts those shrewd, luminous eyes to meet my gaze. "So, uh . . . what do we do now?"

I'm a little puzzled by him asking me that. Usually he decides the priority of our cases. I think back over the cases I've been assisting him with, and offer one. "Well, I suppose the Coolbaugh case might be our best bet. We have some good leads there."

He cocks his head to one side a bit like Diefenbaker does sometimes when he's puzzled by some particularly baffling human behavior. "No, Fraser, I meant . . . ."

He falls silent mid-sentence, studies me for a moment, and it's strange, but it seems as if a slight shadow steals some of the light from his gaze. Finally he shakes his head, smiles oddly, and shrugs.

"Aaah, never mind. It doesn't matter. Okay, the Coolbaugh case. I think we need to hit the pawnshops, see if any of the goods have turned up. I don't think we're dealing with a pro, just a gifted amateur."

I agree with him, and the discussion turns to work-related matters, and he resists my attempts to steer the conversation back to his question. I have the feeling that I missed something important.

* * *

One forty-six am. Another gasping, panting, sweat-drenched wake up, heart pounding and nausea threatening. I'm still muzzy with sleep and I reach for the phone without really thinking, hit the autodial, and then realize what I'm doing and hang up before it rings through and wakes Ray up. There's really no reason to have two of us awake at this hour. Dief whines and eyes me narrowly, upset by my disquiet, and probably by the fear-scent in my sweat. Taking a fresh pair of sweatpants with me, I go upstairs and take a shower, letting the water run as hot as I can to try and burn the turmoil out of my brain, but all it does it make me lethargic so I finish up and head downstairs to make myself a cup of tea and get some work done. If I'm going to be up at this hour I may as well try to get something useful accomplished.

It's a measure of my poor physical and mental state that I'm all the way to the landing before it sinks into my brain that there's someone standing at the foot of the stairs. For an instant I feel the rush of adrenalin as my startle reflexes kick in, then I realize who it is, and for the second night in a row my tension eases even though my pulse is still racing. I'm annoyed that he's here again in the middle of the night, though, and even more annoyed with myself for being so irrationally relieved to see him.

"Would you like me to have a key made for you? I wouldn't want you to risk damaging your credit," I snap acidly.

He laughs softly. "It's expired. I only use it for nefarious purposes. Besides, the Ice Queen would have a cow. What's up?"

"Apparently you are."

"You too. You called me, what's up? Another dream?"

"I didn't . . . ." I begin, but stop. I did. But I hung up before it connected, so how could he know that?

He smiles. "Sometimes the circuit doesn't close as fast as you think. And I have caller ID," he says, solving the mystery.

I swear sometimes he can read my mind. It's an extremely disconcerting experience. "Ah." I say, ducking my head, smoothing an eyebrow for a moment to gather my thoughts. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."

"It's okay, I don't mind. You, um, wanna talk?"

"There's nothing to talk about, Ray, it was just a bad dream. I was more than half asleep when I picked up the phone."

"Okay. You want to not-talk, then? We can do that, like last night. I can just hang out. Wake you up if it looks like you're going down again."

"Ray, I'm fine," I snap, unable to bear his solicitude, his nearness, not when I'm so friable. The thought of 'just hanging out' like last night is far too attractive, but I won't allow myself to use him that way. I brush past him and head for my office. "I was just going to get some work done as long as I'm up."

I'm somewhat surprised when he doesn't argue. I'm pulling my sweatshirt out of the closet when Diefenbaker comes to the office doorway and glares at me, then turns with a soft growl and leaves again just as I hear the front door close. I quickly step out into the hallway, and find myself alone save for an angry wolf who's sitting staring at the door with his back ostentatiously turned to me.

Ridiculously I feel tears sting my eyes and blink them back, rebuking myself for them. It's my own fault he left. If I'd been a hair more pleasant he wouldn't have gone. Dief turns his head to glare at me again, then suddenly swivels back to stare at the door, ears cocked forward alertly as it opens, and Ray steps inside again, carrying a . . . pillow? We stare at each other for a moment, him a little pugnaciously, then as he studies me his expression softens.

"Okay. I know you're not used to having anybody poking around in your life, but you're stuck with me and I'm not going to let you push me out, so you better get used to it. Now. Back to bed. You're not working. I'm not letting you work for at least three more hours."

I sigh and shake my head, trying to hold my temper. I know he's just trying to help. "You don't understand. I know I won't get back to sleep, so I might as well make use of the time productively."

"And you don't understand that I'm not going to let you do that. You got back to sleep last night, you can do it again tonight."

"I feel compelled to point out that the circumstances were rather unusual last night."

"Yeah, but that's the thing about experiments. It's like that cold fusion deal. . . it's no good unless you can repeat the results, right?"

Now where did he get that little piece of trivia? It's extremely annoying that he's right, at least about scientific theory and method. Before I can think of a suitable reply, he grins.

"Ha! Gotcha. Back to bed, Fraser. I won't make you share this time. I figured you wouldn't have an extra pillow so I brought my own, but if you can find me a blanket that'd be good."

There's something about his air of utter certainty that compels me toward the closet in my office to get my other Hudson Bay blanket, and only after I've taken it from the shelf does it occur to me to wonder where he plans to sleep if not on my cot. By then he's followed me and he takes the blanket out of my hands and lays it out on the floor next to my cot. I stare at him in utter amazement until he lifts his eyebrows.


"You're sleeping on the floor?" I ask, allowing my incredulity to color my tone.

"Yeah." He grins. "You never got me my 'tuck in on the floor' badge, figured I needed to prove I could still do it." He points at my cot and assumes a severe expression. "You. Bed. Now," he orders.

"Really, Ray, are you always so domineering toward the people you sleep with?" I ask crossly before it strikes me that he could take that in a way I hadn't intended. Which of course, he proceeds to do.

His eyebrows go up and he grins cheekily. "That would be telling, now, wouldn't it, Fraser?" he says with a wink. "If you really want to know the answer to that one you'll have to ask the Stella."

From the amount of heat I feel in my face I'm guessing I must be as red as my thermals, but I manage a retort nonetheless. "From what I've observed of Assistant States Attorney Kowalski, I would have guessed the reverse."

He stares at me in what appears to be stunned amazement, jaw slack for a moment, then he chuckles. "Oh, bad, bad Mountie. I gotta hang out with you more often when you're sleep deprived." He laughs again, shaking his head. "That was definitely a score. Now get your baggy butt on the bed, cot, whatever."

"My butt is not. . . ." I begin to protest, offended, then what he meant sinks in and my face heats again. "Ah. You were referring to my attire."

This time he howls out loud, laughing so long he sounds like an asthmatic having an attack, and holding his stomach as he shakes his head and manages to gasp out. "Jesus God. No, Fraser, your ass is definitely not baggy. Believe me, I am well aware of that fact. Get in bed, sweet-cheeks."

He points, snickering, and with as much dignity I can scrape together I take my place on the cot, trying not to think about the fact that he's noticed my posterior. Or the fact that I am apparently a little vain about said anatomy. He stretches out on the floor beside me, still wearing his camel-colored wool topcoat. Since he's wearing jeans and a t-shirt beneath it, I assume he's planning to use it in lieu of covers. Putting his hands behind his head, he stares at the ceiling.

"Okay, tell me a story."

"All right. Who are you?" I demand, staring down at him. "Sleeping on the floor, asking for Inuit stories? I can only conclude that you are not the real Ray Kowalski."

He smiles, a sweet, open expression, startlingly so. "Nah, I'm me. And I never said Inuit stories. I want a Benton Fraser story. About when you were a little boy. Something nice, a good memory. One that has your mom in it."

For a moment I can't breathe. My whole body goes still, tense. Then involuntary reflexes take over and my chest moves, air fills my lungs. A good memory of my mother. God. What do I have left of her? I close my eyes, try to become a child, just for a moment. There.

"She. . . she always smelled good. I think it was . . . Chanel, maybe? Or, no, Shalimar. That's it. A rich, warm scent. Dad gave her a bottle when I was born, or, well, some months afterward but as soon as he could arrange to have it sent. She once told me that. She used it every day, just a drop. Said it was her one luxury."

"Bet there wasn't much of that, up there."

"No, very little. It's a harsh existence, but she seemed to thrive on it."

"What else you remember?"

I close my eyes again. That seems to help, to block out the present just a bit. "I remember when she held me, sometimes her hair would touch my face. It was soft. It tickled. Sometimes I helped her brush it."

"That sounds nice. I can see that in my head. Bet you were a pretty serious kid."

"Yes. I'm afraid I was."

"I was a brat," he offers, grinning. "Pure hell on wheels. Drove my folks nuts. Tell me something else."

It's coming easier now. "She sang, a lot. I thought she sounded like an angel."

"She probably did. You got that from her, hunh?"

I startle at that and look down at him, waiting for him to take back the compliment. He doesn't. He just holds my gaze with his. I feel myself flush a little. "I. . . ah . . . ."

He smiles. "It's okay. Don't spoil it. What'd she like to sing the most?"

It's funny, but suddenly I can hear her, in my head. "La Vie en Rose."

He frowns a little, shakes his head. "Don't know it."

"You probably do. You just don't realize it."

"Sing it then."

Extremely self conscious, I assay the first few bars, and suddenly his face lights in recognition. He knows it. I'd thought he would. Very few people are completely unfamiliar with it. I stop singing then, and he frowns.

"Why'd you stop?"

"You recognized it, didn't you?"

"Yeah, but that didn't mean you had to quit. I liked it."

"It's not really in my range," I temporize, not at all comfortable with the idea of singing a torch song to my partner.


He looks disappointed, but I can't bring myself to assuage that disappointment.

"So, she teach you French?"

"Yes, she did."

"Cool. Mom tried to teach me a little Polish, but I forgot most of it. Your mom sounds like she was nice."

"She was," I say, hearing the wistful tone in my voice and for once not being embarrassed by it. "I wish . . ." I stop, as another voice from the past surfaces 'There's no point in wishing, now, is there Benton?' I hear my grandmother's words, probably meant to be comforting, but in reality very harsh to a young boy who had lost his mother.

"You wish you'd had her longer, right?" Ray asks, bringing me back to the present.

I nod. There's no need for words. He reaches up, catches my hand and squeezes it. For a brief moment I'm tempted to move to the floor and join him there, but I suppose if he wanted to be that close he would have done as he did the other night and joined me on the cot, so I don't. We sit in silence.

The boy sits at a table, drawing a rose, with colored pencils. Behind him his mother is singing her favorite song as she works in the kitchen. The smell of chocolate in the air betrays what sort of cake she's baking, and the boy's mouth waters with anticipation. he finishes his drawing, and turns to her, holding it out. She smiles, and puts out her hand for it. Only when he looks down, it's not her hand any more. Instead of small and delicate, it's a larger hand, a man's hand, with long, narrow, elegant fingers. And his own hand is not a child's now, but a also a man's hand-- strong, and capable. The drawing is no longer a drawing, either, it's a rose, a real one, blood-red and lush. His fingers tighten on the stem in surprise, and the thorns bite, stinging. His partner looks at him in concern and takes the rose from his hand, then slowly leans forward to . . . .
I startle awake yet again, breathless yet again, heart racing, but this time not from fear. The touch of a dream-lover's kiss lingers on my mouth as I hear the door to my office close. I sit up instantly. Ray is gone. My spare blanket has been neatly folded and placed on the desk. I untangle myself from my own blanket and get out of the cot, but by then he's gone, the front door closing behind him as well, and I can't very well dash outside to call him back wearing nothing but sweat-pants. It would be extremely unseemly. Besides, I have no good reason to do so.

Reluctantly I turn from the door and head back to my office. Dief follows, grumbling softly. Without thinking I touch my fingertips to my lips, wondering at how real that dream-kiss felt, at how I can almost taste it. Ridiculous. After sleeping for several hours the last thing Ray would taste like is chocolate. I glance at the clock and am startled to see it's only a quarter of six. That's very early for Ray to be awake, especially on a Saturday, though most likely he couldn't sleep well on the floor. It amazes me that he stayed this long. It amazes me that he stayed at all.

Two nights. He's given me two nights, trying to ease my pain at his own expense. Why? I don't understand that. He's a man who likes comfort and sleep and needs a certain amount of evening peace to offset the daily rigors of law-enforcement that he has to deal with. But he gave that up for me, twice in a row. No one has ever done such a thing for me, none of my other . . . friends. It makes it clear just how much he cares for me, and that warms my icy heart, even if our relationship can't be quite what I would like for it to be.

Still, even a good friend can't be expected to keep this up indefinitely. I can't let him lose any more sleep for my sake. Tonight, no matter how bad the dreams are, I won't call him. I must just deal with them on my own. Although, that last dream hadn't been bad. I smile, closing my eyes, glad Ray asked me to think of something positive. As I get out fresh clothing for the day I find myself singing the song I'd remembered, the one that she'd also sung in my dream.

Des yeux qui font baisser les miens
Un rir' qui se perd sur sa bouche
Voila le portrait sans retouche
De l'homme auquel j'appartiens
I have to smile a little at how ridiculous I was last night, not wanting to keep singing with Ray present. He doesn't speak French, and even if he did know the language, I was merely singing my mother's favorite song. He would never have known that I find the lyrics far too apt. I do wish to belong to him, though. A vain wish, as most of mine have proven over the years. But his eyes do at times seem to kiss mine, and laughter does lose itself on his mouth, and I feel my heart-beat far too acutely in his presence. I start the next verse, thinking of the rose in my dream, of the way the thorns pierced my fingers, and suddenly I'm seeing bloody snow and an outstretched hand, and a shudder runs through me, horror silencing me like a gag. No. No. Stop it. Stop thinking about it.

I stand for a moment in my office, feeling claustrophobic, feeling a pressing need to go somewhere, anywhere, to just get . . . outside. I need it. Not to just walk the city streets or haunt the manicured expanse of a public park, but to be somewhere that I can pretend isn't within a stone's throw of another person. I need to smell the sharp scent of evergreen, breathe air that's not thick with petrochemicals. I want to be cold. I want to be . . . home.

I shake my head. I have to stop thinking of the north as my home. It hasn't been that for quite some time now, and is highly unlikely to be so again in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately that's easier said than done, and my recent dreams have only exacerbated my longing for a different place. I'm racking my brain trying to think where to go when Dief whines at me and I nod. "Yes. Indeed. That's a very good idea."

There's a wildlife preserve not too far to the northeast of us, out near the airport. I dress warmly, gather my equipment, and we head out. We've walked about a third of the way when a semi rumbles to a stop beside us and the driver, an older man with a weathered face and kind eyes, leans across to open the passenger door.

"Where're you headed?" he asks, looking curiously at Diefenbaker.

"Out near the airport."

He nods. "I'm heading that way to pick up a load. Want a ride?"

Dief makes an eager noise, and I look at him quellingly. "We've barely covered seven miles, I don't want to hear any more about it." I turn back to the trucker with a rueful smile. "I'm sorry, he's quite rude, but if you don't mind having both of us, I'd appreciate that."

"Don't mind at all. Come on up."

I nod. "Thank you kindly."

He shifts back over to his side of the cab as we get in. "Nice looking dog."

"Wolf actually. Well, half," I amend as he looks at Dief more closely. "At least I think so."

"Could be. Arctic, right, not gray?"

I'm surprised, and look at him more closely. "Yes, actually."

He grins. "Thought so. Used to work the rigs up on the Beaufort. Saw quite a few like him. You from up north?"

I nod. "Yes, I am."

"Funny, I thought that when I saw you two, but didn't figure I was right. You miss it?"

I wonder if my feelings are that obvious, until he continues, musingly.

"I do, sometimes. Never thought I would when I was up there freezing my ass off, but I do. There's just something about it . . . ." his voice trails off.

"Yes. Something," I agree fervently.

We ride in a companionable silence for some miles, and I have him drop me off where the river goes under the highway. There's a gravel access road there and Dief and I walk down it for a ways until we reach the small lake it verges. The water is well frozen, perfect for our purposes. A stack of small crates lies scattered near the roadside and I frown at the litter, then realize they will actually come in rather handy. I take two of them out onto the ice, not sure, really, why. It's not as though I need two places to sit, but for some reason it feels right. I cut a small hole in the ice, assemble my rod, and settle down to fish.

Dief plays for a while along the shore, chasing something, or quite possibly nothing. Its almost a Zen sort of state, one which allows me to just . . . not think. It's not a state I'm familiar with, but it's welcome, and I sit so for a long time, just being, just existing. At some point Dief comes back and lies on the ice near me, watching the water intently. His intensity tricks me into looking down, but there's nothing to see but a hole in the ice and the line dangling into dark water. When I look up again my father is sitting across from me. Ah. That's why the second box.

He looks at me. I stare back, somewhat annoyed to see him. His timing is generally execrable, and this appearance is no different. He's not been around for weeks now, as my dreams have tried to take control of my life. So typical, disappearing when I need him most. He's the only one-- well, besides Ray that is-- that I can talk to about the dreams. Doubtless he won't see fit to give me any advice that might actually prove helpful. He's quite good at either telling me what I already know, or suggesting ridiculously inappropriate courses of action. Come to think of it, perhaps his absence has actually been for the best.

"Son," he says finally.

"Dad." I acknowledge.

He looks at me uncomfortably. I realize suddenly that we both know something strange is happening. Finally he clears his throat.

"Pleasant here. Well, for a place in the city, that is. Reminds me a bit of home."1

I nod. "Yes. A bit." I suppose he'll eventually get around to the reason for his appearance.

"Not as cold, though," he says. "More like fall."

I nod again. "The first day the frost takes and there's a sheen of ice on the dugout."

"When you feel the wind from the north bringing the snow," he says, his inflection holding a hint of the same wistful tone I hear in my own voice.

"And out on horseback there's a slanting of light from the east," I say, his words deepening the nostalgic ache inside me.

He nods, sighs. "Oh, I miss it, son, I miss it terribly."

"Yes, so do I." What can it hurt to admit that? He is, after all, my father, and he said it first. As I study him I realize he seems. . . strange. Well, he's always strange, but right now he seems stranger. "You all right?" I hear myself asking, which is kind of a silly thing to ask because, well, he's . . . dead. He can't be all right.

He looks unsettled. "I don't know. You know life is odd enough but death, son, Lord God, they don't even give you a road map! Everything comes under scrutiny."

Scrutiny from whom, I wonder, even as I ask a completely different question. "What brought this on?"

He shakes his head, looks at me again. "I don't know, something in the air. There's something stirring there, you feel it?"

Oh yes. I feel it. I've been feeling it for quite some time now. It's strange, because I've had the dreams for years without ever feeling compelled to ask him about them, but they've become so much more intense of late. Perhaps he'll know something that will give me some peace. "Yeah." I pause, continue. "You know I've had. . . I've had some very odd dreams. . . ." I let my sentence trail off, prompting him.

"About your mother?" he asks me.

I try to hide my surprise. "Yes. You?"

He shrugs. "Well, I'm dead, I don't dream, so I don't know what this sensation is that I've got. Although it's very similar to when Walter Singlefoot laced my tea with kinnikinnik and then seemed to turn into a twelve foot alligator before my very eyes." He stands, looks around, almost pacing. "I don't know, it feels as though your mother's very close."

To me too, Dad, I think. But then she's never been far from my dreams. Or should I say my nightmares? It's terrible to have a nightmare be the primary image you carry of your mother. Before I can answer him, though, I become aware that we're not alone.

"Fraser, I hope for your sake you're talking to a fish."

Ray's voice startles me, but at the same time it just feels. . . right, that he's here. I look up and smile, welcoming him. My father, on the other hand, looks less than pleased, in fact almost frustrated as I indicate the second crate. "Hey, Ray. Have a seat, I'll rig you up a line."

He sits, looks at me oddly. "Catch anything?"

"No, but you know, ice-fishing takes patience."

A slight smile curves his mouth. "Yeah, well, you're going to need a lot of that, 'cause there ain't no fish in here."        

I look at him and see he's got that 'I know something you don't know' look he gets sometimes. He'll be disappointed if I don't ask. "How do you know that?"

"'Cause it's a city reservoir. Drinking water. No fish."

I'm a bit puzzled, I'd thought this was a wildlife preserve, but perhaps fish aren't considered wildlife here. It's a little disappointing, but then, I hadn't really come out here to fish. "Oh."

He studies me for a moment. "You okay?"

We both know he's not just talking about now. This question is part of last night's conversation too.

"Yeah, yeah, just. . . er. . ." I stop myself, hesitant to admit this to him, it sounds so self-absorbed.

"What?" he prompts.

"I'm homesick, Ray." It slips past my guard, and lies between us on the snow like a fresh-caught fish. I wait for him to get upset, but he doesn't. Dad looks a little disgusted, but Ray just nods, sagely, as if he'd known I was going to say that. Perhaps he had. He knows me better than I realized. The last two days-- and nights-- are proof enough of that. It occurs to me suddenly to wonder how on earth he found me here. I open my mouth to ask him, when I suddenly realize there's tension on my line. "Wait a minute . . . ."

After being told there's no fish here, it seems ironic that I appear to have found one. I wrestle with it for a few moments, it's much larger than one would expect to find in a body of water this size. Suspiciously so. Even before Ray reaches down and comes up with a boot-- with a foot still encased in it and clearly attached to the rest of a body-- I have a bad feeling about things. As it turns out I'm more than right. But at least we've removed a source of contamination from Chicago's water supply.

* * *

The next few days hold shock after shock for me. The discovery that Holloway Muldoon is alive, and my father's strange, almost obsessive compulsion that we bring him to justice. Granted, my father has always been obsessive about justice but there is something about his behavior now that leads me to wonder if the dead can go 'off the deep end' as the saying goes. Of course, I'm sure many people think I am, as Ray would say, unhinged. He says it affectionately, letting me know when my behavior is off the American standard, but unlike most people, he has no expectation of changing me. No, as always, Ray simply accepts me as I am, unhinged freak that I am.

Strangely, those same shocks also bring me to the realization that much as I've thought about it, I don't really want to die. I suppose nearly being roasted alive and blown to pieces will do that to you. Actually, what it did was make me realize that dying would deprive me of my partnership with Ray, and I don't want to give that up. I know from experience that something of us continues after death, and I don't want to face the thought of existing for some unknowable time without his companionship. It's a weakness in me, one my father would chide me for, I'm sure, if I spoke of it. So I don't.

Ray has continued to spend his time with me. Not only during our working hours, but at night, at the consulate, he's there, just keeping me company, his presence keeping the dream-demons at bay. Funny, I once gave him a dreamcatcher to tangle up his nightmares, now he's become mine. He sleeps on the floor beside my cot, refusing anything but a blanket, though I know he can't be comfortable there. I feel guilty, but not guilty enough to reject his presence. At times I wish my cot were wider, because I might be able to talk him into sharing it, but it's not and perhaps that's just as well, for I find that his presence while I sleep has an unexpected effect on me. Well, perhaps unexpected is the wrong word. It's not really surprising that my feelings for Ray should manifest in physical responses, given his proximity.

At least these dreams are pleasant. . . if frustrating, since apparently my subconscious mind retains enough of a grip on caution that so far I've not actually reached orgasm while he's still in the room. Fortunately he gets up and quietly leaves very early in the morning, giving me a little time to myself during which I can ease that frustration. There's an edge of guilt to that exercise that steals some of the relief, though. It feels wrong to fantasize about him in that way, as though I'm taking something from him without asking.

This morning is no exception to our new routine. He leaves, and I. . . take care of things, then get up and ready myself to face the day. The Muldoon case is confusing and complicated, those complications worsened by the interference of the FBI, our lack of official standing, and then the stunning discovery that Muldoon is apparently smuggling nerve gas. Ray's reaction to that discovery is strange, and I fear I treat his fears as ridiculous, dismissing them as panic, and even being a little short with him as I explain that his symptoms are psychosomatic. Ray is not, as a rule, given to panicking, though, and that thought keeps picking at me. Finally as I look at his face after the incident, see the dark circles under his eyes and the lines of tension and exhaustion graven in his face, I understand.

He's pushing himself, doing it for me. His overreaction was based in the simple fact that he's too tired to think clearly. I feel more guilt. I can't continue to let him push himself for me. I must stop taking from him. I can stand on my own feet. I must. It's not fair for me to always take, and to never give back. I know he wouldn't see it that way, but he's a generous soul. I know I don't give him half what he gives me. That night when Ray pulls into a space in front of the consulate to park and follow me inside, I clear my throat and stare straight ahead as I speak. "Thank you for the ride, Ray, I'll see you tomorrow."

There's a short silence, and I can't bring myself to look at him. Finally he speaks.

"You . . . um . . . you okay on your own?" he asks.

"Perfectly fine, Ray. I do appreciate your assistance but I believe I can deal with things on my own now. You go on home and get a good night's rest. I'll see you tomorrow."

I finally manage to look at him, find him staring at me with narrowed eyes, the way he usually regards a suspect he thinks is guilty. Of course, I am, so I flush, but somehow manage to maintain eye contact and school my face into a mask of blandness, and in the dim light he probably can't see my blush. He looks at me for a long moment longer, and a host of emotions flashes through his too-revealing gaze, pain, disappointment, sadness. I hold my course. I can't continue to use him as I have. Can't allow him to let me use him. That's not, as he would say, 'buddies.' Finally he nods, shifting his gaze to look straight ahead through the windshield.

"That's how you want it, okay. I'll see you at work tomorrow," he says,

"I'll meet you at the twenty-seventh at eight, sharp."

He nods, unspeaking, and Dief and I get out of the car. He pulls away with his customary squeal of tires, and I watch his taillights until they disappear around a distant corner. Dief gives me a disgusted look and turns his back on me. Even though I know it's for the best, a part of me feels convinced that I've just made a terrible, terrible
* * *

It takes us much of the day to track down our suspect, even with the fortuitous lead of the identifying heel imprint. The interrogation of Mr. Blake leads us, circularly, back to The Hotel California, and there I receive yet another shock, this time the pleasant one of seeing Ray Vecchio again. Of course, that pleasure is tempered by my own horror at realizing that I've managed to put him, and Ray Kowalski, both at grave risk. I've always taken pride in my intellect, and the old adage about pride going before a fall echoes through my head as I sit on that couch and watch with amazed admiration as Ray, both of them, try to bluff their way out of the predicament in which I've put them.

When it appears that my old friend is succeeding in his bid to regain Muldoon's confidence, I realize with a sinking heart that the most probable outcome is that Ray and I will die here, preserving Ray Vecchio's cover. I suppose that's preferable to all three of us dying, though I'm not sure Ray Vecchio will feel that way after being instrumental in our deaths. There's a hardness in his eyes now, though, that was never there when I knew him. I wonder what terrible things he's had to do since he went undercover, and how they've marked him. It seems the question is answered when he coldly marches us into the bathroom and lifts his gun, its silenced barrel unwavering. Instinctively I start to step in front of Ray, only to find myself pushed backward as Ray interposes himself between the weapon and me. This is the second time he's done that for me. This time I know he's not wearing a vest.

"Ray, no," I whisper. He doesn't look at me, only at Ray Vecchio. Or more accurately, I suspect, Armando Langoustini.

"So. Make sure they only check me. Fraser can play dead. He has this trance thing he can do," Ray says.

His words make no sense to me, but I see Ray Vecchio's eyes widen, then narrow. "Are you nuts?" he hisses.

Ray shrugs. "Most likely. Go on. And clean up that bastard Muldoon or I'll fucking come back and haunt you," he says, his chin lifted belligerently.

"I'm working on it," Ray Vecchio says with a grim smile. "Don't worry."

It finally hits me, what Ray is suggesting. Sudden nausea nearly overwhelms me as I stare at him, aghast, trying to find words. No, I have the words, they echo in my head, but can't pass my paralyzed throat. 'No. No, if anyone should die for this, it's me. Don't leave me behind!'

Before I can move, or speak, Ray-Armando's expression changes, I see some inner struggle reflected in his face, and suddenly he reaches up to grab the stack of towels from their holder and drops them to the floor. Wordlessly he lifts his gun and dispatches two quiet shots into the stack. The towels muffle the sounds the bullets make as they flatten on the concrete which underlies the linoleum. Still unspeaking, he holsters his weapon, picks up a razor from the counter and calmly makes a small cut on his forearm, then dabs some of the blood onto his face before wrapping a handkerchief around the cut and pulling his sleeve down over it. I feel like I'm in some strange dream, I don't understand, nothing is under control, everything is sliding through my fingers. He looks from me to Ray, his eyes unreadable, and then he nods at the door.

"Be ready."

With those words he exits the room. Feeling completely bewildered, I look at Ray, whose normally golden skin is ashen. "I don't . . . you . . . he . . . ." I stammer.

He seems to shake himself. "He said be ready, Fraser. They'll be coming in to 'clean up' any second now. You take the first one, I'll get the second. Damn, the Feds are gonna be really pissed."

His color is returning, his words deal only with the future, not with what just happened. I don't understand. I don't understand any of it. But then the doorknob turns, and I've no more time to think.

* * *

Out of control doesn't begin to describe the next few hours. My emotions are like a feather in a windstorm, blown this way and that by each new circumstance. Elation and joy at seeing Ray Vecchio again, shame at my own part in the fiasco that ruined over a year's worth of careful undercover work, alarm over Ray's actions, and dismay at the way my two friends are behaving toward one another. My initial assumption that they would like each another seems to be so much wishful thinking. I don't understand how two people whom I like so much can fail to like one another.

Worse, somewhere in the confusion of the night I lose track of Ray, and finally end up getting a ride back to the consulate with Francesca Vecchio, who is so overjoyed to have her brother restored, whole, to the bosom of his family that she doesn't even throw herself at me. I'm not at all happy that I didn't get a chance to talk to Ray about what he tried to do back in that hotel room. The more I think about it, the angrier I get. He's a fine one to chide me for recklessly endangering my life, when he outright offers his in exchange for mine. How dare he do that? I resolve to speak to him about it as soon as I can, and in that state of turmoil I go to bed.

His mother, lying on bloody snow, her breath coming in short, pained gasps, his father's voice, crying out in desperation, hands red to the wrists as he tries to stop the bleeding. The sound of dogs barking, growing more distant. His gaze is drawn again to the red snow, and when he looks up again he's in an alley, a familiar one, the one where they found the nerve-gas canisters. A few feet away Ray is standing in a pool of blood. No, not blood. Red, like blood, but the wind stirs the surface, lifting bits of it like crimson confetti, and he realizes the pool is made up of old roses, curling, wilting. Behind him he hears the screech of tires, the rushing roar of a flamethrower. He crouches, for a moment he thinks 'this is it, the end,' but the tongue of fire bypasses him to lick at the dying flowers and . . . Ray. The flowers catch fire like last season's grass and in a moment there's nothing left there but ashes. Ray is gone. He turns, trying to find Ray. People don't just vanish in a fire, he must be here, he was here a moment ago, he didn't pass by him, and there is only one exit to the alley, and that's behind him. Yet Ray is gone, as if he too were consumed by the flames. He doesn't understand. He calls his name, hoping he'll respond . . . .

The sound of my own voice wakes me. Dief has his head lifted, is staring at me. God. Not again. This dream was different, though. Not the same dream. Better in some ways. Worse in others. What's wrong with me? Why am I dreaming these terrible, terrible things? I get up and go to the bathroom, splash my face with cold water, and try to dissect the symbolism of the dream.

Part of it was familiar, the part with my mother, though this time my father's presence seemed more vivid. Perhaps it's just my subconscious' way of assimilating the way I felt when she died, that she had been wrenched violently from my life, leaving a wound where she had been. But then Ray-- why roses? My face heats. Oh, I know why roses. Leave it to me to have an obvious subconscious. And they're dying because they must. I have to stop thinking of him that way. But why had Ray disappeared as well? Is it a premonition, or simply a reflection of the fear I felt as he tried to offer his life for mine today? Probably the latter.

I wonder if a psychiatrist could make sense of my dreams. Or perhaps a shaman. I think about calling my old friend and nemesis, Eric, but I don't think he'd be happy to be woken at this hour. I resolve that when I can find a moment to spare at a reasonable hour, I will ask him for help. I can't keep this up. And I can't ask Ray to come here every night and metaphorically hold my hand just because my subconscious is an ungodly mess.

* * *

The next day begins badly. My friends sniping at one another, my loyalties divided as never before. Everyone seems to assume that I should by default be working with Ray Vecchio again, even though my heart tells me otherwise. It's not that I don't like Ray Vecchio. He's one of my closest friends. Nearly my brother. At one time he was my only friend. But he's . . . different. Cooler. More confident. More controlled. He doesn't need me. Not that Ray Kowalski does, either, I don't flatter myself so, but at least he seems to want my presence while Ray Vecchio seems, suddenly, to merely tolerate it. There's an edge to his voice when he talks to me, fondness tempered with the sort of exasperated annoyance reserved for a less-than-bright younger sibling.

It leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth to realize that perhaps he always sounded that way, and I just never realized it. I also never realized before just how grating the name "Benny" can be. I have no idea why it annoys me now, although as I think on it, it may have something to do with that 'less-than-bright younger sibling' feeling again. And, if I'm honest, it may also have something to do with Ray's derogatory snort when he heard Ray Vecchio call me that. It's strange that it never occurred to me how . . . infantilizing that name is.

That aside, I feel Ray 's gaze on me continually, it seems, and catch him watching me whenever I look up, as if his attention can't wander far. Though when he realizes I'm looking he always looks away. When he is paired with the Inspector to wait for the meet at the mall parking lot, I send him a sympathetic glance, I know he's not all that fond of her. That earns me a wry smile, the first I've had from him since we knocked at the door to room 2409 of the Hotel California. That makes me feel better, though the fact that there has still been no time to talk to him about what happened yesterday is maddening. I have to make sure he never does such a thing again.

Ray Vecchio's voice pulls my attention back to the man sitting beside me.

"You know Benny," he says conversationally, "the desert's okay, and Nero does have a great buttermilk, but this is the stuff I miss."

I feel a little glow of warmth. Perhaps I was wrong about how he feels? Perhaps he did miss me? "Like old times, eh?"

"Yeah." Ray says, smiling a little. "You remember that time you locked us in that vault?"

"And the water kept rising until we . . . we almost drowned?" I ask sheepishly.

"Yeah." His mouth twists a little, and he looks at me with that exasperated fondness in his eyes again. "You know what I just said about missing all this?"

"Uh hunh."

"Forget I ever said it," he says, his eyes twinkling.

I smile a little in response to his amusement, and nod. "Understood."

Before a new conversational foray occurs to either of us, we see Muldoon arrive. I hear Ray take a deep breath.

"Wish me luck," he says, opening the car door.

I shake my head, smiling. "You don't need it." He doesn't. At one time he would have, but that time is clearly gone. He'll do fine.

There's a squeal of tires as a collection of FBI and BATF agents appear on the scene, their arrival triggering an eruption of gunfire. Law-enforcement officers from multiple jurisdictions began to take up the fight from their various concealed locations as Muldoon's men attempt to keep others from following him as he flees into a stairwell. Ray Vecchio calls for me to follow, and I find myself in the stairwell with a group comprised of Inspector Thatcher, and both Rays.

There's more gunfire, and the miscreants split up. After a moment we follow, and somehow we end up splitting by nationality, myself and the Inspector in one party following Muldoon, Ray and Ray in the other, following his men. It occurs to me as Muldoon turns and fires at us that this was perhaps not the wisest pairing, since neither the Inspector nor I carry a gun; unfortunately it's too late to alter it.

We emerge, not onto a rooftop as I assumed, but into some sort of indoor amusement park filled, to my dismay, with families and children. A veritable sea of potential hostages. Muldoon rushes up to a small Ferris wheel and grabs a man, throwing him out of the gondola and to the ground. A young boy, still in the gondola, begins to cry for his father and my heart is in my throat as I anticipate the worst, but apparently Muldoon isn't thinking clearly, because instead of using him as a hostage he merely grabs the child and pitches him at his father, who, to my relief, catches him.

The ride starts to move, taking Muldoon higher, and I wonder why he chose to do that, it's certainly not an escape route. It seems a mad thing to do. The Inspector and I climb into another gondola, and I call out to Muldoon to give himself up, and that's when my nightmares begin to turn into reality. He looks at me with a condescending smile, and holds up the nerve gas device.

"I still have this, Benton."

His voice, my name, the situation . . . something . . . I don't know. A fear strong enough to be called panic seems to spread through me. I feel like a child again. I try to shake it off. "You recognize me?" I ask

His smile broadens mockingly. "Something clicked in that hotel room. Made me think of your father. And you know he didn't get me and I don't believe you will either."

My father. He's counting on me to finish this for him, to bring Muldoon in. I push down the fear. "You know I'll never give up." I say resolutely, trying to keep my voice steady, my face unrevealing, even though horror is rising in me like an ice-blocked river overflowing its banks.

He must sense the fear in me, smell it in the air like an animal would, because his smile goes feral, and when he speaks his voice is sharp as a knife. "Well that would make two members of your family that I've killed then."

Two? What does he mean, two? Gerrard killed my . . . . I shake my head as an image flashes into my mind-- red on white. The imagined sound of labored breathing overwhelms me for a moment, and I hear him laugh. Or do I? Is that just in my head?

"Oh, your father didn't tell you?" he asks conversationally. "That's negligent parenting, that is! Your father wanted to arrest me but I had this shotgun-- an ugly affair passed down from an uncle. . . ."

There are images coming faster now, no matter how much I try to stop them, try to concentrate on the here, the now, the real, not my dreams. Drawing a rose. Voices arguing. A shotgun blast.

"Your mother was a pretty woman, Benton," Muldoon says warmly, almost eagerly. "But when I shot her, she dropped like a big ol' sack of potatoes."

I wonder why the grown-ups outside the cabin are being so loud. I haven't been paying attention because I've been concentrating on the drawing I'm making for mom, but now I realize that my dad sounds . . . upset, and angry. That doesn't happen very much, and it makes me feel scared. The other man sounds angry too. Mom sounds. . . she sounds angry, too, and afraid. Very afraid. That scares me even more than the anger in Dad's voice. I put my hand on the door latch and push down, opening the door, stepping out onto the porch.

A deafening sound roars out and movement catches my eye. Mom, falling. My father's friend, Mr. Muldoon, running toward a dogsled, a shotgun in his hands. Dad drops to his knees beside Mom and he's crying, he's screaming. "Caroline, no, oh dear God, Caroline, no!" The snow is red all around her, there's blood all over her parka, her face is twisted in pain, her breath makes a bubbling sound as she struggles to breathe through the liquid filling her lungs, blood trails from her mouth in widening streams. She looks past Dad, sees me, and she looks so . . . so sad. Her eyes are full of tears and she lifts a hand, fingers outstretched toward me, her mouth moving. "Love you, Ben. . . ."
It's all I can do to not to collapse as my nightmare rewrites itself into reality. Oh God. I knew this. I saw this. I remember this. It's not a dream, it's real, it's a memory. Some part of me has known this all along. Why didn't I remember? My grandparents, my father, how could they let me forget? Why wouldn't they have told me, at least once I was old enough to understand what I'd seen. What else have I forgotten? What other lies have I told myself? Muldoon is speaking again, and I force myself to hear him. No more hiding, no more forgetting.

" . . . sixty seconds, you've got sixty seconds, and then the nerve gas blows."

Dear lord, no. I will not lose anyone else to this madman. I refuse. I will stop this. I must stop this. Even if, as he planned, it means I must let him escape. I force myself to focus, and somehow, I do it, or rather, we do it, the Inspector and I. I'm vaguely aware of hearing more gunfire as we work frantically to defuse the device, and I hear someone call out: "Officer down!" but I can't spare a moment to see who it is, I can only pray that it's not my Ray, because I don't want to kneel beside him and scream out his name as my father did for my mother so long ago. And because if he's dead, then there is no point to finishing this task, and . . . no. I must not allow that thought to take hold.

We work well together, Meg Thatcher and I and within moments the device is no longer an immediate threat. I expect it will be disposed of by a government HazMat team now. The words 'officer down' haunt me as I force myself to climb down from the Ferris wheel's scaffolding and plant my feet firmly on the ground before I dare look around. There are small groups of paramedics working in four places around the mall, and I start toward the closest.

I'm intensely relieved to spot Ray standing near them, looking whole and well, if somewhat concerned. He's wearing his glasses, the ones I find quite ridiculously attractive. Their presence indicates to me that he must have been firing his weapon, and knowing his accuracy, with glasses, I assume at least some of the men being ministered to owe their wounds to him. He looks up as I start toward him, and his expression stops me dead in my tracks. He dodges around milling officers and is by my side quickly and I know something must be seriously wrong as he steers me over to a bench and practically pushes me down onto it.

"Fraser, c'mere, sit down, okay? You all right? You look like shit."

"Why, thank you, Ray," I say drily. "That's very kind of you."

He smiles a little. "Hey, just being honest. Look, I heard what that bastard said, we all did. Did he . . . did he really? Did he kill your mum?"

I close my eyes and swallow hard as the tears I refused to cry a few moments earlier threaten again, and I manage a nod. "Yes," I say, my voice a whisper. "Yes, he did."

His hand settles on my shoulder, warm and firm, stroking in a circle, a familiar, welcome weight. "I'm sorry, Fraser. Really sorry."

He sounds sincere. I know he's sincere. But I also know he's trying to distract me. I open my eyes and look into his. "Who is the officer down, Ray?"

He flinches, his gaze dropping. "It's Vecchio. Took one in the chest."

I'm on my feet instantly, and he grabs the back of my Sam Browne and hauls me back down again. "Sit down, Fraser. You can't help. They're doing their job, you'll just be in the way."

I snarl something at him, I don't know what, and yank myself free of his hand, feeling the leather diagonal snap in the process, not caring. I just need to get to my friend, to see him, in case it's the last time. I push through to the still figure, hear one of the paramedics order me back, but I can't comply. My knees fail me and I go down at his side, barely feeling the shock as my knees hit the concrete. Blood all over his chest, blood at his mouth. His eyes are open, their green depths pain-filled, but lucid.

He sees me, and holds out a hand as he struggles for breath. Oh God. I reach out, take his hand. It's cold, terribly cold. His body is pulling resources in, he's going into shock. He's dying. What is it about me that brings pain and death to those I love? It's like an invisible cloud around me, dark and stifling. My mother. My father. Now the man I consider my brother. He squeezes my hand, smiles a little.

"Even-Steven, Benny," he manages to whisper weakly.

His hand goes lax in mine, his eyes drift closed. I look frantically at the paramedic beside me. "Is he . . . ?"

She shakes her head, her smile a flash of white in a dark face, her dark eyes sympathetic. "No, no, it's the drugs, they just kicked in. He'll be out for a while. He's gonna be okay, I've seen guys hit lots worse who made it. Don't you worry, Red. Just let us do our jobs, okay? We're gonna take him to Cook County, you can come and check on him in a bit."

I nod, but I don't dare feel relief yet. They don't know about this, about me. She gently tugs Ray's hand from mine, recalling me to the present. Their jobs. Yes. Of course. I scramble back out of the way and watch as they lift Ray onto a gurney and wheel him out of sight. I scrub my hands through my hair, rub my eyes, and belatedly look around for Ray. I don't see him at first, but then I finally spot him over near the exit, talking to a uniformed officer, his arms crossed tightly, his body language informed by some inner pain.

I take a step toward him, wanting to help him as he's helped me, but then I stop. No. If I show that I care, if I let the universe know how much he means to me, it will take him. I can't let that happen. I have to protect him, from me, from this curse I seem to carry. I'm even more convinced I need to speak to Eric. Maybe he knows how to dissipate this darkness from around me so it can't hurt anyone else I love.

Deliberately I turn away from Ray's need, and go to find the Inspector, sure she'll have some task to distract me from my own pain. Unfortunately, for once it seems her sentimentality is showing. Instead of giving me work to do, she gently suggests that I should go to the hospital to await word on Ray Vecchio's condition. When I try to demur, saying I have no transportation, she sighs and shakes her head, and marches me across the mall, directly to the one place I don't want to be. To Ray.

"Detective Ve. . ." she begins, then stops as she realizes that she's no longer addressing Ray Vecchio. "What is your name, anyway?" she asks impatiently.

Ray finishes his sentence to the uniformed officer and turns, exhibiting none of the irritation I would expect from him on being rudely interrupted. "Kowalski," he says quietly, putting out a hand and shaking the Inspector's hand. "Ray Kowalski. Nice to meet you."

She nods curtly. "Likewise, I'm sure. Now, can you see that Constable Fraser gets a ride to the hospital so he can ascertain Detective Vecchio's condition? As you know they've been separated for some time, and he's understandably anxious about his well being."

Ray looks obliquely at me, then back at her. "Understandably," he echoes, his voice carefully uninflected. "Yeah, sure. I'll give him a ride over. The Lieutenant wants me there to report back anyhow. C'mon Fraser. Pit . . . let's go."

He heads for the parking lot at a lope. I follow, and as we reach his car I attempt to apologize. "I'm sorry about the Inspector's rather high-handed request, Ray. If you'd rather not give me a ride, I'm sure I can find my own way there. My feet, after all, are perfectly functional."

He finishes unlocking his door and glares across the car at me. "Fraser, you lose what's left of your mind? Why the hell wouldn't I want to give you a ride, for God's sake? I'm going there anyway, it would be stupid for you to walk all the way to Cook County General just because you got some kind of bug up your . . . well, it would just be stupid. So get in the car."

I get in the car, as does he. We've driven perhaps half a mile when we have to stop for a traffic signal and Ray looks over at me.

"So, the dream you been having. It wasn't a dream, was it?"

"Well, it was a dream, but it was a dream based in a memory, apparently."

He nods. "Guess that explains it. And you've been dreaming it because some part of your brain put together Muldoon with your mom's death, even if you couldn't remember it outright."

I nod, slowly, and don't mention that I began having the dream regularly quite some time before we realized Muldoon was in Chicago. "So it seems."

The light changes and he spends a few moments getting the car up to speed, then glances at me again. "How can you just sit there, all . . . calm?"

"How else should I be?"

This time his glance at me is incredulous. "Mad, Fraser. You should feel mad."

I look at Ray, startled. "Mad?"

"You know. Mad. Pissed. Angry."

"Why should I feel mad when I'm not angry about anything?"

He looks at me briefly, then drives in silence for long enough that I begin to grow uncomfortable, but he doesn't look upset. Just. . . thoughtful.

"Because you've got to be," he says, finally, then he shakes his head and shoots a quick glance at me. "So you have to be mad, but maybe you just don't know it. You know, after Stella left me, I was pretty bad off, a real mess. Thinking things you just really don't want to think, just like you've been doing lately." he says pointedly.

"Hell, I even went to the department shrink a couple of times. What helped me was when he told me that depression is inside-out anger. That didn't make a lot of sense to me at first, but I finally got it. When I was so down I couldn't see up, I was really mad as hell at Stella but I didn't think I had a right to be so I couldn't let it come out. I kept it all inside and it turned into sad instead. And you're not going to tell me you haven't felt that way. I know you have. I was there, 'bought the t-shirt,' even."

"No, I won't deny that," I say evenly. "However, while I understand the psychological underpinnings of your argument, I really don't feel it applicable to my situation," I say, the formality in my voice desperately trying to mask my gut-wrenching fear. I don't want him to understand. I don't want his empathy, I need for him to push me away, because I'm not sure I can back off on my own. "I really have nothing to be angry about."

He flicks a quick, narrow-eyed glance at me before returning his attention to the road. "No?" he asks after a moment. "You're not mad that your mom got killed right in front of you when you were just a little kid? That you had to see it? That your dad and your grandparents and hell, even Frobisher all just let you forget about it and pretended it never happened?"

I open my mouth to protest that but he holds up his hand, forestalling me.

"I'm not done. I mean, Christ, Fraser, in the last few weeks you've found out your dad was out making you a half-sister instead of home being your dad, discovered your mom was murdered, had your best friend shot, and that's not even half of it! You're not mad that your dad got murdered, and you managed to solve the case only to get exiled to some crappy posting in another fucking country with a boss who thinks you're only good for laundry and sentry detail and you have to sleep in your office? You're not mad that Vecchio took off on you without a single word? You're not mad that you had to get the crap beat out of you before we'd help you take on Warfield? Because if all that's true, then I'm calling the Pope and putting you on the list for the next available sainthood opening."

He's right. Of course he's right. But I can't say that. Can't admit that. I've no right to be angry. "Honestly Ray," I say in my most annoyingly condescending voice. "Those are just the vagaries of life, or put in the succinct fashion of a bumper sticker I've seen quite a bit of late, 'shit happens.'"

He makes a sound, an explosive, frustrated growl, and hits the steering wheel with both hands. "Fine. Fine, just fine. Forget it."

The rest of the drive occurs without conversation, the silence between us tense and painful. He's upset about more, I think, than my refusal to open up, and as much as I want to reach out to him, find out what's bothering him and offer whatever solace I can, I know I shouldn't, because it's too dangerous for him to continue to be my friend. An uneasy twenty minutes later he pulls up to the main doors of the hospital and nods at them. "Out," he says succinctly.

"I thought you were. . . ."

"I am, but I gotta park like halfway to Detroit and I figured you'd want to get in there sometime today. Go on." He attempts a smile that doesn't make it to his eyes, and nods again at the hospital entrance. "Get goin'. Go see how he's doing."

"Thank you kindly, Ray."

"No thanks necessary, Fraser. Just go on."

I nod and open my door, stepping out. When he pulls away it's not with his usual rubber-laying acceleration, I assume out of deference to the fact that we are, after all, at an hospital. I go inside and ask at the desk where to find Ray, and am directed to a waiting area where I find Francesca Vecchio pacing worriedly, her eyes and nose red from crying, a wadded tissue clutched in one hand. She sees me, and launches herself at me. I catch her, expecting she wants to be comforted, but to my surprise she hits me in the shoulder, hard enough to make it ache just a little, then does it again. The third time she raises a fist I catch her wrist, gently.

"Francesca?" I ask, trying to break through to her, to get her to listen.

"How could you let this happen?" she wails, collapsing against me. "How could you let him get shot? He's not supposed to get shot! You're supposed to protect him!"

I flinch from the painful truth of her words. "I'm sorry, Francesca. I know I should have. I failed him, failed you, your mother . . . and I'm sorry. Is there any word on his condition?"

She shakes her head. "Nothing yet. God, Fraser, I'm so scared. I mean, all the time he was off in Vegas I was thinking about it, that he could die out there, and we might never know. But he was back, he was home, he was supposed to be safe now!"

Her voice breaks on the last word, and she starts crying again. She doesn't mean to twist the knife, I know, but it hurts nonetheless. I pat her back awkwardly and wonder what comfort I can possibly offer. She seems content to lean and cry into my uniform, which I find odd, because surely the damp wool must be uncomfortable against her face, but I haven't the heart to push her aside. She has been a good friend, her romantic inclinations notwithstanding, and I'll stand by her, though I'm not sure why in God's name she wants me to.

Ray comes in, sees me holding Francesca, and a strange, faintly bitter smile curves his mouth. He shakes his head and pantomimes lifting a cup to his lips, raising his eyebrows. I nod, and point at Francesca as well. He nods back, and disappears down the hall. He returns a few minutes later with three steaming cups on a small tray. Two coffees, one tea. His consideration makes my throat ache with suppressed tears. God. I'm . . . losing it. I feel like I'm balancing on the edge of a crevasse, trying not to fall in. Maybe Ray's teasing comments about my unhinged-ness are closer to the mark than I've wanted to think. I did pass that psychological test not long ago, but that was before. . . before all of this.

Ray slouches on the waiting room couch with his coffee. Francesca thanks him for hers and starts to pace again. I find myself beside the couch, clutching my tea, instinctively moving to sit next to Ray. I catch myself just before I do so, and retreat to an uncomfortable straight-backed chair across the room. He watches me as I do it, that same peculiar smile on his lips again, then turns his attention to his coffee and closes me out, his body turned slightly away from mine, his surprisingly long eyelashes hiding his eyes.

Time drags on. An hour. Two. Still no word from the surgeons. I have nothing to do but sit and think about how I've failed my friends. Ray Vecchio. Francesca. Ray. God. Ray. As I sit there across the room from him I realize suddenly what's upsetting him. Always sensitive, he's picked up on my resolve. He knows I'm closing him out. He's hurting. No, that's not right. He's not hurting all on his own. I'm doing it to him.

I hurt him. No. I am hurting him. It's an ongoing state, not a single event. I can see it in his eyes, their normal brilliance dulled to ash, and I can see it in his body, the way he draws in on himself, his usual expansiveness leashed and bound. I didn't mean to hurt him, I don't. . . do I?

Or am I guilty of wanting to hurt someone else as I've been hurt? Of directing my anger not toward the people who hurt me, but at the one who helped me pick up the scattered, shattered pieces that were left of me after Ray Vecchio's abrupt departure from my life? I have to acknowledge that it could well be true. Not that I meant to, but it is the inevitable result of ignoring and sublimating my feelings. It seems I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I act on my feelings I end up hurting the people I care about, and if I don't act on them I achieve the same result.

Finally, some four and a quarter hours of silent tension later, a surgical nurse tells us that Ray's been assigned a room, and tells us the number. We head down the hall to find it, and are met there by Ray's surgeon, a woman who takes Francesca into Ray's room to talk with her. I watch her go, worried. A few moments later the surgeon leaves again, but Francesca is still in the room, which worries me even more.

"It's okay, Fraser," Ray says from where he's taken up a stand at the window, looking out into a parking lot. "If it was bad news, he wouldn't have a room. They don't give dead people hospital rooms. Relax."

Even when I don't deserve it, he tries to help me. People say I'm a good man, but next to Ray I'm not even close. I'm stubborn and arrogant and cold. Well, he's stubborn and belligerent, but he's never cold. Not even now when I deserve it. "Thank you, Ray," I say quietly. "It's good of you to wait here with us."

He shrugs. "Got nothing else to do. Job's kinda . . . over now. They don't need anybody to be Ray Vecchio anymore, since the real deal's back where he belongs." He gives me that smile of his that's more of a wince, and sighs. "Guess I'll be looking for a new gig now."

I stare at him, shocked. Somehow in all the events of the past couple of days, it never occurred to me that he wouldn't remain at the 27th, but I suppose he's right. With Ray back, there really is no place for him there any more. "Ray. . . I . . . ."

Before I can complete my sentence, Francesca is stepping out of Ray's room, looking upset, but not so much as before. She looks at me, her gaze teary.

"They don't really know whether-- I mean it's still... it's still... in him. You can go in and see him if you want, but he's still out."

I think of how she tried to talk to me earlier about her feelings toward me, asked me for such a small thing, a confirmation that at least we have friendship between us, and realize I've hurt her as much as I'm hurting Ray. And that's wrong. I take a deep breath, and go to stand before her. "Francesca, I've been thinking about what you said about our. . . er. . . and I, ah. . . I know I don't often say. . . um. . . I mean I'm not particularly skilled at expressing. . . ." God, I'm making a muddle of things, as usual.

Sensing my distress, Ray sighs and shakes his head in exasperation. "Frannie, he likes you," he translates succinctly.

He always knows what I mean, even when I barely know it myself. The thought of not having that is . . . hard. I miss the rest of their conversation as I steel myself to enter Ray Vecchio's room and see a more physical manifestation of the pain that seems to dog my heels. He's pale and still, and I watch him sleep for a few moments, quiet, not wanting to disturb him, and feeling guilty relief that he appears to be in better shape than four hours of surgery and an unextracted bullet would seem to warrant.

Finally I turn to leave, only to find my father, missing for the past few days, suddenly present. I hope his presence here isn't a presentment of doom. But no, his attention isn't on Ray, it's on me, and there's guilt in his gaze. As well there should be.

"So you found out, son?" he asks.

I nod curtly. "Why didn't you tell me?"

He sighs, his expression full of regret. "It seems misguided now, but you were so young at the time, just a young boy. I was full of rage-- I didn't want to pass that to you. I wanted to protect you."

I stare at him, appalled, not believing what I'm hearing. "He killed my mother. I would have done the same."

My father shakes his head sadly. "I hope not Ben, I hope you never get a chance to find out."

"Still talking to yourself, Benny?"

His voice is weak, but I've never been happier to hear that name. I turn to the bed instantly. "Ray!"

"It's just a flesh wound," he says with a trace of a smile. "God, I've been waiting all my life to say that. It's not as much fun as I thought it would be." He sighs, looks around the room. "Just like old times, eh?"

I nod, remembering how many times we've been here before. "Unhappily, yes."

I look at Ray, my old friend, as he lies in the hospital bed, see the apology in his gaze, and suddenly I understand. He didn't mean to hurt me either, but like me, he knows he did, and the bullet in his body is his way of atoning. I look inside myself for forgiveness, aware this time, that he did indeed hurt me and I was indeed angry about it. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, it all probably balances out. After all, I was going with Victoria.

God. Sometimes I am the most amazing fool. They say that isolation can drive the sanest man mad, and not only am I not sure my mental state was stable to begin with, I've had more than my share of that. It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that I am, as they say, a few bricks short of a load. But for the first time I find that the forgiveness is actually there within me.

I look at him. He sees it on my face, I suppose, because I haven't said a word but he starts to smile and I smile back, and there is a sense of healing there. I know now that whatever else happens, we will always be friends. That brings me back to myself, and I wonder if I can be forgiven as well. I draw breath to tell him I have to leave, when he speaks again.

"Do you Mounties still always get your man?"

Startled, I stare at him, shaken by the question, and more so by the almost . . . intimate. . . tone in which he asks it. Can he possibly mean. . . no, of course not, he must mean Muldoon. He's not responsible for how my mind interprets that question right now. But his tone . . . . I know he has only seen me with Ray a few times, but he knows me well. He's seen me at my worst. He knows me. I look at him seriously, and give him an answer as rife with double meaning as his question.

"We try to, yes."

He smiles like a priest giving a benediction. "Go get him, Benny."

I nod, and obey. As I close the door behind me I hear the distinctive ring of a cellular telephone and turn to find Ray Kowalski there, hunched inside his leather jacket like a man three times his age.

"It's for you," he says, carefully avoiding my gaze, extending the device toward me by its antenna, as if making sure I don't touch him in the exchange.

I take the phone, listening as well as I can when what I want to do is hang up and drag Ray into my arms. It's Turnbull, informing me that Sergeant Frobisher has questioned some of Muldoon's known associates and determined that when he's in this vicinity he uses a small airstrip known as Trumble Field. It's a lead. A good one. I thank Turnbull, hang up, and look at Ray.

While I spoke with Turnbull Ray stood a few steps away to stand with his back to me, looking out the window, but as I end the call he turns and comes back, betraying the fact that he was paying more attention than he wanted me to realize. When he looks at me, the hopelessness and resignation in his gaze is like a physical blow. I can't think of a single thing to say that will make anything better, that will be proof against what I've done to him. Before the silence can draw out too long, he speaks. He has always had more sheer courage than anyone else I've known.

"So. . . we still partners? His voice is husky, almost cracked.

I can't believe he would still ask me that, that he still wants that. But at this point, I would fall to the ground and kiss his feet if it would win me a place at his side, but I know him well enough to know he'd just look at me, shake his head and say, 'Freak.' So instead I simply nod. "If you'll have me." My voice is as husky as his.

He hesitates a moment, then nods and makes a noncommittal sound I'm not sure how to interpret. It could mean he's not certain he will have me, or it could mean he doesn't believe I mean it. Whichever it is, I know that I must find some way to make this . . . us. . . work, if only as partners and nothing more. I can't give him up, at least not yet.

* * *

I watch Ray sleeping, his face lit by firelight, and the faint auroral glow. I don't think I've ever seen anything more beautiful. It's funny how I never can seem to get that story out without putting people to sleep. I suppose if I could just stop beating around the bush I might actually have an audience for it. No, that's hardly fair. I know he would have listened to me, had we not just trekked some forty kilometers in the cold and snow. Despite his insistence that he's only city fit, he kept up remarkably well, but he's cold and weary. It's a wonder he managed to stay awake as long as he did.

He sleeps on, oblivious to my staring, strangely serene, despite the lines of exhaustion and stress in his face. To my mind, that new weathering only adds to his attractiveness, because I know he gained it in support of me. He's the only person I've ever had in my life who, no matter what I ask of him, does his damndest to accomplish it. He's never let me down, not even when I've been sure he had. I shake off thoughts of his fist connecting with my chin. He'd been right, then. Fighting to get us back on track, unwilling to let our partnership die because I couldn't let go of my bullheaded insistence on doing things my own way, without regard for how others are affected by it.

Guiltily I wonder if Ray is warm enough, worrying about him. It's not enough I have to risk his life on a near-daily basis in the familiar surroundings of Chicago, but I have to drag him with me onto the wing of an airborne aircraft, out the door of said aircraft, sans parachutes, and then across a frozen wilderness. I shudder. It was sheer, dumb luck that we didn't end up two shattered splashes of former-humanity. I know my father's no guardian angel, but I have to believe he had something to do with that. If there had been any reasonable choice, I would have taken it, but there was none.

Thinking of my father makes me look around for him. I'm still angry with him. I can't believe he thinks me capable of abandoning Ray to the elements, of simply leaving him here to die. I can't believe he would ask that of me. I wonder briefly if he senses that I've fallen in love with Ray, and if his irrational request had something to do with that. I would imagine it would be a shock to him, not a pleasant one. He never seemed prejudiced about such things, and we knew a few male couples over the years so I would think I would have noticed, but I suppose it's one thing to be open minded about one's neighbors, and quite another to find one's own son is in love with another man.

Ray shifts a little in his sleep and shivers visibly. I add wood to the fire and wish Diefenbaker were here to share his warmth with Ray by lying on the side away from the fire. After a few moments of worrying at that, it comes to me I'm being foolish. I have reasonably good insulating qualities myself. I take my own sleeping bag and carefully lay down next to him, pulling the bag up around me. He stirs sleepily.

"Fraser?" he asks, his voice slurred with fatigue.

"Here, Ray. Go back to sleep."

He makes a little sound of agreement and I hear no more from him. It takes me longer to get to sleep, mostly because I have to keep telling myself I'm imagining that there's significance to the fact that he seems perfectly comfortable sleeping beside me, practically in my arms. For God's sake, it's not as if we haven't done so several times before in the line of duty. Tonight is no different. Except that somehow . . . it is.

* * *

Ray swings his feet idly out of the hammock I rigged up for the night when I realized there was no way he could make it any farther. He needed rest, and frankly I needed rest too. If I were on my own I might push on, but. . . I'm not. He came with me. He's sticking by me, and I'm not about to lose him to an exhaustion-driven misstep. That's happened once too many times already. The terror I felt as he slipped was sharper than any fear I've felt since I was six years old.

Watching him, I unwrap one of the high-protein bars I found stuffed in a rucksack in the crate I flung out of the airplane. They're all we have in the way of food. I've been giving them to Ray and subsisting on forage myself. I'm far more used to the cold than he is, and in better overall physical shape, my daily runs with Diefenbaker having kept me at least marginally fit, though not in top form. The bars are better than nothing but not what's needed for the sort of energy he's been expending.


He turns and looks at me, a sweet smile on his face. "Yeah, Fraser?"

I hold out the energy bar. "Eat this."

"'Kay." He takes it, breaks off a piece and puts it in his mouth to thaw a little so he can chew it. "Pretty up here," he mumbles around the bite, seemingly undisturbed by the fact that were hanging off the side of a mountain with nothing below us but air.

I watch him until he's eaten all of the bar, and then turn my attention to finding extra blankets for him. I'd rather we could share body heat like last night, but I'm worried about the stability of the sling. The anchor bolts looked firm when I set them, but I know that looks can be deceiving and that stone which looks solid can be rotten from the continual expansion and contraction of the rock as the temperatures rise and fall. I don't trust the sling to hold if we're both on the same side. As I fumble with blankets, Ray starts to swing his legs harder, and he laughs that endearingly silly cackle of his.

"I like this Fraser! Reminds me of a swing set I got when I was a kid!"

He swings his legs harder, making the sling sway sickeningly, making a childlike 'whee' sound. I realize he's getting giddy. Not a good sign.

"Ray?" I say, trying to get his attention. He continues to swing and 'whee'. "Ray? Ray? Ray!" I say sharply, finally smacking his leg to get him to stop.

My father is suddenly present, looking at Ray with concern. "Hypothermia, son?"

"Possibly," I say as I hold the extra blankets out to Ray. "Put your legs in the hammock, it's time to go to sleep. Here, wrap up."

He obeys me, taking the blankets. "Anything you say, Fraser, buddy-buddy calamari . . . ."

Dad looks from Ray to me, even more concerned. "Is the Yank going to make it?

My heart clenches as Ray babbles on, wrapping himself in the blankets. "I don't know," I admit, watching Ray. Worrying. Please God. . . I hope so. As if he heard my silent plea, Ray begins to recite the Lord's Prayer. I say it with him in my head. It can't hurt.

* * *

Sunrise wakes me. I feel muzzy, stiff, cold, and realize that I slept far longer than I meant to. I struggle to sit up, calling Ray's name. Why hasn't he woken me? I would have expected that by now he would be complaining bitterly about the lack of breakfast, the discomfort of our accommodations, and the cold in general. I look at him and ice encases my heart. I hear that ridiculous, meaningless 'oh dear' pass my lips out of long habit, when what I want to do is scream. Oh, God. No.

His face is so pale. Snow pale. His lashes, so oddly long for a man's, are rimed with frost. His lips are curved in an almost-smile that might reassure me if they were not . . . blue. Blue as his flashing eyes. Blue as the heart of a glacier. He doesn't move, no flicker of response answers my query and no matter how hard I stare at his chest it does not seem to lift or sink. I've seen the cold kill. It's a peaceful death, usually. Quiet. My mind flashes back unbidden to another snow-pale face, as delicately boned as Ray's, though with a fuller mouth, and cascades of dark ringlets instead of blond spikes hidden by a no-longer amusing makeshift stocking-cap made of thermal underwear.

Is this is what caring for me does to people? Destroys them? Victoria didn't die, but perhaps it would have been better all around if she had. I'm certain now that she would have preferred it over the fate I gave her to. She loved me and I killed her soul. Ray loves me . . . loved me. . . . I know he does, he did, though it's never been spoken aloud. I can see it now.

How did I miss it? It was there, daily in his eyes, in his voice, in his actions. What else would bring him to me in the dead of night, not to seduce, but to comfort? Perhaps not in all the ways I might wish it, but in ways enough, yes. Even his willingness to make this mad, reckless journey with me is proof of it. Why could I never see that until now, when it's too late? For his love and trust in me I've given him pain, uncertainty, frustration, heartache, and now this-- though this death might be kinder than the one I gave Victoria.

For some reason I suddenly remember my father babbling on about how a partnership is like a marriage, and I wonder if that was his way of telling me to prepare to lose Ray as he had lost my mother. Trust him to be indirect when he might have prevented this by warning me. But then, he wanted me to go on at all costs, to find Muldoon, and now I have even more reason to hate the man because he's cost me two people I love. No. While I can blame him for my mother's death, if I am honest I know this isn't Muldoon's fault, it's my own, for being unwilling to relinquish either my quest or my companion. If there is anyone to hate, it's myself.

I try to move toward Ray, fighting for balance, cursing myself for not pulling him close last night, for letting him sleep so far from me when I could have kept him safe and warm. My fear made me keep him at arms length. My fear has done this to him.

My movements overstress the sling, I feel it slip a little from its anchor in the rock, and for a moment I hope it breaks, so I can fall and bury the pain of knowing what I've done in the duller pain of shattered bones and torn skin. But I have a duty-- to my mother and father, to Ray's mother and father, to the RCMP, the Chicago Police Department, to Ray Vecchio, and Francesca-- to everyone, it seems, but myself. I can't leave him here, like this, can't be selfish yet. I have to complete the mission, have to take him. . . home. Only then can I give up.

I move more cautiously, until finally I'm balanced beside him. Removing my mitten, I reach to touch his face, let my fingertips caress the sharp plane of cheekbone, the sweet, sensual curve of his mouth. He doesn't feel as cold as my heart. I remember his face under water, not so peaceful, equally blue, and irrationally wonder if I can give him the kiss of life here, though I know that it's far too late, and that it's not the kind of kiss I want to give him.

It's far too late for that as well, but I do it anyway. I have to. I lean down, put my mouth against his, the dramatic gesture, unutterably stupid. Except. . . except. . . I feel it then. The faint ghost of almost-warm air against my cheek where it's close to his nostrils, the minute tic of his pulse against my lips. Slow, too slow, but. . . there.

Heat spills down my face, and relief tears at me like claws. I can't stop myself from kissing him again, and at that touch he stirs a little, and I pull back, quickly, prepared to make some disclaimer about thinking he needed resuscitation, but he wakes slowly, opening somewhat-confused blue eyes to the dawn. I scrub the tears from my face surreptitiously as he looks around, looks at me, doesn't question what I'm doing here, half-lying on him, my face inches from his.

"Fuckin' cold," he informs me.

I smile at him foolishly, so relieved and pleased that he's alive that I don't care if I look like an idiot or that he's swearing. "Yes it is, Ray. It'll help if you move around a bit, get the blood circulating. And here . . . ." I fumble through layers of my coat and down inside my uniform for the power-bar I put there last night after watching him try to eat a frozen one. This one is warmed to body-heat. "Eat this."

He fumbles for it with fingers stiff from cold, and I'm afraid he'll drop it, so I unwrap it and break off a piece, pushing it into his mouth. He makes a pretend nip at my fingers and grins at me chocolately.

"Don't you know if you feed strays they might follow you home?" he asks after he swallows.

I grin back. "Is that so?"

He nods. "'s what they say. Haven' had much luck, though. Feed you all the time."

I know I'm gaping at him as his words penetrate my consciousness. No, he couldn't mean that. He's just teasing. He loves to tease. He likes being teased in return. I gaze at him innocently. "Well, you know, save a Mountie's life and you pay, and pay. . . ."

He laughs. "Tell me about it. What's on the agenda for today?" He looks up. And up. "Climbing?"

"I'm afraid so," I say ruefully. "I don't see that we've a choice."

"Nope. 's okay. Just give me a little bit to warm up and I'm good to go. Wish we had some coffee," he says wistfully.

That recalls me to my duty and I give him another piece of the bar, which he eats, but after he swallows he looks at me narrowly.

"You eat yet?" he asks.

I start to lie, but his bright, knowing gaze pins me, and I shake my head. "Not yet."

"We got more of those?" he asks, nodding at the half eaten bar in my hand.


"You take the rest then. We'll need the others later. You know I don't eat breakfast most days."

"Ray, you need . . . ."

"Fraser, you need, too. None of this selfless crap, okay? I won't get out of here if you don't."

Well, I can't argue with that logic, much as I'd like to. I finish the other half of the bar myself and we set about dismantling our temporary haven and putting everything back in the crate. It's not what I would have chosen to haul our supplies in, had I been given a choice, but I wasn't. Finally we're on our way again, and it doesn't take long for me to realize that Ray's 'good to go' was more bravado than fact.

After the third time he misses a handhold and nearly falls, I know I have to do something. We make it to a ledge and as he collapses in a panting heap, I unstrap the crate from my own back. I let him catch his breath for a few moments, then I move behind him and lash the crate to his back instead. He looks at me oddly but doesn't protest, which surprises and worries me. Once I have it secured I turn my back to him and motion him forward.

"Come here, Ray. Put your arms around me."

There's a short silence, then I hear his slight grunt as he heaves himself to his feet and the next thing I know I feel his arms slide around my waist, tightening as he wraps himself around me, without hesitation.

"Didn' know y' liked me that way, Fraser," he says, teasing, though his voice is still slightly slurred, which worries me.

I like you in every way, I want to say, though I don't, letting him assume I'm embarrassed by his banter.

He seems to tense against me suddenly, then just as suddenly he relaxes, letting out his breath in a soft sigh that I can feel against my neck.

"Good t' know," he says softly.

I have to work at not reacting to the feel of his breath on my skin, and I don't understand why he said that, since I said nothing. I reach back, looping a length of rope around his waist, then around my own, cris-crossing it over my chest and then up over my shoulders. "Take these, run them across your back and then give the ends back to me at your waist."

He hesitates for a moment. "Wouldn've pegged you for kinky, either," he says, sounding amused. "Why'm I doing this?" he asks, even as he complies with my request.

"So you'll be safe," I tell him. "And so my hands are free." I take the ends of the rope from him and knot them securely, testing the play in the ropes. Yes, I can manage like this.

"How come you need . . . ." He tenses again. "Fraser. . . no. Come on. You can't!" he protests as he realizes finally just why I have bound us together like this. And it's too late for him to refuse.

"I can. I will. And not another word about it, Ray."

He subsides, but not happily. It's slightly alarming to realize that I can sense his emotions purely through the way his body feels against mine. I can feel his weariness, his embarrassment, his resignation.

"Sorry," he mutters. "Pain in the ass."

"Not at all," I assure him.

He doesn't seem assured. Climbing with him, and the crate, is somewhat of a challenge. The weight is awkwardly balanced, though he does his best to help me by leaning when I lean, and by using his toes to stabilize us whenever he can. It's an odd feeling, like having four legs at times. It helps, but it's also tiring him. I can feel that, too.

To make matters worse my father decides to put in an appearance, popping in and out of unlikely places to act as a sort of irritating otherworldly cheerleader, regaling me with stories of man against the odds, or more accurately, of himself against the odds. He's always been annoying, but in the past few days he's really breaking new ground. Two days ago he was lobbying for me to abandon Ray to the elements, today I seem to be getting variations on the 'partnership is like a marriage' theme, complete with cryptic comparisons of Ray and myself with himself and mother.

I'm utterly at a loss as to what to make of his sudden turnabout, other than to assume he has finally figured out I won't abandon Ray and he's making the best of that. In the midst of my father's anecdote about the joys of partnership, though, Ray does something that sends a chill of fear through me. He echoes back what my father just said, nearly word-for-word, though adding a surreal, Ray-ish coda about red and green ships that sounds very much as if it came out of a Dr. Seuss story.

The fact that Ray apparently heard Dad's nattering scares me half-witless. Save for family and one close friend, no one else has ever heard Dad. I'm afraid that this sudden ability means that Ray is getting close to the Borderlands himself. And true to form, just as I'm about to ask Dad about it, he disappears again, damn him. I'm afraid I take my fear and temper out on Ray, accusing him of blithering. Well, he is blithering but it's unkind to task him for it under the circumstances, though he doesn't seem to take offense.

After that Ray is quiet, though. I would think he's asleep or unconscious except that his arms tighten around me at times, loosen at others, and he still uses his feet to steady us. I find myself smiling at that thought. I've no doubt that anyone seeing us together would count me the stable, steady one, but really it's Ray who is, for me. Without him I have a feeling that I wouldn't have made it this far. Alone in Chicago, my sole friend gone, the darkness that tried to claim me as its own not long ago would have come for me sooner, and I might not have had the strength to resist it. That strength was Ray's, not mine. Whatever it is in me that tends to sink, Ray counterbalances it, allows me to rise.

I realize suddenly that I haven't thought of Muldoon since we set out on this journey, save for those brief, obligatory moments when my father recalls me to the task. No, I've thought of little save Ray. And myself. And love. And need. It comes to me then, that getting to Muldoon is simply a cover, a way to pretend to myself and to Ray, that he is not the most important thing now, that keeping him safe doesn't mean more to me than finding the man who killed my mother.

Keep him safe. And how will I do that? How can I keep him safe if he's with me? I feel a sudden, strange flare of anger. How can he let me keep doing this to him? How many times have I risked his life for my principles, my needs? Why does he let me do that? Why doesn't he walk away, leave me to sink or swim on my own, and keep himself safe? Why do I have to do it? I can't believe he came with me. I can't believe he tried to get Ray Vecchio to kill him, so I could live. What kind of an idiot would do that?

I answer my own question . . . an idiot who loves you. An idiot who cares. If only he cared in the right way. I shake off that thought. Don't whine about wanting what you can't have. Be happy with what you can have. His friendship. If he's still alive to give it. I realize then, dully, that there is only one way to keep him safe. If I can get him out of this situation alive, then I will have to leave him. Only if I'm no longer in his day-to-day life will he stop being pulled into danger simply by dint of being in my orbit. The thought of leaving him, of not seeing him daily, is so painful that my eyes fill with tears, and I have to grope blindly for a handhold.

"He's slowing you down, son," My father says, startling me enough that I nearly slip.

"For God's sake, Dad," I growl at him as I finally find a new handhold. "Will you make up your mind?"

"What do you mean?"

"One minute you're telling me to leave him, the next you're ranting on about pushing on through, then you're back to telling me to leave him."

"Well, I thought maybe if I was sympathetic it would help, but it didn't. Look, I know he's your partner and all, but I don't like to see you distracted."

"I am not distracted. Except by you."

"You are so. Mooning on like some sort of lovesick calf when you have a duty to perform!"

"Duty? Is that all this means to you? Is that all you can think of, all you care about?" I demand. "It's not about Mom, or you, or even me, or what Muldoon did to my life?" He starts to reply, but I'm too angry to let him. "Shut up, Dad. I should have known. By God, I should have known. You never gave a whit for anything but duty."

"That's not true!" he protests, looking stricken. "I loved your mother."

"And me, Dad? Or was I just another duty? One you got rid of as soon as you were able?"

I've finally managed to find something he has no answer for. He seems shocked. Stares at me, his eyes getting sadder and sadder. "Oh, son," he says finally. "I . . . didn't know you thought that."

"How could I think anything else?" I ask, hating the crack in my voice as I say it. "From where I stand, it seems that your life was always about your duty. And I . . . I don't want to do that any more. I can't do that any more. There's more to life than duty, and I want that."

"About friggin' time," Ray says groggily, almost in my ear. "You tell 'im."

I tense. "Ray?"


"You . . . heard him?"

"Heard who?"

"My . . . ah, never mind. We'd best push on."

"Yeah. We almost there?"

"I think so, yes."

"Benton," my father says, a quiet interrogatory.

"What?" I snap.

"I did, you know. Love you. Do. It's just. . . without your mother, I wasn't much of a person. When she died, she took half of me with her. More than half."

I look up at him. He looks miserable. And nearly transparent. "Then you should understand why I won't leave Ray behind," I say, eyes locked on his, daring him to protest.

He nods, slowly. "I understand, son. Forgive me. I'm a meddling, old, dead fool."

"You are," I agree. I take a deep breath. "Dad. I love you."

He looks embarrassed, starts to speak, then stops. After a moment he finally speaks. "You're a good man, son. Now get going before you lose the light."

* * *

To my relief, Ray strengthens as the sun and the temperature climbs, and by the time we reach the top of the mountain he seems his normal self once more. I should have remembered, though, that when he's tired he tends to overreact. Thus, predictably, my warning about the danger of ice crevasses has precisely the opposite effect from what I intended, which is how we ended up in exactly the situation I wanted to avoid. Strangely though, once there, he seems utterly unconcerned that we might never get out. Even stranger, neither am I. It seems somehow all right, as long as we're together. However, even if part of me thinks it would be all right to go out like this, with him, another part of me protests fiercely against that. I don't want that. I want him, I want us, alive.

There's something amazing about the way he looks at me, the utter acceptance and trust that glows in his face, in his eyes. He's not trusting me to get us out, he's not asking anything of me. He simply wants to be with me. I can't quite wrap my mind around that. He may not want me but he loves me, and I love him, and I resolve to tell him that. There's no reason to hide it anymore, we're going to die here. I've gone years living only half a life. It may have seemed to me less painful to live a life of duty, but it's not really living at all. I'm tired of not really being alive. Duty is a cold and lonely thing. For a few minutes, at least, I can tell him, I can really live.

Before I can gather my courage and the words to tell him, Delmar appears, having seen my signal, to extricate us from the crevasse. I sense my father's hand in that. Though I tease Ray a bit about such an encounter being commonplace, I know it isn't. It's a coincidence nearly past believing. Fate, I suppose, though I've never much believed in it.

I wonder now if that was a mistake, because as I think back over the past few years, it seems I see nothing but fate there now. Fated to find my father's killer, fated to go to Chicago, fated to become friends with Ray Vecchio, fated to meet Victoria again, fated to nearly sell my soul for what I thought was love, fated to find love in a place I never would have expected it. What am I fated for now? I suppose only Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos know for certain.

After leaving the crevasse, our journey seems to take on a frantic, unguided momentum, just like our sled, running headlong down the mountain. More fate. And with the threat of imminent death removed, I realize I can't tell Ray, after all. I won't endanger him again, and staying with me will surely do that. It's a hard, hard decision, but the right one, I think. Even harder when, as we sit by the fire that evening, warm and with stomachs full for the first time in days, Ray turns to look at me, a strangely tentative expression on his face.

"So if we live through this, and, um, we get back to Chicago I guess you'll partner up with Vecchio?" he asks. Before I can answer he goes on, still with that odd diffidence. "That's OK, 'cause he's. . . uh. . a good guy, and you worked with him for a while."

It finally dawns on me that Ray's trying to ask if I plan to remain his partner. God. I hate this. I steel myself against the desire to reassure him that I would certainly prefer to remain his partner, because I know that's not going to happen. I can't let it happen. It's too dangerous. I try to find some way to let him down gently, to reassure him without reassuring him. I look at him, trying my best to be just a little distant. Not enough to hurt, just enough to give me breathing space.

"You know Ray, my father and Buck Frobisher were partners for more than twenty years. Their territory covered thousands of miles," I say, trying to prepare him for the fact that I won't be returning to Chicago. "Sometimes they wouldn't see each other for months. But no matter how far apart they were they always knew that they were partners."

He looks at me, his eyes narrowed as he turns my words over in his head. He frowns, and looks frustrated, shaking his head a little. "I'm not sure if you're. . . ." he begins.

At that moment the Inspector calls me, cutting off whatever it was he was about to say. I sigh. "Duty . . . " I begin.

"Barks," he finishes with a wry smile, and waves me away.

The ensuing conversation is every bit as uncomfortable as the one I was having with Ray. There's no tactful way I can let the Inspector know that whatever interest I once felt in her has long since faded. In fact, at this point I'm not sure if I was actually attracted to her, or if it was more a matter of feeling that I ought to be. She was, after all, everything I'd been taught that I should want. Added to that is my reluctance to accompany her to a posting in another major city. I don't think I could easily cope with that situation without Ray by my side.

No, I know what I need now, and the posting I'll request is here, with Sergeant Frobisher. He's getting on in years, he'll probably be retiring soon. With any luck, I can work my way up to a position as second to whomever replaces him. If I can't be in Chicago, with Ray, then I belong here, alone. Margaret seems to expect something more than goodbye from me, though, and I give it to her, feeling the thread of fate between us sever as we take our leave of one another with a kiss that holds only regret and friendship. I feel no sadness as I return to the fireside to take up my interrupted conversation with Ray.

"So, you were about to ask me something?" I query, settling next to him on the log once more.

He looks at me obliquely. "Was I?"

"Yes. You said you weren't sure if I . . . and then we were interrupted."

He stares thoughtfully into the fire and finally shrugs. "Hunh. I dunno. Forgot what I was going to say."

"We were speaking of partnership," I remind him, trying to jog his memory.

"Yeah. Whatever," he shrugs. "No big deal. What'd the Ice Queen want?"

It's clear he's no longer in the mood to talk. Silently I curse Meg Thatcher's timing. It seemed that Ray might be about to say something . . . important, something I could answer with my heart instead of my head. But the moment is gone. Without much enthusiasm I tell him about her transfer offer, and my refusal, hoping to prompt him to ask about my plans and give me an easy segue into a conversation I don't want to have. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, he doesn't. His responses are monosyllabic and finally we both fall silent. He spends the rest of the evening contemplating the fire, thoughtful and distant.

I find myself rapt in contemplation as well, though not of the flames. Instead my gaze goes again and again to him, watching the firelight on his face, marveling how sometimes he seems lit from within. Fancifully I imagine that light has a love affair with him, catching in his gaze and playing on his skin as if caressing him, just the way I would like to. My body reacts to that idea in a way I would like to put down to residual hypothermia but I'm all too familiar with the symptoms and know better. Ray looks up, catching me staring at him, and I look away immediately, embarrassed. He sighs, and yawns ostentatiously.

"Think I'm going to turn in. Pretty tired. Been a long couple of days."

He stands abruptly and walks to the tent that Sergeant Frobisher procured for us, ducking inside. Though I suppose it's an invasion of privacy, I watch his silhouette, thrown on the canvas by the stove. He kneels, struggles out of his coat and boots, and then for just a moment it seems he turns my way. On the canvas one shadow hand reaches out toward me. I shiver, fingers of fear lifting the hairs on the back of my neck, but then he bends and starts to do something with his sleeping bag, and I realize it was just a trick of the light. I look away, finally, and spend a good long time staring into the fire, waiting until I think he's fallen asleep before I join him in the tent.

The next day is, as the days before it, full of the unexpected. I suppose it's egotistical, but it almost feels as if the universe has decided my life needs shaking up and is doing so with a vengeance. Once more I can't throw off that feeling of . . . fate. When I take the reins of that bay to follow Muldoon, I see two paths. I can die, or I can live. I am determined it will be the former. Still, when I look at Ray and think I might never see him again, I shiver a little, superstitiously.

"Wish me luck?" I ask Ray as he stands, watching me.

He smiles and shakes his head. "That you don't need," he says, and his gaze is confident and . . . proud? Yes.

My mood lightens instantly, and I head out, to make my own fate this time. To face a decision my father faced before me. And just as I've decided not to let duty rule my life as it did his, so too I choose not to take his path here. I am not my father. I will abandon vengeance in favor of justice. Yes, I'm angry with him. Yes, he deserves punishment for what he's done, but the law will take care of that, and I won't have the weight of that decision haunting my soul.

I know it was the right thing to do when my mother appears. Unlike Dad, she offers me no pithy words of wisdom, just the gentle whisper of a touch on my face, and love in her gaze. God, It's so hard when they go, fading away, like the memories they are. I feel like thirty years have dropped away and I'm a child again, afraid, alone. It was hard enough to lose both of them once, to lose them twice is hell. I need someone. I need Ray. But I can't continue to use him as a crutch, I have to stand alone. It's not safe for him otherwise.

* * *

For the first time in my life I have no direction. I don't know where my path leads from here. I stand at a crossroads and have no compass. The duty that drove me to this place, to see my mother's killer brought to justice, is done, and I've no idea what to do now. The bustle of the arrests is over. Helicopters have been in to take the prisoners and a good portion of my fellow Mounties away, but since it will be a day or two before a new crew can be rounded up for the submarine some of us have volunteered to stay and guard it until that happens, Ray and myself included. We've made camp, eaten, and the early dark is reminding me of how little rest I've had of late.

Ray has been a little distant today. I realize he too is at a crossroads, uncertain of his path. I wish I could offer him the comfort of finding a path together, but I have to stay my course. I've endangered him enough. Still, I'm happy he chose to stay. It gives me a few more days with him, before it all has to end. Thinking of Ray, I look around the camp until I find him. He's sitting by one of the fires with Inspector Thatcher, Turnbull, and an attractive blonde from the para-Mountie squadron. I watch him, watch his smile come easily as they share conversation. He has a way of focusing on people that can be quite heady-- at least I find it so. From here it looks as if the blonde does as well. Her responses can only be termed flirtatious. He always has preferred blondes.

I shake my head sharply. Clearly Ray was not the only one suffering from hypothermia-induced mental lapses on our trek. I realize now that my idea of telling Ray how I feel would not be a wise plan. No, confessing my feelings to him would simply make things awkward, and I would prefer to part without that discomfort between us. It will be hard enough to watch him leave, knowing I'm not returning to Chicago. I think he knows, somehow, that I'm not going back. The few times I've tried to broach the subject he's changed it, refusing to discuss anything beyond the mundane and immediate.

My heart aches at the thought of parting, and I push the pain down firmly. It's best this way. Although in the short run he'll probably be unhappy, he's better off without me in his life. It's for his own good, I think. I wonder suddenly if my father and grandparents said that about me, in solemn discussions long after I had drifted off to sleep, puzzled by the fact that I seemed to have forgotten the horror of my mother's execution, deciding that perhaps that was for the best. But it wasn't, my heart, and my head protests. It wasn't for the best. And then a little voice says 'maybe this isn't either.' No. I have to. I have to.

Needing to be alone, I head into the woods. The moon on the snow is very bright, and I don't go far, just to where the trees screen the tents and fire from my view, and I can pretend not to hear the muted voices, concentrating instead on the silence of the forest, the pristine snow, the clean air, the sigh of the wind in the boughs. God, I've missed this. I feel like I can breathe again. Chicago has many positive aspects, but this. . . this is balm to my soul, which is good, since God knows I need it.

I never thought I'd say it, but I'll miss my father. Yes, he was annoying and interfering, but suddenly I realize that I actually enjoyed getting to know him in a way I never did while he was alive. Then there is Ray. I'll miss him even more. In fact, the very thought of taking leave of him makes my throat tighten, and my eyes water, and I can't even blame it on the sting of the wind since the breeze is gentle tonight. But I know I can't go back there. I can't face it.

In any case, I don't think the RCMP has any intention of leaving me there now, since it would be politically embarrassing. And since Ray will no doubt be transferring out of the 27th now that his undercover position is complete, we would no longer be working together, which would be the only reason I would have to remain. But. . . God, I don't want to give him up. I'm selfish. Despite knowing that being with him puts him at risk, I want to be with him, so badly. I want. . . everything.

I look up, see the stars gleam and wink above me through the trees, seeming a thousand times brighter than they do in Chicago, though they're the very same stars. When I was young, one of the foolish things I often did was wish on the evening star. I've already missed its appearance tonight, and I know it's not a star but a planet, and in actuality it may well be the morning star at the moment. There are many others to choose from though. Picking one of the brighter stars in Ursa Major, I sent a reckless, juvenile wish skyward.

"There you are. Wondered where you ran off to," Ray says behind me, startling me half out of my skin. "Call of nature?" he asks.

"Something like that," I say, heart pounding, wondering how he managed to find me, how I managed not to hear him coming, since his woods-skills are virtually non-existent. Then I see Diefenbaker nudge him forward and understand. I'll have to have a little talk with Dief later.

He nods. "Good idea. Mind if I . . . ?" he waves a hand in the general vicinity of his groin.

Thankful for the darkness that hides my flushed face, I take refuge in politeness. "Of course not. It's a free country." I keep my eyes trained on a spot some distance away as he fumbles with coat and zipper.

"So you say, but the Ice Queen says they're pretty picky about who they let in from down south."

Even though I promised myself I wouldn't look, the fact that Ray has apparently been talking to the Inspector about Canadian immigration policies makes me turn. My eyes are drawn, inevitably, southward, but I somehow manage not to stare and wrench my gaze up to his face, trying to ignore the fact that he's . . . that close, and completely . . . bare, and seemingly unselfconscious as he relieves himself.

"There are certain requirements that must be met," I allow cautiously, forcing myself not to look down as I hear the unmistakable sound of liquid on snow.

"Mm," Ray says noncommitally, a hint of a smile lurking around the corners of his mouth and eyes.

I'm not sure what he finds amusing. He probably thinks I'm embarrassed by his actions. He loves to embarrass me. A moment later he finishes and I hear his zipper go back up, and relax a little, letting out the breath I hadn't realized I was holding. Ray looks at me, gives me a pained smile, and then turns his attention to something in the distance.

"Nice view," he says.

"Quite," I agree, though I doubt we're both speaking about the same landscape. I can't shake the feeling that he didn't come find me just to talk about the beauty of nature, though. We both look at the view for a while, then after a time he speaks again.

"So, this is it, isn't it?" he asks, not looking at me.

"It?" I query, puzzled.

"Yeah. It. You know. It. Finito. Over. The end. Donesky. That's all she wrote."

"The end of what, Ray?" I ask, deliberately obtuse. I don't want to talk about this. Not yet.

He sighs, shakes his head, humming a snatch of an REM song under his breath before answering me. "You're not coming back, are you?" he asks bluntly.

Ah. God. Had I really thought we could somehow avoid this conversation? I sigh. "No. I'm afraid not," I finally reply.

He nods, unspeaking, his lips slightly pursed, hands thrust deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched, his gaze apparently fixed on something in the distance. "Thought so. Look, Fraser. I want you to promise me something."

"That being?" I ask, unwilling to promise before I know what he wants me to do.

"I want you to see somebody, okay?"

"See someone? You mean date?"

He smiles and shakes his head. "No, Fraser. I mean I want you to get some counseling. I don't want to think about you up here all alone, and thinking the kind of things you were thinking a couple of weeks ago, when you got nobody here to call. I mean, you can call me, but . . . you know. You need to see somebody."

"Ah." I think about his request for a moment, seriously. I understand why he's saying it, but. . . "I don't really think that will be necessary, Ray. The situation is unlikely to repeat itself, now that I know what's behind it. I'm sure it was simply bleed-through from my repressed mem . . . ."

He interrupts me, exasperated. "Fraser. You're not a shrink. You don't even play one on TV. So don't try to do this yourself, okay? Just see somebody. Promise me."

I hold out for as long as I can, but his eyes don't leave mine and I can't say no to him. Finally I nod. "All right. I'll see someone."

He looks relieved. "Okay, good. Thanks. That means a lot to me." He's quiet for a moment, a little fidgety, nervous. Finally he looks at me again. "Can I tell you something?"

"Of course, Ray. You can tell me anything."

He shakes his head. "No, I can't, but that's not your fault. I just wanted to say . . . it's been . . . well, it's been an honor and a privilege. I think you're probably the best thing that ever happened to me."

My face goes hot, instantly. "For me, as well," I say, my voice a little shaky.

He looks embarrassed, and rolls his eyes. "You're unhinged. Um . . . I, uh, I want to do something here, and if you want to punch me out when I'm done you can, I'll understand, though I'm kind of hoping you won't because you damned near broke my jaw last time you hit me. You've got an arm like a Louisville Slugger."

"I won't hit you, Ray," I say, puzzled, wondering what on earth he's planning that he thinks might provoke such an action.

He laughs drily. "Don't make promises you can't keep.

I wait expectantly, but he just keeps staring off into the distance. Finally he flashes an uneasy glance at me. "Could you . . . um . . . could you close your eyes?"

I do so, obediently. I sense movement. I sense warmth, very near. I can smell him, not an unpleasant smell, and one I'm familiar with, though stronger than usual as it's been several hard days since either of us has had the opportunity to bathe. There's also a hint of . . . mint? Ah, he must have found someone to restock his chewing gum supply. I feel his hand settle on my face, and startle a bit. He soothes me with fingers along my cheekbone and a soft 'ssssh' sound. I can feel his breath against my lips as he does that, and my tongue comes out, trying to taste, though I know there's nothing there to taste. His fingers slip down my cheek to my jaw, his thumb strokes across my lower lip, back and forth.

An intense rush of feeling surges through me, instant, electric. I'm terribly, terribly confused. This is not a friendly touch, a buddy touch, this is . . . sensual. Overtly so. I nearly open my eyes, but I'm afraid if I do so I will either find I'm hallucinating, or I'll scare him away, and I don't want to do either thing so I do nothing, I stand there with his hand on my face, yearning for more, feeling my body flame with response, my breath coming in short, shallow pants.

His thumb presses against my lower lip, parting them slightly, then his hand moves slowly away from my skin. Before I can protest, I feel a different touch, warm, slightly rough, slightly moist. I feel his breath in my mouth instead of on it. Something warm and wet slides across my lower lip. I gasp, angling my head a little, my hands reaching out to find his solid frame just where I knew he must be, to wrap my arms around him and pull him close, to taste him, deeply, even if it's just this once.

I don't know how he knew, I thought I'd been so careful not to show him, but Ray has always been able to see beneath my surface and find the things I most want to hide. His generosity stuns me. The fact that he's giving me this moment, when I know it's not something he's comfortable with . . . or . . . wait . . . he's not kissing me like a man who isn't interested, or isn't comfortable. His tongue strokes mine, enticing, his arms wind around me, one of his hands splays over my buttocks, rubbing gently, pushing my hips into his, and though a good deal of winter clothing stands between us, I think . . . I think I feel . . . oh, dear God. . . .

I tear my mouth from his, look into his face, see the heat in his gaze, the light in his smile, and the shock is so strong it's nearly physical. "Ray? What . . . what are you doing?"

He looks at me with a half-amused and half wary expression. "Come on, Fraser, other people may think you're pure as the driven snow but there's no way you don't know the answer to that. Though, judging from the way you kissed back, you're not going to hit me."

"No, of course I . . . I just meant . . . why?"

"Why do you think?"

"I don't know what to think. I'm not sure I can think, to be honest."

He laughs a little. "Cat got your brain? Look, Fraser, you've saved me from a murder rap, kept me from getting nuts over my ex-wife, helped me free an innocent woman, and let me make a fool of myself on a baseball diamond. You put up with me making cracks about your country, calling you names and even hitting you. I've followed you off rooftops, into lakes, underwater, out of airplanes, up mountains, down crevasses . . . what the hell does that all tell you we are?"

"Co-dependent?" I venture, rubbing my eyebrow.

He laughs, a real, honest, wonderful laugh, trailing off into helpless giggles. Finally he catches his breath. "Yeah, that too probably, but there's another word I like better."


He rolls his eyes. "Don't be dense, Fraser. You gonna make me say it?"

I nod. "Yes." I think I know what he's saying but I want to hear him say it. I need to hear him say it.

He sighs, takes my face between his palms and brushes his lips across mine again, then pulls back a little. "Love you, Benton freaking Fraser. Now who's unhinged?"

"Both of us, apparently. Thank God," I say, leaning forward, taking his mouth in a kiss that's not gentle at all, putting into it all the love and need I feel for him, all my good intentions and resolve to leave him evaporating in the face of his revelation.

He says something into my mouth that sounds like "yeah" and kisses me back, and we fight a little for dominance in the kiss until we nearly fall over in the snow. I pull back and look into his face, suddenly worried. "Ray. . . wait, please. I'm not sure you've thought through all the ramifications."

He shakes his head. "Jesus, Fraser. I've been thinking of ramifications for six months now, believe me. Thought about how it could get me killed out on a call. Thought about how my parents would feel. Thought about the fact that you don't need another strike against your records. . . except Turnbull says the Mounties are down with the whole gay thing, at least officially. Thought about the fact that we come from two completely different countries. And the whole time I'm figuring I've lost my effing mind because you don't even like me like that, telling myself I'm an idiot with out of control hormones and without two brain cells to rub together. So don't tell me I haven't thought it through."

My jaw is hanging open. Six months? He's been thinking about all these things? "How. . . how long?" I ask, not sure I heard correctly.

"Since . . . God. Not sure. Maybe since you whacked Orsini in the nuts with your door on purpose, just for me."

He flashes me a smile so sweet it doesn't even occur to me to demur about the accusation. In any case, he's right. I did. Reprehensible, but oddly satisfying. Suddenly it hits me. "Ray, that night in the consulate, when you came over to check on me. Did you. . . did you try to tell me then? Was this what you meant? Was this why you were worried about us both being . . . 'guys'?"

He smiles wryly and looks down at the ground as if too embarrassed to meet my gaze. "Um, yeah."

I shake my head, stunned by my own idiocy. Of course. Looking back on it, I can't figure out how I ever thought otherwise. "My God, and I had no idea."

He chuckles a little. "Yeah. I figured that out. Couple of times I thought you seemed like . . . but, then I realized I'd misunderstood you. Um. . . I didn't do that this time, did I?" he asks, staring at me suddenly, a hint of uncertainty in his expression.

"No!" My response is instant and vehement, overriding good sense. I should reject him, tell him I don't feel that way about him, but. . . I can't. I haven't the strength of will. "No! No you haven't."

I kiss him again, and his mouth opens under mine. I dare to kiss him more deeply, searching out the taste of him, beneath the rabbit stew and mint chewing gum. I suddenly wonder what his ejaculate would taste like, and moan into his mouth, my hands dragging his hips hard against my own, cupping his spare buttocks.

He rubs against me rhythmically, and the kiss goes on, and on, searing and maddening, until Ray pulls back slightly, panting. He licks his lips, glances down, back up, then he laughs breathlessly and goes to his knees, his hands sliding up my thighs, under my coat. . . . For a moment I let him, shivering with anticipation and not a little terror. I want this, I've wanted Ray like this forever, it seems, and the thought of getting him surpasses my wildest expectations.

But this isn't right. And if it's not right, then I may never get to do this again, and if I don't, then I want it to be better than this. I don't want something hurried and half-clothed. I want more than a hasty coupling in the dark and cold. I want the leisure to taste, touch, smell, and see. . . all of him. I want those memories, in case I never get to experience the reality again. I know I'm risking never having any memories at all, but still I reach down to pull him to his feet again.

"No. Please, Ray. Not like this."

As I say it, a sudden burst of laughter from the direction of the fire pulls his glance back toward camp for a moment, and his smile fades, a little flicker of dismay crossing his face. "Oh. Yeah. Yeah, sorry. Okay."

I shake my head, realizing he thinks it was the fear of discovery that made me stop him. "That's not it at all, Ray. It's just that. . ." I grope for a way to sum up my feelings, and find one. "My grandmother always used to say that one should begin as one means to go on."

"What's that mean?"

"It means that if we're going to do this, we should do it right. Not furtively, not hurried and uncomfortable."

He looks at me thoughtfully. "You mean you want a bed, sheets, blankets, hot showers, that kind of thing?"

I nod, and he smiles with clear delight. "I don't believe this. Nature Boy wants a hotel room."

I smile back ruefully. "I'm afraid so."

"You've gotten soft."


"So. . . what are we looking at, two more days?"

"Quite likely."

He sighs. "Two days. Jesus." He sighs, clearly frustrated. "Haven't you ever heard of instant gratification? That's, like, un-American."

I can't help but smile. "Well, since I'm not American. . . ."

He laughs. "Yeah, true. Never mind. Two days. Two days can be a really long time."

"Yes, it can. I just think that a longer-term gratification would be more pleasurable."

He sighs, and nods. "Okay, okay, I can do this, I can go two days. You. . . you sure you want to wait? Because I'm good to go here."

I swallow hard. "Yes. But, we could, ah, keep kis. . . ."

I don't even have to finish my sentence. He's on me instantly, pushing me back against the broad, solid trunk of a tree, one hand in my hair as his mouth finds mine again.

* * *

Those two days of wanting, of knowing, of anticipating, are torture. Sleeping next to him is an impossible task. All I can think about is the taste of his mouth, the weight of his body against mine, the feel of his lips, the smell of him-- nearly a week without a shower sears his scent into my brain. I can't remember ever feeling so . . . explosive. All he has to do is look at me, a single sly, wry glance, and I'm aching for him, and very glad it's too cold to do without heavy winter gear, since it's not particularly professional to be walking around in a state of perpetual tumescence.

We both take any excuse to touch that we can find, though that's nothing particularly new. It's just that now there's no doubt in either of our minds why we're doing it. I'm constantly surprised that no one but Turnbull seems to have noticed the glances exchanged, the half-smiles, the 'accidental' nudging. We've also developed an unfortunate tendency to look at one another and blush, but so far we've been able to put it down to the wind-chill. Diefenbaker clearly thinks we've both lost our minds. He's never been one for delayed gratification, but if he trips me into Ray one more time I swear I'm staking him out on a harness and lead at least a half kilometer from the tent.

Ray and I spend much of our time talking, trying to plan, though that's difficult, not knowing what the RCMP has in mind for me. When I mention that I could request to be re-posted to the consulate, Ray looks at me as if I'm a few bricks short of a load.

"Why'd you want to do that, Fraser? You can't get enough of that dead-fish smell when the wind's off the lake, or you just really like street gangs?"

Suddenly I feel unsure. I had thought that he wanted more than just a brief physical encounter, but if he doesn't want me to come back to Chicago, then perhaps I was wrong. "I. . . I thought you. . . perhaps I misunderstood . . . ." I begin.

He shakes his head and interrupts me. "Oh. Okay, this is the 'who gets to sacrifice their career' talk. I get it. No, you didn't misunderstand anything. I want to be with you, you want to be with me. That's cool. But look, remember, to me it's just a job. It's a job I'm good at, but I can get a different job. Hell, I can deliver pizza if I have to."

"Ray, it's not just a job to you, and you know that."

He looks me in the eye. Well, glares really.

"Fraser, trust me on this. If it comes down to a choice between you and the job, I know what I'll choose."

Though my heart eases at those words, I can't let this go. "I think you're being disingenuous. You know you wouldn't be happy delivering pizza for a living."

"Fraser, I wasn't all that happy being a cop for a living either, not until you came along. It's just... what I knew. It's what I did. But ever since Beth . . . well, it's been a lot harder to be a cop, because I'm always asking myself what if, you know? What am I missing? Could this guy be innocent?"

I stare at him, surprised. He hasn't shown me these doubts, hasn't talked about them. I thought he'd gotten over that feeling, after he saved Beth Botrelle. "Ray. . . I'm sorry. You never said. . . I didn't know."

He shakes his head. "Nah, I didn't want to let on. Because even if being a cop wasn't a big thing to me, it was to you, and besides I knew you'd never let me make a mistake like that. But . . . it stopped mattering to me the way it used to. And I know when you go, it won't matter even more. Don't you get it? The job's not important to me. You are. Without you, I don't like who I am. Maybe that's not all that functional, but it's the truth."

How well I know that feeling. "I understand that," I say softly. "But understand me, as well. Do you think I could be happy if you're not? How could I be? You wouldn't want me to sacrifice for you, and I don't want you to do so for me."

He sighs. "Yeah. I know. I just. . . don't know what to do." He looks at me, and smiles suddenly, surprisingly. "God, that felt good. Just to say I don't fucking know what to do."

"Neither do I," I admit, and find he's right. It's curiously relieving to admit it.

"So, look, we'll figure out something. Maybe we just need to take a little time to do it, not to decide it all right now. I mean, we don't even know all the details yet, what they're going to do with you now that you're the man of the hour and all that."

"That's true."

"Then we wait until we know. And we'll work something out. We always do, right?"

"So far."

"Well, there you go, then."

I want to protest his blithe certainty. I don't like not knowing, not having a plan. But he's right, we don't have enough information to even begin to plan yet. So at this point all I can do is wait, and hope, and try to stop worrying about it. It does no good to worry, and besides, I tend to frown when I worry, and whenever Ray catches me doing that he sticks his finger in between my eyebrows and it feels extremely peculiar.

I steadfastly refuse to listen to the inner voice which reminds me that it's not safe for Ray to be around me. I tell myself that if I'm alert and careful and meticulous, I can keep him safe. It will be hard to rein in my natural impulse to fling myself into the fray, but I promise myself I will make that change, to be sure he is safe. I'll have to.

Finally the new submarine crew from the Canadian Navy arrives, and we're released from our duties. The Inspector has arranged for helicopters to take us to Yellowknife, and from there we have air transport to Ottawa where we're scheduled for a two-day debriefing stopover. Once I've determined our destination, I take a few moments at the RCMP outpost in Yellowknife to arrange accommodations for Ray and myself.

I watch Ray pacing as we wait to board the plane. He's nearly vibrating out of his skin with anticipation. I have to admit, I feel much the same. I notice that my hand is shaking a little as I dial the number of the bed and breakfast in Ottawa where I've stayed several times before. It's wolf-friendly, and even more to the point, run by a couple whom I have reason to believe will have no objection to renting a room with a single king-sized bed to two men. When a familiar voice answers, I find myself speechless for a moment, not sure how to start.

"Oui, hâllo?" Jacob asks again.

I revert to formality. "Yes, sorry. This is Constable Benton Fraser of the . . . ."

"RCMP," Jacob finishes for me. "Hi, Ben. You coming through town again? It's been a while."

"Yes, I'll need a room for two days."


"Today, if that's possible. It's an eight or nine hour flight, I think. I realize this is short notice, but I didn't know myself until today."

"Not a problem. March isn't exactly high season. You want your usual room?"

"Ah, no, actually. I was wondering if the blue suite might be available?"

There's a moment of silence. "The suite? Ah. . . actually, yes, it is. If that's what you want."

I understand his confusion. I've always insisted on their smallest room in the past. The suite is their largest. And has an en-suite bathroom.

"Yes, please. Oh, and someone else will be staying as well."


"Oh, him as well, but no, this would be a human being."

"No problem. Name?" I can hear Jacob entering the reservation on his computer.

"Ray. Ray Kowalski." I wonder if the fondness in my voice as I say his name is detectable over the phone line.

"K-o-w-a-l-s-k-i?" he spells.


"All right, got it. Do you have a preference as to what room we put Mr. Kowalski in?"

"I . . . ah . . .an additional room won't be necessary."

There's a long pause, then Jacob chuckles. "Ah," he says, then he covers the phone with his hand. Fortunately or not, my hearing is extremely good and I can still hear him call out something to David about having just won a bet. I feel my face get hot, and wonder just how much teasing I'm going to be in for.

"May I ask another favor?"


"We left Chicago in rather a hurry, and have nothing in the way of luggage, not even basic toiletries. If you could arrange for such things. . . shampoo, shaving kits, toothbrushes, we would be grateful."

"Of course, we'll take care of it. How about a change of clothes? Anything else?"

The thought of clean clothes is too tempting to resist. I assure him we'll reimburse him for whatever he spends, within reason, and suggest jeans and sweaters.

"Hey, Fraser! Plane's ready! Come on!" Ray calls out, waving at me.

I wave back and quickly give Jacob our sizes, ask them to lay in food for Dief, and ring off, hurrying to join the others boarding the small plane.

The flight is long and uneventful, other than the fact that Ray is sitting next to me, and whenever he thinks no one is looking, he slides his hand up my thigh. That's certainly eventful. We're all tired, though, and we sleep some on the eight hour flight. At one point I wake to find Ray's head heavy against my arm. It's a pleasant sensation. I put my hand over his and he murmurs softly against my shoulder, sighing. I catch Turnbull staring at us wistfully, and resist the temptation to pull my hand away from Ray's. I won't make this hidden, or furtive. I'm not ashamed. When I wake again, we're descending to land in Ottawa.

The Inspector and Turnbull have rooms booked at a hotel not far from 'the mother ship' as Ray likes to refer to RCMP headquarters. The B&B is close to both the hotel and headquarters, but four adults and a wolf are a bit much for a single fare so we don't share a taxi. When we arrive at the B&B, to my relief David and Jacob are completely professional, though Jacob winks and gives me a thumb's up behind Ray's back before taking Dief to the kitchen to feed him. David gives us our keys, tells me they've fitted out the room with 'everything we'll need,' and goes off to join Jacob and Diefenbaker, tactfully leaving Ray and me alone.

I lead Ray up the stairs to our room, trying not to notice that my heart is racing, and my palms are sweaty. Ray walks in behind me and stops, looks at the bed, looks at me, and . . . blushes. For some reason I find that incredibly erotic. I try to speak, and find myself voiceless. I have to swallow and clear my throat.

"Why don't you shower first?" I manage in an admirably level tone.

"Why don't we shower together?" he asks, lifting his eyebrows wickedly, though his face is still flushed.

"Because neither of us would get clean?" I hazard.

He chuckles. "Yeah, true. Okay. We'll save that for sometime when we don't actually need to wash."

He disappears into the bathroom, and I hear the shower come on. I stand there, a bit at a loss for what to do with myself while he showers. I rub my chin absently and the accumulated stubble-- far less than Ray has at this point-- reminds me I need to shave. Ray left the bathroom door open, so I assume he doesn't mind if I share the facility with him. It's difficult not to try and watch him through the frosted glass of the shower door as I run water in the sink and find one of the razors and the shaving cream Jacob left for us. My hands are shaking so much it's a wonder I don't slit my own throat, but I manage a reasonably decent shave and am just starting to brush my teeth when Ray turns off the shower.

I hear him sigh, watch him run his hands through his hair, slicking it back, then he's opening the door to get one of the terrycloth robes Jacob left for us. He pulls it on, his face a little flushed, perhaps from the heat of the shower, perhaps for some other reason, and steps out. With his hair wet and sleek to his head he looks younger, somehow. More vulnerable.

"All yours, Fr. . . um. . . " he stops. "Ben?" he ventures.

I smile around my mouthful of toothpaste, and nod.

He smiles back. "I left you some hot water. There another razor?"

I nod again, spit and rinse. "Yes, razor, toothbrush, shaving cream."


He wanders out into the bedroom, I suspect to give me privacy to disrobe and get into the shower, which I do. Recent events have not been kind to my body, and the hot water feels marvelous. Through the blurry glass I can see Ray at the sink, taking his turn at shaving. It takes him longer, he's still at it when I finish my shower. Our eyes meet in the mirror as I reach for the second robe, and he smiles. I smile back, and my hand misses the robe completely. I actually pay attention the second time and manage to get it, pulling the thick white fabric firmly around myself, feeling as vulnerable as Ray looks. I take my towel out into the bedroom and dry my hair there, and find myself staring at the wide, flat surface of the bed.

The idea of being naked with Ray is simultaneously terrifying and arousing. I have some idea of the variety of things men can do together-- much of that knowledge gleaned in the library of this very house, after finding a book of homoerotic fiction there. But as I discovered long ago, book-learning is quite different from actual experience. I wonder if Ray is any more familiar with such things than I am. It seems unlikely, considering his long relationship with Stella.

Thinking of Ray's ex-wife sends a sudden spike of fear through me. He's used to her: slim, blonde, soft, no doubt scented. Female. Everything I am very demonstrably not. How can he want me? This is a mistake. A terrible mistake. He'll realize it at any moment, and run. . . no. No, he won't. I know him better than that. I remember the way he looks at me, love and desire shining in his clear gaze, the eagerness of his kisses, the heavy weight of his head against my arm as he slept.

No. Don't panic. It's not a mistake. It's just . . . unknown. You'll face it together. I hear the water stop, hear the tap of a toothbrush against the sink as he shakes off excess water, then he's walking out. He sees me standing in the middle of the room, staring at the bed, and smiles warmly.

"Big bed," he comments.

"Yes, yes it is."

"Big enough, I think," he says, his smile going sly, teasing.

"I should think so, certainly," I allow.

"Think it has good springs?"

"I'm sure it must."

He sits down on the edge and bounces a bit, testing, and nods. "Yeah, nice. You want to try?"

I hear both the spoken and the unspoken invitation, and nod. "Yes, I think I would." Trying not to feel nervous and failing quite miserably, I sit down next to him.

He bounces some more. "Yeah. They'll do," he says drily. He looks away, nervously, and then I see his eyes widen as he looks at the night-stand, and a wash of color paints his face. He laughs, clearly surprised.

"Um, just what did you tell those guys about us, Ben?"

"Nothing untoward," I assure him. "I simply told them we had no luggage, as our departure from Chicago was rather precipitous, why?" I ask, trying to see around his shoulder.

He reaches, holds up a box of condoms and a small bottle of some clear substance. "'Everything we'll need,' hunh?"

I blush. "I suppose the fact that I only requested one room may have led them to make certain assumptions. . . ."

He chuckles. "I'll say." He looks thoughtfully at the supplies in his hands, then back at me, worrying his lip with his teeth a little. "Look, I just want you to know that I've had all the tests, and I'm clean, I'm good."

It takes me a minute to fully comprehend what he means, and nod my understanding. I clear my throat, and ease the crick from my neck. "My, ah, latest physical also indicated an absence of communicable or infectious diseases."

"What a shock," he says, smiling, and then looks at me nervously. "Um. . . you got any idea what you're doing here?"

I shake my head, feeling my face get even hotter. "Not. . . really. Just what I've read."

Oddly, he looks relieved. "Yeah. Me either. Okay, so guess we learn this together. I mean, a lot of it is pretty basic, right?"

"Yes. Basic." Together, though, is the word that catches my attention. Together. Yes. I look at him, his face inches from mine, his eyes shining, and this part isn't so hard. I lift a hand to touch the unfamiliarly smooth line of his jaw, and move toward him. He meets me halfway, our lips cling, moistly, his tongue tastes mine, our breath mingles. Oh yes. This part we've already learned. Instinctively I lean into him, and he laughs into my mouth and lets himself fall back against the bed. Recumbent kissing. That's new. New for us, anyway. We didn't dare do this back at camp, we would never have been able to wait.

The knotted belt of his robe is digging into my ribs, and I tug at it until it loosens under my fingers and I can pull it free. The right side of his robe falls open, baring less than half of him, almost coyly. Long expanse of leg, and hip, and chest, one brownish-pink nipple, small and tight. I lean down, taste it, and he gasps, his hands tightening on my hip, and in my hair. Taste again, a long, slow lick. He arches under me. I want more. Need more. I push my nose into the curve of his arm, breathing deeply, tasting the faint, acrid tang of excitement. He laughs a little.

"Tickles," he explains, and laughs more as I lick down his side, feeling the gentle dunes of ribs under his skin.

Finally I slide my hand under the heavy white fabric and push it open, baring him completely, and I ease back so I can see all of him. He's rangy-- long and lean everywhere, surprisingly muscular. He waits, watching me as I watch him, his gaze intent. His tongue touches his lips, his breathing speeds up; I can hear it, see it in the rise and fall of his abdomen.

Finally I let myself look where I've wanted to look, haven't allowed myself to look, until now. Wiry curls the color of wet sand frame the heavy length of his partially erect penis. Light catches on a tiny bead of moisture at the os . . . water from his shower or something else? My lips part, my mouth waters. I want to taste. And now, finally, there's nothing to stop me. I curl around him, until I can touch the tip of my tongue delicately to the smooth, hot skin of his penis. He gasps again, and his erection twitches.

I explore him lightly, denying myself that last taste for now, breathing in the clean, faintly musky scent of him; the scent of need, of want. I can feel him expand as he hardens more, feel the rapid beat of his pulse in the veins there. I trace the line of his circumcision scar with my tongue, laving the frenulum gently. He shudders, and one of his hands clenches around a handful of robe. My own hands want to clench handfuls of him, but I resist. Gently. Gently. God, I had no idea it would be this good. Why was it so hard to get to this place? Why did we waste so much time?

Finally I let my tongue slide over the sleek, blunt tip of him, dip it into the tiny opening there, tasting that wetness, more than a single bead now. Bitter and sweet, the taste of him makes my lips tingle. I move my head a little, take him in my mouth. He moans. I run my hands up the long, sleek lines of his flanks, rub circles around his hipbones with my thumbs as I suckle him. He can't stay still, my Ray, he never could, and now is no exception. His hips lift restlessly, his thighs flex and release as he suppresses the primal need to thrust. My own body feels that need too, and I can't keep myself from rocking a little against the bed as the act of arousing him arouses me in turn.

I feel so hungry, starving, not for food, but for him, his touch, his taste, his scent, for the sound of his breathing harsh and fast, for the soft moan in his throat as I feast on him, consuming him, yet somehow leaving him whole. For the first time in my life I understand what it means to have another person willingly give himself over to you, wholly, unreserved. He's so giving it makes me want to give, too. It makes me realize how very much I never had in previous encounters. I only had bits and pieces, never the totality.

I let one hand slip down between his legs, rub the soft, heavy weight of his scrotum, gently encouraging him. He spreads his legs wider so I can cup him more easily, so my other hand can find and caress the root of him, down below his testicles. He loses the battle with his instinct, and his hips pump once, again, again. My own body responds in kind, pushing against the firm surface of the bed. I relax my jaw, let him do as he needs, and his movements make my fingers graze the small opening between his cheeks.

We both tense, but then he whimpers, the sound holding no fear, only need, and he pushes against my fingers a little. I touch again, deliberately, and he sighs. I remember what I've read, and take my hand away, wetting my fingers in my mouth, stroking his cock with both fingers and tongue in the warm, close confines of my mouth. He jerks and groans. I slip my fingers free and put them back where they were before, searching. My hips push harder against the bed, as my too-active imagination supplies me with other images, other sensations, borrowing them from some unknown future.

He shudders as my finger slips inside him, and I feel his penis swell in my mouth, and then his body arches and I feel the rhythmic clench of his anus around my finger, warning me just before the thick, bittersweet rush of his semen fills my mouth. The taste of him, the proud and greedy realization that I brought him so easily to his peak sends an amazingly intense rush of pleasure through me. I cry out, the sound muffled by his flesh as my own orgasm hits, long, shuddering pulses of pleasure, hot wetness spreading across my belly, soaking into the thick fabric of the robe. The sense of . . . connection that I feel between us is so immense it that the simple act of pleasuring him brings me to my own completion.

We lay there for a while, my head on his hip, his penis still resting in my mouth, until our breathing slows, until his fingers begin to stroke my hair gently. I release him then, letting his softened organ slip from my mouth, lifting my head to look at him. His face is filled with that tenderness I've surprised in him before. He looks debauched, sated, sweet and beautiful. My lips feel swollen and tight, and I lick them. He reaches up to touch them, and smiles.

"Wow. That. . . wow."

I smile, delighted to have rendered him effectively speechless. "Yes."

"C'mere," he says, reaching down to pull me up to him, kissing me gently, soft, feather-light brushes of his mouth against mine. One of his hands slips inside my robe, finds me, wet and flaccid, and his eyes widen. "Wow," he says again, a grin spreading across his face. "I . . . wow." He pets me a little, slips his hand free, and eyes me narrowly. "Next time, my turn."

I nod, yawning, feeling sleep trying to claim me. He laughs. "Take off the robe, get under the covers instead of on 'em. You were the one who wanted sheets."

Sleepily I let him boss me around, and within minutes we're under the covers, and he's wrapped around me, and for the first time in adult memory, I feel safe, and warm and . . . loved. I lift one of his hands, kiss his bony knuckles, and let myself fall into the warm, soft darkness.

* * *

I wake sometime before dawn, though the light from the bathroom is on and lends a pale glow to the otherwise dark room. I'm erect again, wrapped around him, one of his thighs between mine as my hips roll and rub against him. I realize he's pushing at me, and I stop immediately, mortified to have woken him.

"Ray, I'm sorry," I begin, only to have him shake his head and interrupt me.

"What for? I liked that. Roll over, on your back."

I comply, and the next thing I know he has his tongue in my navel, and his hands are stroking my thighs, pushing them apart so he can settle between them, poised over my groin.

"You don't have to do that," I protest.

He looks up the length of my torso, rolls his eyes. "Gee, really?"

All right, it was a silly thing to say. Ray rarely does anything he doesn't want to, and never without protest. I watch, breath held, as he inclines his head , pauses for a moment and then finally brushes his lips across my penis. I gasp and shiver all over at the sensation. He does it again, then again, then on the third pass he lets his tongue slide out to taste me.

I try to lie still, not daring to move for fear of doing something wrong, of making him stop. My reward is swift. He repeats the action, then leans in to lick and suck not just the head of my shaft, but all of me. Down to the soft folds of skin below my penis, he pulls first one testicle then the other into his wide mouth, using his tongue to caress. I never thought to do that for him, it feels. . . marvelous.

Releasing me, he measures my length, centimeter by centimeter, with his tongue. Reaching the tip, he seems fascinated by my foreskin, sliding his tongue under and around it, using his hand to gently slip it back and forth, which is more than I can resist. My hips lift, my throat shapes a moan. He lifts his head, laughs softly.

"This is cool. You got all the neat toys."

I gasp as he takes me in his mouth, surrounding me with delicious wet heat and pressure. He uses his hand as well as his mouth, stroking and sucking, and for the second time I find that I have nowhere near the stamina I would like to have, not with his hands and his mouth on me. It seems like scant seconds before I realize I can't hold back, the finish is nearing far too quickly.

"Ray!" I groan, warning him.

He flicks a glance up at me, swirls his tongue wickedly around the head of my penis, then draws back, watching me as he brings me to completion with his hand. There's no refusing him, and my body shudders with delight. As I lie there, panting, he paints patterns across my belly with the cooling semen, swirling it in spirals and circles, then he lifts sticky fingers to his lips and deliberately licks the remnants of my spending from them, as if they were coated in chocolate. An ineffectual shiver of want goes through me, even though my body is still recovering from orgasm.

"Ray. . . ."

He grins. "Yeah?"

"I . . . ." My throat locks up on the words I want to say. I'm afraid to say them, afraid if I admit it aloud, that it will invoke the curse that loving someone always seems to bring me. He waits patiently for me to continue, and finally I find something far less dangerous to say. "I don't want to get up."

He chuckles. "Then don't."

"I'll have to. There's the debriefing. What time is it?"

He squints over my shoulder. "Little before five. Relax, you got three hours before you have to be anywhere."

"I don't want to go." I grumble, petulantly. "I want to stay here."

"Haven't you had enough job-related crap in your life? You need more? No, you do not," he says, answering his own question. "Look, I'll go with, if you want. Hang out in the hall while they debrief you. . . though I really think I'm the only person who ought to get to do that. In your case it'd be de-boxer, though."

I steadfastly ignore his pun. "No, you needn't go with me. It'll be boring. Stay here. Maybe you could take Diefenbaker out later. He's probably annoyed with us for leaving him out of the room."

As if on cue, Diefenbaker grumbles, too loudly to be outside the door. Startled, I twist around to look beside the bed, see a large white shape sprawled in the dimness next to the bed.

Ray looks at me sheepishly. "I, um, let him in when I got up to piss a while back."

I stare at him. He got up, used the bathroom, and let Dief in, and I didn't wake up for any of it? That's . . . not like me. He grins, correctly interpreting my expression.

"You were dead to the world. Been a long couple of weeks."

Strangely, my throat seems to close up at that, and my eyes sting with tears. "Yes," I say gruffly, "yes it has." It comes to me that the reason I slept so deeply is that it's the only time I can let down my guard, let alertness fade, because next to him I feel safe. His hand comes to rest on my shoulder, squeezing lightly.

"It's okay, you know. It's okay to get. . . choked up," he says. "I mean, jeez, if anybody ever had a good reason, it's you. We never really talked about that part. . . wasn't sure you wanted to. You still having that dream?"

I shake my head. "No. No, I haven't had it since we identified Muldoon as a suspect in the case back in Chicago."

He nods solemnly. "Yeah. That makes sense. Your subconscious knew it was just a matter of time before you figured it out with your conscious brain." He smiles wryly. "Don't tell anyone I said subconscious and conscious, okay? Don't want to ruin my image."

"Your secret is safe with me," I say, smiling. I long ago realized that his difficulty with words is purely situational. When he has time to think things through, he can be as erudite as I am. It's only when his mouth can't keep pace with his brain that he falters.

He grins back. "Good, thanks. So, how are you doing with that whole thing? I mean, with what happened to your mom, and your family not telling you, all that."

"I. . . " I start to say I'm fine, and then I know I can't lie to him like that. "I'm getting there," I say, more truthfully. "It's difficult. I'm sure they felt they were doing the right thing at the time, but I honestly don't understand why they never told me when I was older. To finally understand those dreams. . . it would have been a godsend."

"Did you ever tell them about the dreams?" he asks, shrewdly.

"No. Not after the first few times. They told me it was just a nightmare, and to go back to sleep."

His eyes widen, then narrow. "God damn it. It's no wonder you forgot. They practically ordered you to forget! It's a good thing your dad's already dead or I'd have to strangle him myself. God damn it," he repeats, and angrily flings himself back against the mattress with a frustrated growl.

His anger hurts. "Ray, my father may have made mistakes, but he was my father, and I loved him. He was fallible, human, like we all are."

He stares at the ceiling, and seems to sag into the mattress. "I know. I'm sorry."

Hesitantly I move up so we're lying side by side, and reach out to soothe a hand over the tense line of his shoulder. "It's all right, I understand."

He sighs. "Sometimes I think you need to be a little less understanding. You need to let yourself get mad."

"I. . . sometimes I do."

He flashes me a quick smile. "Yeah. The other day on the mountain, you were really giving your dad what for. Too bad you couldn't do that while he was alive. Can't be very satisfying to yell at a dead guy."

Shaken, I stare at him. "You. . . you remember that? You heard that?"

"Yeah." He shakes his head, frowning a little. "You know what's funny? I must really have had that hypothermia thing, because I remember thinking I could hear somebody answering you. Freaky. Wouldn't think the cold would do that. Still, I think it was good for you to realize that maybe he wasn't as good a dad as he was a Mountie. I mean, look, I love my dad too, but sometimes he can be a real asshole, okay? The two things aren't mutually exclusive. Like you said. Fallible. Human. Doesn't mean he didn't have a good side."

"No, no, it doesn't. And you're right. He was. . . well, he was a terrible father."

Ray looks up at the ceiling, waits a moment, then looks back at me. "There, see? Lightning didn't strike or anything. Big step there. How'd that feel?"

I think about it. "Liberating. And disloyal."

"He raised you to be honest, right? If he was here and you asked him what kind of dad he thought he'd been, what would he say?"

I remember what my father said just after he learned he was Maggie's father. 'I was a miserable father, twice.' I use his word. "Miserable."

"There, see? Nothing disloyal about it. Just honest."

"I . . . never really thought about it that way."

"See, that's the advantage of having me around. I always think about stuff in weird ways."

"There are many advantages to having you around," I say. "Your unique worldview is only one of many."

He grins. "That's a real nice way of saying I'm a freak, Fraser."

I grin back. "Yes, it is."

"Two freaks," he says warmly. "A pair."

"Yes," I agree. "A matched set." He's so close, and his mouth is smiling and warm. I can't resist the urge to lean in and claim his lips with mine. I already know the taste of him, and it wakes a need in me to taste more. I brush my lips along his sharp-stubbled jaw, taste the hollow behind his ear, then the cup of it. I wonder if he would find me even more 'freaky' were I to confess I find his ears uniquely attractive. His hands slide down to my hips, and he tugs me over him, pulling me down until most of my weight is resting on his groin, and he pushes up against me a little. I feel his penis hardening in the hollow of my hip and belatedly realize that though he brought me to completion, he didn't reach his own. He puts his fingers against my face, pulls back a little, frowning.

"What?" he asks. "You just got all stiff. And not in the good way."

"I . . . I . . . you didn't . . . before. I'm sorry," I stammer.

"I didn't what befo. . . oh. Jesus, Ben. It's not a contest. No one's keeping score."

"It's just not very . . . . "

He puts a hand over my mouth, glaring quite ferally. "You say 'polite' and I may be forced to use force upon you, and that would not be pretty, Fraser."

I swallow the word and make innocent eyes at him. He gives an impolite snort and lifts his hand.

"Yeah, everyone else might believe that look but I know better. Just don't even think about saying that ever again, not in the bedroom, you got me?"

I nod. "I got you, Ray."

"Good." He rubs against me, his mouth curving in pleasure. "Feels even better than I imagined."

"You . . . imagined?"

"Oh yeah. You?"

I feel my face getting warm. "Ah, yes. Frequently."

His eyebrows go up. "Frequently? Like, how frequently? Daily?"

"Well, not precisely. More along the lines of nightly."

His eyes go wide, sparkling with amusement and delight. "Nightly? You dog! And here I thought I was the only one. Mmm," he pushes again, and his erection slides a little against my skin, leaving a warm, wet streak behind it.

I push back, and he sighs, his hands rubbing up and down my flanks, encouraging me to move, to rock my hips against his.

"That's nice," he says. "You know, I kissed you once. Before the other night."

I startle, going still. "What?"

"I kissed you. One of those times when I stayed at the consulate, when you were having the dreams. You were still sound asleep. I got up to leave, and I stood there looking at you, and I thought I was losing you, thought you were going to go back to Canada and I'd never see you again. And I just couldn't stand the thought of not ever knowing, so I kissed you. Then I took off like a rocket 'cause I was afraid you'd belt me one."

I stare at him, remembering a dream. Remembering startling awake to the sound of a door closing, the taste of chocolate lingering on my mouth. "Chocolate." I say. "You tasted like chocolate."

He blinks, frowns thoughtfully, then nods. "Yeah. I had half a candy bar in my pocket. I was hungry, chowed it down before I got up. You knew I kissed you? You never said anything. . . ."

"No, I thought I dreamed it."

His lips quirk upward. "You didn't think that was weird?"

"Well, no, as I said, it was a dream."

His smile widens. "That all you dreamed about?"

"That night, yes."

"Not other nights?"

"Lord, those times when you slept over? Most mornings I was terrified you'd wake up and catch me in the middle of one, figure things out, and it would be all over."

"Jesus," he says, shaking his head. "And we call ourselves detectives?"

"I think it's just that we were too close to it," I say, absolving us.

"One of those forest-trees kind of things? Yeah." He winks. "Good save. So, what would you have done if you'd woken up a few seconds sooner?"

"This," I say, burying my fingers in his hair as I proceed to demonstrate. Thoroughly. He doesn't have to know I would probably have been far too startled and flustered to do any such thing. When I lift my head, we're both breathing heavily, and his gaze is heavy-lidded, hazy and aroused.

"Guess I should've stuck around," he says huskily, licking his lips.

"Mmm. Yes." I kiss him again, letting my hips roll against his. It's too soon for me to be fully aroused again, but it feels good nonetheless, sensual and sweet, and he obviously appreciates it. His hands clutch at my hips, pulling me down harder, pushing up harder. I let him set the pace and the rhythm, and he bucks and thrusts and rolls under me, his penis hard and wet against my belly. I'm half-hard myself, even this soon, wishing I hadn't just come, so I could do it now, with him. We kiss, and wrestle, until the covers fall to the floor, and somehow he ends up on top. He spreads his legs, surprising me, snugs his knees around my waist, and grabs my hand.

"Do that thing you did last night," he says huskily.

I'm confused, until he lifts my hand to his mouth and sucks a finger in, and I understand what he wants. The idea makes me shiver. It's such an amazingly intimate thing. I try to remember what I read in that book downstairs, as I slip my finger from his mouth and reach down, finding, pressing in, probing cautiously. He moans and shudders, his hips hitching toward mine, hard.

"Yeah, oh, God, yeah. Just like that!" he pants against my ear.

I try it again, and rub against him as I do. He gives a little whimper, and comes in silent shudders, filling the space between us with wet heat.

I hold him as his breathing slows, still utterly amazed that he wants this, with me. To get exactly what I want feels completely unreal, since I learned long ago never to ask for what I want, so as not to set myself up for disappointment. I would think I was dreaming, except for the convincing reality of the very tangible discomfort I feel now, the cooling wetness on my stomach, the prickle of his stubble against my skin, the sharp press of elbow and hip and knee against me. I couldn't imagine those things, couldn't imagine the earthy, musky scent of him, or the expression in his eyes when he finally looks at me.

"Ben . . . ." he begins.

I think I know what he's going to say, and I feel a sudden clutch of fear. If he says it too often, he'll attract the attention of some jealous god who'll steal him for his own. "I know, Ray. And I you," I say, and then I cover his mouth with mine, swallowing his words, kissing him until I've stolen all the breath he needs to speak.

When I let him go, he settles against me with a quiet sigh, shifts into a more comfortable position, and closes his eyes. I lie there with him, listening to the gentle almost-snore of his breathing, as the room gradually gets lighter, and the traffic noise increases, and I know I have to get up and make myself presentable. I don't want to. I don't want to leave the haven of this room, don't want to face the real world outside again, but I'm too well trained. Duty always wins out.

Carefully I try to disentangle myself from his embrace, and discover to my dismay that we're fairly well glued together. I don't manage to unstick us without waking him, and he blinks at me sleepily as I sit up. "Hey, where're you doing?"

"I have to get ready."

"Oh. Sure you don't want me to come with?"

"No, please. Stay here and wallow," I say, remembering his word. "I'll call you if you're needed for anything."

He nods and closes his eyes, pulling a pillow into his arms, kneading it into a comfortable position. I watch him for a moment, my throat aching as I swallow the words I long to say to him, but can't force past my fear. I know it's irrational, I know it, but I can't seem to help it. I turn and go to into the bathroom to shower, again, and ready myself to face my superiors. I wish I had a fresh uniform, but hopefully they'll excuse the state of my attire, all things considered.

The last time I saw some of these people was at Gerrard's trial. Strange, at the time I'd felt my life was over, that being exiled to Chicago was the worst thing that could have happened to me. I couldn't have been more wrong. Still, there's a part of me that fears facing them, fears some new punishment, though it's hard to imagine why they would be angry with me this time. As I step into the shower, it dawns on me that perhaps I ought not fear their displeasure but their approbation, since they might well 'reward' me by recalling me to Canada. At this point, I'm not even sure I want that any more. Yes, it's wonderful to be home, but I would miss Ray far more than I miss the north.

* * *

Seven hours later I feel as though I've been through another trek across hundreds of miles of arctic territory. I'm cold, and tired, and feeling . . . beaten. What would once have thrilled me, now leaves me torn, and worried. I was right to fear their approval. I'd rather they were still viewing me as better off in exile. I don't know what to do now.

The Inspector is ecstatic with her new position with CSIS, and Turnbull has surprised all of us by tendering his resignation from the RCMP, stating he doesn't feel he's a 'good fit' and that he's going home to his riding where he feels he can do more good. That was a shock. I'd thought he was welded to his uniform. Of course, I'm sure many people think I am, so that was extremely shortsighted of me.

I wait until the others have all gone, sitting alone for a few minutes to try and think of what to do next, but after a few minutes a young constable comes in to tell me they need the room, and I have to leave. I have my head down, lost in thought as I exit the conference room in which I've been immured all day with Inspector Thatcher, Turnbull, and various and sundry RCMP functionaries and higher-ups. It's not until I'm halfway down the hall that I realize someone is calling my name.

"Yo, Fray-ZUR!"

The voice is unmistakable. Startled, I turn back the way I've just come to see Ray loping down the hall toward me, Diefenbaker at his heels.

"Jeez, Fraser, you look like hell. What's wrong? Don't tell me they're letting Muldoon off on a technicality or something?"

"No, no, nothing like that," I say as he joins me, his expression worried. "What are you doing here?"

"Got tired of waiting at the B&B, got tired of the park, got tired of people asking me stuff in French-- I thought that only happened in Quebec. Anyway, I figured I'd hang out and wait for you here. Found somebody to tell me where you were."

"How long have you been waiting?"

He shrugs. "Don't know. Didn't look at my watch. You gonna tell me what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, per se, it's just that I'm being promoted."

His eyes widen, and he grins, shaking his head. "Fraser, only you would look like your dog just died . . . sorry, Dief," he says in response to Diefenbaker's affronted growl, "when you get promoted. We should celebrate!"

"If that were all, then I would celebrate, but it's not."

"Okay, what? Spill."

"I've been recalled to a Canadian posting."

His smile dims a little as the implications sink in, but he manages to brighten it again. "That's . . . that's greatness! Hopefully they'll put you someplace up north where you belong."

"They haven't decided on the posting yet, I should hear in a couple of weeks. In the meantime I'm to go back to Chicago and maintain the consulate for a week or so until a new consular official is appointed."

"Whoa, what? What happened to the Ice Queen?"

"Inspector Thatcher has decided to take a new position."

"Yeah? So what's she gonna do?"

"Well, she's joined CSIS, that's something like your CIA."

"Ooh," he says, wiggling his eyebrows. "Bond. Meg Bond. I like it. Think she'll wear outfits like Mrs. Peel used to on The Avengers?" he asks thoughtfully.

"Highly doubtful," I say, hiding a smile.

"Oh well," he says, shrugging. "So you get to be Thatcher now?"

"Temporarily, it seems. Though I did state that a more long-term assignment to Chicago wouldn't be unwelcome."

He looks at me sharply and scowls. "Thought we talked about this."

"We did," I say. "And it's my decision, Ray."

He looks upset. "But you hate Chicago, Fraser! You've been homesick. I saw your face when you got home."

"I was, but now I've been back for a visit. I'll be fine."

"Damn it, Ben! No!" he says loudly.

Two men glance at us in concern as we pass. I smile pleasantly at them, and shake my head at Ray. "Not here, Ray."

He nods, tight-lipped. "Yeah. I know. The Mother-Ship is a crappy place for a domestic disturbance."

"It's hardly that," I say. "And in any case my superiors are in no means obligated to take my wishes into account when choosing my next posting. I could end up in Calgary, or Davis Inlet, or St. John's. I'll just have to wait and see."

"They can just send you anywhere? That doesn't seem right."

"Well, ordinarily they wouldn't, they would return me to my home posting, however as I've been three years at a foreign posting and effectively have no home post, they're free to choose any post that can accommodate someone at a Corporal level."

"Corporal? That's what you are now? That sounds so. . . military."

"Well, we are a quasi-military organization," I start to explain, then notice the gleam of humor in his gaze. I'm relieved to see it there, happy that he's not so angry he's lost his sense of humor. "What?" I ask.

He grins. "Well, I was just thinking that I already salute when you come in the room, so I guess that doesn't have to change."

"Ray!" I know my face must match my uniform, but I can't help the smile that follows my exclamation.

"Come on. Where's a good place to celebrate your promotion? I don't want to fight about this now. I mean, hell, we just barely got started here, I'm not going to start off like this. We'll see where they put you, and then we'll fight."

"Hopefully not," I say. I'm not entirely sanguine that we can simply 'not talk' about this, but I'm willing to try, for his sake. "As for where to eat, I'm not really familiar with the restaurants here. We could ask David and Jacob for a recommendation."

"Actually, they told me about a place that sounded good, if you don't mind sort-of Polish."

"What's sort-of Polish?"

"Central European. Nothing fancy, just. . . food, you know?"

"Frankly, after nothing but tea and a fairly bad chicken salad sandwich all day, anything sounds good. I'm sure if David and Jacob recommend it, it's good."

"Boy, the RCMP isn't big on creature comforts are they? Sleep in your office, get chicken salad for lunch, kind of sucks to be you. Come on, let's go."

We stop at the B&B so I can change clothes and ask David if he minds watching Dief a bit longer. He says it's no bother at all to look after him, and asks me, grinning, if they supplied everything we needed. Glad that Ray is still upstairs using the bathroom, I manage not to blush too badly as I assure him they did. Ray comes downstairs moments later, lifts his eyebrows at my pink face, and I shake my head. He lets it go, to my relief.

We find the recommended restaurant without trouble. As the evening progresses, to my surprise I find it's not so hard to ignore an issue when there are better things to think about. The food is good. Solid, hearty, just what we both need right now. I order the chicken soup as a starter, its hot, rich, and filled with chunks of potato and carrot. I can feel my mood improving as soon as it hits my stomach. Ray tastes, approves, and shares his cabbage roll with me, commenting that it's nearly as good as his mother's.

We go through the meal that way, oblivious to everything but the meal and each other, trading bites of everything, my veal schnitzel, his raznjice, a sort of pork brochette, even dessert, crepes filled with ground walnuts and chocolate. Toward the end of the meal it dawns on me that the waiter and the other patrons seem utterly unfazed by what I feel is our obvious couple-ness. That surprises me a little. I had expected at least some negative reaction. I find it hard to believe it's simply because we're in Canada and people are just too polite to make a fuss. After so long in the States, Canadians seem peculiarly well-mannered even to me. Ray notices me glancing around and lifts his eyebrows.

"What?" he asks.


"Not nothing, what?" he insists, low-voiced.

"It's just. . . everyone seems to be very accepting. Extraordinarily so."

He gives me one of his 'you're unhinged' looks. "Why wouldn't they? I may be an American but I don't chew with my mouth op . . . ." he stops abruptly, looks around, then back at me. "Oh. Well, it's not like we're wearing signs or anything."

"No, no, although two men don't generally share their meals off the same utensils."

He nods thoughtfully "True. Maybe they think we're just being nice to the dishwasher? Or maybe they're just too busy eating to notice. You want to, um, test the theory?" he asks, a gleam of mischief in his gaze.

Before I can answer, he takes my hand and tugs it across the table toward him, lifting it to brush his lips against my knuckles. Heat shoots through me, instantaneous, a peculiar combination of embarrassment and arousal. He squeezes my hand and lets it go, settles back in his chair looking cocky and pleased with himself. I realize I'm sitting there staring at him, my lips parted as if I'm expecting him to lean across the table and follow the kiss on my fingers with one on my mouth, and I grab my water glass, gulping several swallows. He grins and winks at someone behind me, then looks back at me.

"Well, I can say this for Ottawa, it sure ain't Chicago."

I'm stunned that he would do something so overt, so risky. After a moment I can't keep myself from a quick glance at the section of the restaurant in my normal field of vision, though somehow I resist the urge to turn around and see who he winked at. I'm somewhat relieved to note that no one is looking, in fact no one seems to have noticed at all, though I'm not certain if that's because they simply didn't notice or if they don't care. In any case, it's clear that Ray is not in the least bit ashamed of me, or our relationship, and that realization is even more stunning than what he just did. It seems to fill up some hollow place inside me that I didn't even realize was empty until this moment.

Even though I have no words to express how I feel, Ray must see it in my face because he takes a sudden, sharp breath, his eyes widening.

"Let's head out," he says huskily.

I nod, and as if he were waiting for that cue, our waiter reappears with a polite query as to whether or not we want coffee. Ray shakes his head and asks for the check, then covers it with Canadian funds-- he must have been to a bank machine before he came to find me. Not having had time to do so myself, I'm in no position to argue about who should pay so I let him. As we stand to leave, I take a quick glance behind my seat, and see only an empty table. He catches me looking, and grins unashamedly.

"Gotcha," he says.

As we walk out into the chill night air I look at him reprovingly, or what I hope is reprovingly, though it's very hard to keep my lips from turning up. "Ray, you are a tease."

He shakes his head solemnly. "Oh no. I put out. I promise."

That's one piece of slang I know, and I swallow hard. He chuckles, hunches into his coat and heads off toward the B&B. I follow, feeling a little like Diefenbaker. The short walk back to our accommodation seems very long, and I have time to reflect a little, enough to wonder how I'll ever manage to do without him, as I know I must eventually, for his protection. If I thought it would be difficult before this, it's much worse now. Giving him up will be the hardest thing I've ever done.

Finally we finally get back to our lodgings, and stop to say good night to our hosts, finding them in the parlor watching the CBC. I try to collect Dief for the evening, but when I take him aside to invite him up, he lets me know in no uncertain terms that watching humans engage in mating behavior holds no interest for him whatsoever. Especially not when there's curling on. So much for my concern that he might be a little jealous.

Ray is still in the lead as we head to our room. He's already taken off his coat, and I notice that the jeans he's wearing fit somewhat more snugly than those he usually favors, making his legs look longer and his shoulders broader in comparison to his hips. I'm suddenly shaken by how much I love he way he moves, his loose, easy stride, and odd, sometimes ungainly grace. The arousal that had faded somewhat in the face of my musings fans to life again, a heavy, insistent ache in my groin, a rolling sweep of heat over my skin, tightening my nipples, drying my mouth. I instinctively try to deny it, to sublimate it, then it comes to me that I don't have to do that any more. It's all right. I can barely comprehend that thought.

He stops, puts his hand on the doorknob, and glances at me, catches me staring at him, and colors a little, his eyes crinkling a little at the corners as he smiles uncertainly. The impulse I feel then overrules common sense, and I crowd him against the still-closed door, my mouth finding his, tasting his smile, his response-- startled tension, followed by relaxation, surrender, reciprocation. My hands slide under his loose cotton sweater, up his lean torso, finding the small, taut nubs of his nipples, circling them with my thumbs. He drops his coat, his hands working to find a way under the heavy wool of my coat, under my layers, then he stops, pulls his mouth from mine, gasping a little.

"In the room, Benton, in the room," he says, laughing softly. "No free shows for the other guests."

It takes me a moment to grasp his meaning, then I understand and my face goes hot and I yank my hands out from under his clothing. He grins, leans to snatch up his coat once more, and opens the door, stepping inside. I follow and close the door, watching him throw his coat on a chair and reach for the hem of his sweater to pull it off. I follow suit, and in moments my coat is lounging dissolutely on his the way I want to do on him. I'm glad that the jeans David and Jacob supplied me, unlike Ray's, are looser than my usual. My hands are shaking as I divest myself of my sweater and the t-shirt beneath it.

He's quicker, and is already toeing off his boots, long fingers working the button and zipper on his jeans as he does so. My own hands falter as I watch him, and he looks up, smiles, and stops what he's doing.

"Guess there's no reason we have to hurry, is there?" he asks. "We got no place else to be for once, and nobody's going to call us out on a case."

Automatically I start to agree with him, then I realize I don't want to. I want to hurry. I need to hurry. I wrench open my jeans with a tug that would have ripped off a sewn button, though fortunately the riveted-on sort is able to withstand the strain. "No, Ray."

He frowns a little, watching me unzip. "No?"

"No," I repeat. "I don't want to slow down." I say, hoping I didn't just sound as much like a petulant nine-year-old as I think I did. I sit down on the edge of the bed, leaning down and yanking my right pants leg up high enough that I can start unlacing my boot.

He laughs delightedly, and next thing I know he's on his knees, pushing up my left pants leg. "Note for the future, Fraser. You want to get laid fast, don't wear the boots."

"It's not as if I had a choice, they're all I have with me," I protest, trying not to notice that he's kneeling between my legs, that his head is merely a handspan from my groin, or that his ear is just an inch or so from my mouth. From my slightly upside-down and sideways vantage point I see his mouth curve upward.

"What about the Sorels?" he asks pointedly.

"The . . . ah, it's not cold enough for those."

"Ah," he says, imitating my usual response. "Hey, you're slackin' there, get busy," he prompts, fingers flying on my bootlace.

I attempt to do so, but despite the fact that I've put these boots on and taken them off almost daily for a decade and a half, I seem to be unable to remember just how to do so.

"There," he says, satisfied, as he cups his hand behind my heel and tugs, and the boot slides free, then he's batting my fumbling fingers away from the other boot and taking over there, freeing me in a matter of seconds. "Okay, all done." He sets my boot aside, looks up, then looks down, though not down as far as my feet, and back up again with speculative look. He licks his lips, then his hands are sliding inside my gaping fly, cupping my erection through my boxers.

I can't help a thrust into his palm, my eyes closing as a soft whimper escapes my lips.

"Oh, yeah. You are in a hurry, aren't you?" he asks, his voice husky. "C'mere, ass off the bed. Let me. . . ."

His voice trails off as I obey. He slides my jeans and boxers down, leaving them around my ankles as pushes me back down to a sitting position. He reaches between my legs, trails his fingers up and down my penis, stroking lightly, making me shiver with want.

"Ray!" I gasp.

He smiles and leans down, using one hand to hold me steady while his mouth closes around me, his tongue stroking the underside of my penis like his fingers just did. My body wants to thrust, but it's nearly impossible in this position, so I have to just sit there while he teases me, suckles me, using his hand to pump around the base, like he did last night. . . this morning . . . whenever. So good. He pulls away for a moment, breathing heavily.

"God, I never thought I'd say this, but I love your cock. I love the way you feel in my mouth, the way you taste . . . Jesus. Can't believe I always used to think that 'cocksucker' was an insult." He starts to bend down, then winces a little. "Ouch, just a sec . . . ." Reaching down, he unzips his jeans with a soft sigh. "There. Better."

I'm still thinking about his unzipped jeans when wet heat surrounds my penis again. My cock. Cocksucker. My mouth feels empty. I want him, too, but I can't move, too lost in the pleasure of his mouth on me. I close my eyes, because watching him is too much, and I don't want this to be over yet. I try to relax into the feeling, try to let it wash through me, and not build up, swaying slightly as he works, but I can feel the tide rising anyway, the stimulation too sweet. Just before it's too much, he pulls away again, and reaches up to put a hand behind my neck, pulling my mouth down to his for a swift, fierce kiss, then he releases me.

"I want more, Ben."

Yes. "Yes," I whisper, reduced to single syllables. "Up."

When he moves out of the way I kick off my pants, leaving them in a wrinkled tangle next to the bed, and when he comes closer I reach to help him shimmy out of his pants and the briefs beneath, and we tumble naked onto the bed. He straddles me, rubbing his erection along mine, making both of us gasp and shudder. I reach down between us, manage to get both of us in one hand, and stroke us together. He throws his head back, his body taut and arched, and he moves lithely, pumping into my hand, against my penis. After a few strokes he twists, reaches, and turns back with something in his hand, a small bottle, I recognize from last night.

"Give me your hand," he says, popping the cap open.

Reluctantly I release us and hold out my hand, and he layers the cool, clear substance across my fingers. It doesn't feel as I expect, not slimy, but slick and almost creamy. He rubs his hand across mine, spreading the gel out, warming it, then, shockingly, he puts his own hand around our erections, his longer fingers encompassing our combined width easily. The slick slide of his palm and fingers around us forces a sound that's nearly a growl from me.

He puts his other hand on my shoulder, steadying himself, and leans forward to investigate my ear with his tongue, startling me, arousing me. He pumps a couple of times, bites my earlobe, sucks on my neck, and my jaw, and every touch of his teeth or lips or tongue sends a jolt of electric sweetness through me that brings me one step closer to the edge, then his hand tightens almost uncomfortably, and the need backs down a little.

"Don't just sit there, use it," he whispers in my ear, his warm breath on my wet skin making me shiver.

"Use. . . it?" I ask, my brain fogged with the feel and scent of him, turning my head to lick the hard curve of his cheekbone, trying to find his mouth with mine.

His hand moves from my shoulder to my wrist, pulls my hand around behind him, presses my fingers into place. "Use it."

I understand. Slowly I circle the small entrance with a slick finger, press it inside, just a bit.

He shivers and sighs. "Yeah. That. More."

I give him more, and it's much easier this time, with the lubricant. He feels hot, and tight, and smooth, and . . . tight, and it's very evident that there are muscles in there. Strong ones. He rocks a little, until I get the hint and take up the movement, and he shudders at that, bucking against me. He leans down and kisses me, nipping at my lower lip lightly, then stroking his tongue against mine before breathing a single word into my mouth.


More? I've given him all I can, I think, confused, until his fingers are on mine again, pressing a second finger against himself. I shake my head, no. "Too much."

He pushes again. "Not too much. Do it. Want it. Want you."

I finally realize what he's asking, where this is heading, and my whole body tenses. A finger is one thing, but . . . I've heard stories and seen photos, during victim assistance training. Even though I know this is different, know that many, many couples do this in joy and pleasure, I can't. I can't chance hurting him. I gently slip my hand away from him, and he pulls back, looking at me in concern.


"I. . . ." I can't think what to say, how to say it. I don't want to deny him anything. I would die for him. But I can't do this.

Ray studies me for a moment. "Too much too soon?" he asks quietly.

I nod, worried, afraid. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes for a moment, then he opens them again, his gaze lowering to where he holds us together, and he strokes us gently, restoring some of my lost firmness.

"Got it. No problem." He smiles wryly. "Finally found a window you won't jump out of?"

"I'm sorry . . . ." I begin, but he cuts me off.

"Nah, don't. Don't. We go whatever speed we go. It's all greatness."

I want to reassure him, want to explain, but at the same time I know I can't, he won't understand, and then his fingers start to move again, and he starts to stroke us harder, with a more deliberate rhythm. After a few seconds everything fades except pleasure, and need, and Ray. We rock together, breathing hard, and then he kisses me, so gently, so tenderly, that nothing in the world could hold me back and pleasure lances through me like lightning, sweet and fiery.

I feel him jerk and shudder seconds after I peak, feel the pulse of new warmth and wetness over my own. I wrap my arms around him, tight, burying my face in the curve of his shoulder. He unwraps his fingers from us and his arms go around me, holding me as tightly as I hold him, his lips brushing my hair as we lie there quiet, and sated. I'm about to doze off when he speaks.

"Is there something we need to talk about?" he asks softly.

I rouse, blinking sleepily. "What?"

He looks at me steadily. "You got a problem with this, with us, we need to deal with that."

Instantly I realize what he's asking, what he must think, and fear burns the back of my throat and pushes my heart rate skyward. "No! Ray, it's not . . . it's not that. Not at all! I'm just . . . I don't know . . . I've never . . . ." I break off with a growl, frustrated by my inability to formulate a complete thought or sentence.

"Okay, okay, settle down. Jeez. I was . . . I needed. . . . God, now I'm doing it." He shakes his head and grins ruefully. "I should know better than to try to have a serious talk right after sex. Not firing on all cylinders right now. You're okay, with this? You sure?"

I nod vehemently. "I'm sure. I just need a little time. This-- it's all so fast," I finally manage something halfway coherent.

He looks at me. "Not all that fast, Ben. We've been dancing this dance for months now, I think. Just with blindfolds on."

I stare at him, shaken, as I realize he's probably right. We have been . . . courting. . . for some time now, both of us, without it ever becoming a fully conscious act. Dinners. Films. Spending nearly every waking moment together, and not a few sleeping ones. Oh yes. It's hard to believe now that we didn't see it. "Yes. Yes we have." I say solemnly. "You're right."

He nods, and squirms around on the bed until he's found a more comfortable position, then suddenly sits up. "Jeez. We didn't even unmake the bed. Hope we didn't get stuff on the bedspread."

"Don't worry about it, I expect it's by no means the first time," I say, and wonder just how fast my grandmother is spinning in her grave at my careless disregard for common courtesy.

Ray chuckles. "True. But kindly move your ass off the bed for a few so we can actually get in it. You may be used to sleeping outside the covers in the winter but I'm not. I swear I'm still cold from the other night," he says with a little shiver.

A flash of remembered terror shoots through me, and instantly I roll off the bed, and pull down the covers. "There, in, now."

"I'll get the light," he says, taking a step toward the switch.

"No, I'll get it," I say. "You get in bed."

He looks at me oddly, but nods and slides in. I pull the covers up around him, go turn out the light, then do a quick wash-up in the bathroom. Finally I get a washcloth warm and wet and bring it back to the bed to clean him up a little before joining him in the bed, pulling him in against me, sharing my warmth. He doesn't seem to mind, relaxing into my embrace with a sigh.

"'Night," he says sleepily.

"Good night," I whisper back.

* * *

After three days back in Chicago, I'm already nearing wit's end. Being the only staff member currently in residence I'm trapped at the Consulate all day, and Ray has come back to a jurisdictional nightmare. The 27th still needs him, since Ray Vecchio is unable to resume his place there, but his old precinct, the 32nd, wants him back as well and has asserted their right to reclaim him. A temporary solution has been worked out while they squabble over him, one that has him working a four-hour shift at the 27th and another one at the 32nd. Unfortunately the shift that best accommodates that split is the night watch. That means that effectively we haven't seen each other since we got back, save for, as now, the few moments we're able to steal when he stops by on his way home to get some rest.

The only thing that keeps me from wondering if everything that happened to us was an hypothermic hallucination is the fierce, hungry kiss he gives me as soon as I've escorted my last visitor out the door. It's all I can do to let him go when he pulls away, equally reluctantly. He looks tired and unhappy. I expect I do as well. I'm not sleeping again. Not nightmares, or at least not the same ones. I have new ones now. Waking on that mountainside to find him cold and unresponsive, only in my dream he doesn't revive. As if somehow knowing what I'm thinking about, Ray looks at me searchingly.

"You look like hell," he says roughly.

I smile a little. "I could say the same."

He scrubs his hand over his face and sighs. "Yeah. This sucks. Hate this. Kinda hate to admit this, Fraser, but I think maybe I understand why you miss the North. There's just something. . . I don't know. Something about it." He smiles wryly. "Like, oh, privacy for one thing." He sighs, yawns, looks at me again, narrowly. "You sleeping?"

"Ye. . . well, no, not very much." I don't know what made me think I could lie to him. Stupid idea.

He nods. "Didn't think so. Me either, really. Never was all that good at sleeping during the day, and it's worse now, when I just lie there thinking about how much I want to be here."

I look around the foyer, puzzled. "Why would you want to be here?"

He looks at me like I've lost my mind. "Because you're here, doof."

I feel my mouth open and close soundlessly. I know it must seem to him as if I were fishing for that, but I truly wasn't. It just never occurred to me. It warms me, eases the cold ache that's been building inside me again.

"I can think of better things for you to do with that mouth than pretend you're a fish," he says, showing me one.

I tangle my fingers in the short, crisp spikes of his hair and kiss him in return, pushing him back against the consulate door, trapping him between me and it, feeling his penis harden against my hip. I don't understand why I could almost effortlessly go years without making love to anyone, yet now, deprived of it for only three days, I'm about to go out of my mind. I answer my own question with the realization that it's not that I'm deprived of sex, but that I'm deprived of him. I can do without sex, but not without Ray.

I kiss him harder, rubbing against him, but then the telephone rings and I push myself away from him with a frustrated growl, striding over to the reception desk and snatching up the phone.

"What?" I bark, then remember where I am and what I'm supposed to be doing. "Excuse me, I mean, Canadian Consulate, Constable Benton Fraser speaking."

Ray pushes himself away from the door, looking flushed, edible, practically glowing. I realize that the party on the phone is asking me something, and drag my attention back to the task at hand. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that, can you repeat it?"

Ray laughs at me softly as the woman on the phone speaks.

"Having trouble with those American phone lines, eh?" she asks, then identifies herself again. "This is Constable Perry at North West Regional HQ, I have the Deputy Commissioner on the line for you, Constable Fraser."

I stiffen, filled with the stomach-wrenching mixture of anticipation and dread that a call from such highly placed official usually invokes. "Thank you, put him though, please."

Ray walks past me, trailing a hand distractingly up my thigh as he passes on his way back toward my office. I wonder briefly where he's going, but then a familiar voice grabs my focus. For some reason it surprises me, even though I'd been aware that Bill Reynolds had been promoted to the position a year or so ago. While it once was tempting to resent him for sending me here, now I feel nothing but gratitude.

"Benton Fraser?"

"Yes, sir, what can I do for you?"

"Actually, it's what I can do for you. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that you've really made the news up here. Your name is on a lot of lips."

"Yes, well, it wouldn't be the first time," I say, swallowing, trying to moisten a suddenly dry throat.

He chuckles. "True, though this time the words are rather more positive. I wanted to be the first to call and congratulate you, son."

"On. . . what, sir?"

There's a short pause. "Superintendent Moffat hasn't called you?"

"No, sir. I haven't heard from him."

"Ah. I see. He was . . . well, that's neither here nor there. I suppose it's up to me, then. We've made a placement decision. After due deliberation and consultation with several entities, we've decided to bring you back where you belong. We don't have a permanent place for you yet, but for the interim, you're going back to Fort Simpson."

Fort Simpson. I was stationed there before I came here, a town of about twelve hundred, situated on an island at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Liard rivers. The detachment there is good-sized, and polices several local communities. A year ago I would probably have been overjoyed by the idea. Now I simply feel hollow.

"Did you hear me, son?"

"Yes, sir, thank you sir," I reply automatically. "When am I to report?"

"Well, we're a bit flexible there, Inspector Karen Tsing will be arriving to take charge of the Consulate day after tomorrow."

"Day aft. . . ." I feel like someone is holding my heart and squeezing it, hard. "That soon?"

"Yes, we were quite lucky to find someone willing to take the post on such short notice."

"I see, yes, well, everything will be ready for Inspector Tsing's arrival, sir."

"I have no doubt of that. However, it's going to take a little while for them to get things ready for an additional person at Fort Simpson-- shuffling office arrangements and all, so you won't officially start there for about a month and a half. That should give you plenty of time to complete any ongoing tasks in Chicago. Don't worry about getting paid, though, officially you'll still be on the consulate's payroll until you start at Fort Simpson. In the meantime, I expect it'll take a week or so to help Tsing settle in, and then maybe another week for you to get things in Chicago ready for your move home."

I relax a little. All right. I have at least two weeks, I can deal a little better with that. I'll at least have time to say a proper goodbye. "Yes sir, I understand."

"Good, good. Oh, and Benton, there is one other thing--"

He hesitates, which is unlike him. "Yes, sir?"

"You did know about the promotion, right? They said in they told you."

"Yes, they did mention it, when I was in Ottawa."

"Good, good. Well, in addition, and technically I shouldn't be telling you this, so you didn't hear it from me, but you've been recommended for the Commissioner's Commendation. It's under review, but I expect that it will go forward without difficulty."

I'm speechless again. Finally I find my voice. "But sir, I've done nothing to warrant. . . ."

"Nonsense, son," he interrupts me. "Everyone who was up there says the same thing. If not for you we'd have had an international incident and considerable loss of life on our hands. You earned it."

"I wasn't alone, sir. I could not have accomplished it without Detective Kowalski."

"The Yank? That's not what he says."

"He what?" I ask, rudely, stunned.

"His written statement says you did most of the work, including keeping him alive."

"That. . . that's just not true!" I protest, completely dumbfounded. Written statement? When did Ray give a written statement to the RCMP?

"In that case you should report him for perjury, because it's a sworn deposition," Reynolds says, sounding amused. "Just get used to it, Benton. And again, congratulations."

"Ah, I don't . . . ." It dawns on me that protesting is probably quite futile. "Thank you sir."

"Don't mention it," he says, and then rings off.

I sit staring at the phone in my hand until it begins to give out the warbling disconnect signal, and I hang it up. Two weeks. Oh God. Two weeks. Can I live a lifetime in two weeks? I suppose I'll have to. Dief appears, staring at me worriedly, making a soft interrogatory sound in his throat. I try to smile. "We're going back to Port Simpson. I expect you'll be pleased to be back home," I say.

His head swivels toward my office, then back to me, and he queries again. "No, I'm. . . I don't think so. I can't imagine he would," I answer him.

He whines, vocalizing my feelings succinctly.

"Yes. So will I. Very much."

He puts his head under my hand and nudges it, not something he's given to doing. I scratch his ears and ruff idly, taking some comfort in his nearness for a few moments, but I know I need to tell Ray, and there's no use putting it off. I take a deep breath, stand up, and find my knees ridiculously shaky. I imagine my father telling me to put some starch in my spine, straighten my shoulders, and get to it. It helps, a little.

I walk back to my office and push the door open farther . . . it was open just enough to let Dief out. For a moment I think Ray must have gone home and I was too distracted to notice, but then I see his clothes folded and placed neatly on my desk, and a moment later him. Stripped to t-shirt and briefs, he's lying on his side on my cot, head pillowed on one arm, fast asleep. I don't have the heart to wake him just to give him bad news.

I should try not to think of it as bad news. I need to remember that he's better off, or at least safer without me. Whatever darkness it is that shadows the ones I love, surely it will leave him be if I'm not with him. Standing in the doorway I watch Ray for a long time, as if I can somehow imprint the moment on my corneas and hold it there forever. Finally a knock at the consulate door recalls me to my duty and I close the office door quietly and get back to work.

* * *

"Two weeks?" Ray demands, appalled. "Two friggin' weeks? Who gives somebody two weeks to pick up and move to a whole other country? That's nuts."

"Well, it's not as if it were the other side of the planet," I say, compelled, for some unfathomable reason, to defend the RCMP's policies.

"Might as well be," Ray mutters, running his hands through his hair, more disorderly than usual after five hours on my cot. "Hell, right now my apartment and this place are on two different sides of the planet." He studies me intently, his blue eyes bright and fierce, like those of a bird of prey. "You don't look happy."

"Of course I'm not happy!" I snap.

He looks confused. "Why not? It's home. You been homesick. You broke your face smiling when we got up there, I saw you. You love it up there."

I love you, my heart wants to scream, but nothing comes through my clenched teeth but a choked whimper.

He backs off instantly, his hand coming to rest on my thigh, a warm, heavy weight.

"Sorry. Sorry, I just. . . I thought you'd be glad."

"Are you?" I ask him, then want to bite my tongue when I see the shadows in the gaze he lifts to mine.

"Hell no! But we got no choice, I guess. I mean, I know it's good for you, but it sucks for me."

"Well, it sucks for me too," I say roughly. "I thought seriously of refusing the appointment."

His hand tightens on my thigh, and his eyes go wide and startled. "What . . . um. . . what would happen if you did that?"

"I'm not entirely sure. My promotion isn't official yet, I suppose they could revoke it. I expect they would withdraw my name from consideration for the Commissioner's Commendation, but I don't deserve that in any case. Speaking of which, we need to have a conversation about perjuring yourself on sworn documents."

"About what? I never did. Well, except for that time about Guy Rankin."

I color slightly, since it was I who asked him to do that, but soldier on anyway. "Deputy Commissioner Reynolds told me that you gave a sworn statement to the fact that I had accomplished the bulk of the work on the Muldoon case on my own."

"And how's that lying?" Ray asks, his chin coming up stubbornly.

"You were of tremendous assistance," I begin.

"Oh, yeah. Yeah, let's itemize my assistance here. I got in the way, I slowed you down and I nearly get you killed. Real helpful."

Frustration wrings an incoherent growl from my throat, even less intelligible than Diefenbaker's usual vocalizations. I put my hands on his shoulders and lean in close, trying to keep my mind on our conversation, and not the lean strength of him under my hands, or the scent of him so close. "Ray, without you I couldn't even have left this office! You keep me going, you're there, watching my back, by my side, forcing me to see things in new ways, to consider things I haven't thought of, showing me how to really live. You're my partner."

His eyes have been getting wider and wider as I rant at him, and when I finally finish, half panting in my vehemence, he swallows audibly.

"I, um, okay. I get it, Ben," he says solemnly, then his mouth is turning up and his eyes are crinkling at the corners. "You know, the other day I asked somebody if they ever felt like they wouldn't know who they were if they didn't have a certain person around and they said they never did, but I have a feeling maybe you understand the question."

I nod. "I ask myself that all the time."

He grins, shaking his head. "Shit, you were right the other night. We are co-dependent. But hey, I'm good with that. You?"

I feel myself smiling back, unable to resist. "Yes, Ray, quite good."

He nods. "Okay. So, I don't put me down and you don't put you down and we won't have to yell at each other. So, now we're back to the hard stuff. You're still leaving in two weeks."

My spirits, which had begun to lift, plummet again. "So it seems."

He sighs. "Guess I better count you hauling my ass up mountains and down crevasses as my adventure."

My head comes up, and I stare at him.

He stares back. "What? What'd I say?"

"I don't suppose you have any vacation time coming?"

"Yeah. Not sure just how much, a couple of weeks at least, probably more. Haven't taken more than a long weekend since I met you," he says, winking. "You're a bad influence."

And I'm going to be a worse one. I know I shouldn't, I know it with every calm, cool, rational part of my brain. But my heart makes me ask him anyway. "Did you mean it when you said you wanted to look for Franklin?"

He purses his lips thoughtfully, and nods. "I know you're gonna think I'm unhinged, but yeah, I did."

"Good. When would you like to leave?"

"Leave where? Here?"

"Yes. After all, I do owe you an adventure."

I see him 'get it.' See that sunrise smile bloom over his face, that inner glow radiating out of him, warming me like a fire.

"Um, how's two weeks sound? I could use a vacation, this working two jobs is really doing a number on me. I think I might be starting to have an anxiety attack or some kind of stress-related thing."

I nod. "That's right, and you need to go someplace quiet, and restful, like Canada, to recuperate."

"Yeah, and you, being Canadian, and all helpful-like, have to come along to make sure I rest, and don't get into any American-type trouble or go postal or anything, since we're partners, right?"

"Of course. After all, the RCMP wouldn't want some crazy American running around the Northwest Territory without supervision."

"Nope, they wouldn't. Who knows, I might forget I'm not in Chicago and . . . ."

". . . kick somebody in the head," I finish up solemnly.

We both break into laughter, and it feels so clean, so good, washing out the horrible feeling of impending loss. I know if I examine this solution too carefully I'll find it's no solution at all, but I don't care. It'll do for now, give us more time before we have to face reality.

"Fraser, how much leave you got?"

"Fifty days. Inspector Thatcher kindly allowed me to roll over my accumulated leave instead of cashing it out. She felt it would be better for the budget."

He whistles softly. "Fifty days? I can't match that."

"I'll take whatever I can get."

He grins slyly. "Oh yeah? You know, I got almost two hours before I have to go to work. And the consulate is closed for the night, and the Ice Queen's in Ottawa, and Turnbull is home with his folks, and I'm running around in my skivvies. . . ."

"Ray, are you propositioning me?"

"You better believe it."

"All right, good, I wouldn't want to have to have jumped to an erroneous conclusion."

"So, there a bed in this place, other than that thing?" he asks, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the cot.

"Several, actually, as you well know."

He looks at me with an almost comical expression of shock. "And you still sleep on that thing? You really are unhinged. So, you want to do me on the Queen's Bed?" he asks, his eyes sparkling with amusement.

I'm too aroused to react with appropriate dismay to his suggestion. "Yes," comes out of my mouth, my voice startlingly husky.

He looks startled, then sly. "Great! So long as you're not thinking one of us has to be the Queen," he says with a wink, and takes off up the stairs.

I pound up the stairs after him, my booted feet far noisier than his bare ones, my hands working the fastenings of my uniform. There's something decadently appealing about the idea of 'doing him' on that bed, a whisper of forbidden pleasure. I hear the bedroom door open and close. By the time I get to the door and yank it open he's shed his t-shirt and is lounging in a sensual sprawl on the bed in nothing but his thigh-length gray-cotton briefs.

Only the rapid movement of his stomach as he struggles to slow his breathing betrays the fact that he hasn't been lying there waiting for me for hours. He watches me strip, his tongue flicking over his lips several times, as if he's having trouble keeping them moist, and his erection is heavy and prominent beneath his briefs. When I sit down in the wing chair to take off my boots, he makes an almost catlike purring sound, and I glance up to find he's put a hand on his penis, stroking it through the fabric.

My fingers fumble a little on my laces, then find and catch and I'm free of the second boot and standing to skin out of my trousers and boxers. He watches me through eyes still heavy-lidded and dark-circled despite the rest he got today. He tongues his lips again, then catches the lower one in his teeth as I finish stripping, arching hard into his own hand with an explosive exhalation. If I hadn't been fully aroused before, I would be now. I put a knee and one hand on the bed, and he grins and yanks me off balance on top of him.

"I can't believe you're really going to do this here," he whispers against my mouth. "Isn't this like... sacrilege?"

I pull back a bit to look at him and smile. "Ray, I think you have me confused with Turnbull. A bed is just a bed, unless the Queen happens to be in it at the time."

He puts his hand on my penis, strokes it. "And sometimes a cigar really is a phallic symbol." He tugs at my shoulders. "Come here."

"I am here."

"Not there here, here here. So I can taste you."

There's nothing in me strong enough or stupid enough to resist that command. He tugs and pulls and arranges until I'm straddling him, up on my knees, leaning forward with both hands on the headboard. He squirms down a little, wraps one long-fingered hand around my erection, and then presses a kiss to the head of it, teasing the opening with a pointed tongue-tip before sliding his mouth down around me, hot, and wet, and velvety, but with the dangerous hardness of teeth so close. I shiver and hold myself still, letting him do as he wishes.

Apparently what he wishes is to torture me. Long slow licks, and teasing kisses and nips, and deep, sweet sucking. His hands shift to my backside, massaging my cheeks, but carefully avoiding any touch between them. He wants me to touch him there, but he's avoided returning the favor. I'm not sure why, and I'm intensely curious as to what it feels like, why he would be so willing to give himself to me in a way that most men are afraid to even think about. I reach back, catch one of his hands in mine, and move it deliberately to where he never goes. He tenses a little, and his gaze lifts curiously to mine, and then he pulls back and lets me slip from his mouth.

"You sure?"

"Please," I say, startled by the rawness of my own voice.

He looks at me a moment longer, then nods. "Okay, um . . . . " he frowns. "Damn. Let me up, I need something from downstairs."

Puzzled, I do as he asks, and he slips off the bed and is out the door in a flash. Taking advantage of his momentary absence, I turn back the elegant ivory-colored duvet on the bed, exposing the expensive Egyptian cotton sheets, as smooth and cool as silk under my hand. I always thought it was rather foolish of the Inspector to insist that the bed be made up with fresh linens every week so it's ready for surprise visitors, but now I'm rather glad of it. I hear Ray pounding back up the stairs and smile, he's taking them two at a time, and then he's back in the room with his coat dangling from one hand, the other buried in an inside pocket, searching.

"There it is!" he crows triumphantly, dumping a handful of items onto the table next to the bed. Two strips of condoms, a bottle of lubricant, and a small bag of M&Ms. Ray pokes the candies and mutters, "One of these things is not like the others," and then grabs the lubricant. "Swiped this from the B&B. I figured they'd just throw it out and hell, it's good stuff."

He starts to get back in bed, and I clear my throat.

"What?" he says.

I look pointedly down at his groin. His still covered groin.

He looks down too, and grins. "Oh. Okay." Ray hands me the tube, hooks his thumbs under his waistband and carefully peels the tightly-stretched fabric off, dropping the garment on the floor. "Better?"

"Much." I eye the plastic bottle with some concern, wondering if he mistook my meaning. He notices the direction of my gaze and smiles.

"Spit's okay but not as good as this stuff. Now, where were we?" He slides into the bed, arranges himself much as he was before, only sans briefs now, and crooks a finger at me. "Okay, assume the position."

I suppress a chuckle and resume my previous place, and he eyes me expertly. "Looks like you're not up to the recommended minimum inflation there," he quips, taking my penis in his hand and stroking me firmly, his grip tight and rough, perfect. I arch toward his hand, my head back, feeling my arousal reassert itself almost instantly. He smiles. "Much better," he murmurs, then he opens his mouth and puts his hands on my hips and urges me forward. I moan softly as the miracle of his mouth surrounds me.

His hands slide from my hips to my buttocks, then his fingers ghost between them, stroking softly. I shiver as startled pleasure flickers through me. His hands move away for a moment, then one returns to cup one cheek while the other slides, cool and slick, into the cleft, rubbing and circling as I've learned to do for him. He does no more than that, just light touches, lulling me, soothing me with the dreamy pleasure of his touch, until I forget myself so much as to begin to rock into his mouth.

I feel him smile around me and then he sucks hard, drawing his teeth lightly along my shaft. A wave of pleasure swamps me, different from anything I've felt before. As he lets the pressure ease off, a different pressure becomes more apparent and I realize he used his mouth to distract me from that initial penetration. The reason the pleasure felt different is because it . . . is. I've never felt this before. It's not at all what I expected. Not painful or even uncomfortable, but silky and stunningly arousing.

He eases his finger deeper into me, and erotic sensations swamp me again. I gasp, shuddering, my head falling back, my hands clenching on the headboard. He pulls his mouth off me.

"You okay? You want me to quit?"

He sounds worried, and I can tell he's getting ready to stop doing what he's doing. "Yes, and no! Absolutely not!" I tell him emphatically, as my hips automatically shift toward his touch, wanting more.

He chuckles. "Okay, no problem. Hang onto your hat, then, I'm gonna go for it."

I'm still wondering just what 'it' he's going for and why that means I should hang onto my hat, and somewhat distracted by the strange thought of doing this while wearing a hat at all, and then his finger shifts in, and down, and the pleasure goes from good to mind-bending in an explosive burst of delight.

"Ray!" I gasp.

His answer is to do it again, this time opening his mouth and sucking me in at the same time. My body demands movement, wants that primitive dance, but is confused as to which direction to move: forward into the heat and pressure of his mouth, or back against the invasion of his long, lean fingers. Frozen by conflicting impulses I hang, trembling, between his mouth and his hand and let him take me over the edge with three more stroke-sucks.

It feels as if I fall a long, long way as he pets and soothes me down to a soft landing, and I open my eyes to find I'm leaning against the wall for support, my thighs trembling with the effort of not collapsing onto his chest. I'm amazed that somehow I managed to realize even in the midst of the most amazing orgasm of my life, that to do that would not be a good thing. I push myself away from the wall, lean sideways and let myself drop to the bed beside him, feeling boneless.

"My God," I breathe softly.

He chuckles softly. "Oh yeah."

"I had no idea," I manage.

"I figured. Neither did I, until the other day," he says, and I can hear his smile in his voice.

I turn my head to look at him, struck again by how amazingly beautiful he is. He's watching me, a slightly smug curve to his mouth, and he's stroking himself slowly, as if he felt no urgency at all despite marked evidence to the contrary. There's a lazy sensuality in watching him, even though I'm more than replete at the moment. I feel a little selfish though, letting him tend to his own needs after he so wonderfully satisfied mine.

His hand tightens a little, releases, his hips move in a smooth arch. Beautiful. I wonder how that would feel against me. Inside me. The thought startles me, coming out of nowhere. No, out of the feel of his finger inside me, the stunning pleasure of it. I stare at him, mentally comparing the dimensions of his fingers to his erection, and to my own, rapidly coming to the conclusion that there is no comparison and I was right to refuse him before. I would have hurt him. But there are other ways, other things I've read about.


"Mmhmm?" he says, a little breathless. He's picked up the pace.

"Could you move over a little?"

He stops, looks at me, puzzled. "Why?"

"Humor me?"

He sighs. "Like I ever say 'no' to you. Okay." He scoots about a foot to the right. "That enough?"

"Yes, thank you." I move into the space he just vacated, on my stomach, legs slightly parted, and look at him again, trying to think of how to suggest what I want to suggest. Perhaps academic is the best way to go. "I've read that intercrural intercourse can be very pleasurable."

He blinks at me slowly. "You have, hunh?"


"You, Benton Fraser, read about sex?"

Despite the fact that I'm actually having sex, with him, my face goes hot. Ridiculous. "Ah. . . sometimes."

"Wonders never cease. Okay, I'll bite. Inter-what intercourse?"

"Crural. Between the thighs."

"Oh. You couldn't just say that? Jeez. Intercrural." He grins. "That gonna be on the test?"

"Not this time, no," I say, looking away, feeling remarkably stupid for having brought it up in the first place. I feel the bed give as Ray moves closer, feel him trail a hand down my back, coming to rest in the curve just above my buttocks. "'Beautiful as an angel's ass,'"2 he whispers.

I turn quickly, startled, staring into his face, so near, and he gives me a self-conscious smile.

"Yeah, that'll be on the test. God help me, I'm a goner. I'm reading Canadian poetry now. So, was that an invitation?" he asks, his fingers sliding over my backside and coming to rest in the slightly sweaty gap between my thighs.


He leans forward, brushes his lips across mine lightly, then more firmly, then he's kissing me hungrily, one of his hands on my jaw, the other moving hypnotically over my buttocks. Finally he lets me go and sits back, breathing heavily. His hands slide down the outsides of my legs, and then he straddles me, and I feel the heavy length of his penis slip between my thighs.

"Like this?" he asks huskily.

"Yes. Just like that." I tighten my thighs around him and smile to hear him make a rough, almost-purr of pleasure at the sensation. He rocks a little, purrs again.

"Nice," he breathes against the back of my neck, making me shiver. "You need a haircut," he breathes, rubbing his nose into the hair at the nape of my neck. He's right. It has gotten a little long recently, too long, but I don't really care any more.

On his next thrust I push back against him a little to give him more friction, and he licks his way up my neck to my ear. "Yeah. Do that," he growls. "Do that."

I do, and he does, and soon his tempo has gone ragged and fast, his breathing has as well, and then his hands are on my hips, hard, hard enough to bruise, I think, and he's sighing my name as wet heat gushes between my thighs. After a moment he sags, rubs his face against my shoulder like a cat, and sighs.

"Whatever it was where you read that," Ray says, sounding sated and sensual. "I better put it on my recommended reading list too." He pushes off me and flops onto his back, eyes closed.

I turn over too, not really caring that I'm going to get semen all over the sheets. They're washable, after all. He's messy too, covered with sweat, his hair flattened in spots and spiky in others. Lower, much lower, pearly streaks and droplets still cling to his penis and the curls of his public hair. My mouth waters, and I curl around to lean in and lick. He chuckles softly, one hand ruffling my hair.

"You really ought to do something about that oral fixation of yours, Ben."

I look up at him, trying hard not to break into laughter. "I am, Ray," I assure him solemnly. "As we speak." I finish, leaning back down.

* * *

Half an hour later, a shower having finished the clean-up I started, Ray is kissing me good bye in a manner that's likely to make him late to work. I reluctantly push him away, and he sighs and nods.

"See you tomorrow?" he asks.

Somehow I know he's not just asking if he can drop by and say hello. He's thinking about staying here again, sleeping here while I work so he can see me for a little while before he has to do the same. I nod. "I'd like that."

He smiles. "Greatness. Get some rest."

I nod. "I will."

He pulls the door open, kisses me one more time, then swings around to step out and nearly runs into Lieutenant Welsh, who's standing poised on the doorstep, his fist raised to knock, agape as he looks from me in my undershirt and boxers to Ray in his street clothes, hair still damp from his shower and his mouth still slightly reddened from kissing. We all stare, really, him at us, we at him. Finally he lets his hand fall, rubs his square jaw, and says a single word. "Fuck."

Ray nods, and steps back. "Yeah. You, um, want to come in?" he asks, with a slightly wild look at me that tells me I ought to go put something else on.

"I. . . yeah." Welsh says, and steps inside.

"Excuse me a moment," I say, and hightail it for my office and clothing. Yanking on jeans and a sweater I listen for raised voices, and am not sure whether I'm relieved or worried when I don't hear any. I don't bother with shoes, and am back out in under three minutes, finding them standing there staring at each other much as they were staring at each other when I left, the Lieutenant's bulldog-like face a study in consternation.

"Would you care for a cup of tea, Lieutenant?"

He startles a bit, looks at me and appears to be relieved to find me fully clothed. "Nah. Thanks, though. Um. . . this . . . you guys . . . I mean, I'm not asking, but. . . ."

He breaks off, looking distressed. Ray lifts his chin, squares his shoulders, and I can see belligerence settle around him like a cloak, almost daring the Lieutenant to continue. Which, of course, he does. They have a long history of forthrightness.

"So, that's the way it is?" Welsh asks, finally.

Ray nods shortly. "Yeah. That's the way it is. That a problem?"

Welsh clears his throat. "Uh, no. No. Just, surprised, that's all."

"Was there something you needed, sir?" I ask, wondering what would bring him here.

He startles again, like he keeps forgetting I'm here. "Yeah, I was looking for Kowalski. He wasn't at home, his cell's off, couldn't find him anywhere. So I figure where would he be if he wasn't anyplace where he should be, and I figure I should try here."

I can't help but smile a little at the impeccable deductive reasoning. "Then why are you surprised to find him here?"

He's quiet for a moment, then he looks at me, his eyes bright with surprising amusement. "Because, Constable, speculating and knowing are two different things."

I smile. "That's true. But it's Corporal now."

"Congratulations," he offers, and shoots an annoyed look at Ray. "Someone forgot to mention that."

"Well, it's not quite final yet," I say, absolving Ray of his omission. "So, you were looking for Ray?" I prompt.

He looks at Ray, then at me, then back at Ray. "Maybe we ought to step into one of the offices."

Ray shakes his head and crosses his arms. "Whatever you got to say, you can say in front of Fraser."

"Yeah, guess I should've figured," he says with a wry look, shoving his hands deep into his overcoat pockets, shoulders hunched a little, as if against a strong wind. "Okay, I thought I should catch you before you went in tonight and found out about this from somebody else."

Ray sighs. "Look, if you're gonna tell me Stella's hooked up with Vecchio, that's old news. Dewey couldn't wait to tell me. I think he was kind of disappointed that I didn't deck him."

I have to close my mouth, aware I'm gaping. He hadn't told me that, and I haven't seen any of the Vecchios since I've been back, to find it out from them. Ray seems to be remarkably unperturbed by the news. I'm afraid I'm surprised he didn't deck Dewey, too.

"Nah, I figured you knew about that. No, this is about work. A little bird told me today that the Commissioner's Panel is considering a special merit promotion."

Ray grins. "Yeah? They finally gonna boot you up to Super? You want me to write a letter or what?"

The lieutenant rolls his eyes. "Not me, Kowalski. You."

Probably no one else would be able to read the sudden tension in Ray's body, the flex of muscle along his jaw, but I can, and I know he's not happy.

"Me?" he asks, his voice deceptively calm.

Welsh sighs. "Yeah. You. They're thinking about bumping you up to Lieutenant," he says apologetically. All right, apparently he can read Ray too.

"I don't meet the qualifications," Ray says flatly.

"That's why it would be special merit. They're talking about waiving the test."

Ray is quiet for a moment, and I watch his fists clench. "Fuck! Don't they know they can't do that? That's not who I am. I would have zero cred, you know that! They'd always want to know whose ass I kissed!"

Welsh shrugs. "I know that and you know that, but the commission thinks it's a reward."

"For what?" Ray asks incredulously. "I don't deserve any reward."

Welsh bristles. "You do deserve it, Kowalski. You've done some damned fine police work in your career, and not just on my watch. Why do you think I wanted you for the Vecchio gig? I needed a real cop in here, and you're a damned good one. I also know that if you had to, you'd make a fine lieutenant."

Ray shakes his head vehemently. "It'd kill me. I can't work a desk. You know that."

Lieutenant Welsh nods, commiserating. "Yeah. I do. That's why I wanted to let you know which way the wind was blowing before it was a done deal. It's just that we got all this publicity about the Muldoon thing, they're seeing you as good press. What we need is some way to get you out of their sights until they forget about it, but I'm fresh out of undercover jobs."

Ray looks at me, looks back at Welsh, and starts to smile. "I got a way."


"Me and Fraser got some unfinished business up in the great white north. We were just talking about a trip back that way. Maybe we could just move that forward some. How long before I need to be out of sight?"

"The panel met today, they'll meet again in ten days. You should probably be invisible by then. What kind of trip?"

Ray looks at me again, his face lit with a tenderness that shocks me, coming, as it does, in front of someone else. In front of Lieutenant Welsh, especially.

"Fraser owes me an adventure. One with proper preparation this time. What do you think, Benton? Can we get this off the ground in ten days?"

Instantly I start thinking of logistics and strategies. After a moment I nod. "Yes. It'll be tight, but I think so, with some help from Sergeant Frobisher, and provided there's no barrier to my taking leave time now."

Ray snaps his fingers. "Leave!" He turns back to the Lieutenant, leaving me with my heart pounding as he continues to speak. "How much leave have I got coming?"

"Well, that's something I've been meaning to get to. It seems that when they merged your records after you stopped being Vecchio, the computer gave you your leave, and it added Vecchio's too. You should have two weeks, but really you've got about a month at this point."

Ray frowns. "Shouldn't I give his back?"

"Funny thing is, his records aren't messed up. Just yours. And I figure if I don't say anything, nobody's going to notice. A month ought to be long enough, I think. If not, you can call in sick for a while. Maybe Fraser can whack you in the knee with a hockey stick while you're on this adventure of yours and you'll have to go on short-term disability or something."

"I would never be a party to fraud," I say primly. "However, Diefenbaker has been known to be clumsy on occasion. He might inadvertently trip Ray."

Dief barks brightly from his position under the reception desk. Ray glares at him.

"A little less enthusiasm there, if you know which side your doughnuts are iced on." He looks at his watch and swears. "Damn, I need to get going or Connors will have my ass. Thanks, Lieutenant. I owe you one."

Welsh shakes his head. "Nah, don't worry about it. I'll get that leave request started."

Ray nods, and smiles at me, then dashes out the door, leaving me standing there with Lieutenant Welsh, who is looking at me with a very strange expression. I brace for a lecture on inappropriate conduct.

"So, this been going on for a while?" he asks, finally.

I don't pretend not to know what he means by 'this.' "No. Not long."

"Hmm," he says, eyeing me like he doesn't quite believe me, then his eyes narrow. "I just got one thing to day to you, Fraser. You break his heart and I'll break your face, international incident or not," he says roughly.

"I would never. . . ." I begin, taken aback not only that he would think such a thing but that he would actually say it aloud.

"I'll say the same thing to him," he interrupts. "You two may be weirder than hell but you're both good men, good cops. I don't pretend to understand what you got going but if it works for you. . . ." He shrugs, apparently as close as he can get to approval.

It's more than I expected. Quite a lot more. "I . . . thank you, sir." I think.

"Oh Jesus," he sighs as some thought occurs to him. "God help us if Ms. Vecchio finds out." He shakes his head. "Well, news delivered, I'm heading home. Goodnight Const. . . Corporal."

"Good night, sir."

I realize I have a lot of work to do if we're going to leave in ten days. I'll have to ask Sergeant Frobisher to put together a team for us, arrange for provisions, arrange my own leave. . . . Lord, I hope that's not problematic, though Deputy Commissioner Reynolds did indicate that it would be over a month before my new post at Fort Simpson would open up. As long as my leave fits within that window I think I'll be all right.

A month alone with Ray. It sounds like heaven. It sounds like hell. How will I ever be able to give him up after that? And how can I keep him safe for four weeks, alone with me, with whatever darkness stalks me? I will just have to watch, be vigilant. At least we'll not have to deal with the hazards of police work while we're on the trail, that should lessen the danger considerably. And this time we'll be well-prepared for both the elements and whatever living dangers we may encounter. I can make sure of that, at least.

* * *

"No, Ben, for the umpteenth time, I am not cold, or hungry, or thirsty, or bored. You got that this time? Think you might be able to remember that for more than, oh, say three hours?"

Propped on one elbow on his bedroll, Ray's voice betrays annoyance, as does his expression. My gaze falls before his. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be trying."

"Trying? I got news for you, Benton. This goes beyond trying. This is fucking irritating. We been on the road . . . trail . . . snow. . . whatever, for four days now, and you have asked me that at least a hundred times. What is your problem? You'd think you were my mother or something." His eyes are icy, the warm gold gone from them, leaving them bright, glacial blue, and he's narrowed them the way he often does when questioning a suspect.

"I just want you to be . . ." safe, ". . . comfortable," I say inadequately.

"Jesus!" He lets out an explosive sigh and flops over onto his back, staring at the geometric curve of the tent ceiling for a moment before he looks back at me, his gaze still steely. "Comfortable? Ben, I didn't come on an adventure to be comfortable, damn it! That is not the point of an adventure. Adventure is . . . I dunno, man against the odds or something like that. It's not about hot cocoa and a nice comfy tent and getting up at a reasonable hour like I was in a hotel or something!"

He's right, of course, and I have no answer for him. When I don't reply, he makes a frustrated-sounding growl and turns over, pulling his sleeping bag up over himself, and I hear the sibilant scrape of the zipper as he yanks it up. We can't, of course, put out the light, since it's also the stove, so turning his back is as close as he can get to it.

The zipper sounds so... final. A door-slam, barely audible over the hiss of the stove. We haven't slept apart since we set out on our quest. Always before we've left our bags open, overlapping, so we can touch. Not tonight.

Four days. I'd thought it would take longer. Well, no, it's been fifteen days, all total, if I count from that first kiss. I suppose two weeks isn't so bad. My previous record was far shorter. I lay back, quietly, and do my own ceiling staring, my gaze tracing the smooth, clean arc over and over, hypnotically, well aware that by doing so I'm only postponing the pain, but it's not in my nature to inflict it on others, no matter how willing they've shown themselves to bear it.

Some time passes, I'm not really sure how long because I'm too busy noticing the stitching along the vent flap. Suddenly Ray sits up, and pins me with somewhat reddened gaze.

"Damn it, Ben. Talk to me. There's something going on in there," he says, poking a finger toward my head, "and you're not communicating. We talked about this. About what friends do, and we're more than friends, so you got no excuse."

I can't tell him. I know that. "I. . . can't, Ray." I say, hoping he'll let it lie.

He stares at me for a long, long moment. I brace for an explosion, but none comes. He sighs, slides back down, pillows his head on his arm, watching me. I close my eyes and lie still, feigning sleep, feeling frozen, even in the warmth of the tent. I lay that was a long time, listening to him breathe, hear the rhythm of his inhalations and exhalations change as eventually sleep comes. It's soothing to hear that sound, to know he's safe, and warm, and alive. I shake myself. I have to stop obsessing. Ray's right. I'm not behaving normally, not behaving rationally, and I'm not talking to him about any of it. I can't. I'm afraid of what his reaction would be. I don't want outside confirmation that I really am losing my mind.

I wake to find him gone, and panic instantly, grabbing for my clothes and dragging them on, trying to find my boots, then I hear his voice outside the tent, he's talking to the dogs. Then I notice the pans on the stove, and the scent of corned-beef hash and oatmeal teases my nose through the kerosene reek of the fuel, making my stomach rumble. Collapsing back onto my bedroll in relief, my pulse starts to slow to normal as I hear the dogs snarling good-naturedly over their food. I notice, too, that his bedroll has been neatly rolled up and secured, ready for travel. I can't believe I slept through him getting up, getting dressed, putting away his bedroll, and starting breakfast.

I sit up again, slowly, realize I have my sweater on inside-out, and take it off to turn it the right way around. Glancing at my watch, I find it's a quarter past six, a good forty-five minutes past the time I usually start getting ready to break camp. I don't understand why I'm finding it so difficult to wake up of late. Maybe it's simply that I sleep more deeply here, without the city's distractions. I feel a flash of guilt that Ray is up this early, feeding the dogs, fixing breakfast. Those are my duties. I find my boots and socks right where I left them, at the foot of the bedroll, and put them on, feeling as if I've stepped into an alternate universe.

Dawn is starting to lighten the sky to the east, a whisker of con-trail turning brilliant flamingo pink against the deep blue bowl of the sky, but Ray has a lantern lit so he can see well enough to feed the dogs. He comes back into the circle of light thrown by the lantern, carrying the bag of dried salmon, sees me, and stops, then he smiles tentatively.

"Morning, Ben."

"So it is," I agree, still confused. "What are you. . . why didn't you wake me?"

He shrugs. "You looked tired, and you were really sleeping heavy. I figured it was about time for me to pull my weight around here. I want you to show me how you do that sextant thing today, and how to figure out where we are on the map. Kinda dumb for me not to know it, I mean, what if you got hit by a meteor or something and lost your memory? I'd be up shi. . . a creek without a paddle."

Apparently he's going to pretend last night never happened. Well, I am, as he would say, good with that. I'd rather pretend that as well. And he's right about it being foolish for him not to know how to find our position, even if the scenario he painted is about as likely as an August snowstorm in Chicago. "I'd be happy to teach you, Ray. Can I help with anything?"

He sets the bag of salmon down on the sled and lashes it in, shaking his head. "Nah, got it under control. Breakfast in about six minutes or so, now that you're up. You want tea? There's some in the thermos next to the stove. Didn't want it to get cold before you woke up."

I nod, "Thank you, yes," I manage, and duck back into the tent, ostensibly to get my tea but in reality to deal with the emotions that unaccountably swamp me at his words. I don't know what's wrong with me, why a simple kindness like making me tea should move me to tears. I should be fine, this should be a good time. Ray is clearly working to make it so. I wish I could just relax and enjoy him, enjoy this time together for as long as it lasts, but I can't seem to help this feeling that there's some dark thing behind me, just waiting to take him from me. I'll have to give him up soon, or risk losing him completely. If I haven't done so already, after last night.

Knowing he'll be in momentarily, I quickly secure my bedroll and pour myself some tea so that when he comes in, everything seems normal. I sip the hot liquid, relishing its comforting, faintly bitter taste, watching him cook. He checks the sizzling skillet full of hash, then gets out our plates and heaps them with the steaming corned-beef and potato mixture before getting out bowls for the oatmeal. He looks at me and grins.

"I put half a stick of butter in the oatmeal, is that about right?"

I nod, surprised. He's been paying attention, clearly. He scrapes the oatmeal into the bowls and then disappears outside with both pans, reappearing a moment later with them full of snow. He sets both back on the stove to heat the water for washing up, and I'm suddenly struck by how . . . natural he seems here. Not at all out of place, as I expected. I don't know why I'm surprised, but I am. Finally he picks up a plate and a bowl and hands them to me with a flourish.

"Breakfast is served."

I take my food, and he digs into his own. I follow suit, watching as he swallows a bite of oatmeal and makes a face.

"We really need some brown sugar and milk for the oatmeal, but the hash is okay. Good ol' Hormel."

"I think the oatmeal is fine," I tell him, not wanting him to think I don't appreciate his cooking. "And thank you kindly for breakfast."

He shoots me a strange look, then shrugs. "You're welcome. Do I remember you said we have a provisioning stop coming up? Because the dog rations are getting a little low, and some of our provisions are too."

"Yes, there's a village not terribly far."

"What's it called?"

"Well, it hasn't exactly got a name. It tends to be referred to hereabouts as 'Joe's Place."

"Joe's Place?" He smiles, shaking his head. "How many people in this village?"

"Last time I was through, about forty or so."

"That's a village? Sounds like a wide spot in the trail to me."

"Well, technically I suppose it's more of a hamlet."

He chuckles. "Well, so long as we can get dog food there, we're golden."

"It's all arranged. They'll have it waiting for us."

"Proper preparation, eh?" he asks, shoveling another forkful of food into his mouth, chewing.

I nod. "Exactly."

Cleanup and breakdown of the camp is accomplished much faster than the previous two days. I have to admit it's nice to have him helping instead of standing over by the dogs, watching me with a guilty expression. When we have everything stowed, Ray gets out our charts and brings them over to me.

"Okay, so where are we now?"

I show him on the chart. He studies it for a moment, them moves his finger to the blue circle not far away.

"That Joe's Place?"

I nod. "Yeah, we should get there by mid-afternoon if we make good time."

"We staying there or moving on after we gas up?"

I start to say we're not getting gas, then realize he was speaking metaphorically. "Well, we could do either, it'll depend a lot on when we get there. If we make good time we might push on. Unless you'd prefer to stay. We could probably find someone willing to put us up for the night."

"I don't mind moving on. We're not gonna find Franklin's frozen fingers in anybody's living room. Hey, that sort of rhymed."

"Actually, it's alliteration. The repetition of initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words."

He chuckles. "I'm alliterate. My high school teachers would probably agree."

Before I can open my mouth to correct him, he looks at the chart again, finds another blue circle, our next provision stop, compares the distance between it and Joe's Place to the distance between our starting point and Joe's place.

"So, another four or five days to the next stop?"

"Yes. We'll have to stop and re-provision."

"How come? I read about the Iditarod, they don't stop so often."

"Well, they're racing, they don't want to be slowed down. We're not, and with only one sled we can't really carry enough provisions to go as far between stops."

He thinks about that, and nods, then he looks at the sled and back to me. "If I wasn't riding we could get more stuff on it."

"That's true, but as you said, you're city fit."

"And I'm not getting any fitter sitting on my ass," he says with a wry grin. "If I was from up here and we were on this trip, would I be riding?"

"No, you'd probably be skiing or snowshoeing alongside."

"Then strap those tennis rackets to my feet and I'll pretend I'm Canadian for a while. It'll be good for me."

"Have you ever cross-country skied? Skiing is generally held to be more fun." Not to mention it's less strenuous, but I don't mention that. Ray has his pride.

"Once, about ten years ago," he says dubiously.

"Excellent," I say heartily. "I expect you'll find it's like riding a bicycle, it'll come back to you quickly."

"I seem to remember you saying something like that about swimming," he teases.

"Well, it all has to do with muscle memory, so there are similarities."

We unstrap the skis and poles from the sled and manage to get Ray on them. It doesn't take him as long to get used to these as it did the snowshoes, thank goodness, and soon he's gliding along beside the sled, his face a little flushed with excitement and exertion. At times he skis out ahead of me and waits for me to catch up, usually accompanied by Diefenbaker, who has proven far too willful, not to mention deaf, to make a good lead dog and so I've been letting him travel alongside us instead of in harness. Ray seems to actually be enjoying himself. When we stop to give the dogs and ourselves water, he looks at me, grinning.

"You should've let me do this days ago, this is fun! A lot better than riding on the sled, a lot warmer too. It gets damned cold in that thing. This way I can keep myself warm."

"You were cold? Why didn't you tell me?"

His grin fades and a hint of annoyance flashes across his face. "Newsflash, Fraser, it's the Arctic in early April, I kinda figured on being cold. I've been colder. Probably will be again. I didn't tell you because it wasn't a big deal, Mom."

He pushes off then, skis ahead a bit. Not wanting to let him get too far away, I hastily start collecting the water bowls, but when I look up again he's managed to get himself turned around and is heading back. Arriving back beside the sled, he plants his poles in the ground and glares at me, the effect somewhat spoiled by his sunglasses.

"Fraser, I want you to repeat after me."

"Repeat what after you?"

"Say 'Ray is a big boy.'"

"Ray is a big boy," I repeat, fervently, and I can't help the smile that curves my mouth or the near-involuntary glance downward.

"You know that's not what I meant," Ray says in a voice that strives for stern and only manages strangled amusement. "Say 'Ray is a grown up.'"

"Ray is a grown up."

"'And I'm going to stop treating him like a cub scout on his first camp-out.'"

"And I'm going to stop . . . Ray, I haven't been." I protest.

"No, that's true," he says thoughtfully. "It's worse than that. Make that 'like a three-year old.' I'm surprised you haven't put me in diapers. Look, if you want some sort of dad/son thing, we need to have a serious talk."

For a moment I don't take his meaning, but then it sinks in and my face goes hot, quite a feat in these temperatures. "Ray! That's. . . that's . . . no!"

He studies me and sighs. "Okay, good. I was worried for a second there, because that is so not my thing." He grimaces and shudders.

"Nor mine," I say with an echoing shudder.

"Glad to hear it. Now, you tell me something. We've been partners for over a year now, and you've never pulled this kind of crap on me before. What the hell is going on with you now? Why am I all the sudden some kind of fainting flower? Is it . . . I mean, you know . . ." he falters, looks frustrated, then goes on. "Is it because we had sex? How does that change anything? I'm still your partner, damn it."

I stare at him, horrified. "No! Of course not! It's nothing to do with . . . I would be. . ." God, I'm digging myself into a hole here. "I just want you to enjoy yourself."

"I am enjoying myself. And I'd enjoy myself a lot more if you'd stop fussing over me like you thought I was gonna break any second. Jeez, I've been shot, I've almost drowned, I've been half blown up, and you didn't make a fuss over it. Why fuss now when I'm fine?"

"You weren't . . . ." I stop myself, but not in time. Though I can't see his eyes through the sunglasses, I know they've just narrowed.

"I wasn't what? I wasn't fine? When wasn't I fine?"

"It's nothing."

"Ben, talk to me, damn it," he says, his voice rough, almost pleading. "Please."

I can't hold out against that. "On . . . on the mountain. I thought . . . ." I can't say it, superstitious. I don't want to draw attention from anything. I don't want him to know just how afraid I am.

"On the mountain?" he says thoughtfully. "You thought I was in trouble?"

I nod, hating to admit it, but not wanting to close him out.

He sighs. "Well, I probably was. Sorry, didn't mean to scare you. But that was us with no provisions, and unprepared. This is different. You know that, right?"

"Yes, of course I know that. It's just that . . . ."

Ray watches me for a moment, waiting for me to finish, and when he realizes I'm not going to he puts his fists to his temples and growls.

"Aaaagh! Ben, you're making me nuts. Look, I get where you're coming from now, but it's over. It's over and I'm okay, and we're here adventuring and this is supposed to be fun, not paranoia, right?"

"Right you are," I agree, with a decisive nod. "I'm sorry. I'll try not to be so . . . protective." Or, at least, to not be so obvious about it.

* * *

We reach Joe's Place just after midday, our start somewhat delayed by Ray's insistence on learning how to take readings and plot a chart. He catches on surprisingly quickly, given that his education appears to have been fairly haphazard. Once we arrive I stake the team out well away from the collection of ramshackle homes and outbuildings, and Ray looks at me askance.

"How come we're stopping way out here?"

"We don't want our dogs to annoy their dogs."

"Oh. We got to leave everybody here?"

I nod, and he sighs.

"Even Dief?

I nod again, and he squats down next Diefenbaker to talk to him.

"You keep an eye on these guys, make sure they don't get into trouble, okay?" he says.

Dief looks at me, clearly letting me know he's wise to Ray's attempt to make him feel less left out, and I shrug. Dief licks Ray's nose, which gets him an 'ew, yuck' and then Ray is on his feet again, rubbing wolf-spit off his face with a wry smile.

"He's on to me."

"I'm afraid so," I agree.

"I better find something to bribe him with," he says. "Bet they won't have doughnuts though."

"Highly unlikely," I agree blandly.

We get the team settled, fed and watered, and then we head toward the buildings.

"So, this is it? Joe's Place?" Ray asks, looking around.

I nod. "Yes. In all its glory."

He grins. "Cool. It's cool. I like it. So, where's our stuff? There?" He nods at the porch of the largest dwelling, an accurate guess, probably helped along by the faded letters painted beside the door: "JOES".         

"Yes. Come on, I'll introduce you."

We stop on the porch to take off skis and snowshoes, not that they were really needed on the hard-packed snow around the hamlet, and I knock before pushing open the door. The front room has been converted into a small store, but it is still part of the house so it only seems polite. Ray starts to look around, and laughs softly, reaching up to pick a cellophane-wrapped package of miniature doughnuts off a high shelf. "I see the evil corruption of junk food has reached all the way up here. What's the world coming to, Fraser?"

"We keep 'em stocked for the 'tourists,'" a dry voice puts in. "And the dogs seem to like 'em. Hey, Benton."

I turn, smiling, to the stocky man with gray-streaked black hair who is standing in the doorway that leads into the house. "Hello John."

His round face creases as he smiles. He's aged more than I expected. This land can be hard on a man. Still, he looks hale and hearty as he steps forward and shakes my hand, surveying me with a slight frown.

"You okay, Ben? You look a might worn."

I'm a bit taken aback, I've forgotten how unaffected people are here. They don't hesitate to say what they think. I glance at Ray, who's staring at me in concern, just as I feared, and then quickly look back at John. "I'm fine, thank you kindly," I turn to Ray, and nod at John. "John Coldmoon, this is Ray Kowalski, my . . . " I hesitate suddenly. We haven't talked about this, about how to refer to ourselves. Well, I'll go with the familiar, and true. "Partner, and friend."

John nods and holds out his hand. Ray takes it, and they shake firmly, assessing each other.

"Nice to meet you, Ray Kowalski."

"Likewise," Ray says. "John? Not Joe?"

John smiles. "No. Joe passed on some years back. I'm his son."

"Oh. Sorry."

"Well, it was his time. I got your order all packed up and ready to go, Ben. Anything else you need?"

"Yeah," Ray puts in. "I owe Dief some of these," he says, waving the doughnuts. "I better get another one, just in case."

"For the dogs," John says with a grin and a wink.

Ray grins back. "Absolutely. I mean, I wouldn't think of eating them myself."

"Nah, who would? Those things'll kill ya. But if they're for the dogs, you want to get the white sugar ones, not the chocolate ones."

Ray smacks his forehead. "Right, right. I forgot. Well, I already, like, got these down and got my fingerprints on them and all, so I better buy them too. Along with the white ones."

"There you go. That's considerate of you."

Ray reaches to get down another packet of doughnuts, and I remember suddenly his comment at breakfast about the oatmeal. I scout around until I find the Carnation milk, and a bag of brown sugar. Behind Ray's back I hold them up so John can see them, and then slip them into my pockets, knowing he'll add them to my total. It will be nice to surprise Ray tomorrow, and the more calories he eats, the better I feel, even though he doesn't need them just yet, it's practically spring already this far south.

"You boys staying here for the night or going right on?" John asks. "I got a little cabin about two kilometers north that I rent out since Marlene and Darryl went off to Norman Wells. Wanted to try city life. It's just one room, and the pump can be a bear, but it's got a good stove. Mattress is almost new, if you don't mind sharing, or there's a couch if you do."

Ray lifts his eyebrows at me suggestively and I feel myself flush, which I wish I could stop, since it's a dead giveaway, and I'm still not quite sure how much Ray wants to reveal about our relationship to casual acquaintances. The idea of staying isn't a bad one though. The weather reports indicated a good chance of snow tonight, and Ray would be warmer and safer inside. Before I can open my mouth to accept John's offer, Ray is speaking.

"Thanks, but we're gonna go on. Fraser says with the weather warming up, we need to get as far as we can before breakup makes things too dangerous."

Too late. I can't very well contradict him, since I did indeed say that at one point.

John nods. "I thought maybe that was your plan. You have time for a cup of tea?"

Ray looks hopeful, and I know he'd like to stay, catch up on what's been happening in the 'real world' in the past few days. I check the time, then glance outside to check the sun. "We still have a good five hours of daylight left, it shouldn't be a problem."

"Good, come on back into the house. I'll put the kettle on."

"What's with that, anyway?" Ray asks as we follows John into the kitchen.

"What's with what, Ray?" I ask.

"The sun. I thought it was supposed to be dark all the time up here."

John chuckles, waving us to seats at his table. "Not this time of year. By midsummer it'll be daylight nearly twenty-four hours. That 'midnight sun' thing, you know."
"Oh. I get it. So in the winter it's dark all day?"


"Hunh. Cool. You know there's something else I've been wondering about."

"What's that?"

"Trees. I wasn't expecting trees."

He looks at me so I know this is my question to answer as John gets a package of tea biscuits and a plate out of a cupboard.

"Well, there are trees because we haven't hit the tundra yet. That's further north and east."

"So the tundra is where Franklin got lost?"

John turns, eyebrows lifted. "Franklin? You're hunting Franklin?"

"Yes," I say with a little shake of my head, not wanting Joe to tip Ray off that we're really not in the right place to start such a search. I wanted to start out slowly, get him acclimated to the travel first, before we got to the barren expanse of the tundra.

Ray grins. "Had to have some excuse for taking off. Well, me anyway. Nobody thinks it's weird that Fraser would do it. It's his neck of the woods, after all. They bought it though, it's a good story, right? Finding Franklin."

"Yeah," John looks from Ray to me, a little puzzled. "People been looking for Franklin forever, it seems like. There are a couple of guys take a team up nearly every year now, Harrington, McDonald, some other guys. About four years back they found some remains on King William Island they figure for some of Franklin's crew, since they were white guys." His eyes crinkle a little and he studies Ray for a moment before continuing. "Hear tell they found butchering-marks on some of the bones. Those boys must've been pretty hungry."

Ray snorts. "Seems to be going around up here." He looks at me. "You did tell the Mounties about that plane Delmar mentioned, right?"

I know he's pulling my chain but I glower at him anyway. "Of course, Ray. That was taken care of immediately."

"Good, glad to hear it." He turns back to John. "So, what else you know about Franklin? You seem to be pretty up on it."

"Yeah, I have family up in Cambridge Bay, they keep me informed. Last year the team did a survey up around O'Reilly. Didn't find him there either, though they did find some copper sheeting they thought might've come from one of the ships. This is the time of year they usually go up, so you might have company."

Ray doesn't look fazed by this, as I expected he would. He just shrugs. "That's okay, it's not really about Franklin when it comes down to it anyway."

I realize I'm staring at him when he looks at me, eyebrows lifted. The teakettle whistles and John goes over to make the tea.

"It's not?" I ask, low-voiced.

Ray smiles. "You know it's not," he replies softly, his gaze alight with a tenderness that steals my breath.

Maybe I should have known, but I haven't let myself. I've been lying to myself. Somehow in the time since we began to plan our journey, I've managed to make myself believe that adventure is what it was about, kept myself from seeing that it's really a desperate grab for as much time together as we can get, before it has to end. The realization that he feels the impending loss as much as I do makes me ache. I want to pull him to me, kiss him, hold him, promise I won't let go. And as soon as I think it, I realize I can't. I can't do that. It's too dangerous for him. And I've brought him out here where there's more danger, not less. I should never have agreed to do this. It was madness. He's going to get hurt. He could die.

Ray starts to frown. "Ben, are you . . . ."

"Here you go," John says, putting a mug down in front of each of us, then turning to get the plate of cookies from the counter and put it on the table between us. "Either of you take milk or sugar?"

"Yeah, both thanks," Ray says, and when John turns away again he reaches across the table and takes my hand. "You're white as a ghost," he says. "You okay?"

"Yes, fine," I reply automatically, tugging my hand away from his before John turns around. "Perhaps I didn't eat enough breakfast. A rapid drop in blood sugar would account for paleness," I hedge.

He looks at his hand, then up at my face, his gaze a little shadowed. "Have a cookie, then," he says, picking one up and handing it to me.

I can't logically refuse, so I bite into it, trying not to grimace as the flavors of artificial vanilla and too much sugar assail my tongue. He watches me as I chew, seeming satisfied once I've swallowed.

We stay for about half an hour, talking about Franklin and various other arctic discoveries and expeditions. Ray surprises me by knowing quite a lot more about the North than I thought he did. I don't know if he's absorbed it from my stories or if he's done some research on his own. Either way it makes me wonder if he isn't quite well aware that I've set the first section of our route far to the south of where we ought to be, and I wonder why he hasn't asked me about it. John helps us lug supplies over to the sled and load it, stands for a moment studying the dogs.

"Nice team. Looks like some of Buck Frobisher's dogs."

"They are, he put the team together for us."

"Good man. Well, good luck on the Franklin thing. Oh, and if you see my nephew Reuben, tell him his mom said he better not come back without something for the stew pot." He chuckles. "This is the third day in a row he's gone 'out hunting' instead of helping her with the spring cleaning."

Ray laughs. "Don't blame him," he says. "We'll keep an eye out."

"Thank you kindly," John says, then heads back toward the store.

Ray watches him for a moment, then looks at me. "People really do say that up here."

"Yes, they do."

"Maybe you're not a freak."

I smile. "Well, I wouldn't go that far."

He grins. "True. And I wouldn't want you any other way. Come on, let's get going. John said it was gonna snow tonight. I want to be snug in camp before it starts."

"I see you're catching on to northern travel."

"Hey, I can learn. I watch. I absorb. I pay attention when it's important. Come on, let's go."

He skis ahead as I get the dogs up and headed out, but I catch up to him quickly and we travel along together for an hour or so, then his attention is caught by something near the trees and he skis over for a closer look. I slow the team, not wanting to get too far ahead, but then the echoing crack of a rifle shot has me standing on the brake, hard. The dogs yelp and stumble in surprise. The sound of a second shot breaks the stillness, and I turn, triangulating the echo, trying to figure out where the shots came from and automatically looking for cover until I remember that John said his nephew was out hunting.

I relax, turning back to apologize to the team for the abrupt stop, and see Dief shoot past me, running flat-out toward the woods, snarling at me as he passes.

"What about Ray?" I call out to his rapidly fleeing backside.

He doesn't pause, and I suddenly realize I can't see Ray. I scan the edge of the woods, but Ray is nowhere in evidence. I only took him eyes off him for a few moments, where could he have gone? Why would he have gone? Then I realize why. He's a cop, and when a cop hears a gunshot, he investigates. Quickly I disengage the snowhook and turn the team toward the trees. Halfway to where I last saw Ray I see Dief pacing frantically next to what I thought was a fallen tree, but is, in fact, not. Trees don't wear blue scarves, and what I thought were branches are too straight, they're skis, still attached to his feet. Oh, God. He wasn't wearing orange. He was close to the trees. Wearing a fur parka. No. No.

I stop the sled, not bothering to stake the dogs, and run, stumbling in my haste. I finally reach him, so still, facedown in the snow, arms flung outward, head turned to one side. I drop to my knees, unable to bring myself to touch him, terrified of what I'll find if I turn him over. There's blood on his forehead, washing down his face, staining the snow under his face, blood at his mouth. Blood on a bright blue scarf.

Past and present merge, I'm hearing labored breathing, my father's ragged sobs. I see Ray, but my mother as well, she's here, dying too, dying again. Red and blue. A drawing of a rose. Blood. Blue fabric. Distantly I hear Dief howling, frantic, and wonder how he knows. Words swirl in my head, why do I take such refuge in words in times of pain? I don't know, but I do. Heat slices down my face, painful against cold skin.

If it came about you died
it might be said I loved you:
Love is an absolute as death is,
and neither bears false witness to the other--
        But you remain alive.
Except he's not, and I never told him, never told him how I felt, because I was too afraid to say it. Too cowardly. And it's come to be such an empty word, used too often to denote desire and not devotion. It no longer holds all the meaning I need it to. But now I can never tell him, even that little. Words, just words, no solace there.

No, I do not love you
hate the word,
that private tyranny inside a public sound,
your freedom's yours and not my own:
but hold my separate madness like a sword,
and plunge it in your body all night long.
More words, no refuge. No more. Never. Free. I should have kept him safe. My separate madness his undoing. My need for him killed him. I wonder if I can die here too? Just wait beside him, until it comes for me too. At least then we could be together. I rock, keening, until a stirring beside me draws my eye, and I watch him push himself up, one mittened hand reaching to touch his face as he groans. For a moment I don't understand, then I realize what's happening. It's not surprising I suppose, that he would haunt me. I'm used to being haunted. I'll welcome this one. I don't want to lose his companionship, even if I have to bear the guilt seeing him so will bring.

He gets to his knees. It's amazing how solid he looks. I'm surprised I can't see through him, see his body still on the snow. I see the blood though, a frozen bloom of scarlet there. He wipes his mouth shakily, turns his head slowly, as if it hurts, and looks directly at me. His eyes widen.


I nod. "Hello, Ray."

"What the hell are you doing?"

What am I doing? I have to think about it. Oh, yes. I haven't finished the poem.

If death shall strip our bones of all but bones,
then here's the flesh and flesh that's drunken-sweet
as wine cups in deceptive lunar light:
reach up your hand and turn the moonlight off,
and maybe it was never there at all,
so never promise anything to me:
but reach across the darkness with your hand,
reach across the distance of tonight,
and touch the moving moment once again
before you fall asleep.
Ray stares at me for a long, long moment after I finish. Finally he speaks. "That's, um, real pretty, but could you maybe help me up? That tree branch really did a number on my skull here. And I bit my tongue, I think. Hurts to talk."

"It's all right, Ray. The pain shouldn't last. Dad never seemed to feel pain. Not until just before he left, when he hit Muldoon."

"What are you talking about?"

"Being a ghost, Ray. Dad never seemed to feel things quite the way we do. Or, I should say, the way I do. Sorry."

"I repeat, what are you talking about?"

"Well, I would expect that the same general rules will apply for you haunting me which appeared to be in place for my father."

"Fraser. I can't haunt you, I'm alive. Hell of a headache, feel like an idiot, but I'm alive. A-l-i-v-e. Like, among the living. What the hell's the matter with you? Feel!"

He strips off his mitten and glove, reaches out to touch my face. Startled I pull back as warm fingers graze my cold skin. I could never feel Dad when he tried to touch me. That's new. And Ray is . . . warm. How can he be warm? He grabs one of my hands in his, pulls off my mitt and glove as well, fumbles my fingers against his throat.

"Feel it, damn it. Feel it."

At first I don't know what I'm supposed to feel, but finally I perceive it, a strong, steady tic under my fingertips. How can I feel that? She's dead. I know she's dead. I never got to touch her. I look at the blood on the snow. Not very much. A teaspoon or two really, all told. I look at his face, see the cut above his eyebrow, blood clotted along it, streaked down his face, brownish-red. The sound of labored breathing is the moan of wind in tree branches. The sound of my father's sobbing becomes my own. Ray is alive. He really is alive.

"Ray! Dear God!" I gasp, horrified as I realize I just left him lying there in the snow while I babbled poetry at him, instead of checking for a pulse, instead of warming him, taking care of him.

His eyes are intent on mine. "You back?"

"Ray! God, Ray, I'm sorry. I thought . . . I thought you were . . . ."

"Got that. I'm not. It's okay. What the hell just happened?"

"I . . ." I look around, looking for things no longer present. "My mother. I thought. You were . . . she was . . . my father. . . . Oh God. I couldn't move, couldn't touch you, couldn't bear to. I heard the shots, saw you lying here. I thought, it was like you were her, or . . . I don't know. I don't know." I'm shaking suddenly, shaking hard, and the back of my throat is burning with bile. He looks worried, reaches for me, and I scramble away on hands and knees. "Don't. Don't touch me. I'm bad."

He fumbles with his skis, gets them off finally, and crawls over to me, kneeling, his hand on my shoulder. "Come on, cut it out. I'm okay."

"S-s-s-sorry," I stammer. "Should have done something. My fault. My fault."

"What are you talking about? I got distracted by that rifle shot and skied into a tree branch. How is that your fault?"

"I didn't listen, didn't pay attention. If I'd gone sooner, he might not have, don't you see? I wasn't good enough."

He shakes me, wincing as the movement hurts his head. "Ben, please. Stop it. You're scaring me."

No. Can't do that. Can't scare him. I try to gather my scattered wits. "Sorry. I'm . . . I'll be all right. I'll be good." No. Not that. "I'm all right."

A sudden gust of wind whips particles of snow into my face. Ray looks up, looks around. The sky is darkening rapidly to the north, though it's still sunny south and east, back the way we just came.

"We have to go back," he says suddenly. "We can't stay out in this. Come on. We're going back and taking John up on that cabin. Neither of us are in any shape to be out tonight."

Part of me wants to protest, I should have made that decision, I'm the one responsible. But it feels so good to let someone else do it, just this once. I nod. "Yes. We'll go back."

He looks at me sharply, frowning again. "Come on, then. Help me get my skis back on. My head hurts when I bend over."

His need brings me back to reality again. I know I keep slipping over the edge of it. That thought terrifies me. I've got to stop. I have to stay here. Stay now. Stay grounded. I can't leave him alone. I'm a grown man, not a little boy. The things that I'm remembering happened a long time ago. Thirty years. Remember that. Thirty years.

Somehow I get Ray back on his skis and we make it back to the sled. The wind is blowing steadily now, but the snow is still just flurries. Dief is frantic to get us moving, leaping and barking excitedly, which sets the other dogs barking too. Ray moans at the din, and I drop to my knees to firmly tell Dief to hush, explaining that Ray is hurt. He whines apologetically, and it dawns on me that I haven't even looked at the wound, haven't checked for signs of concussion, or made sure it's not still bleeding. I'm back on my feet instantly.

"Ray, let me check . . . " I stop, startled to see him kneeling, taking off his skis. I drop down next to him, pulling off my mitts so I can help. "You should have asked for help."

"You were shutting the dogs up, that was more important," he says with a wry grimace. "Both things make my head hurt, but that was the worse of the two. Hope it's okay if I ride this time. Headache's making it hard to keep on track."

"If you weren't volunteering, I would insist." I say, freeing the second binding. "There you are. I'll stow the skis."

"And I'll stow me."

"No, wait, I need to shift the supplies a bit first."

I get the skis and snowshoes stowed, move the supplies, sleeping bags and pads around to make a nest for him, then help him into it, making sure he's warmly insulated with two woolen blankets tucked around him beneath the sled bag. He doesn't appear to be in shock but I don't want to take chances. Once he's in and can't object, I check his pupils quickly, thankful to find they're normal, and cursorily examine the wound, which is badly bruised and caked with clotted blood, but not as bad as I'd feared. Head wounds bleed a lot. That's what threw me before. They always look like major trauma even when they're relatively minor.

Looking at his bloody face makes my stomach churn. I don't know why. Blood has never bothered me before. Blood. Scarlet. Black. Loss.


I snap my attention back to his narrowed eyes, realizing I've been leaning over him for too long. "No. No, I was just worried. I'm sorry. Are you comfortable? Warm?"

"I'm good. Let's hit it."

I free the snowhook, step onto the back of the sled and settle into a comfortable lean. "Come haw!"

Obediently the dogs head out, turning the sled a hundred and eighty degrees, taking us back toward what passes for civilization. We're an hour out, but it's slightly downhill now, so I hope we make better time on the way back. I need to get him someplace safe. That's all that matters now.

* * *

It seems only a few moments later when we reach the cabin. It startles me when Dief barks for me to bring the team to a halt, I keep trying to get him to go on, knowing we can't have reached it yet, but he's insistent and I squint through the flying snow and twilight to realize he's right. The dark shape to our left is John Coldmoon's empty rental cabin, the one we'd passed on our way north from Joe's Place. I would have missed it if not for Dief. Thank God he's functioning better than I am.

When I go to step off the sled I experience a moment of panic that if I look at Ray I'll find him gone. Perhaps his body present, but his spirit fled. That I only imagined him reviving, that I only brought his body back with me. The terrifying certainty is strong enough to lock every muscle in place, my hands frozen on the driving bow, my feet glued to the footboards. I envision myself pulling his limp, lifeless body from the sled, holding him in the snow . . . .

"So, we there yet?"

Ray's voice is a shock, pulling me back to reality again with a wrenching shudder. He's not dead. He's not. And I need to get him inside. Safe. Warm.

"Yes, we're there," I manage, my voice peculiarly hoarse.

"How're we getting in? We gonna break and enter?" he asks, fumbling to loosen the cinch on the sled bag and free himself.

"No, I expect it's open," I tell him, moving beside him to help him. "Up here no one locks their doors. It can be a matter of survival for a stranded traveler to be able to find shelter."

"John'll be okay with that?" he asks, pushing himself up.

"Yes." I wrap my hands around his upper arms and pull, steadying him as he sways a little, leaning against me.

"God, my head hurts," he says, pushing himself fully upright and squinting at the cabin. "Okay, let's do this. Give me something to carry."

"I'll bring the gear. You just concentrate on yourself."

"Fraser," he says with a long-suffering sigh. "Give me something."

We don't have time to stand around arguing. I hand him one of the sleeping bags. It's not too heavy. Take the other and our blankets, and a provision bag myself and follow his somewhat unsteady path to the cabin. He pauses on the stoop, one hand on the door latch, and looks back at me.

"You sure this is okay?"

"I'm sure, Ray. You heard him offer. We'll go down and tell him tomorrow. Right now we need to get inside."

He nods and tries the door. As I expected it's unlocked, and I follow Ray inside, putting my load down next to the door as I head for the stove. Thankfully a fire is already laid inside its iron belly, waiting to be lit. It's the work of a moment to open the flue and strike a match. The flames mesmerize me for a brief moment, golden and blue, like Ray, warm, like Ray. The sound of the door yanks me back and I turn to see Ray going outside again.

"Ray!" Suddenly I'm scrambling to follow.

He turns. "What?"

"Stay inside. You're hurt."

He shakes his head. "I've had worse knockouts boxing, Fraser. I'll be fine. We need to get the rest of our gear in, get the dogs unharnessed and fed, all that."        

He's right of course, but I don't want him doing so much. He could be hurt worse than he believes. I grab a bucket from just inside the door and hold it out to him. "Fill this with snow, pack it down hard so we get a reasonable amount, and put it on the stove to melt, please."


"We'll need to prime the pump. I'll see to the dogs."

He looks at me narrowly. "You giving me make-work?"

"No," I lie baldly. "We need water, and the pump will need priming after being unused for some time."

He studies me for a moment longer, then nods. "Okay," and takes the bucket.

I work fast, taking the sled around to the lee of the cabin where there's a dog shelter, unharnessing the dogs and putting down food for them, promising them water as soon as I get some melted. That accomplished, I unfasten the sled bag and use it to drag our remaining supplies back around to the front of the cabin. Ray has lit a lamp or two, so light spills out of the windows welcomingly. Dief wants to help but he's more of a hindrance. As I round the corner, taking a blast of wind-driven snow in the face, Ray walks out of the cabin and wordlessly comes to help me. It is easier with two, even if I want to tell him not to help.

Finally we're inside and the door is closed. I can already feel the heat from the fire, and the snow is melting in its bucket on the stove. Ray strips off his coat and comes to help me with mine as I struggle with it, unaccountably clumsy. Once it's off he hefts it experimentally and looks at me oddly, then reaches into my pocket and pulls out the can of milk. My face gets very warm as he goes for the other pocket and its burden of brown sugar.

A slow smile crosses his face as he walks over to put both on the counter and drape my coat across the back of a wooden chair before returning to put his hands on either side of my face and kiss me once, with surprising gentleness. I pull him close, hard, holding him fiercely, my face against his neck so he can't see the tears. After a few seconds he squirms a little.

"Can't breathe, Ben."

I release him instantly. "I'm sorry," I mumble, turning away to kneel and paw through our provisions for our first-aid supplies. "Please, sit. I want to take care of that cut."

I hear the chair creak, hear Dief whuff and whine. Ray replies, almost a whisper.

"I know. Me too, Dief. Something's seriously hinky."

"We'll be fine," I say reassuringly, finding the aid kit and standing up again. "We're set to ride out the storm."

"Yeah, I know," Ray says. "Don't mind the idea of sleeping on a bed tonight. Got any aspirin in there? Tylenol? Advil?"

"I can't give you painkillers, you might have a concussion."

He grimaces. "I never understood why they won't let you have painkillers when you're in pain. It's sadistic, if you ask me."

"Actually, painkillers can mask the symptoms of the concussion, and some of them can exacerbate internal bleeding and increase the risk of stroke," I say, taking refuge in words once more. I can't seem to stop doing that.

"Fraser, I don't have a concussion," he says irritably.

"You don't know that for certain," I contradict him.

"I've had a concussion before. This feels different."

"Every time you catch a cold it feels different as well, yet they are all colds."

"No, every time I catch a cold I feel exactly the same. Shitty."

I open my mouth to argue and he holds up both hands in surrender.

"No, I understand. Do what you have to do. Just no pregnant mucous stuff okay?"

"I thought alcohol and antibiotic ointment would suffice," I say mildly.

He licks his lips. "Alcohol. I don't suppose you mean whiskey."


"Just joking. Well, get at it."

It only takes a few moments to wash the dried blood off his face with a cloth dipped in snowmelt, then to clean the wound with alcohol and carefully spread the ointment over it. Truthfully it's not too bad, though I suspect it will scar a bit despite using of butterfly bandages to draw the edges together. The lump beneath the wound is, as he asserted, no worse than I've seen him with after a heavy sparring match. His pupils are still normal and he probably doesn't have a concussion, but I can't take that chance. Once finished, I busy myself putting the supplies away neatly, then turn to find him watching me speculatively.

"Ben, what was that . . . ." he begins.

"I need to water the dogs," I say, cutting him off, unwilling to try to answer a question which has no answer, at least none that doesn't leave me sounding as if I belong in a mental institution. "Let's see if we can get the pump working. Would you get the bucket and bring it over?"

He presses his lips together, clearly unhappy, but nods and does as I asked. John was right that the pump is indeed a bear but between us we finally get it working. I think the mechanism needs to be stripped down and properly lubricated. I should see to it, but I'm just too tired at the moment. I put my coat back on, fill the bucket with water and take it out to the dogs. Ray insists on coming with me, carrying a lantern and the collapsible bowls. I wish he'd just sit down and be still but I know how effective insisting will be so I let it go.

Once we're back inside, I check for bed linens. John must have them at his place, since I find none. That's not too surprising. Even up here theft can be a problem. I unzip our bags and lay them out on the queen-sized mattress. They may be a little too warm for indoor use but I know Ray isn't fond of wool directly against his skin so I don't want to use our spare blankets. A metallic rattle brings my attention around, and I see Ray in the kitchen dumping a can of stew into a pan.

"Ray, please. I'll take care of that."

"Partners, Benton Fraser," he says in a voice like steel. "We are partners. You seem to be forgetting that."

A lump clogs my throat and I have to gag it down before I can speak. "Never."

He looks at me and some of the metal fades from his gaze. "Okay. Good." He walks over and puts the pan on the stove, stirs it a bit, then looks at me again. "Ben, you know we have to talk about it."

I nod, swallowing convulsively. "I . . . please. Give me a little longer."

He sighs, nodding too, his face pale and drawn. "Yeah. Okay. I get that."

The subject hangs unspoken between us through a mostly silent dinner, cleanup, and getting ready for bed. I wait until Ray is in bed and the lanterns out before I take our spare blankets over to the couch and start to lay them out.

"Ben?" His voice is sharp, questioning. "What the hell are you doing?"

My knees won't hold me suddenly and I sit. "Bed," I manage.

"That better be for Dief."

"No," I grate. "Me."

There's a long stillness before he speaks again. "Why?"

I can hear the hurt in his voice. The rough-edged uncertainty. "I don't . . . I can't . . . "

"Ben," I hear the bedsprings creak as he gets up, pads over on bare feet to crouch beside me, his hand on my thigh. "Talk to me."

"Don't deserve it," I whisper. My voice won't work.

"Don't deserve to talk?" he asks, puzzled.

"You. Don't deserve you."

"Oh, Christ, Ben. That's a load of crap. I mean, yeah, you don't deserve to have to haul my stupid, skinny ass all over and play nursemaid to a guy who can't even watch out for inanimate objects, but something tells me that's not what you meant."

His self-deprecation makes me angry. "You're not!" I growl. "Not stupid. Not skinny."

He snorts. "Try that again? I'm the same height as you and weigh about twenty pounds less," he says, sounding amused.

I realize he's trying hard to lighten the mood, and I try, for his sake. "You're an ectomorph," I say.

"What's that?"

"Ah. . . lightly built."

"Skinny," he repeats assertively.

I can't help but smile at the satisfaction in his tone. "I don't see you so."

"Because you're unhinged," he says affectionately. "Come to bed. Let's talk."

I stiffen.

He must feel the tension under his hand. "What?" he says, frustrated. "What did I say?"

"Ray. . . I'm. . . I'm beginning to think I really am."

There. It's out. The relief is nearly unbelievable. I suck in a deep, shuddering breath, let it out. God. It feels good to tell someone, even if it means . . . the end of us.

"You are what?" he asks, stealing my relief.

I struggle again, to find my voice. "Unhinged. Truly."

His hand tightens on my thigh, then soothes in a circular pattern. "You're not unhinged. I shouldn't say that. It was a joke, okay? A bad joke. I won't call you that any more."

"No, I mean it. I think . . . I think I am. I've wondered, for some time, but lately. . . today . . . ."

He sighs and moves to sit next to me, pulling the Hudson Bay blankets up around us, closing us in a woolen cocoon. "Yeah. Today. What the hell happened out there?"

"I don't know. I was . . . there. But not there. I was somewhere else. Sometime else. You kept turning into my mother."

He looks at me sharply, the faint glow of firelight through the stove window lighting a frown. "Your mother? How?"

"I saw you lying there, and I could see you, but I could see her, too. You both had blue scarves. It was so strange. . . like I was seeing her death, and yours, at the same time."

"But I'm not dead, remember?"

"I know. I know that now. But then, all I could see was death, and that I had killed you. Both of you."

He makes a startled sound. "Ben, Holloway Muldoon killed your mother."

"I know. I know that too. But if I had gone out sooner, he might have seen me. Surely he wouldn't have done it then. Or I could have let the dogs loose, or . . . something. I should have done something."

He stares at me for a long moment, then he shakes his head. "Ben, if you'd have gone out sooner, odds are you'd be dead too," he says flatly, destroying my fantasy. "You were six God-damned years old, Ben. Just a baby."

"Not a baby!" I say, and then wince at how much I just sounded like what I denied I was.

He's not having it, in any case. "For all intents and purposes, yes you were. Listen, if you see a six year old kid on the street all by himself alone, do you think 'okay, that's cool,' or do you think about calling child protective services? Tell me that?"

"Well, I would call CPS, of course, but I was a rather different child. . . ."

"And you're a different grown up, too, but that doesn't mean you're crazy, Ben. It also doesn't mean you could have done anything to keep your mom alive. Look, your dad, a full grown man, a trained and armed cop, couldn't stop him. What makes you think you could've?"

"I just . . . feel it."

"And I feel like it's a lazy Saturday night in Chicago but that doesn't make it true," Ray says drily. "So this afternoon . . . you thought it was kind of happening again? And that freaked you out?"

"I . . . essentially, I suppose that's a fair summation."

"Okay, I can see that. The gunshot, the blood. I mean, hey, that'd freak me out and I don't have any bad shit from when I was a kid to stir up. For you it must have been kind of like a bad trip without benefit of chemistry."

It's so ridiculously apt that I hear myself laugh once, sharply. "Yes. Yes, very much so."

"Okay. So you freaked out. Got a little whacked. That doesn't mean you did anything wrong."

I shake my head sharply. "I could have killed you!"

"Uh hunh. How?"

"By not taking care of you. If you'd been seriously injured then my 'freak out' as you put it could have delayed your care fatally."

He shakes his head wearily. "Got news for you. If I'd been seriously injured I'd be dead anyway because we were on a freakin' dogsled in the middle of nowhere. It's not like you could put on the siren and hustle me off to Joe's General Hospital."

I pull away from him, my hand over my face. "I know that. I know that. I should never have brought you here. It's too dangerous. You're not safe here."

He shoves himself to his feet and stares at me, hands fisted on his hips. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness enough that he's clearly visible to me, an endearingly ridiculous sight in his baggy long-johns.

"Fraser! Goddamn it, will you stop? I am thirty-five years old. I'm responsible for myself. And the world's not a safe place, anywhere. I could get killed as easy on the streets of Chicago as I can here. Easier in fact, with all the people I ticked off over the years gunning for me. Hell, I could keel over with a heart attack in an hour. You can't keep me safe. No one can. It's just not in the cards."

"I know that," I say hoarsely. It's strange, when he puts it that way, I can see he's right. There's absolutely no question. It doesn't keep me from feeling as if I should be able to anyway. "But . . . ."

"No. No 'buts,' Ben. I can't live like that. You can't live like that. We can't live like that. You're the smart one, think it through. Who am I? Would I want to live like that? Would you want me if I did?"

I think about it. He's right, again. "No. We can't. You wouldn't. I wouldn't. It's not . . . you."

"Damn straight it's not. And it's not you either, this whole thing. This isn't like you. You're the guy who risks our lives in wildly bizarre fashions. So where is this coming from? It only started after you brought in Muldoon."

"No, before that," I say, then wish I hadn't.

"Before that? When before that?"

"When . . . when Ray almost died for me. When you almost died for me." More than once. Both of them.

He looks at me for a few seconds, then he moves close and pulls me close, my face against his belly. Through his thermals I can hear his stomach working on dinner. He strokes my hair, then hugs me, then pushes me away a little so he can look down into my face.

"Maybe we think you're worth it, hey? It's our choice. You got nothing to feel bad about. You didn't tell us to do it. You didn't ask us to do it. Now come to bed, my feet are cold."

* * *

I wake up from a dream of Ray cold and still in the snow, nothing bright or golden about him now. I reach out to touch him, to make sure, and find only empty space beside me. My heart seems to stop for a moment, only to start again, faster, harder. My stomach tightens into a knot, and I start to sweat, terrified. Coming bolt upright, I scramble to my knees, feeling all around. . . nothing. He's not here. I'm alone. Oh God, have I only imagined him alive? Am I that far gone?

"Ray?" I call "Ray? Ray!"

Nothing. No answer but the sound of a sap-bubble popping in the heat of the stove. I did imagine it all. And if he's not here then I must have left him . . . out there. Left him lying alone, vulnerable to predators. . . the thought makes me gag. I get up and stumble to the sink, retching into it, sobbing as I fumble to find matches and light a lantern. Somehow I drop the lamp, hear the glass break, feel liquid splash my feet, smell the sharp, potent stench of kerosene. I stand there, matches in hand, trying to think what to do when suddenly the outer door opens and someone comes in, closing the door quickly.

"Brrrr," Ray's voice. Ray's voice. "Stupid place to put the john, I tell you Dief," he whispers.

"Ray?" My voice is shaky.

"Yeah, 's me. Sorry, didn't mean to wake you up. Had to make a trip to the little boy's room. So did Dief."

"You're alive!" I gasp, and fling myself bodily at him, ignoring the stab of pain in my feet as I move. He's all right. He's here. He's all right. I didn't kill him. I didn't leave him.

He seems startled, but he hugs me back without hesitation, his hands soothing my back. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Jeez, what, you have a bad dream again?"

I nod, holding him close, tight, wanting to keep him there forever, but at the same time wanting to push him away from me, wanting to make him go somewhere that he'll be safe, and that place isn't with me. But if he's not with me, I can't know he's safe. And. . . that's irrational. I take a step back and shake my head, trying to shake some sense into myself. As I do, he sniffs audibly.

"You smell like a lawnmower. What is that?"

"Kerosene. I dropped the lamp. It doesn't matter."

"No, okay, except it stinks. You get it on you? Stay away from the fireplace. Where's the matches? I'll light the other lamp, we'll clean up."

I hand him the matches I'm still carrying and release him, reluctantly, but I want to see his face. Want that reassurance. A moment later the second lamp glows to life and he's standing there, long johns, boots, coat, hat. His face is stubbled, bruised, still lumpy, but the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I stand there smiling at him, until he smiles back a little shyly, then he looks around, then down. "Okay, where's the lamp . . . holy shit. Fraser! You're bleeding!"

I look down, see bloody footprints, belatedly realize the pain in my feet was from walking on broken glass. His gaze lifts to my face again, and I know he can see that I've been crying. He frowns.

"Bad dreams, or bad awake?"

"Bad . . . awake," I admit.

He nods. "Thought so. Like before?"

"Not so bad, but . . . sort of."

"I should've told you I was going."

I shake my head sharply. "No. No, you shouldn't have. I need to . . . get a grip."

He looks at me for a second, and nods. "Yeah. Yeah, you do." He sighs. "Okay, go sit down, I'll fix up your. . . wait, don't move, is there glass in those cuts? Let me see." He leans over and I lift one foot, then the other. He looks relieved. "No, looks clean, pretty shallow. Lucky. Go sit." He points at the couch, two steps away. I sit. Dief comes and pushes his nose under my hand, eyeing me worriedly. I know I must be badly off if even Dief is treating me kindly.

I scrub my hands over my face, listen to Ray pouring hot water into a pan from the cast-iron kettle on the stove. I'd put it there to humidify the cabin a little, but it looks like it was a good idea for other reasons as well. He sets the pan down beside me and goes away again. Getting the first-aid supplies, no doubt. He pauses for a moment to rid himself of his coat, hat, and boots before coming back to kneel at my feet, holding up a slightly stained washrag.

"Figured I'd use this one since it's already got blood on it, 'less you're afraid of Kowalski cooties."

"Cooties?" I ask, not sure what he means. I have no idea what a 'cootie' is.

He chuckles. "Invisible bugs. Sorta like germs. Grade school girls are scared spitless of them."

He's teasing me. I understand now. "Ah. Related to snipe, no doubt?"

He grins. "Yeah. Probably. Guess there goes the snipe hunt idea."

"Well, I'm not sure Diefenbaker knows about snipe."

He looks at Dief and grins. "No? Cool. So, this okay?"

"Certainly. After all, at this point we probably share about ninety percent of our communicable 'cooties' anyway."

He nods, dips the rag into the water, then looks up again. "Ninety percent, yeah, but this is blood, Ben, so if you've got concerns, I'll go get a different one. I mean, you didn't want to . . . and I got that, and that's okay. It could be dangerous. But you know I'm clean, I've never had anything I could pass on that way, but it's good to be careful anyway."

It dawns on me finally, what he's saying, what he must have thought the other night when I refused to 'jump out that window' with him, and my face goes hot.

"It wasn't that. Please know that. You said you were clean before, and I trust you."

He nods, a flush on his face. "Okay. Just wanted to be sure, you know." He soaps up the rag, picks up one of my feet, and goes to work cleaning blood and kerosene from it. It stings a bit, but he's very gentle. After a moment he speaks again, not looking up. "You remember what I made you promise, when I thought you were staying in Canada and I was never going to see you again?"

I think back to that night, nod, slowly, something clutching at my gut. "Yes."

"I'm holding you to that. I want to help you. I want to be here. I fucking love you. But I don't know what to do about this. What if this keeps happening? What if it gets worse? You need someone with a clue, and that ain't me."

I shudder, suddenly freezing. "I . . . I'm afraid."


"What if I really am crazy?"

"You're not crazy," Ray states flatly. "I mean, yeah, you're crazy but you're not crazy," he says, and somehow I understand what he means. "You got a problem, there's some stuff going on that needs fixing. That doesn't make you all over crazy."

"I . . . know."

He fixes me with a narrow glare until he's sure I mean it, then he nods. "Good."

He looks down at my foot again, and I stare at the top of his head, thinking about the last time I had any sort of therapy. A whole-body shudder goes through me, and my mouth is moving before I've thought it through. "Ray, I don't want to be fixed." Lord. I'm whining, I realize, revolted.

He looks up, surprised, no, shocked. "What?"

"No, I mean, I want the problem to be fixed, but I don't want them to try to fix me, who I am. God, I'm not making sense. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. Take your time. Tell me what you're afraid of."

I lean back, rub my eyes, and stare at the ceiling. "I've been in a mental hospital before." Since I'm not looking at him I feel, rather than see, his reaction. A little flinch. I look down, see him looking at me with a startled expression. "It was for a case, an undercover assignment, but the disconcerting thing I realized at the time was that just being myself was enough to get me admitted. They thought I was delusional simply for being who and what I am. They wanted to 'fix' me."

He dries my foot, smooths antibiotic ointment over the cuts, then tapes a gauze pad across it. Picking up my other foot he sets to work on it, then looks at me. "And you don't want to be fixed."

"No. The thought terrifies me. I know it's irrational, but. . . I can't help the way I feel."

"No, you can't. But let me tell you, that idea scares me more than a little myself. I don't want you to be fixed either. I like you just the way you are. Well, without the little side trips to alternate reality that you seem to be taking lately, but I think those are the only thing that needs much fixing."

"But what if they can't fix that without fixing me?"

He starts to rub his forehead, inadvertently touches the bruise and winces. "I don't know. But you can't keep going like this."

"No. But . . . I don't know what to do."

He looks up again, surprised. "Was that hard to say?"

"Horribly," I admit, my voice cracking a little.

"That's what I figured." He laughs wryly. "So I guess what we need is to find you a crazy psychiatrist. Or maybe there's some Inuit ceremony you can do or something?"

I know he's joking, but it's like a thunderclap. Crazy psychiatrist. Inuit ceremony. Yes. Of course. I'd even thought of this before, but the idea got lost in the wild ride of the last few weeks. "I have an idea."

He looks up from taping gauze onto my left foot. "What?"

"I need Eric."

He looks nonplused. "Eric? Who's Eric? How come you need him?"

"Eric," I say firmly, "is what might be termed a 'crazy psychiatrist.' Though he's Tsimshian not Inuit, but I don't expect that matters since I'm neither."

"Wait, wait. . . are you talking about that guy." He thinks for a moment, snapping his fingers as if to hurry his memory along. "Is this that guy from the museum fraud case that you and Vecchio solved?"

"Yes. I am."

"Fraser, that guy's a crook!" Ray snaps.

"Well, not exactly," I say, consciously stopping myself from scratching my eyebrow, knowing that's a dead giveaway.

"I read that file."

"Then you know Ms. Kelly was the culprit."

"I know she was one of the culprits. Seemed to me, reading between the lines, like that Eric guy had to be in on some of what went on."

"Nothing was ever proven."

"Yeah, and I'm straight. Fraser, we're talking about your mind here. This is serious."

Ray is being characteristically emphatic. I have to remind myself that he's worried about me, not simply being obstructionist.

"Believe me, I know that."

"You need a trained professional. Not some activist whacko."

"He is a trained professional," I explain patiently, hoping Ray never decides to call Eric that to his face.

"A trained professional what? Thief?"

"Shaman. And psychologist. He would have received his MA in psychology had he not left the program just prior to graduation."

"So how do you know he would've graduated? Maybe he would've flunked out! I don't want some wannabe messing with your head."

"I know, Ray, because I wrote him a letter of support during the time he was still trying to work with the school. I spoke with some of his professors. He felt that he was being discriminated against, and I believe he was correct. He was being pressured to give up his heritage, to renounce the efficacy of the traditional shamanistic practices in which he had been trained, and he refused. I respect him for that, and from all reports he's been quite successful in combining therapeutic styles from two different worlds. The important thing is that he would respect my need to maintain my individuality while still working on the. . . problem."

Ray's silent finally, I guess I've addressed all his objections. He doesn't look happy though. Or even neutral. He's frowning fiercely. I lean forward and put my hand on his shoulder. "Ray?"

He sighs, sags a bit. "Damn it, Ben. Okay. All right. I understand. It's just . . . ." He shrugs, frustrated. "I'm scared too."

"I'm sorry," I whisper, feeling a wave of guilt for inflicting this on him, making him deal with me having some sort of mental breakdown.

"Oh no you don't, damn it." He reaches up, grabs my arm and pulls me down, kisses me hard, then lets me go with a grimace.

"Ben, go brush your teeth."

"Sorry," I mutter, and this time he doesn't object. I stand up, find my feet don't hurt too badly, I don't actually hobble as I take a tentative step toward the kitchen.

"Wait. Let me get that glass up first," he says, darting over to gather up the broken pieces of the lamp and dispose of them. He takes the lit lamp over to check for smaller pieces then seems satisfied. "Okay, coast is clear. Don't step in the kerosene. It's kind of spread around. How the hell do we get that out of the floorboards?"

"We don't, most of it will evaporate. The rest will soak in. Just don't drop a match," I say, going to the sink. I pump enough water to rinse the evidence of my loss of control down the drain and then brush my teeth. When I finish, Ray is back in bed, the covers on my side turned back in invitation. I take a step, then notice that his arms, resting on top of the covers, are bare. My gaze follows them upward, to bare shoulders, bare chest.

"Aren't you cold?" I ask automatically.

He shakes his head. "No. Not with these bags. Got too hot before."

I nod, licking my lips, wondering if it's yet another sign of mental instability that even after the events of the past few hours I can be so easily distracted by the thought of him naked. He must have seen me do it, because he grins wickedly.

"Come on. You too. Off with the jammies. We haven't had a chance to get seriously naked in days."

"But, Ray, your head. . . ."

"Isn't bad enough to make me not want you in bed naked. What are you waiting for?"

"It just seems . . . presumptuous."

"We don't have to have sex, you know," he says. "Just be naked with me."

I look at him askance. "I've noticed, Ray, that with you the one generally leads to the other."

"Guilty," he says, smiling. "Hey, I'm a guy. Sex makes everything better. For that matter, you're a guy. Didn't anybody ever tell you you're supposed to think that?"

"I must have missed that day in class," I say drily, but my hands are working the buttons on my long-johns, then stripping the thick fabric off. Naked, I sit next to him and reach over to the table to turn out the lamp, but he stops me with a hand on my arm.

"Leave it on a little."

I turn to look at him. "Why?"

"I just want it on. I like looking at you."

I feel myself flush, but nod, and slide into bed beside him. He pulls me close, wrapping himself around me, kissing me almost chastely, then nuzzling my collar bone. Despite his earlier teasing he makes no move to arouse me, and after a few minutes I find myself relaxing. After a little longer, I find my hands moving, without conscious thought, a long, slow, stroke down his back, up again.

"Nice," he mutters against my shoulder. "Feels good."

I nod. It does feel good, just to touch, to be touched. It doesn't really matter if there's sexual intent, which at the moment there isn't. It's miraculous enough just to revel in skin against my skin, the warmth and weight of human affection against me. I breathe in and let his scent fill my senses with his presence, tighten my arms around him. He rolls onto his side and pulls me with him, hugging me back, just as hard, until I feel my ribs creak a little. Releasing me, Ray drags the pillow over and wrestles it around until it's under both our heads, and sighs.


"'Night," I whisper.

I feel him sink into sleep. Naked. Touching. There's such utter trust in him. It scares the hell out of me, but at the same time it makes me feel. . . full, inside. And the unmistakable physical presence of him in my arms is reassuring. Hopefully having him there means I'll take no more, as he put it, 'side trips to an alternate reality.' At least not tonight.

* * *

A dream of making love with Ray gradually fades into the reality of Ray's lean strength, my body rocking a little against his, my erection snugged into the shallow groove between his buttocks. One of my hands is splayed across his chest, the other is lower, cupping the hot, silky length of his penis. His hips echo my movements, heightening the pleasure. I'm not entirely sure he's awake until I kiss the back of his neck and he pushes back against me.

"Yeah," he growls. "Oh, yeah."

I take my hand off his chest, steadying myself as I shift my weight a little, pushing him onto his stomach, my other hand still cups his penis, between him and the bed. My erection is between his thighs now, against the smooth stretch of skin behind his scrotum. It's warm there, and dampening with sweat, and the slickness of my own arousal. The feel of him naked, and willing, more than willing, excited, and here. . . it's hard to process the joy of it. I want the moment to last forever, though I know it can't. I just want to stay here, with him, frozen in time.

I drag my teeth across the curve of his shoulder, lick the side of his neck, and suck on his ear. Small and high-set, his ears hold an unaccountable fascination for me. I've felt jealous of Dief for months because he could get away with licking them and I couldn't. Now I can. Ray seems to like it better when I do it. He shivers visibly, and moans and pushes into my hand. I can feel him getting harder. Tentatively I trace the inner convolutions with a tongue-tip, and he laughs and shivers again.

"I can't decide if that's weird or hot," he says huskily, his hips moving, rubbing his cock against my hand over and over, a slow, steady rhythm.

Every time he moves, his thighs and buttocks tighten and brush against my own erection. I let myself thrust a little, savoring the explosion of sensation through me, an ecstatic, yearning ache. I shift my hand a little, curl my fingers around his shaft, feeling the slick film of his pre-ejaculate ease the slide of him against my palm. I kiss his neck, suck on it, remembering what that slickness tastes like, the tingle and burn of it on my tongue.

I want to taste him now. Want to turn him over, take him in my mouth, suck him until he can't hold back, until he gives me everything. My hand tightens a little and he bucks and moans. My penis moves smoothly between his thighs, pumping, that ache increasing to where it blocks out anything but the feel of his skin against my skin. He's shaking, I can feel it, but I don't want him to come yet. I move my hand, grip a little harder, just so, and he gasps, his thighs tightening.

That's more sensation than I can stand, and I moan, pressing hard against him as pleasure thunders through me, sudden, and sweet, and I pulse out my release between his legs. I lie on him, gasping, for a few moments, until my breathing evens, until my scattered wits return and I feel him hard and heavy in my hand, waiting. I know what he wants, what he needs. I lift off him, slip my free hand between his legs to gather my own slick wetness on my fingers, then I nudge him. "Turn over."

He does it unquestioningly, turning onto his back, legs splayed, his cock upthrust between them, an offering. I slide my hand under him, behind his balls, and he bends his knees, shifting his hips upward to give me the access I want, he wants. I stroke the small opening over and over, my semen easing the way, until it yields to my fingers, and they sink inside, feeling the clutch of his hot flesh around them. He moans, his hips moving instinctively, and I lean down to complete my fantasy, taking him in my mouth.

I keep it gentle and slow. He sighs softly, his fingers slide and stroke my hair, touch my face, my lips around him.

"So good. . . ." he whispers breathlessly. "Good."

Suck harder, lick, push my fingers deeper, until he gasps, shuddering.

"God!" Ray gasps, and he can't stay still, his hips lift and rock erratically, as if he's not sure which he wants more, my mouth or my fingers. I just keep giving him both, until he arches, moans, and I feel the pulse start, deep inside, feel the spurt of heat over my tongue, the sting of salt. I let his semen pool on my tongue until he's finished, then I swallow, and finally let him go, easing my fingers out. He sags bonelessly against the bed, chest heaving, and I slide up next to him, pulling him close, holding him with one arm, and thigh across his.

After a little while he reaches over and cups my face with his hand, then turns his head, finds my mouth and kisses me, a long, slow, very thorough kiss. Finally he pulls back, licks his lips, and smiles at me, blindingly.

"Christ, Ben, I'd tell you I love you but I don't want you to think I just mean your blow jobs."

I feel my face get hot, absolutely ridiculous, and press it against his shoulder, trying to hide the blush from him.

He chuckles and soothes me with cool fingertips. "You know it's more than that, right?"

Yes. I do. He's far more open with himself than I am, than I know how to be. I manage a nod, and he seems satisfied. I can feel the reciprocal words fighting to get out, to get past the thickness in my throat, but they can't. I wonder if it hurts him that I don't say it back, or if he understands, but I can't ask that either. He doesn't say anything, never presses, never even looks a question at me. I wish I could be more like him. After a few minutes of absently stroking my hair, he shifts and squints over at the window.

"That sunlight?"

"Mm, yes," I say, looking at the slice of white and gold showing through the window.

"Damn. I was hoping we'd get snowed in."

"Not this time, it seems."

He nods. "Dogs are probably hungry."

Dief lifts his head to look at us from over the back of the couch, making an interrogatory sound.

Ray chuckles. "You sure he's deaf?"

"So the vet told me, but perhaps some hearing function has been restored over time."

"Seems like it. Okay, since you're laid up I'll go take care of the critters."

"Laid up?"

"Your feet."

My feet. Memories surge back through me like water through a broken dam. God. I'd forgotten. Forgotten last night. Forgotten yesterday. My gaze goes to his face. The swelling is down and the bruising looks worse, but he doesn't appear to be in pain. I can't believe I forgot. How can I keep him safe if I don't remember he's in danger? I flex my feet experimentally. "They're not very sore. I can help."

"I know you can, but you don't have to."

"I want to," I say. What I don't say is that I'm half afraid to let him out of my sight, fearing a repeat of last night.

He shrugs. "Okay, suit yourself. If it was me I'd let the guy volunteering to go out in the cold do it by himself, but you're not me, thank God." He grins, slides out from half-under me, and sits up. Deprived of his support I end up on my belly, and he smacks me on the buttocks. "Go on, get up."

I sit up, glaring at him. "Do that again and you'll find yourself on the receiving end."

"Ooh, promises, promises," he says, turning away to pick up his long underwear and step into them.

It's tempting to return the favor, but I did say next time, so it wouldn't be sportsmanlike. I get up, gingerly testing my feet, but though they're a little stiff and sore it's nothing I can't deal with. Luckily, the cuts were extremely shallow. I'm surprised they even bled. I dress quickly as Ray feeds Dief, and then we ready the team's rations. The dogs are overjoyed at the sight of food, as usual, and in short order they're fed and watered. I lean down to pick up the empty water bucket and glance at the sled where it sits in shelter of the cabin's lee side.

Dogs barking excitedly, maybe startled by the shotgun blast, on their feet and ready to run as the man kicks the snowhook free and steps onto the footboards. He's running a double lead team, and the left swing dog is a dark charcoal color, almost black. "Hike!" he yells, his voice harsh and hoarse, but I can barely hear him over my father's sobbing, which is suddenly closer. I turn to look back at my parents, still trying to comprehend, and am gathered tightly in my father's arms, held with my face against the cold, slick fur of his parka.

"Benton, Lord God, no. No, don't look. Don't look son. Come on, let's go inside now. It's too cold for you to be out here without your coat and boots."

I resist, trying to pull away, to look around his solid bulk. "But Mom, she'll get cold . . . ."

He makes a strange, deep, broken sound, then sucks in a breath and pats my hair. "It's all right, son, she won't be cold. I promise you, don't worry. Let's go inside. I need to radio in. I need to call . . . someone. . . I don't . . . ah, Buck. Mother and Dad. Yes, that's it."

"Are you sure she won't get cold?"

He wipes his eyes on his sleeve. "I'm sure, son. I'll take her a blanket, all right?"

I nod slowly, and let him lead me back into the house. My hair feels funny where he patted it, and I reach up to touch it, finding it starting to freeze together in clumps, but wet close to my scalp, where it's warmest. I lower my hand and look at my red fingertips, puzzled. Dad gasps, and grabs my hand and . . .
"Fraser! Jesus, Fraser! Ben! Snap out of it! Come on!"

Everything rocks. I blink, startled, the scene whiting out, becoming familiar, yet unfamiliar. I'm cold, that's nothing new. A cabin, but not our cabin. A sled, but a modern one. A team of dogs, eating, ignoring me. And. . . Ray. Ray looking panicked, shaking me, saying my name. My eyes feel oddly dry, and my perspective is strange, I'm looking up at him. I don't remember kneeling, but I am, and my pants are cold and wet, which tells me I've been kneeling long enough for my body heat to start melting the snow.

I frown, trying to make all the pieces fit. "Ray?"

He lets out a gasp of relief and pulls me roughly against him, my face against his fur parka, stirring a shudder from me.

"Ben. Thank God. You're back?

"Back?" I ask, puzzled.

"You with me?" he says.

"Clearly," I say, still confused.

He frowns "Okay, inside. Now."

His tone brooks no disobedience, and for once I'm not inclined to argue as I start to understand what just happened. I get up. I reach to pick up the now-empty water bucket and the bag of dried dog-salmon.

"I'll get those!" he snaps.

"It's not my back that's damaged," I say quietly.

He flinches. "You're not . . . " he begins, then breaks off and grabs the bucket handle. "Gimme the bucket, then."

I surrender the bucket and let him herd me back into the cabin. Wordlessly we strip off our outer garments and he goes to the kitchen, rattling around, getting out a pan, pulling our oatmeal out of the provisions bag. I remove my boots slowly, careful not to break open any of the cuts. Slowly I start piecing things together, and realize what happened. Suddenly he stops, the bag still held in his hands, and looks at me with worried eyes.

"What was it this time?"

"I . . . remembered. More. After."

Instantly he puts down the bag and comes over, pulling me close. I feel Diefenbaker pressing against my legs, both of them trying to comfort me.

"Tell me," Ray says.

"There's not much to tell. I remembered my father coming to me after Muldoon left with his team. He held me so I couldn't see her, and took me in the house. He . . . touched my hair."

"That doesn't sound so bad," Ray says hopefully.

"His hands were bloody," I say tonelessly. Ray's gaze goes to my hair, and I can see from his wince that he understands.

"Christ," he breathes. "Anything else?"

"I was afraid she would get cold. He promised me she wouldn't. He promi . . . ."

My voice breaks and I push Ray away, and go to sit on the bed, turned away from him. I don't want him to see me like this, don't want him to pity me. I turn away. He comes over after a moment and sits beside me, puts his hand on my shoulder. Not petting, not soothing, just. . . there. A sure presence. Dief jumps up on the bed and whines, putting his head on my thigh. At first Ray says nothing while I struggle against the tears, but finally he speaks.

"Ben, this can't wait. We need to get you help now."

I nod. He's right, I know he is. In this state I'm a danger to myself and to him.

"This Eric guy, how do we get ahold of him?"

"I . . . don't know. I'm out of touch."

Ray's fingers tighten on my shoulder, then release. "Fraser. Think. If he's the only guy that you'll trust to help you with this, we need to get you to him, or him to you, immediately if not sooner. How can we reach him?"

I think harder, rubbing my forehead. "Quinn."


"Yes. I think Quinn will know how to contact him."

"Okay. How do we get Quinn?"

It's a simple question. I should know the answer, but for a moment no answer comes to mind.


His voice somehow kick-starts my reasoning abilities. "His address and phone number are in my address book, in my pack."

Ray nods. "Okay, good, I'll get it. How are you feeling?"

I shiver. "Fine."

He puts his hand on my knee and yanks it back. "Get the wet pants off, now, and get under the covers. You're probably a little shocky. I'll get you some hot tea, and make oatmeal." He grins. "Show you how it is with brown sugar and milk."

"I'm not hungry," I say, starting to unfasten my trousers.

"What did you tell me about all the calories we gotta eat up here to stay healthy in this environment?" he asks severely.

I sigh. "Why is it you can never remember the things I actually want you to remember?" I ask, standing up to take off my trousers.

He chuckles. "Because then I couldn't say 'I told you so.'"

"Are you going to fuss over me?" I ask, putting my trousers over the back of a chair near the stove to dry.

"Yeah. So just sit down and take it like a man."

I sigh, long-sufferingly, and settle into bed, pulling up the covers. He may be right, I do feel far colder than I should, considering the ambient temperature. The cup of tea he brings me a few moments later is blessedly warming and the oatmeal is better than I expected. Probably because he knows my tolerance for refined sugar is nowhere near his own and he used a light hand with it. After I eat I'm tired, even though I've done nothing to warrant it, and I doze while he cleans up, feeling vaguely guilty all the while.

I finally rouse myself a bit when I realize he's talking, and am about to ask him to repeat himself when I realize he's not talking to me. He's on the Iridium4 phone I borrowed from the RCMP for the trip. I listen to his end of the conversation, feeling even more guilty that he's doing this for me. I should be the one calling Quinn.

". . . yeah, Ray Kowalski. Fraser's partner, from Chicago, remember me? Uh hunh. That's right. Yeah, they're fine. Living in Skokie now. Look, I have a kind of weird question for you. Fraser's going through some . . . stuff, and needs to get ahold of a guy. He thinks you might know how to get in touch."        

"Ray," I say quietly into the pause as Quinn makes an unheard reply to Ray.

He startles and looks at me. "Hang on," he says into the phone. "Thought you were asleep," he says to me.

"Just resting my eyes." I hold out my hand. "Please?"

He hesitates, then nods. "Quinn? I'm putting Fraser on now, one sec."

He hands me the phone. I swallow, and hope my voice sounds natural. "Hello, Quinn."

"Hello, Ben. How are you?"

"I'm . . . physically well."

He absorbs that. "I see. What can I do?"

"Do you know where Eric Starr is these days?"

"Last I heard he was still in Lax Kw'Alaams. What do you want with that ornery brat, anyway?" Quinn asks, his voice laden with humor.

Eric and I were quite a trial to him at times, Eric especially, or so Quinn tells me. He probably tells Eric the opposite. I clear my throat. "I need his assistance in a personal matter," I hedge, not quite willing to confess all, even to Quinn, who knows me better than my own father ever did while he was alive. Probably better than he did after he was dead, for that matter.

"Mmm," Quinn says, letting me know he knows I'm hedging. "I think I have his number. Called him to come when Gus Dennis took sick. You in trouble, Ben?"

"Not . . . exactly.' I should have known he wouldn't let me get away with it. "I'm having some difficulties related to my mother's death."

"That was a long time ago," he says.

"Yes." I let it stand at that.

"Ah," he says, as if things are suddenly clear. "A circle left unclosed?"

"Apparently so," I say, glad he understands.

"Hold on, I'll get that number for you."

Quinn puts the phone down, I hear it click against a hard surface. I gesture for Ray to get something to write with. He nods, ready with my address book and pen. Over the phone I hear footsteps, the sound of a metal file drawer opening. Papers rustling. Less that two minutes pass before Quinn returns and rattles off the number to me. I repeat it twice for Ray who writes it in my book.

"Thank you," I say. "I appreciate it."

"Anytime. You need anything, you call me, understand?"

"Yes. I do." He means that, and I know he does. It feels good. "May I . . . can I ask you a question?"

"Sure. Shoot."

"My mother. Do you remember if I ever spoke of her when I was younger?"

"No. No, you never did. I remember thinking that was odd."

"Do you recall if my father or my grandparents ever spoke of her?"

"Hmm." He thinks for a moment, then replies. "No, they didn't, not really, other than to say she was gone."

"Did they ever mention how she died?"

"Not that I recollect, no. I can ask around, though."

"No, no, I know how she died. I just wondered if they told anyone at the time. It's . . . another piece of the circle."

"Ah," he says. "Well, you call Eric. He may still be a brat, but he's good at what he does. And you tell him to call me if he needs me. I'll come help."

My eyes tear up. He's making me a member of his community with that offer, telling me he considers me family. It's a tremendous thing. "I'm honored."

He snorts rudely. "Don't be a pain in the ass, Ben. Go, call Eric."

"Yes, I will. Thank you, good bye."


I end the call and check the battery indicator. We have a solar charger for it, but it's slow. Fortunately there's still enough charge for a call or two. I look at Ray and hold out my hand for the address book. Instead of giving it to me, he takes my hand and sits down beside me, his fingers wrapped around mine, the address book held so I can read it. Unfortunately it proves too awkward to dial the phone one-handed so he lets go of my hand after squeezing it lightly. I draw a deep breath, dial the number, and initiate the call.

For a moment I hope Eric doesn't answer, that it simply rings on, or that the number really belongs to an elderly former cannery worker, or has been disconnected, but the voice that answers after four rings is familiar, dashing that hope.

"Hello Eric," I say. I don't identify myself. I'm not really sure why, other than some vague thought that if he doesn't recognize my voice I can hang up.

There's a moment of silence, then a harshly expelled breath. "Hello, Mountie." He chuckles a little. "Now I know why I've been dreaming of blackfish."

Blackfish. Orca. His people call them wolves of the sea. Eric has always said that if I were Tsimshian, that would probably be my clan. "You could simply be dreaming of whales for no particular reason," I point out.

"I could be, but I wasn't. You need my help."

It's not really a question but I treat it as such. "Yes."

"Where are you?" He doesn't waste time.

I'm a little taken aback, but I answer. "About two kilometers north of Joe's Place, in one of John's cabins."

He sighs. "Leave it to you to pick practically the least accessible spot in creation. Can you travel?"

"I . . . it might not be wise."

"Then I guess the doctor will have to make a house call."

"Eric, wait, don't you want to know. . . ."

"No. I don't need to know now. I dreamed. You called. That's all I need to know. I'll see you soon."

I start to protest but he's cut the connection. I thumb the off button and sit there for a moment, feeling a little bowled over. Ray nudges me.


I look at him, at once moved and upset by the concern in his eyes. "He's on his way."

Ray looks startled. "What, now? You didn't even ask!"

"No. . . he said he'd dreamed something. It appeared he felt he should come."

"He dreamed something?" A frown puts furrows across his forehead. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Shamans often receive important information through dreams or visions. He must feel that the one he had pertains to my situation."

Ray's scowl deepens. "Great. You're relying on a guy who has visions to stop you from having visions."

For some reason that strikes me as peculiarly amusing, and I find myself laughing. Ray sighs and shakes his head, but after a moment he starts laughing too, and we seem to affect one another in such a way that we can't stop to breathe and end up collapsed on the bed, sides aching, gasping for air. Ray somehow manages to suck in enough breath to speak.

"Guess it shouldn't surprise me, hunh?"

I shake my head. "No. Not at all."

"Par for the course," he says, and rolls over to kiss me, then pulls back. "Okay, when's he going to get here?"

"I have no idea. It's over a thousand miles, not exactly a short hop. He'll have to arrange transportation-- I'm guessing it will be sometime late tomorrow."

Ray nods, then looks around. "We need to do anything?"

"Nothing really, he knows where we are. Oh, wait, we need to call John and let him know we're here and using the cabin, and that we'll arrange to get him the rental fee shortly. I should have thought of that yesterday. I don't know why I didn't."

"Well, neither of us were thinking too clearly," Ray says wryly. "John's number in your book?"

I nod, and he looks it up and dials, speaks to John, explaining that he was injured in a minor accident and we took shelter here and would like to stay for a while until he recovers. It's not really true, but I suppose it's hard to tell someone your partner has lost his mind. They dicker for a few moments over the cost. I would have paid whatever he asked, but Ray seems to enjoy haggling. John probably does too. Neither of them has my nonsensical value set. Ray tells John we're expecting a visitor, but doesn't name him. Again, respecting my privacy, I suppose. Ray listens for a moment and then mutes the phone and looks over at me. "He says he'll come over later with sheets for the bed, and more fuel for the lamps and we can pay him then. That okay?"

"Yeah, that's fine."

He repeats my sentiment into the phone and ends the call. Turning the phone off he turns back to me. "Okay, so how do we kill time until your headcase headshrinker shows up?"

"Ray," I say severely. "Please."

"Okay, okay. Sorry. Still, what do we do?"

"Since we'll be here for a few days at least, we should probably go ahead and settle in. Put our provisions in the cupboards, tidy up. We could do some hand laundry."

Ray snorts. "Yeah, I want my jockeys drying on the line when some stranger shows up." He reaches over and ruffles my hair, shaking his head. "You can be so dense sometimes. Actually, what needs washing isn't my clothes. I don't guess, given the fact that the can is out back, that there's any way to take a bath here?"

"There may be a tub," I speculate aloud, looking around. "Check there," I say, indicating the cupboard next to the kitchen that might be large enough to hold one.

He gets up and goes and opens the door, then shakes his head. "Nope, just a closet with a really big . . . oh jeez. Is this what you mean?" he asks, sounding amazed as he bends down and drags out the galvanized steel washtub. "You're kidding right?"

"Well, no, actually."

He shakes his head, staring at it. "I feel like I just walked into an episode of Bonanza or something. I didn't know these still existed."

"I assure you they're quite common in communities without access to running water and electricity."

"Yeah. . . I guess, I just never thought of it." He grins. "Learn something new every day. But how the hell do you get enough hot water to use it? I mean, the kettle would barely put a dent in it, and by the time you heat the next batch the first would be cold."

I smile as memories of standing shivering in exactly such a tub flood me with a prickly sense of nostalgia. "Precisely. Which explains why I was never particularly fond of bath time as a child."

Ray shivers sympathetically. "I bet. Well, if you could do it as a kid, I figure I'm man enough, and ripe enough, to risk it." He goes and gets the water bucket to add water to the kettle to heat. As he starts to put the bucket back down, he looks from it to me. "Can this go on the stove?"

Like the tub, it's galvanized steel, so the heat shouldn't harm it. I nod. "I don't see why not, so long as there's room. Don't fill it too full though, it'll be hard to carry when it's hot."

He gives me a thumb's up gesture, then looks at the stove thoughtfully. "You know, there's a couple of other buckets in the cupboard. I could probably get two buckets on the stove along with the kettle. And if I put the tub in front of the stove and partly fill it with cold water now, it might take a little of the chill off that water by the time the rest is warm."

I'm a little surprised by both his easy acceptance of the situation, and his resourcefulness, both from a man who once professed to break out in a rash on leaving the city. "It might," I say, not sure it will make that much difference, but it's not a bad idea, and bathing in front of the stove will definitely be warmer than if we placed the tub elsewhere.

He drags the tub over in front of the stove and fills it about a third of the way, refusing to let me help, then puts two buckets of water on the stove. It's a tight fit but he manages. While the water heats, he starts unpacking our supplies and stowing them in the kitchen. I can't let him do that by himself as well, and insist on helping. It takes very little time. Once everything is put away, he settles onto the couch to wait with a book on the history of Canada that he picked up in Yellowknife. It seems at once strange, and sweet, to be here with him, quiet for once, no rush, no criminals, no adventure, nothing but . . . us. He looks up and catches me staring at him, and smiles wryly.

"What? Didn't think I could read?"

I run a thumb across my eyebrow and try for a straight face. "Well, I had wondered from time to time, considering the usual state of your reports. . . ."

"Okay, that's enough outta you. Just because you graduated at the top of your class and all doesn't mean you get to rub it in to us poor ignorant Chicago Public School slobs."

It's my turn for a wry grin. "It's not difficult to graduate at the top of one's class when one is the only person in the class."

For a fleeting moment I see sadness in his gaze, but then he shrugs and it's gone. "Well, guess there are advantages and disadvantages to everything. Come on, get your book and sit by me."

I get my own book, Icefields5, out of my pack and go sit next to him. He leans back against the arm of the couch and burrows his icy feet half under my thighs. In the warmth of the cabin I hadn't bothered to put my thermal underwear or pants back on and am wearing only my undershorts. Ray just grins at me when I hiss in shock from that coldness against my bare skin. I give him a look that promises retribution but it fails to fade his grin, and it's hard to plan for retribution when my feet never seem to get as cold as his do. We read in silence until the water on the stove starts to steam, and he gets up and gets the hot pads from the kitchen to use as he pours the contents of all three containers into the tub.

Both buckets and the kettle serve to warm the bath to just above lukewarm, but Ray strips anyway and I react in a way as predictable as Pavlov's dog to a bell, though less immediately messy. I force myself not to distract him. After all, the water won't stay warm for very long. He settles into the tub, not an easy task for a grown man, but he manages and starts to scrub. I suddenly realize I forgot to tell him to save some of the warm water for rinsing. I get up and refill the buckets quickly, only halfway so they won't take as long to heat, and put them back on the stove. He watches me curiously.

"You want a bath too? I'd invite you in but there's hardly even room for me."

I shake my head. "No, though honestly it's not a bad thought. I forgot you'd need rinse water. It won't be hot by the time you're ready, but at least it won't be as cold as it comes out of the pump."

He blinks, and shivers visibly. "Thanks."

I nod, and he goes back to washing. I pretend to read, but even though I turn pages, not a single word impinges on my brain. Instead I find myself simply absorbing the simple pleasure of being here, with him, in this place, so familiar, yet so unfamiliar. I can imagine, with an intensity that's nearly visionary, the two of us in such a place, still together, twenty years from now. Thirty. Forty. Forever. My throat aches and my eyes sting with the utter rightness of that image. And my throat closes tighter as I again realize I can't have it, that I must make him leave me before he comes to some harm more permanent than a bump on the head.

"Hey, Ben?"

I have to clear my throat a bit and blink before I can look up. "Yes?"

"Think the chill's off that water yet? I'm done, and this water's not exactly hot so it's not gonna make much difference."

I get up and go to the stove, holding my hand above the surface of the water for a moment, then dipping a tentative finger in. It's warmer than skin-temperature, barely. "It'll do, I think. Stand up and I'll rinse you."

Ray stands, shampoo bubbles sliding down his shoulders en route to a more southerly destination, and of course he catches me following their path.

"Anybody ever tell you you're a voyeur?" he asks, amused.

"I am not!" I protest, hoisting the bucket. "I was simply appreciating the view from an aesthetic standpoint. Close your eyes."

"Are too," he says, closing his eyes and, quickly, his mouth, as I slowly pour the water over him.

He shivers a little as the water sluices down his bare skin, and once again I'm nearly overwhelmed by that feeling of rightness. I upend the bucket, dumping the last of the water over him, splashing the floor, then drop it and pull him into my arms, holding him close, my hands splaying on his wet back. He makes a surprised sound and struggles a little.

"What are you doing? You're gonna get all wet!"

"Don't care," I mutter into his wet hair, kissing the side of his neck, hugging him.

After a moment his arms go around me in return, holding me firmly. "Freak," he says, in that tone he sometimes uses that lets me know that he thinks that's a good thing. After a few moments I manage to let him go, a little self-consciously. As I start to back away he grabs me and pulls me back in for another go-round, and this time he's the one murmuring "Nice," against my neck. Finally he lets me go and grins. "Hey, I don't need a towel now," he says, getting out of the tub. "What do we do with that?" he asks, waving at the water.

"If it was summer we'd use it to water the garden, but as it's not, we'll toss it out somewhere that it won't cause a patch of ice we might slip on. But actually I think I'll use it myself first."

He shakes his head. "I've heard of recycling, but that's taking it a bit far. Why don't I heat some fresh up for you?"

"You can heat some rinse water if you want, but there's no need to waste this. You weren't that dirty," I say with a wink.

* * *

It's late afternoon when we hear the roar of a snowbike outside the cabin. I stand up and get my pack, looking for my checkbook so I can pay John his rental fee. Ray gets up as well, and gets his pack, and when I realize he's doing the same thing I am, I stop and look at him.

"I'll pay for this, it's my fault."

"Fault doesn't come into it anywhere, Ben. We're partners, we share. Fifty-fifty."

"Ray, that's nonsensical. Why should you have to pay half when we wouldn't need to pay for the cabin if it were not for my . . . condition?"

"What condition? You mean this hearing problem you got all the sudden?" Ray asks sarcastically.

I open my mouth to retort in kind but there's a knock at the door and I don't want to argue with him in front of John so I just glare at Ray as he goes to answer it. I'm still digging for my checkbook, which I know should be in the inner pocket of my pack in a waterproof packet, but it seems to have worked its way down underneath several other items there. I hear the door open, and Ray says

"Hey, J . . . um. . . who are you?"

"Who are you?" a familiar voice asks in return, without answering Ray's question.

I turn so fast I end up losing my equilibrium and going to one knee as I confirm what my ears already told me. "Eric!"

"Eric?" Ray echoes, staring at our visitor.

Eric hasn't changed much. He's still taller than I am, broader than I am, with the same heavy spill of straight, dark hair that used to fascinate me in earlier times. Still handsome. There's an air about him that reads as arrogance, but that I see more as armor, because I knew him as a boy, before he began to wear it. Though I have to allow that there really is a touch of arrogance as well. He is a powerful man, physically and mentally. I always feel slightly off-balance around him. He looks from Ray to Diefenbaker, then to me and grins.

"Hey, Mountie. You didn't tell me you brought your whole pack."

"You didn't give me a chance to tell you much of anything."

Ray is scowling. "Fraser said you wouldn't be here until tomorrow. How'd you get here so fast?"

Eric's grin widens. "I flew."

Ray grins back, but it's not a real smile, it's a challenge, and I recognize it even if Eric does not. "Aren't your arms tired?" Ray asks.

I wince a little. Ray has no idea how close that might be to the truth.

Eric laughs. "No, but my back hurts from carrying all this weight," he says, walking into the room and thunking a large pack down on the floor before turning to look at Ray again with narrowed eyes. "I know you," he says.

Ray's eyebrows go up. "Never seen you before in my life."

Eric looks at me. "In my dream £buun was hurt, bleeding in the water, and there were sharks, big, like in the movies, and £buun was dying Then Dzikdzii came, swam around like a mad thing, killing the sharks, swimming under £buun, pushing him up to keep him afloat."

A shudder goes through me, and I nod. "Yes," I say hoarsely. "Yes."

"Gonna use the outhouse," Eric says abruptly, and turns around and walks out of the cabin.

Ray stares from me to where Eric just was, frowning. "What the fuck was that all about?" he asks roughly, his Chicago accent thicker than I've heard it in weeks.

"His vision. That's what he saw."

"And that was supposed to make sense?"

I nod. "It makes perfect sense to me, Ray."

"Are we both speaking English here?"

"Yes. And no. £buun," I stumble a little over the pronunciation, It's been a long time since I attempted sm'algyax6 and I was never fluent. "What we call blackfish or orca. That's me. And I was bleeding, dying. Then the Dzikdzii, that's their word for dolphin, came and kept Blackfish alive. Which is odd, because the Tsimshian don't have a dolphin phratry, at least not that I know of, in any . . . ."

"Fraser," Ray says, exasperated.

I suck in a deep breath. "Did you know that dolphins are one of the few animals in the sea which can kill a shark?"

"Can we skip the Discovery Channel spiel and get to the point?"

"Ray, you're Dzikdzii, you're the dolphin. That's how he knew you."

His eyes widen. "Me?" He laughs, humorlessly. "Dolphin-boy. Oh yeah. I get it. Cute. You didn't tell me he was. . . ." Ray gestures vaguely in the direction of the outhouse. "Like that."

"Like what?"

"Like . . . like that," he repeats. "Tall, and . . . the hair, and . . . gorgeous. You guys used to have something going on, didn't you?" he asks.

My jaw drops as I realize exactly what's going on in Ray's head. . . or as exactly as one can get without being telepathic. He's jealous. There's nothing to be jealous about, not really, but still I'm not quite sure how he could possibly know. There haven't been many people, male or female, in my life to whom I was attracted, but Eric is definitely one of them. It's strange to realize Ray knows me well enough to recognize that. Ray makes a frustrated growling sound and I realize I'm standing there wordless and blushing and Ray, of course, has jumped to the wrong conclusion.

"No," I manage to say in a credibly normal tone. "We never had anything 'going on' as you put it. Eric likes to play the field. With women," I emphasize. I refrain from mentioning that as I do not like to play the field and am demonstrably the wrong gender, nothing ever came of my attraction to him. I have a feeling it's not something Ray wants to know.

He relaxes a little. "Oh. Okay. I. . . um, I just. . . I hear shaman, I think ugly old guy with dreads and animal skins. I wasn't expecting. . ." he points in Eric's direction again, ". . .that. " He runs a hand through his hair and across his jaw, the sharp line of which is now blurred with a week's growth of soft blond-brown beard, then suddenly his attention snaps back to me as his brain finishes analyzing my words. "But if he didn't like women you'd have jumped his bones, wouldn't you?"

I sigh. "Ray, whatever I may or may not have once felt for Eric, it was a long time ago, and has no bearing on the present. He and I are friends, nothing more." I reach out to let my own fingers brush Ray's jaw, then his lips. "And whatever I felt for him was never even the slightest fraction of what I feel for you."

He stares into my eyes searchingly, then drops his gaze, color rising in his face. "Sorry."

"It's all right. Actually, I think I'm flattered."

He looks back up, startled. "What?"

"I don't think anyone's ever been jealous over me before."

He frowns, clearly taken aback and from his color, even more embarrassed than before. "Yeah, well, I can go kind of. . . overboard with the possessive thing sometimes. And it's not a good thing, and it's not okay, so do not let me pull that shit."

"It's not up to me," I say mildly.

He sighs. "No. No, it's not. Just call me on it, so I know I'm doing it, okay?"

I nod, though I'm not worried. As his ex-wife once said, Ray always knows the line. The sound of footsteps on the porch draws our attention and Eric comes back in, this time carrying a large plastic garbage bag which he holds out to Ray.

"Here. John sent some sheets and stuff. There's a mini generator and a radio set in a box on the bike, why don't you go get 'em?" he asks, jerking his head at the door.

I start forward and he puts a hand on my chest. "Not you," he says mildly.

Ray's eyes go hard and he makes an abortive gesture toward Eric's hand, then he stops, visibly controlling both his temper and his urge to take Eric's hand off me.

"You want me to go, Ben?" he asks.

I nod. "It's all right."

He looks at Eric again, and to my surprise Eric takes his hand away and extends it toward Ray. "Since Ben forgot his manners I guess I'll introduce myself. Eric Starr, old friend of Ben's," he says.

I feel myself flush, embarrassed that I neglected the common courtesy of an introduction.

Ray stares at Eric's extended hand for a long moment, then he slowly puts down the bag of linens, reaches forward and shakes hands. "Ray Kowalski," he offers. "Ben's partner," he says, very deliberately.

Eric nods. "Good to meet you, Ray," he says, with a rare smile.

Ray nods shortly. "I'll go get that gear."

Eric watches him put on his boots and head out to the snowbike, then he turns to me. "Good man. I like him. He'll fight for you. That's a good thing in a mate."

I'm not really surprised by Eric's perceptiveness, but the word he chose to use for the relationship I have with Ray twists like a knife in my gut.

"He's not. . . he can't. . . ."

Eric lifts his eyebrows at me. "Looks to me like he is and he can."

I turn away, rubbing at my forehead as an excuse to shield my eyes. "He shouldn't," I manage hoarsely. "It's dangerous."

"Hmm," Eric says, looking at me thoughtfully, then his gaze shifts toward where Ray is unstrapping a good-sized wooden box from the back of the snowbike. "I need to talk to your friend for a minute," Eric says suddenly, and he turns and goes out, where he steadies the box as Ray removes the cords holding it in place.

They talk for a few moments, and Ray is shaking his head, looking angry, gesturing toward me. Eric says something else, his back is to me and I can't see his face or his hands, but I can see that he's gesturing as well. Their conversation becomes more animated, to the point where I'm beginning to worry that I'm going to have to go intervene, but then suddenly Ray seems to deflate, his shoulders slumping as he scrubs a hand through his hair and nods. Eric puts a hand on his shoulder briefly, and to my surprise Ray doesn't resist that touch. For a moment I understand why Ray reacted to Eric as he did, even though I know that the action implies nothing untoward at all. Ray nods again and Eric takes his hand away. Ray picks up the box and comes back to the cabin with it.

"Where should I put this?" he asks, coming up the steps onto the porch and into the room.

"There, on the table," I say.

He nods and goes over to put it down, then looks at me. "What, John think we were bored or something? Needed music?"

I smile. "It's not that sort of radio, Ray. It's for communication, not entertainment. Up here without telephone service it's the best way to keep in touch in event of emergency."

"We have the Iridium," Ray says.

"Yes, but it's expensive and I'd rather not have to account for unnecessary communication."

"Oh. Okay." He gives his head a quick twist, the way he does when he's tense or nervous, and looks away. "The dogs need some exercise, I'm going to hitch them up and take them out for a while, plus I need a couple of things from Joe's if we're staying here a while."

I nod. "All right, let me get ready," I say, a little puzzled that he wants us to leave when Eric's only just arrived.

Ray puts his hand on my arm, squeezes lightly. "I said I'm going. Not you."

It takes a moment for me to understand what he's saying, but when I do, fear clamps shadow hands around my heart. "Ray. . . you can't go alone."

"I'll be fine. It's only a couple of kilometers, and I can follow Eric's trail back there."

"No!" I grab Ray's shoulders. "I won't let you."

"Ben," Eric's calm, quiet voice cuts across my panic. "It's all right. Let him go. There's plenty of daylight left, and Dief will see he's safe."

Ray slants an annoyed look at Eric and looks me in the eyes, steadily. "I'll see I'm safe. Ben, remember what you promised me? That grown-up thing?"

I try to look at it logically. We spent a week in Deline working with the sled, making sure Ray knew how to harness the team and drive, and practiced emergency procedures just in case anything should happen to me. He's as proficient as any beginner, probably more so. It's a short distance, he has a good trail to follow, the weather is clear and sunny with no predictions of incoming storms, and there are, as Eric said, several hours until sundown, yet the idea of Ray sledding alone terrifies me past measure.


I open my eyes, only then realizing I've closed them. I look past Ray to Eric who stares back, and nods slowly. I realize this was his idea. He wants to speak to me alone. Ray fought it, but eventually gave in. I realize I must do so as well, and consciously force my fingers to relax on Ray's shoulders as I manage a tiny affirmative movement of my head.

Ray smiles, his face lighting. "I'll be back before you know it."

"I very much doubt that," I mutter under my breath.

Ray rolls his eyes. "Anything you want from the store? Quart of milk? Ice cream? Pickles?"


"Sorry." He grins unrepentantly. "Okay. Gonna suit up and get out of here." He goes and starts pulling on his snow-gear. He's gotten adept enough that not even fifteen minutes pass before he and the dogs are off, following the snowbike's trail. Eric, standing next to me at the door, reaches up and tugs my fingers away from the doorframe where I'm clutching it so he can close the door, then he turns to look at me in concern.

"All right. Talk to me now. I always thought you were one of those who wanted to die with all his teeth, but now I see fear in you. What's going on?" His voice is gentle, but commanding.

"It's easy not to be afraid when you have nothing to lose," I hear myself saying.

Eric nods thoughtfully. "Which tells me that you do think you have something to lose now, and that's a good starting point. Let me get out of all this gear. You can make us some tea."

I recognize an order and comply. A few minutes are taken up by that, and then we're sitting on the couch, sipping tea in silence. A log in the stove splits with a hissing pop, and I jump a little. Finally Eric speaks.

"Tell me what's going on, Ben. What are you afraid of?"

I drink my tea, slowly, and try to think of where to start. My first thought is to say 'everything' but that's not entirely true. Finally it comes to me. "I'm not entirely sure I'm sane," I say, the words falling into the silence between us like rocks into a still pool.

To my surprise, Eric just smiles. "Welcome to life, Benton Fraser. It's about time you got here."

"Eric, I'm serious."

He looks back at me evenly, no trace of humor in his face now. "So am I. Let me tell you something, pretty much the only people in this world who never wonder if they're sane are the people who aren't. So what makes you think you've lost it?"

"I . . . see things."

"Such as?"

"Well, for several years now, my father. After he died."

Eric nods. "That could be irritating, I'd guess, knowing your dad."

I stare at him. "Well, yes, actually. But isn't that . . . crazy?"

"Nah. Lots of people see spirits. Nothing crazy about that. Some people can walk with spirits and never see them, others see 'em all the time. And I can sure believe your dad would hang around, meddlesome old cuss."

Involuntarily I look around, half-expecting Dad to pop up and complain, but the room remains quiet. Eric looks around too.

"He here?"

"No. Actually, I haven't seen him in some time. I think maybe he's gone for good this time."

"You have a fight?"

"No, he just finally accomplished what he needed to accomplish."

Eric nods sagely. "Ah. Completed his circle. So what else do you see?"

"Do you remember when we were kids, and you stayed over, or I did with your family?"

A faint smile curves his mouth as he remembers. "Your grandmother always gave us peppermint knobs."

I feel an answering smile at that memory. "Yes, she did. Do you also remember that sometimes I'd have nightmares?"

"Yeah. But you'd never say what they were about."

"That's because at the time, I didn't really know. I do now. My mother was murdered, and I witnessed it."

Eric draws in a sharp breath at that, and puts his hand on my shoulder, but I keep speaking, because I'm afraid if I stop I may not be able to get it all out.

"I've had those sort of nightmares, though not with any detail or vividness, off and on for nearly my entire life, but around Christmas they increased in frequency until they were coming nearly every night, and they became far more intense. So much so that they were affecting my ability to function. Then, about three weeks ago, in the course of what I thought was a routine investigation, I encountered my mother's murderer and he told me the truth about her death-- something no one in my family had ever bothered to do."

"Jesus, Ben. Never?"

I shake my head and he sighs.

"What were they thinking?"

"I'm sure they thought they were doing the right thing. If I didn't remember it on my own, they didn't want to hurt me by bringing it up."

"I guess. But it's a pretty fucked-up scenario."

"Appropriate, since I'm a pretty fucked-up person," I say, and then wish I hadn't. I hate the note of self-pity I hear in my voice.

"No worse than the rest of us, Ben. So what happened then?"

"The dreams stopped abruptly, and I assumed that was because I was finally consciously aware that they weren't dreams but memories. And I thought I was all right, that all I'd needed was to actually learn the truth, until yesterday."

"What happened yesterday?"

"Ray had a minor accident, and I had, well, I suppose it was sort of a disassociative event."

Eric frowns. "Leave the fancy words to the doctors, Ben. Just tell me what happened. Exactly."

So I do. I tell him about hearing the gunshot, about finding Ray, thinking he had died. About seeing-dreaming my mother's murder, but seeing Ray too, and being unable to determine what was real from what was not. And then I tell him about dropping the lamp. And then about feeding the dogs, and losing touch with reality again. When I finish he sits quietly for a few moments, idly braiding a lock of his hair, until he's worked out whatever he's thinking and he looks at me again.

"The dreams you had about your mother, did they match up with what really happened?"

I nod. "Yes. Almost exactly."

"And nobody in your family ever mentioned it to you? How about anyone else? Your dad's old partner maybe?"

"No. Never. Looking back on it, I realize that should have told me something odd was going on, because it was as if the subject was actively forbidden. I always thought it was simply because my father found it too painful. I never realized it had more to do with me, than it did him."

He nods. "Yeah, sounds like it. You were how old when she died?"


"Hmm," he says thoughtfully.

"What?" I prompt, feeling rather like Ray all of the sudden.

Eric shrugs a little. "Sounds like traumatic amnesia-- what some people call repressed memories."

I frown. "I thought the concept of repressed memories had been discredited."

"Well, yes and no. There's a lot of debate about it, and it's a diagnosis that's easily manipulated. What's really been discredited is the therapeutic process of 'recovering' memories. But even though you didn't consciously remember seeing your mother's murder until you were told about it, from what you say, your dream-memory of the event pretty well matches up with what happened, and you didn't have anyone coaching you, it seems to me to be legitimate."

"And the . . . other things?"

"Help me with the timeline here. You said the dreams started coming more often before you found out about your mother, right? How long between the two things?"

"Two and a half months or so."

"How long were the intervals between your dreams prior to that time?"

"Well, it varied a lot. In the year or so prior, they hadn't been very frequent-- perhaps one every four or five months. Sometimes less."

"And before that?"

"As I said, the frequency varied. When I was younger I had them regularly, but the older I got, the less often I had them. There were a couple of times when I started having them more often, but then they tapered off again. They were never as intense or continuous as they became after Christmas."

He looks at me narrowly. "What happened to you at Christmas?"

I stare back at him, startled by the question. "Nothing unusual, why?"

"That's the second time you've mentioned it."

"It's just a marker. It helps me remember when it started."

"Was your mom killed around Christmas time?"

"No, it was in February."

"Hmm," he says again. "Tell me what you did for Christmas."

I think back. "Christmas Eve I worked, mostly. There was an office Christmas party and gift exchange at the 27th. Then I went home."

"With Ray?"

"No. We weren't . . . we hadn't . . .," I feel myself blushing as I continue, ". . .our relationship is more recent than that."

He looks surprised. "It is?"

"Well, it's complicated. We worked together as partners for most of the last year. You probably remember my old partner, Ray Vecchio?" At his nod I go on. "He was reassigned and Ray Kowalski replaced him at the 27th. We became very close friends, but we didn't begin a . . . romantic relationship, until quite recently."

Eric nods at that. "Ah. Okay. So, you went home alone."

"Yes, although Ray tried to persuade me to stay with him that night. He didn't think I ought to be alone. He said he wanted to keep me 'under observation,' and that no one should be alone on Christmas Eve. I pointed out that I'd been alone on Christmas Eve for most of my life and it didn't make that much difference one way or another."

Eric leans back against the couch and folds his arms, looking at me with a slightly exasperated expression. "Hope you know better than to say things like that now."

"What? Why wouldn't I?"

"Because a relationship is not about what you're used to doing, Ben, and it's not just about you. Did Ray go home alone, too?"

I have to think back. I was tired that night, irritable, and in severe pain. It's hard to recall anything but the ache and throb of my battered body. Not even the thin triumph of Warfield's apology had given me solace. "I . . . assume so. His parents were away visiting his brother at the time."

"Didn't it occur to you that he might've been the one who didn't want to be alone on Christmas Eve?"

A wave of shame floods me as I realize that I never once thought of how Ray might feel that night. All I thought of was myself.


"No," I manage to whisper, one hand clenched into a fist in an attempt at control.

"Are you all right?"

"No. Go on."

I can feel him studying me for several seconds, but I don't look up. Finally he speaks again.

"We can come back to that later. You said he wanted to keep you 'under observation.' That's an interesting choice of words. Why did you say it that way?"

"Well, he wanted me to go to hospital."

"Were you sick?"


"Jesus. This is like pulling teeth, Mountie. Hurt?"


Eric sits up straight and leans forward, hands on his knees. "How were you hurt?"

"I was beaten."


I sigh. "Because I was stubborn and selfish and a fool."

"Kind of hard on yourself. Want to explain that so I understand it?"

"I attempted to force a highly place organized crime ringleader to do what I felt was right. He . . . objected to my methods."

"And he had you beat up?"


"Where was Ray?"

"He was. . . busy."

Eric looks at me sharply. "Busy?"


"But you asked him to help, right?"

"Not . . . exactly."

"Why not?"

"Well, he'd already made it quite clear he felt I was being foolish. And of course, I was, and I expect that on some level I knew that, so I never actually asked."


"Eric, if you say that one more time I'm probably going to hit you."

He laughs and shakes his head. "Sorry. I didn't know it bothered you. Just thinking out loud, you know?"

"Yes, I do. I just never before realized how irritating it is."

Settling back against the arm of the couch, he looks at me thoughtfully. "Without second guessing yourself, without saying you were foolish or any of that, how did it make you feel when Ray didn't help you?"

Something like an invisible fist closes around my throat, refusing to let me speak. Eric doesn't push. He just waits. Eric was always good at waiting. I close my eyes. Finally I find some words. "He helped me later. They all did, the detectives from the 27th."

"That's not what I asked."

"I know," I say.

I hear him exhale softly, then he changes the subject. "How bad did they beat you up? Should you have gone to hospital?"

I sigh. "Probably. Looking back on it, I'm sure I had bruised kidneys, cracked ribs, and probably a slight concussion."

"Why didn't you go then?"

"I . . . ." I stop, at a loss. "I don't know. I just felt I shouldn't."

He looks at me sharply. "You know why. You just don't want to look at it."

Taken aback, I stare at him, and he glares at me.

"I know it's hard, but you've never been a liar, Ben. Look at it. Tell me, and tell yourself."

He's right. I do know. I have all along. "Because . . . I deserved the pain. For being stupid, and selfish, and stubborn."

He smiles. "Thank you. You're more honest than most, even with yourself. Do you still think that?"

"I don't know. I hope not."

"Do you think you're stupid?"



"I . . . sometimes."

Eric nods. "We all are, sometimes. Stubborn?"

I can't help but smile. "Always."

He chuckles. "Yes. And how did it make you feel when Ray didn't help you?"

The question comes out of nowhere, and this time the answer slides out of me, before I can call it back. "Alone." I close my eyes again. "Alone, damn it, you sneaky bastard."

"Hey, it worked," Eric says with a shrug. "Not the first time you've been alone."

"No. You know it isn't."

"I do. Were you angry?"

I sigh. "Yes. Of course. And hurt. All the things you'd expect."

"Don't be glib, Ben."

I turn and glare at him. "Forgive me if I don't particularly care to dwell on being hurt, physically by Warfield's thugs, and emotionally, by the two people I cared most for."

"Two people?" Eric jumps on my slip instantly. "Who else?"

"My . . . father."

"What did he do?"

"Told me I was being obsessive, overbearing, and arrogant."

"Your father said that?" Eric asks incredulously. "You know, that's just. . . hypocritical."

I feel a laugh welling up inside and I let it come. It sweeps through me in a wave of relief, loosening the knots I've been tying myself into. "Yes, actually. You're right. Though I suppose that he would be intimately familiar with those attributes."

"You got that right. Maybe he was just warning you, you know. Maybe he didn't want you to end up like him."

"I suppose it's possible," I allow.

"Remotely," Eric says drily. "It assumes a certain self-awareness I'm not sure he had. So, do you want to hear what I think?"

"No, I asked you here because I didn't."

My sarcasm doesn't faze him in the slightest. "Well, we have some work to do, but you're definitely not crazy. All things considered your reactions and responses aren't all that unusual. But you are going to need to get a handle on dealing with these things constructively."

For some reason his assessment reassures me more than Ray's did. I suppose I was worried that Ray might be humoring me, and I know Eric wouldn't do that. Though honestly, Ray isn't given to humoring me either. And speaking of Ray, I hear the dogs. I stand up and look out the window, see Ray take the team around the side of the house to unharness them, and a tension I hadn't realized was present eases inside me.

"Well, guess I'll head on back to John's now," Eric says.

I turn, startled. We can't be finished. We've done nothing yet. "What?"

He grins. "I made a deal with Ray there. I get the daytime, but he gets the nights."

"Excuse me?"

"I promised I wouldn't stay here at night and get in his way if he wouldn't stay here during the day and get in mine."

The idea that they negotiated my time without even asking me puts my back up. "And I get no say in this?"

"Nope. None," Eric says with a grin as he goes and starts to put on his outer garments. "I guess we could do it the other way around, but I figured you'd rather sleep with him."

I'm still trying to think of a response for that when Ray comes in, carrying a large cardboard box, his face flushed, his hair disheveled from his cap. He looks so beautifully alive that I just stare at him.

Eric chuckles. "Thought so," he mutters under his breath, then nods at Ray. "Hey. I'm heading out."

"Not gonna stay for dinner?" Ray asks.

"Nah, I want to get back to John's. It's been a long day."

Ray nods. "Okay. See you tomorrow."

Eric waves and heads out, and I hear the snowbike's engine growl to life as Ray sets his box on the counter, and starts pulling out various items. Potatoes, onions, carrots, several paper-wrapped parcels, flour, sugar, baking powder, butter, eggs, dried pinto beans. A block of cheese. A large box of saltine crackers. Cans of tomatoes, packages of pasta, and an assortment of small tins of herbs and spices.

"Been improving the local economy?" I ask.

He grins. "Hey, no point in eating out of cans if we don't have to. I'm cooking. I asked John about keeping stuff cold, he said it wouldn't be a problem, that you'd know what to do."

"Yes, there's an icebox, we'll need to make some ice for it. I imagine there's also a larder or possibly a root cellar, I'll take a look."

"Icebox? You mean freezer? How do you run it, or is that what the generator is for?"

"No, the generator is for the radio. All we need for the ice-box is a chunk of ice. We'll put a pan of water out to freeze. Until that's ready we can put your frozen things outside. Is that meat?"

"Yeah. Got some caribou and some elk. And some salmon that's not for the dogs. John's got a pretty nice selection of stuff for being out in the middle of nowhere, even if it did put a serious dent in my Visa."

"Yes, well, having to have most of your stock flown in on a bush plane will do that to your prices."

"That makes sense. Anyway, I thought I'd make caribou stew tonight, since there's not really time for the beans to soak for elk chili. I'll do that later this week."

I find myself staring at him, a little disconcerted. He lifts his eyebrows at me.


"Have you ever cooked with elk or caribou before?"

"No, but meat's meat."

I should resist, but I don't. I let my gaze slide very deliberately down his body until I'm looking at his groin. "Is that so?"

He snickers. "Well, you know what they say. . . ."

"No, what do they say?"

"'It ain't the meat, it's the motion,'" he says, with a sinuous hip movement.

I reach out to pull him against me. "Or in your case, both," I say, brushing my lips across his. He flicks his tongue out and licks me then pulls back enough to speak.

"Kind of hard to cook like this," he says.

"That all depends on your definition of cooking," I return.

He laughs, shaking his head. "Jeez, go away for a couple of hours and you turn into a comedian. Look, I'm starving, so how about this idea. . . you let me cook, and then we'll cook. Okay?"

I sigh exaggeratedly, and nod. "Very well. I wouldn't want you to be at less than full strength."

He looks at me, eyes glinting. "You are really asking for it," he says in a severe tone.

"Yes, actually, I am."

He groans, shakes his head, and hugs me hard, then suddenly he's sliding through my arms to kneel between my feet, his hands on my waistband, opening the button, drawing down the zipper.


He works his hands under the waistband of my underwear and eases them down past my half-erect penis. "What?"

"I was just. . . ." my protest that I was only joking is cut off by an undignified grunt as his lips close around me, engulfing me in smooth, wet heat. I'm fully erect in seconds, hands clutching at the counter to keep myself upright as my knees threaten to give way. His tongue strokes me slowly, circles, dips briefly into the os, circles again, strokes, repeating the pattern in forward, and reverse. My thighs start to tremble, and he slides his hands up my flanks, then around to cup my buttocks, fingers sliding between my cheeks, touching, teasing, but no more than that. I'm shaken, suddenly, by a feeling of aloneness, even with him so clearly here; overwhelmed, by the need to hold him, to taste him, too. I find myself reaching down, my fingers sliding into his mouth to break the suction. He looks up, puzzled, licking his lips.

"Bed," I manage.

He grins and eases back, nodding once as he rolls to his feet, and heads for the bed, stripping off his sweater and undershirt. I nearly trip myself on my clothing, and crouch down for a moment to untie my bootlaces so I can kick off boots, pants, and long-johns all together, and by the time I'm back up, he's on the bed, naked. I fumble with the buttons on my shirt, then those on my henley, and finally get everything off. He's laughing at me, I can tell, and I drop down beside him and roll to cover him, feeling all his hard, muscular warmth beneath me as I growl.

"I don't understand how you always manage to get your clothes off before I do, when I was half undressed to start with!"

He leans up to meet my kiss, then pulls back. "Determination. And fewer buttons."

"Ah, so the real secret is pull-on clothing? Is that why you wear everything loose? So you don't actually have to unfasten them to get them off?"

"Damn, you're on to me," he laughs, wrapping me in his arms, holding me close. "God, you feel good. We're both crazy, you know."

I stiffen a little, and he stops smiling.

"No. . . no, I didn't mean that. Come on, you know I didn't."

I nod, but the mood is broken, and we both know it. He strokes my back, finger-combs my hair, and sighs.

"What'd Eric say?"

"Not much. He mostly asked questions, and I talked some."

"Not Inuit stories, I hope."


"He think he can help?"

"He . . . seems to. He said my reactions and responses aren't all that unusual, considering the circumstances."

Ray nods, fingers still twining in my hair. "Yeah. 's what I thought, too. Just need to figure out how to handle them."

"That's almost exactly what he said."

"Well, common sense, you know. You feel any better, hearing it from someone else?"

"I . . . yes."

"Thought you might."

"Ray, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"After the Christmas party, when you wanted me to come home with you . . . were you feeling lonely?"

He tries to look at me but I keep my face turned away so he can't. After a moment he speaks, sounding troubled. "Why?"

"I need to know. Please."

He exhales quietly. "Yeah. I figured we could kind of keep each other company, both of us alone on Christmas. But I got that you needed some space, it was okay."

"It was selfish. I'm sorry."

"Ben, please don't. I said I understood."

"But I didn't, and I should have," I turn to look at him. "Ray, you need to tell me what you need, tell me what you want. Tell me to pay attention. I'm not very good at figuring things out."

He smiles. "You're better than anyone I know at figuring things out."

"Only if they have nothing to do with my heart."

That silences him for a moment, and then he sighs. "Yeah, okay, been there, done that. But we're learning, right?" He squeezes me, and then his stomach growls loudly.

"I'm going to go get dinner going. You want to help?"

"Of course."

"Good. You can cut up onions." He gets up and pulls on his longjohns, not bothering with more formal attire.

I do the same as I wonder if he assigned me that task so I'll have a good excuse for red eyes.

* * *

Three days later, things are not going nearly as well as they did that first day. Eric seems to have an unerring knack for asking questions I can't answer. Or as he says, questions I won't answer. Perhaps he's right. I can't sleep, even with Ray in my arms, even after making love with him. Time and time again I wake up in a cold sweat, though thankfully not from any nightmares I remember. I seem to be sleeping right up at the surface, the slightest noise or movement wakes me. The sharp crack of a resin-bubble bursting in the stove, the moan of the wind around the windows, even Diefenbaker muttering in his sleep.

Eric's questions are getting harder, and more precise, an icepick instead of a pickaxe. I can feel the wall I've built getting weaker, straining to hold back whatever's dammed up behind it. And I'm afraid of that. Terrified. I have no idea what's back there, and I don't want to know. If I let it go, will I still be. . . me? Will I still be sane? Will whoever I am after it happens be someone Ray wants to be with? That frightens me almost more than any other consideration. But I can't continue to function like this. I know that. And the thought of spending the rest of my life like this is more frightening than having that wall come down.

This time, after I wake, I don't bother trying to go back to sleep. I lie there in the dark until the room begins to lighten, thinking, knowing Ray will wake soon. It's my turn to cook breakfast, so he'll put in an order for something outlandish, eggs florentine or something equally arcane, and feign ire when I hand him his usual oatmeal and scrambled eggs. Then we'll both get dressed, and Eric will arrive, and Ray will go off on the sled to do whatever it is he does with John all day. I've asked Ray how he's spending his time, and he just smiles and says 'getting acclimated' . . . whatever that means. And in the meantime Eric pushes and pries at my psyche. And I know I can't hold out much longer. I even know that I need to not hold out. But that doesn't help.

I ease myself out of bed and go to the kitchen to start the oatmeal, and a pot of coffee. Once the scent of coffee has drifted over to the bed, Ray wakes up, stretching luxuriantly, then lifting his head to sniff ostentatiously.

"You're up early. Breakfast ready yet?"

"Getting there. There's coffee."

"I could tell. What's the occasion?"

"No occasion, I just thought you'd like it."

"Mmm. Spoiling me. Too bad we don't have any M&M's for it."

I hide my smile and pour hot coffee over the Smarties already waiting in his cup, stir it, then take it over to him. He sits up in bed, delightfully rumpled, and takes the mug from me, sipping with eyes closed in anticipation. As soon as he swallows, his eyes pop open in surprise.

"Hey! Where'd you get those?"

"I asked Eric to bring them from Joe's Place."

"John's got M&M's? Gonna have to have a talk with that man, he's been holding out on me."

"You just have to know what to ask for. In Canada they're not M&M's they're Smarties."

"Oh. That bilingual thing, hunh?"

"Yes, exactly."

Ray sips, looking at me over the rim of his mug with mischievous eyes. He swallows, looks up at me through his lashes flirtatiously, and says. "Voulez vous coucher avec moi?"

I'm afraid my jaw drops. "Ray!"

"Well?" he asks.

"It's time to get out of bed, not in it. Where did you learn that? Who taught you that?"

"Patti did."

"Patty who?" I growl, wondering if one of the local women has been propositioning him while he's at John's.

"Patti Labelle, doofus. You remember, 1975, disco, polyester suits, Lady Marmalade? Man, all the girls used to blush when that song came on, and Mrs. Carlton, my brother's French teacher, and a major babe I might add, was really annoyed when she finally figured out why everybody suddenly wanted to take French."

"It was in a song?" I ask, trying to clarify.

"Yeah. Gitcher-gitcher ya-ya, mama..." he sings, then laughs at my expression. "Never mind. I forgot. You were probably listening to Beethoven. Do I smell oatmeal burning?"

I get up to check it quickly, and find that he's on the verge of being right, and busy myself adding water to the pot and getting the eggs started, realizing, not for the first time, how little we have in common, really. We're both male, and approximately the same age, we are both officers of the law. That is, really, the sum total of our correspondences. Sometimes I can't imagine what he sees in me-- emotionally closed-off, rigid, controlling, and, well, boring. He's none of those things

That line of thought inevitably leads to images of him leaving, which my head wants, and my heart doesn't. I love him. I can admit it to myself, if not to him. Life without him will be . . . hard. Probably the hardest thing I've ever done. It's so much easier to live without something when you never had it to begin with. Now I know what I'll be missing. The best friend I've ever had. A piece of my soul.

I shake my head at my ridiculousness. At least when he goes I won't constantly have to worry about him coming to some harm because of me. Every day when he heads out alone on the sled a part of me goes tense, and doesn't relax until he returns in the afternoon. And that generally leads to me being overly solicitous which invariably leads to him getting irritable, until he remembers that I have 'problems' I'm working on. And then he gets overly solicitous which makes me irritable in turn. Somehow by the time we go to bed, none of that matters, but after we make love I wind up lying there watching him sleep, and wondering with a tight throat just how much longer I'll be able to do that.

"Yo, Ben, you in there?"

I blink and look up to find Ray, mostly dressed, looking at me oddly. "Yes, yes, I'm sorry. Just thinking."

"That's all? Not . . . like before?"

I shake my head. "No. Nothing like that. I haven't had any more of those."

"You having nightmares again? You don't look like you're sleeping good. Look, I know I've been sleeping pretty hard up here, must be the exercise, but you know you can wake me up if you need me, right?"

"No, I'm not having nightmares."

His eyes search mine, concern dimming them from blue to a hazel-flecked gray. Finally he nods. "Okay. But like I said. You tell me if you need me."

I look away. "Ray, I have to do this on my own."

He stares at me, then nods and changes the subject. "Breakfast ready?"

"Two minutes," I say, and pour the eggs into the skillet, stirring.

We eat without talking, and then he finishes dressing while I do the dishes. He comes over when he's done and starts drying, still wordlessly, until finally he stops and very deliberately sets down the mug and looks at me.

"Okay, spill. And do not pretend you don't know what I mean. You've got some kind of bug up your ass and I want to know what it is."

"What a charming metaphor."


Fraser. Not Ben. I draw in a deep breath. Now, or never, I suppose. "I've been thinking . . . ."

"Always a dangerous business with you," Ray snaps sarcastically.

His temper is short, something that rarely happens between us any more. Being here, away from everything familiar and watching me fall apart is clearly hard on him. Maybe if I can do this right I can salvage what remains of our friendship. It will be better this way. He doesn't deserve what I've put him through, what I'll no doubt continue to put him through. I remember once more that he told me, weeks ago, how he felt, and I managed to miss it completely. He merits better. Someone who will understand from the start. The thought strengthens my resolve at the same time it breaks my heart. "Ray, please," I say quietly.

"Sorry," he mutters.

"Eric says John has a supply plane coming in tomorrow."

"Yeah. So?"

"Well, the plane will be flying back without all the supply weight, and the pilot probably wouldn't mind a passenger. I'm sure you could arrange to be on it, take it somewhere that has connecting flights to the States."

He goes utterly still, his eyes narrowed. "And I would want to do this. . . why?"

"I realize that you came so we could have that adventure you always wanted," I say, trying to give him a graceful way out. "And I apologize for how this has turned out, but I'm really not sure how long this work with Eric is going to take, and when, or even if, we'll be able to resume our adventure," I explain reasonably.

Ray opens his mouth to speak, closes it again without doing so, and starts to pace, measuring the cabin's small confines several times before finally stopping in front of me.

"Look me in the eye and tell me you want me to leave," he says flatly.

I can't. I know I can't. But I must. I reach inside, for that part of me that needs him to go, and close my ears against the part that's screaming for him to stay. "You should go." I manage to say in a voice just barely more than a whisper, forcing my gaze not to waiver.

It's not quite what he asked, but it works. He recoils as if I've slapped him, his face going white. His jaw tightens, and without a word he turns and walks away. Picks up his pack. Keeping his back to me he begins to fill his pack with all the items that have made their way out of it over the past few days. Clothing. Books. His portable CD-player. Everything. I watch with a certain horrified fascination as he cinches the pack closed and puts on his boots, then goes to get his coat from the peg next to the door, pulling it on.

Dief stands in the center of the room between us, looking from me to him, whining and growling unintelligibly. I feel as if I'm on the ice and it's crumbling under my feet. Ray picks up his pack, opens the door, and he's gone. Not once did he turn to face me. Not a word passed between us. I never imagined it would be like this. I realize, despairingly, that I never thought he would really go. I start to shake, my whole body, as if that imaginary ice has given way, and I'm sinking in the cold sea beneath. My knees buckle and I hit the floor hard, tears sheeting down my face, blood-hot. Alone again. Still. Always. I wrap my arms around myself, trying to keep myself from breaking, giving in to the grief.

The cabin door bangs open hard, startling me, and I look up, blinking to clear my vision as Ray slams back into the cabin, drops his pack, flings his coat off, and advances on me like he's going to either arrest me or hit me, but instead he reaches down and hauls me to my feet and kisses me angrily, then pulls back and points at me with the index and little fingers of both hands.

"If you ever pull that kind of crap on me again, I will kick you in the head!"

"But, Ray. . . I . . . "

"No 'buts', Fraser. We are partners, you got that? Partners. When I was having problems on that mountain did you take off and leave me there? No. When I was freaking out over Beth Botrelle did you say 'hey, think I'll spend a few days catching up the Consulate paperwork'? No. When I was making a complete idiot out of myself over my ex-wife, did you decide it was time for a little vacation to Yellowknife? No, you did not. You may not want me here, but you need me here, and I'm staying. You got that?"

"I just didn't think I should. . . ."

"You just didn't think, period."

"But. . . "

"What did I just say?"

I suck in a deep breath. "Ray, I do."

That gets some of the anger off his face, and he frowns a little, puzzled. "You do what?"

"Want you here," I say, swiping at my wet face with a sleeve.

His frown deepens. "Then why the hell did you just tell me to leave?"

Oh God. I should have known he would ask that. Should have had some answer ready.

"Yeah, I want to hear the answer to that one, too," Eric says conversationally from the door Ray hadn't bothered to close.

Ray and I both jump and turn to stare at him.

"This is a private fight," Ray snaps, scowling. "How the hell did you get here without us hearing you?"

Eric mimes wing movements. "Flew, of course."

"That joke was old the first time you told it," Ray says, rolling his eyes.

Eric points out at a pair of snowshoes on the porch. "I let Marlon have the snowbike so he could go out to see his friend at Lac des Bois. Are you going to answer Ray's question?"

Ray turns to me again. It's disconcerting to be the focus of both their gazes. "It's dangerous for him to be around me," I finally say, admitting my fear for the first time, waiting for the lightning to strike.

Eric looks worried and comes to stand close, his hand on my shoulder. "Why is it dangerous? Do you feel out of control? Violent?"

I stare at him, aghast, suddenly realizing how he had interpreted my statement. "God, no! It's nothing like that."

"Explain it to me, then," Eric says gently. "Explain it to us. Why is Ray in danger if he stays with you?"

I turn away, walking over to look out the kitchen window, gripping the counter hard as I try to find the right words. "Bad things happen . . . around me. To people."

"Sometimes, yeah. What sort of bad things?"

"They get hurt. They die."

Eric has followed me, he stands looking at my profile, I can see him out of the corner of my eye. "Those things are part of the circle, Ben. You know that. What people are you talking about?"

"People who. . . my mother, my father, Steve, Ray Vecchio, Ray."

Eric considers that for a moment, then he nods and shoots a glance at Ray before looking back at me. "You mean the people who care about you-- the people you care about?"

I nod, wordlessly, unutterably relieved that he understands, that I don't have to say it.

"So you think Ray is in danger? Because of his relationship with you?"

I nod again.

Ray makes a sound, a protest. "Ben! Jesus, is that. . . yeah. Okay. I think I'm starting to get it now. This is why you've been treating me like glass."

"I'm sorry, I know you hate. . . ."

Ray holds up a hand. "No. No apologies. Past is past. But we've been through this before. You're not responsible for my safety, Ben, I am."

"Ray's right, Ben," Eric puts in, gently. "You can't take that responsibility for any other adult. For yourself, yes. For a child, yes. But you have to let others make their own decisions and take their own risks."

"But it follows me!" I blurt out. "It's my . . . darkness."

"It follows you?" Eric asks, looking at me with that sharp, black gaze that reminds me uncomfortably of ravens on rooftops.

I nod. "Yes. It follows. I feel it."

Eric's gaze narrows further, and he looks not at me, but . . . around me. His expression goes oddly distant for a moment, before his glance comes back to rest on my face. "Hmm."

Ray grimaces. "You Canadians and your 'ah's' and 'hmm's' make me crazy. What does that mean, 'hmm'?"

"It means maybe I've been going about this the wrong way. I've been trying to work with Ben in the wrong tradition. I've been treating him like a city-bred white man, but he didn't grow up in the south, he grew up here, and up north. He's kind of a cultural hodgepodge of white, Tsimshian, Inuit, Dene, and a whole bunch of other influences all mixed together because of the way his family moved around. He's not really fish or fowl."

"And he's standing right here," I say acidly, annoyed that he's talking about me as if I weren't present.

"Yeah, Ben, I know. But you both need to hear it. I'm right, aren't I? The approach I've been using isn't working for you, and that's why. Its not your culture. You're a talker, but not on this level. Not when it comes to what's in here." He puts his hand on my chest above my heart. "You can't talk about them, just like we don't talk about those things. We just experience them. You're the same." He claps his hands together, a sharp, percussive sound. "No more talking today. We need to do a sweat. Not a for-fun sweat, but a real one. We need to deal with your dark thing. Can I borrow your team? I need to go back to John's and make some arrangements, and that will be faster than snowshoeing. I'll be back in an hour or two."

I look a query at Ray, deferring to him since he generally takes the dogs in the morning, and he shrugs. "Sure. Just tell John I'll be late today."

"I will. And thank you." He picks up the harness gear from where it's stored by the door and goes outside, this time closing the door.

The room feels very cold. Most of the heat has bled off as the door stood open all this time. I move to the stove to replenish the wood, and Ray comes to stand beside me, waiting until I close the door and sit back, brushing my hands off on my thighs.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

I sigh, staring at my hands. "I was afraid."

He sucks his breath in, a startled sound. "Afraid? Of me?" He sounds dismayed.

I look up at him. "No . . yes. . . sort of. I was afraid of making you angry."

The distress on his face deepens. "Ben, I wouldn't hurt you."

"I know that. That's not what I was afraid of."

Ray stares at me for a moment, and I see understanding come into his eyes. "Oh. Um, well, you're right. I would have given you hell for it."

"But you're not going to now?"

"Well, I figure I should give you a chance to fix it first. But it better get fixed."

I nod. "I'm trying."

"I know." He sighs, and takes two steps away, then looks back at me, his expression clearly revealing that he doesn't feel he ought to be asking me the question he asks. "Who's Steve?"

I sober abruptly. "Steve was my second partner after I graduated. My second posting. She was. . . my friend."

Ray blinks, looking confused. "She? I thought you said Steve."

"Stephanie Robillard. Everyone called her Steve."

"Oh. Um, you've never mentioned her before."

I close my eyes, and nod. "No. I don't."

"What happened?"

"It was my first 'city' assignment. Before that I'd been stationed in a two-man unit up in the Yukon, but someone decided I needed some polish and transferred me to Moose Jaw. I'd been there about a month, and I was having trouble. . . adapting." The word stirs memories of a conversation with my father's murderer, and I have to repress a shudder.

"Really? Moose Jaw's not very big, compared to Chicago, and you did fine in Chicago."

"I didn't have the same motivation to remain in Moose Jaw as I did in Chicago," I say, my voice bitter.

Ray nods, slowly. "No. No, I suppose you didn't. Sorry, I shouldn't have interrupted."

"It's all right." It's easy to absolve him, since I needed the pause in any case. "My superiors there felt I would benefit by having a more experienced partner, and so they put me to work with Steve, who'd been there for three years and was very well respected. We got along very well, she didn't seem to mind the I was green or that I was a little odd, and she was helping me learn to function there, to fit in."

Ray smiles. "That must've been interesting. You partnered up with a woman."

That sounds vaguely insulting. I frown at him. "You know I have the utmost respect for women."

"Oh, yeah, I know that, I didn't mean that. It's just--" he waves a hand vaguely. "You're usually pretty skittish around women."

"Ah. Well, she was ten years my senior and happily married."

"That'd do it. Okay. So, what happened?"

"She had been working on a case for some months before I arrived, gathering information in order to bring down a large drug distribution network. She decided we were ready to take down the supplier. When she outlined her plan to our superiors and they agreed to it, I was concerned that we didn't have enough back-up officers assigned, but since I was junior man and new to the area, I said nothing."

Ray's gaze comes up to meet mine, and I see in his eyes that he knows what's coming next. His words confirm it. "And you were right."

"Yes. The exercise went badly. Several people were wounded. Steve was killed. I was transferred out a week later. Back north."

Ray sighs. "God, that sucks. But you know that wasn't your fault."

"I should have said something at the planning meeting."

"Would they have listened to you?"

"I . . . don't know. They might have."

"You'd been there a month. It was your second posting. Be honest. You know the almighty RCMP. They wouldn't have."

Instinct wars with honesty. I want to defend the institution I've dedicated most of my life to, but he's right, and I know it. I shake my head. "No. They probably wouldn't have."

"Did you tell Steve you were worried?"

"Yes. Of course. She was my partner. She very kindly explained all the ways I was wrong in my assessment, and went ahead with her own plan."

"Then you did what you could, Ben. That's all you can ask of yourself."

"I should have been more forceful, should have. . . ."

"Ben, stop it. I can't even count high enough to add up all the 'should haves' in my life. You're no different from anybody else. You've got to stop holding yourself to impossible standards."

"My father . . . ." I begin, but Ray cuts me off with a swift, angry slash of his hand through the air.

"Your father should have been locked up for child abuse if you ask me, and he sure the hell wasn't any better than you. He probably just never told you about all the 'should have's' in his life so you'd think he was perfect. Well, damn it, Ben, he wasn't. No one is."

Once again I find myself weighing instinct against truth, and finally I sigh, and try for a middle ground. "No. He wasn't a perfect father. But he was very nearly a perfect Mountie."

"If I was going to pick one or the other, that wouldn't have been my choice," Ray says tightly, then to my surprise he reaches out and pulls me into his arms. "God, Ben. Don't be perfect, okay? I hate it when you're perfect. I can't touch you when you are. Can't talk to you. Can't give you anything."

His words make no sense to me, I turn them around and around in my mind, holding him almost absently, trying to understand what he means. "I don't understand," I say plaintively.

He sighs, and pulls back a little. "Everybody likes to be needed, Ben. Everybody likes to give things to the people they love. I'm not just talking about physical things, or stuff like roses and chocolate, but whatever it is they need. A kiss. A hug. A phone call at three a.m., anything. But you-- most of the time you don't need anything. Or really, you won't let on that you do, because I know you need things, it's just that you can't seem to say that. That makes it really hard for me sometimes."

I stare at him, stunned silent. He's right. I know he is. People do like to be needed. Hell, I like to be needed so much that the word 'like' is wholly inadequate. Why wouldn't other people? Why have I never seen that? "I'm sorry, Ray. I didn't. . . ."

"Don't apologize, Ben. I know you didn't. I know it's not on purpose. I wasn't telling you to make you feel bad. I was just telling you to help you understand, okay?"

I nod, still feeling my abortive apology trying to escape my tongue, but knowing it will only upset him. He smiles a little and pulls me into his arms again.

"Good. That's good."

We stand, embracing, for a few more moments, then he sighs and pull away.

"Guess we ought to go clean out the dog shelter while the dogs are away. Put down fresh straw and stuff."

I look at him, startled. "Yes, quite likely, but. . . how did you know that?"

He grins. "Told you, I'm getting acclimated."

I follow him over to where our outdoor gear is hung, and we start getting dressed. "How exactly are you doing that?"

"That's my secret. Come on."

* * *

We've finished mucking out the shelter and are laying down new straw from one of the bales next to the cabin when Eric returns with the team. The three of us work together to get them unharnessed and watered, but I'm a little unnerved by the seriousness of Eric's expression, and by his silence. After the dogs have been cared for we go back inside and Ray puts the left-over chili from last night on to heat for lunch, then looks at Eric and asks the question I've been wanting to.

"So, you get those arrangements worked out?"

Eric sighs. "Yes, and no. Since the ground's still frozen here, I was going to ask to borrow the above-ground lodge that John and his family use, but then I spoke with my teacher." He switches his attention from Ray to me. "You're a very complex person, Ben, and after discussion, we both felt that it would be best if we worked together on your healing."

"So. . . your teacher will be joining you?" I ask.


"I'm not sure I follow."

"Cousin Patty's flying in tomorrow morning with some supplies for John's store. He bought a load of dog-salmon off us to replace what he sold you. I've made arrangements for us to fly back home with her."

Ray's jaw tightens up. "That 'us' had better include me," he says belligerently.

Eric looks at me, a flash of mischief in his eyes. "Patty says there's room for three passengers, so you can either take Dief or Ray, your choice."

I look from Dief to Ray and back. Dief sighs loudly and goes and lies down next to the stove with his back to us. Oh dear. "You know you hate flying," I remind him. "You can stay here with your friends, and John and his nephew will look after you."

Ray relaxes visibly, and goes to crouch next to Dief. "You know, I suspect some kind of agreement can be come to, vis a vis doughnuts," he says, resorting to blatant bribery.

Dief's ears swivel toward Ray, yet more proof that he is, indeed, not totally deaf. It's galling to realize just how long I fell for that.

"What do you say, buddy?" Ray says coaxingly, then looks up at Eric. "You guys got p-i-z-z-a places where you're from?"

Eric sighs. "Yeah, several."

"Greatness." Ray pokes Dief. "Hey, I'll even bring you back a pizza, got it? Might be cold though, I can’t help that.""

Dief rolls an eye toward Ray and grumbles something under his breath. Ray grins. "It's a deal. No pineapple, extra anchovies."

I wince. "Ray!"

"I know, I know. He can sleep outside with the rest of the gang that night."

"Yes, he certainly can," I agree fervently, then I look at Eric. "How much will the trip cost?"

"Fraser, it doesn't matter," Ray says, standing up. "If we need to go, we're going. I'll put it on my plastic, you can pay me back later."

I open my mouth to protest, but Eric starts to speak first.

"The trip out won't cost you anything, since Patty's going there anyway. You'll only have to pay to come back here. She'll probably charge you cost of fuel only, since you're sort of family."

I glower at both of them. "Do I have a say in this?"

"No," they chorus in unison, then they look at each other and laugh.

"Jinx, owe me a Coke!" Ray says.

Eric nods, still laughing. "You got it." He looks around the room, then back at us. "So, Ben, I want to talk to you some more. Ray, that okay?"

Ray nods. "Yeah. I'll head back to John's after we eat. Got stuff to do."

I look at him, wanting to ask what sort of 'stuff,' but he's back at the stove, stirring the chili.

"Eric, you hungry?" he asks.

Eric nods. "I could eat something, sure."

"Get out some bowls, Ben. And the crackers."

I do as he asks, and he dishes up the chili as I put crackers out on a plate, and get spoons and water for all of us. Once we're seated, Ray digs in, I take a bite myself, and glance surreptitiously at Eric as he takes his first spoonful. Seconds later a wash of color darkens his face, and a sudden glaze of sweat gleams on his cheeks. He sucks in a deep breath, and grabs a handful of crackers, then washes those down with half a glass of water. Panting slightly, he shoots a dirty look my way.

"Hoooly shit, Mountie! You make this?" he asks.

I shake my head. "Ray did."

"How can you just sit there and . . . chew?"

"Practice," I say, smiling. I admit to being petty at times. It's a minor revenge for his earlier high-handedness.

Eric looks at Ray. "Interesting recipe."

Ray beams, apparently unaware that wasn't a compliment. "Yeah, it's my mom's. She learned it in Arizona. Well, except she usually uses beef or pork, not elk, but I think it works pretty good with the elk."

"Uh. . . it's different."

"I think it's quite good," I put in. It's not a lie, I do, but then, I've had Ray's chili before, and I got used to eating spicy food in Chicago. Eric manfully downs most of his bowl, liberally augmented with crackers, and several refills on his water. Following lunch, I offer to clean up, and Ray goes off to do whatever mysterious 'stuff' he's doing with John. After I finish cleanup, Eric sits down opposite me on the couch and looks at me seriously.

"You're a pretty bright guy, Ben. What do you think is going on with you?"

"Well, from the direction of your questions, I expect you think I have some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder."

He nods thoughtfully. "Yeah, sort of. I don't think you have the full-fledged disorder, you're way too functional for that. But you are showing some definite post-traumatic stress symptoms. The flashbacks and dreams are classic indicators. The repressed memory thing isn't that unusual... how many people do you know who remember even the good stuff from when they were six? It's just a shame your family didn't get some counseling back then."

"Well, there really weren't resources, or even recognition of the need for it then."

"No, true. But you've been holding out on me. What's going on with you and Ray?"

"What do you mean?" I ask, hedging.

"He said 'that's why you've been treating me like glass.' Is it just the fear that he's going to get hurt, or is there more to it?"

"What else would it be?"

"I don't know. You tell me. This is a pretty new relationship for you guys. You having any communication problems? Physical things?"

As soon as he says that, I feel my face get hot as I recall Ray's desire to broaden our physical relationship and my own resistance. "No, nothing."

Eric looks at me, one eyebrow lifted slightly, clearly disbelieving.

I really am a wretched liar. "It's all the same thing, really," I admit finally.

"What is?"

"I won't be the cause of harm coming to him."

That earns me another long look. "What aren't you saying here?"

I pick at a stray thread on my sweater, unable to meet his eyes. "There are. . . things. . . he wants me to. . . ."

He's quiet for a moment or two, then he sits back a little. "Mmmhmm. Can I ask you something personal?"

"Will it do any good to say no?"

"Probably not."

"Then go right ahead," I growl.

"Have you ever been in a relationship with a man before?"

I pick at that thread some more, and unravel a quarter-inch or so of seam. "I suspect the answer to that is fairly obvious."

"No, not really. Just because you don't want to do something with Ray doesn't mean you haven't done it with anyone else."



"No, I haven't," I manage to say, finally, irritably.

"Okay, I just wanted to be clear. What about Ray?"

"What about him?

"Has he had other relationships?"

"He was married, for a long time."

Eric looks surprised. "To a man?"

I sigh. "To a woman. They're divorced now."

"Ah. . . before or after you and he. . . ?"

"Before!" I snap.

"All, right, I get it. Settle down. So this is new for both of you?"

I nod, and he looks thoughtful.

"Look, I can line you up some resources when we get back to my place. Maybe put your mind at rest a bit about some things."

"No. It's not that. I mean, I know. . . I do know, logically, that my fear is probably misplaced. But that doesn't stop me from having it."

"No, no it doesn't," he agrees. "You're absolutely right. I hope that we'll be able to help you with that."

His mention of 'we' reminds me of a question I meant to ask. "Your mentor, do I know him?"

Eric smiles. "Her? Yes, actually, you do. Though you may not remember her. She was a bit out of our circle when we were kids. Her name's Elizabeth Boxley. Ring any bells?"

The name conjures up a scrap of memory-- my grandmother in the kitchen, sitting at the table with several other women, working on . . . a quilt? Yes, I think so. I can't recall the face which goes with the name, but I do feel sure I've met the woman. "I don't remember her, per se, though I may recognize her when I see her again."

"Could be. By the way, that was a real nice change of subject there."

I open my mouth to protest, then close it again, realizing that there was ulterior motive behind my question, and I can't deny it. "It's difficult for me to talk about these things."

"I know. It's important, though."

"Yes. I realize that."

"You know, it'd be helpful for me to talk to Ray about some things. And maybe later, talk to you both together. Would you mind if I did that?"

Fear tries to wrap itself around me again, and I shake it off. I have nothing to fear there. Ray would never so or say anything to hurt me. "I . . . ." My voice is shamefully hoarse. "That would be fine," I say, struggling to regain a normal tone.

"You're sure?" Eric asks dubiously.

"Yes." I sound more sure this time.

"All right, then. I'll head back to John's and see if he can spare me a few minutes. You okay here on your own?"

I glare at him. "I don't believe I need a babysitter."

He grins. "No, I don't think so either. Okay, Patty is due in tomorrow around noon, according to her flight plan. Can you and Ray be at the store by then?"

"Certainly. And I'll call John and make arrangements about Dief and the team."

He nods, and heads out. I stand for a moment, oddly at a loss, and not knowing why until it dawns on me that I'm alone for the first time in two weeks. I haven't spent so much time in the company of other people since I was at Depot. I wouldn't have thought I could manage it so easily, but Ray makes it easy to be around him. Eric isn't so easy, but he's at least a familiar irritant, much like my father. Relishing the momentary solitude, I start to pack for the trip tomorrow, and try hard not to wonder what Eric is talking to Ray about.

* * *

As we climb down out of the small plane, Ray shoulders his pack and looks around, seeming surprised. I speed up a little so we're shoulder to shoulder following Eric, and lift my eyebrows at Ray. "Something wrong?"

"No, not wrong. It's just. . . it feels almost warm here. And there's no snow, and everything's green, and all the trees. . . ," he waves a hand at the stands of cedar and fir that surround the small airstrip. Just different from what I expected. You did tell me this place was next door to Alaska, didn't you?"

"Yes, but it's a good ten degrees of latitude further south than where we were in the Territories, and it's a costal temperate region here. Much of this area is rainforest."

He looks around at the puddles on the runway, looks up at the cloudy sky, and nods. "Yeah, okay. Just not the jungle kind, right?"

"Right. That would be an equatorial or tropical rainforest. The plant and animal diversity would be vastly different. Here you'll find mostly needle and broadleaf evergreens, alder, trees of that nature. The wildlife includes elk, deer, bear, and cougar, and in the river and sea hereabout you have salmon, seals, and whales."

"You know, you're better than a stack of National Geographics. Hope we get to actually see something other than the inside of a sweat-lodge while we're here."

"I'll make sure we do. It's a wonderful area. I haven't been back here in years, I'd almost forgotten how beautiful it is."

Ray stops in his tracks and looks at me, wide-eyed. "Did you just say it was beautiful here?"


"Wow. You mean something other than wide open expanses of tundra and ice qualifies as beautiful?"

I feel my mouth curve upward in a smile I can't hold back, as I take in the lines of his face. "Oh yes, Ray."

He gets it. I know he does, because he colors up.

"Oh. Uh, that's . . . that's good to know," he says weakly, then suddenly he's smiling too. "I know just what you mean, really."

Eric, a few yards ahead, stops and clears his throat noisily. "You guys get lost?"

We exchange a slightly guilty look, and hurry to catch up to him. His vehicle, parked next to the small terminal building, is a newer model Jeep painted like a Chilkat blanket in red, black and white. Unsurprisingly, the primary symbol displayed on the door is that of Raven, since he's of the Ganhada phratry, though I see salmon, orca, and others as well. It's very striking.

Ray makes a circuit of the vehicle, nodding approvingly. "Nice paint job. She run okay?"

"Smooth as silk," Eric says, proudly, motioning me into the back and giving Ray the seat of honor in the front.

Once we're on the road they fall into a discussion of automotive arcana that leaves me baffled. I don't mind, though, it gives me a chance to watch the scenery we head out toward Highway 16. Things have changed quite a lot since I was last here. Not surprisingly, since it's been quite a while since I was last here and time rarely stands still. There's been a lot of development, and I notice a clutch of new-looking tourist lodges. Apparently noting my interest, Eric interrupts his conversation with Ray to nod at a rather garishly painted totem pole out front of one such establishment, from which is suspended a sign proclaiming it to be the 'Ghost Bear House.'

"We're getting a lot of tourists these days. Some of them are here to hunt or fish, like the old days, but we get eco-tourists now too, who want to see the whales, or the bears, and generally commune with nature. That one's operated by a couple of New Age types, they run what they call 'spirit journeys' for folks with too much money and not enough sense."

I look at his profile, trying to gauge his mood, but his face gives nothing away. "Does that bother you?" I ask.

He grins and shakes his head. "Nah. They can make up anything they like, doesn't hurt me any. The People know better and it's good for the local economy. They'd rather work at a lodge than the cannery any day, and I don't blame them. The tourists come and go, they're usually not too obnoxious. They feed both people, and the gyiik."

"Gyiik?" Ray asks, puzzled.

Eric gestures at Ray's hand, where he is scratching absently at a mosquito bite.

"Little vampires."

Ray waves another mosquito away from his face. "Yeah, I can see how you'd want to spread the donations around."

"You got it. You guys hungry? We should probably eat in Terrace. There's not much between here and home, but there's a nice steak and seafood place on Lakelse."

Ray rubs a hand through his hair and makes a face. "I'm all for food I don't have to cook and that doesn't come out of a can or a mylar packet, but after living in a place without a shower for a week and being on the trail for days before that, I don't think we're really fit for a 'nice' place."

"Well, there's always McDonald's, or the A&W."

Ray perks up. "A&W? You mean, like, burgers, and root-beer floats?"

Eric grins. "Yeah, like burgers and root beer-floats."

"Oh man, I am so sold. I'll even buy."

"Great, and there's one just off the highway, so we don't have to go out of our way."

"Hey, are there showers where we're gonna be staying?"

Eric spares Ray an exasperated glance. "We're not talking about a remote cabin above Great Bear Lake, Ray. Of course there are."

"Okay, good, because I figured if Ben was involved there wouldn't be running water or anything."

Eric chuckles and shoots a glance at me in the mirror. "Ben always has liked to make things more difficult than they need to be."

Ouch. That one stings. More so because it's true. "I haven't complained about having to eat fast food, so I see no reason you two should sit there and insult me," I say, feigning a martyred air.

"Now I happen to know you eat cheeseburgers all the time. I cleaned the wrappers out of my car behind the Consulate often enough to know, so don't give me any 'fast food is evil' crap," Ray says, turning to stick his tongue out at me like a seven-year-old.

"I never realized you spent so much time haunting the Consulate dumpster, Ray," I say, trying to deflect his attention.

"All right, just because I cleaned out my car back there sometimes does not mean I haunt dumpsters. I am not, contrary to some people's opinion, a bag-lady."

"No, of course you're not," I say apologetically, remembering Ray Vecchio's caustic comment, and suddenly feeling guilty for reminding Ray of it.

A short silence falls-- as much of a silence as can exist in a moving vehicle. Then Ray twists around again and looks at me, eyes narrowed. "Hey."

I lift my eyebrows in response.

"I was teasing you."


He sighs. "I don't care what Vecchio said about me, okay?"

"You didn't seem unaffected at the time."

"Yeah, well, at the time I thought I was gonna lose you, so it was mostly that, okay?"

I stare at him, shocked, both that he felt that way, and that he would say it in front of Eric. "You. . . you. . . ." I stammer, trying to think of a coherent response.

He frowns. "Yeah, me. What, you think you're the only one who freaks out sometimes?"

"I . . . suppose I never thought about it at all," I say, feeling even more guilty than before. "I'm sorry, Ray."

He studies me for a moment more, then nods shortly. "Thanks." His serious expression disappears a moment later, replaced with a mischievous one. "So, what are you having for dinner?"

I gaze back at him innocently. "A cheeseburger of course. With fries. And I believe I'll have one of those root-beer floats you were mentioning."

He stares at me, and then starts to grin. "You hedonist, you. Never let it be said that Benton Fraser does not know how to have a good time."

"That's right," I agree, as Eric takes the exit and guides us to the parking lot of the restaurant. It's right at dinner time and most of the inside tables are already occupied, but the night is clear and pleasant so we take our food outside to eat. There's one free table, the rest are occupied by groups of teenagers. As we pass, several of them look up and nod at Eric, and he nods back. One boy, who appears to be around fifteen or sixteen, looks familiar. I get Eric's attention and nod toward that table.

"Is that boy related to your cousin David?" I ask.

He nods. "Yeah, that's Joel, his little brother."

"Strong family resemblance."

"You got that right. Just as big a pain in the ass, too."

We sit down, Eric deliberately takes the side facing away from the teens, probably so his presence won't interfere with their socializing. Ray and I take the other side and for a time there's little sound other than the sound of our own chewing, the rush of traffic on the road, and the chatter of young voices. Ray finishes his meal first, sucking down the last inch of ice-cream-clouded root-beer through his straw, loudly, and then he looks at me.

"Gonna throw away my trash and wash up. Back in a sec."

I nod, and he heads back toward the restaurant.

"So, made any plans?" Eric asks.

"What sort of plans?"

"Long term sort of plans. You going back to Chicago after your adventure?"

I'm sure he thinks this is a safe topic. Unfortunately it's not. My meal turns leaden and tasteless and I put my burger down and push it away. "No. No, I've been recalled. They're making a place for me at Fort Simpson until they figure out what to do with me."

Eric looks startled. "Port. . . oh, no, you said Fort, didn't you? You've worked there before, right?"

"Yes, several years ago. I'm sure it will be fine," I say, trying not to think about the fact that most of my co-workers there thought I was a mental case.

"You said they're making a place for you?"

"Yes. Apparently they want me back in Canada, but they're not sure quite where to put me. They settled on my former posting as a compromise but there's not currently a vacancy there so they're having to shoehorn me in until one comes up."

"Hunh. I didn't know they did that."

"Neither did I."

"Ah. So, what's Ray gonna do? There's not much in the way of jobs there. Maybe some seasonal stuff, but I imagine the locals get most of those."

Not only is my appetite gone, but my stomach is suddenly interested in parting ways with the portion of my dinner I did manage to eat. I swallow hard. "I imagine Ray will return to one of his old divisions. They're already fighting over him."

Eric stares at me, narrow-eyed. I brace for an unwanted question, but instead I hear raised voices, and look past him. Some of the teens have left their tables on the patio and gathered in the parking lot next to the restaurant. There's clearly an argument starting. I also notice that Ray is standing not far from them, patently alert. I stand up, and he looks at me and shakes his head with a look that tells me he feels no need for backup. I stop, waiting. Two of the boys, one of them the one I asked Eric about, start shoving each other. One of the girls tries to intervene and gets pushed roughly out of the way. She stumbles, falling to one knee, her baseball cap coming off and spilling her long dark hair out over her shoulders.

Ray and I move as one, though he's closer so he reaches the group first. He helps the girl to her feet and hands her off to me as he turns toward the two boys who are now actively engaged in fight preliminaries, oblivious to all else.

"Are you all right?" I ask quietly, picking up her cap and dusting it off before handing it to her.

She looks up at me, her expression disgusted, her gray eyes angry. "Yeah, thanks. Stupid boys! Like it matters who has the bigger engine on their motorbike!"

I choke back the urge to explain the Freudian implications of the argument and simply nod. "Indeed."

I look over at the boys. Ray has waded into the fray, deliberately placing himself between the combatants.

"Hey, guys, this is no way to settle anything. Besides, you really don't want to be doing that without headgear and some hand protection," Ray says. "See this?" He holds out both hands, pointing at a finger that's suddenly oddly crooked. "Broke my finger bare-knuckle fighting once. Never healed up right. And when I was coaching, my guy, Levon, he once put this other guy, Deron, in the hospital, nearly killed him, and that was with head protection. Is there a Y or something around here? Someplace to work out and train?"

The boys look puzzled, but interested. One shakes his head. "No. Don't think so anyway. You box?"

"Used to," Ray grins. "I suck though. I'm blind as a bat, makes it hard to fight. Now Fraser over there," he nods at me, "he's good, even if he's kind of Marquis of Queensbury about it. But I'm a good coach. My guy won a bunch of Community League bouts back in Chicago-- you know, Golden Gloves type things-- and he's on his way up."

I realize with a bit of a shock, and an odd feeling of pride, that Ray is doing exactly what I would do in a similar situation. He's telling his own version of an Inuit story. Eric has come to stand beside me, and he watches Ray for a moment with interest, then he glances at the girl.

"Hi, Jessie. You okay?"

"Yeah. Joel and Tim were just being dumb. But that guy got them to stop. Is he a friend of yours? I saw you were sitting together."

"More a friend of a friend," Eric says, with a glance at me.

She looks at me too. "I'm Jessie Nathan."

"Ben Fraser," I offer. "I used to live here, a long time ago. Well, actually we lived in Port Simpson."

She cocks her head and looks at me assessingly. "Are you the Ben Fraser that helped Eric and David bring home the masks?"

I look at Eric, whose expression is all innocence. "I . . . ah. . . wouldn't put it that way."

"But you are a Mountie, right?"

I nod. "Yes."

She grins. "Good." Taking my arm, she drags me over to where Ray is still holding forth on boxing, and pushes me forward a little. "Hey, everybody. This is Ben Fraser. He's a Mountie."

Silence falls. The two boys pale visibly. Then one, Joel, steps forward. "Are you going to arrest us?"

"I don't believe there's any need for that," I say, with a stern look at Jessie for getting me into this. Ray was handling things just fine. And perhaps the best thing I can do is let him continue to do so. "Though, as Ray said, there are much better ways of settling disagreements than fisticuffs. In fact, if you're debating the respective merits of your motorbikes, Ray would probably be a good consultant. He's had some experience rebuilding engines."

That gets their attention back where it should be. Ray gives me a slightly wild-eyed look, as if he's not sure what to do with them now, but then the second boy, Tim, speaks.

"What kind of engines did you rebuild?"

"Oh, a bunch. My dad and I did it all the time. But my baby was a sixty-seven Pontiac GTO, four-hundred cc's," Ray says offhandedly. "I still have her."

A couple of respectful whistles greet his words. I retreat back to our table, followed by Eric, and to my relief, Jessie too. As long as she's there, he won't ask me any more questions I don't want to answer. Unfortunately no one told Jessie not to ask me any uncomfortable questions.

"So did you just come back to visit?" she asks.

"No, I'm here to see someone."

"Who? Eric?"

"Well, Eric, yes," I hedge.

"Somebody else, too?" she asks shrewdly, altogether too observant.

"He's here to see Elizabeth, Jessie," Eric says.

Jessie's eyes get round. "Oh." Her gaze darts to Eric and back to me, and she looks concerned. "I'm sorry. I hope it's nothing serious."

Her reaction makes me wonder just what I've gotten myself into here. "Thank you, so do I."

Thankfully Ray chooses that moment to return. He takes a seat next to Eric, since Jessie had appropriated his place, and looks at me reproachfully. "You abandoned me."

"Nonsense, Ray, you had the situation well in hand, you clearly didn't need any assistance. Everything straightened out?"

"Yeah. Tim's bike does have a bigger engine than Joel's, but Joel's bike weighs less, so that offsets, and it's more maneuverable. And they both have to obey the speed limit so what difference does it make anyway? It's not like having a bigger engine is all it's cracked up to be," he says with a wink in my direction.

I choke out a scandalized "Ray!" as Jessie giggles.

"Hey, Jessie, come on, we're going to the mall!" One of the boys calls out, and she stands immediately.

"See you later. Good luck with Sm'oogit Elizabeth. And thanks for helping," she says to Ray as she heads over to her friends.

I look at Eric, frowning. "Your mentor is a chief?"

He nods. "She's many things, that's one."

"I see."

"No, you don't. But that's all right, you will."

Ray makes a face. "You sound like Yoda."

Eric laughs. "Yeah, sorry. I do sometimes get into that whole mystical mystery thing."

"Mystical mystery or magical mystery?" Ray asks with a grin.

"I have that album," Eric says.

"Doesn't everyone?"

"Who's Yoda?" I ask, not understanding the conversation at all.

They both stare at me, openmouthed. Eric looks at Ray. "He didn't just say that, did he?"

"I think he did," Ray confirms, shaking his head.

"Okay, that does it. We're stopping by the Roger's on the way home and renting videos."

Ray nods. "Yeah. I mean, this is cultural ignorance on a massive scale. We can't let that go untreated."

"Absolutely not," Eric agrees. "Hey, you were pretty good with the boys there. You have kids?"

Ray tenses slightly. Probably not enough for Eric to notice, but I do. I know it's long been a difficult subject for him. He shakes his head.

"Um, no. But I've worked with kids that age a lot back in Chi-town. They're pretty much the same all over, just different slang. Most kids are good, if you let them be."

"Yeah, they are. You really break that finger boxing?"

Ray holds up his hand, displaying the crooked middle finger, its center joint bent down below the others, the first joint up higher. I frown. I can't possibly have missed seeing that for all the time we've known one another.

"Well, yeah," he says, then he flexes his fingers and when he spreads them again they are all miraculously straight again. "But it healed up just fine. Got that double-jointed trick from my dad. He used to do it to gross us out. We loved it."

Eric chuckles. "Nice move. Okay, we all done? Ben, you didn't finish your burger."

They both look at me, and I feel self-conscious. "I'm fine. I wasn't as hungry as I thought."

A hint of worry clouds Ray's eyes, but he doesn't push me on it.

* * *

After a short break on arriving at Eric's to allow Ray and me to shower and clean up, they follow through on their threat to make me watch videos. I find myself ensconced between them on Eric's couch sharing a bowl of popcorn and watching not just one movie, but two, since the infamous Yoda apparently doesn't make his appearance until the second film. They wanted me to watch all three, but by the end of the second one I'm having trouble keeping my eyes open, so they make me promise to watch it some other time. I have to admit the movies are fairly entertaining, reminding me vaguely of Kurosawa's work, if substantially less realistic; although really no more improbable than some of the books I've read. It's a little disconcerting, though, to have Eric and Ray quoting over half the dialogue along with the actors.

Eric takes himself off to his own room at the back of the house after getting us linens for the sofa-bed we're sharing. Even though I'm tired, when Ray comes back from brushing his teeth, wearing nothing but his briefs, I surprise him by pulling him into my arms and kissing him soundly, continuing the kiss until he no longer tastes like toothpaste and only tastes like Ray, and I can feel the heavy thrust of his erection against my belly. I finally let him go and he sits down on the edge of the bed, and runs a hand through his hair with a frustrated sigh.

"That's not nice, Ben," he says.

"It's not?" I ask, a little taken aback.

"Well, yeah, it was nice. Too nice. That's why it wasn't nice. Man, you know English is a stupid language. I mean it's not nice for you to get me all worked up when we can't do anything about it."

"We can't? Why not?"

"Well, we're. . . in the living room of someone else's house."

"Eric went to bed. In his room. And closed the door," I point out reasonably.

"Yeah, but the noise. . . ." He pushes on the sofa bed and the springs creak. "He'd know."

"This might come as a shock, Ray," I intone gravely, "but I think he already knows."

Ray snorts and shakes his head. "Yeah, yeah. I know he knows. I made sure he knew. I just mean. . . it's kind of. . . see, I never could do this. Used to make Stella nuts when we visited her folks and I'd get all self-conscious at the idea of people hearing me and couldn't . . . you know."

I try not to stare openmouthed at the idea that Ray could be self-conscious about anything. And then I register the fact that he's talking about his ex-wife, and my not-very-well suppressed competitive streak rears its head, accompanied by a twinge of possessiveness. I go to my knees in front of him.

"Well, then, I guess you'll just have to be very, very quiet," I say, my hands sliding up the outsides of his thighs to his hips, then to his waist where I slip them under the waistband of his briefs and peel them down to expose his still-hard penis. Suddenly remembering a comment from earlier in the evening, I look up at him earnestly. "Personally, I think the size of your engine is quite impressive."

He starts laughing, but his laughter chokes off abruptly as I lean forward and take his cock in my mouth, sliding my tongue languidly back and forth across the smooth, silky tip, searching for the familiar taste of his arousal. He gasps, his hands curving around the edge of the thin mattress, holding it hard. I lick again, then wet my hand and wrap it around the base of his cock, stroking gently, fascinated as always by the contrasting textures of him, smooth and taut and almost delicate in places, but loose and nubby and rough in others.

The heavy, musky scent of his arousal seems to exacerbate my own need, making me ache and throb in my confining jeans, but I don't want to spare a hand to ease myself, not when he's so close he's trembling-- I can feel it where my hand rests on his thigh. His breath is rapid and harsh, little whimpers escaping his throat as he tries hard not to make any of his usual sounds.

The room is so quiet I can hear the soft, wet sounds my mouth makes on him. The sound of fabric against fabric as his hips move involuntarily in response to my caresses. He doesn't seem to be having any trouble at all maintaining his erection with me, not even with Eric just a few yards away. I smile around him, insufferably pleased by that. I stroke him a little faster, knowing now just how he needs it-- the tempo, the pressure, everything-- and I slip my other hand up through the leg of his briefs so I can cup and fondle the soft weight of his scrotum.

His breathing speeds up, and I can see the muscles in his thighs and belly tighten. I don't let up at all, just keep sucking, and stroking relentlessly, and his hips give one frantic buck and my mouth fills with his semen as he gasps and chokes back a cry, then falls back onto the bed.

"Oh my God," he breathes after a moment or two.

I sit back, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. "What was that you were saying about being unable to perform under circumstances where you might be overheard?"

He snorts and pushes up on his elbows to look at me. "I wouldn't exactly call that performing. Jesus. I didn't last three minutes. How embarrassing."

"How flattering," I correct him.

He grins. "Yeah, well, you have one hell of a mouth on you, you know that? Until I met you, I almost never got off that way. I mean, blowjobs always felt great, but they hardly ever made me come."

I know it's probably ridiculous to feel a surge of embarrassed pride at his words, but that doesn't stop me from doing so. It's a mean but satisfying thought to realize that I have surpassed Stella in something, right out of the starting gate. Ray pushes himself up to a sitting position again and leans forward to kiss me, his tongue slicking along mine, searching deep. He pulls back a little.

"That is so hot, tasting my come in your mouth," he growls. "Why is that so hot?"

"I . . . ah. . . ." My brain isn't working well at the moment. I can't seem to come up with any reasonable answer. "I have no idea."

Ray shakes his head, smiling. "That was one of those rhetorical kind of questions, Ben," he says, and then he puts his hand on my shoulder and pushes.

Since I wasn't prepared for it, I go over without resistance, ending up sprawled on Eric's 1970's vintage burnt-orange shag carpeting. He follows me down, straddles my thighs, and unfastens my jeans with quick, efficient movements. I almost moan in relief as he frees my trapped erection, then remember Eric, and choke back the sound, suddenly more sympathetic to Ray's shyness. There is something a little inhibiting about the idea of an uninvolved party listening to the sounds you make only with a lover. On the other hand there's something compellingly erotic about trying to make love in complete silence.

He lifts off me for long enough to push my jeans and briefs down to my knees, then he's returns, this time unbuttoning my flannel shirt, and pushing it and my henley up to bare me from shoulders down. Then he stretches out over me and starts to lick, first one nipple, then the other. Licking becomes sucking becomes nipping becomes licking and around in a cycle, over and over. I bear it for as long as I can in silence until he forces a sound from me, a smothered gasp, and I lace my fingers into the short, crisp spikes of his hair and drag his face away from my chest.

"Torture . . . is a direct . . . violation of the . . . Geneva convention," I whisper intently, between pants, glaring at him meaningfully.

He smiles beatifically. "Only," he pauses, mimicking my broken phrasing. ". . . if you're a prisoner. . . of war."

He shakes his head a little to free himself from my grasp, and bends down again. To my relief he only goes for a lick at each nipple, then his tongue is trailing a wet path down my sternum to my navel, which he proceeds to lick in a very suggestive manner, plunging his tongue in and out. I shudder at the explosion of arousal that evokes, but then he's on the move again, lips and tongue tracing the trail of fine dark hairs that lead down to my groin. I tense, waiting, and. . . yes. . . there. There. The heat and wetness of his mouth surrounds me, his tongue stroking me, his hand holding me in a perfect grip, starting to stroke. Suddenly, dismayingly, he stops, lifts his head, and lets go of me. A humiliating little whimper of protest escapes my lips and he looks up and grins at me as he reaches to drag a stray hair off his tongue.

"Sorry. Occupational hazard," he says with a wink, and then he's back down again, sucking, and stroking.

Lord he's good at that. I lose myself in the sensual pleasure of his caresses, barely remembering to stay quiet, and having an increasingly difficult time of doing so. He keeps me balanced on the edge of orgasm for what feels like forever. . . payback, perhaps, for my having brought him off so quickly. Trapped in my half-removed clothing I can do little but writhe under his touch. Finally, I can't bear it any more.

"Ray. . . please!" I gasp, pushing my hips upward at him.

He soothes a hand across my belly, gives one final suck, then lifts his head and lets his hands take over, knowing exactly what I need, hard, and fast. It's over in seconds then, and I feel like he's dragging the pleasure out of me, thick and sweet, and I fill his palm with the hot proof of my culmination. He holds me close against him until I'm calm again, then he starts to get up. I reach for him, catching his hand to keep him from leaving.

"Where are you going?"

He grins and frees his hand from mine just as I realize my fingers are now coated in cool, sticky semen. He holds up a similarly adorned hand. "Well, I was gonna wash up, but now it looks like we both need to."

I nod sheepishly and manage to wrestle my pants up, one-handed, so I can get up and walk to the bathroom without tripping myself. He washes first and heads back to bed. I finish my evening ablutions and join him there, and for once, sleep comes easily.

* * *

I wake up when I hear Eric close the bathroom door. The sun is up, well up, judging by the angle, and I feel decadent for sleeping in, while at the same time feeling better than I have in days. Ray is still sound asleep beside me, his head pillowed on my mostly-numb arm. I lie there quietly for a little while, trying to figure out why I feel so good, what I did that let me sleep long and dreamlessly and wake without tension or fear. I suppose it could simply be that I've done something proactive toward solving my problems, but I started that process days ago and it hasn't helped before.

I think back on my activities of the past day and finally it comes to me. I did nothing. From the time we boarded the plane, I did nothing. I didn't fly the plane, or drive the car, or make a decision about where to eat, or even really think about the videos they showed me, at all. For the first time I realize how pleasant it can be to think of nothing more important than space ships and sarcastic princesses-- a blessed relief from the endless round of my own thoughts and fears.

Ray stirs a little, stretches, and then turns his head to look at me and smiles, the sweet, open smile that stirs my heart every time I see it. I smile back. We're still smiling at each other when I hear the toilet flush, then the bathroom door opens and Eric comes out into the living room. He looks at us, shakes his head, and passes on through to the kitchen.

"What was that for?" Ray asks, looking at Eric's retreating back.

"What was what for?"

"That look Eric gave us."

"I expect he thinks we're being revoltingly maudlin," I speculate.

"Oh. Or maybe he's jealous."

"I seriously doubt that."

"What, I'm not hot enough?"

"Ray, Ray, Ray," I sigh, shaking my head. "Pride goeth before a fall."

He clamps a hand onto the side of the bed. "You had better not be thinking of pushing me out of bed."

"I wouldn't dream of it," I say, and then feint toward him. He grabs my hands, laughing, and eyes me for a moment, and then rolls away and sits up, scrubbing his hands through his hair, leaving it standing haphazardly on end as he yawns.

"So, what's on the agenda today?"

"Today we build the lodge, and when it's finished, we'll go see Elizabeth," Eric says, standing in the kitchen doorway. "Then Fraser will fast, and tomorrow we will have our first sweat."

Ray snatches the sheet across his lap, blushing. "Hey!"

"Relax, you've got nothing I haven't seen before," Eric says drily.

"Yeah, but . . . ." Ray says.

"No worries, Ray," Eric says drily. "Your virtue is safe. Anyway, I know better than to try to come between Fraser and his mate. I like my balls, I plan on keeping them. I'm making scrambled eggs, you guys want any?"

"Yeah, sounds good," Ray says, apparently reassured.

"That would be very nice, thank you kindly."

"Bacon? Bannock?" he asks.

Ray looks puzzled, and mouths 'bannock' at me.

"Sort of like a scone," I explain, and I'm about to refuse the extras when I remember Eric said we'd be building the lodge, and that I'll be expected to fast later. This may be my last full meal today. "Yes, please."

"Sure, why not?" Ray says.

Eric nods. "All right. Breakfast in about fifteen minutes, so get some clothes on, Awt, since you're so worried about your virtue," Eric says, and disappears into the kitchen.

I try not to snicker but don't quite manage it. Ray looks at me, eyes narrowed. "What'd he just call me?"

"I. . . you know, Ray, my language skills are a tad rusty, I'm not really sure. . . ."

Ray glowers at me. "Spill it, Fraser."

"Well, ah, I believe he just compared you to a porcupine."7 My gaze goes to his hair of its own accord. I would certainly never do such a thing deliberately.

For a moment I can see him starting to take offense, then he looks into my eyes, and starts to chuckle. "Yeah, okay. I guess I won't beat him up. After all, he's cooking."

After breakfast Eric drives us up into the foothills, and we hike about forty minutes into the woods along a well-worn trail, each of us packing some of the items we'll need. We arrive at a clearing that already holds a fire-pit and a large, sturdily constructed lodge, one that could easily hold ten or twelve people. I look at Eric, puzzled.

"I thought you said we were building a lodge."

"We are. We're not using the permanent lodge. We'll share the fire-pit, no need to reinvent the wheel, but we're building your lodge from the ground up. This is a special sweat, just for you, and you need to be involved in making it."

I nod, understanding. The physical labor involved is clearly intended to be part of the ritual. "All right. A shovel, please?"

Eric ducks into the big lodge, then comes out again carrying a sturdy shovel. The blade is blackened a bit, I expect it serves triple duty as a digging tool, fire-tender, and rock transport. I take it from him. "Where?"

He indicates a spot about ten meters from the main lodge. "There."

"What dimensions?"

"Clear off a circle about three meters or so around and then in the middle of that dig a pit, about a half meter around, and about fifteen centimeters deep."

I nod, and divest myself of my pack, taking a moment to look around the clearing. It's utterly beautiful, wonderfully peaceful. Set on a slight rise, from here I can see the whitecapped thrust of the Skeena Range to the east. A small lake sparkles in the sun a couple of hundred meters away. Everything is green-- spring green, spruce green, grass green, yellow-green, emerald green-- a hundred different shades, in the way only a temperate rainforest can be. A scattering of spring flowers dots the clearing, white, pale pink, yellow. I feel vaguely guilty for disturbing them, but Eric wouldn't have asked me to do this if it wasn't important. I set to work.

"Hey, I can help, give me a shovel," I hear Ray say, and look over to find him frowning at Eric.

Eric shakes his head. "No, he has to do this on his own. You can help me clear the fire-pit and set it up."

"But. . . ."

I catch Ray's eye and shake my head, and he subsides with a scowl.

"Okay. Fine. Whatever."

After a few minutes work I feel impelled to strip off my jacket and flannel shirt, and push the sleeves of my henley up to my elbows. It's ridiculous that so little effort makes me sweat. I didn't realize I was so out of shape. After a few more minutes my back is already starting to ache, but that's not unusual. The stooping and twisting involved in shoveling stresses the muscles damaged when Ray Vecchio shot me. I hope Eric has aspirin at home. Finally I get the lodge floor cleared and the pit dug, and only then allow myself to turn and look at Ray and Eric.

Like me, they've both stripped down a couple of layers. Eric is in a henley, like me, and Ray's wearing one of his ubiquitous t-shirts. This one is plain white, v-necked, and though it's not tight, it clings slightly to his torso in places. Probably because like me, he's sweating a bit-- I can see the gleam of it along the curve of his collarbone, and in the slight hollow at the base of his throat. He doesn't look at all winded, though. Maybe it's the unaccustomed warmth and humidity causing us both to sweat, rather than a lack of physical fitness. I shift my gaze to Eric, and find him watching me with an amused look on his face. Embarrassed to be caught ogling Ray, I clear my throat.

"What next?"

He appraises what I've done, nodding solemnly, then sends me over to a stand of willow near the lake with orders to cut branches for the frame. When I return with an armload of withies, he stops showing Ray how to build the firebox and stack the rocks for cooking, and comes over to show me how to strip the branches, and bend and tie them to create the frame. He's having me work traditionally, using sinew, not wire or nails, to lash the branches and it's not easy to accomplish alone. Several times a bowed branch slips out of my grasp before I can secure it, and snaps me in the arm or shoulder, leaving behind a stinging welt.

Finally I hit on the idea of using slip-knots which I can tighten one-handed while holding the branch in place with the other. After that, things go more smoothly. When I finish the initial framework, I squat next to it, both hands on my back, trying ineffectually to ease the growing ache there. Ray looks up and frowns, and nudges Eric, who looks at me, and nods. Ray comes over with a water bottle and hands it to me, and I nod my thanks and gulp thirstily.

"You okay?" he asks softly.

"Yeah, fine."

"Don't look fine."

"Just a bit of back ache. Nothing serious."

"You sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

"Okay," he says reluctantly, then he rolls his eyes. "Like you'd say if you weren't. You want a back rub?"

Oh lord, that's tempting. But if I let him do that, I may never finish my task. I shake my head resolutely. "Perhaps later."

"It's a deal."

"Hey, slacker," Eric calls. "Get back to work."

"The frame is finished," I say, a tad defensively.

"Yeah?" He comes over and inspects the frame critically, tightens a couple of lashings, then nods. "You did good. Now go up the hill and cut some cedar branches, nice, flattish ones with plenty of needles, and weave those through the frame to hold up the outer layer. Ray, come down to the lake with me. We need to haul water and fill the barrel."

Ray nods and sets off, surprisingly uncomplaining. I finish my water and head up to the stand of trees Eric indicated to cut cedar. As I look for appropriate branches, a rustling draws my eye and I look up to see a large bird above me, its head cocked curiously, watching me. Its eyes are black and bright, but its feathers are white. For a moment I can't identify the species, the color of its feathers throws me, but then it opens its heavy beak and makes a sharp, metallic 'tok'-ing sound.

It's a sound I've heard many times before, though never from a white bird, and it makes me realize what I'm seeing. A raven.8 A white raven. Very unusual coloring. It's clearly not an albino, though, because its eyes aren't pink, and its beak is gray rather than peach-colored. I've never seen anything quite like it. After a moment's thought, I realize I'm not entirely sure I'm really seeing it now.

"Hello," I say softly.

It hunches a bit, ruffling its feathers, and cocks its head the other direction, eyes still fixed on me.

"Can I help you?" I ask.

It makes a soft, creaking sort of sound, like an unoiled door hinge slowly opening, and it hops along the branch on one foot. I see that it has something clutched in one claw-- some bright, shiny object, necessitating the awkward movement. Not unusual. Ravens love bright things. It preens one wing with its beak, and a long feather dislodges, falling through the branches with an odd, rocking motion. I reach up and catch the feather, holding it. The bird caws, and I think I must be imagining the satisfaction that seems to lace that sound.

I look down at the feather in my hand, and as I do, something small and hard hits me in the head. Wincing, I look back up. The bird's beak is open, its throat moving soundlessly, and it almost looks as if it's laughing at me as it walks along the branch again, more gracefully this time. I realize that whatever it had in its claw must be what hit me in the head. I look down, and see something shining on the ground about a foot away, and stoop to pick it up. A rock. Pyrite, to be exact. Fool's gold. I look back up, and the bird is gone, though I didn't hear it go.

Thoughtfully I tuck the rock into the pocket of my jeans and thread the feather through a buttonhole in my henley, then carefully cut a smaller branch from the large one on which the raven had been standing. The sharp, resinous scent of cedar is heavy in the air as I work. A hummingbird9 keeps coming over to hover near me, as if watching. I'm not entirely sure why I'm suddenly so attractive to the local fauna, but it seems harmless enough. At least the mosquitos and blackflies are leaving me alone for the most part. Eric's home-made insect repellent seems to be working.

Finally I've harvested what I think will be enough branches, and I head back down the hill to start reinforcing the frame with them. After a little while Eric and Ray come back up the hill, carrying a couple of five-gallon water jugs which they pour into what looks suspiciously like a decorative wooden garden planter. Whatever it began life as, it makes an effective cistern now, since the moisture-swollen wood is water-tight. That done, Eric picks up his pack and takes out a plastic-wrapped sandwich, and two bottles of Gatorade.

"Lunch break."

He passes the sandwich to Ray, and then holds out a bottle of Gatorade to me. I take it nod my thanks, and open it, trying not to grimace as I sip. I don't care for Gatorade, but I know my body will appreciate the electrolytes. Ray stops unwrapping his sandwich and looks at me, then at Eric, and frowns.

"How come you guys don't get sandwiches?"

"Because we're fasting," I explain.

"Oh." He doesn't stop frowning, and he looks at his own sandwich, and then carefully re-closes the bag and hands it back to Eric. "If you guys don't get to eat, I'm not going to either."

"You don't have to do . . . ." I begin, only to have Eric cut me off.

"No, if he wants to, let him, Ben. It's appropriate."

I open my mouth to protest again, catch the glare in Ray's eyes, and subside, realizing I'm being overprotective again. "All right. Would you like to share my Gatorade?" I ask hopefully.

Ray looks at me narrowly. "You want me to so you don't have to drink it, don't you?"

"Clearly I'm not nearly as subtle as I'd like to think," I say, chagrined.

Ray chuckles. "Subtle like a brick in the face, Ben. Okay, hand it over. I'll help."

I hand it over and he takes a swig. Eric swallows a mouthful and wipes his forehead with his sleeve.

"Warm today."

"Yeah, especially compared to Joe's Place."

"See anything interesting today?" he asks, a hair too casually.

"There was a hummingbird that seemed extraordinarily interested in my activities." I say, just as casually. "It probably has a nest near where I was gathering branches."

Eric nods, and his gaze drops a little to a spot somewhere below my chin, then lifts again. "Maybe so. Any other wildlife?"

I pretend not to have noticed where he was looking, and glance at Ray. "A porcupine, and a couple of ravens."

Eric chuckles. "I meant besides us."

"Ah. Well, a raven, then."

"Lots of those up here," he says, and if I hadn't known him when we were both boys I might not realize he's fishing for more.

"Yes, that's true," I say, trying to make him ask.

He studies me, a little tinge of frustration in his gaze. He must have forgotten that tracking isn't the only thing I learned from Quinn. His way of communicating, or rather not communicating, has stood me in good stead on many occasions. Eric stews in silence for a moment, then comes out and asks.

"What's that on your shirt?"

I glance down and brush at some cedar bark clinging to the fabric over my stomach. "Just some bark."


I pretend to look. "Oh, you mean this?" I ask, gently pulling the feather free. "I told you, I saw a raven."

"That's not a raven feather."

"You wouldn't think so, would you? But I assure you it is. Corvus corax, specifically, albeit one with rather unusual plumage."


"No. Decidedly not. Just white."

He stares at me for a long moment, then nods, as if there's nothing particularly unusual about my sighting. "So, hummingbird, and white raven. Anything else?"

"No, though the raven did drop one other thing. On my head, actually," I reach into my pocket and pull out the rock, displaying it on my palm.

Eric leans over to look, carefully not touching my find. "Ah. Keep that. We'll have to make you a medicine bag."

"Pyrite," Ray says, unexpectedly. "Always thought that stuff was kind of cool. But the bird dropped a rock on your head? What was it doing? Trying to crack it?"

"What, the rock, or his head?" Eric asks with a grin.

Ray snorts. "His head."

"No, I think it just wanted me to have it."

Eric nods. "Yeah. Come on, let's get back to work. We're supposed to go meet Elizabeth in a couple of hours."

"All right, what next?"

"Mud. We take the dirt from your pile there, and some of the water Ray and I brought, and make mud, and pack it around the branches."

"We?" I ask, surprised.

"Yeah. I think we can lend a hand now. You've done the hardest part yourself, and I noticed you seem to be hurting. Did you do something to your back?"

"I . . . it's. . . ." for some reason I find it difficult to explain.

"He got shot a while back," Ray says. "Couple of years ago. They couldn't take the bullet out. Gives him fits now and then."

Eric looks from me, to Ray, and then back, his expression thoughtful. "Sounds like something we should talk about."

I close my eyes briefly. "I . . . perhaps."

To my relief, he doesn't push me, he only nods once more. "We'll see how things go. Come on. Time to make mud."

By the time we finish with the mud packing, and stretching the elk-hide coverings over the mud-coated frame, the three of us are all-over dirt. It's a surprisingly good look for Ray. I keep finding myself making excuses to touch him, adding muddy hand prints to the smudges he acquired on his own. He looks down at himself and grins.

"Hey, does kissing me qualify as licking mud?"

I glance over toward the big lodge where Eric has gone to get something, pull Ray close and experiment. When I let him go he laughs, licking gritty lips, and ruffles my hair with a dirty hand.


"It definitely qualifies."

"Hmm, so what did you learn from that?"

"That the soil hereabouts is high in iron content, and that you taste good even with mud as an accompaniment."

"Funny, I thought that same thing."

"I wasn't aware you could taste mineral variations in soil content."

He rolls his eyes. "You know what I meant."

"Yes, I do," I say, smiling a little.

Eric comes back out of the lodge, carrying a Hudson Bay blanket which he ties to the branches on either side of the door opening "Here we go, this should do it. We're all set."

"What about the fire?" I ask, looking back at the stack of timber and rocks at the fire pit.

"We can't leave it unattended so we won't light it until we come back up for the night later. Right now we've got an appointment to keep."

"What time are we supposed to be there?"

Eric looks at his watch. "Half an hour. That gives us just about enough time to get there."

"Half an . . . you mean half an hour before we'll be back at your place to clean up?"

"No, I mean half an hour until we're supposed to meet Elizabeth."

"But. . . ."

"She knows what dirt is, Ben."

"I can't meet her for the first time looking like this!" I balk.

"You won't be."

"I thought you said. . . ."

"You've met her already. Come on, if we stand around talking any longer we'll be late, and that she does mind."

Eric picks up his pack and shoves his extra shirts into it, along with our empty water and Gatorade bottles. Ray and I hastily get our things together and we set off. The hike back down to the parking area is easier and faster than the hike up. I could wish it was faster still, because without the concentration required by manual labor, I find myself thinking about all the things I've managed to forget about over the past day or so. My stomach tightens, and I'm glad I had nothing to eat earlier.

I stop for a moment to wipe sweat off my forehead. Ray stops too, and he squeezes my shoulder a little.

"You'll be okay, Ben," he says quietly. "Relax. You look fine. In fact, it's probably illegal in Utah to look as fine as you look."

I frown at him, puzzled. "Utah?"

He grins. "You can't do anything fun in Utah. It's against the law, didn't you know that?"

"I . . . you're having me on."

"Duh. Come on, Eric's gonna leave without us," he says, setting off again.

"I wish he would," I mutter under my breath. Ray turns and looks at me, shakes a finger, then goes on. I sigh and follow.

* * *

From the outside, Elizabeth's house is a nondescript dwelling, government-built, twenty years old or more, and definitely generic. I don't know why that surprises me. Silly of me, but I suppose I expected something more overtly . . . magical. I guess I thought she'd live in a cave. I've clearly been away too long if I'm letting my imagination run away with me like that. Acutely uncomfortable in my dirt, I stop when we get out of the jeep and brush ineffectually at my clothing, hoping to make some difference, though I suspect all I've done is even things out so that rather than merely scattered streaks of dirt, it's more of an all-over effect.

There's a garden hose coiled neatly on a holder beside the door and I turn on the faucet to rinse my hands, and Ray and Eric join me there, the three of us shaking water off and waiting for our skin to air-dry, since touching our clothing would defeat the purpose of rinsing our hands. The delay gives my nerves a chance to fray further, and my instinct at this moment is to run, as far and as fast as I can. I told someone once that running away never solves anything, but it's certainly tempting to see if I can make this a first. As if sensing my incipient panic, Ray reaches over and strokes the back of my neck briefly. His touch is cool and comforting, and it makes me feel steadier to have him at my side. Finally Eric knocks at the door, and without waiting for an invitation, opens it and steps inside, motioning for us to follow.

Inside the house the decor is an odd combination of prosaic and exotic. Gingham curtains frame the windows, there's a Formica kitchen table with five metal folding chairs, an old horsehair loveseat, and a more modern four-person sofa upholstered in a vaguely Southwestern print. Less common are the scents of sweetgrass, cedar, and other herbs, likely the ones drying in bunches hung from a wooden lattice that's been nailed to the ceiling. Several carved ceremonial masks, some wooden, but also two suspiciously familiar ones of black basalt rest on a heavy pine shelf which runs the circumference of the room. A beautiful Chilkat blanket is hung like a tapestry behind the worn easy chair in which the room's only occupant sits, flanked by two painted bark chests. Eric motions for us to stay where we are, and goes over to converse softly with the woman in the chair, allowing me a chance to study her a little.

Elizabeth Boxley reflects the same odd combination of attributes as her home. A pleasant-looking older woman, probably in her late sixties or early seventies. Her face is broad and round and surprisingly unlined. If I hadn't grown up with people like her, I would probably guess her to be younger than I'm sure she is. She's not a big woman, I suspect if she were standing, she would barely reach Eric's shoulder, but somehow she manages to convey an earthy solidity. She's wearing blue jeans and a faded pink sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "The World's Best Grandma." The sleeves are pushed up to her elbows, revealing a wide copper bracelet engraved in traditional patterns circling one sturdy wrist.

Her long, thick hair is worn unbound, and has gone entirely white. Not iron gray like Quinn's, or a faded yellow-gray, but silver-white. Or, I realize with a shiver, white as the raven-feather still threaded through a buttonhole of my henley. She looks up suddenly, her gaze meeting mine without hesitation, her dark eyes brilliant and amused. The hair on the back of my neck lifts a little, and my hand goes to my pocket, fingering the hard knot of pyrite hidden there. She cocks her head a little and looks at Ray for a moment, then back at me.

"Hello, Benton Fraser, it's good to see you again."

Again? I wonder if she's referring to twenty-some-odd years ago, or earlier today? "Ma'am," I say politely, not entirely sure what to say, since I don't remember the former and I'm not certain I should mention the latter.

Her gaze sweeps down me, then back up, and her amusement deepens. "I expect your grandmother would be appalled," she says.

My face instantly goes hot. "I expect so, yes, and I apologize for my appearance."

She waves a hand negligently. "It's all right. I have a feeling that's Eric's doing anyway, he likes to put people off-balance."

I shoot a glance at Eric, who's looking at Elizabeth with an expression of affectionate irritation. "You would be right," I say.

She nods sagely. "Thought so. Now, who's this?" she asks, looking at Ray.

Ray steps forward and puts out his hand. "Ray Kowalski, ma'am."

She takes his hand in both of hers, and looks into his face searchingly. He doesn't flinch from her regard, just returns it steadily. After a moment she smiles and nods with seeming approval, letting go of his hand. "Call me Elizabeth, both of you. I don't stand on ceremony. Eric, take Ray to the kitchen and make us all some tea. I need to talk to Benton alone for a moment."

Ray looks at me, frowning a little, and I know he'd stay if I wanted him to. But I have to stop depending on his support at every turn, and instead be content with knowing it's available, without actually calling on it. I nod briefly at him, letting him know I'll be all right. . . whether or not that's the truth. For some reason the thought of facing this elderly woman alone is far more frightening than facing an armed felon. He studies me for a moment longer, then nods back and turns to follow Eric out of the room. I watch him go, unable to not do so.

"He's part of the problem," Elizabeth says softly.

My attention snaps back to her. She's watching me with an eerily familiar intensity. I shake my head. "No. No, he's not," I say defensively. "It's my problem. Not his."

"Of course it is, but that's not what I meant. You're afraid, but not for yourself. You're afraid for him."

"Eric told you . . . ."

"Eric told me nothing," she says, cutting me off impatiently. "I have eyes. You must face your fear. You must see it for what it is."

Her bluntness disconcerts me. "I'm trying," I begin, only to have her interrupt me again.

"No. You think you're trying, that's different. What you're really doing is building more walls between you and it. Until you're willing to tear down those walls instead of building them, you'll never find it. And until you do that, you'll never allow yourself to be happy. I told Martha they were making a mistake with you," she says sharply. "She should have listened to me."

"You mean my grandmother?" I ask, lost.

She nods. "Your grandmother. A more stubborn woman never lived. Even then you were one who sees and hears and feels much that others don't. You should have been told that those things only you can sense are as much a truth as the weight of a stone in your hand. Instead they taught you that there is no truth but that of the physical world." She shakes her head. "A mistake. You have to learn to walk all over again."

"It wouldn't be the first time," I say, not entirely sure why.

She looks at me intently, and nods. "No. It isn't, is it? But you keep teaching yourself the same lessons they did. You have to unlearn their lessons before you can learn your own. Are you willing to do that? To let go of everything you think is true?"

"I . . . I don't know," I whisper, staring at my hands.

"Good answer, Benton Fraser. Honesty, with me, and with yourself. That's the first step. Are you afraid?"

I nod, this time unable to speak.

"Also good. Only a fool never feels fear. What will you do when you fail?"

When I fail? Stung, I look up, directly into her ageless gaze. "I won't fail. I won't let myself fail."

She snorts derisively. "Everyone fails, boy. Everyone. Me. Eric. Ray. You. What will you do?"

I think about it. Swallow hard. "Get back on the horse?"

She laughs, and nods. "I think you'll do, Benton. I think you'll do. Eric! That tea ready yet?" she calls out suddenly, startling me.

"Almost," he calls back. "We'll be right out."

She nods, apparently satisfied, them turns back to me. "Your friend is interesting. He's not a big man, but I think he's strong. Very strong. But strong like willow. A good man to have at your back, or by your side."

"Yes, he is," I say, responding to the last part of her statement, turning the first part over in my mind.

Ray is strong. Strong, but flexible. He bends, where I . . . break. I think about what Elizabeth said about my grandmother's stubbornness, about learned behavior, and it comes to me that the first thing I'll have to unlearn is my own rigidity. The first thing, and probably the hardest thing. It's not as if I haven't had this lesson before, either. Ray has tried to teach it to me, gently. Others have tried, not so gently. Remembered pain tightens my shoulders and lower back, sends fiery needles along my ribs, and my temple.

"You wouldn't be the only child who learned not to play with fire by getting burned, Benton," Elizabeth says quietly. "Sometimes there are lessons only pain can teach us. But getting burned doesn't mean you spend the rest of your life in the cold and the dark, it just means you learn more respect for the fire."

I'm still staring at her when Ray and Eric come out of the kitchen, each carrying two mugs of tea. Eric takes one to Elizabeth, and I cross the room to take one from Ray, sip, and grimace as my mouth floods with overpowering sweetness. Handing it back to him, I hold out my hand for the other cup. He gives me an apologetic smile.

"Sorry. Forgot which one had sugar. Didn't mean to put you into a diabetic coma."

I clear my palate with a sip of unsweetened tea. "I think I'll live."

"Good thing," he says, his voice pitched for my ears alone. "'Cause I've got plans for you that would be really disgusting if you were dead."

"Ray!" I hiss, darting a look toward Eric and Elizabeth, my face so hot I know it must be scarlet. I wish to hell I could control my blushing.

He grins and winks, completely unashamed. I go and look out the window, drinking my tea, willing my blush to subside.

"Benton?" Elizabeth says, mere moments later.

Hoping she won't notice my color, I turn and go back to Elizabeth's chair. "Yes ma'am?"

"I told you, I prefer Elizabeth," she admonishes me gently. "I know you're a man who feels more comfortable when you know all the details, so let me give you those. I've asked Eric to take you back to his place so you can wash and change, then you're all to go back up the hill to spend the night. Ray and Eric will stay by the lodge and tend the fire tonight in preparation for tomorrow. However I want you to go out into the woods alone tonight. I know that you respect our ways, but I think there is also a part of you that feels more than respect for them. You have a connection in blood and spirit, to our people. You'll need to find that part of yourself if the work is to be effective."

I look at her, puzzled. "In blood and spirit?"

She looks equally puzzled. "Yes. You didn't know that?"

"Know what? I'm not sure I understand."

"Your mother's twice great-grandmother was Tsimshian, Benton. Laxgybuu, wolf-clan. The blood tie is there, though distant."

It floors me that I didn't know this about my own family. "I don't. . . I didn't know. No one ever said . . . why wouldn't they?"

She looks at me, clearly amused. "You know the answer to that, Benton. It wasn't considered acceptable. Apparently your mother's family just decided to sweep it under the rug. In any case, the connection is clearly present. Now, during the night, try to open yourself to any messengers that might come, and see if you can unshackle your mind before the sweat tomorrow."

I nod, accepting her instructions. "I'll try."

She looks at me levelly. "It's going to take more than trying."

"For Ben, trying is doing," Ray says quietly, then he grins a little. "Try not. Do or do not. There is no try," he says, his voice an uncanny mimic of the Yoda character from the film we watched last night.

Elizabeth chuckles. "Ben always was like that. More determination than sense."

Ray nods. "Yeah, that pretty well says it."

Elizabeth studies him for a moment. "I have a feeling you're no slouch in the determination department, yourself," she says drily. "Are you going to be able to let go of him so he can do this on his own?"

Ray's smile disappears abruptly. "I . . . um. . . ."

He looks at me, and I can see the worry in his gaze, the unwillingness to let me do this alone. I stare back, willing him to understand. Elizabeth makes my case for me.

"He must do this himself, without help. If you give him a crutch now, he may never be able to walk without it," she says, not unkindly.

He sighs, and shakes his head. "Yeah. I know. I do know. It's just. . . hard, sometimes, to let go when you think you should be holding on." He laughs humorlessly. "Story of my life, I think. But I'll do whatever I have to do."

"Do you really mean that? If, for instance, we said you had to leave him?"

Ray goes pale, and his eyes seek mine again. I have no reassurance to give him. I have no idea what they might require of either of us. He crosses his arms defensively as he looks at me, his gaze asking for understanding as he speaks.

"If that's what it takes, if that's absolutely the only way, then yes, even that. Just don't ask me to like it. Or to give in without a fight."

Elizabeth holds out her hands. "Come here."

Ray moves forward, reluctantly, and she clasps his hand in hers and draws him down to whisper something in his ear. His expression lightens a little, and he nods.

"Thanks," he says quietly.

Elizabeth releases his hands and he straightens up. I want to know what she told him, but I assume if she'd wanted me to hear she would have said it aloud, so I curb my curiosity and take what comfort I can in the fact that his color is returning to normal. Eric says something to her in sm'algyax that I don't quite catch. She answers him in the same language, and he nods, then looks at me.

"Come on, time to go."

I nod and follow as he leads us back out to his jeep, thinking about what she said; about how to go about unlearning a lifetime's lessons.

* * *

I don't sleep much during the night, kept awake by my own thoughts. I keep finding myself worrying about Ray, which is nonsensical. He's with Eric, he's fine. The other thing that keeps me from sleep is that for some reason I keep remembering the summer before my mother died, the night my father took me out in the woods to make sure I learned how to build a fire.

As I think back on the incident I realize that she and Dad must have had a row about it after we got back. Until now, I hadn't remembered that when we returned to the cabin she asked me to tell her about our camping trip, and so I did. Afterward her lips had thinned and she'd looked daggers at Dad, and they had both gone outside for a while. When they came back in, they were quiet and I didn't think anything about it, but she made an apple pie and gave me two pieces after dinner. At the time I'd wondered why but hadn't questioned my good fortune.

My stomach growls at the thought of apple pie, and I try to think of other things. Unfortunately my mind then insists on putting me back in the woods alone, in the dark, small fingers fumbling with flint and steel, trying to get them to work the way my father had shown me. It's really quite ridiculous. I've spent the night alone in the woods more times than I can count, so why is it that I can only think about that particular incident now?

Somewhere above me I hear the sound of large wings beating in the air, see a pale blur in the trees. A raven caws. . . strange to hear that at night, since they're not nocturnal birds. My fingers go to my jacket pocket, feeling for the white feather tucked inside it, finding it. Elizabeth said to let go of everything I thought was true. To be open to messages and messengers. Is this a message?

A rustling much closer to me makes me turn my head, slowly, and in the wash of moonlight I see a pair of raccoons-- from their sizes, an adult, probably female, and a kitten-- come into the clearing where I've laid out my bedroll. The larger animal investigates my backpack, but finding no food she moves on. The smaller one lingers, curious, obviously entranced by the peculiar object with its pockets and flaps and ties. After a few moments it tires of the game and turns to look for its companion. I can almost sense its alarm as it realizes the other animal is no longer in sight. It sniffs the ground and makes several false starts, uncertain in which direction to follow the scent trail. Finally it lets out a forlorn squeak, and almost instantly the larger raccoon10 lumbers back into the clearing from a stand of berry-canes, chittering as it rounds up its wayward youngster.

I find myself smiling as they trundle out of sight. I know I'm anthropomorphizing terribly, but I can just imagine the scolding the young raccoon is getting for lagging behind. It needs to learn that being obedient will save it a great deal of fear and anxiety. I think about how it felt on realizing it was alone, and a shiver wracks me. Out of the blue, I remember the utter terror I'd felt at realizing my father really had left me alone. I'd called and called for him, but he hadn't come, hadn't replied.

Eventually I stopped, but not until long after darkness had fallen. Since it was nearly summer, that had been quite late. Eventually, I remembered the flint and steel in my knapsack, and I gathered tinder and dry sticks to build a fire. That part I knew well, I'd done it for him many times. Eventually, I learned how to strike the steel correctly, how to aim the sparks at the tinder, how to blow it to life and feed it with small sticks until the larger ones could catch. He hadn't come back, even then. I'd stayed awake until after sunrise, keeping that fire going, alone. Not until the next morning did he show up, look at my small fire, and nod approvingly, telling me that if I'd learned to do that sooner he wouldn't have had to leave me.

That was one precept I internalized very well. Learn your lessons when you're told to, and you won't get left alone in the dark. I might have made some small rebellions against my grandparents as I got older, I wasn't a perfect child, but I mastered every task I was given quickly as humanly possible, trying to achieve the standard set by my father. Unfortunately, very few people seem to realize that by doing that I wasn't showing off, I was just asking to not be left alone. Of all the people I've known, only Ray seems to grasp that about me. He may violently disagree with the premise, but he understands it. He too is familiar with the results of disappointing a parent.

Dawn finally breaks, greying the sky. I pack my bedroll and head down the hill to the lodge. To my surprise Eric is still asleep, but Ray is up, brewing tea in a pan on a small camp stove. He looks up as I approach, and I expect the expression on my face is a mirror of his. Relief. Pleasure. Love. He points at Eric and puts a finger over his lips, then beckons me closer.

I quietly put down my pack and bedroll, and go to him. He holds me close, kisses me almost chastely. . . almost. A little flutter of his tongue against my lips teases me just as he lets me go. I'm too tired to muster more than the barest flicker of arousal, which is probably just as well. Elizabeth didn't admonish us to abstain, but I suspect that refraining from sex falls under the heading of 'fasting.' Ray strains the tea through a piece of cheesecloth into a cup and hands it to me. I taste it, savoring the familiar but unexpected flavor of a traditional bark tea.

I nod my thanks as he pours a cup for himself and gestures for me to follow him down toward the lake. Finding a glacier-smoothed boulder, he sits with it behind him for support and pats the ground between his legs. I sit where he indicated and he pulls me back against his chest, looping an arm around me. We sit and drink our tea in silence, watching the sunrise paint the clouds. The hot liquid and his presence serve to settle my nerves, though it wakes a growl from my stomach, which apparently feels ill-treated. I give it a mental hush much as I would Dief, and it settles. After a bit I doze off in Ray's arms, only waking, startled, when I hear Eric calling our names from up the hill.

"Here," Ray calls, waving a hand to let him know where we are. "Watching the lake, and waiting for some lazy people to get up."

"The fire-tender isn't allowed to smartass the shaman," Eric says, coming up behind us, putting his hair back with a thong.

Ray snorts. "If you wanted me to believe that you should have told me that yesterday. So, how are you getting Elizabeth up here? That trail's pretty rugged for a chair."

Chair? I stare at Ray, puzzled, and am further puzzled by Eric's answer.

"She's not bound by the limitations of her physical form. She's already here. I felt her, last night."

"You mean like astral projection or something?"

"Or something," Eric agrees, looking amused. "I'm gonna go piss, back in a minute."

Eric wanders off toward a stand of trees and I look at Ray.

"What were you talking about? What did you mean by the path being too rough for a chair?" I ask, finally.

"I mean a wheelchair. I saw it in the kitchen at Elizabeth's, asked Eric about it. He said she hasn't walked in years. Said she and her husband had a little store, sold groceries and gas and such, mostly to locals and hunters and truckers. A couple of guys came in and robbed the place, killed her husband, shot her a couple of times. She almost died, but pulled through. Never could walk again, though."

As I think back, I remember that she didn't move her legs at all, and her jeans fit loosely, probably over leg muscles degenerated from disuse. And I remember, now, hearing about the incident as a child. I just hadn't made the connection. "I can't believe I didn't notice," I say, appalled.

"Well, you got a lot on your mind right now, I think you're allowed a minor lapse. Hey, Eric," he says, acknowledging Eric's return and nudging me to get up so he can do so as well. "What's on the agenda for today? I'm guessing breakfast is out?"

Eric nods. "We don't eat until after the sweat. But it's time, anyway. Ben, are you ready?"

My heart begins to pound. Once again, my first instinct is to run. I actually find myself turning away for a moment, before I will myself to stillness and look at Eric. "Yes. I'm ready."

He looks at me with that birdlike cocked-head stare. "Are you?"

I close my eyes, open them again, and square my shoulders. "Hell no. But now is as good a time as any."

He nods. "Yes. You're right. Come on. Let's go up. Ray, do you remember what I told you, how to take the rocks into the lodge, where to put them?"

"Yeah. But. . . Ben, are you sure? If you're not ready. . . ."

"I never will be," I interrupt. "I have to do it anyway."

For a moment it looks as if he's going to object, loudly, but then he sighs and nods, running a hand through his hair.

"All right. Okay. If you're sure."

"I'm sure," I say, firmly.

He nods. "Okay, I'm on rock duty. How many to start?"

"Six," Eric says, taking my arm as if he's afraid I'll bolt. He may be right. "Come on, Ben."

I let him pull me up the hill to stand beside the fire, and I start undressing as Ray pulls several large rocks out of the fire with his shovel and takes them across to the lodge. I fold my clothing carefully, placing each piece in my pack, stopping when I'm down to my boxers. Usually we have. . . ah. I relax a bit as I see Eric pull a pair of dark brown towels out of his pack. I reach for one, but he stops me with a hand on my arm, shaking his head.

"Not this time, Ben. These are just to sit on. Take nothing from this world. Understand?"

"No, I don't," I say, puzzled. We've never done a sweat naked before. It's not traditional.

He looks at me evenly, his face expressionless. "We're going to another world, and we take this journey as we were born, with nothing but our skin, our senses, and our minds. Nothing else."

Ah. Well, that I understand, I suppose. I reach for my waistband to finish undressing, and stop for a moment as Ray emerges from the lodge and goes back for more rocks. "Will we be alone up here?"

Eric nods. "Yeah."

"You're sure?"

"Yes. I left a telltale at the trailhead to let everyone know we're using the lodge. No one will come up."

Ray passes again, ducks into the lodge. Apprehensively I take off the last of my clothes, and as I straighten up from adding them to my pack, I hear a startled sound from Ray as he exits the lodge, empty shovel in hand. His gaze goes from me to Eric and back again, narrows for a moment, and I think I see a hint of jealousy on his face. I open my mouth to start to explain but he shakes his head and holds up a hand, stopping me.

"Nah, it's okay. Whatever it takes. I said that. I meant it."

He seems to be quite certain of that. I feel the knot in my stomach relax a tiny bit. "Thank you."

"No thanks needed," he says softly, then looks at Eric. "Rocks are in, so's the water bucket. You're all set. Let me know when you're ready for the next round."

Eric nods. "You remember the signal?"

Ray grins. "Oh yeah. Guess I'll go read my book for a while." He takes a step away, then turns back and gathers me into a quick, fierce hug, brushing his lips across mine. "I'd with you luck, but you won't need it," he whispers, then lets me go and walks away.

Eric reaches into his bag and takes out a cluster of dried sweetgrass and cedar, which he ignites in the fire. After a moment he blows out the flame and blue-gray tendrils rise from the still-smoldering bundle. He circles me slowly, censing me with the fragrant smoke. The scent takes me back years, to the first time we did this. Awkward, coltish boys, pretending to be older than our years, so serious as we appropriated adult rituals for our own.

I still remember the extraordinary strangeness of that experience. At the time I told myself it was simply my own overactive imagination. Now. . . I'm not so sanguine. Perhaps I saw what I saw. Perhaps I was what I was. I close my eyes for a moment, inhaling deeply, remembering how it felt to run with four legs instead of two, the sensation of branches brushing across fur, the sharp acuity of nonhuman senses.

The smell of the burning herbs lessens, and I open my eyes to see Eric regarding me with a slight, and maddening smile as he holds it out for me to take. I accept it and repeat the cleansing for him, circling him four times, stopping once at each cardinal point. Returning to where I started, I wait for instruction. Silently he turns and walks to the lodge, draws back the blanket across the doorway, and motions me in. I take a deep breath, duck into the slightly claustrophobic confines of the lodge, and kneel beside the firepit, waiting for Eric.

He follows a moment later, putting the still-folded towels down next to the rock pit. As the blanket falls closed across the doorway the interior of the lodge becomes nearly pitch-dark, only a few glimmers of light sneak in around the blanket to pierce the dimness. Eric takes the herb bundle from me and places it on the stones. The fragrance intensifies briefly as the bundle bursts into flame, then shrivels and falls to ash. Already the heat from the stones is saturating the still air inside the lodge.

Taking a seat, cross-legged on his towel, Eric dips up a ladle full of water and drizzles it over the rocks. Steam billows, sizzling, and one of the stones cracks with a sharp click. I breathe deeply, the mixture of steam and incense a little heady, as tired and hungry as I am. He waves a hand at the second towel.


I sit. The silence is heavy, like the air. Waiting and full. I want to talk, to freight the void with words, to distract myself from my own thoughts. What am I supposed to be doing? What does he expect? But Eric says nothing, so I say nothing. We sit and breathe. And sweat. And things flash through my mind, unbidden. My mother's face as she looked at me in that mineshaft. She looked so . . . young. I suppose that's not surprising. Ghosts have no reason to age.

It's odd, she was quite unlike my memory of her, at once more, and less beautiful. A child sees with very different eyes from those of an adult. I've been told I resemble her more than I do my father, but frankly I don't see myself in either of them. I know my temperament is more like my father's, at least I think it is. Probably because his parents raised me in much the same way they raised him. I never knew my mother well enough to judge her personality. Perhaps my streak of romantic melancholy comes from her. It certainly isn't anything of Dad's.

I wonder. . . if she'd lived, would I be the person I am now, or would I be . . . other? Someone else entirely. Strange thought. Despite the heat, a shiver courses through me. I like who I am. Mostly. I have my flaws and faults, I don't claim perfection, but over all I'm not unhappy with who I am. I should be happy. So. . . why aren't I? Or perhaps a better question, why don't I let myself be?

It's not a question I want to think about, so I search for something else to contemplate. Eric pours another dipper of water onto the rocks, and a smaller cloud of steam rises this time. The rocks are beginning to cool. Still, the thickened air makes breathing harder, and I let the physical divert me-- the trickle of moisture down my chest, a ticklish, itchy feeling. The feel of air in my nose and mouth. The scent of earth. The nubby surface of the towel beneath my thighs, not really shielding me from the hard ground below it, but at least it keeps me from sitting in a corona of mud made from earth and sweat.

Eric makes a sound, startling me, and I stare at him, recognizing a loon call. I'm puzzled why he's doing birdcalls until a few moments later, he goes over and draws back the blanket, letting Ray in with a shovel full of large, rounded rocks. Five this time. The air above them shimmers with heat, even in the lodge. The first rocks have barely cooled, adding more so soon will increase the temperature dramatically. Eric's very serious about this sweat.

Ray doesn't look at me as he carefully deposits the new rocks in the firepit, and then leaves without saying a word. It's strange, I almost feel. . . abandoned. I know better, I do, but a part of me wants to protest, just as I wanted to protest when he left me to deal with Warfield alone. It's neither fair nor right to feel resentful. This is my problem, not his, he can't solve it for me. All that soothes my flaring temper is the thought that he probably would if he could. If Eric and Elizabeth hadn't forbidden him, forced him to leave me here, alone.

Abandoned. So many times. I turn toward the door, nearly go to call Ray back, needing to know he'll be there if I ask. A hand on my arm stops me. Startled, I jerk away from Eric's fingers and stare into his eyes. They are flat, black, commanding. No. I settle again, as if held there by his hands. He nods slightly, and puts more water on the rocks, then holds out the dipper to me. I take it and drink. The water is lukewarm, giving no welcome shock of coolness as it slides down my throat. I hand the dipper back and he takes a drink himself, then puts it down in the bucket again.

Time passes. My time sense is awry here. I can't tell if it's moments or hours. Eric birdcalls again. Ray brings more rocks. Once more he doesn't look at me, doesn't speak, doesn't acknowledge me in any way. The pain of that is hard, even though I know why he does it.

The air is unbearably thick. I can barely breathe. I take more water when it's offered. Sit motionless the rest of the time, trying not to move, or think. Just to exist. I feel sweat sliding down my temples, dripping off my nose, feel it sheeting my body, carrying the burden of my body's toxins. My thoughts grow disjointed and odd.

Closing his eyes, Eric begins to sing, softly, almost tunelessly, in sm'algyax. The rhythm is hypnotic, and I find myself swaying to it, my own eyes closing. A raven calls, far off. I cock my head to track the sound when it caws again, and a faint white blur flashes across my vision. The white bird. She told Ray not to come to me. Her fault.

I leap up to follow, to catch her, to make her pay, and stumble, trying to sort out hands and . . . no, not hands, paws. Scents leap into sudden prominence. The faded sweetness of sweetgrass and cedar. The dark, burnt-earth scent of fire-baked rocks, the stink of human fear-sweat -- strangely my own, strangely not.

I open my eyes, my vision is different, sharp, and alien. I look around the woods for the bird I wanted to catch and see a flicker of white movement, high up, going away from the sun. There. I follow, landbound, but she stops from time to time, almost as if allowing me to catch up, leading me deeper into the trees, where they grow close and tall, their shadows darkening the ground I cover.

My mouth is dry from panting, the day is hot, unbearably hot, my winter pelt too heavy for the season. I need water. I stop, scenting the air. . . nothing. I hear the white bird call again, and force myself on.

Running is automatic, I pause only to look for a flash of white, to listen for the harsh croak of her taunt. Suddenly a new smell bursts through me and I skid to a halt, sniffing, searching. . . there. Water. I ache with wanting it. I hesitate for a moment. . . if I go to drink, my prey may elude me. But I must have water.

Then I hear the cry, from. . . there! From where the water is. She has been traveling as I have. She needs water too. I can find both. Eagerly I run to find the source of the scent.

There. There she is. Dipping her beak in the wide pool of a spring, then tipping her head back to let the water run down her throat. Exposed, unwary. I drop to the ground and creep forward slowly, inching toward her until I'm close enough to . . . spring! White bird erupts into the air with a flurry of white wings and a startled shriek, escaping me. Frustrated I raise my muzzle and howl my anger to the sky.

Movement catches my eye, something just at the edge of my peripheral vision, something pale, and just close enough. Foolish bird! Yes! Yes! Turning, I hurl myself at the shape before it can flee, catch it, take it down, ripping its throat asunder to still its cry, feeling the hot blood well in my mouth, quenching my thirst. But as the kill urge fades and sense begins to return, I realize it's too large, far too large, to be white bird. I release the torn flesh and lift my head to inspect my kill. This time my howl isn't anger. It's horror, and anguish. The sound becomes a word. A human scream. A name.


My hands, no longer paws, try to press together wounds from which the blood has already stopped pumping, but my fingers slip on the cooling blood, the effort useless. I gather him to me, rocking, keening. I knew it. I knew it. I should have driven him from me. Should never have weakened and let him return. I knew I would be his death. Now my premonition has come to awful reality.

This is my fault, if I'd looked first, if I'd simply paid attention, it would never have happened. Had I looked outward instead of seeing only what was in my mind. Have I finally learned this now? Now that it's too late? Why did it have to take this to make me see? I want to die, too. I can't live with knowing what I've done. But I have to see to him, first. I can't leave him sprawled here, broken and bloody, for scavengers to rend further.

I close his eyes with a kiss on each, kiss his lips, shuddering at the false ruddiness of blood on them, at the iron tang of him in my mouth, and lay him out, going to the pool to cup my hands and draw water to wash him with. As I lean over to dip my hands, I focus on my reflection in the still pool and spring back in terrified dismay from what I see.

Him. The mother-stealer. The man who laughs when he kills. No. Impossible. I caught him. He can't be here. I must have imagined it. Cautiously I creep forward and look again. This time the still water reflects back a different face. Yet another terror. No! I caught him too, caught the father-killer! The one who lured with trust. It can't be him. Neither of them can be here. They're both locked away, never to hurt anyone else.

I look again, and the face in the water is reassuringly my own, though wild-eyed smeared with blood. Then suddenly it seems to shiver, to change, becoming Muldoon again. I lift my hands to my face, and the reflected image does as well, and then Muldoon transmutes into Gerrard, though beneath my fingers I feel no change. Panting, nauseated, confused, I back away from the pool, and turn to look at Ray. . . who is not there. In his place is the white bird, whole, unharmed. She looks at me with too-knowing eyes. In those dark orbs I see myself dually reflected, but neither reflection is that of a killer. Instead both are simply. . . me.

"I don't understand," I whisper, my voice hoarse, my throat painful.

She regards me intently. I stare at myself in her eyes. Neither of those images is that of a killer. Just me. Confused. Afraid. But not a killer. I did not kill Ray. I am not a killer. Muldoon is a killer. Gerrard is a killer. I am not Muldoon. I am not Gerrard. I am not a killer. I understand. They are not me. I am not them.

Behind me something makes a sound, the rustle of a body against leaves, and I turn, quickly, to see a small, dark shape duck behind a tree. I know that darkness. It is all too familiar. That's the shape of the darkness that haunts me. I'm not a killer, but I think maybe it is. And it's been following me, haunting me, for nearly as long as I can remember. Fear clutches at me. 'Run,' it says persuasively. 'Run away, don't let it get you. It can't catch you, it's never caught you before. Not in all these years'

I stand, and edge away from the dark thing's hiding place, searching for a way out, a break in the thick underbrush that rings the clearing. Nothing. I don't remember coming in through the wild roses, and thornbushes, but they are undeniably present. I could break through the hedge, but it would hurt, badly. Leave me torn and bleeding. It's not as if I haven't been hurt before, though. Many times. And if the choice is pain or death, then why do I hesitate?

'You know why.'

Not the voice of fear this time. My own voice, again. Telling me things I don't want to hear, don't want to look at. I have never thought I was a coward, until now. Suddenly all I want to do is run, it seems to have become my first response to every challenge. I hate that, hate who I'm becoming. Why am I so afraid? I'm not a killer. I understand that now. For the first time I know, really know, that there was nothing I could have done to protect my mother or father from their deaths. For the first time, I think I really believe that. So what else is there to fear?

'You know what.'

God damn it. Stop it. It's bad enough I talk to ghosts and wolves, I don't have to talk to myself. I'm not crazy. I may not be run of the mill, but I am not a lunatic. The flush of anger I feel, at myself seems to push the fear down a little though, and allows me to think more clearly. All along I've felt something dark stalks me, something that draws harm to those I love. If I refuse to face it, that possibility still exists. Swallowing my fear I turn toward the tree it hides behind.

"What are you?" I rasp.

Nothing answers me. In the silence I can almost hear my own pounding heart. The fear returns, more strongly now. I start to shake. I don't want to see it. Whatever it is. The bad thing, the haunt. Not sure I can face it. What if it's worse than what I've already seen here? But. . . if I don't, then Ray will still be in danger. I force myself to take another step forward.

"Why are you following me? Why can't you just leave me alone?" This time my voice just sounds broken. A cry from the heart.

In response I hear a choked-off sound, a suppressed sob. It almost sounds like . . . a child? That makes no sense. It's trying to confuse me, or to lure me in, make me think it's weak and helpless. That makes me angry again, though this time it's a cold anger, not the hot, killing rage I felt before. This is controlled. Purposeful. Focused.

"Come out of there," I order, my voice hard. "Face me. Now."

Several seconds pass, and I'm about to go drag it out of hiding when I hear the rustle of leaves again, and a figure slowly steps out from behind the tree, though it's still in the shadows and hard to see. It's human-shaped, but very small, not even waist high to me. I think of all the stories I've heard about the evil little beings that haunt the woods, and a shiver of atavistic terror runs through me.

"Why are you following me?" I repeat harshly, trying not to show my fear. "Come out into the light. Now."

Without replying, the entity steps forward, one pace, two, three. . . then it's . . . he's . . . in a shaft of sunlight. It's a little boy-- five, maybe six years old. Dark, unruly hair, cut rather as if someone put a bowl on his head and trimmed around it. His eyes are gray. His mouth is far too solemn for his age. His skin is dirty, but seems to be fair beneath the dirt. He looks hungry. There are tear-tracks in the dirt on his face. He's clutching a stuffed toy close.

A flicker of recognition jolts me. I had utterly forgotten it until now, but I had a toy like that once. Knitted from undyed wool in a mottled cream and gray, it had no eyes, no mouth, no defining features other than a head, four legs, and a braided tail. It could have been a cat, a horse, or . . . a dog. That had been what I settled on, after my mother read Jack London to me. I called him Buck. I don't remember whatever happened to him. Lost, I suppose, in one of the countless moves after I went to live with my grandparents.

A little warily, because things here have shown a disconcerting ability to change form, I go down on one knee and hold out a hand.

"May I see him?"

The boy hugs his companion closer. "He's mine," he announces, looking at me with suspicion.

"Yes, of course he is. I won't keep him. I have my own friend. He's a wolf. His name is . . . ."

"Diefenbaker," the boy says.

I blink, startled. "Yes."

He looks at me for a long moment, then finally holds out his toy, wordlessly.

I take his treasure and with shaking hands turn it over so I can see . . . yes. As I half-expected, as I feared, there's an initial embroidered on the dog's belly in a twist of blue thread. The letter 'B.'

I look around for the white bird, expecting it to be gone, but it's not. It's standing right where it was before, where I thought I had killed Ray.

"I don't understand," I say to it again.

Two words come into my mind. My own voice.

"Don't you?"

I look at the toy. At the boy. No. How can this. . . how can a child hurt anyone? How can a child be the menace that has haunted me almost all my life? I stare at him, and he stares back, mistrustfully, reaching abortively for his toy, then pulling his hand back as if he's afraid. . . of me? Ashamed, I hold it out to him. He snatches it, clutches it hard, and his tongue darts nervously across his lower lip. At that, the last puzzle piece falls into place, and I have my answer. He is what's always haunted me, but he is no menace, not to Ray, not to anyone. Except, perhaps, to me, if I leave things as they are.

Hesitantly, terrified, I put my hand out, palm up, fingers slightly open and as relaxed as I can make them. My hand is shaking visibly. He looks at my hand, looks into my eyes and reaches out, putting his hand just above mine. It too is trembling. I curl my fingers gently around his hand and pain arcs through me, sharp and hot and electric, a lightning bolt of decades-old sorrow. I gather him to me, gather him into me, and the pain increases unbearably, until I can't hold it, until I let it out, finally, finally, weeping, broken-hearted, for every loss I never allowed myself to mourn before.

* * *

Coolness on my face, trickling between my lips, soothing over my chest. My name, repeated over and over.

"Ben. Ben? Ben! Ben? FRASER!!"

I open my eyes, look up into Ray's pale, worried-- and upside-down-- face.

"Hello, Ray."

He sits back, exhaling in a noisy rush. "Jesus, Ben. You scared the crap out of me. What the hell do you mean by passing out in there?"

I look around, realize I'm lying on my back in the open, I can feel the prickle of cool grass beneath me, the gentle feather of a breeze on my skin, the tickle of an ant crawling across my thigh. I reach down and brush it away, notice that Eric is standing beside the sweat lodge, regarding me thoughtfully. I meet his eyes, and he lifts his eyebrows. I nod. He nods back.

"What? What is that? Is that some kind of Canadian secret code?" Ray demands irritably, looking from me to Eric and back.

"I was just asking Ben if he thinks he's had enough," Eric says, surprisingly gently.

"Oh," Ray says, looking a little sheepish as he brings a wet cloth up to bathe my face again.

I suddenly notice that his knuckles are raw, and reach up to catch his hand and examine it more closely. He avoids my eyes and a dull flush flows across his cheeks. I look over at Eric then, and this time I look more carefully, see the mottled red of an incipient bruise on his jaw, and a couple on his ribs.

"Ray?" I ask softly.

He sighs. "Look, he wouldn't let me in to see if you were okay. What did you expect me to do when you were in there screaming my name and crying and shit? Just sit on my hands? Nobody said anything beforehand about screaming."

It's clear that he'd been frightened for me. Still is, in fact. It hits me again, how much he must care. For the last few weeks I've been swinging from low to high to low again, and he's been with me through all of it, never asking for anything from me except to simply be with me. To my dismay my eyes fill with tears, and I squeeze his hand a little, careful of his injured knuckles.

"I'm sorry," I whisper. Out of the corner of my eye I see Eric pick up his pack and head away, to dress, probably, but also to give us a little privacy. Tactful.

Ray looks hangdog. "Yeah, I know I should apol. . . you're sorry?" he asks, interrupting himself as my words finally register not as a demand for his apology, but an offer of my own. He looks at me warily. "What are you sorry for?"

I don't understand his wariness. There's fear in his eyes. Why? "For everything I've put you though," I confess.

The fear in his eyes deepens and he pulls his hand from mine, crossing his arms, his posture defensive, protective. "I see." He swallows hard and looks away. "So, um, you figured things out, in there?" He nods at the sweat lodge.

"I think so, yes," I say, feeling confused. I don't understand his reaction.

He nods again, still not looking at me. "And what exactly did you figure out?"

Everything about him screams 'fear' to me. I know it too well in myself not to recognize it in him. What is he afraid of? Why is he afraid? What have I done wrong now? I stare at him, trying to remember if I've ever seen him like this before. And the answer is . . . yes. I have. And once I recall when, the answer to my question is blindingly obvious. I know what he's afraid of. But I have a few other things to tell him before I can set his mind fully at ease.

"That I'm not a killer. That I'm not responsible for my mother's death, or my father's. That not every bad thing that happens is my fault. That it's all right to grieve when it's appropriate, and to be angry when it's appropriate, and to laugh when it's appropriate." I reach out and curl my fingers around his upper arm, pulling him toward me, sitting up to meet him halfway. "And to love when it's appropriate."

With each admission his face lightens a little, and a little of the fear fades from his gaze, but there's still some left when I reach the last one. He stares into my eyes searchingly, waiting, and under my fingers I can feel the tension vibrating in his wiry frame. And I can finally say it. I'm finally not afraid that saying it will invite some horrible fate. I lean forward to kiss him gently, then draw back enough to whisper my confession against his mouth. "Ray, I love you."

I feel him smile against my lips, then he leans forward and kisses me once before pulling away.

"Same fucking here, Benton Fraser," he says feelingly.

Suddenly I can see a gleam of irrepressible mischief in his gaze. His lips twitch a little, and I sense he's holding back words. I lift my eyebrows at him encouragingly, and a grin breaks free.

"I told you all that shit about your parents and your feelings before."

I chuckle. "You did. And you were right."

"Wait a second here. I'm not sure I heard you clearly. Did you just say I was right?"

"Yes. You were right," I say again. "And I believe that's quite enough rubbing it in."

"For now."

"For now," I acknowledge.

His smile fades a little and his gaze searches my face. "You think it'll stick?"

Ah. Good question. "I don't know," I concede. "I hope so. I . . . feel like it will. But I'm not psychic."

"Actually, I kind of think you are, but maybe not about this. What if it doesn't stick?"

"Well, then you have permission to kick me in the ass until it does stick," I say blandly.

He snorts. "Well, that'd be easier on my toes than your head, that's for damned sure. Okay. I guess that's all I can ask for."

"On the contrary, you can ask for anything," I tell him, meaning it.

That seems to take him by surprise, and he opens his mouth, then closes it again without saying a word. From over behind the big sweat lodge, Eric clears his throat noisily.

"You guys decent?" he calls.

"Well, Fraser's naked but I happen to think that's pretty decent," Ray calls back, winking at me as I glare at him.

"Well, why don't you give him his clothes and let him get dressed? We're done here for now. Come help me douse the coals, then we can go back to town and eat."

Ray nods enthusiastically and helps me to my feet, scooping up my pack from where I left it by the firepit, and handing it to me. The combination of hunger, fatigue, and emotion leaves me little dizzy, and he must have seen me sway because he's suddenly there, supporting me until my head stops spinning. He frowns a little.

"You okay?"

"Yes, just a little dizzy for a moment. Food will help."

"Yeah, water too. Or wait . . . ." He goes and digs in his pack and brings out a half-full bottle of Gatorade. "Here. Drink this. And sit down to put your boots on, okay?"

I nod, and drink the disgusting liquid unprotestingly. After I dress I do as he suggested and find a rock to sit on while I put on my boots. That done, I pull out my watch, and realize there's a reason I feel so out of it. It's been nearly four hours since Eric and I entered the sweat lodge. That's a very long time to spend in that sort of heat. I'm probably suffering from heat exhaustion. I watch Eric as he pours water over the fire, dousing it to muddy ashes, and see that he looks rather wrung-out, too, though not so badly as I suspect I do. He's more used to doing sweats, and didn't have the emotional aspect to deal with.

Once we finish cleaning up the site, we hike back down, Ray keeping an eagle eye on me the whole way. It's a little annoying to have him hovering like that, but after the third time I nearly plant my face in the dirt only to have him steady me, I decide perhaps his concern is warranted. Fortunately once we reach Eric's jeep, it doesn't take long before we're at the little café next to the gas station, shoveling in pancakes, eggs, and bacon, without talking except to ask for salt or request one of the pitchers of water and orange juice the waitress brought without having to be asked.

I think everyone in the community must know what we've been doing. I'd almost forgotten that aspect of small-town life after so long in Chicago. The waitress, Jeannine, is an attractive woman in her early thirties, and it's clear to me that she and Eric have some sort of romantic attachment, though they are being typically undemonstrative in public. I wonder if our presence at Eric's house is interfering with their relationship. As we head out to the jeep after paying our bill, Ray stops and looks up and down the highway, then back at Eric.

"There one of those tourist lodges anyplace nearby? One that has cabins maybe?"

Eric nods. "Yeah. Minnie Creech runs a little place up the road a bit. Why? You tired of my couch already?"

"Well, no offense, but I think Ben needs some down time without you around."

I start to protest, but Eric nods, clearly not upset. "Yeah. Good point. I'll take you over there, and I'll bring your stuff by from the house after I crash for a while. That okay?"

"Yeah, that's good. In fact, why don't we call you when we wake up. . . sometime tomorrow probably?"

That gets a chuckle. "Yeah. That'll work. You guys'll be hungry when you wake up though. Why don't you duck into the mini-mart there and get a couple of cans of soup or something for later?"

Ray nods and heads into the store. When I start to follow, Eric catches my arm and shakes his head.

"So, do you think you need more work?" he asks. "We can schedule another sweat in a week or so."

I shake my head slowly. "Let's play it by ear, all right? I think I can handle it now. I think the worst is past."

He looks thoughtful, and nods. "It could be. Sometimes it happens like that, with some people. Especially people like you. But don't be surprised if you backslide. It's pretty common. It's not a failure, either. This is a hard thing you're doing."

I snort rudely. "I'm quite well aware of that. But thanks, I'll try to remember what you said. Ray asked me the same thing, though not quite in the same words."

"Ray's a smart guy. You should listen to him."

"Life does seem to be conspiring to teach me that lesson lately," I say drily.

Eric grins. "Speak of the devil." He says, nodding toward the store where Ray is walking out with a grocery bag and a carton of milk. "Let's go."

Minnie Creech is a middle-aged Tsimshian woman who reminds me oddly of Ray's landlady in Chicago in demeanor and speech, though she looks nothing like her. She rents a handful of cabins, and because we're friends of Eric's, she gives us her best one, set far back in the forest at the end of a long gravel drive. It's very basic, but has all the amenities we need for the moment-- a small kitchen, a bathroom, and a nice, firm, queen-sized bed.

After Eric leaves, we strip down and shower together, reveling in the hot water and each other, though Ray complains about having to use bar-soap on his hair. I tell him it will make his hair more experimental than usual which seems to mollify him. We stay in the shower, just holding each other, until we run out of hot water. After drying off, we crawl into bed and within moments sleep has taken him. I suspect he slept as badly as I did last night. I lie there watching him for a few minutes, thinking about what a miracle it is that we managed to find each other, given all the obstacles in our paths. A miracle I have no intention of wasting. On that thought my own eyes grow heavy and I give myself up to sleep.

* * *

When I wake up, he's gone from the bed. This time, though, when I feel the urge to panic I make myself lie still and listen, and after a moment I hear him whistling something vaguely Latinish. It sounds like he's in the kitchen. Stretching lazily, I glance up at my watch where I looped it around one of the bedposts. It's going on ten, and from the lack of light outside I assume that's ten at night, so we slept a good nine hours. I feel . . . good. Well, mentally, at least. Physically I feel rather as if I've been hit by a truck, and my stomach seems to be getting closely acquainted with my spine, but thank God, whatever dreams I had didn't bleed over into consciousness, nor were they nightmares. I could get used to that.

Ray appears in the open doorway, stark naked, sees that I'm awake, and grins. "Hungry?"

"Starving," I say, starting to get up. "You should put some clothes on."

He waves me back down. "Stay. I'll bring dinner in here. And why? I like being a nudist. Who cares as long as the drapes are shut?"

It's a good point, I'm simply not used to such casualness. He reappears a moment later with a plate on which rests a very large sandwich and a mound of potato chips. In his other hand he holds two bottles of beer between his fingers. Handing me the plate he sets the bottles down.

"I know you don't drink, but this is a special occasion, right? And besides, the B-vitamins are good for stress."

"I had no idea you were so conversant with the nutritional properties of beer."

He grins. "Hey, I know a lot about nutrition. Just because I don't always stick to it doesn't mean I don't know it. You going to join me?"

I nod decisively. "Yes, thank you, a beer sounds good."

If he's surprised he masks it well as he hands me one, already opened. I take a swig, letting its pleasantly clean and bitter flavor fill my mouth.

"It's pretty good beer," Ray says, swallowing a mouthful himself. "Cheap Canadian beer is better than cheap American beer."

"Shhh, you might not be allowed to return to the States if you go around saying un-American things like that!"

He looks very serious all of the sudden. "Maybe I don't want to go back," he says quietly.

Suddenly the tension that has been gone for a few hours is back as I'm forced to confront reality again. Despite everything we've been through, our future is still uncertain. He sighs, and reaches over to grab half of the sandwich. "Sorry. I don't know when to keep my mouth shut."

"It's all right, Ray. It's nothing but the truth."

"Yeah, but sometimes it's nice to live in fantasy land for a couple of hours before you have to go back to the real world. I should've let us wallow a while longer. Eat, otherwise you'll hurt my feelings. I slaved for hours over a hot cutting board to make that sandwich. Nearly wrenched my shoulder getting the chips open."

I smile a little and pick up my half of the sandwich, taking a bite. Its decent enough, slices of pre-packaged ham layered with a reasonably good cheddar into a filling nearly an inch thick between halves of a slightly gummy French roll, the whole accented with a sharp brown mustard. As hungry as I am, it could taste like cardboard and I'd still enjoy it, but I play along with Ray's humor. "Mmmm," I say dramatically around a mouthful. "I really believe this is the best ham sandwich I ever had, Ray. You must give me your recipe."

He starts laughing in mid-swig from his beer bottle and nearly chokes.

"Do you need medical assistance?" I ask in exaggerated concern.

Wheezing and teary eyed he gives me a mock-glare. "Warn a guy, Fraser. Sinuses, beer-- not a good mix."

God. . . I'm suddenly remembering the day we met, him standing above me, his face a study of exasperated concern. "'Your tongue, electricity-- not a good mix.'"

He smiles suddenly, brilliantly, and I realize I said that aloud. "I was right about that, too," he brags, then his own tongue is sliding slowly across his lower lip. "On the other hand, your tongue and mine. . . whoa, watch the beer, watch the food!"

Somehow I manage to kiss him while simultaneously setting a plate and two beers safely on the nightstand. The fact that both of us are laughing makes it hard to have a really satisfactory kiss, but finally we manage to stop long enough to get one started, and then things go a lot better. After a little while we stop kissing to catch our breath, and he pulls me close, holding me hard, then I feel him shift a little, fanning his fingers across my shoulders.

"Jesus, you feel like you've got rocks in there. Let me up for a second."

I release him and lie back to watch as he goes over to his pack, takes out a jar, and returns.

"Got this from John. I didn't know you could get it outside of suntan lotion and Hershey bars." He uncaps the jar and puts it down.

The room suddenly smells like. . . chocolate? I glance at the jar, expecting its contents to be dark brown, but instead they are a creamy yellow. I glance at the label and understand. "Cocoa butter?"

"Yeah, I was bitching about my fingers cracking. John said it was good for that, says a lot of folks up there use it." He laughs. "He said it smells a lot better than bear fat. Turn over." He digs his fingers into the jar and comes up with a blob of the pale, waxy contents, which starts to liquefy as he pushes it into his palm and rubs his fingers over it. "Go on."

I turn onto my stomach and Ray straddles me, his soft sex resting a little disconcertingly against my buttocks, but then his hands are on me, smooth palms, rough fingers, an oily film spreading between his skin and mine so they slide easily. His touch is strong and sure, and I loose a sound of pained pleasure as his fingers dig into the knots of tension across my shoulders. He lifts his hands instantly.

"Too much?"

I shake my head against the blanket. "Not at all."

I think I can hear his smile. He keeps working, his hands moving lower, finding new tension, along either side of my backbone, gentle across the old scar there, finding the muscles in my lower back that sometimes tighten into a spasm, circling there, down further, to my buttocks, finding tension even there. The smell of warm chocolate fills the air, a sweet, soothing scent. He moves down, to thighs, and calves, then to my feet, carefully, not hard enough to break the newly healed cuts there, then he starts back up again, retracing his path until I'm nothing but a limp puddle on the bed.

His lips brush the back of my neck, where my hair is now beyond 'too long,' and his tongue comes out to trace a path down my spine, and he licks and sucks, and kisses his way down my back, and his hands urge my legs apart and his kisses become intimate in a way I never dreamed of, blowing the ashes off the coals of my desire, fanning them white-hot. His hands hold me still for his kisses, for the probing thrust of his tongue. The pleasure is frighteningly intense, but at the same time, not enough to push me over the edge.

With each stroke of his tongue I want to protest, to tell him it's not safe, but I can't do that. He's an adult, fully cognizant of the risks, he's made his own decision and I need to respect that. Besides, it feels so incredible that I can't bring myself to do anything but tip my hips back and spread my thighs wider and silently beg for more. He knows I'm asking, too, and gives it to me, his hands grip my buttocks harder, exposing me further, opening me up a bit, and then his tongue is probing inside me.

I whimper in amazed delight as he mimics intercourse with his tongue. After a few moments though, I'm remembering the way his long finger feels when he caresses me inside, and I wish his tongue could reach as deeply. As if he's read my mind, I feel him draw back a little, then feel his fingertip gently testing the opening there before pressing in. Eagerly I press myself back against his touch and moan as his finger eases in, probing inside me, searching. . . oh God. . . finding.

I hump the bed helplessly, voiceless. He kisses the small of my back, licks there, kisses a buttock, drags his teeth across it, and once more mimics intercourse, this time with his finger, a gentle, easy thrusting. Not for the first time I wonder what it would be like to have his penis inside me the way his finger is now. He's not a small man, and I suspect the experience might be more painful than pleasurable, but suddenly it's all I can think about. . . the heavy thickness of him spreading me wide, thrusting deep.

I want that. I want him, merged with me, as close to one creature as it's possible for two people to be. I'm so tired of being alone inside my skin. I want to share myself, I want to let him in. I don't care if it hurts, not physically, and more, not mentally. I need the. . . symbolism of that, of sharing all of me, giving all of me. I don't just want it, I need it. "Ray. . . please?" I want it, but I don't know how to ask.

"Anything, Ben. What do you want?"


"I'm here," he assures me, his hand soothing down my back as I feel the hot, wet flick of his tongue circle the opening where his finger still pierces me.

"No, more please."

"Shhh, okay, okay, I get you," he says. "Hang on."

I hear him fumbling, one-handed, smell the rich, sweet scent of cocoa-butter, and then his finger is moving again, in and out, more easily now, much more easily. Just as I'm starting to ride the rhythm he's setting, he stops, and slips his finger free. I crane around to look at him and protest.

"Put it back!"

He grins. "I will, settle down. Just doing what you wanted."

His hand settles against me again, and I understand as he strokes two slick fingers around and across the opening, finally pressing both of them up into me. They go in with startling ease, my body readily opening to accommodate the greater girth. He pushes them in deep and holds them there for a moment, then twists them a little inside me. I gasp in startled delight, feeling my penis jump in response.

"That good?" he whispers. "That what you wanted?" he asks, slowly moving his fingers, making me gasp and moan with each stroke.

"Yes!" I manage to pant out. "But, no."

His stroking falters a little. "No?" He sounds puzzled.

I shake my head. "No. Want more. Want you in me." My face is fiery, I don't understand how I can want this so badly and not be able to say it without sound like either an idiot or a researcher. I know all the words, but there's just something so difficult, about putting them together. So. . . clinical.

Ray goes utterly still. "You want . . . you want me to. . . Ben, are you asking me to fuck you?" he asks incredulously.

There. The words I couldn't say. Though the words he uses are much earthier than those I would have chosen. Much more erotic. I nod against the sheets, awash in relief and terror. "Please."

"Holy fucking cow, Ben," he says, still sounding drop-jawed.

I suppose after my earlier objections, this does seem surprising. I don't dare look at him, and take refuge in humor. "I didn't know you liked cows that way, Ray."

He stretches out next to me, touches my face gently with the fingers of his free hand, tracing the line of my shuttering eyelashes. "Don't, Ben. Don't do that. You want me to? You really want me to?"

I hear the doubt in his voice. I can't let him think that. I open my eyes and look at him. "Yes."

He closes his eyes for a moment, opens them again, and the connection of his gaze is nearly a physical thing. He puts his mouth on mine, kisses me softly, then pulls back a little. "You got me, then. But I need to go get . . . ."


He looks at me, a touch exasperated. "Could you let me finish my sentence? I was going to say I need to go get the . . . ."

I cut him off again. "I know what you were going to say. And unless you have strong objections, I'd rather we didn't."

He pulls away. "Ben. You know it's not safe."

"On the contrary, I know it is. We talked about this. I know you wouldn't lie to me. Don't you know that about me?"

He looks shaken. "Yes. Yes, I do." He closes his eyes briefly, then opens them, and smiles.

The fire blazing in his gaze makes me sweat as he absorbs my words, and shakes his head, slowly. His lips find mine again, his fingers move in me, and involuntarily my eyes close, and I breathe a moan into his mouth. He shifts a little, and I can feel his penis, hard and hot against my hip. I roll my hips, just to feel the slide of him against my skin, and shiver with anticipation. He takes his mouth away with a reluctant sigh, and strokes his left hand over the rise of my buttocks, pushing the fingers of his right hand deeper, making me arch against the sheets, the ache of unrelieved arousal almost maddening now. I spread my thighs wider, waiting, but to my surprise he slips his fingers free and sits back, pushing against my hip.

"Turn over."

"But, Ray, I think . . ."

"If you can still think, I'm doing something wrong. Turn over. I am not making love to the back of your head."

I turn. His gaze slides down me, slowly, and for once I'm not annoyed that someone finds me physically attractive. He's kneeling beside me, a thoughtful frown on his face, creasing his forehead in five familiar lines. I take advantage of the new position to look my fill at him, wondering what property of his skin holds the light and diffuses it the way it seems to, giving him a kind of auroral glamour. Long, lean thighs, narrow hips, wide shoulders, skin flowing close over his bones. Spare, but with no hint of anything but strength to him. He's flushed, now, with arousal, his sex rising hard and taut from its surrounding halo of ash-blond curls.

So beautiful. All of him. From the quill-spikes of his hair to the sharp curves of his cheekbones, the mobile sensuality of his mouth, the startling length of his lashes. All of him. Suddenly his frown vanishes and his gaze lifts to meet mine, and he smiles unreservedly. I can't help but smile back.

"Got it," he says with a wink. "Had to figure out the geometry."

I'm still puzzling over what mathematics has to do with sex when he stands up, and bends to catch my hips in his hands and drag me closer to the edge of the bed. Startled, I almost grab onto the bed to keep my place, but the grin on his face tells me I've nothing to worry about and I let go of the sheets.

"Bend your knees," he says. "Put your feet flat on the bed."

Ah. All right. I'm beginning to understand what he's doing. I wouldn't have thought of it. I do as he asked, and he kneels between my legs, his hands stroking my thighs. I'm acutely aware of the vulnerability of my position. And it doesn't matter. I feel no urge to withdraw, to tense, to protect myself. I tighten my knees around his flanks, and lift my hips a little, inviting him. He shivers, his hands tightening momentarily on my thighs, then relaxing as he strokes again, only this time his hands end up on my hips, his thumbs circling the bones idly, brushing almost randomly against my own erection for a moment, before he leans in to kiss me, a soft, gentle kiss.

I kiss him back, the same way, trying to tell him how much he means to me. How important he is. I've felt it, but I'm not entirely sure he understands. He kisses me for a long time, Just kissing, then to my surprise he sits back, dips his fingers into the jar again, and he goes to work on my front much as he did my back. This time the massage is overtly sexual, lingering on my nipples, stroking my penis, my testicles. It's slow, and sensual, not geared to bring me to orgasm, just to draw out the pleasure. I wonder, jealously, how often his ex-wife knew this touch.

He leans down to kiss me now and then, and when he draws back his own skin gleams with a silky sheen wherever he's been pressed against me. I wonder if he tastes the way he smells. I lean, and lick, discover that there's just a faint oily taste, no sweetness, other than his own. His breath catches, his cock pulses against my thigh, and his hand shakes a little as he strokes me. It's time. I can tell. He sits up, starts to get out of bed. I catch his arm.


"I've got . . . the stuff, in my pack. From Ottawa."

I have to stop and think for a moment-- haven't we just been through this? Then I understand. He means the lubricant. I don't want him to go, though, not for a moment. "I don't think we need it."

"Of course we do."

"No. This is fine." I dip my finger into the jar, rub it into liquid between my fingers, and reach for him, taking his hard, velvet-skinned cock in my hand and stroking it until it gleams with a slick gloss. His head is back, his throat taut, teeth clenched against the pleasure. Now. I guide his hand to the jar, wait for him to dig into the contents, then guide his hand back to me. As before, his fingers slip into me easily, and I moan out loud. He laughs against my shoulder, not mistaking that sound for another, and his knees come between mine, and I feel the heat of him against my skin.

His fingers probe and find and push me to the brink, then they're gone, and I want them . . . him . . . back. He shifts a little, slides his arms under my thighs, lifting me up, and he's there, and we both make a sound like a sob as that connection is forged. Inside me. Just a little, barely there. He starts to press forward, and there's a bloom of burning discomfort. My breath hisses over my teeth and he pulls back, biting his lip, arms trembling as he braces against me.

"Sorry, sorry," he whispers. "I'll stop."

"Don't you dare," I growl at him. "Again. Do it again. Just rock a little, against me. Let me get used to it."

Ray looks at me like I'm unhinged, but after a moment he nods and does as I asked. Sliding in and out, that first little bit, past the outer gate, pressing against the inner one, withdrawing, pressing. I start to echo his movements, and on the next inward surge I breathe out, consciously relaxing, and he eases forward, and suddenly he's moving slowly and smoothly into me. It doesn't hurt. . . it's not really pain, not really, it's just . . . unknown. The spreading heat and the feeling of fullness. I look up at him, see his eyes closed, his face a mask of pleasure, and know it must feel as good to him as it does to me.

He feeds himself into me until he has no more to give, and I can feel the soft crush of his pubic hair against my buttocks. He stills then, trembling, as if afraid to move. Experimentally I tighten down on him and he gasps, his hips lifting a little, lifting mine too, his penis effortlessly finding that spot inside me that his fingers always had to search for. I buck under him, clutching at air. It feels. . . amazing. Part of that is purely physical, but part is simply the knowledge that he's part of me.

I reach down, fingers pressed hard against my belly, wondering if I can feel Ray there. I can't, of course, but I can imagine. He reaches up to my other hand, twines his fingers tightly in mine, whispering my name as he moves on me, and in me. And I can finally let go. I don't have to do anything, be anything, know anything, but this, but him, but myself. I'm finally free of it all.

I feel his strength around me, and meet it with my own. It's right. It's so right. The feel of him inside me, the pleasure that swamps me with each thrust of his body in mine. I bring our clasped hands to my aching penis, and he understands, instantly, wrapping his long fingers around me, as I am wrapped around him. He starts to stroke, in time with his thrusts. Steady, deep, pleasuring me outside and inside. Each thrust of his cock is like a explosion of near-orgasmic pleasure both better and stranger than I could have imagined.

I feel hot wetness welling over our fingers, and our hands move faster, slicked with the semen pulsing out of me in time to his thrusts, even though I haven't peaked yet. It's like the longest orgasm I've ever had. I know I can't last, I don't even want to. One stroke, two, and then I'm falling, flying, over the edge, in a pure and profound rush of pleasure, the final explosive release spattering my belly. I hear his voice, calling my name, feel him shiver and shudder, his body tight and still in mine as he finds his completion too. He lets go of my penis, wraps his arms around me, holding me tightly, and as we start to come down from that crest we're both laughing.

* * *

Eric brings over the rest of our things the next morning, and talks us into breakfast at the café again. Not that it was difficult to do so, considering the paucity of our provisions. Ray has gone across to the store to buy a paper, leaving Eric and me to be seated first. As I sit down and start to slide across the booth I can't help a wince and a hiss, forgetting I need to be a little more careful at the moment. Eric frowns for a moment, and I can see him getting ready to ask what's wrong, and a damnable blush surges across my face. He closes his mouth on whatever he was about to say and chuckles softly.

"Guess I don't need to find that literature for you after all, hunh?" he asks, his eyes bright with humor.

"Thank you, no," I say tightly, staring determinedly at the menu as if I don't already know what it says since we were here just yesterday.

"Ralph Littlefield says that goes away after the first couple of times, if you do it regular," he offers helpfully.

I grit my teeth, wondering if anyone would notice if I just slid under the table.

"Who's Ralph and what goes away?" Ray asks curiously, sliding into the booth next to me, bumping me with his hip to get me to move over a little more. I do so, cautiously, glad the booth is well padded.

"Ralph's just a guy I know," Eric says, apparently discovering he does, after all, know the meaning of tact. "Ben's got some sore muscles."

Ray nods. "Yeah. I know. Worked some of those kinks out for him last night."

Eric chokes on a laugh and reaches gratefully for the coffee cup that Jeannine is handing him. Ray looks from him to me, eyebrows lifted, asking for an explanation.

"Eric has a very odd sense of humor," I say with a shrug.

Ray shrugs too, and nods as Jeannine offers him coffee. She pours his, looks at me, and smiles whitely.

"Tea, right, Corporal Fraser?"

"Yes, thank you. And it's just Ben. I'm not on duty," I say, consciously trying to let go of some of my long-held reserve. I don't need that shield any more.

She nods and goes to get the pot of tea. I look up to find Ray staring at me in amazement, and for a moment can't think why, but then I realize what it is. For the whole time that we've known one another, he's never heard me ask anyone to call me by my first name. After a moment, the amazement transmutes to a smile, and he nods, as if in understanding, and clears his throat.

"I saw Tim and Joel outside just now," Ray says. "They asked if I was going to be around long. Wanted to know if I'd teach them some of the 'sweet science,'" he says, throwing a mock punch at the air and looking from me to Eric. "Told him I wasn't sure what our plans were yet, but if we're going to be here long enough I could maybe do some fall-coaching and non-contact stuff. You think that'd be okay?"

Eric smiles, a self-satisfied, wolfy smile that raises the hackles on the back of my neck. I start to speak but Eric cuts me off.

"Sure, Ray, that'd be great. We've got a little community hall you could use. Hell, I'm the community youth director, and I'd even pay you to get the kids out of the Terrace mall for a while. We don't have a recreational director right now, it's hard to get 'em to stay here, so it'd be nice to give the kids something fun to do that they don't have to leave town for."

Again I start to interrupt, worried by how quickly Eric jumped on Ray's comment, only to have Eric cut me off again.

"Hey, I don't suppose you know how to do anything that the girls would like, too?"

"Girls box," Ray says, frowning. "Well, some girls do. I know this chick back in Chicago could take a guy's head off with her left hook. Self-defense is always good. But I don't know much about girls, though. I mean, I was married to one for a while, but clearly I didn't do too good there. The only thing we did well together was dancing."

"Dancing? Like square dancing?"

"Nah, ballroom stuff. Waltz, tango, swing, salsa, that kind of thing. That was the only time we were always right on track."

"Maybe you could do a boxing class and a dance class?" Eric asks.

Ray laughs. "Oh yeah. Me teaching dancing to a bunch of kids. Come on, Eric. They'd eat me alive."

"Oh no, our kids respect their elders," Eric says artlessly.

"Elders?" Ray echoes, clearly appalled by the idea the he might be considered such.

"Hey, I'd like to learn salsa," Jeannine says, reaching across Ray to fill my cup. "I bet a lot of people would."

I'm definitely beginning to smell a set-up here, but I'm puzzled because I can't see what harm there would be in what Eric is suggesting. Still, Eric is definitely in full schemer mode and past experience tells me that's not necessarily a good thing.

"Well, I don't know, Ray, we really ought to get back to Joe's place. Diefenbaker will be unlivable if we're gone much longer."

Behind me the café door opens, the sleigh-bells attached to it jingling merrily.

"Hey, anybody in here named Fraser?" an unfamiliar male voice asks.

I turn in my seat. "Yes, I . . . " I begin, realizing two things simultaneously: the man is dressed in RCMP browns, his uniform marked with the insignia of a sergeant; and Diefenbaker is tearing across the room toward our booth. The next thing I know he's coming up from underneath, between my legs, washing my face, which really didn't need it, and upsetting my tea which half-scalds my thigh. "Dief!" I gasp, trying to avoid his tongue. "How. . . what . . . ?"

The sergeant comes over to our table, chuckling. He's an older man, late-fifties, though he looks quite fit and hale. His hair is grey-blond, short-cropped, and he carries himself ramrod straight. "Boy, Patty was right. That animal is a handful. I'm Boyd Preston," he says. "I'm the official RCMP presence here. You must be Benton Fraser. I didn't know your father personally, Corporal Fraser, but I never heard a bad word about him. And may I say that I was quite impressed with the work you did on the Muldoon case?"

"We . . . get down, Dief! Thank you, but we did the work, my partner and I," I say, nodding toward Ray. "I wasn't working alone."

"We?" Preston asks, then his face creases in a smile and he leans across to offer his hand to Ray. "You must be that American detective, then. Kowalski, is it?"

"Yeah, Ray Kowalski, Chicago P.D.," Ray says, shaking hands. "Nice to meet you. Where'd the furball come from? He's supposed to be staying with John Coldmoon."

"Patty Starr was making a run out to Lac des Bois with some water purification equipment in her plane, and Marlon Coldmoon was there visiting his girlfriend. The dog had tagged along with the boy, and best we can figure, he must've detected your scent in the plane and stowed away. By the time Patty realized he was there she figured it'd be easier to just bring him to you than to turn around and take him back. I was at the airport in Terrace on my way back from Regina, and she caught me and asked if I'd provide transport back here, since she was heading back out again."

Dief, who has transferred his attentions to Ray, whufs in a self-satisfied fashion. I frown. "That was highly presumptuous, Dief. For all you know, Patty could have been going to Winnipeg or Edmonton after leaving Lac des Bois.

He whines at me, and I roll my eyes. "Yes, she is pretty, and I'm sure the pemmican was excellent, but that's no excuse."

Preston chuckles. "She is pretty, that's for damned sure. Mind if I join you for a few?" he asks, not waiting for an answer before he takes a seat beside Eric. "Jeannie, a cup of tea please? And refill Fraser's there, the dog spilled his."

"Wolf," I correct, automatically. "Well, half."

He waves a hand. "Around here that's pretty much a given. So, you could've knocked me over with a feather when they told me you were going to re. . . ouch, damn it!" He glares at Eric, who gazes back at him angelically. "What?"

"Maybe you and me ought to have a little talk, Boyd," Eric says, pushing the man toward the edge of the booth.

I stretch out one leg and put a foot solidly on the seat between them, effectively preventing Eric from leaving. "On the contrary, I think we ought to allow Sergeant Preston to have his tea, and finish his sentence."

Eric sighs. "Let it go, Ben. We don't have it all confirmed yet."

"You don't have all what confirmed yet?"

"Actually, it is confirmed," Preston says, reaching in his pocket to pull out an envelope and hand it to me.

It's official RCMP letterhead. The addressee is Cpl. Benton Fraser, in care of one Elizabeth Boxley. Fear paralyzes me and I sit there, staring at the envelope, sure that it's going to be bad news, sure they've cancelled my leave and are ordering me to report for duty immediately.

"Ben?" Ray says quietly, his hand warm on my thigh.

I blink, realizing everyone is staring at me, and wonder how long I was sitting there gazing blankly at an envelope. Taking a deep, quiet breath, I pick up the knife from my place setting and use it to slit the envelope, and then remove its contents. Suddenly everyone else at the table picks up whatever beverage is handy and starts to sip, ostentatiously not watching me.

I read the first line. Read it again, not quite understanding, thinking that someone in the secretarial pool has transposed P and F, thus confusing Fort with Port. But then I read on, and see I am to replace one Sergeant Boyd Preston who is retiring next month, and note that several local Elders suggested I be given his position, as I'm 'familiar with the community and have demonstrated a sensitivity to Tsimshian ways and culture.' Things start to make sense. And with that realization, I suddenly understand why Eric is trying to get Ray to teach boxing and dance to local youth and I rub my forehead to cover my eyes for a moment until I get control of my emotions. Finally feeling able to, I look at Eric.

"You did this."

"Me?" he asks, all innocence. "I got no pull with the RCMP."

"No, but you do with Elizabeth, and she does with the local elders."

He snorts. "You think I got pull with Elizabeth then maybe we need to check your tea for some local produce. She does whatever she does, no prompting from me."

"Why would she do this?"

"Why does she do anything? Because she feels it's right. She says you belong here. I'm not going to argue with her."

"What about my preferences?"

Eric looks at me, surprised. "You saying you'd rather go be bored off your ass arresting drunks and wife-beaters and being on the road most of the time?"

Well, when he puts it that way it does seem slightly foolish to protest, but I try anyway, just on principle. "And working here would differ in what way?" I ask pointedly.

"Actually," Preston puts in, looking a little amused, "first off, you won't have nearly the on-road time, because we're not spread so thin here. Prince Rupert's good-sized and handles a lot, plus they've got a Marine detatchment. Terrace has its own post, so you're just responsible for the area in-between, though sometimes you'll get called in to help one of the other cities on something big. And to be honest, these days our biggest problem is drug trafficking, and various kinds of smuggling. We get a lot of both. The pot growers in the area are always looking for new ways to ship the goods out, and organized crime has started moving in, mostly biker gangs out of Alberta. It's not nearly as dull around here as it used to be."

"Biker gangs?" Ray asks.

"Yeah, that's sort of Canadian for Mafia," Preston says.

Ray smiles and shakes his head. "You guys are . . . unique."

"I'd like to talk to Elizabeth," I say firmly.

Eric sighs. "Yeah. Thought you would. Come on. Boyd, you keep Ray entertained here for a while?"

"Sure, no problem. We can talk law enforcement. If I get a call he can ride along."

The thought of Ray accompanying someone on a ride-along is terrifying. It's too dangerous. "No!" The word is past my lips before I even realize I'm thinking it. Ray looks at me, frowning.

"Ben. . . " he says quietly, just a hint of warning.

I sigh. "I know. Come on, let's go outside and talk for a minute, all right?"

He nods and we slide out of the booth, this time remembering not to wince. We walk in silence to the back of the parking lot, and find a section of fence to lean on. Dief sits at our heels as if he's afraid to let us out of his sight, which he probably is.

"I thought we were past that," he says, cutting straight to the heart of things.

"I'm sorry. I'm afraid it's become rather a habit."

"Bad habit."

"Yes. Give me a little time, I've only just started working on it."

He nods, and sighs. "Okay. Just don't expect me to like it."

"I don't. And I don't like it either, believe me."

He nods again, staring off into the woods, then his gaze comes back to me, sharp and curious.

"What else is bugging you? Why are you bitching about the change of venue? You weren't all that thrilled with where they stuck you before, isn't this better? At least you know people here, it's a nice place, and it's still far enough north to get really fucking cold in the winter. What's your problem? You just pissed because you didn't choose it yourself?"

I open my mouth to object, and suddenly realize he's absolutely right. "Yes," I say, somewhat hoarsely.

He looks at me, surprised. "Yes? Did I hear you right?"

"Yes. Yes, you did, and I'm afraid you're right. I just . . . don't like being manipulated."

He chuckles. "Welcome to my world, Ben. And you think anyone else does either? But how is it any different from before? Your bosses are still telling you where to go, except that these people actually need you and no one's having to make room for you in a place where they don't need you."

"I . . . suppose it's not really different at all," I allow.

"Then stop looking your gift horse in the mouth, Ben. This is good. Just accept it. Now I just have to figure out how to meet your damned Canadian immigration requirements," he says with a grimace.

"Immigration requirements?" I echo stupidly.

Suddenly he looks uncertain. "I mean. . . if you. . . um . . . ." His gaze falls. "I guess I kind of made a big old wrong assumption there. Sorry. Forget I said it. I, uh, think I'll go back in now, let you and Eric go see Elizabeth."

He turns and starts to walk away. I grab his arm and pull him back so fast he stumbles and falls against me.

"Ray, damn it, no. I'm not going to forget it. I just. . . I was surprised, that's all."

He frowns. "Surprised? Why the hell should that surprise you?"

I think about it, trying to find a way to articulate it. He watches me for a moment, and seems to know I need a chance to organize my thoughts so he steps back a little, and leans on the fence again, his hands resting lightly along the wooden upper rail. My gaze is drawn to his hands, to where they are scraped and bruised from his fight with Eric, when Eric wouldn't let him into the sweat lodge to see me. Strangely, that leads me to remember Ray washing my feet, staying with me at Joe's. Before that, him coming over to the Consulate in the middle of the night, just because I had a bad dream. Long before that, wanting me to trust him so badly that he'd rather leave me than go on as we were. . . . No, I shouldn't be surprised. I've even realized before that he loves me. I just keep not quite being able to believe it.

"Because I'm a fool?" I finally answer him with a wry smile. "Because I simply can't believe I could be this lucky?"

"Lucky? In what way lucky?" he asks, his eyes holding mine, probing.

"You . . . love me," I say finally, accepting that it's true, really for the first time, I think.

He shakes his head, an affectionately exasperated smile on his face. "Well, yeah. Where you been lately?"

"You really love me," I repeat, just beginning to take it in. Until yesterday, I haven't even let him in far enough to actually let myself think what that means. I've been too afraid. Now I'm starting to understand. I know how Ray loves. Wholeheartedly. Whole-heartedly. A word I don't think I ever comprehended before.

"And you call yourself a detective?" he asks, amused. "Yeah, Ben. I really love you."

Heedless of the fact that we're clearly visible from a major highway, a gas station with a mini-mart, and the café, I pull him close and kiss him soundly. "I love you, Ray Kowalski," I whisper against his mouth. "I love you."

"Thank God," he says feelingly. "Had me worried you were just after my ass."

I let my hands slide down his back to cup said ass. "That too," I growl.

"Hot damn," he says, grinning. "You're not the only lucky one. Now, thing is, you need to realize that on my planet, people who are in love tend to want to be in the general vicinity of the person they're in love with."

"Strangely, that seems to be the custom on my planet as well."

"Okay, good, we're on the same page here. So, I just have to rob an effing bank or something and become independently wealthy."

"Or you could take a job with the band council as recreational director."

He stills in my arms, pulls back a little to stare into my eyes. "Fuck."

I grin. "Yeah."

"Son of a bitch."

"Well, his mother was quite a nice woman, but I agree with the general sentiment."

He nods thoughtfully. "You grew up with these people, didn't you?"

"These people, and people much like them."

"That explains a lot," he says cryptically. "So, if I have a job, I can stay, right? I mean that's the big thing, Turnbull said. You have to prove you're not going to be a drain on the government."

"Basically, yes. There are some other requirements, but considering the services you've rendered to the nation of Canada, I expect that it shouldn't be all that difficult to get you landed immigrant status, if that's what you want."

"I want whatever status lets me stay here with you and not have to worry about getting deported."

"I'd shoot the first person who tried to take you away," I say darkly.

Ray looks thoughtful, and nods. "Cool. Then we could live the romantic life of fugitives and they'd never catch us because you're so damn good at everything. Except then I'd probably drop a gum wrapper or something and they'd find us from that and throw us in prison, which would suck, so it's probably better if we go for the legal immigration status thing."

I can't help laughing at that, and nodding. "It would seem to be the better option."

"Yeah, I thought so. Come on, let's go back. I'm still hungry and you still have to go see Elizabeth."

"No, I don't."

He stops and looks back. "You don't?"

"No. I only wanted to complain, and I really see no reason to do that now that you've pointed out that fact."

He looks sheepish. "Well, I didn't quite mean . . . ."

"No, you were quite right. I was looking a gift horse in the mouth and that's foolish, and I like to think I'm not a fool. So perhaps I'll see Elizabeth later to thank her, but at the moment I'd like to go eat, and then go back to our cabin. Alone."

Ray's eyes light up, and he smiles. "Um, just how hungry are you?"

I look back at the café thoughtfully. "It wouldn't be very polite to just leave them sitting there waiting."

"You can blame it on your uncouth American friend. Besides," he says, lifting one hand to show me a set of car keys. "Eric will cover for us, if he doesn't sic Preston on us for stealing his Jeep."

"It's not stealing," I say precisely, trying hard not to smile. "It's borrowing."

* * * Fin * * *

Comments to: kellie@mrks.org

Author's Note: I am fully aware that considering the sort of deeply-seated psychological issues Fraser demonstrates in this story it's highly unlikely that a single sweat lodge session would 'cure' him, however a) I didn't want to inflict 800KB of therapy sessions on the readers (or myself), b) he's an individual of great personal insight and determination and I think if he decided to make this change, he could do so, and c) fortunately for me due South is canonically a place of magical realism so I could take advantage of that facet to give this tale a faster resolution. I do, however, expect Fraser would probably backslide periodically and has more work to do in resolving his issues. --KM


1.   Dialogue from the due South episode "Call of the Wild" written by Paul Gross and R.B. Carney. There are several places in the story where small segments of dialogue are taken directly from this episode.

2.   Al Purdy, "Song of the Impermanent Husband." Canadian Poety, vol. 2, © 1982, General Publishing Co., Ltd.

3.   Al Purdy, "Necropsy of Love." Canadian Poety, vol. 2, ©1982, General Publishing Co., Ltd.

4.    The Iridium satellite telephone system is, from what I can tell, pretty much the only type of communication system which works reliably above the Arctic Circle. (I realize that the system incepted about a year too late for this story, but... um... it's an AU. Yeah! That's the ticket!) For more info: http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n0103/29iridium/

5.   Icefields, Thomas Wharton, © 1995. Winner 1996 Commonwealth Book Award For Best First Book -- Regional. Winner, 1995 Alberta Book Award. Oddly enough, there's a scene right near the beginning where the protagonist falls into a crevasse in . . . you guessed it. . . an icefield, and has to be rescued. (Gee, I wonder what a certain executive producer/writer was reading back in 1996?)

6.   sm'algyax-- the dialect of Penutian which is spoken in the Tsimshian First Nations. Not standardly capitalized, although this usage is currently in flux and you will sometimes find it capitalized now. The language is the main language of the Tsimshian, the Gitksan, and the Nisga'a tribes, but each tribe has its own distinct dialect. The Tsimshian language is an essential aspect for the revival of the Tsimshian's culture, and is actively being taught in some schools. http://www.kitsumkalum.bc.ca/language.html

7.   Porcupine: symbolizes innocence, wonder, curiosity, cautiousness, faith, trust, open-mindedness, laughter, protection of boundaries, being bold in actions and words, defense when threatened, non-interference-- allowing others their path. (Oddly, I chose all of the animal symbols for the story before I looked up their meanings. Note that the animal symbol meanings are somewhat genericized, not specific to the Tsimshian.)

8.   Raven: symbolizes magic, wisdom, intelligence, eloquence, mischief, trickery, shapeshifting, astral travel, change, rebirth, renewal, recovery, healing (recovering lost pieces of the soul), childishness, temper.

9.   Hummingbird: symbolizes healing, endurance, joy, happiness, and love.

10.  Raccoon: symbolizes understanding the nature of masks, disguise, dexterity, seeking guidance, confidence, questioning without fear, curiosity, adaptability, loyalty, intelligence, determination, survival.