Pairing: F/K
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: Not mine, no money is being made from my use of these characters who belong to Alliance/Atlantis.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Denise Raymond, AuKestrel and Kellie Matthews for commentary and beta and for providing extensive hand-holding and for enduring, I'm sorry to say, a certain amount of whining.

Summary: This is a sequel to Pack. This story involves Florida, Ray V., Stella, camping, bowling and a brief respite in a pool house. Sometimes to go forward, you must first step backwards. In Native American lore, wolves are often referred to as pathfinders.


        The sun in my eyes wakes me. I squint against the light and roll over on my back away from it. Fraser's still asleep. I keep rolling and end up on my other side and just look at him. Hair tousled and damp already at the edges with sweat, he's flat on his back, one hand resting on his stomach. His fair skin, so different from my own, is starting to flush as I look at him. The heat? Or maybe, and I grin to myself, a really good dream. I look down between his legs to gauge...yep, I'm going with the dream theory. His cock is about half hard already. I can just see the tip peeking out from the foreskin. I decide to wake him by climbing on top of him.
        He wakes with a full startle, but I hang on and ride it out. Then I push myself up on my hands. “Hiya, Frase. What's up?” I grin at him.
        “Good morning, Ray.” He looks down my body. “It would appear that you are up.”
        I laugh. “Yeah, now, but it wasn't me who got up first. You getting up got me up, too.”
        The flush starts somewhere near his navel and heads upward quickly. “Really, Ray. I can hardly be held responsible for my body's involuntary reaction to you.”
        My ears get hot.
        “Why, Ray. Are you blushing?” He grins at me with that dimple showing. To shut him up, I lean down and kiss him good morning. Our mouths open and meld together immediately. Damn, he's good at this. His tongue slicks against mine, rubs against the roof of my mouth and reads each and every tooth. His fingers trace my collarbones and slide lower to my nipples. My elbows start to quiver.
        I shift my hips and slide my cock against his. He groans into my mouth and thrusts back against me. His cock is hot and hard and leaking already and suddenly I want to know what it tastes like. I tear my mouth from his, drop down and kiss my way down his chest. At his right nipple, I pause, then use the flat of my tongue to swipe a broad stripe over it from the bottom up. He arches under me and his hands clench the bedroll.
        “Like that?” I whisper.
        “It's true that there are numerous nerve endings in the human nipple, stimulation of which often provokes a ....positive reaction.”
        “Positive reaction, huh? That what you call it? Wanna know what I call it?” I lick the same broad stripe again and then blow on the wet spot before latching on and sucking. He closes his eyes, hyperventilates, arches his back , scrabbles at the bedrolls again looking for purchase to hang on. I stop. Then I whisper. “I call it hot.”
        “H-h-h-hot?” His eyes have rolled back down and his back has relaxed but he still looks as flummoxed as I've ever seen him.
        “Yeah, Frase. Hot. Ball-tinglin'-head-spinning-cock-filling-almost-coming Hot.”
        “Well, actually, Ray, that would seem to be an adequate description as well.”
        “Sign it, seal it, put it in a box marked done.” I rest my head on his chest and just listen to his heart.
        “Yeah, Frase?”
        “Are you all right?”
        “'Course Frase. I'm just....” I feel kind of corny but I say it anyway. “Happy. I'm happy I'm here with you. That we're, uh...pack.” I close my eyes and turn my face into that soft spot in the middle of his chest and nuzzle him. His hands come up and thread through my hair, stroking lightly. We stay that way for a minute and then he tugs on me.
        “What?” I turn my head and look up at him.
        “I'm happy, too.” He's suspiciously shiny-eyed. But I decide not to mention it.
        I raise my head and wipe my nose on my arm, and grin at him. “Good. Gonna make you happier.” I wink and slide down further to kiss his navel. I trail my tongue down and slide again to get lower. Just as I'm licking the valley between his groin and his thigh, I become aware of a strange tickling feeling on my calves. Startled, I jerk my head around to check it out.
        The tent. The tent flap is tickling my calves just below the knees. Relief spreads over me, and I turn back to what I'm doing. Just as my tongue gets busy, it occurs to me that if the tent flap is tickling my knees, then my feet (bare, like the rest of me) are outside the tent. Where anyone (like a park ranger) driving by can see them. Which might not be so bad except for the moaning.
        And any park ranger worth his salt who sees bare, obviously male, legs sticking out of a tent and hears obviously male groaning would certainly have probable cause to enter the premises....True, we're pretty much alone out here just now, but still. I whip my feet into the tent and get up into a crouch all in one motion. Fraser looks up from his wanton sprawl in a daze. “Ray, what is it?”
        “Shhhh… just gotta, gotta change position here. I was feeling... a draft.”
        He looks surprised at that and then I see his eyes shift to the flap. Comprehension dawns. “Ah.”
        Climbing and crawling I maneuver myself until I'm lying diagonally so my head is where it wants to be and my feet are somewhere over in the corner next to Frase's head. I put my head down and take his cock in my mouth. His breathing stops, then starts again in a big rush. I lick over the slippery head with a light touch, then grip him at the base with one hand and play with his balls with the other. Slowly, I relax my jaw, open wide and take him in. His reaction is certainly positive. Just as I get a good sucking rhythm going, I feel him shifting under me. He wrenches my hips up onto his chest and I'm suddenly engulfed by his warm, wet mouth.
        I forget what I'm doing. I forget where we are. I don't think I even remember my own name. Oh, yeah. That's right. That's good. That is so good. His cock pops out of my mouth as my head falls down onto his thigh. I'm panting and so close to the edge my eyes are closed, when he stops and says something.
        “Wha-, wha-, what?” My mouth almost remembers how to form words as my cock searches vainly for that hot wetness again.
        “I said, it's all right if you achieve climax first. Please feel free.” My brain struggles to understand. His mouth goes back to what it was doing.
        With a Herculean effort, I put it together. That was a challenge, issued Benton-Fraser-style.
        “Hey.” Mouth is forming words. Go, Ray, go. “That wouldn't be, you know, polite. You first.”
        He sucks just enough for me to see stars at the edge of my vision, then lets go and says. “No, Ray, really. I think it's been well established that in this partnership, I'm the one with self-control and you're the one who goes on impulse. Please, follow your impulses.”
        “Oh, yeah, well I'll show you an impulse, B-buddy.” I take him in with one gulp and pump at the base. At the same time, he sucks me back in and starts rhythm my body immediately understands. Instinctively, I start a distinct pattern of sucking. Suck-suck-suck-release. Suck-suck-suck-release. I repeat it again. After the third time, he catches on and gets into synch with me. Oh, yeah. The feeling of being sucked off with his cock in my mouth is like sucking myself off. Hot doesn't begin to describe it. Already, I can feel the end approaching. I know he's close, too, but maybe not as close as I am. Inspired, I rub my finger over the slick and wet parts of his cock that I can reach and slide it in between his cheeks. Immediately, he bucks underneath me and explodes in my mouth. I try to swallow, which is hard since I'm simultaneously trying not to pound too hard into Fraser's mouth and then I can't seem to do either because the world explodes around me in a vast rush.
        When I can notice things again, I notice that I've pretty much collapsed on top of Fraser and that my face is buried in his thigh. I nuzzle and kiss the soft inner skin there and roll off of him. Using all the energy left in my normally hyper body, I sit up, then flop right back down next to him.
        He opens his eyes and rolls on his side to look at me.
        I look back.
        His hand lifts and I feel his thumb rubbing at a wet spot on my cheek. He brings his thumb to his mouth and licks it.
        “I always did say you'd put anything in your mouth.” I grin at him.
        “I could now say the same of you.” He grins back.
        “Not anything, just you.”
        He puts his hand behind my neck and presses our foreheads together. His eyes close. Feeling his breath on my face and his hand warm on my neck, I'm pulled back down into sleep.
        Later (much later) we head to town for breakfast, uh, brunch. Just inside the city limits we find an International House of Pancakes. After we sit down and order, we discuss the plan for the day.
        “So, Frase. What's up?” I stir the coffee the waitress provided immediately upon our arrival and wait.
        “Well, Ray, as we stated last night, the whole point of this journey is to see Ray Vecchio. To that end, I propose that we call him after we eat and set up a convenient time to visit.” He reaches into his shorts pocket and hands me a bag of Smarties. I look at him. His head is down a little and he's looking back at me through his lashes with wide, hopeful eyes. Jeez, if he had a tail, it would be wagging.
        “Thanks, Frase.”
        “You're welcome, Ray.”
        I dump six of the candies into my coffee and stir it some more.
        We sit a minute in silence. The waitress comes back with Fraser's tea. Then I say, “Do you want to try to go to the beach? Last chance for a while.”
        He picks up his tea. “Maybe. Let's see what we can set up with Ray first.”
        “Yeah, yeah, right. We'll do that first.”
        I'm not looking at him, but I can feel Fraser eyeing me over the top of his tea mug.
        I ignore that and listen for the piped in music every restaurant plays during serving hours. It's hard to hear over the clash of knives and forks but I catch the rhythm of whatever song is playing first in my fingers and then in my knee. I've just gotten a good beat going, when out of nowhere I feel a hand on my knee, stopping the movement.
        “Fraser! What? I got the beat going here.”
        “I know, Ray. So do the people in the booth behind you and so do the people in the booth behind me.”
         Oops. Guess the banging silverware and footwork got a little loud. I look down at the table and say, “Oh, too much, huh? Stella used to...”
        Fraser interrupts me (Fraser interrupts me?) to say, “Not too much for me. Never too much for me.” I jerk my eyes up in surprise to see his eyes burning into mine. His hand tightens on my knee. I feel something quiet inside me and I can look back at him steadily.
        “Okay, Fraser.”
        He squeezes my knee once more and releases it. “Good. Ah, it appears our breakfasts are imminent.”
        Sure enough, the waitress arrives just then and plops our plates down in front of us. I eye mine with relish. I notice Fraser eyeing it with disbelief.
        “What? What's that look for?”
        “I.... I... I'm at a loss.”
        “What? What's that mean?”
        “That is what you are having for breakfast?” He sweeps his hand over my plate, taking in the chocolate syrup, chocolate chips and whipped cream in a wide gesture.
        “Yeah, Fraser. Chocolate chip pancakes. This is what I'm having for breakfast.”
        “Ray, I seriously doubt that any of the ingredients used to create that are even listed on the USDA Food Pyramid.”
        “Oh, yeah?” I point at the whipped cream. “Dairy.” I point to the pancake. “Bread.”
        “Ray, classifying either of those things as nutritious is stretching quite a few points. That is not a healthy breakfast.”
        “Well, neither is yours.”
        “Eggs, toast and bacon are all natural foods that are certainly more healthy than....”
        “Heart Attack on a Plate, Fraser. Think about what those things are doing to your cholesterol. And you're pushing forty, you know.”
        His mouth opens but no words come out. I can practically see the steam coming out of his ears. I go on. “Besides, I know what you're really saying.” I lean forward and say softly, “You want some of what I got.” Then I lean back and take a bite of pancake with whipped cream. Some of the cream gets on the outside of my lip and I lick it off. He flushes red but his eyes follow every move my mouth makes.
        “No, I don't,” he tries.
        “Yes, you do.” I sing-song back. I take another bite of whipped cream and lick my lips again, slower this time. His eyes stay glued to my face.
        “I do not.” His mouth is twitching.
        “Tsk. Tsk. And I thought good Mounties never lied. Or maybe,” I lean forward again, “you're not so good?” I use my tongue to search for any last traces of whipped cream and keep my eyes on his. His face gets redder, he shifts in his seat and his own tongue comes out to mirror mine.
        “It's possible....” His voice sounds strained. “Perhaps we could work out a trade?”
        “Oh, yeah? You got something you think I want?” I lean back to get another bite and he leans in accordingly. It's almost like dancing.
        “My...bacon.” He looks me right in the eye as he says it. I stop with my fork halfway to my mouth. No way he just said....”What's that?” I ask, my voice shaking.
        “My bacon, Ray. My Canadian bacon. Do you want it?”
        I totally lose it. Lay my head down on the table and laugh like I haven't laughed in years. I think I might even be giggling. Damn Mountie. Turn my own game around on me. He's laughing, too, like I've never heard him do before. I feel like we're nine years old and laughing over fart jokes.
        “You, you, you....” I gasp finally.
        “Well, Ray,” he chokes out. “Is it a trade?”
        “Take it. Take the whole damn plate. It's worth it, just to hear you make a joke with innuendo.” I push my plate at him in defeat. But I make sure to snag his bacon before bringing my hand back.
        He makes the call right after breakfast from the pay phone in the IHOP parking lot. I watch him, leaning on the GTO. He's wearing the Summer Uniform. Six months ago, I might have just shaken my head. Today, knowing more about how his mind works and knowing that he does have a sense of humor, I just grin. The high-tops look good.
        He hangs up the phone and comes back to the car. He stops in front of me and stands almost at attention.
        “He said we should come by the bowling alley at two o'clock. He'll have time to talk then.”
        I nod then ask, “What time is it now?”
        “Forty-five minutes after eleven. That gives us a little over an hour to walk on the beach, if you'd like.”
        “Yeah. That sounds good.” I push myself up from the car and walk around to the driver's side. I open the door and have one leg in when I notice he is still standing motionless by the passenger door. “What?”
        “You know, you can tell me anything. And if you are feeling somewhat nervous, it may help to know that I, too, am experiencing some...ambivalent emotions at what is about to take place.” He looks right at me. Well, at my sunglasses, anyway. I wonder if he can see little Fraser images reflected in the lenses. I look away. It's not too surprising he's picked up on my skittishness, but his voice is oddly tentative, like he's not sure how I'll take being called on it. And it's true with anyone else I'd be copping an attitude about now. But this is Fraser. And I guess he's a little skittish himself.
        I look down at the car and then back up at the day. Fraser, nervous and admitting it. “That almost scares me more, Fraser. You scared and admitting it.”
        He looks away from me, then back. I take off my sunglasses. “I'm often scared, Ray.” I cock my head at him. He rubs his eyebrow and gets in the car. I slide in, too and look at him. “I just...never told you before,” he finishes all in a rush. He runs his fingers along the groove between the dashboard and the glove box. I turn frontwards again and stare straight ahead.
        “Had to preserve that Mountie Mask, I guess?” I ask the steering wheel.
        His fingers still on the dashboard and then he drops his hand to his lap. “Perhaps, I did, at that,” he says like he's been thinking about it. “But...” and he turns toward me now, “I'm abundantly glad that I don't have to do that anymore.”
        And there in his eyes is the real guy underneath that Mountie façade, the real guy who gets nervous, and wants to be loved by his friends and family like we all do. And there, too, is the fear that Vecchio will reject him and me and our pack and not listen to the apologies that Fraser so desperately needs to make.
        I put my hand on his thigh and squeeze it. His hand covers mine. “Whatever happens today,” my voice is husky, “whatever that may be, it's not going to change what we are. I'll watch your back, Fraser and you watch mine, and there's nothing that can touch us.”
        “Right you are, Ray.” And I lean over and risk it: a hot, hard kiss. Trying with my mouth to show him that I'm here, that I'm not going anywhere and that I'll take care of him.
        “We'll take care of each other,” he gasps, like he's been reading my mind.
        “Because that's what we do,” I agree.
        “One of our little things,” he says back.
        I grin and start the car.
        Back at the campground, I do a cop-look around and don't notice anything out of place. I strip off the short sleeve shirt I wore over my tank top to the restaurant and toss it in the tent. The sun feels good on my shoulders and the breeze feels good everywhere else. I turn in time to catch Fraser pulling off his red shirt, leaving him bare chested.
        “Uh, Frase, that's a great look on you, trust me, but if you're going to go topless you need to let me rub you down with some sunscreen.” My mouth is watering. Fraser's chest. Sunscreen. Rubbing sunscreen on Fraser's bare chest....that walk may never happen.
        “I'm planning on wearing a tank top, Ray.” He doesn't look up from folding his shirt and the tips of his ears turn red.
        “Better let me get some lotion on your shoulders still. Hang on a sec.” I try to stay matter-of-fact because I know he's embarrassed, but my voice is husky. I duck into the tent and dig in my duffel bag for the SPF 30, calling back out to him, “You wanna do this in here?” I clear my throat.
        “I think it would be best to do it...out here.” His voice catches.
        “And why is that?” I stick my head out of the tent flap to look at him.
        “I'm not sure I'll actually take that walk if I come in there, Ray.”
        “That's what I'm shooting for, Fraser. That you'll come in here. Should I tell you what that look you got just now does for me?” His eyes darken with desire. “Or should I just take care of it myself?” I wink and duck back into the tent and flop onto the bedroll. I reach down and adjust myself just as he comes in. I like the look in his eye. He hunkers down next to me, but doesn't say anything. “What? You want to watch?”
        One word and I'm hard enough to pound nails. “Y-you do?”
        “You want me to...”
        “Yes.” If he says it one more time, I'm going to come just from the sound of his voice.
        “Right now?” As opposed to what, Ray? Ten minutes from now? Tonight?
        “Now.” He moves over me on all fours and stares down at me before lowering his head and licking my mouth. I open up and he clamps down on my upper lip, slipping his tongue inside to rest against the roof of my mouth and holds me.
        “Going for the alpha thing in a big way here, huh, Fraser?” I gasp when I can speak again, trying to tease, but my hands are already moving, sliding my shorts and boxers down and off my legs.
        His eyes go immediately to my cock which is aching. He moves off me to hunker again at my side. I'm pleased to see his chest is heaving.
        “Like what you see?” I'm turned on and nervous and my voice comes out breathless, like I'm running a marathon.
        “Yes. Very much.”
        “What now, alpha boy?”
        He tears his eyes away from the equipment to smolder at me. “Touch yourself.”
        Keeping my eyes on his face, I slide my hand down over my tank top and take hold. I almost have to close my eyes at the feel of my own hand, no matter how familiar, my arousal is that high.
        He moans slightly and a red flush creeps up his chest. “Don't move.” His voice is hoarse. He stares like he's memorizing me, getting more and more flushed.
        “I've thought about you, you know, doing this,” I say through gritted teeth, trying to distract myself from the need to pump and pump hard.
        “Move now.” I obey gratefully. “You've thought about me masturbating?”
        “No. Well, that, too, but I meant, I've thought about you while I was doing it.”
        He's up on his knees now and his hand is in his shorts. “Tell me,” he growls.
        “I'd tell myself not to, but I always got you in there somehow and when I did, it was so much hotter.” My hand is moving steady now and he's picked up my rhythm.
        “Tell me.” He's leaning back on one hand now and his hips are thrusting counter point to his strokes. He's shoved his shorts down to get better access and I can see everything now, his red, thick cock and that pale hand wrapped around it. God, he's beautiful. All the times I jerked off with him in my head, I never dreamed it would be this hot.
        “Trade you,” I gasp.
        “What?” he moans. His hand is moving harder now and he's having a hard time keeping his eyes open.
        “Back and forth, I tell you, you tell me.”
        “Uhn, understood.” He has thought of me. I groan and almost lose it.
        “First, I was doing some chick and you were watching.”
        “Mmmmm, kissing you, open mouth.”
        “Teaching you to dance.” I pause to breathe.
        “Tasting you.” He pauses. “Everywhere.”
        I groan and pump harder imagining his tongue everywhere, manage to grit out the next one. “Sucking you off on a stakeout. My head in your lap. You in your serge.”
        “Sucking you off on a stakeout, my head in your lap.” He sounds almost done, his eyes shut tight now, his head thrown back.
        “You sucking me, while I suck you. Guess we got that one.” I can feel the rush starting in my feet. But then he does me in.
        “You...inside me.”
        My whole body tightens up and explodes and all I see is white light against my eyelids. I'm vaguely aware that Fraser is making some unearthly noises next to me and then I feel him drop down next to me. I really want to hold him, but my arms and every other part of me are too limp to move. I may never move again. But I need the connection so I scrabble at his arm, sliding my hand down his arm to find his. I lace our fingers together and squeeze with as much strength as I can find in my limp noodle muscles. After a moment, he squeezes back.
        I doze for a while holding Fraser's hand. I don't know how long it's been when I finally open my eyes. I close them again immediately against the sun. I roll over on my side and I can feel him looking at me. “You're still watching,” I say with my eyes still closed.
        I'm so far gone on him that my cock twitches at that yes. I feel his breath on my face. I lick my suddenly dry lips and feel him move closer. Suddenly, I've got two tongues and my lips are being licked in a whole new way. I open up and kiss him back.
        We make out slow and lazy. His hand goes down my back, sliding over my crumpled up tank top and coming to rest on my naked ass, where he grabs a handful and holds on. He deepens the kiss and attempts to familiarize himself with my tonsils. His hand pulls me closer and closer, until...
        “No,” I tear my mouth from his and gasp out the word, planting my hand on his chest.
        “No?” he asks and gives me a wide-eyed hurt look that makes me feel like I've kicked a puppy. Well, a wolf cub.
        “No. God, you've made me come twice already today and it's not even one o'clock. I need a break!”
         “Then perhaps now would be an excellent time for that discussion.”
        “What discussion?” I'm exasperated now but he won't stop staring at me.
        “I want you to tell me.” Steady look. I meet his gaze but can't hold it. I look away. I look back and he hasn't moved, hasn't shifted, same look of determined patience on his face. I roll onto my back and rest my hand on my belly. My naked belly. Right.
        “If we're going to do this, at least let me get my shorts on,” I grumble, feeling more like prey than pack. He just waits silently, suspecting, perhaps, that this is a stall.
        “Fine! Fine! Just hang on a sec!” I scrabble around and come up with my boxers and shorts, get my feet in them and kneel up to shimmy into both at the same time.
        I look at Fraser just in time to catch him drop his eyes to my cock.
        “Huh,” I half-chuckle and feel a whole lot better suddenly. Back to pack. His eyes shoot back up to mine that implacable gaze returns, but I can see the tips of his ears are red now. “See something you like, Benton?” I grin and wink at him.
        His face gets pink but he answers readily enough. “Yes. Very much. But I still want you to tell me.”
        Right. Prey again. “What is it you want to know?”
        “Why are you so nervous about the meeting today?”
        I sigh. “It's not that exactly–” Now his face changes. One eyebrow slides up. “What?”
        “Ray, you are undoubtedly nervous–your heart rate and respiration increased every time I mentioned this afternoon, your palms are sweaty–” He takes my hand in his warm, dry one.
        What? He thinks I'm lying? “Didn't say I wasn't nervous, Fraser. I started to say I wasn't nervous about Vecchio.”
        Another change in that face now. Confusion then understanding. “Then, it must be–”
        I don't want him to say her name yet, so I interrupt, “You thought I was nervous about Vecchio?”
        Eyebrow rub. “Ah, yes, actually, it was, I believed, the most likely of the two possibilities.”
        “Because, he and I were partners and now you and I are...together...And I was afraid you might feel some sense of...that is–perhaps, you feel a little, shall we say, competitive with Ray.”
        I roll over on top of him and kiss him. He still has a dazed look when I pull back, but that didn't keep him from responding. Damn. My lips are burning for more. “I” *kiss* “Am not. *kiss* “jealous.” *kiss* “of Vecchio.” Long kiss.
        “You're not?” he says when he can speak again. “Why not?” And believe it or not, there is a plaintive note in his voice.
        “What?” I say, grinning. “You think I should be jealous?”
        “No, no, no, of course not, Ray. I just thought you might be.”
        “Did you or did you not tell me I was pack?”
        He relaxes under me and his hands come up to rest on my ass. “Yes, Ray.”
        “Is Vecchio pack?”
        “No, Ray.”
        “ 'nuff said.”
        “Yes, Ray.”
        Long, slow, lazy making out again then and his hands aren't resting so much as grabbing, pulling, and kneading my ass by the time he pulls his mouth away. “So, Ray.” I love how he is gasping. “Why are you nervous then?”
        “Ah, well, that's a whole other story.”
         “I gathered,” he says dryly. “Perhaps, you could tell it to me.”
        I rest my head on his chest for a moment. “Stella.”
        “Ah. Well, that was option b.”
        “See, we're down here cause you have to tell Vecchio that you're okay and you've got a pack and he can stop worrying about you. But at the same time I have to tell my ex-wife that I'm in love with my partner, who is a guy and that I'm moving to Canada to live with him.” I roll off him and lie next to him on my back again.
        He rolls onto his side and rests his head on his hand. “Are you worried how she will react?”
        “In a word, Fraser? Yes. We got some history here.”
        He just looks at me then, doing that steady waiting thing and wham! I'm back to prey. But then he lifts his free hand and lets it rest on my stomach under my shirt and I know I'm pack, too. “What are you afraid of?”
        “That she'll say 'I told you so.'”
        Silence. Then...
        “She suspected, I guess. In fact, she clued me into it.” I try a grin, laughing at the irony, I guess.
        Fraser doesn't smile back. He never does when the irony is turned in my direction.
        “May I ask what happened?”
        “Fraser. You can ask me anything.” That gets me an eyebrow rub, but, damn it, I hate it when he backs off into formality like that.
        “What happened, Ray?” His hand stays warm on my stomach.
        “We were taking this young hotshot lawyer out for dinner, kind of recruiting him for the State's Attorney office, you know? The Attorney General's office was after him, too, so the SA wanted his office to look good.
        “He'd been at the office all day following Stella around, talking with the SA, meeting all the Assistant SAs and the dinner was, you know, to make the deal look even better over a good cut of beef.” I try another grin, but he's just listening now in that intense way of his which lets me know he's memorizing every word.
        “So, we go out. I'm wearing a tie, Stella's in one of her power suits and we go get the guy, Jackson Wyatt, from his hotel.
        “At dinner, at first it's all Stella wheeling and dealing and I'm just enjoying the meal. But then Jackson starts dragging me into the conversation, little things. 'Do you like Chicago, Mr. Kowalski?'
        'Call me Ray,' I say.
        'Ray, do you follow the Cubs?'
        “You know, little by little he's making me talk more. Then it gets interesting. He knows about boxing, he likes Classic Cars. And I'm thinking, hey, he's not just a stuffed shirt like the others. Pretty soon we're talking a mile a minute and Stella's plate is empty.”
        That hand on my stomach is rubbing now and those eyes haven't left my face.
        “And he was funny. He had a kind of quirky way of looking at things and he made just dead-on observations about the suits at the office that were really hysterical. Although from the way he kept cutting his eyes at Stella, I figured he was restraining himself.”
        “So you liked him.”
        “Yeah.” I look him in the eye.
        “But you didn't know he was gay?”
        Leave it to Fraser to put all the pieces together faster than I can get them out of the box.
        “Right again. But Stella did.” He winces. “Exactly. So we get home and she calls me on it.”
        “On your attraction to Jackson Wyatt?”
        “Oh yeah. Said I was giggling and had that 'gonna get some' look on my face, said I was..” I stop and put my arm up over my face. I feel him waiting. “....glowing,” I say into my arm.
        “I know that look.”
        I peek out from under my arm. He's...smoldering at me. “Cut it out. I don't glow.”
        “On the contrary, Ray. Your smile, it lights up your whole have no takes my breath.” His voice has dropped to a whisper and there's a catch in it.
        He's serious. God. My face gets hot and I'm having my own trouble breathing. I get up on one elbow into his space, his hand slides to my ribs and I stare at him before running my thumb under his eye. “Freak,” I whisper.
        “My freak.”
        “We pack?”
        “Without a doubt.”
        I kiss him then, long and deep and slow. His mouth opens up immediately and things get sloppy and wet like I like. I've got him on his back before he can think enough to tear his mouth from mine and gasp, “Ray. God. What you do to me.”
        I rest my forehead on his cheek feeling his hot, labored breathing against my jaw and ear. My own breathing is no better.
        He shoves me until I lift up again, then he slides one arm out from under me and pushes me down and to the side until my head is on his shoulder. “Now finish your story.” He gives a great big, gusty sigh and threads his fingers in my hair.
        Like that's going to help me concentrate.
        “Okay. Well, okay, so, Stella gave me shit about Jackson and dinner–kind of teasing, kind of not, you know?” I shrug against him. His fingers tighten in my hair. “So I start thinking about it. At first, I'm like 'she's crazy, no way' but then I try The Test.”
        “The test?”
        “Yeah, Fraser. The Test. You know, where you imagine some girl naked and doing things to see if you might be interested.”
        “Wouldn't that be readily apparent?”
        “Sometimes. Sometimes it is. But other times it's not so obvious.”
        “For the sake of expediency, I will refrain from exploring this Test more thoroughly at this time.” But the tone told me we'd be discussing it later. It was a long ride back to Chicago....
        “Right. Okay, Fraser. So, now I try The Test on Stella first.”
        “As a control, no doubt.”
        “Uh, right, whatever. Anyway, there I am, on the sofa now, Stella's stormed back to the bedroom, so I close my eyes and imagine her naked, her breasts, his hips, her fine ass–”
        I shake myself. “Right, anyway everything seems to be in working order, I'm ready to bat, so to speak.”
        “So to speak.” Did his eyes roll? I believe they did.
        “So, I thought about kissing a guy, any guy.....and got...nothing. Good, I thought. But, I was still a little pissed and had no desire to go back to the bedroom and face the 'all-knowing-Stella.' So I stayed where I was.
        “And suddenly, I'm thinking about kissing Jackson. Thinking that his beard stubble would be rough, and his lips soft. Then, I'm like considering: How do guys do it? Well, I knew how, I hadn't worked Vice all those years for nothing. But....I started wondering how would it feel.” I stop and smile into Fraser's chest.
        Fraser cranes his head a little and tries to meet my eyes. “What did you think?”
        “I thought it would more like wrestling, you know, you could hold tight and push hard. Then I tried to imagine Jackson doing the things I'd heard about and suddenly I'm looking at a picture in my mind of Jackson doing me....”
        “Your turn at bat again?” His voice is soft.
        “Yeah. Turned out Stella was right all along.” Finally, I look at him and try a grin that doesn't quite work.
        “Yeah, 'Ah'.” I scoot closer and rest my chin on his chest. “It was weird, but....not surprising, you know?”
        Fraser looks at me seriously, then drops his head back to stare at the tent ceiling. “I do know.”
        “Yeah.” We sit in companionable silence for a moment. Then, I go on. “Anyway, so there I was married to Stella, totally in love with her, but popping a boner for somebody I hardly knew, and a guy I hardly knew at that. I was freaking.” Fraser's hand starts tracing a path up and down my arm giving me goosebumps. “But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that this wasn't such a big shock. Some part of me just...accepted it. And, I could even look back and see where a guy here and there could have or might have caused the same reaction, I'd just been too focused on Stella to notice.”
        “To let yourself notice.”
        “Yeah, probably...”
        “Hmmm... so what happened with Jackson?”
        “Huh?” With an effort, I jerk my thoughts back to the here and now. “Oh!” I push myself up to sit cross-legged, getting a little jolt from remembering. “That's when it got weird, Fraser.”
        “In what way, Ray?' Fraser, using just his abs, sits up, too and mirrors my position so our knees are touching.
        “Well, okay, so after dinner I do the whole couch and Test thing, light bulb goes on, spend a few minutes dealing with that and then I finally drag myself off to sleep with my wife whom I love and on whom I will not play around despite who I may or may not be attracted to, right?”
        “Right you are, Ray.”
        “Right. But the next day at work, I'm at my desk and suddenly, 'Poof!' There's Jackson.”
        “I was into the work, Fraser,” I glare at him.
        “I'm certain you were, Ray, “ He blinks innocently.
        I have my suspicions but go on with the story. “Anyway–”
        “Did he actually say the word 'poof?'”
        Caught by surprise, I stop and answer. “No, Fraser, he didn't.”
        “As I was–”
        “I just thought it would, of course, be interesting if he actually had done so, since 'poof' was a slang term used to describe homosexual males during World War I, and I believe it is still used in Britain today.”
        “Oh, really? How interesting, Fraser. Can I go on here?” Unwillingly and despite my best efforts, I know I'm about to laugh. Who else would know that?
        “Of course, please continue.”
        “Anyway, as I was attempting to say before I was so rudely interrupted, not once but twice, Jackson came to see me.”
        “The next day?” he clarifies.
        “Yeah, Fraser.”
        “Did you two have an appointment?”
        “No, we didn't.”
        “Had you invited him to drop by?”
        “I see.”
        “He said he was in the area and happened to remember where I worked, so he stopped by to see if I wanted to go to lunch.”
        “Was it lunchtime?”
        “It was nine forty-five, Fraser.”
        “Was the State's Attorney's office in the area?”
        “All the way across town.”
        “Ah. So he was pursuing you.”
        “And you didn't even have to lick anything.” A comment which gets me Fraser's tongue in my ear and along my jawbone. I shove at him. “Goof. Lay off. More to go here.” I swipe my hand across my face. “Well, you got it, but I didn't, not really. But I say, thanks, but no thanks, got the job, can't just take off for lunch so early. Unfortunately, he takes that as encouragement.”
        “Oh, he did?” Fraser's voice is cold. “So, he..”
        “Said he'd come by again in a little while, and then he asked where the restroom was.”
        “I see.” His voice is now several degrees chillier.
        “Right. So there I am on Wheel of Fortune, the puzzle's all laid out in front of me but I haven't bought a vowel, so I got no clue.”
        “Did he return?”
        “Yeah. Came back at 11:30, said surely it was lunchtime now and as luck would have it, I was actually free.”
        “So you went to lunch...?” He sounds a little incredulous.
        “Yeah, Fraser. I started to.”
        “What were you thinking?”
        “Not sure I was. I see if the reaction I'd had the night before would be the same, to see if I had read the whole thing wrong. I had no intention of cheating, I was just...trying to figure things out.” Fraser nods at me sort of blankly. “I'm not real proud of that decision.”
        “'s true also that he was pursuing you quite aggressively, Ray.”
        “Yeah, that kind of became clear in the men's room, Fraser.”
        Pause. “You went into the men's room with him?”
        “What? I go into the men's room with you all the time!”
        He doesn't answer me with words, but his left eyebrow slides up.
        “What? Well, I did it with you all the time before,” I wave my hand vaguely to convey our altered circumstances, “all this happened, you know!”
        His face stays exactly the same.
        “Oh, shut up!” I growl, but I let it go. “We were talking! And he just went in without hesitating and I just followed...” I know I'm red, I can feel the heat from the crown of my head to my navel. “Okay, it was stupid! But don't forget, Fraser, I'd only been bi for about twenty-four hours. I hadn't gotten my handbook yet!”
        “I know, Ray and so did he, and he took shameless advantage. He was certainly...sure of himself to make a pass at the husband of someone with whom he could possibly be working.”
        “Yeah, well he went with the Attorney General's office.”
        “Ah. And you think that that decision had already been made prior to meeting you?”
        “Probably. So he figured he had nothing to lose.”
        “What happened in the bathroom?”
        “Nothing except a meaningful look and an attempted grope.”
        “He attempted” Now Fraser's face is red, but I don't think he's embarrassed.
        “Well, he tried, but somebody punched him.”
        He looks at me for a minute, then says, “How unfortunate.”
        “Yeah, that's what he thought,” and I grin and he grins back and then we're laughing and everything's all right again. Pack.
        It's dark in the bowling alley. As the door bangs shut, I fumble at my sunglasses not wanting to be caught off guard in the dimness. Getting them off my face, I promptly drop them on the floor. “Fuck!” I hiss and go to reach for them, but Fraser's faster.
        He rises up out of his crouch and holds them out to me. When I reach for them, he covers my hand with his free one. “Easy, Ray.”
        “Yeah.” I exhale gustily. “Thanks, Fraser.”
        He smiles at me with his eyes and then his gaze flicks down to my mouth and I know he wants to kiss me. I want it, too, but this isn't the place. Although some part of me (the one below my waist, I figure) whispers that it would make explanations unnecessary if we were caught...I shift closer.
        The crash of a bowling ball against the pins makes us jerk apart. He lets go of my hands and we drop the sunglasses again. We both go for them, but I snag them first. I don't know about Fraser, but my heart is pounding. I chance a look at him. His cheeks are red, and he's breathing hard. He catches my eye and grins–not a Constable Fraser smile at all, it's pure Benton. I grin back loving him so much my heart feels like I just bowled a game of strikes.
        And that's how Vecchio comes upon us–grinning at each other like fools, but with a respectable distance between us.
        “Benny!” The pleasure in his voice is real.
        “Ray.” Fraser's smile changes–still real, still wonderful, but not the smile that he just gave me.
        They shake and embrace. Vecchio's still smiling as he greets me. “Kowalski.” We shake but don't hug. “Penguins didn't peck you to death?”
        “Actually, Ray,” I say in my best Fraser voice, “penguins are indigenous to the South Pole so it is unlikely we would have encountered any at all on our adventure.”
        “Oh, God, Fraser, you've spawned. He sounds just like you.”
        “He sings, too,” Fraser says with a twinkle.
        I drop the act and point my fingers at Fraser. “That's enough of that.”
        “Oh, that's too good to be true.” Vecchio shakes his head. “This I've got to hear.”
        “I'm sure that Ray will be happy to oblige you...”
        “No, Ray will do no such thing,” I interrupt. “There will be no singing on this trip.” I speak emphatically but am ignored.
        “I can't wait! You'll come for dinner tonight and stay with us. You can sing for your supper.” Vecchio looks as if someone just gave the cat the keys to the catnip vault. I shift uncomfortably and feel Fraser beside me doing the same thing such that our shoulders bump together, but Vecchio goes on without a pause, speaking now to an old guy behind the shoe rental counter. “Hey, Jimmy, tell the boss lady when she comes in that we've got visitors and to meet us in the snack bar.”
        “Will do, Mr. Vecchio.” Jimmy hardly looks up from the magnifying glass he's using to read the paper.
        We fall in line behind Vecchio and cross over to the snack bar. “You want something to drink? Murray!” He calls to someone behind the counter.
        Another old guy shuffles up. “Yeah, boss?”
        “Grab one of those bottles of spring water from the cooler and pour me a Coke, please. Kowalski?” He looks at me.
        “Uh, yeah, Coke's fine. Thanks.”
        “Two Cokes, Murray, okay?”
        “You got it, boss.”
        We go sit down at a table for four. Fraser and I sit next to each other, Vecchio sits across.
        Vecchio shoots me a look that seems to say he wishes I'd give them some space, but I pretend not to see it. No way I'm leaving until Fraser's said what he needs to say. I figure I need to be around for the pieces: the ones I might need to pick up and the ones I might have to break Vecchio into.
        “I gotta say, Benny, I never expected to see you in Florida. And in shorts!”
        “Well, for both you have Ray to thank. He drove us down and he convinced me I needed to outfit myself appropriately for this venture.”
        “Yeah, well, I knew he must be good for something.” I look at him sharply, but he's just cutting bait. Sure enough, he slants a look at me before grinning at Fraser.
        Fraser doesn't grin back. I can feel the tension radiating off him. Moving carefully, so as not to attract Vecchio's attention, I slide my foot until it's touching Fraser's. I'm trying to think of some smart-ass comment to make to defuse the situation when the most unlikely thing happens.
        Fraser, and I mean Constable Benton Robert Fraser, RCMP, stick-up-his-ass (in a good way), opens his mouth and in a tone of voice that sounds exactly like warm honey pours says, “Oh, I've found he's good for lots of things.”
        My jaw drops.
        My face turns red.
        My ears are ringing.
        I look at Fraser. My mouth is still open but I can't seem to close it. His face is red, too, but he holds Vecchio's eyes steadily and without shame.
        I look at Vecchio and decide that whatever shock I'm feeling is nothing–NOTHING! zip, zilch, nada–to the jaw dropping, stomach clenching, fetal-position-producing kick in the balls Vecchio just got.
        Suddenly I feel great.
        So sue me.
        Months later, Fraser told me he'd simply seen an opportunity to tell Vecchio of our altered circumstances and taken it.
        I nodded along with him, like I was buying that garbage, then said, “And besides, he horked you off because he tried to slam me.”
        And he nodded back before he finished hearing me, then froze and tried to backtrack. “Now, Ray, it was simply an appropriate avenue–”
        “Benton lost his temper! Benton lost his temper!” I sang.
        He went on, as if he hadn't heard, “–through which to introduce some new information–”
        “Benton lost his temper!” I continued the song, but it was the dance steps I added that really got him. Then he got me.
        Afterward, when we were lying tangled up and comfy in our bed his head on my chest, I made him admit it. “Admit it, Fraser,” I said. “You know and I know you would have led up to that particular revelation with tiny, little baby steps and all the tact in the world except for the fact that he dissed me. And when he did that, you lost your temper and told him straight –ha, there's a word–out, no holds barred with no tact whatsoever. 'Cause you love me.” I finished smugly.
        I felt him smile. “I will admit that the fact that he seems to hold you in such low esteem bothers me. He should see you as I do.”
        “Benton, nobody will ever see me or has ever seen me like you do and I can assure you that no matter how much you value me, Ray Vecchio will never see me the same way you do.”
        Silence. “He'd better not.”
        “What's this now? Jealousy? You say you want him to see me like you do and now you say you don't. Now who's unhinged?”
        “A great many unfortunate people, I imagine.” He snorted into my chest.
        “And at least one's in this bed.”
        “Really, Ray. I'd hardly call you unhinged.”
        “Neither would I, Fraser. It's you who's making contradictory statements here.”
        “On the contrary, Ray. It's like Goedel's theorem–”
        Things deteriorated rather quickly after that, giggling was involved, but I made sure to get him back.
        Anyway, so Vecchio's looking like he's been hit in the face with a trout on his birthday when Murray comes shuffling up with our drinks. He clunks the tray down on the table and Fraser thanks him politely.
        “You're, you're yanking my chain, right?” Vecchio sounds like he's really hoping that's true. I've got news for him–it's not his chain Fraser wants to yank.
        “No, Ray.” Fraser's voice is quiet.
        “What the hell...”
        “He's pack, Ray.”
        “AND WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN?” Vecchio's voice rises and cracks, and his face is red.
        “I love him.” Fraser's voice is soft and I don't think Vecchio can hear the tremor in it. But I can.
        “Love him? Love him? How can you say that? You don't know anything about love. Some guy–” he flicks a sneer at me, “yanks your dick a few times up in Freezerland and you think it's love. Well, I've got news for you: love and desperation are not the same thing.” Vecchio and I are both up on our feet now, fists clenched. I want to smash his face so bad, I'm amazed I'm not doing it. The sneer in his voice intensifies. “It all started the same way with Victoria and you thought you loved her, too, didn't you? And we all saw how great that turned out.”
        Fraser's face goes completely white. He does not stand up, he does not respond in any way, except to wrap his arms around his middle and sit so still he could be turned to stone. All that he's feared has come true here. I start to climb over the table.
        I've actually got my foot on the seat when Fraser's hand on my ankle stops me. Vecchio looks at Fraser's hand on me and turns away. “I had to shoot you in the back last time to get you to see reason, don't expect me to do it again.” And he walks away.
        I look at Fraser. The hand around my ankle is shaking. His face is still white and his eyes look dead. I drop back down to the seat, and wrap my arms around him, not caring about the fact that Murray is watching avidly from the snack counter or the fact that he's been joined by Jimmy.
        I bump my forehead against his. “Hey.”
        His eyes are closed, and he's breathing hard from his nose, like maybe he's afraid to even open his mouth to get a breath because of what might come out.
        “Hey,” I say again.
        A muffled noise escapes his tight mouth.
        “Hang here a minute, cause there's something I gotta do.” I'm filled with a definite purpose. There is no way that this is going to end here.
        His eyes open at my comment. And underneath the pain, I see some honest concern at what my plan might be.
        “Shh. We're pack, right?” I put two fingers over his mouth. He nods again. “Then trust me to get this right for you. Okay? Trust me?”
        He closes his eyes again, buries his head against my shoulder and nods again.
        Watch out, Vecchio, here I come.
        The door to Vecchio's office is locked. I take great pleasure in kicking it open. It crashes against the wall.
        Vecchio's standing behind his desk fists up, body tense. Reflexively, I drop back into a defensive stance myself.
        “Get the fuck out of here,” he growls at me.
        “No,” I answer, almost pleasantly except for my bared teeth.
        “I'm calling the police, b and e, assault, battery.”
        “I haven't hit you...yet,” I point out. “But I sure will have before the police get here, you can count on it. So go ahead, call.” I wave my hand at the phone. “Tell them how you were arguing with your gay best friend and his lover when you became insulting and abusive and stalked back to your office.” I can tell by the look on his face what he thinks about saying that. “Then tell them that shortly afterwards, your best friend's lover decided to pay you a visit during which time he pounded on your face ten or twelve times to emphasize his point. Is that what you're going to say? That you got beat up by a faggot?”
        “If that's what you came here to do, then do it.” His chin is up and he's asking for it, I think he's hoping for it.
        “Nah.” I stand up straight and wave him off casually. “That's not what I came here for. I just came back here to encourage you to come back and finish your conversation and maybe bowl a few frames.”
        That gets him. He stands up straight and those green eyes are blazing. “You-you-you want to bowl?” His voice rises incredulously.
        “No.” I let some of the anger I feel toward him seep into my voice. “I want to pound you into pieces.”
        “Yeah, well maybe I want to pound you, too. Damn vulture.” His voice is positively venomous.
        I stare at him, my hackles going back up. “What's that mean?”
        His eyes light up and he comes around the desk to stand in front of me. “You know what it means.”
        He's pissing me off again. “No. I don't. What the fuck are you talking about?”
        “You and him, which makes me sick even to think about. You took advantage of him.”
        “I took advantage?” Just to be sure I'm clear.
        “Oh, yeah. I can see it plain as day. Off in the wilderness, ex-wife doesn't love you anymore, you haven't gotten any in ages. Shit, I bet even a polar bear would look good to you.
        “And Benny, he just screams loneliness when you get to know him. And you used that, you used that to get a piece of ass, you fucker, just 'cause your ex-wife wouldn't do you anymore and no other woman would have you.”
        That's when I punch him. A nice, solid hit across the cheekbone. He takes it pretty good and comes back swinging, catches me on the side of the head which makes my ears ring but probably won't show.
        In the back of my head, I'm thinking, “not about you, not about you.” I catch his next punch and swing him around to get that arm behind his back. I push him face down on his desk and lean on him for good measure.
        “Listen, you goddamned idiot. I would happily go ten rounds with you right here, right now. But right now my priority is not what I want.
        “You are his best friend. He still wants that. It's important to him. It'll kill him if you reject him. And knowing a little bit about what it feels like to love Benton Fraser, I know it will kill you too.”
        “Like you care about that.” He's pretty mouthy for a guy with his face in a desk blotter. I let him go and back off but stay alert.
        I make sure he's looking at me and then say, “It's not you I do it for.” I hold his eyes wanting to make it perfectly clear that I do not give a rat's ass what Raymond Vecchio wants in this world. Because I'm looking so intently, I see his eyes widen and the step back he takes on his sudden indrawn breath.
        Finally he nods at a bowling bag by his desk. “Just let me, change my shoes and use the can.” I nod too and go back out to the alley.
        Thankfully, Fraser is still sitting where I left him. “Come on.” I tap his shoulder as I walk by, headed to the shoe rental counter. Somewhat surprisingly, he follows. Maybe he thinks we're leaving. He comes up short when I stop by the register. Jimmy's doing his best to hustle over from the snack bar.
        “Ray, what?”
        “Tell Jimmy here your shoe size. We're going to bowl.” I toe off my sneakers, pick them up and slap them on the carpeted counter. “Ten and a half,” I say to Jimmy.
        Bemused, Fraser kneels to unlace his high tops and take them off. He puts them on the counter and starts to tuck the laces neatly inside. I roll my eyes and yank them out of his grasp and shove them at Jimmy. “Eleven,” I tell him. Jimmy shuffles off.
        “Really, Ray. You can't mean we're going to bowl?”
        “Yes, Fraser. We are going to bowl. You and me and Vecchio. We are going to bowl and you are going to finish your conversation.”
        “But why the bowling? It seems so...nonsensical.” He tilts his head and tugs at his ear, the way he does when he's struggling with something he doesn't understand.
        I sigh heavily. “The bowling part is so you and Vecchio each have a large, heavy object to throw at something defenseless and suitably noisy while you work this all out.” He stops tugging his ear and just stares. “What? I figure it will keep you from whaling on each other.” He's still staring, but this time it's like he's Dief and I'm a doughnut. “What?” I snap.
        “That's a....good idea, Ray.” He looks surprised.
        “And that's so surprising, that I'd have a good idea?” I grumble at him.
        “No, no, no, no. I'm just....glad you had it.”
        I flush. “Yeah, well, it was Plan B,” I mumble.
        “Dare I ask ...?”
        “Better not.”
        We find chairs and sit down to put the shoes on. Vecchio stalks out from the back hallway and does something behind the counter. The score screen over Lane 13 flickers on.
        I look back in time to see Jimmy say something to Vecchio and Vecchio not answer. He finishes whatever it is he's doing and heads our way. As he passes us, he snarls, “If you wanna bowl, then let's bowl.”
        Fraser just sits, hunched over, elbows on his knees, head down.
        “Fraser? You good to go here?”
        He nods.
        “Cause I'm good either way. The way I see it,” he turns just his head and looks at me “between you, me and these butt-ugly shoes, we have two options: we can go over there and bowl and attempt to talk sense into the suckmeister over there,” he drops his head again and snorts a little. “Or, we can stand up and make a break for it. The way these shoes slide, we'd be halfway home before old Murray there could get to the door.”
        Tentatively, I put my arm over his shoulders, buddy-like, and squeeze when what I really want to do is take him back to the tent and suck him until his eyes cross and he hasn't got any breath left and he comes so hard that all his pain is overcome by pure pleasure. Then I lean down and whisper, “Whatever you want, Fraser.” I let my lips rest on his hair lightly.
        “We gonna bowl here, or what?” Vecchio sounds more pissed now than before.
        “We're going to bowl.” Fraser's found his voice again. He braces one hand on my shoulder and stands. He squeezes my shoulder hard, chooses a ball from the rack and joins Vecchio in Lane 13.
        At first we just take warm-up shots. Nobody's talking, but the bowling balls are being flung down the alley with some serious intent. Vecchio's up for his second ball, when Fraser says, “I thought you went with Plan B,” referring, I guess to the bruise on Vecchio's face.
        I feel myself flush. “That? That's not Plan A. That's Plan Almost-but-not-quite A.”
        “Almost, but not quite?” He sounds incredulous.
        “His nose isn't broken,” I point out.
        He moves off to take his own warm-up. I get a ball from the rack. When it's my turn, I notice that Vecchio has very not-so-kindly typed 'Stanley' into the computer so there's no confusion as to which Ray is up next. Prick.
        We're ready to start for real when Vecchio speaks up. “You know, you could give us some space here, Stanley.”
        I point my fingers at him. “I surely could not. For right now, Vecchio, Fraser and me? We're a matched set. You want Fraser? You get me, too. That's the way it is. You don't like it, go sulk in your office.”
        “Could you call off the guard dog, Fraser? He's worse than Dief.”
        “I'm afraid I can't do that, Ray. He takes his responsibilities very seriously. And to further the point, I want him here,” Fraser replies.
        “Oh, the big bad Mountie needs his teddy bear,” Vecchio snarls. “What? Afraid I might hurt your feelings?”
        “He's here as much for your protection as for my support. “ Fraser's voice is mild, but there's a note in it, I haven't heard before. Then I get it. Fraser's pissed. He's pissed off at Vecchio and he's actually showing it, which must mean he's seriously pissed. Oh, wow. If I was wearing the Stetson, I'd be holding on to it now.
        “Yeah, right, Fraser. Like you get angry.” Vecchio turns and gets his ball. “I'm so scared.” He stands, steps up and flings the ball down toward the pins. Before it hits them, he spins around and comes back. “Whatcha going to do, lecture me?”
        “I assure you, Ray I can get quite angry. I'm afraid of what I might decide to do once you make me as angry as you apparently want to.”
        Behind Vecchio, his ball knocks down seven, no, eight of the pins. He's oblivious, his attention is totally focused on Fraser. “No way, not you, you're Mr. Nothing-Fazes-Me, not even ratting out the entire division and letting Zuko off ruffled your feathers.” He's back around and bowling again, steps not smooth at all, and the ball practically bounces when it hits the wood floor. The last two pins aren't in any danger at all.
        He stomps back and throws himself into a chair. Fraser stands stock still for a moment.
        “Your turn, Fraser,” I say quietly.
        He looks at me briefly, then moves to the ball return. Vecchio stares at his shoes. I watch Fraser.
        After his first ball is rolling pinward, Fraser turns back to Vecchio. “Zuko wasn't guilty. Convicting him of that crime would have been...a miscarriage of justice. You are well aware of that.”
        “All I know is that Zuko was slime and anything that could have gotten him off the street would have been a good thing. But that wasn't important to you. No, you, Dudley-Do-Right, you had to go and talk to all the neighbors, get their statements, find him an alibi. All in the name of fucking-justice. Let me ask you, did Justice ever buy you pizza? Drive you around in a Riviera?”
        I know this story, and I know that Fraser was right in what he did....but I also know that it can seem like Fraser only cares about truth and justice and not people. So I know where Vecchio's coming from. But there's more to the story than Vecchio knows.
        Fraser's watching the ball again, watches it knock all the pins down: Strike. He comes back to us, sits down heavily next to Vecchio. “You were important to me. Your career.” He puts his elbows on his knees and leans over, head and hands hanging. “You should have done what I did. If I hadn't questioned those neighbors, which was an obvious thing to do, than the defense attorney would have and the fact that Zuko was home the night Gardino was killed would have come out. You would have been sued for false arrest, lost your badge.” He sits back up and scrubs at his face. “If you don't think it was hard for me to do it, then you're wrong.”
        Vecchio doesn't look at him. Doesn't say anything to Fraser, but growls, “Your turn, STAN-ley,” at me.
        I roll my shoulders out, pick up my ball and slide down to the alley to release it. Nice and smooth....and into the gutter. Great. I hear Vecchio snort behind me. I wait for the ball to come back waving my hand over the blower. Vecchio sighs heavily. Fraser looks at the floor. I'm still pissed about the gutter ball. Oh, we're a happy bunch. Over by the rental counter, I see Jimmy has been joined by Murray and they're both watching.
        My ball comes back with a thunk and I heft it up to try again.
        “The object is to roll it down the middle of the lane, Stanley.”
        “How 'bout I roll it down the middle of your ass, Vecchio?” I growl back.
        “Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?” His voice is taunting. Like I'd like to do anything to his ass other than kick it from here to Canada and back.
        “Shut the hell up, Vecchio, or I'll go back to Plan A.” I grit my teeth, stepping up and releasing the ball. Oh, yeah, baby, there it is. The sweet crash of all the pins going down at once resonates in my ears.
        “Dot it, file it, stick it in a box marked done.” I saunter back and stand in front of Vecchio. When he gets up, I slide into his seat. “Your turn.” I grin snottily up at him.
        Without warning, Fraser puts his arm around me and pulls me up against him. “Good job, Ray.” He smiles at me, but his eyes slide up to Vecchio and his face gets defiant. I get a funny feeling in my stomach.
        Not too surprisingly after that little display, Vecchio turns and stomps back to the ball return. As soon as his back is turned, I shake off Fraser's arm.
        “What's wrong, Ray?” His attention's all on me now and his eyes are worried.
        “Look. You want to hug me, cause we're pack, cause you like me, then hug me, anytime any place and I'll hug you back. But, you want to hug me to hork off an ex-partner who's already horked off at you, then piss him off some other way.” He flushes. “Don't use us, Fraser. I've been used before and it doesn't work long-term.”
        He looks down and rubs his fingers on his eyebrow. “Understood. And....I'm sorry. I'm rather upset and I suppose I'm not thinking clearly.”
        “Yeah, well, there's nothing cloudy about us, Fraser. So don't go murky-ing stuff up. Got it? You clear?”
        “I know. I'm clear, Ray.”
        A crash alerts me Vecchio's thrown the ball down the alley leaving a solitary pin in the back row. “Ooooh...think you can pick that up, Vecchio? Or you want I should give you some pointers?”
        Vecchio twists and comes back down to the chairs to get in my face. “What you pick up, Stanley, I don't want.”
        “Does that include me, then?” Fraser stares at Vecchio unblinking. I feel like a rat trapped between two big alley cats.
        Vecchio straightens up and stares back, then turns away, turns back and throws out his arms. “How can you be gay?”
        Fraser shifts his weight and pulls on his ear like he does when he's about to contradict someone. “Well, technically, Ray....”
        Vecchio doesn't wait. “You're a Mountie, Fraser. The Mountie! Loyal, smart, concerned with truth, justice and the Canadian Way of politeness and decency. 'It only takes an extra minute to be courteous, Ray!' How many times did I hear that?
        “You're perfect! You are supposed to be perfect! You're everything I...a guy's supposed to be!” His shoulders slump and he spins around. He grabs his ball and throws it down the alley, smashing the remaining pin into the wall.
        And then I get it. Vecchio's all caught up in the Mask. The Mountie Mask that Fraser wears so well. The Mountie part of Fraser is perfect...or wants to be so badly he used to be willing to die trying. Vecchio doesn't know Fraser at all.
        Fraser bowls his next frame. After releasing his second ball, he stands with his hands on his hips and watches it roll down the lane. Then he looks at the ceiling and sighs before going back toward the chairs. He doesn't sit down.
        I bowl my frame quickly, wondering what's going on in Fraser's head. Just as I finish, Fraser moves to stand in front of Vecchio's chair. Vecchio gets up to bowl but Fraser puts one hand up almost touching Vecchio's chest and refuses to give way.
        “What? What are you going to do?”
        “It's what I'm not going to do, Ray.” Fraser voice is...resigned but determined. His face is set.
        “What now, Fraser?” Vecchio shifts his weight and throws out his hands.
        “I'm trying with every atom of my being to not apologize for being imperfect. But because, as you say, courtesy is an ingrained feature of my psyche, it is very difficult to refrain. Simple courtesy would seem to demand that I apologize for failing you, for not being what you want me to be....” He drops his head and rubs his eyebrow. I get up and stand behind him, close enough that he can feel the heat from my body. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Murray and Jimmy are sitting at a snack table directly behind us. I see they have popcorn now too.
        Fraser's still talking. “But it's an impossible standard, Ray. One I've spent most of my life trying to attain. First, trying to be good, so God would give me back my mother, trying to act like a man so my father would respect me, come back home....” He steps back toward the ball return, nearly stepping on my foot, and fingers the balls that wait there. It's Vecchio's turn, but Vecchio's not moving.
        “When I joined the RCMP, it seemed so clear. 'Act this way, behave that way,' they said, 'and you will be successful.' One's place was defined in a clear hierarchy yet it was also true that one could do certain things, complete certain tasks to effect change, move up, earn more respect. It was just the kind of place I was looking for. A pack, if you will.” He looks down at the balls again and I know it's coming just seconds before he does it.
        With a savage grace, he grabs a ball at random and throws it as hard as he can down the lane. It bounces twice before it crashes into the pins then slams into the back drop. The second ball follows shortly after. He's about to do it again, when I grab his arms hard from behind, tightening my hands around his biceps, pushing my chest against his back, weaving my feet between his. His whole body is taut. He's not breathing. He's poised on the edge of some seriously fucked-up behavior.
        I forget Vecchio behind us, I forget the by now open-mouthed stares of Murray and Jimmy, 'cause this is all about him. Pushing even closer, I start to hum. He doesn't react at first, so I make my voice stronger. He remains still and then, faintly, I can feel his arms relax. I keep humming and I try to rock him a little from side to side. “Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage...” His shoulders come down and he lets out a breath. His right hand comes up to touch my hand and I go on, “To find the Hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea.” He holds mine and sings under his breath. “Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage, and make a northwest passage to the sea.”
        He drops his head again and brings my hand to his mouth where he rubs it across his lips. Not a kiss exactly, more a ...reconnection, maybe. He turns in my arms and put his hand behind my neck to bring our foreheads together. His eyes burn into mine.
        Suddenly, I'm remembering a conversation by a campfire next to the Beaufort Sea. That man was frozen. He's not frozen now. Must be that hot, Florida sun.
        That, or all the sex.
        We break apart and turn back to Vecchio, who looks shaken. “ was my turn.”
        Despite myself, I snort. Fraser, predictably, apologizes. “Yes. I'm ...sorry, Ray. You can take my turn.”
        There's a bit of a delay while the machine works out what to do with the two balls. The computer scores the first one, but ignores the second, so the knocked-down ones are swept away and those that remained standing are set up for a second attempt. Both balls are sent back.
        When the machine is still, Fraser looks to Vecchio inquiringly, but Vecchio waves him on, so Fraser, in a much calmer fashion, rolls the ball down the alley. He manages the spare.
        “Thanks.” Vecchio's voice is quiet.
        “It seemed the least I could do,” Fraser answers. Vecchio just shakes his head, and I think I catch the hint of a smile.
        This time when Vecchio gets up Fraser does not interfere but comes back and sits down heavily next to me. He rests his elbows on his knees. When he drops his head onto his hands, I can see his hands are shaking. We've still got a ways to go yet.
        Vecchio comes back from his turn and I glance at the computer screen up by the ceiling to see he's managed nine pins on his own. I get up and he slides into my seat. “My dad,” I hear him start, “my dad, he wasn't what you'd call a really great dad. Didn't teach me all that much about being a man, except in the negative sense.” I make a show over stretching my knuckles and using the hand dryer to stall for time to hear more. “I mean, all I really knew when I grew up about being a man was that I wanted to be the kind that wasn't anything like the kind of man my dad was.” He pauses and I grab and throw the ball quickly, not even really looking at the arrows. I don't watch the ball roll down the alley, I'm so anxious to hear what's coming next.
        Vecchio's gone on a bit. “...what it boiled down to was that I didn't know anything about being a good man, I only knew about being a bad husband, father, whatever. I wanted to know about the other, so I started looking. Looking at men I liked who seemed to be good guys, who seemed to know what it was to be a good man. I started working, walking a beat, so I ended up seeing a lot of men.”
        “A wide variety of men, I imagine.” Fraser's voice is encouraging and he's lifted his head off his hands to listen intently.
        “Well.” Vecchio's mouth pulls into a rueful sort of grin. “You lived in Chicago a while, you worked my beat, so you know the kind of men I was seeing. A lot of trash, a lot of gang bangers, a lot of guys with no more idea what a good man was than me, and even more with no desire to ever be anything resembling a good man.
        “Thing was, once in a while, I'd run across someone who seemed to be a good guy, another cop, or assistant state's attorney or even some Joe Blow caught in some legal tangle, so I made a point to talk to these guys carefully. See if I could figure out how to be that kind of man, if there was more to it than just not doing whatever my father did.
        “And....” His voice trails off, he raises his hands and scrubs tiredly over his head. “It turned out, there was always....something. Something weird, or dirty, or perverted or illegal or something about every one of them. Every damn one.” His voice lifts at the end like something's funny, but he ain't laughing. “No matter where I looked, I couldn't find one. Not one just plain honest, decent good man anywhere.” He turns and looks Fraser in the eye. “And then, just when I'd given up, just when I figured I'd just have to keep doing whatever it was my dad wouldn't, I met you.”
        Fraser's head jerks up and he stares at Vecchio. Then, without moving any other part of his body, his eyes close.
        “Don't do it, Fraser.” I'm down in front of Fraser before I know I've moved. His eyes are still closed. I hold his grab his hands with mine and shake him a little. “I mean it. Don't do it.”
        “What shouldn't he do?” Vecchio sounds curious, but not inflammatory.
        I stand up, still holding Fraser's hands. “He shouldn't apologize for not being perfect, you idiot, just because you were looking for a father figure.” Vecchio blanches, and Fraser actually leans in against my leg. I move one hand to his hair.
        “I didn't want him to be my father!” Vecchio roars. “I just wanted him to of the Good Guys. A truly good man. “
        “He is a good man!” I roar back. “He's the best man you and I will ever know, we'll never even come close to being how good he is, but he's not fucking perfect. He's never going to be perfect, I wouldn't want him to be perfect.” My chest is heaving. “If I could,” and my voice is shaking, my lower lip is shaking, but I go on anyway, 'cause Vecchio needs to hear this, “I would take away every moment of the loneliness and sorrow and pain in his life that made him think he had to be perfect to find a pack, to find someone to love him. And I will spend every day of the rest of my life telling him I do love him just like he is.” My fingers are threading through his hair now and I feel a suspicious wet spot on my jeans that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with thawing out.
        “I'm not the one taking advantage of him here, Vecchio. You are. You are taking advantage of all the sorrow and pain in his life that made him work so hard to make that Mountie Mask, all the loneliness he must have felt to put it on day after day. And you are asking him to wear that Mask for the rest of his life, just so you can have someone to look up to, to teach you how to be a man.”
         I look away from Vecchio and lift my hand out of Fraser's hair to rub my nose on my sleeve. I glance up at the computer scorecard and check out my score. What do you know? It's a strike.
        “And another thing, Vecchio. He's more than man enough to teach you how to be a good man. He's good, he's decent and he tries harder than anyone I know to do what's right.” I shift my weight and scooch my leg under Fraser's face a little closer to him. “Yeah, I know, sometimes he makes mistakes. I'm doing my best to make sure that loving me isn't one of them.” Fraser's hands tighten on my leg. “But the ones he does make, he owns up to them, he faces them, he takes responsibility for his actions. Why do you think he's here today?
        “We coulda just moved to Canada, let you wonder, never told you. Let you put the pieces together yourself, or just never addressed it.” My hand's on the back of Fraser's neck now and I let it rest there, warm and solid. “But he couldn't do that, he knew it wouldn't be the right thing to do. And there are some mistakes he made a while ago that he thinks he needs to apologize for so he's here to do that too.
        “So, he's not perfect, and, yeah, now he's gay. So what? That's not a mistake, that's just part of who he is. He could teach you how to be a good man. All you have to do is listen. Listen to him. Listen to the man he is, not the cardboard cut-out you want him to be.”
        When I'm through talking, Vecchio just leans forward and checks out the points of his shoes.
        I pat Fraser on the shoulder and tug at him a little to let him know it's okay to sit up and wipe his face, which he does. With his handkerchief. Then he excuses himself to the restroom.
        I turn to Murray and Jimmy and ask if they need anything. Hey, if we're going to be the floor show, we might as well be courteous. It only takes an extra second after all. They say, no, they're doing fine, but Jimmy does assert that if we were to speak up a bit, that would be fine, too.
        I turn then and collapse in the seat Fraser just vacated. I can still feel the warmth of his body on the backs of my thighs, a nice contrast to the coolness of the drying wet patch on my shorts. I finger that patch and think about Fraser. Silence reigns for a few minutes. I stare at my leg. Vecchio, as far as I can tell, stares at the floor.
        I don't know what Vecchio is thinking about but I'm thinking about the tent, the way the light came through the nylon this morning and made Fraser's skin glow. I rub my hand over my chin and wonder suddenly if I left beard burn on his belly. I suppress the urge to go find out right now.
        Instead I nudge Vecchio. “Your turn.”
        He startles a bit and then sits back. He drops his head back and looks at the ceiling before turning to look me in the eye. “I'd say it was,” he says significantly.
        “What's that mean?”
        “It means that you've just had a pretty long turn yourself here and how it's my turn to say a thing or two.” He gives me a hard stare.
        Oooh. Like I'm shaking. I can still see the outline of my knuckles on his cheekbone. “Yeah, like what?”
        “I don't expect him to be perfect.”
        “Yeah, you do.”
        “No, I do.”
        “Yeah, you do.”
        “I do not! For one thing, I know he's stubborn as hell. And he thinks he's always right.”
        There's no way I can let that go by even if it is true. “Well, he usually is.”
        “I know. But he's not always right. So he's not perfect.”
        Okay so he has a point, maybe he doesn't think Fraser's perfect but still.... “Fraser thinks you expect him to be perfect. He thinks that's what you want from him, what you expect. He thinks he's not enough just as he is. That true?” I stare at him steadily. He flushes and looks away.
        “I know he thinks that,” he concedes finally. “I know that now.” He looks back down the alley. “And maybe...I do work pretty hard to make him match this image I have of what a good man should be, maybe.....” His voice kinds of trails off. Then, oddly, he sits back and rubs his eyebrow. “I just need to know I can count on him to be that way. I want him to be a constant.”
        “You can.”
        “One time I couldn't.”
        I sigh. This really isn't my story to tell. “Why do you think he acted the way he did with Victoria?” I ask, invoking the name of the she-demon. I feel like I should cross myself.
        He just looks at me, his brows knit. “He love, I guess.”
        “Did you ever once ask yourself why he thought that was love? Why he let that bitch use and manipulate him into something so alien from what he really is?”
        “You ask him,” he grates out and stands up and stomps over to the ball return to take his turn.
        “Ask me what?” Fraser's back from the restroom, all traces of his mini-meltdown wiped away.
        “You'll have to ask him`.” I jerk my thumb at Vecchio, who's delivering his first ball. “He's the one with questions.”
        “Ah.” Fraser's eyes follow Vecchio's movements as he prepares for his next throw. “And you,” suddenly his gaze is on me pinning me against the chair. “Do you, too, have questions I need to answer?”
        I feel my eyebrows pull down as I contemplate him. He looks back pretty steadily but his arms are crossed tightly against his belly. I look closer and I see he looks a little like a guy who's half expecting that everything he cares about will be taken from him in one fell swoop.
        “Me? I've got no questions, no questions at all. At least,” he tenses again, “no questions that you're not the answer for.” I let my gaze drop to his crotch, then grin at him. Despite himself, he can't help grinning back. His shoulders seem to relax a tiny bit and his expression is less tense. Good.
        A crash from the alley alerts me that Vecchio's managed another eight pins in some combination. He stalks back to us and looks at Fraser. I feel my hackles go up, but force myself to sit still.
        “You have questions, I understand.” On the surface, Fraser's the picture of cool, calm collectedness. I wonder if Vecchio even notices how nervous Fraser is underneath that mask–how tight he's holding himself, how he's sweating at his hair line, how his voice is shaking.
        “Yeah,” Vecchio's voice is belligerent, but with my newly-trained x-ray eyes developed to read the world's most inscrutable man, I can see that Vecchio's nervous, too. He can't seem to keep his hands still and he's actually rocking, shifting his weight from his front foot to his back one over and over. “You–you really screwed me over with Victoria.” He looks down and exhales. Then he spins around to look at the alley, then he spins back about as fast. “Why'd you do that, Be-Fraser?”
        I sit up and rub my hand over my face. Not calling Fraser Benny is significant, I know. From the way he's gone all white, Fraser knows it too. From the way they've shifted up in their seats and are practically leaning over the divider, even Murray and Jimmy know it.
        “I–I thought she was pack, Ray.” Fraser gets the words out in a rush, then crosses his arms and drops his head to pinch the bridge of his nose. “After I'd turned Gerrard in, stood witness at his trial, I felt a sense of personal satisfaction, it's true. And by hunting Gerrard and the men that worked with him, I felt I was being true to the code, to the principles of the RCMP. So, one might believe I would feel a satisfaction in a job well done, as well. As you know, the RCMP felt...differently.”
        Vecchio snorts and nods. “Yeah, we all know they shafted you there, Fraser.” It's hard to tell from his tone if he's being supportive or just impatient. From the way his head jerks back up and the way he speeds up his words, I can tell which Fraser thinks it is.
        “I was told that while my actions were justified that there would be many who would not see it that way and I should lie low for a while, take the post in Chicago and try not to make any waves.” He stops and looks up at the ceiling gathering himself. Vecchio's still now, trying, I hope, to really listen.
        “I was...distressed by this. I knew the rules, I thought I understood them, yet I was being punished for adhering to them. Those things that I had been taught were the principles of the RCMP, maintain the right and all that, didn't seem to be the real code of the pack at all. The actual code of the pack was unwritten and seemed to involve primarily simply being loyal to the pack, whether its members were acting in a moral or ethical way or...not.
        “Being in the pack was so important to me, believe it or not, Ray, that I struggled to learn this lesson. Even though now, and probably then, I see it for the shallow justification that it is.” He takes in a shaky breath. “When...Victoria and I were stranded in that snowstorm, we formed a connection, a sense of belonging together, if not in life, than in death, I suppose, or something else equally melodramatic.” He flaps a hand, as if to ward such feelings away. “Then, of course, we survived and got back to town and formed a brief, intense connection in life, as well. Despite which, however, I immediately turned her in upon reaching civilization.” He looks down again. “Rationally, it was the only thing I could do. Emotionally...” His fingers pinch his nose again.
        “Anyway, when she came back to Chicago, I felt I had been given a second chance. She'd supposedly paid her debt to society, we could, perhaps, begin again...I could, perhaps, dispel the guilt that had haunted me since I'd turned her in.”
        Vecchio looks incredulous. Fraser looks sick. Vecchio says, real quiet, “Why didn't you tell me about her from the beginning?”
        Fraser looks at him steadily, but he still looks sick. “I had...tried to talk about her before. To you.” At Vecchio's look of surprise, Fraser's mouth twists in a half-grin. “One time, on a stake-out, you went to sleep. Another time, you asked me about love, but then answered yourself before I could reply.”
        “What did I say?” Vecchio's looking a little pale under that tanned olive skin.
        “You said, 'What's a Mountie know about love?'” Direct hit. Vecchio stumbles back and sits heavily next to me. He has no reply, which is probably good with me sitting right here within head kicking distance and all.
        Fraser goes on. “Once she was here and in my apartment and in my life weaving what I now know was a web of lies, but what I then desperately wanted to believe, my judgment became impaired. I did believe she was pack and I worked desperately hard to be loyal to her regardless of whether or not I believed, deep down, she was acting in a moral or ethical way.” His fingers rub over his eyebrow and he shifts his weight uncomfortably. “To question that, to question her morality, seemed to be disloyal in itself.
        “So I simply did not allow myself to question it. And that is what led, of course, to my downfall and, to my great shame, almost led to yours.” He's swaying now, so I get up, grab his biceps and steer him into my vacated chair. Then I sit on the floor, near his legs, but not touching him, to hear the rest.
        “And that is what I cannot forgive myself for.” His voice is a whisper. “I could have dealt with sacrificing myself to her. In a way, I think I was almost looking for it.”
        “You weren't the only one getting sacrificed, Fraser.” Vecchio's voice is shaking.
        “I...know...” Fraser's voice trails off and his eyes close. His arms get even tighter around his ribcage like he's holding himself together by sheer force. “I am ashamed of what...almost happened.”
        Vecchio's holding himself pretty tight, too. “It...didn't happen, though.”
        “No.” Fraser's head shakes, agreeing. “Because you shot me.” I reach out and wrap my hand around his ankle. His legs are shaking. I squeeze tight, tight like the bands of sympathy and empathy around my heart. What a fucked-up scene that must have been. I honestly don't know how they got through it and continued to work together.
        “Didn't mean to, you know. I was aiming... for...” Vecchio's shoulders are shaking now, his eyes are shut tight. “I thought she had a... gun, Benny. I thought she was going to...”
        ...shoot you, I finish in my head. I want to crawl in Fraser's lap, hell, I want to crawl in stupid Vecchio's lap and hug him even, their pain is so real and so anguished. I settle for leaning my head against Fraser's knee and closing my own eyes, a grieving witness to their sorrow.
        “In the hospital, I was enough of a coward to wish she had.” Fraser's voice is flat, and I can feel he's started to rock back and forth. “It was... that hard to face you.”
        “I never wished that. Ever.” Vecchio's voice is stronger now. “But it was hard for me to even talk to you. I felt so...guilty. I had been so mad at you. Really angry. And then.....and it was bad, you almost died.” He gets up and I open my eyes to see him pacing angrily. “I even went to confession, because I was afraid...I was afraid...” He stops and his chest heaves but he finishes. “I was afraid I had shot you because I was mad at you. Sort of subconsciously.”
        Fraser's head is up, he's stopped rocking. Guess the revelation that Vecchio has been wallowing in guilt surprised him. “You were protecting me...” he starts, moving automatically into the comfort mode he's so good at.
        “Yeah, I was, Fraser. But I was also extremely pissed off at you.”
        “Because of how I behaved?” Fraser asks.
        “Yeah, and, you know, feet of clay and all that.” He reddens a bit at the admission.
        “Ah. Well, I'm....”
        “Don't!” Surprisingly, Vecchio's voice is just as loud as mine.
        “I simply meant to say...”
        “Don't do it, Fraser. Really.” I'm gripping both legs now, terrified that he'll apologize for not being perfect which would be a big step backwards as far as I'm concerned.
        “I shouldn't have expected you to be an image, Benny. You're just a guy. I know that. A really, really good guy, but still a guy.”
        “If I may be allowed to continue.” Evidently Fraser's found a little starch for his spine, judging from the snap to his voice. “I want to say that I apologize for my behavior. While it's true that I still do not want to apologize for not being perfect as if I should be that, it is also true that I behaved most shamefully toward you, Ray, the one who had offered his friendship and family to me at a time when I had no one, who offered me a place in his pack. I treated you most unforgivably.” Fraser stands up, shakes off my hands and goes to stand at parade rest in front of Vecchio, taking refuge, or comfort maybe, in formality. He takes a deep breath and continues.
        “I do not ask for forgiveness, but I must not return home until I tell you how very sorry I am for almost leaving you in the lurch.” Another breath. “And how sorry I am for letting that go unacknowledged for such a long time. I am sorry, Ray. More than you'll ever know.”
        He stops talking and stands completely still, waiting like all of us, for Vecchio's reaction.
        The alley is quiet. All I can hear is the hum of the ball return and the muted grumbling from the snack table behind us as Murray messes with his hearing aid.
        Then, Vecchio sighs. He puts his hands over his face for a moment and then scrubs them over his head. He puts a hand on Fraser's shoulder and looks him in the eye.
        “You screwed up.”
        “You screwed up big time.”
        “I screwed up, too. Putting you up on a pedestal, trying to make you stay there.”
        “Uh....” I hit Fraser in the back of the legs to remind him that's true. He half-turns, and then resumes position. “Yes.”
        “So, you forgive me and I'll forgive you. Capisce?”
        “Yes.” And I can hear the gladness in his voice. And I can feel it in my eyes.
        “So you can be part of my pack any time, Benny.”
        “That means a lot, Ray, but...” and he cuts his eyes at me. “I've got my own pack now.”
        “Yeah, well, I guess I can see that.” Vecchio eyes me and then turns back to Fraser. “What the hell, bring him along.”
        At that Fraser opens his arms and pulls Vecchio into a hug. I climb up to my feet and hug Fraser from behind, because it's that kind of moment. He pulls one arm from around Vecchio and reaches around me awkwardly to hug me back.
         Murray blows his nose loudly.
        Vecchio pulls back first and wipes his nose on his sleeve. “You're sure he's housebroken, aren't you?”
        “He's somewhat more reliable than, Dief, Ray,” says Fraser, my best bud, now a comedian. Hardy ha ha.
        “So, that means we're like brothers, now, right, Benny?”
        “I'd be honored, Ray.”
        “Yeah, well, you should be.” Vecchio's obviously feeling better. “But then, I should be too. Now, whose turn is it?”
        “Fraser's,” I say.
        “Then get up there, Benny, you're slowing us down. Murray! We need fresh drinks here!” Oh, yeah, he's back in top form for sure.
        “You got it, boss.” Murray wipes his nose one more time, and shuffles back to the snack bar.
        With a “right you are, Ray,” Fraser hops to it, and takes his turn. It turns into an actual game after that with the requisite insults and ribbing necessary for guys to recover after an emotional fuck-fest like we've been having.
        Somewhat surprisingly, after four frames I'm in the lead. Fraser's strike in the fifth though starts evening things up pretty quickly, though and by the sixth frame he's pulled ahead. I manage a spare again in the seventh frame which puts me ahead of Fraser and Vecchio who are tied at eighty-one.
        Vecchio narrows my lead to only two pins with a spare in the eighth frame when I can't pick up the seven-three split and end up with only nine pins down.
        Things are good-naturedly tense going into the tenth. My spare and Fraser's strike have Vecchio gnashing his teeth. He does well though; gets a spare and then another eight pins for a total of 122. Fraser gets a spare, too and adds seven more, so he ends up with 117. But Mrs. Kowalski's boy Stanley Raymond gets a spare and adds a strike just for good measure to wind up the winner with 135.
        The computer screen flashes a fireworks explosion celebrating my win and I raise an eyebrow at Fraser and cross my arms expectantly.
        “What?” he asks in response to my expression.
        I look significantly at the screen.
        “Ah, yes, well done, Ray. Very fine job indeed,” he says heartily. “You are a fine bowler.” He sticks out his hand like I'll shake it. I look askance at it and cross my arms and shift my weight and look at him even more significantly. “What?” He pulls his hand back.
        “Did I or did I not just win a contest between us?” I ask meaningfully.
        I shift my feet and re-cross my arms, obviously waiting.
        Vecchio, who's been closing down the computer score card, turns around and gets into it. “What's going on?”
        “I'm waiting for Fraser to pay up,” I answer, not taking my eyes off Fraser.
        Vecchio looks at Fraser who's looking anything but willing. “What's he owe?”
        “A dance.”
        “A dance?!?” Vecchio's voice rises and cracks and he starts to laugh. “You gotta be kidding.” He stumbles back a few steps and laughs harder.
        Fraser's standing at parade rest now looking mulish, but just for the principle of the thing. Deep down he knows his ass is mine.
        “Come on, buddy. Let's see it.” I wave him on. He stays still. “Correct me if I'm wrong here Fraser, but I seem to recall that I managed to pay my debt in sub-zero temperatures.” I point my fingers at him. “Wearing snowshoes.”
        He almost cracks a smile. I know he loves that particular memory of our trip. Bastard.
        To move things along, I start humming. His eyes close, then he opens them and looks at the ceiling, rubs that eyebrow and lets loose.
        “Night fever, night fever. You know how to do it.”
        Vecchio just loses it. He's in the chair now practically snorting in absolute glee as Fraser goes into his best impression of John Travolta. God, I love him. I really do.
        Laughing myself now, I move up and grab those wiggling hips before Vecchio bursts something. Fraser's face is red and is still solemn, but I can see the twinkle in his eye. “I trust that was a sufficient demonstration.” His voice is pure Mountie.
        “You idiot,” I say fondly and grin at him. “Sufficient? Yeah, that was sufficient. You got me beat around the block twice, it was so sufficient.”
        “Well, Ray, I thought it was only fair to give you a memory of me dancing since I treasure,” and he puts his hand over his heart, “my own memory of your little display so very, very much.” Okay, so it's a little over the top, but then so is Fraser. And I wouldn't have him any other way.
        I'm looking at his mouth now and thinking I want to kiss him. I really, really do. I inch forward into his really personal space and my hands clamp down on his hips. He doesn't move. We're nose to nose now. If he were Vecchio, I'd still be a goodly distance away, but he's not so we're downright up close and personal.
        Do it, do it, do it, I think. Vecchio knows. Murray and Jimmy must know by now. Fraser's gaze flicks to my mouth and his tongue comes out to wet that lip. I make a weird sound–part groan, part sigh, part growl. I know he did that on purpose. I bump our mouths together and it's so sweet, I have to go back for more.
        Everyone knows, right? It won't be such a big shock for anyone here if I kiss him, right? We're certainly not going to let it go on too long...except his mouth feels so's hard to just...pull back, Ray, pull back. And then I'm thinking, I'm actually thinking, 'Wouldn't it be funny if Stella walked in about now?'
        When she does.
        Right about the time Vecchio notices what we're doing and says, “Stop that! Euwww!” Stella says, “Ray!” in a profoundly shocked tone.
        Needless to say, Fraser and I are about two feet apart in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately, I've apparently lost control of my arms which can't seem to decide what they are going to do.
        “Stella!” I say and they swing out wide like, what, I'm going to hug her? Should I? “How are you?” And now my arms are behind me going for my back pockets. Wait, too casual, I think. So I yank my hands out of my pockets and cross my arms in front of me. Stella's watching with her eagle eye. No, I think, too defensive. So I drop them then, and let them hang by my side. That's bad, too, I feel like a dork who looks like a dork who's way too conscious of his arms.
        “That Ritalin hasn't kicked in yet, has it, Ray?” Stella asks acidly. Leave it to Stella to draw attention to someone else's discomfort. Particularly mine.
        Just as I feel myself getting all kinds of wound up, I feel a hand on the back of my neck. Nice warm hand and he moves his thumb a little back and forth, soothing me enough to remember that Stella does not like being surprised.
        “Yeah, guess not, Stell,” I say in response, getting a warning squeeze on my neck. I know, I know, I think and shrug back to communicate exasperation. I guess I shouldn't let her say things like that to me. “I'm sorry we surprised you. I guess you weren't expecting us.” I give some emphasis to the last word, hoping she'll get the point.
        She flushes a little and looks down. “It was...”she pauses, then says, “a bit of a shock.”
        “Unexpected visitors usually are.” Fraser puts in smoothly, his hand still warm on my neck. “Especially in unexpected combinations. For instance, you might have expected Ray to visit one day on his own, or, perhaps, you might have thought that I would stop by at some time to visit your Ray,” he stops and scratches his eyebrow, “But I think we can allow for the possibility that you might not have expected us to visit... together.” He gently squeezes the back of my neck again. “As it were.”
        “As it were,” Stella repeats wryly. She seems to be getting over it now.
        “I imagine seeing us here… together, gave you quite a... jolt?” Fraser says tentatively, as if he's checking out the lay of the Stella land.
        “It was a...surprise,” Stella allows. “But perhaps,” her eyes slide to me, “not as much of a surprise as it might have been.” But she still looks a little stunned.
        “Ah.” Fraser nods like he understands. I guess he does, come to that.
        Vecchio, sensing, I guess, that a Stella storm has passed over, crawls out from whatever rock he's been hiding under and claps Fraser on the shoulder. Fraser turns to look at him. “Come on, Fraser. I need to set up the score cards for the leagues tonight. I could use a fast typist.” Fraser pivots back to me before answering.
        “Uh...” he hesitates and then leans right into my space and asks softly, “Are you all right, Ray?”
        “Yeah, I got it covered, Fraser.” I muster up a smile. I don't know why I'm so nervous, anyway. It's just Stella. My ex-wife. The one who packed for me when she threw me out just to make sure I got the point. The one who didn't hesitate to cut me dead every time I tried to make nice the last year I was in Chicago.
        Maybe I do know why I'm nervous.
        “You're sure?” His voice is very uncertain. He's still leaning toward me and his eyes stayed locked on mine. Stella's watching over there, but I can't look away while I think what to do. I'm wimp enough to want him to stay, but macho enough to not want to admit that in front of Stella. Plus, Stella's never liked Fraser and I know she and I won't get anything worked out here if she's busy looking daggers at Fraser the whole time.
        I pull up a Mountie Mask of my own and try another smile. “Fraser, I'm good. Go play. I'll catch up with you in a bit.”
        Judging from his expression he's not convinced, but he glances at Stella and then follows Vecchio without further comment.
        “So what do you want, Ray?” Now Stella's arms are crossed and on her it just looks pissed. She shakes her head a little to get her hair out of her eyes, the better to pin me with that laser glare. I remember that gesture.
        I start with the obvious. “I came to say good-bye, Stella.”
        “Good-bye? You drove all the way down here to say good-bye? Where are you going?”
        I wave my hand toward Murray and Jimmy's vacated table and motion her to sit. She does. I sit down across from her. “To Canada.” Then I add, “With Fraser,” just so there's no doubt.
        She stares at me with her mouth open. It's not a good look for her.
        “Umm, you're going to catch flies, there, Stell.”
        Oops. That's done it. Too much time away and I've forgotten my Stella-speak. She hates looking foolish. Her eyes narrow and she's drawing in breath to let me have it, when Fraser suddenly appears carrying drinks.
        “Ah, Ray,” he says happily, as if he's found me after a long search. “I happened to notice you'd left your Coke in the snack bar area and I thought you might like a drink about now.” He hands me a fresh Coke that is in no way my old one which would have been nothing more than a soggy paper cup mess by now. “And, Mrs. Vecchio, I took the liberty of asking Murray what your usual drink preference might be and he indicated that a bottled water would probably suit you, so I also brought one of those.”
        With that he puts the drinks on the table, brushes the back of my hand with his fingers and beats a hasty retreat. I know I'm grinning like a loon when I turn back to Stella after watching him go.
        Stella isn't grinning. In fact, the expression on her face is so far from a grin, I'd have to call it an anti-grin, a black hole where grins go to die. I make sure to save mine before she gets it. “Well, he's certainly pretty.”
        The way she says it seems to indicate that the fact he's good-looking would be the only conceivable reason anyone would have to move to Canada with him. My hackles go up. “He's a lot more than that, Stella,” I say harshly.
        “Oh, so he's good in bed, too, is he? So you came to tell me you're moving up to Canada with your pretty boy-toy? Or is he moving back home with his?”
        I stare at her for a few seconds, hearing the words 'boy-toy' echo in my ears. The amount of venom in her voice would have killed a lesser who wasn't loved by Benton Fraser. Might have killed me a year ago. It doesn't feel real good right now for her to refer to the most important relationship in my life like it's some kind of casual fuck, but I realize, with some shock, that is by no means a lethal blow. I can handle this. “I'm, uh, yeah. I'm moving to Canada with my partner who I love and who loves me back.”
        “Whom, Ray.” Fraser's there again, this time with fries. “You should actually say, 'with my partner, whom I love.' Fries?”
        “Thanks, Fraser.” As I take the paper carton, I run my fingers over his, saying thanks for more than the grammar lesson.
        “Any time, Ray,” and he's gone again.
        I look back at Stella who's watching us pretty closely. She flushes and looks down. “So, now you're gay?”
        “Actually, I think I was always...”
        “Don't you say it!” She stands up and points at me, eyes blazing. I stand up, too, hands up, trying to placate her. “Don't you dare stand there and tell me that you think you were gay the whole time we were married!”
        Her voice has risen, and it carries across the still basically empty bowling alley. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Murray waving wildly to Jimmy at the shoe rental.
        “That's not what I was going to say.” My heart is pounding so hard I wonder if she hears it. I keep my hands up and try to keep looking her in the eye, willing her to calm down. I know she's going to hate making a scene and I really don't want everyone here fired just because Fraser had to come and apologize to Vecchio.
        Some of the fire leaves her gaze and I can see her glance quickly at the snack bar. Behind her I see Fraser standing up straight and tall watching me. I nod at him so he knows I'm all right and move my left hand to show him he needs to back off a bit. He puts his thumb to his nose, so I know he gets it.
        After a minute, Stella sits again, puts her face in her hands for a few seconds, takes a deep breath, then sits up, lacing her hands together and looks at me. I sit, too.
        “What were you going to say?” she asks quietly. Her fingers are clenched around each other so tightly her knuckles are white. She's...whoa. She's...scared. Stella is scared...of me? Of what I'm going to say? I pull myself together and try to remember what I was going to say.
        “I was going to say, I think I've always been bisexual. I just didn't let myself notice it because I was so in love with you,” I say honestly.
        She nods and then her eyes fill with tears. Her lower lip trembles and her hands unlace to cover her face once more. I can see things are going to get messy here in a minute, so I busy myself pulling napkins out of the dispenser. I make a pile and slide it across the table so she can reach it. She grabs the first three off the top and holds them up to her face. “I just don't think I could stand thinking our marriage was just a sham, a cover for you to figure out you weren't really attracted to me or any woman, for that matter. That it was all a lie...” Her voice won't go anymore, her throat makes a sound like a door slammed shut.
        “Stella,” and I'm whispering too. “Our marriage was not a sham. I loved you. Just 'cause I love him now doesn't change that I once loved you.”
        “You never told me this before.” Her voice is stronger, harder and she pulls the napkins from her eyes and meets mine directly.
        Suddenly, I'm staring at my soda straw like it holds the answer to the world's mysteries. One of the little plastic triangles on the lid is poking up instead of down. “I...I think you had a clue there, Stella.”
        “Jackson Wyatt,” she says without hesitating.
        “See? You did have a clue.”
        “I thought...I mean, it seemed like you him.”
        Poor old Jackson. I wonder what he's doing now–if he has any idea that he represents a defining moment in my life. “Yeah, I guess I was.” I scratch my chin.
        “So did you and he...ever...” She stops, tries again for the steely glare but her blush gives her away. Her eyes flick down to the tabletop instead.
        “Are you asking if I had sex with him while I was married to you?” I say quietly, feeling a slow burn start in my stomach. Is this what she's scared of? That I had sex with him and then kept having sex with her?
        She nods.
        “Why are you asking that?”
        She looks up at me, briefly. “Because you seemed so...and he was certainly interested...and I didn't know what that would mean to you...or what I meant to you at that point. And we never talked about it again. You never told me what was going on with you.”
        “You meant everything. You meant everything to me, God damn it, Stella.” My voice is shaking with anger. “And he meant nothing to me, except that he forced me to take another look at myself. I hadn't actually done that in a long while.” Because, and I can see this now, I'd been way too busy making sure Stella was happy. I look her in the eye. “I was married to you and in love with you. There was nothing to say about Jackson. I would have never fooled around on you. You should know me. You should have fucking known me.” I stand up.
        “Hot dog, Ray?” Fraser's there again, calming me, settling me just by standing within arm's reach holding a tray of food. I want to crawl inside him.
        “Uh, yeah. Yeah, thanks, Fraser.” He puts a plate with a hot dog and chips in front of me. I move the fries to make room.
        “Did you bring anything for me this time? Stella's trying to sound bitchy, but this time I think she's happy for the interruption, gives us both a few seconds to calm down.
        “I'm afraid, Mrs. Vecchio, I have only one hot dog and it's for Ray, but Murray suggested you might care for a hot Italian pastrami...sandwich.” He puts the other plate with a sandwich and fries in front of her.
        Stella stands up fast. “What was that? Was that a joke? Was that supposed to be some sort of joke?”
        Fraser cocks his head to one side, considering, “Well, not so much a joke as a true reading of events which could possibly be taken in an amusing way.”
        “Do I look amused?” The temperature in the room has dropped and her words are brittle. I stand up again.
        “Well, if pressed, I would have to say no. In all actuality, you look...rather agitated.” Fraser looks at her closely for a moment, then nods and puts his hands behind his back, stepping back so his right shoulder's in front of my left. He looks at me and then we both look back at her. This seems to make her even madder.
        “Well, Mr. Comedian, I would appreciate it if you would take your joke show on the road. I am trying to have a conversation here and I do not appreciate your continual interruptions for funtime.”
        “I'm afraid I can't do that, Mrs. Vecchio. Ray is my partner and, as such, I will not leave him in a situation where I believe he is likely to come to harm.” His words are polite, his voice mild, but back is ramrod straight and his feet are placed wide, like a Mack truck wouldn't move him.
        Stella looks at him and for a long moment, it's a standoff. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Stella gives it her best, but Fraser just stands there, stubborn and implacable. Something that Stella sees in his eyes must convince her this is one battle she's not going to win, because she backs down.
        “All right. If I promise not to rip him a new one, which I'm sure you'd find far too interesting, anyway–” nice face save, there, Stell, I think, “–would you please back off and let us finish this conversation?”
        My jaw drops. Stella said 'Please?' To Fraser?
        He holds her eyes about ten seconds longer, then looks at me. I nod and quirk my eyebrows. I'm calmer now, I can handle this. He nods briskly and backs off. Stella and I sit down.
        I take a breath. Calmer. Right. “Is that why you divorced me? You thought I was cheating?”
        “You know why I divorced you, Ray. Let's not have this conversation again.”
        “I don't think we've ever really had this conversation, Stella.” I lean forward. “Did you divorce me because you thought I was cheating on you?”
        She jerks her head and snorts in a way that is part laugh, part exasperation. “Indirectly.”
        “You-you thought you couldn't trust me? I'd be more likely to cheat because I
was attracted to guys, too?” So, she can still hurt me. I thought maybe I'd gotten past that.
        “No, not really, Ray.” She sounds tired and she's clutching her paper napkin with white knuckles. “I admit, I had a small doubt or two at first, when I realized you were attracted to men and to Jackson in particular. And I was...afraid.” She starts to shred the napkin. “I was afraid, like any wife, that you might be unfaithful, and that your unfaithfulness might possibly carry serious ramifications health-wise, for you and for me.” Deep breath and she stills her hands. “But thankfully, these fears, for the most part, were irrational and short-lived. Deep down I never doubted your attraction to me or your commitment to our marriage. Which, believe it or not,” she meets my eyes briefly, “has less to do with my ego and more to do with your nature.” She's sweeping the pieces of napkin back up now and balling them together in her fist. “You are a steadfast man, I knew you would have stayed with me forever had I not filed for divorce. At least, I believed that, then.” She squeezes her fist around the napkin pieces.
        “But a seed of ...a new awareness had been planted. When I watched you that night with Jackson Wyatt, I could see that you were very attracted to him. But I could tell that you weren't getting it.” She looks me in the eye. “You didn't recognize your own attraction until I pointed it out later that night, did you?”
        I shake my head.
        “We'd been married nine years by then, known each other for six more. Yet, in all that time, you had never once admitted to yourself that you were also attracted to men.” Her hands go out interrogatively. I feel like a witness on the stand.
        “There weren't that many....” I attempt.
        “That's not the point, Ray.” Hands together and point. I'm getting the full court press here. “ This was an essential part of yourself that you had hidden from me and from yourself for as long as I'd known you. What kind of marriage allows that kind of thing to happen? Allows one partner to live as only part of what he is?”
        “I wasn't unhappy, Stella. I was not unhappy.”
        “No, of course not. I don't think you would have ever let yourself think that there might be something better for you out there, that there might be someone more suited to your needs. That wasn't your way. You'd married me, and married to me you'd stay until the end of time.”
        “So you did it for me?” I can't keep the heat out of my voice entirely. Right. Are my eyes rolling? I believe they are.
        She stares back at me assessingly and I still know her, I can see she's considering going for it. But then she drops her eyes. “No, you're right, I didn't.” Her eyes come back up to mine, fast, though, pinning me against the seat. “But haven't you found someone better?” I just stare at her. She meets my gaze evenly. “What? Just because I find him irritating as hell means I can't see that he's good for you? That he cares for you?”
        She looks down and fiddles with her bottled water and Fraser comes up behind her and stands silently, looking at me, checking up on me. Stella glances up and sees my face, and rolls her eyes. “He's right behind me, isn't he? I don't even have to look I can tell by the look on your face.” She looks back down and starts on her fries. “What if,” she says around a mouthful, “you had met him that night instead of Jackson?” Her right eyebrow slides up.
        I look back at Fraser. His eyes widen and his left eyebrow goes up making his face mirror Stella's. She's still staring at me challengingly. But Fraser's not challenging me, he's just asking if I'm okay. I smile at him full force, telling him I am. He nods once, and half-turns to go back to what he was doing, but can't resist a look back to see if I'm watching. I am, my mind whirling. What if I had met him when I'd still been married to Stella?
        I turn back. Stella goes on. “So, I did do it for you, partly. But I also did it for me.” She pauses “We didn't seem to fit anymore. You were hiding parts of yourself and after a while it seemed like you were being dishonest with me.” I nod: I guess it was dishonest. “Once I figured out that you were hiding parts of yourself, I wondered what I might be hiding. So, I took a long hard look at myself. And I saw the same old story we see played out all the time–good girl marries wild and different bad boy and then spends the rest of her life trying to change him. As much as I loved you, I also wanted to be able to move among the people in the high society world I left for you. I needed to be able to do that for my job...and for my self-esteem.
        “You were a cop, Ray. A good cop in a noble profession, but you were never going to move comfortably in that world. You know it and I know it. I was a spoiled rich girl, mad at her daddy and married to a guy I knew my daddy would hate. How clichéd.” I flinch a little. “No, not you. You weren't clichéd. I was.
        “We made it work a long time, but at the end we wanted different things. I wanted a job, a career of my own, a chance to chart my own destiny. You were ready to settle down, have kids, and make a cozy domestic scene. And what seemed like a beginning to you seemed only like the end to me.” She pauses. “And as it turns out, we really didn't know each other all that well, after all.”
        This wasn't all news to me. I'd known what I was from the moment I'd fallen for Stella. But, for a while, I thought maybe I was more than that. And maybe I was once. “So, that's what this is?” I gesture at the bowling alley around us, at Vecchio and Fraser setting up for League night. “It's not exactly the Junior League here. This is charting your own destiny?” So I'm baiting her a little. I'm the one who was thrown over for a bowling alley.
        She doesn't rise to the bait, though. Maybe the spectre of Fraser is still looming behind me. “It may not seem so, but yes, it is. It's a profitable, steady business and we own it outright. I have no complaints.”
        “Are you happy now, Stell? Is he treating you right?” I have to ask. She's still my Stella and if he's not toeing the line, I reserve the right to pound him. Just like I reserve the right to tear out his heart if he hurts Fraser with one smart or snide comment over there.
        “Yes.” She looks at me directly now. No evading or blushing. She wants me to know this is the truth. “I am happy, Ray. Believe it or not, I like this life.”
        “Never picked you for being an alley cat, Stella.” I crinkle my eyes and let her know it's a joke.
        “Never picked you for being a man's man, Ray,” she counters smoothly, effortlessly slapping me back down. I laugh. A day where Stella feels she has to put me in my place, isn't all a bad day, you know?
        “Well, I gotta admit Vecchio does look better in Armani than I do.”
        Stella laughs too, but some of that laughter is pretty watery.
        “Don't cry, Stella.” My voice is gruff. Old wounds still hurt sometimes, for both of us, I guess. “I think you were right. I thought I knew you, but now” I shake my head and laugh, “it's pretty damn obvious, I hardly even knew myself. Things are better for both of us now. You've got your bowling alley and I've got a team of sled dogs who think I'm God.”
        She chuckles a bit at that, and things seem to settle enough for us to make some conversation. “So how is the gay scene in Chicago?”
        I snort. “Like I'd know.”
        “You didn't check it out?”
        I smile. “At first, I was too busy mooning over you. But I did get out a few times. Went to this gay bar over on Halstead before I went undercover.”
        “What was that like?” She sounds genuinely interested.
        “Weird. But the music was good and I passed the time talking to the bartender.”
        “No dates?”
        “Nah. If my heart's not involved...” I shrug.
        “What did the bartender look like?”
        I frown trying to remember. “Dark hair, I think. Blue eyes, kind of gray, I think.”
        “Sounds like you've got a type.” She glances meaningfully over to where Vecchio and Fraser are working. I look at Fraser, too. “Nah. I think I was just waiting.” He and Vecchio are finishing up whatever it is they've been doing and are getting up now.
        “For what?” Stella persists.
        “For Fraser.” And then he's there.
        The Vecchios, Ray and Stella, invite us to stay with them overnight. Evidently the invitation Vecchio extended before he'd gotten full disclosure is still good. Fraser and I, after eyeing each other and attempting to communicate telepathically, agree. I hope that I got that right. I hope he does want to stay with them. We leave them at the bowling alley, still setting up for League night before turning the whole place over to their night manager, and go back to the campground to get our stuff.
        We're rolling up the bedrolls, when Fraser says, “Would you like to walk on the beach...once we've finished here?”
        I look up from tying the roll closed in the prescribed Mountie fashion and act as if I'm considering. “What? You mean you aren't going to jump me this time? Use me as your personal...boy-toy?” I nudge him with my shoulder to let him know I'm just kidding.
        “Well, now that you mention it....” He drops his roll and reaches for me.
        No way, I think. I'm too wired and he's still wound too tight. So, I laugh and move away, holding my hands up. “No way, buddy. I'm waiting until we've got a bed and some clean sheets under us. You're not getting any more action here on this sandy floor.” I point down at the accumulated grit of two days and make my escape while he's distracted.
        After the bedrolls, the tent is only the work of a few minutes, although Fraser does insist on shaking it out before we fold it up. The tent site looks all empty when we're done.
        At the boardwalk, Fraser looks at me and raises his eyebrow. “Would you care to race?”
        “Nah, not this time.” I wave him on. “You go ahead if you want.”
        “I think,” he says, looking down the boardwalk, “I'll stay with you.” Meaningfully.
        “You'd,” I start and have to clear my throat. “You'd go faster alone,” I finish noncommittally.
        He stops and his hand on his arm stops me, too. There are people on the beach, but here on the boardwalk it's just us. “Not so, Ray. Members of a pack are more than individuals loosely grouped, you know. They are a unit, a cohesive system.” His hand slides down and he weaves his fingers through mine. “The support they give to and receive from each other makes each one able to accomplish more than could be accomplished alone.
        “The bond between mates is particularly strong. I think you must know that wolves mate for life. I consider you to be my...mate.” His fingers tighten. “I would not want to go without you, Ray. I don't think I could.”
        I step closer but can't keep my eyes on his. I look at the sandy walkway at our feet, instead.. My mouth opens without my permission. “Doesn't matter that I'm a guy, then? No girl wolf's going to take you away from me one day?” With horror, I hear myself blurt out my deepest fear.
        His feet slide between mine as I watch and he pulls our joined hands up to bump against my chin so I raise my head. “Would you go back to Stella, if you could?” he whispers, once I look him in the eye.
        I stare at him. He's unnaturally still. He's not rubbing his eyebrow, pulling his ear, cracking his neck or even licking that bottom lip. He's just waiting...
        I hear what he's saying by asking that, but I want to tell him what I figured out today. “Stella asked me, what I would have done if I'd met you instead of Jackson while I was married to her.” He cocks his head now, listening. “I can't imagine, Fraser. All my life I've believed that once you're married that's it, you're married, you make it work. But if I'd met you then,” I pull our hands up to my mouth and suck on his knuckles, “she wouldn't have stood a chance.” Then I risk it, move in close and kiss him hard. His eyes close and he holds my hand so tight, I can hear my bones creak. He whimpers into my mouth.
        He pulls our mouths apart and rests his forehead against mine. His eyes are still closed and he's drawing in big gasps of air. “There...” gasp “will *never* be anyone else for me. There is only you.” I get my free hand around the back of his neck and grasp it tightly.
        “Okay. Okay,” I say stupidly, too happy and relieved and in love to think of anything else to say.
        We pull apart eventually and take that walk on the beach. And if there are people out there who think maybe we walk a little too close or that our shoulders bump a little too often, well, screw 'em. Benton Fraser loves me. And we're pack. And that's all that matters in the world.
        We get over to the Vecchios' hacienda about seven o'clock. Stella's got some spaghetti and marinara sauce on the stove and Vecchio hands round the wine. Fraser surprises us all by taking a glass, I look at him and lift my glass. “To the Queen!” I say.
        “To the Queen,” Fraser echoes. “Thank you kindly, Ray.”
        Over dinner, Vecchio brings up singing. “So, Kowalski. What's this about singing?”
        “Not a thing.” I help myself to more garlic bread.
        “Ray has a very nice voice, actually.” Great. Now Stella's chiming in. “In high school, he did musicals.”
        Oh, damn it all. “One musical, Stella. One. And let's not forget who talked me into it.”
        Fraser's head is up and he's regarding Stella as if she's moving water in the frozen tundra. “Which musical, Mrs. Vecchio?”
        Stella rolls her eyes. “Please. I think you can call me Stella. You're eating at my table and sleeping with my ex-husband. We're” Her tone is sarcastic.
        “Euwww! That's enough of that!” Vecchio puts his hands over his ears. “There will be no talk about sex at the dinner table.”
        “Which musical was it, Stella?” Fraser's nothing if not a focused and persistent bastard.
        “Bye Bye Birdie,” my former wife answers with a sweet and completely insincere smile at me.
        “And do you sing, too?”
        “Stella can't sing,” I find myself saying in chorus with Vecchio. “Ow!” we both say next. I'm assuming Fraser kicked him, too.
        “No, Fraser. I do not sing. But I enjoyed seeing Ray in the leather pants.”
        “You are in so much trouble, Stella.” Now she grins for real and stands to clear the table. Lickety-split, Fraser stands also, so he can help.
        “Was he actually the lead?” he's asking as they go back into the kitchen. I put my head down on the table and pound it.
        After a dessert of ice cream and hot fudge sauce, Vecchio brings out Irish coffee despite the fact that it's still eighty-nine degrees out there. It's pretty good and obviously fairly well-spiked since they actually talk me into singing with Fraser. And Fraser, who might have defended my right to only sing for him before, relentlessly encourages me to perform 'just this once' now that he knows I've been on stage in the past. I drain my Irish coffee and relent.
        There's no question between Fraser and me about what we'll sing. We only know one song well enough that I could possibly perform it in front of anyone.
        Fraser pulls the leather ottoman, wide and square, away from it's matching chair and puts it in front of the fireplace. He sits on one side and I settle in on the other. He's warm against my back and we sit for a minute getting our breathing synchronized. This is how we always sang on the adventure. Sitting around the campfire, there's not a lot to lean against so slouching is pretty much the accepted position. But slouching doesn't do it for Benton Fraser, RCMP, singer-extraordinaire, fetishist for good posture. And I gotta admit, bracing myself against him keeps me straighter, makes it easier to breathe in enough air to make it all the way through the phrases without having to stop in the middle.
        When he pulls in his breath to begin, I close my eyes and concentrate on his voice and the feel of him against me and the movement of his shoulders to help me with the phrasing.

        “Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
        To find the Hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
        Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
        And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.”

        Fraser drops down to harmonize the second time we hit the refrain and I manage to hold the tune on my own. I think we sound pretty good. And I think, we found our way there, made our own Northwest Passage to the sea despite some pretty heavy obstacles. And now, I think it looks good for us finding our way from here on, too.
         After the singing, Vecchio takes us out back to the pool house. Bowling alleys must pay better than I thought. He opens the door and we go in to find a living room, complete with TV and VCR and a wet bar/kitchenette deal over in the corner. Nice. There's a bedroom and a bathroom down the short hallway. Very nice.
        “Okay, there should be towels in the bathroom and fresh sheets on the bed. Stella has Juanita keep it nice in here. Just give us a shout if there's a problem. Okay?”
        “Thank you kindly, Ray.”
        “No problem, Benny. Kowalski.” He jerks his head at me and walks to the door. I follow after shrugging at Fraser. I haven't done anything that I know about.
        When I get to the door, Vecchio pulls me outside onto the stoop. “I just want you to know, that I expect you to keep in down in here. There's such a thing as too much information, you know?” He's leaned so close to me to say this through his clenched teeth, that I'm tempted to lick him on his nose just to watch him freak out. I refrain.
        “Sure, Vecchio, we'll keep it down,” I tell him.
        “What's that, Ray?” Fraser's outside with us now, head cocked.
        “Vecchio wants us to keep it down when we're having sex, Fraser.” Vecchio's ears get red first and then his whole face flushes. I have to struggle not to laugh.
        “Ah. Well, I believe we can manage that. Good night, Ray.” And with that, Fraser pulls me inside by the front of my shirt and shuts the door firmly. I start to laugh, but the extra tongue in my mouth makes it difficult. God, he feels good.
        “Ray, Ray, Ray.” His voice is already breathless. Under my hands, I can feel him shaking. Day he's had, I'm not surprised he's coming a little unglued. I gather him up and hold him tightly, showing him with my body that there's nobody else for me but him.
        “Fraser,” I say against his mouth. “Fraser, let me do something for you.” I put my hand on his cock and slide my mouth across his jaw to suck on his earlobe. Under my hand I can feel him jerk and his shuddering moan in my ear tells me he gets it.
        I turn him around and push him back against the door. “Lock it,” I whisper. “Don't want the neighbors to get in if they come to complain about the noise.”
        I sink down to my knees and push his shirt up to lick his belly. Faint patches of red beard burn show where I marked him this morning. I lick him gently to make up for that.
        I love his stomach. How weird is that? I don't care. The combination of smooth skin and hard muscle just does something to me. I use small laps, little licks light and fast tracing each ridge with the tip of my tongue, laving each valley with the flat.
        I'm giving his navel some serious attention when I happen to look up and see the wonder that is Benton Fraser, turned on and horny. His eyes are half closed, his mouth is open, his head is rolling against the door and his chest is heaving. God, he's gorgeous. And the fact that I'm the only one who ever sees him like this makes my eyes sting with pure happiness.
        I nuzzle up into him and wrap my arms around him in a tight hug, overcome with some rush of emotion. He stops moaning and writhing and I feel his hand settle gently on my head. “Ray?”
        “S'okay, Fraser. I'm just loving you.” My voice is hoarse and doesn't sound a bit like it usually does.
        “And I you, Ray.” At that I look up into his eyes and see everything I'd ever hoped I'd see but never did with Stella. Pack.
        I sniff and rub my nose with my hand, enough sap, time for action. I kiss his belly and slide his shorts and briefs down his legs and suck him in. He gets with the program right away. Arching his back, he thrusts hard into my mouth. I just hold him like that, keeping my head completely still, feeling how close he is to exploding.
        He gasps, and whimpers, and threads his fingers through my hair restlessly. I let him go and start licking him–up, down, around and over the top, tasting his arousal, feeling my own rise to meet it. He's leaning hard on my head now, bent over and panting. I let his cock slip away from my mouth and wait until his eyes open and he looks at me.
        Slowly and deliberately I put my finger in my mouth and lick it from top to bottom. He watches like he's hypnotized. His breathing speeds up. When I add a second finger to my mouth, his eyes close and he groans, thrusting into the air between us. “Ray...” His whisper is agonized.
        Quickly, I take him back into my mouth just as he pushes forward and before I know what's happened, I've got him all the way down.
        I fight the urge to gag and swallow instead. The effect this has on him is amazing. His head rears back and his whole body tightens. I swallow again and his eyes cross and his hips thrust into me hard. Just as he thrusts again, I remember my fingers and use them to tease and circle behind his balls.
        He moans and pushes into me harder, wilder. That's what I want, I want him wild and free and totally beyond all the emotional upheaval of today. Hollowing my cheeks and pushing my fingers inside him, I get what I want. With a barely suppressed roar, Fraser comes long and hard and wonderful and I take it all.
        He slides down the door heavily ending up on his ass, legs bent, knees sprawled apart. He should look ridiculous wearing just a Mountie red shirt and matching red high tops, but he somehow manages to make the look work. Maybe it's the sated look on his face, or the way his hair is curling at his neck line.
        I feel a shiver go through me and suddenly I'm looking at a mental picture of me on his lap, sliding down on him, feeling him hard and hot inside me. I feel the rush start and close my eyes. Fumbling, I reach into my shorts and grab my dick to hold it off. I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding and open my eyes.
        Fraser is staring at me. His hair's a mess, his lips are shiny where he's licked them, and in between those thighs I can see signs of renewed interest.
        “See something you like, Mountie?” I ask him like I did years ago this morning.
        “Yes. You, Ray. Please?”
        “Please what, Fraser?” I feel cocky, and in charge. “Please let you fuck me? Is that what you want?” I know he does, I can't wait to hear him say it, I can't wait for him to do it.
        “No, Ray.” His voice is soft but steely. I'm completely confused. He comes out of his sprawl in a rush and bowls me completely over, I'm so surprised. “I want you...I need you...inside me.”
        He kisses me then like he's afraid of what else his mouth will say if he doesn't keep it occupied. My mind is whirling and it's all I can do to keep up with him.
        He wants me to fuck him? Oh, God, that's right. He said that this morning. Back in our jerk-off session, he said he had jerked himself thinking of me... inside him. My mind skitters away from that thought and I concentrate really hard on the way his ass feels under my hands (smooth, hot, hard) and the way his back left molars taste (marinara a la Stella)
        The video track in my head keeps showing me pictures of him fucking me and me loving it and I can't get it to switch off or at least switch our places. How can I fuck him? And why is this making me so nervous?
        With a growl, I tear my mouth from his and slide my way over to slather his ear, which frees his mouth to talk.
        “Please, Ray,” he says again, all breathy and pleading, his hips humping my thigh. He's definitely hot for this.
        “Why, Fraser? Why do you want that?” I breathe in his ear and send a prayer heavenward that it's not just more penance or part of his search for absolution.
        He stills the motion of his hips by what feels like sheer will, but his chest is still heaving. I don't move a muscle.
        “I... need you... I need to know we belong together...I need to know with my body that we're... pack.” He latches onto my mouth again. He's said all he can say and I've heard all I need to hear. Not absolution, no penance–just connection. Belonging. I get it. I get him. And boy, I'm going to get him good.
        “Okay,” I say in a gasp after pulling my lips from his with a sucking sound and a tingle. He was hanging on tight. “You can have what you want, but not here. This place has a perfectly good bedroom and I intend to use it.”
        He's up on his feet and reaching a hand down to me before I can say, “Lube.”
        “Damn,” I say as he pulls me up. “I don't have lube.”
        He flushes. “That isn't a problem.”
        “Oh?” I say and arch an eyebrow. “It isn't?”
        He gets redder. “I took the liberty of....that is, I felt it might be germane to....” He licks his lip and pulls his ear. “The Five P's, Ray,” he finishes finally.
        “Fraser, buddy, I am so glad you are a Mountie.” My mouth stretches my face, I'm grinning so wide.
        “And if you'd kindly hurry up, I'll be the mount-ee in an altogether different way as well.” He takes off down the hall, posture ramrod straight even though his bare ass is hanging out below his shirt.
        Once I've closed my mouth, I open it again. “They let you talk like that at the Depot, Fraser? They let you walk around bare-assed like that, too?” I call after him, following him down the hall. Then I think better of it. “Never mind!” I put my hands over my ears and go through the doorway. “I don't want to know...”my voice trails off at the sight before me–Benton Fraser, gloriously nude, stretched out on his belly on a king-sized bed.
        In a flurry of movement, my heart pounding, I strip off my T-shirt, drop my shorts and briefs, toe off my sneakers and launch myself onto the bed and onto him.
        He jumps a little and gasps, but we settle in nicely. My cock slides in between his thighs and it feels like home. I thrust a few times and suck on his shoulder.
        “You sure?” I ask, needing to know he still wants this.
        “Please, Ray.”
        “Done this before?”
        “Yes....a long time ago.”
        Hmmm...still waters. “Gonna tell me about that?”
        “Yes, of course...just...”
        “Not now.”
        “Now is not a time for stories,” I agree. “Remember how?”
        “Yes. Gradual stretching...then a slow...penetration.” On 'penetration' we both thrust downward and groan.
        “Yeah, yeah. That sounds about right,” I pant. I'm so hard, so turned on, that if I don't get moving soon there won't be any show left to get on the road.
        “You–you've done this?” he gets out.
        “Not with a guy, but the technique seems to be about the same. Plus I watched a lot of porn.” I push into him again and he moans. “Lube?” I ask.
        “On the nightstand.”
        Figures. He probably hung up his shirt, too.
        I reach for the lube, pop the top and drizzle it on my fingers. I close the top and drop it on the bed next to us. Fraser hisses when the cool plastic rolls against his side.
        “Sorry,” I whisper and push one slick finger in.
        He shakes his head and pushes back against me. As he moves away, I pull my middle finger down and push that in as he pushes back again. He moans and grinds himself on my fingers. Stretching, I search for his prostate. He grinds harder and I find it and stroke hard. He groans out loud and humps the bed hard.
        “Now,” he whispers urgently.
        “You've got to be kidding,” I pant back through a haze. “You're not ready.”
        “I want you inside me.”
        “You'll get me.” I rub his ass with my free hand trying to soothe him. “Try this first.” And for a few minutes, I scissor my fingers inside him, stretching, reaching for that smooth place inside him that makes him groan and hump the bed. Finally, I judge he's loose enough for more. It's an effort but I manage the third finger and find his prostate again.
        With a moan that Vecchio just might have heard, he pushes up on all fours, hips thrusting wildly. I stroke him again and his whole body shudders and his head drops down. His cock is leaking a trail of fluid from the tip to the bed. I look at him, all splayed out, turned on, mindless with desire and I start to shake.
        Gently I pull my fingers out and stroke my cock to slick it up. One touch is all I can stand. I get up behind him and push in slowly. Oh, God. Hot, tight, his body holding me like he'll never let me go. He pushes back and it helps and then he shifts his weight or something and suddenly I'm all the way in.
        I'm so blown away, so amazed I'm inside him, that we're connected in every way, that I don't want to move. Like ever. I lean over his back and rub my hands in circles over his hips just feeling him, feeling me, trying to stay in this moment for as long as I can.
        He's got other ideas though. With a definite buck, he makes it clear he wants me up and moving. Good thing he's good at non-verbal communication, cause he's too far gone to form words. The most I'm getting is grunts.
        Instead of rubbing lightly, I hold him tight and pull back and thrust in hard enough to make me see stars. “Ray!” explodes from his lips and I do it again, and again. He's grabbing at his cock now, trying to help himself along but the weight shift is moving the groove we've got going. I get my hands under his chest and pull him up off his hands so he's kneeling in front of me. His head lolls back on my shoulder and now he can jack himself without interference. I keep thrusting and watch, switching angles until I know from his breathing I'm hitting the sweet spot again.
        “Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray.” My name in time with his thrusts, I can't just watch, I get my hand around him and we jack him together. He thrusts into our hands and comes, whimpering, almost sobbing, in my ear, almost pushing me over an edge I'm already teetering on...
        Moving fast, I push his lax body down again. He lands on his elbows, manages not to go flat. Holding hard, I pump into him once, twice, three times and there we go there's the ticket, the whole he-bang and enchilada rolled up in one. When it's over, I feel like I've kicked the bucket, bought the farm, and taken a one-way trip to paradise. I don't care what the French say, there was nothing little about it.
        I pull out carefully, move to the side gingerly, and tiptoe to the bathroom on legs that may or may not understand my travel directions. Quick sponge off with warm water, another towel for him and I'm tiptoeing back to the bed where I collapse with a thud. I drape the towel over his ass and close my eyes. Next to me I feel him shift slightly, figure he's figured out what to do with the towel, hear him make his own trip to the bathroom.
        He comes back and pulls the covers down, sliding them carefully to get them out from under me. He gets in next to me and pulls the covers back up. Gotta love a guy who'll tuck you in at night. He pulls me to him and I go willingly.
        “That was...” he starts.
        “” I ask.
        “Huh.” I laugh sleepily.
        He nuzzles my ear.
        “What?” I ask, nuzzling back.
        “You..” he says.
        “Me,” I say back. “And you.”
        “Pack,” he says.
        “Damn straight,” I say.
        “Well, actually, Ray...” he starts.
        I snort and shove at his shoulder. “Fraser. Go to sleep.”
        We wake up in the morning and have a nice breakfast with Stella and Ray. No one makes any comments about last night, or this morning, with regard to noise or otherwise. I politely refrain from mentioning either time myself. Although, I do debate asking for a pillow for the long drive.
        They see us out to the car.
        “Good-bye, Benny,” Vecchio says with a smile and opens his arms for a hug. Fraser goes willingly and lets Vecchio pound him on the back in a manly fashion. He says something in Italian, and Fraser just laughs and his ears get a little red.
        “They are good friends.” I turn to Stella when she speaks. She's watching them, too.
        “Yeah,” I agree. “Best friends. Guess they'd have to be, all they've gone through.” I try a smile.
        “And us, Ray?” She looks at me from under the fringe of her blond hair. “Are we friends, too?”
        “Be better if we were, Stella.” I can't imagine how things will work if Stella and I can't be friendly. I want to be friends. I want Fraser to enjoy his friendship with Vecchio, which he won't if he thinks Stella and I are just tolerating each other. But I also want to be friends because she's...Stella. My first love, my best friend in high school, my wife for seventeen years, she's a part of where I've been. A part I don't want to give up.
        “Yes. I can see that.” She watches Vecchio and Fraser again.
        “But do you want that?” I want her to want to be friends with me for me, too. I never do learn, do I?
        She looks back up at me again with those blue, blue eyes. Then she hugs me tight. “Yes. I do want that, Ray Kowalski. You were my first Ray. Nothing's going to change that.”
        I hug her back, relieved, a little touched, a lot happy. “Thanks, Stell. I didn't want to give you up, either.” I whisper back.
        “Hey. That's my wife you're handling there.” Vecchio's there again and making like he's all territorial. I start to back off, but Stella hangs on.
        “Stuff a sock in it, Ray,” she retorts and squeezes me once more before releasing me. I back up until I'm next to Fraser. He shifts his weight and leans into me so his arm brushes against mine.
        “Well, we have a long drive yet, I imagine we'd best be on our way.” Fraser claps his hands together authoritatively.
        “Man, I do not envy you, Kowalski. Seventeen hours of Inuit stories.” Vecchio shakes my hand and grins evilly at me.
        “Oh, you know, they're not so bad. They kind of grow on you,” I answer, then step back and open my door.
        He grins again and backs up the sidewalk, putting his arm around Stella. “God, I hope so. Have a safe trip. Benny!” he calls to Fraser who's getting in the car. “Don't put him to sleep with the stories!”
        “Right you are, Ray.” Fraser shuts the door.
        “Good-bye, thanks for everything.” And finally I'm in the car.
        We back out, Fraser waves again, and then we're on our way. I glance at Fraser. “You okay?” I ask.
        “Yes.” He looks over at me and I see a peace in his eyes I haven't seen before.
        “So, you know how to go?” I point at the map he's got in his lap.
        “Oh, I think we'll have no trouble finding our path, now, Ray.” He keeps his gaze on me. At the next stop sign, I look over.
        “Yeah, you feeling pretty good we'll find our way, then?”
        “That's what this trip was about, Ray.”
        “Seems to me this trip was about what used to be, not about where we're going.”
        “In order to figure out where you are going, you must first determine where you have been.”
        “Oh, yeah?” My hand creeps across the seat and finds his. “So which way?
        “That way.” He points to the right. “Go that way.”
        “To the north?”
        “To the north.” His hand squeezes mine.
        “I'm with you, buddy. I'm with you.”