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He Hadn't Stopped Christmas From Coming

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"Vecchio," Kowalski snarled, his hands flat on my desk as if that was the only way he could keep them away from my throat. "What are you giving Fraser for Christmas?"

I stared at him. He'd been avoiding me ever since I got back from Florida to find him already here (and at my desk, the fucker), and now he finally comes over--for this? Actually, now I thought about it, I could see his point. It was the week after Thanksgiving, which meant Christmas season had officially started, and I had ideas for everyone on my list but Fraser. "Not a clue," I admitted. "You?"

"I am not getting him a fucking book, Vecchio," Kowalski said, glaring at me like I'd ever suggest such a thing. "No fucking way."

I rubbed at my eyes. I hadn't slept a wink--a big case had blown up in my face (literally), and when I finally made it home, Frannie's baby had kept me up crying all damn night. Thinking about Fraser was the last thing I needed. "Does he even get mail up there?"

"Sure, he goes into town on the snowmobile and picks it up," Kowalski said, and I kinda hated him for knowing that.

"I know what," I said in my most obnoxious voice, "maybe we could find him a hand of Franklin. I hear he's been looking for one of those."

Kowalski flinched, and I thought for sure he was gonna take a swing at me, but instead he just grabbed the edge of my desk until his knuckles turned white. Something about the movement pushed up the edge of his shirt, and I saw--don't ask me why I was looking there, maybe his belt buckle caught the light--I could tell by the creases in the leather that he was buckling his belt a hole tighter than normal. So what? I told myself. Maybe it's a second-hand belt anyway, probably buys his clothes at the fucking Salvation Army.

"Shit," I said. "Look, that was a stupid thing to say. I didn't get any sleep last night. The Marley case."

He nodded warily. "Seems like the faking-your-own-death cases always come at the holidays," he said. "Dunno why."

I grimaced. "That's because you didn't spend Thanksgiving with my family."

Kowalski grinned. It was kind of a nasty grin, but it was still a grin. "I did last year. Never again, Vecchio. Not even your mom's manicotti is worth that."

The reminder that he'd stolen my life for a year should have pissed me off again, but somehow it didn't. Now I was looking, it was pretty obvious he could use some cheese and carbs. His sweater didn't quite cling the way I remembered. "You feel the same way about dinner? 'Cause Ma asked me to invite you over for leftovers." It was true, but I hadn't been planning to tell him.

Kowalski laughed. "Never planning to tell me, huh?"

I don't know why I was surprised. I guess because Fraser wouldn't have called me on it. "There's still plenty of manicotti left. Why, you got other plans?"

He gave me a resentful glare, and I could tell he was about to make up some crappy excuse just so he didn't have to tell me he had nothing going on.

That was Kowalski for you. I do something nice, invite him over for dinner, and he turns it into a pissing match. Well, fuck him, he was gonna lose. "What's wrong, Stanley?" I asked, leaning back in my chair and giving him the Bookman's what, are you too chicken to bet your life savings on a rigged game grin. "Afraid you might have to change a diaper?"

He gave me a weird look. "Fine," he said. "Have it your way, Vecchio. I'll be there at 6:30."

It turned out Kowalski could change a diaper in about 8.3 seconds. He babysat in high school. Go figure. It also turned out that a nice red wine and Ma's cooking had the same mellowing effect on both of us. If the government had had Ma on the case, the Cold War would have ended with the Manicotti Treaty of '46. Of course, it would just have started again the next morning when Truman woke up and realized that in a fit of temporary insanity he had agreed to go Christmas shopping with Stalin after work.

###

Christmas shopping started out okay. That was the thing I always forgot about Kowalski--yeah, I hated the idea of him more than anything else in the entire fucking world, but the guy himself? Not half bad. And I don't think anybody else could have understood just how hilarious buying Fraser bear earmuffs and fuzzy reindeer slippers was. Because reindeer and caribou are actually the same thing, so...maybe you had to be there. But me and Kowalski were in stitches.

So I was annoyed when I left him alone for, I swear to God, thirty seconds tops to check out the new line of Versace ties, and he got in a fight.

"Hey, that's for my niece!" I heard him say loudly. I sighed, dropped the tie I was holding, and started elbowing my way back to the toys.

"Well, now it's for my daughter," someone said, and Kowalski lost it. Just lost it. By the time I had nudged aside several little old ladies looking at porcelain dolls and got him in my sights, he was threatening to kick the guy in the head.

He was facing down some huge asshole holding a yellow-and-blue box. The guy was at least ten years younger than either of us, and also about a hundred pounds heavier. Normally this kind of thing would have drawn a crowd, but the week after Thanksgiving in Chicago department stores, it's weird if you don't have people threatening to kill each other over dolls. In fact, I could see two young moms going at it over an action figure in the next aisle. Bra straps showing all over the place.

I coulda been watching that. But no. "What the hell is going on, Stanley? We do not have time for this shit."

"This asshole is stealing Gabriella's Nascar Barbie, that is what is going on!"

I looked at the box. Sure enough, Barbie was wearing a blue jumpsuit and carrying a helmet. Kyle Petty was checking out her ass on the inside of the box. "Gabriella wants that?"

"In fact, she wants the Happy Holidays Barbie," Kowalski admitted, pointing at a Barbie wearing a giant black dress covered in diamonds and a pink wrapper. "But I am not getting her that. That would not be progressive of me. So hand over my Barbie, you stupid fuck!"

I rolled my eyes. Sure, we could take this guy, but he wouldn't realize that until I was holding him down and he had Kowalski's boot in his ear, and I just wasn't in the mood. "Let it go, Kowalski. We're leaving." I turned to go.

"Thank you," Mr. High School Football said. "And tell your friend to take his Ritalin."

Suddenly, I was in the mood. Yeah, Kowalski was a twitchy fucker, but he'd been willing to risk grievous bodily harm for the privilege of spending thirty bucks on Maria's kid. Who he apparently listened to when she was going nuts over toy commercials. I turned back around. "Shit, did you forget your meds, Stanley? Last time you forgot your chill pills on the job, my boys had to clean up the mess. You do it again, they're gonna take the overtime outta your skin."

Kowalski's bad cop was legend for a reason. He got it right away. "What, you think I can't take 'em?" he said, starting to dance a little on the balls of his feet. "Fuck you, man!"

"What did you just say to me?" I asked him, real quiet. Asshole tried to edge away, but I kinda stepped sideways to block his route.

"Nothing, boss, I didn't say nothing." The nervous fear on Kowalski's face looked so genuine that for a second I thought I was back in Vegas. It wasn't a good feeling, but fuck it. I turned to Asshole.

"I apologize for my colleague's behavior," I said. "I've tried to explain to him that undue force is bad for business, but what do you expect from a Polack?" I sighed. "It's too bad. My niece woulda loved that doll. But I'm sure your sweet little girl will love it just as much." I paused. "What's her name?"

Finally Asshole had the sense to look nervous. "None of your fucking business," he said.

I raised my eyebrows. "Guess not," I said. "Here, let me make it up to you. My friend and I will wait and help you carry all these gifts for your little girl out to your car." I put my hands in my pockets and shifted so he could see the edge of my holster. "The lack of security in the parking garages around here is a crime, don't you think? We wouldn't want anything to happen to you."

"That won't be necessary," Asshole said, looking real scared now. He tried to edge away again, but I stepped right in front of him and gave him the Bookman's shark smile, the one he gives you right before he either sells you something or puts a cap in you.

"Fine," Asshole snarled. "You win." He shoved the Barbie at Kowalski and scuttled off.

Kowalski whistled. "Jesus, Vecchio, that was terrifying." He was grinning from ear to ear.

"You better hope neither of us ever runs into that guy on a case," I said.

He shrugged. "Come on, let's buy this stuff and get out of here before he thinks it over and calls Security."

We ended up in a Chinese place near the mall. Kowalski was still glowing. It made it hard to feel like crap, but I did my best. "For fuck's sake, Kowalski, we're too old for this shit. What have you got to prove to that guy? Being him is punishment enough. You think he's got anything you want?"

"I know he does," he muttered. I had no clue what he was talking about so I ignored it.

"So, what, you wanted to hear his nose crack under your fist? You wanted him curled on the floor in a ball begging while you slammed your boot right into his teeth?"

He frowned at me. "Yeah, except for the part where you made me sound like a sociopath."

"Yeah, well, take it from me, it's not as fun as it sounds."

I expected more crap from him, but instead he was quiet for a few seconds. "It was rough in Vegas, huh?"

That threw me. I rubbed the back of my neck and told him the truth. "The worst part was that sometimes Armando Langoustini came out sounding a hell of a lot like my dad."

"That was your dad?"

I snorted. "Nah, it was only when Armando lost his temper. Pop wasn't smooth."

He nodded.

I hadn't even told him the real worst part, the part I couldn't say out loud, which was that the way people reacted to him reminded me of Ma and us kids, and instead of making me feel sorry for them, it just pissed me off--because why were they such damn cowards, letting an asshole like me push them around?

The other real worst part was that being my pop was easy. It was being a nice guy that was hard. Had always been hard.

"Frannie told me some stories about your dad," Kowalski said.

"Yeah?"

"She said you used to protect her. She told me one year she dropped his birthday cake and you said you did it."

"Yeah, don't make me out to be some kind of hero for not wanting my kid sister going around with a black eye," I said harshly.

"I wasn't," Kowalski said. "Shit like that, that's just what you do when you're not a scumbag."

I blinked, and actually felt a lot better. Because all I really wanted was to not be a scumbag. Being a hero, that was more Fraser's thing.

"Sometimes I worry about turning into my dad too," Kowalski told me.

"Yeah? What's wrong with him?"

"He's overweight and balding."

I couldn't help it. I cracked up.

"Hey, I'm serious," Kowalski said, but he was fighting a grin too. "You think I could pull off this look with no hair and a gut?"

"You get baldness from your mom's side of the family," I told him.

He grinned at me. "Guess you'd know, right?"

"Fuck you, Stanley," I said without heat.

So I was feeling kind of okay, right up until he snickered and said, "Man, that guy didn't even know what hit him. Never thought you'd do something like that. Sure, I heard rumors you were dirty, but the way Fraser talked about it, you were the moral compass for the greater Chicago area."

"I was never dirty," I said flatly. I'd put my life on the line for a year, a fucking year, every goddamn hour of every day, and I still had to deal with this shit. "Fraser really said I was a stickler? Because to me it was always 'Ray, that was a stop sign' and 'Ray, perhaps we ought to wait for a warrant' and--"

"Oh yeah," Kowalski said, sounding bitter. "He talked about you all the time. 'Ray Vecchio this, Ray Vecchio that, Ray Vecchio would have jumped off this bridge if I asked him to.'"

That hurt like a bitch. "He said that?"

"Not in so many words," he said. "But the message was clear."

I sighed. Fraser wouldn't have thought about it like being whipped, I knew that. He would have thought it was about my commitment to justice, or some crap. "I probably would have," I admitted quietly.

"Then why did you leave?" he blurted out. He was fiddling with his disposable chopsticks, not looking at me.

I really didn't want to go into that with Kowalski. "It was a once-in-all-our-lifetimes chance to plant a guy high up in the mob," I said, which was true but also bullshit.

Kowalski sneered. "I didn't mean Vegas. I meant with Stella."

"Jesus, Stanley, are you still pissed because I slept with your ex-wife?" I asked.

He set the chopsticks down with a snap. "Yes, you asshole, but I meant because of Fraser. He was all set to go back to you, and then you up and eloped."

It was pathetic, but I asked anyway. "He was gonna partner with me again? He said so?"

"Of course not," Kowalski said impatiently, picking up his chopsticks again and tapping them on the table. "This is Fraser we're talking about. But I asked him, and he made this long speech about how even if we were separated, we'd always be partners in our hearts. If that ain't the Canadian version of letting a guy down gently, then I am the fucking Queen."

He was right, and for a second I thought maybe I'd made a terrible mistake. Then I remembered what I'd been like when I got back. "Look, Kowalski, I couldn't go back on the streets again yet. I was fucked up, I had just been shot, I wanted to not carry a gun for a while, okay?"

"How stupid do you think I am, Vecchio? I ain't just talking about him wanting to be partners. I am talking about you breaking his fucking heart." He snapped one of the chopsticks in two, right in my face. Crack.

So much for not getting into that with Kowalski. For a second I could barely breathe--and then anger swamped my panic. I broke Fraser's heart? That was a joke. Not that I was laughing. And yeah, I could have pretended I didn't know what Kowalski was talking about, but he wasn't Benny. He'd just call me on it, and I didn't want to draw this conversation out any longer than I had to. "Fraser is straight," I said tightly.

Kowalski's eyes practically bugged out of his head. "Fraser is straight? Are you stupid, Vecchio? You seen him with women?"

That did it. I saw red. I was five seconds away from going Bookman on him for real, and I could not do that. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Stupid, but it works. "Yeah. Yeah, I seen him with a woman. And believe me, when he was with her he didn't even know I was alive."

Kowalski rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Victoria Metcalf. The only woman he ever loved, right? He told me about her once."

Fuck, that hurt. Just thinking her name hurt worse than either of the bullets ever did, and Kowalski could just say it, just like that, like it was nothing. God, I hated him. "Yeah? Did he also mention he was running off with her and leaving me with no career and a mortgaged house because I put up his bail?" I demanded--then stopped, horrified. I'd never told anyone that. As far as anyone else knew, Fraser had been pursuing a fleeing criminal. If it got out, it wouldn't exactly be great for his career.

"Yeah," he said.

"What?"

Kowalski waved his hands. "Look, it came up because I was kinda ragging on you for running off with Stella, and the poor guy was saying he didn't blame you for not wanting to work with him anymore, talking about how he got you shot twice and everything. And, well--you know how Fraser just listens, sometimes? He's all quiet, and the quietness just sucks the truth out of you like a vacuum cleaner?"

I put my face in my hands. All of a sudden I missed Benny like crazy. It was like Vegas in the beginning, back when I still let myself think about Fraser. I used to miss him so bad I'd do stupid crap like imagine calling him on the phone. I never got very far with it, though. Just imagining Benny's voice saying Hello made me almost lose it. "Yeah," I said. "I know."

"I think Canada does that for Fraser," Kowalski said. "He talked about stuff sometimes, up there. Anyway, he kept calling her that. The only woman he ever loved. And I'd heard parts of the story from Huey and Frannie, too, and they said that, too. 'The only woman he ever loved,' like that was how he always talked about her."

"What is your point, Kowalski?" I demanded through gritted teeth.

"Come on, Vecchio, you ain't that dumb. Fraser is the most literal guy on the planet. He meant only person, he'd have said."

I stared at him.

He kept going. "Look, I seen him with women too. After you went to Vegas he kinda threw himself at them. One had the cutest bunch of obnoxious kids you ever saw, and another one turned out to be his sister."

I blinked. "Fraser has a sister?"

"Yeah, he didn't know either. The point is, Fraser does not want a damn girlfriend, Vecchio. He wants a family. The man is queer."

When he said that, I put a couple things together. Like what Asshole had that Kowalski wanted, and something Stella had said about Kowalski wanting kids and that being a problem. At the time I had just felt relieved, because the last thing I'd wanted to think about was kids with Stella. But now I thought, Takes one to know one, huh, Kowalski? Fraser isn't the only one who wants a family. And I really wanted this weird and disconcerting conversation to be over, but then I thought of a clincher.

"Maybe, maybe not, but if he is he sure as hell isn't out and proud," I snapped. "Not five seconds after he left my hospital room, Frannie came running in to tell me he'd finally confessed his love for her."

"You left because of that?" Kowalski went absolutely white. "Are you kidding me? Are you saying this is my fault, Vecchio? Are you fucking telling me that this fucking mess is my fault?"

What the hell was his problem? "No. I'm saying--"

"Fraser didn't tell Frannie he liked her," he interrupted me. "I did."

"Huh?"

"Look, Vecchio, Fraser was a fucking wreck right then, okay? I mean, we didn't know if you were gonna be okay or not, and he was pacing back and forth outside your door pretending he wasn't crying, dead to the world, I was five seconds from doing the whole blink-once-if-you-can-hear-me thing. And out comes Frannie and he starts this long Fraser speech about how he's bad at talking about his feelings, and--look, Vecchio, I don't know what he was gonna say. Maybe he was gonna confess his love, I kinda doubt it, but he's done more fucked-up shit than that. I was pretty sure he was about to come out to her. But whatever it was, he'd spent a lot of time and energy on not doing it and he was completely beside himself and feeling guilty as hell. Friends do not let friends drive drunk, okay? So I told Frannie he meant he liked her, and she left so he could go in and see you which was what he obviously wanted to do in the first place." He shook his head. "Shit. I do not fucking believe this."

"That was a shitty thing to do to Frannie," I said. It was more of a placeholder in the fight than an actual reaction, which I hadn't gotten around to having yet. I was just kind of staring.

"Yeah," he said quietly. "I know. Shit. I'd forgotten all about that."

He'd forgotten. My first impulse was to pound his head into the wall. "You forgot. Christ. That was none of your fucking business, Kowalski!"

He sucked in his breath hard, and I remembered that I'd run out on Benny with nothing more than a phone call and left Kowalski to pick up the pieces. Of course Kowalski thought it was his business.

Yeah, I was still mad. Because even though that didn't even make it into the top ten horrible things that happened to me that week, it still hadn't exactly been pleasant to lie in my bed of pain watching Frannie cavort around shrieking He likes me! He likes me! Oh my God, Ray!

And you know, it wasn't even that I was jealous or that I wanted Fraser so damn bad. It was that after the first five minutes--during which I seriously considered suicide by painkiller--I actually thought about it, and it was pretty obvious that it wasn't true. Fraser and Frannie? Yeah, maybe stuff had changed while I was gone, but I didn't think so. Fraser had never given a rat's ass about Frannie. So this was just one more way for him to fuck over my family with his politeness and his sexy uniform and his complete inability to have the balls to say, You know what, Francesca, I'm not interested. And then he hadn't even called her when he decided to stay in Canada.

It was actually kind of a relief, not having to be mad at Fraser anymore about that. And Frannie was okay. She'd already been pregnant three months after Fraser left, and she seemed happy now, which made me think that whatever Frannie wanted, it wasn't actually Fraser.

"You're right," Kowalski said finally. "I was out of line."

Something about the defeated way he said it reminded me of the day I came back. Kowalski had stood to lose a lot, he'd been scared shitless, and I had been miserable and still half-Bookman and sure as hell hadn't made anything easier for him. Fuck, I'd twisted the knife on purpose, and he'd made it so easy. So maybe Kowalski hadn't really been in a place where he could deal with hearing whatever Fraser had been going to say either.

And you know, even if he had just done it to be an ass, I wasn't sure I could really blame him. If I'd had a chance to do something like that to his family that week, I--

I went cold. Because I had. I'd seduced Stella. Turned out my running away was Kowalski's fault after all. Because yeah, Stella was a knockout and just my type--integrity you could see coming a mile off and a tendency to boss me around--but I hadn't thought of anything serious until I found out her last name was Kowalski.

I could have told him that. He'd have stopped feeling guilty pretty quick. But somehow I couldn't bring myself to do it. "Look, Kowalski, there were a lot of reasons why I left. I was a mess, okay? Me and Fraser--it's not your fault."

Kowalski just shrugged.

"So why'd you never make a pass, Detective Gaydar?"

"I got no interest in being anybody's rebound guy," Kowalski snapped.

###

Two days later, Fraser called. Unfortunately I had a new cell-phone number so he called the precinct, which meant everybody in the bullpen knew exactly who I was talking to. I picked up the phone, totally unprepared, and he said "Ray," and I looked up and everyone in the entire room was staring at me with avid curiosity. And just hearing his voice was the greatest thing that had happened to me in weeks, just his voice. A year undercover, and nothing I had done was as hard as saying, "Hey, Benny, how's it going?" in a normal tone of voice.

"Well, Ray. And you?"

"I'm okay, Fraser. What can I do for you?" I realized maybe that didn't sound as friendly as it could have, but then again, he hadn't called once since he went back to Canada. So I maybe wasn't feeling as friendly as I could have, even though his voice was doing weird things to my stomach.

"Well, Ray, I've made plans to spend my Christmas holiday in Chicago, and I was wondering if I could spend a portion of the time with you."

As unfriendly as I was feeling, the words were out of my mouth before I even thought about it. "Sure, Benny, you can spend all of it with me."

"That would be lovely, Ray," he said, and he actually sounded relieved.

"You need a place to stay? The house is gonna be full of Vecchios, but I'm sure Ma could find a spot for you."

"Thank you kindly, Ray, but I've already made arrangements to stay with Ray Kowalski."

Kowalski. That lowdown fucking bastard. That was what this was about. I looked across the room and he was leaning back in his chair, watching me. Not smug or anything. Just real serious. He knew exactly what Fraser was saying. "That's interesting," I said. "Because I talked to Kowalski two days ago, and he seemed to think you were gonna spend Christmas with your sister." He'd said that to me, and then he'd gone and called Fraser and repeated every pathetic thing I'd said, and now Fraser thought--what did Fraser think? That I was a wreck, probably. That I needed him. Which was true, but I hadn't wanted Benny to know.

"Well, Ray, it can be very difficult to reach Maggie's cabin at this time of year," he said.

I couldn't help noticing it wasn't actually an answer. Especially since the threat of death by snow had never stopped Fraser from doing anything before. Just to fuck with him, I said, "So is it true you put the moves on her?"

There was silence for a moment. "I'm surprised Ray broached the topic. His conduct was equally unbecoming." He sounded unusually snippy.

"When is it not?" I asked, glaring across the room at Kowalski.

###

Five seconds after I'd hung up I had Kowalski up against the wall. "What the hell did you say to him?" I demanded. "What the hell did you tell him?"

He grinned at me, his body easy and loose like I didn't have my thumb on his windpipe. "You wanna talk about it here?"

Right then I almost didn't care about the entire precinct watching us. But only almost. "You are gonna make this up to me, Stanley," I hissed. I couldn't think about Benny or love or any of that, it was too big and scary, so I thought about Christmas presents instead. "You know how to play hockey?"

###

This was the worst idea I had ever had, and if you know me, that's saying a lot. But I knew it the second Kowalski got in my car and I had to turn off the ignition and just sit there holding on to the steering wheel so my hands wouldn't shake.

"What did you say to him?" I asked again.

"That's for me to know and you to--" he started saying with a smirk, but I turned and looked at him, and there must have been enough scary in my face to make him shut up. "Okay," he said softly. "I did not tell him anything you said before. I told him you got a picture of the two of you on your desk. And I told him Stella thinks things didn't work out for you and her because you were still in love with someone else."

I blinked. "Stella said that?"

"Yeah."

I snorted. "She's one to talk."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

I gave him an incredulous look. "How stupid are you, Kowalski?" It was a question we seemed to ask each other a lot.

"Stella was the smart one," he muttered. "Take us to California Park."

"California Park?" I asked nervously. There would be people at the California Park rink. People who would see me fall on my face. "Can't we just find a pond or something?"

"No," he said. "You don't know what you're doing, you start on a smooth surface. Plus, we need to rent skates because I'm guessing you don't own a pair."

I pulled out of the spot and turned towards California Park.

"So Fraser likes to play hockey?" Kowalski asked. "I mean, he's gonna think this is a good present? Because in his place I might think we were just cheapskates."

"No," I said decisively. "Fraser loves hockey. He has this friend who's a pro player, and one time he made me put on skates and then he and this guy totally reamed me and a twelve-year-old. And Fraser was grinning. I had bruises for weeks."

Kowalski snickered. "Sounds kinky."

"Fuck you, Stanley."

###

"Three things, okay?" Kowalski said.

We were on the rink--or rather, he was on the rink and I was clinging to the edge of the gate.

"One. No worrying about looking stupid. It's like learning to dance, you can't think about how you look or you'll never get anywhere. Two. You're gonna have to touch me, and I am going to have to touch you. I know guys don't do that, but hey, we both already know we're both queer. So fuck it. Three. Ignore that four-year-old doing the triple axle over there. Being her is punishment enough. Bottom line--you got nothing to prove, right?"

He grinned at me, that cocky challenging grin of his, and I sure felt like I had something to prove. Not to the freakishly talented toddler in the middle of the rink, maybe, but to him? Sure. Look at him. He might be dressed like a bag lady, and he might have lost a little weight, but his clothes still mostly fit and you could see that he was all lean twitchy grace and athleticism. And he thought I maybe had a chance with Fraser. I didn't really want to be there when he realized how totally out of my league Benny was.

How would Armando Langoustini handle this? I thought, trying to work up some bravado. The answer was obvious--the Bookman would never put himself in a situation where he knew in advance he would be humiliated. Because the Bookman didn't love anybody enough to do that. Okay. I straightened and skated three feet forward--and fell on my face.

###

Five minutes later, my hands and knees hurt like a bitch and Kowalski was laughing his ass off. "How do you do that?" he asked. "Most people fall on their ass on the ice."

I glared at him.

"Okay," he said. "I'm gonna skate backwards in front of you, and if you think you're gonna fall, just grab me."

That actually worked for a couple go-rounds, even though I felt like a complete idiot clinging to Kowalski's arm, and even though it annoyed the hell out of me that he could make skating backwards look so easy.

"I think I've got it," he said. "You're carrying your weight wrong."

I looked up from the ice to his face and promptly lost my balance. I grabbed for Kowalski, he grabbed for me, and a second later we were sprawled on the ice in a tangle of arms and legs.

"Ow," Kowalski said, but he was laughing, little bits of ice in his hair and his cheeks red from the cold, and I could feel the softness of that damn bag lady jacket with the fake fur collar through my gloves. Fuck, fuck, I did not need this. This was the last thing I needed.

###

"This is gonna take some doing," Kowalski said. "Okay. You and me here, twice a week, from now till Christmas. You got my number?" After forty-five minutes he'd called a halt, telling me I'd be sore enough the next day as it was. We were sitting in the pizza place down the block. It wasn't great pizza, but being cold makes me hungry.

God. Twice a week. Even apart from having to spend that much time with Kowalski, I was gonna be one giant bruise. "Yeah," I said. "You really--you really got time for this?"

He didn't look at me. "Hey, anything for Fraser, right?"

"Yeah," I said. "Anything for Fraser."

We were both quiet for a minute, stuffing our faces. "Did you mean it about Stella?" he said, drawing meaningless lines in some salt that had spilled on the table.

I looked at him. "What, about her still being in love with you?"

"Yeah."

My loyalties in this situation were supposed to be to Stella. I should just keep my mouth shut. But she'd told Kowalski she thought I was in love with someone else. What goes around comes around. "Is this really a surprise?" I asked. "You guys were together for like twenty years."

"Twenty-two," he said, shaking more salt onto the Formica so it looked like he was drawing pictures in snow.

"Yeah, yeah," I said. I had never known whether to find that nauseating or to be jealous. Of course, it hadn't worked out.

"I guess it's not," he said quietly. "I just--she never told me why she left, you know? So I wasn't sure sure."

"She never told you why she left?" I asked, surprised. "That doesn't sound like Stella."

"Nah," he said, hunching his shoulders even more than normal. "She just fed me this line of bull about how she loved me but we were going different places, we weren't making each other happy, we didn't want the same stuff, blah blah blah--what the hell is your problem, dickwad?"

I couldn't help it. I was laughing. "Come on, Kowalski. Sure, with most girls, that's code for not wanting to tell you to your face that your dick is too small. But Stella? She meant it."

He blinked. Then he said, "You think she misses me?"

"She talks about you all the fucking time," I said. It wasn't quite true. Stella was a thoughtful girl--she knew she wasn't supposed to talk about her ex to her new guy. But they'd just spent so much time together that he'd creep into almost any conversation. And when he didn't--well, I got real good at spotting when a story had been expurgated. "Come on, Kowalski, you guys were best friends her whole life. You think she can just walk away from that and it not hurt?" I'd only been best friends with Fraser for three years, and two years later I still felt weird and wrong without him.

"So why'd she leave you?" he demanded, like it was payback time.

I looked at him. "She didn't leave me, Kowalski. I left her."

He started so violently the salt and pepper shakers rattled. "You did what? Am I gonna have to beat the shit out of you, Vecchio?"

I rolled my eyes. "You're welcome to try," I said. "And I don't think her heart was exactly broken."

"You left Stella," he repeated, like he was trying to wrap his head around it and just couldn't. Of course, Stella leaving me was only to be expected. Well, I couldn't blame him for thinking that. "Why?"

"We weren't going the same places, we weren't making each other happy, we didn't want the same things," I said.

He snorted. "Very funny."

"Look, Kowalski, you've seen Stella bowl, right?"

He got this faraway look in his eye that assured me that yes, he had. Which I'd suspected, because a lot of her stories about the high school bowling team had that incomplete feeling I was talking about.

"So we used to do this thing, where every other Thursday she'd take on anyone who came in, and if they could beat her, they got a round of drinks for them and their friends and five free games. Shoe rental not included. She'd just go up and down the bowling alley, playing in every lane."

He grinned. "Kicking ass and taking names, I bet."

"You bet right. Occasionally someone won, but we made it back about fifty times over." It was my favorite part of Florida. I'd run concessions and lane rental and shoes and all that, and just watch Stella bowl like she owned the place. Which she did own half, obviously, but you know what I mean. And then when everyone went home....

Kowalski whistled. "I bet you had every horndog in a sixty mile radius showing up to that."

"Pretty much. Old Jewish men and teenage boys mostly."

"Didn't Stella hate that?"

"Well, she loved bowling and she loved winning. She wasn't too keen on getting her ass grabbed by old Mr. Goldberg. But he stopped after I had a little chat with him in the parking lot. And he was the biggest yenta you ever saw, so it got around. No one tried anything much after that."

"You threatened to beat up an old man for grabbing Stella's ass?"

"I'm not saying I enjoyed it," I said. "Okay, maybe I enjoyed it." I'd had it in for Mr. Goldberg for a long time by then. He always gave exact change for his shoes and it took him about an hour to count out all the nickels.

"You're a stand-up guy, Vecchio," Kowalski said, leaning back in the booth.

Not really, but if he wanted to think so, I had no problem with that. "Whatever. The point is, there was this one day when she was feeling kind of fed up with the whole thing, and this maybe twelve-year-old girl comes up to her. Twelve was not a good age for this girl--way too much hair, glasses, braces, the whole bit. And this girl asks Stella to sign her ball, and she says, 'Bobby said you couldn't beat him because you're a girl, but you did.' And Stella gets that look in her eye and says, 'You want lessons? We're gonna kick Bobby's ass!'"

Kowalski grinned. "I bet Bobby never knew what hit him."

"Yeah," I said kinda sadly. "That was when I knew it wasn't gonna work out for us."

He stared at me. "Are you crazy?"

"Look, right then I knew this was it for Stella, she was staying, she was gonna own every bowling alley in Florida, and then maybe run for Congress. And I wasn't. Because I mean, as crazy as I was about her at that moment, the bowling alley wasn't it for me like it was for her. I needed to get away from being a cop just like she needed to get away from prosecuting crackheads and scum who beat their girlfriends, but I was going back. I missed the snow, you know?"

He nodded, like he did know, and suddenly I had to ask.

"Why'd you come back? I mean, Canada, Fraser, adventure--you had it all, right?" Honestly, I'm not really a Canada or an adventure kind of guy, but if Fraser had invited me to follow him around the frozen wilds of Canada, I probably would have stayed until I died of hypothermia or got eaten by a walrus, whichever came first.

All the friendliness went out of his face. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I had it all. Look, after you and Stella ran off--it took me a couple days to notice, because I was so bummed about Stella, but when I finally got my shit together to pay attention to him, it was like he just wasn't there anymore. Like he held it together all year, thinking you'd come back, and when you left again, he just--and he tried to pretend like everything was fine, doing this hearty cheerful Mountie act. I mean, he'll get better, but right then his heart was broken. So yeah, I went on a quest with him. I thought maybe I could snap him out of it. But it was so fucking cold and Fraser was so--" He tipped the salt shaker over, like he was resigning a chess game. "I could not hack it," he said.

"It wasn't your fault," I said. "Fraser--"

"Yeah, I know that," he said, glaring at me. "It was yours."

I was starting to maybe believe it. "Fraser's got kind of a history of letting Canada go to his head when he's upset. Did he ever tell you about our vacation up there after I shot him?" Somehow I shot him was still easier to say than Victoria.

"I do not care, Vecchio," he snapped, getting up and shoving his paper plate in the trash. "Drive me back to the station. I left my car."

###

That was how it went, twice a week for the next month. Most of the time we got along fine, weirdly well actually. But every so often Kowalski would freak out, or I would. I knew what my problem was--I was nervous as fuck about Benny's visit. I had no idea why he was coming or what was going to happen, but I knew what Kowalski thought and I wanted it to be true so bad it just killed me.

I didn't really blame Kowalski for being pissy, either. I mean, I was pretty sure he was still into Fraser, and here he was, playing fairy godmother to the two of us. That had to rankle. And it was above and beyond the call of duty--above and beyond the call of anything, really--and I was grateful when I wasn't so pissed off I couldn't see straight.

I got better at skating--nowhere near as good as Kowalski, but I hadn't fallen on my face in a couple weeks. That seemed good at first, because it meant Kowalski wasn't two inches away from me at all times. But then he started showing me how to hold a hockey stick, which meant putting his hands on mine.

It pissed me off, this thing with Kowalski. He wasn't pretty and his clothes were atrocious and yet every time he gave me that grin I got an adrenaline rush. It was the worst possible timing with Fraser coming back, and of course there was the whole thing where he hated me, so what the hell?

Still, things were okay. A few times he even invited me back to his place to watch hockey. Part of the deal, he said. I had to know how the game was supposed to look. He'd explain the different penalties to me, talking a mile a minute and gesturing with his beer. One night he was trying to explain why fighting was an integral part of the sport and what kind was allowed, his eyes glowing with enthusiasm and his hands darting around, and I just couldn't take it anymore.

To distract myself I said the first thing that came into my head. "Is it true you tried to mack on Fraser's sister?"

There was a pause. "I didn't just try, Vecchio. I succeeded. Fraser tell you that?"

"No. She look like him?"

He thought about it. "Not really. She didn't have that movie star thing going. She was like him in every other way though. Bark tea, pemmican, licking things. I'm kinda surprised he wanted to talk about it. I mean, he was going after her hard. It was real weird when we found out."

"He really liked her?" I grimaced. That had to be rough. I guess maybe I was lucky after all that neither of my sisters had been given up for adoption.

"To the max," Ray said. "I mean, at one point I had him trapped in the car and I was leaning on it to talk to her, and he started slamming the car door into my ass. It was very un-Fraser."

I frowned. That was really unlike Fraser. Something about the story was making me uneasy.

"Kissing her was kinda weird," he confided. "Weird and incestuous. Like kissing Frannie or something."

I laughed. "You know, Kowalski, Frannie's not actually your sister."

Kowalski blushed like maybe he'd forgotten. "Yeah, that's what I meant," he said. "Like, it shouldn't be weird, but it is. It was too bad, she was real cute." He grinned at me. "Kinda like Frannie."

"Ew, Kowalski, I did not want to hear that," I said. "You keep your grubby mitts off my sister." I turned back to the TV. "You coming for Christmas Eve?"

"Am I invited?"

"Of course you're invited, Kowalski. Half the city is invited. There is going to be eel for fifty people. Plus, I'm gonna be doing head of the family stuff. You know if you're not there Fraser will spend the entire day fetching stuff for my aunts and listening to them talk about their rheumatism."

"Okay," he said, ducking his head. "I guess I can probably make it." There was a pause. "Wait a second--eel?"

###

I'd asked Kowalski if he wanted to come with to pick up Fraser at the airport, but he'd said it was cool, I should go myself. Which I was secretly pretty grateful for, until Frannie insisted on coming and I could not get rid of her. Just what I'd always dreamed of, my touching reunion with Benny punctuated by Frannie's attempts to get him in bed.

"Frannie, you have a baby now," I said. "You're really gonna come on to Fraser?"

"Fraser likes babies," Frannie said in a superior tone of voice, and I remembered Kowalski saying, Fraser wants a family. Well, hell.

I actually paid to park at O'Hare so I could wait for him at the gate. When he stepped through the door in his brown uniform, it was kind of a shock. Like all the air went out of the room. I mean, I knew how good he always looked, I knew how much I loved him, I thought about it all the time. But when he stepped through that door, haloed in sunlight, I thought, Fuck, I forgot.

And the way his face lit up when he saw me--that was pretty great too.

There was a lot of stupid smiling and hugs and awkwardness, him and me fighting over who would carry his bag. He won, obviously, and seemed to be trying to use the duffel bag as a shield against Frannie as we made our way to the car.

"He gets shotgun," I said, and Frannie actually just rolled her eyes and climbed into the backseat.

"You found another Riviera," he said, running his hand over the dashboard.

Ever since I'd gotten the car something hadn't felt quite right. I'd been worried that maybe it was over with me and Rivs, maybe the spark was gone. But looking at Benny sitting in the passenger's seat, his hat in its old spot on the dash, I realized what had been missing. How dumb was I that I hadn't figured it out before? "Yeah," I said. "After you drove my last one into a lake."

"Well, I'm sorry, Ray, but it was on fire," he said.

"Someone seems to be forgetting that I found the new Riv," Frannie said loudly from the backseat.

"You really want to tell the Mountie you used the precinct's computer to find all the Rivs in the country and then called the owners pretending to be--"

"No," she said grumpily.

I did appreciate it. Just maybe not right now. Not when I hadn't seen Benny in a year and Frannie was blathering on about her love life. He'd barely said a word since he got off the plane. I wanted a crazy Inuit story, damn it. Plus, since Frannie was there, Kowalski might as well have come too. He was one of the only people I knew who could get a word in edgewise with her anyway.

I went through a stop sign, just for old times' sake.

"Ray, wasn't that a stop sign?" Fraser asked over Frannie's voice.

I couldn't help it. I grinned like a loon. So did he.

"So do we gotta pick up Dief from quarantine tomorrow, or what?" I asked.

Fraser blushed. "Actually, Ray, I decided it would be better to leave Diefenbaker with some friends in Inuvik this time," he said.

I did a double take. "No wolf? Why, did he not wanna make the flight?"

"Oh, no, he was very enthusiastic--said it was past time we came back down here. I tried to explain that it was only for a visit, but--he was clearly going to make a fool of himself and embarrass all of us. Who knows if I could even have got him back to Canada."

I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, like that wolf wouldn't follow you to Hell and back."

"Oh, I've no doubt he would," Fraser said. "Giving me advice all the way. He thinks--" Fraser broke off and looked at me sideways. He ran a thumb over his eyebrow. "Well. I tried to explain that sometimes things are complicated, but he--"

"Bad as Kowalski, huh?" I said. It was as close as I could come to asking if it was romantic advice Dief was giving him.

Fraser actually snorted. "Oh, much worse."

"Maybe you should take his advice," I said. Man, I forgot how crazy things got with Benny around. I was actually worried about whether or not a wolf thought Fraser should put the moves on me. "That wolf has your best interests at heart."

"Knows which side his doughnuts are buttered on, more like," Fraser muttered, and I perked up. Because it was me who always gave him doughnuts, right? Although...so did Kowalski. "I told him that perhaps certain kinds of behavior might be acceptable for wolves, although I certainly never read about any such thing, but--" He coughed. "Never mind."

Frannie was sick of us ignoring her. "You guys are weird," she said.

"Well, perhaps," Fraser said, and that was all the encouragement she needed to go off on some story about her latest date.

"--And then I told him that Nicci was sick and I couldn't go, and he broke up with me! How could he not understand that my baby comes first? I bet Canadian men aren't like that."

I looked in the rearview mirror to see her giving Fraser a suggestive smile. I gripped the steering wheel tighter. I'd forgotten just how much this bugged me.

Fraser twisted around politely to look at her. "Well, actually, Francesca, that isn't quite accurate. I remember when Diefenbaker's eardrums burst. I was dating a man named Steve, who was certainly Canadian. Yet I simply could not make him understand that, as Diefenbaker was my wolf, and furthermore had been injured saving my life, my responsibility to care for him had to take precedence over our plans for a romantic weekend of ice climbing. He encouraged me to simply find a dog-sitter, and, well--I'm afraid our relationship was never quite the same."

There was absolute silence in the car. As sure as Kowalski had been--even with the Dief-related double-talk--I had still not been expecting it. And in front of Frannie? Wow. I mean, Fraser was calmly looking out the window like he hadn't said anything the least bit unusual, but I knew it was an act. So Kowalski was right about Fraser being bent. Did that mean he was right about Fraser and me, too?

"Ice climbing?" I said finally. "That sounds real romantic."

I could see him relax a little. "Well, Ray, some of the best frozen waterfalls in the world are in--"

"Steve?" Frannie burst out. "You're gay?"

"Well, perhaps not gay," Fraser said. "I would consider myself a five on the Kinsey scale."

"You're gay," Frannie repeated. "But--but you told me you liked me!"

Fraser bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Francesca," he said, obviously meaning it. "I had every intention of telling you the truth. But when Ray Kowalski interrupted me, I lacked the courage to contradict him."

Everything was quiet for a minute. Frannie looked wrecked, and I felt kinda sick.

"Tell me something," she said, real soft. "Did you guys ever--?" She gestured between the two of us.

I froze.

"No," Fraser said. "Ray prefers women who are--you know--women."

It took me a second to figure out he was quoting me from that time he dressed as a woman. Then my stomach turned to ice. Because this was a test. I'm not saying Fraser was thinking about it that way, or even that he knew he was doing it. But I could feel his eyes on me, feel him listening for my response, the way he did sometimes when we were questioning a scared witness and he was willing them not to lie to him.

I didn't know what he was testing, either. Was he trying to find out if I swung that way? Or was he trying to find out if I would admit it? If I didn't say anything, would that be it? Game over, he'd figure Kowalski was talking out his ass?

And if things did work out, was I going to make Benny be a dirty secret? Make him keep his distance in front of my family? I knew if I asked, he'd do it. And it'd make him feel like shit.

I pulled to a stop at a red light and replayed Kowalski's voice saying, Ray Vecchio would have jumped off this bridge if I asked him to. Benny had believed in me so hard, and I'd let him down so many times.

I slouched down in my seat, extra casual. "Yeah, Benny," I said easily. "It's a neat trick, isn't it? I learned that from you. Used it all the time in Vegas. Who knows why, but a lie that's actually true is a hell of a lot easier to tell."

Fraser's gaze sharpened. "What do you mean, Ray?" he asked carefully.

"See, I do like women who are women. I just also like guys who are guys." I kept my eyes on the road, didn't let myself look at Fraser or Frannie. Didn't let it show that I felt like I was about to have a heart attack. What was Frannie gonna think? What would Ma say? Would Tony ever let me see Maria's kids again?

"Wow," Frannie said. Then, "Is that why you haven't brought any girls home? Because you've got a secret gay lover?"

"Frannie, ew. I never want to hear you say those words again," I said. "And no. I haven't dated that many guys." By which I meant "zero." "I had a bad first experience."

"With who?" Frannie demanded. "Anyone I know?"

"Yeah," I said. "Which is why I'm not telling you."

"Oh my God," she said. "It was Frank Zuko, wasn't it?"

I screeched to a halt by the curb, turned around, and stared at her. "How the hell did you know that?"

"I--I--" she stuttered. "I followed you one night in high school when you snuck out of the house. I figured you were going to see Irene, but--"

I fell back into my seat, banging my head against the headrest. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She hadn't known at all, I could have carried it off. If I were undercover I would never have let a goombah catch me with some shit like that. I would have bluffed it out, no problem. Why did I always fuck up when it was my personal life on the line? "I was going to see Irene," I said. "The thing with Zuko was before that. We were kids."

I looked at Fraser, who was giving me that look that meant he was curious as hell and trying to pretend he was just being sympathetic. With everything he knew about me and Frankie, I couldn't blame him. "Look, it was before he smashed up Marco Matronni's face. Right before. After that I didn't want to anymore, but he said if I didn't he'd tell everyone I was a fag. I was a coward, so we fooled around a few more times, then he lost interest. End of story."

"That little shithead," Frannie said, kind of shocking me. "I am going to--"

I turned around and looked at her. "Frannie," I said, "I hear you have gone within a mile of Zuko, you are going to be sorry, you hear me? And you do not repeat what I just said to anyone. No matter who, no matter what. Because if Zuko hears I outed him, I am going to have to kill him, and I don't want to do that. You got it?"

Her eyes got big and scared, and she nodded.

"Good." I took a deep breath, pulled back onto the road, and didn't look at Fraser.

###

We dropped Fraser off at Kowalski's place. Fraser kind of frowned at me when we got out of the car. "Ray--" he said.

"Yeah, Benny?" My heart started to pound, like I was scared. Fraser didn't know the things I'd done in Vegas, he'd never heard me just talk about killing someone like that, like it was something I could do, he hadn't known--

Kowalski came bounding down the steps and threw himself at Fraser. When that was over, Fraser looked at Kowalski and then back at me. "Never mind, Ray. Thank you for the ride. I'll see you tomorrow."

We arranged for them to come over early the next afternoon for the start of Christmas Eve festivities. "So where's the wolf?" I heard Kowalski saying as I got in the car.

I tried not to feel resentful that they got to hang out with each other in Kowalski's quiet (if filthy) apartment, while I had to get back in the Riv with Frannie and answer her questions about my sexual orientation. It didn't help that I could still feel Fraser's serious eyes on me as we drove away.

But she didn't actually ask me anything. I looked over at her at the first red light, and she was just sitting there, looking kind of pale and freaked out.

"You okay?"

"Yeah," she said. "I just feel stupid. You told me, and I didn't listen."

"Hey, Frannie, I didn't know he liked guys. I swear to you."

She gave me a small smile and shrugged. "Yeah, but you knew he wasn't into me. You told me to stay away from him, that I would just get my heart broken, and you were right."

"I'm sorry, Frannie. I woulda liked to be wrong."

She punched me lightly on the arm. "No you wouldn't have," she said, her crooked smile widening. "I was right too, wasn't I? About you being afraid to go for what you want?"

"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, you were right too."

"Are you gonna go for it now?"

"I think so," I said. "I hope so."

"You better," she said. "It's okay. I've got Nicci now. I'm not going to be alone when I'm old."

"Thanks, Frannie," I said. We drove a few blocks in silence.

"Ray?" she asked in a small voice.

"Yeah, Frannie?"

"Did you have to kill people in Las Vegas?"

I closed my eyes for a second. "Yeah."

She didn't say anything. I looked over, and her eyes were too bright, like she wasn't full-on crying but any second her mascara might start blurring.

I felt like shit. She'd been excited to see Fraser, and now it was all, Guess what, your brother is trying to steal your man--oh, and by the way, he's also a murderer. "I'm sorry."

She sniffled. "I'm glad you're back," she said. "I missed you."

###

Christmas Eve at my house is always a madhouse. Fifty women in and out of the kitchen making seafood, kids everywhere, every available surface covered in presents and antipasti. Since the tree took up easily half the living room, everyone was kind of crammed together, and if you moved wrong you got stabbed in the arm with holly branches. At least there was no mistletoe this year--Frannie had talked Ma out of it after some incident with Cousin Mario the year before.

As crazy as it was, I couldn't deny that I'd missed it. But I was glad Kowalski was there to shield Fraser, who looked a little shell-shocked even though he'd seen it before. I guess he hadn't been fresh from a year in the snowy wilderness then.

It was almost dinnertime when Ma came into the living room and said, "Raimundo, I'm running out of flour. Will you run to the store and get me another five pound bag?"

"Ma, it's Christmas Eve, no place is gonna be open!"

"Actually, Ray," Fraser said, "several of the Chinese grocery stores are open today. I'm sure they would have flour."

"Yeah," Kowalski said. "Why don't you go with and show him where, Fraser?"

Fraser gave Kowalski a slight frown, looking almost--almost hurt, like he thought Kowalski was trying to get rid of him and he didn't like the idea one bit.

"That's a great idea," Frannie said enthusiastically. "Go with Ray, Frase, I'll finish your game of Clue."

I could feel myself turning bright red. Why was being out to my sister and my friends more awkward than being closeted?

I could see the moment Fraser got it. His eyebrows rose and he went still. I expected him to cough or blush or stammer or something, but he didn't. "You're very generous, Francesca," he said, standing up and giving her his cards. He didn't look at Kowalski. "I have reason to believe the crime was committed by Professor Plum in the library, but I haven't worked out the murder weapon yet."

"Benny, you do not say that out loud!" I said. "It defeats the purpose."

"Surely the goal is to solve the crime, Ray, not to seize professional glory for oneself," he said earnestly. But his eyes lit up when I laughed.

On our way out the door I looked back at Kowalski. He'd been watching us, but he glanced away before I could catch his eye. Usually you could see exactly what he was thinking at all times, which was kind of nice when you were used to dealing with Fraser. But right then I couldn't figure out his expression.

###

We found an open store without too much trouble. I was kinda disappointed. At some point things with Benny had slipped back into comfortable, and when we got back to the house, I wasn't really ready to go inside. "Let's sit on the steps for a bit," I said, even though it was twenty below.

Fraser didn't point out that I was insane. He just brushed the snow off the stoop and sat down, elbows resting on his spread knees. I sat too, cradling Ma's sack of flour in my lap. We could hear the sounds of my relatives yammering away--and Nicci crying--even through the closed door.

Fraser kept going with his story. "Naturally Constable W4-261 found this explanation suspect, so we--"

"Wait a second," I interrupted. "There is no way your new partner's name is Constable W4-something."

"Actually, Ray, there is," Fraser said. "She has adopted the name as a form of protest. The Inuit do not traditionally use surnames, so in the forties, the government assigned them numbers for the purposes of government record-keeping. W4-261 is the 'Eskimo Identification Number' assigned to the constable's mother. Many considered this dehumanizing, understandably, but it wasn't until the sixties that"--and he was off in a lengthy explanation of Inuit naming traditions and government oppression. I guess Canada's not any better than us about some stuff. "The constable has reclaimed the number to commemorate her people's struggle. The difficulty most people experience with remembering all four digits is, of course, an added source of satisfaction," he finished finally.

"So what you're saying," I said, "is that your partner goes by a five-digit code because she likes to see the looks on people's faces."

"Well, that's oversimplifying considerably, Ray," Fraser said. "But essentially, yes."

"I can see why you two get along," I said, grinning and trying to pretend like someone else partnering Fraser didn't make me kind of crazy. I mean, it was bad enough when it was Kowalski, but some random person? And when had Kowalski stopped being 'some random person' and become someone I trusted with Fraser?

There was a pause. "Yes, Constable W4-261 will make an able officer," he said finally, but he didn't sound all that enthused either. Did he miss us too?

"Fraser, you know how you always tell Inuit stories?"

"Yes, Ray?"

"When you're up there, do you tell Chicago stories?"

"Sometimes," Fraser said slowly. "Of course, there are generally less people to tell stories to."

I took a deep breath and glanced over at him. "D'you ever tell stories about me?"

"Yes," Fraser said, a wry twist to his mouth. I'd forgotten how expressive his face was. "The most effective stories are about mistakes, and I made a lot of those with you, I think."

Jesus. "You and me both," I said. "Listen, Benny, I'm sorry I ran off to Florida without waiting for you to get back. It was a shitty thing to do."

"I quite understood, Ray," he said politely.

I remembered what Kowalski said about him thinking it was 'cause he got me shot. "I don't think you did, Fraser," I said. "I wanted to stay. I wanted to be your partner again more than anything."

"Then why didn't you?" he asked, looking at his clasped hands. He was trying to do his neutral Mountie voice, I could tell, but an edge crept into it anyway.

I looked up at the stars. In Vegas, once you got away from the Strip, there'd been so many of them. So fucking many, and the sky was so damn black. I liked it here, the way the light from the city made everything fuzzy and dim and comfortable. "Look, Fraser, when you blew my cover--"

He swallowed hard. "I'm sorry, Ray."

"Listen to me!" I snapped. "You think that was your fault? Yeah, I yelled at you, but you really think a guy who's in deep cover with the mob agrees to do a deal in his hometown unless he's got some kind of death wish? You think any wiseguy with half a brain opens a hotel door without looking through the peephole?"

Fraser licked his lips. "I suppose not, Ray."

"I was losing it in Vegas, Benny. If I had stayed much longer--you probably saved my life. When I woke up in the hospital, part of me was disappointed I was still alive. Dying heroically would have been a hell of a lot easier than coming back here to Ma and my sisters and the kids and pretending that I hadn't--that I wasn't a guy who'd--who'd done the things I did. I couldn't go out on the street with you, Fraser. I'd have done something stupid and got us both killed."

I looked over at him. He was doing that quiet thing that Kowalski'd talked about, just watching me in the porch light, his eyes dark and liquid and absolutely not judging me at all.

Everything came spilling out. "One night--fuck, Fraser, one night in Vegas I was lying there and thinking about all the assholes who've pointed guns at us, and I went through, one by one, and figured out how I could have got the drop on 'em and just shot them all. Remember that time I beat up Zuko?"

"Quite clearly, Ray."

"I couldn't figure out why I didn't just kill the bastard. And I mean, it's not like I didn't want to at the time, but I knew I couldn't, you know?"

Fraser nodded.

"And I was lying there, and I couldn't remember why. I just couldn't remember, Benny." Yeah, it would have been wrong, but that had sounded like a stupid reason when I thought about Benny choking on his own blood and Irene with a bullet in her chest. "And there I was, with the air conditioning turned up all the way in Langoustini's Playboy mansion, and I thought about you sweating bullets in that toxic waste dump your landlord calls an apartment building, and I thought, 'I shoulda just killed Frankie. Just beat him to death. Then I coulda run the neighborhood. I coulda run the whole town. I woulda done a better job of it than whoever's doing it now.'"

Fraser kinda smiled. "I have no doubt that you would, Ray," he said.

That surprised a laugh out of me. "Yeah, maybe at first."

He nodded.

"I just couldn't be out in the street with you then, Fraser. I couldn't carry a gun. It wasn't safe. For anyone."

Kowalski would have pointed out that I'd brought it on myself by running off to Vegas in the first place. Fraser just asked, "How do you feel now, Ray?"

I smiled. "Better, Benny."

"I'm glad."

And I realized it was true. I did feel better. I'd been getting gradually better ever since I got back, first taking it easy in Florida at the bowling alley, and then being back in Chicago, on the beat, and then these last few weeks with Kowalski. I'd gradually been feeling more and more myself. And it was like Fraser was the last piece of the puzzle. Like if he still thought I was an okay guy, then I must be. Because sure, Fraser thinks everyone's an okay guy, but he doesn't really. It's like he chooses to believe in people, but if someone's an asshole, he knows it.

I realized that that was what I'd been afraid of, all this time. That I'd fucked it up for good this time. That I'd turned myself into someone Benny couldn't love anymore--or not even that, because I didn't think Benny stopped loving easy. But someone he couldn't have that rock-solid faith in.

"If it helps, Ray, I was actually living at the Consulate at the time you refer to, which has air conditioning."

"How is that supposed to make me feel better that you were sleeping in your office, Benny?"

Fraser sucked thoughtfully on his lower lip. "Yes. In retrospect I am forced to the conclusion that I was depressed."

"I'm sorry, Benny."

"It wasn't your fault, Ray. I did miss you a great deal, of course. Indeed, I--" He broke off. "But I think I had already been unhappy for a long time."

The thing that killed me was, I'd known that. I'd told myself Victoria proved he didn't love me like I loved him, but the truth was, I'd known he wouldn't have tried to go with her if he wasn't already miserable. And instead of trying to figure it out, I let him keep me at a distance because I was scared and mad. And then I'd run off and almost gotten myself killed. I'd told myself I'd do anything to make Benny happy, but I hadn't done a damn thing.

I reached out and grabbed his hand. We were both wearing gloves, but it didn't matter--when he squeezed my fingers my heart started pounding anyway. "Benny, I--"

"Oh, there you are, Raimundo," Ma said, opening the door. "Dinner is on the table! Come inside with my flour before you freeze your nose off!"

"Here's the flour, Ma," I said, getting up and handing it to her. Right then I didn't even care if she'd seen me holding Fraser's hand. I just wanted to finish our conversation. "We'll be inside in a minute, okay?"

But Fraser was already standing politely and holding the door open for me to go inside.

###

"I cannot believe I just ate eel," Kowalski murmured in my ear as we sat around after dinner and watched the kids open presents. He'd somehow ended up wearing a Santa hat, and the fuzzy pom-pom on the end of it kept brushing my shoulder when he leaned in to talk to me.

"You asked for seconds," I said.

"Yeah, it was good," he said. "That was the weird part. Man, I never saw so much seafood in one place."

"It's an Italian thing," I said. "On Christmas Eve there's always seven kinds of fish."

"Yeah, there's a Polish thing like that too, except it doesn't have to be fish, it just has to not be meat. Plus, we get thirteen 'cause we're better than you. Mom always makes pierogies." He sighed. "It's not quite Christmas without Mom's pierogies."

I felt a stab of guilt. He could have been home with his folks eating his mother's pierogies, and instead he was here eating my ma's eel--and why? Because of Fraser? Because he felt guilty about telling Frannie Fraser liked her? I didn't really know. I glanced over at Fraser--and all thoughts of anything else flew out of my head. He was in his shirtsleeves, holding Frannie's baby and making the puffin face.

As if he felt my eyes on him, he looked up and smiled at me, still softly bouncing Nicci up and down, and it was like a punch in the gut. But in a good way. I mean, I thought--I could have a family. This could be mine. Nothing that good ever came to me, and just maybe, here it was.

The sofa dipped as Kowalski pushed himself up, and cool air hit my shoulder where his arm had been pressing against me. Now he was standing next to Benny, who was turning that smile on him. Kowalski leaned over Nicci, shaking his head so the pom-pom on the end of his hat bounced above her face. She laughed and reached for it, and Benny and Kowalski both beamed like a miracle had happened.

They looked so right together.

I went cold. Had Kowalski been wrong all along? Was Benny here for him? But I didn't think it was exactly jealousy I was feeling. I didn't know what I was feeling. The closest I could come up with was that I felt like a poor kid looking through a candy store window in some sappy Christmas movie.

###

I'd meant to sleep in and then head over to Kowalski's, but of course Maria's kids woke me up at around seven thirty yelling. Which, hey, it was Christmas, and since it was Tony and Maria they were trying to drag downstairs and not me, I was cool with it.

In fact, I realized, I was great with it. Christmas in Vegas had sucked. Just me, Nero, fifteen showgirls, and all the spiked egg nog I could drink. It's not Christmas without little kids everywhere. I mean, getting presents is great when you're a grown-up too, and so's giving them, but you just don't get that pure materialistic joy from anyone but kids.

Also, kids are very unlikely to sock you in the jaw when you give them a present. I eyed the small box on my dresser with dread.

###

"Hey, Kowalski," I said when he came down to let me in. "Wait a sec."

Kowalski leaned against the wall in the hallway. "Yeah, I was able to bum some hockey equipment off a friend of mine. We're good."

"That's not what I wanted to talk to you about," I said, taking a deep breath. This was stupid. Really stupid. What had I been thinking? "I got you a present, and I wanted to give it to you here. You know, so if you want to throw it in my face you can do it without Benny watching."

Kowalski raised his eyebrows. "I don't usually throw tantrums when people buy me things, Vecchio," he said. "You really got me something?" He sounded pleased, and my stomach did weird unhappy things inside me.

"Yeah," I said. "I still got the receipt if you want me to take it back." I took out the box, holding it up so he could see the logo on the top.

"What the hell?" he said. I handed him the box, and he flipped it open. His face shut down. Fuck. "What the hell is this, Vecchio?" he demanded.

"It's a watch," I said, aiming for confident and falling way short. It was a Tag Heuer Monaco with a blue face. The model Steve McQueen wore in "Le Mans," which is a very boring movie about race car drivers. They still use his picture to advertise the brand. I didn't even know why I'd spent the money on it, except that Kowalski had done a lot for me and mine--hell, he hadn't just done a lot for me, he'd been good to me. For no reason at all. And I wanted to do something back. I wanted to do something that would make him happy.

It wouldn't get complicated if I just didn't think about it. That's what I kept telling myself.

"I see that, Vecchio," he said furiously. "I also know how much it cost. You trying to pay me for something? This maybe your way of saying thank you for me calling Fraser? Well, let me tell you something, Vecchio, that was not for you. That was for Fraser. A 'thank you kindly' will suffice."

That pissed me off. Did he think I really was the Bookman? That I traded favors like a fucking kingpin? "Calm the fuck down, Kowalski," I snapped. "This has nothing to do with that. You took care of my family while I was gone. You kept Benny from getting himself killed. You think I can put a price tag on that?"

"You sure as hell seem to be trying, Vecchio," he said. "I did not do any of that for you." But he kept sneaking glances at the Monaco.

I gave him a lazy Bookman grin, just to make him mad. "I know that, Kowalski. But what you gotta ask yourself is, are any of the real reasons you did it gonna buy you a watch?"

He turned red. "Fuck you, Vecchio! I'm no style pig, I don't need a fancy watch."

Which was bullshit and we both knew it. "Then why do you know how much it cost, Kowalski?"

If he'd been glaring any harder, his eyeballs might have actually melted. "Yeah, okay, you got me. I thought about buying myself one once. And then I saw the price and I didn't. That thing cost more than your car."

"Well, it cost more than the one you drove into a lake," I said. "It didn't cost more than the one I got now."

Kowalski ground his teeth.

"Look, Kowalski, you really don't want it, I can return it for a full refund. So don't do me any favors. But I can afford it. So could you if you wanted to. I seen those diamonds you gave Stella."

"That was a present for Stella," he said in this voice like I was stupid. That pissed me off, which was dumb because I hadn't skimped on presents for Stella myself. Even so, I didn't really want to know what Kowalski'd sent her for Christmas.

"Yeah, well, that's the beauty of Christmas, Kowalski," I said. "You buy it for yourself, it's irresponsible. I buy it for you, it's generosity."

He looked at me. "You'll really take it back if I don't want it?"

My heart sank. "I got the receipt right here," I said, digging it out of my jacket pocket.

He snatched it out of my hand and ripped it to shreds. Thank you, Baby Jesus. "So I'm not tempted," he explained. "How'd you know, anyway?"

I hesitated, because he was grinning at me, and I was pretty sure he'd stop when he figured out how I knew.

He grinned wider. "Stella, huh?" he said, not sounding mad at all, which surprised the hell out of me. "Yeah, we both fell for Steve McQueen the same summer. I musta just turned sixteen, 'cause I had the Goat. They were doing a film festival thing, showing his movies at one of the drive-ins, and we went to all of them twice. When she found me those Thomas Crown sunglasses our first year in college, she made me wear them every day for a month."

From the reminiscent look on his face I had the feeling that wasn't the only thing Stella made him do every day for a month, but Stella hadn't actually told me any of that. What she had done was make me watch Steve McQueen movies every time they were on TV, including the cop one, and it didn't take much detectiving to spot how she sat up and took notice every time the King of Cool walked on the screen in his tight shirt and shoulder holster. I'd seen Kowalski. I could put two and two together. Plus I'd seen the blue sunglasses since then.

"Yeah," I said.

"Thanks, Vecchio," he said, pulling the watch out of the box. He looked at it from all angles, handling it carefully like it was a bomb. "Sorry I yelled at you."

"I would have been shocked if you hadn't, Stanley," I said, following him up the stairs.

He turned around before we got to his door. "Hey, and look, thanks for telling me about Stella. I mean--it wasn't even that I wanted her back that was killing me. It was that she could walk away so easy."

"It wasn't easy," I said flatly.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess I shoulda known that. But now it's like--I remembered me and Stella weren't just great in bed. We were great a lot of ways."

"Glad to hear it," I muttered.

"No, I mean, I called her," he said. "And we just talked. It was good. I think maybe we can be friends."

He really looked happy. And I bet Stella was happy too. I'd wanted to make him happy, and it looked like I'd succeeded. So what was wrong with me that I couldn't be happy for them? Don't think about it and it won't get complicated. Yeah, right. "That's good," I said. "I'm glad."

He glanced down at the watch and grinned again. "Man, this is gonna make your present look really penny-ante," he said.

The only thing that stopped me from doing the dorky shy You got me something? Really? thing was that he threw the door open and shouted, "Hey, Fraser, look what Vecchio gave me!"

###

"You got me a bowling shirt, Kowalski?" I stared at it. It was purple, with a red stripe down the left breast. In the middle of the stripe there was a pin-up girl looking coyly over her shoulder. I swear to God. It was the tackiest thing I'd ever seen.

"It's very colorful, Ray," Fraser said, and I couldn't tell if he was encouraging me to compliment it or subtly mocking Kowalski's taste.

"Well, I signed us up for the district bowling league," Kowalski said, smirking. "And I know how you are about having the correct attire at all times."

"You signed us up for the bowling league?" I asked. "I can't bowl for shit! I owned a bowling alley, that doesn't mean I know how to bowl!"

He shoved his hands in his pocket and looked smug. "That's what I hear," he said. "But you got nothing to worry about. Who do you think taught Stella?"

I blinked. "For real?"

"I ain't saying you'll be like her," he said. "She was a natural."

I nodded and looked at the shirt again. I hated to admit it, but polyester or not, there was something about it that appealed to me. I guess that trashy Italian streak could only be tamped down for so long.

The other thing was, this seemed to mean Kowalski was planning to stick around. I'd kind of wondered, if things worked out for me and Fraser, if he was gonna be all, My work here is done, see ya, and apply for a transfer. I wouldn't have blamed him. Hell, it's what I would have done in his place. But I was sorta surprised--and sorta not--at how glad I was to see that wasn't the plan. "Thanks, Kowalski," I said. "You ever tell anyone I said this, I will end you, but I like it."

He grinned. "I knew that classy shtick you've got going on was an act. Stella said she'd spring for shoes, but you gotta try those on before you buy 'em."

Luckily Fraser fielded that one for me. "You and Stella are giving joint Christmas gifts?" He sounded kinda pissy about it, which worried me. I remembered that moment of vertigo I'd had the night before, watching them with Nicci. What if Kowalski and me had this all wrong?

Kowalski flushed. "Just to Vecchio," he said.

Fraser's eyebrows stayed up, but he didn't pursue it. "Let me fetch my gifts for the two of you," he said.

He rooted around in his duffel bag and handed me this light, flat package. I opened it up and blinked. Then I grinned. "See?" I said. "I wasn't crazy!"

It was The Elves and the Shoemaker, the exact same copy I'd had as a kid. I opened it up and looked at the pictures of elves making shoes. Now that I saw it, I remembered it perfectly.

"I never thought you were, Ray. But you'll admit the shoemaker is not Gepetto."

"Fine, Fraser, fine, you were right," I said. "Where on earth did you find it?"

"Well, Ray, I contacted a friend of my grandmother's, who was fortunately still living in Port Radium--although no longer employed at the library as her ankles have become very weak. She put me in touch with a children's librarian of her acquaintance, who had never heard of a story about elves making shoes. But she kindly posted a message on an librarians' internet mailing list of some kind, and when I visited again the following week, she had received several replies, most of them completely irrelevant. However, one was from a children's librarian in a small library in Kugluktuk who had once had a copy of the book. Unfortunately, it had been checked out by an Inuit child two years before and never returned. The silver lining, of course, was that the book was no longer part of the library's official inventory and thus potentially available for purchase, although I did insist on paying all overdue charges on it. The child's family was no longer living at the address the library had on record, but I was able to track down--"

I grinned at the book. Benny had trekked across untold miles of frozen wasteland to get it for me, all because of a stupid conversation we had had three years ago. "You're amazing, Benny," I interrupted. "Crazy, but amazing."

He gave me a small smile. I'd forgotten how his smiles were all in the eyes.

I wanted to give him a hug. Once I would have done it without thinking. Now I couldn't--I was paralyzed by what it would or wouldn't mean, by Kowalski standing there looking at us. "Thanks," I said.

"You're welcome, Ray," he said, and like always he managed to make it sound so incredibly sincere and new, like it wasn't the same stupid phrase you said to everyone and didn't mean. Like he really wanted me to know that he was happy to dogsled through ice-fields if I wanted a children's book.

Kowalski was trying real hard to be patient, but it wasn't his thing, and even though you could tell he thought Fraser was adorable too, by this time he was kind of vibrating.

"So what'd you get Kowalski?" I asked. "I know he was hoping for some bark tea."

"Hardy har har, Vecchio."

"Ahem." Fraser was blushing a little. "Well, Ray, I'm afraid your gift is a little--odd." He handed Kowalski a package about the size of a shoebox.

"Ooh, heavy." Kowalski attacked the wrapping like it was someone's head.

"It isn't quite what I requested," Fraser said, looking embarrassed. "I asked for a turtle, but the sculptor asked me about you so he would have a better idea of--"

Kowalski opened the box and burst out laughing. "The Goat? Vecchio, you have got to see this!"

He lifted out a curvy little sculpture of--a turtle with a Pontiac GTO instead of a shell. Its feet were coming out where the wheels should be, and its head and tail were poking out of the hood and trunk. I started laughing too.

It was beautiful, actually, quirky and alive and carved out of some smooth streaky green stone. The Cheerio-shaped whites of its eyes were the one spot of color, if you count white as a color, and its mouth was a firm little line--in fact, it was kind of hunching its head back into the car and glaring nervously at me in a way that reminded me of Kowalski.

"Mr. Aulanerk is a highly talented sculptor, but it developed that he is also an automobile enthusiast," Fraser said, sounding more anxious by the second. "It is carved from serpentine and inlaid with caribou antler. And--oh, it's ridiculous."

"Of course it is, Fraser," Kowalski said. "That's what makes it so awesome." He ran a finger over it. "Look, he even got the hood scoop."

Fraser relaxed.

"Dumbest feature ever," I said. "Makes the car louder without being big enough to actually take in much air."

"You're just jealous 'cause I got a sculpture, Vecchio," he said, his eyes gleaming happily. "Besides, louder is always better." He winked, which made it sound dirty.

I grinned and opened my mouth to say The louder they are, the more likely they are to be faking it when I realized I was flirting. With Kowalski. In front of Fraser. I glanced at Fraser, who was watching us, eyes wide. I could feel my face heating. "Hey, I got a book," I said instead. "Come on, bring out Fraser's stuff."

Fraser actually looked amused by the earmuffs and the slippers. By the time he got to The Big Book of Caribou, though, he was trying really hard not to look disappointed. "How...informative, Ray," he said, opening it up. "Oh, dear."

"What is it, Fraser?" Kowalski asked.

"This photograph is incorrectly labeled," he said. "It says this is a two-year old castrated reindeer for riding. But the shape of the antlers clearly indicates--"

I leaned over and shut the book. "Don't worry, Benny," I said. "None of this is your real present. Come on, get in the car."

We took Kowalski's Goat, because it had the hockey stuff in the trunk. Fraser politely did not ask where we were going or what we were going to do when we got there. Kowalski drove us to a pond, and we all got out. Then Kowalski opened the trunk to reveal three pairs of skates, three hockey sticks, and a puck. He turned around and leaned back against the car, grinning at Fraser. "Vecchio learned to skate," he said proudly.

"Kowalski taught me to skate," I corrected him. "Merry Christmas, Benny. We're gonna kick your ass."

Fraser beamed, looking between the two of us. "I knew you two would hit it off," he said, like that was a better present than the hockey.

The last time he'd said it, we'd been going at each other tooth and nail--usually Fraser was pretty sharp about stuff like that, so he must have really wanted it to be true. Now it kind of was. I could feel my face getting hot, a weird mixture of embarrassment and guilt, because if I was lucky Fraser was never gonna know the dirty thoughts I'd been having about Kowalski lately.

I was expecting Kowalski to say something sarcastic and end the moment, but when I looked at him, he had turned around and was lifting the stuff out of the car. The back of his neck was bright red. Huh.

"Guess so, Benny," I said, and put on the pair of skates Kowalski handed me.

In retrospect it would have made more sense to put me on Fraser's team. I was a hell of a lot better than I had been, but I was still a liability, and Fraser having to carry me would have evened things out a little. But it didn't matter. It was cold and crisp and sunny and Fraser was laughing and I didn't fall on my face once. There's not a lot more you can ask from life.

After about an hour, I was winded. "I'm gonna call it a day," I said. "You guys keep going." I sat on a bench and watched the two of them. They practically glowed in the sun, weaving and banking and sending up sprays of ice. I thought of all the times me and Fraser had chased some guy down and I'd shown up on the scene five minutes late, panting, to find someone with a gun trained on Benny. That probably never happened to Kowalski.

The only time my body really did what I wanted, the only time I moved smooth and easy, was when I was beating the shit out of someone.

"Whatsa matter, Vecchio?" Kowalski asked, skating to a stop in front of me. "All that manicotti weighing you down?"

I gave him the finger.

"You did good," he said, real fast, and then skated away.

###

"So what are we doing for the rest of the afternoon?" Kowalski asked as we drove back to my place.

"Well, Ray," Fraser said, "I was reading your TV Guide, and I noticed that 'It's a Wonderful Life' is showing. Perhaps we could watch that."

"He's seen it thirty-two times," I informed Kowalski. "It was the Reverend's favorite film."

"For fuck's sake," Kowalski said. "We are not watching that, Fraser. I hate that movie. It is depressing. It is about a man who gives up his dreams and then tries to kill himself. It does not fill me with Christmas spirit."

"Oh," Fraser said disappointedly. "But in the end, Ray, he learns--"

"No way, Fraser. You wanna watch a Christmas special, we can do 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' It's got snow and the northern lights and a crazy Canadian with a dogsled who licks things and rehabilitates criminals. Right up your alley."

"But, Ray--"

"No buts, Fraser! 'It's a Horrible Life' is not on. And Jimmy Stewart is a fascist."

"So speaks the Steve McQueen fan," I said.

"Hey, McQueen was not a fascist! He was on Nixon's Enemies List!"

"Actually, Ray, that was only a rumor," Fraser said. "In fact it was Paul Newman who had made the list."

"There, you see?" I said. "Come on, 'It's a Wonderful Life' is only three or four hours long. How bad can it be?"

"Whose side are you on, Vecchio?" he snapped. Then he ducked his head and stared out the window. "Oh yeah, stupid question," he muttered.

"Nobody's on anybody's side, Kowalski," I said. "Both those movies are playing on an endless loop for the next month. Why limit yourself to one treacly holiday special when you can watch 'em all?"

"Oh, no, Ray," Fraser said. "I have no wish to force my tastes on the two of you. 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' sounds very interesting."

Kowalski darted me a quick glance. "Nah, Fraser, it's okay," he said. There was silence in the car for a minute or two, and then Kowalski said, "So, Vecchio, what's your favorite Christmas movie? If we're gonna do me and Fraser's we gotta do yours."

I shrugged. "I think two Christmas movies is enough for one day, Kowalski."

His eyes narrowed. We were stopped at a light, and he put his hands together and did this little gesture and sound effect that I was pretty sure was supposed to represent jumping off a bridge. "You know your problem, Vecchio?" he asked. "You're not selfish enough."

"Fine," I snapped. "'How the Grinch Stole Christmas.'"

Kowalski started laughing like that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. I leaned back and waited for the wisecracks about my shriveled heart and my bitching and probably, knowing Kowalski, my lack of hair. Although the Grinch isn't bald, exactly, he's just all one color. Instead he said, "You are such a sap, Vecchio!"

"Huh?"

"He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming--it came!" he quoted in this pious voice. "Somehow or other, it came just the same!" He snickered.

How the hell did he know? "Shut up, Kowalski."

"Isn't that the point in the film at which you had that freak allergy attack a couple years ago, Ray?" Fraser asked innocently.

Kowalski laughed harder.

"Yeah, okay," I said, giving up. "It's about second chances, Benny. You understand that."

"Yes," Fraser said softly. "I don't get many of those."

I turned around. He was looking at me very seriously. "No one does," I said. Maybe tonight I'd find a chance to talk to him alone, tell him how I felt...

"Christmas Day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp," Kowalski sang softly.

"You really want to psychoanalyze this, Mr. Misfit Toy?"

###

So there we were, sitting on Kowalski's couch with a bag of microwaved popcorn, me and Kowalski on either side of Fraser without even thinking about it. I'd watched movies with Benny before, and it was always me yelling at the screen and him politely disagreeing with me ("Well, you can hardly expect an Englishman of that era to immediately think of vampires, Ray. It doesn't mean he's unintelligent; that particular myth was not much in the Western European consciousness until after the publication of Dracula...") which, don't get me wrong, was fun. But it turned out Kowalski liked to yell at the screen too.

"What is that?" he said as soon as the credits to "It's a Wonderful Life" were over and there was that shot of God and some angels talking. "God looks like a fetus made out of stars."

"He does kinda, doesn't he?" I said, reaching across Benny for the popcorn, which had somehow ended up firmly in Kowalski's hands.

"I think it's supposed to be a galaxy, Ray," Fraser said, reaching for the popcorn too.

"Why is God a blinking galaxy anyway?" I asked. "I don't think the nuns would have approved of that."

"I believe it's a metaphor for--Ray!"

I saw that Kowalski was holding the popcorn just out of Fraser's reach. "The nuns never approved of anything," he said to me, ducking his head to the side so he could see me around Fraser.

"Look, turtles!" Fraser said, pointing, and Kowalski turned. Fraser grabbed the popcorn and settled back down next to me.

"That worked?" I said disbelievingly.

Fraser held up a finger while he finished his mouthful of popcorn. "Oh yes," he said finally, swallowing. "It's very reliable."

"Oh man, I cannot wait to try that," I said, laughing.

"Fuck you, Vecchio!" Kowalski said.

"Language, Ray," Fraser said, which surprised me because he'd never complained to me about my swearing. But he was giving Kowalski one of those tiny eye smiles that you'd miss if you didn't know him, so maybe it was an in-joke.

"Yeah, yeah," Kowalski said, grinning at Fraser. "Hey Vecchio, you want a beer?"

"Sure," I said. This was weird. If you'd asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said that no way, no way in hell, would I want Kowalski hanging out with me and Fraser on Christmas. But it felt right. It felt better. Because to be honest, sometimes Fraser's relentlessly reasonable disagreeing got to me. It was nice to have someone to even things out.

That's some dress you got on there, George Bailey told Violet.

What! This old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don't care how I look, she said with a little toss of her head and a cocky smile.

"Why doesn't he go for the blonde?" Kowalski asked. "She's way prettier than Mary, and she's got attitude."

"Of course you like the snotty blonde," I said, reaching around behind Fraser to ruffle his hair.

"Hey!" he said, ducking his head. "No one touches the hair! The hair is off-limits!"

Fraser froze, and I suddenly realized that for all practical purposes, I had my arm around him. I snatched my hand back. "How much product does it take to get your hair to do that, anyway?" I asked.

"That's a trade secret, Vecchio," Kowalski said smugly, fixing the mess I'd made with his hands.

"Approximately four tablespoons daily, Ray," Fraser said. He was still kinda blushing, but his voice sounded normal.

"How do you know that?" Kowalski demanded.

"Well, Ray, you keep the tube of hair-gel by the bathroom sink. By watching the progressive emptying of the tube, I was able to estimate--"

"Only you, Fraser," Kowalski grumbled.

What with the talking and the six-pack me and Kowalski had split, I was enjoying "It's a Wonderful Life" a lot more than usual--which meant the scene where he freaks out at his kids and smashes up the living room kinda took me by surprise. I'd been feeling sorry for George Bailey, more so than usual because Fraser liked the movie and it was pretty obvious that Fraser saw himself in George's relentless insistence on giving up everything to help the community, even if Fraser was way politer.

But suddenly George's kids were staring at him with fear in their eyes and I was pressing back into the couch feeling pissed off. Because you can't take stuff like that back with an apology and explaining that you've had a hard life. At the time the apology makes it all better, but years later all your kid remembers is his pop screaming and throwing his Johnny Seven out the window.

"I'm gonna start dinner," I said. "Lemme grab some stuff from the car."

Fraser looked at me, startled. "It's only three o'clock, Ray."

"I'm hungry," I snapped, and shut the door a little too hard on my way out. I grabbed the bag of groceries from the trunk and started back up the steps, but when I got to the door I just stood there. Fuck, I thought, setting the bag down and leaning against the wall. Because that wasn't just my pop. That was me. I remembered before I'd left for Vegas, getting more and more resentful of Fraser, lashing out at him because I was frustrated with giving, giving, giving all the damn time.

That was what my ma always said about my father--He hates his job, he hates the bills and the mortgage, but he keeps at it for you kids, you shouldn't be so hard on him. Which even as a kid I knew was bull. It didn't matter if you loved someone if you didn't treat them right. Could I do this? Could I treat Fraser right?

The door opened. I swung around, but it was only Kowalski. He gave me a funny look and stepped out into the hall, shutting the door softly behind him. "You okay?"

"Yeah," I said tiredly.

He raised his eyebrows. "Ooh-kay then. I guess maybe the groceries were just too heavy for you to carry that extra five feet, let me get that for you."

"I'll be in in a minute, Kowalski," I said, hoping he would take the hint, but he didn't. He picked up the bag of groceries--for a minute I was afraid he was gonna spill them all over the hallway, because he wasn't quite steady on his feet--and froze.

"You got pierogies," he said.

I shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. "Yeah," I said. "I went to Kurowski's. The old ladies that work there are insane. Anyway, I know it's not your ma's cooking, but--"

He put the bag back down. "Thanks."

I smiled at him. "It wasn't out of my way."

"You got a nice smile, Vecchio," he said. He stepped towards me, kinda stumbled, and ended up with his hand flat against the wall next to my head. We stared at each other, and then he leaned in and kissed me. He did it real soft and sweet, like I was a girl or something, and I closed my eyes and--

The door creaked open, Kowalski leaped back, and there was microwave popcorn all over the hallway.

"I'm sorry, Ray," Fraser said, ducking his head and kneeling down to pick up the popcorn--but not before I saw the look in his eyes. Shit. What could I possibly say?

I didn't have to say anything, because Kowalski was already talking. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, no, leave the fucking popcorn, Fraser, listen to me, that was nothing, that was just me being an asshole, Vecchio hates me, you know that--"

"Shut up, Kowalski," I said, finally finding my voice. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about."

Fraser's eyes shot to mine, wide and dark and scared. "Ray--" he said, and in that second I knew Kowalski had been right. Fraser wanted me. And he'd come all the way from Canada, he'd come out to Frannie, and I'd--

Kowalski was in my face. "So what, Vecchio, you gonna fuck this up again, is that what you want?"

Because that's what I did, wasn't it? I fucked things up. And part of me would have done anything to just smooth this over and take what I could get, which was apparently Fraser and that was a hell of a lot. But part of me was angry at the idea.

I didn't know how to say no, that was my problem. Not to people I loved, not to make it stick. Maybe deep down I was still afraid of getting belted across the face if I tried.

With Angie I'd gotten around it by just pretending I didn't hear the question. It hadn't worked so good, so with Fraser I went the other way--just said yes once and for all, to anything and everything. That had worked okay at keeping Fraser happy with me, but it hadn't worked so great at keeping me happy with Fraser.

I looked at Kowalski's anxious face, thought about his rough voice and smooth lips, and how I'd always kind of wanted to join a bowling league with Ange. The way I'd felt last night looking at him and Fraser with Frannie's kid--I got it now. I couldn't just cave and say, Yeah, Fraser, kissing Kowalski, that was just a mistake, he started it, it's you and me all the way.

So maybe it was time for a change. Maybe it was time to say, No, Fraser, I am not jumping off this bridge and neither are you.

"No," I told Kowalski. "This time I'm getting it right. Come on, I'm not doing this in the hall." I picked up the groceries and herded them both inside, ignoring Fraser's protests about the popcorn on the floor. "Leave it, Benny," I said. "We'll get it later. And turn off the damn TV."

I put the bag down on the counter and turned, feeling naked without it. They were both standing there, Fraser at parade rest and Kowalski fidgeting, just waiting for me to say something. I drew in a deep breath. "Okay, Benny," I said. "I'm just gonna lay all my cards on the table, okay? I love you. And not friends love or partners love or any of that. I'm talking candy hearts and roses and all that mushy crap. Alone we're incomplete, right?"

"Yes, Ray," Fraser said, his eyes steady on mine and his voice cracking. "I love you too." I could feel my heart swelling to three times its normal size.

"I do not need to hear this," Kowalski said furiously, and headed for the door.

"Do not leave this room, Kowalski," I said, putting all the Bookman command into my voice that I knew how. "I'll get to you."

I could see him gnawing on his lower lip, but he stayed.

"Listen, Benny, in movies and books it's always, oh, being without him was like missing an arm or a leg or something. Fuck that. Being without you, it was like someone had sawed my skull in half and sliced out a piece of my brain." I pointed at Kowalski. "But I want him too. I know it's fucked up and weird and there's not gonna be any way in hell to explain it to my mother, but I think we need all three of us to be complete now." Kowalski's head shot up, and he stared at me. "Okay, Benny, that's mine. What about you?"

"What do you mean, Ray?" he asked, stalling.

"Nuh-uh, Benny," I said. "Not this time. Tell me what you want, straight up."

He bowed his head. "I want you, Ray," he said in a low voice.

"Right, that's it," Kowalski said, his voice hoarse and angry. "I'm gonna leave you lovebirds to it."

But I was grinning. I raised my voice to carry over him. "Which of us are you talking to, Fraser?"

Kowalski froze, and then he started to grin too.

"I--" Fraser actually glared at me, looking--looking anguished. "I said I love you, Ray. It hardly matters what either of us feels for Ray Kowalski, as he is still deeply in love with his ex-wife. I assure you, his reaction to your elopement was--explosive."

And another piece fell into place. Fraser's misery when I ran off with Stella wasn't just about me, it was about Kowalski too. Poor Fraser, watching both his partners slip through his fingers at once.

"Hey, no," Kowalski said, the words tumbling over each other in his rush to get them out. "I mean, yeah, I love Stella. Always have, always will. But--I mean, that's over. And I'm cool with that. You guys--Fraser, I want this. More than anything."

Fraser just blinked at him.

"Great," I said. "So what is the problem?"

Fraser opened and closed his mouth a few times. "Well," he said finally, "I suppose there isn't one, Ray." He shook his head. "Diefenbaker is never going to let me live this down."

I looked triumphantly at Kowalski, and my heart stopped. He was giving me this glowing, soft, scared look, like I'd done something amazing. And okay, maybe I had. Maybe I'd gotten something right for once. Then he grinned and started rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet like he was gonna start boxing. "So, kinky threesome time, huh?"

I froze, because I'd never had sex with one guy, let alone two. Benny started looking kind of nervous, too. "I've never considered the logistics--" he started.

But Kowalski didn't hesitate, just headed straight for Fraser. "You make a lotta noise in bed, Fraser?"

Fraser cleared his throat. "Not generally, Ray, no."

Kowalski looked over at me and grinned. "You think we can make him scream?"

I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. My throat was dry as a bone.

Kowalski rolled his eyes. "You guys are lucky I'm here, or you'd all be please and thank-you-ing for the next five years."

Fraser tilted his head ruefully. "You may be right, Ray."

Kowalski slung an arm around Fraser's shoulders and said to me, "You wanna suck his cock or should I?"

Jesus. I met Fraser's eyes, and swallowed hard, sparks flaring in my chest. Yeah, I wanted to. "Maybe you better," I said. "I've never done it before."

Kowalski's eyes were alight. "You wanna learn?" I didn't even have time to answer before Kowalski turned around and was kissing Fraser, hard and fast. Christ, it was like he was trying to climb inside Fraser's mouth, his shoulders hunched up and his hands on the side of Benny's face. Fraser was just standing there, perfectly still, but their mouths were open, and I didn't know when he'd grabbed onto Kowalski's hips but he had to be leaving bruises. And I should have felt jealous or left out or something, I knew that, but instead I just thought, Holy crap, that is the hottest fucking thing I've ever seen.

Then Fraser broke it off and said "Ray," in this hoarse, needy voice, and somehow I knew he was talking to me, even though he wasn't looking in my direction and his eyes were closed.

"Hey, hey, I'm here," I said, coming up behind him and slipping my arms around his waist. "I'm right here." I kissed the back of his neck, and Fraser pressed back against me while Kowalski went in for another kiss. Tentatively, I let my hand slide lower till I was palming Fraser through his jeans. I could feel him getting harder under my hand, and the shock of it after years of wanting zinged through me like lightning.

"Benny," I whispered, and he moaned into Kowalski's mouth.

Kowalski broke off the kiss, stroking Fraser's jaw. "You think you can wait a minute while I give Vecchio Blowjob 101?"

Fraser swallowed. "Probably, Ray."

Kowalski laughed. "C'mere, Vecchio."

I was getting ready to let go of Benny and come round when Kowalski grabbed the back of my neck and started kissing me over Fraser's shoulder. He'd been hot and heavy with Fraser, but with me he was slow and sweet like we were kids on our first date, like that kiss in the hall, not at all like we were currently the bread in a Mountie sandwich, or like we both knew I was about to suck his dick.

"Ohhh," I murmured, pushing closer and rocking my hips into Benny involuntarily, and Fraser just started shaking.

"Ray," he said. "Oh Lord, I never..."

How Kowalski had the willpower to break off that kiss I will never know, but somehow he got us all into the bedroom. Fraser leaned against the doorframe, and Kowalski sat on the edge of his bed and looked at me. "You ready, Vecchio?"

I nodded, shoving my hands in my pockets and trying not to look nervous.

"Hey," he said, "nothing to prove, right?"

I laughed shakily. "I think I got a lot to prove," I said.

"No," he said. "You don't. And this is more fun than hockey." He thumbed open the button on his jeans and pulled down his zipper. Then he leaned back on his elbows on the bed and looked at me, the tips of his hair glowing white in the light from the overhead bulb, and suddenly I was so turned on I couldn't believe it. I was gonna do this, I was gonna suck Kowalski's cock in the middle of the day on Christmas, and I was hot and tingling all over and I could barely breathe.

I got to my knees in front of him and put my hands on his thighs, and then I had no idea what to do. I dragged my eyes away from his open fly, through which I couldn't really see much, and looked at his face.

He nodded, licking his lips. "Yeah, take it out."

I reached out and stuck my hand in his pants, fumbling a little before I got my hand through the opening of his boxers and around him. There was a groan from the doorway, and Kowalski hissed in a breath. "Yeah, Vecchio, that's right. Now just put your mouth on it. Don't try to take it too deep, just--oh, God."

I'd slipped the head of his dick in my mouth. He'd been leaking, so there was a slight salty tang, but other than that it was just skin, smooth and firm. I could do this. I slid down further, trying to breathe through my nose, feeling awkward as hell but loving the sounds Kowalski was making.

"Yeah, that's right," he said, "yeah, go slow, figure out the teeth, kinda tuck 'em behind your lips, okay, uhh, you think maybe you can take it a little deeper? Keep the tongue pressed tight underneath, yeah, like that, ohh, fuck, Vecchio, you're a natural, yeah, that's just right, if you could see the look on Fraser's face right now. His eyes are going black and he's breathing hard, God, this is gonna be great, you look amazing, Vecchio, I have been thinking about your mouth for weeks, fuck, oh Jesus, stop!" His hands were on my shoulders, shoving me away.

Shit. "What'd I do?"

He drew in a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair, and I saw it was shaking. "You were fan-fucking-tastic, Vecchio," he said. "I just don't wanna come yet." I felt a warm glow of satisfaction that I'd had him that close. He was right, this was way better than hockey.

Behind me, Fraser cleared his throat meaningfully.

"Hey, we didn't forget about you. You wanna try on Fraser?" he asked me.

"Okay," I squeaked, standing up.

"All right, Fraser," Kowalski said, his grin melting across his face. "Let's get you out of those clothes."

Fraser's eyes were wide open, dark and drugged-looking, and he started undoing the buttons of his flannel shirt like there was no tomorrow except he--Fraser, the guy who could do anything, who was perfectly coordinated and could pull a tuning fork out of his ass--couldn't seem to get the third one undone. It just kept slipping through his fingers, and I reached out and grabbed his hand. "Uh-uh, Benny," I said. "Hey, Kowalski, how many times you imagine getting Fraser out of his clothes?"

"Those clothes specifically, or are we including the uniforms here?" Kowalski asked.

I grinned. "Let's say just these."

"Four million sixty three," Kowalski said promptly. "Let's go."

"Ray, I'm more than just a uniform--" Fraser started, sounding a little annoyed, but Kowalski dropped to his knees and Fraser trailed off.

"Yeah, you're also tight jeans and flannel shirts and a really nice ass," Kowalski said, and went for Fraser's bootlaces. Jesus, that was a nice picture.

"He's not lying," I said, starting on Fraser's buttons. "We only partnered you all those years in the hopes of one day getting into your funny-shaped pants."

Kowalski snickered. "Vecchio, on the other hand? I don't get it. I mean, he's not pretty, he's got no hair, his nose is the size of the Sears Tower, and I'm fucking gagging for it. He must have something, but what the hell is it?"

"Thanks a lot, Kowalski," I said, poking him with my shoe, but secretly I was pretty flattered and, let's face it, turned on.

"That's his je ne sais quoi," Fraser explained, toeing off one boot and giving me a secret smile.

God. That conversation seemed like a million years ago. We'd known each other so long, wasted so much time. I pushed the flannel shirt off his shoulders. "Raise your arms, Benny." I pulled his Henley over his head, and then there was nothing left but Benny. Fuck, there were miles of him, perfect creamy skin--I'd seen it before, but now I could kiss it, could drag my mouth across his chest and around to his back while Fraser made little breathy noises. His skin was so damn hot, like there was a furnace inside him. No wonder he never got cold. I was kissing his shoulder blades when Fraser giggled and gasped, "Ray, that tickles." I looked down to see what Kowalski was doing to his feet, and went still.

There, in the small of Benny's back, was his scar from where my bullet went in--the only ugly thing on him. I reached out and touched it, leaned my forehead against Fraser's back and ran my fingers over it.

"Ray," Fraser said. I didn't move. "Ray," he repeated, and pulled me around to his front. I couldn't look at him, but he bent forward and kissed my scars, both the bullet holes--he knew where they were through my clothes--and then he tilted my chin up and kissed the teeny-tiny scar underneath, from the explosion the week we met. I hadn't even known he knew it was there.

"Even Steven, huh?" I said, my voice sounding all choked up.

"I think you're ahead, Ray," Fraser said.

"Let's keep the score where it is, shall we?" Kowalski said. "You two need to wear fucking vests." He unbuckled Fraser's belt.

When Fraser was naked--and let me tell you, that is a sight--Kowalski stripped off his t-shirt and sat back down on the edge of the bed. Benny and I stared at the lean lines of his chest, the tattoo, the--

"We are lucky sons of bitches," I told Fraser.

Fraser's chuckle sounded semi-hysterical. "Agreed."

Kowalski's grin was half-wicked, half-shy. "Don't you forget it. C'mere, Fraser." He spread his legs and patted the space between them. "Sit here. I want front row seats for this."

Fraser blushed, but he sat, and Kowalski wrapped his arms around him. The expression on his face when he looked at Fraser--God, it was like Kowalski was shining, his whole face was just....

Then he looked up at me, and it was different, but--it wasn't as different as I'd expected. My breath caught in my throat. "Oh," he said, "and Vecchio, when he comes, don't try to swallow right away, okay? Just pull back a little, figure out what's up, stay cool."

"Uh, okay," I said, getting back on my knees. That put Fraser's huge Canadian cock pretty much at eye level, and it was hot, yeah, but also kinda intimidating. Bigger than Kowalski's, and could I really do this? I wanted this to be good for Fraser, not--

Kowalski was still talking. "Because the first time I tried it, I tried to swallow right off, and I ended up choking and spitting come all over the guy. He was kind of an asshole about it, too. Obviously Fraser would be polite about a thing like that, wouldn't you, Fraser?" He reached around and grabbed the base of Fraser's cock. Fraser--who had started to say "Certainly, Ray"--broke off and made this keening noise, and suddenly I really, really wanted to do this.

All the twisted, sick shit that had been building up inside me since I went to Vegas--hell, since I was born--it was like it just drained out and I was filled inside with tenderness, so light and big that I felt like if anyone touched me I would pop, just explode into heart-shaped confetti and air and heat. I'd done hard things before. I'd lied to Fraser. I'd left him. Giving him head? That was easy.

I licked my lips and reached for Fraser's hand, twining my fingers through his. Kowalski sucked in a breath.

"You--you know you needn't do this, Ray," Fraser said in an anxious, husky voice. "I would be happy to--I would be grateful--this, all of this, is already far more than I ever dared hope--"

I looked at the two of them, so much more than I'd ever dared to hope for either, and I thought--we didn't waste any time at all. All that time, all that misery, even Vegas--we needed all that to get here. The three of us. "I'm going for it, Benny," I said. "Tell me if I'm doing it wrong."

"You couldn't possibly," Fraser said, and I swallowed him down until my lips met Kowalski's fingers.

"Fuck," Kowalski hissed, and I licked his thumb. "You're killing me here, Vecchio," he said, but I could hear him smiling.

I started sliding up and down, and Benny just went crazy, making these broken little sounds and saying "Ray!" over and over. He was bucking forward, but Kowalski held him so he didn't make me gag and God, I loved the way Fraser said our name. I wanted to tell him, but my mouth was full.

It was okay, though, because Kowalski was talking soft in his ear. "Yeah, Fraser, yeah, easy, Fraser, easy, it's Vecchio's first time, God, you are so hot like that. I have thought about you so fucking much, Fraser. For so fucking long. Thought about what you would sound like, you're always so quiet and polite, but you ain't quiet now, are you? Polite, sure, yeah, those noises you're making, that is the thank-you-kindly of sex, Frase, oh God, I love you, look at the two of you, you're so good together--" The sound of his voice, low and dirty even though he was talking so sweet--it just ramped everything up, and I could tell it was driving Fraser crazy.

My eyes were closed because I'd been getting dizzy, but I opened them once or twice just to prove this was real, and when I did there was Kowalski's hand, pale and lean with the Monaco on his wrist. Every so often he'd kinda hump Benny's ass and I could feel it, feel Kowalski's hips shoving Benny's thighs into my shoulders and Benny's cock into my mouth. I pressed the heel of my hand into my dick, stifling a groan, and Benny jerked like he could feel the sound, which maybe he could.

"You're never gonna be alone again, Fraser," Kowalski murmured. "We're throwing out your stupid tiny bed and getting you a king-sized one, you hear? And we'll have to soundproof the bedroom 'cause we're gonna make you scream so loud, Fraser. Yeah, I got you, Fraser, we got you. Look at Vecchio, look how much he wants you. Isn't he hot like that? It's gonna be his turn next, Fraser, what kind of noises do you think he'll make?"

That was it, Fraser shouted our name and arched off the bed, and I tasted something in my mouth. I pulled off just a little, like Kowalski said, and realized it wasn't too hard to swallow and keep going. It didn't even taste bad, which I'd been worried about, just salty and a little weird. And Fraser was shaking and moaning and completely, completely lost in it, why hadn't anyone told me how great sucking cock was? I kept going until he slumped back against Kowalski.

I rocked back on my heels and looked up. I knew I was grinning stupidly, but I couldn't help it. I'd made Fraser come. I was king of the world.

"That was--" Fraser stuttered, sounding exhausted and happy. "That was--I--"

"Shhh, Benny, I know." I reached up and brushed a thumb over his mouth. He kissed it.

"See?" Kowalski said. "Nothing to prove."

"Guess not," I said, watching sweat trickle down Fraser's glowing face.

"Come here," Fraser said. My fingers were still tangled with his. He yanked me up with surprising energy, and I kissed Benny for what I realized was the first time. It was just as good as I'd always imagined, hell, it was better, a million times better, Jesus, his lips were so soft, and his tongue--He tasted like coffee, from Kowalski. I squeezed Benny's fingers and pressed closer, like I could melt right into them, and Kowalski's hand was gentle on the small of my back.

This was gonna be great.