Title: Detective Armani: The Thousandth Man
Author: Alatri ^..^ firstname.lastname@example.org
Pairing: focus characters RayV and Fraser
Categories: seasonal AU, Angst
Rating: PG (angst, character death)
Spoilers: All sorts here and there.
Warning: Death story, heavy angst
Feedback: Comments, critiques, suggestions, etc, all welcome. ;-)
Disclaimer: Only mine in my dreams. They belong to each other otherwise. ;-)
Summary: An exploration of the deep friendship between Ray Vecchio and Benton Fraser.
Notes: set in mid-season 3/4, exact time doesn't matter. (That's the only AU part of it.)
All great and wonderful thanks to my beta-reader, Lorie, who
has helped keep me on track and stopped me from being too
obscure at times, and provided excellent suggestions for
tightening and additions.
The story is in progress. It covers four basic sections and only
the first is 100% done. The whole thing is totally plotted out, though,
so I do know where I'm going. ;)
The Thousandth Man
by Rudyard Kipling
One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worth while seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.
'Tis neither promise nor prayer nor show
Will settle the finding for 'ee.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em go
By your looks, or your acts, or your glory.
But if he finds you and you find him,
The rest of the world don't matter;
For the Thousandth Man will sink or swim
With you in any water.
You can use his purse with no more talk
Than he uses yours for his spendings,
And laugh and meet in your daily walk
As though there had been no lendings.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em call
For silver and gold in their dealings;
But the Thousandth Man he's worth 'em all,
Because you can show him your feelings.
His wrong's your wrong, and his right's your right,
In season or out of season.
Stand up and back it in all men's sight-
With that for your only reason!
Nine hundred and ninety-nine can't bide
The shame or mocking or laughter,
But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side
To the gallows-foot-and after!
Detective Armani: The Thousandth Man
Damn. Ray didn't allow the thought to reach his face, and instead continued to bluff his way though the situation. He did well enough to gain breathing space and to go home for the night, but he knew he couldn't hope for it to last. They're suspicious now, he thought with a tremor of fear. Repressing it firmly, he set about doing what he could while he could. Final documents, testimonies, leads, and names, all designed to pull down the previously most untouchable of the lot. Most of his information had already been either passed on or hidden in the drop locations, so what he gathered now was the newest info and the loose ends. He worked quickly yet carefully and when he was done, he looked around the spacious office in the penthouse. Silently, he thought about the last year he'd spent here. In a way, he was glad it was over, but... Ray firmly controlled another shiver of fear, pushing it back under with a scrub of his thumbnail over his eyebrow. And that in itself was the biggest heartache as he completed the adopted gesture. I'm sorry, Benny. I meant to return home. And I will try to... but it doesn't look so good right now.
With a sigh, Ray pulled out a small set of postcards and ruffled through them, looking for one that fit his mood and would itself be a message. When he found it, he put it in the freezer while he thought of what to say. It took three trips to the freezer before he'd finished the back. He wrote an innocuous but honest note on the front... and then chewed on his pen while he thought of where to send it. They would be watching him. The idea that this card of all cards would even make it out was a long shot. And if they found it... Ray shuddered. He wouldn't wish that on... Ray paused on the thought. What a great idea! Taking the pen out of his mouth, Ray grinned wickedly and turned to his computer to find a certain itty bitty bit of information he'd ferreted out using his new connections. He hadn't known what he was going to do with it then, but it was almost perfect now. Sorry, Benny, but as needs must and all. It would hurt his friend, but, I couldn't say goodbye before. And I don't want to now. This time, though, I at least want to have the chance to.
... ... ...
“God...” The officer closed his throat on the rest of what he was thinking and quickly arranged a road-block and an investigations team pronto. Luckily, it was still early morning and not many people were around. On the steps of the FBI building... only the Mob has balls like that. But he could only think of a single reason as to why they'd dump one of their own.
“You sent for me?”
He looked up at the head of the undercover teams. “Yeah.” He walked over to the tarp and pulled it back.
“One of yours?” He cleared his throat, “I mean ours?”
The other man shook his head, not in denial but in pain. “We got a 1640 call last night from 3-17. Emergency pull out. Except we couldn't get to him. We tried. We were going to fucking get him out of there if we had to go in with all guns blazing... We couldn't even find him. After he placed the call he disappeared.” He glanced again at the body. “Shit.”
“Execution style,” the officer noted with the dispassionate voice you learned in this business. “They had all the info they wanted.”
The covers guy shook his head again, this time in denial. “Nope. We'd have people gone in twenty different places already if this one cracked. He didn't.” Kneeling down, he briefly touched the cold face. “We'll have to verify it's him. Send us the lab results and we'll match it with what's on file.” Still looking at the body, he said softy, “We wanted you more than the records, damnit...”
... ... ...
“You're absolutely sure? There's no possibility of error?” Lieutenant Welsh asked the questions though he knew darn well they would have triple-checked everything before calling him. He listened to the answer with closed eyes. More information was given, and a consultation for how to proceed. He asked for, and obtained, the right to inform the family himself. When he hung up the phone, he sat in the office for a long time with his head bowed down.
Eventually he stirred and rose to look out his window at the busy scene of his detectives working on cases and bantering with each other. A tight fist gripped his chest at the sight of the tall figure in a red uniform smiling at something the Detective in front of him had said. Ray Vecchio... Welsh turned abruptly from the window and strode to the door. As he opened it, a half-dozen folders were presented to him by the people shut out. He ignored them all, searching for another figure in the office.
The slender woman jumped and spilled her cappuccino on the floor, “Harding!” She protested as she reached for something to clean it up with, “Don't startle me like that!”
For office discipline, Welsh hated it when she used his first name like that, but he let it slide because she was so close to a daughter that he liked it when she didn't treat him like the rest of the place did. Like a daughter... Welsh blinked quickly; he could cry later. “Leave that,” he said gruffly, “I need to see you in the office.” He glanced around, “Constable Fraser, I would appreciate it if you would join us.”
The Mountie in his red uniform nodded, and walked over to them, though a slight frown indicated his puzzlement. The ever-present wolf was faithfully by his side, and another followed closely.
Welsh held up a hand, “Just them, Ve...” he swallowed, “Detective.”
Detective Ray Kowalski, who had been going by the last name of Vecchio for the last year, was obviously confused and a little worried by this unusual separation of the partners but he nodded and returned to his desk.
“What's up, Hardy?” Francesca took up her usual seat, perched on his desk.
Welsh closed the door behind them. “I think you'd better sit down,” he gently indicated the regular chairs, including the Mountie in the gesture.
Francesca stilled, her whole body freezing on the instant, “Oh God. This isn't...” she swallowed, “It's about Ray, isn't it?” She lifted her chin up but her lip was already trembling.
Welsh sighed, “Francesca, Benton...” he angled so he could keep them both in sight. The Mountie was quietly waiting, but he'd turned pale and his face had lost all expression. Welsh sighed again, hating life. There was no point in waiting and any dancing around it would just give false hope. “I'm sorry,” he said quietly, “Ray's body was found this morning. They called as soon as they had a positive identification.”
Francesca's hand went up to her mouth as she gasped, and then she brought it down, “They can't be positive. You need a family member and besides, Ray's not dead. Ray's a survivor, he gets hurt all the time, but—”
“Frannie!” Welsh reached over to pull her into a hug, “They did a DNA test,” he rocked her as the tears started coursing down his own face, “There's no doubt. It was Ray.”
“No...” The quiet voice caught the attention of the other two and Welsh and Francesca turned to look at the white and shaking figure of the Mountie. Blue eyes stared into nothingness as he continued on, “Ray can't be dead. I would have known. Ray...”
“Benton...” Francesca pulled out of Welsh's hug to go to her brother's best friend; but as the wolf at his feet sat up and began to howl, she flinched back. Still not seeing anything, Ben raised his head and joined his wolf in keening out his pain.
The wolf's howls were loud and deep, a sound heard in forests and open snowy lands -- not in a small office in the middle of a busy city. The howls grabbed Welsh's heart and yanked him out to face the deepest fears of being alone and lost, without comfort, without a friend, while predators were moving in.
Fraser's keening was not as loud as Dief's howls, but the sound was cutting and piercing, driving sharp slices through Welsh's exposed heart and opening the wounds that could not be healed.
I sent him out there. To die alone and friendless; with predators moving in. My best man, my favorite detective. And I let him go.
“Benton!” Francesca put her hands over her ears and moved towards the man and wolf. Welsh grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the office, “I think we'd better leave them there.” He was heartily regretting his decision to tell them right there, and yet he... envied... the Mountie and the wolf the open forms of grieving. Not yet.
They came out of the office to a sea full of startled faces – and a bunch of cops pulling out their weapons. “Sir!” was the general exclamation as they emerged, and Welsh held up a hand, “It's all right.” He shut the door firmly upon the howls within and the noise diminished to a more tolerable level.
“Frase!” Ray tried to get in the office, but Welsh stopped him.
“Leave him be.” Welsh rubbed a hand over his face; he hadn't planned on telling the rest of the office yet, but obviously he'd have to say something. Francesca was still crying and Huey had come over and put an arm around her while glancing with troubled eyes at the Lieutenant. Welsh winced internally. Huey had just gotten used to having a new partner and this would be hard on him. While not best friends with Ray, Huey and Gardino had teamed up with Vecchio and the Mountie enough times that they worked comfortably together. And now, two of the four were...
“Listen up, folks. I need your attention here.” Not that he didn't have it already. Welsh scanned the faces in the department to make sure no one was there who shouldn't be. “Burns, take the gentleman at your desk to a holding cell. Sandio, please ask the ladies to come back another time.” He waited until the area contained only his people. By now, there was a subdued hush and people were already wearing mournful faces. The howling in his office continued unabated. I'm going to have to track Elaine down before she hears the grapevine. Welsh's heart tugged at the thought of all the people he would have to tell.
“As you all know, Ray Vecchio – the real Ray Vecchio – was on an undercover assignment for the FBI.”
Held in Huey's arms, Francesca cried harder. Ray Kowalski, who had been filling in for the undercover Ray Vecchio, turned almost as white as Ben had and he didn't take his eyes off of the Lieutenant.
Welsh cleared his throat noisily. “Yesterday, Detective Vecchio was killed in the line of duty.” There was a long silence as people bowed their heads. Even those who had come in after Vecchio paid their homage to the death of a fellow officer. The howls and muffled sobbing now sounded right and proper in the heavy atmosphere.
“We don't know exactly what happened, and probably never will, but it appears that although they found out Ray wasn't who he was supposed to be, they don't know who he was.” The FBI was reporting shakedowns throughout the mob, but none of it was heading their way, yet. “To continue to protect his identity, we're going to continue the cover,” Welsh nodded at Kowalski, who swallowed before nodding back, “for at least six months and possibly longer.” Welsh looked down at his hands, absently clenching and releasing one of them, “Because of this... there will be no official funeral yet.”
Francesca's head whipped up and she turned, her mouth open in protest. But then she stilled and her eyes filled again, “Oh, Ray...” Kowalski moved over and Huey moved out of the way so that she could get a fresh shirt soaked with tears.
The people in the office were still staring at Welsh, waiting for more, anything more than just the bald facts. There wasn't anything more. Except for the pain. The words were traditional and so Welsh said them and meant them with all his heart, “Ray Vecchio was a fine officer and a good person. He will be missed.” Very much so. Welsh nodded to show he was done.
As he turned back towards his office, he realized that he couldn't go in there yet with the Mountie still mourning. For a moment he stood in indecision before leaving the department room. He still had to tell the Captain and there were forms to fill out... His own mourning would have to be saved for later.
... ... ...
Victoria turned the postcard over thoughtfully and studied the picture.
“One thing's for certain, the man has balls.” Her mouth quirked up as she admired Vecchio's style. The postcard was addressed to 'Benny,' had her address on it, and a line underneath, 'please forward.' How he'd gotten her address in the first place, Victoria didn't know, but she knew that she'd be moving on now. The only question was whether she would honor what appeared from the look of the card, to be a last request.
“If I send the card on, it will bring Ben both pain and pleasure.” A bitter smile crossed her face. I exchanged only a few simple sentences with that man, and yet he knows me well enough for this. Ben... I don't know how you could have let him go... but then, that's what you always do, isn't it? So afraid to be alone, that you don't cling tight enough to what you do have. It's always been this way, and to your sorrow, you still haven't learned. “And why do I even care?” But she did. Hate and love. For her, it was all part of the same person.
With a trembling hand, Victoria found a blank sheet of paper and started to write. Goodbye, Ben. I will take this chance... but this will be the end. It must be.
... ... ...
“How dare you!!!” The woman's strident voice could be heard through the closed doors and Meg looked up from her computer.
“I think you people are horrible, to make that poor man stand out there when he's obviously not well—”
Oh good Lord. Meg dropped her head briefly into her hands before she rose wearily and went out. First she rescued Turnbull and tried to mollify the woman. She didn't quite succeed, but she really had no time to waste on her. After an unsatisfactory exchange, she went outside and looked to the left of the door. Sure enough...
“Constable Fraser, I thought I ordered you to take some time off.”
“Ordering you out of the building did not constitute sentry duty!”
Meg sighed. After her sincere sympathy had been politely rebuffed this morning, Fraser had asked her for his orders for the day. So she'd ordered him to take time off. Fraser, damn him, had gone straight back to his desk. When she confronted him, he said he wouldn't be putting it down on his timesheet. So then she'd ordered him out of the building. This was the result of that. Fine.
“I order you to not do sentry duty!”
Fraser blinked and looked over at her with his reddened eyes and an expression of such pain and sorrow... Meg instinctively reached out verbally, “Ben, don't do this to yourself.”
He looked away, in a north-east direction, where the 27th lay. Meg's heart was breaking for this man and she knew it was unwise, but she couldn't help it. She never could. “Ben, come back inside, please.” She attempted a dour joke, “You're scaring the natives.”
That got him. Fraser flinched briefly before he turned to a huddled mass of white fur, “Diefenbaker. Come.” And then he and the wolf went inside the Consulate Building.
Probably back to his desk, where he would get out the last report and make messes of the standard diplomatic responses and she couldn't do a damn thing about it because he had no home for her to order him to go to, and after the latest fiasco out of her orders she was afraid to try anything else.
Walking over to the steps to the building, Meg sat down and buried her face in her hands. Fraser, damnit... He'd shown up yesterday after scaring the entire 27th into an all-points search after he disappeared. They'd been afraid for him. So was she. And his actions since he'd come back hadn't reassured her much. Uncommunicative was about the least of it. I'm no good with people. I'm a diplomat, not a people person. And Ben... Fraser had been the bane of her existence since she first received the transfer out here. She'd read the reports, she'd seen the clippings, she had all the information about him there was. But she hadn't been prepared for the person. And his friend.
Ray Vecchio. Uncovering her face, Meg looked down the street, but she didn't see a green old car, and she wouldn't. That car, with that person, hadn't been seen on this particular street, but that didn't keep them from looking. Ben's gaze earlier hadn't been straight and unfocused like sentry duty should be... he'd been looking right where in the old consulate a car would have parked illegally waiting for the toll of the bells. And tears had tracked down his eyes. Some sentry duty. Mourning detail, maybe... Meg sighed and dropped her head again. She didn't know what to do.
Ray Vecchio would have been able to do something. Ray would have come over and alternately pleaded and bullied his friend until the shell finally dropped and they would have gone out somewhere and been together...
Ray Kowalski had been over a couple of times. Fraser was as politely rebuffing him as he had Meg. Francesca had also been over, her own loss deeply obvious but also her concern for Benton. For the first time, Meg and Francesca had been in perfect accord. Tragedy made jealousy stupid and trite.
'You're going to take his best friend away from him? Just because he's a wolf? That's not reasonable, that's just petty.'
'It's a wolf, Detective Vecchio. And I'm not taking him away, I'm just not letting him in the building. There are health regulations and—'
'Poppycock! You're just doing it because Fraser won't take that transfer!'
'You're wrong. Not that I particularly care what you think, but the fact remains that animals are not allowed within the building except for disability-assistant trained dogs in the performance of their duties. No person is allowed to bring in their pets, and it's violating the rights of the other people in the building to willfully ignore their consideration. Constable Fraser must keep his wolf at home while he is working, just like every other employee does. He'll see him when he gets off duty. To ask him to behave like the rest of the world is not too much!'
Vecchio had snorted with laughter. 'You don't know Benny.'
'Detective---' she was forestalled by the raising of his hand.
'No, I get ya.' He flashed a genuine smile at her, the first she'd ever seen from him. 'Okay, if not for Benny, then how 'bought for Dief?'
'The wolf?' she asked in disbelief.
'The wolf,' he answered seriously. 'Dief came to the city to be with Benny. If he can't be with his friend, he'll die. That's the way Dief is.'
They'd talked for another hour. She hadn't intended to give in. She really hadn't. But the thought of that wolf alone...
Ignoring all the looks from the people walking by, Meg wiped the tears from her face and got up from the steps of the Consulate Building. Regarding an empty spot at the curb, she turned and went back inside.
... ... ...
Fraser sat in the chair and waited. He had himself under control now, though it had been harder than anything he'd ever done before in his life. The other day, Ray... Ray. Why Ray? Why did you... From one Ray to the other. It was impossible for Fraser to keep his mind off his friend, even when thinking about his other. Actually, it was impossible for him to stop thinking of Ray period. But hearing his name, even in his own thoughts... Why does Ray have to be named Ray? If he had any other name, it would be easier. Feeling guilty for even thinking that way, Fraser rebuked himself, people chose their names, and they have the right to be who they are. But he's not... Fraser wiped his eyes surreptitiously.
It wasn't Ray. Or at least it wasn't Ray alone. It was everything and everybody. Nobody was Ray. Nothing anybody did or said would ever bring his friend back to him again. Every old car that drove by reminded him, every Italian face or voice, every door he held open for a stranger, every person in the 27th no matter how kind or nice they were... they all reminded him of what he would not ever have again.
Ray... Brushing his eyes again, Fraser told himself sternly to get a hold of himself. They were there for the will reading and he would not disgrace Ray like this.
A whine at his feet made him look down and gently admonish the wolf, “They're letting you in here against the rules, Diefenbaker. Don't do anything to make them ask you to leave.” Dief whined again and laid his head down on his paws. “Yes, I know that it was Ray that asked for you to be here...” Fraser sighed, “You're right. They won't throw you out. I'm sorry.” Dief didn't make any comment. It was positively heartbreaking how the wolf had lost all enthusiasm since he'd heard the news. The shine in Dief's eyes had gone out and he refused to do anything at all except stay by Fraser's side and whine. Not that Fraser could blame him. This morning when picking them up, Ray had compared the man and wolf, not sarcastically, but in genuine concern.
Why, Ray? Ray... When you were just gone from my side it wasn't so bad – you were doing your duty and I was proud of you. Though our paths were separate for that time, I knew I'd see you again... but I haven't. I won't. You... Ray... Fraser bowed his head as the trembling started again. I wasn't there. Ray. I'm sorry. I should have known. Why didn't I know you were in trouble? I should have known, I should have been able to do something. It was worse than when his father had died. Despite his respect and love for his father, there had always been a distance between them. There was no distance between him and Ray, for Ray hadn't let there be. 'Not in your lifetime, Benny.' Fraser could still hear Ray's voice. Full of sincerity and loyal friendship, and the unconditional love that he'd showered upon the lonely Mountie. Some people chose their names. Some people's names were chosen for them and were all the more special for it. Friendship. Looking beyond the uniform. Standing beside him when all others doubted. A warm smile. Loving eyes. Ray. Nobody will ever call me 'Benny' again.
The house went to Maria. The basketball hoop and soccer ball from his desk at work, to Jack Huey. A lifetime weekly donut delivery for Dief. His guns to Elaine. A year's supply of red roses to Frannie. The gold crucifix he used to wear to Welsh. His love to his mom. His family to Benny.
Excuse me? Fraser blinked and looked up. The reader was going on, “And to my family, I leave Benny. He needs a family and you'll need a son and brother. Benny, don't go crawling off anywhere on your own – Ma, don't let him go. He'll be there for you for everything, and they're there for you, Benny.”
A jab of lightening crackling through his body. 'Behold, thy son; behold, thy mother.' Fraser's mind automatically tracked down the reference, John 19:26-27..., while his emotions pictured Ray sitting at his desk writing the words, grinning wryly as he tangled truth in references that Fraser could not miss and would have to hold to. Ray would not leave him without assurance and reminders of his love and complete acceptance. As the image left him, Fraser tried to reach for it, but it was gone. Gone like Ray was.
Fraser was now crying in earnest, slumped down in his chair, his wolf whining at his feet... and Ray's mom was by his side and holding him tight. Not afraid to be near, not telling him to be a man, not expecting him to be a Mountie. She was there, holding him, and crying with him, and talking through her tears telling him that he was part of the family already. Fraser felt like when he was six years old and his mom had died and he'd wanted to cry, but he'd had no mom to tell him it was alright to do so, but now he had one and she was there and warm and solid and smelled like flour and pasta and Ray...
Ray, thank you for your family... but I'd rather have you. Ray, my friend; my best friend. You were going to be my friend forever. And now you're gone.
... ... ...
The morning was quiet in the Consulate, the sounds of the ever-present Chicago traffic muted outside the windows and a grey overcast shadowing the windows before real daybreak. It fit the atmosphere inside.
Benton opened his closet and pulled out the red uniform. After staring at it for a long moment, he put it back and took out the old brown one instead.
Bob Fraser sighed, “Son, it's not a mourning outfit.”
His hands shaking on the uniform, Benton turned to face his dead father, “Ray liked this one.” After that simple statement, he put it on.
“What's wrong with the formal uniform? It's what you'd be wearing to his funeral if he had one.”
For the first time in days, a glint of emotion besides pain showed in Benton's eyes – it was anger directed at his dad. Fraser Senior prepared to have a verbal spar with his son, but the glint died too quickly for words to accommodate the spark. Instead Benton quietly said, “This was my favorite uniform because it reminded me of you. When the Inspector ordered me to stop wearing it, I obeyed until Ray showed me how to stand up for myself and my memories of you and home.”
Some days, you just couldn't win. Bob Fraser tried again, “You know, being dead isn't really all that bad. I'm sure the Yank would rather that you be going on with your life instead of mourning his.”
The attempt backfired as Benton turned eager eyes to him, “You found him! How is he? Is he coming here?” The loneliness in Benton's eyes was as clear as the desperation and need for his friend were.
Damn. Bob Fraser closed his eyes, “I haven't seen him.” When he opened his eyes again, his son's gaze was mournfully accusing. Fraser sighed, “Son, being dead doesn't come with instruction books! I've tried looking for your friend the Yank, but other than your grandmother, I've never even seen another ghost in the three years I've been dead. Well, other than the Yank's dad, but that was unusual.”
Benton blinked, “Ray's dad? When did you see Ray's dad?”
“That horrible trip when you were trying to bring in the criminal and the Yank was slowing you down. He wasn't doing you any good, but his dad was even worse, trying to persuade him to abandon you.” Fraser sniffed; the gall of the man to insult Benton like that!
“Dad...” Benton was shaking his head, “You were trying to get me to abandon Ray! I was blind and couldn't walk, and he was taking care of me and still going after the criminal...” Benton shook his head again, “I must have been mad, out of my head with delusion to force Ray to do all that when he was doing everything just to keep us alive.” Pulling out the chair to his desk, Benton sat down and dropped his head in his hands, “Ray...”
Seeing his son's tears was too much for an old Mountie. Hurriedly, Bob Fraser turned back to his office, “I'll go to Las Vegas again, but he won't be there. Son, he's dead, and you've got to accept that.”
“Like I did after you died?” Benton remarked, irony heavy in his voice, “That was how Ray and I first met, you know. Tracking down your killer. Ray was caught in an explosion saving me from it, and he still came up North to help me catch Gerrard.”
For just a moment, Benton smiled, “Our meeting was chance, but the staying wasn't.”
The smile faded from his face and Benton looked steadily at his father, “You owe Ray, Dad. I owe him much much more than I could ever repay him in a thousand lifetimes, but I've always known that.” Benton paused and then shook his head slightly, “And, to us, it doesn't really matter because debts are sublimed in friendship. But you, Dad...” Benton's light-colored eyes sparkled with fire underneath. Those same eyes he'd gotten from his mother. Bob remembered that glint well and time didn't lessen the impact. Benton stared at his father and didn't back down, “I don't think you realize just what Ray is and has done for me.”
The words hit hard. Within himself, Bob Fraser did know, but the pain from Gerrard's betrayal still hurt. And Bob himself had been twelve feet under, when his other best friend had needed him. Thank God his son had been there to help Buck take down Geiger. His son... and Ray Vecchio. Friendships hurt. And so did life.
“The Yank was a good man.” Inadequate words, but they were all he had.
“He was the best.” Benton was prepared to say more, but there was a knock at the office door. As Turnbull's voice was heard asking if he was in, Benton looked at his dad, a plea in those light eyes, and then he turned to start the day's work.
... ... ...
Ray Kowalski paused outside the office, “How's he doing, Turnbull?”
The normally chipper Constable looked quite downcast and merely shook his head instead of answering.
Curious now, Ray studied the Mountie for a moment, “Did you know... 'him'?” Months of habit kept him from speaking Vecchio's name out loud.
“No,” Turnbull's voice was low and mournful. “I didn't 'know' him.”
Ray blinked, hearing undertones in the simple words, “But you wanted to?” Filling in for Vecchio, Ray had heard a lot of things about the man. A desire to know him wasn't usually one of them, but then, Turnbull was a bit odd...
“He was always so kind...”
“Kind?” The word prompted Ray's eyebrows to raise involuntarily. That wasn't an adjective he'd heard applied to Vecchio before.
Turnbull sighed, “I know I annoy everybody here, and I really can't help it, and it's very kind of Constable Fraser to put up with me as he does. But...” Turnbull's voice turned wistful, “the Detective never minded. He would always say hi to me while I was on sentry duty, he treated me just like he treats... treated everybody else...”
With a shrug, Turnbull dismissed that evaluation, “Everybody else treats me different, but Detective Vecchio, he... accepted what I am and continued on.” Brown eyes turned wistfully upon the portrait of the Queen that was on the wall, “I wished sometimes...”
With an inquisitive noise, Ray prompted him to go on.
A low sigh, “A lone wolf gives his loyalty and devotion only to a single human, rarely two, never three. It was impossible for me to even think of it.”
“Huh? You wanted Diefenbaker to be your friend?”
Turnbull shook his head and then looked over at the door that lead to Fraser's office. “Detective Vecchio had a family already, and yet he and Constable Fraser...” with a final glance at Ray, Turnbull turned back to the work on his desk, “I was honored to see the love they shared. It was something that I don't think I'll see again.”
Ray gulped. Men didn't talk about things like that to other men. Unless... Nah. Ray went into Fraser's office, where his friend was on the phone. Fraser glanced at him and acknowledged his being there but continued to patiently explain just why Canada had two official languages and the United States only one.
Watching him, Ray was troubled by the conversation he'd had with Turnbull. Frase... wasn't the same. Everything he did was just going through the motions and there was a constant darkness within his friend as if one day he'd just give up on everything altogether. Some days, Ray thought Fraser had already done so. Yea, but how would I feel if Frase was killed? These two, they were best buddies, and that's why I got assigned to this case after all. For the Mountie not to have his buddy with him while making headlines... and Frase has been a damn good friend to me. But not the “give up on life because he's dead” type. The day he'd heard the news, Fraser and his wolf had howled in the office for hours before going... somewhere. They showed up again the next day, and then for the will-reading the day after that – where the only person who had cried more than Fraser was Ray's mom. Is there something about their relationship that nobody ever told me?
Finally, Fraser got off the phone.
“Frase...” Ray was tentative about approaching the subject.
“Yes, Ray?” There was a slight hitch in his voice as the Mountie answered.
I can't stand this anymore. The Detective sighed, “Frase, call me Stan.”
Fraser blinked and looked fully at him for the first time in days, “I had presumed that you didn't wish to go by Stanley since you said you go by Ray.”
In spite of himself, Ray winced a bit at the full name. “Stan, please, Frase. Not Stanley. I think of my mom when I hear that.”
“Regardless, Ray, it's—”
Stan interrupted him, “Knock it off, Frase. I may not have used my first name for years, but it's not a big deal. I'll get used to it.” With a wry grin, he asked, “What's in a name?”
Fraser frowned, “It defines a person and a being by what they want to be known as or what they are. If you don't like Stanley, or Stan, I won't call you that.”
Stanley Raymond Kowalski smiled with one side of his mouth curled up and he shook his head, “I've spent half my life running away from who I am. Using my middle name didn't exactly change that – it just cut down on some of the jokes. But I can't go on hearing you tear yourself up every time you say my name. So you can use my name, and he can have his.”
“Ray, it is your name.”
“And it's his as well.” Stan shrugged, “I know you know the difference, Frase. But honest, I'd rather be 'Stan' and he can be 'Ray.'” Too much pain, Frase. I know that this won't solve everything, but the least I can do is keep you from this part of it.
Fraser was looking at him with those serious grey eyes studying and analyzing his words and the meanings behind the words. Finally he nodded, “It's very generous of you, Ray. I know how much your name means to you.”
Stan rolled his eyes. “It'll be generous only if you use it.”
“I'm sorry, Ra... Stan.”
Enough was enough. Stan decided to actually ask the Question. “Frase, what the hell is it with you and him?”
The Mountie turned the wide startled reaction on him that worked so well with other people. Stan wasn't having none of it. “You're crying, you're not sleeping, you're off in never-never land most of the time even when you're not, you stop and stare at every little thing that reminds you of him, and you can't even say his name without losing it. It's been over a week!” Exasperated, he threw his hands up and said the first thing that came to mind, “It's like it was your wife that'd died...” Stan trailed off, struck with a sudden thought as he stared at the Mountie.
Fraser was rubbing his eyebrow, “I'm sorry if my emotions distress you, Ray. I assure you that—”
“Good God, Frase – were you guys lovers?” It would make sense. A lot of things...
“Lovers?” Fraser blinked, “Well, I loved him. How could I not? And he loved me, so yes; yes we were—”
“Lovers, Fraser. Partners. Married. Coupled. Having sex together. That sort of lovers.”
For a moment, Fraser's mouth worked soundlessly and then his jaw snapped shut and a very thoughtful expression appeared on his face.
Darn. Stan knew what that expression meant. It had never even crossed his mind and the thought-fixated Mountie was now pursuing every avenue that he hadn't taken. But just to confirm... “You weren't.”
“No,” Fraser's voice was reflective. “It never occurred to me. And Ray...” Fraser shrugged, regret plain upon his face.
“So you were in love with him, but he's straight?” Unrequited love worked just as well for explaining all the emotions.
Fraser shook his head.
Darn. “So, then, why...” Wait a sec – what part of that was he saying 'no' to?
“Ray was my friend. My best friend.” Fraser scrubbed a thumb over his eyebrow in distress, “Is my best friend still. For he was my other half, and I am his. I mourn... for the time we didn't have together.” The wolf that had been hovering in the corner whined and trotted forward to lay his head on Fraser's knee. The Mountie tangled his fingers in the white fur and bowed his head, “I am missing part of my self, and I'll never get it back.”
Stan looked at him, “Frase, that doesn't sound very healthy.”
Moving Dief's head from his knee and getting up from his desk, Fraser walked around the room and ended up at the window, staring out, “How can I explain it, Ra... Stan? I was never good at expressing my emotions, even as a child, and I was praised for it, for being a man.” Fraser sighed softly. “I've had friends, Ray. A lot of them over the years, and some close to me. You're a friend, and closer to me than anyone up in the Territories. And I hope I've been a friend to you as well.”
“You are, Frase,” Stan hastened to reassure him. Fraser smiled at him, showing his genuine joy at the statement. With a tightness in his chest, Stan reflected, you say you've had friends... but you're so happy to have me... Frase, I don't think you've had as many friends as you think you have. There were a lot of people who wanted to be the Mountie's friend, but Stan had already noticed that there was the difference; the people wanted the polite, handsome, do-gooding knight in Mountie red. They would probably take the man too, but that wasn't what they saw first.
“When I met Ray Vecchio...” Turning back to the window, Fraser shook his head but there was a hint of a smile in his voice, “He is a lot that I am not, and a lot that I am. He believes in me, and not just the Mountie that I am, but the person inside. He sought me out, not for my help, but to help me. He lets me drag him into situations and still is my friend. If I need something, I have only to ask; and he never asks for anything back. He adapts around me while still being uniquely himself. He shares everything with me; whatever he has is mine as well – his money, his possessions, his family, and his very self. With him, I can laugh. Never once has he just let me be, but rather he helps me share as he does and I am glad of it. He stays with me no matter what...” Fraser's hands tightened upon each other behind his back as his voice trailed off.
Stan watched him, and listened, and found a similar tightening in his chest. It was a friendship like he'd only had glimpses of through the years. He and Stella had been close kindof like that before they were married and in the first few years after. It had been the expectations when they were living together that eventually tore them apart, yet when they met again it was like a little 'click' between them as they smoothly moved into the same steps they knew so well. If Stella died... even if we'd never been married, if she died... I would grieve like this.
With a gulp, Stan asked the question he'd been wondering about ever since he accepted the assignment, “If you were so close... why did he leave?”
Fraser shook his head and turned back to him. His face was open and untroubled about the thought as he answered simply, “He didn't.”
One of Fraser's powerful hands flipped through the air in a rare gesture of restlessness. “He accepted a dangerous and necessary assignment for the good of many. If he had asked me, I would have told him to go, and he knew it. I was proud of and for him for it. That's not 'leaving' – that's taking a job in a different area for awhile. It doesn't matter how far apart we are, we're still partners together.” Fraser looked towards his wolf, and Diefenbaker barked. Fraser nodded.
Stan looked at the wolf with a certain amount of resignation – animals just weren't supposed to be so uncannily human like that. “What'd he say?”
Fraser shrugged and glanced towards the door, “We should head to the station now.”
Was that what Dief said, or was it a distracting segue? Stan didn't feel like trying to pursue it right then. He had more than enough to chew on for awhile. With a gesture, he let Fraser and Diefenbaker proceed him out the door and they headed down to his car.
... ... ...
Jack Huey filled out the arrest form with the ease of long practice. He ignored the fellow's protests and ramblings with equal practice. “Here, Dewey – you go lock him up and I'll finish the rest of the papers.” He held the form he'd just finished out to his partner.
“Sounds like a good trade to me,” Dewey grinned jauntily and headed off, maneuvering the prisoner with ease and style.
Louis would have been blustering, and Ray would have been the same; even if they both hated the paperwork as much as Dewey does. Jack sighed and picked up the miniature soccer ball, squeezing the foam rubber and aiming half-heartedly at the basketball hoop that was now by his desk. He also had the slinky that Louis had liked to play with. Louis hadn't been as careful as Ray about leaving an actual will, but all his stuff had gone to his mom, and she hadn't minded the guys keeping little mementos. He and Ray and Welsh had packed up Louis' desk and locker items together, one long night, and taken it to Mrs. Gardino where they stayed for many more hours. The Saint's medallion that Louis kept in his desk had been Ray's choice for remembrance. Not much good it did either of them.
“I'm getting too old for this,” Jack muttered heavily. He was only 35, but he was a cop and had been one for ten long years. Less than Louis or Ray... But some things made the years longer than others. Now he knew how Ray had gone downhill so quickly after the incident with his partner. It was harder than hell to keep going with cases, to continue to care, to even think about a new partner after Louis had died. Teaming with Vecchio for a lot of the cases had helped. Vecchio knew when to push and when to leave him be, and when to reminisce. And then Ray had gone on that Fed job and the urgency to finish up the paperwork for a new partner went back up to the top. Dewey was a good cop and a good partner. Better in a lot of ways than Louis had been, though Jack felt disloyal for thinking it.
Damnit, Ray Vecchio; why'd you have to get yourself killed? Not knowing just what had gone wrong was another fact of a cop's life, yet it was the hardest part to take.
The thrown ball landed in the hoop basket and Jack turned back to the paperwork.
He looked up a few moments later as a wolf growled, barked, whined, and whimpered. I've never heard Dief whimper before! Jack listened as the new Ray Vecchio asked the Mountie, “What's up with him?”
Fraser shook his head, “I have no idea.”
Jack shook his own head, unnoticed at his desk. The Mountie didn't look so good. In the ten days since they'd heard the news, he'd lost weight notably, his face had a constant pinched look to it, and the good natured humor was gone.
Fraser, holding him back from the burning car and the heat; the intense heat. Fraser, arm tenderly wrapped around Vecchio's shoulders turning him away from reporters. Ray, casually gesturing towards the Mountie, 'no, but he will' and Fraser agreeing as Louis and Jack exchanged resigned glances. Louis and Jack helping the Mountie steal a Milk Dud to get into jail to help Ray. Fraser standing by Ray's desk smiling down as Ray smiled up at him. Ray and Louis, in each other's faces, “On the roof, now!” Ray and Louis after one of their fights, unrepentant and denying there was ever a problem. The four of them on stakeout, sharing coffee and swapping stories.
Burying his head in his hands, Jack willed the flashes of memories to stop. If this kept up, he was going to start bawling again, and he'd already had more than enough of that.
He jerked his head up again as he heard a tense, strained voice barely recognizable as Fraser's say, “It's from Victoria.”
Looking to their desk again, Jack saw the new Vecchio ask puzzledly, “Who?”
Fraser sighed, “A woman I... used to know.”
From the look on his face, new Vecchio was suddenly remembering his briefing about her. But it wouldn't all have been in the records. Jack got up and headed over to their desk as the blond detective opened the envelope and pulled out a letter and a postcard.
Seeing the scrawling print across the card, Jack froze, his breath still in his throat and his lungs not working. That looks...
“Whoa, there. Sit down, Frase.”
Jack tore his attention off the card and looked to the Mountie. Fraser had turned completely white and was swaying where he stood. Ray put the card and letter down and moved to support his friend. “Frase, Frase. Come-on Fraser, sit down.” Jack swallowed and moved to help.
Avoiding his concerned friends, Fraser reached out and picked up the postcard, his hand trembling violently. The movement nearly overset him and his partner grabbed him.
“Fraser!” When Ray had a good hold on the Mountie, he said less frantically, “Sit down before you fall down.” Gently, he and Jack forced the Mountie to sit. As Fraser did so, Diefenbaker moved and laid solidly upon Fraser's boots, whimpering lowly.
“Ah, geez... Frase...” Ray crouched by his friend, keeping his hand on Fraser's shoulder. Jack watched, in a bit of shock himself and concerned about the Mountie.
“Is there a problem?” Lt. Welsh asked in a worried voice.
Turning his head, Jack realized that pretty much the whole division was watching them. By the look on Ray's face, he was realizing it too.
“Uh, well, not exactly,” Ray muttered, uncomfortable. Jack tried to think how to phrase what had happened, but his voice wasn't working.
Welsh raised his eyebrows.
The blonde detective sighed, “Fraser got a postcard.”
“An occurrence sure to send every Mountie in Canada into shock.”
Seeing the other detective at a loss for a reply, Jack swallowed before speaking up, “It's...” he closed his eyes tightly before opening them again and facing the truth, “The card is from Ray. Ray Vecchio, I mean. I mean, our Ray; well, the original Ray Vecchio.”
Every eye in the room turned to the card the Mountie was clinging to. There was a complete and total silence for almost a minute before Welsh cleared his throat, “Is it private?”
The question seemed to jolt the shell-shocked Mountie into awareness. Fraser turned the card over and silently read it before he looked up at his partner, “What did the letter say?” His voice was trembling, but mostly under control.
“Uh,” Ray reluctantly pried himself away from Fraser and picked up the letter off the desk. “Out loud?”
“Yes, please, R... Stan.”
Jack blinked and looked to the detective, who wasn't showing any signs of discomfort at the name. Huh. Mentally, he rearranged his own labels with a feeling of relief. New Vecchio, new Ray. Not so hard before, but now with the original Ray Vecchio constantly in his mind and memories... Stan Kowalski is a lot easier to deal with. Though for the sake of Vecchio's cover... post-cover, they'd still have to be careful. Reminded, Jack quickly scanned the room. Luckily, it was a slow afternoon and there were only their people around.
Clearing his throat, Stan Kowalski unfolded the letter and started reading. “'Dearest Ben,'” Stan's eyebrows rose and he glanced down at Fraser, who grimaced slightly. Stan shrugged and kept reading, “'I find myself almost thankful to the Detective for the opportunity to write to you. You know that I would not have, otherwise.'”
Jack's shoulder was tapped, and he looked around to see Lt. Welsh's inquiring expression. “From Victoria Metcalf,” Jack explained in a whisper.
“Ah,” was the only thing the Lieutenant said, though his face showed his own curiosity.
“'Don't try looking for me at the address; or you can try, but I won't be here anymore. Your partner is the gutsiest person I know, sending that card to me, and knowing that I couldn't not send it on. Yes, Ben, that was a double-negative – it seemed to fit.
“'I read the card. I'm sorry about Ray. I admired him enormously. He was the only one that could have kept you from me, and the only one who stayed with you. I had to take him down with you, but in the end, he did keep you. More desperate than even I, was he. What is it about you, Ben, that inspires us to such lengths to have you with us?'”
Fraser stirred and muttered, “He didn't do it on purpose. But you did.” His voice was full of such pain and misery that everybody stared at him. They had never heard such emotion from him before.
Involuntarily, Jack recalled every part of those long three days, burnt into his memory. The look on Ray's face at the train station... Jack had looked up to see Victoria watching them as the train had pulled away, the first and only time he'd seen her. Beautiful, and her dark eyes full of shock and sorrow... but she had stayed on the train and made her getaway. Ray hadn't left the hospital for four days running and was almost as bad off as Fraser was now. Jack and Louis had joined the Vecchio family in bringing food and keeping off the hounds. Damnit, Vecchio, why did you leave? How could you leave? We all needed you here, with us. But Ray had never been one to turn down a difficult assignment when it came his way.
The query from the blonde detective jolted Jack and Fraser into awareness, and Jack realized he'd been staring into the wide pained eyes of the Mountie, as they both remembered something that now only Welsh shared. Louis... Ray... Damnit. Jack wrenched his gaze away.
Returning his attention to his partner, Fraser scratched his eyebrow, “I'm sorry, Stan. Please, continue.”
Kowalski looked at him for a long moment before going back to the letter, “'Did you know, that he told me once that he would kill me if I hurt you?'”
Jack grinned tightly. He hadn't known, but he believed it. He could even imagine Ray's voice, calm and just stating a fact. He was a good man. Some may not think so, but they hadn't really known Ray. Fraser had known Ray, and he simply nodded, his gaze again briefly touching Jack's.
After he read the sentence, Stan paused for a long moment before going on with a slightly shaken voice, “'He was your thousandth man right to the end, wasn't he? And indeed, you spent half your life looking for him – too bad he couldn't be around for the other half.'”
“Bitch!” Everybody's eyes turned towards a snarling Francesca. “Tell me where that sleazy conniving slut is and I'll rip her eyes out! How dare she—”
Fraser stood up and hugged her tight, cutting off the tirade, “I'm sorry, Francesca. I'm so sorry...”
Pushing herself gently out of his arms, Frannie gave Fraser a warm smile, “Thanks, Benton; but I'd rather be angry right now. That was Ray's favorite poem, the little bitch! How dare she—” This time Frannie cut herself off, still quivering in indignation. “Go on with the letter, Stanley, and I'll rip out her eyes later.”
Stan did a double-take and an almost glare at the use of his full name, but then he looked over at Fraser and visibly shrugged. Clearing his throat, he continued, “'I will honor his last request and send it on. And since I don't particularly like the idea of you jumping off a bridge or heading off on some great quest on your own, I'm sending it to his replacement so that you can't get out of being with people like you always try to do.'”
Fraser shrugged, an ironic twist to his lips, “She does know me...”
“'Ah, Ben... I have pen to paper and don't know what to say. Well, there's always your questions to answer: Will you ever see me again? Not likely. Will I ever come back to haunt you again? No. I love you. I hate you. I can't have you and I can't kill you. But seeing you falling away from me... I can't do it again. I don't know how I can live without you, but I have to try.
“'And your other question? The one you've never asked out loud but only in your eyes?
“'I don't know.
“'If you had let me go all those years ago instead of turning me in, what would have happened?
“'Would I have gone straight? Probably not; on the run, no money, nothing but the memory of a week sheltered in your arms surviving impossible odds. Idealism is wonderful, but it doesn't feed the hungry. And you would have turned yourself in. I would have been caught eventually, a longer sentence without your testimony, and prison again. But there would not have been betrayal in my heart. There would have been a purer love, a bright spot to hold onto. An untarnished memory and heart.
“'Would it have been enough? I don't know. What's done is done and we can't go back, no matter how much we want to. As long as I'm wishing, I could wish that we'd met in another time, another place, and the world to be the perfect picture ball in the snow sphere before it shattered.
“'You know, it's funny. I remember you well, but even now, thoughts of your partner keep making their way even into our most intimate moments. I found myself thinking, if it had been him, what would he have done? If he had loved me like you, then I think he would have not only let me go, but come after to be with me. Yet that type of love isn't so easily gained, and merely shelter wouldn't have gotten it for me. But you... he would have followed you to hell itself, no matter what it entailed. I envy you that loyalty while being jealous of him. I wouldn't have been able to do it myself. I can ask you, but you and I both know where we stand.
“'A memory of a week a lifetime ago. A memory of a week more recent, but still a lifetime away from me now. Ben, I long for you every night. The memory of your hungry kisses and strong—'” Stan stopped reading and gasped, blushing a bright red.
Holding the letter away from him, Stan shook his head, “Oh no, Frase. I absolutely refuse to read this!!!” Even as Stan protested, he kept glancing to the letter, while turning even redder, “You can bloody well read your own x-rated porn letters from your psycho girlfriend yourself!”
Fraser blinked and reached for the letter, evading Frannie's eager grasp for the same. Holding it where she couldn't get to it, he silently read through the letter and turned a brighter red than his partner. “Oh dear,” he murmured, rubbing a distressed thumb over his eyebrow.
Jack was biting his lip to keep from laughing, and from the sounds around him, so were a lot of other people.
Welsh cleared his throat, “Constable, we're going to have to keep that letter as evidence in Miss. Metcalf's ongoing investigation.”
“Oh dear,” Fraser repeated himself with a look of almost comical distress.
“We'll work out the details later, Constable,” Welsh said with a perfectly straight face, “Was there anything else in the letter relevant to the current issue?”
Fraser's distress didn't seem to lessen any. “Ah, not really.”
“Then let's move on.” Welsh pointedly but sympathetically looked towards the postcard that Fraser held in his other hand.
... ... ...
A postcard from Ray. Eagerness, pain, regret, longing, and a bitter stab of jealousy washed over her before Frannie firmly stomped down the jealousy. It hurt that the card was to Benton instead of to Ray's family... but Benton was different.
The Mountie had been different since that moment over three years ago when Ray had brought home the handsome stranger to dinner, calmly asking Ma if she could set another place. The family had hid their astonishment and welcomed him in as a friend of Ray's, no matter that Ray had sworn he'd never do so again in his life. A person that Ray approved of and sought out – and ended up in the hospital for. She'd thought then that that would be the end of it, and they'd never see the stranger again; it would just be another painful chapter of near-trust and shattered hopes in the period of their lives. But Frannie remembered to this day the look of determination and the empathetic sorrow in Ray's voice and eyes as he waved the piece of paper Elaine had given him and said, “It was his dad's partner! His best friend had him killed! I've got to go up there right now, and I don't care what the doctors say!” They had, of course, let him go; not that they'd ever been able to keep him. But at least that time he'd come back. Now...
Frannie bit her lip firmly. And looked to Benton. It was right and proper that the last words from Ray would be to his partner and friend. The family had had Ray's love all their lives, and they had memories spanning thirty-six years of it. But Benton barely had three... Half his life looking... A fresh wave of hatred swept over Frannie at the mocking bitch who could use Ray's own heart to twist the knife so cruelly into others. Why did you have to send it through her, Ray?
Benton was clearing his throat, preparing to read the card. Frannie blinked rapidly to hold back tears and to distract herself she stared at the picture on the reverse side of the card. Mountains. Red and orange, streaked with brown and black, craggy and rough, bare of anything but the rock and dirt. Beautiful, but so utterly desolate and empty that Frannie shuddered to see the desert hills. Benton's voice was in marked contrast, full of warmth and affection, pain and pleasure mixed in equal portions as he captured the author's feelings and his own in the same reading.
Sorry, but it doesn't look like I'll be coming home. Give my love to everybody for me and tell them I miss them. That goes for you too, you know, and the mutt.
Funny, but it's in triple digits out here and I'm still cold. Now I know what you went through in Elknee. But I have my thoughts of you and the family with me so I'm okay with it.
Home really is where the heart is.
“Ray!” “It's okay, Frannie – I just gotta learn when to duck.” “Oh, Ray, don't joke like that.” “Who's joking?” “Ray, I'm sorry...” “It's okay, Maria. Not your fault.” “But it was! If I hadn't—” “Stop that, Maria! It isn't your fault, it isn't Frannie's, it isn't—ow! Frannie, that hurts!” “Shut up, Ray. It'll hurt more later if I don't put this on now.” “I'm sorry—” “Stop it, Maria! I chose to do it, so the consequences are mine. I'm just glad you're not hurt.”
The image of Ray's brave battered nine-year-old face faded from Frannie's memory as she pressed close to her brother's friend, scared and lonely without him. She could hear Ray's voice in the words Benton had spoken, and could see Ray as he wrote them down, knowing what was going on but thinking of his loved ones and what he could do for them. Like he'd always done. Benton's arm was tight around her shoulders, giving her the comfort of a little part of her brother still.
“Elk knee?” Welsh asked curiously.
“Moose Jaw,” Benton replied briefly, “My first big city posting. Ray was being circumspect.”
Frannie snorted. It was more than circumspect, it was another part of the games her brother and his friend had played together. She missed their banter and talk as they'd sit around the dinner table and carry on the stupidest conversations, each out-blanding the other until one of them would either give it up and change the subject or they'd laugh and call it a draw. God, she missed them. She missed Ray. And she missed the person Benton had been around Ray.
“Never mind that, Frase – what about the real message?”
Frannie looked over at the blonde detective and so did everybody else. It was Jack who asked the question, “Real message?”
Stanley (not Ray! Frannie was so glad for the change of name) shrugged, “There's always another message on those cards of Vecchio's. You've gotten, what, six of those, Frase? And each one had something else on it.”
“Six postcards?” Welsh repeated in surprise, his brows snapping down. “Ray broke cover to send six cards and you didn't see fit to mention this?”
Benton let go of Frannie and used his newly free hand to rub his eyebrow with his thumb. Frannie always loved that gesture of his, so emotive and restrained, so very Benton.
“They were just personal messages, Sir. Ray always took care to send them though very different routes so I'm positive that he took equal precautions to avoid breaking cover. And...” Benton hesitated noticeably before bracing himself, “there were actually ten of them.”
Frannie sniffed and decided to speak up, “One was my birthday, one was Ma's, one was Maria's... You can't expect Ray to go away and forget his family!”
Welsh briefly covered his eyes with his hand. “Only Vecchio...”
Fraser hastened to reassure him, “I presumed, Sir, that the FBI had approved of Ray's sending the postcards since they were specially treated and could only have come through them. And some of the pictures on the cards..., well, they had to have been created before Ray... took up his duties out there.”
“Good point,” Welsh acknowledged, lowering his hand.
“Frase – what about the message?” Stanley was almost hopping in his eagerness to find out.
Benton shrugged, and Frannie could see the reluctance underneath the Mountie mask. In a way, she knew the feeling. Once the card was read... there would be nothing more from Ray. With a great effort of will, Frannie held back the sob she could feel welling in her throat and soul. My brother... None of the family had touched Ray's room yet except to find the items mentioned in his will. It was just too hard to think that he was never coming back. As long as the room stayed the same, there was a part they didn't have to face yet. They knew it. They lived with it every day since they heard the news. But packing the room was something they couldn't face yet. And now, here was something more, something they didn't know they had. Ray. A little bit of Ray still left for them to discover and hold on to. Don't read it Benton. Not yet. If we wait, then he'll not really be gone. It was a child's thought, holding tight to the last unwrapped present. Frannie bit her lip and gave her silent support to the Mountie.
Reaching into his pockets, Benton brought out a lighter and flicked it on, holding it underneath the postcard with the picture face up. Frannie tried to get a look at the top but Benton was holding it too high for her to get a good view. Stanley and Jack were crowding around Benton, though, and Welsh was hovering, and they were all tall enough. Frannie grimaced impartially at the men and waited.
“Good Lord,” Stanley spoke in an awed voice.
“Amen,” Huey chimed in.
“Oh dear,” Benton sighed.
“Only Vecchio...” Welsh pinched the bridge of his nose, “Does anybody have a magnifying glass?”
Instantly knowing what had happened, Frannie cracked up laughing – when he wanted to, Ray could write smaller than anybody she knew, and it was always an adventure to try and read his notes from class. Sometimes, he couldn't even make them out. At the same time as she was laughing, Frannie's heart was also beating loudly – on the space of a postcard, Ray had written his last words, and a lot of them.
“Hey!” Frannie yelped as she saw the back of the card with the first message start to yellow up from the flame. Reaching quickly, she snatched it from Benton, unmindful of the brief pain as her fingers passed over the lighter. Anxiously, she inspected the card but other than the slight singing, it was unharmed. To see her brother's writing on the card, wrenched her heart. 'I have my thoughts of you and the family.' He didn't forget us.
“It's heat that it needs, right? Maybe we can use one of those hot packs.”
“They're a little damp.”
“If we cover it with plastic...”
“Would it be enough heat?”
“I'm not sure if it's heat alone – I've always used the flame.”
“What about reading it?”
“Forensics has magnifying glasses. We can get some from there.”
Listening to the conversation taking place literally over her head, Frannie snorted and turned, walking down the hallway with the card and hearing the startled men follow her.
“Men,” Frannie sniffed, “Always looking for the hard way to do things.” She got to the copier and held the card out to Benton, “Warm this up, will ya?” As he took the card, Frannie opened the top and then started working with the adjustments on the panel. “Let's see, we've got eight 'n a half by fourteen in tray three, and the card is four by six, so magnification would be...”
“2.125, or 213 percent,” Benton's quiet voice filled in the numbers before she'd gotten as far as somewhere just a bit more than twice as big.
The copy machine wasn't as precise as the Mountie. Frannie adjusted it to 200 percent, tray three, with... she looked around the group and punched in six copies. Then she held her hand out to Benton. The moment he handed her the card she slapped it down on the copier and punched the button, hoping the image would stay warm long enough for the copies. With a whir, the bright light passed across the card and then moved back, taking a moment to start spitting pieces of paper into the out tray.
Welsh scooped them out before anybody else could, inspecting the top sheet. “At least it's readable now,” he pronounced. “My office,” he glanced around them, “Fraser, Kowalski, Huey, and Francesca. Dewey – go see if Besbriss is on duty and ask the Sergeant if we can borrow her for awhile.” There was a slight murmur of protest from the other officers around them. Welsh glared at them before softening, “We'll let you know what Ray said, after we read it.”
Ray's final words. Frannie realized that none of them know just what Ray had said there – it could be messages to the family, or it could be about the assignment he'd been on. Their eagerness to hear Ray's voice was making all of them but the Lieutenant careless. Even Benton hadn't seemed to worry about that.
But then, he knows Ray better than any of us. Her brother for 32 years and Frannie still knew that though they loved each other they didn't understand each other all the time. Benton Fraser and her brother had known each other from the moment they met. Well, maybe not that soon, but after Benton had come back to Chicago all of the Vecchio's realized that they had a new family member. All the silent exchanges and looks at the dinner table and the way they'd step in smoothly for each other on even the littlest things...
The family had prayed that Benton wouldn't let them down, wouldn't hurt Ray. Ray had been through so much already. But instead, it's Ray who has left Benton. I don't think he'd ever expected that Benton would be the one left to grieve. But he'd left the will. Ray planned things out, all things. He didn't ever 'expect,' but he was a cop and had been in the hospital and had been through some of the worst Chicago had to offer. He knew better than to assume the world would always have him in it.
Damn you, Ray. I loved you. You were my brother. Why did you have to give your love and service to the rest of the world too? A cop's family always came second. None of the Vecchio's had ever dealt well with that fact. They tried. But every time Ray came home with a bandage or a commendation or they had to go to him in the hospital... it was hell being the family of a cop. No mother should ever outlive her children.
With a pang, Frannie suddenly realized that there was now no one to carry on the Vecchio name. Lots of relatives and cousins... but her brother had been the last male with the name. A few far-off branches were left still, sure, but they weren't them, they weren't the Vecchio clan and family. For a wild moment, Frannie considered having a kid and keeping her name to give to him. But I couldn't name him Raymondo. Frannie shook her head. That would be too much. It would honor her brother... but there would always be the pain, and she wouldn't raise any kids of hers in the shadow of remembered pain. Middle name. Yeah. I think Ray would have liked that.
Frannie's rambling thoughts were interrupted as Lieutenant Welsh handed her a piece of paper. Confused, Frannie looked up. Somehow, they'd gone from the copier down the hall to Welsh's office and were all sitting around, and she'd never noticed. Even Elaine was there – and was looking at her with very sympathetic brown eyes. Frannie quickly looked back down, the tears blurring in her eyes and making it impossible to read the paper.
... ... ...
There are two paths here and I'm going to try to take the one, but I got to plan for the other. Heh, now if only there was a middle one... By now, you'll know which way it went. Sorry. Stupid me. I should have come home ages ago. I didn't know somebody I should have. Nothing to be helped there. Ides of April and all that. I can see the ledge out there... going that way; not really depressed though. Envy, perhaps... there was more I wanted to do. No anger - bet that surprises you; I'm always angry, but really I am but mad here. Tell Lew not to do the guilt thing. I chose. And they can quote all they want, but who cares? - They live by Lew. If I had a last request, I'd wish I could indulge my sweet tooth out here, but we all know what chocolate does to me. Love it anyhow. Give my family a hug and kiss for me. And them to you. Give Donald's nephew a hug – you can skip the kiss.
Love ya always, Benny.
... ... ...
“Godamnit, Vecchio, I hate that nickname!” Huey growled.
Everybody looked up from their letters and at him.
“Uh, sorry,” Huey mumbled, “Involuntary reaction.”
Elaine grinned at him, “Duck Boys?”
“Yeah... Ray and Louis could bicker about everything, but the one thing that always got my goat in particular was that damn joke.” Huey glared at his new partner, “And then I get put with a cop named Thomas Dewey. Somebody in personnel doesn't like me!”
Dewey blinked, “Huh?”
“Huey, Dewey, and Louie... of course.” Fraser mused, “Donald Duck's nephews.” He got up and went over and hugged Huey.
Fraser backed off, “Ray said to give you a hug.”
“He didn't mean that literally, damnit!” Huey's flush showed through his dark skin.
Elaine was giggling and so was Frannie. Even Welsh had a smile on his face. “At least he left off the kiss.”
“So,” Fraser looked around the room, his grey-blue eyes more alive than they'd seen in a long time. “Lew; that's you, Lieutenant.”
Welsh nodded, “But I don't know what he means by the quotes.”
Fraser closed his eyes and recited, “'A good cop is never wet and never hungry. Interrogation is a contact sport. And all suspects are guilty of something.'” He opened his eyes, a sparkle within, “The officers here still quote Will Kelly, but they live instead by your rules of honor and truth, trust and a faith in the system. Suspects are innocent until proven guilty, and that's the way the 27th lives.”
When Fraser finished talking, Welsh got out a box of kleenexes and mopped his eyes before blowing his nose loudly.
Standing in the center of the group, Fraser turned in a full, careful circle, his eyes showing calculations and thoughts too remote for anybody to grasp. He settled on Francesca, “What is Ray's sweet tooth?” he inquired.
Frannie shook her head, perplexed, “I have no idea. And he eats chocolate all the time... ate...” she sniffled and grabbed a kleenex from Welsh, “and doesn't have any problems, so I don't know---”
“That's me,” Elaine interrupted.
Everybody looked over to her. Elaine blushed prettily, “It's a joke... You see, I'm chocolate,” she gestured at herself.
As one, the group blinked, and several frowns appeared.
Elaine rolled her eyes, “No, no – *Ray* didn't call me chocolate; actually it was...” She sighed. “It's a long story, but basically Ray, Dirk and I were out at a bar looking for information on a case, and it, uh, well, kindof turned into a brawl because of some remarks made. And I accidentally side-kicked Ray in the middle of it... Afterwards, Dirk and I had a habit of joking about me being Ray's sweet tooth and what chocolate does to him.”
“You were the one who broke his rib?” Welsh raised his eyebrows, “They didn't put that in the report.” Pinpointed her with a stern glance, Welsh put on his commander voice, “I had those two in the doghouse for weeks for taking you along on that deal. Maybe you should have been in there with them.”
Elaine shrugged, “They needed a hooker – who were they going to use, Ray?” She snickered.
“A hooker... in a stripper club...” Fraser murmured.
“It was in a bar,” Elaine smiled, “The setup wasn't that complex, we were just establishing a cover.”
“No, something else...” Fraser shook his head and looked at her with a smile they hadn't seen since the news, “Thank you kindly, Elaine, for explaining that. I'm going to have to ask you for more details about that later. For now...” he turned again to Francesca, “both you and Victoria seemed to know the reference Ray is using for the number one-thousand. You said something about a poem?”
Frannie's expression was between hate and pain and love. “Bitch. Yeah, it was Ray's favorite since we were kids. 'The Thousandth Man,' by Rudyard Kipling.” She looked curiously at Fraser, “You don't know it?”
“Kipling...” Fraser rubbed his eyebrow, “that explains it.” He glanced around the group, “While our library was extensive, it was also limited, and several volumes were stolen when I was eight years old, including the poems by Kipling. It was one of the few times I've seen my grandfather angry, but my grandmother never ordered a new set.”
Frannie's mouth dropped open, “You never read 'The Jungle Book'?!”
“No,” Fraser answered regretfully.
With a sigh, Frannie expressed her mourning for that loss. “We lived by it. We'd go down to the basement and Maria would set the traps so we'd know if anybody came, and then we'd make our Jungle all our own...” She smiled with remembrance. “Ray was Mowgli, of course, the human wolfling. And Maria was Baloo the teacher...” Frannie grimaced, “Vinnie always wanted to be Shere Khan for some reason, though we always pointed out to him that the tiger always died. But he liked tigers...”
Dewey leaned forward, “And you were Bagheera?”
Frannie grinned, a predator's grin, “No, I was Kaa. After all, it was Kaa that saved all the others!” She emphasized her role with a toss of her head and an undulating motion.
“I thought Kaa wanted to eat Mowgli,” Elaine commented.
“No no – that was the movie. We went by the book.”
“So who was Bagheera?” Huey asked.
“Nobody,” Frannie shrugged, “There were only the four of us...” She glanced over to Fraser, who was watching and listening without commenting, “I think our family needed the right Bagheera and Akela, not just substitutes.”
Diefenbaker barked, his ears up and his tail wagging.
Fraser glanced down, “Yes, indeed. It does sound like another trip to the library is required of us.”
A short silence fell in the room before Elaine finally broke it, “There's a copy of the poem in Ray's files.”
“Like hell!” Stan responded involuntarily, “I've been all through those files.”
Elaine grinned, “But you don't know Ray's filing system like I do.”
“Would you mind finding it for me, please, Elaine?” Fraser asked politely.
Elaine stood up, “Sure. It's---”
“Just one moment, Elaine,” Fraser interrupted quietly. He looked over to Welsh, “Lieutenant, do you know if the FBI had retrieved copies of Ray's final report?”
There was another silence in the room, this one a suddenly much more serious one.
Welsh frowned, “They wouldn't have told me directly. But from comments they made... no, I don't believe they did.”
Fraser nodded in his manner that said, 'hypothesis confirmed.' He glanced down to the paper in his hands and smoothed it out, “Then you might want to call them and enlist their cooperation. Ray made an extra copy and hid it.”
Diefenbaker woofed and Fraser nodded, “In this letter, Ray told me how to find it.”
The silence was complete.
... ... ...
End of Section One
... ... ...