Some Strange Prophecy

by Speranza

Author's Notes: Thank you to my magnificent team of betas: Mia, Terri, Julad, Naomi, & Resonant. Particular thanks to Res for the epigram, Julad for the biker, and Rhyo for her knowledge about helicopters. The gorgeous cover for this story was made by the preposterously talented Heuradys. It takes a village, man. EDITED TO ADD: Thanks again to everyone (especially Terri and Mia) for helping with the revision/extension.


Ray Kowalski rolled over, switched the lamp on, and grabbed for a pencil before even really registering the ring of the phone. Jesus, the last time he took a call this early, there'd been three guys sighted from the FBI's most wanted list, and the morning had ended with a thousand foot jump and punching Fraser in the face. He shouldn't even answer the phone, except here he was, answering the phone—wide awake, glasses askew, staring down at the yellow legal pad he'd dragged onto his lap.

"Vecchio," he said.

This announcement was greeted with a laugh. "Yeah, right."

Ray moved his eyes to the glowing digital red of the clock: 4:36 a.m. What the fuck was this? He'd assumed dispatch—who else called at four-fucking-thirty in the morning?

"Who is this?" he asked, quickly scribbling down the time and the date. "Who are—"

"Keep your pants on, that's a good boy," the voice said. "I need you to listen to me, all right? I need you to listen real good, because this is important."

Ray was seriously tempted to shoot back an answer like, "Fuck you and fuck important,"—except there was a queer kind of sincerity in the guy's voice. Ray argued with himself for a second and then decided to keep his mouth shut. "Okay," he said instead. "Okay, I'm listening."

"Good. All right. So—hey, wait, you got a pen?"

"Yeah," Ray replied, tapping his pencil irritably against the yellow pad; what, was this guy gonna tell him how to do his job? "I got it. Just talk already."

"See, and I've heard so many good things about you, and look, they all turn out to be true." The man on the phone took a deep breath, and Ray suddenly understood that he was nervous. Ray added that to the list of words he'd scribbled on the pad in front of him: male, white, local accent, nervous. "Okay, so here's the deal," the voice said. "You ever hear of Victoria Metcalf?"

"No," Ray said, and scribbled down the name. Except, he realized as he stared down at it, that wasn't true. "Yeah," he said; and fuck, he'd seen that name. "Yeah, I know that name, where do I know that name from?"

"Escaped prisoner. Robbed a bank. Shot her partner. Tried to frame Benton Fraser for murder—"

Ray clutched the telephone receiver so tightly that he heard the plastic creak. "Yeah," he said, mindlessly drawing a circle around the name. "Right. What do you know about it?"

The man on the phone laughed softly, bitterly. "Man, I know everything about it. And I got late-breaking, up-to-the-minute news that nobody knows yet, not even Welsh."

Ray wrote down on his legal pad, connected to Welsh?? "Oh yeah? What's that?"

"She's been arrested. They got her," the man said, and his voice was so tight that Ray thought something might actually snap. "Yesterday. Last night, actually."

"Where?" Ray asked.

"Atlanta, Georgia. First degree homicide, two counts. One was her partner," the voice said quietly. "The other guy was a cop."

Ray winced involuntarily. "Okay, so they got her, right?" He stared down at his notes: Metcalf, captured, Atlanta, homicide, cop. "That's good."

"Yeah, that's good. But...." The voice on the other end of the line hesitated for a moment and then said, "Look, I don't know how well you know Fraser—"

The pencil snapped in Ray's fingers; who the fuck was this guy to be questioning him about his own partner? "I know Fraser," he retorted. "I don't know who the fuck you—"

"Shut up and listen," the man said, and there was an authority in that voice that made Ray think cop. Cop or mafia; no one else had the balls. "Tomorrow morning, they're gonna fax Welsh, okay? I got the inside dope on this one—the arresting officer down there is called Hutchins, that's H-U-T-C-H—"

"Yeah, I got it, I got it," Ray said, scribbling furiously with the pointed end of his broken pencil. Hutchins.

"—I-N-S, Detective Frank S. And this is the kicker, Vecchio, okay? He's gonna want Fraser to go down there to make the identification, because there's nobody else that fucking bitch has left alive, do you understand?"

Ray swallowed hard. Yeah; yeah, he understood that.

"And Welsh is gonna have to say yes—because yes, right? It's our case, we want to make the I.D., we want to cooperate, testify, the whole nine yards. Except you can not for any reason let Fraser go down there alone. " The air of authority was gone now, and the man just sounded scared. "You hear me? I don't care what you have to do—you tell Welsh that you're going, and if Welsh says no, you go anyway. And if he won't give you leave, you quit the fucking job and go anyway. You've got to glue yourself to his side and stick with him—"

"Okay, but—" Ray interrupted.

"There's no buts to this!" the man yelled, and Ray started worrying that he was gonna stroke out. "There are no buts about this, do you understand? One thing, one lousy thing I need you to do for me—so just do it, okay?"

Ray tightened his grip on the phone. "Who are you, anyway?"

There was a long, weary sigh at the other end. "Who do you think?"

"Vecchio?" Ray whispered, already knowing it was. "Man, you're nuts. You shouldn't be doing this—"

"I got to." Vecchio sounded agonized. "Fuck, you don't under stand—"

"Hey, is this a secure line?" Ray asked, panicked.

"It's a secure line, believe me," Vecchio assured him. "I got better spy-detection equipment than the Feds. Better information, too, but I'm not mobile is the problem. I'm stuck where I am—so you've got to be there for him. Because listen to me, you weren't here for round one of this, but I was. And this woman—she's nuts. And she makes him nuts. You may think he's nuts now, but you haven't even begun to see what nuts is where Fraser's concerned."

That was a terrifying thought. "But—I mean, he's over her, right?"

"I don't know," Vecchio said. "You see him with anybody else?"

Ray frowned at the question. "No."

"Has he dated anyone else since you've known him? He hasn't, right? Like a brick wall," and Ray couldn't deny it. "I'm telling you," Vecchio warned, "he's still tied up with her somehow. And I don't know if he loves her, but I know this much: she hates him."

"What?" Ray asked, startled.

"She hates him; you can't even begin to believe how she hates him. She'll kill him if she gets the chance, and Fraser just loves giving her chances."

This was crazy; Vecchio'd been undercover too long, and he'd developed a mobster's paranoia. Or maybe Ray just didn't want to believe it—that Fraser could still be in danger, that Fraser could still be in love.

"She's in prison, Vecchio," Ray pointed out. "How's she going to get at him?"

"There's lots of ways to kill somebody," Vecchio said in a hard voice. "Fraser especially."

Ray felt helpless and confused, and together, they felt a lot like anger. He didn't like that Vecchio knew all this personal stuff about Fraser, and he didn't like Vecchio lording it over him—like just because he was Vecchio first, he was somehow better at it or something. "I don't understand. I don't know what you think she's going to—"

"You don't have to understand," Vecchio interrupted angrily. "Because I'm telling you: Victoria Metcalf is dangerous to him, and I mean really dangerous. So if you give half a shit about Fraser—"

And christ, that hurt; Vecchio couldn't possibly know how he felt about Fraser. Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

"—you'll stay with him, and look out for him. Please," and Vecchio was practically begging him. " Please, okay?"

Except Ray knew who this guy was: he was the real Ray Vecchio, Fraser's partner, the guy he'd been hired to replace. Ray wanted to hate Vecchio for out-Vecchioing him, but he couldn't, because Vecchio loved Fraser too, even if not in the same hopeless stupid way, knock on wood.

Ray took a deep breath and tried not to feel threatened; it wasn't as if he was going to vanish into thin air, now, was it? "Look, I'll stick by him. Like glue, I promise."

"Swear to God?" Vecchio asked.

"Swear to God. I swear on my mother. Your mother. He's my partner too, okay?"

"Okay. Okay." Vecchio seemed to be calming down a little. "I'll do what I can from here, find out what I can. Meanwhile—you, what do I call you?"

"This is a secure line?" Ray asked again.

Vecchio snorted. "I told you already, I got better equipment than—"

"—than the Feds, all right, okay. My name's Kowalski. Ray Kowalski—"

"Christ, they brought in a Polack. Typical." Vecchio sighed and hung up.

Part One.

Ray got to the station bright and early—maybe too early, because everyone looked half-asleep at their desks. Bright morning sunlight slanted across the floor of Welsh's office, but the office was empty, dust motes spinning in the air.

Ray turned around and smashed right into Frannie, who was carrying a tray of coffee cups with plastic lids.

"Hey, whoa, sorry," Ray said, hands flailing to steady the teetering cups, and burning his hand as hot coffee spurted up through the top like a geyser. "Ow! Fuck! "

Frannie stared nervously down at the cups as they settled. "Geez, watch where you're going, Ray, willya?!"

"I'm sorry, I said! Where's Welsh?"

Frannie handed a cup of coffee to Huey. "Light, no sugar?"

Huey sighed. "Black. And sweet."

Frannie cracked a grin and exchanged the cup for another one. "Yeah, well, I knew that," she said, nudging her hip against Huey's, "but what about the coffee ?"

"Frannie?" Ray pleaded. "Welsh?"

Frannie didn't so much as deign to look at him. "I dunno," she said. "He's around here somewhere."

"Good morning, Francesca." Ray whirled, and there was Fraser—larger than life and twice as red. "Ray." He looked entirely like his normal, polite self, and not at all like a lovesick maniac who might go high-tailing it after his serial-killer girlfriend.

So maybe Vecchio was wrong—but then again, he was Vecchio now and it didn't pay to doubt yourself.

"You're early," Ray said, frowning. "I didn't figure you'd be here till—"

"I asked the Constable if he wouldn't mind coming early," Lieutenant Welsh said, taking the last of the coffees off Frannie's tray. "Tell me this is light, no sugar, Ms. Vecchio."

"That's light, no sugar, sir," Frannie confirmed, and braced the empty tray against her hip.

"Excellent work. Constable, if you wouldn't mind coming with me?" Welsh moved off toward his office, and Ray now saw that he had a manila folder in his other hand. "You, too, Vecchio." Welsh walked back around his desk, sipping his coffee. Ray trailed after them, pulling the office door closed and choosing to hang back against it. "Constable," Welsh said, with a wave of his hand, "why don't you take a seat?"

Fraser looked concerned now; he'd put his hat down on the desk and was standing there in something like military posture, hands behind his back. "If you don't mind, sir, I think I'd prefer to stand."

For a moment, Ray thought maybe Welsh was gonna argue the point, but then he shrugged and dropped it. "We've got some business to discuss," Welsh told him. "I got a call this morning from a Detective Frank Hutchins—"

In his mind, Ray heard Vecchio's voice: H-U-T-C-H-I-N-S, Detective Frank S.

"—of the Atlanta P.D. Three days ago, they logged a 911 call from the Armitage Hotel in downtown Atlanta. A maid, cleaning one of the rooms there, found a body in the tub—caucasian male, naked, gunshot wound to the head, D.O.A."

Fraser had cocked his head and was listening with respectful interest, but Ray's stomach had turned. Fraser didn't know who this murderer was.

Welsh did, though; he could see it in the Lieutenant's eyes. "Hutchins was the detective assigned to the case—well, him and his partner, a guy called O'Brien. They got a break, because the Armitage had just installed security cameras. She was trying to cover her face, but they got at least one clear shot of her off the tape, and then they showed the picture around until they found a cabbie who'd picked her up. She was staying at the Hyatt Regency, in the penthouse suite."

Fraser had gone utterly still at the mention of the word "she"—and Ray realized that this was Welsh's way of breaking it to him. Welsh was letting it sink in slowly, letting Fraser do the guesswork and react in his own time. He could see Fraser schooling his expression into blankness—and, fuck, Vecchio'd been right about everything, because Fraser was putting the pieces together right in front of him, which meant that Victoria Metcalf was the first "she" that came to mind. Maybe the only "she" he really cared about.

"They sent O'Brien to her room with some story about a robbery, trying to stall her until the warrant came through. They didn't want to make her suspicious, and they figured, hey, she was only a woman."

Fraser's face looked like it was made out of glass, but Welsh just nodded conversationally, like they were sitting around at a bar telling old stories.

"She shot him in the face at point-blank range, and they barely caught her—the concierge saw her crossing the lobby, and Hutchins tackled her to the ground. O'Brien was upstairs, dead on the carpet."

Welsh reached for a cigar and carefully cut the end off; he wasn't looking at Fraser's face, Ray noticed.

"Forensics matched her prints to a bloody thumbprint found on a faucet at the Armitage; she'd washed her hands afterwards. Her prints also rang the cherries with us," Welsh said, and opened the manila folder. "She's wanted here in Chicago for the murder of Jolly Hughes. They faxed us a picture this morning."

Ray watched as Welsh handed the fax to Fraser. Fraser looked at it for a long time.

Finally, he looked up. "She's cut her hair."

"Yeah." Welsh's voice was brusque but his eyes were sympathetic. "So they want you down there as soon as possible," he said, busying himself among his papers and waving his hand in the air dismissively. "I'll have Ms. Vecchio book your flight."

Fraser started in shock, but Welsh pretended not to notice. "They want—me?"

Welsh glanced up. "Yeah, to make the I.D. Give a statement—you're the only one who can connect the woman they got in Atlanta to the woman you arrested in Canada. And they got her dead to rights on a cop killing down there, but we still might want to try her ourselves—for faking her own death, and Jolly's murder, and the conspiracy to frame you."

Fraser stood up a little straighter. "I'm not interested in pressing charges, sir."

This got Welsh's attention, but good; his head jerked up, eyes narrowed into slits. "What are you saying here, Constable? I'm counting on you to act on behalf of the 27th Precinct, the City of Chicago, and the State of Illinois, and if you can't—"

Fraser surprised him by stepping forward to interrupt. "Yes—yes, of course, Lieutenant; I didn't make myself clear. Certainly I do understand that I am being asked to act in an official capacity as a liaison to the Chicago Police Department, and I am both willing and prepared to discharge all duties required of me, including assisting in the indictment, prosecution, and sentencing of Victoria Metcalf by the Georgia court." Fraser took a deep breath, and Ray forced himself to breathe, too. "However," Fraser added, "I am not prepared to press charges in Chicago on my own behalf—as a private citizen, as it were."

Welsh shot a questioning look over Fraser's shoulder at Ray. Ray mimed his total and complete lack of comprehension as to what the hell this meant, and then quickly slumped back against the file cabinet, fingers running through his hair, when Fraser turned around to look at him.

"All right, Constable," Welsh said wearily. "Go home and pack your bags."

Ray straightened up. "I'm going too," he announced defiantly.

"Yeah, Vecchio, you're going too," and Ray felt suddenly stupid, like he'd just bashed his way through an already open door. "I'm sending you with Constable Fraser as a representative of this precinct—so don't blow it, all right?"

"Yes, sir," Ray said, ducking his head down. "I won't, sir."

"It shouldn't take long to make the formal identification, but the Atlanta D.A. might want to meet with you while you're down there, take a deposition so he's got his facts straight. You'd better study up, Detective," Welsh added grimly, handing Ray a folder at least two inches thick. "You were one of the few people who met her."

"I remember it well, sir," Ray replied instantly. "Or I will have. I'll have remembered everything by then, sir, I promise," and shit, going undercover really fucked with your verbs.

"Go on, then, and have a good trip, gentlemen," Welsh said, dismissing them. Fraser nodded stiffly and left the office, and Ray was right behind him when Welsh said, "Oh, and one more thing, Detective." Ray turned, and Welsh added, softly, "Shut the door."

Ray shut the door.

In a moment, Welsh was back around the desk and gripping him tightly by the upper arm; he was a big guy, Welsh, but boy, when the chips were down, that bulk sure could move. "Kowalski, I don't want you to let Fraser out of your sight from the time you leave this office to the time you come back here. Blame it on me, if you have to—I'm only authorizing a single hotel room, and I'm giving you permission to expense everything. I don't want him having so much as a cup of coffee without checking with you first."

"Yes, sir," Ray said instantly; he'd been through this speech before.

"I want you to drive him to the Consulate, and wait for him while he packs his bags, and then drive him to the airport. I want you stuck to him like glue. You weren't here for this the first time around, but—"

"—but this woman is nuts. And she makes him nuts," Ray finished. "And I may think that Fraser's already nuts, but I haven't even begun to see what nuts is where Fraser's concerned, right?"

Welsh looked surprised. "That's right, Detective. That's it exactly."

"Plus she's really dangerous, so I gotta stay with him at all times."

Welsh stared at him, frowning. "Right."

Ray sketched out a two-fingered salute with one hand, and clutched Victoria Metcalf's file to his chest with the other. "I gotcha, sir. I got it covered," he said, and backed out of the office.

Frannie had the phone wedged between her shoulder and her ear, but ripped a piece of paper off the pad in front of her and handed it to him. "Here," she said. "You're on Continental Airlines, Flight 182 and you're leaving in four hours, so move it. I'm on the phone now with the hotel people, they've got me on hold. I'm trying to get you a reservation at the—"

"Okay, yeah, wherever," Ray said, stuffing the paper into his jeans pocket. "I'll call in when I get there—and get me a car, huh?"

"Yeah, yeah," Frannie said, rolling her eyes. "But Rent-A-Wreck is out of business, so you'll have to drive a car from this century, okay?"

"Har-de-ha. Just rent me a car—and call the motorpool, tell them I'm leaving the Chevy in long-term parking."

Frannie pointedly checked her fingernail polish. "You ain't the boss of me," she said, but a moment later, she was up and out of her seat, the phone thudding onto the desk. "Fraser!" Frannie's eyes went huge as she crossed her hands and pressed them hard to her— heart, okay, it was probably her heart she was going for. "If there is anything I can do— anything—to help you through this difficult—"

"Much appreciated, Francesca," Fraser interrupted, somehow managing to avoid so much as glancing down at Frannie's heaving bazooms. "Ray," he added, turning to Ray, "are we ready?"

"Yeah," Ray said, shooting a quick look of triumph at Frannie. "Yeah, I think so."

Fraser put his hat on. "Then let's go," he said.

Ray tried to feel him out a bit in the car, but Fraser was all head-shakes and one word answers.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine, Ray," Fraser said, but his fingers were tapping a nervous beat against his thigh.

"Cause, I mean—you know this woman really well, right?" Ray shot a quick look at Fraser, but Fraser was staring blankly out the passenger side window. "She's...someone you know," he finished lamely.

"Yes," Fraser agreed, as Ray pulled up in front of the Consulate. "She's someone I know. Why don't you wait here while I get my things?" he added, and opened the car door.

Whoa—nyuh-uh, no way! Ray fumbled with his seat belt and yanked his own door open. "Hang on, I'll come with you," he said, and jogged after Fraser into the Consulate.

It didn't take Fraser long to get ready. He threw a few necessities into a leather satchel, slipped his brown uniform into a garment bag, and then hesitated for only a moment before stripping out of his red serge uniform and pumpkin pants. Ray just stared, not bothering to hide his amazement; it was still a magic act to him, how Fraser got out of all those buckles and straps and laces so fast and without even showing any skin.

Fraser changed into jeans and a gray button-down shirt while Ray stood there, shuffling from foot to foot and waiting—and what was weird was how Dief kept circling around and around Fraser's legs and barking, as if he knew there was bad juju ahead. "Dief," Fraser said, bending down to write a note on his desk, his satchel already slung over his shoulder, "I'm counting on you to look after yourself, and not to give Constable Turnbull any trouble."

Dief barked again, then drew back on his haunches and gave a low growl of such outrageous ferocity that Ray felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

"Don't worry," Fraser replied, almost offhandedly; he was still writing. "It's a maximum security facility."

Dief suddenly leapt up and bounded toward Ray, startling him so badly that he stepped backwards into the door and banged his head, hard. "Ow!"

Dief leapt up onto two legs and barked expressively into his face.

Ray'd never been particularly good at speaking wolf, but this time, he felt he was exactly on Dief's wavelength. "I know, I know," he hissed between clenched teeth. "She's dangerous. I'll watch him," and as a reward for this, Dief licked a long, wet stripe along his face. "Eww," Ray said, drawing his arm across his cheek to wipe off the wolf spit, and shoving Dief away with his other hand.

Fraser glanced up. "Sorry, did you say something?"

"Nah. I'm just trying to avoid being wolf lunch," Ray said.

"Dief, stop it." Fraser signed his note, then folded it and slipped it into an envelope, which he addressed and left propped on his desk. "All right," Fraser murmured, as he stepped back and looked around his office; it was, as always, neat as a pin. Fraser nodded to himself and then said, "Let's go,"—and Ray got a funny feeling, like maybe they'd neither of them ever see this office again.

Fraser came up to his apartment and nervously paced the living room while Ray packed a bag, and Ray was grateful that they'd gone to the Consulate first, because he never would have remembered to pack a suit if Fraser hadn't. Unlike Fraser though, Ray didn't bother with a garment bag. He just rolled his blue pinstripe and a white shirt into a ball and shoved it into his carry-on with some t-shirts, underwear, and socks. Presto. Done.

Fraser stayed quiet in the car on the way to O'Hare, and really, it was starting to creep Ray out a little, because usually it was Fraser who helped the time pass with—okay, with interesting strands of conversation: Inuit stories, ear anecdotes, fun facts about mold. At the very least, Fraser could be counted upon to feed him a straight line, and while other people took Fraser at face value, Ray knew that the straight man was the genius of any comedic team. But now Fraser's face had a terrifying stillness, so maybe Ray Vecchio knew what he was talking about, and Fraser was in danger.

At the airport, Ray sat down in an ugly metal chair with their bags and watched as Fraser wandered around the industrially carpeted room, pacing back and forth before walking up to the vast floor-to-ceiling windows to peer out at the planes. Ray tried to relax but couldn't; some part of him was entirely focused on Fraser as he moved from window to window. Fraser looked small next to the huge jets rolling past, and Ray was tempted to go to him, check on him. But Fraser looked like he needed the space.

Ray called Frannie instead, his eyes fixed on Fraser's back the whole time. "You got a hotel?"

Even from a distance, Frannie's sighs could blow your house down. "Yeah, yeah, I got it. You're at the Vista Atlanta Airport, under the name Stanley Kowalski—"

This jerked Ray's attention away from Fraser. "What the—? Why the hell'd you do that?"

"Not me," Frannie interrupted. "Welsh. Welsh says he doesn't want either of your names on anything, meaning 'Fraser' or 'Vecchio.' You, you're nobody, so you don't count."

"Great, thanks. What about the car?"

"Under Kowalski, at a place called—"

Tall. Brunette. Long, curly hair, headed straight for Fraser—and Ray had jerked upright in his chair before remembering that not only was Victoria Metcalf already in custody in Atlanta, Georgia, but she'd apparently cut her hair. So of course this wasn't her, and Ray let himself settle back into his seat. Fraser turned politely as she approached, and then looked down at his watch and told her the time—like there weren't fifty million clocks around them, since it was a fucking airport after all. Sure enough, the woman said something else, then laughed and tossed her hair seductively. Geez, if he were Fraser, he'd probably go off his—

"Hey! Hey!" Frannie yelled into his ear. "Did you hear a freakin' word I said?"

Ray shook his head and came back to the conversation. "No. Say it again."

"The car. Is under Kowalski. At a place called Pegasus : P-E-G-A—"

Geez, them Vecchios sure liked to spell, huh? "Pegasus, yeah," he said.

"—S-U-S. At the airport, you got that? It's only a Honda, but—"

Fraser nodded his head politely and stepped back, away from the woman—who stepped forward again, into his personal space. God, talk about pushy. Just then, the intercom blared out an announcement which Ray didn't catch, but people at his gate started lining up. Ray glanced up at the LED screen over the desk and saw the word: BOARDING. "Yeah, all right, Frannie, my flight's boarding. Call you when we get there," he said and hung up.

Fraser was walking back hurriedly, and behind him, Ray could see the disappointed woman, who was staring after him with open longing on her face. "That's our flight, isn't it?" Fraser said, gracefully swiping his satchel off the floor and swinging it up, over his shoulder.

"Yeah. Let's go."

It took forever to board the plane, because you always had to shuffle to the door at a snail's pace, and then you had to cram yourself up the tiny little center aisle and hold up the whole line and try not to smash the little old lady in front of you in the face with your elbow as you raised your arms to jam your bags into the overhead compartment. The only good news, Ray thought, as he pulled the bag off Fraser's shoulder and stuffed it into the overhead beside his duffle, was that he was 17A and Fraser was 17B and there was no 17C—it was a smallish plane, with only two seats on each side. Ray hated being all crammed up against a stranger. "Window or aisle?" he asked Fraser.

"Window," Fraser replied, then added, "if you don't mind."

Ray made an "after you" gesture and Fraser brushed past him and nearly fell into his seat. Ray quickly sat down next to him; he was relieved, as always, to be out of the rush of aisle traffic. Fraser, he saw, was methodically going through everything in the seat pocket in front of him, and actually took the time to read every word of the air safety card. By the time Fraser'd neatly returned everything to its pocket, everyone was pretty much seated, and a moment later, the stewardesses began their presentation, instructing them on the plane's safety features, pointing out the emergency exits, and explaining that they should all read the air safety card even if they flew frequently.

Ray turned to tease Fraser for having read the card already, but to his surprise, Fraser wasn't listening to the presentation. Ray'd been sure Fraser would be listening attentively, perhaps even preparing to ask a pertinent question, but Fraser wasn't; he was lying back, head lax against the headrest, staring moodily out the window.

"Fraser?" Ray asked, before he could think better of it, and Fraser rolled his head toward Ray and raised his eyebrows inquisitively. Ray's mind went blank; he could ask Fraser if he was okay again, except what had changed since the last time he'd asked? Instead, he found himself smiling at Fraser, and, to his relief, Fraser showed him a quick smile in return. "Nothing," Ray said.

"Our flight time will be one hour and fifty-eight minutes," the stewardess announced. "Please buckle your seatbelts as we will be taking off shortly," and what was weird was that Fraser reached across and took Ray's hand in his, squeezing it tightly as the plane took off.

Ray's heart thudded in his chest as he squeezed back—and much as he wanted to believe it, he didn't think that Benton Fraser was afraid of flying.

The flight was supposed to be non-stop, and so it was—non-stop fussing by the stewardesses, four of them, each more gorgeous than the last, and each of them stopping by to make sure, completely sure, that the passenger currently occupying seat 17A had everything his heart could possibly desire. He'd never seen customer service like it.

"Would you like a drink, sir? A fruit juice, then? Water, perhaps?" "Can I offer you a blanket? An extra pillow? A moist, hot towel?" "Coffee, sir? Tea, sir? How about a lozenge?" Nobody'd ever offered him a lozenge in all the years he'd been flying.

The worst thing was how they all looked right past him at Fraser, who was leaning back against the wall of the airplane and saying "No, thank you," in increasingly desperate tones.

At least that explained why Fraser wanted the window seat.

Ray heard the click! of Fraser's seat belt buckle a moment after the ding! of the seat belt light, and instinctively understood the plan—if they were quick, they were close enough to the front that they could be out of the plane by the time everybody else was up. He bolted up and popped the overhead compartment, and—with an ease they couldn't have planned—Ray swung their bags down into Fraser's waiting hands, and a second later they were dodging up the aisle and past the yearning, regretful faces of the stewardesses.

"Thank you for flying—"

"It was a pleasure to have you aboard—"

"Please enjoy your stay in At—"

"Thank you," Fraser said, somewhat breathlessly, as Ray grabbed his arm and dragged him past the line of stewardesses and out the door. "Thank you. Thank you kindly!"

Man, it was a Polite-a-thon in here. Ray dragged Fraser up the ramp and stopped at the top, where an airline steward, wearing a blue uniform with a gold stripe down the pants, was standing with a clipboard.

"Hey," Ray said, "could you point me in the direction of—"

The steward didn't even look at him; he was apparently riveted by the sight of Benton Fraser. News flash! Fraser was really fucking pretty!—and this was old news to Ray, but it had apparently struck the steward with all the force of a revelation. Except dream on, buddy: Fraser doesn't swing your way. Hell, Fraser didn't swing either way, Fraser swung no way, Fraser was a sexually locked door.

Ray interposed himself between the steward and Fraser and shook his hands wildly in the guy's face.

"Hello? Vista Atlanta Hotel?"

The steward shook himself out of his daze with a visible effort. "Shuttlebus outside Terminal Two."

"Thank you kindly," Fraser replied, and they set off, following the appropriate signs.

Ray had to give Frannie credit; she'd booked them into a nice place. The Vista looked like a first-class establishment, complete with its own bar and what looked like a decent restaurant. This also boded well for room service possibilities, which Ray asked about when he checked them in—and yeah, the place had 24 hour room service, which was every guy's dream.

He could see that the clerk was looking curiously over Ray's shoulder at Fraser, but Ray was following protocol—they didn't need to know who he was sharing the room with, and Welsh had said to keep Fraser's name out of it. Fraser didn't even notice the clerk's curious glances; he seemed preoccupied by his own thoughts, and was startled when Ray touched his arm and handed him the room's spare key.

"We're in Room 720, seventh floor," Ray said, and then, because he couldn't help it: "You okay?"

"Yes," Fraser said promptly, but he looked pale and not a little bit scared. "Yes, of course."

They took the elevator up to their room, and way to go, Frannie; it was nice-sized, with a little sofa-and-coffee-table area as well as two queen sized beds. Ray slung his dufflebag onto the sofa and went to go check on the bathroom. When he came out, Fraser was hanging his brown uniform in the closet.

Ray glanced at his watch; it was four-thirty. "I'm gonna call these guys, Fraser," he said, and started digging in his dufflebag for the Metcalf file. "Let 'em know we're here, maybe make an appointment for—"

"Not today," Fraser said, and if he'd been pale before, he was now actually white. "Not—I mean, surely, they're about to close—"

"For tomorrow morning, I figured," Ray said slowly; he wasn't sure how to reassure somebody who wouldn't admit anything was wrong. But Fraser was visibly relieved at the words, and so Ray added, "I'm thinking sometime after ten—might as well wait for after the rush hour. I hear the traffic out here is hellish."

Fraser sat down heavily on the sofa, like his legs weren't up to the job anymore. "Good thinking, Ray."

"And then we can get a decent breakfast," Ray said, sitting down at the desk and yanking the receiver out of its cradle. He flipped the file open, checked the number, and dialed. "Which I'm guessing we'll need," he added, muttering almost to himself. Fraser didn't answer; he was just staring vacantly into space.

The phone rang three times before it was picked up. "Hutchins," the voice said, and Ray could hear the familiar bustle of a bullpen in the background.

"Detective Hutchins, this is Detective Ray Vecchio from the Chicago Police Department."

"Ah, Detective Vecchio, we've been expecting you," Hutchins said, and somehow he sounded both tense and relieved at the same time. "Is Constable Fraser with you?" and Ray set up an appointment for Benton Fraser to identify Victoria Metcalf at ten a.m. the next morning.

The hours in between were some of the most difficult Ray'd ever lived through. They hadn't managed to get lunch before leaving Chicago, so Ray was starving. He called room service and had food sent up for them, but Fraser was vacant and uncommunicative, and barely ate anything before pushing his plate away. Ray ate his own dinner and half of Fraser's while he read carefully through the Metcalf file, committing key facts to memory. Meanwhile, Fraser sat slumped on the sofa in a totally un-Fraser-like posture, circling endlessly through the television's seventeen channels and seeming not to see any of them.

Finally, when Ray'd finished reading the file, he thudded it shut, slid back in his chair, and let his palms fall onto his thighs with a decisive smack. "Come on, Fraser," he said, standing up, "we're going out for a drink."

Fraser opened his mouth to argue, but apparently thought better of it. "All right, Ray," he said, and raised the remote control. The television turned off with a click.

They went down to the dimly-lit hotel bar. Fraser surveyed the room with a sweeping glance before nodding toward a round, candle-lit table in the back. When Ray sat down across from him, he understood the wisdom of the choice; he was facing the room, and he could see everything, while Fraser had his back to everyone and so was completely protected from view. Fraser clearly appreciated the privacy.

The waitress was a stunningly beautiful black woman with small dreadlocks that swept away from her face like a sunburst. She came over with her pad to take their drinks order, and lit up when she saw Fraser, but Fraser never lifted his eyes from the flickering candle at the center of their table.

"What can I get you?" she asked, looking quickly from Fraser to Ray to Fraser again.

"Johnnie Walker Black," Ray said. "On the rocks. Fraser?" he asked, expecting Fraser to order a ginger ale or a glass of milk or something like that. But in this, Fraser surprised him.

"Glenfiddich. Neat," Fraser said without even looking up.

Ray camouflaged his surprise by grabbing the bar menu and ordering cheese fries with bacon. The waitress nodded as she wrote this down, then backed away from their table, eyes still fixed on Fraser. Ray felt pretty fascinated by Fraser himself, and braced his forearms on the table and leaned forward over the candle once the waitress was safely out of earshot. "You're going to have to talk about it sooner or later."

Fraser looked up, a glint of irony in his eyes. "How about later?" he inquired.

"Later's okay," Ray answered sincerely. "Later's fine; whenever you want. I just want you to know that—"

He stopped, because the waitress was already back, carrying two thick-cut crystal glasses on a circular tray. Fraser's drink, Ray saw instantly, looked better than his. She lingered a little, probably waiting to see if she could catch Fraser's eye, but Fraser left it to Ray to do the thank yous, and kept his own eyes fixed on his drink.

When she was gone again, Ray picked up where he'd left off. "Just, if you want to talk, or if you just need—I dunno, whatever. Whatever you need, okay?"

Ray lifted his glass to his lips, but Fraser just took his drink between two fingers and turned it around and around and around, watching the candlelight flicker off the crystal.

Finally, Fraser said, softly, "I met her twelve years ago. I found her huddled in a crag on the lee side of a mountain, almost frozen, very near death. I staked a lean-to with my rifle and draped my coat around it and I held her for a day and a night and a day. I thought I would die—I thought we would both die. But when the storm broke, we were alive...and I felt by then like I'd known her for a thousand lifetimes. It took us four days to reach the nearest outpost, and we camped that night within sight of the church's steeple and made love—and I held her in my arms, and she asked me to let her go...and I didn't. I sent her to prison."

Fraser returned to silent contemplation of the candle, and Ray let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. "Geez, Fraser..." and if that wasn't the most inadequate thing one human being had ever said to another, he didn't know what was. "I don't know what to..." Ray reached across the table and squeezed Fraser's hand, and that seemed to be the right thing to do, because Fraser instantly squeezed back tightly and looked up, and there was relief in his expression.

"I'm ready," Fraser said. "I think I'm ready," and then Benton Fraser picked up his scotch and downed it all in one gulp.

Ray woke up the next morning to the sound of water. He opened his eyes; the curtains were still drawn, but there was a crack of light coming from under the bathroom door. Blearily, Ray pushed himself into a sitting position, then fumbled on the nightstand for his glasses. The hiss of the shower ceased with a screech from the pipes.

Ray was sitting in bed with his knees drawn up, trying to motivate himself to further movement, when the bathroom door opened and Fraser came out. He was vigorously rubbing his wet hair with one towel and had another snugly wrapped around his hips. Ray stared at him from the darkened side of the room. Fraser didn't seem to realize he was awake yet, and so he was moving with a weird sort of ease—the kind of ease he only had when he was running after criminals or jumping from high places. As Ray watched, Fraser stopped toweling his hair—which was now standing every which way, like he'd been electrocuted or something—and began moving the towel over his chest and arms with swift, sure strokes.

Finally, Fraser draped the towel over the doorknob and went to root through his satchel. Ray took this moment of distraction as an opportunity to lie down again, curling up on his side to hide his erection. It wasn't the first time he'd gotten hard looking at Fraser, and it probably wouldn't be the last, but there was no sense in freaking the guy out.

Fraser straightened up with a wide hairbrush and began rapidly scraping his hair away from his face. When it was all neatly in place, Fraser put the brush down on the vanity table—and yanked the towel away from his hips. Ray nearly fell off the bed as he jerked forward, straining to see—but he couldn't see much, not nearly enough. Fraser briskly toweled his dick and balls, then turned back to his satchel and slipped into a pair of white boxers. A moment later, he was gone, having stepped out of viewing range to the closet, where Ray heard him rummaging for his uniform.

Geez, that was a perk. Ray closed his eyes and sighed contentedly up at the ceiling. No harm in looking, after all—hell, looking at Fraser was practically a national sport. Or maybe, Ray thought, stifling a smile, it was more of a pastime—

"Ray?" Fraser's voice was barely a whisper.

Ray didn't know whether to answer or to pretend to be asleep. He compromised with a grunt. "Mhuh?"

Fraser kept his voice low. "I'm going down to get some breakfast. Do you want anything?"

Yeah; he wanted Fraser to go downstairs so he could jerk off; two minutes of privacy and he'd be good to go. Instinctively, Ray rubbed the root of his dick, then slid his hand down to cup his balls, which had drawn up high and tight.

Except no—suddenly, it crashed in on him. No, no, and he could hear Vecchio and Welsh and Dief, even. Don't leave him for a moment! and in a flash he was sitting up, boner totally forgotten. "No, wait. I'll come with you."

Fraser looked oddly somber in his brown uniform, and Ray found himself missing the red serge. "You needn't, Ray," Fraser said gently. "You can get another hour's sleep—"

"No, no, I'm up," Ray said, shoving the covers off his legs, and thankfully, his erection was fading fast; years of disappointment had pretty much trained it to do that. "I'm up. Just—sit down for a minute. I'll just jump in the shower, brush my teeth. Won't be a minute." Fraser didn't move, so Ray waved his hand wildly—from Fraser to the nearest chair to Fraser to the chair again, until Fraser got the idea. After a moment, Fraser sighed and sat down, hat on his lap. "Good," Ray said, backing into the bathroom. "Good. Don't move, okay?" and geez, he must've taken the fastest shower of his life.

He was still wet behind the ears when they went down to breakfast, and if Fraser was quiet yesterday, he was a total freakin' mute today. He just sat there, quietly moving bacon and eggs around his plate and sipping tea. The waitress, a mousy brunette with a high ponytail and great knockers, kept trying to get his attention—"More tea, sir?" "Is everything all right?" "Would you like me to get you something else?"—but Fraser said nothing, not even "Fine," or "No, thank you," or "Yes." Instead, he just looked up briefly and showed her an expression that maybe could have been vaguely interpreted as a smile, and shook his head yes or no.

Finally, Ray growled at her and she backed off, brandishing her coffee-pot like a weapon. Ray went back to eating his own breakfast and worrying about Fraser, and he was so lost in his own thoughts that he didn't hear the loudspeaker until Fraser nudged his arm. Ray jerked up, and suddenly the words of the announcement came into focus. "Paging Mr. Kowalski, paging Mr. Kowalski. Please proceed to the white courtesy phone."

"Probably Welsh calling," Ray said, sweeping his napkin off his lap. "The cell's dead out here; no reception. Don't move, okay?" Fraser nodded in agreement, and Ray got up and headed into the lobby, eyes searching for a white phone. He spotted one right away, and better yet, it was right across from the alcove housing the restaurant, so he could watch Fraser while he talked.

Ray picked up the receiver and brought it to his ear. "Kowalski here."

"You still got him?" Vecchio asked.

"I got him, I got him."

"What, right there?" Vecchio pressed.

"Yes. No. I mean, yeah, I can see him, but—"

"Man, you gotta stay with him," Vecchio interrupted, "because today is the day, Stanley, okay? And I'm telling you, it's gonna get weird when he sees her, and you've got to be ready for anything, for everything—"

"What're you, my mother?" Ray replied, exasperated. "He's drinking tea. He's eating toast. You want pictures or something?"

"I've got pictures," Vecchio said darkly. Ray looked quickly around the lobby, but he didn't see anyone who looked like he might be an informant for an undercover cop with the mob. But what the fuck did he know?

"Okay, so you listen to me, then," Ray said, fighting off the shiver in his spine. "I am on this. I am ready for whatever is gonna happen here. And my name is not Stanley. It's Ray."

"That's not what I hear," Vecchio said, and hung up on him.

Ray drove them into downtown Atlanta in the car Frannie had rented for them, a thoroughly practical white Honda. Ray hated the car's styling, but it was new and had tinted windows and air conditioning—which was not nothing, he realized, as they hit the mid-day sunshine. He found the Fulton County Jail with no problem; it was a complex of white concrete, depressing in the way all jails were depressing. He pulled the car up to a booth and flashed his badge. The guard welcomed them to Atlanta in a soft southern drawl and raised the bar so they could drive into the lot and park.

For a moment, Ray thought Fraser wasn't going to get out of the car. He just sat like a stone statue in the passenger seat, knuckles white where they clenched the door's inside handle. Ray had turned off the engine, opened his own door, and had one foot out on the asphalt when he realized that Fraser hadn't so much as moved—and then suddenly Fraser did move, flinging his door open with something that looked like grim determination.

Ray drew sunglasses out of his jacket pocket and put them on as he and Fraser crossed the lot. Fraser looked even paler than normal in the bright Atlanta sunlight. The APD had at least tried to pretty the place up, lining the walkway with heavy concrete flowerpots, but Ray didn't think anyone was gonna be fooled into thinking the place was Disneyworld—it was a jail, and it stank of meanness and desperation.

Damien Kowalski's son would always know a meat-packing plant when he saw one.

Fraser lost his nerve ten seconds before they would have entered the building—and it was then and only then that Ray believed everything Vecchio'd been saying, because he'd never seen Fraser lose his nerve before. But there it was: one second Fraser was striding toward the five glass doors that marked the entrance, and the next moment he was swerving sideways and walking, with almost equal determination, around the side of the building.

Ray pivoted and chased after him with long strides. "Fraser, wait. Hey! Fraser..."

For a moment, Ray thought Fraser was actually going to run for it, and he could hear Vecchio nagging him: "It's gonna get weird, and you've got to be ready—" But Fraser stopped and turned to face him, and Ray didn't think he'd ever seen Fraser look so miserable, so absolutely goddamned desperate.

"Fraser," Ray said, trying to put the sympathy he felt into his voice—and then, and he wasn't at all sure how it happened, he had his arms around Fraser and Fraser's arms around him. It was kind of shocking, and it was kind of wonderful, though the fact that Fraser needed a hug actually freaked him the fuck out.

But Fraser sure seemed to need something, so Ray squeezed him tightly and then, feeling bold, ran an affectionate hand over the back of Fraser's head. Fraser's hair was soft as mink under his fingers, and Fraser sighed and stepped back after giving Ray one final squeeze.

"You ready?" Ray asked; there was no point, he now understood, in asking if Fraser was okay.

Fraser seemed to steel himself. "Yeah," he said. "Ready," and together they turned back toward the row of glass doors.

Detective Frank Hutchins was waiting for them, and fuck, he looked like a guy who'd just lost his partner. It was written all over his face—in the pale blue eyes, the thinning gray-blond hair, the hard lines of exhaustion around his eyes and unsmiling mouth. Cops who lost their partners tended to turn into old men overnight, and Hutchins was an old man now, though he probably couldn't be more than forty or forty-five. But there was something aged in his expression, like something had died inside him, like some kind of horror had taken up permanent residence right behind his eyes.

Without quite realizing it, Ray let his hand swing out to brush the hem of Fraser's brown uniform. The contact felt good, reassuring.

"Good to meet you, Detective. Constable." Hutchins extended his hand, which was just a little bit sweaty.

"I'm very sorry for your loss," Fraser said quietly. So Fraser was thinking about it, too—well, fuck, of course he was. Victoria Metcalf had shot Hutchins' partner in the face.

"Yeah. Me too," Hutchins said bleakly, and then he motioned for them to follow him. They moved together down the hallway. "I'm gonna put her in a standard target-present line-up for you, Constable," Hutchins said. "Just so everything's by the book."

Fraser, staring straight ahead down the hallway, jerked his chin in a tight nod.

"Then we're gonna go down to Charlie Callister's office," Hutchins continued. "He's the ASA working this case, and he's a good guy. He wants to get a preliminary statement from you, just to have something to work with. We got a stenographer coming around eleven."

Again, Fraser jerked his chin, and then Hutchins was ushering them through a door and into a conference room. Inside, there was a young uniformed cop who Hutchins introduced as Officer Brenda Lathris—and Ray couldn't help but notice that Officer Lathris was blonde and really, really pretty. Sort of like Stella circa 1990—

Geez, but he needed to get laid sometime soon.

"—see her, though she won't be able to see you," Officer Lathris was saying. Fraser was nodding rapidly, eyes already fixed on the one-way mirror at the far side of the room. Fraser knew the drill, they both did; they'd set up hundreds of these identifications themselves. Officer Lathris twisted a small, snaking metal microphone toward her mouth and pressed a button on the wall. "All right, send them in."

Fraser went very still as a door on the other side of the mirror opened and another female cop came out, followed by five women in prison grays. They were all about the same height (5'6" or 5'7", according to the measurement lines behind them) and they were all strikingly pretty—slim and blue-eyed, with short, dark curls. Ray knew the procedure—the women were supposed to come out, turn left, face front, and the witness would be given several minutes to come to their own conclusion before the officer in charge asked any questions, so as not to lead the witness.

But there was never a second of doubt as to which of these women was Victoria Metcalf, because Benton Fraser went to her like a homing pigeon—first with his eyes, and then, like a man in a daze, with his whole body, until he was practically pressed up against the glass in front of her: number four. Ray looked around the room and saw that Detective Hutchins looked relieved—Fraser'd picked right, not that there was ever any doubt, Ray supposed. But still, it was weird to see Fraser so totally...focused, if that's what you called it, especially since Fraser normally never gave women the time of day, even when they were six foot two and gorgeous and pushing their tits in his face. But Victoria Metcalf had Benton Fraser's attention, all right—she had his full, undivided attention.

Ray took a quiet, shuffling step to the right to get a better look at her; he wouldn't have been able to pick Victoria Metcalf out of the line-up himself, that was for sure. She was pale, as pale as Fraser was, with wide blue eyes and a full mouth. Ray did a quick compare and contrast between her and the other four women they'd selected—and he had to admit, Victoria Metcalf had a kind of...light to her—even in prison, which was a place that could suck the light out of almost anybody.

But she had something, that was for sure. Something that had Fraser transfixed like a lovesick dog...and suddenly, Ray was really afraid for him.

"Constable?" Officer Lathris murmured tactfully, and Ray turned and saw that both she and Detective Hutchins were hanging on Fraser's answer. It occurred to Ray to wonder what they would do if Fraser just lied to them, pulled away from the glass and said, "Number one," or "Number three," or something else blatantly false. And then Ray realized exactly how much had just changed between them, because when he'd left the hotel this morning, he would have sworn that Fraser'd never lie to anybody about anything.

"Constable?" Officer Lathris repeated nervously. "Do you need more time?"

To Ray's relief, Fraser managed to get a hold of himself and turn around. "Number four," Fraser said calmly, and it was like the room let out a collective sigh—him, Lathris, and Hutchins, all at once.

Brenda Lathris scribbled something down on her clipboard, then pressed the talk button again. "Thank you, ladies," she said, and the five women were led away.

"Thank you, Constable," Detective Hutchins said. "We appreciate your help. Now, if you'd just follow me, we'll go and take your statement."

"I want to see her," Fraser said.

Ray felt his heart kick into overdrive; shit, Vecchio'd been right. It was like some strange prophecy—Vecchio'd said that Victoria had a hold on Fraser, and here she was, still having a hold on him. If Vecchio's prophecies continued to hold true, Fraser was about to start acting like a lunatic. Any minute now, possibly.

Hutchins was frowning. "That wasn't part of the schedule."

"No, it wasn't," Fraser agreed, and he was eerily, scarily calm. "But I want to talk to her before I give any sort of statement."

"I'm not sure I can set up an interview that fast," Hutchins hedged, but Ray'd used that bullshit line himself, and Fraser was a cop, too.

"Well, that's all right," Fraser replied. "I'm sure my statement can wait."

Hutchins shot an angry look at Ray—but Ray kept his face neutral. He felt for the guy, he really did—but Fraser was his partner, and he wasn't gonna sell him out.

"All right," Hutchins said. "Wait here, I'll see if I can get you in."

"Me too," Ray said, and that brought both Fraser and Hutchins' heads whipping around. Ray ignored Hutchins and focused his attention on Fraser. "I gotta be in the room," he told Fraser, almost apologetically. "I don't have to listen, but I've got to be there. That's a deal breaker, Frase," and after a moment Fraser's shoulders slumped a little and he nodded.

Ray turned to Hutchins. "Set it up," he said.

They compromised by arranging a standard prisoner visitation in the Fulton County Jail's visiting area—a room divided in two by a clear Plexiglas wall and further divided into a series of compartments for privacy. Ray expected Fraser to protest this, to demand a face-to-face interview with the woman. But Fraser didn't seem to have any problem speaking to Victoria Metcalf over a telephone and through a barrier of bulletproof glass.

There were a few other people scattered and chatting on telephones, but not many. Officer Lathris directed Fraser to a compartment near the end of the row, far from any of the other visitors, and Fraser nervously took a seat in front of the window. Ray casually leaned against the wall directly behind them—from here, he'd be able to see Fraser's back and Victoria's face, and under the circumstances, it was Victoria he wanted to keep an eye on.

He knew she was coming when Fraser scrambled to his feet—and geez, that was Fraser all over, politely standing for a woman even if she was a two-timing, murdering, thieving cop-killer. He had the satisfaction, however, of seeing an almost horrified look cross Victoria's face—they clearly hadn't told her who was here to see her.

She looked sick for a moment, and Ray wondered if she was gonna pass out or throw up. But somehow she managed to grope her way to her seat, and lower herself into it, and fumble the telephone receiver off its hook. Ray couldn't see Fraser's face, and he was kind of glad about that, because Victoria seemed to have been destroyed by Fraser's very presence, and Fraser's hands were visibly shaking as he reached for the phone.

He couldn't hear what they were saying to each other, though he could see Victoria's lips moving, and at one point, she showed him a warm and luminous smile. But then her lips stopped moving and she started listening—and to Ray's horror, Fraser leaned forward and pressed his hand against his glass, like he wanted to reach through it to touch her, and a moment later she raised her hand on the other side and pressed it against his.

Ray gritted his teeth and looked away for a moment, feeling anger and fear and—jealousy too, why not admit it? Because Fraser was still clutching the receiver and talking to Victoria in a soft, urgent voice, and they were both pressed up against the glass now, practically humping the glass, caressing and stroking it, and—

But that wasn't quite right. She was caressing the glass, but she was also—not luminous, but crying. Ray blinked quickly to dispel the red haze blocking his eyes. Fraser was still talking, but Victoria's face was now a portrait of suffering so intense that it looked like something out of a painting somewhere. Then Victoria began sobbing openly, tears streaming down her cheeks as she touched the glass in front of her. She shook her head from side to side, slowly, no, no, no... Her free hand fell away from the window, and as Ray watched, Fraser skittered a hand across the glass, as if he could follow her and grab her hand back.

Victoria half rose out of her chair, face contorted by grief. Fraser half rose out of his seat, too, and practically plastered himself against the glass, still clutching the receiver. Victoria backed away from him, shaking her head and crying, her face the very picture of sorrow. And then, Fraser briefly covered his eyes with his hand to collect himself, and when he straightened up, he said only a few more words into the receiver before hanging up.

Victoria looked as shocked as Ray felt, and she suddenly leaned forward and began battering the telephone receiver against the bulletproof glass as if she wanted to bash Fraser's head in. Ray was instantly coiled to spring, Vecchio's voice in his head: She hates him; you can't even begin to believe how she hates him. Fraser took a surprised and stumbling step backwards, but otherwise held his ground. The guards came and yanked the phone out of her hand before pulling her back, away, toward the cells.

Fraser stood there and watched them take her, and stood there even after she was gone. Ray let his eyes drop to the floor, feeling like he shouldn't be there; he had no freakin' business being there at a moment like this, except he'd promised Vecchio and he'd promised Welsh. But he really had no business being there, because Fraser was a human being and he deserved a little goddamned—


Ray looked up, and Fraser was standing in front of him, and he looked okay, except for how he was kind of shaking.

"Can we...?" Fraser's voice was kind of shaking too, as he looked longingly toward the exit.

"Yeah, Fraser," Ray said softly, reassuringly. "Come on, let's go."

Fraser seemed a little dazed, so Ray took him by the elbow and steered him out of the visitation room and into the cool, dark hallway. Fraser blew out a long breath once the door to the visitation room closed behind them and relaxed visibly, bracing one hand against the wall and letting his head hang forward.

Ray would not, would not, ask if Fraser was okay. "You ready to see this D.A. guy?"

"Yeah. Yes. I think so." Fraser lifted his head and gave him a strange, shell-shocked look. "My God, Ray," he said. "I think I just got divorced."

Part Two.

"Oh my GOD!" Ray Vecchio yelled, so loud that Ray winced and yanked the phone away from his ear. "He thinks he married the stupid bitch!!"

Tentatively, Ray moved the phone closer to his ear; geez, it was a wonder that ASA Callister hadn't heard the screaming and come running back to his office. Ray'd been surprised when Callister's secretary had informed him that he had a phone call, "a Mr. Kowalski calling for you, Detective Vecchio," and sent him to take it in Callister's office. He'd known it was Vecchio—who else had the chutzpah?—and felt a lot more respect for Vecchio's anxiety now that he'd seen Victoria Metcalf for himself.

He hadn't anticipated this much screaming, though. "I mean, he didn't, right?" Vecchio was asking, like that was the most horrific thing he'd ever heard in his life. "Marry her, I mean? I mean—not legally, right?"

"How the fuck do I know?" Ray demanded.

"I mean, he couldn't have been so stupid as to—"

"We'd know, wouldn't we? I think we'd know if he—"

"Because Fraser's done some stupid things before, but this—"

"He couldn't have. He would have told me. He would have—"

"You?" Vecchio demanded. "Why the hell should he tell you ? He didn't tell me."

"Well, he would have told me," Ray shot back, "which is why I know it didn't happen. And besides, there'd be paper, a license, something, and there's not, right?"

"Right," Vecchio said, sounding vastly relieved. "Right. So what the fuck's he talking about?"

Something was tickling the back of Ray's brain, and he struggled to remember what it was. "He told me...he said something about..." and then it came back to him. "He told me how he met her, up there in the Arctic—"

"Yeah, yeah, Fortitude Pass, Hopkins, snowstorm, I got it," Vecchio said wearily.

Ray stifled a smile; he thought he was starting to like Vecchio. "Yeah, well, he said something about how they had sex near some church—'within sight of the steeple,'" Ray repeated, as the phrase came back to him, "and you know, I think that for Fraser, that would be pretty much enough."

The line was so quiet that Ray wondered if Vecchio'd hung up on him again. But a moment later, Vecchio sighed and muttered, "Yeah. Yeah, that would do it," and Ray could practically see Vecchio scrubbing the front of his face as he spoke. "That's Benny all over...but this is bad news, Stanley."

Ray opened his mouth to say, "Ray. Ray. It's Ray," but maybe this wasn't the time. Vecchio sounded on the verge of despair.

"If he thinks he's married her, then that's it—game over," Vecchio said miserably. "It's gonna be an honor thing with him. He's gonna be tied to her for life..."

"No, but..." Ray frowned down at Callister's desk. "He said divorce, he specifically said—"

"He said, he said ! You're divorced, Kowalski—would you testify in court against your ex?"

Ray thought about this; it was an impossible question. Stella was a prosecutor, and okay, they'd had their bad times, and she could be a bitch, but he couldn't imagine her as a murderer. "I don't know," Ray said finally. "Maybe not. But Fraser's giving them a statement."

"Yeah, but is he implicating her?" Vecchio asked suspiciously.

"He seems to be," Ray replied. "I mean, you know Fraser, he's tactful, but I think he's telling them the whole story, starting with her arrest at Fortitude Pass—"

Vecchio harumphed. "He can't be telling them the whole story. I don't think he's gonna tell anyone that he had sex with her before he arrested her—"

But Vecchio was wrong about that. "No, but he did," Ray interrupted. "I heard him tell Callister that he and Victoria were involved—'emotionally involved' was what he said. I mean, he's got to tell them: that's not something you want coming out on the stand."

"Yeah, sure, assuming he testifies," Vecchio said glumly.

"He'll testify—why else would he give them a deposition?" Ray asked, frowning.

"I don't know. But he—" Vecchio sighed. "He's completely unpredictable, when it comes to her. I mean, she escaped, and he never went after her. Fraser never went after her," Vecchio said meaningfully. "Fraser, who's the most stubborn cop I've ever met, who has a track record of going to other countries to track people down, and he doesn't go after Victoria Metcalf, who framed him for murder, who shot his wolf—"

Ray felt his skin goosepimpling. "But, I mean—he had duties. At the Consulate—"

"He nearly got thrown out of the RCMP for going after his father's killers," Vecchio pointed out. "He did get thrown out of Canada. You're saying he was afraid to lose his job filing papers with the Ice Queen? Nah, nah, nah, nah, I don't buy it," Vecchio said. "He must have wanted her to escape. Because he thinks she's his fucking wife."

Ray bit his lip; shit, Vecchio had a point. Which could put another whole spin on the deposition Fraser was giving. For a moment, he was torn between his loyalty to Fraser, and his need to think this out with Vecchio—who was, after all, Fraser's partner and Fraser's friend. "Geez, Vecchio, in that case?" Ray said finally. "Fraser could be telling them about their relationship to get himself discredited as a witness."

"What?" Vecchio asked sharply.

"Well, work it out. I mean, normally, Fraser's a star witness, best thing that you got. You ever seen what Fraser does to juries?"

"Yeah," Vecchio said with some satisfaction. "He turns them to jam."

"Right," Ray said. "But if he admits he's involved with her..."

"Holy shit." Vecchio was right there with him. "If he admits he's involved with her, then the state's star witness is a police officer who had sex with the defendant before he arrested her, who acted as her agent in a diamond robbery when she got out of prison, and who was actually shot by the police while attempting to escape with—"

"Apprehend." Ray felt a sudden, stabbing pain in his head. "You mean apprehend—"

"—attempting to escape with the defendant," Vecchio said grimly, and his tone brooked no argument. "He was going to go with her."

"That's not true." They'd given him the files, he'd read all the files on this. Fraser'd outwitted Victoria, set her up, and was racing to apprehend her when he'd gotten between her and Ray Vecchio's bullet. All the case reports Ray'd ever read agreed on that, and shit, this was Benton Fraser they were talking about. "Your own case notes, I read them and—"

"Fuck the case notes. He told me."

Ray pressed two fingers to a vein that was throbbing in his forehead. "Christ, that can't be true. She'd already stolen the—and she shot—"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Vecchio said quietly. "She makes him crazy, Kowalski. Ray," and hearing Vecchio call him "Ray" scared the shit out of him.

It took hours for them to get everything they wanted out of Fraser. Ray prowled around outside the door, popping his head into the conference room every hour or so, but they were always still at it. At least, they brought food in for them—turkey and cheese sandwiches wrapped in butcher's paper, and cups of coffee, and cans of soda. Not that Fraser seemed to have much of an appetite; he took two bites of his sandwich and then let it sit at his elbow.

Finally, at around six, the conference room door opened and Fraser came out. Charlie Callister was behind him, yammering something about how helpful Fraser had been, and wasn't this just a model of collaborative law-enforcement, but Ray saw right away that Fraser was dying to get away from there, and so he stepped forward briskly, initiated a quick round of hand-shaking, and pulled Fraser the hell out.

Fraser barely made it back to the car—and geez, it felt like ten thousand years since they'd last seen the Honda. Fraser seemed to collapse into the passenger seat, letting his head fall back against the headrest and closing his eyes against the setting sun. His brown uniform looked strangely rumpled, and Fraser actually seemed to fall asleep for a while, there; lulled, perhaps, by the rhythm of the car as Ray drove back to the Vista Atlanta.

He pulled up in the Vista's circular driveway and leaned across the car to put his hand on Fraser's shoulder, intending to shake him awake as gently as possible. But Fraser's eyes opened the moment Ray touched him.

Fraser looked somehow different, but Ray couldn't figure out why. Same eyes, dark blue and fringed with black lashes. Same face on the other side of the car, glimpsed over two thousand car trips and stared at during a hundred stakeouts—except maybe Fraser's face was somehow less blank than normal, less carefully schooled, like there was some really big emotion bleeding in around the edges.

Fraser turned away, reached for the door handle, and got out of the car.

Ray handed the keys to the valet and followed Fraser toward the hotel's entrance—and then Fraser stopped short so suddenly that Ray actually smacked into him fairly hard, and had to grab at him to steady himself.

"What?" Ray asked, and when Fraser turned to look at him, his face was pale and apologetic.

"Nothing," Fraser said hastily. "Sorry, Ray," and then Fraser stretched out his arm blindly and pushed his way through the hotel's revolving glass door.

Fraser was heading wordlessly toward the elevator bank when Ray took his arm and tugged him toward the hotel bar. Fraser hesitated for only a moment before relenting and letting Ray pull him inside and order him a Glenfiddich, neat.

To his surprise, Fraser drank the whole thing down in one gulp, then signaled the waitress for another. Okay, so it was going to be that sort of evening—and really, he should have seen it coming; he himself had been blotto for months after he'd signed his divorce papers. He got the waitress to bring over nachos, quesadillas, beer nuts, chicken wings—anything that might tempt Fraser to eat—but Fraser merely nibbled on a nacho or two before burying his nose in his scotch.

Women. Ray put his elbows on the table and let his head hang in disgust. Even Benton Fraser, who was perfect at everything, couldn't get the woman thing right. You couldn't live with 'em, mainly because they didn't let you live with them. Stella'd thrown most of his stuff out into the hallway—well, except for the breakable stuff, like the stereo, which she'd at least packed up in the original cartons with the styrofoam and everything.

Fraser looked like somebody'd just thrown his stuff out into the hallway, except Fraser didn't really have that much stuff. Still, Fraser had the faraway look of a man asking himself some really tough questions, like "What the hell am I living for?" and "Who the hell gives a damn for me, now?" Ray remembered sitting on his sofa with a beer in his hand and asking himself those sorts of questions, and he felt a wave of empathy for Fraser.

"It's all right," Ray murmured. "You're better off without her," and geez, that was a really stupid thing to say. When things had gone bad with Stella, it had mainly been with the fighting and throwing things. Victoria Metcalf had robbed a bank, committed fraud, and killed three people; it wasn't like couples counseling was really going to help.

But Fraser seemed to take his stupid comment in the spirit in which it was meant. "Thank you, Ray. I'm sure that's true." He smiled briefly into his drink, then added, "I must admit, I'm relieved. To be rid of her." He finished the scotch quickly, as if it could chase away the brutal thought. "Perhaps I pledged myself too easily," Fraser said, clicking the empty glass unsteadily back onto the table, "but I've paid for my rashness many times over, I think."

The waitress—the same beautiful black woman from last night—appeared at the table with yet another fresh whisky. Fraser looked up gratefully as she exchanged the full glass for his empty one, and Ray glared at her—if she didn't ease up on the customer service, Fraser was gonna be face-down in the nachos by the end of the night.

So when Fraser reached out for the third glass, Ray intercepted his hand by taking it in his own. It was warmer than he expected. Fraser stared down at their interlaced fingers with some surprise, then looked up into Ray's face.

"Look, I've been where you are," Ray insisted, "and there's no point in numbing yourself to it, okay? A couple of drinks are good, they calm you down, stop you from punching things or ripping yourself up inside. But any more than that and it's anesthesia, Fraser, and it never even works. The feelings always come back, so it's no good fighting 'em." Ray squeezed Fraser's fingers tightly; he wished somebody would have told him this, back in the day. It would have saved him a world of pain. "You've got to feel what you feel, Fraser," Ray said passionately, "and to hell with everyone else."

Ray became aware that Fraser was massaging the palm of his hand with the ball of his thumb, stretching out the tight, tense muscles there. It felt terrific.

"Yes, Ray. I understand," Fraser said softly. "But I'm not trying to numb myself to my feelings—quite the reverse, in fact. Do you know," Fraser said suddenly, lips twisting into a bitter smile, "that the last few times I've seen Victoria, she's been behind glass?" Fraser gave Ray's hand a final squeeze and then carefully put it down on the table between them. "Or perhaps—perhaps it was me."

"What else can I get you boys?" The waitress put her hand on Fraser's shoulder and bent down to hear them—and okay, Ray thought, it had gotten crowded in here, but it wasn't that crowded. Fraser's eyes fluttered and then closed, and Ray saw, with a start, that she was kneading the back of his neck. This was providing quite a show for a table of stewardesses across the aisle, who were staring at Fraser with naked, open-mouthed desire.

"Nothing," Ray said tersely. "The check." Fraser opened his eyes, and the waitress took the hint and skedaddled. "Look, it's been a long day," Ray said, shoving a plate of cold quesadilla out of the way, "so maybe we ought to—"

He shot a swift, narrow look at the woman now approaching the table—one of the stewardesses, apparently taking a dare from her pals. She was tall—and weren't stewardesses always tall, like they came from some special race of beings or something—with pale skin and green eyes and freckles. Most strikingly, she had an unruly mess of carrot-colored hair pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. Might as well have had the map of Ireland drawn across her face, but Ray didn't think the navy blue uniform she was wearing was for Aer Lingus. She wasn't even all that pretty, Ray thought meanly—she was just a little too tomboyish, a little too impish, a little too cocky.

Fraser only looked up when he heard the clink of metal; Peppermint Patty had dropped her room key onto the table in front of him. The tag said 403.

"It's getting crowded in here," she said to Fraser, and geez, the freakin' nerve of her. "Do you want to come upstairs and have a drink in my room?"

Fraser stared up at her blankly, and Ray drummed his fingers impatiently while he waited for Fraser to say no. Except Fraser didn't say anything, and Fraser didn't say anything, and Ray was just about to tell her to scram when Fraser reached for the key, dragging it across the table before picking it up.

"Yes," he said, and stood up. "I think I'd like that very much."

Ray felt his mouth fall open and he looked up just in time to see Fraser slide an arm around the woman's waist and lean forward to kiss her, and maybe it was the way she opened her mouth, or the way Fraser leaned into it, or the way he slipped his fingers into her thick mess of hair, but things got hot and heavy real fast.

Ray just gaped, and he was still too shocked to speak when Fraser broke off the kiss, panting a little, and said, without even looking at him, "I'll see you in a while, Ray."

Ray was still sitting there, alone and astonished, when he realized that Fraser was totally and entirely out of his sight.

What the hell was he supposed to do, go up to 403 and smash the door down? Watch him, yes; stick to him, yes; like glue, yes; but there had to be limits, because it was perfectly clear that Fraser'd gone up to 403 to get laid.

Holy shit! Fraser'd just gone off to fuck a stewardess! and Peppermint Patty's two friends were huddled at the table across the aisle from him, looking just as shocked as he felt. It was like they all of them knew that this wasn't supposed to happen , like maybe the world was about to end or gravity was gonna take a holiday or something, because slutty redheads were not supposed to be able to pick up God-fearing Mounties in airport bars.

It was just wrong, and geez, what if Fraser was having some sort of nervous breakdown? What if this was exactly the whacko circumstance that Vecchio and Welsh and even Dief had been warning him to watch out for? Except he hadn't seen it coming!—and in his head, Vecchio said, in a voice that had long suffered fools: "Yeah, well, that's why they call it a surprise, Stanley. You don't see it coming."

Ray threw some money on the table and scrambled to his feet—only to notice, with some dismay, that one of the other stewardesses had taken this as her cue to get up as well, and was giving him a come-hither look that would have been flattering if he hadn't totally been freaking the fuck out . She took a couple of stumbling steps toward him in her high heels, and showed him a coy little smile—and man, Ray would have to find out the name of this airline, because "friendly skies" was a serious fucking understatement.

"Hey," she said, raising her hand to run a meditative thumb up and down Ray's lapel. Her nails were long, and polished, and pale pink. "I'm Susan. What's your—"

"I'm Ray," Ray said hastily, "and I would really, really love to, except I can't right now," he said, and fled the bar.

Outside, in the lobby, the only thing he could think to do was to ring 403 on some goddamned pretext, just to make sure Fraser was there and not, say, helping Victoria Metcalf break out of jail with two tickets to Rio de Janeiro in his pocket. The phone rang and rang and rang and then went to voicemail: "Hello," the computer voice said. "You have reached Room 403—" and Ray racked the receiver, because geez, if he were getting fucked by Fraser, he wouldn't answer the phone either.

Desperate, he punched the numbers again—and now he got a busy signal, which meant they'd taken the phone off the hook.

Okay. So Fraser was at least there and not running off to Brazil with Victoria Metcalf, which was something, at least. He paced around the lobby like a crazed dog, wearing circles into the carpet and earning himself strange looks from the desk clerk on duty. What was he supposed to do, stake out the room?

He went to stake out the room.

The elevator, when it stopped on the fourth floor, opened out onto a hallway identical to the one on the seventh floor where they were staying. Ray walked as quickly and as quietly as he could toward 403, which was, the sign said, around a corner and at the very end of the hall. The corridors were deserted, except when he rounded the corner to the wing where 403 was located, he saw an elderly waiter pushing a room service cart back toward him.

Ray pulled out his badge and drew the waiter aside. "Look, uh. You didn't happen to see a Canadian Mountie and an Irish Air Stewardess—" Christ, A Canadian Mountie and an Irish Air Stewardess walked out of a bar... "go into that room over there, number 403? Maybe they were getting a little, you know—personal?"

The waiter just blinked at him and then said, in a quavering voice, "Non parla inglese."

Right. Ray sighed and nodded and waved the man away with his badge. Stomach fluttering, now, he walked silently up the hall toward 403, which was just a plain, ordinary door. He stopped, listening hard, but heard nothing: the Vista was a nice hotel, and the doors were plenty thick enough for you to be able to fuck a stewardess in private if you wanted to, and it was pretty clear that Fraser wanted to. He supposed he could camp out in the hallway, or break into the room next door and put a glass to the wall like a pervert—but he wasn't gonna do either of those things.

Sometimes you had to have a little faith in the universe, and if you couldn't do that, you had to at least have faith in the guy who was your best fucking friend.

So Ray raised his hands in surrender, and slowly backed away from the door. Ten minutes later he was in his own bed in room 720 and staring up through the darkness at the ceiling. He told himself that Fraser'd be back, that Fraser wouldn't just leave him like that—except Fraser had left Vecchio just like that, and with a helluva a lot more at stake.

Fraser came back around half-past four in the morning. He was obviously trying to be quiet about it, but Ray was on the knife's edge of awareness and came awake at some small noise, maybe the sound of a boot thumping to the floor.

Fraser was sitting on the edge of his bed with his back to Ray, taking off his boots. His white Henley glowed faintly in the dim light, allowing Ray to see the strange, slumped set of his shoulders. The musty scent of sex was thick in the air, and as Ray watched, Fraser crumpled his uniform jacket into a ball and hurled it across the room toward the closet.


Fraser turned, but Ray couldn't make out his expression in the dim light. Fraser stared in his direction for a long moment, and then he stood up and made a beeline for Ray's bed. Ray barely had enough time to push himself into a sitting position before Fraser was kneeing his way onto the bedspread. The covers tightened around Ray's legs as Fraser stretched out beside him and buried his face in Ray's lap—and christ, this was everything he'd ever wanted, except this was nothing he'd ever wanted, because Fraser was shaking, sucking in great, heaving breaths like he was crying, except without noise and without tears. Bewildered, Ray held Fraser close and tried to figure out what the fuck he was supposed to do or say here.

Fraser was asleep before Ray could think of anything.

When Ray woke up the next morning, it was like it hadn't happened, and if Fraser's bed hadn't been made (or if there hadn't been a distinctly Fraser-shaped indentation down the left side of his bedspread) Ray might have assumed that he'd dreamed the whole thing. But Fraser looked just like his old self, neat and clean in crisp jeans and a freshly-ironed white shirt, and nothing at all like the debauched and dejected mess of last night.

"Uh..." Ray said, and fumbled for his glasses on the night stand. "Good morning?"

"Good morning, Ray." Fraser looked at himself in the mirror and began attempting to subdue a cowlick at the back of his head. "Did you sleep well?"

For a moment, Ray genuinely didn't know what to say. Did Fraser want him to pretend that nothing had happened? He wasn't sure he could do that.

"Yeah," Ray said, finally. "Fine. What about you?" he asked, wondering if Fraser would admit to any of last night, or if he'd just pushed some mental reset button. "How was—did you have a good time with Peppermint Patty?"

Fraser didn't even look at him. "Do you mean Katie?"

Ray rolled his eyes. Katie. "Yeah, Katie, I mean Katie—how did it go with Katie?"

"Fine." Fraser still wasn't meeting his eyes. Maybe he couldn't. "She had an early flight this morning."

Well, that was one good thing about stewardesses; they didn't stick around to make trouble. Katie was probably halfway around the world by now, and that was just about far enough. Ray licked his lips and chose his next words carefully. "I gotta say, kind of shocked me with that. I didn't much figure you for the casual hookup."

Fraser didn't answer right away, and Ray had just resigned himself to another day of Fraser being weird and uncommunicative when Fraser said, "Our bodies are made for pleasure, Ray," and this was such a shocking answer coming from Fraser that Ray could actually feel his eyebrows shooting up into his bed-flattened hair. "And if we choose to make social alliances," Fraser said shakily, putting his hairbrush down with a click, the cowlick still unvanquished, "which limit the possibilities of that pleasure? The more fools we."

Ray just stared at him.

After breakfast, Fraser was on the verge of succumbing to the advances of the waitress with the big tits when Ray faked a stomach cramp and allowed Fraser to escort him back to their room. He locked himself in the bathroom for half an hour, pleading gas but actually pacing and freaking and trying to figure out what the hell to do about this.

One thing was clear: he had to get Fraser out of Atlanta, because maybe it was something in the water here, or the air, or maybe just being in the same city as Victoria Metcalf screwed with Fraser's brains the way a magnet damages an electronic device. He'd call Welsh, call Frannie, get them both on the next flight back to Chicago and hope that a day or two of their normal routine would bring Fraser back to his senses. Maybe Dief could help.

Armed with this plan, Ray flushed the toilet and washed his hands loudly and opened the bathroom door—only to find Fraser making out with a tall, strikingly beautiful chambermaid against the wall near the open door of their room. Her chocolate brown skin contrasted strikingly with Fraser's own pale complexion. He'd opened her blouse a few buttons, and she'd undone his shirt to the navel—and his hands on her neck and her hands on his chest looked like an Escher drawing, a negative in black and white.

Fraser's hair was sticking up in all directions from where she'd run her fingers through it. Fraser broke off the kiss and looked up at Ray guiltily—but really, he didn't look near guilty enough under the goddamned circumstances.

"Ray," Fraser said, and cleared his throat, embarrassed. "If you...perhaps you wouldn't mind..." Fraser said, and tipped his head toward the open door.

Ray considered throwing a full-scale shit fit—he could feel one building that was nearly operatic in scope—but decided to keep it buttoned up until he was sure he wouldn't have an aneurysm. Besides, he thought, blindly shoving his way out of the room, past the chambermaid's cart, toward the elevator bank, at least this time he knew where Fraser was, and meanwhile he could get on the phone, call Welsh, get backup, reinforcements, a net

He went down to the desk to buy a roll of quarters, and the desk clerk smiled and passed him a pale green phone message.

Call me, Stanley.

There was a phone number, with an area code in Utah. He was pretty sure that Ray Vecchio wasn't in Utah, but Ray Vecchio, like God, seemed to work in mysterious ways. Ray found a bank of phone booths in the lobby near a deserted banquet hall, chose the phone on the end, and thumbed some quarters into the slot.

Vecchio answered the phone with a question—"You're still in Atlanta?"—which made Ray think that this was a dedicated line, maybe a disposable phone bought for the purpose. Or else it belonged to some poor schlub from Utah who now no longer needed a phone, but Ray didn't want to think about that.

"Yeah," Ray said. "We're still here."

"Is he with you?" Vecchio asked.

"Yes. No." Ray rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand; he had a motherfucker of a headache. "He's upstairs, in the room."

"Okay, good. Don't ever call me when he's around—"

Ray interrupted with what needed to be said. "He's fucking the chambermaid."

There was a long stretch of silence on Vecchio's end of the conversation.

"He's what?" Vecchio asked finally.

"Fucking the chambermaid," Ray repeated, and really, it felt good to tell Vecchio about it. "Upstairs. Last night, he fucked an airline stewardess."

There was another long stretch of silence on Vecchio's end.

"I don't know what airline she was from. It might have been Delta," Ray supplied helpfully.

Vecchio still wasn't saying anything, and so Ray took advantage of the opportunity to unburden himself: "I got to tell you, this wasn't the weird behavior I was expecting. I mean, this is the weird behavior, right?"

"Fraser fucked a stewardess ?" Vecchio seemed to be having some trouble processing this, and who could blame him?

Ray tightened his hand around the armored metal cord that connected the receiver to the box of the pay phone. "Yeah. The stewardess and the chambermaid, and he would've done the waitress this morning if I hadn't stopped him—"

"Holy canoli," Vecchio said in a small voice.

"—which, you know, really isn't typical of him—"

"Isn't typical ?" Vecchio was getting hostile. "Yeah. Yeah, I would say that's not really typical—"

"You want to know what's happening?" Ray interjected angrily. "I'm telling you what's happening!"

"—of Fraser to be fucking three women in twenty-four hours , not when before that he's fucked one woman in ten years—"

"Is this my fault?" Ray shouted into the phone, because damn if it didn't sound like Vecchio was accusing him of something. "No!" he shouted, answering his own question. "No, it is not my—"

"—and that one woman just happened to be a murderous, cop-killing psychopath! Who's he porking now, Lizzie Borden ?"

God, why did Fraser have to go wonky on his watch? Ray let his head thunk against the front of the pay phone. "The stewardess's name was Katie," he said miserably, "and she looked okay; I don't think she had a record or anything. She's gone now, anyway—flew out this morning. The chambermaid's name I don't know, but she's employed here at the hotel. I could run her through the system, if you think it's worth it."

"It's her fault," Vecchio snapped, and Ray didn't have to ask who she was. "This is some plan of hers, or else she did something to him—like post-hypnotic suggestion!—"

"No, man, no," Ray sighed. "He's just—look, you were divorced, right?"

Vecchio sounded sad for a moment. "Yeah."

"So you know that stage right after you want to kill yourself when you make yourself believe that, really, this was the best thing that ever happened to you because the world is full of beautiful people and probably a lot better sex than you've been getting?"

"Yeah," Vecchio sighed.

"Well, you and me, we were deluding ourselves," Ray said. "But in Fraser's case it's true."

But Vecchio wasn't having any. "No. No. I'm telling you, Kowalski, Victoria's got something to do with it. He's discrediting himself," Vecchio said suddenly, and Ray could hear the faint sound of snapping fingers. "He's casting aspersions on his own character, divesting himself of all credibility!—"

"He's going through his own personal seventies!" Ray yelled, frustrated. "Next is gonna be roller disco, and designer jeans, and ABBA—"

"—so that he can get that bitch sprung from jail, Kowalski! Where the hell does ABBA come into it? "

"Would you shut up and listen to me?" Ray pounded a fist against his temple. "Fraser has women throwing themselves at him. I'm talking morning, noon, and night—"

"I know," Vecchio groaned. "Believe me, I know."

"Plus the women we're talking about, you can't imagine the women we're talking about," Ray nearly moaned.

"I can imagine them," Vecchio said, somewhat grimly.

"Tall and gorgeous and stacked—"

"I know, I know." Vecchio sounded miserable. "It was always like that."

"So okay! So why shouldn't he get laid, if he wants to?" and Ray wasn't sure who he was arguing with now: Vecchio or himself. "Why shouldn't he score the occasional touchdown?"

"Because he's Fraser," Vecchio shouted at him, "and he doesn't do casual sex! The man doesn't do casual anything—he irons his shorts, for Christ's sake!"

"So maybe he's seen the light!" Ray replied heatedly. "Turned over a new leaf! I mean, you wanted him to get over Victoria, he's getting over her, seeing other people, dating finally—"

" Dating ? This isn't dating," Vecchio retorted. "This is Fraser acting like—"

"Like Shaft, " Ray said glumly.

They let that sit between them for a moment.

"Can you dig it?" Ray asked.

"Shut your mouth," Vecchio said.

Vecchio agreed that he had to get Fraser out of Atlanta as soon as possible, so Ray hung up and called Frannie, who told him that their plane tickets were open-ended. There were flights leaving every two hours, she said; all they had to do was show up at the gate. Relieved, Ray hung up and strode confidently back toward the bank of elevators. As the car lurched back up to the seventh floor, Ray realized that he'd been tunelessly humming— Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? Shaft! —and made himself shut up. That shit was freaking him out.

The chambermaid's cart had been pushed further down the hall, which Ray thought was a good sign. He knocked briskly on the door to 720, and when there wasn't any answer, he pulled out his key and opened the door.

Mistake. The room was still occupied. The chambermaid was upright on the bed, and Ray got a single, clear look at her—her smooth back, the soft curve of her shoulders, the graceful tapering of her torso to her waist before the gentle flare of her hips—before she looked over her shoulder at him, shrieked, and leapt off the bed, dragging the sheet with her. She wrapped it around herself like a toga and rushed toward the bathroom just as an arm flailed upward, after her. Hair all messed up and looking confused, Benton Fraser sat up in the bed. He was completely naked. "Hi."

Ray realized that the chambermaid had been straddling him. "Hi," he replied; his mind was otherwise blank. "Uh...sorry about that."

Fraser casually reached out and tugged the horrible floral-print bedspread over himself from the waist down. "It's all right. We were essentially finished. Just lollygagging, really."

For a moment, Ray could only imagine "lollygagging" as a deviant sexual practice beyond his wildest imagination. Then he got a grip. "We've got to go back to Chicago," he said.

Fraser seemed to consider this. "Why?" he asked finally.

Ray blinked; he hadn't studied for this question. "Because," he said. "Because we're done here. Aren't we done here?" Ray was suddenly struck by the fear that Fraser wanted to be near Victoria—maybe attend her bail hearing, or show up when the grand jury was convened. "I mean, you don't want to— You're not looking to see her again, are you?"

To Ray's relief, Fraser visibly shuddered at the thought. "God, no. No."

"Okay. Good. So what are we waiting for? We can grab the next flight to Chicago, be back in time for dinn—"

The door to the bathroom opened, and the chambermaid stepped out, dressed again in her white blouse and black skirt. Her kinky black hair was cut short, framing her face and highlighting cheekbones so sharp they could cut glass. Fraser's spirits visibly lifted at the sight of her. "Angela," he said. "Where are you from, originally?"

Angela smiled widely, and geez, her smile was a glorious thing. "New Orleans," she said in a soft, sexy voice, except it came out sounding a lot like, Nawlins. "How'd you guess?"

"Your accent's different from everyone else's—though there do seem to be any number of subtle gradations." Fraser closed his eyes and tilted his head to the side, as if he were listening to music. "It's lovely," he said, opening his eyes again. "I've never heard anything like it. Would I like New Orleans, do you think?"

Warning bells went off in Ray's head. "We're not going to New Orleans, Fraser."

But Angela had let out a low, voluptuous moan. "Mmm. Sure would." Her eyes were far away and dreamy. "Ain't nothin' not to like. The music. The food...."

"We got music," Ray said, shortly. "We got food."

"Gumbo and catfish and jambalaya, crawfish and oysters and clams—"

"We're not going to New Orleans, Fraser," Ray interrupted, trying to sound as if that was definite, final, not even a question. "We're going to Chicago. We're going home."

Ray knew, right then, that he had blown it. Fraser lay back on the bed, laced his fingers together over his bare stomach, and stared up at the hotel's white stucco ceiling. "Well, I don't know, Ray," he said, and his voice sounded stubborn and kind of sad. "It's not really my home, is it?" and that was the nub of it, the thing that Ray should have remembered before he opened his big fat mouth. "You can, of course, go home any time you like."

Damage control; all he could think to do was control the damage. "We don't have to decide this right now, Fraser," Ray said quickly. "Let's just, uh—take a moment to reflect on, uh. Let's not do anything rash, here. We'll stay put, think things over," Ray said. "Things'll look different in the morning," and strangely enough, that turned out to be true.

Angela went back to her cart. Fraser went into the shower. And Ray just stood there, staring at the rumpled bed where Fraser and Angela had just made love, and his mind kept conjuring up the most lurid images: Angela riding Fraser's cock, Fraser's hands tightening on her hips while his mouth opened in silent ecstasy—

The thought propelled him into motion, and he barged his way into the hot, steamy bathroom. The shower was still running and the mirrors were all fogged up—which was just as well, because Ray wasn't sure he could have looked himself in the face just then.

Fraser's head—face flushed, dark hair dripping—poked out from behind the white shower curtain. He looked surprised. "Ray?"

"I'm worried about you," Ray blurted; he wasn't sure that was what he'd actually come in to say, but it was true enough. "I am really fucking worried about you, Fraser. I mean, you do what you want, you sleep with whoever you want. Me, I'm fine with that, because I am not a prude, Fraser; I am a hip, swinging guy who is in touch with," and okay, this was really more than Fraser needed to know, "everything I need to be in touch with," Ray said finally. "So I don't want you to think that I'm judging you, because I am not judging you, Fraser."

Water was spraying through the gap in the shower curtain, and Fraser quickly ducked back into the shower. Ray could hear the disruption of the stream of water as Fraser's body moved under it.

Maybe he shouldn't be thinking of Fraser's body quite this much.

"Go on, Ray," Fraser said. "I'm listening."

Ray's legs felt suddenly rubbery, so he sat down on the closed toilet seat. "Just, I think this is fine, what you're doing," he said, staring down at the white tile floor, "just so long as you're okay and not, you know. Freaking out."

The water stopped, and Ray could hear the gurgle of the drain, the soft drip drip drip of the remaining water onto the porcelain. Ray looked up, waiting.

"I'm all right, Ray," Fraser said finally. "Really, I'm fine."

"Bullshit," Ray said softly, before he could stop himself.

The curtain was abruptly jerked a few inches to the side, and Fraser's arm snaked out and yanked a towel off the rack. A few moments later, Fraser stepped out of the tub, damp and dripping, a towel wrapped around his waist. He looked angry.

"All right, maybe I am freaking out, but I have a right to freak out, at least a little, don't you think? I'm thirty-eight years old, Ray," and holy shit, but Fraser looked good in that towel. Ray stumbled to his feet, mainly so he could maintain eye contact. He didn't think he could handle being at towel-level right now. "And for the last thirteen years, arguably the best years of my life, I've been— I mean, I haven't allowed myself to— You know. " Ray actually thought he did know. "Because I promised her I'd— " Ray was beginning to think that Fraser wasn't going to be able to finish a single sentence, but then Fraser gathered his thoughts and burst out with: "But I'm not blind, goddamnit!"

Ray was shocked more by the actual meaning of Fraser's words than by his unexpected use of profanity, because if Fraser wasn't blind—well, what had he seen, exactly? Ray realized that he pretty much depended on Fraser being blind when it came to matters of the heart, or the 'nads—and he strongly suspected that, in this, he was far from alone.

"I do see when people are flirting with me," Fraser said, crossing his arms over his bare chest, and geez, his nipples were tightening up hard as the bathroom cooled off. Ray forced himself to stare at Fraser's face; if he looked any lower than that, he wasn't going to be accountable for his actions. "I just haven't been at liberty to respond," Fraser added irritably. "I've trained myself not to respond—not just to say 'No,' but not even to think 'Yes.'"

Ray swallowed hard and nodded, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on Fraser's face; boy, he knew just what Fraser meant. No, he thought. No, no. Down, boy.

"But now—finally!—I'm free, Ray. So why shouldn't I say yes?" Fraser's skin was flushed with indignation. "It's not as if it's hurting anyone..."

"Course not." Ray knew this part of the best-friend playbook by heart. "You—you should go for it, Fraser," he said. "The world is your oyster, buffet, clams on the halfshell..." He stopped, maybe having taken the seafood thing too far.

"Physical love is a beautiful thing," Fraser insisted, thankfully ignoring his newfound obsession with shellfish. "There's nothing wrong with a healthy expression of physical—"

"You bet," Ray interrupted; he was trying to be supportive, but he didn't think he could stand being lectured on the beauty of physical love by a gorgeous heterosexual Mountie in a towel. "Nothing wrong with it," Ray said, backing slowly toward the door.

But Fraser just followed him into the bedroom. "My whole life, I've been trying to fulfill obligations to other people. My mother, my father, the RCMP," Fraser said, squatting down in his towel next to his discarded jeans and underwear. "Admittedly, I might be overcompensating at the moment," Fraser added, in what had to be the understatement of the freaking year, "but it's awfully nice to be living for myself, for a change."

Ray tried hard, very hard, not to look at where the towel was so obviously gaping. This must be some kind of hell. "Okay, yeah. Sure. Whatever."

"I think I'd like to go back into town." Fraser stood up, one hand clutching the top of the towel, which looked on the verge of slipping off his hips. "We're here, after all, and I've never been south of Chicago. But Atlanta is the real South—and all I've seen of it is the airport and the police station and the county jail. Typically," Fraser added, with just a touch of bitterness.

Ray saw his chance. "Great idea, Fraser! Why don't you, uh. Get dressed." He sat down on the sofa, picked up the remote control, and resolutely turned his attention to the television. A minute later, the bathroom door shut softly.

Fraser's towel was hanging neatly from the knob.

Ray supposed he should have seen this coming, Fraser being who he was, but Fraser wanted to go to Stone Mountain Park, which Ray had to admit was a pretty nice park as parks went. Part of it was that it was just a nice day to be outside, all blue sky and green grass and pleasant-warm like Chicago never got. They ate hot dogs and looked at the creepy Confederate carving at the top of the mountain and hiked around the lake, and then Fraser dragged him to tour a pre-war plantation on the south side of the park. Ray supposed he was lacking in historical imagination, but Fraser seemed fascinated by the place, which probably looked like Tomorrowland next to a shack in the Arctic.

Afterwards, maybe throwing him a bone, Fraser revealed that there was a classic car museum on the premises. This contained—holy god— a 1948 Tucker, as well as eight other absolutely one-of-a-kind automobiles, including a 1928 Astin Martin, which was only one of the coolest roadsters ever made, a muscle car before cars even had muscles. Ray spent a happy hour and a half in absolute hog-heaven before the renewed rumblings of his stomach forced him to abandon his elaborate automotive fantasies.

Fraser said he wanted to try some real down-home Southern cooking, and the girl at the information booth was happy to tell Fraser about every single restaurant in the city. Fraser leaned against the counter and smiled and nodded and smiled at her, until Ray finally lost his patience and growled, "All right, Fraser. Enough."

Fraser looked at him guiltily. "I'm sorry, Ray. We'll go right now."

They ended up eating at the place closest to the park, a place called Susie Lou's, which sounded Chinese to Ray but what the hell did he know? Fraser ordered fried chicken with okra, collard greens, and grits, for god's sake, apparently determined to have himself a cultural experience. Ray, who had ordered somewhat more conservatively (burger and fries, Coke), watched while Fraser chowed down happily, mmm-mmming and sensuously licking his fingers.

The waitress—a pretty brunette who looked like Daisy Duke—hovered over the table, refilling Fraser's glass of lemonade, asking how he liked everything, murmuring in a soft southern lilt how she just loved to see a man with an appetite. Ray propped his head on his hand and shot her skeptical looks, and soon she was ignoring him entirely. "Now what'll you have for dessert, honey?" Daisy asked Fraser, showing Ray her back and her perky little backside; geez, if those shorts got any shorter they'd be a fuckin' belt. "We've got some delicious pies, mmm-hmm—my favorite is the pecan pie, we've got a pecan pie to die for." Daisy made a few pornographic "dying for pie" noises.

Fraser didn't seem to mind Daisy's imminent demise-by-pie. "That sounds wonderful," he said. Daisy winked at him and jiggled away. She returned a moment later bearing a humongous slice of pecan pie, which Fraser went at with gusto.

Ray coughed theatrically, and Daisy's head jerked toward him. Hello, I'm Ray Kowalski, and I'm alive. He had the sudden paranoid suspicion that no woman would ever look at him sexually again, not if he kept partnering with Fraser, anyway. "I'll have the same. Plus a cup of coffee, light and sweet."

"Yeah. Sure." It took her five minutes to reappear with the pie, and while Ray had been expecting nothing more than a sliver, it was actually a really generous slice. He was confused for a moment until he realized Daisy's cunning plan—to keep his mouth full while she chatted Fraser up. "So," Daisy began, "where you boys from?"

Ray groaned, knowing that Fraser would be helpless to resist a conversational gambit like that. He was trapped between Northern Courtesy and Southern Hospitality, and the only way out seemed to be to stab a fork into his throat.

"Well, I was born in a barn about seventy-five miles south of the village of Inuvik, in the Northwestern Territories of the Nation of Canada. However, when I was six, I went to live with my grandparents in Tuktoyaktuk..."

Ray had three cups of coffee and two pieces of pie.

"...before coming to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father," Fraser said, quite a while later. Daisy had by now actually pulled up a chair and was making enthusiastic, please-please-go-on noises. "That's where I met Ray," Fraser said, looking at Ray, "though not this Ray, but that's a whole other story, and it takes roughly two years to tell. I'm afraid we haven't got that kind of time," Fraser added, and glanced down at his watch—and then, suddenly, to Ray's great relief, he was up and on his feet and saying, "Goodness, we'd really better go if we want to get to the Cyclorama before it closes!"

Ray loved the Cyclorama. Ray loved the fucking Cyclorama before he even knew what it was, and the fact that it turned out to be a giant rotating oil painting depicting the battle of Atlanta altered his love not one bit. They were among the last people to get onto the ride—though "ride" was kind of overstating it. But Ray sat in his slowly revolving chair and watched the Battle of Atlanta, happily fantasizing that Daisy Duke had somehow wandered into the carnage and was fleeing before a brigade of Union soldiers armed with bayonets. At the end of the presentation, Fraser raised his hand and asked a series of questions that showed he'd been paying attention. Their guide was, understandably, delighted.

Afterwards, driving back to the hotel, Ray kept stealing glances at Fraser, who was slouched happily in the passenger seat, looking sunburned and windblown and more relaxed than Ray'd ever seen him. Probably getting laid that morning hadn't hurt either. He had to admit that Atlanta was doing good things for Fraser. Three years in Chicago had left Fraser pale and stiff as a board. Three days in Atlanta and Fraser was loose-limbed, well-fucked, and full of chicken and grits.

As if to confirm this, Fraser rolled his head lazily to one side and said, "Do you want to get a beer, Ray?"

"Sure, Fraser. Sure," and Ray wondered when Fraser was going to decide that he hadn't moved far south enough.

They trooped into the dimly lit hotel bar and went to what was becoming their usual table. The regular barmaid was off for the night, but the woman who came to take their drink orders was equally astounding—tall with long, shiny, blonde hair and a pert nose; just Ray's type. Why the hell was the world suddenly full of beautiful women? Or was the world always full of beautiful women and he'd just never noticed?

Predictably enough, the waitress turned her 100 megawatt smile on Fraser; it was like Ray didn't even exist. Ray wondered how long he'd be able to stand this; he used to console himself with the fact that he at least had a better sex life than Fraser, not that that was saying much. But now, Fraser had everything over him, and that just didn't seem fair.

"What can I get you boys?" the pretty blonde asked, and she had a sexy southern lilt, too. Fraser's face lit up with a smile, and Ray decided that it must be the accent; Fraser must be helpless against the southern accent. Which made sense, because most voices in Chicago sounded like they'd been cranked out of a rusty pipe, his own included.

"What do you have on tap?" Fraser inquired, and after listening to the waitress's recitation of brews, he ordered something called Sweetwater IPA: a local beer he'd read about in the hotel's magazine, he informed Ray. Ray told the waitress to make it two, which was smart, because the beer turned out to be fucking amazing. Go figure.

"That's good," Ray said, licking a bit of foam from his lips. "That's really, really good, Fraser. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's not Chicago beer, because we've got probably the best beer in the world outside of, I don't know, maybe Germany—"

Fraser seemed to squirm uncomfortably at the mention of Chicago. "Yeah. Ray. I've been thinking about Chicago." Fraser couldn't seem to meet his eyes. "And I think...I think I probably won't be coming back to Chicago with you."

The beer soured in Ray's mouth. He made himself swallow, and then pushed away his glass. "Oh yeah?" he asked, trying to sound neutral. "When'd you decide this?"

"Just today. Just now. Today was one of the nicest days I can remember." Fraser showed him a rueful smile. "I think that's sad, don't you?"

Panic fluttered in Ray's chest, which was bad, because he had to think clearly and fast. "That's not sad," Ray shot back, "that's called a vacation, Fraser. Today you were on vacation—when's the last time you had a vacation?"

Fraser took the question seriously, and thought it over. "I think—well, it must have been just before you came," he replied, absently scratching at his chin. "I went home for a couple of weeks and tracked that litterbug up to Skagway—"

"That is not a vacation, then," Ray said, stabbing his finger down onto the scarred wooden tabletop; he felt he'd just scored a major point. "Any vacation where you track a criminal across a continent is not a vacation, Fraser. I should report you to the union. Did they even pay you?"

"Ray," Fraser said, reprovingly. "They don't have to pay me for doing my—"

"Okay," Ray interrupted, "so we've established that not only have you never had a vacation, you don't even know what a vacation is. So let me explain it to you in very small words: a vacation is when you're—Not. Working." Ray pronounced the words distinctly. "I know it's a hard concept to grasp, but—Not. Working. Try saying it with me."

Fraser was trying to control his smile. "Not. Working."

"Good. So okay," Ray said, leaning back in his wooden chair, which creaked, "you need a vacation. Trust you to make such a big fucking deal of it."

"All right, Ray." Fraser looked amused. "Call it what you like: a vacation, a leave—"

"A vacation," Ray insisted.

"A vacation, then," Fraser said, graciously spreading his hands. "Shall I start again?"

"Yeah," Ray said darkly. "Do."

"I think I'm going to take a vacation, Ray," Fraser said.

"I think that's a great idea, Fraser," Ray replied. "What do you want to do?"

"I don't know exactly. Travel a while, I think," Fraser mused. "Perhaps revisit some of my more recent life decisions." He lifted his pint glass and took a long swig of beer. "Few of which, in hindsight, strike me as sensible, or even reasonable, I'm sad to say."

"So take a vacation," Ray said, waving offhandedly. "Go to a beach somewhere and spend a couple of weeks staring at the ocean. You must have some serious vacation time coming to you. How many days you got banked?"

Fraser thought for a moment and then said, "About a hundred and forty."

"A hundred and—" Holy fuck, that was like half a year! "Well," Ray said feebly. "You'll need a lot of sunscreen."

"Oh, I wasn't thinking of being away the entire time, Ray," Fraser said, taking another sip of beer. "Just a couple of months."

"What about your stuff?" Ray asked, trying to sound like Mr. Practicality. "You'll at least need to come back and put your stuff into storage."

Fraser's mouth twisted into something that you couldn't call a smile. "My dress uniform, a few books..." Ray pictured Fraser's tiny room in the Consulate and felt cold inside. "One or two mementos that I'm sure the Consulate would keep safe for me..."

"And the wolf?" Ray asked. "What about Dief?"

Fraser just shrugged. "Dief's his own wolf, Ray. I need him more than he's ever needed me, you can be certain of that. I'll just have to write to him and explain. He'll understand; he's been encouraging me to do this for years."

Ray raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Why not just call him?"

"Because he's deaf, Ray," Fraser explained patiently. "And TTY machines simply aren't common enough to be relied upon—"

"Paging Mr. Kowalski. Mr. Stanley Kowalski. Please proceed to the white courtesy phone in the lobby."

"Stanley?" Fraser looked surprised. "Does Lieutenant Welsh often refer to you as—"

"No," Ray replied grimly. "No, he doesn't. It's's a code. If he calls me Ray, everything's fine. If he calls me Stanley, he's got something important to tell me."

"Oh," Fraser said, frowning. "Then shouldn't you hurry?"

"Yeah. I'd guess I'd better." Ray stood up, then hesitated as his eyes happened to light on the gorgeous blonde waitress, who was mixing a gin and tonic for a guy at the bar. Geez, he'd better be fast. "Don't move. I'll be right back."

Ray snatched up the white courtesy phone. "What? What? What do you want?"

There was a silence on the line that wasn't just an absence, but actually a sound. "Hey," Vecchio said finally, in a voice full of quiet malevolence. "Don't talk to me like that."

Ray rolled his eyes; he couldn't be bothered with Vecchio's mafia shit today. "Look, this isn't a good time, okay? I left Fraser in the bar, and if I don't get back there soon, he's probably gonna fuck the waitress."

"Well, why the hell are you even there ?" Vecchio demanded. "I thought you were getting on a plane, I thought we agreed you were getting on a plane! There were flights to Chicago leaving at 1:20! 3:20! 5:20!—"

"He doesn't want to go," Ray mumbled.

"What? What did you say?"

"I said, he doesn't want to go!" Ray shouted, venting his own exasperation.

"I—what—" Vecchio seemed flabbergasted. "What does he want to do?"

"Fuck if I know! He wants to travel the world, meet girls—"

"Oh my God. You have got to be kidding me—"

"—eat fried chicken, so what am I supposed to do, huh?" Ray demanded. "I don't have power over space and time!"

"That bitch." Vecchio's voice was terrifying. "That crazy bitch, she's still fucking with—"

"No, no, will you just listen to me?" Ray pleaded. "This is not about Victoria Metcalf anymore! This is something else, a whole 'nother thing, more like a midlife crisis—"

"Yeah, a midlife crisis he's having because of her, can't you see that?" Vecchio shot back. "Fraser's on the rebound, boinging around like a maniac—or do you think these are good life decisions he's making?"

Put like that, Ray had to concede the point. "Okay, not so much—but what the hell am I supposed to do, frogmarch him onto the plane?"

Vecchio paused thoughtfully. "That's actually not the worst idea I've ever—"

"Well, I won't, that's just stupid, okay?" Ray retorted. "Forget it."

"Well, what are you going to do, just leave him there?"

Vecchio's tone implied that this was clearly preposterous, but Ray wasn't sure what the alternative was. It wasn't like he had months of leave coming to him—so what was he supposed to do, quit his job and follow Fraser around the world?

"Yeah," Ray said quietly; the thought made his stomach clench. "Yeah. I mean, I think I have to."

The line was silent for a moment. Then Vecchio said, "Let me put it to you this way, Stanley," and his voice was soft and very, very dangerous. "Benton Fraser is not a man who makes smart decisions where women are concerned, and if anything happens to him—and I mean, anything—I'm holding you Personally. Fucking. Responsible."

Ray just stood there, holding the receiver, as the courtesy phone softly went click.

Ray saw the pretty blonde waitress the moment he re-entered the bar; she was smiling and serving drinks to a table of pilots up front. Which was good, because if she was there then she couldn't be sitting in Fraser's lap and giggling. He let out a sigh of relief.

He'd sighed too soon. Fraser'd found himself some company anyway. Jesus, you couldn't leave the man alone for five fucking minutes—and this was—this was just fucking—

Fraser was sitting at the table with Mr. Gin and Tonic from the bar.

Mr. Gin and Tonic looked like Nordic Eurotrash to Ray—tall and blond and wearing green squared-off glasses and a light gray suit that was all pointy angles. In fact, he looked a bit like Ray himself had looked when they'd tried to make him wear Ray Vecchio's clothes—which is to say, like a colossal fucking dork, or a reject from a New Wave band circa 1982, the kind of guy who'd play a triangular guitar and be blinded by science.

Ray stood there, dumbstruck, and watched as Fraser's hand stole up Mr. Gin and Tonic's forearm and squeezed. Mr. Gin and Tonic bent toward him, head cocked, and Fraser whispered in his ear—and then they were smiling at each other with definite intent to fuck.

Ray moved blindly toward the table, thinking, no, no, no, oh, no, you don't.

Fraser looked up at him just as he reached the table, and Ray saw that he was holding an unfamiliar room key—room 816—in his hand. "Ray," Fraser said pleasantly, like the three of them were old friends instead of murderer, victim, and witness, "this is Christian." Fraser pronounced it like it was French, and Ray reached down, grabbed Christian by his fucking pointy lapels, and hauled him violently out of his chair.

"Ray!" Fraser exclaimed, shoving his own chair backwards and leaping up. "What are you—"

"Beat it!" Ray shouted, shaking Mr. Gin and Tonic back and forth. Christ, he could punch the bastard's fucking face in! "Vamoose! Scram! Amscray! I fuckin' mean it!"

Ray'd actually pulled his fist back to pop Mr. Gin and Tonic one when Fraser grabbed his wrist and yanked hard, pulling him off balance and preventing any fist-to-nose contact.

"Ray!" Fraser was trying to twist him around so he could grab his other hand. Mr. Gin and Tonic, looking well and truly terrified ( Good! Good! Ray thought savagely) struggled frantically and managed to break free of Ray's grip. He stumbled backwards, nearly tripping over his own chair, then turned and high-tailed it the hell out of the bar.

"Ray, for God's sake—!" Fraser made a grab for his other wrist and managed to capture it. Adrenaline surged through Ray's body, and for a single, dizzying moment, he nearly popped Fraser instead. One punch! just one good punch! and he'd feel so much better! Except he'd already tried punching Fraser, and it hadn't helped anything. "Ray! What on earth—?"

"No. No. Forget it, Fraser!" If Fraser's door was now open and swinging, Ray'd be damned if he'd let some Eurotrash asshole get there first. "Not that guy, no way—no fucking way am I letting you fuck that guy!" Ray yelled, twisting his wrists out of Fraser's iron-tight grip. "I got dibs !"

Before his eyes, Fraser's face changed.

That was the last coherent thing he remembered.

Wallet. Money. Had to get out of here, pay the bar tab, and he threw money—too much money—but fuck it, expense it, because Fraser was grabbing him by the shirt and hauling him out of the bar, into the lobby, toward the elevators. Thankfully the lobby was pretty much close to empty, except for the concierge and the middle-aged matron waiting to be checked in and the guy reading the newspaper, because he kept putting his hands on Fraser and then snatching them back like Fraser was hot, because Fraser was hot, Fraser was so, so fucking hard and hot and—

He kissed Fraser, because he couldn't help it. Fraser grabbed him by the upper arms and kissed him back, and Ray opened his mouth. Screw the concierge and the matron and the guy reading the newspaper, because they probably weren't looking anyway. Fraser's tongue was inside him, and Fraser's shirt was tight in his fist and—

The elevator pinged and opened and Fraser shoved him through the doors and into the far wall. Fraser rammed up against him, crushing their mouths together and tugging Ray's shirt out of his pants with both hands—

Yes. No. Christ! Ray helplessly clasped Fraser's head between his palms and held their mouths together. Fraser's warm, heavy hands slid under Ray's shirt and skimmed up his body—not far enough, not even up to his nipples—before sliding down again and fumbling with the buttons to Ray's jeans.

He couldn't believe it, but he was already canting his hips back and forth, trying to push his dick into Fraser's hand. The elevator was moving...shit, the doors were gonna open! They were gonna get arrested! Had he even pressed the button for their floor?

Gasping, he twisted his face away. "Fraser. The button. The door." He wasn't even sure what he meant by this, but Fraser's response was just to blindly flail out and push the STOP button. The car jerked to a halt, trapping them somewhere between floors and christ, there were probably cameras in here but Fraser was shoving his underwear down and frankly, they could broadcast this on CNN for all he cared.

Fraser's warm hand grasped his dick and Ray moaned gratefully, pressing his shoulders back against the wall of the elevator to steady himself. Fraser started jerking him quickly, expertly, then leaned in to press a sloppy kiss to his mouth—and shit, he was probably going to last about ten seconds. "Oh yeah...oh yeah..." Ray breathed, and yeah, ten seconds later he was gasping and coming, shooting semen up over his own abdomen, slicking Fraser's palm and spattering his own white button-down shirt.

He was already breathless, but Fraser didn't notice or didn't care. He pressed their mouths together again, and Ray's head fell back and knocked against the wall of the elevator.

"Holy christ..." Ray murmured, when Fraser took his mouth away.

Fraser, face flushed and breathing hard, reached out to set the elevator going again, and they lurched into motion. As Ray watched, Fraser adjusted his erection, which looked uncomfortable in his too-tight jeans; Ray looked down and realized that he only had a few seconds to make himself decent.

He'd barely gotten his cock tucked back into his pants (held together with only two buttons) and his arms crossed protectively over his come-stained shirt (casually, he hoped) when the elevator dinged and opened its doors. A couple of bored-looking teenagers wearing backpacks were standing there, waiting for them to get out. For a moment, Ray could only stare at them, paralyzed, but Fraser grabbed his arm and hustled him out of the elevator. Behind them, the teenagers got in and disappeared.

Half pushing and half being pulled, they stumbled down the hallway toward room 720. Fraser fumbled his room key out of his pocket, and Ray knew that he probably wasn't helping any by licking Fraser's ear and sliding his fingers deep into Fraser's back pockets, but he couldn't keep his hands to himself.

Fraser finally maneuvered the goddamned key into the goddamned lock and they practically fell into the room. Ray felt that the momentum and the rubbery feeling in his legs were, together, suggesting a definite course of action, and he dropped to the floor, sinking to his knees in front of Fraser and pinning him to the wall outside the bathroom.

Fraser made a soft, breathy sound as Ray seized his hips and mouthed his erection through the denim—and god, that was quite a rod Fraser was sporting there, hot and hard and getting even harder by the second. Ray breathed on it, then turned his face and rubbed the length of it with his cheek. Above him, Fraser gasped rhythmically for air, taking tiny little breaths that made it sound like he was in pain.

Ray took this as his cue for action, pulling his face back and unbuttoning Fraser's jeans with trembling fingers. Fraser suddenly began rambling incoherently: "Ray, I— Ray. Oh. Ray, you don't have to—" Ray hooked his thumbs over the edge of the waistband of Fraser's boxers, tugged them down over the head of his cock, and urgently bent forward to take it into his mouth. Fraser's fractured speech collapsed into steady, low moaning as Ray lowered his head and began to suck him off.

Fraser's dick was smooth and warm in his mouth, tasting faintly of soap and more strongly of musk. Ray managed to shove Fraser's underwear just enough out of the way so that he could wrap his hand tightly around the shaft, and the sound Fraser made at this had to be heard to be believed. Now rooted, Ray relaxed and began giving head in earnest, letting his mouth slacken and work as it wanted, lips moving around and over the head of Fraser's cock, smoothing and massaging and caressing him. He was maybe drooling a little, but that was okay, because Fraser's cock was drooling, too. It was slick and messy and wonderful—and just when he thought it couldn't get any better, Fraser's fingers touched his face, skimming his jaw, cheeks, and eyelids like a blind man straining to see.

Then Fraser cupped his head for a few shallow thrusts before abruptly pushing him backwards and away—but Ray could already feel Fraser coming in his mouth. Jism dribbled down his chin, and he turned to protect his face, still working Fraser with his hand. Above him, Fraser groaned like he was dying—and then he slowly slid down the wall, knees bending, until they were seated face to face.

Fraser closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall, trying to get his breath back. Ray watched him with some fascination, because Fraser was beautiful—unevenly flushed and sweating slightly, jeans open, shirt rucked up and damp in patches. When Fraser opened his eyes and looked at him, Ray glanced down and saw that he, too, was rumpled and stained, his renewed erection straining at his hastily buttoned pants.

When he looked up again, Fraser was smiling at him crookedly.

"What?" Ray asked, defiantly raising his chin. " What ?"

Fraser showed him what. Fraser showed him what for the next two hours, after hauling him up and practically shoving him down onto the nearest mattress. Ray opened his mouth for Fraser's kiss, and by the time Fraser lifted his mouth away, Ray was rock hard and panting and ready to come again— now, right now would be fine, any second. But Fraser moved slowly down Ray's body, stopping to tongue his ear, lick his neck, unbutton his shirt and press soft, sweet kisses to his shoulder—

Okay, he got it: Fraser was orally fixated—and yeah, he'd known that, but he hadn't really known that. But now Fraser was heavy on top of him and worrying his nipples with his tongue and—-oh yeah, that was an oral fixation all right. Ray squeezed his eyes shut and plunged his fingers into Fraser's soft, thick hair. Fraser's lips caressed his rock-hard nipples with increasing intensity, biting and sucking until Ray was panting up at the ceiling like an animal. And just when it could have turned painful, Fraser slid down Ray's body still further, licking a stripe straight from his solar plexus to his bellybutton—and, not incidentally, arousing every nerve cell in Ray's body in the process.

Fraser tore at the two buttons holding Ray's jeans closed and then began roughly tugging them down his legs—and christ yes, christ yes, he couldn't wait. "Fraser," Ray gasped. "Fraser, please—" and Fraser tightened his hands on Ray's hips and bent to take Ray's cock into his mouth. Helplessly, Ray spread his legs.

Orally fixated?—fuck, Fraser's mouth was like some kind of miracle. Ray mindlessly rubbed his cock against the ridged roof of Fraser's mouth, the roughened flat of his tongue, and that was good, plenty good, more than enough—except then Fraser was sliding one hand down his leg, and cupping his thigh, and tugging it up slightly and aside, gently coaxing his knee to bend. A moment later, Fraser let Ray's cock slide out of his mouth. Ray barely had time to lift his head before Fraser's mouth engulfed his cock again—and then, he felt wet fingertips skimming his balls and sliding back behind them to press against his asshole. The world went white behind his eyelids.

Any dignity Ray had went flying out the window. "Yeah. Yes. Do it!—" and Fraser pushed long fingers into him, making him buck up into his mouth. Then he was lost in the rhythm of it, because Fraser was sucking him and fingering him at the same time, pushing harder and deeper with each stroke. Ray's lungs hurt, he was breathing so hard—and who knew that Fraser could do this, or would, or even wanted to ? But christ it was good, and Ray just abandoned all brain control and let his hips go.

His orgasm, when it came, grabbed him by the spine and shook him for a solid minute. Afterwards, he felt damp and entirely spent. But Fraser wasn't done with him yet.

"Ray..." Fraser was murmuring against Ray's belly, and there was something desperate-sounding in his voice. "I want to... Can I? Let me..." and Fraser's hands were clutching his hips on either side and kneading rhythmically, like they were itching to turn him over. "Please..." and Ray couldn't seem to think clearly, because desire and terror were warring over what was left of his brain. " Please, Ray..."

Christ, Fraser wanted to fuck him, but if he turned over for Fraser, that was it: game over. Fraser had everything—brains, looks, talent, and now more women than you could shake a stick at—while Ray'd had to fight like a crazy bastard just to maintain something like equal standing, something like self-respect. And now, if he just turned over? Ray sucked for air between his gritted teeth, feeling Fraser's strong hands on his hips, feeling torn apart by the decision. If he let Fraser fuck him, their partnership would never be the same—but there might not even be a partnership tomorrow, and then he might always regret—

Fraser's mouth was warm and wet and kissing his belly, and Ray gasped, tears pricking his eyes, "Yeah. Okay. Do it."

Part Three.

Ray woke up three or four times during the night, but that wasn't a bad thing. Each time he opened his eyes in the darkness, he became aware of the weight of Fraser's body, the tangle of Fraser's legs with his own, the way Fraser had curled around him and gone to sleep.

It wasn't exactly what Ray'd been expecting.

Oh, the fucking had been just what he'd expected, because hanging with Fraser tended to raise a guy's expectations. Turned out Fraser fucked the way he did everything else, with the masculine grace and slightly competitive nature of a born athlete. Fraser'd turned him over and tugged at his hips until Ray's ass was up in the air, and then Fraser had fucked him, slowly and deliciously, gasping aloud and making noises that Ray would have sworn a Mountie was incapable of making. Ray, braced on hands and knees, had let his head hang down between his outstretched arms and shivered violently with pleasure; he'd thought he was fucked-out, but he'd convulsed two or three times around the hard length inside him, coming dry, but coming just the same. Then Fraser's hips had bucked wildly and Fraser had collapsed heavily on top of him, sweaty and shivering and coming his brains out.

So far, so good—but what Ray hadn't expected was the way Fraser, after coming, had just fallen apart. Ray had thought—feared, actually—that Fraser would be smug afterwards, that he would roll over and stretch his arms up over his head and grin at him with an "I can fuck anybody on earth I want, including you" look on his face. It was true, after all.

But Fraser hadn't looked smug; instead, Fraser had rolled Ray onto his back and kissed him, and kissed him, and it was like Fraser couldn't stop kissing him. Eventually, Ray had coaxed Fraser into his arms, but Fraser kept clutching at him like he might vanish into thin air. So—weirdly, considering that Fraser had fucked him—Ray found himself reassuring Fraser, rubbing the back of his neck and whispering soothing words into his hair. Fraser buried his face in the crease between Ray's neck and shoulder and drifted off, but even in sleep, he never loosened his grip—not for an instant.

So Ray was surprised when he finally woke up alone. Sunlight was streaming through a gap in the curtains, painting a bright stripe across the foot of the bed. Ray lifted his shoulders off the pillow and saw that the room was otherwise empty, and that the bathroom door was wide open, lights off. Groaning, Ray pushed himself into a sitting position—and oh, geez, he was gonna be feeling that for a while.

Carefully, trying to put his weight on his hands, Ray edged forward and slid his legs off the bed. He was just contemplating taking a very long, very hot shower when he heard a key in the door and tugged a sheet over his crotch, just in case it was the chambermaid.

It wasn't; it was Fraser, and he'd brought coffee—good coffee, strong coffee, from the smell of it. Ray's reaction was practically Pavlovian, and bless Fraser, he came straight to the bed and handed Ray a large paper cup in a cardboard sleeve.

"Good morning," Fraser said, and it was weird to see him looking so—

Ray hesitated, as he brought the cup up to his lips, and tried to think of the right word.

Happy. That was it. Fraser looked really fucking happy.

Ray took a long sip of the hot, sweet coffee and felt pretty happy himself. "Morning to you, Fraser," he said, and grinned. "You're up bright and early."

"Yes, well, I had a couple of things I wanted to see to," and Ray realized with a start that Fraser was barely controlling his excitement. Suddenly, Fraser was on his knees, hands gripping Ray's bare thighs. "I want you to listen to me, all right? Please. Just hear me out."

Ray carefully put his cup of coffee down on the nightstand. "I—yeah, of course, Fraser. Shoot."

Fraser licked his lower lip thoughtfully, apparently choosing his words with care. "I faxed the Consulate this morning. And Ottawa." Ray's heart sank. "I've informed them that I will be taking my accumulated vacation time starting immediately as permitted by regulation 17, section 19, subsection 13 of the RCMP Handbook of Personnel and Procedures. Which states, and I quote, 'that in accordance with the provisions of an applicable collective bargaining agreement as set forth in 15.19 (A), vacation leaves are to be granted at such reasonable time as approved by the superior officer with particular regard to the needs of the service, seniority of employee, and, insofar as practicable—'"

Ray groaned. "Yeah. Okay. I believe you."

"'—with regard to the wishes of the employee.' There should be no obstacle to the acceptance of my application, Ray," Fraser said, looking pleased. "In fact, each of my previous commanding officers has all but ordered me to take a vacation."

Yeah, well, they weren't gonna have Benton Fraser to kick around anymore. Ray bet that the Ice Queen was gonna miss Fraser a lot, especially when they sent her another Turnbull to replace him. But you could hardly begrudge the guy: if Fraser'd signed up when he was 18, this would be his first real vacation in something like twenty years. Even Inspector Margaret "Spa-On-The-Weekends" Thatcher ought to be able to see that.

"That's great, Fraser." Ray watched with surprise as his own hand stretched out and touched the soft mess of Fraser's hair. "You deserve it, I'm happy for you."

"Thank you, Ray," Fraser said, and then he coughed meaningfully. "While I was downstairs in the business center," Fraser began, hands tightening on Ray's thighs, "I took the liberty of making some inquiries on your behalf. I called the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association—"

"Wait, wait, whoa—you did what ? You called my rep?"

"—and spoke to a Ms. Jodie Wilson, who informed me that—yes; yes, I did, Ray, and Ms. Wilson said that I should say hello and that you should call her sometime; she says she'd love to make you that lasagna that you—oh," Fraser said, frowning. "She must mean Ray Vecchio."

Ray sighed and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Fraser. She must. Not that I don't like a good lasagna, but—"

Fraser slid a hand off Ray's thigh, reached back, and pulled a carefully folded piece of paper out of his back pocket. "Then these must be Ray Vecchio's vacation days—not very many, I'm afraid. Four. On the other hand," Fraser said, brightening, "Ms. Wilson informed me that," and here, Fraser looked down at the paper again and read, "'Leaves of absence without pay in excess of vacation, incidental sick leave, cumulative sick leave, death in immediate family, and/or physical disability as set forth in 29.4 (A) may be granted to an officer by a divisional lieutenant for periods not to exceed six months, such unpaid leave to be extended for good cause for an additional six month period with the approval.'" Fraser looked up hopefully. "So you see, Ray, there's no obstacle in your way either."

"Fraser, I—" Ray was flattered and entirely freaked out. "I can't take six months leave!"

Wow; he'd never seen Benton Fraser pout before. "Why not?"

"Because!" There were so many reasons that, for the moment, Ray couldn't actually think of one—especially one that would stand up to a Mountie on his knees. And then, thankfully, an important word floated up through the recitation of bureaucratic jargon: unpaid. "I can't take an unpaid leave, Fraser. I can't afford it," Ray said, and of course he couldn't. "I got bills up the wazoo, rent to pay, never mind eating—"

But Fraser didn't seem the slightest bit fazed by this objection. "I have money," Fraser said, again reaching toward his back pocket. Ray sighed, because Fraser wasn't a big one for understanding money—he didn't pay rent, had no bills, and didn't even have credit card debt, so what did he know? But when Fraser's hand came from behind his back, it took Ray a moment to process what he was seeing; a fat roll of bills. Hundred dollar bills. Hundreds of hundred dollar bills. Fraser pulled the money clip off and flicked the bills with his thumb, spreading them out like a fan. Ray boggled. "I took the liberty," Fraser said, carefully putting the bills into Ray's sheet-covered lap—god, there had to be ten thousand dollars, here—"of wire-transferring some money from my account." Fraser tilted his head up to look at Ray, and Fraser's eyes were serious and dark and very, very blue. "There's more, if we need it," he said. "I don't mind spending it. Come with me, Ray."

Every warning bell in Ray's head was going off—it was like The Bells of St. Mary's in here, ding, dong, ding! "Fraser, I don't think that's a—"

But Fraser's hands were caressing Ray's thighs and sliding up, up into dangerous territory. Ray felt a flush of heat spread across his body, and he didn't think the sheet pulled across his groin was gonna protect him for long.

"Come with me," Fraser said softly, urgently. "Ray. Come with me," and it was only when Fraser's face broke into a warm, grateful smile that Ray knew he'd said yes without ever saying a word.

Fraser leaned up and kissed him, just once, but once was enough to leave him hard and aching. But then Fraser was on his feet and gathering his things and exhorting Ray to come on, come on, hurry. Ray pinched the head of his cock between thumb and forefinger, because shit, his body couldn't help but respond to hearing Fraser saying come, come, come like that.

Except now they weren't coming; they were going.

Ray got up and stumbled around to find his clothes, trying to ignore his erection. He had to call Welsh; he had to call his landlady; he had to call—

Fraser wouldn't let him near the phone; it was as if Fraser, who was many things but not stupid, had done the math and figured that if Ray got on the phone with a rational human being, he might have second thoughts. So suddenly Fraser was saying that they had to check out now, now, right now, because it was nearly eleven and they really couldn't in good conscience charge the C.P.D. for another day's stay, which was true enough. They could call from the road, Fraser said; really, they should hit the road, get moving, make the most of the daylight—and so Ray quickly packed up his stuff, trying not to think about the fact that he was about to hit the road for God-only-knew how long with only a single pair of jeans, a couple of t-shirts, and his blue suit.

He didn't know if they were coming or going; more importantly, he didn't know if they were fucking or not fucking. He hoped they were fucking at least, though that was the part of the question it was hardest to ask.

"Fraser," Ray said, following Fraser down the hallway to the elevator.

"Fraser," Ray said, as the elevator descended toward the lobby, as the LED display showed 5... 4... 3...

"Fraser," Ray said, as they elevator went bing! and the doors opened. "Fraser, this is nuts," he said, trailing Fraser across the lobby toward the desk. "What are we doing ? Do we even have a plan ?"

"We have a plan," Fraser replied, and then he was standing at the counter and addressing the clerk politely. "We'd like to check out, please—"

"Then can I be in on our plan, huh, please?" Ray asked, leaning sideways and propping an elbow against the counter. "Call me crazy, but I'd like to be in on the plan."

"Certainly, Ray." Fraser turned to face him as the desk clerk scurried away to complete their paperwork. "First, we check out of the hotel. Then we get in the car. Lastly, we drive the car away." The pink tip of a tongue was poking at the corner of Fraser's mouth, but he managed to keep his Mountie face on. "This, I am reliably informed, is called a vacation," Fraser explained earnestly. "Apparently, we are to do little or no work during this period. Women and large quantities of seafood may be involved."

Women. Fraser was still talking about women—was that serious? was that kidding?

"What about me, huh?" Ray asked.

They both went still for a moment as the desk clerk set a sheaf of papers down on the counter before them. When he had gone, Fraser pushed the papers toward Ray for his signature—and used the movement as a cover to lean in and tongue Ray's ear. It was just a second—a hot, wet tickle; the sudden warmth as Fraser's body moved quickly into and out of orbit—but Ray was aware of the saliva flooding his mouth as he fumbled to pick up the pen.

Okay, that kind of answered that; they were still fucking, maybe fucking other people too. He thought he could live with that for now; he felt ready to take a chance. So he signed his name to the various check-out forms and, without looking up, asked the clerk: "So, can you give us directions to New Orleans?"

"I took the liberty," Fraser said, allowing the undercurrent of amusement in his voice to grow stronger, "of exchanging the car for something a little more...festive."

Sitting outside the hotel, gleaming in the Atlanta sunlight, was a bright red convertible—an Oldsmobile, '70 or '71—with a white canvas top. Gorgeous car—okay, not a Charger or a Cortina, and a little red for his taste, but really fucking respectable. Just the sort of thing that Fraser would drive, if Fraser wanted to drive a muscle car. Which maybe Fraser did.

He remembered that after he and Stella had gotten divorced, Stella'd gone off with a couple of her girlfriends to one of those all-expense-paid island resorts to lick her wounds and drink margaritas. He himself hadn't been able to afford that kind of trip, so he'd taken himself on an all-expense-paid trip to Club Beer. Now it was Fraser's turn, and Ray wasn't sure if he was there to lick Fraser's wounds or to lick something more interesting.

Ray walked around the car a couple of times, checking out the extra-wide tires and chrome rims before reaching into the open window to pop the hood. V8, 350, real nice shape—

"Do you like it?" Fraser asked.

"Yeah. It's nice, Fraser. Why don't you start her up?"

Fraser got into the car and started it. Ray braced his hands on the fender and peered down at the engine; someone had done good work here. Satisfied, Ray dropped the hood back into place, walked around to the passenger's side, and got in beside Fraser.

"You take the first shift," Ray said magnanimously, slouching down in the Oldsmobile's large bucket seats. "I'll take her out after lunch," and Fraser grinned at him, adjusted the car's mirrors, and pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires.

Fraser was a bit shaky in the hideous suburban traffic, but he relaxed a lot once they hit the open road. Once you'd gotten out past the endless sprawl, the Atlanta countryside was gorgeous—full of lush green hills and cow pastures and fields of god-knew-what, some plant low to the ground. The sun was too strong to put the top down, but they decided to forgo air-conditioning and open all the windows instead. The air was warm and full of good smells—hay and grass and perfume from the huge, flowering trees.

Fraser was humming along in a low but surprisingly good voice with the country music playing on the radio. Ray slid deeper into the comfortable leather seat and watched him from behind the protective shield of his sunglasses. All the distracting layers—the red suit and the mask of politeness and even the hat—had been stripped away to reveal this guy, a good-looking country-music lover driving an Olds.

Ray liked this guy a lot.

"Fraser," Ray said softly. Fraser turned to look at him expectantly, but Ray hadn't had anything to say; he'd just wanted to see Fraser's face. "Nothing," he said, after a moment.

"Are you hungry?" Fraser asked, glancing between him and the road. "We could stop...?"

"No rush," Ray said.

They drove for another forty minutes or so, and then Fraser pulled the car off the road at a hand-painted wood sign that said: "Lisa's Kitchen—Great Eats & Gas Too!"

"You sure we want to eat here?" Ray asked, as Fraser pulled the Olds up to one of the battered pumps. Beyond them, a phone booth stood glittering in the sun.

Fraser shifted the car into park and turned the engine off. "Why not, Ray?"

"No reason," Ray said, flicking his seatbelt off. "I guess we can always put the top down."

"I'll get gas," Fraser said, and opened his door.

"Yeah, like I said." Ray got out of the car, stretched his legs, then headed for the phone booth. "I'm gonna use the phone," he called back over his shoulder. "Be right back."

A look of concern crossed Fraser's face. "All right, Ray."

Ray searched his jeans pockets for quarters, then stepped into the glass-enclosed phone booth. It was really frickin' hot inside, so he had to leave the door open or stifle. Even the black plastic receiver was hot, but Ray gamely wedged it between his shoulder and his ear as he dialed the 27th precinct. Once the phone was ringing, he pulled the metal cord to its fullest length so he could stand half-in and half-outside of the sweltering air.

"Chicago P.D., Lieutenant Welsh's office," Frannie said.

"Frannie, it's me. It's Ray."

"Ray, geez, where the hell are you? We all thought you'd be back by now—"

"Yeah, well, things got a little complicated here," Ray sighed. "Look, can I talk to the Lieu?"

"Yeah, yeah, of course. You're okay, right?" Frannie sounded concerned.

Despite himself, he was touched. "Yeah, Frannie. I'm okay."

"And Fraser?" Frannie asked.

Ray turned, and saw Fraser standing in the sunlight near the Olds. Man, if Frannie knew that Fraser'd broken his vow of chastity, she'd be down here on the next freakin' plane. "He's okay, too, Frannie," Ray said, turning back toward the phone. "We're both fine."

"Well, I hope that's still true after you talk to the Lieu," Frannie said darkly, and then she was transferring him to Welsh.

"What the hell is going on down there?" Welsh roared. "You're done, right? A.P.D says you're done, so get your asses onto a plane and—"

"I got to take some leave," Ray interrupted; the only way he was gonna get through this was to take charge of the conversation.

As he hoped, Welsh was taken off-guard. "You've got to what ?"

"Take some leave. Time off," Ray explained. "Apparently I got four vacation days coming to me, and then I need to apply for some kind of leave without pay. I don't know how, you tell me."

Welsh breathed quietly into the phone for a moment, and Ray knew he was trying to decide whether he should start yelling now or force himself to proceed with caution. Caution apparently won out. "What's this about, Detective?" he asked suspiciously.

Ray figured he was best off sticking as close to the truth as humanly possible. "Fraser doesn't want to come back; he says he needs a vacation."

"A vacation?" Welsh repeated, surprised. " Fraser ?"

"Yeah. This Victoria thing has stressed him out, I guess." Ray let that sit between them for a moment, aware of the vast potency of the V-word. "I don't want to leave him alone down here. I'm his friend," Ray said sanctimoniously. "I feel like I should keep an eye on him." Maybe more than an eye.

"Geez," Welsh muttered, and Ray knew that voice; that was his "geez, you bastards are giving me a headache" voice. "How long are we talking about?"

"I don't know," Ray said, honestly. "I mean, I'm hoping that after a couple of days, Fraser'll snap out of it," and that was true; Ray was hoping that Fraser's innate do-gooder-ism would kick in sooner rather than later, because you really couldn't spend your life traveling the country in a rented Oldsmobile, could you? "But I don't really have a plan, sir—I'm kind of playing this by ear."

Again, there was that weird breathing sound as Welsh thought it over. Ray braced his hand on the booth's frame and waited nervously for his answer.

"Is there anything I can possibly do to stop you?" Welsh asked finally.

Ray looked back over at Fraser; Fraser was leaning against the door of the red Oldsmobile in his tight jeans and t-shirt, trying to look as if he weren't staring in Ray's direction. Fraser was clearly worried that someone on the phone was gonna talk sense into him, but Fraser looked like a fucking wet dream, and Lieutenant Welsh didn't have a chance.

"No," Ray said.

Welsh sighed, as if he had expected no better. "Okay, Detective; I'll put you on a temporary leave of absence starting today. But—I can't believe I'm saying this," Welsh muttered, "but see if you can talk some sense into Fraser. Christ, it's hopeless," he said, and hung up.

Relieved, Ray racked the receiver; that had actually gone a lot better than he had expected. He turned and showed Fraser a quick thumbs-up, and Fraser abandoned all pretense of not-watching-him to smile and return the gesture. Ray then raised a finger and mouthed, "one minute," before turning back to the phone and worming the folded piece of green paper out of his back pocket.

Vecchio answered on the first ring. "I didn't think you'd call," he said, sounding vastly relieved, and Ray reflected that despite everything, he just couldn't dislike the guy.

"Shows what you know," Ray replied.

"You checked out of the hotel," Vecchio said, and if Vecchio was trying to make him feel nervous and paranoid, it was working. He could only hope there really weren't cameras in the elevator, though he figured Vecchio would have mentioned it already if there were. "You left with Fraser in a red convertible."

Ray steeled himself; he wasn't gonna let Vecchio intimidate him like this. "Yeah, we did," he said, "and so where are we now?"

Vecchio was ominously silent for a moment, and then Ray heard what sounded like the rustle of paper. "You're at a gas station in Buttfuck, Alabama," Vecchio said smugly.

Fuck, that was creepy, but Ray was determined not to let fear show in his voice. "Fine, then," he shot back. "Since you know everything already, I guess I didn't need to call. Talk to you later, Vecchio—"

"Wait, wait, wait, wait!" There was a note of real desperation in Vecchio's voice. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? I'm glad you called, and I'm glad you're still with him. I mean it, Kowalski; I'm sorry."

Ray struggled with himself for a moment before relenting. "Apology accepted," he said, grudgingly, "and that's basically what I wanted to tell you. I'm going with him to New Orleans—Fraser wants to go to New Orleans."

"New Orleans, huh?" Vecchio seemed to need to think about this. "Man, I don't even know what to make of that. I mean, on the one hand, I'm glad you're out of Atlanta and away from her—"

"Yeah. Me too," Ray muttered.

"—but still, this is weird. It's always possible that New Orleans was her idea, that he's acting as her agent in some way. Delivering a message, or meeting with someone—"

"I'm telling you, it's not that," Ray insisted for what felt like the hundred and fiftieth time.

"Right, yeah; midlife crisis—I saw the car," Vecchio admitted reluctantly. "I guess it could be that, too. So who'd he fuck last night?"

Ray blew out a breath; what was he supposed to say, here? Me ? The phone was suddenly slippery in his hands.

"Uh...some guy," Ray blurted, and then, thankfully, his brain sent him a picture of Mr. Nordic Eurotrash. "Some guy at the bar; a blond guy in a bad suit."

Vecchio let out a long, low whistle. "Whoa, are you serious? Fraser fucked a guy?"

"Yeah," Ray said, really really hoping now that Vecchio's information network was fallible.

"Geez. Well, I guess I'm not surprised," Vecchio said, and that sure surprised the hell out of Ray.

"You're not?" Ray asked.

"Nah. It's not like Fraser ever really understood the concept of personal limits," Vecchio snorted. "Limits are for other people; Fraser can do anything, or haven't you noticed? Backwards and in high heels, even."

"I don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Ray said.

"I'm talking about how good Fraser looks in a dress," Vecchio said. "And how he jumps off tall buildings without looking."

That was a terrifying image. "Fraser jumped off a building in a dress?"

"Not that I personally know of," Vecchio admitted, "but I won't swear it didn't happen."

Ray glanced over at Fraser again; a kilt, maybe? He quickly shook the thought out of his head. "All right, I'm out of here. Don't call me, I'll call you."

"You know, in a way I'm kind of jealous," Vecchio said quietly. "Fraser unbuckles his straps, and I'm way out here. I don't think he's even let himself think about sex since Victoria Metcalf. Man, I'll tell you something, Kowalski—those of us who hate her? It's partly because we were so fuckin' happy for him. I remember him opening the door to that rathole apartment, and—there was just something about him that day, something different. And I remember saying, 'You got a woman in there!'—it was just a look he had, shy and kind of pleased about it. And then she just—she fucked him, she fucked us, she fucked everything," Vecchio spat, "and by the end of it? I swear to God, I think Fraser really wanted to die for a second there," and Ray felt chilled to the bone despite the warm day and the sunlight. "I mean, not for long," Vecchio amended, "because he's Fraser and he gets up again, no matter what you do to him—but for just a second, he was more out of the game than I've ever seen him. That was the last time he unbuckled, and I really don't think he's unbuckled himself since."

"I gotta go," Ray whispered into the phone. "I gotta go now."

"I wanna hear everything," Ray Vecchio said starkly. "I want to know every fucking thing that goes on."

"Uh, yeah. Okay," Ray said, but he was crossing his fingers as he hung up the phone.

Lisa's Restaurant had good food and a homey atmosphere and a lanky, teenage waiter who was very, very gay. The kid could barely speak to Fraser without blushing furiously, not even to ask him whether he wanted his gravy on top of his mashed potatoes or on the side. Their plates of meatloaf and green beans rattled on the table when he finally put them down; his hands were shaking like paper.

Ray hid his smile behind his hand and watched as Fraser gently deflected the boy's stammering attempts at flirtatious conversation.

"So—uh—uh—you like it?" the boy asked.

"Yes, it's very good," Fraser replied with deep sincerity. "Mmm-mm. Delicious."

"I can get you more," the boy offered hopefully. "You want more?"

"No, no," Fraser replied quickly. "This is fine, thank you."

The boy, who midway through the meal remembered to introduce himself as "Dave"—"I'm Dave, I'm your waiter, uh, can I get you anything?"—finally hit on the now-familiar strategy of attempting to woo Fraser with pie. Ray thought this was pretty funny, and made a lame crack about how Fraser was gonna start putting on weight if he didn't watch out, but Fraser just stared down at the huge slice of hot apple pie and ice cream, and then stood up abruptly.

"Excuse me, Ray," Fraser said. "I'll be right back."

Fraser wandered off toward the kitchen, and Ray decided that he might as well eat Fraser's pie before the ice cream melted. Ray tugged the plate over, reached for a spoon, and was about to dig in when he noticed that the triangle of pie was framed with two scoops of ice cream up top, making a heart-shape.

The pie was, quite literally, a valentine to Fraser, and Ray blew out a rueful laugh. Christ, he'd done shit like this when he was seventeen...

But then Fraser didn't come back, and Ray couldn't help but notice that Dave wasn't anywhere to be seen, either. A waitress refilled Ray's coffee, and Ray sat there and ate Fraser's pie and told himself, over and over, that no way was Fraser doing anything with Dave. Except maybe talking to him. Fraser might talk to the boy, because the boy clearly needed a talking to about the dangers of flirting with strange men. But Fraser couldn't possibly be stupid enough to do anything sexual with an underaged boy in rural Alabama, right? Ray looked around nervously to see if there were any good old boys with shotguns, but the only other people in the restaurant were two middle-aged women who smiled pleasantly, and appeared to be unarmed.

When Fraser finally did return, Ray couldn't help but notice that he had an interesting red mark at the base of his neck. Fraser paused by the table and said, quickly, "Come, Ray; let's go."

Ray squinted up at him. "We haven't paid yet."

"Ah. Right you are, Ray." Fraser glanced nervously at the front counter, where a motherly-looking woman was manning the register and selling cigarettes and sundries. "Would you mind...?" Fraser asked, worming some money out of his back pocket and offering it to Ray. "I'll, uh. Meet you by the car, all right?"

Ray sighed and took the money from his hand. "Okay, sure, Fraser. Scram."

Fraser scrammed.

Ray went to the counter, paid the check, and bought a pack of cigarettes, two Cokes, a pair of sunglasses and a lottery ticket while he was at it. Day like this, he figured, almost anything could happen.

Fraser was loitering guiltily near the Oldsmobile when Ray stormed out, extended his hand, and demanded the keys. Fraser gave him the keys. "Ray—I can explain—"

"Can't wait to hear it." Ray slid into the driver's seat, started the engine, and fumbled through the brown bag for the pack of Marlboros. His hand found the pair of sunglasses and he tossed them into Fraser's lap. "Here. You might need a disguise."

" Ray, " Fraser said sorrowfully.

Ray steered one-handed out of the parking lot and back onto the road while packing the Marlboros against his chest with his free hand. "I just want you to know that you're driving me to drink, and smoke, and maybe do heroin."

"Ray, honestly, I didn't mean for anything to happen!" and Ray put his foot on the gas so hard that Fraser jerked back in his seat. Nice not to be the only one off-balance for a change. "I just wanted to talk to him, but he was— persistent."

"Fraser, he was what—eighteen?" Ray asked, glaring across the car at him. "You're nearly forty. That's close to death."

"Very close, if you keep driving like this," Fraser warned.

"You're old enough to be his father, Fraser," Ray said, ripping the cellophane off the cigarette pack with his teeth.

"Yes," Fraser said, with a strange intensity, "that's right, I could be, if I'd married at twenty—and don't you see, that's why I had to talk to him. To warn him! How old were you when you married, Ray?"

Ray'd managed to get a cigarette between his lips and keep the Olds ticking at a steady 75 mph besides. "Nineteen," he growled around the cigarette.

"You see? So easy to make a mistake when you're young! You made one! I made one!"

"Oh yeah, as opposed to the mature and rational decisions we're making right now." Ray rolled his eyes. "I don't know about you, Fraser, but I'm feeling the wisdom of my years right now, I can tell you."

Fraser unfolded the mirrored sunglasses Ray'd thrown into his lap, contemplated them for a moment, and then put them on. They made him look like a much meaner guy than he was, like a biker or something, not like Fraser at all. "I wanted to tell him not to give his heart away so easily," Fraser said quietly, turning to stare out the window.

And what the hell was he supposed to say to that? Ray just sighed, pulled the unlit cigarette out of his mouth, and tossed it out the window.

They could easily have made it to New Orleans by nightfall, but what was the rush, really? Around twilight, Ray passed a sign for something called the Yellowhammer County Fair, and he thought that Fraser might really like a county fair, especially since Fraser hadn't said much about much since they'd left Lisa's Restaurant.

"Come on, Fraser," Ray muttered, taking the next exit, "I'll buy you some cotton candy."

Signs directed him to park in an overgrown field, and strangely, the Olds was nowhere near the biggest car in the lot, which was full of big-ass American cars: Cadillacs and Chevys and Olds. They crossed the field toward the wooden shack currently serving as a ticket booth, and as they got closer, they could hear the calliope music and see the bright flashing of multicolored lights just beyond.

Fraser's face was unreadable behind his new mirrored sunglasses, but his posture changed as they got closer to the fair. By the time Ray bought their tickets, Fraser had perked up considerably.

"There are horses," Fraser said, straining to look through the cheap, chain-link fence. "I can hear them...."

"Yeah." Ray handed Fraser a ticket; within the last twenty-four hours, he'd walked off his job, voluntarily listened to country music, and paid money to attend a crap county fair. He was either in love, or having a nervous breakdown. Or maybe he was sick—possibly with some kind of ear infection. "There'll be horses somewhere. If you're really lucky, there might also be a display of vegetables."

" Really ?"

"Yeah," and if he'd been hoping for some kind of irony, forget it; Fraser couldn't wait to see the vegetables. Lucky for Fraser, the local 4H had an impressive display of vegetables set up on long trestle tables: prize corn, prize beets, prize radishes, prize peanuts and strawberries. Boring, really fucking boring, but better at least than the endless wheels of cheese that you got shown in Wisconsin.

Luckily, the promise of horses kept Fraser from examining the prize-winning vegetables in anything like detail. They kept moving toward the rather terrifying sound of barnyard animals, past table after table of people selling the crazy-ass shit people sold at county fairs: aluminum storm doors and tractors and car waxes and cowboy hats and skull-shaped earrings and fried dough and sausages. Glossy color photos of U2 from the '80s. Baseball pennants and key chains and hemp bracelets. Some guy was hawking a product called The Super Peeler, and the woman next to him was selling sand pictures of Jesus. There were tables of crystal necklaces, and one particularly terrifying sign advertised "Handmade Furry Animals and Chickens." There was a guy selling knives and a guy selling t-shirts and a handwriting analysis booth.

To Ray, it all felt weirdly like high school, but in a not-so-bad way. He stopped and bought a weird braided bracelet that caught his eye, and then, as an afterthought, bought one for Fraser too, made of black leather and a couple of beads. Fraser seemed first surprised and then pleased as Ray concentratedly tied it onto his wrist. That was high school, too—he'd once bought Stella a bracelet at a Wisconsin fair, a silver one with daisies and charms.

They walked through a barn full of livestock—huge shrieking turkeys, burping hogs, and smug-looking llamas with terrible breath and weird things knotted into their disgusting hairy coats. There were also sheep and goats and crates and crates of chickens, pecking and clucking. Some of the animals had prize ribbons tacked to the outside of their cages. It was smelly in here, but Ray kind of liked it; it was like a free zoo, somehow cooler and realer than seeing polar bears or monkeys in Lincoln Park. He pointed out a particularly belligerent-looking llama to Fraser as they walked through aisles of hay and sawdust. Later, Fraser harshed his vibe by noting, with some admiration, that one of the Berkshire hogs was going to make fantastically tasty bacon. Ray, who'd grown up in and around the Chicago stockyards, instantly felt overhanging clouds of doom and gloom.

An announcement came over the loudspeaker—the last livestock event of the day was about to begin. The barn began to empty out on the paddock side, and Ray and Fraser joined the tide. Ray's mood lifted a little when he noticed that Fraser kept looking down, apparently liking the way the leather bracelet fell across his wrist whenever he moved it.

Ray wasn't sure what the "event" was—all he could see were a couple of horses being led 'round the ring. Fraser, though, seemed to know exactly what was happening, and tugged him through the crowd to stand near the split-rail fence at the front.

"It's a halter event," Fraser said, craning his neck to see the horses. "Eight to twelve, I think."

"Eight to twelve?" Ray felt confused. "Horses?"

"No, children—children eight to twelve years old," and now Ray saw that there were children leading the horses around and putting them through a series of moves. "There," Fraser said conspiratorially to Ray, nodding his head toward a large brown horse being led by a gangly looking girl of about twelve. "That one'll win—or it should."

It did. The crowd clapped politely as a middle-aged man pinned a blue ribbon to the horse's leash or whatever, and the girl showed them a wide, gap-toothed smile; clearly she was going to grow up to be pretty. Fraser, being Fraser, went to congratulate the girl on her victory.

"Nice topline," Fraser said, extending his hand to the little girl, who solemnly shook it.

"Thank you, mister," the girl replied.

Fraser reached past her to pat the horse's neck. "She's got a great coat; what do you feed her?"

"She gets a cup of corn oil in her grain every morning," the girl explained.

"Ah. Yes. I've heard that works." Fraser gave a final, affectionate stroke to the horse's head and said, "She's got a nice eye, too."

"Oh, she does, she really does," the girl replied with obvious passion. "She's just the sweetest."

"What's her name?" Fraser asked.

Another voice answered. "Diamond," she said, and Ray turned to see a woman standing there, smiling at Fraser. She had wavy, shoulder-length blonde hair, and she was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a short, gauzy skirt with flowers on it.

Ray shot a look at Fraser; Fraser looked charmed, goddamnit, and Ray found himself gritting his teeth.

The girl seemed to be gritting her teeth, too. "That's Louisa," she said, rolling her eyes. "She's my sister," and yeah, right, of course she was; she was what this lanky kid was gonna grow up to look like. Yowza.

"Hi. I'm Benton Fraser."

Ray sighed and turned away, only to find himself face to face with the horse, who showed Ray her huge horsy teeth and neighed loudly. The girl laughed and tugged at the reins.

"Is he your friend?" the girl asked. "Talkin' to my sister?"

Ray looked back over his shoulder at Fraser, who was now talking to Louisa in a low, achingly-familiar voice. Louisa's body language was rapidly changing from Well, hello there! to Do me, do me, do me. "Yeah."

"She's kind of a slut," the girl said with disarming frankness. "Is your friend a slut?"

"He didn't used to be," Ray admitted, scratching the back of his head. "I guess now, maybe, yeah."

"Louisa was Miss Yellowhammer Fair, 1994," the girl said with a sigh. "She likes to make sure everybody knows that. Right now she's the weathergirl on Channel 41, but she says that Alabama's small potatoes. She wants to go to New York." The girl squinted up at Ray. "Are you from New York?"

Ray shook his head. "Chicago."

"Oh." Apparently Not-Being-From-New-York was an insurmountable obstacle, because the girl instantly lost interest in him and began to lead her prizewinning horse back to the stable. Ray sighed and turned to see how Fraser was doing. Unsurprisingly, Not-Being-From-New-York didn't seem to be cramping Fraser's style one bit.

Louisa was now positively writhing—shaking her hips, twirling her hair on the end of her finger, and sending the message in every way except semaphore that she would be more than amenable to a sexual encounter of the most carnal kind. Fraser seemed to be getting the message loud and clear—he was close enough to her to bite her nose off, and Ray kind of wished that he would. Part of it was that Louisa reminded him of Stella—a Stella who was less polished and more kittenish, true, but they were the same basic type: long-limbed, blonde hair, turned-up nose. So it was weird to watch her flirt with Fraser, and to watch Fraser respond to her. Fraser'd never liked Stella at all.

"You know," Louisa said slowly, seductively, and damn that Southern accent, damn it to hell, "I was Miss Yellowhammer Fair, 1994." She cupped Fraser's t-shirted bicep with her hand, squeezed gently, then let out a soft and satisfied moan. Fraser's bicep had apparently measured up to the Miss Yellowhammer standard. "Why don't you..." and here she stopped and licked her lips slowly; her small mouth was pink with lip gloss "...come back to my apartment and see my trophy?"

Now it was Fraser's turn with the lip-licking. "I—that's very kind," Fraser said breathlessly, and any hope Ray had that Fraser didn't recognize the come-on vanished when Fraser put his hand, possessively, onto Louisa's left hip. "I think I'd like that very much."

Ray stepped forward, desperate to interrupt. "Fraser," he said, and even he could hear the underlying plea in his voice: Aren't you forgetting something?

" Ray." For a moment, Fraser simply looked guilt-stricken. But then his face changed, softening with recognition, and Ray felt an irrational surge of hope. "Ray," Fraser repeated, and there was something very near tenderness in his voice. "Ray, I'm sorry. Forgive me," and then he turned back to Louisa and said, in his most apologetic voice, "Can I bring my friend?"

This was how, several hours later, Ray found himself flat on his back on Louisa's pale pink bedspread. In a way, it was reassuring that Louisa had a pink bedspread, because Stella would never have had one; Stella thought pink was girly.

And right now, he needed to think hard about the differences between Louisa and Stella, because Louisa was curled up against him on his right side, tousled blonde head pillowed against his shoulder. Further down on his other side, Fraser's face was pressed against his rib cage, arm belted tight across Ray's waist, leg slung possessively over his thighs. Ray wasn't sure what to make of the fact that, for the second night in a row, he was sleeping in Fraser's death-grip. Hell, he wasn't sure what to make of anything.

There had probably been a moment where he could have said no to this, though Ray couldn't really remember one. Fraser had asked his question, and Louisa had turned to look at Ray, her gaze sweeping over him from head to toe—a look of critical appraisal so intense and fiery that Ray had felt his skin burn from the heat of it. By then, it was already too late; he'd been drawn in, and his ego was entirely invested in her estimation of him. He tried to keep cool and look casual, but he felt that some part of him would die if she rejected him.

But by the time her eyes had moved back up his body to his face, she was grinning and slowly licking her lips—and suddenly he wanted her; fuck, he wanted her; he wanted to fuck her blind. His heart was jackhammering, his fingers were tingling with blood. He wanted to fuck her—partly because she was beautiful, but partly to get just a little of his own back. Because Fraser was attractive, yeah—but he wasn't exactly chopped liver, though he'd kind of felt that way the last couple of days. But now Louisa was looking at him with heat in her eyes—and did Fraser see that ? What did Fraser think of that ?

Triumphantly, Ray looked to see if Fraser was watching—and found that Fraser was staring at him with a look much like Louisa's, actually. Ray swallowed hard, because the pure, sweet adrenaline rush of wanting Louisa was suddenly overshadowed by the deeper, more complex feelings he had for Fraser. God, he was so out of his depth here.

Fraser stroked a finger up Ray's arm, then tugged at his shirt sleeve. "Come, Ray."

So Ray swallowed and went, driving behind Louisa, who had taken Fraser away in her snazzy little two-seater sports car. Most of the ride he spent pounding on the Olds's steering wheel and yelling to himself—because this was crazy, this was whacko nuts, and somebody had to be the rational one and put a stop to this—and then he was turning into the dark driveway of Louisa's house and parking the car. The porch lights flicked on automatically as Louisa climbed the steps to the door, but Fraser was coming toward him in the darkness, footsteps crunching on the gravel drive.

"It's all right, Ray," Fraser murmured, like he knew Ray needed reassurance just then. "Everything's all right," and then Fraser tugged him close by his belt loops and kissed him messily, and that was it, game over—any window of protest had just been slammed shut.

Louisa hadn't even turned the lights on in the living room, so Ray followed Fraser straight back toward the rectangle of faint yellow light that he correctly assumed to be the bedroom.

Pink—Ray only had a moment to register that the room was done in pink, and it smelled nice, and that there were a lot of pretty little bottles and jars on the dresser, before his attention was riveted elsewhere. Fraser had gone straight to Louisa and was kissing her, hands spanning her waist and then gently sliding upward, fingers spreading, until he was cupping her breasts through the thin fabric of her blouse. The sight of Fraser fondling Louisa's tits as he kissed her was disturbingly, frighteningly hot; Ray hadn't known that Fraser was a breast man, but now it was obvious that he was, almost obsessively so. Fraser's hands never left them as he steered her onto the bed and nudged her up onto her knees above him. Louisa had to tilt Fraser's mouth up so they could keep kissing—but when Fraser finally moved his lips off hers, his mouth was at chest level. Louisa gasped softly as Fraser pulled her blouse open and slid his fingertips into the white lace cup.

Ray suddenly heard his own frantic breathing; he was standing there, rock hard and openly panting. Fraser gently drew Louisa's breast to his mouth and began to suck and kiss. Louisa dug her fingers into Fraser's shoulders and began grinding against him. Like a man in a dream, Ray moved forward and put his hands on Louisa's hips—and when she sighed and pushed back against him, he slid his hands up her skirt. She moaned gratefully and pushed down hard on his hands.

From there, things blurred rapidly out of control. Ray kissed her neck as he slid two fingers into the elastic leg-holes of her panties. Louisa writhed a little to guide his fingers to the right spot, and then moved against him until he understood what rhythm she liked. If Ray looked down through the curtain of blonde hair, he could see Fraser with his face turned up and his eyes closed, looking almost ecstatic.

Ray felt a surge of real jealousy—just this morning, Fraser had been licking him, kissing him, sucking him. Closing his eyes tight, trying to force that feeling away, he focused on fingering Louisa's clit, stroking faster and faster until he felt her body tense in his arms. He took her earlobe in his teeth and pushed his fingers into her as she shuddered; she was open and very wet.

She twisted around to kiss him, arms twining around his neck. Ray felt suddenly hot with embarrassment—he was pathetically grateful for her gratitude. Her mouth was sweet, and he gave himself to the kiss, liking the feel of her hands in his hair, the feel of her nipples scraping the front of his t-shirt. Christ, but she was young, Ray realized—her youth was suddenly obvious in the smoothness of her skin, the firmness of her breasts.

Louisa was smiling playfully as she turned back to Fraser and pushed him backwards onto the bed, still straddling him. Fraser was breathing hard enough that his chest was visibly rising and falling, and as Ray watched, Fraser raised his hand to cup her cheek. It seemed like they were maybe having a bit of a private moment there, and so Ray moved to take a step back—but Fraser hooked his leg around Ray's and held him in place.

"You." Ray was having trouble speaking; he was so turned on. "You guys go ahead. Go ahead and—"

Fraser jerked his leg and knocked Ray off balance, tripping him forward onto the bed. Ray fell awkwardly beside Fraser, and for a moment their faces were very close together. Fraser showed him a slow, dark smile obviously meant just for the two of them—then reached up, took Louisa by the hips and plonked her down between them. Louisa giggled and landed half on and half off Ray—and Christ, she was soft, and she smelled good. Ray closed his eyes and inhaled.

When Ray opened his eyes again, Fraser'd rolled on top of her, low and between her legs. He'd pushed Louisa's skirt up and was pulling her panties off, exposing her neatly-trimmed, light brown pubes. Louisa licked her lower lip and looked from Fraser to him and back at Fraser again before spreading her legs a little, making Ray's heart pound even though Fraser had the view. But then Louisa reached for him, drawing him in, maybe looking to be held—and so Ray slid his arm across her chest and pulled her against him, feeling her nipples hard against the hairless underside of his forearm. She turned her pretty face toward him and smiled dreamily—and then her eyelids fluttered closed.

Fraser'd gone for her the way he went for so many things, tongue first. Ray looked down Louisa's body, naked but for the skirt bunched around her waist, and saw that she'd bent her knees. Fraser's hands were gripping her thighs, his dark head bobbing gently as he ate her out. Again, Ray felt torn between jealousy and lust—wanting to fuck her, but fuck her, because he wanted Fraser for himself. Still, it was amazing to hold this woman in his arms as she panted and moaned—man, whatever Fraser was doing down there, he was making her awfully fucking happy. Ray pressed his mouth hard against hers, kissing her eagerly, sloppily, wanting to put his tongue in her, too.

But he had to break the kiss when it was apparent that she could no longer breathe—Louisa let out a series of short, sharp cries and jerked her hips up against Fraser's face, moaning as Fraser almost cruelly held her hips down. Ray found himself panting right along with her and rhythmically thrusting his erection against her hip.

"Condoms," Louisa whispered to him; her face a pretty pink color. "On the nightstand," and that was an invitation he didn't have the strength to refuse. Ray sat up and fumbled, almost blindly, on the night stand with its princess phone and silver alarm clock and tiny bottles of moisturizer and lip balm. Behind him, Louisa let out another low, ecstatic wail—Christ, he couldn't stand this! he was gonna come in his pants! He flipped the top off a silver box and found condoms; he grabbed one and tore the packet open with his teeth. Two seconds and he was ripping the fly of his pants open, shoving his jeans and underwear down his legs, and smoothing the condom onto his erection with shaking fingers.

Fraser lifted his head and looked at Ray with wide eyes and glistening lips—which was the straw that broke the camel's hump. Gasping, Ray pushed in front of Fraser and practically fell on top of her, her hands coming up to grip his shoulders, her thighs tightening on either side of his hips. He sank into her—she was slippery wet and wide open for him—and groaned helplessly.

God, she smelled so nice—he'd forgotten how much he loved girl smells, not just their perfume and hair stuff, but the sweet musky smell of them when they were hot. Louisa wrapped her legs around him and rocked up hard, and then he was helpless to do anything but fuck her, trying to kiss her and hold some of his weight on his arms so he wouldn't crush her lungs. She had a arm slung around his neck to keep his head down and his mouth pressed to hers. He felt a queer sort of desperation as he fucked her, a deep need to come inside her. Grunting, he pulled back and tilted her hips up, changing the angle of entry—and that's when he saw Fraser lying on the far side of the bed, watching.

Louisa had blindly stretched a hand toward Fraser, like she wanted to include him, but he'd pulled back beyond her reach. Instead, he just lay there, watching them—no, watching him—with eyes that were dark and dilated. Lust, Ray thought, letting his head roll back as he drove deep into Louisa. But that wasn't just lust on Fraser's face. Fraser looked turned on, but Fraser also looked really freaked out.

He wanted to say something, to reach out to Fraser, draw him in—but it was too late now; he gasped for air and came, hips jerking wildly. good...was there such a thing as bad sex? He didn't think so; there was no such thing as bad sex just like there was no such thing as bad pizza; even when it was bad, it was good, and when it was good, it was great.

Ray's muscles felt like rubber, and he barely had the strength to pull out and tie off the condom before slowly collapsing on top of her. That was when Fraser made his move, rolling onto his knees and reaching out to pull them apart. Ray pushed himself up on his arms, trying to get out of the way so that Fraser could have his turn with Louisa. But Fraser didn't go for Louisa; instead, Fraser grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him backwards and down, pinning him to the mattress.

Holy shit holy shit holy fuck! "Fraser," Ray said breathlessly; he wasn't sure what scared him more: the intensity of Fraser's expression, or the thought that Fraser might fuck him right here on Louisa's pink bedspread.

"Ray, I—" Fraser abandoned the idea of talking and bent to kiss him instead, and Ray could feel Fraser's erection bruising his hip. Fraser hadn't come yet; Fraser was the only one of them who hadn't come at all, though Ray couldn't understand why on earth Fraser would want to fuck him after going through all this trouble to bring a girl into it. Fraser could have fucked him in the Holiday Inn back on I-20.

But Ray wasn't in any position to argue the point, not with Fraser all hot and heavy on top of him. Then Fraser's palms were clutching Ray's face, holding him steady for a series of intense, deep kisses. Five minutes of this and Ray didn't give a shit about where they were or who else was there—hell, Fraser could probably fuck him right on I-20 if Fraser really, really wanted to.

It was Louisa, actually, who decided it; Louisa, who was curled on one crooked arm and watching them through slitted eyes. "There's K-Y in the drawer," she said in her sleepy Southern accent, and when Ray looked at her, he saw that she already knew everything—probably known all along. Fraser stretched over him to rummage in the drawer, which gave Ray a clear, easy shot at Fraser's nipple. Fraser gasped and came back fast with a white tube and a condom.

Condom? They hadn't used a condom last night, had they? "I— You don't have to—"

Fraser seemed to have to get a hold of himself before he could answer. "I was thinking of the bedspread, Ray."

Bedspread. Right. Fraser tipped his cock up to slick a condom on, and Ray felt the sudden, sharp desire to take it into his mouth. He couldn't remember wanting to suck dick this badly since high school, when he'd wanted it constantly, feeling like a self-destructive pervert all the while—because who else but a pervert would risk everything (his reputation, his Gold-Coast girlfriend, having the shit beat out of him) for something like that?

Of course, right now he was risking his job, his financial future, and whatever studly reputation he'd managed to earn with Louisa —so hey, nice that some things never changed.

Fraser rolled the condom on and lubed himself, then reached out to grasp Ray's wilting erection with his slick hand. Ray sucked for air through his teeth and hardened in Fraser's grip. Fraser didn't wait; instead, he wrapped one of Ray's legs around his waist, pushed Ray's other leg up at the knee, and leaned in. Ray felt the blunt head of Fraser's cock pushing against him, then into him. He held his breath until Fraser was all the way in, then exhaled in a long, dizzying rush. Fraser's fingers were digging hard into his hip as Fraser fucked him, but Fraser's mouth was soft against his, his kisses almost painfully sweet.

He wasn't going to be able to come again, not this soon, but still he rode the wave of pleasure up and down, up and down, feeling it cresting and falling as Fraser fucked into him, stretching him open and rubbing his dick from inside. Ray's mouth was open and occasionally filled with Fraser's tongue—and he felt Louisa's soft hand crawl into his and clutch his fingers. He squeezed back, then tightened his hand around hers as Fraser bucked hard into him and came, jerking wildly and groaning into Ray's mouth.

He didn't remember much after that—only flashes, bits and pieces. Fraser's breath hot against his cheek, Fraser murmuring his name. The warmth of Louisa against his side. A fluffy pink blanket that reminded him of his grandmother. Fraser's cheek brushing his hip.

Fraser unlacing his hand from Louisa's, but maybe he just dreamed that part.

When he opened his eyes, he was flat on his back on Louisa's bedspread, but he was warm and oddly contented. Fraser was doing his death-grip thing on Ray's torso, and there was a cloud of blonde hair over by his right shoulder. Not Stella, though. Stella hated pink—not to mention that Stella would not have been cool about having Fraser in bed with them. Ray closed his eyes again and blew out a frustrated breath. Talk about your ironies; he'd been totally faithful to Stella, and yet she'd freaked out at just the idea of his bisexuality. Just thinking about that made him feel fond of Louisa, who seemed up for just about anything. He rubbed his cheek against the top of her head, and was surprised when she answered.

"Mmm," she whispered. "Nice."

"You're up?" Ray whispered back, and immediately felt like an idiot. Obviously she was up.

"Yeah." Louisa wriggled a little, seeming to stretch, then nestled her face against his shoulder again. "For a bit. I get up early. I have to be at the station by six."

"Station?" Ray asked, confused. "Police?"

She let out a little, breathy laugh. "Television," and right, yeah, she was the weathergirl. "I'm a meteorologist," she explained proudly, and then she lifted her head and peered at him curiously. "Are you a police officer?"

Geez, and how was he supposed to answer that? "Used to be."

"Hmm," she said and put her head back down. "What about him—is he a police officer, too?"

"He's a Mountie."

"A what?"

"Canadian police."

"Oh. Is that what a Mountie is?" Louisa seemed to have to think about this. "Well, he's real sweet."

"Yeah," Ray agreed.

"Kind of strange, though."

Ray sighed. "Yeah."

Louisa breathed out another laugh, though she tried to stifle it against Ray's shoulder. "It's funny," she whispered, turning her face up towards his, "but I thought he was the catch."

Ray jerked onto his elbows, instinctively leaping to Fraser's defense. "Hey, he's a catch," he argued. "Just look at him. Beautiful guy, he's a catch."

Louisa sat up, barebreasted, and raised her hands in mock defense. "All right, all right—he's a catch. And I would say he's pretty well caught."

For a moment, Ray couldn't process what she was saying, and not just because she was topless. Then he got it. "No, no," he said, frowning. "Not me, you're wrong."

"All right. Sure." Louisa looked at him with an arched eyebrow, then skittered up off the bed and began to look for her underwear. "Whatever you say."

"No, I'm serious," Ray insisted. "I'm really serious."

She bent, then straightened up with a pair of lace panties. "I can see you're serious," she said, bending over to slip the panties on. "I can also see you've got a Mountie sleeping on your belly."

Ray looked down at Fraser, who was still curled tightly around his legs. "Okay, yeah."

Louisa smiled at him, then opened her closet door and pulled out a canary yellow suit, which she hung on the closet's inside hook. "You want coffee?" she asked, as she padded out of the bedroom.

Ray rubbed his face hard with both hands and then shoved his fingers up through his hair. "Yeah. Please," he said, and began to shake Fraser awake.

Fraser woke up with a deer-in-the-headlights look, like he didn't quite remember where he was. That look persisted through breakfast—coffee and toast which Ray made while Louisa rushed around looking for her makeup, her hairspray, her heels, and finally spraying the air all around herself with an atomizer. She looked great.

At the end of this ritual, she bustled over to where he was leaning against the counter, took his cup of coffee out of his hands, and drank it in one gulp. "All right," Louisa said, handing Ray the empty cup and glancing up at the wall clock, which now read 5:30 a.m., "I'm going now," and then she stretched up and pressed her mouth to his. Helplessly, Ray wrapped his free arm around her waist and held her against him as they kissed.

She was grinning at him when she pulled back and turned to Fraser, who was sitting at the kitchen table, staring fixedly down at his hands. He looked startled as she approached, and was halfway out of his chair when she dropped her hand onto his shoulder.

"No, don't get up," she said, and bent to kiss his cheek. Fraser closed his eyes and seemed to tremble. "Just pull the door shut behind you." She brushed her lips across Fraser's, straightened up to wink at Ray, and left via the kitchen door. A moment later, Ray heard the revving engine of her snazzy little sports car.

"Well," Ray said, sinking down into one of Louisa's kitchen chairs. He wasn't really sure what he was supposed to say now. "So here we are in rural Alabama," came to mind, but that didn't seem to help matters much. Fraser wasn't helping; he'd glanced briefly at Ray and then fixed his eyes on the tabletop again. "She was nice," Ray said finally.

This earned him another quick glance from Fraser. "Yes, she was."

Ray lifted his coffee cup to his lips and found it empty. In a daze, he got up and poured himself another cup. He sat down again and drank it in silence, noticing that Fraser was only pretending to drink his.

"So..." Ray said finally, nervously, but needing to ask the question. "Was that what you wanted?"

Fraser tiredly massaged his right eye. "I don't know, Ray," he answered simply. "I don't know anymore."

Ray nodded and pushed his coffee cup away. "Do you want to get out of here?"

Fraser dropped his hand and looked at him gratefully. "Yes."

Conversation was awkward and stilted between them as Ray sped the car towards New Orleans. Though really, conversation was too nice a word for it—it was a non -conversation, a series of feints and starts that hung in the air between them.

"I thought she looked rather like Stella," Fraser said, staring out the passenger side window.

Ray had no answer to that.

"Look, I just want to remind you that that was your idea, okay?" Ray said, an hour or so later, feeling suddenly that it was really, really important to say that. "I was just watching the horse show. It was your idea to— I mean, you were the one who started talking to her. I was just standing there, minding my own business."

"All right, Ray," Fraser murmured; his eyes were hidden by those goddamned mirrored sunglasses. "Understood."

Twenty minutes later, as they crossed into Louisiana, Ray turned to Fraser and said: "Look, I only wanted to be with you."

Fraser opened his mouth, but he didn't say anything.

"Okay? All right? Do you understand that?" Ray snapped, grateful for the protection of his own sunglasses. He wasn't angry, he didn't want to sound this angry, but geez, sometimes Fraser really tried his patience. Christ, he was terrified. "Are you even listening to me?"

Fraser sounded like he was strangling. "Yes. I'm listening, Ray."

Ten minutes later, Ray burst out, "So why the hell don't you say something? What the hell were you even thinking ? I just wanted to be with you, but what exactly did you want out of that? Did you want to fuck her in front of me, or me in front of her, Fraser?"

Fraser's face went politely blank in that way that made Ray want to punch him. "Neither," he said calmly, turning to look out the window again. "Or both, I suppose."

They didn't talk for a long time after that.

I-20 turned into I-59, and New Orleans drew closer, the signs growing larger. Ray pulled off the road so that they could get gas, and he hadn't even brought the car to a stop before Fraser was scrabbling with his seat belt and pushing the door open.

Ray sighed and let his head fall forward on the wheel as Fraser slammed the car door and walked toward the gas station's small store. In his head, he heard Louisa drawling, "Well, I'd say he's pretty well caught. " But what did she know?

He'd come as close to declaring himself as he dared to, cause it wasn't like Fraser was meeting him halfway or anything. Geez, Fraser was probably fucking the gas station attendant. And okay, Fraser'd made it pretty clear that they weren't an item or anything, but he hadn't figured Fraser for this kind of mindfuck. Christ, his head...

He was caught by surprise when Fraser opened the car door, and jerked his head up quickly. Fraser slid into the passenger seat; he was carrying a large paper bag.

"Did you—" Fraser began, and then he stopped, face visibly softening. "It's okay," Fraser said quickly, opening his door again. "It's okay, I'll get it," he said and went to fill the tank.

Ray leaned back against the leather headrest and closed his eyes.

When Fraser finished gassing up, he leaned in at Ray's window and touched his arm. "Do you want me to drive?"

Ray thought about it for a moment and then shook his head; he didn't think he could let Fraser have any more control over this trip than he already had. "I'm okay. Get in."

Fraser got in, looking somewhat chastened and nervously gnawing at his lower lip.

He'd bought them coffee and chocolate muffins and fruit.

They were still sipping their coffee when Fraser mumbled something to the passenger side window.

"What?" Ray said, jerking his eyes momentarily away from the road.

Fraser cleared his throat and said, in a somewhat stronger voice, "It was a bad idea, Ray. I'm sorry."

It was maybe a dangerous thing to look away from the road for this long, but Ray wasn't gonna miss the chance to see what an apologizing Fraser looked like.

"S'okay, Fraser," Ray said finally, because what else could he say, really? Done was done.

Fraser stared down at his fingers for a good hour before he spoke again.

"It's just that I didn't— I hadn't fully anticipated—" He bit off the words, pressed his lips together tightly, and said: "I didn't want you touching her. I didn't want her touching you."

Weird, almost hysterical laughter erupted out of Ray, maybe propelled by relief. Thank God he wasn't the only one capable of jealousy around here. "You certainly seemed like you wanted me to touch her. You pulled me onto the fucking bed with her—"

"I know I did." Fraser's voice was the barest whisper. "I changed my mind."

"Christ." Ray was weak with relief, and he gripped the wheel tightly. It felt like he was riding a rollercoaster.

"I know. I said I was sorry." Fraser turned to look at him, and even with the sunglasses, Ray could see that his expression was pained. "It's not fair of me."

Ray was losing the thread of this conversation. "Not fair of you to want to watch me have sex with other people? Yeah, I agree."

"Not fair of me to want something from you that I'm not prepared to give," Fraser said softly. "I'm not prepared to be exclusive, Ray."

And okay, that really wasn't much of a surprise, but it still took his breath away. Some smart, resilient part of his brain frantically searched for a comeback, and found one: "Yeah, well, between the stewardess and the waitress and the homecoming queen, I sort of figured that out for myself. You haven't exactly been giving out vibes like 'till death do us part'—"

If he hadn't been looking back and forth between Fraser and the road, he would have missed it—the tight grimace, the contortion of the mouth as Fraser looked away. Quickly he rewound the conversation—stewardess, vibe, death—but he couldn't figure out what he'd said wrong.

"What?" Ray asked finally, shooting nervous looks at Fraser. "What'd I say?"

"Nothing, Ray," Fraser told the passenger side window, and Fraser didn't say another word until they'd reached New Orleans.

"It's beautiful," Fraser said finally. "The architecture—it's beautiful."

Ray looked at him; he knew an olive branch when he was offered one. It was kind of pathetic that he and Fraser were so good at not talking. Years of living with Stella had taught him to ignore painful things, but he wondered how Fraser'd gotten so good at it.

"Yeah," Ray agreed, and yeah, the buildings were pretty: orange and yellow and pink with fancy wrought-iron all over them, like spiderwebs, or ivy, or—no, like the entire town had a tattoo. He had to drive slow, once they got to the narrow streets of the French Quarter, and so he could duck down to check out the architecture through the windshield. Fraser, he saw, was glancing excitedly between the map they'd gotten back in Atlanta, an address that Angela had scrawled onto a scrap of paper, and the numbers on the houses outside.

"Must be the next street, I think." Fraser was straining out the passenger side window to read the street sign at the end of the block. "Ahead— On the right."

"All right," Ray said, and yeah, there it was, on the right; a tiny hotel with a narrow sign written in what looked like calligraphy: Hotel St. Antoine. It was pink, which he thought was a bad omen, like somehow they'd driven for hours only to end up back at Louisa's. He parked the Olds at the end of the narrow street and got out of the car—and geez, it was like another world here, a much older world, what with the cobblestone streets and the fancy architecture and the press of people. Kind of what he figured Europe would be like.

He looked across the top of the car and saw that Fraser was almost awe-struck. He'd pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them into the neck of his t-shirt, and he was turning around in a slow circle with his mouth open and his neck craned. Ray felt queerly moved—it was weird to see Fraser this taken aback by anything—and so he looked around again himself, trying to see it the way Fraser saw it. He supposed that in a lot of ways New Orleans had to be the exact opposite of where Fraser'd grown up—hot, dense, crowded, kind of old-world. There were a bunch of neon signs visible down the strip: OYSTERS! HURRICANES! JAZZ! GUMBO! HANDGRENADES!—and he had to hope those weren't real hand grenades. Ray sneaked another glance at Fraser and wondered what he was making of all this. Garden of temptation? Tourist attraction? Freak show?

"Why don't we check in," Ray said, going over to unlock the trunk and pull their bags out. "Check in and come out again; there's still a lot of day left."

Fraser nodded and drifted closer distractedly, still looking up. "Yes, I— That's a good idea, Ray."

Ray slung his dufflebag over his shoulder and pushed Fraser's satchel and hat against his chest; this got Fraser's attention. "Listen," Ray said resolutely, "I think we should get separate rooms."

Fraser blinked and looked hurt again, but Ray had to stand firm on this. OYSTERS + HURRICANES + JAZZ + GUMBO + HANDGRENADES = S-E-X SEX, triple XXX sex, the sex you could only get when you were really, really drunk and somebody was playing the most soulful saxophone in the world. If Fraser didn't want to get laid in New Orleans, Ray figured he'd pretty much have to go around town armed.

He himself was figuring on spending the next couple of days D-R-U-N-K DRUNK, and he didn't relish the thought of having Fraser on the next bed fucking quintuplet cheerleaders while he was nursing a hangover. So he was pretty sure that this was the right decision—except Fraser was standing there, looking fucking forlorn.

Ray stepped closer, unable to believe that he was gonna console Fraser about this. But he and Fraser just couldn't seem to stop hurting each other. "Just—you might want your privacy, okay?" Ray said softly. "I'll be here if— I mean, I'll be around."

"Okay," Fraser replied, though he looked miserable at the idea—and Jesus, what did Fraser want from his life, already? Sighing, Ray followed Fraser up the block and through the central revolving door of the St. Antoine Hotel.

The St. Antoine had a lot of character—which meant it was tiny and old, but clean. The desk clerk, who was chain-smoking menthol cigarettes, gave them keys to their rooms, which turned out to be across the hall from each other on the second floor—201 and 202. Ray's room was small and dimly lit, but kind of cool—a single bed with a freestanding iron headboard, a battered antique dresser, and best of all, a floor to ceiling window framed by heavy velvet drapes. At the moment, the drapes were held open by weird gold ropes with tassels, but Ray saw that when you unhooked them and pulled the drapes shut, the room would be dark and practically soundproof. Just the place for a hangover.

He turned; Fraser was standing nervously in the doorway. "My room looks over the street," he said. "Yours must look into the courtyard."

Ray drew the sheer inner curtain aside and looked; yeah, there was a small courtyard out back, with a fountain at the center. "You wanna go out, take a look around?"

"Yes. No. Not yet." Fraser stepped into the room and pushed the door shut behind him; the room seemed much, much smaller with Fraser in it. It only took another two or three steps for Fraser to reach him, and then Ray saw that Fraser was flushed a little and panting slightly. Turned on.

"Fraser—" Ray protested, but Fraser was already kissing him in the dusty light, hands groping Ray's torso. Ray twisted his face away. "Fraser, I think you should stop, or at least slow down, maybe figure out what the hell you really—"

"I know it's not rational," Fraser said desperately, like it was some giant insight he needed to share with Ray before he died. "I do know I'm not acting rationally."

Ray didn't know what to make of that. "Okay," he said tentatively. "That's good."

"What I want isn't rational." Fraser's hands were on Ray's hips, pushing him back toward the bed, guiding him to sit down. Ray sat down and heard the bed squeak, and fuck, Fraser was kneeling between his legs and undoing his jeans. Fraser's knuckles brushed his dick as he fumbled with the buttons, and Ray got hard. "I know that. I do know that," Fraser told Ray's cock, and then he was leaning forward and giving Ray the sincerest, most desperate blowjob he'd ever received. By the time Fraser was finished with him, Ray had fallen back on the bed and was panting up at the room's cracked ceiling. Fraser, gasping, slid up over him, kissed him with sticky, glistening lips, and rubbed his erection against Ray's belly until he came all over him.

After Ray'd cleaned up, they went out for seafood, and a waiter brought shrimp, crabs, crawfish, and oysters to their red and white checked table. Ray found himself sitting there, eating shrimp and drinking beer and watching Fraser gamely experiment with how best to eat oysters on the half-shell—he tried lemon and tartar and fourteen kinds of cocktail sauce; tried forking them out and putting them on crackers and slurping them right from the shell.

The plan was to get quietly toasted while Fraser soaked up whatever atmosphere they'd come here to soak, but it didn't work out that way. After dinner, they went to a bar, and Fraser decided to investigate exactly what a "Handgrenade" was—and got completely trashed. One Handgrenade, and Fraser was slipping into French; two Handgrenades, and he'd invited a couple of girls to their table. Ray stared stonily down into his beer. In the middle of his third Handgrenade, Fraser said something in French that got him slapped, and both women stalked off, much to Ray's relief.

After his fourth Handgrenade, Fraser said he had to relieve himself and stumbled off. When he didn't return after ten minutes, Ray went searching for him, and found him being held against the back wall of the bar by a seven-foot, leather-clad biker. Ray's heart leapt into his throat—okay, yeah, the guy was good-looking in a psychotic sort of way, but he was wearing a jacket whose decorations included a naked woman with giant tits, a knife stabbed through an eye, and the words "Toxic Motherfucker"—which appeared to be on fire.

"Hey there, farmboy, " the biker growled, banging Fraser back against the wall. "You want a good ass-fucking, I'll give you that and more..."

This was quite possibly a come-on, but Ray wasn't gonna take that chance. "Hey!" Ray said, quickly sidling up and grabbing the guy's arm, which was the size of Ray's thigh. "Hey, look, I'm sorry; he's really drunk," Ray explained quickly. "And Canadian," he added. "And not responsible for his actions, okay? Fraser, come on," Ray said, turning toward Fraser and glaring at him. "I think it's time. To. Go. Home."

The biker frowned and slowly released his grip on Fraser's shirt. Fraser took a deep breath. "Yes, Ray, all right," Fraser said unsteadily, and then added: "Nice chatting with you," to the biker as Ray pulled him away. "If you're ever in Tuktoyaktuk, just ask anyone for..."

"What the fuck do you think you're doing ?" Ray hissed, as he manuevered Fraser through the crowd like a sack of potatoes. "That guy was gonna kill you, and you're inviting him for lunch!"

That idea seemed to confuse Fraser. "He said I was pretty, Ray."

"Oh yeah, you're pretty," Ray snorted. "He was probably gonna wear you as a hat."

"But—" Fraser was now clinging unsteadily to Ray's neck. "But he seemed...he was wearing leather pants..."

"That's because they clean easy when you get blood on them. Look—you do not make passes at bikers, okay? Say it with me. 'I do not make passes at bikers.'"

Fraser tried, but his tongue was thick and he ended up slurring the words. "I do not bake masses at pikers..." Ray ducked his head, slid Fraser's arm around his neck, and steered him out of the bar.

They staggered up Royal Street toward their hotel, which was several blocks away. Fraser seemed to be blinking very slowly, but he was a surprisingly happy drunk, pawing Ray and kissing him, and his hands seemed to be everywhere. Ray was kind of afraid that they were gonna be stopped, but the streets seemed to be full of drunk and staggering people, many carrying open drinks, others carrying drunken friends.

They got back to the hotel without incident, and Ray managed to maneuver Fraser up the stairs and down the hallway to his room. He had to prop Fraser up against the door and frisk him for his room key, which he found in Fraser's back jeans pocket. Fraser seemed to take this as a pass, and leaned forward to give Ray a warm, drunken kiss that tasted of tequila. Fraser kissed his face, his neck, and was worming his fingers into Ray's pants while Ray struggled to unlock the door. He felt relieved once they were actually in the room, and he let Fraser's own drunken momentum carry them to the bed. There, sprawling, he grabbed Fraser's sweaty face and kissed him long and deeply, putting everything he had into it—and when he finally, slowly, pulled away, Fraser was tottering on the edge of sleep, just as Ray'd known he would be. Carefully, he laid Fraser down and watched him go lax; half a minute later, Fraser was breathing deeply.

Sighing, Ray got up; Fraser seemed okay—or at least, not like he was gonna throw up or anything. Ray crossed the hall to his own room, pulled the golden ropes off the curtains, and closed them. He took his clothes off without turning on the light. When he was done, he sat down on the side of his bed in his underwear and t-shirt and pulled the telephone toward him. The buttons embedded in the receiver were glow in the dark.

"Hey, you should have called me earlier," Ray Vecchio said. "I could have booked you into a better hotel."

"It's okay here." Ray stared at the silver-black reflection of a mirror across the room; he was glad it was too dark for him to see himself. "It's got character."

"What happened to you guys last night? You fell off the map." There was a rustling of paper and then Vecchio said, "I found you this morning at a gas station. Did you sleep in the car or what?"

Sitting in the dark like this, he felt like a kid in the confessional—and wasn't that why he'd called, after all? "No. We slept with a beauty queen," and Christ, had that only been last night? It felt like a million years ago.

" We ?" Vecchio repeated, like he wasn't sure what he'd heard. "You and Fraser?"

"Yeah. Yeah," and suddenly he was all choked up. He lay back on the bed, still clutching the phone to his ear, and draped his free arm over his eyes.

"Geez," Vecchio breathed into his ear, and there was something oddly comforting about Vecchio's voice. He wasn't sure what Vecchio was hearing in his voice, but somehow Vecchio understood where his head was—or else Vecchio was just good at talking people down from high places. "Okay, look—just calm down, all right?"

"Okay," Ray managed to choke out. "I'm fine."

"You're not fine, man. You're a fuckin' mess." Vecchio seemed to go off and talk to himself for a moment, muttering: "Which I should've seen coming, because Fraser's contagious like this, he's fucking contagious—" and then, like he'd forgotten: "Where is Fraser?"

"He's asleep. In his room," Ray explained wearily. "He's drunk."

"Okay, this is very not good," Vecchio muttered.

"No, it's really not." Ray moved his arm off his eyes; he was past crying now. "Look, I have to get out of here, Vecchio. This isn't— This was a crazy idea—"

"Okay, wait, wait, just wait," Vecchio said quickly, and even though Ray understood this was the first rule of talking down suicides, he waited anyway. "Just—slow down and tell me what happened."

"Nothing happened," Ray insisted. "He's fine, he's happy, he's—experimenting, I guess. He ate oysters on the half-shell. He fucked a waiter and a beauty pageant winner. And me. Me several times," Ray confessed.

"Okay." Vecchio's voice was gentle, like he was talking to a violent maniac. "It's all right, Stanley—"

"No, it's really not," Ray said, pushing up on one elbow. "I mean, maybe it is for him, but it's not for me. This is no kind of life, here—bouncing from place to place and person to person. And I think he just wants to go on like this. But I can't," Ray pleaded, and god, it was such a relief to say it. "Maybe he can, but I can't. I want to go home—"

"You can't," Vecchio warned.

"—get some part of my life back. Even your life would do fine—"

"You. Can't. Leave. Him. He's a mess, he's a fucking mess, listen to what you're telling me!" Vecchio sounded ready to pull what was left of his hair out, and Ray could only imagine that two years working with Fraser had been hell on the ol' follicles. "I get that you've had it, I do," Vecchio said, "but you just can't walk away from this now! I called you, I warned you about this! I told you she was nuts, and that she makes him nuts—"

Ray sighed. "You warned me, everyone warned me. So now I see what nuts is where Fraser's concerned—and what am I supposed to do? Spend the rest of my life chasing him around the American South? I love him," Ray said, and some part of him couldn't believe that he'd just said that out loud. "But this isn't love. I don't know what this is."

Vecchio blew out a breath. "All right," he said, and there was a new decisiveness in his voice. "All right. I'll get him. You just stay with him until I can bring him in—"

"Bring him in?" Ray repeated nervously. "Bring him in where ?"

"Here," Vecchio answered firmly. "To Vegas."

Ray sat up, frowning. "I don't think that's a good idea, Vecchio."

"You got a better one? It's this or letting him wander around the country by himself, and you tell me, the way he is now—how long before he gets into serious trouble?"

Ray instantly thought of the Toxic Motherfucker and shuddered. It would only take one psychopath, one angry husband, one parent with a gun... "About five minutes," Ray admitted.

"Okay," Vecchio said grimly. "So I'm gonna take him in the morning. You just have yourself a good night's sleep, Stanley," and then the line went dead in Ray Kowalski's hand.

Part Four.

He didn't get a good night's sleep. In the middle of the night, he woke up without knowing why, and went still in the darkness of his room. A moment later, he heard the noise again. It sounded like someone was trying to pick the lock on his door—which meant it could only be Fraser, because Ray'd left the door unlocked.

Sighing, Ray threw the covers back and went to open the door. Fraser straightened woozily—he'd been bent over, fiddling with the door latch, an unbent paper clip in his hand.

"Ray." Fraser reached out to steady himself on the door frame. "Please let me— I want to come in..."

Ray stifled a smile. "It was open, Fraser." He gripped Fraser's forearm and carefully manuevered him into the room before shutting the door. Fraser was breathing somewhat erratically, and he was damp with sweat; detoxifying, Ray thought.

"I can't—sleep," Fraser said unsteadily, but that was clearly a lie; he was half asleep on his feet.

"S'okay. Come here," Ray said, and took Fraser back to bed with him. Fraser, unsurprisingly, put his head on Ray's chest and wrapped himself tightly around Ray's body. Three nights for three—four, if you counted the night Fraser'd crawled into bed with him after fucking Patty the stewardess. Ray brushed hair back away from Fraser's damp forehead and felt an overwhelming tenderness for him. Why the hell were things so complicated ?

"Ray," Fraser whispered into his belly, and Ray stopped his hand; he hadn't realized Fraser was still awake. "I can't stand much more of this," and that was so close to what he himself had told Vecchio that Ray almost laughed aloud.

"Yeah, Fraser," Ray murmured, cupping the back of Fraser's head, "I know the feeling."

"I don't want to make another mistake," Fraser said softly, and then he was digging his fingers into Ray's wrist and sucking rhythmically for air—he'd broken down and was sobbing drunkenly, Ray realized.

"Fraser..." Ray breathed, shocked; he gripped Fraser's shoulders tightly, and tried to tug him up, into his arms, to hug him. "Fraser, it's all right..."

"It's not," Fraser said thickly; he sounded like his sinuses were clogged. He let go of Ray, rolled onto his back, and hitched for air, swiping at his nose with his right arm. "It's not all right. She killed three people in cold blood. How could she do that?" and holy shit, Vecchio'd been right, this was all about Victoria after all.

"I—I don't know, Fraser." Ray sat up and clutched Fraser's arm tightly, reassuringly.

Fraser was sprawled on the bed and staring up at the ceiling like he'd been shot. "I loved her. I loved her enough to commit myself to her, forever and ever, amen." Fraser sucked for a breath and pushed himself up on one elbow. "They say that marriage is 'till death do us part,'" Fraser said, absently wiping wetness from his face with his fingers. "But they don't say whose death. No love can survive murder, Ray. Murder kills everything."

There were no words for this. He tugged at Fraser's t-shirt, and Fraser clumsily crawled up a few inches and put his head into Ray's lap. Fraser's cheek was hot and damp against Ray's thigh, like he had a fever or something. Detoxifying, Ray reminded himself, moving his fingers gently across Fraser's stubbled jaw.

Fraser was trying to control his breathing, which was still catching erratically in his throat. Ray touched Fraser's face and neck, caressed his hair—he wasn't a great talker, but he'd always been pretty good with his hands. "S'okay, Fraser... It's all gonna be okay..."

"I don't know what to do now," Fraser mumbled against his leg.

"Don't do anything. Try to sleep."

"I can't trust my own judgment. If I can't trust myself, I can't trust anything—"

"Fraser, shh."

Fraser's arm crept up and began to wrap around him; consciously or not, Fraser was moving back into death-grip. "I don't seem to make very good decisions, Ray."

Ray bit his lip for a moment, and then said, quietly, "It's okay, Fraser. You don't have to decide," and that was that—a promise, a commitment, his own vow made within sight of the steeple. He couldn't leave Fraser like this. He wasn't sure he could leave Fraser period.

"But I want to decide. I want— I mean, it's irrational, it's reckless, it's not even a week ; anybody with an ounce of sense would..." Fraser pressed his face hard against Ray's thigh and heaved for breath, shoulders flexing. "I want to make abindingsocialalliance with you," Fraser muttered, and while Ray thought the "with you" at the end there was really promising, he couldn't say he knew what the fuck Fraser was talking about.

"You want to—what?" Ray asked.

Fraser sighed out a long breath, closed his eyes, and nestled his face drunkenly in the crease of Ray's thigh. "I want to make a binding social alliance with you," Fraser admitted. "Because I'm...I don't know. Off my head. Missing a few marbles. Lacking the modicum of common sense that would prevent any sane person from doing this. Deranged, possibly."

Ray lay back against his pillows and stared up at the ceiling. "Well, that's very flattering," he said, but he was grinning from ear to ear.

An hour later, Ray opened his eyes into darkness; Fraser had crawled up next to him and was whispering in his ear. "You didn't say yes, Ray."

"Yes, Fraser. Yes."

He didn't remember falling asleep again, but he woke to find Fraser on top of him in the darkness and kissing him—mouth, cheek, eyelids. Hungrily, he reached for Fraser—only to find that he couldn't move, not a muscle.

"What the—" Ray looked from one of his hands to the other; they seemed to be tied to the headboard with the golden ropes from the nightstand. Bemused, he looked up at Fraser, who was straddling him, tongue slowly licking his lip,

"Tying the knot, Ray," Fraser said gravely. He still sounded a little bit drunk.

Ray grinned and closed his eyes. "Right. Right. Kiss me," and Fraser held his head and kissed him senseless.

When Ray next opened his eyes, it was dawn, and a tiny strip of light was glowing through the gap in the velvet curtains. He was still loosely tied to the bedstand, and his fingers were tingling. He could probably work himself free—but really, he wasn't sure he wanted to.

He sighed and settled back in to enjoy the morning. Fraser was curled around him, but not so tightly, not as tensely, which Ray thought was probably a good sign. Outside the window, a bird was twittering in the dawn light, probably attracted by the fountain in the courtyard. Somewhere down the hall, there was a knock at a door, and Ray heard a voice saying, "Room service, sir..."

—and suddenly Ray bolted up, arms springing back, because holy shit, Vecchio ! He had to call Vecchio before Vecchio's goons—and somehow, he'd twisted his hands in such a way that all the knots had tightened. Fuck. He struggled with them for a moment and then gave up; goddamned Mountie knots were stronger than they looked!

"Fraser," Ray said, and kicked out with his leg. Fraser groaned and lifted his head. "Fraser, wake up."

Groaning, Fraser lowered his head onto the bed again, "Maybe just one more hour..." he murmured.

"Fraser!" Ray yelled, and Fraser jerked up, wincing, one hand to his head. "I need you to focus, here, okay? Get me out of this," he said, and rattled the headboard. "Right now!"

"Oh God," Fraser said in a low voice, and for one terrible moment, Ray was sure he was going to throw up all over the bedspread. "Ray. Please. Lower your voice..."

Ray lowered his voice, pitching his next words to Fraser in a frantic whisper. "Look, you've got to untie me. I need you to let me go."

Fraser squinted at him through one bloodshot eye. "You haven't changed your mind, have you?"

"No, Fraser," Ray said, sighing and letting himself hang against the headboard; this was pretty fucking frustrating, but hey, nice that Fraser still cared. "Everything's great, everything's cool—just you have to untie me now. You can tie me up again later."

Fraser brightened a little at this. "All right, Ray," he said, and crawled forward to loosen the knots with deft fingers.

Ray quickly slipped his wrists out of the loops and rolled up onto his knees. He grabbed for the phone, hit redial, and listened while the phone beeped and then connected—ringing, ringing, ringing...

"C'mon, c'mon," Ray muttered, but that was six rings, seven, eight.... This was bullshit, Vecchio'd never not answered before. He slammed the phone down into its cradle, provoking a groan from Fraser, who'd pulled a pillow over his head. Bending, Ray pulled his jeans up off the floor and found the folded green slip of paper in his back pocket.

Consulting the paper, Ray carefully dialed again. Ray let it ring, gnawing nervously at his lip. Fuck! Pick the fuck up, Vecchio, huh? ...ten....eleven....twelve... and okay, okay, they could work this out later, but right now they had to get out of here, now, now, right fucking now.

Ray dropped the phone into its cradle, turned, and pushed Fraser's shoulder. Blearily, Fraser lifted his head, displacing the pillow. Ray saw then that his skin was blotchy, his chin stubbled, his hair standing straight up on end; geez, he looked terrible. "Fraser," Ray said softly, "I don't have time to explain, but we've got to get out of here. Just please trust me on this, okay?"

Fraser stared at him intently for a few seconds, then nodded—and winced at the movement. Ray sighed in relief; God bless Fraser, who could sometimes be a pain in the ass but always trusted him when the chips were down.

"Get dressed," Ray told him, getting up and quickly getting dressed himself. Geez, he'd been wearing these pants for a week now, they could practically stand up by themselves, but never mind. "Fast as you can, Fraser," he said, ducking his head into the neckhole of his t-shirt. "We'll get you some water and an aspirin in a minute, you'll feel better."

Fraser was moving a bit stiffly, tugging his underwear on, looking for his pants, but hey—it was better than Ray could have done with a hangover. "My shoes are in the other room," he managed; Ray noticed that Fraser had to sit down on the bed to put his pants on.

"I'll get 'em. Hang on," Ray said, and quickly crossed the hall to Fraser's room. The bed was still made, though Ray could see the drunken-Fraser-shaped indentation on the bedspread. Fraser's sneakers were just where Ray'd left them when he'd pulled them off Fraser's feet last night; other than that, Fraser seemed not to have unpacked. Ray grabbed the sneakers and Fraser's satchel and hat—and then suddenly, from the open window, Ray heard the echoing simultaneous slam of car doors, maybe three or four, in the street below.

Quickly, Ray went to the window and saw a black Cadillac with tinted windows double-parked in the street below. Three immaculately suited men were pushing through the hotel door into the lobby. They didn't look Cajun to him.

Ray turned and bolted across the hall, back to his own room. "Fraser," he called out, shutting and locking the door. "We've got to move. Now."

Fraser was bent over the bathroom sink, and now he straightened up, face dripping. "I swear by all that's holy, Ray, I'm never touching alcohol again. Not even for the queen."

"I'm serious," Ray said, rushing to the window and yanking open the velvet drapes. Sunlight flooded the room, and Fraser, who'd just stepped out of the bathroom, recoiled like a vampire. Ray twisted the handle of the floor to ceiling windows and found they opened inward, like French doors. He glanced out: there wasn't a real balcony, but there was a band of wrought iron railing beneath the window. Purely decorative, Ray figured, but suspended from it, it would only be a few feet to the courtyard below. He turned back to Fraser and jerked his head: "Out the window, Fraser."

Fraser blinked at him. "Are you joking?"

This really pissed Ray off. " Joking ? No, I'm not joking—this coming from a guy who jumps off high things, like buildings. I'm talking about four fucking feet here," and okay, maybe it was more than that, but not much, "and you're giving me grief? Get out the fucking window!"

Fraser put on his hat. "Yes, Ray," he said, but he looked a little pale.

In the end, Fraser took a deep breath and went first, scrambling pretty gracefully out the window and carefully descending hand over hand until he was hanging from the bottom of the iron railing. Ray stuck his head out and watched Fraser drop gracefully to the concrete below—then jerked up as he heard a rapidfire banging on the door across the hall.

"Mr. Fraser—" bang, bang, bang—"open up, it's Room Service," and if that was room service, he was a monkey's uncle.

Ray turned back to the window and hissed, "Bags!" and tossed first Fraser's satchel and then his own dufflebag down. Then Ray slung one leg over the railing and began to lower himself down—and he was hanging there like a monkey, looking into the room, when suddenly the door splintered open and three huge guys in suits crashed into his room.

Instinctively, Ray ducked and began to scramble downward, hoping against hope that they hadn't been seen. "Move!" he hissed in a fierce whisper. "Leave the bags! Move, move—" and a second later he had dropped to the concrete.

"What the—hey! You!" Ray looked up for a split second, which was long enough to get a glimpse of a broad, angry face. "Come back here!" and then Fraser was grabbing his arm and they were running through the lobby, past the conceirge's desk, and pushing through the revolving door to the street. Ray was sure that he'd heard footsteps thundering down the steps behind him, and so he didn't hesitate, but started running hard up the street toward the car, Fraser at his heels. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed the worst—that the three suits had already hit the street, and the Cadillac's driver had gotten out of the car and was gesticulating wildly in their direction.

Ray was about to lurch toward the driver's door of the car, and was praying that the fucking thing would start right up, when he felt a push between his shoulderblades; Fraser, who gasped, "No time, Ray! Keep going!" They kept going, running hell bent for leather first one block, and then another—and then suddenly Fraser grabbed his arm and tugged him down into a narrow alley between two restaurants. This turned out to be a good idea, Ray realized a moment later, because the black Cadillac squealed to a stop at the mouth of the alley, unable to drive down it—those bastards had gotten their car started. Ray turned back forward and chased Fraser's back down past a series of back doors lined with dumpsters.

The end of the alley was blocked off with a chain link fence, maybe fifteen feet, no barbed wire, no problem—and Ray put on a burst of speed and jumped, grabbing the mesh about half-way up. He climbed the fence easily, flung himself over the top, and dropped down onto the other side. Except Fraser hadn't yet climbed; the fingers of one hand were locked in the links, but he was bent over double, free hand pressed to his stomach.

"Fraser." Ray grabbed onto the fence and peered through, trying to get Fraser's attention. "Fraser, come on..."

By that, he'd meant, "Fraser, hurry up and climb the fence, because the bad guys are coming," but Fraser seemed to take that as an invitation to lean forward and throw up violently all over the concrete. Ray winced and recoiled a little, because Fraser was throwing up bright red grenadine. And then things got worse, because Ray looked up and saw the three suits running toward them up the alley.

Ray grabbed the fence in both hands and shook it; he was frustrated and, more importantly, afraid. "Fraser," Ray said desperately. "Fraser, you've got to climb—" but Fraser looked up at him miserably and Ray saw right away that Fraser wasn't going to climb, that Fraser just couldn't. His mouth was stained cherry red, and Ray felt a wave of sympathetic nausea.

"Run," Fraser managed, and then he was dry heaving. Behind him, the men were slowing down and fanning out, reaching into their fancy suits, and pulling out guns. Fuck, and he was on the wrong side of the fucking fence!—and Ray leapt upwards and began to climb, finding toe-holds with his boots. But one of the suits had some brains, and realized that they had a window of opportunity here, to snatch Fraser while Ray was stuck in transit.

"Go! Go! Get him!" and then two of them were rushing forward and taking Fraser by the arms. It was like everything was happening in slow motion, and Ray saw it all from the strangest angle fifteen feet above them, as they darted forward, grabbed Fraser, and began to drag him backwards toward the car. Ray vaulted over the top again and slid down fast, scraping his hands violently against the metal. He could only be seconds behind them, but it was enough for two of them to have hustled Fraser a good distance down the alley. The third suit stood there, gun pointed at Ray, and began to back away.

"Look," Ray said, raising his hands, which were stinging. "Take him if you want to, but let me come with you."

The man considered this, then shook his head. "The boss didn't say nothin' about you. He don't want you."

Ray tried out his best authoritative tone. "Hey! Your boss is a friend of mine, and believe me, he wants to see me. You call him and see. Tell him that Stanley wants to come along for the ride—"

The goon giggled. " Stanley ?"

"Shut up!" Ray snarled; god, everyone was a fuckin' comedian. "Just shut the fuck up and take me with you!"

"Not you, pal," the goon said sadly. "Just the Mountie."

"You're making a mistake." Ray moved forward steadily as the guy backed up, gun still aimed at Ray's chest. "You're making a big, big mistake here. Your boss and me, we go way back. We're like brothers, him and me—separated at birth."

The goon snorted. "Yeah, right. You don't look anything like him—" and then his fellow goons were shoving Fraser into the car and yelling, "Come on! Come on!" The goon lifted his gun and fired high over Ray's right shoulder. The noise was deafening, and Ray ducked reflexively—but that gave the goon a few extra seconds to turn, run, and dive into the back seat of the car. Ray was immediately after him, running so hard that he thought his lungs would burst, and he lunged forward and actually slammed his hand against the trunk of the car before it sped off, tires squealing. Ray flew forward from the momentum and only barely stopped himself from crashing down onto the cobblestones.

"Fuck! Fuck! Motherfucker!" Ray screamed, nearly pirouetting in rage, and then suddenly he turned and sprinted up the street toward the next car coming. He leapt in front of it and braced his hands on the hood—like he could stop it, like he was Superman. The car screeched to a halt, and Ray darted around to the driver's side and yanked the door open.

"Chicago P.D!" Ray said, and pulled a screaming woman out. He had no authority whatsoever in Louisiana, and this was probably a carjacking, but Ray couldn't let himself think about that right now. He slung himself behind the wheel and floored it before even pulling the door shut, and went tearing after the Cadillac.

In the South, what with the heat and all, the natives tended to buy light colored cars: whites, tan, light blue, or at least two-toned cars with white tops. The black Cadillac therefore stood out a helluvalot more than it would have in Chicago—not to mention that it was going 90 miles an hour toward the airport. Ray pounded his fist violently against the wheel of his stolen car—a fucking Japanese car, probably the only one in the whole fucking South. And it was an automatic, too.

Still, though, Ray kept the pedal to the floor and drove with near-suicidal flair, and that kept him within sight of the big Cadillac all the way to New Orleans International Airport. The car bypassed all the traditional terminals and took a small, winding road to an isolated runway—and holy shit, what the fuck was that ?

Sitting on the runway was a machine that looked kind of like a military plane and kind of like a helicopter—it was plane shaped, but it had propellers mounted on top of each of its wings. The propellers were already whup, whup, whupping in preparation for take off, and the small plane's door was open, a gangway leading to the ground. The Cadillac pulled up with a squeal of brakes, and all four doors opened simultaneously. Ray slowed to cruising speed and watched as they hustled Fraser out of the car and dragged him toward the gangway. Fraser seemed to be struggling, but he was too sick to put up any real resistance.

What to do, what to do? Ray stopped the car and put his chin on the steering wheel. They were wrestling Fraser up the gangway, and in about ten seconds, Ray was gonna lose him, lose all of them. He could maybe drive forwards, smash the car into the plane and cripple it—except he could maybe cripple himself, or get Fraser killed. He reminded himself that Fraser was just going to Vecchio, that the thugs probably had explicit orders not to hurt Fraser—and then he knew what to do. He had to take the chance that the goons would extend those orders to him rather than kill him.

Biting his lip, Ray floored the car and shot forward, turning the wheel at the last possible moment and pulling up with a screech before the rising gangway. He flung himself out of the car and leapt at the closing door. He landed stomach-first on the rising ramp, then crawled up and slithered headfirst down the gangway until he was crumpled in a heap on the inside floor, and surrounded by guns.

Slowly, the helicopter began to lift off, rising vertically into the air. The whup-whup-whup of the blades sped up, deafening him. He was suddenly, irrationally afraid that they'd shoot him, using the roar of take-off to muffle the shot, and he raised his hands quickly to show he was unarmed, wrenching his shoulder as he pulled his arm out from underneath him. One of the goons jerked his gun forward and aimed with intent, but then the guy he'd come to think of as his goon grabbed the man's arm, and shook his head.

"You want to throw him out the hatch instead?" the goon with the gun yelled, through the roar of take off.

"Not yet," his goon yelled back. "Throw him in the back with the Mountie! I'll call the boss!"

Ray felt practically weak with relief; Vecchio'd fix everything, he was sure of it. They holstered their guns, grabbed Ray off the floor, and dragged him to the back of the copter. The front cabin had been fitted up with seats and such, though Ray could see right away that this had once been a military aircraft. Most of the equipment was still there.

Fraser blinked at Ray as the goons threw him into a neighboring seat. "Good to see you, Ray."

"Likewise, Fraser," Ray replied.

Fraser was slumped in his seat, head braced back against the headrest. He looked exhausted. "Any idea who these men are or why they're kidnapping us?"

Ray tried to look penitent. "Yeah, I got a pretty good idea, actually," he admitted, but then he glanced up at the armed goon who'd been stationed to watch over them. "But I can't tell you right now."

"Well, whenever you're ready," Fraser said, and then the helicopter suddenly lurched, moving in a way no fucking helicopter should lurch. Ray gripped the armrests tightly, sure they were gonna crash, but Fraser just squeezed his eyes shut. He seemed sick, but not worried. "It's all right, Ray. We're just moving into normal flight mode."

What had they been in, abnormal flight mode? "What?!"

Fraser didn't answer; he seemed to be spending all his energy trying not to be sick again. The aircraft suddenly shot forward, horizontally, like a regular plane, and soon Ray regained his equilibrium.

"Fraser, you all right?" Ray asked, leaning forward to touch Fraser's arm.

"Yes," Fraser replied tersely, but he didn't open his eyes. "Fine. Just resting," and Ray sighed, sank back in his seat, and closed his own eyes.

Ray was jolted out of his sleep by turbulence, which was battering the aircraft. They were flying fast, but not very high, and the goon guarding them—a different one, now; they must have changed shifts—was struggling to keep his feet. The goon's hand was clutching a machine gun strapped across his torso, and Ray, suddenly frightened (because you could never underestimate human stupidity), yelled, "Hey! Be careful where you point that thing!"

Fraser never even moved.

Two hours later, Ray felt that sinking feeling in his stomach that meant they were descending, thank god. He turned and peered out the window. Brown, brown, brown, nothing but desert out there—except wait, that had to be the Hoover Dam, and there was a lake, and beyond that...

Wow, geez. Vegas, baby.

Terrifyingly, as the aircraft drew closer to the city, it lurched again—and Ray could picture them plummeting out of the sky and crashing into one of those big neon hotel signs, like something out of a seventies-era disaster flick. He could be Steve McQueen—except christ! suddenly it looked like it was going to happen! because holy shit, there wasn't anything that looked like an airport out there—just roads and buildings, the Strip, Hell, was that the fucking Sands ?

Ray blindly reached out and grabbed Fraser's hand tightly, absolutely sure that they were going to die. Fraser's hand tightened around his and the contact was good, great—because whatever else he'd managed to do or not do in his thirty-eight years of life, at least he'd managed to make a connection with another human being before he died, and that was something. Right now that felt like everything.

A white tower was coming into view, and wow, he was really gonna die in The Towering Inferno, a movie he'd liked a whole lot when it came out in 1974, but just not this much. Impulsively, he turned around and gave Fraser a quick, hard kiss on the mouth before turning back to the window...and they were slowing, lurching, and Ray saw that there was a large, square grid marked off on the white tower's roof. A helipad.

They landed as they'd taken off, slowly and vertically, and it was weird the way reality seemed to settle around you when you landed, as perspective and gravity were restored. Ray felt his internal organs settle back into place, and he could already feel the blinding heat of the place, see the sun-whitened concrete and the blue, blue sky beyond.

"Ray..." and holy shit, Fraser sounded miserable. Ray quickly raised the arm rest separating them and flicked open Fraser's seat belt—and Fraser practically fell into his arms. "Are we there yet?"

"Yeah, Fraser—we're here," Ray reassured him.

"Where's here?" Fraser murmured, and Ray remembered that Fraser still had no fucking idea what was going on. The goons had disappeared for the moment, and so Ray figured this was probably the best chance he had to fill Fraser in.

"Las Vegas," Ray answered quickly. "And Fraser, listen—no matter what you see, or who you see—"

Fraser lifted his head. "We're in Las Vegas?"

"—try to keep your mouth shut, all right?" Ray craned his neck to see if the goons were coming. "You don't want know, get me killed. Me. Ray Vecchio," Ray said, trying to beam the thought straight into Fraser's brain.

Fraser's brain wasn't having a great day, though. "...always wanted to visit Las Vegas..." he said, and let his head sink back down on Ray's shoulder.

When they came, they came in formation: four goons walking two-by-two, and behind them, wearing a dark suit and a narrow mustache, Ray Vecchio. Vecchio had a steel to him that Ray hadn't anticipated, that he hadn't gotten from Vecchio's files or his friends or any of the pictures, but it made him totally convincing as a mobster. There seemed to be no cop in him at all.

The goons stepped back deferentially, and Vecchio looked from Fraser to Ray with narrowed eyes. Fraser was slouched in his chair and blinking up at Vecchio slowly, like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Nobody said anything.

Finally Vecchio turned to the goons and jerked his head. "Get out of here. Scram."

They obediently trooped away in single file. Vecchio looked like he was barely containing himself, and when they were out of earshot, he let himself explode.

"What the hell did you do to him!" Vecchio yelled, throwing his hand out, Fraser-wards. Fraser, Ray noticed, winced and shrank back in his seat.

"Nothing!" Ray insisted, somewhat panicked by the accusation. "He's just like I got him! Mostly," he added, and cringed a little, because okay, at the moment, Fraser was hungover, unshaven, wearing week-old clothes, and covered in vomit.

"Christ in a bucket, Stanley," Vecchio muttered, and then he was bending over to examine Fraser, one hand on his shoulder. "Fraser, you okay?"

Fraser's green-tinted face melted into a glorious smile. "Ray! It's so good to see you!"

"It's good to see you too, Benny." Vecchio smiled back and spread his arms wide. "Welcome to Vegas."

"I left my hat in New Orleans. Can you get me my hat back?"

Vecchio nodded earnestly. "Sure, Benny. I'll get you your hat back."

"You," Vecchio told him later, handing him a gin and tonic, "are a world-class idiot, Stanley."

"Fuck you," Ray said carelessly, and took a long, deep swig of his drink. Ahhh. " You're the one who sent the Kray brothers to come get us," he said, gesturing at Vecchio with the half-full glass. "Fucking apes with machine guns—"

"We had a plan, Stanley." Vecchio was carelessly dropping ice into his own drink. "You changed the plan. These guys I deal with, they're not that bright. They can't improvise. They fall back on what they know."

"Yeah, well—'what they know' is chasing us across town with guns, okay?" Ray let himself fall into one of the room's many huge, soft leather sofas. "Nearly fucking killed us. Fraser puked all over the sidewalk—"

"Hey, you can't blame me for that," Vecchio said.

"No, I guess not." Ray stopped, cocked his head, and grinned up at him. "He tried to pick up a biker. Did I tell you?"

Vecchio groaned and pressed a hand to his eye. "No, you didn't tell me. Man, I need an antacid..."

"It was like a scene out of Deliverance, I'm not kidding." Ray took another long swig of gin and tonic. Cold. Good. "I'll tell you, I've wished more than once on this trip that Fraser didn't have so much fucking gusto— "

"You seem to be handling Fraser's gusto better than you were last night," Vecchio observed, peering at him narrowly.

"Yeah," Ray said, letting his head fall back against the soft leather. "We worked all that out. He's gonna make an honest Polack out of me."

Vecchio snorted and sprawled down onto the sofa beside him. "Great. You could be like the second Mrs. de Winter."

"Does that make you the first Mrs. de Winter?" Ray asked.

"Nah." Vecchio took a sip of his drink. "I took him to a dance once, but that was as far as it went. Turned out he wasn't a girl. Besides, you ever been up there? Canada?"

"Sure," Ray said, letting himself slide deeper into the cushions. Man, he hadn't been this relaxed since he'd left Chicago. It was like now that they'd finally reached Vecchio, everything was gonna be okay. Fraser was gonna be safe. Everything was gonna be fine. "When I was a kid, we used to vacation at Lake Nipkigon—"

But Vecchio was smirking at him.

"What?" Ray demanded.

Vecchio raised a finger and began to point up, up, up. Ray actually glanced up at the ceiling before catching Vecchio's drift. North.

"Okay, so it's a little further north than that," Ray said irritably.

Vecchio was grinning widely now. "Does a bear shit in the woods?"

"What is that, some kind of joke? Cause har de ha-ha, it's not funny."

"Talk to me after a year up there," Vecchio said, draining his drink. "Believe me, you'll think it's hilarious."

"So what, you went up where Fraser lives?" Ray asked.

"Yeah," Vecchio said, leaning over to put his empty glass down. "Back before Victoria burned it down. Took me three planes, a jeep, and a snowmobile. The second time I went up there, the plane crashed. In the woods," Vecchio said, lips twisting into a smile. "Which reminds me; did you like the copter?"

Ray feigned cool; he was feeling out-Vecchioed again. "Yeah, it was okay."

"It's VSTOL technology," Vecchio said, leaning back to stare at the ceiling. "Vertical take-off and landing. Cool as shit."

"Where'd you get it?" Ray asked,.

Vecchio rolled his head toward Ray. "You can get anything is what I've learned. Some days, I wake up and think, 'Man, the good guys haven't got a chance.'"

Ray sighed. "Yeah. I wake up like that most days."

"It's a scary thing, the kind of weapons that—" There was a knock on the door, and they both turned to look. "Yeah! Come!" Vecchio called out, and a moment later, a goon walked in—the guy Ray thought of as his goon—carrying their battered bags and Fraser's hat. "Great, yeah, just put 'em down," Vecchio said, waving his hand. "Meanwhile, do me a favor, check on Vito, see what's taking so long?"

"Yeah, okay," the goon said, but he was hesitating. "But...boss, you got a minute?"

"Sure. What?" Vecchio asked.

"You know—alone." The goon shot a not-so-subtle look at Ray.

"You can talk in front of Stanley," Vecchio said, and clapped Ray on the shoulder heartily. "Stanley and me, we go way back."

"Yeah, so he said," the goon said, and casually rested his hand on the butt of his gun. Ray felt Vecchio stiffen slightly beside him and knew that Vecchio'd seen it too. "So you know he's a cop, huh?"

Vecchio just grinned—and man, that took balls! Ray'd done a helluvalot of undercovers, but he didn't think he could've kept smiling through a statement like that. "Yeah, Gino. I know lots of cops. Some of the guys from the neighborhood," he said, and then he was patting Ray's shoulder in a manner so patronizing that Ray would have socked him one if Vecchio hadn't been playacting, "they grow up wanting to be heroes. But mostly they come around."

Gino nodded, like Vecchio'd just said something profound. He reached into his suit jacket pocket, took out Ray's gun and badge, and set them on the entry table. "They were in his bag," Gino said in explanation. "The other guy, the Mountie, he wasn't carrying a piece. He just had the hat."

"Okay, great," Vecchio said. "Now go find Vito, okay? He doesn't have to be picky, just get the right sizes." Gino turned and slipped out the door, and Vecchio sighed, "These guys are like women, they get caught up in the fashions—"

The bedroom door opened, and Fraser wandered out wearing a thick white robe and towelling his hair. He looked freshly-scrubbed and infinitely happier.

Vecchio stood up. "Feeling better, Benny?"

Fraser looked at Vecchio gratefully. "Very much so, yes."

Vecchio jammed his hands into his pleated suit pants and rocked back on his heels. "Got your hat back for you," he said, kind of smugly, and nodded his head toward the bags in the corner.

Kiss ass, Ray thought meanly.

"Ah, thank you kindly," Fraser said. He went to get it, put it on, and looked relieved.

Strangely, Fraser looked perfectly normal wearing nothing but a bathrobe and a hat.

There was another knock at the door. "Come!" Vecchio called out, and a bunch of men trooped in carrying shopping bags and hangers. "Great," Vecchio said, rubbing his hands together. "Just put 'em there, on the sofa," and the men obeyed him, laying out what Ray now saw were suits, jeans, shirts in many colors...

"What about shoes, you got shoes?" Vecchio demanded.

One guy quickly laid six or seven boxes down on the table. "Yes, Mr. Langoustini," he said, and hey, wasn't langoustini a kind of seafood?

"Great. Great. Thank, guys, go get pizza." Vecchio reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills that made Ray's eyes boggle. Vecchio peeled off a few bills and handed them out to the men, who looked at him with puppy-eyed gratitude and practically bowed as they backed out.

"There you go, put something fresh on," Vecchio said, adding, with a glance at Ray: "You'll need to shower first."

Ray made a face at him and began unbuttoning his shirt.

"Benny," Vecchio said in a gentle voice that made Ray want to punch him, "go on, get dressed, take anything you want."

Fraser drifted toward the sofa, glanced down at the clothes, then picked up a shirt, some socks, a pair of jeans. Ray, feeling weirdly jealous, turned away. Okay, so maybe Vecchio and Fraser hadn't ever done the nasty, but their relationship wasn't exactly what you'd call "normal." He could sense the deep emotional currents swirling between them—which okay, yeah, they'd been partners. He knew how that could be. But he'd always felt close to Fraser because Fraser was...because Fraser seemed so....because Fraser, like him, had seemed lost and lonely and isolated.

But appearances had turned out to be deceiving. Fraser had a partner who doted on him, a woman who was obsessed with him, sexual partners for the asking—hell, Fraser had probably even had parents at some point. Fraser was by no means as—

He felt a hand on his arm. "Ray?" Fraser turned him around and studied his face. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Ray said. "Yeah, I'm—" and then Fraser was leaning in and kissing his mouth, and Ray nearly jerked away because, geez, holy shit, Vecchio was right here! But dimly, through the drowning warmth and the rush of blood in his ears, Ray heard Vecchio yell, "Geez, get a room already! Christ, I'll get you a room..."

Vecchio got them a room.

The room was huge, with a giant bed in the center and a lot of white leather and chrome and glass. Ray couldn't help thinking that Vecchio was yanking their chains by putting them in here, because the place screamed "Honeymoon Suite" to him. Maybe it was the platform bed, huge white duvet, or basket of fucking complimentary fruit.

Fraser walked to the curtains and pulled the drawstring, revealing a wall of windows with a magnificent view of the strip. Fraser just stood there, apparently stupefied, hands pressed to the glass. Ray went to check out the bathroom, which was made of white marble and featured a jacuzzi tub as well as a glass-enclosed shower stall. Ray unbuttoned his shirt and popped his head back into the main room. "Fraser," he said, "I'm gonna grab a quick—"

Fraser turned, eyes so wide it was almost funny, and wow, but it was weird to see Benton Fraser against the comic book backdrop of Vegas, with its giant pyramids and fake Eiffel Towers and million neon bulbs. "I—I've never seen anything like it. It's like— It's like—" Fraser thought for a moment and then made a gesture of total helplessness. '"I have no idea what it's like."

Ray cracked a smile. "It's like Las Vegas. It's Sin City, you never heard of it?"

Fraser looked almost priggishly shocked. "I thought everyone was exaggerating."

"They're not. I'm going to take a shower." Ray unbuckled his wristwatch and tossed it onto the dresser, then pulled his shirt off his shoulders and toed off his shoes. His jeans were sweat-stiff and had a ton of southern dirt embedded in the creases. He pushed off his jeans and underwear and left them puddled on the floor. When he straightened up, he saw that Fraser was standing there, staring at him. Ray felt his skin burn, and then his cock twitched and started to harden rapidly. Fraser came toward him, and Ray lifted a hand and said, "I'm filthy, just let me—"

Fraser skimmed Ray's side with a warm, dry hand. "I don't care, Ray," he said, and dropped his hand to Ray's cock. Ray shivered, and Fraser steadied him with one hand while working his cock with the other. Ray's head fell back in ecstasy; Christ, that felt good. Ray sucked deeply for breath, and ran greedy hands over Fraser's shoulder and chest. Fraser leaned in to nuzzle his jaw, his hand tightening and stroking faster, faster.

" Christ. "

"It's all right." Fraser's breath was warm and sweet against his face. "Ray. It's all right."

" Fraser— " Ray gasped.

"Come on. Come on. Let go, " and Ray came with a shuddering gasp in Fraser's hand. Fraser wrapped his arm tightly around Ray's shoulders and held him as he came. Ray closed his eyes and let his cheek brush against Fraser's, loving the feel of Fraser's skin, the warm smell of him. "Ray," Fraser murmured against Ray's face. "I'm so sorry I dragged you through—"

"Don't be. That's buddies, that's what buddies do," Ray slowly slid his hand down Fraser's chest, undid the top button of his jeans, and tugged down his zipper. He felt the hard muscles of Fraser's abdomen contract under the backs of his knuckles, and felt gripped by lust. He wrapped his fist around Fraser's cock carefully and pumped slowly, loving the feeling of hardness in his hand. "This, on the other hand..." Fraser inhaled sharply. "This ain't buddies."

"Then I don't want to be buddies, Ray." Fraser sounded gratifyingly breathless.

"Good," Ray said, tightening his hand and stroking faster, "because this is beyond buddies, Fraser—"

"I want to be— I want—" Fraser was gasping raggedly now. "Ray, I love you—" and Ray slithered to his knees and took Fraser into his mouth.

Ray left Fraser spent and slouched in an armchair and went off to shower. It abruptly came to him, as he stood there soaping himself under the fancy pulsating showerhead, that he was singing to himself—or at least humming tunelessly, which was the best he could do with his limited range. He couldn't remember ever feeling this kind of happy; even in the best old days of Stella, he'd been terrified that she would find out who he really was, what he was really like. But Fraser already knew that Ray was a loser, and an asshole, and a dancer, and a guy who was trying his best most days. Fraser knew exactly who he was, and Fraser loved him.

He was grinning like an idiot at himself in the bathroom mirror as he towelled his hair, which he left spiked up in every direction to reflect his upbeat mood. He slung a towel low around his waist and went looking for Fraser. He might just let Fraser tug the towel off with his—

But something was wrong. Ray knew immediately that something was wrong, could sense it from Fraser's posture and the quality of the silence in the room. Fraser was sitting on the edge of the bed, one hand still resting on the telephone. Barefoot, one hand clutching his towel, Ray crossed the room, though Fraser didn't seem to see him until Ray was nearly close enough to touch.

"Fraser? What's wrong?"

Fraser sighed and scrubbed at his eyes. "That was Ray Vecchio. We have to go back to Atlanta. They've scheduled Victoria for trial."

"Oh." Ray slowly sat down in the armchair next to the bed, still clutching his towel absently. It seemed unfair that they'd been granted such a short reprieve; he doubted that he'd be able to drag Fraser out for any fun in Vegas, not with this hanging over their heads. "Well, it's not like this is totally unexpected. I just wish we had more time—"

Fraser's hands dropped away from his face, and Ray now saw the look of abject misery. "We have more time than she does, Ray," Fraser said quietly. "The state of Georgia has a death penalty."

Part Five.

The bulk of the case against Victoria Metcalf involved testimony regarding the murder of Lieutenant Paul O'Brien of the Atlanta P.D. Secondarily, the case involved Victoria's murder of her latest accomplice, Bobby Candle, a guy whose uncanny physical resemblance to Benton Fraser (6 foot tall, black hair, blue eyes, broadshouldered physique) creeped Ray out. But Assistant State's Attorney Callister wanted Ray and Fraser to set the case up for him, to establish for the jury what kind of woman Victoria Metcalf was, to show them that these latest murders were part of a continuing pattern. Because Victoria Metcalf was a woman and a beautiful one, and even hard-nosed Southern juries were disposed to leniency in such cases. But the A.P.D. wasn't having any; Victoria Metcalf had killed one of their own, and they were baying for blood.

The whole thing reminded Ray of the Botrelle case, except Victoria Metcalf was guilty. Guilty as fucking sin.

ASA Callister consulted his notes, glasses slipping down his nose. "So at that point, you were put on suspension?"

Ray nodded, then remembered to speak into the mike. He leaned forward. "Yes."

"Lieutenant Welsh asked you to turn in your shield?"

"Yes," Ray said, and in his ear, Vecchio muttered: "Because of I.A. Because they thought she was dead. Because they didn't believe us when we told them she'd been living at my fucking house . Tell them, Stanley—"

Ray gritted his teeth; geez, hadn't Vecchio ever testified before? You couldn't just tell them; you had to wait until they asked you the goddamned question. Stella'd beaten that much into him but good.

"Internal Affairs believed you had a conflict of interest?" Callister asked.

"Yes," Ray said. "At that point in the investigation, Constable Fraser became the primary suspect. At that time, we'd been partners for—" "Sixteen months," Vecchio murmured. "—sixteen months," Ray repeated, wishing that Vecchio would shut the fuck up already.

"You were replaced by Detective Jack Huey?" Callister asked.

"I could never be replaced by Jack Huey."

"Yes." Ray moved his eyes across the courtroom—past Victoria Metcalf, sitting tragic and beautiful, head held high at the defendant's table; past Fraser, sitting two rows behind her and staring miserably at the floor; past the five black-suited goons flanking Fraser—one on either side, two in front, and one behind, forming a protective wall—to the vibrantly painted mural at the back of the courtroom.

In Ray's experience, courtroom art came in two basic varieties: dark historical paintings of Washington Crossing The Delaware, or jungle-like watercolors featuring every fucking state bird, tree, and flowering plant. Fulton County Courthouse had gone with the latter, and Ray knew that somewhere behind the peach trees and cotton fields and dive-bombing yellowhammers was Ray Vecchio, peering out through a strategically placed panel, a microphone clipped to the lapel of his Armani suit.

"Detective Huey was made lead investigator on the case," Ray agreed, turning his attention to Callister again.

ASA Callister nodded and wandered back toward the witness box. "Do you have any first-hand knowledge of the investigation from that point on?"

"Yeah." He didn't, of course, but he'd studied really hard, and plus he had Vecchio on tap just in case. "Detective Huey canvassed the neighborhood around Fraser's apartment, hoping to find someone who could identify her. A crime scene squad was also sent to my—" apartment, he nearly said, but managed to correct himself, "— house to look for prints, hair, nail clippings, that stuff. You see," Ray said, turning to look at the jury; Stella had instructed him always to look right at the jury when he had something important to say, "we had no proof that Victoria Metcalf was even alive. She'd faked her own death by misidentifying her sister's body. So when Constable Fraser said that he'd seen her, everybody thought he was lying."

A murmur rippled across the courtroom. Victoria sat up a bit straighter, Fraser hunched over a bit more, and Vecchio muttered approvingly into his ear.

"Everyone except me," Ray clarified a second later, "because I saw her too. I saw her," he repeated, and stared straight at Victoria Metcalf, a woman he'd never met "She stayed in my house. She stayed in my sister's room." Victoria's eyes were skeptical as she looked at him; she didn't believe yet. Oh, but she would. Ray licked his lip, leaned forward in his chair, and spoke softly into the mike. "I told her that if she hurt him, I would kill her," he said, and saw Victoria's first blink of confusion. "Yeah," he murmured, and showed her his teeth. "Yeah. Remember me?" and Victoria Metcalf's eyes went very, very wide.

When the judge called a ten minute recess, Ray left Fraser with Vecchio's goons and slipped out of the courtroom. He strode quickly down the cavernous, empty hallway to a nondescript wood door at the end of the hall, and knocked twice, three times, then once. The door was opened by another black-suited goon, and Ray slid past him into the room.

"Look," Ray said, yanking the tiny earpiece out of his ear, "you gotta stop calling this ballgame, all right? It's really distracting. I'm trying to remember a million things I wasn't even around for, and you're making like Yogi Berra in the booth. It's like trying to do Hamlet in the middle of Wrigley Field. Just shut the fuck up already—"

"All right. All right. I'm sorry, Stanley." Vecchio was pacing across the small room, hands pressed to the small of his back. Ray felt suddenly sympathetic; the room was cramped, airless, and very, very warm. "Just—you don't understand how long I've wanted to get this woman," Vecchio nearly spat. "And now she's right there—" He gestured angrily toward the back of the oil painting with its spyholes onto the courtroom. "Right fucking there," Vecchio repeated with soft fury, "looking like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth..."

"She killed a cop in a death penalty state," Ray said quietly. "She's going down, Vecchio, don't you worry."

"It's not enough." Vecchio rubbed his eyes; he looked really, really tired. "Whatever they do, it's not enough. That woman ruined my life, Stanley." Vecchio's eyes were suddenly full of pain, and he turned away. "I—shot him; I shot my best friend in the back. How the hell do I live with that?"

Ray tried to think of something comforting to say, because he knew what it was like to make a mistake that you paid for and paid for and kept paying for. Even now, he could hardly think of Beth Botrelle without wanting to burst into tears, even though he'd long since done everything he could for her. "I know how you— I mean, some things you never get—" and you know, sometimes there was no use talking. Ray slung an arm around Vecchio's well-tailored shoulders and was surprised when those shoulders suddenly slumped.

"I can't, I couldn't tell him," Vecchio said hoarsely, keeping his face turned away. "He's so fucking hard to talk to."

"S'okay. He knows," Ray murmured. "I'm sure he knows."

Vecchio stood there for a moment, just heaving, and then he pushed away from Ray, patted his shoulder, and wiped his arm across his eyes. "They're gonna ask you about the shooting. They're gonna try to discredit you—me—on cross."

"Well," Ray said, and grinned meanly, "they can try."

Vecchio stared at him for a second and then showed the first signs of a grin. "Right. Yeah. You hand them their heads, Stanley."

"Ray. Ray. Ray. It's Ray."

Ray Vecchio's grin widened. "That's not what I hear," he said.

Victoria's attorney was a large, pink-faced man with soft-looking, well-manicured hands. "So the bail money had nothing to do with it."

"Absolutely nothing," Ray said firmly. "I saw a gun. I fired."

"So you weren't thinking about losing your house?" the attorney pressed. "Your family home?"

"No. Not at all."

The attorney smiled at him. "Your family has owned that house for years, haven't they?"

"Forty-one years," Ray Vecchio whispered in his ear. "Yeah," Ray said. "Forty years or so."

"And your mother still lives there, doesn't she? Your mother, your two sisters, your brother-in-law, your nephews—"

"Yeah," Ray said sharply. "My family lives there. S'why we call it our family home."

"And that was nowhere in your mind when you saw Constable Fraser running away with my client?"

Ray frowned. "He wasn't—"

"Objection!" Callister interrupted, standing up. "Detective Vecchio isn't on trial here."

"Sustained," the judge said.

"I'm just examining the detective's credibility," the attorney said pleasantly. "I like to know what kind of man I'm talking to—"

Ray leaned forward angrily. "She had a gun," he said, making a gun out of his thumb and forefinger.

"—though you've already admitted you wanted to kill her," the attorney mused. "That's not standard police procedure, is it? Not even in Chicago..."

Ray ticked off a list of Victoria's crimes on his fingers. "She was wanted for murder, theft, fraud—"

The attorney interrupted this recitation with a wave of his hand. "It would have been very convenient for the Chicago P.D. if Victoria Metcalf were unable to answer any questions, wouldn't it?"

"Objection !" Callister repeated, sounding outraged.

Ray didn't even wait for the judge's ruling, but leaned forward, grabbing the wooden railing separating him from the fuckhead defense attorney. "You know, I can't personally speak for the whole C.P.D," he said, "but it would have been plenty convenient for me, yeah. Your client is bad news , mister," Ray said, stabbing his finger into the wooden railing for emphasis. "She's a liar and a manipulator and a killer, and she's always fallen into better company than she deserved. She's no loss to anyone, believe me."

Victoria Metcalf flinched, and in his ear, Ray Vecchio was muttering, "You tell 'em, Stanley." But Fraser was hunched in his seat, staring down, arms crossed over his chest. Ray stifled a curse as he sat back; it seemed like he was destined to hurt Fraser one way or another. But the fucking thing had to be done; Victoria Metcalf couldn't be let loose, and Benton Fraser had to be set free.

Ray had no problem finding Fraser during the lunch break—all he had to do was look for the cluster of goons. He found them standing outside of the men's room like a forest of really stupid trees.

"I want to see Fraser," Ray said, glaring at them defiantly.

The goons looked at each other, then at him. "That's Vecchio," one of the goons ventured finally. "He's on our side." Geez, what a weird fucking world, where the C.P.D. and the Mafia could team up to convict an Alaskan murderess. "Let him in," the goon said.

Ray flashed them a tight smile and pushed past them, but the men's room looked empty. "Fraser?" Ray asked, nudging each of the stall doors in turn. Nothing. Nothing. Nobody.

When he reached the last stall of the row, he pushed the door open and saw—a small, open window set high in the wall.

Fuck! Fuck, fuckety fuck!—and in a second, Ray was up, on the toilet, and wriggling out through the narrow window. A quick twist, an awkward roll, and he was dropping to the concrete on the other side. He was in a narrow alleyway behind the courthouse, and all the small windows next to the one he'd climbed out of were barred with wrought iron. He looked one way and then the other, then began to sprint around the perimeter of the courthouse.

He was so blind with panic that when he found Fraser, he nearly fell over him. Fraser was sitting on the top step of the courthouse, looking down at the busy Atlanta street below. "Fraser!" Ray gasped, skidding and flailing for balance.

Fraser looked up, surprised. "Ray..." he said, and moved to get up.

But Ray dropped a hand on Fraser's shoulder. "No, don't," he said, sitting down on the step beside him.. "It's okay, Fraser, relax."

"I'm sorry," Fraser said, shaking his head as if to clear it. "I just—I needed some air."

"Yeah. S'all right, never mind." Ray sighed and briefly closed his eyes; for a moment, he'd thought this was it, that Fraser'd finally run off for real. "You gonna be okay to testify?"

"Oh yes. I'll be fine." Fraser stared down at his laced fingers. "It's just—" Fraser paused to lick his lips. "Nerves."

"Nerves?" Ray asked, surprised. "I didn't think you had nerves."

Frase didn't look up, but his lips twitched. "Well, you would be wrong, Ray."

"You know," Ray said after a moment, "I think I find that weirdly reassuring. It brings out your human side."

"I like to keep my human side wrapped in plastic for special occasions."

"You're full of crap."

"When did you figure that out?"

"I dunno. Somewhere in Alabama, I think." Ray looked hard at Fraser. "You're sure you're all right?"

But Fraser wouldn't meet his eyes. "I'll be fine, Ray."

"Because you jumped out the bathroom window."

"Well, yes, I do that sometimes," Fraser admitted.

"Yeah. Maybe you could think about doing that less."

Fraser looked up at him, and his eyes were pleading. "I just needed to get away for a minute. From the lawyers, and the mobsters, and her—"

"Yeah, okay," Ray said quietly.

"—everyone except you, Ray." Fraser knotted his hand in Ray's shirt. "I need you," he said, and tugged Ray close for a kiss.

They kissed for a long time.

"Vecchio says I'm like the second Mrs. de Winter," Ray said breathlessly, when Fraser finally pulled his mouth away.

"Really?" Fraser studied his face. "I can't say I see any resemblance. Well, maybe a little around the eyes—"

"You're yanking my chain."

"Oh, you bet, Ray."

The Fulton County Courthouse was so quiet that you could hear every shuffle and murmur. People were riveted to the story of the beautiful murderess and the lovesick Mountie. Victoria sat at the defendant's table and stared daggers at him; Fraser, pale, stared resolutely into space, apparently determined to ignore her.

"You had dinner with her," ASA Callister said.


"You invited her back to your apartment."


Ray expected Callister to petition the judge to treat Fraser as a hostile witness, but Callister seemed not to mind Fraser's one-word answers. "Even though you'd arrested her ten years before?"

"Yes," Fraser said.

"She spent the night at your apartment."


"You had sexual relations with her."

Fraser's voice was barely audible. "Yes."

Callister nodded and approached the stand. Ray knew this move; Stella used it to demonstrate her intimacy with the witness. "Even though you knew she was a convicted felon."

Fraser stared past Callister with unfocused eyes. "She'd served her time."

"Were you in love with her?" Callister asked.

The entire courtroom was hanging on Fraser's answer. "I thought I was," Fraser said finally.

Callister turned and strode back to the prosecution's desk, abruptly breaking the confidential mood. "Who was up first the next morning, you or she?"

"She was."

"What was she doing?" Callister inquired.

"She was cleaning my apartment."

"Cleaning your apartment," Callister repeated. "Don't you mean that she was removing her fingerprints from your apartment? Removing all traces of her presence there?"

Fraser briefly closed his eyes. "It seems so, yes."

"Didn't she also steal your RCMP service revolver, a .38?"


"Bullets from that gun, your gun, were later found to have killed Jolly Hughes, and also to have wounded your dog Diefenbaker—isn't that true?" Fraser made a soft, strangled sound, and Callister said, loudly: "Would you repeat that, Constable?"

Fraser seemed to have to force the word out. "Yes."

"She framed you for murder. She shot your dog," Callister repeated, for the jury's benefit.


"And yet..." Callister said slowly, feigning spontaneous thought; as if a State's Attorney didn't plan every goddamned word in advance, "you were prepared to let her escape?"

"I—Yes." But this time Callister didn't continue with his questions; instead he just waited, looking at Fraser significantly. Ray locked his fingers together and stared down at the court's hardwood floor.

After a moment, Fraser took a deep breath and said: "Yes. I was prepared to let her escape."

"Even though you knew that she'd murdered Jolly Hughes?"

"Yes," Fraser said faintly.

"Why?" Callister asked sharply, looking up from his notes.

Fraser sighed. "Because she was looking very beautiful and very tragic, much as she does right now. And she had a way of making you feel like you were the only one in the world who could help her. And I—I think I'm particularly vulnerable to that."

"Were you going to escape with her?" Callister asked.

The courtroom fell silent. Ray could hear his own breathing, the sound of his watch ticking on his wrist. Fraser kept staring into the empty space ahead of him—and then his eyes found Victoria Metcalf's face. He went pale, and Ray sat up straight, fists clenching helplessly.

"Constable?" Callister moved to intercept Fraser's sightline, perhaps sensing something had gone wrong. "Were you planning to escape—"

"Yes," Fraser said quietly, producing a hubbub of murmured talk from the spectators. "Yes, I was."

Callister retreated to the prosecution table, looking satisfied; Ray knew that the prosecutor liked this aspect of the case: he thought it made Fraser's other testimony against Victoria just that much more credible. Fraser stared at Victoria like he'd never seen her before—and then he looked straight at Ray.

"I made a mistake," Fraser said, and ASA Callister looked up from his notes, surprised at Fraser's outburst. "Actually, I made two mistakes. The first time I met Victoria Metcalf, I made the mistake of arresting her. The second time I met her, I made the mistake of not arresting her. Sometimes," Fraser said quietly, "the opposite of a mistake is just another mistake, maybe even a worse one. I tried to do something different," and Ray didn't think Fraser was talking about Victoria Metcalf anymore—or not exactly. "But sometimes the road not as much of a dead end as the road you took."

And sometimes that road leaves you in Las Vegas, hung over and covered in vomit.

But that was a whole 'nother story.

"So I made a mistake," Fraser said, still looking at Ray. "And I'm sorry. I'm really very sorry."

S'okay, Ray mouthed back and grinned, and Benton Fraser showed him the faintest ghost of a smile.

"Great," Ray Vecchio said, striding into their hotel room so forcefully that the door banged into the opposite wall. "That was great, you were both great—you especially, Stanley. It was like watching myself in the TV-movie version of my life, where they cast someone dumb, blond and—"

"—better-looking." Ray looked up from his suitcase. "You were gonna say better-looking, right?"

But Vecchio'd been brought up short. "Hey, you're packing. You guys are packing."

"Yeah. D.A. says we're done," Ray said.

"Yeah, but—" Vecchio sat down slowly in the nearest chair. "The trial just started. And Fraser's sympathetic, the jury likes him—"

Ray looked across the bed at Fraser, who was still doggedly folding his clothes. "You want to field this, Fraser, or should I?"

Fraser sighed and dropped the shirt he was folding onto the bed. "I will," he said and then sighed. " Ray—"

"Don't Ray me," Vecchio said, sounding hurt. "This trial just started, Fraser—"

"I know. And it's going to go on, maybe for months. And that's not even counting the appeal phase—it's a capital case, Ray." Fraser went to stare out the window. "In a death penalty state. And my part... I think my part in this is over."

Vecchio was bent forward, head hanging, exposing the back of his long, elegant neck. "I gotta see this through, Benny."

Fraser turned around, and his pale face was strained with empathy. "I know. And I've got to leave this behind."

"Great. That's just great, Fraser." Vecchio stood abruptly, his face thunderously angry. Ray hunched his shoulders and tried to fade into the woodwork on the far side of the room. "Go on, just take your boytoy up to Runamukluk—"

"Tuktoyaktuk—" Fraser corrected.

" Tuktoyaktuk ?" Ray exclaimed, straightening up. "What about boytoy ?"

"—and in any case, I've been thinking about the Yukon," Fraser said, crossing his arms. "I miss trees, Ray."

"Fuck the trees, Fraser!"

"I am not anybody's boytoy—"

"That's hardly a reasonable policy toward forestation, Ray."

"—and I am not the fucking second Mrs. de Winter—"

"You can't just leave! What if they want to recall you as a witness? What if additional testimony—?"

"She killed an officer of the law," Fraser said quietly. "They're going to roast her alive. And that isn't my problem, Ray." Fraser raised his head and looked at Ray Vecchio steadily. "Don't you see? Victoria Metcalf isn't my problem anymore. I'm going to take my boytoy up to the Yukon—"

"Uh, objection?" Ray said, raising his hand.

"—and start the life I should have had. The life I want. The life I've earned, Ray."

Vecchio sighed and jammed his hands in his pockets. "Yeah, yeah. Okay, I get that. Go ahead, take the Polack to the Yukon—"

"You know, I'm actually standing right here," Ray pointed out.

Fraser turned to look at him. "You don't want to go?"

"Of course I want to go! I just object to—"

"—climb a tree, fight bears, do whatever it is you do that makes you happy." Vecchio blew out a breath. "I'll hold the fort down here."

"In Atlanta?" Fraser asked.

"In America," Vecchio said, cracking a grin. "You know, Benny, I think I've finally got these Southern areas under control."


"Ray! Ray! Hey, Ray!"

Ray turned, and saw Tommy Kilfeather waving to him from the door to the general store. Ray grinned at him, adjusted his baseball cap, and loped across the street, Diefenbaker cavorting at his heels. "Tommy, hey, what's up?"

Tommy shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted at him through the bright summer sun. "You know anybody named Stanley?"

Ray stopped short; he hadn't been expecting that question. "I might, yeah. Why'd'you ask?"

"I got a package for a Stanley Kowalski." Tommy was staring at him with that deadpan Canadian expression; man, Canada would be such a nice place if it weren't for all these Canadians. "Figured maybe he was a cousin of yours. You know him?"

Ray sighed and held out his hand. Tommy's deadpan expression cracked into a grin as he walked into the store and pulled a large envelope from below the counter. Ray took it from his hand; it was made of battered brown cardboard and had been sealed with some kind of cloth tape. For a moment his eyes deceived him. TO: RAY VECCHIO. Except that wasn't what it said.

The envelope was FROM: RAY VECCHIO, 27TH PRECINCT, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, USA and directed TO: STANLEY KOWALSKI, SILVER TRAIL POST OFFICE, YUKON, CANADA. Man, this just had to be bad news...

"Thanks, Tommy." Ray wandered back into the street, tapping the envelope idly against his hand. He crossed to where he'd parked the Jeep, opened the door for Dief, and then slid in himself, tossing the envelope onto the passenger seat beside him. He shoved his key into the ignition, started the engine, and pulled the Jeep onto Silver Trail toward Snake River Crossing.

He was halfway back to the cabin when his curiosity overcame him, and he pulled off to the side of the road. This was more a matter of habit than anything else, considering that the odds of meeting anyone were almost nil. But the city boy in him died hard, and he hadn't yet adopted the Silver Trail habit of just stopping in the middle of the fucking road.

It was hard to get the tape off, but Ray picked at it with a fingernail until it started to unravel. Then he was able to rip it off in a single strip and tear the cardboard flap open. A note on lined blue paper was clipped to a sheaf of newspaper clippings, and Ray knew what they were about before he looked at a single headline.


METCALF ALLEGED TO BE MASS MURDERESS; she killed 4, Callister says


MOUNTIE TESTIFIES AGAINST LADY KILLER; Metcalf "beautiful" and "tragic", Mountie says


3rd DAY OF HUTCHINS TESTIMONY: "She shot Paul in the face"

LADY-KILLER VIDEO RELEASED; security cameras capture cop killer


METCALF TAKES THE FIFTH; alleged murderess "misunderstood" defense says

GUILTY! METCALF CONVICTED OF COP-KILLING: she was "stone-cold guilty" foreman said


GOV. BACKS DEATH PENALTY FOR METCALF; death penalty foes stage courthouse rally—

Jesus. Ray dropped the articles onto the seat, scrubbed at his eyes, then snatched up Vecchio's note.

Dear Stanley,

Asshole, Ray thought, and smiled.

First things first: I'm back in Chicago after losing what feels like half my life in Atlanta, Georgia, a place where their idea of a good time is a giant rotating oil painting. I moved my operation to the armpit of the South, stayed through the conviction and sentencing phase, and called in the Feds when they started fighting over the death penalty. The A.P.D. staged a rally, and ten thousand west-coast lesbians arrived bearing picket signs and wearing comfortable shoes—and while I'm an open-minded kind of guy as I think you already know, the result was nothing like they showed us in Wet Hot Chick-On-Chick-Action III . I want my money back. I tried to tell them to save their signs for someone who wasn't a psychotic bitch, but I don't think they were listening. Actually, nobody was.

I'm writing to give you a head's up, Stanley. Victoria's people are looking for Fraser; they're hoping he'll come down again and say that her miserable life is worth something. They've been asking around for your address. Thatcher told 'em to write you care of "Canada." Welsh knew you were in the Yukon but he wasn't a lot more specific. I don't want to seem devious or anything, but I figured that maybe you could steal the letter before Fraser gets it. Just a thought.

Ray looked up and stared through the windshield at the vast mountainous landscape before him. For a moment, his breath caught; fuck, but this was beautiful country, Canadians be damned. The woods around him were summer brown and green, but the mountains ahead were topped with white against the blue, blue sky. And somewhere around here—could be five miles, could be five hundred—Fraser was patrolling with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

Meanwhile, someone in Fulton County Courthouse was writing a letter. To Constable Fraser, c/o The Yukon. Why wouldn't they just leave him alone?

Ray sighed and looked down at the letter again.

The second thing is: I think I'm in love with your ex-wife.

He read the sentence four times, then smashed his fist against the Jeep's steering wheel. Motherfucker! He couldn't believe the nerve of that guy—

Now don't get all weird on me, Stanley. It's not like you don't know a thing or two about partner-swapping.

It was hard to hold the paper steady. Ray pressed it flat against the Jeep's horn with shaking fingers.

And it's not like you and Stella had any particular future together, what with you having moved to the Yukon to commit felonious sexual acts with a Mountie.

It's legal in Canada, you fuckwad.

But that's not the point. The point is that Stella is beautiful and sexy and smart, which I don't have to tell you about because you loved her first. But I love her now—and I don't know if I can make her happy, but I'm gonna take a shot at it. I hope you're not mad at me, Stanley. You're a hard act to follow, and you don't know how weird it is to come back to a life where everybody likes you because they think you're someone else. Even my family likes me now. So maybe I could have this one thing, this one small thing, ok?

--Ray Vecchio (the real one)

Ray sighed, tossed the letter onto the passenger seat, and massaged his temples. So maybe Vecchio had a point about Stella, and Stella could do a hell of a lot worse than Vecchio, after all. Ray figured he pretty much knew all there was to know about Vecchio after being him for a couple of years. He'd read Vecchio's private correspondence, seen his bank accounts, and talked to his drunk relatives at Christmas—so he knew the guy was basically honest and basically decent, that he saved his money and loved his mother. In short, Vecchio was great second-husband material—and besides, it wasn't his call anyway. He'd moved on. Stella'd moved on years ago, and it sounded like now even Vecchio was getting his act together.

Fraser smiled and raised a hand in greeting as Ray pulled the Jeep up in front of their cabin. He was sitting on their shaded front porch, whittling with one of those giant, dangerous-looking knives Fraser always had stashed around his person these days—which made spontaneous sex dangerous but exciting. Dief bounded out the Jeep's window and raced toward Fraser, barking happily. Ray gathered up the newspaper clippings and Vecchio's letter and shoved them back into the cardboard envelope before getting out.

"Hey!" Ray nonchalantly tucked the envelope under his arm, address side in. "You're home early..."

"It's damned hot out today." Fraser was licking his lip as he worked the knife gracefully into and out of the small block of wood. "And everything seemed quiet. I thought perhaps I'd come home for a while..."

Ray grinned and tilted his head to the side. "Plus you forgot that I said I was going into town today."

"I didn't forget!"

"Or you weren't listening to me this morning when I told you that Mrs. Donaldson wanted me to come over and—"

"I was listening!" Fraser protested, but he was staring down at the block of wood in his hands and smiling. "All right, I suppose I was only mostly listening..."

"—help her rig up a washing machine. This, she tells me, represents a life-long dream of hers—the washing machine, not having me over there to do it. Myself, I think she should aim higher in the dream department but what do I know. Anyway Mr. Donaldson, as you might remember, died last year in, god help me, a bizarre ice-fishing accident. Apparently he was startled by a rabid beaver, lurched backwards, and fell down into the hole. Anyway, according to Mrs. Donaldson— "

"There's not much more to this story, is there, Ray?"

"—Mr. Donaldson was not only against her having a washing machine, but against her using any commercial washing powder of any kind. He said that the caribou could smell the chemicals and that it threw off his hunting. So he made her wash his shirts with a soap he made from animal fat, and now that he's dead, she's fulfilling her dream, caribou be damned."

"You know," Fraser said, looking up, "riveting as that story is, I'm surprised I wasn't paying more attention." He blew on what he was whittling, sending a little cloud of sawdust swirling through the air. "Here," Fraser said standing up. "For you."

Ray took it, sure he was wearing the stupidest, loopiest grin in the world. It was a cellphone, perfectly detailed, carved out of solid oak. Fraser'd already made him a walnut pager, a cedar remote control, and a walkman—complete with headphones—carved out of birch. "Hey, that's great!" he said, first holding it up to his ear and then tucking it into his back pocket. "I still want my big-screen TV, though."

"I'm working on it." Fraser stepped forward, gripped him by the arm, and kissed him. It was a kiss with some serious intent behind it, so it was time to start searching Fraser for knives. "But you can't rush these things, Ray. The wood—"

"Please don't tell me that the wood has to call to you, Fraser."

"All right. I won't tell you. But it does, you know."

"What kind of wood cries out to be a 41 inch Sony?"

"Very special wood indeed," Fraser said, and kissed him again.

Ray knotted his hand in the soft cotton t-shirt at Fraser's side, and he was breathing hard when he pulled his mouth away. "You didn't come home just to say hi, right?"

"No," Fraser admitted, flushing a little.

"Because all this talk of wood is making me horny. I get hard every time you touch me, you know that?"

"No," Fraser said, managing to look shy, pleased, and turned-on at the same time. "No, I didn't—"

Ray grabbed Fraser's biceps, yanked him close, and put his tongue in his mouth. Blindly, he found Fraser's hand and pulled it to the fly of his jeans—and moaned as Fraser began to feel him up. "Come on," Ray said breathlessly, dragging Fraser a step toward their front door. "Let's—"

"Yes. Yes. Oh, wait, Ray," Fraser said, suddenly digging his heels in. "You dropped something."

Ray looked where Fraser was looking and saw the large cardboard envelope lying on the floorboards of the porch. "It's—" Ray clutched at Fraser's arm, "it's nothing, Fraser. No. Wait. Shit." Ray hesitated for a moment, then sighed, dropped Fraser's arm, and bent over to swipe the envelope off the floor. When he straightened, he saw Fraser watching him curiously. "Sit down a minute, Fraser," Ray said and gestured toward the bench. Frowning, Fraser sat down. "This," Ray said and flapped the envelope in the air, "is a letter from Vecchio."

Fraser's eyebrow shot up. "Oh?"

"Oh. Yeah, Fraser. Oh." Ray sighed and sat down on the bench beside Fraser, then yanked off his baseball cap and beat it against his thigh a couple of times. "He had a couple of things to tell me." Fraser was watching him intently, but he didn't say anything. After a moment, Ray went on. "One of which is that he's back in Chicago and in love with my ex-wife."

Fraser visibly started; he clearly hadn't been expecting that. "Oh. Oh, Ray, I'm so sorry—"

"Don't be, Fraser," Ray said quickly. "Seriously, I mean it. You have a moment—I had a moment, and you're having a moment, I can see it—where you go, 'Wow, where did her self-respect go?'—"

Fraser burst out laughing, dropped his head, rubbed the back of his neck.

"—but then you have to say to yourself, 'Hey, it's an unfortunate fact, but there's really only one of me.' Or in your case, you have to say—"

"It's an extremely fortunate fact," Fraser said, trying to control his smile and failing, "that there's only one of you, and I've called dibs."

"Right. That being the case, someone's got to look after Stella and Vecchio's as good as anyone else. Better than most people, in fact. So once the shock passes—you're kind of relieved. It's good to know your ex is in good hands." Ray stopped suddenly and turned sympathetic eyes on Fraser. "Or mine is, anyway," Ray said softly, reaching out to cover Fraser's hand with his own . "Yours...isn't."

"Mm." Fraser seemed unsurprised. "I thought there'd be news on that front. She was convicted, I take it?"


Fraser looked away. "And given the maximum sentence?"


"So they've entered the first phase of appeals?"


"Well. That's..." Fraser stared off across the dirt road in front of their house and towards a group of distant trees. He seemed to be searching for the right word, except Ray'd never known Fraser not to have the exact right word at his fingertip except when a woman was involved. Oh, yeah, right. "That's just..."

"They're gonna want you to go down there again, Fraser," Ray said softly, and Fraser turned to look at him with wide, shocked eyes. "That's what Vecchio thinks. He thinks the only reason you haven't heard from them already is that they don't know where you are."

"But—why?" Fraser seemed genuinely confused. "I told them everything. What more can they possibly want to know?"

Ray realized that he hadn't explained things right. "Not the prosecution, Fraser—I mean the defense. There's gonna be a whole death penalty brouhaha, and Vecchio thinks that Victoria's people are going to ask you to say something on her behalf. Stella always hated it when the defense put family or friends on the stand; she said it reminded the jury that the perp was a person, part of a community—"

"Victoria Metcalf wasn't part of anyone's community. Certainly not mine."

"No, I know, but—look, strategically speaking, Vecchio's right," Ray said. "The defense is gonna want to trot out anyone who might possibly say a nice word about her, and you're gonna be first on their list. As terribly as she treated you, she treated you better than anyone else." In the back of his head, Ray could hear Vecchio saying: There's nobody else that bitch has left alive, do you understand?" In her own weird way, I think she loved you, Fraser. I mean, she didn't shoot you in the head or anything."

"True." Fraser stared down at the floor for a moment, and then he sighed. "I don't have many clear memories of my mother," he said. "Mostly what I have are sense-memories—strong associations with certain smells, for instance; certain colors, times of day. I remember how I felt when she held me, but I don't actually remember her holding me, if you see what I mean." Ray dropped a hand onto Fraser's forearm and squeezed, nodding. "But I do have a couple of very distinct memories," Fraser said, smiling suddenly; Ray smiled reflexively in return, and Fraser continued: "one of which involves her running out of the house with a sharp stick and grabbing me practically out of the mouth of a starving wolverine, which she stabbed in the side with one blow—"

"Wait, wait, whoa!" Ray yelled, feeling ambushed. "What the hell kind of happy memory is that?"

Fraser looked taken aback. "What do you mean? That's a wonderful memory."

"No. No it is not, Fraser—"

"Well, how would you feel if your mother had saved you from a wolverine, hm?" Fraser said, crossing his arms.

This was not a question Ray was prepared to answer. "I haven't the faintest fucking idea, Fraser, but—"

"Well, I do," Fraser said with some satisfaction. "And it's a pretty good feeling, believe you me."

Ray made a gesture of helplessness. "Okay, fine, I believe you."

"As well you should," Fraser concluded. "Now what was I saying?"

"Beats me. I got distracted by the story of your mother and the wolverine—"

Fraser brightened. "My mother, that's right. One of my other clear memories of my mother is—"

"—watching her wrestle a bear to the ground?" Ray asked, rolling his eyes.

"Don't be silly. My mother would never have had that kind of leverage. But I can clearly remember her telling me, 'Benton, if you can't say anything nice, say nothing.'" Fraser sighed, then raised his hands and pushed his fingers nervously through his hair. "And I really don't think I could manage to say anything nice about Victoria Metcalf, Ray. And I can't pretend to care much one way or the other—though to the extent to which I have sympathies, they're with Detective Hutchins. I think it must be a very terrible thing to lose a partner."

They sat in silence for a moment, staring across the landscape toward the mountains.

"Okay, so you're not going," Ray said.

"Right," Fraser said.

"You're gonna listen to your mother."

"Oh, I've always listened to my mother, Ray."

"Your mother the wolverine killer. You know, I don't believe there is such a thing as a wolverine. It sounds made-up."

"I assure you there is, Ray. We can hunt one if you like."


" prove they exist."

Ray squinted at him. "Okay, so say they exist, do I want a dead wolverine?"

"Put that way, probably not," Fraser admitted.

"Good. Glad we're on the same page with that," Ray said, and stood up. "Now where were we, before Vecchio and Victoria and the wolverine and your mother—sexy subjects, all of them, don't get me wrong..."

Fraser, grinning stupidly, stood up too. "I think..." he said, and pulled Ray's hand to the fly of his jeans. Ray cupped him and found that he was hardening steadily. "...I think we were here, Ray."

Ray managed to keep his composure. "I don't know, Fraser. I'm no so sure about that. I think we were here," he said, pulling Fraser's hand to his own cock.

"Ah. Yes. Right you are,"—and man, kisses like that really made his wooden cellphone ring.

The End

It is good to be merry and wise,
it is good to be honest and true.
It is good to be off with the old love
before we be on with the new.

—Traditional Rhyme

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