"Nevermore"
By Viridian5

Started: 3/00
Finished: 12/6/01

RATING: NC-17; Fraser/Kowalski. If m/m interaction bothers you, walk away now.
SPOILERS: Especially "Call of the Wild," but this one deals with just about the whole series.
SUMMARY: After returning to Chicago, Fraser and Ray try to deal with their haunted heads and each other.
ARCHIVAL/DISTRIBUTION: Serge and Bindlestitch. If some kind person feels that this story is appropriate for DSX and wouldnít mind posting it, that would be great as well. Anywhere else too, as long as you ask me first.
FEEDBACK: can be sent to Viridian5@aol.com.
DISCLAIMERS: All things due South belong to Alliance no matter how much I want Ray K to belong to me. Music used in the story thatís not identified in the text consists of "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder; "A Love Bizarre" by Sheila E. with Prince; "Punk Lolita" by The Heads with Debbie Harry, Johnette Napolitano, & Tina Weymouth; "Juke-Joint Jezebel" by KMFDM; "Neurozone" by Chemlab; and "I Wanna Be Sedated" by The Ramones. Blade Runner belongs to Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott, Hampton Fancher, Blade Runner Partnership, The Ladd Company, and Embassy Pictures Corporation. No infringement intended. Suing me would be a waste of time. Besides, Iíd just kick you in the head.
NOTES: Fourth in the Borderlands (One for Sorrow) series after "Amigos," "One for Sorrow," and "Long, Long Way from Home."

That bit in "Call of the Wild" where Fraser reveals the castís futures doesnít work for me, even aside from Ray Vecchio coughing up an actual golden bullet, he and Stella going to Florida to run a bowling alley, and Frannieís immaculate conceptions. So some of these were changed here. Besides, some of the futures had to unfold over years, so when is Fraser telling us about leaving with Ray to look for the Hand of Franklin? Given the holes and improbabilities, I took liberties.

The Rachel Walker here and her past with Ray are parallel to whatís mentioned in "In a Box," but "In a Box" is not part of Borderlands. Thatís the way things work out when you write so many "Call of the Wild"-related stories. <g>

Thanks to LaT and Kit for beta above and beyond. Thanks to realitycek, LaT, Kass, Kasha, Beth, and Pares for support and insights. Thanks to Ladonna and realitycek for help on the mystical stuff and to my brother on the Army stuff. Kasha suggested what Walkerís tattoo should be and that they play at a yuppie pool place. The Cureís "Watching Me Fall" influenced the parliament of ravens dream and Rayís morning identity crisis, while the Fraser/Ray club scene was set to "Silence (Airscape mix)" by Delerium featuring Sarah McLachlan. Sometimes Fraserís theme song is "No Big Bang" by The Heads with Maria McKee. Switchblade Symphonyís The Three Calamities is the official soundtrack for the Borderlands (One for Sorrow) series. I wish Iíd discovered Poeís Haunted earlier, because itís perfect, but at least it had a huge role in writing the final bits and editing the whole.

 

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"Nevermore"
By Viridian5
===============================

"He said true things, but called them by
wrong names."

-- Robert Browning

"Devotion isnít what it seems
(I broker off my broken dreams)...."

-- "Sanctuary (Spent Sperm Mix)" by Pig

"There is nothing like desire for preventing the
thing one says from bearing any resemblance
to what one has in mind."

-- Marcel Proust
---------------------------------------------------

As we walked down the hall, Ray jiggled his keys, making them chime in what seemed to almost be a melody, as he said, "It was weird as all hell riding in something that didnít have a team of dogs pulling it. I miss the dogs, Ben. I know they were just loaners from the RCMP, but I got attached to Ďem."

"Theyíll be well cared for."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Just not by me. Itís not the same. Yíknow?" Diefenbaker nuzzled Rayís hand, making him smile. "Yeah, I know I still have you." Ray unlocked and opened the door with a small flourish, grinning. "Home again."

As soon as he entered the apartment, Ray set his bags down on the floor and was in motion again. I hadnít seen him this energetic in some time. He stopped at his turtleís tank, whispering things under his breath in such a soft voice that I only made out the occasional use of the turtleís name, "Spike." He picked up the TV remote and clicked through 67 channels at high speed.

"Ray!"

Ray turned the television off. "Sorry. Amazing how thereís nothing on, right? Or maybe not. Same old, same old."

Then Ray swooped toward his stereo, sorting through CDs at high speed. I knew heíd missed many things during our quest, but his music had to be high on the list. He turned the volume up as his first selection, something funky with guitar and horns, came on. Strutting music. As Stevie Wonder sang about superstitions, Rayís smile was so wide it should have cracked his face in half. I saw a light in his blue eyes that had been absent for too long.

All this, and I hadnít even put my own bags down yet. He made me so dizzy that I wanted to tell him to settle somewhere, but I also found it hard to discourage his display of fevered enthusiasm. This was Ray without the hauntings or depression, my Ray. And he was happy.

Happy in a way he apparently hadnít been in weeks.

As I set my bags down by the door, the songís lyrics started to disturb me even though the music itself sounded like something to dance to. "Rid me of the problem, do all that you can / Keep me in a daydream, keep me goiní strong / You donít wanna save me, sad is my song / When you believe in things that you donít understand / Then you suffer..." I shook my head. I suspected that anything would sound sinister in my current state of mind, and I was being unfair to Ray. Again.

Was I really unhappy because he was happy? Of course he was happy; he was home. I didnít deserve him if I could be so petty and miserly. Grow up, Benton. It wasnít as if you werenít accustomed to disappointment, and you were expecting this one.

"Iím starving." Ray picked up the phone. "You hungry? Iíve been dreaming of pizza for two months. Iíd kill for a bit of pineapple." Dief barked, making Ray grin. "Well, we got one in agreement. Shoulda known heíd be back to his old habits once you got him back here."

Ray continued to pace the width and breadth of the apartment through his whole phone call, and somehow I couldnít help remembering the protective circles heíd drawn around our camps. As if he walked the borders of his home to reconsecrate it with his own spirit.

Ray rubbed his hands together in glee after he put the phone down. "This way we get dinner, plus cold pizza for snacks later on. The gift that keeps on giving."

"Cold pizza is disgusting, Ray." When he opened his mouth in a retort, I said, "And I donít want to hear about my milk drinking habits. You always use that against me. Itís old."

"Okay. Iíll just have to talk about how you lick stuff off the street and call us even instead." He shook his head. "You never gave cold pizza a chance. It rocks."

Ray became a dervish of action as we waited for the pizza. He crisscrossed the apartment to take out plates and glasses, unpack his bags, and change CDs. He kept switching off on these activities, leaving bags partly unpacked to go to the kitchen to bring out oregano, then returning to the bedroom and the bags. I hadnít seen him this manic in some time, and the thought of his inevitable crash worried me.

Suddenly I had a Ray straddling my lap, looking into my eyes. "Whatís up?" he asked.

"Hmmm?"

"You look down."

"Just thinking."

"The look on yer face makes me glad I donít do much of that."

"Really, Ray."

"I tease you all the time; I can tease myself." At my raised eyebrow, he sighed and said, "You know what I mean." He was still dancing a bit, this time to a jaunty tune featuring two singers saying something about everyone wanting a "love bizarre." The saxophone especially made it quite catchy.

"Of course."

"Missing Canada?"

"No." My answer was honest... and surprising even to myself.

Ray leaned in closer, his hands on my chest. "What, then?"

"I still worry about you."

"Iím good. Hey, feel my hands." Ray put them at the sides of my face. "Warm, see? First time in months. I feel good."

Unable to resist, I stroked his hair. "You do. Feel good, that is."

Ray grinned. "Thatís my Mountie." His kiss started gentle but soon ratcheted up in intensity, with his tongue stroking mine. My hand gained a mind of its own and gripped his long-untrimmed hair to keep his head close to mine. I liked it longer, the way I could wrap its strands around my fingers and take hold, a comforting thought considering how Ray had moments when he was as difficult to hold onto as a hummingbird. Ray moved away a bit to murmur, "Gotta let me go, Ben. Pizzaís here. Guy wouldnítíve gotten here this early if we hadnít started making out, but we did and he did and so here we are."

"I donít hear a--" Then I did hear the door buzzer. Yet more proof of how thoroughly Ray could distract me.

Despite his rhapsodizing over pineapple, Ray had wisely ordered ham and pineapple on only four slices instead of plunging back into eating rich food with a whole pie of it. The way he savored his pizza almost erotically would have seemed silly if I hadnít been so engrossed in the varied flavors and textures of my own. After two months of trail food, the tangle of spice and sweetness shocked my mouth. We ate slowly but lavishly, demolishing most of the pie.

I ignored Ray surreptitiously slipping a slice to Dief. If Diefenbaker became ill later, Ray would have to clean it up himself.

Finally Ray asked, "You done?"

"I am replete."

"Iíll take that for a yes." He closed the box, stretched, and said, "I love pizza, but I hate the aftertaste of the cheese and oils. And the smell on my hands. Forgot about that."

That stretch had briefly bared his belly to me. The glimpse of skin and his obvious contentment sent my thoughts in a certain direction. I took his hand and set it under my nose. "It seems fine to me."

Ray smirked. "Youíve Ďlived among the musk ox,í remember?"

"Perhaps I could do something about the taste in your mouth."

He had a wicked glint in his eyes. "Iím game." Ray laughed as I rushed him and pinned him to the couch, kissing him. His legs wrapped around me, but then one pulled away and kicked down. When I turned to look, I saw a closed pizza box and Dief looking very disgruntled. "Mooch was trying to take advantage," Ray explained.

"How does one develop the ability to kick pizza boxes closed without looking?"

"Long practice. Now shut up and kiss me."

I did so. My hands slid under his two shirts, immediately encountering warm skin, instant gratification. What joy to be able to do this without having to unfasten and unwrap various layers away from him first. I didnít know if my self-control would be able to handle having Rayís skin constantly within easy reach.

Rayís deft fingers already had my jeans undone and slid in to stroke me. I writhed in his grip. I still couldnít believe that I had him at last, that he knew how I felt and was mine. How many formerly impossible fantasies had involved take-out dinner and his couch? I smothered a laugh at the thought that I was here.

"Share, Ben," Ray said as he still lazily stroked me. "I wanna find out what makes you laugh."

"This couch figured in more than a few fantasies."

"My couch? Just my couch?"

"You were on it, of course."

"Good. I donít wanna think I invited a pervert into my home. Tell me what we did on my couch."

"We ate first."

"Check."

"We mutually discovered that we wanted one another."

To my disappointment, Ray let go of me. "Another check. What did I do then? If itís good, I wanna try it."

"It might take less time to recount what you didnít do. I had several variations."

Ray toppled me over onto my back and started to unbutton my shirt. "This figure in any of Ďem?"

"A few. As a start."

"Cool. I wanna be thorough." Starting at my neck, he slowly kissed his way down to my penis. When he stopped there, breathing hotly on its head, he asked, "How about this?"

"Yes," I gasped. "Definitely."

He teased it with his tongue in small maddening licks.

"You did other things too," I said.

"Yeah, but we can save that for later. Right now, Iím taking advantage of your offer to help me clear the bad taste in my mouth." Then he swallowed me whole.



When I finished my shower and returned to the living room, I found him napping on the couch. While he looked rumpled, heíd pulled his clothes back together. Heíd teased me about showering with me but forbore in the end, saying that weíd never get to actual washing before he passed out that way, and he wanted to clean the airport air off him.

He looked so much like Ray now, lightly clad, clean-shaven. Or at least as clean-shaven as he could get. He could have simply fallen asleep after a rough case. The stubble burn on my face, stomach, and most intimate places reminded me that things had changed, but at times our quest and all that had followed it--snow, peril, madness, tricksters, and Ray saying that he loved me--seemed like an insane dream.

Rayís eyes snapped open, though he still looked drowsy. "Just napping." When he stood and moved in close to me, I could smell sex, sweat, and pizza on him. He made my mouth water. His nose brushed the line of my jaw. "You smell good," he said. "You always smell good, but this is a different kind. Warm, shower good."

His lips looked dark pink, and I couldnít resist them. We kissed again, hungrily, then he sighed. "Too tired to treat you right like you deserve. Gonna shower." His hands moved to the towel around my waist, then stopped and abruptly pulled away. Ray grinned. "Gonna shower. See ya in a bit."

Once I dried myself and put on my nightclothes, I sat on the couch and tried not to listen to Ray showering, tried not to wonder if he thought of me now as Iíd thought of him as Iíd washed up. To my relief, the phone rang. I picked it up on the second ring. "Ray Kowalskiís residence, Constable Benton Fraser speaking."

"Benny! You still answer a phone like nobody else on the planet."

"Ray." I was so surprised for a moment that I couldnít get my thoughts together. I hadnít expected him to call our first night back. Truthfully, I hadnít expected him to call at all, even though Ray and I had announced our return to several people.

Over all the time Ray Vecchio had been undercover, heíd only contacted me once, at the very beginning. Given the lack of any other communication, that one postcard had come to feel more like a slap in the face than anything else. When heíd returned to Chicago, Iíd felt a distance between us, one that I hadnít been certain could be fixed. Now he called me sounding exactly like his old self?

"Something wrong, Benny? Stanleyís not doing something weird to ya, is he?"

"Ray!" I refused to let myself wonder what "weird" things Ray thought my Ray might be doing to me. "No, he is not, and in any case he prefers not to be called ĎStanley.í His name is Ray. As your name is also Ray, it shouldnít be so hard for you to remember."

Ray snorted. "Whatever. You coming to see me?"

In my resurgent surprise, I blurted, "Right now?"

"No!" Ray laughed warmly. "Damn, that must be some killer jet lag. Soon, though, right?"

"You want me to come to Florida?"

"Florida? Iím right here in Chicago. Unless you know something I donít know."

That would teach me to take anything Detective Dewey said on faith. "You could blame it on the jet lag."

"Itís always something. So, you wanna come see me?"

My Ray had to see his parents tomorrow, and heíd mentioned a few other stops he wanted to make. "The day after tomorrow should be fine."

"How about six oíclock at the house? PM, Benny, not the morning."

"That... that sounds wonderful, Ray." Even in the moments of my deepest feelings of hurt and abandonment, Iíd missed his friendship. I would grab at any chances he offered me.

"Great. See you then."

"Should I bring anything?"

"Just yourself and maybe the wolf."

"I can do that."

"ĎNight, Benny."

"Good night, Ray." I set the phone down gently. I couldnít help the feeling of warmth that suffused me, so I tried to enjoy it while it lasted.

It lasted a few minutes until I looked at the time and realized that my Ray had been in the shower for quite a while. Normally I wouldnít worry, but heíd hardly been normal for the last month. I had to check on him.

If I transgressed, I could apologize later and live through his complaints, but if something had truly gone wrong and I hadnít acted in time....

Clouds of steam obscured my view as I opened the door. I finally saw him once I reached the sink. "Ray!"

Looking tired and dazed, Ray sat on the edge of the tub with the water still running. He leaned his head against the tile wall as if he couldnít hold it up on his own, and his eyes looked vague. "ĎM okay. Just hit me all at once. Nice warm shower combined with the way that I was so jittery on the plane I couldnít snooze while you were doing the Sleeping Beauty routine." As I turned off the water to retrieve him, he mumbled, "Iím fine. You donít have to coddle me or nothing."

If I hadnít been so concerned, I would have enjoyed the sight of his utter nakedness more. In the Territories, most of the time heíd remained almost completely covered up even during sex, simply moving the obstructive items of clothing out of the way when necessary.

I applied the towels to his skin and hair and smiled at the way it made him purr in contentment. Drying more vigorously only seemed to add to his enjoyment. It reminded me of the times I had to chafe warmth into his cold fingers. I enjoyed caring for him, making him comfortable.

"Up, Ray. You want to sleep in your bed, donít you?"

"Yeah, yeah," he mumbled.

As I helped him stand and walk to his bedroom, I luxuriated in the feel of his shower-warm skin radiating heat at me, the brush of his damp hair against my neck as he leaned on me. Amazing how just the scent of his soap and shampoo could swamp me in such a wave of nostalgia and drown me under memories of Ray in the car in the morning as he picked me up at the consulate.

Ray fell asleep as soon as he felt his bed beneath him. Naked, smiling sweetly, he begged to be touched, but he needed his rest. He looked so defenseless, but perhaps he simply felt safe here in his own bed, in his own apartment, in his own city, in his own country.

I stripped naked and climbed in beside him to stop the thoughts whirling through my head and found a bit of success. He sighed and caressed my arm in his sleep. Unfortunately, it did nothing to stop my guilt. Not when just being here obviously helped him, while my own home simply hurt and tormented him. I couldnít tell how long I lay there awake, stroking his hair, before I finally succumbed to sleep.



Nature called and woke me up. I smiled at Ben being in my bed with me and the fact that we were both naked. Guy was an optimist, and I loved him for it.

My sheets, my bed. Hell, the smell of my own laundry detergent.

Home. I was home, and I had Ben here with me.

I untangled myself from him, got up, stretched, and wandered into the bathroom, yawning. Seemed like taking a piss took forever, but that was okay since I took the time to appreciate that modern marvel known as indoor plumbing. You really didnít know what you had until you were ass deep in snow trying to get to a latrine trench or outhouse.

As I turned to leave the bathroom, I caught a bit of my reflection and stopped dead. I didnít know this guy looking at me from the mirror. I didnít get many mirrors up north and definitely not many this big that let me see all of me at once. It let this stranger sneak up on me.

I was too skinny, and even the muscle Iíd gotten from running with the sled and chopping wood only made me look stringier and gave me popping veins. After two months under a hat, my hair was so long it had gone floppy and so dark that it looked more brown than dark blond. If I hadnít taken the beard off before we even got on the plane, Iíd really be in shock now. But my eyes... my eyes were the worst. I couldnít help thinking that I didnít feel as haunted and strung out as those eyes said I was.

If I saw me walking down the street, Iíd think about crossing to the other side to avoid me.

Holy shit, what had happened to me?

Ben came up behind me and put his arms around my waist, his head on my shoulder. "Are you all right, Ray?" he asked softly, his voice husky. He kissed the side of my neck up to my jaw.

And he was hard. Man could be an advertisement for Ever-Ready, not that I minded. He was depraved on account of being deprived for so long. And him being hard made me hard. Worked out well.

I leaned back into him and closed my eyes, blocking out the sight of myself. "Iím good. How Ďbout you?"

"I woke up when you left," he said as he nibbled at my ear. I mustíve looked okay to him, since he was hardly kicking me to the curb.

I just looked like shit to myself.

His hands slid down my stomach to my cock, which didnít really care what I looked like in the mirror as long as it had Ben hands to make it happy. He was warm and solid at my back, a shield. I felt comfortable and safe here.

"Love you," I said. I could think about the rest tomorrow. Benís love, body, and totally welcome lust would keep me distracted for tonight.



The door buzzer woke me up. Door buzzers, what a concept. Who the hell could that be at... damn, 10 a.m. Me and Ben were being lazy here.

I tried to get up, but Ben held me tight. Turning around to try to reason with him made me rub against his morning wood. Wish I had time to do something with that. Still asleep, he smiled, sighed, and buried his head deep into my neck.

"Ben, I gotta get up and get the door."

"Hmmm?"

"Door buzzed."

"No such thing," he mumbled.

"Ben."

When it buzzed again, he grumbled but let me go. Who would have guessed that the only reason he used to get up so early was that he wasnít getting any? Give him a steady diet of sex, and heíd sleep in till you kicked him out of bed. It made me smile.

As I got up and put on a pair of boxers and a robe, Dief jumped up onto the place Iíd been and settled in. I hoped Ben was awake enough to know the difference. Looking in the mirror, I ran a fast brush through my hair. I didnít have time to do anything about the stubble or the way I smelled like Iíd gotten lucky. Or about the haunted look in my eyes. I pulled the robe shut tighter to try to hide the big bite mark on my collarbone.

This time somebody was knocking right at my apartment door. Jesus. I trudged to the door and opened it. Anybody who was that impatient could live with the sight of me in all my morning glory.

Instead I got a rib-cracking hug from my visitor. "Jeez, Ray, Iím glad you didnít try to dress for company or anything," Frannie said.

I smiled but couldnít help needling her a little. "I guess youíve been saving up since yer real brotherís in Florida."

"Huh?"

"I heard about him and Stella going.... They didnít, did they?"

"Who told you that?"

"Fraser, but he heard it from-- Looks like Iíll be showing up at Deweyís comedy club after all. Damn. Making me think all that time that Stella had--"

"Well, the part about Ray and Stella being together was true."

"Wow, Iím having a great morning here."

"Iím sorry, Ray." She gave me one more squeeze, then let go.

"Nah, not yer fault Deweyís a jerk and Stellaís moved on. Anyway, thanks for taking care of Spike, but I think you spoiled him. Now he wonít take food from me Ďcause heís holding out for that attractive chick to come back for him."

I just hoped Mr. Bat Ears in there could hear us gabbing. Now would not be the time for him to walk out of my bedroom wearing nothing more than the marks of my lovebites.

Frannie punched me in the arm. "Oh, you...." But there was something off. She was upset about something and trying to hide it. Trying to be nice. She handed me a small paper bag. "I brought these for you. I figured you and Fraser would be tired by the time you got in, and I knew you didnít have anything to eat in the house. Theyíre buttered rolls."

"We got leftover pizza, but this is so much better. Thanks."

"Fraserís all right?"

"Yeah, heís fine. He loved Canada, but we came back to Chicago to see whatís up."

"Whatís up?" Now she started to sound upset.

"Uh, yeah."

"To see Ďwhatís upí?" Frannie got this look in her eyes that usually meant she was going to go for something, full speed ahead. "I know, Ray."

"Know what?"

"About you and Fraser. God, I wouldnít have dropped everything to stay in Canada with him even at my craziest, and you just did it, no looking back."

Not exactly with no looking back.... "Itís not what you think it is."

"You and Fraser are... are... involved with one another, a couple. Donít lie to me about it. Iím not blind. Even if I didnít have that whole Canada thing to go on, the fact that you have the worldís largest hickey on your collarbone would tell me. No woman has a mouth that big."

Jeez, it looked like she could definitely hack it at the Police Academy. "Frannie...."

"For the first month after I figured it out I wanted to strangle the both of you. I mean, there you were being the way you are right under my nose, and Iím throwing myself at Fraser the whole time...."

I couldnít let her think weíd been laughing at her or anything. Time for honesty; I just hoped Fraser wouldnít mind the cat being out of the bag with Frannie. He probably wouldnít. "It wasnít like that. I didnít know myself until a few weeks with him in Canada."

"I knew that." But she looked happy that I said it. "Eventually."

"Itís true. We needed a kick in the head to see it too."

"Somehow, that doesnít surprise me. But I started dealing with the two of you being... the way you are two weeks ago, and I think Iím fine with it now."

"I never wanted to hurt you with this." I wasnít ever going to tell her that Fraser had been interested in her real brother; it might blow the top of her head off.

"Yeah, yeah, thatís what I figured. And Iím so over him. I mean, I figured out that if it wasnít going to happen after so many years, it wasnít ever gonna happen. You two happy?"

"Heís like nobody else Iíve ever known. You know. But I love him, yíknow?"

"Yeah, if Iíd taken the blinders off, I would have figured it out a long time ago. I knew he loved you; I just didnít think it would be in that way...." Then Frannie cleared her head, came back from wherever, and said, "Ray, Iím not the first person in the squad room to wonder about it and put two and two together."

Fuck. Looked like I had another reason not to go down to the 27th. "People are talking about my sex life? Fraserís sex life?"

"Yeah, and some people are being real jerks about it. Iím sorry, Ray."

It was just another reason not to visit the 27th, right? No biggie. Really. I took a deep breath. "How jerky?"

"Nasty. Iíve been defending your honor, but you canít talk to people like that. Well, I mean, you can, but itís not like they listen. Itís kinda like talking to yourself."

"Thanks, Frannie. Really." It took a weight off me that she was okay with us. I liked her.

She did this little pleased sway from side to side at my thanks. "But Welsh is looking out for you too. He canít play favorites or anything, but heís not letting people say things when heís around. Tells Ďem itís disrespectful, itís not like weíre all in high school, and itís not like the Chicago PD is paying them to stand around gossiping like teenagers at a slumber party, but I think itís that he likes you guys too and doesnít care who youíre messing around with."

"Heís a good guy." One of the best Iíve ever known.

"Yeah, and heís wondering when heís going to get to see the both of you."

"It may be a while. I have some things I gotta get out of the way first." And a lot to think about too. I had no idea where the hell I was going to be next week. Or tomorrow, even. If I went to the 27th, Iíd get asked questions I didnít have answers to.

"Just as long as you do it eventually."

"Yeah, yeah. Bossy much?" I never had a real sister before I took up the Vecchio gig, though Ray Walker had almost qualified for a little while. It wasnít that bad at all.

Frannie grinned. "You need somebody to keep you in line."

"I often say the same," Fraser said as he walked out of the bedroom. "Good morning, Francesca." He looked perfect, every hair in place and his dark blue RCMP sweatsuit totally unwrinkled. He couldnít have showered already because heíd have to walk out in front of us to get to the bathroom.

I mean, go figure. I looked like Iíd been fucked senseless last night, while he comes out looking like Gym Teacher Ken, volunteering his time at the Y to help troubled youth.

I decided to be Zen about it and accept it as one of those mysteries of the universe. Besides, Iíd rumple him again later.

"Hey, Frase," Frannie answered. She looked happy to see him but not predatory anymore. She used to look at him like he was catch of the day and she hadnít eaten all week. It really seemed like she was over him. Good for you, Frannie. She also had this kind of smirk on her face, like she was saying that his neat, groomed look didnít fool her for a second. "I came over with rolls for breakfast for you."

"Thank you kindly."

"But I have to go now. Work. You remember work, right, Ray?"

"Never heard of it," I said.

"See you soon?"

I gave her a friendly goodbye hug. "Sure." I ruffled the back of her hair just so sheíd make a huffy protest.

When she pulled away, she looked at Fraser, realized heíd probably bolt if she tried to hug him too since he didnít see the new her, and shook his hand instead. "Good to see you again, Frase."

Ben actually looked confused by her. I had to hide my smile.

"Ah, yes. You as well. Good day, Francesca."

She waved as she closed the door behind her, leaving one really amazed Mountie in her wake. I wondered if heíd miss his number one fan now that sheíd been replaced by someone who didnít need to maul him anymore. I mean, heíd always gotten that deer in the headlights look when she came at him, but maybe heíd miss the attention.

"Things change," I said as he turned to look at me.

"Indeed." His expression cleared, then turned smoldering as he got a closer look at me. "It looks like I despoiled you last night."

Reflex said to close the robe to hide the bite mark on my collarbone, but it made more real sense to leave it be as I leaned against the wall in what I figured would be an inviting sprawl. My dick approved and woke up even more. "Iím always up for despoiling in a good cause."

"Really." It came out as a deep purr against my neck, which was where Ben had ended up while I was talking. "Care to prove it?" His fingers slid under the waistband of my boxers.

"How do I know this is a good cause?" I felt a real pride that I managed to say a whole sentence while his hand played with me.

"I would never involve you in anything else."

"Oh sure. Meanwhile, we still have to clean up, get dressed, go see my parents-- Oh. Ohhhhh. Oh yeah, and do what yer doing right now, do a lot of that." I bucked as he started to do more things with his hand. Hot, naughty things to my dick and balls mostly.

His fingers slowed. "Are you sure?"

I pushed into his grip. "Yeah."

"You always tell me I shouldnít be so slavish to orders." Dark, honeyed, clueless Mountie voice.

"If you pick now to try that out, youíll go to that special hell they reserve for Mounties gone bad. And youíll be sleeping on the couch too."

"At the same time? I wouldnít want that. I also wouldnít want to make us late for our visit to your parents and force you to lie about why. Perhaps I can find a compromise."

Ben dropped to his knees, pulled my boxers off with one snatch, and sucked me down. Him kneeling at my feet, looking utterly neat and unrumpled, with my cock sliding between his perfect lips as he worked me fast and dirty.... Too much. I managed to moan, "More people should disobey me like this," before I came. Maybe some day Iíd ask him where heíd learn to give head like that and how many poor guys heíd left in Canada with the tops of their skulls blown off from it.

He let me slide down the wall until we were level with one another, and I tasted myself as we kissed. Then I had him on the floor beneath me and stroked his dick until he was a writhing, mindless puddle of Mountie. I also made him come in his sweatpants. Once his brain started working again, he raised an eyebrow as he noticed what a mess Iíd made of him, probably thinking it wasnít really fair since heíd sucked me off neat and clean as could be.

I grinned. "Had to be done. Now we take a shower--separately--and I start thinking what I could wear thatíll disguise the way you made a meal of me last night." Not that bad a start to my day.



As Ray had said last night, it felt odd to be traveling in something that didnít have dogs pulling it. I missed them as well, though not nearly as much as Ray, who had seemed to bond with them, appeared to. Our ride to see his parents was canine-free, since weíd left Dief at the apartment to make sure the taxi driver would take us. I fully expected a sulking fit to greet us when we came back with Rayís GTO.

Sitting next to me, Ray looked smaller and sleeker than my mind usually remembered him, but that was from the lighter clothing he wore in Chicago. It had only taken two months for my mental image of him to automatically include thick layers of protective clothing, making him a larger creature. Seeing him naked once in a while hadnít changed that image at all. Now the sight of him kept surprising me, though not in an unpleasant way.

It seemed nearly obscene to see him wearing so little in public. I liked it.

The lack of bulk had returned his movements to the faster, more graceful ones he used to use. He also gestured more often again now.

Smiling, Ray stared out the window at the city. He nearly glowed in his happiness to be home. Iíd hoped that the Yukon would engender similar feelings in him.... His hand rested over mine on the seat, his fingers idly stroking my skin to remind me that he was still with me or perhaps himself that I was still with him.

Iíd panicked last night when I woke to find myself alone in the bed. He couldnít have been gone for more than a minute and a half before his absence woke me. Then Iíd barged in on him while he was in the bathroom. It didnít matter that the door had been partially open; had it been closed I no doubt would have done the same, heedless of any wish for privacy he might have. I followed that by pawing him, needing to feel him.

In the Yukon, my worries would have been understandable. Ray could wander into a snow-camouflaged crevasse or a hungry animalís path away from the camp or me. Did I expect him to fall prey to an animal attack or into a crevasse on the way to the bathroom?

If he had a hallucination instead, there was nothing Iíd be able to do for him. The thought chilled me. Just because he hadnít experienced any in the last three weeks didnít mean they wouldnít return. Heíd continued to draw circular protective wards around our sleeping areas up to the last day we spent in Canada.

The things he seemed to see only increased my fears of losing him, mentally if not physically.

And my concern at him going off alone in his apartment wasnít completely unjustified. Heíd looked lost and upset as he stared in the mirror, and heíd thrown himself into sex with even more abandon than usual, as if fleeing something. Today I bore the signs of his passion in bruises and bite marks, as his body bore the marks of my eager reciprocation. Heíd been wild, feral, demanding, as he drove me to madness. As remembering it this morning had aroused me again....

I would embarrass myself if I faced his parents while in such a state, erect and reeking of lust for their son, especially since my civilian attire lacked my uniformís long tunic that could disguise so many sins. I fought down the memories of Ray riding me, the snug clench of his muscles around my cock, his sweat-slick skin burning beneath my fingers, the sweet sounds of his helpless pleasure--

I really had to stop this. I didnít understand how I could still be so vulnerable after spectacular sex last night and another session only an hour ago. Surely it should have "taken the edge off," as Ray would say.

But no matter how much and how often I had Ray, I never seemed to lose my razor-keen desire for him. Like with an addiction, every taste only left me needing more.

Enough. I had a brain and a sense of propriety. It was past time for me to use them. Ray had distracted me from his troubles. I would simply have to ask him again.

Rayís smile fled as we reached his parentsí trailer, but he quickly pasted it back on. I said, "Your parents will be happy to see you, Ray."

"Yeah. Iím just glad weíre not telling Ďem everything, not yet." Then his hand squeezed mine. "Iím sorry, Ben. We could, if it bothers you. Mumíll be good about it; itís just Dad Iím worried about."

"It doesnít bother me." I understood his caution and saw no reason to give him more to fret about. He expected them to be upset enough already about him having suddenly run off to Canada with me two months ago and staying there. In any case, I saw no need to announce ourselves to everyone we knew. Our business was our own. We could deal with it as it arose.

"Thatís great." As Ray paid the driver, he said, "Iím so glad to be back to American bills. The Canadian stuff looks like Monopoly money, and barter feels un-American."

Another subject change, and Ray no doubt felt that his playful jab at my country would derail my train of thought. Iíd let him get away with it for now if it cheered him up. "American dollars are so unpleasing to the eye."

"Theyíre supposed to be useful, not pretty. Them being ugly makes it easier to figure that out."

"Thereís no reason an item canít be pleasing to the eye as well as useful."

"Government probably hopes that if they make Ďem ugly enough, people will be dying to spend Ďem to get rid of Ďem." Ray knocked at the trailerís door. His smile faltered only a little as he saw his father and said, "Hey, Dad." I wondered if his casual air and tone fooled his father at all.

Damian Kowalski smiled, but his manner still seemed somewhat distant. His eyes, however, drank Ray in, scrutinizing him. The varying signals he put out confused me, leaving me uncertain as to his feelings about Rayís homecoming. "Raymond. Glad yer home again."

As we walked inside, Ray seemed to loosen up a little. "Good to be home again. Whereís Mu--"

"Stanley!"

"Mum!" Ray said in greeting before his mother all but smothered him with a hug. "I missed you too," he gasped, his voice low and thick.

She clasped him tightly for a while before pushing him away a little to get an appraising look. "Did you eat at all while you were away? Come with me."

"Mum...."

"If you wonít take care of yourself, Iíll have to do it for you," she said as she started to pull him away with her. Ray gave me an apologetic look as his mother dragged him into the kitchen, but he looked pleased nonetheless. I envied him his relationship with her.

"Can I speak to you... Constable?" Rayís father asked.

I pulled my eyes off Rayís retreating back. "Yes, sir."

"I wanted to talk to you about Raymond."

This didnít bode well. I played obtuse. "Yes, sir?"

"My Raymondís a good boy."

"Heís a good man," I couldnít help saying before I really thought. My time in the Territories with only Ray seemed to have broken down my sense of tact and subtlety. Stupid of me to bait Rayís father, no matter how much I disliked him. Even aside from Damian Kowalskiís decision to punish Ray for becoming a police officer by withholding his love and presence for so many years, something about the man set my teeth on edge... but that gave me no excuse. Everything would be far easier if he didnít hate me.

He only nodded. "Yes, heís grown to be a good man. Itís my own fault that I didnít stay to see that as it happened. But I think I still know him well enough.... Heís loyal, loyal to the point of idiocy sometimes. Heíll give ya as much as he can, then try to give more."

"Heís a good partner." I waited for the point. I feared that I already knew what it was.

"I understand him going to Canada with you, since you had a criminal to catch. Of course, if he hadnít been with you, Canada never wouldíve come into it, but all right. But then he gives a brief call to say heís staying and doesnít know for how long. Then he comes back two months later all skin and bones and with this look in his eyes...."

When he offered nothing further, I asked, "A look?" As much as I didnít like the direction he seemed to pointing toward, at least by now I could be confident that he hadnít figured out our secret before Ray was ready to tell him.

"Like heís seen too much. Seen something he shouldnítíve seen." His own eyes seemed to burn into me. "Iíve seen him with you. Heíll do anything you ask. Iím asking you not to ask."

What look? I hadnít seen any look, and Iíd spent the past two months studying Ray even more than usual. How could Mr. Kowalski look at him for half a minute and come to the conclusion that Iíd harmed him? "Sir?"

"Yer taking advantage of him and his loyalty. If yer a real friend, youíll stop."

His effrontery actually set me back for a moment. "I am his friend."

"Then youíll stop."

Outrage followed. How dare he? This man Ray idolized had thrown his son away, cutting off contact, ruthlessly punishing him for years for doing nothing other than making a decision about his future that went against his fatherís wishes. The break had been so total and devastating that Ray had assumed the people at the 27th were playing a prank on them when they told him his parents were on their way to see him and wanted to talk to him.

Damian Kowalski had thrown away any right to speak about what would be best for his son years ago. He couldnít even know what that would be. He was no kind of father to abandon his son so. Yet he found the gall to chastise me in the name of Rayís "good."

Since Ray had taken on the role of Ray Vecchio nearly two years ago, I had become the closest thing he had to family in the absence of any true, close blood kin. Francesca became his sister for the sake of his role, but he chose me.

I was Rayís family. As such, I had to rein in every dark impulse that coursed through my mind at this moment. I wanted to tell Mr. Kowalski that I intended to take Ray back with me to Canada where heíd never see his son again. I wanted to tell him that we were lovers and describe how sweetly and eagerly Ray welcomed it as I thrust into him....

But I shouldnít. Must not. No matter how much dark pleasure it would give me to so upset Damian Kowalski, I would be hurting Ray as well, and I would never do that. Ray, of all people, had reminded me that confessions had proper times and places and ways.

I also understood that Rayís father wanted me to start a fight. He would stand there and say horrible things to me in a calm, quiet voice until he won by provoking me into a fit of screaming nastiness. Ray, just in the next room, would inevitably hear the yelling and be affected by it.

Who would have thought Iíd miss arguing with my own father so much?

Tension and violence just about vibrated in the air between us. We both wanted a fight; I knew that I couldnít afford one.

Still, I couldnít help the sharp tone in my voice as I said, "Mr. Kowalski--"

The door slamming open interrupted us. "Hey, Fraser, look at this haul," Ray said. He swung numerous shopping bags up for my inspection, then set them down on the dining room table. "Mum decided to give me half her kitchen since she thinks I canít cook."

"I know you can cook; I taught you myself after all. I just know you well enough to realize that you didnít go grocery shopping when you came in yesterday," Mrs. Kowalski said lightly as she interposed herself between her husband and me.

I wondered only briefly at their timing.

"You want me to be a blimp," Ray said.

"Youíre too thin."

"You always say that."

"Youíre always too thin. You missed Easter with us, so I missed a prime opportunity to fatten you up."

He currently was too thin. Iíd have to see if I could amend that myself.

I tried to rein in my guilt at making him miss what sounded like a traditional family dinner but didnít succeed. He hadnít seen them in years, yet heíd missed a major holiday gathering with them to stay in Canada with me. I couldnít help wondering if her statement had been a calculated shot at me. If so, it wasnít completely undeserved.

The way Rayís eyes dropped made me feel worse. "Iím sorry. I wanted to spend Easter with you, and itís been so long--"

She looked upset at his reaction and kissed him. "Itís fine, and you had something very important to do. Itís certainly not your fault, Stanley," she said as she glanced at her husband. Damian Kowalski had the grace to look shamefaced for a moment before regaining what seemed to be his usual expression of irritability. She brightened again, and it seemed to have a reciprocal effect on Ray. "But you have to forgive your mother for wanting to make up for lost time and get some meat on your bones."

"Soylent Green is people, Mum."

"Oh, Stanley, when I say I could just Ďeat you up,í I never mean it literally."

"Sure, thatís what ya want me to think. Iím not fooled."

Mr. Kowalski seemed as stunned by their energy and brightness as I was. Their strategy, no doubt.

Mrs. Kowalski gave Ray a big hug as she asked, "Oh, canít you stay longer?"

"Afraid not. Have a lot of people I have to check in with. The GTOís good to go?"

Neatly executed.

Rayís father blinked. "Of course."

"Really appreciated you taking care of it while I was away. Thanks, Dad."

"Sure."

Rayís mother stepped back into the kitchen and came out with a keyring that she lovingly folded into Rayís hand. "Be good."

"Mum, Iím always good!" Ray protested but swept her into a tight embrace again. "I missed you," I heard him whisper. She smiled as he let her go.

Then, to my surprise, she hugged me. "Donít let our son be a stranger, Constable Fraser."

Right to the heart. "Iíll do my best."

"Thank you."

Ray shook hands with his father and said his farewells. When he was done, I held out my own hand to Damian Kowalski in challenge. His eyes narrowed, but he shook my hand, squeezing painfully. When I squeezed back, his face went white. "Thank you, sir," I said blandly. "Have a good day." He said nothing as we left.

Ray put the food in the trunk then sat down in the driverís seat with a happy sigh, stroking the steering wheel. But as soon as I settled into the passenger seat, he asked, "What did my dad say to you?"

"Ray?"

"Donít play that with me. I can tell somethingís bothering you, and you were fine until I left the room, so Dad must have been a jerk. I was expecting it even as I was hoping heíd behave. When Mum and me came out like we did just in case, I felt it in the room."

I still found Rayís sensitivities and ability to see through my mask disconcerting. "He was worried about you."

"Yeah?" Ray actually grinned. "Really?" He sounded so surprised, so pleased.

So little could mean so much to him. The surprise in his voice made me hate his father even more. "Really."

"Okay, now get that look off your face. He can be a jerk sometimes, but I know Dad loves me; itís just something I havenít gotten used to again yet. Damn, I didnít mean it that way. I meant--"

"I know what you meant," I said. I knew better than he did himself.

"Great. Saves a lot of time." Ray smiled a little. "I told Mum about us."

I felt abruptly warmer. "What did she say?"

"That if you didnít treat me right, sheíd hound you to yer grave."

"I doubt she said that."

"She said sheís happy for us and expects us to come to dinner sometime. You got any problems with that?"

"Not at all."

"Thatís good, Ďcause Mum takes dinner very seriously. Now we go drop off Mumís welcome-back food, pick up the furry guy, and get the day going."



Springtime in Chicago. I smirked at the pigeons on the make. The guys were puffed up to look twice as big as they were and did spinning, look-at-me dances on the sidewalk near any chick they could find, but the ladies werenít interested. Knew that bit from personal experience. Didnít stop the guys from sidling up to the next lady they saw. I knew that bit too.

A big black bird--not as big as One for Sorrow, thank God, so it was a normal raven or crow--sat on a nearby newspaper box. The crow gripped a big white thing in its beak that I took for a piece of Styrofoam but then dropped it onto the top of the box and pecked at it, making a delicate cracking sound every time. An egg. A pigeon egg, I guessed.

The crow dipped its beak into the dark hole and ripped out bloody, stringy gobbets of what would have become a baby bird, wolfing them down. Bright red stained the pure white shell. My own breakfast started to churn in my stomach at the sight and casual violence of it.

If I hadnít already known it before, being in the Territories would have shown me that Nature wasnít some pretty lady in a flowing robe with flowers in her hair and cute forest animals following her; she was a ruthless bitch who just didnít care. If you were small and defenseless, that was your problem, though it wouldnít be a problem for long because youíd pretty quickly become somethingís lunch. But this... I felt like I should be doing something, but it was already too late. It had happened too fast.

The crow left the egg to fly straight at some pigeons near the curb, scattering them as it landed. Then it took off again, flying low over the sidewalk, scattering people the same way. Ben moved out of its way too, which made it a real bird, really there, but I just stood and watched as the gleaming black feathers nearly brushed my nose as it rushed by.

It didnít return for the egg. The crow didnít even finish off the egg, just killed it, had a light snack, and left the rest to rot. Killed it and didnít even finish it.

No matter what kind of weird vision things I saw in the Territories, this didnít mean anything; this wasnít some kind of omen or anything. I mean, I once saw a crow disemboweling a rat on top of a gravestone years ago, and that didnít lead to anything.

That I knew of.

"Ray?" Ben sounded worried and had that look that said, Ray, my friend, you wouldnít happen to be going crazy again, would you? I must have been standing there staring for too long.

As a truck drove by, the egg rolled off the box and smashed to the pavement with a sharp cracking sound. Now only a sad pile of red-smeared white shell bits surrounding a red-black gooey mess remained of what would have become a baby bird if left to itself.

I swallowed. It meant nothing. It meant nothing. "Nah, Iím fine, Fraser. Letís go in." I walked up the steps into the 23rd and back into the past.

Gee, I wonder if the rumors about me being gay have gotten here yet?



"Anyone who says he can see through a woman is missing a lot."
-- Mae West


I hadnít seen enough American police district buildings to say for certain that they all looked alike, but the 27th and 23rd could have been twins. The color American officers called "institutional green" reigned here as there. The squad rooms shared a similar rowdy bustle of officers, innocents, and suspects.

Ray walked unerringly through the maze and mob but didnít get far, immediately being stopped by a young plainclothes officer. "May I help you, sir?" the young man asked in a barely patient tone. "And youíll have to remove the dog from the premises."

Ray quickly erased the irritation from his face, then said, "Heís a guide dog, and he stays. Me, Iím Detective Ray V-- Kowalski. Detective S. Raymond Kowalski. I worked here for a while, but Iíve been undercover for a long time. I see some of the people Iím looking for, but whereís Detective Rachel Walker?"

"I donít know anyone by that name."

Only the restless movement of Rayís fingers told me how nervous that statement had made him. "Sure, you do. Sheís about my height but with black hair. All legs. Fidgets a lot."

"Iím afraid not." The young man looked suspicious now, while Ray seemed to be losing patience.

"Look, you--"

A large man came by and clapped Ray on the back. "Ray!"

Ray grinned at the newcomer. "Hey, Cameron. Howís it hanging?"

"Not bad, not bad. Leave him alone, Scoppa. He belongs here."

"If you say so," the young man said, doubt evident in his tone.

"Now scoot."

The young man gave Ray a hostile look before leaving. Ray just shook his head and asked, "Raphael, whatís his damage?"

"Been here for seven months, and we still havenít rubbed all the green off him yet."

"Whereís Bernstein?"

"Transferred to Arson."

Rayís eyes widened in disbelief. "Transferred?"

"Hey, you may be pretty, but he couldnít wait for you forever. Thatís one long assignment you had. Besides, they made him an offer he couldnít refuse."

As I watched Ray stifle what appeared to be sadness and disappointment, I struggled myself with the thought of Ray having a partner before heíd met me. Of course, he had to have had one, my logical side reminded me, but my logical side had little to do with my relations with Ray. The way heíd spoken on rare occasions--since he rarely spoke of his professional work as Detective Kowalski during his time as Ray Vecchio--of his temporary pairings with Rachel Walker had allowed me to delude myself into thinking of him as someone who simply partnered momentarily with whomever was best for the job at hand. Never mind that Iíd never seen such an arrangement in all my time around Canadian and American law enforcement agencies.

"Arson," Ray said. "Guess Iíll just have to pay him a visit there then."

"Except that I hear heís out of town on some kind of convention for a week. The lieutenant might know."

"Yeah, gotcha. What about Gernand?"

"Transferred to Fugitives."

"Gambini?"

"Day off."

"Santiago."

"Back soon."

"Ramirez."

Detective Cameron looked down. "Shot down in a corner store a month ago. He wasnít even on duty."

"Shit. Howís Connie?"

"Sheís... doing about as well as you can expect."

"Damn. I was out of the country. Didnít know. Iíll have to pay my respects to her." Ray swallowed. "Whereís Ray? Kid didnít know her."

"Walker, Texas Ranger?"

"Surprised she hasnít killed you for that yet."

"Sheís a softy."

"Our Ray Walker? You gotta be kidding me."

"ĎCourse I am. Donít think Irish is gonna be one of those people that time mellows out. She just finished a long-term assignment last week, so the kid never met her. Sheís on leave right now. Let me tell the lieutenant youíre here."

"Sure. Announce me, Raphael."

Detective Cameron made a rude gesture before leaving us. I asked Ray in a whisper, "S. Raymond Kowalski?"

"I didnít feel like going into the whole Ďyeah I know, Dad and Marlon Brando, I prefer Rayí thing for the little bastard. He probably would have asked, and he wasnít worth the time. Iím listed as ĎS. Raymond Kowalskií on a lot of my paperwork anyway. ĎSides, Iíd already started to introduce myself as a Ray, just the wrong one," Ray whispered back.

Iíd noticed that as Iíd gone through his records not long after meeting him, trying to determine the mettle of the man whoíd replaced Ray Vecchio. Iíd seen him listed alternately as "Stanley R. Kowalski" and "S. Raymond Kowalski." The variations had made it even more important to me that he tell me his name and preferences himself.

Someone called from across the room, "Kowalski, to what do I owe the displeasure?"

Ray grinned. "Hey, Gee."

"Iíll be so glad when that showís off the air."

"Itís a good show, and itís not my fault you look like him. Besides, itíll probably play on cable forever anyway."

Sporting an extravagantly long-suffering look that seemed to be standard issue for Chicago lieutenants, or at least the ones who knew my Rays, the man sighed. "In my office, Kowalski."

"Sound like him too. Can Fraser come too? Heís the guy who--"

"Both of you, then."

"I have him wrapped around my finger," Ray whispered to me.

"I heard that."

As we walked across the room, Ray whispered to me, "I call him ĎGeeí because of a cop show called Homicide: Life on the Street. Great show. Dark show, but great. Lieutenant McNamera is a dead ringer for Lieutenant Giardello."

"Thank you, Ray." I appreciated it that he knew Iíd ask, but it bothered me that I knew so little about things apparently elementary to Rayís life.

He just shrugged, then closed the door behind us. "Ben, this is Lieutenant Thomas McNamera."

The lieutenant sat behind his desk and gave me a look that once again reminded me of Lieutenant Welsh. "So, this is the Mountie," he said.

"Yes, sir," I answered, "though I canít see how youíd know that while Iím out of uniform."

"You still look like a Mountie."

"Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

Ray said, "And the dogís a half-wolf named Diefenbaker, and before you ask, Diefís a service dog, so heís okay in the building. Kinda. I mean, heís kind of a service dog, not that he wonít be okay in the building. Is Bernstein out of town?"

Lieutenant McNamera sighed. "I see youíve been working on that problem you had with being impatient. Iím just glad no one ever got the bright idea of mainlining whatever kind of natural speedís running through your veins."

"Just being direct."

"Right. Heís out of state at a law enforcement convention and isnít due back for another five days, according to the grapevine."

"ĎCause you never keep up with the folks who leave your direct command."

"No reason to." Apparently Lieutenant McNameraís gruffness covered the same large heart that Lieutenant Welshís did.

"Since the direct route is working so far, now Iím gonna ask where Walker is."

"Why didnít I kill you years ago?"

"I suspect you just didnít have any good places handy to dump a body in, sir."

"You bend real nice, so Iíd only need a little hole. Nah, itís not that. Iím probably afraid your ghost would haunt me, and that would have to be even worse. You, nattering in my ear until I die of the torture."

Ray shivered and made a quick--circular?--gesture with his hand, but his tone remained as borderline smart-ass as it had been moments ago. "Donít know much about ghosts."

Lieutenant McNamera sighed. "It would be justifiable homicide."

"A jury of yer peers would have to decide that, sir."

"Not that itís really any of your business, Kowalski, but Detective Walker just finished a long undercover assignment last week and is currently on leave. You could call her for more information on her current circumstances, but you know sheís not going to be able to talk about where sheís been and what sheís been doing for the last eight months."

"Gotcha."

"In fact... I would appreciate it if youíd check in on her."

"Bad one?"

"Itís not my place to say, Detective."

"Gotcha. Any of the other guys go see her?"

"A few. Itís not the same."

Ray seemed to be taking something from this conversation that bypassed me entirely. "Sure, Gee."

"Kowalski...."

"You love me, and you know it. Iíll go now to check up on Walker, just like you asked me to."

"Whenever you get obedient, I start checking my pockets."

Ray smiled. He seemed to smile at everyone here. "Iím hurt, really hurt."

"Not as much as you could be, Kowalski. It was good to meet you, Constable."

"The same, sir," I said as I shook his hand.

Looking supremely confident and comfortable, Ray waved at a few people as we left the station, while Dief and I trailed in his wake. Uncertain of the proper way to behave here, I simply followed in silence, still off-balance. As Ray had been forced to depend on me in the Yukon in unfamiliar territory, so now I was forced to rely on him. I didnít like it much, and it gave me a greater respect for how little Ray had complained to me during that time.

As Ray unlocked the driverís side door of his GTO a man walking by said, "Nice car, Kowalski."

Ray beamed. "Santiago. Been an age."

Santiago ruffled Rayís hair over Rayís protests, making me wonder if everyone who knew him apparently felt and indulged the need to touch him, then frowned. "Itís not the same when your hairís so long."

Ray stuck out his tongue. "Do that again, and Iíll kick you in the head."

"Yeah, yeah."

"Hey, Fraser, this is Frank Santiago, whoís been with the 23rd forever. Real old fogey."

"Hey! Iím not that old."

"Fifty-somethingís old. Fraser, Santiagoís the first guy who made me feel at home here when I made detective, kind of like a dad to me."

"If you were my kid, Iíd take you over my knee."

"Keep yer fantasy life out of this. Santiago, this is Constable Benton Fraser."

Santiago had a firm handshake. "Never thought Iíd meet the Mountie." He smiled at me. "Donít look at me like that. The news uses you almost every time they have a slow day."

"I... see," I answered. Did Ray bring this out in everyone he knew from his old squad room?

"Hey, kid, you coming back here?" Detective Santiago asked.

Rayís face briefly clouded, and that worried me. "Dunno yet. Iím kinda unsettled," Ray said.

"Youíve always been unsettled." At Rayís long-suffering look, Santiago laughed and said, "Weíd be glad to have you back, you know that, right?"

"Of course."

"Brat. Wish I could stand around and catch up with you, but some of us have work to do."

"Yeah, yeah. If you were smarter, you wouldnít have to work so hard."

Santiago smiled and flipped Ray off before he went into the station. Rayís old district seemed far more casual than the 27th. For some reason, it nagged at me. Everything about his previous life nagged at me.

But Ray already had the GTOís door open. "You coming, Ben?"

"Of course." As I sat down in the passenger seat, I said, "I have a question for you, Ray." I had many actually, most of which I probably shouldnít ask.

"Sure, shoot."

"Iím not sure how I should ask this."

Ray smirked. "Itís one of those questions? Just get it out."

"Iím simply hoping you wonít take it the wrong way."

"Now Iím really curious. Go for it."

I wasnít sure which of my many questions would come out when I opened my mouth. I waited for it the same as Ray did. "I know youíre experienced in undercover work, yet you--"

"--played Vecchio as me with another name?" Ray sounded more amused than offended.

Of all the ones I could have asked, why that one? Maybe because it had been bothering me for some time. "No. Well, yes. I mean, that would be another question but not the one Iím asking. Iím asking.... Well, your emotions usually show on your face, which is actually one of the things I love you for--"

Ray grinned. "Sweet."

"But it leaves me to wonder if that might hinder you while youíre undercover."

"Itís connected to the other question. I started out the job getting a feel for Vecchio, but it didnít take long before I realized that none of you wanted that from me, and I could get away with mostly being me. Which, lemme tell you, is a relief when yer playing somebody long term. What I usually do is become the person Iím playing. Iím not me pretending to be Joe Thug, I am Joe Thug, at least when Iím in front of other people. That way, whatever shows up on my face is the right thing. It works in my favor."

My heart went cold at the thought. "It sounds dangerous to you."

"It can be, especially over the long term. A year of being Vecchio-as-me left me mind-fucked enough on my identity; if Iíd been Vecchio-as-Vecchio that long, I might be in the loony bin now."

Amazing how he could sound so nonchalant over words that left me so horrified. Horrified that his character could be so mutable, his very identity so at risk. Then I thought further about his comment that heíd changed his act as Ray Vecchio based on cues from me and the other people at the 27th and felt even worse. How far did he follow such cues? How much of the Ray I knew came from him responding to what he thought I wanted from him?

I calmed myself with an effort. Making assumptions often resulted in dangerous and self-damaging behavior.

In any case, I had no more time for my anxieties as we had arrived at our destination, no doubt the residence of the infamous Rachel Walker. Ray looked like he didnít know whether he felt nervousness or anticipation as he got out of the car. This was the friend he had cast away completely on Stellaís say-so, and Walker hadnít been very happy about it at the time. Understandably so. He hadnít spoken to her in a friendly manner in years and no doubt felt anxious about the reception sheíd have for him now.

I wanted to meet her myself. What little Iíd heard of her from him suggested that I could learn a great deal about my Ray from observing her.

Ray pressed the call boxís button and leaned in close to listen. Not that he needed to, since the box squawked loudly before a breathless, husky voice, crackling with static, backed by pounding music, said, "Hello?"

"Hey, baby," Ray purred, grinning, using bravado to get him through. It often worked.

"What? You-- Son of a--" The voice calmed. "Iím not playing Beavis for you, Butthead."

"Yer breathing kinda hard. You involved in something," Ray paused for a long, significant moment, "personal up there?"

"Iím flipping you off. You just canít see it." Despite her words, she sounded amicable.

"Sure, I can."

"Actually, I am involved. Get your skinny ass up here and join us."

"Uhm, I brought company. Iíd have to clear it with him first."

"You let me--" She sighed. "Sorry, whoever you are. Iím sorry you have to know Ray."

"Hey!"

"Iím exercising, nimrod."

"Iím sorry, maíam. We could come back another time," I said into the box.

"No, itís fine. Lemme buzz you up."

After a sharp buzzer sound, Ray opened the door and motioned me to follow him down the hall. I asked, "That was a friendly conversation?" The elevator door closed behind us.

"Sure, it was. Rayíd think something was wrong if I didnít tease. Hell, she gives as good as she gets, so it works out. Itís a... itís a kind of brother/sister thing."

"So if you two try to kill one another, I shouldnít worry, then."

"Pretty much."

"We should have called first."

"Nah."

"Weíre interrupting her exercise program. Hmm. Are you sure you two are so much alike?"

Ray smacked my arm as he left the elevator. "Comedian." He walked down the hall without looking back, confident that Iíd follow. I didnít know whether I should have been pleased by his trust or annoyed at his presumption.

The woman who opened the door didnít fit my expectations at all. My expectation had been a literal physical copy of Ray: short-haired, blonde. Ray had mentioned black hair while weíd been at the 23rd today, but Iíd had months prior to that to form a mental picture of her. To my chagrin, for some reason Iíd thought she would be more masculine. She also looked younger than Iíd expected. No doubt her being sweaty and flushed from exercise skewed the first impression somewhat, but the black-haired, fine-featured woman with dark green eyes standing in front of us surprised me.

However, she was as tall and rangy as my Ray, and her presence seemed to hum with a similar energy. They dressed in a similarly casual style.

"Ray!" they both seemed to say at once.

They grabbed one another, then Ray picked her up and swung her around the living room. Once he put her down, she slapped the back of his head.

"Hey!" my Ray protested.

"You could have called. This morning. Or hell, any time over the past three years." She quickly reached under his jacket and pulled out his cell phone. "See, you can use something like this to contact people. You just press a few buttons...."

Ray grabbed his phone back. "If the cop thing doesnít work out, you could always become a pickpocket."

"Itís my golden parachute. Whereís your manners?"

"Huh?"

"Okay, that was a dumb question. Let me try another. Whoís your friend?"

Ray introduced me yet again, his tone faster than normal. The repetitions were no doubt wearing on him. "This is Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He first came to Chicago on the trail of his fatherís killers, and it just got weirder from there."

"Pleased to meet you," she said, shaking my hand. She had a firm grip, with calluses, and short, blunt-cut bare nails on her long fingers. They were working hands.

She did seem genuinely pleased to meet me, while I still wasnít sure what to think of her. It didnít help that her friendly eyes looked at me in a way that somehow reminded me of my own Rayís. Assessing, yet not judging.

"Ben, this is Rachel Eileen Walker, formerly the other half of the Tigger Twins. Me being the first half."

"First? Ha! My tailís still full of springs. How Ďbout yours?"

Ray smirked. "Sometimes."

"Then youíre getting old, Ray." Then she smiled back at me. "You can call me ĎRayí or ĎWalker,í whatever floats your boat."

"Iíll call you ĎWalker,í then." There was no way in hell I intended to call her "Ray."

"Thatís good. Doable. ĎFraserí or ĎBentoní for you?"

"ĎFraser,í if you please." I ignored the look Ray shot me.

Dief barked indignantly, so Ray said, "And thatís Diefenbaker."

"Heís beautiful. Does he mind being petted?"

"Mind? If you pet him and feed him, we might have trouble bringing him back home with us. Give him donuts, and weíll need a crowbar to pry him offa you."

Diefenbaker, the traitor, luxuriated under her scratching fingers just as he did under our Rayís. I couldnít watch.

"Wait a minute. You forgive me?" Ray asked her.

"Huh?" she asked.

"I tossed yer friendship aside and treated you like shit, but weíre buddies again just like that?"

"Disappointed?"

"No but--"

"If you want a spanking, Iíll have you know I charge for that."

"Why is everyone talking about spanking me today?"

"It must be something about you, Ray."

"Yer forgiving me like this is a guilt thing, isnít it?"

"Hell, yeah. I want you to squirm with shame as you think of how badly you treated someone whoís as generous and big-hearted as I am. Donít stress over it, Ray. Iíve had DIs who could reduce hardcase recruits to blubbering wrecks, so you tossing me aside, then taking your divorce out on me really doesnít rate that high. Besides, I was on assignment away from you during most of your divorce angst anyway."

"Uh. Iím really sorry. I was a real shit to people but especially to you," Ray said, looking down at his boots. As much as I wanted to leap to his defense, I wasnít sure if I had the right here. Or if Ray would let me.

"We all understood, and it was years ago anyway." Walker smiled and ruffled his hair. "Hey, I wasnít even gonna get into it if you hadnít brought it up. Make it up to me somehow, and weíll be fine."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Weíre good. Really."

Ray slowly started to smile again. "Coolness."

Walker freed her hair from its tie, ran her hand through it, and grimaced. "Iím sorry to take off like this, but I just need a quick shower."

"We canít stay long," Ray said. I couldnít help my relief.

"Nah, I gotta do this anyway. Wonít take long. Ray, everythingís exactly where it was the last time you were here." As she turned to go and flexed her shoulders, the movement of one her tank topís straps unveiled more of the black swirls of a small tattoo on her right shoulder blade, but not enough for me to decipher it.

"That was three years ago."

From the bathroom she shouted back, "So sue me. I was never one of those people who wanted to be surprised in the kitchen. No ĎHey, where am I gonna put the sugar today?í Look, I can be adventurous in other parts of my life."

Ray suddenly said to me, "Thatís an Eye of Horus."

"Excuse me?"

"The tattoo on her back. Itís an Eye of Horus. We..." Ray paused. "We share an interest in Egyptian stuff."

I knew Ray well enough to know that heíd originally intended to say something very different. What, I wasnít certain.

My Ray stopped at the kitchen doorway and did five chin-ups on a bar nailed in there, seemingly for just that purpose, before going in. I wanted him, but that wouldnít be appropriate here. Diefenbaker leapt onto the couch, spun in a slow circle, then settled down and closed his eyes, instantly comfortable. I decided to take full advantage of the time alone to study Walkerís home.

While my Rayís apartment immediately showed his personality and varied interests, what I saw of Walkerís apartment revealed very little with its light blue walls, bland modern furniture, and generic framed prints. It could have been a slightly scruffy waiting room for a doctorís office. What was she hiding?

The lavish stereo system surrounded by CDs provided a better picture. While her selection shared some artists in common with Rayís, some of the bands had aggressively strange names Iíd never heard before.

Another small source of information came from the top of a computer desk, one of the ones you put together yourself from a kit. A plastic female action figure wielding a samurai sword guarded the laptop computer. Its molded-on outfit approximated purple-black leather midriff-baring ensemble that revealed a navel ring, stiletto-heeled thigh-high boots, fishnet stockings, and spiked shoulder guards. Its makeup painted one vertical half of its face white. A small item that resembled a straitjacket lay at its feet.

Two large, sheathed knives sat on one of the deskís shelves. Unsheathing revealed them to be workaday instead of decorative. Well-cared-for and sharp as well.

A few framed photographs near the desk gave a few more clues to the person who lived here: Walker in a police uniform standing with an older woman, Walker in an army dress uniform standing near the same woman. One picture in particular captured my eye; it looked spontaneous instead of posed and stiff, as the others did. In it, a much younger Walker with short, spiky hair and black-lined eyes grinned as she rode piggyback on a young man who also wore eye makeup and all black. She wore a studded collar and a multitude of black rubber bracelets on each wrist. Another smaller picture of about the same age tucked into the side of the frame featured her in the same hair and makeup while wearing a schoolgirl outfit with its shirt untucked as well as a leather jacket, scuffed motorcycle boots, and torn fishnet stockings. While Iíve seen many schoolgirls who hiked their skirts up to be provocative, her red plaid remained at knee-length, its natural end.

I wondered if those two pictures made the toy make more sense.

"Fraser! Iíll be right back," Ray said. To my shock, Ray casually opened a door and walked into her bedroom, uninvited. I heard him mutter, "Huh, stars and masks are new." Still, the door was open now.... I hung back for a few moments, then looked in.

The rest of the apartment may have looked generic, but her bedroom showed character, as if she refused to show her true self to her casual guests and saved it only for those intimate with her. She had surprisingly classical mahogany furniture here. Small metal stars hung in what seemed to be patterns from the ceiling; the arrangement suggesting that the deep blue of walls and ceiling were meant to simulate an evening sky. Books and knick-knacks packed a set of shelves in one corner. A few masks hanging from the walls showed blue, green, and peacock feathers.

Ray stared at one, and I went cold at the sight of it. After the bright colors of the others, its black feathers seemed even more somber. Light from the window picked out the shine of black sequins around the eyeholes and the sheen of gold and green iridescence in the feathers. With its high forehead, pronounced eye ridges, and ear tufts it almost suggested an owlís head, if that owl were utterly black, but it was still wrong. I tried to tell myself that at least it wasnít designed to look like a raven; it simply sported black feathers on a generic mask.

Ray noticed me watching at last and blinked. Then his fingers combed the bottom feathers away to reveal black, plastic whiskers. "I think itís really a cat mask," he said, and his voice almost sounded light and even. He took it down from its nail and turned it around to reveal that it truly was shaped like a stylized cat face. "They just glued feathers on it without even bothering to take the whiskers off. Itís not really a bird at all." He hung it back up and walked to some shelves, rifling through some large books, before taking one off it. "Got what I came for. Letís stop invading Rayís privacy and go back out."

Once he sat on the couch, Ray handed me a glass of water and opened what turned out to be a photo album. "Weíre still invading her privacy, Ray."

"Yeah, yeah."

"She just--"

"The fact that she left me alone out here to look around means she trusts me and really does forgive me. We are good. Itís a big relief; I felt like shit about how I treated her." He flipped through the pages. "Hey, who took this?"

The photograph depicted a bloodied but still somehow visibly victorious Ray and Walker leaning against a car, both looking to the side at something off-camera. His leather jacket gaped enough that his gun and holster were visible, while she had her hand atop her gun in its holster. Dried blood spattered the side of Walkerís face and her white shirt. The photograph seemed to show a whole story in one iconic, captured moment with a style and compositional excellence that looked professional. A neatly handwritten caption said:
"ĎTrigger Twinsí 9/16/94.
ĎThatíll teach me to wear white.í -- Rachel Walker.
Happy birthday, Ray! JH Ď95"

"Jesus, I remember that day," my Ray said. "Arrested a drug ring and saved some kids theyíd been using as human shields. The standoff lasted for hours. Most of it was tense waiting with heavy gunfire now and then. Funny thing is, dangerous as it was, the worst injury our side had was Ray taking a piece of window glass through her eyebrow, though from all the blood I really thought sheíd lost an eye at the time. Thatís the small scar that cuts her right eyebrow in half. The picture has to be one of John Hamillís, though. Crime scene photographer, he had a sweet spot for Ray but was too cool to say anything. Wonder if she has any more of his."

Ray started to flip again but soon stopped dead. "Damn, thereís Ramirez." The current photograph, an amateur one, showed a group of people, some of whom Iíd seen at the 23rd, in a bar. Rayís tapped one face in particular. "Canít believe heís gone, but, hell, the guy sitting on my other side here ate his gun a year after this shot was taken. Michael Johanek." The man had his arm around Rayís neck in a mock stranglehold. "He was an ass, but...." Ray tapped Detective Ramirezís face again. "Hope Connieís doing okay. They were such a love match."

"Is Detective Bernstein in this picture?" I asked.

"Yeah, my partnerís sitting behind me, not that you can see him too good. You can make out bits of him."

I saw graying brown hair, a single brown eye, part of a nose, part of a mouth. A suit-jacketed arm holding a beer mug might be his. The man could stand in front of me now, and I wouldnít recognize him from this.

Ray started to flip again, past more pictures of his fellow officers, vacation scenes, and people I didnít know. I wondered if Ray knew all of them, if heíd been that involved in Walkerís life before heíd given up her friendship to appease Stella.

He stopped at another excellent photograph that had him leaning forward into the camera and grinning cheekily as he formed a perfect smoke ring while Walker, who also had a cigarette, rolled her eyes far in the background. From all the things he used to occupy his mouth--gum, lollipops, toothpicks, pens--Iíd guessed heíd smoked at one time. The picture perfectly captured Ray in a giddy mood, and its caption read: "ĎBlowing Smoke.í JH Ď95"

Ray smiled and shook his head. "His work has coffee table books now. Wonder if these pics are worth something."

The album left me disquieted. The photographs showed Ray having a whole other life heíd given up to portray my partner. Every one showed him casually touching someone or being touched in turn, suggesting a network of friends and loved ones. Yet in all his time with the 27th, heíd only socialized with me or occasionally with me, Inspector Thatcher, and Turnbull. Heíd seemed as much an outsider and loner as I was.

Ray snorted suddenly, inspiring me to look again. The photograph depicted Ray playing billiards, something Iíd never seen him do. This picture made me need to rectify that. He leaned over a billiards table, sighting down his cue with a predatory glee in his blue eyes, generous mouth set in a dark grin, hip cocked arrogantly. He wore his glasses, suggesting a deadly seriousness about his game. Maybe it was better that Iíd never watched him, because I didnít think he could get much done then, not with what the sight of him looking that way would make me do to him. Other people, Walker among them, stood behind him, but they looked blurred, as if the camera had focused as ruthlessly on Ray alone as I did.

"Thatís one of my favorites of Ray," Walker suddenly said nearby. "What?"

My face must have slipped. "You startled me."

"Uh-huh." She adjusted the towel sheíd wrapped, turban-style, around her wet hair. Aside from the towel, sheíd dressed up a bit in tailored pants and a blouse. I wondered if sheíd done that from some assumption of my sensibilities. "If you want copies of anything, Ray, just ask and Iíll look to see if I have the negatives. Except for Johnnyís pics; youíd have to ask him for those, sorry. I can give you his number, though."

"Iím not really the picture type," Ray said as he quickly closed the book.

"ĎSokay. Looks like I didnít need to tell you that mi casa es su casa, huh, Ray?"

"You love me and you know it."

"Thatís the only thing keeping you alive. Iím glad my shower gave you enough time to poke around on your own. You couldíve gotten yourselves more than just a glass of water, though."

Ray shot Walker a look that went by so quickly that someone who didnít know him as well as I did would have missed it completely. "Itís just that we couldnít stay long. Sorry to interrupt yer routine and get you to shower and all that, but we have to go."

Walker nodded. "I get you." As Ray stood, she made a movement toward him that she swiftly aborted, stepping back further. "Donít be a stranger. And it was nice to meet you, Constable."

While I walked out into the hall, Ray lingered a moment in the doorway. I heard Walker say, "I heard about Sam Franklin, and Iím sorry. I never would have guessed either. Iím glad you finally got the Botrelle thing off your back. It was good work."

"You knew that was us?" Ray asked back.

"Hey, youíre not the only detective here. Take care of yourself, darliní."

Apparently lost in thought, Ray stood staring at the closed door until I asked, "Are you hungry, Ray?" It may have been petty to want his attention focused entirely back on me, but I couldnít seem to help it.

He shook his head but then said, "I could eat." Ah. Heíd used the motion to clear his thoughts instead of in answer.

"Chinese, perhaps?"

"As long as I donít have to watch you eat some gross dish of real Chinese food, Iím good. The Americanized stuff is less scary."

I smiled to cover the disquiet the day had left me with. "I swear that I wonít order anything that would terrify you."



"Youíve been real quiet, Ben," Ray said as he unlocked the door to his apartment. "I had to dialogue for both of us, and when ya do that, it isnít really Ďdialogueí anymore, ya know?"

Indeed. Over dinner heíd told me that it had been strange but good to see his old comrades again, though it felt like forever since heíd last worked with them. He thanked me for encouraging him to touch ground with them. When I asked when Iíd done that, he answered that Iíd suggested it months before, during our long wait in the alley for Muldoon.

I had to learn to keep my big mouth shut.

"Simply thinking, Ray."

Diefenbaker sat at Rayís feet with an expectant expression on his face, tail wagging. Ray smirked. "You just ate, you... you hound. Doggy bagís for later. Itís the nature of the doggy bag. Far be it from us to fight nature, got it, guy?"

Dief made a disgusted sound and stalked off to the bedroom, probably to roll and shed on Rayís bed in revenge, not that Ray minded all that much. Actually, Dief usually didnít put much effort into his vengeance anyway since he knew he could wear Ray down into agreement later.

"Man, and I wanted kids once." Ray shook his head, then looked at me. "Youíd let me know if somethingís bothering you, right?"

Would you, Ray? Goose and gander would only be fair play. "I was worried about your behavior this morning, actually."

Ray quirked an eyebrow and set his hand on my arm in what seemed to be half comfort and half tease. How wonderful that I had someone who could touch me like that. "I thought you were really into that kinda thing, actually. Didnít have any complaints at the time, thatís for sure."

I refused to let him deflect my inquiries by making me remember his throaty sounds of pleasure or the warm slide of his sweat-slick skin beneath my fingers and lips-- I would not. "I meant how you looked in the bathroom before that."

"Oh." Ray fidgeted.

"I ask you what you just asked me."

Ray looked miserable, so I stroked his hair. He made a small sound in his throat before saying, "I donít know if I can explain it to someone else. Part of it came from it being like 3 a.m. or something. Everything seems scarier then. I just hadnít seen myself for months, then there I was in that mirror and I looked like somebody different. It doesnít sound like much now, but it wigged me out at the time."

I liked some of the changes his appearance had undergone in the last few months, like the now longer hair that I so enjoyed tangling my fingers in. However, Iíd watched those changes overtake him slowly, while heíd been confronted with them all at once while in a fatigued and vulnerable state of mind.

"It was just a 3 a.m. thing," Ray continued. "You know, yer only half-awake, and you get a good look at yerself in a mirror for the first time in forever, and you donít recognize the guy on the other side. Iím dealing with it, and it wonít happen again." Ray settled his hand on my waist. "Now, can I pounce on ya without you thinking Iím just trying to change the subject? Otherwise, you better get used to abstinence, because if Iím not giving it to you, yer not getting it anywhere else."

"You can guarantee that?"

"I can make sure. Count on it. And it seems to me that all suspicion and no sex would make Benton Fraser one really grumpy boy."

Could things really be so wrong if Ray could purr at and joke with me? "I could pounce on you."

Rayís slow grin was sex and provocation all at once. "Prove it."

I did.



I smiled as I looked out over a pristine snowscape and took in a deep breath of pure, chill air. I felt giddy as I looked over the expanse of wilderness and clear night sky. Home. But I heard something behind me just under the sound of the wind. Whimpering. I turned to look.

Ray knelt, half crumpled, a shaking lump of black leather and moonlit blond hair against glittering white ice crystals. One hand clutched his stomach as the other clenched in the snow.

I crouched beside him and took him in my arms, holding tightly. "Ray! Whatís wrong?"

"I donít feel so good," he whispered as he shuddered. He made a sound of abject agony and shook harder. It suddenly felt like his whole body beat at me like hundreds of... wings?

Ray had exploded into hundreds of shrieking ravens, and they wanted to be free, even if they had to pummel and shred me to do so. They pecked at me in their struggle to escape, but I knew that if even one disappeared I would never be able to put Ray back together again. I struggled against the pain and held on, but they broke loose one by one, and each space gave the others more room to hit me with their glossy wings. As soon as I gripped one, two more escaped me, hurtling into the sky. Incited by the scent of blood, some of them tore my flesh and feasted before they departed. Despairing, I was left with only one raven clutched in my fists, and it promptly pecked my left eye out in an explosion of pain and blood. Cackling, it flew away.

They left me in a world gone flat and dull. The broad vistas Iíd admired earlier seemed narrower, confining.

Ray was gone, and I didnít know if I would ever get him back.

I crumpled in a puddle of blood the color of my tunic with a few iridescent black feathers clinging to my knees and hands. I closed my remaining eye and shuddered.

When I opened it again, I saw someone standing in front of me. I looked up and realized that the black-clad figure was Walker, who wore the raven-feathered cat mask that hung on her wall. The maskís high forehead changed the dimensions of her face, making her look inhuman and pitiless, while her dark eyes, further shadowed by the pronounced eye ridges, were unreadable. One side of her face had been painted white.

Her red lips curved into a dark smile as she took a photograph out an inside pocket of her trench coat. My Ray moved, smiled, and laughed within it. Then she put it away again and exploded into a large flock of ravens herself, winging away from me and making flying shadows over the full moon above, taking my last sight of Ray with her.

I flailed out, reaching for Ray, as soon as I woke. He grunted as my hand slapped his arm in my panic but didnít wake. Heíd drifted away from me a little so he could soak up the sunbeams that reached only that end of the bed, reminding me of a cat dozing in the sun. Backlit, his head seemed to glow around the edges. The contented look on his face made my heart slow to a less punishing pounding. Tracing the angles and lines of his face further calmed me.

He was light and warmth to me. How anyone could call him "Stanley" when his chosen name of "Ray" fit him so well, I would never know.

I couldnít sleep any longer, but he looked far too relaxed for me to wake him. Perhaps I should take advantage of this time to reacquaint myself with Chicago before meeting with my original Ray.

Remembering Rayís reluctance yesterday to say he wouldnít be returning to the 23rd, I had to see if anything or anyone kept me here aside from my Ray.

The thought of leaving Ray alone for however much time my pursuit took gave me a strange fear. This was ludicrous. No matter how much we loved one another or Ray joked of being joined at the hip, we could hardly walk through life manacled together. It would seem that I needed to do this alone more than I thought.

As I stood, Diefenbaker leapt up onto the bed and snuggled against Ray. "You could use a walk anyway," I said. He gave me an annoyed look and curled tighter against Ray. "Weíre leaving after I get dressed." He mumbled something derogatory behind me. "Language, Dief."

By the time I returned, Ray had awakened, though he still looked sleepy-eyed. The sight of him, languid and tousled--well, more tousled than usual--made me want to crawl back into bed and let him undress me. He looked up from ruffling Diefís fur and asked, "Vecchio wanted to meet you this early? Didnít seem like the type."

"Youíre right on that."

"Then whatís up?"

I looked for a way to say this without sounding insulting. Ray saved me the effort. "You want to see the city on yer own for a bit? I get that."

"You do?"

"Sure. Besides, weíve been welded together for the last two months, and thatís not healthy."

It only remained my fondest dream, though I understood that Ray and I had some differences. Those differences made our relationship more interesting.

Truly.

"Iíll see you later, then, Ray."

"Yeah, enjoy yer day."

"Come along, Dief." Diefenbaker whined at me and snuggled in closer to Ray, who seemed to find it all hilarious. "Dief." He grumbled and jumped off the bed, giving me a resentful look.

I meant to give Ray a quick kiss goodbye, but it became something long and heated. I well understood why Dief would prefer to spend the day burrowed against Rayís side. Ray had one hand gripping my collar and the other rumpling my hair. I had to stop this.

I untangled our tongues and said, "Iíll never leave if we continue this."

"Iím waiting for you to start talking about bad things."

"Ray."

"Yeah, yeah." He let go of me in a slow, caressing trail of fingertips. "Donít know what I did to deserve someone who doesnít mind my morning mouth. Goodbye, Ben."

"Iíll see you tonight, Ray." As Diefenbaker and I left, I realized that my hair was still rumpled from Rayís stroking fingers.

I left it be.



Ben leaving totally woke me up, so I figured I might as well get up. Bed wasnít as much fun without him anyway. I jerked off in the shower, dressed, and had breakfast before I realized that I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with myself for the rest of the day.

I didnít get it. I mean, I had interests that didnít involve Ben. Thing was, I felt so scattered and distracted that I couldnít keep my mind together to do them.

Well, there had to be simple, stupid stuff here Iíd let slide since March.... Ah.

I ended up cleaning my guns and oiling the leather of my holsters. Meditative stuff. It took me a while. Once I finished, I put one of my holsters on and fastened it, enjoying the weight and familiar pull of straps across my shoulders and back. Iíd felt too light in Canada without it. Unanchored. I did my quick draw and gun-spinning tricks as I watched myself in the mirror, but it didnít have the same vibe no matter how good it felt to have my gun again. The person looking back at me wasnít me. He didnít even look much like me.

Iíd handed in Vecchioís badge and identity before Fraser and I went off alone into the Deep North, but I hadnít gotten my own back yet. It meant that I wasnít Ray Vecchio anymore, but I wasnít Stanley Raymond Kowalski either. I was some other Ray, but only when Fraser was around. Without him... without him I felt lost, adrift. Didnít know who I was. I needed to touch base with myself, needed something familiar that wasnít Fraser. Stella, was my first thought, but I smartened up quick. Not her. Hell, I did the Vecchio thing to get away from me-with-her.

Yesterdayís visit to the 23rd had just underscored how distant that old life felt. I liked those guys, but I was just going through the motions with them. Weíd never been friends, really, just folks who worked together and hung out sometimes. Time might have made me more comfortable with them again, but I didnít have that at the moment. And Bernstein wasnít even in the state, not that Bernstein and me wouldíve hung together as much if we hadnít been partners. Besides, they were all at work at the moment, unlike me.

And unlike somebody else. I knew what I could do. I just hoped she didnít laugh in my face.

I dialed my cell phone and enjoyed the feel of it in my hand. I could use my regular phone, but Iíd missed my cell phone in Canada almost as much as Iíd missed my gun.

"Hello?" Ray asked.

"Hey, itís me. You doing anything today?"

"Hey!" Sounded friendly. "You called."

"I figured out how to use my phone."

"Good for you. Nah, Iím not doing anything. Iím working on my bills. It was nice of Charlie to volunteer to do this stuff while I was undercover, but that man couldnít balance a checkbook if his life depended on it. Please save me from this."

I laughed. "See ya in about two hours?"

"Iíll be done with this by then, I hope, so so much for saving me."

"You always did say you could take care of yerself."

"Oh yeah, throw that in my face. See you in two."

I ran my hand through my hair. Yeah, two hours should be more than enough time to take care of this problem.



Only a rubble-strewn vacant lot remained of the building Iíd once lived in. I suddenly wondered what had become of my old neighbors, where they lived now, and chided myself for never having given it a thought before. Theyíd been displaced as Iíd been after the fire, but I never tried to find out if theyíd successfully found new homes. No one else had the option of living at oneís workplace, as I had. I had lived among them, fought eviction with them, yet forgotten them completely. How could I have closed the book on that part of my life so casually? It was very unlike me.

It smacked dangerously of dissociative tendencies. At the very least, it suggested that Iíd let my subconscious take more control than I realized. Was it possible that.... Ah. That could explain it.

My immediate attraction to my second Ray had frightened me so, not simply for its intensity. I feared that I was about to make all the same mistakes with him Iíd made with my first Ray. And how many times had I fantasized about asking my first Ray to stay the night? In fact, one particularly long night spent pacing my apartment thinking over that very issue had compelled me to confess my feelings at last the very next day. With disastrous results.

A selfish part of me had appreciated the clean start the lack of my apartment had presented. No memories. No reminders. No temptations. I could live at the new consulate--fewer memories again--and feel unqualified to make my new Ray an offer to stay at such a hallowed place. In any case, whoíd want to share a cot in my office?

Although the temptations of having him around the consulate during the Volpe case had been intense. I still distrusted how happy his time with me then had made me. It wasnít as if heíd had a choice in the matter.

Iíd avoided my former neighbors to avoid reminders of my old apartment and my mistake with my first Ray. Not consciously, perhaps, but that was what had happened all the same.

My theory made sense, and Iíd have to guard against such self-delusion and selfishness in the future.

Diefenbaker whined, bored with this place that no longer had the scent of home and bored with my mental meanderings, so I started to walk again. Chicago remained Chicago, familiar even through the yearsí small changes, and I saw many places Iíd traveled past or investigated in my years here.

How many lives had I touched, however fleetingly, in this large city? Given the eye-catching nature of my dress uniform, I was no doubt remembered even by people Iíd only walked past or stood sentry in front of. Detective Santiago had said that Chicagoís media commonly used my escapades on "slow" news days, which broadened the number of citizens aware of me, people Iíd never encountered in person. How odd to think that I might have made an impression on more people in my few years here than I might have in an entire lifetime in the Yukon. The differences in population size made that inevitable, but it remained a daunting thought.

Dressed in civilian gear, I attracted little notice today, but when I stepped into a diner I had frequented while Iíd lived in the area, Millie nearly bounced toward me as she greeted me with a warm "Benton! Itís been an age! Your table is free if youíre here to eat." She crouched down to scratch Diefís ears, something he enjoyed shamelessly.

"I am indeed."

She yelled, "Joe, our Mountieís back!" over the counter into the kitchen, then followed me to the table, stopping briefly to fill a water bowl for Dief. "Mrs. Baptista mentioned you just last week. Where did you end up after the fire?"

"Itís a long, strange story." I wondered how sheíd react to my tale of living in my office.

"I have time once I take your order. Regular A or B?"

"Then Iíll have time to inquire after my past neighbors. B, please."

"Like I need an excuse to gossip. Milk or tea?"

"Both."

Millie smiled. "Thirsty boy today. And Iíll get Diefís regular too."

"Millie!" one of the other customers shouted.

Millie dramatically set her hand on her hip. "You only had your hand in the air for three seconds before you started yelling. I know your mother taught you better." She made a swatting motion at him with her notepad, while he, apparently a regular, cringed in exaggerated terror.

My Ray would like her, and sheíd appreciate another victim to mother. Then again, I didnít know if Iíd be able to cope with two people talking and moving so quickly in the same space.

After she delivered my order and refilled the other customerís coffee, Millie stood at my table, smiled, and started, "You will not believe where Mr. and Mrs. Baptista ended up. Turns out that his son knew this guy who was friends with this one landlord in the area, and...."

Three hours later, sated on gossip and the Sage Dinerís excellent chicken, I walked out into the street and waded through an ocean of sounds and smells, multitudes of people. Over the next few hours I helped two elderly women cross the street and a young boy find his parents. It gave me an odd sense of near belonging.

Ray had said that the Territories had a different energy than Chicago. The Territories felt steady and even, like sunlight, but Chicago arced and pulsed like electricity. I found it significant and disturbing at the time that Ray had described Chicago in ways that could also describe him, but now that I was here again I felt it myself to some extent. Perhaps the masses of people made the difference.

Our walk led us unerringly to the consulate. Despite my greater fondness for this building than for the original consulate and the copious amount of time Iíd spent here, this building produced almost no sense of nostalgia. My only attachment to it stemmed from memories of Ray instinctively running here to me for help and staying with me after Andreas Volpeís murder. Renís vivid description of Ray sliding into the foyer on his knees screaming my name often made me regret that I hadnít seen it myself. Given the uncertainty clouding Rayís future at the time and Rayís understandable distress, Iíd felt guilty that keeping him in my custody left me feeling so warm and happy. I still feel guilty.

Walking in, it surprised me that the consulate looked precisely the same as when Iíd left it months ago. My life had changed, so some part of me felt that it should have as well.

"Sir!" Turnbull leapt to his feet into regulation stance to salute me, then raced forward, arms outstretched. Then remembering himself, he stopped just short.

I couldnít help smiling. Instead of the hug heíd thought to offer me before he remembered it wouldnít be proper, I clapped him on the arms, briefly squeezing, in a comradely manner that I knew he would interpret as my version of the same gesture.

He beamed. "The consulate hasnít been the same without you."

"Iím hardly here in an official manner," I answered.

"Ah, reconnaissance. Wise, sir. Although I regret to tell you that our new inspector is not available at the moment for you to meet first in any case."

"How is our new inspector?"

"A fine man, sir." But Turnbullís look said otherwise. Weíd perfected a kind of code between us based in glances and vocal tones.

"I see."

"Iím sure youíll enjoy working with him."

"I may not be coming back, Turnbull."

I expected his face to fall a little, but instead he looked utterly confused. "But-- Yes, sir. Truthfully, I may not be here much longer myself."

Heíd changed the subject too quickly for me to hunt down the reason for his reaction and still be polite. "Truly?"

"Iíve been considering a return home to run for office. I think I have much to offer the public."

"Indeed."

Before I could return to what I wanted to ask, Turnbull asked, "Would you like to see your office, sir?"

My office and home for nearly two years. It had never been meant to be much more than a storage room and made my Spartan apartment look luxurious by comparison. Did I want to see it again?

If I did visit that room, what would I find in its closet? I knew I would feel compelled to look if I stood at that door. I didnít know if it would horrify me more to find the remains of my fatherís office or only a tiny closet.

"No, Turnbull. That... that will not be necessary."

Turnbull gave me a searching look. "You wonít be staying here long, will you?"

The consulate? Chicago? I didnít know what he meant. Did he know something I didnít? It scared me that he would ask such a question and left me at a loss for words.

Then I chided myself for being so silly. He had to mean the consulate. I was simply being oversensitive to a question that had inadvertently struck at the heart of my confusion.

Turnbull turned to his desk, picked up a piece of paper and pen, and quickly wrote something down. He pressed it gently into my hand. "Forgive me if Iím being too forward, sir, but this is my address. If you need anything at all, please feel free to stop by. I would have included a phone number had I possessed a telephone."

Touched, I carefully folded the paper and placed it in my jacket pocket. "Thank you, Ren." I put as much warmth into the words as I could.

"Please feel free. I am at your disposal."

I could imagine Rayís response to that, and it made me smile even as it made me marvel that I felt his presence even when he wasnít with me. "Have a good day, Turnbull. I may stop by to see you again."

It may have been my imagination, but it almost seemed that Renfield muttered, "I think you will," to himself as I closed the door behind me.



"Oh, baby! I like it," Ray said as soon as she opened the door and got a good look at me.

Which was good to hear, but considering what the people sheíd hung out with in her misspent youth had looked like--namely like total freaks--it wasnít totally reassuring. Hell, some of my friends had been freaks too, so I wasnít sure if I was a good judge either. "Itís really blond," I prompted.

Ray grinned, still taking a good look at my head. "That it definitely is."

"Really blond."

"Uh-huh."

She could leave me hanging forever, the bitch. "Okay, yeah, but my question is--"

"It can pass for natural blond. Just. Youíre not in Marilyn Monroe territory."

"Thank you, and thank God. I said I didnít want it dark anymore, but it started to look like the girl wanted my hair to glow."

Something eerie played in the background. Oh, the Rolling Stonesí "Gimme Shelter." I remembered Ray once saying she wished she could mix the best of the Sisters of Mercy version with the Stones original. Whatever, I soaked it in. I think I missed music the most during my time in the Yukon.

"Do you like how it turned out?" Ray asked.

I stroked the peach fuzz at the back of my neck. I was shaved in some places, spiked in others, and light blond in the right places. It felt good. "Itís an extreme change, but yeah, I think I will once I get used to seeing it on my head."

"Then nothing else matters."

"Thank you, Ms. After-school Special. How about we have lunch and then figure out whatís next?"

"Ooooh, take charge."

"Bite me."

"Any place in particular?"

I had to remember not to say that, because she always had the same answer. But, hell, I came here looking for the familiar, and she made me smile. "You finished?"

"Yeah. Letís do Chicago like itís never been done before."



As we parked, Ray said, "Jeez, Ray, you should have asked for more pita bread or let me do it if you were feeling shy."

"Not the point. The point is that I couldnít eat that much tahini, bread or no bread. Nobody could. Adding more bread would make it worse."

"Your Mountie must not be feeding you right. The Ray I knew could eat me under the table." When I raised my eyebrow at that one, she just said, "Shut up."

"Uh-huh." I hadnít come out to her or anything; sheíd just figured it out on her own. And made an occasional comment about it. Not having to go into it had been a relief, but it worried me that so many people were picking up on it without me saying anything. At least Ray knowing without a word from me made more sense than hearing about it from Frannie yesterday.

"You know what I meant."

"Suuuuure." I decided to let her off the hook. "I ate crazy stuff up there: pemmican, lichen, blubber."

"What the hell is pemmican?"

"I still donít know, and Iím probably better off that way."

"Youíre kidding me."

"On some of it, yeah."

"Damn. You must really love this guy."

"I... never thought of it that way. He asked me to stay, and I did."

Ray rolled her eyes.

When we walked into our favorite pool bar, we saw that it had gone seriously bad. A yuppie hangout now. Billiards instead of pool. No smoking, no decent beer, no real players. Everybody all Casual Friday in clothing that they paid a lot for to look like they were wearing an expensive version of stuff the rest of us didnít pay a lot for.

Ray looked as disgusted as I felt, but we went in and got a table in the corner anyway. Pigheaded times two, thatís us. The yuppies gave us looks, but we went into undercover mode #3, The Dangerous Psychotics, and gave off attitude. Mess with us, and weíll fuck you up with extreme prejudice. Wouldíve looked even better if we still smoked, but we didnít need to. Our dead-eyed, crazy stare and long-legged strut disturbed them enough that they found something more interesting to do that didnít involve looking at us.

I was kind of relieved sheíd decided for pool. Extreme ping-pong was fun, but it left me beat. Ball stays in play as long as it keeps moving, no matter what itís moving on: table, floor, walls, one of us.... Itís like a triathlon if you play it in a big room when you have to run farther for the ball. I end up wearing my glasses to protect my eyes, and she tries to bounce the ball off Ďem.

"You donít wanna know what they have in the jukebox," Ray said as she came back.

"From whatís playing, I can guess." One of those fake earnest, fake rock bands that have one hit album then die in blessed obscurity. Then the next band comes up.... "These people need a taste transplant."

"Like the beer couldnít tell you that. Five different microbrews, and none worth a damn."

"The Canadian stuff spoiled me. Not a word."

"Iím biting my lip so I wonít mention your Canadian hunk of burning love as we speak. I wonít even say anything like, ĎOnce youíve had Canadian, you never go back.í Marvel at my self-control. Though those Canadian M&M kind of things you let me try sucked. Too sweet and waxy."

"I needed some version of my fix in the Great North. You gonna take a breath?"

"I am breathing, and itís overrated." As Ray racked up the balls, she said, "I can shoot with one eye closed, seeing as how youíre almost blind. Make it more fair."

"You always shoot with one eye closed. You got that lazy eye."

"Sure, ruin a generous gesture. And I have that under control. I focus just fine."

"Yeah, yeah." She did, 98% of the time. Itís just that Iíd seen her dead-dog tired often enough that I knew her right eye started to slide out of focus from her left sometimes, giving her one wall eye. It made great teasing material, and I needed all the ammunition there I could get. "Iíll wear the glasses."

"Can you stand the shame?"

"Iíll manage," I said as I put them on and bared my teeth at her.

"Then letís get it on."

As Ray played, her eyes took on a focused predatory gleam. I could almost watch her mind working, figuring out the angles, calculating her shots. It was weird seeing these things from the outside when I felt myself doing them from the inside, but I was used to that from way back. It also made me wonder if I moved and looked like pure, evil sex when I played pool.

As she bent over the table to shoot, she flashed a fuck-me smile at some of the surrounding yuppie types. It went nice with her crazy sociopath eyes. Some of the guys looked like they couldnít figure out whether they wanted to beg her for a go or piss their khakis.

It would be funny if she didnít have those eyes looking a little too real.

She wouldnít talk about her last assignment at all.

Sometimes you wore the mask so long that your face started to change to match it. My mask as Ray Vecchio hadnít been that bad, hadnít made me do too many things I wouldnít normally do. I could tell she hadnít been so lucky.

Once in a while Iíd have to do a bad assignment, put on a really nasty skin that stuck to me too tightly to just cast off once it was done. Sometimes Ray and I were even in one together, coming out of it mutually fucked up. Maybe Ray was with me now to reconnect to herself, as Iíd called on her to do the same for me.

So Iíd have to try to be me for her, because sheíd do the same, she was trying to do the same, for me. How fucked up is that?



I was still walking, lost in thought, with Diefenbaker when I heard "Benny!" shouted at me. When I turned and smiled in greeting, I was surprised to see Ray Vecchioís head poking out the driverís side window of an old station wagon.

Ray immediately interpreted my look and said, half-teasing, "Wouldíve been nice if you could have told me about the Riv. I had to find out from Ma."

Iíd forgotten entirely. A green Buick Riviera had ferried me around Chicago for two years, and I knew how much it meant to Ray, yet Iíd forgotten entirely. "Iím sorry, Ray. In all the excitement, it slipped my mind."

"Yeah, Muldoon would have taken up anybodyís attention. Get in."

"Itís not six oíclock."

"Itís impossible that I might take advantage of getting more time since I happened across you this way?"

I smiled. "Iíll get in." I crossed the street and walked around to the passenger side. Diefenbaker leapt into the back seat, immediately spreading himself all the way across its length. I took my own seat in front soon after.

"Itís a lovely car, Ray."

"Sure it is." Ray sighed as dramatically as he could. "How long did it take for my Riv to catch a bullet?"

"Actually, it caught fire from a bomb planted by a performance arsonistís apprentice and partner."

"By Motherwellís girl, Greta Garbo. Then you took it for a swim in Lake Michigan. I know, I know. I saw the report. It was a figure of speech. What Iím asking is how long it survived having you riding around in it this time."

"A few hours."

"A new speed record." Ray sounded upset, but he also had a laughing light in his eyes that made me feel a bit better. "What do you have against the noble Buick Riviera?"

"Itís not what I Ďhaveí against the car. It would better profit you to ask what Chicagoís criminal population has against your car."

"Oh sure, deflect the blame onto a few criminals."

"What youíre driving now is a perfectly nice car."

"Itís my familyís. A station wagon, for Godís sake. It doesnít say what I want it to say. The Riviera, now that car made the right statement."

"And that statement would be Ďblow me upí?"

"Youíre a funny guy. Itís a good thing for you Ma wants you there for dinner, or Iíd have to demand satisfaction for that."

"You would fight a duel with me, Ray?" We almost sounded as if heíd never left. Almost.

In his presence, I knew that I still loved him, but as a friend now, with much of the former light and heat Iíd felt gone. The thought left me sad and relieved all at once, even as it exorcised a fear I hadnít even admitted to myself. My Ray had no rival in my heart.

"Thatís what forks are for, Benny. Then again, the familyís gonna be there, so maybe Iíll get revenge after all."

"I canít stay for dinner." I missed my Ray terribly and wondered how heíd kept himself occupied. Iíd expected that we would share our stories over dinner.

"I said Ďsix.í ĎSixí means dinner, and Ma is not gonna take no for an answer."

"But you met me an hour early."

"Then weíll just have to gab longer, and Ma will get more time too. Look, sheís been looking forward to seeing you. Are you gonna let her down?"

My Ray would understand. "Of course not, Ray. Do you have a phone I could use?"

"Nah. I leave it behind when I donít want to be bothered. A guy needs a bit of alone time now and then."

I didnít answer that I felt Iíd long ago had a surfeit of such time. But surely I could make my call to Ray at the Vecchio house.



As Ray lined up her next shot, I asked, "Howís your Dad?"

She didnít flinch, and her tone remained blank as she said, "Heís dead."

Maybe I could put my foot deeper down my throat, work on my gag reflex. "Shit. Iím sorry."

She shook her head. "Itís, like, 11 months ago. And he forgave me before he died."

"Forgave you? For what?"

"For not being the daughter he wanted. He was all magnanimous about it."

"Fucker."

"I mean, there he was dying with all those tubes in him and machines keeping him alive, and he still had the strength to backhand me with his words."

"What the hell did he want you to do?"

Ray shrugged. "Get married. Give him grandkids. Work in a job where Iíd be wearing a skirt and pumps if I wasnít home taking care of the little ones. Do you know he figured me dressing the way I do and being single this long automatically means Iím a lesbian? He put the big stoic martyr face on as he told me he was okay with that as long as I found some way to give him grandkids. Deb nearly died laughing--well, after she got over the wanting-to-snap-his-neck-for-him part--when I told her about it later, that she never realized I was playing for her team all these years. Oh, yeah, he also finally Ďforgaveí me for going into the army to pay for college, graduating college after four years, then Ďwastingí all that by entering the Police Academy and becoming a cop. But I just stood there in front of him and took it all without a word. Wait, I thanked him, seeing as how he was dying and all. Didnít tell Mom about what he said either, Ďcause it would just upset her."

Ray and her mom were weird, not close like me and Mum. Her mom was just her default parent, since her dad was an asshole. Sometimes I thought Ray kept this stuff from her mother for fear her mom would side with him. I just said, "Itís a good thing for him heís dead, because Iíd kill him."

"Thanks." Ray shot and sank her ball effortlessly. "Hey, you didnít ask about my dad to make me ruin my shot, did you?"

"Nope."

"Thatís what I figured. How are things with you and yours? I mean, you got the GTO, which is as gorgeous as you always said it was--"

"Thank you."

"--but I didnít want to make any assumptions."

"Heís back in my life. Thingsíre better."

"And itís easier when youíre an adult and donít live with him."

"Hell, yeah." From her posture, I could tell she wanted to ask if Dad ever got that look in his eyes like he wanted to wallop me again anymore. "And not lately." Nah, things had been good since they came back from Arizona to see me. Dad and I had been doing so well lately that it made me worry about screwing it all up.

She knew exactly what I meant by "not lately." "Good. He know about you and--"

And speaking of.... "No."

"Probably a wise move on your part."

From the way she kept fiddling with her bottle of beer and twirling her pool cue, not to mention all the gum and lollipops Iíd seen her shove into her mouth today, I had to ask, "You just quit smoking again, didnít ya?"

"Nice subject change." She didnít even look surprised by my penetrating insight. "Yeah. Started again during my last assignment. Two days with those guys, and I was smoking like a chimney and cursing like a Tarantino character. You should have seen me last week."

"Glad I didnít." Funny thing is that it was a smoking incident that made Stella decide I couldnít be friends with Ray anymore. She told me so. All those moments that would have looked compromising to people who werenít Ray and me--not that any of the things we did really were--and Stella ended up getting her panties in a knot over me bumming a smoke.

Okay, maybe it was the way I did it. Ray and I were walking to our cars, Ray had already lit up, and I realized I was out. So I plucked the cigarette from her mouth and put it into mine. She called me a cheap bastard and flipped me off, while I told her she loved it. It wasnít the first time Iíd ever done it. I saw Stel walking up and gave her a "hey there," but she shook her head and kept walking. At the time I thought she was just busy, but it turned out that she actually had that patented Stella slow boil starting.

Stupid thing is that I quit smoking a week later before Stel even said anything. Just got tired of something having that kind of power over me. Ray quit soon after in sympathy and to keep a bit of temptation away from me. It made me feel better, since she really suffered. Boot camp had left her with a habit the size of an orangutan on her back, and it had been riding her for years by then. Made my problem look like a walk in the park by comparison. It surprised me that none of our fellow officers shot us during those two weeks to put us out of our misery and theirs.

I must have been insane to give Ray up on Stellaís say-so. I didnít have many friends. I mean, I was friendly with lots of people, kind of hung with them, but they were acquaintances, like. I only had a tiny ring of real friends, and Ray had been one of them. And Iíd kicked Ray to the curb when Stella asked me to in some effort to make her happy. And lost Stella anyway.

Odds were good that Stella making that demand hadnít been about Ray at all, that I could have saved things without tossing Ray away. Maybe Stel had just meant to put her foot down or make a point, trusting me to read between the lines or just figuring that Iíd never give up on a friend on her say-so. But I took it literally and actually did what she asked, and she could never take it back or tell me that I took it wrong. Stella tell me that I shouldnít take her at her literal word, tell me sheíd been wrong? Hell would freeze over first. It was too much of a loss of face, a sign of weakness. No, sheíd let me live with my mistake. It was all too possible. I just didnít know, and it was too late anyway.



Mrs. Vecchioís enthusiastic greeting--fussing over me in a way that made feel very uncomfortable, being kind enough to ask about my Ray--as soon as I walked into the house made me worry that I might be the center of attention tonight. I barely escaped having my cheeks pinched. However, all the boisterous cross-talk and arguing as the family ate gave me a welcome invisibility through most of the dinner, though now and then one or another of the family would try to get me to intercede and take sides. Eventually they realized again that I didnít do such things, especially when I knew so little of the matters in dispute. Ray finally yelling, "Look, Fraserís like Switzerland. Neutral. Capisce? You already know that, so stop bugging him," helped.

Diefenbaker also helped divert attention from me, though not for selfless reasons. I think every member of the Vecchio family gave him tidbits after he flagrantly begged for them. He would have to waddle home at this rate.

While I enjoyed the food, the sound and number of people overwhelmed me. Mrs. Vecchio had invited me and my Ray to dinner a few times, but that had been a long time ago. Ray had held up under the sound, fury, and scrutiny well, but during our last dinner visit heíd asked Mrs. Vecchio if he could talk to her in the kitchen alone. I have to admit that Iíd eavesdropped shamelessly.

He told her that he saw that seeing him reminded her of her absent son and hurt her, so she didnít have to continue inviting him to dinner. He would miss going, but he couldnít be happy seeing the strain the pretense and his presence put on her. Heíd continue doing "man of the house" things and drop by now and then, but she didnít need to put on a show for his sake. He didnít want to cause her pain. She protested that she could bear this, but he wouldnít hear of it. Then I heard shuffling followed by silence.

When I peeked in, I saw her with her arms clasped in a tight hug around him, my tall partner just about folded around her like a blanket. He hugged her back with what had to be genuine feeling, making me wish I could have seen the look on his face. Not many people outside that tight protective circle would have heard her murmur, "Youíre a good man... and a good son," into his chest. I saw a brief shudder run through him.

If Ray could not come for dinner, then neither would I. Mrs. Vecchio understood and thanked me for continuing to look after her son.

I hadnít known at the time how far away my Rayís own family was, with him only speaking to his mother by the telephone now and then, or how nonexistent his contact with his father had been for years. I hadnít known then just how much heíd sacrificed by distancing himself from a family willing to take him in.

And Ray did fulfill those "man of the house" duties farther than anyone could have expected. He dealt with the insurance company on restoring the house after the fire and took care of a number of other smaller matters for Mrs. Vecchio. He bought presents, thoughtful ones, for his fake family on Christmas and their birthdays.

He even visited now and then but never stayed long enough to possibly upset her. The invitations to dinner still came now and then, but my Ray made graceful excuses every time.

Now I sat at this table again, and the family may have been the same, but I was not the same. Although I was aware that the meal had been delicious, I actually tasted very little of it, being too lost in my own mind to be as aware of my body. My memories also kept me quieter than usual, something the real Ray Vecchio noticed. I watched him watch me. His expression told me nothing, and I wondered if that was because we hadnít seen one another much for nearly two years or if heíd learned a better poker face during his assignment in the mob. Either way, it troubled me. Ray was not the same either.

We were not the people weíd once been, and I felt it keenly. He felt like a stranger to me. Worse, a stranger who shouldnít feel like a stranger. Our friendship and relations would never be the same.

But if I wanted to be truly honest with myself, our friendship "hadnít been the same" even before he left me and Chicago to be Armando Langoustini. Even before I left for my vacation to Canada. My vacation. I lied to myself well. It had been running away, pure and simple.

I had made the terrible mistake of telling my best friend that I loved him, and he had responded in a way I should have expected, given the course of my dealings in love. He hadnít quite reacted in disgust, but he certainly hadnít decided to forgive and forget. Unable to withstand his new distrust of me, certain that I had ruined the friendship Iíd treasured from him, I ran home, telling myself that a little time and distance might heal the wounds Iíd caused.

By the time Iíd returned, heíd already left. No reconciliation or closure would be granted.

By the time he returned, it all seemed too long ago, too far away. Too late.

Given my record, I should count myself lucky that my Ray had said he loved me back. Given my record, I should be shocked it had taken this many weeks for our relations to start to fracture.

I had to call my Ray, yet I couldnít see a polite way to leave the table.

Finally, dinner started to draw to a close and Ray excused us from the table, to my relief. I said my farewells to everyone.

As we walked away, I said, "Ray, I have to--"

"I gotta talk to you, Benny. In private." He hurried up the stairs.

Worried by the sound of his voice, I simply followed him, my request left incomplete.

The restoration work on the house truly was magnificent. If I hadnít known that so much of it had been utterly ablaze, I would never guess now from the look or scent of it. Deja vu kept striking me, and I didnít know whether I liked that.

Truthfully, I was trying to let the house distract me from worrying over Rayís words of a few moments ago. Heíd sounded almost desperate in his desire to speak with me. In private.

As Ray closed the door of his room behind us, he said, "I feel like an eight-year-old bringing one of my school friends over to play, but, hey, I donít live here anymore, so Maís head of the house. Not that she wasnít always, really."

"Where do you live now, Ray?"

He sat on the neatly made bed and patted the space next to him. With some trepidation, I sat close to him, feeling the mattress give a bit more under our combined weight. Diefenbaker found a comfortable spot on the floor and promptly fell asleep.

Once, I would have been thrilled to be so close to Ray in such intimate surroundings. Thank God my feeling of deja vu didnít extend to this room, which no longer contained much of his scent at all. It smelled more of lemon polish and the slight mustiness of a recently closed room.

"With Stella. Finished moving into her place a week ago, actually."

I tried to be diplomatic. "That seems rather--"

"Fast, since weíve just been going with one another for two months? Yeah, but it felt right. And you need an iron will to say no to that woman once she decides she wants something. Thatís why I asked to meet you here, in the house. Stella...." Ray seemed to be looking for a polite way to phrase his statement.

"Iím aware that sheís not fond of me." I would have to keep the news of their cohabitation from my own Ray, who might be devastated by it. Heíd finally come to accept that they were married and in Florida, then returned home to discover that they were here and merely dating. Another sudden turnaround couldnít do him any good.

My knowledge and acceptance of the situation seemed to provide Ray some relief. "Yeah. I donít get it. I mean, all women everywhere love you... unless theyíre lawyers. Or is this something about Stanley?"

"Ray."

"What?"

"He prefers to be called ĎRay.í"

"Doesnít that get confusing?"

"Iíve havenít had many difficulties dealing with it over the time Iíve known him."

"Is it about him?"

"Is what about him?"

Ray sighed. "Iím not playing Laurel and Hardy with you, Benny, so stop stonewalling me. Is Stella pissed with you because of something with you and her ex?"

I couldnít decide if "her ex" was better or worse than "Stanley." I simply answered, "Actually, she seemed to dislike me from the first moment she met me." As I watched how she treated Ray, the feeling became mutual.

"In Kowalskiís presence."

"Yes. Are you implying something, Ray?"

"Iím feeling out the lay of the land here. So to speak."

"You wish to know how she feels about Ray?"

"Among other things."

"You could ask her."

"Oh, yeah, and sheíll answer one, two, three because thatís the Stella way. Sure, Benny. Besides, Iím thinking maybe getting an answer from you could tell me how she really feels as opposed to how she says or thinks she feels. Got it?"

It took me a moment to follow the torturous statement, but I could finally say, "Yes, I do. But what are the Ďother thingsí?"

"You know."

"No, I have to say that I donít know."

Ray shook his head. "Iím the one who told you to get your man. I just didnít think youíd get him, take him to Canada, and never come back."

It was amazing how a man who could be so annoyingly and inappropriately direct sometimes could be so opaque at other times. "I thought you meant Muldoon."

"Him too. But mostly Stanley."

"Heís Ray," I said automatically.

"Whatever. Anybody could see he was a mess over what was going on, and if he made you happy, who was I to say anything against it? Just because I donít swing that way myself and just because Iím not sure what you see in him," Ray smiled to blunt the sting of that judgment, "doesnít mean I canít be man enough to step out of the way of true love."

"Anybody" could see. Only I couldnít. And since when had he become "man enough" not to be disturbed by my desires?

"But didnít I deserve a call of my own when you decided to stay in Canada?" Ray asked.

"In retrospect, yes. I wasnít thinking at the time."

"You? Perish the thought."

"I should have called you. You did the same for me."

"Is this about me going undercover and not writing? You know I couldnít do that. Mob heavies arenít stupid, you know, and I couldnít blow my cover."

"Yes." But the timing had always struck me as suspicious. Iíd confessed my feelings for Ray, heíd told me he didnít feel the same kind of love but would be "okay" with it, heíd behaved less than okay with it, Iíd taken my vacation to briefly escape the mess Iíd made of our friendship, and then Iíd returned to find him replaced without a word. The chain remained too neat.

"But you donít really believe it, not in your heart."

I didnít feel any resentment or hurt over it. I did not. He had an assignment and did his duty. Commendable of him. That one postcard had been the best he could do, not a slap in the face. I had no right to see his assignment as another abandonment, and I did not neglect to call him while I remained in Canada as a petty kind of vengeance.

I didnít.

"I do," I said.

"Do what?"

"Believe that. In my heart."

"Okay, Benny, but only because I know the Mounties will kick you out if you lie." Ray looked down at the table, then back up at me. "Actually I was fudging the truth a little."

"You, Ray? Never."

"Say that with a little less sarcasm. Yeah, I know why Stella dislikes you, because she told me once after I shared my umpteenth Benny story with her. At least I know the reason she gave me."

I wasnít sure if I wanted to hear this, so I tried to distract him. "Benny story?"

"I have a lot of Ďem, okay? They mostly involve you ruining my clothes, blowing up my car, or nearly getting me killed. Or all at once."

"Surely not."

"You try to keep believing that. Anyway, she told me that she worried about all the dangerous and weird stuff youíd get Stanley into. She said sheíd hamstring me if I let myself get talked into any of it again. You donít want to know what kind of look she had on her face when he called to say he was staying in Canada with you. She said sheís over him, but I think she still loves the little punk; she just canít live with him. It bothers me to know that she still loves him, but thereís nothing I can do. Besides, sheís not with him; sheís with me. Sometimes love is not enough."

I tried not to think of my past with Victoria or him, but I heard some of my feelings creep into my voice. "I know."

He looked up at me. "Shit. Sorry, Benny. Iím not thinking but my mouth is running anyway. I just feel like I have so much backed up that I should tell you, and itís all just flooding out. Nearly two years staying buttoned up for fear of my life as the Bookman, and five minutes with you has me with diarrhea of the mouth. Itís not like Iím in a confessional or something. Iím sorry. Iíll shut up for a while."

"That... wasnít the most pleasant image."

"Try living with it."

"I want you to talk to me. Tell me what your life was like then, and what itís like now."

"Itís not at all pretty, Benny."

Both of my Rays seemed to think me too fragile to withstand even hearing about the darker side of life. If theyíd ever seen me from the inside.... "Please."

"Well, it was kind of a relief to get shot and pensioned. I donít think I can be a cop anymore, ya know? When I was undercover... I had to do things. Terrible things. I get nightmares sometimes I wouldnít wish on anybody. I still canít get the Bookman out of my head. Itís like heís dead but heís still getting the last laugh. I donít tell the family, because they wouldnít understand. Hell, I hope they never do. Me and Stanley actually had a bonding moment about going undercover a few months back. Well, we did after Frannie stopped us from decking one another."

"Ray...." I wanted to stop him. I wanted to touch him. I did neither, simply letting him talk. I think he needed to.

"When I came back here, I took it out on Stan-- on Kowalski, and I know it wasnít fair to him. I mean, even if heíd stepped right out of my way and gave me my life back, even if youíd told me that we could just take up right where we left off like nothing had ever happened, I still wouldíve been a mess. I canít remember the guy I used to be, Fraser. Heís not there anymore. So it just killed me that this guy who didnít look anything like me was more me than I was and without even trying. Him having you didnít help. Oh, God, Benny, get that look off your face. I didnít mean it like that. Iím not gonna fight him for your hand or anything. I donít love you like that. I just mean that he was where I used to be, and I knew Iíd never be there again, and it hurt like hell."

"Iím sorry."

"Nah, time happens, right? And Kowalski... he seems to be a stand-up guy. Treated my family right, got the house fixed up, kept my cover for me, stopped you from getting yourself killed on any of your crusades. I hope things work out for you two."

So did I, and I wanted to know why Ray would phrase it that way. Did he somehow see the cracks that had already marred my relationship with my Ray? Was I so obvious, or did Ray just have a better knowledge of how I could ruin things, seeing as he possessed a less subjective eye than my own?

He had been there for my twisted relationship with Victoria....

"ĎThingsí between us are working well." It had always been easier to successfully lie to my first Ray. Especially if you knew what he wanted to hear.

"Thatís great. Great. So...." Ray shook his head. "I canít believe Iím asking for this, but... how was your time up north?"



"A terrible thought can have a terribly long career."
-- "Terrible Thought" by Poe


Ben shouldíve been home by now. I checked the machine again, but it had exactly the same hundred or so phone calls stored on it that had been there this morning. Of course, Fraser doesnít call much. I was always phone guy for the both of us.

He was probably fine. Up to his neck in trouble, but dealing with it just fine. Or up to his neck in Vecchios and dealing just fine. Same thing. Heíd be home when he was home. But I couldnít sit here and just keep worrying about him like this

I punched some numbers into my phone. "Ray, you up to going out dancing tonight?"

"Just whip right past those time-wasting pleasantries," she said, but I could feel her smile. "With how much time we did today, I figured youíd be sick of me already."

"Never."

"So, yeah, sure."

"Fantastic. Give me a little time to dress, and Iíll be right over."

"Look out, world. See ya soon, Ray."



I was actually humming to myself as I unlocked the door to my Rayís apartment. The meet had ended far better than Iíd expected. I still had a friendship with Ray Vecchio. Not exactly like the one weíd once shared, which would have been impossible anyway, but very real nonetheless.

Heíd listened to me as Iíd described our journey looking for the hand of Franklin. Well, an abridged version of the journey, since some things rightfully remained my and my Rayís secrets.

Amazingly enough, the knowledge that I had settled down with someone, even if that someone was a man, seemed to ease Rayís mind about continuing to be my friend. He no longer seemed to feel threatened by the feelings Iíd professed for him. I would have thought the fact that Iíd bound myself to his replacement would make him more uncomfortable instead of less so, but who was I to turn away from a gift? Given his reaction to my initial confession, it amazed me that he could accept the thought of me being in a relationship with a man at all.

I did worry about him, though. I saw that the shadow of the Bookmanís personality and the things heíd done to maintain his cover still burdened him. His uncertainty as to what path his life should take now that so much had changed reminded me of my own Rayís.

Perhaps I could help. Ren, Mrs. Vecchio, and Rayís warmth today reminded me that my time here had not been all bad by any means. Maybe I could stay a while.

Dief raced into the apartment as soon as I had the door open. "Ray, Iím home," I called, feeling a stab of guilt. Heíd be worried that Iíd been gone so long; I could have called before I left the Vecchio household, but my mind and heart had been too full from what Iíd seen and heard. In any case, I remembered my Rayís procrastination in checking the messages on his machine. Yet that excuse assumed that he wouldnít be here when I called, and I had no reason for that assumption.

Only silence answered.

"Ray?"

Checking the whole apartment showed no sign of my partnerís presence. My anxiety spiked when I saw that some of his holsters had been left on the bed. I noticed that heíd oiled the leather and cleaned his guns. They were all cool, long abandoned. But the pair of jeans and disreputable T-shirt lying in a heap beside them still retained his warmth and scent.

My worry didnít abate when I finally found his note by the phone; it only changed focus. I read, "Ben, I got antsy staying here alone so I went out dancing with a friend. Be back after I wear myself down. Love you. Ray." My finger smeared some of the ink on the B in my name, staining the paper and my skin with smudges of vaguely iridescent black. Iíd just missed him.

My excitement turned to ash. This wasnít the way my homecoming was supposed to be, not at all.

For weeks Iíd been afraid of losing him. Was this the next big step toward that?

And which friend had he gone with? I was afraid that I knew all too well.



Dancing with Stella had always meant dress-up. Good jacket, shiny shoes, sometimes black tie even. I didnít mind dress-up in a good cause, and it always made Stel smile. Stella meant classy surroundings, a ballroom, candlelight dinners, dancing together.

Dancing with Ray meant something black, formfitting, and comfortable. No matter where she took me, I couldnít go wrong in a leather jacket, boots, jeans, and a painted-on T. Weíd end up in places that were so loud I couldnít think, sometimes sitting at tables where people used the candles to light their cigarettes. Ray knew all the DJs and got her requests in. Sometimes we even went moshing, for Godís sake, but only on nights when I was really scared to bring myself home. I almost always came out feeling purged of the badness.

Each night out was good in its own way, just different.

Tonight was an even better going out with Ray night than usual. When I was married, I only did this if my schedule was way off from Stellaís and/or I was way too wired or dark or feral feeling to bring myself home, subject her to me. Tonight, I wasnít too dark or feral, at least not in a bad way, so I was just going out to be happier.

So I sat on Rayís couch dressed in my going-out-with-Ray gear and feeling a cleaner version of that old excitement humming through my body. Going out. Going out to move.

I couldnít stop smiling at nothing as Ray sang to herself while she got dressed in the bathroom. She had to have a different song going in her head than she had playing out here, because I vaguely heard her singing something set with different timing that sounded like: "You donít care that Iím just a / Punk girl doing it funky...."

She stopped to yell, "Iíve been bored out of my mind being on leave and all, so I started cleaning the place. Found some stuff I havenít seen in ages." She paused to sing an "Ooooh-ah" or three before continuing, "The metal doesnít even look tarnished."

I yelled back, "Then model it for me already." When Ray came walking in to "I Wanna Be Your Dog," turning and gesturing like a runway model, she didnít look anything like I expected. "Thatís not cruising gear. What about that short, plaid, Catholic schoolgirl skirt you used to wear sometimes?" When she did that get-up she even used to wear the uniform tie and shirt, untucked, with it.

"Youíre a perv, darliní."

"What about the corset and vinyl pants?"

"All the Goth clubs with danceable music closed down since you last went with me. The ones left just have people sitting at tables smoking and drinking. Boring. So no laughing at the velvet, fishnet, and leather crowdís dancing for you tonight."

Rayís clothing--a black and white striped long-sleeved top and black stretch jeans--was formfitting but not tight. Kind of ordinary. They werenít even leather pants. And what was up with the combat boots and dogtags? The belt sheíd mentioned was made up of huge, shiny silver rings and black leather straps with slightly smaller silver rings dangling from it. When she swayed her hips like a belly dancer, in time to the music, the rings flew out during the motion. The red lipstick and black-lined and silver-shadowed eyes were more like it, but still.

I shook my head. "Iíve seen you dressed to seduce, and that is not it." But then I couldnít help grinning. "After all, I used to screen yer boyfriends for ya."

"How can I forget? It was totally against my will, after all."

"Oh, is that why you were always trying to duck out?"

"I had to tell them you were a doll once you had your medication and remind them that I had a gun too. It sucked."

"And after all my trouble."

"Yeah, youíre a martyr. You know my lovelife went to hell after you werenít around to scare the shit out of my dates anymore, right? Yeah, I had more dates--many, many more dates--without you around but still...." She was moving around in ways that deliberately made her belt rings swing. It was like watching a little girl twirl in her new dress to make the skirt bell out. "Anyway, Iím not going out with you tonight to pick up somebody. Wouldnít be buddies if I wandered off and left you at the mercy of your admirers when youíre already taken."

"Cute."

"You draw people like a magnet when youíre in love or in misery. Consider me your bodyguard."

"You gonna follow me to the can too?"

"Will I have to?"

"Funny."

While I was in the bathroom, I sang along with the pumping-up music she had the player blasting. Or at least I tried, which was rough since about all I ever managed to make out from this one was: "Be my sister salvation / Juke-Joint Jezebelís coming for my cremation." Cheery stuff, but it had a fast beat.

When I was done with my business, I noticed the makeup stuff sheíd left around the sink. Seeing Ray in her warpaint had given me an itch. I picked up the eye pencil and started to line my own eyes. Jeez, I havenít done this in ages. I remembered most of it, though, even if the line was too thick and dark. I frowned at my reflection.

"You decent? I need something in there," she said through the door.

"Sure. Címon in."

"Fuck, warn a girl when youíre gonna do that," Ray said when she saw me. "It made me wonder if it was my birthday or something. Youíre seriously fucking hot like that. Your Fraser know how lucky he is?"

"Probably." I squinted, then smudged the line with my finger. Damn, too much. I had a raccoon eye. Shit, it has been too long.

"Give over. Trust me not to poke your eyes out?"

"Iíll kill ya if you do."

"I could just run while youíre screaming like a girly-man and clutching your eyes."

"This is yer apartment. Iíd just wait for you to come back."

"You know everything, donít you, wise-ass?"

"Oh yeah, itís one of my charms."

Ray sighed, then went to work. She swiped the excess off with a pad, then relined and smudged with her middle finger. It made me twitch having something so close to my eyes, but she was gentle and careful. And they ended up looking damned good. Hadnít done this with them since the Ď80s.

Ray talked all the while, which made the part about having her finger almost in my eye easier to take. "Lucky you, youíre just in time for the summer movie season. Anything you wanna see?"

With her, natch. Weíd to go see stuff, then talk it apart all the way home. When we went out or did a video night with the gang, we used to crack them up. They almost died that time we suggested a sit-com follow-up to Aliens with Hicks, Ripley, and Newt as the family and Bishopís torso as the wacky neighbor. "Havenít thought about it."

"I know this place with stadium seating, a giant screen, and THX. Even if the plot of whatever-it-is sucks, itíll be nice eye and ear candy."

"You have my future all plotted out for me?"

"Nah. Not like itís an order Iím giving you or anything. Iím just asking."

"I know. You canít ask things like normal people do."

She stuck her tongue out at me. "I missed you. Of course, Iím missing you less the more you open your mouth."

"I donít know what Iím doing."

"Tell me something I donít know."

"Brat."

"Donít know how long youíre in town? I get that."

"No, I donít know what Iím doing at all. Donít know where Iím going, what I wanna be when I grow up.... None of it."

"Existential crisis?"

"Yeah."

"Iím all over that." She shifted topics a few seconds before I tried to change the subject. "Fraserís kind of cute in an intense, too-serious kind of way. Not my type, though. He another one of your Hitchcock blon-- Never mind."

Right onto what sounded like another bad subject. "Hunh?"

"Nah. Just running my mouth without my brain."

"Like thatís news. Give."

"Nope. It was dumb. Besides, we have to get going, yíknow?" She put on one of her leather blazers and handed me my jacket.

"No problem. How do you sit down in that belt?" I asked as I pulled on one of the big rings dangling from it.

She smirked. "Very carefully."



The club couldnít possibly be any more different from the Territories. It had people wall to wall. You could hear them, feel them, smell them. They raised the heat in the room. Sweat, adrenaline, cigarette smoke, perfumes, pheromones, vinyl, leather, and the bitter scent of stage fog all battled in my nose for attention. The loud music made it hard to think, while the bass shook me down to my atomic structure. Nothing too hardcore though, since Ray demanded music that had a melody and no more than a few hundred beats per minute or something, which made her almost as old fogeyish as I was. The lights half blinded me, though they painted pretty colors, while the strobe light flashed off the white stripes on Rayís shirt. Everything here was man-made.

Here, nothing would kill me for a moment of being careless.

And we danced, danced so hard that I started to get dizzy and the dizziness made my next moves for me. Ray knew the songs and shouted the lyrics, grinning so hard her head should have cracked open. We just moved any way we felt like, and the people around us started to clear a space. Probably had less to do with how good we looked than with how much space we used.

I was happy, happy in a way I hadnít been in a good, long time. Uncomplicated happy. Been a while since I could cut loose like this and just move.

I wondered if Ben would like this place. I could see him waltzing in more sedate surroundings, easy, but all the people, smells, lights, and noise packed in so tight here might freak him out. This wherever Ray had taken me to made Warfieldís little club look like a lounge in the boonies. Worth a try, though. I wanted Ben to see this me too.

All the cleared space gave me ideas. "Ray, you wanna kick it old school?" I shouted into her ear.

As expected, she almost died laughing. "Get down with your bad self, Ray! Hell yeah."

I took her hand in mine and started to really dance, twirling her, even dipping her when I felt like it. Whooping, she spun faster and faster in a spray of flying black hair, dogtags, earrings, and metal belt links, giving more of an impression of leashed strength than Stel ever did, but Stella had always been going just for graceful. Ray and I were going for Olympic, even as I wondered how someone could move so lightly in combat boots. The varying pressure of her fingers on mine gave me cues on when and how to move her, since she knew most of the songs. I didnít know if I spun her or she spun me. Just uncomplicated happiness.



I tried not to wonder where Ray was. Or with whom. He should have been home by now. I didnít know if Iíd find it more or less reassuring to think that something terrible had kept him from coming back, and that scared me. What kind of person was I that some selfish part of me would prefer to think heíd been in a car accident or something equally as dire than that he was having a good time with someone else? Only a sick person would think such things.

But that didnít stop the thoughts.

I was being unfair. Heíd left a note....

Dief whined at me. Perhaps he wondered where Ray was. Perhaps he wondered why I was sitting here in the dark. I couldnít tell this time, and how could I answer any of his questions when I didnít know anything myself?

I continued to sit in the dark.



Ray bounced as she walked. "How many more blocks to the car?"

I looked around. The club was in the meatpacking district, which meant that most of the buildings looked the same. "Seven, I think."

My body still vibrated, and my ears rang. I pulled my jacket tighter around me, the cool night air making me shiver under my sweat-soaked shirt, but I couldnít do anything about the cold flowing through the sweaty roots of my hair. All marks of a successful night.

I shoved my hands into my pockets and hunched a little. This was the first time I felt cold since I left Canada.

"Weíre parked in another country." Ray shook her head. "God, I canít believe Patrickís gone."

"Whatís the name of the kid who was spinning tonight instead? DJ Earthworm?"

"I think it was DJ Millipede."

"DJ Creepy Crawly."

Ray snorted. "He was pretty though."

"If you like bleached blond hair."

She ruffled mine. "Pot and kettle here. Heeey, nice. Whatever you used didnít damage it much. Itís still pretty soft. Only a tad crispy."

"Thank you. Oh yeah, and the kidís at least ten years younger than you."

"Shit, yeah. I think I have pit scars older than him."

"N-- Actually, I think you might."

"I feel like such a dirty old woman. Itís not fair. But him playing some Chemlab for me made me feel better." She happily sang a little, punctuating the last line with stabbing hand motions. "Get down on your knees / If you wanna touch the sky / If you wanna see clearly now / You better poke, poke, poke out your eyes...."

"He was checking you out. I think he was up for some Mrs. Robinson action."

"Kill me now."

"Cheer up. With yer looks, he probably thinks yer in yer early to middle twenties."

"Flatterer. Iíd probably have to arrest him for possession too, since I was getting a contact high just standing near him. How much weed díya think heíd have to smoke to be that dim so early in life?"

"Tons. Then again, he might not have been a rocket scientist to begin with."

"Yeah. But, hey, I wouldnít keep him around to talk to, anyway."

I almost choked. "Damn. Congratulations, Ray; yer a guy."

"Wow. I never thought it was that easy. I figured other stuff was needed. Like, oh, equipment, yíknow?"

"You deserve better than some vapid kid with a habit. You should have a guy whoíd want to lay the world at yer feet."

"Whereas most of the guys I meet just want to lay the world."

"You need to have yer mouth washed out with soap. You know that, right?"

"I need my mouth washed out with something, because Iím dying of thirst. You hungry, hoss? We could do a night-owl special at the Michigan, just like old times."

"Famished." It did feel late. I checked my watch. Holy shit. "Canít. Benís gonna think somebody murdered me on my way home as is. Damn. Gotta call him. Whatís that smirk about?"

"I forgot how cute you get when youíre in love. Like one of those big-eyed baby seals before the club hits."

"Bite me."

"Any place in particular?"

As I punched my home number through my cell phone, I said, "If you checked in this carefully too, way back when, maybe you wouldnít be on yer way to spinsterhood."

"Me-ow."

To my total surprise, no one picked up the phone. My message came on, the one I hadnít gotten a chance to change before I left for Canada: "Hi, this is Ray Vecchio. I hate these machines too but bear with me here. I canít come to the phone right now, but if you leave yer information and stuff after the beep Iíll get back to you, okay? Thanks." The beep went on forever, letting me know that I better go through my messages tomorrow. "Hey, Ben, I know itís late but I lost track of time. Sorry, guy. Iím on my way now. Love you."

It left me worried. I mean, it was 3 freaking a.m. and he was the "early to bed, early to rise" type as long as he didnít have me there corrupting him. Maybe he was asleep, but I didnít think so. And I kept my answering machine set pretty loud in case I needed a wake-up call in the morning. The way no one picked up the phone suggested that he was still out. With Vecchio?

They were friends; they had stuff to catch up on....

I wasnít jealous of Vecchio, not anymore, and I trusted Ben. I just worried. Vecchio hurt him pretty badly from what Iíd been able to figure, and Ben never could protect himself from the people he loved even when they had a history of stomping his heart into the ground.

Actually, I didnít know what I thought. I just worried.

I was being stupid. Just because we didnít leave one anotherís sight for most of two months didnít mean we stopped being able to survive alone. We were both big boys. I needed a little space; maybe he did too. His day out alone today suggested that. It made so much sense that I could feel my energy spiking up again. We were good.

"Iím sure heís fine," Ray said.

"Yeah, I know. Race ya to the car." I took off.

"You are so dead!" she shouted from way behind me.



"Ravenís preoccupation is hunger."
-- John Bierhorst, The Mythology of North America


I heard Ray outside the door, singing quietly. And not alone. "Twenty twenty twenty-four hours ago / I wanna be sedated / Nothing to do, nowhere to gooooo-whoa / I wanna be--" It continued until they opened the door, flipped the light on, and saw me sitting there staring at them. They stopped mid-song and mid-bounce.

Ray and Walker, a matched set, both nearly incandescent, stood there sparking with an energy I hadnít seen in my Ray for too long a time. His crooked grin should have warmed me. "Hey, Ben. You and Vecchio have a good chat?"

"Yes."

Confusion fluttered through his eyes at my terse answer, but he simply shook his head and closed the door behind them.

"Good, uh, morning, Fraser," Walker said. She sounded casual.

"Walker." I didnít succeed in sounding the same, and a flicker in her eyes suggested sheíd noticed.

Ray seemed oblivious to our staring match. On his way to the kitchenette he gave me a quick but enthusiastic kiss, overwhelming me with the mingled scents of clean sweat, cigarette smoke, alcohol, aftershave, bleach, and peppermint gum. He wore clothing that better outlined his sleek shape, and the black made him seem even taller somehow. Knowing that we had unwanted company, I resisted the urge to grab him and sit him on my lap but only with great difficulty. I hungrily watched the slinky sway and bounce of his rolling walk--how he could do all of that at once I would never know--as he grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and downed a deep gulp of it. His eyes closed, his neck stretched back, he savored it so blatantly that it struck me as erotic.

He was and looked... incredible. Very different from the man Iíd left not so many hours before. Heíd bleached his hair to a paler blond than Iíd ever seen it before and had it cut, with the closely shorn hair at the back of his head drawing my eye and desire with all the strength of gravity. I wanted, needed, to run my fingers over the fuzz at the nape of his neck. Heíd spiked the top the way he used to. His hair, his bounce, his loose-limbed grace, his cocky smile... all signs of the Ray Iíd first fallen in love with while in Chicago, a Ray Iíd seen precious little of in Canada.

But his eyes looked different, more prominent. For whatever reason, heíd softly lined them with black kohl.

This was Ray, but more Ray somehow, stronger and jolting.

The steadily increasing lust coursing through me almost overwhelmed the unreasoning anger I felt. Almost. The two twined and mated in unholy ways.

He looked happy now. Happy here. Happy with her. Comparing how he seemed now with his happiness on arriving back home would be like comparing the sun to a candle flame. Walker had effortlessly brought him back to life after all my failures.

He handed the bottle off to her. "Now will you drink something? Five dollars ainít that bad when the alternative is total dehydration, ya know."

"Five dollars for water? Get real. And the sink water wasnít half-bad. But thanks." Walker took it from him and took a deep gulp of her own, her kohled eyelids--Had Ray borrowed her pencil to line his own?--closing as she savored it. Off the same bottle he had just used. Her slickly red lips greedily closing around the mouth of it exactly as his lips just had....

"Please get out, Walker," I said, grinding the words out.

"Huh?"

I took in her makeup, tight clothing, silver jewelry and belt, all completely unlike the tomboy Iíd first met. She had made herself over for seduction, and I couldnít believe that my Ray wouldnít see her invitation, her obvious beauty. I couldnít believe that he wouldnít know. So he must know. And approve.

They were a matched set. "Get out now."

"What is this, Ben?" Ray asked, looking confused.

Walker looked at me, and her dark eyes once again seemed to have my Rayís kind of understanding, seemed to know what I was thinking, even if she didnít approve of it. It made me hate her even more.

"Itís okay, Ray," she said. "Iím out of here."

"No, stay. This is my home; yer my friend. Ya donít have to leave unless I say so."

"I want her to leave, Ray."

"I want her to stay. I invited her in."

"And why did you do that?"

"Sheís a friend of mine; she was thirsty-- Since when do I haveta justify everything to you?"

I smiled as I heard the door close. "Now it doesnít matter."

"Like hell it doesnít! Sheís a friend of mine, and you treated her like shit. She just took me out dancing, dammit!"

"Is that all it was?"

Ray looked as if Iíd gut-punched him. "Is that what this is about? Jesus, the moment Iím not in yer presence Iím out betraying you with somebody? You must not think a hell of a lot of me if you could think that, Ben. What is it? Is it because sheís pretty? Sheís not my type generally, and nobodyís my type at all except you when Iím involved with you. Would it make you feel better if I put a bag over her head before going anywhere with her? Or is it just that Iím not allowed to go anywhere with anybody?" He was leaning in close to me, furious, vitally alive, the Ray I loved and needed. I wanted to grab him. "Other people, Ben. Just because we were all alone for weeks doesnít mean I can fucking live that way for the rest of my life. Thereís gonna be other people around us all the time; are you gonna be thinking Iím fucking every one of them when yer not there? So itís not that you have a fucking leash on me; itís that you have yer fist knotted in my fucking collar?"

I couldnít answer him. His talk of leashes and collars reminded me of a dream Iíd had weeks ago, of an unhappily owned Ray ripping my throat out. It didnít matter now, not in the face of my anger, fear, and lust. I grabbed him at last and crushed him to me, devouring the mouth that had been spitting invective at me only moments before.

Ray struggled only a little before devouring me right back, nipping my skin and ripping at my clothing, as hard against me as I was against him. I missed being able to knot my fist in his hair to hold him to me, but the fuzz on the back of his skull seemed to caress my hand back with a thousand tiny fingers. His skin threw off heat and power, as if being back in Chicago had plugged him back into his life source. I hadnít even realized Iíd missed this Ray, hadnít noticed when heíd gone.

I backed him into the wall and rubbed against him, my own angry enthusiasm hampering my efforts to unbutton his jeans. I needed him. Now. And it didnít matter at all that I didnít want to do this with him this way. Not when love and honest passion were overwhelmed by my need to reaffirm my hold on him and show my power over him.

Over the pounding of my blood I could almost hear a banging behind us, as if something struck the window repeatedly. I felt Rayís hands clench against my chest, then flatten... trying to push me away. It only enflamed me more and made me tighten my grip on him. But the banging became louder and louder until I glanced in that direction and thought I saw a large black bird beating itself against the glass. In my moment of distraction and horror, something hooked my ankle and knocked me backward to the floor. Ray disengaged himself from my grip before I could drag him down with me.

"What the hell was that about?" Ray panted. "You get off on this?" He sounded disgusted.

"Ray...."

"No. No, I do not have to put up with this."

I looked at his reddened lips, the sheen of sweat on his skin, the obvious arousal swelling his jeans. "You want this."

"Sick...." I watched his hands spin and fly--clenching into fists, unclenching--over and over as he started to back toward the door. "Iím going out."

"What?"

"Iím going back out," Ray snarled at me. "If I stay here, Iím gonna end up hitting you, and I swore I wouldnít ever do that again." He opened the door and slammed it behind him.

"Ray!" The panic almost choked me. I couldnít let him go. I had to make this right. When I reached the hallway, I saw the door to the stairs swing shut.

Without needing even a moment to think about it, I ran after him. I needed to make things right. I needed to make him understand....

I needed to catch him before he left me like everyone else in my life did.



I didnít have the patience to wait for the fucking elevator. I had to get away, and I figured heíd follow me. I might as well make it harder on him. What the hell was wrong with him?

How far would he have gone if I hadnít stopped him?

I raced down the steps, skipping two, three, four, a whole flight on my way down. Heart pounding, blood racing, caught up in the chase, I flew like gravity meant nothing. I couldnít let him catch me. If he caught up with me... well, I didnít know what would happen, just that it would be bad.

As I ran down the hall to the door, I punched the numbers on my cell phone so hard I should have broken it. And who the hell did he think he was, telling me who I could and couldnít associate with? Ray asked, "Hello?"

"You still up for the Michigan?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Iíll meet you there. You okay?"

"Fine. See you in a bit." I turned off the phone and clipped it back onto my belt. She lived a block away from the Michigan, so she had plenty of time to get presentable.

When I reached my car, I noticed the familiar big fucking bird sitting on its roof, glossy black on shiny black. "If you ruin the paint job, I will wring your fucking neck." Even more than usual, I didnít have time for this.

"Ingrate. I see that coming home hasnít changed that," One for Sorrow said.

I threw myself into the car and slammed the door. But One for Sorrow already sat in the passenger seat. "What do I have to be grateful about?" I asked.

"Youíre alive."

"Iím miserable."

"Which proves youíre alive. Oh, I have something funny to tell you. Well, I think itís funny."

I peeled out of my parking spot. "Go to hell." I saw a blur of motion in my rearview that could have been Ben reaching the sidewalk. I made the turn and pumped the gas harder.

"You partner made a deal with me in one of his dreams. If he kept you happy, Iíd leave you alone. If not...."

"Yer lying through yer beak. Nobodyíd be stupid enough to agree to that."

"He would if he didnít realize he was making a deal."

"Lemme get this straight. You visited him in a dream--"

"He wouldnít listen to me awake."

"--and fucking tricked him into giving you carte blanche on me?"

"Language, hatchling."

Hearing Benís tone in his voice made me hit the brakes, throw the shift into Park, put my hands around its neck, and start to squeeze and shake it. "You son of a bitch!" It made a harsh gargling sound and tried to peck at my fingers, but I was too fast and too enraged for it to succeed. "Hereís the deal, and you take it or Iíll wring your neck. You stop bothering me or my partner or the half-wolf or anybody else Iíve ever known or met. You donít do anything to us, you donít show yerself, you donít talk to us while weíre waking or sleeping." I let up a little pressure so it could talk.

"You have no idea what kind of power youíre toying with."

"Iím desperate, and you donít wanna know what Iím capable of when Iím desperate."

"You donít understand what we are to one another, you and I."

"And since youíre not ever gonna tell me, why should I give a fuck?"

"Have you given any thought to the fact that it looks like youíre talking to and strangling air?"

"You given any thought to the fact that I donít give a damn anymore?"

"I canít promise not to cross paths with any of the people youíve ever seen in your whole, miserable life!"

"I donít want to narrow it down too much. Iím told," I shook it again for good measure, feeling silky feathers pull away a little under my fingers, "that you have a habit of turning a deal around to bite people in the ass. Iím told that the wording is significant."

"Your partner is catching up. Can you really afford to sit here?"

"This is too important to let slide. Besides, seeing me strangling air might set him back a bit." I squeezed again.

One for Sorrow let out a panicked sounding squawk. "All right! I agree!"

"Yeah, you tell me what youíre agreeing to."

"I stop bothering you, your partner, the half-wolf, or anyone else youíve ever known or met. I donít do anything to you or show myself or talk to you and yours while youíre waking or sleeping. Though I might show again if you ask me nicely enough."

"Dream on."

"Are you satisfied?"

"Iím never satisfied, but thisíll do." I let go.

It preened itself in a small whirlwind of flying beak and wings, trying to get its feathers back in order. "Itís not like I have to be personally involved, since you and your partner are doing a fine job messing your lives up on your own."

"Get out of my car!"

The passenger door opened by itself. The bird was fucking with my car. My car, the one I helped put together with my dad. The door shut again by itself, hard. One for Sorrow looked at me for a moment and made an odd clicking noise before the door opened again and it flew out. Then the door slammed shut. I refused to let it spook me.

What I did let spook me was seeing in the rearview that Ben was running up on me. I didnít know what Iíd do if he caught me, so I floored the gas pedal, whooping at the instant burst of power and speed. The times Beníd let me drive the dogsled had been a kick, but nothing could beat this. The GTO roared with joy at being let loose to run.

Ben managed to keep up somehow, not gaining but not dropping too far behind either. Stubborn bastard. He forced me to get creative. Using my knowledge of Chicagoís byways, I ran a high-speed obstacle course through alleys and around turns. I skipped through stop signs and a red light here and there when I saw it was safe, it being about 3:30 a.m. The Fraser voice in my head chided me for the speeding and law breaking, but that only made it sweeter.

It took me ten white-knuckled-grip-on-the-wheel minutes to lose him. It took me another five to convince myself Iíd done it. Once my heart stopped pounding, I slowed down and started driving to the Michigan Diner.

After the great chase, I had time to think and had worked up a slow boil over the thoughts that came up. And not just about Ben, either. Still, I put a smile on my face as I saw Mr. and Mrs. Nemesanyi talking Ray up in her booth. They greeted me like the prodigal son, which I kind of was to them. "Ray! Where have you been keeping yourself?" Mr. Nemesanyi said as Mrs. Nemesanyi hugged me.

"Busy with work. I really couldnít get here," I answered.

"Thatís no excuse." They dragged me away from the table a bit and whispered. "Do you have somebody yet? You and Rachel make such a beautiful couple."

In the background, Ray pantomimed hanging herself, eyes bulging, tongue all the way out, head to the side, hand in a fist overhead "holding the noose." Amazing how far to the side her head could fall. Flexibility, maybe.

"I do have someone, and itís not Ray."

"Ah well, as long as youíre happy. And dessert is on us tonight."

"Thanks."

"Enjoy." They left me then, but they kept glancing back, maybe hoping that love would bloom.

It helped me work up a good mad again, but Rayís outfit made it hard all over again. The black cowboy hat was one thing, but her black suede fringed jacket with silver medallions was so Ď80s and faux Wild West all at once that I had to stop my lips from making me smile. But she looked good in it.

"Iím airing out the blazer I went dancing in. Besides, in about three years this may be in again." She grinned and tried not to be too obvious in checking me out for injuries. Weíd both done those domestic disturbance visits at some time in our careers.

It helped me find my anger again so I could ask, "You were gonna say ĎHitchcock blonde,í werenít ya?"

Her smile faded. "What?"

"Before we left for the club. You didnít finish it. I remember you referring to Stella as that once or twice. You mean that cool, distant, beautiful, untouchable type you put up on a pedestal but who ends up falling off it because nobody can live up on a pedestal? And the person who wants them ends up hating them for that?"

"Yeah."

"Yer saying that Stella and Ben belong to that group."

"I didnít say anything at the time, and Iím not saying anything now."

"ĎCourse not. Yer just sitting back silent after dropping that stone into the pool waiting for me to connect the dots. And, yeah, I know that was one hell of a mixed metaphor. Canít anybody just say what they mean?"

"Sorry. I was going to say something then but decided the last thing you needed was me horning in on your lovelife."

"Bullshit."

"Look, I donít know how passive-aggressive the people you hang with these days are, but Iím not one of them. I got a little too comfortable and started to say something that was none of my business. Iím sorry I got as far into it as I did."

"But you think that." When she didnít answer that, I said, "You do think that."

"You know what I think."

"Yeah. Yeah, I do."

She sighed and dragged me down into the seat next to her. "I wasnít going to say anything." Her voice dropped a bit; she was giving some thought as to whether I wanted to be outed to Mr. and Mrs. Nemesanyi even if I was too upset to think about it. "I mean, you are so obviously in love with this guy.... And I might be biased seeing as how he totally hates me."

He hadnít even given her a chance. That had to be a once in a lifetime thing for him. And I lowered my own voice, partly from how I was feeling and partly from the thought of being overheard. I always could count on Ray to watch my back. "Yeah. But then tonight happened. Ray, heís not like that usually."

"Thatís good; I figure you have more self-esteem than to take that all the time."

And she hadnít even been around when he grabbed me. I stood up and sat down in the seat across from her.

"Yeah, I do. I didnít expect any of that. Itís not like him." I ran my hand through my hair. I needed to lighten things up, but I was still so angry.... "I dunno what he expected me to do while he was out with Vecchio. Was I supposed to stay home and vacuum in my pumps and pearls?"

Ray nearly choked. Once she recovered, she said, "Warn a person first! Jeez. Yíknow, something like, ĎRay, Iím gonna say something thatíll make you spray Sprite out yer nose.í First the eyeliner, now this. I donít think my heart can take it."

And I still had the eyeliner on, which was probably so smudged now that I looked like I was sporting two black eyes. Weird that Mr. and Mrs. Nemesanyi hadnít said anything, but maybe they were just too happy to see me to bring it up. Hell, Ray didnít even have makeup on anymore; she was all clean-scrubbed, obviously fresh from what must have been a fast shower.

I felt strangely dangerous. At the same time I felt like I wasnít tethered down to anything. Terror and freedom. Iíd been doing the extremes of everything lately.

I leaned forward and gave Ray my darkest grin. "Was it the pearls or the pumps that did it for ya?"

"The combination, you perv."

"But somehow Iím the perv here. And Iím getting images of yer sex life that scare me." I glanced at the closed menu. "We gonna keep the tradition going here?"

"Hell, yeah."

Mrs. Nemesanyi showed up at our side like magic, which wasnít surprising since we were the only customers. I said, "The fiesta nacho plate for two. And get me a Sprite to match hers. Thanks." Once she left with our order, I felt my good spirits start to plummet again. Shit, emotional roller coaster night. "I donít know what Iím gonna do, Ray. He wasnít like this in Canada, but I... donít think I can go back there." There it was. Iíd said it. I hadnít even had the thought completed in my head until it came out. "I dunno. Canada hated me way before I started to hate it back. Any mistake up there in the Territories can kill you. I spent so much time being nervous that Iíd do something stupid that could finish us off that my stomach went bad. Could barely eat, not that ya really want to, considering the selection. Every day itís all extremes: terror or boredom, feast or famine. Snow and snow and snow. Youíre totally alone in yer head, unless yer not, in which case yer going crazy."

Yeah, you could talk to giant birds that want your soul or your misery or both and threaten your life in the process. I wondered what Ray would think of One for Sorrow, but that would take me so far off the main topic I didnít know if Iíd ever get back. The raven could keep.

Once she realized that I wasnít going to continue, Ray said, "That sounds really hard." Encouraging me to go on if I wanted to.

"The little towns are hell in their own way. Everybody knows everybody and have for most of their lives. When they talk, they make references that they donít bother explaining because everybody was around that winter in Ď94 when the bear walked into the bar, and theyíve heard it a thousand times before, because so little happens that any event gets talked into the ground for years before they let it go. And they stared at me, as rude as you could get. Spent two days in this tiny town before we got on the plane, and I got into fights almost every time Ben wasnít around, and I donít know if they really were challenging me or if I was so defensive it only felt like they were. Up there, everything I know is wrong, my judgment is off."

"But?"

"But Ben loves it out there. Itís his home, and there are parts of him he shows up there that I never would have found out about if weíd stayed in Chicago." I put my face in my hands. "Maybe summer would be easier. I could try it in the summer." I glanced up to see Ray looking at me with a blank expression, trying not to influence me, but I read what I was thinking on her face. "Yeah, right. You know what I miss about Canada? Nothing. Well, I miss Santaís Little Helpers--my team of sled dogs--but they werenít even mine anyway. They were loaner dogs. Maybe I was supposed to find my inner mountain man, but it didnít happen. Chicago might not be the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music happy for me everyday, but Iím me here. This is my natural habitat. Or at least the city environment is. The only Ďreaching out handí I found in Canada was Benís. Some of the time. I have to put my foot down on this, at least a bit. Tell him." I shook my head at her. "Yer just letting me talk."

"Maybe you need to. Besides, Iím the chick who once had a boyfriend break up with my machine while I was laid up in the hospital with a gunshot wound, so that shows how good my judgment is on love stuff."

Oh, yeah. Jeffrey Calissano, who knew she was a cop but hadnít really twigged to it until she got shot. Then he ran like a weasel. I almost broke his jaw for it. Ray had yelled at me for 45 minutes over that--saying she didnít need some hotheaded, testosterone-fueled defender; she could take care of herself--then gave me a peck on the cheek to show me we were good and she kind of appreciated the gesture. I mean, I only really did it because sheíd been too injured to do it herself.

I wonder if heís still getting all those parking tickets. Cops donít like it when one of their own gets dumped on, especially when itís for being a cop.

"True."

"The fact that I canít even pretend Iím objective figures in here somewhere too, Iím sure." Ray shook her head. "What are you gonna do?"

"Dunno yet. But I love him, Ray. I wanna be with him, even when heís being a jerk. Not that I donít intend to stop him from being a jerk, but you know what I mean. I love him, and love means compromise, but I donít know how much compromise would be healthy for either of us. Or for the both of us."

She didnít say anything about how Iíd compromised for Stella, or that sheíd been tossed away on one of those compromises. She knew she didnít have to.

And people thought we couldnít be subtle.

I pulled out my phone. "Damn, I have to talk to Ben."

"You ready for that?"

"Iím cooler now."

"You think he is?"

"Cooler than heíd be if he had to search the city for me." Damn. That didnít sound good even to me. The expression on Rayís face was interesting too. "You donít think this is a good idea."

"I donít know, all right? I donít know him."

"And what you have seen is him as a possessive asshole."

"Your words, Ray."

I looked down at my phone. "Shit. I dunno."



My breath burned through my lungs and my legs shook a little as I opened the door to Rayís apartment. Damn, but heíd given me a good run. Under all my anger, especially at the way heíd once stopped the car long enough to let me nearly catch up before driving off again, I couldnít help feeling a certain grudging admiration for his skill in losing me. Few people could outpace me, then cover over the trail so thoroughly. Our two months in the Yukon, where heíd been dependent on me for his very life, had made me forget what a wily creature Ray could be on his own terrain. Heíd made the GTO move and turn corners as if it had been an extension of his own body.

Heíd also broken maybe 20 different traffic laws but never in a way that threatened anyoneís life, not at this time of night.

All of that only increased my love and my mind-clouding lust for him.

I had to clear my head. Once I brainstormed a list of the places Ray might go, I could form a plan of attack. Checking every single one would surely lead me to him. I would find him.

I half expected my father to appear; he rarely missed a chance to lambaste me for my own shortcomings or stupid actions. Then I remembered that he had gone on to the other side, that I would never see him again. Ever. I was alone.

Utterly alone.

Dief trotted up to me and whined, wondering where Ray was. All right then, I wasnít completely alone.

Not knowing what I could tell him, I said nothing. Ray had lost me. But he had to return here eventually; it was his home, after all. He had to.

As I poured myself a glass of water, I noticed that Rayís answering machine had one more message on it than it had earlier. It might not be from him. Then again.... I told my heart to slow down and cease wallowing in stupid hopes.

Unfortunately, Rayís machine lacked a fast forward function, so I would have to listen to all of the messages. I would pay no attention to the others; it wouldnít be right.

I sat through hang-ups, wrong numbers, telemarketers, and members of Rayís 23rd district asking when he was coming back until Rayís motherís voice came out. "I know that youíd call if you came home, but I just needed to hear your voice, even if it is on one of these silly machines. I love you, and I miss you.... Iíll go now. Donít let me worry you. Goodbye."

The pain in her voice staggered me, made me remember with desperate longing the fleeting image of my own mother Iíd seen in the mineshaft. The panic in Mrs. Kowalskiís voice four messages later made me feel worse. "Stanley? I know somethingís wrong. I know calling here wonít do you any good if youíre in Canada, but I feel like youíre in trouble. Please contact me. Somehow. Please...."

His machine didnít have a time and date function, so I was left wondering if this call had come at the time Rayís trouble in the Northwest Territories had started. A similar panicked message from her followed one message later. It made me wonder just what Ray and his mother had discussed in the kitchen yesterday.

My heart heavy, I couldnít help hearing a different spin on Rayís message from earlier as it came on. "Hey, Ben, I know itís late but I lost track of time. Sorry, guy. Iím on my way now. Love you." He sounded apologetic, and heíd called, which was more than Iíd done for him. Yet he didnít sound guilty. Heíd come home expecting a light chiding for being out late, not the accusations and display of possessive jealousy Iíd treated him to instead. He hadnít known my fears.

The last message started to play. "We need to talk, Ben." God, he sounded tired. "Iím at the Michigan Diner right now. Or the diner they call Michigan. With Ray Walker, so you canít accuse me of keeping secrets or... or something. Weíre here as friends, just like we went out dancing as friends, just like I brought her to the apartment as friends." I clamped down on my anger. I had to hear this message. "Weíre eating nachos, which have to be one of the least sexiest foods out there. I mean, the sour cream, cheese, and jalopeno peppers equal frightening breath, and theyíre messy as all hell, okay? Canít eat the damned things without looking like a total slob. Shit, Iím assuming youíll look at the damned machine.... Show up if you hear this." I heard him take a deep breath. "I love you, but tonight is not going to be the way things are between us, do ya get that? We need to talk." The message ended.

The Michigan Diner? Disheartening that I would never have put that on my list. I hadnít even known about it. How many other things didnít I know?

I quickly found the address in the phone book and ran for the door with Diefenbaker at my heels. I tried not to think. Or feel anything.

Once I reached the street, I paced myself at a light jog, with Diefenbaker at my side. If I thought about the message or how Ray would react when I arrived, I would only upset myself, so I merely concentrated on my directions and the feel of putting one foot before the other, breathing in Chicagoís slightly less toxic night air. Successfully entranced, I reached my destination in what seemed like seconds, although I felt the miles in my legs and lungs.

White light seemed to pour out into the street from the dinerís windows. The Michigan Diner had the train car design once common to such eateries. Its metal and glass had a dull gleam under the streetlights, and neon emphasized its rounded lines as well as spelling out its name.

My Ray and Walker were its only customers at this time, and they sat in the last booth, with Walkerís back to the wall. I drained myself of any betraying emotions before I opened the door, letting Diefenbaker in first. The couple standing near the register started to approach me, but I gestured them to stay back for now. To my shame, I realized Iíd used exactly the same gesture a trainer would use on a dog for Stay.

I heard Walker snarl, "Hey! Stop stealing the freaking guacamole!"

"What are you, the second coming of Joe Pesci?" Ray asked.

"Donít get me started on my Ďdo I amuse youí routine. Nobody wants to go there." She waved her hand and the nacho gripped by it for emphasis. "Anyway, he says, ĎNot even you can make a Chevy fly.í"

I heard Ray laugh. "Oh, man."

"Yeah. I had to prove him wrong after that. When we got back, it took five minutes of coaxing to get him to let go of the dashboard. He got a new partner the next day. And donít give me that look, not when you drive cars like you just stole Ďem for a joyride." Her face went still as she looked up and saw me, and she rolled her shoulders in a way that suggested to me that she had a gun. It was something Ray did sometimes when he wore his holster.

But I was being impossible, looking for demons that werenít there.

Ray had turned around as soon as he saw her reaction. His kohl had smudged, making dark shadows around his eyes. "Hey, Ben." I could read nothing in his face or voice.

I nodded to him. "Ray." My voice remained admirably even.

"I didnít know if youíd get my message."

"I did."

Ray smiled a bit, almost smugly. "Yeah, or you wouldnít be here. Letís take this outside."

"Letís."

Diefenbaker settled near Walkerís feet, apparently disinclined to move. I simply shook my head at him. As Ray and I walked outside, Ray told the couple that "the dogís all right. Heís with me."

Although I wanted to walk a bit further away from the diner, Ray stopped in front of one of the windows and would not move. I quickly understood his reason for it. "Why are we standing in her view?" I asked.

Ray paced a tight circle, all barely caged energy and tension. I wanted to touch him. I was afraid to touch him. "She can only see me through the window, and she canít read lips like Dief can. Anyway, she gets worried about me. Itís what friends do. So. I make sure she has nothing to worry about by being right in the open. Or are you thinking of doing something you donít want her seeing you do to me?"

"Were you toying with me earlier?"

Rayís pale eyes, looking almost yellow now instead of their more usual blue flecked with gold, blazed in their rings of smudged and fading black kohl. Chameleon eyes. "What? You grabbed me."

"I meant by stopping the car, then starting it again."

He sucked in a breath. "Do you really want to know? I donít think so."

"Are you telling me what I want?"

"Hey, why not. Yer telling yerself all kinds of wrong things about me, so let me tell you something about you. About what you want. You donít wanna know."

"I want to know."

Ray flung up his hands in a gesture that seemed part shrug, part hard anger. "Fine then. I was talking to my Canadian hallucination. The bird one. If you wanna be precise, I had my hands around its fucking neck. I figure youíd appreciate me stopping the car instead of trying to strangle it while driving. Yeah, itís back, and it told me you made a bargain with it in a damned dream that made it possible for it to start bugging me again. Something about it being free to fuck with me if you stopped keeping me happy. But I think I finally managed to convince the bird to beat it. So Iím having a great night all around; how Ďbout you?"

I couldnít speak through my horror and confusion. Heíd just given me a description of a dream I hadnít told him about. If it had been more than a dream... had I been tricked into such a bargain?

I didnít want to believe.

"You got nothing to say?" Ray asked, right in my face, any issues of personal space forgotten.

I shook my head as I tried to process it all. "Nothing."

"ĎCause, I mean, here I am seeing things again. Itís crazy Ray, tripping off his ass again."

"Iím--"

"Maybe you figure you have a right to tell me who I can have as my friends, seeing as how Iím nuts and all."

"That has nothing to do with it."

"So itís jealousy instead of thinking that my judgmentís impaired and being concerned for my well-being? I got this pretty girl sitting over there. Sheís 32, and maybe her biological clockís ticking away. She might take me down right over the nachos. I might not be able to fight her off. Hell, maybe Iíll be the aggressive one. Iíll probably jump her the moment yer back is turned, Ďcause, I mean, ya never know with me, seeing as how Iím a dog aní all."

"A dog, Ray?"

"Yeah. Yíknow, a faithless male slut who canít keep his pants zipped. Thatís what yer saying, right?"

His accusation tipped me back over into full anger. Heíd distracted me, but now I was back on track. "No!" He didnít understand.

If he were mad or haunted, he needed my guidance more than ever.

"Then what are you saying?" Ray asked, nearly vibrating with rage and energy.

"I was angry at you when you came home. Your terse note--"

"You gotta be kidding me. I told you Iíd be out dancing."

"You didnít say with whom."

"What happened to Ďall women are our sisters; I believe platonic relationships happen all the timeí? Besides, Fraser, me being with you means I play for both teams. You know that. If you really wanna be an ass, you could look at any name, male or female, I wrote down and think I was screwing around on you. So why bother?"

I bristled under his invective. Before tonight, I hadnít heard that tone of voice from him in some time. "You could tell I didnít like her."

Ray almost choked. "You didnít say one fucking thing."

"You could tell."

"So what? Do all my friends have to pass muster with you, Mum? And Iím getting the feeling yer more upset that it was Ray, but that you still wouldíve been upset if Raphael or Santiago took me out too. Jeez, itís a good thing Stan Bernstein isnít in town."

"Youíre wrong. Itís simply her. I donít trust her."

"You donít know her, and youíve made it obvious that you donít wanna know her. If you knew her, ya might have to realize that yer fucking wrong, and that never happens, does it?" Ray ran his hand through his hair. "Fuck. She was right, and I jumped down her throat for it."

"Is Walker making judgements on me now?"

"It would only be right since you did that the second you saw her, but no, this was more of a comparison."

"So you did notice my reaction."

"I noticed it but I thought I was misinterpreting because I couldnít believe it. I didnít think you did that shit. I hate people who judge other people on first sight. Peopleíve been doing that to me my whole life. I learned to play to it later on, but I hate it. Now I find out that you do the same thing. If you hadnít been so busy going, ĎYou, sir, are not Raymond Vecchioí when you first saw me, what kind of judgment would you have come to on me?"

"You donít understand. Youíre not like her. Sheís different."

"Sheís not that different. I want you to explain it all to me, and try to do it in a way that doesnít make you sound like an asshole. Explain it to me. I dare you."

"I shouldnít have to. Itís obvious."

"God dammit!" Ray closed his eyes and pressed his fingers against their inner corners up and at an angle. When he took his hands away, heíd smudged kohl in intersecting streaks across the bridge of his nose, given him something akin to a raccoon mask. Or....

It reminded me of Pris, one of the characters from a movie I saw with my Ray twice, Blade Runner. The black across his eyes and nose combined with the increased appearance of pallor the white light streaming out of the diner gave him made the resemblance immediate. Pris had been designed to be nothing more than a technologically advanced sex toy and often played dumb, but in one scene she answered J.F.ís question with the words "accelerated decrepitude." Her usual seeming struck me as being so analogous to Rayís "dumb flatfoot" act, complete with the occasional slip of the mask to show the calculating intelligence within, that Iíd smiled. I never told Ray why.

My mind raced, taking the link farther. I sensed importance here, no matter how trivial and castoff my thought that he physically resembled a movie character tonight seemed right now.

"Go ahead. Explain it to me," Ray said. "Iím waiting."

The one time weíd tried to watch the directorís cut of that film, Ray had disdained it, saying that without the originalís voiceover he couldnít even figure out what was going on, and heíd seen the movie before. He did approve of the directorís decision to end the film with Deckard and Rachael getting into the elevator, running for their lives, informing me that the originalís ending had Rachaelís life known to be limitless as it showed them driving through a verdant landscape. As he put it, "Oh, yeah, Earthís so bad everybodyís escaping to space colonies but just outside LA we have a beautiful wilderness. Suuuuure. Do you know they lifted the visuals from another film? The Shining, believe it or not." Then he brought out his well-worn copy of the original version of Blade Runner for us to watch.

The voiceover did help me. First, by showing me for certain that we were watching a noir story, a fact only suggested by some eccentric costuming choices in the directorís cut. Iíd seen examples of the genre in both book and movie form at some of my past posts. Second, it told me that Deckard wasnít simply a ruthless man more machine-like than the replicants he hunted, but a man who knew himself to be cold and ruthless... and scared of it, wanting to change. A man torn between his duty and his ever-growing feeling that he did this duty for a corrupt government that used people like him to do evil things.

The movie turned out to be a complicated, if flawed, contemplation of identity and humanity. What makes us who we are? Can we change? Is humanity something weíre born with or something we prove and earn through the way we live our lives?

"Earth to Fraser," Ray said. His eyes nearly blazed in indignation. "We doing the silent treatment now? Iím not some kid who can be intimidated by that."

"Iím tracing something important," I answered. It was so close....

"Thatís for damned sure."

Important indeed, as I remembered Rayís reaction to a scene between Deckard and Rachael. At one point Deckard forcibly stops her from leaving his apartment, harshly pins her to the wall, terrifying her, and tells her to ask him to kiss her. That she acquiesces, later showing some passion, and that the style of music suggested it was a love scene only disgusted Ray even more. "God, I hate that one every time," heíd said. "Thatís not right. Itís just not right. You donít do that to somebody you supposedly love or want or whatever." Iíd agreed.

And what had I done tonight?

All of this hit me in a sudden cascade of instinctive leaps, bypassing some steps entirely to reach the conclusions. Seen from the end judgment, the bridges became more obvious, but before that Iíd simply leapt over the chasms from one seemingly irrelevant topic to another until I found the truth I needed. Was this what it was like to think like Ray?

He leaned against the window, his arms crossed, and simply looked at me. I wondered if the sleeves of his jacket hid bruises in the shape of my hands.

My outrage and sense of righteousness fled. "Iím sorry for what looked like inattention, Ray, but I needed to think a few things through. What I did to you earlier was wrong. Iím even more sorry for that. I want to talk this out and try to make amends."

Ray looked casual. Too casual. "Donít try too hard. I donít want ya to strain yerself or nothing."

"I mean it. Iíll go inside and sit with you so we can discuss this like adults."

His eyes briefly lit up, then dimmed again. "I was with somebody who was possessive once. It went from seeming sexy and caring to suffocating damned fast. Since Iíve already taken that tour once, Iím reaching Ďsuffocatedí much faster now. I donít wanna go there again."

"I understand."

Ray took a long, deep breath. "I want to give us a chance to work. Ray will leave--"

As much as I didnít want to say this, I had something to prove. "Thatís not necessary. She can stay."

Ray looked highly dubious. "You sure about that? I mean, I know you donít like talking personal stuff in front of a stranger, and I totally get that. Iím not big on it either."

"I need to show you that I have no intention of locking you away from other people. If sheís a friend of yours, I can certainly be civil."

Ray nodded. "Okay. Good. Come inside with me?"

As we walked back into the diner, Walker stopped stroking Diefís head and gave us her full attention. It obscurely bothered me when her hands settled under the table, but I didnít know why. Gun, my instincts had said when I first saw her in the diner. Did I think she would shoot me? The understanding mixed with reproach I had seen in her eyes earlier had been replaced by something hard and unyielding, making me wonder what Ray had told her.

Walker looked utterly clean-scrubbed, all traces of a temptress gone. A circular impression from the cowboy hat now sitting on the table beside her had been left in her slowly drying hair. Her jacket and clothing obscured her shape, leaving her nearly genderless. Not that, as Ray himself had said, her gender would have mattered.

Her blank face and hard eyes reminded me uncomfortably of some of the looks Ray Vecchio had given me today, looks he blamed on his time portraying the Bookman.

Ray settled into the booth across from her first, then moved closer to the wall as I sat next to him. It comforted me to have him boxed in so.

Walker and I simply watched one another for a while until Ray snapped, "Shit, with the way you two are staring at each other I keep thinking Iím watching Scanners, waiting for one of yer heads to blow up. Could you just get the pissing match over with, mount me as the victor, and be fucking done with it already?"

Walker almost choked. "Ray!" Perhaps from her distraction, her right eye started to slide out of focus with her left a bit.

It was repellent to watch and made me wonder if she did it as a way to toy with me until my Ray said, "Shit, Ray, I didnít realize you were that tired."

She blinked, then her eyes moved in tandem again. "Iím fine," she said.

"Yer lazy eye only acts up when--"

"Iím fine. But Iím not being much help here. I can go home and leave you to it."

"Fraser wants you to stay."

"In which alternate universe?"

"I did ask if you could stay," I said.

"Did you. Okay, here I am."

Walker and I stared at one another in silence for a few minutes and I could feel Ray becoming more agitated by the moment. Yet I could find nothing to say to her, not even to support my assertion that I wanted her there or to make Ray feel better. I couldnít think of a single thing that couldnít be taken the wrong way.

Rayís eyes swept from me to Walker and back, before he shook his head in disgust. "I have to use the can. Play nice for the few minutes Iím gone, would ya? Hereís a hint: now it would be okay if you donít speak to one another," Ray said, not entirely in jest, before he left us alone. It killed me to hear him sound so upset.

Walker and I looked at one another from across the table. I watched her mouth start to open and then close a few times and her fingers flex and then relax into an attempt to be motionless. I could tell that she wanted to speak, wanted to point a finger at me for emphasis. Finally, she shoved a lollipop into her mouth, clamping her lips tightly around it, and leaned back into her seat, arms crossed. However, she vibrated, providing such a perfect picture of arrested movement that I thought she might explode in her struggle to hold back the contained but steadily building urge to harangue me.

Watching the intensity of effort involved made me far more uncomfortable and annoyed than having her yell at me would have. "Why donít you just say what youíre thinking?" I asked.

"What good would it do?"

"Iíd like to hear it."

"No, you wouldnít."

"Please donít tell me what Iím thinking."

"See? I could do more harm than good. I doubt you trust my judgment. And youíre too smart for me to tell you the opposite of what Iíd like you to do and expect you to do it. So smart that I think you know what I want to say anyway." She sighed and rested her head against the wall, then pulled a pad and pen out of her pocket and started to write something.

It annoyed me that she didnít think enough of me to even give me her full attention. Perhaps it was a simple lack of manners, but I felt uncharitable tonight. "I think I do. Youíre wrong in much of it."

"Of course I am." She ripped the page out of her pad, set some money down on the table, and put her black cowboy hat on. She inclined her head to me once, then slid out of the booth, stood up, stretched, and started to walk away.

I grabbed her by the arm and felt her fighting herself to avoid forcibly removing my grip. "Where are you going?" I asked.

"Away, because this wonít work. I love Ray like a brother, and me being around is screwing things up for him again. With all the other shit on his mind, he doesnít need this too." She ripped her arm from my grasp and started to walk, but then she came back. "And after all the time youíve known Ray you still donít realize that he likes his women girly? Jesus." Then she started to leave for good.

As much as I wanted her to go and never shadow Ray again, another part of me realized that this couldnít end happily. Ray understandably didnít take well to having things he loved snatched away from him. And I... I was being unreasonable. I knew it. Yet I didnít move to stop her again.

"No!" My Ray was almost a blur as he ran to catch her. He grabbed her and dragged her back to the table. "No, no, no, no. We are not doing this. God damn it, I leave you two alone for a few fucking minutes...."

"Ray--"

He dropped her back into the booth and then sat down, shoving her further into the seat. "Now weíre going to be adults."

I heard Walker mutter something that sounded like: "Note to self: Next time I try for a graceful exit, just shut the fuck up and make the exit."

"Thatís not adult. Itís not enough heís trying to take you away from me; now you have to take you away from me?"

"Ray, Iím not--" I started to protest.

Walker spoke over me. "Itís better this way. You donít need this shit."

"I decide what shit I need," Ray said. "Besides, I may or may not stay in Chicago but Iím not going to have my last part of you be some damned note ya left on the table before you exiled yerself." Then he looked at me with such disappointment in his eyes.

"Ray, I had nothing to do with her leaving. Truly," I said. I noticed that heíd washed much of the smudged kohl off his face but some of it remained in shadows around his eyes.

"Oh, yeah, nothing. I walked away from her once to please somebody and it left me miserable and didnít even work. Iíd like to think Iíve learned better since then."

Walker fidgeted. "Ray, let me talk to Mr. and Mrs. Nemesanyi. They look like theyíre trying to figure out a way to oust your Mountie. By gunpoint if necessary."

"No."

"Iím not gonna run out!"

When I turned to see the dinerís owners, their eyes quickly and nervously slid away from me. They seemed terrified of me and worried for Ray. My God, had I done that?

"This isnít who I am," I muttered.

"What?" Ray asked.

Ray and Walker both watched me carefully as if they expected me to explode at any time. And why not? Hadnít I been behaving in a violently volatile manner tonight?

Hadnít I already roughhoused Ray as if he were nothing more than my property, mine to dispose of as I wished?

Early this morning, a lifetime ago, Iíd thought that the two of us being welded together would be wonderful, but my true dream would be to take it farther. Nothing would make a large part of me happier than to live alone with Ray in a cabin in the wilderness, far from anyone else. Once in a while I would have to go to a nearby town for supplies, but Ray would stay in the cabin, I could have him whenever I wanted, and he would never leave. Ever.

He was happy in those daydreams, but how could he be while I kept him as a private playtoy? When I was the only person allowed in his life and he was utterly dependent on me?

I frightened myself. What I wanted from him was sick and no good for him. I wanted to devour him alive and suck him dry, but I didnít know if even that would fill the hole I felt within myself. My fear, jealousy, and lust would strangle him. If we reconciled tonight and I vowed to amend my ways, how long would I be able to keep my promise before this dark tide inside me rose again?

I was losing control again. Had I learned nothing from Victoria?

Or perhaps I had. What sheíd wanted to do to me, I was now trying to do to my Ray. If Ray Vecchio hadnít shot me, I would have joined her on that train, an act of self-annihilation. My life with her would have been one of self-denial, of throwing aside every principle Iíd ever believed in until Benton Fraser no longer existed. A large part of me had found that very attractive. With every hand rightly turned against us, with no one we could trust not to turn us in, I would have been utterly dependent on Victoria for human contact.

It didnít make me a better person that I at least didnít demand that Ray betray everyone he knew to be with me. I only asked him to abandon them all.

If I truly loved him, I would let him go. I would have to make it a harsh break for fear that he would be willing to make the same sacrifices Iíd been willing to make for her.

"I have to go," I said, trying to avoid the inevitable like a coward.

"What?" Ray asked.

"I have to go. I canít do this."

As I stood, Ray grabbed my wrist, and none of my effort could shake his grip. It clamped so tightly that my fingers buzzed from waning circulation. "You talk to me," he said. "Nobody leaves tonight without saying things to me first. I donít want nobody assuming I know what theyíre thinking. Talk to me."

"Everything I do seems to hurt you. Iím trying to take the path that leads to the least hurt."

"And you decide that for me. Why do you decide that for me? Everybody leaves me, but I donít get a say?"

It sounded like a cry from my own soul. That was my life and pain reflected in his words.

"I should go," Walker said, sounding ever more uncomfortable.

"No," Ray said to her. "Iím not losing anybody."

I understood. He hoped her presence would prevent me from doing anything irrevocable now. Surely I wouldnít want to air something serious in front of a stranger, especially one I didnít like.

I couldnít let that deter me. Rayís health and happiness depended on it. I swallowed. "Ray, as much as I love you, I think the last few days and especially tonight show that the two of us being romantically involved isnít healthy for either of us. I... think it best if we cease."

"Are you breaking up with me?" Ray paled and looked as if Iíd struck him across the face. Walker looked like she wanted to slide under the table and hide.

"Yes. I think it best, since I fear that things will only get worse if we continue the way we have."

"Yer breaking up with me? Itís been a fun few weeks, but now yer moving on? Ben, we had one bad night. One."

"Itís not just one bad night."

"I thought things were going pretty well."

"Alone, in a private dreamland, it was. After that we were simply pretending that they were. Itís better to end things now." I actually felt physically ill. My heart wanted to burst from my chest in horror at what I was doing and at the thought of what I might do to him later if I didnít do this now.

"Why do you get to decide whatís best for me?"

"Ray, everything isnít about you." Oh, God. That didnít come out the way I wanted it to. "I mean, that itís me too, and--"

Rayís eyes looked dead, lost in a nightmare. I wondered if Stella had said exactly those words to him. "Right. Sure."

"This is exactly what I mean. I have to go," I said. In Rayís shock, his grip on my wrist had loosened, so I broke away easily. "Please donít follow me." I had to make this fast. It would hurt more and be more difficult if I didnít put this to him quickly, then go.

To my relief, Dief followed me out the door, running along with me. I looked back once to see Ray getting up, no doubt to do exactly what Iíd asked him not to, so I poured on some more speed. I couldnít bear to say any more to him.

Iíd just made a very public scene. If my father were here--

I turned off all thought and just ran.



I ran after him. At least I hoped I was behind him; I wasnít sure which direction he took. What else could I do? Story of my life is running after people who didnít want to be caught, and a lot of them were people I loved. Besides, the concrete problem of tracking him down distracted me a bit from the fact that I felt like my soul had been ripped out.

And the fact that he looked like heíd been in such agony as he spoke to me.

What the hell was he doing? And why?

I sent Ray after him in a different direction, though I sure as hell hoped she wasnít the one to find him. That would be a scene. She had her cell phone and I had mine, so maybe we could coordinate....

But I didnít know if I could find him when he didnít want to be found.

Did he even remember right now that he was living with me, so all his stuff, what little he owned, was at my place? Where was he going? Where the hell would he stay? The Vecchiosí? I had my cell phone in my hand before I thought of how late it was and how Ma Vecchio would freak if she got a middle of the night call from some guy asking in a panic if Ben was okay. If he wasnít there, Iíd just be making her as scared as I was. So no call. If he didnít turn up by tomorrow morning, Iíd go over there myself.

Right now, I couldnít see him anywhere at all, so going after him on foot made no sense. Time to get the GTO and start looking.

Yeah, stick with the concrete stuff. Anything to avoid the real issues. And all the pain was just me pushing my body to catch up with him, the pounding of my feet against cement....

I would find him and make things right. Somehow.

But hours of driving and searching his usual haunts later, I still hadnít found him, and I was going crazy. I nearly jumped out of my skin when my cell phone went off. "Vec-- Ray here."

"I donít see him either, and itís almost seven a.m. Youíre too tired to drive, and if we havenít found him yet, heís gone to ground, so we wonít find him now. You need to get some sleep."

"I donít--"

"In your current state youíre a danger to yourself and others while behind the wheel of a car."

A danger to myself and others. That sounded about right. "I canít--"

"Iíve been driving behind you for five minutes now, and you havenít noticed. Youíre fried. If you wrap yourself around a pole now, Fraser would never forgive you."

Dammit. "All right. All right. Iíll go home." Take in enough sleep to get myself sharp again, then hunt him down.



I moved on autopilot, uncertain of direction or time. Of course. What else could I expect after Iíd ripped a piece of my soul out, breaking the heart of someone I loved more than life itself in the process? I was incomplete. Well, more incomplete than I had been before. I told myself it would be cleaner to do this now, a cauterizing, healing pain now to prevent a more insidious and painful infection later.

I had to tell myself this. None of it made sense otherwise. Otherwise... I had to carry the memory of Rayís stricken face with me and know that Iíd hurt him for no good reason.

I finally stopped in front of an unfamiliar building. Why? The street name, the building number.... Turnbullís note. Without thinking, Iíd wandered to Renís apartment building. There were other places, like the Vecchio household, I could go for shelter, but none that didnít carry a dangerous emotional charge and meaning.

I couldnít do this. I would not inflict myself upon him. I turned--

"Sir!"

I turned back to see Renfield, halfway dressed in his uniform, standing at the open door. I realized then that this was morning, nearly time for him to leave for work.

I wondered what had made him come down to the door. I hadnít even approached the front steps.

He took one look at me and said, "I told you that you could see me if you needed something. Please come in."

I simply continued to stare. I couldnít seem to make my mouth or legs work.

Ren used something to block the buildingís front door to keep it open and dashed down the steps to me. His uniform looked impeccable below the waist, but he had only his suspenders and Henley on above. The morning chill had to be cutting into him terribly.

Guilt set me in motion again. "I canít," I said. "Youíre about to leave for--"

He gripped my arm. The wrong hands.... "Please, sir. Come with me. Itís no imposition at all."

I let him tow me inside, to what seemed to be Diefenbakerís immense relief. A few flights of stairs later, he opened another door and dragged me behind him. Diefenbaker, more sensible and practical than I, rushed in.

Renís small, Spartan lodging struck me with a deep pang of unexpected nostalgia for the Chicago apartment Iíd lost to Zoltan Motherwellís vengeance. So many things had changed since then, and my life and desires had attained a level of complexity I never would have foreseen. I felt so entangled in so many lives and so many other peopleís wants in ways Iíd never been before coming to this city.

Then again, it only made sense. I hadnít had many people involved in my life prior to arriving in Chicago.

That meant something, something important that I was missing....

I felt it lingering at the corner of my eye, disappearing when I tried to look at it straight on. An epiphany, perhaps. Unfortunately, it remained out of reach. For now.

Actually, Renís apartment did show a few personal touches. A covered easel, with charcoals and watercolor paints sitting nearby, stood in one corner of the kitchen, while a plush wolf toy sat atop his sharply and perfectly made bed.

He sat me down on a kitchen chair and put the kettle on. Warmth and civilization here. It almost broke me. My head seemed too heavy for my neck to support, so I rested it on my crossed arms atop the table. But as Ren turned to face me I brought my head back up and achieved a stoic expression. I had to hold myself together for company.

"I hate to be so forward, Benton, but please tell me whatís wrong. Something is."

"Itís nothing I canít work out on my own, Renfield. Iím sorry to have disturbed you so early. I couldnít forgive myself if my arrival rendered you late for work."

"Truthfully, my new inspector wouldnít notice," Ren answered, sounding distracted. His eyes, however, focused with disconcerting intensity on me. "I should call Ray."

"Please, donít!" Too much of my emotional state had exploded out into those words.

Turnbull looked horrified. "Is something wrong with Ray?"

"No. No, Ren, Ray is fine." I could tell he didnít quite believe me. "Iím... leery of disturbing Ray at this time." Please let him assume that I referred to the late hour.

"Youíve fallen out, then. Surely the situation can be fixed."

My jaw wanted to drop, and only self-discipline prevented it. "How could you possibly know that?"

Ren looked nervous. "Iíve simply observed you and Ray often enough to make an enlightened guess." While I sat, disbelieving, he went on, "Iíve never known you to give up so easily. Especially not on Ray, or on a relationship that you both so obviously want." Ren squirmed a little under my increasingly surprised stare. "Your feelings for him have been obvious for some time now. As have his for you."

I wanted to laugh, because otherwise Iíd cry. I found the self-control necessary to do neither. I could lie, but I couldnít find the strength. "Your concern is appreciated, even as I canít help finding your leaps of logic hard to credit." I found it all suspicious, but it provided a perfect cap on a morning in which Iíd assaulted someone I loved in a jealous rage, found out that he believed a native spirit had followed him to Chicago and conversed with him in his car, furthered tormented him myself for a while, then broken up with him. All before 8 a.m.

"But I am correct?"

I sighed. "Indeed."

"Please forgive me for my presumption, but perhaps talking about it might help you find a solution. Nothing would make me happier than knowing that the both of you are happy."

I gave him a sharp look, but he turned oblivious on me, refusing to notice. Telling my innermost secrets hadnít helped earlier, but I had to admit that I may have let those fester too long before sharing them with Ray. Instead of relaying them in a calm, sensible fashion, Iíd fumbled about like a man whoíd taken a serious blow to the head.

"Please, sir," Ren said. "Let me repay the camaraderie youíve shown me by helping you in whatever small way I can."

I didnít need to reveal all the tragic details of my relations with Ray, though it hardly seemed like I had to, not with the way Renfield seemed to be pulling details from thin air. Perhaps, though, Ren might be helpful in tackling the problem that I knew lay at the root of my jealousies and other insane actions. Why not? Perhaps voicing and explaining them might make my path clearer in my own mind.

I had to clear my throat first, but I managed to choke out, "Aside from other... difficulties, I cannot take Ray back to the Territories with me. Iíve known that for some time now but wouldnít let myself admit it." Drove the thought entirely out of my head was more like it.

Ren smiled a little, pleased to be taken into my confidence, then turned serious. "Is he so hopeless there?"

"No. In fact, physically he adapted better than I had any right to expect and, great heart that he is, he rarely complained. Itís--" I would sound insane saying this to most people, but Ren didnít live in quite the same world most people did.... "Well, I lack the evidence to say for certain either way, but he was either becoming unhinged or finding himself the unwilling target of a... powerís attention. A threatening attention."

"A Ďpowerí?"

"He saw things. I thought them simple hallucinations, but he also knew things he shouldnít have. Then he started to draw salt circles around our camps."

"Ray did?" For some reason, Ren didnít look surprised.

I mentally filed that away for later. "Indeed. My own dreams may be simple coincidence, but they certainly seemed to suggest that Raven had taken an interest in us. The Raven of my dream said that Ray would continue to be so afflicted as long as we were in the Territories." I took a sip of tea to calm me. Even if Ray decided to come to Canada with me again, even there I wouldnít be alone with him, not with Raven interfering.

But heíd said heíd seen Raven again tonight. Seen him and banished him. It seemed that my intervention might have meant very little. Did that then mean that Ray could return with me to the Territories? Then I remember how distracted and how unanchored to the world around us heíd been there.

He could not go back.

I continued, "Ray may want to try staying there again, and I canít let that happen no matter what I want." I could talk him into it so easily, heaven help me. Did my selfishness know no bounds?

"Surely thereís a way to resolve this. A Canadian city, perhaps, so your homesickness wouldnít be so unbearable. Toronto?"

"Not Toronto, Ren. Definitely not Toronto."

"Ottawa, perhaps."

"More cities. I canít help feeling that it wouldnít be much different than staying in Chicago."

"Sir!"

His instant disapproval startled a laugh out of me. "Iím sorry. I forgot myself and meant no disrespect to our homeland."

A small smile lingered at Renís lips. "I know youíre fatigued and not always certain of what youíre saying. So Chicago is impossible for you?"

"Too often it feels like a tightening noose around my neck."

I could swear I heard Renfield mutter, "But not always," before he said to me, "That would seem to answer my question. Is your undeserved exile truly over, then?"

"My capture of Muldoon and help in recovering the Russian submarine and poison gas canisters put me back in good graces." But something about the look in Renís eyesÖ. "Unless you know something Iím not aware of."

"Iím not one to tell tales, sir."

"This would be Mountie to Mountie, by the honor of our brotherhood."

Ren nodded, satisfied. "Our new inspector is expecting your return. He seems to feel that the postings youíd be so generously offered would not sit well with you. When I first saw you back I assumed you meant to resume your former duties here. Once you confided your indecision, I thought it better not to say anything in the consulate. But my information may be outdated."

I shouldnít have been surprised by such trickery given the circumstances of my exile. "Do you know which postings those would be? I havenít contacted anyone to ask." Iíd been so intent on my adventure with Ray and later Ray himself that I hadnít given a thought to my professional future. My time of service had never been about having a career, simply my personal need to see justice done.

But, then, acting without giving a thought to consequences or the future seemed to be my modus operandi of late. It didnít serve Ray or me well.

"Iím afraid not, though I remember Toronto being mentioned prominently. However, I could thoroughly clean the inspectorís desk today and see what I happen upon."

"I could never ask you to do that."

"I would never expect you to, sir. You could call, but I doubt they would be as forthcoming as Inspector Scottís papers would be." Ren smiled. "Please leave it to me. It would be my pleasure."

"Thank you."

"For what, sir?" His smile deepened. "You didnít ask me for anything."

"Of course."

"You should rest. I have a bed. Actually, itís more like a glorified cot. Itís not much but--"

"Iím sure itís more than satisfactory, but I couldnít."

"Please accept my hospitality."

Ray would laugh himself sick at this battle of politesse. Ray.... "Perhaps after I finish my tea."

"Very good. Iím sure a solution will be easier to come to you once youíre rested."

"You may be right."

"Please make yourself at home. I would offer to stay with you, but I think I may be more help to you at Inspector Scottís desk. But if youíd like, I could stay."

"Thereís no need to stay with me. Iíll be fine."

Ren nodded his head to me. "Of course. Then Iíll let you know later if I find out anything. Good day, sir."

After Turnbull closed the door, I let my head drift down to my crossed arms. I saw no solutions, and I felt so tired....



Guns in hand, grinning, Ray and I ran down our prey. We had our backup somewhere behind us--Ramirez, Bernstein, Huey, and Dewey--but we were the forerunners in the pack, the Tigger Twins, high on adrenaline, faster than the rest. Blood and muscles pumped as every movement reminded me I was warm and alive.... God, I never stopped loving this part.

Hunting criminals with Fraser was fun too, but different. With him it was a duet of opposites working in harmony, but with Ray it was a doubled melody. Fraser knew a lot of what I thought on the hunt, but Ray thought the same things I thought. I wouldnít even need to ask her to "rack that bad boy and cover me" if it was necessary, because sheíd already be doing it with a deadly smile.

The warehouse floor flew beneath us we were booking it so hard. We easily cut the distance between us and the fleeing back ahead of us.

Ray nodded to me as I pulled ahead, then threw myself at our prey in a flying tackle. He grunted as he went down, but still struggled. I let him think he got rid of me but kept rolling so Iíd block his exit. With me in front of him and Ray behind him, he had nowhere to go.

Ben couldnít escape me this time.

Looking angry and afraid, he stood in a rush, his blue eyes glancing between me holding a gun on him and Ray holding a gun on him. He vibrated with tension. I wanted him. Here. Now. And I wanted to pistol-whip him until he listened.

"You donít leave the pack, do you get that? There is no Ďout,í do you get that?" I growled at him. "Yer mine, and itís for life."

"Precisely," Ben said before pulling out a gun and turning it on Ray. She didnít expect it because I didnít. Fraser never carried a gun in the States. The sound of it going off seemed loud enough to shatter the world. Her eyes looked so huge and shocked as a gaping red hole bloomed between them. She hit the floor hard and lay there, broken.

Fraser never carried a gun, at least not in Chicago. And he didnít kill, not like that.

While I stood there, staring in shock, gun lowered, feeling like heíd shot a big piece of me off, Ben turned his weapon on me. I pulled my own back up and snarled, "I swear Iíll shoot, you son of a bitch." The anger and terror finally started to hit. This wasnít the Fraser I knew, and I had no idea what he was capable of. Heíd just... gunned her down.

"Iím counting on it. In any case, I certainly will. Diefenbaker is already there."

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

Ben smiled. "Weíll be together, Ray, safe and perfect. Together always, and nothing will ever change."

His finger started to press the trigger.... I needed to stall for time. Every time I tried to make a stealthy move to disarm him, he kept tracking on me anyway. I couldnít shoot him, but I sure as hell wasnít going to let him kill me either. "What? Yer gonna shoot me and cart my body around? Thatís not buddies."

"Not at all. Then Iíll turn the gun on myself. I told you. Together, safe and perfect." Aiming for my head, he pulled the trigger.

I awoke in a panic. Alive, alive... at 11 a.m. Shit, was I late for work. And was I supposed to drive Fraser somewhere today?

No way Iíd tell Fraser about this dream. Heíd get upset and either decide to pretend he never heard about it--something he did badly--or talk it to death, which would make me think turning my gun on him might not be a bad idea. And how much work could we possibly get done while weíre both screwed up like that? Welshíd have my head.

Wait.

Being in my bed in my apartment said I was Ray Vecchio and I had to get to work. My heart said that Ben should be lying snuggled beside me. My head reminded me that Mr. Reason broke us up and walked away to parts unknown last night.

Oh yeah.

I buried my face into my pillow to hide. It was all so crazy. Had he always been this fucked-up, or was it something he started after hanging with me? Not that I was a picture of perfect mental health.

I never got to see him in a relationship with anybody. Hell, most people seemed to think he didnít fall in love or lust with people that way, that he was a Mountie island, sufficient unto himself or something. Like he was a robot and didnít need human companionship. They didnít see the guy under the shield of duty and politeness. I figured out better immediately after I met him. Of course, heíd helped me there by being snappish and a bit crazy as he measured my nose and gave me a putty sandwich to prove I wasnít Ray Vecchio.

Good first day, though. Fun.

Iíd seen Fraser hot for a few people--the Ice Queen, the bounty hunter chick, Tracy Jenkins, and Maggie Mackenzie, the last of them still creeping me out for being his half-sister, not that he knew it at first. Iíd thought he had a thing for Lady Shoes, but he was just playing me on that one, something that still freaks me out to this day. But none of them led anywhere, so I never got to see how he was when he was with somebody.

I heard about Victoria, but that one hadnít been normal, not her and not what he had with her. Not in any way, shape, or form.

Or maybe it was, for him? Shit. I didnít even want to go there.

So instead I was here. Waking up alone. Without Ben. That was something I hadnít done in months. Literally speaking, I woke up without him here in bed yesterday, but I still had his warmth suffusing the sheets, pillows, and my body. Dief had helped too. Today I had too much space, too much quiet, in my bed.

At least I didnít have total quiet, because I heard the TV on in the living room. Had to be Ray on the couch, keeping watch for me in case Ben came home. That really brought the whole night crashing in on me.

I still couldnít believe heíd dumped me in front of her. Okay, I couldnít believe heíd dumped me like that, period, but especially not in front of her. How desperate would he have to be to air our dirty laundry in front of someone he considered a stranger at best and an enemy at worst? I mean, he hated her, at first sight even, which was something I never thought Iíd see since he gave everybody the benefit of the doubt to the point of taking it too far. Hating her was like hating me, considering all the things Ray and I had in common, and he claimed he loved me. It made no sense.

Poor Ray. Sheíd been so obviously horrified to be there watching us as we fought and broke up, maybe even feeling a bit responsible when none of it was her fault. It was all mine and his.

Against my will, I remembered her shocked eyes in the dream as he killed her. She didnít expect it because I didnít. Seeing her shot down in front of me had been beyond bad, but somehow that phrase--"She didnít expect it because I didnít"--kept ringing in my brain. With all the other parts of that dream that made me want to beat my head against the wall, why did that keep bothering me? Well, aside from me trying to avoid the subject of Ben at all costs.

She didnít expect it because I didnít.

I knew that it was important somehow. It sounded egotistical at first, all "how could she expect it when Ray Kowalski the Boy Wonder didnít?" But I knew that wasnít what my brain had been saying there. It meant something else. Some part of me was saying that I kept misnaming her, which was dangerous, even though I didnít know what I meant by it. Then I thought back over the last two days, my thoughts, where weíd been, what weíd done, how I acted. The assumptions I made.

She didnít expect it because--

Oh. Oh. Shit. Iím an idiot and I use my friends. Was I that afraid of being alone?

Actually, I couldnít blame myself for hating to be alone. It looked like I did my clearest, most brutally honest thinking this way, and who wants that?

Shit.

Time to face the world and try to put things as right as I could, no matter how much I wanted to stay in bed and hope ignoring it all would make it go away. And I had to start the "putting things right" train with the person sacked out in my living room standing guard.

I used to be Ray-and-Stella. I didnít spend every second of the day with her, but I always knew she was out there somewhere. When that fell apart, so did I, and I jumped at the chance to be someone else for awhile. If I had to be alone, I might as well be alone as somebody else, somebody who might be able to take it. Except that I immediately became Ray-and-Fraser. The moment Fraser ducked out for a minute, I had to latch onto someone else.

But the worst thing about Ray-and-Rachel is that I didnít even let her keep herself intact. No, she had to be another me, like two mes going out into the world together would be safer. No risk or responsibility for me there. I let her be Ray and made myself her shadow, but that only really made her my shadow. Because she wasnít me, couldnít be me, shouldnít have to be me, and I was denying her the chance to be seen by me as her own self. How could she be a whole person when I was so busy making her be just a part of me?

Iíve been misnaming her. Calling her my mirror, my shadow, when I should have been thinking of her as my friend.

And the really worst thing for her? Now that I thought about it, Iíd been doing that to her in one form or another for years. Maybe sheíd been better off away from me.

It was still better than thinking of Ben holding a gun on me preparing to make like Romeo and Juliet.

As I walked out to the living room I heard some guy on the TV complaining about what a lying, cheating bitch his wife was. God, I remember when morning TV was all game shows and reruns of classic TV series, the chance to win cash and fabulous prizes or to revisit the good stuff. Now it was all talk shows and people in court, vacuous celebrities or strangersí problems paraded in front of you as entertainment. What was the world coming to?

As soon as I stepped out the bedroom door, I heard a familiar click that, bringing back my dream, made me duck for cover. Ray had popped up over the back of the couch with her gun cocked and ready. I watched her shake away the killerís blankness from her eyes as she decided not to pull the trigger, becoming the Ray I knew again. With her jacket off, I could finally see her holster.

"What, were you gonna shoot him if he showed up?" I asked, half angry and half scared. Sheíd carried a gun to the diner? What the hell had she been expecting?

This Ray Walker would have blown the dream Benís head off before he even had his gun aimed. Looked like I had reason to be scared of all the people closest to me. And for them.

"No. Well, maybe if you wanted me to," Ray said, trying to make it a joke and failing. She shook her head and put her gun away. "Habit. Sorry." She yawned so wide that I almost expected the top of her head to fall off. Poor kid had circles under her eyes, which made sense since, at best, sheíd gotten four hours of sleep on my lumpy couch.

Iíd wanted her to carry the weight of being me? It looked like she was having trouble just being Ray Walker. She needed help or something, of a professional kind. What the hell did she see during her assignment?

Which selfishly brought my thinking back to my old assignment and Fraser. He didnít show up last night, did he? Oh, what was I talking about. Ray would have noticed and raised an alarm seeing as how she was a trip-wired and possibly lethal version of Quick Draw McGraw. Unless he did, and she didnít tell me-- No, I didnít think so. Sheíd let me know.

I didnít even know where I could start looking for him or if heíd want to be found.

Maybe I should get my own shit together first, then go looking. He might not like Chicago, but he could defend himself. What kind of trouble could he find in only a few hours anyway? Donít answer that.

Where did he sleep last night? Did he sleep at all?

Ray looked at her watch. "Fuck." She turned off the TV and put her jacket on.

"What?"

"I promised Connie Iíd pay her a visit, and Iím due in an hour." Then she looked up at me. "Oh, shit. Do you need me to stay?"

There was a reality check for you. On the woe-is-me scale, "my husband of ten years and the father of my three children got gunned down buying a gallon of milk" beat "I donít know what I want to do with my life, and my boyfriend dumped me" hands down.

"Go."

"Ray...."

"Give her my best and tell her that if she needs anything while Iím here, Iím good for it. But go home and fix yerself up a bit first. You look like youíve spent a few hours sleeping on somebodyís couch."

She smiled and flipped me off. "Youíll be okay?"

"Some time alone to think might do me some good." Besides I couldnít be a leech forever. "Anyway, Connie and the kids need you more."

"If you need anything, just call. I programmed my cell number into your cell phone. And let me know what happens between you and Nanook of the North. Iíd like to see or talk to you in person sometime really soon, but I know how strange and fast things can get." She almost sounded like she expected never to hear from me again.

Well, she was wrong.

I could ask when and how she got her hands on my phone, but why bother? "Will do. I think youíve been playing crooks too long, though."

"Yeah," she said as she tipped the brim of her black cowboy hat to me. "Thatís why Iím thinking over a transfer. I just canít keep doing it anymore."

I couldnít even begin to think of a reply to that until she was almost out the door. "Ray! That thing with the gun and all... I think you should see a counselor. I worry about you."

"I already am seeing one, which shows you how anxious I am to get back to normal. Thatís my other major visit of the day. But thanks for worrying. Hasta la vista, darliní. Take care of yourself." When she turned back to the door, the black suede fringe of her jacket swirled around her... almost like wings.

I throttled back the chill, figuring I could take a better look at that image later. One thing at a time. "You too. Be good." I heard her laugh evilly at that all the way out the door.

Alone at last. With Ray and her sense of fidgeting energy gone, leaving me nothing to bounce off of, the room felt too empty, but it was time for me to stop being such a wuss.

Except for yesterday morning, I hadnít been alone as in "by myself" in over two months. Ben had been with me almost every second we spent out in the wilderness, and he left me with people whenever we were in town. Now I wondered whether that last bit was to keep me safe or stop me from running off. Doubt heíd be happy to know that I ended up brawling with a lot of them.

But Iíd been alone in the wilderness in a different way. While the nights had Fraser sleeping so close, even before we became lovers, that I could probably pick him out of a crowd blindfolded just by his scent or the rhythm of his heartbeat, the days had been different. He may have been standing right behind me on the sled, close enough to pat my shoulder when he felt like it, but Iíd felt like I sat there alone. I couldnít feel him there. Even the dogs seemed distant. I had no crowds of people to merge into, and very few sounds to get lost in. I only had me. For sounds I only had barking dogs, the scrape of blades over icy snow, the overloud interior sounds of my breathing and heartbeat, and the howling wind slicing through my body.

Every day the same. Empty. Outside. Inside.

With nothing to look at, hear, or do, my brain wandered to deep, dark places. Nothing to do but think, and all that nothing outside made sure the thoughts werenít pleasant. Truth could cut. Maybe that was why One for Sorrow found me, maybe he heard me screaming inside, praying for someone to answer and show me I wasnít dead and in purgatory. And look what that got me.

But I wasnít there anymore, no sled, no Yukon. Just Chicago and the modern world. I could hear my refrigerator humming, my stoveís gas flame working, my turtle moving. Outside, people breathed and walked and lived in greater numbers than Iíd see in years in the Territories. All doing stuff whether I had my shit together or not.

I wasnít alone alone. Not here. But right now I stood in a room by myself--no people, no cues on how to behave or who to be--and I was okay, still here. I could do this. I may not have been sure of who I was, but at least I knew there was still someone in here, an essential Rayness. And that sounded nuts, but it comforted me.

So I had me mapped out. A bit, anyway. Wonder how long thatíll last.

But what would I do with the terra incognita of Ben? Here be dragons. I used to think I had a pretty good idea of what made him tick, but Fraser as a friend and Ben as a lover seemed to be two different people. I just got a birdís eye view of his insecurity and possessiveness last night, but my dreamís murder-suicide to keep me with him went a little extreme. Yeah, being clingy boy myself made it hard for me to get too superior, but jeez. Did I really see him that way, and, if I did, was I right?

I had to figure out what to do, because I was sure heíd come back. He liked to avoid painful stuff as much as the next guy, but that sense of propriety would tell him that what he did last night was too abrupt or something. If I was lucky, maybe his heart and head made a truce, and I could talk to him. Okay, I wasnít very lucky usually. But I knew heíd come back.

Iíd give him five hours before I went out trying to figure out where the hell heíd gone.

That decided, I put on some getting-to-it music. Later Iíd have to start thinking of ways to keep myself entertained while I waited to see if Ben came in, but first I needed a little education and dialed up the 27th. As soon as Frannie finished her professional phone-answering spiel, I jumped in with, "Hey, Frannie, could I ask a big favor?"

"Let me hear it first."

"You donít trust me?"

"I know you, Big Brother."

That was the first genuine smile that crossed my face this morning. "Could you research something for me off the Internet?"

She sounded shocked. "Me? You want me to research something for you?"

"Unless Iím talking to some pod version of Francesca Vecchio, yeah."

"Well, sure. Okay." She sounded so pleased, so proud. "Is this for a case or something?"

"Nah, but itís important to something Iím working on. I was wondering if you could do a search on ravens."

"Ravens?"

"Yeah, the birds. Their place in different mythologies. What they symbolize. That sorta thing."

"You know you canít believe everything you read on the Internet. Itís not like everybody bothers with fact-checkers there."

"I just want some idea of what Iím up against. I think Iíll know the useful stuff when I see it. I hope." Another thought hit me. "While yer at it, could you do a Search on the phrase Ďone for sorrowí for me?"

"ĎOne for sorrowí?"

"Yeah. I know it sounds weird, but itís important."

"Sure. Iíll bring you a hard copy during my lunch. And you can just close your mouth."

"You canít even see me!"

"I know youíre avoiding the two-seven, so Iíll make things easy on ya. You want to tell me why?"

"Iím surprised you havenít figured it out already."

"I have my theories. Iím just looking for you to confirm Ďem."

"Youíll have to wait a while longer for that. And Iíll show up there when Iím ready to. I could do it today."

"Gotcha, but Iím making it so you donít have to. You can count on me, Ray."

"I know that, Frannie. Thanks."

"See you soon."

Iíve just been sitting back and letting things happen, which wasnít my style at all. Time for that to change.



I walked the halls with a smile of anticipation. It had been two restful months, but I couldnít wait to see my partner again. My friend, as heíd assured me. I hadnít ruined things the way Iíd feared. As I turned the corner, I saw his back, and my grin widened. He wore his police uniform, even his hat, making him a tall, lean shadow in all the dark blue-black. He turned to face me.

It wasnít Raymond Vecchio, and it wasnít my Ray either.

"Fraser! Buddy!" Rachel Walker walked up to me and clasped me in a hug, then started to move on in a moment that vibrated with déjà vu. "You have a good time up in the Northwest Areas?"

No. I refused to tolerate another substitution, not again. I had all the Rays I needed or wanted. Instead of letting this go any further, I grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her around to face me. She broke loose and had a nightstick in her hand instantly. We stared one another down.

She slowly and deliberately hooked the nightstick back into her belt, then moved her open hands out away from her body. "We need to talk! Please," she said. Her eyes were wrong, pale topaz instead of her usual dark green. "You havenít been fair to us." As she moved, her eyes seemed to shift color to pale blue with gold flecks.

She had my Rayís eyes, his chameleon eyes.

What was I doing to him, to myself? "No!" Waking up, I nearly fell out of the chair.

My God, that woman had even wormed her way into my dreams. As I cracked my neck and stretched, trying to shake her out of my head, Diefenbaker walked up and asked when we were going back to Ray.

"We are not." At Diefís whine, I said, "Because itís better this way." I snarled myself when he called me a coward, but he was right. I was afraid, had been even before I saw a rival for Rayís affections. After all, everyone else I loved had left me. But once we met Rachel Walker, my tenuous hold on my emotions had slipped even further.

She managed to embody almost all of my fears, a remarkable feat. She was a better match for Ray than I was. She was a woman, which made things easier for him with the world and his father. If he became involved with her he could stay in the city he loved. They had so much in common, saw the world through the same eyes. Being with her would be so much easier for him.

Rachel Walker had no intentions of locking him away as if he were some fairy tale princess.

But I loved him, more than she ever could.

Thinking about it did me no good, so I went out to get some exercise. But my attempt to take Diefenbaker for a walk became more of a case of Dief going where he pleased while I followed in a daze, lost in brooding. Whether sitting in Renfieldís kitchen or walking the streets of Chicago, I could not shake myself free. The only phrase I could think of to describe what I had done could have been taken from Rayís vocabulary. I had fucked up. Fucked up totally. The more I thought back over what Iíd done to him, the more I wished heíd never had the misfortune of meeting me.

After giving up his life to protect Ray Vecchioís cover, he then gave up his life again to stay in Canada for me. I repaid his generosity of spirit--or perhaps his acts of self-abnegation--and love by trying to clap him in irons and keep him with me forever on my terms. What was wrong with me? Was I trying to sabotage myself?

I loved him with everything I had in me, yet love brought me very little happiness. It left me mostly terror.

Diefenbaker came to a halt and barked, jolting me out of my trance. Heíd led me to Rayís building.

I knew inevitability when I saw it. Despite being completely uncertain as to what I would say, I had to speak to Ray. He deserved that and more. I swallowed all my trepidation and entered.

When I reached his door, I raised my hand to knock, but somehow the thought of doing so depressed me beyond measure. Instead, I used the keys Ray had given me. As the door opened, a wash of soft, nearly elegiac music poured over me.

Ray stood in his kitchen and stared at his answering machine, listening as it played, "Hi, this is Ray Kowalski. I hate these machines too but bear with me here. I canít come to the phone right now, but if you leave yer information and stuff after the beep Iíll get back to you, okay? Thanks."

Heíd updated his message. I didnít know what that meant.

Dief ran to Ray and greeted him joyfully, circling him and nosing his hands. Ray smiled and crouched down to ruffle his fur. "Hey, guy, missed me, huh?"

To my surprise and relief, I didnít see Walker anywhere. Then I realized what that meant. "She left you alone, Ray?"

Ray looked up and shook his head. "Jesus! If sheís here sheís a home-wrecking slut, but if sheís not sheís a bad friend? How the hell can anyone win with you?"

My God, after all my promises to myself, the first thing that came out of my mouth as soon as I walked in the door.... "Iím--"

"She had plans to see Connie way before I had my eventful little night, so I sent her away to keep her word. Comforting Ramirezís widow should take precedence over my heartbreak."

I was ashamed. "Iím sorry. Iím doing exactly what I swore to myself that I wouldnít do."

"You just lose it thinking about Ray?"

"Among other things. Ray, Iíve fouled things up between us in so many ways, making you lose trust in me. I understand that and deserve it." Whereas Dief, whoíd done no such thing, settled into a corner and went to sleep, instantly comfortable.

Ray looked so tired. "Ben, you showed you didnít have any trust in me."

My chest felt so tight that I could barely breathe. Iíd ruined everything even worse than Iíd thought. In my terror that I would lose him, Iíd grabbed hold of him so tightly that Iíd choked and smothered him. Thus losing him.

Rayís earlier calm had fled, leaving only hurt. "Iíve seen you run yerself into the ground keeping hold of something you wanted. Yer tenacious, and you fucking outstubborn me. You donít let go. But after one rough night, you dumped me like it meant nothing. Just gave up on us. It leaves me wondering if none of this ever meant anything to you, and it leaves me wondering if maybe you were unhappy all along and just didnít think itíd be safe for you to leave me in Canada, where I didnít know nobody."

Oh, God. "No. No, Ray. Itís not that at all. No. I love you. Deeply. I did it... I did it to protect you."

"Then why does it feel like ya ripped my heart out? It hurts like hell. I canít go through this again. I canít be happy wondering if yer gonna throw me aside for whatever reason at any moment. Iím with you, all the way, but I need it back too. I need you to... to reciprocate."

Seen that way, what could I offer Ray? In my terror, I would either leave him for our own protection or hold on so tightly Iíd smother him. "Youíll want me to move out. I would, in your place," I said dully. Only God knew what the look on my face must have been, because I had none of my usual control over it.

Ray looked horrified, and he turned into a near blur of motion. I could almost see his speeding thoughts battling one another. I fancied I could almost hear all of them ricocheting. He finally asked, in a very soft voice, "You would go back to Canada then, wouldnít ya?"

"If nothing held me here, yes."

"I donít want that! I just want to make sure we work on this. I want you, and I want to make sure this problem between us never happens again. We can do this; I know we can."

I refused to let even that small bit of hope lodge in my heart yet. It hurt too much to think of it being destroyed. "I donít understand why we wouldnít. Work on it, I mean."

"I love you, Ben." Hope rose up to nearly choke me at his words. "But if we keep sleeping in the same bed, itíd be easier to let it go and not rock the boat. Weíd be right back where we started soon enough. Been there, done that. Iíd like to think Iíve learned better since then. But Iím not gonna throw you out." It crashed and burned again. "Is it all yer way or nothing with you? If you donít think keeping us together is worth working at, at least be kind enough to tell me now so I donít waste time making an idiot of myself."

"I want you, Ray, and I want you to be happy."

"You think those are, what? Uhm, mutually exclusive goals? I have to be with you, or I have to be happy?"

"I donít...."

"So you were staying with me before last night despite the fact you figured that just you being with me kept me miserable?"

The quirk of his lips surprised me into saying, "Youíre laughing at me." It sounded petulant. "Iím sorry, Ray."

"Iím not laughing at you. I just want you to see that what yer saying... that it doesnít make sense. I want you, and you want me. Iím happy with you when yer not being a jerk. So just try real hard not to be a jerk, thatís all."

"Itís not that simple."

"Journey of a thousand miles starts with one step every time." The door buzzer went off, and Ray went to the panel. "Hunh. Not expecting anybody." He pressed the button. "Yeah?"

"Itís Constable Turnbull, Ray. Please let me in. I have some news for Constable Fraser."

Ray looked at me with his eyebrow raised, and I answered with "Please let him in, Ray." An intermission could do me good.

"Sure. I just buzzed you in, Ren. See ya soon."

"Turnbull volunteered to do something for me," I said.

Ray shrugged.

Fortunately, Renfield reached the door quickly. At his knock, I opened it. He must have come on his lunch break. "This is a surprise," I said, at a loss.

"I promised you a report, sir."

"Yes, of course. How did you know to come here?"

"I know you. Disheartened as you may have been, you would never leave the situation the way it was this morning. You simply needed the time to regain your strength. Thus I took a late lunch to give you more time."

It sounded possible. "Please come in."

"Thank you."

"Ray, Iíve--" But the living room was empty save for Dief sleeping in the corner. I turned back to see Renfield. Although sympathy shone in his eyes, Ren made no mention of Ray-related events. Instead he waited patiently for me to ask him for his news. "Please report."

"Your Canadian postings would consist only of Toronto and Toronto, sir, although they would make your postings sound like a great honor in deference to your work in the Muldoon matter. Our superiors no doubt felt that, given a choice of Toronto or Chicago, you would remain with the city youíve known for years. Conversations Iím ashamed to say I overheard mentioned that you are not a Ďteam player,í which in this case seems to mean that youíre not willing to turn a blind eye to injustice even when it involves our brother Mounties. Iím sorry, sir."

There would be no forgiveness, then. "I see." I represented my own ideals, not theirs.

"Forgive me for being so forward, but what will you do?"

"I donít know yet."

We stood in silence for a little while until Ren asked, "May I make a request?"

"Of course."

"May I speak with Ray?"

"I see no reason why not." Though I didnít understand the reasons behind the request.

"I simply havenít seen him in a while. The consulate hasnít been the same without him."

I had to smile. "Iím sure it hasnít. You may speak with Ray."

"Oh, thank you." Renfield walked over to the bedroom, seemingly certain of Rayís location.

I simply shook my head, followed, then opened the door.



"You and Turnbull are done?" I asked as Ben peeked in. What a development, feeling awkward in my own home.

"Actually, Ray, Turnbull wanted to say something to you as well."

"Me?"

He sounded as surprised as I felt. "Apparently."

I shook my head. "Okay, Iíll come out."

Ren poked his head in. "Actually, I wanted to come in and speak to you privately."

Ben looked surprised. I just said, "Yeah, sure."

Ren walked in and closed the door, shutting Ben out. Made me wonder if heíd try to eavesdrop on us. He could rationalize or live with the guilt on some of that kind of behavior sometimes.

Ren still had the uniform on, so I guess he had come during his lunch break. I might as well hear what he had to say since heíd shown up on his free time. He didnít have to, after all.

"Hey, Ren. Whatís up?"

"Ray." He sounded a bit uncomfortable. "Benton told me something of your problem."

"Yeah, I figured as much from some of the things he said. Heís not that experienced on the whole Ďtalking about yer relation--í"

"Oh, no! Thatís not it at all!"

Wow. Must be important if Turnbull would interrupt me for it. Too rude for him usually. "Then what is it?"

"He told me you saw things. That you had been contacted by what might be a power."

That ticked me off more than him discussing our lovelife with somebody else. Letís go share how crazy Ray is with the world. "He shouldnít have--"

"I understand your difficulty. And share it in some ways."

It took a moment for that to hit. "What?"

Turnbull started to pace, then emphatically stopped himself. That couldnít be good. "Ray, the Turnbull line generally consists of two kinds of individuals. One kind is a paragon among men who serves his country with utter distinction. He is a credit to his family, country, and queen. This kind is the overwhelming majority of the family."

Ren stopped talking for a long silent while and fidgeted, so I prompted, "And the other?"

"The other tries hard but tends to seem dithering, dim-witted, and clumsy."

He wasnít any of those, not really. He just had even more of an "Iím from another planet" vibe going than Fraser did. He came off as being distracted by other stuff. "Ren--"

"This other lacks focus in a world full of distractions. Distractions most people donít notice. A subset of this other consists of Turnbulls who come to be considered insane."

Whoa. Whoa. "This other type sees and hears things?" That had me scooting closer, perched on the edge of my bed.

"Feels Ďthingsí as well. All the time. I was fortunate enough to be recognized early by an aunt who understood what it was like herself. She was a great help, but there was only so much she could do for me. Iím afraid that a moment of such distraction led to the very incident that inspired the decision to transfer me to Chicago." Ren sighed. "Here I learned what distraction really is, though I seem to be somewhat better now that Inspector Thatcher is no longer my supervisor, as disloyal as that makes me feel to say."

I remembered how much clearer and competent he seemed while the Ice Queen was gone during the Volpe thing. Heíd still been deeply strange, but heíd also been more there somehow.

I couldnít believe we were talking about this all serious-like. I couldnít believe that Ren-- Wait, actually that I could kind of believe. "And thereís no way to turn it off?"

"Iím afraid not."

"Thatís what I thought."

"But, Ray, your case is not quite like mine. Being in this city surrounded by people and things seems to help you, while it can sometimes make me so scattered that I canít get through the day without breaking everything I touch. You also manifested it late. Wait, maybe thatís not so. Ben always said you had an incredible sense of intuition."

"Thatís just being a certain kind of cop."

"Perhaps, but perhaps not."

I suddenly remembered meeting that voodoo priestess that time. Mama Loa or something. At first sheíd just looked like any other person, but then Iíd started to see something... like there was more to her. Crime scenes struck me like that. You have this scene, and you know something happened in it a while back, but all you have is whatís there now. You donít know whatís been moved or taken or added. But you can find out, because itís all there if you know where to look. Mama Loa was kind of like that. I started looking into her, but I got lost or something because the next thing I knew I had Fraser prodding me in the head to get me back, acting like Iíd zoned out for some time. While she just smirked at me.

"I also was never contacted by one of the powers," Ren said. "Have you given thought to the possibility that Raven might be your guide?"

I sighed. "Yeah, I have."

"Though you seem to have bonded with the sled dogs in a way that suggests-- Well, I suppose itís possible to have more than one--"

"Ren!"

"Iím sorry, Ray. I simply donít know enough about your situation or about the way such matters work to feel comfortable telling you precisely what you should do or how you should think. I have to say that Iím impressed that you thought to ward your sites with salt, especially since I might not have thought to do the same, and Iíve had a little training."

"Training? You know some stuff that can help me?"

"Not much training, but perhaps it will help. My aunt had some advice that might help you cope."

"Iím open to anything right now."

"And that seems to be part of the problem...."

"Huh?"

"Iím sorry. Never mind. Iím thinking aloud. My problem is that much of her advice was couched in metaphors and similes, most of which would mean nothing to someone raised in Chicago. I doubt stories about bears and caribou would help you."

"Fraserís sure donít."

Ren smiled, something he should do more often. "I have it. Ray, she once said that the best way to cope with such abilities and contacts is to treat the experience as if you were driving a car that was sliding on ice or hydroplaning. Itís better to lightly pump the brakes and steer instead of hitting the brakes hard."

"Because while yer moving you can still steer. If you try to stop hard and entirely, you lose all control over yer direction and can wreck yerself. I... think I get it."

"I believe that it does help, and the ability does have its moments." Renís smile gained a bit of an edge, even though it looked mostly rueful. "I also believe that Constable Fraser found me unsettling this morning. Everything is sharp and clear and focused for me that early, before most of the city awakens. Like everything is right there in my reach."

"That must be hard to lose."

"It slowly achieves a kind of fuzziness as the hours go on, so itís not an abrupt loss." But something in his eyes showed that he felt it deep, even if the Mountie mask still looked unruffled. "Iíll tell Constable Fraser about my own abilities and confirm your own."

"You donít mind?" I hoped Fraser believed him. But I also felt like Ren was making a sacrifice here.

"Please give me your hand."

"You going to give it back?"

"Ray." Stern but fond.

"Okay." His hand pretty much swallowed mine.

Ren closed his eyes, making me wonder if he was... feeling into me or something. With how warm and solid and there he felt, it should have been impossible for him to have whatever it was we had. He smiled, and his grip tightened a little bit, not uncomfortably though.

When he opened his eyes, Ren had such love in them as he looked at me that I felt kind of stunned. I hoped that Ben saw that it was the kind of love Ren had for his aunt, a kin love, instead of making the same kind of assumptions heíd made with Ray, because otherwise this would be one short conversation.

"Thanks, guy," I said.

"For the hand-holding?"

"Funny guy."

"Iím joking, Ray."

"I wanna do that early morning clarity thing with you."

"You shouldnít. It might not be safe."

"Iíll do it with you or without you. With, you can spot for me."

"Youíre set on it?"

"Totally set. Totally. Canít get more set."

Ren didnít look happy. "Fine. I shall be with you."

"Cool! Yer the best psychic friend ever."

Ren sighed. "But for the present, we have to contend with Constable Fraser."

"Way to pump up my confidence."

"You will get through this. We just have to decide the best way to tell him."

"Oh yeah. Easy."



I could hear the faint buzz of their voices in the kitchen, where I tried to block out the words. Unfortunately, that put me in the path of another temptation. Some of the papers sitting by the phone were obviously phone messages, transcribed in Rayís expansive script, and I retained enough of a sense of propriety to leave those alone, even if I had heard them last night. The other papers appeared to be printouts, seemingly off of web sites given the URLs listed on the pages.

I knew I shouldnít look, but my impulse control had suffered lately. Moving his glasses aside, I ignored the messages and looked at the printouts. I went cold as I saw that they concerned the many myths regarding ravens. Ray had scrawled notes in the margins, some more comprehensible than others. I silently read them.

"Usual European = omens foretelling of death, war, disease. Christian art = symbols of Godís Providence. Kind of goes against the rest, doesnít it? Others = magic, wisdom, different levels of consciousness, tricksters, shapeshifters, helpful at times but for selfish reasons and with a kick in the ass, anarchists yet establishers of law, embodied smoke. All = messengers, prophecy.

"Odinís two ravens Mind and Memory. Knowledge comes at great price. Odin has two wolves too, Freki and Geri. Coincidence? Are there any coincidences any more?

"One myth makes Raven the one who saves humans after great flood because heís bored and wants new toys.

"Can burning sage really get rid of it?"

One note in particular confused me. "Tired of darkness, trickster Raven sets loose the sun, the moon, and the stars. Eyes of Horus are the sun and the moon. Coincidence?"

Most mysterious of all was what was on the final printed page:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret
Never to be told.

A Post-It note from Francesca attached at the bottom of that page read, "Sorry, but this was all I could find on Ďone for sorrow.í It was on some site that had a lot of nursery rhymes on it. Hope everything else helps."

Perusing his papers left me less enlightened instead of more.

When Rayís door opened, Ray and Renfield stepped out looking thoughtful and nervous. It worried me beyond measure, but I resolved to at least appear calm.



"A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes
the hand bleed that uses it."

-- Rabindranath Tagore


Ben had his petrified wood routine going, so he must have been worried as all get out over what we were doing. What we would try to say to him wasnít going to make that any better.

"Sir," Ren started, "I have examined Ray and found my suspicions to be correct."

Oh. Shit. Big mistake. Strike one.

"Suspicions?" Ben asked, ramrod straight and five times less lively, with a hint of ice in his voice.

I couldnít let this go on any further. "Look, heís trying to work his way up to saying that Iím not crazy. Iím just... touching on some powers. I guess like psychic stuff. And he knows this and figured from yer descriptions that I was doing it because he does it too." Then I thought about what Iíd just said. "Wow. There really is no way to say it without sounding like a nutjob."

Ren had the mother of all long suffering looks on his face, probably because heíd lived with this longer. And stopped bothering to try to explain it to people. Fraser had his polite, humoring, "I utterly believe you. Totally. Uh-huh" look going.

"Is that true, Renfield?" he asked.

Ren took a deep breath and asked, "How did I know that you were standing half a block away from my apartment? You didnít even approach the steps of my building, yet I knew you were out there and went to fetch you."

A-ha! So thatís where Ben went.

I could see Benís brain trying to steamroll over it. "Chance."

"At exactly the moment you stood there. I was fastening my suspenders and thought it would be a good time to go outside in case someone might be about to leave the area without coming to see me first?"

Damn. Ren snark was powerful. He had to really be rooting for me if it made him go into attack mode on Fraser like that.

Ren turned his politeness back on but kept the intensity going. "I apologize for my rudeness, sir, but it is that important to me that you believe me. Believe us, please. Youíre mistaking which is the cause and which the effect. If there are any legitimate clouds on Rayís sanity, it is from seeing what heís seen, not the other way around."

Wow. I didnít know he-- But of course he was impassioned. Ben was casting doubt on Renís experiences the same way that everybody else mustíve for most of his life. Ren fought this for the both of us. I stood back and let him, listening carefully all the while.

"Itís difficult to believe."

"I know, but itís important that you try. Rayís wellbeing depends on it."

That got Benís attention fast. Gave me a warm feeling to watch. "Truly?"

"His needs are opposite to mine. Having a large population nearby grounds him, normalizes him. Otherwise, his sight swallows him whole. I donít know if he can be trained to shield himself, not this late in life. I certainly canít fix my own difficulties, and there are few teachers to be found." Ren looked down. "No teachers that I know of, actually. Even my aunt is no longer with us."

Benís face looked blank, but you could drown in the chaos moving through his eyes. "Youíre saying that returning to the Territories would destroy him."

Oh. No way. No way was I going to let anything kick my ass like that.

"As he is now, probably. It wouldnít happen immediately, but the silence would start to prey on him with time."

He had to remind me about the silence. And I didnít really want to go back to Canada. Unless I was about to lose Ben over it. Damn, this sucked.

"You said that his difficulty is the opposite of yours. Yet you remain in Chicago," Ben said.

"I am a Mountie, sir, and this is my posting." Then Ren crossed his arms, showing that sadness again. "You know what Iím like here. Iím a leaf in the wind, vulnerable to any passing current, incessantly distracted, and that is with the meager training my aunt could provide. I would not wish such a life on anyone."

When I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed, I felt the deep breath he let out. "Iím fine," he said. "Thank you, Ray."

Ben just looked like heíd been pistol-whipped. "Iíll give this some thought."

"Thank you, sir. And now I must return."

"Did you eat?" I asked.

"I didnít have time. However, I brought a packed lunch today, and I can eat as I work."

"You like blueberry muffins?"

Ren looked as nonplussed Ben did. "I do."

I brought him a muffin. Least I could do with him out to save my sanity and all. "Mum made Ďem. You can eat as you go back. Take the edge off a bit."

Renfield smiled. "Thank you, Ray. Farewell, Ray, sir."

As I saw him to the door, I muttered, "Remember about the morning clarity thing."

"I donít think itís a good idea."

"Remember, Iíll do it with you or without you."

Ren sighed. "I will. Tomorrow morning."

"Greatness. Now eat yer muffin."

"Yes, Ray." Once I had the door closed, I turned back to Ben. He had this look on his face like the inside of his head was a total mess. Couldnít blame him, since mine was too. More than usual. I had no idea what to say to him now. Besides, we both needed some time to think.

"I think we do what people have done for decades when they want to be together but donít wanna talk," I said. "We go see a movie or watch TV. We were partners forever, spent endless hours on stakeout, so we know we can spend time together without talking mushy or irritating stuff; it has been done."

"That... might be wise."

He was just about speechless. That never boded well for his mental state.



I didnít even know what program Ray had put on, though some of the names that penetrated my fog suggested that it was a documentary about Canadian wildlife. Then it seemed to turn into a program about sharks and then another one about lions.

Ray looked so distant, lost in thought, but he gradually moved closer and closer to me on the couch. Close enough to vaguely feel his warmth, then close enough to touch him if I reached out a little. Finally, close enough that our legs brushed. He seemed entirely unaware.

His presence so near to me distracted me from my wonderings on whether the world had gone mad or I alone had, and which would be the better of the two. Some of the evidence did suggest that Ray and Renfield had some kind of abilities, so why did I cling so stubbornly to the idea that Ray had been afflicted by a kind of madness? Iíd accepted the unusual and paranormal before and had what may have been dealings with Raven myself.

Perhaps because madness would be easier to cure. A little therapy and perhaps some medication would do wonders, and he could come home with me with no damage to himself.

I loved him so. I didnít want to hurt him any further. Yet my disbelief hurt him too.

This onset of... whatever had just come on him so suddenly. Ray had always been magical to me in his energy and allure, the alchemy of his distinctive brain that forged bridges of connections out of what looked like empty air, but it had been the human magic that came from within him, not some outward influence expressed through him.

"Phone," Ray murmured, mysteriously. I heard nothing. Then the telephone rang, snapping him out of his trance, bringing life back to his face. "Shoot. Iíll get it." He climbed over the back of the couch and picked up on the second ring. "Hello? Yeah. Iím him. Fraser?" Ray put his hand over the receiver. "For you."

I listened to the constable ask me about the dogs. For a moment I couldnít fathom what dogs he referred to. Then I understood. At Rayís confused look, I said to him, "The problem is that the sled dogs donít seem to be responding to their names anymore."

"Oh, shoot. Give me the guy?" Ray took the receiver. "Itís Ray again. What about the dogs?" He listened to what the constable had to say. "Yeah. Yeah, Iím sorry. I couldnít pronounce the names they had and it seemed disrespectful to Ďem to mangle the words, so I gave Ďem nicknames. Mostly after Santaís reindeer. I had a group to name so donít knock it. Of course you didnít mean anything by that. I accept your apology. Okay, theyíre Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Donner, Cupid, Vixen, Blitzen, Comet, Rudolph, and Ned Neidermeyer. Ned also goes by the handle ĎLittle Ned.í Really. You ever see Three Amigos!? Itís a movie, has Martin Short in it. Heís-- Yeah, thatís it. Hey, can I say hello to them? Yeah? Thanks. Yeah, Iíll wait." Ray leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, looking very sad and very tired.

"Hey, guys." Rayís voice warmed immeasurably. "Good to hear you too. Yer being good, right?" His expression turned sad. "We all knew it was temporary. I miss all of you. You were the best team a guy could have. You be the best for the Mounties now, understand? Diefíll help take care of me. Bye, guys." A long pause followed, and he took a deep breath. "Yeah, I think Iím done. Sorry about everything." Ray listened for a while, then put his hand over the phone and asked me, "Do you have anything else you wanna say to him?"

"Yes, please." But my words to my fellow Mountie consisted only of pleasantries and goodbyes, things that made up the lifeblood of my existence but seemed insignificant in the face of Rayís obvious depression.

When I hung up the phone I saw Ray sitting on the floor ruffling Diefenbakerís fur, Dief doing his best to cheer Ray as much as possible. Rayís eyes looked shiny, wet. "I miss the team. They were my buddies. But Iím sorry I screwed Ďem up for other people."

I sat beside him and put my arm around his shoulder, rubbing circles on his back. He rested his head against me. I said, "Theyíre very loyal to the ones they love. It wasnít your fault."

"Iím that way too. Loyal."

That made me briefly stop the comforting caresses, then resume. "Yes, you are." I could feel the steady pulse of his heart through the cotton, soothing and familiar.

"Damn. I canít believe Iím so frigging weepy." He pressed his hands to his eyes and smiled a little as Dief pressed his nose into Rayís elbow. "Maybe itís being tired. Was out looking for you until 7, you know. I wanna walk. I wanna sleep. I just donít know." I could tell he was in a state of "wired tired," as he called it, just from the restless but somehow weak twitching of his limbs.

I felt a similar fatigue weighing down my body and clouding my mind. Lack of sleep, along with overwrought emotions, had taken a toll of me as well. As much as it pleased me to feel Ray nestled at my side, he would never get proper rest in such a position. "Go to bed, Ray."

"Donít wanna."

"Iíll make you hot cocoa. With marshmallows."

"Yeah?" But then he tensed.

"Ray?"

He took a deep breath. "Will you still be here when I wake up?"

I couldnít catch my own breath. "Yes, Ray. Iím done with running... and I think that I can avoid my past mistakes this time. Iíll take the couch for now." In deference to his concerns over his past mistakes with Stella.

He nodded. "Okay."

As he had his cocoa and I had my tea, an only vaguely uncomfortable silence stretched between us at the table. An improvement. The obvious love in his eyes as he looked at me made it even less uncomfortable. I felt myself relax as I watched the steam and heat of his drink lessen the tension in his body. How many times had I watched him huddle around a mug or container of coffee as if it provided a substance vital to his being? The familiarity here comforted.

Though every once in a while the sight of his new/old hairstyle and new shade would shock me anew, shallow as that sounded. Iíd seen his blond hair change shades numerous times, yet this much lighter, flashier one left me flat-footed. Perhaps because Iíd taken it as a sign of something wrong the first time Iíd seen it. While it seemed that Ray had simply found his darkening hair too dull and inexpressive of his true self.

Not everything was about me. I had to remember that.

Last night Ray had claimed to have no complaints of me or our relationship before I reacted so badly to his time out with Walker. He truly wanted to be with me. I had to strive to be worthy of his devotion.



I couldnít sleep without Ben in my bed. Iíd doze for 15 minutes, wake up badly and panicky as I felt like Iíd lost something, spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling, then drift back into a kind of muddy, unsatisfying half-sleep again for another 15 minutes. Doze badly, wake suddenly, stare, doze badly, wake suddenly, stare. Over and over. And that was even with how exhausted I was. Howís that for sick and sad? I wouldnít have gotten any decent shut-eye at all after heíd broken up with me if I hadnít just passed out from exhaustion.

Poor Dief, he didnít know whether he should be in the bedroom with me or near the couch with Ben. I could tell. The kids always suffer the worst in these things. I was glad heíd stayed with Ben; I think Ben needed him more.

Used to be me out on the couch when Stella was mad. Weird how life twists around and bites you in the ass.

All this confusion, miscommunication, figuring out how far and much to compromise.... Welcome to the circle that is my life.

Stella and me, we tried so hard.... I was chopping pieces of myself off trying to make her happy, even though she didnít actually ask for some of the changes, just because I felt like she was ashamed of or annoyed by me sometimes. I did it willingly, but some parts of me resented the hell out of it. Why wasnít I good enough, right? Not that Stella didnít give too and make a few changes of her own, but it never seemed to be enough for either of us.

Then our hours were a problem. With our jobs, we didnít get to be in the apartment at the same time very often. When we were, we were too tired to do much.

And I kept things from her. Not like affairs or anything--Iíd never betray her--just what my days were like at first. I mean, she saw the ugliness of life in her job too, but by the time it reached her it was dressed up and cleaned up and processed and blaming everybody else for whatíd happened. Pretending to be civilized and rational. Meanwhile, I was hip deep in blood and shit and death and hate and insanity and human stupidity--the "stink of bad people," as my dad put it once, and never mind some of the undercover stuff I did--almost every day, and I didnít want to bring that home to her. Who would? But what did that leave us to talk about? Not much, really.

Sometimes I came home feeling dirty on the inside, like all the ugliness had seeped through my skin to my heart, and I didnít want to bring that to her either.

What I kept from her later was that I was starting to drink to take the edge off. The edge of the day, the sting of feeling like I wasnít good enough for her and we were drifting apart. I didnít drink alone at least, but at cop bars, telling myself it was socializing. I mean, as much time as I already spent with these guys, too much sometimes, sometimes you needed to be with someone who understood. I was improving connections with people who would be my backup. And thatís what I told myself. Made me a cop cliche, but I used cop cliches a lot to get what I wanted out of perps.

Then one night this rookie I was fond of--even after four months as a detective, Walker was still a rookie to us lifers--came up to me and told me I should live a little. Move. Get myself up instead of drinking myself so far down. After I did the "Iím no drunk and Iím gonna knock you out to prove it" thing--which didnít impress her at all, of course, especially since her dad had been an alkie--I went along. Why not treat myself to a cheap night out? Stella was working late on a case and didnít know I was at the bar, so she wouldnít know I was out dancing.

It wasnít like going out dancing with Stella, no body-to-body, cheek-to-cheek romance. That would be cheating on her. This was dancing alone near other people. It was noise and adrenaline and normal people and not thinking. Sometimes I went out moshing with Ray, and that really didnít feel like cheating. In fact, sometimes we did a kind of undercover thing in the pit, strong-arming the bully moshers into submission. It let me either kick loose my darkness or feel better by, say, taking a straight-edge away from some asshole, thus protecting people. It was uncomplicated.

It was about being around someone who liked me as I was, who was like me, and who didnít want me to change. No poses necessary, not like with Stella or suspects or the other cops. I could just be. I hadnít felt so comfortable being me in a long time.

I came home from it jazzed. So jazzed that I didnít stop after that first time. Whenever I was really low, I asked Ray about places I could go so I could move all the rage and disgust out of me. It always worked. Hell, there were times I came home after going out... well, sometimes Stella would also be in the mood and we would have explosive sex. Not that it was ever bad between us in that, but after a night out... wow.

So this was great, right? Avoiding alcoholism, bonding with a friend I had a lot in common with, making myself happy, making Stella very happy sometimes. I let myself think so and ignored the rest.

I ignored that this great new friend of mine was a woman, a pretty one to boot. Nobody else ignored it. I found Ray attractive--yeah, duh, I was married, not dead--but I didnít love her the same way I did Stella, and I would never cheat. Ever. Besides, I saw Ray as a sister, a mirror. We even played a brother-sister team of killers on one assignment, story being that we had different fathers to explain the physical differences, and, hell yeah, we were real sensitive about anyone saying anything about our Momma. Of course, I played her pimp once or twice too--

Whoa. Way off the topic, the topic being that I loved Stella, I was married, Ray wasnít my type, and I wouldnít want to date myself anyway.

Ray and I touched one another a lot, but the rest of the squad touched me too, since I had my hands all over everybody myself. They touched me more than Stella did actually, who wasnít that kind of person, and Iíd wished she would. I went out alone dancing with Ray, but we went out doing stuff with the guys too. There wasnít anything going on, so I figured no one would think something was going on.

I can be a blind idiot, yeah, what of it?

Stella put her foot down, and I guess I canít blame her for that, so I shoved Ray away. I didnít want to, but realizing that I was getting the sense of intimacy from her that I should be getting from the wife I loved made it a bit easier. Iím not that dumb.

God, I hope Ray got something out of our friendship, because it looks like I used the hell out of her.

I buckled down and tried harder to make Stel happy. I would have died for her.... But tossing Ray aside had been like throwing away the drug that treated the symptoms of the disease I had. With Ray, I felt no pain, but the underlying thing was still there and growing. Without her, everything that had still been falling apart kept falling apart, only now I was feeling it again.

I figured that out about Ray years ago and knew enough not to start it again this time.

No matter how much Stella and I loved one another, we were mismatched. I saw it now. We compromised and compromised, but it looked more and more like the only way to fix what we had would be to each compromise so totally that the people weíd fallen in love with wouldnít exist anymore. End result: we still wouldnít have been happy. Stel just saw it first.

Too mismatched. Sometimes love wasnít enough, and it looked like I was repeating myself. Repeating myself with Ben. Even repeating myself with Ray in a way.

But I didnít think Ray would bother him, not since he claimed to be a firm believer in platonic relationships. "I believe they happen all the time," heíd once said. "All women are our sisters," heíd said another time. I figured heíd get her and like her; I mean, heíd figured me out faster than anyone Iíd ever met had.

But he didnít like her, immediately. He hated her on sight. And thatís even with the fact that, after our one enthusiastic twirl around her living room, I barely touched her in his presence. He hated her on sight, and it seemed more and more like he hated her for qualities he claimed to like in me, which confused and worried the hell out of me. The hatred bothered me, but no one ever said he had to like all my friends, so I didnít let think myself think much of it.

I saw the jealousy now that heíd all but smacked me upside the head with it.

Anyway, I saw him react to her, misinterpreted what that hatred meant, and ignored it in my quest to get back in touch with my inner Ray Kowalski.

Turned out I got back in touch with the Ray Kowalski who had marital problems and needed to be walloped with the clue bat.

Fraser and I were really different from one another too, but that had been our strength most of the time. We meshed, complementing each other. Yin and yang. We werenít mismatched, dammit, just not talking to one another right now.

Love wasnít always enough. But I could work at it....

I had a clue now. I just hoped Iíd found a clue in time to fix things.

The next time I turned on my side searching for a comfortable position to sleep in, I heard something just outside my door. Shifting, kind of. Creaky floorboards, shuffle of something. My bad eyes suck in a lot of ways, but compensating for that made me rely on other senses more, rendering me hell on wheels in the dark. Shifting, breathing... Ben. Still here, like heíd promised. Ben was standing outside my door. Standing close, maybe with his hand against the wood....

Awake and miserable like me?

I turned on the light to give him some warning that I was awake and might come to the door. Might open it and notice him standing there. I didnít hear him walk away. Heart pounding, I got out of bed and walked to the door, standing still in front of it. Almost missed the sound of his sigh under my own deep drawn-in breath.

If he stuck around, Iíd be even more glad that Iíd turned the light on. Stella and I did too many conversations in the dark in the last months of our marriage. The dark made it easier to say things, but it also made it easier to pretend nothing had happened in the morning. Dark let us imagine each otherís reactions, and imagine them wrong because we imagined what we wanted to see. Those conversations in the dark changed nothing, made nothing better.

The sex that followed those conversations, great as it always was, never solved anything either.

And Iíd really do anything to put off doing this, talking to him, wouldnít I? Enough mental chatter. Still, my hand rested on the doorknob for a few minutes before I found the guts to open the door.

Ben stood there with this raw look on his face, like he was strangling on his heart. I watched him struggle for words for half a minute before I grabbed him into a tight bear hug and rocked us. My cock reacted like a trained seal, but this wasnít about that. I just held him like I thought someone was going to try to snatch him away from me, not that my fear was so far off. I realized I was sort of softly crooning to him as I stroked the short, soft hair at the nape of his neck. He held me tight too.

"Ray." He seemed to be gulping for air, struggling to breathe. "I love you, and I donít want to lose you. Iíll do anything I have to. Anything." He trembled in my arms.

As much as that declaration gave me a warm fuzzy, it made me miserable too. "I donít want you to feel like you have to do Ďanythingí to keep me. I donít want you to be terrified Iíll leave. I want you to do things that make you happy too. I donít want to be terrified that youíll leave. We can work this. We can. But we canít keep reacting to what we think the other guy is thinking and doing. Yer gonna have to tell me whatís going through yer head so I can see what I can do about it."

"Thereís so much you never told me about yourself."

What was this, tit for tat? "You think I tell that bank story to everyone I meet?"

"There were three other people with us at the time."

"Ben."

"Well, no, I donít think you do," he said, his breath stirring my hair, giving me goosebumps. "I mean, I never knew about any of the people you left behind while you were undercover as Ray Vecchio."

"I went undercover to get away from people and things that reminded me of Stella. Which makes it real ironic that I had to associate with her as Vecchio, but I hadnít seen that little twist coming. When the hurt started to get less, I kept away because I had a cover to protect and because I was a real shit to a lot of those people while I was going through the divorce. They were much nicer to me than I deserved when they saw me the other day, and Ray should have shot me just for having the balls to show up on her doorstep after everything I said to her before and during my divorce. Thinking about people I shouldnít go see had been painful. Talking about Ďem wouldíve been even worse. Thatís all. I wasnít keeping secrets. But dammit, Ben, Iím almost forty. Of course I have people in my past. You think Welsh found me under a cabbage leaf the day before I became Vecchio?"

"Well, no."



Of course not. I felt so foolish, even if Ray was trying to be gentle with me. I understood all of those things in my head, but my heart knew no logic.

At least my heart, along with my body, appreciated his nearness, his warmth, and the feel of his fingers rubbing my back.

Ray said, "And Ray and I were never partners like you and I are partners. I mean, we did a few undercovers together, worked some cases along with other people, and even did an interrogation together once, but we werenít ever full-time, one-on-one partners... because we were too much alike. All instinct and flying into things. And our instincts didnít always sync. Sometimes sheíd be a step ahead of me, or sheíd be two steps behind me, so I know how frustrating it can be to be the person who doesnít see it. We were just friends who had a lot in common and who didnít get on well with our partners.

"Stanís a great guy, but we never meshed the way you and I do. He never got me. We did our work, but not with the magic you get when you have a partnership firing on all cylinders. And Rayís partner, Gambini, was a nice guy who didnít mind strong women or nothing, but he always looked at her with this total confusion on his face. Well, confusion and what looked like the urge to put her on lithium." Ray snapped his fingers. "You ever stop to think that maybe the reason why Ray and I get on like that is that weíre not involved?"

"I donít understand."

"Hugs and things are different coming from a friend. They donít have an expectation of being returned amped up." Rayís eyes darkened. "If I hug you, it keeps on going, so if I donít want to get tied up for a while, I have to keep my hands to myself." He gestured in a way that suggested frustration. "I donít understand where our problems are. I mean, you loved me way before you told me. You said so. We were always seriously more touchy-feely to one another than you can explain by friendship. Now we have sex and live together. Big change, yeah, but I donít get how loving me is so frightening to you this way."

"My love for you before was necessarily restrained. I didnít want you to know. Now that I can touch you whenever I want, and I know you love me in return... I have no control. Itís all pouring out."

"You donít have to be restrained with me."

"Yes, I do. There are pieces of me you wouldnít want to see."

He sounded dangerous himself. "I wonít know that unless I see Ďem first. Iím selfish. I want all of you."

I didnít know whether to purr or back away. But perhaps he understood after all. "That explains my obsessions with your past. I want all of you too. Past as well as present."

Ray closed his eyes, looking vulnerable. "And future?"

"Yes." My voice sounded husky, rough, as if I had to force it up from the bottom of my body.

I could feel a wealth of emotion in his kiss. "Me too," he said. "Love you so much."

His kisses contained an affection, desperation, and passion that would not be denied. My clasp on him tightened as I parted my lips so I could taste his tongue. It felt like forever since Iíd last touched him this way; I would not count the near mauling Iíd subjected him to in my jealous possessiveness over his night out with Walker. Despite how closely we were entangled, it wasnít enough. I needed to reconnect with him, to bury myself within him, to feel him thrusting up inside me....

Ray stiffened and murmured, "Canít. Not yet," against my mouth. "Night resolves nothing. Never does."

He made no sense to me at first, then I understood. Our troubles resolved too soon, and at a desperate time of day. He wanted to see if I felt the same come daylight. As much as the fever I had for him demanded we keep going, my love said otherwise.

I kissed him gently. "Tomorrow."

"Yeah, yeah. You have to understand; I did the night confessions thing too many times before, and it only ever looks like it works, and thatís only at first...."

"I understand."

"Tomorrow, Ben. Or today, considering how late it is. We can wait a few hours?"

"Youíre worth the wait."

He grinned and kissed the tip of my nose.

"I will resume my slumber on the couch," I said, helping him to avoid doing anything heíd regret later.

He looked torn and licked his lips. "Yeah, thanks. Good night, Ben. Morningíll be soon."

"I love you, Ray."

He looked hopeful and pleased as he closed his bedroom door, watching me until he couldnít any longer. I took that image of him with me into my dreams.



My eyes jerked open. Somebody tapped my shoulder? No, I was alone in bed at... 5:30 a.m. What the hell woke-- Oh, yeah. I wanted to try out that early morning thing with Ren.

Did he tap me awake somehow? Oh, scary thought. Stupid thought. Better now. Still felt kind of funky though, groggy and lost. I wasnít a morning person.

I dressed quietly and tiptoed past Ben on the couch, barely restraining the urge to kiss him on my way out, which would have defeated the purpose of tiptoeing. I could do all of that with him later. Couldnít wait. I felt like Iíd finally gotten it right.

Of course I wouldnít know for sure until he woke up and spoke to me, but I had a feeling.

When I reached the door outside, Ren already stood out there waiting to be let into the building. Almost didnít recognize him, even aside from him being in civvies. He had this sharp, clear, focused look in his eyes, like he tracked on everything around him. Everything. I saw it now.

"Iím not certain this is a good idea, Ray," he said.

"You donít know?"

"I donít know everything."

"I thought Mounties werenít allowed to say that."

"Ray."

"I wanted to give this a try. Thanks for coming by this early on yer day off."

"You said you would do it whether I showed up or not."

I shrugged. I needed to see this for myself. "Iím glad you agreed to be my spotter."

"Iím always awake at this time anyway."

Given how he said being like this made him feel, I understood, but I still said, "Yer a freak."

Smiling, he took it exactly the way I meant it. "Granted."

As we went up to the roof, he said, "I didnít interrupt anything, did I?"

Shit. "Yer saying you woke me up?"

Ren fidgeted. "Not as such."

Moments like this, I understood all too well why Ben wished he could give his brain a shower when I started in on this stuff. "You didnít interrupt anything important. I was having this dull dream of riding the El and looking out at the city. I never have any cool dreams."

It felt colder on the roof, and the rising morning light gave everything that sharp-edged look, made it pop out at you in three dimensions. It made me yawn and stretch and want to go back to bed. Ideally, back to a bed that had Ben in it, but that wouldnít be happening either. At least not yet.

Ren had this hopeful look, like he wanted me to decide to chuck it all and hit the sheets again. He looked worried too.

Instead of giving up, I asked, "What do I do?" I shook my head, trying to get this weird kind of white noise buzz out of it.

"It just happens to me. I donít do anything."

Now that I thought of it, the city did feel different. Too quiet, too empty. People out there, but untouchable somehow. Underwater or something. They made a kind of dull buzz, like an electric razor against skin, instead of the right noise, which was the kind of mumble mumble you heard in busy train stations. It was a different nothing than what I felt up north, because this nothing had something just behind this wall I kept hitting my head against. That frustrating untouchable bit. Made it bad in a different way.

"Ray?"

Buzz, buzz. White noise, as cold and endless as the snow. White.

"Ray?"

Out.



I woke to Diefenbaker shoving his nose into my face. "Dief, what--" He was insistent that I wake and get Ray. Ray was doing something dangerous. "How would you know that?" He just did. Dief said that Ray had left the apartment recently smelling of nervousness and determination. Without waking me up. That hurt. "That doesnít mean heís in peril." Dief knew that Ray was about to stick his nose into a hole, a deep, dangerous one. I wouldnít understand, Dief told me. Just get up. Hurry.

If Dief were wrong, Ray would rightfully see this as another example of my failure to trust him. But I couldnít afford to take the chance that Dief might be right.

I threw on a coat and boots, then followed him into the hall. He led me downstairs to the door, then turned around and had us ascending again the way we came, which had me biting my tongue against saying something sarcastic until we passed Rayís floor and kept going. To the roof. What could Ray possibly be up to on the roof?

As I opened the door, I heard, "Ray! Ray? Ray, please." Renfieldís voice? "Ray!" Then, muttered with horror, "Oh, shit." I just about flew through the doorway to get outside.

I saw Renfieldís back as he crouched near a wall and the sprawl of Rayís outstretched legs. Limp, eyes closed, Ray had been propped against that wall, with Renfieldís hands at the sides of his face. He was so pale, so still, exanimate....

When Turnbull saw me, he made no excuses, instead saying, "Please help him. Maybe you can," as he stepped out of my way.

I straddled Ray, heartsick over how different this was from the other times. I could feel the slow pulse of his blood just under the skin of his neck. Slow pulse, slow breathing, eyes moving beneath his lids. Otherwise, he was still and unresponsive, as if in a coma, the embodiment of several of my worst nightmares combined.

"Sir, you have to bring him back," Turnbull said.

"And how did he get like this to begin with?" I demanded, barely holding my rage in check.

"He wanted to see if he could experience my morning clarity. I begged him not to, but he said he would do it with or without me. Rayís nearby, sir. You have to bring him back."

Not wanting to believe didnít render any of this false. I would do whatever I had to. Ray could not remain lost, so near and yet so far. "What should I do?"

"I donít know for sure. You have to call him back.... You might try kissing him. Donít look at me like that! I donít know what Iím doing!"

Iíd never seen Turnbull like this, so intense, so weirdly vivid, his hands clamped down hard on his arms as if only they held him together. Oddly enough, his desperation and horror allowed me to find a bit of calmness. Neither rage nor hysteria would bring Ray back. Action would.

I leaned in, feeling Rayís soft slow breathing against my face, then set my mouth to his, cupping his face with my hands. Something in me almost broke as I felt no response at all. No movement. Stillness, all stillness. If not for the autonomic processes and his warmth, I would have thought him dead. God, I would never wish Ray to be still ever again. I closed my eyes, unable to watch this slack shell of the person I loved. I breathed into him and pulled his breath into me, creating a kind of circuit, concentrating on him with all my will.

Come back, Ray. Please. I love you too much to let you go. Please.

I lost track of time as I breathed with him, sucked at his lips, cried on him. I became so desperate that I started to say his name in that way Iíd adopted for use when he resisted my efforts to get his attention. Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray.... Finally he shuddered, and his arms came up around me, and he kissed me back with the full force of himself, as if someone had restored the electricity after a blackout. This was a kiss, not me mouthing his lips as Iíd done to bring him back.

We clutched one another for a long time, kissing, my relief at retrieving Ray so great that I didnít care that we had an audience. Finally we held one another for a while, his body curled up against mine, his face turned into my neck as mine was into his. He murmured, "God, Ben, it was so fucking endless...."

I could only say his name, endlessly, relieved to the depths of my soul that I had him back. And I would keep him.

Finally Ray stopped quivering and asked, "Whereís Ren? He-- Donít look like that. I made him help me. I would have done it alone otherwise."

I didnít want to get up or let Ray go, but we could hardly remain out here forever. Although I did keep my hand on his arm or back as we walked.

We found Renfield standing near the door, Dief at his feet trying to offer comfort he would not accept. Upon seeing us, Ren blushed a little and said, "Once I saw that Ray would be fine, and you were... involved, I felt it best to give you some privacy." Then he stood at attention. "Any punishment you deem necessary, I will willingly take. And thank you for, sir."

Ray nudged me, and I answered, "That wonít be necessary. Iíve been told that it wasnít your foolhardiness that caused this."

"Hey!" Ray protested. Very much Ray.

"Thank you, sir. Iíll go now. Right now. Sir."

Ray put his hand on Renfieldís shoulder and said, "I didnít mean to scare the hell out of you, Ren. Iím sorry. Iím glad I didnít do it alone."

Renfield briefly put his hand over Rayís and squeezed, then nodded. "For all the help I was you might as well have, but thank you, Ray."

Ray wilted a little. He felt guilty, though seeing even that was inexpressibly precious to me at this time. "How can I make it right?"

"Swear to me that youíll never try that again."

"Yeah, I swear. It scared the hell out of me too."

"Goodbye. Please forgive me, sir."

"I do," I said. I did.

He nodded, then fled. Ray looked torn, obviously wanting to go after him in his anguish but unwilling to leave me. Finally Ray said, "I think... Iíll give us both time to calm down."

"I think that would be wise."

I kept my hand on him all the way to his apartment, unwilling to let him go. We said little. I suspected that we were in shock.

Once Ray closed the door behind us, I enfolded him in a tight hug, utterly overcome by my love and fear and relief. In fact, I had to loosen my grip on him for fear Iíd break him. "Ray," I said, my voice husky from the effort of forcing it through my tight throat.

"Itís okay. Iím good, Iím fine, I love you," he answered, kissing me, but he clung to me at least as tightly. "I did something dumb, but Iím back now."

Our kisses became deeper. I needed him, needed him desperately. Rayís fingers clenched in my coat, and his hips moved against mine, suggesting reciprocal feelings. "Bed," he murmured as he removed his coat and dropped it to the floor. "Want you...."

My lips barely left his as I tore off my coat and boots. Somehow we made it to the bed, though I hit the doorframe on our way into the room. Rayís hands reached for me, to stroke me and help me remove my long johns, but I kissed his fingertips and said, "Please let me... let me...." I couldnít find the words.

But he must have guessed my meaning because he simply settled back to lie down on the bed, looking up at me with dilated eyes, watching my hungry gaze take him in, waiting for me. I undressed him almost reverently and wallowed in his warmth and the familiar, beloved texture of his skin. When I pulled his shirt off over his head, disturbing his hair, he grinned at me, and I had to kiss him again, giving him another opportunity to kiss and stroke me back.

Once Iíd stripped him naked, I set about reassuring myself that he truly was fine. I kissed the tip of his cock, already hard and dripping, first. I knew it drove Ray wild when I applied his four-letter vocabulary words to the things we did, so Iíd developed the habit of doing so as often as possible, even in my own mind. I kissed his balls and stroked my tongue across his perineum, smiling as he moaned and spread his legs. But I had more unusual plans for him right now.

When I moved back up his body to kiss him behind his ear, he said, "This is different."

"Not really. Iím loving you, Ray."

He smiled in an open way that made me feel like I could see right into his soul, but his voice sounded light and flippant as he answered, "You better be."

I kissed and stroked him. Everywhere I could. His nose, his jaw, his neck, the sweep of his collarbone, the crook of his elbow, his knuckles, his navel, the insides of his thighs, the backs of his knees, the knobs of his spine.... I caressed or mouthed every millimeter of his skin I could get to, wallowing in the scent and taste and feel of him, adoring him. He was hot, alive, forgiving, mine.... Fine. We were both fine. I shuddered myself whenever my hard cock inadvertently brushed against him, something I didnít dare let happen too often for fear that I would be finished too soon. Ray turned to liquid beneath my lips and tongue and fingers, undulating like the ocean as he whimpered, calling me "Fraser" as he still tended to do when Iíd driven him completely out of his mind. And he still managed to peel me half out of my long johns, his every touch jolting me.

I kissed him again, sucking on his lower lip, then said, "Ray."

"Yeah, yeah," he panted, his eyes heavy-lidded, his mouth swollen from our kissing.

"I want you to fuck me. I need you to." I nearly climaxed just saying it.

He bucked against me. "We need... we need...."

"Yes." I quickly stripped myself the rest of the way. I had lubricant and condoms immediately available and smiled to think of Ray smirking at my proper preparations. He nearly came just from me putting the condom on him, barely holding back in time, while I had to prepare and open myself by myself, because his fingers doing it would be enough to finish me. He quivered and licked his lips as he watched me stroke the lubricant up into myself. His avid eyes and heavy gaze burned into me.

I straddled and lowered myself down upon his cock, biting my lip as the resistance gave way and I felt the pleasurable burn as he filled and stretched me. It felt good, it felt beyond good, it felt incredible, and I heard an obscene, greedy sound leave my lips as he brushed my prostate.

"Fraser, Ben, God," Ray gasped. "You look so...."

Then I flipped us over, putting Ray atop me, and said, "Fuck me. Make me feel it. Please...."

Ray whimpered and started to thrust, sheathing and unsheathing himself, the pull and friction of him moving deep within me making me lose my mind. I was taking Rayís perpetual motion and energy inside myself. He kissed and stroked me feverishly, reinforcing the thought that we were together, one, and he didnít want me to leave.... My orgasm seemed to start in various points--my fingers, my toes, my spine, my cock, the place within me Ray filled--spread throughout my body, and exploded out, with no other stimulation necessary.

I clutched at him in every way possible, then felt him give one last thrust that finished him. "God, I love you," he murmured into my neck.

Drowsy, wishing I could hold him inside me forever, I actually whimpered as he pulled out. But he turned away from me only long enough to dispose of the condom before wrapping himself up against me, the touch of his body incredible against my sensitized skin. We kissed languidly until sleep claimed us.



Light stabbed my eyes. I squinted them open to take in my surroundings--cold me, bed, sleeping Dief at our feet, sleeping Ben breathing against the back of my neck, loving me, with me, but I was cold--before I grabbed the blankets and yanked them up over our heads so I could get warm. Dief whined at being disturbed, but he had fur and we didnít, so suck it up, furball. Once I had the covers on us, Ben kept me toasty. This was right. I sighed and went back to sleep.



I awoke tangled up with Ray and very happy to be there. "Hey," he whispered as he kissed my arm.

"How long have you been awake?" I asked as I kissed the tip of his ear. I turned him around to face me, gathered him up against my chest, and ignored the hard, afternoon light coming in through the windows. I had no place to be but here.

Ray drew lazy patterns on my back. "Not long."

Iíd come so close to losing him today, and Iíd realized how many things I hadnít told him and how many things I wanted to say to him. And I believed now; how could I do otherwise when Iíd felt how empty his body had been?

"Iím sorry I doubted you, Ray," I said. I had to say it.

"Donít sweat it. I would have doubted me too."

"I had less reason to doubt you than most."

He smiled. "This an Inuit story coming up?"

"No. No, this is a Benton Fraser story."

"Good. I donít get enough of those."

"Really?"

"Really and truly."

I found it hard to speak after hearing that, but I soldiered on. "You know that I came to Chicago looking for the killers of my father."

"And stayed."

"And stayed. Yes." I cleared my throat. "The main point Iím making is that my father was killed." I smiled myself as he petted me in a comforting fashion. "Well... one Christmas after that, my father showed up to talk to me."

Ray stilled. "Somebody came to you masquerading as yer Dad?"

"No, not at all. My fatherís ghost came to me. Only I could see him or hear him. Then--"

To my utter surprise, he asked, "Was that the buzzing I heard?"

"Ray?"

"While we were trying to catch up with Muldoon, I kept almost hearing something, like somebody was talking to me but from the next room. Especially when we were climbing that mountain. Okay, when you were climbing that mountain while I was holding on to you."

My God. "I was so afraid for you, Ray, when I heard you echo what heíd said, afraid that you heard him because you were near death yourself. It was reassuring to hear you attach that blithering about red ships and green ships."

"Blithering. Thanks. Yeah, I heard him." Rayís eyes cut through me. "When he wasnít talking about getting through the cold and the pain, he kept telling you to leave me behind."

"I protested angrily."

"And didnít leave me. I donít think I like him much. Sorry, Ben."

"There were many times when I didnít like him either. It didnít stop me from loving him."

"Yeah, I get that." It sounded as if he truly did. "So all this time you were talking to your dead dad."

"No longer. With Muldoonís capture, what heíd left unfinished was done, his amends had been made. He could go on at last... and be with my mother."

Ray held me tightly. "You lost him again."

My voice sounded so thick as I hugged him back. "I saw them, Ray. I saw my mother." He stroked my hair, and it felt so good to be armored by his warm weight. I should feel ashamed that I needed this, but I couldnít muster it. "I didnít truly remember how my mother had died until Muldoon taunted me with it. Murdered. Heíd murdered her. Iíd rewritten it in my memory and blocked it out. But I remember it now."

"No wonder you were so crazy at the thought of losing me. This has been building for a while. You had your nose rubbed in how you lost yer mom, you lost yer dad again, you were in mourning--"

"I wasnít."

"You were. Fraser-style mourning, the mourning that dare not speak its name. I would have understood if you told me."

Yesterday I would have taken that for rebuke, but now I heard him more clearly. "Understood that I used to see my dead father and now no longer did? I never told you before because I occasionally doubted my own sanity on that issue. That also explains my unwillingness to believe the phenomena you saw. I trust you, Ray, but I donít entirely trust my own mind...."

"So why would you trust mine?"

"Iím afraid so."

"That must be pretty lonely."

"Sometimes." I rubbed my eyebrow. "Buck and Maggie saw my father as well--"

"But theyíre crazy too? Okay, maybe Frobisher is."

"I can be very silly at times."

"Sometimes. Not all the times you think you are." He rested his forehead against mine, somehow communicating a wealth of affection with the gesture.

It felt so good to tell him all of this at last. Knowing that Frobisher and Maggie saw my father didnít hold half the relief that knowing that Ray had heard him as well gave me. Ray would no doubt laugh if I told him that I held him as a more objective arbiter of reality.

"So," Ray said, "all those times you got snippy at me and started spouting off out of nowhere about bizarre stuff, you were actually having an argument with your Dad, whom I could not hear."

"Not... not every time."

"So sometimes you were yelling at me about stupid stuff for no reason."

"Arguing with you, yes. But never over stupid stuff for no reason."

"You are the king of hair splitters. You should have been a lawyer." He kissed me. "Love you."

"Perhaps you merely love lawyers."

"Iím over my lawyer thing. Replaced it with my Ben thing."

I could only answer that with a kiss, and Ray replied to that eagerly and immediately. But as we became more thoroughly entangled, I heard an aggrieved whine that could cut glass. Ray laughed. "Somebody needs to go out."

I felt somewhat aggrieved myself. "If heís so certain of his superiority, he can let himself out."

"Nah, itís a sign of his superiority that he makes us open doors for him. Since I donít want an accident--or a not really accident--in my apartment...."

"Right." As we untangled and dressed, I told Dief, "I will settle with you later." He smirked and danced in response.

But walking outside with Ray was pleasant, with the May sun beaming the promise of greater warmth to come on us. Ray had a jaunty bounce and swing to his step, and heíd brush my hand and give me a quick, affectionate kiss every now and then.

I loved him so and loved to see him happy. "Ray."

"Uh-oh. Thatís yer serious, earnest voice."

"I want to stay here."

He smirked. "In the park?"

"In Chicago. With you." My path had actually been clear for some time; Iíd just ignored it as Iíd ignored the signs of Rayís condition.

Ray stood stock-still. "Yeah?"

"Yes."

"For real. Not just because yer afraid youíll lose me otherwise."

"Chicago has its amenities."

His good mood faded completely. "Which means Ďno.í"

I sighed. "I want to be with you, and weíve seen that you need a wide population around you to function well. You have that here, at home."

"You ever think that maybe my problem up there was that we just tried too much too fast? You didnít teach me to swim by dropping me into the nine foot section of the pool the first time." Rayís hands moved, trying to convince me through vehemence as well as words.

"I saw what happened to you this morning while reaching out amidst a sleeping populace. Can you guarantee that if we returned to the parts of Canada I call home, where thereís almost no one around for kilometers all day long, that it would never happen again?"

"I am not... handicapped or something! I just have to toughen up."

It amazed me that after everything that had happened he still thought of me first, still intended to sacrifice himself to make me happy. "No, youíre not handicapped. No, it is not a matter of Ďtoughening up.í Itís a matter of you letting me do whatís right for you."

"Iíve transplanted before, started over. I did it for the Vecchio job. I can do it for you."

"Ray...."

"I saw how you looked after we got off that plane!"

"Yes, I was happy. But the wilderness I love would only be a large, lonely cage without you. As much as I miss that land, you and Ray Vecchio have taught me to enjoy company. No, more than that, to crave company, companionship. I started to understand that while on our quest for Franklinís hand. I was Ďhomeí because you were there. And I love you too much to risk you again." I felt my thoughts come together as I spoke them, the words giving them shape and form. This was how I felt.

Taking a deep breath, Ray looked down, obviously thinking, obviously unhappy. "Youíve made up yer mind?"

"Yes."

"Donít intend to change it?"

"No."

He looked raw and vulnerable standing there. "I want you to be happy, Ben. Can you be happy here?"

"Yes. Ray, I can help so many people here. And I really should reestablish contact with my old neighbors, whom Iíve neglected terribly."

"There are lots of people who love you here. Other than just me," Ray said with a wry twist to his mouth.

"Iím coming to understand that."

"You know... we can still go up to visit now and then. Try me out up there."

"Yes, but itís time for me to stop drifting and create a corporeal home, a place for us." I had sworn to tell Ray the truth.... "And Iíd have to find a new profession in Canada anyway."

"What?" Ray asked. "Yer a Mountie."

"Iíd have to be a Mountie in Toronto if I eschewed Chicago. Iíd rather quit. Given the choice of Toronto and Chicago, Iíd prefer Chicago. So you shouldnít worry that Iím passing up a chance to be the kind of Mountie I wish to be in Canada."

"Those sons of-- I fucking hate them."

"Iím coming around to that point of view."

"You want to stay. In Chicago."

"Yes. I believe Iíve said that before."

"Okay. So tomorrow we go visit the 27th and see if they wanna keep me on as Ray Kowalski. Itíd be easier if you could work with a group that already knows you. If... if you still wanna work with me like that."

"More than anything."

He hugged me. "I feel better having all of that decided. Do you feel better?"

"Much." Truly.

Then he pulled away. "Uhm, should we separate Dief from that poodle?"

I sighed. "That would probably be best."



We ate a little, then had sex. Than napped. Then had a chummy talk and more sex. Followed by, yeah, sex. In fact, we spent the rest of the day in bed. We had to get our time in where we could since weíd be going back to work soon.

Ben looked like I felt, like a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders now that matters had been decided and resolved. It felt good, like weíd reconnected.

Staying here. Like hell I wouldnít give the Territories another few tries just to show that I could hack it, but I liked staying here. I had people here.

Once we hit the point where weíd worn ourselves too far out to do anything more than snuggle, I asked, because I had to, "You sure that staying here isnít some martyrish act of self-sacrifice?" Like heíd tell me if it were.

"I could ask the same thing of you about your willingness to return to a land thatís completely unfamiliar to you and drives you insane," he answered. "I want to be here, never fear."

"Weíre both crazy, arenít we?"

"Indubitably." He kissed my forehead. "But happy that way, I think."

I smiled. "Yeah."



As I dozed with Ray in my arms and Dief at our feet trying to steal the covers, I felt at peace, my direction and priorities decided upon at last after this morningís clarifying scare. Though I had to admit that a day of sloth and sex had probably helped my current mellowness along.

Iíd luxuriated in sloth and sex with Victoria, but it didnít feel the same this time. With Victoria Iíd been involved in a feverish, obsessive race to have as much of her as soon as I could out of the fear that it would all fall apart and she would be leave me.

With Ray, I trusted him and had no fear. While I wanted to enjoy any time I had with him as much as possible, I knew that I would always have more time with him if he had anything to say about it. This morning, through circumstances beyond his control, he was almost lost, but between the two of us we brought him back.

I trusted him.

"Are you up thinking?" Ray mumbled sleepily.

"No," I said.

Ray chuckled. "Good, Ďcause we have a busy day tomorrow. Sleepís important now."

I kissed the back of his neck, smiling as the close-shorn hair there tickled my face. "Good night, Ray."

"Good night, John Boy."



The sun shone brightly on my day of resolving and fixing things. While Ben lounged in bed and looked delicious--I really was corrupting the guy, and in a good way--I dialed up Ray and scheduled a meet. Once I got off the phone, I said, "So Iím seeing Ray in two hours. I have to apologize to her."

"As do I." He looked unsettled, whether over the thought of me seeing Ray or him having an obligation to apologize, I wasnít sure.

"You wanna come with?"

I could almost see smoke coming out of his ears as he thought about it. Finally he said, "I think I would only get in the way right now. Iíll apologize myself a little later."

I shrugged and wondered if that meant "never." Ben told the truth as he let himself know it, which meant that sometimes he could actually be lying and not even be aware of it. I kept an eye out for those times.

Ray didnít know he felt like he had to apologize, and what she didnít know wouldnít piss her off waiting for. She probably just figured heíd keep on being an ass.

I hoped heíd show her differently.

"Whereíre we gonna meet?"

"At the 27th at noon?"

"Sounds good to me. What do you think we can do to pass two hours Ďtil I have to go see Ray?" I asked as I straddled him.

"Iím sure that I donít know," he said very primly, but his hungry, slut-eyed gaze told me differently. "Perhaps you could give me some suggestions."

I did, since he asked so nicely.



Ray sat on the step with an unlit cigarette in her mouth and played with her lighter now and then. Her face changed every time the flame came up, turning hard and almost psychotic. Personality change in the flick of a Bic. No flame, Ray. Flame, psycho. Dangerous game.

"Hey," I said, hoping I could distract her out of it. Glad Ben hadnít been here to see this. Who knows what heíd make of it?

As she smiled at me, she was just Ray. "Hey there. Deliver me from temptation?"

When I accepted the lighter, I felt lines scored into the barrel. "Whatís with the tally marks?"

"You sure you wanna know?" She took the cigarette from her mouth and crushed it under her boot.

Damn. "I donít want to know."

"Smart man."

"Nice leather."

She grinned. "Friendís coming by to take me out for a spin on her hog."

"You look--"

"Like I can kick your ass or drink you under the table? Thatís seriously the point here, Ray my man. You sounded weird over the phone."

"So thatís where the ass kicking comes in?"

"Nah. It was just a fun image."

"For you maybe."

"Thatís all that matters. So what gives?"

"Iíve been doing a lot of thinking lately and Iíve--"

"Started going through that midlife thing? I know guys get this attitudinal version of menopause--"

If she started me digressing, Iíd never get this done. "I wanted to apologize to you."

"Come again?"

"I realized that Iíve never seen you as you, ya know? Iím apologizing." Smooth, real smooth.

But she smiled like she got it. "I know. Apology accepted."

"What? I wanna know what you think Iím sorry for to make sure."

"Ray, nobody seems to see me as who I am, but you came the closest. You identified with me, which is damned rare, and you never made the demands everybody else made of me. You know. Slow down. Wear a skirt. No, not that skirt. Sit down and shut up. Stop bouncing."

Been there, done that, myself. Except for the skirt thing.

"You know exactly what I mean," she said. "Iím not a guy, and Iím not a Ďgirlí in the accepted sense. But you just took me on as me, or as a version of you, whatever, but it was close enough to what I needed. So I kind of used you back. Itís cool. Otherwise, Iíd kick your ass for it."

"You used me? Bitch."

"Yeah, yeah." She smirked but quickly went serious again. "No, I mean it. I needed somebody in my life who accepted me, for whatever reasons. You showed up."

"You gonna tell me now what bent yer brain so hard? I know itís not the usual after-undercover mindfuck."

"I canít tell you any legal details."

"Granted."

Ray leaned back on the steps. "You know what the Army teaches you? Well, the general Ďyou.í Me, it gave me an even greater hatred and distrust of authority than I had when I came in, but what does it try to teach its recruits?"

"Evaluate and kill." I answered her look of surprise by saying, "I remember it from the time you ripped into that guy who thought he could impress you by saying his cousin was a Marine."

Ray smiled darkly. "I was a shit to that guy, but if he was half as close to his cousin as he claimed, heíd know how the armed forces feel about one another."

"I particularly liked you talking about their Ďwarrior mystique bullshití and calling Marines Ďbullet-catchersí. You said the Marines are trained just to kill, but the Army trains you to evaluate and kill. It stuck in my head." Then I thought about what she might be saying. "Donít tell me you were working as an assassin."

"Nah, nothing like that. I just had a bloodier assignment than usual and went into this weird brain space.... I always got the more dangerous assignments because the brass figured I could kill to reinforce my cover. This time went really bad, and I dissociated. The sociopathic freak I was playing took me over. When the cops busted in, part of me was thinking I might be able to use the fact that they thought I was a cop to nail a few of them. One of them almost got my bullet between his eyes the moment he identified."

"Holy shit." Color me officially scared for her. Damn.

"I knew then that I better throw in the towel. As for maintaining my cover... well, that was a bit of a bloodbath too at times. Thus, the therapy." Then a motorcycle pulled up to the curb beside us, and Ray greeted the rider with a cheery "Harley!" Sheíd always had a gift for switching gears on a dime.

The motorcycle chick sighed as she removed her helmet, revealing a mass of flyaway three-toned blonde hair. "Heís not funny."

"Itís funny. I never said that Charlie is the comedian he thinks he is."

"Nope, itís not funny at all."

Ray grinned. "Ray, this is Maxine Quinn."

Oh. I got it.

The woman shook my hand. Nice grip. "Call me Max." She had this big-boned, capable, sturdy thing going. Nice, generous mouth. Really pretty, too. Dadíd like the sturdiness, since heíd always thought Stel had been too skinny, and that skinny me and Stel having kids together would mean skinny kids, which showed how well any of us understood Stella. Dad was a prize even aside from being Old World, though he tried not to hold it against me that, unlike most of his side of the family, I didnít look like I could bench-press trucks. After all, I took after my mum.

"Some people always go for the cheap joke," I answered. "My nameís Stanley Raymond Kowalski. Call me Ray. Nice hog."

"Wow, you do understand, and thanks. Hey, we have room for one more if you donít mind being really friendly."

"Shameless much, Max?" Ray asked as she rolled her eyes.

"You donít mind that I think youíre cute, do you, Ray?" Max asked me.

"I donít, but my sig-o might."

"Then heís a selfish man. Oh, donít get all worried looking. Itís just that guys usually say their girlfriend or fiancee or wife or something. The gender neutral thing is usually a dodge."

Jeez. I ran my hand through my hair. "Havenít been doing this very long."

"Hey, itís cool. Iím bi. I know that being bi and looking like this makes me a cliche, but I like looking like this. Fuck other people."

"Max."

"What other people think, what other people think. You have a dirty mind, girl."

"Could you give Ray and me a moment to conclude our business?" Ray asked. "Be right with you after that."

"Knock yourself out."

Once Ray had dragged me away a bit, I felt safe enough to say, "And you wonder why people think yer a lesbian."

"Wonder? Nah, I know why. But, you know, people at the 23rd could figure that I wasnít into men and that I had you as my love slave, with you cheating on your wife for me, at the same time. When youíre up against creative thinking like that, whatís the point in putting yourself out trying to keep up appearances?"

"You have a point." I looked down at the sidewalk. "But are we good?"

Ray smiled. "Weíre good. You got any more apologizing you want to do?"

"I think Iím done, thanks. Max is waiting."

"Oh, she lives for this stuff."

"Ray." Amazing how I had Fraserís tone in my voice saying it.

"Yeah, yeah."

After we walked back, Ray waved as she got on the bike behind Max, then looked at her driver and said, "Max. The road? In front of you. Turn your head."

"But heís so decorative!"

"Max."

"Iím sorry, Ray. She doesnít let me have any fun."

"Youíre cute," I couldnít help saying.

"He didnít mean like that," Ray said. "Now drive."

"Yes, Miss Daisy," Max said as she put her helmet on and started the engine. "See ya, Ray."



Ray met up with me before noon, looking at once unburdened and slightly worried. "How did it go?" I asked.

"She and me, weíre good." He shook his head and directed his look at the 27th. "Letís get at Ďer."

Almost as soon as we entered the building, various members of the 27th district drifted over to greet us or ruffle Diefenbakerís fur. We traveled through successive waves of well-wishers. Perhaps Ray was wrong about how news of our relationship would be taken; no one mentioned it. In any case, I appreciated it that most of the women seemed less predatory now. Though a few, perhaps seeing my orientation as a challenge, intensified their efforts.

But Ray let no one stop our forward momentum, pulling me along in some cases. Once we reached the squad room, one of the detectives called Ray over. I moved to follow, but Francesca greeted me, and Dief had to flirt with her shamelessly. I was apologizing to her for his unseemly display of affection when I heard Ray.

"I wanna assure you of a few things. First, you will not become gay just from standing near me or the Mountie. If you do, itís all yer own fault and nothing to do with me, so donít bother blaming us. Second of all is that I would never check out yer asses. Never. In fact, even if yer asses were on fire, I would never check Ďem out. Or is that whatís bothering you?" Ray nearly vibrated with anger and looked ready to punch someone.

"Ray!" Lieutenant Welsh called from the open door of his office. "How good of you to grace us with your presence. Step into my office."

"Yessir." He shot a vengeful look at the detective at whom heíd directed his tirade, then walked into Welshís office, closing the door behind him.

I wondered if Welshís request boded ill or good, but I had more immediate matters to address. "Detective Camara, you went to my funeral when you thought me dead, which would indicate that you feel some respect for me as a fellow human being. We have worked in the same building, occasionally crossing paths, for years. Neither I nor Ray have changed--"

"Maybe he hasnít but you have. How could you let him ruin you like that?" He looked utterly sincere.

"Ruin me?"

"Fraser, people donít come much straighter than you."

Somehow I managed to stop the laugh that wanted to escape my throat by turning it into a cough. He had no idea. "Thatís--"

"We saw him looking at you way before you left for Canada together. Did you give in out of some kind of polite thing?"

Whereas no one had seen the affection or lust in my eyes when Iíd looked back. Did everyone blame Ray? Did they think I had no mind or wants of my own? "I can assure you that politeness had nothing to do with it. Iím not expecting you to approve of our liaison; I simply expect that you will give us the respect youíd give any other person."

"Fraser, we donít like fags here. If he comes back here somethingís bound to happen to him, and you donít want to get dragged down with him."

I slammed Camara up against the wall before I even thought about it, though the part of me that attacked him retained enough sense to hold him there only with my hands clenched on his shoulders, not by leaning into him. My anger felt so cold, so calm. So total. "Aside from being criminal, that wouldnít be wise."

Camara struggled but couldnít get free. "Youíre nuts!"

"Perhaps, but you know that I donít take kindly to threats made against my friends. I never have."

Detective Shikatani stepped in. "Calm down, people. Put him down, Fraser."

I saw then that Camaraís feet couldnít touch the floor. I let go of him, and he jerked his shirt and jacket back in place, glaring at me. While Ray would no doubt have followed a display like mine with something like a gibe about not being as limp-wristed as Camara obviously was, I simply stared back as coldly and blankly as I could. Camara stalked away through the gathering crowd. I couldnít read the mood of the people surrounding us.

"Is that the common reaction?" I asked Shikatani.

"Come with me. Showís over; clear out, everybody. Donít you have work to do?" The detective pulled me out into the corridor and walked me outside the building, pretending that no one was staring at us. Once outside in a relatively secluded area, he said, "Some people freaked, but some expected it or thought you were already together and didnít care. Iím not saying that Camara and his friends arenít dangerous, but theyíre in the minority. Some of the guys mouthing off with him just donít want to be seen as supportive in public. Not in front of him."

I sighed. "Therein lies much of the problem."

"You guys coming back?"

"Ray would like to, and it would be more convenient to continue to work with a group already familiar with me. I didnít expect this, however."

"Are the two of you going to be okay being partners who... you know."

Amazing how thoughts of sex reduced everyone to grade school children. At least it wasnít simply me.

Despite the impertinence of the question, I decided to answer it anyway. Perhaps it would help, or so my anger told me. If people intended to be this uncomfortable with it, I was minded to give them a reason at least. "My feelings are as they were, and we worked well together before." At the look on his face, I said, "I wasnít an innocent, and Ray hardly seduced me."

"Too much information." But he hadnít said it unkindly.

"Understood. I donít believe in physical displays in the workplace anyway."

"Thatíll help. Place hasnít been the same without the two of you."

"Thank you."

"Itís been much quieter."

From Ray, that would have been a joke. With Detective Shikatani, I didnít know. "Oh."

He shook his head. "Quiet isnít necessarily a good thing. Just keep in mind that you guys have friends here too."

"Thank you. Speaking to me like this wonít cause you trouble?"

"Iím on Camaraís shit list anyway. Might as well be for a good cause. Now letís get back inside before Ray gets out, doesnít see you, thinks the worst, and pitches a fit at everybody in his line of fire."



"I guess I can tell you now," Welsh said.

"Tell me what?"

"Your old friend Walker had been keeping track of you and what you did here."

"What? How?"

"We were lucky about you not getting on TV much, especially lucky in the Volpe case that no one had the bright idea of putting your mug up, but part of you made it into media footage during the Spender thing. She recognized your hands as you were holding the gun on him."

"My hands?" Iíd seen the tape of the incident on TV, and it hadnít shown me above the elbows. Guess it didnít need to for some people.

"The bracelet clinched it for her. So I got this call the next day from her. Sort of a Ďremember me from the Foley case.í And I did, so I went along."

I snorted. "Damned right youíd remember." He had a reminder of that case standing in front of him a lot of the time. Saved me a lot of time getting in good with my new lieutenant having him already know me and respect me from the Foley thing.

She knew where Iíd gone that early. I probably shouldnít be that surprised.

"Then she asked about who the detective on TV was, and I said you were Vecchio. ĎTall, spiky blond Vecchio?í she asked, and I said it was the very same. Since then, sheíd call once in a blue moon to ask how you were doing. She just about pleaded with me to let you do whatever you had to do to make things right during the Botrelle thing. Not that she had to."

"You never let on."

"I wanted to, but she said there was some dark reason you two couldnít associate so I should just keep her out of it. Do you know of any dark reason, Ray?"

"Yeah, Iím afraid so." It was because Iím an idiot, sir.

I went into playing Vecchio figuring I had nobody left I hadnít lost or thrown away, but it turned out that I still had people looking out for me. Weird.

"I asked to get you for good, and seeing as how the 27th lost so many people lately the Powers That Be might agree to having you here as Kowalski even after you being Vecchio here for so long. Itís not like Vecchioís cover as the Bookman wasnít blown sky high. You game?"

"I have to check with Fraser, but I think itís a yeah."

"With Walker transferring in, I may actually have a real crew again."

Oh. Shit. "Rayís coming over?"

"Yeah. I know sheís good people, so Iím glad to have her."

While I was having visions of the most lethal catfight ever dancing through my head. I had to let Ben know that if we stayed with the two-seven, Ray was part of the deal.

"Weíll have to decide what weíre doing." Díoh! Nice way to confirm things, Ray.

Welsh gave me a look, then said, "As long as youíre both professional on the job, I donít care what you do when youíre off it. Wait, I do care enough to say that you better make each other happy."

Wow. "Yessir. Iíll run it all by Fraser and let you know."

"Soon."

"Iíll let you know soon." When I walked out, I felt something odd in the air, beyond the tension I expected to feel.

Ben looked almost guilty.

God, I hoped nobody had done anything really obnoxious.



"What was all that about?" Ray asked as we walked out.

"Iím afraid that I lost my temper at Detective Camara," I answered.

"Yeah? What did you do?"

"I lifted him off his feet and pinned him against a wall."

Ray grinned. "Fantastic."

"Itís not something to be proud of."

Ray made a rude noise. Dief snorted.

"It isnít, Ray, Dief."

"Yeah, yeah." Ray looked abruptly uncomfortable. "Well."

"Ray?"

"Ray Walker is transferring into the 27th. You still up for me returning there?"

Oh. God. It figured. Of course. But I either trusted him or I didnít.

I did trust him. "That will not be a problem. I can control myself." I could master my irrational impulses.

"Like you did with Camara?" But I could hear a note of teasing in his voice. He wasnít entirely serious.

"I have less cause with Walker. My dislike of her is wrong. I can be professional." I would resign myself.

Ray nodded. "So weíre good."

"Weíre good."

"Youíll tell me if it becomes a problem."

I couldnít help the irritation that crept into my voice. "Yes, Ray."

"Just making sure."



He would be fine with her. Yeah. This Iíd have to see to believe.

And my fixing and resolving day duties werenít done yet. Once we hit the park, I said, "Got an errand I have to run alone. Be back with ya soon." Much as I didnít like keeping secrets, I still felt like he didnít totally believe in this stuff, and his disbelief might get in the way of me making contact.

"I trust you, Ray," he answered so carefully. Trying to be good and unjealous. Trying to control his jumbo-sized curiosity too.

"I know." I gave him a very friendly peck on the cheek and smiled. As I turned to go, Dief went with me. "Uh. I didnít mean for that to happen."

"All right," Fraser said, answering Dief, not me. To me he said, "Heíd like to come along with you."

It might be good having backup, and in past experience it seemed like Dief could see One for Sorrow, so.... "Okay. No problem. See you later. Love you."

It was nippy out by Chicago spring standards but felt like a cakewalk after being in the Great White North. I soaked it all in. I didnít know if it was being in Chicago or just being in a city, but I felt better, more like myself here. Up.

Dief seemed to be liking it too, and why not? Donuts didnít run wild in the Territories.

I stopped in an isolated part of the park. Much as I hated doing this in public, no way would I call the raven while I was in my apartment, not after all the warding Iíd done. Besides, folks usually try to avoid people who talk to themselves.

Of course, that left actually calling the raven, something I didnít know how to do. Usually he just showed up on his own and made a pain in the ass of himself. I doubted that "hey, bird," would get me anywhere. Ditto for "Red rover, red rover, let One for Sorrow come over."

Dief growled as a sudden weight settled on my left shoulder. "I always liked that game. Watching it, I mean. Itís not like I have hands to help play it with," One for Sorrow said. "Told you youíd call me back on your own."

I swallowed down my nervousness at having his beak so close to my face. Him and his fucking games.

"Okay, so I called you."

"And why did you call me?"

Damned bird. "I was wondering about the way things have worked out. Almost neatly."

"I like you."

"Iíd hate to see what you do to people you hate."

"Iíve always liked you, and he always thinks he knows so much, at least until you show up. That day when he first saw you at the 27th..." One for Sorrow was cackling to himself as he spoke, "and you were trying to be Vecchio and in his space and so attractive, he was just lost. Bam. Confused, off-balance, in lust...."

"In lust?"

"You rocked his world, turned it inside out and upside-down. No matter how many times it happens, it never stops being entertaining."

"Does anybody ever know what yer talking about?"

"I always know. If you want to get mystical about it--"

"Which I donít."

"--as much as his stiff-necked, have-to-enforce-my-sense-of-order ways get my feathers ruffled, you two do something special when youíre together. Balance. Yin and yang. It works." The bird smirked. "Youíre a duet."

"What does any of that have to do with the cost of tea in China?"

"Youíre such an impatient little bastard. Always have been. Would have figured youíd learn some patience by now. Okay, hereís how it went. If you guys had professed your undying love before the Muldoon thing and Vecchio coming back and you guys heading off to Canada, the relationship would have started on a more balanced foundation, with you two as equals. But you didnít. Instead, you--singular you--were miserable in the Yukon and totally dependent on him. Balance gone. But you were too stubborn and too much in love, you poor pathetic sod, while also somehow being too oblivious to the fact that you were in love with him, to tell him where he could shove his snowy North. So you needed my assistance."

"I never asked for assistance."

"But I gave it anyway, out of the kindness of my heart. And because itís so much fun to mess with his unbeliever head."

"You made me nuts! Literally!"

"This sight isnít something you havenít had and used before. With time, youíll get the hang of it again. Anyway, what happened to you forced him to profess his love and bring you home, where the both of you could be happy and balanced again. The events I engineered speeded up a confrontation that would have happened eventually on its own. I brought him around, helped you achieve some self-knowledge--"

"Yer really proud of yerself."

"Of course I am. I did good work for you. A little unpleasantness in the short term in exchange for high future returns. You have Chicago and you have him, and there was no manipulation on your part whatsoever. Your hands are clean. Plausible deniability."

"I didnít want anything you did!"

"And thatís the best deniability of all."

"You made us suffer."

"For your own good. Like you told him recently, you werenít born yesterday. You should be old enough to know that life isnít fair."

Son of a-- The itchy rub of feathers against my face gave me an idea. A stupid, dangerous idea, but One for Sorrow had pissed me off that much. I moved fast, my arm shooting up, and grabbed a feather, plucking it out of his ass, and pushed him forward once I had what I wanted. He squawked, briefly clenched his talons hard enough on my shoulder to prick me all the way through my leather jacket, and half-fell, half-leapt off me. Once on the ground, he paced around, shaking his feathers, making pissed off sounds that probably qualified as Ravenish curse words. The cuts stung, but I had my prize clutched in my fingers.

Dief rushed forward to try to take a chomp out of him, but his wicked beak waving made Dief back off. One for Sorrow yelled, "What was that for, you ingrate? And I mostly mean you, hatchling, not Fenris here."

"You know what it was for." When I waved the feather around, I could swear that one side of it smelled like sharp, bitter winter and the other like thick, green summer. Green and gold iridescence ran through the black.

"Do you think that means anything?"

I shrugged, then took out Rayís lighter. "Dunno. I could burn it and see." I brought the tiny flame closer and closer.

"You wouldnít."

"Ya sure?"

One for Sorrow sighed. "Enough. Fine. Stop. What do you want?"

"Assurances. Yer promise that you wonít do anything to or Ďforí me and mine without my go-ahead. Conscious go-ahead, no coming to me or them in a dream and asking shit. In return, I do my best to keep this safe."

"You little bastard."

"Always been a bit of a pyro, and Iíd like to see how thisíll burn."

"Fine. I promise. I promise I wonít do anything to or for you and yours without your awake and aware go-ahead. Happy?"

"Rarely, but Iím working on it."

"And you promise to keep that feather safe."

"I promise that as long as you keep your side of the deal Iíll do my best to keep it safe."

"Only your Ďbestí?"

"Iím covering my ass here."

"Something I should have done better," One for Sorrow muttered. "Youíre still one of mine all right. Now get lost. Enjoy your little victory while it lasts." Weird how he started talking more and more like me the longer I knew him.

"I do intend to."

Muttering to himself, One for Sorrow took off. I had enough self-control to avoid grinning until I knew he was gone. Gotcha.

I noticed Dief looking up at me with big puppy eyes, obviously wanting me to remember what great backup he made. And didnít that deserve a donut? "Yer gonna grow to be as big as Fenris way yer going." Bigger puppy eyes resulted. "All right, all right. Just donít tell Ben, okay?"

And, continuing my fixing and resolving, on the way back to my apartment after my visit to the hardware store and donut place, I ducked into the consulate and flashed my feather at Ren. He stood up from behind his desk, his mouth open. "Is that--?"

"You bet," I answered. "Proof and a hostage against him taking any more action on me."

Ren had an almost childlike sense of wonder on his face as he looked at the feather, obviously able to tell it was special just from seeing it, the way I could. I wondered if Ben would be able to see it at all.

"Iíd let you touch it," I said, "but I really shouldnít, not when everything hinges on nobody messing with it."

"Of course."

"I wanted to thank you for being such a big help and let you know that weíre staying. In Chicago." I looked at him carefully. "But you knew that, didnít you?"

Ren looked rueful. "Not until this morning while getting dressed for work."

"Constable." The quiet, iron voice came from the nearby office.

Seeing Renís nervousness, I said, "Thank you for all yer help, Constable Turnbull. I donít know what I would have done without you." I was sure Inspector Iron-voice could hear that clearly.

"Youíre welcome, Mr. Kowalski. Remember that Canada is your friend to the north." His lips twisted wryly at that, then he looked toward the office. "Coming, sir."



Thirty minutes after I left him, Ray returned to the apartment, both he and Diefenbaker looking very satisfied with themselves. "Did you get your business resolved?" I asked.

"Think so." Smiling, Ray kissed my nose on his way to the kitchen. He set a small paper bag on the counter, took scissors from the drawer, emptied the bag, and set to work on something.

Curious, I walked over to examine his spoils. "Where did you get that feather from?" A black feather....

Impossibly, his smile widened, and it almost warmed away the sudden chill I felt. "Finished business." He cut a piece of string and tied one end around the quill, its stiff, pure white contrasting to the inky yet iridescent blackness of the feather. I followed him into the bedroom as he hung it from the ceiling in a corner far from the door and his bed. "You think itíll be safe here?" he asked.

As it swung there, it was so glossy that it nearly glowed. I knew what it had to be. "Yes, Ray."

"Cool." Ray walked to the bathroom and took off his jacket and shirts. At times like this I felt infinitely slower, but I couldnít begrudge him this happiness. Especially not when I enjoyed seeing him just about glow like this.

When Ray took out a tube of triple antibiotic ointment, I had to ask, "Did you injure yourself?"

"Not too bad. See?"

When he put my hand on his shoulder and shivered at the brush of my fingers, I could feel the small swollen marks, as if talons had pricked his skin. It enraged me that he had to fight like this.

It bothered me that heíd fought it alone. "I would have helped."

He leaned back against me and rubbed a little, cat-like. "Some things you have to do on yer own, you know?"

"Not this, you donít." I took the tube from him.

"No mucus membrane stuff from pregnant whatevers, okay? I want my ointment where I know the ingredients."

"Polymyxin B Sulfate, Bacitracin Zinc, and Neomycin Sulfate in a white petrolatum base."

"Yep."

"I donít believe you can truly say that you know those ingredients."

"Better than mucus anything, Ben."

"Under duress, I shall use your treatment."

"Good you. Thanks." Once I had his cuts treated and bandaged, Ray hopped up onto the counter, wrapped his legs around my waist, and drew me in close. "Something else I hope I donít have to do alone."

When he kissed me, I felt his erection press against me, but I still asked, "And what would that be?"

"Victory sex."

"I think itís safe to say that Iíll be with you for that."

"Good."



When Ray walked into the 27th for her first day, I didnít reach out for a "welcome in" hand clasp the way I wanted to. My last four days here hadnít been too bad, with most folks being aggressively normal to me and Fraser to show us that it didnít really matter to them that they knew we played "hide the salami" together, but some people had been cold and Camara and his cronies had been jerks. Kind of subtle for jerks, but still. It could be trouble later on.

So Ray didnít need Camara associating her with me from her very first day in.

She seemed to see how the wind was blowing because she just nodded to me and Ben before walking into Welshís office. Welsh called Shikatani in soon after.

"Youíre good?" I asked Ben.

His eyes finally strayed from the office door. "Iím good." Uh-huh.

Eventually the door opened, and they all walked out. "This here is the first of what I hope will be a bunch of new people," Welsh said. "Rachel Walker, detective first grade, goes by ĎWalkerí or ĎRay.í"

"Canít we get people with other names here?" somebody asked from the back.

"Youíll take what we get and like it. Everybody try not to drive Detective Walker away before it gets harder for her transfer back out. Sheíll be working with Shikatani."

"Thanks, Teach," Ray muttered.

"Hey, be thankful I didnít make you give a speech on what you did for your summer vacation. Now can we all get to work?"

Shikatani led her to a desk all the way across the room, far from mine. Lucky break. Or deliberate planning. "Everythingís going to be just fine," I said to myself, glancing at Ben, who was trying not to watch the proceedings. Dief made a rude noise. "It could happen."



"Ray, have you noticed that everyone has been asked to work as liaison at some point with Detectives Shikatani and Walker except us?"

Ray slammed the cabinet drawer shut with his hip. "Yep."

"Yes?" It disturbed me to think that Welsh knew of my dislike for her and thought it would affect my ability to do my duty.

"Yes. People know you hate Walker. You hate the way she walks around here like, you know, she works here. You hate that she uses Kool-Aid as her colorful morning pick-me-up since caffeine sends her into orbit. You hate the way she breathes. I know this. The whole 27th knows this. Hell, I think other cops in other districts know this. And since a lot of people trust your judgment, theyíre figuring somethingís wrong with her and treating her accordingly, with Shikatani, being her partner, getting some of the backwash. So of course Welsh isnít putting us with her and Shikatani."

I was horrified that my admittedly petty reaction to her was being adopted by our co-workers. "Iíd never intended that."

Ray sighed. "We didnít mix much with Shikatani before he got paired with Walker either."

"Still. Something must be done." For one thing, I still had to apologize to her. With becoming accustomed to the somewhat off-putting Inspector Scott, my new superior, and making sure I paid Ray all the attention and care he was due, the days had slipped past me.

Though I had to admit that I hadnít tried very hard to remember to make amends either.

"Hell yeah, but I donít think working with them would do the trick. Might make things worse. Fraser, most people are happy when they donít have to work with someone they donít like." Ray had a defensive set to his shoulders, everything in his posture screaming, "Please donít start this again; donít make me take sides."

And he had been so good himself, amending things with Ray Vecchio. Weíd recently played billiards with him and Lieutenant Welsh, and Ray had apparently had a wonderful time, with the teasing between the Rays sounding playful instead of like a gritted-teeth prelude to war.

I certainly had enjoyed watching my Ray play. I found his intensity... stimulating.

Maybe the lieutenant kept us separate out of consideration for Ray. And out of consideration for Walker, who truly did seem to be a good cop. "I donít mind her. Truly."

"Right. So you want me to ask Welsh to pair us up with Walker and Shikatani more often?"

Maybe it would help. Wouldnít it? "I...." I couldnít continue to speak.

"Uh-huh." Ray picked up the file and turned away.

I had to try to make peace with her. For fairness and for Rayís sake.



"Walker, may I speak with you?"

"Sure, Fraser. Privately?" She had her own version of Rayís cool, fake friendly tone, the one in which the target wasnít meant to see that the bonhomie was fake. Only someone who knew him well could detect it. Ray had another version of that tone, that was meant to be obvious, and Walker no doubt did too. The parallels between them unsettled me at times.

That I loved him more than my life but sometimes wished to strangle her and dispose of the body only added to my confusion.

When she led me to the closet, I tried not to see it as significant.

Once inside, the door closed and the one bare bulb turned on, she asked, "What can I do for you?"

"Walker-- What are you smiling about?"

"Thatís your question?"

"Walker."

She shrugged. "Youíd put your earnest, serious voice on, is all."

"I wish to apologize to you."

That surprised her. "Oh. What for?"

"I was inexcusably rude to you in the past. I will amend my ways."

"Okay. Thanks." The look on her face told me that she didnít expect anything to actually change.

"Walker," I couldnít bring myself to call her "Ray," not even to foster a sense of connection, "I think we can agree that our friction is mostly due to our protectiveness of Ray." Her air of polite attention couldnít quite hide her obvious feeling that I was neither as protective of nor as caring toward Ray as she was. I soldiered on. "Our enmity upsets him. I propose that we set our differences aside. I shall endeavor to be less hostile."

She seemed to struggle with herself for a moment, and I couldnít help thinking that it came from restraining the tart answers she wanted to say. Instead she said, "Thatís good. Thereís no reason we have to be at each otherís throats. We can try, for Rayís sake, if nothing else. Shake on it?"

She had a firm grip, though she didnít condescend to play power games by squeezing hard. I hope my eyes didnít look as cold and hard as hers, but they probably did.



Ray was bleeding far too much. "Iím fine, Ben. Work on getting us untied instead."

"I need to keep pressure on your wound."

"What about yours?"

Iíd taken only a gash to my forehead, but head wounds tended to bleed heavily and I felt a bit lightheaded. I prayed that it didnít slow my mind enough to prevent me from getting us out. "Iím fine."

"Ah-ha! See? Well, Iím fine too."

He was not. His shirt had turned thickly, darkly red near his rib cage. Heíd been shot twenty minutes ago.

With Diefenbaker at our apartment enjoying a day off, we could only hope to make our escape ourselves or that the cavalry, in the form of Chicago police officers, would be forthcoming. I thought it naive to depend on outside intervention. Especially since our backup had been suspiciously slow a few times since our return to duty.

When the doorknob started to rattle, Ray and I awkwardly slid behind the small pile of crates that provided the only cover in the room. But the rattling suggested that someone was picking the lock. Silence followed the last click, the door began to open... then was kicked forward by one steel-toed boot. Walker swept the inside of the room with her gun, while her partner covered the door and hallway.

Walker reholstered her gun to call in that we were down and needed an ambulance, then flipped open a butterfly knife and cut us free. She whispered, "If Camara doesnít get a bureaucratic ass-kicking for sitting on this, Iíll give him the real world version. Jesus."

"Camara?" Ray murmured.

"It seems that he found out what was going down and that you guys were involved. Good thing for you that the guy canít keep a secret for shit. He got the stone face down, but his body language screams it out."

"And body language is something youíre observant of," I said.

"Yeah. So I leaned on him until he told me."

"He always has his partner around. A few cronies too," my Ray said.

"Takeshi and I handled them."

"So you embarrassed him in front of his group," I said. "Heíll hate you now." And she did it for us. Well, more for Ray, but still.

"I couldnít get him away from his group, so itís his own fault I made him look like a wuss in public. He hated me before. Besides, heís one of those guys they invented the phrase ĎWith a friend like him, who needs enemies?í for. Iím not crying. Anyway, we called in the rest of the troops, and they should be here soon. A few Ďphobic apples do not spoil the whole bunch. We ready to move?"

I looked to Ray, who nodded. "Yes."

"Great. Letís get busy."



Rayís body lost most of his tension once we reached our apartment. The hospital had wanted to keep him longer than merely overnight, but Ray had signed himself out. I would have preferred he stayed to be safe, but the wound truly hadnít been as bad as it had looked. Mine had been quickly and easily treated, requiring minimal stitching and only a small, follow-up prescription. Concussion appeared to be unlikely.

I hugged him as gently as I could and still put everything I felt into it. "I know," he answered as he kissed me. "Iím fine, see?" Dief bounced up to him and licked his hand. "Yeah, I love you too."

"Get some rest, Ray."

"Did enough resting in the hospital. Made me antsy."

"Ray."

"Yeah, yeah."

But then the phone rang, and Ray rushed to the kitchen to get it. I sighed as he winced when picking up the receiver, but I went back to placing our new prescriptions in the medicine cabinet. I didnít want him to think I was hovering.

However, I couldnít help listening.

"Hey. Yeah, I just got in. No, Iím fine. Okay, okay, I got shot and just came back from the hospital. Donít-- Iím fine. Yeah, our backup was slow, but it arrived. Yeah, people can suck, but thatís life. I donít know if I want to make a big stink and go official with this. What? No, I mean I can tell you have something on yer mind. No. Stel. Now is a good time. Stel, you canít say that and then not tell me. My imagination is worse than anything you can tell me." A long silence. "Oh. Thatís... good for you. Great. No. No, Iím not upset. Okay, a little, but Iím allowed to be. ĎCause Iím really gonna miss you. Mmm-hmm. Yeah, I wanna see you too, and Fraseríll wanna see him. In person and all. How soon can you get here? Yeah, thatís good. Yeah, I would have."

As I walked into the room, I saw that heíd gone utterly still, as he tended to do when very upset. I wanted to put my arm around his waist and draw him close but, mindful of his wound and the bandages, I instead put my hand on his shoulder and gently squeezed. "Ray?"

He let out a deep breath. "Stella and Vecchio wanna come right over. That okay with you?" he asked.

"Yes."

Ray nodded and said into the phone, "Yeah. Come right on over. See ya soon. I know. Itís okay. ĎBye."

I felt him shake a little under my hand. "Ray," I said gently.

"Stel and Vecchio are moving to DC together." He put his hand over mine. "Donít... donít get any ideas like I still thought Stel and me would get back together again and you were just a placeholder or something, Ďcause I didnít and yer not. Itís just-- I donít even know what it just is."

So I would lose one Ray whether I remained here or returned to Canada. But I had to admit that heíd seemed lost here, unable to truly come back home after having been the Bookman. In the meantime, I felt my own Rayís pain. "Itís a big change."

"Yeah. Yeah, it is. Guess I better change my shirt before she gets here. She was freaked out enough about me getting shot without seeing me looking like a cast member of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

I felt again the urge to show Detective Camara that his behavior would not be tolerated, but I didnít know if I could show him without killing him. At some moments I wasnít sure that killing him would be such a bad thing.

Ray seemed to know my thoughts, because he said, "Iím kind of touched and disgusted that yer ready to go all caveman in retaliation. I know you mean well and all, but I donít need you going off on him like that. If anyoneís gonna go off, itíll be me. And Iím not letting that asshole Camara win and chase me away. Not happening. Now Iím gonna go wash up. Carefully," he said, forestalling any objections Iíd make. "I know the docs just finished gluing me back together. But I have to look pretty for Stel and Vecchio."



Almost as soon as Stella and Ray arrived, Stella gently but firmly grabbed my Ray and led him to a corner, then commenced fussing over him from what I can tell. From Rayís body language, he seemed to be telling her that he hadnít been injured too badly. From hers, she didnít believe him.

Ray watched them and shook his head. "Upstaged."

"Ray hardly--"

"I know, I know. He didnít get shot just to get Stella all over him like flies on honey. It just worked out that way. Looks like you got creased too. You okay?"

"Just fine. I hear," I said, "that you and Stella will be moving to Washington DC."

"Nice subject change, Benny. Smooth."

"Thank you."

"Yeah. Can you believe the FBI is giving me a job there? Some kind of training and advisory position, since my Las Vegas assignment makes me some kind of expert on going undercover as a Mob heavy now. Great money, some prestige, and the chance to command feds around all day. A new start in a suburb outside DC. Whatís not to like?"

"As long as youíre happy, Ray, I am content. Though I will miss you." As much as it saddened me, if leaving would do him good, better he left and took care of himself.

"Iíll miss you too. I just got you back after all. But I couldnít drift anymore, Benny, and being in Chicago just shows me that Iím not who I used to be. Pretending for Ma and Frannie is ripping me up, and theyíre noticing that too. So thatís ripping them up."

"So this move would be best for everyone?"

"Yeah." Ray laughed. "I almost wish I could take you with me, but youíd probably bring the whole US government down the first time you found some kind of injustice. Which might not be such a bad thing, but it could be messy." He gave me a searching look and changed subjects entirely. "You ever think about what thingsíd be like if you did a few things differently? Not Ďyouí in particular, but Ďyouí in general. God, Iím not saying this right."

"I think I understand you." I had a long list of moments I thought about. "At times I think about it."

"Youíre a master of understatement. I wanted you to know that I wish Iíd reacted better. It would have given me more time with you."

It struck me to the heart. "I had some responsibility in choosing to take that vacation."

"Well, yeah, of course you did. But... I dunno."

"I can at times be oversensitive."

"You? Nah."

I gave him a stern look that he saw through instantly, then said, "Itís possible that any answer other than an unqualified Ďyesí may have sent me away. No matter how well you handled it."

"You were that crazy about me, huh?"

"Yes, Ray, I was," I said in all seriousness.

"Hunh."

"No matter where you go, I will always value you as a friend."

Rueful, beloved, Ray said in a soft, thick voice, "Ditto, Benny. Ditto."



"Itís not that bad, Stel."

"You always say that."

"Itís always not that bad."

She gave me her determined, "Iím here to help you" look. I loved Benís version of that one too. "Ray, you should take legal action."

"I want to see how things go first."

"It might be too late by then."

"Iíve made up my mind."

She had that "Iím gonna strangle you, Ray" look on her face. "And I canít change it?"

I loved that look too, which had gotten me in a whole lot of trouble way too often. "Nope."

"Of course not."

"Stel, I wanna tell you not to go."

"But you wonít?" she asked with a slight smile. Sheíd let me get away with changing the subject.

"I wonít. I know this is the big time for you, Stel, and you more than deserve it."

"Damned right." She smiled again, then turned more serious. "Ray needs to be away from here, and Iíve been mulling offers anyway."

My inner three-year-old threw a tantrum that sheíd be willing to shake up her life for him but not for me, but I was better than that. "A fresh start."

"A fresh start. Are you happy, Ray?"

"Most times. Weíre working at it."

"You didnít choose the easiest route."

The guy-with-guy thing. I shrugged. "Have I ever?"

She gave me her big, fond smile, which could still warm me from head to toe. "Never." Then she hugged me pretty briefly. Goodbye. Finally and for real.

It ached a bit, but not as badly as it would have once. "If he makes you unhappy, kick his ass. Or call me; Iíll come do it."

"I think youíd enjoy that too much."

"If enjoying yerself is a crime now, Iím living in the wrong country."

I watched her fight herself not to say anything about Canada. Since I never liked to watch her fight anybody, not even herself, I just caught her up in a big hug and held on for a bit. God, the scent of her Chanel brought back decades of memories.

And that was all they were now, memories. The past. We were over, even though I would always love her in some ways.

I let her go.



Ray and I watched my Ray and Stella. To my relief, he finally ended the hug.

"Yeah," Ray said. "There are good reasons to go."

"He would never do that," I said.

"Yeah? Yeah, I think youíre right. I really am gonna miss you, Benny."

"Has anyone said that you canít visit?"

Ray smiled. "Stella maybe, but I can get around that if it comes up."

Stellaís eyes looked a little too bright as she walked over to us. "I think itís time to leave."

"Sure."

"Hey, Vecchio. Can I talk to you for a moment?" my Ray asked before taking Ray aside. I could still hear my Ray making half-joking threats about what heíd do if Ray mistreated Stella in any way. Ray mouthed off in return.

"Constable," Stella said to me quietly.

"Yes?"

"Ray... loves blindly and totally. If you get him killed through carelessness or recklessness, I will make your life a living hell," she said in a soft, calm voice that had steel beneath it.

I didnít doubt her for a moment. "It wouldnít be necessary, since Iíd already be doing that myself, but I understand what youíre saying." I didnít know how long Iíd last in such circumstances anyway.

"Good. As long as we understand each other."

My Rays had progressed to laughter and arm punching, making me glad that theyíd attained some peace with one another at last. I understood too well how much it could hurt to have friends dueling one another.

I had amends to make to Walker.

"Iíll be seeing you, Benny," Ray said.

"I think you will," I answered.

Once the awkward goodbyes ended and I closed the door, Ray slumped down, wilted, onto the couch. "Iím fine," he said irritably at my look.

"Youíre overdue for your painkiller."

"You too."

"I donít need one."

"Neither do I. Look, canít a guy be melancholy in peace?"

"Not if he has the pain and discomfort of a new wound contributing to it."

He sighed. "Fine. Dope me up. Uh, Ben, you donít have to look so enthusiastic about it."

"I assure you that Iím exactly as enthusiastic as I should be."

He smirked. "Oh, great. Scare me before you dope me up."



Ray murmured and rolled a little, so I steadied him with my hand until he settled again. I dozed myself, petting his hair as I sat on the couch with his head in my lap. The painkiller had knocked him out, but not before he could insist that he was fine and heíd watch TV instead of rest in bed, thank you very much. But I didnít mind. In any case, arguing against his stubbornness remained a pot and kettle situation, reducing my leverage.

I picked the telephone receiver up after the first ring. Fortunately, it didnít wake Ray, and my forethought had put the phone within easy reach. "Kowalski residence."

"Hey, Fraser. Howís Ray doing?"

I remembered Walker passing by several times to check on Ray at the hospital in between giving various verbal reports and filling out paperwork. "Fine, although his medication has put him to sleep."

"Ah, meds. They donít touch the pain, but they put you out so good youíre not aware of it anymore. Glad heís okay. Iím calling because I wanted to give you guys some information on how today went at work and what Welsh did with that bastard Camara and all."

Very considerate of her. "Iíd say weíre very interested."

"Rayís sleeping."

"I would appreciate it if you could stop by in about three hours to tell us about your day. Would that be all right?"

She sounded surprised but pleased. "That would be fine. See ya then."



The door buzzer woke Ray. "Whuzzat? Oh, door." He licked his lips and ran his hands through his hair, disordering it wildly. "Fell asleep."

"Yes, Ray."

"Wise-ass Mountie guy."

"I can get the door."

"Nah. They didnít shoot out my knees." Ray stood, remembered in time not to stretch, and wandered to the door. "Yeah?" he asked into the communication box.

"Candygram," Walker answered.

"Hey." Ray smiled, then glanced back at me almost nervously. It broke my heart.

"Fraser invited me by to tell you how things went at the 27th today."

"Did he?" Ray looked back at me with a gleam in his eyes. I said nothing.

"Yeah. You gonna let me come up?"

"Sure." Once he pressed the button, Ray said to me, "You invited her."

"Yes, Ray."

I had the distinct feeling that he would have thrown himself at me in one of his usual displays of affectionate exuberance if not for his wound. Instead, he leaned seductively against the doorframe and asked, "You guys plotting against me?"

"What did you think we were doing all this time?"

"Thatís not buddies."

When Ray let Walker in, Diefenbaker nearly bowled her over. "Dief!" she shouted as she wrestled with him. "I should get this kind of greeting everywhere. Hi, Fraser. Hey, Ray."

"How was school today, liíl Suzy?" Ray asked.

"Educational. Wheníre you coming back to class?"

"Tomorrow, but Iíll be riding a desk for a while."

"Fraser coming in with you?"

"Of course," I said.

"Figured. Just wanted to be sure though."

"Drink?" Ray asked.

"Yeah. Ice water would be fine. Thanks."

"Sure you donít want a beer?"

"You got Guinness?"

Ray smirked. "Nah, I donít. Stereotype much?"

"Fuck you. I can be a cliche if I wanna be." She said it with no heat whatsoever, further suggesting that Iíd just seen an old ritual in action. "Give me the water." She took a sip, then moved it away from Dief, who either wanted to investigate the glass or share her water. "Not bad."

"Straight from the tap."

"Classy. You want me to get right into it before you vibrate through the floor from impatience, Ray?"

"Thatíd be good."

"Sit," she commanded him, and he did.

"Ray doesnít do that for me," I said, which he responded to by sticking his tongue out at me.

"I spent years perfecting my tone. Okay." She sat on the arm of the couch. "I came in early this morning to try not to miss anything, but when I got there Welsh already had the bastard in his office. Giving him a private dressing-down. Good move, since making it all public might have embarrassed and enraged Camara enough to make him do something really stupid. Everybodyís staring at the closed door, though. So finally Camara and Welsh come out, and Welsh makes an announcement. He doesnít want anybody to ever leave a fellow officer in danger again. Ever. He also would not tolerate cops harassing other cops. Offenders would face the wrath of Welsh."

"It doesnít seem like punishment enough," I said, disgruntled and outraged.

"Heís giving Camara the crap assignments for some time to come, and Camara knows that Welsh and most of the 27 hate his guts. Even a lot of the people who donít like same-sex couples didnít approve of you guys being left out to hang. Thing is, Welsh canít let things get too official or go out of the department."

"Why not?"

"Inquiries would take it out of Welshís hands and into the laps of people who might not be so understanding. If it gets into a major disciplinary thing on Camara, Camara will start babbling about you and Ray. Even if nobody trusts or likes Camara right now, the department will want to investigate everything to be sure. Now, Ray could come out to the entire Chicago police department and see how much tolerance is actually out there, but even if the brass flies the rainbow flag for him, theyíre not gonna let you two stay together. They have this thing against involved couples of any gender partnering. They might also start looking into whether a Canadian Mountie should be riding along and getting shot at alongside one of their cops, no matter how successful the partnership has been."

Oh, God. And Ray had this look on his face.... "You foresaw these possibilities?" I asked him.

"I worry and wonder about things more than people realize," he said ruefully.

"Then thereís nothing to be done?" I asked.

"Didnít say that," Walker answered. "Things can be unofficially done. Camaraís not popular now, not with the 27 or even his own cronies and especially not with Lieutenant Welsh. He has the option now of making amends by working to show that heís not the type of shit who would let two cops die. Or he can continue being a shit, get shafted by Welsh and his fellow cops, and know that if he ever made any official-style complaints, almost everybody being interviewed by IA to corroborate his story would say that heís a cowardly bastard with an axe to grind. Heíd hurt you, but heíd hurt himself too. In fact, Shikatani was kind enough to tell him straight out that he better hope that Brandau and IA didnít start sniffing around Welsh for any reason because the whole 27th would figure heís responsible for it. Even the people who donít like you two together think Welsh is a damned fine guy and wouldnít want him to get in any trouble. So Camara has to just take it. Though he did snarl at me as he passed my desk that he would get me, and I snarled back what he could do with himself."

"What could he do with himself?" Ray asked with a smirk.

"Iím not sure I should say in front of a fine, upstanding fellow like Constable Fraser. Iím sure Fraser would tell me itís anatomically impossible anyway."

I felt glimmerings of hope for Rayís future wellbeing at the 27th, and Ray looked happier now as well. "Thank you, Walker."

She shrugged. "No problem. And a lot of people really like you guys. You have serious good will from the cops of the 27th, and they are pissed off in your name. Youíll see that tomorrow, Iím sure." Walker stood and put her glass down. "And now I have to say good night, guys. I have a late night dinner planned with somebody who may turn out to be significantly more than a friend given the right chance."

"Abandoning us?" Ray asked with a smile.

"I figure that being gut shot will prevent you from coming after me to check this guy out for me."

"Yeah, yeah."

Walker gripped his hand in a highly friendly manner. "ĎNight, Ray. ĎNight, Fraser."

Ray tried not to look concerned as I followed her to the door. I said, "Iím not going to kill her now, Ray."

Walker said, "Sure he wonít. It would be stupid killing me in your apartment. Very suspicious. So not now."

As I opened the door, I said, feeling her out, "You donít like to be called ĎRachel.í"

She smiled. "Never have. ĎWalkerí is fine when you donít sound so unhappy about it. See you tomorrow."

"Yes. And thank you."

When I closed the door and turned to Ray, I saw a very fond look on his face. He said, "You make me very happy, yíknow?"

"Then my life is complete," I answered.

"Then get over here and make me happier." Then Ray cursed as the phone rang.

I picked it up and answered, "Kowalski residence."

"Hello, Benton. I heard from Stella that my Stanley was injured, and I wanted to talk to him."

"Forgive me, Mrs. Kowalski. I--"

"Iím sure you tried your best. Youíre a good man. Stanleyís always been this way. Running into things recklessly. Even before he could walk. You should have seen him as a toddler. And please call me Barbara."

I watched Ray turn red on the couch, no doubt sensing that his mother was about to confide embarrassing secrets to me. "Please give me the phone," he said.

"Barbara, Iíll be handing you over to Ray now."

Ray took the receiver. "Yeah, Mum. Yeah, I got shot. I didnít tell you because I didnít want you there worrying. I love you. Itís not that bad. Painkillers suck. Yeah, Ben told them which ones Iím allergic to." Ray spent an extended time listening quietly. "Iím sorry. I just didnít want you or Dad to worry. I knew everything would be fine. I just wanted to get out of there. Yeah, Stella told me about DC." Another silence, then Ray put his hand over his eyes. I sat next to him, and he leaned against me. "Itís not like that with us anymore. Yeah, even if I will always love her. This is a good opportunity for her. Mum, I have Ben now. And he has me, though Iím not sure how good a deal that is. Iím not putting myself down. Humor, Mum, you know?" Ray smiled then, blindingly. "Yeah? You want us? Well, Iím going back to work tomorrow, so itíd have to be kinda late. At my desk, not on the street. Donít worry." Ray put his hand over the voice piece. "Mum would like us to come to dinner tomorrow night."

"I would be delighted to." Though I wondered what Rayís father would think, I found that the worry couldnít cloud the warmth her offer had given me. Or the warmth I felt that Ray had claimed me as his own to his mother.

"Heís good with it." Ray smiled, then said, "She wants to know what you eat."

"Anything will be fine. Truly. I donít want her to put herself out for my sake."

"Heís being martyrish, Mum, and wonít say. Donít worry about it. Heíll eat almost anything you put in front of him." Ray colored spectacularly, far beyond what I thought was possible for him. "Mum! I canít believe you said that! God, is Dad in the room? He is? He knows? He knows? Heís fine? Wow." Ray smiled. "But, no, donít you ever say anything dirty like that to me ever again. Never again, my heartíll give out if I hear any more. Itíll just stop in shock. Iím yer son, thatís why. Okay. Tomorrow at 7. I love you. Yes, Iíll take care of myself. Yeah, Beníll take care of me too, and donít even think of saying something dirty to that. What kind of example are you setting for me? I love you. Ben does too. ĎBye."

Once he set the phone down, I kissed his heated cheek. "What did your mother say?"

Ray squirmed and blushed harder. It was sweet. "Iím not gonna repeat it. Ever. But Dad knows about us and didnít stroke out. Mum had a lot to do with him accepting it, Iím sure."

I couldnít quite accept it yet; it hadnít sunk in. In any case, I wanted to play a little now. "Thatís wonderful, but I want to know the rest as well, and I have ways of making you talk."

"That you donít dare use at full throttle until Iím healed more."

"Dammit."

"Did you just swear? First Mum needing her mouth washed out with soap and now you. Am I in the land of the pod people or what?"

I carefully pulled him into my lap and nuzzled his neck. "Itís what you do to us."

"Iím one hell of a dangerous guy, then, ainít I?"



I walked into the 27th with as much spring in my step as the small hole in my gut let me. Walked in alone, with Fraser to follow sometime in the next hour. We figured it would be wiser.

A few folks stopped me in the halls to ask me how I was doing or tell me good morning. Peopleís attitudes ranged from happy to see me to friendly to cautious. Ray waved, and Shikatani smiled. I had the furtive notice of the whole room on me as I walked to my desk. I didnít like all the attention, but it didnít feel like hostile attention.

Frannie sat in my chair, coffee mug in hand. "Nice of you to stop by," she said.

"I work here."

She smiled and stood up. "Very true." Then handed me the coffee.

I grinned back and cradled the warm mug in my hands. "You didnít spit in it or anything, did ya?"

"Waste of good spit. Nah."

"Put my candies in?"

"Ew. No. I refuse to encourage that. See ya later." She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed, then left.

I sat at my desk, and the whole room seemed to relax a little. Normally Iíd get off on that kind of power. In other circumstances, I would.

As I put my M&Ms in my coffee for the added pick-me-up and started going through the paperwork on my desk, Welsh came up. "Welcome back, Detective. How are you doing?"

"Good to be back. And it only hurts when I stretch. Or breathe." Welsh was Welsh. Ever was, ever will be. Pillar of the universe.

Good guy.

"Youíll get used to it. And this will give you an opportunity to catch up on all the forms you let slide."

"Joy."

"Let me know if you need anything."

"Yessir."

"Then get to work. That goes for the rest of you too!"

I smiled as the whole room suddenly sounded much busier. The knot in my stomach started to loosen.

Then Ben and Dief came in about an hour later, and things stayed aggressively normal. Status quo since I came back, but it didnít feel quite so surreptitiously hostile now. People were beaming their hostility at Camara instead, who slunk around the office as if trying to avoid attention.

When Ray and Shikatani offered to buy us lunch, on our way out some people offered their best wishes on a speedy recovery. And they were totally sincere.

Things would be okay, I could tell. Not necessarily easy, but okay.

I could live with that.



As we walked up to the trailer, Ray kept fidgeting, then wincing. "Youíll reopen your wound," I said as I put a gentle, restraining hand on his shoulder. "Please calm down."

Ray adjusted the collar of his shirt. Weíd both dressed up a little for the dinner. "Dad is accepting us into his home as a couple. Supposedly. Not even being on painkillers can calm me down enough. God, I hope I donít say anything stupid that makes him change his mind."

"I doubt that will happen. In any case, you can blame it on the drugs."

"Yeah, that might work." He rocked up onto his toes a few times, then settled down and took a deep breath. "Letís get it on," he said as he rang the doorbell.

His mother opened the door immediately, as if sheíd been waiting nearby. "Stanley! Benton. Please come in."

After Ray hugged her, I bid her good evening and gave her the cake weíd brought. Then, to my surprise and pleasure, she hugged me and asked, "Benton! Why didnít you tell me you were hurt too?"

"Itís merely a flesh wound, Barbara." I sighed in a long-suffering manner as Ray snorted.

Rayís father stood up from his chair and faced us. "Hey, Dad," Ray said, looking utterly calm and unruffled.

"Glad you could make it, Raymond. ĎEvening, Constable."

"You could call me ĎBentoní if you wish, sir."

"Have a seat then, Benton."

We then commenced to have a quiet, if filling meal. Well, actually Rayís mother told a number of endearing stories about what Ray had been like as a child that threatened to send him fleeing the table. His father aided and abetted the process and passed me only a few, fleeting dark looks as we ate.

I could only presume that Barbara was an excellent cook, because I tasted little of the meal as I watched Ray. I wondered if his parents could see the nervousness underlying his smooth exterior as I did.

As Barbara cleared away the plates, Mr. Kowalski said, "It wasnít a good thing to make your mother and me have to guess it like that."

Ray let out a breath and finally relaxed, as if relieved to finally have this out. "I just got you back. I didnít want to lose you again so soon."

"Hmm. Well."

"I love you, Dad, but I saw what happened the last time you didnít approve of one of my lifestyle choices."

"I was a stubborn fool, Raymond. Donít look at me like that, Son. I can admit it. Youíve inherited it from me, so you know."

"Yeah." Ray seemed to have been rendered nearly speechless by his fatherís admission. His mother stood behind his chair and hugged him.

"I canít say that I fully approve of this, but I accept it. I donít want to lose you again either. And I see the way the two of you look at each other. Anyone can see it."

Rayís voice sounded soft and warm with feeling. "Thanks, Dad."

"I hope you know, Benton, that we expect you to treat our Raymond right."

"Iím afraid that youíd have to wait in line," I said. "Stella has already threatened me in the name of Rayís welfare."

"Youíre kidding me!" Ray said.

Mr. Kowalski chuckled. "That girl always did have spark. Welcome to the family, Benton. And feel free to bring your wolf next time if youíd like."

Barbara hugged me from behind, and Ray clasped my hand and grinned. But I somehow kept my voice steady as I said, "Thank you, sir. Thank you, Barbara."



As I walked up on Ray speaking with Walker, I started to catch their conversation. "How the hell did you become friends after that?" Ray asked. His rapidly healing wound and return to regular duty had put him in an almost ceaselessly exuberant mood that I loved to see.

"She was pretty good about me almost choking up a lung laughing, so we found a fairly quiet corner and talked for a few hours. Friendship ensued. As well as the ongoing effort to get into my pants," Walked answered. "Just let me know when and where, and she can get you in. Hey, Fraser."

If Iíd been Ray, I would have asked if sheíd just told Ray that the woman she spoke of could help him get into Walkerís pants. Being myself, I simply greeted her back. "Good day, Walker."

Ray had already focused his attention elsewhere. "Whatís Ren doing here?"

Walker shrugged. "Heís dating Frannie."

"No way. Go, Ren! Hey, wait a minute. Sheís my sister. He better be treating her right. And he didnít tell me. Whatís he hiding?"

"Renfield is a Mountie," I said. It might be a good match for the both of them.

"Yeah, and a good guy, but still. He better. Guys can be pigs. Wait a minute."

"Wait a minute again?" Walker asked.

"How do you know about this when I donít?"

"Better detective skills."

"Schyeah, right."

Walker curled a tendril of her hair around her finger in a coquettish fashion completely unlike her usual nature. "You ever hear of a thing called Ďgirl talkí? Jeez, Ray."

"You and Frannie. Talking?"

"We share a common language."

"On what planet?"

"Walker!" Lieutenant Welsh yelled. "My office! Now!"

"If you donít come back, Iíll tell yer next of kin what happened to ya," Ray said.

"Youíre too kind. See ya," Walker said as she waved and left.

For no reason I could see, Ray picked up the phone receiver, listened for a moment, then set it back down. "Weird. Nobody there."

"Ray, it didnít ring," I answered. Some of his eccentricities could still surprise me.

"No?"

"No."

Then the phone rang. Ray picked the receiver up and said, "27th, Detective Kowalski speaking. Yeah? On our way." He put it down. "We got a lead. I knew heíd call."

Although curiosity consumed me regarding his business with Walker, I said nothing to Ray about it, and he rewarded my forbearance with a sunny smile. Warmed, I smiled back.

He would tell me in his own good time.



Wrung out, cooling down, I grinned as Ben put his hand on my hip, somehow making sparks that shouldnít have been possible after everything weíd already done. Hadnít been this perpetually horny since I was a kid, but what choice did I have when I had Benton "All-You-Can-Eat Buffet" Fraser next to me most of the time? Working with him while trying to keep my hands off him could be torture sometimes.

Loved him so.

"I want to go out dancing. With you," I said. When he didnít immediately answer, I rambled, "Where I wanted to go isnít really yer kind of scene usually, but I thought you might find out that you like it, and you say you want me to share and all because we agree that partners is sharing, and I want to go out with you, you know?"

"Ray."

"Yeah?"

He had this look like a light bulb had gone on over his head. "Iím willing to try."

Wow. That was easy. "Oh. Thatís great. Thatís greatness." Then I had a bad thought. "And I donít want you to think I buttered you up with sex first to try to get you to say yes, because I didnít have any ulterior motives. I jumped and buttered you for jumping and buttering youís sake."

He put me out of my misery by kissing me. Okay, he didnít seem to mind me asking him to go out dancing. When his hand strayed, I realized that he really didnít mind me asking him to go out dancing.



Ray showed an endearing excitement about going out dancing with me, so much so that he was charmingly manic and grinned at everything. As often happened, he infected everyone around him with it. When he grabbed Walker by the arm and asked, "Can she swing it for tonight?" Walker smiled back and said sheíd see.

A few moments later, Walker returned. "Yeah, you have a go. Metropol. Probably be best if you arrived around 11. Bypass the line, go straight up to the doorman, and tell him that youíre Ray and Benton on Maxís list. Thatíll get you right in. I may show up myself sometime tonight. Donít worry, Fraser, Iím not gonna stick to you guys."

Not that Iíd want her around us all the time, but she hardly had to exile herself. "Actually, Walker, I donít mi--"

Detective Shikatani walked up, saying, "So this is where you went to hide."

"Hide?" Walker asked, blatantly offended. "Iím doing a favor for a friend here. With that done, I totally intended to come back and teach you the error of your ways."

"Itís brawling on ice."

"One, whatís wrong with brawling? Two, it is not. Itís a sport of speed, grace, strategy, and teamwork."

"What is the argument?" I asked.

"Shikatani hates the noble sport of hockey," Walker answered. "He likes tennis. Iíve resigned myself to being the only member of this partnership who has a Y chromosome."

"I have so many possible and obvious retorts to that that Iím not even going to bother," Shikatani said.

Walker considered for a moment, then winced. "Ow. And ow." She put her hand to her chest as if trying to cover a stab wound. "And I thought you were more of a gentlemen than that. Stop, please, Shikatani, I canít take another one of your sharp-edged ripostes."

"You thought wrong."

"You two are deeply strange," Ray said with a smirk.

"I simply distrust any sport where most of the players are missing their teeth."

"Uh-oh," Ray said. "You just impugned one of the major Canadian sports in front of a Mountie. What were you thinking? You gonna let him get away with that, Fraser?"

"Iím marshalling my thoughts. I fear that I would fail to be polite otherwise," I answered.

"Have you ever actually played hockey, Takeshi?" Walker asked.

"Have you?" I had to ask, curious.

"Hell, yeah."

Ray coughed and muttered, "Highsticker," behind his hand.

"Itís not high sticking if nobody catches you. Besides, itís just as effective sometimes to beat the crap out of another playerís calves and ankles. I played a mean defense."

"With an accent on the Ďmean.í"

Walker stuck her tongue out at my Ray. "If you want sports that are really brawling, you have to look at football and boxing."

Before the discussion degenerated completely, I said, "Hockey is a noble sport, Detective Shikatani. I could explain its merits to you."

"Thank you, Fraser, but no thank you," Shikatani said. "I know when Iím outnumbered and canít win. Maybe Walker and I could go solve some cases."

"You are such a spoilsport," Walker said. "Later, guys."

As they left, I thought to myself that Walker and Shikatani made an odd looking pair, with the top of his head only coming to her shoulder. Yet they seemed to work well enough together. I remember Ray saying that neither his partner nor Walkerís partner at the 23rd had understood them, making me wonder if Shikatani understood her. Making me wonder what life had been like for Ray as Detective Stan Bernsteinís misunderstood partner. Perhaps Ray had other reasons to be thankful that Iíd come into his life.

Ray said, "Donít you like her a little bit better now that you know sheís a hockey fan and player?"

With my distrust and jealousy cooling to ashes, I could see her merits. "Donít push," I said lightly, knowing full well that Ray rarely pushed where Walker was concerned.

"Push? Me? Nah. Just trying to get you to be truthful."

"Iím always truthful."

"Yeah, but somehow you do that evading thing real well." He smiled and shook his head. "Never mind. We got crooks to catch."



"It doesnít sit right with me," I said as we walked past the long line of hopeful people.

"Itís proper preparation at work, Ben. We looked into it ahead of time and got invited. Theyíre trying to do that now. We prepared, they didnít." Ray looked back and smiled at me again, making my breath catch. He hadnít let me watch him get dressed, and Iíd realized why when, finished, heíd come out in tight black and with his eyes softly lined with kohl. Only willpower and knowing how much he wanted to go out had stopped me from pouncing upon him.

Though heíd noticed and appreciated my struggle. And shared it, apparently, since his eyes had lingered over my own ensemble of black T-shirt and blue jeans so tight that looking at him became a masochistic affair from the effect he had on my cock.

With perfect arrogance Ray grabbed my arm, walked right up to the doorman, and said, "Ray and Benton on Maxís list."

The man flipped through the papers on his clipboard before saying, "I have you," and letting us through the line. Ray waved merrily at the people weíd bypassed.

When the door opened the sound and bass hit me like a wall, so loud I could feel them. I swam through air thick with scents, so many I had difficulties separating and identifying them. Yet I felt a kind of electric excitement in the atmosphere, and not all of it came from Ray, who vibrated beside me. The tight-knit crowd intimidated me a bit, seeing as how more people crowded this space than Iíd see in ten years in the Northwest Territories. Too many people.

"Urban explorers, remember?" Ray shouted into my ear.

I couldnít help smiling back.

"Ray!" a woman yelled as she slipped through the crowd. I got an impression of tight black leather and bare shoulders and arms, then a blinding smile.

"Max!" Ray yelled back. "Thanks for getting us in. This is my sig-o, Constable Benton Fraser."

"Pleased to meet you," she said to me. "Iím glad to meet the man who made Ray completely impervious to my flirting. I totally get it now."

"Indeed." What else could I say to that?

Ray asked her, "Did you really introduce yerself to Ray by saying, ĎIf you ever get tired of the dick, Iíll treat you rightí?"

Max coughed. "Her then-boyfriend was an asshole. Trust me. Sizing up the other women in the club like he was at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Right in front of her face. She was cute, and I was buzzed and thinking it was a cleverer line than it was. Give me a break. Besides, it broke the ice, we chatted for the rest of the night, and weíre still friends now. Seems like I didnít do too badly for myself." A woman in sparkling eye makeup and a short dress and tall boots made of thin purple latex walked up to Max and shouted into her ear. Max smiled. "Have to go. Meet and greet. Iím working, you know. Nice meeting you, Benton. Ciao, boys!"

Ray pulled me further into the crowd, his body already moving to the beat along with everyone else. Thus, he slid between dancers easily, while I found myself apologizing to a number of people. They often reacted in too friendly a manner for Rayís tastes, because he would come up close to them and tell them I was already taken before leading me away.

"Thereís a propulsion in the music," he shouted over the roar and thunder. "Like itís the thrill of the chase. You just feel it and track it down. You forget about everybody else, focus in hard, and listen to what yer bodyís telling you. No rules for this kind of dancing."

With everyone packed in so closely that someone brushed me at every move I make, it would be difficult to ignore them. But I could feel the momentum he spoke of. I nodded.

"And donít be so serious!" he said with a big grin before he pulled himself up close against me, rubbing a bit, getting an immediate response. "Think of it as being like sex." Then he slid back, though I caught his arm before he could leave me completely bereft.

He flicked a saucy look down at my hand on his wrist, then started to dance. "Partner me!" he shouted.

Feeling a bit silly, I tried to match him. Tried, because Ray seemed to have fewer bones than I did, making him more fluid. He also possessed far fewer inhibitions.

Eventually I started to anticipate the rhythm and beat myself and saw how he reacted to them to mirror him. "Youíre working too hard, thinking too hard," he mouthed at me as he stroked my arms before launching off again. Ray had an ecstatic and somewhat dazed look in his eyes whenever he caressed me with his gaze, and I saw that this was like sex to him. He listened to the music with his body and reacted accordingly. Watching the lights strobe colors through his pale hair, watching him move as if in foreplay, made it easier to listen to my own body, which became ever more insistent about what it wanted. It wanted to move with him.

The next song was even faster, but I started to keep up with him, melting into the beat and his touches, the rush and the crush of people dancing around us as if we were part of some larger organism. The heat and press of the anonymous crowd and Ray stimulated me. The opposite of sensory deprivation, yet it had a similar effect. I let my hands roam over the damp black cotton of the shirt that now clung to him and the harder denim of his jeans, stroking, cupping. He purred, inaudible to me at the moment but discernible as a rumble through my fingers, and pushed against me.

It felt so good. He felt so good.

Highly public foreplay, and no one cared. They were too involved themselves.

I was losing myself in this, and I didnít care. There was only Ray and the next move.



I lost track of time, and I think Ben did too. I just moved and let the lust build and build and build. He burned me alive with his gaze, and his jeans had to be uncomfortable he was so hard. God, he looked hot. He sure as hell didnít move like a stick now.

His hand finally settled on my waistband. "We have to go," I gasped into his ear as I bucked against him.

Ben nodded once, shortly, and grabbed my arm. We rushed across the floor, and Ben had taken to dancing so well that he sort of danced between people on his way out instead of having to push through. I had to stop watching his ass, because Iíd never make it if I did.

We almost ran into Ray and her date as they danced. She blew us a kiss and pulled her guy out of our way. Part of me hoped that Ben had noticed how she dressed when she truly wanted to look like a slut, just to reinforce an old point, but I mostly had other things on my mind.

The doorman seemed to give us an amused look as if we walked out, but, again, I had more important things on my mind. I had Ben on my mind. The cool night air smacked my sweaty body down to my bones, but it didnít matter when I felt so hot on the inside.

God, it was taking too long to get to my car. "Alley?" I asked half-seriously.

He actually considered it for a moment. Iíd made him that crazy. This was gonna be good. Probably fast too, if he was anywhere near as ready to bust his jeans as I was, but good.

When we reached my car, I wanted so badly to take him in the backseat, but I just wasnít acrobatic enough to get what I wanted that way. I shoved my key into the ignition and peeled out of the spot.

"Weíre going home," I said, probably not making much sense. I mean, duh, weíre going home. So I clarified. "I want you to fuck me. No, I need you to fuck me."

I could hear Ben breathe in, it was so loud. "As you wish."

"I do. I really do."

I shouldíve gotten a speeding ticket, though at least I held the line at running the lights no matter how deserted the streets were. We had to get home. I couldnít stand being in the car with him sitting beside me, his heat radiating out at me. I thought I could hear his heart pound.

I did a half-assed job of parking, though still within what was legal and wouldnít get the GTO smashed by anybody driving by, and bolted up the steps, Ben on my tail. If only that were literally so. To my great relief, I remembered how to use my keys correctly. But even with the craziness and the aching with lust bits, I was having fun with the race and chase. Ben would probably figure itís just craziness.

Then again, right now he didnít seem to mind being crazy.

I was laughing when Ben grabbed me and kicked the door shut behind us. I only stopped laughing when he started to devour my mouth, his hands on my ass pressing me to him.

He bucked as I unzipped his jeans. "Now, want you now," I panted.

He growled in response, then pulled my jeans and briefs down, leaving me bare to the air and with my ankles hobbled. I heard cloth tear a little, but it just revved me hotter. I bent over the kitchen island invitingly, with my naked ass out and begging for it. Aching for it. I still had my leather jacket on. Imagining how I must look to Ben made me even harder.

My heart pounding, I heard cloth and leather whisper and rustle, then felt something blunt and coolly slick enter me. Maybe... maybe two fingers. I jerked and fought not to blow my wad already, since I was so close and dripping. Wanting more, I wiggled and pushed back, a slut for the burn and perfection of it. I groaned as Ben hit my sweet spot and worked it.

I could feel myself hitting the edge from that tingle in my spine and the weight in my balls. "I canít-- Ben, you have to do it now...."

The fingers went out, and he went in with one long, clean thrust that buried him in me to his balls. I came and kept on coming as he plunged in and out, pushing me across the Formica, friction inside and out, one hand around my cock and the other bunching in my jacket. I could hear the whispering sound of his body rubbing against the leather. "Ray," he moaned and nipped the back of my neck, a starburst of sensation. And I was gone, with one last shudder of a riptide that emptied my body. When I came out of the blackout, I floated and purred as his familiar weight rode me for a while longer, with him calling my name on each thrust until he let go totally.

"So," I finally asked, my voice low and throaty, almost gasping, "clubbing agrees with you?"

"I must admit that the city... has some amenities the Territories lack," Ben panted against my neck, kissing me.

"Ya think?" I answered, grinning like a lunatic.



"And the end of all our searching shall be to return to the place
where we started and know it for the first time."

-- T.S. Eliot


Ray left my side to gingerly venture out onto the ice. "I have to get back into skating trim for this game," he said. "No way Iím gonna fall on my ass in front of that many people."

"Letting the team down would suck too," Walker said as she skated in a figure eight nearby.

"At least Iíll be out there, which is more than we can say for yer Chicken Little, Ďitís a brawl, not a sportí partner, and I can still kick yer ass on skates."

As she skated backward away from him, she said, "Weíre on the same team, remember? 27th district? Youíre not supposed to be kicking my ass. Still, at least I have an ass to kick. Unlike some people whose names I wonít mention even as Iím talking to Ďem."

"Not when Iím done with you." Ray launched off from the wall after her.

"Have an ass? Mention your name? Make up your mind!" Walker shouted back as she dashed away.

Walkerís friend, Max, and I watched them race around the rink. "If only we could harness that energy, we might be able to replace oil, gas, and electric as power sources," Max said as she tied her right boot. "Governments would rise and fall, and the whole global order would change.

At least she could joke. I occasionally had to remind myself that the barrage of insults meant they liked one another. They sometimes sounded like the bitterest enemies, but the smirks and laughing light in their eyes gave them away. Given a chance, would Maggie and I create a similar brother/sister relationship for ourselves? Perhaps Iíd find out in three weeks. It would be good to see her again.

I watched Ray try to put Walker into a chokehold. I hoped Maggie and I wouldnít bond quite like that.

I worried sometimes about how well Ray would do back in Canada during our trip--even if it would be in September, well before the snows, taking one difficulty off the list of possibilities--but the last three months here had been good to him, even with some of the difficulties weíd faced from his fellow officers. He seemed steadier, balanced, yet he still moved, hadnít become inert, as I sometimes felt myself to be. No, that wasnít quite right. I couldnít describe it; all I knew was that he seemed strong and happy, and what more could I ask?

"Iím surprised theyíre letting you be on the 27thís team," Max said.

"Itís for charity, and I seem to be considered an unofficial member." Some of the detectives persisted in harassing me and Ray over our "lifestyle choice," but the majority didnít care as long as we didnít physically express affection in front of them in the workplace, which suited me anyway. A few were actively supportive. Having the lieutenant on our side certainly helped, as did his swift punishment of unprofessional behavior.

But I wouldnít have been able to bear knowing what Ray faced if I werenít usually with him to watch his back. I hoped the animosity wouldnít mar this charity game as well, since one of the worst offenders would be part of our teamís defense. Not Camara, though, thank God. Heíd been quiet since the Lieutenant had disciplined him, but Ray and I felt that he simply bided his time.

Yet Ray would not back down and, seeing as how I was pot to his kettle, I couldnít ask him to.

"I know that. I meant because youíre Canadian," Max said.

Usually I would politely but firmly decry that as a stereotype, but I did skate and play hockey well, and I was off duty anyway. "I believe that the 20th was promised some compensatory thing to make up for it. Iím not aware of the details."

In the distance, Francesca squealed, "Rennie!" I heard laughter and turned to watch Renfield and Francesca. He looked quite happy with the deathgrip she had on his arm as he tried to guide her across the ice, and she looked very pleased herself.

Heíd opted not to return to Canada after all, saying that he loved Francesca and was needed here. In any case, he said, he had a strange feeling that heíd be hit by a bus back home. Having learned not to challenge his judgment on such statements, Iíd said nothing.

It made me feel petty to be so jealous of the odd bond that had formed between Renfield and my Ray from the abilities they shared. Ray knew he could talk to Ren about issues I wouldnít understand. No matter the difficulties I saw them have, I wanted it for myself, just to be closer to Ray.

Rayís oddness had abated a bit. He still had some truly wild hunches that turned out to be true, but his hunches werenít 100% reliable, so we pursued nothing without gaining evidence as well, as usual. He often knew that the phone would ring half a minute before it did and sometimes who was calling, though heíd missed numerous calls in the beginning from picking up the phone too soon before he figured out what was going on. Rayís ability to anticipate when streetlights would turn green had increased, something he took shameless advantage of. Other people could dismiss such incidents as luck or Rayís eccentric self, and he seemed to be fine with that.

However, his abilities had ruined the game of poker for him. At first heíd learned to throw a few games simply so people would continue to play with him, but knowing everyone elseís discards had taken all the fun of playing away.

Seeing something happening on the ice, Max yelled, "Children, play nice!" Ray and Walker flew through the crowd, weaving between people, at high speed, yet somehow disturbed no one. Max asked me, "How do you deal with those two at once without going gray?"

"Who says I havenít?" I answered with my blandest expression.

Max snorted and shook her head.

Adaptable as ever, Ray skated and roughhoused on the ice as if born to it. I suspected that he wasnít as out of practice as heíd claimed to be. He put his arms out and started to spin in what appeared to be a slowly contracting spiral, his revolutions matching Walkerís rhythmic claps of encouragement. He didnít always maintain perfect control of his movement, but the occasional wobble didnít seem to detract from his obvious happiness. Then he noticed me watching and gave me an incandescent smile.

This was why I had stayed.

Max raised an eyebrow at me, shook her head, then glided out onto the ice. I followed to join Ray.

"Shake yer moneymaker, Ben!" Ray shouted as he did a sinuous wiggle of his own.

"I donít see why youíd call it a Ďmoneymaker.í I dare say I never made a profit from it," I called back.

He flew up behind me and whispered, "You could. Iíd pay for it if I werenít already getting it for free," before darting out of reach again.

"I think I was misled into coming here. You donít seem to need a refresher at all."

"No harm in a little practice. Proper prep, ya know? Besides, I thought you might like to do some skating, and I like it, so why not? So, is it happy-making for you?"

"Itís not quite the same skating indoors in the summer. No sharply fresh air or sunlight glinting off the ice."

He saw that I was simply being ridiculous and was ridiculous in response. "Would it help if I got you a fan and a flashlight?"

"This does make me happy, Ray."

Ray smiled. "Thatís what I like to hear." Then he flitted in to ruffle my hair out of order, whispered "Love you," into my ear, and darted away, shouting back, "Chase me!" in a daffy, familiar accent not his own.

He would empathize with Pinky. "Iím cutting off your cartoon watching privileges," I said as I gave chase. Making sure that we presented no danger to other skaters first, of course, though I noticed Ray doing that as well.

"Ooooh, threats. Howíre you gonna make it stick, Mountie boy?"

"Stand still, and Iíll show you."

He just laughed and zigzagged away.

"Should I slow him down on his next go-round?" Walker asked as I raced past.

"Not at all. I can handle him."

"Prove it!" my Ray said.

I would catch him on my own because he wanted to be caught.

I first came to Chicago on the trail of my fatherís killers. I chose to remain--for very important reasons--but lately from being so attached to my Ray, who had become my home.

Put more simply, I came to Chicago out of love and my sense of justice.

I chose to stay for the same reasons.

 

**********************THE END***********************


Author's Notes