A/N: Written for the DS Match challenge in 2007. Thanks to china_shop for listening to me bitch about how her stupid challenge was killing me *g*, to SD Wolfpup for listening to me bitch about how China's stupid challenge was killing me, to Catwalksalone and Slidellra for very helpful suggestions in a very timely fashion, and to all of Team Romance for support, commiseration, and squee. And thanks also to China and Sageness for running the challenge in the first place!

 

Just Geography

 


One thing Ray had learned in Canada was that your problems didn't get further away the further north you went; they just got louder.

Which was why he was pretty pissed off to discover that even after he went back south, leaving his partner and best friend and apparently-not-boyfriend looking a lot sorry and worried and a little bit relieved at a pathetic excuse for an airport, one of the loudest of his problems showed up in Chicago anyway, in the form of one Ray Vecchio, The Real One.

"I can't work with him," he told Welsh desperately, pacing the Lieutenant's office like he was training for a wind-sprint.

"Look, V—Kowalski, I know it's gotta be strange for you, all right? But you have no partner and Vecchio has no partner, and I don't mind telling you I had to pull quite a few strings to get you both back on the job here, so I would appreciate it if you could at least attempt to act like rational adults and play nice."

"But Lieu—"

"Or," Welsh continued, "I hear they're looking for somebody over at the 2-4. You'd like that, right? Nice retirement community?"

Ray stopped in his tracks, and it took everything he had not to put his fist through the wall. "No, sir."

"All right. Then I suggest you and Vecchio try to set aside your differences. Or your similarities, or whatever it is that's the problem."

Ray just stood there for a few seconds, staring at the floor, forcing air in and out of his lungs. God-fucking-dammit, this sucked.

"Kowalski." Welsh's voice was gentler now, and Ray looked up. "Give it a month, okay? If it's not working after a month, we'll try something else."

Ray took a couple of deep breaths, and nodded. A month. Okay. He could deal with Vecchio for a month. "Okay," he said. "Thank you, sir," and he headed back out to the bullpen.

Vecchio was still there, sitting at his—Ray's—old desk, smirking. "Have a nice chat?"

Ray thunked a stack of case files on the desk. "These are open. If you find anything, call me."

"Kowalski—" Vecchio started, but Ray was already grabbing his keys.

"Gotta go talk to a guy about a thing," he called over his shoulder, and he hit the doors as hard as he could on his way out.

*****

The Cubs were down 8-3 in the eighth, making a good start on a post-All-Star-Break collapse, when Ray heard a knock on his door and opened it to find Vecchio standing there with his dress shirt unbuttoned above his loosened tie and a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand.

"Hi," Vecchio said.

"Hi." Ray kept his hand on the door, ready to slam it at any second. "How'd you get in?" The main door of the building was key-access only, which was supposed to prevent surprise visits such as this one.

"Are you kidding me?" Vecchio said. "It's like Grand Central Station down there—you might want to look into the security on this place, Kowalski, I'm not sure you're getting your money's worth."

"What do you want?" Ray demanded.

"Here's the thing. I'm not exactly doing cartwheels over this situation, either, but we're stuck with it, and that being the case, I thought it might be best to, you know." He held up the bottle. "Get some things out in the open."

Ray blinked at him. "You don't drink." The profile had been pretty clear on that subject—alcoholic father, drinks socially but sparingly—and Ray had been annoyed about that till he realized that no one seemed to really give a fuck whether he had all of Vecchio's little quirks down or not. Well, except Fraser, with the whole teeth-measuring thing, but, hey, that was Fraser, never could see the forest for the squirrel crap on the roots of the trees.

Vecchio just gave him a smile-that-wasn't. "Yeah, well, guess you don't know everything about me after all, do you, Kowalski?" He held up the bottle. "Now are we gonna have a drink or what?"

Ray shrugged and stepped back, letting his arm drop from the door so Vecchio could come inside.

"Gee, your hospitality is overwhelming," Vecchio said dryly as he brushed past.

"Yeah, I been taking some classes," Ray answered, and as he switched off the TV and headed into the kitchen to see if he had any clean glasses, he thought he caught the curve of Vecchio's grin out of the corner of his eye.

He did have clean glasses, as it turned out—mostly because he considered drinking out of the container to be his environmental duty, conserving precious soap and water resources and all—and some ice in the freezer that wasn't too old. So he brought both back to the living room, collapsed on the couch and jerked his head toward his spare chair. "Have a seat."

Vecchio did, though not before he poured them each a Friday-night-size glass of whiskey. Then, while the ice was still crackling, "All right. So we got some common history, here."

"Yeah," Ray said. He took a sip of the Jack, feeling it burn down into his jittering stomach. This was gonna be interesting.

"And I just want to get everything out in the open right up front."

"Good idea."

"Okay, so." Vecchio took a deep breath. "Stella."

"Stella?" Ray repeated before he could stop himself. That was not the name he'd been expecting to come out of Vecchio's mouth.

"Yeah, Stella," said Vecchio, giving him a curious look that Ray was not exactly thrilled about. "You know. Classy girl, blonde hair, likes vodka martinis, legs for miles?"

"Watch it," Ray snapped automatically.

"Ah, so you do remember. Good." Vecchio took a drink of his whiskey. "Everything that happened with Stella was my fault."

"Tell me something I don't know."

"You're a real charmer, you know that?"

Ray shrugged. "Think that's why they called me in to replace you?"

To Ray's shock, Vecchio laughed. A real laugh, not the kind that tended to end with fists. "Okay, Kowalski, I'll give you that one."

"Okay," Ray said, caught off-guard. "I mean. Thanks." Smooth, Kowalski. Real smooth.

"Look." Vecchio leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "I know you still care about her, and I do, too. It just wasn't right, and we both knew it, and we ended it and she got everything and we're friends. Okay?"

Ray looked at him, eyes narrowed, sizing him up. "If I call her, she gonna say the same thing?"

"If you call her," Vecchio said, grinning, "you're a braver man than I am."

Ray snorted out a laugh in spite of himself. He loved Stella, always would, but she did tend to get a little cranky right after a divorce. "Okay," he said. "Fair enough."

"Okay," said Vecchio. He sat back in the chair, knocking back some more whiskey. "So can we work together now? Or is there anything else we need to talk about?"

How about were you and Fraser fucking? Ray thought. Because I was supposed to be you and I did not get any of that action and in fact all I got was a lot of frostbite and dog hair, so if you made out better than I did then I think I'm entitled to a refund.

He shrugged. "Nope, can't think of anything," he said, and downed the rest of his drink.

Vecchio gave him another one of those looks that made Ray want to look over his shoulder for an interrogation lamp, but eventually, Vecchio just said, "Okay, good," clinked his glass against Ray's empty one, and finished off what was left in a couple of long swallows. He set the glass on the coffee table—on an empty pizza box, Ray noticed, not on the wood, or actually the crappy veneer that was masquerading as wood—and looked around the room. "Jesus Christ, Kowalski, you live like this?"

Ray looked, too, seeing his place through Vecchio's eyes: still-half-packed boxes stacked up against the wall, pile of takeout containers on the coffee table, beer bottle caps littering the carpet underneath the TV. Vecchio's eyes, he decided, were stupid. "It's the maid's day off. What do you care?"

"I don't," Vecchio answered, only the look on his face said maybe he did, and that that fact was as weird to him as it was to Ray. "Just think about doing your laundry once in a while, I gotta sit in an enclosed space with you sometimes."

"Yeah—nose like that, I can see why you'd be worried," Ray shot back, and he meant it as a zinger, a line in the sand, a clear hand-painted sign that they may have shared some Jack Daniels, and also an ex-wife and a crazy Canadian ex-partner, but that did not make them buddies, because he'd been burned before and Ray Kowalski could not be bought with a few snappy comebacks and a loosened tie. But he found himself smiling as he said it, and he couldn't help noticing how warm Vecchio's skin looked against the sharp white of his shirt, there where it was open at the neck, and fuck. He was not doing this again.

"Funny," said Vecchio. "You're a funny guy, Kowalski." He was smiling, too, leaning back against the chair with his arms and legs loose in what Ray suspected was as close as Vecchio ever got to a sprawl. And no matter what Ray might've wondered about Vecchio and Fraser, nowhere in Vecchio's file had it said he was queer, but Ray knew a vibe when he felt it and right now Vecchio was vibing like it was going out of style, like any second now there was gonna be a guy at NASA watching satellite footage going, "Yep, right there, 4304 North Sheridan, number 309, we are detecting a definite Vibe, initiate Possible Getting Laid Procedures." Which was a command that Ray, as a concerned and responsible officer of the peace, apparently could not resist following, because his body was drifting forward almost before he realized it, leaning into that relaxed Vecchio sprawl, and his head was fuzzy with whiskey and his skin felt hot and Vecchio's eyes weren't stupid after all, they were actually really...

"Hey," said Vecchio quietly, "I should go."

Mayday, mayday, the NASA guy was saying in Ray's head now, vibe aborted, require immediate evasive maneuvers—

"Yeah," said Ray. "Yeah, early day tomorrow." He stood up, and Vecchio did the same, but instead of making a run for it like Ray expected, Vecchio grabbed Ray's empty whiskey glass off the coffee table and made for the kitchen. Ray just watched him, because despite the cutting-edge tools at his disposal, even the NASA guy didn't have the first fucking clue what was going on.

Vecchio put both glasses on the counter next to the sink, eyed the soap and sponge for a couple of seconds, then shrugged and headed toward the door. "'Night, Kowalski," he said, sounding distracted, like his mind was already miles away. "Thanks for the drink."

"'Night," Ray answered. He found himself staring at the door as it swung shut.

*****

Ray wasn't sure what to expect after that; just because Ray (and NASA) knew that Vecchio was queer didn't mean Vecchio knew, or was willing to admit it, and Ray had been a cop long enough to be on the wrong end of his share of homophobic freakouts. But Vecchio seemed pretty cool about the whole thing, didn't try to avoid getting stuck in the car with Ray or jump back when they both reached for the same pen and their fingers brushed, none of that stuff. In fact, it was pretty much like they'd never talked that night in Ray's apartment, except that things were easier now, without the big Stella-shaped Issue between them (of course, there was still a big Mountie-shaped Issue, but Ray had no way of knowing if that was just his issue or if it was his and Vecchio's both, so he shoved it in a corner and covered it with a Canadian flag and figured eventually it would go away on its own). They got cases, they investigated cases, sometimes they solved cases, and nobody jumped off buildings or licked anything gross, and it was basically business as usual.

Actually, Vecchio was so damn normal about everything that after a few weeks, it was kind of starting to freak Ray out. Could he maybe have been wrong about the vibe thing? It had been late, he'd been drinking, and he was not about to admit this to anyone but it had been a while, all right, and maybe he was just so hungry for someone to touch him and have it mean what he wanted it to mean that he was seeing things that weren't there. Problem was, he was seeing things all the time now, like how Vecchio's ass looked in those fancy designer slacks, or how Vecchio's eyes got dark and cold when he was quietly putting the screws to some slimeball, or how his smile—which Ray didn't get to see often—was bright and warm enough to blow the NASA guy's readings all to hell. And this turn of events pissed Ray off to no end, because he was done with that shit, he had been down that road and checked that box and helped build the frigging I Had the Hots For My Partner and He Was Clueless gift shop, and Vecchio was the one who had started this whole stupid thing, anyway, and now Ray had to deal with the consequences, and he was sitting in his apartment on a Saturday night with a beer and dwelling on the vast cosmic unfairness of it all when Vecchio showed up at his door wearing a suit but no tie and tugging a little at his collar.

"Get dressed," he said, "I'm taking you out for dinner," and Ray said,

"Um. Okay," and barely managed to catch himself before he shut the door in Vecchio's face.

Instead he swung the door open, left Vecchio sitting on the couch and then smoothly and suavely tore through his closet until he found something to wear. Which made him feel a little more like a fourteen-year-old girl than he would have liked, but it was worth it when he came back out into the living room wearing his good jeans and a dark grey t-shirt under his black leather jacket, and Vecchio's eyes kind of widened and he took a quick breath.

Ray grinned. "This okay?"

"Yeah," Vecchio answered after a couple of seconds, his voice a note or two lower than usual. "That's, ah. That's fine."

"Okay," Ray said, "good." And it did feel good, having someone look at him like that, made him think for the first time in a while about choosing his clothes in the morning based on something other than a sniff test. Though that was assuming he lived to see the morning, which was not exactly a sure thing when Vecchio was driving, so he figured he could cross that bridge after Vecchio hadn't dumped them off of it.

'Course, if Ray had a car like Vecchio's—a 1990 Toyota Corolla, alley-snow gray—he might've tried to drive it off a bridge, too. But they made it to the restaurant only getting honked at three times and flipped off once, and it was a nice little place that Ray'd never been, flickering candles and quiet Latin music and rich red tablecloths that had been ironed but not starched. The conversation stumbled around at first, as if they hadn't about cleared the bullpen earlier arguing over a partial fingerprint, and then Vecchio happened to mention one of Maria's kids had ended up with detention again and Ray suddenly remembered picking the same kid up from detention once—Ma Vecchio had cornered him and Frannie at the station and Frannie had come up with some lame excuse and Ray'd had thirty-some years to develop immunity to Polish Catholic guilt but Italian Catholic guilt, that was a whole new strain, he had nothing against that—and before he knew it he and Vecchio were trading Academy stories over cheesecake wedges the size of their heads and all the chairs were up on the other tables and the waiter was doing his best not to look at the "closed" sign on the door.

As dates went, Ray'd been on worse.

Vecchio picked up the check while Ray was in the bathroom, a sneaky move that Ray should've anticipated except that the last time he'd used it he'd been seventeen and paying for Stella's hamburger. Vecchio had already tipped the waiter, too, but Ray chucked an extra ten bucks on the table for the kid anyway as they got up to leave.

Vecchio gave him one of those smiles, and up close, it was damn near a physical thing; Ray could feel it in his nerve endings. "You're such a soft touch, Stanley."

They were out on the street by that time, and it was busy enough that Ray wasn't sure it would be the best time to give Vecchio a demonstration of exactly what kind of touch he was, so instead he nudged Vecchio's shoulder with his and murmured, "Keep calling me 'Stanley' and you'll never find out," and listened to Vecchio's low laugh as he moved around to the driver's side of the car.

They were quiet on the ride back; despite knowing all the shit that went down in the city after dark, Ray still loved it, the buzz of activity and anticipation and the streetlights turning everything cool blue. Vecchio didn't push him, didn't gun the engine through yellow lights, didn't even turn on the radio, just sat there and smelled good and flicked a glance at Ray every so often, each one like a tiny electric zap until Ray's whole body was humming.

When they got back to Ray's apartment, Vecchio said, "I'll walk you to your door," which made Ray grin, because that was a code he hadn't heard in a while. His mind was already racing as they rode the elevator up together, giving him a preview of the upcoming feature, quick flashes of Vecchio's hands on his bare chest, Vecchio's cock in his mouth, Vecchio's teeth on just the right spot on his wrist. Ray's brain was Academy-Award-worthy when it came to that stuff, so much so that it took him a couple of seconds to notice that Vecchio had grabbed his hand before he could get the key in the lock.

"We're gonna do this right, Kowalski," Vecchio said, and his hand was just the slightest bit unsteady but his eyes were determined.

Ray cocked his head, then grinned. "Well, I kinda got my own improvisational style going, here, and I have not had a lot of complaints, but—"

"I'm serious," Vecchio interrupted.

"What're you talking about?" Ray asked, narrowing his eyes. If Vecchio had just been fucking with him this whole time, if this was some sort of revenge bullshit or fucked-up hazing or—

"I just..." Vecchio tightened his fingers on Ray's hand. "I just want to do this right. Okay?"

"What does that mean?" Ray asked. His pre-sex buzz was settling into a cold lump in his stomach, but Vecchio wasn't backing away and so Ray didn't, either.

Vecchio took a deep breath, then, "It means I kiss you goodnight and go home."

Ray couldn't help it, the laugh just slipped out, loud in the small hallway. "You what?" he whispered, hoping he hadn't woken up Mrs. Candido across the hall. "Do I look like the prom queen to you, Vecchio?"

"You really want me to answer that?"

That was more like it. Ray leaned a shoulder against the door, looked up at Vecchio through his eyelashes with his best fuck-me grin, which had worked pretty well for him in the past if he did say so himself. "C'mon. We're both healthy adult guys, here. And you already bought me dinner. You are not going to convince me that the entire way back from the restaurant, all you were thinking about was a goodnight kiss."

"No," Vecchio admitted quietly. There was enough heat in that one word to make Ray kind of woozy.

"Okay," he said. "So."

"So," Vecchio mocked, "nothing. Doesn't matter what I was thinking about, only matters what I'm gonna do. Some people have a space between thought and action, Kowalski; you should try it sometime."

Ray rolled his eyes. "Yeah, so I can get a goodnight kiss instead of goodnight laid? Hey, that's a real persuasive argument, hold on a minute while I think about the error of my ways."

Vecchio gave him a slow, wicked grin that had Ray's brain firing right up with the preview again. "Don't knock the goodnight kiss till you've tried it," he murmured, then leaned in and pressed his mouth to Ray's.

He tasted like good red wine and cheesecake, his tongue hot and slick and sliding hungrily between Ray's lips. Ray fumbled out with one hand and hooked a couple of fingers behind the leather of Vecchio's belt, and Vecchio made a kind of strangled noise and then fell forward, angling so he had Ray pressed hard against the cheap metal door, working a thigh between his legs. Ray gasped into Vecchio's open mouth, spread his legs wider, and this was a stupid-ass thing to be doing in the hallway but Ray liked that, liked the sharp edge of danger to it, and from the way Vecchio was rubbing his hard-on against Ray's thigh, it seemed like Vecchio liked it, too. Which was one of the things Ray was starting to appreciate about Vecchio, along with the sounds he was making in the back of his throat, and the way his hand was fisted in Ray's jacket, and the small of his back, the muscles warm and hard under Ray's fingers as he worked them down toward Vecchio's ass.

Yeah, Ray was appreciating a hell of a lot about Vecchio right now, which was why he did not appreciate it in the slightest when Vecchio braced one hand on the door next to Ray's head and shoved back, leaving Ray rock-hard and panting against the door.

"See?" Vecchio managed, gulping air, himself. His shirt was half-untucked. "Goodnight kisses are underrated."

And Ray should've been pissed off at him, but with the way Vecchio was looking at him, all blurry eyes and promise, and still with that weird, burning sincerity... Ray lifted a shoulder. He'd gone along with a hell of a lot crazier things. "Guess so."

Vecchio blinked, like that hadn't been the answer he was expecting, then nodded. "Okay." He nodded again, cleared his throat. "Okay. 'Night, Kowalski." He turned, and made it all of four steps before he bumped into one of the doorframes.

"'You okay to drive?" Ray inquired helpfully, snickering.

Vecchio flipped him off without looking back.

"Freak," Ray muttered, still grinning, and shook his head as Vecchio disappeared into the elevator.

*****

The next morning, he cornered Vecchio by the coffee pot when no one else was around.

"Hey," he murmured in Vecchio's ear, leaning over his shoulder to get to the stir sticks. "I jerked off twice last night thinking about you."

Vecchio's neck flushed bright red; his eyes were glittering.

"Just thought you should know," Ray told him cheerfully, and headed back to his desk whistling.

*****

"So you've managed to keep from killing each other?" Welsh asked from behind his pastrami sandwich.

"Yeah," Ray said, "Yeah, you could say, that," and Welsh said,

"Good."

*****

"Vecchio." Ray's fingers tapped restlessly on the side of his seat. He'd never liked stakeouts anyway, but this was fucking torture, trapped in a small space with a constant hard-on and a willing-but-not-really partner. "I appreciate that you're trying to be all Quiet Man about this, I really do."

"Quiet Man?" Vecchio asked without looking away from his binoculars.

"Yeah. You know. John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara? 'No patty-fingers if you please'?"

Vecchio did look away then, enough to raise an eyebrow. "That is the worst Irish accent I have ever heard."

"Thank you, Siskel and Ebert, but that's not the point."

"Point? You have a point? Well, that is news."

Ray leveled two fingers at him. "Look, you may think that you can distract me by being an asshole, but the fact is that you are an asshole every day and I am now used to it, so you're S.O.L. on that one."

"Okay, Officer, I confess. Now what am I confessing to?" Vecchio's tone was casual but he was back to the binoculars again, and Ray knew an opening when he saw it.

"In the past three weeks, we've gone to dinner four times, watched the Cubs get their asses kicked three times, had dinner while watching the Cubs get their asses kicked once, and spent most of a Saturday working on my car."

"Yeah, so?"

"So," Ray continued, "at no point during any of those activities did you let me exercise my God-given right to blow you if I want to."

Vecchio's fingers tightened on the steering wheel, and Ray grinned; that had been pretty much his only comfort during these long, blue-balled weeks, saying stuff like that and watching Vecchio try not to react to it. Well, that and the time he'd managed to catch Vecchio in the supply closet, but even there, he'd barely made it past second base. Aside from that, it had mainly been a lot of making out on his couch and in the front seat of his car and in his kitchen and in the garage and once in an alley behind a bar. And making out was great, and what with the usual rush to get to the main event Ray had actually sort of forgotten how big a fan he was of making out, but he was also a fan of coming under circumstances not involving his own hand, and he was starting to wonder if maybe something was wrong.

"I told you," Vecchio said, "I wanna do this right."

Ray thumped his head back against the head-rest. "And you're waiting for... what? The planets to align? A black bear to come to you in a dream? Do you need a signed affa-thingy from the Pope? What?"

"Affidavit," Vecchio corrected absently.

"Vecchio."

"What?"

"'What," Ray repeated, gritting his teeth. "Hey, if you want out, just say so, okay? No hard feelings. I can get a transfer, I hear the 2-4's looking for somebody."

"Kowalski." Vecchio let the hand holding the binoculars fall to his lap. "I don't want out. I'm the one who keeps coming over to your place, remember?"

Point, Ray admitted to himself, feeling his ears get hot. "Well, then what's your problem?"

"My problem," Vecchio shot back, "is that I've spent most of my life fucking this sort of thing up, and I figure we're both fucked up enough, and I don't want to do that here, okay? Jesus. What are you, sixteen?"

Ray sighed. It was hard to figure a guy who liked you so much he didn't want to fuck you. "I'm just—"

"Three o'clock," Vecchio said suddenly, pointing, and he was right—O'Malley was on the move.

"We're not done with this," Ray warned as he popped open the passenger side door.

"I'll call for backup," was all Vecchio said.

Ray sighed again and took off after O'Malley.

*****

Ray leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, rubbing at the headache that had settled just above his left eyebrow. "It's Friday," he complained. "Fridays should not be allowed to suck this much."

"Amen," said Vecchio.

It was almost eight o'clock and pissing down rain outside; the bullpen was a ghost town. Huey and Dewey had ducked out hours ago, muttering something about a vital investigation down at Billy's Brewhouse. Welsh's new girlfriend had showed up at 4:45 with dinner reservations. Even the janitors had come through early. Ray and Vecchio, however, had been playing loose-cannon cop/cut-off-your-pinky-if-you-look-at-him-funny cop with O'Malley the entire day, and by the time they'd finally gotten what they needed out of him, gotten him processed, dotted and crossed everything...

"I think maybe I shoulda been a bartender or something," Ray said thoughtfully. "Good tips, free beer. Ooh, and bachelorette parties. I would be all over that."

Vecchio laughed. Ray heard a chair creak, and then a warm hand on the back of his neck, nudging him forward, massaging gently. Ray exhaled and let his chin drop to his chest.

"Well, it's never too late to follow your dreams, Kowalski," Vecchio told him. His fingers dug in harder and Ray groaned softly. "Though if you left, I don't know who'd eat all the barbecue chips out of the vending machine."

Ray huffed out a laugh. "Hey, that's a valuable service. Those chips aren't just gonna eat themselves." Talking about food made his stomach growl, echoing around under his desk.

Vecchio chuckled. "You eat anything today?"

"No. You?"

"Nope. C'mon, let's get out of here."

They went their own ways in the parking lot, and it wasn't until Ray got home that he realized that he and Vecchio had never actually agreed that "let's get out of here" meant "let's go back to your place." After he'd splashed some cold water on his face and ditched his wrinkled work clothes for jeans and a t-shirt and flipped aimlessly through the channels for a while and Vecchio still hadn't showed up, he was starting to get twitchy. Sure, it was raining, but traffic hadn't been that bad, and unless Vecchio was taking a seriously scenic route...

Ray jumped when the phone rang.

"Hey," said Vecchio when Ray picked up, "you wanna buzz me in? About two more seconds here and I'm gonna have to build an ark."

"Wuss," Ray snorted, trying to keep the stupid grin off his face as he punched "9" and then hung up.

A few minutes later, Vecchio was standing in his doorway, a paper grocery bag in his arms and his trenchcoat dark with rain. Ray pulled him inside, set the paper bag on the floor at their feet, and backed Vecchio right up against the door, licking into his mouth. He slid his hands up underneath Vecchio's coat, over his chest, felt the tension in Vecchio's muscles melt into warmth as they kissed.

Ray kind of lost track of time for a while after that, but eventually Vecchio eased him back. "Food's getting cold," he said, ducking forward for a last, quick kiss, then slid sideways and out of Ray's reach, grabbing the grocery bag on his way by.

And as bad as Ray wanted Vecchio, he had to admit that right this second, he wanted food even more, so he just bit his lip and shook himself and then followed Vecchio into the kitchen. "Want a beer?"

"Sure."

Vecchio liked the fancy microbrews. Ray had figured this out, and while it was sort of embarrassing to have that kind of thing in his fridge, it wasn't like he had a lot of houseguests, so he figured it didn't make much difference. He popped one open and wandered over to sniff at the container that Vecchio had pulled out of the bag.

"What's that?"

"This," Vecchio told him, taking a long sip of beer, "is Eleanor Defoncesca's famous minestrone soup."

"Famous, huh?" Ray sniffed again. His stomach didn't so much growl as roar this time. "I never heard of it. But if it tastes anywhere near as good as it smells, I'm gonna have to marry her."

Vecchio grinned. "She's eighty-five, you pervert."

Ray took a swig of his own beer. "I am beloved by women of all ages, Vecchio."

"Uh-huh. You got a saucepan somewhere that doesn't have three inches of rust on it, Romeo?"

"A what-pan?"

Vecchio snorted and shoved him out of the way. "Never mind. Get outta here, you're cramping my style."

Ray was not about to look a gift couch in the mouth, so he wandered over, put some blues on the stereo, then collapsed on the couch and let himself drift on the steady patter of the rain on the windows and the soft guitar rolling through the speakers and the occasional clang of Vecchio doing whatever he was doing in the kitchen. Ray didn't mean to fall asleep, but the next thing he knew Vecchio's fingers were slipping through his hair, scratching gently against his scalp.

"Hey. Sleeping Beauty. Time for dinner."

When Ray dragged his eyelids open, all he could see for a couple of seconds was bright, warm light. Vecchio had cleared off the coffee table—and how Ray had slept through that, he had no idea, because there was a pile of junk on the floor now that was halfway up his shin—and there were two bowls of soup steaming invitingly on top of it. Each bowl had its own plate next to it, too, with a sandwich neatly sliced and oozing melted cheese. Two tall, thin candles in brass candlesticks were spreading a cheerful glow from the middle of the table, and Vecchio must've brought those himself; Ray hadn't kept candles around for years. The blues were still on the stereo, thrumming low.

Ray blinked up at Vecchio, who was watching him. "Vecchio, this is... you didn't have to do this."

"It's grilled cheese and soup, Kowalski. Not exactly fine dining." But he was smiling.

"Yeah, well, I'm not really much of a fine dining guy," Ray admitted.

Vecchio smiled wider. "Yeah, I know." And Ray was expecting him to say it... not like he was looking down on Ray for it, exactly, but at least teasing, at least I know but I like you anyway. Because it only took one look at Vecchio's woven-by-virgins-under-the-full-moon suits to figure out that he was a fine dining sort of guy. But instead he just said it easy and warm, like it was no big deal that expensive restaurants made Ray feel like his clothes were three sizes too small, and that, well, that was new.

"You want a beer?" Ray asked him. Which was not exactly what he meant to say, but was what his brain came up with. He really wondered about his brain sometimes.

"Nah, I'm good," Vecchio replied. He rubbed his hand through Ray's hair. "Mangia, it's getting cold."

So they mangia-ed, which took them all of about fifteen minutes, seeing as they were both too busy shoveling hot food into their mouths to say much more than "mmmm." There was a lot of smiling, though, and Ray realized halfway through his minestrone that he liked to watch Vecchio eat. Food seemed like it meant something different to Italians than it did to the rest of the world, like it was a ritual thing, or a record; more often than not, Vecchio seemed to keep track of time by what he'd been eating (or hadn't been, thanks to O'Malley the Confession-Impaired). And Ray'd never really gotten that before—food was food, you got hungry, you ate it, wham-bam and what's for dessert—but sitting here with the candles flickering and the grilled cheese perfectly toasted and Vecchio looking completely relaxed like he almost never did... Ray was starting to see the appeal.

"You want more?" Vecchio asked when Ray had slurped the last of his soup.

Ray looked over at him, at the way the candlelight made his skin look gold and his eyes bright green, and hell yes was the first thing that popped into his head. "I'm stuffed," he answered. "You?"

"Me, too." Vecchio reached for Ray's bowl, but Ray knocked his hand away.

"I got it."

"Okay." Then, as Ray got up and collected the dishes, "The sink's that silver thing over there, underneath the coffee cups."

"Ha," Ray said. "Pretty strong words coming from a guy who, for all I know, doesn't even have a sink." Vecchio claimed that his apartment was too small for company and there was no parking on the street, which was why they always ended up at Ray's. Ray wasn't buying, but if Vecchio wanted to keep his place to himself, that was his business.

For now.

"You wanna dance?" Vecchio asked as Ray came back into the living room. He was bent over, looking at Ray's CDs. "I hear you like to dance."

"Geez," Ray said. He put his hands on Vecchio's hips from behind, and when Vecchio straightened up, Ray kissed the side of his neck. "Candles, dancing... you trying to get me into bed or something?"

"Maybe," Vecchio said. He turned in Ray's arms so that they were chest to chest; Ray could feel Vecchio's heart beating against his ribs.

Holy shit. He really was trying to get Ray into bed.

Oh thank Christ fucking finally, was Ray's first and loudest thought, followed by trying to remember the last time someone had gone to this much trouble to get what they could've gotten a hell of a lot easier. "Vecchio," he said. All of a sudden, he didn't know where to look. "You don't—I'm not—I don't need—"

"It's not about what you need, Kowalski," Vecchio said quietly. His eyes looked huge, so close to Ray's, and he was starting to breathe faster.

Ray inhaled, then exhaled slow. Jesus. He didn't know how to do this. "Okay," he said. He slid his hands up Vecchio's arms. "Then let's dance."

Ray hadn't danced with a whole lot of guys before, but whenever he did, there was always the pre-dance dance, where they flipped their arms around and laughed awkwardly while they tried to figure out who was going to lead. It was the same with Vecchio, though he shrugged one shoulder and let Ray lead easy enough, which was kind of surprising considering they had to leave an extra ten minutes or so before they went anywhere so they could argue over who was driving. And Ray tried to do things Vecchio's way, he really did, with the taking it slow and the smelling the roses and whatnot, but Vecchio smelled like rain and oregano and good cologne, and Ray could see his pulse beating in his long neck, and the music was soft and sultry and Ray wanted wanted wanted, and they didn't make it more than halfway across the room before they were kissing.

Vecchio didn't seem to mind, though; in fact, he seemed right on board with the whole thing, opening his mouth for Ray's tongue, his hand smoothing along Ray's shoulder and up to cup his jaw. And Ray and Vecchio had done their share of kissing over the past few weeks, but this felt different, like Vecchio had been holding something back and now he was pouring everything he had into it like a dam breaking, and Ray was reeling.

"C'mon," he managed when he could tear his mouth away, "we're not doing this out here," and they stumbled together toward the bedroom, knocking into the wall a few times on the way. Ray had Vecchio's shirt unbuttoned by the time they got there, shoving it off Vecchio's shoulders, remembering just in time that he should probably throw it on a chair rather than the floor.

Vecchio stopped kissing him long enough to grin. "Thanks, Kowalski," and returned the favor by hauling Ray's t-shirt over his head.

Bare skin to bare skin, and Ray's breath clogged in his throat; he half-expected to see sparks everywhere they were touching.

"I've been wanting to do this," Vecchio told him, unbuttoning Ray's jeans and leaving them a pool on the floor, pushing him down on the bed. "God, you have no idea how bad I've been wanting to do this."

Ray raised an eyebrow at him. "Uh, I think I got an idea."

Vecchio laughed and stretched out on the bed next to him. "Okay, fair enough." He kissed Ray's mouth, one hand mapping Ray's chest, his stomach, his nipples. Then he dragged his tongue down the side of Ray's neck. "Fuck, Kowalski, you taste so good." Open-mouthed kisses on his collarbone, down his chest, licking and nipping. After all the time they'd spent not quite getting naked together, Ray's body had been primed and ready to go almost since they'd started, and he was half out of his mind now, diamond-hard and wanting so bad he could hardly see.

"Jesus," he choked out, rubbing his hand through Vecchio's short hair, feeling the buzz and tickle against his fingers. "Jesus, Vecchio."

Vecchio nuzzled into the skin where Ray's legs met his pelvis, his chin almost brushing Ray's cock. Almost, not quite, over and over again until Ray groaned in frustration and tried to thrust up, but Vecchio's hand was on his hip, holding him down.

"Okay, Kowalski, okay." He sucked the tip of Ray's cock into his mouth and just that, that first rush of wet, slippery heat, and Ray almost came right then and there.

"Oh, Christ, Vecchio, oh, fuck—"

Then Vecchio swallowed him down all the way, tongue swirling rough and messy, making up with his fingers what his mouth couldn't reach. Ray scrambled for something to hold on to, one hand clutching Vecchio's shoulder and the other one reaching up for the thin iron of his headboard. He was so close now, so close, and he tightened his fingers on Vecchio's arm.

"I'm gonna—" he gasped, trying to give him some warning, but Vecchio stayed right there with him, sucked him down again and moaned a little in the back of his throat. One last swipe of Vecchio's tongue and Ray felt all the coiled tension inside him burst into brightness, turning everything red and gold around him as he spurted helplessly into Vecchio's mouth.

The best things in life are worth waiting for, Ray's ma always used to tell him, and Ray'd always thought that was crap; at this point, though, he was starting to wonder if she had a point.

As soon as he could make his arms work, he dragged Vecchio up for a kiss, tongue diving deep, chasing his own flavor mixed with Vecchio's. Vecchio was hard and hot against Ray's hip and Ray wanted to know what he tasted like, wanted to pin him down and suck him till he was begging, but he wanted to see his face, too, wanted to see what he looked like when Ray made him come for the first of what he sincerely hoped would be many times. So he rolled away long enough to grab the lube out of the bedside table, dripped some sloppily on his fingers and reached for Vecchio's cock, loving the smooth weight of it curved into his hand.

Vecchio's mouth dropped open and his whole body spasmed against Ray's, and Ray grinned. Vecchio really had been wanting this. And Ray was tempted to tease him, make him wait just like he'd been making Ray wait. But then Vecchio leaned forward to kiss him and there was something in it, something that had nothing to do with scratching itches and swapping bodily fluids and everything to do with knowing what kind of chips Ray liked best, and Ray felt a knot in his throat and he just wanted to make Vecchio feel good, as good as possible.

"Come on, Vecchio," he whispered between kisses, stroking harder, feeling Vecchio's chest heaving against his, "come on."

All his plans about wanting to see Vecchio's face and he missed it after all; their mouths were pressed tight together, sweet and desperate, when Vecchio's body bowed tight and he came all over them both.

*****

After that, Ray was basically sunk. Autumn tipped over into winter and he barely noticed the cold, not with Vecchio showing up at his place more nights than not to keep him warm. And that showing-up was something Ray was still getting used to; all his life, he'd been the one chasing, the one climbing into Stella's window after midnight or getting buried in a Canadian snowdrift trying to keep up with Fraser. With Vecchio, though, it seemed like every time Ray turned around to look for him, Vecchio was right there, right behind him or next to him or wherever Ray needed him to be.

Which was freaky at first, in that Ray didn't know what to do with himself when he wasn't doing all that window-climbing and snowdrift-burying stuff, but after a while he realized that he could use that time for other things, like spending more time down at the Youth Center or, hey, actually solving cases. In spite of Welsh calling them on the carpet every so often for their constant bitching at each other—Ray damn well knew that Vecchio only picked Superman over Batman to fuck with him, because Batman was clearly way cooler, and Vecchio was a reasonable guy, when he was not being a stubborn bastard, he had to see that—their solve rate was good, and improving all the time. Not as good as when Ray'd been working with Fraser, of course, but then again, no one laid any voodoo curses on him, either, so it seemed like a fair trade.

So the Chicago winter was treating him pretty well for once, and in fact, the night of the first snow, Ray was shaking and sweating in his bedroom, feeling the perfect stretch and burn of Vecchio pushing inside him slowly, slowly, and Vecchio murmuring, "God, Kowalski, so good, so tight, oh God" in his ear. Which, at that particular time, Ray thought was maybe the only thing he wanted to feel and hear anymore, ever, and they woke up the next morning to ice sparkling over all the trees on Ray's street and no idea how it had gotten there. And, okay, so Ray still hadn't seen Vecchio's apartment and they still never mentioned certain Canadians of their mutual acquaintance, but all things considered, he thought they were doing all right for a couple of thirtysomething cops with a severely fucked-up history, and Ray figured that was about the best they could ask for.

A side-effect of all of that was that Ray got roped into Vecchio family dinners every few weeks. Not as Vecchio's boyfriend, of course, though Frannie rolled her eyes at them enough that she obviously knew what was up, and had threatened to tell her Ma on them once or twice for "purposes of torsion" until Ray had pointed out that Ma Vecchio had a habit of disapproving of all her kids' boyfriends and girlfriends, only since Ray was kind of her kid, too, she wouldn't be able to figure out whether she should be disapproving of Ray or Vecchio and her brain could melt and then there'd be no more braciole and that would suck for everybody.

Even Frannie hadn't been able to argue with that.

And though Ray wouldn't have admitted it, he was kind of starting to dig those dinners, being in the middle of all that noise and history and watching Vecchio do the patriarch thing and bribing Maria's kids to do the dishes. It was insane, but it was the kind of insane that love made you, and Vecchio looked across the table at him sometimes and smiled so bright Ray forgot to chew his ravioli, so. Every few weeks, that was something he could handle.

When it got to Thanksgiving, though, he had to draw a line. Thanksgiving meant cousins from Florida and aunts from Michigan and Vecchio swore that every year there were people who just showed up off the street and grabbed a plate, and Ray wanted no part of that. Vecchio sighed like he was going to his execution, and Ray sent him off as best he could with a quick and dirty blowjob on the couch, then settled in for a day of good old all-American vegging.

By noon, he'd watched bits of every parade, cartoon, and sporting event he could find—he'd even watched curling for a while, and God knew he did not understand a damn thing about curling, nor did he want to—and he'd stuffed himself full of chips and salsa, and he was sitting there with a beer in his hand looking around at the boxes that he still hadn't gotten around to unpacking and the teetering stack of unread newspapers and the bottle caps under the TV and a week's worth of takeout containers littering the kitchen counter. And all of a sudden, he was just done. He put his beer down, stripped off his sweatshirt, and started digging.

When Vecchio got back at about six, his arms full of leftovers, Ray was just putting the last of his books up on the shelf. Vecchio walked in, opened and closed his mouth a couple of times like he wanted to say something, then shrugged, put the leftovers in the fridge, and went to work breaking down empty boxes. Between the two of them, they managed to excavate most of the room by about midnight. When they were done, Ray stood in the center of it and just kind of stared.

"Looks good," Vecchio said after a minute.

Ray nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said, feeling a smile spreading across his face. Man, he'd forgotten how pretty the hardwood was. Something didn't feel quite right, though. He stretched out a toe, toppled the short stack of magazines next to the couch so that they fanned out on the floor like a kaleidoscope. "There," he said. "Now it's good."

Vecchio threw back his head and laughed. "That's perfect, Kowalski." He stepped close, dusty and grinning. "That's absolutely perfect. Now come on, let's get you out of those dirty clothes," and they left every single thing on the floor on the way to the bedroom.

*****

"So he's where?" Ray pressed the phone closer to his ear, like that was going to help the crappy connection in the slightest.

"Constable Fraser is on assignment for the winter, and unreachable by telephone," replied the very cheerful and very non-helpful Mountie on the other end of the line. "Would you like me to transmit a message for you?"

Ray hesitated. What the hell would he say? Just wondering if you were still alive? Just felt mentally stable enough to call you? Just wanted to tell you me and Vecchio are fucking like rabbits?

"No," he sighed, "no message, thanks."

"Thank you kindly, sir." And the connection clicked off.

*****

"Open it," Ray said, shoving the small box across the table. After using up an entire roll of tape and half a forest's worth of wrapping paper in his original attempts, he'd finally conned Frannie into wrapping it for him.

Vecchio tried to play it cool, but his smile kept sneaking out anyway. "You didn't have to get me anything."

"Blah blah blah, we both know that's crap, so save it and open the damn box," Ray demanded.

"Wow, Kowalski," said Vecchio as he slid a finger underneath the small square of tape, "it's like the Spirit of Christmas is speaking through you."

"Bite me. Do you have any idea how hard it is to hide stuff from you when you're here all the time?"

"Hey, it's your place, you feel free to..." Vecchio trailed off, staring down at the shining silver key lying on cotton in the box. Etched on the top was the word Buick.

"I mean," Ray burst out, trying for casual and ending up somewhere near disgustingly smug, "I know you're probably gonna miss the Corolla, and the way that it... does whatever it does that made you spend your retirement money on the boringest car known to man, but. The Goat keeps complaining—says she's embarrassed to be seen with you."

"Kowalski." Vecchio's eyes were wide. "How...?"

"I know people." Ray couldn't stop grinning. He'd been planning this since Thanksgiving, and not being able to tell Vecchio about it had been torture. He sucked at secrets. "It's not mint condition or anything," he added quickly. "Needs a lot of work. But I figured we could manage it, plus now I got this nice new set of tools, so. Perfect, right?" He patted the box next to him, which was still dangling shredded wrapping paper. He didn't envy Vecchio having to lug that thing up from the street.

Vecchio was still staring at him, and the shock in his eyes was darkening now, turning into something that looked a hell of a lot like... fear? Ray's heart dropped like a rock, straight into his shoes.

"Hey," he said, reaching over to touch Vecchio's wrist. "What's—"

"I just—I can't—I have to go," Vecchio blurted. He shoved back from the table, grabbed his overcoat and bolted out the door, leaving Ray staring helplessly after him and the key still untouched on the table.

It was late, and snowing lightly, white flakes drifting under the streetlights. The roads were empty. Ray picked up the box and the key and chucked both of them hard against the wall, heard the key make a pinging noise as it landed on the floor somewhere. He thought he showed great strength and maturity by not pitching it out the window. He dug a bottle of whiskey out of the cupboard—that was one good thing about having his apartment cleaned up, it was easy to get to the whiskey—then wrapped himself up in a blanket and sat on the couch in the dark for a long time, telling himself he didn't care if Vecchio froze his ungrateful ass off out there in the snow. Though maybe Vecchio'd just gone home to his own place, his place that Ray never got to see, while Ray's place was all over with the smell of Vecchio's cologne and Vecchio's ties in his closet and Vecchio's favorite beer in the fridge.

Ray had spent a hell of a lot of his life feeling stupid about one thing or another, but he couldn't remember ever feeling quite like this.

He didn't know what time it was when Vecchio came back, only that the whiskey bottle was a lot lighter than it had been when he'd started and it was only making him feel worse. Vecchio's cheeks and the tips of his ears and nose were bright red; he'd left his hat on Ray's counter. He looked exhausted, the lines of his face deeply shadowed in the dim apartment.

He didn't hesitate, though, just walked straight across the room to where Ray was sitting, knelt down and took Ray's face in his hands and kissed him. Ray thought about socking him in the stomach but opened his mouth instead, because it was Vecchio and Ray did care if he froze his ungrateful ass off and it was Christmas, dammit, and this hadn't gone at all like he'd planned.

"I'm sorry," Vecchio was mumbling against Ray's mouth, the leather of his gloves smooth on Ray's skin, his cold lips sharp contrast to his hot tongue. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

He dragged Ray up off the couch, pulled him into the bedroom, stripped him down like he was made of glass and fucked him sweet and slow, whispering "I'm sorry" into his skin until Ray wanted to cry. Afterwards, Vecchio rolled onto his side and pulled Ray in close, back to chest, one hand splayed out over Ray's sternum. They lay like that for a while; Ray watched the red numbers on his alarm clock cycle up and bit the inside of his cheek to keep from saying anything, because if he'd learned one thing from Vecchio, it was the value of knowing when to shut up.

"Thank you," Vecchio said finally, kissing Ray's shoulder. "It's... I can't believe you did that, but thank you."

"You're welcome. So, are you gonna tell me—"

"Not tonight, okay, Kowalski?" Vecchio's voice was rough and tired. "It's Christmas. I just..." Ray felt Vecchio's arm tighten around his ribs. "It's Christmas, okay?"

Ray gritted his teeth. This was stupid and he was worried and hurt and he wanted to know what the fuck was going on. But it what Vecchio wanted for Christmas was a little bit of space, well, Ray figured he could try to give it to him.

He sighed. "Okay. Merry Christmas, Vecchio."

Vecchio's thumb moved back and forth over Ray's chest. "Merry Christmas, Kowalski."

It was a long time before either of them slept.

*****

"Not tonight" turned out to mean more like "not ever"; Vecchio dodged whenever Ray asked him about it, and he seemed completely normal, his head ducked close to Ray's under the hood of the Riv, ringing in the new year with champagne and grilled cheese. It was like the whole weird night had never happened, and Ray was so freaked out about fucking things up that he just watched Vecchio real close and stopped asking.

Until one day they walked into an interrogation room and the dirtbag sitting at the table saw Vecchio and said, "Hey, you're that Vecchio guy, right? Man, they weren't kidding, you are a dead ringer for Langoustini. Poor Armando. He didn't deserve to go like that."

"Shut up," Ray told him, watching Vecchio's face go white as a sheet underneath his olive skin.

"I heard about you, though," the guy—Morretti, Ray thought his name was, which was gonna be good to know when Ray kicked his ass—went on, still staring at Vecchio, grinning like a skull. Then, "Heard you did a real good job—" and Ray hardly had time to blink before Vecchio had the guy out of his chair and up against the wall, gagging around Vecchio's hand on his windpipe.

Fuck.

"Hey," Ray said quietly, putting a hand on Vecchio's shoulder. The muscles were rigid and shaking. And this was not really Ray's area of expertise because normally he was the crazy one, but. "Hey, Vecchio," he tried. "Listen, I could not care less if you snap this asshole's neck like a twig, but not here, okay?"

Vecchio's eyes were flat and dull; he moved his thumb a fraction of an inch, making Morretti scrape harder at his hand.

"Vecchio. Hey." Ray leaned closer, and Vecchio's eyes flicked over to him. "Let him go. Okay? He's nothing, he's a bargain-basement hood with a big mouth. Just let him go."

And all of a sudden, Vecchio did, all the tension in his arm relaxing so Morretti lurched forward, clutching his throat and gulping air. Vecchio watched him for a couple of seconds, then darted a quick, wild-eyed glance at Ray and made straight for the door.

"You fucking asshole," Morretti shouted after him, his voice raw, "I'm gonna—"

Ray grabbed him by the back of the neck and slammed his face down on the table. "You're gonna shut the fuck up before I finish the job myself," he said grimly, then hollered, "Huey!" and waited for the cavalry.

As soon as the handcuffs clicked around Morretti's wrists, Ray burst out of the interrogation room and into the hallway. He didn't have to look far; Vecchio was about ten feet down the wall on the opposite side, hunched over, his hands on his knees. Frannie was standing next to him, eyes huge and dark with worry.

"I got it, Frannie," Ray told her, "he's gonna be fine," and he put a hand on Vecchio's back and led him out of the station as fast and careful as he could.

But when they got in the car, he hesitated, not sure where to go. Vecchio sat silently in the passenger seat with his head between his knees, or at least as close as he could get without whacking it on the dashboard. Ray took one look at him and decided, fuck Vecchio's privacy thing—he looked like crap and his place was closer and he'd probably be more comfortable there anyway, so Ray gave him a quick rub on the back and then put the car into reverse.

Parking was shit around Vecchio's building—he hadn't been lying about that. He hadn't said a word the whole trip, had barely moved except to balance out the movement of the car, and when Ray finally pulled into a parking spot and killed the engine, he had to put a hand on Vecchio's shoulder to get his attention.

"Huh?" Vecchio said, sitting up and blinking hard like he'd been asleep. Then, "What the fuck are we doing here?"

"You live here," Ray pointed out. "And it was closer. Now c'mon."

Vecchio looked like he'd been punched in the gut—some more—but he got out of the car and Ray walked behind him up four flights of stairs. The elevator was broken. When they got to Vecchio's door, he gave Ray a look over his shoulder that was something between a glare and a wince, then shrugged and jammed his key in the lock and shoved the door open.

"Make yourself at home," he said, spreading his arms wide as he walked inside.

Ray followed him, made sure he locked the door behind him (whether to keep other people out or to keep himself in, he wasn't really sure), then got a look around the apartment and felt something twist hard in his chest. The place was a little smaller than Ray's, probably, but it looked huge, mainly because the only pieces of furniture he could see were a brown armchair that looked like it had come from a garage sale and a little TV on a cheap particle-board table across from to it. The kitchen was tiny, with dust on the stove. The walls were bare and white, and everywhere Ray looked, it was just... blank. Empty.

"Jesus, Vecchio," he said quietly.

"Want something to drink?" Vecchio asked, tossing his coat on the chair. "I've got tap water." His voice was sharp and bitter.

And Ray was kicking himself, because he knew how undercover work could fuck with your head, he of all people should've seen the signs, but Vecchio was a better actor than Ray had figured him for and it was only looking back that Ray could see the flashing neon lights that spelled out Vecchio Is Fucked Up, He Needs Help. And, hell, if he was being honest, six months ago Ray hadn't been in much of a position to help his way out of a paper bag. But that was then and this was now and Vecchio looked like he was about ready to put his fist through the wall and Ray was sure as shit going to make up for lost time.

"Hey," he said, crossing the room to put his hands on Vecchio's shoulders. "Easy."

Vecchio stepped back immediately, knocking Ray's hands away. "Don't handle me, Kowalski," he snapped. "I'm not in the mood."

"Yeah, well, maybe I don't care what you're in the mood for," Ray snapped right back. All this time, he'd been trying not to push, except the fact was that he was really good at pushing and some things needed to be broken before they could be put back together again.

"Don't," Vecchio said. His eyes were still flat, but ice-cold now, and Ray had to hold in a shiver. If this was what the Bookman had looked like, Ray felt sorry for every small-time gangster in Vegas.

"Or what?" Adrenaline was spiking through him; he was right on the edge and he knew it. "What're you gonna do, Vecchio? You wanna hit me?"

"Kowalski—"

"C'mon." He held his arms out to either side. "Take your best shot. C'mon, Armando, let's—" and that was it, Ray could practically hear the snap and his whole body tensed, only instead of clocking him Vecchio grabbed two handfuls of Ray's shirt, shoved him against the nearest wall, and crushed his mouth to Ray's.

Well, fucking or fighting, that was how this kind of thing tended to end up, and if Ray had been expecting the second one he was certainly just fine with Vecchio going for the first one instead. Vecchio kissed him hard and messy, sucking on Ray's tongue, twisting Ray's shirt in his fists, and Ray held on to Vecchio's hips and gave as good as he got.

Vecchio broke the kiss and pressed his forehead to Ray's, shaking fingers on Ray's belt buckle. "Fuck me," he panted raggedly, "I want you to fuck me—"

"Okay," Ray said, kissing him again, smoothing his hands up and down Vecchio's arms. "Okay, all right, I got you..." He kept talking and kissing while he slowly backed down the hallway toward what he assumed was the bedroom; he hoped like hell Vecchio had a bed because cold and awkward was exactly how Ray didn't want to do this.

Vecchio did have a bed, though it didn't look like it was in much better shape than the chair outside, and the sheets were obviously hand-me-downs. There was a night-table next to it, though, with a lamp and a couple of cheap crime thriller paperbacks on it, and that loosened the knot in Ray's chest a little. He shucked off his own clothes as fast as he could, then helped Vecchio out of his, laid him down on the bed and climbed up his body, letting Vecchio feel his weight, his body heat. Vecchio strained his neck up to kiss him. He was already hard against Ray's pelvis; his hands were still shaking.

"You got—?" Ray asked, and Vecchio nodded jerkily.

"Drawer."

Normally, Ray was all about taking his time, but right now he didn't want to be out of contact with Vecchio any more than he had to be, so he rolled the condom on and slicked his fingers with lube as fast as he could, just long enough to get them warm. Vecchio was watching him hungrily, and as soon as Ray shifted on the bed so he was kneeling between Vecchio's legs, Vecchio started to roll over.

"Uh-uh," said Ray, keeping him still with one slippery hand on his shoulder. "I wanna see you. Okay?"

Vecchio hesitated, then nodded again. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "Yeah, okay."

Ray smiled and kissed him, hooking a hand underneath Vecchio's knee and nudging it upward. Vecchio mirrored immediately with his other knee, opening up, using the leverage to thrust his cock up against Ray's. Ray sucked in air, fighting for control.

"Come on," Vecchio urged him, "come on—"

"I'm right here," Ray said, felt Vecchio tense and shudder, his mouth falling open under Ray's as Ray slid two fingers inside him.

"Yes," Vecchio whispered, his eyelids fluttering shut. "Yes, fuck, Kowalski—"

Ray twisted his fingers just like Vecchio liked it, hitting the sweet spot, making him shudder again. He was hot and tight and Ray's own cock was twitching, sweat starting at the base of his neck. Three fingers now, and Vecchio was begging.

"Please, Kowalski, please, please," writhing on the bed, his hands caught in the faded sheets.

"Hey," Ray said as he slid his fingers out, "look at me, Vecchio. Open your eyes and look at me."

Vecchio moaned a little but did what Ray asked, his eyes wide and dark and blurry.

"I see you, okay?" Ray told him. "I know you."

Vecchio just stared at him for a couple of seconds, then made a noise that was somewhere between a sob and a laugh. "Come on," he gasped, "please—"

Ray lined up and pressed inside him, filling him up. Vecchio's neck arched back but his eyes stayed open, locked desperately onto Ray's. Ray fucked him steadily, anchoring him, letting Vecchio see how much Ray wanted him.

How much he loved him.

"I got you, Vecchio," he murmured, "I got you." He reached down between their bodies and gave Vecchio's cock a few firm, sure strokes, and when Vecchio pulled him down for a messy kiss and came on both their stomachs, Ray buried himself deep inside Vecchio and let go.

They showered together afterwards, Ray carefully soaping Vecchio down, both of them laughing over the lack of hot water. When they were done, Ray dragged Vecchio back to bed and curled around him as tightly as he could.

"I'm coming over on Sundays from now on," Ray informed him. "We will sit and drink beer and watch hockey on your shitty TV, so you had better buy another chair because your ass is gonna get pretty cold, sitting on the floor all the time."

"Who says you'd get the chair?" Vecchio asked sleepily.

"Your ma, if I told her you were making guests sit on the floor."

"You're not a guest."

"Your ma won't know that."

Vecchio aimed a halfhearted kick at him. "You fight dirty, Kowalski."

Ray grinned. "Damn right."

There was a long pause, and Ray was almost asleep when Vecchio said, "I didn't do this on purpose, y'know. I let Stella have everything in the divorce, and then I got up here and got this place and I just..." He trailed off.

"I know," said Ray, and he did, how you came out of something like that with pieces of who you used to be and pieces of someone else and it was hard to figure out what went where, how sometimes it just made you want to disappear altogether.

"You know an awful lot all of a sudden," Vecchio said. It was dark, but Ray could hear his smile.

"I got my moments," Ray told him, biting gently at his shoulder. "Now shut up and go to sleep."

"Such a charmer."

"Uh-huh," Ray said. He kept his own eyes open until Vecchio fell asleep.

*****

The Sunday thing turned out even better than Ray had expected. Vecchio did buy another chair, and a coffee table, and some new sheets, and he started keeping food in the cupboards, and one day Ray showed up and there was a painting on the wall—some weird abstract thing with lots of bright colors that looked like a third-grader had made it—and Ray grinned so hard his face hurt and Vecchio told him to shut up and Ray said to make him and they didn't actually get around to turning the game on until the second period.

It got to the point where they were spending Saturday nights at Vecchio's as a rule, so they could get working on the Riv on Sunday morning before Vecchio had to go to church. And sometime in early March they were lying in Vecchio's bed in the dark, and Ray was drifting on good post-orgasm haze and the soothing rhythm of Vecchio's hand stroking up and down his back, when all of a sudden Vecchio asked,

"Were you in love with Fraser?"

Ray stopped breathing for a couple of seconds. He'd sort of been wondering if something like this was coming; since the whole thing with Morretti, Fraser's name had started popping up in their conversations every once in a while, carefully. Fraser did this. Fraser said that. Curling is stupid. Like that. But wondering if it was coming and actually answering the question when it did come were not exactly in the same ballpark. Not even in the same league.

"What?" Ray stalled.

Vecchio huffed out a laugh. "It's okay if you were, Kowalski. I'm just asking." And his voice was just the slightest bit strained, but his hand was steady on Ray's back, relaxed and easy, so Ray took a deep breath and rushed out,

"Yeah." Then, when Vecchio didn't get mad or freak out or shove him out of bed, "Were you?"

"Oh, yeah."

And, okay, so Ray had pretty much known that, too. That was one of the reasons Vecchio had pissed him off so much at first—you didn't look at buddies like Vecchio had looked at Fraser, back there in that hotel room, and Ray might've been kind of messed up at that point but he wasn't blind. And then later when Vecchio had stopped pissing him off, Ray hadn't really wanted to ask, because either he'd end up jealous of Vecchio or jealous of Fraser or probably both, and none of that really seemed like something he wanted to sign up for, so he'd figured ignorance was bliss.

But what was weird now was that for some reason, actually hearing it hurt less than he'd expected. Maybe it was that falling in love with Fraser was just something that most people did after they'd hung around him for a while, like wondering if his uniform itched or if Dief was really as deaf as he claimed to be. Maybe it was that Ray had just had really great sex and he was feeling generous. Or maybe it was that Vecchio spent all day, every day with Ray and still had trouble sleeping without him at night, and that he put up with Ray's wet towels on the floor and his sauerkraut in the fridge and his music on the stereo even though Vecchio bitched constantly about all of it, and that he always gave Ray the first cup of coffee and never checked over his shoulder anymore to make sure Ray was backing him up on a bust, and that if Vecchio didn't love him then he was sure doing a hell of a good job of faking it.

Yeah, that last one was probably it.

Ray rolled over so he could see Vecchio's face. "So. You and him ever...?" he asked, pushing his luck.

"Nope," Vecchio said, a wry twist to his mouth. "Never the right time, and I was never sure, and you know Benny, knows ninety-seven words for water and wouldn't ask for a glass if he was dying of thirst. And then..."

Then Vegas, Ray thought. Then me. It was the first time Ray had let himself think about it, Vecchio lying there in that hospital bed, watching his best friend go off with the guy who'd replaced him. I've spent most of my life fucking this sort of thing up, Vecchio'd said back when he'd been making with the wining and dining, and Ray guessed he hadn't just been talking about two ex-wives and a childhood sweetheart.

Vecchio nudged him gently, one knuckle in his shoulder. "Your turn, Stanley. Cold up there in the frozen north, right? Don't tell me you never—"

"Nah," Ray said, and that hurt less than he'd expected, too. "I mean, don't get me wrong. When we went out there, it wasn't really the hand of Franklin I was after, you know?"

Vecchio snorted. "Nice."

"Well, it wasn't. But then... it was this song, right? I ever tell you that? Me and Fraser are stuck in this stupid ice crevice and I'm sure I'm gonna die, and I really do not want to die when I can't feel all my extremities, and Fraser... Fraser starts singing."

"Singing?" Vecchio grinned. "Of course. What else would you do when you're stuck in a million pounds of ice?"

Ray snickered. "Right. And it was this whole thing about a warm line and a reaching-out hand and... I don't know, it just sounded good, you know? Sounded important."

"Yeah." Vecchio's smile was warm and affectionate. "Yeah, I think I get that."

"So I say, hey, let's do this thing, and we're up there for weeks and it's fucking freezing and I'm miserable and it's making Fraser miserable and one night we can't get a fire going and I can't feel my extremities again and there's Fraser, with the singing. Only this time he gets through the whole song, and you know what the last freakin' line is?"

"Is it about caribou?"

Ray poked him in the chest. "No. It's 'to find there but the road back home again.'"

"What?"

"Yeah! This whole big quest, all these people dying and hardship and whatnot, and at the end of it, the guy just realizes he wants to go back home." Ray shook his head. "Jesus, I was so pissed."

Vecchio was laughing, the bed shaking with it. "Oh, man. You always gotta listen to the end of Fraser's stories, Kowalski. That's where they get you."

"Yeah, well. I packed up my stuff the next morning, asked Fraser to take me somewhere with hot coffee and planes back to civilization, and that was it. That was our big quest." Ray shook his head again, focusing somewhere in the center of Vecchio's chest. "I think Fraser was relieved."

Vecchio's leg shifted, stretching out so his toes were resting on top of Ray's, down there under the covers. "I ever tell you I got the pleasure of a trip to Canada with Fraser?"

Ray grinned. The file had had a line on that, that Vecchio and Fraser had taken some leave after the clusterfuck with Victoria Metcalf, but. "No. No, you never told me that before."

"Went up to rebuild his father's cabin one year, and it was summer so there weren't any ice crevices, but there was a plane crash, and Benny went blind, and then he went paralyzed, and we got shot at, and Dief ate all the peanuts, and I ended up crushing a hijacker under half a mountain without meaning to, and Benny still tried to arrest me when we got back for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, so. Sorry to break it to you, but you've got some competition in the 'Worst Trip to Canada With the Mountie' Sweepstakes."

"Jesus." They were both laughing now, kind of hysterically, and Ray's stomach muscles were starting to hurt and his cheeks ached and he bent forward to rest his head against Vecchio's shoulder and Jesus. They should've done this months ago. "How the hell did we put up with that stuff?"

"I don't know, Kowalski. I do not know."

When they'd finally laughed themselves out, collapsed on their backs and staring up at the ceiling, Vecchio sighed. "Never did get back up there," he said, his voice soft. "Always felt bad about that."

"You miss him?" Ray asked, more to see if Vecchio would admit to it than because he didn't know the answer.

"'Sure," Vecchio said.

Ray nodded. "Me too." It felt surprisingly good, having all this stuff in the open, like letting out a breath he'd been holding for way too long. He sucked at secrets.

"Gonna be spring soon," Vecchio murmured.

"Yep."

"C'mere," Vecchio said, and pulled Ray close and kissed him.

*****

They booked their plane tickets for April Fool's Day.

Vecchio had offered to make the phone call to Fraser, but Ray insisted they settle it like men and flip for it, which promptly backfired on him when he lost, and Vecchio laughed his ass off, because he was a bastard who clearly never wanted to get laid again. And, while Ray was sure the conversation must've set a world record for awkward per minute, it had been good to hear Fraser's voice again, and he'd seemed happy to hear from them. So plans were made and dates were set and tickets were bought and vacation was begged, and it wasn't until the night before they left that Ray really started to flip out.

The thing was, it had seemed like a great idea at first, sitting there in Ray's living room on a Wednesday night talking about how maybe they should go visit Benny and then, hey, maybe while they were there they could get him into bed with them and then, if that all went well, maybe after that they could all move into a big house with a white picket fence that perfectly straddled the American and Canadian borders and live happily ever after. And, okay, maybe it wasn't gonna be that easy, and maybe Ray had no idea how it was all supposed to work, but he loved Vecchio and Vecchio loved him and they both loved Fraser and so it seemed like it was worth a shot, and Ray Kowalski never backed down from a challenge.

But T-minus twelve hours to takeoff, and he was officially flipping out.

"What if he's not interested?" he demanded, pacing his bedroom. Vecchio's stupidly big suitcase and Ray's battered duffel were all packed and zipped, waiting by the door.

Vecchio was sitting calmly on the bed while Ray pinballed from one corner of the room to another. "Then we're all friends and you and I come back here and keep doing exactly what we've been doing, except maybe we call Benny once in a while so we know he hasn't been maimed by a dead otter."

"Well, what if he thinks we're freaks?"

"Kowalski, Fraser doesn't think anybody's a freak. Plus, the guy irons his boots—you think he's in a position to be judgmental?"

"What if we can't get across the border?"

"Kowalski."

Ray threw his arms out to either side. "What? It could happen! Would you want us in your country?"

"Hey," said Vecchio, sliding off the bed and coming over to take Ray's face in his hands. "I'm as freaked out about this as you are, okay? But we just gotta take it one step at a time."

"Yeah," Ray said, "but what if—what if—" What if you like him better than me? his brain was shouting, but he managed to scrape up just enough pride not to say it.

"What if, what if, what if." Vecchio's mouth curved affectionately. "Jesus, Kowalski. Relax, will ya? We're partners." As he talked, he kissed Ray's forehead, the tip of his cheekbone, the corner of his mouth. Ray shivered. "That means you got my back, and I got yours. Right?"

"Right," Ray muttered hoarsely, trying to believe it.

"Right. Now." Vecchio's eyes got a familiar gleam in them. "We got some time to kill. Any ideas of how we might go about doing that?"

Well, that was as good a way to distract himself from freaking out as Ray could think of, so he smiled and said, "Yeah, I got a few thoughts," and pulled Vecchio over to the bed, shedding clothes as they went. But the nagging doubt in the back of his mind just got worse and worse with every kiss, every touch, every reminder of how much he didn't want to lose, and finally, he couldn't keep his mouth shut anymore.

"Promise," he gasped out, watching Vecchio's face above him, loving Vecchio's cock inside him, hard and heavy and perfect. "You—oh God—and me, right? No matter what."

"I'm not—" Vecchio broke off as Ray shifted, pushing him further inside. "Fuck, Kowalski." He took a shuddering breath and then bent down, kissed Ray messy and so sweet it made Ray's eyes sting. "How many times I gotta tell you?" he said when he lifted himself up on his arms again. "I'm not going anywhere. You're stuck with me. Capisce?"

Ray's heart flipped over in his chest; he gripped Vecchio's arms, his fingers sliding on the sweat-slick skin. "Fuck me," he whispered, "just—I want—" and Vecchio groaned and thrust hard, hitting exactly the right spot, whispering,

"Ti amo, Kowalski, ti amo, ti amo, ti amo," over and over again in Ray's ear as he moved, and Ray closed his eyes and held on.

*****

"Whose bright idea was this?" Ray muttered as they stumbled off the plane in Fortitude Bay, which was apparently Canadian for "The Middle of Godforsaken Nowhere."

"Hey, at least the plane didn't crash," Vecchio pointed out, but he was looking a little green, himself. "And considering that I'm pretty sure Andrina's built model planes that are sturdier than that thing..."

Ray laughed, reaching out to steady Vecchio as he struggled with his suitcase, slipping in the melting snow.

"Ray!" The voice was rich and familiar. Ray looked up, saw Fraser striding toward them across the snow with a smile on his face and the late afternoon sunlight reflecting off his dark hair and his skin flushed above the fur lining of his parka and it was like getting clocked in the face with a Fraser-by-four. Fuck, Ray had forgotten.

"Hey, Benny," said Vecchio, ditching the suitcase and stepping forward to hug him, and Ray saw Fraser's eyes close for just a second as Vecchio's arms wrapped around him. Ray's whole body flushed hot, then cold. Man, if he came out on the wrong end of this, that was it, he'd be nowhere.

"Ray?" Fraser was saying, looking at him with those sharp blue eyes. Vecchio, standing at Fraser's shoulder, just barely jerked his head toward the Mountie.

Ray blinked. Right. "Hey, Fraser, good to see ya," he said, going for a hug of his own. Fraser smelled like woodsmoke, like fresh air, like nothing Ray'd ever smelled in Chicago.

And then they were done with the his and the hugging and they just kind of stood around for a few minutes, like no one had really thought about what came after that. Ray definitely hadn't—deciding whether to start with a hug or a handshake was as much as he'd been able to manage, and even that had taken two hours of the plane ride.

"Well," Fraser said finally, holding out one arm. "Shall we?"

"Yeah," Ray said, nudging Vecchio forward with a hand on the small of his back, "let's see your place."

Ray was relieved to see Fraser had brought his truck instead of the dog sled, though he did have a dog in the truck, or a half-dog, anyway; Dief was going nuts in the back seat, pacing back and forth, tail waving a million miles a minute.

"He's been quite anxious to see both of you," Fraser said as they approached. He cracked the door open. "Now, Diefenbaker—"

Dief ignored him completely, shoved his way out of the door and jumped down onto the ground, barking excitedly as he ran circles around Ray and Vecchio, showering them both with snow. And as much as Ray'd been ready to muzzle Dief for cockblocking in the past—it was incredibly difficult to put the moves on your partner during a stakeout with a half-wolf snoring like an earthquake in the back seat—he was a perfect distraction now, making Ray and Vecchio laugh and Fraser smile despite himself. And as he watched Dief jumping around and Vecchio trying to keep his new wool pants muddy-paw-free and Fraser looking between the three of them with shining eyes, it occurred to Ray that, yeah, he could lose everything here, but he could also get a hell of a lot more than he deserved.

Eventually they got Dief calmed down and all four of them (plus Vecchio's luggage) piled into the truck, Vecchio bitching about Dief's breath and Ray pointing out that Vecchio could have the other end if he'd prefer it, to which Vecchio replied that it took one to know one, which made Fraser clear his throat and start the truck with a lurch. About fifteen minutes of small talk and they were there, an honest-to-God log cabin that Ray knew Fraser had built with his own hands.

"It's fairly rudimentary," Fraser warned, glancing at them almost shyly as he led them inside. The door didn't have a lock; Ray guessed that unless the beavers opened a pawn shop, whatever valuables Fraser had were probably safe. "And it needs some repairs; now that winter's over, I can begin to—"

"Wow," Vecchio said. He was standing in the middle of the main room now, turning in a slow circle. "Benny, this is fantastic."

And he wasn't wrong. The cabin was way bigger than Ray had expected, with the Mountie version of a living room (a wood stove and a couple of chairs and a surprisingly soft-looking couch), a dining room (a smooth wooden table with four chairs, all of which looked hand-carved), and a large kitchen with a shiny gas stove and copper-bottomed pots and pans hanging in rows on the wall. Dief trotted in and made immediately for the fur-covered blanket on the floor next to the wood stove, which was giving off faint heat.

"Lazy," Fraser scolded him, but he was smiling. He took Ray's and Vecchio's coats and hung them on the coat rack near the door, then prodded at the coals in the stove until they flared red. "There," he said. "That should help warm things up a little."

Ray was not looking at Vecchio, but he heard a small, strangled sound from his direction.

"Should I show you to your room?" Fraser went on, oblivious, or pretending to be; with Fraser, it was hard to tell.

"Sure," Ray said.

"I, ah." Fraser cleared his throat as he led them around a corner to a hallway. "I wasn't sure if you'd—that is, I only have one room for guests, and I..."

They were at a bedroom now, and it immediately clicked, what had Fraser so twitchy. There was only one bed in the room, piled high with pillows and a bright, cozy-looking quilt. And Fraser, not being nearly as dumb when it came to other people's relationships as he was with his own, had obviously figured out what the score was as soon as Ray had said "Vecchio and me" on the phone. But since Ray hadn't actually said that he and Vecchio were together—hadn't known how without sounding like he was gloating—Fraser was caught in some terrifying hospitality loop that had probably been keeping him up nights ever since they'd called.

Ray looked longingly at the bed; four planes from Chicago, one of them that Ray was pretty sure ran on hamster-power, and he was tired, and he knew Vecchio was beat, too. But it didn't feel right, him and Vecchio huddled up in here while Fraser slept alone down the hall. Ray glanced at Vecchio, saw the same hesitation on his face.

"'S'okay, Benny, I'll take the couch," Vecchio volunteered, and Ray smiled gratefully at him, trying to put as much I'll-make-it-up-to-you-later in there as possible. Vecchio winked. "I'm gonna keep my stuff in here, though, if that's okay with you, Kowalski—I don't want the wolf rummaging through my delicates in the middle of the night."

"Oh, he wouldn't—" Fraser started, his shoulders tensing, then he looked closer at Vecchio and relaxed again. "Oh. I see."

Ray shoved his hands in his pockets, reached out with an elbow to nudge Fraser's arm. "Chill, Fraser," he suggested. "We're not exactly guests of honor, here, okay? We're here to see you, not fill out a comment card."

Fraser laughed a little, his head ducked down to his chest. "Understood, Ray." He stood looking back and forth between them just long enough for it to be awkward, then clapped his hands together. "Well. I suppose I'll just leave you to get settled, then," and he hurried off down the hall.

Vecchio swung the door mostly-shut behind him, so it was resting against the frame, but not latched, and let out a long breath.

"Hey," Ray said, keeping his voice low, looking around the room, "this is some place, huh?"

"Yeah," Vecchio agreed. "Bigger than I thought."

"Two bedrooms," Ray said. "What's a single guy gonna do with two bedrooms?"

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing," Vecchio sighed, rolling his suitcase into a corner. Ray could see the old Catholic guilt creeping over him, the Father Behan Special. "Maybe we shoulda done this sooner."

Ray lifted a shoulder. "We're here now, right? Best we can do is make the most of it."

"You're right," Vecchio said. "I just hate to think—"

"I know." Fraser's idea of comfort was a bedroll instead of a floor, and this place was filled with pillows and quilts and the bare non-necessities. Maybe he hadn't known who he wanted to share it with, maybe he wasn't even aware he'd done it, but Fraser'd never meant to live here alone. "We'll fix it."

"I hope so." Then, deliberately casual, over the noise of sliding Ray's duffel into place against the wall, "He looks good, though."

Ray shook his head and rocked back on his heels, whistling low. "Boy, you can say that again."

Vecchio looked over at Ray and grinned. "I know. Seeing him every day, you kinda get used to it. But when you don't..."

"Yeah," Ray repeated. "I mean, wow."

"Oh, so is that the way it's gonna be, Kowalski?" Vecchio asked teasingly. "You drag my ass all the way up here and now you're gonna ditch me for the hot guy in uniform?" He was still smiling, but there was something not quite steady in his eyes.

"Yep," Ray said, walking forward until he had Vecchio backed up against the wall. "Sorry, told you I was shallow. Hope you have a safe flight back, though," and he leaned in and kissed Vecchio's smile, putting one hand in the center of Vecchio's chest so he could feel his heartbeat, steady and strong. "Dumbass," he muttered when he pulled back.

Vecchio rolled his eyes. "Stop, you're making me blush."

"Is that a challenge, Vecchio?" Ray put his mouth close to Vecchio's ear, whispered the dirtiest thing he could think of on short notice. And sure enough, Vecchio's cheeks went red, but he had a wicked light in his eyes, too.

"Yeah?" he said huskily. "Never figured you for that kind of thing, but hey, I'm an open-minded guy." He hooked a hand in Ray's belt and yanked him in for another kiss.

What with the long day and Vecchio's tongue like a drug in his mouth, dragging him under, making him dizzy, Ray forgot that the door wasn't all the way closed, forgot everything but Vecchio's body hard against him and the wooden wall rough under his palms. And he didn't think about what the hell they were doing until he heard a quiet, aching sound and tore his mouth away from Vecchio's to find Fraser standing in the doorway, watching them like he was starving.

For maybe the longest five seconds of Ray's life, none of them moved. Ray could feel Vecchio's heart hammering.

"Ah," Fraser said eventually, hoarsely. "There's stew in the kitchen. I thought you might be hungry."

Vecchio nudged Ray back a little bit, one thumb rubbing against Ray's side above his belt. "Thanks, Benny, sounds great. We'll be right there."

Fraser nodded. His expression smoothed out, but he wasn't as good at it as he used to be—the want never quite left his eyes. But all he said was, "All right," and then he was gone again.

Ray leaned forward and thunked his head against the wall next to Vecchio's. "Well, that went good."

"Yeah," Vecchio replied. "Though I guess now at least we know whether he's interested."

Ray snorted. "Guess so." He pushed back off the wall, letting that sink in. "Huh."

"I know." Vecchio's mouth quirked. He looked like Ray felt, caught between nervous and worried and happy and what-the-hell-are-we-doing.

"This is nuts," Ray told him, grinning in spite of himself.

"Yeah, well, right up your alley, then, isn't it?" Vecchio kissed him once, then shoved him toward the door. "C'mon, Stanley, dinner's waiting."

*****

Considering how it had started, dinner wasn't anywhere near as bad as it could've been. They spent about ten minutes not saying much more than "pass the salt" and "do I want to know what kind of meat is in here," but that was enough to get things rolling; Fraser had some whacked-out story about making stew from slugs one time, which did take the edge off Ray's enjoyment of his current stew but gave him and Vecchio the opportunity to run down their list of Disgusting Things Fraser Has Licked, and the more they talked the more they laughed and Ray was seriously starting to think this could work.

He'd forgotten what it was like having Fraser around, how everything seemed brighter and sharper, how it kind of made him want to read more and have better posture and change the world. Watching Vecchio with him was a trip, too, seeing Vecchio's expression go dark whenever Fraser mentioned being in trouble, and the way Fraser put extra bread on Vecchio's plate without being asked because Vecchio used it to soak up the broth. Ray'd been too busy worrying about getting ditched the first time they'd all been together to really pay attention how they worked, but now, it was like seeing them both dressed up in new clothes, a new angle when he thought he'd seen all the angles, and he was digging it more than he'd expected.

They stayed at the table until the fire had burned down almost to nothing in the stove, then moved into the living room with mugs of hot cider—with a shot of whiskey for Ray and Vecchio, and a shot of cinnamon for Fraser—and put some more wood on the fire and kept right on talking. Ray ended up on the couch with Vecchio on his right and Fraser relaxed in the armchair on his left, and the light was low and Dief was curled up by the stove again and Ray was warm with whiskey and the buzz of having the two guys he loved most in the world right there with him.

Only it kept nagging at the back of his mind, the look on Fraser's face back there in the hallway, the look he really didn't need to have, and Ray felt the itch start building in him to say something, do something. But hey, so, we came up here thinking threesome, whaddaya say? didn't really seem like the best idea—though he hadn't completely ruled it out—and Vecchio was doing his wait-and-see thing so he wasn't any help, so Ray had to just sit back and watch and trust that something would come to him.

Then Vecchio said, laughing at the end of some story, "Oh, man, Benny, you shoulda been there, it was priceless," and Ray saw his opening and took it.

"Yeah, Fraser," he said pointedly, reaching out to tap Fraser's toe with the side of his boot, watching him from underneath his eyelashes. "You shoulda been there."

Vecchio's laughter trailed off, and Ray could feel Vecchio looking at him with that little notice, please, Starsky? look he got when Ray improvised during a bust, but geez, if it was up to Fraser and Vecchio, they'd be you-first-oh-no-you-first-ing till they were ninety. Fraser had been laughing, too, and he tried to keep the smile pasted on but Ray wouldn't let him pass it off as a joke, just kept looking at him steadily until Fraser swallowed hard.

"Well... I appreciate the sentiment, Ray, but I wouldn't want to interfere." He paused. "With your police work."

Vecchio cleared his throat. "Well, y'know, sometimes an extra pair of eyes... or, you know... hands..."

Ray kept a straight face with an effort; nice one, Vecchio

"... can be a good thing," Vecchio finished.

Fraser blinked a few times, his eyes flicking back and forth between them like he was waiting for the punchline. "I see," he managed when neither of them filled the silence. He sat a little straighter in his chair, his face flushed underneath the winter tan. "Ah. Isn't. Isn't it quite... unconventional for officers of the law to work in trios, as opposed to pairs?"

"Hey." Ray rubbed his foot against Fraser's, keeping his lazy slouch even though he was having some trouble breathing. "We've met you, remember? Since when are you worried about conventional?"

He watched that sink in; Fraser was as red as his uniform now. But he was also starting to look a tiny bit curious under all the shock, and Ray could practically see the wheels turning in that freaky Mountie brain, analyzing, laying out all the advantages and disadvantages and logistics and maybe even angles and Ray had to grip the arm of the couch hard to keep himself from trying out a few angles then and there.

"Benny," said Vecchio, calm and smooth—Ray knew that tone, having been on the business end of it more than once. "We're not trying to pressure you. We didn't come here expecting anything, and we're glad to see you no matter what. Just... just think about it, okay?"

Worked like a charm. Fraser took a deep breath—and so did Ray, without really thinking about it—some of the tension sliding out of his posture. "I will," he said, nodding once. "And..." He looked down at his hands, twisting where they hung between his knees. "Thank you. Both of you. This is..." He made a helpless gesture. "Extremely generous."

Hmm. That wasn't exactly the vibe they were going for.

Ray glanced over at Vecchio, questioning, and Vecchio lifted a shoulder. So before he could lose his nerve, Ray got up, leaned over Fraser's chair, tipped his chin up and kissed him. A simple kiss, no demands, just a brief press of his lips against Fraser's. Pulling away was even harder than he'd expected; he'd wanted this for what felt like forever, and getting a taste of it and then having to hold back left him light-headed.

"Nobody's doing anybody any favors, here, Fraser," he said, trying to focus with Fraser's eyes all wide and hot and his own body begging for more. "Like the saying goes—all for one, one for all. You got it?"

Fraser cocked his head to the side. "That's certainly an unorthodox application of Dumas, Ray, though I can see how—"

"Fraser."

Fraser's smile broke through. "Got it."

Ray winked at him. "Good." He straightened up, looked over at Vecchio, whose lips were wet and parted. Ray raised an eyebrow at him. "What? You want a turn?"

He snorted. "I've had a few turns with you, Kowalski, remember?"

"Actually," Fraser said, surprising the hell out of Ray, "what I think Ray means is that, in the interest of establishing an equal footing, which I believe to be quite important in a situation such as this one, perhaps you should..." He let his hands fall open in front of him.

Vecchio's eyebrows almost climbed off his head. "Benny." He smiled slowly. "Are you puttin' the moves on me?"

Fraser was still blushing. "Well, I'd prefer to say that I'm attempting to lay the appropriate groundwork for any future arrangements that might be—"

Ray rolled his eyes. "He's puttin' the moves on you."

Vecchio laughed, and Fraser was smiling, too, as he stood up and deliberately crossed the space between them, reaching out one hand to pull Vecchio to his feet. When Vecchio was steady—or as steady as it looked like he was going to get, anyway, and Ray couldn't blame him—Fraser put one hand on his cheek, leaned in and pressed his mouth to Vecchio's.

For Ray, it was like a flare of lightning down his spine, sizzling. Fraser's lips were soft and full and Vecchio's long eyelashes were fanned against his cheek, and all in all it was a picture Ray thought he could get used to seeing a hell of a lot more often. He didn't know what it was like for Fraser and Vecchio, but when they broke apart, they both looked dazed.

"There," Fraser said, as they stared at each other. "Even Steven."

Vecchio's smile was quick and stunning. "Yeah, Benny. Even Steven." Then he turned to Ray, checking in, and Ray put his hands in his pockets again.

"Okay," he said. "We good now? Everyone ready to, you know, go sleep alone?"

Vecchio cuffed him lightly on the side of the head. "Smartass," he muttered. Fraser chuckled.

"I think bed is a very wise idea," he said. "But please—you don't have to... I mean, if the two of you want to—"

"Uh-uh," said Vecchio. "Kowalski's right, we're all in this together."

"Or not together," Ray couldn't help pointing out, "as the case may be." At heart, he was basically on board with the don't-fuck-like-rabbits-on-the-first-night plan, but his heart wasn't the only organ involved, here, so he felt like a little hassling was the least he was entitled to.

"Christ, Kowalski," Vecchio groaned, "would you give it a rest? What, are you afraid of the dark? You want me to read you a bedtime story?"

"Yeah," Ray sneered, getting into it now, "actually, that'd be great. Why don't you tell me the one about the asshole Italian—"

"Ray," Fraser said disapprovingly, but his eyes were crinkling at the corners.

"All right, all right." Ray held both hands up in front of him and started backing out of the room. "I'm going."

"You gonna share your pillows?" Vecchio called after him.

Ray shook his head. "Nope. Sleep tight!"

"It's like living with an eight-year-old," Vecchio complained.

"Good night, Ray," Fraser said, then, louder, "Good night, Ray."

"'Night, John-Boy."

Ray fell asleep grinning.

*****

Short of a blowjob or Ed McMahon knocking on his door with a big check—note to self: do not think of blowjobs and Ed McMahon in the same sentence ever again—Ray couldn't think of many better ways to wake up than to the smell of bacon frying. He didn't know what time it was, and he didn't really care; he was on vacation and either his boyfriend or the hot guy they were both trying to seduce was cooking him breakfast, and that breakfast apparently included bacon, and right then, there wasn't a whole lot else he would have asked out of life.

At least until his bare feet hit the freezing cold floor and it took him several minutes of hopping around and swearing before he managed to get enough layers on to stop shivering. Okay, so, slight amendment to what he wanted out of life: vacation, hot guy (or guys), bacon, and central heating. And his car. And the Cubs to win the World Series. That didn't seem like too much to ask.

But his car was in Chicago and the Cubs were in Cincinnati, so he went after the guys and the food and the heat, padding in two pairs of socks down the hallway until he got close enough to hear what Fraser and Vecchio were saying and stopped dead.

"Ray, you don't have to—"

"I just need to say it, Benny, okay?"

There was a pause. Then Fraser said, "All right."

Ray hesitated, his good mood popped like a balloon. He didn't want to interrupt, exactly; he knew Fraser and Vecchio had stuff to work out, and he could be the bigger man and not throw himself in the middle of it. Of course, being the bigger man meant he probably shouldn't be eavesdropping, either, but hey, he'd never claimed to be a saint. He leaned against the wall and listened.

"I didn't know," Vecchio was saying, so quiet that Ray had to strain to hear him. "I mean, I knew it was coming sometime, but I didn't know when. And then I got the call and you were gone, and I..." He blew out a breath. "Jesus, Benny. A fucking phone call."

"It was your duty," said Fraser.

"Aww, don't do that," snapped Vecchio. Ray winced at the hurt in his voice. "I'm trying to apologize, here. And it was my duty, and before I met you I would've told 'em to shove it, so if you wanna be mad at me, fine, I don't blame you, but Jesus, Fraser, you can't tell me you wouldn't have done exactly the same thing yourself."

Another pause, this time a longer one. "I'm not mad at you, Ray," Fraser said eventually.

Vecchio made a disbelieving tch noise.

"I was... confused, for a while. I was lonely. You were my best friend. And I was worried for you."

"Yeah," said Vecchio, huffing out a breath, "you and me, both."

"But I understood, and I respected your choice, and the more I came to know Ray, the more I started to think that perhaps our paths had diverged for a reason. Though, again, I wish your path hadn't been quite so dangerous."

Vecchio laughed a little. Then, sounding stripped-down and hoarse, "I'm so sorry, Benny. Hardest thing I ever did, calling you that day."

"If I've learned one thing in my life, Ray, it's that true friendships are hard to come by. You've given me that, you and Ray both. So while I understand the desire to make amends, please understand that you've already given me far more than I can ever repay."

Vecchio didn't answer right away, and Ray tensed, wishing he could see what was happening. Finally,

"I also took a bullet for you," Vecchio said.

"Ray!" Fraser objected, sounding like he didn't know whether to be shocked, relieved, or offended.

"Twice."

"Ray."

"I'm just pointing out," Vecchio said innocently, and Ray could hear the grin in his voice. Then, low, "I missed you, Benny. We missed you."

"I missed you, too," said Fraser. "And I'm very glad you're here."

Well, that sounded like Ray's cue.

He stomped his way around the corner, yawning loudly, to find Vecchio and Fraser standing in the kitchen with their arms wrapped around each other. And it hurt, a little, seeing them so close and being on the outside, but as soon as Vecchio saw Ray, his eyes lit up and he broke into one of those megawatt smiles and dammit, it was kind of hard to get a good sulk going after that.

"Well," said Vecchio, "look who finally decided to join the land of the living."

"Coffee," Ray grumbled, but before he was even halfway through the word, Fraser was putting a warm mug into his hand.

Yeah. Really hard to get a good sulk going.

"Did you sleep all right?" Fraser asked him.

"Yeah, great, thanks." Ray shuffled into the kitchen, sipping at the coffee. It tasted fantastic, rich and smooth with just the right amount of kick to it, and he made a mental note not to ask Fraser what was in it. When it came to Fraser and food, not-knowing was half the battle. "I smell bacon?" he asked Vecchio hopefully.

"Yep. Pour the juice, will ya? It's almost ready."

Breakfast was like a sunnier version of dinner, with the three of them laughing and trading stories and Ray sneaking Dief bits of bacon under the table. Which was why when Fraser stood up and said, "Well, I should really be going," Ray felt like he'd had the rug yanked out from under him.

"What?" he said. "Where are you going?"

Fraser blinked at him. "I'm going to work."

"But..." Ray looked to Vecchio for backup. "We haul our asses halfway across the world to see you, and you can't take a couple of days off?"

"I'm sorry, Ray," Fraser said, looking down at the table, "but Mrs. Uyarasuk, one of the women in the village, is missing her cat, and I promised I would meet with her today to start organizing the search party."

"The search party? Fraser, it's a cat, it'll come home when it's hungry!" Ray knew he was overreacting, but that just pissed him off even more—this was important, this thing they were doing, here, and Mrs. Rhymes-With-Sucks' cat could just fucking wait for a couple of days.

He felt Vecchio's hand slide onto his knee underneath the table, thumb rubbing soothingly.

"Want company, Benny?"

"Thank you, but these meetings can be quite tedious, what with the minute detailing of whiskers, the precise motion of the tail, the number and width of the stripes... well, you get the idea."

"Yeah," Vecchio said, raising an eyebrow, "sounds like you don't really need our help for that. But go ahead, me and Kowalski'll be fine." He waved his free hand in the air. "We got books, we got food, we got... snow... we got..." He trailed off. "What else we got?"

Fraser's mouth had relaxed. "There should be a deck of cards in that cupboard over there. There's also a game the children like to play called `Bear Trap,' in which—"

"That's okay," Vecchio said quickly, "I think we'll just stick with poker."

"Understood. Well," Fraser said, gesturing around the room, "make yourselves at home—I'll just go feed the troops, and then I'll be on my way."

"I'll feed 'em," Ray blurted out, feeling guilty.

Fraser raised an eyebrow at him. "Ray, you hate feeding the team."

Ray flushed. Of course Fraser would remember that. "I hate it when it's a million below in a blizzard, yeah. This, I'm pretty sure I can handle." Then, when Fraser just looked at him, his head tilted to the side like he was trying to figure out a perp's mother's maiden name from the slant of his left eyebrow, "Go, will ya? We got it covered."

"All right." Fraser smiled, the kind of smile that always made heat pool at the bottom of Ray's stomach. "Thank you. I'll see you both this evening, then," and he buttoned up his serge and put on his hat and then he was gone.

*****

So Ray fed the dogs while Vecchio did the dishes, and then they christened the guest bedroom, after which point Ray was definitely starting to see how a little time to themselves could be a good thing. Then Vecchio proceeded to whip Ray's ass at gin rummy until Ray threatened to throw the damn cards in the fire, and Vecchio laughed and suggested a walk instead, so they put on their gear and wandered around the property with the spring sun sparkling off the snow and the creeks starting to run cheerfully as the ice melted. Ray told Vecchio all the cool survival stuff he'd learned while trying not to get eaten by glaciers, stuff he'd almost forgotten he knew, like how you could get protein poisoning if you only ate the rabbit meat and not the entrails, and how you could cook a square of cotton into charcoal to start a fire later, and Vecchio raised his eyebrows and looked genuinely impressed and not a little turned on and that was good, too, Ray could get used to that.

By that time it was late afternoon and they headed back to the cabin, where Vecchio ransacked Fraser's cupboards and refrigerator for recognizable food. There was a whole lot of stuff in there that Ray wouldn't have put in his mouth on a bet, but Vecchio managed to dig out a pile of ingredients that he claimed would grow up to be chicken cacciatore, and Ray shrugged and took his word for it. Ray chopped, Vecchio did show-offy chef things with the shiny copper pans that left Ray genuinely impressed and not a little turned on, and that was basically what they were doing when Fraser came home, Vecchio singing opera loudly and off-key and Ray laughing at him and the smell of tomato sauce rich in the air.

"Ciao, Benny!" Vecchio called cheerfully, then went back to the singing while Fraser stood there blinking in the doorway.

"Hey. Earth to Mountie." Ray grinned. "Get in here, you're letting all the heat out."

"Ah, yes, of course," said Fraser, closing the door behind him. Dief made a beeline for the kitchen, nosing at the carnage on Ray's cutting board until Ray nudged him aside with one foot. Fraser moved toward the stove in the living room, obviously on autopilot, and Ray tried not to smirk as he watched Fraser reach for fresh wood with one hand, open the stove with the other, and realize the fire was already going strong.

"Fraser, is crappy singing a crime in Canada?" Ray asked.

That seemed to snap Fraser out of his daze; he straightened up, smiling, and walked into the kitchen. "No, Ray, I don't believe it is."

"Can we make it one?"

"Ohhhh," said Vecchio as he leaned down to check the cacciatore. "Just because you don't have the musical taste God gave a goat, Stanley—"

"Are goats really renowned for their taste in music, Ray?" Fraser asked, and Vecchio rounded on him, wide-eyed and laughing.

"Oho, so is that how it's gonna be? Two against one?" He brandished a wooden spoon in Ray's direction. "The Fraser I knew wouldn't've done that. You're a bad influence, Kowalski."

Ray shrugged unrepentantly. "So I've been told."

"Five more minutes to food," said Vecchio, closing the oven door. "So how'd it go today, Benny? Did you strike a blow for the Fortitude Bay feline population?"

"Actually, yes," Fraser said. "we had a very productive morning and managed to draw out quite a comprehensive description of the cat in question. Then I made a quick sketch, we employed the services of a few of the local children to reproduce the image onto flyers, and then... well..." He rubbed his eyebrow with his thumb.

"Well, what?" Ray asked, already grinning.

"Well, at that point, Mrs. Uyarasuk remembered she had shut her pantry door to keep the raccoons out, and..."

Vecchio burst out laughing. "So the cat was in the pantry the whole time?"

"Yes, it would appear so," Fraser said solemnly, but the corners of his mouth were twitching. "On the positive side, the cat at least had plenty of food, and she had discovered that she could escape the pantry by means of an air vent toward the back—"

"Lucky her," Vecchio muttered, and Fraser rolled his eyes.

"Ray, that was years ago, and we did not, in fact, drown, so I really don't see why you insist on dredging it up, and in any case, evidently Peaches the cat had been sneaking out through the air vent to visit a nearby tom, and, well." Fraser smiled. "Mrs. Uyarasuk is thrilled at the prospect of kittens."

"Wow," Ray said into the silence that followed. "That is the sort of story I have not heard since you left Chicago, Fraser, I'll tell you that."

"Yeah," said Vecchio, grinning fondly, "you do have a gift, Benny."

Fraser's smile widened. "Why, thank you, Ray."

Then they all just stood there, beaming stupidly at each other, until Vecchio shook his head. "Okay," he said, ducking back toward the oven, "chicken cacciatore, coming right up."

*****

Ray volunteered for the couch that night; he could tell Vecchio's back was bothering him, even if he wouldn't admit it, and the fact that Vecchio accepted the offer without a fight was proof enough that Ray'd been right. Ray was too wired to sleep anyway, which was funny because they hadn't really said or done anything important all night, just ate dinner and did the dishes and played a few hands of poker. And yeah, there'd been the possibility of sex in the air like a low hum the whole time—Ray had stood a few inches closer to Fraser than he strictly needed to while he was drying the dishes, and Fraser had not exactly done anything to remedy that situation, and at one point Ray could've sworn that Vecchio was about to suggest strip poker on the grounds that they were cops and couldn't gamble for money. But mainly, they'd just hung out, and still, by the end of the night, Ray was vibrating like a guitar string, sitting out on Fraser's porch swing staring up at more stars than he'd seen in a year and afraid to go to sleep in case he missed anything.

"Mind if I join you?" Fraser asked, stepping out the front door carrying a blanket and two steaming mugs. Ray smiled and scooted over on the swing, held the ciders while Fraser sat down and arranged the blanket over both of them.

"Nice place you got here," Ray said after a few minutes of just sipping hot cider and listening to Fraser breathe.

"Thank you," Fraser said. "It's..." He looked off into the distance, hiding his face. "It's better, with you and Ray here."

Ray bumped Fraser's knee with his. "No duh."

Fraser chuckled. "And you," he said. "You seem happy."

"Yeah," Ray said, shrugging, "you know, got a job, got my health, got my real name, all that good stuff."

Fraser looked over him. "And you've got Ray."

Ray smiled, took another gulp of his cider. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do."

"I'm glad," said Fraser. "For both of you."

"Thanks," Ray said, and waited. He knew that wasn't all Fraser had come out here to say.

Sure enough, "I feel..." Fraser hesitated. "I feel like I failed you before, Ray, when we were up in the North."

"Fraser—"

"I thought it would be good for both of us," Fraser went on, ignoring him. "A change of scenery, physical challenges. I thought it would be..." He lifted a shoulder. "Purifying."

Ray shifted closer to him on the bench. "It was, Fraser, that was the problem. I went up there with all these big ideas about how I was gonna find something and be something, y'know? Be a hero. But there wasn't anything up there but me, and it just... purified me right down to nothing."

"I'm sorry, Ray." Fraser was staring down into his lap.

"No, it was—look, Fraser." Ray sighed. "You can't save everyone, okay? Some things, people gotta figure out for themselves. Like the guy in the song, right? 'To find there but the road back home again.'"

Fraser smiled. "You hated that line."

"Yeah, I know," Ray said, "but I didn't get it then. I get it now."

"You know, I don't know that I ever got it until recently, either," Fraser admitted.

"Wow," Ray said, grinning. "Did I just hear Benton Fraser cop to not knowing something?"

"It does happen from time to time," Fraser answered wryly, taking a drink of his cider. Neither of them said anything for a long moment. Then, "It's been very cold, this past winter."

Jesus. Something twisted sharp in Ray's gut. Aside from maybe Vecchio, he'd never met anyone who could torture himself like Fraser could. "Yeah," he said. "So." He linked his fingers through Fraser's under the blanket. "No more of that, right?"

Fraser smiled again, and squeezed hard, his thumb rubbing over the back of Ray's hand. "No," he said. "No more of that."

"Good."

They sat in silence, swinging gently.

"Well," Fraser said after a while, "time to turn in, I think."

"Okay," Ray said. "I'm gonna stay out here for a while."

"All right," Fraser said. He squeezed Ray's hand one more time, then stood up, piling his share of the blanket on Ray's lap. "Do you need—"

"I'm sure I can find the blankets if I need 'em, Fraser," Ray told him, smiling, and Fraser laughed softly.

"Yes. Of course you can. Good night, Ray."

"'Night." Ray pulled the blanket in tighter, wrapped his hands around the mug, and tipped his head back to watch the stars.

*****

"Rise and shine, Kowalski," Vecchio said, bumping Ray's shoulder with his knee.

Ray groaned and burrowed deeper into his pillow. "I hate you."

"Coffee's on," Vecchio answered.

Ray hated him slightly less.

"Move over," Vecchio told him, "I'm freezing, here."

And normally Ray would have told him to fuck off, or maybe something less polite, but something in Vecchio's voice made him crack an eyelid and look up. Vecchio looked pale in the early morning light, his eyes haunted and tension in his shoulders; he didn't sleep so well by himself.

Ray sat up. "Yeah, sure," he said. "C'mere."

Vecchio flopped down on the couch next to him, and Ray tipped sideways to rest his head on Vecchio's shoulder, tossing some of the blanket over as he did. When Vecchio sighed and sort of melted into him, Ray smiled. He let his eyes drift shut again.

"Where's Fraser?" he asked.

"Dunno," Vecchio said. "He left a note, said he'd be back soon."

"Freak," Ray muttered, and Vecchio chuckled.

They were each on their second cup of coffee by the time Fraser got back, bringing in a gust of cool fresh air and a damp half-wolf who immediately came over to where Ray and Vecchio were sitting at the kitchen table and stuck his cold nose in the curve of Ray's elbow.

"Gah!" Ray protested, fending him off with a foot. "Fraser! That's not buddies."

"Sorry, Ray," Fraser said, which Ray might have been more inclined to believe if Fraser had not been grinning like an idiot, "he's just glad to see you."

Ray leaned down and enunciated carefully. "No. Noses. Okay? That's all I ask." He buried one hand in the ruff of fur at Dief's neck and gave him a couple of scratches. Dief whuffed happily, then sprawled out under the table with his head on Vecchio's foot.

"Aww, man," Vecchio grumbled, "these are new socks," but he didn't move an inch. "Sorry there's no breakfast, I didn't know when you'd be back," he told Fraser. "But there's hot water on the stove if you want tea."

"Thank you," Fraser said, "that's very thoughtful of you."

"You can thank me by not making me smell it," Vecchio answered.

Ray snickered.

"Bark tea actually has quite a few aromatherapeutic applications," Fraser told them primly, getting a mug out of the cupboard.

"Yeah, I bet it works great as a torture device," Ray volunteered, and snickered again when Fraser sighed.

"Such a waste," he said, staring up at the ceiling like he was hoping the Canadian Taste Buds Fairy was going to appear and rescue him from the crazy Americans. "Such a waste."

Actually, Ray had kind of missed the smell of bark tea. It was disgusting, yeah, but it was familiar, too; he'd fallen asleep to it in his car on stakeouts, woken up to it in the middle of frozen nowhere, and he'd sort of gotten used to it, a little smelly signpost that said Fraser's here. And now it was mixed with Vecchio's cologne, sleep-faded but still definite, and the combination hit Ray right in the gut.

"So," he asked Fraser, wanting to be prepared, "what's on the menu today? Got some pemmican thieves to catch? Or was there a tragic curling accident?"

"Well," Fraser said. His cheeks turned faintly pink, and he looked down into his tea. "In fact, I've already taken care of the few things that required my attention today, so..." He looked up again, back and forth between Ray and Vecchio. "I find myself quite at liberty."

"You took the day off?" Vecchio's voice spiraled high with shock.

"Yes," Fraser said, as if that was the most normal thing in the world and not one of the signs of the apocalypse.

"You took the day off?" Ray echoed.

Fraser shrugged. "I do take vacation from time to time, Ray."

"Yeah," Vecchio agreed, "but it usually tends to involve going somewhere you can get hijacked or drowned. I haven't seen you take just a plain old day off since..." He trailed off. "Well," he said, quieter. "It's been a while."

"No time like the present," Fraser told him, staring straight into Vecchio's eyes; Vecchio gave him a weird, sad-sweet smile. And Ray was missing something, here, but as much as he wanted to know what it was, from the looks on Fraser's and Vecchio's faces it was more of a whiskey kind of story than a coffee one, and hell, he had time to drag it out of them. In fact, he thought, unable to keep from grinning, apparently he had all day.

"Amen," he said. "So what're we gonna do?"

"Didn't you say this place needed some work after the winter?" Vecchio asked Fraser. Ray was just about to ask if Vecchio maybe wanted to look up the word "vacation" in the dictionary when he remembered Vecchio curled up in bed, murmuring, Never did get back up there, and nodded instead.

"Yeah, Fraser. We can, I dunno, daub something."

Fraser was shaking his head. "I couldn't possibly—"

"C'mon," Vecchio said. "Frankly, I feel a hell of a lot safer working with power tools than I would taking the Mountie nature walk with you. At least the power tools will probably only take off one limb at a time."

"Ray..."

Ray shoved his chair back from the table. "Ding-ding-ding, time's up, survey says yes," he said, grabbing the shoulder of Vecchio's shirt and tugging. Dief scrambled up underneath the table, tail wagging, ready for adventure. "Pitter patter, Fraser. Last one to lose a finger's a rotten egg," and he jogged backwards toward the door.

*****

It was a perfect day for hard work; the sun was shining but the air was cool, green buds starting to pop through the bare branches on the trees. The repairs were easy, mostly, patching here and sealing there, with Vecchio and Fraser singing the same wrong words to golden oldies until Ray begged Fraser to teach them some sea shanties or something just to stop his ears from bleeding.

They broke for lunch around one, sitting on the porch munching ham sandwiches on thick, fresh bread. After a couple more hours in the bright spring sun, Ray was actually starting to work up a pretty good sweat, and he could see Vecchio was, too, the moisture gleaming on his neck.

"Hey, Vecchio," Ray said, sauntering up with his hands in his pockets.

"Hey, what?" Vecchio wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve; he was working in just a long-sleeved shirt now, having ditched his coat hours ago. Nightmares aside, he looked easier since they'd gotten here, like there was a part of him settled now that hadn't been before, one more piece he'd found a place for.

"Lookin' a little warm, there," Ray told him. "Here, let me help," and he pulled the wet snowball out of his pocket and promptly shoved it down Vecchio's back.

Vecchio hollered and twisted and swore, and Ray completely lost it, laughing so hard he could barely stand up. Which was the only reason Vecchio managed to catch up to him and smash an equally wet snowball on Ray's neck while he tried desperately to catch his breath. The snow was half-melted and didn't pack worth crap, but that didn't stop them from flinging it at each other in big splattering arcs, slipping and tripping on the uneven ground, their shouts echoing through the trees.

Fraser came around the corner of the cabin to find out what all the shrieking was about, and Ray was still trying to dodge slush-balls from Vecchio but kept one eye on Fraser, expecting him to break them up any second now. Two eyes probably would've been the better plan, though, because before he knew it, he was turning one way to avoid Vecchio's latest volley and found himself turning right into an explosion of snow in the center of his chest, heard a wet pish a few seconds later and knew that Vecchio had gotten the same treatment.

That was basically the end of work for the day.

By the time they'd scraped huge divots in most of the snow on the property, Ray's fingers were red from cold and his cheeks ached from laughing, and despite having joined forces against the Mountie, he and Vecchio were thoroughly soaked.

"Do you surrender?" Fraser yelled as Ray and Vecchio huddled behind a fallen tree for cover.

"I dunno, do we?" Ray asked Vecchio, gasping for breath.

"Two against one, Kowalski, this is embarrassing."

"Home field advantage," Ray pointed out. "He's Canadian, the snow's on his side."

Vecchio considered that. "Good point." Then he called to Fraser, "We propose a cease-fire on account of the snow is biased in favor of Canadians."

There was a long pause. "I accept your offer of a cease-fire in good faith, and invite you to share my hearth and bread as a gesture of friendship."

"Where does he get this stuff?" Vecchio wondered, shaking his head.

"Hell if I know," Ray answered, and levered himself to his feet so he could give Vecchio a hand up.

Fraser smiled at them graciously and didn't say a word until they were walking up the stairs to the porch. Then,

"Biased snow, hmm? I must admit, that's a phenomenon with which I'm not particularly familiar."

"We're Americans, Fraser," Ray explained, clapping him on the shoulder, "we have powers of B.S. that you can only begin to imagine."

"On the contrary, Ray," Fraser said dryly, "that is a phenomenon with which I'm very familiar indeed," and Vecchio cackled with laughter as they piled into the house.

*****

Dinner was leftover chicken cacciatore, and afterward they huddled around the fire in the living room again, sitting cross-legged on the rug to be closer to the heat; Ray's fingers were still faintly tingling from the snow. He was sore from the day's work, too, but it was a good kind of sore, a job-well-done kind of sore, and he stretched his arms out toward the fire, arching his shoulders with a sigh.

"You doing okay?" Vecchio asked, one hand rubbing down his back.

Fraser jumped right in with, "I do have a poultice—"

"I'm good," Ray told them both, smiling, and in fact, he wasn't sure he'd ever been so good in his entire life.

"Perhaps," Fraser started, then paused, clearing his throat. "Perhaps we should do a closer inspection. Just to be sure."

Ray's head snapped up so fast he thought he might end up with whiplash. Vecchio's hand stopped its slide down Ray's back. Fraser just sat there, but Ray could see his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. Getting laid had been about the last thing on Ray's mind, but hey, he was always willing to make it the first.

"Yeah," said Ray when his tongue started working again, "maybe you're right."

Fraser reached over with one hand, put it over Vecchio's on the small of Ray's back. "The light isn't particularly good out here," he said. "I think we'd see much better in the bedroom."

Ray had heard Fraser say the word "bedroom" a bunch of times while they'd been partners—the suspect escaped through the bedroom, the money was hidden in the bedroom, there's sometimes a fine line between an office and a bedroom—but he'd never heard him say it like that, and he immediately wanted to do whatever he had to do to make him say it again as often as possible.

"Okay," said Vecchio, his fingers flexing on Fraser's. "Bedroom it is."

Getting up off the floor and walking down a hallway while working on a raging hard-on wasn't easy to do with any kind of cool, but Ray managed as best he could, comforted by the fact that Vecchio and Fraser weren't exactly gliding along, either. Fraser's bed was perfectly made, of course, though it was probably hard to bounce a quarter off a quilt. The headboard was rich, glossy wood, and that gave Ray more than a few ideas, but for now he just let Fraser lead them inside and push Ray gently down until he was sitting on the bed. Vecchio stood in front of him, watching, his eyes hot and dark.

"Where does it hurt?" Fraser asked.

"Uh." Ray wasn't really feeling any pain anywhere at the moment, but. "Shoulders, mostly."

"All right." Fraser climbed onto the bed behind him and knelt, putting a big, calloused hand on each of Ray's shoulders. When he dug in with his fingers, Ray sucked in air, his head falling forward; Jesus Christ, Fraser was good at this. "Is that all right?" Fraser asked.

"That's..." Ray trailed off and groaned as Fraser hit a particularly sore spot. "God, yeah. That's good, Fraser. That is definitely good."

"Good."

Fraser kept up with the massaging until Ray was slumped forward, boneless, then smoothed Ray's shirt across his shoulders and leaned down, pressing damp, soft lips to the curve of Ray's neck.

"Does that help?" he asked against Ray's skin.

"Ungh," said Ray, dizzy and defenseless already. "Yeah," he managed. "Good."

Fraser hummed low in his throat and kissed Ray's neck again. Then his right shoulder. Then across his back just above his shoulderblades, an uneven line. Vecchio made a small, hungry noise and Ray bit the inside of his cheek, wondering if he could come just from this, Fraser's mouth on him like a brand even through Ray's t-shirt.

Then, like something had snapped somewhere, Vecchio was dropping to his knees in front of him, sliding his hands up Ray's thighs and licking his way into Ray's mouth. Ray opened for him easily, leaned forward to get a better angle and felt Fraser move with him, kissing right at the base of his neck this time. One of Vecchio's hands slipped down to cup Ray's hard-on and Ray gasped around Vecchio's tongue, arching involuntarily into the pressure.

"Fuck," he hissed while Vecchio kept palming him, craned his head around and found Fraser's mouth, slick and wet. Fraser kissed just like he did everything else, thoroughly and with dedication and extremely fucking well. Between that and Vecchio's knowing hand on his cock, this was going to be over before Ray knew it and fuck that, he was going for extra innings, here.

So he tangled Vecchio's fingers in his and dragged them away from his crotch, then sort of slithered down and to the side until Fraser and Vecchio were face to face, breathing hard. Vecchio squeezed Ray's fingers and wrapped his free hand around the back of Fraser's neck, pulling him forward for a kiss. And this was supposed to be a time-out for Ray, but watching them together—the pink sweep of Fraser's tongue across Vecchio's lips, Vecchio's hand clutching tight in Fraser's shirt at his shoulder—was sending jolts of heat directly to his dick, enough so he had to unzip his jeans and stroke himself a couple of times, just to take the edge off.

"Hey," said Vecchio unsteadily, obviously hearing the zipper, "no fair getting ahead, Kowalski."

"Then hurry up," Ray grinned, and stood up to shuck off his t-shirt.

Vecchio laughed and stood, too, pulling the button-down shirt that was his idea of casual-wear off over his head, and then they both went for Fraser, Ray tugging at the white Henley and Vecchio tossing it onto the floor as he pushed Fraser down to the bed with another kiss. They fell on their sides, so Ray stretched himself out behind Fraser, one hand tracing the hard, smooth lines of his back. Fraser's skin was marked with a dozen scars, and Ray kissed them all, one by one, except the largest one just inside his shoulder-blade. That was Vecchio's to kiss, and Ray knew it, just like he could kiss the corner of Fraser's mouth and they'd both remember blood there, a cold and damp day by the water, Ray's fist throbbing and his heart in his throat.

Jesus, they'd all done some dumbass things.

But Ray was done beating himself up about the past, he wanted the present now, and the present was pretty damn good, the two guys he loved tangled up with each other, with him, and some hope for a future, too. Vecchio's hand found his and Ray propped himself up on one elbow, watching Fraser and Vecchio kiss. Fraser rolled back with the movement and pulled Ray's head down to kiss him, too, then nudged him and Vecchio toward each other and groaned as their mouths met.

Vecchio tasted a little bit like Fraser, and fuck, that was hot, especially with Fraser all sprawled out between them and inhaling sharp when Ray slid his fingers over one of Vecchio's flat, hard nipples. Vecchio mouthed a wet trail along Ray's jaw, biting him just where his jaw met his neck, just where he liked it. Ray dropped his hand down and found Vecchio's right there with him, both of them stroking slow over Fraser's hard-on.

"Jesus," Vecchio gasped against Ray's neck, and Ray knew exactly how he felt.

Vecchio popped the button on Fraser's jeans while Ray took care of the zipper; between the two of them, they managed to get him—and themselves—naked in record time.

"Ray—" Fraser said hoarsely. Ray didn't know whether he was talking to him or Vecchio or both, but he didn't care, just followed the gentle pressure of Vecchio's hand on the back of his neck and bent down to lick a long stripe along Fraser's cock, which was lying thick and heavy and dark against his stomach. Fraser jerked, his hips coming up off the bed.

"Yeah," Vecchio whispered, kneading Ray's neck, "God, yeah."

Ray licked a few more times, teasing, then Vecchio curled the fingers of his free hand around the base of Fraser's cock and held it up for Ray to swallow down. Fraser's skin was like velvet against Ray's tongue, Vecchio's voice like honey and whiskey in his ears,

"Yeah, Kowalski, that's good, that's so good, oh, God, Benny, the way you look, oh, God," a steady counterpoint to Fraser's ragged breathing. One of Fraser's hands groped out, sliding down Ray's back over his ass, then back up again, leaving a charge of friction in its wake. Ray moaned and sucked harder; Vecchio's fingers were drenched with spit.

"Come on, Benny, come on, come for us, that's it, he wants you to, come on..."

Ray hummed agreement, rock-hard and aching with how much he wanted, how much he was getting. And just when he thought that he might actually come before Fraser did, Fraser arched his back and stiffened and poured down Ray's throat.

After he'd licked Fraser clean, Ray looked up to see Vecchio kissing him softly, his fingers buried in Fraser's thick hair. Ray climbed up on Fraser's other side and buried his nose in the curve of Fraser's collarbone, catching his breath, but before his heart rate had a chance to slow down, Fraser got a little shakily up on his hands and knees, clambering over Ray's body and sinking down again behind him, pushing him toward Vecchio.

"Hey," Ray said to Vecchio, smiling.

"Hey. Fancy meeting you here."

"Yeah. Come here often?" Ray asked him, knowing his lines, and Vecchio grinned.

"Not yet, but I'm hoping," and kissed Ray sweet and urgent. Ray hooked a leg over his hip, bringing their cocks together with one quick thrust.

"Mmmm," Fraser murmured approvingly in his ear.

Vecchio's fingers were still wet with Ray's spit and probably a little bit of Fraser's come, too, and he wrapped them around both their cocks, making Ray shudder. God, he couldn't remember wanting to come so badly since he was a teenager, but he wanted to draw it out, too, wanted to remember everything, and he closed his eyes and sucked Vecchio's tongue into his mouth.

"I've thought about you, you know," Fraser said, pressed up warm against Ray's back, his voice low and soft. "Ever since we spoke on the phone, I've thought about you. Both of you. How you must be together. How you must look together. How you must touch each other."

Vecchio groaned, his hips stuttering against Ray's.

"I'd wasted so many opportunities with both of you, but at least you'd found each other, and I told myself I was glad. Every night, I went to bed with that image in my head, comforting me, driving me mad."

Ray was drowning, thrusting helplessly, his hand tangled around Vecchio's now, Fraser's words rumbling through him.

"I must say, however, that my imagination utterly failed to capture the reality. And now that I've experienced it first-hand, I feel it only fair to warn you that—" he reached around Ray's body, joining his hand to theirs, and Ray's brain shorted out; through the swirling rush of his orgasm, he just barely managed to hear, "—it's not something I intend to easily relinquish."

*****

"So," Ray said to Fraser, much later, when they were all mashed into the bed together. "Does this mean we can stay a while?"

"Yes, Ray," Fraser answered, chuckling sleepily. "You can stay as long as you like."

"Okay." Ray sighed and shifted, trying to unkink his left arm where he was lying on it, and he swore it was no more than half an inch but Vecchio grunted anyway.

"Jesus, Kowalski. Watch your elbows, there are delicate organs in there."

"Sorry." He felt Fraser's hand move up and down Vecchio's arm, soothing. "Hey, Fraser, maybe you should look into a bigger bed."

And Ray was expecting something about the blah blahs of excess and the whatnots of virtue, because even well-fucked and exhausted, Fraser was still Fraser, but Fraser just wrapped his arm closer around both of them, squashing Ray in the middle. Under the circumstances, Ray decided it was worth it; he could breathe some other time.

"Yes, Ray," Fraser said, sounding more content than Ray had ever heard him. "That sounds like an excellent idea."


Epilogue


"I can't work with him," Ray complained, shoving at Vecchio's shoulder.

Vecchio rolled his eyes. "You're so sensitive, Stanley."

"See?" Ray demanded. "He's provoking me."

"Ray," Fraser said, and normally they could tell which one of them he was talking to just by the way he said it, but he had an in-between tone, too, for when he didn't feel like specifying (see also: "Oh, God, Ray"), and that was it.

"C'mon," Vecchio said, putting down his drill. "I'll provoke you a sandwich, will that help?"

"Yes," Ray answered instantly. "Yes, that would go a long way toward me not braining you with the nail gun."

They sat on a fallen log to eat, taking stock of their progress.

"Lookin' pretty good," Ray offered.

"Yes," Fraser agreed. "We should be able to put the windows in soon."

"Are you sure you're sure about this, Benny?" Vecchio asked for the billionth time, and Ray couldn't really blame him. Asking Fraser to trade his sturdy cabin in the northwest middle of nowhere for a way-less-sturdy-due-to-being-built-by-two-Americans cabin in as close to the middle of Canadian nowhere as they could get and still be an easy drive from Chicago... that was a pretty tall order.

Fraser sighed. "Yes, Ray. I'm sure I'm sure. I told you, I've missed Chicago despite its flaws, and as long as I have this place to come and clear my head when necessary, I believe I'll be quite happy there."

"But Canada's home for you," Ray pointed out.

Fraser smiled at him. "Ray," he said, in that same in-between tone, and this time it made both Ray and Vecchio smile. Ray nudged his knee into Vecchio's.

"This is home," Fraser told them, nodding at the unfinished cabin. "Everything else is just... geography."

Ray felt his eyes stinging and looked up at the blue summer sky, feeling Vecchio's leg solid and warm against him on one side and Fraser's shoulder pressed to his on the other.

"Geography," he said. "Yeah. Kinda tough to argue with that."


END

 

DS/6Deg Fic
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