This is set post "Flashback" in the RealRay season three. NC-17 for graphic male/male sex; if this offends you, please read no further.

Three Months by Laura Mason

 

 November

"Thank you for the basket, Constable Fraser." Benton Fraser, RCMP, stopped walking as the soft words reached his ear. This wasn't the first time he'd been thanked this week, although he had no idea why.

"Good morning, Mrs. Peters. If you'll pardon me -- what basket?"

"Oh. Sorry to embarrass you, Constable. Mum's the word." And with a tiny finger held up to the coy smile on her lips, his white-haired neighbor slipped inside her door.

Fraser looked down at the wolf waiting alongside him, then they proceeded down the narrow stairs. "Some days I don't believe I've made any progress in understanding Chicago, Diefenbaker." But when they reached the ground floor, the distinctive Riviera was there, with Ray waiting impatiently behind the wheel, his fingers moving over the leather in Ray's peculiar nervous rhythm. Feeling good despite his inability to solve the basket mystery, Fraser smiled as he held the door for his lupine companion, then climbed in himself. Ray began the daily litany as soon as the door closed, and the drive to the Consulate proceeded as usual.

Today Ray complained about the cold weather and waiting with the car running. "I'm gonna need a new battery soon. If my car dies in your neighborhood it'll be in pieces before I can get it towed to a decent garage." Then Ray segued to the traffic around them, addressing comments to the other drivers which Fraser doubted they could hear or learn from, but which he personally found quite amusing nonetheless. Of course, a large part of that amusement was Ray's outrage over the delays the poor drivers caused, even as he smoothly steered the Riviera around double parked cars, slower-moving vehicles, and all the other obstacles he decried so loudly. Fraser had never been late to work with Ray driving, unless they'd deliberately stopped to chase a criminal.

Diefenbaker nuzzled Ray's ear, earning some choice comments about wolf slobber and -- when he thought Fraser wasn't looking -- a doughnut from Ray's bag, open on the front seat between the two men. Dief sat back on his seat to enjoy his treat and Fraser forced his head to remain turned to the side window, hoping his reflection didn't show Ray the smile on his face.

Fraser remembered the first time Ray drove him through this vast city, and his nervousness as Ray gestured, turned his head to speak to him, drank coffee, shouted at pedestrians and other drivers, and even ate a doughnut as they drove. He'd even tried to assist Ray, pointing out people in the crosswalks, stop signs and other hazards. He couldn't pinpoint the day, but at some point in their acquaintance he'd realized that Ray's outrageous driving style no longer worried him. He trusted Ray, and while Fraser still -- on occasion -- pointed out potential dangers, he knew Ray was a good driver.

As well as being the best friend he'd ever had. Benton Fraser felt content with the world and his place in it. Until Ray changed the topic of conversation, thereby changing Fraser's mood, and left him at the consulate decidedly disgruntled for the day's duties.

***

They were in the car, headed for lunch, when Elaine called. After a few mumbled assents, Ray hung up, then asked, "Benny, you mind if we skip lunch and head over to a crime scene? I'll get you back to the Consulate on time."

"Fine, Ray. I'm always interested in your cases." As soon as Fraser began to speak, Ray was putting the car into a U-turn, then accelerating.

"Yeah, well this one isn't really mine. Murder. Huey and Dewey are on the scene."

"Did they ask Elaine to notify you?"

"Yeah. I investigated a robbery at the apartment last month. Margot Loftus. Name ring a bell?"

"I don't think so, Ray."

"Last year her eighty-year-old, obscenely wealthy husband died while they were in bed," Ray said. "Edwin Loftus. Big real estate name, founded Loftus & O'Meara. Still, nothing odd about having a bad ticker at that age, right? Until the paramedics called the cops, because they found indications that there had been someone else present."

"Ah," Fraser remarked, flushing. Ray laughed.

"Don't be embarrassed, Benny, it's just me. So there was an investigation, and DNA testing of the sheets proved another man had been present. The cop in charge of the investigation was ready to arrest Margot, figuring she had a lover and they'd killed her husband. But when they questioned Margot, it turned out old Eddie was pretty kinky. Liked a lot of activities that might strain the heart." Ray swung out onto Michigan Avenue with a squeal of tires.

"I do seem to remember a tabloid headline..." Fraser remarked, holding on to the dashboard.

"Yeah, they were pretty nasty about it, once Mrs. Loftus gave us her story. Of course, any guy that rich who marries a much-younger Vegas showgirl gets attention. But when Margot claimed her husband regularly hired prostitutes, and particularly enjoyed male prostitutes, that really made headlines." Ray turned into the parking garage of a condo building on East Oak Street, and Fraser could faintly smell the lake as they exited the car. "Margot was pretty upset about all the publicity. Tried to sue the City, claiming the leak was our fault. But she couldn't prove anything. For all we knew, one of the prostitutes had a big mouth. Might even have been the one who took a powder the night Edwin died."

They entered the lobby of the building, passing a door man, security desk with video monitors and two guards, and several uniformed police personnel. Ray nodded to the woman at the elevator, showing his badge as he pushed the "up" button.

"And there was a robbery here recently?" Fraser inquired as they entered the elevator.

Ray pushed the button for the penthouse as he replied, "Jewelry and antiques, really hard to fence stuff. Absolutely no leads, and don't think Mrs. Loftus was cooperative, either. She probably only called us to complain some more about her name being besmirched." Ray moved nervously, as he always did, impatient with the time it took the elevator to climb. "Seemed like a matter for her insurance company to investigate, really."

They exited the elevator and were in a very elegant, nicely appointed private entry. There were more uniforms here, and Fraser could smell the blood that was splashed on the wallpaper. A framed painting had been taken down, and the word "whore" was printed in what appeared to be blood on that wall, which faced the elevator.

Fraser watched Ray's face tighten as they proceeded through the double doors to the apartment. No matter how many violent crimes one investigated, it was always disturbing. The room was a mess, with a large quantity of blood present. The body was still being photographed, and crime scene technicians were dusting for prints and bagging evidence all around them. Huey saw them enter and waved them over to where he was interviewing a visibly shaken older woman.

"Ms. Perkins, this is Detective Vecchio and Constable Fraser," Huey explained. "Please go on."

"I got off the elevator and saw the painting and the writing. The doors were closed, but not latched. Then I came in here and saw this..." She indicated the bloody mess around them, and the body on the floor. "I screamed and screamed. Then I pushed the intercom button and screamed something, I don't know what. They called the police." The maid looked ready to go into hysterics again. "Who would do something like this? Why?"

Huey patted her arm and said something soothing as Ray moved away for a closer look at the body. Dr. Pearson was stripping off her gloves, evidently finished with her exam, and even she looked paler than usual, Fraser noted.

"Dr. Pearson."

"Constable Fraser. Where's your wolf?" The blonde Medical Examiner smiled at him as she came to his side.

"I left him at the Consulate when Detective Vecchio invited me to have lunch. Probably just as well." He glanced around the room with its almost overwhelming gore.

"Yeah, the smells would drive him crazy. Nasty murder."

"What would you say was the cause of death?"

"Multiple gunshots to the head, with a large caliber weapon. Overkill. But that's not the end of it."

"Someone carved up the body pretty badly," Ray noted as he returned to Fraser's side. "Mutilation, and just a lot of random cuts. And one attempt to carve 'whore' on the body."

"That explains the amount of blood," Fraser noted.

"Did they find the fingers and toes?" Ray asked.

"No, they're not here. Might have been kept as a trophy."

"Or to make identifying the body impossible," Ray grumbled.

"It's a woman, same height, weight, coloring and approximate age as Loftus. In her clothing, in her home. The maid identified the body, as did the doorman," Pearson said testily. "There's really no reason to suspect it's anyone other than Margot Loftus."

"We all thought of that, Ray, but there's really nothing indicating it's not Loftus," Huey said as he and his newly-assigned partner, Thomas Dewey, joined them. "My question is whether or not the robbery you investigated had any relation to this."

"So did the robbers write "whore" inside her empty jewelry box?" Dewey asked rather sarcastically. "Anything look unusual about the room, Vecchio? You've been here recently. That's why we called you here, not to play Nancy Drew with the Mountie." Fraser didn't really appreciate Detective Dewey's sense of humor, but he was a good match for Detective Huey. It was difficult taking over for a lost partner under any circumstances, and Dewey was managing to fit in at the precinct and to make Huey more content with his job.

It was probably a measure of how disturbing the crime scene was that Ray, who never missed a chance to verbally spar, ignored Dewey's snide comment. Instead Ray moved around, scanning the room. "The decor doesn't seem as nice as I remember..." he muttered.

Dewey snorted. "The decor? I suppose a gallon of blood will do that."

"No, that's not it." Ray was at a shelf, looking at the display. "There's more stuff missing, I think. You need to have the maid look around. This might be related to the robbery, after all."

Huey glanced back at the maid, who was still sniffling in a corner of the room, attended by a uniformed policewoman. "We'll do it after they finish moving the body out of here. Maybe there's a friend or family member who might be more aware of what she had here."

Fraser stood, alert and watching the professionals all around him. There were investigations, he had to admit, where Ray seemed bored and was ready to move on too quickly. Those were the occasions when Fraser might step forward to bring some detail to Ray's attention. But there were also times, like now, when watching Ray and his peers was all Fraser needed to do. They were taking this case very seriously, despite Dewey's attempts at joking, and there was nothing Fraser felt he needed to add to the conversation. After all, he'd never been inside this apartment, and he honestly didn't think he had much insight into such a brutal murder. The epithet on the wall and on the body made it seem like a hate crime, perhaps inspired by Mrs. Loftus' past tabloid troubles. Or possibly it was a crime of passion, a spurned lover. But robbery, as Ray was suggesting -- unless the mutilation had been done to obscure the true motive of robbery... Fraser would mention these theories to Ray while they drove back to the Consulate.

As if he'd heard Fraser's thoughts, Ray looked over at him. "Five minutes, Benny. I'll run you back to work, and we can grab a hot dog as we go." He returned to a huddle with Huey and Dewey briefly, then headed toward Fraser.

"Don't get lost, Ray," Huey called after him.

"I'll be back and canvassing in half an hour," Ray tossed over his shoulder.

"Ready, Ray?" Fraser smiled.

"You bet. Maybe once we get out of here I'll really feel hungry."

***

"C'mon, Benny, you've gotta trust me on this one." Ten hours later, and despite Fraser's very persistent efforts to keep Ray answering questions about the case he'd worked all afternoon, the conversation was back on the topic that had ruined Benton's morning.

"I do trust you, Ray. But I see no point in this excursion."

"It'll be fun."

"The expense is rather sizeable for 'fun,' Ray. Particularly in this season, when there are hungry people all over this city and better uses for the money." The Riviera was now parked in front of his building, but Fraser was still sitting inside the warm car with his friend.

"Aw, Fraser, you can't stop hunger all by yourself. You said you're working in that shelter on Thanksgiving again this year, right?" Ray's perpetual motion -- in this case, with his glove -- stopped. "If you're short I'll loan you the money for the tickets, it's no problem. You can pay me back after the first of next month."

Fraser truly had no desire to double date with Ray, but Ray's eyes were on him and he didn't want to put out the light in those warm, green depths. The only time he'd actually enjoyed squelching Ray was while he was in the hospital, after... Before Ray allowed himself to be shot in Fraser's place.

He owed Ray so much. "Fine, Ray. I'm sure the Blue Men will be enjoyable."

"That's Blue Man Group, and you're gonna love it, Fraser. And wait till you see the girl Sherry's bringing for you. Va-va-va-voom!"

Va-voom, indeed. Fraser climbed out of the Riviera, committed to seeing a show he didn't care about with some woman he'd never met. A friend of Ray's current interest, Sherry, who had an out-of-town friend scheduled for a weekend visit. Sherry had asked Ray to find something "fun" to do. Ray had promised her a wonderful night, dinner and a show. And evidently promised to bring a date for the friend, too.

Ray pulled away from the curb and Fraser stood brooding, watching the car move into the distance.

Sherry was blonde and curvaceous and rather uninteresting, in Fraser's opinion. She was very different from Ms. St. Laurent, who was also very different from what he'd seen of Ray's ex-wife, Angela. For that matter, they were all different from Sister Anne, also one of Ray's girlfriends. Or Irene Zuko, for that matter. Ray evidently didn't have a type when it came to women, though Fraser rather uncharitably thought Ray's type might best be described as "anyone in skirts." That thought led to a vague memory of his father's Scots heritage and a brief, embarrassing vision of himself in a kilt, trying to catch Ray's eye.

Diefenbaker whined, bringing Fraser's attention to the street around them. He started toward the entrance to his apartment building, only to be stopped by Jojo, a homeless man who lived under the front stairs of the building next door.

"Thanks for the stuff, Constable. It's nice and warm." Fraser stared blankly at the man. Indeed, Jojo was better dressed than he'd been, wearing a knit cap, a muffler, gloves, and an overcoat.

"I'm afraid I don't know what..." Fraser started.

"That's okay, that's cool." And Jojo was crawling back into the cocoon of blankets that was his home, muttering, "Mountie thinks I'm too dumb to know who left that bag under here."

Fraser entered the building, completely frustrated. Someone was being a good Samaritan to the people in his neighborhood, and Fraser was getting the credit. That was frustrating enough, but to make it worse the money he'd planned to donate to the soup kitchen would now be needed for the theater tickets Ray was purchasing. Fraser didn't enjoy taking credit for something he hadn't done, and he didn't enjoy being unable to do something on his own for his neighbors.

Why on earth had Ray involved him in this disagreeable blind date situation?

Well perhaps Fraser was being unkind. Ray often mentioned that Fraser spent too much time alone, that he didn't enjoy Chicago's many cultural offerings. Actually, he could remember exactly what Ray had said. "Benny, you sit in that ratty apartment with books too much. There's theater, movies, nightclubs - have you ever heard live jazz? - and women, Benny. Beautiful women who'd fall at your feet if you were just out where they could see ya."

And Ray invited him out constantly. They ate together several nights a week, either at Ray's house or at a diner. They spent time together on weekends, doing errands or just taking Diefenbaker to one of the larger parks where he could run.

Perhaps Ray thought Fraser was lonely, and needed to be introduced to women. While Sherry wasn't an outstanding woman, she was warm and friendly to Fraser without ever being flirtatious -- a welcome change for both men. She had a good heart. Last week when Ray had to call and cancel a date because of a case they were working, Sherry brought sandwiches to Ray at the precinct, and packed enough for Fraser as well. No doubt Ray believed any friend of hers would be equally thoughtful.

Fraser entered his kitchen and put together Dief's food for the evening. Ray had seen Fraser deflect women often enough to know he wasn't interested. But then again, Ray had also seen Fraser with Victoria. And it appeared that Ray often mistook Fraser's deliberate actions for naivete. Perhaps Ray thought that Fraser was shy, or -- worse -- still in love with Victoria.

Whatever the cause, evidently Ray didn't understand that Fraser simply wasn't interested in women. Victoria had been an aberration. Fraser supposed he should refer to himself as bisexual after their weekend together, but he'd always thought of himself as homosexual. Certainly he was more often attracted to men.

Certainly Fraser was very attracted to one very straight, very oblivious Italian cop.

As he made scrambled eggs and toast for his own dinner, Fraser tried to put his thoughts in a more productive path. Pining over Ray seemed petty when the man so freely gave his time to Fraser, driving him places, inviting him to family dinners, working on cases with him. Even if they became lovers, they couldn't share much more of their lives.

But oh, what they could share. Fraser sometimes had to look away when Ray moved in front of him, his body so slim and graceful. Ray's clothing just seemed to emphasize what it covered. And Fraser knew he touched Ray more than he should, just to feel the warmth radiating off the man. But then, Ray was very comfortable with touching Fraser in return. When they'd first met, Fraser actually thought Ray was flirting with him, but he'd been too annoyed to respond. Later he was grateful for that initial friction, which kept him from alienating Ray with some impetuous words or actions. It quickly became all too obvious that the detective was only interested in women.

When he sat down to eat, listening to Dief's snores and the neighbors' television sets, Fraser put all thoughts of seducing Ray Vecchio out of his mind, and tried to think of what he could wear to the theater on Saturday night.

***

"That's the only sports coat you own?" Ray had stopped at Fraser's first, and they planned to pick up the girls together at Sherry's apartment. Actually, Ray said quite bluntly that Fraser's neighborhood would scare off the women. Fraser was used to Ray's comments about his choice of apartment, but Fraser hadn't imagined that Ray would be so critical of his clothing for this event.

"Is there something wrong with this? You helped me pick it out, Ray." Fraser looked down at the red jacket Ray had purchased for his undercover assignment at Tex Markle's car lot. He'd paired it with a plain shirt this time, rather than the brightly patterned shirt Ray had provided for his Billy-Bob persona. Fraser had his solid blue uniform tie on, to match the blue slacks from the same. It was his only option other than jeans or his riding trousers. There'd been no time to shop this week, between volunteering at the pantry making up Thanksgiving bundles and assisting Ray with the homicide they'd stumbled across.

"Oh, it's nice enough, I guess. Just kind of -- casual." Ray was turned out in his grey Armani, very dressy. "Still, maybe I can make us match a little better." Ray began opening drawers, pulling out clothes. "Here, take off the shirt and tie and put this on."

"That's a henley, Ray."

"Yes, Fraser."

"It's ... underwear, Ray."

"Not tonight, Fraser. C'mon, strip."

And with a shiver from hearing those words come out of Ray's mouth, Fraser did. When he had the cream henley in place, Ray came over to inspect him. Ray tugged his sleeves up to his elbows, put the sports coat on him again, then pushed up the sleeves of that as well.

"Okay. Now for me." And Fraser watched, guiltily entranced, as Ray took off his own jacket, tie, and shirt. Ray's chest was bare. Should he be embarrassed at finally seeing Ray unclothed when he wasn't injured or bleeding? Fraser wasn't. He watched as Ray pulled a thin crewneck sweater of Fraser's over his head, then donned his own jacket again.

"The sweater's obviously too large for you, Ray." Fraser remembered it now; he'd never yet worn the gift from Mrs. Vecchio. It was a very soft cotton, fine gauge, but he'd considered it too formal to wear with jeans and flannel. Even too large, the sweater looked good on Ray. The lightweight knit emphasized the breadth of Ray's shoulders. "Perhaps if you tucked it in."

"Yeah, that'll have to do." With a few quick motions, Ray's belt and trousers were open, revealing a flash of color. Boxers? Patterned boxers? Fraser had always imagined Ray in black briefs, hugging the curve of his bottom. He felt childishly disappointed, compounded by Ray's ability to smooth down the sweater and refasten his trousers without revealing any more of his body. "Now we match, Benny."

"I'm afraid you're far more casually dressed than you'd planned, Ray." But they did look right together, he realized.

"Ah, it's fine, Benny. We'll still be some of the better-dressed people there. There's no tie requirement at the restaurant, either, so this'll do."

***

Fraser lay in his bed, his body uncomfortably full from the late hour they'd eaten as well as the quantity of food Ray had ordered. Though he'd only had one glass of wine, Fraser felt a little dizzy, and in the silence of his room it seemed that his heart was still keeping beat with the syncopated sounds of the show they'd experienced.

Sherry's friend Ellen was a very nice woman, and both women had been very appreciative of the show and the dinner. Ray, as he'd always claimed, knew how to show a woman a good time. He bought them each a rose at the restaurant, and had the musicians play Sherry's favorite song during dessert. He'd even danced with both women briefly. When the long evening at last came to an end, they'd dropped the two women back at Sherry's apartment. Fraser shook Ellen's hand and told her it had been nice to make her acquaintance. She'd thanked him for the lovely evening, and asked huskily if he would show her more of his city. He then politely explained that he came from Canada, not Chicago.

Somehow, that had been the wrong response. Ellen had looked offended and Sherry had ignored Ray completely, not even kissing him goodnight before she closed the door in their faces. Ray was silent until they reached the car, and then he laughed, relieving Fraser's worry that he'd upset his friend with his gaucheness.

"Well, that's probably it for Sherry."

"I beg your pardon, Ray?"

"I think she'll be washing her hair the next time I invite her out, Benny."

"Oh. You mean she won't want to date you any more?"

"Yeah. Maybe. Who knows with women? I think she just wanted a big night out, ya know? That's okay, I had fun. How about you?"

"The experience was quite unique, Ray. You chose interesting places."

"But did you like it?"

"Very much."

"Good. I mean, the girls might have their panties in a bunch, but as long as we got enjoyment, it was worth it - right?"

Fraser knew he should answer simply, but his mouth didn't form the word 'right,' somehow. "I always enjoy the time I spend with you, Ray."

Which effectively put an end to all conversation in the car. Ray dropped him at home, promising to pick him up at three o'clock the next day for Sunday dinner, and the Riviera took off down the very empty early morning street.

Now Fraser had been in his bed for half an hour, sleepless despite Dief's reassuring panting. He stopped staring at the ceiling and sat up in bed, and his eye was drawn to a white mass across the back of his chair. Ray had driven home wearing Fraser's sweater. The shirt he'd worn was still here.

It took another 15 minutes before he got out of bed and moved to the shirt. He should hang it up, along with Ray's tie, but first... Fraser held the expensive fabric to his face and breathed. It was there, faintly. Ray hadn't worn the material long enough for it to be imbued with his scent, but there was a little of Ray under the clean smells of laundry soap, starch, and cologne.

Enough for Fraser to lie down again, the shirt over his face, his hand on his body. The forbidden aspects of this - knowing Ray would be horrified, disgusted - only seemed to make it more urgent that he indulge himself. Perhaps it was the wine, or the glimpses of Ray's body earlier. Fraser pulled at his flesh, imagining Ray in the bed with him, touching him. Kissing him. Next he scored his nipples with his fingernails, imagining Ray's mouth there, biting him. And then he slipped a finger lower, behind his sac, and just rubbed the entrance to his body lightly, sucking at the fabric and smelling Ray, everywhere.

He came with a shout, waking Diefenbaker and almost passing out. He lay there, face still buried in Ray-scent, thinking that he should clean up, he should hang Ray's shirt... Fraser's eyes drifted shut at last, and he fell soundly asleep.

***

Diefenbaker woke him, nuzzling at his hand. Fraser was confused by the white fabric still over his face, and then horrified when he realized that Ray's shirt was splashed - quite liberally - with his seminal fluid. If Ray asked for his shirt before Fraser could have it laundered...

He was out of bed quickly, and he actually sent Dief out the window rather than walking him, despite his usual objections to letting the wolf run wild. As Fraser quickly washed himself in front of the kitchen sink, then dressed, he wondered if any cleaners might be open on a Sunday. He couldn't think of any place in walking distance. Should he launder the shirt himself? Certainly that was less embarrassing, but there was no way to dry it quickly. He could iron it while it was still wet, though, and speed the process.

By 2 PM the shirt, neatly ironed though still a little damp, was hanging by the back window. Fraser had bathed and felt completely recovered from last night's excesses of drink and ... other indulgences. Since he was completely ready to go to the Vecchio home for Sunday dinner and Ray wasn't due for another hour, Fraser picked up his latest library book. But his apartment made him feel restless today. Guilty over last night's self-gratification, Fraser felt as if the place still reeked of sex, even though he'd had the windows open since 7 AM.

Fraser moved out to the fire escape with his book and a glass of water. He read for a time, grateful that Sunday afternoons were fairly quiet in this part of the city. Of course, it didn't compare to the peace around his father's cabin, or the stillness of the woods. Still, it was pleasant to feel the sunshine and fresh air of this November afternoon. Chicago was so often warm, even this late in the year.

When he heard the familiar car, he ignored it at first. It was still too early for Ray to be here. But then the engine stopped, and a car door slammed. It certainly sounded like the Riviera. But why was Ray here - was there something wrong? Fraser stood up and peered over the fire escape.

It was Ray, wearing his overcoat and gloves, but no cap - even Ray found the day warm. But Ray wasn't approaching the building. He was unloading the trunk of his car, and Fraser made out several shopping bags and one gaily wrapped basket. As Fraser watched, Ray tucked the basket under one arm, picked up the handles of the bags, and entered the building.

Fraser re-entered his apartment, then quietly let himself out the door to the corridor. He peered over the banister, watching Ray's progress. His first stop was on the second floor, and then he moved to the rear where Dennis' apartment lay. The basket was evidently left there, and then the dark figure moved up to the fourth floor. Two bags were left at Mrs. Gamez' door, and Ray was back down the steps and out the front door again.

Fraser crept down, afraid Ray would be back but very curious. The bags at the Gamez door contained food, mostly canned goods, and a certificate for a turkey at the local market. One flight lower, and Dennis' basket contained chocolates and cigarettes, the man's two indulgences. Ray knew about Dennis' sweet tooth? They'd spoken only a few times, but Ray had been involved when Dennis helped save the building. Down the hall, Mr. Portman's bag contained the certificate and canned goods, but also had several cans of cat food, and coupons for litter.

Considering Ray's frequent complaints about Fraser's attentions to his neighbors, the bags were shocking in their thoughtfulness. Fraser retraced his steps, his mind racing, and glanced out the window. The Riv was still parked, though Ray was not in sight. Perhaps he was making another round, giving clothing and food to more homeless people on the block.

A glance at the kitchen clock, and two minutes later Fraser heard the sound of Ray's horn. Ray would be sitting down there, impatiently drumming on the wheel, waiting to take him home for dinner. And Fraser knew he shouldn't say anything to Ray about what he'd discovered. He shouldn't tell Ray that he'd seen the kindness behind Ray's tough-cop facade, or that he appreciated how Ray cared for the people Fraser cared about.

It was just another item to add to the list of things he couldn't talk to Ray about, the list headed by not telling Ray how much he loved him.

So Fraser called Diefenbaker and proceeded downstairs with Ray's shirt and tie, ready to talk about lasagna versus pot roast or whatever other small talk Ray would make during their ride to the Vecchio house.

***

Francesca snorted at the suggestion. "Ray volunteer at the shelter with you? And miss the football games?" Fraser was helping her rinse the dinner plates, almost a Sunday night ritual now that the years had brought a comfortable familiarity to their relationship. Fraser almost felt he'd been adopted as another brother to argue with and mock -- though of course he never disagreed in as confrontational a manner as the Vecchios loudly and routinely spoke with each other.

"I know you and Maria will be busy helping your mother cook, but I thought Ray, and perhaps, Tony, might like to participate in something charitable in the spirit of the holiday."

"Tony! Ha. But you should know Ray better, considering you've been friends for -- what, four years now?" Francesca shook her head and continued scrubbing the plates with a long handled brush.

"Evidently." Either his own family didn't know of Ray's activities, or they'd been asked not to discuss them with Fraser.

"I don't mean to make Ray sound like a jerk, ya know." Francesca looked Fraser straight in the eye, very serious. "I mean, you've been around here enough to know who's paying the bills and buying the kids' Christmas toys, right?"

"Of course. I hadn't thought of that, but given his family responsibilities..."

"Yeah, well, pasta's not expensive like some things. Still, with all the mooching mouths to feed here... oh, I don't mean you, Fraser, you know that." A soapy hand approached him, then pulled back. "Sorry."

"That's very kind of you, Francesca. Still, I could perhaps suggest that your mother not send the leftovers home with me."

"Oh, Benton, you'll break her heart. She'll think you don't like her cooking. Just say 'thanks, Ma,' and don't worry about what I said. Ray does fine, we all do. After all, look at the clothes that man owns!"

Francesca's cheerful banter continued, but Fraser was distracted, and remained very quiet until Ray was driving him back to his apartment, full of lasagna and carrying enough leftovers to feed him for days.

"How is the Loftus case progressing, Ray?" Fraser opened, feeling that work was a safer conversation topic than any other he might bring up.

"Fine, I guess. It's really Huey's case, Fraser. Loftus had a boyfriend, and he I.D.'d the body based on some freckles on her backside."

"So your theory about the mutilations..."

"Ah, it was a dumb idea, anyway. That woman had plenty of money from her husband's will; she didn't need to commit insurance fraud."

"Still, if robbery was the motive, it seems that the mutilations were done for some reason."

"Probably to cover the robbery, if that's what happened. Her lover -- his name's Drew, Laurence Drew -- he's no expert on antiques and really wasn't sure what was taken. Loftus never finished filling out the detailed insurance report, either."

"That seems odd. You said it had been a month since the initial robbery."

"Yeah, but Loftus evidently did some traveling in that time, so she had problems scheduling meetings with the insurance investigator."

"So how is Detective Huey proceeding? Does he have a theory?"

Ray snorted. "The lover, of course. Drew inherited almost everything from Loftus, so he's the main suspect right now. He has a good alibi, though. Witnesses, even. I'm not sure he's the one. Dewey's checking out her past, the Vegas connection. But that's all I know."

Fraser thought about how well-informed Ray was, despite it not being his case, and he smiled. Ray still had an overwhelming number of open files on his desk, as Fraser was well aware, but still took an interest this murder. Just as, despite his large and demanding family, Ray took time for Fraser's neighbors.

"Ray, does your family have any special traditions for Thanksgiving?"

"Just Indian corn on the front door and lots of food on the table, Benny. But you've seen that. This isn't the first year you've come over for dinner, after you're done at the shelter."

"That's quite true, Ray. I suppose I was wondering if there are any food drives, at your church perhaps."

"That's all next month, Fraser. December's the only time every charity has too many volunteers and plenty of donations. By January they'll all be hurting again."

"Indeed. I suppose you're right. I should probably volunteer at the shelter every month."

"Aw, I didn't mean you, Benny. You're always doing stuff for the people you live with, right?"

"What little I can do, yes."

"So you don't pretend to have good will once a year and tell yourself you're a big shot for buying a kid a cheap toy, right? Don't answer, that's rhetorical," Ray continued. "That's what I'm talking about, guys who're generous once a year, period."

"I see." The car was silent, and after a few more blocks sped past Fraser felt compelled to continue. "Someone has been bringing food to the people in my building."

"Really? Why?"

"I suppose because they can't afford many luxuries for the holidays."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess people in your building fall between the cracks. They're not going to go to a soup kitchen, but they really can't afford a fancy turkey dinner." Ray very deliberately wasn't looking at him.

"That's quite true. I'm distressed, however, because I seem to be getting the credit for these acts."

"Really?" Ray laughed, to Fraser's annoyance. "That figures, I guess." And now Ray was looking at him, amusement and affection plain in his expressive eyes.

"It's not funny, Ray."

"Sure, Benny." But he snickered again before Fraser got out of the car.

As Fraser held the seat for Diefenbaker, he remarked "I'd like to find whoever is doing this, and see that they get the credit."

"Benny, whoever it is doesn't want credit. So you'd just mess it up. They'd probably never do something like this again, after being exposed by a Mountie."

"Ah. I'll think about that, Ray. Good night."

"'Night, Benny." The door closed and the Riv pulled away majestically. Fraser's eyes followed it out of sight, flashing under the streetlights in the crisp night.

"Exposed by a Mountie." Diefenbaker's yip broke his thoughts. "Of course I know that's not what he meant, but a man can ... dream."

***

Another morning of thanks from the neighbors for his friend's kindnesses, and Fraser was seriously considering moving out of his building. Ray drove him to work as usual, not commenting on Fraser's bad mood. Perhaps it was imperceptible to Ray -- or to anyone else.

Then he arrived at the Consulate to find an enormous box of bakery cookies had been delivered this morning, anonymously. At least here no one assumed Fraser was the mysterious sender.

But as he fulfilled his routine duties at the Consulate, Fraser was brooding, not dreaming. He wondered how he could sit at the Vecchio table on Thursday and eat, still pretending that he didn't know what Ray had done.

He'd examined their conversation over and over again, and realized that Ray might suspect what he knew. Still Ray didn't want any credit, nor thanks. And he was being very thoughtful in how he helped Fraser's neighbors who truly were hard-working yet still very poor. The bags were not extravagant, but they would brighten the holiday and provide some little extras without hurting anyone's pride. And the warm clothing for the street dwellers was even more important as the Chicago winter settled in.

Fraser tried to pull his thoughts back to the paperwork in front of him. He was a Mountie, he had duties to perform, and he shouldn't be obsessing over this best friend while on duty. After all, he has been hiding feelings from Ray for years now. Why should keeping silence about Ray's thoughtfulness be any more difficult than not telling Ray how much he loved him? And the misery of that thought made him drop his head into his hands.

"Constable, do you suppose you can perform your duties without daydreaming?"

"Ah, Inspector." Fraser stood, accidentally knocking papers off his desk in an impressive swath. "I was just thinking about the number of Canadians in Chicago for this holiday weekend, who might require assistance on Friday or Saturday when the Consulate is closed."

"I'm sure you were, Constable. However, the Consulate is not closed on Friday. You have the day off, but the rest of the staff will be here, working."

"Oh, I believe I misunderstood your memo."

"Yes, I'm sure you did. Now I'd like this report you've been dawdling over today, Fraser, not next month or next year." Inspector Thatcher turned and left the room, her heels clicking on the wood floor in the hall.

***

"I don't understand why you're being so stubborn about this, Fraser." Ray was actually chasing him up the steps of his building, even though the detective had not been invited to come in for a coffee before going home. "It's not like you haven't spent the night at our house before."

Fraser stayed stubbornly silent, although he did allow Ray to follow him in the door, and he did put water in the kettle.

"After all, you're not coming over until late that afternoon. Why would you want to come back here for the night, then come back the next morning to help with the tree? For that matter, why did you tell Tony you'd help with the tree?"

"Coffee, Ray? Or tea?"

"What does it matter when you're making instant, Fraser?" Ray was in a snit as well, unable to sit down yet. Fraser calmly measured instant coffee into one mug and dropped a tea bag in another, then sat at the table and watched Ray pace the room. Diefenbaker whined softly as he crawled under the table.

"So what's the problem, Fraser? Did Frannie say something to you? I thought you weren't afraid that any Vecchios would be jumping your bones now."

That image was just too vivid, and for a moment Fraser closed his eyes. "Francesca is not the problem, Ray."

"Then what? Or who? It can't be Tony or Maria, he invited you to put up the tree. And Ma wouldn't hurt your feelings... would she?"

"No, of course not. I simply mean that I do not feel comfortable insinuating myself into your family circle any more than..."

"Aw, Benny, you are part of our family whether you like it or not now. Don't you know that?" Ray collapsed into the chair opposite him. "You're a lot more welcome than Uncle Vito, and a lot better smelling, too." Then Ray smiled at him, tiredly. "Seriously, Benny, I can't believe you want to isolate yourself here every night. I mean, I know lots of guys would have moved out of their family home by now. Particularly with the kids so noisy and all. I wouldn't expect you to put up with that every night, like I do. They're my family and I love 'em and they drive me crazy, all at once.

"But I'd think that spending one night with people who like you -- hell, who love you -- would be nicer than yet another night here with the kerosene lamp and your wolf. No offense, Dief." And he was scratching the wolf's ears with a smile.

"I..." I have no excuses, Fraser thought. I have nothing to say, except that being close to you becomes more difficult each day, through no fault of yours. "I wanted to thank you, Ray, not offend you."

"Thank me?" Ray looked up, met his eyes, and Fraser could see him figure it out. "Aw, Benny, forget it."

"I haven't mentioned it to anyone else."

"Well thank you kindly, Benny. I wish you hadn't mentioned it to me, either."

"But your thoughtfulness touched me, Ray. That's all I wanted to say." Fraser rose and brought the about-to-boil kettle to the table, and filled their cups. Ray stirred his coffee absently while Fraser began timing the tea's steeping period.

"Enough said, then, and don't try to change the subject again, Fraser. Why can't you stay at my house on Thursday night? Dief will be comfortable there, or you wouldn't be leaving him with us while you're at the shelter."

"Ray, there are some things that I cannot find words to explain. Can't you simply accept this?" Fraser met his eyes again, so terrified, trying desperately to keep his face blank. Trust me, his eyes pleaded. And it worked, somehow. Ray deflated right before his eyes.

"Fine. I'll bring you back here after dinner. And pick you up Friday on my way to the station. No arguments about that, please. I don't want you walking all over the city on your own." Ray stood and moved to the door, having only sipped his coffee once. "I'll see you tomorrow, Benny. Good night."

Fraser watched Ray pull away, wondering why his friend had seemed so -- defeated. Surely his refusal to spend the night wasn't that important.

He reviewed their conversation once again, and found himself focusing on Ray's choice of words. "Isolating yourself." Did Ray feel that he stayed in this building because the neighborhood kept him isolated? It certainly wasn't true -- he knew all his neighbors, and many of the local merchants as well.

But it wasn't a place to entertain. He remembered Francesca's attempt to brighten the place the night she'd made him a dinner here. And he remembered Victoria, so many candles glowing but not able to hide the emptiness of the apartment. He didn't keep food supplies here; his only staples were tea and dog food. He only had the jar of coffee because Ray brought it himself, periodically.

Fraser wasn't punishing himself by living this simply. He preferred it, preferred having his belongings in a trunk, ready to move on at a moment's notice. He didn't want to clutter his rooms with things. Things weren't important, anyway.

But if things weren't important -- if people were what mattered to him, then why was Fraser always alone? Why didn't he spend more time with people from the consulate or the precinct? He turned down invitations most of the time.

And Ray saw this. Ray, who didn't ask but just drove him home for dinner. Or took him to a restaurant. Or invited him on a double date, not because he wanted Fraser to have a woman -- but just to get him out into the world, out of what must seem to Ray like a terribly lonely existence.

Actually, Fraser realized, what truly would be a lonely, isolated existence -- without Ray.

 

 December

The Vecchio home was alight with holiday spirit, thanks to the combination of Ray's imagination, Tony's enthusiasm, and Fraser's endless patience in carrying out their ideas. Mrs. Vecchio, who concentrated on indoor holiday spirit -- namely, baking constantly and cooking until her second freezer was burstingly full -- came out in her warmest coat to admire the menfolk's efforts.

"It's lovely. The house has never looked so festive, Benton. Now you boys come inside for some soup."

They dutifully followed her, and the split pea soup made from the Thanksgiving ham bone smelled wonderful indeed. Garlic croutons floated atop each bowl she served to the chilled men. Though it was only December 12th, the weather was frigid. Much closer to what everyone expected during January in Chicago. At least there wasn't any snow to make climbing ladders even more treacherous.

"Hey, Benny, eat your soup while it's hot." Ray smiled at his friend, who seemed more distracted every day. He'd actually noticed Fraser daydreaming more several months ago, but now it was interfering with his abilities to a critical point. Ray looked down at his soup, remembering his conversation with Thatcher just last week. He was sure this was the right thing to do, though Welch and his mother were both upset with him. Well, they'd survive.

Fraser was once again staring off into space. Ray touched his arm and, as expected now, the Mountie started, almost tipping his soup bowl.

"I need to do some Christmas shopping for the family, Benny. Would you help me?"

"Certainly, Ray, though I am inexperienced in choosing family gifts."

"You don't have to pick 'em, just help me carry 'em to the car. Okay?" Ray was being as gentle as possible with his friend, but Fraser still flinched a little. "It'll be fun. You don't get to the malls very often, do you? We'll see kids lined up to talk to Santa, and you can pick up a bottle of cologne for Elaine and something appropriate for the Dragon Lady, too."

"Do you think I should be buying gifts for my supervisor, Ray?" Fraser had obviously never done such a thing in his life. "Would that be appropriate?"

"Sure, Benny. Something small and tasteful. Just a remembrance."

"But what about my other coworkers?"

"You can take in some of Ma's cookies for them. That's what I do at the station."

"But your mother...."

"She's always making too much, Benny. Even Tony can't eat all those cookies. Right?"

Tony, who'd been silent as he ate, snorted with laughter, then rinsed his soup bowl and left the kitchen.

"Now finish that soup, Benny, or you're not going anywhere but straight to bed. If you aren't hungry after all that work we did, you must be sick." Well, of course he was sick and Ray knew it. But Fraser had to hold out for a few more days. Then everything would be fine.

***

Because of the cold, Ray parked his precious Riv closer to the mall doors than he'd normally risk. The holiday crowds were still out in full force, probably grateful it wasn't snowing. The Christmas songs were blasting even in the parking lot, but Ray seemed to enjoy hearing them and neither Fraser nor Dief complained.

"You seem quite relaxed, Ray," Fraser observed.

"Yeah, well, it doesn't change anything to be crabby. It's gonna be crowded this time of year no matter what."

"Very philosophical of you."

"I guess I can still surprise ya, Benny," Ray smiled. "That's only fair, because you constantly amaze me."

"I..." Fraser began to protest, then smiled instead. "Of course I do, Ray. We Canadians are known for our amazement factor." Ray's laughter was as sweet as the carols playing over the speakers.

They picked up Ma's catalog order at Penney's and moved on to the men's department to pick out some work shirts for Tony. Ray added a Hawks jersey in Tony's size as his own gift. By then they were loaded down with packages, and they decided to walk back out to the car to stash all the bundles and bags.

Back inside, their faces starting to thaw again, Ray smiled -- a little wearier this time -- and said "On to Sears."

On the second trip to the car to drop bundles, even Fraser's usual cheer was beginning to flag. Ray, however, still seemed very odd. Almost excited. After they closed the trunk and Ray waved off several lurking drivers who'd been hoping for his parking space, they walked back into the shopping center. Ray led the way to the food court rather than another store.

"That's it for Ma's list today, Benny. Let's sit for a minute and have some coffee."

"Certainly, Ray. However, I should point out that it is nearing closing time. If you still have items to purchase for yourself, we shouldn't linger."

"Well, no, Benny. My shopping is done now. Did you still need to hit a store?"

"No. Not today." There was the faintest trace of a blush on Fraser's features.

"Then take a load off. I'll be right back. Is plain tea okay, or do you want hot cocoa?"

"Tea, please."

Ray wandered up to one of the myriad counters, and Fraser wondered how he knew which shop would have tea and coffee. None of the names reflected such products. There were signs for chicken, oriental food, tacos, deli sandwiches, and the ubiquitous golden arches. Fraser hoped that wasn't where Ray had gone for hot tea. He'd had some bad experiences with beverages from McDonald's when he first came to Chicago.

But Ray came back carrying gourmet coffee from Caribou Coffee, with a cup of steaming water and an actual tea bag for Fraser -- Earl Grey, just perfect for this time of day. And a bag of large sweet rolls, something more to Ray's taste, but welcome after the hours they'd been wandering the corridors of this mall. Fraser, who'd lived in places with no store, couldn't get used to how many stores were in Chicago itself, much less these immense suburban structures dedicated solely to retail stores. No, he was inaccurate. Ray had told him that the Brickyard was in Chicago proper, the first mall built inside the city limits.

They sat in a comfortable silence for a few minutes, Fraser's tea steeping aromatically and Ray stirring his coffee, the bag of rolls spread open between them. When Fraser finally removed the tea bag and picked up a cinnamon roll, Ray broke the silence.

"You're a hard guy to shop for Benny."

"I beg your pardon, Ray?" But he didn't really look confused. Fraser knew his Spartan lifestyle was alien to Ray and his family.

"I mean, I could always get you a box of Milk-Bones for Dief and you'd be thrilled, but to get something that's really for you, yourself -- that's hard."

"A sturdy flannel shirt is always useful, Ray. Size large."

Ray's hands flailed around his coffee cup. "See, there's times to talk, Benny, and times to listen. This would be a good time to eat that roll and drink some tea and just let me say this my own way, okay?"

"Understood." Fraser felt slightly put out at that, but took a bite of the cinnamon roll anyway.

"Yeah, I could get you a shirt. Or I could drag you out of your apartment and go see a show or an opera or something cultural, and you'd like that. But I didn't just want to get you an 'okay' gift, Benny. You're my best friend." Ray stopped, his head down, his hands nervously shredding the napkin he held.

"And you're my best friend, Ray. Truly, I'll cherish anything you give me because it's from you."

"I hope so, Benny. I hope you understand this." Ray pulled out an envelope as he spoke and laid it on the table in front of Fraser, who set down his tea and wiped his hands before picking it up.

"Thank you, Ray."

"Open it before you say thanks, Fraser. Don't they teach you Canadians anything?"

He carefully tore it open and removed a sheet of paper. As he unfolded the page he realized it was an electronic airline ticket itinerary.

"Ray, this flight is tomorrow."

"Yeah."

"I can't possibly..."

"I've arranged leave for you already. Thatcher approved it weeks ago. I have the papers for Dief showing his immunizations. And my vacation started as of six o'clock yesterday."

"You're coming with me?" Fraser truly looked flabbergasted now. "It's..." He rifled through the paper. "This trip extends through Christmas. Your family--"

"It's all settled already, Benny. Ma's had me running for a week to finish everything before we go. And we'll be back here for New Year's."

"But..." Fraser was stunned, but not particularly happy. Ray seemed to notice, because his hands started moving and his whole body recoiled from the table as he spoke.

"If you'd rather go alone, Benny..."

"No! I just don't... It's such a family-oriented holiday, Ray. Your nieces and nephew..."

"They'll never notice we're gone, Benny. Not in the craziness on Christmas morning. And I'm saving a couple of gifts for them to open when we get back." Ray looked so pleased with his planning. "Don't worry. Ma's cooking enough that we'll still get fed a holiday feast, too." Yet his eyes were very serious and watchful, focused on Fraser's expression.

"That's extraordinarily generous of you, Ray."

"Nah. It's just a little trip home. And this time, no shootouts or chases or hijackings -- okay?"

"Agreed, Ray. But why? Particularly right now?"

"You've been so sad, lately, Benny." There was actual pain in Ray's expressive eyes at the thought of Fraser's sadness. "You keep saying it's nothing, but you're really not yourself. Even the Dragon Lady noticed."

"She did?" Fraser's startled eyes made Ray laugh softly.

"Yeah, she did. I guess even if your grand romance with her didn't work out, she still cares about you. She wasn't surprised when I asked about a leave. After all, she sees you every day." Ray waited for a reaction but Fraser just stared at the ticket information. "Everybody gets homesick, Fraser. With the colder weather it figures you'd miss your home."

"I'm still very surprised that you're giving up the holiday with your family to accompany me home, Ray." Fraser was stumbling for words, not sure if he sounded ungrateful. Two weeks in a one-room cabin with Ray was... a dream. Dangerous. That was Fraser's only certainty.

"Well I couldn't just send you and Dief off alone. You'd probably forget to come back to me."

"No, Ray, I don't believe I would ever do that." Fraser's smile as he put the itinerary away in his breast pocket was intended to reassure his friend. So why did Ray's return smile seem so sad?

***

They were at a stoplight and snow was falling. Ray glanced at Fraser, who didn't seem any happier for this wintery weather. Or even very happy to be heading to O'Hare and a trip north. Ray wanted to beat his head against the steering wheel, or to cry. Instead he looked out the window as a blue sedan turned and pulled past them, heading southeast.

That nose looked familiar. Ray pulled forward as the light changed to green, and then it hit him. The driver had looked like Margot Loftus. The nose was identical, he'd swear it, though the coloring was different. He pulled the Riv into a quick u-turn and sped back toward the City.

"Ray?"

"Just wanted to see something, Fraser. Gimme five minutes." He thought that was the car ahead, and the plates looked like a rental. Probably just a coincidence, some out of town visitor with showgirl bones. Ray pressed down harder on the gas pedal.

"Are we pursuing that car, Ray? Should I make a call for backup?" Fraser was being very polite, and holding on to the dash with one hand. Dief grumbled in the backseat.

"No, it's nothing official, Benny. I just..." Ray paused, wondering if this sad, distracted Fraser would believe him. Were they even still friends? "I think I just saw Margot Loftus driving that blue Olds." Thanking God that he'd never told Fraser about seeing his dad, Ray swung the car around a corner without slowing.

"Ray, that truck..." Fraser warned, and Ray realized that the road was pretty slick as he braked and steered away from the truck turning out in front of them. The Riv gently slid to the side, then fishtailed and went into a spin. They wound up against the curb, facing the oncoming traffic, much of which was also skidding. There was no actual impact, though, at least not on their car.

But the blue sedan was long gone.

***

Ray stood at the single-burner stove, stirring the gravy and pondering the last week. He kind of thought Fraser had been appalled by the amount of luggage Ray felt was necessary for a two week trip, but he was glad he'd packed the boom box and the holiday CD's. Added to the small potted pine Fraser had brought from town, it really felt Christmasy in the cabin. While it certainly wasn't the kind of Christmas they had on Octavia Street, Ray didn't regret coming along with Benny. Or maybe he did. If only the Mountie would relax. It almost seemed as though Fraser had gotten worse since coming home, instead of better.

Ray's stew was thickening nicely, so he covered the pot and moved back into the living room. The tree's few decorations were shining in the afternoon sunlight that came in the front windows. Diefenbaker and Fraser had gone for a walk, so he was alone. He sat back on the scarred sofa, remembering his first hasty visit here, which had ended abruptly with gunfire. Ray'd never made it back to the cabin. Fraser had forced him to seek medical attention along with Dief. Ray smiled, remembering those early days and how he'd chased after Benny. It seemed so long ago now. But in some ways Fraser seemed more distant now than he had then, when they were first getting to know each other.

Ray tried to replay everything that had been going on since they'd arrived, hoping to see how he'd offended Fraser. Nothing. Oh, he'd complained, but surely Fraser was used to that by now. Perhaps Ray wasn't looking back far enough. Maybe the whole trip, the entire surprise, had been a mistake. Or perhaps it was just his own participation in the trip that was bothering Fraser so very much. He seemed uncomfortable with Ray living in the same space. The cabin was small, after all.

"That's it, then," Ray actually said aloud, then stopped himself. He wasn't going to start talking to himself just because the Mountie left him alone here so often. Fine. Fraser was used to living alone, having only Dief to share his space. Ray had been pushing him and pushing him, trying to drag Fraser out on dates, to dinners, and now going so far as to impose his presence at Fraser's cabin. It wasn't as if he'd been invited, after all. He'd simply assumed that Benny would enjoy his company. It obviously wasn't the case -- Fraser had been jumpy and seemed miserable.

Ray rose, ashamed of his insensitivity. He'd known, really, that Benny didn't look happy when Ray told him he was tagging along. If Ray weren't here, Benny would probably spend Christmas with Eric or some other Inuit family, enjoying himself in some Canadian way that was alien to Ray. That was the problem; everything about Fraser was alien to Ray. He was no closer to understanding his friend than he'd been three years ago.

It was time to head home. Ma would be happy to have him back in time for Christmas Eve mass, he was sure. Huey might need some help checking up on Loftus' Vegas connections. Though no one had believed Ray when he called in from the airport, telling them he'd seen Loftus alive, Huey said he'd been investigating reasons why Loftus might want to disappear. And Lieutenant Welsh would be pleased to have another volunteer to cover Christmas Day. He'd been surprised when Ray asked for vacation over the holidays, since he'd never done so before. Welsh hadn't refused him the time -- Ray had a lot of years on the force, and lots of vacation time on the books, too. But this would give some guy with a family a chance to be at home.

He was completely packed long before Fraser arrived, his bags piled at the door and the flame under their-- Fraser's dinner turned off. Ray could just leave, take the rental and find his own way back, but he didn't want Fraser to think he was angry or upset. So leaving with only a note and the CD player to provide some company for his friend's holiday wasn't right. They needed to talk. Still, Ray sat toying with a sheet of paper for about an hour, doodling and trying to write his thoughts.

When he heard Dief's bark Ray rose and crumpled the paper, then tossed it in the wastebasket by the table. The door opened and Fraser came in, then stopped short at the sight of the bags by the door.

"Listen, Benny, I think I should head home." Fraser didn't say anything. His face was completely unreadable to Ray. But he thought there was relief in his friend's blue-grey eyes. "Yeah, I mean you were right. Christmas is for family, and mine is back in Chicago. And yours is right here, right? I mean you've got Dief, and Eric and his whole tribe..."

"Ah. Understood, Ray." Fraser sounded a little stiff, but then he'd sounded funny for months now. Ray said a prayer to himself that once he left, Benny would get back to normal. Though Ray wondered if once he left, he'd never see Fraser again. Sure, Fraser had a job waiting for him back in Chicago. A cruddy job, not what he really wanted to be doing. But he'd need to come back, at least long enough to request a transfer. Thatcher was always trying to get rid of Fraser, when she wasn't trying to jump his bones... Ray moved to put on his parka and gloves.

"So. You want to drive me to town? Then you can keep the rental for the rest of the week."

"Not necessary, Ray. I'd rather avoid the expense, since Diefenbaker and I are perfectly capable of getting back to town on foot if ... when necessary."

Ray's heart fell a little closer toward his toes, but he smiled a big, stupid smile. "Sure. Well, then, I'll get going." He moved forward and picked up two bags, and Fraser helped him with the others. They loaded the car in total silence, and Ray wondered if he was truly doing the right thing. Fraser did seem relieved. And sad, too. Just as sad as he'd been in Chicago. And then the car was packed and there was still nothing to say. But it was too cold to stand here all afternoon.

"So, Benny. You and Dief have a nice Christmas, okay?"

"We will, Ray. Give my best wishes to your family." Relief was plain in Fraser's face now, and Ray felt his eyes filling despite the frigid air.

"Sure. Well." Ray gathered all his courage and managed to awkwardly hug his friend, suddenly positive that it was his last chance. Fraser would stay in Canada. There was nothing he wanted or needed in Chicago.

"Thank you again for your thoughtfulness in bringing me here, Ray. I truly appreciate it."

"It's nothing, Benny. So long." And Ray climbed in the car, started the engine, and pulled away. He couldn't bring himself to look back, to see Fraser again. Leaving felt so wrong. But everything felt wrong. This trip had not gone as planned, and Ray mentally berated himself for yet again messing up everything. Story of his life. He always drove away the ones he loved.

***

Fraser made it through his reheated dinner very nicely, telling himself he was happier this way and ignoring Diefenbaker's sad eyes. Ray was long gone, already on his way home to Chicago. Now Fraser could relax. Now he didn't have to watch every word out of his mouth, every movement. Now he wouldn't be tormented by Ray's ease, Ray's casual touches, Ray's distracting body and smell and smile...

The dishes were washed up before he realized he'd just eaten the last of Ray's wonderful cooking. He was on his own, and he knew he'd be eating pancakes or canned beans for Christmas dinner. He didn't have the heart to make anything more elaborate, even if he'd had real cooking skills.

Fraser remembered Ray telling him once about Mrs. Vecchio's attempts to teach Angie some of her recipes when Ray was newly married. Fraser had sympathized with Angie's apparent ineptitude in the face of the daunting Vecchio kitchen competence, even as Ray recounted her many trials and tribulations. Mrs. Vecchio could be a restaurant chef. In some ways, with the amount of neighbors and cousins and family she fed every day, three meals or more a day, she practically was running a restaurant. And her children were all sous-chefs, trained to help with all the aspects of the meals.

Ray had a knack for cooking, probably due to all those years of helping out in the kitchen. Since he also ate out frequently, and seemed to enjoy a surprising number of cuisines, he was also quite adventurous when cooking for himself. Ray used spices and herbs that his mother never touched, and combined foods in unusual ways. Here at the cabin, with a very limited number of ingredients, Ray had still managed to produce wonderful meals.

Fraser looked around the room, lit only by his kerosene lamp now. The CD player was still there, he realized, with several disks of holiday music. He'd thought it very impractical when Ray unpacked this item, but he had to admit it was pleasant having music in the cabin. And the cabin certainly was quiet -- no, peaceful -- now that Ray was gone. After all, Fraser lived without a television or radio in his apartment in Chicago, just as he'd always lived here without those luxuries. He preferred it quiet.

Ten minutes later he was clumsily loading a disk into the machine. He carefully closed the lid, then depressed the play button. Nothing happened. He was fairly sure he'd done it correctly -- he'd observed Ray loading the machine several times in the last week. Fraser tried again. And again. Then he tried all the other buttons on the machine. Then he was crying, and he hit the damned box and sent it flying to the floor, watching in horror as the case came open and a dozen batteries fell out of the rear.

Fraser was still crying, even after he realized he hadn't broken anything -- at least, there was no physical damage. The battery cover had popped off, but seemed to be fine. Of course, the batteries were dead. That had to be the problem. Probably Ray had driven off with a bag full of more batteries, not even thinking of leaving them even though he'd left the damn music to taunt Fraser...

He tried once again to control himself as he sobbed there, kneeling on the floor next to the table, clutching a handful of batteries. And then he moved to throw them away, and saw a crumpled sheet of paper with Ray's writing atop the debris in his wastebasket.

There were doodles and scratch-outs all over the page, Fraser noted, carefully unfolding and smoothing it. He didn't know why he was even attempting to read this, except it was all he had left of Ray -- all he could ever have of his friend, really. He moved off his knees, closer to the lamp, and sat down to read.

"Dear Benny," it began, but then Ray had gone back and struck out the word "dear." Then he'd apparently gone back and struck out the whole thing, then started again with "Dear Benny." Fraser smiled, thinking of all the typing troubles Ray had. It seemed his uncertainty extended to all forms of writing, not just the keyboard.

"Dear Benny: I hope you won't think I'm mad or something. I'm sorry to be leaving..."

Again, the entire sentence was struck out. "I'm sorry I came..." Again, a strikeout. "I'm leaving because I don't think... You don't stand up for yourself... You wanted to be alone, or at least I think you want to be alone." Ray had evidently given up on trying to write to Fraser at this point, yet he kept writing down his feelings. The strikeouts ended, and the words seemed to tumble over themselves.

"I don't know what's wrong, Benny, and I wish I did. I want to fix things for you, to make you happy. But how can I do that if I don't know what's wrong? Do you miss Canada? I thought so, but you still seem miserable here. Do you miss solitude? I can't believe that's it because that means we can't be friends anymore. I don't think I could...

"I want you in my life, Fraser. You've... I've followed you since the day you got here, chasing you around Chicago, tracking you down in the Yukon, falling off buildings. You never asked me why, and I suppose ... You don't know what you've done for me, how badly I needed my life to change. Nothing seemed to matter any more, but everything matters to you. Not just your father's case, though that's why we met. Everyone was important enough to listen to, to talk to, to learn a name... OK, I know you're thinking I've never done any of that, and you're right. I'm not you. But I believe in you, I believe it when you say it's important.

"I'm making no sense. I just see you hurting, and it kills me. I've really tried, Benny, I've tried so hard to be a friend, but you don't want me as your friend, or at least that's how I feel right now...."

That was all, Fraser's rational mind noted, turning the paper over to make sure there wasn't more writing on the reverse. Just that. Fraser sat, staring at the words. He'd hurt Ray with his behavior. Ray believed that Fraser no longer wanted him as a friend, though nothing could be further from the truth. But in trying to protect himself, in his failure to suppress his own emotions, Fraser had again hurt Ray.

His eyes fell on Ray's words about chasing Fraser through Chicago, and he smiled. Then he sighed. Ray was correct, he'd never stopped to wonder why Ray would stick at his side, follow him into danger, ruin clothing. For that matter, Fraser never really asked why Ray had done so much for his neighbors, either. He'd assumed Ray stayed with him because it was his duty, or because it was the right thing to do. But those abstractions, Duty and Right, didn't have the same meaning for Ray -- or for anyone he'd met in Chicago, Fraser thought. So why had Ray designated himself as Fraser's "backup," driving him around, watching his back, making Fraser part of his family?

Fraser was on his feet and shoving clothing into this knapsack before his brain caught up with his actions. The letter was inside, too, carefully folded, his treasure.

Diefenbaker was sitting up now, staring at him.

"He cares about me, Diefenbaker. Well, he didn't exactly say that. He didn't even intend for me to read his note, I'm sure. But Ray's actions... we're going after him." Fraser zipped the pack, then snapped the buckle into place. Diefenbaker grumbled. "You're quite right, I do need to put on my boots. I hope you're ready to go."

Diefenbaker whined, then barked sharply.

"No, I don't think the morning would be better. I want to catch up to Ray. I wish he were here right now." He was sitting on the bed, lacing his boots when Diefenbaker jumped up and ran to the door, woofing excitedly. Fraser stumbled to his feet, laces dangling, and then he heard it, too. An engine.

Fraser flung the door open and Dief ran out, followed closely by him. The car door opened and Ray emerged, looking sheepish in the faint light from the cabin.

"Ray!" Fraser called joyously from the porch as Diefenbaker joyfully jumped on the Italian, barking happily.

"Yeah, Fraser, look... I'm sorry about this, I got confused on the road. I just couldn't seem to stop driving in circles..." Ray looked exhausted and his eyes were unable to meet Fraser's.

"Ray," Fraser repeated stupidly, wanting to say more, to apologize, or to say everything that he'd been keeping inside for years. First get poor Ray inside, he told himself as he started down the stairs. "Come in--"

Then he was tumbling, and Ray's shout of "Benny!" was accompanied by Diefenbaker's frantic bark.

Fraser opened his eyes and Ray was right there, hovering above him. Fraser realized he was inside, arranged on the sofa and rather damp in places. He accepted a glass of water from Ray silently.

"I'd forgotten just how damn heavy you are," Ray said, smiling, and there was a world of affection in the complaint. Fraser wondered how he'd never heard that before now. "Are you okay?"

"I believe I am undamaged, Ray," he replied, sipping carefully.

"I could probably drive you to the doctor if you can navigate. Or tell the wolf how to get me there."

"Unnecessary," Fraser intoned as he sat up carefully. "Was I actually unconscious?"

"If you weren't you sure had me fooled."

"I don't feel ill at all, Ray. No dizziness, no pain." He braced himself, then relaxed as Ray stopped him with a touch.

"Don't you dare stand up yet." And then Ray knelt in front of him, making Fraser's heart race, and carefully began pulling off one of his boots. "I can't believe you ran outside with your boots half off like that," the Italian grumbled.

Ray was really here, close enough to touch and smell and touch... His hand was on Ray's shoulder before Ray was done with the second boot. He looked up at Fraser, and Fraser stared down at him.

"What's wrong, Benny?"

"Nothing, Ray." And he smiled. "I'm glad you came back."

"You are?" Ray sounded genuinely surprised. "But I thought..." He stopped himself, staring intently at Fraser, who could only smile back foolishly. "You do look better, despite the tumble."

"Indeed, Ray. I am feeling quite well. And I must correct a misconception of yours. I wasn't running outside with my boots half off."

Ray just stared at him for a moment, and then he crossly said "They were both unlaced."

"Yes. Because my boots were half on."

"You were putting your boots on?"

"I was coming after you, Ray. To explain."

"At eight o'clock at night you were going to hike to town?" Ray actually sat back, landing hard on his rear on the floor, looking stunned. His head swivelled around, taking in the pack on the bed. "You wanted to find me?"

It wasn't how he'd planned to say this, but the opportunity was there and Fraser was so very tired of their mutual misconceptions.

"I want you, Ray. I always have. I simply didn't have the courage to tell you, and I couldn't believe you might ever be able to return my feelings. I love you."

Ray's stunned expression might have been comical, had Fraser not needed so badly to hear words of reciprocal love. Yes, he'd read Ray's unfinished letter, and that was an unfair advantage. But now he'd put his feelings on the line, spoken of love, and Fraser needed to hear...

Then Ray pushed himself off the floor and wrapped Fraser in his long, expressive arms. They didn't need words after all.

***

Christmas Eve dinner was over, and Ray felt himself tensing up again as he bent to add wood to their fire. Tonight was the night, and as much as he'd yearned for it he was still scared silly.

Thank God Fraser wanted to talk everything to death first. If Fraser had simply jumped his bones six nights ago, Ray might have run off and never come back. But they'd talked for hours at a time, and kissed -- and that was definitely pleasant, kissing Fraser. And thanks to those long talks, Ray now knew that Fraser had some experience with men, which was a good thing. Ray certainly didn't have such experience, and he felt both intimidated and turned on by the idea of submitting to Benny's knowledge.

So they'd "dated" for a few days, letting anticipation build. Kisses were allowed, but nothing beyond that. Well, nothing beyond some pretty extended necking sessions. They'd still slept separately, and they'd actually stopped changing clothing in front of each other. Ray was really, really ready to see Benny naked, he decided. So they'd agreed to make love and sleep together on Christmas Eve, and Ray kept imagining unwrapping Benny as he would a present. If the tree were a little larger, Benny might even fit under it.

Ray chuckled at the thought, and Benny sent him a questioning glance from the kitchen. Ray merely shook his head and smiled at the Mountie, a smile full of love and lust and happiness. He was already happier just dating Fraser than he'd ever been before. He stood away from the fire, watching the log he'd added catch, then settled himself on the sofa, full of venison and goodwill.

As he waited for Fraser to join him, Ray realized that despite all the hours of talking they'd done, Ray still had no idea why Benny had chosen to come after him, and then chosen to tell Ray he loved him. Ray made a note to ask him, once Fraser stopped fussing with the dishes.

But when warm Mountie arms wrapped around him, warm breath touched his ear, and a husky voice said "Merry Christmas, Ray," all thoughts immediately left Ray's mind. He turned to meet Fraser's lips, and they stayed in that awkward position without ever noticing the discomfort as their mouths met and explored the now-familiar territory. Benny's kisses were always gentle, but tonight there was a hunger that made Ray crazy with lust. Ray's hands started roaming more freely than they'd ever done, and he wasn't the least startled by the hard muscle he was encountering, so different from women he'd kissed. Benny's strength aroused Ray; it made him hungrier and bolder in his own demands.

When they finally broke for air, Ray reminded himself to slow down, and he took deep breaths even as Benny did the same thing. But then he looked in Fraser's eyes and whispered, "I love you, Benny," and everything sped up frantically once again.

Fraser was pulling off his clothing before Ray even realized he was on his back, spread across the sofa wantonly, being kissed and sucked and nibbled by that wonderful, taste-everything Mountie mouth. He moaned and pulled at Fraser's sweater in return, all plans of carefully unwrapping his present gone in the rush of blood to parts south. Finally they were both shirtless, and when their bare chests finally touched, they both practically howled. Dief actually did howl, and then retreated under the table.

Fraser's mouth was everywhere, on his neck and then on his chest, biting gently at Ray's nipples. Ray contorted himself to reach Benny's shoulder, which he kissed and licked as his hands explored every part of Fraser they could reach. Then they were off the sofa somehow, and Ray felt the warmth of the fire and the warmth of Benny beneath him. When Fraser rolled them so they were side-by-side and his hand brushed against Ray's erection through his slacks, Ray jerked as if electrified.

"That's lovely, Ray," Fraser huskily said. "You're so responsive." And that hand was back, squeezing him. Ray moaned. "Hot and leaking for me, I'll bet."

Then his slacks were carefully unzipped and moved aside, and Ray was naked and embarrassed and so aroused he couldn't speak.

"Mmm. Is that for me?" And Fraser licked him, licked Ray's cock and then licked his own lips, smiling down at Ray as his body arched up, his hips twitching. "That's lovely, but I want more." And Fraser stood, kicking off his shoes, and undid his own trousers, and Ray's Christmas gift was here at last. The Mountie's body was glowing in the firelight, pale and almost hairless. His broad shoulders, muscular hips, and -- oh my God, his erection. Uncut. Well endowed. Beautiful.

Ray was sitting up and reaching for him, his own nudity forgotten in the marvelous sight before him. But then Fraser was over him, pushing him back down with the full length of his body, rubbing against him and Ray exploded in flame again.

They'd agreed, so logically and calmly, to keep everything simple this first time. To use their hands, and mouths, and enjoy each other's bodies without penetration. It sounded simple. Ray had no idea it would be a life-changing, soul shattering experience. They lay together, kissing and touching, their cocks occasionally rubbing in a brief kiss as well, and Ray knew there would never be anything this wonderful again. Fraser's eyes reflected Ray's own wonder, and Fraser's hands on him remolded his body into something beautiful.

And then Fraser's big hands gathered their cocks, spreading the wetness and mingling it. He held them together and began stroking them with both hands, making Ray jump and twitch and writhe. He babbled in Italian and English, invoking God and Mary and all the saints without managing a coherent phrase. But his body spoke for him, flushing and drawing up tight. He came merely from looking at Fraser, seeing the pleasure and intensity on his face as he worked their cocks together, holding them against one another.

Ray howled again, his toes curling as his body convulsed and he exploded. He felt his fluids splashing his chest and belly. And Fraser kept going, still working them even as he bent to lick up Ray's come.

"Oh God Ray, you feel good and you taste good..." And with a long, low groan, Fraser's hot orgasm was splashing Ray, mingling with his own as he screamed from the continued stimulation and his body tried like hell to actually come a second time. Then Fraser stopped his hands, gently holding them both as he kissed Ray again, and Ray smiled up at him until his eyes drifted closed.

Ray woke and realized he was clean and warm. Fraser was wrapped around him, as well as a blanket, and the fire was low but still burning. It was still dark outside, but it had to be past midnight.

"Merry Christmas, my love," he whispered as he gently stroked Benny's hair.

 

 January

Benton Fraser told himself he'd expected everything to change once they left the cabin. After all, he and Ray couldn't parade around Chicago holding hands, making eyes at each other, and having sex eight times a day. He couldn't ask Ray to wear nothing while walking around in his unlockable apartment, nor could he build up the heat in that room to an acceptable level for his lean friend to endure constant nudity.

Fraser had dreaded the return since he left, and it only became worse when he and Ray discovered their love.

But Ray evidently enjoyed coming back to Chicago. He seemed very happy when greeted by his immense family as they pulled up in a taxi. Nieces and his nephew were babbling, talking about showing Uncle Ray their Christmas presents. His mother was crying and hugging them both, then trying to make them eat platters of cookies and re-warmed pasta. Ray's sisters were squabbling, as usual, but Ray took it all in stride. While Fraser wanted to explode.

When Francesca smiled and welcomed him home, Fraser wanted to lick Ray's neck. When Mrs. Vecchio pinched his cheek, he wanted to pinch Ray's adorable cheeks, too -- though not the ones on his face. When Tony settled himself on the sofa with a grunt, Fraser wanted to push him off, spread Ray out as he had that first night, and suck him off in front of the whole family.

Obviously his time in Canada with Ray had turned him into some kind of sex fiend. All these thoughts of being with Ray and only Ray made him uncomfortably aware of the last time he'd behaved this way...

Fraser shook himself mentally and tried to follow Maria's conversation. Ray wasn't like ... her. Ray would never try to drive Fraser to abandon everything he cared about. Ray himself would never behave so selfishly.

But Fraser's mood didn't improve until he heard Ray telling his mother that Fraser was going to spend the night, in his room.

***

The need to be silent was driving Ray even more crazy than usual. He'd gotten used to being able to howl, moan, scream and rave when they had sex. Now that he'd restrained himself for hours, Ray didn't want to have to restrain himself any longer. But he stuffed his pillow in his mouth as Fraser sucked him dry, muffling the scream of ecstasy.

And when he pushed Benny back on the bed and returned the favor -- only the second time he'd done this, but Ray thought he could become addicted to the feel of Fraser's thick cock in his throat -- Ray laughed when Benny grew red-faced and tense from trying to keep silent. He stopped just long enough to pass the pillow, and then proceeded to deep throat him until he could eat Fraser's come with relish.

When they finally lay side by side, breath back under control and hands once more roaming over naked silky skin, Ray had to say it.

"Fraser, we can't go on like this."

The reaction was not what Ray was expecting, though. Fraser jerked away from him, stood and began getting dressed.

"Benny?"

"I understand, Ray. I apologize for any discomfort you feel at our behavior..."

"Benny, you didn't let me finish."

"I've been expecting this, Ray. Your family, your job -- you cannot change your entire lifestyle for my sake." The Mountie looked as bad as he had before their trip north. Pinched and miserable and distant. Ray sighed.

"If you'd just let me finish a damn sentence, Fraser, and get that look off your face, I'd be a happy man." Fraser just stood there, frozen. "Benny, please. Please sit down."

He did sit, heavily, on the very edge of the bed, still clutching some of his clothing.

"What I was trying to say, Benny, is that we should move in together. Some place a little nicer than the one-room rat trap."

Fraser just stared at him, but the distant look was gone, as was his misery. Hope was in his eyes, and love, and just a touch of lust. Ray decided to go for their current strength. He rubbed his chest casually, then stroked his own cock once, lazily. Fraser was staring at his hand, speechless. Ray sat down on the bed, lay back and spread his legs. "Were you leaving?"

One hundred sixty pounds of Mountie slammed into him as Fraser breathed "Never, Ray. Never leave you," and kissed him. Ray moaned, then sighed as he realized the pillow was out of reach and Benny attached his talented mouth to Ray's neck. Well, he hadn't been intending to tell the family about them first thing tomorrow, but now he'd probably have to. Ray moaned, then grabbed Fraser's butt with both hands, pulling him closer, eliciting a matching groan from the Mountie. Some things were just worth it.

***

Fraser came down to the kitchen with Ray the morning after their return, blushing as the adults in the family turned as one to stare at the two men who'd disturbed their night. Their eyes were almost identical -- not like Ray's light colored ones. Even Tony, who wasn't born a Vecchio, had Mrs. Vecchio's chocolate brown eyes, big and soulful, confused and a little angry.

Ray deliberately took Fraser's hand, then said "I'm in love with Benny and he's in love with me. We're gonna get an apartment together."

Fraser couldn't really tell if Francesca or her mother had screamed louder. And Ray quite obviously hadn't wanted to stay and sort it out. He kept talking, pulling Fraser to the door with him.

"You guys can think about what I said, and we'll talk when we get home tonight. I gotta report to the precinct, and Fraser's got to go see the Dragon Lady, and then we'll be picking up Dief. And I gotta get some coffee..."

Then they were outside, Ray still holding his hand and pulling him toward the Riviera.

"Ray, I'm concerned about leaving your mother if she's upset."

Ray pushed him against the car, leaning on him and kissing him. After a blissful minute, Fraser pushed him away.

"Ray, the neighbors..."

"They'd better get used to it, Benny. Just like Ma will. And admit it, sticking around in the same room with Frannie and sharp knives right now would not be smart." Ray's smile was sunshine as he tucked Fraser inside the car. Then they drove off, a couple, and proceeded to do all the things Ray had said needed doing.

First, big cups of strong, hot coffee. Then the 27th, where Ray checked in with his lieutenant and received an armful of case folders. Fraser felt quite relieved when their visit with the lieutenant did not include a repetition of the morning's declaration of love and intent to cohabit. He wondered if Ray was considering all the changes in his life that would take place if he continued on his present course. Would Fraser be listed as his next of kin? Domestic partner? Wasn't Ray aware of the kind of discrimination he might be opening himself to experience?

Then to the Consulate, where Fraser reported himself ready for duty to Inspector Thatcher. She told him to report the following day at 0800, so Fraser followed Ray back to the station and offered to help him review the case files.

"You sure you want to spend your last day off here, working?"

"I'm glad to spend time with you, Ray," Fraser said softly, blushing a little. And Ray's grin in return was a beautiful, sunny thing.

"Then take these," Ray said, pulling a stack of sheets from his "in" basket. "I'll do what Welsh wants, and you can sort these."

"Missing persons cases?"

"I had them send me everything since the Loftus murder -- actually, everything since a month before. We're looking for women around 33, blonde hair, about 120 pounds, 5'-6". Someone who could pass for Loftus, in other words."

"You're still convinced Mrs. Loftus faked her own death?"

"Yeah. I know Huey and Dewey still don't have a motive for that, but I know I saw her that afternoon." Ray looked at him for a moment, very serious. "You don't mind helping me? I know you didn't see her..."

"Ray, I never met Mrs. Loftus. I doubt I'd recognize her from the photo in the newspaper. And I do believe you. I know how reliable your nose memory is, remember?" Fraser smiled at him, remembering his father's case and Ray's ability to place Francis Drake simply by his nose.

Ray nodded back at him, then turned to his work. The afternoon passed quickly. Every time Ray looked up at him, Fraser felt bathed in love and tenderness. He thought they were being indiscreet, but no one at the station seemed to treat them any differently. He wondered if they were being more restrained than he thought, or if their feelings had always been obvious to everyone but themselves.

Then he realized what he was seeing.

"Ray. Look at this." The report was about a women who'd walked away from the psych ward at Northwestern Hospital. She'd been severely depressed following the death of her husband, and her parents were now searching for her.

"Right coloring, weight, height. A few years older than Loftus."

"If Mrs. Loftus really did have experience choosing prostitutes for her husband, she'd be familiar with the red-light district north of this hospital. It's one of the closest such areas to the Loftus apartment."

"Benny, you're a genius. Let's find Huey."

Two hours later Elaine tracked down Detectives Huey and Dewey, and they were in the Lieutenant's office.

"Sir, there's no obvious motive, but Margot did have mob connections out in Vegas. She might have owed them, or there might have been professional involvement in Edwin Loftus' death," Huey reported. "How difficult is it to give an 80-year-old man a heart attack?"

"And there's more," Dewey added. "Her lover, Laurence Drew, has just filed a new will leaving all of his inherited money to a female cousin, Kathleen Drew Andrews, age 34."

"It's not suspicious for a newly wealthy man to make a will, Detective," Welsh murmured.

"But none of his friends ever heard of this cousin before," Dewey said. "And she's only a year older than Margot."

"Drew identified the body, right? So we can pull him in for simple questioning, say we're investigating charging him with conspiracy for the murder," Ray said.

"Constable, have you spoken to the family of the missing woman?"

"Yes, Lieutenant. They didn't have much to add to the written report, however. DNA testing might be the only way to positively discern if the body is Margot Loftus or Anna Gaster."

"Alright, I'll talk to the family about testing. We'll pull in Drew if we get something solid for a warrant. Until then, gentlemen, I believe you all have other cases on your desks?"

Later that evening they were able to free Diefenbaker, who'd been confined a day while Customs inspected his paperwork and vaccination records. As they once again drove off, their little family now complete, Fraser wondered when his life had become so complicated. In his adult life he'd never had to worry about pleasing anyone except the RCMP, really, and that pleased his father as well. Just do your duty.

Now he had a best friend and lover who wanted to live with him, and who was accustomed to living in luxurious surroundings. That lover had baggage of his own. Ray's family were important to them both, and Fraser didn't want them miserable or upset. And Fraser had his own set of people he cared for -- his neighbors, whom he knew would be upset when he left the building to move in with Ray.

The only one who seemed completely unaffected by their new relationship was Diefenbaker. The wolf had always accepted Ray, and didn't seem bothered by their sexual activities. Of course, he'd witnessed enough of their insatiability during their visit to the cabin to become inured to them, Fraser supposed.

Fraser supposed that after worrying about Ray's feelings and Ray's thoughts all day, it was only natural that now he'd be the one feeling overwhelmed. Almost afraid, as if what they'd found together was too fragile to exist in the light of reality. His father's cabin, though Spartan, was worlds away from all the responsibilities and expectations their jobs and families and friends placed upon Ray and Fraser.

Fraser realized that Ray was driving through his own neighborhood, and suddenly his heart thudded down to his boots. Ray must have finally found time to think this through, and now Fraser would be sleeping alone tonight in his apartment while Ray went back to soothe his family.

When the car stopped and Ray popped out the driver's door, followed by Diefenbaker, Fraser just sat for a minute longer, bracing himself for a lonely night.

"Benny? Are you okay?" Ray was peering in the window, confusion plain on his face. "I mean, I guess I can run up and get Dief's bowls, but I can't manage your trunk alone."

"My trunk?" Fraser repeated, opening the car door so quickly that he nearly slammed Ray's face with it.

"Jeeze, Benny, are you trying to kill me?" Ray complained, and then he smiled a wicked smile. "I can think of a better way to go."

"Ray, why are we here?"

"Because my best friend is a loon who moved into this lousy neighborhood?" Ray's arms flew up, and then he settled himself. "It's cold out here, Benny. We don't really need to move all your stuff out tonight, but I'm afraid if you aren't staying here it's all gonna vanish," Ray continued as Fraser moved inside the building with him.

"Mr. Mustaphi was keeping an eye on my apartment, Ray."

"Well you can't ask him to do that forever, Benny," Ray declared as they started up the stairs together.

"No, I suppose that's true." Fraser moved closer behind Ray as he spoke. "Forever, Ray?" he whispered, smiling when Ray shivered from the warm breath in his ear.

"Yeah, Benny. We're gonna be forever."

They made it to the apartment, but it was hours before they left again with Fraser's belongings. And their time had not been spent packing.

That memory made it easier when Mrs. Vecchio refused to let the two of them inside her house half an hour later.

***

They were living at an extended-stay motel, even more cramped than his apartment, yet Fraser was happier than he'd ever been. And somehow, it seemed Ray felt just the same. His sisters had brought him his clothing, and Ray didn't seem to want anything else. He'd never even mentioned to Fraser or anyone else that the house his mother locked against him was his own. Ray drove Fraser and Diefenbaker to work each day, put in full days on his own cases, and then came home to cook over a camp stove and make sweet love to his Mountie.

A week later they had DNA test results proving Anna Gaster had died in that luxurious Oak Street penthouse, not Margot Loftus. Huey and Dewey brought in Laurence Drew, who caved in rather quickly when presented with the evidence. Drew, who had no means of support other than Loftus' legacy, was not the brightest criminal they'd ever interviewed. The man had never considered that, by signing his new will for Loftus' new identity, he'd put his own life in danger. She no longer needed him, and once the detectives pointed this out, Drew was very cooperative.

Thought Loftus had not given him a way to contact her, Drew was expecting a meeting in a few days. He agreed to having his apartment wired for sound, and having 24-hour surveillance to protect him. Lieutenant Welsh assigned several pairs of detectives to the stakeout duty, including Ray. And, unofficially, Fraser.

But they were off duty this afternoon, although in a few hours they'd be splitting up for the night. Fraser had to stand guard for a diplomatic dinner at the Consulate this evening, and Ray was taking the seven to midnight shift at Drew's residence.

Fraser looked up from where he sat on their bed, polishing his dress belt for the evening, to see Ray bent over their laundry basket, evidently searching for a shirt. Ray's muttering was enough to make Fraser smile, but the view of his backside was making another part of him take notice. In fact, it was getting uncomfortable. Fraser moved slightly, then set down his belt and carefully adjusted himself. And looked up into Ray's wide, very intense eyes.

"Oh, Benny, what you do to me."

"Actually, Ray, my discomfort was the result of what you did to me, by bending over that basket," Fraser said rather stuffily, embarrassed and aware he was blushing.

"Aw, Benny, please don't be like that with me. You don't ever have to be ashamed. You're so beautiful." Ray was kneeling between his legs now, his slender hands on either side of Fraser's warm face. "I'd pay money just to see you naked. The idea of you touching yourself... whew."

Fraser looked at Ray's face and saw only honesty in his eyes. He looked down, blushing again, then looked up and met Ray's eyes. "Actually, Ray, I have done that in the past, while imagining you with me." He couldn't say more. He had no talent for seduction, Fraser thought.

But Ray smiled, a slow, sensuous smile. "Really? That's pretty hot. Could you show me?"

"S-show you?" Fraser stammered, wondering if his face could catch on fire. Somehow, despite how many times they'd made love together, the idea of masturbating in front of Ray was ... well, exciting, certainly. And part of the excitement was the idea of being on display, having Ray watch without participating.

"I'll talk you through it, Benny," Ray offered, stripping off Fraser's shirt before he even noticed what his lover was doing. Ray gently pushed him back on the bed, and removed his shoes, then the rest of Fraser's clothes. "That's beautiful. Now do what I tell you, Benny. What I'd like to be doing to you. Run your hands down your chest, softly, just up and down."

Ray's voice continued and Fraser's hands found his nipples, teasing and pinching them. He lost himself in Ray's voice, in Ray's fantasy, and then he remembered that night in his apartment. Hopeless and lusting after Ray, imagining him there with him, wishing it was Ray touching his flesh...

"Ray! I need you," Fraser called, even as his hands still obeyed the last command Ray had given him. And then Ray was there on the bed with him, Ray's own hands replacing Fraser's on his throbbing penis. Ray's mouth was on him, everywhere, as Fraser cried out softly and reached his climax.

"Beautiful," Ray whispered, holding him, watching him with so much love in his eyes.

Later, after they'd cleaned up a bit, they cuddled together in the bed. It was getting close to the time when they'd need to dress again and leave.

"I could join you after the dinner ends, Ray."

"I know how long those diplomatic things go. First course, then everyone watches the Eskimo clog dancers for half an hour. Second course, followed by fire starting demonstrations."

"That's just silly, Ray," Fraser snorted.

"Nah, if you try you'd just get to the stakeout in time to go home with me. Frankly, I'd rather you were here, just like this, waiting." Ray ran a hand over Fraser's hip. "Naked for me. Tonight it'll be my turn. I'll do whatever you want."

***

It was almost eleven when Ray noticed a heavyset man approaching the apartment. It wasn't one of the tenants. He sipped his now-cool coffee and looked again, just as the man passed under a street lamp. That nose. It had to be Loftus. The hair color was wrong, but how hard was it to change that? To cut the hair very short, and put on a suit and some padding... child's play.

He called the station and asked for backup before she was in the door. Then he turned up the receiver to listen to Drew's apartment, and made sure the recorder was on in the truck. He heard the knock on the door, and wondered if Drew had given Loftus a key to the security door. Whatever the reason, it hadn't slowed her down at all. Ray wished Fraser were here; they could go in. But he couldn't do it alone. Where was the damn backup? He heard Drew open the door.

"Mar--" Drew's voice came over the speaker, quickly cut off.

"Cousin Laurence. It's me, Kathleen." The sarcasm in her voice was heavy. "Try not to be a bigger idiot than you are, Larry," she continued as the door closed and latched.

"I ... It's good to see you, babe."

"Back off, there's no time for that now. Do you have the papers for me?"

"The account numbers? Sure, they're here." There was a drawer being opened, Ray thought, and shuffling of paper. Then silence for a minute, probably while Loftus read what he'd handed her. Ray got on the radio and asked where his backup was. Reassured that they were on the way, he hung up to listen as Loftus spoke again in the apartment.

"I'm amazed you got it right. I mean, I didn't screw you for your brains, but I still can't believe it took you so long just to get a will drawn up."

"It was the murder investigation and the probate, baby. It took so damn long. I've missed you."

"Yeah, yeah. Well, it's time to head to Nassau, then. With what I sent there and what you sent there, I should be fine for a few years. Then I can come back and pick up the rest of it."

"What do you mean? Margot?" Drew's voice rose, fear in every syllable. "What are you doing?"

"Tying up loose ends, that's all." There was a crash, someone knocking into furniture, and Ray was out of the van and running up the stairs, praying the backup would be there. But they weren't, and as he wildly pushed his duplicate key into the front door, Ray listened for shots. She was going to kill Drew, and they'd all be damned for putting the idiot in danger like this.

He kicked the apartment door down without a second thought, and Loftus' shot went wild as she whirled toward the noise. Then they were each staring at the other's gun, both steady as rocks in the stalemate.

"Put down the gun, Margot. It's over now."

"You mean this little shit betrayed me?" She never took her eyes off Ray, though. "Larry, I thought you loved me," she whined in a sarcastic voice.

"You just tried to kill me. She tried to kill me!" Drew whined right back, and Ray just kept his eyes locked on her. But the idiot moved, and then Loftus had him, had her gun to his head.

"He didn't betray you, we figured it out. Drew was just cooperating, that's only smart. Makes it easier. Now you be smart, too, Margot. Put the gun down, and we'll all walk out of here."

"No, cop. It doesn't work that way. You put your gun down, or I'll shoot Larry."

"Then I'll shoot you."

"Don't mess with me, cop. Put it down, right now." Ray had to obey her. "Now where are the rest of them?"

"On their way."

"Shit." Loftus threw Drew away from her. He landed badly, and Ray could see he was dazed. Not that he'd be much use even if he were unharmed. He wished again for Benny, with his smooth talking and quick reflexes. He wished for his backup, which was probably down on the street right now.

Then Loftus cold-cocked him with her gun, and Ray stopped wishing for a while.

***

"Constable Fraser," Inspector Thatcher touched him and he started. She'd been in middle of dinner, deep in conversation with official guests, and he wasn't expecting her out here at his post.

"Inspector? Is there a problem..."

"Please come inside. There's a call for you, an emergency." She took him to her private office and handed him the phone, and someone he didn't know from the 27th's night shift brought Fraser up to date on the incident. Margot Loftus had arrived, tried to shoot her lover, and managed to take both him and Detective Vecchio hostage in a neighbor's apartment. They no longer had audio, as they'd had from the time in Drew's rooms, but they knew no more shots had been fired yet. It was hoped that both men were still alive.

When Fraser hung up the phone, he just stood for a moment, then realized his knees were shaking. Inspector Thatcher made him sit and drink a glass of water while she had Constable Turnbull bring the Consulate car to the front door, to drive him to the site. She reassured him that she would personally care for Diefenbaker until his return, but Fraser was too dazed to even thank her.

By the time Fraser arrived to stand with Huey and Lt. Welsh, the SWAT teams were in place. Fraser called the Vecchio home and spoke to Francesca, just to let them know what he knew so far. Ray's mother had refused to speak to him, but the adults of the family showed up a few hours later, brought past the police lines around the block and into the building that had become their command center. They huddled in a safe location, out of the way of the working police, drinking coffee, and worrying. Just like Fraser.

Two hours after that, the police finally established phone contact with Loftus, who'd allowed the neighbor out of the building, and who had not acted while the police cleared the other apartments. She wouldn't let them speak to Ray or to Drew, but she insisted that both men were alive and well. Loftus wanted to be allowed to leave the country in exchange for their safety.

When daylight came the police were ready to move, but the officer in charge of negotiations held them back. There were profilers, psychologists, hostage specialists -- the men of the 27th had lost all control of the case at this point, but they were all still there, with the Vecchios and Fraser. Mrs. Vecchio wouldn't look at him, but the others all had kind words, brought him coffee, and touched him. If he hadn't been so concerned about Ray's safety, Fraser would have found it comforting.

At three o'clock the next afternoon, after nearly sixteen hours, Loftus sent Drew out. The man was bruised and terrified, but unharmed. Negotiations continued over the phone, and an officer ran over to report that they'd spoken to Vecchio, just a few words, but he was evidently all right.

"Lieutenant," Fraser started.

"Constable. How are you holding up?" The big man was very kind. "It can't be easy staying with the family like that. I'm sure Ray will appreciate your assistance. I know we all do."

"Certainly. However, I was going to ask if anyone has proposed an exchange with Mrs. Loftus. I'd be willing to volunteer to take Ray's place..."

"Constable. Benton. Just go back and take care of Ray's mother, okay? We're not sending you in there. This isn't an international incident yet, and we'd like to keep it that way."

Fraser did as instructed. Mrs. Vecchio was crying now, and he convinced Maria to take her home, to take care of her children and make Tony a dinner. He and Francesca would stay, and call as soon as there was more news.

Six o'clock, and it was fully dark. But the dark and the chill of the evening were outside. In here there were sandwiches that tasted like sawdust, coffee that had no flavor at all, and the sickening fear whenever Fraser tried to take a mouthful that Ray had nothing to eat or drink.

Ten o'clock, and Loftus wasn't answering the phone. The sharpshooters and observers stationed on high buildings around the apartment saw no movement inside the room. The order came to go, and they shot teargas into the apartment and stormed the room. Fifteen minutes, and Loftus was in custody, headed for a hospital for treatment for a leg wound and for the teargas.

Ray Vecchio was brought out on a stretcher, also suffering from the teargas, and from a head injury. His left eye was swollen completely shut, and that side of his face was purple with bruises. Francesca called the house, then offered to drive Ray's car while Fraser rode with Ray in the ambulance to Northwestern's emergency room.

Fraser was clutching Ray's hand and couldn't speak. But then Ray pushed aside the oxygen mask over his face and said, "It's still my turn when we get home, Benny." That was all, but the gleam in Ray's undamaged eye was enough. Fraser burst into babble, telling Ray everything he'd seen, done, and felt during the last 24 hours.

***

"Ma'm, you cannot bring that animal in here," the harried nurse repeated, but Thatcher just stomped right past, following in the wake of the Vecchio family and almost smiling at Ray as he lay on the table.

"Detective, I'm relieved to see you are well." Ray just nodded in response, wishing he had some privacy here. He was practically naked here, for pete's sake. Bad enough his female family just barged right in. He didn't need random Canadians doing the same. But Thatcher ignored his discomfort, continuing "Constable Fraser, I brought Diefenbaker back, but I can keep him overnight if you'd prefer."

"Thank you, Inspector, it would be a relief..." Fraser began, but Frannie interrupted him.

"Take him to our house, we'll keep him there." She pulled out paper and a pen from her very large, very bright handbag and wrote out directions for the Inspector. "Tony's there with the kids now, they'll play with Dief and feed him. And there's a yard for him."

"Thank you kindly, Francesca," Fraser said, at the same moment Thatcher replied.

"Thank you, Miss Vecchio." She left with the wolf, and the nurse sighed in relief.

"Still, there are far too many visitors here. Some of you need to move to the waiting room just outside..."

Ray watched closely out of his one good eye as his family milled around his tiny examination cubicle, paying no attention to the staff trying to gently remove them. They'd all been here before, too many times between Ray's job and the kids, and were oblivious to persuasion or threats. Only poor Benny kept trying to politely answer the staff while remaining firmly glued to Ray's side.

"He's my partner, leave him alone." Ray snapped as the nurse touched Fraser's arm, and Ma once again approached him from the opposite side of the bed for another hug. She still wasn't looking at Benny, Ray noted, and couldn't meet his eyes either as she touched him, reassuring herself he was okay. But Frannie and Maria were being normal with Fraser.

Well, it was probably silly to call this behavior "normal" since for weeks now near-silence and anger had been normal. Ray thought it might be better to say his sisters were back to pre-"I'm gay deal with it" normal. But Fran wasn't flirting with Fraser, and was that normal or not? Ray thought that behavior might have ended long before he'd really noticed. Certainly it was over before his breakfast announcement...

Oh, hell. His head hurt and Ray knew his thinking wasn't very clear. Things were just better, period. Except for Ma, and he'd figure out something, some way, to get her to accept them. Ray knew his mother still loved him. She loved Benny, too, damn it. She was just shocked, outraged, upset. Ray had been subtle as a brick through the window; it was all his own fault. So he'd have to find a way to fix it.

Lt. Welsh walked in, and Ray wanted to laugh at the way his boss' calm, serious face fell when he registered the crowd and the noise level in the small room. "Sorry, folks, but I need to speak to Detective Vecchio now, to get his statement. You'll have to step outside."

Welsh's authority carried the day, and the family filed out slowly, everyone pausing to touch Ray once more, to smile at Fraser or to say hello to Welsh. Ray heard the nurse, who was urging them out from behind, mutter "Oh, it only takes a badge and gun to get them out of here."

"Fraser can stay, right Lieu?" Ray ignored the way his mother turned at his words. She continued out, Frannie holding her arm and talking quietly.

"Sure, Vecchio. Now let's start this." Ray brought his attention back into the room. "I'll tape your statement and have it transcribed at the station, if that's okay?"

"Sure." Ray smiled up at Fraser as he started the story, telling of the suspicious "man" who'd turned out to be Margot Loftus. Welsh didn't ask many questions or interrupt him, though he did grimace when Ray talked about trying to wait for his backup. Still, the look on Welsh's face was easier to see than the agony in Benny's eyes. He'd been on duty, damn it. Ray didn't know why Fraser would blame himself when he'd only been doing his real, assigned duties. He wasn't Ray's official partner and they both knew it.

Finally it was over, and the doctor came in when Welsh called him. They discussed Ray's fitness for duty briefly, Ray barely bothering to listen. He closed his eyes, and felt Fraser softly rub his sore head, carefully avoiding the bruised areas. He smiled, knowing Fraser was paying attention to him and to the conversation about his health, and Ray could simply relax and enjoy the fact that he was safe and it was finally a little quieter.

"So, Vecchio, you're free to go home," Welsh said, and Ray opened his eyes again. "Report to the precinct on Monday morning." The lieutenant squeezed Ray's shoulder, nodded to the Mountie, and was gone.

"I'll send in the release forms for you to sign in a few minutes. You can get re-dressed now." The doctor, too, smiled at Fraser before leaving.

"I guess it was a good idea to list you as my domestic partner on all the paperwork, Benny," Ray said as he quickly rose, then paused and let Fraser hold him while the dizziness cleared.

"It did seem to clarify matters in this situation, Ray." Fraser held up his shirt and Ray slipped it on, still a little clumsy.

"They did call you right away, when they figured out Loftus had me?" Ray asked. Benny had talked about this in the ambulance, Ray thought, but he'd been out of it at that point. Damn tear gas.

"Yes, Ray, I was the first person contacted. I called your family once Constable Turnbull dropped me at the command station."

"Thanks for doing that, Benny. I know it wasn't easy... And I'm sorry about how Ma treated you, Benny."

"Don't worry about me, Ray. I'm fine now that you are safe."

"She'll get over it. Give me a little time, and I promise she'll be better."

But Fraser didn't look like he believed Ray's hopeful attitude would prove correct, and Ray could hardly blame him. Still, with some time to think and plan... okay, scheme... he'd come up with a way to get Benny accepted as part of the family.

***

It helped, Fraser reflected to himself, that Mrs. Vecchio loved her son so dearly that she would struggle to overcome her own prejudices. The danger inherent in Ray's chosen work, as dramatically demonstrated during the Loftus case, also softened her mother's heart. But the clincher was when Ray brought her to meet with the priest from a largely-gay congregation he'd found on the near north side. After a long talk with the priest, Mrs. Vecchio came back to their studio with Ray. Fraser had been shocked to see her, but that was nothing compared to Ray's words.

"Ma, even though I'm marrying a non-Catholic, I promise you I'll still attend mass."

Mrs. Vecchio had kissed Fraser's cheek and welcomed him into the family, while he still stared open-mouthed at his lover. Marrying? Ray's sunny smile at Fraser's confusion was one of those memories that Fraser knew would never fade.

As Ray drove his mother home and Fraser tried to behave normally, neither man realized they had just lost control of where they'd live or what furniture they'd have in their home.

Mrs. Vecchio kept a running commentary all the way to Octavia Street over their tiny apartment, how uncomfortable it seemed, how it was apparent Diefenbaker couldn't' get any exercise. As they pulled into the Vecchio homestead driveway, she finally got to her point and insisted that they "come home" until they found a nicer place to live.

Fraser and Ray had promised to think about it.

Late the next morning, a Sunday, their brunch was interrupted by the arrival of the entire clan, including the children, to help them pack and move back to the house. Of course, moving them really didn't require so many people, since Ray had only his clothing and Fraser only his trunk and Diefenbaker's bowls. Still, Francesca was very vocal about the number of suits she had to carry to her car. Fraser smiled when Ray was equally vocal as he instructed his sister in the care of fine menswear. Ray and his family were truly back to normal.

And living in Ray's family house was fine, really. Loud at times, and there wasn't much privacy, but Diefenbaker enjoyed their back yard and the neighborhood parks. Still, it had been only two weeks now, and Ray decided to announce that living at home was getting on his nerves. Fraser turned his attention to the conversation, ready to support Ray if necessary.

"Ma, I love you and you know I love your cooking. But we need some privacy, more than we can get here. And you need the room, face it. The kids are only getting bigger, and it looks to me like Maria's gonna have another one any day now."

"Are you saying I'm fat, Ray? 'Cause I can still whip your butt, just like when we were kids..." Maria was laughing even as she threatened him, and her children were instantly asking questions about when she'd beat up Uncle Ray.

"See what I mean?" Ray laughed as the noisy group surrounded him. Uncle Vito, in his chair by the television, woke with a snort, mumbled in Italian, then went back to sleep.

Fraser felt a warm hand on his arm. "You'll take care of him, Benton?" Mrs. Vecchio's chin trembled. "I'll miss having him here where I can watch him, pamper him a little."

"I shall attempt to care for him every day, Mrs. Vecchio. And to bring him here regularly for you to pamper, too."

She reached up and kissed his cheek. "Good boy." She turned to her laughing brood of children and grandchildren. "Then go find some nice place to live," she said loudly. "But you're here every Sunday for dinner."

"Unless I'm working, Ma. I promise." Ray kissed her cheek, she pinched his, and the Vecchio family went back to its equally-noisy, normal nightly routine.

***

Ray Vecchio knew he was no rocket scientist. Hell, he wasn't as smart as Fraser, although Benny never rubbed it in when his brain danced circles around them all. But Ray was smart enough to recognize a problem when he saw it. He excused himself while Fraser inspected the bathrooms and made a phone call.

This was the second Saturday they'd spent with a newspaper, checking out apartments and condominiums. And they'd spent week nights when they were off duty with an apartment service, doing the same thing. It was now going on four o'clock and Mr. Agreeable, his Mountie, was once again finding fault with the lovely two bedroom apartment they'd just toured.

Ray nodded and walked Fraser and Dief back to the Riv, not really listening anymore. He'd heard all Fraser's observations -- you couldn't call them complaints when they were spoken so sweetly, could you? -- dozens of times.

There was no park for Diefenbaker close enough to this building. The security in that building was oppressive. The windows had inadequate operable openings -- Fraser and Dief needed fresh air. The windows faced north, or south, or west -- Ray thought Fraser had found fault with every direction by now. He wondered if skylights were acceptable. This neighborhood was too far from the Consulate, that one too far from the Precinct.

The fact of the matter was, Ray decided as he put the car in gear and drove them away, that Benny didn't want to move. Ray had made him do it, and the Mountie was obviously miserable about it. Even if he wouldn't say anything aloud, or recognize that he was deliberately obstructing their attempts to find a place to live.

So Ray drove them through the south side to a familiar neighborhood. To a very familiar building, actually. Dennis was on the front stoop, waiting for them, thanks to Ray's call.

"Constable Fraser. Detective Vecchio. Good to see you," he called to them.

"Ray?" Fraser asked from his seat, while Dief woofed excitedly, ready to get out and visit. Ray just smiled and got out of the car, motioning for Fraser to follow him.

"So let's see this wonderful apartment, Dennis. You said it has two bedrooms?"

"Two bedrooms and a private bath, just like you said you wanted. It's on the second floor, next door to Mrs. Peters, you remember her." Dennis was leading them up the steps, and Ray would have laughed at the stunned look on Fraser's face if it wasn't so sad that no one in Benny's life ever tried to put him first. Benny wasn't a demanding person, so how hard was it to pay attention to his wishes, spoken or not?

Ray had always had his mom there, almost psychic about his feelings and always sympathetic, whether she could help him reach his goals or not. But Benny didn't have a mom to spoil him, or a dad who was there, and he behaved as if every tiny attempt at thoughtfulness was like a miracle, like Christmas and his birthday all rolled into one. His joy showed so plainly right now that Ray couldn't speak.

The apartment was just as shabby as the others in this building, but a little paint and some elbow grease -- helped by his sisters, Ray was sure -- and it would be liveable. The rent was laughably low compared to the other places they'd seen. And Ray would make sure there were sturdy locks on the door, and all the windows, too. Diefenbaker looked delighted with the large, low windows which he could look out without standing up.

The only bad thing, really, was parking the Riv in this neighborhood. Still, this was Ray's third Riv and it had never been in mint condition. Besides, he knew Fraser would ask the neighborhood people to keep an eye on the car, just as he'd done in the past. Anyway, Fraser's happiness was more important than a car.

Fraser looked over at him, and Ray smiled back, wishing he had a picture of that look on Benny's face.

"It's perfect, Ray."

"Yeah, Benny, I thought you'd say that." Ray walked Dennis to the door. "Get us the keys and a lease, and we'll move in tomorrow."

"That's fine. Nice to have you back, Fraser." And then they were alone in their apartment, their little family of three.

"How did you know, Ray?" Fraser marveled. "I didn't even know this is what I wanted."

"Well, Benny, I don't think you're in love with you. I am. That gives me some insight, ya know."

Then Benny was in his arms, and Ray was the happiest person in the whole lousy neighborhood.

***

"It's very nice to have you back in the building, Constable," Mrs. Peters gushed. "We missed your spirit here."

"Thank you kindly, Mrs. Peters. Although the credit is truly due to Detective Vecchio," Fraser added, wanting his neighbors to appreciate Ray. But it was obvious from Mrs. Peters' vague nod at Ray that she didn't have terribly warm feelings for the Italian.

They proceeded down the steps with Diefenbaker, heading out to their jobs. They passed several other neighbors in the mailbox area, all of whom merely nodded to Ray while effusively greeting Fraser.

"I do find it distressing that our neighbors don't feel very comfortable with you, Ray," Fraser noted as they climbed into the Riviera. "It's not fair that you don't get the credit for all you've done."

"Ah, Benny, I tried to tell you before. It's not about credit. Anyway, they're right to thank you. You're the only reason I do nice things for them. I just want to make you happy."

As they pulled into traffic to face another day, Fraser decided that it might be good if he remained the public relations liaison in their building. Ray would just have to get used to being his personal hero. Fraser smiled, listening to Ray's morning traffic litany, and thinking of several very private ways he could repay Ray's thoughtfulness.

The end.

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