Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction, written purely for fun.

Author's Notes: Beta'd by my dear friend, zeldaohzelda. Thank you, honey!

Ray is shadow boxing around Interrogation Room No. 2. His feints, thrusts, and jabs are particularly graceful and beautiful today. I can hardly hear his feet touching the floor. His ex-wife has just left the room, armed with enough evidence to, essentially, "throw away the key." Solving cases where children are the victims always puts an extra spring into Ray's shadow box of victory. The suspects are now well on their way to being finger-printed and remanded for custody, and while Ray and his ex-wife are at loggerheads about everything else on the face of this planet, on these sorts of cases they are one. The hard and almost feral scowl on her face as Ray relates the evidence and the extent of the criminal activity matches his own. Only seeing them together thusly do I possess an inkling of why these two such disparate souls ever contemplated any sort of union. Their passion is/was perhaps the only thing they have in common.

"Nail their balls to the wall, baby," Ray crows as she gets up to leave.

"I will, Ray," she answers in cool amusement. He raises his hand in search of a high five. She hesitates just a second before returning the gesture with a resounding smack of palm to palm. Nodding at me in approval, she murmurs, "Good work, Constable. Later, Ray."

With that she is gone. A year ago, Ray would have relayed all our evidence, but not without peppering the exchange with endless pleas for a dinner date, a drink after work, a cup of coffee. Which she'd reject out of hand. His despair would escalate with every rejection but he wouldn't give up. Finally she would snap and say something unspeakably cruel. He would deflate, continue in a monotone until the end, watch her click, click, click out of the room in her expensive high heels, and then head for the nearest bar.

Something has changed lately. She doesn't quite trust it, obviously, that hesitancy evidence enough of that, but he has finally, in modern vulgar parlance, moved on. He no longer badgers her for a date every time she walks into a room. Now there is nothing more than a minute sigh when she leaves the room, and then this victory "dance" with his imaginary sparring partner. Sometimes he'll keep it up for fifteen minutes or more, depending on how vicious the crime, how satisfying the "collar." I love watching him. I could do it for hours, Ray's constantly disparaging remarks about his physique, how he's nothing more than a "skinny Polack," notwithstanding.

Sometimes, Ray is just plain unhinged. He is beautiful.

I supposed we all crave what is unfamiliar. What I wouldn't give to have an hour in that lithe, catlike body. He is slender, wiry even, but I envy that. My own considerable bulk—much more suited to surviving in the cold, I grant you; Ray would not last a minute in the dead of a Canadian winter—seems leaden, heavy, clunky next to him.

The "dance" always ends the same. Ray will inch toward me, jabbing to the left or right of my head to assure me that he's not "aiming" at me, and then he will end it with a light punch to my bicep. Just a glancing blow. It's more of a caress, really, and has been increasingly so as the months of our partnership have advanced. Today is no different. He lingers in front of my chair one second too long, his face just a tiny bit too close. Some days I have the wild notion that he is going to kiss me.

But he wouldn't. He doesn't. No. He is not that foolish.

We have been ignoring this for months and there is nothing to suggest, thank god, that we will not continue in the same vein.

The mental intimacy that defines a successful partnership was, with a few spectacular glitches, a given within only a few hours of our first meeting. And while my partnership with the real Ray Vecchio was just as professionally gratifying and inarguably my best friend, in a personal context he doesn't have a patch on this Ray. Or my Ray, as I refer to him in the privacy of my mind.

It is a perfect relationship. We live in each other's pockets, so to speak, but there is no danger of it getting messy. Certainly, there is no danger of getting shot in the back by your best friend as the only way to stop you from committing the worst mistake of your entire life. No. It is safe. Contained. And except for the occasional lapse where the physical threatens—like now—it is, and I think it always will be, the most gratifying relationship of my life.

Ah, there's the glance, the buff of his knuckles against my arm…

Dear. God! He did it. He swiped across my mouth with his and even that brief touch…

I suppress the violent urge to slap his face and scoot my chair away immediately. "I must go," I manage to eke out in between labored breaths.

An equally out of breath Ray shoves me back in my chair. He couldn't look more hurt than if I had slapped him.

"Nope. You're not going anywhere. We're talking this out. Now."

I have at least thirty pounds on Ray, and yet with seemingly no effort he shoves me and my chair into a corner. Slinging himself along the backside of a second chair, he effectively pins me.

"Do you really think this is the appropriate—"

"Can it, buddy," Ray orders. "Yeah, it's fucking perfect, in fact. No distractions. No buttons you got to sew on Thatcher's dress shirts, no silver to polish, no Canadian bullshit to shovel through. I think this is a damn fine place." His face is close enough that I can smell stale coffee on his breath. "We talk about the mating habits of fruit flies and the gestation periods of caribou and seals. Last week I got a lecture on the anecdotal evidence that moose jizz is an affective pallawhatsis for arthritis. Would like to meet the sick little Inuit pervert who made that startling discovery. Every fucking animal in the animal kingdom is getting some but us. Time to talk."

I know this Ray face. This Ray will push and push and push until I literally want to wring his aggressive little neck. With as sarcastic a gesture as I can manage, I bade him to speak first.

"Okay. Okay," he huffs, trying to get his bearings. His hands grip the upper lip of the chair so hard that the white of his bone threatens to poke through his skin. "First things first. Aside from that duet thing we do. Which I know you're good with. The, uh, physical part. It's not the men fucking men thing is it? Because it don't bother me none, and I kind of thought those vibes I was getting from you were that you were jake with it. And like jake with me. With it. I mean the concept. Like you weren't gonna start stuffing my desk drawers with anti-queer propaganda. Don't have a lot of, okay, no experience, in that area but, fuck, sex is sex, and you make me hot."

Half of this is said with his face averted but then he looks me full on, and I know what it costs him to say that. I reach out with what comfort I can give him.

"No, I am not disgusted by your attentions. Our attraction is mutual."

The tension in the room abates considerably. I am, after all, the law enforcement official who lost his virginity to a bank robber. My fatal attraction to physical beauty is well documented. The fact that Ray is male is immaterial. I was a tad confused in the beginning, I will admit, as I have always considered myself heterosexual, but given the intimacy of our professional and social relationship, could physical attraction be anything but a foregone conclusion? I did mention that Ray is beautiful, didn't I?

"You know that," I remind him rather tartly. "Granted, I am somewhat naive, Ray, but I am a fully functioning male and, as you so eloquently pointed out, a veritable expert on the sex lives of mammals. I would have to be dead and buried not to notice that we are physically attracted to each other."

"Yeah," he agrees, although reluctantly. "Okay. Yeah, I thought, you know, so we smelled each other and liked what we smelled. But then I'm thinking that don't mean nothing. I see tons of people lining up to get a whiff of the Benton Fraser pheromone chuck wagon but none coming home with barbeque."

"I am a picky eater," I say rather primly. That gets a bark of laughter and he leans in to kiss me again. I avert my face. "Why now?"

All the goodwill I generated with my wee joke evaporates.

"Why now? Why now?" Ray repeats, and, with that manic energy that so defines him, he leaps out of his chair and begins pacing the room. "Why not now? And don't tell me that you give a flying fuck what people say about you either because you're in fucking exile because you didn't care so much. You're a man without a country because you were going to do what was right by your lights hell or high water. That's one of the parts of you makes me loves you to death, you irritating motherfucker, so don't you dare tell me you care what people think of you. And just so you know. We're on the same page on that. If I gave a flying fuck what people thought of me I wouldn't dress like this and use shit on my hair so that it looks spiky and cool and I'd still be married to Stella."

I open my mouth to deny all of this, but he has temporarily silenced me because all of that is true, but none of it matters. Then I counter with, "Why can't things stay the same?"

"Like this?" He spread his hands in frustration. "This sort of half-thingee-ma-bob-thing where everyone thinks we're fucking because we're that close and we are that fucking close except we're not fucking? Christ, I want to just pop you," he wails and balls his fists. A first-class primer in "Ray" would include entire chapters on the importance of his hands. That he wears his heart on his sleeve is obvious; however, if I want a guide to his soul, I watch his hands.

"Why not now?" he repeats. "I guess it's cards on the table time. 'Cause I want more. I'm done with Stella, over and out. This half-assed shit was good for a while 'cause I was still really hurting over Stel and that wouldn't have been fair to you. I think in some ways it will always hurt, but you know, good to go now. Never thought I'd say that but I'm saying it. You know me, Frase. I don't do half-assed. Full throttle, pedal to the metal Kowalski. That's me. And call me stupid, but I can't for the life of me figure out why you're so goddamn content with jerking off—alone—in the charming privacy of your 'office.'" This is said with as much snide as Ray can muster; which is quite a lot. "And don't tell me you don't 'cause I see the hard-ons, I can fucking smell you. Does that really work for you?"

"It…suffices." I blush. Barely suffices, but I make it suffice.

"Christ on a raft, that's the most pathetic thing I've ever heard. Fuck suffice, Frase. Tell me. You gotta tell me why. I want to live with you, man. Wake up in the morning to find you next to me, want a home with you. Fuck you fast Saturday night. You fuck me slow Sunday morning. Spend our weekends together, argue about the dishes and whose turn is it to do the laundry, and let me tell you it's always gonna be your turn. You know, have a life together. We're good; we're so good. Don't you know good when you see it?" He has returned to his chair and has my hands in his, kissing my knuckles with these tiny delicious pecks.

"I…" How am I going to say this gracefully? Those kisses are extremely distracting. I move to pull my hands away but he compromises and continues to grip my hands, but brings them away from his mouth. "I think you and I are very bad at love. Neither of our relationships has been a rousing success. You're right. We are good. It's so good I don't want to spoil it. My way… It's safe."

Even though I truly believe this, it does sound hollow and facile when actually voiced into the open air. No matter. I imagine things will be uncomfortable for a week or two, and then we will return to the status quo. Ray will just have to "get with the program." As he is so fond of telling me about a hundred times a day.

Ray drops my hands in shock and stands up. I can tell by the minute clenching of his fists that he is on the verge of laying into me.

"You are so fucked up," he whispered.

"Do not swear at me," I snap, because now I am angry. Which is a dangerous thing, because Ray has adopted a posture I know all too well. His body language is primed for violence. The fists. That imperceptible shudder of his shoulder blades and hips. We have fought before and both of us are fierce fighters. I have more heft, but Ray is faster. If fists start flying, we will both be seeking bone and blood.

"You think I'm gonna start robbing banks and asking the Vecchios to put their house up for bail money?"

Now I have to control myself, because I am dying to silence that mouth, to end this. Why can't he understand that this is easy? That what we have doesn't entail hurt and humiliation?

"Never figured you for a fucking coward, Fraser. Learn something every day. Can't believe you're the guy who will leap off a four-story building without giving it a single goddamn thought. Look, you know what? It was that Victoria chick and Stella who were lousy at love. You and me? We are great at love." He thumps himself in the shoulder with a closed fist. "Yeah, I was a whackjob with Stella and did kind of stalk her, but you ask her. Ask away. Ask her if she didn't feel loved. I was great at loving her. Maybe I loved too much. And maybe we got problems because we love too much, but it seems to me that the people who really got shortchanged here were Stella and that bank-robbing bitch."

Now it is my turn to grip the top of the chair, because if I don't I will beat him to a bloody pulp. How dare he?

"All right, Ray, I give you that. You were such a success at love that for years you single-handedly supported no fewer than twenty florists in the greater Chicago area in your sad attempts to win your wife back." What a perfectly vile thing to say. "I'm sorry," I apologize. "Maybe I'm the one who is a failure at love. Satisfied? After all, Ray, my track record couldn't be more abysmal. I was willing to sacrifice everything I had worked for, everything that was of value to me for the sake of one woman. A woman I knew a total of three days."

Ray is silent for a few moments and then says in a deep voice. "Don't give me that three-day shit. I knew within three days of meeting Stella that I loved her. That just proves to me that you're great at love and fuck her, Benton. Fuck her and fuck Stella."

All of a sudden his posture crumples and the aggressive swagger vanishes. But his eyes remain fierce and dangerous.

"Okay, Fraser. We'll play it your way. We'll be safe. So safe you won't know what hit you. No lunches, no pizza, no Chinese on Friday nights while watching the game. Finito. Doneski. Safe. S. A. F. E.," he spells out. "We'll still lee-a-son," he makes it sound like some variant of the bubonic plague, "and work on cases and have one of the highest solve rates in Chicago. And we won't love each other. You'll see. You'll see how good we were at love. Fucking gods at it. The love train has run out of gas as of this second. Mark my words. You think you're stubborn? You ain't met American stubborn until you've met me. Be afraid, Fraser. Be very afraid."

As is her wont to interrupt at the most importune times, I swear that woman has a divining rod for awkward, Francesca pokes her head in. "You guys done in here?"

"You better believe it," Ray mutters.

Ray is true to his word. While I thought the first week was bearable, the second week grim, the third week, well, the only word for it is bleak. He is polite, professional, and says nothing to me that doesn't pertain to a case. I talk endlessly about our workload in an effort to engage him, but he remains aloof. At one point, he snaps at me, "This is Ray unplugged. This is the unlovable Ray. Get used to it."

The physical loss of him is terribly hard to bear. I didn't realize how much we touch each other. It used to be nearly constant and most of it astonishingly innocent. As the child of grandparents whose love was mainly manifested in hot nourishing meals and treatises on the best way to skin a rabbit—not heartfelt embraces—I had always been a person with whom a firm handshake was as affectionate as it got. Ray changed all that. He is the sort of person who pushes into your space, and it's your job to tell him to step back. I realize I never told Ray to step back. Ever. He used to lay a hand on me and I would lean into that hand, ostensibly to hear what he was saying, but in reality to grab a bit of his warmth. To steal just a bit of that irrepressible joie de vivre, both the physical and mental. Of all people, Ray somehow touches the nascent child in me who longs to be touched and hugged. Who, while appreciating the finer points of how to sharpen a hunting knife, really would have benefited from and appreciated much more the random embrace just for the sheer hell of it.

Now when I get within two feet of him he backs off, both hands up in warning. Inexplicably this has resulted in my being cold. Physically. All the time. An extra Henley, a Canadian's best friend, does nothing to assuage the chill. It's like Ray was some sort of fire by which I warmed myself, and now the fire's gone out with no way to revive it. I find myself moving toward him unconsciously in an attempt to get warm, even knowing that the hearth is stone cold.

The denizens of the 2-7 don't quite know what to make of it all. You'd think since the unplugged Ray is a lot less volatile (in fact, in contrast he is almost catatonic), everyone would be happy, but it doesn't work that way. Halfway into week two, Lieutenant Welsh drags the two of us into the office and demands to know what is going on and whatever it is to stop it.

Ray looks him flat in the eye and says, "This is the unplugged me. Thank Fraser."

Naturally, the lieutenant doesn't know how to respond to such a bizarre statement, and turns to me in question. I cough, while valiantly struggling to manufacture some sort of appropriate answer.

"Is our solve rate the same?" Ray barks. The Lieutenant nods. Ray says, "Yeah, well. Fiddledeedee then." At that, he get ups and exits the room, leaving the lieutenant and me with our mouths hanging open.

Francesca seems to have come to the conclusion that this situation is of my making. She has stopped in her endless attempts to seduce me and is sometimes actually snippy with me. A fresh coffee of cup appears mysteriously on Ray's desk several times during the day, and I suspect it is due to her ministrations. She is not exactly nice to Ray, but she never walks by his desk without laying a brief hand on his shoulder. Ray doesn't so much as raise his head, but I know he appreciates it because he doesn't say anything to her about damaging the merchandise.

Add to this horrible state of affairs is the fact that Diefenbaker has stopped talking to me. He, too, believes that this is all my fault. My attempts to explain the detente between Ray and myself truly have fallen on deaf ears, and he is slowly switching his allegiances to Ray. Indeed, Dief is the only "person" to whom Ray is still "plugged." A donut is always waiting for him at the precinct, and the banter continues between them unabated. The day when he will refuse to come home with me is, I fear, not far off.

We continue like this for several weeks. Late fall stretches into early winter. Christmas is just around the corner. Francesca browbeats everyone into donating for the office Christmas tree. As usual, Ray donates twice as much as everyone else. Not usual is that he helps Francesca put up the Christmas decorations with nary a whimper. It truly doesn't seem like Christmas without Ray complaining mightily about the tackiness of the ornaments that Francesca favors and how tinsel gives him hives and Christmas lights migraines. He decorates that tree without a word. It leaves all of us a little unhinged.

One early Saturday evening I find myself standing in front of a Catholic church with particularly stunning stained glass windows. I can hear the muffled sounds of a choir trying to keep pace with a truly execrable organist. I have become something of an expert on the architecture of Chicago, as I spend my free time (which is now sizeable) walking the length and breadth of the city. Dief will not accompany me on these long walks. I am alone. I slip in through the door and find a seat at the back.

The vestiges of my stern Presbyterian youth is always shocked at how lush the Catholics are in their homage to God, especially now that Christmas is near. The church is decorated for the holiday; large pots of poinsettias grace the altar and brightly-colored silk banners span the nave, trumpeting the birth of the Savior. I stay far past the conclusion of mass, relishing the beauty of the stained glass aglow from the shine of a hundred lit candles.

I have to admit Ray was right. I am grief-stricken at the absence of all those things that I have come to realize signified how much we love each other. We do do love well. Small things. Sweetening Ray's coffee with candy, even though I disapprove heartily of both, being neither a sensible beverage nor an acceptable source of energy. Ray installing TIVO because it's apparently the only venue for accessing curling competitions, and if that isn't a commentary on the sad state of American sports I don't know what is. And Ray hates curling. Bowling with teacups he calls it. But he'll watch it with me, and I will pour him a cup of coffee heavily laced with Smarties during half-time. And… Oh. Dear God. I ache from the loss of all this.

But. But. What is the alternative? I concede one point. The other? No. I cannot vouch for Ray, but my last and near fatal foray into love has shown me how utterly horrible I am at it. I would not be good for Ray. My love did not save Victoria from her own sociopathic tendencies, while only encouraging me to abandon the dictates of friendship, duty, and honor.

An elderly worshipper, one of those old women with a black scarf permanently tied tight under her chin, begins to blow out the candles. In between puffs she casts me menacing glares, silently ordering me to leave. Finally, capitulating to her hostile stares, not very Christian of her I must say, I step out back into the cold December air. The bullet in my back begins to ache. How appropriate.

The nadir is reached Christmas Eve.

I had been invited by the lieutenant to the 2-7 for a glass of celebratory champagne. I debated for hours whether or not to go, but ultimately felt it was my duty. When we arrive, no sooner do I open the door to the precinct than Dief hightails it down the corridor to the bullpen. When I enter the room, Ray is lounging against his desk. Alone. Dief skids across the floor in a frantic attempt to greet him. Ray must know I am there, but he doesn't look up as he ruffles Dief's ears. He has abandoned his trademark jeans and tee-shirt for an outfit that must be a holdover from his marriage. It has Stella Kowalski's manicured fingerprints all over it. The black turtleneck and gray flannel trousers suit him to a tee; he is stunning, but he is not my Ray.

All of a sudden I cannot stand this. Ray was, once again, right. Canadian stubborn has nothing over American stubborn. I will scream, break ornaments, and upend file cabinets if I stay in this room one more second. I call to Dief. He ignores me. I call again. He sits back on his haunches and gives me a cool, silent look, daring me to call his name again.

I flee out the door.

My father is standing at attention in front of my desk when I return to the Consulate. He has forsaken the privacy and safety of his closet cum wilderness, and he is wearing his uniform. Even as a ghost he still wears it with a noble grace that was in no small part a primary reason I wanted to be a Mountie. As a small child, I half believed he was an angel because only someone blessed by God could wear a uniform with that much love. At the time, the fact that he was devoting all of his time and energy to serge and a lanyard when by all rights some of it should have found its way to me was lost on me.

Now? Ignorance is bliss comes to mind.

The combination of unplugged Ray, Dief's rejection, the sum hell of the past few weeks, and my rage was almost impossible to contain. There are some things that cannot be borne and this is one of them. This man, a more perfect metaphor for abandonment couldn't possibly exist, had no right to be here. I don't want a single lecture, no laundry lists of my failures, no comparisons between me and him. I have had, for once, enough. I hold up a hand and shout that, shout "Enough," with so much force that I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd heard me in Toronto, but to no avail.

"Here in official capacity this time, Son." He grabs my hand.

I can tell immediately from the smell that I am back in Canada. The heavy overtone of car exhaust is gone, as is the sharp smell of cement. People tell me that you can't smell cement, but I can, and its brittle odor never leaves me. This air is so sweet. I inhale deeply and shiver in delight. Pine. Smoke. Snow. Oiled leather. Tea? Ah yes, there's a teapot on the corner of the desk.

I am sitting at a desk in full uniform. An older me. My hair and eyebrows are nearly white, and while the flat of my hand is still broad, the grip on my fountain pen sure and steady, the skin around my fingers seems to have shrunk. Based on the crowned epaulet sewn expertly on the shoulder of my uniform, I have advanced far beyond my expectations. I am an inspector. Oddly enough, this shocks me more than pleases me. I cannot fathom what I must have done to achieve such an exalted rank. My office befits my station: the desk is quite large, engulfing the computer lodged on one end, there are numerous chairs for visitors, and a lively fire fills the grate. Heavy, ornate drapes frame large windows. There is the distinct absence of file cabinets and, to my relief, no cot. No, this is the office of someone important. But for the epaulet, I would have naturally assumed this belonged to my superior officer. A dog, not Dief, is dozing by the fire. My dog?

I turn to my father, mute, my eyebrows hitting my hairline in shock.

"Yes, that's you. Your future you." my father confirms. Despite being a ghost, his hand rests very heavily on my shoulder. Although logically, if you think about it, I suppose I am now a sort of ghost as well. We stand there for several minutes, watching this older me fly through what seems like an enormous amount of paperwork with a click of the mouse here, a signature to a form there, that certainly would have made me proud had it been me. Or I am proud of me. As it were.

"I'm back in Canada? As an inspector? I must be near retirement," I add idly.

"No, Son. You're not that old. Fifty, I think. They," he makes a fluttering gesture with his hand, "were kind of vague about the timeline considering it was an emergency situation, but I'm pretty sure they said fifty."

I stare at him. Then I stare at the older me. I do not look fifty. I look sixty if a day. There is an exhausted purse to my lips, and my frown line has a settled, permanent crease to it.

"I… I look older," I finish lamely. "How did I rise so far? That is most unexpected."

"Shocked me as well. Do not give me that mulish look, young man. After you returned to Canada, your career took off, which up until that point I have to admit wasn't exactly anything to write home about. Your mother was willing to cut you some slack. That Victoria nonsense and all that. I wasn't so sure, but I must say, you silenced all the critics. You married your job. This time in a way that was almost psychotic. And for you that's saying something. Due for yet another promotion, I hear."

I stare at him again.

"Word gets around," he shrugs.

Always stinting with his praise, why didn't these near compliments bring the anticipated flush of pleasure? Perhaps because his inflection on the phrase "married your job" was so marked that it was fairly drowning under the scorn.

"You aren't proud of me?" I ask quietly. I'd repeatedly fallen short in his eyes. Not even being made an inspector seemed to have made a difference. What did one more failure matter?

"I'll let your older self do all the talking."

My older self picked up the phone. "Constable Higgins, I asked for those files two hours ago."

A mere ten seconds later, a young man entered the room, his arms filled with manila folders.

"Sir?" the clearly overwhelmed constable intoned. His uniform was wrinkled, one cheek marked with soot.

"My inbox, Constable. Like every single time I ask you. I shall be done with them in two hours. Come fetch them then. If you can find your way here. Based on the length of time it took you to retrieve these files, I feared you had gotten lost between the file room and my office. I nearly sent out a search party. Next time, use a map."

Since I was currently just a wisp of corporeal past and apparently limited to only observation and little else, I could do nothing. But in another circumstance, I would have privately pulled this young man aside and suggest that he apply for a transfer immediately before his career was irretrievably ruined. Based on this minute exchange, I could only imagine his personnel file would be thick with detailed lists of his shortcomings. I know all too well the "always a constable, never a corporal" scenario. Or at least I used to know it. Intimately.

The future me hadn't bothered to look up during this dressing down, just kept relentlessly scrolling through files on the computer. Inspector Thatcher's pointed slights at me were child's play compared to the nonchalant rudeness of the man behind the desk. I hadn't bothered to even acknowledge this person's presence with a simple thank you. My fixation on the computer screen kept me from seeing the grimace on the other man's face as he piled the files into the empty inbox. This man hated me, the older me. A request for a transfer was, no doubt, filled out and just waiting to be sent.

"Sir?" he coughed.

Finally, I looked up.

"Yes." There is no question on the end of that "yes."

"It's Christmas. Constable Arens and I were wondering. Do you think we could… We'd like Christmas dinner with our families, and my father's made a special trip from Ottawa to see the children…"

The request died on his lips.

"This may surprise you, Constable, but I make it a practice to look at the calendar every day. I am perfectly aware of what day it is. You wish to finish early?"

"Yes. Sir."

I went back to my screen. "You will take it as vacation time. And take that uniform to the cleaners. You appear in it again without a proper press and I'll make a note of it in your file."

With another "Sir," he was out the door, the compliance and hatred implicit in that simple word. I didn't like this man either. I was always somewhat hidebound and a tad too fanatical regarding duty, but I was never rude, nor cruel, nor did I ever wield what little power I had just for the sake of wielding it. I knew the man with the ramrod posture commanding this desk and yet I didn't. Based on this small exchange, I did know that it would take me little to despise him.

The next two hours were a repeat of the first. A relentless and methodical back and forth between paper and computer screen. Each time a folder was finished to my satisfaction, the papers were methodically aligned so that all sheets were nestled neatly in the middle of the folder, and then the folders were piled in my outbox for eventual retrieval by the unfortunate Constables Arens and Higgins. There was no phone call yelling at me to fuck the paperwork and get my ass to the dinner table. No one asking where in the hell was I, time was a wasting. Christmas only came once a year and if I didn't get a move on my dinner would be fed to the wolf. Pitter patter, let's get at 'er. I didn't merit one phone call.

"I do not look happy," I comment and hug myself, because, unfortunately, the ghosts of a previous world do not benefit from the fires of their future; I was cold. A near-permanent state these days.

"No, Son. I would say you are fairly miserable. Successful, but miserable."

Given my previous predilections, it seemed prudent to ask. "Do I live here?"

"No, although you might as well. You have a computer hook-up to your apartment. Your usual pattern is to leave here around seven and then do three more hours of paperwork. If previous Christmases are any indication, it will be business as usual."

"Maggie?" I whisper out the name of my sister.

"Given up on you. You're dug in pretty deep, my boy. Pretty deep."

Finally, the pen was put away and a jacket removed from the closet.

"Chi," the older me orders the dog awake.

The dog is old, stiff with arthritis, and she struggles to her feet. There is no answering wag of the tail, indeed, the tail is tucked firmly between the legs, and even more horribly there is no hand reaching down to fondle an ear. The dog looks warily at the toe of my older self's boot. Afraid.

Dear God, not only am I sort of superior that I abhor, I have become the sort of man who kicks dogs. This, more than anything I have seen, sickens me. It is all sickening, but this is unbearable.

"Ray," I mumble, because his fate must be better than this. It has to be. "Let me see Ray." I will see him and it will be all right. Ray will have found someone; another intelligent, sexy blond, but this one will appreciate him for the person he is. He will not be the American counterpart of that twisted, bitter man who resents the families of his co-workers and kicks his dog when no one is looking.

For the first time in my memory, my father looks uncertain.

"No, Benton. That's not wise."

"No, you listen," my ghost hands grab him by the shoulders, and there must be some sort of corporeal unbalance because while I can feel his hands on me, my hands grasp nothing. "I must see Ray. You've denied me God knows everything else in my life, do not deny me this," I demand.

"More tears are shed by answered prayers," he warns and reaches for my hand.

I am in Ray's kitchen, with no sign of my father. That it is the same kitchen only ten years grimier does not bode well. There is the usual stack of old pizza boxes; take-out containers are spilling over the top of the garbage can; and something new: a mountain of empty liquor bottles. Ray stumbles in from the living room, a half-filled bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, a black magic marker in the other.

"God fuck you merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, for fuck all, fuck all, fuckfuckfuck all happened on this day, to save us all from fucking nothing…" He stops in front of a calendar, crosses off a big X on the box labeled the twenty-fifth, and drops the marker on the floor. The floor is dotted with black marks, and I gather between the marks on the floor and the empty bottles of liquor that this is a nightly ritual.

If my future self is a cruel mockery of my present self, Ray's future self is true tragedy. The physical hallmarks of severe alcoholism are impossible to ignore; the bloated girth, the puffy face, the cheeks mottled and red from broken capillaries. There is nothing of his natural grace and beauty left. He staggers toward the table. I reach out to grab him, to stop him from falling, but he is practiced at this and reaches the table without crashing to the floor. As my hand passes through him he shivers. No sooner does he sit down than his mother phones and leaves a lengthy message, wishing him a Merry Christmas. Throughout her entire message he screams at the phone, "Shut the fuck up." Eventually his downstairs neighbor begins pounding on the ceiling with a broom for Ray to keep it down, and the three of them go on like this for several minutes. I have entered bedlam.

Finally, his mother hangs up (I suspect the tape ran out), Ray stops yelling, and the neighbor stops pounding the ceiling. He swigs the liquor directly from the bottle, and if anything smacks of complete and total alcoholism it is this perfect disregard for the nicety of a glass. When he is done, he removes his holster. I am shocked to see that he's still wearing his gun. Then I see the box of bullets on the table. He mumbles something that sounds like "show time." Even in his extreme inebriation he loads one bullet into his revolver without a fumble. Then he spins the chamber. Dear God. No. No. Brings it up to his head. No. No. NO!

I grab for him.

The noise is deafening.

My hand connects with a door jamb. I am back at the precinct and that pop was not the roar of a gun, but the report of a champagne bottle. People are laughing and squealing, and good naturedly jostling each other out of the way to fill their glasses as the gushing champagne douses everyone within reach. Ray is playing with his eggnog, seeing just how far he can tip the glass back and forth before it spills over the rim; the activity of someone counting the seconds before he can leave without creating too much hoopla. The frivolity around him touches him not. He is where I left him, alone, backed up against his desk, a non-stop grimace marring his fine features. But miracles of miracles, it's not too late. It's still Christmas Eve, our time. He's still young and slim and I hope to God he's still mine.

Ray does not see me, but Dief does and his black snout pushes up against Ray's hand, spilling Ray's eggnog.

"Hey, Wolf. Watch it," he grouses and then spies me clutching the doorframe.

I open my mouth, but I can't say anything, nor can I move, apparently. He's across the bullpen in a flash.

"Hey, hey, you okay?"

I am about as not "okay" as they come. I hug him tight and can only shake my head, mouthing "Sorry," into his hair.

"Okay, buddy, okay. We're out of here. Get you to my place and you tell me all about it." He pulls away from me just enough to sling a supportive arm around me and then steers me out of the bullpen into the hallway. We are nearly at the front door when he stops and looks at me. "Fraser, are we on the same page here?"

I nod gratefully and put my head on his shoulder. "Yes, Ray."

There are things that need to be said. Several things actually, but most of them can wait until morning. Two things cannot, however; I must be honest with Ray before we go any further. One is more of a warning, something that I feel is only fair, and the other is a confession. I would love to appropriate the glory that will be us on my shoulders, but if not for my father's meddling, I do not know that I wouldn't have pushed my point to the next logical step: to request a transfer, and then a plane ticket home, and then a series of posts where I intimidated and terrified those around me, until I reached that final denouement in that truly horrifying office where I was hated by everyone around me, even my dog. That snippet into our potential futures was so real, the man I could so easily become; nothing more than a plane ticket to Ottawa away. And Ray's alcoholism? Yes, a hard but necessary truth we both must face. Regardless, our fate together cannot be worse than our future apart. If Ray can face saddling himself with a potential abuser of animals, I can face the potential of his drinking to excess. I move my leg so that our knees touch while we drive to the apartment in silence. The warmth of his leg is bliss; I sigh happily as he pushes back.

I wish I could say that I had had the courage to bring up these two burning issues on the drive home, but apparently my cowardice knows no bounds. Ray is fitting the key into his lock when I still his hand.

"Ray, stop. You have to know before, we, ah, proceed. My experience, my, ah, sexual experience has been limited. Extremely limited. As in one person. As in Victoria, so you will have to forgive me. Not only do I lack depth of sexual experience, but my, ah, never have I with, you must understand, a male, of male gender. I cannot but feel that you will be disappointed, but I—"

Ray is grinning at me.

"Frase, will you chill? When we drafted you for that baseball game against the 1-9 last spring, the one where you'd never picked up a bat in your life, you were up at bat, what, four times?"

"Yes, I believe so."

"You doubled your first time up and homered the last three times. And the game of golf at that really boring forensics conference in Arizona last November? The conference where I nearly stuck a fork into my head and yelled, "Forensic this, you boring assholes!" Having never picked up a golf club either, I might add, deja weird, what was your score? Seventy-three?"

"Seventy-two. I wasn't pleased with my overall performance, but there was quite a wind, if you recall."

"Yeah, I recall." he rolls his eyes. "We won't even talk about my score. And I took lessons for an entire year. Stel had visions of me making nice with judges on the greens. Har de har har. Kind of backfired when I asked them what Clash concerts they'd been to. So believe me, I'm not worried. Anything physical and you're all over it. If they were to hold the sex Olympics tomorrow and you were Canada's contender, I'd have no doubt you'd walk away with nothing less than a silver." He claps me on the back. "Okay? It's not why we're here anyways."

Ray is possibly the most physical person I have ever met. The hand on one's shoulder, the high fives, the constant feel of him, his intrinsic warmth, his easy sexuality, that hum he gives off, the smell of his arousal, earthy and pungent. If Ray is not a highly sexed individual, I am a Latvian bricklayer. I give him a look.

He holds up his hands in surrender. "Busted. Yeah, I'm a horn dog. Admit it. But I ain't worried. We got the duet thing always happening in the background. Remember? We'll be good together, and if we're not, we'll figure it out. Don't have a ton of experience in that area either, like none, but hand jobs I figure we both got that down, and how hard can a blow job be? Typical. You already got a leg up on that one, Mr. Oral Fixation My Mouth Is Always Good to Go."

My continued trepidation must have shown on my face.

"So kiss me. Right here. Right now," he demands.

Oh. Oh. Ray plugged back-in!

All of a sudden it is a million degrees in his hallway and my mouth is on fire and I lurch forward because Ray really does have the most beautiful bottom lip that deserves to be licked and tasted and nibbled on and how could I forget about sucking it and the memory of his thigh tucked against mine and what about that top lip of his because it is equally lovely and so sweet and I love him so much that…

"Whoa, Nellie," and Ray is holding me back slightly, panting hard. "A ten. From the Russian judge," he laughs weakly and smiles. Is there anyone with a smile more adorable than Ray Kowalski's? I think not. I lean forward to kiss him again, only to be stopped by a firm palm on my shoulder. "We got to get this inside. Being busted on Christmas Eve for public indecency sucks a million different kinds of ass. Trust me on this one. Been there, done that. Officer, please don't write that ticket." He turns around to open his door. I still his hand.

"Ray, one more thing…"

He huffs in extreme exasperation and rolls his hands for me to get on with the show.

"As much as this pains me, I must confess that I didn't come to this, this epiphany about us on my lonesome." There it was out.

"Fraser, if I haven't said it before, read me loud and clear. You are a fucking freak. I don't care how we got here—"

'No, no, you don't understand," I insist. "I nearly ruined this." I run a shaking hand along his jawbone. "Us. I just couldn't see it and I want to say how sorry I am. How much you mean to me. And how stupid, stupid I was. You were right, absolutely right, and if it weren't for… Sorry, I'm so sorry. But it wasn't me, it wasn't me and I can't take credit…" I whisper and hope he understands and leaves it at that because how can I possibly explain what happened tonight and not sound like a total lunatic.

He takes my face in his hands and then demands, "Look at me. I don't give a flying fuck how we got here—"

"You are too generous…" I drag my mouth across the breadth of his palm.

"No, I'm not. I'm a selfish bastard who's gonna use every trick in the book to get you into my bed. So figure you're talking Fraser voodoo. More than the usual level."

I nod.

"Fucking-a, Frase. You know, you Canadians could take a page from the Americans on this one. We keep this shit contained at places like Roswell. We don't spread it around like air freshener the way you guys do."

I cannot let that generalized slur pass however much it tars me with the lunatic brush. "I doubt that Canadians at large—"

"Yeah, yeah, got it. Yet another episode of Twilight Zone You Got Nothing On Benton Fraser. Gotta confess, Frase, I got enough of your weird voodoo in my life, I don't want any more. You've already got me talking to deaf wolves." At that, Dief makes a satisfied whuff. "Yeah, I'm talking about you, furball. Christ," and he runs an agitated hand through his hair. "We got into a twenty-minute debate yesterday on whose donuts were better: Mr. Kim's or Krispy Kremes. Forgetting the numero uno fact that I'm talking to a wolf on a steady and constant basis and he's talking back to me on a steady and constant basis, the topics are really weird."

"Yes," I agree. "I've noticed that most of my conversations with Diefenbaker do border on the surreal. And food centric. Although that's hardly a surprise given his gargantuan appetite. I assume he was towing the corporate line." I give him a rather disapproving glare.

"Oh yeah, you got it. Krispy Kremes all the way. When the revolution comes, dog, you're gonna be canine toast. Shit, here we go again." Ray closes his eyes briefly. "Weirdness. Twenty. Four. Seven. Something tells me that it really doesn't matter to the guys in the white coats if you think the wolf talks back or you only pretend the wolf talks back. End result's the same. Fail the yearly psych exam. Hola, whackjob."

"The limited nature of those tests—"

"Fraser, quit it. I'm good with this. I don't care if you called in the pope or your dad—"

At that I start.

Ray cocks his head and looks down at Dief.

"Called in the big guns, did you?"

Dief gives me a look of pure scorn, as if to say, "Well, look what you gave me to work with."

"So got that little dad voodoo thing going?" Ray asks, as cool as you please.

"You know about my father?" I am shocked, hoping that that little secret was, well, still secret.

Ray cuffs me gently on the side of the head. "Fraser, do we need another lesson on what Ray does for a living? Detective. Remember? You spend a lot of time locking yourself in closets. Probably only a couple left in the entire frigging city that you haven't tried—"

"Now, really, Ray. That's a gross exaggeration—"

"Okay, maybe there are ten you haven't checked out. Ten max. Whenever you barricade yourself in, I hear plenty of one-sided conversations where you're yelling at someone called 'dad.' Like I need to be a brain surgeon to figure this out? If you talk to Dief, talking to your old man is weird but not that weird. Still in the minors of the weird ballpark. The wolf thing? That's major league weird. It is too, and if you drool on my dress boots I'm telling Santa you were a bad wolf this year, so zip it. And since we're on the subject of weird, just so you know. The Canadian wilderness in your office closet thing? We are never, ever going there, because I already told you that my TIVO subscription will not cover any more of your voodoo. So let's get this straight: your father finally steps up to the plate and does you a big favor—and I really don't want to know how he does this favor—rights some wrongs in the process, and bingo we're doing good. We're…" and here all his bravado fails; his voice begins to waver. He tightens his hand around my jaw. "Here… Now, we got greatness. Let's just go with that, okay? Please, Frase? Just go with this."

It was both a plea and an offer. I'd be a fool to turn down either.

I nod yes.

"See this here, Fraser?" In a 180-degree turnaround, Ray holds up his key with his usual flourish and style, grinning from ear to ear. "For the third and final time, I am putting this key in the lock. You try to stop me, I will, I swear to God, kick you in the head. Time to go for the gold, Frase."

Ray gets off an O Canada before I shove him against the wall and silence him with a kiss.

Ray's low baritone wakes me up. He is singing Christmas carols and shadow boxing around the bed. The rhythmic tap of his stocking-clad feet beat a soft tattoo against the hardwood floor as he circles the room. His tatty wool robe is tied loosely around his hips, but I can still make out the lithe and tight balance of his body as he moves, punching the air in sharp, quick jibes. The dull quality of the light tells me it's still early, not much more than seven.

"Deck the jails with the asses of criminals. Fa la la la punch, la, la, la punch.

Tis the season to slap the cuffs on. Fa la la la punch, la, la, la punch.

Follow me to get printed and booked. Fa la la punch, la la punch.

Your lying thieving goose is cooked. Fa la la la punch, la, la, la, punch."

"An interesting rendition of an old classic. It's cold. Come back to bed, Ray."

"Frase," he says in his tortured, pre-coffee voice; however, there is a smile on his face. "Didn't mean to wake you. Waiting on the wolf. Was determined…"

A sharp, and to my ears, rather disappointed bark comes from the direction of the open window. Ray lets down the fire escape, and I hear the scramble of Dief's paws as they fight for purchase on the icy steel. He leaps in through the window and moseys forward in a dejected amble.

"I told you so. Put that pout back where it belongs, buster," Ray warns.

That gets something between a growl and a grumble.

"Idiot wolf thought he heard Mr. Kim rolling up his storefront. Which I told him wasn't happening on Christmas day. Which the stupid fur ball ignored. Which means maybe next time he should listen to me and not that bottomless pit pretending to be a wolf stomach…"

That gets a definite growl as Dief makes his way out the room.

"Jeez, he's so grumpy first thing in the morning. How do you stand it?"

"I get an inordinate amount of practice," I deadpan.

"I mean, I could understand if it was coffee… Good thing I stocked up yesterday." Ray yells, "Under the tree in the white bag, you pig in wolf's clothing."

A distinctive thud follows, exactly the sort of noise you'd hear if a rampaging wolf had knocked over a Christmas tree in search of a bag filled with day-old donuts.

"The tree?"

Ray stuck his head around the corner of the jamb. "A goner," he confirms. Even though it's still quite dark, I can see his eyes widen in alarm. "Oops. Guess the extra sugar was a bad idea. Hey, don't give me that look. It's Christmas."

Yes, it's Christmas. And I'm not fifty and bitter and angry and Ray is with me and he was right we have so much capacity for love and dear God what did I do to deserve such happiness?

I pat the bed. "Come. You must be freezing."

"One more round." He circles the room, and when he reaches the bed he throws one last punch. As usual, the caress that had always masqueraded as a punch lands on my bicep. But this time his fist is open. He grasps me, and pulls me forward. Instead of the kiss I am expecting, he rests our foreheads together and mumbles against my mouth, his voice husky, as deep as I've ever heard it, "Merry Christmas, Frase. Love you."

"I love you, too, Ray. Merry Christmas."

Then his mouth finds my ear. "The Americans are planning an upset," he whispers in between licks and sucks. "Don't get too attached to that medal."

O Canada!