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If Ray was gonna take a guess, he'd say it started on the way back from the funeral home.

Besides getting Van Zandt and his goons into holding -- which was taken out of their hands pretty quick -- it was up to him and Welsh and Fraser to wake everybody up and explain how Fraser hadn't actually been dead but was just under the influence of the secretions of the Whatsit Toad. Ray found himself doing most of the explaining, though, because Welsh was busy making like he wasn't ashamed of all his detectives keeling over like that, and Fraser ...

Fraser was just quiet. Maybe Ray should have asked.

Okay, Ray did ask. Fraser climbed into the GTO and Dief bounded over him into the back, and as Ray peeled out of the parking lot he asked, "You doing okay there, Frase?"

"Yes, Ray," Fraser said, and maybe Ray shouldn't have left it -- Fraser would probably have to be dying, or at least seriously pissed off, before he'd admit to not being okay -- but if Fraser's quiet was a different sort than the normal silence Ray was used to, well, funeral homes sure as hell weren't Ray's favorite place either and he hadn't spent all night in one.

They went back to the station and signed off on the paperwork, and Ray figured Fraser was better because leaving the bullpen they were walking in step, and when Ray tried calculating how long Van Zandt had before his parole was due, Fraser said right away, "A hundred and forty-three years." And he did look pleased about it, though maybe not animated like he usually was at the close of a case.

"Wanna get lunch?" Ray asked. He probably meant breakfast, since neither of them had eaten yet, but it was almost noon so he didn't really care which meal it was.

"No, I'm afraid I --" Fraser started. He stopped in the hall and looked around, frowning. "Where's Diefenbaker?"

"No idea." The mutt had been with them all the way into the station, but he'd beat it the second it looked like there was going to be paperwork. Ray didn't much blame him. "I think maybe he's sulking somewhere."

"Oh dear." Fraser frowned. "I hope he will come to understand, given sufficient time."

"And doughnuts," Ray said. It was probably too late in the day for doughnuts.

"I would prefer not to bribe him, Ray."

Ray grinned a little and slung an arm over Fraser's shoulder. "Lunch?" he repeated.

"I'd love to, Ray, but ..." Fraser went sort of tense under Ray's arm, so Ray backed off. "Would you mind taking us to the Consulate?" Fraser asked. "I'm afraid I'm neglecting a backlog of forms."

Which meant the Ice Queen didn't want Fraser out of her sight much right now. Ray didn't really blame her, though. "Yeah, okay," he said.

They found Diefenbaker downstairs. He made grumbling noises when he learned there were no doughnuts in his future, but he climbed into the back of the GTO and sulked quietly. Up in front, Fraser was just as quiet, although Ray didn't think he was sulking. Just ... not really all right.

"Hey," Ray said, pulling out of the station lot, "are you, um --?"

"No, I should have the forms well in hand by noon tomorrow," Fraser said, completely ignoring Ray's tone.

Ray sighed. "Okay. I probably got my own paperwork to do." So that was it as far as conversation went.

He parked in front of the Consulate. Fraser got his hat and let Dief out, shut the door and smiled at Ray through the glass, the first real smile Ray'd seen from him that day. Ray waved him off and didn't think about the way a Fraser smile destroyed all the suckiness of paperwork and weird cases and sulky wolves. It'd been that way for months now, ever since the crazy case with the gold and the ships. Fraser'd said he wanted to keep being partners, had smiled at Ray, and it was like he had a light switch to the goddamn sun. And it just kept on, every single time he smiled now, with little laughter-crinkles around his eyes.

Ray shook his head and went back to the 27. He got some takeout on the way, but it just wasn't the same eating alone and not sneaking any to Dief.

Hours and a lot of paperwork later -- at least Welsh would be happy -- Ray decided he deserved to go home, maybe have a night in, feed his turtle, have a beer, read the beat-up romance novel he'd stolen off Frannie's desk for the hell of it. He shuffled the last few papers around his desk to make it look like he was a bit less of a slob, said "What?" a little too defensively when he caught Francesca looking sideways at him (you never knew, she could definitely be suspicious about her book vanishing like that), and clocked out.

He went home, ate and watched the turtle eat, told it, "I am so glad you do not talk back like Dief does." The turtle didn't pay any attention to him, so Ray grinned to himself, broke out the beer and the paperback. This one was about an English lord and a beautiful heiress; the English lord was still in love with some dumb girl who'd gone and married an earl, and Ray was willing to bet -- probably because the back cover had a few hints about it -- that in a few pages the beautiful heiress was going to be kidnapped, and the English lord would realize he'd been pining after the wrong girl, and go save her come hell, high water, and some two-dimensional bad guys.

So Ray got his kicks where he could. But this sort of thing was an easy read, there'd been this brief phase when Stella kept bringing them home so there was something comfy about them, and Ray figured they probably told him a lot about Frannie's psyche, which might be useful one day.

He found his place, bookmarked with the receipt from the last pizza Sandor had delivered. Kitty took one last glance into Gerald's smoldering eyes before she turned towards her suite, little suspecting the long cruel days that would unfold before she would set eyes on him again ... "Don't gimme that look," Ray told the turtle, and settled in to read.

*

In the morning Ray drove in feeling pretty good, like maybe Welsh was gonna be nice to him and just for kicks Fraser would lick the right thing this afternoon and they'd have some breakthrough on one of Ray's stalled cases too -- and reaching the station parking lot, Ray slammed the brakes too hard, jolting to a stop with a screech.

Diefenbaker was sitting at the 27's side entrance, this daub of white in the gray universe without any accompanying daub of red.

Ray was out of the GTO and crouched next to Dief in about two seconds flat. "Heya, Dief," he said, fingers wrapping in the wolf's ruff to keep Dief from licking him or getting away. "Where's Fraser?"

Dief whined a little and managed to lick the end of Ray's nose anyway. But he didn't try anything else, just did that little whine and gave him this sincere amber-eyed doggy look. Ray'd maybe been hanging around Fraser a bit too long, but he was pretty sure the big eyes weren't saying I'm looking innocent so you'll give me doughnuts -- no, Diefenbaker was saying I don't know and I'm upset. Ray didn't know when interpreting Dief had started getting normal, but he did know that going with his gut was something that'd pretty much always been normal, and that meant an easy equation: early morning plus Fraser's wolf here freaking out minus Fraser equals bad feeling.

Another whine, another little lick. "Hey," Ray said. "Cool it, buddy, we'll find him." He got to his feet, and tried not to feel like he was nuts or panicking or maybe in a Lassie film. "Where'd you see Fraser last?" The mutt cocked his head and gave Ray this considering look, like he was figuring out whether Ray was serious about this. "I'm serious about this," Ray told him. "I am all over it if Fraser's doing some stupid thing, Dief."

Diefenbaker snuffled a little, apparently satisfied with this, and took off for the street. Ray followed him.

He'd already gone about six blocks when he realized he hadn't clocked in, that he was about fifteen minutes late for work already, and that Welsh was going to chew him out no matter how many good excuses he had, but Ray had this weird feeling of just not caring. The job was the job, and when Marcus Ellery was in town or Diefenbaker thought Fraser was missing, good career moves were not on the top of Ray's priority list.

A couple more blocks and Ray realized they were heading the quickest street route to the Consulate. He wasn't sure whether this meant he should be relieved or pissed off or freak out a bit, but whichever, it would still be quicker to go back for the GTO than to walk the rest of the way. Ray ran up next to Dief, stopped him with a well-placed foot in his path, and, when Diefenbaker looked up reproachfully, said, "Are we going to the Consulate?"

Bark.

"Okay, I got it, now let's go the fast way with the car."

Bark, bark.

Fifteen minutes more, and Dief seeming a bit less agitated after the treat of riding in the front next to Ray, the GTO was parked in front of the Consulate and they were heading up the steps. Ray knocked on the door. Knocked again. Was just reaching into his pocket for a credit card to jimmy the lock when Turnbull answered it. "Ah, Detective Vecchio!"

Diefenbaker took advantage of the gap in the door to rush in past Turnbull. Ray made to follow and found his way blocked by a wall of Mountie, so he sighed and said, "Hey, Turnbull, where's Fraser?" He peered over Turnbull's red shoulder at the dim Consulate interior, but a) it was pretty dark in there, and 2) he wasn't wearing his glasses, so everything more than three feet away was a blur anyway.

"I haven't yet seen Constable Fraser this morning," Turnbull said, a tiny frown marring his bland face.

"Is he here?" Ray asked, about as patiently as he was ever able to with Turnbull.

Turnbull's face lit with a sudden idea. "I'll check!"

"Nah, I'll just --" Ray pushed in past Turnbull, who made a couple of protesting noises which Ray ignored. The Consulate seemed empty -- no one else staying at the moment, he figured. He heard a doggy noise from Fraser's little box of a room, so he headed that way.

Fraser was lying quietly on his cot, which might've been okay except that Fraser was not a guy who slept in, and Dief was nudging worriedly at one of his limp hands and whining again, and Fraser was not wearing his ridiculous red thermal things, he was in pumpkin pants and suspenders and Henley. Limp hands. Fraser, very still. Ray's brain, running on autopilot, did a quick detective's check of the room -- boots placed neatly next to the cot, Stetson on the desk -- but by then he was at Fraser's cot, leaning over and shaking him a little. "Hey. Fraser. Frase."

Nothing.

Ray checked quick for breath and pulse, but it was nothing again. Ray really did not feel like panicking yet, so he snapped his fingers in Fraser's face a couple of times, shook him maybe a little harder than he should've, knelt next to the cot and said, quiet and angry in Fraser's ear, "You didn't tell me this was one of those, like, trick wells you fall down again even if you don't mean to!" Nothing. "Dammit, Fraser!"

Dief barked.

Ray looked up slowly and saw Diefenbaker pawing at Fraser's closet. "Yeah, I know the uniform's in there," Ray said. "It'll be fine, Dief, it's not the important thing right now." Dief looked reproachful, but Ray just gritted his teeth and called, "Hey, Turnbull, get in here!"

"Now, Detective Vecchio," Turnbull said reprovingly, appearing in the doorway, "it only takes an extra second --"

"Yeah, shut up and help me with this please," Ray interrupted. "Fraser's, uh, trying this top-secret experiment for this case we're doin'. So you gotta help me carry him out to the car."

He didn't know where that had come from. Ray's mouth and Ray's brain and Ray's body all seemed to be running separately. What his mouth was saying, it was flimsy as hell, especially considering that everyone had seen the results of the top-secret experiment yesterday. But it was also Turnbull, so he tapped the side of his nose wisely and helped Ray half-drag, half-carry Fraser down to the GTO. "Thanks," Ray said, actually meaning it, when they had Fraser safely stowed in the back seat. "And if the Ice Qu -- if Inspector Thatcher gets ticked off Fraser left, you can blame it on me."

Turnbull frowned confusedly. "Yes, Detective Vecchio. Have a safe trip!"

"Yeah," Ray said, and peeled off.

He didn't start getting the shakes until the first red light. Diefenbaker, in the back keeping Fraser company, leaned up and licked the whole side of Ray's face, and Ray kinda yelled at him. Diefenbaker didn't even get offended, just nuzzled at Ray's ear. Ray gripped the steering wheel hard and gunned it.

*

He'd hoped he'd be able to sneak the spare wheelchair out of the supply closet downstairs and get Fraser to Mort, no mess no fuss, but this was not Ray's day. No one prone to asking Ray questions should've even been in that part of the station, but Ray wheeled out the chair and there was Francesca in the doorway, looking startled. Ray swore inwardly.

"What do you need that for?" Frannie asked.

"A thing," Ray said shortly. "Move, Frannie, I'm in kind of a hurry."

"A thing?" Francesca repeated. She followed him down the hall. "Oh my God, you haven't found another dead body in the walls?"

"Keep it down," Ray snapped, harsher than he'd meant, and when he saw Frannie's eyes go theatrically wide, he added, "And no, no we have not found any dead bodies in the walls. That is the sort of freakishness that doesn't repeat itself." They were almost at the outer doors. He stopped, leaning up against them and blocking Frannie's way. "Don't you have, like, telephones to answer or something?"

Frannie crossed her arms. "Just so we get this over with now, I'm following you outside."

"Uh, no, Frannie, you don't want to do that." Ray saw her face stubborning up and had the weird idea he wanted to hug her, like she really was his sister and a hug might make them both a bit better. "Trust me, I don't want to do it."

"You're digging yourself a hole, pal," Frannie told him.

"Okay, okay, fine," Ray said, and went back to the GTO with Frannie trailing him. He unlocked the door, let Dief out from where he'd been sitting guard, and felt the exact moment when Frannie realized what was up; heard her little indrawn breath and the way she froze. Ray angled the wheelchair up next to the car and started dragging Fraser into it, carefully as he could. "Told you you didn't want to," he said.

"Is he --?" Frannie whispered. Louder, "I mean, he's just -- doing the thing with the toad again, right? It's not -- it's nothing serious."

Ray hauled Fraser upright in the chair, pulled it back and closed the car door with a bump of his hip. He looked up at Francesca and she looked back at him with this pleading in her eyes even worse than Dief's, and that was ... good, that was a good thing, because if everyone else was busy freaking out, then Ray could be the cool one, not freak out, keep a handle on things. "I got no idea," he said. "I'm taking him to Mort."

Frannie's face started stubborning up again. "So let's go then," she said.

They went.

*

"Well, he is not dead," Mort pronounced.

"Yeah, I know," Ray snapped, about half the tension in his shoulders vanishing. "It's the, uh, he had a relapse from the toad thing, or --?"

"A relapse?" Mort looked up and fixed him with one of those Mort looks that wasn't actually a glare but damn well felt like one. "No, there is no reason for the secretions to have aftereffects. It would have left his system by, let us see, ah, yesterday evening."

"So something else happened to him!" Frannie edged up anxiously next to Ray. "Right?"

"No, I think we can safely say that this is the work of our friend the bouga toad," Mort said. He set his little eye-flashlight thing back on a tray and frowned thoughtfully down at Fraser's still form. Ray shifted unhappily, and Mort looked back up at him. "Do you have any idea why this would be?"

"No," Ray said. Thought of the handful of aborted attempts at asking how Fraser was doing. Realized, feeling really dumb, that the last time he'd tried, Fraser had actually headed him off with the most transparent of Fraser-tricks, the guileless subject change. "No." He shook himself quickly in a way that might've made Dief proud. "Okay, I don't know how long he's been like this. Maybe an hour, maybe all night. But he's gonna come out of it sometime soon, right?"

Mort fixed him with an awful Mort-look.

"So ... what do we do?" Frannie asked, real quiet.

"I do not know," Mort said, and shrugged, began pottering around the room. "I deal with them when they are already dead, yes? Perhaps you should take him to someone who deals with the live ones."

"A hospital?" Ray asked. And yeah, hospitals creeped him out a hell of a lot less than the morgue did, but -- "No, no, they'll stick him full of needles and they'll ask questions and, jeez, they'll sure as hell want to hold him for psychiatric; we'll lose days of work and the Ice Queen will kill him. Nah. I'll take him home, he can sleep it off there."

Mort didn't say anything to this, but when Ray looked at Frannie she nodded a little, and together they got Fraser off the slab and back into the wheelchair. Diefenbaker, waiting just outside the doors, yelped and danced up on his hind legs when they came out; Ray pushed him back down and tried to give him a reassuring look. Dief seemed less than reassured, but he trotted after them as they went back out to the parking lot.

"Okay," Ray said, turning to Frannie when Fraser was safely in the GTO's back seat again, "you gotta cover for me until I get home. Then I'll call the lieu."

Frannie's eyes were glued to Fraser, utterly still and silent somewhere behind Ray. "What are you gonna say?" she asked softly.

"I don't know," Ray admitted. "But not this. There is no way anyone knows about this. You got that?"

Frannie looked back at Ray. Her eyes were shiny with tears, and Ray felt a little bit sick. "I got it," she whispered.

*

Ray got Fraser hauled upstairs and settled onto his bed with the help of Mr. Mulligan from the first floor. Mr. Mulligan, probably aided by Fraser's pumpkin pants, concluded that Fraser'd had a rough night out; Ray made a few grunting affirmatives, thanked Mr. Mulligan, and more or less shut the door in his face.

He hated seeing Fraser lying like that, spread out on Ray's quilt, his skin too pale and his eyelids unmoving. Ray's insides were getting all twisted up, maybe from how damn helpless Fraser looked, maybe from how it was ... so close, so close to the back corner of Ray's brain that thought maybe Fraser plus Ray's bed equals greatness, but, God, not like this. Ray carefully rearranged Fraser's limbs from the awkward sprawl he'd been set down in to something a little more comfortable. Then Ray sat on the edge of the bed, his fingertips about an inch from Fraser's cool ones, and whispered, "Fraser, this sucks."

Diefenbaker came up and rested his muzzle on Ray's thigh, whimpering softly. Ray scratched Dief behind the ears, feeling about as miserable as the mutt sounded. "Dief, buddy," he said, "would you like a doughnut?"

Dief actually hesitated before giving a little yip of confirmation, which twisted Ray's insides up even more. He brushed his fingertips over Fraser's knuckles, left the bedroom, and fumbled around the kitchen until he found a day-old paper bag full of the powdered sugar doughnuts that Dief loved even though they made him sneeze. Ray got one out, shoved the crinkling bag absently into the pocket of his khakis, and gave Dief a treat for holding it together so damn well. Dief sneezed and scarfed the doughnut and gazed sadly back up at Ray. It was not a feed-me-more look, just a ... look. Ray dropped down next to the wolf, sort of carded his fingers through Dief's ruff, and then leaned forward and hung on, the way he'd wanted to when he was about eight years old and his parents wouldn't get him a dog. He breathed in deep, not really caring that Dief smelled like slightly damp dog hair and every street in Chicago, because by now the GTO smelled a bit like that too. Dief really was a damn smart wolf, because Ray was probably holding him too tight to be comfortable, but he just shuffled a little and sat patiently until Ray felt okay enough to let go.

Ray got up and called the station.

"Vecchio, where the hell are you?" Welsh demanded the second he was put through.

"Uh, personal thing," Ray said. "Came up suddenly. Put it on my sick days."

An ominous silence. "Detective," said Welsh, "is there the remotest possibility you're going to tell me what's going on?"

"No," Ray said. Held the phone a little too hard. "Sorry, Lieu."

Welsh sighed. "Fine. I expect you to be here first thing tomorrow," and he hung up before Ray could say yessir.

"That went well," Ray told Diefenbaker, and frowned. "Dief? What the hell." He went over to where Dief was snuffling and whining by the door -- wrong door. He'd been standing sentry over Fraser, but now he was at Ray's front door. "There is no way you are having a doughnut craving right now," Ray told the mutt, and Dief threw him an injured look, so, okay, no. "There is no way I'm playing Twenty Questions with a wolf," Ray added, but it was mostly just on record to the universe, because the next thing he said was, "Is it something we need at the station?" Growl. Okay. "Uh, the Consulate?"

This time he got a bark and a jump and the wild waving of Dief's tail. Ray felt a little crazy and a lot tired, and mostly dumb again because, yeah, he had some Turnbull damage control to do, and probably more excuses to make, and Fraser would probably appreciate a change of clothing when he woke up. He had the brief thought that he sure as hell didn't want to leave Fraser alone right now, but Dief -- who was, what, psychic now as well as maybe a lip-reader? -- solved that problem by trotting back into Ray's bedroom the second it got obvious Ray was going to the Consulate after all.

So twenty minutes and Ray was parked in front of Canada, up the stairs, and dealing with Turnbull again for the second time in about as many hours.

"Welcome back to Canada, Detective Vecchio!" Turnbull said, looking up from the reception desk. At least the Consulate was unlocked this time of day. "How is the top secret mission going?"

Ray'd spent those twenty minutes in the car figuring out what to say to Turnbull. Well, that and beating back his rising panic. Or, well, he'd spent so much time beating down the panic that he hadn't really come up with any sort of plan. He was a little surprised, though maybe less than he should've been, when he said easy as anything, "Still top secret, okay? So don't say a word. Not even to the Inspector, you got it? Because it's American top secret." This was almost as flimsy as the first thing he'd told Turnbull, but the words were just coming, so Ray listened and let it happen. "Uh, if she asks, Fraser was feeling kinda under the weather this morning, so he's over at mine, uh, filling up on soup and cold medicine and stuff, and he doesn't want to get the Inspector sick or anything."

"Ah!" Turnbull looked delighted. "Very cunning, sir. You can count on my discretion."

Some of the panic eased up a little. "Great. Thanks, Turnbull."

He went into Fraser's little room. The cot was unmade, which Ray already knew, but it still made him just stop for a minute. He stared at the crumpled sheets and everything became real. Fraser was three-quarters dead and Ray was acting calm and Frannie was acting fucking calm and what the hell was Ray doing getting Fraser a change of clothes when he should be taking him to a hospital? But Ray already sort of knew the answer to that one, even if he didn't want to look at it straight on. "Okay," he muttered, "okay, let's just --" and snatched Fraser's Stetson up from the desk. He didn't want it to get crushed under his arm, so he jammed it onto his head, just for safekeeping, and went to the closet in search of the red tunic and maybe some civvies.

On the other side of the door, it was sure as hell not the inside of a closet.

Ray stood in the doorway, staring. It didn't even look like the inside of the Consulate. It looked -- it looked a lot like what he imagined cabins in the Great White Nowhere looked like, and there definitely seemed to be a lot of snow outside the cabin windows, and it was in the coat closet.

"I'm goin' nuts, I'm goin' nuts," Ray chanted quietly, and pushed his way past the coat hangers. The floorboards creaked under his feet and the air was different somehow, thinner, fire-warmed. "Uh, hello?" Ray called.

A shape unfolded from the chair in front of the fire. Ray tried not to twitch, to act nonchalant like he'd seen this guy here the whole time, and -- the wry knowing look on the older face was familiar, as was the hat. Mountie, then, and maybe a relative of Fraser's, although it could be all Canadians looked like that. "Hi," Ray tried.

The man looked him up and down. "You'll be the Yank," he said. "Well, the other Yank." He nodded decisively and held out a hand. "Bob Fraser."

Ray stood there. Okay, he was in a cabin inside a coat closet and Fraser's dead father was offering him a handshake. For a second he felt like crying, or maybe punching the guy out, but he fought it off and took the hand, which felt warm and dry and a little wrinkled; an old guy's hand, sure, but not a dead one. "Kowalski," he said. "The other -- whatever. What the hell is this?"

"My cabin," Bob Fraser said, which, okay, kinda obvious, Ray maybe deserved that a little. "I take it you're looking for Benton?"

"No, I was -- um." Ray felt stupid with the Stetson still perched on his head, and shuffled a little. Outside, snow shushed up against the windowpanes. Behind him in the Consulate Turnbull started up a vacuum cleaner. "He's at my place."

Fraser's dad gave Ray a sharp look. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah I'm --" Ray started, before the available facts started lining up in his head. His mostly-dead partner was in his apartment and his mostly-dead partner's definitely-dead father was having a conversation with him in said partner's coat closet, and a lot of things Ray thought he knew were getting drastically revised very fast. Think, Kowalski. "His body's at my place."

"Now you're thinking," Bob Fraser said approvingly. "Tea? Pemmican?"

"What --? No." Ray watched Fraser's dad narrowly. Bob Fraser had gone to a corner of the cabin and was putting tea on in an old iron kettle with a lot more ceremony than he needed to. Ray knew a Fraser delay tactic when he saw one, and he didn't have time for it now. "How come Fraser's laid up?"

"Oh, he's stubborn, you know that. You're sure you don't want any tea?"

"I'm sure," Ray snapped, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet.

Bob Fraser sighed. "He was a bit lost the other night," he said. "Heading towards the white light, all that sort of silliness. I, ah, took him on a detour. The Borderland, you know."

"Borderland?" Ray demanded. Fraser's dad waved vaguely out at the snowscape. Ray nodded. "Okay, good, he didn't head for the white light."

"However, I may have piqued his curiosity," Bob Fraser admitted, although he mostly admitted it to the tea kettle, with an edge of pissiness that Ray was really familiar with. "I told him it was a waste of time. But he declined my offer of a guided tour out of my cabin. Said some nonsense about having to figure it out for himself."

"So, what, he put himself in a coma to figure out the meaning of life or something?" Ray asked. Bob Fraser nodded and pressed a hot cup of tea into Ray's hands. "That's stupid," Ray pointed out, and sipped the tea angrily. It was bitter and scalded his tongue a little. He sputtered and stared at it. "Jesus, that stuff's real!"

"Of course it's real," Fraser's dad said impatiently. "And so is Benton's mind, out there somewhere. I'd go get him myself, but he never listens to me, and it might be best if someone ... living went after him. He might get the right sort of ideas then."

Ray set the tea aside with a thump. "Or he's just gonna be stubborn and work it out in his own time. What makes you think he'll listen to me?"

Bob Fraser looked really uncomfortable for the first time. "He may have been ... compelled."

"Compelled," Ray repeated flatly.

"The Borderland is not kind," Fraser's dad said. "It's a sort of waiting room. I'm allowed to live here because of my unfinished business, and I get the occasional visitor from both sides -- Benton, you know, and last week I went ice fishing with Roy Davison, whom I'd last seen at the Depot in '73. We'd been caught in an avalanche together and I thought an invitation to go fishing might assuage some old diff --"

"Yeah, great," Ray interrupted. This guy alone was an education in Benton Fraser, which didn't make him any less annoying. "So what's so bad about this waiting room deal?"

"Oh, well, outstanding obligations aside, they like you to make a definite choice in one direction or the other," Bob Fraser said reasonably. "That's Benton's problem, you know. He misses the Territories, and he won't say a word as long as he's held up in Chicago. And, well, you've seen him around armed felons. I'm not saying I approve, but he really should make up his mind whether or not he wants to get shot. More trouble than it's worth, if you ask me, but there you are."

"He --" Ray tried, and thought angry things, but out of the gut-punched feeling all he actually said was: "They'd like you to make a choice one way or another?"

"Oh yes, it's all very organized," Bob Fraser said. "Death and taxes, you know, someone's got to oversee all that." When Ray continued looking blank, he sighed. "There is a reason for all those stories you hear about travels to the underworld, you know."

"Oh," Ray said, and picked up the teacup again, fiddled with it a bit, took another sip of tea. It tasted just as disgusting this time. "How long have I got?"

"Not much time at all," Bob Fraser said. "You'll be wanting snowshoes."

"Hell no, I'll spend all my time on my ass." Ray glanced back at the door. Turnbull was still vacuuming upstairs. He looked back at Fraser's dad. "Which way?"

"Out the window, son," Bob Fraser said, and didn't say anything more, but he got a look on his face that made Ray feel a little better. It was pride, and real solid faith in Ray, and he even gave Ray a leg up onto the windowsill. Ray looked back, and Bob Fraser nodded; Ray gave him a little salute and tumbled out into the snow.

*

It melted.

Everywhere Ray touched it felt like the melt of cotton candy, and when he got to his feet there was a Ray-shaped snowless patch, all covered with short green-brown grass and little white flowers. Ray shook himself and glanced back at the cabin; it was covered in snow and looked pretty much like he'd expected it to: small and made of logs. "Okay," Ray said to himself, and set off in a direction that was basically Away.

All around him were snowy woods, full of tall straight silver-barked leafless trees. He tramped on through, doing just fine without snowshoes. It was completely still. Ray's heart was going about a mile a minute, not because he was scared, exactly, but because he was so far out of his depth he was in another pool entirely. At least Fraser'd taught him to swim.

After a bit Ray glanced back the way he'd come. The cabin was out of sight now; he was surrounded by the woods in all directions. But he could see his footprints, freakishly straight like his path had been drawn with a ruler, and in each hollow in the snow there was a Ray's-foot-shaped patch of flowery grass. "Weird," Ray mumbled; turned, kept going.

The ground was rising now, first gently, then steep enough that Ray tried leaning forward and using his hands to help him up. The snow did its freakish cotton-candy-melting thing again, but Ray ignored it; the flowers were pretty, anyway. Ahead of him the snow was thinning out, too, turning to grass and then rocks right before Ray got to the top of the embankment.

He stopped.

Embankment was the right word. No way. No fucking way. He was down on a little patch of gravel, a river in front of him, car bridges one on each side a couple hundred feet away, and right across the river was the Sears Tower. Ray glanced back a little wildly, and yeah, about a foot from his nose was a wall of concrete backing the river. Adams on one side, Jackson on the other, the Chicago River right in front of him. Ray backed up until he was pressing against the wall, which felt real, rough and grainy and solid under his fingertips.

He squinted up again. Light glancing up in sparks off the river. Twin spikes atop the Sears Tower gleaming. What was wrong with this picture? Oh yeah. He could see clear as anything and his glasses were still in his pocket.

Someone was coming up the river.

An old man, humming to himself loudly enough to be heard over the engine, puttered over on a motorboat. He reminded Ray a little bit of Mort: same hum, same creepiness. "Hi!" the man called out, and that at least wasn't like Mort; that was a Chicago voice all the way. "Want a ride?"

"Don't know yet," Ray called back. "Where're you going?"

"Anywhere you like!" the man called back, "long as it's in city limits."

The boat's stern bobbed up enough Ray could read it. CHARON, the boat said.

"Have you seen Fraser?" Ray asked. "Mountie. Uh. About my height, dark hair --" but the old guy was shaking his head, so Ray shut up.

"You want information, pal, you gotta give me a penny. It's the rules."

"Oh," said Ray, and dug around in his pockets. He only had laundry quarters, so he flipped one of those the few feet to the Charon. The old guy caught the quarter deftly, examined it, and said, "Yeah, I saw him. Ferried him to the far shore."

"Take me where you took him, then," Ray told the guy.

"Rules," the guy said, holding out his hand again.

Ray sighed and tossed him another quarter -- that was a load of socks and underwear right there -- and jumped from the bank into the boat. It rocked a little, puttering idly. Then the old guy pulled on the throttle and it took off up the river, rising and falling in gentle rhythm. Ray held on hard to its white side and watched the Sears Tower go sliding off behind him. They passed under the Adams St bridge and kept on. Ray started counting bridges. Munroe, one. Madison, two. Randolph, four. Ray blinked a couple of times. "Hey, you missed one."

The boatman chuckled. "I'm only taking you on his route. Don't like it? Complain to him."

"Huh," Ray said, and then they passed under the train cage of the Lake St bridge, rounded the curve in the river, and were out on a lake. Ray stared around, at the pine trees shivering on a distant shore and the silver of fish flashing by under the boat. Even the water was the wrong color. "This is not," Ray said decidedly, "Lake Michigan."

"Don't like it?" the old guy said. "C --"

"Complain to him, I got it," Ray said, but he did like it. The air was -- nice, water-washed. It smelled like trees. He took a couple of deep breaths and watched the dark trees rise as the boatman pulled them in towards the shore. Ray felt a little funny about it. He'd thought maybe all of it was going to be snowy, but everything here was green. "You sure this is the place?"

"Yeah," the boatman said. He glanced back at Ray, and he didn't look like Mort at all anymore. He just looked like an old guy worn out from too many tours of the river. He looked a little like Ray's dad. "Listen," he said, "you get off here, getting back's a lot harder."

"I figured," Ray said. He stared at the dock coming up to meet them, and knew with instinctual clarity that if he asked the boatman to turn back, he'd get dropped off outside some door, and on the other side he'd be back in the Canadian Consulate. He could get in the GTO, get Fraser, drive him to a hospital. And there'd be nothing. Empty Mountie. Getting back's a lot harder. "This is my stop," Ray said.

"Got it," the old guy said, pulling the Charon around to a purr, idling in the water. "Hey," he added as Ray hopped off onto the shore. Ray took a moment to get his balance on the half-rotted wood of the dock, then turned. The boatman gave him a long look and said, "Here's some free advice: watch out for the wildlife. Don't go towards the light. Honesty is the best policy."

"What, are you a fortune cookie all of a sudden?" Ray asked.

The old guy grinned, making him look less like Ray's dad, maybe more like Mort again. "They don't want cops here," he said. "They want poets," and his boat roared to life, chugging out again into the lake and making waves slosh up hollowly under the dock.

"Huh," said Ray, turning, and started walking again.

Like the snowy woods, there was no path here, just random patches of plant life and clear space. Ray headed off to the left, keeping up against the shore, because it seemed like the thing to do. He wondered how long he'd been here, but of course his watch had stopped working, or there was no time at all, because the hands were frozen at a little after ten. If there was wildlife, it was staying out of Ray's way, which was fine by him. He listened to the faint splash of water on the lakeshore, the crunching of his own feet, a wind hissing softly through the trees.

He walked on like that for a while -- minutes, hours -- watching for a flash of red even though he didn't think Fraser had brought the serge with him. Then he became aware of a sound outside himself, different than the wind and water: a sort of snuffling. It sounded a lot like Dief did when he was contentedly chilling on Ray's beat-up old armchair while they all watched some hockey. Watch out for the wildlife, the boatman had said, and Ray was all over that, but something that sounded like Diefenbaker couldn't be that bad --

He stepped into a clearing and stopped, because, right, Dief was half wolf, and this thing ... was definitely not doing anything by halves. A huge black wolf, lots bigger than Ray thought wolves had any right to be, was lying indolently across the path. It raised its head and fixed Ray with a look, and its eyes ... its eyes were a lot like Dief's, smart and looking for the next meal, but basically okay.

"Hi," Ray said.

The wolf snarled one of those low rumbling snarls Diefenbaker made when cornering a perp. Okay. How did he calm Dief down?

Doughnuts.

Ray suddenly remembered absently shoving the bag of powdered sugar doughnuts into his pants back at the apartment. He fumbled in his pocket and came up with the crumpled bag. The wolf lifted its head a bit more and looked really interested. Ray opened the bag; the doughnuts were a little squished, but basically edible. "Here's the deal," he told the wolf. "I give you a doughnut, you let me keep going."

The wolf gave a little snort that sounded a lot like Dief agreeing, so Ray said, "Okay, cool," and gently tossed a doughnut in its general direction. It lunged up, huge, and caught the doughnut midair. Settling back on its haunches, it gave Ray a smug look. Not one to waste an opportunity, Ray gave it a little salute, stuffed the paper bag back into his pocket, and hurried on.

He was starting to remember a few things from tenth grade English. Most of what he remembered from tenth grade English was that Stella liked to sit at the front of the class, with her hair all long and golden, and that Ray liked to sit in the back even though that meant he couldn't see the blackboard because no way was he wearing his nerd glasses to school, and that he went through about a pack of mint gum every class because it was the last one of the day and after that he could usually convince Stella to hang out a few minutes by the back fence and kiss him before she went off to do her homework. But all of that seemed hazy with distance, or maybe like it had happened to other people on TV, and now, tramping through a lakeshore forest outside the material world, Ray was remembering other things. Like Charon the ferrier of the dead. Like the three-headed dog that was only soothed by music -- or doughnuts, Ray figured. And he'd only seen one head. But he was getting the picture. He tried to figure out what might be coming next.

Problem was, he'd been paying a lot more attention to Stella than to any of the Greek stuff, so trying real hard to sift back through twenty-three years of irrelevant memories, he came up with a guy who pushed a boulder, something about a pomegranate, and how the music thing was probably important for other stuff besides the dog. On the other hand, it was probably irrelevant. The dog liked doughnuts and Ray hadn't sung a note.

The path opened up into a clearing ahead of him, full of green-brown grass and small white flowers. Ray shivered a little and started tramping across. About halfway through he noticed that maybe the shiver hadn't just been from déjà vu; it was getting colder. He could see his breath. And the meadow was a lot bigger than he'd thought. Snowflakes began swirling down around him. Ray thought about it and then zipped up his jacket. The grass gave way to building snow, and when Ray glanced back, the cold hollows of his footprints were being filled in fast.

"Okay," Ray muttered, although it really wasn't.

The ground started going uphill again, and just before Ray decided to start panicking about how maybe he was stuck in some sort of freakish loop and in a second he was gonna turn up on the edge of the Chicago River, he almost bumped right into a door. He caught himself in time and stumbled back, blinking. Wooden door. Wooden house, bigger than Bob Fraser's cabin. "Okay," Ray said again, and raised a fist to knock, but a particularly violent gust of snowy wind behind him blew the door open.

He went on in.

*

The place looked like it had more than one room, but this first one was deserted. Wooden floor, wooden walls, rafter beams in the ceiling. There were desks arranged around the room, not like a schoolhouse but like a police station. Knit rug on the floor -- Ray knocked the snow off his shoes before he shuffled onto it -- half-filled water cooler in a corner. Electric lighting strung up on hooks. One of the doors at the other end of the room was half open; it looked like a holding cell. Ray jammed his hands in his pockets and looked around some more. Windows, snow shushing up against 'em. A map of Canada tacked to a wall. And next to it ...

"RCMP," Ray read, eyebrows going up.

The board looked official, and said, in businesslike print, NOTICES. Ray kept reading, and his eyebrows kept climbing, because this sure as hell wasn't a normal list of notes and regulations. It said:

* ALL THE QUESTIONS YOU ASK ARE UNIQUE TO YOU
* THE ANSWERS ARE YOURS ALONE
* YOUR WHOLE LIFE IS RIGHT HERE
* NO MATTER WHAT DIRECTION YOU STEP, YOUR DESTINATION IS THE SAME

Funny thing was, Ray thought, reaching a hand up absently to press it against the rapid thump in his chest, funny thing, this made a lot more sense than some of the notices he'd read in stations. He stared at the last line for a while, until the letters stopped meaning anything. Then he squared up, shook himself out, and went to knock on the closed door next to the holding cell.

"Enter," a voice called. Not anyone he recognized, but Ray hadn't expected that. He went in.

It was a nice office; another rug, another map of Canada, only one desk this time. The man behind the desk, middle-aged and unremarkable, wore RCMP casual and a Stetson. With a little shock Ray remembered he was still wearing Fraser's. His hand started heading up to take it off, but after a second he left it, and instead closed the door behind him. Only then did he see the other figure in the room -- and he didn't know how he'd missed it before, couldn't have -- a man with his back to Ray, dark-haired, sitting hunched over the desk reading forms with intent. Ray opened his mouth, and the RCMP guy looked at Ray, shaking his head.

"Not yet," the RCMP guy said quietly. "He's filling in his transfer."

"Like hell he is," Ray said. "Fraser!"

Fraser raised his head slowly, like he'd been asleep. He turned and looked at Ray. An expression of mild surprise came into his face. "Ray?"

"Yeah, that's me," Ray said. "Hey, what're you doing?"

"Filing for transfer," Fraser said reasonably. The surprise in his face was turning into faint bewilderment. "Ray, how did you get here?"

"Uh, through your father's cabin," Ray said. The RCMP guy was pinging all his cop senses, so he shuffled unobtrusively closer to Fraser. "Y'know, generally speaking when you want to take a transfer, you ask your partner about it first. And I do not like the idea of you taking a transfer."

"Ah," said Fraser, and wouldn't meet Ray's eyes; and then he did, which was worse. Fraser didn't look surprised or bewildered or anything besides alert and ... frightened, Fraser looked frightened. "I'm afraid this transfer is not entirely up to me."

"Yeah?" Ray said, and he'd come close enough now that he could reach out and grasp Fraser's shoulder, solid and warm through the thin cotton of his shirt. "Who's it up to?"

"Me," the RCMP guy said, giving Ray a small cold polite smile. "Constable Fraser misses the north. Constable Fraser misses his solitude. Con --"

"Bullshit," Ray interrupted. The RCMP guy's polite smile went frozen. "I mean, okay, sorry, Frase, you probably do miss them Northwest Areas, but no guy who really wants solitude would last five minutes living with Diefenbaker."

"Ray," Fraser demurred, "I don't think that's quite --"

"Fraser," Ray said, "do you want to die?"

Fraser went very still and tense under Ray's fingertips. The RCMP guy watched Fraser closely, with the same hunger Ray'd seen in the wolf's face back there, but without any of the doggy softness. C'mon, Fraser, c'mon, Ray thought. Honesty's the best policy. He figured for a second that meant they were safe, because Fraser didn't lie, never, except ... when he did. By omission, by changing the subject, by feigning obliviousness. But not to a direct question. Please, not to this question.

"No," Fraser said, very softly. "While I find life sometimes bewildering and often frustrating, I would be most ... remiss to cast it aside."

The RCMP guy nodded. "Well said, Constable. If you'll just finish up these forms?"

Fraser nodded too, and reached for the top paper. Ray leaned forward with his free hand, knocked the pen from Fraser's grip and sent the whole damn pile of papers cascading to the floor. "Fraser," he said. "Forget remiss. Forget duty. Do you want to die?"

"I -- Ray --" Fraser said, trying to lean over and collect the paperwork. Ray tightened his grip on Fraser's shoulder and after a moment Fraser sat back up, still staring at the floor. Ray glanced over at the RCMP guy, who still looked that awful sort of hungry, but not angry, just intrigued. Ray looked back down at the top of Fraser's dark head and rubbed small circles with his thumb against the back of Fraser's neck. Fraser slumped a little. "No," he said again. "No. I'm tired, Ray. I'm tired. No matter how many criminals we bring to justice, there are always more to take their place. I wish very much that Francesca would understand what I feel for her. Living in the Consulate can be a trial."

"Uniform itches," Ray offered.

Fraser chuckled. "All the time." He looked up at Ray, reached up and clasped Ray's wrist in his hand; not stilling him, just making contact. And he did look tired, but he also just looked like Fraser after a long day. "I don't imagine they have hockey here, or pizza." He squeezed Ray's wrist lightly. "As I recall, a good number of people turned up for my funeral." And a faint smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. "No, Ray, I don't want to die."

"Good," Ray said. "Get up. Let's go."

Fraser nodded and started to rise, but the RCMP guy cleared his throat and Fraser sat back down, thump, at attention. Ray's head snapped up. The RCMP guy was watching them both with great interest. "Constable Fraser was correct on one count, Detective Kowalski. His transfer is not entirely up to him."

Ray tensed right up. "Yeah? Who's it up to?"

"Me," the RCMP guy said again. "Constable Fraser is in a rather deep coma at the moment, I'm afraid. His paperwork was almost entirely done. The white light is calling, and Constable Fraser doesn't know the way back."

"Frase?" Ray whispered.

"I'm afraid I don't," Fraser murmured back.

"So?" Ray said. "I know the way. He comes with me. No big deal."

The RCMP guy sat down behind his desk and folded his hands, looking between them with great consideration. Ray was reminded forcibly of Lieutenant Welsh about to take them to task. "It's irregular," the RCMP guy said. "Highly irregular. However, there is some precedent -- do you have any skills?"

This was obviously addressed to Ray, so he shrugged and said, "I can dance."

"Without music?" the RCMP guy asked. Ray shrugged again, but he shook his head. "No good. Can you sing?"

"Fraser can sing."

The RCMP guy gave Ray a hard look, full of that hunger still. "Constable Fraser is long forfeit. It's you we're talking about."

Ray glanced around wildly at the word forfeit, but Fraser was still sitting there, still present, although his eyes were getting very bright. "I'm sorry, Ray," he said.

"Yeah, I'll yell at you when we're both safe," Ray said. Turning back to the RCMP guy, he added, "Look, I'm a good cop, I'm a good dancer, I can box okay, I can fix an engine, and I got a Hurting My Back Badge for lying on the floor all night. That is it with the marketable skills. It."

The RCMP guy shrugged. "Then --"

"A story," Fraser said quietly. He looked up. "A story should be satisfactory."

"A story?" Ray echoed. "Fraser, I suck at telling stories. That's your thing."

"On the contrary, Ray. I find your conversation frequently engaging." Ray opened his mouth, to say something like, Yeah, but that's because you're a freak, when a spark of mischief -- just a spark, just a moment, but there -- came into Fraser's eyes, and he added, "You did say you're a poet inside."

"I --" Ray said, and slumped a little. "Okay. Is that our best shot?" he asked the RCMP guy.

The guy nodded. He took his hat off, placed it on the desk just to the left of his hands, fixed Ray with a cold polite hungry look, and said, "A story. A true story."

"Okay," Ray said. And came up totally blank.

He didn't know what this guy liked. He didn't know if he should talk about Stella; but that thought had barely come up before he got the happened-in-another-life, saw-it-on-TV feeling, so maybe Stella stories weren't true stories. He figured he should talk about Fraser, except Fraser was right there; it wasn't like Fraser had no idea what Ray thought of him, and a true story would probably have plenty of my partner's a freak but it might also have some and I want to punch him but sometimes I think that just means I want to kiss him and I'm scared. And that was it. Ray had two stories. Stella, Fraser. He had cop stories too, sure, but he remembered the look the boatman had given him, remembered: they don't want cops; they want poets. And all the time Ray was standing there, feeling dumber and more panicked by the second, he kept thinking irrationally of pomegranates.

"Last year," Ray said, and had to clear his suddenly dry throat. "In, uh, in the fall. We took down Lady Shoes, the FBI got their guy -- I'd jumped through the skylight, and Fraser'd messed up his back the day before, but when we got back to the 27 we played a hand of poker anyway. No real stakes, Fraser doesn't do real stakes. We played for air and my back hurt and I was happy."

He hated staying still so long. Fraser had half-turned in his chair to watch. He did not want to do this.

Had to.

"So it was late. Pretty damn late, like, professional poker always has to be played at night or something. I owed Fraser a lot of air but I figured -- how d'you give someone air?" He'd been staring at the desk, but he glanced up for a second and the RCMP guy was watching him, still with a little smile, but it was less polite now, more ... knowing. Ray felt his face starting to heat up a little. Yeah, he knew how to give someone air. But that was not this story. "I, uh, I figured, maybe if I got him dessert it would count. He said no, so I said, fine, I'll give you an IOU on air and I'll get you dessert because we had a long day and I'm hungry.

"So we got in the car, dogs in the back. We didn't know if Ante -- uh, Lady Shoes' poodle -- didn't know if she was used to, like, doughnuts or whatever, so we made her and Dief stay in the car. Went to this bakery-deli place near my apartment. Fraser was worried about keeping the dogs in the car but I figured they might like a bit of time alone." It was stupid. The story was stupid. He shuffled a little, cleared his throat again.

"Uh, I got this chocolate éclair thing, but Fraser -- he's a health nut sometimes. All the time. Whichever. So he asked for their fruit selection and, uh, it was September, maybe October, I don't know, I don't think it was fruit season, but you can import anything to Chicago. Like. Oranges, blackberries, I don't know, you name it. And they had this fancy dish with, uh, sugared dough and pomegranates."

The second he said it, something weird happened. Fraser, anyway, leaned forward and towards Ray with a look that was scarily like hope, but more than that, the RCMP guy had leaned forward too, and those were the only two clear things. The wood walls, the map of Canada, the desk and the Stetson on it, all of it was ... not gone, just not there. Fraser and the guy, who did not look much like an RCMP officer at all, and Ray's own hands, those were the only real things there. It made Ray feel a little sick. He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling the weight of Fraser's gaze on him and the weight of Fraser's hat on his head, and kept going.

"Me, I'm all for fruit, I like pineapple pizza and stuff. So, okay, Fraser's a health nut, but it looked pretty good. I, uh, told him that, said it looked okay; at least it wasn't pemmican or whatever. And he said -- he said 'I don't miss pemmican all the time, you know, Ray.' And I said, yeah, of course I knew, I said, 'See, some things you can't get up in the great frozen nowhere. Chicago's got the good stuff too.' Oh."

He didn't really mean to say the last part, the little oh, but he did, opened his eyes and stared at Fraser, because Fraser had smiled back at him across the plastic deli table, smiled like he was turning on the sun and said Yes, Ray, it does and -- oh. He stared at Fraser and Fraser stared back, his eyes still full right to the brim with hope, and Ray said, "Why didn't you say something?"

"I did," Fraser said; a simple statement of fact.

"Fine," Ray said. "I'm right here, Fraser. Why did you go back to the Borderland?"

"Because pomegranates don't last, Ray," Fraser said, but Ray shook his head, just clenched his fists and shook his head until Fraser swallowed and said, like it was being dragged out of him, "It was foolish."

"Damn right it was," Ray said, and twisted around in the nothing right as it snapped back into being an RCMP outpost, so he was looking across a desk at a middle-aged RCMP officer who was carefully stacking all the papers Ray'd swept onto the floor. "Well?" Ray asked.

"I'll postpone the transfer," the guy said. "It was a good story."

"Good," Ray said. "Good. Thanks." He breathed out. "Let's go, Fraser."

"A moment," the guy said. "You'll want to know the rules."

"I know the rules," Ray said. "The, uh, my questions are unique, I got the answers, the direction's the same no matter where I go. I read those."

"Good." The guy gave Ray a once-over and nodded. "The last rule is unwritten, but very important. Don't look behind you. No matter what you do, you're not to look, nor to make sure in any way that Constable Fraser is following you."

Ray swallowed and nodded. Another bit of tenth grade English floated through his head; he had an idea of what would happen to Fraser if he looked. "Okay," he said. "Starting now?"

"Starting now," the guy confirmed. "Good day, Detective Kowalski."

"Right," said Ray. "Bye." He started towards the door and hesitated.

"Right behind you, Ray," Fraser said quietly. "Go."

Ray nodded and went.

*

It was less easy than he'd expected. The RCMP outpost still opened out into the snowy hillside; it had stopped snowing now, but that didn't make it any easier to get down. Ray slipped and skidded, tumbled fifteen feet at a time and then stopped and waited for a few agonized minutes just in case he'd left Fraser behind. It was like don't think about pink elephants; he felt this itchy nearly physical need to look around, just once, quick, to make sure, because he couldn't even hear Fraser following. But he didn't look.

The slope evened out eventually. It didn't get any less snowy. After a while, wading through it, Ray started getting nervous. Where was the clearing? Where was the thaw and the lakeside wood? The nervousness tried to gnaw at him for a little while, and then Ray remembered that the answers were apparently his alone, and decided that this probably meant the answer to where am I was it doesn't matter and I'm gonna find the ferry eventually.

About five steps after he'd decided this, he skidded out onto a frosty wharf. The lake stretching out in front of him wasn't frozen -- Lake Michigan pretty much took an act of God to freeze over -- but it was really cold. Ray stood and shivered and stared resolutely into the blue distance and waited.

And waited.

It started snowing softly, flakes melting as they hit the water and the ice-rimed gravelly shore. Ray decided that this whole world had been created specifically to torture him, because either Fraser wasn't there or he was a lot more quiet than Fraser was ever, and there was nothing to distract Ray from the awful desire to just look.

"I didn't tell him what time I'd be back," Ray said conversationally. His voice fell, muffled by the snow. "I mean, I don't know if he even believed I'd be back. The ferryman. Your dad thought I'd be back. We'd be back. I kinda like him. Hell of a lot easier than meeting Stella's parents, that's for sure." He laughed. It sounded awful. He stopped.

Waited.

Waited, and dug his fingernails into his palms, hard enough to leave imprints, hard enough to hurt. As long as he concentrated on the pain, he didn't need to look. Only then that wasn't enough, so he gritted his teeth, too, until his jaw creaked. He unclenched his hands -- "Fuck," he hissed, because the nails leaving the indents hurt -- and stared at the four pink half-moon crescents in each of his pale palms. He watched the snowflakes fall and melt and turn to moisture in his cupped hands. He watched the marks slowly fade. He waited.

Eventually a muffled puttering noise came up over the water. Ray edged out towards the end of the wharf. The white hull of the Charon emerged from the swirl of snow. Ray waved, a little feebly, and the old boatman answered with a much more enthusiastic wave. "Hey, poet-cop!" he yelled.

"Hi!" Ray shouted back, and maybe from relief or maybe because he sort of felt like he'd earned the stupid title, for a second he actually felt like smiling.

The boat pulled up alongside the wharf. Ray, skidding, managed to climb onto the boat, rocking it sickeningly. He scooted up towards the front beside the old guy to make room for Fraser, but the boat didn't rock again. Ray squeezed his eyes shut. "Should we wait?"

"No need," the boatman said. "You want to?"

"Nah," Ray whispered. "Nah, let's go."

The old guy patted Ray's shoulder and roared the boat to life. Ray kept his eyes shut for a bit longer, and then he started feeling kind of seasick and opened them again. They were racing through the water, snow gone now, the Chicago skyline coming up before them but a little to the left. Ray was pretty sure there was development along Lake Shore for about a billion miles, but the old guy piloted them sure as anything up to a neat yuppie dock full of bobbing sailboats and, yeah, the shore above the dock was all green-brown grass and white flowers. The boat pulled up alongside the dock and Ray stood, swaying. "Hey, how much do I owe you for this one?"

"Nothing," the boatman said, and gave Ray a Mort-grin. "The return trip is free."

"Okay," Ray said. "Thanks."

He got out of the boat and kept swaying a couple of seconds before he got his balance. Walking up off the dock, he heard the boat go roaring away again. Had the guy waited long enough for Fraser to get off too? Ray couldn't tell. He shoved his hands into his pockets, stared down at the grass, and started walking. Then he kept walking, watching the grass go on for longer than it should've before he figured he'd hit highway, but Ray wasn't too surprised by that. He walked a bit more for good measure, until he knew the direction, until he was sure of the destination, and then he looked up and there, about ten feet directly in front of him, was Bob Fraser's cabin.

Ray nodded to himself and went up to it, walking around until he found the unlatched window. He tapped at it a couple of times, but no one came to answer, so Ray sort of wedged his fingers and feet into chinks between the cabin's logs, climbed up until he could get the window open wide enough, and wiggled through into an undignified sprawl.

"Ow," Ray said, and sat there on the floor of Bob Fraser's cabin in a slightly painful ball until he remembered Fraser would need to get in that way too. He crawled out of the way and then sat a little more, breathing hard, like he'd run miles or swam underwater. He didn't hear anything but the soft crackle of fire in Bob Fraser's stove. Ray winced and got painfully to his feet. No point in turning around. Fraser was either there or he wasn't. Ray went to the cabin door and opened it.

On the other side was Fraser's little office, filled with filing boxes, the soft reddish glow of evening, and an astonished Renfield Turnbull. "Detective Vecchio!"

"Hi, Turnbull," Ray said a little dazedly.

Turnbull fumbled with words for a moment. "What -- what were you doing in Constable Fraser's closet, sir?"

"Saving his life, I hope," Ray muttered, rubbing his face tiredly. He registered what he'd said and added, "Uh, metaphorically. For the top-secret thing. He needed stuff. From the closet."

Turnbull still looked like he was trying very hard to do an accurate fish impression. "And sir, why are you wearing his hat?"

Oh yeah. The hat. Ray felt a loony grin spread over his face. "Also top-secret. Hey, can you tell me if Fraser's, like, standing behind me in the closet?"

"Ah." Turnbull appeared to think very hard about this one. Maybe he thought it was some sort of test or code. "No, sir, it's just you in there."

"Oh," said Ray, the grin dropping off so fast it actually hurt a little. "Okay. Thanks. Later, Turnbull." He brushed past the astonished Mountie. Foyer. Door. Stairs. GTO, complete with parking ticket. Ray waited in the car for a while, just to see if maybe Fraser might open the passenger door. He didn't.

Ray still didn't look back, not the entire drive home.

*

His watch had started working again, the second hand still ticking away, but it thought the time was a little before eleven. Ray met Mr. Mulligan on the stairs. Mr. Mulligan told him it was about quarter to six; Ray thanked him and fixed his watch, feeling hungry and a little bit sick.

At his door it took him about three tries to find the right key, and when he did he thought for a second he'd let himself into the wrong apartment.

His chili lights were plugged in, along with just about every lamp in the place. That was maybe normal, except that Ray generally switched things off before he left. Weirder, though, the whole place smelled like -- pizza? pasta? something Italian. Ray walked in like a sleepwalker, blinking in surprise. Lasagna, that was it. Smelled great. He rounded a corner to peek into the kitchen, and --

"Jesus. Fraser."

Fraser turned. He was wearing Ray's mismatched oven mitts, the checkered one Stella'd left behind and the older one so burned and stained Ray'd forgotten the pattern by now. He was also wearing a white undershirt and his stupid pumpkin pants, suspenders and all, and he looked really definitely alive.

"Hi, Ray," he said.

Ray went from doorway to Fraser in about no seconds flat. Touched his shoulder, his cheek, his hair. All solid, warm, working order. "Fraser," Ray said. "Fraser, Fraser. Don't do that to me. God, don't do that to me!"

"I'm sorry, Ray," Fraser said. He turned a little and set the oven mitts aside carefully. Then he wouldn't look back at Ray. "I behaved very selfishly."

"No, you behaved very stupidly," Ray told him. "You wanna do something selfish, that's okay, everyone does selfish stuff. You -- Fraser. Fraser, look at me." Fraser looked up reluctantly. Ray jabbed two fingers against his chest. "You start having questions about the meaning of life, you talk to me. You do not talk to some toad. You talk to your stupid wolf, I don't care, but you deal with this stuff and you tell me."

"Yes, Ray," Fraser said.

"No. No 'yes, Ray' or 'of course, Ray,' none of that bullshit, you just -- you tell me. I see you being messed up, you don't go making up excuses or talking about cases or anything, you --"

"Ray," Fraser said, in the tone that meant he'd probably been saying Ray's name for a while now.

"What?" Ray demanded.

"I'm sorry," Fraser said, very seriously. "My behavior was --" He stopped and closed his eyes for a moment. It looked weirdly vulnerable and Ray's anger started splintering, started cracking into fragments and, shit, the whole world was splintering into crazy lines of light with Fraser's smudged face in the middle. "What you did was far more than I deserve," Fraser said, and opened his eyes again. A look of surprise and concern crossed his face, and Ray could hardly stand that either, all these human looks that had nothing to do with anger. "Ray," Fraser said, and reached up to brush a thumb under Ray's eye. The world splintered into more fragments of light and Fraser's thumb came away wet.

Ray shuddered. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "What you deserve. God, I should punch you. You suck, Fraser."

A faint smile tugged at the corner of Fraser's mouth. "Understood."

"Just -- don't do that again, okay?"

"I won't," Fraser promised, and cleared his throat, stepping back. "Would you like some dinner, Ray?"

"Would I ever. It smells great." Ray scrubbed his jacket sleeve really quick across his face, and bumped into the brim of the Stetson. "Oh, uh. Would you like your hat back?"

Fraser's smile widened. "It does look quite fetching on you -- but yes, I think I would like my hat back."

"You got it." Ray set it down on the island counter. "Hey, where's Dief?"

"Napping, I believe. He quite exhausted himself with worry." Fraser pulled the oven mitts back on. "I really did behave most reprehensibly."

"Stop that," Ray said. "I mean, yeah, you did, but there's only so many times in one day the universe can handle you admitting you're wrong. Eventually all of space and time will, like, collapse or something."

"Indeed," Fraser murmured. "Ah, Ray, where do you keep your cutlery?"

"I'll get it," Ray said.

Five minutes had them sitting on Ray's couch, a tin of lasagna on the coffee table and plates on both their knees. It wasn't exactly five-star, but Fraser was sitting right there, his thigh up against Ray's and giving off heat the way normal not-dead Fraser did; Dief was behind the couch, chowing down on his own helping of lasagna, and the turtle watched calmly from on high in its tank. Ray started relaxing.

"Ray," Fraser said.

"Hmm?"

"I, ah. What exactly --? When you were out today, what --?" Fraser stopped and breathed in sharply, sounding impatient with himself. "I'm not sure how to ask this without sounding, ah, as though I might not be playing with a full deck, but --"

"I talked to your dad, I went through this place called the Borderland, I had a boat ride, I fed a wolf a doughnut, and I told stories for your soul," Ray interrupted, before Fraser hurt himself trying to get the words out. "This does not mean you are not insane."

"I -- you fed a wolf a doughnut?"

Trust Fraser to focus on the irrelevant stuff. Ray chewed through a mouthful of lasagna. "Yeah. Not Dief. Well, Dief too, he was looking pretty upset, but, uh, the one with three heads. I mean, it didn't have three heads, but if it was Greek it would've."

"Cerberus," Fraser said. "Yes. I gave him some pemmican."

Ray snorted. "You know what?" he asked. "Aside from the dead dad thing and the part where the scenery didn't follow physics, this was pretty normal."

"Charon was normal?"

"Okay, transportation usually costs more than fifty cents." Ray kept eating and tried not to grin around it.

Fraser ate too, very composedly. "Cerberus was very like Dief, I imagine."

"You got it."

"Surely you can't mean to tell me that a conversation with the lord of the underworld was particularly normal," Fraser said, and then seemed to think about this for a moment. He didn't even try to hide the twitch of smile this time. "Ah. I see your point. However, Ray, you made no attempt to arrest him."

"RCMP," Ray pointed out. "Not my jurisdiction."

Fraser grinned outright at that. Ray snorted. Then both of them were howling with laughter, not even because it was particularly funny but because it was that or start crying for real this time, because no one else in the world would believe them, because Fraser was alive and Ray still wanted to punch him or maybe kiss him, didn't know, laughed himself breathless.

"Ohh," Fraser said at length, sitting back and wiping at his eyes. "Oh dear. Ray." He chuckled a few more times. "Ray, I made far too much lasagna."

"It's cool, I like leftovers." Ray stretched. "I'll get it in the fridge. Don't move. You made it, I clean it."

"Yes, Ray." Fraser handed Ray his empty plate and smiled, that brighter-than-the-sun smile, full force. Ray took the lasagna and went hunting for plastic wrap feeling funny, shook out with laughter and exhaustion and ... not relief, this was too big for relief, this thing he was feeling because Fraser was here and alive and smiling up at Ray from his ratty couch.

"So," Ray said, loud enough to be heard over the hum of the fridge, "what was the deal with the pomegranate?" He shut the door and came back around to plop down on the couch next to Fraser again. He sort of felt like a cold beer might be perfect right now, but he was already feeling giddy and it wouldn't help. "I don't know why I told that one. I just kept thinking about pomegranates."

"Persephone," Fraser said.

Ray grinned. "Bless you."

"Ray." Ray made a little consolatory gesture and Fraser settled back. "Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, a goddess of agriculture and fertility in Classical Greece. She was abducted by Hades and made queen of the underworld. Her mother was devastated and looked for Persephone everywhere, abandoning her role so that the crops slowly withered in her absence. Finally so many were starving that Zeus ordered Hades to give Persephone back; Hades agreed, but before he did so, he offered Persephone a pomegranate. She ate four seeds from it and was therefore bound to Hades for four months of the year."

Ray sat up straighter. "That makes no sense."

"Well, no, Ray, a common theme in Western mythology is the eating of forbidden food, resulting in exile or entrapment."

"Yeah, but -- a month for each seed? What if she'd eaten the whole thing?"

"Ah, but Ray, it's an origin myth. You see, for the four months of the year during which Persephone is in the underworld, Demeter mourns her daughter and the earth becomes barren. It's an explanation for winter." Fraser frowned a little. "Of course the whole thing falls apart in any non-temperate climates."

"Huh." Ray leaned back. "So, what, since you ate the whole pomegranate dessert thing you were supposed to stay in the material world?"

"Possibly." Fraser sounded cautious. He looked it, too; he wasn't sitting Mountie-at-attention straight, but he wasn't really relaxed anymore either. "Perhaps you appealed to his sense of ... Perhaps he remembered Persephone."

"Right," Ray said, because he kind of got it. His heartbeat was picking up; they'd done every available avenue of conversation, even taken the scenic route and stopped for lasagna, but they were still up against Ray's realization in the RCMP outpost beyond the Borderland, and they definitely both remembered it.

"Ray --" Fraser said, right as Ray said "Fraser --" They both broke off. "Uh," said Ray, without really thinking further ahead than that, but Fraser said, nearly stumbling over the words, "If you'd like to assume nothing more was said, we really don't have to --"

"Fraser," Ray said again, and Fraser stopped. Licked his bottom lip nervously. Ray'd definitely been about to say something this time, but it cut right through his train of thought. For a moment his brain hummed, totally blank.

Then he thought: no matter what direction you step, your destination is the same. And it was easy.

"Fraser," Ray said, "I did not go through hell and high water, and we are talking more literally than usual here, to just pretend that everything is good and normal. I am pissed off as hell you didn't say something about your near-death whatever, and I am even more pissed off that you had to eat fruit or be mythical or something, and I am really, really pissed off you did some weird code thing like agree when I said Chicago had the good stuff instead of just telling me, because I have been sitting on this for months, Fraser, months I have been trying to stop you doing stupid things and just talk to me and I've been kind of freaking out here."

"Ray," Fraser said, "you're not making any sense."

"Okay, maybe I am a poet on the inside but I suck at this." Ray clasped his hands together and stared down at them. "Can I kiss you?"

Silence. Behind the couch Diefenbaker gave a wuffling sigh. Somewhere a few blocks down a police siren went wailing past.

"Yes," Fraser said.

Ray looked back up at him. Fraser looked mostly calm, if a little more determined than usual, but the longer Ray looked at him the more Fraser's expression turned to that same naked hope he'd worn in the outpost. Ray reached out and touched tentatively along Fraser's jaw, and Fraser's eyes fluttered closed. Okay. Ray leaned in and pressed his lips to Fraser's.

For a moment Fraser stayed absolutely still, which was fine; he was warm, he was here, his lower lip was a little damp from where he'd licked it earlier, and he wasn't pulling away, all of which was pretty great in Ray's book. Then he turned his head a little, his lips yielding under Ray's, and it was a real kiss, a tentative slide. Breathing each other's air. Ray started heating up, a full-body flush. He leaned in a bit more, let his tongue glide briefly across Fraser's lower lip like he'd be able to really taste him under the linger of the lasagna, and Fraser -- Fraser made this soft startled noise and all of a sudden Ray wasn't in charge anymore.

Fraser's hands carded into his hair and Fraser nudged his mouth open demandingly, like he had on the sinking ship only with a lot less lake water, and Ray was a hell of a lot warmer now. Then Fraser's tongue started getting seriously acquainted with Ray's mouth, which, Ray had known Fraser liked licking things but oh God. Ray cupped Fraser's jaw with one hand, held onto his shoulder with the other, and kissed back as well as he could, heart going like crazy and his head starting to spin. Breathing. Right. But that meant stopping, and Ray couldn't, absolutely could not be any further from Fraser than he was right this second; he could feel Fraser's pulse thrumming under his fingertips, and Fraser was making another soft noise, not startled now but so intensely pleased that Ray's knees turned to water. Good thing he was sitting down. He laughed a little against Fraser's mouth, breathed in through his nose as best he could, made a muffled noise half-surprise, half-laughter still as Fraser tried to get even closer.

And then Fraser was tugging Ray forwards, sprawling back against the couch and pulling Ray down atop him. They jolted when they landed, their mouths coming apart; Ray heard himself make a desperate little noise and Fraser surged up to meet his mouth again. Ray settled down on him -- God, it was nice knowing he wasn't crushing Fraser with his weight -- and suddenly all of Fraser spread under him wasn't close enough either. Warm, Ray thought, warm, licking into Fraser's mouth and feeling Fraser shudder, hands tightening in Ray's hair. Ray shimmied a little, trying to get closer to Fraser's body heat, and without any instruction from his brain his hips rolled into Fraser's, like, God, like he was sixteen and without any self-control. He started to freeze up, maybe apologize, but Fraser gave a low desperate moan and arched up right back.

Okay, so necking on the couch and humping his suddenly-not-buttoned-up partner was not the weirdest thing Ray Kowalski had done today. It was still pretty insane.

Ray pulled back from Fraser's mouth, and then had to do it again because Fraser pulled him right back, but the second time Fraser got the picture. Ray stared down at him, panting a little and quivering with the effort of not moving for just a few seconds, and Fraser stared back up at him, mouth red and pupils blown and hair a total mess. Ray knew he was supposed to say something reasonable, because they really needed to talk about this, probably starting with what the hell 'this' was; but what actually came out of his mouth, breathless and a little desperate, was, "Bed. Bed, Frase, now."

Fraser stared at him for a second longer, and then nodded, moving already, up on his elbows while Ray sort of rolled off him and helped Fraser to his feet, which brought them about an inch apart, which meant they were kissing again, Ray's hands fisted in Fraser's shirt like the beginning of a fight and Fraser's arms wrapped around Ray, drawing him in.

"Ray," Fraser murmured against his mouth. "Ray. Bed."

"Right," Ray said, and somehow managed to get far enough away from Fraser that they could make it the six whole feet from the couch to the bedroom. Ray got in and turned back in time to see Fraser shutting the door in Dief's surprised face. Ray laughed. Fraser turned, raising his eyebrows, and Ray explained, "Just -- Dief, he just -- poor guy."

"I'm sure he doesn't need to know about human mating rituals in any more detail," Fraser said, which, first, how in hell was he still using complete sentences, and also -- human mating rituals. Okay. That's what this was, and it was actually happening.

"Uh," Ray said, suddenly not feeling like laughing anymore.

"Ray ..." Fraser came over to him, a little hesitantly now. He touched a hand carefully to Ray's cheek and Ray leaned into it instantly, no thought necessary, the way he always leaned into Fraser.

"Can we," Ray said, and tried to sound less scared (of what, Kowalski?) than he was, "can we just -- I need you to be here, okay? Really here." He reached out and pressed a hand to Fraser's chest, and Fraser seemed to get it, because he nodded and took his hand away from Ray's face in order to shrug off one suspender, then the other. Ray let his own hand fall, toed off his boots, pulled off his shirt, and got to the button on his khakis with his hands shaking. The fuck. He felt more than heard Fraser stepping forward, and looked up as Fraser pushed his hands gently aside. Fraser. Just wearing his boxers, which looked like they'd probably been starched. Between wanting to laugh about the starch thing and wanting to just stare at mostly-naked Fraser as much as possible, Ray's jitters went away pretty much instantly, and then they went way away because Fraser was carefully unbuttoning Ray's pants and sliding them down over his hips, and Ray's knees wanted to stop working again. His khakis fell to the floor, the much-abused bag of doughnuts giving one last dying crinkle of protest, and then Fraser's thumbs were hooking under the band of his boxers and Ray absolutely did not care about the fate of any doughnuts ever.

"Wait," he managed. "Wait, I -- get in." Fraser stared at him in bewilderment. "The quilt's a bitch to wash," Ray explained, and Fraser's face cleared right up -- he actually smiled -- and then he was shucking his boxers and shimmying into Ray's bed like this was totally normal. Ray swallowed and tugged his own off as best he could, slid in the other side. At once Fraser grabbed his arm and tugged Ray back over atop him.

Yeah.

He could actually feel Fraser now, all the warm living skin. He kissed Fraser's left eyelid, the eyebrow above it that Fraser always rubbed at; kissed the tip of Fraser's nose, the middle of his chin where now late in the day he could feel the beginning rasp of stubble. His mouth again, softly, then less so. Then the world tipped and spun, Fraser rolling them, so Ray ended up sprawled out breathlessly under Fraser, blinking up at him.

"Hey," he said, feeling almost idiotic with relief that Fraser was here.

"Hey," Fraser echoed, and kissed down the side of Ray's neck, bit lightly at the junction of his shoulder. Ray gasped and bucked up sharply, a little startled but mostly a hell of a lot turned on, and then Fraser settled down between his thighs, a warm heavy blanket that made Ray feel weirdly comforted even as he clutched tightly at Fraser's shoulders and made some inarticulate noise.

Fraser kissed him, and between kisses said things like "It's all right," and "I'm sorry," until Ray managed to gasp, "Fraser, shut up, I don't care --" and after that Fraser confined himself mostly to Ray's name, which was fine by Ray. For his part he probably said Fraser's name back a couple of times, but everything in his head tangled into a jumble of sound while he rocked up into the hollow of Fraser's hip and tried to get closer, closer, kissing Fraser and starting to shake and trying to hold Fraser to him until Fraser kissed the side of his mouth and whispered, "I've got you, Ray," and Ray came apart, twitching and crying out until Fraser kissed him again, trying to breathe and trembling through the aftershocks.

"Mm," Ray said, and blinked up at Fraser, who was staring down at him with fondness and not a little desperation. "Oh," added Ray, and sure as hell couldn't move worth a damn, but he opened his legs a little wider and gave Fraser a blissed-out grin; Fraser shuddered and started moving again, and Ray watched him, the flutter of his pulse and the movement of his eyelids, each breath he sucked in, a little sweaty curl of hair that had come loose by his temple.

Ray found he could move again, a little, and raised a hand dreamily to brush the curl back behind Fraser's ear. Fraser turned his face towards Ray's hand, nuzzled blindly into his palm and then gasped, eyes squeezing tighter shut and gritting his teeth. Ray stroked the side of Fraser's face in fascination until Fraser slumped down atop him.

"Mm," Ray said again, but a little more protestingly this time. Orgasm plus Fraser definitely equaled too heavy to use Ray as a mattress. He wiggled a little and Fraser eased up until Ray could sort of roll out from under him and flail at the bedside table; he made contact with the lamp and managed to click it off. Then in the half-dark he pressed up against Fraser again, sticky wet sheets be damned, wrapped one arm firmly around him. No way was Ray letting Fraser go anywhere.

Fraser didn't seem inclined, though. He yawned and scooted up a little closer. "Goodnight, Ray."

"Night," Ray mumbled, and drifted off.

*

Ray woke slowly. Sunlight was striping the sheets next to his hand, and everything felt warm in a way that had nothing to do with sunlight or his body heat, and everything to do with this spark Ray could feel lodged in the center of his chest, the sort of warmth he hadn't felt since ... God, since years before the divorce. Ray blinked, bewildered. He'd had a weird dream about Fraser's dad and a lot of snow, and then -- then --

Ray rolled over and stared. Sitting next to him in bed, calmly reading a paperback book, was Benton Fraser, shirtless and with his hair still a mess. All the bewildering fear Ray'd felt last night came rolling back in, but this time it got mixed up with the bone-deep warmth and suddenly Ray got it, what this feeling was. He shut his eyes, and didn't panic, and admitted to himself that this was not new at all. It was just that now Fraser knew it too.

When he opened his eyes again, Fraser had placed his finger against the book's inside spine and was looking over at him. "Good morning, Ray."

"Hi," Ray said, and just in case Fraser got the wrong idea from the way Ray probably looked like he'd just been hit over the head, he rolled a little closer and pressed a clumsy sleepy kiss to Fraser's rib, then flopped back on the pillow. "Whassa time?"

"Just before eight," Fraser said. "I thought you might want coffee, but, well ..." He fumbled the words, and Ray felt about a billion times better, which he hadn't known was possible.

"Didn't want me getting the wrong idea," Ray finished for him, sitting up. "It's cool, Frase." He leaned in and kissed Fraser's mouth, just a dry press of lips, because if Fraser's hair could get messed up, he could probably get morning breath too and Ray didn't want to deal with that before coffee. "Uh, what you reading?"

"Ah, it appears to be concerned with an English lord named Gerald and an heiress with the improbable name of Kitty ..." He broke off, his eyebrows going up slightly, because Ray was laughing.

"You found Frannie's romance novel," he said. "I, uh. I borrowed it. Trash reading because there was nothing good on TV, you know? And I thought it might give me some insight about Frannie."

"Has it?" Fraser asked mildly.

Ray chuckled. "No idea. Oh man." More and more of the previous day was coming back now, caffeine or not. "Oh man, Frannie. I suck, Fraser, I should've told her last night you were okay."

Fraser set the book aside, looking a little alarmed. "She knows?"

"Yeah, but -- just her and Mort. And maybe Turnbull, I couldn't really tell." Ray scrubbed his face, trying to wake up more. "Welsh probably wants to kill me. I took a personal day. Uh, if Turnbull did like I asked, the Ice Queen thinks you stayed here because you were coming down with a cold. But damage control shouldn't be too bad besides Frannie."

"Ray," Fraser said. Ray looked up. Fraser touched the side of his face gently. "Thank you. What you've done ... I can't possibly repay it."

"Hey, you, uh, you stayed," Ray said, and looked away. "That's a good start."

Fraser scooted over a little and wrapped his arms around Ray, kissed his temple. Ray held on tight and felt like maybe his heart would burst or something just as unlikely. "I'll make coffee and the necessary phone calls," Fraser said. "Take the first shower."

Ray nodded.

It took them a little longer to actually get up, because Fraser seemed about as unwilling to let go of Ray as Ray was to let go of Fraser, but eventually Ray's eight o'clock alarm went off, and that was enough incentive to get them going.

Ray spent a while in the shower, just standing under the hot water and letting all the muscles in his shoulders ease up. He spent a while in the bathroom after he was done with his shower, too, making sure he was actually clean-shaven for once and then messing around with his hair. It wasn't like he thought Fraser cared what he looked like. It was just that he had to ... deserve it, or something, an unshakable habit from having spent most of his life trying hard to deserve Stella. Considering how much Fraser'd been thanking him, he probably had a surplus of deserving, but still.

By the time he'd turned the shower over to Fraser, dressed, shuffled out, and downed the first cup of coffee, he felt human for real and nuked some frozen waffles for Fraser's breakfast while he nursed the second cup. Fraser came out then, cleaned up and dressed almost like his Mountie self but without the serge.

"I made a few phone calls," he said. "I think you'll find Lieutenant Welsh is somewhat less displeased with you now. And, ah, Francesca --" and here he rubbed his thumb over his eyebrow -- "was overjoyed to hear from me. I imagine she'll be very pleasant to you for at least a week."

"She'll be hanging all over you," Ray said. The microwave beeped. "Uh, want syrup? She'll be unbearable."

"Yes please," Fraser said. "And I think that is rather unfair to her, Ray. I gave her a shock."

"Yeah, well," Ray said, and brought over syrup and the plate of waffles.

"I also spoke with Inspector Thatcher," Fraser said, and he looked a little nervous now. "She seems worried that my cold might be infectious, and has instructed me to take as much time as I need. I imagine she would like me back by the end of the week, but in the meantime I find myself, well, rather exiled, and --"

"Fraser," Ray said, "the only difference is you'll just be staying here after dinner instead of going back to that stupid cot of yours."

"The only difference, Ray?"

"Oh, well, I," Ray said, and made himself look at Fraser. "Frase, I thought you were going to die. For real this time. And maybe if I hadn't been so pissed off I wouldn't've done anything, because -- one, I am undercover here, and unless I am seriously missing something I do not think Vecchio ever slept with you." Fraser looked startled and shook his head. "Yeah, I thought so. So, y'know, stupidest way to blow cover ever. And my dad'll probably try to disown me all over again."

"Ray --" Fraser said.

"But, uh, I don't know if it will blow cover," Ray went on, wanting to see this through now he'd started. "I mean, you're basically my whole social life anyway. I don't think -- I mean, if you spend a little more time here the only one who'll maybe notice is the Ice Queen, and she's not gonna see what she doesn't want to see. So I figure -- I figure, I go to the goddamn underworld to get you back, I get to keep you." He stared down at his coffee. "Unless that's not cool with you."

"Ray," Fraser said again. Ray looked up. Fraser was giving him a smile so brilliant it was a little scary. "It's fine. It's more than fine."

"Good," Ray said. "Good. Okay. You done?"

"I think so, yes," Fraser said, mopping up the last of his waffle. "I'll clean up."

Ray nodded briskly and went to find a jacket and his badge.

*

They stopped by the Consulate so Fraser could get changed for real. Ray stayed in the car and contemplated the parking ticket he'd gotten for leaving the GTO there so long yesterday. Like the universe couldn't give him a break when he was going off and being heroic. On the other hand, the ticket was only twenty bucks; it wasn't like Ray was gonna contest it. Sorry, I had to park here in order to rescue my partner from the next world. Yeah, it was important; he's great in bed. Ray grinned to himself and felt happy and felt a little scared about feeling so happy, but mostly he seemed to be doing okay.

At the station they were waylaid by Frannie, who punched Ray's arm and told him off for not calling her, and then hugged Fraser, who stood very still under her ministrations; then, to pretty much everyone's surprise, she punched Fraser in the arm too, and said, "Don't scare us like that, Frase."

"I'm very sorry, Francesca," Fraser said.

"Vecchio!" Welsh called from his office door. Ray turned, and saw out of the corner of his eye Fraser turning too. Welsh fixed them both with a look. "I got something new for you two. First, Vecchio, you can redeem yourself by bringing me a coffee."

"Right you are, sir," Ray said. Fraser gave him a quick look, but Ray shrugged. "It's good, considering the stuff he coulda done. I'll meet you in there."

"Right you are, Ray," Fraser said, with a slight smile Ray didn't get until he played his own words back at himself. He laughed a little and headed for the lunch room.

It did sort of suck having to pay the coffee machine for Welsh on his own dime, especially on top of the parking ticket and the fifty cents he'd given the boatman, but he stuck the money in the slot anyway and bounced on his feet while the machine hummed and did its thing.

"That was good work, you know," said someone behind him.

Ray whirled and stared at the old Mountie standing at attention about two feet from him. Bob Fraser gave Ray a shrewd look, and Ray fidgeted under it. Maybe he'd spoken too soon about this being less awkward than meeting Stella's parents. "Uh, thanks," he said.

Fraser's dad cleared his throat. "And I just wanted to say ... keep it up." He pressed his lips together and nodded decisively, and ... no, this was not like meeting Stella's parents. Stella's parents were always saying things and meaning something else, and it was like trying to understand another language; this was different. This was just a few words but Ray could hear them, hear Bob Fraser just saying thank you, but glacier-deep. Ray sort of mirrored Bob Fraser's expression, smiled a little awkwardly and nodded.

"The coffee's ready, son," Bob Fraser added.

"Oh," said Ray. "Right, uh, thanks," and turned to get it. When he turned back, Fraser's dad was gone.

Ray went out and across the bullpen to where Fraser was waiting at the door to Welsh's office. Fraser gave Ray a questioning look, and Ray shrugged a little. Tell you later. Fraser nodded. Ray reached out and brushed the arm of Fraser's tunic, casual and not casual at all, perfectly normal, because they did this all the time and had for pretty much as long as Ray could remember.

"Let's go," he said, and they headed inside for the next thing.