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A friend is someone who won't stop until he finds you and brings you home.

*

Ray hadn't expected the sheer number of photographs Fraser would take. Dogs, mountains, Ray staking the tent, Ray drinking coffee, Ray building a snowman after their only big blizzard. Fraser was really discreet about it, too, which meant he got a lot of shots of Ray looking funny. Candid camera. Ray stole it a couple of times -- retaliation, not really revenge -- and took pictures too: Fraser eating pemmican, Fraser horsing around with Dief, Fraser packing the sled, each snap followed by Fraser looking up and grinning. Ray even caught the grin a couple of times, but he didn't try too often. Liked keeping it a special thing.

He thought maybe Fraser would take more and more pictures the closer they got to the end of their quest, but instead it was fewer; some days Fraser didn't even take out the camera anymore. The last picture was Ray in front of the memorial on Beechy Island, puffy-coated in a green hat and a scruffy beard, grinning in the vast stretching expanse of blue and white, ice and sea and sky and the dogs and Fraser and Ray. And that was it. No more pictures. Not that night while they camped back on the mainland; Ray watched ice crystals slowly forming from his breath on the cloth of the tent above his head, and he felt ... good. He'd really done this adventure thing, and he hadn't almost died again, and Fraser wasn't driving him nuts any more than usual, and he really didn't miss much about Chicago except for sometimes the food and always the option of indoor heating, and he liked himself. Huh. It was nice. New, kind of.

Fraser rolled over to face him, and Ray could see Fraser pretty good still, because the sun was starting to take its sweet time setting. Fraser had a faint frown line between his eyebrows, the I'm-considering-the-best-way-to-say-this look that Ray hadn't seen for at least a week, since he'd finally become good at driving the sled. He waited. Fraser said: "If we make good time, we should be able to reach Inuvik before the snow breaks up."

"Okay," Ray agreed, and Fraser still looked concerned so he rolled onto his back and watched his breath a bit more. "The snow melts? I thought it was permanently, uh, frosty."

"The layer of permafrost below ground doesn't melt, no, Ray," Fraser explained, "but even above the Arctic Circle, the ground can become entirely free of snow." A pause, and he added, rather dryly, "Hence the vegetation."

Ray grinned at the ceiling of the tent. He'd been worried for a second that Fraser was going into full lecture mode, which would've meant he'd have to deal with -- Which would've meant something was wrong. "Okay," he said. "Real seasons. Cool. Uh, Inuvik. That's where Maggie is?"

"Yes." A rustle as Fraser rolled onto his back too. "I thought, since we're more or less in the neighborhood ..."

"More or less," Ray muttered. "Okay."

And then he tried to go to sleep, but he was thinking about seasons now, thinking about the snow melting and erasing their one warm line, which Ray knew was metaphorical but he felt it. The good feeling wasn't gone, but it was going, melting out of him along with all the coming change, and suddenly he understood why Fraser'd stopped taking pictures. Fraser had been capturing all the uphill moments, the going-on-a-quest moments, the really good stuff, the stuff they'd want to remember; not the coming-back stuff. Not all the bits that would record the awful downhill slide into leaving this place.

It sucked. It sucked.

*

Over dinner Maggie and Fraser talked about Maggie's superior officer (a really great guy) and an incident with a bear (which had apparently been hilarious) and the state of the American tourism business around Inuvik (but both Fraser and Maggie were in really top form there, so Ray couldn't actually tell whether the situation was good or not). Ray mostly ate, in the focused way he thought he'd left behind decades ago until he'd been introduced to the wonders of keeping his body alive and healthy at subzero. Maggie was a good cook. Ray watched her while he ate; her eyes and her smile were like Fraser's, and Ray's breath started stuttering a little because he couldn't even see her.

Fraser jostled his arm reaching for the stew and murmured some apology. Ray jerked back, his bowl rattling loudly in the sudden silence. Fraser froze. Both he and Maggie stared at Ray.

Ray face flushed uncomfortably hot. This sucks this sucks this sucks ran through his head in stupid relentless loop. "Sorry," he muttered. "Uh, sorry, Maggie, I just -- I guess I'm not used to civilization yet."

"It's fine," Maggie said.

"Can I just --" Ray got to his feet, too abruptly, the chair scraping across Maggie's nice sanded floorboards. "I need to, uh, go outside for a moment. I gotta ..." and he fled.

Outside the sun was sinking pink and glittering over the delta. Mostly Inuvik lay behind them, in this kind of cute flat sprawl, all the houses bright colors with pipes hanging between them like a weird high school art project. Ray liked it. In fact, Ray kind of loved it, the igloo-shaped church they'd passed on their way through town to Maggie's cabin, the moose they'd seen standing dumbly by the highway, the way tall around here was two stories but it felt tall in the flat half-frozen delta. He liked all of it, except ...

There was an airport strip. They'd passed that too. And now Ray was standing here in the dusk taking deep shaky breaths because all the ice was melting and he didn't know what the hell to do.

Ray had mostly got his breathing under control by the time Fraser came out to join him. He kept staring out over the water, but he could feel Fraser looking at him. "Is it Maggie?" Fraser asked quietly.

"No," Ray said. He clenched his fists. Unclenched them. "She's great. I'm a jerk. It's not her."

"Ah," Fraser said.

And that -- that's where this left them. Ray's muscles ached with all kinds of unsaid things, and Fraser wouldn't feed him the next line, just went monosyllabic. In Ray's head Ray said I don't want to go, and even in Ray's head Fraser refused to understand him, just asked, Go where, Ray? but at least that demanded an answer. So in Ray's head Ray could tell Fraser, I don't know, I do not know, I don't want to go anywhere, I don't know where you'll be going but there'll be snow and polar bears, you'll love it, Frannie has my goddamn turtle, Frase, I don't even have a turtle to go back to.

Even inside his own head he couldn't get it right.

Fraser cleared his throat. "I could see if there's a post open here," he said. "Inspector Thatcher assured me that I'm in good stead -- Muldoon's capture, and the submarine --"

"You could go anywhere," Ray interrupted. Anywhere was a big place. Canada was a big place.

"Yes," Fraser said. "And ... I only lived in Inuvik a short time as a child, but this is Maggie's home, and being close to family would be -- that is --" He took a deep breath. The exhale hung whitely in the air for a moment. "I could request Chicago," Fraser said.

"No!" The word was out of Ray before his mouth and brain had time to communicate; some part of him was going yes yes please yes but the rest knew better. "Don't be stupid. You like it here."

"Well, yes, but --"

"Fraser," Ray said. His voice cracked.

"Understood," Fraser said, and Ray wanted to shake him, wanted to yell until Fraser listened, but that -- Fraser had taken maybe a hundred pictures, and Ray knew what Fraser's breathing sounded like when he was asleep, and Inuvik was beautiful, and somewhere Ray had a life to crawl back into. Fraser had a post with his name on it here, where he could go out ptarmigan-watching or something and Dief would forget to sulk about going cold turkey on doughnuts; Ray had ... Lieutenant Welsh, anyway, and a good record, a landlady who liked him, a whole new world. Wouldn't even have to worry about Stella since she'd moved to Florida.

"We should, uh, finish eating," Ray said, instead of screaming, which was really big of him.

"Yes." Fraser thumbed his eyebrow. "We'll work out your flight itinerary in the morning."

*

The worst part of saying goodbye was everything. Ray spent his thirteen-plus hours of hellish flight transfers down to Chicago trying to decide on a specific moment: Inuvik to Yellowknife it was Fraser saying, It was a lovely adventure, Ray in a voice that sounded like some horrible hybrid between his polite distant I-am-a-Mountie voice and the one he got when he really meant it, and Ray'd mumbled, Yeah, it was instead of saying any of the things he desperately needed to say. Yellowknife to Edmonton it was Fraser handing Ray his camera and telling him that he thought the developing process might be expedited if Ray did it in Chicago and mailed him copies of the photos. Edmonton to Toronto it was Dief looking up at Ray with liquid doggy eyes and whining very softly at a pitch that closed Ray's throat right up, and kept closing it up all over again whenever he remembered it. Toronto to Chicago it was Fraser hugging Ray goodbye, a crushing full-body-contact hug that knocked Ray flat and said everything, and Ray'd opened his mouth to say Wait and every other right thing but Fraser was already herding him onto the plane.

O'Hare to his apartment, that moment was still the worst.

While Ray was paying his apartment deposit and telling his landlady about how Canada really was that snowy, while he was going into the 27 to talk stay-here-or-transfer with Welsh and is-my-turtle-still-alive with Frannie, while he was driving out to his parents' trailer lot and letting his mom ply him with questions and funny-tasting (American) food, it was still the worst part. Fraser's fierce hug and the Wait stuck in Ray's throat were beginning to feel like weights he was carrying everywhere.

"You can keep the turtle," he told Frannie, his second day back.

"Ray," she said, hand jauntily on her hip, looking up at him, this cute nutty girl who wasn't his sister any longer, and something in her voice was off, like she'd started out saying one thing and decided on something else: "Did you ever even name that turtle?"

"Nah. It's a turtle."

"That shows a lack of imagination," Frannie informed him, and Ray got out of there before she could start thinking up names aloud. His lack of imagination figured she'd end up naming the turtle Benton, and he didn't want to know.

Instead he got to work on the first case Welsh pushed across his desk -- different desk, same old 27 squad room; now that Vecchio was in Florida the desk belonged to someone else, and Ray got one belonging to Kowalski. The case involved arms dealers, probably because Welsh figured Ray was old hat at it what with the nuclear sub, and Ray decided, yeah, that was right. He got the GTO back from where his dad had it in storage and spent the next week driving around the city chasing a bunch of dumb guys with illegal semiautomatics. It was good and easy, considering he hadn't driven anything but a sled for the last two months, considering that now he was around doors again he kept automatically holding them open (for little old ladies, for moms with a handful of kids, for the space of a breath before he remembered he was working the case alone). He got Huey in for the bust early the next week, and that was easy too, Huey reading the guys their rights, helping Ray cuff 'em, letting Ray handle the bulk of the interrogation back at the station. Jack was a good guy to work with. Jack was still working with Dewey, though. And that was fine by Ray. Working alone was fine by Ray. As long as it was fine by Welsh, too, everything was cop -- cope -- everything was good.

*

He called Fraser, because he wasn't a coward. Maggie answered the phone -- "RCMP, Inuvik Detachment, Constable Maggie Mackenzie speaking" -- and once Ray'd got his name out, she stopped sounding official and said, "Ray! I'm glad you called. Ben is -- I'm glad."

"Yeah." Ray stared out his window at the tall dirty city. "Uh, how are you doing?"

"I'm fine," Maggie said, more patiently than Ray liked. "Want me to put Ben through?"

"Go for it," Ray said, and noticed that the hand not on the phone was clenching into a shaking-tight fist in his lap. He didn't try relaxing it. He breathed and waited through the crackling pause before Fraser picked up the phone.

"Hello?" And there was Fraser, using his official voice, the one that introduced the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Queen and every dignified outpost in Canada with two syllables, and Ray was right back on that damn airport strip, Wait caught painfully in his throat. "Ray?" Fraser added.

"Hey, Frase," Ray said, and it was totally fucking casual, without a single hint that he was strangling here. "How's it been? Uh, Inuvik and things?"

"Delightful," Fraser replied. "I've found myself a cabin -- a bit of a fixer-upper, I'm afraid, but Diefenbaker has opined that it will keep me suitably occupied during the summer months, at least assuming I'm given no pressing cases. Remarkably astute of him -- really, the first sensible thing he's said -- I think he misses the fast food, just as you predicted. And I've already had a case, in fact -- there was ..."

Ray tuned him out. Ray had to tune him out or start choking down some kind of incoherent scream, Why didn't you argue with me, why didn't you turn down the transfer this time, wait, wait, wait --

"Ray?" Fraser asked again, and he'd been saying it for a while.

"I, uh," Ray said, and somehow what came out was, "I can't, Fraser."

A long silence.

"Can't what?" Fraser asked, in an awful gentle voice.

"I don't know," Ray said. "I'll -- I'll talk to you later, okay?" and he hung up over Fraser's affirmative. "I can't I can't I can't," he told the empty room.

He almost called Fraser back about five times, but at the end of it he ordered Chinese and watched stupid nature programs until he fell asleep on the couch.

*

"Stanley, darling," his mom said, when he was over for dinner that week, in a careful voice Ray wasn't able to place, "how are you doing?"

Ray exchanged a look with his dad, but his dad just shrugged and went back to his potatoes. "I'm good," Ray said. "Uh." His dad was mostly okay with cop talk by now, so he told his mom about the case he'd just closed, automatically editing out the part at the end where the bad guys shot at him. His mom listened, smiled, ladled out more soup for him, and at the end told him she'd be by for his shirts at the end of the week. "I don't need --" Ray tried, but she overrode him like she always did, so he just finished his soup.

She caught him just outside the trailer door, too, while his dad stayed inside doing dishes. "You'd tell me if something was wrong, wouldn't you?" she asked.

"Yeah," Ray said. "Yeah, of course," even though he had no idea what she was talking about.

"You still haven't finished unpacking," she told him, with the air of peeling off a bandaid as slow and painless as she could. "I don't think she's coming back."

"So I'm a slob," Ray said. Blinked. "Who?"

"Stella told me just last week she loves Florida," his mom explained, as though it was part of a perfectly sane conversation. "I don't understand it, but she seems happy, and I think -- she's really moved on this time."

"Sure, okay," Ray said blankly. He knew that. He'd known that the moment the note from Vecchio reached them in Baker Lake, and Fraser had gone Mountie-straight for the first time in about two weeks and announced that Vecchio had moved to Florida to open a bowling alley. Ray'd laughed, and when Fraser added, obviously bracing for the backlash, that Stella'd moved there too, Ray just kept laughing, kind of shocked. He remembered taking Stella bowling when they were fourteen, remembered Stella telling him that she thought she'd like to run a bowling alley someday, and even though Ray figured she'd dumped that idea when she got into law school, deep down he wasn't surprised at all. She'd love it.

"Sure?" Ray's mom repeated now, all concerned.

"Yeah," Ray said, and gave her the best smile he could. "I'm good."

When he went home sure enough his stuff wasn't unpacked. He didn't unpack it. Instead he turned on some music and shuffled around in the dark, did his shadow-dancing, and thought about Stella having a good time in Florida without him. She'd be wearing sundresses, her hair bleaching almost white, running the whole crazy bowling business with that staggering efficiency she had. He dipped imaginary Stella in her imaginary sundress and was proud of her and happy for her and loved her for going, and he stopped in the middle of his floor, quivering with shock. He loved her for going, but the old familiar roll of longing was still going through him, and Stella was gone, done, over with, so this --

Ray shut the music off with more force than necessary and went to sleep in his empty silent bed. He dreamed that he was on an ice floe, bobbing gently away from a Key West pier, and when his phone rang he answered, annoyed, Detective Vecchio can't come to the phone right now, and No, Dief, you cannot order a pizza. When he woke up, his face in the mirror looked kind of off.

"Kowalski," Ray told the mirror, the word awkward in his mouth, "Ray, Ray, Ray," and he flinched away from his half-awake reflection to make coffee and maybe some oatmeal. Just coffee didn't seem to be enough anymore.

*

It was a paperwork day at the 27, him and Huey comparing notes, Ray double-checking a few addresses with Francesca, Lieutenant Welsh looking a little surprised and a lot pleased at Ray's efficiency. By the end of the day Ray felt a hell of a lot more like himself, whoever that was, and in a good enough mood that he offered to give Frannie a ride home.

She gave him a suspicious look. This was ruined by the fact that she'd gone back to wearing a yellow civilian aid shirt, which looked ridiculous, but Ray decided to let that go. "Who are you and what did you do with Ray?" Frannie asked.

"Ha ha," Ray said. "Hilarious, Frannie. I miss your ma's cooking."

"You're not actually my brother anymore, Kowalski," Frannie said, but she let Ray drive her home, and of course Ma Vecchio wouldn't actually let Ray leave once he got there. Maria gave Ray a couple of suspicious looks, like Frannie's but more effective; everyone else, though, seemed to take it for granted that Ray would be there. Maria's kids chattered away at him, and Tony actually had some smart things to say about engines, and Ma Vecchio wanted to know all about what Ray had eaten on his adventure, which meant he was able to vary the routine a little and talk about pemmican and rabbits instead of mountains and snow.

There was a weird tense moment when Maria leaned across the table and asked Ma loudly how Raimundo was settling in with his new wife; everyone just sort of froze, even the kids. For a split second Ray wondered why the hell everyone was tense, considering that Vecchio's cover was blown and they didn't have to be careful, before he realized that Maria was being horrible on purpose. He turned and gave her an easy smile, said, "Yeah, I haven't heard from them. How're they doing?" and Ma started replying away, talking and talking, going on about the bowling alley and how lovely Florida was this time of year.

Ray had second helpings of everything and a civil conversation with Maria, and he even offered to help do the dishes before Ma Vecchio waved him off. So Ray went home. For the first time in weeks he felt calmed down and maybe normal, and that -- hell, Ray didn't know.

*

Ray would have appreciated some warning -- alarm bells going off, or even just Caller ID -- but the phone rang right after he got home from work on the beckoning cusp of a weekend. He was still shrugging off his holster, so he picked it up without looking. "Kowalski."

"Don't hang up," said the voice at the other end, unfamiliar, which got Ray primed by the time he registered the voice adding, "It's Ray Vecchio."

"Oh," Ray said, and slammed the phone back down.

He felt stupid pretty much instantly and punched in callback. The line rang five times, more than enough for Ray to realize that Stella might pick up, which he really could not deal with, but when someone answered it was Vecchio again, sounding wary: "Yeah?"

"Hey," Ray said. "Sorry. Uh. Automatic reflex."

"I hope they don't put you on station telephones, then," Vecchio said.

"Shut up," Ray told him, wandering into the kitchen and skeptically examining the contents of his fridge. Needed more milk. "What were you calling about?"

"Oh, yeah." Vecchio took a deep breath. "I was wondering if you had Fraser's contact information."

"Oh," Ray said, and hung up the phone again.

It took him the whole first period of a Hawks game before he felt stupid enough to call back. The Leafs were winning and he felt like picking a fight anyway. This time Stella answered. Ray had a brief moment of panic before his mouth went on autopilot: "Hey, Stella," he said, talking fast so she wouldn't hang up on him. "Vecchio wanted Fraser's contact information. I had to go find it. Put him on?"

"Ray," Stella said, kind of surprised. "You're back from ...?"

"My mom didn't mention it?" Ray relaxed back on the couch. "Yeah, I am. It was nice. I'm probably interrupting your dinner, Stell."

"It's an hour later here," Stella said, but she added, "I'll get Ray," and Ray was left with another empty crackle and a weird feeling of déjà-vu. He hummed and fiddled with the hem of his shirt, wondered why in hell he was calm now, when he'd just been talking to Stella for the first time in months. Some amphibians on TV were trying to sell him beer, surreal with the sound off.

"Kowalski?"

"Yeah," Ray said, straightening. "Uh, you have to call dispatch in Yellowknife, they patch you through. I can give you the number."

Vecchio was quiet for a long moment. "You ever have conversations like normal people?"

Ray thought about it. "No."

"Fair enough," Vecchio said. "The number?"

Ray gave it to him. The Hawks were back, still losing abysmally even with the mute deadening the pain a little. "Thanks," Vecchio said, but he didn't hang up. "Kowalski?"

"Still my name," Ray said, distracted by possibly the worst play ever.

"If this is because of Stella ... If you don't want to talk to me, man, I get that."

"She's happy, it's good," Ray said, and tuned in to himself. "She'd better be happy, Vecchio." But he only got silence in response there, not the Of course she's happy or even the same words in a tone that meant a desperate lie. Just silence. "Vecchio."

"She likes the bowling alley," Vecchio said; yeah, tell Ray something he didn't know. "Listen, thanks for Fraser's number. You guys have a good time up in Canada?"

This cannot be my life, Ray thought. And he opened his mouth to say that it was fine, snowy, they had a good time, he was glad to be back in Chicago, blah blah blah, all the bullshit he'd told his mother and his landlady and Frannie and fucking Welsh, but somehow in the past few days or minutes when he hadn't been paying attention, something important had come loose, been broken, because what actually came out was, "Don't, Vecchio, I can't."

There was another long silence. The Hawks scored. Ray stared at the tally at the bottom of his TV screen and tried not to think.

"Yeah, I know," Vecchio said, in a tone Ray couldn't even begin to decipher. "It's -- I know."

Ray didn't know what to say to that, so they sat in silence for a while longer. The Leafs scored again, and Ray said, "Goddamn," and Vecchio said, "What?" and Ray said, "I don't think there is anything in the world I hate more than the Toronto Maple Leafs," and Vecchio laughed at him, this stupid disbelieving little chuckle, so Ray hung up on him again.

The Leafs won, obviously, but it didn't piss Ray off as much as he thought it would.

*

He got saddled with a jewelry store robbery. Ray didn't like swanky-stuff theft, because he just didn't care; so the store had to mess around with its insurance premiums, and someone somewhere else got swanky jewelry on the cheap. In his head Ray could hear Fraser talking about justice and order, something like If we condone crimes based on personal bias, we invite a dangerous subjectivity into the concept of justice and here's a quote from a dead man to back me up.

In his head Ray said back something like, Fraser, do not tell me that diamond necklaces are ever going to be important in the real world. Now pass the stupid pemmican and, since it was inside Ray's head, Fraser had no good argument and instead he passed the pemmican and then Ray snuck it to the dogs.

Outside his head, Ray didn't even have a turtle anymore, but he still didn't call Fraser to ask for any opinions, because he knew how the conversation would go. Instead he took a lot of notes and followed Frannie home for dinner again. She had plenty of explaining to do about why swanky jewelry theft was awful, and on Ray's other side Tony was trying to tell him about the finer points of dental hygiene, but Ma Vecchio's casserole was still delicious enough to make up for all of it. That, and on the way out Ray took a leaf from his mom's book and cornered Frannie in the hallway.

"Hey," he said, catching her arm and trying not to look like he was lurking among the umbrellas. She didn't look too disturbed, so he went for it. "Ray -- uh, your brother Ray, y'know, Florida, all that -- is he doing okay? I mean. Stella."

Frannie looked confused. "He's fine," she said, with pitch-perfect bewilderment. "He's wanted to retire to Florida since forever."

But Ray'd got pretty good at reading Frannie, since he'd had to work with her every day for a year, and he knew the difference between normal dumb Frannie and dumb-on-purpose Frannie; in fact, he was the expert on it, considering that Fraser did dumb-on-purpose a hell of a lot to hide embarrassment or hurt or whatever. And Frannie being confused, that was hiding some kind of hurt. It came together with Maria's question at dinner last week, and bam, Ray went from a niggling little feeling to a full-blown hunch. He kept waiting, as patiently as possible, standing by the umbrellas and coat stand with his hand still on Frannie's wrist. He let go. Frannie took a breath and said, "He just -- he got back and then he was gone. He was here for a week, maybe, a week, and then you and Frase go off to the top of nowhere and Ray decides to hook up with your ex and go bowling --"

"Hey," Ray said gently, "hey, hey," and found that he was kind of holding her, in the awkward brotherly patting-her-back way, and the world was making a funny kind of sense. Ray'd given the finger to every out-from-undercover protocol he could by running off to Canada and using his sick days as some stupid excuse for readjustment, but Vecchio had broken protocols and then probably the sound barrier by going to Florida.

Con jobs. Wow but Stella could pick 'em.

"Sorry," Frannie muttered, but Ray shook his head, said, "Nah, nah, you just -- you want me to call him?"

Frannie snorted. "Oh yeah, Kowalski, as if."

"Okay," Ray said easily, and ducked out the door.

He went home, and he stared for a little while at the way his duffle was still half-packed, and he shrugged, and he called Vecchio. Luckily Vecchio actually answered. Ray hadn't rehearsed anything for Stella. "Hey," he said to Vecchio. "I gotta investigate about a million dollars worth of stuff stolen from some swanky jewelry store. Think I should care about their damn insurance premiums or just shelve the case?"

A startled silence.

"The Maple Leafs won, didn't they," Vecchio said.

Ray snorted a laugh. "Right, I forgot, you got the nice suits. You probably love swanky jewelry stores."

"Suits are too hot in Florida." Ray could hear a faint boom-crash, boom-crash coming through Vecchio's line in hypnotic rhythm. Huh. Beach. "Stella likes jewelry," Vecchio added, and again Ray couldn't figure out the tone: somewhere in thirds defensive and resigned and mocking.

"Always did," Ray said, folding down onto his couch. "Wanna hear the facts of the case?"

"No," Vecchio said.

"Good," said Ray, and told him anyway.

*

The case was closed about twenty-four hours later. The problem, Ray thought, dragging the cuffed perp into Interrogation Two and going through the motions just in case the guy was dumb enough to confess straight out, the problem was that Ray was stale. Like bread, he thought, and the perp stared at him, said, "What?" so Ray had to repeat the damn question. He was tired, rung out, and probably mixing metaphors, but the case had made sense for the half-hour he'd been on the phone with Vecchio, and here he was, less tired, less stale, just for this one moment.

When he got home, his fingers remembered the pattern of Vecchio's phone number.

"Solved it," he said, instead of hello.

"You're a loony," Vecchio said right back, not even missing a beat this time.

"I'm not the one living in Florida," Ray told him; Vecchio gave a little huffing laugh of agreement, and bitched about dolphins, and laughed at Ray's story about Maria's oldest kid. Ray chatted, flipping channels blindly, listening to Vecchio's voice and liking the way he could talk on the phone without panicking and loving, really loving, how he knew they both loved Frannie and wanted to punch Fraser sometimes and knew what Stella looked like when she was asleep. It should have pissed him off. Didn't.

Vecchio hung up on him this time, during a pause in the conversation, and Ray soft-shoed his way back to the kitchen to put the phone away.

*

It turned into a habit. Ray'd done it for Frannie the first time or two, but after that he did it for himself. "Frannie's taking art classes," he'd tell Vecchio, to hear the groan of horror; "Stella's figuring out the pros and cons of adding a concession stand," Vecchio'd tell him, and Ray'd say, "Wow, I really, really don't care," just so Vecchio could say, "Yeah, me neither," and be okay.

If Ray got stuck on a case, he'd start to call the Yellowknife line, and his hands would shake badly enough he'd have to punch the couch a few times to calm down. He always ended up calling Vecchio instead; Vecchio called him names -- "Stanley" and "What are you, stupid?" being possibly the top two contenders -- and Vecchio didn't always have good advice, but he always had something. The something kept the tiredness and the staleness from becoming too much, barely, barely.

Sometimes Stella would pick up the phone. The third time it happened, she said "Ray --" and Ray said, "Hey, Stell, if you want --" and Stella said, "No, I think it's -- thank you," and after that they didn't talk much. Ray'd ask her how it was going, and she'd say fine before patching him through to Vecchio, and that ... Ray looked forward to that part too. He'd hear Stella's voice for a minute, easy and without any mess; that was all.

*

"And then, and then," Vecchio said, half-incoherent with the ridiculousness of it, "he falls off the stupid rocket-van and gets arrested again," and Ray started laughing until he cried, shuddering helpless laughter with tears running down his cheeks, and if Vecchio could figure out what was going on from the sound of it, he didn't say a damn thing.

*

"Undercover's lonely," Ray said once, during a lull in conversation, and Vecchio was quiet for so long that Ray considered hanging up, leaving that hanging, calling back the next day to ask Vecchio how the dolphins were doing; but Vecchio said, quiet, hoarse, near a whisper, "It is," and they sat in silence for a long time after that, long enough for Ray's neon wall clock to give the soft electric buzz of the hour and the sky outside to go pollution-pink-orange. "Thanks," Vecchio added finally, and it knocked the breath right out of Ray, how fucking brave Vecchio was to say that. "Yeah," he said back, or something like it, and hung up because he didn't have anything else to say.

The next day he did ask Vecchio about the dolphins, but his heart beat just a little bit faster, and when Vecchio laughed Ray grinned involuntarily. It was roughly 1300 miles from Chicago to Florida, and Ray loved every single one of them. They were all nice and safe.

About 3600 between Chicago and Inuvik, but Ray was not counting those.

*

At the tail end of the muggy summer he got a postcard from Fraser. It had a picture of Inuvik's igloo-shaped church on the front, round white and gray with blue sky above and a neat green lawn. The back of the card had way too many colorful postage stamps, with Ray's name and address fit neatly in the squeezed middle, and the left-hand side of the card was covered with Fraser's equally neat handwriting:


Ray -- The summer here is delightful, but my time in Chicago has led me to appreciate year-round nighttime hours. Maggie & Diefenbaker send their regards. Maggie would love to see the photos of our adventure when they are developed; Dief would like a care-package of food. (Ignore latter request.) Hope you are well.
Regards, B. Fraser

"Fuck," Ray said once he'd read it. He stuck it to the fridge with a magnet in the shape of a large yellow R and ran to get the photos developed, because a double homicide case and staying up to watch a baseball game and bitch about it with Vecchio were all shit excuses for forgetting about the photos. He took Fraser's camera out from his bedside table and dropped it off at a one-hour-photo place, ordered three copies of everything, and came back in an hour for them. Of course they weren't ready for another few minutes, all of which Ray fidgeted through, but eventually they were good to go.

Ray took them home and sorted the photos into their three piles, pausing over every one, just staring. A glossy of the whole team, Dief sitting proudly up front, most of the other dogs also beaming at the camera like the sweet smart bastards they were. The snowcapped Mackenzies, their vastness reduced to a scale the human brain could process through the magic of a camera. Ray, with a funny hat and the fuzzy beginnings of a beard, drinking coffee from his tin mug and squinting unselfconscious into the distance, like he actually belonged there. Fraser kneeling in the snow, halfway through checking the dogs' traces, having caught Ray out with the camera, looking up into it with the faint beginnings of a smile that made Ray's chest feel funny and awful.

Of course he hadn't developed the damn pictures.

He mailed one set of photos to Fraser, with the little scrawled note Sorry it took so long, hope you like them and way too many stamps on the envelope; the second set of photos got mailed down to Vecchio, with a much saner number of stamps and a different scrawled note: Here's the wilderness bullshit you weren't missing. The third set went back in his bedside drawer with Fraser's camera, which was disposable and not good for much anyway.

For a few days Ray wanted to ask Vecchio if he'd gotten the pictures, but first it seemed like it hadn't been enough time, and then Vecchio didn't mention it, and eventually Ray forgot about sending them at all.

*

September came around in an endless miserable series of trial dates. Ray got out his good suit, strangled himself up with a tie, and repeated the big words to himself all morning before he was called to one witness stand or another. Like Stella said, juries didn't trust dumb cops. No screwing up.

Ray'd just shuffled into his apartment after testifying on the damn double homicide, still shrugging out of his jacket, when the phone rang. Outside the lone tree on the block was starting to go fire-orange. Ray picked up the receiver, jacket half-off. "Kowalski."

"Hey," Vecchio said. "What's your address?"

"What?" Ray said blankly, but he gave the address before Vecchio could explain himself. Even then, though, he couldn't quite resist asking. "Uh, couldn't you have asked Stella?"

"No," Vecchio replied, simple, immediate, and Ray stared in surprise into the middle distance that happened to contain that one vibrant tree. "Oh," Ray said, and Vecchio laughed, a bitter little chuckle. "Yes, 'oh,'" he said, and hung up.

Ray stopped staring at the tree and stared instead at the phone for a little while. Then he shrugged off his jacket, loosened up his tie, thought about making dinner, and decided to pull out all the takeout menus he had instead, and stare at them for a while.

He'd almost decided on definitely calling Sandor for a pizza delivery when the knock on the door came. Ray set the menus down, took a deep breath, tried not to freak out, and went to answer it.

It was still surreal to see Vecchio standing there, in slacks and lawn shirt of a better quality than Ray could ever possibly care about, sunglasses tucked against his collar, clutching a large suitcase kind of pathetically. Vecchio's face was tired, exactly the same kind of tired Ray suddenly vividly remembered it being; he had a little less hair, and his shoulders were slumping, but he looked at Ray straight on, pretty damn calm in the face of things, and Ray leaned against the doorjamb, matched Vecchio look for look, waiting.

"Hi," Vecchio said finally.

Ray ducked his head and stepped aside from the door. "Come in."

Vecchio came in. He dropped his suitcase next to Ray's couch and looked around, staring at the chili-pepper lights, the wall clock, the couple of cacti, the mismatched living room furniture, the huge four-leafed clover stuck to Ray's fridge as a relic of some St. Pat's Parade past, the clutter and the dust and the queer half-lived-in Rayness of it all. Ray realized he was holding his breath, but he didn't try to let it out, just stood there all studied casualness. "Huh," Vecchio said finally. "And people really thought you were me?"

Ray shrugged loosely. "You, uh, you fool some of the people some of the time, right?"

"Right," Vecchio agreed, and looked over at Ray again. He got a little smile on his face, halfway between smirky-smug and genuine. "At least you clean up all right."

"Huh?" Ray glanced down. Right. Court clothes. "Don't get used to it," he said. "I had trial today."

Vecchio nodded and wandered into the kitchen. "How'd that go?"

Ray trailed him, feeling a little unreal. This was exactly like a fucking phone call, weird pauses and the sense of distance included. "Bad," he said. "Double homicide. We'll put 'em away, but ..."

"Pizza?" Vecchio said.

"Maybe," said Ray.

"Fine," said Vecchio.

They stared at each other. It was like trying to stare down a cat.

"Stella?" Ray asked.

"Fine," said Vecchio. "She loves the bowling alley."

Ray nodded. "How long are you staying?"

Vecchio blinked and looked away: still a cat, just one that'd got bored of the staring contest. "Until I can tell my ma, I guess."

"You get the couch," Ray said, and Vecchio's wry smile suggested he'd heard that a lot lately. Ray's chest started going tight again, so he came into the kitchen, bumping shoulders companionably with Vecchio while he reached for the phone. Vecchio elbowed him back, just shy of too hard, while he was dialing, and Ray swatted him away. Ordering the pizza, he probably sounded like a crazy person: "I'd like -- ow! -- half pineapple and -- fuck off! -- half pep -- hey -- pepperoni. Yeah, thanks -- dirtbag!" He slammed the phone down and glared at Vecchio, not even meaning it, because no one had even touched him since -- since Frannie's little freakout, anyway, and he didn't think that really counted.

Of course Vecchio pretending to punch him shouldn't really count either.

"So," Ray said.

"Don't," Vecchio said immediately. "Not today."

"It's probably karma anyway," Ray offered. "She couldn't stick it out with me, and since I was you ..."

"You're gonna sprain something with that logic," Vecchio told him.

"Yeah, maybe," Ray agreed.

They had about fifteen minutes before the pizza arrived. Vecchio definitely had more stuff than what would fit in one suitcase. Ray had no idea what Ma and Frannie and everyone knew or didn't know about Vecchio and Florida and Stella and his current living arrangements. Ray's heart was still beating too hard. He looked at Vecchio again, and Vecchio looked at him, and Ray started getting words stuck in his throat. They had nothing to do with turtles or polar bears and geography, but they were still the same words.

Vecchio could keep looking at him steady for a lot longer than anyone else was able to, but eventually they both broke off at the same time, Vecchio untucking his sunglasses from his shirt and setting them down on the breakfast bar, Ray shuffling his feet. Vecchio mumbled something about seeing what was on TV, and out of the blue and the roil of words, Ray blurted, "Wait." Fucking finally.

Vecchio paused. "Yeah?"

But that was as far as Ray'd ever got. He got to the Inuvik airstrip and said Wait and somehow things turned out magically different, fell into a pattern that was something besides numb distance, but all of it was entirely vague. This was his kitchen, and this was Vecchio, the guy who'd run off with his wife, who had a crazy sister, whose record as a detective had been completely terrible before Fraser'd turned up and sorted him out, who hadn't known Stella since they were thirteen but had been knocked down by her just the same, who'd called him every day for months now and filled up all the silences, pissed him off, made him laugh, was standing right here, and "Holy shit," Ray said.

"Yeah?" Vecchio repeated, apparently still waiting for the whole rain of pennies to drop.

The worst that could happen, Ray reasoned, was Vecchio could punch him. That would be okay. So he squeezed his eyes tight shut for a moment, holy shit, opened them, and reached out to cup the curve of Vecchio's jaw. His hand was shaking. Vecchio's skin was only a little raspy from his trip, and he didn't pull back; he didn't even look really surprised. He just stood there, with Ray's fingers against his cheek, just let Ray stand there too, shaking like crazy. It was the nuttiest game of chicken Ray'd ever played.

Then Vecchio breathed out, a small exhale that sounded like relief, leaning into the pressure of Ray's palm and then past it, forward with a terrifying momentum that Ray sure as hell wasn't ready for -- and rested his forehead against Ray's, the two of them standing there like total freaks in Ray's kitchen. This close Ray could hear -- almost feel -- that Vecchio was breathing just as unsteadily as he was, and that was comforting, and it was -- yeah, it was kind of a turn-on, too. "Holy shit," Ray added again for good measure.

"We established that," Vecchio agreed, and one of his hands was tugging gently at Ray's tie, not actually demanding anything, just holding it, this foreign object tethering Ray to him. Ray went from a little turned on to a hell of a lot in the space of a second or two. He was wobbly and dizzy and it was just Vecchio's hand on his tie, it was nothing.

"This is not," he said, and he meant -- he didn't even know what he meant.

Instead he leaned forward, going with the faint tug, and he was kissing Vecchio, soft, exploring, not first-kiss material at all. It was a kiss that already knew what he liked -- maybe they'd averaged out with the common Stella-factor -- and it was a hello, a nice-to-see-you-home, open-mouthed with languid hunger. Vecchio's hand tightened a little on Ray's tie, tugging him closer, and just like that they rocketed to a different kiss entirely, a deep dirty please-fuck-now kiss that had Ray shoving Vecchio back against the wall, rocking against him blindly, barely able to think.

Vecchio made a pleading sort of noise and then actually pulled away, pushing Ray back gently when Ray completely refused to get with the program. Vecchio's eyes were almost entirely black, and he was panting for breath, but he said, Ray's magic word right back at him, "Wait."

"Wha -- why?"

"Pizza," Vecchio said.

"Bullshit," Ray told him, because a) considering how turned on he was right now, a quickie was definitely not out of the question, and 2) pizza was definitely not the issue here.

"Fine," Vecchio said, because he was smart after all, except he seemed to be agreeing to the sentiment, not actually getting back to the important business of kissing the hell out of Ray. He took another not-quite-in-control breath. "This is a rebound."

"Ever rebounded on a guy before?" Ray demanded.

The little wry half-smirk came back. "Nah," Vecchio said. "From, though."

Oh.

"Oh," Ray said, all the fight going out of him.

So that's the way it was. For once in her life, Stella got to be the second choice, and Ray -- Ray didn't know what the hell that made him. Safe, maybe. The only safe thing in the world. That's what it had felt like a minute ago, the not-for-Stella saying-hello kiss, safe. Ray looked at Vecchio, and Vecchio looked back with his cat stare, and Ray thought: he's not even really attractive, not like -- And Ray thought: I don't know if I really like him, but I -- And Ray thought: thank you, thank you, thank you.

What actually came out of his mouth was "Then why did you leave?" and wasn't that the winning line, even stupider than saying thank you out loud would have been.

But Vecchio didn't take it. One of his hands was still fisted in Ray's tie, the other pressed against Ray's chest, come-here-go-away all wrapped up, Ray still gripping at Vecchio's shoulders and wrinkling his stupid lawn shirt, and Vecchio did not say Why did you leave? Vecchio said, still calm, "I thought it might go away if I was someone else."

Ray thought of Stella. He stared past Vecchio's shoulder at the not-dark of the Chicago night. The orange tree was just a shapeless dark mass now. "Sometimes that works."

"Not with Fraser," Vecchio said, the wryness back full-force, and Ray flinched away. He couldn't fucking help it. If Vecchio said anything then it would be everything, and that -- that would be a mess. Broken glass everywhere. He found one of the takeout menus and started flipping through it blindly, and he could feel Vecchio standing behind him, not crowding him in, just there.

"I didn't know until I'd decided to --" Vecchio said, and then he ran up against a wall, against the Bookman. Good, Ray thought. The menu in his hand was fluttering minutely. But Vecchio took a deep breath and started talking again. "And when I got back, well. Didn't take Einstein to see how things had worked out. And you're not a bad guy, Kowalski, so I thought --"

"Wow, thanks," Ray snapped, turning to glare at Vecchio, but at this point it was like trying to stop a runaway train. Vecchio just looked at him, this knowing look that reminded Ray of both Stella and Fraser, a freakish double whammy that shut him right up.

"So I thought maybe it was okay," Vecchio said. "Fraser seemed happy, and then I got shot, and then there was Stella, so ..."

Apparently something was expected of him. "So we both screwed up," Ray said.

"Maybe," Vecchio said calmly. "On the other hand I actually did something with the number you gave me." He stepped forward, almost-not-quite crowding Ray back against the breakfast bar. "Once a week, Kowalski. Would it have killed you to call him once a week?"

Ray grit his teeth and looked at some vague point beyond Vecchio's left ear. He could feel the faint warmth of Vecchio's body. It was seriously distracting. And Vecchio was looking at him again, meeting his eyes square on. Ray wondered what it would've been like to be interrogated by the Bookman. Fuck. "I couldn't."

"Yeah, that's what Benny said you said," Vecchio agreed.

"Oh," said Ray, and grabbed Vecchio by the lapels, his body going right ahead with it without consulting his brain, because Fraser and Vecchio had been talking, about him, and that was not -- not buddies, not okay, uncomfortable and weirdly frightening and making Ray kind of shake Vecchio without actually trying to do damage.

Vecchio held really still for a moment and then relaxed, sliding his arms around Ray. That was unexpected too, the way the kiss had been, the easiness of it. Inch by inch Ray relaxed, until he mostly wasn't vibrating anymore.

"Okay?" Vecchio asked quietly.

Ray ducked his head, face against Vecchio's shirt collar, and mouthed at his neck, just because. Vecchio huffed out a startled noise and held on. "Okay," Ray mumbled. "Pizza first. We'll work out the flight itinerary in the morning."

*

Chicago to Toronto, Toronto to Calgary this time, Calgary to Yellowknife, and then a long layover there before they could catch the next one to Inuvik. There was a layer of snow on the ground, and the only interesting thing inside the poky terminal was a display of a polar bear chasing a seal at the baggage claim. Vecchio regarded it gloomily. "Ever see any polar bears?"

"Once," Ray said, settling down for the wait with his duffle bag as a pillow. "Far off."

"Huh," Vecchio said, and kept shooting glances at the polar bear.

They hadn't even really had to pack; most of Ray's stuff was already in his duffle, so he'd just tossed in his shaving kit and toothbrush and parka. Vecchio was already packed too, obviously, and he had come prepared for a possibly too stylish Chicago winter, which was probably okay for now -- it was September, so with any luck it wouldn't be much below freezing, although Ray was not discounting negative numbers. If -- assuming a hell of a lot of ifs, actually, Vecchio might end up needing to get something a little warmer.

Ray stared at the display seal, diving through a hole in the concrete ice to get away from the polar bear, its back flippers still in the air but its nose poking down into invisible water, frozen halfway to freedom. "Before I left," Ray said. "He said he'd be okay going back to Chicago."

Vecchio turned to look at him. "I thought the Mounties liked him now."

"Yeah," Ray said. "Exactly. So I, uh."

"Huh." Vecchio settled down next to Ray, leaning back against his suitcase, which definitely was not as comfortable as Ray's duffle. "Good," he said finally. "Benny doesn't know when to stand up for himself."

"I guess not," said Ray.

They hadn't called him. They hadn't talked about whether or not to call him; they hadn't talked much at all. Ray'd been grateful for that; he wasn't sure if he was going to blurt something stupid, and Vecchio had seemed to understand. They ate their pizza, and Vecchio had called the airport asking for flights to Canada, and Ray had jittered around packing, writing a note to his landlady, another to his mom, stealing the phone from Vecchio so that Vecchio cleaned up dinner while Ray called the station and listened to Welsh's complete lack of surprise when he asked for more sick days. That pretty much took care of things, since Ma Vecchio didn't even know her son was in town. Then Ray went to sleep in his bed, and Vecchio went to sleep on the couch, and throughout the long day of flying it had been driving Ray quietly nuts, the way Vecchio was two inches from him. Vecchio read some trashy courtroom drama, and Ray stared out the tiny windows at Canada gliding by below them, and here they were in the Yellowknife airport, only a couple hours of tiny prop plane away from Fraser.

"Think we should've called?" Ray asked.

"It'd give him time to overthink things," Vecchio said.

"Huh." Ray slouched down and closed his eyes. "So it's a charitable act."

"Probably," Vecchio agreed. Ray felt a whisper of sensation against his hairline, and cracked his eyes open to see Vecchio withdrawing his hand, not pretending he hadn't just touched Ray's hair for no good reason. He even met Ray's gaze head-on, still calm as anything, assured, and Ray wondered what had gone down, why the hell this guy existed and wasn't panicking about looking at Ray like this in a poky airport in Canada. Ray swallowed hard and looked away.

"I'll wake you when it's time for our flight," Vecchio said. Ray mumbled acknowledgement and drifted.

*

They got into Inuvik a while after dark, although not too late in terms of actual hours in the night. Ray led Vecchio across the frozen tarmac and into the warm; at the information desk he thought of asking where the RCMP detachment was, and instead just asked for directions to Constable Fraser's cabin.

The woman at the information desk gave Ray a close look. "He's out by the delta," she said. "It's twelve kilometers." As though she expected Ray to tear off walking in ten-degree weather with Vecchio in tow, all the way up the highway into Inuvik. Ray raised his eyebrows, and after a moment the woman twigged that he wasn't actually a tourist. "I'll see if someone's good for taking you."

"Yeah, thank you kindly," Vecchio said, and dragged Ray away from the information desk to make indignant faces at him.

About an hour later, though, someone came through, a guy with all-wheel drive who did supply runs and lived right outside of town. "Yeah, yeah, his partners from the States," the guy said when Ray introduced them, and he offered to drive them straight to Fraser's cabin, talking all the while. "No trouble, no trouble at all," he reassured them. "It's lucky you came when you did, you know. Constable Fraser goes off for weeks at a time. You ask me, his sister's not enough to keep track of him, and she's as crazy as he is." He glanced sideways at Ray, who was sitting shotgun, and luckily missed Vecchio's eyeroll while he sat in back with the baggage. "You look like you could talk some sense into him."

"Yeah, sure," Ray agreed, deliberately not looking at Vecchio this time.

The guy with the truck pulled off the dark and mostly smooth highway onto a dark and bumpy smaller road, and that put an end to conversation and any chance of exchanged glances for a while. Ray rode with the bumps, figuring out their arrythm, but by the time the truck came to a stop he still felt like his teeth were rattling a little. "This is it, boys," the guy said; Ray and Vecchio both thanked him, climbing out, and a moment later the truck had roared back off into the freezing night.

It was mostly dark where they were, except for the cabin sitting off about fifteen feet away, one window glowing yellow-warm. Vecchio squinted at it, but Ray looked away, up at the skudding clouds and glimpses of a zillion stars, until his eyes adjusted and he could see the flat shine of the snow around them, the different glitter of the delta off in the distance. Something inside him relaxed and unwound and went quiet, wait, like someone had hit a giant pause button on Maggie's porch and he'd been vibrating in angry frozen motion until this moment. He turned back to Vecchio, night-vision instantly ruined by the light shining out of the cabin window. "You good?"

Vecchio seemed to consider this seriously. "Yeah," he said. "I'm freezing. Let's go."

Ray flashed him a grin. They crunched in step through the snow up to the door; about five feet from it, Dief started to bark, his crazy excited Ray's-here-Ray's-here! bark, and for about the millionth time Ray really suspected he wasn't particularly deaf. "Better than a doorbell," Vecchio muttered, and Ray had time for a snort of laughter before the door opened and Fraser was standing there.

The laugh died in Ray's throat; his heart had leapt up and was trying to pound its way out. It was just Fraser's silhouette, standing calmly in the doorway, but for a second Ray's legs completely refused to work, and in that second Vecchio stepped up to the door. "Hey, Benny."

"Ray," Fraser said, blankly; and again, with real pleasure, "Ray! What are you doing here?"

"Oh, y'know, we were in the neighborhood," Vecchio said.

"We?" Fraser's backlit form peered around Vecchio. "Ray," he said again, in a rather different tone of voice; flat. "Were you in the neighborhood too?"

"I --" Ray said.

"You gonna invite us in, Benny?" Vecchio asked pointedly.

"Oh! Yes, yes, of course," Fraser said, and stepped back into the light, so Ray could see his face properly: it was settled into a careful expression of puzzled shock, and Ray didn't believe it for a damn instant. He followed Vecchio in, though, because he wasn't equipped to stay outside for the night. He couldn't quite bear to look at Fraser, so he looked around the cabin instead: a couple of adjoining rooms, a blanket or two, almost exactly like Maggie's cabin except that Fraser's was devoid of anything besides the essentials. Ray didn't have time to figure out what he thought about it, though, because he was accosted by Dief, almost knocked down and definitely slobbered all over.

Behind him he heard Fraser say, "But Ray -- really, why --" and Vecchio's overriding, "We were just on planes all damn day, Benny, how about dinner first and drilling afterward?"

"Ah, yes, of course," Fraser said, and retreated to the kitchen-end of the cabin. Ray stayed crouched next to Dief, scratching behind the mutt's ears and wondering what exactly they'd thought they were doing, coming up here. They hadn't thought, was the answer, but maybe that was a good thing -- maybe it was better to do first and try to talk afterward, at least where Fraser was concerned.

"I'm sorry, I really don't ..." Fraser was saying, and Ray tuned back in around some explanation concerning Fraser having stocked up on trail food, not food for guests. Vecchio was looking fairly skeptical about this -- probably picturing nuts and trail mix or something -- so Ray put in, "Soup's fine, Frase," and Fraser's shoulders relaxed a little. Ray went back to making nice with Dief.

Five minutes had them all sitting on the floor with bowls of soup. Ray figured Vecchio's culture shock would be setting in around now, but Vecchio actually seemed to be doing pretty well; he threatened Dief improbably and, having satisfied himself in intimidating the wolf, settled into eating his soup sitting on the floor without fuss. Ray hunkered down too and enjoyed it, the first good meal in a long day. If there was no noise except Dief's contented panting and the clink of spoons, that was okay, they could eat in silence without it being stupidly awkward; if he could feel Fraser watching them, still artfully puzzled, well, Fraser could damn well wait until they were done eating.

Fraser did. Barely.

No sooner was Dief nosing hopefully amongst the dregs than Fraser sat up very straight and said, with great care, "Ray -- Ray -- I was given to believe that both of you have any number of responsibilities that are, in fact, quite a long ways from here --"

"Nah," Ray said, cutting him off at the pass. "Not really."

This had the unfortunate effect of bringing the full weight of Fraser's regard down on him, polite scrutiny that made Ray want to hunch down smaller or maybe hit Fraser. "Really," Fraser said evenly.

"Benny," Vecchio said, quiet, and Fraser's gaze stayed fixed on Ray for a moment longer before swinging around. "I left Florida. And Stella."

"Really," Fraser said again, but this time when he glanced back at Ray it was with uncertainty; Ray had no idea what Fraser had expected, if he'd expected anything, if any of them were even making sense right now, but Fraser definitely hadn't expected that. "Then ..."

"I don't know," Vecchio admitted. "I packed up and went to Kowalski's."

Fraser's confused look was fixed on Ray again now, bearing down, a huge invisible weight in Ray's chest. He braced himself for the long haul and said, "I don't mind. She's happy, it's good."

"I see," Fraser said.

He was doing that thing again. "You're doing that thing again," Ray told him.

Fraser started looking wary. "What thing?"

"That thing," Ray said, and it wasn't as though his life had been on pause, it was like the damn thing was on rewind, zipping back through all the moments when Fraser'd been deliberately dumb or missed giving Ray his cue, left him hanging, screwed them up, and he scrambled to his feet, Fraser and Vecchio both looking up at him with identical wariness. Ray twitched his shoulders, not dispelling any of the pressure-cooker atmosphere. "That thing where you say 'ah' and wait for someone to figure it out, that thing where you keep thinking things but you never say them, and I end up -- I --"

The words got abruptly scrambled and stoppered up again. Ray stood there shaking.

Fraser got slowly to his feet, a careful graceful unbending. He'd gone a little flushed. "You'd like to hear what I'm thinking, Ray?"

"Yeah, Fraser, I'd like that," Ray snapped.

"Right." Fraser went even straighter. "I'm thinking that once you commit to a course you should stick with it. That if you're to reject any overtures as to my return, and make no effort to contact me except by some short obligatory reply, you shouldn't presume to turn up here without warning. That --" and here he turned to Vecchio, who'd stood up slowly too, all three of them standing in the same few tight wary inches of space "-- it hardly makes sense to drag Ray into it as well, or to follow him up here if that's --"

"Benny," Vecchio interrupted, and Ray had to clench his hands into tight fists to keep from hauling off at him, because at least Fraser was saying something, even if that something was closing his throat up tighter and tighter until he almost couldn't breathe. But "Benny," Vecchio said, "we both wanted to come up, okay?"

"Why?" Fraser demanded, and Vecchio -- Vecchio looked a little surprised. Like maybe he'd never seen what Fraser was like when he and Ray were doing a number on each other. Jesus. Ray got ready for the I don't know, because he sure as hell didn't, had nothing besides Where the hell else am I supposed to go, but Vecchio --

"Because you're you, Fraser," he said, in this funny gentle voice that Ray didn't really recognize. "Because you jump offa buildings and clean up neighborhoods, and every day I could wake up in Vegas with five guys asking me who I wanted killed today and I'd know that somewhere you were rescuing cats and babies and little old ladies. And I thought, once I'm out I'll do something different. I'll go somewhere else and be fine. But you know the funny thing about somewhere else, Benny? I'd wake up every morning in the sun and Florida was exactly like Vegas: I'd think, well, at least somewhere out there Fraser's still making the world a better place. And Kowalski? He'd be doing that too. He solved a double homicide last month."

"Vecchio," Ray said.

Vecchio flicked him a glance and looked back at Fraser. "I'm tired," he said. "I'm not sure about the snow yet, but at least it's not sunny all the time."

Fraser nodded slowly. "Good," he said. "Good. I'm glad."

"I'll go do the dishes," Vecchio added, and started gathering them up, clattering around, pretending he was out of the conversation. Ray watched him do it, partly to avoid Fraser's eyes but mostly because he was having to substitute looking for touching right now, the curve of Vecchio's back in a soft grey sweater where he wanted to settle his hand on the dip between Vecchio's shoulders, just make sure Vecchio hadn't become a sun-bleached ghost somewhere in all the pretending even though Ray knew better than that. Vecchio moved deliberately out of their space, even though the kitchen wasn't technically in the next room so much as just delineated away from the couch-and-woodstove living room part of the cabin. Ray braced himself and looked up.

Fraser was watching Vecchio too, but after a moment he looked over at Ray with slow reluctance, stared at Ray pleadingly, and Ray realized: Fraser didn't know what the hell to say any more than he did. Which was --

Which was. That was it, it just was, the way kissing Vecchio was familiar-odd, the way Ray remembered what he had to do to get his night vision here. Ray watched Fraser shuffle through and discard a dozen speeches in the space of a second, so he looked at Fraser with the best little smile he had and said simply, "I love you."

Fraser stared at him, not looking any less lost. For a horrible moment Ray thought he didn't get it, and then the inch of space between them was gone, and Ray really was back on the airport tarmac, brought there by the half-crushing warmth of Fraser's embrace. He buried his face against Fraser's shoulder and breathed in woodsmoke, Dief-fur, flannel, snow, Fraser surrounding him without even a hint of Mountie-uniform-wool to get in the way. "Wanna stay," Ray mumbled into Fraser's shirt. "Don't care about Chicago, stupid."

"I know, Ray," Fraser murmured, and squeezed Ray a little harder, and let go. He cleared his throat, but other than that he didn't tighten up again, just turned towards Vecchio. "Do you need any help with the dishes?"

"Nah, I got it," Vecchio said, coming back over nonchalantly. "Hot and cold running water, Benny. You getting soft or something?"

"Not at all, Ray," Fraser said, with a crooked little smile. "Just all the comforts of home."

"Hey, you see me complaining? I'm not complaining." Vecchio gave an easy smile. "But it was a lot of flights, so I'm beat. What are the sleeping arrangements?"

*

Fraser only had a cot, stupid self-denying freak that he was, but there was more than enough floor space, so they hauled out all his blankets and sleeping bags. "We're getting a bigger damn bed, Benny," Vecchio said; "Of course, Ray," Fraser returned, a little too calmly but with the corners of his eyes crinkling up in pleasure. "I got a scout badge for sleeping on the floor once," Ray told Vecchio, and Vecchio said "Of course you did," and they wound up with Fraser lying in the middle, Vecchio on one side and Ray on the other. They didn't really touch; hell, Ray was still living in this weird suspended place where he wondered what kissing Fraser would be like. If it was even allowed. Besides the one blurted confession, which, Ray faced it, he'd even said before without things changing, no one had said anything about what they were actually doing in a cabin in Inuvik.

Fraser had turned out the lights; Ray could still see the cabin's rafters, barely, in the flickering glow of the stove fire. "Fraser, they need lesions up here?"

"Lesions?" Vecchio repeated disbelievingly from Fraser's other side.

"Liaisons," Fraser said. "I should think so, Ray."

Ray waited for more, listening to the crackle of the fire, to Vecchio and Fraser's breathing not quite synched up, and felt the ends of his fingertips buzzing with how huge and insane and -- and okay this was. "So we'll keep being cops here," he said.

"Yes," Fraser said, and breathed out a sigh like the tension was leaving the room, leaving all of them. "And I suspect my sergeant would be glad to hear I have backup."

Vecchio snorted. "Aren't we all."

"Okay," Ray said. "Greatness." He stared up at the rafters again, contentedly, starting to drift on warmth and that queer wonderful sense of stillness.

He might have briefly fallen asleep, or maybe just stopped paying attention, but he became suddenly aware of shifting bodies and turned to see Fraser and Vecchio wrapped together in silhouette, apparently unselfconscious about it. Ray propped himself up on an elbow and watched with sleepy fascination as he began to make them out from the surrounding dark: Fraser and Vecchio, kissing deep and torturously slow, Vecchio half atop Fraser, Fraser's hands loosely fisted in the lapels of Vecchio's pajamas. Fraser made a soft rumbling pleased noise, and Ray echoed it without meaning to.

Fraser heard him anyway; he and Vecchio pulled apart slowly, both of them turning to look at Ray.

"Hey," Ray said softly.

Vecchio laughed, this quiet happy sound, and leaned right across Fraser to kiss him. Ray returned it willingly, another of those hi-nice-to-see-you kisses, made slow and sleepy, except that the warmth under Ray wasn't sleeping bags and blankets, it was Fraser, and he had to break the kiss, panting in shock at the surge of heat he'd felt on that realization.

"I --" he tried, but Vecchio was already getting out of the way, Fraser propping himself up on his elbows to meet Ray halfway, and he was kissing Fraser. Kissing Fraser, and, fuck, wearing too many damn clothes, and Fraser -- Fraser'd been kissing Vecchio like he was savoring something wonderful, but he was kissing Ray like Ray was air, something desperately necessary. Ray hung on, giving as good as he got, no matter that it was making him shake, no matter that it scared him a little, and -- there was a hand on his back, Vecchio's hand, smoothing in repetitive hypnotic motions. Ray slowed down to match, and under him Fraser went abruptly liquid, like being kissed slow and deep actually dazed him.

Ray pulled back and stared at Fraser in wonder. Fraser looked back at him, and his mouth curved upwards in a faint smile. Ray grinned back, and turned his head, and kissed Vecchio again, blindingly happy, Vecchio's hand still on his back, one of his legs getting slowly wedged between Fraser's, Fraser whispering, "Ray, Ray," one for each of them, tangling together.

"This is," Ray said, and Vecchio murmured back, "I know," a meaningless little call-and-response, sound for the sake of it, and Ray said, "No, listen."

Vecchio's hand on his back slowed a little, still rubbing circles that radiated heat all through Ray, keeping him from tensing up again. Ray looked down at Fraser, and Fraser reached up to touch his face gently. The faint smile was gone now, and Fraser looked serious; happy, yeah, his hair mussed and his face so damn open, waiting for any cue Ray might want to give him, any at all. "This is gonna be ... It scares the hell out of me," Ray said, glancing sideways at Vecchio, including him in this too. "But I ..."

The words weren't stuck this time. It was something different; it was too big for words, this thing that was happening, the warmth flaring up bright in Ray's chest, Vecchio and Fraser here with him, completely focused. No one had ever paid attention to him like this; not even Fraser had, before now, because Ray sure as hell would've noticed. Fraser must have realized this, too, because his smile came back, crooked and apologetic this time. Ray beamed back, because finally, finally they were on the same page here.

"I," he repeated helplessly, and this time when Vecchio leaned forward to kiss him again, the unspoken I know meant he really did.

*

In the morning Ray woke up, naked and warm and a little disoriented in the tangle of blankets, to find that Vecchio was trying to figure out how to cook breakfast on Fraser's little cabin stove, and that, rather than helping him out, Fraser was grinning like a loon, holding a new disposable camera and taking picture after picture after picture.