Do not adjust your monitor, these are just a few self indulgent notes that are the result of the breakfast of champions -- a can of A&W rootbeer and a package of chocolate zingers. . .

First of all, this section and the one to follow are all Manna's fault. I was going to get on with the story, and then Manna has to write and say that she hopes Rennie gets to tell the sex stuff from his point of view. And I thought: What a great idea! An excuse for more naked Turnbull scenes. I wish I'd thought of it!

I sat down at my computer, sure that I could pump out Rennie's POV quickly. But no, Rennie had ideas of his own. This is where he wanted to start the story. So don't blame me for the lack of sex.

Second, to Jack, nyah! nyah! I finished my part first! Phhhhbbbtttt! And another story to boot. hahahahahaha.

We now resume your normal programming. Warnings: Angst, references to foul folk songs , and llamas Note: Jack Tar isn't a proper name, it's a term for British sailors, along the lines of G.I. Joe.

*********

I have my few travel necessities repacked and manage to check out of my temporary residence in thirty-seven minutes. I realize that it may be presumptuous of me to assume that Fraser will allow me to bunk with him, but I really have no alternative at this point. I promised my Ray, and I seem to have an inborn need to keep all of my promises to men named Ray.

The taxi I order from my room arrives six minutes after I first step to the curb to begin my wait for its arrival. The driver is East Indian and speaks English beautifully, with just the slightest singing lilt. He is as adept at reading people as most of those who work in service industries for any length of time. He senses my pensive mood and, after asking my destination, remains silent until eighteen minutes later, when we arrive at the Academy's front gate. He speaks quietly to the cadet on guard duty and motions toward me. The young woman eyes me curiously, but waves us through.

Less than two minutes later, my driver pulls in front of Fraser's building. I pay him and tip him well, considering my salary. I step from the taxi and help him retrieve my baggage from the trunk. Fraser meets me inside the front door, dressed only in long underwear and white socks. He takes my duffel from me and answers my unspoken question.

"Ray called."

I nod in understanding and follow him to his room. He offers me his bunk, but I decline. I have yet to completely erase unkind memories of many nights spent with my frozen toes hanging over the end of an Academy bed. I do, however, gratefully accept his proffered bedroll. He sets it up for me, and his wolf and I take a moment to become better acquainted. I had always thought him a beautiful animal, but while in Chicago he and I had little to do with one another.

I sit on the edge of Fraser's bunk and Diefenbaker takes his time approaching me. It wouldn't do to seem too eager, I suppose. He sniffs my hand and decides he likes me well enough to allow me to pet him.

I lose track of time, but Fraser finishes his task quickly enough. I fall gratefully into my nest of blankets and my feet are quickly warmed by the weighty presence of a full grown he-wolf. Fraser chides his Diefenbaker, but I tell him anything that will keep the icicles off of my toes is welcome. He sighs resignedly and retreats to his bunk. I would be hard pressed to tell who fell asleep more quickly.

We awaken as the sun rises on what promises to be a lovely August morning. Rather, Fraser was awakened by the sun. I am pulled from blissful dreams of Ray by the jarring sensation of a large, wet lupine tongue bathing my face.

Luckily, Fraser does not witness this undignified display. He returns from the communal bathroom, fully dressed and ready to face the day, just as I groaningly pull myself from the seductive embrace of warm blankets. He bids me good morning. I cast a bleary eye in his direction, collect my shaving kit and a towel, and head to the showers.

When I return to his room, I find him waiting patiently. I rush through my morning routine and join him for his walk with Diefenbaker. We then stroll to mess and amid a chorus of, "Good morning, sir!" cut to the front of the line. I can tell that this lack of egalitarianism bothers Fraser, but it is tradition that instructors never wait for a meal. Besides, I am grateful for anything that will allow me to get a few moments closer to coffee.

Diefenbaker sits at our feet as we discuss our plans for the day. Mine is full of classes covering topics ranging from useless to the absurd. His morning is to consist of paperwork outlining his cadets' progress. His afternoon shall be filled by babysitting those same cadets while a registered nurse teaches them CPR and basic first aid.

After the events of last night, the thought of spending an evening drinking and reminiscing with old classmates seems decidedly unappealing.

"What have you been getting yourself into lately, big T?"

"Well, where to start. . .I was raped and sexually abused repeatedly, lost my mind, tried to murder a fellow Mounted Policeman, attempted suicide numerous times, reinvented myself as a harmless buffoon, and am only now rediscovering my abilities thanks to my male, American lover, whom I have solemnly vowed to sodomize upon my return to my duty station. And yourself?"

If not the hit of the party, I would certainly be a topic for discussion over boot polishing sessions for some time to come. And the truly troubling thing is, I don't think I could count on not saying those very words, given my present mental state.

I wonder which is worse, being insane or knowing that you are insane?

I think it must be the knowing.

Fraser and I finalize plans to meet up after class. His room is left unlocked at all times. We decide that whomever finishes first will wait for the other there. We part after my third cup of coffee and his second. He sets off for an exciting morning of deciding the fates of thirty-two of Canada's would-be finest. I have twenty-four minutes and a short walk before my first class. I head for the row of pay phones just outside, to check in with Ray.

Our connection goes through without delay. I begin our conversation with a breathy hello and a warning that I am in uniform in a very public place and he is to behave.

*

Our first full night together goes well enough. Fraser and I share a quiet dinner and an evening full of Ray stories -- stories of my Ray. We continue our ritual each evening. It seems his social schedule is as open as that of his Ray.

On my final night at Depot, I bring along some uninvited guests -- several bottles of slightly above average cognac. I cajole and tease Fraser into sharing a glass. Then I simply take the liberty of keeping the level of alcohol in his glass constant.

We trade stories and do passably well covering old folk songs that have been handed down from class to class for as long as there has been an Academy. He remembers them all and helps me through the rough patches. He even surprises me with a rousing and shockingly accurate rendition of "The Good Ship Venus", bar none the foulest song ever penned by Jack Tars.

As the evening wears on, we relax visibly and his tongue loosens, with often hilarious results. He finishes a risque story concerning Detectives Huey and Guardino, a llama, the Dean of Students at an exclusive girls' school, and copious quantities of pumpkin pie filling. He takes several long draughts of his glass and a single breath and segues into a particularly amusing anecdote concerning himself, my Ray, and a prostitute.

"You see, Ray and I were on our way to our customary Thursday night pizza dinner, to have pizza, and as we were idling at a red light, we were approached by a lady of the evening. I was my usual polite, conveniently obtuse self. Ray however was surprisingly receptive to the young lady's. . . overtures.

"He called her 'gorgeous' and asked what his chances of getting a 'freebie' were. My head whipped around and I stared at him in what must have been a comical expression of disbelief.

"The young lady -- Wanda -- Wanda replied, 'Not a chance.' She winked at me and then offered us a two for one deal. My mind was still reeling over the idea that Ray actually seemed serious. He asked what two things we would get for the price she named, and she replied it was our choice.

"I began attempting to stammer out an indignant question regarding Ray's mental state. He chomped down on a much abused toothpick, grinned at me, told me to live a little, booted his door open and motioned for Wanda to climb over his lap into the almost nonexistent space between us.

"She made herself comfortable. As Ray pulled away from the curb, she placed her hand on my knee. Stop laughing. I removed her hand and placed it firmly in her lap. I moved as close to my door as possible, feeling all the while as though I was in an odd European independent film, and someone had neglected to give me a copy of the script.

"Wanda then focused all of her attention on Ray. I experienced the unique sensation of being simultaneously relieved and mortified.

"Ray smiled winningly at Wanda and asked her if she liked Greek. Stop laughing. My heart stopped and, for a moment, I seriously considered throwing myself from his moving vehicle. I fail to see what you find so amusing, Constable Smarty-pants.

"She replied that she liked anything we had the money for. Ray then stated, 'Money? I thought you said honey. We don't have any money to spare, we're cops.'

"Wanda's eyes got very large and she stated in a pseudo-surprised voice, Cops? Really?' and looked to me for confirmation. I nodded and she stated, 'Wow, what a coincidence, me too.'

"You really should try to breathe. I looked at her confusedly and asked 'you too, what?' She smiled and told me that she two was an officer of the law. I looked from her wide-eyed gaze to Ray's amused face and collapsed in relief.

"They both laughed at the situation, and Ray introduced me to Officer Karen Staisford. She then explained that she was working a prostitution sting and, rather than have her walk unescorted through dark alleys to meet her backup, they would have a plain clothes officer 'pick her up' and drop her off at a prearranged location.

"Looking back on it, I can see how individuals of a certain mindset might "find the whole situation amusing."

He spares me a black look. I attempt to stop laughing. I fail miserably. But my mirth is soon blotted out by the pain in his voice. I

"But at the time it seemed cold. I was still trying to feel him out, to accustom myself to his presence. We were new to one another, and I still half-expected him to act like. . ."

He had been going along at a steady clip, and I had been listening closely and laughing when the mood struck. He was a born storyteller, regardless of the opinion of either Ray. But he arrived at the point where his heart would have to take over for his head, and he simply could not make the transition.

"Ray."

"Hmm?"

"You were going to say that you expected him to act like Ray, your Ray."

He barks out a harsh, biting laugh.

"He isn't my Ray."

"And whose fault is that?"

"Well, it isn't mine."

"Then it's his."

"Yes."

I know a chance when I see it. I may never get him this drunk or this honest again. I push him to see how far the both of us are willing to run with this topic.

"I agree. After all, he left you." "Exactly."

"And when he returned, what did he do? Did he throw himself into your eagerly waiting arms?"

"No."

"No! No, he takes up with another person -- a woman -- your new partner's ex-wife, no less."

"No less!"

"And then he leaves you again."

"Again!"

"He leaves you for a second time, when he never should have left in the first place."

"He left me."

"So what if he was only trying to protect you, save your reputation and your already ruined career?"

He has no response to this small piece of information, but I can see him filing it away. Good.

"And what's a little blackmail from a formidable Federal Agency when compared with true love?"

He is staring at me. I am on one of my Ray's rolls -- a roll fueled by too many glasses of cognac and the desperate glint that has made a home in the back of his Ray's eyes, dulling their former emerald brilliance.

"After all, no one would have paid the slightest notice to the rumors that the two of you were lovers. And what if they did have those pictures published by a local tabloid? Everyone knows photographs can be easily altered to depict anything the photographer wishes. And even if the truth had come out, I'm sure all parties involved would have been nothing less than supportive, the Vecchio family, the Chicago Police Department, the R.C.M.P., all of them."

A sharp, painful light of understanding slowly burns its way through the drunken haze clouding his mind.

"What? Didn't you know? Oh, that's right. How could you know? You left."

He sets his empty glass on his spotless footlocker.

"Tell me."

"What do you want me to tell you, Fraser?"

"Everything."

"Why?"

"Why?"

"Yes, why? So you can sit here, safely away from him and his pain, and decide his fate? He isn't a commodity, something to be placed on a balance scale and weighed, to be deemed worthy or unworthy of your affections."

"I deserve to know."

"And he deserves to be the one to tell you."

I place a hand on his shoulder. He doesn't have the energy to shrug me off.

"Fraser, if I tell you, he'll know. He reads me almost as well as my Ray. He'll look into my eyes, and he will know. He will see it in my face when he meets me at the airport. And if, by some chance, he fails to see, I will tell him.

"I can't treat him so poorly. He has earned far better from me, from both of us. It isn't right that he should sit in his small room like one of our suspects, waiting to hear His Honor Benton Fraser pronounce his fate.

"Go to him. Listen to him."

"I don't know."

"What don't you know?"

"I. . .I don't know if I can."

My Ray and I have travelled so far beyond this first painful meeting of damaged hearts that I can smile benevolently at Fraser from the vantage point of my hard won wisdom.

"How can you not?"

******

My fingers scrabble around in the drawer. They find Big Blue and the lube. I try to lighten the moment by holding them out in front of me like I just won an Oscar or a Genie or some other b.s. award like that. But Rennie's only got one car on his mental track and its got nothing to do with humor. He puts his hands on my thighs. His touch is so light, it doesn't feel all the way real. He stares at daddy's little helper for a minute, like he's trying to figure out where to go from here. Finally he makes a decision.

"Show me."

That's a nice sentiment and all, but I've been planning this little trip for a lot longer than he has. I up the ante. I push the vibrator and the lube into his hands. I rub noses with him.

"Do me."

He licks his lips and his cheeks get real pink, but he isn't blushing. I'm ready and he's willing. So it should be smooth going from there, right? Wrong.

Suddenly he doesn't have any idea what to do. He starts to fumble with the lube tube, but he doesn't know where to put the vibrator. So he ends up dropping both on to the bed. He reaches for the lube, but the vibrator starts to fall to the floor. He grabs for the vibrator and snatches it up just before it hits the carpet. This is a good thing because the floor hasn't seen the underside of a vacuum cleaner since he left for parts better left unknown.

He puts the vibrator in the exact center of the bed and lays the lube next to it. Then he moves back and watches them like he expects them to jump up and run away. He realizes he's had an audience for all of this and gets embarrassed. He stammers and blushes and apologizes. Its the first time I've seen him this way -- somewhere between the goof I fell in love with and the stud he presents to the world. If I wasn't already long gone, this little performance would have done it.

I lay the vibrator on his pillow. I open the lube and squeeze some into my hand. I tell him "me first" and start rubbing the lube all over the fingers of his left hand.

We're both on our knees. I ain't sure how well its going to work, but I get this picture of us in my head and I just got to try it out. I tee up to him, so my right shoulder is in the middle of his chest. I spread my knees and reach behind me. I grab his lube slicked hand and put it on my ass.

It doesn't take him long to get things started. He's done this to me before and he likes it. He likes it because he knows I really like it. But he's only done it with one finger. One finger is great and all, but its not enough.

I'm ready for more before he is. I try to be all understanding and patient and stuff, but my libido and my ass have other ideas.

My ass starts pushing back against his finger, and my libido makes me beg like Dief at a donut shop. I've been using the vibrator like he asked, so I don't need any of this. I'm good to go from the get go. But he needs it bad. He need me to prove that it don't hurt. And I'm going to do that every step of the way.

He says it makes him hot when he makes me scream. That's okay by me because I don't think I could be quiet with him if my parents were out in our living room. But I'm even more careful than usual to make sure all of my getting lucky noises can't be taken as anything other than the Ray K. stamp of approval.

I guess my performance is up to par. I make what I think sounds like a really enthusiastic moan-groan combo, and finger number two joins the party. I start thinking that this might actually happen. Things have a chance of just going with a natural flow -- no angst or airline food-puking involved. That's almost too much. I start shaking and every single pore on my body opens up. I'm sweating like I'm my own little perfectly contained rainforest ecosystem.

The shaking starts to make Rennie stop. But I put a stop to his stopping idea pretty quick. I moan out, "Oh fuck, don't stop!" or something like that. It ain't Shakespeare, but it does the trick. He starts working on finger number three. It turns out three is the limit to my self control. My hands drop from his waist and I slide down his shaking, sweat slick body and end up on my elbows, with my head buried between my hands. My legs are still working somehow. I stay on my knees, my ass sticking in the air like I'm in heat -- which is entirely possible.

I figure out kind of late that this may not be the best position in the world -- at least for Rennie. It feels fucking fantastic for me. But he's got this whole thing about no domination stuff and being able to see my face. I try to get enough energy and self control from that place I got inside of me that doesn't think of anything but taking care of Rennie. Right before I'm about to push my way back up to kneeling, Rennie folds himself over me crosswise and wraps his free hand around my stomach.

The amazing part of that is I can feel his reinflated boner pushing against my right hip. The less than amazing part of that is that he's holding me still. Still is bad. I don't do still so good. I have to settle for squirming like an eel.

My knees give out and my dick becomes one with the comforter. Rennie's arm gets trapped under me. He freezes for a second, but recovers and just frees himself. He doesn't take his three big, talented fingers out of my ass, but he wriggles around until his mouth is next to one of my very red, very hot ears.

"I'm ready, Ray."

I tell him that "Oh yeah, I'm ready too" and he slides his fingers out of my ass. I roll onto my back and make myself comfortable. I hope this is going to take awhile. He grabs the vibrator and the lube. He looks at them for a moment. Then he smiles at me, virgin shy -- which is kind of appropriate all things considered. He holds the stuff out to me. I give him a smile that is as evil as his is pure and take it from him. I slick up the first two thirds of Big Blue real good. I make sure there's enough dry space at the end for him to grab on to. That is one trip to the emergency room I would not want to have to explain to the department's health insurance provider.

How exactly did I get that vibrator stuck up my ass? Well you see, I was out hunting wild game, something all us super macho completely het guys do all the time and. . .

I cap the lube and hand the vibrator to Rennie. I wrap his fingers around it and settle back. He doesn't start up, so I ask him what's up. He get that shy look in his eyes again and then stares down at the sheets. He asks in a real quiet voice if I remember that story I told him about the first time I used a vibrator. I tell him that of course I do. Its right up there with the other three most embarrassing moments of my life, but I smile when I say it. Hell, I'd fess up to anything right now to get that vibrator up my ass. Then he says something about my feet up on the headboard, and I get the picture. Its time for a little trip into Rennie fantasyland. I ask does he want me to turn around, put my feet on our headboard and put on a little show.

He starts and stops a couple times and kind of half-laughs at himself. Then he takes a deep breath and tells me that he wants me to put my feet on his chest and use him like the headboard. So he can see everything. Big Ray had been kind of standing at parade rest, but he hears this and jumps to attention. My heart skips and jumps and then gives one heavy, almost painful thud before it goes back to its regular making-it-with-Rennie pace of about a thousand beats a minute.

I tell him to stand at the foot of the bed. He does. I scooch myself down to the edge of the bed and flash a wicked grin at him while I put one foot and then the other on his chiseled pecs.

I expect him to give me a happy face, but he looks all serious instead. He asks if I'd do anything he wanted. I should answer right away, but I don't. We're both thinking about the scars on his back. The wheels are turning even slower than usual, but I manage to come up with an answer that maybe both of us can live with. I tell him I'd do anything for him that he'd want to do for me.

He thinks about it for a Rennie moment, which is lightning quick compared to one of mine. Then he nods. I guess I passed his latest test, because suddenly out of nowhere, Evil Sex God Rennie chooses this exact moment to make an appearance.

He gives me a smile that makes one of mine look like a Snow White special. He turns the vibrator on. Then he grabs the top of the slicked up end with his slicked up fingers and runs his hand down the entire length. This spreads the lube over the whole thing. I start to tell him that ain't such a good idea. He just turns the dial to a higher setting and puts the vibrator on my stomach, right next to my dick. I'm not too thrilled about this change in plans, but Big Ray doesn't agree with me. He starts to get all happy. Well happier than he already was, which was pretty damned ecstatic to begin with.

Rennie puts both of his hands on my feet and pushes forward, testing my thighs in new and interesting ways. He kisses me breathless. Then he nuzzles my cheek and sets the world arocking.

"I'm ready, Ray."

He just said that a little bit ago, but he didn't mean then what he means now. He pulls back, his hands still on my feet, and waits for the go ahead.

I have a feeling I'm going to need something to keep me from falling off the face of the Earth when it really gets moving. I nod and wrap my fingers around the bottom of the headboard.

He lets go of my feet. He spreads my ass cheeks and slides inside, easy as pie. After all we've been through to get here, a couple of seconds and the start is finished -- no asteroids falling out of the sky, no morality police banging on the door, no trauma, no terror.

Just a long slow push and, oh God, he's in me. And for a second, its like I got super senses. I can feel everything -- his tongue and his teeth and his breath on my knee where he's sucking on my skin to keep from screaming, his hipbones poking into my legs, the front of his thighs pressed against the back of mine, his fingernails leaving little half-moon marks on my ass.

It ain't perfect because its our first time, and his first time, and my first time to boot. It ain't perfect, but its close enough.

He has trouble getting a rhythm down. Then he can't figure out where he wants his hands. And my feet on his chest don't work so good. But I let go of the headboard and pull my knees up to my chest. He digs his hands into the sheets next to my head. This has the added bonus of him leaning forward and pressing the vibrator up against my dick.

The rhythm thing takes a little longer. I tell him to just go steady -- like pushups. I guess that was the missing piece for his whitebread Mountiebred brain. That virginal Canadian caught in the headlights look fades from his true blues. Then they get glazed over like a donut and finally squeeze shut. I keep mine open the whole time. I want to record every second of this for the old mental scrapbook.

He finds a beat he can dance to, and I follow along.

With virgins its going to pretty much be one of two ways. The first time, they're either going to blow faster than a bullet train or go forever. And that first time doesn't seem to have anything to do with how they'll be from then on. I luck out. Rennie is one of those go forever guys.

When Big Ray can't take it any more, I push Rennie off of me -- just enough to get a hand around my dick. I toss the vibrator away and let my fingers do the stroking. I come like one of those guys in a Japanese porno. My back arches so high, I swear there ain't nothing of me touching the sheets but my ass and my head. Little stars go supernova behind my eyes. I speak in tongues and my free hand goes flying. It lands on one of his biceps, and I know my fingers have got to be leaving bruises, but I can't make myself stop squeezing. Then Elvis leaves the building and I sink back into the mattress and do my best impression of a ragdoll -- a sweating, panting, seeing stars ragdoll.

When Rennie feels my ass grabbing his dick, it throws him off his rhythm. But he just rides it out and then start the old in and out again. I'm so relaxed my ass isn't giving him any resistance. He starts to pick up speed. He sounds like a freight train, he looks like a wreck, and he still feels like an amateur. But I got no complaints. And when he breaks down and starts making noises so even I can tell the end is near, I grab a hold of his ass and ride shotgun.

He hooks one of his knees on the edge of the bed and gives a final push. It's real deep, like he'd climb inside of me if he could. He moans out his newfound belief in a higher power and crosses that final frontier. He collapses on top of me, and we spend the next minutes riding out his aftershocks.

His weight starts to be too much of a good thing. I tap his shoulder to let him know we need to turn on our sides. I clench my ass cheeks as tight as I can. He moans and shivers and pulls out of me. We roll to his left and end up with me on top of him.

This time he doesn't look like a boneless chicken -- more like that slime stuff that I used to play with as a kid. The stuff that came in a plastic garbage can and wouldn't do anything but ooze through my fingers.

I hug him and kiss him and tell him not to worry. It will be better next time. He moans. I laugh. We snuggle. Well I snuggle up to him. He hasn't re-evolved back to having arms yet.

All is right with the world -- until a really loud popping sound comes from the other room. Its loud enough to be a gunshot, but its flat and dull, without the sharp crack of a bullet leaving a gun.

Rennie's out from under me in a second and reaching for the unregistered Glock he keeps hidden under his side of the mattress. Just about the time he comes up loaded for bear, I remember something I forgot to remember and head for the kitchen -- laughing the whole way.

End - whatever part this is <sigh>

*****

It's early Thursday evening, and I'm passing my alone time by taking in a little mustn't let Rennie know I'm seeing it TV, making like a sea slug on the new couch Rennie and I went out and got after we ruined our old one during that whole cherry pie filling incident.

I'm sucking down suds and half-watching the bimbo of the week getting damsel-in-distressed by some overinflated overpaid overrated former profootballer who couldn't act his way out of a paper condom. I'm really wanting to fill the old hollow leg with some nutritionally void munchies to go with the intellectually void entertainment being fed to my grey matter by the top rated local network affiliate. But Rennie's due to stick his Stetson through our front door any time, so I'm obeying the newest house rule -- food stays in the kitchen.

The screen flashes to a commercial break. I hit the mute button and change my mental channel, without meaning to.

It's been a couple months since Rennie and me used our own version of the scientific method to prove the Big Bang theory. I still don't know what went on between Rennie and Fraser during their down home Mountie family reunion, but ever since Rennie came back to me, he and Vecchio have this new look they give each other whenever they hook up. Rennie's eyes ask Vecchio has he heard from Fraser and Vecchio's shoot back, "No," and how he isn't the least bit surprised. When Rennie gets his answer, I can see the dial that controls his temper click up another notch.

It's not that I haven't been wanting to change my name to Buttinski, but things with Rennie have been almost smooth sailing, what with him taking over my ass as his new favorite play thing, and it ain't like Fraser's ever listened to my two cents worth. So I've been making like Tiny Tim, tiptoeing around keeping my two lips shut. Besides, ever since Vecchio spilled the three bean salad about his undercover gig, Rennie's been one underestimated overprotective mother hen.

I got to admit I'm still on Big Red's side where the whole star spangled banner crossed lovers thing is concerned, but telling that to Rennie would be like playing with a six foot three inch bonfire and I don't want to be the one to get cut.

I'm just sliding my size ten leather uppers off the coffee table so I can send them to the fridge for the last can of brew when I get a call. The ringer starts hammering and I let my feet do the walking. I pick the receiver up and get a pick me up.

It's Fraser on the other line. He tells me how it's almost the Canadian Turkey day and how he's been "strongly encouraged" to take some of his V time so he doesn't lose it at the end of the year.

He asks if Rennie's offer of our sofa is still good. I tell him the sofa's changed but the offer hasn't. Then I tell him why the sofa's changed, and I believe that whole "hear a pin drop" phone promo because the whoosh of blood rushing to his face comes over the line loud and clear.

He stammers and "now, Ray's" me and it's almost like we're back in the day. He asks after everybody except the body he's really asking after. We're yakking like a couple of Polish grandmothers leaning over our back fences when that pop noise comes across the line. I'm not ready to so long him just yet. I tell him to hang on; I've got another call.

I click over, but I'm wrong. It's not another call. It's the call. Vecchio's talking. I can't make out the words, but it's okay. No, it's not okay, it's. . . understood. Every Mother Father Husband Wife Lover Son Daughter of every cop that has ever been understands that voice. It's the voice that says, "You know that thing that your own personal piece of the thin blue line promised you would never happen? It's happened."

Vecchio tries to give me details -- to tell me which Emergency Department they're at, but I already know. They're at the Public Hospital. It's where all good cops go to die.

I don't tell him goodbye or okay or anything.

The me that jumps on big motorcycles and jumps through bigger windows takes over from the me that pukes and screams like a girl in a rat factory.

I click back over and tell Fraser I have to go -- Vecchio just gave me the call. He says, "Of course," and, "Let me know how it goes," and, "Drive safely."

I might have driven safely, then again, I might not have driven at all. I never could remember a single stop sign or landmark of that trip. I reach the E.D. and make an entrance worthy of an aging drag queen. I burst through the glass doors and land in a sea of blue.

I'm working my way through the noise and stink of a couple baker's dozens of street cops and desk types when Huey snags me by the sleeve of my ratty olive drab Rennie hand me down sweater. He doesn't ask me how I found out about Rennie on my day off. E-mail has nothing on cops for spreading the news.

He tells me they've got a good line on the suspect, but they're going to need my help and we got to head out right now.

I've got two choices and less than two seconds to choose.

Choice one: I pull away from him and tell him that's the love of my worthless life behind that white curtain with the blood spatters, and I could give less than half a pity fuck about the suspect -- that I'm staying right there until I know, until I believe that Rennie's not going anywhere but home with me.

Choice two: I nod my head and follow like a good little round peg in a round hole, normal unbent untwisted man's man cop.

I spare a glance at the curtain and the blood that's now dripping onto the floor. I spare a thought for Rennie's promising career. I tell myself that Rennie is going to be all right and he's going to need his job so he can draw that sorry excuse for a Canadian exchange rate pension when he's ninety. I try to make myself believe it. I rip my heart out of my chest and leave it on the floor next to Vecchio's imported calf skin loafers and the spot where Rennie's blood is starting to thicken and dry.

I roll my round peg ass out to Huey's car and don't listen to a word he doesn't stop saying all the way to the suspect's suspected location.

I didn't know the who, what, when, why and how of where we were riding to. The only think my over stressed under skilled mind could wrap itself around and cling to was the one thing, the one word no one had said.

I was pinning all my hopes to my sleeves with needles made of silence. As long as they kept calling the guy a suspect, scumbag, deadmeat, motherfucker -- anything other than Copkiller -- I knew Rennie was still alive.

I remember more about catching the guy than about the trip to the hospital, but not much. I ended up with a commendation and another award for bravery. Huey told me later that I pulled some officer to safety when the suspect shot him in the groin. Huey also told me that when it came time to chase the guy down, I was ruthless. I just shrugged. I wasn't surprised. It's hard to be any other way when you don't have a heart.

Huey and I cornered the guy -- Crawford "Dollar Bill" Hill -- a half-bit wanna -be player who couldn't finish a crack buy on the Home Shopping Network -- in a deadend deadman's alley in China town not fifty feet from Fraser's favorite family restaurant. Huey shook his broad shoulders out -- all ready to get his game all over Hill's sorry ass and Dollar Bill folded. He proned himself out on the pavement and waited for us to cuff him. Huey stood over him, making his decision -- gun or cuffs. Finally Huey hooked him up and left him laying on the garbage covered pavement -- figured he'd feel like he was among friends, I guess.

Huey got on the radio and gave dispatch the low down. Officers started to trickle and then pour in. Huey walked Dollar Bill to a near by squad car and stopped to pose for the local media -- I snagged a still running squad car and headed for Rennie.

When I walked back into the E.D., I stepped into Hell. Things had pretty much cleared out. There were the usual helpless and hopeless sitting and bleeding quietly in chairs as they waited patiently to be seen by sleep deprived, caffeine fueled residents in residence.

There were no officers anywhere. The curtain that had kept my eyes from Rennie was open. The space was newly cleaned and the smell hinted at the much desired, never attained sterile environment.

I froze solid as Arctic soil. I could tell the world was still going on all around me. I could see it and hear it and smell it, but I couldn't feel it. I couldn't feel anything except the worn, scratched floor tiles crumbling under my feet and the sickening uplift of my stomach as I started to fall. A hand pulled me back at the last second -- a small soft hand. Frannie squeezed me like a grapefruit and told me how she was glad I was there; Rennie was worried about me. I wanted her to sit down and pull me onto her lap and hold me while I cried it all better. But the guy who walked me out of this room hadn't changed any in the last four hours, so I couldn't ask her.

Instead I asked her where Rennie was. She led me to the elevator that went to the city's morgue. Only we went up, not down.

We stepped out onto the fourth floor and were surrounded by a bunch of beat cops who were slapping me on the back with their greasy pizza eating hands and shouting for details around the free-to-police deep dish everything-but-the-kitchen-sink special filling their mouths.

Frannie cleared them off of me with her newly earned Officer's Voice and inborn Italian pseudo-sister protectiveness. She told them Rennie had first dibs on my story and since he could only have one visitor at a time, they'd just have to wait.

They shuffled back to their pizza and Frannie hustled me to Rennie's door. She told me to take my own sweet time. She and her partner had door duty and no one -- NO ONE -- but her was going to step in that door until I stepped out of it.

*

I open the door and walk in blind. The lights are real low and I don't know what I'm going to find. I really don't care about him for me. He's alive; that's all I need to know. I'll spend the next fifty years emptying his colostomy bag and sponge bathing him and thank God for the privilege. But I care a whole lot about him for him.

I know he thinks he's only as good and important as the things he does, and to not be able to do those things will kill him from the inside out.

I close my eyes to the dark and turn an ear to where the bed should be. I hear the soft steady beep of Rennie's heart bouncing up and down on the monitor and that's all -- no struggling suctioning whoosh of a breathing machine or humming of a brain monitor or a thousand other death knells.

He's got a bandage around his left shoulder and a tube sticking out of his left arm. His face is clean. There's dried blood all gooped up in his hair. He's not wearing a gown, but the blanket is pulled half-way up his chest. His smooth skin is glowing blue in the light of the heart monitor. His lips are pale and there are big dark circles under his eyes.

I walk over to him, but I don't touch him. I don't know if he wants me to touch him.

He clears his sandpaper throat and takes a sip of the hospital water I offer him. He's just a little too eager to lean back into the raised mattress.

"It was a single shot. It went straight through muscle and exited cleanly. I fell into a pile of refuse. There was more blood loss than there should have been because I resisted when the medics tried to strap me to the gurney. Ray convinced them to transport me without restraints.

I start to cry and start to talk before I can stop myself.

"You look like shit."

His eyes are begging me for something, but my thick as a brick wall brain doesn't figure it out until he asks me flat out.

"How do I feel?"

I'm together enough to remember he might not want my flyweight frame resting on him after his fight with the EMT's. I hang onto the edge of the bed with both hands and lean over and kiss him. His mouth tastes like his Mountie buddies have been using it for a barn, but I don't care. I kiss him and kiss him and don't stop kissing him until his heart monitor starts doing the Cha-cha in triple time.

He pulls back first and scoots over to the far edge of the bed. There isn't a lot of space, but that's okay, there isn't a lot of me. I slip in next to him and make like superglue on his unpunctured side. We've got a lot to talk about and some for me to yell at him about and more for him to yell at me about. But that's for later. Now is for holding and crying and praying, "Thank you, God."

We stay like that until Frannie sneaks in and tells me Welsh called and said there are blank offense forms at the station, sitting on my desk calling my name. I stand up, kiss Rennie and tell him I'll be back. He tells me to be safe. It's something we say each time the other leaves for work, but now the words have new layers of hope and fear.

I give him a promise I have no control over, put on my Detective Kowalski face and step out into the hallway. I give the officers -- who are now working on some cheese danish -- a macho Reader's Digest condensed version of Huey's heroics and head off to live the lie that is my life for one more day.

I break several land speed handwriting records pumping out my reports and reports about my reports and supplements to my reports. I shower in the locker room and change into the clothes hanging in my locker, after smelling them to make sure they aren't clothes I changed out of the last time I needed to change out of clothes at work.

I walk into the Hospital and run into Vecchio. I haven't got the whole story from Rennie, so I don't know if I should thank Vecchio or kick him in his skinny Dago ass. I settle for saying, "Hey."

He's got one of those cardboard drink holders with four large coffees. I ask if he's been demoted to errand boy and he says how anything is better than being in the same room as Rennie's boss and Welsh's boss. I allow as how that's probably a wise decision. We share an elevator and the short walk to Rennie's room, where the brass and Frannie are waiting for us. Both commanders are making all soft and cuddly in front of Rennie, but their edges are hard as steel and their eyes are colder than a well-digger's shovel.

Rennie sees me and tells the room at large that he's needing some beauty rest. Vecchio suggests someone stay with him in case he wakes up and needs anything. I offer up.

The brass eyes me up and down and up again. I snag a chair and eye them right back, daring them to cross me. They walk out and my memory rushes in.

"Fraser."

"What, Ray?"

"Fraser, I was on the other line with him when I got the call. I need to let him know you're going to be okay."

Rennie hits his nurse-call button. A round breasted mattress thrasher who looks too happy to help Rennie to make me happy about her being at his beck and call wiggles her hourglass figure into his personal space and asks what she can do for him.

He flashes killer smile number seventy-four and asks her to get Vecchio. She turns on her heel like a good puppy and goes to fetch him.

When Vecchio pokes his head into the room, Rennie asks him for a favor. Vecchio says, "Sure."

Sucker.

Rennie tells him about my phone call and then tells him to call Fraser. Vecchio's eyes dull down and his spine folds in on itself, just a bit. He doesn't even argue. He's given up hoping. He says, "Sure," again and asks me for the number. I hand him a scrap of paper I keep in my wallet and he leaves us alone.

"What was that all about?"

"Just another little push in what I hope it the right direction."

"Shoving the guy off a cliff, more like."

"Not him, Ray, Fraser."

How exactly is Vecchio's voice supposed to push Fraser in the right direction?"

*

*

"Oh."

*

"You really are an evil son of a bitch, and I love you for it. You think it will work?"

"I don't know, Ray. But I haven't been able to form a better plan."

"He's coming, you know, for Canadian Thanksgiving. When the Hell is Canadian Thanksgiving anyway? And how come you guys got to have a Thanksgiving? Copycatters."

"Two weeks from Thursday, and I shall ignore your latest insult regarding Canadian cultural celebrations."

"Oh, yeah and what if I keep reminding you? You going to make me pay for it?"

"Quite possibly."

"Oooh, I'm shaking and it ain't from fear. Lay one on me Big Man. Umm. . . Did I mention I brought you my toothbrush?"

*

It doesn't take me too long to find a phone at an abandoned nurses station -- staffing isn't what it used to be. The phone rings twice and a professional courteous, non-Benny Canadian picks up the line.

"Wooten barracks, second floor."

"Yeah, uh, is. . .is Constable Fraser there?"

"One moment, sir, I'll check his room. Whom shall I say is calling?"

"Just get him, will ya?"

I hear the phone hit the wall and footsteps walking away. Less than a minute later and he's on the phone. He sounds the same, and I don't manage to not wonder if he looks and smells the same.

"Constable Fraser here."

I don't know what to call him, so I don't call him anything.

"Turnbull got shot once, in the shoulder. It went straight through. He's going to be okay. They're keeping him in the hospital for a couple days for o bservation -- to make sure he doesn't get an infection."

He doesn't give me anything but silence. I didn't expect anything else. I didn't even hope for anything else. I go to hang up the phone. I hear his voice come over the line and almost hang up anyway, almost.

". . .Ray, Ray. . ."

"I'm here."

*

*

*

"It's . . . good . . . to hear your voice, Ray."

End Part Fifty-three

*****

Be very glad that I went through Cheryl first. This is completely different from my original and second writings for this section. This entire part is going to be difficult, I can tell.

It is very short and much more low key than I had anticipated. I hope you aren't disappointed.

Warnings: None

*********

The instructors' barracks come equipped with a single coin-operated telephone on each floor. This particular version is a small poorly lit space that was tightly fit between what now serve as the men's and women's locker rooms sometime not long after the Second World War. It is damp and hot and smells of lead-based paint and mildew.

I have stood in this very both countless times with one hand on the receiver and the other full of quarters, practicing what I might say to him. I often stand in here for an hour or more, unaware of those who pass by until someone raps politely on the door and asks if I am done with my call.

And I find myself standing here once again, this time a lucky victim of Turnbu ll's cruel fate.

"It's. . . good. . . to hear your voice, Ray."

I find myself absentmindedly caressing the pay telephone. As though my touch could somehow be transmitted along with my words and relieve me of some of the burden of voicing my tightly bound emotions.

I hear him swallow and then sigh, but no verbal response is forthcoming. I am tempted to hang up the receiver and replace this fresh raw pain with the now familiar dull ache of loneliness. But memories of my conversation with Turnbull bolster my courage and I plow ahead.

"How. . . how is the weather?"

I make a very poor showing of it, but it is the best I can do. I press my forehead to the phone and pray he understands. Silence is his only response.

There is a polite rap at the phone booth's flimsy door. It is my co-teacher of choice, Corporal Preetish, and it is now three minutes past time for his daily call to his lovely future bride, Dipa.

"Fraser, if it wouldn't be any trouble, I should like to use the telephone."

I plead quietly into the mouthpiece, "Please, Ray." Please, God, let him give me something, anything.

"Constable?"

I resist the desire to throttle the man with my free hand and manage to sound fairly calm.

"One moment, Corporal, if you please."

"Please, Ray?"

I wait for nearly a full minute. I am nowhere near patient, buy my deeply-ingrained stubborn streak is rewarded for being the sometime virtue that it is.

"It snowed on Monday. But then the thermometer went back up on Tuesday. The snow mixed with car exhaust and turned into black slush. It's still hanging around and it's supposed to get cold again tonight. So the city is probably going to be covered in dirty, nasty, refrozen black slush crap by morning."

The ice in my veins begins to break apart and I smile.

"That's wonderful, Ray."

I can hear Preetish shuffling his immaculate uniform shoes on the well-worn hallway floor tiles. There is nothing more that can be said between Ray and I with a fellow officer so close at my hand.

"I must go now, Ray. I have a superior officer waiting to use the phone."

"Sure thing, I wouldn't want him to beat you to death with all three pages of the Runamuckluk phone book."

His voice lacks the sharp, stinging bite of arid with that I long ago came to associate with affection. It now resembles nothing so much as the rasping straw-throated hollow men. But he tried. He is trying.

We are, neither of us, at all good at this sort of thing. But I am emboldened by his favorable response to my first question. And so I chance another.

"May I call you?"

"I'm not sure if. . ."

"I am, Ray. I'm very sure."

"If you want to. I guess."

"I do want to. And I will. I'll call you soon, very soon. Goodbye, Ray."

"Later."

"Yes, Ray, later -- but soon."

"Hang up the phone."

"Yes, Ray."

"Today."

I hang up the phone and open the poorly constructed door in somewhat of a daze. Preetish is by now used to seeing me emerge from this booth in an altered state of mind, but not this particular state.

"Is everything well, Fraser?"

I grasp him firmly by the shoulders and smilingly deliver the news of the day.

"The weather in Chicago is just horrible."

Preetish, a veteran of a long tempestuous courtship with his fiancee understands instantly the source of my happiness.

"I am very glad to hear that, my friend."

"Thank you."

I clap his shoulders again, we shake hands and he shakes his head in amusement as I whistle my way back to my room.

I stop there long enough to gather my coat and Diefenbaker. We walk to a little-used section of Depot grounds and then we run and stomp through the pristine powder snow, full of the joy of being alive.

*

I hang up the phone and walk further down the hall, away from Rennie's honor guard. The HMO that runs this joint is too cheap to keep it fully staffed, so most of the rooms on this wing are empty. I round a corner and duck into a room. I do a quick once over and make sure it isn't being used. Then I squat down with my back to the heavy door, but my bald head in my bony hands and bawl.

When the wells have run dry, I bow my overgrown nose, wash my face in the wheelchair accessible sink, dry myself off on a musty towel and walk out to perform in the show that I have made my life into for one more day.

End Part Fifty-four

*****

Warnings: Written with the help of Dr. Pepper and store brand squeezy cheese.

*********

It's Saturday afternoon and for once, it's actually my Saturday afternoon. Rotating shifts are hell on the body, but this is the payoff -- three actual weekends off in a row every six months or so. Of course, I haven't done any real work since Thursday and probably won't for the next week. Being the partner of a cop who takes a bullet does have residual benefits. And seeing as how the worst thing Rennie is going to have to show for all of this is a new pair of scars -- matching entrance and exit wounds -- I can sit back and enjoy myself a little.

I'm doing bedside watch with Rennie to give him a break from Stanley "Can I get you anything?" Kowalski's inner mother hen. He's been in a good mood since I told him about my phone call to Canada on Thursday. I guess he's pretty pleased with himself. I don't know how I feel, except maybe scared shitless. But I can't let myself brood over it in front of Rennie. If I start making unhappy faces, I'll have to live through another lecture. And it's bad form to shoot a guy that's still in the hospital from being shot by some other guy. I know. I asked around.

We're passing the time trading dirty limericks. Rennie let it slip once that he remembers everything he ever hears. And after listening to him spout ten poems for each one of mine, I believe it.

"There once was a Greek aviator, with a penis shaped like. . ."

Rennie and I hear the door open at the same time, but I'm laughing too hard and have to wipe the tears out of my eyes to see who the intruder was. So Rennie gets the first word in.

"Hello, Ray."

"Hey, Stan, you aren't supposed to be back here for another four hours. You've got to get some sleep."

"You know I don't sleep good without Rennie there. I can sleep in a chair."

Rennie and I had talked about what Stan did after the shooting. He knew they needed to have it out and soon or Stan was going to guilt himself into his very own hospital bed. He'd spent most of his time since the shooting here in Rennie's room, maybe too much time. I had already heard a few whispers from the officers out in the hallway. I'd warned Rennie about that too and he said he'd take care of it. I wish I knew for certain what his idea of taking care of it was.

"Ray, please go home and get some good sleep. I'm going to be released tomorrow and I'll need you to be awake and healthy to help me around the apartment.

"Man oh man, if Stan wasn't here, I would bow to the master. Rennie has his number down to the decimal point. Guilt is the only language Stan seems to speak anymore. He's shuffling his feet and looking like he just homered a baseball through St. Theresa's stained glass window.

"Okay, okay, but there's someone downstairs who wants to talk to Vecchio. And I'm not leaving you alone in this wasteland that passes for a city hospital. I'll wait with you until he's done outside."

"Who is it now? I've already made my reports to Internal Affairs and the shooting team and the district attorney and Welsh."

"What do I look like, your social secretary? You want I should get you a cup of coffee and let you chase me around your desk too, Vecchio?"

"Don't tempt me, Stan. I bet those legs of yours would look pretty good in a little mini-skirt and some spike heels."

Rennie really gets off on Stan and me getting along, so he's been smiling through our whole exchange. When I get to the last part, he kind of snickers and Stan turns on him.

"Are you taking his skinny-assed side now?"

"Actually, Ray, I was wondering where we might acquire a pair of spiked heels in your size."

"Har de ha ha. That is not funny. I am not laughing at that."

I leave them to their lovetalk. I make sure the door is shut behind me and that Frannie is the one guarding the door. I wave my good-byes to the now considerably smaller honor guard. I round the corner on my way to the elevators and am suddenly chest to chest with Canada's Finest and finest.

"Ray."

"Fraser."

"Ray."

We stand there like the couple of idiots that we are. And I think we might grow old like this -- Ray, Fraser, Ray, Fraser, Ray -- then we hear a couple of voices coming our way. It's Huey and Dewey. We both know it and we both know, without saying anything, that we don't want to see them just now.

He grabs me by the lapels of my newest off the boat Italian wool winter coat and pulls my into the nearest room. Grace of God, it's empty. He's got me pressed up against the wall. His fingers are still wrapped in my lapels and he's looking at me like he doesn't hate me after all.

He says my name again and tries to kiss me. I turn my head away.

"Don't do that."

"Please, Ray."

"You don't want this. You don't want me. You can't."

"But I do, Ray."

"Not if you knew."

"It doesn't matter. Whatever you did, it doesn't matter."

I shake my head.

"Tell me, Ray. Tell me everything."

I open my mouth to say I can't tell him anything and to just let me go. Before I can say the words, we hear quiet voices muffled by the thick door. He puts his warm hand over my mouth, real soft like.

"Not here."

I nod and he takes his hand away. I want him to put it back.

"I have to see Turnbull first -- and Ray."

He's moved in so close to me that when I nod again, the tip of my nose brushes his cheek. He shivers.

"Come with me?"

"I can't -- not like this. I don't want to see anybody."

"Then wait for me. Wait in your car. We'll go somewhere."

I don't say anything. I've already cried one too many times in this hospital.

"Please, Ray, where can we go?"

How the hell should I know where we can go? We can't go to my place, Ma and the kids would be all over him. He doesn't have a place anymore, not even that godforsaken office he called a home.

"Your hotel room?"

"I didn't let a hotel room."

I start to make a crack about proper preparation and he reads my mind. He cuts me off.

"We'll get one as soon as I'm done here. I need to see Turnbull first."

"I know."

I think he's going to kiss me now. I think I'm going to let him. The voices of people walking down the hall interrupt us. It's Huey and Dewey again. He backs away from me and straightens his jacket.

"Benny?"

"Yes, Ray?"

"I'm really fucked up."

"I know, Ray."

"I'm sorry for everything, Benny. Even the things you don't know about."

"As am I."

"You go see Rennie. I'll be in the Riv, I promise."

"I have faith in you, Ray."

I don't know what to say to that, so I nod for the millionth time and walk out to try to meet my goal of keeping one promise a day.

End part Fifty-five

****

A table with two chairs, an entertainment center, wetbar with key, fiberboard dresser and mirror, a nailed-to-the-wall vanity counter, two nightstands, two lamps, one mass-produced oil painting, a bathroom door that comes complete with fire escape map, and a bed with a washed-out pastel scratchy thin comforter, the lingering threat of old cigarette smoke -- it could be any rack rate room in any hotel in any decent sized city in America, but it's not. It's the room I've plunked down too many greenbacks for. It's the room we should have been in almost a year ago. The room Benny is going to call home for the next eighteen hours or so. The room that he insisted would come with one bed -- one very big bed.

Being a hotel desk clerk isn't like being a cop, but it must be close enough because the knit one, purl two grandmother behind the counter didn't bat an eyelash at Benny's request -- just asked if we wanted our big-bed room to come with a view of the river.

I don't know if it's my porno-based solo sex life or Benny's letting the desk clerk and a good number of the lobbyrats think that we're here to do the nasty, but I've got the sense I'm looking at the bed through one of those fisheye camera lenses. It feels like it takes up sixty percent of the room and the longer I hang in the doorway, the bigger it's getting.

I can't let myself forget that we aren't here to take advantage of each other or that bed that now fills seventy-five percent of the room. We're here to play "This is Your Sick and Twisted Life". I'm the only contestant tonight. I know what he said back at the hospital about not caring about what I've done, but he doesn't have clue one about who I did some of those things to -- some of the worst things -- and I'm afraid she's going to be the straw that breaks the Mountie's heart.

I'm staring at the room -- at the bed -- and Benny's staring at me. He's still standing in the hall, carrying his bedroll and knapsack. He's a finger's breadth away, closer than I've let anyone since I evicted Armando Langostini from my brain and chose to become the inky shadow of my old self. Benny brushes the backs of his knuckles lightly against the back of what is left of my hair. I don't lean into his touch, but I don't pull away.

"Ray, my bags are rather heavy. If you wouldn't mind?"

Old die-hard habits and patterns. His bags are heavy, but he could carry them for hours without feeling the weight. Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP, would rather chew sandpaper than point out someone's shortcomings. So saying, "My bags are rather heavy," is much easier for him than, "You idiot, stop standing in the hallway like a virgin on prom night."

I put my right foot in the room. I take my right foot out. I Hokey Pokey my skinny ass into the hall and motion for Benny to lead the way. He acts like my dance number is the most normal thing in the world, like it's some Inuit ritual to welcome him to my fair garbage-strewn city. He thanks me kindly and steps through the mental barrier I put over the door. He walks inside and places his bags on the dresser. He takes off his jacket and drapes it over the back of one of those chairs. He can't hang it up because the closet is hidden behind the door that I'm still standing in front of.

Benny takes too much time with making sure his jacket is resting just so. He lines up the shoulder seams with the edges of the back of the chair and then smoothes the yoke under his restless fingers. When he realizes what he's doing, his hands slow and then stop, but they don't move away from the water-resistant material. He turns his head to where I'm still standing under the door's frame.

The room is cool and quiet, and we are still. He stands in his chosen spot and looks at me. He's not staring into me or trying to work through the maze that is my twisted mind. He's just got his eyes on me. Maybe he doesn't know what to do with me now that he knows he can have me -- like a Christmas present that doesn't live up to the commercial hype. I half-expect him to turn away from me. At least I tell myself I won't be surprised if that's what he does. Expect the worst. Don't dare to hope for the best. That way, if the worst happens, I haven't stepped so far out of the dark that I can't find my way back.

Benny holds his hand out to me. I feel Armando Langostini standing at my shoulder and hear him whispering in my ear. He doesn't come when called. He's the one who snaps his freshly manicured you'd-better-come-running fingers.

Benny tilts his head in a silent invitation, and I tell Armando Langostini that I'm going in and he isn't welcome.

I put my right foot in the room. I take a shaky breath. I put my left foot in. I walk past Benny's reaching out hand and step into what used to be my piece of his personal space. He wraps his arms around my bony self. A moment in Paradise. I think about all of the things I've done to earn this piece of peace.

Benny's body goes stiff and I jealously look around to see what's taken his attention away from me. It's a youngish couple standing in the hall, giving us the "Look, Marge, faggots" twice-over. I pull away from Benny and slam the door in their judgmental faces.

I'm angry. It's easier to be angry than scared -- or honest. So I'm angry.

"Goddammed, right-winged, sanctimonious bastards. Like we're any business of theirs. He probably dresses up like a prison matron and has her fist him one every Tuesday night."

I punctuate my tirade with a well-placed expletive aimed at the thick automatically-locking door.

"Motherfuckers!"

". . .Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray. . ."

"What, goddammit?"

"May I take your coat?"

"What?"

"May I take your coat?"

"May you take my coat?"

"Yes, Ray, we've been in here for several minutes and you have yet to remove your coat. I thought you might be more comfortable without it."

"They're staring at us like we're that porn star that got elected to an Italian Congressional seat, and you want to know if you can take my coat! Don't you give a shit about what just happened?"

"I care very much, Ray."

"Then act like it."

"I care. I care that I just held you. I care that you allowed me to hold you. I care that we have been exposed to the world and that you did not run away. I care."

"Shit, Benny, don't do that."

"Don't do what, Ray?"

"Don't go all romantic and faggy on me. I hate that."

"But I am faggy, Ray. We both are."

"I am not. . .you're laughing at me."

"Never, Ray."

"I know what you're trying to do, and I'm not going to let you do it."

He's not smiling. It's killing him, but he's not smiling.

"Whatever do you mean, Ray?"

I'm no Mountie, but I can do a pretty good imitation when the mood strikes.

"Whatever do you mean, Ray? I would never try to dissuade you from your display of righteous anger, Ray. I would never distract you with the fact that you will be labeled a faggot instead of permitting you to dwell on the notion that you have just been outed to some small degree, Ray. Have you ever considered a job as an interior decorator, Ray?

"That's whatever do I mean, Benny."

I've been pacing and hand-flailing like the Italian Kowalski could only be in his dreams. I end up standing next to the bed that now takes up ninety percent of the room.

"That's just silly, Ray."

He hasn't changed. He's still the man who first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father.

My ass meets the mattress and my face meets my hands. I stall by rubbing my skinny fingers over my face. I finish with my elbows on my knees and my hands folded in front of my mouth like I'm praying. It's been so long since I've done that, I'm not sure if I remember how.

I'm so far from being who I was that it had never occurred to me that Benny would be his old self.

"You haven't changed, Benny. I'm a different person, but you haven't changed at all."

"I'm not who I was. Not even close. I still wear the same clothes and walk and talk the same, but I'm not any closer to being the real Ray Vecchio than Kowalski ever was."

He starts to say something.

"Let me finish."

He pulls his jacket's chair out from under the table and sits. And for once, he does as I ask.

"You're you, but I'm not me. I want you. You want me. You're right here in front of me. I could reach out and touch you. But the me you want, he's not in this room. I don't know if he's anywhere.

"This isn't going to work. It can't work. When you know the things that the thing I've become has done, you won't want me. It's pointless. It's over and it's always going to be over and I should just go."

He never did take my coat, so there isn't anything keeping me here. I stand up and make my way to the door. I have my hand on the knob and I'm five seconds from Scot free.

"You left me."

He stands up, but he doesn't walk toward me. He just takes one small step onto his soapbox.

This is what he's wanted all along -- to play the blame game. If anyone's got it coming, it's me. I wait with my hand on the doorknob. I wait for him to get his anger and pain out into the open, because then he'll be done with me and he can move on and I can stop moving at all.

"Americans seem to have a fascination with forgiving others for sins which have not been committed against them. What could I possibly care about forgiving you for the actions you took while you were undercover? You didn't do those things to me. You did them to survive. I understand that. I may not like or condone some of the things that you did. I may find them abhorrent. But you didn't do them to me. It isn't my place to judge you, and it most certainly is not my place to absolve you.

"You left me and I forgave you, without question, without reservation, without explanation.

"And then you came back, and I was so relieved. I wanted explanations and I wanted questions answered, but the only thing I needed was you with me.

"You did come back, but you didn't come back to me. You didn't even let me get close enough to allow you to push me away. You came back only to leave again, and I hated you for it. I hated you for leaving me. Your only sin against me was leaving me. That is what I meant when I said that I forgave you. That is all I have the right to do. I forgive you and God help me, but I don't give a damn about the rest.

"I am an unyielding man, Ray Vecchio. I have never been one to compromise. You have my forgiveness for what you have done in the past, and nothing you can say will change that. But if you walk out of that door, if you leave for a third time, it will be the last time. I forgave you twice -- freely. I don't have it in me to do it a third time.

"So leave. Or stay, as you will. But understand that this time your decision if forever. You are with me or not. We are together or not. We are partners and lovers and lifemates and faggots or not."

He's run himself out of steam and me out of excuses. Is it really possible to die of fear? Right now, I'd lay odds on it. Do I release the doorknob or do I turn it? The whole rest of my life rests on the answer to this small question. Release? Turn? Fear freezes my hand. I force it to move. I try once and again and then again and finally manage to force it to move.

"So are you going to offer to take my coat or do I have to die of heatstroke here?"

"May I take your coat, Ray?"

"Thanks, Benny."

"You are most welcome, Ray."

End Part Fifty-six

*****

Realtime continuation. . .

*********

He takes my overcoat and my suit coat and hangs them in the closet. He looks over at his jacket and I know what his anal-retentive soul is thinking about. I get the jacket and hand it to him. He smiles his thanks, grateful I understand that it's being out of place would distract him during the story I'm about to spill.

He hangs his jacket next to my suit coat, and I can't help but think how good they look sitting together like that.

I sit on the edge of the bed again. The bedsprings moan out a small complaint and I slide even closer to the edge.

Benny pulls a chair over and sits in front of me, his knees touching mine.

I lean into him. He closes his eyes and moves closer to me. Our foreheads touch. I take his hands in mine and close my eyes too -- that way, I can see what I'm going to say.

My thumb rubs the fine hairs on the back of his hands, trying to soothe the wound I know I'm about to reopen.

I don't start at the beginning. I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses or making a pity play. I get paid to manipulate people for a living, and I'm damned good at it. Benny deserves better than that. He deserves "just the facts, ma'am", and that's what I'm going to give him.

When the images behind my eyes fall into a chaotic version of order, I know that it's time.

"Victoria.

"It was Victoria. One of my -- Langostini's -- one of Langostini's men caught her cheating at poker. He pointed her out on the monitor. I told him to bring her to me. Different name, different clothes, but I knew it was her right away. I never knew if she knew if I was me. I never asked. I never cared.

"I bought her. She put herself up for sale, and I paid the price. I'm still paying her price.

"I. . .I made her a whore, Benny. I used her and I passed her around like a bottle of screw-top wine. 'Good job with collections this week, Bruno. Go tell Cate I said to suck you off.' She did everything I said and I liked it.

"I wanted to hurt her. I wanted to humiliate her. She made you do things you can't ever take back, things you'll be ashamed of forever. I wanted her to know how that felt. I wanted to turn her into that thing she had tried to make you. I wanted her to look in a mirror and see the monster I saw. I wanted her to hate her own beautiful face. I was going to make her hate her beautiful face.

"I told myself that I was just trying to keep my cover. That I was doing what Armando would do. He had a certain. . .reputation, and the things I did to Victoria fit in perfectly.

"I kept telling myself that and I kept on believing it, until she died.

"I know I told her that I would kill her if she hurt you, but I didn't want. . .

"I swear. I swear to the Virgin Mary that I never wanted what she got.

"It was a drive-by. Some little punk thought he could move up in his Family by wiping out The Bookman. We were getting out of my limo -- Langostini's limo.

"She never had a chance. She was dead before I could touch her."

"I gave her a funeral, Benny. I didn't know what she believed in, but I gave her a good funeral -- Catholic Mass and everything. I did that for you. I still didn't care about her. I wanted to, but I couldn't.

"I'm sorry."

I cry heavy silent tears. Benny doesn't move, doesn't speak. I force the tears to stop and wipe my eyes with our hands.

I lean back to see if he'll look at me, hope he will still look at me.

He's looking at me. I can't tell what he's thinking, he's got his interview face on.

He eyes move to my lap. His thumb is rubbing my hand now. He lowers his head and rests it on our hands.

He's thinking. He's making up his mind. He sighs and rubs his eyebrow over his thumb. He sits up, still wearing his interview face.

"Turnbull -- Renfield -- Renfield told me what they did to you, what the FBI did to you. How they convinced you to work for them. Not all of it, but enough."

"Benny, that's not an excuse for. . ."

He puts our hands over my mouth.

"I don't know the name of the agent they sent to you. For all of our sakes, I pray I never do.

"Ray, I know that it's not something that you can see, but I have changed. I have admitted to myself that I have a bitter darkness in my soul. I am arrogant and selfish and obsessive."

I try to interrupt again.

"Stop. Listen. It's my turn to confess.

"If I were ever put into your situation. If I were chosen to be an Armando Langostini. If it were I looking into that security monitor, and I knew I was looking at that FBI agent, I would have him brought to me. I could do what you did. I would do what you did.

"I would have done exactly what you did -- with a great deal less regret."

"You can't know that, Benny."

"I know, Ray. I look at you -- at what they tried to make you -- and I know.

"There's a black, gnawing thing inside of me, Ray. It's eating away everything in me that is good. Every day that I am away from you, it grows more voracious, more demanding.

"I need you, Ray. I ache for you. You are my light, my oxygen. You are my manna from Heaven, and I won't be without you any longer.

"Please."

He leans forward. He tries to kiss me. I let him.

He presses into me. He tries to devour me. I let him.

I shake his hands off of mine and grab desperately at his head, thread my fingers into his hair and hold on much too tightly.

End Part Fifty-seven

*****

Realtime continuation. . . But from Benny's POV

*********

We are here. At long last, we are here. We have spoken and touched and come to an understanding. His elegant fingers are pulling desperately at my hair. I extricate myself from his grasp and encourage his hands to circle my waist instead.

We kiss. We're too desperate to do anything else. Too long imprisoned by pain to do anything else.

We kiss our lips raw. He presses against me, hard. I press harder and we end up falling back onto the bed. My shoulders hit the mattress, and the judgmental squeak of wise, experienced bedsprings shocks me into pulling back from him. We stare into each other's eyes, searching for answers to long-held questions. I assume he finds the same truths I do, because, without taking his eyes off of mine, he reaches over and undoes the buttons of my shirt.

He's trying to go slowly, to make this last. He's trying to make it perfect. I know there's no such thing. We are going to sweat and stink, and our bodies will betray us by making comical noises. We're going to stain the covers and the sheets and perhaps the pillows as well. No one can make it perfect. But I can make it right.

"Ray?"

"Yes?"

"I want very much to show you that I love you."

"I want that too, Benny."

I sit up and press him back into the protesting mattress.

"But first, I'm going to show you how much I need you."

In our recently-begun, unusually honest correspondence, Renfield has often written of Ray's self-imposed solitary state, of his continued withdrawl from friends and family and life. I shamefully admit that found dark pleasure in hoping that Ray was unwilling, unable to find happiness outside of my presence in his life.

I see the bitter truth of Renfield's words shining through the dry brightness of Ray's eyes.

His eyes are enormous, the emerald of their irises is swallowed by their fathomless pupils as his long-neglected libido explains my words to his body.

I strip us both and fall upon him like wolf in heat. I leave no part of him untouched and very few parts unmarked.

We thrash about and wrestle for long minutes. We rub against one another and grasp at beloved flesh. We roll and twist into ridiculous positions. We tumble onto the floor and we laugh. We laugh and I know then that we have won. We are together. We will heal.

Our eyes meet and our laughter fades away. I am on my back on the rough industrial-grade carpet and he is kneeling between my legs. He leans forward and kisses me messily. Our groins meet and he thrusts against me, slowly, deliberately. I grab the perfect globe of his ass, my hands covering more than one love bite.

I rock my hips, and my hands encourage his pelvis to do the same. We find our rhythm and rush headlong toward completion.

Ray tumbles first. A voiceless gasp and arch of spine are my only warnings. He releases his seed onto my stomach and my chest, and pants his relief against my neck.

He realizes that he finished our journey alone.

"Benny?"

"Soon, Ray."

"Soon?"

"Yes, Ray."

He slides his hand through the semen splattered across my torso. His hand works its way between our bodies and his fingers wrap around my penis. He matches the tempo of his hand to that of his hips.

"Now, Ray."

"Now?"

"Now."

"Now is good, Benny. Now works for me."

I try to answer, but my orgasm takes command of my throat and loudly shouts its arrival.

Ray lowers himself onto me and covers me with his full weight. We drift lazily in a post-orgasmic haze.

"I can't believe we just did the nasty on this hard floor."

I laugh. He smiles. We drag our spent, momentarily sated selves onto the thoroughly wrecked bed. We untwist the covers and the sheets. I have no idea how that pillow came to rest on the dresser, but Ray and I can share the one I retrieved from the floor.

We hold one another for long moments. Ray senses my restlessness.

"Go get a towel, Benny."

"I'm fine, Ray."

"You know you want to clean up."

"I can clean up in the morning, Ray."

I hold out for approximately five seconds.

"I'm going to get a towel, Ray."

"Sure thing, Benny. I'll be here when you get back."

"I know."

*****

Benny is talking and trying to show me that he isn't the pure in thought and deed officer who walked up to my desk almost five years ago. And I find myself wanting to believe him, maybe even really believing him. Because he's admitting that he isn't as perfect on the inside as he looks on the outside. He's copping to nasty hurtful mean thoughts and how he thinks he could act out each one of those thoughts -- and all this without anyone running high-voltage electric currents through his body.

Then it's here, the moment I've been dreading like a diabetic faced with a three-layer Black Forest cake. I know it might kill me, but I think it will be worth it. I've been alone for so long, that sometimes I think my skin has a layer of permafrost that not even he can melt away.

He leans forward. He tries to kiss me. I let him.

It's put-up or shut-up time -- put-out or shut-out. My heart is a jack-hammer in my chest, and damn it, if it isn't taking all of the blood that I could really use somewhere else right now.

He presses into me. He tries to devour me. I let him.

Kissing is good. I can handle kissing.

I shake his hands off of mine and grab desperately at his head, thread my fingers into his hair and hold on much too tightly. If I kiss him good enough, maybe I can make him forget about the rest of it -- for a while.

We kiss a lot. We've got the kissing thing down pat, but everything else I've got is down too. No up anywhere, if you get my drift. My lips are getting raw, his are already there. I start to panic, until he starts to make those noises. He moans low in his throat and then he's humming while he's kissing me.

I know what comes next. I remember what comes next.

He's going to start sex-talking me.

He starts sex-talking me.

A couple more hums and moans and then I find out my skin is addicting, that I taste like honeyed-musk behind my left ear, that he loves my nose, gets turned on just thinking about touching my bald head, thinks about my hands when he masturbates, that he wants to crawl inside of me and live there.

The best part about his sex-talk, he doesn't know he's doing it. I asked --teased -- him about it last time, and he just said, "I most certainly do not." And he meant it.

He gets to that part about my hands, and my dick realizes that he just said "masturbate" -- that he does masturbate. I get the Technicolor wide-screen version of that film in my head. My dick is hard, really and truly a full-press boner. I don't know if it's going to turn into anything more than that. Right now, I'm just happy that it's willing to come out and play while there's someone else to play with.

Even if I can't come through -- so to speak -- I can come through for Benny. He thinks about my hands while he's working himself over? We can always find out if reality can live up to his fantasies.

Now that I'm a man with a plan, I feel kind of confident and maybe even relaxed.

I'm going to make this perfect.

I try to go slow, make him as comfortable as I feel. He's got his own ideas, tells me he's going to show me how much he needs me.

Need. That word sums up the last two years of my life. No matter what I was doing or not doing, everything -- every day -- had a quiet desperate undercurrent of need running through it.

I can see that he can see the pain that has made a home for itself in the back of my eyes. I am sure that it will be too much, that it will ruin the mood.

But once he's decided on a course of action, Benton Fraser, RCMP, is not a man to be denied. He has decided that he is going to have this. He is going to have me -- now.

Then we're rubbing and doing a horizontal bump and grind. We have to look like a couple of Greco-Roman wrestlers -- complete with historically accurate uniforms, or lack of uniforms. We're sweating and straining and serious as Hell, and Benny's doing his play-by-play announcer bit.

Then he does some fancy move and my bony ass meets the rough nylon carpet. He's right with me and barely manages to keep from planting an elbow in my ribs.

I think about explaining how I got a crushed sternum to the emergency room docs, and I laugh. Benny must have read my mind, because he laughs too.

We're laughing together and it is perfect. I realize everything is going to be okay, maybe not right now or next week, but soon.

One minute we're laughing, the next we're going at it like hamsters.

I'm not even worried about whether I'm going to get off or not. I figure I can always do that hand thing for Benny today. Me, we can keep working on until we get it right.

I guess not caring about about it is the secret to doing it right. Not only do I come, I come hard. I come first. Then I realize Benny is the one who's stuck in libido limbo.

I do the hand thing. It does the trick.

He screams so loud, even he hears it. We lay there on the floor, just too damned tired to care that we're laying on the floor. Another room and another floor and another orgasm pop into my head.

"I can't believe we just did the nasty on this hard floor."

He laughs at me. I smile at him. We both take it as a signal that it's time to crawl into what's left of the bed. Since Benny is Benny, we fix things up before we get under the covers.

I'm proud of Benny. A complete stranger might not be able to tell that His Anal-retentiveness really, really wants to clean up.

His fidgeting is really starting to bug me. And when he bugs me, I tease him. It's the natural order of things.

End Part Fifty-nine

******

The off-key electric organ's last sacred notes have wafted Heavenward, wafers and wine have been transubstantiated and taken in by the faithful, collection plates recollected, and sinners sent back into the wide wicked world.

Ray and I have sat through it all, here in the barren back row, observing from a physical distance that mirrors the self-imposed isolation of his battered soul. He has made himself an island.

He does not feel worthy of the Body of Christ, has not partaken of the Eucharist since Victoria's murder. He still sees himself as tainted, unforgiven -- rather like lepers who would, in ages past, ring a bell and shout, "Unclean," to warn all godly folk of their cursed state.

Ray must learn to let the past pass away. I fear that his Catholic soul will not allow this until he has relieved himself of his burden by placing it squarely on the shoulders of his Pater Noster.

That is what brings us here. That is why I have brought him here. If we are to start clean, as it were, he must believe his soul to be cleansed.

This is the Church of Infinite Compassion. It is not his family's church or Father Behan's for that matter. It is one of my own choosing, far from our usual haunts and beaten paths. The sanctity of the confessional is complete, but should Ray speak of his not-so-recent sins with a priest of his acquaintance, their continued presence in his life would forever be a reminder of those sins. He would never cease searching their eyes for signs of recrimination.

Unlike Ray's boyhood house of worship, this church lacks the lofty flying buttresses that inspire one's eyes to raise to the Heavens. It is also without Father Behan's grand Stations of the Cross, cut from imported Venetian glass and worked in fine detail.

But it is rich in understanding.

We rise to our feet as the priest, Father Wellington, finishes bidding his flock of same sex couples adieu.

Father Wellington has hung upon the cusp of censure from Rome for years. He has avoided it thus far by refraining from speaking too publicly about his views and by not performing actual marriage ceremonies for his parishioners. Rumors abound that even these attempts at self-control shall not long protect him from the wrath of his self-imposed masters. But he is a man of the Vatican's cloth and has the authority to absolve its sons and daughters of sin -- for now. And that is all that Ray need know.

The good Father approaches us and we respond to his muted greeting with subdued, respectful nods of our over-filled heads. Ray looks to me for strength. Our eyes lock and I nod again, encouragingly this time.

Ray turns back to our stranger priest.

"Father, I need to. . .I have something to confess."

"Of course, my son."

Those four words wash over Ray like a half-forgotten lullaby -- soothing in their familiarity. He turns to me. I seat myself upon another cold hard pew. I sit with purpose, with authority -- feet flat on the stone floor, hands firmly on knees -- a rock that shall not be moved until he chooses to move me.

"I will be here when you are done."

"I know."

The good Father motions toward a cheaply paneled confessional booth and leads Ray onward.

I remain in the same position for unknown minutes, with only the ticking of my father's watch and the sad eyes of my sometimes Savior for company.

I remember laying in bed as a small child and praying to Him, praying fervently for Him to return my mother to me. He was a presence in my grandparents' home, spoken of in hushed tones and feared as much as loved. Their love of Christ was, like all of their affections, expressed in a cool distant manner.

My own singular devotion to Him was badly stretched and warped by the heat of puberty. My blood was boiling and had nowhere to release its passions. I was drawn in by the immediacy and willfully contained energies of Inuit rituals.

The Inuit are a closed people, as all all tribal societies, but my open interest in their religion was enough to garner me a place at almost all ceremonies. Somehow, knowledge of my interest would precede our arrival at new townships and cities. I would be taken aside and issued subtle invitations to join the local natives for "dinner" on this night or "lunch" that afternoon. I would always accept.

My soul opened like the petals of a flower turned to the sun. I soaked up many of the beliefs of my hosts, but never turned completely from the God of my youth. By the time I left for Depot, my religious beliefs were firmly set as an odd mix of Inuit legends and Presbyterian lessons -- as slapdash and unique as the rest of my alien freak self.

I, not unlike Mozart's Salieri, lack skill at forming a prayer that is commensurate with my emotions. I offer up gratitude that, in light of my blessings, is sorry indeed.

Thank you, God.

My father's watch ticks and tocks. Outside, a taxi horn sounds its displeasure at some citizen of Chicago or another. I resist urges to alternately slouch, fidget and scratch at various annoyances. I am three pages away from my second mental recitation of "Robert's Rules of Order" when the seal on Ray's confession is broken and he emerges from the booth.

Father Wellington opens his door as well. He reaches into the folds of his sacred robes and then silently offers Ray the use of a small plastic Rosary.

Ray accepts it hesitantly and makes his way down the church's single aisle. He stops several rows from the altar, genuflects and then seats himself on the edge of a pew. He searches the face of his Lord and Savior for several minutes before sinking to his knees and allowing his head to be bowed by the weight of his heavy heart.

My father's watch counts off the seconds as Ray casts off his sins. After my twenty-fourth conscious effort to lose track of those seconds, Ray crosses himself again and rises lightly to his feet.

He walks up the aisle, and I rise to meet him. I look searchingly, half-fearfully into his eyes and find blessed peace. He tucks his new most prized possession into his coat pocket.

As we are leaving the church, we pass its small poorbox. I deposit two well-worn, carefully folded, Canadian bills. They are not much, but they are all I have.

We leave the quiet sanctity of the rightly named Church of Infinite Compassion and return to the relative bustling hustle of an early urban Sunday morning. As Ray reverently shuts the wooden front door and turns to me, a single sunbeam breaks through the grey cloud covering, bathing him in golden light. I choose to see it as a benediction and as a promise.

End Part Sixty

*****

Three days ago I was the recipient of an injury that is sure to add yet another pair of scars to my already dubiously large collection. A bullet pierced my flesh and penetrated muscle, tearing and burning as it went. The projectile passed cleanly through, missing bone. I was left with a minor wound, if any bullet wound can be considered minor.

The doctors' assure me that there should be no lasting ill-effects. It is absurd that I was not treated and released from the emergency room. And were I a private citizen, no doubt I would have been. But I was injured in the line of duty -- the unofficial nature of that duty not withstanding -- and I am a foreign officer of the law at that.

This hospital operates on a budget that leaves it envious of shoestrings. The chance of a sure payout and positive publicity -- in two countries no less -- was enough to assure that my stay would be extended by a few days at least. That is how I come to find myself fully capable of taking care of my own needs, and yet idling away my time in a standard hospital bed in a private hospital room, with my Ray attempting to sleep on a hard hospital chair.

It is forty-two minutes past three on this Sunday morning. For the third night in a row I am contemplating my situation. Because for the third night in a row, I am awake.

I find myself becoming disconcertingly comfortable in this bed, in this room. There are no bars protecting the windows from my wrath and no straps protecting my wrists from the window's glass. The nurses and doctors who attend me are decidedly American. And my Ray, who is snoring in a most undignified manner, has his booted feet propped upon the mattress, where they are pressed comfortingly into my right calf.

It is quite different from my former hospital room, and yet entirely too similar.

The hospital room's ambient temperature is set to optimize the possibility of sleep. The yellowish fluorescent light leaking from beneath the door provides only the slightest of distractions. The hospital bed is firm enough, the hospital sheets not too terribly harsh, the hospital pillows not too far from cardboard.

Each time the air pressure in the room changes, signaling the opening of the door, I find myself looking to that side of the room and expecting to be greeted by J.T. or Bryan or even dear Helen.

I sneezed earlier in the evening and my Ray gave me the oddest look. It was a moment before I realized that my shackled mind was patiently waiting for someone else to wipe my nose.

I am afraid.

I am to be released some time tomorrow morning, and I am afraid that I will be unable to make the transition from hospital to not-hospital a second time. I am afraid that I will again beg to be allowed to stay in my safe, sterile room. I am afraid that if I do stay, I will find myself reverting to my old-hospital ways.

I feel my fear growing within me like the ever-strengthing waves of a rising tide. I need reassurance. I need a distraction -- any distraction. It is better to be hurt than afraid, so I am hurt.

I purposefully fidget and stretch my legs. My hypersensitive Ray reacts to the movement and pulls himself from the closest thing to a decent sleep that he has been able to steal in three nights. He jerks into an upright position and looks worriedly in my direction.

"Wha. . .Rennie, you okay?"

I open my mouth to ask him why he didn't come to me in the emergency room, why he chose to hunt down the man who shot me. I open my mouth to ask questions whose answers I already know.

"I'm afraid, Ray. I'm so very afraid."

He is at my side instantly, his hand in mine.

"What is it?"

"It's stupid."

"That's okay, I'm stupid too."

He knows it irritates me beyond measure when he derides his intellectual abilities. I start to chide him for his inaccurate description of himself, when I realize my fears have receded to a bearable level.

I offer him a baleful stare.

"Don't give me that look. I'm just telling you that you can front your big self out and I won't laugh at you."

I am laying down and Ray is standing upright. I am loathe to expose another of my many failings from what I feel is an inferior position. I sit up and my Ray obligingly presses the button on the hospital bed's control box and brings the pillows into alignment with my spine. He asks if I would like some light. I shake my head. The fluorescence leaking from under the door allows me to make out the sharp lines and flat planes of his beloved face. I find the remaining shadows comforting -- not unlike those cast by the screened divider of a confessional booth.

"I'm afraid that I was a less than ideal patient the last time I was in hospital."

"The smacking the nurses around thing? Or that trying to do yourself in thing?"

His willingness to cut through the intricately set layers of my past and plainly state that which I cannot say without pain and embarrassment earns him a small smile and slight squeeze of his warm hand.

"Both, actually."

Anxiety and the need to plan for the worst war for dominance in his sleep-swollen eyes.

"So you thinking about doing those things again? It that it?"

"No."

I pause, expecting an interruption. This is where anyone else would interrupt. He waits with a patience he has often denied possessing.

"I'm doing everything they say. Each day, it's getting easier to do as they say.

"It's like before. . .like after. It's like after Helen brought me my grandfather's clock.

"I've told you about that."

He nods -- an acknowledgement, not an interruption.

"After everything. . .before. . .before I changed. Before I changed, everything was so difficult. Everything was dangerous. I never knew what would remind me of the things I had done -- the things that had been done to me. A doctor's footsteps would mimic Brock's, the snap of window shades being drawn would hold the echo of the crack of his riding crop. I would see Fraser or my professor in an orderly's eyes.

"And then I did change myself. At first that was difficult too. My learning to say 'please' and 'thank you' was akin to a lowland gorilla teaching itself sign language."

He rewards my weak attempt at humor with a small smile of his own.

"But then I learned the forms followed by polite society, pounded them into my warped mind, just as my instructors at Depot had drilled me in the 'right face, left face, about face' of marching until I could perform the moves instinctively, until they became second nature -- part of my true nature.

"When I first changed myself, I had to grasp desperately at those forms. But I had always been a quick study. Soon I could step easily into the role I had created. And not long after, all I had to do was let go of myself and slip into it.

"I'm slipping, Ray."

He seats himself in his former makeshift bed and stares at a spot on the floor. I try to offer a belated reassurance.

He interrupts me.

"I'm thinking."

I allow him to think. Long moments pass with only our measured breaths for company. I wait patiently for him to decide upon my best course of action.

His gaze rises form the floor to look into my insomnia-hollowed eyes.

"Is that what you want?"

"Ray?"

"Is slip sliding away what you want?"

"No."

"You sure?"

What I want is to blurt out that I am indeed sure, but I understand what it is that he is looking for. The unusually straight set of his shoulders tells me that he wants to know that I have considered my options carefully. I take a moment of my own to think.

"Yes, Ray, I am sure."

Relief seeps through his bones and eases his backbone into its accustomed come-hither slouch.

"Great. Greatness."

He seats himself gingerly upon the mattress, in the narrow space between my wide hips and the edge of the bed.

"Okay, no making like a straight man on a banana peel. What do you want to do?"

I have found, much to my delight, that it is rather difficult to think of anything -- other than one particular thing -- when he is favoring me with the smile that he is now employing with marked success.

"Home, Ray. I want to go home."

"Sure thing, Rennie, two red eye tickets to Ottawa it is."

"Ray. . ."

"Oh, home. You mean our home. I don't know. What's in it for me?"

"Ray. . ."

"I mean are you in it for me? Or would that be are you in me for it? I can never keep that straight. Get it? Straight?"

"Ray. . ."

"Kidding. I was kidding -- except that 'you in me' stuff. But we can talk about that later. You call the nurse. I'll get your clothes and pack your stuff."

"I can't leave now."

"Why not?"

"It's four in the morning."

"And?"

"And it would be. . ."

"And it would be what? Breaking the rules? Inconvenient for the nurses? Rude? Dare I say it -- uncanadian? It would be uncanadian to leave now, is that it?"

"Well, yes, Ray."

"And the Renfield Turnbull I know and love would care about that because. . ."

"Would you be kind enough to get my things, Ray? I need to call the nurse."

My Ray has the gall to give me a proper British salute.

"You will pay for that."

"Sweet talker."

End Part Sixty-one