Work Header


Work Text:

Part II.

Ray had to blink not twice or three times, but four times, before his mind finally caught up with the words.

"You're what?" he asked stupidly.

"I'm going on an adventure with Ray," Fraser repeated, nodding once again towards Kowalski, and damn if that little fucker didn't take that opportunity to grin cockily, leaning back against the desk behind him.

Ray's mind reeled. "But-- why?" he finally got out. Why now, he wanted to say. Why now, when I just got my best friend back? Why him?

Before his very eyes Fraser seemed to deflate a little, and the Mountie sighed deeply, running a hand over his face, and--Jesus, when did Fraser get so damn old?

"Because I'm tired, Ray," he said, and his quiet exhaustion was very plain to see, and even Kowalski stopped grinning, maybe out of respect for the guy. "I'm tired of the job, and I'm homesick, and I need some downtime before I return to my duties. I haven't had a vacation, a real vacation, in more than five years, Ray, did you know that?"

No, Ray did not know that, and he briefly wondered how trekking across the icy tundra was any more of a vacation than following a litterbug across half a continent, but he didn't say anything about it.

"The submarine caused quite the commotion as you know, and I need a change. I need to get away from the press and the job and the noise for a little while," Fraser continued, then finally added, carefully, "and I need to spend some time with Ray."

Ray had to blink again, and the noticed Kowalski looked as surprised as Ray felt, at this. Fraser turned his head and looked at Kowalski, met his eyes dead on, and something that could maybe develop into a smile started to spread across his lips, and Kowalski grinned back, and--holy fuck--

Suddenly, Ray understood.

He understood, oh hell yeah, he understood, the looks and the hands on the shoulders and the smiles and the brand new winter jacket by the door that looked like it might fit Kowalski and the whole fucking adventure, which was so fucking stupid, stupid beyond words--

The sputtering caused both Kowalski and Fraser to look back at him, and even if it didn't, the movement probably would have, because Ray was all arms and hands now, waving and gesturing and sputtering and feeling so fucking angry with Kowalski as he'd never felt with anyone in his entire damn life!

"Him?" he squeaked, not even caring that he squeaked, and pointing an accusing finger at Fraser. "Him?" Jesus, Fraser's office wasn't even big enough to pace in.

Fraser frowned, but didn't say anything.

"He's--Jesus, Benny, he's a guy, if you haven't noticed!"

"I've noticed," Fraser replied dryly, "and while I do appreciate your input, Ray, I told you about this because you're my friend, I dare even say you're my best friend, and frankly I had expected more from you."

"You're not a fag, Benny!"

The words were out before he could stop them. Beside Fraser, Kowalski had gone still, eyes downcast and pursing his lips thoughtfully, but Ray was a cop, a trained observer, and he noticed the tense shoulders, the clenched fists. A part of him desperately wished Kowalski would just give in and punch him already, because it would give Ray a damn fine excuse to punch back, but damnit--he did not want to be the guy who threw the first punch here, he wanted to come out of this as the one Fraser chose, his friendship over this--parody he was having with Kowalski! And he was not gonna get to be that guy, that number one guy, by throwing the first punch!

"I'm sorry," Ray quickly amended, holding his hands up, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I'm not--you do whoever you want, Benny, I'm not on your back about that," and he really wasn't, and he needed Benny to understand that.

"If you wanna do guys, then hey, I'm all onboard with that, but Kowalski? He's not the guy for you," Ray added, once again pointing at the blonde.

"He's a fucking flake, Fraser, a loose cannon, he was fucking married for God's sake! What are you gonna do when he decides to have a heterosexual panic attack out there in the fucking middle of nowhere, huh? What about your jobs, you're both cops, Fraser! He'll fucking break your heart!"

And that was his trump card right there, because no way was he gonna be standing around for another round of Fix-The-Mountie, no way, because the last time Fraser had ended up with a goddamn bullet in his back, and Fraser knew that, and Ray--

Somehow this was worse than the fag comment. Fraser's jaw clenched and his lips tightened into a line, and he looked like he was about to say something very rude and un-Fraserish, when Kowalski jumped to his feet, got right in Ray's face and poked him in the chest with a long finger.

"Hey!" he said, "Hey! You don't know jack shit about me, okay, and you know Fraser, yeah, I get that, but guess what, pal, I know him too, and I'm starting to think I know him a hell of a lot better than you! You're pretty fucking stupid if you think I'm gonna break his fucking heart, but you're a complete and utter goddamn moron if you think that I'll break his heart and he's just gonna sit by and let it happen and then crumble!"

It was a nice speech, Ray had to give Kowalski that.

"Fraser's not an idiot, he's not fucking weak, and you're fucking insulting him by implying that he is," Kowalski finished, removing himself slightly from Ray's personal space, something Ray was infinitely grateful for.

Ray looked at Fraser again and saw the set of his jaw, the stubborn look in his eyes--but there was something else there, something that was more than just Fraser being stubborn... And Ray realized it then, that he couldn't win. Couldn't make him see. Sighing in defeat and closing his eyes, he could only nod, and damnit, maybe he was gonna have to be there for another round of Fix-The-Mountie after all.

"Okay," he said, slowly backing off towards the door. "Okay."

He looked at Fraser again, and their eyes locked. There was something painful in Fraser's eyes too, and Ray stopped, found himself wanting desperately to hug his friend again, wanting to keep him here in Chicago, in this hellish office, by his side, as his partner. Not off somewhere in Canada with Kowalski. Canada was bad enough, but not with Kowalski. Anyone but Kowalski.

Fraser was still looking directly at him, looking for something more than just Okay, looking for acceptance and support and friendship.

"As long as you're happy, Benny, I'm happy," Ray said, and Fraser seemed to accept this, seemed to sense that Ray really, truly meant it, because the stubborn and the pain sort of faded away and only left that other thing. Then Ray added, just because he couldn't help himself, "But that guy's bad news."

Kowalski bristled again, but Ray ignored it, just held Fraser's eyes for a few more moments, before smiling once, fondly, when Fraser's pained look didn't return. Fraser returned the smile, and Ray felt relieved that Fraser wasn't mad at him, and so fucking surprised because he hadn't even realized he was nervous about it in the first place, and then he was backing out of the doorway and closing the door behind him.

"Have fun up there," he told the door quietly, before turning and leaving the Consulate.

Florida, Ray mused, was nothing like Illinois, and sometimes he wasn't sure if that was bad or good. The warm weather was doing him good, but every now and then he found himself missing the cooler Chicago summer, the comfortable heat there, and not the scorching hot Miami summer.

Stella thrived like a fucking blossom or something, loved waltzing around the little house they'd bought, or across the lawn in front of it, in flowery dresses with thin straps that cost more than something so small should, and high-heeled shoes that Ray had no idea how she managed to walk across the grass on. She even bought a damn hat, a big one made of straw, that went surprisingly well with her designer sunglasses.

Ray sometimes found himself chuckling as he watched her, because damn! From hotshot Assistant District Attorney to fucking bowling alley owner, all in the span of a few short months. She definitely seemed happy, though.

The first few weeks after the submarine thing, after everyday life had begun again, Ray had been climbing up a wall just pacing around the apartment all day, not used to not having something to do to fill his days with. And Stella would come home in a foul mood, bitching about the latest scumbag who got off on a technicality, and then one day Ray found himself asking, "Don't you want a change, Stella? Don't you want something to just fucking change?"

Stella had first stared at him, and then when she realized he was serious, dead serious, as serious as Ray had ever been in his entire life, she'd given him a brilliant, beautiful smile, and said, "I'd love that, Ray!"

The change had been good for the both of them, and the warm weather definitely did Ray's bullet scar a world of good; even when it rained, it didn't really ache, not really.

But Florida was no Illinois, and just every once in a while, Ray found himself missing Chicago, missing his family, missing the dirt and the grime and the scumbags, and more than anything, he was missing his job.

The bowling alley was great, really it was, but Ray was a cop. Through and through. Put enough bullets in him to spell out F-U-N-E-R-A-L, and he'd still be a cop. He knew it wasn't gonna happen, of course, but still--the camaraderie of the bullpen and the satisfaction of putting away those scumbags who didn't get off on technicalities, it was a rush that didn't compare to anything at all.

He got cards from Fraser every now and then. Large ones, twice the size of normal posting cards, and always with a picture of something utterly Canadian. The return address always said Inuvik, and Ray wasn't even a little surprised at this the first time he'd noticed it. He'd heard that Fraser and Kowalski had settled up there somewhere, presumably living out the happy ending of the straight-turned-gay. Sometimes, the postcards even said From Benton Fraser & Ray Kowalski, though Kowalski never signed them himself. Of course. Ray was perfectly fine with that.

It wasn't hard to get a hold of the local RCMP detachment in Inuvik, but it had proved a lot harder to get a hold of Fraser himself, as he was either out in the surrounding woods on patrol, or in town, or off duty, and Ray had come to accept this.

So, correspondence had been mostly postcards here and there, a few letters, all in Fraser's neat scrip explaining that he was doing fine, Kowalski was doing fine, they were doing fine, and the weather was lovely. Short, precise and to the point. And as long as he was hearing from Fraser from time to time, who cared if each card took almost a month getting from one point to the other? It still felt good that Fraser hadn't forgotten about him completely, now that he was living his gay dream and all.

Sometimes, Ray had thought about writing back, I miss you, I miss my best friend, but he never did.

Fraser's latest card, with a picture of a moose, held no mention of Kowalski at all.

"Dear Ray,

I found myself thinking about you the other day, and hope sincerely you and Stella are still in good health and doing well. You may think I have somehow become unhinged (although one can clearly argue you've always been of that opinion), but I find myself longing for winter. I must confess to being relieved to be this far north and not in Miami - I think we can safely assume the Miami heat would have been unbearable for me. I guess I'm truly a Canadian at heart. Not to say that all Canadians love snow. I'm sure you know what I mean, you usually do. Give Stella my best.

Benton Fraser.

PS. Diefenbaker sends his best regards."

The card wasn't really nowhere near what a normal guy would call personal, but it was a lot more than what Ray had become used to. And so it made him think extra hard about the good old times, when Fraser would annoy the fuck out of him on a daily basis. It was a lot more comfortable being on his side of the memories with Fraser, as opposed to being in the middle of it all, making them, because making memories with Fraser usually involved Ray almost dying, and Ray definitely didn't miss that.

No, it was a lot easier sitting down in Florida, with a nice tan, playing a game of Do you remember the time when...? with himself.

It made him miss Chicago a little, and by the time early fall rolled around and Ray got to Do you remember the time I put five packets of salt in Gardino's coffee and he ended up spraying it over Huey? he was missing Chicago a whole damn lot, and he was missing his friends there, and he was missing Fraser.

"I think I wanna visit Chicago," he told Stella that night, stroking a hand lightly up and down her tanned back. "Just see how theguys are doing. And maybe Fraser up in Canada."

And Stella, God bless her heart, kissed him with soft, soft lips, smiled and said right away, "Okay, you go. I'll take care of things down here."

"I love you," he said, then kissed her until he was out of breath.

O'Hare was pleasantly crowded and noisy, and Ray was stupidly whistling to himself as he picked up his bag, threw it over his shoulder and headed towards the exit. The plane trip definitely hadn't been long enough to make him feel dirty or tired, and as he got in the taxi, he found himself giving the address for the police station, rather than that of his hotel. His left leg bounced up and down the entire ride, tense and excited. One week here, one week up in Assfreeze, Canada, and then home to the most beautiful woman on earth, who'd not even complained that he'd left so fast after he got the idea, she'd only said "Go, Ray!"

It would be good seeing the guys again, really good, and Ray unconsciously straightened his tie and vest, hoping they'd be pleased to see him. He hadn't told a soul he was coming, not even tried to get a hold of Fraser to tell him.

When the cab pulled into the parking lot of the 27th, Ray felt like his grin was trying to rip his face apart, and he breathed deeply when he walked in through the door. The station smelled stale and sticky, and Ray got why Fraser was always smelling shit, because man, smell was a sense with a hell of a lot of memory! It felt familiar and good, and even the Chicago pollution was different than Miami pollution.

Making his way to the bullpen, Ray pushed through the doors and then just stood a moment, taking it all in. The chattering and the phones ringing and the general hustle and bustle of Detectives and perps alike. He didn't see Francesca around at the moment, which was disappointing, but he knew it was way too early for her to take her maternity leave, so she was bound to show up sooner or later. From his left, however, he overheard the familiar voice of Huey asking someone, "And can anyone confirm this?"

Huey was talking to a middleaged man in a suit--victim, not a perp, Ray decided--and taking notes in a slim notepad. Walking to Huey's desk, Ray clapped a hand down on the man's shoulder, then grinned when Huey looked up, startled. "Hey, didn't anyone ever tell you we got computers for this stuff now?"

For a second, Huey remained seated, just staring, then he was on his feet and giving a surprised Ray a quick hug.

"Vecchio, man, good to see you, I didn't know you were in town!"

Placing his bag next to Huey's desk, Ray grinned and nodded as the black man sat down again. "Yeah, figured I'd drop by, remind you poor slobs how you do real police work."

"As if," Huey snorted. "We been doin' better without you."

They shared a laugh, before the man sitting by Huey's desk cleared his throat loudly, and Huey had the decency to look properly embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Hall," he said, before briefly looking at Ray again. "Grand theft. Valuable painting. If you wanna see the Lieu, he's free right now far as I know."

"Thanks," Ray replied, then headed towards Welsh's office, letting Huey return to Mr. Hall.

Halfway across the bullpen, Welsh looked up through his glass door, then got to his feet as he spotted Ray. Walking around the desk and opening the door, Welsh met him with a grin and a firm handshake, oddly like the one he'd given Ray when he left the station as a cop for the last time, minus the grim look on his face.

"Vecchio," he acknowledged, "good to see you."

"Good to see you too, Lieutenant."

"How are things down in Miami? Boring you already?"

Ray thought of Stella in her flowery dresses, and chuckled. "Hardly," he said, "just found myself needing a fix of the good old Chicago air. Thought I'd stop by and see how everyone was doing."

"Let's sit," Welsh said, leading him fully into his office, closing the door, and then both men sat down on the couch.

"So, what's new? Any horrible shit cooking?" Ray asked, part of him hoping there was something going on he could peek in on, maybe shoot out an idea or two, maybe put some of his Detective skills to use again...?

"Thankfully nothing big or mindnumblingly strange now that you and the good Constable are gone," Welsh replied, "no nuclear submarines or illegal horse meat, but by all means, feel free to snoop around some. I'm sure Detectives Huey and Dewey could use some help with whatever softball they're working on, God knows they could need it these days."


"No, not really," Welsh said, sighing, and this was the annoyed Lieutenant Ray remembered. "They've just been slacking off recently. Oh, they still solve cases occasionally, yeah, but they're doing it so slowly you'd think they were both rookies. Talking all this shit about starting a comedy club. I don't know what the hell is up with those two. Some days I think they're both on drugs, and other days I just think they're insane."

"Probably worked with Fraser for too long," Ray joked. "God knows how that affected me, I mean, look at me, I own a fucking bowling alley."

Welsh suddenly looked right at Ray with a strange, serious expression on his face, and Ray sobered.

"Yeah, Vecchio, about that--"

But Welsh didn't get further as his office door burst open, and Ray didn't find out whether that meant the bowling alley or Fraser or something else entirely, because he suddenly found himself with a lapful of Francesca, doing her best to hug the life out of him. Two seconds later, she pulled back, then smacked him across the cheek. Hard.

"Ow!" he said, at the same time as Welsh thundered, "Ms. Vecchio, this is my office, and when you're about to enter my office, you knock!"

"Knock, knock," Francesca said stubbornly, drowning out Ray's "What the hell was that for?"

"You ass," Francesca said, getting off his lap and allowing him to stand up. "What, you're in town but can't even tell your own sister? I gotta hear about it from Huey?"

"I looked for you first," Ray said defensively, rubbing his cheek. Jesus, when the hell did Francesca get so damn strong? Maybe it was a pregnant thing? "It was supposed to be a surprise, but you weren't around. I was just gonna wait till you showed up, and I figured it couldn't hurt catching up with the Lieu while I was waiting!"

Hand on her hips, Francesca seemed to calm down a little, but she was still scowling at him. "Well, okay," she finally said, grudgingly, "but I'm not forgiving you completely."

Unable to stop himself from smiling, Ray grabbed her and hugged her again, almost surprised by how much he'd missed her. "Sorry," he said over her shoulder, pleasantly noticing how she'd let her hair grow a little, how he could now feel the beginning swell of her stomach against him, how his baby sister was starting to grow up for real.

"It's okay," she said into his neck, obviously having a family moment of her own. Welsh cleared his throat beside them uncomfortably, and then suddenly Francesca was pulling away, now smiling brightly.

"Oh, hey, you haven't seen my new desk!" she said excitedly, pulling Ray out the door, and okay, this rapid mood swing thing, from hugging to slapping to smiling, definitely had to be a pregnant thing.

"They had to move me because of an accident with the new lights--"

"Uh, Vecchio," Welsh said behind them, but Ray could only throw a "Later, Lieutenant," over his shoulder as his sister led him across the bullpen to proudly display her desk's new placement.

An hour and a half later, Ray had both seen Francesca's new desk and heard all about her and the baby, said hi to Huey again, said hi to Dewey, had a nice chat with Irene from Forensics, had listened to his mother sob happily over the phone that her Raimundo was back visiting, and then received a stern scolding in half Italian, for staying at a hotel and not with his family.

The break room was blissfully empty as he and Francesca entered it, taking a break from the catch-up game. Everything was exactly as Ray remembered it, and the corner table still wobbled when he leaned on it to sit down. Just that little detail had him smiling stupidly to himself.

"So, you miss this?" Francesca said, sitting down on top of the table and looking fondly down at Ray.

Ray took a deep breath, and listened to some guy scream loudly from the bullpen that he was innocent, and he was gonna fucking kill all of them, was gonna sue them, and the guy probably was guilty, but he was gonna get off on a technicality...

Ray looked up at his sister and smiled.

"No, not really," he said, both telling the truth and lying through his teeth.

Francesca, though, seemed to understand and nodded. But just as she opened her mouth to speak, a familiar voice came from behind her, and the very blood in Ray's veins ran cold with surprise and anger at once.

"Frannie, I need you to pull Terry Mason's record for me, I know the guy has one, got a hunch. Fucking moron makes my skin crawl, makes me wanna kick his goddamn teeth in."

And wasn't this just perfect, Ray's worst nightmare right here? And he realized exactly what Welsh had wanted to talk to him about.

Kowalski didn't even seem to notice him at first, just went straight for the vending machine and started feeding quarters into it immediately.

"Oh," Francesca finally said, looking from Ray to Kowalski to Ray again. "Ray, I--I didn't, I mean, I completely forgot to tell you--"

At this point, Kowalski seemed to figure out Francesca wasn't talking to him, and turned around with a cellophane-wrapped sandwich in his hand, freezing as he spotted Ray.

Kowalski looked much the same as when Ray last had seen him, stupid hair standing on end, worn Led Zeppelin t-shirt, faded jeans, brown boots, and the shoulder holster complete with badge and gun strapped on him. A bad feeling begin to spread in the pit of Ray's stomach, and he couldn't help the anger he felt building in him. Kowalski shouldn't be here in Chicago, ruining his damn visit, he should be up in Assfreeze, Canada, ruining Ray's visit there later on, but no--Ray Kowalski was very clearly here in Chicago, very clearly a cop again, and very clearly Mountie-less.

Ray didn't like that.

"Ray," Francesca said, then gestured towards Kowalski, "Ray is back from Canada--"

"I can see that he's back from Canada," Ray interrupted, scowling at Kowalski. "What I don't see, is a big, red-clad Mountie at his side!"

"Look harder," Kowalski snapped, "maybe I got him stuffed down my pocket, he ain't that big."

"Ray--," Francesca began, but Ray held up a hand to stop her. He wasn't sure who she was even talking to anymore, but he didn't care.

"Frannie, I wanna talk to Kowalski alone," he said sternly, then turned a blind eye as Francesca put on her best kicked-puppy look. He'd ignored that look successfully for most of his life, and for all of hers, and it wasn't gonna start working now.

"Yeah, well, I don't wanna talk to you," Kowalski replied with a snarl, unwrapping his sandwich and starting towards the door, but Ray got there first, stopping him.

"Well, I'm not exactly throwing a fucking party at the thought of talking to you either," he snarled right back, "but you and me are gonna have words, like it or not," then added with a pointed look at Francesca, "alone."

Francesca looked worriedly between the two of them a few more times, before reluctantly sliding off the table, which gave one final wobble, and walking out, pulling the door half-closed behind her. Ray didn't care how concerned she was, he knew she was worried they were gonna fight, but if Ray was right and Kowalski really deserved a punch in the nose, Ray wouldn't think twice about being the guy who'd give him what he deserved.

Kowalski slinked off to the other end of the room, but Ray followed him, stopping only barely within punching distance. Ray knew it, he knew it, he'd known it all along, hadn't he?

"What happened?" he asked, trying, trying to contain his anger. He wanted to clock the guy good, but this was Benny's friend, Ray reminded himself--at least until he got confirmation otherwise, and if he did? If he did, well, then Kowalski was fair game and he'd get that punch Ray was sure he deserved.

Kowalski grinned at him, an ugly all-teeth grin, and took a large bite out of his sandwich.

"Why do you care?" he asked, spitting little pieces of bread and pastrami onto Ray's vest.

"Benny's my friend," Ray growled, disgustedly flicking tiny, little sandwich-pieces off his clothes, "and I knew it, I knew it right from the fucking start, that you were bad news! I'm always left to pick up the pieces when people screw him over, and I knew something bad was gonna happen, but I did my best to trust you because he's my best friend! Clearly I made an error in judgement! Now I wanna know what the fuck happened, so that when people ask me why I snapped your skinny neck, I'll have something to tell 'em!"

Kowalski paled suddenly for a second, just for a second--as if all the energy he was usually carrying around had vaporized, pfft, gone up in smoke--and then it was gone, and he lowered his head, glaring up at Ray through narrowed eyes.

"Well, you do what you gotta do," he said grimly, swallowing his bite and throwing the rest of the sandwich in the trash. "Snap my neck, knock me down, do whateverthefuck. You were right, okay?"

And that sentence stunned Ray so much that the thought of punching Kowalski's lights out was momentarily put aside.

"You were right," Kowalski repeated, "I was bad news, and I broke his fucking heart just like you predicted, okay?"

And then, in an oddly--submissive was really the only word Ray could think of--move, Kowalski raised his head again and turned it a mere inch or so, as if exposing his jaw.

Ray could only stare at the other man. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but that sure as hell wasn't it. He'd expected more of an argument, thought maybe he'd slap Kowalski around a bit, and Kowalski would fight back, and then both Lieutenant Welsh and Francesca would chew out both their asses for fighting in the station--

But not this.

"What'samatter?" Kowalski asked quietly, vehemently, spitting the words out as if the half sandwich he'd just eaten was toxic and he had to rid his mouth of the taste. "All bark and no bite?"

Ray pulled himself together, then narrowed his eyes. "You're not worth it," he told Kowalski, then pushed past him and out of the break room. Kowalski didn't speak another word, as if he silently agreed.

On second thought, maybe he should have kicked Kowalski's ass while he had the chance, because this wasn't even madness, this here was nothing but pure stupidity!

Cutting his Chicago visit five days short, to go to Canada five days early? Jesus. His mother had been inconsolable. But at the same time, he desperately needed to talk to Benny, needed to know what he wasn't falling to pieces up here by himself. There was one thing, one single thing, Ray had known without a doubt in that office, all those months ago, and it wasn't even that Kowalski would break Fraser's heart. No, that had been a hunch, a gut feeling, a considerable concern, and Ray would have loved to have been wrong, really he would. No--the only thing Ray had been absolutely sure of as he stood there, was that Fraser loved Kowalski. Fraser was in love with Kowalski. He'd seen it in the guy's eyes, plain as day, and right now that was really bad news.

For one thing, Fraser didn't fall in love easily. And for another, the last time he'd done it, there had been bullets and diamonds and fucking Victoria, and a heartbroken Fraser really wasn't a pretty sight. Just the thought of his friend in that kind of pain all over again, made Ray shudder a little to himself, and he turned briefly to Constable Redding, who had been kind enough to pick him up at the small airport.

"We there soon?"

"Only a few more minutes," Constable Redding replied. "Corporal Fraser should be back from patrol already."


"I'm sure he'll be pleased to see you. I understand you were a good friend of his, worked with him for quite a while, back in Chicago?"

"Yeah," Ray said, leaning back in his seat again and watching the green, green, green of trees go by. "Yeah."

The detachment was the first building you reached, and seemed to mark the beginning of Inuvik. Like Here begins the town. It had a big front door which made Ray think of the new Consulate back in Chicago, the one time he'd been there. He lefts his bag in the car, and felt oddly nervous as he followed Constable Redding up the three steps, not really sure what to expect.

Would Fraser be a mess? Would he be professional stony-faced Mountie? Would he wear the same, blue uniform Redding was wearing, which Fraser had hated, or would he still wear his brown one, or maybe his dress reds which he'd seemed to be wearing a whole lot when Ray came back from Vegas? What the fuck was Ray gonna say? Somehow, a jaunty salute and a joke didn't seem like an appropriate greeting, a pitying look was even worse, and "Hey, sorry your asshole Polish partner dumped your ass," was just downright awful.

He didn't have to consider the matter for long, though, as the first thing he saw when he walked through the doors was Fraser.

"Corporal Fraser," Constable Redding said, sounding ridiculously pleased with himself, "you have a visitor!"

Fraser was standing in the middle of the lobby, wearing the blue uniform--looked like he finally gave in, after all--and obviously in the process of signing something on a clipboard, but he froze completely in his tracks, just staring for a second. Then, as Ray managed a nervous grin and a wave, Fraser seemed to snap out of it and a smile broke out on his face.


He sounded both so happy and so damn relieved, like maybe he hadn't seen a true friend in months, and hell, maybe he hadn't? Ray's nervousness disappeared, and a second later he was hugging Fraser tightly.

"Benny," he said into Fraser's shoulder. "You look--,"

and he stepped back and got his first good look at Fraser's face, "--horrible."

Fraser truly did. He seemed a bit thinner, and there were definite shadows under his eyes. Even when they had been working on cases for days without sleep, he'd never seen Fraser with shadows under his eyes. Hell, not even when Dief was in trouble, or his father's killer was back in town, had Fraser seemed this worn down.

"It's good to see you, Ray," Fraser said, and Ray nodded, going for a sympathetic, but not pitying smile.

"Yeah, I heard about the Pollack, and well... I wanted to see how you were doing."

Fraser shot an embarrassed look at Constable Redding who was still standing a few feet away, looking so damn proud of himself that he was ready to burst, before clearing his throat and nodding towards the door.

"Let's take a walk."

Ray followed Fraser out the door, and soon they were slowly strolling down the very same road Ray had arrived via only few minutes earlier.

"Are you tired from your trip, Ray? Hungry?"

Ray briefly considered answering yes, because he really was tired; three different planes and one half hour-long drive had taken its toll on him--it was no Miami-Chicago direct airline, that was for sure--but he wanted to know how Fraser was really doing first and foremost.

"I'm okay," he said, making a pregnant pause before hesitantly skipping straight across all the polite babble and cutting straight to the chase. "I'm sorry about you and Kowalski."

Fraser didn't look at him, just kept his eyes locked firmly forward, hands on his back. "Yes, well...," he said, and then didn't say anything else for a long time.

The silence stretched on, and the thought that maybe Fraser didn't want to talk about this suddenly struck Ray. Maybe he'd been wrong all along, maybe this was something best left alone? Fraser didn't always like to talk about things, especially things where his own feelings were involved, Ray has gotten that much. And poking and prodding only seemed to make him clam up worse. So what if Fraser didn't want to talk? Then what? False chitchat and play the catch-up game, and then in a little over a week, Ray would just go home again?

But then Fraser finally offered, "It was complicated," and Ray had to restrain himself from not whooping with joy that at least Fraser wasn't doing his silent routine completely.

"I think it was for the best, though."

"Yeah, well, maybe it was," Ray said, feeling anger at Kowalski bubble to the surface again at Fraser's quiet tone. Yeah, Ray really should have suckerpunched the bastard when he had the chance. "But you still look like shit, and don't tell me you're not feeling like shit, either, Benny."

A strange, little ironic smile spread across Fraser's lips.

"No, I definitely feel like shit, Ray," he sighed, then drew one hand through his hair. "I don't like feeling like this," he confessed quietly.

"Nobody does, Benny," Ray said, clapping Fraser's shoulder consolingly, and Jesus, he was definitely gonna have to spend more money, going back to Chicago and kick Kowalski's ass! "Doesn't matter if it's a guy or girl, when love fucks you over it's never fun."

Fraser gave a watery sounding chuckle at that, and for one horrifying moment, Ray thought he might cry. Ray had dealt with most kinds of Fraser's moods before, from angry to sad to heartbroken to happy, but he had absolutely no idea how he was going to deal with a crying Fraser.

But Fraser didn't cry, instead he sniffed once, straightened his spine and seemed to focus hard on a spot in the horizon, somewhere between all the damn trees. Ray started to think that if he never saw a damn tree again, it'd be too soon, because the last time he'd been in Canada, right after the whole bit with the submarine, helping to clean up and straighten out the whole mess, it had been all plains and ice fields and show, but now it was early fall and still mostly green and just stupid trees as far as the eye could see. And the last time Ray had been in Canada and it had been all trees, he'd ended up carrying Fraser's ass for miles on end, and duh, nearly died again, so Ray was pretty fucking tired of trees.

"I think you should take some time off," Ray said. "Pack up the wolf, go further north. Didn't you finally rebuild your dad's cabin? Where is the wolf anyway?" Ray added as an afterthought.

"Around," Fraser said cryptically. "Apparently, he'd had quite enough of my--brooding. He took off sometime around noon yesterday. I don't expect him back for at least another day or so."

"Oh," Ray said, frowning and more than a little surprised. "Well. That was kinda shitty of him. Taking off when you're feeling down."

"Apparently, there is a line between sadness and genuine self-pity, and I believe Diefenbaker feels I crossed that line several weeks ago." Fraser paused for a second then shrugged. "He may be right at that."

"Benny, I mean it. Take some time off."

"No, no," Fraser protested, shaking his head, "I'm good, I need to--keep myself busy. It helps."

Ray studied his face for a long moment, but Fraser was still staring fixedly at that point in the horizon.

"Okay," he finally said.

They walked in silence for a few more moments, before Ray finally drew a deep breath, deciding to spit it out sooner rather than later.

"You know," he began gently, "I'm not trying to say I told you so, I really don't. But I did warn you about him, you know?"

Fraser's head turned and he looked directly at Ray for the first time since leaving the detachment. "W-what?" he stammered.

"I told you he was bad news," and damnit, that came out a lot more condescending than he had intended it to, but now that he was getting it out, it was hard to stop. "I mean, I was so fucking scared you'd only end up gettin' your heart broken again, you know? And you did, and I hate him for doing this to you, I hate seeing you all shook up like this--"

"What?" Fraser repeated stupidly.

"--and I don't know what the fuck he said to you, or why he left, and I'm not gonna pry into your personal life too much, Benny, but whatever is was, he isn't worth it. He isn't worth getting bummed about, because anybody who leaves you didn't really deserve you in the first place, and he's no fucking better than that bitch--"


"--but I'm gonna try not to bring her up, I'm sorry--"


"--but I just don't like it when my friends get hurt, so if you need me to go back to Chicago--"


"-- and fucking deck him, just say the word, Benny, and I'll do it, you know I will, and okay, I admit I'll take pretty great personal satisfaction in doing so, but he still deserves it--"


Fraser had to nearly shout his name before Ray closed his mouth, and both men stopped walking.

"Ray," Fraser said again, gripping Ray's shoulder, and now he sounded genuinely confused. "What are you talking about?"

"Decking Kowalski," Ray said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "You're my best friend, Benny, I love you like a brother. So if you want me to clobber Kowalski for breaking up with you and leaving, I will."

"No, Ray," Fraser said with a sigh, his grip in Ray's shoulder loosening. "No."

Ray watched as Fraser hung his head, then looked back up, and when their gazes met again, Fraser's eyes were so full of pain Ray almost had to take a physical step backwards in surprise and sympathy.

"No, Ray," Fraser said again blinking rapidly against sudden moisture in his eyes. "You got it wrong."

What? The word wouldn't fully form on Ray's tongue, the sound wouldn't fully come, and he ended up just mouthing it into thin air.

"Ray didn't break up with me, Ray didn't--leave me."

Fraser paused again and swallowed once.

"I--left him."

Part I.

Ray found Fraser on top of the highest hill behind the isolated detachment, sitting quietly in the snow with Diefenbaker beside him.

"Hey," he said, sitting down on the other side of him, panting a little from the walk up.

"Hey yourself," Fraser replied, stroking Diefenbaker's fur absently.

"Needed to get away, huh?"

Fraser nodded silently, then took a deep and quivering breath. "I'm tired, Ray," he confessed. "When did everything get so... loud?"

"Loud?" Ray asked, confused.

"Loud," Fraser confirmed with a nod. "It's something I had grown accustomed to in Chicago, but up here--it never used to be loud."

"Whaddaya mean?" Ray asked, frowning now. Fraser looked tired, too, staring down the hill at the people still running in and out of the little cabin like ants, Buck Frobisher and Margaret Thatcher both trying to control the Mounties and the reporters at once.

"Loud," Fraser repeated. "So many people, all asking questions about me, about Muldoon, about my mother--"

And anyone else might not have heard the little crack in Fraser's voice, but Ray wasn't just anybody, and Ray heard.

"I'm sorry, Frase," he said quietly, then on a whim took Fraser's gloved hand in his own. "I'm real sorry."

"They say more are coming," Fraser continued, swallowing hard. "They say even more reporters and coming, and while I do understand the significance of this, the impact this case has had on not just me, but my entire country, and your country, I just--"

"I know," Ray said.

"And you know Lieutenant Welsh is on his way here? Of course you know, and Ray Vecchio is coming up--"

Ray did his best not to make a face at the hated name, because the guy was Fraser's friend after all.

"--and they're sending so many lawyers and judges and politicians, from both Chicago and Toronto, and I even heard they are sending people from Los Angeles and Washington!" Fraser said and laughed a little, a laughter slightly tinged with hysteria. "Los Angeles, can you imagine, Ray?"

Ray thought grimly that he didn't have to imagine, it would be real soon enough, and this little outpost would turn into an even bigger circus than it already was, probably complete with those horrible, movable barracks and all. Press and media dogging their every step, and he already knew they all wanted a piece of one Benton Fraser, because he was really key here, wasn't he? This whole thing had started and ended with Benton Fraser, and he couldn't help being smack dab in the middle of it, except--except Benton Fraser didn't want to be smack dab in the middle of it.

Benton Fraser only wanted to do his job, and then he only wanted to see his mother's killer be brought to justice, and Ray got that. Ray knew that feeling, not because he had first hand experience in such things because he definitely didn't, but because he--knew Fraser.

Fraser's laughter died down, and his bottom lip trembled once.

"You know he never told me?" he said, turning his head towards Ray, but he didn't let go of Ray's hand. "My father never once told me that she--that he--"

"Yeah, I get it. I get it, buddy."

"I'm just so tired," Fraser said, and holy shit, there were actually tears in Fraser's eyes, and Ray didn't want to see that, hated to see that, so he scooted a little closer in the snow, put both arms around Fraser and hugged him tightly.

"I know."

Fraser held his breath for a second, and Ray was afraid he would pull away, pull his mask back in place, but instead, Fraser just let out his breath slowly and relaxed against Ray, putting his head down on his shoulder.

Fraser's breathing was heavy through all the layers of clothing. His arms slowly, awkwardly came around Ray, returning the hug, and there was snow on the top of his hat, which melted against Ray's cheek and trickled down under his collar. Shivering a little, Ray nudged Fraser's head up, then just went ahead and did it, put his cold lips on Fraser's and kissed him softly.

Fraser's lips were cold too, but they warmed fast against his own. He could hear Fraser breathing through his nose, and if he opened his eyes, just barely, just enough to see just a little, he could see the air freeze as they breathed, see a glimpse of flushed cheeks and incredibly white snow.

Beside Fraser, Diefenbaker stood up, moaning a little and shaking snow out of his fur, and the two men broke the kiss.

Fraser just stared into Ray's eyes for a long time, and Ray wondered what he saw there.

"Come with me," Ray suddenly said. "Come with me on an adventure. We'll go on an adventure. The hand of Franklin. Come with me."

"What?" Fraser said, looking confused, but Ray was suddenly thinking crystal clear, clearer than he had in days, since before the submarine, before the hypothermia, before being pushed out of an airplane without a parachute, before the fucking turtles.

"Let's go on an adventure, Frase, you and me, come on, what do you say?"

Fraser continued to look Ray right into the eyes for several long moments, but he didn't take his arms from around him, and he didn't pull further back, and Ray silently pleaded with him, silently wished and hoped, and he hoped so damn hard--

"I'd say that sounds like heaven," Fraser finally said, and kissed Ray again, and Ray's smile was so big against Fraser's lips, he almost forgot they were supposed to be kissing.

Ray leaned back in the snow and watched his air freeze as he breathed, and then watched as it dissolved and disappeared, revealing the stars in the sky. Never saw that many stars in Chicago. Never saw stars like this. Never saw stars in a situation like this.

"Don't get a cold, or worse, pneumonia," Fraser warned as he walked past, coming back from feeding the dogs, but Ray just turned his head and smiled at him, close-mouthed, warm smile. "I'm serious, Ray," Fraser chided, "I feel the need to remind you that we are three days' journey from the nearest point of civilization, and taking ill out here could have dire consequences, far more so than any illness you could encounter when the doctor's office is only a few minutes or hours away."

"I hear ya, Frase," Ray replied, then reached out the patted the snow beside him. "Come lie down and look at the stars with me."

Fraser shook his head fondly and tried to give Ray a stern look, but the effect was ruined by the smile Ray could see tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I'm never getting anywhere with you," Fraser sighed, giving in and flopping down in the snow next to Ray.

"Oh, you're getting plentywhere with me," Ray laughed, rolling up on his side and looking down at Fraser's face. "You just gotta learn to indulge a little, Fraser."

Fraser arched one eyebrow at Ray. "Oh, really?"

"Yeah," Ray said, "Yeah. Like say, lying in the snow and watching the stars for a little while, without worrying about getting sick, because there is such a thing as too careful, you know? Or, you know--" he shrugged and leaned down, "--getting somewhere with your partner and all that jazz."

Fraser chuckled as their lips met. Ray almost started a bit at first, since the first contact, as always, was cold. Cold, chapped Fraserlips against his. But they warmed up soon, helped along by gentle sighs and careful darts of tongues. Ray moved his lips over Fraser's, feeling how a split in Fraser's lower lip felt extra cold, feeling how Fraser's tongue stroked lazily against his own, feeling Fraser's hand fist in the fabric of his jacket and hold on tight.

"I think I've reached the conclusion that I rather like indulging," Fraser said with a smile when Ray pulled away, and Ray laughed and said, "Damn, you can still talk? Gotta work on my technique, man," and kissed him again.

When Ray next pulled away, both of Fraser's hands were fisted in his jacket, and Fraser definitely looked more dazed. "I thought we were supposed to watch the stars?"

"Eeeh," Ray said, shrugging, "maybe later. You know why I was watching them in the first place?"

"Well, I'd like to think that you found it interesting that most stars aren't really stars at all," Fraser started to explain, "but rather actually consist--"

"Freak!" Ray interrupted Fraser affectionately, knowing Fraser wasn't even halfway serious, and then unceremoniously dumped a load of snow on top of Fraser's head.

Yelping and sputtering, Fraser abruptly sat up, brushing snow frantically from the collar of his jacket, while Ray hooted on the ground next to him. Retaliation would undoubtedly come, and Ray would be cold and wet once again as all lectures about keeping dry and healthy were forgotten, but he didn't mind so much, because he got to see this side of Fraser, this side which he didn't think a whole lot of other people had seen, and not just the sex thing either, but the wilderness guy, and more importantly, the very human guy, who hid beneath all those layers of polite Mountie and stonefaced Canadian.

It should feel so damn stupid, being almost 40 and rolling around in the snow like a kid, trying to get as much snow in your also-nearly-40-years-old partner's face, but it felt great, and Ray forgot all about why he was watching the stars in the first place.

Maybe it was the trees or the snow or the plains or the ice fields, or maybe it was even the crevasses, or possibly a little hypothermia--although Ray hoped not--but Ray felt juvenile and devious, and dangerously, deliriously happy. And all he wanted was for Fraser to push his face into the snow, and laugh with him, and then whisper in his ear later, when they were warm in their sleeping bags, "I love you, Ray."

And Ray would answer back, "Love you too, Frase," and he'd mean it, and they'd touch and feel and it would be so good--it was always so damn good--and nothing felt better than crawling up next to Fraser after a long day, and finally, finally be warm, after spending countless hours in all those layers of clothing, out in the snow, when he still felt cold--

It would all be for later, though, and once Fraser shook enough snow out of his collar, he glanced once at Ray out of the corner of his eye, and pounced.

They rolled around on the ground, laughing, Ray on top and Fraser and top and Ray on top again, and when they stopped rolling, Ray kissed Fraser hard, clung to him for all he was worth, and told him, "I'm onto you. I don't give a shit what the stars really are made of, and you know it."

Fraser tried to look innocent, but Ray only laughed it away. "You can play dumb Mountie all you want, Frase. I know you."

Fraser's smile faded as his eyes focused on Ray's lips again, and Ray wondered what he saw, if he saw dry, cracked skin, or soft, full lips begging to be kissed, like Ray saw when he looked at Fraser's lips, no matter how dry and cracked they really were.

"You know me," Fraser acknowledged, nodding seriously, and this was a moment, a definite moment between them.

"I never wanna leave you," Ray confessed quietly, and through the layers of clothing, through the longjohns and thermo pants and regular pants and outer pants, he could still feel Fraser's hardness against his own, and he grabbed Fraser's hand, never wanting to let go, and he really, really never wanted to leave him.

Ray was trying very hard not to let his disappointment show when Fraser walked in the door, Diefenbaker at his side, but Fraser being Fraser, sniffed it out immediately.

"Ray?" he asked carefully, hanging up his coat and placing his boots neatly in the corner of the hallway, before coming fully into the livingroom and taking off his hat. "Is everything all right?"

Diefenbaker walked over to rest his head on Ray's thigh and give a quiet little whuff, and Ray tussled the fur a little before the wolf trotted over to the kitchen nook to lay down.

Ray noticed that Fraser had hat hair. Spring had really turned into summer now, because the snow was long gone and the little rivulets of water from the spring thaw along the sides of the roads had dried up, and apparently even Mounties could sweat when they weren't surrounded by snow and ice.

"I'm fine," he lied. "You have hat hair."

"Well, Ray," Fraser said, unbuttoning his uniform jacket, "it is summer after all, I mean, it's nearly July..."

Ray hated that uniform. He hated the ugly, blue thing they made Fraser wear every single day. Fraser belonged in his dress reds, not in that blue, modern piece of shit, and Ray wanted to knock some skulls in for making it mandatory work attire. He wanted to rip it off Fraser--and not in the good, arousing way either--and throw it in a corner and never look at it ever again. It was like a symbol, a big freakin' symbol of how things had changed, how they thought it would be, but how things just weren't, and Ray hated it.

Fraser sat down next to him on the couch and placed a hand on Ray's knee, and damnit, if that touch didn't almost undo Ray completely. How was is that this one guy could have this effect on him, every single time, every single--

"Cal can't afford to keep me on the payroll," Ray said, then quickly added, "not that it's his fault, you know, because Inuvik isn't that big of a town, and there isn't always employment, and I know that--"

"Ray," Fraser said, sighing his name. "We'll find something else, I'm sure we will."

Suddenly, Ray felt strangled, choked, by it all, and he stood up abruptly. "Will we?" he asked, "Because right now, things are looking pretty glum from my side of the fence, buddy."

"There are repair jobs--," Fraser stammered, "engines, snowmobiles, cars--cabins--and there's always more to do during the winter--clearing the roads--"

"Winter!" Ray scoffed, and he felt so fucking frustrated, and to top it off, Fraser was now looking hurt because of him, and he almost hated himself a little, like he hadn't done in a damn long time. "Winter's a long way off, Frase."

"I know," Fraser said quietly. "I know."

"What am I gonna do in the meantime? Twiddle my thumbs? Sit around the cabin and be Happy Homemaker to your Working Man, and let you pay for everything?" Then, just because he was already in a shitty mood and some hateful part of him wanted Fraser to join him there, he added, "You wanna be my sugar daddy, Fraser? 'Cause I'm not your fucking rent boy," spitting the words out.

Fraser paled noticeably on the couch, and immediately Ray felt like fifty thousand kinds of shit, and he sighed and ran both his hands through his hair.

"I'm--I'm sorry, Frase, I don't--you know I didn't mean--"

"It's quite okay," Fraser said, but he neither sounded or looked it.

"It's not," Ray said, kneeling in front of Fraser and putting one hand on each of his thighs. "I'm sorry, I'm just--I want this to work, I want to hack it up here so damn bad, but it's just so fucking hard because half of these bozos," and he jerked his head towards the general direction of town, "won't even acknowledge that I'm here and I'm here to stay, and the other half just can't see that I'm here and I'm here to stay, because all they do see is American, like it's stamped right across my fucking forehead, Frase, like someone maybe wrote US CITIZEN on my face when I wasn't looking, and it's too risky to have me onboard when I'm not a fucking Canadian citizen. And then you have the one or two people who are willing to look beyond that, like Cal, but they just don't have the resources, the--"

"Maybe I can talk things over with Maggie and Constable Redding," Fraser suggested faintly, "write the main office and see if we can..."

He trailed off before he'd even finished his sentence, and Ray shook his head resting his chin on Fraser's knee. He felt exhausted and restless at the same time, and he didn't even want to think about getting started on the whole citizenship argument again. "I never had to apply for jobs before," he said absently. "I dropped out of college, went for the Academy, and that's what I know."

Closing his eyes, Ray felt warm lips brush his forehead, and he opened them again to meet Fraser's gaze.

He expected Fraser to say what he always said, say "We'll be fine, Ray," and Ray would object just because someone needed to be the pessimistic one in their little arguments, and Fraser would object to his objection, and Ray would fall asleep later with Fraser's reassurances in his ear--but this time, Fraser said nothing.

It unnerved Ray a little, made him wonder if his half-hearted pessimistic arguments had actually struck home, but then Fraser leaned down and brushed his lips over Ray's, and all thoughts were lost.

Ray loved touching Fraser. Always had, even before they had--even before this. Even from the first day, he had felt it, the connection they shared, and at the time it had meant a good partnership, worth driving the Riviera into Lake Michigan, worth enjoying fucking with Fraser's head, but later--later it became so much more! And Fraser's touches, and touching Fraser, even just a little brush of his fingers up against red wool, it grounded him. And suddenly it was about more than partnership, it was about--

--partnership and friendship, and Fraser's tongue gently sliding against Ray's, coaxing a moan from the back of his throat, and Fraser's arms folding around Ray like a blanket around a child, comforting and secure, but again--so much, much more!

Ray's blood suddenly rushed through his veins, and he tore his mouth from Fraser's, hands impatiently already unbuttoning, tugging, pulling at his pants--ugly, dark blue, horrible, normal pants--and he was muttering, muttering, "Off, gotta--off, Fraser--wanna--God--," and Fraser only nodded at him, mouth open, chest heaving, as he raised his ass just enough for Ray to slide the pants down, boxers too, and then Ray's mouth was on Fraser's dick without a moment's hesitation.

Ray didn't use to like sucking dick, at least he didn't think so. Never done it before Fraser, never wanted to or even thought about, before Fraser. There were a lot of things that were never before Fraser. Ray didn't think he'd like trekking across the tundra, either, but in between the cold and the snow, he liked it, and in between the initial fear, he'd found out that he liked this too. Now, though, no more fear, only warm flesh against his tongue, slick with spit and precome, and twitching a little if he tongued the head just so.

Above him, Fraser groaned, and Ray let his hands wander. Finding Fraser's nipples through his shirt--ugly, light-blue, horrible, normal shirt--Ray pinched them gently, rubbing them with his fingertips, then brought one hand down to fondle Fraser's balls, and sucked--

--and Fraser came up off the couch with a very audible yelp, and Ray had to push down, hold him down, and sucked harder, getting more salty, slimy moisture in his mouth, and he loved it, never wanted to stop, never wanted to leave Fraser, leave this--

Fraser's eyes were closed when Ray looked up at him. Dark eyelashes against pale skin, and his mouth was still open. Ray tongued the head of Fraser's cock again, and swallowed a little spit and precome, and Fraser groaned again, deep in his chest, rumbling like maybe they were running out of air, and Fraser's lungs were starting to ache.

"Ray," he panted, "Ray," and Ray took his mouth off Fraser's cock and stood up, sparing not a second on finesse or seductive moves that would only mean delaying his need, and stripped out of his clothing, pulled his t-shirt over his head, ripping the button-fly of his jeans open, and sat down heavily on the couch, his couch, the only big thing he'd brought with him from Chicago, because Fraser had looked around the cabin and said, "You should have something of yours here, Ray."

Ray had pointed out all his CDs and his knick-knacks and his clothes in Fraser's closet, and Fraser had just nodded and said, "Yes, but something bigger," and Ray had brought the couch, paid a fortune to get it up there, but it was there at least, and it had satisfied Fraser.

Fraser rapidly stripped out of his own shirt, no undershirt because it was warm and "nearly July, Ray," and even Fraser avoided sweating to death when he could, and he kicked off his pants and boxers completely, peeled off his socks, and then finally he was against Ray and pulling Ray on top of him, bare skin against bare skin--always so damn good.

"Ray," Fraser panted again, and it still stunned Ray, this communication thing they had going, push and pull and one-two-go they had going, that they had down pat. He knew, and Fraser knew, and it was only a matter of minutes--minutes--and then he was pressing in and inside, and Fraser was groaning so Ray's ears hurt. Ray cradled Fraser against him, wrapped his arms around him and felt Fraser's own arms go around his back, and then he braced one foot on the floor and one food against the armrest of the couch, and then he was sliding out again and in again and out--

And fuck, Fraser kept moaning his name, panting it into his ear, so unlike all the other times for some reason--something in his voice--something so damn raw and--broken almost--as if Fraser was being cut open right there, and instead of guts spilling out, there was all these emotions that Ray knew existed but that he so rarely got to see--so rarely got to see fully, and Ray could only groan and whisper Fraser's own name right back at him, tongue his ear and then grit his teeth as Fraser's ass clenched around his cock.

Thrusting, Ray dug his fingers into Fraser's soft skin, felt sweat drip into his eyes and blinked it away, because Fraser had moved, Fraser had one arm between them, pumping his own cock hard, the back of his hand stroking against Ray's stomach, and it was so--damn--good--

Ray loved orgasms. What human being didn't? Ray loved them. Loved coming--loved coming inside Fraser, which wasn't that often, because he loved coming with Fraser inside him almost more than he loved the orgasm itself, and usually it was that way, but this time it was this way--him inside Fraser and coming his brains out, grunting like an animal and still thrusting, unable to stop himself, and then Fraser's lungs were sort of rattling, a groan, a moan, a grunt, Ray didn't have the faintest idea what to call the sound Fraser made, and then there was hot wetness between their bodies.

Had to move out, had to move out of Fraser--

Pulling out, Ray tried not to collapse onto Fraser's chest, but Fraser's chest was there, damnit, and Fraser was bigger than Ray and broader than Ray, and his chest was a damn good place to collapse, so Ray just sort of flopped down, ignoring the wetness squishing between them, ignoring the wetness on his dick--the wetness probably seeping out of Fraser's ass--staining the couch, and just closed his eyes and felt. Sweaty skin, one messy hand coming up to stroke his neck, coating it in the mess too, strong heartbeat against his ear, heaving breaths pushing his head up and down, and fucking hell, so good, he never ever wanted to leave, never--

"I think you should go back to Chicago."

The words were spoken quietly, but evenly.

Ray opened his eyes then, and something inside him froze up and went cold--freezing--like it was the middle of the winter again and not at all nearly July.

By the kitchen nook, Diefenbaker's head came up from the floor, and he whined once.

Part III.

Fraser's cabin was, not surprisingly, a little outside of Inuvik, and from his front porch, Ray could barely make out the RCMP detachment, a little brown dot visible through the trees. The cabin was larger than Ray expected, but apparently still small enough for Fraser's comfort; the front door opened into a little hallway, which led to the livingroom. Two doors to the left led to what Ray assumed were bathroom and bedroom, and in the opposite corner was a kitchen nook. A beige couch sat in the livingroom in front of a fireplace, and between the couch and the fireplace was a very new-looking coffee table in dark wood, contrasting sharply with the worn couch, which had obviously seen better days.

"Looking good, Frase," Ray said with a nod of approval.

"The cabin is property of the RCMP actually," Fraser explained, sounding slightly embarrassed, as he disappeared into the bedroom and emerged again with a bedroll. "I--well, I wasn't originally planning on taking this position, but--things changed," he said, spreading the bedroll out on the floor by the fireplace.

"What, Kowalski?" Ray asked, unable to help himself, but Fraser didn't reply, obviously having talked enough about that particular subject for the evening.

"You must meet my sister Maggie," Fraser said instead, and for a second, Ray thought, Huh? What sister? until he remembered Fraser telling him.

"Oh, right, sure, I'd love to."

"She's out on patrol at the moment, though, she went out alone earlier today just before you came in, although I suspect Diefenbaker might have joined her on her rounds. It's a shame you missed her really, I'd have liked to introduce you, but I guess you'll meet her soon enough. I'm sure you'll like her."

And Ray was feeling pretty relieved that at least Fraser wasn't miserable all alone up here like he'd feared, at least he had his sister to help him through it, no matter the reason why Fraser was miserable. And that reminded him--

"You can take my bed for the duration of your stay," and Ray didn't even bother to argue that point, it wouldn't be any use anyway, Fraser was just as stubborn when it came to hospitality, as he was about most everything else. "Do you need to take a shower after your journey?"

Fraser asked, gesturing towards the bathroom. "I can wait. There is hot water."

"Nah, I'm fine, you go ahead, Benny," and Fraser looked so comically relieved that Ray had to hide his laughter. Ray couldn't blame the guy. If he'd been out on patrol for a few days without running water, Ray would feel pretty grimy too.

Ray waited until Fraser had grabbed clean clothes out of his bedroom and closed the bathroom door behind him, before stepping out on the front porch and flipping open his cell phone. Long distance be damned, he had some things to settle with Kowalski.

"Detectives Division, squad room," came Francesca's voice over the line.

"Is he there?" Ray asked immediately.


"Is he there?" Ray asked again, more urgently.

"Yes," Francesca said and hesitated, "but--"

"No buts, Frannie, patch me through, right now!"

There was a small sigh on the other end of the line, before Ray heard the telltale click across the line that told him his call was being transferred, and a second later he heard Kowalski's voice.

"Yeah, Kowalski."

"Vecchio," Ray said, and was met by a steady beeping, as expected.

Sighing, he hit re-dial, and this time Francesca didn't even bother to protest, but instead put him right through. Good girl, at least she caught on quickly.

"Leave me the fuck alone," Kowalski growled when he picked up, and hey at least this time, Ray got him to say a couple of words before he hung up again.

"Third time's a charm," he muttered darkly to himself, hitting re-dial and just saying "Put me through," in reply to Francesca's sigh.

"Don't hang up," he said quickly, when Kowalski picked up.

"What the fuck do you want?" Kowalski asked, and Ray could hear that the guy wanted to scream it, hear the tension in his voice. What right did Kowalski have to be angry? He was the one who'd lied, he was the one who'd--

"Why didn't you tell me?" Ray got out, and damnit, he was still angry, still so fucking angry, because Kowalski still had been partly responsible for making Fraser miserable. Kowalski made Fraser fall in love with him, didn't he? And he was sure this was still Kowalski's fault, somehow--

"I don't need your fucking pity," Kowalski sneered, "and it's none of your goddamn business, none of your goddamn--"

"It is my business," Ray protested, then repeated for what felt like the thousandth time since he first met Kowalski, "Benny's my friend, do you understand that? Do you even know what a friend is?"

There was the tiniest little moment of hesitation, so brief that Ray might not have caught it, if he hadn't been a cop and already on edge from the entire conversation, because he disliked Kowalski so damn much.

"Fuck you," Kowalski said then, and he had raised his voice now.

"I don't swing that way," Ray growled right back.

"Why can't you just leave me alone?" and Kowalski was screaming on the other end of the line now, but Ray kept the phone stubbornly to his ear, because the asshole was obviously making an embarrassment of himself in the middle of the bullpen, and Ray took a certain perverse pleasure in getting to witness that, even if it was from the other end of the phone, in a different country.

"Look, I gave you your shot, okay, I gave you your shot, I took the fall, I was willing to be the bad guy here, and you couldn't just say fucking thank you and leave it at that?" Kowalski bellowed.

"Why?" Ray demanded, "Why?"

"Because I fucking care about the guy, okay?" Kowalski said, his voice suddenly dropping to a hiss, and there was so much more in that sentence, and Ray wondered how many in the bullpen still heard despite Kowalski's sudden hush, how many were keeping one ear on the conversation.

"You just keep sticking your damn big nose where it's not wanted and where it's got no business, and I'm starting to think you will go out of your fucking way to--to--to torment me! I'm thinkin' you need a new damn hobby, you goddamn freak, but obviously I cannot fucking win here, so you keep the damn Mountie, and you keep Stella, and you win, okay? You get fucking everything," and Ray almost gaped a little, because he hadn't really realized it was a contest in the first place.

"You get everything," Kowalski repeated, "you get them both, and you get everything, and I get--me."

Kowalski stopped speaking then, and silence reigned for a long time, save for Kowalski's heavy breaths. They were long and shaky and sort of wheezing, and it took Ray a few moments to figure it out, but then he suddenly realized that the last time he'd heard somebody wheeze like that, it was back in Vegas. Back when--when--

Armando Langoustini.

Back when Danny Azelius had been called on the carpet to explain why the fuck he and Chris Corelli had been disobeying a direct order from Langoustini, and why the fuck Chris Corelli had ended up dead, and Danny had been trying to explain, standing before Langoustini, trying hard, hard, hard not to cry, and Ray has thought Jesus--Jesus, this kid is too young for this world, and Danny had been wheezing just--like that.

The realization that Kowalski was standing there and probably trying hard, hard, hard not to cry, hit Ray square in the chest, and he wasn't quite sure how to react anymore.

Finally he managed to clear his throat. "I--," he started, but wasn't sure what to say.

"I'm--sorry," he finally got out, but it seemed lame even as he said it, and the line had gone dead before he'd spoken, the phone already beeping into his ear.

Flipping his cell closed, Ray rubbed his temples and squeezed his eyes tightly shut for a moment. Headache. Goddamn headache. Goddamn mess. Who the fuck did Kowalski think he was? But an uneasy feeling had settled in the pit of his stomach, because-- Jesus, what if he'd been wrong all the time, what if Benny had been wrong all the time, or someone had been wrong all the time and it wasn't Kowalski--what if--what did this mean--? Such a damn mess.

The ringing of his phone startled him, and he almost dropped it, before managing to flip it open.

"You are such an ass," Francesca said loudly and obnoxiously in his ear, and damn, she sounded outright pissed.

"Wha--me?" Ray stuttered, unprepared for a phone call from Francesca, and even more unprepared for being yelled at. "Me? What the hell did I do?"

"How stupid are you?" she continued, as if he'd never spoken at all, and at least he could hear nothing but silence in the background, so she had at least left the bullpen and gone somewhere private to call him. "Can't you just leave Ray alone?"

Ray opened his mouth, then shut him, then opened it again. "Can't I leave him alone? Frannie, I just wanted to know why he did what he did, because--"

"Yeah, you know what?" Francesca interrupted him, "I know, okay? I know, I know about him and Fraser, and I know what Fraser did to him, and I know what he told you, but did it ever occur to you that he might have been trying to do something nice for you? For you both?"

"It's not true," Ray denied, but he was already doubting his own words, even before he'd spoken. "He's got some plan, and he's got some part in this. He made Benny miserable, Frannie."

"No plan," Francesca said sharply. "Grow up, you're paranoid, Ray! You just want to dislike the guy so damn badly that you can't see that Fraser's the one who made a mistake, here, and made himself miserable. You won't even consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, that perfect Mountie isn't so damn perfect all the time."

"But he's miserable," Ray said weakly.

"Yeah, so's Ray, but you're both up there aren't you?" Francesca said, then sighed deeply and her voice softened. "Fraser's always let you in. You and Ray. You both got to him in a way that I--in a way that nobody else managed. But Ray, he..." She paused for a second. "For him, I think it's only Fraser, you know? Not Fraser and somebody else, not partner and a best friend too, but just Fraser."

Suddenly Ray flashed back on that brief moment of hesitation, Do you even know what a friend is? and just the tiniest, little hesitation, and the notion that maybe Kowalski didn't know, maybe Kowalski thought he didn't know, that thought was oddly depressing.

"He won't even talk to me," Francesca said quietly. "Not to me and not to Lieutenant Welsh, and I just don't think there's anyone else left."

But that couldn't possibly be it, because Kowalski had to have friends, had to have family or someone, because guys who were almost 40 years old didn't just have nobody, the very thought was just plain fucking ridiculous. But then again, a nagging voice whispered in his head, then again--

Francesca had gone silent on the other end, but now she suddenly cleared her throat, as if getting a little lost in thought herself.

"Think about this," Francesca said in his ear, "you're up there being Fraser's best friend and all, which is good, don't get me wrong, but--who's down here being Ray's best friend, huh?"

Nobody, that was who, because Kowalski's current best friend was in freakin' Inuvik with a retired, Italian Chicago cop, but Ray couldn't quite bring himself to say that.

"I don't know," he said instead, and his voice sounded hoarse in his own ears.

"Exactly," Francesca said, and there wasn't much more to add to the conversation.

Ray studied Fraser as he moved around by the kitchen nook, preparing dinner, and in his head his thoughts were racing, because--then again--

Because he'd gone undercover, and then Kowalski had gone undercover, and the whole situation had been fucked up and impossible, but it still worked, shoddy setup and all, because--because nobody missed Kowalski. There was only one reason they'd needed someone to cover Ray's cover in the first place, and that was because people would miss Ray, would notice Ray was gone, whereas Kowalski--

And even before Ray had gone under, he'd only been a Detective, only been just himself, Ray Vecchio, and it wasn't his damn fault he looked so much like Armando Langoustini, but Kowalski--he'd seen Kowalski's file, and three citations, and still nobody missed him.

Ray sat on the surprisingly comfortable couch and gnawed on one fingernail, watching Fraser stir a pot of something smelling a lot like tomatoes and beef, shoulders slumped in a most uncharacteristic manner, and one hand in the pocket of his jeans--

--and he flashed back on Fraser, on Benny, telling him stories about boxers and steroids, and his old friend Quinn, about finding a sister and gaining a family, and Beth Botrelle which Ray had even read about down in Vegas, and about Kowalski's bravery, and there had been so much in Fraser's voice that night, and he hadn't seemed as tired or worn down anymore, and Ray had allowed himself to lean back and enjoy the company of his best friend, and Ray's shoulder wasn't even hurting anymore, and in short time, he'd move to Florida, and Fraser would move to Canada, and then Fraser had started in on this insane story about pirates and ghost ships--

--and what if Francesca was right, and Fraser had made himself miserable? It did sound right, at least judging from the information Ray now sat with, because wasn't it just like Fraser to put others' happiness miles before his own, and not realize he could have it both, he could have it all?

Before he even fully realized what he was going to do, Ray was up off the couch, striding to Fraser on long legs.

Fraser started a little when Ray put his hand on his shoulder, and Ray spun him around, angrily, fast, and Fraser stared at him and said, "Ray, what on earth--?"

That's about as far as Fraser got before Ray's fist connected solidly with his jaw, and Fraser stumbled from the blow, lost his footing and fell backwards, probably burning his hand badly on the stove on his way down towards the floor, but Ray just couldn't bring himself to feel sorry for the man, because God--Fraser really was the most annoying man on the earth, and Ray hadn't even known he wanted to clobber Fraser for it--hadn't known it was Fraser and not Kowalski who'd needed a good decking--

It had, at least, seemed to bring Fraser out of his state of quiet apathy, and he stared open-mouthed up at Ray with a shocked expression on his face that Ray would have found funny, if he hadn't been so damn pissed off.

"You're such a fucking moron," Ray said quickly, before Fraser could gather his wits enough to speak. "You're a fucking moron, Fraser, and some days I don't even know why I bother even caring about you!"

Ray had to stop then, because he simply didn't know how to go on. Should have had that annoying skill of somehow always managing to come up with a dramatic speech, like Kowalski. Goddamn, ugly Kowalski, and it annoyed Ray even further that Kowalski was right, and had been right, all along.

"Jesus," Ray muttered, and pinched the bridge of his nose. Fraser was still sitting on his ass on the floor, back against the cupboards of the kitchen nook, and he looked so fucking confused, as if he had any right to even pretend he didn't know what was going on--

"Let's just say that I'm starting to think Diefenbaker has the right idea here," Ray said grimly, then reached out a hand towards Fraser, "and if you don't come back with me to Chicago and fucking fix this mess, the mess you put yourself in, I will kick your ass, Benny, so help me God."

If Fraser had said a single word about leave of absence from his duties, responsibilities to the community, inconvenient timing, anything of the like, Ray would have had no problems punching him in the face again, because some things--some things--were just too damn important, and Ray wasn't gonna let Fraser weasel out of it, no way no how. And some small part of Ray, inside, somewhere in his stomach, was nagging at him for coming down so hard on Kowalski, because--and it always came back to this--Kowalski was fucking right. And Ray hated feeling bad about the whole damn thing, and if that wasn't enough, it really was Fraser's fault, and Fraser would just have to fix it, now wouldn't he?

There was a moment's hesitation, where Fraser just stared at Ray's outstretched hand, before he finally gripped it with a soft hiss and a wince--and oh yeah, that was a nice, little burn--and together they got Fraser up on his feet again.

"Come here," Ray said, taking a deep breath and feeling the anger slowly drain out of him. "Gonna take care of your hand."

Ignoring Fraser's attempts to pull his hand back, Ray just pulled him forwards towards the kitchen sink, then stuck Fraser's hand under the tap and turned on the cold water--not too cold, not supposed to do that, not with burns, he reminded himself--before turning to the stove. Definitely looked like some kind of stew--tomato sauce--something--whatever, it could wait, and Ray turned off the stove and removed the pot from the burner, before going to the freezer and finding the tray of ice cubes he knew Fraser would have in there.

It made him shake his head, just once, because Fraser was not the kind of guy who had ice cubes in his freezer to cool down any beverages--Fraser was the kind of guy who kept ice cubes in his freezer because he kept coming home sprained and bruised and sore, and ice cubes beat packs of frozen peas any day of the week. Proper damn preparation, all right.

Getting out some cubes, he put the tray back in the freezer, then wrapped the ice in a towel, pulled Fraser's now cool hand from under the tap and put the towel against it.

When he finally looked up at Fraser's face again, he found Fraser watching him with a quiet intensity, but there was something else there now, something more, something more alive than before.

"What?" he snapped, feeling embarrassed by his outburst, and maybe just a little bit angry still? Angry and himself for getting the situation so wrong, angry at Kowalski for being right, and most of all angry at Fraser for being so damn stupid!

"Why are you doing this?"

For a moment, Ray tried to play dumb, raised on eyebrow and squeezed Fraser's hand, gesturing to the reddened skin there, and said, "What, this?"

Fraser only looked at him, and finally Ray sighed as Kowalski's words rang in his ears.

"I--care about you, okay?" he finally admitted, and fuck--that was hard to say. Guys weren't cut out for this shit, they really weren't--whatever happened to the time when he was Fraser's best friend, and Fraser was Ray's best friend, and they both knew so without having to get all mushy? He self-consciously hoped Fraser wouldn't demand any further explanation, and was relieved when Fraser only offered him a tentative smile in return, and then Ray turned back to tending to Fraser's hand.

Yeah, Fraser had burnt himself pretty good, probably put his whole damn hand right down on the stove to try to break his fall, but there was no blisters or anything, just red skin, shriveling slightly right by his thumb. For a moment, Ray almost felt guilty, almost, but then decided he'd save it for later, save it for after Fraser had straightened things out. God, nobody could screw things up like Fraser could. Ray wondered if maybe it was a prerequisite for joining the RCMP or something. Probably was, too, knowing the damn Canadians.

But at least Fraser's mood seemed to have improved somewhat, though whether because of the burnt hand, the punch to the jaw, or the embarrassing admission that Ray actually cared for the guy, Ray didn't know.

"Doesn't look too bad," he mumbled. "Got some ointment?"

"In the bathroom," Fraser explained, then cracked his neck once and shrugged. "It was actually my sister Maggie who made it for me, and that actually reminds me of a story my father once told me. You see, this ointment is made by mixing together--"

The hand Ray held up was enough to cut Fraser off, and while Ray was absolutely sure he did not--did not--wanna know what was in Fraser's ointment, because it was bound to be weird and gross, like most other things when it came to the guy, he did crack a small smile. If Fraser was feeling good enough to tell a weird story, at least things were looking up. Finally.

O'Hare seemed a lot more comfortable to Ray's senses the last time he landed here, but he supposed it was partly because of his travel route. Inuvik-Chicago was a whole lot more tiring than Miami-Chicago, as it turned out. Fraser, though, Fraser seemed happy as a clam, despite having left Diefenbaker behind in Canada, in the care of Maggie--and Fraser was right, Ray did like Maggie.

The decision to forego the added stress of quarantine and paperwork until they knew how this was gonna play out was Fraser's, and if Ray was to be completely honest with himself, he didn't mind not having slobber and wolf hair all over his clothes at all times. Diefenbaker's absence hadn't seemed to put a damper on Fraser's mood either, surprisingly enough, and Fraser was obviously in a good mood, even as he tipped his hat to an old lady and helped her get her suitcase from the baggage claim.

Ray waited while Fraser helped the little old lady on her way, and then waited while Fraser got his own luggage, and then waited some more while Fraser stopped to explain exactly what his uniform meant to some giggling teenagers.

When Fraser started to go into a detailed explanation of "the morals and obligations that came with being an officer of the law," however, Ray took charge, physically pulling Fraser away with a, "He can't talk right now, fuck off," to the still giggling teenagers.

"That was highly unnecessary, Ray," Fraser said with a frown, "I'd have thought that you of all people would appreciate the value and importance of teaching some of America's youngsters the morals--"

"--and obligations of being an officer of the law, Fraser, I know, but we don't have time for this shit," Ray mumbled, hoisting his bag higher up on his shoulder without letting go of the death grip he had on Fraser's arm. "We got an ugly Polack to say sorry to, and," and he quickly held up a warning finger, forestalling the argument before it came, "if you say a damn word about Kowalski's looks, I will fucking deck you again, you hear me? I don't wanna hear it--when it comes to Kowalski's looks, face, hands, or anything else that is even remotely related to the word 'body,' and I'm not talking dead guys, we're working in a strictly 'don't ask don't tell' modus operandi here, you got me?"

Fraser closed his mouth which he had opened to speak, then nodded once.

"Understood, Ray."

Out of the corner of his eye, Ray thought he saw Fraser smile, though.

Wasn't like he meant to keep an eye on Fraser at all times, no, not at all, but he was wearing that red serge again, and it kept flashing annoyingly just in his line of vision, just enough to make him constantly glance over--react before his brain interpreted that This is Fraser, stupidhead. You seen him before. Don't need to see him again.

And--okay, okay--maybe he was checking up on Fraser just a little, but ever since they boarded the third plane which would finally take them to Chicago, Fraser had been wearing that stupid little almost-smile, and it didn't seem like he was planning on wiping it off anytime soon, so Ray really didn't need to worry. Not that he worried in the first place. He was still angry at the stupid Mountie for screwing things up, and so what if he sometimes had to remind himself that? Didn't mean he was worried anymore, did definitely not fucking mean he was worried for Kowalski as well as Fraser.

Going through Customs was a joke, because the clerk was female and she took one look at Fraser and then swooned at his feet, and it took them less than ten minutes to reach the exit and hail a cab. When Fraser made a motion as if to give away their cab to the young couple who was so obviously in love it sickened Ray to his stomach, Ray quickly made it a moot point by climbing in and refusing to get out. And damn, will wonders never cease, it only took Fraser two minutes to get with the program and getting in as well, and then they were en route directly to the 27th.

Fraser kept up that half-smile thing throughout the entire ride, and when they got out in the 27th's parking lot, it grew into an actual smile. Ray had to remind himself once again that he was still pissed at Fraser, and for the first time he really hoped, really hoped, that things would work out, that Fraser would know what to say and do, and hopefully not get smacked in the jaw again, this time by Kowalski, because Ray really longed for this whole damn circus to end, and end happily, so he could just stop being pissed at Fraser already.

But what if it didn't? Because sometimes, things just didn't work out, he knew that much, because he had Angie, and Fraser had Victoria, and Kowalski had Stella, and he really didn't wanna think too deeply about that, because every time he did, the words partner-swap came to mind, and partner-swap and Kowalski were two thoughts that did not unite peacefully in Ray's head.

"Ray," Fraser said, when Ray just had put one hand on the door into the station. "I--"

"Don't mention it, Benny," Ray said grumpily, cutting him off, "I really mean that."

"But I--" Fraser started to say, and Ray's anger became more real, but Fraser never got to finish his sentence as the door opened, nearly knocking Ray to his feet, and a young uniform Ray didn't know froze dead in his tracks.

"Constable Fraser!" he said, and Jesus, did they lower the age limit of the Academy while Ray was away?

"Officer Henderson," Fraser said, still grinning, and he didn't even bother to correct the kid.

"You're back," Officer Henderson said, and before Fraser could even answer or give an explanation, an explanation Ray was pretty sure the guy had already had on the tip of his tongue, Officer Henderson had spun on his heels and practically run back into the building.

The rumor that the Mountie was back obviously spread like wildfire, because with every two steps they took through the familiar hallways, they had to stop so Fraser could say hi to someone, or shake someone's hands, and Vecchio felt vaguely stumped that he'd made it all the way up to the bullpen--and hell, into the Lieutenant's office, before anyone had come even remotely close to welcoming him back that he hadn't approached directly himself.

Their element of surprise was definitely gone, so Ray didn't know quite what to expect when they finally approached the doors of the bullpen, but he got a good idea when they burst open and Ray Kowalski came storming towards them like a bat out of hell, face twisted in fury as he pushed through the crowd.

Kowalski's eyes were locked onto Fraser's face, and Fraser looked back, and Jesus, didn't the guy even notice how angry, how absolutely furious Kowalski was? If he kept it up, he really was gonna get smacked in the jaw by Kowalski. But Fraser just kept right on grinning, and Ray wondered as he had many times before, if Fraser was suicidal or just fucking stupid, when the fist hit his nose.

Ray wasn't ashamed to admit it, he crumpled and hit the floor like a sack of potatoes, and as he clutched his bloody nose, he suddenly felt slightly relieved that he hadn't suckerpunched Kowalski in the break room like he'd wanted, because--Kowalski would undoubtedly have hit him back. In the back of his mind, he heard Fraser telling him how Kowalski had been boxing on the side, almost enough to make a career out of it, apparently--and shit, yeah, Ray could get behind that, because Kowalski really hit like a fucking sledgehammer. A skinny-ass, ugly sledgehammer, but still--

Ray took his hands from his face and stupidly stared at his bloody fingers. Above him, Fraser wasn't grinning anymore, and he was saying, "Not him, Ray--not him--you--I--," and Kowalski was ignoring him completely, instead standing over Ray and yelling at him.

"What the fuck didn't you understand when I said this was my business, and I said, told you, to leave me alone--I said--I--you--fucking--"

Anger spiked in Ray, and he was on his feet and in Kowalski's face before Fraser even had the chance to step between them, and then he was tackling Kowalski to the ground and grunting hard with the impact as their bodies met the floor. Ray didn't even get a good punch in before there were hands at his shoulders, pulling him up off Kowalski and away, and other hands were holding Kowalski back, and then Ray's vision was blocked by Fraser's red-clad back, and if he could just land that one good punch!

"Ray!" shrieked Francesca as she pushed through the crowd of Officers and Detectives, and behind her Welsh crossed his arms and glared at both Ray and Kowalski, which Ray couldn't see before he was still sort of hunched forward, and Fraser was blocking the way. Welsh continued to glare with murder in his eyes, and Ray struggled once more against the hands holding him back, just for good measure, before relaxing and nodding.

"I'm good," he said, and people started to tentatively let go of him as they quieted down around them. "I'm good."

"You suck," he heard Kowalski mutter, and it took all of Ray's self-control not to shove Fraser aside and beat the shit out of the blonde snot.

"Get back to work," Welsh growled, and the crowd immediately dissolved. Ray straightened in time to see Kowalski tear his eyes off Fraser's face and start to turn back towards the bullpen.

"Not you, Detective."

Welsh's command froze Kowalski in his tracks, and he glanced once more at Fraser, before resolutely not looking at Ray.

Silence reigned for a few moments as Welsh looked from Kowalski to Fraser to Ray, and Francesca tip-toed her way to Ray's side and started mopping up his bloody nose with a tissue. Finally, Welsh sighed deeply and ran a tired hand across his face. "It's the strangest feeling, Constable. While seeing you grace our station with your presence once again is pleasing, don't get me wrong, you'll also hopefully understand me when I confess to you that I, at the same time, have this deep yearning, that you will go as far away as possible and never return."

Ray didn't see Fraser's face, but judging from Welsh's expression, the Canadian fool was grinning again.

"It's Corporal now," Kowalski mumbled, still not looking at either of them.

Welsh didn't bat an eye, just jerked his head towards the double doors leading into the bullpen. "Vecchio, in my office."

Ray blinked owlishly at that, because at anything, he'd have expected Welsh to want to talk to Kowalski, possibly Fraser too, long before himself. Kowalski's head had jerked up as well, obviously as surprised as Ray. Fraser just stood still as a statue, hands on his back. Exchanging a glance with Francesca, who looked worriedly up at him, Ray gathered up his bag from where he'd dropped it when Kowalski socked him, then followed Welsh down the hall.

As he left, Ray threw a glance over his shoulder and spotted Fraser gripping Kowalski's arm, heard Kowalski say "Fuck off, I told you--," and then the rest was cut off as Ray entered the bullpen.

Welsh led Ray into his office, then closed the door behind them and shut the blinds, before wordlessly walking to his desk and pulling out a box of tissues.

"Here," he told Ray, pushing the box towards him. "Clean yourself up."

Ray was still unsure what to make of the whole situation, so he schooled his face into his best neutral mask and just took a few tissues, mopping up the blood Francesca hadn't gotten around to. His nose was damn sore, Kowalski could pack a punch all right, but didn't feel like anything was broken. Kowalski'd be disappointed, Ray realized, and that thought alone made the corners of his mouth twitch.

Welsh had sat down in his chair and just studied Ray carefully as he finished cleaning up his nose, before finally sighing when Ray threw away the bloodied tissues.

"You think this was a good idea?" Welsh asked with an arch of one bushy eyebrow. "Bringing Fraser here? This was your great solution to a shitty situation?"

Unsure of how much Welsh knew, Ray frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but Welsh cut him off by holding up a hand.

"You know what, I don't even wanna know, Vecchio. And you know why I don't wanna know? So when people come to me looking for an explanation for why one of my best Detectives is coming apart at the seams, like we've all suspected these past couple of months, I can honestly assure them that as far as I know there is nothing wrong, you hear me Vecchio? But what happens? You drag your ass back here, bring with you Constable Fraser--"

"It is actually Corporal now," Ray said quickly.

"--Corporal Fraser, and within ten minutes, I have a goddamn fight on my hands--and!" and Welsh sat forward, pointing a finger in the air, "It's not even one of my fine Detectives restraining a particularly vicious perpetrator, it's one of my Detectives fighting with one of my former Detectives--former being the key word here. Fraser's long gone, and the worst thing we've dealt with since then is Kowalski's less than stellar mood, but at least he got the job done, but you walk in here with the Constable--"


"I don't care!" Welsh thundered, and Ray almost flinched. "You walk in here with the Corporal in tow, and minutes later one of my Detectives is attacking a civilian. Now, any sane individual, anyone with eyes in their skull, knows this is because of a personal reaction Kowalski may or may not have had to Corporal Fraser's presence," and at least this time he got Fraser's rank right, "so explain to me once more, Vecchio, how you thought this would be a stellar solution to our situation, should I even acknowledge a situation actually exists."

"Sir, I thought," Ray began carefully, gritting his teeth, "that it would be for the best."

Welsh stared at him, then blinked twice.

"I mean," Ray sighed, wondering how the hell he was going to explain this if Welsh really didn't wanna hear any of the facts out loud--facts that Ray knew the Lieutenant had to have figured out for himself.

"I mean, it is clear that there has been some differences between the two morons, if you catch my drift, and I just figured it was better to have 'em duke it out and then maybe put it behind them, right? Sir?" he added as an afterthought.

Welsh stood up then, coming around the desk to get in Ray's face and place a strong finger sternly against his chest. "You listen to me good, Vecchio," he said, lowering his voice, "Kowalski is no fucking prince charming, but he has at least been holding himself together. Now I know the guy from way back when, further back than I care to think about, it's one of the reasons he was offered the undercover gig while you were away. Everybody knows what kind of cop he is, you'd have to live under a rock not to hear about his arrest rate, so I know very well what kind of cop Ray Kowalski is," and Ray wasn't quite sure if Welsh was talking about before or after Ray started working with Fraser, "but more importantly--I know what kind of man Kowalski is."

Ray was leaning backwards now under Welsh's intense gaze, and as if just realizing this, Welsh took a step back. "I know you don't like the guy, but if I find out that you did this just to rattle Kowalski's cage, I will beat you down, Vecchio, because I stand by my Detectives. And when a man is as high strung as Kowalski has been these past months? When a man has reached that point? You don't fuck with his head."

Ray almost rocked back on his heels a little, wondering if there was a little black book somewhere that everybody seemed to be getting their speeches out of. The idea that he would do this, that he would bring Fraser back to Chicago, as a part of some elaborate mindfuck--that Welsh would even think this of him--no. It ticked him off. And at the same time, the intensity in Welsh's voice startled him.

A hint of something there, something he knew about Kowalski--something lonely and dark that Ray didn't really want to think about at all, because he would only play nice with Kowalski to a certain extent, and getting real sympathy for the guy was just taking it one step too far. And then finally, there was that nagging feeling in his chest, feeling a whole damn lot like hurt, because--because--Welsh stood by his Detectives, Lieutenant and father and the rock they clung to, as always, and right now Ray felt like--he was being told he wasn't a part of that anymore.

"I'd like to think, sir, that you knew me better than that," he said, and God himself couldn't have kept the iciness out of his voice.

"I'd like to think that after working for you for several years, putting up with the stupid Mountie, and having seen the shit I have, you'd know me a whole lot better than that." He paused a second to take a deep breath. "Also--if you can recall, I used to be a Detective here--a cop--and unless the Lieutenant has developed a severe memory loss, he will maybe remember that I never made the choice to leave here, it was a choice made for me."

Yeah, it was a choice made for him, all right, by the bullet that dug his way into his shoulder and later up his fucking throat.

Welsh studied him for long moments, so long that Ray felt the need to squirm under his gaze, but he was not gonna back down--not from this. Then finally, Welsh walked back around his desk and turned to the bookshelf near the couch.

"Want a glass?" he asked, and Ray spotted the bottle Welsh was now holding, and saw the amber liquid sloshing around inside.

Letting out a breath he hadn't known he was holding, Ray nodded. "I'd love one, sir."

Ray'd had two glasses before he walked out of the Lieutenant's office, feeling tired to his very bones and oddly numb, but yet there was something warm inside him. Not the liquor, not the liquor, but something--almost like happiness. No anger. Not enough left in him, Ray suspected. It was to be expected. He felt like he'd been nothing but angry since he'd first stood in that tiny office, and Fraser had looked at him and said, "I'm going on an adventure with Ray, Ray."

He could only hope it wasn't so, but he didn't really think so--was pretty sure Stella would have told him. Was dead sure she would have told him.

Or maybe he'd been angrier for longer than that, since he stepped out of an airplane in Las Vegas, and his name had been Can I get you anything, Mr. Langoustini? instead of Vecchio, get in here!

Hadn't been sure of anything, hadn't been sure what he'd do once he got out, if he got out, about his job, about his friends. And the job issue had resolved itself, really, maybe not exactly the way he'd hoped or imagined, but it had resolved itself--but also left him oddly--empty. Missing his friends, missing the knowledge that he might be following a fool Canadian partner over rooftops and into sewers, but at least he had guys, good guys, watching his back--guys like Huey and the Lieutenant.

He hadn't even realized that was what he'd been missing about Chicago until now. Hadn't even realized it only took a look from Welsh, that unspoken sentence. He'd always be a part of the team up here, no matter how hot and clammy Miami got.

"Are you okay?" Francesca asked, suddenly at his side and putting a worried hand on his arm. "Your nose looks horrible."

And Ray had to chuckle at that, and he nodded slowly. "I'm okay, Frannie."

Maybe it was something in the way he said it, or something in his eyes--or possibly in his swollen, throbbing nose--but Francesca gave him a relieved smile and a hug.

"Where did they go?" Ray asked when Francesca let him go.

For a moment, Francesca looked uncertain, but then she pointed towards the doors. "Supply closet by the fire exit," she said, "been holed up there since you went with the Lieutenant."

Nodding once to her, Ray walked out of the bullpen and found the right closet. This section of the hallway was deserted, and it was pretty quiet around, but Ray still had to listen sharply and press an ear against the wood of the door to hear anything at all--and even then it was limited. Hushed voices came from within, whispering and hissing, but still tight with emotion.

He shouldn't eavesdrop, he really shouldn't, but Welsh had been right about one thing; the fight, the chaos, the fury on Kowalski's face--it was all because Ray was the one who'd brought Fraser down here, and Ray needed to see this through.

"--honest--so wrong--" someone was saying, and Ray was pretty sure it was Fraser.

"Fuck you!" the other voice replied in a slightly louder hiss, and that was definitely Kowalski, yeah. Words became difficult to hear when the voice dropped again. "--wanted--not there--not even possible--that!"

"--you--so scared--"

"--don't care--gonna--fine--"

Complete silence for the briefest of moments.

"--love you--"

Ray snatched his ear away from the door as if burnt, because he didn't want to hear that, definitely didn't need to hear that. And then something made him put his ear back to the door again. Looking down he realized there was an air vent in the door near the floor, and with one quick glance around him, Ray knelt down on all fours, careful to place his head next to the vent and not directly in front of it, so as not to cast shadows into the closet.

The voices had become clearer now, and it was easy to hear them both, to separate the voices and match them to the speaker--probably because--of the air vent, and Ray really was just finding a better way to listen, wasn't he?

"I hate you," Kowalski whispered, and he was doing that wheezing thing again.

There was more silence then, and Ray found himself stupidly imagining watching a game of basketball, silently cheering on Fraser's team to win. To continue the game, to continue--make this right--fix this. Most important damn game of basketball in his life, it almost felt like.

"There is an option we never did get around to discussing," Fraser said carefully, and Kowalski's wheezing just wouldn't stop.

"What?" Choked.

Someone--definitely Fraser--cleared his throat, and there was a faint cracking sound, like joints popping. "Well, my old position at the Canadian Consulate was never really filled; they only transferred down a Constable named Sampson to fill in temporarily, while they looked for a permanent employee. It's my understanding that they still haven't succeeded in their search."

Kowalski stopped his wheezing then, and for several long moments Ray wondered what the hell went on in there, before he heard Kowalski's voice, no longer whispering, but clear as day. "You are a fucking shithead, Fraser, an absolute fucking shithead!"

Frantic shh-noises from Fraser, and then rustle of cloth.

"I know," Fraser whispered, and his voice had changed now. Gone back to raw, broken. "I know, but I'm trying to make it better, Ray, I'm trying to make it up to you, I'm--I'm trying--"

More rustle of cloth and then a shaky breath. "You got a lot of shit to make up for, asshole."

"I know," Fraser repeated, but he sounded more sure of himself now.

A brief pause, then a dry chuckle from Kowalski. "You can start by paying the cost of getting my damn couch back. Been sitting on the floor for months here, Frase."

And ack, that was the muffled sound of a fucking kiss, and Ray definitely didn't need to hear that. It only lasted a second, though, and then Ray had to bite his lip not to join the two men in their chuckles. Ray childishly, briefly, suddenly hoped Fraser would clock the guy one, not because Kowalski had done anything warranting a good punch right then, bur rather just so Kowalski wouldn't be the only one not punched in all this.

There was more rustle of cloth, nothing that seemed shoddy, though--nothing that seemed like unzipping or unbuttoning or undoing shit that Ray didn't wanna think about being undone--and Ray suddenly propelled backwards, pulling himself to his feet as he realized they were apparently done with their talk for now, and was getting ready to exit.

When the door opened, Ray was leaning casually against the opposite wall, and he shot Kowalski a grin. Behind Kowalski, Fraser was smiling stupidly, and this only made Ray's own grin wider. Kowalski, predictably, scowled at him, pointed a warning finger in his direction, and said, "You make one joke about closets, Vecchio, one fucking joke...!"

Ray just shook his head. "Wouldn't dream of it, Kowalski."

When Ray got off the plane at Fort Lauderdale a little less than a week later, his nose was back to normal, he was in a good mood, and the most beautiful woman on earth was right there in the Arrivals hall, waiting for him.

She was wearing some sort of designer pants, expensive ones, Ray could always tell, and a white silk blouse which matched his own black shirt, almost as if she'd sensed that was what he'd be wearing. And Ray thought that they worked like that--fit together--her shirt and his, contrasting and complimenting each other--different, but still a lot like red serge and ugly blond spikes. Stella hugged him and kissed him and looked tanned and relaxed, and Ray held her small hand in his as they made their way towards the exit.

"How was the trip?" she asked, then added, "How was Ray?"

Ray mulled this over for a second, before answering, "He's angry and happy and finally getting his damn couch back," and that just about summed it up, right there.