Thanks: So many, many thanks to SD Wolfpup, Sage and mergatrude for beta, Rruthlessly for helpful advice, and Brynn for encouragement and cheerleading. I owe you all cake!
Notes: For ifreet, written for DS Seekrit Santa 2007.
It was the same guy running the airport. He was a little older, a little greyer, but it was the same guy wearing the same red plaid hunting cap and drinking from the same endless urn of over-brewed coffee. Ray set down his suitcases and took a seat at the faded blue-gray formica table with a sigh and a rueful shake of his head. It was like the last four years had never happened. He could almost see Fraser sitting across from him, playing endless games of solitaire and not cheating once, while Ray tallied the airport guy's cups of coffee and bitched about being mistreated for being American.
When they'd finally made it into the air, they got hijacked and spent two days wandering through the wilds of Canada hunting down (on Fraser's part) an escaped murderer and (Dief's priority) something to eat, and trying to find their way back to civilization (Ray's perfectly reasonable plan) and into each other's arms (a surprise to both of them and a source of much amusement to the wolf).
This time there weren't going to be any hijackings. No wolf, no Mountie, no escaped cons. This flight was going to run on time and smooth as silk, if Ray had to threaten to arrest everyone from here to Tuktoyaktuk to make it happen.
He ran his thumb over the smooth angles of the glass salt shaker on the table and thought about the visit ahead. There was a world of difference between going to see your best friend and his partner for a three-week vacation in the snowy wilds of Canada on the one hand, and going to stay with your ex — the guy you never really got over even after two years in the desert and one year at the beach in Florida — on the other. Ray had spent the trip so far flip-flopping between the two mindsets, trying to settle into the best-friend frame of mind, but never able to completely erase the memory of Fraser's hands on him, his mouth and those low desperate noises he used to make when—
Ray banged the salt shaker down on the table and glared at the airport guy. "Can I get some service here?"
The guy poured himself another cup of coffee and turned the page of his newspaper.
Fraser and Dief were standing in the brisk May wind outside the glorified blue shed that passed for an airport, with half a dozen other people meeting visitors and collecting packages. There was no sign of Kowalski.
Ray was briefly offended, then he wondered if maybe Kowalski and Fraser had got to the end of their rope. Maybe Ray'd have Fraser to himself, after all. The thought was like a shot of whisky, warm and intoxicating. But Fraser was smiling and his eyes were clear, and that was just a dream — and not a very charitable one. Ray cast it aside and flung his arms around Fraser, slapping his back and laughing because Fraser was still every inch Fraser. "Hey, Benny. It's good to see you."
"Ray!" Fraser's hug was warm, close and smelled of wood smoke and leather jacket. "Welcome back to Canada."
Dief barked and danced around them until Fraser let Ray go, and then Dief sat down on the tarmac and looked hopefully at Ray as if he thought all Americans came equipped with their own private hotdog stand.
Ray shook his head, grinning. "Yeah, right. Fraser's keeping you malnourished, and I'm Marie Antoinette. Don't think that starving orphan look's going to work on me."
Dief's ears drooped pathetically, and Fraser laughed and picked up Ray's bags from the heap of luggage and miscellaneous cargo next to the plane.
"Hey," said Ray, "how'd you know those were mine?"
They both looked down at Ray's immaculate calf-skin suitcases, and then at the heap of scuffed rucksacks, burlap sacks tied up with twine, and crates of God-only-knew-what on the tarmac, and Fraser said, straight-faced, "I am a trained detective, Ray."
Ray patted his shoulder and smiled. "Good to see you haven't lost your touch."
Fraser and Kowalski's house was in town. Ray had been expecting a long drive — maybe by snowmobile, though he had no idea where Dief would sit — out to a log cabin in the wilds of the ice fields. He'd brought his sub-zero rated mittens 'specially. But instead Fraser drove them in his late model Ford Explorer to a neat two-story house only ten or fifteen minutes from the airport. It was painted slate gray and overlooked the seashore, and it had a satellite dish on the roof. Okay, the neighbors weren't right up against it, but it wasn't anything like Fraser's shack. No isolation, no shed full of dogs. Just a normal run-of-the-mill arctic house.
Kowalski's Pontiac and an ancient Buick sat side-by-side in the double garage, the Buick looking like it was held together with string and cobwebs.
Fraser parked on the street and killed the engine. He must have seen the question on Ray's face. "It was Ray's idea to move into town. He has a lot going on and the commute simply wasn't tenable."
It was easy enough to read between the lines: Kowalski had twisted Fraser's arm. Ray tried to keep the frown off his face as Fraser ushered him inside.
The front door opened onto an entranceway which, in turn, led to the living room. There was a bookshelf stacked with paperbacks, with a radio on top, and a big-screen TV in the corner. The wallpaper was old, the furniture was shabby but comfortable looking, and the faded floral green couch had obviously been repaired more than once. It felt cozy and lived in. At the far end of the room was a dining table, and the large window behind it showed nothing but seashore and sea and sky.
Fraser pointed out the kitchen to the right of the dining area, and took Ray's suitcases into the narrow hallway and showed him to the guest room.
Ray stood in the doorway and tried to adjust to how ordinary it all was, and then a door opened behind him and he turned to see Kowalski standing there in just a towel, ribs sticking out, face unshaven, skin damp and flushed from a recent shower and hair slicked back. Ray hadn't thought of Kowalski as attractive before — he'd had so much attitude when they worked together for that one day in Chicago that Ray had hardly seen past it except for the bad clothes and the thick-rimmed glasses that'd reminded him of Gardino, and Kowalski wasn't anything like Ray's type — but half-naked like this, glowing from his shower, Ray could understand the appeal to Fraser. Kowalski wore his skin well, he was comfortable with himself, even with that ridiculous sparkplug tattoo.
"Hey," he said to Ray, and then turned to Fraser. "Cracked it. She's running like a dream."
"Excellent work, Ray." Fraser beamed at him, then explained to Ray. "Mathilde and Kyle Waterford said that if Ray repaired Bessie, their Buick, that you could have use of it for the duration of your stay."
Kowalski shrugged a thin shoulder. "Just needed a new crank shaft fitted," he said. "How were the flights?"
"Long," Ray told him. "And the lady across the aisle from me couldn't read without sounding out the words."
"Prissy Johnson," said Fraser and Kowalski together.
Ray raised his eyebrows. "What do they do — publish the passenger manifest in the local paper?"
"Welcome to small town Canada — button up your coat, polish your ice skates and say goodbye to your privacy." Kowalski grinned.
Fraser looked briefly pained. "That's a gross exaggeration. Are you home for dinner?"
Kowalski grabbed Fraser's forearm and twisted it so he could check Fraser's watch. "Yeah, just quick though. I got to get to work by six-thirty."
"Of course," said Fraser. "I'll get it started." He pointed at the door Kowalski had just come through. "Ray, if you want to freshen up after your trip, the bathroom's there."
But Ray was eyeing Kowalski curiously. "You work?" He didn't know what he'd expected Kowalski to do — stay home and play house, maybe.
Kowalski narrowed his eyes like he could read Ray's mind, but he just said, "Got to keep busy, you know? Good honest work — that's what happy ever after looks like."
Ray thought of Stella and grimaced. "Sometimes hard work isn't enough."
Fraser clasped his shoulder in sympathy, and then disappeared into the kitchen. Kowalski started to head upstairs, then paused, came back and leaned in, lowering his voice and ignoring the fact he was practically naked. "Listen, if you've got a problem with me and Fraser, you keep it to yourself, okay?"
Ray put on his poker face and held his ground. He could smell Kowalski's shampoo. "What kind of problem?"
"The gay thing." Kowalski sounded fierce and protective. "You know what I mean."
Ray almost laughed. "The gay thing is the least of my problems with you, Kowalski."
Kowalski ducked his head. "Okay then. Good." He met Ray's eye and smiled, this time like he meant it. "In that case, welcome to Canada."
Dinner was moose and mushroom pie, and it tasted like heaven after Ray's day of horrible airport food. They sat around the dining table, with Dief lying on the rug by the radiator, and they looked out at the denim-colored sea and the ghosts of their own reflections in the window.
Kowalski was dressed in a dark blue sweater and jeans, and he'd gelled his hair up. Ray wondered what his job was, where he started in the middle of the evening and they didn't mind him wearing jeans, but Kowalski didn't volunteer the information and Ray didn't ask. Instead they talked about Chicago.
"How long were you back there?" Kowalski asked, seasoning his pie with salt and pepper.
"Four or five weeks," Ray told him. "I left Florida on April nineteenth." He expected a stinging remark about the Stella debacle — maybe a punch to the jaw — but Kowalski didn't even raise an eyebrow.
Instead he nodded as he chewed. "Cool. How is everyone?"
So Ray gave him a run-down on what had been going on. "Welsh has a bunch of rookies working for him — it's like the three stooges, only there's eight of them. The worst one's a guy called Marlowe, thinks he's Sam Spade but he's more like Inspector Clouseau."
Kowalski grinned. "Must be driving Welsh 'round the bend."
"He's losing some hair." Ray glanced at Fraser and caught him watching Kowalski, a crease between his eyebrows, but then Fraser noticed Ray looking and smiled.
"And your family?" he asked.
"Maria and Tony are expecting again. Ma's running the bridge club now — well, she's secretary or something. Always on the phone. And Frannie—" Ray pressed his lips together and shot Fraser a look. "Frannie's seeing Turnbull."
Kowalski cracked a laugh. "You're kidding me! Still?"
"What do you mean 'still'?" Ray glared at him. "The guy's a nutcase. Are you telling me they were dating before and you didn't talk her out of it?"
"You haven't either, and she's your sister," Kowalski pointed out. "You know how she is once she's got an idea in her head."
"Is it serious?" asked Fraser, eyebrows raised. He served himself a second helping of pie and offered more to the others.
"Who can tell with those two." Ray took another mouthful. "I hope not! She'd be better off if she just got over the Canadian dream. I mean, no offence, Fraser—"
"Hey, that—" Kowalski pointed at Fraser with his fork and gave Ray the hairy eyeball. "—was never going to happen. Frannie and Fraser? Give it up."
Ray ignored him. "—but Turnbull's not even close to my ideal brother-in-law."
"None taken," said Fraser, without so much as a glimmer of a smile. "I assure you, Ray, proportionately speaking there are no more unhinged members of the RCMP than of any other law enforcement agency."
"It's just all the Canadian ones get posted to Chicago," said Kowalski, apparently back with the program now. "You'd know." He and Fraser exchanged a warm look.
Ray gave them a moment, and then cleared his throat. "Jack Huey and the new guy opened a comedy club on West Oak."
"I heard about that," said Kowalski. "The One Liner. You been there?"
"I checked it out." Ray collected some peas on his fork. "They've got a glitter ball like it's 1975. And you know why it's called the One Liner? They only have one line." Ray pulled a face. "I never heard so many stinkers. There were barely a dozen people in the audience."
"What else?" Kowalski leaned his elbows on the table. "Has anyone shut down that disgusting diner on East Chestnut yet?"
"Nope, still going strong. Mikey's closed, though. New owner's renovating, all chrome and red leather."
"Aw jeez, not Mikey's." Kowalski looked disgusted. "I loved that place. I practically grew up there." He sighed. "You following the Cubs?"
Ray nodded and he caught Kowalski up on the season so far, until Fraser interrupted. "It's twenty past."
"Crap." Kowalski scraped his chair back and stood up. "I gotta get going." He disappeared into the hallway and came back a few minutes later carrying his parka. "See you later. This'll give you guys a chance to catch up, anyway."
For a wild moment, Ray thought Kowalski was giving him and Fraser permission to catch up, but then he came to his senses, and the second the front door closed, he turned on Fraser. "He doesn't know."
Ray felt a headache gathering at the base of his skull like a stormcloud. Fraser really hadn't changed — still the most irritating man on earth. "About you and me," he said, avoiding Fraser's eye. "You never told him."
"It was a long time ago, Ray," said Fraser, like he was being reasonable and rational and adult. "We've both moved on. It didn't seem— I didn't want to betray your confidence."
"It didn't seem what? Important?" Ray got to his feet and folded his arms, and glared at Fraser. "Thanks a lot."
"Relevant." Fraser's mouth got that stubborn tilt, and he kept his gaze fixed on his water glass, refusing to give Ray the basic courtesy of arguing with him.
"Relevant," he echoed, watching Fraser and wondering for the millionth time what planet he was from. "Okay, fine. Let's ask Kowalski if it's relevant that your ex has come to stay and you didn't tell him about us." He couldn't believe this. Had Fraser forgotten how close they'd been, how their relationship had changed Ray's whole fucking life? It had upset everything — how he felt about his family, the world, himself — and now Fraser had decided that wasn't relevant anymore. Was writing it out of the history books like it'd never been.
Fraser stiffened. "I had no intention of misleading him." He stood up and started clearing the table. "I'll tell him when he gets home tonight."
The victory tasted like sawdust. Ray deflated. What did it matter? If it didn't mean anything to Fraser anymore, then it didn't mean anything at all. And hell, Ray had been married since then. He sighed. "No, I'm sorry, Benny. I'm not here to rock the boat — I'm here to spend time with my best friend. Forget about it." He made himself say it. "Forget it ever happened."
"I can hardly do that." But Fraser looked relieved and offered him a cup of tea, and that seemed to be the end of it.
Ray thought about Kowalski giving him a casual welcome, checking out his attitude to homosexuality, leaving him to catch up with Fraser, desperate for news of Chicago, and he wondered what else Kowalski didn't know.
Ray woke in the middle of the night. The sky was pale behind the curtains but the old-fashioned alarm clock on the nightstand read quarter to one. The house was quiet and Ray lay back down and tried to figure out what had woken him.
The ceiling creaked above him — footsteps upstairs — and then a door closed and there were muffled voices. Kowalski must have gotten home from work. Ray had been so busy catching up with Fraser about the Muldoon case and Fraser's work and the Florida fiasco that he still didn't know what Kowalski did for a living — security, maybe, though it was hard to imagine what might need an armed guard around here.
Ray waited, breathing as quietly as he could, to see if Fraser was going to spill the beans about them being exes like he'd said he would. Ray couldn't hear what they were saying, but he'd be able to get the gist of Kowalski's reaction. It was embarrassing how much he wanted him to get mad, to make a fuss and maybe even throw Ray out on his ear.
The idea that his thing with Fraser wasn't relevant anymore was like a mosquito bite, stinging and itching even worse than his divorce.
But the voices stopped almost as soon as they'd started, and silence settled over the house like a blanket of snow. Ray braced himself for the sounds of sex, of Fraser and Kowalski getting it on while he lay less than fifteen feet away, alone, middle-aged and divorced for the second time. But nothing happened. It stayed quiet. Either they were doing it like church mice, or they'd fallen asleep together, in each other's arms. Ray wasn't sure which was worse.
When he himself finally fell asleep, he dreamed about Fraser in his old apartment on Racine. Fraser opened the door to him, dressed in his undershirt and suspenders, and Ray knew Metcalf was in there, he knew it and it made him furious, but when he pushed past Fraser to find her and arrest her properly, put her away this time for good before anyone got hurt, the apartment was empty, just him and Fraser, and then Fraser was kissing him and his big warm hands were on Ray's back, and his body was strong and unashamed, radiating heat—
Ray slept in, and by the time he'd hauled himself out of bed and into some clean clothes by way of the shower, Fraser had the back door off its hinges and was shaving the bottom edge with an ancient-looking plane. ("It's been sticking," he explained.) Kowalski had already left for work.
"Again?" said Ray, wondering if Kowalski was avoiding him, if he knew after all and this was some elaborate show of faith on his part. "Where the hell does he work that makes him start this early in the morning after keeping him out till all hours last night? Are you sending him down the coal mines?"
Fraser rested the plane on his knee, a curl of wood clinging to his jeans. "He's contracting with the RCMP, and—"
"The RCMP," Ray interrupted. "You mean, he's liaising like you used to? But then why are you here?"
"No, it's not a liaison position," said Fraser. "The RCMP's gathering aerial photographs and blueprints of thousands of potential terrorist targets across Canada as part of a threat response strategy. Of course, we don't have the manpower to collect and collate the information ourselves, so the obvious solution was to enlist Ray's help." He rubbed his sawdusty hand on his thigh. "And I'm here because I took the day off to spend with my good friend Ray." He smiled, but there was something lurking in his eyes that looked like regret.
Ray went over and touched his shoulder, warm through the white wool of his undershirt. "Thanks, Benny," he said softly, and then he flashed on his dream, on his memories from years back, on the feel of Fraser hard up against him, hands and lips and dick. He flushed and stepped back quickly, and cleared his throat. "So, you, uh, you going to show me around this godforsaken outpost of humanity or should I go and lose myself in a snowdrift and wait for Dief to come rescue me?"
Fraser snorted. "It's late spring. I'm afraid you'll be hard pressed to find a snowdrift within easy driving distance."
"Yeah? How about a herd of moose?" Ray pushed a little, glad to have sidestepped the tension, and equally glad there was still something there to sidestep. "I could get lost in one of those."
"Ray, you know as well as I do that moose aren't herd animals. Now if you were to lose yourself in a herd of lemmings—"
"Lemmings? What are you saying? Are you laughing at me?" Ray shook his head mournfully. "Some friend you are. What's for breakfast?"
After he'd eaten and Fraser had re-hung the back door and oiled its hinges, they hit the streets.
"Who's this?" The gruff, old Sergeant at the tiny Detachment HQ was wearing a mustard-colored cable-knit sweater and looked like Teddy Roosevelt without the mustache. He didn't get up, and barely seemed to look at them. His scowl reminded Ray of Welsh before he got his stomach ulcer seen to.
Fraser wasn't bothered by the guy's lack of manners, though. "Sergeant Asquith, this is Detective Ray Vecchio, who was my first partner during my time in Chicago."
Ray shot Fraser a narrow glance, but Asquith distracted him by harrumphing. "Vecchio, eh? Did you get up to as many damned fool exploits as Kowalski?"
"Ray once jumped onto a runaway train full of nuclear waste, sir," Fraser said before Ray could reply. "He also helped me hunt down my father's killers, at considerable risk to himself." He smiled at Ray, his eyes crinkling around the corners, and Ray gazed back helplessly and his heart bumped against his ribs. There was still that zing between them. Asquith would have to be blind not to see it.
Ray was about to defend himself, point out that he didn't go looking for trouble — if only to distract them all from how things were getting too personal; if this was Fraser's idea of just good friends then one of them needed a reality check — but Asquith's expression softened and he held out his hand, and that was the point where Ray realized Asquith was blind.
"Pleasure to meet you, Detective," said Asquith. "It takes guts to work with Fraser. Many have tried, and many have quailed and transferred out of town."
"I can believe it, sir," said Ray, shaking his hand warmly. It seemed like Fraser finally had a CO who not only valued him but liked him, too. "But, you know, it wasn't all bad."
"Really? Personally, sometimes he makes me glad I can't see, what with all that licking of evidence he does," Asquith said dryly. "Anyway, what are you doing here, Corporal? You're on vacation! Get out of here at once."
"Yes, sir." Fraser's spine straightened as if someone had pulled a string. "I'm just showing Ray around."
"Fine, fine." Asquith waved his hand towards the door, and then picked up the headphones that were plugged into his computer and put them on. "You just stay out of trouble for once in your life," he said, and pressed something on the keyboard and apparently started listening to a report or his email or something.
"He seems like a good guy," said Ray when they'd hit the streets and were heading further into the township.
"Asquith? Oh, he is," Fraser agreed. "He was at the Depot with Inspector Thatcher, you know, though they never really hit it off."
"Ah yes, the dragon lady." Ray watched a dirty red pickup truck rattle around the corner. "How's she doing?"
Fraser looked thoughtfully at the overcast sky. "I'm not entirely certain. Turnbull—"
Ray cut him off with a warning look.
"That is," Fraser corrected himself with a poorly disguised grin, "last thing I heard she was involved in a top secret military operation in the Middle East. It's not as though I'm on her Christmas card list." He stopped and looked both ways before ushering Ray across the completely empty street. "In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Inspector didn't have a Christmas card list. Anyway, Sergeant Asquith has always favored small-town postings. Before his snow mobile accident he was tapped to become the Regional Coordinator, but with his loss of eyesight—"
They turned the corner and finally found some signs of life. Three people were conversing outside a general store, and a couple more were leaning on their pickup trucks, smoking. Ray glanced across the street and stopped dead. "Benny—"
"He was offered a medical discharge, of course, but he said he'd rather—"
"Benny!" Ray blinked hard, but the sign didn't change.
"Yes, Ray?" Fraser had walked on a few steps. Now he came back to Ray's side. "Is everything okay?"
Ray pointed across the street. "What's that?"
Fraser turned to look. "It's a pizza parlor, Ray." He clapped Ray on the shoulder trying to jolly him along. His hand lingered an extra half-second, but Ray was too distracted to care.
"A pizza parlor called Vecchio's in Tuktoyaktuk," he said. "What are the chances?" For a moment he just stared up at the professionally lettered sign fringed with unlit lightbulbs. Then he went over to peer in the window. The place was small and empty, but clean. A closed sign hung on the door, and a notice in the window declared their hours to be 6pm to midnight, Monday to Saturday. "Have you tried them? Are they any good?"
Fraser turned up at his elbow. "They've very good," he said. "Very popular. You know, Ray, it's not exactly a coincidence."
Ray turned his head. "What do you mean?"
Fraser smiled proudly and his gesture encompassed the whole building. "This is Ray's pizza parlor."
Ray felt his jaw drop. "Kowalski's?"
"Yes." Fraser looked like he was explaining something simple and obvious.
Ray shook his head, trying to get his facts straight. It didn't help. "Why's it got my name on it?"
"That's rather a funny story, actually."
Ray folded his arms and treated Fraser to a patented Vecchio glare. "Fine. Entertain me."
Fraser jerked his head towards the diner next door, and bought Ray a coffee while he explained. "As you yourself are aware, the process of coming out from undercover — well, it's a process. When Ray filled out the business loan application forms and the commercial license declaration—"
"He put my name by accident? Jesus Christ!" Ray sat down and hung his head over the scarred wooden table top, absorbing this. The metal legs on his chair were uneven and it wobbled when he shifted his weight.
"It was his name too, for two years." Fraser touched his arm briefly, then pulled away and drank a mouthful of tea. "And when Ray realized the mistake, the loan was already approved and besides, he said—"
Fraser hesitated and Ray's incredulity rose even higher: he was stumbling now?! "He said what?"
Fraser licked his lower lip and glanced up to meet Ray's gaze. "He said it was probably just as well, because whoever heard of a—"
"A Polish pizza parlor," Ray finished with him, not sure whether to laugh or yell. This was crazy. "So he's still going by my name? Still?"
Fraser held up his hands. "No, no, no, not at all. No, everyone knows Ray as Ray Kowalski."
"So where does the Vecchio name fit into the picture?" Ray knew his voice was getting higher and louder, but he didn't care.
"Ray Vecchio is, nominally, Ray's business partner. A sleeping business partner, if you will."
Ray stared at him, stunned. "That. Next door. That's my pizza parlor?"
"Well, no, it's—" Fraser pursed his lips and frowned into the middle distance, then looked back at Ray. "In a manner of speaking, I suppose, yes."
"You suppose? Jesus Christ, Benny!" Ray rubbed his hands over his face, closing his eyes so he wouldn't get distracted by Fraser's, warm and blue. "So you're saying I'm the Remington Steele in this scenario."
Fraser tilted his head, perplexed. "The what?"
The bell over the door rang as Ray hurried in out of the evening chill. Inside, the air was loud with Elvis Presley's greatest hits, rich with the scents of dough and herbs and tomatoes, and it was warm enough that Ray started to shrug out of his coat without thinking about it.
Kowalski came over to the counter with a bounce in his step like he was going to start dancing any second. He wiped his hands on his apron, shouted over the music, "What can I get for you?" and got ready to take Ray's order before he registered who it was. He stopped with his pen poised over his notepad, then reached below the counter to turn down the music. "Where's Fraser?"
"He got called out to a domestic." Ray looked around. There were four tall vinyl stools, slightly worn, and a couple of tiny booths, both empty, but most of the building was on the other side of the counter — kitchen and probably a walk-in refrigerator and an office. Ray took the stool nearest the wall. "He said it'd go better if I didn't back him up. Something about small town attitudes to outsiders. So I thought I'd come down and see my pizza parlor in action."
"Your pizza parlor?" Kowalski raised his eyebrows.
Ray smiled sweetly. "It's got my name on it."
Kowalski snorted. "You're not the only Vecchio in the phonebook, you know. It's not like you have a patent on the name." The phone rang, and he flicked it from its cradle with a practiced hand and winked at Ray. "Vecchio's Pizza. Nineteen ninety-five. Another three for delivery." In the kitchen a timer buzzed, and Kowalski covered the receiver with his hand. "Janine! Get the oven!" He turned back to the phone. "Sorry. Yeah, yeah." He scribbled something on his notepad. "Got it. Thirty minutes, tops."
In the kitchen, a young Asian woman wearing army surplus clothing under her apron, with her hair tied back in a scruffy ponytail, hurried through an open doorway, grabbed some scorched oven mitts and a pizza shovel, and approached the oven. She yanked it open and quickly shoveled half a dozen cooked pizzas into waiting cardboard boxes. "Joe!" she yelled.
Joe came in through another door, motorcycle helmet under his arm. "Ready?"
Janine handed him the pizzas, wrapped up in an insulated pizza bag, and a list of the orders. "Don't stop to chat with Eddie this time," she told him.
"It was just one time," said Joe, sounding exasperated.
"It was twice, and if you do it again, Ray's gonna dock your pay." She kissed him quickly on the mouth and shoved him to the back of the kitchen.
Joe said, "Okay, okay," and left through a door beside the coat rack.
Kowalski showed Janine the new order — five "specials" — and the two of them quickly constructed the pizzas and slid them into the oven. Janine retreated into the office and Kowalski came back to the counter. "Sure you don't want a slice?"
"I'm not sure I trust your cooking," Ray lied. "What's she doing back there?"
"Studying for her pilot's license." Kowalski wiped his hands on his apron. "Once she gets it, she and Joe are going to move to Yellowknife and I'll have to train up somebody new." He made a face and poured two glasses of soda from an open bottle of Seven Up. "Tell me more about the new guys at the 2-7."
Ray ignored him. "Why pizza?"
Kowalski sighed, pulled the phone up and set it on the customer side of the counter as far as the cord would reach. He tucked a notepad and pen into his apron pocket, flipped up the hinged section of the counter and came through, then waved Ray to one of the booths and sat across from him.
"Business not so good?" Ray asked, looking around again.
The phone rang on cue. Kowalski took the order and handed it off to Janine, then sat across from Ray. "I wanted a pizza," he said, simply. "After the quest, the fruitless search for Franklin's hand, I was dying for a good slice of—" He waved his hands expressively. "And I knew if I was gonna stay here and make a real go of it, I had to do something. This guy I know in Chicago, Tony, I heard he was upgrading his oven. He said if I paid freight, I could have his old one for free." Kowalski shrugged like it was a simple equation. "He gave me his secret sauce recipe, too. Goes like gangbusters."
"But you're a cop." Ray tried to imagine switching from perps to pizzas — it didn't make any sense.
A shadow crossed Kowalski's face, and Ray was sorry he'd brought it up. "Not here, I'm not."
Come to think of it, it didn't make any less sense than a bowling alley in Florida.
Anyway, Kowalski just took a mouthful of soda, eyed Ray for a moment, clicked the salt and pepper shakers together and added, "And business is great. It'll pick up once the curling's finished."
"Curling." Ray remembered Fraser trying to interest him in the sport years ago.
"There's a big game on TV tonight." Kowalski's lips twisted. "I don't follow it myself, but everything grinds to a halt around here." The phone rang again, and Kowalski took another order and went behind the counter to get the pizzas ready for when the oven freed up. He managed the whole thing easily, like he'd been doing it forever. When he got back, with a couple of cheesy oven-fresh slices this time, Ray said, "Looks like you've found your calling."
Kowalski stared at the plate for a moment. He'd rolled up his sleeves and the hair on his arms gleamed blond under the lights. "It's okay. I feel like I'm undercover as a pizza guy," he said, like he was taking confession. "Like, I'm a secret agent or something. But you gotta make it look good or people won't buy it, you know?"
Ray nodded and changed the subject back to the One Liner and Chicago. He absent-mindedly ate the slice Kowalski pushed towards him, and it was maybe the third best pizza he'd tasted in his life, with just the right amount of crust. When he said as much, Kowalski looked pleased.
"You know what they say." He draped his arm along the back of the booth and planted his foot on the seat next to him, his knee bent at an impossible angle. "If you're gonna do it, do it right."
"For pizza this good, I may have to declare you an honorary Italian," Ray told him.
Kowalski laughed loudly at that. "An honorary Italian, huh? So what else is new?"
"You know what I miss?" It was past ten, and the steady stream of post-curling customers had hit a lull. Kowalski slumped back down in the booth while Janine straightened up the kitchen. "Little stuff," said Kowalski, answering his own question, "like that corner at the top of Lake Shore Drive where the curb's whacked and if you take it too fast, your right-hand tires nearly lift off the road. You know it?"
"Yeah." Ray frowned at the softness in his own voice, and sat back. His fourth glass of soda was nearly empty. "Though you wouldn't get that if you drove a real car."
"Your real car nearly got me blown up." Kowalski twirled his pen around his fingers and looked nostalgic. "Don't get me wrong — I wouldn't trade what I've got for a hundred Chicagos—"
Ray nodded. "But you miss it."
Kowalski smiled but the corners of his mouth turned down. "The traffic, the taste of the air, disgusting gray snow. Stupid crack-head perps." He crossed his arms and leaned both his elbows on the table. "I spent my whole life learning what to yell at assholes in traffic jams, how to break up a gang fight, and now it's all — esoteric." He waved his hand at the plate glass window behind Ray. "And I got a whole new skill set I have to grab a hold of."
"Academic." Ray glanced at Kowalski's hands, sensitive and capable, city hands like Ray's own. He looked away. "I was the same in Vegas. I had Nero tending to my every need, but some nights I wanted nothing on earth more than to be sitting in a dive bar on Belmont drinking flat beer and watching hockey on ESPN with the guys from my neighborhood. When it's in your blood, it's in your blood."
"Exactly." Kowalski hunched his shoulders a little. "Can't fight it. No point trying."
"Speaking of," Ray said casually, "I thought for sure the log cabin in the middle of a thousand square miles of snow was in Fraser's blood, but you got him to move here. How does that work?"
The bell over the door jangled and half a dozen teenagers came in with a couple of older, barrel-chested bearded guys in bright hunting jackets.
Kowalski stood up, ignoring Ray's question, and looked down at him speculatively.
Ray shifted in his seat. "What?"
"Want to lend a hand?" There was more than a little challenge in there, and Ray raised his chin instinctively, then laughed and slapped his hands on his thighs.
"Why the hell not?"
So Kowalski gave him a spare apron and he spent the next hour working the till and taking phone orders, enjoying it more than he expected. They were busy and the place was full of the jovial good humor that came when the favored team kicked ass.
"Who're you?" asked a thick-set woman with a gruff voice. "Where's Ray?"
"Raymond Vecchio at your service, ma'am," he told her, giving her his extra-charming smile, though she looked like an out-sized gnome. "What can I get you?"
She snorted disbelievingly, and then her eyes widened. "The Raymond Vecchio?"
Ray placed his hand over his heart. "The one and only."
"I thought you were a figment of his hyperactive imagination, whatever Fraser said." She pulled some wire-rimmed glasses out of her pocket, put them on and looked him up and down, then sniffed, but somehow Ray liked her anyway.
"Vera!" called Kowalski from the back. "You want the usual?"
"Not tonight, boyo," she hollered. "I just came in to say Pawn to Queen's Knight Four."
"Again?" Kowalski groaned loudly. "We've been down this road how many times now?"
"I have a new strategy," Vera said, with dignity.
"Your new strategy sounds a lot like your old strategy so far," Kowalski said, coming over to the counter. He had a smudge of flour on his chin. "Bishop captures Knight's Pawn."
Vera gave him a withering glance, bought a bottle of Coke off Ray and left again.
Ray woke early the next morning, drenched in sweat, his heart pounding. All he could remember from his dream was the pink-jeweled headdress of a showgirl, the feathers curled and bobbing like waves on a Florida beach.
He dried his face on the bedsheet and lay there, thinking about Vegas and his family, and Kowalski, and how it felt to be a long way from home.
The bed was too short. He tossed up between getting up to tuck the end of the sheet back in to keep his feet warm and just getting up altogether — and then it started, the subtle muffled symphony of Fraser and Kowalski having sex.
Ray breathed silently, trying to parse the quiet groans, the thud and squeak of furniture, wondering who was doing who. Then he realized he was listening in, and he flushed all over, flung himself out of bed, dragged on yesterday's clothes, still smelling richly of tomato sauce and pizza dough, shoved his feet into his hiking boots and left the house.
He went down the shore, grey shingle crunching and sliding under his feet. It had been easy to forget Kowalski and Fraser were lovers — they were matter-of-fact with each other, at least in Ray's presence, and they'd both made an effort to treat him like a guest and not a third wheel — but it was Benny up there in that bedroom, and Ray knew how he felt, how he tasted, how his breath would hitch when you first touched his cock.
Ray grabbed a fist-sized rock from the ground in front of him and hurled it into the ocean, twenty, thirty feet out. Then another and another. The repetition of bending to pick up the next stone, the force of each fling jarring his muscles. It felt good.
Seagulls wheeled overhead, confused and hungry.
Ray ran out of fury and stood panting at the oily northern sea, not wanting to be there but with nowhere else to go.
There were a couple of beached dinghies further along the shore, their red and yellow paint flaking, names unreadable. Ray knew the feeling.
When he got back, Kowalski was sitting on the couch in the living room in worn jeans and a sweatshirt, bare feet propped on the coffee table. His jeans were frayed around the cuffs, soft threads curled against the angular knob of his ankle, and he was reading from a small leather-bound book, his forehead creased in concentration. He glanced up, acknowledged Ray silently, then went back to reading. There was no sign of Fraser, and it was easy to picture him dozing in bed, his hair stuck to his sweaty forehead, that stupid smile on his face like he had everything he'd ever wanted.
Ray left his boots in the entranceway and padded to the kitchen to make coffee, unable to summon enough generosity to offer Kowalski a cup. When he sipped it, it was scalding and bitter on his tongue. He sat at the dining table, warming his hands on his cup, and watched Kowalski read.
Finally, without looking up, Kowalski said, "What?"
"How'd you get Fraser to move into town? Into a house?" Ray knew his words were thick with suspicion. He hoped Kowalski wouldn't hear that, but maybe they were too alike. Kowalski's gaze sharpened. He moved the bookmark to his current page and put the book down. Its warm tan cover was blank, free of a title.
"We decided together," he said mildly. "We're in this for the long haul, whatever happens, fire, flood, loss of limb, getting old. We have to live somewhere we can both survive, somewhere we can look after each other and get help if we need it."
He stood up and stretched, and his t-shirt rode up, revealing a sliver of belly, and for a second all Ray could see was that lean golden body bent over Fraser, kissing his shoulder blade, fucking him from behind. The two of them together. It stung like salt in an open wound.
"Besides," Kowalski continued, oblivious, "the cabin's a bitch of a commute. I got a business to run." He grinned at Ray, trying to make a connection, but Ray was in no state to respond.
"Right," said Ray, shortly, and went to take a shower, to sluice off these inappropriate reactions and messed-up feelings Fraser didn't deserve.
Fraser had Kowalski. Kowalski had Fraser. Ray didn't have anyone.
That was the way it was. The right way, ordained by something bigger than Ray. It wasn't anyone's fault, and it wasn't going to change.
According to Fraser, Pingo National Landmark was better designed for access by boat, but he suggested they hike in anyway. "I need to stretch my legs."
"What the hell is a pingo?" said Ray. "It sounds like something I'd buy my nieces for Christmas."
"It's an arctic ice dome." Fraser cleared the breakfast table and scrubbed out the oatmeal pan. "A hill made of frozen water, covered in earth and vegetation. They can reach as much as a hundred and sixty feet. They're plentiful in the region, and the National Landmark protects eight of them in just six square miles."
"Great," said Ray, trying to inject some enthusiasm into his voice. He scraped his chair back and looked out the window at the blue sky dotted with thick gray clouds. "Okay, I'll come hiking with you so long as you swear you won't get paralyzed from the waist down and need me to carry you. My back's not what it was, and you're not the willowy guy you used to be either."
Fraser smiled down at his dish towel. "It's a deal. I promise to steer well clear of head injuries this time."
"Wish I could come with you, but HQ's got my deadlines in a vise." Kowalski was lugging a carton of files out to his car. "Next time."
"Of course," said Fraser, and stopped him briefly to kiss his mouth, simple and frank, making Ray's chest ache.
The tundra looked flat from a distance, but up close the surface was uneven, filled with hummocks and crevices. Fraser led the way unerringly, of course, and Ray brought up the rear, lost in a world of thought and memory. Songbirds called from overhead, and the air was crisp and clear in the strange natural world of the ice hills.
Dief galloped on ahead in search of scent trails, and double-backed to keep an eye on them, over and over, as if he didn't trust them not to get lost.
Ray hit a rhythm with his walking, and he was at peace with the whole deal, the world and his place in it, the sun bleaching out the sky and the way his left boot was blistering his heel. He was okay, clinging to a fragile serenity, until Fraser started humming California Dreaming, taking Ray back four years to the time, the place that started it all. A simpler time when the things Ray wanted weren't impossible and out of reach, even though they'd sure felt like they were.
Ray put up with it as long as he could, then burst out, "What are you doing, Benny?"
Fraser slowed and glanced back at him. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"I mean, you invite me here as a friend, you've got this thing going with Kowalski, you say what we had isn't relevant anymore, but you still keep looking at me like — and singing that song—" Ray put his hands on his hips and glared at Fraser. "Why are you making this so complicated?"
Fraser glanced up the path ahead, maybe checking on Dief, then met Ray's eye. "Human beings, by their very nature—"
"Stop it," Ray interrupted firmly. "Stop that." Jesus, he wanted to shake the guy. Fraser was the only man on earth who could make him this mad, this quickly. "You've got it good. Kowalski, he's a nice guy, he cares about you, he's even not bad-looking if you go for — God, why am I defending him when I should be trying to get you back?"
Fraser picked up a stick and poked gently at the mossy ground. He didn't step closer but he didn't move away, either. "Ray, what we had. If things were different. I don't want you to think I replaced you—"
"—with the first Ray that came along?" Ray finished for him. "Why the hell would I think that?"
Fraser winced, and that made Ray feel bad, and then he briefly hated both of them — himself for feeling bad and Fraser for getting them into this position in the first place. A shadow swept the trail and Ray shivered. Behind Fraser's head something was leaping around in the stubby trees. Maybe a squirrel.
Ray sighed and looked at Fraser, older, confident, for once in his life getting the love he deserved. "You're happy with him, right? You got what you wanted?"
Fraser only hesitated a fraction, then nodded, a quick duck of his head. He looked serious, like they were setting out their destinies, but they weren't. Fate had already decided everything for them.
Ray swallowed any regrets he might still have, walked over and patted Fraser's arm. "Then don't mess it up, you moron."
"Thanks, Ray." Fraser looked up, caught his eye, and the connection between them flared, just as strong as it'd ever been.
Ray backed off quickly. "And for Christ's sake, stop trying to spare my feelings — you're only making it harder," he added gruffly. He pushed ahead on the trail and started walking again, knowing Fraser would follow.
They walked in silence for a while, their shadows keeping time. Ray focused on the spongy ground under his feet, the earthy icy smell, and the glimpses up ahead of Dief's tail held high like a flag.
Behind him, Fraser sighed. "I'm sorry."
"Forget it." Ray didn't want to talk about it anymore. If they talked about it, how the hell could he keep up the pretense that he was over it? He kept his eyes straight ahead and kept tromping along the trail, which broke out of the bushes onto a narrow gravel beach.
"I've missed you, Ray." Fraser's voice was low and earnest, barely audible over their footsteps. "And not just as a friend."
It was like the sky darkened. Ray turned on him and exploded. "Jesus Christ! Did you hear any of what I said just now? You can't say that! Don't you know how—" His hands clenched into fists, and he stood there vibrating with frustration, half wanting to sink into the ground and disappear forever, become part of the land Fraser loved so much, and half wanting to punch him on the nose. And this was familiar, too. When they'd been together, Fraser had driven him crazy often as not, and it was frustration that had fueled their most passionate lovemaking. There'd been one time in the Riv during the case with the egg guy. Ray couldn't remember the details of the case anymore, just the way Fraser's hips had reddened under Ray's tight grip as Ray's outrage turned to hunger. And Christ Almighty, he shouldn't be thinking about that. "You heard of boundaries, Benny?"
"I'm trying to be honest with you," said Fraser, unyielding as ever. "You have a right to know." He gestured at the world around them, the sea and the trees, Tuktoyaktuk on the other side of the inlet and the pingos to the south. "We're all mosaics, Ray, complete wholes built up from the pieces of our pasts."
Great. Mountie philosophy. That was what had been missing from Ray's life all these years. He snorted and pointed a warning finger at him. "You dumb lunk, there's honest and then there's too much information. You have to know where the personal boundaries are, Fraser, because if you don't, you end up riding roughshod over everyone else's, you hear me?" Ray let his finger drop, stopped holding back and met Fraser's eye, letting him see all the conflicting emotions seething inside him. And then Ray turned and walked back the way they'd come. "And you might want to consider saving some of that precious honesty of yours for your boyfriend," he said under his breath, a parting shot he knew Fraser, with his perfect Canadian bat-ears, couldn't help but hear.
They were barely speaking to each other by the time they got back. At least, Ray was barely speaking to Fraser. Fraser retaliated by reciting a travelogue, pointing out local landmarks and going on and on about how pingos were the height of Eskimo technology and the Inuvialuit had used them for centuries to sight both caribou and whales.
It was a relief when, upon their arrival back at the house, Fraser's cellphone rang calling him to a dispute between some neighbors, a few miles out of town. "You're welcome to join me," he told Ray.
"Not this time, Fraser." Ray was looking forward to a few hours alone so he could sort out his head and his heart.
He'd known it would be weird seeing Fraser after all this time, seeing him with Kowalski. He'd known he still wanted to be with Fraser — that no matter how much Fraser pissed him off, their years together had been the happiest, most exciting time of his life. And he'd known it wasn't going to work out that way this time.
Of course, knowing all that in advance didn't make experiencing it any easier.
And, see, the upshot of it all was that Ray should be jealous of Kowalski, plain and simple. But — and it was unsettling to admit it, even to himself — jealous wasn't the word for how Kowalski made him feel. He didn't know what the word was, but against all odds, Ray actually liked the guy, he didn't want to make things difficult for him. Maybe protective was the word he was looking for, and wasn't that a turn-up for the books.
Ray made a cup of coffee and drank it down, leaning on the kitchen counter and gazing out the blue-framed window at the glinting sea. He felt tired and every one of his thirty-nine years weighed heavily on him. Maybe he should think about going back to Chicago. Pick up the pieces of his former life and try to rebuild it. Like Fraser had said, everyone was a mosaic.
Of course, he'd be rebuilding it without the brightest, most important piece, but he could still make something good with what he had left. He hoped he could, anyway, seeing as how he didn't have any say in the matter.
He paced the house restlessly. The bathroom smelled of Kowalski — and was it fucked up that he knew his ex's boyfriend's smell after only twenty-four hours? Because he did. It was warm and spicy, and when Ray closed his eyes he could see Kowalski jutting his chin out, mocking him.
Ray shook his head clear of the image and backed out of the bathroom, fetched up by the couch in the living room with the untitled leather-bound book that Kowalski had been reading earlier in his hands.
It was a diary, but not one of Robert Fraser's. After years watching Fraser search for himself in the closely-written pages of Robert Fraser's journals, Ray knew Robert's handwriting as well as he knew Fraser's own.
This writing was rounded and looping, a girl's hand, and the ink was faded.
Ray flicked past a couple of pages and Kowalski's bookmark fluttered to the floor. It was a typewritten letter on thin blue airmail paper. He was trespassing and he knew it, but he was also a detective and there was no way he could let a clue slip by without finding out what it said.
As I'm sure you've heard, a recent gas explosion blew a hole in the roof of my father's house. Dad wasn't badly hurt in the blast, though he did get an enormous splinter embedded in his thigh just above his old knife wound. Anyway, while helping Dad sort through the damage in what was left of the attic, I came across your mother's diary. I don't know how long it's been hidden away up there, tucked in with my own mother's papers. Dad certainly never mentioned it. I thought you should have it.
Dad's keeping good health. He says this year's batch of new cadets are as green as the moss on an outhouse door, whatever that means. His digestive complaints continue but don't seem to slow him down at all.
Patty starts high school in the fall. We get along as well as you'd expect for a mother and her teenage daughter.
I hope your new circumstances are treating you well, Fraser, and that you're happy. I'm glad you've found someone after all these years. If you're ever in town, please stop by for a meal. I know Dad would love to see you.
Best wishes, Julie Frobisher
P.S. I've gone back to my maiden name, in case you wondered. It seemed like it was time.
Ray ran his thumb over the cover of the diary with renewed respect. Fraser's mom's diary. Wow. He sat on the edge of the couch and opened it reverently, about a third of the way through. The left-hand page was blank as though it marked the end of a chapter. He started to read.
November, 13 — Robert's on patrol. Last winter, my first winter without sun, I promised myself I'd be home by now. I sat in the dark with only the stove and a lantern for company, and plotted how I'd spent the spring and summer falling out of love with Bob and goading him into falling out of love with me, and then I could leave and go home. As the midday grew paler, I stopped keeping this diary, too ashamed of myself to write any of this down, and I started to put my plan into action: I was slovenly, I didn't wash, I argued about everything. I was tired and miserable, and I wouldn't sing a note.
And then, hell and damnation, I was pregnant.
But there's a happy side. Until June, our nearest neighbors were George and Martha. Martha never approved of me and didn't take great pains to hide it. She thought I was flighty (little did she know!), and she kept giving me plain warm clothes that itched and scratched as though my favorite things were somehow unseemly. But in June, Buck Frobisher married Carrie and brought her home to our little village, and my life changed so much for the better.
I haven't had a best friend since school. Things were always so busy at home after Papa died, and what with Uncle Nathan's accident and Mama's decline, there was never time for frivolous conversation. Here in the arctic, of course, we have little but time. And Carrie is a darling! She and I took to each other at once, and I can't say how much it's improved my lot. She understands. And she's the funniest thing!
It's not that Bob's unkind, of course. He tries, oh, how he tries. But he's lived here his whole life. He thinks it's normal when there's twelve feet of fresh snow before breakfast, or when a moose wanders through the yard. I knew all that before I married him, of course, and I don't really regret it. Not now. (The baby just kicked! The doctors can't tell, but I know it's going to be a boy!) But I was starting to forget what "normal" felt like. I knew this place wasn't it but I couldn't remember what was.
Now I have Carrie to bear witness with me, and we reassure each other that it is ridiculous to try to eke out a life in this wasteland, but it's tremendous fun, too. Every day there's some trouble or mishap, but I think — No, I finally believe that I may survive this adventure after all.
Blood. Benny was bleeding, and he smelled disgusting. Ray dropped Caroline Fraser's diary on the coffee table and sprang to help him, and nearly tripped over Dief in the process. Dief whose neckruff was also matted pink with blood.
"What happened? What's that smell?" Ray grabbed Fraser's undamaged arm and tried to haul him through to the kitchen so he could sit him down and get a good look at him, but Fraser resisted, of course. "Do you need a doctor?"
No, that was stupid. If Fraser needed a doctor, he'd have gone to a hospital — or whatever passed for one in these parts. On the other hand, this was Fraser. Maybe he was dying but he had to fill out his arrest report and make sure his bed was made with hospital corners in accordance with RCMP regulations before he could rest in peace.
"It's nothing, Ray. I'm fine," Fraser was saying. "I need to take Dief to the vet but he insisted we come here first. I suspect he just wanted me to change my boots. Wolves have very sensitive noses."
Ray hardly heard him. "Benny, you're bleeding." His jacket sleeve was torn, and beneath that, his sweater was dark and glistening. "It's going to get all over the furniture. Come on through to the kitchen."
"It's barely a scrape," said Fraser, but Dief sat up and barked sharply, succeeding where Ray had failed. "All right, but only if you'll agree to see Vera afterward," Fraser told the wolf.
"Vera the chess lady?" Ray asked, partly to distract Fraser while Ray peeled the shredded jacket off him, and partly from honest confusion.
"Yes, she's the town veterinarian." Fraser listed starboard. Ray steered him over to the table, bundled him into a chair and helped him off with his sweater and, more reluctantly, his boots which were sticky and revolting. Whatever was on them made Ray's eyes water.
He put the boots outside on the back doorstep and closed the door, and then washed his hands at the kitchen sink three times to get the horrible smell off them and make sure he wasn't going to infect Fraser's cuts. Then he found a newspaper, spread it on the table in front of Fraser and laid his arm across it.
"Did you arrest the guy?" He pressed his lips together while he unbuttoned Fraser's plaid shirt and pushed it off his shoulders. The last time they'd done this—
"Who?" Fraser asked, wide-eyed, as though he wasn't sitting there worked over until his forearm was hamburger. He was developing a black eye and already had bruises coming up on his shoulder that Ray could see now around Fraser's undershirt. And there was a long gash on his arm.
Ray scowled at the wound. It wouldn't have happened if he'd gone with Fraser. Damned Mounties — why didn't they have partners, and backup when they needed it, like normal cops? He wadded up the ruined shirt, wrapped it in a clean dishtowel and pressed it against the top of the cut where it was still seeping blood. "Hold this," he said. "Where's the first aid kit?"
"The cupboard on the left, under the toaster," Fraser told him, taking the make-shift pad. "You know, Ray, in remote settlements such as Tuk, most — ah — law enforcement work is really arbitration and, uh, mediation of disputes between people — who already know each other." He sounded dazed and dreamy. He must be in shock.
Ray found the first aid kit in a wooden box and set it on the table. He put the kettle on for tea. Then he started rooting through the kit for supplies, and just let Fraser talk.
"Certainly we have our share of tourists in the season, but they're generally well-behaved. So I wasn't really expecting—"
Ray found Fraser's little jar of first aid goo and some cotton swabs, and he moved in and angled Fraser's head back so he could see properly, and Fraser let him. Ray could feel his body heat. He bent close and carefully dabbed goo on Fraser's cuts, keeping his hand steady by resting his pinky finger on Fraser's cheek. "You weren't expecting what?"
Fraser's voice was still dreamy and disjointed. "A polar bear."
Ray paused with his pinky finger still on Fraser's cheek and looked at him. "A polar bear?"
"A polar bear." Fraser's eyes were dark and mesmerizing. Ray forgot all about being mad at him. He took a sterile wipe to the sink and dampened it, then came back and gently wiped a smear of drying blood from Fraser's chin. "You got attacked by a polar bear?"
He moved closer, squinting against the pungent smell of the goo and the fading odor of whatever had been on the boots.
Tremors ran through Fraser's body as Ray tended each wound, one after the other, and Ray's world narrowed and focused down to the two of them, their breath coming in time.
The damage wasn't as bad as Ray had first thought. Not on Fraser's face, anyway, and the wound on his arm had almost stopped bleeding, barring a few places where it was oozing sluggishly around the clots. But it was a long enough gash that he hesitated. "You should get this stitched up, Benny."
"It's not as bad as it looks." Fraser was really out of it, his eyes fixed on Ray's mouth like the answers to the universe were written there.
"That may be so—" Ray brushed the bangs off Fraser's forehead. "—but I don't want to have to answer to Kowalski if I screw this up."
They both ground to a halt and stared at each other for a long minute. Fraser's eyes dark with pain or shock or Ray's nearness. Ray didn't know what was showing on his own face, but his heart was bursting with longing and tenderness, and it took everything he had not to press his lips to Fraser's mouth, blood and goo and possible broken bones or not. Kowalski or not.
Fraser's tongue slid slowly along his lower lip, leaving a sheen of saliva that made Ray's mouth water.
Ray stood up, backed off and closed his eyes, trying to get himself under control.
"I'm sorry, Ray, I can't—" Fraser sounded hazy and distressed, and he didn't finish the sentence even though Ray gave him plenty of time to.
Then Dief barked impatiently from right by Ray's knee, and Ray jumped a mile in the air, his pulse racing. "Okay, okay," he muttered. "I'm on it." He went back to the first aid kit and found some adhesive butterfly sutures, and tried one last time. "Let me take you to a doctor."
Fraser leaned back in his chair and tilted his head up to meet Ray's gaze. "No, I—"
"Jesus Christ, Fraser!" Ray said, torn between fondness and frustration. "Still the stupidest, most stubborn man on earth."
"Foolish, certainly. If Dief hadn't risen to the occasion, I doubt I'd be sitting here talking to you now."
Ray refused to think about that. "So what happened?" He sat down at the table and started carefully applying the butterfly sutures, one after the other.
Fraser's mouth curved up at the corner. "Abby Byatt accused the Steinbachs of damaging her buckets."
"Buckets." Ray worked as quickly as he could, too aware of Fraser, the warmth of his skin. The fact that he needed taking care of and Ray was the guy doing it. The guy who wanted to do it. Words hovered on the tip of his tongue. Are we really over, Benny? Do you still love me? Do you even know what you want? But he didn't know if he could stand to hear the answers, whichever way it went.
"Pails. Yes. And of course, the Steinbachs had no idea what she was talking about."
Ray put a dressing over the butterfly sutures, and started bandaging it in place. "Does this hurt?"
"Yes, rather a lot." Fraser had gone dreamy again.
Ray had to get this done and get some tea into him. "Sorry."
"So I asked what she'd been keeping in the buckets, and she said fish guts."
"Aw, gross! That's the smell?" Ray's stomach turned at the thought. "I've been in Canada for less than two days and already I've had rotting fish guts on my hands. Don't tell me, you're working up to taking me rooting through a dumpster tomorrow. You sure know how to show a guy a good time, Benny."
Fraser smiled faintly and licked his lip again. "As you know, with police work you can never — anticipate every required course of action. But no, I assure you, dumpsters weren't on the schedule."
"Okay," Ray smiled at him. "No dumpsters. Good. But still, fish guts. Is that normal around here? Some kind of hobby I don't want to know about?"
"No, and there's a very good reason for that. Though interestingly, in ancient Rome fermented fish guts were considered a delicacy. But no. Generally, this far north it's deemed unwise to risk—"
The logic clicked into place. "Polar bears." Ray gently cleaned Fraser's wrist, and smoothed the hairs down flat.
"Precisely." Fraser's pupils were far too big.
Ray took a deep breath. "Benny, I really think—"
"I'm fine, Ray."
"No, I mean, are we—"
The front door opened and Kowalski bowled in. "Fraser, what the fuck happened? Abby called and said you got mauled by a polar bear."
Fraser sprang to his feet. Ray gave him ten out of ten for self-incrimination and started packing away the first aid kit, and didn't look at either of them.
"As you can see, Ray, I'm completely fine." Fraser met Kowalski's gaze and gave him a strained smile. "Diefenbaker saved the day."
"Good for Dief." Kowalski bent down and patted him. "Thanks, Furface. Pizza for you. Whose blood is that?" He frowned, and then he came over to Fraser and pulled him into his seat and sat next to him, across the table from Ray, examining the dressing on his arm, tracing the cuts on his face. "Look at you — you're not fine. Come on, I'm taking you to the doc."
"That's not at all necessary." Fraser caught his hand and held it. "Ray has kindly cleaned me up, and all I really need now is a cup of tea and I'll be right as rain."
"Cup of tea." Kowalski snorted, but stopped pushing. "Is he lucid?" he asked Ray. "Has he been saying anything weird?"
"Weirder than normal? Nope." Ray voice came out calm and steady. He put the kit away and Kowalski took cups from the shelf and set them on the table, then found a teapot. "And you used that antiseptic cream, right? The moose blubber stuff."
"Indeed he did, Ray." Fraser forced a tired smile. "Please stop fussing."
"Stop fussing. Stop fussing?" Kowalski braced both hands on the table and inhaled deeply through his nose, holding it, probably for a count of ten. "Frase, you had a run-in with a polar bear!" he said loudly and clearly. "If it weren't for your wolf, you'd be lunch by now." He stopped and hung his head, his fingers twitching against the tabletop. Then he stood up, resting his weight on one hip. "Listen to me. Wolves and polar bears. How is this my life?"
Ray got the milk from the fridge. "One of the ladies in Stella's bookclub in Floria had her leg bitten off by an alligator."
Kowalski turned to him and pointed. "You see? You see? That's what I mean. This kind of thing does not happen in Chicago!"
"I don't know about with you, but when I was working with Fraser, plenty of weird stuff happened in Chicago." Ray shook his head, remembering. "Plenty."
Kowalski folded his arms. "Well, that's true." He considered. "Maybe location's got nothing to do with it. Maybe it's just a Fraser thing." He turned back to Fraser and pointed at him accusingly. "Crazy Mounties."
Fraser smiled. "Yes, Ray."
And that was Ray's answer, right there.
Dief sat up and whined pathetically. Kowalski, who had only just sat back down at the table, sprang up again as though he couldn't stay still. He started pacing the worn linoleum.
"Yes," Fraser told Dief. "You know I would have taken you there first if you hadn't insisted."
Dief twitched his ears, and Fraser nodded. "And I appreciate it, but don't think that means you won't be getting a full examination."
Dief groaned and lay down sulkily next to Fraser's chair, resting his head on his paws.
"He doesn't like having his temperature taken," Fraser explained to Ray across the teacups.
"Which me, personally, I do not get," said Kowalski. He came up behind Fraser and winked at Ray. "I'd have said that was the best part."
"Well, clearly it comes down to personal preference." Fraser somehow kept a straight face. "And even then—" He twisted to see Kowalski's face. "By Vera?"
Ray's face had heated up at the innuendo, but that made him grin.
"Okay, not by Vera," Kowalski admitted. "I don't play vets and wolves with just anyone." He smiled down at Fraser and squeezed his shoulders.
"Regardless, I should take him in." Fraser drained his teacup and got to his feet, swaying slightly. Ray reached out to steady him but Kowalski was already there, and Ray snatched his hand back and went to put his teacup in the sink.
"I'm coming too," Kowalski said. "I just got to call Janine and tell her to hold the fort till I get there."
"If you need an extra pair of hands—" Ray was prodded more by his conscience than any urgent desire to learn more about the pizza business. Kowalski didn't deserve the mess that was Ray and Fraser, and their feelings for each other after all this time.
Kowalski looked surprised, frowned at him thoughtfully for a moment. "You sure? You don't have to."
"It's got my name on the sign, right?" Ray shrugged. He glanced at Fraser and looked away again, and went to change into something pizza-friendly.
"It's all confidence and aerodynamics." Janine was showing Ray how to shovel pizzas out of the oven and slide them into their boxes without burning his hand or dropping melted cheese all over the floor.
Ray had already landed one on his foot and one half on the counter, half in its box. He watched how she did it, relaxed in the shoulders, all the control coming from her wrists, then he took the shovel off her. "I can do that."
"I hope so, or Maureen's going to be waiting a long time for her order." But she grinned at him. In a town this size, Kowalski didn't have to offer time limit deals to get business. Janine had already explained that people would be patient, especially when they heard about Fraser's misadventure.
Ray remembered what Kowalski had said about being undercover as a pizza guy, and then thought back to his childhood and Nunzio Pirelli on the corner, hunched and capable, flipping dough and snapping pizzas out of the oven, even when he could barely walk from the arthritis.
Ray scooped up the pizza, ignoring the blast of heat on his face, and dumped it in its box like he'd been doing it for years.
"Nice job," said Kowalski from behind him. "It took Janine a week to get that right."
The phone rang just then, so Ray didn't have to respond. Kowalski answered it and took the order, finishing up, "He's fine. They both are. Dief's earned himself about a hundred pizza points." He laughed at something the caller said, hung up and handed the order off to Janine, who pulled a face and bossed him into helping her get the pizzas ready for the oven.
Ray left his apron on the coat rack, flipped up the counter and went through to the customer section, where Fraser was perched on a stool at the counter with Dief on the floor beside him. Both booths were already occupied and there was a hum in the air of good food and contented conversation.
"Everything okay?" Ray jerked his head at Dief.
"A clean bill of health," Fraser told him. "Vera didn't even take his temperature."
"Narrow escape, eh, Dief?" Ray grinned in spite of himself and took the stool next door.
Fraser reached over the counter and helped himself to a couple of glasses and a bottle of soda, completely at home. He poured them each a glass and cocked his head, listening to the music. "Your choice?"
"How'd you guess?" It was the best of Dean Martin. Ray had bought himself a copy not long after he and Fraser had got it together, and played it in the car for months. And maybe that should be awkward now, but it didn't have to be, right? They were supposed to be friends here, and that only worked if it was based on their shared past, not on pretending it never happened. He gave Fraser the once-over. "Looks like you've recovered already."
"I received excellent attention," said Fraser, too warmly, and Ray wanted to call him on that — they were back where they'd been this morning, brakes off and boundaries shot to hell, with the breathless first aid session complicating things even further and, okay, the music wasn't helping any, either — but Kowalski was right there, bringing them pizza and making sure Dief got his share. Kowalski was full of the reckless good cheer that Ray knew well from other times Fraser had done something stupid and miraculously managed to not die.
The bell over the door tinkled, and Ray and Fraser both turned to see Sergeant Asquith come in, led by a slim dark woman in brown coveralls, accompanied by two lanky teenage boys with matching brown hair.
"Sir," Fraser welcomed him, and introduced Ray to his wife Willa and their two sons, Harry and Fred. "I'm afraid I've yet to fill out my report for the afternoon," Fraser said apologetically.
Asquith's mouth twisted with wry humor. "From what I hear, it'll be a page-turner. Abby said if it weren't for your wolf, we'd be piecing it together from eye-witness statements. She babbled apologies in my ears for an hour, and the Steinbachs called to say they're sending the detachment some pâté in thanks for you rescuing their geese."
Fraser flushed. "That's very kind of them, sir, but I hardly—"
"Corporal," Asquith cut him off, "next time it's a choice between your life and the safety of a flock of geese, however tasty, please bear in mind how difficult it can be to find officers willing to serve at this latitude." Asquith shook his head despairingly, and let his wife seat him in a recently vacated booth. Their sons sat opposite him.
"Yes, sir." Fraser, who'd stood up to perform the introductions, sat down again, chastened.
"Geese, Frase?" Kowalski glared at him, though the corners of his mouth were twitching. "Let me guess why you didn't share that juicy detail."
"I was never in any serious danger," Fraser protested lightly.
"That's not what that gash on your arm says," said Ray, perfectly willing to gang up on Fraser about it. However invincible he might think he was, Mother Nature clearly had other ideas.
"See? Even Vecchio agrees with me." Kowalski leaned over the counter and pointed two fingers at Fraser's chest. "No risking your life for fowl!"
"Hey," Ray objected. "What's this 'even' about? I'm the voice of reason and restraint!"
Kowalski looked at him, eyes dancing. "That's what you say," he said, "but given how off-the-wall Fraser was when he and I first teamed up, I figure you weren't exactly a steadying influence."
"He tried," Fraser explained solemnly, "but apparently I'm incorrigible."
"Is that so?" Kowalski raised his eyebrows. "On the very first day I met you, you told me Vecchio would run into burning buildings for fish—"
"I doubt those were my exact words," Fraser said mildly, "and if you'll recall, the building in question was his own."
"—and on the day I met you," Kowalski directed his gaze at Ray, and Ray clamped down on an unexpected flutter of response in the pit of his stomach, "you sent two thugs into a bathroom to beat us up."
Distracted, Ray conceded the point with a nod. "But they thought you were dead. I gave you the element of surprise."
"For which we're eternally grateful," Fraser told him.
"Especially given those goons had about a hundred pounds on us, between them." Kowalski winked at Ray, and served him another slice of pizza.
"That's a gross overstatement, Ray," Fraser said. "They didn't outweigh us by more than sixty-three pounds, give or take a few ounces."
Ray rolled his eyes and caught Kowalski doing the same. They grinned at each other and Ray relaxed. That reaction to Kowalski had been a weird aberration. This was good, it was easy, his heart was light. The air was warm and rich-smelling, there was some of the best pizza Ray had ever tasted, and he was among friends.
The customers pretty much cleared out by eleven. Kowalski gave Janine the rest of the night off, and they sat around drinking beer from the private refrigerator in the office. "I'm not allowed to sell it, but that don't mean I can't share it with friends, right?"
"I believe that's well within the bounds of the law," Fraser agreed, though he stuck to soda himself.
"It better be, or you'll arrest me. So, anyway," Kowalski elbowed Fraser in the ribs and leaned back in the booth. "Tell us what really happened today. Cough it up."
"Oh, it was nothing really." Fraser was the only guy Ray knew whose stories got smaller as time went on. The perp he chased for two weeks turned out to be just a guy fishing over the limit. If Fraser went fishing, he'd probably come back saying, I nearly caught an anchovy but it got away. And, knowing Fraser, this would be accompanied by an explanation of why anchovies weren't usually found in the region, and a detailed exploration of usual anchovy fishing practices.
"Spin it out," Kowalski said. "Give us something."
Fraser hesitated, and Ray suddenly knew, looking at him, that he didn't want to tell the story because it would make Kowalski worry. The close call had been a little too close.
Ray was pretty sure Kowalski could handle it, and anyway, it wouldn't do any good to coddle him. "Come on, Benny, we're all ears."
Fraser shot him an annoyed look, then licked his lip. "All right. I responded to the Steinbachs' call, of course. At that stage it was simply a dispute about the state of some buckets. When I arrived at the property, the Steinbachs were in something of an uproar, and Abby Byatt was provoking Karen with elaborate threats of—"
"Fraser." Kowalski patted his arm. "This isn't a report."
"Right. Okay." Fraser folded his arms on the tabletop, winced and rearranged them so he wasn't putting any pressure on his wound. He relaxed his shoulders a little. "Everyone was highly agitated and there was a strong smell of rotting fish. And they were all speaking at once, so I was distracted trying to get to the heart of the matter, and Nellie, the Steinbachs' youngest was tugging on my bootlaces, and then Abby dropped her bucket, splashing Nellie and me with fermented fish, and Karen screamed." Fraser scratched his eyebrow. "I thought it was an overreaction to Abby's clumsiness, actually, until Geoff pointed out the bear. It was prowling in search of food, a fair size. Female. I suspect it was the fish that attracted her to start off with, but she became fascinated by the geese trapped in their pen.
"Knowing the geese were the Steinbachs' sole source of livelihood, there didn't seem much choice but to try to preserve their safety, so I attracted the bear's attention." He cleaned a few drops of tomato sauce off his plate with his thumb, and licked his thumb clean. "I succeeded rather too well."
"So it came for you," Kowalski said, watching him intently like he was reading between the lines.
"Yes. I sent everyone else inside and tried to drive it off, but it was hungry, and thus more persistent than I'd anticipated. It lunged at me and threw me against the Steinbachs' shed. That was when Dief intervened." Fraser looked down at Dief and smiled. "He conducted himself with extraordinary bravery."
Dief was apparently too well-fed to sit up and receive this praise, but his tail thumped against the floor.
"And before the bear could gather its wits, Geoff came out with a rifle and shot it. So really, it was a team effort."
"He shot it?" Kowalski seemed surprised by this. "Geoff Steinbach shot a bear?"
"Yes. It was a shame, of course — a beautiful specimen — and I'm sure it went against the grain, but it's RCMP policy to put down wild animals that pose a direct threat to humans and, well, what's done is done."
"Right." Kowalski stared at Fraser for a long minute, then roused himself. "Gimme ten minutes to clean up and then I'm taking you home. I can close early for once in my life."
"Okay, Ray." Fraser smiled at Kowalski as he got up.
Ray went to help. He wanted to put his hands all over Fraser and check he was okay, but that was Kowalski's prerogative now. So it was up to Ray to find something else to do with himself, he thought grimly, as he grabbed a cloth and started wiping down the counters.
"Hey." Ray glanced up. Kowalski was watching him with a weird look on his face. "What're you doing?"
"Helping," said Ray. "You got a problem with that?"
Kowalski shook his head. "Why?" There was something in his eyes. Heat — maybe left over from his concern for Fraser — and recognition.
Ray put his hands on his hips. "Ma raised me right. What's your excuse?" And that didn't make a whole lot of sense, but the insolence didn't escape Kowalski, and in seconds they both had their fists clenched and Kowalski was going to take a swing, Ray knew it, welcomed it. Christ, he needed to connect with someone, somehow. Needed to vent all the built-up tension of the day, and it wasn't like Fraser could or would give him anything, so that narrowed down his options to this. "Show me what you got, Stanley."
Kowalski stepped in, eyes bright, chin jutting proudly, and Ray let him, held his ground. And just when he was sure, the second before Kowalski's knuckles connected, Kowalski stopped.
"What the hell's going on with you?" he asked softly, not like he was expecting an answer, but like he was trying to figure it out for himself.
And Ray — so tense he was having trouble breathing — stood there, trapped by Kowalski's gaze, too aware of everything, the cooling oven, Fraser sitting on the other side of the room, freshly mauled by a wild animal the size of an elephant, Dief, the music, and Kowalski, the lines that bracketed his mouth, the curve of his lower lip—
"Nothing," he said, taking a step back, trying to make a joke of it like Kowalski was crazy.
But Kowalski wasn't looking anymore anyway. He'd gone back to cleaning up — was practically bustling. The back of his neck was flushed. Ray figured that was just from the residual heat of the oven.
Things were pretty quiet for the next few days. Fraser's most exciting case was a parking infringement outside the general store, Kowalski was working hard at both of his jobs, and Ray passed the time exploring the region in Bessie, the Buick Kowalski had got up and running for him. Bits fell off her from time to time and the heater was hit and miss, but she ran like a dream, so Ray wasn't complaining.
On the third day, Kowalski asked Janine and Joe to mind the store, and invited some people over for a poker evening.
Ray made a face when Fraser mentioned it. "I've played enough poker for one lifetime."
But Kowalski clapped his shoulder lightly. "No excuses," he told Ray. "Anyway, you have got to see Fraser bluff. You won't believe it — it's like magic."
So Ray reluctantly spruced himself up for company in his favorite dove-gray linen shirt, and Fraser finally tidied away the stack of wood-working tools that he kept in the corner of the kitchen by Dief's sack of kibble, and Kowalski even shaved, and just after seven-thirty the three other players arrived in quick succession — Lynnie, an elegant Chinese Canadian in a pretty red dress and too much perfume, whose nose was oddly familiar. Vera the vet. And a blond, Slavic-featured guy in his early fifties called Max, who had nice hands and a ready smile, and who taught at the Tuktoyaktuk School.
Kowalski introduced Lynnie and Max to Ray while Fraser served drinks and put bowls of pretzels and nuts on the table. "Lynnie's a fabric designer."
"Men's ties, mostly, and some silk scarves" Lynnie said, shaking Ray's hand. "I create the patterns and send them down to Toronto to be printed. You've met my daughter."
"Janine," he said, her nose falling into place. "Yeah. Wow, you don't—"
"—look old enough to have a daughter her age?" Lynnie laughed, politely. "Everyone says so, and yet — the years keep flying past and children grow up so damned quickly." She sat next to him at the table, and was good company despite her perfume.
Kowalski doled out the chips and Ray dealt, and they got started. Max was sitting on Ray's other side and he made crisp remarks throughout the game, laden with enough sly innuendo that Ray figured out pretty quickly he was gay.
"Max is a genealogist in his spare time," Kowalski announced. "Family trees and all that stuff." He nodded at Max, and added, "Ray comes from a big family, lots of cousins, so you know—"
Ray winced, embarrassed on Kowalski's behalf. That was his idea of small talk?
Meanwhile Vera sat across the table, between Fraser and Kowalski, and played shrewdly, while watching everyone with grim amusement. That was what finally tipped Ray off to what was going on here. Lynnie and Max were both single. Kowalski was trying to set him up.
Ray won the poker, almost automatically. After a year and a half playing sharks in Vegas it was second nature, even if he had half his mind on exactly what words he was going to exchange with Kowalski once the guests had gone home.
Except that during the second to last hand, when Ray had two pairs, Aces high, and knew he was going to take it with these amateurs — only Vera and Fraser putting up any kind of a decent front — Ray caught Kowalski looking at him, muted hope on his face that had nothing to do with cards, and Ray's indignation evaporated away.
It was a compliment, maybe, or just Kowalski grasping at straws, trying to hook Ray up and keep another Chicago native in the neighborhood. He wasn't trying to distract Ray from Fraser, trying to get him to back off. And it wasn't about the low buzz of awareness that was maybe starting to grow between the two of them, either. No, Kowalski was searching for a way to get Ray to stay as a friend.
And would that be so bad, after all? Ray listened to Max's wickedly funny description of the rivalry between two students and answered his questions about Chicago and his family. And then he glanced sideways at Lynnie, delicately beautiful and smart, not unlike Stella, come to think of it. They were both attractive people, both seemed good-natured.
But then Fraser said, "A crowded house," and spread his cards on the table ("Full house, Fraser," Kowalski corrected him. "Jeez, how many times do I have to tell you that?") and Ray knew he couldn't do it. He couldn't be Fraser's neighbor, friend, ex-partner, and pretend that was enough.
Better to go home where at least he belonged. At least his family wanted him. Where he wouldn't disappoint yet another lover by not being able to give them everything they deserved, no matter how much he wanted to.
Vera was the last to leave. She folded her glasses away and tucked them into her jacket pocket, and then gave Ray a firm handshake goodnight.
"Don't let Ray bully you," she said, jerking her head toward Kowalski, who was still sitting at the table, shuffling the deck, seemingly unfazed by having lost nearly three and a half thousand imaginary dollars in less than four hours.
"Don't worry," said Ray. "I won't." He waited till she'd reached her car, and then closed the door and sat back down at the table. "What the hell was that, Kowalski?"
"What?" Kowalski split the deck and riffled it back together, and then started dealing, just the two of them. Ray refused to get distracted, either by Kowalski's hands or the cards.
"You have all the subtlety of an Italian grandmother," Ray told him, "trying to set me up like that. What did you think was going to happen? Love at first sight with Max from Sweden?" He picked up his cards and assessed them at a glance, then went back to glaring at Kowalski.
Kowalski shrugged and darted a look at Fraser who was leaning in the doorway, watching. He looked tired.
"He's from Vancouver, Vecchio. Guess I thought you might get lucky," Kowalski told Ray, confirming his suspicions. "Other than at cards, I mean. Just trying to do a good turn."
"You thought Max or Lynnie could catch my eye while—" While Fraser was in the room. Ray bit back the words and dropped his cards on the table, his appetite for winning all used up. "I just got divorced, Kowalski," he reminded him. "Remember what that's like? I'm going to bed." He scraped his chair back and stood up.
"Vecchio." Kowalski got to his feet, too. "Wait."
"I read Fraser's mom's diary." Ray threw Fraser a silent apology, then pointed across the table at Kowalski. "I know what your game is, but Christ, are you out of your mind?"
"Sometimes." Kowalski stretched out his neck like he was getting ready for the fight that had been brewing, his voice was tight. "Why, you don't think we could be pals? Because, you know, as far as I'm concerned, any friend of Fraser's—"
"I'm not cut out to be your life support system," Ray told him. "I've got my own life to lead. Christ, you only want me here 'cause I know Chicago." He started to turn away. Fraser had his arms folded across his chest, was almost hugging himself. He looked torn and Ray didn't know which way he wanted this thing to go. Did Fraser want him here, complicating everything?
Kowalski came around the table towards Ray. "It's not just Chicago. It's a lot of things. We're birds of a feather, Vecchio. We're already practically family, and I—" He put his hand on Ray's arm, and Ray felt a sudden breathless impulse to drag Kowalski close and kiss the stupidity out of him.
Kowalski's eyes widened, his lips parting as if he felt it too. He took a deep breath and his cheeks flushed. Jesus, Ray couldn't do this! He took refuge in anger, batting Kowalski's hand away.
Kowalski looked at the floor, scratched his neck, and when he spoke again he sounded subdued, but he still didn't drop it. "Just — think about it. Don't rule it out."
Ray tasted bile. "What," he said, smoothly, "don't rule out living here in this godforsaken two-bit town, watching you and Fraser live happily ever after while I settle for whatever I can get? Sure. I'll think about that." He snapped his mouth shut and left before he let loose all the secrets it wasn't his right to say.
"Ray," said Fraser, as he left the room, and Ray had no idea which of them he was talking to, but when it came down to it, it didn't mean squat. In two weeks' time, Ray would be back in the big smoke and Kowalski would still be here with Fraser, the two of them together.
Ray slammed his bedroom door and stared out the window at the empty front yard, still light at eleven at night. His head was full of unwanted images of Fraser and Kowalski, kissing, touching each other, limbs twined. It was a bitter pill, and a long time before Ray went to sleep that night.
The phone rang during breakfast the next morning. Fraser answered it while Kowalski jiggled the toaster to get his burned toast out and Ray nursed a cup of strong dark coffee and acted like he hadn't lost his cool the night before.
"Who's involved?" Fraser asked, and something in his tone made Ray stop blowing on the shiny dark liquid and listen in. Kowalski had stopped messing with the toaster, too.
"At the school? I'll be there immediately." Fraser hung up. "Dief!"
"What is it, Frase?" Kowalski unplugged the toaster at the wall and came over to Fraser. "What's going on?"
"It seems Shawn Fletcher and Rick Blackwood have decided to stage a duel to the death," Fraser said. He took his gun from the drawer in the sideboard and reached up to the top cupboard in the kitchen for ammo. His movements were swift and controlled.
"Oh Jesus," said Kowalski. "Tell me it's with swords. It's three musketeers bullshit, right?"
"Pistols at dawn," said Fraser, "except Rick slept in and neither of them have access to pistols so it sounds like they're using their fathers' hunting rifles. Max tried to get the situation under control and Shawn lost his temper and fired three rounds."
"Fuck." Kowalski shoved his feet into his boots.
Ray reached for his parka. "Anyone hurt?"
"Not yet," said Fraser, hurrying to the door.
Kowalski got in his way. "You need backup, Fraser. You're still—" He put his hand on Fraser's wounded arm, but Fraser shook him off. "Deputize me."
"For two schoolboys?" Fraser looked impatient. "You know I don't have the official capacity to deputize you, Ray. I can handle this myself."
"Do it anyway." Kowalski bounced on his toes. "Fuck, Fraser. You are not racing into this uncontained situation with testosterone-crazy kids waving guns around like firecrackers. Don't even think about it."
"He's right," Ray chimed in. "You need backup. And you can deputize me too, while you're at it."
"Lives are at stake." Fraser tried to get past them. "I don't have time to—"
"Exactly," said Kowalski, and bundled them both out the door. "Forget deputizing. We can liaise unofficially. We know how that goes, right, Vecchio?"
Kowalski drove, and Ray plied Fraser with questions. "What do we know about these kids? They're the morons Max was telling us about last night, right?"
"The very same," said Fraser. He radioed the detachment and filled Asquith in on the situation, and then answered Ray's question. "Rick is seventeen, his mother died in a blizzard two years ago. He has three brothers, all in the armed forces, and his father is a professional trapper. Shawn lives with his parents and grandparents on a deer farm about fifteen miles out of town, and has a history of violent misdemeanors, but no official arrest record as yet."
"This was funnier when Max was telling it," Ray told him.
Fraser nodded. "Apparently they're both in love with the same girl."
"Ain't it always the way," said Kowalski, wryly.
Ray pointed at the road ahead. "Come on, Kowalski, put your foot down."
"You want to drive? Then shut up." But the speedometer inched up, and ten minutes later they skidded to a halt in the parking lot outside the school.
The school was a small low building that looked like it dated back to the turn of the century. On the left was the classroom, with windows down both sides so they could see right through to the trees on the other side, and on the right was a more closed-in section. There was no sign of kids with guns.
Max was waiting just inside the main doorway. "I've got everyone safe in the storeroom. It has fewer windows." He stood back so they could see one of the tall windows on the far wall of the classroom had been broken, glass shards thick on the floor. "The only one I couldn't find was Helen Troughton."
"The girl?" asked Ray. "The one they're both in love with?"
"Yeah." Max wiped sweat from his upper lip. "I guess she knew this was going to happen and decided to steer clear." He shook his head. "Rick's not usually a bad kid, but—"
"Where are they? Have any further shots been fired?" asked Fraser, just as the crack of a shotgun sounded, alarmingly close.
"They're down by the playground," said Max, and when Ray crunched over the broken glass to the window, he could see that the ground sloped away to a flat area with a swing set and a teeter-totter. Two tall kids, almost adult-sized, were standing five or six feet apart, both taking potshots at the far end of the field.
"They're shooting rabbits," said Fraser, from just behind Ray. "They must be waiting for something."
"Then let's stop them before that something happens," said Kowalski.
Fraser nodded, and turned to Ray. "Ray and I can handle it," he said. "You check on the others, reassure them." He clasped Ray's shoulder. "Stop them from doing anything foolish."
Ray swallowed his objections to being sidelined, and nodded. He watched Fraser and Kowalski head back out the main door of the schoolroom. The two of them worked together easily. That was just the way it was.
"Where are the kids?" he said to Max, and followed him through the nondescript wine-colored door into a darkened storeroom full of gum-scented air and nervous kids. A girl in a pale green sweater was crying, and her friends were comforting her, stroking her hair. High on the back wall, a small window provided the only light. "Everyone okay?"
There was a general murmur of "yeah" and "who's he?" One of the kids, a red-headed, freckle-faced boy of about six, put up his hand.
"What?" Ray glanced at Max in the dim room.
Max crouched down. "What is it, Timothy?" he asked kindly.
"Need to go to the toilet," said the boy in a small voice.
The other kids snickered, releasing nervous tension.
"It's through there," Max told Ray, pointing at the interior wall. He glanced at the closed door behind them.
"I'll take him," said Ray. "You stay here." He took Timothy's little hand in his, and shepherded him into the classroom, then held the washroom door open for him. "Be quick and quiet," he told him. "I'll wait here."
He let the door swing shut and went over to the window, stealthily, to see what was going on. Fraser and Kowalski were standing between the two kids, talking to them. The kids both still had firm grips on their rifles, but Fraser and Kowalski were close enough to disarm them by force if they needed to.
The kids were broad shouldered and one of them had the start of a beard. It was hard to believe they were only seventeen. Ray had been thin and gawky at that age, hanging around the girls' lockers, trying to get Irene Zuko to give him the time of day.
He couldn't hear what Fraser was saying, even with the broken window, but the tension shifted and the dark-haired kid started to swing his rifle up to take aim. Fraser grabbed the barrel and yanked it out of his hand, and Kowalski grabbed the rifle off the paler-haired kid at the same time. Ray let out a breath of relief.
Behind him Timothy said, "I've finished."
"Good," said Ray, turning. He took one last look out the window — Fraser and Kowalski had already subdued the kids, who seemed smaller and younger without their guns. Crisis over. "Let's get the other kids, okay?" Ray told Timothy. "Corporal Fraser's got everything under control."
He opened the storeroom. "Okay, it's safe to come out now."
But before he'd finished saying it, there was another gunshot. Ray shoved Timothy into the dim room, shut the door firmly after him, and ran back to the window. What the hell?
A small, skinny blonde girl was marching out of the trees behind the swing set, pointing a handgun at Fraser and Kowalski and the two kids.
"That's Helen Troughton," said Max, who'd come up beside him.
Ray shook his head. "That's trouble." As though teenage boys weren't unpredictable enough.
"It was supposed to be a duel to the death!" Helen's shrill voice carried up the slope. "To prove how much they love me. Let them go!"
Fraser held out his hand, trying to reason with her, but she fired at him, her aim askew but her intent unmistakable. They had no cover, and nowhere to hide the handcuffed kids.
"Keep everyone inside," Ray told Max, and he raced around the back of the school, threw himself over a high fence that separated the parking lot and the field below, and landed at the base of the fence in a scatter of cigarette stubs and torn magazines.
He ducked into the trees and made his way down a short, well-trodden path to the bottom of the slope. He could see the swing set, and beyond it, the furious set of Helen's shoulders as she swore at Fraser, curses that would've put a hardened Chicago criminal to shame.
"Hey, just calm down, okay?" said Kowalski, taking the heat off Fraser. "No one needs to get hurt here."
Helen shrieked like a banshee and swung her gun at him, squeezing off a couple of rounds and making him duck sideways, half-sprawling with one hand on the ground for balance. He recovered and dragged the paler-hair kid behind him for safety. Fuck, if anyone was going to get shot, let it be the stupid kids who started it, Ray thought, knowing it was unprofessional but not able to care.
Fraser pushed his perp behind him, too, and moved toward Helen as if he didn't know there was no reasoning with her. Ray knew better. Fraser was just trying to keep her focus off Kowalski. Jesus, this was crazy, with the two of them jostling to be in the firing line. This was exactly the reason cop partners weren't supposed to get romantic with each other.
Ray started out of the trees, moving quickly and quietly, and hoping like hell that the perps wouldn't give him away. Helen was twenty feet away, ranting about true love and "the ultimate sacrifice" and Sylvia Plath, then fifteen feet, then—
"Hey!" shouted someone, one of the kids, "Watch out!" And then Helen started to swing around, and Ray put on a burst of speed, trying to get there before she could focus on him and take aim, not that she had much aim to start with. The ground gave sickeningly under his foot, something rolled and his ankle twisted, searing pain stealing his breath, and then he was hurtling through the air, falling forwards on a collision course with her knees and hell, Helen wasn't going to need to aim if Ray landed in front of her gun.
But Fraser was there, out of nowhere, wrenching her arm up, and Kowalski too, reaching over and snatching the gun from her slackening hand, and then Ray bowled into them and the four of them landed in a heap of elbows and bruises and grunts. Helen screeched in outrage and the kids yelled from a few feet away, and Ray groaned because his ankle hurt like someone had stuck a knife in it.
"No bones broken," said Mandy, the nurse at the Tuktoyaktuk Health Center, unclipping his X-ray from the light-board. "It's just sprained."
She took the icepack off Ray's ankle and prodded the swollen flesh thoughtfully, then went to the cupboard and started digging around for bandages.
"Who the hell leaves cricket balls lying around?" grumbled Ray. He leaned back against the wall so his butt slipped sideways with the loose sheet that covered the narrow gray vinyl "bed".
"In a school playground? Gee, let me think," said Kowalski from his position, leaning on the doorframe next to the sign that said Triage. They'd dropped Fraser and the three kids at the detachment for processing, and then Kowalski had driven Ray here. Despite the pain, Ray was wired from adrenaline and doing real cop work for the first time in a long time, and Kowalski obviously felt the same.
When Mandy offered Ray Vicodin, he hesitated. "You got something that mixes better with alcohol?"
She laughed, and found him some Advil instead. "Keep your ankle elevated, and come back on Wednesday if the swelling hasn't gone down," she told him, her pretty dark curls brushing her shoulder.
Ray swallowed the Advil dry and took the crutch she offered him, and hobbled out to the car, with Kowalski keeping a close eye on his progress.
"How come you didn't try to set me up with her?" Ray said, arranging himself in the passenger seat and buckling up his seatbelt.
"Mandy?" Kowalski pointed at his own ring finger. "Married. And you call yourself a detective."
"I was distracted with my medical trauma," said Ray, as Kowalski pulled onto the road. "Where does a person go for a beer around here?"
"The general store sells it, but no one in Tuk has a license to serve it," Kowalski told him, and took him to the pizza parlor to raid the private refrigerator.
An hour and a half later, Kowalski and Ray were well on their way to getting hammered and Ray, his sore foot propped up on a crate of soda, was telling Kowalski about the lighter side of the Vegas mob scene.
Kowalski's cellphone rang, cutting Ray off in the middle of a funny story about the Nevada Mata Hari that had Kowalski snickering into his Molson. It was Fraser. "Come on over, buddy," Kowalski told him. "Just don't expect any of that Canadian decorum." He listened for a moment, then grinned. "Oh, five or six."
Ray counted the empties on the tabletop, and held up both hands, thumbs tucked away.
"Eight," Kowalski corrected himself. "Between us, though, so not even close to a stupor." He winked at Ray, and Ray leaned back and rolled an empty bottle between his hands, the condensation cool on his fingers, and refused to let himself be part of the dynamic between Kowalski and Fraser. That was them. Ray would be gone soon. Maybe the sooner, the better. It was getting, by turns, too messy and too comfortable here, with Fraser. With Kowalski.
But then, who in Chicago could he talk with like this? Maybe he could find a way to get past all his inconvenient feelings, maybe he should think about moving up here. Maybe the camaraderie would outweigh the heartache.
That would be to resign himself to a life of celibacy. It wouldn't be fair to turn to Max or Lynnie, even if he wanted to— It occurred to Ray that if he was going to rebound from Fraser and Stella and his whole screwed-up life onto anyone, that anyone would be Kowalski, laughing across from him, vibrant and scruffily good-looking, kind and loyal under his rough exterior. The one person in the world who understood what it was like to love Fraser, and to come out from undercover, the only one who didn't make Ray feel like a ghost. And if there was one thing more monumentally fucked up than that, it was that Ray was pretty sure, if it wasn't for Fraser, he could talk Kowalski into going along with it.
Once Kowalski had hung up, Ray finished his anecdote and Kowalski hooted on cue and went to retrieve another couple of bottles from the refrigerator. When he came back, he sat up on the back of the booth, his feet spread wide on the bench seat. Ray had to tilt his head back not to be staring at his crotch. Kowalski twisted the caps off the bottles and handed one to Ray, meeting his eye. "So, Vecchio," he said lightly, "how long have you had the hots for Fraser?"
Ray's stomach lurched like the click of firing an empty gun. He took a mouthful of beer to buy some time and it fizzed unpleasantly in his mouth. "What're you talking about?"
Kowalski rested his arms on his knees and flicked his fingernail against this bottle. His gaze was fixed on Ray's. "Don't try to make out you're straight, okay? You're about as—"
"I'm not trying to make out anything," said Ray, cutting him off, refusing to flinch. "Nothing happened with me and Benny, okay? You're his first and only."
Kowalski's eyes narrowed, and he pursed his lips. "Okay, but that's not what I asked." He slid gracefully down into the seat across from Ray and leaned over the table. "I'm not stupid. I've seen the way you look at him."
Ray swallowed his kneejerk retort and lowered his gaze to the table top, to the collection of bottles and bottle caps, shreds of torn-off beer labels. Toothpicks arranged in a neat square. "Kowalski, trust me," he said, "you do not want to get into this."
"Funny," Kowalski said, softly, "I thought I did."
Ray glanced up, startled. There was something in his tone, suggestive and — Ray had to be reading this wrong. He couldn't know! Kowalski must be trying to play him, test his reactions. Ray went cold at the thought, and let some of that ice into his voice. "Well, I don't want to get into it with you. You got questions, you take them up with Benny."
"Oh, don't worry," Kowalski said. "I am all over that. I just want to know where you fit into the picture. What's your angle."
Ray ran his thumb along the smooth line of the crutch, where it was resting on the seat beside him, but he found he couldn't look away from the stubborn line of Kowalski's mouth. "I'm in a different picture altogether."
"See, I don't—" Kowalski started, when the bell over the door rang, and Fraser walked in.
"Sergeant Asquith wants to extend his gratitude to both of you for your help in this morning's arrests," he said, and slid into the seat next to Kowalski, nudging him over towards the wall.
"Tell him he's welcome. Any old time." Kowalski slung his arm around Fraser's neck, pulling him into a long, involved kiss that Ray steadfastly refused to watch, his temper rising the longer it went on.
Fraser disengaged firmly, and raised his eyebrows at Kowalski. "What's going on, Ray?"
"Just following up a lead," said Kowalski, casually. "How long were you and Vecchio together?"
Fraser glanced at Ray, then licked his lip and met Kowalski's question head-on. "About a year," he said. "Eleven months, one week and three days."
Kowalski nodded, his jaw clenching while he assimilated that. "And, what, it never seemed like the right time to tell me this?"
Ray shuffled along the seat and maneuvered himself upright. "This is between you and Fraser," he told Kowalski. "Leave me out of it."
"Sit down, Vecchio," Kowalski ordered, in exactly the right tone to piss Ray off.
"Fuck you, Kowalski," he snapped. "I didn't come here to fuck up your life, and I'm not going to watch while you do it yourself."
"Why did you come here, then?" Kowalski slammed his half-full bottle onto the table so beer splashed out the neck onto the orderly toothpicks. "Just catching up with old friends?" The sarcasm was thick with suspicion.
"Yeah," said Ray. "That was the plan." He grabbed his crutch and pointed it at Kowalski. "I'm telling you, do not fuck this up. You be good to Benny, and you stand by him, and don't you dare use me as some kind of excuse to go running back to Chicago with your tail between your legs."
"Ray!" Fraser frowned.
"I'm sorry, Benny. I thought I could be your friend, but — it was a stupid idea." Ray rubbed his hand over his face and looked at him, at his strong, good, beautiful face for the last time. "Sort it out with him. What you've got — it doesn't happen every day. I—" He turned away, hardly believing he was saying goodbye. "I'll put you on my Christmas card list."
"Vecchio—" Kowalski sounded like he still had a thousand things he wanted to argue about, but Fraser had him trapped against the wall and that was all the head start Ray needed. Fraser wouldn't stop him. "Vecchio, get back here!"
Ray limped to the door, the bell jangling as he opened it, and left. If he'd learned anything from watching people lose their last dime in Vegas, it was to know when to cut his losses.
He paid a guy called Paulie at the diner next door to drive him to the house, wait while he packed his things, and take him on to the airport. There was a flight out in an hour and a quarter and he spent the whole seventy-five minutes on tenterhooks, prodding the bandage around his ankle and hoping Fraser and Kowalski wouldn't find him. Half wishing they would.
It wasn't until he was in the air, bound for Inuvik, that he properly relaxed. He leaned his head on the window and watched the wilderness fall away. That was that, another chapter of his life, signed, sealed, closed.
No going back now.
Chicago was hot and windy, and Ray tried to be glad to be home but his ankle was killing him and his head throbbed, teeming with regrets and travel weariness. And Frannie, who'd come out to meet him at O'Hare, wouldn't shut up about the traffic and how Maria hadn't been pulling her weight at home because of some new pregnancy dance group she'd joined.
Then she started asking after Fraser and Kowalski, and why Ray had come back early, and that was even worse.
"I don't want to talk about it," he told her, and forced himself to ask after Turnbull, which made her blush and babble, and confirmed his dark suspicion that they were getting serious.
When they got home, Ma flung her arms around him, practically sobbing. "Raimundo, you look so tired."
"Yeah, Ma, I sprained my ankle," he told her.
She pinched his cheek. "But you are all right, in your heart, no? A mother, she knows these things." She swept him inside and fed him every dish known to Italians until he pleaded exhaustion and took himself to bed.
He slept in the next day, missing the family exodus to Mass. The phone woke him mid-morning, and he answered it, feeling disoriented. "Vecchio. What time is it?"
"Ray." It was Fraser.
Ray hung up and buried his face in his pillow.
The phone rang again.
"Benny, stop calling me. I'm trying to cut you a break here. I'm letting you off the hook." He tightened his grip on the receiver. "Just — accept it, okay?"
Ray hung up. He pulled on his pajamas and went down to the kitchen to make himself some breakfast. The phone rang and rang, and he didn't answer it. After ten or fifteen minutes, Fraser got the message and stopped calling back, and Ray sat at the breakfast bar feeling like a nameless asteroid on one those scale models of the solar system designed to demonstrate how tiny and isolated and alone the earth is in the vastness of space.
The sense of floating disconnection lasted until that evening, when there were Vecchios and De Luca kids all over the place, and Frannie answered the phone in the kitchen and called out, "Ray, it's for you," over the sound of the six o'clock news.
He came and reluctantly took it from her. "Who is it?"
She rolled her eyes like it was obvious. "It's Fraser."
Ray nodded, and took the phone out to the sun porch and shut the door. "Stop calling me, Benny."
"Ray." Fraser sounded earnest and worried, and he was talking at top speed to try to get the words out before Ray hung up on him again. "Please come back."
"Benny, I—" Ray swallowed, hard. "I can't." His Ma's orchids were blooming, colorful and exotic. He fingered their leaves.
"We both — You're welcome any time." Fraser's words tripped over each other, and Ray would've paid good money to know where the We both was going, but he couldn't ask.
He had to end this, however much dignity it cost him. "Don't do this, Fraser. I'm not your friend, I'm your ex. And I'm not Kowalski's anything. So don't pretend it's all happy families, okay? Just don't."
"It could be." Fraser said it like he still didn't get the problem. Like he didn't understand there was a problem.
"Don't you ever listen?" Ray snapped, too tired to keep from losing his temper under the impossible provocation only Fraser could supply. "Jesus Christ, Benny, I'm still in love with you. There. You made me say it — are you happy now? And I don't even know which — What I—" He stumbled, and rubbed his face, trying to pull his thoughts together and make it plain so Fraser would leave him the fuck alone. "I don't know what I want anymore. I just know I can't have it."
There was a small pause, maybe a long-distance delay or maybe Ray had finally managed to rock Fraser back on his heels. Ray was past caring. Then Fraser said, again, "Come back."
Ray shook his head and then leaned his forehead on the cool glass window and looked out at the darkening back yard, the neat vegetable beds and carefully pruned roses. "Why?" He choked a little, because there was no way Fraser could offer Ray what he wanted. Not when he barely knew himself what that was. "Give me one reason."
There was a crackle, and the rough sound of Fraser clearing his throat. "You know, my father used to say that it was duty that kept him away from home for months at a time, but I—"
"Fraser," Ray interrupted him, "I'm going to hang up on you."
"Lately I've come to believe that it was fear," Fraser continued, oblivious as ever. "The arctic can do strange things to a man's heart. The extreme weather conditions, the sparse population—"
"Hanging up," said Ray. "Three — two — one." He started to move the hand piece away from his ear, but another voice piped up, tinny but distinct.
"Wait. Ray? You still there?"
"Kowalski?" Ray's heart thudded at the base of his throat so he could barely squeeze his name out.
"Yeah. Hey — I, uh. We—" His voice went muffled for a moment. "Jeez, Fraser, you think you could be a little more random? Maybe you want to throw in a couple of caribou stories while you're — Hey, it's okay. It's okay. He's still there." Kowalski came back clearer. "You're still there, right?"
"Yeah," said Ray, hoarsely. "What's this about?"
"Good," said Kowalski. "Good. Come back."
"What?" Ray thought about Kowalski sitting across from him, getting drunk. The graceful sprawl of his arms and legs, the gleam of his laughter. The casual accusations. "Why?"
"Because you want to," said Kowalski, like he could read Ray's mind. "We want you to. We—"
"We want you, Ray," said Fraser's voice, loud in Ray's ear. Ray wondered if he'd been drinking.
"I was getting to that part, Frase," said Kowalski. "Jesus."
"You," said Ray, blankly. "What, both of you?"
"Yeah," said Kowalski, and then repeated it softly. "Yeah. I know it's not what you — You probably wish I was dead or something, and then it'd just be you and Fraser, but—"
"Both of you." Ray took a deep breath and grabbed the windowsill tight, feeling like he was going to pass out. His heart thudded like a drum, and he — was this what he wanted?
The line hummed. "Listen, if this is freaking you out, if you don't — we can forget it."
"No," said Ray quickly. He opened the back door and sat down on the stoop, his sore ankle out in front of him. The evening air made him dizzy. "No, I'm just — You mean it?" If this was some kind of joke, Ray was going to go back to the arctic for the sole purpose of committing a double homicide.
But Kowalski sounded serious. "If you do," he said, "then, yeah."
Ray's lips were dry. He licked them and then said carefully, "Uh, how— how would it—? What are we talking about here, exactly?"
"Just come back," Kowalski told him, firmly. "We'll figure it out."
"I don't know, Kowalski." Ray didn't know if he could make himself leave again, if the whole thing turned out to be a terrible disaster, and the chances of disaster seemed dangerously high. It would be safer to stay in Chicago and try to get his head together. Give his heart some time to heal.
"Listen," Kowalski said, "you ever been — been somewhere that makes you forget who you are? You wake up every day and you can do it, but you feel like your you is slipping away."
"Yeah." Ray closed his eyes.
"I'm surrounded by Canucks and polar bears." Kowalski spoke plainly, man to man, and Ray could hear what it was costing him, the risk he was taking. "It was good with you here, Vecchio. I want that. I need it."
"You could come back to Chicago." It was the last thing Ray should be suggesting. Kowalski belonged with Fraser. But someone had to say it, even if only so Kowalski could knock it down, which he did immediately.
"No, I can't," he said. "I can't and you know it."
"I know," said Ray. He watched insects fly around the flowers, the tree branches bursting with new leaves. "I know."
"There's something else," said Kowalski.
Ray nodded. "I'm listening."
"I've—" He lowered his voice. "I've been — I was thinking—"
"About you." The line buzzed then went clear as crystal. "About—"
Ray couldn't speak.
"—you and Fraser. Together," said Kowalski. "About you and — me. You know?"
Silence stretched out between them. "Yeah," said Ray, finally, "I know."
Kowalski let out a breath, and when he spoke again, he sounded normal, like the last few minutes were a dream. "Okay," he said, "so that's what I'm talking about. Now, are you in or not?"
"Ray!" said Fraser in the background.
"Jesus, Kowalski," said Ray at the same time. "Don't rush into anything, will you?"
"Hey, this is long distance," said Kowalski. "We're paying by the minute."
"Maybe I should hang up then, Mr. Congeniality. Go away and sleep on it." It would be the smart thing to do. What if he was fooling himself? Fooling them? What if this was just cold feet about finding his place in Chicago again? But in his heart, he knew that wasn't it.
"No," Kowalski was saying, "come back and think about it. You can sleep on it here."
"If I come back there," Ray told him, "I won't be sleeping." He stopped and heard himself, shocked by what he'd said. The phone line buzzed with tension. "Fuck," said Ray under his breath, feeling like he was jumping onto a moving train. "Okay."
"You won't regret it," said Kowalski, and Ray could hear the relief.
"Thank you, Ray," said Fraser, sounding equally happy. "It's really not the same here without you."
Ray held up his hand and watched it shake. "I wish I was there already." The thought of the flights, the long waits in airport lounges — telling his family. He covered his eyes. "Oh Jesus."
"You'll be okay," said Fraser. "You'll be all right, Ray."
"Listen, we booked you a ticket on Air Canada," Kowalski added.
"You what?!" yelped Ray. He looked up at the sky incredulously.
"Been paying attention, Vecchio?" Kowalski asked. "We want you here. Only right that we do our share to get you here."
"And what if I said no?" asked Ray, shaking his head.
"I have a ready store of Inuit stories in reserve, Ray," Fraser told him.
Kowalski laughed. "Yeah, we'd have worn you down." His tone turned serious. "If you said no, you said no. I know that. You don't have to do this. I just wanted — we wanted to make it easy for you to say yes. For all of our sakes."
"You nutcase," Ray told him.
"Ray," said Fraser, warmly. "We'll see you soon."
"Yeah, Benny. I'll—" Ray nodded and closed his eyes, picturing them both. "I'll be seeing you."
It seemed too soon to tell Ma — or maybe Ray was still superstitious from the collapse of two marriages, and didn't want to jinx it — even if he had had the words. But he tried to explain to Frannie when she drove him back out to O'Hare the next day. "I'm staying this time. I'm going to Canada to be with Fraser and Kowalski."
"Both of them?" she said, looking a little wild-eyed at the thought, and drifting out of their lane. A cab blared its horn behind them, and Ray grabbed for the wheel and steered them back on course.
"Yeah, I don't know," he said. "I don't know how it works. But it's not—" Perverted, he wanted to say. It wasn't tawdry or like something out of a porno. At least, not at the heart of it. At the heart of it, it was about family and love, and about needing each other. "It's good," he said lamely.
Frannie rolled her eyes. "Fraser's involved — of course it's good. You're probably joining a monastery of three, like Mother Theresa."
Ray thanked his stars he'd never told her about any of the mischief he and Benny had gotten up to back when they'd been together. Not that he'd ever have dreamed of telling her. But still, it was just as well.
Ray spent the flights alternating between a gnawing impatience to arrive and a dread of the conversations that'd follow once he got there. He wondered exactly what Kowalski was expecting, and hoped like hell Fraser had mentioned that Ray didn't really enjoy catching most of the time.
At Edmonton he thought about calling and backing out, but his flight was announced before he could make up his mind.
His fears dropped away when the plane taxied to a halt on the Tuktoyaktuk runway and he looked out the window and saw Fraser and Kowalski and Dief all waiting for him. They'd work it out between them. Anyway, he reminded himself, he'd married Stella on lesser grounds. At least he knew Fraser. And at least all three of them were determined to make it stick.
He stumbled out of the plane, his ankle still sore and the crutch no use at all on the flimsy fold-down steps. And then they were there, smiling and laughing, hugging him, asking after the flights and his ankle.
Kowalski murmured in his ear, "Jeez, it's good to see you," in a tone that made Ray's knees weak. And Fraser — Fraser finally let his feelings show.
Ray had thought Fraser was being careless before, letting Ray know how much he cared when neither of them could act on it, but seeing Fraser's face now was a revelation. His love shone so bright in his eyes that Ray realized he had been trying to keep it damped down. That had been the best he could do.
Ray touched his cheek, not caring if anyone was watching. "Take me home, Benny."
"It would be my very great pleasure," said Fraser.
"Mine too," said Kowalski, picking up Ray's bags as if he were fully prepared to hold them hostage if Ray tried to make a run for it.
Dief barked and nuzzled Ray's hand.
He was back in Canada.
The front door closed behind them, and Kowalski dumped Ray's suitcases against the wall by the door to the hallway, and then they stood in an awkward circle in the living room, looking at each other.
Fraser licked his lower lip, shot a glance at Kowalski like he was checking in, and then turned to Ray. He took Ray's head in his big hot hands and kissed him, sweet and deliberate. Ray made a helpless noise in his throat and melted, clutching Fraser's waist to anchor both of them. It had been far, far too long.
It was weird knowing Kowalski was watching, but Ray found he liked it. A wild streak of exhibitionism he'd never explored before made him tease at Benny's lips until the two of them were breathing heavily, pressed up hard against each other.
Fraser slowly let him go and stepped away, and then Kowalski moved in, standing right in front of him, radiating desire and uncertainty both. Still buzzing from Fraser's kiss, Ray pressed his hand to Kowalski's chest and felt the rapid thump of his heart. "So," he said.
"So." Kowalski smirked, the corner of his mouth curving up. "Here we all are, then."
"Here we are," Ray echoed. Their gazes locked, and Kowalski's smile slowly faded until he was staring earnestly at Ray, bravado falling away so that Ray felt a rush of tenderness and pulled him into a bear hug. "Hey."
Kowalski was all lean muscle and ribs and vertebrae. He wrapped his arms tight around Ray, hugging back. His chin, smooth-shaven for once, brushed Ray's jaw, and Ray closed his eyes and turned his head to meet Kowalski's mouth. For a few seconds it was tentative, finding each other, and then it was like a lit match on tissue paper. Kowalski tasted faintly of coffee, and he kissed like he couldn't get enough. Ray tried to slow things down, tried to keep it even with how he'd kissed Benny, but his head was swimming with desire and Kowalski didn't seem to have any brakes.
Ray tore his mouth away and held Kowalski off for a minute.
"What?" Kowalski's lips were red and swollen from kissing, his body thrumming with energy.
"Slow down," Ray told him. "What's the rush?"
Kowalski narrowed his eyes. "What are you saying? Have you changed your mind? Because—" He reached down and shaped Ray's hard-on through his pants and started to smirk again. "—it seems to me like you're onboard."
"Ray—" Fraser started to intervene, but Ray warded him off. This was part of the whole deal — the whole relationship deal. He and Kowalski had to be able to get each other.
"Yeah, I want it." He covered Kowalski's hand, held it there, and fought to keep his voice steady. "I just — I like it slow. I like to take my time. Think you can handle that?"
The posturing fell away. Kowalski tightened his grip on Ray's dick for a moment and licked his lips before he answered. "Okay. Okay, yeah. I can do that."
"Good." And Ray took control, kissed him slowly and thoroughly with all the sweetness he had, until Kowalski's breathing was ragged and his hands clenched rhythmically in the back of Ray's shirt. Ray bit his jaw lightly and then murmured in his ear, "Because you are hot as fuck, Kowalski, and I want this to last."
Kowalski leaned back and blinked at Ray. "Jesus," he said, "I had no idea. You—" He shook his head, dazed.
"I tried to tell you," Fraser said quietly from close by.
Ray smiled and turned to kiss him without loosening his hold on Kowalski at all, and Fraser was right there, and Kowalski was panting in Ray's ear.
"How do we do this, Benny?" said Ray against Fraser's lips. "You got a plan all figured out?"
Fraser turned and kissed Kowalski before he answered, and Ray let himself watch this time. Let himself want. Kowalski's hips hitched forward against Ray and Ray pushed back, taking everything he could get.
Fraser finally pulled away. "No plan," he said, huskily. He rubbed his thumb across Kowalski's temple. "But I think this should be between you and Ray, this first time."
"Benny," Ray protested. "You don't have to—"
"He's right," said Kowalski, siding with Fraser. "You and me, we're the weak link. We need to — find our groove, you know?" He licked a stripe up the side of Ray's neck. "Test the water."
"Trust me," Fraser added, "it's no hardship. You two are quite a sight." The dark satisfaction in his voice sent a shiver down Ray's spine.
"Okay," he told Fraser. "Okay." He threaded his fingers into Kowalski's hair and pulled his face up for another kiss. "You and me, then, Kowalski. You going to invite me into your bed?"
A slow smile lit Kowalski's face. "Hell, we got you this far — can't stop now."
Ray hadn't been upstairs before. It was a spacious attic room with sloping walls and a big window facing the seashore. There were twin dressers — one much tidier than the other — and the bed was loosely made, the covers patterned blue and gray. A warm wine-colored rug and a large print of the Chicago skyline at dusk saved the room from austerity.
Fraser put his hands in his pockets and leaned his shoulder against the wall by the door, and Kowalski led Ray over to the bed and sat him down on the edge of it. He stood in front of him and nudged his knees apart, and then paused.
It could have gotten awkward again, but Ray was too turned on and too aware of Kowalski's being turned on to get self-conscious now. He hooked his hand over the waistband of Kowalski's jeans, so the backs of his fingers brushed Kowalski's belly, and tugged him even closer, and then started working his button fly open so he could see what he was dealing with. Kowalski was wearing dark blue boxer briefs, and he inhaled sharply when Ray ran his thumb over the thick outline of his cock, but he didn't offer any resistance — nor further encouragement, either.
The lack of response worried Ray a little — he didn't want to run the show all by himself — but after he peeled down the briefs and wrapped his hand around Kowalski's dick, Kowalski came back to life and Ray knew in his gut it was going to be all right. It wasn't love yet — not like what either of them felt for Fraser — but there was something hot and honest and real between them. They'd get there one day.
Kowalski pushed Ray back on the bed and straddled him, thrusting into his fist and groaning, and then he shimmied down so he could undo Ray's pants too.
Ray took advantage of his distraction to roll them over, and stripped his own sweater and shirt off. He looked at Kowalski then, knowing he was hairier than probably Kowalski and Fraser put together, and fully aware that not everyone went for his type, but there was only appreciation and heat in Kowalski's expression, his lips parted hungrily, and Ray lost all his reservations and fell into their embrace, suddenly desperate for contact and touch and release.
Clothes were cast aside carelessly, and Kowalski put his hands everywhere, all over him, making him curse and beg. Ray thrust his cock shallowly against the top of Kowalski's thigh and raked his fingers over Kowalski's chest, pinching his nipple to make him gasp and squirm. "You like that?" he asked in a low voice. "Tell me what you like. I want to make this good for you."
Kowalski looked like he was struggling to remember how to speak. "It's already good, stupid, just—" He guided one of Ray's hands to his ass and wriggled back against it, silently asking Ray to finger him.
Ray circled his hole, teasing, turned on like crazy by how willing Kowalski was, how hot and sensual and open. They'd abandoned all their defenses, and the intimacy of it was intoxicating. Ray kissed him and kissed him, couldn't stop. He smoothed down Kowalski's arm, over his tattoo, the angle of his elbow, down to his hand, and moved it low between them.
"Yeah," said Kowalski, when he got the message, and closed his fingers eagerly around Ray's dick, his strokes in time with Ray's reciprocal ones.
They'd wound up so Kowalski was holding himself over Ray with one trembling arm, and when Ray finally let his fingertip slip inside, Kowalski moaned and nearly lost his balance.
"Fuck," he said, gasping against Ray's mouth. His hand tightened on Ray's dick and his thrusts sped up. "Fuck, I'm gonna—"
He shoved hard, and Ray held on and stroked him through it as he came, shuddering, with a long low groan.
Ray kept moving, afterwards, still hard and needy in the slack circle of Kowalski's hand. After a minute or two, Kowalski raised his sweaty face from Ray's shoulder and kissed him sloppily. "What do you need?"
The offer was plain: anything. Kowalski was half sweet generosity and readiness, and half concern that Ray hadn't come yet. Ray buried his hand in Kowalski's hair and almost laughed, his heart full. "It's good, it's — oh, yeah — good," he told him, trailing off into a groan as Kowalski slowed and tightened his hand, giving an extra twist at the end of each upstroke that was almost too much.
Kowalski rolled him onto his back and released his cock, plied him with sweat-salty kisses, and then worked his way down Ray's body with his hands and mouth, and Ray writhed under him.
From the doorway Fraser grunted, and Ray figured he was jerking off at the sight of them, but Ray was too caught up in the action, in Kowalski making love to him — his mouth on Ray's cock now, licking and sucking without pause — he could only lie there, clenching his ass in time with Kowalski's strokes and losing himself in the growing whirlwind of heat and color and astonishing pleasure.
Kowalski raised his head and let his hand take over for a moment. "Come on, Vecchio. Give it to me." And when he put his mouth back, Ray did, darkness shooting through him in a bolt of searing sensation that left him breathless and torn to pieces, naked in a way that wasn't about clothes or skin.
"Christ," he said, collapsing limply back onto the damp, rumpled sheets. "That was—" He hardly recognized his own voice, but that was okay. He didn't have words for what that was anyway.
Kowalski climbed up and lay beside him, looking smug, and kissed his nose. And Ray rolled onto his side and was about to take issue with that gesture when he felt the mattress give and Fraser press up behind him, his sweater and jeans rough against Ray's sensitized skin.
"You two are gonna be the death of me," Ray murmured, closing his eyes and meeting Kowalski's mouth again. Feeling both of them stretched out next to him.
"I hope not, Ray." Fraser's voice tickled his ear. "We have a vested interest in keeping you alive, you know."
Kowalski laughed and propped himself up on his elbow so he could lean over Ray and kiss Fraser's mouth. "No one's dying. That's part of the rules."
"There are rules?" Ray reached back and found Fraser's hand, slightly sticky, and pulled it across his chest. "No one said anything about rules." He was about thirty seconds from a long, deep, much-needed sleep.
"Rule number one: we live happily ever after." Kowalski climbed off the bed and closed the drapes, casting the room in darkness. "Rule number two: no more run-ins with polar bears." He lay down again and draped his arm over Ray. "Rule number three—"
But Ray was asleep before rule number three.
"I fold," said Kowalski and tossed in his cards. He swiped the pile of pistachio shells off the table into his hand, and stood up. "Anyone want another beer? Vecchio?"
"Yeah." Ray glanced up, over his shoulder at him and shot him a smile, then turned back to the game, tapping a fifty dollar chip on the table and weighing the odds.
Max said, "Me too, thanks," and passed Kowalski his glass.
"Water for me," said Fraser, looking up from a thoughtful contemplation of his cards that should have been revealing, only this was Benny so for all Ray knew, he was thinking about ice floes or dreaming up some inventive new way of torturing Ray in bed.
Ray licked his lips and forced his mind back to the game.
Vera added a couple of chips to the pile in the center. "I call." She leaned back so she could see through the kitchen doorway, where the refrigerator door was clinking. "I'll have a coffee, if you're offering."
"Yes, ma'am," said Kowalski, and soon they heard water running and the kettle clicking on.
Dief had woken up at the sound of the fridge door. He yawned and stretched, and went through to the kitchen to see what was in the offing.
"It's a shame Lynnie couldn't make it." Ray threw in a couple of chips to keep things moving.
"I don't think Lynnie was here for the poker last time," said Vera, with a glint in her eye.
Ray blushed and didn't bother pretending to misunderstand. "Guess I'm a disappointment, huh?"
"Not to us," said Fraser, and nudged his knee under the table.
Max eyed them wryly. "Not to me, either. You're not my type. I like bears."
They hadn't made any kind of announcement, but it seemed they hadn't needed to. Word had got out anyway, and so far most people had seemed more bemused than appalled. A few families had stopped ordering pizza, but the number of others who came by to check Ray out more than made up for them as far as sales went, and Fraser said even most of the sticklers would come around, once the gossip had died away and they'd gotten used to the idea.
"We'll just be one more curiosity in a town of freaks and weirdoes, you mean," Kowalski had interpreted.
Fraser grinned. "Something like that."
In the meantime, they had their poker nights, their circle of friends and each other, and Ray had settled into all three faster than he could've imagined. He and Kowalski rubbed each other the wrong way sometimes, but they made each other laugh too, they connected, and that was worth a few rough words. And Fraser — Fraser was still the most infuriating guy on the planet, and Ray couldn't imagine life without him.
"Hey, Benny," he said, interrupting the poker and catching his eye, "how many axes you got now?"
"Still only two." Fraser smiled. "I supposed I'll have to buy myself a third."
"God help us all," said Vera. "Between the three of you, you could deforest all of Canada."
Ray laughed and took the beer Kowalski held out to him. And when Vera spread out her cards on the table — a royal flush — and gathered the chips towards her, Ray didn't begrudge her a single imaginary dime.