(many thanks to YeungMaiSu for this wonderful image!)

Many thanks and much love to my wonderful beta quartet: C.L. Finn, Sihaya Black, Kellie Matthews, and AuKestrel. Additional thanks to Rowan, who's had to listen to me yap about this story for months now.

(Potential spoilers for anything before "Hunting Season")

If It Walks Like A Duck . . .
by Beth H.
(c) December 2001

* * * * *

"Sara? We're in the living room, honey. Come in and join us; dinner won't be ready for half an hour yet."

I hang my jacket in the hall closet - although if this were my own place, I'd just toss it on the nearest patch of visible floor - then go in to say hi to Mom and whoever she's got over for the evening.

"Oh my God!"

The words are out before I remember how pissed Mom still gets when I take the Lord's name in vain. Luckily for me, she's too pleased with herself at having sprung her little surprise to scold me like she usually does about the bad habits she thinks I picked up when I moved away from home.

"I see you haven't forgotten Barbara and Damian."

My mother, the comedian. I drop my bag onto the La-Z-Boy and go over to hug the Kowalskis.

"Not much chance of Sara forgetting us, Helen," Damian says, wrapping his arms tightly around me. "She spent more time at our house than Raymond did when they were kids."

Barbara scoots a little closer to her husband on the sofa and pats the seat cushion. When I sit beside her, she takes my hand in her own and beams at me. There's no one like Barbara Kowalski for making you feel wanted, even if it can get a little embarrassing sometimes, like when she used to drop Ray and me off for school in sixth grade and wouldn't let us out of the car until we'd both given her a kiss right in front of all the other kids. Honestly, I didn't mind that much, but Ray used to turn seven shades of red and then spend the next five minutes glaring at anyone who even thought about smiling in his direction.

"What are you guys doing here? I thought you'd moved to New Mexico or something."

"Arizona, honey," Barbara says. "We've been living down there for years now, but what with the divorce and now with this odd undercover assignment, well . . . we thought Stanley might like to have his family near by."

What divorce? What undercover assignment? I glance over at my mom, but she just gives me one of her patented "I know I told you this" looks that never have much to do with whether she really told me anything or not.

Okay, I have to ask. "Divorce?"

Barbara tsks in Mom's general direction, then looks back at me. "Didn't you know, dear? Stanley and Stella divorced almost two years ago. They both say it was for the best, but they were such a lovely couple. I still can't believe it."

I notice Damian shifting a little uncomfortably on the other end of the sofa. I'll bet he wasn't as sorry to see that marriage end as his wife must have been. Barbara always loved Stella, but Damian never quite got what his son saw in her. Of course, there was a whole lot about Ray he never got, especially the wanting to be a cop thing.

"I'm sorry their marriage ended," I say, because I know that's what's expected, and I suppose I am sorry. A little. I'm with Damian when it comes to Stella. Oh, she was always nice enough to me, even in junior high, but . . . oh well, water under the bridge now, I guess. Ray was crazy about her, and so I'm sorry for his sake that things didn't work out in the end.

Some throat clearing from Damian's corner. "We heard that you and . . . what was his name? Ian? We heard you just broke up this year, too."

"Damian. Honestly."

"What? What did I say? It's not a state secret, is it?"

I smile. Same old Kowalskis. "It's Liam, and it's okay; I don't mind talking about him, really. Yeah, I just got the final divorce decree last month." Barbara squeezes my hand, and I squeeze back. "Come on, Barbara, I'm not upset about it. Sometimes things just aren't meant to be, you know?"

"Well, I'm just glad you moved back here. A girl needs to be with her mother at a time like this."

I decide there's no point in telling them that the real lure here in Chicago was the segment producer's job at WCGO and not the opportunity to cry on Mom's shoulder, and just nod instead. Mom gets up to check on the pot roast that I can smell cooking in the kitchen, but before she leaves the room, she says "Tell Sara about Ray's new job, Barbara."

This must be the undercover role that she'd mentioned before. Must be some weird kind of undercover assignment if his parents can talk about it with their friends.

Barbara sighs. "I'm not sure I really understand it myself. Our Stanley's still a detective, but he's using a different name now and working in a different district."

"Ray's not at the 18th anymore? Okay, that explains why I couldn't track him down when I tried to call the other day. But how can he be undercover and still working at a police station?"

Damian gets up and walks over to stare into the fish tank. "Never did understand anything about the boy's job," he mutters, then turns back to face us. "And can someone explain why he has to be Italian on top of everything else?"

"He's pretending to be Italian?"

Barbara nods. "He's pretending to be another detective while that detective . . . well . . . I don't think he ever told us what that other detective was doing, did he, Damian?"

"No. It all sounds pretty crazy if you ask me."

"I'm just grateful that if Stanley has to work undercover, at least he isn't doing one of those awful undercover jobs you see on television shows - the kind where he'd be in danger every week."

Now it's my turn to pat Barbara's hand. She's always been proud of the work Ray's done as a cop, but I know that she's always been worried about him, too, and just thinking about the possibility of him getting hurt is enough to make her nervous.

Damian shakes his head. "He's fine, Barbara. You've got to stop fretting about him so much. He's a grown man."

"Don't you tell me I can't worry about my own son, Damian Kowalski."

I stifle a laugh. Hell hath no fury as a mother whose baby is being threatened. Damian quickly changes the subject just as Mom comes back into the room. "You know what? I'll bet Ray'd like it if you dropped by the station and said hello now that you're back in the city."

"What a wonderful idea!" Mom says excitedly. "You're not working tomorrow afternoon, are you Sara?"

Damian and Barbara are both looking way too happy about this, and it's giving me a weird sense of deja vu. Sure, I want to see Ray, but the last thing I need is for the parents to all get going again with the whole "wouldn't it be nice if . . ." thing that they've been laying on the two of us since we were in kindergarten.

"We'll see," I mumble, while three pairs of eyes gaze hopefully at me. "So, um . . . Mom . . . let me get dinner on the table, okay?" I escape to the kitchen.

Despite my private vow not to do anything to encourage false parental expectations, the following day I find myself looking up the address of the 27th district and discover that it's within walking distance of my new office. Well, walking distance if you're in training for the Olympics or something. I leave the station and hop in a cab.

Halfway there, I start wondering if this was a dumb idea, if maybe I should have called or something first, but by the time I decide it's definitely a dumb idea and I should have called first, I'm there in front of the station house and paying the driver.

As soon as I get inside, I spot a desk sergeant who looks like she's halfway to falling asleep, quite a feat considering the chaos she's theoretically overseeing. I approach the counter - somehow keeping a straight face when I tell her I'm looking for Detective Ray Vecchio - and the first thing the sergeant does is look down at my chest. Confused, I follow her gaze and see that I have my press i.d. still clipped to my jacket. I toy with the idea of telling her I'm not here on official business, but before I can say anything, she hands me some kind of day pass, gives me a vague idea of how to find the Major Crimes division, and shoos me away so that she can turn her attention back to whatever gripping activity was putting her to sleep a moment ago.

I find the squad room without too much trouble and walk in, hoping Ray's not going to be too hard to recognize after . . . wow, it's been more than seven years since we last saw each other. I suppose he could have changed. People do change.

"Hey! Knowles!" a familiar voice yells from across the room. Okay, Ray Kowalski doesn't change.

I smile and turn around. "Hey! Vecchio!"

I grin wider as he stops in his tracks, confused for a second when the name 'Vecchio' comes out of my mouth. Then he just shakes his head, grins back at me, and takes the last few steps until he's right there in front of me, lifting me up in a big bear hug.

Of course, I pretend to hate it. I've always pretended to hate it when he does that.

God, it's good to see Ray again. If it weren't for a few lines in his face that weren't there last time I saw him, I'd swear the guy had a portrait of Dick Clark aging somewhere up in an attic - he's looking that good.

Of course, one reminder of the geek I knew and loved back when we were little kids is peeking out from under his grown-up coolness. He's got on a pair of thick black-framed glasses just like the kind he had to wear all through grade school and junior high. The kind he swore he'd never wear again. At least this doesn't have masking tape and safety pins holding it together.

I take a step back and check him out. "Looking good, Ray."

"Yeah?" He blushes a little at that. "Shirt's not too Grizzly Adams? I had to borrow one of Fraser's this morning after the wolf covered me with Eau de Dead Squirrel."

"A wolf?"

"Don't ask. You'll meet him. So, you want a drink or something?"

I nod. He steers me into the break room, where he grabs a packet of hot chocolate mix out of a box on the shelf and stirs it into a mug of hot water. It's a big sacrifice on his part, since he's always gagged at even the mention of mini marshmallows.

We sit down - me with my hot chocolate and Ray with some coffee - and just look at each other for a minute.

"Vecchio, huh?"

"Yeah. I guess you saw the folks." Ray looks down at the scarred table top and taps his fingers against the edge of his coffee mug.

"Last night. Your mom called my mom to say they were back in town, and she had them over to dinner. They're living in a camper?"

Ray looks up at me and grins, then shakes his head. "Parents are weird." The grin fades. "Um . . . they tell you anything else?"

I sigh. "They told me everything else, you big dope. Why didn't you let me know you and Stella split up? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay."

I raise my eyebrows and look at him a little skeptically. "Really?"

"Yes, mother. Seriously, Sara, it was rough for a while, and I was sort of a dork about the whole thing, but I'm good now."

He looks like maybe he means it. I reach over and ruffle his spiky hair. "Okay, that's cool. I wouldn't want to have to track The Stella down and kick her ass."

Ray laughs. "You wouldn't have to do much tracking. She's working in the State's Attorney's office these days." He gets up and takes our mugs to the sink and rinses them out. "She's here at the station usually two, three times a week."

"Jesus. How's that working out?"

He sits down next to me and leans back, tilting the front legs of the chair off the floor. "Not bad. I think we're both pretty much over it. Well . . . at least we're talking again."

I'm still not entirely convinced that he's not trying to make it sound better than it is, but he doesn't really seem unhappy or anything, so I just let it go."

"So, uh . . . Stella told me you and Liam split up."

Okay, that's a surprise. The idea that Stella even remembers who I am, to say nothing of knowing my marital status floors me for a minute, until I remember how friendly she and Barbara used to be. "Your mom and Stella are still talking, huh?"

Ray nods. "Yeah. Me, I'm usually left out of the gossip loop. Must be a chick thing."

Evidently I'm just as much out of the gossip loop as he is. I guess Mom thinks I'm not sufficiently "chickish" to need regular updates. Most of the time, she's right about that, but I still can't believe she didn't tell me about Ray and Stella.

Ray stares hard at me. "So? Talk, already!"

Ooh. Big scary cop and his big scary interrogation techniques. I smile. "I'm good, Ray. Liam sucks, but I'm good."

I can tell Ray isn't really any more convinced that I'm okay than I was about him, but the truth is, I am. Having to give up the house in San Francisco was sort of a wrench, but other than that, everything's going pretty great, or will be as soon as I get a place of my own and out from under Mom's too-watchful eye. I don't care how old you get - whenever you're around your parents, you turn back into an eight year old.

We get up and head back to Ray's desk. "So listen," I say. "You finishing up soon? Want to go grab something to eat?"

He looks down at his watch. "Yeah, that sounds good. I just need to get a hold of Fraser and . . . uh huh, like clockwork, here he is."

Ray smiles as an absolutely gorgeous man walks over to join us. Dark, dark hair, smoky blue eyes, leather jacket, and a pair of faded blue jeans that hug a totally great pair of legs.

"Fraser, Sara Knowles, an old friend of mine. She just moved back to Chicago. Sara, my, uh, partner, Benton Fraser."

There's just the smallest pause before Ray's . . . partner? . . . takes the hand I've extended to him. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am." Whoa. A little formal for someone who's hanging out with Ray.

Ray snorts and mutters "ma'am" under his breath. I punch him on the arm, then turn back to face his friend. "Just call me Sara, um . . . was it Fraser?"

Again there's a brief pause before he answers me, or maybe I'm just imagining it because Ray doesn't look like there's anything weird about the way the guy's acting.

"Please, call me Benton . . . Sara." I see Ray nodding a little out of the corner of my eye, sort of like he's a football coach and his star player just scored a touchdown. I wonder if maybe the guy's just shy.

"Good to meet you too, Benton. So, have you been working as a detective for long?"

Ray casually slips his arm around Benton's shoulder and answers for him. "Nah. Fraser's not a detective. He's Canadian. Works as a liaison officer over at the Canadian Consulate."

Okay. I'm thoroughly confused. I'm sure Ray said Benton was his partner. I look from Ray to Benton and back again and then . . . duh! Ray's still standing there with his arm around his extremely gorgeous friend and all of a sudden, I feel like a complete moron.

They're not partners. They're partners!

The thought of The Stella replaced by a guy cracks me up. Wonder what she thinks about this? I guess my amusement must show on my face because Ray frowns a little and tilts his head to one side the way he always used to do when he was trying hard to figure something out in school.

Ray glares at me a little. "What?"

"Nothing that I'm going to share with you," I say, laughing.

"You're a freak, you know that, don't you, Knowles?"

"No, you're the freak . . . Vecchio."

"Yeah? Well, you were a freak first."

"You're a bigger freak!"

We're both gasping with laughter at this point. Ray's co-workers have pretty much stopped working entirely and are staring in our direction, which just makes us laugh harder. Even Ray's way-too-serious boyfriend cracks a smile. "Might I suggest we find another venue to continue this intellectual discussion?"

Ray barks out another laugh and wipes tears from his eyes. "I take it back, Knowles. He's the freak."

All three of us are laughing by the time we walk out of the squad room.

* * *

When we get to the car, Sara and Fraser start doing the "Oh, I couldn't . . . .Please, I insist" dance about who's going to get in the front seat. After about two minutes of this, I start to wish we had Dief along with us. I'd put him in the front seat and save us all from starving while the two of them polite each other to death.

I could've told Sara there was no way she was going to win a politeness contest with Fraser, and sure enough, the next thing I know is she's in the front with me, and Fraser's fastening his seat belt in the back.

Sara asks if Montague's is still open, and when I say I think so, she asks if we can go there to eat - her treat. I can see Fraser looking a little worried in the rear view mirror, like maybe he thinks she's forgotten he's there.

"Ray, perhaps you could drop me off at the Consulate on your way to the restaurant."

Sara turns around to face Fraser. "No way, Benton! You've got to come along. I'll bet Ray hasn't taken you to Montague's yet, has he?"

Fraser shakes his head, and Sara turns back as though that settles it. "Montague's was like our 'special occasion' place when we were kids. My folks took us there when I had my first piano recital . . . ."

I snort at the scary memory of that day, and Sara glares in my direction before she continues. "Ray's mom and dad brought us there when we graduated from sixth grade. That kind of thing."

"And tonight?" Fraser asks tentatively.

"Seeing Ray again . . . and meeting you, of course. That'd be enough of a special occasion all on its own." She turns around again for a second to wink at Fraser. When I glance in the mirror, he's gone a little pink with embarrassment, but he looks pleased, too.

As we walk into Montague's it's hard to believe I haven't been in the place for almost twenty years. Maybe they've given it a fresh coat of paint or two since I was there last, but apart from that it looks exactly the same way I remember it looking. Same long-suffering expressions on the faces of the waitresses, same red vinyl seat covers, and even the same little jukeboxes in each of the booths.

We find an empty booth over by the back wall. Sara slides into one side and puts her big leather bag on the seat next to her. Fraser and I take the other side of the booth, me first so I can check out the music. I figure it's going to be nothing except boybands and Britney Spears now, but when I look at the titles it's like a time warp. I guess nobody had time to change the selections since 1980.

Sara pushes a couple of quarters at me. "Come on, Kowalski. Find us some tunes." I punch in a few numbers. The Police, Blondie, even find an old Roy Orbison song in there for Fraser in case twenty year old music is still too 'new wave' for him.

When the waitress comes to the table, we all end up ordering burgers. Fraser asks for a salad as well, and I figure 'what the hell' and add one to my order too, which has Sara snickering at me from across the table.

"What?" I ask, a little defensively. "I can't eat something healthy?"

Sara laughs. "This from a kid who wanted to run away from home the day his mom served spinach at lunch. I came over to play three hours later and he was still crying about being tortured."

I feel myself turning red, then Fraser launches into some story from his own childhood about being trapped up a tree all night by a muskox, with nothing to eat but bark, and pretty soon Sara's reduced to helpless giggles. It's obvious she thinks Fraser's a pretty funny guy, and that's funny ha-ha, not funny weird. I mean, he is weird, but it's cool that Sara seems to like that weirdness.

The waitress brings our food. Sara tries to swipe one of my cucumber slices when she thinks I'm not looking, but I swat at her hand and she laughs.

Fraser watches the exchange and then makes a really blatant display of turning around to face away from the table. He hums something to himself - 'O Canada,' I think - and Sara, who gets right away that he's . . . wow . . . trying to play, does her part by slipping a piece of cucumber off his plate.

He turns back to the table and looks down at his salad, then at Sara. "Hmm."

She laughs again, and we settle down to the serious business of eating.

The whole night's good like that. The dinner conversation's pretty much all "Remember when . . . ?" between Sara and me, and I worry a couple times whether Fraser's feeling left out, but he seems to like hearing all this 'memory lane' stuff, for some reason. He's even got a bunch of stories of his own to contribute. Nothing new about Fraser telling stories, but for once not a single one of them involves a caribou.

After the meal, I sit back and listen while Sara and Fraser talk about some book they both read recently. He seems really different tonight. Easy. Relaxed. Just sort of being a regular guy without any of that Mountie stuff getting in the way.

It hits me all of a sudden that none of us have mentioned our jobs once all night, and I have to roll that thought over in my head for awhile. Sometimes it's hard to remember there's anything outside the job, but there is. There's a whole lot out there that doesn't have anything to do with chasing bad guys, writing arrest reports, and drinking lousy coffee - and it's good to be reminded of it every once in a while.

It looks like Fraser needed that kick in the ass, too. I'm kind of surprised at how much I like him when he's like this. Okay, I always like him. Well, almost always. Except when he's driving me crazy. But it's nice to see him just sort of hanging out. Different, but nice.

Sara's arguing with him about some character in the book and he's arguing right back - and I have to wonder how much of this Regular Guy Fraser is finally surfacing just because Sara's around. I get a weird junior high feeling for a minute, like I can hear part of me whining "But he's my friend," and I push that down hard. Yeah, he's my friend, but so's Sara, and I'm glad they like each other.

I do.

Maybe I'm just feeling weird because I'm tired. That's got to be it.

I signal for the check, and the waitress brings it over in about two seconds flat. I look around and notice we're the only people left in the restaurant except for the staff, and they all look a little relieved that we're finally getting the hell out of there.

We all get back in the car, Sara in the front again, of course, and I pull out of the parking lot. Sara's place is practically around the corner, so it makes sense to drop her off first before taking Fraser back to the Consulate.

I pull into the driveway. Her mom's left the porch light on for her, just like they used to do whenever Sara went out on a date in high school. Sara said it was just so she could find her keys, but I think it was really so that her mom and dad - late dad, now - could check and make sure there was no last minute hanky panky going on to give the neighbors something to talk about.

Sara gets out of the car, and almost instantly, Fraser's out of the backseat and giving me one of those "I would never think of saying you're as rude as dirt, Ray" looks that he's so good at. I sigh, and turn the engine off. It's going to break a thirty year tradition and Sara's going to think I'm a nut, but if Fraser's walking her to the door, I'm walking her to the door, too.

She does look at me kind of funny, but she doesn't say anything, just hugs both of us goodnight.

"Sara," Fraser says. "It's been a pleasure meeting you. I hope we can see more of each other."

"Same here. Just tell me when you guys are free, and I'm there. Maybe we can all get together sometime this weekend? Ray'll tell you that I used to play a mean game of pool when we were kids." She grins and hugs me once again for good measure. "Ray, it's been great. Now I really feel like I'm home again."

I look down at her, smiling and with her arms wrapped around me, and for a minute I wonder if I should kiss her goodnight or something. Then Fraser clears his throat, and I remember it's not a date, it's just Sara.

Sara gets safely inside, and we get back in the car, Fraser in the front seat again like normal. I think to myself how weird it was having him in the back, like he was Dief or something, and I can't help laughing at the image that just got itself planted in my brain.

He looks over at me and raises his eyebrows. "What are you finding so amusing?"

"You lick ears, Fraser?

He doesn't answer right away, and I turn toward him, wondering if my bad habit of saying whatever pops into my head freaked him out, but no, he's just shaking his head and grinning.

"You're unhinged, Ray."

"Yeah, I must be." I concentrate on my driving for about ten seconds. "So, do you?" Fraser bursts into laughter.

We talk a little on the way back to the Consulate, work stuff mostly. He's going to come over to my place tomorrow so we can go over some records the State's Attorney's office is releasing in the afternoon. I'm hoping we'll find something there that might answer a couple questions I've got about one of my cases. He offers to pick up something for dinner on the way over, and I agree. I hate cooking after work, and he knows that by now.

I pull up in front of the Consulate. Fraser undoes his seatbelt and thanks me for the ride home and the pleasant evening, and I get the weirdest feeling, like I should be walking him to the door or something, but I settle for waiting until he gets inside before pulling away from the curb and heading home.

I spend the next day at the station catching up on paperwork and trying not to kill Dewey, who's been hovering all day fishing for details about "the new girlfriend." After six hours of this, I'm ready to pop him one, but he's saved by Stella coming in with a stack of files in her arms and a sour expression on her face.

Dewey takes one look at her glare as she approaches and beats a path back to his own desk, leaving me alone with her.

She drops the files on my desk, then hands me a pen and a piece of paper. "Sign, Ray. I don't know what good these are going to do with the Garner case, but everything you asked for is yours for the next 72 hours."

"Hey, Stella. Thanks. You didn't have to bring these over. I was going to drop by the office on my way home a little later."

"I had business in the area and thought I'd save you the trouble."

Okay, anything that keeps me from having to go to the State's Attorney's office is fine with me, but Stella's looking distinctly uncomfortable and my instincts tell me maybe her being here isn't so coincidental after all.

"So," she continues, "did you and Sara have a nice evening?"

Bingo! Bush telegraph's got nothing on Mom. I shove the files out of the way and sit down on the edge of my desk. "Yeah, it was good. Went over to Montague's for dinner, ended up closing down the place."

Stella sighs. "Oh, Ray, couldn't you have found a more interesting place for a date? You're not children anymore."

"She wanted to go there; we like Montague's. Anyway, it wasn't a date; Fraser was there, too."

She raises her eyebrows at that, then picks up her briefcase from my chair. "All I'm saying, Ray, is that Sara would probably appreciate something a little different next time. I could recommend some nice places. Just let me know, okay?"

The days of Stella being my social director are long gone, but I just nod. "Yeah, I'll keep that in mind. Thanks. And thanks again for the files." I tuck them under my arm and walk with her to the door. "Fraser thinks there's something in here we didn't see last time, so we're going to give it another shot."

Outside, I ask Stella if I can give her a lift somewhere, but she brought her own car. We say goodbye in the parking lot, and I take myself and the files home.

When I get back to the apartment, what I really want to do is take a shower and maybe zone out with some t.v. before Fraser shows up, but before I even undo my holster the phone rings.

It's Mom. I should've known she'd be checking up on me. Just surprised she waited this long.

"Stanley? They told me at the station that you'd gone home early. There's nothing wrong, is there, dear?"

"No, Mom." I settle down on the couch and tug off my boots. "Not much going on there . . . pretty dull stuff, paperwork mostly. I've got to do some work tonight though, so I figured I'd take off a little early. Fraser's coming by in a while."

"Wasn't Benton with you today?" She sounds a little surprised.

"Nah. He has his own job. I explained that to you, didn't I? He's got other stuff to do most days over at the Consulate."

"And he still works with you as your partner?"

"Yeah." I smile to myself. "To be honest, Mom, I think he's just bored over there."

"You boys aren't doing anything dangerous tonight, are you?" she asks with concern in her voice.

I laugh. "Not unless you count eating whatever passes for food in Fraser's universe. No, we're just going through some records tonight."

There's a pause. "Doesn't Benton find that a little boring, too?"

Okay, she's got a point. Maybe he's not just working with me because his Consulate job could put a cokehead to sleep in five minutes. "Probably. So, how are you guys? You and Dad okay?"

"Oh, you know your father, Stanley. As long as he has something to tinker with, he's fine. He spent most of today rewiring Helen's kitchen while she and I chatted. Evidently every time she used the toaster oven and the microwave at the same time, a fuse blew. Your father's quite proud of himself for solving the problem."

"That's cool." And it is. I'm glad Dad is finding stuff to do these days.

"Helen tells me that you and Sara went out for dinner last night. Montague's, was it?"

I pull the phone away from my ear and rub my free hand through my hair. Okay, time for question and answer period number two. "Yeah. Place still looks the same. Took Fraser along, too."

"So Helen mentioned. She says Sara was quite taken with him."

No kidding, Mom - everyone's taken with Fraser. "Uh huh, they got along."

"Well, I'm glad. Benton's a charming young man, Stanley, and he looks like he could do with some more friends. But maybe next time you should take Sara out alone. Why not take her dancing? I'm sure she'd love that."

I stifle a laugh at the thought of going out dancing with Sara. I'll bet Fraser's better on the dance floor, and he's got the rhythm of a stick. "Yeah, maybe. I think we're all going to see each other this weekend. I'll see what she wants to do now that she's back."

"You do that, Stanley. Just don't take her for granted, dear. If you're ever going to have a family, you're going to have to make some kind of an effort. You can't just sit back and wait for things to come to you."

I hear a knock at the door. Saved by the Mountie. "Mom? I've got to go. Fraser's here, and we need to get to work. Talk to you later?"

"Of course, honey. Have a nice evening with your friend."

"Thanks. Night, Mom."

I open the door. Dief pushes in ahead of Fraser and trots over to his usual chair.

I put some water in a bowl for Dief while Fraser sets the food out on the coffee table in the living room. I come out wondering what Fraser picked up and whether I'm going to have to fight Dief for the dog biscuits, but when I check out the spread, I see we've got some Cajun stuff . . . jambalaya, that kind of thing. That's more like it. He's learning.

We talk a little about the case while we eat, but I guess I'm not holding up my end of the conversation because Fraser asks if I'm concerned about something.

"Sorry, Fraser. Just a little distracted. My mom called."

"Is everything all right with your family, Ray?"

"Oh yeah . . . they're good. Mom's just been dropping sledgehammers about my non-existent love life. I think she's already started making wedding arrangements with Sara's mom."

I turn to wink at him, but Fraser looks startled. "I had no idea things were that serious between the two of you."

"What? Between me and Sara?" I grin. "They're not. Hang on; let me show you something."

I go to the closet and dig out the photo album Stella put together with Mom just before we got married. Turn a few pages. Okay, he's not seeing my first bath pictures. Flip another page. Yeah, there it is.

I walk back over to the couch and hand the album to Fraser. "Here, take a look."

He smiles. "I didn't know you'd been a Cub Scout, Ray."

I roll my eyes. "Not that one. This one." I point to a picture of Sara and me, maybe seven years old, dressed up like a bride and groom. "Halloween when we were in first grade. We had to go out trick or treating together. I've never had my cheeks pinched so many times in one night in my life."

"I take it your families believe in long engagements." He doesn't crack a smile, but I can see he gets it.

"Yeah. Twenty years with The Stella was just a minor setback in their plans." I close the album and put it away before he gets a look at me in my platform shoes and silver fringe vest. Some things, partners don't have to share.

"Have you . . . um . . . that is to say, have you thought much about the prospect of remarrying?"

Whoa. There's a new one: Fraser asking personal questions.


"Generally speaking, yes."

I take the dinner plates into the kitchen, then sit back down on the couch. "Sure, you know that. Marriage was . . . well . . . good, you know? Waking up with someone. Sharing stuff together. Yeah, I liked it. Miss it." I sound a little pathetic even to myself, but maybe Fraser's used to that by now.

"And Sara specifically?" He's got a really intent look on his face now. Didn't know he was so interested in this stuff.

I try to lighten the mood, grin at him a little. "Maybe when I was seven."

"Seriously, Ray. Sara's a lovely woman. She's intelligent, she has a good sense of humor, and the two of you are friends. I would have thought she'd be a fine prospect for you if you were considering remarriage."

Man, he's like a dog with a bone tonight. Or maybe . . . maybe he's a little interested in her and he's trying to see if he'd be treading on my toes or whatever if he asked her out.

I think about that for a minute, Fraser dating Sara. Fraser dating anyone, for that matter. It's not like he's shown much interest in women - normal women - since I've known him, but apart from Frannie and the Ice Queen, who aren't too normal themselves, he's not around women much, and Fraser's not exactly a singles bar kind of guy.

"Yeah, she's a friend," I say. "That's the trouble."

"You and Sara being friends poses some difficulty?"

"Love and friendship, Fraser. They're like peanut butter and motor oil. They don't go together."

He frowns at me. "Ray, there's no evidence that friendship can't serve as the basis for a lasting romantic relationship."

"There is on my planet." And maybe I'm not so thrilled about living on that planet, but I don't think I'm ready to go where that thought's heading. I pick up the stack of files Stella brought to the station and hand them over to Fraser. "So . . . the Garner thing. Let's get at it, buddy."

* * *

I listen supportively, encouragingly, and as usual, I suspect, far too impassively, as Ray puts a seal on any hopes I still entertained that there could ever be a future for the two of us beyond that which we already share.

He is speaking of Sara, of course, but his words - which are about the impossibility of friendship and romantic love co-existing 'on his planet' - answer all the questions I've never dared ask him.

I want to shake him, tell him he's wrong. That love and friendship can co-exist, in fact, must, for what pale friendship is it that doesn't have love at its heart? I want to ask him who the hell he thinks he is that he believes he can decide other people's futures without letting them have a say in the matter. I want to brand him a coward for refusing to fight for a chance at love, something he's told me repeatedly - in both words and actions - that he wants and needs.

But I do none of these things, because if Ray is a coward where love is concerned . . . I am a far greater one.

We have a fairly productive night where the case is concerned, at least, and both Ray and I discover incongruities in the reports that suggest another visit to Mr. Garner's place of business might be in order sometime this weekend.

Ray is making coffee when his phone rings. "Shit! Get that, would you, Fraser?" he calls out from the kitchen. "I'm dealing with a little . . . um . . . situation in here."

I flip the phone open. "Good evening. This is Detective Vecchio's cellular telephone . . . ."

"Benton! Hi. It's Sara."

I'm a bit surprised that she recognizes my voice so readily, but pleased as well. "Sara, hello. If you'll wait just a moment, Ray will be right with you."

"That's okay, you'll do just as well. I was just wondering whether you guys wanted to get together tomorrow night for a couple games of pool or something."

Ray comes in and places a steaming coffee mug in my hands, silently mouthing the word "decaf." I nod, then say to Sara, "I believe I'm free tomorrow night. Let me ask Ray what his plans are."

I look up and see that he's frowning, but I believe that might have something to do with his not entirely successful attempt to rinse coffee from his pants leg. "Sara is interested in getting together tomorrow night. Are you free?"

He pauses a moment before answering. "Yeah, that sounds okay. See when she wants to meet up."

"Perhaps you'd like to make the arrangements?"

He shrugs. "Nah. You do it. I've got to change out of these jeans." He walks off to the bedroom while I get directions to a sports bar Sara's heard about that she thinks we all might like.

I say goodnight to her, a bit confused that Ray left the room without speaking to her. He had seemed quite happy to see her yesterday. Glimpses of the boy Sara must have known years ago surfaced often over the course of the evening, and seeing that rarely-shown side of him brought me great pleasure.

Certainly Sara's warmth and immediate acceptance of my presence added to my enjoyment. She is very easy to be with, at least for me - much like Ray in that regard - and I am already quite fond of her. However, I know Ray is fond of her as well, which is why his avoidance of her this evening seems so odd. Despite his protestations that they are "just friends," it strikes me that perhaps he's merely protecting himself with the thought that they can be nothing more and believes that distancing himself from her will help somehow.

I wonder if what Ray needs is some encouragement in order to see her in a different light. My taking on that role would be ridiculous if I truly believed anything could come of my own feelings for him. I am not so altruistic as to disregard my own self-interest where love is concerned. However, quite apart from the undeniable difficulties posed by two male law enforcement officials becoming romantically involved, I am forced to admit that I have never seen any clear indication from Ray that he would even be willing to consider such a relationship with another man. And now, when I add his avowed beliefs about the inherent incompatibility of friendship and love . . . well, I really can't see a chance in hell of what I want ever becoming a reality.

That being the case, I need to ignore my own longstanding, but futile attraction to Ray - difficult as that will undoubtedly be - and perhaps try to determine whether his hesitancy where Sara is concerned is, in fact, a product of his own fears or not. If it is, I can see nothing wrong with giving Ray a little push in the right direction.

This is not altruism - or rather, not entirely. I will benefit, albeit indirectly, from taking this course of action, although not in precisely the way I would wish, of course. One thing I am certain of is that my feelings for Ray are such that if he and I can never be together, I'd prefer to see him happily in love with someone else - especially with someone as well-suited to him as Sara - than see him remain alone because he is unable to risk his heart.

He comes out from the bedroom, having changed into a pair of sweatpants and a tee-shirt, and almost immediately much of my resolve vanishes into thin air. I don't want less of Ray, I want more of him. I want all of him, and the grin that he flashes at me as Diefenbaker jumps up on the couch to yawn rudely in my face only serves as a painful reminder of how much I'll be losing when Ray's heart is finally engaged elsewhere.

"Diefenbaker! Get down!"

I anticipate a lengthy argument, but Dief, his point evidently made, hops off the couch and trots over to the door.

"Think the wolf's trying to tell you something, Fraser?" Ray shakes his head and laughs.

"I suppose Diefenbaker is correct; it is getting rather late. I think it's time to be heading home so that you can get some rest."

He looks at me with a frown. "You don't have to leave because of me. You haven't even finished your coffee."

I look down at the mug in my hand and see that he's correct. In point of fact, although I've been holding the mug ever since Ray handed it to me, the coffee remains untouched. I take a drink and succeed in swallowing, but I can't hide my grimace of distaste.

"Coffee's cold, huh? You want me to nuke that for you?"

"I appreciate the offer, Ray, but I really think I should be getting back to the Consulate. It's getting quite late, and tomorrow is a workday, after all."

"Yeah, you're right." He looks around the living room, then kneels down and reaches under the coffee table. He sits down on the floor and starts pulling his boots on. "Be ready in a sec, Fraser."

"Ray, there's no need to . . . ."

He glares at me. "Did you or did you not just say it was late? And did it or did it not get late because you were helping me with my job?"

I smile. "I believe night would have fallen regardless of whether or not I had been assisting with the case, Ray."

He shakes his head. "Anyone ever tell you you're a comedian?"

"I presume that was a rhetorical question?"

"You presume right. Okay, Mountie and Wolf, let's hit the road."

The following day passes by without incident, much to my surprise. There is something about the Consulate here in Chicago which seems to attract an unusually high number of bizarre events - many more than one might expect to occur in the day-to-day running of a governmental institution - and the very ordinariness of this day is, ironically, quite out of the ordinary.

My own feelings about this uncharacteristic turn of events are mixed. With things somehow not descending into pandemonium for once, it is far easier to catch up with the work I'd fallen behind on recently. However, the absence of any crises to resolve results in the hours passing by at a snail's pace, and by mid-afternoon, I find myself checking the clock every few minutes or so in anticipation of Ray's arrival.

The Dugout, where Sara suggested we meet, isn't quite the same as the other sports bars I've been taken to by Ray Vecchio and Ray Kowalski during my time in Chicago. The menu appears to be rather superior to the chili dogs and curly fries that are standard fare in places of this sort, and I am told by Ray that the beer selection is 'amazing,' although I have to admit, this isn't something I personally consider much of a draw. In addition, while the bar has the standard dozen television monitors, each tuned to a different sporting event and competing irritatingly for viewer attention, there are also a fair number of pool tables, dart boards, and the like positioned throughout the room for customers who prefer to do something more than just watch.

I look toward an open pool table with some interest, and Ray suggests a game. He puts a dollar in the slot at the side and a mechanism releases a complement of pool balls into the slanted track at one end of the table.

"Are fifteen balls standard, Ray?"

I'm not certain what I asked that was so odd, but both Ray and Sara stare at me open-mouthed for a few seconds. Ray puts his arm around my shoulder and shakes his head.

"So . . . you've never actually played pool, have you?"

"Well . . . no. But I am familiar with the principles. It would appear to be a simple case of putting the laws of physics and geometry into play and . . . ."

"No, that's where you're wrong, buddy. It's like . . . it's like boxing."

I have no idea what he's talking about. "We're expected to hit each other with the pool sticks?"

"Pool cues. And no, there's no hitting. Playing pool is . . . um . . . it's an art, Fraser."

Sara rolls her eyes at this characterization, then nudges Ray. "I think one of us had better partner Benton for a while."

Ray smirks. "Yeah, okay . . . you and Fraser against me. I'll spot you . . . what? . . . how about three balls."

"You smug bastard, Ko . . . Vecchio." She sticks out her tongue at Ray who starts laughing, then links arms with me. "Benton, we've been insulted. Are we going to let this go unchallenged?"

"Indeed not. This would seem to be a matter of honor."

Ray is still laughing. "Four balls, and that's my final offer."

As the evening progresses, it appears that his confidence in his pool-playing ability was not misplaced. Sara teaches me the basics of the game in short order - showing me how to line up a shot, whispering hints about strategy - but we're no match for him, and he wins every game. However, his string of victories seems to have the opposite effect from what I might have expected, and as the evening progresses he becomes increasingly distant, almost snappish, at least to my eyes. I offer to sit out the next game, thinking that perhaps Ray might wish to spend some time alone with Sara, but he says he has a lot to do the next day and maybe we should all just call it a night.

Sara appears not to notice any alteration in his mood, or if she does, perhaps over the years she has come to the conclusion that ignoring him when he's in a bad humor is the best method of dealing with him. As if nothing were amiss, when we walk out to the parking lot, Sara suggests we all get together Sunday morning and go to a park so that she can finally meet Dief. Ray glances over at me. I nod, and then, a bit surprisingly, Ray agrees. Sara says she'll come by the apartment at ten.

As we pull up in front of the Consulate, I ask Ray what his plans are for Saturday.

He puts the car into neutral and then stretches. "We're going to Garner's Electronics tomorrow night, right?"

I take a moment to answer, distracted by the strip of skin that was revealed between his jeans and his tee-shirt when he leaned back in the seat. "Ah . . . yes. Shall I come over and meet you at your apartment?"

"Yeah, could you?" he asks. "I'd pick you up, but I'm going to be chasing down car parts all day, and I'm not sure when I'm going to get back exactly." He takes the keys out of the ignition, then slides his spare apartment key off the ring and hands it to me. "Bring Dief . . . he can stay at my place while we're out if he promises to keep his paws off of Curtis."

"Ray, as I've told you repeatedly, Diefenbaker has no ill intent where your turtle is concerned."

"Yeah, that's what he tells you, but I'm not convinced."

He puts the car back into drive and waits for me to get out of the GTO, but I'm strangely reluctant to leave. "Would you . . . um . . . could I be of any use to you tomorrow in your quest for automobile parts?"

Ray looks at me in disbelief. "Fraser, you don't have to waste all your free time doing my stuff. I'm already feeling guilty about dragging you over to Garner's tomorrow night. Do something else during the day. Get out. Have fun."

I stifle the impulse to tell Ray that having 'fun' seems to require being in his company these days, and say goodnight.

I awake just before eight, feeling out of sorts, but there is no physical reason for this that I can detect. After giving the problem some thought, I can only ascribe my discomfort to the prospect of spending a day without Ray, which is a bit ridiculous even given my constant desire to be with him. However, perhaps there is a general kind of miasma hovering over the Consulate today because when I go into the kitchen to fix a pot of tea, I discover Turnbull wearing a look of abject misery in place of his more usual insipidly cheerful expression.

"Good morning, Sir," he says a little glumly. "Sorry if I disturbed you on your day off. I'll be commencing my sentry duties momentarily."

"Is there something the matter, Turnbull?"

"Nothing for you to worry about, Sir. I'm sure I'll have another opportunity at some other date." He sighs, long and tragically.

I realize he may never come out with whatever's bothering him unless I force the issue. "Turnbull, tell me what's wrong."

As I suspected, a request phrased like an order is more than he can fight against. "It's . . . it's Clint Black."

"Clint Black is causing you difficulties?"

"Oh no, Sir! He'd never cause a problem for me. Or rather I don't believe he would. I haven't had the honor of meeting him, but I understand he's quite a fine gentleman. Why just the other day, I heard . . . ."

"Turnbull." I'm beginning to see why Ray sometimes feels the need to interrupt my stories.

"Sorry, Sir. It's just that . . . well, I received a letter from Tracy Jenkins by the second post yesterday afternoon. Clint Black is a friend of hers and he's going to be making publicity visits to a number of music establishments in Chicago this morning. Knowing that I am a great devotee of his music, Miss Jenkins thought that I might wish to meet him, and so kindly made arrangements for me to join him for brunch later today. I'm sure she never anticipated that I would be working on Saturday, and . . . ."

"Turnbull, would you like me to fill in for you on sentry duty this morning?"

"Oh, Sir! I couldn't ask you to do that." But he looks hopeful and elated at the prospect of getting to meet one of his heroes, and there's no reason why I can't take his place for a few hours. It's not as if I have anything else to do.

"Nonsense. Just give me a moment to change, and you're free to go."

"Take all the time you need! Oh, thank you, Sir!"

Dief is not particularly pleased with my decision, but then wolves are not generally known for their benevolent natures. However, when Turnbull returns at noon, grinning from ear to ear and clutching an autographed copy of The Greatest Hits, even Diefenbaker is forced to admit that there's something to be said for doing a good turn for a fellow creature upon occasion.

To thank Diefenbaker for his forbearance, grudgingly though it was given, I take him with me to the Saturday farmer's market. Ordinarily he disdains shopping expeditions, but the market flower stall holds a powerful attraction for him, which I believe can be attributed less to the flowers themselves, despite Dief's long-standing interest in horticulture, than to the florist's collie, Star.

We spend a pleasant hour visiting with acquaintances and purchasing a variety of food items that the local Dominick's supermarket doesn't keep in stock. As we leave the market site and walk past the bus stop, I hear a woman's voice call to me. "Benton? Is that . . . you?"

I turn around to see Sara staring at me. "Sara, hello." I walk toward her, but the rather stunned expression she's wearing doesn't fade.

She looks me up and down. "This is for real?"

"The uniform? Of course."

"No, I mean . . . you're a Mountie?"

All I can do is nod. Is it possible that Sara and I could have known each other for almost a week - that we could have spent hours on end in each other's company - without her realizing that I am a member of the RCMP? I go back over everything I remember saying about my profession in Sara's presence, and it strikes me that it is possible I never actually said I was anything other than a liaison officer at the Consulate.

I think what surprises me most of all is that I assumed, quite without being conscious of it, that my essential "Mountie-ness," as Ray might term it, is apparent to anyone who meets me, whether or not I'm wearing the full dress uniform. The notion that my being a Mountie is not, evidently, visible to the unsuspecting eye comes as quite a shock.

It seems to be a day full of surprises, and there's still one more to come. As Sara kneels down and introduces herself to an uncharacteristically fawning Diefenbaker, she looks up at me and starts to laugh. I look at her questioningly.

"I was just thinking it's a good thing you're a Mountie and not in the CPD."

"Why is that?"

"Come on, Benton," she says as she stands up. "I don't know about the Mounties, but most American police departments aren't even cool with straight couples working together. If you and Ray both worked for the Chicago P.D., they'd never let you be partners."

I realize immediately that Sara believes - mistakenly, to my regret - that Ray and I are . . . lovers. I can't imagine what might have led her to believe this, but before I can let her know she's incorrect in her assumption, she grabs her bag off the sidewalk and gives me a quick hug. "My bus. God, I hate when my car breaks down. Listen," she says, heading for the open doors of the bus. "I'll see you guys at your place tomorrow morning. Ten, right? See you, Benton. Give Ray a kiss for me when you get home tonight." And then she is gone.

Oh dear.

When Diefenbaker and I arrive at Ray's apartment a little before six in the evening, Ray is nowhere in evidence, but I make use of the keys he lent me and settle in to wait for his return.

As I wait, the comment Sara made earlier in the day is at the forefront of my thoughts, and I think seriously about calling her at her home to clear up this misapprehension about the nature of our relationship. However, before I can do so, Ray returns home, and I think that perhaps this is a sign of sorts that if either of us are going to discuss this with Sara, he should be the one to do so.

Of course, for Ray to be able to sort out this confusion, he first has to be told what she said, and somehow the time never seems quite right for me to introduce this subject.

Even before Ray shuts the door behind him, his mood is ebullient, which I quickly discover is a result of his having been successful in finding not only the cam shaft he'd been looking for, but also a set of near mint condition hubcaps as an added bonus.

He throws his jacket on the couch and does a little shadow boxing dance. "Who's the man? Who is the auto part man?"

Sometimes it amazes me at how little it takes to make him happy. I smile. "You are, Ray."

He smiles back. "That's right, Fraser. I am."

Diefenbaker barks, and starts to dance in a circle around Ray's feet. I raise my eyebrows; I had no idea Dief was so competitive. "Well, yes, Diefenbaker. You are the wolf. And I am the Mountie. Do we all feel better now that we have our identities established?"

Ray . . . cackles - there's really no other word for it. "I know I do, Fraser. Listen, I'm going to catch a quick shower. You want to go grab a bite to eat when I'm done before we head over to Garner's?"

The words 'grab' and 'bite' and 'eat' combined with the image of Ray in the shower seems to have short-circuited my brain temporarily. I'm gratified that I am able to find it in myself to even nod in agreement with his suggestion.

He leaves the room and shuts the bathroom door behind him. When I hear the water running, I indulge myself in a brief daydream about what Ray might look like with water cascading down his body, but my reverie is disturbed by the shrill ring of his cell phone.

I take the phone out from his jacket pocket, but before I can make out the identity of the caller, the signal is lost. A moment later, however, the phone rings again.

I discover it's a young woman looking for directions to Miguelito's Tapas Bar, which I'm able to provide after a quick perusal of the Yellow Pages and the city street map that Ray keeps in the kitchen. The caller thanks me profusely, then hangs up. I set the phone on the kitchen counter and return both the phone directory and the map to their accustomed places just in time for Ray to emerge from the bathroom, still drying his hair. Five minutes later, we leave the apartment.

When we arrive at Garner's Electronics, we discover the proprietor, Herb Garner, is out of town and isn't expected back until the following Wednesday. However, his assistant - a sharp featured redhead who introduces himself as Thomas Austin - offers to answer any questions we might still have.

"Always happy to be of assistance to the boys in blue."

Ray glances over at me and grins, as I stifle the urge to note that the tunic I'm wearing is rather a reddish colour.

"You know," he continues. "I thought about joining the police when I was a kid, but my mother put her foot down. She'd say, 'Thomas Henry, why did God give you brains if you ain't gonna use them?' and that was that - off to business school I went."

Ray is, understandably, displeased with the suggestion that police officers are brainless, but he refrains from making any comment that might make Mr. Austin disinclined to aid us in our inquiries. However, in the end it probably wouldn't have mattered if he did give in to his dislike. For someone who seems so eager to participate in the investigation and who claims so intimate a knowledge of the inner workings of the business, Mr. Austin is unable to answer any of the questions we put to him about specific shipment quantities and dates.

Finally Ray gives in to the annoyance that's been simmering for the past twenty-five minutes. "I'm no MBA, but . . . hmm . . . I know! How about we go and pull the paperwork?"

We follow Mr. Austin into the back office, and Ray settles in to look at the relevant bills of lading.

"Not that we don't appreciate the fine work you gentlemen are doing," Mr. Austin says. "But what this comes down to is a few stereos and a headset or three. Can't see as why y'all are wasting your time on this penny-ante stuff when there's real criminals to chase down."

"I'm not certain your employer would characterize over a hundred thousand dollars in losses as inconsequential, Mr. Austin."

He gives me what I believe he imagines to be a conspiratorial wink. "Fred's got himself some good insurance."

Ray looks up from the files. "Yeah?"

"Sure does. Hey!" Mr. Austin exclaims, snapping his fingers. "I just recollected that Fred upped his policy wasn't more than a month ago. Don't know if that'll help you any, but . . . ."

"You're a real helpful guy, aren't you?" Ray asks. The sarcasm in his voice is almost palpable, but Mr. Austin doesn't appear to give it any regard.

"I sure like to think so. So now, is there any more I can do for you fellows tonight?"

"Nah." Ray closes the files and returns the inventory records to Mr. Austin. "Looks like we're done here. You ready to go, Fraser?"

"I believe so. Thank you kindly, Mr. Austin."

We take our leave and walk out into the parking lot behind the offices. Ray unlocks the GTO, and we get in, but I'm still turning Mr. Austin's words over in my mind.


"Yeah, I was just going to say that myself." Ray sits a minute without starting the car, tapping his long fingers against the top of the steering wheel, then he turns to me. "Insurance fraud?"

"Well," I say carefully. "Mr. Austin certainly seems to want us looking in that direction."

"No shit. There's something wrong about him, Fraser. You think all the witnesses who reported seeing a stocky Chinese guy with a ponytail around the premises just before both the burglaries really meant to say a pale, stringy, chinless redhead?"

I smile. "Not likely."

He sighs and turns the key in the ignition. "Too bad."

Too bad, indeed. I am no more satisfied with Mr. Austin's responses tonight than Ray seems to be, but there's nothing in any of the evidence that points to any real connection between him and the missing goods.

We pull out of the lot and head down Wacker. A light rain is falling, and the glow from the streetlights sparkles off the wet city streets. We drive in comfortable silence for a time, then Ray clears his throat.

"You think I'm looking for Austin to be the guy because he pissed me off?"

He's clearly still smarting from the inference that police officers don't use their brains. "No, I don't. Trust in your instincts, Ray."

Ray chuckles. "Trust in the Force, Luke."

I smile. Star Wars. It's become far easier to follow Ray's thought processes now that I'm a little more familiar than I used to be with some of the more important popular cultural icons. I wonder, sometimes, how I became so out of step with my generation. I don't recall feeling particularly set apart from my peers when I was growing up, but something happened - just around the time disco was on the wane, I believe - that turned me into a walking anachronism.

Of course, possessing such arcane knowledge as the fact that one can sing Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to the tune of the theme music to Gilligan's Island wasn't as significant in my earlier years as it is now that I'm so invested in wanting to understand the things that shaped Ray.

He's still chuckling as we take the turn onto his street. "So how come his comment didn't piss you off? Too secure in your brilliance?"

I laugh. 'Actually, I also found his implication annoying in the extreme. But evidently I'm not a cop, so it's probably irrelevant."


"I haven't mentioned this? I saw Sara earlier today, and it turns out she didn't know I was a member of the RCMP. I take it you never said anything specific about my job when I wasn't around."

"Guess not. So . . . you got together with Sara today, huh?"

His tone is casual, but his body language suggests that something is disturbing him about this idea; he sounds almost angry with me. Perhaps this isn't the right time to share the rest of our brief conversation; I'm not at all certain he'd welcome hearing the news in this mood.

"Not as such. We ran into each other while I was out with Diefenbaker."

"Uh huh." He pulls over to the curb and stares out the front windshield. "So . . . you want to go up and get Dief? I'll drive you over to the Consulate."

This is a bit odd. Ordinarily Ray would offer at least a token invitation to stop up for a cup of tea. Perhaps he's had enough of my company for the day. I suppose I can be . . . a bit much at times.

"Don't worry about driving us back, Ray. I'm sure Diefenbaker is more than ready for a brisk walk after all this time cooped up inside."

He pauses. Checks the time. "It's raining."

"A little rain won't hurt either of us."

"Yeah. Well, okay then."

He gets out of the car, and waits for me to follow. It's true that neither Dief nor I are likely to suffer any ill effects from a brief walk in the rain, and in fact I could use the fresh air, but despite having been the one to suggest that I walk home, I'm actually quite surprised that Ray's not arguing the point harder. Not arguing it at all, in fact.

He opens the door, and Dief deigns to glance up from his new favorite place beside Curtis's tank. He doesn't appear as eager to depart as I'd imagined he would be, but he rises from the floor and joins me when I indicate it's time to go.

"Goodnight, Ray."

"Yeah . . . 'night." He's as ill at ease as I've seen him in months, and I haven't a clue what's upset him. "Okay, well . . . I guess I'll see you and Sara tomorrow morning, right? We're still getting together?"

What could have led him to ask this question? "As far as I know, Ray. Unless you've heard something I haven't?"

"Nah. Just . . . anyway, see you tomorrow, okay?" He holds the door open and all but pushes me through.

As I walk home, I try to figure out what might have changed Ray's mood so dramatically, but I draw a blank. I do know that my own mood is suffering in response, and selfishly, I begin to wish the outing tomorrow could be postponed.

However, when I check the messages on the Consulate's answering machine, I find an extremely cheerful message from Sara saying that she tried to ring us at the apartment, but she must have written down the wrong number unless Ray's taken to answering the phone "Maeve's Knitting," and he must have an unlisted number for his home phone, and then she couldn't reach Ray on the cell, and did we need her to bring anything, and that she was looking forward to seeing us tomorrow. All in all, very enthusiastic about the prospect of all of us getting together, and I'd hate to be the one responsible for disappointing her by canceling our plans.

Perhaps both Ray and I will be in better spirits in the morning.

* * *

I wake up in a crappy mood. I take a shower, swallow a couple aspirin, but nothing's helping much, and to be honest, I'm not sure I really want to be in a better mood. I'm almost starting to like feeling kind of pissed off.


Fraser shows up at 9:30. The wolf trots straight over to Curtis's tank, but the turtle doesn't seem to be nervous or anything, and Dief isn't licking his chops, so I leave them alone. What the hell; I've seen more mismatched pairings.

I offer Fraser a cup of coffee, but he turns me down. Doesn't sit down, either. I don't know what's up with him this morning, but if I had any strange idea that maybe I'd be able to get over my funk once he showed up, it's gone now. If both our moods got put in a ring together, I think his mood might kick my bad mood's ass.

Of course, being Fraser, he's at least making some kind of effort to be polite, which is more than I can say for me.

"Do you think Sara might enjoy a visit to the Gardens as long as we're going to be in the park? When she called last night, she . . . ."

"Fast work there, Fraser," I mutter.

He frowns. "Pardon?"

"Did you spring for a cab to go pick her up, or does she have a key to the Consulate already?"

"What on earth are you talking about, Ray?"

"On second thought, I really don't want to hear it."

"Ray . . . ."

No, I'm really not interested in listening to Fraser's explanations of why he and Sara have been sneaking around behind my back. The guy's been pushing me at her for a week and the whole time he's been going after her himself? What is that? I don't get that. That's not buddies. That's not Fraser . . . not the Fraser I thought I knew.

"Listen, Fraser, just . . . just get out of here, would you? Could you just do that for me?"

He wrinkles his brow like I'm talking in a foreign language. How can he keep doing the dense Mountie thing like he doesn't have any idea why I don't want him around right now.

"Ray, if you'd just listen to . . . ."

"I don't want to listen, don't you get that? Maybe later. Right now I just need you to not be here. Come on, Fraser. Jesus Christ!" I flop down on the couch and look over at Dief, who's resting his head on Fraser's boot.

"Okay, Ray," he says quietly. "I'm leaving. Maybe I'll just take Diefenbaker to the park."

The wolf perks up a little at the mention of the park. Probably be happy to go to the vets at this point, if it'd get him away from this apartment. "Yeah, do that. Go to the park. Commune with nature. Or wait, don't tell me . . . you really don't like being out in the fresh air either, right?"

I look up and Fraser's got this really unhappy expression on his face. Hate seeing that. For a second I want to apologize, but then I remember I'm pissed off with him, and I swallow the words back down.

He opens the door, and Dief walks out ahead of him. He pauses, then says "See you later, Ray" with the words coming out sounding almost plaintive. Shit. I don't answer, just give a sort of noncommittal grunt in response and then he's gone.

I don't know how long I sit there on the couch, doing anything but thinking, but when I hear a knock at the door, my first thought is that it must be Fraser, back for Round Two.

Nah. Ten o'clock on the dot; it's got to be Sara, and there's another one I don't want to talk to right now. I can't leave her standing in the hall, though, so I push myself up off the couch and open the door.

She's smiling, but the smile starts to drop off her face as she realizes I'm not moving to let her in.

"What's up, Ray? Am I early?"

I look down at the floor, then back up at her face. "Nah, you're not early. I should've called, told you I'm not going out."

"What's the matter? Are you sick?" I hear real concern in her voice, and my response comes out a little tight.

"I'm okay. Just tired or something."

"Where's Benton?" she asks. "Is he here?"

"Was. He's gone now. Why don't you go find him? He took Dief to the park."

"Will he be back soon? If you're not up to going out, I could keep you company until he comes home."

"You're in the wrong place if you're waiting for him to come home. For Christ's sake, Sara, if you want to be with him, go be with him. What is it with the two of you? Stop pretending you want to be here with me."

Sara looks down the hall, then pushes past me into the apartment. She slams the door shut after she's inside. "What's your problem, Kowalski? Who's pretending to want to be with you?"

"Look, from where I'm standing, it's pretty obvious you and Fraser have something going that doesn't involve me. Fine. Have at it. Just don't fuck around with me."

For a second, she just looks confused, then she starts to turn white with anger. "Something going on with Fraser? I wouldn't have something going on with him if he were the last man on Earth!"

Great performance, but I'm not buying it. "Don't try and tell me you don't like him. How stupid do you think I am?"

"Right now? Pretty fucking stupid. Of course I like him. He's great. But he's yours. I wouldn't try to poach on your territory, even if I thought he'd go for it, which he never would."

What the hell is she talking about . . . doesn't anybody speak English anymore? "What do you mean poaching on my territory. I've got no territory."

"I mean Benton, you idiot. You think I'm trying to steal your cute little boyfriend? How junior high are you?"

Whatthefuck? I just stand there staring at her, open mouthed, without a coherent thought in my head. My boyfriend? Fraser? My boyfriend? I just keep thinking those same words for what feels like hours, and when I do push some sounds out of my mouth, those are all I can come up with.

"My boyfriend?"

"What? He's not all of a sudden?"

I scrub my face with my hands, then look back at her. "He's not my . . . . No."

She gives me this totally disbelieving look, then scowls. "You told me he was your partner; you told me that yourself!"

"Yeah, at work. He's my partner at work. He's a liaison to the police department."

"But you spend all your time together. You've got your arm around him every five minutes. You were wearing his shirt the first day I came into the station. You . . . for God's sake, you live together," she says triumphantly.

Come on Ray, there's got to be some kind of response you can make. Say something. "We don't . . . um . . . live together." My voice sounds weak even to me.

"You don't?"

I shake my head.

"But . . . but he answers the phone almost every time I call. He picked up when I called you last night."

"You called me?"

"Yeah. Well, I tried to; I lost the connection before I could even say anything, and when I tried back a little bit later there was no answer, so I left a message at the Consulate, but I know it was him who picked up here."

Oh hell. I drop down on the couch. "Sara, he was just dropping Diefenbaker off. We had to see a couple of guys in a wolf-free zone, and he didn't want Dief hanging out in the Consulate all night."

"Oh." Sara sits down next to me on the couch. "Oh, shit."

I'd second that 'oh, shit' if I could remember how to talk. She thought Fraser and I were living together? Were lovers?

"Oh my God!" she wails.


"When I saw Benton yesterday, I told him to give you a kiss for me."

Jesus. "What did he say?"

"I didn't give him a chance to say anything . . . my bus was there." She buries her face in her hands. "God, Ray, I'm so sorry. I . . . you guys just look so good together, and it seemed so obvious that you were a couple. God, I'm such an idiot!"

Not as big an idiot as I am, evidently. Just spent my morning doing my best to chase off my best friend and my oldest friend, and why? Probably because they've both been trying so hard to make sure they got along with each other for my sake that I thought they wanted to be together and not with me. Jealous moron.

I put my arm around Sara, who's still hiding her face from me, and pull her against my chest.

"Ray," she snuffles into my shirt. "I'm so sorry if I screwed everything up for you."

"You didn't, Sara. None of this is your fault. You didn't screw anything up."

But I might have. I think about the way Fraser looked when I pushed him out earlier, and I want to kick myself in the head.

Sara sits back up and wipes her eyes with her shirt sleeve. Her eyes are a little red-rimmed, but she gives me a look that's almost a smile. "You do look cute together."

I smile back weakly, then scrub my face with my hands. "God, I've got to find Fraser."

Sara looks hard at me. "You started a fight with him, too?"

Oh yeah, I did that and more. Wouldn't even listen to him when he wanted to talk, which is the thing I'm always bitching at him about. I slip my jacket on and head for the door before I remember Sara's still there on my couch. I turn back, but she just waves me away.

"Go, Ray. I'll let myself out."

I have to ask "We good?"

A pause. "Yeah, idiot. We're good." She looks wrecked, but she's still trying to make me feel better. I go over and give her a kiss.

"I'm sorry, Sara. I should've known you wouldn't . . . whatever I thought you did."

"Yeah." She nods, a little pugnacious. "You should've. We'll talk later. Go find Benton and tell him you're a jerk."

I sigh. "I think he knows that already."

She grins. "Yeah. He probably does, being your 'partner' and all." I groan as I walk out the door and head for the park.

I find Fraser at the usual spot, near the fountain. He looks a little wary when he sees me heading his way, but he doesn't hightail it out of there as soon as he sees me, which is a good sign, I guess. We sit next to each other on the bench and watch Dief chase squirrels for a while. Fraser clears his throat, but doesn't say anything.

I keep my eyes pinned on the wolf, part of me wishing I could just go through life chasing squirrels from now on. "Did you know she thought we were a couple . . . I mean, you and me?"

Fraser's silent for a long minute. I look over at him, and finally he just nods, still not saying anything.

"Why the hell didn't you say anything?"

"Ray, I only discovered Sara's misapprehension yesterday lunchtime. And I didn't discuss it with you because I suspected you wouldn't take the news with equanimity."

Which means he thought I'd blow a gasket. I think about that for about a half a second, then I do just about blow a gasket. "What? You thought I was going to freak out at the idea that someone thought we were queer? I'm some sort of homophobic asshole? You didn't freak, and you're no more queer than I am."

I'm steamed, so I don't really hear what Fraser mutters under his breath, although it sounds a hell of a lot like "I wouldn't be so sure about that."

"What'd you say?" He doesn't answer, so I ask again. "Fraser, what did you say?"

"It's not important. I simply meant that I thought you might be disturbed by the thought we were . . . involved, which seems to be borne out by the way you're reacting to the idea even now."

"What's wrong with the way I'm reacting? How am I reacting?"

"You're yelling at me!"

"Yeah? Well, that's not exactly a new facet to my personality, is it?" I yell, and then instantly feel like an idiot for proving him right once again. I glance over at him to see if I can figure out how pissed he is with me, but to my relief he's just shaking his head.

We both sit in silence for a few minutes. He finally clears his throat to speak, and I'm thinking, 'That's right. Come on, Fraser. Change the subject.' I'm hoping for a caribou story, that's how bad it is.

"I . . . ah . . . Lieutenant Welsh asked if you were going to participate in the charity softball game."

"He couldn't ask me himself? I see the guy just about every freaking day at the station. You don't even work for him!"

"No, but I happened to encounter him on the street early this morning, and I suppose he thought I'd be familiar with your schedule."

"Jesus Christ! Does everyone think we're married?"

Fraser doesn't answer right away, just looks down at his hands. "I'm sorry it bothers you this much, Ray, but I don't see how I'm responsible for other people's perceptions."

"You're not. Where do you get that? It's just . . . doesn't it bug you?"

"That others might imagine we're . . . romantically involved?"

"Um . . . yeah."


I can't believe he's asking me that. Like Fraser's even capable of lying convincingly. "Just answer the freaking question, would you?"

He looks over at Dief, probably wishing that he could just go chase squirrels too, then he looks back at me. "No. It doesn't . . . bug me."

It doesn't bug him? Why not? Okay, it's not like he usually seems to give a damn what anyone thinks of him anyway, but there's something else going on here, and I'm not sure what it is. Not with him, and sure as hell not with me.

When I told Fraser the other day that I wasn't interested in Sara, I wasn't kidding. But now I've got to ask myself: why not? All that stuff he said about her being funny and smart and everything is true. And she's even good looking . . . she's always been pretty good looking, except for the summer of '69 when she was missing four front teeth all at the same time. But really, I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to anyone's appearance in those days; I just thought it was cool that she could push a grape through the gap in her teeth.

Focus, Ray. What the hell does that have to do with me acting like a jealous asshole when I'm not even interested in Sara?

I'm not interested in Sara.

So again, I ask myself: why was I acting like a jealous asshole around my two friends when I'm not even interested in Sara? Who the hell am I jealous of?

Who else is there?

I've only got to think about that brain teaser for about two seconds, because I know damned well who else there is. My partner. My best friend. Fraser.

I was jealous of Fraser, not of Sara.

And yeah, I can spin my wheels with this one all day if I want. It's possible that the only thing I was worried about was that both my friends were liking each other more than they liked me, but it sure as hell doesn't feel like that kind of jealousy. This feels like "wanting to punch a wall when Mark Briscoe asked Stella to the senior prom and she said she'd think about it" jealousy.

But maybe to Fraser it didn't look like that. Maybe to him it looked like I was jealous about Sara. Was he encouraging my interest in her because he thought that's who I wanted, even though I told him more than once that she wasn't?

I glance over at him and he's looking worse than when Warfield's guys beat him half to death.

What the hell does he want?


He turns to face me, and there's an expression I recognize. It's the same one I used to see in the mirror when I used to spend every day wishing Stella would see me as something other than just another dorky boy in her dance class.

"Do you find me attractive?"

He doesn't say anything, just closes his eyes and lowers his head. Finally he speaks. "Haven't we had this conversation already?"

"Yeah, but . . . okay, that was then, this is now. Do you find me attractive?"


Just that.


Not 'as a woman?' Not 'I really don't think I'm qualified to judge.'

Just . . . yes.

Okay, now what? I'm all of a sudden getting a clue about what he wants, but I don't know what the hell I want, except that I have to get that death march expression off his face. Whatever happens, I can't stand to look at him like that.

I nudge his knee with mine, and he finally looks over.

"What, Ray?"

"I think I'm having a . . . whatsit? . . . an epiphany or something, but do you think you can give me some time with this? It's, um . . . a little more than I can take in right away."

He searches my face for a minute and frowns, like he's not sure what it is I'm asking. Join the club, Fraser. I don't know what I'm asking, either. Finally he nods, slowly.

"I'm not saying no, okay? Just . . . this feels big, you know?"

"Believe me, Ray," he says quietly. "I know."


We sit silently together for a while. Can't think of anything else to say, not yet. Words are his thing, not mine, but he's not talking either.

I take a look over at him and see his hands curled tight around his knees, a little white knuckled, and without even thinking about it, I put my hand over one of his and squeeze, hard. "Give me some time, Fraser, okay?"

He takes a shuddering breath, and I can tell he's trying hard not to cry. Damn. This is just about killing me, and him too by the look of things.

I nudge at him with my shoulder, still holding onto his hand. "Let's get out of here."

We head back toward my apartment. Dief, who usually trots a little ahead of us when we're out walking, is keeping pretty close right now. He brushes up next to Fraser's leg, then circles around back and brushes against my leg.

I can't tell if Fraser notices Dief's wolf-in-sheepdog's-clothing act. Most days, I'd guess that anything I noticed, he stood a pretty fair chance of having already noticed, but this isn't 'most days.'

We cross the street to my building, and I notice something else: Sara sitting on the bench at the bus stop. How long has she been waiting there?


She turns around at the sound of my voice, and smiles a little sheepishly. "Hi, guys."

Fraser nods a greeting. I lean against the edge of the bench and look down at her. "So . . . uh . . . what are you doing out here?"

"My car won't start," she says. I start to open my mouth, but she cuts me off. "And before you say anything, I couldn't call for a cab because . . . well . . . I sort of accidentally locked my bag and phone in your place. And yes, the car wouldn't start yesterday either and I should have had it fixed, but I didn't and all I had was some change in my pocket for bus fare and . . . so when is this bus due, anyway?"

I sit beside her on the bench. "Monday morning." She groans. "This is an express bus stop, Sara."

I reach over to pat her on the knee, and she swats at my hand. "Come on," I say. "Let's go upstairs so you can get your stuff."

We get up and start to walk to the front door of my building. Dief follows, but Fraser holds back, still standing by the bench. "Come on, Fraser. You too, okay?"

He looks a little uncomfortable, but then so does Sara. I don't blame them . . . I'm feeling pretty uncomfortable myself.

"Listen," I say when we get into my apartment. "Could you guys sit down a second? I need to say something."

They both sit down on the couch and wait patiently while I perch on the arm of the chair and wait for inspiration to strike, but all of a sudden I can't think of anything to say that's going to help.

"Okay, this sucks." Yeah, that was eloquent. Well worth the wait. I hate this stuff.

"I'm sorry I was such a jerk," I say quickly. "But can we . . . um . . . could we talk later? Maybe just go out like we were going to and pretend I wasn't a jerk, at least for a little while?

I say this to both of them, but it's not really Sara I'm worried about. When we were little, I got her to eat a worm by telling her it tasted like a jelly bean, and she got over that. I know she'll forgive me for this jerkishness. Truth? She's already looking a little amused, like she's enjoying watching me squirm.

But Fraser . . . that's a different thing completely. He accepted my apology, and I know he was sincere about it, so I'm not worried about that. But there's this big unresolved . . . thing hanging over us, and I can't see how to fix it.

"Park?" I ask again. Sara says yeah, but Fraser just nods, still looking a little unhappy to my eyes, and the three of us set off. I'm not sure why we're even going there, but I can't think of anything else to do. Dief flat out refused to come along, just ran off into my bedroom and hid under my bed. I guess he'd spent enough time with us for one day.

Sara's making some kind of small talk, and I'm kind of mumbling things in response, but Fraser's still not talking. Damn. I know I've left him hanging out on a limb, but what else can I do? What does he want me to do? Call me dense, but I never had a hint before today that he was interested in me like he is, and the truth is that even if I had known, I probably wouldn't have done anything about it.

Dense and chickenshit.

I love the guy like a brother, but . . . like a lover? The thought of that is fucking scary, and I'll be damned if I know what to do. Yeah, okay . . . maybe part of me wants to reach out and really touch him, like maybe I want to see if it feels like it did with Stella, but I don't know if I can make myself do it. Just holding onto his hand in the park felt weird enough.

Sara said I've got my hands on Fraser all the time. At first I couldn't figure out what the hell it was she was seeing. He's my buddy, my partner . . . of course I'm going to touch him sometimes, pat him on the back, that sort of thing.

But she's right . . . I never touched any of my other partners this much. Not Ken, not Jeff, not even Fran, and I sometimes thought about dating her. I hardly even touched Stella as much as I touch Fraser, except when we were in bed or on the dance floor. But Fraser? Oh yeah. Him, I touch. And if I'm honest with myself, I want to touch him more than I already do. When I caught up to him at the park a little while ago and we started talking, he looked so upset that, yeah, for a minute there I just wanted to wrap my arms around him and hold him until that sadness went away.

I didn't do it. Surprised myself to even find I was holding his hand. When I noticed I had his hand in mine, I just felt a little queasy, if you want to know the truth, but I figured if it was making Fraser feel better, that was enough of a reason to keep holding on.

And now we're heading back to the scene of the crime.

Without Dief around to ride herd on him, Fraser strays about as far away as he can without looking like he's avoiding me on purpose. Sara reels him in a couple of times - even gets him talking a little - but things aren't right, and all three of us know it.

God! I can't believe how much this whole thing sucks. Too bad this isn't, like Groundhog Day or something. I'd go back home, crawl into bed, and wait for the alarm clock to start the whole damned day all over again. Except . . . this time, I'd get it right. More listening, less shouting, maybe give Fraser a kiss when he . . . .

. . . okay, where did that come from?

I glance over at my partner. Yeah, he's got a great mouth. His lower lip is . . . okay, anyway, having a good mouth doesn't mean I want to have it planted on mine, even if he probably is a good kisser.

God, Kowalski. Stop thinking about kissing Fraser, for Christ's sake.

Or at least think about it later.

By the time we get to the park, I remember there's a reason I should've forced Dief to come along with us; he would've been a good distraction from watching the two of them pretending not to be waiting for me to say something.

Some kind of self-preservation instinct kicks in, and at my suggestion we head over to the hole in the wall coffee shop across the street. Hey, if I'm going to be facing this weird anti-third degree for the rest of the day, I need to mainline some caffeine - and fast. We bring our coffee over to an open table and sit down.

We start to drink, but, no, it's not helping much. All the lousy coffee's doing is making me more agitated, and it sure isn't doing anything to make Fraser's mood any better.

He looks away from the table. When he turns back, he's frowning.


He sounds serious, like he's picked this minute to start with "The Talk." I groan, hoping I'm wrong. I mean, if he's going to lecture me about what a shitty person I am, I just hope he can wait until we don't have an audience.


Snap out of it, Kowalski. "Yeah, sorry. What is it, Fraser?"

His eyes move to the right, and I turn to see what he's looking at. It's our helpful pal, Thomas Austin, standing in front of a Green Ford truck with no plates and talking to . . . well, what do you know? His chum is a stocky Asian guy with a ponytail . . . just like the guy we've been looking for. And sure, it could be a coincidence - there's more than one long-haired Asian in Chicago. But Fraser - Mr. "Stop and Think, Ray!" - is already up and out of his chair.

Before he can launch into his "Gentlemen, if I could have a moment of your time . . . " routine, Austin looks over, yells something about "Cops," then grabs the set of keys out of the other guy's hands and crawls into the passenger side of the Ford, slamming it behind him. Ponytail-guy grabs for the door handle, but it's not budging - guess Austin's locked it behind him - so he turns and takes off at a run down the street, with Fraser hot on his trail.

"Damn it!" I jump up, knocking my chair backwards, and toss my cell to Sara. "Call the station: the number's on memory . . . first one. Tell them Vecchio's calling in a 10-1 at Stockton and 25th."

She looks scared, but I know she'll do it. She eats worms for me, you know?

I get up on the step board and yell at Austin to get out, but he's got the keys in the ignition already. I grab onto the side mirror just in case I end up going for a little ride, but it looks like his fucking MBA didn't cover Truck-Starting 101 because he can't get the engine to turn over.

The next thing I know, he's got the driver's door open and off he goes, with me climbing over the hood after him. He's running now - the same way his buddy went - and I'm following. I can see Fraser jump through an open window into an antique store and disappear from my sight, but I figure it's just a matter of time before he catches up with his guy - he always does.

Austin is still maybe twenty feet ahead of me, and I lose more ground when I get my foot twisted in a sewer grate for a second - long enough so that I think I'm going to lose Austin. He crosses the street and jumps a fence, but two seconds later he's jumping back my way with a really pissed off Rottweiler snapping at his heels, and that gives me a chance to grab at his jacket. He slips away once, but I lunge forward and tug him back toward me, just in time to see the Asian guy and then Fraser come flying through a closed third floor window of the antique shop.


Austin keeps wriggling, but I finally get him pinned down with my knee planted hard on his back. When I look across the street, I see Fraser's guy crawling up onto his hands and knees, getting ready to make a run for it.

No fucking way that's happening. "Stay down!" I yell hoarsely. "Get down on the ground and stay there, you fuck!"

I sound like a madman, and it's a damned good thing I do, because when the guy starts screaming "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" and drops back to the ground, I remember I've got no gun, no cuffs, and Fraser's still not moving. There's not a chance I can hold both these bastards by myself.



I get to my feet and yank Austin up by his collar. "Move it, dickhead." I know I'm practically strangling the guy with his own shirt, but he's up, and that's all I care about at the moment. "You can come along under your own steam, or I can drag you by your skinny neck, but either way, we're crossing the street now."

Austin's panting, but he follows me. I try to run, but my ankle's threatening to give out on me any second, and I only succeed at limping quickly. Damned ankle's probably sprained, but there's nothing I can do about that now. I've got to get to Fraser. Why the fuck isn't he up yet?

When I get my first good look at him, I know why he's not up. Shitshitshitshit! I let go of Austin, then drop down to my knees beside Fraser . . . and it's a damned good thing a radio car comes tearing around the corner at this precise moment, because right now I've got no room left inside me for caring about arrests.

The patrol guys get out of their unit, and I hear one of the uniforms saying he's already radioed for an ambulance, but I don't even look up, just nod and keep staring at Fraser. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Austin and the other prick being steered over to the squad car, and I have the presence of mind to yell "Mirandize them!" before I let myself forget about everything and everyone but my partner.

God. He looks de . . . no, I'm not thinking that. I am not thinking that. But the only skin on his face that's not covered in blood is stark white, whiter than I've ever seen him look before except for that day he . . . no, fuck it, no . . . I am not going to get that image of Fraser lying in a coffin stuck in my head, not now. Not ever.

I lay my hand on his bloody cheek.

I try to wipe some of the blood off his face, but I feel a sudden sharp pain. My palm gets sliced by one of the jagged pieces of glass I still can't see, but can feel are embedded in his cheek. God, I just want to do something, but there's nothing I can do except try and pick out some of the glass. When I do, he starts bleeding again. I don't know what the hell I'm doing. Where the fuck is the ambulance? I try to check for a pulse, but my goddamned hands are shaking too goddamned much to detect anything short of a jackhammer. My hands. My hands that are covered in blood - his blood and mine - and I can't do anything with them.

Only dimly aware of anything around me that isn't Fraser, I can hear more cars arriving, and then another set of hands - Jack Huey's hands - are wrapped around my shoulders and trying to pull me away, but I'm not moving, not for anyone. I try to shake him off, and I hear him saying, "Ray, you're bleeding," but I can't think about that, can't care about that, all I'm thinking - over and over again - is 'Damn you, Fraser, don't you dare die, or I swear I'll fucking kill you. I can't lose you. I love you."

Then Fraser moves.

His eyelids flutter open, and he blinks, like he does when he's puzzled by something.

And then he tries to get up. The crazy Mountie tries to get up. I lay one of my hands on his chest to try and hold him down, but I've got my other hand laid over my face. I can't look at him. My shoulders are shaking and I can feel tears running down my face and I hear Fraser's voice - Fraser's beautiful voice that I wasn't sure I'd ever hear again - saying "Ray, I'm okay. I'm okay."

Then I feel his hand on my shoulder. I can't believe it; the guy could've died, and he's . . .

. . . he could have died.

What was I waiting for? What in the name of God did I think was still left to decide?

I slide my hands beneath Fraser's head. And then slowly, barely breathing, I lean over and join my mouth to Fraser's mouth in a kiss for the first time.

It's brief - a few seconds, no longer - but in that kiss I feel joy and love and an almost overwhelming certainty that this is forever . . . and when I draw back slightly, I think I can see those same emotions mirrored back at me in Fraser's eyes. For a long minute, we can only gaze at each other, but then Fraser grimaces in pain, and suddenly I remember where we are, and come back to earth with a jolt.

I look around and see that a small crowd has gathered around us. I drop my chin to my chest for a second and shake my head: way to out yourself in as public a way as possible, Kowalski.

Fraser looks at me with concern. "Ray . . . ."

I silence him with the touch of my fingertips to his lips. "It's okay, Fraser."

He searches my face, like he's trying to measure the truth in my words. Then slowly - so fucking slowly that I can tell it hurts him to do it - he smiles at me and kisses my fingertips, and I just hold him in my arms and start to cry.

Jack is still kneeling behind me. He clears his throat and says quietly, "Ray, the EMT's are here. You have to let them do their job."

I turn to nod, and see Dewey there too, grinning. "You know, Vecchio, it's been awhile since I took that required lifesaving course, but I don't think you're supposed to start doing mouth-to-mouth after the victim regains consciousness."

* * *

I lodge my usual pro forma objections to being taken to the hospital, but only because Ray is visibly upset, and I suspect that too quick an acquiescence to the need for medical attention on my part would just add to his anxiety. However, the truth is that I'm feeling close to being in shock, and not all of it can be attributed to the kiss he and I just shared.

As I'm being settled into the ambulance, I notice that Sara is nearby. She, too, appears anxious about my well-being, but I give her what I hope is a reassuring smile, and it seems to help calm her.

She puts her arm around Ray's shoulders and says something to him that I can't hear. From the blush on his face, I suspect it has more to do with our public display of affection than with my physical condition.

Ray is dissuaded from riding along in the ambulance, but even before all the glass has been removed from my cheek and forehead, I can hear Ray outside the curtained enclosure demanding to see me. I'm not certain whether it's his threat to kick somebody in the head or the rising panic in his voice which does the trick, but in short order the curtain is pulled back and Ray is allowed in.

"Hi, Ray."

"Hey." He takes a step forward and gives my shoulder a quick squeeze, then ducks his head and steps back to let the ER doctor, Xiao Lam, finish her work.

He affects a casual air, slouching slightly and sticking his hands into his jeans pockets, but he's pale and visibly shaken, at least to my eyes. However, apart from a slight favoring of his left leg he has no apparent physical injuries, for which I'm inordinately grateful. I wish I could provide more reassurance to him that I am, in fact, all right, but I feel strangely shy in the presence of the doctor and so say nothing more.

Finally, Dr. Lam seems satisfied that she has removed all the glass. She nods, says "Don't run off anywhere" - which I believe is a joke - then pulls back the curtain and walks out with my x-rays in her hand.

The instant the pale blue curtain closes behind her, Ray is at my side.

From the moment the ambulance doors were closed, very little was running through my mind except a growing conviction that the kiss Ray gave me had to have resulted from a combination of the adrenaline produced by the chase and an understandable relief that his partner survived yet another near disaster. I realize that my tendency to launch myself into high risk situations without apparent forethought has been a source of frustration and worry for Ray for as long as we've been working together.

His uncharacteristic response today could, of course, signal a real change in the nature of his feelings for me, but so far he has said nothing to convince me that this is anything more than a case of wishful thinking on my part. I tell myself that I should just be grateful that he is comfortable with such an open display of fraternal affection.

However, while I have no siblings - unless there was something Dad forgot to mention to me all these years - there's nothing even remotely brotherly about the way Ray is looking at me. Nor is his touch the touch of a brother.

His hands gently cup my face, and I can feel his fingertips trembling slightly against my temples. Cautiously, I raise my arm and place my palm against his face. He closes his eyes, his long lashes shadowing his cheeks, then he leans into my touch, slowly lowering his head until our foreheads meet, and I can no longer see his face clearly. I close my eyes. We share a breath, still touching each other's faces . . . and then Ray leans in that last whisper of space and kisses me.

He takes a deep breath, then pulls back and shakes his head. "You know something, Fraser?"

"What is it, Ray?"

He hesitates, just looking at me for a moment, then smooths his thumbs over my eyebrows. "I love you."

I have the ridiculously over-dramatic thought that smashing through a third story window is a small price to pay if the result is Ray telling me that he loves me. Then another thought follows hard on that one's heels - that Ray has already smashed through two windows for me and I owe him one more broken window. Or perhaps I owe him one and a half, since the window I crashed through today was broken as part of a pursuit, and I'm not certain whether that counts as breaking glass for him. The recognition that I'm even thinking about balance of payments and smashed windows at a time like this strikes me as so ludicrous that I begin to chuckle.

In response, Ray starts to pull away from me, and I'm instantly appalled by my own insensitivity. I grab hold of his hands and pull them against my chest.

Ray frowns. "Let go, Fraser . . . ."


"You're right to laugh. It was kind of a stupid thing to say right now . . . ."


"I don't . . . ."



He's still pulling back, but I hold on tightly. "It was not a stupid thing to say. It was a wonderful thing . . . possibly the most wonderful thing anyone's ever said to me."

For a long moment, Ray just looks at me. When he finally speaks, it's so quietly that I can barely hear him. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." I smile up at him, and some of the tension in his face eases.

"Okay . . . good. It's just . . . I was hoping I wasn't all alone in this, you know?" He closes his eyes as if he still isn't sure that what he's saying is welcome, then ducks his head.

I clasp his hand tightly. I can't let him believe he is alone in his feelings. "Ray, I've . . . ." I want to tell him that I've loved him for such a long time now that I'd forgotten that I'd never actually said the words to him, but I can't. What's wrong with me that I can't even tell him that I love him? Once again, I try to speak, but the words won't come.

I bite down hard on my bottom lip, and Ray looks at me with concern. "Hey, you okay? You need me to get the doctor or something?"

I shake my head, then close my eyes briefly, never loosening my hold on his hand. "Ray," I whisper, looking up into his blue eyes, "you're . . . you're not alone in your feelings."

The look of relief on his face is almost painful to see, and I can feel tears start to prick at the corners of my eyes. I now know, only too well, how much courage it took for Ray to say he loves me. It's clearly more than I possess.

I pull him toward me and once again, our mouths meet in a kiss - less gentle this time than before. There's a hunger growing in me that I'm just beginning to understand, one that can only be satisfied by the taste of Ray's mouth. The intensity of Ray's response tells me that this same hunger is growing in him, as well.

It would seem that he has forgotten, for the moment at least, that I was even hurt, but the press of his callused fingers against the cuts and bruises on my face as he tilts my head back, shows me more of the magnitude of his feelings than any careful caress could possibly do at this moment. I return Ray's kisses with a fervor equal to his own, and the long-awaited pleasure of his kiss is almost overwhelming. I am fiercely glad that Ray has forgotten to be gentle with me.

For a time, all I can hear is our ragged breathing and the rasp of stubble against stubble as Ray rubs his cheek back and forth against my chin, and it is all I want to hear. When the sound of approaching footsteps eventually cuts through my pleasure-fogged brain, it is already too late to pull apart on our own; Dr. Lam's impatient throat clearing does the job for us.

She tells me what I already suspected: that the injuries I received were, for the most part, superficial; I'll need a few stitches, but no more. She is concerned, of course, about my blacking out when I hit the ground. However, she seems more concerned with the bruising on my back, and it is clear from her reaction that she has read the notes in my records about my being shot two years earlier.

I believe I'm successful in convincing her that the discomfort I'm feeling in my back at the moment is merely a result of the fall and is not related to the bullet still lodged near my spine, but she's not willing to release me just yet.

"And as for you, Detective Vecchio, don't think nobody noticed you limping down the corridor. Why don't you come along with me and get that foot of yours checked out."

Ray starts to protest that he doesn't need any medical attention, but his eyes keep darting in my direction and finally Dr. Lam scowls at him. "Detective, I think you can safely leave your friend alone for a few minutes. Constable Fraser is going to be just fine."

He glances at me one last time, slightly pink, and I nod my agreement. I am ashamed that I hadn't already suggested that Ray get his injury seen to. Allowing my desire to keep him by my side to take on more significance than his physical well being is appallingly selfish of me, and I start to wonder how often in the past year he has been put at unnecessary risk because of my increasing reluctance to be separated from him, regardless of the circumstances.

" . . . is that acceptable, Constable Fraser?"

Oh dear. Perhaps the head injury was more serious than I thought. I have no idea what she just said to me. "Could you repeat that, please?"

She raises her eyebrows. "Getting a little tired? Yes, well, that's why I'm admitting you . . . just to make sure everything checks out."

It is now my turn to protest, but I'm no more successful than Ray had been earlier. There is something in Dr. Lam's quiet refusal to brook any argument when she believes she is in the right that puts me in mind of my late grandmother. Whether it is this echo from my past or the fact that all of a sudden I am unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I give in to her wishes with no further objections.

She leaves to order a set of x-rays for Ray's foot, and I try to focus on the face in front of me. "Ray, Diefenbaker is still at your apartment."

I feel his hand on my shoulder. "It's covered, Fraser. I'll take care of the wolf. You get some rest." He puts his hand over my eyes, and I drift off to sleep.

When I awake the following morning, I find I've been moved out of the ER and into a semi-private room. The side bars on the bed have been raised and I've been hooked up to what appears to be a saline drip, but no monitors are in evidence, which reassures me somewhat as to my medical condition.

The sight of Ray asleep in a chair beside my bed is even more reassuring. He's leaning back, snoring softly, his bare feet propped up on an upturned wastebasket upon which he's folded his jacket for cushioning. I can see that his right ankle has been heavily taped, but apart from that, he appears to be suffering no ill effects from yesterday's impromptu chase.

Watching Ray sleep is an unaccustomed luxury for me. Awake, Ray is an ever-changing mix of moods. He goes from happy to angry, from playful to belligerent, often within the blink of an eye, and this fascinates me about him. But when Ray is asleep, the mercurialness evaporates and what remains is so serene and sweet that it elicits a sentimental response that I suspect no one would ever associate with me.

The early morning sun streams through the window. It shines on Ray's spiky blond hair and flashes off the tips of his long lashes. Whether he first becomes aware of the play of bright sunlight on his face or the equal intensity of my gaze, I don't know, but within a few moments I see Ray's eyelashes flutter open and a crooked smile appear on his face.

"Hey, you're awake." He leans forward and wraps his hands around the bar at his side of my bed. "How're you doing?"

The look of care and concern in Ray's eyes causes my automatic response of "I'm fine" to die on my lips. "I'm . . . I'm still a little sore, actually."

Oddly enough, Ray relaxes at this. Nods. "Yeah, you got yourself banged up pretty good there." He reaches over the bar and touches my forehead, pushing a few stray hairs back from where they've stuck to the bandages.

I want to tell him just how happy it made me to find him in the room with me when I awoke, but instead I take refuge in practicalities and ask about Diefenbaker's whereabouts.

"He's still at my place. He was whining a little when I stopped by to feed him, but I told him you were okay and he calmed right down. Anyway, Sara volunteered to spend the night and keep an eye on things, and it looks like she's even more of a pushover where he's concerned than Frannie is, so the wolf's probably forgotten either of us ever existed by now."

"Thank you for seeing that he was looked after, Ray."

"No problem. He's family, right?"

He says this with a grin, but I believe he understands, as no one else does, what Dief means to me - what family means to me - and this touches me deeply.

We spend the rest of the morning talking. We discuss nothing of any particular consequence although we clearly still have a great deal to talk about as regards our changed circumstances. However, I believe both of us feel rather constrained by the setting, particularly by the constant comings and goings of hospital personnel throughout the day.

Toward the end of the afternoon I am finally released by Dr. Lam. It is later than either Ray or I would have wished, but quite a bit sooner than I feared would be the case. Long after the effects of the pain medication wore off, I was still behaving in an uncharacteristically dazed way, which I thought might raise doubts in Dr. Lam about my readiness to return home.

In the event, however, she appears quite happy with my progress, and from the way she glances at Ray while giving me my release instructions, I suspect she already knows Ray is going to be watching over my recovery, which surprises me since neither Ray nor I have said anything aloud about where I'll be staying tonight - not even to each other.

We return to Ray's apartment. Dief seems inordinately happy to see me, allowing his normal regard for his dignity to take a back seat for once, but he appears to understand the need to refrain from jumping on me in greeting and jumps up to lick Ray's chin instead.

Ray puts the kettle on so that I can have a drink. I walk toward the kitchen to get the tea things out as I have done many times in the past, but he takes me by the shoulders, turns me around, and walks me back toward the couch.

"You. Sit!"

I sit as he tells me to do, but my jaw is set in what my grandmother used to call my muleboy look.

Ray shakes his head and glares at me. "No way you're getting me in trouble with Lam, Fraser. She looks like she's got a wicked right hook on her. You don't rest like you said you would, she'll probably come over and pop me one."

"I seriously doubt you're in any danger from a display of Dr. Lam's pugilistic skills, Ray."

"Yeah . . . well, I'm not risking it, so you're staying right there on your butt for the rest of the night."

Ordinarily I would balk at being taken care of, but I find Ray's order to plant myself on the couch for the evening surprisingly easy to follow. Tea is brought to me, then a sandwich, and by the time I finish both, I'm already starting to fade. Ray takes my supper things back to the kitchen, then joins me on the couch and turns on the television so we can watch the Hawks game. He drapes his arm over my shoulder, and before the buzzer sounds at the end of the second period, my eyes are closed and I'm practically asleep in his lap.

Although I need to relieve myself, I'm reluctant to leave the warmth I've found in Ray's arms. Everything he's done in the past twenty-four hours has encouraged me to believe that he's thinking quite as much in the long term as I have been, but Ray's vow of love aside, neither of us has said the first thing about our expectations or hopes for this new phase of our relationship, and I admit to feeling a bit insecure, as if at any moment this wonderful feeling will prove to be nothing but an illusion, and I'll find myself alone again.

Finally, though, my bodily needs supercede my fears, and I go into the bathroom. Washing my hands, I glance into the mirror. Small bruises and cuts are scattered across my face, my hair is dirty and tangled, and the neck of the t-shirt Ray gave me to wear is stretched and ripped. I don't have the faintest idea who this man is who's staring back at me . . . but he seems to be happy.

Ray gets up from the couch when I return to the living room.

"You good, buddy?"

"Apart from looking like a refugee from a rave gone horribly wrong, I seem to be, yes."

Ray laughs, then walks over to me, still limping slightly, and places his hands on my hips. "I think I'm ready to crash for the night. How about you?"

I glance in the direction of the couch, and Ray rolls his eyes.

"You nuts? The 'jumping out of windows' recovery room is that way," he says, indicating his bedroom.

"Would that also be the 'foot caught in a grate' recovery room?"

"By a weird coincidence, it would be." He gently tugs at me and pulls me toward him. I wrap my arms around his waist, rest my head on his shoulder, and the two of us just stand there for a minute, enjoying this peace that we seem to have found with each other.

"Come on," he says, kissing my temple gently. "I think we could both do with some sleep."

I nod and follow him into the bedroom.

He switches on the bedside lamp and pulls down the covers for me. I remove my sweatpants and socks, then get into Ray's bed for the first time.

I'm surprised at how calm I am. I'm not completely without experience, of course, but my sexual experience - with women or men - has been relatively limited. Sharing a bed with someone for the first time has always been a slightly nerve-wracking experience for me, and this specific 'someone' is so incredibly important to me that it would be natural if I were even more anxious than usual about how this first night might play out. Instead, I feel relaxed in a way I very rarely feel even when there is less at stake.

Then Ray strips down to his underwear and slips into bed next to me - brushing his fingertips against my forearm - and all at once I realize that thinking I was calm was an absurd case of self-delusion.

I close my eyes and turn my head away. Why am I feeling this tension? Why now? I want to get myself under control before Ray notices anything is wrong, but he is too good an observer to remain oblivious to this. He props himself up on one elbow and reaches out for my chin with his free hand, turning me to face him. He looks at me for a moment, but he doesn't say anything, doesn't ask me what's wrong - just leans in and kisses me. Then he curls himself behind me and holds on tightly, stroking my chest, rocking me gently until I do, finally, relax.

I fall asleep in Ray's arms.

When I awake, I am still being held in his warm embrace. It is a mark of my improved physical condition that I feel not only comfortable being held this way, but I am also aware of a distinct feeling of arousal which has been brought on by his proximity. I push backwards just the slightest bit, trying to feel as much of his skin against my skin as possible, and Ray - still only half awake - snuggles closer to me. He tucks his bent knee between my legs and strokes my back with his free hand, his touch gentle as it moves along the length of my spine. He pauses, then moves his hand lower, curls it around the curve of my buttocks and pulls me toward him.

His lightly furred thigh brushes against my half-erect penis, and almost instantly the last lingering discomfort from Sunday's pursuit vanishes, swept away in the sensations engendered by the rhythmic press of his skin against my own.

Ray's eyes are closed, and he still hasn't spoken a word since waking, but a sweet smile plays on his lips before he leans forward to touch his forehead to mine. He hums softly to himself, then brushes his lips against my own.

I return his kiss, and as I do it occurs to me that this is only the second time in my adult life that I have been kissed immediately upon waking - and the first time by someone who says . . . no, by someone who does love me.

Ray loves me.

He loves me, and he wants me, and we're together in his bed. I am so close to having everything I want with Ray, yet unwelcome memories of pain - both given and received - push relentlessly at the edges of my consciousness. I don't want to think about them . . . .don't want to think about anything but Ray.

No, I don't want to think at all.

I close my eyes, wrap my arms around Ray's back, pull him up on top of me, and hold him tightly. Within my embrace, he shifts his body a little to the right, props himself up with his elbows on the bed at either side of me. His hands slide under the back of my head, fingers curled in my hair.

The sound of his harsh breathing stirs something primal in me, and I clutch at his back, my nails scraping against his skin, but he tightens his grasp on the back of my head until I can do nothing but tilt it back, and Ray brings his mouth down hard onto mine. His hot, wet tongue licks along the length of my neck. He sucks at my chin, then rubs his cheek against my jaw, back and forth, two day stubble scraping softly on my skin.

I turn my head, feel the gentle tug of his fingers still in my hair. I lick around the corners of his mouth, catching the lingering taste of last night's toothpaste on his teeth.

His legs drop between mine as I raise my knees, and our groins meet. We rock together for a moment and the hot, hard length of his penis rubs against my own.

Once more, Ray pushes himself up a little with his hands, then starts to move slowly down the length of my chest, laying wet kisses along my skin. His mouth finds my nipples, first one, then the other. I feel a sudden heat building there in my chest, then an echo of that heat lower in my groin. Ray moves down, following the path that heat is taking. He kisses my stomach, rubs his chin, his cheek, his lips against me.

When he licks the head of my penis, I arch upwards, instinct winning out for a time over the desire to remain still and let Ray find his own way, at his own speed. I'm still lying on my back, knees bent and legs apart. I close my eyes again and will myself to relax as his tongue explores the length of my penis. Then I am engulfed in the wet heat of Ray's mouth, and I can no longer be still as every nerve in my body explodes in delight..

Desperate, all at once, to touch him, I reach down, curling my shoulders, my spine. I want to wrap myself as completely around his body as he has wrapped his hot mouth around my penis. He shifts above me, and finally I can reach his shoulders, his back, can feel the soft play of muscles beneath his shoulder blades as he takes me deeper into his mouth.

Gently he sucks at me, learning my size and shape . . . then he sucks harder, and all my control is gone in an instant. The aching need within me is only intensified by the pull and suck of his mouth. I moan his name out loud, and Ray reaches up with both his hands and strokes his thumbs across my nipples. I clutch at his head, drive myself up into his mouth . . . once, then once again . . . and . . . oh God.

An eternity passes. I hear only the sound of my own labored breathing, feel only my own heart pounding against my chest.

I loosen my hold on Ray's head, finally, then straighten my knees and slide my still-shaking legs down onto the bed.

Ray lifts up his head to meet my gaze and chuckles as he watches me try unsuccessfully to form words. He ducks his head down and gives my now-limp penis a last lick, then swipes his thumb across the small amount of semen that didn't quite make it into his mouth. He crawls up beside me and holds his thumb next to my bottom lip. I turn my head, then bite gently on his thumb and capture it in my mouth, tasting the slightly bitter fluid he drew from me, followed by the sweeter taste of his thumb beneath.

My heart rate returns to normal, and we lie quietly for a moment. Ray's thumb is still in my mouth, his fingers gently caressing my cheek. Finally, he withdraws his thumb and reaches around to pull me closer to him, strokes my upper arm. I look over at his face. His eyes are closed and he's smiling, humming a little to himself.

The love I feel for him is almost overwhelming.

I take a deep shuddering breath and try to speak, but the words still won't come. I draw him to my chest in a tight embrace, and bury my face in his neck.

"Hey, Fraser . . . you okay?" he asks, with some concern

I nod, my face still pressed against his neck, then draw back a bit and meet his gaze. "Ray . . . you have no idea how okay I am."

My words sound shaky to my own ears and I wonder, for a moment, if I'm going to cry, but he gives me a crooked grin, leans in to kiss me on the mouth, and I am able to return his smile.

Again, I lean into him and feel the press of his still hard penis against me. "God, Ray! You haven't . . . ."

"Hey, don't worry," he interrupts. "I'm good, okay? Anyway, I got some party plans for my . . . um . . . for this guy here that I think you might be interested in participating in later today."

Just the thought of what these plans might be engenders a stirring in my groin. The tip of my penis touches Ray's leg, and he laughs. "I'll take that as an RSVP."

"Yeah," I murmur sleepily, a smile curling up the corners of my mouth.

He kisses me once more, then pulls the top sheet up to our chests. "Let's get you a little more sleep, okay?"

"You'll stay with me?" I ask immediately.

I sound ridiculously needy, even to myself, but Ray just sighs contentedly and kisses me yet again. "Where else would I be?"

Where else, indeed? He's been by my side almost constantly from the day we met, as I have been by his. Where would either of us be but together?


"Yeah, Fraser?"

"I love you."

He smiles, nods. "I know. And I love you. Now go back to sleep."

I doze on and off for the rest of the morning, and each time I stir, Ray is still beside me in the bed. His presence there makes me extremely happy, but also slightly bemused as I don't believe I've ever known Ray to stay in one place for twelve hours in all the time we've known each other.

Sometime past noon, I finally rouse myself sufficiently to roll over. Ray is sitting up in bed, leaning back against his pillow. His glasses are perched at the end of his nose, and he's reading a book that had been in the living room when we went to sleep last night. I glance down at the floor, and the clothes he was wearing yesterday are almost exactly where he'd shed them the previous evening. However, his jeans and boots are both slightly rain-dampened, which tells me he's been outside this morning, and the lack of complaint from Diefenbaker, who's lying next to the radiator, leads me to believe that Ray must have already taken him out for a walk and fed him.

Ray turns his head and sees me watching him. Pushes his glasses back into place. Smiles.

"Hey. You want something to drink?" He reaches around to pick up a full glass of orange juice from the bedside table and hands it to me. I scoot up into a sitting position and take the glass, but frown a little.

"Ray," I say after I take a long swallow. "You know you don't have to play nursemaid for me. I'm perfectly capable of sleeping all day without on-the-spot assistance."

He reaches up and ruffles my hair. "Yeah, well, you know me: I'll try anything. It's kind of a new experience for me, being in bed with you. This is good, just being here. I like it. A lot."

I feel myself blush a bit, but lean over to kiss his shoulder. "Thank you . . . for everything. I like it, too."

"I figured." He puts his book away. "So you doing okay? Got anything you'd be interested in doing for what's left of the day?"

He gives me a rather wicked grin and raises his eyebrows.

"Well, now that you mention it, Ray, since this new experience has proven to be enjoyable, perhaps you'd like to try . . . um . . . another one." I try to return his wicked expression, but I think I only succeed in looking ridiculously hopeful.

Perhaps I'm being slightly presumptuous in assuming that Ray might already wish to . . . well . . . to take the physical side of our relationship beyond the stage we've reached thus far. After all, sexual fulfillment can be attained in many different ways, and . . . oh, who am I trying to fool? I want him inside me, and waiting for a sign from Ray that he is ready to take that step is . . . .

"Another new experience, huh?" he asks teasingly. "Hmm. You mean, like flying to London for tea with the Queen?"

I cough slightly at the sudden, unwelcome image of the monarch in bed with us. "Ah, no. That wasn't exactly what I had in mind."

Ray grins. "You know, somehow I didn't really think so. Okay, so you want to give me a little hint here? You want to suck me? Fuck me? You want me to fuck you?"

I can't help the sound I make when he says that last. He moistens his lips, slowly. "Oh, yeah. Okay, that works. I'm good with that."

He places one hand on my side, then turns around halfway to open the drawer of his bedside table. After a few seconds of rummaging through the clutter, he stops and kneels back down on the bed. I hear a plastic lid being flipped open, and a moment later, I can detect the subtle scent of . . . watermelon?

If it weren't such a cliché, I'd slap myself on the forehead. What could have led me to imagine that Ray was inexperienced? That he'd be tentative about making love with me? While I still believe I'm correct in presuming that Ray's previous experience with men has been virtually non-existent, he was intimately involved with Stella for almost twenty years, and from everything he's told me, the sexual side of their relationship was . . . well . . . I suppose 'adventurous' would be an appropriate term.

I've always prided myself on being an intelligent man, but sometimes my naïveté is stunning even to myself. Thinking the idea of anal sex would be so shockingly strange a thing for Ray is, as Ray would say, 'd.u.m.,' dumb."

I turn to face Ray, who's kneeling on the bed. I stretch my legs out - one at either side of his bent knees - and lean back against the wall, reveling in the first true sight I've had of Ray's bare skin.

He is golden. Glowing. A Maxfield Parrish figure made flesh.

The likelihood that this is nothing but a flight of fancy brought on by my own arousal crosses my mind briefly, but I dismiss the thought as irrelevant.

I love him. I love looking at him. Nothing else matters to me at this moment.

Ray notices me gazing intently at him. He pushes a little at my shoulder, trying to get me to slide down on the bed and turn over onto my stomach, but I protest. "Ray, I . . . I need to see this. To see you."

He just looks at me for a minute, but then he nods.

I watch as Ray coats his fingers liberally with lubricant, slides them along the length of his penis. He closes his eyes briefly as he touches the sensitive skin at the tip. He sighs softly, then squeezes more of the watermelon-scented fluid onto the fingers of his right hand.

I tilt my head to one side, wrinkle my brow.

"What?" He looks down at his fingers, then back at me. "I don't . . . I don't want anything we do hurting you, Fraser."

"Thank you for worrying, Ray, but it's really not necessary. You won't hurt me."

"Come on, Fraser. It's . . . um . . . been a while for you." He frowns a little. "It has been a while, hasn't it?"

I put a hand on his knee. "Yes, it . . . has." Which is true. Well, technically, at any rate - and the words do succeed in reassuring him.

Ray reaches under my bent knee with one hand, cradling my thigh in the bend of his elbow. I slide down lower on the bed, then angle myself upwards slightly in order that Ray might have easier access,

He takes immediate advantage, rubbing the tip of his index finger along the perimeter of my anus, then slowly pushing that finger inside me.

A moment later, a second finger joins the index finger, tthen a third. I want him in me fully, but having any part of Ray inside me is so new to me that, for the moment, I'm just happy to savor this experience.


"What is it, Ray?"

"It's just . . . I usually had to work . . . " he stops himself, apparently realizing that neither Stella nor I would really appreciate my knowing this. "Well, you're pretty easy with this, considering it's been a while."

I feel myself blush a little, in addition to the flush I already had. "Yes, well . . . I . . . it's only difficult if one isn't . . . prepared."

"So how . . . ."

"Come, Ray. Surely you can think of an alternative means of . . . well, preparation when the right person isn't . . . available."

"You used . . . um . . . yourself?"

I nod.

"Your own fingers? Really?"

He sounds fascinated.

This is not the kind of thing I've ever really felt comfortable discussing with anyone before, but it's far easier to talk about it with Ray than anyone else I could ever have imagined. "Yes. Generally speaking, yes."

Almost immediately, he picks up on my word usage. "Come on, man. What else've you been using? Toys?"

He's grinning, his fingers still within me, tickling along my inner walls.


"No, it's cool. Rubber? Big? Covered in red maples leaves? Can I see?" He's laughing now, but oddly enough, I'm only slightly embarrassed. I suppose I don't exactly give off the air of someone who even knows what sexual aids look like. Of course, when he flops backwards on the bed, laughing so hard that his fingers slip out of me and he can barely breathe, I'm slightly less complacent.

"For God's sake, Ray!"

He rolls over, crawls across the bed to me, and lays his head on my chest. "Sorry, Fraser." Then he laughs once more, but his expression becomes instantly contrite when I give him a quelling look.

Ray reaches around me, pulls me over on my side to face him, rubs his hand gently along the cleft between my cheeks.

"You know," he says finally, "It's actually kind of hot, thinking of you lying there with a dildo up that great ass of yours."

Perhaps I was too quick to assert my non-embarrassment. This isn't going at all the way I imagined it would. "Ray, do we have to talk about this right now?"

"Say 'ass,' and I'll stop."

"Now you're just being silly."

"Yeah, I am." He grins, then ducks down to kiss me where his hand had just been. "Come on. Say 'ass' just once, and I'll shut up."

I'm silent long enough that Ray pushes himself back up on his knees and looks at me with a worried expression on his face. "Fraser, I . . . ."

"You really like my ass, Ray?"

"Like it? I love it! It's the . . . hey! No fair slipping the word into a sentence. I wasn't ready!" He's laughing again, and now I am as well.

"In that case, Ray . . . might I suggest you . . . er . . . slip something in when I'm not looking, and everything will be . . . even-Steven."

My words cause Ray, who's laughing again, to collapse on top of me. "Who knew?"

"Who knew what, Ray?" I ask, after I push him far enough off me so that I can draw a breath.

"Who knew that this . . . this thing between you and me would be so much damned fun?"

I'm as surprised as Ray. I've loved this man for a long time, have fantasized about what it might be like to make love with him, regardless of how implausible I thought the chance of that happening. But nowhere in any of my imaginings did I think that he and I would be laughing. That this might actually be . . . fun.

Ray hugs me tightly, then moves off of me and pushes me over on my right side so that my back is against his chest. I curl inwards slightly, bending my left leg a bit and pulling it toward my chest - or as far as it will go.

I feel a sudden warmth as Ray nuzzles the back of my neck, laying hot kisses along my skin as he slides one knee over my right leg and slowly lowers himself against me, pushing rhythmically so that his still slippery penis slides smoothly back and forth between my cheeks. He slides one hand around my hips, strokes my penis slowly in his left hand with just the right amount of friction.

He twists around . . . trying, I believe, to take his own penis in hand so that he can guide it, but he falls chin first onto my back.

"How do people do this?" He laughs. "I definitely need another hand."

I turn my head so that our eyes meet and smile at him. "Perhaps you could remove your hand from me until you're . . . Oh!" He seems to have found the right spot without guidance.

He leans down and kisses my shoulder, but he pauses, the tip of his penis just brushing against my anus. For a long moment, he doesn't move . . . doesn't speak. Perhaps I was wrong to assume that he is, in fact, comfortable with anal sex when it's with a man. Perhaps this is all too new to him.


"Yeah?" His voice is shaky, quiet.

"Is this . . . are we going too fast for you?"

"No! I mean . . . no, it's not. It's just . . . God! Fraser this is you. Us. Oh, fuck, I don't know what I mean."

He drops his forehead down against my shoulder blade, then wraps his arm around me. I slide my right arm around his forearm, pull it tightly against my chest until I'm not sure whether he's holding me or I'm holding myself, but it's not enough - I need to see his face. I twist my head around, then bend the elbow of my left arm, swivel it around at the shoulder so that I can curl my fingers in his sweat-dampened hair.


"Yeah?" There's an almost imperceptible quaver in his voice.

"I want you inside me."

In part, my words are a simple invitation to join in an act of love and of course Ray knows that. Acknowledges it with a nod of his head, a quick squeeze of my shoulder with his hand.

But my words are also a promise and a vow - a declaration of love and trust - and I hope Ray hears those things too. I think he does.

He rubs his cheek against my temple, slides his hand down my side - tickling my ribs - and shifts his legs so that they wrap around me. I hear a quick intake of breath, and I know he's taken his penis in his hand, can feel him position himself . . . just . . . there.

For a moment - one moment only - he pauses to kiss the back of my neck; then, with a single thrust, he enters me, and . . . oh God, it's so amazing. He moves slowly at first, holding me tightly against his chest, waiting to hear me as he fills me, testing the sounds I make, making sure they're sounds of pleasure, not pain. Then he pushes up into me faster. Once, twice, a third time . . . each thrust unerringly finding my prostate over and over again until I'm sure I'm going to come from that alone.

"Oh, fuck!" someone groans, and I think it's Ray, but it sounds so much like what I'm feeling that for a second I can't be certain it's him and not me. He reaches around me to take my penis in his hand, and the press of his flesh against my flesh is so perfect, all I want is more and more of it. I push hard into his palm. A rush of heat builds fast within me, and I clench instinctively around Ray, drawing a breathless moan from him. He thrusts into me, harder than before and stills, and in the next moment, he and I come together.

"God," he sighs finally. "When I said you had a great ass, I had no idea how great it was."

He slides out of me and slowly pushes himself up to his knees, lays his hands on me. "Everything all right? You feel okay?"

I turn my head to face him, slowly open my eyes and smile. "I'll let you know after I recover. I think someone just fucked the words right out of me."

He barks out a laugh and flops back down beside me on the bed, then reaches out for my hand and draws it tightly against my chest.

"Hey, Fraser?"


"I think this is working out pretty good, so far."

* * *

Tuesday at WCGO is crazy - and not in a good way.

I should be spending the day in the editing room, putting together the trade expo feature with Jeremy, but instead I seem to have become part of a story myself.

Ray and Benton's way too exciting adventure on a slow news week has become every local outlet's lead story, but no one seems to be able to reach either of the guys for comment. However, the rumor mill got hold of my name somehow, and so it's my phone that rings off the hook all day long.

When I get a minute to breathe in the afternoon, I call the hospital, but I find out that Benton's already been released. I give the Consulate a call, but whoever's answering phones over there only succeeds in making me more confused than I was before I made the call, and I'm no more successful contacting Ray by phone than any of my colleagues had been. The machine picks up; Ray doesn't.

After six hours of being hounded by half the news stations in Chicago, I've pretty much reached the end of my rope, so I decide to take off for the day, even though the editing's nowhere near finished. I leave a message on mom's voice mail so she doesn't worry about me, then sneak out and head over to Ray's place to see if he can let me know how Benton's doing.

When Ray opens the door and says hi, I smile and shake my head.

Benton's there, sitting on the sofa, bare feet tucked up underneath him. He's wearing a pair of sweat pants and an old faded Sex Pistols t-shirt that I recognize as Ray's from back in his brief punk wannabe days. The shirt barely fits Benton, but with his banged up face and the way his hair's sticking up at odd angles, I'll bet anything he and Ray are both getting into this weird not-quite-bad-boy look of his.

Maybe I jumped the gun when I first met them - thinking they were an item like I did - but today there's no way I could be mistaking the looks I see passing back and forth between them. I don't know about Benton - he could still be stunned by the fall he took - but I do know Ray Kowalski, and he's wearing that cute and dopey "I'm in love" look that I only ever saw him wear at the height of the Stella era.

My almost-certainty about the two of them is confirmed for me a few seconds later when I take a seat on the chair. Ray goes and sits next to Benton on the sofa, and I swear there's not a quarter inch of daylight between the two of them. Benton leans in, almost imperceptibly, and Ray's eyes dart to the right, his fingers twitching like he can't stand not to be touching the guy. It's almost painful to watch, but it's so damned cute.


There's such a long pause before he jerks his head in my direction and says "huh?" that I practically burst out laughing.

"What?" he asks. "What's so funny?"

"This is me, you know, Kowalski. I know you."

For a minute he looks like he's going to ask what I'm talking about, but then he glances at Benton, then back at me, and shrugs.

"Oh, screw it!" he says, and takes Benton in his arms. He plants a kiss on his mouth, and Benton blushes, but returns Ray's embrace and kiss with equal enthusiasm.

I suppose it's possible that they could have forgotten I was even there, but after about twenty seconds of smooching have gone by, Diefenbaker jumps up on the sofa behind Ray and starts to lick his ear.

Ray unpeels himself from Benton and pushes the wolf onto the floor, then pulls his t-shirt off and starts to scrub vigorously at the side of his head. Benton gives Diefenbaker a look of total exasperation, but the wolf turns his head away ostentatiously and trots over to my side.

"Hey, Kowalski," I laugh. "I guess this means our wedding's off again." After a few seconds, Ray cracks a smile.

"I'm not sure, Knowles. Maybe I could keep Fraser on the side."

Benton raises his eyebrows. "Do I get a say in any of this?"

Ray looks over to Benton with a slightly worried expression. "Hey, you know I'm kidding, right?"

"I know, Ray." Benton wraps his arm around him.

The three of us talk for a while, mostly about the chase, but eventually the conversation turns to . . . well, to a discussion of them.

"When are you going to talk to your parents about you and Benton?"

Before I even finish asking the question, Ray's already shaking his head. "No way are my folks ready for this. They're . . . what's the word, Fraser? The one that means, like, barely able to cope with the fact that their 36 year old son is shaving?"

"I'm not certain there's a word for that, Ray."

"Yeah, well, there should be."

Benton smiles at Ray, who leans over and kisses him.

I roll my eyes. "Okay, you're clearly both feeling much better than you were the last time I saw you. I think I'm going to head on home and see if mom wants to go to the mall or something. I have to pick up some things, and I hate shopping alone."

Ray and Benton walk me to the door and thank me for coming by. Both of them hug me goodnight, and Diefenbaker ambles over nonchalantly to give me a conspiratorial lick on the back of my hand.

When I get home, I have to park in the street because the driveway's already occupied with the Kowalskis' rental. So much for shopping with mom. As I walk up the front path, I think about what Ray said about not telling his parents, and the more I think about it, the more I figure he's probably right. Sometimes parents need a little protection from reality.

I walk in the front door. The living room television's on - it sounds like the Cubs are playing - and I'm just about to say hello when I hear Mom say, "Well, maybe they weren't actually kissing, Barbara. It could just have been some newfangled life-saving technique."

Uh oh. Maybe this isn't the best time to walk into the living room.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Helen. Annette's daughter was one of the paramedics who was called in, and she'd have known if that was some life saving method or not."

"And Ray hasn't said anything about this to you?"

"Not a word. He never even said anything about the arrest; I had to get that from Annette, as well. I swear, if she wasn't working part-time at the station, I'd never know what Stanley was getting up to."

Mom sighs, and I can almost see her shaking her head. "I don't know what it is with our children. They always think everything's got to be such a big secret."

I'd probably take offense at that comment if I weren't hiding in the hallway.

"They've always been that way . . . Damian! Would you turn that television down? Can't you tell we're trying to have a discussion?"

"You see me stopping you? You two already chased me out of the kitchen so you could do whatever it is you get up to in there. I didn't know it was such a crime to want to listen to the game."

"Well, I'd have thought you'd at least pretend to have a little more interest in your son's life."

"Hell's bells, Barbara," he says. "You know Raymond hasn't listened to anything I've had to say since he was seventeen years old. And another thing - I'll thank you to admit that I told you so. I told you when we were on our way back here from Arizona that he'd have changed."

"Would anyone like anything to drink?" Mom pipes up, trying to play peacemaker. I flatten myself against the wall. No, Mom . . . stay where you are.

"No thank you, Helen." I can hear the frost in Barbara's voice.



"I'm warning you, Damian Kowalski . . . if you stop talking to your son again because of this, I'm going to . . . well, I don't know what I'll do, but I'll think of something."

"Stop talking to him? Barbara, Raymond's a grown man. It's none of my business what he gets up to."

"Even if it turns out he's . . . what's the word?"

"A fairy?"


"Oh, all right. A homosexual."

"I think we're supposed to say 'gay' these days"

Way to go, Mom.

"The Mountie's not so bad. He's a hell of an improvement over . . . ." Whoops. Quit while you're ahead, Damian. " . . . well, anyway, he's not so bad. Knows his way around a fishing reel."

"He's a good boy." Barbara sighs. "I just hoped, well . . . I can't help worrying about Sara."

"I know," Mom says. "She's not getting any younger, and it's not like there's such a big supply of men out there with husband potential."

"Oh!" Barbara exclaims. "I know just the thing! Did you know Annette has a son as well as a daughter? Evidently he'd been living in Detroit for years, but Annette says he's divorced now and that he just bought a lovely house over by the lake."

"The lake, is it? He must be doing well for himself . . . ."

Okay, this is probably going to go on all night, but it's going to have to go on without me. I slip out the front door and make a beeline for my car. I think I can go shopping by myself, just this once. Annette Prawdiuk's creepy son? Brrr.

Alone isn't always such a bad idea.


Chit chat, Critiques, Gratuitous Praise: beth-h (at) mrks (dot) org

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