Rated NC-17 for M/M sex and occasional bad words. If you're considered a minor in your community please take off now, you shouldn't be reading this. You may also want to skip this if you're narrow-minded, easily offended, or have something against Chicago Flatfoots with Experimental Hair-- unless of course you're masochistic, in which case knock yourself out. The characters Benton Fraser and Ray Kowalski are from the television series Due South. I don't own 'em, I wish I did. I'd be a lot richer, plus I'd be insufferably smug. Yeah, the characters are property of Alliance, yadda, yadda, yadda. Everything else is my smutty intellectual property. Timeline: Post CotW.

Soundtrack: John Gorka's "When the Ice Goes Out," and "Heroes;" Bruce Cockburn: I was going to list 'a few' songs from Dart to the Heart, then I realized it's pretty much the whole CD, but most especially "All the Ways I Want You," and "Closer to the Light." Also: Dar Williams' "Family."

Big honkin' THANK YOU's to my betas: Betty, who has a way of dynamiting me when I'm stuck, and being relentless on characterization; and to Audra, for reminding me that just because I've never done something, that doesn't mean I can't do it or that it shouldn't be done. Oh, and as always, that comma thing. Thanks also to realitycek who caught a little problem I'd missed. Additional thanks to Otsoko, for the new and improved psychobabble! --Kellie

When the Ice Goes Out

© 2000, Kellie Matthews

It's strange. I never imagined this, when I thought of the future. Oh, I always imagined I'd be alone, that's nothing new, but I never thought I'd regret it. I always thought I'd be content in my solitude, because I always was before. But now I'm . . . not. I find myself avoiding going home to my RCMP-supplied apartment at night, because all I do is sit there and think of all the things I miss. Which really boils down to one thing. One man. One friend.

So instead I sit in my darkened vehicle long after my shift should have ended, outside the town's most disreputable saloon, waiting for someone inside to pick a fight. Which they do, predictably, nearly every weekend night. Thus I can occupy my time with apprehending miscreants, booking them into the two-cell jail, getting them coffee to counteract the alcohol, though I know it really doesn't help at all. Oh, and administering first aid if needed. It's almost become a ritual.

As if on cue someone comes flying out the door to land in a heap on the porch. In the flickering neon glow of the beer advertisements I can see that it's Louis Lamarque. Following him like an angry bear is Martin Campbell. Let's see, I last had the two of them four weeks ago. I suddenly begin to have a sneaking suspicion that the fights are actually staged for my benefit, and wonder if they take a collection to pay their fines since they're always out and drinking the next night as if nothing had happened. With an average of two fights a week (Friday and Saturday nights, of course) and two arrestees per night, that means there must be at least eight people involved, with altercations taking place on a rotational schedule.

I get out of my car and head toward them, and see Martin take a quick glance in my direction before he raises a bottle and lashes out at Louis, missing him completely but shattering the bottle. He swears and shakes his hand, and I know he's cut himself. I can't allow this to continue. I walk up to the porch and lean on the rail, one foot up, studying the prone and kneeling figures. "Hello Martin, Louis," I say conversationally. "Martin, would you like to come down to the station and I'll see to your hand? I'd take you to the clinic but I'd hate to wake up Margery at this hour if it's something I can take care of."

He looks at me, puzzled. "Hunh?"

"Ain't you gonna arrest us, Benton?" Louis asks, seeming equally confused.

I shake my head. "No, not this time. I think it's time we stopped this charade, don't you? It's got to be costing you all a fortune, and aren't you tired of getting hurt?"

They exchange a look, and then Martin speaks. "You. . . uh . . . figgered it out?"

I nod. "Yes. I thank you all kindly for your efforts on my behalf, but I think you and your friends can stop now. I'll find something else to occupy my time."

"You sure? 'Cause we don't really mind. Gives us all something to do, and it's kinda been fun. We know you don't have much to occupy you here after the big city, and you seemed kind of down."

"I'm sure," I say firmly. "Now, let me see your hand."

He shakes his head. "Nah, that's okay. It's just a scratch. I'll go get a broom and we'll clean up this mess."

"Good idea," I say. "And I'll head on home."

They nod and I return to the Jeep. It's not until I pull up in back of the apartment that I realize I have no memory of driving home. I must have been on some sort of automatic pilot. I fervently hope I didn't hit anyone or anything, though I expect I'd have noticed that. I sit there in the darkness and feel a strange mixture of amusement and humiliation, and I wonder what Ray would say if I told him this story. I can almost hear his laughter, hear his voice, that peculiar nasal drawl. 'Jesus, Fraser, they make up crimes just to give you something to do? They must really like you up there in Freezerland.'

The thought of Ray brings a tightness to my chest, and I swear under my breath. From the back seat Diefenbaker admonishes me for my language. "Fuck off," I snarl and throw open the door, practically hurling myself out of the seat. Dief scrambles out quickly, probably afraid I'll lock him in, and since I'm more than half-tempted it's probably wise of him. He hangs back as I climb the stairs and let myself into the apartment. I wait a moment, the door open, and he stops halfway up the stairs as if uncertain of his welcome.

"Are you coming in or did you intend for me to heat all outdoors for your comfort?" I inquire caustically.

He pointedly ignores me as he climbs the rest of the stairs and doesn't touch me as he enters. As I close the door and take off my outer garments he goes over and curls up under the kitchen table, facing away, and I wonder what in God's name is wrong with me that I can't even be civil to the only friend I have left. I know better than to try to apologize now: he'll want to snub me for a while to make things even. I go into the bedroom to undress.

As I hang up my brown uniform jacket in the closet next to my dress uniform I'm hit again with a wave of nostalgia. I haven't worn the serge in months. Not since I left Chicago, well, save for Sergeant Frobisher's funeral. I'd rather thought he might live forever: it had been a shock to get that call. Deliberately I turn my mind from thoughts of mortality to something more positive. Standing sentry on a sweltering Chicago summer afternoon, or on a chilly winter morning, the rush of traffic, the smell of exhaust, the giggle of schoolchildren trying to distract me . . . and Ray, succeeding in distracting me. An image flashes into my head: Ray in borrowed red. It's odd. The one thing I can really recall of him in Turnbull's uniform is that his posture, for once, was completely upright, not a slouch in sight. I can still remember the surprise of realizing he was not, in fact, shorter than I am.

Other things about those few days are far clearer in my mind. Ray sliding into the consulate on his knees, calling my name, needing me. A conversation in a darkened hallway. Assurances of friendship, of partnership. Ray wearing my clothes. Odd how I'd pressed them on him after we returned to the consulate, as if I had some visceral need to remove Turnbull's mark from him and replace it with my own. Or not so odd, perhaps. I had wanted to mark him in far less civilized ways as well, but would never have dreamed of letting him know that.

And that is, of course, what put me here alone. Well, that and the successful outcome of the Muldoon affair. After our adventure to the Beaufort Sea, Ray and I had returned to Chicago even closer friends than ever, and it had been increasingly difficult for me to maintain the necessary distance. Finally my unwillingness to put my friendship with Ray at risk over my increasingly insistent and unrequitable desires had made me put in for a transfer. The request had been granted with a speed that made my head spin: apparently I had been rehabilitated in the eyes of the RCMP. I'm sure Inspector Thatcher's kind comments in my file hadn't hurt.

I can still remember the look in his eyes as he stood at the gate at the terminal waiting for me to board the plane. He'd tried not to let me see it, I know that, but it was there, a kind of bewildered betrayal. I know he didn't understand why I was leaving, and I could no more tell him than I could stay. Even so, he'd hugged me and wished me a safe journey and a good life, and after that it had taken every scrap of strength I own to leave. But I'd done it, and here I am, though my heart is nearly four thousand miles south-east of my body. One wouldn't think it possible to live without a heart, but like the Tin Man I've found it is possible, although it doesn't make for the most comfortable existence.

I realize I'm standing in front of my closet fondling a flannel shirt, the maize and gray one, the one Ray wore . . . and good God, I'm past pathetic. I'm going to have to get some counseling, because if I can't stop this I may end up on the streets of Chicago stalking Ray the way Diefenbaker stalks rabbits. It's a wonder I managed to pass my yearly mental health evaluation three weeks ago. I suspect that has more to do with my familiarity with the test than it does my actual sanity. I force myself to let go of the shirt and get ready for bed, but I'm not at all tired. Knowing I need to be at work in a scant five hours, I head for the kitchen and my grandmother's sovereign remedy for insomnia, a cup of chamomile tea.

As it's steeping I remember I still haven't looked at my mail and pick it up from where I left it on the table two days ago after my last trip to the post office. Sloppy. My father would be appalled. I flip through the pickings, several flyers for local businesses, one a pizza place. I haven't had pizza since I left Chicago, and just seeing the advertisement brings back too many memories. This time I find myself reading the list of available ingredients and smile foolishly at the idea of 'blubber' and 'lichen' as toppings. Actually, if the flyer is to be believed, pineapple is as popular here as it was there. Another ache wells up, and I toss the flyers into the recycling bin and go on through the stack.

The unmistakable brilliant gold of a National Geographic peeks a quarter inch out of the brown paper wrapper which hides the cover as if it contained something more salacious than fossils and forests. A renewal notice for said magazine, which reminds me all too forcibly of how long I've been living here. A postcard reminder that it's time for Diefenbaker to have his teeth cleaned, which reminds me that mine probably need it as well. Finally there are two envelopes with American stamps, both postmarked in Chicago nearly two weeks ago. Mail service here is often slow.

One of the letters is clearly from Francesca, I know her handwriting and her return address since she writes me regularly, keeping me up to date on the life I left behind. But the handwriting on the second envelope is masculine and messy, and oddly familiar. There is no return address. With a sudden shock I realize why the writing is familiar. It's Ray's. I grab a kitchen knife and slit open the envelope, removing the contents

'Hey Frase; I'd've called to tell you this, but you're never home and I didn't want to bug you at work, so I thought I'd try that 'writing' thing that people are always talking about.'

I smile, hearing his voice in my head, but the smile fades quickly as I wonder how many times he'd tried to reach me before giving up, and wondering why he would ever feel he couldn't contact me at work. I read on.

'This is about my eighth go at this, and all the others sucked, so I figure I should quit trying to make it pretty or make excuses and just tell you right out that I'm quitting the Department. I know you're pissed at me now, and if you were here you'd give me the old 'tuck their kids in at night' speech, and it'd probably work, but you're not here so I'm doing what I have to do. I just thought you ought to hear it from me, not Frannie or Vecchio or, God forbid, Turnbull. Who, by the way, does not even come close to filling your granny-boots. Anyway, I hope you're doing good up there. Whenever I think about you I always remember the way you looked when we fell out of that damned plane. Nothing around for miles but snow and more snow and you with this smile on your face like you died and went to heaven. So I know you're where you belong, doing what you do best. Someday maybe I'll figure out where I belong and what I do best. Anyway, that's all the news. Say hi to Dief and give him a doughnut for me.'

There is no close and no signature. He knows I know who it's from, and after that letter 'sincerely yours' would be ridiculous. I reach for a kitchen chair blindly and sit down, staring at the page, reading it over again. I can hear his voice as if he were here in my kitchen, telling me this aloud, and the tone his words conjure in my head is the one I heard only once in our time together, the day he told me about Beth Botrelle.

He's hurting. I can hear it in every line. Hurting badly. Why would he do this? Ray is one of the best police officers I have ever known. How can he say he doesn't belong in law enforcement? How can he say it's not what he does best? For the first time I wonder if in trying to do the right thing I have, yet again, done the wrong thing. It's something I've found I'm all too good at.

After a few minutes of dumbstruck speculation, I finally remember the second letter. I doubt that it's a coincidence that I received both simultaneously, and open Francesca's missive. It contains two pages, one a photocopied newspaper clipping. Ray's face looks out at me from the page, the photo from his personnel file. Taken years ago, a much younger man gazes solemnly at the camera. He's in uniform, something I never saw him wear the entire time I knew him.

The article, from about a month ago, mentions that he received a commendation for bravery and details the events which led to the award; a jewelry-store holdup in which Ray's actions saved the lives of the elderly proprietor of the store, two customers and a clerk. I'm more than surprised that he didn't mention it to me. I know he doesn't like to speak of his record, but I would think he'd at least have mentioned the incident. The second sheet is a flyer announcing a going-away party for Ray Kowalski. There's a yellow post-it note stuck to the page: 'I thought you'd want to know.' is written on it in Francesca's feminine script. There is no accompanying letter, which tells me that she was upset. The date of the party was a week ago today. I can't believe he didn't tell me this, either.

I know it's four a.m. in Chicago, but I don't care if I wake him. This is important, too important to wait, and at least at this hour I'm fairly certain he'll be home. I pick up my phone and dial Ray's number, still memorized after all this time. After a second's delay the connection goes through and I get two rings, then a click and a series of three escalating electronic tones. That's followed by a flat female voice which informs me that the number I have reached, and she repeats it so I know I didn't misdial, has been disconnected or is no longer in service. She instructs me to check the number and dial again. There's no need, though. It's Ray's number and I know it.

Now I'm seriously worried. He's left his job and his apartment as well. The fact that there was no return address on his letter didn't seem odd to me at first glance but now it does. It seems to me an indication that he does not want to be found, which, given my perverse nature, means I am all the more convinced I must do so. I start to dial the number for the 27th's detective division, and then stop, realizing that it's unlikely that Lieutenant Welsh will be there at this hour. I'll have to wait until later.

Knowing I won't sleep now, I sit down and occupy myself in writing up a request to Sergeant White for emergency leave, then leave a message at the airstrip for Walter Scott, the pilot who usually flies us in and out when we need to leave the area. I know I'll be leaving in the next twenty-four hours, I'm just not exactly certain when.

* * *

Thirty-three hours later I walk into the 27th, my duffle bag over my shoulder and Dief at my heels. I haven't slept, showered, or shaved in far too long, but I couldn't bring myself to stop anywhere along the line. Looking toward the civilian aide's desk I find a middle-aged black woman I don't know sitting there. I'd almost forgotten that Francesca is no longer working here, having decided to take on the more difficult but hopefully more rewarding duties of single parenthood.

I can see Lieutenant Welsh in his office, and head in that direction. I hadn't been able to reach him before I left home, and I'm pleased to find him here now. I'm halfway there when the black woman at the desk is on her feet and moving between me and my goal.

"Whoa there handsome, you can't just come waltzing in here like you own the place, and the dog has to wait outside."

"Wolf," The correction is automatic. "It's all right, I believe Lieutenant Welsh will see me."

"You do, do you?" she asks, putting her hands on her hips. "That's mighty presumptuous of you."

I'm reminded a bit of Momma Lolla. I try a smile, hoping it isn't too at odds with my unkempt appearance. "I don't mean to seem forward, ma'am, but I'm quite anxious to see the lieutenant, and I honestly don't believe he'll be displeased to see me. I'm sure if you check with him, he'll . . . ."

"Vera, is this man bothering . . . ."

The new voice trails off for a moment as I turn, surprised by familiar tones.

"Fraser?" she finishes, sounding just as surprised as I feel.


"It is you! What on earth are you doing here? You look like hell."

I'm not sure what to say in response, so I fall back on clichés. "It's good to see you, Elaine. Are you assigned here?"

"I've just been promoted to detective and reassigned here. I'm taking over for . . . ." Her eyes slide toward the desk that used to be Ray's, and her expression goes a little tight. "Um, did you come to see. . . ?"

I stop her from completing her question with a shake my head. "No. I heard."

She nods solemnly. "Oh. Frannie?"

"Yes, and Ray. I'd like to see Lieutenant Welsh."

"I'm sure he'll be happy to see you." She turns to the aide with a smile. "It's okay, Vera, this is Constable Fraser. You've heard about him."

Judging from the new aide's expression she has indeed heard of me. I wonder what wild stories Ray has told people about me. She looks a little awestruck.

"Constable Fraser?" she repeats. "The Mountie?"

"Well, it's Corporal Fraser now," I say as I put out a hand and shake hers firmly. "But yes, I am with the RCMP. And you are?"

"Vera Babcock," she says. "Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise," I say, trying not to betray my impatience to see Lieutenant Welsh. Elaine must sense my mood, because she takes control.

"Corporal? Congratulations, Frase. You deserved it. Come on, let's go see Welsh."

I follow her gratefully, with a nod to Ms. Babcock. Elaine opens the lieutenant's door and grins.

"Hey, Lieutenant! Look what the wolf dragged in."

He looks up, and it's amazing to me how little he's changed in a year's time. Everything else may change around him, but he remains a constant. He smiles when he sees me, a big, open grin that's quickly muted to his usual gruff demeanor.

"Constable Fraser! No, it's Corporal, right?"

"Yes sir, it is."

"About damned time. So what brings you down here from the great white north? I gotta say your timing sucks. I really could've used you here about a month ago."

There is no doubt at all in my mind that he's referring to Ray's decision to leave the department, and I nod. "So I understand. I'm sorry, I didn't know about the situation or I would have been here earlier. I came as soon as I heard."

He looks surprised. "He didn't talk to you about it?"

I shake my head. "No, sir, he didn't. I've been somewhat difficult to reach of late. I knew nothing about any of this until I got his letter on Friday."

He looks at me for a long moment, and nods. "Well, that explains a few things. Have a seat, Fraser. Besbriss, shut the door, will you?"

Elaine shoots me a commiserating glance and I wonder if I am in for, as Ray would put it, an 'ass chewing.' If so, I richly deserve it, so I merely nod at her. The lieutenant is silent for a few moments after the door closes, then he leans forward, his hands together on the desk.

"You come down to see Kowalski?"

I nod. "Yes. Or rather, to try. I tried to call him when I got the letters, but his line has been disconnected, and there was no return address on the letter he sent me. I have a feeling he doesn't particularly want to be found."

Welsh nods. "Good call, Corporal. I talked myself blue in the face trying to change his mind, but he was dead set on leaving. When he walked out of the party he vanished off the face of the earth. Today was payday, I figured he'd turn up for his last check, but instead I found out he told Payroll to deposit it in the Widows and Orphans Fund. I had them check on his old account; they found out he closed it two weeks ago. I even had some of the blue and whites keeping an eye out for the GTO, and guess what? They found it on a used car lot. He sold it. I can't believe he sold that car. He loved that car. He's gone to ground in a big way."

"Do you have any idea why he would feel compelled to do so?" I ask, flat out, because I think if anyone knows, he will

He looks at me, puzzled. "You don't know any of this? I thought you two kept in touch."

Diefenbaker makes a low sound. It's a rebuke, but I'm glad because it gives me an excuse to look away, since I can't meet Welsh's gaze. "As I said, I've been rather hard to reach."

I'm ashamed to admit it even to myself, but the main reason I didn't replace my second-hand answering machine when it failed was because hearing Ray's voice when I was home alone was so difficult for me. I'd just assumed he would simply start calling me at work, he'd never had qualms about that in the past, but I realize now that he must have come to an altogether different conclusion. Any more it wasn't all that unusual for us to go for a week or two without contact, but how had I let that time stretch to more than a month? He must have thought I didn't want to hear from him at all. Robert Burns was all too accurate in his appraisal of tangled webs and deceit.

"Well, it's a little complicated," Welsh begins, slouching in his chair tiredly.

I'm confused for a moment because I'd been in my own head, and almost forgotten what I'd asked him.

"It all started with this jewelry store holdup. Ray happened to be in the area and he saw it going down. He went in and talked the kid out of his gun, saved a bunch of people's lives."

"Yes, Francesca sent me the newspaper clipping about the commendation."

Welsh winces. "That damned story, that's what did it, you know. That was the last straw for him."


"He'd told them he didn't want the commendation and would refuse it if they gave it to him. But the brass put out that press release anyway. He flipped out."

I study the Lieutenant for a moment, noting lines of strain in his bulldog countenance that hadn't been there a year ago. His explanation makes no sense to me. "I know Ray has never been one to need recognition for doing what he feels is simply his job, but it seems strange to me that he would react so strongly to a simple commendation. It's not as if he hasn't had them before."

"I know, I know," Welsh says with a deep sigh. "But Ray had his reasons. A couple of days after it went down the old guy comes in, wants to drop the charges, says he wants the kid to get a second chance. Well, you know we couldn't do that, not on an armed robbery with plenty of witnesses, but it made Ray suspicious so he went and talked to the kid in the lockup. After that he decided something really was hinky, and started digging. Finally figured out that the old guy who runs the place had paid the kid to stage a hold-up so he could scam the insurance company.

"Problem is that Ray came along and messed up the deal, so instead of getting paid, the kid goes to jail. But there'd already been a bunch of stories about the incident, and the brass had been talking up the 'one good cop against the odds' story, and so they wanted to go ahead with the award and keep the other stuff quiet until the hoopla died down."

"Ah." It makes sense now. Or at least more sense. Still, the Ray I thought I knew would have gotten angry, would have made a 'stink.' He wouldn't have simply given up and gone away. Welsh nods.

"Ah, indeed. He was not a happy camper."

"It still seems out of character for him."

Welsh nods unhappily. "Yeah. I figured he'd blow the whole story to the papers. Guess I should've been suspicious when he didn't. But things have been pretty crazy around here lately, and I was busy putting out fires, so I didn't call him on it. I should've known better. Any time Kowalski doesn't rock the boat something's wrong, and he hasn't made waves in quite a while." He gets up suddenly, and paces a bit, then stops and looks out the window as he speaks. "I screwed up, Fraser. My best detective, and I knew something was wrong, but I just let it go because I was busy. I knew better. It wasn't just the scam, either. There's been something else eating at him for a while now, but I let that go too."

I feel a clench in my stomach. "Something else?"

Welsh turns to look at me again. "Yeah. Something else. For months now, really. And I didn't get into it with him because I liked that he was keeping his nose clean and behaving himself. Guess I can't really blame him for wanting out. I haven't been a very good lieutenant for him lately."

"What exactly is the something else?"

He shakes his head and shrugs. "I hoped you'd know, since you're friends and all."

I know he doesn't mean to twist the knife blade but he's doing it nonetheless. I shake my head. "No. Ray never mentioned anything was bothering him."

And he hadn't. When he'd called he had always sounded in good spirits, pleased to find me home. And when I'd called him I . . . the thought short-circuits abruptly as I review the last four or five times we talked. I hadn't called him on any of those occasions. Every time he had called me. The lieutenant isn't the one who's failed Ray. I have. Badly.

It gives me a hollow feeling to realize that Ray had been in distress and I hadn't been there for him, that he hadn't felt he could discuss his problems with me, whatever they were. I can feel the sting of tears in my eyes and I suppress them ruthlessly, clearing my throat. "Do you think I might be able to use departmental resources in attempting to find Ray? It sounds as if he needs to be found, whether he wants to be or not."

Welsh nods. "I was hoping you'd offer. I can't put any of my people on it officially because he's not breaking any laws, but I'm worried about him."

As am I.

* * *

After four days in Chicago I am no closer to finding Ray than I was the day I arrived. I only asked for a week's leave originally, and I had to fax in a request for an indefinite extension to my superior. He granted it, expressing his concern that he hoped the emergency would resolve itself soon, and politely not prying into the nature of said emergency. I'm lucky that we work in an area where there really is very little actual crime or he'd be unable to be so accommodating.

I've interviewed Ray's landlady, who supplied the information that Ray had requested that a local charity which benefits recovering alcoholics come and take away most of the contents of his apartment to be sold or used at their facility. The few remaining items-- four miscellaneous boxes, a trunk, his rolltop desk, couch, television and stereo-- had gone into a rental trailer designed to be towed behind a car. She hadn't actually seen him leave so she couldn't tell me what he'd been driving at that point, which is a shame because with her level of observational skills she probably would have been able to tell me the make, model, license plate, and quite possibly the vehicle's VIN.

The type of charity he chose makes me wonder if Ray's problem could be alcohol. It's a common one, and he'd once told me that he'd had some difficulty with it when Stella first left him, but during our tenure together he'd never had more than a social amount of liquor, and hadn't seemed particularly interested in it. Still, it's been a year now since I saw him, and if he hasn't been talking to me about what's really going on with him the problem could have resurfaced. The stresses that come with being an officer of the law are strong, and all too often drugs and alcohol become the method used to deal with them.

A conversation with Charles, of Chicago Collector's Cars where Ray sold the GTO, yields one more piece of information. While he did not purchase a vehicle from the lot there, he mentioned that he was interested in buying a used pick-up truck. Something 'with traction' he'd said, preferably four-wheel drive. Presumably Ray would need such a vehicle if he were planning a trip to a rugged area, or to a place where the weather is often worse than it is in Chicago. Ray is well able to survive in a wilderness area, I taught him those skills myself, so if that's his plan I know he'll be safe, but I hate the thought of him being alone. He's not a person who does alone well. He needs people, needs connection.

Thinking of connections and people makes me think of the people Ray had here in town. He and Francesca Vecchio and Ray's parents. When I'd first started investigating, Lieutenant Welsh told me he'd spoken with the Kowalskis and they had seemed both unaware and unconcerned. He'd suggested that I not tell them we were worried until we had ascertained whether or not there was something to be worried about, and I'd respected his wishes until now, but I think I'm going to have to speak with them. They may have some clue as to Ray's whereabouts, even if they're not aware they possess it. I can't imagine Ray leaving without giving them at least some indication where he's gone. It will be particularly difficult for me to go to them, though, because they know that Ray and I are friends and I'm certain they will be surprised by my ignorance.

I've tried several times since I arrived to contact Francesca and gotten only her answering machine. After mentioning it to Elaine, I discover that the Vecchios have gone out of town on a family excursion. Her absence has been particularly frustrating for me because she and Ray had a fairly close relationship, one which puzzled me because although Ray once seemed to indicate that he might find her attractive, from all I have observed their relationship more closely echoes the one they feigned while he was undercover-- the exasperated affection of true siblings. I think that if Ray has confided in anyone, it's Francesca. The upset expressed by the absence of a letter with the information she sent makes me suspect that even more strongly.

I confess I have wondered once or twice about the parentage of Francesca's son, Dominic, since I know that at one time Ray wanted children. However, if he were the father I am utterly certain of two things things: Francesca would not be a single parent nor would Ray have just picked up and left as he has. Ray may be many things but he is neither irresponsible nor a cad. In any case, without being able to reach Francesca, I'm left with the option of contacting the Kowalskis. I look up their address in Ray's folder, and go to Lieutenant Welsh's door, tapping lightly until he looks up.

"Sir, I'm afraid I need to go see Ray's parents."

He sighs. "Yeah, I figured you'd have to do that eventually. Try not to scare them, okay?" He makes a face and shakes his head suddenly. "What am I saying? This is you. You'll be on eggshells."

He's more right than he knows. "I'll try to be circumspect. I do have one slight difficulty, that being transportation. Do you think I might borrow a vehicle from the motor pool?"

For answer he digs into his pocket and removes a set of keys with a paper tag attached, which he tosses to me. "Here. Take this one. It's out back, next to my old Cutlass."

I glance at the tag, and see that it's from Chicago Collector's Cars. I lift my eyebrows at Lieutenant Welsh, who is turning a rather pronounced shade of pink. He clears his throat.

"Hey, it's a good car, a classic. Didn't want some punk kid with no sense buying it and wrecking it."

I can feel the smile that's desperate to escape and bite the inside of my cheek to control it as I nod. "Understood."

"Don't you wreck it," he says gruffly.

"I'll take every precaution, and thank you, sir, I appreciate it."

He nods, and our eyes meet, and I know he knows I mean more than I'm saying. I'm glad he bought the car. If my finances could have supported it I would have done so. Apparently neither of us could stomach the idea of a stranger ending up with the GTO. Diefenbaker follows me and when he sees Ray's car he races ahead, clearly excited, until he realizes that Ray isn't actually in the vehicle. He turns and gives me a reproachful look.

"I know," I say softly, opening the door to let him in. "I miss him too. We'll find him, I'm sure of it."

It feels strange to be behind the wheel without Ray grumbling about my driving, which has improved quite a bit since I saw him last. Policing an area as large as the one I have gives one a lot of time behind the wheel. He might not even be embarrassed to ride with me any more. After driving the RCMP's utility vehicle all over hell and gone, I can also appreciate the GTO's handling far more than I did in the past.

The drive out to Ray's parent's place in Skokie takes less than half an hour. This time of day there's very little traffic on the expressway, and since I'd been there once or twice before I left Chicago, locating the Kowalskis' trailer is easy. I pull up in front and park. Diefenbaker wants to come with me but I remember that Ray's mother wasn't wild about having a large canid in the trailer, so I ask him to stay and watch the car, leaving the windows partly down. The trailer's front door opens as I'm walking up the steps to the small porch, and Ray's mother looks out.

She seems puzzled, but it's not until she looks past me to the car that I realize why. She must have been expecting Ray. That immediately tells me that Ray's parents don't know he sold the car. That doesn't bode well for my purposes. I remove my hat and smile at Ray's mother, hoping my concern doesn't show.

"Good afternoon Mrs. Kowalski, I hope you're well."

She looks at me oddly, her round face tense, expressing what appears to be . . . distaste. . . as she looks up at me. "Hello, Mr. Fraser, what are you doing here?" she asks, her voice devoid of its usual pleasant tone.

I'm taken aback by the obvious chill of her greeting, but I forge ahead. "I'm looking for Ray, ma'am. I was hoping you might be able to help me locate him."

Her tension visibly increases. "No, I can't help you. You should go before . . . ." She stops short, then goes on. "You should just go."

"I realize you may not know where he is at the moment," I persist, "but you may have information you don't realize you have that could assist me. I'd just like to find him, it's important."

She stares at me with a look that's at once speculative and slightly concerned. "Why do you need to find him? Have you got it? Does he have it?"

I frown, puzzled. "It?"

She lowers her voice almost to a whisper. "That disease you people get."

I'm still trying to figure that one out, and all I've come up with is the 'blue flu' that Ray once mentioned, when I hear Damian Kowalski's voice.

"Barbara? Who's at the door?"

A resigned expression flashes across her face, and a moment later Ray's father is standing behind her. He looks much as I remember, stockier than Ray, and heavyset, but with oddly similar hair. He scowls when he sees me.

"What the hell do you want?" he snaps "Haven't you done enough damage? You had to come back?"

Now I'm more than taken aback, I'm stunned. I can't imagine what I have done to earn this enmity. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't understand. . . ."

"What's hard to understand? We don't want you around here." He looks past me and his eyes narrow. "That's Ray's car. Is he here?"

"No sir, he's not here, I'm attempting to locate him," I say, desperately trying to get the conversation back on some sort of even keel.

He looks at me again with disdain. "I suppose he gave it to you, since you're so . . . close. What, did you two have a little fight? That's too bad."

The sing-song taunt indicates no such empathy, and while I may sometimes play at naïvete to encourage confidences, after living in Chicago for three years there's very little I haven't seen or heard. I know very well that there's only one thing that leads otherwise rational people to behave this way. I have no idea why they'd think that about Ray, but true or not it makes me angry that his own parents could treat him so shabbily, so my reply is less than tactful.

"No, Ray didn't give me the car, he sold it before he disappeared. Lieutenant Welsh bought it, and he's letting me use it as a favor while I'm trying to find Ray."

That seems to get through to Ray's father as nothing else has. His face goes pale, and for a moment I feel a glimmer of hope that he realizes how serious this is, but his next words extinguish that hope.

"He sold the GTO? To who?"

I can feel my jaw drop at the realization that the loss of the car matters more to him than the loss of his son. I close my mouth with a snap. "To a used car dealer, apparently, but as I said, Lieutenant Welsh purchased it from there when he found it. Now if you'd be so kind as to answer me I'll go. Have you any idea where Ray is?"

He stares at me coldly. "No, and I don't care. I told him to stay away until he remembers how to be a man."

Clearly Damien Kowalski is a lost cause, so I look to Barbara Kowalski. It had seemed earlier as if she at least had some concern for Ray's health. "Ma'am, if you know anything . . . ."

She shakes her head. "Even if I knew I wouldn't tell you. I hope he's trying to straighten himself out, and you're a bad influence. My Stanley was fine until he started hanging around with you."

They're both glaring at me as if sheer willpower can remove me from their doorstep. I can think of many things I would like to say to them, and I feel the muscles in my jaw bunching as I hold onto my temper. "I'm very sorry that you feel that way, Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski. Whatever your son is or is not, he is a good man, and he has given all he has to protect and serve the community, which includes the two of you whether you like it or not. For that he should be commended, not reviled."

"Commended?" Damien Kowalski says incredulously. "He picked a dirty job, and couldn't even stick that. He quit. He's a loser and . . . worse, and he's not my son any more. Now get off my property. "

With those words he slams the door, cutting off any possible response. I stand there for a moment trying to process the information, trying to square these people with the ones who had driven across country to reconcile with Ray, who had regularly invited Ray and me over to dinner, who had ironed his shirts, and worked on his car, and-- I can't. It's as if they are completely different people, just wearing the Kowalskis' bodies. The effects of prejudice have never been more clearly brought home to me. I'd liked these people, they had appeared to like me, and they had loved their son. Why should any of that have changed simply because of who they think he prefers in bed?

This is the first time since I caught Muldoon that I have experienced a nearly overwhelming desire to do actual physical harm to someone. I have to consciously unclench my hands as I turn and walk back to the car. I understand now why Ray sold the GTO. I wouldn't want the reminders either. I'm half tempted to leave the car here and walk back, but that would be wrong, it belongs to Lieutenant Welsh now, and there is a certain feeling of satisfaction in knowing that Ray's father won't get his hands on it. As I get in and start the car it occurs to me that I shouldn't be so surprised. After all, Damien Kowalski chose to estrange himself from his son for over a decade simply over his choice of career. Why should this be any different?

It's not until I'm halfway back to the station that it really begins to sink in. Ray's parents clearly think he's . . . I suppose the word of choice these days is 'gay.' Why do they think that? Ray was a married man for many years, and he never showed any sign of being interested in men. If he had, then . . . well, I'm fairly certain that I would not have gone back to Canada. I'm not particularly surprised they think I'm gay. After all, I've pretty much come to that determination myself. When the only person who appeals to you sexually for well over three years is of the same gender you are, it's rather an inescapable conclusion.

From the seat next to me Diefenbaker makes a low growl. Startled, I look at him. "You could lip read through the screen?"

He makes a confirmatory sound, and I sigh. "I wish I knew why they thought that. It's perfectly ridiculous. I can't believe they've made Ray miserable over a mistaken notion, but if . . . what?"

Dief grumbles again, eyeing me like I'm the slowest dog on the team.

"He is not. He was married, for heaven's sake."

He makes a sound I can only call a snort, and turns to look out the window. He has a point. Even Oscar Wilde was married. We ride in silence for a few minutes, and then I look over at him. "You really think so?"

His response is short and definitive. I think about it some more, and instead of heading back to the 27th, I take us to one of the small public parks along the lakeshore. Pulling into the parking lot near it, I look at Dief. "Come on. We're going for a walk."

He follows me toward the lake. We pass a group of schoolchildren who all want to pet him, and since he's willing we stop for a moment. Their teacher, an attractive young woman with dark hair and eyes regards us suspiciously.

"Does he bite?" she asks me, holding one hand out like a traffic officer to stop her charges from darting forward.

"Never a child," I say reassuringly. "He's worked for the police, and is very well behaved." Dief looks at me in amusement and I amend that. "Well, except with me."

That breaks the ice and the teacher laughs and allows her flock to move forward. "I used to have a dog who was like that." She looks at Dief critically. "He's a good-looking animal. You say he's a police dog?"

It's on my lips to correct her, then I decide that in this case it might be best if I don't mention he's a wolf. "He's worked for the police, yes."

"That's interesting. How did you end up with a police dog?" Her gaze goes to my hat. "Are you a park ranger?"

I've fielded that question a few hundred times, and stifle the sigh it brings. "Actually, I'm with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

That statement garners almost as much attention as Diefenbaker did, and I find myself giving an impromptu lecture on Canada and the RCMP. After a few moments I finish up by suggesting they schedule a visit to the consulate. The young woman asks if I work there and seems disappointed when I tell her no. It's not until we're well past her group on our way to the waterfront that it occurs to me she was flirting. At one time I'd have noticed immediately, and it would have made me uncomfortable. This time I simply hadn't noticed. I'm not certain that's a good thing.

The day is turning cold and there's no one else near the water. The air smells overpoweringly of dead fish and algae; a fitting scent for my mental condition, which has apparently stagnated while I wasn't paying attention. We walk the beach and I stare out at the waves on the lake, feeling cold though the temperature is relatively mild. Without looking at Dief, I speak quietly. "Ray needed me, and I wasn't there. What kind of friend am I? He probably thinks I've abandoned him, just as his parents have. I never meant to, it's just that it's been so. . . difficult."

To my surprise Diefenbaker doesn't make a snide comment, just a sympathetic moan.

"I shouldn't have left the way I did, and I shouldn't have avoided him. Sheer cowardice on my part." I can hear the disgust in my voice. Diefenbaker doesn't sympathize this time. He knows I'm right. I think back on the confrontation with the Kowalskis. What on earth would make them think that Ray is gay? Not that it matters, but it's just one more element of confusion in an already chaotic turn of events. They had seemed very certain of it, as if they had proof positive. Had Ray met someone? Taken him 'home to meet the parents,' as the ritual goes?

I'm stricken suddenly with an overwhelming wave of jealousy at that thought, and have to consciously shake it off. His parents could be completely mistaken in their beliefs. But if they're not . . . I shouldn't speculate, I really shouldn't, but I can't seem to help it. What would have happened if I'd told Ray the truth a year ago, confessed to him my reasons for needing to leave? I'll never know now, and that makes me ache. I could have told him in a generic sort of way, without revealing my attraction to him. Even if he wasn't attracted to me personally, perhaps knowing that we were both struggling with the same sort of issues might have been helpful to him.

I'm not ashamed of my feelings, I've never had much in the way of prejudices, but even so I'd been afraid of Ray's reaction to them, if I had mustered the courage to tell him. Law enforcement officers, especially American ones, are not known for their tolerance, and I had tarred Ray with that brush. I am ashamed of myself for making that assumption. I'd been so sure of his reaction, thinking I knew him better than anyone else. I thought I'd known every secret, every facet of Ray, as if he were a map and all I needed to do was look at it, or him, to know the terrain. I was wrong. Arrogant, in fact, as my father had once pointed out. I have to wonder now if I ever knew him at all. He's become a mystery, one I have to solve. And when I find him, no matter whether his parents are correct or not, I owe him the truth and no less.

One thing I know. Despite Barbara Kowalski's assertion that she hoped Ray was 'straightening himself out' I doubt that he is, at least not in the sense she meant. Ray has a will like iron, or perhaps titanium might be a better metaphor. Once he's set on his path, he won't be turned from it, as he has amply demonstrated time and time again, not the least by his decision to stick with his choice to become a police officer and by so doing estranging himself from his family for well over a decade. He's doing that again. Selling the GTO, moving without leaving a forwarding address: all this says to me that he has accepted the break, even embraced it. I just wish he hadn't felt he had to include me in those he was breaking from.

Diefenbaker nudges my knee, and I look down. "Yes, you're right, we're wasting time. Let's go."

* * *

I arrive back at the 27th and promptly turn around and leave again, spurred by a message from Elaine that the Vecchios are back from their trip. On many levels it feels strangely nostalgic to drive up to that house on Octavia, and I wonder briefly how Ray and Stella Vecchio are doing down in Florida. I hear from Ray periodically, phone calls full of good-natured grousing about the weather, the bowling alley, and Stella, who apparently is little easier for Ray Vecchio to live with than she was for Ray Kowalski.

That's been happening less frequently as they adapt to one another. There had been some strain in their marriage at first, especially after Stella had proven as adamantly opposed to having children as she had been in her first marriage. Coming from a large Italian family, Ray had expected her to change her mind on that issue and had been shocked when he didn't get his way. I remember quite a few late-night phone conversations with Ray, playing devil's advocate and pointing out that though as 'The Bookman' he'd gotten used to always getting his way, that wasn't how things happened in 'real life.'

Eventually they'd gotten through it, helped, no doubt, by Stella going back into practice part-time, and Ray's decision to start a small security consulting business. They'd both gotten bored with the bowling alley rather quickly, and my suggestion that they hire someone to run it for them had been a good one. Now they still have it to 'play' with when they like, but they're occupied with more interesting tasks most of the time. As I'm getting out of the car and leaning in to retrieve my hat I hear the screen door bang open noisily and a familiar feminine voice calls out loudly.

"Ray! Thank God! I was scared you'd . . . ."

Francesca's voice trails off as I straighten, hat in hand, and Diefenbaker slides past me to bound happily over to her. She looks poleaxed.

"Fraser?" she gasps incredulously.

"Hello, Francesca," I say.

She pales noticeably as her eyes dart from me to the car and back. "What are you doing here? What's wrong? Where's Ray? How come you have his car?"

From the way her chin lifts I know means she's preparing to hear bad news and I realize she probably thinks I've been sent to deliver it to her gently. Clearly it had not been a wise choice to bring Ray's car. "I don't know where Ray is. I was hoping you might be able to help me find him."

She relaxes a little, but not completely. A spark lights in her gaze. "Oh, so you want to find him now that it's too late? Where were you before?" she demands.

I can't meet her eyes. "I was being a coward," I say quietly.

Dief whines. He doesn't like the strain between us. A moment later she's got her arms around me, hugging me. I return her hug a little awkwardly. I'm not good at expressing emotion, physically, or otherwise.

"Frase, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. You may be stubborn and dense and irritating, but you're not a coward.

Pain threatens to strangle me. "I am," I manage to say hoarsely. "You have every right to be angry with me. I should have been here." I step back. "What can you tell me?"

She sighs and takes my hand a little impatiently. "Come on, inside. The neighbors will talk about me throwing myself at a good-looking guy right out in public. Besides, you haven't met Nicky, and I have some news for you."

We go inside and she fixes tea for both of us and I make the appropriate noises over her sleeping son, noting to myself that he appears to have inherited the Vecchio profile, though his hair is a lighter brown than his mother's and his complexion distinctly fairer. Finally we're seated in the living room, sipping our tea, Diefenbaker enjoying a cookie and getting crumbs on the carpet. I clear my throat.

"You said you had news? Good, I hope."

"I think so, but Ma's not so thrilled." She wrinkles her nose in an expression that's both smile and scowl. "Dominic's going to have a baby brother or sister."

Startled, I can't help but look at her flat midriff, and she laughs.

"It's early days. I'm not showing yet, won't for a while."

"I . . . see. Well, congratulations, that is, if it's what you want."

She laughs. "It is, it definitely is. And I know you're dying to ask so I'll tell you, the father's a med student at the university, and no, I'm not planning to get married. See, I've done the whole marriage thing, and it didn't work out. But I always wanted kids. Thought I was stuck until I finally figured out that you don't have to have one to have the other. So, yeah, I'm happy, and I get beautiful, smart babies, without having to put up with the toilet seat getting left up all the time and dirty socks in the living room."

"An elegant solution," I say, thinking wistfully that I wouldn't mind either of those things, given the right circumstances.

"I thought so. Can I get you to tell Ma that?" she asks with a laugh, then sobers abruptly. "So, you got my letter?"

I nod. "Yes, and one from Ray. I came as soon as I could. Lieutenant Welsh explained about the commendation."

She sighs. "That was just the last straw, I think. Ray hasn't been the same since you left. Even before the whole commendation thing he was having trouble. Told me he was having a hard time 'seeing the good in people' any more. You were always good at helping him, all of us really, to see that good stuff."

Guilt wraps its tendrils more firmly around me as I listen to her, and I find myself staring at my hat where it rests on my knees, afraid to lift my gaze because of what she might see in my eyes.

"I didn't think he meant he was leaving leaving," she continues, almost nonsensically but I understand her meaning. "I thought he was joking. Even when they got to planning that stupid party I kept expecting him to say 'Ha! Fooled you! Not leaving!' But he didn't, he never said it, and he left. I figured he'd last two weeks, tops, and then go back to work once it was out of his system, but I went to his place to take him some cookies a few days later and got the shock of my life when some stranger answered the door."

That makes me look up finally. "He didn't tell you he was moving?"

She shakes her head. "Not a word. Well, not a word that I couldn't take the other way if I wanted to. I should have known, though, when he said good-bye at the party. He gave me a hug and kissed me here," she puts a finger to her forehead, "and told me he'd miss me. That right there shoulda told me he was deranged."

She says it jokingly, but I know what she means. It was out of character for them, and she's right, it should have warned her, just as Ray's silence should have warned me if I'd been listening to it.

"Neither of us saw it coming."

She shivers suddenly. "God, we're talking about him like he's dead!"

"He's not dead," I say fiercely, almost growling.

She reaches over and pats my hand. "I know that, I know he's not. That's why I don't want to talk about him like that. So, you have any clues?"

I shake my head. "No, not really. He sold his car, left no forwarding address at his apartment, closed his bank accounts, and so far as I can ascertain has not updated any of the contact information on his retirement account or insurance policies. There's been no activity on his credit cards, and Social Security has no record of his having registered with a new place of employment. I went to see his parents earlier today but they were . . . not helpful."

She sighs. "Yeah, that figures. Ray said he had some kind of blowup with his dad again. Didn't say what, but . . . I think maybe I know. Fraser, can I ask you something? Something really, really personal?"

I feel a moment of trepidation, but I nod anyway. "You can ask me anything, Francesca, you know that."

She gives me a sour look. "Yeah, I know I can ask, and I know if you don't want to answer you'll tell me a story about a moose or something."

She smiles to take the sting out of her words, and I smile back ruefully, acknowledging the truth of her statement. "Go ahead and ask. I'll try not to give you a moose-related answer."

She nods, and takes a deep breath. "How do you feel about it when a person likes somebody else, and that somebody is, like, the same kind of person as the first guy?"

I stare at her, trying to make sense of that. "Come again?"

She sighs. "I mean like when a guy likes another guy, you know, that way."

"Which wa . . . ah. You mean how do I feel about same-sex partnerships?"

As soon as the word leaves my lips I can almost hear Ray's voice, '. . . no ship like partnership.' I know I can be somewhat oblivious at times, and suddenly I'm wondering if Ray was saying more than I realized. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it the fact that my father was constantly equating partnership with marriage is a more than mind-boggling thought.

Francesca nods. "Yeah, that's what I meant."

I phrase my reply cautiously, trying not to wonder why she's asking me that. "I think that love is so rare a gift that it would be wrong to dismiss any honest expression of it."

She looks relieved. "I'm really glad, Frase, because I've got something you need to see. Hang on, I need to go get something. I'll be right back."

I wait while she goes upstairs. A few moments later she returns with an envelope from which she removes the contents, holding the page out to me.

"I don't want to hear anything about mail-tampering being a federal offense, okay, Fraser? It wasn't sealed, so anybody could look at it. When I went over to Ray's old place with the cookies, the new tenant gave me some mail that came for Ray after he left. That was in it."

I take the letter and start to read. After only a few sentences I start to feel ill. It's from an organization which claims to 'cure' homosexuality. It states that 'concerned friends' asked that Ray be sent information regarding the program. I have little doubt who those concerned friends were.

"You don't think he. . . ." Francesca begins tentatively.

"No," I say firmly. "I don't. Wherever Ray is, it's not there. I'm sure of that." Actually, I'm not at all sure, not with everything I thought I knew about Ray being turned on its head, but I need to believe it so I say it as if I do. "Tell me what you talked about before he left. You said he was having trouble seeing the good in people? Did he say anything else?"

"No, not really. We talked about Dominic some, that he's starting to walk and can say a few words. Ray always got along great with Nicky, he was really good with him. Did you know he babysat for me all the time?"

I shake my head, though it doesn't surprise me. Ray is one of those people who always seems to get along with animals and children. Well, except for Janet Morse's youngsters which always struck me as odd, but then, maybe he just hadn't tried very hard. He hadn't liked Janet much. "He said nothing at all about his plans?"

She shakes her head. "No, that's why I never thought he was really leaving. I mean, he's gotta have a job somewhere, right? I know he used up a lot of his savings going on that hand thing you guys did, so he would need to get one before what he has left runs out, but he never said anything about what he was going to do. He did sometimes say that kids are the only good things left in the world, and how he wished he could do something that helped kids. But that wouldn't make sense, because those kinds of jobs don't usually pay, so I'm afraid I'm not a big help, I'm sorry, Fraser."

"It's all right. If you think of anything else, leave a message with Elaine, she'll make sure I get it."

She nods and stands. "I don't suppose you'd like to stay for supper?"

I shake my head. "No, I need to get back, but thank you kindly."

She smiles. "Wow, it's been a long time. It's nice to hear that again." She looks at me again, bites her lip, then looks determined as she plows ahead. "So, um, did you and Ray have a fight or something? Is that why you left?"

"No, it was just . . . my reasons were personal. I felt I needed to go."

"Oh. I thought maybe . . . well, that maybe the two of you were . . . and you maybe . . . ."

"We were never involved that way," I interrupt gently, saving her from the awkwardness of having to put her hypothesis into words. "I don't believe that Ray has those kind of feelings for me."

"You don't?" She sounds surprised.

I shake my head. "I have no reason to believe he does."

"Hmm," she says, in a way that makes me wonder what she's thinking. "Okay, if you say so." She cocks her head and looks at me speculatively. "But if it turned out he did, how would you feel about it?"

Well, that's quite blunt. There's really no way to misinterpret what she's asking. It's tempting to tell her it's none of her business, but perhaps she deserves to know. It may help her understand my actions a little better. I swallow, trying to get moisture into a suddenly dry mouth, and feel my fingers smooth over my eyebrow, an action I know betrays my nervousness, but that I can't seem to help. "Happy, Francesca. I would feel happy."

She looks at me for a long moment, and I brace myself for an explosion, but none comes. After a moment she sighs. "I had a feeling. And thanks for telling me. I guess on the one hand that makes me feel better, because it means it wasn't just me you didn't want, but it also makes me feel worse."


She looks at me oddly and shakes her head, a small smile curving her mouth. "Fraser, do you know how much a pound of nails weighs on Pluto?"

I stare at her for a moment, puzzled, feeling a strange sense of deja vu as I answer. "Certainly. It's the same as a pound of cheese. Six point four ounces."

Her smile widens. "So how come you don't know what's right under your nose?"

There's a faint echo of Ray's voice in my head as she speaks, and I realize why as I finally remember him asking me those very questions. That realization brings me up short, and I start to think, really think about my relationship with Ray. And I realize that I may indeed have been ignoring what's right under my nose. I can't be certain, not without finding Ray, not without talking to him, but . . . . I feel my face heat a little as Francesca continues to watch me, waiting. I crack my neck and clear my throat. "Understood."

"Boy, it's a gold star day when I get to tell you something you don't know," she says, grinning. "You better tell me if you find out anything, okay?"

I nod and stand to go. "I will. And, Francesca, thank you."

She stands too, and gives me another hug. "Anytime, Frase."

This time returning the embrace feels less awkward to me. It's a relief to have told her, told someone. Strange that it should be, but undeniably so.

* * *

I return to the 27th to drop off the car and check in with Lieutenant Welsh. I don't, of course, tell him what Ray's parents and Francesca told me. It's all hearsay at this point in any case, and even if it were confirmed I don't think he'd take it well. He's a good man, but this particular prejudice is strongly ingrained in our profession. I just let him know that I had made no real progress.

He asks me to dinner but I'm tired, emotionally raw, very confused, and desperately in need of some time alone. Diefenbaker and I walk back to the inexpensive motel we found, one not too particular about who, or what, inhabits its rooms. Once there I take a long, hot shower, as if I could somehow wash the disgust of Ray's parents off my skin. It doesn't work, of course, but just ridding myself of a day's accumulated city-grime does leave me feeling slightly better.

After drying off I pull on a t-shirt and a pair of boxers, and as I'm looking in my duffel for that letter from Ray Dief grumbles about having to subsist all day on a single cookie. Guiltily I realize he's right. Just because I'm obsessed with what I'm doing doesn't mean he should suffer. I feel culpable enough to phone out for a pizza from Ray's old favorite vendor.

As we wait for the delivery I sit down on the bed--the only furniture in the room-- with a notepad and pen to try and lay out what I know in the vague hope of finding some perfectly obvious clue that has somehow eluded me. Unfortunately my mind doesn't want to focus. It continually drifts away from what I'm supposed to be doing to idle speculation about whether Ray's parents, and more importantly Francesca, could possibly be right. In the middle of one of those flights of fancy there's a knock at the door.

I grab my jeans and pull them on, embarrassed that I hadn't done so after ordering the food, and open the door to a stocky man holding an insulated carrier whose face is startlingly familiar. I really hadn't expected that after this long Sandor would still be working for Tony, or that he might be the driver on duty tonight.

"Somebody here order a ham and pineapple . . . hey! Constable Fraser?"

I don't bother to correct him. "Hello, Sandor, it's good to see you."

"Same here," he says, smiling as Diefenbaker ambles over to greet him. "Good to see you too, bud," he says to Dief, waving the flat box in front of his muzzle. "Bet you've missed this."

Dief agrees vocally as I get out the money for the pizza. Sandor chuckles. "Still using that Monopoly money, hunh?"

"I'm afraid so, I'm sorry. I haven't had time to exchange any."

"That's okay. I know a place that doesn't gouge too bad. Man, I haven't seen you guys in ages. What're you doing down here in the Windy City? Ray said you went back up north."

"I did. I came down to find Ray."

Sandor shoots me a strange look as we trade money and pizza.

"If you're here looking for Ray then you're looking in the wrong place."

I almost drop the pizza box, which I'm sure would have delighted Diefenbaker but after a year without junk food he might overdose on it. "What?" I manage to say, juggling the box back to safety.

"Last time I saw him, I joked about him ordering an extra-large double-cheese just for himself, and he said it was okay, 'cause he was moving someplace colder and he'd need the extra calories."

"Think back, please, did he say where, exactly?"

Sandor thinks, then shrugs. "Nah, he didn't, but I figured it must a big city, or whatever passes for one north of here. This is Ray we're talking about. Not much of a country boy."

I refrain from enlightening him on just how capable Ray had proven himself to be in 'the country,' but I suspect he's right. Given his background, Ray would likely search out a city. "North of here? Did he say that?"

"No, actually he didn't, which I thought was kind of strange at the time, 'cause I asked him where he was going and he just grinned and said he was off to see the twins."


Sandor nods. "Yeah, twins. I thought maybe he had a date with a couple of hot babes or something. I don't know. But he definitely said twins."

I believe him. He has an excellent memory, as he's proven on more than one occasion. "Thank you, you've been a great assistance in helping me refine my search parameters," I say, holding out several extra bills.

He looks at me, at the money, and frowns. "Is Ray in some kind of trouble?"

"I don't know yet, he may or may not be, but in either case this is the first solid lead I've had on his whereabouts in four days."

"Put your money away then."

I nod and put it away. I know he's fond of Ray, and don't want to offend him by offering a second time.

"Look, I gotta get back to work but if I think of anything else I'll leave a note at the desk downstairs, okay?"

"I'd be grateful, thank you kindly. You can also reach me through the 27th."

He nods. "No problem, Ray's the best. Anything I can do for him, I'll do."

"Thank you again," I say, closing the door behind him and absently setting the pizza box down on the bed as I go through my bag looking for my map. Locating it, I spread it out across the mattress and start looking for good-sized cities to the north of Chicago. I feel I can safely rule out anything north of the border, but there are still a great many places to choose from. Boston, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis... after that there's not much of anything sizeable to the north until you get to Fairbanks, and I suspect that would hardly even qualify as a town by Ray's way of thinking. Still, the field just narrowed considerably.

I think about the meager clues I have: Ray's comment to the used car salesman about wanting a vehicle with traction, and his joke about needing the calories for a move to a colder climate, though if he really is moving north it's not all that much of a joke. He has very little body fat and at times on the trail it was difficult for him to eat enough to stay warm. There's definitely a cohesive pattern there, and it narrows the field further in my mind. He wouldn't need good traction in New York City, because it's such a large metropolis that it has both a vast fleet of vehicles to clear the roads in winter and many alternate sources of transportation. The other choices still seem valid, though. The one thing that doesn't seem to fit my hypothesis is 'the twins.'

I know Ray has a niece and nephew, but they're not twins. In fact, I can't remember him ever speaking about twins at all. I have a momentary flash of jealousy once more at the idea that perhaps these twins are romantically involved with Ray as Sandor assumed. Why, if he wanted me, would he . . . no. I must stop doing that. I can't let Francesca's hints lead me to make untoward assumptions. Even if she and his parents are correct in their assertions about his sexuality, there's still no reason to assume that he might find me personally. . . .

Another deja vu takes me back three years, or nearly so. 'Do you find me attractive?' Good God. Even then? Had I missed it so far back? Had I been so busy hiding my own feelings that his didn't register at all? I have to admit it's more than possible, and I rub my forehead, feeling the beginnings of a headache forming.

I look at the map again, and keep finding my eyes drawn back to one particular spot. It makes no sense really, I have nothing logical or concrete on which to base my decision just have a . . . feeling. Instinct. But it seems to fit. The winters in Minneapolis are substantially longer and colder than here in Chicago, thanks primarily to the cold air masses that regularly drop down out of Canada, known colloquially as 'Alberta Clippers.' He would need a vehicle with good traction there, and he might also need a higher caloric intake to offset the cold. It's a relatively large city, so he'd feel at home. It fits.

I close my eyes, sending thanks to the universe at large for gifting me with a pizza-delivery person who has both a working knowledge of my quarry and a good memory for trivia. I have a place to look. I sit back and run a hand through my hair, debating whether or not to go back to the 27th and start researching. Diefenbaker whines pitifully, and I finally remember the pizza that's cooling under the map.

"Sorry," I tell him, and open the box, putting a couple of slices down on the plastic liner from the trash can. "Enjoy."

He's just settling in to eat when there's a rap at the door. Not having expected anyone else, I'm about to engage the security chain before opening the door when the person on the other side speaks.

"Fraser? It's Sandor."

If he's back, he must've thought of something else. I open the door to find him grinning. "I just remembered, Ray was watching a tape of a baseball game."

I don't see the relevance at first. "Yes, Ray does enjoy baseball, but I don't . . . ."

"Don't you get it? He said he was going to see the twins-- the Minnesota Twins. Minneapolis and St. Paul. That's north."

The last piece of the puzzle snaps neatly into place, confirming my hunch. "Yes. Of course. I should have thought of that."

"Me too," Sandor says. "You go find him, okay? Make sure he's not in trouble. I told Tony about you looking for Ray, and he said to tell you he's got connections in St. Paul, so if you need anything just call and let us know and we'll get you some help."

"I will, thank you. And give Tony my thanks as well." I hope I won't have to avail myself of Tony's connections, since I'm not sure an association with the Russian Mafia is an altogether healthy thing, but on the other hand, Ray never seemed to have any difficulties with having one.

Sandor nods. "You got it. Take care."

He strides off down the hall, and I close the door and latch it. I'm tired, but exhilarated, and I can't wait to get started on a real search. I grab my shirt and pull it on, looking at Dief. "Come on. I'm going back to the 27th. I have work to do."

He grumbles, eyeing the pizza box covetously. Just to save the argument I pick it up and take it with me, at which point he willingly follows me out.

* * *

By the time Lieutenant Welsh arrives the next morning I'm feeling much less optimistic. I've made no progress. Using an online white-pages first, and then checking with an actual operator I find that there are twenty-two listings for the name Kowalski in Minneapolis-- including, apparently, an upscale supermarket chain-- unfortunately none of the listings are for a Stanley Raymond, or any variation thereon. A check under the alternate spelling, Kowalsky yields no more success. Unfortunately all that tells me is that if he is there, either he has no telephone, or as I have already begun to suspect, he's not using his own name.

Since I previously determined that he's not using his credit cards, and no one has checked his credit references I'm even more convinced that he's using a pseudonym. I know he had undercover jobs prior to his time with me, and he has quite a lot of experience at developing an alternate persona, and at tracking people who have one. He knows how to create a paper trail that will pass the sort of inspection likely for any day-to-day transaction, such as opening a bank account or renting an apartment. That will make locating him more difficult, but not, I hope, impossible. The lieutenant comes over, coffee in hand, frowning a little.

"You been here all night, Fraser?"

"Not all night," I say, and it's marginally true.

"Progress?" He squints at the computer screen.

"Yes sir, I believe so, though I'm not sure it will be helpful in the long run."

"What've you got?" he asks, pulling up a chair beside me.

"I believe that Ray may have gone to Minneapolis. I spoke with Sandor last night, and he told me. . . . "

"Hang on, Sandor the pizza guy?"

"Yes sir."

He nods sagely. He knows about Sandor. "Okay, go on."

"He happened to remember that Ray had mentioned that he was moving somewhere colder, and would be seeing 'the Twins.' When coupled with the fact that he told the gentleman at the car dealership that he needed a vehicle with better traction, it seems likely that his destination was Minneapolis."

"Yeah. He could probably find work there, I can check with the department there, see if he's applied for a job."

"I don't believe he would leave here just to go to work for a police force in another city."

"Hm. Good point. Okay, so what else is he good at?"

We look at each other for a moment, and I can see that we're both thinking the same thing. Like me, Ray has never been anything but an officer of the law. He's never had a chance to become 'good at' anything else. I know he's a competent armchair mechanic, but lacks the training necessary to make a living at it. He's a reasonably good cook, but again, not of the caliber needed to get a job. I shake my head and the lieutenant sighs.

"Nothing," he says.

"Not that I can think of," I agree.

"Well, there's security. Night watch, that kind of thing," Welsh offers.

It's a good thought, or it seems so until I remember. "Except that I have some reason to think he may be using a pseudonym. And if he is, then it would be hard to get a firearms permit. That would take the sort of documentation that he had when he was posing as Ray Vecchio, and had the full cooperation of. . . ." My voice trails off as the lieutenant and I stare at each other. Without a word I turn and start to type a query into the computer as he lifts the phone and dials. As my search returns a single hit, I can hear the Lieutenant asking questions of someone in the records office. A moment later he hangs up and turns to me with a smile on his face.

"Guess who never turned in his old credentials? No one even thought to ask for them. And Sherri down in records says she got a hit on the alternate Vecchio file three weeks ago, someone from a licensing office in St. Paul, Minnesota. She covered, just like the file instructed her, and she logged it. It's not too unusual to get occasional hits on an old file like that, but this is too coincidental, sneaky bastard." His words are harsh, but his tone admiring. It's not an unusual combination where Ray is concerned.

"I agree that it seems coincidental. Especially since I found a new Minneapolis yellow-pages listing for 'Vecchio Investigations and Protective Agent Services, licensed by the state of Minnesota.'"

Welsh's smile turns into a grin. "We got him."

I feel myself smiling back, nearly as broadly. "Yes sir, I believe we do."

"Go get him, Fraser."

His words stir an odd echo of another time, another search. Of the end of one quest, and the beginning of another. How different would my life be right now had I followed my instincts back then, as Ray was always urging me to? Very, I suspect. I can't imagine where the consequences would have taken us, but I'm fairly certain now it wouldn't be here, without Ray, worried that I've permanently damaged something priceless.

I offer to let Diefenbaker stay in Chicago with Francesca or Elaine in order to spare him the indignity of a traveling crate, but he insists on accompanying me. I have a feeling that Ray will be licked within an inch of his life once we find him. Dief has never approved of the separation, and I've endured countless hours of sullen sulks in relation to my decision to return to Canada. I suppose that ought to have told me something, but I can be stubborn too.

There's an eleven-ten a.m. flight to Minneapolis on an aircraft large enough to handle an animal crate. The hour and a half-flight is uneventful, but even though I refrain from mentioning Diefenbaker's ancestry to the taxi-drivers at the airport it still takes several attempts before I find one willing to transport both of us. That driver, a large, good-natured Native man, takes one look at Dief and grins.

"There wolf in that dog?" he asks.

"Well, technically wolves and dogs are the same species," I hedge. "Genetically they are indistinguishable."

He chuckles. "Other cabbies turned you down, didn't they? Come on, get in. I like dogs. Wolves too."

Dief yips his approval as he gets in, and would probably lick the driver's ear if there weren't a plexiglass shield between them.

"Where to?"

I give him the location on Franklin that I garnered from the yellow pages, and he looks a little puzzled. "You sure about that address?"

"Yes, I believe so, why?"

He shrugs. "Just that Elliot Park isn't the best neighborhood. You watch yourself there, okay?"

I nod. "I'm not unused to marginal neighborhoods, but thank you kindly for the warning."

I wonder what would make Ray choose such a place to set up business. He's never been fond of low-rent districts. I wonder even more once we get there. The building is an old and rather shabby three story brick affair. I thank my driver and pay him, tipping more than the requisite percentage for his kindness in letting Diefenbaker share his cab, possibly against regulations. He asks if I want him to come back for me and I demur, since I have no idea how long I'll be here. At that he writes his cellular telephone number on a scrap of paper and insists that I call if I need him. It's quite refreshing to find such behavior in a large American city.

The interior of the building isn't quite as bad as the exterior. The floors are old scarred wood, but they're clean and well polished. All the lights are in working order, as is a drinking fountain, also clean. There's a small directory of businesses. The six offices on the first floor all appear to be occupied by lawyers. There's a bail bondsman on the second floor who has a three-room suite, and in a slightly strange juxtaposition the other three rooms are occupied by a family-planning agency. Ray's office is on the third floor, most of which is apparently vacant. There is only one other tenant, someone named Shoshanna Starchild. According to her listing, she's a therapist of some sort. The elevator reminds me of the one in my old apartment, an open-cage affair that I'm sure must give Ray the shudders. I suspect he uses the stairs.

To my disappointment, when I arrive Ray's office is dark and locked. A note on the door informs me that he is out on a case and asks visitors to call and leave a message which he will return as soon as he can. Apparently he has no receptionist. As I turn to leave, the door across the hallway opens and a tall, strong-looking middle-aged woman looks out. Her dark hair bears a single striking streak of gray through it, and her face is lined with smile-creases.

"Oh," she says, clearly disappointed. "Thought you were someone else."

"That's quite all right. Are you Ms. Starchild?"

"Yes." She frowns a little, puzzled. "You looking for me? I didn't think I had any appointments until two."

"No, ma'am. Actually, I was looking for Ra. . . Mr. Vecchio."

She smiles then, a spontaneous and warm expression. "So was I. I thought you might be him. You a customer?"

I shake my head. "No, we're old friends."

She looks at me more intently then. "Hmm," she says, cryptically.

"Hmm?" I ask.

She studies me for a moment, then shrugs. "Told me he didn't have any."
That hurts, and it must show in my face because she suddenly looks sympathetic. "He probably just meant he didn't have any here in the Twin Cities."

I'm not so sanguine, but I appreciate her effort. "Probably," I say. "So you haven't seen him today?"

She shakes her head. "No. He was already gone when I got here at nine. I was kind of bummed, I made a coffee cake for him. I don't think he eats right."

I can't help but smile at that. "That's often true when he's busy on a case. So you met Ray when he moved into the office here?"

She shakes her head. "Oh, no. In fact, I'm the one who told him this place was available. No, I met Ray when he brought my son home from Chicago about six months ago. Mike was a runaway, Ray caught him shoplifting but didn't bust him. Took him out and fed him dinner, gave him one hell of a talking to, then drove him all the way back here when Mike said he wanted to come home and try to make a go of things."

I smile. "That sounds like Ray. He used to do community work with gang members back in Chicago."

She nods. "That's what he said."

"And how is your son doing?"

The smile she gives me could light the block. "Mike's back in high school, and he's got a part-time job at a coffee-house."

"I'm glad."

"Me too. What's your name?"

"Benton Fraser."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Fraser. What's your friend's name?" she asks, looking at Dief.


"I've got some time to kill before my next appointment, you and Diefenbaker want some coffee cake?"

Diefenbaker whines pitifully, and after a moment's consideration I nod. "That would be very pleasant, thank you."

Her office is decorated in shades of purple, with suns, moons and stars stenciled up near the ceiling on the lavender walls. The air smells pleasantly of clary sage, which she tells me is stimulating to the mind. Her 'therapy' business is apparently aromatherapy. Over tea and a very good cinnamon-swirl coffee ring I sound her out further about her connection to Ray.

"You said you recommended this location to Ray?"

"Yeah. He'd call every week or so to see how Mike was getting along, and we'd get to talking. About a month ago I could tell something was bothering him, and finally he opened up, told me he was quitting the force and wasn't sure what he should do next. We talked for a long time, and I said he should try to do something where he could help kids, like he did for Mike. Next time he called he said he had an idea that maybe he could become an investigator and try to find runaways, but that he didn't want to stay in Chicago. I mentioned that we seem to get lot of runaways here, probably because for a big city it's pretty nice, and that's when he decided to give it a shot."

I find myself nodding, and feeling a strange, aching sense of relief that he'd found something that he was so ably suited for. Perhaps he didn't need me here, asking questions, stirring up unpleasant associations.

"Hey, you okay?"

I look up into Shoshanna's sympathetic brown eyes, and I can tell I've let my control slip once more. Instantly I slam the barriers back into place. "I. . . I'm fine, thank you. This is excellent coffee cake," I say, and Diefenbaker echoes the sentiment. "So, go on, that's when he decided to move here? How long ago was that?"

She eyes me for a moment longer, but doesn't pry. "Yeah, that's when he decided. That was about six weeks back. Had to go through all the crap to get his P.I. license, scraped up enough money to post the stupid bond and all that. But he did it, and then he was wondering where the hell he was going to set up shop when the escort service that used to have most of this floor got evicted and I told him about it. He went for it. Been here about three weeks. I've been sending some folks his way from the Parents of Runaways group I work with, and business is starting to pick up, but it's been rough. He's working nights somewhere to make ends meet. Not sure where, he hasn't said."

That gets my attention. "If he works nights, do you think he might have gone home to rest?"

She shoots me an odd look, and shakes her head slowly. "No, I don't think so." She looks at me thoughtfully for a moment. "Have you talked to Ray lately?"

That ache in my heart grows stronger. "No, I'm afraid not. We'd somewhat lost contact over the past few weeks. My fault," I say quietly. "Time just got away from me."

"That happens to the best of us," she says understandingly. "I'm sure he doesn't blame you. He's not the type to hold a grudge."

I think of Marcus Ellery and smile wanly. "Not in general, no." A quick glance at my watch tells me it's nearly two. "I should go, your appointment will be here shortly."

She glances at her clock and nods. "Yes, I'm sorry. I've enjoyed talking with you. Would you like to leave a note for Ray? I could give it to him when I see him. You could tell him where you're staying, leave a number."

I shake my head. "Thank you, but I haven't found a place to stay yet. It's always a challenge finding a place that will take Diefenbaker."

"Well, if you get desperate you might try the Fair Oaks, over on Third. They're kind of . . . well, I guess the word would be sleazy, but I can't imagine they'd object to a dog."


She grins. "That either. In fact the only problem you'll have there is trying to keep some of the other customers from propositioning the both of you."

"Both of . . . ." I blink at her as that sinks in. "Good lord!"

She chuckles. "Like I said. Anyway, it's been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Fraser, and I hope you manage to hook up with Ray."

So do I.

There's a bench in the hallway next to Ray's door and I settle there to wait, for as long as need be. Diefenbaker curls up beneath it. A few minutes later a handsome sixtyish woman steps out of the noisy elevator and eyes me a bit askance until I nod politely. She nods back and scurries past to disappear into Shoshanna's office. I realize that if I sit here all day I might make Shoshanna's clients nervous. I wouldn't want that.

I glance at Ray's door, my eyes drifting down to the lock. It's the same type we had at the consulate back in Chicago. The kind that Ray used to slip with a credit card. I don't have a credit card, but I do have a library card. I debate with myself. It is, technically, illegal. Just because I hope Ray won't mind doesn't mean it's legal. And I'm an officer of the law, even if I'm out of my jurisdiction. And it's wrong. But. . . . I feel Diefenbaker nudge my ankle and look down.

"I shouldn't," I say firmly.

He whines.

"It's not legal."

He looks at me steadily. I sigh, reach into my pocket for my wallet, and take out my library card. "If it doesn't work the first time, it's a sign."

He gets to his feet and eyes the door expectantly. I look around, feeling like the vilest criminal, and slip the card between the tongue of the lock and the door. It slides back smoothly and the handle turns easily under my hand, the door opening with a slight squeak that makes me start guiltily. Dief butts in between me and the door and pushes into the office. With a last anxious glance down the hallway I follow him inside and close and lock the door behind us.

It's a fairly large office, with two big windows giving a view of the building across the alley. There's a coat-tree next to the door which holds a long, striped scarf and nothing else. Ray's desk occupies a good portion of the room, and his television and stereo are set up on a book-case. His couch sits against one wall, an afghan folded neatly over one arm. The steamer trunk he bought after our adventure to keep his arctic gear in is acting as an end table next to it. Those are all the furnishings Ray's former landlady said he took with him. That puzzles me. If they're here, what's he using for furnishings at his residence? Perhaps he's renting a furnished apartment?

An open door to my left reveals a small washroom containing a sink and toilet. Another door is, I assume, a closet. There are a few papers on his desk, but otherwise the office is quite neat. That in itself seems odd to me. I note that a coffee-maker and microwave are tucked into a little recess behind the bathroom door. All the comforts of home, it looks like. Suddenly I remember Shoshanna's face when I asked if Ray might have gone home to rest, and her reply, and something about that prompts me to open the closet door.

Not office supplies. Clothes. Not his entire wardrobe, to be sure, but definitely far more than a simple change of clothing. The top shelf of the closet holds a variety of canned foods, paper plates, plastic flatware and cups. I check his desk and find that the deep lower drawers hold not paperwork, but t-shirts, underwear, and socks. I sit down heavily in the chair at the desk. Good lord. Ray's living here. In his office.

Diefenbaker senses my upset and comes over to put his nose under my palm reassuringly. I stroke him absently, something I rarely do, and look around the room. This is all Ray has left. He let everything else go. That's very . . . wrong. And as I think that, I know we're going to stay here until Ray comes back. At least I'm certain now that he'll come back here eventually. He has to. He has no place else to go.

* * *

If it wasn't so annoying it'd be funny. I came here to start over, clean slate. Trying to get a handle on who I am, what I want, and, even more important, to forget about the lives I've had and the people I can't have. Joke's on me though. My first mistake was getting lazy and using cover documents I already had handy to smooth out the paper trail. Sure, I know no one will be looking for this name, but even if some of the best times of my life were spent being Ray Vecchio it was a stupid move. You'd think I'd've learned by now that you can't go back again. And it sucks that every time I write a check or use my bank card I have to see that name, which automatically conjures up the one face I don't want to think about.

My second mistake was coming here. I think 'hey, it's not that far from home turf, things can't be too different, right?' I figure nobody here will remind me of people I don't want to be thinking about. But you know, the universe has a sick sense of humor and so here I am in a city of 2,872,109 (at last census) Benton Fraser clones. Okay, so knock off a few thou for the criminal lowlifes, every city's got some, and subtract the sixty or so percent who are women, but that's still a hell of a lot of Fraser clones. It's like the whole city belongs a few hundred miles north, across the border. I never knew Americans could act so . . . Canadian. Everyone here is so damn polite, so damn. . . orderly.

Okay, not quite everyone, I think, listening to the fight escalating in the back of the café between a white guy dressed up like a movie Indian, and a real Native guy in jeans and flannel. Seems he objects to his culture being coopted. Jesus, even the fights around here sound like Fraser. I look around for the cops who usually haunt booth number six but they must be out on a call. With a sigh I stand up and grab one brown wrist as the real guy lets fly at the fake guy. I manage to get them separated without too much trouble and shoo the fake guy out to find his way home before I sit back down to my cold, greasy eggs, burned toast, and tepid coffee. Hell, even I'm becoming a Fraser clone. It's enough to make a guy want to kick someone in the head.

The counterman comes over and slides me a fresh cup of fuel-oil. "Thanks, man. Hate cleaning up after fights. They always break stuff."

"Anytime. Hey, can I ask you a question?"

He nods, in a good mood since I've done him a favor.

"You seen this kid?" I ask, sliding a picture out of my pocket and handing it to him.

He takes it, squints at the girl in black with the pierced eyebrow. His eyes must be as bad as mine. After a second he looks at me. "You a cop?"

"Ex," I say. "Gave it up."

"Thought you had that vibe. Working private?"

"Giving it a shot. Not much business yet."

He makes a noncommittal noise. "What do you want with her?"

"Me? Nothing. But her mom's worried. Wants to know if she's okay."

"You gonna make her go home?"

"No. Not if she doesn't want to go. Just hired to deliver a message and see if she's okay."

"Oh." He looks at the picture some more. Finally he shakes his head. "Haven't seen her, but you should try the Hard Times Café, over on the West Bank. Lots of kids hang out there. They got great vegan cranberry-apple scones, too."

Scones? I eye the guy, a burly, biker-type, trying not to look surprised. He does not look like a connoisseur of vegan scones. Just goes to show you can't judge a book by its cover, as . . . someone . . . would say. "Thanks. I'll give it a shot."

He nods and turns away, then looks back at me with that look people get when they're trying to remember where they know you from. I don't recognize him, but then, for only having been here a few weeks I've met an awful lot of people. Suddenly he snaps his fingers and comes back over, leaning down confidentially.

"Haven't I seen you at the Metro?"

I can feel myself turning red, which is stupid. I work there, why shouldn't I be there? But . . . that's not the only reason I'm there, and isn't this why I moved here? So I could be who I am without worrying about it? So instead of scrambling to cover my ass by explaining, like I would back in Chicago, I just duck my head and nod. "Yeah."

He grins. "Thought so. Guess that explains why you're an ex-cop," he says with a sympathetic look.

I smile back weakly. "Well, it's one reason, anyway."

He nods and gives me a thumb's up before heading down to see what the hooker at the other end of the counter wants. I'm still a little boggled. If he goes to the Metro, then odds are good that apples and cranberries aren't the only fruit he's into. I wonder if I'm allowed to think things like that now, or if it's still offensive. I look at my plate and my throat kind of closes up at the idea of gagging down cold eggs, and besides it's my third breakfast today. Counter-help are usually more willing to talk to you if you order something, and eggs are the least expensive thing on any menu. I eat the bacon and mess the eggs up a little so it doesn't look like I didn't touch them, and head off to the West Bank to check out the place he told me about.

It was a good call. There are a lot of kids there, and a lot of them look hungry enough to be homeless, with that slightly unwashed look that I get myself when I haven't had time to hit the Y for a couple of days. I was there last night though, so I'm pretty decent for now. I order a cup of coffee and sit at a table drinking it. It's a lot better than the stuff at the last place. I may have to come here again. Besides, in my new line of work it's a good idea to hang out where my customers do.

I put on my glasses and get my book out of my pocket to cover the fact that I'm occasionally looking up to scan faces. After about forty-five minutes of reading Jack London, sipping a second cup of coffee, and eating a scone that's as good as the guy at the other place said, two kids come into the café, a boy and a girl. I hide a smile. Bingo. Hair's a different color but the rest is pretty much the same. Still all in black, eyebrow still ringed. Looks a little thinner than in the picture, but that comes with the irregular meals part of being on the streets.

I go over her stats in my head. Tara MacLaughlin, seventeen, from Fargo, North Dakota. Compared to there, the weather here must seem like summer. Okay, well, fall at least. Ran away three months ago, no contact since. Not too surprising, all things considered. The boy isn't anyone I know. He looks about the same age as Tara, but I can tell he's been on the street longer. He's brown-skinned, rail-thin and wary, but he's kind of protective and it's sort of sweet. I wait until the kids have found a table not far from mine and put in their order before I get up and go over to them. They look up, hostile. I'm an adult, they don't trust me on sight. I go for charming.

"Hi, I'm Ray."

"We don't want any," the boy snaps.

"Any what?"

"Whatever you're selling."

"Not selling anything."

"We're not interested in going to your church, either."

I grin. "That's good, since I don't have one. People got this strange prejudice against human sacrifice these days."

That shuts them up. They don't know whether to be amused or scared. "Let me start over. I'm Ray. I'm a P.I. And you're Tara MacLaughlin. Settle down," I add as she shoves her chair back and her friend leaps up, fists clenched. "I'm not here to run you in. Just here to deliver a letter from your mom, okay?"

She's half out of her chair, but after I don't make a move toward her she looks at the boy. "Jake?"

He looks at me. "Private? Not a cop?"

I shake my head. "Used to be a cop, gave it up. It was bad for my health."

"You won't report us?"

I shake my head. "Not unless you give me a reason to."

He stares into my eyes and I meet his dark gaze openly. After a moment he seems satisfied. "Okay. You got three minutes. Talk."

I shrug. "Don't need to talk, just to give your friend a letter." I get it out of my pocket. It's a little worse for wear after me carrying it around in there for the better part of two weeks. I hand it over along with one of the business cards that Shanna made up for me on her laser printer. "That's it. Oh, and that's my card if you want to get in touch after you read it. I can take a statement and send it to your mom if that's what you decide to do. I don't have a cell, so if you want me leave a message on my voicemail and I'll meet you somewhere. I check it regularly. Have a nice day."

With that I go back to my table, pick up my book, and settle in again. I pretend not to notice them watching me as I read my book and drink my coffee. I don't want to make them miss their meal. They managed, somewhere, to scrape up money for food and I know if I leave they'll bolt because they'll think I went to call the cops. After they decide I'm not going anywhere they talk, low-voiced for a moment or two, then Tara opens the envelope, pulls out the letter, and starts to read. I hear a startled "Oh my God!" after a few seconds, followed by the unmistakable sound of crying. I glance up over the edge of my book and see that Jake has her in his arms, patting her hair, calming her. She's sniffling and wiping her eyes, still trying to read.

I know what it says. Her mother told me. She was crying too. It's an ugly case, but then a lot of runaway cases are. The mom worked nights and didn't know anything was wrong until Tara ran away, left her a note saying why. Her letter tells Tara she's in the process of divorcing Tara's stepdad, and she wants to press charges for the stuff he did to Tara, but without Tara as a witness she can't really. She can't even confront him about it because she doesn't want to tip him off that she knows because he might run.

I don't want Tara to feel pressured by my being here waiting so I leave enough money to cover my check and a baseline tip, and head out, with a nod to the boy to make sure he knows I'm cool. It's about time to start my shift at the club. I'm a little scrawny for a bouncer, but my cop training makes up for it. Well, that, and the fact that I feel guilty just using my YMCA membership for the showers, so I usually spend a little time working out before I un-grunge. Can't afford a place to work and a place to live so I'm sleeping in my office, and the bathroom facilities are minimal. Hopefully the landlord won't notice before I can make enough money to get an apartment too.

The only problem with the Y is that the cruising can get a little intense. I always thought that was just a seventies joke, but it isn't. In fact it's even worse than the club, and that's saying something. I guess if you're in the market then the showers are a nice display window. So far nothing's interested me, which makes me keep wondering if I flushed my relationship with my folks down the john for no reason at all. Maybe I'm not gay. Maybe I'm just off my rocker. Probably. Thirty-seven years old and ditching my career and what's left of my family because I'm out of my mind. Yeah, that sounds like me.

With that thought in mind I'm kind of morose when I walk into the club. It's about an eight hour shift, five to however long it takes to get everyone out after we close at one, and tonight I'm almost disappointed that no one gives me any trouble. Like anyone ever has, except for a couple of underage kids trying to get in. I think they only hired me because I looked hungry. They need a bouncer like I need a hole in my head.

There's a guy keeps wandering in and out tonight. After the third time I check his hand for the stamp I start watching him, and realize that he's watching me. He's a little taller than me, a lot broader, almost on the verge of plump, with dark hair, fair skin, and blue eyes. Yeah, so I have a type. Except for the discreet diamond stud in one earlobe. In spite of myself I try picturing Fraser with an earring and it makes me chuckle out loud.

So I watch the guy and he watches me as the night crawls on toward morning. The music gets under my skin sometimes and I find myself sort of dancing in place, because I need to stay at the door but I have to move. When I look up and find his eyes on me I stop immediately, but it's clear he's interested. I feel panicked for a second and then I push it down ruthlessly. Okay, you've got to do this sometime, Kowalski. Take the plunge. I look at him, meeting his eyes, and he smiles and nods, then heads back to the dance floor.

He's a pretty good dancer, not as good as me, but not bad. He dances with a few different guys, every one of them skinny and some variety of blond. Guess I'm not the only one with a type. A little before closing he meanders over near where I am, and stops, jerks his head in the direction of the dance floor. "Nice club."

I nod. "Yeah. Too nice."

He laughs at that, getting it. "Kind of a dull night?"

"That's about the size of it."

His eyes slide down to my crotch and I wonder if I just accidentally made a come-on. He looks back up at me and grins. Thank God it's dark in here, because I don't think blushing is a real smooth response.

"So, do you just work here, or do you come here to play, too?" he asks.

He has a kind of raspy voice, with a way of rounding his vowels that pushes my buttons. And he's definitely asking what I think he's asking. I clear my throat. "So far just work."

"Feel like changing that?"

I shake my head. "Can't. On duty."

He looks disappointed for a second and then smiles again. "So how about once you're off duty?"

My mouth is bone dry. "Well, kinda hard to play when the club's closed."

He grins. "Depends on what you want to play."

I can't help but grin back, it's such a line. "I like to play pool."

"How about. . . poker?"

That sounds like something I might say on a bad night. "I like card games," I say carefully.

"Want to play some two-handed stud?" he says, lifting an eyebrow.

That one makes me laugh out loud, and he chuckles too. "I don't know that one," I say, hoping he gets the double meaning.

"I can teach you," he comes back.

Yeah, he got it. Okay, there it is Ray, the bid's down, ante up or fold. Mouth is dry again, and my palms are sweaty, and my heart's racing like the guy's got a gun on me. "I'll try anything."

His smile gets big and he puts out his hand, a big paw. "I'm Frank."

"Ray," I say, wiping my hand covertly on my jeans before we shake.

"Nice to meet you, Ray. So, your place or mine?"

Swallow, swallow again. There. Moisture. "Gotta be yours, sorry."

He nods sympathetically. "Roommates, eh? No problem." He looks at his watch. "So, the place closes in what, twenty minutes? Meet you out front in half an hour or so."

I nod, and he heads back to the dance floor. Now I know I've lost my mind. Completely. Totally. Irreversibly. I spend the next twenty minutes terrified, trying to think of a way to say 'thanks but no thanks' and at the same time wondering why anyone would want to pick up someone who's obviously clueless about the whole deal.

I keep thinking about the fact that he's bigger than me and wondering if I could get away if I needed to. Then I realize that's a pretty stupid thing to think, because I am a cop, or I was, and I could probably stop him in my sleep if I had to. Don't be paranoid, Kowalski, he just wants to have fun. Just like you should. You remember fun. It's that thing that feels good. Been so long I forgot how.

Last call's gone out, and the crowd is already heading home, trickling out nice and orderly. Shit. There it is again. Orderly. I have got to find a new word. About twenty after one, when the club is finally empty, I check in with management, sort of half-hoping they need me for something, but they don't, so I get my coat, take a deep breath, and head out to meet my fate. Or Frank. Same thing.

He's standing outside the club, facing away from me, smoking a cigarette, wearing a Navy peacoat that reminds me way too much of Fraser. Damn it, I can't do this. I open my mouth to tell him that when he turns, sees me, and smiles big.

"Hey there! I have to admit I'm surprised. I kind of figured you'd scram out the back way."

Fuck. The excuses die unspoken. I may be a fag but I'm not a coward. I know I'm leaking attitude all over when I lift my chin and ask, "Where to?"

He doesn't back off. In fact, he looks approving. "I'm staying at the Hyatt downtown. You want to meet me there?"

He's smooth. Giving me another out, and also making me feel comfortable by making sure I'm not dependent on him for a ride. The Hyatt, hunh? Upscale. He's not likely to be an axe-murderer if he's staying there. Yeah, that's a stereotype but when's the last time anyone ever heard of a murder at a Hyatt? And he's an out-of-towner. That makes it easier somehow. I nod. "Yeah, I can do that."

He grins. "Cool. Room nine-fourteen. See you there."

He strides off toward the parking lot. I'm the other direction, around behind the club, so I head that way. Spend about five minutes arguing with myself about whether or not I should go and thinking about the stupid condoms I stupidly bought over a year ago in a moment of stupidly hopeful anticipation that are, stupidly, packed in a box in my office. Duh.

Okay, think. There's a supermarket on the way, they always have stuff. It's a detour, though, more time to change my mind. No. I need to do this. I have to know. I go in the store, get what I need, it takes about five minutes this time of night, and the checker smirks at me. He probably thinks I'm gonna get lucky. Well, I guess in a way he's right. No, he's definitely right. I'm just not used to thinking of 'getting lucky' without a female-type person involved.

No one bats an eye as I walk into the gleaming hotel lobby and across to the elevator. Guess I shouldn't be too surprised. Cashmere has a way of saying 'I belong' in places like this-- if they don't pay attention to the jeans and biker boots underneath. Stella bought the coat for me years ago. My taste runs to leather bomber-jackets and beat-up windbreakers, but I've been wearing the cashmere a lot here-- the wool and the length are just what Minneapolis winters call for, and it hides a multitude of sartorial sins.

The elevator arrives and I get in, the only person riding it at this hour. It's after two now. By the time any. . .anything happens it'll be three a.m. The time that most alien abductions occur. I read that once somewhere, probably the National Enquirer at the supermarket. I feel like I've been abducted by an alien right now. Or maybe possessed by one. And I snicker to myself thinking about all those stories of what aliens do to you, and how appropriate is that right now? I push every button between one and nine so the elevator stops on each floor and tries to let me out. On seven I almost bolt, but then I remember that 'thought you'd scram out the back' comment and don't.

Nine. Deep breath. Out the door, down the hall, quick glance at room numbers to make sure I'm heading the right direction. Yeah. Four, six, eight, ten, twelve . . . fourteen. Target acquired. It takes me two minutes to lift a hand and knock. Door opens just fast enough that I know Frank was waiting impatiently. He grins and steps aside to let me in.

"Hey, glad you came, Ray. Want a drink? I have some scotch."

Drink. Yeah. Good idea. I nod and he picks up a bottle off the desk and peels off the paper tape across the top. "Duty free," he comments as he twists the bottle open and pours some into two glasses. He doesn't ask if I want it neat, rocks, or watered, just pours. He holds one glass out to me and takes the other himself. We drink. The burn of the liquor feels good, makes me shiver.

"Cold?" he asks, concerned. " I can turn up the heat."

I shake my head. "Nah, I'm good. Just the outdoors to the inside, you know."

He nods. "Yeah. Can I take your coat?"

I look at him and grin a little. "I think I can do it," I say, taking the hint. I put down my drink and slide out of my coat and hang it in the little closet-thingy by the bathroom. I finally notice that he's got music on, some sort of euro-techno-dance stuff, not bad. It's got a good beat, you can dance to it. While I'm hanging up my coat Frank moves to stand behind me. His hands come to rest on my hips and I try not to jump in surprise.

"You want to dance?" he asks, close to my ear. "You were moving pretty good tonight."

My hackles go up kind of automatically. Not used to having someone, another guy someone, in my space like this. I almost shiver again, cover it with a nod. "Sure."

He backs off so I can turn around. It's awkward for a few seconds, but dancing is dancing and my body remembers what to do so it gets easier fast. Not much room, we have to be close, and he reaches to pull me even closer. My pulse jumps and I lose the rhythm, slow, stop. His fingers come up to my face, turn me a little, and then his mouth is on mine. He tastes like scotch and tobacco, and I think of that eighth-grade health class poster about how kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray. It was right, but wrong too. Wrong. His mouth moves, trying to get me to respond, his tongue flickers against my lips.

The words 'duty-free' suddenly sink in, and I think about those rounded vowels of his, and . . . shit. Of course. I wrench away, almost panting. "You're Canadian!" I say. It comes out like it's a dirty word.

He looks puzzled and a little annoyed. "Yeah, so?"

I shake my head. "I'm sorry. I can't do this, I can't, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, but I can't. I just can't."

He backs off, hands spread. "Hey, it's okay. Settle down, man. You don't want to do anything, that's fine." He picks up my glass from where he put it, holds it out. "Have a drink. You look like you could use it."

I take it kind of automatically, gulp a mouthful of smoky heat while he locates his glass and sips. After a couple of seconds of awkward silence he speaks.

"So. . . you got something against Canadians?"

I almost choke on my drink, and shake my head. "No. No, I l . . . like Canadians."

"Oh. I get it. Ex-boyfriend?"

I snort. "Not hardly. No, just a friend." My voice sounds all wistful and I hate that.

His eyes get knowing all of the sudden. "Oh. That's rough." He pauses, sips, then looks at me speculatively. "You're . . . kind of new at this."

I lean back against the wall and nod. "Yeah. You could say that."

"Kind of a late start," he says, living up to his name.

"You could say that too," I agree.

"Why'd you come? You could've just gone home."

I sigh and finish off my drink. He lifts the bottle and his eyebrows. I nod and he pours me another shot, then tops off his own glass.

"I needed to know," I say, finally. "Or thought I did. I was married, for a long time. To a chick," I clarify at his lifted eyebrows. "It kinda took me by surprise, realizing that I was hot for a guy."

"So you thought you'd test the waters?"

"Yeah," I sigh. "Stupid idea." It dawns on me that he might not find that very complimentary. "I mean, not that you're . . . I mean . . . ."

He gives me an out with a wry grin. "It's okay. I get it."

I feel better. Looking at him, my curiosity gets the better of me. "Why'd you pick me? You knew I was a total tenderfoot, didn't you?"

He grins and shrugs. "Thrill of the chase. Well, that and you're pretty fucking hot."

Damn. I'm blushing like a virgin at that. 'Course, I sort of am one, I guess. At this anyway. He doesn't seem to notice, just goes on.

"I just like first timers. It's kind of a kink for me, I guess. I like the challenge."

"Makes as much sense as anything," I say.

"Yeah. The mind's a strange place. So, this friend of yours, he's Canadian?"

I nod. "Yeah. He's a Mountie," I say, I can't seem to stop myself. Frank whistles.

"You like a challenge too, eh?"

I laugh at that, and nod. "Guess so."


"As a die. Whatever the hell that means."

"You seem pretty sure."

I sigh. "Yeah. I am now. I wasn't always sure. I mean, for a while I really thought. . . I mean, we were partners for over a year, spent six months after that on a dogsled in the Territories looking for fucking Franklin's hand, and doesn't it just figure it was some English guy who lost it?" I ask, and he grins and nods as I continue. "Anyway, more than once on that trip I was sure we were just working our way up to it, but it never happened."

"Well, the circumstances don't really seem very conducive," Frank says, sitting down on the edge of the bed, and nodding at the chair by the desk.

I pull it out and sit down too as I grin and shake my head. "Hell no. Didn't dare take your clothes off, for one thing."

"No, I'd imagine not. So, what happened?"

I'm not sure why I'm telling him this, but it's kind of nice to tell someone, even if he is a total stranger off the street. "I don't know. We finally get back to civilization, still partners, friends, hell, we do everything but live together. I mean, people were starting to talk about us and we hadn't even done anything. Things got kind of strange toward the end, it was like we got to this point where sometimes when we were hanging out we'd end up just looking at each other, and not talking, and two or three times it was so fucking close. . . like if I turned my head or he leaned forward it would just happen, completely normal. But it didn't and the next thing I know, bam, he takes off, goes home."

Frank looks thoughtful and sips his drink. I sip mine too, throat's a little dry after all that yakking.

"So, what's he like, your friend?"

"Fraser? He's. . . perfect. Well, annoying as hell, but that's mostly because he's perfect, and sometimes that gets kind of old, you know?"

He nods like he understands, even though I know he can't possibly. No one can, unless they've actually met Fraser. "Perfect, you mean looks?"

There, see? I knew he didn't get it. I shake my head. "Nah, though that too. Looks like Superman or something. You would not believe how women act around him, and he's like. . . oblivious. That's howcome I thought maybe I had a shot, but. . . no, just me jumping to conclusions. No, he's perfect all over. Speaks eight languages or something like that, knows all the great books and theories and stuff. Never makes mistakes, always knows just what to say, what to do, once he got us out of a sinking ship with a couple of fire-extinguishers and some fire hose. I swear he must be related to that MacGuyver guy on TV. Only time he ever screwed up that I can remember he got the snot beat out of him and still ended up getting his way in the end. Like I said, perfect."

Frank frowns. "That sounds very stressful."

"It can be, believe me."

"I mean for him. It must be hard to live up to that kind of reputation, those expectations. I would imagine it could become extremely difficult to maintain."

I stare at him for a minute, and my jaw drops. "Jesus. I can't believe I never thought of that. I mean, what kind of friend am I, that I never thought of that?"

Frank looks at me and smiles. "Well, it sounds as if he doesn't make it easy for people to think of him. But I also think it's pretty clear you care about him."

"Yeah. I do. I . . . did. I think he figured things out though." I say, trying not to whine.

"What kind of things?"

"The whole gay thing."

"You're really hung up on that label. Ray, tell me. What exactly makes you think you're gay?"

I blush and stammer, "You know, because of the . . . stuff I wanna do, what I think about doing . . ."

"With the Mountie?"


"And how many other guys are there that you wanna do . . . stuff with?"

"I never really wanted to . . ."

"Yeah, I thought so. Look, maybe you're gay or maybe you're not. It doesn't really matter."

"Huh?" I ask, still a little stunned from his last punch, wondering why if I'm not gay do I want to Do Things With Fraser? "Why not? Why doesn't it matter?"

He shakes his head. "Because it doesn't matter if you call yourself straight or gay or bi: When you're in love, you're in love. And you are. In love, I mean."

"With a guy," I point out.


"So that means I'm gay."

He shrugs his shoulders. "It means you're in love with someone and their gender is irrelevant. It means you've overcome all the conditioning that tells you that it matters whether the person you love has a dick or a
pussy, and that's not an easy thing. Congratulations."

"But, I want to. . . um. . . . you know. With him."

He chuckles. "But you don't with me, do you?"

Okay, he's right about that one. "It's nothing personal," I say apologetically.

He nods. "Exactly."


"For you it needs to be personal. Some people are cut out for recreational sex, but some people have to have the emotional connection too. I've had both, and I like both. Emotional connection is great, but I can get off on recreational sex too. Some people just can't do that. The emotion has to come first. You seem to be one of those. Now I'm not saying this guy is the only guy who'll ever interest you, if you're open enough to yourself that you could want him, there might be some other guy out there you could feel the same way about. It's just that he's the one you feel things for right now and that's important to you."

He pauses, waits a minute for me to work my brain around that, sipping his drink, then he speaks again.

"Can I ask you something? Have you ever had recreational sex?"

I scowl at him. "That's kind of private."

He nods. "Yeah. So?"

Another point. He could get to be as irritating as Fraser. "A couple of times."

"Did you enjoy it?"

"Um, sort of. I mean, it felt good, but . . . ." Okay. So I'm dense. I'm starting to get it now. I shoot him a look I know is on the irritated side. "You ever think about becoming a shrink?"

He snorts. "I'd better have, seeing as how that's my profession."

I groan and put my head in my hands. "Fuck. Leave it to me to get picked up by a gay Canadian psychotherapist." I get out my wallet and start looking through it. "What do I owe you?"

That makes him laugh out loud, shaking his head. "Cute, but it's my own fault. I never can resist a good analysis." He looks at his watch, and sighs. "I should probably try to get some sleep so I can pay attention to my conference tomorrow."

I can take a hint. "Yeah, I should be heading out." I put my drink down and stand up, holding out my hand. "It's been real, Frank."

"Yes, it has, Ray. If you're ever in Saskatoon, look me up, we'll go out for a drink."

"Just ask for Frank the Shrink?"

He chuckles and digs in his pocket, hands me a card.

I read it. Dr. Frank Kannippen. "Jeez, and I thought Kowalski was bad."

"Yeah, but hey, everyone needs something to be neurotic about, right? Are you okay to drive, Mr. Kowalski?"

God, it feels good to hear my own name. I forgot about that part of using someone else's. I grin, and nod. "Yeah, Dr. Kannippen. It'd take more than two fingers of Scotch to put me over the limit, but thanks for asking. You take care."

He nods and I leave. As I drive I mull over some of the things Frank said. Especially that stuff about Fraser, and how it'd be hard to be like that. I feel kind of bad that that never occurred to me. I always thought he was just kind of made that way, but what if he thought he had to be, even with me? That makes me kind of sad. What the hell kind of friend am I, that it never occurred to me that maybe he didn't want to be doing all that shit? Jesus Christ, no wonder Fraser went home.

Maybe it had nothing to do with him figuring out I was hot for him. Maybe he was just tired of having to carry that load. And I could've helped, and I didn't, because I was too busy thinking of myself. Guess I can't blame him for wanting to cut the ties. As I pull into the parking lot outside my building I sigh, shaking my head. "Sorry, Frase."

Get out of the car and shiver a little. I'm tired, and it's really late, and I've been up forever. When you've got that working against you even cashmere doesn't block the cold. Unlock the front door, close it, trudge halfway up the first flight of stairs before realizing I forgot to lock it. With a sigh I go back down and do that, then head up again. I still can't bring myself to use the elevator. I can sleep hanging off the side of a mountain in a hammock, but I can't use an open-cage elevator thanks to my third-grade teacher who when we were on a field trip told us a horrible story about a kid who stuck his fingers through the mesh of one and lost them on the way up. I'm a grownup now and I figure she was just trying to keep us all safe, not instill a lifelong phobia, but there you go.

After being on my feet most of the night they really don't want to lift for the stairs though, and I stumble as I get to the third floor, nearly fall flat on my face. Catch myself on both hands, swear, and push up again, digging for my keys. God, I'm tired. All I want to do is get my shoes off, stretch out on the couch, and die. Fumble the key into the lock, get the door open and I'm home. I don't bother to turn on the light, I'm not going to be awake long enough to need it.

I'm working the buttons on my coat when it hits me. Something's off. Wrong. Some shadow, some noise, some smell. I back toward the door, one hand automatically reaching for the gun that's. . . not there. Shit. Forgot I don't carry one as a rule any more. Okay, what the hell can I use for a weapon? The only thing handy is the coat-tree. Great. I'm going to undress someone to death. I grab it anyway and snap the light on at the same time.

"Okay buddy, hold it ri . . . . " My voice trails off and I stare into familiar blue eyes as Fraser stands up from where he was sitting on my couch.

"Hello, Ray."

I'm hallucinating. I think that for all of a tenth of a second before I'm hit by about seventy pounds of excited wolf. The coat tree falls with a loud crash, and I follow it a moment later since Diefenbaker has both front paws on my chest and I wasn't well balanced. My head hits the floor and I see stars while my face gets covered in wolf-slobber.

"Diefenbaker, get down!" I hear Fraser order uselessly. He forgets the damned wolf is deaf more often than I do.

I manage to get my hands up enough to push Dief away a couple of inches and grab his muzzle. "Get. Off. Me!" I enunciate into his face.

He looks put out, but he does it. I sit up, rubbing the knot on the back of my head, feeling a strange combination of pissed off and elated. "Fraser! You scared the crap out of me! What the hell are you doing here? How'd you get in here?"

Fraser bites his lip and reaches into his pocket to display a rectangular piece of plastic. I can't read the tiny lettering on it, but it's not a credit card, not that it matters. I know what he's telling me. I just can't believe he did it. I shake my head sadly. "How the mighty have fallen."

"I'm sorry, Ray," he says, and his voice sounds funny, like he's apologizing for something a lot bigger than breaking and entering.

I wave a hand. "Help me up, I need to wash my face now."

He smiles a little and comes over to give me a pull up to my feet. "Diefenbaker has been quite anxious to find you."

Uh hunh, I think, disbelieving, as I head into the bathroom. The wolf is the driving force behind this little expedition. Right. I know better. I know Fraser. He's always blaming Dief for stuff he wants to do but can't admit to. But I have to say I'm surprised, first that he'd come looking to begin with, second that he actually found me. Still, we are talking Fraser, after all.

I finish up in the bathroom, dry my face and hands, and steel myself for the conversation. Just what I need when I'm about half-dead. A Fraser Conversation. I have a feeling I know what it's going to be about too. I'm going to get the 'tuck their kids in at night' speech. He's going to try to talk me into going back to the 27th. Well, he's got another think coming if he thinks that's gonna work this time.

"So," I say, taking a seat at one end of the couch, idly fondling Dief's ears when he puts his chin on my thigh. "You got my letter."

He nods. "I did."

I grin. "Bet you didn't think I could write."

He looks at me a little oddly. "Of course I knew you could write, Ray. I'm just sorry you had to."

Not the reaction I expected. Not sure what he means. "So, you pissed at me now?"

He shakes his head. "No. While I may regret the outcome, I respect your integrity in making the choices you made."

Hm. Not quite sure about that either, but it kind of sounds like he's saying he's . . . proud of me? Wait, he said choices. Not choice. He's not just talking about me quitting the force. And if he found me that means he was asking questions. And he probably talked to my folks. And he's got this kind of strange look on his face. Oh, I am so fucked here. I so do not want to hear how he's proud of me for coming out. I can't take that plastic-smile- while-keeping-a-safe-distance. Not from Fraser. So I cover.

"What do you want, Fraser? I've worked twenty hours straight, on my feet for the last eight. I'm tired." It sounds surly and ungrateful, just like I intended it to.

For a moment an expression I've never seen before flashes across his face. He looks for all the world like someone just knifed him right in the gut. But it's gone before I can even blink, and he's serene again. "I'd like to tell you a story, Ray."

Jesus. He hunted me up to tell me a story? "This an Inuit story?"

"No. It's a Benton Fraser story."

I guess if he came all this way, the least I can do is listen. "Oh. Okay. Shoot."

He looks at my desk chair, lifts his eyebrows.

"Of course you can sit, Fraser. You could even sit on the couch," I say, risking having him sit on the chair anyway, or worse, all scrunched up against the far arm of the couch. But he does neither. He nods, and comes to sit beside me on the couch. Right beside me. Close. I can smell him. He's got that 'haven't showered in a couple of days' scent I learned on the trail. And this near I can see he's got a lot of stubble, at least for him.

No shave, no shower? Something bad must've happened. I have a moment of panic that something's happened to Welsh or Frannie. They're the ones I'd miss. Weirdly, my next thought is my folks, even after everything. But no, he said it was a Benton Fraser story. Lord, is he in trouble with the brass again? Who'd he peach on this time? He seems to be having trouble starting, so I prompt him a little.

"So, Benton Fraser story?"

He nods, staring down at his hands where they droop between his knees. "Yes. I. . . forgive me, this is difficult. Do you mind if I resort to a storytelling convention?"

"A convention?" I ask in mock surprise, pretending I don't know what he means. "With or without hookers?"

He smiles at that, but doesn't answer. Not that I expected him to. He takes a deep breath. "So, once upon a time there were two men. Circumstances beyond the control of either forced them to work together, but they found that they . . . clicked. In a surprisingly short time, considering the habitual reserve of one of the two men, they became friends as well as partners."

There's a tension in my midriff as I listen. It's not just a Benton Fraser story, I can tell. But I said he could talk, so I let him keep going.

"There were some trying times now and then, and falling outs, as will happen between friends, but they always managed to overcome those and grew ever closer. One might even say they were best friends. Not only did they work together, they spent much of their free time together, in pursuits they both enjoyed. Even after the circumstances which had thrown them together to begin with were resolved and there was no need to remain so close, they chose to do so. And somewhere along the line one of the men came to realize that his feelings toward his friend had changed. Deepened. Unfortunately in a way that is not generally deemed socially acceptable."

"Fraser," I start to say, but he cuts me off with an upheld hand.

"Let me finish, please, Ray."

I nod, swallowing the bitterness at the back of my throat. I guess he needs to lay it out. He always did like doing that exposition thing. He goes on, staring at his hands again.

"Because of his fear that his friend would find out this thing about him and be repulsed, it became more and more difficult for this man to be around his friend, and their relationship grew strained. Eventually the man decided it would be best for all concerned if he went away, and he did so, without ever telling his friend the reason for his actions, without telling anyone, really, hiding it all inside. . . ."

"Enough," I snap as I leap up and go to the window, staring out at the backside of the building across the alley. "I don't want to hear this. I lived it, I don't need the instant replay. I'm sorry, Fraser. You weren't supposed to know about it. I'm a fuckup, I know it, you don't have to rub it in."

I hear him get up and come over, feel his hand warm on my shoulder. "Ray," he says, his voice deep and rough. "I told you it was a Benton Fraser story."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I mumble, trying hard not to pay attention to that hand.

"It means I wasn't talking about you."

It doesn't sink in at first. What the hell is he saying? Of course he was talking about me. I'm not stupid, I know . . . . Finally it hits me. I turn, fast, startling him, but he doesn't draw back, and his hand returns to my left shoulder. We're close now, very close. Practically breathing each other's breath. "What?" I demand, staring into his eyes. "What did you just say?"

"I said I wasn't talking about you."

For a second I believe him, then he has to spoil it by having one of his little truth-seizures.

"Well, actually I was, of course. You were the friend." He takes a breath, and brings his other hand up to my right shoulder. "But the man who went away. . . that was me, Ray. Not you."

Like they're someone else's, my hands come up to rest on top of his. "You? You wanted . . . you went away because you thought I wouldn't . . . ?"

He nods, somehow understanding what I didn't say. "I did. I'm sorry, Ray. I was a coward. Now I have to live with the consequences of that action, as do you." He slides his hands out from beneath mine and takes a step away. "I know you're tired, Ray. I'll go now. I just needed to see you, to tell you that. And I needed to make certain you were well."

Like it's happening to someone else I stand there and watch him walk to the door and unlock it, open it. He's leaving. He tells me that and leaves? I'm dumbstruck, literally, can't say a word. Diefenbaker's in the middle of the room, looking from me to him like he can't decide which one of us is stupider. For some reason that does it.

"Where the fuck do you think you're going, Benton Fraser? You set one foot out that door and I swear I'll knock you out with the damned coat tree and drag you back inside."

He shoots a look at the item in question and then looks back at me. "That would be assault, Ray."

"You're damned right it would, Mr. Break and Enter. And you'd have earned it. You come in here, drop that bombshell, and leave? No way, Benton-buddy. That's not how it's going down. Now you get your ass back in here."

"I never realized you were so aggressive," he says, but there's a little light in his eyes I haven't seen in a long time, a little smile on his face, part amusement, part challenge.

"Then you've got a short memory. Ass. Inside. Now. And close the door."

"Did this caveman technique impress Stella?" he asks, but he steps back inside and closes the door.

"Low blow," I say. "Guess I could've got out my gun and shot you in the back to stop you from making yet another stupid mistake."

He winces. "All right. I suppose I deserved that."

"You did." I point at the couch. "Sit."

Diefenbaker whines and sits down, looking a little puzzled. Guess he was lip-reading.

"Not you, him."

He gets back up, looks at Fraser expectantly, and I could almost swear he's grinning as Fraser stomps over to the couch and sits down with a glare at his wolf. I drag my steamer trunk around and sit on it, facing him.

"Fraser, you really went back to Canada because you thought I'd kick you in the head if you told me you, um, liked me?"

He swallows hard, and looks down, but nods.

I shake my head. "Jesus, and I all this time I thought you were the smart one and I was the pretty one. Well, actually I thought you were both, but that's beside the point. Do you know what I would have done if you'd told me that a year ago, you idiot?"

He looks up, a little irritation in his eyes. He doesn't like to be called an idiot. Well, tough. I'm calling a spade a spade.

"No, Ray, obviously I have no idea or we wouldn't be here now. Why don't you enlighten me?"

My heart is pounding like a drummer in a dance band for the second time tonight, only this time I don't have that feeling that everything's wrong. Oh no. This time everything is right. I don't know where the courage comes from, but I reach out and put my hand on his face, turn him just a little. "This," I say as I lean forward and put my mouth on his.

As kisses go it's not much to write home about. No fireworks, no bells. Just a strange, deep feeling that I'm. . . . home. We're both awkward, and it ends fast, just a dry, close-mouthed brush of skin against skin. Then we're separated and staring at each other. He reaches up and touches his mouth with his fingers, then reaches over to touch mine.

Finally he says. "Ray. . . may I . . . ?"

I nod. He goes for it. Nicer this time. Not such a shock. Still pretty chaste, no tongues, but the lips get a little more involved this time, open, and moist. Weird to feel the prickle of stubble against my skin. He draws back, frowning just a little. Not a bad frown, just his speculative frown. I wait, knowing he's formulating some thought. I'm kind of past thinking. Finally he speaks.

"Is it really that. . . easy?"

I laugh a little, thinking how long it took to get here, and how hard it was for me to lean forward. "Wasn't easy."

"But it was," he says, and his mouth finds mine again.

Brief, slick touch of tongues sends a startling little pulse of arousal through me. Niiice. Before I can really react he pulls away, and then suddenly he's got his arms around me and his face is in the hollow of my shoulder, and as I bring my hands up can feel the tremor in his shoulders. "God, Ray, I've missed you so much. Sometimes you were all I could think of."

I nod, my cheek against his hair, feeling the streak of tears down my face. "Me too, Frase. Sucked. Hated every minute you were gone."

"Not as much as I hated being gone."

I grin. "Wrong-o, Fraser. I think we're even on that one."

He smiles back, and I have to taste that. Which leads to another full-on kiss, and another. We're necking like a couple of teenagers on my couch, and there's a kind of warm glow building in my crotch that tells me maybe I didn't flush everything for no reason. Maybe Frank was right. It doesn't matter what I call myself, I'm just in love. With Fraser. And I want him. It's not real strong, probably because I've been up nearly a full day now and I'm more than tired, but it's definitely there. As if thinking it was just the cue it was waiting for, a yawn sneaks up out of nowhere and I find myself sagging a little against him.

"Ray, you're tired," Fraser says.

"There you go with the obvious," I say, grinning. "Sorry. The spirit is willing but the flesh is kind of pooped."

He nods. "I'm tired as well, Ray. I think this . . . conversation. . . can wait until we're both more rested, don't you?"

I can't help but laugh at that. Only Fraser would call what we were doing a 'conversation.' "Yeah, Frase, I think that's a good plan."

He nods and stands up. "Well, I'll just be going then."

"Hunh?" I know I'm wearing my 'you're seriously deranged' look as I explain the facts of life to him. "Fraser, it's four in the morning, where do you think you're going and how are you going to get there?"

"Well, I've been told about a motel over on Third Street which will probably allow Diefenbaker as well, and I thought I'd walk. I am perfectly capable of walking."

"No way are you going to go stay at the No-Tell Motel, Benton Fraser. And this may be Minneapolis, not Chicago, but walking alone late at night through questionable neighborhoods still isn't a real good idea. Park it. You can have the couch."

"And you'll sleep. . . ?" he asks, looking around the room pointedly.

"On the floor," I say, just a hair short of a snarl because I know he knows how I feel about sleeping on the floor. My back will take days to forgive me, I'm not as young as I used to be. He looks at me for a long moment, then shakes his head.

"Why don't I take the floor? I'm more used to primitive conditions."

"Because you are the guest, Fraser, and guests do not sleep on the floor."

"Is that Emily Post or Miss Manners?" he asks with a hint of a smile lurking around the corners of his mouth.

I'm still trying to think of a snappy comeback for that when he speaks again.

"Why don't we take the cushions off the back and seat of the couch and spread them side-by-side on the floor? If you don't mind sleeping close, that should be wide enough for both of us."

I look at the couch, at the floor. Yeah. It works. Leave it to Fraser. I nod. "Okay, you pull the cushions off, I'll get something to put over them."

About eight minutes later we have a bed. I even manage to convince Fraser that hospital corners aren't really necessary in this kind of undertaking. He must be tired, too. There's an awkward moment where we stand and kind of look from the bed to each other. And I'm thinking 'okay, this is weird' and the funny thing is I know he's thinking the exact same thing, and we both laugh at the same time. Tension broken, I strip off my sweater and he starts unbuttoning his blue plaid flannel. We don't get naked. Just down to skivvies, me in my t-shirt and longline briefs, him in his t-shirt and boxers.

I lie down, he lies down. I pull the covers up, he tugs until he has them properly aligned with true north or whatever it is he's doing. In order to make this work we have to lie on our sides, curled up like spoons, as Stella used to say, and okay, I am not, I repeat not, going to think any more about exes of any sort. He feels bigger than I know he is, and he's very warm, a lot warmer than me. It's kind of a nice feeling. And I try not to pay attention to the fact that he's got . . . bumps. . . in places I'm not used to feeling pressed up against me.

I'm kind of tense, and I can't help but remember the last time we slept together. It was 40 below and snowing, and we were both fully clothed in arctic gear and there were dogs all around. This time it's just me, and him, a little cotton, and Diefenbaker. Dief. Damn. I start to get up.

"What's wrong, Ray?" Fraser asks, so close that his breath stirs the hair behind my ear and makes me shiver. He has a hand on my shoulder, keeping me in place.

"Dief. I should get him a bowl of water."

"He's fine, Ray. He's been drinking out of the toilet all day, I don't see that a few more hours will hurt."

I chuckle and relax. Sometimes I forget when I haven't been around him in a while how utterly practical he can be at times. For some reason just the prim and proper tends to stick in my head. Got to get over that, because prim and proper is not where we're headed now. I hope. Not too fast but. . . yeah. I have a lot of pictures in my head I'd like to try out. And thinking about those pictures is not a good way to get to sleep. In particular the fact that I'm pretty well worn-out seems to be entirely lost on my body, which is perking up a bit. Okay, more than a bit. Thank goodness he's behind me instead of in front, since I was the one bitching about being pooped. After a few minutes of me trying to pretend I'm sleeping he speaks quietly.


"Mmm?" I say, faking that I'm mostly asleep.

"I can't help noticing that you're awake. Are you having trouble sleeping?"

So I'm not a good faker. "Um, yeah. A little."

"Would you like to try some sort of relaxation technique?"

"Like what?" I ask, thinking that he probably doesn't mean my usual one.

"Well, meditation is often useful."

I snort, and I can feel his amusement.

"Yes, well, I suppose it does help if one is familiar with the procedure first. There's always massage."

Oh there sure is, but that would just make things worse. "No, sorry, won't work."

"I assure you, Ray, I'm quite competent, you have nothing to fear."

I sigh. Fine time to go dense. "It's okay, Fraser, it'll take care of itself. Just go to sleep."

There's a moment of silence, then he says "Ah," and I don't think I'm imagining the increased heat radiating off him. I figure he's blushing. He does that. A few more seconds pass, and then he speaks again.

"I seem to recall that you're not very good at waiting. Born premature and all that."

"Good memory," I say. I won't beg. I won't. I won't even hint.

"There is another time-honored technique generally known to be quite relaxing," he says, and there's a note in his voice that I've never heard before. A whisky-smoke curl of amused. . . seduction? Ohyeah. Oookay. Semi-perked-up goes to fully-perked in about three seconds.

"There is, hunh?" I say.

"Mmmhmm. And while I can't vouch for its effectiveness on others, I do know it works well on myself."

Oh man. If I wasn't perked before I am definitely now. The mental images that go with that little confession would drive a nun to drink. Or something. "So, you want to try this technique out, see if it works on me?"

"If you're willing. And not too tired."

"Fraser, I could be dead and I'd want to try this out."

"I believe necrophilia is against the law, Ray."

"Well, I'm not dead yet, so no problem."

For a few seconds neither of us move. Hell, what do we know about this? Then his hand shifts a little on my shoulder, warm and heavy. Not quite a stroke, not quite a caress, something halfway in between. And it feels so good, so right. I need this from him. Not because I'm a horn dog. I could go in the bathroom and whack off if all I wanted was to come. What I need is knowing that he feels this too, this connection, this partnership, that's more than either of those words can explain.

Without him I feel like I'm missing part of me, and it seems like he feels the same. And for us to do this, to have this-- the only word I can think of is intimacy, and it's a good word, a Fraser word-- pushes us out of whatever we were and into what we will be, like a butterfly struggling out of its cocoon. His hand slides down my arm, moving from where my t-shirt covers it to bare skin, and it's all I can do not to moan out loud at the touch of those callused fingers on my arm. That's all, just my arm and I feel like this, like I'm about to come apart.


His voice sounds just like I feel, and his fingers tremble. I realize that he's as freaked out about this as I am and. . . needs it just as much.

"Yeah, Frase?"

"Are you. . . do you. . . ."

I put my hand on his, squeeze it a little. "Yeah. I do. I am." I nudge him with my shoulder. He settles back some so I can turn over and look into his face, which I can barely see in the pale bars of illumination filtering through the blinds from the security lights on the building next door. "I do. We're both crazy."

He smiles. "Eminently. At this rate I'm sure I'll be buried in cabbage leaves."

I have no idea what he means by that, but I'm sure it makes some Fraser kind of sense. I reach over and pull him close. Necking again, but this time horizontal and next-to-naked it's a lot different. It doesn't take me long at all to notice that I'm not the only one who's perking here. He's hard and hot against my thigh. Seems like we both need to relax. Well, maybe I can help there. I put my hand on his shoulder, let it slide down the firm plane of his chest, trying not to think about how strange that is. He tenses, I can feel it in his stomach muscles under my hand, but he doesn't say anything, doesn't stop me.

I've imagined this about a thousand times, never once got it all the way right, the way he'd feel in my hand. The silky smoothness of cotton between my hand and his skin, the pulsing, living heat of him burning right through that thin covering, filling my palm the same but different from how I do. The bend of my fingers around him is different, the weight of him, the curve of him, everything is different. I let my fingers tighten just a hair, and he makes a sound, halfway between a gasp and a sob, and his hips push against me. Yeah. Oh yeah. I do it again.


I let go instantly. "Sorry!"

He shakes his head, hard, tongue sliding out across his lips. "No, no you . . . it was wonderful, but I thought you were the one in need of relaxation."

I grin, and let my hand settle back down with a little squeeze. "You trying to tell me you're relaxed?"

He pushes into my hand with a long roll of his hips, shakes his head. "No, I . . . no. Just . . . can I. . . ?"

I've never heard him incoherent before. It's a serious turn on. "Go for it."

Next thing I know I'm flat on my back and he's over me, his hand on me through my briefs like I had him, but less tentatively. He squeezes and strokes, then makes a sound that ought to have come out of Dief and goes burrowing under the elastic waistband of my briefs. For about a fiftieth of a second I think I ought to stop this right now, and then he's got me and oh, God, it feels so damned good. I buck into his hand, all the while shoving my own hands up under his shirt until there's bare skin under my hands, but not the bare skin I want.

Down then, under elastic, and oh. . . yesssss. There. Cup my hands over the solid curves of his ass like I've wanted to do forever, it seems. He sucks in air over his teeth and dives to kiss me hard, tugs at my lower lip with his teeth, sending sparks shooting straight to my cock, which is already pretty damned sparky. I can tell right now this isn't going to be my best effort ever. I'm too tired to have any kind of control over myself. Trying to even things up, I slide my hands around his hips and ease his boxers down past the rigid length of his cock, and then pull him down against me.

Or at least I try to. He resists and I don't know why until he lets go of me and starts trying to get my briefs down. He's not as careful about it as I was, he's even more impatient than me. I have to shove a hand down to keep myself from getting tangled in the fabric, and then quick lift my hips so he can yank them down to about mid-thigh. Once that's done he's on me in a heartbeat, and it's naked skin against naked skin, his cock lined right up next to mine, and I can feel the slick hot slide of him against me as he starts to move. Yeah. Jesus, yeah. That's great.

My hands are back on his ass, encouraging him, stroking, and his teeth find my shoulder and bite just hard enough to make me jerk in surprise, then next thing I know I'm laughing because it just figures that under that proper facade he's a wild man. He pulls back to look at me, questioning, and I don't want him to think I'm laughing at him so I have to tell him. "I knew you had instincts in there somewhere," I say, grinning.

He grins too, a beautiful, feral thing. "I found you, you're my instinct."

I'm still trying to absorb that when he stretches out again, and it's strange to be covered by someone who's as tall as me, and heavier, and it feels good, better than good, and he's moving, his cock against mine, and we're both leaking and slick and it doesn't matter that we're dead tired, all that matters is this raw, primal connection we're finally, finally making. Two thrusts, three, one last, then he's shivering and groaning in my arms as I feel a thick wet heat spread across my belly and my cock. That's all it takes. I join him, making an even bigger mess between us. He collapses down onto me for a minute, then kind of grunts and shoves himself up on one arm.

"Sorry, Ray,"

I pull him back down. "It's okay, Frase."

He rests for a few moments, his breathing evening out, then he lifts his head to give me a long, searching look. I know what he wants to know, without him saying a word. I feel heat in my face, and I'm surprised I can blush at this point, but I nod. He smiles almost shyly at that and tucks his face back in against my neck. I squeeze him. Okay, so it wasn't great. In fact on a scale of one to ten it was probably about a three, but that doesn't matter. It was the best lousy sex I ever had in my entire life, because it was Fraser, and it was me, and we're both in the same place at the same time feeling the same things and we're happy about it.

After a little while he pushes off me again and rolls away onto his back with a sigh that sounds so contented it makes me smile. Without his warmth the mess on my stomach starts to feel cold so I struggle the rest of the way out of my underwear and use it to mop up, first me, then him. That's a strange experience, cleaning come off some other guy. Not bad, just strange. He tries to stop me at first and I give him my patented Look, and he settles back and lets me do it, turning about eight shades of red that I shouldn't be able to see in this light, but I can. After I'm done I figure it's pretty silly to wear the t-shirt without anything else so I strip down the rest of the way, and notice him doing the same.

I debate for a minute going and getting a washrag to really clean up right, but, damn it, I'm barely keeping my eyes open so I figure we're good for now. We'll have to rent a motel room somewhere tomorrow for a shower. Maybe that place on Third would be okay, since I'll be there to defend his honor. I wad my messy shorts up in a ball and stick them under the corner of our makeshift bed, then stretch out next to him. After a few seconds he reaches out and pulls me close, and I feel a rush that's almost better than coming as I settle in against him, my head on his shoulder.

I know there are tons of things we still need to talk about, and I know eventually he's going to have to go home and I'm going to have to stay here, but I won't think about that now. This moment is as close to perfect as I can imagine, and I'm going to live in it for a while.

* * *

I wake long before Ray does. That's not surprising, I've always been an early riser, but this morning I would have slept in a little if it hadn't been for a certain wet, cold nose in the face. I sigh and push Diefenbaker away, then lie there savoring the feel of Ray next to me, finally as close as I've wanted him to be. Everything said and done since he walked through that door has been a revelation in so many ways. I find it hard to believe that, as well as I know Ray, I misjudged him so completely in this area. I know I'm prone to a degree of willful blindness, but usually I err toward the positive side, not the negative.

It does explain a great deal, though, about the last few weeks before I left for home. If he was feeling the same things I was, no wonder it was so difficult not to tell him. My instincts were telling me I was right to feel the way I felt. It was, as is usual between Ray and myself, my intellect which got in the way. There are certain drawbacks to living primarily in one's head, as I do, as opposed to in one's heart, as Ray does. I suppose there are drawbacks to that as well. It seems that each of us supplies the balance for the other. It's why we made good partners. And though I hesitate to think of the future at this early stage, it seems we might make good partners again, though in quite a different way.

The future. Now that I've allowed that thought out, it quickly takes root and begins to sprout, sending tendrils seeking the sun. The future. Now that I've found him again, I can't imagine giving him up, but do we have a choice? While he did astonishingly well on our Franklin trek, I don't think he would be happy relocating permanently northward. He's not a small-town sort of person. Not only that, but from what I can tell, he couldn't at present meet the financial requirements for immigration to Canada, even were he interested in doing so.

As for me, well. . . I'm quite certain that 'Law Enforcement' is not one of the categories on the TN list, and I'm not exactly cut out for anything else. I suppose I might qualify as a non-degreed professional in the H-1B classification but that would presuppose my being able to find a law enforcement agency which wished to hire me, and was willing to meet the rather stringent documentation requirements involved. It's a bit of a quandary.

Diefenbaker makes a soft whine and I sigh. Unless I want to clean up after him, I really must get up and take him out. I put a finger to my lips to shush him and begin an attempt to extricate myself from Ray's embrace without waking him. I'm not successful. His hands tighten on my shoulder and waist.

"Don't. Don't go," he says softly into my neck.

I recognize the fear in his voice. It's a reflection of my own. "I'm not," I soothe. "It's just that Diefenbaker needs a walk. I'm afraid that while he may drink out of the toilet, he's never quite managed to figure out using one."

Ray laughs at that, and lifts his head. "We'll all go, then."

"You're tired, Ray, you need to rest."

He looks at me steadily. "I need you more than rest."

I can't begin to express what that does to me. I can feel myself start to shake, feel the sting of tears in my eyes and nose, and I turn my head so he won't see it because I know that men don't indulge in such foolishness, but he just wraps me in his long, strong arms and holds me as the tears come.

"Hey," he says after a I start to calm down. "The wolf's crossing his legs here. Let me up and I'll take care of him."

I start to sit up. "No, Ray, he's my resp. . . ."

"Down, boy," he says with a wink. "I got it. Dief, c'mere." Dief follows Ray over to the window, where he opens the blinds.



"You're naked."

"Astonishing powers of observation there, Frase," he says. "Don't worry, no one will be at work across the way until after eight. Besides, mostly dark in here, mostly dark out there, nobody could see anything anyway." He pushes up the sash and pats the sill with one hand. "Okay, you looking at me?" he says to Diefenbaker, crouching down so they're eye-to-eye. "I'm taking a chance here, so you have to be good, okay? There's a scone in it for you if you behave. You go down the fire stairs here, find a spot to do your thing where nobody'll step in it, and then you come right back up, got it?"

Dief grumbles. He wants a proper walk.

Ray stands firm. "Got it?" he repeats. This time he gets an assent, and smiles. "Good. Maybe you're the smart one here. Okay, go. You got five minutes before I call the dog-catcher to come get your ass."

Dief puts his paws on the windowsill, then he gathers himself and is gone. Ray turns back to me, shaking his head. "So, any bets on how long he's gone?"

I shake my head solemnly. "I never wager on Diefenbaker when baked goods are involved."

Ray laughs, then comes back over to kneel on the cushions beside me. "Okay. We got some talking to do, I think."

I nod. "Yes. We do."

He nods too, takes a deep breath, very serious now. "Didn't you trust me, Frase? Even if we weren't on the same page, did you really think that it would have made any difference to me if you were straight or not? Haven't we made it through enough that you could tell me?"

I clear my throat, feeling miserable as I try to find a way to explain that makes any sense. "It wasn't a matter of trust, Ray. At least, I didn't see it that way. Even at the time I knew that if I told you that I was questioning my sexuality you would be understanding and supportive. That was never the issue. It was simple fear that you wouldn't reciprocate my feelings."

He starts to say something then, but I shake my head and he quiets, waiting.

"I . . . haven't had very good luck in with any sort of relationship, be it familial or amicable, let alone the rather more hazardous landscape of significant others. At the time it seemed preferable to try and retain what there was of our friendship rather than risking it."

He thinks about that, sighs, and nods. "Yeah, okay. I get that. I just wish you'd said something."

"As do I. However, in fairness, you said nothing either."

He sighs, and nods, a rueful expression on his face. "No. I didn't. I wanted to. I almost came out with it a dozen times or more, but I could never figure out a way to say it that didn't sound wrong, didn't sound like I just wanted to get into your pants, and that's not it. Or, well, not all of it," he says with a grin and a wink.

I feel myself blush, an utterly ridiculous physical response in a man my age, especially after what we did last night, or more accurately, earlier this morning. I know what he's saying to me, I know the depth of it, despite the fact that 'the words' have not actually been spoken. I feel an intense need to verbalize my feelings, something I've done only once or twice in my life. I've not had good luck with that either. When I once attempted to say something similar to my father he had threatened to do me bodily harm. That conditioning is hard to break. So even though I'd rather say it flat out, instead I find myself approaching it obliquely.

"I . . . understand the dilemma. There are certain cultural expectations which accompany a declaration of love, some of them being sexual, and that's generally taboo between two men."

He stares at me, his eyes lambent in the soft gray pre-dawn light, and a slow smile breaks over his face as brilliant as any sunrise. "Holy cow," he says softly. "I almost missed it, in there with all the Fraserisms. Damn it, you beat me to it. I was going to say it first, make it easier for you. I don't want to hear another word about you being a coward. That took guts." He takes a deep breath, looks me in the eyes. "Benton Fraser, I love you."

It might not seem romantic or moving to some, coming from a naked man in a shabby office with cold winter air blowing in an open window, but I can't imagine anything more fulfilling. In my entire adult life the only other person who ever said anything even close to that to me was a woman whose soul was as dark as her hair. Ray is her consummate opposite, not only in gender, but in every possible aspect. I know that as surely as I know my own name. Once committed, he gives himself wholly, without reservation. Now I have to find it in me to match that, for he deserves no less.

I reach for him and he comes to me without hesitation. We lie there, just holding each other for a little while. He shivers, and I make him get under the covers, taking the chill from him with my own warmth. Diefenbaker returns, but neither of us wants to get up and close the window so we leave it, and the radiator in the corner knocks and pings loudly as it attempts to compensate for the heat loss. Dief lies down under the window with a roll of his eyes. He's not a romantic sort, but I know he's pleased that Ray has rejoined the pack. Neither Ray nor I speak for a long time, content for the moment to just exist together. Finally he stirs a little.

"So," he says.

"Mmm?" I respond, just to let him know I'm paying attention.

"Where do we go from here?"

I see I'm not the only one who's been thinking of such things. "I don't know," I say honestly. "There are some obvious difficulties."

He makes a rude noise. "Oh yeah. Like the little fact that we live three thousand miles apart."

"That would be the major one," I say with a sigh. "If you were still in Chicago it might be less problematic. In all likelihood I could get a transfer back to the consulate, should I request one. However, that's clearly not an option now."

He nods and sighs. "Yeah, that bridge is pretty well gutted. Welsh would probably take me back, but you know, I really don't want to go. I'm settling in here, I kind of like it here. It's nice. People are cool, and mostly they don't poke their nose into what or who you do in bed. I like what I'm doing, though I need to see about getting my name changed. Too bad there's not a Canadian consulate in Minneapolis."

He must have felt the change in my body at that, because he twists to stare at me in concern.


"There is a Canadian consulate in Minneapolis," I say quietly.

He stares at me for a moment. "There is?"

I nod. "Yes. I regularly sent correspondence to and received it from that office when I worked at the consulate in Chicago."

A tentative smile starts in his eyes. "So, maybe you could. . . . "

"Theoretically, yes," I say. "Though of course there are no guarantees."

He thinks about it, then sighs. "No, I couldn't do that to you. You belong where you are."

"I belong where you are," I correct him.

I don't think I imagine the sudden flush of color in his face at that, but he shakes his head, obstinate, as always.

"But you'd get homesick, miss the wide open spaces, the woods, the snow, all that stuff."

"I'd miss none of it as much as I've missed you."

"You'd miss it," he says gruffly, and I suspect I've embarrassed him. "You know you would. You'd miss the low crime rate, everything."

I tug at my ear. "Well, honestly Ray, there's something a little embarrassing about having people deliberately commit misdemeanors just to give one something to do."

He stares at me. "You're kidding."

"No, unfortunately not."

He shakes his head, looking amused. "Jesus, Frase. They must really like you up there in the Great White North."

I laugh out loud at that, something I rarely do, and he lifts his eyebrows, asking to share the joke. "It's just that a few days ago when I realized for certain that's what they were doing, I imagined you saying almost that very thing," I explain.

He smiles. "You really know me, don't you?" Just as suddenly as it came, his smile fades and he sighs. "See, that's what I'm talking about. I don't want to take you away from that. Maybe I could move up there? Being a P.I. in Canada can't be too much different from being one here. Just a different beat, that's all."

"I'm afraid that would be a rather difficult undertaking, since you're not a citizen."

"Oh," he says, looking crestfallen. "Didn't think of that. Damn. There must be some way. . . ."

He looks at me hopefully, and I try to come up with something, even something farfetched. "Well, I suppose I could adopt you," I say, grasping at straws. "If you could convince the court that you have no living relatives and are in urgent need of my support."

He looks amused. "So that'd make you my dad? That's kind of . . . kinky there, Fraser. Should've figured that might appeal to you after the whole Maggie thing."

Before I can protest my innocence he winks to let me know he's teasing, and goes on, more seriously.

"No, I don't think that's the way to go. Damn."

My own mind keeps coming back to the fact that there's a consulate here, and that I'm intimately familiar with the workings of a consulate. "You know, Ray, if I were to manage a transfer here, I do get a reasonable amount of leave time every year. I understand that Minnesota has some lovely wilderness areas. In addition there's nothing to stop me from going back to the Territories from time to time. One assumes there might be slow periods where you might be able to accompany me."

"True. That's one good thing about being self-employed. Trying to figure out the taxes is hell, though."

"I could help with that," I offer.

He grins. "Okay, that proves it. You're either in love or unhinged."

"Possibly both," I say.

He chuckles. "Probably both. All right. I give in, that's option one. What if you can't get a transfer?"

"We'll find a way." I say firmly.

He's solemn again, his moods as mercurial as ever. "Yeah. We will. Whatever it takes."

"Whatever it takes," I agree. Inside me the ice starts to break up and float away on the channel he's melted into my reserve. "Whatever it takes."

* * *

"Hey, Frase, how was your day?" I ask, because I always ask before I jump him. It's only polite, after all, and after six months in Minneapolis (though only four of those with Fraser for a roommate because it took a while to work the transfer) I'm learning.

He puts his hat on the coat tree next to the door and I hear the familiar rip of velcro as he opens his collar. Like some famous dog, I feel myself start to salivate.

"It was a day much like any other," he says, without turning as he undoes buttons. "I'll confess I'm looking forward to our trip."

"Me too. But it wasn't quite a day like any other," I say, pleadingly.

He turns around finally, unbuttoned, hands on the cross-strap of his Sam Browne. He looks a bit sweaty. Not surprising, since it's been pretty warm today and he's wearing all that wool. I step forward, sniff . . . yeah. Oh yeah. He's looking at me with raised eyebrows, though. "What made it extraordinary?" he prompts.

"Frannie called."

"Did everything go well? Boy or girl?"

"It's a girl this time, and everything is fine. She says her doc told her she was built to have babies."

"I'm glad. Has she chosen a name?"

"Um, yeah."

He looks at me, and I can see he's bracing for it. I grin.

"How bad is it?" he asks.

I drag it out a bit. "I guess it depends on your point of view. I mean, her brother already wants to come after me with an axe for tarnishing his Mountie, now he might show up looking for you with a shotgun."

He looks at me in dawning horror. "Oh lord, she didn't saddle a girl with that, did she? It was bad enough being a boy with it!"

"Well, she sorta got around it. I guess it's not too bad. . . ."

"All right, you've had your fun, Ray!" he snaps, getting a little snarky.

I chuckle. "Benita. Benita Raye." I wrinkle my nose, just to let him know I've been teasing myself, too.

That gets him. His eyes get kind of misty. I have to admit, mine did too when she told me. He clears his throat.

"Well, that's not too dreadful, really."

"Yeah, I guess," I allow. "Not that it's all that great being named after tuna."

"That's bonita, Ray," he says severely. "And it's Spanish for 'beautiful.'"

"I know, I know, I'm just yanking your chain," I say, tugging on his lanyard, which is the closest thing to a chain he has. "Think she'll ever forgive her mom for naming her after her queer uncles?"

He sighs, and before he can lecture me I put my mouth over his. As usual whatever he was going to say gets lost in our kiss. I finally found a way to shut him up. While Welsh is a good guy, we've been careful not to rub his nose in our relationship. I know better than to think he wouldn't've had a cow if I'd ever done this to Fraser in the bullpen. Cow. Bullpen. I start to laugh against Fraser's lips and have to stop kissing him.

"What's so amusing?" he asks testily, clearly suspecting that he's the cause.

"Just thinking about Welsh's face if I'd ever done that to you at the 27th."

He snickers, an explosive little laugh that gets to me in a way I can't explain. I never thought I'd see him laugh like that, but I've learned there are a lot of things Fraser never let himself do until he let go of enough of his armor that he could actually breathe. Sometimes I could kick myself for not seeing sooner that he needed that like I needed the air he gave me when I was drowning. I kind of half-knew it at the time, I didn't let him get away with a lot of the stuff other people let him get away with, but I didn't get inside far enough either.

Sometimes I want to go back in time and ask his dad what the hell he thought he was doing, teaching his son to shut himself off like that. But I guess he didn't know any better, just like my folks don't know any better. It's all just part of how they were brought up. Not that it doesn't still hurt, but I understand it.

"Ray? Are you all right?"

Damn. Busted. "Yeah, Frase. Just thinking about . . . things."

He nods, looking warm and sympathetic. "Sometimes things remind us of other things."

That shouldn't make sense, but it does. "Yeah. Exactly." I don't want to think about that stuff now, though. Now we should be celebrating. It's the weekend and we're heading off tomorrow for a week at a cabin up by Lake Namakan in Voyageurs National Park, where Fraser and I will expend copious amounts of calories doing all those nature-boy things he and Dief love like hiking and fishing, and a few nature-boy things I love. . . speaking of which, I got interrupted here. I grab the lanyard again, damn thing is handy, and pull him in.

His tongue slides over mine, warmly welcoming. I never get tired of this, of him. Not likely to. We might have started off awkward but it didn't take us long to get the hang of things. There's a real plus to having a partner who's a research fanatic. It comes in really handy when you don't know what the hell you're doing, even if he does bring home reading material that would make a Marine blush.

His hands are moving up under my t-shirt, fingers lightly stroking my nipples. I never knew how sensitive I was there until him. And it's not fair because he's still got all his layers on even if the top one is loose. Usually I'm pretty good with de-uniforming him, but tonight my hands are shaking and I'm suddenly feeling like we haven't had sex in a month instead of just night before last. Of course, not de-uniforming him has its own appeal. I move my mouth reluctantly from his, lick his ear, which makes him shiver, and whisper into it.


I give the word a little emphasis with a light squeeze of his cock through his pants. He pulls back a little, stares at me, his eyes wild and hot. I grin. Oh boy, Alpha Fraser. Always nice. He takes my mouth again, and yes, take is the right word, and starts walking me backward toward the bedroom door. About a third of the way there he stops, licks his way to my ear, and purrs into it.

"Do you really think the bed is entirely necessary?"

Well, when he puts it that way. . . . I smile, and reach for his zipper. "Hell no."

* * * Finis * * *

Comments to: kellie@www.mrks.org

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kat Allison for the Minneapolis minutiae.

I'm fully aware that there is no earthly reason why a Mountie should serve in any capacity at a consulate-- either in Chicago, Minneapolis, or anywhere really, but it's not my fault! Paul Haggis started it! So there. :-P

No, I'm not terminally confused. I know there's a nightclub in Chicago called The Metro that's NOT a gay bar, but there's also a club in Minneapolis called The Metro that *is.*

This story was primarily inspired by the following three songs. And, yes, I'm going to inflict the lyrics on you. Bail now or forever hold your peace. :-)

All The Ways I Want You

The hills are full of secrets
Owls watch by night
Down in town the bars are full
And the drunks are picking fights
These are things I know
But the facts are filtered through
All the ways I want you

2:19 freight train
Moaning somewhere near
I see you in the distance
But I can't get there from here
Hard to believe it's happening
But my whole world's shrunken to
All the ways I want you

Stars look down and laugh at me
I ought to take a bow
Don't have to tell them life's hard sometimes
There's one falling now
Nobody's here beside me
I can talk about it to
All the ways I want you

Closer to the Light

There you go, swimming deeper into mystery
Here I remain, only seeing where you used to be
Stared at the ceiling, 'til my ears filled up with tears
Never got to know you, suddenly you were out of here

Gone from mystery into mystery
Gone from daylight into night
Another step deeper into darkness
Closer to the light

Walked outside, summer moon was nearly down
Mist on the field, holy stillness all around
Death's no stranger, no stranger than the life I've seen
Still I cry, still I begged to get you back again

Repeat chorus

both songs © 1994 Bruce Cockburn
from the cd Dart to the Heart
When the Ice Goes Out

Well I can't say 'cause I don' t know about that
All I know is here in my hat
And that hat ain't even on my head
I'm seeing blue and feeling red

Whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong
Whether you will weather this winter song
The season will break and the colors will run
Whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong

It's shiver me this and shiver me that
I want to hear the crack of a baseball bat
Never giving up the heat that's where it's at
Shiver me this or shiver me that

Infinities run in the limited man
I can't do everything but I will do what I can
You know that last year I dreamed the minimum
And enemies, I made a few of them
I didn't know the spring until I came here
Here we're pushing up on the lid
On the cool hemisphere
Everything melts I know, even your tears
Here in this hemisphere

What matters the most is what you do for free
Me believing in you and you in me
You try to find work and you do your best
You get what you get and you deserve the rest

You're the sun before day
And the stars before night
The pull before love
And the love before the light
I may be wrong but I may be right
Here before day or there before night

Want to be by the river when the ice goes out
I want to take a little know-how
From the shadow of doubt
I want to feel like I know what I'm talking about
Oh when the ice goes out
Oh when the ice goes out

© 1998 John Gorka
from the cd After Yesterday