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Inuusiq had never encountered anything this strong before. The first hit had been a surprise, electricity running through his body, flipping him over and knocking his head hard against the ice. The second hit had lifted him into the air and caused his muscles to seize up until they pulled hard enough to break bones. After the third shock of the black, cloying energy wracked his body, Inuusiq knew he would lose.

He felt himself trying to float away from that reality, so he gathered his strength and focused on his broken body. He took a deliberate breath to feel his lungs expand and ache, allowing himself to feel the cold of the snow on his face and then twisting his neck to the side. He opened his eyes, blinking away the blood trickling down his forehead. All he could see was his own blood, snow, and tall black boots, close enough that he could make out the intricate patterns stitched into the leather. He tried to raise a hand, to do something, but it was no use.

"You think you can kill a Protector?” he rasped. Breathing hurt; talking was an agony. But he went on. “They'll hunt you to the ends of the earth."

The dark figure before him laughed, ugly and arrogant. "Oh, don’t worry. I'm not going to kill you."

There was a rustling sound, and Inuusiq managed to lift his head; a gaudy-looking trinket dangled from a long, heavy silver chain, swinging in and out of his line of sight. Inuusiq couldn’t help the shudder that ran through his body as he recognized it for the Item of Power that it was. His tormentor chanted, voice deepening with every word, the sound seeming to sink to the ground and slither over to him. As soon as the last word was spoken there was a sickeningly bright flash of light, and something was being pulled from him, torn out, trapped. He screamed, and then everything went black.

That horrible laugh was the last thing he knew.

oOo

Fraser crunched through the snow, stopping to stoop over a red patch in the ice.

"My old friend," he sighed, grief overwhelming him for a moment.

Dief appeared and licked at Fraser's tears, then nudged him.

"Quite right, Diefenbaker, I'm neglecting my duty. We have an investigation to begin."

Fraser poked around in the snow, following an ever-widening spiral as he searched, while Dief bounded off to see what trails he could find to follow. Despite the lack of body, Fraser knew they were in the right place; the area was exactly as he'd seen in his vision. Finally, with no other clues forthcoming, Fraser knelt again next to the red patch of snow. He pulled off a glove, scraped up some of red ice with his fingernail, and lifted it to his lips.

He tasted flashes of rage and fear and pain, but everything was dampened, nothing like the usual stunning clarity of emotion he should have been experiencing.

Something was wrong about this death. About the act of death itself, not just that it was a good man and a friend who had died. There was no trace of a body, or of scavengers, or tracks of the killer. And while physical evidence could be wiped away, the psychic remnants he was trying to track should still have remained, especially as recent as the events were. In all his years, Fraser had never been left with so little, especially in what was obviously a violent death. It was as if something was blocking him.

Disconcerted, Fraser went back to his sled, trying to suppress the tendrils of unease slithering around in his belly. He hadn't seen them since Eric died 20 years ago, and wasn't sure of the welcome he'd receive now, but he owed it to the Uummarmiut to report what he’d found. He called out to Dief, who rejoined him after a minute or two, as clueless as Fraser as to what had happened. They conferred for a moment, then struck out toward the outer regions of Aklavik.

It was nightfall when they arrived, a celebration obviously taking place. From what Fraser could hear from the edges of the light, the ceremony was for David Kitikmeot. He was the newly-Called Protector, and this was his feast; his last night as a human. Fraser had expected this, but felt duty-bound to come and make sure they knew about Inuusiq. To make sure another was Called. But with these facts confirmed, he felt that his presence would be an unwelcome intrusion into the affairs of the Uummarmiut. He resolved to stay outside the camp until morning. He would stay just long enough to offer David any help he might need and then would be on his way. He fed the dogs and staked them out, and then sat with Dief facing away from the village.

Fraser sensed David behind him a half second before he heard his boots crunching through the snow.

"It's been a long time, Benton Fraser."

"Indeed it has. Forgive me, David, I had not meant to intrude."

"I know." David sat beside him and Fraser turned to look at him. David was not the gangly boy he had last seen, but rather a strong, broad-shouldered young man. Fraser wondered what kind of life he'd had before being Called. If he had plans for his future, if he had been in love. Fraser turned away and mourned the loss of the younger man's freedom.

"David, if you ever –"

"I know. I know you would. But I'm glad I was Called. We weren't sure it would happen, what with-” He waved a hand in Fraser's direction. “I know you would have done your best, Benton, but you're still an outsider here, even after…everything."

Fraser nodded. "I wish you had been spared. But I'm glad the Uummarmiut have a Bouclier they can have faith in."

David accepted the statement without comment. They sat in silence for a few minutes.

"I went to where he died," Fraser finally offered.

David nodded. "Did you learn anything else?"

"Nothing that wasn't in the vision. But I'm going to find out."

"In the morning,after,” he waved his hand to indicate the celebration, “we'll scry. The amount of magic used to do that to Inuusiq, and then to hide it from us, that has to leave some sort of trail. The elders should be able to give you a direction, at least."

"I hope so. But leave that for tomorrow. Tonight, enjoy your feast. I wish you a safe passage. Naammaktsiarit.”

oOo

The directions Fraser had been given were adequate enough for him to find the Consulate without too much trouble. He was glad he’d chosen to walk from the airport as it had given him time to acclimate to Chicago. He’d been in wilderness too long, perhaps. Or at least, not around large groups of people. It was all a bit overwhelming, but he was certain he’d manage. The sounds and smells would be harder to block out, but it wasn’t as if he had a choice, not if he wanted to find Inuusiq's murderer.

Dief, of course, complained nearly the entire walk.

“You could have just met me at the Consulate, you know,” Fraser had finally said after yet another snippy remark from his companion. “It isn’t as if you have to follow the laws of physics after all.”

Dief had just snorted and trotted ahead, ignoring Fraser completely. And he continued to ignore him once they’d arrived, sliding in unseen by everyone but Fraser and heading immediately into the building, most likely to the kitchen. Fraser dropped off his few belongings with the officer at the desk and took a moment to clean off the travel dust before presenting himself to the Inspector in charge, Margaret Thatcher.

One good thing about being a Mountie for as many years as Fraser had been was that he knew more about the paperwork than anyone else, and just how to work the system. He had to, after all, or else someone would have figured out long ago that Benton Fraser had been a part of the RCMP for over one hundred years. As always, he felt a little pang of guilt at using the system to his advantage, but the fact that it was for an investigation, not his own gain, helped assuage his conscience.

So everything was completely in order for his temporary transfer to Chicago, even though in reality it made no sense whatsoever for someone stationed in Aklavik to suddenly be sent to America. He could tell that Inspector Thatcher thought something was off, but she couldn't fault the paper trail he'd created.

“It seems you've been working in near-isolation,” she observed, watching him with a keen eye. He was certain that it was a look that made most people squirm; he remained stiffly at attention, waiting for her next words. “Don't think that gives you any special consideration here. This is my Consulate, and I won't have you gallivanting about because you're used to being your own boss.”

“Understood,” he replied with a respectful nod. Her raised eyebrow prompted him to add, “Sir,” which she accepted with a nod of her own.

“That said,” she went on, “I won't police your off-time, though I will remind you that on duty or off, you are a representative of Canada and the RCMP, and I expect your conduct to reflect that.”

He wondered if the warning was part of her standard speech, of if she expected him to have no understanding of how to behave in society. He'd be offended if he didn't think the attitude might be useful for him later.

A few minutes later and the Inspector's assistant, an overly eager-to-please young man named Renfield Turnbull, had shown him his office, and given him a password to access his computer. He'd also hinted to check his schedule often, as the Inspector was known to make last-minute adjustments to it without any verbal notification. Once they'd verified that Fraser wasn't on the schedule for two more days, Turnbull showed him to his room. Dief looked up at him sleepily from where he'd curled up on the center of the bed. Turnbull seemed to take no notice, so apparently Dief was still masking his presence.

Fraser got settled in quickly, putting away the few things he knew he'd need and keeping the rest in his pack. Since he was off-duty he knew he should change into civilian clothing, but bits and pieces of the vision that had led him here made him restless, and feeling he should take advantage of the free time while he had it. A trip to the police station was in order, and he was much more likely to get a good reception if he still wore his serge.

Fraser went back to his office and booted up the computer; the address of the local precinct was easy enough to find. Fraser and Diefenbaker made their way to the door, nodding to Turnbull,who was again at the front desk, on the way out.

“Have a good walk, Constable,” Turnbull said with a wide smile. “And give my regards to the Lieutenant.”

It wasn't until Fraser was halfway down the block that he realized he'd never told the other Constable where he was going.

Once at the precinct, Fraser stopped at the front desk and asked if it was possible to meet with Lieutenant Welsh. A quick phone call and Fraser was waved through to the bullpen. Dief continued towards the desks in the back. Fraser assumed from the lack of startled exclamations that Dief was keeping himself hidden, a decision no doubt made more out of a recognition that stealth would make stealing baked goods from the desks easier than any impulse to keep things simple for Fraser. Not that he even needed to eat, let alone consume anything as nutritionally empty as a donut, but there was no reasoning with his spirit Guide on this particular issue. Dief fell back into step behind Fraser when he reached Welsh's office, licking his chops and looking far too smug.

His knock at the Lieutenant’s door was answered with a gruff, “Come in.”

Fraser stepped inside, moving slowly so Dief would have a chance to come in as well, hopefully without it being too obvious he was holding the door for his invisible guide. He took the time to survey the room; it was small, and contained hundreds of files in tall stacks and some boxes, along with well-worn furniture. But despite the overwhelming amount of paperwork, everything felt tidy and organized. Dief barely looked around before settling at Fraser’s feet.

Fraser nodded respectfully as he introduced himself. "Lieutenant, I'm Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I've come to Chicago on the trail of a killer of an Inuit man, and I would very much appreciate the Chicago Police Department's leave to pursue the murder in your jurisdiction."

Welsh leaned back in his chair and stared at Fraser for a long moment. "That's all, Constable?” he asked, eyebrow raised. “You don’t think I need any details about how you know the killer is here, or want to ask for the formal assistance of the CPD? Not even any paperwork to hand over regarding this interdepartmental endeavor?"

Fraser didn’t want to lie to the Lieutenant, but didn't think he would consider the scrying that had led him to Chicago a solid investigation technique. And as for paperwork, well, he could create some, he supposed. For now, he chose to ignore that question entirely. "My source is confidential, but, I assure you, very reliable.” He hesitated a moment, trying to find the best way to go on. “While I am certain the Chicago Police Department is made up of excellent officers, in this case I am unsure what assistance they would be able to give."

To Fraser’s surprise, Welsh nodded. "You're right about that, Constable. Even without the details, I can see you don't need the CPD on this one. You need the DPC."

Fraser blinked, confused. "I'm sorry, the what?"

"DPC. Department of Preternatural Crimes." Welsh leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Your kind may be rare, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to recognize a vampire when I see one.”

Fraser froze, trying not to let the shock of the lieutenant’s knowledge show on his face. It took him an embarrassingly long time to recover his ability to speak. "You know what I am?” he was finally able to ask.

"It's my gift, being able to see what really is. And you, Constable, are an interesting puzzle.” Welsh sat back again. “Now, the fact that you haven’t even tried to glamour me makes me think you’re on the up and up, even if you’re being extremely vague with the details about a murder you don’t think the police can help solve."

“I’m a Bouclier,” Fraser told him. Welsh gave him a look that clearly meant ‘and that is?’ “In simplest terms, I’m a Protector, one entrusted with the safety of the Uummarmiut. And it’s in that capacity that I’ve come to Chicago. This is an investigation,” he assured the lieutenant, “not a bloodhunt.”

Fraser tried not to shift anxiously at Welsh’s scrutiny. He wondered just what it was the man saw when he looked at him.

“And you’re legitimately a Mountie?”

“For many, many years.”

“I believe you,” he said after a minute, to Fraser’s great relief.” Which means I’m inclined to help you, but not let you go out on your own, which I'm guessing is what you're planning on doing, given the lack of official notice. Like I said before, that means working with the DPC.”

While Fraser still wasn’t convinced he needed the help, he recognized that the choice was out of his hands. “Thank you kindly, Lieutenant.”

“Just keep things on the legal side and we’ll call it even,” Welsh said with a nod. “Oh, and one more thing.” The Lieutenant looked down right where Diefenbaker was sitting, then back up at Fraser. “Were you planning on introducing me to your friend?"

"This is my traveling companion and Guide, Diefenbaker," Fraser said automatically, still flabbergasted by the Lieutenant’s knowledge of his true nature. Dief, on the other hand, seemed to take it in stride; he leaned forward and sniffed the hand Welsh held out. Apparently approving, Dief gave Welsh’s hand a couple of licks and then settled back down onto the floor. Welsh made a face as he dried his hand on his pant leg. "Upon reflection, I imagine that should please me."

The smug look Dief gave Fraser was annoying enough to shake him out of his shock. "Sir, may I ask about this DPC you mentioned?"

"There is a sizable supernatural community in the greater Chicago area. Most are centered in one part of the city. As I happen to be aware of its existence, and since it falls within the jurisdiction of my precinct, the 2-7 houses the DPC, a highly specialized, very discreet unit dealing with crimes that fall…outside the realm of usual police work.” Welsh stood, giving Fraser a pointed look. “This is not our first rodeo, Constable, and I expect the DPC will be more helpful than you could have imagined in finding your murderer. Walk with me, both of you. I have just the man for the job as your liaison." Welsh opened the door and bellowed, "Detective Vecchio!" before heading toward the corner desk.

As Fraser followed, he overheard a number of the other officers making snide remarks about the detective in question and the quality of cases he usually ended up with. While most were spoken quietly enough that human hearing wouldn’t pick up on them, others were obviously meant for him to hear. The lieutenant had indicated the DPC was a secret even within the station, so Fraser was inclined to dismiss their opinions about the detective and his cases.

Vecchio appeared to be in his 30s, balding slightly, with sharp green eyes. He was dressed in a soft gray suit and there was a nice brown coat slung over the back of his chair. He had a wary and somewhat put-upon look on his face as he watched Welsh draw near. When they were within a few feet of him, Vecchio's eyes widened as he looked over at Fraser, and he gave a small shudder. Fraser gave his most reassuring smile; it appeared the lieutenant wasn’t the only one with what he’d called a gift. By the time they stopped in front of his desk, the detective had pulled himself together.

"Ray Vecchio," he said, offering his right hand as he stood.

"Benton Fraser, RCMP," Fraser countered, shaking hands.

"Detective, the Constable here is looking for a killer. You're going to help him."

Detective Vecchio shot a glance at Fraser before returning his attention to the lieutenant with a nod. "Yessir."

Welsh fixed Fraser with a look. “And you are going to keep Detective Vecchio in the loop and utilize his help. I don’t tolerate vigilantes.”

“Understood,” Fraser replied.

Seemingly satisfied, Welsh walked away, nodding to himself.

"Detective Vecchio—"

"Ray,” he interrupted, crossing his arms and shifting to lean his hip against his desk. “Call me Ray. Okay, so where do we start?"

"The person we are looking for murdered an Inuit man, a highly respected tribal elder and an old friend of mine. I have traced the killer to Chicago."

"You have anything more specific than 'Chicago'?"

Fraser tugged at his collar.

Ray sighed, like he was disappointed, but not surprised at Fraser’s lack of information. "All right, no problem. I've got an idea where we can start."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah." Ray glanced around the bullpen. "I'll tell you about it in the car. Let's go."

Fraser followed Ray out to a large, green American car. Fraser opened the passenger door and Dief appeared in the back seat; based on Ray’s lack of reaction it was apparent that Ray couldn’t see him. Ray started the car and headed south.

“Where are we going?”

"If there's weird shit happening, and I am one hundred percent sure there is, odds are it's going down in the Bumper District. We'll cruise around down there and see what we can see."

"Bumper District?"

"Yeah, like Chinatown or Koreatown, but for Bumpers. You know, Bumpers?" Ray put on a spooky voice and wiggled the fingers of one hand at Fraser. "Things that go bump in the night?" He slanted a look at Fraser. “That is why you were assigned to me, right? Because no way would the Lieu have stuck you with me if it didn’t have to do with Bumpers."

Fraser nodded, unsure what to say.

Vecchio gave him a smile that was half-grimace. “Yeah, I figured as much. Weird cases always go to me. You've never been to Chicago before?”

Fraser shook his head. “No, and I have to admit, it’s nothing like I expected it to be.”

Ray laughed. “You don’t know the half of it. I’ll give you the nickel tour.”

It was the strangest thing. It looked like a normal street corner, but as Ray drove through the intersection, Fraser felt almost dizzy, the air surrounding him suddenly thick and heavy. The pressure of it increased as Ray drove, and then, with a pop that Fraser was surprised wasn’t audible, things were back to normal. He glanced at the back seat to see Dief shaking his head and scratching at his ears, then shifted his attention to Ray, who was watching him out of the corner of his eye.

“Felt that, did you?” Ray said with a grin.

“How could I not? What was that, Ray?”

“I honestly have no idea. What I can tell you is, you get used to it. Or maybe whatever it is gets used to you, cuts you some slack the more you come to the District.” Ray shrugged. “ All I do know is, I thought I’d hit something first time I drove through, and then I thought I was either going to puke or pass out for a minute. But the Riv was fine, not a scratch, and I felt better pretty quickly. I’ve been here so much I barely even feel a twinge anymore.” He eyed Fraser. “You’re not going to get sick, are you? Because this car is a classic, and if you’re going to throw up, I’m pulling over.”

Fraser shook his head; he honestly wasn’t certain that vomiting was something he was capable of anymore.”I’m fine, Ray, thank you kindly,” He responded absently as he looked through the window, hoping to see even a trace of the energy they’d gone through. “Some sort of protection, perhaps,” he muttered to himself.

Ray had sharp ears. “Maybe. Doesn’t stop a lot of crazy stuff from going down here, though, whatever it is.” Ray flicked a glance at the rearview mirror, eyes widening as he slammed on the brakes. Fraser looked, but the only thing he saw was Dief sitting up, head cocked and tongue lolling out. He actually appeared amused, which clued Fraser in as to what had startled Ray. Ray’s next words confirmed it.

“Fraser, will you look in the back of my car and tell me what you see?” Ray asked as he pulled over to the curb. “Because I see a wolf, and I’ve been around here a lot of times, but nothing’s ever hitched a ride.”

Fraser rubbed his eyebrow, giving Ray an apologetic look as he answered. “It appears that whatever we passed through to get to this area negated Dief’s ability to hide.”

Ray gaped at him. “You mean he’s been there the whole time? You think maybe this was something I should know?”

“My apologies. Ray Vecchio, this is Diefenbaker.” He gestured between the two of them. “Dief, be nice to Detective Vecchio. He’s helping us.”

“So he’s yours?”

“No in the sense of ownership, no.” Ray’s glared intensified. “He is here with me, yes. And yes, he has been the entire time. It seemed safer, given that we’re in a city, that he remain unseen.”

“Yeah, well next time, you might want to let the guy driving you around know, at the least.” Ray sighed as he pulled back into traffic.

“Understood.”

Ray shook his head. “Why does the craziest stuff always get shifted to me?” he grumbled as he drove.

Fraser listened eagerly as Ray pointed out landmarks and highlights as they cruised through the Bumper District, a little overwhelmed at the idea that not only was his true identity immediately apparent to some people here, but that there were others like him around, and an entire supernatural community in the city. He had always thought being what he was automatically made for a solitary existence, living in secret, performing his duty, and not letting anyone close enough to discover his true self.

"That's the neighborhood bar. The tailor's. A tinker shop. I ask you, who still goes to them?" Fraser didn’t reply, even though he could tell from symbols on the signage that the tinker’s shop was really a metalmancer's.

"Up here you've got Kowalski’s, closed of course. That place is closed every other day, for some hokey religious thing or a rock concert or who the hell knows what reason. Over there is the florist-slash-herbalist's shop. The place on the corner does Thai take-away. That's my favorite spot for gathering intel - just about everybody comes through the place. The pet groomers – don't ask, Fraser, just don't. Up that way are a couple of mom and pop grocers, where mom and pop aren't quite human and some of the stuff they stock won’t ever be found on the shelf of a Jewel’s, and a two-screen theater that shows monster movies on Saturday nights, if you can believe it. And up here is Elaine's. You hungry?”

He pulled the car into the tiny lot next to what was apparently a diner before Fraser could even answer. “Let's get lunch. We can eat, talk, get to know each other better. Maybe you’ll even tell me about this case I’m supposed to help with." He nodded his head toward the back. “And what with some of the folks who make themselves at home here, they won’t even mind if you bring the wolf along.”

oOo

Given his substantially slower metabolism, Fraser didn't eat often and rarely felt hunger for human food, but he was happy to sit with a cup of tea and watch Ray eat a turkey club. He looked around the diner and was both relieved and concerned that he couldn't immediately tell if any of the other patrons were supernatural creatures. The only one he had his suspicions about was the woman behind the counter - she had put down a bowl of water for Dief, along with a pastry that had Dief wagging his tail and Fraser fighting not to roll his eyes. Perhaps Fraser’s nature wasn't as obvious as Welsh had made it seem.

"Ray, how did you and the Lieutenant know I was-" he leaned in and continued, voice nearly a whisper, "a vampire?"

“A what?” Ray choked on his sandwich. Once he’d recovered, he stared at Fraser, like he was trying to see if he’d been joking. Fraser flashed a tiny bit of fang when Ray leaned in, eyes focused on Fraser’s mouth. Ray jumped back, startled, then glared over Fraser’s shoulder. His outburst had attracted some attention.

"What, a guy can’t eat with his friend without you all being nosy?” he challenged, and everyone went back to eating. Fraser was pleased to see that while Ray didn’t look completely at ease, he didn’t look like he was afraid of Fraser either.

“Jeez, Fraser, I had no idea! And even if I had, you don't just say stuff like that.”

“I’m sorry, Ray. The Lieutenant was aware of my nature as soon as he saw me, and I was certain I saw you react to my presence as well. And well,” he waved his hand, “you brought me to the Bumper District.”

That seemed to placate Ray a little. “Welsh, he can tell. But me, I just get a feeling. Like goosebumps, or all the hair on the back of my neck sticking up. Just enough to tip me off there's more going on than I can see on the surface." He took a long drink of water. “So I knew there was something off about you, yeah, but not, you know, that.”

Fraser nodded. "That is reassuring. I'm not sure how people would react if my… nature was common knowledge. Still, I find it very strange that a place like this exists. It goes against everything I've ever been taught, years of conditioning." He looked around a moment. “To be out in the open like this would be unthinkable at home.”

"And yet you just blurted it out to a near stranger,” Ray said, rolling his eyes. "I don't know how they do things where you're from, but you can't just go around telling people what you are, or asking what they are. It's not polite to ask, and it's not smart to tell. Knowing what you are means knowing your vulnerabilities, and you can't put yourself in a position where people can take advantage of you. Capisce?" He ate the last bite of his sandwich, then looked at Fraser. “You ready to head out?”

“I thought we were going to talk.”

“Yeah, that was before you tried to give me a goddamn heart attack.” He stood up, drew his wallet and threw a couple of bills on the table. “Now I think we really need to talk, but not here. That work for you?”

“I would feel better talking somewhere more private,” Fraser admitted. “This is all very unexpected.”

“Private I can do. Just promise me you’ll stay away from my neck.”

Fraser was pleased to hear a teasing note in Ray’s words. “Your virtue is safe with me,” he replied, all innocence.

Ray started to respond, then shut his mouth, glared at Fraser, and started toward the door. “You coming or what?”

oOo

Once back at the car, Fraser told Ray what he could about the events that led him to Chicago, as well as a little bit about his true nature. He reassured Ray that yes, Fraser did need blood to survive, and yes, human blood was best, but he didn’t need it much, or to feed often. It appeared that Ray had gotten over the worst of his shock at the diner, as he took the information in stride. But given Ray’s reaction, Fraser thought it best not to ask about the possibility of there being a blood bank in the District.

And the revelation did have a downside.

“Okay, so based on all that, the contacts I was going to try won't be any help. I hate to say it, but we need to wait for Kowalski.”

The name rang a bell. “He runs the shop you said is usually closed?”

“Not usually but yeah, it's got an impossible-to-figure-out schedule. He should open back up in a day or two, week at the most.”

“And he's my best chance.”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Ray told him. “Honestly, if there's anyone who might be able to help on the spooky end of things, it's him. He's the DPC's unofficial connection to the supernatural.”

“Then I suppose we’ll have to hope he re-opens his shop soon.”

“What are you gonna do in the meantime?”

“I’m not certain. The delay does leave me at a bit of a loose end.” He thought a moment. “I could always liaise with your department when it doesn't conflict with my Consular duties. I am a Mountie, after all.”

“Yeah, that could work,” Ray replied, nodding slowly. “Somebody like you might be a big help, come to think of it. I mean, you’ve got to be able to pick up on clues most humans can’t, am I right?”

“Most of my senses are above the human norm, yes. They can be helpful, though not something to rely upon, as they’re not exactly admissible in court.”

“Ooh, yeah, wouldn’t want to out you on the stand. Okay, so useful, but make sure the evidence is there to back you up. Got it.” He nodded. “So as long as Welsh is okay with it, and your superiors won’t give you grief, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful, if temporary, partnership.”

“I agree.”

oOo

After deciding that they needed to speak with their respective superiors, Ray drove Fraser back to the Consulate. He gave Fraser a look of disbelief when they arrived.

“This is where you’re staying? They don't even put you up at a hotel or anything?”

Fraser nodded. “As this is a temporary posting, it doesn’t make sense to stay elsewhere. There are bedrooms, and as it’s close to both the station and the District, I’m perfectly happy to remain here.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird, just how convenient it is. You sure you’re the first Bumper to be assigned here?”

As a matter of fact, Fraser was not at all sure of that. Ray was right in noting that the Consulate’s position was convenient; it was a relatively short walk to either the station or the edge of the District. And while Inspector Thatcher was, as far as Fraser could tell, completely human, Fraser had his suspicions about Turnbull.

“Have you ever been to the Consulate, Ray?”

“No, can’t say that I have, Benny. Never had a reason.”

“You’re welcome to come inside. It might be good for you to meet the Inspector. You never know when you might need to liaise with someone here for a case.”

“You mean besides crazy vampires on a manhunt?” Ray teased. But he put the car in park and unbuckled his seatbelt. “Sure, I’ve got a few minutes to spare in the name of international cooperation.”

Dief didn’t so much as fade as disappear as Fraser touched the door handle. Before he could wonder why, a familiar voice said, “There you are. Wondered when you were going to show back up.”

Fraser looked in the doorway at the older Mountie standing there, frowning at him in disapproval.

“Hello, Dad. You’re looking well for someone’s who’s been dead for over a century.”

“What’s the hold up?” Ray asked behind Fraser. Fraser looked from Ray to his father and back again. Either he didn’t see the ghost of Fraser’s father, or he didn’t realize it was a ghost in front of him.

“You coming in, son? We have a lot to talk about.”

“I know.”

“You know what? That you’re holding us up?” Ray said. “This is a nice doorway and all, but I’m betting the inside is even nicer. Any chance I’ll get to see if I’m right?”

Fraser’s father spoke before he could reply to Ray. “Get rid of the Yank. This doesn’t involve him.”

“I wouldn’t be too certain of that.”

“Yeah, I’m getting that feeling,” Ray groused, taking a step back. “Listen, Benny, you don’t want me to see the place, that’s fine. Maybe next time decide before you insist I get out of the car, huh?”

“Don’t argue with him, son.”

Fraser looked from Ray to his father, completely at a loss. Perhaps it was best to let Ray leave, and see just what he was dealing with. Even with just this short interaction, he had no doubts that the vision in front of his was Robert Fraser in some kind of ghostly form. Why he was here, and what to do about him was a completely different story.

“I’m sorry, Ray. It’s just that I remembered a form I forgot to fill out in regards to my posting here, and I really should get it done right away.”

The look Ray gave him let Fraser know just how unconvincing the excuse was. “A form.”

“It’s an important form GRC2319.” he went on, hoping Ray would let it slide. “And needs to be filled out in triplicate. If I don’t get it done by end of day…” he trailed off, having no idea how to finish the sentence.

Luckily, his answer seemed to placate Ray. “Hey, I get it. We’re supposed to be keeping scumbags off the streets and make the world a safer place, but it’s gonna live and die by paperwork.”

“Exactly.” Fraser nearly sighed with relief. “But another time?”

“He’s said it’s fine, son,” Fraser’s father interjected, irritation edging into his voice. “Let him go so we can get on to what’s important.”

“Sure, Benny. Just, give me a call once you’ve talked to your boss about us working together. Actually call me tomorrow either way - it’ll keep Welsh off my tail.”

“Understood,” Fraser returned, then went inside as quickly as he could without looking like he was hurrying. He turned a glare on his father as soon as the door was closed, holding up a finger to keep him from saying anything until they were alone in his quarters.

oOo

The first words out of his father’s mouth once he was safely back in his room at the Consulate honestly came as no surprise to Fraser. “I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that you're in the wrong country, son.”

Fraser resisted the urge to wipe a hand over his face. He was supposed to be glad to see his father, he was certain of it. But it seemed that the decades apart, not to mention the fact that his father was dead and buried, hadn’t changed the man one whit.

Fraser Sr. was looking around the room in disdain, then turned that regard on Fraser. “Well, I'm glad to see you're still a Mountie. That’s something. But why on earth are we in America?”

“Technically, we’re on Canadian soil,” Fraser pointed out. His father just stared. “Well, I know why I’m here. You on the other hand, I have no explanation for.”

“No need to get snippy, son. Just tell me what’s going on.”

Fraser gave his father a quick synopsis of the events that had led him to Chicago. His father’s face darkened the longer Fraser spoke, scowl deepening with every word. Fraser was hopeful that his father was taking this seriously, and given his current state of being, perhaps he could help.

“So, what do you think, dad?” Fraser asked once he’d ended his report.

His father shook his head. “I told you to avoid all the Inuit mumbo jumbo. Nonsense, all of it, and look where it's gotten you.”

Fraser couldn’t believe his ears. “Nonsense? Dad, I’m a Bouclier and you're a ghost! How can you disregard any mysticism? You’ve been gone for years, and yet here we are.”

“Exactly. And who's fault is it I'm talking to you? Can't be mine, I've been happily dead for 100 years. Something must have come loose in your head.”

Fraser swept a hand over himself. “And what about what I’ve become?”

“You can’t tell me you’re glad to have become one of... those.”

“Well, I’m not saying it was my life’s goal. But I’ve been able to do much more good than if I’d lived a normal life span.”

“And what have you lost because of it?” He looked around. “I don’t see any grandchildren.”

“You wouldn’t be able to interact with them if I’d had them. You’re dead, remember?”

“Long life hasn’t done your manners any favors.”

Fraser closed his eyes and counted to ten, first in English, then Uummarmiutan. He refused to let his father goad him any further. “What I meant,” he got out through barely clenched teeth, “was did you think your appearance now means you have some information that might help me solve this.”

“You mean your Yank hasn’t gotten it figured out for you?”

“Detective Vecchio isn’t my Yank, and we only met a few hours ago.”

“I only appeared to you a few minutes ago, and that hasn’t stopped you from expecting my help.”

“Because it seemed like a logical reason for you to be here. I see now I was expecting too much.”

“Honestly, Benton, with your lifespan you’d think you wouldn’t be in such a hurry.” He looked out the window, pointing at the passersby. “Look at them, all scurrying from one place to the next. Never taking time to appreciate where they are and what they have.” He shook his head. “It’s a damned shame.”

Fraser fought a sigh. Apparently, some things never changed. “Well, if you do happen to hear anything that might help me solve this case, I’d appreciate hearing about it.”

“No promises, son. No promises. Things on this side are a lot quieter. No need for gossiping, not a lot of chatter.”

“Well, then I think I should get on this from this side of the veil, don’t you think? Unless you wanted to tell me why you’re here?”

Apparently he didn’t; Fraser blinked, and his father disappeared.

As soon as he was gone, Dief reappeared, settling himself on the floor at the end of Fraser’s cot.

“Some help you were,” Fraser told him. “You'd think maybe, the both of you being spirits, you might want to stay and support my being here.”

Dief laid his head on his front paws, then closed his eyes.

“You don’t even need to sleep,” Fraser grumbled as he started to change out of his uniform.

oOo

Fraser was surprised a few days later when Detective Vecchio – Ray, Fraser reminded himself, he preferred Ray – stopped by the Consulate to see him. They’d spoken on the phone, of course, but as there had been no sign of the mysterious Mr. Kowalski, they hadn’t met again in person.

“So, how you settling in, Fraser?” he asked, looking around the foyer.

“Any new assignment has an adjustment period,” he responded. And while that was true, this one was taking longer than expected. Not that he'd thought he'd transition to the job seamlessly, but neither had he expected to be at such loose ends. It was obvious that his arrival had created an overstaffing situation, one that had left him relegated to the archaic task of guard duty at the front door the day before. Fortunately, his nature made staying still as a statue a fairly easy task to complete.

“So that mean you don't have time for me?”

“Is there something new on the case?” he asked, but his hopes were quickly dashed as Ray shook his head.

“Unfortunately no, but since you're point on that, this fact shouldn't surprise you. But since we went to the trouble of getting Welsh and your boss to agree that we could liaise, I figured it was worth a shot to come down here and see if maybe you'd want to work with me on one of my cases. International cooperation and all that.”

The idea was appealing. Fraser was unused to so much time indoors, and the amount of sitting and waiting was appalling. Add to that the fact that he had yet to make any real progress in tracking down Inuusiq's murderer, and he was getting very frustrated. Not that it was unexpected. After all, he was new here and had no real contacts; it wasn't like the information was just going to drop into his lap. That didn't make the frustration any less real. He’d done some research on the District, and even gone there on his off hours, but he was as unknown to them as they were to him, so his trips were more of a way to stretch his legs than gather any real information.

“I'd have to check with the Inspector, but it does sound like something that would be beneficial for us both.” He stood up and started toward the Inspector's office. He was intercepted by Turnbull before he'd gotten very far. As usual, the constable had a huge, friendly grin on his face and a slightly manic look in his eyes. He held out a paper, which Fraser took.

“The Inspector's approved your liaising with the Chicago Police Department,” he said. “You're cleared from your assigned tasks until further notice, but you must let her know when you're ready to resume your regular duties.”

“Thank you, Turnbull,” he replied faintly, reading the form. It was just as Turnbull had said – Fraser was officially assigned as a liaison to the 27th Precinct, working under Lt. Welsh and with Detective Vecchio.

“You're very welcome!” Turnbull said as he took his place at the front desk. “Have fun tracking down criminals!”

Ray looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn't get out the words. Fraser took him by the arm and led him outside before he could say anything.

“How'd you get that set up so fast?” He asked as they walked toward the car. “Seriously, I just cleared asking you about it with the Lieu like an hour ago.”

“It wasn't me, Ray. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it was Turnbull's doing.”

“The guy with the too-happy vibe? What's he got to do with it?”

“Turnbull sometimes seems to know things before they occur.”

“He's a Bumper? ‘Cause I have to tell you, his brand of weird makes it hard to tell, even for me with my psychic whatever.”

“That I don't know. And he isn't always right, or perhaps he is, but his knowledge of future events then changes the events themselves. I've been hesitant to ask.” Hesitant was nowhere near strong enough a word for it, as whatever ability Turnbull had seemed to create a barely-controlled chaos around him. That things had turned out in Fraser’s favor was a surprise, and had he actually asked for Turnbull's help, he was certain the outcome would have been vastly different.

“In any event, I'm not willing to look this gift horse in the mouth. Why don't you tell me about the case?”

Ray looked back at the Consulate, then shrugged and turned his attention back to Fraser. “Okay. Well, let me start by saying it's a completely human thing, far as I can tell. So no obvious mumbo jumbo, got it?”

Fraser raised an eyebrow. “Mumbo jumbo, Ray?”

“You know what I mean. I'm hoping you can find some clues or something, but we have to look on the up and up, all by the book.”

“I shall endeavor to appear as normal as possible.”

“Your uniform and hoity-toity language are big strikes against that ever happening, but maybe it'll distract people from anything else.” Ray looked him up and down. “You’re looking a little peaked there, Fraser.”

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? I mean, I get that pale is your natural state, but you look like you’re slipping past ‘I’m trying to prevent skin cancer’ and into ‘I’m one step away from sparkling.’” At Fraser’s confused look, Ray added, “You know, sad vampires that sparkle in the sun and are all broody and irresistible to teenage girls? They don’t have the Twilight books in Canada?”

Fraser shook his head. “I’m sure they do, but I don’t read vampire fiction. It’s wildly inaccurate.”

“Well, you’re lucky. Not that I’ve read them but Frannie, my sister? She went ga-ga over them. Tried to get us all to start some weird vampire romance book club so she’d have someone to talk to about them.” Ray shuddered. “One chapter was more than enough for me.”

“Ah, well, then I’ll be sure to avoid them as well.”

Ray narrowed his eyes. “You’re good at that avoiding thing, aren’t you?” he asked shrewdly. “Totally sidestepped my real question.”

“Was there a question, Ray?”

“Yes, and I’m thinking you not answering is answer enough. You needing to eat?” He leaned in and lowered his voice as he added, “You know, like, your kind of food?”

If he were to be honest, the answer was yes. While he’d made sure to feed well before coming to Chicago, that had been days ago. And the extra stress of finding his way in a new place, and avoiding the temptation of the masses of people he couldn’t escape, was wearing on him. Not to mention that first trip to the District; the barrier they’d passed through had taken its toll as well.

But given Ray’s completely understandable concerns about Fraser’s eating habits, he felt it best to continue to deflect. “Your concern is appreciated, but as I said before, I’m fine.”

Ray didn’t look like he quite believed it, giving Fraser another long look before stepping back with a nod. “Okay, but you start feeling other than fine, you let me know. I’m not interested in being seen as snacktime.”

“I’d never look at you that way,” Fraser assured him. Then, because he couldn’t resist, he added, “You’d be a much heartier meal than a snack.”

Ray looked shocked for a second, then rolled his eyes. “Funny guy,” he said, slapping Fraser’s chest with the back of his hand. “See if I worry about you anymore.”

oOo

Seven hours later, Fraser was certain Ray would never worry about him again. After making sure that the criminals they’d apprehended were safely in custody, Fraser and Ray made their way back to Ray’s car. Fraser could feel the anger emanating from Ray, made all the worse by the comments from the officers on the scene. Fraser decided another apology was probably in order.

“I'm sorry, Ray.”

“He's sorry. We were nearly killed and he's sorry!” Ray swung a glare in Fraser's direction as they walked, pointing a finger accusingly in his direction. “No, wait. You nearly got me killed. You would have been fine.”

“To be fair, you did ask for my assistance.”

“Because I didn't know your idea of assistance included trying to get me killed,” Ray spat out, waving his arms. Fraser managed not to flinch when droplets of water from Ray’s soaked suit hit him in the face. “I figured if anything, investigating with you might be safer. I'd have back up, and not only that, someone with extra oomph. I didn't know you have zero sense of self-preservation and no idea of what might be fatal to us mere mortals.” He stopped and faced Fraser. “All you had to do was open the container.”

“It's illegal to tamper with U.S. Mail, Ray.”

“We were what was being mailed, Fraser! To the bottom of Lake Michigan! What, did you think the fish would report you for interfering with a delivery?” he growled and stomped off towards the car, muttering under his breath the entire way. Fraser had no trouble hearing him, even over the squelch of Ray’s shoes, but felt it best not to point that out.

So much for international cooperation, he thought with a sigh.

oOo

Fraser was in the middle of a truly impressive stack of paperwork the next day when Turnbull called to tell him he had a visitor. Fraser was surprised, but definitely pleased, to see Ray Vecchio.

“I wasn't sure you would want to continue helping me,” Fraser admitted.

“Yeah, well, I wasn't exactly given a choice. My boss was nice enough to remind me that he assigned me to help, so here I am. But this isn't investigating, just a meet and greet.”

“One of your informants?”

“Not exactly. I heard Kowalski's back.”

“That’s excellent news,” Fraser said, getting up from his desk. “Thank you, Ray.”

Ray wrinkled his nose as he waved off the thanks. “I told you, not exactly my idea. Just, try to keep out of trouble this time, okay?”

“Understood. I'll do my best.”

That seemed to satisfy Ray. He nodded, then made a show of looking around Fraser. “You alone today? Or is Mr. Hide and Go Seek coming along again?”

Fraser raised an eyebrow as he looked to his left. Dief faded into view, tail wagging.

Ray sighed. “Fine, but try not to shed, okay? Wolf hair’s bad enough, but stuff I can feel but not see to clean out? Not nice.”

As soon as Ray parked, Dief was out of the car, trotting down the street without a backwards glance.

“Hey, where’s he going?”

“Diefenbaker wanted the chance to look around the area alone. He should be fine, though. He can always hide himself if need be.”

“I thought that got shorted out when we came here before.”

“Only because he wasn’t prepared for it. Well, that and whatever that barrier is, it’s strongest at the edge of the district. He assured me it would be fine.”

“Oh, well as long as the wolf said it was okay, who am I to complain?” Ray replied, sarcasm strong. “Hope he doesn’t expect us to go looking for him when we’re done. I don’t have time for a wild wolf chase.”

“Dief will be fine, Ray. He always knows where to find me.”

"Handy trick. Okay, come on," said Ray, dragging Fraser toward what appeared to be a run-down building. The sign said Rising Sun in chipped and faded paint, and there were no other cars in the small parking lot next to the building. The building was stone, and had a wet look to it, even though it hadn't rained in a week. Two gargoyles perched at the corners of the roof facing the street, overseeing rusty drain spouts. The windows were dark, obscured with dirt or time. The building lacked that abandoned feel some of the other downtown shops had, but there was nothing welcoming about it either.

Ray held the door and Fraser stepped in. He wasn't sure what he was expecting - maybe yellow formica counters and red vinyl booths, the smell of frying lard and burnt coffee - but it certainly wasn't this.

The room was open and airy, sunlight streaming in through the clean plate glass window. The welcoming feeling he’d missed when looking at the place was definitely present inside. It was almost homey, which shocked Fraser a little, considering just how different from anywhere he’d ever called home it was. He let himself look around, taking in the ambiance as he tried to figure out Rising Sun.

It appeared to be a music shop, Or at least that’s part of what was being sold there. In addition to the rows of CDs by the door, there were wooden shelves arranged in aisles filled with books and interspersed with trinkets and jars of smaller things, possibly for sale, or perhaps just as decoration. Fraser could hear music coming faintly from a side room, and a glance inside showed a few customers perusing a bin of vinyl records. On the far wall was a listening booth of some sort. Fraser could see a set of headphones laying on a small counter, and identified it as the source of the music.

A voice rose from the back room of the shop. "Vecchio. How's the DPC treating you?" A wiry blonde man with thick glasses and unruly hair appeared from the room behind the register; Fraser assumed this must be Mr. Kowalski. He was carrying three mugs, which he set on the counter between them.

"Kowalski,” Ray nodded, confirming the man’s identity. ”This is Benton Fraser. Benton Fraser, Ray Kowalski."

Fraser dipped his head in acknowledgment. Kowalski stared hard at him for longer than was polite; Fraser found himself staring back. The shop owner was casually dressed in a gray t-shirt and old jeans, with sturdy boots underneath. A leather jacket hung over the back of the chair behind the register. His hair stuck straight up, too artful to be unintentional. Both ears had several piercings. He wore thick, dark-rimmed glasses that seemed out of place with the rest of his ensemble. He had sharp blue eyes and a dusting of blonde stubble that thickened on his chin and around his mouth in the barest hint of a goatee.

Fraser’s attention was shifted from Ray’s face by a black line working its way down Ray’s neck into his collar. In fact, Fraser realized with a start that aside from his face, most of Kowalski's visible skin was covered in ink or jewelry. Thick silver rings adorned his fingers, a chain wrapped twice around his wrist, and symbols and writing in several languages spread up from there to encircle his arm. Fraser recognized some as runes, but he couldn't seem to look at them long enough to decipher them. It was as if every time focused on one, his gaze would slide past it. As Fraser watched, Kowalski tipped his head to the side, as if listening to something no one else could hear, and then nodded.

"Okay. Nice to meet you, Fraser,” he said, holding out his hand. “I'm Ray."

Fraser shook hands with the man; his grip was firm but not overly so, confident without needing to prove strength. Ray pulled his hand back and arranged the cups in front of his guests.

"Vecchio, coffee, black with three sugars. Fraser, tea, with milk and sugar, just the way you like it."

Fraser looked at the cup, then back at Ray, puzzled. "I usually take my tea black."

"Didn’t say it was how you took it." Ray winked at Fraser before digging around beside the register for a box of Smarties, adding several to his own cup of coffee. "So what do you need from me?"

Fraser took a sip of his tea and let Ray explain their problem. Ray was his contact after all; he knew best how to communicate with the man. The taste hit his tongue; it was thick and sweet and reminded him of his mother. It was an impossible detail for a six-year-old to remember from over a hundred years ago, but he was suddenly absolutely positive his mother drank Earl Gray with milk and sugar, and that she’d shared it with him on more than one occasion..

Fraser heard his name and realized he’d been lost in thought. He opened his eyes and rejoined the conversation.

"So after Fraser here told me what was up,” Ray was saying, his voice quiet, likely in deference to the people in the next room, “I thought it was something you might be able to help with.”

"I've been known to read a card or two in my time," Kowalski told them. “Might be useful for something like this.”

"Then you'll help us?" asked Fraser

"It's not up to me.” Ray looked like he was about to protest; Kowalski held up a hand before he could get out a word. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it, it’s just…I'll facilitate, sure, but whether or not you get the information you're looking for? Well, that's not for me to decide."

Ray nodded; from the look on his face, Fraser concluded this was the best they could have hoped for.

Kowalski looked just past Fraser. His brow furrowed and he shook his head. "Huh, that's not something you see every day," he muttered.

"What do you mean?" Fraser asked, fighting the urge to look over his shoulder.

Kowalski shifted his attention back to Fraser. "You know you're being haunted, right?"

Surprised at having it stated so plainly, Fraser couldn’t help but turn and look at the window. Sure enough, his father was there, glaring at him, then pointing at the door.

"It's my father," Fraser said with a deep sigh. "He seems unable to enter your establishment."

"Course not, it’s warded against spooks," Kowalski replied matter-of-factly.

"Really?" Fraser couldn't keep a note of hope out of his voice. Next to him, Ray snorted, rolling his eyes.
"How long can I stay?"

Kowalski stared at him a second, then laughed, genuinely amused. "I think I like you, Benton Fraser."

Fraser felt something inside warm at the statement. Before he could reply, the couple from the next room walked up to the counter, eyeing Fraser and Ray briefly before stepping up to make a purchase.

Ray pulled Fraser aside so the customers would have room. “So, what do you think?” he asked once they were out of earshot.

“About Ray? You know him better than I do, and you’ve already said he’s our best chance. Nothing I’ve seen makes me think otherwise.”

“You sure about that?”

Fraser wondered what made Ray ask that, but before he could ask, Kowalski rejoined then.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “But I can’t just ignore the customers, y’know?”

“No apologies necessary,” Fraser replied, ignoring Ray’s very quiet grumblings to the contrary. “We’re the ones intruding, after all.”

“Nice to meet someone so understanding,” Kowalski said, and Fraser got the distinct impression the comment, while said to him, was aimed at Ray.

“Okay, so I’ll need to know a couple of things before I can say yes or no to helping you,” Kowalski held up a hand before Ray could protest. “And no, this isn’t a dodge, Vecchio. I said I’d help if I could, and I will. But like I said before, that doesn’t mean that I can.”

“Fair enough,” Fraser replied. “What is it you need to know?”

Kowalski narrowed his eyes as he thought. “Okay, easy one to start. How cold’s the trail?”

“Inuusiq was murdered 17 days ago. The scene of the murder was found 48 hours of his death by one of his family, and his people, the Uummarmiut, traced to here within another 48 hours.

“Okay, I’ve worked with a lot worse than that. Who found the body?”

“That’s difficult to say.”

“Look, I’m not asking to get my kicks here,” Kowalski said, obviously annoyed at Fraser’s response. “Knowing what kind of shape was it in - identifying marks, cause of death stuff - could give me a lead. Is this not how they do things up in Canada?”

“Who or whatever killed Inuusiq was definitely supernatural in origin. And he’d grown up in the area, so he knew how to take care of himself, eliminating the possibility that he froze to death.”

Fraser hesitated, and Kowalski picked up on it immediately. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Fraser took a deep breath. “There wasn’t a body to find.”

Both Rays stared at him in disbelief.

“There was no body?” Ray asked. “Then how can you be sure there was even a murder?”

“His death was… felt is the best word to describe it. By members of his family. They said it was like nothing they’d ever experienced. Absolute terror, a moment of blinding pain, and then a pulling sensation, from the core of their beings. Like their very life force was being forcibly drawn out.” Fraser paused, swallowing. “I think what was felt was just an echo of what he went through.” He stopped there, as he couldn’t see any reason to explain what he’d felt at the crime scene, or the Calling that had confirmed Inuusiq’s death despite the lack of a body.

“I’m sorry your friend had to go like that.”

Fraser blinked, bringing himself back to the present. He met Kowalski’s eyes, finding them filled with compassion. “Thank you.”

The two stared at one another for a long moment. Fraser found it hard to tear himself from the blue depths of Kowalski’s eyes; if they truly were windows to the soul, Kowalski had lived quite a life. He wondered if this was what others felt looking at him, falling under the glamour he’d worked hard to learn to control. The thought was like a bucket of ice down Fraser’s back - he knew better than to tempt fate by looking at someone too long. He shifted back, ducking his head, and the moment was lost. He chanced glancing at Kowalski , who gave him a smile that seemed understanding.

“I’ll see what I can come up with, but it might take a few days to get my ducks in a row,” Kowalski told them both.

Ray rolled his eyes. “Seriously? Just to do some mumbo jumbo?”

Fraser startled at that, and looked to see if the detective’s remarks had offended the other man.

Kowalski just grinned. “Moon isn’t in the seventh house, and Jupiter’s way off from Mars.” He flicked a glance at Fraser. “Sorry, old argument, inside joke. But yeah, with what you’ve given me to work from it’s going to take a day or two. Besides, I’m not at the DPC’s beck and call and you know it, so don’t even try that kind of crap, Vecchio.”

“It’s fine, Ray,” Fraser interjected. He really wasn’t comfortable watching the two men argue, serious or not. “After all, the normal time for a trail to go cold doesn’t apply where you’re employing supernatural methods.” And while he would much rather push the investigation along, he knew better than to rush, especially when anything otherworldly was involved.

“I guess that’s true enough,” Ray sighed.

Kowalski had been sifting through a stack of paper next to the register during the exchange. He pulled out a battered business card, look on his face triumphant. “Knew I had at least one of these left,” he said, presenting it to Fraser with a flourish. “There’s my contact info.”

“Thank you, Ray,” Fraser said as he took the card. “I’m afraid I don’t have one to exchange.”

“That’s okay. I’m betting you’re staying at the Consulate, right? I can reach you there?”

“Or through me,” Ray added, giving them both a pointed look. “Since I’m the local officer on the case and all.”

“Just trying to be welcoming, Vecchio,” Kowalski said with a wink at Fraser.

“I’m staying at the Consulate, yes,” Fraser answered. “I’ve been transferred there, at least for the duration of my investigation.”

“Well, you think of anything else, let me know. The more info I have, the better chance this will work. Even if it seems like nothing, you know?”

“It sounds like what you do is a lot like police work.”

Kowalski shrugged. “Investigating is investigating, y’know? Facts are important, and not having the full truth can skew things.”

Fraser considered what to say next, if anything. Ray had warned him about revealing his true nature after his accidental confession, and honestly, normally he’d agree. But something about Kowalski had Fraser convinced he could trust him, despite their short acquaintance.

The decision was taken from him when Ray gave him a pointed look and tilted his head toward the door. “Nice as this has been, Benny, some of us have work to do,” he said.

“Of course,” Fraser replied, not wanting to strain the detective's good will. “Mr. Kowalski.”

“Ray. Please.” he said with a smile. “I've got customers to deal with anyhow. Business doesn't run itself. Speaking of, make sure you take your dad with you. Pissed off ghosts are bad for business – don't want him keeping folks out.”

oOo

“And that's a typical exchange with Ray Kowalski,” Ray said as they walked back toward his car.

“It’s fine, Ray. I was impressed at the thoroughness of his questions.”

“You two did seem to get along pretty well. Didn't realize you had a sense of humor.”

“Of course I do. Though I'm not sure I know what you're referring to.”

“Sure you don't,” Ray said, rolling his eyes. “Just don’t screw around with me like you did Kowalski, okay? I get enough grief about my sixth sense as it is.”

Fraser tilted his head, confused. “I honestly don’t know what you mean, Ray.”

“That whole ‘I’m being haunted’ thing,” Ray said in a spooky voice, wiggling his fingers. “I get enough of that from the morons who have no idea what’s out here.”

Fraser blinked. “I wasn’t trying to deceive Mr. Kowalski. And while I’m not certain haunted is the best term to use, my father’s ghost has been following me around since my arrival in Chicago.” He sighed. “He’s taken it upon himself to get involved with the case, unfortunately.”

“That’s no way to talk about your father,” Fraser Sr. said, appearing on the other side of Ray and leaning over to scowl at Fraser. “You may have been around longer, but my experience is nothing to sneeze at.”

“You’ve got a direct line to the afterlife?” Ray asked, frowning. “Then why are we waiting on Kowalski?”

“If only it were that easy,” Fraser sighed. “My father’s willing to help in his own way, which doesn’t involve any of what he considers spiritual mumbo jumbo.”

“Because you should be pursuing hard evidence,” his father interjected.

“There’s more to this case than physical evidence.”

“Yeah, but without it how are you going to prove anything?” Ray wondered.

Fraser Sr. smiled. “I think I like this one. Much more accommodating than that other Yank. You should work with him, forget the other one.”

“I can’t just discount Mr. Kowalski’s offer of help. The trail that led me here stopped, very abruptly I might add. I have to pursue whatever means I can to pick it back up again.”

“Who said anything about ignoring Kowalski?”

“My father,” Fraser sighed.

“He’s here? Now?” Ray whipped his head from side to side. “Where is he?”

“He’s on your other side,” Fraser said. Ray looked hard, then shook his head.

“You really can’t see or hear him?”

Ray turned to face Fraser with a shrug. “Nope, sorry.”

“Don’t be. There are times I’d like to be able to say the same.”

“That was uncalled for, son,” Fraser Sr said, then disappeared.

“Huh. That actually got him to leave.” Fraser felt some tension leave his body at the disappearance.  “He thinks we should focus solely on physical evidence,” he told Ray, “even though there’s obviously more to the case than that. I believe he thinks we should use him in an advisory capacity, rather than have him try to find out anything useful.”

Ray stopped, eyes wide as he turned to face Fraser. “Are you seriously telling me that your father, who is a ghost, refuses to ask other ghosts stuff to help his undead son solve a case because it’s too out there for him?”

“That’s a broad summary. But I suppose it’s fairly accurate,” Fraser admitted.

“A stubborn ghost, a vampire and a spirit wolf. Your family is weird, Fraser.” He gave Fraser a wry grin, and gestured for them to start walking again. “And considering some of the folks I deal with, that’s saying something.”

That gave Fraser an opening he’d been hoping for. “Is being,” Fraser considered for a moment, “other than human a prerequisite for living in this part of town?”

“Nah,” Ray replied, shaking his head. “There’s some regular humans here too. And not everyone who’s a Bumper lives here – it’s not a requirement or anything. But the less human you look, the more likely it is you’ll end up here, and happier for it, from what I can see. A lot less hiding required.”

“That makes sense.” But what it didn’t do was satisfy Fraser’s curiosity about Ray Kowalski. He appeared human, but there was something about him that put Fraser’s senses on high alert, in a way that no one else he’d met in Chicago had. There was definitely more to him than met the eye.

oOo

Once the shop was closed up for the night, Ray headed upstairs, bypassing his apartment for the roof. He could hear voices through the door, and couldn’t help but roll his eyes when he picked up on the tone of the conversation, if not the words. Of course, they were arguing; it was a day that ended in ‘y’ after all. Ray sighed, shaking his head as he opened the door.

"What is that?" Balthasar was asking, an affronted look on his face as he stared at Nick’s haunch. He looked torn between wanting to leave his perch for a closer look, and turning to avert his eyes from what he obviously felt was a horrific sight.

The other gargoyle grinned, sitting taller and turning to show off the graffiti on his flank. "Isn't it cool?"

"It's a disgrace," Balthasar huffed, scowling.

Nick scowled back. Ray was kind of surprised the younger gargoyle hadn’t stuck out his tongue. "Ray's got ink," Nick pointed out, and there went any hopes of staying out of this particular conversation.

"It isn't the same," Balthasar stated with finality.

Nick shifted to look at Ray. "Back me up!" he said, eyes pleading.

If anyone had ever told Ray he’d someday be a role model for a gargoyle, he’d have had them sent to the loony bin. And yet, here he was. He schooled his expression as he looked over the garishly-colored spray painted art, neon colors showing up clearly against the dull gray of Nick’s stony skin. It really was an eyesore. "Tagged isn't the same as a tat," he finally said. Not that Nick could get a tattoo, at least not one that would last for long. The stone of a gargoyle’s skin never held a chip. Paint, as it didn’t actually do any damage, would last longer.

Nick deflated, wings drooping, and Ray took pity on him. "If you really want something,” he started, and Nick looked up, hopeful. "If you're serious, let me do some research."

"Really?"

"Sure," Ray shrugged. "Could be useful - a protection charm or something. We’ll get a design figured out, see when RC’s available to do the work, and you’ll be set.” Nick’s hopeful look cranked up several notches at the mention of the graffiti shaman, to the point where he was practically bouncing on his perch. Ray pointed two fingers at him, his look serious. “But for now, ‘Sar’s right - you need to get rid of that. Whoever did it was a real amateur."

Nick calmed a bit, but Ray could tell he was still very excited. “Whatever you say, Boss!”

Balthasar didn’t say anything, but he looked somewhat mollified, which Ray knew from experience was the best he could hope for at this point. He took a turn around the roof, in part checking for any possible dangers to be seen from this vantage point, but mostly just stretching his legs and enjoying the late afternoon sun and light breeze dancing over his skin.

“So, there’s a new player in town,” he finally said,leaning against the rooftop door.

“You mean the vampire that Detective Vecchio brought by?” Balthasar asked.

“You picked up on what he was from here?” Ray asked, impressed.

“They’re a rare breed, but I’ve seen them around before. Not here, and something feels different about him, but yeah, I could tell. It’s a pretty distinctive energy signature.”

“Huh. Cool,” Ray said, then blinked curiously at Balthasar. “Wait, why did you ask who I meant?”

Balthasar shrugged. “Could have been that annoying spirit following him around. He wasn’t at all happy about being stuck outside.”

“You got me there” Ray chuckled, thinking Fraser would have used the same description. “Two players then, but I was referring to the more corporeal of them. His name’s Benton Fraser, and he’s from Canada.”

“That would explain why I haven’t seen anyone of his type before,” Balthasar said. “From what I’ve heard, the Canadian supernatural community is very close-knit, preferring to keep to themselves.”

“Pretty far out of his territory,” Nick observed. “He here to cause trouble?”

“I don’t think so, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to find some.”

“With you?” Nick sat back and puffed out his chest. Balthasar was more subtle about it, but Ray could see him bristle at the thought.

“Nah, nothing like that, so stand down. Grandfather didn’t give me any signals that I needed to worry, and believe me, I was watching for them.” Both gargoyles relaxed visibly at that. Ray rubbed a hand over his chin thoughtfully. “I just get this feeling like whatever it is Fraser’s looking for, it’s bigger than he realizes.”

“So you’re not going to help him then, right?” Nick asked.

“Wrong, and don’t even try arguing with me on this one,” Ray replied, giving each gargoyle a pointed look.

“Another feeling?” Balthasar wondered.

Ray was quiet for a minute, trying to untangle the different tendrils of just what he’d felt when he’d shaken Fraser’s hand. There was too much mixed together too closely to figure out. Yet. He finally settled on shrugging and giving Nick and Balthasar a wry smile. “A whole lot of them, and it’s too soon to know just what’s what. Only thing I have for sure is that he was supposed to find me, which means I’m supposed to help.”

Nick shifted uneasily on his perch. “I don’t know if I like this.”

Ray stepped over to one of the lounge chairs he kept on the roof, sinking into the chair to watch the sun sink below the city skyline. It was looking to be a beautiful night. Too bad for him that he was already too distracted to really appreciate it.

“You and me both, buddy,” Ray said with a sigh. “You and me both.”

oOo

After his visit to Rising Sun, Fraser found his thoughts drifting back to it, and to Ray Kowalski. Ray was an intriguing (and attractive, but that was neither here nor there) man. And it was natural for Fraser to wonder if any progress had been made, wasn’t it? Whatever the justification, it was becoming more and more difficult to sit back and wait. So the next time Fraser was off-duty, he changed into jeans and a henley and made his way to the District. If nothing else, the fresh air would do him good.

Despite the fact that it was only early afternoon, Rising Sun was closed when Fraser walked by. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised; after all, he’d seen for himself that the store kept no set hours. He could only hope it was a good sign, that Ray was working on the case.

Fraser chose a random direction as he left the storefront. He stopped a few paces away, nagged by the feeling he was being watched. But a look around showed no one obviously observing his movements, so Fraser walked on. It wasn’t as if he were doing anything he shouldn’t.

His wanderings brought him to the street where the metalmancer’s shop was. Fraser stopped for a moment, checked his pockets, then went into the store. Just because he wasn’t making headway on the case didn’t have to mean the trip was entirely unsuccessful.

As soon as he entered the shop he was grateful for his superior vision; the main room was only dimly lit. It was also very cramped, full of boxes and haphazardly stacked items. He narrowly avoided knocking over a pile of envelopes on a small table by the doorway.

“Hello?” Fraser called out when he couldn’t find anyone readily apparent in the room. “Is anyone here?”

“Yes, yes, just a moment,” a voice replied from a room farther back.

Fraser moved farther into the room, taking care not to disturb anything as he went. It was a very odd shop; nothing seemed to be for sale. In fact, if he didn’t know better he would have thought he’d accidentally walked into a storage area. It was nothing like he’d expected; no tools or worked items on display. Not even anything more modern. He was about to make his apologies and leave when the man who’d told him to wait appeared.

He was perhaps a bit taller than Fraser, and appeared to be in his sixties, with a shock of silver hair that looked to have some kind of grease or oil in it in spots. His clothing and heavy apron bore similar stains. He watched Fraser with sharp blue eyes, a bit wary but neither friendly nor hostile.

“Can I help you with something?” the man asked.

Fraser nodded as he reached into his pants pocket. “I hope so,” he said. “I was wondering if you could take a look at my knife. It’s in need of some repair.” He kept the knife folded as he held it out.

The man moved forward and took the knife to examine. He turned it this way and that, and even took a deep breath as if he could tell something about it by scent, then glanced up at Fraser. “May I?” he asked, nodding toward the knife.

“Of course,” Fraser replied, and the man carefully opened the knife,his touch more delicate than Fraser would have suspected possible, given the rough texture and callouses he could see.

He let out a low whistle. “This is a beauty,” he said with a smile that made him appear a good ten years younger. “Not as fancy as some, not so many tools. A solid, functional piece, not some silly overdone thing. Where did you get it?”

“It’s been in my family for years,” Fraser answered, avoiding saying just how many years that would be, as his father had given him the knife.

“You’ve taken excellent care of it…”

“Forgive my manners. Benton Fraser.”

“Buck Frobisher,” he nodded, still looking over the knife, carefully pulling it open to examine each tool. “Yes, Benton very good care indeed.” He glanced up, smiling. “It has nice things to say about you.”

Fraser wasn’t sure how to take that. Luckily, Buck went on before he could even start to reply.

“Aha, I think I see what you’re worried about.” He glanced around, wrinkling his nose. “Light’s terrible in here, though. Come on back, let’s see if I’m right.”

Fraser followed Buck into the next room, which turned out to be his workshop. This was more of what he’d expected. Unlike the outer room, it was extremely well-organized and clutter-free. Fraser didn’t even see a stray nail or screw.

Buck led him over to a heavy wooden table that was obviously his main workstation. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a magnifying glass. After looking at the knife he nodded, then held the glass out for Fraser.

“It’s sticking when you try to pull out the corkscrew or the scissors, right?” he asked, then went on without waiting for an answer. “There’s why - you have some joinings that are starting to break. No fault of yours, happens with pieces this old - the metal can only take so much. You’re lucky it started sticking first instead of falling apart.”

“I’d wondered if that wasn’t the issue,” Fraser told him. “But I haven’t got the tools or replacement parts to repair it.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place, my boy!” Buck said with a grin. “I haven’t had a chance to work on something like this in years. You leave it with me for a few days, and I’ll have it good as new. Maybe even better.”

“As good as would be more than good enough,” Fraser told him. “A few days, you said?”

“I know, you’d think it wouldn’t take any time at all. Unfortunately, I’m in the middle of another project that’s time sensitive, or I’d get started on it now.” He took the magnifying glass and knife from Fraser and laid them carefully on the table.

“That’s fine. I’ll just be happy to have it fixed and not have to worry about breaking it.”

After a few more minutes of questions interspersed with small talk, Fraser left the shop a little befuddled, but pleased. Buck was friendly, and he had no doubt that his knife was in good hands. Even if he hadn’t gotten anywhere on the case, he felt like he’d accomplished something.

oOo

Ray, on the other hand, was in the exact opposite state. He’d hoped to have some kind of news for Fraser and Vecchio by now, but his usual sources were coming up empty. That unsettled feeling he’d gotten when he first met Fraser intensified with every avenue that closed. But at the same time, he couldn’t convince himself to let it go.

It was looking like he’d have to call in favors to get any information, or else try less conventional methods. Uninterested in calling more attention to himself, he figured it was probably best at this point to stop asking around and work on the problem more directly. Hopefully, his few lines of questioning so far hadn’t tipped anybody off.

Decision made, he made a mental note to call Fraser the next day. And if that thought made his heart beat a little faster in anticipation, he ignored it.

oOo

Fraser had tried calling Ray to see if he needed any help on a case, but based on his reaction, he was still upset with how the last one had turned out. The Inspector had him running errands at this point, as well as more guard duty; it was grating on his nerves, though he was careful not to let his displeasure show. She was his superior officer, after all. And it wasn't her fault she had more help than she needed at the moment.

The upside of this was that Fraser had been left with time to explore Chicago. He'd spent some time in the Bumper District, of course, but also time in other areas as well. A lead could break at any time, and knowing the territory could be a great help.

On one such visit he’d run into Ray. They hadn’t had much time; Ray had been on his way to make a delivery of some sort. Fraser hadn’t asked, though he had been intrigued. But beyond that brief encounter, he hadn’t had any contact with the man. He'd hoped to have heard from him by now with some sort of lead, but so far, nothing. Fraser found himself toying with the business card Ray had left him. He hadn’t called, not wanting to bother him, but he was tempted to.

Perhaps, instead of calling, he thought, he might just drop by the shop. He needed to make a stop at Buck’s anyhow, and check on the progress of his knife. And a visit to the blood bank that catered to people like him wouldn’t go amiss. While bagged blood wasn’t as nourishing as fresh, it was good enough for him to survive. Yes, that sounded like a plan. And it was a nice enough day for a walk, after all.

oOo

Fraser was nearly bowled over by a group of young people barreling out of Rising Sun. They were laughing and waving, one of them calling back, “Next time, old man!”

“Who you calling old, Willie? You’re not the spring chicken you like to pretend,” Ray called back with a laugh. His eyes twinkled with merriment when they met Fraser’s. “Congratulate me, Fraser.”

“Congratulations, Ray,” Fraser obediently replied. “Might I ask why I’m congratulating you?”

“You may,” Ray said with a grin. “It’s because despite those kids bringing in a ringer, you are looking at the winner and still champion of the Name That Song competition.”

“Is there really such a contest?”

Ray shrugged, uncaring. “It’s kind of unofficial. Doesn’t make it any less of a victory though, Benton-buddy. Those kids are gonna have to come up with something more obscure than lyrics from Bat Boy: The Musical to catch me.” He came around the counter, leaning against it, arms crossed over his chest. “So, not that you’re not welcome, because you are, I was going to call you in fact, but I didn’t expect you today.” He looked past Fraser at the door. “Vecchio parking the Riv?”

“I’m alone today,” Fraser replied, shaking his head. “Ray had work to attend to, and nothing new on this case.”

“Can’t say as I’ve heard anything that would help either.”

“I didn’t think you would,” Fraser admitted, then immediately realized just how bad that sounded. “That is, I’m certain you would have called had you heard anything. Not that you aren’t capable of finding out information.” Fraser stopped himself from rambling through sheer force of will. It was ridiculous; he was well over a century old, so why did Ray make him act like a coltish teenager? He took a deep breath, then started again. “I’m at something of a loose end in my investigation. There’s only so much I can do at the Consulate, so when the opportunity to leave for a few hours was presented, I’m afraid I took it and ran with it.”

Ray perked up at that. “You mean you’re playing hooky?”

“Technically, I’m on an errand. Or I was, but I’ve completed it.”

“Hey, I’m not gonna tell anyone, no worries there.” He glanced over Fraser’s shoulder at the clock on the wall by the door. “I could use a break myself. How about we get out of here, grab some chow? I know I’m hungry, and I bet you could eat, too.”

When framed like that, Fraser couldn’t honestly say no. It was possible for him to eat, after all. And he wanted to get to know Ray better; this would give him an opportunity without interruptions from customers. “That would be nice, Ray,” he answered with a small smile.

Ray nodded and moved to the door, flipping the sign to closed. Instead of opening it, however, he locked it, then turned around to face Fraser, leaning casually against the edge of the doorframe. Fraser on the other hand, felt himself tense up, wondering what was going on. Ray didn’t keep him in suspense.

“Okay, there’s ways to beat around the bush, but that ain’t my style, so I’ll just say it - I know you’re a Bouclier.” Ray grimaced. “And I’m sure I mangled that. French and I do not get along. I’m also sure there’s a better word for it, but First Nations folk are pretty tight-lipped about - actually about everything. But you are, right? A Protector?”

Fraser, shocked, could only nod.

“Thought so,” Ray said with a smile. “Picked up on it when we met, but I didn’t want to say anything in front of Vecchio, in case you were keeping it on the downlow.”

“Oh, Ray knows,” Fraser replied, then blinked and shook his head. “It appears to be common knowledge around here.”

“Vecchio figured it out?” Ray sounded surprised. “Didn’t think he was that sensitive.”

“He isn’t, but his Lieutenant is. Ray found out because I made some incorrect assumptions.”

“Oh man, I would have paid good money to see that,” Ray chortled. “Seriously, I bet his eyes bugged right out of his head.”

“It wasn’t quite that bad,” Fraser temporized, fighting a smile at the memory. “His reaction to my father was more entertaining.”

Ray laughed harder. “You’re killing me here, Fraser. So you explained about your ghost, too?”

“Of course. Ray is my partner while I’m here. He needed to know, especially since otherwise he’d likely think there was a hole in my bag of marbles when I started talking to thin air.”

“True enough,” Ray nodded, calming down. “Anyhow, I just figured you should know that I know, so you don’t feel like you have to hide.”

“I appreciate that, Ray.”

“Okay, so that’s settled,” Ray said, clapping his hands together. “I was serious about wanting food, though, so come on, let’s see if we can beat the lunch rush.” He started to unlock the door, then paused. “I mean, you do eat, right? Not to be too nosy or anything, but…”

Fraser nodded. “It isn’t something I require, but yes, I can eat. I just don’t do it often, as it seems like a waste of food.”

“Can you taste it? I mean, is it disgusting because it isn’t what you really need or anything like that?”

“Not at all. If anything, my tastebuds are more sensitive than they were before I - well, before I became a Protector.”

“You just don’t see the point.” Ray shook his head. “Benton Fraser, you ever think getting to enjoy something was the point?” He held the door open, gesturing for Fraser to go ahead and giving him a wink and a smile. “Come on, you’re way overdue for a little self-indulgence.”

oOo

Once they were outside, Ray stopped, arms outstretched, head tilted back and eyes closed.

“Springtime in Chicago. Nothing like it,” he sighed contentedly as he pushed up the sleeves of his henley. “Close enough to summer to be warm, but not so much as to be sweltering.” He gave Fraser a sidelong glance. “I’d almost have thought you’d be in shorts and a tank top.”

Fraser looked down at himself. He supposed the full uniform was a bit much for the weather, but hadn’t even considered it. “Why is that?”

“Just that it’s a lot warmer here than what you’re used to, right?” At Fraser’s nod, Ray reached out and flapped the corner of Fraser’s uniform jacket. “Gotta be hot in all that, that’s all.”

“I’m not particularly affected by the temperature one way or the other.”

“Really? That’s a handy trick,” Ray said matter of factly. The lack of curiosity in his tone surprised Fraser. He would have thought Ray would have many questions for him, now that his true nature was out in the open. But Ray seemed content to take whatever information Fraser was comfortable giving.

“It can be advantageous, especially in extreme conditions.”

“But not so much if you’re wanting to blend in,” Ray pointed out. “You might consider something a little lighter, especially if you’re going to be here much longer. Unless you’re okay with standing out.”

Considering that it had been decades since Fraser had ever felt he had a chance to fit in anywhere, the possibility that he could was surprising. And very, very appealing. Which made it a dangerous idea; Fraser wasn’t going to be in Chicago long enough to get comfortable. Better he not go down that road, no matter how much he might want to. Before he could decide anything one way or the other, Buck called out a greeting from the door of his shop. Fraser tilted his hat in response, and Ray waved before turning curious eyes to Fraser, one eyebrow cocked as a silent question.

“I’ve taken the liberty of exploring the city when I’ve had the time,” Fraser told him. “I thought it made sense to get to know the area.”

“And the people? You doing some investigating on your own, Fraser?”

“Not as such. I’ve introduced myself, but not in any official capacity. Or unofficial, for that matter. In Buck’s case, I had a few questions about how to repair an antique jackknife I have. He’s been quite helpful. Seems there isn’t much call for that kind of work here.”

“No, that’s a little off the beaten path for a place like Chicago,” Ray agreed.

“Not just Chicago,” Fraser sighed. “While I understand and appreciate the need for innovation, sometimes the older, simpler tools are the best for the job. It’s hard when they fall by the wayside.”

Ray nodded, his voice full of understanding. “I hear that. I’ve got some stuff I use that’s pretty old. Some of it I’ve figured out how to fix myself, because there’s no one else around who knows how. Other stuff I’ve got contacts for, but it’s not easy sometimes.” Ray looked like he was considering something. “Speaking of contacts, I have to tell you, this case of yours is a lot more squirrely than I expected. Are you sure you told me everything?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just, I don’t know,” Ray ran a hand through his hair as he spoke. “I just wonder if this isn’t bigger than you’re telling me.”

Fraser tried not to sound defensive when he answered. “If you’re having difficulties, it isn’t because of information I’ve withheld. I want the murderer found.”

“I get that, I do, and I believe you. But that doesn’t change the fact that I should have had answers for you days ago, and I didn’t. I still don’t. It’s frustrating the piss out of me.”

Fraser tried to hide his disappointment. “So we’re back at square one?”

“I didn’t say that,” Ray was quick to answer. “But I’m thinking different tactics might be in order.” He held up a hand before Fraser could respond. “But not on an empty stomach. So we’re just going to let this go for as long as lunch takes, okay?”

“All right,” Fraser reluctantly agreed.

“Good man,” Ray said, smiling as he opened the door. “After you.”

Fraser noticed the difference in atmosphere almost immediately. When he’d been here before with Ray Vecchio, everyone had been polite, but distant. Not quite wary, but close enough. In contrast, as soon as Ray Kowalski entered the room, the diner felt friendly and welcoming. Several of the staff smiled and waved in greeting, and a few of the patrons stopped them on the way to what Ray told him was his usual booth. And while they weren’t as friendly with Fraser, they made sure to acknowledge him as well.

Ray must have picked up on his surprise. He nudged Fraser's shoulder and winked. “Doesn't hurt to know the right people.”

A waitress a few tables over nodded toward them, and while Fraser still wasn’t sure he should have anything, he knew Ray was going to insist. He took a menu from the holder in the middle of the table, but Ray plucked it from his grasp before he could open it, holding it out of Fraser’s reach.

“Pfft, he'll have the special. And so will I,” he told the waitress as she arrived, handing the menus to her with a smile. “Iced tea for me, water for him.” She returned the look and nodded, walking toward the kitchen before Fraser could say a word.

“That was fairly forward of you,” Fraser said.

Ray grinned. “What can I say – I’m a forward thinking kind of guy.”

Fraser was about to say that wasn’t what he meant, but the twinkle in Ray’s eye (which he really, really shouldn’t be noticing) kept him from rising to the bait.

“Is that why you brought me here?” Fraser wondered. “As a strategic move?”

“Well, I know you’ve been hanging around the District on your own and all, but it doesn't hurt to be seen with someone who lives here,” Ray said with a shrug. “But a walk down the street could have done that too. Mostly, I was hungry and too lazy to make a lunch this morning.”

The waitress brought their drinks, and Fraser tried not to show just how appalled he was at the amount of sugar Ray added to his iced tea. He watched Ray open a few packets before commenting, “I can’t help but notice, that is…” he mentally kicked himself for stammering and went on. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone with as many tattoos as you have, Ray.”

“And you haven’t even seen them all,” Ray replied with a wink that made Fraser grateful he was incapable of blushing. Ray held up his right hand, turning it this way and that so that both of them could see the runes on his fingers. “Yeah, I guess I have a lot of ink.”

“May I ask why? I mean, it’s probably none of my business and you’re in no way obligated to answer, but it’s just that some of those symbols seem familiar-”

“And you’re curious by nature,” Ray finished.

Fraser nodded, grateful for Ray’s understanding. “It’s part of what makes me a good Mountie.”

“Well, you’re right that I’m not gonna tell you everything about them, but I will say that each and every one of them has a meaning. Maybe it’s personal to me, maybe more, depending on which one it is.” He looked from one hand to the other, twisting his arms until he nodded and held out the left, angled so Fraser could see the back of his wrist. “This one’s pretty obvious, yeah?”

And just like that, it was. Fraser could see the tattoo clearly, though the ones surrounding it still seemed elusive. “It’s a compass.” Fraser leaned in a touch, admiring the work. It was an old-style compass, like one you’d see on a map, points radiating from the center like rays of the sun for not only the four major directions, but subsets as well. It was amazing. “And beautifully detailed. I didn’t realize you could get such fine work with a tattoo.”

“Just have to know the right artist.”

Fraser studied it for a few moments before asking, “Does this one have a meaning beyond the obvious?”

“Nope. Mostly just a reminder to stay on the right path.”

Fraser gestured at Ray’s wrist. “I can’t help but notice there aren’t any directional indicators.”

“More than one kind of path,” Ray replied, meeting Fraser’s eyes. Fraser tried not to let his surprise show. It was one thing for Ray to have met his eyes when they were first introduced, but now that he knew just what Fraser was, he had to realize the danger of it. And yet, Ray kept doing it, seemingly without a care. He was either reckless, or immune. Or maybe he trusted Fraser not to try and exert his will. No matter the reason, it was a disconcerting experience, especially as it felt as if Ray could see into him.

“So, you feel like you’re on the right path, Fraser?”

“You mean my being here?” Fraser blinked, ending the moment, though he still felt exposed.

“Sure,” Ray agreed easily, slouching back into his side of the booth. As he shifted back, the tattoo seemed to fade, becoming less visible with each passing moment, until it was once again mostly an indistinct blur of ink on Ray’s skin.

“I believe so,” Fraser answered after giving the question some thought. “I trust the sources that brought me this far, and I must say that what I’ve seen so far has eliminated my initial misgivings.”

“How so?”

Fraser gestured around. “This place. The District, that is. I’ve never been anywhere like, never even knew such a place existed. But the resources here are undeniably a vast improvement to anything I could have found on my own.”

“It is pretty amazing,” Ray agreed with a grin. “Not that it’s perfect or anything, but it definitely has its advantages.”

“How long have you lived here?”

“I’ve been in Chicago off and on for most of my adult life,” Ray answered. “Most of that time right here in the District.”

“It must be nice, having this community.”

“Has its advantages,” Ray said again. Fraser took the hint; he was asking too much. Time to change the subject.

“Ray brought me here on my first visit to the area,” he told Ray, indicating the diner.

“Thought you didn’t need to eat.”

“I don’t,” Fraser confirmed. “But Ray does, so we stopped here and he got a sandwich.”

“You get to meet Elaine? The owner?”

Fraser shook his head. “We didn’t stay that long. I’m afraid I made some assumptions about what he knew of me, and the resulting conversation was one he didn’t want to have here.”

“You thought he knew you were a Bouclier, and he freaked when you talked about it,” Ray translated with a chuckle.

“Essentially.”

“Well, maybe you’ll get the chance today. Elaine’s a real nice lady, and a smart cookie besides, real savvy. Definitely someone you want on your side, especially when you’re looking for something. Or someone.”

Fraser thought back to his earlier visit. “Ray didn’t mention that.”

“He wouldn’t. For all that Vecchio’s welcome here, that only gets him so far, being as he’s human.”

And there it was, another hint that Ray was more than he appeared. The tattoos were one thing - while obviously imbued with some sort of power, that didn’t mean Ray was their source. Fraser was certain, however, that there was much more to Ray Kowalski that he was letting show. He found himself hoping to earn enough of the man’s trust to find out just what that something was.

Before he could find a way to ask another question, the waitress arrived with their food. Fraser looked from his plate to Ray’s, certain something was wrong, as the two dishes looked completely different. Fraser’s plate held thin slices of some sort of meat, lightly drizzled with gravy. Ray’s had cabbage leaves stuffed with something and covered in tomato sauce, and a side of mashed potatoes topped with what looked to be sour cream. But Ray just thanked the waitress as he unrolled his napkin to get to the silverware.

He looked up and gestured with his fork at Fraser’s plate. “You’re not eating. Something wrong with it?”

Fraser looked from his plate to Ray’s and back again, confused. “I thought you ordered us both the special.”

“I did.”

When it became obvious Ray was going to leave it at that, Fraser added, “But what’s on your plate is nothing like what’s on mine.”

Ray stopped just shy of shoveling a forkful of food into his mouth to answer. “That’s what makes it special.”

Fraser was fairly certain that if he still could blush, he definitely would be at the moan Ray made when he started eating.

Fraser took a small forkful for himself, holding it up and sniffing it delicately. It couldn’t be what it smelled like, not in a place like Chicago.

Ray gestured toward Fraser’s plate with his fork. “You gonna eat that, or analyze it?”

“I’m merely trying to ascertain what it is before putting it in my mouth.”

Ray choked back a laugh. “Good practice. But here, all you have to know is that nothing was harmed in the making of it and enjoy it. Well, I mean, obviously the cow was harmed.” He squinted at Fraser’s plate, then shrugged. “Goat? Anyway, only food-type-animals were harmed, so eat up.”

Fraser let the tip of his tongue slide out to taste the meat, eyes widening as he recognized the taste. He put the bite in his mouth, and understood why Ray had moaned when he started eating; this was phenomenal. And not only because it was cooked to melt-in-your mouth perfection; there was also absolutely no emotional resonance coming from it. Fraser had no idea how that was possible, but it made the food all the sweeter to eat, and he eagerly took another bite.

“That’s more like it,” Ray said, giving Fraser a smile. “Told you it was special.”

They talked a bit more as they ate, nothing of consequence, really, as Fraser at least was more than willing to focus the bulk of his concentration on the amazing meal in front of him. As they were finishing the last bites, Ray was trying to convince Fraser that dessert was a necessity when a young woman came over to their table. Fraser guessed her to be in her late 20s, assuming she was human, of course. There was an air of timelessness around her that made him wonder. She was pretty, with light brown skin and a cascade of black curly hair that was tied back in a low, loose ponytail. She moved with ease and confidence, and Fraser suspected this might be the mysterious Elaine. His suspicions were proven true when she and Ray spoke.

“Haven’t seen you here for awhile, Kowalski.” Her tone was playfully accusing, her eyes full of merriment. “You cheating on me with another restaurant?”

“Elaine, no one in their right mind would ever throw you over for another restaurant,” he replied with a wink. “Just been busy, that’s all.” He gestured toward his empty plate. “Making up for lost time though, I promise.”

Elaine slid into the booth next to Ray, bumping him with her hip to scoot over. “So I got the globki right this time?”

Ray patted his stomach with a smile. “Oh yeah, best I've had since the ‘30s.” Fraser’s ears perked up at that bit of information; he filed it away for later.

She smiled and turned her attention to Fraser. “And you, sir, how was the musk ox?”

That’s what that was?” Ray squawked.

Fraser hid a grin at Ray’s reaction as he replied. “It was excellent. I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I had this prepared so well. I must admit I’m curious as to where you could have gotten it - it was definitely fresh.”

Elaine’s smile turned secretive. “Girl can’t give away all her secrets.”

“Of course not.” He held out a hand. “Benton Fraser.”

She took it, her handshake firm. “Elaine Besbriss.” Fraser started to let go, but she gripped his hand tight, eyes going unfocused. Fraser looked at Ray, who shot him a worried glance but shook his head when Fraser indicated his hand. Then she began to speak, her voice a whisper that was high and ethereal.

“The chains that bind can also free. Shadows swallow the light but that which shines can burn through and turn the night to day. Blood is the key and the lock. The darkness without calls to the darkness within. It wants to divide and conquer, destroying everything in its path. Dare to dream and embrace what you fear or become your worst nightmare.”

At that, her eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped forward. Ray caught her before her head hit the table, and cradled her in his arms. Fraser felt her grip go lax and pulled his hand away, unsure of what had just happened or what to do.

“Go up front and ask for a cup of Missouri-blend tea,” Ray told him. “They’ll know what’s up.”

“What just happened, Ray?”

Ray shook his head, most of his attention on Elaine. “I’ll explain later. Just, please, go get the tea.”

Fraser hurried to the counter and asked for the tea. The woman he spoke with, whose eyes were a touch too large and ears too pointed to be human, shot a look toward his booth, nodded at him, and made her way quickly to the kitchen. Her movements seemed purposeful but not rushed, which Fraser only hoped meant she knew what was going on, and that it wasn’t serious. She returned a minute later carrying a large mug with steam curling up from the dark liquid inside.

Fraser thanked her and got back to the table without spilling a drop. As soon as he set down the mug, Ray slid it closer, one arm still around Elaine’s shoulder. He murmured something in her ear and shook her gently. Fraser could see her start to stir, and after a few moments she lifted her head, blinking up at him blearily.

“You back with us?” Ray asked, giving her shoulder a squeeze.

“Oh man, did you get the number of the truck that hit me?” she asked, leaning her head back against the back of the booth. “Haven’t been blindsided like that in a while.”

“I’m sorry if anything I did-” Fraser began, but she waved him off.

“Hon, the visions come when they want to. You just happened to be the trigger for something pretty powerful.” She picked up the mug and took a long drink. “I just hope it meant something to you.”

“You mean it didn’t to you?”

“Of course not,” Elaine replied, looking at Fraser like he should know better. “It wasn’t about me. I’m just the conduit. It’s up to you to figure it all out. And considering how hard it hit, I’d say something was pretty insistent that you know it.” She took another drink, then shrugged Ray’s hand off of her shoulder. “Okay, fun as that was, I have work to do. Good to see you, Ray. Don’t be such a stranger.”

“I won’t, promise,” Ray said with a smile and a hand over his heart. She rolled her eyes, then grimaced; the move must have caused her pain. She was more serious when she turned to Fraser.

“And you heed what I said. All of it. That kind of thing only happens when it’s important.”

“I’ll do my best to figure it out, ma’am,” Fraser promised.

Elaine reached over and patted his cheek. Considering what happened the last time she touched him, Fraser was impressed by her bravery. “It’s Elaine, not ma’am. And come back any time. Don’t have much of a chance to play with musk ox recipes.”

oOo

“You know,” Ray said as they walked back toward Rising Sun, “I may be able to help you with that stuff Elaine said. I mean, if you need any help.”

“I confess that I’m at a loss as to how to begin,” Fraser told him. “What do you have in mind?”

“Well, since you don’t seem to have any trouble with food and all, I might have something that could help you - us- get this thing figured out.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, maybe. No guarantees, but there’s this tea that can clarify dreams, might be worth a try.”

“I don’t really dream,” Fraser replied.

“Seriously?” Ray asked, surprised. Fraser’s nod shifted the surprise to concern. “Because I’m pretty sure not dreaming is supposed to make you go crazy. You at least sleep, right?”

“It isn’t the same as when I slept while alive, but yes, I do get some form of rest.”

“Well then maybe you do dream, you just don’t know it.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” Fraser allowed.

“Okay then,” Ray nodded. “So like I said, this tea might help, if you want to try it.”

“Do you have it at your shop?”

“Sort of. I have the ingredients, but I’d need to make up a batch. It wouldn’t take long, though, so no worries.” Fraser gave him a look that was a mix of dubious and curious, so he added, “Promise it’s safe - I’ve used it once or twice myself. There’s more than one way to gather information, you know?”

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble-” Fraser began, stopping when Ray held up his hand.

“Fraser. Do you want to find out who killed Inuusiq?”

“Of course.”

“And did you or did you not ask for my help with that?”

“I did.”

“Then let me help,” Ray finished.

“Understood.”

When they arrived at the store, Ray let them in but left the sign at Closed.

“Make yourself at home. This will just take a few minutes.”

“You don’t mind me wandering your shop?”

Ray stopped and turned around, crossing his arms over his chest. “You planning on stealing something?” he challenged, trying to hide a smile.

“Of course not,” Fraser replied.

“Good. Hate for you to have to arrest yourself.”

Fraser rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll be up here not engaging in illegal activities.”

“Glad to hear it,” Ray chuckled as he left the room.

Ray made his way down the dimly lit staircase, not bothering with additional lighting. He’d been up and down these stairs enough times to know each creaky spot, every place the wood gave way even slightly. Before him at the bottom was an equally dim corridor, the air cool and slightly damp. He flicked his fingers in a quick pattern and the hallway brightened, soft light illuminating his path, which ended at a heavy wooden door. It was old, made of a thick, gnarled wood that was at odds with the more modern cement walls and floors surrounding it. Ray let his gaze travel over it for a minute. Satisfied nothing had been disturbed since his last visit, reached up and ran his fingers over the key armband tattoo on his right bicep, then touched his fingertips to the lock. The doorknob pulsed with orange light twice, and once the last of the light had dimmed, Ray was able to open the door.

Inside was a set of rooms that almost no one knew even existed. The first held only a large wooden table with four equally sturdy chairs. All of the furniture was obviously very old, and scarred with use. Ray went through it to the next room, his actual destination. It was a hodgepodge of ancient and modern technology, though some items were kept well away from anything that required electricity. The lighting in the room itself was actually torches that lit as he entered, glowing softly but without heat or smoke. He’d gotten them in a trade decades ago, and always regretted not bargaining for more; they were very handy.

An ornate wooden clock on the wall nearest the door ticked quietly at the movement of the pendulum swinging below it. Ray glanced up to see that it was off, again. No matter what he did, it always ran a little fast.

He took a moment to reset it before making his way to a far table covered with stacks of papers, scattered writing utensils, and boxes filled with glass jars and bottles, all empty. Across the wall were cabinets and racks with partially-filled versions of the same, interspersed with racks of tools of varying sizes. He sorted through a box and found a good bottle, then went to the wall, considering several different options before taking a small assortment over to the table to mix together. He measured each portion carefully, grinding a few with his small, white marble mortar and pestle before adding them. He held up the end result, checking it in the light and giving it a careful sniff before deciding it was complete. He stoppered the bottle, quickly cleaned the tools he’d used as well as the countertop, and made his way back upstairs.

Fraser wasn’t in the main room when Ray came out, but that was no surprise; he didn’t strike Ray as the CD type. A quick search found Fraser in the book room, sitting in the overstuffed chair in the corner and idly reading a book old enough that the embossed title was too faded for him to make out. He didn’t look up right away, but Ray had no doubt that Fraser knew he was there, and had since he’d come back into the shop proper.

“Here you go,” Ray said, handing Fraser the tiny bottle. “Just mix a couple of drops of that in with whatever kind of tea you like, and you’re set. But don’t do it unless you’re ready to sleep or rest or whatever. Bouclier or not, it can kick you in the head if you aren’t ready for it.”

“Thank you kindly, Ray.” Fraser held up the bottle, looking at it in the light from the shop window for a moment before pocketing it. “I don’t know if it will help, but it’s worth trying, at least. I appreciate it.”

oOo

Fraser looked at a loss as to what to do next. Ray thought about it for a minute before asking, “You want to hang around some more?“

“I’m sure you have plenty to do. I don’t want to intrude.”

“Not intruding if I’m offering, Fraser.” Ray shrugged. “I think you playing hooky is contagious. I have no desire to re-open the store today. So, what do you say?”

“Are you certain?”

“Not if you keep asking, I’m not,” Ray snarked as he started toward the back of the store. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“Up. It’s a nice enough day, I figure we can talk up on the roof.”

“You have roof access?”

Ray held out his arms wide. “I have entire building access. I own the place, top to bottom. You didn’t know that?”

“I’m not sure how I would have. Ray told me that the store was yours, but didn’t elaborate.”

“Oh, well, I do. So as owner, I give you roof access. Come on, the view’s pretty great and I’ve got chairs set up. It’s nice and private. And more importantly for an outdoorsy guy like you, there’s no walls.”

Fraser blinked, surprised.

Ray unlocked the door, turning to face Fraser as he went on. “You’re from a pretty remote area, Fraser. Told me so yourself, remember. Plus, the way you’ve reacted around me to being in the city? Yeah, I’m guessing you’re missing your wide open spaces right about now.” He opened the door wide and gestured Fraser through. “What I’m offering isn’t the same, but it’s the best you’re gonna get around here.”

“Thank you kindly,” Fraser said, following Ray once they were through the door. Ray pointed out his apartment as they passed it on the way up, but didn’t stop. Fraser, wanting to respect Ray’s privacy, didn’t ask anything about it. He was curious about another of the building’s features.

“I noticed the statues poised at the corners of the roof,” he told Ray. “I’m pleased to have the chance to get a better look.”

“That’s some pretty good eyesight you have there,” Ray said, looking amused for some reason. “You have an interest in gargoyles, Fraser?” he asked as he opened the door to the roof.

“Actually Ray, I believe they’re more accurately described as grotesques, since from what I could tell, they didn't appear to have downspouts in their mouths.”

“That may be, but they don't like it when you call them gross.”

“I didn’t,” Fraser clarified. “Gross is french for 'large'. Grotesque, however-”

Fraser was interrupted by a deep, gravelly voice. “Who are you calling grotesque?”

Fraser looked at Ray, who just shrugged. “Told you. Now you've done it.” He stepped between Fraser and two man-sized statues of gargoyles. Statues that were clearly glaring at him, and moving, their wings flexing slightly and the large stone muscles of their arms tensing. Fraser had the distinct feeling that one wrong word and the two would leap toward him, claws extended and mouths full of sharp teeth ready to rend him apart. While Fraser was much stronger than he’d been while human, he didn’t think he’d be a match for them both should they attack.

Ray didn’t appear to be worried, however, so Fraser just stayed where he was, careful not to do anything that could be interpreted as an aggressive move. “Balthasar, Nick, this is Benton Fraser,” Ray said, indicating each gargoyle in turn. “Fraser, these two knuckleheads live up here, help keep an eye on the District. Despite how they look, they’re really thin-skinned.”

“Knowing when you’re being insulted doesn’t make you thin-skinned,” Nick protested.

“No, but automatically assuming something’s an insult makes you thick-witted,” Balthasar countered. “The term he was using is historically accurate, architecturally speaking.”

“We aren’t just lifeless pieces of rock.”

“You’d be better able to convince people of that if you’d act less rock-headed.”

Ray held up his hands before either could say another word. “Nice impression you’re making here.”

Until that moment, Fraser hadn’t realized it was possible for something made of stone to look sheepish.

“The fault’s partly mine, Ray.” Fraser nodded toward the gargoyles. “I meant no disrespect, I assure you.”

Nick still looked wary, but Balthasar nodded back. “Nick hasn’t been around long enough to learn manners, I’m afraid,” he said. “Give him a century or two more, and he’ll come around.”

“Or I’ll just be too old to care what people say. Or not be able to hear it,” Nick fired back. Any maturity he was trying to show was then lost as he stuck out his tongue at Balthasar. Fraser looked over to see Ray rolling his eyes, the long-suffering look clear on his face; this wasn’t a new argument.

Ray noticed Fraser watching him as the two gargoyles continued to bicker, completely ignoring both Fraser and Ray. “I’d like to tell you this isn’t a typical exchange, but I’d hate to lie to a Mountie.”

Fraser did his best to keep a straight face as he answered. “Your honesty is appreciated.”

Ray raised an eyebrow at the grave tone, and Fraser couldn’t help but smile. “Really, Ray, it’s fine. I’m just amazed that they’re here at all. Have they been with you long?”

“Some days it’s feels like forever,” he sighed. “But yeah, it’s been a few years. Despite the Bickersons act, they’re good at their job. Definitely know when to get to business.” Ray cocked his head, and Fraser wondered what he was seeing.

“You get it, don’t you? I mean, more than in just an ‘I see what you mean’ kind of way.”

Ray’s insight was amazing. “As a matter of fact, I do. I’ve a, well, a traveling companion, I suppose you could say, who reminds me a great deal of your two friends.”

Ray nodded, glancing at the gargoyles and then past them, eyes narrowed. “You don’t say. This traveling companion wouldn’t happen to be four-legged, furry, and apparently a good climber?”

Fraser blinked, startled, then turned to follow Ray’s gaze. There was Dief, sitting at the edge of the roof watching the exchanges going on. If the tongue lolling out of his mouth was any indication, he found the scene quite amusing.

“Nice job guarding, guys,” Ray called out, pointing at Dief.

The two of them stopped arguing at Ray’s tone, then turned to see what he was talking about. Dief barked once, and Nick waved a wing in response.

“That’s it?” Ray asked.

“Uh, yeah,” Nick replied with a shrug. “I mean, He’s one of the good guys, so, you know, nothing to defend.”

Ray shot a look at Fraser. “You’re corroborating that, right?”

Fraser blinked, then nodded. “Yes, of course. That is - you all can see him?”

“I could see your dad’s ghost,” Ray reminded him. “Who couldn’t get past the wards, unlike your furry friend here. Why is that, Fraser?”

“I have no idea. About any of what’s going on. Dief,” he called out. “I don’t suppose you’d like to enlighten us on any of this?”

“Your magic wolf is named Dief?”

“He’s not. Mine that is. Or a magic wolf, for that matter. He’s more of a Guide than a - well, actually that isn’t important right now. But yes, his name is Diefenbaker, Dief for short.”

Dief barked once at Nick and Balthasar, then trotted over to Fraser and Ray, tail wagging. He stopped in between the two of them, sitting down and looking up beseechingly at them both.

“You are incorrigible,” Fraser said, but reached down to scratch behind Dief’s ears.

Dief sneezed and shook his head. To Fraser’s surprise, Nick responded before he could.

“You said it,” Nick chuckled, then shifted to face Balthasar. “See, you don’t have to be super-serious 24-7 to do what we do.”

The withering look he was given in response spoke volumes, but Fraser was more interested in Nick.
“You understood Diefenbaker?” he asked. Both gargoyles nodded.

“Seriously?” This from Ray, who was looking back and forth between the gargoyles and Dief with wide eyes.

“You mean you can’t?” Fraser asked.

“Well, his body language’s pretty clear, but if you mean did his bark translate into English, then nope. All I got was your basic dog talk.” Ray looked a little put out by the admission.

Interesting. The fact that there was something Ray couldn’t do, didn’t automatically know, settled Fraser’s mind somewhat. It was nice to see that whatever Ray was, omniscience wasn’t a power he possessed.

Dief nudged Ray with his nose, looking up sadly, and Ray gave in, chuckling as he gave the wolf a few firm head-scratches. “Yeah, yeah, don't need to speak wolf to know what you're angling for. Not like it's your fault, anyhow, am I right?”

Dief yipped and licked Ray's hand on the next swipe. Ray took it in stride, turning to look at Dief. “What I'd like to know is how you got up here in the first place.”

“I've found that where Diefenbaker is concerned, the normal laws of physics don't always apply.”

“Course they don't. He's not a normal wolf. But I'm talking here specifically. You know how your dad can't get into the shop? Same should have applied for the furface up here.”

“I'm afraid I don't have an explanation for you, Ray. About how he got up here, or that apparently this isn't his first visit.”

“Didn't figure you would, Fraser.” He sent a significant look over to the two gargoyles. “You two, however...”

Nick avoided meeting Ray's eyes, the move amusing in how nonchalant it wasn't. Fraser half-expected him to start whistling. Balthasar seemed uncomfortable answering in front of Fraser, shifting his gaze between Fraser and Ray several times before saying, “It wasn't up to us. If you have questions, you should take it up with Grandfather.”

The answer obviously was unexpected, as Ray's eyes widened. “Seriously?”

Balthasar nodded. “That said, I don't disagree with the decision.”

“Me neither,” Nick chimed in eagerly. “Dief's a good guy! And he has the best stories. You should hear him tell about the time he and Fraser thought they were hunting a wendigo. It's a scream!”

Fraser sent Dief a look; it was completely ignored, Dief wagging his tail happily at his new friends.

Balthasar must have seen the exchange, however. “He does have a lot of stories, but in all fairness, an exchange of information between guardians is a good idea. His introduction should have been more formal, yes, but it was bound to happen at some point. It's only polite.”

Whoever Grandfather was, Ray seemed satisfied at his endorsement. He gave Dief one more pat on the head as he said, “Okay, then. Just don't go giving Nick any wild ideas, okay?”

Dief actually nodded before trotting over to sit between the two gargoyles. The three immediately began a lively exchange that had Ray shaking his head. “I'm going to regret this, aren't I?”

“Most definitely,” Fraser answered as seriously as he could. The effect was lessened by the smile that he couldn't quite hide. He watched Dief conversing happily with Balthasar and Nick for a few moments before asking, “So are they here specifically to guard your building?”

“Nope. Their territory is basically the entire District - they’re pretty powerful. They just set up camp here, which is cool with me. Not that I need guarding, but having them around’s a good deterrent for anything that might think the shop’s a good target.” He shot Fraser a glance. “They knew what you were right away, in case you wondered.”

“Really? How can you tell?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean just now. They saw you that first day, let me know in no uncertain terms. Not that I hadn’t got your number myself, but they’re definitely better judges than I am when it comes to identification.”

“They could tell from up here?” Fraser asked, dubious.

“You aren’t the only one with good eyes. And yeah, they knew. How else are they supposed to know how to defend their territory if they don’t know what’s roaming around in it?”

Fraser stiffened. “And I need defending against?”

“Despite the amazing lack of evidence you've seen as to how tough they really are, you wouldn’t have made it up here if you were seen as a threat,” Ray replied easily, and Fraser found himself relaxing again. It wasn’t until a few moments later that he realized that Ray hadn’t precisely answered the question. Perhaps he should get used to that; it seemed to be Ray’s modus operandi.

Fraser was trying to decide whether or not it was worth trying to find out more when Balthasar called out to Ray.

“Boss, you’ve got incoming, maybe twenty minutes out.”

Ray and Fraser followed Balthasar’s line of sight; Fraser couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary and judging by how Ray was squinting neither could he. But a moment later Ray slapped himself on the forehead.

“Oh man, is that tonight?” He blew out a long breath. “Fraser I am seriously sorry about this, but I’ve got a client coming in, and no offense, but you being here’d spook them and they aren’t somebody I want to spook. Not that they’re dangerous or anything. They’re great, actually, wouldn’t hurt a fly, which is why you’d freak them so bad. So I hate to cut this short, but I’m going to have to.”

“It’s all right, Ray. I should be heading back to the Consulate anyhow. Dief!” His Guide cocked an ear in his direction. “Ray has guests and we need to go.”

Dief flopped to the floor; Fraser rolled his eyes. “I mean it, Diefenbaker. Show some respect.”

“He can come back again tomorrow though, right?” Nick asked hopefully.

“I don’t see how I can stop him,” Fraser replied, causing Ray to laugh.

“Come on, playdate’s over,” Ray said, clapping his hands. “Fraser and I have work to do. And you keep me posted on how that tea works out for you, got it?”

“I will, Ray. Thank you again.”

Seeing that Dief was still by his new friends, Fraser sighed and called out to him once more. Dief let out a short whine, got up and trudged toward the door.

“That is one dramatic wolf,” Ray observed, chuckling.

“You have no idea.”

oOo

The next morning found Ray in his workroom. He bit back a curse as the screw he tried to tighten just kept spinning in its housing. Stupid thing was finally stripped. He dug through his box of spares, but no luck. And of course this was a project he really needed to finish today. Sighing, he sat back on the stool and carefully removed the offending piece of hardware, stowing it in a tiny glass jar before taking off his work apron and heading upstairs. Hopefully Buck either had a spare or two, or could magic this one back into shape.

As soon as Ray stepped outside, he was hit with the smell of cookies; the bakery two doors must be putting in their late-morning batch. He looked at his watch, surprised it was so late; he'd spent most of the morning in his workshop without even realizing it. He frowned a little at the thought that the lack of interruptions meant business was unusually slow today, then shrugged it off. Not like he needed the cash, after all.

As good as it smelled, Ray knew he needed something heartier if he was going to be able to do any fine work. Too much sugar on an empty stomach gave him the jitters. Besides, if he timed lunch right, if he stopped by the bakery after, the cookies should still be warm.

Elaine's was hopping, but he got a seat at the counter and quickly decided on a sandwich and fries. He made small talk with a couple other regulars while he waited. When his food arrived a few minutes later, Ray was a little surprised when he got exactly what he ordered. Either Elaine was out, or too busy to play around with him today. It didn't take long to polish off his food, and while he didn't pick up on any new gossip while he was there, he left satisfied.

Ray left the bakery with a smile, munching happily on a warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie, a half dozen more in a bag. He also carried a bag with a dozen fresh Schaumrollen, which Weber had said were a favorite of Buck’s. Wouldn't hurt to put the guy in a good mood before asking for a favor, right?

As he walked, he found himself wondering if Fraser would want to share the cookies he bought, or if he even had a favorite kind of cookie. Ray kind of doubted that he even allowed himself anything so indulgent. Guy was seriously into denying himself. Ray guessed he got it, to a point. The control Fraser had to have to feed and not kill was pretty impressive. But he seemed to carry that control over into all parts of his life, which Ray thought was a damn shame. There was a difference between living and just surviving, and he was pretty sure Fraser'd just been surviving for a long time, which Ray knew from experience was no way to live. He found himself hoping that Fraser would loosen up a little, enjoy himself. And then he mentally kicked himself in the head. Fraser was here for a case, not to stay. Not to be Ray's friend. Or anything else, for that matter.  Best thing would be to stop thinking about the guy before he found himself too invested.

Unfortunately, a part of him was pretty sure it was too late for that.

Ray shook off the thought and put on a smile as he opened the door to Buck’s shop. The metalmancer wasn’t up front, but that was nothing new. Ray waited by the door; he’d found out the hard way it wasn’t smart to wander around a place full of sharp objects owned by a guy who could pretty much sweet talk them into doing whatever he wanted.

It wasn’t long before Buck came out of the back, not at all surprised to see him. He nodded toward the bag Ray held as he wiped grease from his own hands.

“Well, I see it’s time for a favor,” Buck said good-naturedly. “What have you brought to bribe me with this time?”

Ray opened the bag and tipped it toward Buck; his face lit up as he moved forward to reach into it.

“Oh, fresh Schaumrollen!” he said, then took a bite, sighing happily. “Ah,nothing like a fresh meringue. You must really need something.”

“Not even going to pretend otherwise,” Ray said with a smile of his own. He handed the bag over to Buck, then reached into his pocket to show him the defective bits of hardware.

Buck glanced at them, then shook his head. “You need to take better care of your things. How many stripped screws does that make?”

“I can’t help that the stuff I’m working with reacts badly with the metal,” Ray protested. “It’s not like I want to keep having to replace parts.”

Buck didn’t look like he quite believed Ray, but after leaning in for a closer inspection of the screws he let it go. “How many do you need?” he asked, taking another bite of the Schaumrollen.

“Well, if I had half a dozen it’d give me spares so I wouldn’t have to bug you for awhile, but I only really need two.”

Buck looked past Ray, gaze unfocused. After a few moments, he nodded. “I have two ready. The rest you can have in a week.”

“A week for a couple of screws?”

“It could take longer, Stanley,” Buck started.

Ray shook his head, holding up his hands. If Buck was resorting to using Ray’s first name, it was time to quit while he was ahead. “No, a week is fine. Greatness, even. Like I said, the two you have are the only ones I need right away.”

Buck retrieved the screws and handed them to Ray. “I’ll just take the Schaumrollen as collateral for now. You can pay me properly when you get the rest.”

“Sounds good. Thanks, Buck - you’re a life saver.”

Buck waved him off, but as Ray was almost out the door, he called out to him.

“Ray, let your friend know his knife is ready. It misses him.”

Ray didn’t even ask how Buck knew he’d be able to contact Fraser. “Will do.”

oOo

Fraser sighed as he tossed and turned; even with the dream tea, sleep was proving elusive. He wasn’t too surprised; he’d been truthful when he’d told Ray he didn’t need much rest. But he’d hoped that whatever herbal concoction Ray had created would work. He sighed again. Maybe tomorrow night.

Knowing there was no point in pretending he’d get any sleep, Fraser got up and pulled on a robe over his nightclothes. He supposed he could get a head start of filling out the day’s reports. Or perhaps there was something, or more precisely someone, he could research.

Fraser felt a moment’s twinge of guilt as he started the computer, but dismissed it. He wasn’t researching Ray for personal reasons; it was part of his investigation. Ray was a mystery, one that needed if not solving, at least a little more light shed before Fraser should trust him. Of course, his instincts told him this was entirely unnecessary, but Fraser knew better than to rely on instinct alone, especially when said instincts were keying in on Ray for less than honorable intentions. He was here for a case, not to find a partner, romantic or otherwise.  He squashed the little thrill that idea brought and focused on the computer screen.

The easiest place to start, he decided, was Ray’s store. It was quick work to bring up an online business search, and Rising Sun was a unique enough name to find easily in the registry. They were up-to-date and in good standing, he found, and there was a link to see past filing information. Fraser hesitated, then shook his head and clicked. The screen seemed to take forever to load; when the information finally appeared, Fraser sat back in surprise. The store had been around since 1955, and while there were multiple filings, none were to change the owner from its original filer, S. R. Kowalski.

That one little fact meant that it couldn’t have been a relative handing down the family business. Perhaps being in the Bumper District meant no one batted an eye at something like this. Maybe anyone who looked up Rising Sun assumed it was a filing error - people seemed more than happy to believe that government workers were less than competent. Fraser had used that misconception more than once in his own investigations. But he was certain everything was in order. Fraser added it to the growing list of evidence that Ray Kowalski was definitely more than he appeared.

Now it was just up to Fraser to decide what, if anything, to do with that knowledge.

oOo

The next day, Fraser was at his desk working on the reports he’d ignored the night before when he heard his name.

“Hey, Fraser.” Fraser looked up, pleasantly surprised to see Ray Vecchio standing in the doorway of his office.

Fraser put down his pen, giving Ray his attention. “Hello, Ray. What brings you to the Consulate?”

“Heading to the District, got a possible lead on a case,” he replied in an almost-convincingly nonchalant way. “Want to join me?”

“Really?” Fraser raised an eyebrow. “After what you said, I have to admit I’m surprised you’d want me along.”

Ray had the grace to look contrite. “I maybe overreacted a little.”

“Ray, you told me you’d rather ride every line of the L in a pink tutu than work another case with me.”

“Do I need to remind you that I nearly died? Can you blame me for being a little upset?”

“I suppose not,” Fraser admitted.

“Okay then,” Ray said with an air of satisfaction. It appeared he was appeased; Fraser found he was as well. “So, anyhow,” Ray went on, “you want to? Or are you chained to that desk all day?”

Fraser looked at the stack of papers on his desk, then out the window. The temptation of fresh air won out. He was certain the forms he was filling out were merely busywork; he could complete them later. He stood and picked up his hat. “I’d love to help.”

He’d thought Diefenbaker would stay in and nap, as he’d been out doing who knows what until all hours of the night. But Dief roused himself and followed them out, likely hoping to convince someone he was in dire need of a baked good or two. Ray just gave him a pointed look as he slid into the back seat and onto the towel now placed there to help contain the fur he shouldn’t, but still did, shed. Dief just curled up and went back to sleep, ignoring both men completely.

Once Ray was on the road, Fraser asked, “Why do you need to go to the District?”

“Eh, it’s probably nothing. Just, I was supposed to meet with an informant last night, and he never showed. Now, he’s not necessarily the most reliable guy on the planet, so I’m more annoyed than worried. But I figured an in-person visit to his home turf might not be a bad idea.”

“To see that he’s all right.”

“More like to chew him out for not meeting me.”

Fraser didn’t believe that for a second; he could see Ray was trying to hide his concern.”Won’t that jeopardize his status as an informant?”

“Not if I do it right,” Ray said with a grin. “Stupid thing is, this isn't even a Bumper case. Or technically mine. Just so happened that my guy was on the other side of town and maybe witnessed a robbery. Cop that took the call wasn't the friendliest, so Joey bolted pretty quick after giving a really crappy statement. I know he can do better. So nobody in the District should be worried, and he’s got no cover to blow. Just a legit reason for me to visit.”

“What was stolen?”

“From what Huey and Gardino told me, the usual stuff. Some cash, some jewelry, a laptop… mostly small-time stuff, though a couple of the pieces were family heirlooms or something.”

When they got to the District, Ray's informant was nowhere to be found. While Ray didn't have a warrant to get into his apartment, the super didn't think he'd been back for several days, his disappearance coinciding almost directly with the robbery.

“Okay, so now I am worried,” Ray said as they stood outside the apartment building. “I don't think Joey even made it back. What could he have seen that got him that spooked?”

“Or who saw him?” Fraser wondered.

“What, you think he was grabbed by the robber?”

“It's a possibility. Is your informant the type who would leave without stopping first to gather his things?”

“Nope. Joey’s very possessive, even though most of what he owns is cheap knockoffs. Goes with being part Magpie. If his place was clean, yeah, I'd buy it. But he wouldn't leave without his stuff unless... actually, not even if his life depended on it, I'm betting. It's part of what made him a good guy to work with – he trades info for the kookiest things.”

“In which case, perhaps the items that were stolen need to be looked into, to see just what would be worth kidnapping or worse.”

Ray shook his head as they started toward the car. “I'm getting a bad feeling about this, Benny.”

“Is that your police instincts talking, or your sixth sense?”

“Both. You up for a trip to the precinct?”

oOo

Ray led Fraser through the bullpen like a man on a mission, ignoring everyone around him until they got to the desks of what Fraser had to assume were the detectives in charge of the case. Neither man looked particularly pleased to see Ray, and smirked at Fraser.

“You adding a clown to your circus act, Vecchio?” one of them asked.

“Where are the descriptions of what was taken?” Ray said, ignoring the jibe. “Or better yet, anyone do any online searches, see if these things had a history?”

“Oooh, you thinking some ghost came and took back what was theirs?”

“What I’m thinking, Gardino, is that you and Huey are detectives. What I’m hoping is that you've done some work on the case.” He gave them both a pointed look. “Or is that too much to ask?”

“I'd like to hear the answer to Detective Vecchio's question as well.” Lieutenant Welsh's voice cut clearly over the din of voices in the bullpen as he walked toward the group. “You've had time to make some progress, gentlemen. Please do not disappoint me.”

“We, uh, we've mostly been focused on the laptop and TV, you know, the things that are easiest to fence,” Gardino said.

“It's the strongest lead to follow,” Huey added. “We're checking with pawn shops as well.”

Lt. Welsh turned his attention to Ray and Fraser. “I take it you have a different angle?”

“Maybe,” Ray started, flicking a glance at Fraser, who nodded and gave him a look of support. “Something's off about what was taken. Fraser and me, we think the easy stuff was a cover for the real target of the theft.”

Detective Gardino rolled his eyes; unfortunately for him, Fraser wasn't the only one who noticed.

“Since you don't share your fellow detective's opinion, you won't mind sharing information on the items in question. You keep on the leads you have, and Vecchio and Fraser will check into theirs.”

“But it's our case -” Gardino began, stopping when Huey not-so-subtly jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.

“We'd be happy to give them what we have on the jewelry, sir,” Huey said.

“That's what I like to hear – cooperation,” Lt. Welsh said with a satisfied smile. “So what are you all standing around for? You have a case to solve.”

Huey and Gardino didn't look happy about it, but they handed over the information. Fraser and Vecchio were pleasantly surprised to find actual photos of the items in question.

Ray sighed as he looked at the pictures. “I tell you, Benny, there’s no accounting for taste. Some of this stuff is ugly as sin. If it was me, I’d take the insurance money and figure I got the better end of the deal.”

Fraser held out his hand. “May I take a closer look, Ray? And perhaps you could start that online search?”

Ray led them to his desk, and started booting up his computer. Fraser took a seat next to him and studied the photos. The heirlooms were two bracelets,heavy-looking pieces that looked very uncomfortable, though finely made. The ornate metalwork surrounded a gem of some kind, one a circle cut, the other more teardrop in shape. The photos were black and white, so Fraser couldn't identify the type of stones, only that one was dark,the other light, and that the metal was clean and polished. He could see that there was some kind of scrollwork on the metal directly around the jewels, but even with his eyesight the image was too grainy to make out any detail.

“Aha!” Ray crowed, and Fraser laid the photos on the desk, standing to lean over Ray's shoulder and see what he'd found. “Gotta love the internet, Benny. Saves a guy a ton of footwork and in this case, looking through library books.”

On the screen was what appeared to be a magazine article about the family's antique collection, including color photos of the bracelets displayed in separate glass cases. It was clear now that the metal was silver. The darker stone was a deep red, likely a ruby, while the lighter, blue gem was possibly a sapphire. “Excellent work, Ray.”

“Eh, not too hard since we know the family they belong to. Lots easier than just searching ugly-ass bracelets.” He grinned at Fraser.

“What does the article say about them?”

“Not too much, which since they're hideous doesn't surprise me. It's more about how much stuff they have that's got historical value.” Ray continued to scan through the article. “Either the family doesn't know just how long they've had them, or they're being deliberately cagey.”

“Can you enlarge the photo at all?”

“What, they aren't ugly enough at that size?”

“They're something about the engraving... I'm not certain, but something about the pattern seems almost familiar.”

Ray shook his head. “Honestly, playing around with this stuff isn't my forte, but I see just the person to help. Hey, Frannie!” he yelled, and a young woman across the room looked up. “Get your tush over here – we need your help.”

“You can get your own coffee, I'm busy,” she called back.

“Ha ha ha, this is official business, so no more lip. C'mere!”

Fraser frowned. “That's really not the way to treat a lady, Ray.”

“That's no lady, that's my sister,” Ray replied. “And tall, dark and dorky is exactly her type, so watch yourself.”

“I'd never use my... influence to garner someone's affections,” Fraser protested.

“She's not the one I'm worried about,” Ray said with a knowing look. “But yeah, none of that stuff either.”

“What do you want, Ray?” Frannie asked, tone almost to the point of rude. Then she noticed Fraser, who had stood at her approach, and her attitude changed. “Ray's very cute friend? Anything I can do for you?”

“Can it, Frannie. He's here to do police work, not get a date. What we need is some of your computer mojo.”

“I do have a magic touch,” she nearly purred. Fraser had to stop himself from taking a step back. Apparently subtlety was not a Vecchio trait.

Ray stood up and gestured for Frannie to take a seat. “We need that picture,” he said, pointing to the screen. “Bigger but not all fuzzy.”

“Ugh, why?” she asked, wrinkling her nose and tapping a few keys. “A grainier picture could only make them less hideous. Those are a crime against fashion.”

“Well then, good thing there are cops investigating them,” Ray snarked. “Just, can you do it?”

“Done and to the printer already,” she replied, smiling smugly. “Anything else, bro?”

“Nope. Feel free to go back to your regularly scheduled filing.”

“Thank you kindly, Frannie,” Fraser added as she stood to leave.

“You're very welcome...”

“Ah, forgive me. I'm Constable Benton Fraser.”

“Well, Constable Benton Fraser, if you need anything else while you're here, just let me know.” She gave him a sultry smile and a wink, then made a face at her brother. “Maybe you can learn some manners from him,” she said, walking off before Ray could reply.

“What did I tell you, that girl's a real piece of work,” Ray huffed as he went to retrieve the pages from the printer.

“Well, she's quite good with the computer,” Fraser said as Ray handed him a page. “This is much better than what was provided by the family.”

“Anything ringing a bell?” Ray asked.

Fraser studied the pictures carefully for a few minutes, but finally had to admit he was at a loss. “They're familiar, but I just can't place them. I'm sorry, Ray.”

Ray leaned in for a closer look. “Are they some kind of language, maybe? I mean,” he said, indicating a specific point, “it looks like there's a pattern there, right? Almost like words?”

“Perhaps,” Fraser agreed, trying to hide his frustration. He felt as if the answer was just out of reach, taunting him. He gave Ray a hopeful look. “Do you have any contacts that might be familiar with ancient languages? Perhaps someone in the Bumper District?”

“Not really,” Ray admitted. “Not the kind of thing I usually deal with, even with what the DPC throws my way.”

Fraser thought about what he knew of the people he'd met so far. There was a chance Elaine could be of help, though her talents seemed more suited to finding out information on objects she could see or touch. Buck might know something more of the history of the pieces, though.

“That is a good idea, Benny,” Ray told him when he mentioned the possibility. “Grab the printouts and let's head out.”

oOo

Buck did indeed recognize the pieces, but the knowledge he had about them was limited.

“If I recall correctly, they were the real cause of the Great Fire,” he told them.

“The one in 1871?” Ray asked. “You mean somebody nearly burned the city to the ground for that stuff?”

“Well, you don’t really believe it was a cow, do you?” Buck said with a chuckle. “No, the items themselves did it.  Very powerful pieces, yes indeed. Dangerous stuff. I wouldn’t want to be around them.” He looked from Fraser to Ray, meeting their eyes seriously. “Those pieces weren’t made for humans. If they’re in play, something very big and very bad is on its way.”

He held their gazes a moment longer, then smiled, the mood changing entirely. “Or maybe a cow really did start that fire. Seems more likely, doesn’t it.” He started to turn back toward his workshop. “Now if you boys don’t mind, I have a lot to do. Good talking with you!”

“Buck,” Fraser called out, “please, just one more question.”

Buck stopped and half-turned to face them.

“The carvings on the pieces, do you recognize them? We think they might be writing.”

“Languages were never my strong suit, sorry,” Buck said, shaking his head. “Have you asked Ray? He has the funniest assortment of books in his shop.”

“We’ll do that. Thank you kindly.”

“That was trippy,” Ray said once they were outside. “How’d you find that guy, Fraser?”

“He fixed my knife for me.”

“Of course he did,” Ray sighed. “Okay, guess we might as well try out Kowalski, since we’re close by and all.”

Fraser absently nodded agreement, lost in thought. It was curious, how things kept leading back to Ray.

oOo

Ray was on the phone when they arrived, but smiled and nodded at them in acknowledgment.

“Any luck with the tea so far?” he asked Fraser once he’d hung up.

“No, but I’m still hopeful. Actually, we’re here to see if you can help with a case of Ray’s.”

Ray’s smile dropped and he crossed his arms over his chest as he asked Ray, “How many things you want me working on? I’ve got a life and my own work, you know.”

“Relax, Kowalski, this isn’t anything that should take up a lot of your time. We just need to see if you can identify the language on these pieces. Or better yet, translate them.”

He handed over the printouts. Ray took them to the counter, grabbing his glasses and looking them over. “Well, I can’t read this stuff, but it is familiar. Or maybe it’s the jewelry that’s pinging me.” He looked at the next page. “Yeah, there’s definitely something about this stuff…” He stopped, peered closer and then put the papers down. “Just a sec, let me look in the back.”

Ray returned a few minutes later, book on the history of Prohibition in Chicago in hand and a triumphant grin on his face. “Knew I had this somewhere,” he said as he brought it over to the counter.

“I’m pretty sure that stuff was part of an investigation back in the 20s,” he said as he searched. “I mean, it wasn’t the main focus or anything, but maybe it was part of what they recovered… i just know it’s ringing a bell.”

“Would that be a cowbell?” Ray snarked. Ray looked up, confused, so Fraser elaborated.

“We met with Buck before coming here. He thought the jewels were in some way responsible for a fire back in the late 1800s.”

Ray’s eyes widened. “That’s it!” he said, turning pages faster. “Here we go,” he said, turning the book around so Ray and Fraser could see it. “There was a huge warehouse explosion back in 1928. Everyone figured it was a still system set up wrong. Well, most everyone. Ness, he never believed it. Said it burned too hot, too fast.”

“Ness?” Fraser asked.

“Yeah, you know, Elliot Ness? Untouchables?” Ray rolled his eyes as he went on. “Read up on Chicago history, Fraser. Anyhow, he was part of the original investigation. He was sure something hinky was going on, but didn't have the evidence to prove it or resources to dig deeper. Made him crazy when he had to let it go.” He shook his head, a sad look crossing his face. “Hated seeing how it tore him up.”

"Oooh, yeah, of course you knew Elliot Ness.” Ray drawled, slapping the back of his hand on Fraser's shoulder and rolling his eyes. “Don't believe a word of his bullshit, Fraser. He's just trying to impress you.” He turned back to Ray with a smirk. “I'll bet you were best friends with him, and he shit rainbows and unicorns. And you once punched Al Capone in the face, right? And lemme guess, you fucked John Dillinger too?"

Fraser could almost swear he felt the temperature of the room drop several degrees at the words. The look on Ray's face showed no emotion, which considering how animated he normally was was quite disconcerting. He saw Ray take a deep breath, then another, holding them for a few long moments before letting them out. When he spoke, his voice was eerily calm and dangerously quiet. "Ness was a good man, don't talk about him like that."

Ray looked like he wanted to respond, something likely to set Ray off, no doubt. Before he could, Ray turned his attention back to the book on the counter, flipping through the pages intently. "Capone wasn't worth it,” he went on, tone much more casual. “Too many connections.” He looked up and gave them a sharp, wicked grin that was so wolfish it reminded Fraser of Dief. “And Dillinger was a lousy lay. But if we can get to the here and now, maybe I have something that could help."

Ray pointed to the book again. “See, when they were finally able to get into what was left of the warehouse, everything was destroyed; even the metal stuff was melted to slag. Except for these,” and there were the jewels, ashy but unharmed. “Family that owned them was quick to grab them up, said  they’d been stolen a couple of days before. Story checked out, so they were returned. After that, no more fires.”

“So you’re telling me that you think those hideous pieces of jewelry started fires too?”

“I’m telling you they survived ground zero of a fire that should have destroyed them,” Ray replied.

“Any idea how? Or why, if these things are so dangerous, they haven’t taken out Chicago by now? They were in the Spinoza family’s possession for decades, and no problems whatsoever.”

“Those are the $64,000 questions. And while I have zero idea as to the answers, I’m thinking it’s got to be related to whatever that writing says.”

“So it is a language,” Fraser said.

“Probably. I don’t recognize it, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

Ray went back to searching through the book, ignoring both Ray's scowl and Fraser's contemplative look.

They continued searching, but found nothing more, and it became obvious to Fraser that while the earlier row between the Rays had been set aside, it hadn’t been forgotten. The growing tension was starting to wear on his nerves, which was at best an annoyance and at worse dangerous.

“Perhaps,” he suggested, “Ray and I should see if anything more’s been found at the precinct.”

“That is an A-Number-1 idea, Benny,” Ray said, stretching as he stood. “That work for you, Kowalski?”

“Me all alone surrounded by nothing but peace and quiet sounds perfect,” Ray replied with a smile.

Ray rolled his eyes but made no reply, choosing (wisely, in Fraser’s opinion) to go toward the door.

“I can check in with you later if you’d like,” he offered

“That’d be great.” Ray gave Fraser an apologetic smile that felt much more sincere than anything he'd given Ray. “And I haven't forgotten about your case, don't worry.”

oOo

That night, as Fraser settled in to read, he once again drank the tea Ray had given him, not really expecting it to do anything, but faithful in his attempts. He was surprised to feel a lethargy come over him after only a few pages of his book. He set it aside, barely getting it onto his bedside table before his eyes closed.

Fraser blinked slowly and opened his eyes to almost total darkness. He was lying naked on a bed of something cold, with a multitude of sharp edges that poked into his skin. But the pain was incidental, easily overwhelmed by warm hands caressing his body, light touches meant to tease, not satisfy, sending jolts of pleasure straight to his groin. His erection throbbed almost painfully, twitching every time he was touched. Fingers lingered on his neck and chest, ran over his arms and around his wrists. It was torture; none of the touches ever went low enough to bring relief.

As he shifted his hips upward, the move grinding his back into the bedding, whatever he was lying on pierced his skin. The touches stopped and Fraser cried out for their return. He tried to sit up, but couldn’t get enough purchase as he cut himself more and more, then started to slip in his own blood.

He suddenly realized there was enough light to see, and looked down to find that he was on a bed of shining white gems. Where his blood touched them they darkened from white to a deep, pulsing red. He reached for one; it melted in his grasp, rivulets of red running down his hand and circling his wrist. Everywhere his skin touched, the gems began to melt until he was neck-deep in a silver-rimmed pool of blood. He lifted a hand out of the liquid and brought it to his lips. The first taste lit a fire within him; he eagerly brought handfuls to his mouth, gulping down as much as he could, then let himself sink into the pool to drink his fill.

When Fraser tried to surface, he ran into a barrier, and though he didn’t need to breathe, that didn’t stop the panic from setting in. He pushed and struck at it, harder and harder, but it was seemingly impenetrable. He heard a sound from outside the pool and stopped, trying to identify it. It was a laugh, deep and throaty, though he couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman - the sound was distorted through whatever had him trapped.

Out of nowhere he felt something wrap around his throat, though he couldn’t see what it was through the thick red liquid. He heard a click, as if something had snapped in place, and then the sound of crystal breaking, nearly deafening in volume. He found himself sliding out of his prison, though he soon realized he wasn’t completely free. The snap had been of a chain, now locked in place on his neck, pulling him stumbling forward through the snow. Blood ran down his still-naked body, crystallizing when it hit the snow and transforming into a deep red jewel so that he left a trail of rubies in his wake.

Fraser realized he was holding something. He raised his hand and saw it was a beating heart, dripping blood and still warm, as if it had just been ripped from someone’s chest. Fraser felt his lips curl up in a smile and he brought it to his mouth, ready to bite into it.

Fraser sat up in his bed, heart pounding in a way he’d no longer thought possible. Remnants of his dream filtered through his mind; he struggled to keep hold of them, and after a moment got up to grab his notebook and a pen, quickly writing down everything he could remember, or at least enough to be able to use the notes as a way to jar his memory. The image of that heart in his hands he didn’t think he’d ever be able to forget.

When he’d exhausted his memory, Fraser set down the notebook and went to the sink, splashing his face with cold water, then wetting down a washcloth to run over the back of his neck. The iciness of the water calmed him a bit, but Fraser knew he’d be up for the rest of the night. Not that that was unusual; he needed little sleep, after all. But he was too unsettled to stay still.

A glance at the clock confirmed his guess that it was just before 1:00. Calling Ray - either Ray - was out of the question. But if he were to go to Ray’s building… Fraser knew that Ray kept odd hours. Perhaps he’d be awake. If not, at least the walk would do him good. As he dressed, Fraser considered taking Diefenbaker along, but decided against it, not interested in the grumbling he’d absolutely have to hear over the next day or so if he did.

oOo

Ray trudged up the stairs, tired as hell and glad to finally be almost home. He got the fact that there were certain things that had to be done at just the right time and place, really he did. Didn’t make digging up burdock root at midnight any more fun. At least, he thought with a sigh, it wasn’t a winter solstice kind of thing. Messing around with rock-solid dirt was a bitch. But the fae that had needed it were regulars, and nice to boot. He might even get a couple of honey-cakes for his efforts; he’d managed to get a better than usual amount of the root, and the quality looked to be top-notch, picked at the peak time.

Ray toed his boots off as soon as he was in the door of his apartment, not wanting to trail in any more dirt than he had to. He flung his jacket haphazardly on the back of the nearest chair as he made his way to his bedroom. The bed looked inviting, but Ray knew that if he didn’t at least rinse some of the sweat and dirt off he’d regret it in the morning. Plus, hot water sounded heavenly.

Decision made, he quickly shed his clothes, balling them up and tossing them in the corner to deal with later. The choice of shower versus bath was made by his suddenly protesting legs; a hot soak it was. While the tub was filling, Ray cracked open the bathroom window to let in a breeze, removed his watch and rings, then took a washcloth and did a quick rubdown to get off any actual dirt; he didn’t really want to soak in mud.

As soon as he stepped into the tub, Ray was one hundred percent sure he’d made the right choice. He sank down into the water, letting the heat seep into his sore muscles, loosening them and releasing tension. He once again congratulated himself on the purchase of the oversized clawfoot tub. It had been a bitch to get into the apartment, but times like this made all the swearing and bruises (and nearly broken foot when it had been dropped at one point) more than worth it.

Five, maybe ten minutes, and he’d be clean and relaxed enough to sleep. At least he didn’t have any early appointments in the morning. The way he was feeling right now, Rising Sun wouldn’t be opening until at least noon.

oOo

The shop was closed; of course it was. It was nearing two a.m. Fraser chided himself again for coming, but found he couldn't quite bring himself to leave. He walked over to the alley, and the side door he knew led to the stairs. If it was locked, as it should be, he'd take that as a sign he should go back to his quarters, go over what he’d written down to see if he could remember any more details, and leave Ray to his rest.

But when Fraser tried the side door, wonder of wonders it was unlocked. Fraser frowned at the carelessness of it; his frown deepened when the thought that perhaps he wasn't Ray's only late-night visitor crossed his mind. Fraser shook himself mentally. He had no right to the sudden jealous flare he’d felt. He was startled out of following that line of thinking by the doorknob, which seemed to turn under his hand of its own accord.

Well, he thought with a sigh, he'd wanted a sign.

He made his way up the staircase quietly, doubt about his being here still plaguing him. Ray had told him to contact him if and when any dreams came, but he likely didn't mean for Fraser to appear on his doorstep in the middle of the night.

He knocked on Ray's apartment door quietly in deference to the fact that Ray was very likely sleeping. He wasn't trying to find an excuse to leave, not at all. But Fraser heard movement from within the apartment; it appeared that Ray was awake despite the hour. Ray's grumbling voice came closer and then Fraser heard several locks being undone. Fraser was glad to see that at least here there was a decent measure of security. He made a mental note to say something to Ray about it but then the door opened and all thoughts fled his mind.

Ray had been bathing. He came to the door in dark, low-slung sweatpants, shirtless with a damp towel draped around his neck. Fraser couldn't tear his eyes from the sight, following a droplet of water down Ray's chest, taking in the silver nipple rings, the sparse chest hair, and of course, more tattoos. Fraser’s gaze flicked from image to image, trying to sort them all out. Most were no clearer here than they had been in the diner, and Fraser found it especially hard to concentrate on them instead of the warm skin underneath. Ray cleared his throat, and Fraser forced himself to meet his eyes. They were dark in a way that made hope twist Fraser's heart in his chest, as well as a look of surprise at seeing Fraser that spoke of more than the lateness of the hour.

"Fraser." Ray's voice was gravelly, and hearing his name in that low tone sent a spark down Fraser's spine. He forcibly shook himself from his stupor.

“You know, Ray, you really need to be more cautious.” At Ray’s confused look, he went on. “Your door downstairs. It was unlocked.”

“It’s all good, Fraser. This place is plenty warded, believe me. If you weren’t supposed to get in, you wouldn’t have.”

“I wondered. It seemed as if, well, but that’s just silly.”

“What?”

“I thought I felt the knob move in my hand, turning itself.”

Ray snorted and shook his head, muttering something that sounded like, “Matchmaker,” though Fraser couldn’t fathom why. “So you just stopped by to check my locks?”

"I had a dream," he blurted out, and felt his cheeks try to flush at the foolish way he'd responded, like he wanted Ray to praise him for coming right away. Like he wanted Ray's approval.

"A dream, huh?" Ray said, eyebrow quirked and a smile Fraser wanted to read so many things into. Ray moved aside to open the door further. "Well then, you better come inside."

oOo

Ray moved aside to let Fraser into his apartment, giving the man more space than he wanted to. It was a hell of a thing; he hadn't had a reaction like this to anyone in so long, and it was shaking him up, more than he wanted to admit even to himself.

But he couldn't deny that Fraser's eyes on him had been anything but a thrill, that it hadn't affected him. Ray forcibly reminded himself that what he felt didn't matter. That it was probably one-sided, so he just needed to let it go. And stop sauntering around his place like he was showing off, he realized, glad he was facing away from Fraser so he could roll his eyes at himself. He was acting like a hormonal teenager, and all Fraser wanted was to tell him about a dream. The guy was here for help, not for Ray to act on his re-awakened libido.

Ray waved a hand toward the couch. "Give me a sec, I'll be right out," he said without turning around, and made what he hoped appeared to be a calm but brisk walk to his room. He finished toweling off his hair, then grabbed the first shirt he found in a drawer and tugged it over his head, finger-combing his hair as he tried to settle himself enough to go back out. It took a little pacing, and putting all his jewelry back on, even though he didn't usually sleep in it, before he felt ready to face Fraser again.

He thought he'd find Fraser sitting on the couch, but the man was making a slow tour of the room, looking over the Houdini poster by the window.

"That is a show I wish I could have seen," Ray said. "Man was supposed to have been a genius."

"He was quite talented," Fraser replied absently. "But too reckless. I wasn't surprised when it cost him his life."

That sounded... well, like Fraser had actually seen the guy in person. Maybe even met the man, which would be pretty damn cool. He was about to ask about it, when Fraser beat him to the punch with a question he’d honestly been waiting for, in some form.

“Could you have seen his show, Ray?”

Ray leaned back against the door jamb, arms crossed over his chest. “What do you think?”

“I think you haven’t been playing fair. You know a great deal about me, while I know practically nothing about you.”

“So, what do you want to know?”

He could see Fraser start to reply, then think better of it. It made Ray itch to know what he’d stopped himself from saying. When he did speak, Fraser's answer was just that - an answer, not a question.

“Ray said that there are humans who live along side the Bumpers here in the District.”

Ray nodded; there weren’t a lot, and most were related to someone supernatural, but yeah, there were humans here.

Fraser fixed his gaze on Ray, though Ray could tell he was trying hard not to look Ray directly in the eyes. He appreciated the gesture. He couldn’t be glamoured, but Fraser didn’t know that. “But you aren’t one of them, are you?”

Ray knew he should think more before answering, but really, what was the point? Grandfather had accepted Fraser the moment he walked into the shop. The District’s wards hadn’t put out any kind of alert any of the times Fraser had crossed them. And everything Ray knew from interacting with the man said he was trustworthy. Besides, he’d had Fraser figured out practically the moment they’d met. So it was easy as pie to answer, “Can’t say that I am, Fraser. Not for a long time.” He shook his head and clarified, “Well, not as long as you, but a decent number of years.”

oOo

Fraser took the response without surprise. He’d known something was different about Ray, after all. He thought back on hints he’d gotten from their earlier conversations, the information he'd found during the little research he'd allowed himself. “You’re not like me,” he stated.

“Nope,” Ray replied with a quick grin. “Don’t know if there’s anyone out there like you.”

Fraser ignored the flirtatious look, more than half-sure that Ray was just using it as a distraction. “But you’re human. Or were at one point.”

“Same could be said of you,” Ray pointed out. “Does it really matter? I mean, does it change anything?”

“You’d know better than I would,” Fraser replied. “You know more about me than I do about you.”

Ray acknowledged that with a nod. “Well, then believe me that it doesn’t. I’m still the guy who’s trying to help you.” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “I just may have more first-hand know-how than you thought, rather than stories passed down.” He looked Fraser in the eye. “So, you still want to work with me?”

Fraser gave the question the consideration it deserved. He needed answers, and Ray was his best chance of getting them. He may have omitted personal details of his life, but he hadn’t lied outright to Fraser. And honestly, he was right. Knowing that Ray wasn’t human shouldn’t change anything. After all, Ray had no problem working with Fraser.

Decision made, Fraser stepped over to Ray and held out his hand. “You’re right, of course. Your help is still very much appreciated.” They shook on it, and Ray smiled again, wider and more genuinely. Fraser couldn’t help but return it, then realized he was still grasping Ray’s hand. He let go quickly, and chided himself for his lack of restraint where Ray was concerned.

“Okay, so that’s settled,” Ray said, then gestured toward the couch. “How about you take a seat, and tell me about that dream you had.”

Fraser described the dream as best he could, though it was difficult, given how shameful some of it was to him.

“Wait, take it back a minute,” Ray interrupted. “You say you felt like you were being pulled?”

“Yes.”

“Do you mean that figuratively, or like you were actually being pulled by a rope or something?”

Fraser did his best to recall the feeling. “I think it was somehow both,” he finally answered. “There was a weight around my neck, and while I never saw what it was, I remember it was ice cold. And that the numbness it caused extended both down into my chest, and down the length of my arms into my fingers.”

“Was it tight, like you were tied up or something maybe?”

Fraser shook his head. “No, definitely not. Any constriction was in whatever tendrils it sent through my body.”

“How about sound? Clinking of chains, chanting, screams, anything like that?”

“If there were, I couldn't hear them over the howling of the wind. Or the pounding of my own heart.”

“So there was a storm coming or something? I mean, with the wind and all.”

Fraser thought again. “No,” he realized, “everything around me was unnaturally still. But I distinctly remember hearing the wind. It sounded as if there was a tornado nearby.”

“And the heart pounding thing, that's significant?”

Fraser was reluctant to answer, but made himself look at Ray as he said, “Yes, because other than waking up from this dream, it only does that if I've overfed, physically or emotionally, to the point of killing someone.”

Fraser waited for the censure in Ray's eyes; it never came. Instead they filled with compassion. “Hey, it was just a dream. Or if it’s more, whatever kind of vision this is, there's no guarantee it's set in stone, okay?”

Fraser wished he had Ray's certainty. But the feeling behind the dream still lingered, sickening him. Because as abhorrent as he found it all, there was a small part of him that had reveled in the feeding.

Ray looked at the clock and sighed, running a hand tiredly over his face. “Man, it is either too late or too early for what we need to do.”

“What's that?”

“Call Vecchio. Because I'm while I'm no big expert on dreams, based on what you just told me, I'm pretty sure your murder and his case are related.”

oOo

Fraser let Ray into the shop as soon as he arrived. Ray was still at the counter, typing furiously on his laptop.

“So what’s the big deal that you needed me here in the middle of the freaking night?” Ray groused.

“The big deal is I found your mystery language,” Ray said, spinning his laptop around to show them what he’d pulled up. “I got this from one of my sources earlier tonight. Hadn’t planned on looking at it until later today - and don’t give me that look, Vecchio, I have clients, paying clients, who need stuff that can only be done at specific times of year. I get that this is a big deal, but I start blowing off commitments and I’m out of business.”

Ray didn’t look happy, but he accepted the reasoning. “So what changed your mind?”

“This big lug,” Ray said, jutting his thumb in Fraser’s direction. “And if I’m right, the stuff you’re working on and his case are intertwined.”

“Just what I need, for this case to get crazier and thrown to the DPC,” Ray sighed. “Okay, show me what you’ve got.”

“See, they’re Anglo-Frisian runes, or at least a bastardized dialect of it. Hasn't been used in- ” he searched the text briefly, “over 900 years. It's only a written language, and strictly for magical rituals. ” He looked up at Ray. “Here’s where it gets really fun. The bracelets weren’t solitary items. They’re part of a set, well two sets, really. And I think I figured out what they’re for.”

Ray grimaced. “You mean there’s more ugly jewelry out there?”

“Yes, and hopefully it’s far, far away. Remember what I said about these being powerful, well if one piece is dangerous on its own, imagine what happens if you have a complete set.”

“And what makes you think they were part of a set?” Ray asked with a frown.

“Something Fraser said about a dream he had,” Ray told them. Fraser looked at him in surprise. “That stuff about being pulled and the placement of the feeling, it got me thinking.”

Ray clicked over to a second tab. “Turns out if you know the right keywords, the internet is a beautiful place.”

Fraser hid a smile at that as he turned his attention to the screen; it seemed both Rays had that opinion in common.

Ray was correct; the items shown on the webpage had to have been made to go with the bracelets. The links of the chain were small but thick, and the pendants were large, with now-familiar ornate metalwork surrounding a gem. Like the bracelets, one was a circle cut, the other a teardrop.

Farther down the page were rings and brooches, all of the same make.

“And you think that’s what the robbery was really about,” Fraser said. “Someone is gathering these items together.”

“Hey, that’s for Vecchio and his crew to decide. But it’s a real possibility.”

“Does it say what their intended use might be?”

“I can't be sure unless I see the pieces in person, but I'm betting this was some kind of binding magic.”

“Binding magic to the jewelry, or binding someone with it?” Fraser asked.

“Again, no way of really knowing without seeing the stuff firsthand.  But it could be either, maybe even both, at least on that one.” He indicated the ruby bracelet.

“Why that one?” Ray asked.

“Rubies are more likely to be used in dark magic than sapphires. Especially blood magic. It’s part of why they’re called blood rubies.” He shivered. “Nasty, nasty stuff. And if there's Binding involved... yeah, if whoever took this knew what they were getting, the sooner you find it, the better.”

“What about the other bracelet? Is it as dangerous?”

“In theory, sure. But it may also be a balancing piece. You know, something that will keep the other in check. It would explain why they aren't kept together, and if someone was planning something nasty, having the piece that would stop it in their back pocket's a pretty smart play.”

“Why would keeping them together be a bad idea?”

“Because they'd constantly be fighting each other, building up power, with no real reason and no siphon.”

“Enough to cause an explosion?” Fraser asked.

Ray saw where Fraser was going and nodded. “Enough to burn down a chunk of Chicago, or maybe part of the warehouse district.”

“If that’s the case, why haven’t there been more fires?” Ray asked.

“How close were they kept to each other?”

Ray checked his notes. “Same room, different display cases.”

“And nothing's blown up? I gotta wonder just what kind of glass those cases are – bet there's some kind of dampening magic on them.”

“If that's true, then wouldn't having them out of the cases mean there's a way to trace them? Magically, I mean?” Fraser clarified.

“Maybe. But if they really have been displayed near each other, and now have nothing keeping them in check, I don't think you'll have to trace them. Won’t be too long before something big will happen.”

“Well, excuse me if I'd like to find them before they take out part of the city,” Ray snarked. “You able to help with this?”

“I could, yeah, but it'd be better if I talked to one of my contacts. Assuming you're okay with bringing in some help? I’m thinking if that language engraved into it is cracked, both of your cases will be blown wide open.”

Ray looked at the screen for a minute more before straightening up with a nod. “You want to print that off for me, Kowalski?”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why? So I can start my own searches. I don’t know if the department can afford too many of yours. “

“Well then this is your lucky day, Vecchio, because I’ll do this one for free.”

Ray gave him a dubious look. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch,” Ray replied without heat. “This is my city too, you know. I’m as interested in keeping it safe as you are.”

“Seriously?” Ray scoffed, incredulous.

“Shut it, Vecchio,” Ray growled. “Just because I don’t usually work gratis doesn’t mean I won’t. You don’t know me as well as you like to think.” He turned to Fraser. “What I’m thinking about doing will take at least a day to prep, and that’s if I call in a few favors. Sooner is better - we’re going to need the moon on our side for this and it’s only full for two more days.”

“And this really isn’t going to cost me,” Ray repeated.

Ray thought about it a moment. “Well, my contacts would probably appreciate you maybe looking the other way next Beltane, at least in certain areas of the park. If I had to guess, of course.”

“Of course,” Ray parroted sarcastically. “If it gets us a solid lead, I'll see what I can do.”

“Okay, then,” Ray said, clapping his hands. “I'll get the word out and call when I have something. And yes,” he said before Ray could, “I get that time is of the essence.”

oOo

Ray called Vecchio and Fraser the morning of the last full moon. Half an hour later, both men were at Rising Sun.

Ray figured it was best to just jump in. “Okay, so good news bad news. The bad news is, we’re still at square one on the translations.” He shrugged. “Turns out the dialect is more obscure than I thought. It’ll be at least a couple more days.”

“I thought you had the language figured out?”

“I had it sort of figured out. There were tons of variations of it, and anywhere from 24 to 33 characters, depending on the version. So excuse me if it’s a little harder than just plugging it into babelfish and hoping for a decent translation.”

“Fine, so it’s not easy to translate,” Vecchio said, rolling his eyes. “What are we supposed to do now, though? A couple of days means it’s too late for the spell thingy you were going to do.”

“You said there was good news?” Fraser interrupted before Vecchio could continue to complain.

“I did,” Ray said, turning to Fraser with a satisfied smile. “The good news is I’m pretty sure I can track the stuff anyhow. Power like that’s hard to hide.”

“Then why worry about the writing at all?” Vecchio wondered. “What, you just like yanking our chains?”

“Oh I don’t know, Vecchio,” Ray said, voice oozing sarcasm. “Maybe I thought it would be nice to know just what it was I was looking for. You know, in case it’s cursed or something.”

“That only makes sense,” Fraser said approvingly. “Proper preparation -”

“Prevents poor performance,” Ray finished, enjoying Fraser’s surprise at his knowledge of the adage. “Or in this case, possible death by powerful blood magic.” He shrugged. “And since definite intel is out, I’ll just have to go with a broader set of protections.”

“What can I do to help?” Fraser wanted to know.

Ray grinned. “I was hoping you’d ask that.”

oOo

That night everything that could be in place was. With Lt. Welsh’s approval, Ray had a contingent from the DPC ready to act once Ray and Fraser had located the stolen jewelry and hopefully the thieves responsible.

Fraser met Ray at Rising Sun about an hour before sundown, per Ray’s instructions. The store was closed, but the door opened as Fraser started to knock. While Ray wasn’t in the main room, Fraser could hear him puttering in the back. He closed and locked the door behind him before going to find Ray.

“Hey, right on time,” Ray said, seeming not at all surprised that Fraser was able to get in. It was slightly disconcerting, but at the same time made Fraser feel warm; he hadn’t been so readily welcomed anywhere in a very long time. “Just gathering a few things we’ll need,” Ray went on, “and then we can head out.”

“We won’t be performing the ritual here?”

“Nah, I’ve got a better place for this kind of thing.”

“And you’re sure about doing this tonight?” Fraser asked as they walked. “Even without a full translation of the text?”

“What I’m sure of is that we do this now or wait a month. And I’m not liking that second option. Besides, all we’re really doing right now is finding the stolen jewelry, assuming it’s findable. We do that, and we have breathing space to take care of the rest.”

“True enough.”

It only took a few minutes to arrive at their destination. “Where are we, Ray?” Fraser asked as Ray pulled out a set of keys, flipping through them until he found the right one.

“Belongs to a friend of a friend,” Ray told him. “I have access to it in exchange for doing some work every couple of months. All legit, so don’t give me any grief.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. I have to wonder why, if you own a building, you’d need another space?”

“It’s pretty simple - my place is too warded for some of the stuff I do.” He opened the door to reveal a fairly bare space. There was a table and chairs in the center of the room, a small kitchen off to the side, and what Fraser presumed was a bedroom down the hall. He couldn’t help but wonder what the place was used for when Ray didn’t need it. He knew better than to ask.

“Like the ritual tonight,” was all he said.

“Exactly like that.” Ray said, pointing two fingers at Fraser. “I mean, we won’t be completely unprotected or anything, but nothing like I have at home.” He gestured for Fraser to put the backpack he was carrying on one of the chairs. In the meantime, Ray opened a kitchen cabinet and took out some white candles, all of which had obviously been used before; most were half-burned. Ray set them on the table and started making sure they were secure in what looked to be silver candleholders.

He stopped and scowled at a flash of lightning in the distance, frown deepening as the first patters of rain hit the window.

“Do you not like rain, Ray?”

Ray watched as the hit and miss splatter grew steadier before turning to answer Fraser.

“Love it, actually. Rain’s a powerful thing. Cleans, brings life, purifies… rainwater gathered on certain days is a powerful component in some Light rituals. And on a personal note, watching a storm come in, feeling the edge of it in the air, the tension as it tries to break, and finally those first drops sliding slow and cool on my skin… nothing like it. It’s part of the reason I’ve got the roof set up – I actually like sitting in the rain.”

Lightning flashed again, closer, the thunder rumbling low and settling an ominous feeling into his bones. He nodded his head toward the window.

“This is a whole different story. Nothing natural about it. Can’t you feel it? It’s barely here and I can already tell how wrong it is.”

As if in response, the rainfall suddenly became a downpour. The already darkened sky became nearly impenetrable even to Fraser's superior eyesight, the buildings across the street shrouded in the fall of water. The wind picked up too, not quite a howl, but with enough force to shake street signs and make store awnings flap as it whipped through the street. Fraser blinked as lightning flashed again, illuminating the street, revealing a few people caught out in the storm running for shelter.

“Glad we’re not the ones going out in that mess,” Ray said.

“Diefenbaker’s not going to thank me for having him stay with Balthasar and Nick.”

“You gonna get a lot of grief for it?”

“He hates having wet fur.”

Ray laughed. “He can walk through walls, disappear and reappear at will, but he can’t keep from getting wet in the rain? That is one kooky Guide you have there, Fraser.”

“You have no idea,” Fraser replied long-sufferingly.

Ray chuckled again, then sobered up at another booming crash of thunder.“Come on, we’d better hop to it. A lightning strike can cause as much damage as an explosion.”

“You think that’s what happened previously?”

“I think it’s what could happen now, which is a hell of a lot more important.” Ray stopped checking the candles to rummage through the backpack. He pulled out a map and handed it to Fraser. “Here, lay this out on the table, as close to the middle of it as you can. The more centered, the better.”

As Fraser worked, Ray removed his watch and set it and his cell phone on the counter. “You have anything on you with batteries, set it up here. Unless you don’t care if it gets fried.”

Fraser finished placing the map just so and laid his watch next to Ray’s. In the time it had taken him to remove it, Ray had placed candles on the four corners of the table, and was laying down trails of what looked like salt that led from the candles to the corners of the map.

“What do you need me to do next?” Fraser asked.

“Make sure all the windows are latched and locked, and the door too.”

“Are you expecting company?” Fraser asked as he checked.

“Nah, nothing like that. It’s just easier to set this kind of ward on a secure space.” He looked over the items on the table and nodded in satisfaction.

“Okay, Fraser, time for me to set up the protections around the room. I need you to stand near the table, don’t knock anything over, and be still and quiet as you can.”

“I won’t even breathe,” Fraser promised.

“Everybody’s a comedian,” Ray muttered with a wry grin. “Showtime,” he said, rubbing his hands together and then lacing his fingers together and cracking his knuckles. He started by taking a slow walk around the perimeter of the room, pausing for a brief moment at each door or window. As he passed them, he flicked his fingers. It didn’t appear to Fraser that the gesture had any purpose, but he knew better than to discount it. Once he’d returned to his starting spot, Ray closed his eyes and stretched out his arms.

Flickers of power danced across Ray's skin. Trails of lights glided over his tattoos, flaring brighter on some, just skirting others. Fraser was hit with the strong urge to follow that path with his tongue, scrape across the ink with the edge of his fangs. He found himself taking a step forward without realizing it, and moved back to his original position quickly, glad Ray hadn’t seen him.

Ray was chanting something under his breath, and while his enhanced hearing meant Fraser could hear the words, they weren’t in a language that he knew. Ray opened his eyes and spun slowly in place, arms still outstretched, this time stopping when he faced a door or window. Ray appeared to glow at each stop, energy trickling down his body and trailing across the floor, spiraling in place, each tendril of energy a different color.

Once he’d made a full circle, Ray brought his hands together. As he did, the light surrounding him condensed into a ball. Ray turned it this way and that, studying it, then clapped his hands together and shouted a word. Fraser closed his eyes instinctively, expecting the light to flare, but he didn’t see a flash behind his eyelids. He cautiously opened one eye to see the individual strands of light unfurl and elongate, reaching out toward the other strands until they met and wove together, forming a seamless, multi-hued circle.

Ray did one more turn, no doubt assessing the strength of the ward. Fraser found himself unable to look away. Ray had always appeared to be confident, verging on cocky at times, but this was different. He looked completely at home working with mystical energies; every move spoke of confidence and competence. It was intoxicating, and Fraser had to remind himself they were on a case, an important one.

That part of him didn’t care wasn’t a shock, but the intensity of the desire was. Fraser gripped the back of the closest chair to anchor himself, not noticing how tight his grasp was until he drove a splinter into his thumb. He relaxed his hand and forced down his attraction, a little frightened by its strength.

Luckily, the object of his dangerous attraction was oblivious to Fraser’s inner turmoil. He met Fraser’s gaze with a grin, and gestured toward the fading light. “Am I good or what?” he asked with a wink. “Okay, time to get down to it, Fraser. Let’s find some stolen jewelry.”

He moved to the far side of the table and gestured for Fraser to stay on the opposite end. “Now, this is nowhere near as flashy as setting that ward, but it’s a solid piece of magic. Hasn’t failed me yet when there’s something I need to find.”

Fraser watched as Ray pulled a bag of small stones from his pocket and put them in a loose circle on the map. Then he muttered more of what sounded like the same language as he’d spoken when setting the ward. Once he was done, Ray snapped his fingers, then leaned back, watching the stone.

“Give it a few. Set up’s pretty easy, but the actual Finding can take a little time,” he told Fraser.

For a few long minutes, nothing happened. Then one of the stones started moving, as if drawn by a magnet. It slid forward a few inches before stopping, but was soon joined by another of the stones.  Not all of them moved, but it was obvious that those that did had a definite destination. When they’d all stopped, they were surrounding a small area near the lake.

“Got it!” Ray grinned triumphantly. He nodded toward the counter. “Call Vecchio - he’s in my contacts - and tell him he can find the guys responsible for the robbery somewhere around the old Bridgeport Warehouse on Ashland.”

“Are you certain?” Fraser asked as he scrolled through Ray’s contact list.

“Well, if they aren’t there, at least one piece of the jewelry is. No way to hide power like that completely, and whoever it is didn’t think to set up something like the owners did. That’s what I was tracking.” He  moved to Fraser’s side of the table and pushed a few more of the stones around on the map. “I’ll play around a little while you call - might be able to get a little closer on the address.”

For a moment, there was nothing. Then one of the stones shot out from under his finger and started spinning in place, faster and faster. A second one joined it, and then the entire grouping on the map. Ray’s eyes widened in surprise.

“They shouldn’t be doing that!”

Fraser saw the first stone start to lift off the surface of the table, and reacted as fast as his supernatural reflexes allowed, pulling Ray away and getting them both behind the kitchen counter. A split second later there was a series of loud thuds. Fraser waited, but no other sound came, so he stood, slowly and carefully. The stones were embedded in the wall. Based on their positions, if he hadn’t pulled Ray away, they would have gone through him first.

He heard a voice calling Ray’s name as if from far away. It took him a second to realize it was Ray Vecchio; the call had gone through without him noticing. He looked over, but Ray was still shaken, so he kept the phone and let Ray know what they’d discovered. The detective promised he’d call as soon as he’d checked out the lead. Fraser thanked him perfunctorily, admonishing him to be careful.

“I thought this place was protected,” Fraser said after hanging up. The challenging tone he took had the desired effect - Ray bristled, coming back to himself.

“It is. Only magic that should work is the stuff I’m doing. That,” he said, indicating the wall, “should not have happened.” He looked at Fraser. “Pretty sure you saved my - Fraser, you’re hit!”

Fraser looked down to see blood oozing sluggishly from his shoulder. Now that he was aware of it, the pain started in, a dull throb punctuated with sharp jolts of heat. He tried to look over his shoulder, but had to stop as a wave of dizziness hit. “Can you see if it went through?” he asked, shifting so Ray could get a better look. He was afraid he knew the answer.

Ray leaned in, careful not to jostle Fraser as he got a better look. “Nope, looks like it’s still in there.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“So your body won’t, like, expel it on its own?”

“You watch too many movies,” Fraser admonished. “No, it’s there until someone digs it out.” He winced. “And my body’s already trying to heal around it, which is most,” another wince, “unpleasant.”

“Yeah, I can imagine,” Ray said, standing up. “You stay put.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’ve got a first aid kit in the bathroom. Just basic stuff, but it should do in a pinch. Unless you’d rather take this to a hospital? The one here won’t ask too many questions.”

Fraser shook his head. “Unless you’d rather not deal with it, of course.”

“You gonna vamp out on me? Try to tear my head off when I cut into you or drain me or anything?”

“Of course not!”

“Then we’re good. I’ll be right back.”

It was barely a minute later when Ray was back, entering the room with a squawk. “What are you doing?”

Fraser looked up from his shoulder. “The wound was starting to close.”

“So you decided to stick your finger in it to keep it open?” Ray boggled. “Are you crazy?”

“It was that or let it close up. I chose the lesser of two evils.”

Ray set down the collection of things he’d brought, gesturing for Fraser to join him at the table. “If you’re
well enough to poke around at your own open wounds, you can get up here where the light’s better so I can get this done quick.”

“Of course, Ray,” Fraser agreed as he got settled in the nearest chair, shifting around until he was positioned to give Ray the best access to his shoulder.

“Okay, so I’d normally try to numb this first, but I’m thinking nothing I do will hurt that bad, considering what I walked in on. Am I right?”

“Even if you weren’t, normal medications don’t really work on me.”

“Of course they don’t,” he muttered as he put on latex gloves. “Okay, so I’ll make this quick as I can, but no lie, it’s going to suck. Just sit back and think of Canada or something.”

After the first incision, Fraser decided Ray had the right of it; this did suck. But the alternative would have been worse, so he endured.

Ray talked through the procedure, though not about what he was doing. More about how Vecchio was going to owe him a new set of scrying stones, and maybe some materials for wall repair. Fraser started to offer to help, but was quickly shut down; he got the distinct impression that while Ray was talking a good game, he’d never really expect Ray to pay for anything that was damaged. Owing one another favors seemed to be part of their dynamic.

True to his word, Ray was quick, and while digging the stone out had tested Fraser’s calm, the moment it was free he could feel the difference as his body could finally heal properly.

As soon as the wound started closing, Fraser smelled blood that wasn’t his. It only took a moment for Fraser to pinpoint the source; one of the stones must have grazed Ray’s arm, as there was a small scrape there, scabbing over but still fresh enough to set Fraser’s senses reeling. Normally, such an insignificant wound wouldn’t have affected him at all, but healing the damage he’d sustained was a drain on his internal resources. If you were to ask him later, Fraser couldn’t tell you when he’d decided to reach out and touch Ray’s arm, much less what made him bring his bloody fingertip to his lips.

It was like he was possessed, though he knew that wasn’t truly the case. Nevertheless, the taste of Ray was overwhelming, even as tiny as the drop of blood was. He felt a surge of energy flash through his body, pooling low and throbbing at the base of his spine. Fraser closed his eyes to better drink in the jumble of feelings that came along with it: concern, friendship, anger, affection, and a surprisingly strong jolt of lust.

Fraser opened his eyes to see Ray staring at him, eyes wide and pupils dark. He hadn’t moved; Fraser found himself unable to resist shifting forward, putting himself in Ray’s personal space. He had a moment to feel a flush of relief when Ray didn’t flinch back, and then Ray was moving forward too, eyes darting from Fraser’s eyes to his mouth and back.

It was all the invitation Fraser needed; he closed the distance and took Ray’s mouth in a kiss that had both men moaning. There was nothing gentle about it. For his part, Fraser was holding onto what little control he had by the barest of margins. Part of him wanted to use his fangs to cut into Ray’s lips and tongue, make the kiss hot and wet and filthy with blood. But he knew if he started down that path right now, there was a chance he wouldn’t stop.

Ray gave as good as he got, pulling Fraser closer and running a hand into his hair, tugging at it to get Fraser to change the angle of the kiss until he was satisfied.

The ringing of Ray’s phone startled them; Fraser and Ray flew apart, eyes wide and breathing heavily. Ray swore under his breath and ran a hand through his hair as he picked up the phone.

Fraser took the time to gather up the remnants of his control. The fact that he didn’t really want to made it all the more difficult. Ray was right there, willing and oh-so warm and strong and alive. Fraser found himself staring at Ray’s mouth as he spoke and had to turn away, eyes closed and hands clenched at his sides.

“So, they caught the guy,” Ray told him after hanging up. Fraser was both relieved and disappointed that Ray kept his distance. “And found at least part of the stuff that was taken. Vecchio wants you at the station to see if you can ID him.”

That was confusing. “I wasn’t witness to the robbery.”

“Oh, this guy’s not just copping to that. According to Vecchio, he says he murdered your friend. He’s sending a car to take you to the station.”

“Just me?”

Ray looked away. “Probably for the best right now, don’t you think?”

“Considering you were attacked in a supposedly safe area, no, I don’t think that at all.”

“I don’t know, I’m not always real welcome at the precinct.” Fraser was about to make another argument for Ray to join him but Ray held up his hand. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll have them drop me off at home first. I’ll check in on ‘Sar and Nick and Dief, see what was happening out there while we were dodging stone bullets.”

Fraser tried to hide his disappointment. “Ah. That sounds like a smart plan. Would you please let Dief know where I’ve gone, and that I’m fine.”

“Sure, sure, not a problem. You want he should stay with me?”

“I'd prefer it, but it's up to him.”

“Not like I could keep him anywhere he didn’t want to be,” Ray joked awkwardly. He paced for a moment, then turned to Fraser, a determined look on his face. “Look, just, come by my place after you’re done, okay? No matter what time. We’ve got some talking to do.”

Fraser didn’t want to leave Ray at his building, but he recognized that it was the right thing to do. “I’ll be by when I can,” he promised later as Ray got out of the squad car. And if Fraser saw a hint of disappointment on Ray’s face as he closed the door, he was sure it was just wishful thinking.

oOo

Ray met Fraser at the doors to the bullpen and led him through the office. “Before you get all excited, despite what he says, this isn’t your guy.”

“You’re certain of this?”

“Oh yeah. This guy’s a small-time local thief, for one thing. Never been charged or even suspected of a violent crime. Plus, he wasn’t in Canada when your guy was killed. Hell, he’s never even been out of the U.S.”

That made no sense. “But he’s confessed to the murder?”

Ray rolled his eyes. “He won’t stop confessing it. Anybody who gets close enough for him to talk to gets to hear all about how he killed ‘some Eskimo guy up in Canada’ – his words, not mine. We ended up putting him in an interrogation room instead of a cell just to shut him up.”

“So you think it’s some kind of compulsion?”

“I don’t know what to think,” Ray said, running a hand tiredly over his face. “That’s why I wanted you here. I know it’s possible for some Bumpers to get into a person’s head, make them believe stuff that isn’t real. I was hoping you’d be able to tell me if that’s what’s going on here.” He shrugged. “In the meantime, I’ve got a tox screen going, but I don’t think this guy’s using, or if he is, it’s not the cause of this sudden turn of conscience. But here’s the thing. He knows stuff, Fraser. Details of the murder he shouldn’t have. So even if you can’t tell what’s going on with him, he’s definitely connected to your case.”

Fraser observed the man from behind the one-way glass for a few minutes before going to the interrogation room. He was a small man, rail-thin with shaggy black hair that hung in his eyes. He was pacing the room, talking to himself the entire time Fraser watched him. The few times he stopped moving he immediately pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, wincing in pain, then hunched over and started pacing again.

“See what I mean?” Ray asked from beside him. “There is something not right about this guy.”

“May I speak with him?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Ray replied, holding the door open. “This ought to be interesting.”

Fraser could feel the tension and a muted sense of fear emanating from the room before he’d reached the door. He braced himself for a stronger wave of it once the door was opened. Ray went in first and cuffed the man to the table before letting Fraser in.

Fraser could hear the man ranting at Ray, confessing to the robbery and Inuusiq’s murder, his voice hoarse and jittery. As soon as Fraser entered the room, the man’s agitation ceased, and he was silent. He sat stock still in his chair, eyes fixed on Fraser. Once the door was closed, the man straightened in his chair and smiled widely.

“Constable Fraser, you’re finally here. I was told you would be and now you are.”

Ray shot Fraser a questioning look; Fraser shook his head. “I’m sorry, should I know you?”

“I have a message for you,” he said, still smiling even as his eyes rolled back in his head. When he looked at Fraser there was something powerful behind his eyes that hadn’t been there before. When he spoke again his voice was different, lilting and with a faint trace of an accent Fraser couldn’t quite place.

“You look good in red,” he started, giving Fraser a coy smile. “Almost as good as you do in silver. Trade your chains for mine, and the world is yours to have, to own. To drink.”  He paused, meeting Fraser’s gaze, and Fraser felt a chill run down his spine as the energy within reached out to him, caressing him for the barest second.

“It’s in your blood, Bouclier. Will you answer the call?”

At the last word, the man convulsed violently. Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, he fell forward, hitting his head hard on the table. He didn’t move or make a sound.

Ray was at the door in a flash, yelling for medical assistance.

“I swear I didn’t do anything-” Fraser began. Ray cut him off, pulling him aside as the station medic rushed in.

“I know you didn’t, I was right there next to you. Come on, let’s go back to my desk, and I can fill you in on the rest.”

“There’s more?”

“What, did you forget about the theft?”

Fraser rubbed his eyebrow anxiously. For a moment, he’d totally forgotten about Ray’s case. He was more shaken by the evening’s events than he’d realized. “Sorry, Ray,” he said, sincerely contrite. “So, were you able to recover the jewelry?”

Ray sat down, gesturing for Fraser to take the seat next to his desk. “Well, there’s good news and bad news on that front. On the good side, we recovered most of the stolen goods. On the not so good side, the only piece of jewelry we found was the bracelet with the sapphire. The one Kowalski said was really dangerous? Nowhere to be found.”

“Do you think it’s still in the city?”

“Considering nothing’s gone up in flames, I’m betting no. And seeing how Edward the Confessor in there was so willing to take the fall, I’m thinking we were supposed to find him, and the jewelry.”

“You think it was a diversion,” Fraser said.

Ray shook his head. “I think it was a message. One that happened to make it possible for whoever really killed your friend to get away.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “But hey, at least we got back the, what did Kowalski call it? The balancing piece?”

“Very true, Ray.” Fraser nodded and gave Ray what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Inwardly, he felt a knot of dread start to build. Whoever had the bracelet was powerful, and he wasn’t at all confident that what they’d recovered would be enough to stop whatever their plan was.

oOo

Despite the late hour, Fraser kept his word and asked Ray to drop him off at Rising Sun on his way home from the Precinct. He made Fraser promise to either stay there, or have someone take him back to the Consulate. The rain had ended while he’d been at the station, leaving the streets glistening in the lamplight. Fraser watched the road, impressed at how Ray navigated to avoid some of the deeper puddles as he drove.

“I mean it, Fraser,” Ray said. “I don’t care what you are, you’re not invulnerable. So don’t take any stupid chances, you hear me?”

Fraser was touched by Ray’s concern. “I promise, Ray,” he said, thinking if nothing else Dief could walk back with him.

Ray seemed satisfied, and promised he’d call Fraser the minute they had any more information.

Fraser had barely made it to the outside door when Dief appeared, looking Fraser over anxiously. Fraser knelt down to pet his Guide, then gave into the urge to bury his hands and face in Dief’s fur, just for a minute. The familiar scent and texture was a comfort.

“Ray told you I was fine, didn’t he?” Fraser asked. Dief shifted back and licked a wet stripe up Fraser’s cheek in response. “Yes, it’s better to see for yourself, I agree.” He looked at the door, suddenly unsure of what to do. “I told Ray I’d stop by, but perhaps it would be better to wait until the morning.”

Dief responded with a sneeze that had Fraser’s face wetter than the previous lick. He pulled out a handkerchief to wipe off the mess.

“You didn’t have to be so dramatic about it,” he admonished. Dief looked entirely unrepentant. Fraser sighed and stood. He had promised, and he didn’t want to worry Ray. He reached for the door, which opened easily. No denying he was meant to be there, then.

“Are you coming with me?” he asked Dief. The Guide cocked his head, thinking, then disappeared with a woof. Fraser wished for a moment he could do the same before heading up the stairs.

He could hear music playing as he neared the apartment. At least he wouldn’t be waking Ray. He knocked, and as soon as Ray opened the door Fraser was able to identify the song.

“Joplin, Ray?”

“Hello to you too. And yeah, sometimes you just need a little ragtime to soothe your soul.”

“You’ll get no arguments from me.” He gestured toward the interior of the apartment. “May I?”

“A man who appreciates a good piano rag is always welcome in my house,” Ray said with a small smile as he stepped aside to let Fraser in.

Once Fraser was inside, though, neither of them seemed to know what to say. The silence quickly became uncomfortable, and Fraser sorely missed the easy camaraderie they’d shared since their first meeting. He was afraid he’d ruined everything through his lack of control.

“So, how’s the arm?” Ray asked, obviously as unhappy with the silence as Fraser.

Fraser extended his arm, twisting it this way and that with no difficulty. “Good as new. Thank you kindly for asking.”

“Did I apologize for it before? Because I’m damn sorry you got hurt, temporary thing or not.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Ray.”

Ray shook his head. “It was a rookie mistake. I should have known that there’d be something set up to screw with anyone trying to find that stuff. Wards I set weren't keyed to cover anything like that.”

“Well, I don’t blame you for it, so perhaps you shouldn’t blame yourself.”

Ray cocked his head, giving Fraser a pointed look. “That advice you’re willing to take, or just give?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you weren’t the only one in that liplock,” Ray said, conviction in his tone. “So don’t beat yourself up over it. If I hadn’t wanted it too, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Fraser wanted to argue the point. He also wanted a repeat of said liplock, without any interruptions. It wasn’t the time for either. “I didn’t come here to argue with you.” He held up a hand. “Or continue where we left off. I have news.”

Ray’s shoulders slumped, as if the fight had been taken from him. “The case. Cases. Right. Something happened at the station, then.”

Fraser recapped the events, including the energy he’d felt emanating from the thief.

“That is some crazy shit,” Ray said, scrubbing his hair roughly as he shook his head. "Murder, stolen goods, vision quests and now messages from who knows what... just what are you tangled up in?"

“I wish I knew,” Fraser replied.

“So what’s Vecchio say we should do now?”

“Wait and see what happens with the thief. Or for the translations. The piece that was recovered is in Evidence at the moment. Do you think it’s safe there?”

Ray considered it for a moment. “Should be. DPC’s got some nice containment areas set up. Add that to the fact that it’s not near the other bracelet and it should be good until they release it back to the family.” He frowned, then went on, “They are releasing it back to them, right?”

“Is that wise, given what’s happened?”

“Honest opinion?” Ray asked. “I think it’s probably safer with them than at the precinct. I mean, I’m no cop, but I think that everything else that was stolen, including that sapphire bracelet, was a decoy.”

“Ray’s of the same mind,” Fraser told him. Ray made a ’there you go’ gesture.

“So unless something happens, sounds like we’re back to waiting. Sorry about that, Fraser.”

“It’s not as if it’s your fault, Ray,” Fraser pointed out.

“Still, I’m betting you meant to be back with your people awhile ago.”

Fraser was searching for an answer that wouldn’t reveal that the Uummarmiut were likely relieved at his extended absence when Ray yawned. “I’m sorry, after all that’s happened you must be exhausted.” He started toward the door. “I’ll let you get some rest.”

Any protest Ray might have made was stopped by another, bigger yawn. “Been a wild few days,” he admitted. “I’ll let you know when I hear back about the translations.”

“Please do. And Ray will want to know as well.”

“Yeah, I’ll let you both know.”

Fraser hesitated at the door. “You’ll be safe here?”

Ray laughed. “Between the building’s wards, the knuckleheads on the roof, and a few tricks and traps I have here and there, pretty sure there isn’t anywhere safer. What about you? Seems to me that you’re the one who should be worried. You sure the Consulate’s the place for you right now?”

“I’ll be fine,” Fraser assured him.

Ray didn’t look convinced. “You know it’s not buddies to lie to me, right?” Ray shifted, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck. “And maybe that word doesn’t apply to me because I gotta tell you, Benton Fraser, what I feel for you? Not really a buddy kind of friendly.”

Fraser, pleased both at Ray’s words and a chance to deflect Ray’s concerns, did his best to keep a straight face.  “I think that was made fairly obvious back at your safehouse.”

“You sassing me, Fraser?”

“I might be.”

Ray sent Fraser a glare that was made less effective by the smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “We will talk about this secret sarcastic streak of yours later. Get out of here. But call me from the Consulate when you get there, or I will kick you in the head.”

“Understood.”

Fraser spent the entire way back to the Consulate trying to convince himself that keeping his distance was for the best, given the temporary nature of his time in Chicago, not to mention what were likely insurmountable differences brought about by his nature versus Ray’s.

He still hadn’t succeeded by the time he’d made it back.

oOo

It became easier to stand by his decision when after a day and a half he’d not heard from Ray, other than the message he’d left with Turnbull that the translation had been completed, and that Ray Vecchio had the information. Fraser had made his way to the station as soon as he’d gotten the message.

Unfortunately, the only thing the translation did was confirm that the pieces were what they suspected. And that Fraser was indeed tied to them in some way. The etchings surrounding the blood ruby had read ‘Bound by Blood’ and ‘Shackled by Silver,’ while the sapphire’s read ‘Steadfast Shield’ and ‘Clarity’s Compass.’

Ray didn’t know about Fraser’s dream, and Fraser wasn’t sure whether he should bring it up, so he kept the parallels between his dream and the names to himself, opting instead to ask about other aspects of the case.

“Have you heard from Joey, Ray?”

“Nah, but I’m not first on his list to call, so I’m not worried. Once the case goes public and he knows it’s safe to come out, I’ll find a reason to stop by and check again.”

“What’s going to happen to the thief?”

“Depends on if he wakes up or not.”

That was a surprise. “He hasn’t regained consciousness?”

“Nope,” Ray said. “If his condition doesn’t change soon, they’re talking about a transfer to the hospital in the District. Which if you ask me, they should have sent him to in the first place, but hey, what do I know?” He shrugged. “Anyhow, if he wakes up, my guess is he’s got either a short time in prison for the robbery, or a long stint in a nice, quiet institution.”

“You think he’s mentally unbalanced?”

“Well he wasn’t acting all that sane when he was awake. I don’t know. Maybe that compulsion thing was temporary. But if he starts on the non-stop confessions again, there’s no way he can go to trial.” He shook his head. “I feel for the guy. I mean, he’s a crook, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to have his brain twisted around like that.”

“You’re a good man, Ray Vecchio.”

Ray’s cheeks flushed; he looked to be a mix of pleased and uncomfortable with the praise. “Eh, I’m all right. Nothing like what you’re used to up in Canada though, am I right? I bet you miss your buddies up there, huh?”

“I wouldn’t say that. It’s something of an awkward situation.” At Ray’s surprised look, Fraser added, “For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I am one of two Protectors of the region. It’s a bit of a sore subject. To be honest, I think I’m an embarrassment to the Uummarmiut.”

“How could you be an embarrassment?”

Fraser flashed his fangs. “I’m not your typical Bouclier.”

“I’m guessing typical is never a word used to describe you. But different’s not bad.” He gave Fraser a shrewd look. “Except maybe for you it is, am I right?”

“I don’t really fit in there,” Fraser admitted.

“Well you do here.” Fraser blinked, startled. “Just saying. I know that you’re on a mission and I respect that, I do. But it won’t last forever and you’ve already made friends here, so if going back to Canada isn’t really going home, maybe you should think about trying somewhere else.”

Fraser had no idea what to say. He was saved from trying to find a response when Lt. Welsh asked for him to join him in his office.

“Just think about it, Benny,” Ray said, patting Fraser’s arm as he passed.

oOo

“So, Constable. It seems like your investigation is bigger than you led us to believe.”

“I had no idea of the scope when I came here, Lieutenant.”

Welsh gave him a considering look. “No, I don’t imagine you did. But now, armed with that knowledge, what are your plans?”

“I have to admit that I’m not exactly certain.”

“Well, if you decide to stay in Chicago, you’d be a welcome addition to the DPC, with a liaison status, of course. You and Detective Vecchio seem to get along well. You level him out.”

“I’m not certain Ray would feel safe working with me,” Fraser confessed. “He seems to find my behavior reckless.”

“Then perhaps he could temper that part of you. Like I said, you work well together. Something to consider at least.”

“Yes, sir.”

That seemed to satisfy the Lieutenant. “Good hunting, Constable.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Fraser turned to leave, but Welsh wasn’t quite done. “And Constable, please inform your Guide that supernatural or not, if he tries to steal my lunch again, there will be consequences.”

Dief flickered into visibility far too close to Welsh’s desk, then disappeared with a pop, reappearing a moment later behind Fraser. Fraser hid a smile, only nodding in acknowledgment.

oOo

Ray was on the phone when Fraser left Welsh’s office, so he just waved and left the station. He had a lot to think about.

“That was a nice offer for that Lieutenant to make,” Fraser Sr. said, suddenly walking at Fraser’s side. Fraser had to wonder if his father was around more often than he’d realized, just out of sight.

“Hello to you too, Dad.”

“Now, don’t get your nose out of joint, Benton. The dead have different rules. Social niceties are for the living.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to argue that point, but Fraser decided to let it go. “You were saying?”

If Fraser’s father was surprised at the lack of argument, it didn’t show. “Just that it’s good to see that your competence was recognized, that’s all.”

“It was a genuine offer.”

“Oh, I’m sure it was,” his father said, tone placating. “Too bad you won’t be able to take it.”

“And why not?”

Fraser Sr. looked at him like he had an enormous hole in his bag of marbles. “Look around you, son. This is no place for you.”

“Because I’m a Bouclier?”

His father waved that off. “Pshaw. Because you’re a Mountie. You need open spaces, wilderness.” He glanced around, nose wrinkled in distaste and repeated his earlier assertion. “Chicago’s no place for you.”

Fraser looked down the street at the local shops, the tiny park, the bustle of people, human and otherwise, all around him. “Dad, I’m not at all sure I agree with you. What do you think, Diefenbaker?” he asked his Guide.

Dief whuffed and sat down, wagging his tail happily at Fraser.

“Some Guide you are,” Fraser Sr. said, frowning.

“I don’t know, Dad. He hasn’t steered me wrong yet.”

“If you’re going to listen to some four-legged spirit over your own father, I’m not sure there’s anything more to say,” Fraser Sr. huffed. Before Fraser could reply, he was gone. Or at least he was no longer visible.

“Well, Dief,” Fraser said, ruffling his Guide’s fur, “it looks like I have some paperwork to take care of.”

oOo

“You’ve reached Rising Sun, which is not the ruin of many a poor boy. Same can’t be said of me, so leave a message and I’ll get back with you when I get a break from a life of sin and misery.”

Fraser hung up the phone without leaving a message. He’d really hoped to speak with Ray today, if not see him, but if the store was closed, there was no telling where he was. Fraser sighed and turned his chair to face the window, watching rivulets of rain trickle down. This storm, at least, was a real one, rather than the manufactured mess they’d dealt with a few nights ago. Not that he could tell the difference just by looking, as Ray seemed to be able to do. But he could read the forecasts in the paper, which in this case worked just as well. No, this was just an ordinary spring storm, cool drops refreshing the dry ground and nourishing the plants and… Fraser sat up in his chair as he realized he might just know where Ray was after all.

Grabbing an umbrella in the stand by the main Consulate doors, Fraser didn’t bother hiding a smile as he started toward Rising Sun and hopefully, Ray.

The Closed sign on the door neither surprised nor deterred Fraser once he arrived. He just made his way to the alleyway entrance, and was relieved when the door opened for him without issue. He made his way up, bypassing Ray’s apartment for the rooftop entrance, which was also unlocked.

The sight when he opened the door stole any greeting he’d planned, and while he didn’t really need to breathe, he felt as if his breath had been stolen nonetheless. While he’d never admit it to anyone but himself, Fraser had thought about this, about seeing Ray in the rain as he’d described, shirt clinging to firm muscles and making his skin glisten. The reality was better than anything his imagination could have conceived. Because he’d never really thought about how utterly enthralling Ray would look lounging in his old lawn chair, eyes closed and body relaxed, head tilted back and with a tiny smile on his face. He looked content, as if all was right with the world. Fraser found himself torn between wanting to move forward, even though he’d no idea what he would do once in front of Ray (though he had a plethora of ideas, each more inappropriate than the last) and feeling as if he should leave before he was noticed, let Ray have his moment of peace.

Ray took the choice from him, turning his head to face Fraser and opening his eyes. “Pull up a chair, Fraser,” he said, still smiling softly, and then shifted back and closed his eyes again, tilting his head back to catch more of the rain on his face.

The move exposed Ray’s neck, and Fraser had to fight the urge to follow the path of the rain with his tongue. He stayed where he was, suddenly unsure if being here was a good idea after all.

When some time had passed without Fraser doing anything, Ray stretched languidly and sat up. The look he gave Fraser was, despite Fraser’s superior eyesight, unreadable.

“Did you need something, Fraser? This official business?” Fraser could see Ray’s body start to tense, and the thought that he would be the one to shatter Ray’s serenity spurred him to move forward, shaking his head.

“No, nothing like that, and I’m sorry to bother you.”

Ray gave him a smile and a nod and relaxed again. “Didn’t think so. You’re not dressed for it.” He waved a hand lazily to indicate the lack of serge. His tone turned teasing as he went on. “So you know if you stay under that umbrella you’re missing the best part of this, right?”

Considering the sight before him, Fraser sincerely doubted that. But at Ray’s challenging look, he took off his jacket, folding it and leaving it in the doorway along with his hat and the now-closed umbrella. Instead of sitting next to Ray, he opted to walk to the edge of the roof, looking out over the city below as the light rain washed it clean.

“Quit thinking so hard,” Ray told him as he joined Fraser. “Just close your eyes and let yourself feel it.”

Fraser complied, and did his best to just be in the moment. A silly, fleeting thought that Chicago rain might taste different than Canada’s flicked through his mind, and he opened his mouth, sticking out his tongue to catch some droplets before he could talk himself out of it. A sharp intake of breath beside him startled Fraser, and he quickly closed his mouth and straightened back up, glad once again that he couldn’t pink up in embarrassment.

A peek at Ray out of the corner of his eye showed the man staring at him, eyes dark, and even without a good look at him it made Fraser shiver.

“You can’t be cold,” Ray said, voice raspier than Fraser had ever heard it.

Fraser turned to face him, fighting another shiver at the warmth in Ray’s always-direct gaze. He found it gave him the courage to respond. “No, definitely not.”

Whatever Ray was going to say next was stopped by a gravelly voice complaining. “Being cold’s that last of you two’s problems. I'm surprised the rain's making it to the rooftop without turning to steam.”

“Nick!” Balthasar sounded scandalized. Fraser and Ray turned as one to face the gargoyles. Balthasar was frowning, but Nick looked more amused than anything.

“Just saying,” he went on, shrugging one wing. “The looks those two are giving each other are enough to turn this place into a sauna.”

Ray ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck as he chuckled. “Forgot we had an audience for a second,” he said.

“They do blend in well.” Fraser returned Ray’s embarrassed smile with one of his own. He gave the gargoyles a speculative glance. “I had heard that gargoyles had difficulty moving during daylight hours.”

“You’re one to talk about daytime issues,” Nick replied, cocking his head and giving Fraser a challenging look.

Fraser turned to Ray, who shrugged.

“You pretty much walked right into that one.” The rain started coming down harder; Ray looked up, then back at Fraser, shaking his head “In case we needed another sign.” he said. “Want to head back inside?”

“Probably for the best,” Fraser agreed.

“I’ve got some tea back at my place. Good stuff, and dream-inducing free.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Fraser said, following Ray inside and down the stairs.

oOo

Once at Ray’s apartment, Ray got them both towels to try and dry off. Fraser found himself hoping for a repeat of his earlier visit; Ray shirtless and glistening was a sight not easily forgotten. But he seemed content to just wipe down his arms and run the towel through his hair a few times, slinging said towel around his neck once he was satisfied.

Fraser hadn’t gotten very wet at all, but dried himself just the same. The heated glances they’d shared on the roof were gone, but the tension was still there, running over Fraser’s skin uncomfortably. He wondered how it felt to Ray, but couldn’t bring himself to ask.

The silence finally affected them enough to reach a breaking point. They started speaking simultaneously.

“So you’re leaving-” Ray started.

“I’m staying-” Fraser said.

Both stopped, stunned.

Ray spoke first. “Wait a minute. Don’t you have to get back home? I mean, I’m kind of surprised you were able to stay away this long, no matter what the reason. Bouclier’s got to protect their people, right?”

“They have a Protector. And in any case I haven’t found Inuusiq’s killer yet. I won’t go back until I do.”

Ray held up a hand. “Wait, wait go back a minute. You aren’t the only Bouclier the Uummarmiut have? I thought it was like a cosmically chosen, there can be only one kind of thing.”

“It is,” Fraser replied, then sighed. “Well, it normally is.”

“Okay, that is a story I need to hear at some point. But to get back to what you said earlier, you aren’t going back to Canada?”

“At this point I’m not sure where to go next. But I do know that given the resources a city like Chicago has to offer, I’ve a much better chance of tracking the killer from here than Aklavik.”

“Better resources?”

“Well, yes. While the Uummarmiut have their own ways of tracking both the physical and metaphysical, I’ve found that Chicago holds its own quite well. And I have to admit that when it comes to technological search methods, Aklavik leaves something to be desired.”

“Got spoiled fast, huh?” Ray teased.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Fraser admitted, though his thoughts were more on the people he’d met and the welcome he’d been given than on computer programs or spells.

Ray’s smile grew for a moment, then disappeared. His next words held no note of teasing. “So you’re sure about this?”

“About staying in Chicago?” Ray nodded. “Well, seeing as how Turnbull already had my permanent posting paperwork filed before I got back to the Consulate to take care of it yesterday, I’d better be.”

That surprised a laugh out of Ray. “Then I guess it’s settled.” He gave Fraser a considering look with more than a hint of mischief in it. “You know, if you’re going to be in Chicago awhile, you should probably think about finding a place of your own. Can’t imagine the Consulate digs are all that great for long-term assignments.”

“True, though I have made do with much less. But I have no desire to overstay my welcome, and I’m sure Inspector Thatcher won’t want me there as a permanent guest.”

“Yeah, don’t want to piss off your boss, definitely. Plus, being there means you’re always on duty, even when you’re off.”

“Another good point. I suppose I should start looking for an apartment.”

“The District’s pretty close to both the Consulate and the 2-7,” Ray pointed out.

“I’d noticed that. And it seems fairly welcoming.”

“Oh yeah, definitely,” Ray agreed. “Folks here take care of each other, or leave each other alone, for the most part. One thing, though.”

Fraser raised an eyebrow, wondering at Ray’s almost too-nonchalant tone. “What’s that, Ray?”

“Well, it’s just, not a lot of turnover, you know? Somebody moves here, it’s likely for the long haul. So finding a place can be tricky sometimes.”

It was an obvious lead; Fraser played along. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“As a matter of fact, I know a guy, owns a building that’s mostly empty,” Fraser could see him fighting to hide a grin. “Gotta warn you though, the guy’s not used to sharing space and keeps crazy hours, so it might be hard to pin him down.”

Fraser was reacting to the last words before he realized it, stalking closer, each step slow and deliberate. He stopped bare inches from Ray. “And if I were to pin him down? Do you think I could persuade him?”

Ray swayed forward the tiniest bit.“I think chances are pretty good.”

“Only pretty good?” Fraser asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Haven’t seen you really trying to persuade anyone yet,” Ray challenged.

In an instant, Fraser grabbed Ray, pushing him until Ray’s back was against the nearest wall. He leaned closer, immensely satisfied at the way Ray’s eyes darkened and his pulse quickened. He let himself indulge just for a moment, the tip of his tongue touching the pulse point on Ray’s neck. He felt Ray shudder, and leaned back to confirm that it wasn’t fear that had caused the reaction.

Ray’s lips were parted, his breathing shallow, the muscles in his arms tensing under Fraser’s grip. He tracked Fraser’s tongue as he licked his lips, spreading the intoxicating taste of Ray’s skin over them. Fraser moved forward so that they were a hairsbreadth apart. “Are my chances any better now?” he asked, voice low and quiet.

“Oh,yeah,” Ray exhaled, his breath tickling Fraser’s lips before Ray closed the space between them in a hard kiss. Fraser gloried in the feelings rushing through him, some his own, others Ray’s, all wonderful. Ray pressed for entrance into Fraser’s mouth, but Fraser tempered the kiss, taking control. If Ray were to nick himself on Fraser’s fangs, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to control himself.

He slid a hand to Ray’s lower back, the other still on his upper arm. Ray immediately took advantage of his partial freedom to grip Fraser by the back of the neck, entwining his fingers in Fraser’s hair. His other hand found Fraser’s hip and grabbed it tight enough to leave bruises, were Fraser human.

The warmth of Ray’s skin was a stark contrast against the cool dampness of his t-shirt. Fraser deepened the kiss and Ray responded enthusiastically, fingers tightening in Fraser’s hair. The hand on his hip shifted, and Fraser felt warm fingertips sliding under the top seam of his pants. He nearly groaned at the sensation, torn between wanting to pull Ray closer and rip his clothes off to have better access to his skin. He wanted to live out his earlier fantasy of tracing every line of every tattoo on Ray’s body with his tongue, or even better, with the edge of his teeth. He wanted to see if the ink made Ray’s skin taste different, how deep it went. He wanted to mark Ray, add something of himself to the tapestry of Ray’s body, watch the blood well up from Ray’s skin and drink it in, just enough for Ray to know Fraser had done it. For him to keep a part of Fraser with him, and vice versa.

The surprising strength of that desire pulled Fraser back from Ray. He was sure he looked a mess, hair and clothing disheveled, lips swollen from kissing. Ray was in a similar state, but Fraser just knew Ray wore it better. The sight of him made Fraser want in a way he’d almost forgotten. “I believe I was promised tea,” he finally got out.

Ray looked at him like he was crazy for a moment. “Pretty sure I was promised something too,” he said, yanking at Fraser’s belt to bring their groins together, making his meaning wonderfully, temptingly clear. “You telling me tea’s a higher priority?”

Ray rolled his hips, making it nearly impossible to think. He closed his eyes in an effort to regain some semblance of order, but that just made it easier to feel. Ray took advantage, leaning in to nip at Fraser’s ear as he whispered into it, voice a low growl. “Stop whatever you’re thinking. I’m an adult. I can’t be glamoured, or forced into anything I don’t want.”

He leaned back to look Fraser in the eye, his expression a mix of affection, lust and determination. “I know exactly who and what you are, Benton Fraser. And I want you. So the only thing you need to worry about is, do you want me too?”

There was nothing but stark truth ringing through Ray’s words, singing through his touch. It took Fraser’s breath away, and all he could do was smile as he pulled Ray to him, kissing him again and again. After countless minutes, Ray was the one to shift back. Fraser made certain he had freedom to move. Ray took advantage and slipped away, trailing a hand down Fraser’s arm to twine their fingers together.

“So let’s say your methods of persuasion have at least earned you a tour. Well, not of what would be your apartment, but the layout’s pretty much the same.” He tugged on Fraser’s hand and led him down the hall, giving Fraser a playful, leering grin. “Let’s start with the bedroom.”

oOo

The man knocked on the large wooden door, a shiver running down his spine that had nothing to do with the howling winds and the snow that swirled around him. He gripped the box he carried tighter, doing his best to protect it from the elements, as he had for the long trek from Chicago.

The door finally opened, but there was no welcoming warmth inside. The foyer was dark and dank, barely lit by candles in sconces on the far wall. As he looked, another blazed to life near the spiral staircase. He stood a moment, wanting nothing more than to leave the box by the door and run away. Then another candle lit itself, this one slightly higher up the staircase. He hung his head in resignation and shuffled toward the stairs.

More candles lit as he climbed, guiding him up the stairs and down the hallway until two flashed and flickered on either side of a door. He looked back to see the rest of the candles snuff out, leaving him in near darkness. With a trembling hand, he knocked on the door, praying no one would answer.

The door swung open and he took a cautious step forward, then another, until he was in the room. The doors shut behind him with barely a whisper of sound. He stayed where he was, too afraid to move.

“Bring me my treasure,” came a voice from the darkness. He shuffled forward, despite his better judgment. He heard the rustle of cloth from somewhere in front of him, a smooth, silky sound that made him think of a snake slithering over to devour its prey. The thought was too much; he stopped walking, terrified to move another inch.

He felt as much as heard the laugh his behavior elicited. It was cold and cruel, amusement that was entirely at his expense. He held the box out, trying to control the shaking that was more from fear than cold. The box flew from his grasp into the darkness before him. He heard a creak as it was opened, and appreciative murmurs. A faint red light started pulsing, growing a little stronger with each fluctuation.

"Mmmm, you've done well," the disembodied voice all but purred. "This is going to make things so much easier for me. You deserve a reward."

He shook his head, wanting nothing more than to leave and forget he'd ever been stupid enough to take this job.

“Oh, I insist.” The outline of the speaker was visible now, lithe and graceful as it moved toward him. He could make out pale skin, long dark hair, and a beautiful face with huge dark eyes that sparkled with madness, cruelty and anticipation. The red light behind added to her air of menace. He tried to move but found he no longer could. At the first touch of her fingers on his face, he no longer wanted to, though his terror hadn’t lessened.

She slid icy fingers down, caressing the rapidly fluttering artery on his neck. She moved in closer, the soft curves of her body pressed close, before slicing his neck open with razor-sharp nails. She tilted his head back, letting the spray hit her face and run down her body. He felt his strength wane, his knees start to give out, but she held him upright in a grip much stronger than she should possess. His struggle seemed to amuse her; she laughed again, the sound following him into darkness.

It was the last thing he knew.