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Wild Nest

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Of all the different ways I'd imagined getting myself back to Canada, investigating a crime hadn't made the list. But Welsh called me into his office one morning, and I knew when he flipped the blinds closed that it was something serious. He had a file on the desk in front of him, and he was drumming his fingers on it as though he was trying to work out where to start. Finally he said, “I had a call from Inspector Major last night.” That gave me a hell of a jolt: Inspector Joan Major was Fraser's new boss up at Depot. He'd taken a temporary position there running some training courses for the RCMP.

“What the…” I began, but Welsh held up a quelling hand. “Easy there Kowalski. Constable - Corporal, sorry - Corporal Fraser is okay.” He waved me into the seat opposite him, and I dropped into it, trying to calm down but unable to stop my knees from jittering.

Welsh continued, “The RCMP have a... situation that they need us in on.”

“What kind of a situation, sir?” I asked.

“A high value art theft kind of situation,” Welsh said. “Now, it's not our jurisdiction but there are reasons why the RCMP wants us involved and there are reasons why I want it to be you.” He sighed and rubbed at his mouth. “Listen Kowalski, first, I've got to ask - you and Fraser, you good? I don't mind admitting I was surprised to see you back here by yourself after that adventure of yours.”

I was surprised by the question: I’d always assumed I’d be coming back to Chicago, and hadn’t started to think about staying in Canada until… somewhere in the middle of the Northwest Territories, when I’d realised I was actually happy up there.

“Yeah, we're good,” I said, and it wasn’t even a lie, exactly. Something had gone out of whack, though, somehow. There’d been the quest - Fraser and me, Dief and the dogs, running together like one big wolf pack; it'd been great, greatness, like flying, like dancing. And then a couple months later there’d been a friendly but restrained handshake and cordial shoulder pat at the airport, well, that was enjoyable, thank you kindly, have a good flight Ray; and what had happened in between to change the quest-Fraser, the one I could read easy as breathing, into this one? It was like he’d retreated behind glass or something, where I couldn’t get to him. The really queer part was that I’d thought that something new had maybe been blooming between us, but I guess I must have been imagining it, just wishful thinking. It wasn't like I could ask, even though we did keep in contact, phone calls, and even emails occasionally, now that Fraser had an email address at the Academy. That was confusing as well - he'd taken this temporary role instead of hightailing it back to the far North, as though maybe he wasn't quite ready to let go; although I was probably imagining that too. It was all far too complicated to explain to Welsh, even if I'd wanted to, which, wow, I really didn’t.

Welsh was watching me steadily. He said with unusual gentleness, “Okay, if you say so. You're the obvious choice for this one - the two of you might have been pains in my ass, but you had a great solve rate, and I know you two were friends. I have a feeling the Corporal might be going to need a friend.”

I was really freaking out now. “What the hell's going on?” I said. “You’re killing me here.”

“Sorry, you’re going to have to be patient a minute, because I’ve gotta give you the background to this one, okay?” Welsh said firmly. “So, there's this wildlife sanctuary about an hour north of Regina, takes in injured wolves, abandoned pups, whatever. They got this idea to put on an art exhibition as a fundraising event. Original plan was a small scale exhibition, paintings of wildlife donated by local artists, you know the kind of thing, all for sale, proceeds to the sanctuary. Then a local private art collector, name of Etienne Deacon, offered to loan them a painting he owned - not to be sold, you understand, just as a publicity stunt. It was by, uh…” Welsh flicked the file open and read out, “Conrad Gascoigne, if that means anything to you.” He glanced up, and at my head shake, he added, “He was associated with the Group of Seven which apparently makes him some kind of big deal.” The Group of Seven I had heard of; Fraser had mentioned them occasionally.

Welsh swiveled the file to face me so I could see a photograph of the painting - a wolf in a snowdrift. “I’m told it’s a particularly fine example of his work,” Welsh said. My personal experience of wolves suggested they rarely looked so cheerful unless there was junk food involved, but it was a nice enough picture.

“If he'd been an actual Group of Seven painter, the thing would have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. As it is,” Welsh shrugged, “tens of thousands. This Deacon guy paid for a new security camera to be installed in the exhibition room. Three days ago, the painting was delivered to the sanctuary. Two nights ago the painting was stolen.”

“Huh. They got any suspects?” I asked.

“This is where it gets screwy,” Welsh said. “I know you read through Detective Vecchio's case notes before you joined us. Do you remember a case involving a woman named Victoria Metcalf?”

That one had definitely stuck in my head since it had ended up with a bullet in Fraser's fucking spine. “Yeah, the bank robber slash murderer, right? It sounded real bad.”

“It was not good,” Welsh agreed dryly. “I've got to tell you that Vecchio's case notes, while a fine and creative example of their type, were of necessity… abbreviated, in this instance. I want you to talk to Vecchio. He can give you more of the details. I trust that's not going to be a problem, Kowalski?”

“Why would it be a problem? Oh, because of the Stella thing? Nah, we've talked some.” It was still kinda strange but I had to admit they were good together. They put me in mind of two elegant cats, all sleek and purring at each other. I was more the scrappy terrier type myself. Which hey, we always did fight like cats and dogs, me and Stella, so maybe that made sense.

Welsh nodded. “Alright. Glad to hear it. The reason we're thinking Metcalf is because of these pictures.” Welsh reached out for the file and flipped through to a series of grainy photographs of a woman. “The RCMP in Regina sent out an APB and police in Alaska matched up these photos with the old mugshots of Metcalf.”

I remembered the original pictures of Metcalf from Vecchio’s case files. She'd been a striking looking woman, attractive if that was your thing, and I might have noticed that self possessed, dark and female seemed like Fraser's thing. The new pictures certainly looked like her, although she’d cut her hair. It was maybe the same length as Stella’s now, but kinda sticking out all over because of the curliness.

“Corporal Fraser agreed that it was probably Metcalf.” Welsh paused and sighed. “I have to assume the RCMP don't know the full story about the uh, personal relationship between Fraser and Metcalf, or maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age, but if it had been up to me, I would not have put Fraser on this case.”

Personal relationship, huh. That was not so much in the file. “What, you, uh, you think he won't be able to be objective, or what?”

Welsh leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers over his chest. “Corporal Fraser is an excellent police officer, but I think most of us cops, we get the odd case that gets under our skin. Like Beth Botrelle for you. Eddie Gambalunga for me. This was one of Fraser's. I like the Corporal. Can't say I necessarily understand him, but I like him. Dealing with this - well, let's just say I have concerns for his mental health.”

I felt a bit sick. I studied the photos again wondering what it was about this woman that Fraser had been so hung up on. Then something caught my eye and I frowned. “Where was the security camera? In whatever building the exhibition was in? Because these photos look like they were taken outside.”

Welsh nodded. “Yeah, you got it. Metcalf disabled the new camera. Luckily for us, there was another camera that she obviously didn’t spot - it was in one of the wolf enclosures to keep an eye on a new litter of pups. It was sheer chance it happened to be angled right to catch her.”

I thought about that. “This art collector - Deacon, was it? - he got some kind of link with the sanctuary?”

“No, he seems to have offered out of the kindness of his heart,” Welsh said, and we both snorted. “Yeah, it’s certainly one avenue of investigation.”

He stood up, and I followed suit. “You've got a flight to Regina booked.” Welsh handed over tickets and the file. “Go, get packed, and call Vecchio.”

As I reached for the door handle, Welsh said quietly, “Good luck, Kowalski.” He didn’t add: you’ll need it - but I thought I could hear it anyway.

-------

I called Vecchio from my cell phone on my way out to the car. Stella answered.

“Hey Stella, it’s Ray. Vecchio there?”

There was a pause, then she said, “You want to talk to Ray?”

“Sorry, yeah - I need to talk to him about one of his old cases. I mean…” - ugh, who'd have thought there would be a day when I didn't want to talk to Stella? - “sorry, sorry, uh, how you doing, Stell? You doing okay? Everything going well in sunny Florida?”

“Ray… yes, I'm… I'm good, thank you. Are you okay? You sound… This is something important isn't it? I'll get Ray.”

Thank god for Stella, she always could cut through the crap; it was part of what made her such a great lawyer. I let myself into the GTO while I waited for Vecchio.

He came on the line as I got behind the wheel. “Hey, what can I do for you, Stanley?”

“You can fuck off,” I said automatically, then, “I need you to tell me about Victoria Metcalf. All the stuff that didn't make it into the official report.”

There was a hissing intake of breath. “What the hell do you need to know about her for?”

“Welsh told me to call you. There's a case - she's a suspect in a robbery in Canada, Fraser's being roped in to help hunt her down, and they asked for someone from the CPD as well since she's still wanted for murder here, and they’re hot on this international cooperation thing at the moment.”

“Kowal... Sta... Ray. You cannot let Benny go after her. I’m serious. He is not normal about that woman.”

“Yeah, Welsh isn’t too happy about it, either. But I don’t got any choice on this, Vecchio, Fraser’s already been put on the case.”

“Oh, this is not good. This is really not good. He was crazy about her, and I mean insane crazy, and she nearly broke him. God, I wish I was exaggerating.” This was sounding worse and worse; Vecchio did sound really unhappy. “Okay. So the short version: he tracked her down after that Alaska bank robbery, saved her from freezing to death, decided he was in love with her and then arrested her and turned her in.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“He’s always been tight lipped about what actually happened between them that first time, and I don’t know if it’s just standard Benny not wanting to kiss and tell, or if he actually realises how unprofessional it was…”

“Wait, wait, wait. You’re telling me Fraser fucked a perp?”

“Well I wouldn’t have put it like that,” Vecchio said, “and I don’t know that he did - not then, anyway. He definitely,” he coughed discreetly, “well, you know, when she came to Chicago. But she was one of those people who uses sex as a weapon - and I’ll bet you know what Benny’s like with people with weapons.”

“Jesus,” I said again. “Yeah. Steps out in front of them, unarmed and defenseless, and expects them to just stop if he asks nicely?”

“Exactly. And Metcalf… god. We've seen bad guys, am I right? I've put away some really nasty pieces of work, and I know you have too, but she was something else. The way she manipulated him, the games she played… I think Benny thinks he deserved it all, but I don’t know. Maybe I’m biased because I was caught in the crossfire, but the amount of malicious forethought she must have put into it…” Vecchio sighed, a gusty crackle over the line. “Look, you know how Benny has that trick of bringing out the best in people? I mean - if you tell anyone I said this I will absolutely deny it, but I know I’m a better person for knowing him.”

My throat hurt. “Yeah. Yeah I know,” I said roughly. “Me too.”

“Right. But Metcalf was like, the, the antithesis of that. She brought out the worst in him. I'm not saying Benny couldn't do with being a bit more selfish once in a while, you know, but he hurt his friends, he would have ruined me. Did you know she shot Dief? She'd persuaded Benny to run off with her and just abandon everyone and everything, including Dief who wasn't even out of the vets.”

I must have made some kind of noise of distress, because Vecchio sighed again. “I know. And the worst of it is, he never really got over her. Never even looked at another woman. He still like that now?”

“Uh, I've seen him look at women,” I said.

There was a long pause, and then Vecchio said tentatively, “Actually, I sometimes wondered if maybe women weren't… exactly his thing. You know? Or maybe just… not entirely?”

This was not a thing cops talked about. This was definitely not a thing cops talked about. But I couldn’t forget that Fraser and Vecchio had been real good friends themselves; still were. I didn’t know whether I was more impressed or horrified that Vecchio was trying to have this conversation with me. “Yeah. I think… you're maybe not wrong,” I managed.

And now Vecchio sounded positively strangled. “Um, you two never…? When you went off on that expedition together, we wondered if -“

“We? Who - you and Stella?” I said, outraged.

“Hey, stand down, Stanley. You know Stella wouldn't tell tales out of school. She was worried about you. Think she thought you'd got that Stockholm syndrome thing. I knew Benny would look after you though; I just… wondered. I'd like to see Benny happy, you know?”

I dropped my head onto the steering wheel, banged it a couple of times. “Well it ain't going to be me makes him happy. Not like that,” I muttered into the steering wheel. “Sounds like you already worked out I maybe, uh, bat for both teams, even if Stella didn't tell you, but Fraser doesn't want me like that.” God, what was I doing; whatever I thought of him, Vecchio was a good detective and I knew I was giving away far too much.

“And I'd have serious doubts about his taste if he did,” Vecchio said sincerely. And then, because apparently this conversation could get worse, he added, “Listen, I’ve never known anyone like Benny for getting in his own way. If you’re going back up there, maybe…”

“Oh my god, I cannot be talking about this with you,” I interrupted, desperately. “Metcalf. Anything else I need to know about Metcalf?”

“Okay, okay. No, just - stay on your guard, because Benny won’t be.”

“Right.”

“Look, Ray - keep in touch, alright? Ugh, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if you ever need someone to talk to, well, you should know you can call me, okay?”

After I ended the call, I sat there for a moment wondering when my life had gotten so backwards that I was going to be working in Canada, and Vecchio was maybe going to turn out to be a friend.

-------

The flights to Regina gave me plenty of time to imagine what it was going to be like seeing Fraser again. I could picture Fraser sitting behind a desk and rising to greet me, but I couldn't picture his face. Was that invisible barrier still going to be there? Or maybe he'd step towards me with that wide eyed look and I would step forward too and… Yeah. Probably not.

If Welsh and Vecchio were right, he might be an emotional wreck; furious that I was there to try to apprehend the love of his life.

The love of his life, jeez. I'd decided I didn’t believe in that any more, it was too depressing. Surely if your first shot at it ended up not working out, it wasn’t greedy to want a second go? Although… maybe that did explain some things right there. I knew what Vecchio had meant about Fraser not being selfish enough. I’d always thought his biggest flaw was not trusting other people. Okay, me. He had gotten much better at that, especially a few weeks into the quest, once he’d realised I actually had learned what to do - and before he went distant on me. But maybe thinking you always had to do things for other people meant that you started thinking you were the only person who could do anything.

In the end it wasn't like any of the possibilities I'd played out in my head. Once I arrived at Depot, I was signed in, given a visitor’s lanyard and a key to my room, and then taken straight to Inspector Major's office. She was a tall, angular, blonde woman, older than me, with a no nonsense manner and a pleasant deep voice. “Detective Kowalski, thank you for coming,” she said, shaking my hand briskly. “It's good to meet the man we've heard so much about.”

My eyebrows shot up, and she laughed. “Corporal Fraser has been running seminars on international cooperation in policing, and on wilderness tracking skills in the urban environment, and we've heard a lot about your exploits together.”

It wasn't that I didn't know what Fraser was teaching, I just didn't know he'd have anything to say about me.

Major continued, “His classes have been very popular, so it's a blessing that it's the end of the semester and he's agreed to return to investigative work for this case. I understand Lieutenant Welsh has briefed you, so I'll let Corporal Fraser run through the full details. I'm sure he'll be looking forward to working with you again.”

She led me across a courtyard to a teaching block full of classrooms, lecture theaters and staff offices. Major knocked at the door of one of these, and opened it when Fraser called to come in.

My heart was thumping so hard I felt like I was vibrating. I wasn’t sure I could look at Fraser without getting emotions all over him. But as soon as Major and I entered, Dief flung himself at me, barking, tail wagging so hard his whole rear end swung from side to side. I focused on him for a moment to get myself under control, dropping to one knee to let him french kiss my ears, and to croon nonsense at him: “Dieeeeef, hey buddy, I missed you too, yeah I did, hey there, yeah, there's a boy.”

Finally Fraser coughed and said, “That's quite enough, Diefenbaker.” I looked up at him. He was looking good - so what else was new? - standing at parade rest behind his desk, and frowning at Dief. He was wearing the modern blue uniform, which suited him, although I had a pang of nostalgia for the red serge. He avoided making eye contact with me, and my heart sank a bit.

Major said, “Corporal Fraser, Detective Kowalski is here to work with you on the Deacon case. He's already been briefed by Lieutenant Welsh, but I'm sure you'll want to go over your own thoughts with him.”

Whatever Fraser's response was going to be was interrupted by a knock on the door. Another Mountie put his head into the room and said, “Excuse me, but there's a phone call for you, Inspector.”

Inspector Major thanked him, and followed him out, saying over her shoulder, “I'll leave you two to catch up.”

As soon as Major had closed the door behind her, Fraser looked at me, and for a second showed me that blazing smile that I'd previously only seen directed at vast snow fields. It was hard to look at up close, like staring into the sun. He exclaimed, “Goodness, I'm glad it's you, Ray!” and swung round the desk and flung his arms around me. I clutched him back. This was the hug I hadn’t gotten when we’d said goodbye all those months ago, and I knew right then that the blooming thing hadn’t closed, not completely at least. Neither of us seemed to want to let go, and when Fraser did finally pull away he kept his hands on my arms.

“Didn't you know it was going to be me?” I asked, once I'd managed to remember what he'd said.

“I knew someone from Chicago P.D. would be coming, but there was no real reason it should be you. This wasn't your case originally, and I hardly dared hope…” He broke off and shook his head, smiling at me.

“Welsh wanted me to come - we were partners, Frase,” I said. “I’m glad he sent me.” And then because I couldn’t not say it, I added, “I missed you.”

“I've missed you too,” he said quietly. He let me go then, and turned his back, fussing with some papers on his desk. After a moment, he asked “Where are you staying?”

“You guys are putting me up here. I don't know where though.”

He turned round again, and whatever emotion he’d been trying to hide was gone; he looked as composed as normal. He’d put the barrier back up, but I knew there was something behind it now. “I can take you over there, if you like,” he offered. “The visitors' quarters are in the staff building - my rooms are there too.”

He gestured to Dief and we all headed out across the campus. When we got to the staff building, we found my room with no trouble. The building was quiet. According to Fraser, the staff who lived on site had mostly left for the vacation. While I unpacked some of my things, I finally got my brain back in gear enough to ask what his plans had been before this case derailed things.

He looked uncomfortable. “I hadn’t fully decided, to be honest. You know I’d originally only agreed to teach these extracurricular classes for this semester, but they’ve asked me if I would consider staying on. I’m finding teaching more satisfying than I anticipated, but I do miss the North, as you know.”

I decided I’d unpacked as much as I was going to, so I sat down on the end of the bed and looked at him. “And then this Metcalf case came up,” I said. “Look, I kind of hate to ask, but I need to know a bit more about her.”

Fraser sat in the desk chair opposite me. “You have every right to ask given the circumstances,” he said. He stared down at his hands. “It is something I've thought about over the last few years - trying to make sense of what happened, given what I learned later. I had rather a tendency towards romance - in the dramatic sense, you understand - as a young man.” He glanced up briefly with a self-deprecating grin. “Too much reading, I imagine.”

The humor disappeared from his face. “I had a few… ha, liaisons, at college, but no grand passions. Which clearly was just as well, since the first grand passion I formed nearly destroyed me, and her, and Dief, and my best friend.”

“I don't think Vecchio holds it against you, if that's any help,” I offered.

“Then he's a much better friend than I deserve. I take it you've spoken to Ray?”

“Yeah, Welsh thought a first hand account would be more useful than just reading the file.”

Fraser winced. “I imagine the file report was quite heavily edited - another kindness I didn't deserve.”

God, I hated seeing him beat himself up like this. “Frase, you know you're not the only person who's done stupid things for love, right? I mean, you saw me after Stella - I was a disaster, you know?”

“Showing loyalty to the woman you had loved for many years is hardly the same thing,” Fraser said with a grimace. “No, I have to take responsibility for the damage I caused. I did come to see the darkness within Victoria, but the fact that I responded so strongly to her… well, I know I have a similar darkness in me, which I had managed to keep in abeyance for many years. My failure to maintain my control over my… desires was inexcusable. It won't happen again, you may be assured of that.”

“You still in love with her?” I asked bluntly.

“No, Ray,” he said, looking startled. “I can't deny it took a long time to get over her - it’s a painful process, as you know,” - I nodded, because yeah - “but her betrayal was… probably deserved, but fatal to any feelings of affection. I did her a great wrong and I do wish I could have atoned for it, but… ‘these violent delights have violent ends’, as you might say.”

“You might say that, you freak, I might not,” I said.

He laughed a little. “No, I suppose not. It’s Shakespeare, Ray. And he’s right, as he so often is about human nature. Love that grows slowly from a foundation of friendship is far stronger and more likely to last.” Then his face changed, his expression becoming rather grim, and he added, “Although some of us are better off avoiding the whole thing, I think.”

He got up abruptly. “You must be hungry. Shall we go and get something to eat?”

I was hungry, not just for food, but for spending time with him, so I allowed him the change of subject and followed him out to find dinner.

-------

We drove up to the wolf sanctuary early the next morning. This part of Canada was nothing like the Northwest Territories, but it had the same big sky I’d fallen in love with on the quest. Fraser and me and Dief, big sky overhead: it made me feel like something inside me was expanding somehow - my brain or my lungs or something. Or maybe more like something was being filled up that I didn’t even know was empty.

Fraser and Dief had an argument when we arrived. Fraser showed him the ‘no dogs’ sign, and Dief barked indignantly.

“Yes, I'm aware of that, but in this instance I think it applies to you too.”

Dief flicked his ears.

“Flaunting your freedom in front of these poor animals would hardly be kind, would it.”

Dief snorted.

“Well if you’re going to use language like that, you can definitely stay out here. Come along, Ray.”

Dief skulked off while Fraser and I went into the reception building. The sweet faced teenager on the desk told us that Leta Cain, the manager of the sanctuary, was down in one of the lower pens, looking after some wolf pups.

We made our way down the path he pointed out, between big grassy enclosures. I caught a glimpse of a pair of wolves lying in the shade under a tree, watching us through the chain link fence. We found Ms Cain in a smaller enclosure, crouching down amongst a tumbling pile of wolf pups. She hadn’t heard us approach: one of the pups was attacking the end of her thick braid of black hair with its sharp puppy teeth and she was laughingly trying to detach it.

Fraser called, “Ms Cain?”

She glanced up at us quickly, then stood and turned to face us, the wolf pup in her arms. She was beautiful, with a broad, serene face, and a shocking ragged scar across her left eyebrow and cheekbone. I’d seen more than enough violent crime in my time, and it looked as though she had been hit, hard, by someone wearing a heavy ring. It must have been some years ago: the scar was old.

Fraser of course gave no sign of having noticed. “Good morning, ma'am. I'm Corporal Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and this is my colleague Detective Ray Kowalski of the Chicago Police Department, who is liaising with me on this case. We're here regarding the theft of the painting.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, “Thank you for coming. I’m not sure what more I can tell you that I didn’t say in my initial statement, but please, ask anything you need to know.”

“We have the basic facts, thank you kindly, but I wonder if we might look around, get a feeling for the layout of the place and so on?”

“Certainly. The art exhibition was going to be held in one of the converted barns near the entrance. Let me just finish up here and I’ll show you.” She put the wriggling pup down and let herself out of the enclosure through a double gate like an airlock, and gestured us towards the path we had come down. “This way.”

As we walked, Fraser asked, “Do you have many wolves at the sanctuary?”

She shook her head. “No, only five adults at the moment. They’re all from other sanctuaries that couldn’t keep them for one reason or another. The pups you saw were rejected by their mother, up in Prince Albert National Park, and I had room to take them. I moved them down from the pen near the entrance yesterday.” She shook her head. “Silly of me to think the thief might come back, or might be any danger to the pups, but I just felt safer with them further away from the entrance. These wolves really helped me rebuild my life when I was having a hard time,” her hand ghosted over her scar, “so I feel very protective of them.”

She pointed at a handsome silvery colored wolf in the enclosure we were passing. He was hunched over a piece of meat, ripping chunks off with a kind of anxious determination and wolfing them down, ha ha. He eyed us suspiciously as we walked past. “That’s Kluane, he was caught in a trap, broke his hind leg.”

“He on his own in there? I noticed the others are in pairs,” I said.

“Yes, we think he must have been a lone wolf.”

“Hey, cool, like the Steve McQueen of the tundra.” I’d had Duran Duran in my head since we’d seen Kluane, and now I did a little cha cha step, humming under my breath.

Ms Cain smiled at me, but said, “Actually, not really. Wolves are pack animals. Lone wolves are lonely wolves. They don't usually stay alone for long - they're mostly on the lookout for a mate to build a pack with. They mate for life, you know.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, because I had known that, “but you know what I always wondered? What if something happens to one of the pair?”

“Oh, they’ll mostly find a new partner quite quickly.”

Huh, even wolves got a second chance.

She added, “It would be nice to find a partner for Kluane, the companionship would be good for him.”

We’d come up to the collection of old buildings near the entrance as we talked. Ms Cain showed us into a barn that had been divided into two rooms inside. One had an educational display with some faded posters, and a kids’ corner with some pretty beat up looking models and toys. The other room was where the art exhibition was set up. There were a bunch of paintings on the walls - some pretty nice, some… uh, not so good - and a conspicuous empty space where the wolf painting must have been.

Fraser looked at the paintings with interest. “Some of these are very accomplished,” he said to Ms Cain. “This one of snow on spruce trees has some beautiful chiaroscuro effects.”

Ms Cain nodded. “I like that one. It was done by a friend of mine. The exhibition was her idea, in fact - I was talking to her about needing to raise some money and she offered one of her paintings to sell. The original idea was that I would display it for her, and we would split the profits if it sold. When she told her art group, several of the other members offered paintings as well, and we ended up with enough for a proper little exhibition. Then Mr Deacon contacted me - he told me he’d seen one of the flyers we’d had printed and he very kindly offered to loan us the Conrad Gascoigne painting since he thought it would fit the theme.”

“And he provided the security as well as the painting,” Fraser said.

“For all the good that did.” Ms Cain said wryly. “The security camera is there, by the way,” she pointed up to one corner, “but the thief disabled it before she came into the room.”

“Would she have known it was there without coming into the room?” I asked.

Fraser looked at me sharply but didn’t say anything. Ms Cain frowned. “I hadn’t thought about that. It’s angled to cover the door as well as the painting, so she would have had to have known beforehand. Maybe she came during the day to check things out?”

“Sure, could be that.”

There didn’t seem to be much more to see, so we let Ms Cain get back to her wolves, and went out to find Fraser’s.

-------

We collected Dief from his exploring and got back in the car.

“Where to next, do you think?” I asked Fraser.

He fiddled with his Stetson for a moment, then said, “You think Victoria may have had knowledge of that camera?”

“It’s just a hunch, Frase. But this Deacon guy comes out of nowhere with the painting, and then it gets stolen by someone who seemingly must have known about the camera he’d had installed… it just seems a bit fishy, you know?”

Fraser nodded. “You have good instincts, Ray. I think we should go and pay Mr Deacon a visit.”

I couldn’t help grinning as we drove back towards the highway - Fraser complimenting me on my instincts! - but my thoughts slowly circled round to Leta Cain. She must have been real resourceful to set up and run the sanctuary; and she still had an air of calmness about her despite this theft, which must have been a hell of a blow. “That was an ugly scar Ms Cain had,” I said, thinking aloud.

“I'm afraid I can't agree with you, Ray. I thought she was a very beautiful woman,” Fraser said rather coldly.

“Woah, no, I said that wrong. I didn't mean that the scar was ugly - she was an absolute knock-out - I meant, something ugly had happened to her sometime,” I explained.

“Oh. Yes, I see.”

I glanced over at him. “What, you thought I was too shallow to look past a scar?”

“No Ray, not at all. I apologise. I may have been projecting my own feelings somewhat. I have… some significant scarring myself.” I could see him shifting uncomfortably against the seat out of the corner of my eye. “And you must admit,” Fraser continued, “Ms Cain is not your usual type.”

“I wasn’t thinking of her like that,” I said honestly. “And anyway, just because I was married to Stella for fifteen years doesn't mean I only like high-class blonde women.” And then, surprising myself - I hadn't known I was going to do this now - I added, “or only women, even.”

There was a pause, then Fraser said, “Ah.”

“Ah? What, what is that? Is that, ah, Ray my friend, tell me something I do not know, or ah, well you can just get your queer ass back to the States, or…”

“No Ray!” Fraser interrupted, and wow, Fraser hardly ever interrupted. “It was…” and he took a huge breath, and then said, “I also…” and then just stalled out.

“You also… not only women?” I suggested cautiously.

Fraser sighed out the rest of the breath, deflating. “Yeah. Uh, a couple of those previous liaisons I mentioned were with other men.”

So it wasn't the gay thing that had freaked him out on the quest. “Okay. That's okay, you know?”

“Of course I know that,” Fraser said, testily. “It's moot anyway.”

“Like, not talking? Because we don’t have to talk about it…” I said, though I was dying with curiosity.

“Not mute, moot. Meaning with no, er, practical relevance.”

“Got it. Well, join the club, Frase, join the club.”

I was aware of him watching me. “Do you mind if I ask why, Ray? You’re a very attractive man. I thought you would certainly start dating again once you returned to Chicago.”

My heart was pounding. “I got kind of hung up on someone, you know?” I said as casually as I could manage. “Don’t see me getting over it any time soon.”

I couldn’t look at him, and he didn’t say anything else all the way to Deacon’s house.

-------

Etienne Deacon’s house was off the road on the way back to Regina. The entrance to the property was easy to spot since it was flanked by two massive statues of prancing lions. We wound up a long driveway to an ugly but enormous house, painted an alarming shade of yellow.

“Jeez. Looks like SpongeBob threw up on it,” I muttered. “Thought an art collector would have better taste.”

“It is somewhat... strident,” Fraser agreed.

Deacon himself was almost aggressively tasteful. He was in his mid fifties, good looking with thick pepper-and-salt hair and a lot of very white teeth. We went into an entrance hall that was bigger than some hotel lobbies I’d seen, the walls absolutely covered with paintings. He waved a hand at them. “My collection,” he said airily. “Do come through to the drawing room.”

The drawing room (drawing room, what the hell) on the other hand had no artworks at all. There were several uncomfortable looking leather and chrome chairs and a large liquor cabinet. Fraser and I both turned down the offer of whisky. Deacon poured himself a drink and turned to smile at us. “So, how can I help you gentlemen?”

Fraser said, “We wanted to ask you about the security camera you had installed at the wolf sanctuary. Did you arrange the work yourself?”

Deacon took a sip of his drink. “Well hardly, I have people to do that kind of thing. My security people arranged everything. I did go out and inspect the work - I admit I was interested to see the place. Quite a clever little set up she’s got there. Of course, she could be making much more money out of it, but women never do have a head for business.” He shrugged.

What an asshole. Fraser gave him that bland look that I knew meant he was pissed off too. “It must have been upsetting for you that the camera was able to be disconnected,” he said.

“Yes, I'm very anxious to get the suspect caught,” Deacon agreed, throwing back the rest of his drink.

“You must feel the loss of the painting very badly?” Fraser prompted.

“It was a nice piece.” He shrugged. “Though not as valuable as some of my acquisitions, of course.” I was liking this guy less and less. He kept up the casual attitude, but I got the impression he was paying real close attention when he went on, “Do you have any suspects at all?”

Fraser and I glanced at each other. “We have some leads we’re following up,” I said. “We’ll keep you informed.”

We took our leave of Mr Deacon and headed back out to the car. As we drove away, I said, “Did he seem less concerned than you might expect about his expensive painting going missing?”

“I have to admit he seemed rather blasé about the matter, yes,” Fraser agreed.

I turned that over in my mind a bit. Then I remembered something else I’d noticed. “You know what else is queer, Frase? All those paintings in the hallway but not in the living areas. If he's some big art collector, surely he'd rather have them where he could enjoy them?”

“That's an interesting point, Ray,” Fraser said thoughtfully. “My understanding of art collecting as an investment is that it's rather unpredictable. Tastes change so there's no guarantee a painting will keep its value, so you need to like the art on its own merits.”

“Yeah, makes sense.” I hummed thoughtfully. “Maybe he's only interested in impressing other people. Stella was all about having paintings that gave the right impression, or whatever. Apparently the Bullitt movie poster wasn't appropriate.” I grinned at Fraser's snort of laughter. “We had a print of that one of the people in the diner that's in the Chicago Art Institute, but then everyone else got a copy, so that was no good either.” I grimaced. “It gave me the heebies anyway.”

“Nighthawks?”

“Yeah, that sounds right. It's kind of a lonely picture to look at all the time.”

“Mmm, it is evocative of life in a big city.”

I glanced over at him. “That's sad, Fraser. I'm sorry you felt like that.”

He smiled at me. “Making good friends made a difference.”

We actually passed a diner at that moment, in a little complex of buildings including a motel, a gas station with attached convenience store, and a liquor store. I yanked on the wheel and swung the car into the parking lot.

“Is something wrong?” Fraser asked, steadying himself on the dash, as Dief grumbled in the back seat.

“No, I just had a thought,” I said.

“Well, I can see how that would have been alarming for you,” Fraser said.

I flipped him off as I pulled into a space. “Listen and see if this makes sense, okay?” I said, reaching into the back seat to give Dief an apology ear scritch. “Deacon wants to get rid of the painting for some reason. Insurance fraud, maybe? Anyway, he puts out feelers, Metcalf gets to hear about it and offers to do the job. Then, lucky for him, the sanctuary arranges this little exhibition - that’s even better, the theft doesn’t even have to take place at his house. He sets up the security camera, tells Metcalf how to disable it: job’s done.”

Fraser nodded slowly. “It certainly sounds very plausible.”

“So then I thought: this would have taken time to sort out, so Metcalf would have to be staying somewhere nearby, and where better than one of these motels along this route that both goes past Deacon’s house and to the sanctuary?”

“Also logical,” Fraser agreed. “It would certainly give us some places to start looking.”

“How many motels do you reckon there are?” I asked.

“I’m not sure. Five or six, I would think.”

“Well, we might as well ask here since we’re here. You got those photos of Metcalf on you?”

Fraser pulled them out of the file, and we headed over to the motel.

-------

The first two motels were a bust, but the third motel we tried we struck lucky. When Fraser introduced us to the woman behind the desk, and showed her the photographs of Metcalf, she nodded.

“Oh yes, she checked in a few days ago. A Miss Roberts. Caroline Roberts. Room 4, I believe, let me check the records.”

“Caroline Roberts…” I muttered. That sounded familiar somehow. I drummed my fingers on my forehead as if I could knock the memory loose. “I know that name. Why do I know that name, Fraser?”

I glanced across at Fraser. The name obviously meant something to him as well; he was oddly white around the mouth.

“Room 4, that's right,” the lady said.

Fraser turned to me, and I saw with a shock that he was angry - so angry he was trembling. “My parents,” he said with cold fury.

I stared at him. Caroline and Bob Fraser. Caroline and Robert. The bitch had stolen Fraser's parents' names.

“She went out this morning, but I can let you have the spare key, Corporal,” the woman was saying.

I turned back to her, surprised. “You mean she hasn't checked out? She's still staying here?”

“Oh yes, detective. She booked the room for two weeks. It's just down that corridor, on the right.”

“Thank you kindly, ma'am,” Fraser said. He took the key, and stalked off. I came up behind him at the door to Room 4. Fraser unlocked the door, and we had a brief wordless conversation which ended with us in a mirror of our normal routine, against the wall either side of the doorway, Fraser covering me as I pushed the door open. The room was clearly empty and Fraser re-holstered his gun as we stepped in. It was a standard motel room, only a paperback on the nightstand to show it was occupied.

“Not many places to hide a stolen painting,” I commented, yanking open the top drawer of the dressing table. Hair dryer and a Bible. The next two drawers were empty.

Fraser was on his knees, running his hands under the mattress. He got up and peered down the back of the headboard. “Maybe she's hidden it somewhere else to come back for it later.”

I realised I was doing that stupid thing of checking in places I’d already looked, and stopped. “This doesn’t make any sense, though, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t, Ray. Why is she still here? She’s stolen the painting, surely she’d want to be as far away as possible.” He looked angry still, and tired.

“Exactly. So we still haven’t quite got it. Look, it’s getting late, why don’t we pick up some takeout and go back to Depot and see what we can come up with for tomorrow.”

-------

We went back to Fraser’s quarters. They were pretty spartan, with a small living area, a bedroom and bathroom, and a tiny kitchenette, where I unpacked the food. Dief talked me into giving him some egg rolls and took himself off to his bed in the living area.

“Jesus, what a day,” I said, rummaging through the shopping bag for the six pack I’d bought. “You sure you won't have a beer?”

“No, thank you kindly, Ray.”

I shook my head, wishing I wasn’t feeling jealous of a fucking criminal; wishing I could get through that barrier and have some impact on Fraser’s state of mind - even if it was just to piss him off like she was doing, just to know I could get to him somehow. “I don't get you, Fraser. Even after a day like today, you pull the pure Mountie thing, all abstemious and -“

“Hardly pure,” Fraser spat, and oh, he was still really pissed off. I admit I’d wanted to needle him, but this was more than I’d been expected. I got my detective head on, because I was obviously missing something.

Wait.

“Am I being a dick? You got to tell me if I'm being a dick. Is it - have you had a, a, problem with booze?”

Fraser looked away. “Not in the way you're thinking.” He scrubbed at his eyebrow for a second. “I'm aware that I have difficulty... moderating my behaviour in general. I’ve certainly got many of the traits of an addictive personality. So it’s safer if I don't allow myself to start, because I know I’ll find it hard to stop. Why would I stop at one drink, when I could drink ten? It's easier just to not take that first step.”

“Well that’s stupid. Have you ever actually tried it? You stop before ten because ten makes you feel shit.”

“You’re wilfully misunderstanding,” Fraser snapped. “And actually yes, I have tried it, and yes, it was extremely unpleasant, but that was clearly just an example.”

Which meant he was thinking about Metcalf again, fuck. I could see that with her, Fraser had taken that first step and then kind of gone on a bender that had ended nowhere good. But I couldn’t help feeling that was at least partly on her, for being a fucking psychopath.

I was angry myself, now. “So you’re saying that the no drinking, no gambling, no hot sex thing is a deliberate choice? Not because you're better than us mere mortals but because you think you're worse?”

“Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying,” he said. “It's a choice, every single day. I learned early and I learned hard.” He glared at me. “If you think any child is born knowing how to moderate themselves, then you obviously don't know children very well.”

For a sickening second I was sure I was going to punch him in the head. As I flinched away, I caught a glimpse of Fraser's stricken expression. “I didn’t mean...” Fraser said immediately.

“Yeah, no, I know. I just - you gotta give me a minute.” And this was the thing that I had learned hard, wasn't it? People lashed out when they were hurting, and if I lashed out back, it never ended.

“Okay,” I said, finally, “you’re right, I haven’t been around kids much, but I do know they don’t just stop wanting things. Everyone wants things. I want things. I want things I apparently can't have, and if you’ve managed somehow to stop wanting things, then you are better than I am.”

“Don't you see...” and he made a noise of pure frustration, “I'm not... better, or pure, or… I want things - I'm greedy, Ray, I want to, to, gorge on...” and I was nodding, yes, be greedy, gorge yourself, yes, if anyone deserved it Fraser did; and then “...god, I want to fuck you blind,” he said, low and savage.

It was like a bomb going off inside my head. I gaped at him. Then through the sudden roaring in my ears I heard myself say, “yes, yeah, do it, I want you to,” and Fraser was on me. He bore me back against the wall, one hand on my hip and one on my shoulder and trapped me there.

“You shouldn't let me,” he muttered and bit down on my collarbone. “I'm not safe, I'll hurt you.”

Dizzy with disbelief, I arched into him, gasping. It did hurt - though I was pretty sure that wasn't the kind of hurt he meant - but it was shockingly good. “Ow, fuck ow,” I breathed and as he eased up, “no, don't stop.” He did stop though, and I grabbed a handful of his thick, soft hair and pulled his head up, needing to see his face. He looked… I didn’t know how he looked. God, I could see how much he wanted me - but how was it possible that even with my collarbone throbbing from his teeth, he was still behind that damn barrier? I didn’t know how to get to him, get him here, with me. Helplessly I pushed my hips against his, letting him feel how hard I was, wanting him to know how much I wanted him, and he groaned and dropped his head against my shoulder. After a moment he started yanking at my shirt until I helped him pull it off me.

His big hands curled around my ribcage and he looked at me appraisingly. “You’ve lost weight,” he murmured. He was right, of course, and it hit me how well he knew my body - knew its shape and strength, how much weight I could carry, how long I could keep going without a rest - and yet he’d never had his hands on me like this. I wanted his hands everywhere, wanted him to know me by touch as well.

“Come on,” I whispered roughly, and he nodded and started undoing my pants. Together we got my clothes off, and I started on his straight away. I wished I could tell what he was thinking - he still seemed closed off, and getting us both naked had to bring us closer, surely?

His skin against mine was like a gift that I’d thought I was never going to have, but he didn’t really give me any time to enjoy it. I’d wanted his hands everywhere and I was getting that, and his mouth too, as he set stinging, biting kisses everywhere he could reach.

He herded me into his bedroom and straight down onto his bed, and now he could get his mouth everywhere. He curled over me, working a hickey onto my hip bone. Although it was turning me on something fierce, I kept getting distracted by a nagging sense of familiarity; some association that I couldn’t remember with my head spinning from the speed everything was going, but that I felt wasn’t quite happy.

I shifted under him, restless, trying to think, and he looked up suddenly, almost guiltily. And it hit me, that combination of hunger and desperation - he reminded me of Kluane, trying to get as much as he could before it was taken away from him.

“Fraser,” I gasped, “I’m not going anywhere.” I got my hands in his hair again, wanting to pull him up to me, but he wouldn’t come. He ducked his head back down, licking over the mark he’d put on me, and then shifting sideways and taking a long slow lick up my cock. God, god, I couldn't think straight, and I needed to think, I was still missing something. His soft wet mouth and broad wet tongue were driving me out of my mind, and this was what I’d wanted, wasn’t it?

If I couldn’t think, I could at least keep pushing - maybe that would make things start to make sense. I knew I wanted him even closer, wanted more. I sucked on my own fingers and got my hand down between my legs, sliding it past his chin. He lifted his head to make room for me, and when he saw what I was doing, he swallowed hard, and looked up at me for a moment.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Yeah, Fraser,” I said. “You said you wanted…” I couldn’t say it out loud. It was still blowing my mind that he’d said it in the first place; I felt, crazily, that maybe I was remembering wrong. But he was nodding and leaning over to the nightstand, and digging out a tube of slick. Fuck, Fraser owned slick - and not only that, but he had it right here by his bed. My brain helpfully provided me with a series of really porny images and promptly fritzed out again.

“Turn over,” he said. I scrambled over onto hands and knees, not sorry of a moment to hide my face. Any chance I had of getting my head clear was completely derailed by Fraser working slick fingers into me. It took a few moments to remember the trick of how to let my body open up, but then it was easy. Then Fraser was there, his cock pushing in, taking me; so good I could barely breathe. I could hear Fraser’s breathing gone ragged behind me - this at least was having some effect on him. He curled down over me, pressing his face against my back. It sounded like he was fighting for control of himself. It made sense, after our conversation, but I didn’t want him controlled, I wanted him as wild as I was feeling.

After a moment he lifted his head. “Down,” he said, pressing a hand between my shoulder blades. I dropped to my elbows but he kept pushing, bearing me down with his bodyweight until I was flat on the bed, and he was sprawled over me, in me. It should have felt oppressive but it didn’t. I could have stayed there forever, his big solid body part of mine, and that freaked me out. I fidgeted under him, but each jittery movement seemed to be absorbed into the blanketing weight of him over me, each twitch soaked up, dulled, settled.

“Come on, Fraser, move, you gotta…” I’d have been embarrassed about the pleading note in my voice, if it hadn’t made Fraser’s hands clench on my wrists.

“Call me Ben,” he growled, “I've always wanted to hear your voice saying Ben.”

God, that got me right in the hindbrain. I sucked in air desperately, groaned, “Ben, come on, move, please -“

And Ben said, “No.”

I struggled for a moment but Ben was immovable. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think. Then he set his teeth into the nape of my neck and that was it, with one last shiver I went still. Lying there, unmoving, I was hyper-aware of his cock inside me, a solid weight within the slack sprawl of my body. It felt heavy, massive, like it was anchoring my pelvis to the bed.

He must have sensed the change in me, because now he began to move - a long slow drag out, followed by a short, sharp, eye-crossingly good shove back in. There was no way I was going to last. I tried to wrestle a hand free to get hold of my dick, but he just gripped my wrist tighter and growled, “no, you'll come on my cock,” and that was the final shock in an evening full of them, because I gasped, clenched down, and did, wailing, so hard my vision went spangled.

Ben pulled out; there were some wet jerking-off noises but before I could coordinate my limbs enough to turn over and watch - and god, I wanted to watch - I felt the splatter of come across my ass and thighs. And oh, that hadn’t been the final shock, after all, because there was Ben's big hand smearing through it, rubbing it into my skin, then pushing some into my ass with his fingers. Then he flopped down, half on top of me and slung a heavy thigh over my legs.

It was all too much. I hadn’t been able to work out what was going on before I came my brains out; I was completely lost now. I gave in to the pull of sleep and let unconsciousness take me under.

-------

I came awake slowly, with a feeling, horribly familiar from post-divorce sex with Stella, of deep physical satisfaction combined with a sense that I’d somehow made a mistake. I didn’t know what it was yet - with Stella the mistake had always been doing it at all, and I really hoped it wasn’t that, this time.

Fraser wasn’t in bed, and my clothes were presumably still somewhere in the kitchen, so I wrapped myself in the stripy blanket from his bed and went to find him. He was standing in the kitchen area, fully dressed. My clothes were folded neatly on a chair. He turned when he heard me come in, and handed me a cup of coffee. He was clutching a cup of tea, and looked drawn and sad.

“Ray, I must apologise for my behaviour last night,” he said. “I never should have let that happen.”

I chugged some coffee, willing my brain to wake up. “Really? Why not?”

“I think I amply demonstrated my inability to restrain myself,” he said, flushing uncomfortably.

“Huh. Because I had a great time. Like, a really great time. I didn’t want you to restrain yourself - in fact I could have stood less restraint. Don’t think I couldn’t tell you were holding back.”

If anything, he looked even more clammed up than before - somehow managing to give the impression of retreating into his shell like Turtle, while standing completely still.

“Okay, you don’t want to tell me, I get that,” I said. I didn’t like it, but I could probably interrogate it out of him later if I really needed to. “But tell me why we didn't do this earlier - like, on the quest.”

The color went right out of his face. “I couldn’t, Ray. You were utterly dependent on me to keep you alive.” He went on in a kind of horrified whisper, seemingly more to himself than to me, “It would have put you in an intolerable position. Even if you’d wanted to, you never would have been able to change your mind.”

“I did want to,” I said, reflexively, and it sure sounded like he’d wanted to, as well. I added, cautiously, “And you taught me to look after myself.”

He nodded absently, then seemed to come back from wherever he’d gone, and nodded again more positively, although he still looked so sad. “That’s true. I hope I have at least learned from my mistakes.”

“Young cops, working alone...” I paused, thinking about a piece of bloodstained paper, unread. “Well, we’ve all made mistakes, Fraser. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try again. I don’t think last night was a mistake, but you think about it, okay?”

Dief wandered over then and made noises about wanting breakfast.

“Yes, alright Dief. Can I get you something to eat, Ray?” Fraser asked. “We never did eat the takeout last night.” He blushed again.

I was feeling pretty hungry for once - no dinner and extra physical activity will do that, I guess - so I agreed. “I’m going back to my room for a shower, give me ten minutes, okay?”

I grabbed the pile of my clothes and ducked back into Fraser’s bedroom to throw them on. I could hear Fraser muttering to Dief through the open door. I came back out as he was saying irritably, “Yes, well, it’s much simpler for wolves.”

Wolves. “Hey,” I said, “maybe we should go back to the sanctuary, have a look around there, see if there’s anything we missed. It never hurts to go back to the crime scene, and it’s out in the right direction for Deacon’s place as well.”

-------

Behind the buildings of the sanctuary offices was an area of scrubby overgrown bushes and low trees. Fraser and I followed a rough path along the edge of the buildings, Dief bounding back and forth beside us.

“I think this should be the building that held the art exhibition, judging by the spacing and height of the windows,” Fraser said, pointing to one of the barns. Dief went crashing off into the undergrowth and disappeared, except for the occasional glimpse of his plumed tail waving cheerfully above the greenery.

I studied the building. “Don't see anyone getting in through the windows, they're too narrow.”

Fraser nodded. He dropped to one knee to study some broken stems. “Someone has been down here recently, though.” He crawled crabwise along the wall a few feet, then gave a sudden exclamation and reached to pull something out of the long grass under a window. “Ray! Look here!” and he straightened to show me an empty wooden picture frame, rather damp but apparently undamaged. He sniffed it, then touched his tongue to the edge.

“Yeurgh, don’t do that, it’s probably covered in rat pee or something,” I said. “You think that's the frame the painting was in?”

“Well, no, Ray. I think we're supposed to think it is. I think we're supposed to think that the painting has been removed from the frame and taken away.”

“And why don’t we think that?”

“Because the painting was done in a medium called gouache, which is water based. Gouache works are displayed behind glass to protect them.”

“And there’s no sign of any glass here, gotcha. So that means this wasn’t the frame the painting was in, which means the painting is probably still in its frame.”

“Exactly. And if we’re supposed to think the painting has been taken away - ”

“ - that only makes sense as a diversion if it’s hidden here somewhere!”

We grinned triumphantly at each other for a moment, and oh, there it was, that sizzle of connection. I watched Fraser’s eyes drop to my mouth, and dipped my own gaze down to see Fraser’s tongue flick out over his lower lip. It struck me suddenly that we hadn’t actually kissed last night. Why the hell hadn’t we kissed? Abruptly all I wanted to do was take that beautiful mouth - and I had that electric sense that this was important, that it meant something, if I could only work out what...

“Hello Ben,” a woman's voice said quietly, from somewhere behind us.

I turned, startled. And there was Victoria, leaning against a tree. All the hairs went up on the back of my neck.

My gaze snapped back to Fraser. He was very pale, but when he spoke he sounded a lot calmer than I was feeling. “Victoria Metcalf, you're under arrest for the theft -“ he broke off as Metcalf began to laugh.

“Oh Ben! You're doing this again? Still doing your duty, like a tame dog? I thought I'd shown you, we can't be tame, you and I.”

“He is not the same as you, lady,” I snarled.

She turned to me, her eyes glittering. “But he is. Are you his partner now? I suppose you think you know him, but I know what you see - you see the obedient dog, the good boy, doing his duty, and you don't see he's actually a wolf.”

I snorted, felt the faint throb of the hickey on my hip bone. I muttered, “Yeah, I've met the wolf,” but she’d turned back to Fraser.

“God, Ben, for the longest time I thought you were dead,” she said. “I did go south, just like we talked about - I got to Austin! - but…” she dropped her eyes, shivered, “I still couldn't seem to get warm.”

Fraser winced at that. I wasn't following what was going on here - Fraser had talked about going further south with this woman? He really must have been crazyface about her.

She continued, “So I decided to come back home. I was working my way back to Alaska, but then I saw all the press about the famous Benton Fraser teaching at the RCMP Academy and learned you were alive! Oh, I could hardly believe it, after all that time of grieving you. It turned all my plans upside down. I wanted to see you so badly, but I knew if I was going to get you away this time, I was going to need money.”

I was meanly pleased to see that Fraser was getting that white, pinched look around his mouth again, because she was sure as hell pissing me off. “Get me away?” he said.

“You need me, Ben, you know that. Otherwise you’ll keep trying to be tame until you suffocate.” She took a step towards him, looking at him with an odd combination of pleading and possessiveness.

“It’s the only choice I’ve got,” Fraser said tiredly. “I’m sorry, Victoria, I can’t be like you. I have to settle for tame.”

I preferred him angry to hearing that awful note of resignation in his voice. “This is the stupidest thing I ever heard!” I snapped, infuriated. “You aren’t actually animals, either of you. Well, I got my doubts about you,” I pointed two fingers at Metcalf. “It’s not a choice between tame and wild. People, we can be both.” I turned to Fraser. “You can have one drink and then stop,” I said, willing him to understand - you can’t give me more than I can take. He nodded slowly, maybe starting to get it. Good. I added, “And if you’re a wild animal all the time, that’s when you get locked up. Come on, cuff her, let’s go.”

In a flash of movement, Metcalf pulled a gun from her pocket and pointed it straight at me. Fraser yelled, “no!” and I heard him draw his own gun, but I didn't dare move to look. I kept my eyes on Metcalf, adrenaline pounding through me. She looked dangerous now, like a shark was dangerous; stripped down somehow - like a layer of civilisation had burned away and left a pure predator.

“So this is what it comes to, is it?” she said. “You know, you really should stop introducing me to your friends.”

“Put the gun down,” Fraser said steadily from behind me.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “You’re not going to shoot me, Ben, are you, but just in case...” She stepped forward and grabbed me, yanking me around in front of her, gun jammed up into the angle of my jaw. I could see Fraser now, his gun still up. I knew he was a good shot, but with me as her meat shield, there was no way he could risk it. She started walking backwards, pulling me awkwardly along with her. I went as slowly as I could, trying to work out what her plan was. I knew she’d killed before, so I couldn’t kid myself that she wouldn’t kill me if she decided she needed to.

We were nearly back to where we’d left the car, when I saw Fraser’s eyes flick sideways for a split second. I didn’t know what he’d seen, but I tensed, ready for whatever craziness he was about to pull. Then there was the shattering crack of a gunshot, and I dropped.

There was a confused blur of motion and noise. Fraser shouted my name and came running towards us; someone else was running up too; someone was moaning in pain. It took a dizzying moment to realise it wasn’t me - I wasn’t hit.

“I’m okay,” I gasped at Fraser, who was pawing at me frantically. “I’m okay, Fraser, I’m okay.”

I could see now that the other person was Leta Cain, holding a hunting rifle. She nodded at me. “Can’t let someone go around threatening people,” she said matter of factly.

Fraser hauled me up and I could see it was Metcalf who was down, clutching her leg, white faced. Ms Cain crouched down next to her and she and Fraser worked together to fashion a makeshift bandage for Metcalf’s leg.

After a minute Fraser stood. “I need to radio this in and request an ambulance.”

He moved towards the car, and maybe no-one else would have noticed the tiny wobble in his stride, but I'd spent an awful long time watching him move. I stumbled after him. I couldn’t leave Ms Cain alone with Metcalf for too long but truth was, my legs had gone rubbery, and I could do with a minute to sit down myself.

As I opened the car Dief came trotting up. I got him shut in the car with us before I could give in to the really strong desire to let him go and bite Metcalf.

Once Fraser had made the call, he hung up the radio and sat, staring blankly out the windshield.

“You ok?” I asked.

He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think I actually am. It’s a lot to take in.”

I could understand that.

He glanced out of the window to where the two women were. “We should get back to them.” He surprised me by squeezing my thigh hard before he got out of the car.

———

An ambulance and a squad car arrived at around the same time. Fraser gave the two new Mounties a rundown of the situation - he was back to his business-like self - and one of Mounties went off with Metcalf in the ambulance and the other took Ms Cain into the sanctuary office to take her statement.

Fraser and I went off to hunt for the painting. Since we’d worked out that it was probably hidden at the sanctuary, it didn’t take us very long to find it, wrapped in black plastic and tucked under the eaves of one of the barns. We drove back to Etienne Deacon’s place with it. As soon as he saw it, he burst out with, “She hadn’t sold it yet?”

Fraser and I exchanged looks. “Ah, what makes you believe the thief was a woman, sir?” Fraser asked.

Deacon blustered a whole lot, but he knew we’d got him, and finally he confessed that he had indeed arranged for the theft. Metcalf was supposed to be selling the painting on and sharing the proceeds with him, but she’d been delaying, trying to blackmail him into giving her a bigger cut than they’d originally agreed. We took him into custody and headed back to Regina.

———

I could see that trying to write up this particular case report was going to be tough even for Fraser, king of paperwork, and sure enough, he was clearly distracted. I took a deep breath, because I knew what I needed to suggest and I didn’t much like it. I dragged up some hidden bit of nobility from somewhere and said, “You should call Vecchio.” He looked up at me, surprised. “He’d like to know what’s happened, and he’d be a better person to talk it out with than me. I’ll go and get us a coffee, give you a few minutes.”

I headed out and left him to it. I took as long as I could over fetching drinks, and when I got back, Fraser was just finishing up the call. “Oh, Ray,” he said. “Ray would like to speak with you.”

I swapped him his tea for the receiver. “Hey Vecchio.”

“Kowalski,” he said. “Seems congratulations are in order. Sounds like you did some good work there.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I said.

“Uh, I guess Benny’s right there, huh?”

“Yeah?” I agreed, glancing at Fraser, who looked to be intent on the paperwork. With anyone else, I’d guess that meant they were listening in, but with Fraser it probably meant he was intent on the paperwork.

“Okay, listen. Remember what I said about him not being good at being selfish?” Vecchio went on. “I get the impression he’s feeling bad about being relieved it’s all over. He thinks he should have been punished more or something.”

“Uh, okay?” I said. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at.

“But he is relieved it’s all over. He said something about how seeing her again made it clear that whatever it was between them is truly gone. What he’s really sad about is that you’re going to have to go back to Chicago now. So I guess you didn’t actually talk to him then?”

Oh. How dumb was I? Obviously the end of the case meant I had to leave. It was a truth that left me reeling like a kick in the head - a kick I’d known was coming, but I’d metaphorically put my hands over my ears and gone “la la la” because how in hell was I supposed to just say goodbye again?

Vecchio was saying, “Kowalski? You didn’t talk to him?”

“Not talk, as such, no,” I told him, distracted, and heard him work that out.

“Oh. Ohhhhhh. Didn’t go well, huh?”

“No, it was good but…”

“Don’t tell me the details!” Vecchio yelped. Then: “But you’re still going back?”

I thought of Fraser saying “I’ll hurt you” last night; and “I should never have let that happen” this morning. “Yeah,” I said tiredly. “I think if there were other options… he’d have said.”

“You sure about that?” Vecchio said dubiously.

“God, Vecchio, don’t,” I said, and heard my voice crack, and out of the corner of my eye saw Fraser go still.

Vecchio said with genuine sympathy, “Yeah, okay, okay. I’m sorry man, that sucks.”

“Yeah well,” I said. There wasn’t much else to say. “Hey, if you’re ever back in Chicago, maybe we can grab a beer or something.”

“Sure thing, Kowalski,” he agreed.

Once I’d hung up, Fraser looked up at me. “Everything alright?” he asked.

“Sure,” I lied.

“Ray was pleased to hear the news,” he said. “He’s not much of a fan of Victoria, as you may have realised.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that, despite the ache in my chest.

Fraser did seem calmer and more focused after talking to Vecchio - yay me - and we settled back into the paperwork. Finally, we were done, and Fraser sat back in his chair and smiled at me a bit hesitantly. “I was thinking we could go out for dinner,” he said.

I wasn’t sure I felt like celebrating, but then I noticed his ears were faintly pink, and figured out what he was really suggesting. And dammit, yes, okay, I was no saint. If he was going to let me go, I was going to take everything I could get before I went.

“Sure Frase.” I said. “You choose somewhere, okay?”

“Well alright. How do you feel about Turkish?”

-------

How I felt about Turkish, apparently, was insane. We were brought lots of small dishes of dips and vegetabley things and plates of flat bread. Fraser dived straight in, tearing off bits of bread, scooping up dips, eating with his fingers; and not neatly, like I would have expected. The first time he chased some juice from his wrist and up the side of his hand with his tongue, I completely lost the thread of what I was saying.

He tilted his head at me. “Everything alright, Ray?”

“Uh, yeah,” I managed, “it’s… good.”

“Here, try this one,” he said, pushing one of the dishes towards me. “The spicing is particularly delicious.” And he went off into one of his stories, about the history of the dish and the spice used, and how Turkish cuisine was influenced by… and I lost track as he paused to suck a blob of something off his thumb. He looked entirely innocent, and I couldn’t tell if the beautiful bastard was doing it deliberately or not.

I didn’t eat much in the end, and when Fraser asked if I wanted dessert, I said no.

“What about a coffee?” he suggested.

I put my hands flat on the table and leaned forward over it. “I don’t want dessert, I don’t want coffee, Fraser. You know what I want,” I said, quietly, and watched the colour rush into his face.

-------

I crowded up behind Fraser as he unlocked the door of his apartment. He fumbled the keys, nearly dropped them and started laughing breathlessly. "Ray,” he protested.

I was distracted by the smooth nape of his neck. I said “Hmmm?” into the soft curl of hair there.

“Ray,” he said again. “Ray.”

“What?”

“We would have more options if we got inside,” Fraser explained.

“‘Kay,” I mumbled. Then, “Oh.” I backed up enough to let him open the door.

As soon as we were through, he shut the door and pushed me back against it. Can you develop one of those pavlova reaction things overnight? Because I heard myself make a hot, helpless noise and I arched into the pressure of his body. I wanted to drown in him, soak up everything I could, so I had as much to take away with me as possible.

“I wanna blow you,” I blurted in his ear and heard him haul in a breath. I got us turned around, and went down to my knees in front of him. I was half sorry that he wasn’t wearing the red serge uniform - it maybe had featured quite heavily in my fantasies, but I was definitely all about the ease of getting the ordinary blue pants open right now. I got my mouth over the soft-hard bulk of his cock through the warm cotton of his boxers, and just breathed him in for a moment. When I glanced up at him, he had one hand over his eyes and was breathing slow and controlled, open mouthed. I knew that trick, had done it myself - it was what you did when what was happening was getting to you more than you wanted to let on.

“Frase,” I said, staring up at him, then, “Ben.”

He tore his hand away from his face and looked down at me. For one terrible aching moment his eyes met mine, his face absolutely cracked open, then he pulled me up and into his arms. Bewildered, I clung to him, tipping my head back as he mouthed at my throat. I hissed a little bit when he hit the spot under my jaw where Metcalf’s gun had left a bruise, and he drew back slightly. I heard him make a bitten off noise himself, and he kissed the bruise again more gently.

“God, Ray,” he muttered. “When there was that gunshot and you went down…” He shuddered.

I stared at him, searching his face, and bam, it was like the moment when I put my glasses on and everything comes into proper focus. I knew what he’d been holding back. “You love me!” I exclaimed. “I don’t believe you! You were going to make us both miserable, you big idiot, and for what?”

I twisted away from him, pacing back and forth, trying to get my head round the enormity of it. “You’re an idiot,” I said again. “I’m moving to Canada.”

Fraser was gaping at me. I didn’t think I’d ever seen him so shocked. “You… you can’t, Ray,” he said. “Your life is in Chicago.”

I mimed explosions either side of my head - mind blown! - and yelled, ”What life, Fraser? You’re it for me!”

He grabbed me, clutching my arms tight, his eyes wide and serious. “Do you mean it? Please be sure, Ray.” His voice cracked as he went on, “I thought I could let you go again, I thought I should let you go again, but I don’t think I could stand it after all.” And then in a half whisper, he added “People keep leaving me, I don’t want you to.”

I shook my head, hurting for him. “You’re it for me,” I said again.

I gave into that earlier impulse and kissed him. God, his mouth was lovely. I started gently, felt his mouth soften. When his tongue came out to touch my lower lip, I cupped a hand around his jaw and coaxed his mouth open for me. The sex had been great, but this was a whole other thing. With each second, as the kiss bloomed, I could feel the barrier around him finally falling away. I could see why he hadn't kissed me last night if he kissed like this. There was no hiding anything in a kiss like this.

After a moment he pulled away, breathing like he’d been running. “You do mean it,” he said, wonderingly.

Yeah, Frase,” I said, dazed myself.

The next kiss wasn’t gentle at all. We fell into each other, all hunger and need, and somehow between us we managed to stumble into Fraser’s bedroom. I hustled Fraser onto the bed and followed him down. Then I had a problem, because I didn’t want to leave his mouth, but I did want to get him undressed. After fumbling blindly at his clothes for a moment I had to admit defeat.

“Okay,” I gasped, pulling away from him. “Clothes.” And then got distracted all over again by the sight of him sprawled under me, with hot eyes and swollen mouth.

“God, look at you,” I said, tilting helplessly back towards him. He put a hand on my chest to hold me off.

“Clothes,” he told me, and right, yes, clothes. I had to turn away from him as we got undressed - there was no way I could look at him half dressed and not just jump him straight away. When I turned back, I nearly swallowed my tongue: he was stretched out, naked, one hand curled loosely around his cock. He let go when he saw me looking.

“You want me to do that?” I asked. “Or you want to do it while I watch?” That idea sent a quick bolt of heat down my spine. “Or my mouth? Something else?”

There was a faint crinkle between his eyebrows. I realised I was holding my breath. Did he trust me, trust this enough to allow himself to want something?

“Ray,” he murmured finally. “I want…”

“Anything,” I told him, my throat clogged with a kind of fierce tenderness. “Tell me and I’ll do it.”

He studied me for a long minute. Then, “Would you… would you…”

“Ben,” I said, “anything.”

He rolled over then and came up onto hands and knees, and looked back at me over his shoulder. “Yeah?” he asked.

“Yeah, of course,” I breathed. I grabbed the slick, and shuffled up behind him. From here I could see the scar, right in the middle of his back. It gave me a funny feeling, that scar; a part of Fraser’s story that was nothing to do with me. Although when I thought about it, I was a small part of that story now, and maybe I was lucky, because I was a part of the end of it.

I used a lot of slick, opening him up; I guessed it had been even longer for him than it had been for me. And maybe it was stupid, but I kept thinking about him saying that he had to ‘settle for tame’. I wanted to show him he could be wild and still be safe, that I could match the wildness and keep him safe; I wasn’t going to do that if I hurt him.

So I went real slow, and after a few moments, he slumped down, face turned sideways on the pillow, looking wrecked, open-mouthed. Finally he managed, “Ray, your hands… so good.” He sounded almost drunk, completely undone.

I said softly, “You want me to finish you off like this?” I would have been happy to do it - if there was anything more beautiful than Benton Fraser taking his pleasure, I hadn't seen it.

He shook his head dreamily. “No, not this time. Together, this time.”

So I sank into him, the soft tight heat of him, still slow, slow, and he came back up onto his hands to brace against the first thrust.

“Okay?” I asked, heard the roughness of my own voice.

“Yeah,” he responded, then again, “yeaaaahhh,” on a long exhale.

I kept up the slow steady pace until he was rolling back into each thrust, then picked up the speed a bit. Then it was like something had broken loose inside Ben, a torrent of words pouring from him, “oh god, yes, Ray, you feel so good, come on, more,” broken into choppy gasps with each thrust.

I groaned and paused, shifting my weight onto my knees. “Hang on, come on, up you come,” and hauled him up, clutching him close until we were both kneeling upright, Ben astride my thighs.

Ben moaned luxuriously as the new position drove him even harder down onto my cock. “Yessss, oh, so good,” and as I stroked all those miles of creamy skin, “oh, your beautiful hands, god, I love your hands on me. I want…” and he caught my wrist and pulled my fingers into his mouth, licking and sucking wetly at them, humming in pleasure. When he released them, I drew a damp line down his chest and belly, petted gently around where we were joined - which made us both suck in our breaths - and then came back up to take hold of his cock. I’d only stroked him a few times before he groaned, curled forward and came all over my fingers.

I lost it, thrusting in hard twice, and came myself, an orgasm that took me under like a wave, and washed me up the other side, limp and gasping. As soon as I could move, I tipped us both forward to lying, and wrestled Ben around until we were wrapped around each other as close as I could get us.

“I love you,” I said. “I didn’t say that before, did I?”

I could feel him smile against my skin. “I don’t think it counts if you say it within five minutes of an orgasm, Ray.”

“Pretty sure there’s a special Canadian rule that allows it,” I told him, smiling myself at his soft snort of laughter.

I was starting to drift a bit when Ben asked, sleepily, “Will you come further North with me?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You still have a cabin up there?”

“I do,” he agreed.

“Perfect,” I said.

On the edge of sleep, I thought I heard Ben murmuring, “but his own nest, wild nest, no prison,” but I was out, falling safely into Ben’s darkness, before I could ask what it meant.