Disclaimer: Oh, please. They aren't mine. They belong to Alliance/Atlantis and the Pauls.

Many, many thanks and much love to a quartet of wonderful beta readers: AuKestrel (for encouragement and insights above and beyond the call of duty), Kit Mason and Sihaya Black (for always asking the right questions and always having the right answers), and, as always, C.L. Finn - with whom I evidently share a single overworked Muse (...okay, C, you can have the Muse back now).

Internal Affairs
by Beth H.
(c) April 2001

* * * * *

Twenty-three months after ending the quest for the Hand of Franklin, and in all that time we hadn't spent a night apart.

The quest - that was one weird trip. Didn't have a clue what I was doing there, and I mean that metaphorically as much as literally. Still can't believe I was the one to suggest we go mushing off into the middle of nowhere looking for something that probably didn't even exist, but I guess I must've because off we went.

Fraser wouldn't have done it. Oh, he agreed, and enthusiastically, but he was pretty damned surprised, too. Reminded me one of the first things I ever said to him was that I got a skin condition whenever I was out of the city, so I get why my suggestion that we go off on an adventure into the wilderness would sound strange to him. Sounded strange to me, and I was the one saying it.

Did I really want to be up there, God knows how long, freezing my ass off in the Northwest Territories? Nah. Not then. Not really. I mean, what did I know about doing the Arctic Boy Scout thing? Nothing, that's what. Took weeks before I was even halfway close to pulling my own weight, and I know it sounds nuts, but I'm still a little suspicious that Dief had figured out some way to convince the dogs on the team to go easy on me while I was learning to mush.

All I knew was that I wasn't quite ready to pick up whatever was left of my real life back in Chicago and I sure as hell wasn't ready to say goodbye to Fraser. Or maybe I just thought I needed a little time to chill.

Couldn't have picked a better place for 'chilling' than the Territories.

It was cold. I mean, big surprise, right? We're talking about the place that put the "perma" in "permafrost." But I still didn't expect it would be as cold as it was - so cold that Fraser had us zip the sleeping bags together every night to conserve body heat. Considering the two of us ended up . . . well . . . anyway, you'd think that sleeping together like that all the time might have started something, but nothing happened during the entire four months we were away, and I mean nothing. Not a kiss. Not a hug. Hell, we barely bumped elbows during the night.

But then we woke up one morning and it kind of hit us both at the same time that there hadn't been snow on the ground for, like, weeks, and the dogs were just kind of hanging out, not doing much of anything, and we decided it was probably time to pack in the quest. Hey, we still had jobs to get back to, and you know, I don't think either of us ever really thought we were going to find the Hand of Franklin in the first place. It was never about that. So we set off to what passes for civilization up in the Territories, and it was like . . . I don't know . . . like we were both hit upside the head with a baseball bat at the same time.

That first night back in town we got the dogs squared away, leaving Dief, who was in the early stages of a little wolf-kinda flirtation, to stay with the others. Then we got some dinner for ourselves (you don't know how great food tastes when it isn't flash-freezing on its way from the pot to your mouth), and took a couple of rooms at a local bed and breakfast sort of place run by Carl McPherson, an old friend of Buck Frobisher's.

Sometimes I could swear there aren't more than thirty-two people living up there in the Great White North, and they all know each other.

McPherson's was pretty nice, not that I really had any accommodation standards left after all that time on the trail. Hey, look, four walls, a bed, central heat? I was good, better than good. The rooms were small, of course. From the outside it looked like you couldn't have squeezed four cots into the place, much less four bedrooms, but, no . . . it had real bedrooms. Real beds, too, which was one of the few things I'd been missing like crazy from day one of our adventure. And I'll tell you, I don't care what Fraser says, I could tell that even Nature Boy was looking forward to getting his almost forty-year-old backside up off the cold hard ground for a night or two.

So Fraser and me, we were both pretty wiped out, even though it was only eight o'clock, and we decided to turn in for the night We both stopped for a second in the middle of the narrow hallway that separated our two rooms.

"Good night, Ray. Sleep well."

"Yeah, you too, Fraser. See you in the morning."

I turned away and started to walk toward my room when all of a sudden something just felt . . . weird.

Weird. Wrong. Something was wrong. Something felt wrong, but what the hell could it be? No one else was staying in Carl's place that night except for Fraser and me . . . and even Carl had left for the day. I hadn't even seen anyone around for an hour, but I was still feeling creepy.

Tried to shake off the feeling, but I couldn't. I turned around, figuring I'd knock on Fraser's door and ask if he'd noticed anything out of place before he'd gone into his room . . .

. . . and he was still standing on the threadbare carpet in the hall, exactly where I'd left him.

He wasn't moving, but he'd got his eyes fixed on me with such a strange combination of intensity and loneliness that all of a sudden I knew what was wrong.

I thought I knew.

Yeah, I did know.

We were going to sleep. Apart. I stood there down at "my" end of the hall, wondering how the thought of sleeping without Fraser next to me had ended up feeling that wrong. But it did, and he was still looking at me like he was feeling the same thing and I was just looking back at him and thinking I should be freaking out right about then - or at least that I should be freaking out more than I was. But I just couldn't.

Go figure. Ray Kowalski, the king of the short-term freak out, wanting to freak out about something and not being able to. What kind of weird alignment of planets had just kicked in here in my personal solar system?

I started to smile at that thought, and it was pretty obvious that Fraser thought my smile was for him 'cause he started to smile back . . . and the smile on his face was big and open and so fucking cool that the next thing I knew I was smiling at him.

And the two of us just stood there in the hall, grinning at each other like a couple of idiots. And even though neither of us had said a damned word yet, I swear I'd never felt more right about anything in my whole life . . . until a minute later when Fraser held out his hand to me.

I didn't move.

We both stopped smiling.

Fraser went white, and he looked almost as scared as I felt, but he kept his hand out, palm open, and I walked toward that reaching-out hand of his and took it in mine and . . .

. . . damn.

Fraser and me, we were partners and friends; we'd touched each other a hundred times before, but never anything like that. That was scary. More than scary There was that weirdness again . . . a together weirdness that felt just about the same as the apart weirdness. But this . . . oh yeah, this was a good weirdness.

A great one.

I almost felt like crying for a second there, it all felt so fucking great, but the next minute hit and instead of crying, I could feel that same dopey smile plastered all over my face that I could see on Fraser's.

"So, we gonna spend the night standing out here in the hall, Frase?" I asked, trying for cool and casual, but hearing a stupid croak in my voice I hadn't heard since I was thirteen.

I looked down, a little embarrassed, but Fraser's grip tightened on my hand, strong and warm. I looked up, and he was still smiling at me like I was . . . like I was a snow field on legs or something.

And then he just leaned in and kissed me. Hard. On the mouth. And how great was that?

I held back a minute, though. "Fraser?"

"Yes, Ray?"

" That thing you were doing with your mouth . . . ."

"Oh, that. That's a kiss. You seemed to be having some difficulty with . . . ."

"A kiss?"

"Standard procedure." The corner of his mouth quirked up a little, but he bit down and went back to that bland look that could mean anything.

"Okay. Okay . . . um . . . so nothing's like, changed or anything, right?" I asked, trying to keep a straight face.

He cocked his head to one side and looked at me like I was a few aces short of a full deck, then started to laugh.

"I should imagine this will change almost everything, Raymond Kowalski," he said, still laughing. But not laughing at me, I got that. Just laughing.


I shook my head. Fraser giggling. Damn. And it was cute. And who knew I'd think it was so cute? I know . . . I was a complete sap, and I didn't care.

I was so damned happy.

It was my turn to reach out now. Opened both my arms - wide - and Fraser moved into them, putting his arms around me, natural as anything, and we just stood there for a minute, holding each other.

And you know? That hug . . . that first hug that didn't have anything to do with a cover story or comfort or whatever . . . that hug was almost better than the first kiss. But it was nowhere near as good as the first night together that followed, even though neither of us had a whole lot of experience when it came to figuring out what to do with a guy in our beds.

But nothing was as great as waking up next to Fraser the next morning, both of us realizing that weird as this was, this was it. This was just fucking it for both of us.

We were together.

And it felt right then like nothing was ever going to keep us apart again.

* * *

"Calm down, Detective. If you'd just hear us out . . . ." Charm was practically oozing out of Suit One's mouth, but I wasn't in any mood to buy what he was selling. The two of them had been testing out their "fake cop, faker cop" tap routine for twenty minutes, but so far, all it had done was give me a giant headache.

"Hear you out? I've already heard more than I want to hear, thanks." I got up from the table where we'd all been pretending to have a civilized conversation and headed for the door. I'd had a long day, I was tired, and I'd just about hit my capacity for pretense during the big undercover Vecchio gig two and a half years earlier. "Thanks, but no thanks . . . I really don't need to hear any more."

"Detective?" Suit Number One was still talking, and I still didn't want to listen.

"La la la . . . nope, can't hear you." I reached for the door handle.

"Detective Kowalski, get back here and sit down!"

I froze, then turned around slowly, fixing my best glare on his weaselly face. "Did I just get an order? You giving orders to me?"

"No, no, of course not," said Suit Number Two - Genovese - as he shot a sideways glance toward his partner. "Richards wasn't issuing any orders. We're just asking you to . . . ."

"To be a rat. That's what you're asking. You want me to be a rat."

"No," Genovese said, now looking a little angry himself. "We're asking you to be a good cop. To help us with our investigation and to make sure bad things aren't happening in this department and in this city. To be a good cop, Kowalski. That's all."

I opened my mouth - and closed it again - a few times before I could think what to say next. Nothing. I couldn't think of nothing to say. In fact, the only thing running through my mind at all was that shitty as this whole deal was, I was going to end up saying yes. Because it was the "right thing to do."

I walked slowly back to the table, looking hard at both men. If either of them had given me one of those smug looks that Internal Affairs seems to have a patent on, I would have been out of there. But they both just sat there, all patient and serious, like they already knew they had me and were just waiting for me to know it, too.

"That's all, huh?" I asked as I slumped back down into the vacant chair.

"That's all," Genovese said, with an expression way too close to fraternal sympathy and understanding for my liking. If IA wants someone on one of their investigations, they get them, and that includes me. But what I was not feeling at that moment was brotherly, and there was sure as hell no way that Genovese or Richards understood anything about what I was feeling.

"You know I'm not going to invent a bunch of crap about Vecchio that isn't there just so you can get your Brownie points, right?" I knew I was sounding a little belligerent . . . okay, a lot belligerent . . . but I was still pissed off at having been guilted into taking this on.

There was no reaction on Genovese's face except for a little narrowing of his eyes that I don't think he meant for anyone to see. "Nobody wants you to invent anything, Detective. There are more than ten years worth of allegations in here," he said as he pushed the thick manila file across the table. "This should give you more than enough to look into without adding any bursts of creativity to the mix."

I pulled the folder toward me without looking at it. "And if nothing pans out, you'll let this drop?"

"You're not the only officer involved in this investigation, Kowalski," said Richards, "but yeah, you know the drill. If we don't come up with any corroborating evidence, the investigation comes to a halt before any charges are brought against him."

I nodded, and took a quick glance at the file before asking, "And my involvement?"

Genovese's turn again . . . these guys were a helluva tag-team. "I'd like to tell you that no one ever has to know about your involvement in this case, but I can't do that. Officially, the file is going to be sealed, but you and I both know that these things have a way of getting out sometimes." He shifted a little uncomfortably in his chair. "Look, Detective Kowalski, I know you're not exactly happy about this . . . ."

I snorted, "That's a hell of an understatement."

"However," he continued, "we need you on this case, and we want you to know we're grateful to you for agreeing to cooperate." He paused and then got one of those 'okay, let's wrap it up here' looks on his face. "Do you have any other questions, Detective?"

"Yeah. What exactly is it I'm supposed to be looking for?"

Richards glanced over at Genovese, then said, "What are you supposed to be looking for?"

Jesus. "Is there an echo in here? Yeah, what am I supposed to be looking for. Any hints? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? Bigger than a breadbox?"

"I'm afraid we can't tell you that, Detective," Richards said after he shot a quick look at Genovese. "That information is being supplied strictly on a 'need to know' basis."

"And I don't . . . ."

"You don't need to know. Any other questions?"

"You going to answer them?"

"Of course!" said Richards, impatiently.

"Probably," said Genovese.

Waited a couple seconds . . . a couple more . . . .

"Well, possibly," said Richards.

I figured I'd better jump in there before they'd worked their way down to "no way, Jose."

"Okay," I said, leaning forward. "Why me?"

"Why you what?" Genovese again; geez, you could get whiplash talking to those guys.

"Why do you need me on this case? I've got an open homicide and something ugly that looks like it's shaping up into a serial rape thing on my desk. Don't you got anyone in your department who's looking for something to do? What? I got some sort of tattoo saying 'Unemployed Department Sneak' on my forehead?"

"Do you really need to be told why we want you specifically, Detective?"

No, I didn't really need to be told. You look at it one way, there was no one who'd been closer to the subject of the investigation than me. Of course, you look at it from just about every other direction, there wasn't anyone who could have been further away. No love lost between me and Vecchio, that was for damned sure, and neither of us had ever been very interested in hiding our mutual lack of admiration, except when Ben was around. I'd tried. After I'd finally met Vecchio, I swear I'd tried for Ben's sake, but . . . well, anyway . . . vendettas aren't my thing, which was exactly why I didn't want to agree to do this in the first place.

Of course, I guessed that was one of the big reasons why they wanted me to do it. IA had to know that I'd bend over backwards to be fair . . . to not let my personal feelings get in the way of my work. "No, I don't really need to be told."


Genovese stood up, extending his hand across the table, and after a pause, I shook it. Only takes an extra second to be courteous, as someone's always telling me.

I'd already started heading out the door, when I heard Richards say, "Kowalski, one more thing."

I turned back. "Yeah, what?"

"I don't suppose we need to impress upon you the confidential nature of this investigation."

Geez, did they think I just got out of the Academy that morning? "Yeah, yeah . . . can't talk to anyone about it. I know that, Richards."

"That includes, for obvious reasons, your . . . er . . . roommate, Constable Fraser."

"Corporal," I corrected automatically, before the full meaning of what Richards had just said knocked all thoughts of accurate ranks right out of the ballpark. "What are you . . . are you telling me he's under investigation, too? What kind of bullshit is that?"

"Detective . . . "

"Fraser's so fucking clean that if he has to jaywalk while he's going after a perp, he stops to write himself a ticket . . . ."

"Detective . . . ."

These guys were really starting to piss me off. "And since when do we have jurisdiction over Mounties? Aren't they protected by the Geneva Convention or something?"



"Corporal Fraser is not under investigation."

"Oh." What had I been thinking? . . . of course he wasn't. "Good. Okay, that's good."

"We're fully cognizant of the Mountie's sterling reputation, Detective Kowalski. In fact, while we were putting together the preliminary findings, we noted a conspicuous decrease in certain of Detective Vecchio's . . . um . . . ."

"Activities?" Genovese offered after a few seconds. Richards nodded.

"Yes, activities, and an interruption in his regular . . . um . . . ."

"Patterns of behavior?"

"Exactly." Richards nodded again. "A decrease in certain of Detective Vecchio's activities and an interruption in his regular patterns of behavior during the time the two men were working together."

Got to admire a guy who can say so little with so many words. "So why . . . ."

"However, we're also aware of Corporal Fraser's longstanding friendship with Detective Vecchio. We know you're aware of the regulations as they pertain to a case of this sort. We felt, however, that it might not be entirely inappropriate to err on the side of caution, and while . . . ."

"In other words, I should keep my lips zipped?"

I saw Genovese's lips twitching - probably fighting to keep from smiling - but Richards just looked relieved. "I'm not certain I'd phrase it in precisely that . . . well, yes, that's it exactly. Thank you, Detective; we'll be in touch."

So that was that. I opened the door, walked out in the hallway, and . . . shit! What was I going to tell Ben, when there was nothing at all that I could tell him?

* * *

Vecchio. I was the guy for more than a year and I just never got him. Didn't get what made him tick, didn't get why Ben liked him so much as a friend, and I sure as hell didn't get what my ex-wife saw in him that made her pack up and move down to Florida with him to run a bowling alley, of all things.

Of course, that bowling alley deal didn't last more than a couple of months. I knew Stella wouldn't be able to hack it: way too blue-collar for her tastes. And Vecchio? I don't know . . . maybe his Armani suits started to wilt in the Florida heat. Maybe he was just bored. Whatever it was, back the two of them came, although when the lovebirds returned to Chicago, Stella went into private practice and Vecchio fell into some cushy job attached to Chief Bellows' office, so it wasn't like I had to spend much time thinking about either of them.

But then IA called and . . . I couldn't think how working that Vecchio investigation for them wasn't going to screw things up in my life. Really, I suppose I could've guessed things wouldn't keep going good - going easy - the way they'd been going with the job and Ben and everything. Maybe I'd just gotten soft, 'cause it wasn't so long ago that somewhere in the back of my mind I'd have been expecting something bad to come along and fuck things up.

Always seems to happen the same way. I get into a groove - some kinda happy place - and then soon as I lower my guard, something comes out of nowhere and BOOM, there I am, laid out on the canvas with a half dozen cartoon birds making a racket over my head.

Every so often something happens to get things back to good, the way it did with my folks, but that was a damned long decade's worth of a knock-out punch. And most of the time, once I'm out, I'm out for the count, like I was with Stella. I swear I never saw the upper cut coming that knocked me out that time.

How could I when Stella was being so reasonable?

Stella knew I didn't want the marriage to end, and she said she didn't either, so we spent a lot of time working out how to stay together. The books she'd been reading said communication was the answer, so that was that. We talked.

Then Stella read something about how we should both come up with a list of things that were important to us - things we thought might help the marriage. My suggestions were like "let's go dancing," or "let's make love." Not really the kind of thing that family counseling guy who's always yapping on Oprah recommends - even I knew that - but at least it was stuff we both liked doing . . . stuff we were good at.

Our own kind of communication.

Stella's suggestions ran more along the lines of things like "We need to try and respect each other's personal space, Ray," and "Maybe we should take separate vacations this year, Ray," and finally "You're driving me crazy, Ray! I can't deal with any more of this, Ray! You're going to have to move out, Ray!"

And how dumb was I? Even with my bags packed and sitting by the door, I still couldn't quite figure out that this meant Stella wanted me gone for good. Even then I still thought . . . I don't know what I thought, but I'm pretty sure I was still hoping that someday we'd get back together . . . like maybe me moving out was one of those separate vacations she kept wanting us to take.

By the time I finally woke up and smelled the espresso, everybody else I knew had already gotten a clue. Me? I only got in touch with my inner clue bus when it almost ran me down on the way out of town.

I still got some bruises there. Stella . . . she . . . well, it'd just been Stella and nothing but Stella for me for so long, you know?

Anyway, while Stella was doing her fade-to-black thing out of my life, a couple of things did start to click. First, the job and then . . . Ben.

Before Ben, the job was pretty much all that was going anything like really okay. I wasn't ever going to win the Miss Popularity contest at my old district, but at least no one thought I sucked, except maybe me every once in a while. And I was doing good work - good enough to be tapped for the undercover assignment they had going down at the 2-7.

Vecchio, well, one look at the snapshots they'd clipped to his file, and it was pretty obvious why he got picked to go undercover. With that Adolph Menjou moustache, the guy was a dead ringer for Armando Langoustini. Yeah, growing up in a neighborhood surrounded by wiseguys couldn't have hurt him playing the role, but I had to figure it was mostly about the look.

Not me, though. Hell, nobody with half a brain was ever going to mistake me for Ray Vecchio, no matter what I did. Of course, most of the brass don't have any more brains than most of the mob guys I've met, which is probably why it was so easy to keep the truth from almost everybody.

Personally, I figured I'd be made on the first day, and that would be that for the undercover assignment, but it never happened. I showed up for work, wearing what turned out to be something Ray Vecchio wouldn't be caught dead in (although that's pretty much true for almost everything in my closet), and . . . nothing.

I mean, the whole idea of playing Vecchio was freaking me out a little, so there I was doing some kind of weird duck and weave, and it was all for nothing. I was just there, you know? Frannie Vecchio came over to my desk early in the day and bitched at me about a hamster named Buttons. Jack Huey asked me what I knew about Schulbin, who I figured might have something to do with some case Vecchio had been working on but who turned out to be a neighborhood tailor. And that was about it for my morning.

Afternoon came, same thing. I took a few calls, talked to a woman who came into the station looking for a place to complain about an appliance store owner who refused to sell her a pair of carrier pigeons, went out for a tuna on rye.

By the time I got back, I'd shaken most of the new-kid-at-the-beach ants off the Kowalski blanket, and settled down to go through Vecchio's case reports and notes. I started reading and pretty soon I'm thinking the guy I'm replacing was one hell of a cop. No open cases left on his desk, no missing pages in his reports - and those reports read like something you'd give the Pulitzer to, they didn't even have any typos. Even his pencils were all sharpened. By that point, I was getting a little weirded out; nobody's that good. The guy had to be superhuman.

But then I went back a couple of years - looked at some older files - and, bam! It was like night and day. There was stuff there that looked like it'd been gathering dust for a decade. Forty-one open cases at one time, for god's sake. And these reports were all pretty cop-basic: "pulled rap sheet . . . interviewed witnesses . . . the witnesses saw nothing . . . brought in Colonel Mustard to find out if he was in the Library with a Candlestick . . . blah, blah, blah." So I'm thinking that either Vecchio took some continuing ed classes from the Acme Cop School somewhere along the way, or I'm not the first guy to play him. For all I knew there was a line of fake Vecchios stretching all the way back to the Truman Administration.

I was still thinking about all this when Frannie told me that Welsh finally wanted to see me. Mouth went dry, felt a little nauseous . . . it was sort of like being a kid again and getting called into the principal's office. I knew I hadn't done anything wrong . . . hell, I hadn't had time to screw up. But it's still, you know . . . Welsh, he was the guy who could kick my ass with . . . um . . . with impunity.

I got into the office and before we sat down, Welsh had me shut the door behind me, while he went over to shut the blinds.

"Detective, it's a pleasure. You settling in all right?"

"Uh. Yeah." That sounded impressive. Way to wow the new boss with my extemporaneous speaking abilities.

"So," he said, looking down at the file on his desk, "Stanley Kowalski, is it?"

"I . . . um . . . I go by Ray."

"Do you? Good, good . . . that's a good thing. Candy?"

"Huh?" Oh yeah, I was sounding smarter by the minute.

Welsh rolled his chair back from the desk, opened a side drawer, and pulled out a small plastic cup.

I looked into the cup. "M&M's?"

"You might think so," he said, "but you'd be wrong. Look at the colors."

"Hey. These are pretty cool."

"Festive, aren't they? They're Canadian. Try some."

I took a few and placed them experimentally on my tongue. "Huh. Different. Not bad." I bit down on them, kind of grinding them into my back right molars. "The shell's a little thicker, but the chocolate's got sort of a subtle taste to it. Yeah, I could get used to these."

"You're a connoisseur of chocolate, Kowalski?"

"Nah, more of a candy hobbyist. Have been for years. Milky Ways, Snickers, M&M's . . . hated it when they took the red ones off the market for all those years."

"Ah, yes . . . Red Dye #2."

"Red Dye #3, I think."

Welsh peered at me from across the desk. "Are you correcting me, Detective?"

A moment of minor panic, then I figured, what the hell . . . the guy keeps candy hidden away in his desk: how tough could he be? I just grinned at him. "Wouldn't think of it, Lieu."

"Good. Pleased to hear it," he said, a tiny smile warring with his hard guy bulldog expression

And that was that as far as settling into my new district went.

Truth was, a couple days later I was still a little suspicious about how smooth it was all going - the whole Stella thing had me a little more ready than usual to expect the worst - but even I couldn't bitch about things going good, not without looking like an idiot. I mean, the Lieutenant had turned out to be okay, I was making progress with my new cases, and the folks in the squad were friendly enough, even though I wasn't going to have a permanent partner until that Mountie got back into town. Still didn't know what was up with that deal, but I wasn't going to start rocking the boat yet; I figured I'd have more than enough time for deciding whether to complain about not having an official partner after I'd met the Canadian guy.

In the end, though, the last thing I wanted to do after I met my new partner was complain. Stare, maybe. Through an electron microscope, if I had to. Anything to figure out what made the guy tick. But not complain.

Picture it. Guy comes back from his Mountie sabbatical to find rubble where his apartment used to be, everything he owns destroyed, a new place to work in, and his only real friend in Chicago MIA. And me. He finds me calling myself Vecchio, sitting at Vecchio's desk, carrying Vecchio's shield . . . and nobody's telling him anything.

He didn't believe I was Vecchio, of course. Not for a minute. Like I said, you didn't have to be a genius to know I wasn't Vecchio, especially not if you'd ever met either one of us, and Benton Fraser was no dummy.

But none of that stopped him from doing his job. I mean, I turn around to see this ramrod-straight, Smokey-the-Bear guy, and just seeing how out of place he looked with our scruffy station house for a backdrop should've made me laugh out loud, but this Fraser character was just looking confused and unhappy as hell. And even though his life had just sort of collapsed around him, he spent his first day back plugging away at a case.

My case.

Yeah, like I said, I'd already heard about this unofficial partnership thing that Vecchio and the Mountie had going, and it wasn't like he wasn't an interested party. Hell, it was his place that had been burned to the ground. But I figured Fraser had some kind of work he was supposed to do over at the Consulate. Processing ice fishing permits. Walrus wrangling.

But the walruses had to wait, because he had work to do with his partner.

Against both of our expectations, we clicked. Clicked from day one. Went through some rough times, sure; almost busted up the partnership a couple of times. But we stayed together, and the work went great, and we were great, and eventually, well . . . like I said, eventually even the thought of being apart was just too weird to, um, contemplate.

So we moved in together.

Yeah, simple as that. You know, Ben and me might've still been in that early infatuation stage of our relationship, but it didn't make us stupid. We knew the Chicago PD probably wasn't going to be dancing the cha-cha at the thought of the two of us living together. Hell, neither was the RCMP, for that matter.

But Ben, for all his weird politeness and goody-two-shoes behavior, never seemed to really give a rat's ass about what other people thought of him. And when I took a good look at myself, I realized I didn't either . . . at least not when something was important to me.

So some people would think we were freaks - not much new there. Whatever. Us freaks had to stay together. So we did. And it was good between us - so good that finally even I couldn't imagine things not being that good ever again.

Then IA crawled up out of their den asking me to check into Vecchio's murky history, and what do you know? The cartoon bird chorus started warming up for another concert.

* * *

The worst part about working that IA thing was the aloneness. Even back at the start of my time playing Vecchio, there were all these people who knew what was going on, giving me a nod and a wink every so often to remind me that they got it. But that wasn't happening with this assignment. Only IA knew what I was working on, and "to protect the integrity of the operation" they were keeping as far away from me as they could.

And who am I kidding? If anyone I worked with had known anything about the Vecchio investigation, they wouldn't have been nodding and winking, that's for damned sure.

Only so far I could go chasing paper trails from the file Genovese and Richards had given me; I finally had to bite the bullet and start nosing around Vecchio's former colleagues - which mostly meant my current colleagues - and see what I could find out.

Skimmed through the stack of papers like I'd been doing every day since I got the assignment - I swear I could have gone on a quiz show with Vecchio as my specialty subject after a few days - but nothing was popping out at me. I went back to one of the old tried and true methods I'd picked up in my first days in uniform, namely, closing my eyes, counting to three, and pulling out the first piece of paper I touched.

Excessive force accusations over the years . . . huh . . . hadn't looked at this one very carefully. Not much there, to be honest, although it was a little freaky that the few names mentioned in the report were pretty much all people from around Vecchio's old neighborhood. Like I'd figured, Guy Rankin's name popped up. Okay, good . . . maybe I could look into that whole deal a little more.

Got a chance to do that a day or two later, when I got called in to assist on one of Huey and Dewey's cases. Really wasn't nothing in the way of assisting left to do - I was just one of the guys on the block-the-doors and mop-up-the-scumbags bust committee. A good wrap up, though, so Welsh herded everyone over to Maxwell's for a drink or three and all the free bar food we could get our hands on.

Ben couldn't come along. There were arrangements that had to be sorted out for some upcoming visit by the Australian trade delegation, and the two fresh-out-of-the-Depot constables - Sarah Lewis and Cyril Clark - had been given the task of organizing things by Inspector Sellers. Trouble was, neither of them could find their rear-ends with both hands tied behind their backs. Didn't have anything to do with Ben, who had plenty of his own work to take care of, but Corporal Responsible wasn't about to risk letting them screw things up, so he'd gone back over to the Consulate to do a little protocol coaching..

Didn't usually like going out without Ben after work. If this had been an ordinary night, I'd probably have found myself wandering over to the Consulate to spend the evening watching him give lessons in napkin ring stuffing or something. I'd just rather be with him than not be with him.

But it was probably just as well that he wasn't around that night, watching me try to pump my co-workers for information about one of his best friends. Despite what a lot of people might think about me, I can be . . . subtle. I mean, I was pretty subtle that night. But there was no way Ben wouldn't've noticed something was up with me.

Me sitting around in a bar, swapping friendly stories about Ray Vecchio by choice? Not likely.

So everyone's getting all relaxed, and I'm sitting next to Huey, drawing him out about old cases. Coincidence that they all happened to be ones that involved Ray Vecchio? Of course not. And I'm feeling like a creep, but pretty soon some of the others are joining in, adding their comments, and of course most of them are halfway to getting smashed, so I'm having to take everything they say with a grain of salt, but I'm getting some interesting stuff anyway..

"Hey," Dewey said, "I heard he once shot an unarmed ATM machine when it wouldn't give him any money. Is that for real?"

"Yeah." Huey chuckled. "He was lucky the ATM didn't want to press charges. Those machines hate him, man."

"He do anything to get on their bad sides?" I asked. "Insult their fashion sense or something?"

"Hard to say," Huey answered. "Could be. All I know is I've never known a guy to have more bad luck with those things. Did you know his ATM cards have been eaten three times?"

"Four," Lieutenant Welsh cut in, "although he was dead the fourth time, so that might have been an honest mistake on the ATM's part."

Huey stared at Welsh. "Dead?" Then he started laughing. "Oh yeah! During the Great Ricocheting Bullet Era. You ever hear about that, Kowalski? Vecchio gets shot, then tries to play it out all the way to permanent disability. He was walking around with a diagram that showed the bullet hitting every major organ at least once. I think he started believing his own story by the end."

"What happened?" I asked.

Welsh said, "The insurance company must have figured that no one could sustain injuries of that type and survive, because the next thing we knew, Vecchio was officially the late Ray Vecchio, and not an ATM in the city would recognize him."

"Is it just ATM's that he's got a personality conflict with . . . um . . . and me?"

Huey smiled, then got a serious look on his face. "You know, he took on Frank Zuko a couple of times - on the guy's own turf, too. I even heard he beat the hell out of him in some gym once. The way the story came down to us, it might have been payback for Zuko's men working over Fraser, but no one's really sure."

Huh . . . no one had ever mentioned this before. I really wanted to find out what had happened to Ben, but I just said "Vecchio knows how to throw a punch?"

"It would appear so," said Welsh. "It's straight out of Ripley's, isn't it?"

"You know, Ray can be mighty handy with his fists when he's angry. Remember your stiff in the wall? Guy Rankin? We'd arrested him - this was before he was dead, stuffed in a plastic bag, and sealed in a wall, of course . . . "

"Sure. There's no challenge arresting a dead guy."

Huey just gave me one of those "you want to hear this story or not?" looks and said, "Anyway, we had to let him go."

"Oh, yeah, I heard about that. Forgetting to Mirandize him, Vecchio beating on the guy . . . what was up with the two of you that day?" I asked.

"Nothing to do with me," said Huey, shaking his head. "As soon as we picked up Rankin, Ray had me stay as far away as possible. I have no idea what Ray's problem was with that man."

Somewhere around this point, I noticed that Frannie was glancing over, cringing a little every time the name Guy Rankin was raised - I had to wonder, did she have some sort of history with the guy, too? - but the subject changed pretty quick, and she went back to her conversation at the other end of the table.

Eventually, everyone got bored talking about Vecchio and started in on the Cubs' chances for the season. Non-existent, of course, so I took that as my cue to haul my tired ass out of there.

Worst part of the night? I'd put my jacket on and was heading for the door, when Huey passed me on his way back from the can. He wasn't really drunk, but he was definitely buzzed and was on a different kind of high from getting the case wrapped . . . and as he saw me leaving, he stopped to give me a hug.

"Hey, Ray . . . Ray? Ray. We've got to do this more often, man."

"Yeah, Jack. Sure. Hey, you did good work."

He'd started shaking his head as soon as the word 'you' had passed my lips. "Nah, we did good work. We all did good work, today."

"Sure, Jack . . . teamwork."

"Teamwork. That's it, Ray. Working with a team, people you can trust . . . friends. What's better than that?" He hugged me once more for good measure, and wandered off in the direction of the table.

Hated that.

Really hated that.

Huey was my friend - hell, they were all my friends - but I'd been treating them like the next best thing to strangers in an interrogation room. Worse than that, really; at least when I bring someone in for questioning, they know they're being questioned. But this . . . it just sucked, and there wasn't anything I could do about it . . . couldn't get out of this, no matter how much I wanted to.

Fraser was great about not pushing at me. He knew I was working on something that I couldn't talk about, and he respected that - respected my boundaries. Maybe he respected them a little too much. Didn't know what he was thinking about any of this, and I hate being outside what someone else is thinking, even if it's my fault that I've been pushed outside. Too much like being sent to my room. Ben lived with me, he was the closest person in my life, and he wasn't trying to get inside my head. And I wanted him to, didn't want to be alone in my room. So of course I started getting pissy with him over everything and nothing.

No matter how snotty I acted, though, Ben kept his cool. And at least once a day, I'd hear some variant of "Are you sure you're all right, Ray?" But of course I wasn't. I was getting more not all right all the time . . . and I couldn't say anything, especially not to him.

"Nah, sorry . . . it's just this case, you know?" I'd usually say, and Ben would nod and carry on with whatever he'd been doing. I did notice that he'd usually edge a little closer to me for the next few minutes or so . . . maybe rub his hand across the back of my neck, that sort of thing.

That always felt good. Every reminder that he cared how I was feeling - cared what happened to me - felt good. Better than good. But it wasn't enough.

What I think I was probably hoping for was for Ben to make me talk about what I was working on, even though it would be going against every IA policy in the book, but of course that was something that Ben, being Ben, would never do.

I knew that.

Most of me was even cool with it.

But it bugged the hell out of the part of me that really wanted to talk, and so I kept trying to push him to . . . what? . . . force a confession out of me or something? Pretty fucked up of me, really, since it wasn't fair to him. But even knowing that didn't stop anything. I just kept on - niggling and niggling away at him. Over everything. No matter how dumb.

Even when I knew I was wrong, like the Night of the Anchovies.

You'd think a guy like me who'd practically lived on pizza for years would know all the toppings like they were his best friends or something, but I didn't. Big deal.

But I was making some pasta for dinner one night, and Ben raised the subject of anchovies. Hypothetical anchovies, because there was no way I was adding anchovies to my sauce. I'd tasted them once, hated them, and told Ben they were the only vegetable I couldn't stand.

"Anchovies are fish, Ray."

"Listen, you think I don't know fish from vegetables? Anchovies are definitely vegetables."

Ben walked into the living room looking like a man with a mission and headed straight for his Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Why did I even bother to say that it was Fraser's OED. Like I'm going to own a dictionary that comes with its own magnifying glass?

Two minutes later, Ben came back into the kitchen - OED in hand - and started to read the definition to me out of the book. Without the magnifying glass.

I turned around to stare him down a little and maybe shut him up, but he was on a roll. Totally ignored my glare, of course.

"Can't you ever be wrong?" I finally asked. "Do you always have to know the answer to everything?"

"I'm often wrong about things, Ray. You know that. It's just that I believe it's better to know things than not know them, particularly if the answer is easily found."

"I mean, you never just let anything rest," I said, giving the sauce an angry stir. "You always have to find the answers. Always have to know the truth. You ever think that sometimes it's better not to know?"

"What?" Ben asked, eyebrows raised. "It's better not to know that anchovies are fish?"

"This isn't about anchovies!" I yelled. God, why couldn't I just shut up?

"I thought that's what we were tal . . . "

"Yeah, we were talking about anchovies, but this isn't about anchovies. This is about how it's sometimes better to just not know anything."

"That's just foolish, Ray."

"Yeah? Tell that to whatshisname, Oedipus."

"I hardly think that's a fair analogy."

"You wouldn't, would you, hubris-meister?"

"Ray, you can't compare looking up a word in the dictionary in order to confirm its meaning with overweening pride."

"You want to know something, Fraser? I can do pretty much whatever I want to."

"Ray . . . "

"Enough! Christ." I took the wooden spoon I'd been using for the sauce and threw it across the room, splattering tomato sauce against the wall. "Just let it go, for fuck's sake! Do you think you can do that?"

"You know, I believe I can let it go. In fact, at this moment, nothing would please me more." Ben wheeled around and walked off toward the bedroom.

I smacked the counter a couple times, hoping I'd get some of this shit out of my system, but an angry hiss from the front right burner drew my attention back to the sauce . . . too freaking late. The damned sauce had boiled over and was in the process of fusing itself permanently to the stove top.

Twice as pissed, I turned off the burners and yelled after Ben, "What about the fucking dinner?"

He called over his shoulder, "I'd be happy to tell you exactly what you could do with the 'fucking dinner' but I don't want to be accused - once again - of rubbing your nose in yet another thing you don't know."

Deserve it? Didn't deserve it? It barely mattered at this point.

"Yeah? Well . . . fuck you!" I yelled toward the bedroom.

"Not likely!" Fraser yelled back, slamming the bedroom door against any other comments I might have had in my arsenal.

I kicked the stove . . . and you know what? Even before my foot made contact I guessed that kicking the stove was, probably, a stupid idea. My guess was confirmed a second later when the pot of burnt pasta sauce crashed to the floor, spraying tomato sauce over half the kitchen and most of me.

"Dammit!" I just stood there for a minute, staring at the wreckage which had almost been dinner.

Waited a minute to see if Mr. Clean was going to make an appearance and help me out in the kitchen, but he didn't show. He just stayed in the bedroom, from where I heard nothing but the shouldn't-be-but-was scary sound of too many drawers opening and closing.

Dief, of course, was no help at all. He came into the kitchen to nose around for a while, but after finally establishing that there was no meat on offer, he trotted off to his favorite place to hang out during a dispute - by the doorway and as far as possible from the two crazy men he lived with - and promptly fell asleep.

Fine. So I was on cleaning detail on my own. I spent the next forty minutes cleaning tomato sauce off what seemed like every exposed surface in the kitchen and stomping around the place like an angry two-year old, making a racket wherever I went and worrying about whether the sounds in the bedroom were the sounds of Ben packing. By the time I got to the banging pots and pans together stage, I was pretty sure that any second I'd find Ben standing in the doorway, dressed, calling me a spoiled brat, and leaving to spend the rest of the night at the Consulate.

Really didn't want that to happen. I did not want that to happen.

However, I didn't know just how scared I was that I might have to spend the night alone until I got into the bedroom and saw Ben lying there asleep in the bed.

Christ. I just stared at him like a dummy for what seemed like hours before I finally took a shuddering breath and started peeling off my clothes. Even after all the time we'd been together, I still had no idea why he was so willing to put up with my shit, but I was damned grateful. By this point, I was so beat I wanted to just drop my t-shirt and jeans right there on the floor where I stood, but I knew it would just add to the list of "Things I've Done To Piss Off Ben Recently." Figured if I couldn't keep from being a jackass while Ben was awake, the least I could do was throw the clothes into the hamper so there wouldn't be more of a mess piling up while he slept.

I slipped into bed and curled up a little, facing the open window. All I wanted right then was to just curl up into the warmth of his body. Reconnect, you know? But that seemed wrong somehow. Just too damn selfish to use him like he was some kind of hot water bottle. I didn't even want to risk waking Ben by pulling the blankets all the way over me, so I just lay there, as far away from him as I could be without falling off the edge of the bed, shivering slightly from the cold draft and trying to force myself to relax enough to fall asleep.

I'd been lying there for a while, feeling sorry for myself, when I felt Ben's hand on my hip. "I'm not asleep, Ray."

What was that slogan that was big on bumper stickers in the seventies? "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff?" Personally, I never got what that meant. It's almost always the small stuff that ends up counting the most in our lives: good and bad.

You know, caps left off toothpaste tubes.


Hands touching hips.

But . . . have you ever wanted something so much, so bad . . . that when it was finally offered it came close to scaring you to death? That's how I was feeling about Ben's touch.

Wanted it, oh yeah. God, did I want it. But it didn't stop me from trying to pull away from the touch of his hand on me.

Ben wouldn't let me.

He pushed firmly on my right shoulder, never letting up on the pressure, until I was pinned flat on my back, and then he crawled up on his knees and lowered himself until he was practically enveloping me. I burrowed automatically into the warmth of his body, even though a part of me still sort of wanted to break and run.

When Ben's hands reached around me, I tried again to pull away, but he was holding fast. It looked like the only way I was going to get out from under him was to beg my way out and that was something I wasn't about to do.

There it was: a truly fucked-up standoff. Ben, tired and still a little angry from before - oh yeah, I could see that on his face - and with just about no clue as to what was going on with me. And me, well . . . me knowing exactly what I wanted from him and fighting my hardest to keep it from showing, except I didn't have a clue why I was doing that.

Why was this so hard tonight? Why was I making this so hard? Even during our stupid blow-up earlier all I wanted was for it to be over, for us to get back to good, but I just kept pushing Ben away then and kept on pushing him away now when I wanted him more than I wanted breath in my lungs.

Ben began to settle his weight on top of my body, but I drew my hands up onto my chest, curling them into fists - a barrier blocking the beat of his heart from touching my own. He didn't pull back, though . . . just placed his hands on either side of my face, forcing me to look up at him. I closed my eyes, but Ben's fingertips moved, gentle on the corners of my eyes . . . on my cheekbones . . . on my eyebrows . . . and coaxed my eyes back open.

"Damn it, Ben," I said in a way-too-quiet, choked sort of voice. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Is this a 'no,' Ray? Tell me if it is . . . tell me now, and I'll stop."

I couldn't say no. I could never say no to Ben. Not then. Not now.

The warmth of his body was joined by a new warmth. Breath laid hot against my temples, my cheeks, my jaw line as Ben traced the curves and angles of my face. He pushed back up, raising himself inches above me, mouth hovering above mine, just out of reach, teasing out a response, drawing me upward to join my mouth to his.

When our mouths finally made contact, it was only the briefest touch - my tongue licking at Ben's bottom lip. He moved his head closer and nipped at my tongue, then my lips, with his teeth. The knuckles of my still-fisted hands pushed hard against the smooth expanse of Ben's chest as I dragged my fists out from between our bodies, and reached behind him, stroking the curve of his spine once, then again, before pulling him down hard in a tight embrace until his trapped arms were no longer at the right angle to support his weight easily. Ben let himself drop and blanketed me, heavy against my chest. Hard to take a breath, but Christ, who needed to fucking breathe?

I shifted beneath him, opening my legs slightly and Ben slipped lower until his cock pressed hard against my own. He pulled his arms free from my embrace, inching them slowly up my legs, calloused fingertips brushing against the hairs of my thighs. He paused, and I felt his warm palms rub gently over the too-sharp edges of my hips.

He reached beneath me, his hands slipping underneath my ass, holding me tightly, closing whatever distance still remained between us, then bent his knees and wrapped himself around me, seeking entry. No, he wouldn't force his way into my head, but he could still get inside me with his body. And as he pushed his way into me, hard - inside - for a second I didn't know whether I was loving it or whether I wanted to hit him, but then . . . god, that warmth . . . his warmth . . . hot, wet kisses on my neck, my chest, his warm arms surrounding me . . . his heat inside me . . . so . . . fucking warm . . . so hot . . .

. . . so loving it won out.

When it was over, I was still shivery, but it wasn't from the cold. I wrapped myself around Ben and held on as tight as he'd been holding me.


No way did things really go back to normal right after that night, but at least there was a break in the tension at home . . . and a break in my pissiness. Thank God.

Even alone as I'd been feeling, somewhere inside I always knew Ben was there for me. No, he didn't spend a lot of time talking about the way he felt, but he showed it to me in just about everything he did. Showed me that he cared for me, that he . . . loved me.

I knew that. The same way I knew that no matter how much time he spent with me - no matter how much my own weirdness rubbed off on Ben - his own brand of closed-off, uptight Mountie weirdness was never going to disappear completely.

Near as I could figure, the guy had spent most of his adult life living pretty much entirely in his head and keeping his heart under wraps, at least as far as the world outside was going to see. Even kept it pretty well hidden from me half the time, if I wasn't looking carefully enough.

Did that mean Ben didn't have a heart? Hell no. Too much heart, I think sometimes. When I first met him, I thought he was pretty impervious. Not just to injuries, but to hurt feelings and all the rest of that stuff. And I was in good company there, thinking that. Even most of his own people - other Mounties - thought there was something a little unreal about him. Then I got to know him, started unwrapping some of those layers, and damned if it didn't turn out that he was probably easier to hurt inside than just about any other guy I knew . . . he was just good - too damned good - at hiding it.

So, okay . . . I'd forgotten for a while how good he was at hiding his feelings and that it was up to me to watch his heart for him the way he'd been trying to watch out for mine. Thing was, I'd been so busy feeling sorry for myself recently - feeling alone - that I'd kind of lost track of the fact that way too much of the time Ben felt alone, too. And that he'd felt alone a hell of a lot longer than I had. And that he was going to try his hardest not to let it show.

What did I think, anyway? That we'd get together and just like that he'd shed thirty-some odd years of learning to keep everything in, and just start telling me when he needed something? When he needed me?

Not a chance.

* * *

Since Welsh knew I had something going on, he was cutting me some slack and my caseload was pretty light, but there wasn't much chance I was going to escape all the regular crap that came into the division.

A couple weeks into the investigation, he called me into his office. Bellowed. Whatever.


As soon as I got in there, he started in on me. "Do you think you might be able to find some time in your busy schedule to do some police work that I do know something about? Or would the wheels of justice cease to turn?"

Couldn't help letting a smile escape - it felt pretty good to have something kinda normal in my life, even if it was just sarcasm from Welsh..

"Am I amusing you, Detective?"

"No . . . uh . . . no, sir." I sat up a little straighter in the chair.

"Good, good . . . because I wouldn't want to think that I had made a bad career decision last year when I turned down Dewey's gracious offer to let me perform at the One Liner."

Welsh took a second to glance out into the squad room, then reached into his desk and pulled out his candy dish.

"Have some. And then have a look at this."

I took some M&M's happily enough and then grabbed hold of the folder he was pushing toward me, although a little less enthusiastically than I'd taken the candy.

"What's this, Lieu?"

"Garden variety jewelry store burglary, as far as we've been able to determine."

I started to skim through the initial report. "And why are we handling this?"

Welsh sighed and scooped some M&M's out of the dish. "Officially? Because it falls within this division's purview . . . barely. Unofficially? Because, as it happens, the Commissioner's daughter had just taken a ring in for re-sizing - a family heirloom, in fact - and it turns out that ring is one of the missing items."

"What's the owner been able to tell us?

"Hamilton? He sent over . . . Kowalski, why am I telling you any of this? You have all the information in your hand. Now take that file and yourself out of my office, and go do some police work."

Went back to my desk and settled down with the case file. I made a quick call to Bonnie Chu, who'd taken the call when Hamilton first reported the missing merchandise, but she didn't have much to add to what was in the report, apart from mentioning that a great coffee bar had just opened up next door to the jewelers. Maybe it'd be worth paying Hamilton a visit real soon.

I made a few more phone calls and looked through the list of missing goods, trying to see if there might be a link between the stuff that was taken, but what I really wanted was to be working the case with Ben. It wasn't like I'd somehow forgotten how to do my job without him being around all the time. But the job was just better when we were together . . . easier . . . everything just clicked. And it wasn't just about having another person around to bounce ideas off; I could work with almost anyone on a case, but Ben . . . Ben was the only one who would ever really be my partner.

Trouble was, his consular duties got in the way of him being able to . . . liaise as much as he used to in the early days. The way I heard it, when Ben first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of . . . oh god, he's finally got me doing it . . . anyway, when he first showed up in Chicago, the guy who used to be in charge at the Consulate - Moffat or whatever - didn't have a clue what to do with his new constable, except for stand him outside the place on guard duty and send him out to fetch dry cleaning. Then Thatcher showed up and she did have a couple ideas about what to do with Fraser, but when none of them worked out quite the way she wanted them to, she settled for guard duty and dry cleaning, too. Bad for Ben, but good for the Chicago Police Department . . . and especially good for Vecchio.

Then I became Vecchio and . . . yeah, it was good for me, too. But once Ben had sacrificed his best shot at going back to the Territories where he belonged, doing the kind of real Mountie work he was born to do ( . . . and yeah, I know he'd say that it was no sacrifice to stay in Chicago with me, but I'm never going to be entirely convinced about that), I started really wishing, for his sake, that his job here in Chicago could be a little more meaningful.

Be careful what you wish for and all that. The new guy at the consulate, Sellers, wasn't clueless like Moffat must've been or one of those permanently exasperated, non-delegating, do-it-yourself types like Thatcher'd been while she was here. In fact, he turned out to be an okay guy, and it looked like he was doing his best to help Ben make up for the fact that he hadn't exactly ended up in the best place he could've been, career-wise. Sent him off to represent the RCMP at all sorts of conferences, put him in charge of training the junior Mounties when they showed up ( . . . the Chicago Consulate had become "the" place to send wet-behind-the-ears constables for some weird reason - don't ask me why), gave him the keys to the castle whenever he had to go out of town, that sort of thing.

And Sellers seemed to understand what the liaison gig was all about, too. Didn't put any obstacles in Ben's path in terms of working with me, but since Ben had some real responsibilities by this point, he just wasn't free to come over and liaise as much as either of us would've liked, especially when I wasn't working on something big and messy . . . and the Hamilton Jewelry burglary was anything but big and messy, no matter how much the Commissioner wanted to think it was.

To be honest, it would've been a relief to just be working that burglary . . . just doing a little regular cop work for a change, but I was still spending way too much of my off-work hours with the Vecchio thing. Talking to more of his old contacts, piecing together expense account reports, whatever. There still wasn't anything jumping out at me, but I checked in with Genovese anyway and gave him a heads up on where the investigation was going. Shot the shit with him for a while (still couldn't stand Richards, but Genovese had turned out to be pretty cool), and after I'd finished filling him in on the next-to-nothingness I was coming up with, he told me he had a visit he wanted me to pay to someone.

Genovese said that one of his fed buddies had set up a private get-together for me and Sal Castiglione, a former capo in the Zuko family who'd been sent to Joliet a little over a year ago. Seemed like Castiglione wasn't too crazy about the idea of staying locked up in prison for the next fifteen years, and his loyalty to the organization had pretty much ended when they'd left him hanging in the breeze at his trial, something that never would've happened in the old days. He was ready to turn state's evidence in exchange for entering the Witness Protection Program, and the feds were just about ready to move him out of Illinois, so I had to get down there fast.

Even though Castiglione spent most of our time together insulting Vecchio, it was kind of reassuring at the same time. Yeah, he said Vecchio had been a snot-nosed punk when he was growing up in the neighborhood (and don't think I wasn't loving it to hear all this crap talked about him, even if it was just coming out of the mouth of a dumb hood), but the more he bad-mouthed Vecchio, the less likely it was that Vecchio had anything to do with any Zuko business, and that had to be a good thing.

"And then there was his father." Castiglione turned his head and spit on the floor before continuing. "I don't like to speak ill of the dead, you understand, but that man . . . no pride, you know? No backbone. Never did nothing for his family; they'd've been living in the streets if it weren't for Lucia."

"The house wasn't his?"

"His?" Castiglione laughed. "No, nothing was his. Lucia's Uncle Carlo - may he rest in peace - signed it over to her when he heard she was marrying that good-for-nothing bum."

"So you knew Ma . . . er . . . Mrs. Vecchio before she got married?"

"Oh sure . . . we all did. A little firecracker, that one. Hey, you mind if I smoke?"

"Be my guest."

I called the guard in to light Castiglione's cigarette and we both waited until the door had closed again. Castiglione took a drag off his cigarette, then said, "Lucia wouldn't give none of us the time of day, of course. She was looking for a guy with . . . 'prospects.'"

"But she married . . . ."

"Yeah. Heh. Women, go figure." He leaned back in his chair. "You know, that woman's a saint. Everything those kids of hers ever had - not that it was ever very much, let me tell you - they got because of their ma. They got nothing from that father of theirs, except maybe they got smacked around some. One thing I'll say for that little pissant son of his, though: when he was a kid he never said a word against his old man. You gotta give him that, at least. Didn't matter that he had to wear his cousin Amanda's hand-me-downs half the time, no . . . he stayed loyal to his pop.

This was really beginning to drive me crazy: every direction I turned with this Vecchio thing, I either ended up forced into feeling grateful to the guy for having saved Ben's butt once-upon-a-time . . . or else, like now, I just ended up feeling sorry for him 'cause of how things were for him when he was a kid. Amanda's hand-me-downs? Geez. My childhood was looking better and better all the time.

Finally I just asked Castiglione flat out if Vecchio had any ties with any of the families, and Castiglione just sat there wheezing and laughing his ass off, so I'm thinking, "good, at least Vecchio's off the hook at this end."

Then Castiglione stopped laughing and said, "These days, though? I don't know . . . there's been some talk. About . . . Vegas, you know? The Bookman business. Let's just say that nobody's that good an actor all the time."

I was a little startled, and it must've shown in my face.

"What? You don't think we hear stuff here in the joint? Yeah, we hear stuff. In fact, maybe more here than anywhere else. I mean, what the fuck else is there to do in here except play pinochle and sit around gossiping like a buncha old ladies."

"So," I asked warily, "this discussion going to be part of your next bridge party conversation?"

"Hell, by this time tomorrow I could be Sven Svenson and living in Duluth or something. Who am I gonna talk to there? The guy who sells tickets for the excursion boats on Lake Superior?

I left Castiglione, went out the front gate, and got in my car, just as confused as I'd been before I went in to talk to him. Still wasn't sure what to think about the whole deal. No matter what cute little innuendos I'd had dangled in front of me - and no matter how much of a jerk I thought Vecchio was - I couldn't get myself to believe the guy was mobbed up. Not for a minute. There are plenty of assholes running around out there in the world who aren't mob guys: no reason he couldn't be one of them. So what then? Just a run-of-the-mill corrupt cop? Couldn't really buy that either. I kept going back to the Fraser-Factor. My personal issues with Vecchio aside, everything I'd ever heard about the guy from Ben, the Justice Barometer, said there was no way Vecchio was dirty. Even stripping all the "believe-the-best-of-everyone" lunacy from what Ben had told me over the years, it was hard to see much more in Vecchio than the kind of lazy, corner-cutting cop that doesn't usually raise a blip on IA's radar. So what was it that had drawn their interest? Nothing was panning out so far, and yet Genovese, at least, didn't seem like the kind of guy who'd be wasting so many people's time and energy on nothing.

Soon as I got back to the station, I dug out the IA file from where I'd stashed it away and went back over it, trying to see if there was something I'd missed the last two dozen times I read it. By the time I got a quarter of the way in, my eyes were glazing over with boredom. Same old, same old. Some long-forgotten stuff from Vecchio's earliest days on the force: minor procedural cock-ups, the usual weapons discharge investigations and clearances ( . . . and yeah, Ben getting "accidentally" shot by Vecchio during the Victoria Metcalf saga; I'll tell you, if I didn't have any other reason to want to pop Vecchio one every time I saw him, that would be a good enough reason all on its own). The allegation about the missing nine kilos of heroin, dropped because . . .

. . . because of me. Because I spent a single day three years ago focusing my attention on Marcus Ellery - a ghost from my past - instead of on my job. Because when I finally made it in to the station that day, I maneuvered my way into a lineup and when I couldn't be identified as Vecchio by the informant (big surprise), it brought the whole missing drugs investigation screeching to a halt.

Damn. What was that snitch's name?


Put the word out with one of my own guys that I was looking to talk with Siracusa. He made contact, and I made arrangements for the two of us to get together for a little chat on Thursday afternoon. Siracusa seemed pretty cool about that, but when I got there for the meet, the guy was nowhere to be seen. Stuck around for a while, hoping he'd show, but waiting in an alley for some lowlife to make an appearance stopped being on my list of favorite activities right around the time of the Volpe shooting, so I got back in my car and headed back to the station to pick up the Hamilton file.

I got home around six that night, pretty much wiped out and hoping to have something resembling a nice evening at home with Ben, but all that was there to greet me was an empty apartment. When Ben and Dief finally arrived, an hour or so past their regular coming-home time, I didn't even get a greeting from Ben, apart from a half-hearted wave. He just went straight into the bedroom to change out of his uniform.

I looked over toward the bedroom, but was distracted right away by Dief's tongue slobbering all over my right ear. I'd been trying since we first met to get the wolf to understand how gross that was, but he never paid attention. Ben says he's willful, but I don't know . . . maybe it was like love at first sight or something - what can you do about that? Maybe I didn't really mind.

Turned to face Dief and wrestled with him for a minute - it's one of our things - until he settled on the couch with his head on my leg.

"Hey, guy . . . what's up with our Mountie?" I asked, but Dief wasn't in the mood to answer. Okay, he couldn't really answer. I mean, I know that. But sometimes . . . okay, like then: he looked up at me and just shook his head.

Well, it looked like he shook his head anyway.

Maybe he'd have said more, but Ben came out of the bedroom right then. He shot a look in Diefenbaker's direction, and Dief instantly dropped his head back on my leg and closed his eyes like he was sleeping. Sneaky wolf.

Ben watched Dief for a minute, waiting to see if Dief was going to open his eyes, but the wolf was doing as good a job of not saying anything as his human was, and eventually Ben went and sat down on the chair across from the couch.

Oh, oh. Not a good sign. He never sits all the way over there unless he's in a mood.

"Everything okay?" I asked.

"Certainly, Ray. Why shouldn't it be?"

I offered up a little half smile, but I was still concerned. Not like Ben to answer a question with another question. "You just seem . . . I don't know . . . long day, huh?"

"Not particularly long, just . . . well . . . difficult, perhaps."

What I really wanted was to press him a little harder - get him to cough up some details - but I'd seen his thumb rub against his eyebrow twice already since he sat down, and that meant that saying even as little as he had was hard for him to do, for some reason. "Yeah, I get that. My day was kind of a pain, too. Supposed to meet with a guy this afternoon, but he never showed."

"I assume that would be Frank Siracusa?"

Jesus, what was going on here? Had Ben suddenly taken up mind reading as a hobby? "Siracusa?"

"Yes. I encountered him by chance this afternoon as I was walking Diefenbaker, and strangely enough we recognized each other. Evidently he had to 'see a guy about a thing,' as he put it. However, he asked me to tell you 'Tomorrow, same time, same place' when I saw you."

"Yeah, okay . . . thanks," I mumbled. Shit. What were the odds of Ben running across Siracusa? Dumb to even wonder, though - what are the odds of anything that happens in Ben's universe?

A little silence, then Ben asked, "Is this anything I should worry about, Ray?"

"Nah, just something to do with the case, you know? Hey, so what do you want to eat tonight? I could do with some food."

And yeah, trying to change the subject worked about as good as I'd thought it would. Ben just picked up the newspaper from the table and said he wasn't particularly hungry, but I went into the kitchen anyway, hoping to find something that looked even vaguely appetizing.

Nothing looked that thrilling to me. Even Dief, who'd followed at my heels, seemed to have followed me out of habit and not 'cause of hunger - real or imaginary. Not a begging whine or whimper out of him . . . just sat there looking at me and doing his stoic wolf thing.

I went back into the living room and sat down on the couch. Picked up a magazine and skimmed through the pages, but even on my best day, "Mushing Quarterly" wasn't on my top ten list of must-read magazines, and this was anything but one of my best days. Or weeks. Or months.

Finally pulled out the file and my notebook and started going through some of the case notes I'd taken on the Hamilton robbery. A little mumbling to myself, a little paper shuffling, and wouldn't you know it, Ben started thawing a little . . . wanted to get involved in the case, just like I'd guessed he would. It's not like Ben can't be sweet talked sometimes, but you're always more likely to get him over a funk by dangling a sticky case in front of him than by doing almost anything else.

We woke up early the next morning and set off together for the jewelry store so that I could have a talk with Hamilton. Okay, I admit I had an ulterior motive - I figured that coffee place Bonnie'd told me about would be open - but I also wanted Ben to take a look at the store. I'd already popped over there for a few minutes the other day, just to get a quick look before the place re-opened for business, and yeah, the store had been dusted for prints two days ago, but sometimes having Ben along at a crime scene is better then having a whole crime lab in your pocket.

When I'd gone over there on Wednesday, Hamilton hadn't been around, although I did get a chance to talk to him on the phone the next day, but he told me he'd be there all day Friday if we needed him for anything We got there before the security gates'd been opened, but Hamilton waved us around to the back entrance and brought the two of us into the manager's office.

Hamilton seemed like a pretty nice guy, if a little yappy. While Ben went off to nose around - probably literally - out by the display cases, I talked to the guy, but it was hard as hell to keep him focused on business. As he walked me through the store, Hamilton gave me a capsule history of the Hope Diamond, a plot summary of an old Cary Grant movie, a quick lesson on the way some small diamonds are cut using a spread cut to make them look bigger to unsuspecting customers . . . just about everything except any information about the burglary that I hadn't already found in the report.

I'd gotten a lot of experience over the past years at listening hard when someone launched into lecture mode, and I didn't want to cut this guy off, but good intentions or not, after fifteen minutes of this non-stop ramble, I was starting to get a little agitated. Ben must've seen me getting ready to go off on the guy and headed off whatever I was about to say by pointing to a framed photograph hanging up behind the counter. "Your family, Mr. Hamilton?"

Oh yeah, that turned off the ramble switch. Hamilton took the photo down, and passed it over to Ben. "My kids. I hope I'm not going to come across like one of those insufferable parents who thinks his children can do no wrong, but these kids of mine . . . they're really special, you know?"

Ben smiled, then handed the picture over to me. Nice looking kids . . . and the littlest girl - big infectious grin, shining eyes - yeah, she really was something special; Hamilton had it right, there. Except . . . there was something a little odd there; her skin looked almost translucent, like you could see the veins below the surface if you looked closely enough.

I gave the picture back to Hamilton. "Good looking family. The little one . . . the one with the bright red hair . . . ."

"Sara. That's my baby. Seven years old . . . next month," he said softly, while I tried my best not to look shocked; she didn't look like she could be any older than three or four. "She has such a good attitude about . . . " and here Hamilton stopped dead in his tracks while Ben and I exchanged glances.

"So it would appear, Mr. Hamilton," said Ben. "She looks like a happy little girl. It must be difficult for the family."

"Y-you have no idea," he answered, clutching the picture in his hands and shaking his head. "No idea."

But Ben and me . . . we did.

When I was in eighth grade, I came pretty close to failing algebra. It wasn't because I was dumb in math. I always got math. No, the reason they wanted to hold me back a year was because I could never figure out how to 'show my work.' The teacher'd give me a problem and the next thing I knew, I was just writing down the answer. Yeah, I'm sure there were steps in there somewhere, and maybe I was even following those steps . . . but I couldn't've told you what those steps were if someone had handed me a million dollars.

Same thing going on in the store that day. All sorts of good cop things I could've done . . . things I could've asked . . . if I'd needed to, but I never had to. Jumped right over everything that came before "sick kid, high medical costs, do anything for her" . . . and it looked like Ben, who'd probably been born knowing how to 'show his work,' had taken that jump with me.

And you know, just about the same minute that Ben and me had figured out it was Hamilton who'd staged the burglary for the insurance money, Hamilton figured out that we'd figured it out. Didn't try to come up with a story. Didn't try to make a run for it. Just turned chalk white, whispered something about 'my baby,' and then just lay his head down on the counter and started crying.

I'd seen a lot of people fall apart when they realized the game was up, and usually I didn't give a damn, but I felt bad for Hamilton. Don't know why - just did, okay? Sorry enough so that I got out my cell and called Cathy Pearlman over at the State's Attorneys office to give her a head's up on the case. Found myself going on about leniency, first time offences, families . . . until she was ready to pop me one if only it'd get me to shut up. I kept talking about the little kid, Sara, too. "Real cute kid, Cathy. She's a real cute kid," like cuteness is supposed to have anything to do with arrests or convictions.

Cathy knew she was being played, but I could tell she didn't mind. If anything, I think she was kind of surprised that I was so worried about this guy and his family. Worrying about extenuating circumstances and options was more her thing than mine. Sometimes I wondered how she ended up being a prosecuting attorney instead of some earnest Legal Aid lawyer type.

Anyway, after we'd got back to the station and Hamilton'd been sent off for processing, me and Ben headed back to my office, both of us in a pretty good mood. It's not like we'd really had to do much of anything before the guy caved, but we'd been good together all day, probably better than we'd been in a while. Plus, we got the bad guy, and when he turned out to maybe not be such a complete bad guy, we made sure that was entered into the record as well. By the time we got back to the squad room, we were both smiling for the first time in twenty-four hours.

However, whatever good mood we'd built up during the day was screwed for me as soon as we walked in the door and saw Vecchio already in there, sitting on my desk.

Right away when he saw us walking in, Vecchio gave "Benny" a big grin and threw his arms open in this "come to papa" kind of way. Ignored me, of course, but that's to be expected. Vecchio couldn't be too smart if he didn't notice that it bothered Ben when he did that, but being ignored by him sure as hell didn't bother me. Hugging Vecchio hadn't ever been on my 'things to do' list, and the less time I had to spend around him, the better . . . more true now than ever.

Ben returned the happy greeting with Vecchio while I went off to finish handing off the paperwork for the Hamilton case. When I got back to my desk, there was a note from Ben that Vecchio'd asked him to join him for a talk and that he'd see me in a little bit.

Not exactly thrilled about that, but I wasn't about to tell Ben who he could and couldn't be friends with, even if the guy got on my last nerve. Ten minutes later, I was even less thrilled when I got called into Welsh's office, only to find that there was a phone call waiting for me in there. Turned out to be Genovese, sounding like he'd just been kicked in the head.

"The investigation's off, Kowalski. Pack up your notes, turn them in, and forget you heard anything about this."

"What the fuck are you talking about, Genovese? You bust my chops to get me to agree to this thing and then just when the case is maybe going somewhere, you call me and say, oh, terribly sorry . . . all a big mistake? What the hell's going on?"

For a second, all I heard was a sigh on the other end of the line and then, "Yeah, listen . . . I know I owe you more of an explanation. Meet me outside, somewhere . . . Grant Park, over by the band shell, in about fifteen minutes or so. That okay with you?"

What could I do? Of course I agreed. The wind was kicking up a little by the time I got to the park, but it was still bright out. I spotted Genovese sitting on one of the benches, jacket open, leaning back with his eyes closed to catch the last rays of the sun, and looking as wiped out as I felt.

"Okay," I said, kicking at his shoe to get his attention, "You gonna tell me what's going on? It's not like I'm finding out that Vecchio should be named Public Enemy Number One or anything, but he's definitely crossed the line more than once. But I think maybe he's just the tip of an iceberg . . . some of the leads I've been following are jumping right over him and up . . . well . . . somewhere."

"Yeah, and that 'somewhere' is exactly why we've been told to close this down. Trust me, Kowalski, if it were up to me, we'd go forward with this, but I've got bosses too, and they're making it clear as hell that pursuing this would be dangerous to my career and maybe even . . . well . . . let's just stick with career, okay?"

"You're kidding me!"

"Do I look like I'm kidding? I'm not. Evidently too many questions were being raised in certain places and . . . god, I sound like I just crawled out of a bad spy novel. Anyway, it looks like some important people were getting annoyed, so that's it - no investigation."


"Yeah, something like that."

Genovese was disgusted with the whole mess, and so was I. It wasn't like I'd wanted to get into this thing to begin with, but once I was involved, I wanted to see it through. Didn't look like there was anything I could do about it though. Genovese thanked me for my help, I grunted some kind of begrudging acknowledgment, and the two of us went our separate ways.

So that was that. Weeks of rooting around in Vecchio's semi-dirty laundry, sneaking around behind my colleagues' backs, and driving my partner crazy with my secrecy, and it was all for nothing because any more looking into Vecchio's history might end up with some big-shots getting embarrassed or worse.

I drove back to the station, blasting an old Clash tape that had somehow been overlooked during my dad's eagle-eyed car cleaning, and tried not to think about how much the whole situation sucked.

I parked the car, walked up to the front of the station, and saw Stella standing next to Vecchio's Riv like she was on guard duty or something. Said hello - it wasn't like we were strangers - but all I got back from her was a dirty look.


"I'm not going to discuss this with you, Ray," Stella replied, turning away from me.

"Discuss what? What did I do this time?" I asked.

She turned back toward me and said, "Are you so jealous of Ray that you decided to launch your own personal vendetta against him? Is this the kind of thing you've been learning from your Mountie . . . boyfriend?"

Oh shit, I thought, this day was just getting better and better. She knew. She had to know. Decided to tough it out, though. Maybe if I was really lucky I'd find out she was pissed at me for some entirely different reason.

"What're you talking about, Stella?"

"Come on, Ray, don't start lying to me all of a sudden. That really is beneath you. You know what I'm talking about, or do the words 'Internal Affairs' no longer mean anything to you?"

Okay, she did know, but I was still getting a little annoyed, and even though I didn't feel like justifying myself, old habits die hard when it comes to Stella. Before I knew it, I found myself going on about duty and the job and all that.

"This is not about duty and you know it. You're doing it because you resent Ray . . . or because you still resent my involvement with Ray."

Drove me nuts. After all I did to make sure I was approaching this investigation with an unbiased eye, there I was - standing in front of my station house and getting reamed out by my ex-wife like I'd been a bad little boy.

I had just about zero interest in getting any deeper into the whole thing with Stella - I knew that would be pretty much a losing proposition - so I just said 'see ya' and started on into the station. Not fast enough to avoid Vecchio, though, who'd just come out to join my . . . his wife. I ignored him except for a perfunctory sort of nod, but he just smirked at me as Stella got into the car, "Hello, Stanley. Benny and I had a nice little talk."

"Yeah, that's great, Vecchio. Nice to hear you had such a good day."

"Sorry yours hasn't been as good, Kowalski," he said, sidling up next to me and lowering his voice. "It's a real pain when a case just collapses around you, isn't it?"

"What're you talking about? The Hamilton case is just about . . . "

"Not the Hamilton case, moron. No, I'm talking about something nearer and dearer to both our hearts." He smirked again and turned away, "Ciao, paisano."

Shit. Okay, not only did he know about the IA investigation - he obviously knew about the end of the investigation. And Vecchio was never very good at keeping his trap shut when he knew something, which meant . . . oh, shit.

I walked inside, and there was Ben, sitting next to my desk, slouched down in the chair in a very un-Mountielike way. I tried to keep things light and get him to talk, but he was clearly in no mood for any more conversation, and after a little while he got up and said that he was leaving.

I looked up in surprise. "You're not due back at the Consulate today, are you?"

"No," he answered, "I'm just feeling a bit hemmed in. I think I'll go for a walk. Come, Dief." And with that he turned and started to leave.

"Hey, Ben," I called after him, "I'm not going to be long; you want some company?"

He turned back to me and closed the small gap between us. "I think I'd prefer to be alone, if you don't mind, Ray. There are some things I need to give my attention to, and I think I can do that more easily without any distractions. Even pleasant distractions," he added with a slight smile.

So why was he taking Dief, I thought, but just said, "This has something to do with Vecchio, doesn't it? I'm sorry I couldn't talk about it, Ben. It's just that . . . ."

"Ray, I understand why you weren't free to discuss the details of your investigation with me."

I opened my mouth and started to say . . . to say . . . I'm not sure what I was going to say 'cause before I could say anything, Ben had placed his hand lightly over my mouth. Mmm . . . tasted good. "It might be advisable to postpone this conversation until we're out of the station." Conversation? What conversation? Who wanted to talk? All I could think of wanting at that moment was to keep Ben's hand right where it was, to suck his fingers further into my mouth, and . . . .

"Ray. Ray. Ray! Perhaps this, too, might be better left for a time when we're in . . . a less public venue?" he said, blushing a little.

Christ, what was I doing? I shook myself and sat back in my chair, as far away from the temptation of Ben's fingertips as possible.

"Yeah . . . okay . . . I'll, um . . . I'll see you back home later?" I asked.

He nodded, then turned around to leave, but he stopped and turned back to face me. For a minute Ben looked like he wanted to say something, but instead he just reached out his hand and touched my cheek with those still-damp fingertips for a moment.

Then he did go.

I watched him leave and a weird cold feeling settled over me.

I invented some busy work at the station to keep me occupied for a couple of hours, but eventually I couldn't overcome my allergy to paperwork. I signed out for the day and headed home, but when I got there, the place was sounding way too quiet and looking way too empty. A lot of that going on these days. Started to freak out a little, wondering if maybe Ben was so pissed off with me that he'd decided to stay away that night, or worse, to stay away permanently, but after a few minutes passed, Dief came out of the bedroom and nuzzled against me for a few minutes, and if Dief was there, Ben wasn't far away.

I leaned down to scratch behind Dief's ears for a few seconds and then went into the bedroom where I found Ben sitting on the side of the bed, just kind of looking down at the rug on the floor. Didn't move when I came in, didn't turn around . . . in fact, he barely acknowledged my presence, which wasn't his thing at all.

"Hey, Ben," I said, nudging him a little, "You okay?"

I was hoping I sounded normal, but that was probably too much to hope for. I'd known he'd find out about the Vecchio thing sooner or later . . . and I'd known he'd be upset about my involvement. I just hadn't figured he'd be so pissed off with me that he wouldn't even talk to me.

I guess Ben was doing that mind reading thing again, because he turned toward me immediately and smiled. Gave me a bunch of meant-to-be-reassuring words about everything being fine - but it sounded pretty much like he was lying, and he almost never lies. I tried a few more times to get him to talk - I really wanted to hear what Vecchio'd been saying to him - but I finally had to resign myself to the fact that Ben just wasn't in any kind of a chatty mood.

Made myself a sandwich and sat down on the couch, remote in hand, trying to find something on TV that was loud enough and annoying enough to break through the quiet, but after an hour'd passed, I still couldn't settle on anything.

I looked over at Ben down at the other end of the couch. He had a book in his lap - Tom Wolfe . . . he was reading Tom Wolfe? . . . no, Thomas Wolfe, okay, that made more sense. But he wasn't really reading his book any more than I was really watching TV. In fact, all he seemed to be doing at that moment was squeezing the bridge of his nose like he had some kind of killer headache.

Thought for maybe half a second about giving the talking thing one more try, but I knew it wouldn't do any good. Instead, I just switched off the TV and pushed myself up off the couch.

Ben looked up. "Ray? Are you all right?"

God, was that all either one of us could say these days? "Yeah, just a little tired, Ben. Think I'll go to bed. You coming?"

"I thought I might just read one more . . . ."

Come on, Ben," I said, as I took the book out of his hands and put it on the table. "You know you're not really paying any attention to what you're reading." I reached over and rubbed my thumb back and forth across his forehead a few times. "Your head hurting?"

"It seems to be . . . perhaps it's just tension."

"Hey, you'd better do something about that," I said, still rubbing his forehead. "They say tension's the silent killer."

A small smile lit his face as he looked up at me. "I thought it was routine that was the silent killer, Ray."

"Oh yeah, well . . . they changed it again. You gotta keep up on this stuff, buddy."

I pulled Ben up off the couch and steered him into the bedroom, but in the end, I probably could have left him out there with his book for company. I guess somewhere inside I'd been hoping that the closeness of the night would be enough to help us find a way to reconnect, but it didn't really happen. Yeah, we slept in the same bed that night, but as far as I was concerned, we might as well have been miles apart. Uncomfortable, you know? Out of synch. It felt like I was finally sleeping without him for the first time since that night in the Territories.

No surprise, but I didn't really get much sleep that night, and I have a feeling Ben didn't either, if all that shifting around in bed he was doing was anything to go by. Definitely glad the next morning was Saturday . . . I was just too damned tired to be worth much if I'd had to go into work. What I was really hoping was that I could just sort of wallow for a while and put off starting the day - maybe even fall asleep for real for a couple hours - but of course that didn't happen. Like I'd been doing for years, I woke up early because Ben was up early, getting ready to take Dief out for a walk. My eyes might not've been open yet, but I was awake.

After he left - and way earlier than I wanted to - I got out of bed and went to put some coffee on, then changed my mind and decided to make a pot of tea instead. It was just about ready by the time Fraser came back to the apartment. I had a feeling Fraser knew that the drink was like a peace offering or something, because he actually smiled when he took the mug from my hand, and I was real happy to see that smile, even though the eyes behind it still looked kind of tired and distant.

The two of us brought our tea into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Both of us were silent, but it wasn't a bad silence, not really. Maybe just a busy silence, if that makes any sense . . . or at least it was a busy silence over at Fraser's end of the couch. Me, I don't know if I was thinking anything.

Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes. Okay, now the silence was getting a little heavy. Twenty minutes.

"Ray," Ben started, " I'm not mad at you. Please believe that."

How long'd he been trying to spit that out, I wondered? All morning?

"Yeah?" I asked quietly. "You sure?"

"I'm the last person who could fail to understand the notion of doing one's duty, no matter the personal cost."

Yeah, I knew that about him, but something was still off about his reaction. "I don't think Vecchio's gonna get in any trouble or anything, if that's what you've been worrying about," I said, trying to reassure him a little, but Ben got that determined-not-to-seem-mad look on his face, the one that always guaranteed he really was mad.

"It hasn't been, as it happens," he said in the kind of prissy tones I hadn't heard in a long time. "In fact, if I'm angry at anyone, it's Ray Vecchio. Or perhaps in the final analysis, it's really myself that I'm angry with."

Huh? How did any of this get to be Ben's responsibility? I mean, I knew he was a gold medallist in undeserved guilt, but this was pretty far out, even for him, and I said so. "I don't get that. Why are you angry with yourself?"

Thumb across the eyebrow . . . uh huh, I could've called that one. "For demonstrating once again that my assessments of the people for whom I have the deepest feelings are invariably wrong."

Vecchio, yeah. Okay, I got that. 'People,' though . . . so he was probably talking about the Metcalf, chick too.

Needless to say, I couldn't get Ben to spill the beans about what Vecchio'd said to him the day before, but even with Ben just dancing around the details, it sounded like they'd had a hell of a talk. I found myself defending Vecchio, of all things . . . telling Ben I hadn't really found out anything that bad, that he probably had good intentions, and a bunch of other shit that I didn't really believe, but Ben waved off everything I was saying pretty damned fast.

"Ray, it's just . . . how could I not have known what he was really like? How could I have held such a firm conviction that, fundamentally, he was a truly honorable man?"

"Because he's your friend, Ben, and . . . ."

"Was my friend."

"Oh, come on - that's so not like you, Ben. You don't stop caring about people just like that." What the hell was I doing? Why was I trying to convince Ben to stay friends with that jerk?

"I'm not certain about that, Ray. At the moment I'm not certain about anything." Ben sighed and lay back on the couch. "I think I'm beginning to realize now that when I . . . when I care about someone it blinds me to what they're really like . . . blinds me to the nature of our relationship. I don't know how I can continue to trust my feelings when it appears that I only see what I want to see . . . and not things as they really are."

He was sounding a little chokey, too; real unhappy emotions were being stirred around in the pot. And okay, that was all right . . . I mean, he'd finally learned how to show happiness every once in a while; no reason why he couldn't show a little unhappiness, too. And everything he was saying made some kind of sense to me, but it didn't take long to realize that if this was what he'd got whirring around in his brain, then maybe there was room there for more than just Vecchio and Victoria. Couldn't trust his feelings?

"Does this include how you're feeling about us, Ben?" I asked.

The tiniest of pauses, but it was enough. He recovered and said, "No . . . God no, Ray. Don't even think that, not for a moment."

Maybe if Ben had stopped right there, I'd have bought it lock, stock, and two smoking barrels, but he kept going on and on until nothing he was saying sounded right anymore. Sort of like that Hamlet thing: methinks the Mountie doth protest too much.

Whatever the truth was, I just knew that was about all I was going to get out of him that weekend in terms of a heart-to-heart conversation - stubborn Mountie, or have I mentioned that before? - so I figured I'd just quit pressing. The afternoon came around, and I thought maybe Ben and me could go out, maybe do something together, but as soon as I brought up the idea, some mysterious never-before-mentioned consular duty popped out of nowhere, and Ben took off with Dief for the afternoon. Then Sunday came and it was pretty much the same thing, with Ben disappearing for most of the day - again with Dief . . . and without me.

I was almost looking forward to going back to work on Monday.

Soon as I got back to the station the next day, Welsh called me into his office. I was kind of worried about what his reaction was going to be to this whole thing, but in the end it was okay. I mean, I knew that Welsh had known Vecchio for a long time and everything, but he didn't even mention Vecchio's name that morning . . . just sort of patted me on the shoulder a couple of times, asked me how the wrap up of the Hamilton case was going, and then paused and told me he was proud of me. Nice to hear. Welsh looked a little embarrassed when he said it, and as soon as he finished, our little bonding moment ended. He booted me out of his office and told me to get back to work.

The rest of the day was pretty much like that. Not great, but not too bad either. I heard a few stray rodent-type squeaks from one or two people in other squads as I passed them in the hall and some joker left a piece of cheese sitting on my desk sometime during the day - hell, not much chance the whole station hadn't heard all the details of my time with the rat squad by this point - but mostly people were being pretty cool about the investigation.

Frannie was just about the only person in the squad who was bringing me down a little, but I wasn't about to blame her. Whatever else he was, Ray Vecchio was her family. The thing is, though, Frannie wasn't exactly going off on me like I might've expected her to do. She was just really distant and quiet, kind of like Fraser had been acting, really.

I kept trying to let her know I was sorry for what I'd had to do, but she got real good, real fast at tuning me out. Then I tried another tack and every so often, I'd look over her way and smile a little, but she'd just give me a sort of blank look in response - not mean, just blank - and eventually, she'd turn away.

Pretty uncomfortable, you know, considering we still had to work together. Got to where if I needed something from her I'd end up leaving post-it notes on her desk, and whatever I'd needed would magically appear some time later in the day. Not the best system, but I figured I'd put up with it for a while . . . see what happened.

Quitting time came around, a few days after the Vecchio investigation was closed. I was writing a follow-up report on the Hamilton case - it was starting to look like the guy might not have to do much prison time, which I was happy about - when a printout I'd been looking for earlier materialized on top of my desk. I looked up to see Frannie there, with her jacket on, ready to go home for the day.

I gave her a sort of half smile, half questioning look, and instead of just ignoring me like she'd been doing, she kinda thumped me on the shoulder just like she used to do. Okay, except this time it was a little harder. A lot harder.

"Hey, Frannie."

"Ray." She bit her bottom lip, and then thumped me again. "You know I'm still pissed with you, right?"

"Yeah. Frannie, I'm sorry that . . . ."

"Oh shut up, Ray. You're not really sorry." She let out a sigh, then thumped me once more for good measure. "I don't even know if you should be, but . . . he's my brother, you know?"

Yeah, I knew.

"So, anyway . . . okay . . . that's all I wanted to say."

I nodded, and she started to leave, but then she stopped. Didn't turn around, just sighed again and said, "Night, Ray."

"Night, Frannie."

Wasn't the best conversation on record, but it wasn't bad. Didn't want to lose Frannie's friendship and it was looking like maybe I wouldn't. I'd just have to give it some time. I could do that. I still didn't like being patient, but I'd figured out how to do it over the past few years.

Wish I could say that I felt as confident about the way things were going with Fraser. Half the time, it was like I was living with alternate-universe Mountie, and I don't mean that in a good way. Almost like somewhere along the line Fraser and me switched personalities, and he only got my bad stuff. I know I can be a pain in the ass some of the time. Maybe even a lot of the time. But I'd learned something about this relationship crap in the post-Stella era, and I thought I was getting it mostly right.

Couldn't tell though, by the way he was acting. He sniped at me for the lamest reasons. Not really nasty, just . . . I don't know. Kind of bitchy, like he had a headache 24/7.

And the rest of the time he was so distracted I sometimes wondered if someone had hypnotized him while I wasn't looking. You know that zoning out thing he used to do sometimes when he was working through a puzzle? He was doing that a lot now. Just sort of off into his own head with a vengeance.

Weird thing was that when I wasn't getting pissed off about the way he was treating me, I was almost looking at this screwed-up behavior as a good thing.


I mean, it's not like Fraser's any kind of angel. He's got a hell of a temper on him, even though he doesn't give it free rein very much. He can be arrogant. He can be selfish. Sure, he's got that goody-goody thing working for him, and it's not like it's an act - hell, he is a pretty good guy most of the time. But anyone who couldn't see that he was just as capable of acting like a dick as anyone else sometimes just didn't know Fraser very well.

But usually his dickiness . . . well, it's like a tool or something. He uses it for other people's sakes, mostly, not just because he wakes up in the morning and feels like being a dick.

This time, though, there didn't seem to be some 'higher good' or whatever driving him, so it had to just be for his own sake, and maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, the way I figured it. If I could chill until Frannie was ready to give me the time of day, I could do the same for Fraser while he did a little staring into his navel. Sure, the way he was acting was driving me a little crazy, but in a freaky way I kind of liked the fact that even with what had happened, he still felt easy enough with me to just ignore me like he was doing and pay a little attention to himself for once.

Trouble was, though, none of that introspection seemed to get him anywhere. More than once, I offered to talk to him about whatever was bugging him, and I'll give him credit for trying, but it just wasn't happening. The few times we actually sat down to hash this shit out, it was like I could just tell when the switch in his brain got flipped to off. Just: "okay: no more talking about this" . . . and that was that. I was getting pretty frustrated - I mean, shit . . . who'd been the one doing the undercover thing? Him or me? But it was pretty obvious I wasn't half as frustrated as Fraser seemed to be getting, until one morning he'd just had enough.

We hadn't even gotten out of bed. Hell, I hadn't even opened my eyes. Then all of a sudden, I heard Ben say, "I can't do this anymore, Ray. I've got to leave."

Whoa. Okay, the eyes were open.

"Leave where? Go where? Shit, Ben, you think you could have waited with this until I got a cup of coffee in my hand? Or better yet, waited a few dozen years until I was checked into the old folks' home?" I crawled out from under the covers and leaned my head back against the wall behind the bed. "Come on," I said, nudging him with my left foot, "Get up. It's talking time."

Ben sat up cross-legged in bed, his hands folded in his lap. He didn't start talking, of course. Can't get the guy to shut up when he's in a storytelling mood; can't get him to open his yap when he's . . . not.

I kind of bumped against his right shoulder a couple of times to try and get a reaction of him, and yeah . . . I did get half a smile in response. But he still hadn't started talking, and he still wouldn't look at me. Just kept staring down at his fingernails like they were the most interesting things he'd seen all week.

"Come on, Ben . . . talk to me. What's going on?" I nudged him once more for good measure, then figured 'what the hell' and pulled him toward me until his back was pressed up against my chest.

For a minute there I thought Ben was going to do one of those block of wood impressions that I'd gotten to know in the earliest days of our working relationship. But you know something? By this point, Ben and me had been together for a long time, and it was sort of like his body didn't really remember how to be anything but easy with me, even if his mind wasn't exactly agreeing.

I let Ben rest quietly against me for a few minutes.

"You know I don't want to be apart from you, don't you, Ray?" he said finally. He took my hands in his own and wrapped my arms tightly around his chest, locking himself in my embrace. "Can you . . . do you know that?"

I leaned forward and nuzzled against his right temple, "Yeah, I know that, Ben." I said softly, "I know that you don't."

"It's just that . . . " he paused, took a deep breath, and tightened his hold on my forearms, "It's just that I seem to be more distressed about this situation with . . . Ray than I would have imagined I could be. I need . . . I need some perspective to make sense of whatever it is I'm feeling at the moment, Ray, but I'm finding it uncharacteristically difficult to order my thoughts while I'm here."

Wasn't like I had an argument for that.

"So . . . um . . . ." Okay, I had to keep it together. Communicate. Shit. "What are you . . . where do you think you'll go?" I asked.

"Inspector Sellers was kind enough to give me some time off . . . "

"Okay, that's good," I said, although I knew 'kind' had nothing to do with it; I figured by now the RCMP owed Ben more time off than he'd ever use.

"In any case, I rang Quinn last Sunday . . . asked if I might impose upon his hospitality for a time. Perhaps you'll remember that I told you he's now living in . . . ."

Can your ears go blind all of a sudden? It was like I'd just been jumped in an alley by a gang of white noise 'cause all of a sudden I couldn't hear anything Ben was saying. He called Quinn almost a week ago? Making plans about his future . . . our future . . . alone? And he was just getting around to telling me about it now? Whatthefuck!

I wanted out of the bed. Wanted to move, pace the floor, hit the wall . . . something. But before I'd decided which I wanted more, Ben's arms closed more tightly over my own, fingers clutching mine.


And in that one syllable I was hearing confusion, sadness, worry, and I didn't know how he was able to cram all that into one syllable, but I did know I had to listen. Not move, just listen.

My turn for a deep breath. "I'm good. I'm listening." A pause. "Um . . . maybe you'd better go back a ways, like . . . okay, you're going to go stay with Quinn?"

"I'm sorry, Ray. I know this must sound terribly sudden . . . ." My snort interrupted him, and he began to turn his head toward me.

"No, go on . . . keep talking," I said.

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. Go on."

"As you know, since he had to relocate, Quinn's been working as a guide with Yellowknife Outfitters, which has become something of a . . . well, I don't suppose that's really important. What is important is that he is willing to take me in, and . . . ."

"He has to take you in."

" . . . he . . . huh?"

If this all hadn't been so serious, I would've laughed out loud. I love it when he says 'huh.' Not sure why really, I just do. Maybe it's just because it sounds so wrong when he says it.

"Has to take you in. Some poem . . . what's that line, Ben? About home?

"Ah . . . Robert Frost?"

"Maybe. Say it for me."

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in?"

"Yeah, that's it. Okay," I said, still trying to think why this quote had come to mind. "So you have to go there, right? North? To Quinn? You have to go home?"

I'd had no clue how worried he'd been about my reaction until I said that and immediately felt the change in Ben's body - felt him really relax, finally.

"You do understand," he said, and leaned his cheek softly against my arm.

And you know, I really didn't.

But we talked more, Ben and me, and maybe I did end up getting some of it.

I'm not going to say I was liking any part of this separation idea. Felt like that separate vacation thing . . . kind of a flashback to the dying days of my marriage, and I just didn't want to revisit that place. But with Stella . . . well, in the end it was mostly about her not wanting to be with me, and I knew . . . I knew that wasn't really what was going on in Ben's head. No, with Ben it was about him needing to find out what was rattling around in his brain and sort things out.

Different stuff altogether.

Okay, I admit it, I was kind of jealous that Ben was turning north - turning to Quinn - when he could barely even begin to talk to me about what was up with him. But this was something he needed - he needed to go home - and when you love someone, well . . . you gotta help them get what they need.

And I loved him.

So I watched Ben pack, drove him out to O'Hare, kissed him goodbye, saved the sniffling until after his plane took off, and went in to the station with Dief.

Yeah, Ben left Dief here with me. A part of him. In our home.

He's coming back.

He is.

* * *

Chit chat, Critiques, Gratuitous Praise: Beth H

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