What You See

©2004 by Starfish

This story follows "The Way That We Used to Be" and "On My Feet Again" in what I've been referring to as "the Bar AU" universe. If you haven't read the previous two, this won't make much sense. Also in keeping with the previous stories, the title is taken from a Blue Rodeo song. (No, that doesn't make it song-fic. Shuddup.)

Many, many thanks to my stellar team of betas -- BethH, Carla, and Shay. BethH in particular deserves 25% of all feedback, in payment for odd phone calls that were All!About!Me! Muchas gracias, queridas.


So when will I see what you see
You say it's got nothing to do with being worthy
When will I see what you see
        (Blue Rodeo,
"The Seeker")


I wake up wrapped in Ben. Good feeling. Best feeling in the world, in fact. Can't believe we almost lost our chance at this. I'm going to have to make sure we don't have any more of those 'But I thought ... ' conversations. We don't really speak the same language, him and me. He's all repressed-Canadian-librarian-grandmother-stoic about stuff, and I'm ... not. Volatile, he'd probably say. Blue-collar family; when Dad got mad, we knew exactly why. Us and most of the neighbors.

So this'll be interesting for a while. He's more like Stella than I want to think, they both go all icy-cold-polite when I'd be screaming and kicking. Therapy helped a little with that, though, so once we get past the 'new' phase, we should be good to go. I just have to remember that he's not Stella. Said he's never going to leave me, which was good to hear. I'm trying hard to believe it, too, mostly because I really, really want to. I know he ran away from life once before, but those were some pretty fucked-up extenuating circumstances. I think he'll stick this time.

But please, just let me be enough for him.

He stretches and then wraps himself even tighter around me. I squirm a little and he eases up so I can roll over on my side to face him. I just hope I don't have disgusting morning-breath. "Hi," I say.

He smiles. "Hi."

"Dief out?"

"An hour ago. He informed me I was being slothful when I came back to bed."

I kiss him then; can't resist and I don't have to anymore. "Mmm," I say after a minute. "How are you feeling this morning, after Hurricane Stella and all?"

"Fine," he says, like he always does. Then he looks uncomfortable. "Should I have -- I didn't mean to intrude last night; you do understand that, don't you?"

"Intrude? Last time I checked you had a key to the place. She was the one intruding, far as I'm concerned." I shake my head. "I haven't seen her that pissed at anybody since we were in high school and she thought me and Sandi O'Connor were getting serious."

"Ah," he says, and I've known him long enough to know that's all he's got to say on the subject right now.

Another kiss seems like a good idea. We're all tangled up together, legs and arms all over the place, and my dick is poking him in the hip. A little bit of squirming on my part and suddenly it's rubbing right alongside his. He pushes into me hard and grabs my ass with one hand. It's possible the moans I hear are coming from me -- I wouldn't be at all surprised. I probably woke the neighbors last night when he was fucking me.

God, last night was ... 'incredible' doesn't seem big enough, but it'll have to do. I can't remember ever feeling like that before -- like there was an actual connection between me and the person I was in bed with -- not just body parts but something deeper. And now I get why Stella was worried when we were married, because if Ben and I had met then? Wow. I never fooled around on her, not once, but he would've been the beginning of the end for us.

I kiss my way down his neck, stopping off to pay special attention to the earring I gave him for Christmas. It probably should have tipped me off that he's never once taken it out, but I can be a little thick sometimes. I nip his earlobe and whisper, "Mine," and he shivers.

"Yes," he says, almost too soft for me to hear, and I smile against his hair and continue downward towards the promised land. He goes all squirmy when I get near his belly-button, and he just about flies off the bed when I stick my tongue in it. I can hardly wait to see what's going to happen when I go down on him. He's making incredibly sexy noises, little mmm's and ohhh's and then I get a whispered "ohgod." I look up and his cock is right there, begging for attention.

He's got a beautiful cock, not scary-huge but a real nice size. I remember how good it felt last night inside me and now I want to taste it so bad my mouth starts watering. I slowly slide my lips over the tip and hear him kind of whimper, and ... yeah. That's what I'm looking for.

Sliding my mouth up and down, sucking and licking and swirling my tongue around ... there's just something about sucking dick -- when I'm really into it, it's almost as good for me as fucking. I'm so out of it enjoying myself it takes me a minute to notice that Ben's whole body's gone all stiff. I pull back and look at him.

His hands are holding onto the sheets like they're all that's keeping him from flying off into space. I run my hand down one arm and work my fingers in between his, trying to make contact. He gasps again and says, "Ray, please ... ." I look closer at his face, and it looks like he's in pain, eyes all squinched up tight. Shit.

"What's wrong?

"It's too much -- I can't --"

"Jesus, I'm sorry. We don't have to -- I just thought -- never mind." My stomach feels like I ate a live lizard, and I back off and just breathe for a minute, trying not to lose it. Too much, too fast, try thinking about Ben and what he wants. Not everyone appreciates being treated like they were the main course at a banquet, Kowalski. After a minute or two I stop feeling like I'm going to hurl, and I get enough control to take another look at Ben.

Who's looking back, real confused. "Ray?" he says. "Why did you --" Then he stops.

Okay, so he's not freaking out, which is a huge relief. "What's going on? I thought you wanted me to stop."

He props himself up on his elbows. "Not because I didn't like what you were doing."

There's no way I can follow that without coffee. "Come again?"

He laughs. "Exactly. I was ... about to."

Jesus. I lay back down next to him, and I can't keep the grin off my face. "Don't see the problem yet."

"I suppose there isn't one. I was just -- I didn't want it to be over quite so quickly."

"Ohhhh. Hell, Ben, I'll suck you off three times a day; just say the word."

He gets that look in his eye that tells me he's teasing. "What exactly is the word?"

I kiss him, and then say "Pick one."

Wicked grin, then he says, "I would very much enjoy having you fellate me any time you feel the urge to do so."

Yeah. That's the word. "Hang on to something, then, 'cause you're in for a ride."

I didn't think it was possible, but his eyes are trying to eat me, I swear. And as much as I want to just dive right down and get to work, it'll be better for both of us if I take my time. So I start back at the top, start with another kiss.

Oh, Jesus, he's going to wreck me. It's just a kiss, really, just mouths and tongues, lips and teeth, but it's more, too. It's hearts and souls and everything I have is in this kiss. And he sees my everything and raises me a forever, and this is all the other stuff we couldn't say, right here.

I'm getting dressed fast, running late for court, when my phone rings. Normally I ignore it when I'm late, but something tells me to pick it up. "Kowalski," I say, as I try to pick out a tie.

"Did I catch you before you left?" says a woman's voice I half-recognize.

"Yeah," I say, stalling for time. I fucking hate when people don't tell me who they are.

"Volpe finally spilled," the voice goes on, and I figure it out -- Madeline Kaufman, the Assistant State's Attorney I've been working with. "Gave us names, dates, places -- everything. Looks like we don't need you today after all."

"Works for me," I say, closing the closet door. "Thanks for calling -- I'd've been pissed if I put on a suit and drove down there for nothing."

"Yeah," she says, and then her voice gets weird. "Listen, you want to go for a drink tonight? We could, uh, hang out. Celebrate."

What the hell? Is she asking me out?

"Jeez," I say carefully, "I don't know if I can. We got open-mike and I like to stay around for that. You could stop by the bar if you wanted to, though."

"Oh," she says, "that's right -- I forgot you own a bar. Yeah, maybe I'll drop by ... around eight or so?"

"Sure," I say. There's still a funny tone in her voice, and I don't want to lead her on if she does think this is a date. "Bring a friend if you want, I'll leave your name at the door. My, um, partner's singing, he's pretty good."

"Oh. Okay," she says, and if she doesn't have the whole story yet, I'll make sure she gets it. "See you later then."

"You bet," I say, and we hang up. It strikes me as ironic that I've known her this long and she waits 'til now to say something. It's not like I was looking for action or anything, but I was at least technically still available, right up until last night. Weird.

And then Ben comes back from his shower, towel wrapped around his waist, hair wet, skin pink from being scrubbed, and I forget all about Madeline. "Hey, sailor," I say, leaning up against the dresser, "care to show a fellow a good time?"

He grins and walks over. "I thought we covered that already," he says, "but if you've forgotten I'm certainly willing to refresh your memory." I stick my fingers under the edge of the towel and give it a tug, pull him right up in front of me. His arms wrap around me and now I can smell him, clean and fresh, toothpaste and soap and shampoo, but underneath it all there's still Ben. We just stand like that for a minute or two, forehead to forehead, until he pulls back. "You're going to be late if you don't hurry," he says.

"Nope," I say, "I got a pardon. Volpe rolled over on Cahill, they don't need me any more."

"Really," he says, consideringly. "Are you ... all right with that?"

"I can live with it. I mean, Volpe's a thug, but he's a fairly honest one. Cahill's the one that gives me the creeps. As long as he goes away, I guess we're good."

"Good," he says, and starts getting dressed. I stand there for a minute watching, then realize I can hang the suit back up. My mental checklist skips down to item two.

At the Licensing Board office, after a long wait in a short line, we get some interesting news. Some weird Prohibition-left-over law says in order for me to put Ben's name with mine on the liquor license, he has to be a US citizen.

He gets quiet after that, and I don't push. No way I can ask him to give up his country for me; even if he's here now I know he loves it there. But when we're in the car and I ask him where the next stop is, sure he's going to tell me either back to my parents' to pack or maybe out for lunch, he says, "We need to stop at the 27th Precinct and the Canadian Consulate, preferably in that order. If you wouldn't mind?"

"Fine with me," I say. "How come?"

"Lieutenant Welsh at the 27th will be able to give me an affidavit concerning my work with the Chicago PD. If I recall the particulars correctly, I'm well on the way to qualifying for Resident Alien status, which is a key step in citizenship proceedings."

Oh. I look at him, and almost ask if he's sure, but I can see it. Jesus. I'm running out of ways to say how I feel, it just keeps getting bigger.

"Okay. Wow. You think you'd freak out if I sucked you off right here in this parking lot?"

He looks thoughtful. "Perhaps you should attempt it and we'll see."

I love how he throws it right back at me, almost daring me to do it. I lean over to kiss him instead and he meets me halfway. It's not an all-out assault, just a minor skirmish, but it still rocks me to realize what I've got in him.

We walk into the 27th side by side, with Dief in front of us leading the way. The desk sergeant looks at him but doesn't interrupt her phone call, and Ben doesn't even slow down so we make our way up the stairs without anybody stopping us. Every bullpen looks about the same; it might be a different lay-out, but basically you've got too many desks in too little space, and about a 50/50 mix of cops and perps. I'd know I was in a squad room blindfolded, just from the noise of the phones ringing and the smell of burnt coffee.

Ben stands in the doorway and looks around, and a little brunette in a blue shirt spots him. She jumps out of her chair and runs full tilt across the room, elbowing gang-bangers out of her way like there's a sale on men at Macy's and she wants to get the last one. I can almost hear Ben freeze up beside me.

"Frasier!" the chick squeals, and now I see Ben wince, ever so slightly. Before either of us has time to react, she launches herself from like three feet away and wraps her arms around him. Jesus. This is like one of those touching scenes at the end of a war movie -- she's hanging off him, arms around his shoulders and feet dangling a foot off the floor. The only thing that ruins the picture (but not from my perspective) is that Ben's arms are hanging limp at his sides, and he's looking at me like 'What now?' Hell if I know, I want to say.

From the nametag I glimpsed when she was airborne, I'm guessing this is Francesca, the other Ray's sister -- the one Ben once said could give Darlene a run for her money. She's jabbering away a mile a minute, and once it slows down a little I can get few words here and there.

"How did you know -- where have you been -- just got the job -- why didn't you call -- come over for dinner tonight -- "

Meanwhile, Ben's trying to get her attention by saying her name, over and over again. By the fifth time, she runs out of air or something and hears him. I guess her arms got tired; she slides down to the floor and backs off a step, still holding on to his arm and looking a little puzzled. Ben takes advantage of the break in her monologue and says, "Good morning, Francesca. I'd like you to meet Ray Kowalski, my --"

Oops. Proper preparation and all that; somehow we didn't discuss this situation at all. And all he has to do is say the word, I'm just his friend, or whatever he wants. But before I can open my mouth, he finishes his own sentence. "Partner. Ray, this is Francesca Vecchio."

"Nice to meet you," she says to me, and turns back to Ben. "Partner? I thought -- they said you quit the Mounties." Uh-oh, she's got the big puppy-dog eyes going now. Before either one of us can say anything else, I hear a voice behind me say, "Constable!" and Ben looks over my shoulder.

His face goes pink, and he detaches himself from Francesca and says, "Excuse me, please. Ray and I need to speak with the Lieutenant."

"Oh, sure, Frase," she says, and she stares at me as she backs off a few steps. I think she's about halfway to figuring it out when I hear another voice. A real familiar one; that intense almost-whisper I remember from a lot of "discussions" over fancy dinners I was late to.

"For God's sake, Ray, I don't know how you tracked me down, but I am not in the mood for another argument with you and your ... rent-boy."

What the hell did I do in my past lives to have deserved this? Bad karma or what, I don't know, but of all the times to run into Stella, this is about the worst. I've got no clue what she's doing here, but obviously she's still pissed off from last night. If there's one thing she always hated it's looking foolish.

And of course the room got real quiet for a microsecond before she opened her mouth, so even though she might have been trying for discreet, everybody around us heard it, and now we're in the spotlight. Francesca goes running out of the room with her hand over her mouth.

I turn around and there's my ex, in all her power-suited glory, standing next to a guy they'd call 'bluff' or maybe 'hearty' if he was in a novel. He's looking at her like she grew a second head.

There is no way I can save this situation, and I'm about to say "fuck it all" and wade right in for a Jerry-Springer-type, wake-the-neighbors scream-fest with Stell when I feel a squeeze on my shoulder. It's Ben, of course, and I can feel the calming vibes coming from him. His thumb rubs the back of my neck, and I relax a little.

"Stella," he says, and it's a permafrost voice, a "how uncouth are you" voice -- almost a warning. Yeah, it is a warning. He's saying "Back off. Mine." And that chases the last little bit of attitude away, and I can almost smile about it. Nobody ever fought over my skinny ass before. I kind of like it.

Her face goes all white except for the tip of her nose, which is bright pink. Ben pushes me forward a little, and I get my feet moving and we walk the ten feet over to where Stella's standing. The guy next to her has his hand out and Ben shakes it, with his other hand still on my shoulder. "Lieutenant," he says, "It's a pleasure to see you again, sir. Allow me to introduce my partner, Ray Kowalski."

Stella makes a noise and Ben shoots her another look. Damn, I've never seen him like this -- even with the worst customers, he's always super-polite.

"Ray, this is Lieutenant Welsh, under whose auspices I was privileged to serve as the RCMP's liaison to the Chicago Police Department."

I fight a smile at that 'cause I know it's for Stella's benefit. I'm sure it stung when she called him a sponge, so I behave myself and just shake Welsh's hand. "It's very nice to meet you, sir," I say. "Ben's told me quite a bit about you."

He acts a little surprised, but he doesn't seem freaked by the 'partner' issue, which he'd have to be brain-dead not to have figured out.

"Ray Kowalski, huh? Why does that name sound familiar?" I make a little head-jerk towards Stell and I swear he almost grins.

"Ray is my ex-husband, Lieutenant," she says, in that flowers-on-the-table, dinner-at-seven voice I always hated.

"Nah, that's not it," he says, and I almost grin.

Ben speaks up then, I'm surprised he waited so long. "Ray was a CPD detective, Lieutenant. He was injured during a hostage situation about five years ago."

Welsh's face lights up. "Oh, yeah, you were one of Nancy Brady's bunch. I remember that. You're out now?"

I know he means 'off the force,' but damned if I can let one-liners go by. I wink at Ben over my shoulder and say, "Looks that way, huh?"

Welsh cracks a smile finally, and Ben looks at me with a 'what am I going to do with you' face. I mouth "Sorry," at him, and Welsh drags us into his office, giving Stella a wave and a "Thanks for stopping by, Ms. Kowalski," as we go. That was smooth. Not too many people can out-maneuver the Stella in her natural habitat.

He offers us coffee, which we decline, and we all sit; me and Ben on the couch and Welsh on the edge of his desk. "So, Constable," he says, and then stops. His face goes funny, and he says, "Sorry, probably shouldn't call you that ... ." It takes me a second to figure out what's going on, but Ben gets it before I do.

"Please, Lieutenant, think nothing of it. 'Fraser' is fine, or 'Benton', if you like."

Welsh nods and looks relieved. "Okay, Fraser," he says, "to what do we owe the pleasure?"

It hits me then how hard it must have been for Ben to walk back in here this way. Hell, it took me almost a year to get back in touch with any of my old buddies after I left, and I walked out a hero. And even though Ben saved another cop's life, same as I did, he's never going to get that he was a hero too. In his mind, he left here in disgrace. No amount of therapy will ever change that.

Shit, we should have done this somewhere else. Had Welsh stop by the bar, even. Way to watch your partner's back, Kowalski.

Ben explains what he needs and Welsh doesn't even ask what for, just says he'll type it up and have it ready tomorrow. Ben thanks him kindly, and then turns a little red.

"Lieutenant," he says hesitantly, "is it possible -- that is, do you have any idea where Ray's gone? Ray Vecchio, I mean."

Welsh looks startled, then he glances around and gets up to close the blinds. When he comes back to the desk, he leans in and says, almost in a whisper, "Ray Vecchio was called out of town on family business."

"But Francesca didn't seem to know where he was," Ben whispers back.

"No," says Welsh, "she doesn't. No one does."

"But -- you said --"

Welsh flicks the side of his nose. "Family, Fraser," he says, and the penny drops.

"You mean the M--"

I slap my hand over Ben's mouth real quick before he can say what Welsh clearly doesn't want said. "Vecchio's connected?" I murmur, surprised as all hell that Ben's got a friend on the wrong side of the law, but this is Chicago, after all. Stranger things have happened.

Welsh shakes his head. "Not like that. He's undercover, real deep. I don't know anything else, except ... I heard maybe Vegas."

"Shit," I say, and then I realize I've still got my hand over Ben's mouth, and I move it. He looks like he wants to ask about a billion questions but doesn't know where to start.

Welsh's phone rings, and he turns to answer it. I guess it's important, 'cause he holds up one finger in the universal 'hang on a minute' sign, and goes around to sit in his chair. Perfect opportunity, the good karma kicking back in I guess. I put my hand on Ben's shoulder and rub a little, just so he knows I'm here. "You okay?" I ask softly.

He looks surprised at the question. "Of course, why wouldn't I be?"

"Oh, I don't know, little thing like finding out your friend's in a kind of a situation? Not to mention my ex-wife outing you in a room full of cops you used to work with -- does that ring a bell?"


"Yeah, 'ah.' Jesus, Ben, I'm sorry. About all of it, but especially Stella. She's not usually like that at all. I still can't figure out what's wrong with her."

He raises one eyebrow. "I should think it was perfectly obvious, Ray. She's exhibiting all the classic signs of jealousy."

"Stella?" Oops, that was a little louder than it needed to be. Welsh looks over, then back down at his desk with a tiny smirk. I lower my voice again. "Perfectly obvious, huh? I don't know, Ben, jealousy doesn't sound like typical Stella behavior."

"Nevertheless, I believe I'm correct. If we look at the evidence -"

"Oh, now you got evidence?" I'm teasing, but he's looking a little more normal, so I guess the distraction is good.

"The very fact that you say her behavior is atypical is a good indicator. And didn't you say you'd only seen her this angry once before? I believe it related to someone named Sandi O'Connor?"

"Yeah, but that was back in high school, when she thought me and Sandi were getting enga-"

Ben's nodding; he's too polite to say "I told you so," but he might as well.

"Holy shit, she's jealous." I start laughing, have to put my hand over my mouth when Ben shushes me. "You have to admit it's pretty funny, Ben."

He raises an eyebrow, but just then Welsh hangs up his phone and drops his head down into his hands.

"What's up, Lieu?"

He keeps his head down and says, "I just got word we're expecting a flu epidemic tomorrow morning."

"No shit?"

He looks up at me and gives me half a smile. "You want a job, Kowalski?"

I know he's joking, but for a second I consider it. Then I come back to reality. "Got two already, sorry."

Ben pipes up then. "I'd be happy to help out, but I'm a bit confused. How can you be expecting an epidemic?"

Welsh says, "Blue flu, Fraser. It's a sick-out. Cops can't go on strike, so they organize themselves, leave a skeleton crew in place, and everybody else? Cough, cough, Oh I'm so sick."

"Ah," Ben says. "I see. Well, I can certainly answer the telephone and free up someone for active duty that way."

Oh, fuck, he's really serious about this. And it's a bad idea for two reasons, neither of which I want to go into here, but I got no choice. "Listen, Ben, this maybe needs a little more thought before you commit to it."

"Don't be silly, Ray."

I look at Welsh, and I can tell he knows what I'm talking about, so I just go for it. "Okay, first of all, you're going into a labor action as a scab, which can get kind of ugly. Even the cops who're working aren't going to like it. And B, well, B is Stella and the 'rent-boy' remark, which I'm sure has already made the rounds of the entire district, and which is only going to make things worse."

Stubborn as a mule he is; I should have saved my breath. He sits up even straighter than he was and says, "I'll be here at eight o'clock tomorrow morning, Lieutenant, unless you'd like me earlier."

Welsh shakes his head and says, "Eight's fine, Fraser. If you're sure."

"I am. I'll have to leave at two to work my shift at the bar, if that's all right."

"I'll cover your shift," I say with a sigh. "Least I can do."

"No, Ray, I can't ask you to do that."

"Shut up and let's go. I'm sure the Lieu has work to do. We'll fight in the car on the way home."

We stand up to go, and Welsh stands up too and walks out with us. He makes a big deal out of shaking Ben's hand, and mine too, right in the middle of the squad. Stand-up guy; he would've been a good boss.

We walk into the lobby of the Canadian Consulate and man, it's impressive. Lots of wood paneling, rich-looking furniture, and a big Mountie behind a little desk. He looks up as the door opens and says, "Welcome to Ca--" Then he stops and his mouth drops open. He stands up and blinks his eyes a few times. "C-Constable Fraser?"

Ben sighs. "It's not 'Constable' any longer, Turnbull."

The Mountie -- Turnbull? What kind of name is that? -- hurries over and shakes Ben's hand. "No, sir, of course not. It's very good to see you, sir."

"It's good to see you also. Let me introduce you to my partner, Ray Kowalski."

"Nice to meet you, " I say, as my hand gets shaken nearly to death.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Kowalski."

"Ray," I say firmly, stuffing my hands in my pockets to save them from another attack.

"Of course," he says, bending down to pet Dief, who licks him like he's made of bacon. "May I offer you refreshment? There's coffee in the small parlor."

"We're not here for a social call, Turnbull," Ben says.

"No, sir?"

"No. I need to speak with Inspector Thatcher, if she's available."

"Ah. Of course." He glances toward a closed set of doors. "If you're sure ..."

The corner of Ben's mouth quirks up. "Bad day?"

"Bad month," Turnbull says quietly.

"I see." Ben turns to me. "I'd take Turnbull up on that offer of refreshment if I were you. This may not be pretty."

"Worse than Stella?"

He considers that for a minute, then nods. "It's possible."

"Same reason?" I ask. He shakes his head, then he stops and his eyes get wide. Bingo. "No way I'm missing this, then."

He frowns at me, but I put on my best don't-fuck-with-me face, and it works. "Stay," he says to Dief, who looks disgusted but sits next to the desk.

"Don't worry, Dief," I say. "I got his back." I get a doggie-sigh for my trouble. Turnbull picks up the phone and after a second, we get clearance to go in.

"Come on, then," Ben says, straightening his shoulders, and I follow him through a door and into an office. A really huge, well-decorated office, with a painting of the Canadian flag over the mantel and the type of stuffy atmosphere that brings out the worst in me. There's a good-looking brunette sitting at the desk flipping through papers real fast.

She gives it a minute before she raises her head, like she doesn't know we're here, but when she finally looks up and sees Ben her eyes bug out and her jaw drops. "Fraser, your hair --" she says, and turns red. She clears her throat and kind of pulls herself together. "Civilian life seems to agree with you," she says, and how she made that sound so nasty I have no idea.

Ben turns a little pink and says, "Sir," and it doesn't sound nearly enough like "fuck you" for my liking.

"Hi," I say, sticking out my hand. She stands up and shakes it automatically, still glancing at Ben every second or two. "Ray Kowalski. I'm Ben's partner."

"Inspector Margaret Thatcher," she says, like she's only half there. Then she frowns and looks at me for real. "Partner?"

Here we go again. But before I can say anything, Ben jumps in. "Ray owns a bar, sir, and he's offered me a half-share in it."

She looks at him. "But Chicago liquor-laws prohibit --"

"Yes, sir, so we found out. Which is why --"

Her face goes about twenty degrees colder, which I wouldn't've thought was possible. "I see. So you need a --"

"A 1013-stroke-15A. Yes, sir."

"Very well. Do you have a fax machine?"

"Yes, sir." He turns to me and says, "Ray? One of your business cards, please?"

I'm still trying to follow the tennis game they had going, but I shake myself out of it and fish in my pocket for one of the cards he had made up for me. I hand it over to the Ice Queen and watch her eyebrows go down as she reads it. "Thank you. I'll try to get to it as soon as I can, but I'm sure you can appreciate that I'm quite busy."

Her tone gets under my hide, and I open my mouth to tell her so. "Ray," says Ben quietly, and I rein myself back. "Any of those numbers will reach me if you have any questions, Inspector," he says a little louder. "We mustn't take up any more of your time. Thank you kindly." He puts his hand on my shoulder and turns me around to leave.

As we get to the door I sneak a peek back over my shoulder and catch her staring at his ass. It's so tempting to reach out and put my hand on it, but Ben needs her good report, and although I have in the past been a champ at fucking myself over, I can't do that to him. So I have to be content with waving bye-bye at her as Ben closes the door behind us.

We collect the wolf and say good-bye to Turnbull, and then Ben doesn't say another word until we're in the car and three blocks away, when he looks around and says, "Where are we going?"

"To pack up my stuff," I say, making the turn onto Tremont. "I made a start at it, but there's still some work to do. You mind helping?"

"Of course not," he says, and I can see from his face he doesn't want to talk about ... her. So I turn on the radio and reach over and grab his hand, and we ride the rest of the way without talking at all.

There's not really that much packing to do, all I had at the house was clothes and bathroom-stuff, so it goes quickly and everything fits into the Goat's trunk no problem. We raid the freezer one last time for lunch, and over the last of the bigos, sitting on the floor in front of the un-lit fireplace, he finally starts talking.

"I never thought she liked me," he says, and it's so far off-the-wall I just blink at him. "In fact," he continues, "Some days I'd have said she outright despised me."

"Your Inspector," I guess, hoping I'm right, because if it's Victoria we're going to be here a while, and if that's what he needs, I'm up for it, but I'd rather not.

"Inspector Thatcher, yes," he says, and I nod a little so he'll keep going. "She seemed to have it in for me from the first." He scrapes his bowl for the last little bit and I prod again.

"You really think so?"

"You had to have noticed how she treated me today. As though she'd judged me and found me lacking."

"Well, from the way she was checking out your ass, I'd say there was a whole nother level to the situation."

"Ray!" he says, all scandalized. "She would never -- it would be highly improper --"

"Hey, I caught her peeping. Improper or not, she was staring hard enough to leave bruises."

"I can hardly believe it."

"Wouldn't be the first time -- get a crush on somebody you can't have and blame them for it. Sour grapes. But," I say, taking the spoon out of his hand and putting the bowls down for Dief, "as long as she fills out the right forms, do we really give a flying fuck what she thinks?"

"No," he says, and that's all I give him time for. I push him back onto the floor beside the couch and crawl up over him. His mouth tastes like bigos and milk and home, and he kisses me back like he's starving for me, and it looks like Dief's about to get an education in human mating habits.

"Just so you know," I say after a couple minutes, as I'm unbuttoning his shirt, "I don't find you lacking at all." I follow that up with my mouth on his nipple, and he gasps as I bite down ever-so-carefully.

"Thank you," he says, panting, almost laughing. "I'm ... so glad."

"Yeah?" I say, and even though it started as kind of a joke, when I look at his face, all I can think is I love you, and I want to kill anyone who's ever hurt you. Which is right on the edge of creepy, so I swallow it down and just kiss him again.

I'm just remembering how to unzip someone else's jeans one-handed when Dief growls and launches himself over us towards the front door. I hear him barking and then I hear "Raymond? What the hell is going on?"

Oh, fuck. I practically levitate off Ben and dash down the hallway to the door and sure enough, it's my folks, home two days early. I drag Dief back and tell him it's okay, and Dad pushes the door open the rest of the way. Mom's right behind him, going, "Be careful, Damian."

"Mom, Dad," is all I manage to say before Mom swoops down on me for a hug.

"Stanley, you look so thin," she says when she lets me go.

"For God's sake, Barbara, not now," says Dad.

"I thought you were flying in on Thursday," I say, and Dad opens his mouth and looks at Mom and ... doesn't say anything.

"Mom?" I say.

"Stella said ..." she starts out, and fuck, I can't believe this.

"What did she tell you? Never mind, whatever it was I doubt it was the real story."

"She's concerned about you, Stanley," Mom says.

"Listen, I get that. But she's got some whacked-out idea that I'm being taken advantage of, which is so far from the truth --" I sigh. "Ben was a cop, in Canada -- a Mountie. He came to Chicago looking for the guy who killed his father a few years ago. And he's not mooching off me, he's working his ass off."

Dief whines, and I reach down to scritch behind his ears. I look up and Dad's watching me, and I wonder if he's remembering how I swore I'd never get another dog. "This is Diefenbaker," I say. "He claims to be deaf, but there's some cause to wonder. Come on and meet Ben -- he's in the living room."

We all walk in, and Ben's sitting on the sofa at attention, trying to look like he couldn't hear every single word we were saying, which I'm sure he could. He jumps to his feet and does this half-bow thing toward my parents. "Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski, I presume," he says, and holds out his hand toward my father. "It's a very great pleasure to meet you." Dad shakes Ben's hand once and grunts.

Ben's not fazed at all, he turns to my mother and says, "Mrs. Kowalski, how do you do?" with another little half-bow. "Please accept my compliments on your cooking. Ray's shared some with me, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it." Mom gets all rosy like she does when somebody says something nice, but she hasn't quite thawed yet.

"Thank you -- Ben, is it?" she says.

"Yes, ma'am," he says. "Benton Fraser. Or 'Ben' is fine."

"For God's sake, Barbara," Dad says again, and she gives him The Look.

"Hush up," she says. "There's no need to be rude. Why don't you boys go get the bags while I make some coffee." It's not really a question, and even Dad's afraid of The Look, so we go get the bags out of the car and bring them upstairs. Ben gets all the biggest ones, and I can tell Dad's thinking he's sucking up or showing off, but I don't know how to explain that's just how Ben is, so I don't try.

After we empty the car, Dad hits the john, and Ben and I go downstairs alone. He hasn't said a word to me yet, but while there's a second I just want to reassure him. "It'll be okay," I say as we get to the bottom. "Just keep being yourself and we'll be fine."

"If you say so," he says, and I pull him by the arm toward the kitchen. Mom's got the coffee on and the table set, which is a good sign, because Kitchen Is For Family, according to her. If she'd set up in the dining room, I'd really be worried.

She sees us standing in the doorway and says, "Sit down, then, don't hover there like you've lost your good sense." Ben sits down like his legs quit working, and I grab the chair next to him. Mom pushes a plate of cookies toward us and says, "Coffee's almost ready, where's your father?"

"In the bathroom," I say, taking a cookie to avoid the argument. I hear the whoosh of the plumbing then and so does Mom. She takes Dad's mug and fixes his coffee, then brings the pot to the table. By the time we've all finished fixing our own, he's clumping down the stairs and into the kitchen.

Nobody says a word while he sips his coffee, and then he puts down his mug and turns to me. "You couldn't've said something before? Given us a little warning you turned into a fa--"

"Damian," Mom says sharply, and whacks his arm. He looks at her and she points her finger at him. "I won't have that language in this house."

They have a stare-off for a second or two, and then Mom says, "Do you remember the night we told my father we were getting married?"

"Yeah," he says, obviously not happy to be sidetracked.

"Do you remember what he called you?" she continues, and I never heard this particular story but Dad and Grand-da never got along too great, so this should be interesting.

Dad looks away from her, over at the refrigerator, and mutters "... scrawny Polack."

Mom nods. "And ..."

"You ... stood up to him and said not to make you choose," Dad tells the fridge. " 'Cause you'd choose me."

Mom nods again and puts her hand on his arm. "Don't make me regret that," she says quietly. "He was wrong about you, all his life, and you both suffered for it. And he could never, ever take back what was said that night."

Ben's just sitting there staring at his coffee while this is going on. He looks ... so fucking lost. I grab his hand under the table and give it a squeeze. Then I jump feet-first into the discussion.

"Dad," I say, "you knew, back when I was in high school."

He shakes his head. "That was just a phase. You were ... experimenting."

"No, maybe that's what you wanted to think, but -- that was real. I didn't keep it a secret, and I wasn't keeping Ben a secret either."

"So why did we have to find out from Stella?" he asks.

"Because --" she's evidently feeling bitter and jealous gets choked back, and I say "We only just ... settled things yesterday. I thought it could wait a couple days so you could meet him in person."

Dad grunts again, the one that means he's still not happy, but he'll think about what you said, and he's done talking for now. Mom takes over the third degree.

"So, Ben," she says, "Ray tells us you were a Mountie?"

"Yes, ma'am," he says, "and more recently a stevedore."

Dad actually perks up a little when he hears that; he's always respected people who work with their hands (and backs) -- he's a lot happier with me bartending than he ever was when I was a cop. Mom keeps going.

"And how did you and Stanley meet?"

"Purely by chance," Ben says. "I was looking for the building where I used to live, and it was gone, so I went into Duffy's to regroup, and ... I met Ray."

"He tried to pick me up," I say, and smirk at him sideways.

"Ray," he says, like he's scandalized. Then he sees I'm teasing and says, "I distinctly remember it being the other way around."

"Yeah, right," I say.

Dad's had enough of this kind of talk, so he changes the subject. "How's the car running, Raymond?"

"Like a dream," I say. "We just changed the oil last week."

"You like cars?" he says to Ben, who looks a little surprised at being included. He also seems to know this is kind of a test.

"Yes, I ... well, I don't dislike them, as far as modes of transportation go. But I --" There's a pause, and then he says in a rush, "While I can appreciate Ray's fondness for his car, I can't say I share in the ... enthusiasm."

I squeeze his hand again to say good answer, and say to Dad, "Give him a break, huh? He was raised with sled-dogs and snowmobiles."

"That true?" Dad asks.

Ben nods. "Yes, sir. I grew up in the Northwest Territories, and I do admit to being more at home behind a dog-team than the wheel of a car."

And evidently Dad's turned into an Iditarod freak since he's been gone, 'cause he starts asking Ben all these questions about it, and just like that, they're best friends, problem solved. But me, I still have a score to settle with a certain ASA.

I get up from the table and grab my cell phone off the counter. Ben looks at me with a question in his eyes, but I lean over and say, "I'll be right back" into his ear and follow it up with a shoulder-squeeze. He nods and goes back to telling Dad the difference between hyperthermia and hypothermia, and how to treat each one. I walk out onto the back porch and call Stella. She doesn't sound real surprised to hear my voice.

"What the hell's going on, Stell?" I ask. "Mom and Dad just showed up, said you'd talked to them about Ben?"

"I heard ... some things. Bad things."

"Uh huh. From who?"

Her voice gets quiet. "Darlene."

"Shit," I say. "I should have known."

"She said he fired her because she suspected he was doing something with the books."

I laugh at that, although the situation's far from funny. "No, we fired her because she kept coming in late and taking off early, and when Ben called her on it, she offered him a blow-job to forget the whole thing."


"Yeah, too bad for her she picked the one guy in all of Chicago who wouldn't take her up on it."

"And ... you believe him?"

"Jesus, Stell," I yell, and then I quiet down so the neighbors don't hear. "He quit his job -- the job he loved, the job he was born to do -- because in the line of duty, he accidentally killed a guy who was shooting at his partner. Does that sound like somebody who'd steal what few bucks he could get out of Duffy's? For that matter, does it sound like someone who'd lie about a blow-job?"

"But," she says, and stops.

I put as much sincerity as I can into my voice. "You've gotta believe me when I tell you Ben's a good man. Possibly the last one left."

"You ... really love him, huh?"

I nod. "I really do," I say gently. I hear noises then like she's breathing kind of funny, and I decide to let her off the hook for now.

"Listen, talk to Welsh at the 27th, if you don't believe me," I say.

"Yeah, okay," she says, and then we hang up.

When I turn to go back inside, Mom's looking out the screen door, eyes wide. "Is that true, Stanley?" she asks. "He killed a man?"

Jesus. "Ma, he was a cop. Like me. The perp had a gun, Ben had a knife. He made the only possible choice, and the bad guy wound up dead instead of Ben or his partner." I open the door so I can see her better, and her eyes look like she's about to cry. "He did exactly what I would've done, only I wouldn't have felt so guilty about it that I quit the force."

She tears up completely then and says, "Oh, Stanley," before hugging me so hard I can't breathe.

"Oooof," I say. "Jeez, Ma, leave a guy some ribs." She pulls back and looks serious again.

"I suppose it'll be quite an ... adjustment for you. After Stella, I mean."

"Um," I say, because I'm not sure what comes next. It's all I have time for, though.

"You know I always loved her like a daughter."

"Yeah, Ma," I say, feeling guilty again just like I did when I broke the news that we were splitting up. "I'm sorry about that, really --"

She holds up her hand. "No, that's not what I mean. Ben seems ... well, he's ... different. And maybe that's what you need. Maybe ... he's better for you."

And I really don't know what to say to that, so I just shrug and stare at my feet. Mom gives me another bone-crushing hug, and then she swats me on the arm.

"Ow?" I say.

"Next time you tell us yourself," she says.

"I'm not looking for there to be a next time," I say seriously, because I need her to understand that.

She nods and I get one last hug. We walk back into the kitchen together, Mom wiping her eyes. The conversation seems to have turned to igloo building -- at least I think that's what the pile of sugar-cubes is all about. Ben looks over at me and raises an eyebrow, and I smile back. I'm itching to touch him all of a sudden, and I think about PDAs and Dad in the same room together, and then I remember something Gran used to say -- "Begin as you mean to go on." And there's no way I'm going the rest of my life not touching Ben, so I walk up behind him and put my hands on his shoulders. He stiffens for a second, probably having the same thoughts I was, and I squeeze and pull him back against me. He finally relaxes, leans the back of his head against my stomach, and keeps on talking to Dad, who barely seems to notice. Good.

At a convenient break in the conversation, I say, "We really have to go open the bar now," and Ben kind of jumps and looks at his watch.

"Good Lord, why didn't you say something?"

"I just did."

He tilts his head back and grins up at me like he'd be calling me a smart-ass if he used that kind of language, and I can't help grinning back. When I lift my head Dad's looking at the sugar-igloo and his face is all red, but he stands up and says, "You two'll have to stop by and look at pictures of Walt's kids some night next week -- I imagine we can convince your mother to cook something."

It's not exactly 'Welcome to the family, son,' but it's a start. "Sounds good," I say, and even though we're not much for hugging, me and him, I step up and wrap my arms around him. "Thanks, Dad."

"Get goin', you'll set a bad example bein' late," he says, but his voice is rougher than usual, and I hang on for an extra minute or so, just 'cause it feels so good.

Ben's in rare form tonight; either he remembered a couple more verses of "I'm a Rover" or he's making them up as he goes, but the crowd loves it. When Madeline walks in I realize I forgot all about her. She bee-lines it to the end of the bar where I'm sitting and I see she didn't bring a friend. I also see she's got quite an impressive amount of cleavage, more than I could tell from the stuff she wears in court, anyway.

"Madeline," I yell over the applause. She sits down way too close and leans over, giving me an eyeful.

"You forgot to leave my name at the door, Kowalski -- they charged me five bucks to get in."

Ben starts singing again and the crowd quiets down. "Yeah, sorry, I had kind of a day," I say. "Hang on, I'll get it for you -- what're you drinking?"

"Hmm ... white wine?" she asks, turning her head sideways and looking at me through her eyelashes. No doubt, that's a come-on. Shit.

I hop off my seat and go behind the bar -- pretty clever escape, if I do say so myself. I grab a five out of the till and pour her wine. When I get back, she's looking at the stage.

"Thanks," she says, taking her drink and stuffing the five into her purse. She sips her wine and then points at Ben with her glass. "He's pretty good."

"You ought to hear him in the shower," I say, grabbing my chance, and she looks at me quick, both eyebrows up as far as they can go. I grin at her. "That's my partner Ben."

"Oh," she says, then "Oh. Very funny."


She takes another sip of wine. "Is he seeing anybody? Because I have a friend I think he might really hit it off with. We could all go out next week, maybe."

"Uh, yeah," I say. "He is seeing somebody. Me."

She starts to laugh, then looks at my face and sees I'm not joking. "Oh. But ... I thought you meant business partner."

"That too."

She says "Oh" again and takes a big gulp of wine. Wheels are turning, I can almost see them. "But ... weren't you and Stella ..."

I nod. "Yup."

"Okay then," she says, and she shifts a little in her seat so she's not in my space anymore. There's a bit of awkward silence, then she says, "So ... Cahill's lawyer told him to take the plea."

"Yeah?" I say, playing along with the change-of-subject. "What happened with that?"

"First he told him to go to hell -- Cahill did, I mean -- but then I guess somebody explained the facts of life to him and he agreed."

"Too bad, he should've gone away for a real long time."

"Oh, yeah," she says, and things are back to sort-of-normal. I hope she's not going to freak out -- I didn't want to embarrass her or anything, we might need to work together again sometime.

Ben finishes his song and hops off the stage, passing the mike to a girl who looks barely old enough to be in here. She's got a couple tables full of friends, judging by the hooting and hollering, and she's blushing bright red as she tunes up her guitar. When she starts playing, though, they quiet right down again. She's no Bonnie Raitt, but she's not bad. Madeline and I listen for a minute, until Ben comes our way.

He heads straight for the cooler, gets a bottle of water and chugs it down. I watch his throat move as he swallows, and that's a pretty dumb thing to get turned on by, but something about it makes me want to grab him and lick him all over. Then he looks at me and smiles like he knows what I'm thinking.

Oh, man, do I hope he knows what I'm thinking.

Madeline puts her empty wine glass down and says, "How 'bout a refill and an introduction?"

"Sorry," I say. "Madeline Kaufman, Benton Fraser." They each say 'nice to meet you' type things, and Ben comes over and sits down at the end of the bar while I get another glass of white and a beer for myself. When I sit back down between them, Madeline starts talking shop, dragging up cases from years ago that I barely remember. I only catch on that she's trying to exclude Ben when he makes a comment about a forgery case and she frowns. He seems to be holding his own, though, and I don't have the faintest clue how to deal with it, so I guess I'll just play along for now.

Part of my brain is talking to Madeline, but the other part is wondering how soon I can get away and drag Ben upstairs. When I check my watch for the third time she catches me.

"Got somewhere else you'd rather be?" she says, and it's about halfway between teasing and not.

Shit, I think I can feel myself blushing. "Yeah, well, " I say.

She looks at me, then at Ben, and says, "How long have you been together?"

"I, um ..." is all I can come up with. It's like she's trying to make this as uncomfortable as possible.

"About twenty-four hours," Ben says, and I look at him and see his face is as red as mine feels.

"Ah," she says, and somehow she seems to relax. "No wonder." She jerks her head toward the door. "You want me to take off?"

"Nah, stay a while," I say. "Enjoy the music. We're good." I look over my shoulder at Ben after I say it, because maybe I shouldn't be speaking for both of us like that, but he smiles at me again -- and there is no way I can sit here this close to him and not take advantage of it somehow, so I lean in a little. His eyes widen a little and dart around the room, probably to see if anyone's watching, and damn, Ray, maybe he doesn't want the whole bar to know. I turn my head away but his hand comes up and catches my jaw, turns me back to face him.

"Whither thou goest," he says, and smiles so sweet I kind of get lost in it for a minute. I hear applause and I pull back, but it's just for the girl on stage, so I look back over at Ben again.

"You a couple of queers or somethin'?" I hear, just before I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn around and see a guy who looks like an overgrown frat-boy swaying in front of me.

I stand up and get in the guy's face. "What did you say?" I ask, even though I heard him just fine.

"I asked," he says very slowly, like I'm the one who's stupid, "if you two were fuckin' queer. Why don't you go someplace where your kind's welcome?"

What an idiot. "Hey Jimmy," I yell to the bartender, without taking my eyes off the drunk, "tell the man how we treat queers around here."

Jimmy earns himself a nice bonus when he hollers right back, "Two-for-one drafts on Thursdays!"

"See, here's the thing," I say to the guy, over the laughter from my regulars. "This is my bar. If you have a problem with queers, fucking or otherwise, the door's over there." Out of the corner of my eye I see Jimmy reach for the bell that brings the bouncer in from the door, then for the bat we keep handy. Good man in a pinch, Jimmy is. I take the chance of turning my back on the guy, just knowing he'll take a swing at me -- if he's looking for a fight, I'm good to go. I watch in the mirror so I can time it right and I see his arm pull back and I duck and turn and --

Ben's hand is there to stop the punch.

"I'm sorry, sir," Ben says, "but you really are going to have to leave now. May I call you a cab?"

The guy shakes Ben off and staggers back a couple of steps. "C'n get my own fuckin' cab."

"Then I suggest that you do so," Ben says, still polite-sounding, but with a hard edge underneath.

Numb-nuts looks around and evidently doesn't see anyone he thinks will help him, so he mutters, "Place is a dump anyway," and makes for the door. I see Marie stick out her foot to trip him just before it happens, and he hits the ground with a loud yelp. I give her a thumbs-up and motion Danny over from the door to get the guy off my floor and out of my bar.

I look back at Ben then, because damn we make a good team, and he's looking right at me. His face is serious for a second, then he sees my grin and he smiles a little. I take two steps toward him until I'm just a couple of inches away, and I raise my eyebrow, asking him if it's okay. He nods a little, then reaches out and touches my face again, and I lean forward and kiss him, right there in front of the world.

"Now," I say into the relative silence, still looking at Ben, "Anybody else got an opinion they'd like to share with the class?"

" 'S about friggin' time, you two," George Ryan yells from halfway down the bar. "I lost fifteen bucks in the pool." Everybody laughs and the girl on stage starts another song.

I drag my eyes off Ben and look at Madeline. She's looking back at me like I'm crazy.

"What?" I ask.

She shakes her head. "You do have some cast-iron ones, Kowalski. He must've had fifty pounds on you."

"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," I say, with a little Ali foot-shuffle, and she cracks a smile. Then she looks at Ben and sighs.

"Take him home, would ya?" she says to him. "I got all dressed up for this, and I'm never gonna get lucky hanging around with you two all night."

"Yes, ma'am," Ben says, and I wince, because last week she about killed a guy for calling her that, but she just laughs.

"I'll see you around, Ray," she says.

"Count on it," I say. I motion to Jimmy that I got her tab, and then we take ourselves upstairs as directed. Dief wants to go out, of course, and Ben runs back downstairs quick with him. I'm brushing my teeth and trying to think of a way we could put in a doggie-door when they come back. I see Ben leaning up against the door-frame when I look in the mirror after I rinse. "What's up?"

He smiles. "Isn't it rather early for you to be going to bed?"

"It would be," I say, as I walk over to him, "if I was going to sleep. Which I'm not."

"Ah," he says, and on anybody else I'd call that a shit-eating grin. I reach my hands out and just rest them lightly on his hips. He does the same to me, and pulls me closer.

We just kiss for a while, long enough so I'm hard as a rock, pushing against his thigh and wanting more. I can still feel some leftover adrenaline swishing around inside me, and I think I must've pushed too hard when he pulls his head back and mumbles,"Ray."

"Did I hurt you?"

He shakes his head and whispers in my ear, "Fuck me," and I almost come right on the spot.

"Let's go, then," I say instead, and drag him to the bed. He lets me push him down, and he sits and watches while I whip off my shirt and skin out of my jeans. I can hardly breathe all of a sudden, because this is big, this is huge, and yet ... I don't want to make a big deal out of it, because that means thinking about all the other guys he ever did this with. So I don't ask him if he's sure, I just start unbuttoning his shirt.

After the third button he leans back on his elbows so I can have easier access, and when I'm done with the shirt I continue on to the pants. "Off," I say when I've got everything unfastened, and he shrugs out of the shirt and raises up his hips so I can pull off the jeans.

I've dreamed about this, I want to say, but I don't know how to talk romantic to him without it sounding stupid, so I let my hands do the talking for me. His skin is warm, almost hot in places, and I try to touch every inch of it that I can reach, my fingers finally skating over his ribs and down to his hips. He shivers when I get near his cock, and maybe some other time I'll just touch him like this all night, but no way I can stand to wait right now.

It's only been two days, and already I think I'm addicted to the taste of him, the way he feels in my mouth ... I told him I'd do this anytime, and I meant it. But he says my name a few times, and when I look up his eyes are burning into me.

"Not ... yet," he says. He sounds like he's having trouble breathing too. "With ... you."

"Yeah," I say. "Okay. Sure. I can --"

I forget just what it is I think I can do when he rolls over onto his side and opens the nightstand drawer to fish out the lube and the rubbers. My brain shuts down entirely when he hands them to me -- when he looks at me over his shoulder and pulls one leg up toward his chest --

Somehow I open the condom without dropping it, and after a couple of tries I figure out which way is up and get it on. Might be easier if I could take my eyes off him, but that doesn't seem to be happening. The lube is easier to manage, thank God, and I hope he's ready, because I'm way past ready for this. Feels like I've been waiting all my life.

And oh, yeah, as I slide in, it feels like ... home.

He gasps and his fingers dig into the sheets as I push forward, and I can feel him pushing back at me at the same time. I lock my elbows and brace myself over him when I'm in all the way, and he twists his head back. We can barely reach to kiss but we do it anyway, and then he drops his head back down. His eyes are huge, and he's kind of grinning at me.

"Feels okay?" I ask; fishing for compliments, I guess.

"God, yes," he says, "wonderful."

And sure, Stella used to say that, but it sounds different now when I hear it from him. I get a funny feeling in my gut and my voice doesn't work anymore, so I start moving, and it's good, it's great, fucking fabulous ... and then the whole world explodes.

I never used to be that loud, but from the smirk on Ben's face I about brought the house down. "Sorry," I whisper when I can.

He opens his eyes just a little. "I'm glad you enjoyed it too, Ray," he says, with the little sarcastic twist I love.

I bite down a little on the nearest piece of him I can reach, which happens to be his shoulder. "Yeah, it was okay," I say, knowing he'll hear what I'm really saying.

"We'll have to try it again sometime," he says, still smirking. "Perhaps in a few days, when you've recovered."

Yeah, right. If he's lucky, I'll let him sleep for a few hours, towards dawn or so.

I'm deep in the middle of the after-work rush when I hear the back door open and close, followed by my office door. I figure Ben's back from the 2-7, and sure enough, Dief comes running over to sniff me like he always does when we've been apart -- I guess he wants to make sure I'm not running around with any other dogs. I dry off my hands so I can pet him, and when I do, my hands sticks to his fur.

"Aahh, jeez," I say, "What the hell did you get into?" He sneezes and looks at me disgustedly, like he always does when I forget he can't really talk. Then he runs back toward the office. I'm the only one working, and the guys down the other end of the bar are looking thirsty, so I wash my hands and head in their direction. Ben'll be out in a second, he's probably just changing his clothes. I get a little flutter in my gut when I think about that, and it's real hard to not run right back there right now, just to get a glimpse.

Two Bud Light drafts, one Bud longneck, another pitcher of margaritas for the table of secretaries in the corner (seems like it's somebody's birthday), a gin and tonic, a vodka and tonic, three rum and cokes, another four drafts ... it's about fifteen minutes before I realize Ben hasn't come out yet to relieve me. Which is very unlike him, especially considering how apologetic he was this morning about me taking his shift.

Before I can really start to wonder, though, I hear the door shut again, and he comes out of the back hallway. He's walking kind of slow, with his head down, and when he gets closer he turns his face away and passes in back of me, grabbing a clean towel off the stack and throwing it over his shoulder.

"Hey," I say, kind of miffed but trying not to show it. I don't know what I expected; it's not like I thought he'd run up and kiss me here in front of everybody, but this avoiding-me thing is not good at all.

"Hi, Ray," he says, and his voice sounds real cheerful, but he still hasn't looked at me.

"How was your day, dear?" I say, trying to get a response out of him, and George hears me and snickers.

Ben straightens his shoulders and says, "Fairly eventful, actually," and still without turning around walks down a few steps toward the other end of the bar to get another bowl of snack-food for Marie.

Something is so very bad and wrong with this picture. But before I can ask him what the fuck is up with him, I hear Marie say, "Damn, Ben, what happened to you?"

I'm down there in half a second, and I grab his shoulder and pull him around to face me, and I see what Marie was talking about. He's got a huge shiner on his right eye, looks pretty fresh to me, and without thinking twice I start flapping my lip.

"Jesus Christ -- who the hell did that? I told you there'd be trouble, fuckin' assholes -- give me a name, Ben, a badge number, something -- I swear he's gonna regret he ever laid a hand on you." While I'm babbling I grab some ice and wrap it up in my towel, reach over to put it on his face so it doesn't swell up worse than it already is. He flinches back from my hand and takes the towel from me, puts it on his eye himself, all the while shaking his head at me and saying my name over and over like he does.

"Ray," he says one more time, "it wasn't related to my presence at the station -- or rather, it was, but only in the most coincidental way. In any case, it wasn't a police officer who did this."

"No?" I say, skeptical but willing to be convinced.

"No," he says firmly.

I give him a second to tell me the rest, but he does the eyebrow-rub that means he really doesn't want to say what comes next. "Who?" I ask, just to remind him how I am, and he glares at me out of his good eye.

"Can't we just say it was an accident and leave it at that? I'm sure she's sorry --"


George hoots from behind me at the same time as I say it. I turn around and give him a look that says mind your own business. "Listen," I say, turning back to Ben, "I don't care what your grandmother told you, you don't have to let a chick hit you."

He closes his eye and shakes his head and sighs. When he looks at me again there's a little bit of a smile in it. "She's not exactly a chick, Ray," he says, and now there's more smile there. "Unless we expand the definition to include second-graders."

It's my turn to shake my head, which I do, hard. It doesn't help. "Explain?" I say. "How'd you let a seven-year-old clock you one?"

"She was climbing up some filing cabinets -- an extremely unsafe practice, as I told her afterward. I saw her falling in time to catch her, but unfortunately her head impacted with my face."

"Only you," I mutter. "Since when are you a babysitter? Where the hell was her mother?"

"I was getting patted down for weapons," says a hostile voice behind me. I turn around and there's a chick standing behind my bar -- long brown hair, hard eyes, no smile. "And my daughter's fine, thanks for asking."

If I was Dief, the hair on my neck would be standing up straight. As it is, it's hard not to growl. "If your daughter was hurt, Ben wouldn't have just left her," like you did, I don't say. "So therefore I wasn't too worried about anyone except him."

She opens her mouth to say something and Ben jumps in. "Ray, this is Janet Morse, from Montana. She's here in the city looking for a man."

I smirk at that and she gives me a dirty look. "I'm a licensed bounty hunter, hot-shot," she says. "This is business."

"So it's, what, 'Take Your Kid to Work Day'?"

"Ray, could I talk to you for a moment?" Ben says in my ear. He puts his hand on my shoulder and I almost want to shrug it off. I don't like this woman, and I have a feeling I'm not going to like what he wants to say, but I nod and let him move me back into the corner. "I'm really not injured, I promise you," he says quietly. "And I feel we could do some good here, if we help her."

I bite back the first three things I want to say, which are no, no, and hell no. "Where's this kid of hers?" I ask instead.

"In ... the office," Ben says.

Great. Just fucking great. "Any reason why you left her alone again? I mean, I got some shelves she could climb."

"She's ... not alone ... exactly."

I look around, and sure enough, Dief's not there. "I don't think the furball's really much on babysitting."

I see the thumb connect with the eyebrow. "Janet has three children. Suzanne's the youngest."

"Three?" Somebody walks in the door and I remember where we are and what I'm supposed to be doing. "Listen, I got work to do here. Can you please get the kids out of my office before something else happens?"

"Yes, of course, but -- they have nowhere to stay. I was thinking --"

The table in the corner's looking for a refill already, and I have no more patience for this right now. "Yeah, good, you go find them somewhere to sleep. I got beer to pour. Jimmy's in at seven, I'll be able to talk about it then."

He squeezes my shoulder. "Thank you, Ray," he says. "I know Janet will appreciate it."

"Yeah, whatever," I say. "Go on."

I get another squeeze of my shoulder before he escorts Janet back to the office. I check my watch as I start a pitcher of Bud and grab the jug of margarita mix -- an hour and a half to go. No problem.

Jimmy shows up right on the dot, like always, and I've never been happier to see him. The secretaries decided to feed a twenty into the jukebox and sing along, and my head is about to explode. "Good luck," I say to him and toss him the towel. I pass Shelley on her way in from the back.

"Did Ben get a truck?" she asks as she's tying on her apron.

"Not that I know of," I say. "Why?"

She shrugs. "There's one in the alley in back of the GTO -- I figured it was his."

"Nope," I say, "but I have a good idea whose it might be."

I climb the stairs, hoping I'm wrong, and knowing before I'm at the door I'm not. I can hear Ben's voice in full-out storytelling mode, and some giggles I'm positive aren't coming from Dief. Fuck. I give myself a minute before I open the door, enough time to put on my 'company' face, as Mom would call it. I don't dare take too long, though, or Dief'll rat me out. One more deep breath and I'm good to go.

As I open the door, something goes sailing over my head.


I turn around and pick up a stuffed frog from the floor in the hallway. As I walk into the room I remind myself that I really do like kids. Really.

"Hello, Ray," Ben says, kind of carefully. He's got one kid, a little girl, on his lap. There's an older girl in the armchair with her nose in a book, and a boy on the other end of the couch.

"Hi," I say, holding out the frog. "Who does this belong to?" The little girl holds out her arms and I toss it to her.

"Did you want some dinner?" Ben says.

"What was it?" The conversation feels weird, like it's something that's happening to two other people, people who didn't wake up in the same bed this morning.

"I made meatloaf. I can warm some up for you if you'd like."

He looks very hopeful to be asked to do something, so I say, "Sure, that'd be great. Thanks." I head for the bathroom, but the door's shut. Now that I listen, I can hear the shower running. Janet. Okay. I turn back around in time to see Ben disappear into the kitchen. The kids are looking at me like it's my turn to entertain them, so I turn on the tube, find Nickelodeon, and follow after Ben.

He's putting a plate into the microwave when I walk in, and when he turns around and sees me, he smiles. And even feeling vaguely pissed like I am, I just can't be really mad at him, so I smile back. "So, our first houseguests, huh?" I say.

"I'm sorry," he starts out, and I can't listen to him apologize for being a nice guy.

"No, don't. It's okay. Just for tonight, though, right?"

He nods. I move over in front of him and there's this pull, like a magnet or something, and I can't stop until we're kissing. After a couple seconds I feel more like me again, but that's not a reason to stop kissing, so we don't until the microwave dings. Then I move away a little and look more carefully at his face. The shiner's still pretty colorful, but at least his eyeball looks okay and his nose isn't broken.

"Sorry about before," I say. "I get kind of ..."

"Protective?" he says, raising his eyebrow and wincing when it pulls on the bruise.

"Yeah, well," I say, and kiss him again quick. "Can you live with that?"

"Very happily," he says, and this time he kisses me. "And if you'll allow me the same privilege ... your food's getting cold."

"That's a tough decision -- making out, or your meatloaf," I say. "But if you'll promise me a rain-check, I am kind of hungry."

"Done," he says, and turns to get the plate. When he turns back around I take it from him and put it down on the counter.

"Changed my mind," I say, and wrap around him again. Somehow I feel like I need this, like we're reconnecting. My mouth finds his again, and I lose track of time. A voice finally breaks us apart.

"Boys aren't s'posed to kiss."

It's the little girl (Suzanne?), Toad in hand, standing in the doorway. I don't think Janet's going to be thrilled at having to explain this to her kid, but on the other hand, it is my kitchen. So I say, "Some boys do," and leave it at that.

"Oh," she says. "Mama says where'd you go."

I'm about to explain where her Mama can go when Ben says, in my ear, "Eat your dinner," and brushes his hand down my arm.

"Yeah, okay," I say. "I'll be out in a minute."

"Take your time." He follows little Cindy-Lou Who into the living room, and I lean against the counter and eat my meatloaf, which is as good as I expected. Ben doesn't know more than maybe fifteen recipes, but the stuff he does know how to make is top quality. When I finish, I'm feeling much better -- something about low blood-sugar, according to Ben.

When I go back into the living room, Ben's back on the couch with a kid on either side of him, talking to Janet about life in the Yukon. She's sitting on the coffee table, knees almost touching his, and ...

Okay, maybe it's my imagination, but she's really giving off a vibe. Like Ben's looking really good to her, and God knows he's easy on the eyes anyway but this is like ... intense. Shit. I guess Suzanne didn't mention the boys-kissing thing after all.

"What's the scoop?" I say, just to make my presence known. I'm torn between leaning over the back of the couch (and incidentally over the back of Ben) and moving one of the rugrats aside so I can sit next to him, but I settle for perching on the arm.

Janet looks at me. "I'm tracking a bail-jumper named Bradley Torrance. I found an old girlfriend of his, and I'm going to swing by her place tomorrow, see if he shows up."

"That's your plan?" I say. I'm not trying to be nasty, but it comes out kind of ... snide, I guess. Ben looks disappointed, which I can't stand, so I apologize. "Sorry, didn't mean it the way it came out."

She nods. "Anyway, I could use a little armed back-up. Ben says you're a PI; are you available?"

"You want to hire me? I thought you were broke."

"Yeah, well, I'll get paid when I bring him in, so ..."

I'm this close to saying no when I take another look at Ben. He's got that hopeful face again, and dammit, this is not how I wanted to spend my day off.

"Yeah, okay," I say. I just better be racking up the good-karma points for this.

"Thanks," she says, and when she smiles I see she's really kind of pretty under all the stress and worry. "I better get the kids to bed, they look beat. We haven't been getting much sleep lately."

"Ah," Ben says, with the eyebrow-thumb move. "Let me just go ... get the room ready. I'll just be a moment."

"I'll help," I say. I have a sinking feeling I know which room he's talking about, and when he gets up and walks to the bedroom all I can do is sigh. I follow him in and shut the door behind me. "Uh," I start out, not wanting to sound selfish or whatever, and he turns around and walks over to me.

"I didn't know what else to do," he says, looking right into my eyes. "I offered her money for a hotel, but she wouldn't take it. And there are no vacant apartments right now, so ...."

To hell with staying mad at him, I can't even get mad at him. I grab one of his hands, just for something to do. "I know. It's ... well, it's not okay, but it will be. I'm just ...." Fuck, I don't know what I am, except stupid-jealous, and no way I'm saying that out loud.

He smiles at me, and I pull on his hand so he has to move closer, and when he's in range I kiss him. "I can't believe you're going to make me sleep on the floor, though."

"My grandmother always said privation was good for the soul," he says with a little bit of a smirk.

"Your grandmother ... " I say and he kisses me. "I was going to say," I try again when I can, "that your grandmother raised a hell of a good man."

"Thank you," he says softly.

"Let's get the bed made."

It takes a little longer than usual to change the sheets, since there's a lot more groping involved, but it's still only about eight o'clock when we're done. The older girl, Annie, makes a stink, but Janet says she can read as long as she's quiet. The boy, Robbie, I think, gets into Ben's old sleeping bag on the floor. He wants Dief to sleep near him, Dief objects, and Ben tells him Dief snores like a chainsaw, and he's really better off without.

Janet gets the kids settled finally and me, her, and Ben go back into the living room. She sits between us on the couch, which irks me a little, but Ben doesn't say anything, and I'm not sixteen anymore; I don't need to constantly be touching him. I just ... really want to constantly be touching him. In place of that, I pick up the remote and flip around the channels, looking for something that means we don't have to make chit-chat. Animal House is on Channel 17, and Ben's never seen it, so we watch that until the phone rings.

It's Jimmy, telling me I forgot to lock up the office, and also there's some weird problem with the CO2 line, and he really hates to bother me, but ... Ben volunteers to go fix it, but damned if I want to be stuck here with Janet, plus the end of the movie's the best part, and he really shouldn't have to miss it. I debate giving him a kiss before I leave, but it feels a little weird for some reason, and I settle for a squeeze of his shoulder. He looks away from the screen for a second and smiles at me, and it gives me such a warm glow in my gut it's hard not to just crawl all over him, but then he turns back to the tv. I feel really let down, and I realize I have to get ahold of myself. This jealousy thing is stupid and pointless and kind of pathetic.

Dief wants to come with, which is strange, but I think the kids freak him out. We go downstairs together and I promise him a run later if he gives me a few minutes now. He lays down by the back door, which I guess is "yes" and I grab the pliers and get to work.

Forty-five minutes and about forty-five yards of duct tape later, the CO2 line is fixed temporarily. We'll have to get a new one, but it can wait 'til tomorrow, I hope. The office gets locked, and I'm about to drag my ass upstairs again when Dief reminds me of my promise. Man, you go and fall in love with a guy, and his wolf makes you pay, and pay, and pay ....

The park down the block is kind of new -- it went in during an urban renewal push a couple years ago. Instead of the old metal monkey-bars I remember from my old playground there's a big wood climbing thing that looks like a castle and a pirate ship had an affair. I sit on the end of the slide while Dief pretends he's a dog, and I think, appropriately enough, about kids.

Stella never thought it was the right time -- she had a career, I had a dangerous job (nevermind more guys get killed working high-rise construction than on the force), and I guess I gave up that dream a while ago. Even Mom doesn't mention it anymore, maybe Stell asked her not to. But Ben ...

He really looked like he was enjoying himself tonight, with a boy on one side and a girl on the other, and I can just imagine him telling Inuit ghost stories and talking about the many uses for seal blubber. I never thought about him and kids before. It's not a question I ever thought to ask, I guess. And now I wonder if he wants them someday ....

Dief barks at me from the sidewalk, telling me it's time to go home.

"Yeah, okay," I say. "I'm coming."

We walk back quickly and when I get close I can see some of the lights are off in the living room. I'm thinking Ben must've gotten ready for bed, and I get a little buzz going thinking about it.

I unlock the door quietly, wanting to surprise him, and when I push it open I realize he's not alone. Janet's with him, and she's standing way too close again.

"It's so hard to know who to trust," she's saying, and Ben nods.

"Yes, it is," he says. "But ... you can trust me."

She moves even closer and puts her hand on his chest. Whoa, girl, I want to yell, but it's like I'm frozen. "Can I trust you to kiss me?" she says.

What the hell?

Ben looks at her all deer-in-the-headlights as she leans in until she's about six inches from his face. Then he jerks back and says, "I ... I can't."

I wonder what the symptoms are for a stroke, because my vision's gone all gray, and my heart is beating in some weird rhythm I can't dance to, and my hands have started to shake. When Dief shoves past me I almost fall over and have to save myself by grabbing at the doorknob, which makes my keys rattle.

Which means that when Ben and Janet see me standing there I probably look like a gaffed trout.

"I ... just ..." I say, and I never felt anything like this pain -- it's right inside my bones and I have to force myself to breathe again.

"Ray," Ben says in a voice I never heard from him before -- panic and something else. Janet just looks disgusted, and I'm sorry to have ruined her fun, but there are limits to what a man should have to put up with in his own home, and this is way over the line. I don't get the chance to tell her so, though, because Ben's across the room in two steps.

"Excuse us," he says to Janet, no please or anything, and he walks out into the hall, dragging me with him, and shuts the door behind us. "Ray," he says again, "I hope you know I would never --"

"Yeah," I say, interrupting him, "I know that, I do. But what I know and what I feel are two different things, okay? And right now ...." I stop there because I can't figure out how to say it without yelling.

He grabs my hand, which I've clenched into a fist without realizing it, and holds onto it. "I made a commitment to you. Surely you realize how much that means to me?"

"Yes!" I yell. He looks startled and I try to tone it down. "I know that; I just told you. But my gut feels like somebody ripped it out and stomped on it -- you trying to tell me I shouldn't feel like that?"

"No," he whispers, "but just remember this -- I didn't kiss her." He backs me up against the wall and his mouth covers mine, and it's hot and messy and desperate and he's almost hurting me, but the ache in my gut starts to fade a little. I decide not to ask him whether he wanted to kiss her.

I don't really want to know, anyway.

After a while I'm almost back to normal -- or as normal as I'm going to get until that woman's out of our lives. I push away from Ben's mouth very reluctantly and say, "We should go back in."

He nods and moves back, and I pull out my key and open the door again. My hand only shakes a little while I'm doing it, and I think I might be able to forget what I saw before in about ... fifty years or so. Janet's not there, which is fine with me -- we can have our chat in the morning, if she didn't already figure things out.

"I'll talk to her in the morning," Ben says, reading my mind like he can sometimes. "I ... suppose I hadn't realized ...."

"Okay," I say, more than ready to be not discussing Janet anymore. "I'm gonna get ready for bed."

He nods. "I'll get the blankets ready, then." His eyes look straight into mine and I see a lot of "I'm sorry" and "I love you" in them. It's something, I suppose.

I speed through the tooth-brushing and washing-up, and when I get back to the living room Ben's arranging blankets on the floor where the coffee table usually goes. When I walk over, though, I see another blanket spread out on the couch. And I'm still feeling pissy enough to not want sex, and plus we're in the middle of the living room, but there's another part of me that wants to at least be asked.

I mean, if he wanted to, he could probably convince me. But I guess that's not in the cards for tonight.

He half-smiles at me and goes to take his turn in the bathroom. I get myself cozy on the couch, and when he comes back I give him the same half-smile.

"Shall I turn out the light?" he asks in a low voice.

"Yeah," I say. "Good night, then?"

Ben just nods and says," Good night, Ray," and flicks off the light switch. There's enough glow coming from the windows that I can see him cross the room and settle into his blankets. I feel like something more needs to be said, but for the life of me, I have no idea what. I listen as Ben's breathing evens out, sure that it's just a matter of time 'til I fall asleep too, but what seems like an hour later, I'm still awake. I'm trying, unsuccessfully, not to toss and turn too much, and I finally get comfortable on my side, facing Ben.

Since my eyes don't seem to want to shut, I take the opportunity to watch him sleep, and while I'm watching I'm brooding about how much I have to lose all of a sudden, and I am never ever ever getting to sleep, no how, no way.

All of a sudden he opens his eyes and sees me staring. He reaches up and grabs my hand. "It'll be okay," he whispers, and I squeeze his hand tight.

Yeah, it will. It has to be. I fall asleep, finally, still holding onto him.

When I wake up, the sun's hitting me full in the eyes, and I squint and pull the blanket up over my head. I guess I should've invested in shades or blinds or something, but interior decorating's never been my thing. I wonder what time it is, but not urgently enough to check my watch. The front door opens and I hear Ben come in and Dief snuffling, and then the bedroom door opens.

Janet says "Hey," kind of hesitant.

"Good morning," Ben says quietly, and I guess he thinks I'm still asleep, so I don't move, because sure, it's pretty skanky, but I really want to hear this conversation.

"About last night," Janet says, "Listen, I'm sorry if I -- I had no idea you were --"

I can almost hear Ben's thumb on his eyebrow. "Yes, well, I should have said. Ray and I are ... We ... I've made a commitment to him, one that I intend to honor."

"Of course," she says. "It's just -- I thought -- we were getting along so well --"

"We were," he says real fast, like he wants to shut her up.

"Oh. Okay," she says. "Good, then. I'll just -- "

"Yes, of course," Ben says, and I hear the bathroom door shut. Ben walks over to the couch then, and says, "Good morning, Ray. Coffee?" like there's never been anything wrong, like we didn't almost lose everything.

I yank the blanket off my head and glare at him. "Did you know I was awake the whole time?"

He nods.

"So was that all for my benefit?"

"I ... don't understand."

"What you said to her -- was that just to make me feel better?"

He sighs, and kneels down beside the couch. He takes my hand again like he did last night and says, "What I said was nothing more or less than the truth. There was never any question in my mind about who I preferred."

I give him my best stare. "Tell me you didn't think about kissing her, just for one split second. Because I know you must've."

He looks down at our hands, and I think I hit a nerve. "Ray ..." he says, so softly I almost can't hear him, "If I was 'on the market', as they say, it's true that Janet is the type of woman to whom I might be attracted." He looks me in the eye then and says, "Much as you yourself might have been attracted to Ms. Kaufman."

Suddenly it's a whole new ballgame. "You ... saw that?" I ask. It's all I can think of to say, and it's pretty lame. He nods.

"I saw how close she was sitting to you, and her body language. It was fairly obvious. And I must confess I was a bit jealous."

"Yeah, but ... that was the first time she'd acted like that," I say, and even to myself I sound guilty. "I swear I didn't know until she walked in and sat down."

"Exactly," he says, and I get where he's going with this. "I didn't know that Janet was attracted to me until ... what almost happened. But it doesn't matter, because what you and I have goes far beyond mere attraction. Anything I might have felt for Janet pales in comparison. "

Oh, God. I have to try a couple of times before I can talk -- my throat's all closed up. Finally I say, "Okay, that's ... good to know." Which is not nearly strong enough to really say how I feel, but it'll have to do. I sit up a little more then so we can kiss, which makes me happier about having to deal with what the day's probably going to bring.

When the bathroom door opens, Ben pulls back slowly, and I'm pretty sure Janet gets an eyeful on her way back into the bedroom, because the door shuts a little too hard. It's probably really petty of me to be glad, but I'm that kind of guy, I guess. I yank Ben back down for another fast kiss, then I say, "Is there really coffee, or were you just teasing me?"

He smiles. "There really is coffee; pancakes, too, if you're interested."

"Oh, I'm interested, all right," I say with what I hope looks like a leer and not like I've lost my mind. I guess it's okay; Ben's cheeks go that faint shade of pink that means he's turned on and a little embarrassed.

"Ray, please," he says, and I bring his hand down so he can feel exactly how interested I am.

"Yeah," I whisper, "You hold that thought 'til tonight, okay?"

Next thing I know I'm pinned to the cushions while Ben's trying to suck my tongue out of my mouth. He's got both my wrists up over my head so I can't hold onto him, but it's pretty obvious I don't need to -- it's not like he's trying to get away. And something about being held down like this and ... taken, like he can't help himself, is so incredibly hot it feels like about three seconds before I come in my shorts like a teenager.

As I lay there panting, he grins down at me, his cock still hard against my thigh. "You hold that thought," he says.

"Bastard," I wheeze, laughing up at him. "Give me a second and you'll pay for that."

He opens his mouth to say something back and the bedroom door bursts open. Robbie and Suzanne come rocketing into the room, followed by Annie, and Ben jumps off me like a jack-in-the-box. "Good morning," he says to them, as I scramble for the blanket. He looks at me real fast and then starts herding the rugrats toward the kitchen. "I bet you kids like pancakes, right?" he says.

Robbie almost breaks my eardrums when he hollers "Yay!!" and runs for the kitchen door, giving Suzanne a real good hip-check as he goes. She bounces back like she's used to it and chases after him. Annie just sighs and walks after both of them.

Ben looks back at me one more time, and I say, "Go. I'm going to hit the shower. Save me some food if you can."

He nods. "I'll bring you some coffee in a minute?"

I wrap the blanket around me so nobody can see my soggy boxers and stand up. "I'd love it. Thank you."

He smiles, and then there's a crash in the kitchen. "Oh, dear," he says, and bolts through the door.

I can only hope that wasn't anything important breaking, but I'm much more concerned with getting clean at the moment so I gather up the ends of the blanket and head for the bathroom.

The hot water feels incredible, and when I finally turn it off and get out, my coffee's on the sink counter as promised. I'm a little disappointed he didn't pop his head in when he brought it, but the fact that it's there says something. And when I taste it, it's perfect -- just the way I like it, but can't ever manage to make it. Beats the hell out of me how he does it, but I don't question stuff like this too much, I'm too busy enjoying it.

I walk out of the bathroom with the blanket wrapped around me again because, oops, no clean clothes, and I almost trip over Janet as she's coming out of my bedroom. "Sorry," she says.

"S'okay," I mumble, trying to maneuver around her. We sidestep each other successfully, and I just get in the door of my room when she stops me.

"Look," she says, and I turn around. "I'm ... well, obviously I didn't know ... I mean ... that he was ... that you two were ..."

"Yeah, okay, I get it," I say, because I do, and she's really fumbling.

"Okay, well, good," she says. "So -- are you still willing to help me, or what?"

She's what Dad would call a straight-shooter, I guess. No tact; kind of like me. "I said I'd help, and I will," I say, and it sounds pretty grudging, even to me. To make up for that, I hold out my hand. "No hard feelings?"

She looks real surprised, but shakes my hand anyway. Then she sort of smiles. "You planning to wear that blanket all day?"

"Don't push it," I say, but I can feel a smile trying to get out. Dammit, I really don't want to like her. I turn back around so she can't see it and walk into my room. "Go get some breakfast before your kids eat it all," I say as I close the door behind me.

Ben's not too happy about being left behind, but someone's got to watch the demon-children from hell, and it's not going to be me. Torrance's ex-girlfriend's bar is on the other side of town, almost in the suburbs, and when Janet and I get there, it's just barely past opening-time. There's one car parked in the lot, way over in the back corner under the light, and I figure it for the bartender's.

"How d'you want to play this?" I ask as we walk up onto the front porch.

"I thought I'd try the long-lost-sister-act first," she says.

"Works for me," I say. "Who'm I?"

She squints at me. "It's up to you, I guess. I usually work these things alone."

"Okay," I say. "We'll see how it shakes out when we get in there."

She takes a deep breath and nods. We both reach for the door handle at the same time, and there's some confusion about who's going in first. We get it sorted out by me planting a hand in the middle of her back and saying, "After you, dear," while pushing her forward. A good team we're not, unless you're comparing us to the Three Stooges. Lucky for us, there's no one watching.

There's nobody around, and Janet walks up to the bar and raps her knuckles on it. "Hello?" she says into the back room, and a second or two later, a blonde in an apron comes out.

"Hey," she says with a nod. "How're you folks today?"

"We're real good," Janet says. "Are you Helen?"

"Sure am," the blonde says, putting down the bowl of limes she's carrying. "Can I help you?"

"I hope so," Janet says. "We're looking for my brother, and someone said you knew him -- Bradley Torrance?"

"Oh, sure, I know Bradley," Helen says. "Haven't seen him today, though. He's working out at the racetrack -- did you try there?"

Wow, that was easy. Maybe there's an advantage to being a chick when it comes to getting info out of people -- I never could do it without major amounts of cash changing hands. Janet thanks Helen and we turn to leave. We're about ten feet from the door when it pops open. I get a quick impression of thinning brown hair and a beard before Janet yells, "Bradley, you son-of-a-bitch!" and he turns around to run.

Janet's gun is in her hand faster than I can blink. "Don't even think about it, sweetheart," she says. Torrance freezes, then puts his hands up and turns around slowly. There's a weak smile on his face like he thinks he can get out of this if he looks cute and talks fast enough. If he wasn't a perp I'd tell him it never works, but I'm not here to help him.

"Hey, Janet, honey," he says. "How are the kids?"

I see her finger tighten on the trigger and then BANG! Torrance yelps as a bullet smacks into the wood on the side of the doorway.

"Jesus Christ!" I grab the gun away from her, burning my hand on the barrel as I do, and I only just barely stop myself from slamming her to the floor and sitting on her. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" I yell in her face. Torrance moves toward the door again and I whip the gun around to cover him. "Don't even breathe funny," I say to him. "In fact, how 'bout if you move over to that table and sit, nice and quiet."

Torrance proves he's not totally stupid by following my instructions. I walk over so he's between me and Janet. "Now then," I say, "Somebody tell me what's going on here. I get this feeling you two got some sort of history."

Janet looks disgusted and says, "You could say that. January 13th, 1986; South Ridgeway Baptist Church. I married this schmuck."

From behind the bar, Helen screeches, "You're married?" and Torrance winces. Maybe the girlfriend's not so ex after all.

Come to think of it, what the hell was she doing going after Ben? I give her the Evil Eye and she turns red. "He took off six months ago," she says to me.

"Uh huh,"I say.

"Look, there really is a bail-jumping charge. I can show you the paperwork." She takes some folded sheets of paper out of her pocket and hands them over. As far as I can tell they look legit, but I'm not an expert.

"Why not just tell us?" I say.

"I don't get much help when people know I'm chasing a deadbeat husband -- even less when it's my own."

I shake my head. "You should'a told Ben, at least."

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

'Hey, wait a minute," Torrance says, "you got something going on with this Ben guy?"

"Shut up!" Janet and I both say at the same time.

"Sheesh," he says. "I was just asking."

Janet pulls a pair of cuffs out of her back pocket and slaps them on Torrance's wrists. "Aw, come on, Janet," he whines.

"Stuff it," she says. "You've cost me time and aggravation already; I'm not going to lose this money."

It's a miracle Helen hasn't called the cops yet, and I walk over and flash my ID at her so she won't. I offer to pay for the bullethole in the door frame, but she says nobody'll notice it anyway. I think she's in shock. "Sorry about this," I say, and she shakes her head.

"I should've known better," she says. "He was way too nice."

Janet's man-handling Torrance out the door, so I shrug at Helen and follow them. When I catch up, she's shoving him into the back seat. She bends over for a second, and when she straightens up, I see she's taken off his boots so he can't run. Smart cookie.

"What did these cost you?" she asks. "Looks like about three months worth of phone bills, at least." She goes around the truck and gets in behind the wheel, and I climb into the passenger seat, turned halfway around so I can keep an eye on him.

"It's funny you should mention money," Torrance says.

"Really," Janet says.

He seems to take that as encouragement. "See, I got ... well right now I got some trouble --"

"Besides me?" Janet says sweetly, only not.

Torrance turns red. "Yeah, well, see -- I was playing the horses. I wound up owing Lester Rivers around fifty grand. So he says- he says he's going to forget the whole thing if I just do- run this little errand for him."

Janet snorts. I agree -- what a schmuck.

"So anyway, I go. I pick up this package from these two very nasty-looking guys to take back to Lester and I open the package. Well, did you ever see two million dollars? Huh? Well, I'm looking at it, it's all green and beautiful and I'm thinking this is the last chance I got to do anything for us, you know, for the kids. So- so I lie low for a few days. And I- and then I hear there's like this contract out on me. And I figure maybe this- this hasn't been the best move that I ever made. So I- I go, I buy a couple of guns from this guy that I know and they bust me for that. Look, I bail myself out, and I run. "
I just look at him. I mean, is he really that dumb?
"Jesus, Bradley, are you really that dumb?" Janet says.
Okay, that was weird.

Torrance leans forward and puts his cuffed hands on the back of the eat. "Look, you don't know what it's like for me. You earning the money all the time -- it really hurts my self-esteem, y'know?"

I personally have had it with this guy. "Okay," I say, "I hate to break up the reunion, but you think we could move it along here?"

"Yeah," Janet says, "Come on, Bradley, let's pick up the kids and head for home-sweet-home."

"What about the money?" Torrance whines. "What about Lester?"

Janet looks at him suspiciously. "Where is the money?"

"I hid it at the track," he says, pleased as punch at being so crafty. Like that's not the first place this Lester guy's going to check.

Janet looks over at me, and I can kind of tell what she's thinking -- two mil buys a lot of shoes and food for your kids, right?

"No," I say.

"But --"

"No means no; what are you, nuts? If your precious Lester followed Bradley all the way here, you really think he's going to stop just because you're involved now? You and your kids could wind up dead."

All the air goes out of her. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

Okay, so she gets points for thinking of the kids, at least. "Let's go," I say. "I got other stuff to do."

She starts the truck, and when Torrance opens his mouth for another try, I reach over and turn on the radio, loud. It's shit-kicking music, of course, but the choice between that and his blather is an easy one, and we all make it back to my place in one piece.

Ben's covered in kids when we walk in; he's smiling but I can see a little fraying around the edges. "Hi!" he says. "Look, kids, it's your mother!"

The kids see Torrance and come running for him screaming "Daddy!" Ben looks very confused.

"It's okay," I say. "Take a walk with me for a second." I get him into the bedroom and close the door, and he only has time to open his mouth before I say "He took off on her six months ago; he stole money from a loan shark; yes, he's an idiot."

"Okay," he says with a little smile. He takes my hand and I feel that zing again as he lifts it up to his mouth and kisses it. Then he frowns.

"What?" I ask, because frowning is bad.

"Gunpowder," he says, still frowning. He turns my hand palm-up, sniffs it, then licks it. "And gun oil, also."

"Yeah, I had to take Janet's gun away from her after she almost popped her ex," I say, and now the frown is even bigger.

"She -- what?"

Big mouth. "Okay, I probably, um, overstated that a little. She actually wasn't aiming for him at all -- she hit the doorframe next to his head. She was a mite ticked off."

"But still --"

"Hey," I say, using the hand he's not holding to grab onto the back of his neck. "It's cool. Nobody's hurt, she got what she came for. End of story." I lean into him and kiss him, and after a second he pushes me up against the door and kisses me back, hard.

Yeah, I'm glad I'm not hurt, too.

After a minute or two, which is not nearly long enough for me, Ben remembers we have guests and un-glues us. "We should --" he says, and motions toward the living room.

"Raincheck?" I say.

He smiles. "Most assuredly."

I love it when he talks dirty.

The kids seem really glad to see their dad, and he seems really happy to be smothered by them. Janet's using my phone, which pisses me off a little, but not so much I'm going to call her on it, because I figure she's out of our lives soon anyway. She looks up and sees us, and she turns pink and hangs up the phone.

"Sorry," she says, walking over, "but I wasn't sure how long you were going to be."

"Ray was just filling me in on the situation," Ben says.

"Right," she says with a smirk. "Anyway, I had an idea about the money --"

"Don't even," I say immediately.

"Money?" says Ben.

"I though Ray filled you in," Janet says to him with another smirk. "Bradley stole two million dollars from a shark named Lester Rivers, and hid it out at the racetrack."

"And I said it was too dangerous to even think about going out there," I put in. Ben nods.

"No, but listen," Janet goes on. "I just talked to someone at the 27th, and there's a reward for information leading to the capture, blah blah blah. She's going to talk to OC in Denver and get the details."

"It's still a bad idea," I say.

"Not if we have backup," Janet says. "The strike's over."

I stop the car behind the stables, set the brake, and turn off the ignition. "It's just a really bad idea," I say for about the seventeenth time, and Ben sighs.

"So you've said."

"At least take my back-up piece."


"Ben --"

"I don't have a permit; I'm not going to carry a gun. End of discussion."

Stubborn bastard. "Can't believe she talked you into this," I say, just barely loud enough so he can hear it.

"What would you have had me do?" he says, and he's being quiet too, but I can tell he's getting angry. "She would have come anyway, no matter what we said."

"You are not responsible for what happens to everyone you meet."

He looks at me for a second, then he says, "I know that. But I can't stand by and let harm come to people -- to ... friends -- when there's a chance I could help."

And if there's anything I've learned in the last six months with him, it's that, so I reach over and yank on his shoulder. He leans closer and we kiss awkwardly across the center console. I can feel my fingernails digging into the leather of his jacket, and I wish I knew why I was so damn scared of losing him. I can't explain it, but I'm freaked out by this whole situation, and I'd start the car and drive away right now if I didn't think he'd jump out.

"Sorry," I say finally. "I just --"

"I know," he says. A Crown Vic pulls in behind us and I give his shoulder another good squeeze before we get out and go meet the boys in blue.

"Fraser," says one of them with a little nod.

"Detective Huey," Ben says, matching his nod almost exactly. "Allow me to introduce Ray Kowalski."

Huey nods. "Jack," he says to me. He nods at his partner. "Tom Dewey."

"Hey," I say at them, without nodding. What is up with that? "Welsh give you the low-down?"

"Yeah," Huey says. "Wants us to wrap it up before the Feds show, if we can."

"Works for me," I say. "If the bad guys cooperate."

Huey shrugs. "We'll be in the tackroom." He looks at me for another minute or two, until I start to get itchy.

"What?" I bark at him.

"I heard you used to be married to ASA Kowalski. That true?"


"Hunh." He looks at Ben. There's a little bit of unspoken stuff going on between them, then Huey shrugs again. I brace myself for some kind of ignorant remark, but he just says, "Good to see you again, Fraser," and walks off toward the barn.

"What was that all about?" I ask Ben when they're out of earshot.

"I'm not entirely certain," he says. "It may, possibly, have been approval."

"Hunh," I say. The walkie-talkie sputters from the front seat where I left it, and I dash back to retrieve it.

"Boba Fett to Han Solo; come in, Solo."

When the hell did we get code names? I can't help grinning as I answer. "Solo here, go ahead."

"We've cleared the Death Star and we're on our way to Endor." I translate that to they picked up Torrance's car and the tail we figured on and they're on their way.

"Understood. We, uh, took care of the shield generator for you; come on in."


Ben looks at me. " 'Shield generator'?"

"Yeah," I say, taking his arm and pulling him up into the hayloft to hide. "Your friends Huey and Dewey."

"Ah," he says. "But wasn't the aim of the Rebels to disable the shield?"

"Don't take it too far," I say, as we settle in on a couple of nice spiky hay bales. "You might end up as Princess Leia."

"Understood," he says with a grin. He keeps looking at me and the grin fades slowly.

"What?" I say. He shakes his head and nudges my ankle with his foot. I stretch out my legs and he does the same, and we sit there discreetly playing footsie and talking hockey to cover up. I manage to get him to admit that the 'Hawks just might be a competent team when we hear a car pulling in. The radio clicks once, then twice more -- Janet's code for one car, two guys. Good news.

Footsteps coming closer, Torrance muttering about something -- he's pissed he can't keep all the money. Says he "stole it fair and square." God help those kids if they got any of his brains -- I may not like Janet much, but at least she's not stupid. Well, except for marrying Torrance.

"Shut up, Bradley," I hear her say. "Unless you want me to drag you back home hanging off the bumper."

They go into the furthest stall where Torrance says he hid the cash, and proceed to make a lot of noise prying up the boards. If I wasn't watching, I would've missed the guys following them, but I was and I didn't. Ben comes to attention too, and we carefully move into a better position.

The original plan was for Janet to get them to incriminate themselves in front of witnesses, and the shorter one helps out very nicely by saying, "Bradley! You got my money?"

Torrance jumps a mile -- he's really on edge -- and says, "Hey, Lester, how's it going? Have you met my wife? Janet, honey, this is Lester Rivers."

"Ma'am," says Rivers, like he's at some creepy church social. He waves his arm at his friend. "This is my associate, Mr. Lopez."

I never heard of either one of them, but that's not surprising, if they're from Denver. I know the type, though. Lopez is obviously the muscle, and he's hanging back so he's got the best angle on the stall where Janet and Torrance are. I can see both his hands and they're empty, which is good, but I keep a close eye on him.

There's an instant when I think we've blown it -- a floorboard creaks and Torrance looks up and so do Rivers and Lopez, and Lopez makes a move for his piece and I've got mine out ready to take him down when all of a sudden Ben just leaps down and fucking lands on him. The gun goes flying and Janet snags it and holds it on Rivers long enough for Huey and Dewey to rush in and do their thing.

Jesus. I start for the ladder, swearing all the way, knowing I can't jump down with my fucked-up leg. Ben's got Lopez pinned and Dewey's trying to cuff him and read the Miranda at the same time. By the time I hit the bottom rung, Huey's got Rivers cuffed already and on his way out to the car. I hear him saying, "If you cannot afford a lawyer --"

Rivers bursts out with some real inventive cursing and Huey rolls right over it. Then they're outside and Dewey's got Lopez upright and he's following along behind. Jesus, that was fast.

Ben starts brushing the straw off his pants, which reminds me what a damnfool thing he just did, and it seems like a perfect chance to remind him, so I do. "What the hell did you think you were doing?" I say, marching right up to him.

He looks me right in the eye and says "A flying tackle;" all reasonable, just like it was part of the plan. Dammit.

"We are going to discuss this later," I say, because Janet and Torrance are standing right there, and I don't want an audience.

Ben raises an eyebrow and seems about to say something, but I try The Look on him, and amazingly enough it works. I'll have to thank Mom for the genes.

Huey comes back in for the bag of money, which is now evidence instead of a nest-egg. Looks like a relatively happy ending for everybody except the bad guys. And Torrance, who's still got the weapons charge and the bail-jumping thing hanging over him, but maybe OC in Denver can help him out with that, seeing how he was so 'helpful'. Not my problem, anyway.

"Ray," Ben says thoughtfully, "perhaps you could call Ms. Kaufman and see if she knows anyone in the Denver State's Attorney's office."

If he could really read my mind, he wouldn't be smiling, so I guess it's just a funky sense of timing. "Yeah, I can do that," I say. I pull out the cell phone and dial.

"Madeline," I say when she answers. "Ray Kowalski. How's it going?"

I'm a little worried she might be pissed about the other night, but she sounds okay. "Ray!" she says. "I'm good, how are you?"

"Great," I say. "Listen, I'm, uh, sorry about running out on you like that --"

"No," she says, "that's -- it's fine. Really. I guess I just --" She sighs. "He seems real nice, Ray."

"He is," I say.

"Good," she says firmly.

"Yeah," I say. "Listen, reason I called was -- you happen to know anybody in Denver?"


"Yeah. We kind of need a favor."

"Oh," she says. "Hang on a second." She puts me on hold for about three bars of "New York, New York" and then she picks up again. "My college roommate works in the DA's office there. You want me to call her?"

"Yeah, wow, that'd be great." I give her the details and she hmms a couple times.

"Okay," she says when I'm done, "I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Madeline," I say. "We really appreciate it."

"No problem," she says. "I'll see you around, right?"

"Count on it,"I say, and we hang up. Ben looks at me like I've cured cancer and the common cold both at the same time, and just like that it's all been worth it.

"Okay, folks," I say to Janet and Torrance, "that was my good deed for the day. Let's go get the kids so you can all get back home." They walk off toward their car, and we get into the Goat. When Ben reaches back for his seatbelt, I see a piece of straw in his hair, and I pull it out.

He turns around and I hold it up. "Don't you ever do that again," I say.

"Jump out of a hayloft?" he says.

"You know what I mean," I say, and he nods. I can see in his eyes he doesn't want to promise anything, because he is the type to jump out of haylofts -- and off roofs, and out of windows -- if he thinks he can catch the bad guys that way. "Remind me never to get on a plane with you," I say, and I'm only half-joking.

"All right," he says, and I lean over and kiss him, hard.

We pull into the driveway and park next to Janet's truck. The garage door is open, the hood of the car is up, and I see Dad and Robbie bending over the engine. Dad looks up when we get out of the car. He still seems to be in one piece, at least.

"Raymond," he says, "this kid's a natural."

"Yeah?" I say, because nobody's ever said my dad had the patience of a saint, and after personal experience with the kid I'm surprised he's not tied up in the corner with duct-tape.

Dad walks over closer. "They were a little rambunctious at first," he says in a low voice, "but your mother decided to separate Robbie and the little girl, and he's been fine." He looks past my shoulder and frowns a little -- if I wasn't watching I would've missed it. "Ben," he says.

"Sir," Ben says stiffly, and Dad makes a face.

"Call me Damian," he grumbles.

Call me shocked.

"Am I doing this right, Mr. K?" Robbie says, and Dad walks over to check. I take the chance and herd us into the house, heading straight for the kitchen, because if I know my mother, that's where she'll be.

Sure enough, Ma's got the two girls wrapped up in aprons and covered with flour. They're each trying to feed Torrance a cookie while Janet's saying something to Mom about "reinforcing stereotypes." Mom looks puzzled by the idea, and Janet points at me and says, "I'm sure you didn't try to force Ray to learn how to cook."

I have to laugh at that. "Force me, hell. She chased me out of the kitchen with a wooden spoon once. I was trying to invent chocolate-chip banana cookies, if I remember right."

Mom laughs too. "What a mess that was. I still don't know how the bananas got on the ceiling." Now Janet looks puzzled, which concerns me not at all.

"Robbie's out in the garage," I say. "You want me to get him for you so you guys can get on the road?"

"Ray," Ben hisses at me.

Janet gives me a squinty look and says, "Yeah, we should try to get a few miles down the road before night falls."

Mom says "Oh," all disappointed.

Janet looks at the girls then and smiles. "Thanks for watching them for me," she says to Mom.

"It was no trouble at all," Mom says. "Let me pack up the cookies at least."

Dad comes in with Robbie then, and there's the bustle of people leaving, and then we're standing on the driveway waving goodbye. As the truck pulls away, I catch Janet looking at Ben again. It still makes me a little antsy, to tell the truth, but I'm trying real hard to cope with it. Fact is, she won't be the last to look at him like that, not by a long shot. But he's not looking back.

He's looking at me. And that kind of says it all, right there.


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