This is my first Due South story, an alternate universe of the Pilot episode. As such, it features Ray Vecchio and his family.

I don't claim to be an expert on the series' timeline, but I have made some deliberate deviations (such as moving up the date of Ray's father's death). I have also let the characters change if it seemed appropriate under the circumstances of this universe (for instance, I hope Frannie is more mature in this world). Hopefully, I have not changed Fraser or Ray's basic characters, or made any of the canon characters completely unbelievable.

Let me know if you like it or hate it. Thanks for reading.

 

DEALINGS by Laura Mason

1. Fraser's Deal

"Mr. Zuko." The man escorting Fraser into the wood-paneled study spoke in a rough voice with a thick Chicago accent. That and the gun under his arm combined to seem so stereotypically "mob" that Fraser, for an instant, fought the urge to giggle. "Constable Fraser to see you."

At these words the dark-haired man behind the lavish desk rose. Despite everything Fraser had heard about him, Zuko did not look like a gangster. He was casually dressed in very high quality clothing, a sweater that probably cost several hundred dollars. Athletically built, though shorter than Fraser had expected, Zuko's Italian heritage was obvious, but the man was smiling and congenial. A little girl played in the corner of the room with a Barbie doll, oblivious to her father's business.

But when Fraser was close enough to shake his hand, he saw Zuko's eyes for the first time and realized that this man was, indeed, the powerful and dangerous Don he'd been told to seek. Zuko held his hand a little too long, a little too tightly, and Fraser recognized the competitiveness. He lowered his eyes and didn't return the grasp, submitting. He didn't want to antagonize this man and couldn't afford to play his games.

"Constable Fraser. I understand you have a problem. It's a terrible thing to lose a parent. My father, God rest his soul, has been dead for five years now."

"Ah, yes. Indeed. One always... that is..."

"Please have a seat, Constable." Fraser, blushing at his inability to articulate, gratefully sank into the armchair across the desk from Zuko. "You didn't realize that I would check you out before making this appointment? Well, a businessman needs to be careful. I learned that you came to Chicago looking for answers about your father's death. Was I misinformed?"

"No, sir, you were not. My father was shot, apparently by someone in a party of hunters from this city."

"And you asked for an assignment here to investigate the shooting." Fraser nodded and Zuko smiled down at him. "You don't have any official jurisdiction here, do you?"

"No, sir. But my duties at the Consulate are not onerous and in my spare time I have tried to learn what really happened." Fraser turned his hat, staring down at his hands as they fidgeted. "The police here have been of some assistance, but one unsolved case does not carry much weight."

"Ah, yes. The 27th. Good men, for the most part."

"I'm sure of that. Detective Gardino did make a few calls on my behalf. One of the men in the hunting party, a group of dentists, used the false name of Lawrence Medly, a man who has been dead for several years. With this information, and by meeting with all the legitimate doctors I did manage to find a photograph of the sixth man." Fraser pulled a snapshot out of his breast pocket, but Zuko waved it away.

"Keep it. I think I can help you, Constable."

"Thank you."

"I don't suppose a Deputy Liaison Officer makes very much money. Chicago is an expensive city."

"It's true that I am not in a position..."

"But I enjoy helping people. Of course, someday I may need *your* help. Or your obedience, without awkward questions."

"I understand, Mr. Zuko. Before I requested this appointment, it was made clear to me that your assistance was not altruistic in nature."

Zuko smiled at the Mountie. "Does everyone in Canada talk like that?" he waved a hand dismissively at Fraser, who had just opened his mouth to reply. "Never mind, I'm not really asking. Here's the name and address of my private investigator, Ray Vecchio. He'll take care of you." Zuko scrawled on a piece of paper, then held it up.

"Ah. Thank you kindly." Fraser reached, but he had to stand to accept the slip of paper from the seated man. He stood, feeling awkward, for another long, silent moment.

"Good day, Constable." Zuko pressed a button on his phone and the door behind Fraser opened. The gunman stepped in and Fraser exited with him, hearing the door close behind him. When he was at the front door of the lovely old home, he spoke to the man who'd shown him out.

"What direction is Harlem Avenue?"

***

Fraser was directed to the basement level by the security guard in the small office building. There was only one marked door opposite the elevator, a small sign reading "Vecchio Investigations." Unsure of the proper etiquette, Fraser knocked on the door once, then tried the handle. As it turned, he heard a bored female voice.

"Yeah, c'mon in." As he entered he saw a thin, dark-haired young woman reading a magazine at a tiny desk. She looked up and her face transformed from boredom into a very friendly smile. "Hello. Can I help you?" Her fingers combed nervously through her hair as she rose, posing herself against the desk.

"I believe you may. I'm looking for Mr. Raymond Vecchio. Benton Fraser, RCMP."

"I'm Francesca." She stuck her hand at him, and Fraser shook it, despite the impropriety. "So what's RCMP?"

"Royal Canadian Mounted Police, m'am." He glanced around the room as he spoke. It was a tiny office space, one two-drawer file and an older model computer. All the furniture appeared to have been painted to attempt to make it match.

"Mounted police? You have a horse?" Her eyes were roaming over him, and now they lingered on his boots.

"Not here in Chicago, m'am."

"Francesca," she smiled at him. "And it's 'miss.' I'm single."

"It really isn't proper for me to address you by your first name at a first meeting, Miss Francesca."

A snort behind him and the Mountie turned to see a thin, balding man leaning in a second doorway. He hadn't noticed it previously because the door from the hall had blocked it when he'd entered.

"Her last name is Vecchio, just like mine." The man was in a shirt and tie with simple dress slacks, looking relaxed and not at all threatening. Not exactly how Fraser had pictured Zuko's "investigator." There was no visible gun or harness for one.

"Ah. Mr. Vecchio--"

"Ray, please. You can call us both by our first names, no matter how improper it seems, Constable." Vecchio looked amused as he stood up straight and extended his own hand to Fraser. "Frannie's my sister; she's working for me until something better comes along. Frank Zuko called and said you'd be stopping by. C'mon in."

Fraser was ushered into another tiny room, this one with another old desk and two mis-matched armchairs.

"Frannie," Vecchio called as he directed Fraser to one of the chairs. "Get us some coffees, okay? Here," and he pulled a twenty out of his pocket. "Get yourself one, too."

"Sure, Ray. I'll be right back." She stuck her head in the room to accept the cash, smiled at Fraser once more, and left.

"She's smitten already. Bet you can pick and choose, eh?" Vecchio smiled as he said the words, but it didn't seem pleasant and Fraser didn't know how to reply. Vecchio looked at him for a moment longer, and the smile faded while his eyes warmed. He sat across from Fraser in the second armchair, his face serious and focused. Fraser thought him rather homely, though his eyes were kind.

"Frankie Zuko told me a little about your case. I'm sorry for your loss." Fraser nodded without replying. The police had been sorry, too. They still hadn't followed up on the case before his arrival, nor had they been willing to keep working with such small leads. "Constable Fraser, I'd be happy to assist you however I can. I'm always grateful for any business Frankie sends my way. But before you employ me, you should know a few things."

Fraser thought for a moment, then replied. "Your rates? I do have some cash in savings..."

"Frankie asked me to help you, he'll cover any costs if you decide you want me." Vecchio stood and paced in the small area available to him. "You're a Mountie; you're part of the law enforcement community."

"But I have no jurisdiction in Chicago."

"Neither do I, Constable. I'm not licensed for this work, though for the most part the cops leave me alone as long as I don't get in their way. For most of the work I do, that's not a problem."

Fraser waited, but Vecchio remained silent. "Ah. So the difficulty is?"

"I'm an ex-con." Vecchio watched him as he spoke, his eyes intense, but Fraser's face remained the same. "You understand me? An ex-convict? I was in prison--"

"Yes, I believe I understand you."

"If you can work with me, I might be able to get you some leads. I'm good at what I do." He smiled sheepishly. "I always wanted to be a cop when I was a kid. Not that I'd ever have made it. My pop always said they didn't need screwups like me, and he was right."

Fraser opened his mouth, then closed it and stared at the Italian for a moment. He tried again. "But you said you're good at what you do?"

"Yeah, I've got an eye for details. That's why Frankie helped me set up this business when I got out, and why he'll send people who need help my way." Vecchio hurled himself into his chair again, and looked into Fraser's eyes. "But you've gotta understand -- if we get any leads, if the case progresses that far, you can't expect the cops to work with me. Or even to be happy about you hiring me. Understand?"

Fraser nodded. "If official involvement becomes necessary--"

"I'm gone. And you can't tell anyone I was involved. It won't help your case."

"I see." Fraser looked down, away from those intense eyes. "May I have a moment to think about this?"

"Sure, take your time. I can tell this is a big decision for someone like you." Vecchio's smile was still warm. Fraser sat, astonished at how comfortable he felt with a man who'd just admitted to having been a criminal. Vecchio worked for Zuko -- and others, it seemed -- without official approval, to further complicate matters. He knew the RCMP would frown on utilizing this man's services, as well as everything else he'd done today. His career could end, badly. Dishonorably. Fraser wondered again if Vecchio carried an illegal gun. Then he closed his eyes and saw the vision of his father, left to bleed to death in the snow.

He heard voices from the entry area and it was evident Francesca had returned. Fraser could smell the coffee even before she brought a cup to him.

"I didn't know how you take yours, so I brought everything." Piles of creamer, sugar, sweetener were placed on Vecchio's desk, within Fraser's reach. "Ray said you need some time alone, to think." She smiled at him as she handed him one of her brother's cards with a handwritten phone number on the back. "Think about calling me, too." He didn't look up at her and after a pause, she turned and left the room.

Fraser held the coffee and tried to concentrate. He was so tired. Tired of this noisy, dirty, endlessly rushing city. Sick of his mindless duties at the Consulate, too. It had been over a year, and he still wasn't close to finding his father's killer. When someone in his neighborhood had first suggested going to Zuko, Fraser had immediately rejected the idea. Months later, he'd been desperate enough to request the meeting.

So why was he hesitating now? It was obvious to him that he now owed Zuko a debt, whether or not he actually used Vecchio's services.

But Vecchio's honesty had made Fraser stop to really think about what he was doing. Vecchio had spent just a few minutes with Fraser, and in that time had judged him to be someone who didn't easily bend the law. Someone who would question the means, rather than ruthlessly chase his goals. Fraser wondered if he was really that someone anymore. Vecchio believed it, apparently.

A man who'd have faith in a total stranger was rare. Someone who'd be honest with that stranger, then allow him time to ponder his beliefs, even at the risk of losing a job -- well, that man was trustworthy, no mater how much time he'd spent in jail. All Fraser's instincts told him Vecchio wasn't a lawbreaker anymore. And there was a chance they might find another clue...

Fraser rose and swallowed a gulp of his lukewarm coffee. He shivered a moment, wishing for a decent cup of tea, then spoke.

"Mr. Vecchio?"

"Yeah? C'mon out here, Constable. Frannie won't bite ya."

"Ray!" Francesca smacked Vecchio in the arm as he perched on the edge of her desk, but he only laughed as he looked up at Fraser's face. His face was more attractive when he smiled, Fraser thought.

"I'd very much like to work with you."

"Great." Vecchio seemed to be genuinely delighted. Francesca's smile was almost as sunny as her brother's. Vecchio rose and led Fraser back into his office, one hand resting on his shoulder. "So, what have you turned up so far?"

***

The next evening Benton Fraser, newly-christened "Benny" by Ray, found himself sharing a family dinner in the Vecchio home. Francesca beamed at him from across the table, though he'd been merely polite to her. He saw her interest in him; it was certainly blatant enough. But he felt no kinship with the young lady. There was no spark, no mutuality of interests, no easy conversation.

Oddly enough, that was not the case with her brother, despite the similarities between the siblings. In just a day of reviewing his father's case together, they'd reached a level of intimacy that Fraser found disturbing and compelling. He truly believed that Ray would help him, somehow. This renewed hope left him feeling at peace, despite the unfamiliarity of his current situation.

The Vecchios were all like Ray and Francesca, at least as far as being loud and instantly welcoming him. Mrs. Vecchio seemed to adopt him -- and Diefenbaker -- at once, announcing that he wasn't eating enough and making him remove his uniform jacket for dinner. She went so far as to tuck an enormous white dishtowel over his shirt, stating "You eat pasta much? Then trust me." He hadn't been in physical contact with anyone in so long, yet her casual pat to his cheek was comforting and he smiled back at the woman fussing over him.

Now the crowded, noisy table was filled with delicious foods, though Fraser wasn't familiar with the names of most of the dishes he saw. On his right, Ray sat slumped comfortably in his chair, ingesting immense quantities of food, shouting along with his siblings, and occasionally sneaking food to Diefenbaker. He noticed Fraser staring at him and smiled, waving his fork at the Mountie.

"Relax, Benny. We'll work some more after dinner, I promise. Before I drive you home."

"Understood, Ray." He smiled at his friend, then paused, fork in mid-air, realizing that he did, indeed, think of Ray Vecchio as a friend. Not someone he needed, or someone he'd employed. A friend.

Fraser finished guiding his fork to his mouth, and as he chewed amidst the familial bickering, he pondered that. Ray might not be treating him differently from any client Zuko sent to his office. But as he looked around the table, smiling and nodding to Mrs. Vecchio when she questioned whether he liked her food, he didn't believe it. Or care. If everyone Zuko directed to Ray was as lost and friendless as he'd been yesterday, then Ray and his family might feed and nurture them all, simply out of the goodness of their hearts.

Ray had listened to him for hours yesterday, praising his work with Detective Gardino and asking questions. When Fraser realized the time and needed to go to his apartment for Diefenbaker, Ray had offered to drive him. Despite a loudly-voiced fear of dogs, Diefenbaker had taken to Ray instantly and the threesome was soon sitting comfortably together at what Ray called a Greek restaurant near his office. Fraser wondered again why he hadn't noticed any obvious ethnic specialties on their menu.

Ray continued to talk through the meal, asking Fraser questions about where he'd grown up, what he'd done in Canada, and how he liked Chicago. Fraser found himself talking more than he had in months, telling stories of his father and grandparents, and life in the Territories.

He had been assigned to Consulate duty today, but Ray had arranged to meet him at lunch time, and they'd eaten together, talking about the case again. Ray had an idea about the mysterious, shadowed figure in the dentist's photo. He wanted to check it out the next evening. As Ray drove him back to work, he invited Fraser for dinner. "Ma insisted that I bring you by for a good, home-cooked meal." Talking constantly, pointing out sights, shouting at other drivers and pedestrians, complaining, recommending good places to eat, Ray seemed to devour life. Despite the negative tenor of so many of his comments, it was obvious that he loved driving around his city.

A voice in Fraser's head whispered that this was because Ray had been incarcerated, for who knew how long. Of course he relished his freedom to drive, to choose where he'd eat or where he'd go.

But seeing the rest of the Vecchios put Ray's attitude in a new perspective. Ray's passion for life was mirrored in all of them, even in Francesca's single-minded pursuit of him. Which drew his attention back to the dining room and the voices around the table.

"Francesca, come help me clean up."

"Aw, ma, I've got a date tonight," she whined, then looked at Fraser and smiled. "Nothing serious, just a guy I go dancing with sometimes."

"Ah. Dancing. That's excellent exercise, I believe." Fraser wondered why Francesca immediately looked upset, even as he registered Ray's snort of laughter next to him.

"He doesn't mean you're fat, Frannie. He's Canadian. Go on and get ready, we'll do the dishes."

"Raimondo, no! Fraser is a guest."

"He'll be happier helping than not, ma. He doesn't watch TV." Ray grabbed two plates and moved into the kitchen easily, Fraser mirroring his actions and following. He wondered why Ray thought he'd be willing to assist with the cleanup. Certainly it was true, but Ray didn't really know him... though he had mentioned not owning a television during their first meal together. And he'd told Ray how much he'd enjoyed helping to set up the neighborhood watch that included Wicker Park. It was the only Chicago tale he cared to share. Most of the time he'd told stories of his time in Canada, as a real Mountie...

Fraser stopped moving, appalled.

"Benny? You okay?" Ray was rinsing dishes with a scrub brush and placing them into the dishwasher, but he stopped and shut off the water when the Mountie didn't move or answer. "Benny?"

"I just realized that I no longer consider myself a Mountie. My duties are no longer those of a law enforcement officer."

"Aw, c'mon, Benny. You're still a Mountie. You told me what you've done here in Chicago. That horses' ass you work for might not appreciate your abilities, but you're still putting them to use."

"I never planned to stay this long..."

"Here, sit down. Put this on your neck." Ray had steered him into a kitchen chair before he realized how pale and faint he must have looked. Ray gently pushed his head down and held the cool cloth on Fraser's neck, chattering away. Fraser sat without really listening, until he heard a name.

"... find out if Drake is still in town, the scum. Though why anyone would hire a hit on a Mountie thousands of miles away..."

"Drake?" Fraser's head popped up, and the room spun.

"Relax, Benny. Ma doesn't need more to clean up in here. Cracking your head open on her floor when you keel over would be bad."

"You're saying a professional hit man named Drake was the sixth dentist?"

"I told you his nose looked familiar. Yeah, today I placed him, not that we can prove it to anyone yet. Francis Drake's the name, and he's not what I'd call a professional. But certainly available for hire, if you know what I mean."

"Not really, Ray."

"Aw, don't sweat it, Benny. We'll go hunting tomorrow night. You were supposed to be relaxing here."

"No, I was supposed to be helping with the dishes."

"Forget it. Since Frank bought Ma this dishwasher, there's nothing to it. Sit tight; I'll finish in a snap."

Francesca came parading through the kitchen a few minutes later on her way out the door, modeling a formfitting dress for her brother and Fraser. "How do I look?"

"Great, Frannie. Have fun."

"Thanks. Benton?"

"It's certainly very... purple, Francesca."

"Yeah, it's a good color on me." She turned, showing her posterior and bending forward slightly. "Does my slip show?" She swiveled to look back at him, somehow giving an impressive display of both cleavage and leg. Fraser felt his face flushing.

Ray pushed between her and the Mountie. "Everything shows, Frannie. Now don't keep Marty waiting." He smiled at his sister as she pouted and left the room. He stood a moment, listening to the voices from the other room. "Frannie's a little... well, her life ain't been easy, Benny. She doesn't mean to embarrass you."

Fraser blushed even more at those words. "Your sister is a fine woman, I'm sure. Very... friendly."

"Her no-good husband disappeared about a year ago. No loss, if you ask me. The louse slapped her around. She thinks he ran off with another woman. So she came home to live and get a job, and she dates a lot of guys."

"Perhaps she wants to feel attractive and desired again?" Fraser speculated.

"Yeah, I think you're right. Anyway, don't let her bother you."

"Understood, Ray."

***

Fraser looked up at Vecchio, who still held a gun aimed at the prone man's head. "I believe Drake is now secured, Ray."

"Yeah, well until I hear sirens, I'll just keep an eye on him, okay, Benny?" Diefenbaker growled his agreement, also standing over the bound man watchfully.

"Certainly." Although it did make him nervous to realize that he was encouraging Ray to utilize what was no doubt an illegally-obtained weapon, he felt better having Ray and Diefenbaker's backup. Detective Gardino, who the bartender had kindly called for him, should arrive soon.

They'd spent a week staking out this bar, known to be a favorite of Drake's. The first night Fraser had attempted to enter with Ray while in his uniform. Ray had left him at the car with Diefenbaker, complaining loudly about his reputation and Fraser's inability to blend in. The next afternoon Ray had taken him shopping for "normal clothes," and though he hadn't been pleased with Fraser's choice of simple jeans and a button-down shirt, they'd managed to blend in at the bar together since then.

Fraser had come to enjoy the nightly hours of conversation with Ray, exchanging stories of their families and lives while they sipped soft drinks. Fraser didn't drink, and neither did Ray, probably because of his father's excessive drinking. It was amazing how much he'd learned about Ray's past in the short time they'd known each other. Only one topic was never mentioned: Ray's time in prison. Fraser didn't want to bring it up, and Ray never referred to it in any way.

Tonight Drake had finally appeared. Fraser recognized him the moment he entered, amazed that the image from a very poor photo was so clearly embedded in his brain. Ray had then approached the man to discuss some "business," a completely fabricated hit they hoped Drake would assume was on behalf of Mr. Zuko. Everything went smoothly until Ray requested references before engaging Drake, asking in particular if he'd done any similar jobs. Drake had pulled a knife at that point, demanding to know who Vecchio really was, but the situation had stayed calm. Ray was very cool under pressure, laughing at Drake's weapon and questions.

But their luck turned sour when a young woman entered who'd met -- rather, solicited -- Fraser that first evening as he'd sat in Ray's car, in his full dress uniform. The prostitute called "Hi there, Mountie!" as she weaved across the room. Drake heard it clearly and reacted immediately, attempting to flee even as Ray pulled his gun, and Fraser threw himself after his father's murderer. Any lingering doubts about Drake's involvement were erased by such a violent reaction to a mention of the Mounted Police.

They'd subdued the man fairly quickly, though there was still ample damage to a large area of the bar. Most of the other patrons stayed out of the altercation, vanishing only when they heard the police arrive. Vecchio's gun disappeared as well, but the man himself only moved as far away as the bar. Fraser noted him handing a business card to the bartender, saying they'd take care of damages if no charges were pressed. Fraser didn't have much money, and neither did the Vecchios from what he could see. Just another debt he'd owe Zuko, he supposed.

Then Detective Gardino was offering to drive him to the station, and he agreed, eager to finally punish someone for his father's death... Rather, to see justice done at last... Fraser put it all out of his mind as he followed the police out of the bar.

***

Hours later, the following morning actually, Fraser had his proof. All five of the dentists in the hunting party had identified Drake in a lineup as Dr. Medly. However, Drake was not cooperating with the police, who'd questioned him several times. Drake didn't deny being in Canada, nor did he confirm it. While Fraser respected the detectives who were doing the official questioning, a small voice in his head wished for ten minutes, alone, with Drake. Better still, ten minutes with Ray and his wolf along to help him intimidate the man. Somehow Fraser felt that Zuko's name might be a more effective threat with this man than any official justice.

Drake's attorney finally arrived, a sniveling little man in a bad suit who went into court with his client and attempted to get a low bail set. Fortunately the judge denied it, thanks to timely calls from the Consulate and the RCMP headquarters. They were sending an official to join the Chicago Police in the interrogation, and hinted at additional evidence against Drake. The Chicago police agreed to hold off until that evening and to continue when they were all assembled.

Fraser finally dragged himself home around noon, anxious only for several hours of sleep. Diefenbaker would be there, however, since Ray had agreed to drop him off last night when they left the bar. The wolf would probably need a walk before Fraser could sleep. At that thought, he decided to indulge himself with a cab ride to the apartment, conserving his energy. He hoped that he could stay awake for the ride instead of making himself even more exhausted with a short nap.

But as he approached his door at last, he heard a voice in the room, evidently speaking to Diefenbaker. He paused for a moment, listening, and then smiled.

"Yeah, fuzz-face, it's okay if you get started... Benny!" Ray returned his smile, looking rested and happy. "You look beat. Here, have a sandwich. I took Dief for a walk, I hope you don't mind..."

"Not at all, Ray."

"You really should put a lock on your door, though." Ray fussed as he seated Fraser and brought him a cool bottle of water. "This isn't the greatest neighborhood, ya know?"

"This is very kind, Ray." Fraser was almost embarrassed by the amount of food Ray had brought him. A veritable feast was on his small table: lunch meats, rolls, sliced cheese, potato salad, bean salad, slaw. And the selection included some of his favorites, evidently as observed by Ray during all those shared meals.

"Well, I knew you'd have a tough night, Benny. I was home in my bed, sleeping, while you got stuck doing all the hard stuff." Ray tossed ingredients together as he spoke, and Fraser watched his hands move, mesmerized. "So is it going well?"

"I believe so, although Drake has not really admitted anything and his motives are still unclear. He has been positively identified, and the RCMP is sending someone with official standing to get involved in the case. Hopefully there will be enough pressure to learn who hired him."

"That's great." Ray took a bite of his sandwich as he sank into the chair opposite Fraser. "But you're not eating... too tired for this?"

"I'm.."

"Here, I'll put this all away. It'll wait until you've had some rest." Ray was up, abandoning his own food, and leading Fraser toward his bed. "Get this off, will ya? Oh, never mind." Ray pushed him into the bed, yanked off his shoes, and turned back to the kitchen.

"Ray?" Fraser was surprised to hear himself speak. He knew he'd be asleep in a minute, but he had to ask.

"I'll be done in a minute, Fraser, and you can have some privacy." Vecchio continued re-wrapping the foods and stuffing them into the tiny refrigerator.

"No, that's not... Thank you, Ray. You've done so much..."

"Ah, you had all the leads, you just needed some follow-up." Ray turned to him, looking embarrassed.

"Not just that. Ray, my posting in Chicago isn't over now that Drake has been found." Ray just looked at him, his face blank. "What I am attempting to say is that I would consider it an honor to continue our ... friendship. If that is what you wish."

Ray's face remained expressionless for a few seconds, then he smiled with all his usual warmth. "You consider me a friend?"

"Yes, Ray."

"Wow." Ray twitched then, moving like a teenager somehow, all arms and legs and not knowing what to do with his own body. Very unlike his usual grace. "I mean, yeah, I'd like that, Benny. If you want to, I mean."

"Very good," Fraser started, but sleep wiped the rest of the words and his smile away.

So Fraser was not consciously aware that Ray Vecchio stood there for uncounted minutes, watching Fraser -- his friend -- sleep.

***

The RCMP's "assistance" with Drake was not what Fraser had been expecting. How could he have imagined that his father's friend, Townsend Gerrard, would bring along evidence that indicated Robert Fraser had been taking bribes from a local power company? The company, Great Northern, had declared bankruptcy six months ago, defaulting on Phase 2 of their dam project. Shortly afterwards, a fire destroyed their headquarters and most of their records. Fraser felt it was wrong, it was suspicious, it was too neat. But there it was, and the Chicago Police accepted it gratefully, happy to have the case resolved in the face of Drake's silence. The physical evidence that was still available was overwhelming to everyone who wasn't Robert's son.

There was a bankbook in his father's name, showing regular deposits and equally regular withdrawals which they were able to match up to one of Drake's accounts in Chicago. Gerrard's theory was that the men had been working together, both assisting the power company to cover up the damage their dam had done to a protected area of wilderness. He speculated that Drake had been swindled or cut out of the deal, somehow. The transfers to his account had stopped about a month before Robert Fraser's murder.

Fraser tried to point out the inconsistencies, but no one was listening. Why would his father involve a thug from as far away as Chicago? How, for that matter, would the men have met? Robert Fraser hadn't left the Territories in years, and it didn't seem likely that Drake would have been vacationing among the Inuit. But these questions were lost as they poured over the reports Gerrard had carried to Chicago.

There were papers from the Greater Northwest Power Company, a few things that had been in a fireproof safe. Environmental impact studies showing that the East Bay Power Project periodically caused flooding over thousands of acres of wilderness -- located in the territories that Robert regularly patrolled. A letter of complaint from the tribal council, addressed to their local RCMP post, care of his father, but never received or reported there according to the local records.

Fraser wandered off, needing time to think, and found himself sitting in the coffee room at the 27th precinct, dazed and unable to listen to any more. Drake was being extradited to Canada and Gerrard was to escort him. Fraser had wanted to be a part of returning this man to face justice, but now he couldn't stand the thought of spending hours in transit with Gerrard. How could he face anyone who'd known his father, now? Robert Fraser, the perfect Mountie; exemplary and legendary. An extortionist. A thief. Working with scum like Drake. Betraying the people he'd sworn to protect and serve.

And Benton Fraser was his son, wasn't he? He'd proven that over the last two weeks by using the ranks of organized crime to assist him. By agreeing to assist them in return. Worst of all, by working with a convicted criminal -- and calling him friend.

Fraser dropped his head to the table, hidden between his arms, and wished he could howl like Diefenbaker.

 2. Ray's Deal

Ray Vecchio walked into his tiny offices, accompanied by a very sullen Francesca. She'd never been a morning person, but it was obvious she was no longer enjoying her job. Hell, she'd probably never enjoyed it -- she'd just needed a break from staring at the walls at home. And Ray didn't really need a receptionist, anyway. There wasn't a whole lot of business, even in the good times. Frannie's salary was just another way of supporting the family, as best he could. Which wasn't good enough, Ray knew.

Sure, the house was paid off. But property taxes rose every year, insurance was expensive, all the kids needed clothes and shoes and good food. The large family living in the house meant that carpets and furniture were badly worn and needed to be replaced. The walls were smudged and needed paint. Ray knew he wasn't keeping up with it. His mother wouldn't have any luxuries at all, if not for Frank Zuko's gifts. It hurt his pride, but he couldn't refuse things Frankie bought for her. Ma hadn't had much fun in life, and she deserved more.

He was a screw up, his father had been right. Too bad the old man hadn't broken his neck one of those nights and saved everyone grief. No, Ray stopped himself from thinking that way. He knew it wasn't the truth. His mother loved him, despite everything, even though she couldn't hold her head up in the neighborhood or brag about her son. Maria and Frannie could never have paid the bills alone -- he shuddered to think what might have happened to his family when Pop died without the Zuko family's assistance. At least now they weren't dependent on that.

"Frannie, be a doll and get me some good coffee and the papers, okay?"

"Money?" Frannie was a one-word person until about 11 AM, and Ray knew it. He handed over a ten, his last, and that realization depressed him enough that he continued to wallow in memories he usually tried to ignore.

When Ray heard the news of his father's death, he'd been frantic. He couldn't even get a day pass to attend the funeral, and he was fairly certain that no one would seriously consider his request for an early parole hearing due to his family's imminent financial difficulties. Still, he was making himself and his legal aid attorney crazy over it, until he got the letter from his mother.

Ma hated writing, Ray knew that, but it was their only communication. She'd come to visit him, once, but Ray had been so upset at her seeing him this way that she'd promised not to do it again. He'd taken quite a beating that night for being such a sissy; evidently his wild tears at the sight of his mother had been noticed by the other inmates.

Her letter told him that the house had been paid off with his father's insurance money, and that Mr. Zuko had offered to pay their taxes for the next year. Ray had never wanted to owe favors to the Zukos, and his friendship with Frank had ended badly when he'd learned that Frank was just like his old man. Still, Ray felt nothing but relief at this news.

Still, nearly three years later when he finally left Joliet, Ray knew what his first duty was. Before he even went home to see his family, he was at Zuko's house, formally thanking the Don and then informally renewing a kind of friendship with Frankie. There could never again be true closeness, Ray knew. Even if he'd been willing, they weren't equals. Perhaps they'd never been, given the difference in income and status between their families. But that gap had only been widened by Ray's term in prison. Still, Frankie was friendly. He asked Ray about his plans for a job, offered advice -- and further financial assistance, which Ray politely declined.

Two years later, after a string of mediocre jobs that allowed him to save some money, Ray had a car -- the same one he still drove, an '89 Ford that was reliable if not exciting -- and an idea of what he wanted to do. He enrolled in a night class on using computers, worked at figuring out a realistic budget, and bought up used office furniture to store in the basement of his mother's house. Then Vincent Zuko died.

The Don's funeral was lavish and, of course, well attended. Frankie sat with his mother and accepted condolences, his wife seated behind them, pregnant and slightly green with morning sickness. When Ray approached them, Frankie rose and walked out of the room with him. They wound up drinking coffee in the manager's office, in private.

"I understand you want to set up a business in my neighborhood, Ray. Why didn't you talk to me?" Ray wondered if the Zukos followed everyone who owed them this closely, or if they were just waiting for him to fuck up again.

"It's just an idea, Frankie. I'm not ready to go ahead. I'll need to save for another year or so."

"With your family, Ray, you'll never save the money you need. Maria has three, now?"

"Yeah, but Tony's got a new job." Ray supposed the whole neighborhood knew about Tony's inability to keep a job for more than six months, though. Tony needed to be in business for himself, too -- not because of a shady background, Tony was honest and hard-working. But he was too outspoken for most bosses. When Tony saw things being done wrong, he spoke up. Prison had taught Ray not to speak out of turn. Despite the constant chatter of the Vecchio household, some things were never mentioned.

"Which Tony will lose eventually, just like his other jobs. So what -- you're proud, now? My father's money isn't good enough for Ray Vecchio?"

"You've done enough, Frankie. My family already owes you a great debt which I can never repay." It hurt Ray to be so humble, but his voice was even and he kept his eyes lowered, watching the oily film swim atop his coffee.

"Now I'm hurt. Debt? We're friends, Ray. Friends do favors for each other. You want to be a private investigator, and sometimes I need this type of work done. It's ... mutually beneficial." Frankie's smile at the ten dollar phrase was so much like the boy Ray remembered that he laughed aloud, and Frankie joined in.

A week later, his office was open and Ray was in business. He'd fought Frankie's lavish tastes and expensive ideas, keeping everything small, insisting on using the furniture he'd scavenged instead of buying new. Ray was determined to stay within his budget. If he did, within a few months he'd be able to afford the rent on his own.

Now Ray sat in the office that had been his for five years and realized he'd succeeded, to a degree. Sure, his presence was still an embarrassment for his family. But food on the table was worth some embarrassment, he supposed. His clients didn't have a lot of money – people with money wouldn't be coming to someone like him – but they usually paid their bills. He was managing, with the occasional side job.

When necessary, Ray took menial work like mopping floors in some of the fanciest places in town for a few months at a time. Jobs where he didn't have to think, and he could leave on short notice whenever he was ready. While he worked, he studied the way the people on North Michigan Avenue dressed and spoke. Some day he'd buy tailored suits and shirts. And drive a beautiful car instead of a practical four-door for his always-growing family.

Hell, why not dream really big? Someday he'd meet a woman who didn't care about his past. Who didn't mind sharing him with his family. They'd have a few kids of their own to add to the noisy mix in the Vecchio house. Right.

At least he was spared the humiliation of having to see Irene now. She was settled in another country with a husband and kids. With any luck, he'd never have to face her again. He'd always known that their secret relationship couldn't last. Still, while in prison he'd dreamed of going home and taking her away from her family, to a place where he could protect her from them. At least she'd found someone who seemed to have done just that.

Ray hadn't dated in years. He'd tried, right after his release. Difficult as it had been to approach any nice girls, knowing his own limitations, it had been even more difficult to explain the bruises and black eyes when their relatives found out. No one wanted their sister or daughter involved with him. He couldn't blame them. He wouldn't have wished it for his own sisters.

So Ray tried out sex as a business transaction, but decided he couldn't afford it, financially or morally. He tried to be a good citizen, as best he could. He'd been alone for years now, joking to himself that Ma had gotten her wish -- he was a priest now.

Ray didn't want to break any laws, not even ones he disagreed with. The gun he carried on his ankle was legally bought and registered -- though not to him. Tony had agreed to the deception. Insisted, really.

"You're gonna be working with Zuko's people, Ray. You'll need protection."

Ray had to agree. So he'd accepted the gun, promising silently to never let Tony regret his generosity. Then he'd gone to a firing range and learned how to care for the gun properly and how to shoot it, blocking out his memories of tagging along with Tom Kelly years before. In those days, his Pop's drinking buddy had seemed like a hero from a storybook to Ray. And he'd believed in Ray, encouraged his dreams and hopes.

Well, Kelly would agree with his Pop now. Ray wasn't cop material. Still, he tried to stay on the good side of the law. Maybe some of the jobs Frankie sent his way were not exactly to his taste, but for the most part, he did good, honest work. Work he enjoyed very much. A little computer time, a network of informants, and you could actually help people find their missing kids, their lost heirs, their father's murderer...

It was two weeks since he'd seen Fraser. Despite the Mountie's words of friendship that last night they'd been together, they'd had no contact since. Ray had stopped by the Consulate, wishing that Fraser had a phone at his slummy apartment so he could just call him and make sure he was okay, but Fraser wasn't there and the message he'd left for the Constable had never been returned. He tried again, yesterday, and was told Fraser wasn't available.

Ray didn't know what he'd done to offend the Canadian, if he had. Maybe Fraser'd been sent back to Canada. Or maybe he simply realized that he didn't want to be hanging around with a loser like Ray Vecchio anymore.

Frannie banged the door open as she walked in with a cardboard tray of coffee, newspapers stuffed under her arm. "Ray, you'd better read this story," she announced as she slammed the papers down on his desk top. "Here, cream no sugar." She took her own coffee back to her tiny desk. Ray was about to pull the Jobs section for her when he realized what she'd been pointing at on the front page.

Chicago criminal Francis Drake was dead, killed while trying to escape from RCMP officials holding him in some place called Yellowknife. The story continued about the Chicago connection to Drake's case, including a brief quote from Gardino and a tribute to the 27th's hard work on exposing international corruption and finding a murderer. The story carried over to page twenty-five, where it went into some detail about Drake's partnership with Robert Fraser, a crooked Mountie who'd been taking bribes.

Ray was standing with his car keys out when he realized that he couldn't just take off for the Consulate. Sure, the story was fishy as hell. But it was none of his business; Fraser didn't want his help. Ray was easy to reach; he left the number for his cell phone which he always carried. If Fraser needed or wanted him, he would have called...

The news story was simply not true. Benton Fraser's father was not a person who could be influenced by money. Everything about Benny himself reflected that. Ray thought of the stories he'd heard of Robert's exploits while pursuing criminals across the wilderness he loved. He thought of Benny's face, glowing with pride as he quoted from his father's journal.

Ray was out the door before Frannie even noticed him moving, a piece of the Chicago Tribune fluttering down over her copy of Cosmopolitan.

Inspector Moffat muttered under his breath as he pulled together the papers Ray demanded from him. Something about all Americans being rude, but Ray having a new level of crudeness... Ray just smiled and accepted the copy of Fraser's itinerary which had been attached to his emergency leave request from two hours ago. No need to further infuriate Moffat by telling him what a fool he was to use Fraser as a statue or a delivery boy.

On the way to O'Hare, Ray spoke to Frannie about closing up his office. "Yeah, the sign should just say I'm out of town on business. Yes, Frannie, use the damn computer. It looks more professional if it's printed." He sighed and listened as she painfully opened the program she needed, occasionally swearing or asking for the proper command. Then she typed up the sign and read it back to him.

"Sounds good, honey. Wonderful. Now you take off a couple of days, but read that Jobs Section from the Trib. You've got the experience now, you should be able to find a better job somewhere. Hopefully something that pays a little better, so you can get some more purple outfits..." He snickered as Frannie's voice rose in defense of her shopping needs, then simply hung up and shut the phone's power off.

The Northwest Territories. Not someplace he'd ever pictured himself going. But Inspector Moffat had cooperated nicely, approving a visa that would allow him to stay for a month at least, if Benny needed him there. Frankie would never agree to pay for this airline ticket, but then Ray had no intention of asking him to do it. This wasn't part of Fraser's favor from Zuko, not any more. And Ray would never do anything to put someone else further in debt to Frankie, anyway. He had his own savings; he could afford a gesture of friendship and support. Of course, in addition to what he'd paid that bar, his credit card was close to maxed out...

Benny probably wouldn't be happy to see Ray, but he still needed backup. No matter what he thought of Ray, at least Ray was on his side. If someone was trying to make Robert Fraser take the rap for a coverup that included his own death, they wouldn't hesitate to incriminate his son, too. Ray once again nervously checked that the carry-on bag was secure under the seat in front of him.

He knew how easily things could go wrong, even against an innocent man.

***

Ray had never imagined feeling relieved to be greeted with a shotgun in his face, but that was the way to describe how he felt right now. Fraser was alive, well, and evidently ready to defend himself. These were all good things. Of course, he didn't exactly look happy to see Ray... But he didn't look angry, either. More shocked than anything.

"Geeze, Benny, it's a good thing I've got a credit card, you know? It's damn cold up here." Ray fussed as he removed the parka of the snowsuit he'd purchased in what the locals called a town. "Course I didn't have much time to pack."

"Ray," Fraser started, then stopped and shook his head. One hand went to his forehead, while the other still clutched the gun. "Ray, what are you doing here?"

"Nobody should go into a dangerous situation without backup. Kelly, a drinking buddy of my Pop, taught me that. He was a cop." Ray smiled at Fraser. "Face it, you can't trust anyone -- someone from the RCMP is involved in this frame-up."

"What... How do you know about..." Fraser stuttered to a stop, completely frustrated.

"I saw an article back home. Here, I've got a copy somewhere." Ray patted his pockets as he spoke. "Anyway, I knew it wasn't true. So I got your flight itinerary and followed you up here. Small towns, you know, everybody knew you were here. It wasn't hard to find you." He waved the crumpled pages from yesterday's newspaper at the Mountie, a victorious smile on his face.

Fraser accepted the pages, then sat down and slowly read the story. When he was finished, he looked up at Ray, who still hadn't finished removing his outerwear. Who, in fact, wasn't working on it anymore, but hadn't sat down or relaxed. Ray was waiting.

"You read this and knew it wasn't true? You understand that my father is being scapegoated?"

"Sure, Benny. I know you, don't I? Your old man wouldn't care about money. Not when there was something important to protect."

The silence between them stretched out, and Ray was just about to offer to leave when Fraser stood and walked over to him.

"I'm sorry, Ray, it's just that you ... well, you amaze me. Would you like some coffee?"

"Sure, Benny, that would be great."

"Do you need help with that?" Fraser indicated the snowpants Ray was still wearing, and with a grin Ray began to unclip the suspenders.

***

Two hours later they were still drinking coffee and talking. They'd discussed Fraser's findings and his plan to confront Gerrard. Ray had a few ideas to share, but suddenly Fraser stood, one hand raised for silence. Faintly, from outside, Ray heard it -- Dief was barking.

"Gerrard is here." Fraser looked at his friend and frowned. "You can't be seen, Ray, or he won't talk to me."

"Yeah, gotcha, Benny." Ray stood and quickly dumped his coffee in the sink, then rinsed the cup and placed it in the drainer. He gathered his clothing, hastily pulling on the snowpants and his boots, then picking up his bag. Then he swore and dropped everything. "Here, I brought this for you and I almost forgot..." He unzipped the bag and began to root inside it.

"Ray, I hope you aren't going to present me with an illegal weapon."

"Benny! Would I do that? Besides, you don't need one. You have Davy Crockett's old gun, right?" Ray smiled and pulled out a tiny micro cassette recorder. "Voila. Stick this in your pocket and you'll have a tape of your conversation. For protection. You can't trust this guy." Ray switched the machine on and held it out to the Mountie.

Fraser accepted the device just as they heard the sound of a snowmobile pulling up outside. "Thank you, Ray. Now please get out of here."

"So where's the back door?"

"Here." Fraser opened a trap door in the floor, and Ray stared, then laughed and tossed down his jacket and bag. "Wait for me in the shed," Fraser hissed as Ray dropped to the dirt and the door came down quietly.

Ray looked around, taking stock. The house wasn't high enough that he could stand comfortably, but he had no intention of going to the shed. He didn't trust Gerrard at all, so he crouched there in the cold, pulling on his jacket and trying to hear what was going on in the cabin above him. He couldn't hear every word, but maybe he'd be able to back up Benny's story if Gerrard tried to lie about him. Would police or a jury listen to an ex-con?

Gerrard sounded fatherly, at first, but as Fraser continued to speak, an edge crept into the replies. Then there were footsteps, moving closer to his hiding place, and Ray could hear more clearly.

"Ben, your father was my friend. ... must be faced – the evidence is there."

"Evidence can be manufactured. Electronic fund transfers prove nothing. ... made inquiries ... there's no proof .... ever stepping foot in that bank. No phone records ... or from the station ... fingerprints weren't on the passbook, either."

"And what does this prove, Ben?" The hearty tone was back, and the voice was so clear that Ray thought Gerrard was directly above him now.

"That my father ... take the blame for another's crimes." Dief came running at Ray, whining softly. He shushed the wolf, rubbing Dief's ears as he strained to listen.

"But who on earth would do such a thing?" Gerrard was good – he sounded very cool.

"Only ... was truly responsible for his death."

"Drake is dead."

"Drake was a pawn." There was a moment of silence, then Fraser stepped closer and continued. "Exactly how did Drake die?"

"He attempted to escape custody–"

"Your custody."

"Yes."

"You're a high-ranking officer, yet you were doing prisoner escort duty. Alone?"

"Am I being interrogated, Ben? Or are you accusing me of something?" There was an edge of danger, but Gerrard was still cool. But Benny played it just the same.

"That isn't proper procedure, sir."

"There was a temporary manpower shortage. We were headed to court when Drake overpowered me momentarily, then tried to run. I was aiming to wound, but when I reached him he was dead."

"Shot in the back."

"He was running away, Ben." Now the tone was lighter, almost laughing. Man to man. Ray twisted his lips in disgust, but Benny's next words assured him that his friend wasn't buying it.

"Perhaps he was walking away, believing he'd been released."

"Released? Why on earth would I release him?"

"So he couldn't testify against you. Drake wasn't smart enough to realize you'd want a more permanent guarantee of his silence."

"Ben. You can't prove any of these wild theories." Indulgent friend-of-the-family tone again.

"You can't disprove them, either. I'm sure once the discrepancies are brought to the attention of the proper authorities, evidence can be uncovered. Your own bank records, for instance. Or perhaps more records survived the fire at Great Northern."

This time the silence above was punctuated by angry footsteps. Then, harshly, Gerrard spoke again. "I can't believe you'd try to spread these lies. Who will believe you?"

"All it takes is one newspaper. One honest Mountie." Benny's voice was exultant. Ray could hear the confidence in his tone, and knew Gerrard would too. He became afraid for his friend, and thought about his gun. He'd snuck it along in the carry-on, disassembled for the x-rays. Diefenbaker growled softly and ran off, and Ray reached for his bag.

"Do you honestly believe that?" Gerrard laughed. "You really are just like him, damn you. Naive, trusting – foolish. You don't know how many others are involved. No one will listen to you. You're a joke, a crazy bastard who doesn't want to admit his Daddy wasn't perfect."

"Yet my accusations will be enough to ruin your career, Gerrard."

"I can destroy your life, Ben. And I will. You'll have no job, no home – maybe you'll go to jail as an accomplice to your father. Or maybe I'll finally admit that I saw you shoot Drake, and tried to protect you for your dead father's sake." Ray quickly reassembled the pieces of his gun, his hands shaking just slightly. From the cold, he told himself.

Benny sounded almost confused. "I was in Chicago."

"But you can't prove it." Gerrard was pacing faster now. "No phone, so no records to show you were home. No neighbors who can't be bought for twenty dollars cash. Moffat, that idiot won't remember where he was those days. You don't have any friends–"

"It's over, Gerrard. No matter what you threaten, I am exposing your involvement in my father's death," and light footsteps moved away, toward the front door. But none followed. Ray reached into his bag again as he heard the cabin door being opened. "You can go now," came Benny's voice, faintly, and as he loaded the clip into his gun, Ray strained to hear Gerrard's reply.

"I don't think so." Ray crept back directly under the trap door, gun tucked into his waistband, praying Benny hadn't latched it somehow. Gerrard was talking again. "Another hunting accident? No, too much of a coincidence. Suicide, I think. Regrets and grief over your father's death and dishonorable behavior."

"I won't cooperate with you, Gerrard. Put the gun down." Benny sounded so calm, but Ray was sweating now. He wiped his palms on his pant legs and, using both hands, carefully cracked open the trap door.

They were at the small table, their backs to him. Gerrard pushed Fraser into the chair, his gun pressed to Fraser's temple. "Now write what I tell you, Ben."

Too close, damn it. Ray couldn't shout, fire, or do anything that might get Fraser killed. He tried to think of a distraction, something to get that gun pointing away from Fraser. Aside from letting himself be shot instead, he couldn't think of a damn thing.

Then a noise at the front door disturbed all three men, and even as part of Ray's brain identified the growling and thumping as Dief, another part coolly watched Gerrard turn, moving the gun. Ray moved without thinking, throwing the trap door wide and scrambling up, pulling his gun out. The trap door crashed shut behind him and Gerrard spun at the noise, gun extended.

Ray shouted "Freeze!" even as Benny went into action, as smoothly as if they'd planned it all. Gerrard was tackled at the knees and off his feet, his gun skittering away. Ray retrieved it while Benny secured the older Mountie with his belt.

They looked at each other for a moment, then both men smiled. Ray started to laugh with relief as he crouched there, and Benny just reached out and playfully punched his shoulder. "You look half frozen, Ray."

"Yeah," Ray replied as he stood and moved to let Dief inside. "Good boy. You're a hero." Diefenbaker ran in as soon as the door opened, growling at Gerrard and positioning himself close by the bound man. "I'll never complain about Chicago winters again."

"You not complaining? Your own family won't know you."

"You know, that Canadian humor is just too much, Fraser," Ray tossed back at him as he pulled out his cell phone.

Fraser giggled, but then sobered abruptly. "I don't believe your phone will work, Ray. I'll drive Gerrard to the RCMP post, or you can report this in town on your way home."

"You throwing me out?"

"Certainly not, Ray."

"Then I'm in no hurry to go back. I just got here, and I've never been to Canada before. Hey, didja get it all?" Ray pointed to Benny's pocket, and the Mountie looked startled, then grinned.

"I forgot all about it," he marveled as he retrieved the device, and showed Ray the tape which was still slowly spinning in the "record" mode.

 3. The Vecchios' Deal

"Sit right there, Ma, and don't you move a finger." Ray is everywhere, bossy and loud, but I don't mind it today. I just hope he stays.

The kids come forward with the crown they made their Grandma, our queen for the day, and I laugh and applaud as they are all given thank-you kisses. Ray has worked so hard to give Ma a real surprise this year. The whole family is here; there's enough food for an army...

Of course, later Ma will bemoan paying a caterer, saying she could have cooked. Yeah, that's a lovely birthday surprise, Ma -- cook us up some food for a week or two. Oh, no reason. Just wanted twelve lasagnas in case of a nuclear attack.

The family finishes serving Ma and everybody rushes to grab food. Ray is pouring drinks and laughing with Benton. Wow. He still makes me stop and stare. I'll never get used to how beautiful Benton is, I guess. I know there's no chemistry there; he's made it pretty clear he's not interested. Still, a girl's gotta dream, right? No harm in looking and wondering what it would be like to be married to someone so damn polite and nice. I wonder if anyone gets close enough to see what's under all the polite? He's so different from anyone around here.

I imagine he'll give Ma some really strange birthday gift. Completely weird, yet lovely, too. Like him. And she'll love it 'cause it's from Benton. Ma sees how different Ray's been since they met. We all do.

Still, things may not have changed enough.

We'll find out in an hour or so, when the neighborhood people start arriving. Rosemarie Vecchio can't turn 60 without the whole neighborhood being offered hospitality. They're supposed to be coming for cake and coffee, but Ray ordered enough food that they'll all be eating, too. And kegs of beer, huge jugs of wine. Tonight there'll be singing here, people playing cards in the kitchen. And if my brother is finally, truly home at last, he'll actually be here for the party he planned, instead of vanishing like a ghost when the neighbors arrive.

We've told him again and again that we love him, we're proud of him. He can't explain it, just says he makes people uncomfortable. It's true enough that no one will ask after him. They never do. Just Frank Zuko, who'll make an appearance with some incredible gift for Ma when everyone is here to see and admire. Frank doesn't stay after that, it's just face time. He's gotta be the big man in the neighborhood.

Ray will be upstairs, alone. Or in the basement, staring at the old pool table. Once he just went off with the kids, which I didn't understand at all. The kids and their friends all know, and kids are so blunt, so painfully honest. But that doesn't bother Ray. He prefers their honesty to that polite avoidance from people he's known all his life. People who were like second parents to him. People who were his friends back in school but don't really speak to him now.

"Frannie, aren't you eating? What's wrong?"

"Nothing, Ray, I was just waiting for the line to go down." I do love him. He drives me crazy, but I do.

"Good afternoon, Francesca."

"Benton." I try to dig up my usual smile.

"How are you enjoying your new job?"

"It's very nice. But I'm still not sure I can pronounce all those names right." I still think these lawyers are idiots, making the company name bigger every five minutes.

"It certainly is a complicated listing."

"How do you like Ma's party?"

"It's very nice. Quite different from my own family's celebrations, however. Much closer to Inuit tribal gatherings I've attended."

Ray laughs and throws an arm around Benton. "He's calling us a bunch of wild Indians, Frannie."

"Now Ray, you know that's not true. While the Inuit are a native people, commonly misnomered as 'Indians,' I would never call them wild or uncivilized..."

They wander off together and I wonder how they ever managed to solve that case. They're so different! When Ray came home from Canada two months ago and told that story, it sounded too incredible to believe. We all figured he wasn't telling us everything, so that Ma wouldn't be upset. Or to make himself look good. I mean, we know Ray does a good job finding people for his clients. But capturing a criminal? Untangling a complicated murder and coverup?

I remember Ray talking about being a cop someday. The day before that damn party changed everything, Mr. Kelly brought him the application papers for the Police Academy. Ray wasn't sure if he wanted to apply after graduation or do two years of junior college first. No one else in the family had ever gone to college, and Pop wasn't going to pay for it. Still, Ray had the grades to do it, and he thought it might help his chances with the Police.

But I guess I never really believed that Ray would have made it. Pop always said Ray should take a job at a gas station or something, because he was just dreaming. But Mr. Kelly was proud of Ray, and so sure he could do it. Of course, even though Kelly was his drinking buddy, Pop used to make fun of him, too. He called Kelly the donut detective. A few times Pop said Kelly should've stayed married and had his own son if he wanted a screwup following in his footsteps. Then Pop would usually go on, wishing Ray were Kelly's son and not his own. Wondering how he'd been cursed with a sissy son who didn't drink, who was such a momma's boy... Pop could still hurt Ray, even if he'd stopped hitting him once Ray was old enough to swing back.

So I didn't exactly believe Ray's story about that old Mountie's capture. But then Benton came to Sunday dinner and told the same story. In fact, he told us Ray saved his life, something Ray didn't bother mentioning. Benton was very proud that no shots were fired, because he and Ray worked together as smoothly as if they'd been partners backing up each other for years. And when Benton told us that, we had to believe it.

I wish Ray'd had a friend like Benton his whole life.

***

My boy is gone. Mrs. DeLuca smiles and praises Maria's boy, who is next to me, and I nod. Little Tony is smart and tough. I remember a boy who was smart and so sweet and loving. Sometimes I still see him in my Raimondo's eyes.

That boy inside is still just as hurt as he was the first night Rico beat him. Raimondo was so young. He'd been sneaking food to a stray cat in our yard. That afternoon when he came home from school, the animal was dead. I tried to comfort him, but he was still red-eyed when his father came home. So the story was told, and the yelling began. Raimondo had wasted food. His father hit him, then struck him again, saying those blows were for crying over a dumb animal. Raimondo began to cry again, and his father kept hitting him, saying that boys shouldn't cry and that he didn't want a sissy son.

When I tried to get between them, I got a black eye. I was too late. Sometimes now Raimondo's eyes are full of tears, I see them there, shining. But he doesn't cry in front of me or any of us, since that night. Even when he was arrested and sent to jail, there were no tears.

Except that day I visited the prison. My poor boy looked ill -- pale, thin and bruised. He was too young for that place, but the attorney said he couldn't get Ray moved, that he was 18, an adult, and had to serve his term there.

It tore my heart to see him that day, but I think I hurt him even more. He cried, he was hysterical when he saw me and he begged me never to come there again. He said he couldn't bear the thought of guards searching me, and he couldn't stand seeing me without touching me. So I left, right away, and instead I wrote to him. I didn't graduate from high school, but I wrote, and had the girls help me with spelling so he wouldn't be ashamed of his mother.

Ray wrote back to us, beautiful long letters that spoke only of the past and his home. Shorter, funny letters that talked about learning to wash dishes for even more people than we had on Christmas Eve. He never complained, so I suppose he thought I'd never know that he was beaten, again and again, by the men around him. He was finally moved to another cell block. Father Dario, the chaplain there, wrote to me as well. Just to let me know that Raimondo was surviving that horrible place.

The things that Father Dario didn't tell me -- perhaps he didn't know -- were plain once my boy was home and I could look in his eyes once more. How strange that Enrico never saw how tough his son truly was. I did, over and over, after his return to the neighborhood. He was determined to overcome it all, and he's done so well. Things his father disliked, like the way Raimondo cares about things and people so much, are his strength. Because of his love for his family he stayed here to face those who are part of his shame.

But because he feels deeply, and fears hurting us again, he cannot face them here in his own home for long. Because he doesn't like the person he becomes to face them. I know this, just as I know how hard my son works to pay the bills and to keep this home for us all. To be able to offer a feast for my birthday, or for other holidays, Raimondo will work two jobs. But the foolish boy still thinks I could be ashamed of my fine son?

"Benton, caro, come here please." I do want to speak to him, but I'm also rescuing him from the Dinunzio sisters. "Thank you again for the lovely sweater, dear. So warm. And hand made, too."

"You're very welcome, Mrs. Vecchio. The woman who makes them is over 80 now. Each item takes her about a month to complete. She dyes the wool with natural barks and leaves."

"I'll cherish it. You should write that all down for me, and her name, too. I want to send her a thank you, as well." Benton looks very pleased at that. "Have you seen my Raimondo?"

"Ah, not for over an hour now. He went for more ice, I believe."

"Tony brought that in just a few minutes ago. Could you please find him for me? I can't leave my guests..."

"Certainly." Benton looks around and I wonder if he'll pull out his compass, like Ray said he did once to find the car.

"He may be upstairs, or in the basement." Or in the garage, or just sitting in his car. Wherever he can be alone and avoid the need to put on his tough face. I'd hoped, Benton, that you'd make a difference tonight. He never wears that face with you.

"Grandma! I brought you flowers." Little Rose climbs into my lap with dandelions clutched in her hand, and her beautiful eyes are bright.

"How pretty!" I hug her, and whisper in her ear "I love you, my sweet girl." I pray Rose grows up believing that.

***

"Francesca?"

I jump a little, although Benton speaks softly. I was listening to the singing in the living room, lost in the old songs. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you. I just have a question."

"Sure, Benton."

"But I believe it would be best to speak in private."

"Sure." I follow him out to the back porch, which is deserted now. Unlike the front porch, where smokers are clustered and older kids are trying to neck. I wonder why I know this private conversation isn't about the two of us. Shouldn't I at least be a little flustered? It's like talking with Tony, though. When did Benton become like another brother? Oh well.

"If you don't mind, I was wondering if you would tell me about Ray's time in prison. Actually, not the time itself. He told me he was at Joliet for ten years. I would like to hear the circumstances that resulted in that sentence."

"Oh, Benton, it's not my story to tell." Though I'd tell you everything, not just the bare facts. "You should ask Ray."

"I did, actually. Tonight." Tonight? "Your mother asked me to find Ray for her. When I did, he refused to come back to the party. He indicated that he wasn't welcome among the neighbors, because of his past. But when I inquired, he simply told me the length of his sentence." Benton takes a deep breath, and I imagine how defensive Ray would be. "I'm afraid I persisted and seriously annoyed him. When I asked what crime he'd committed, Ray told me I could ask anyone. He said even the children here know what he did. That they'd all love a chance to tell me what a ... bad person he is."

"Oh, Benton." I put my arms around him, because his face looks just as bad as Ray's must have been during this conversation he's repeating to me. "It's not true, Ray isn't like that."

"I know. But I need to know what happened. Please?"

"Sure, sure. Sit down here with me." Here I am, cuddled alone with a Mountie. Under the moonlight. Talking about my brother. Why is my life like this? "Ray was graduating from high school. His class had a big party that night, at one of the kids' house. Their parents were there, but there were close to 200 kids in his class, and most of them went to the party.

"Ray never came home that night. The next morning, he was found, unconscious, in one of the rooms. There was another kid there, a girl he knew. Sheila Obama. She was dead from a drug overdose. The police were called, and when Ray finally was roused he was sick and couldn't remember anything. The police found drugs in his pocket, a lot of drugs, and they said he must have been selling them. And that he was responsible for Sheila's death, for giving her the drugs that killed her."

Benton doesn't say anything, so I go on. "He was convicted of manslaughter. They never pressed charges on selling drugs because they couldn't find anyone to testify. My brother doesn't drink and I don't believe he ever took drugs, either. I'm sure he never sold them."

"It seems like a circumstantial case at best."

"Some kids testified that Sheila was with Ray at the party. One even said that they'd been dating for several months, though Ray denied it.

"Our family didn't have a lot of money, so Ray was stuck with a public defender who wasn't very good. No one seemed to believe Ray's story, either. Ray wasn't allowed to testify for himself. It might not have mattered; he honestly doesn't remember that night clearly. He was sick for days after, and the blood tests showed there were drugs in his system, too.

"So the prosecutor said that Ray must have bought the drugs, and he and Sheila took them together. She died, while Ray was just very sick.

"But Ray couldn't tell us where the drugs actually came from. I think that made it seem like he wasn't cooperating."

"So he was convicted."

"Yes. Ray was sentenced to 12 years. He was paroled early because he was a good prisoner. While he was there he studied, took some college courses. But when he got out... his options were limited. Our father died while he was still in jail, and Mr. Zuko helped us out financially."

"So Ray owed the Zukos."

"Yeah. I guess he still does. Frank sends him people sometimes, or calls and asks him to make a trip. Ray always goes, no questions." I fidget on the step, a little uncomfortable. "Frank and Ray were friends, when they were boys. Then they had some kind of fight in junior high, and it all changed." We sit quietly for a minute, but I can't just stop here.

"I always wondered why Zuko helped our family out. When Ray came home he said it was Frankie, that he'd probably asked his old man to help us for friendship's sake."

Fraser is a smart man. Beautiful and very quick. "But they weren't friends at that point, were they?"

"No, Benton, they weren't." I smile at him, a little sad at remembering, and wondering if I'm doing the right thing. It would kill Ray if anything happens to Benton, I think. He's needed a friend for so long now. But I have to take the risk -- because Benton is Ray's friend, and he wants to hear the whole story.

So I'm doing this for my brother, and for a selfish reason, too. Maybe Benton can do more than just piece together the truth for himself. We've all lived with this for years, but we can't do anything or even say anything. We live here, and we owe the Zukos.

"What I always thought was strange, though, was that Frank Zuko dated Sheila Obama. Maria and I saw them together at Perry's Pizza almost every weekend that year."

 4. Zuko's Deal

Fraser told himself he wasn't really lying to Ray as they drove along. He had to be alone tomorrow; Ray couldn't be put through the continuing, fruitless search for information. After 17 years, the trail was very cold and people were hard to locate.

Besides, Ray had made it clear that he didn't want to discuss the subject with Fraser. Anyway, Fraser had every right to spend his day off alone, without Ray. They didn't work together. Well, most days for the past six months Ray had driven him to the Consulate when he was working. And Ray often picked him up. And they spent his days off together more often than not. But still, they were individuals and they both had their own interests.

It was all rationalization and Fraser knew it. But he'd never been able to tell Ray that he was investigating Sheila Obama's death. Whenever Fraser thought about bringing the subject up, he'd remember the mask that had slammed down over Ray's face the one time he'd questioned him about his conviction. Fraser had seen variations of that harsh, older face since then.

The worst was when he'd helped Ray find the group of boys who'd assaulted a store owner in Zuko's neighborhood. One of the gang had loudly defended their actions, saying that the woman was "just an ugly old lady."

As frightening as Ray's transformation at those words had been, as difficult as it was to watch Ray coldly turn the teens over to Frank Zuko's men rather than the proper officials -- it still wasn't as bad as the night of Mrs. Vecchio's birthday party. Fraser would never forget the first time he looked at his friend and realized he was looking into the eyes of a stranger.

That cold, hard person wasn't Ray Vecchio. At least, not the Ray who laughed with Fraser, played with his nieces and nephew, and waltzed his mother around the kitchen when she cooked his favorite meal. Fraser supposed that might have been who Ray became in prison. He tried to imagine his Ray surviving among hardened criminals. It wasn't possible. Of course Ray had to change, to become another person who didn't feel so strongly or care so much.

The thought that Ray had been wrongly convicted for something he didn't do infuriated Fraser. The Vecchio family evidently believed that was the case, but were powerless to address it. He'd gone to jail because they couldn't afford their own lawyer. Because his peers had lied on the stand. How could his family prove Ray's innocence in the face of the entire Zuko organization's money and power? Their neighbors and friends had done this to Ray. To all of them, really. The whole family was marked by Ray's experience.

Fraser had pondered Francesca's story alone for many nights, never mentioning any of his thoughts to Ray. And then he'd acted. He managed to find a copy of Ray's high school yearbook in the library, and he spent an hour writing down names of classmates who might have attended that ill-fated party. The phone book hadn't been as much assistance as he'd hoped, but he had a backup plan.

Ray was always trying to show Benny how to use the computer. So Fraser learned how to run the searches and to post queries, and spent his days off at the second desk, where Francesca used to sit. Ray never minded him hanging around, and rarely questioned why he was using the computer. In fact, Ray simply assigned Fraser jobs for his own clients. They both enjoyed the time together immensely. Ray joked that Benny brightened up the place and Diefenbaker gave it some class. Fraser wondered if Ray missed having his sister there, just to have someone to talk to occasionally. Personally, he found it a relief, though he was much more comfortable with Francesca since she'd stopped pursuing him.

There were clients, and even a few jobs where Ray and Benny worked together. The same effortless partnership they'd found during their hunt for Drake would click into place, Ray's hunches and Benny's observations somehow meshing perfectly. After one difficulty with an unwilling witness, Ray professed admiration for Fraser's ability to disarm and subdue suspects. He told Fraser about the gun he reluctantly carried at his ankle because of his own lack of such skills.

Fraser offered to teach Ray. ("Yeah, Benny, show me those fancy Canadian moves.") So weekend mornings were spent at a local gym, teaching Ray the self-defense methods Fraser found most effective. Ray was strong enough and had a good right cross, but he'd never been trained to use his body weight effectively. So they worked on balance and control. Ray's hardest task was to consciously avoid falling into street fighting habits, using the dirty moves that were his only effective defense until now. As the weeks passed, their friendly spars were a lot of fun, though Ray still tended to fuss every time he was put down. And when he occasionally bested Fraser, Ray's happy gloating went on for hours -- and made the Mountie chuckle to himself.

Most Sunday afternoons were spent at the Vecchio home, eating incredible meals and watching televised sports with Ray and his brother-in-law. The whole family accepted Fraser without question, and he cherished the realization that he was no longer treated like "company." He was one of them. It was friendship on a level that Fraser hadn't known since his boyhood, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. His observation made him believe that Ray felt the same. Ray didn't seem to have other friends, just his family. But he looked happy and even the whining remarks after their workouts ("It's a good thing black and blue match this shirt, Benny, because that's what color I'll be in half an hour.") seemed to be Ray's way of expressing contentedness. After all, the only time he'd seen Ray silent was when Ray was upset.

But Fraser's hunt for the truth of Ray's past hung between them. He would rather not have secrets from Ray. It was a disturbing feeling. But this uneasiness was the only discomfort in Fraser's life at the moment.

There had been staff changes at the Consulate, and he now had a superior officer who was competent. His duties were thus more pleasant, even though he still spent many afternoons on guard duty. He knew the RCMP considered his time in Chicago a "punishment" for turning in one of their own, but he could never regret putting Gerrard in prison. His transfer request could stay buried for years, but Chicago was a very interesting place. He'd seen a lot more of the city thanks to Ray's willingness to drive him around.

But he should have known the piper must be paid; surely life had taught him that.

The summons from Zuko had come on Wednesday. Fraser was told to appear at the Zuko home on Friday at noon. Evidently Zuko knew his schedule -- Friday was his day off this week. Fraser had his own plans for that day, but he could manage to keep both appointments if he started early and didn't dawdle. So as he and Ray headed back to his apartment Thursday night, Fraser told Ray not to pick him up the next morning.

"Sleeping in, Benny?" Ray had the window open, his left elbow hanging out in the pale Spring sunshine. Despite the casual tone, Fraser thought the look Ray shot at him was intense.

"No, Ray. I have plans for my day off tomorrow." Fraser felt an urge to explain further, but stopped himself. Ray surely knew his reticence by now. Babbling would only be suspicious.

"Oh. I had a case I wanted you to look at."

"I'm very sorry, Ray."

"It'll wait. Maybe you can look over my files on Sunday?" Ray easily pulled the car up to the curb by Fraser's building.

"I'd be happy to do so." Fraser took his hat off the dashboard and smile at his friend, feeling like a liar. It's for Ray's own good, he told himself.

"Fine. Well, have fun tomorrow then."

Fraser let himself and Diefenbaker out of the car, then stood on the curb watching Ray pull away. He felt a terrible unease, stronger than ever. He knew part of it was simple dread of the meeting with Zuko. Either Zuko was aware of his investigation and would try to put a stop to it, or Zuko was about to call for one of the "favors" Fraser owed him for introducing Ray Vecchio into his life. Neither was a pleasant thought. Fraser had no intention of breaking the law for Zuko. Nor did he intend to stop his investigation until he revealed the truth.

There was only one certainty. No matter what it cost him, Fraser couldn't regret meeting Ray.

***

Fraser headed to the Northwestern University library the next morning, still feeling anxious about the afternoon but without much hope for this morning's appointment. He wondered if Professor Matroni truly had any helpful information. The man had been eager to meet when Fraser phoned him, and mentioned that he came to Chicago once a month for Association meetings. They'd set up this appointment for his next trip to Chicago, relieving Fraser's worry about finding a way to Matroni's DeKalb home without Ray's assistance.

The man who approached him in front of the library steps was tall, heavyset, and very nervous. They went to a coffee shop first, where Matroni bought a large cup for himself and looked around at the tables, full of early morning crowds.

"This won't do at all, Constable. Let's walk outside for a bit." Fraser followed Marco Matroni down side streets. Every time he tried to start a conversation, the Professor hissed "Not here!" and kept walking. They wound up in the man's parked car, windows rolled up and talking quietly.

"I don't know that it's still dangerous to talk about this, but you can't be too careful when Frank Zuko is involved." Matroni took a large gulp of his coffee, and Fraser saw his hands were shaking.

"I appreciate your willingness to speak to me."

"I've always regretted staying silent, letting that happen to Ray. But Zuko owned everyone; who knows what he would have done to protect his son?"

"Could you please explain a little more slowly, Professor Matroni?"

"Frank Zuko was a bully -- and a coward. He never fought alone; he always had help. I thought Ray was one of his guys, until ..." Matroni looked straight ahead, out the windshield, eyes lost in the past. "We were thirteen. Frank beat me up, because I lost a basketball game for him. Ray was his friend, until that afternoon. Ray came in and saw what they did to me. He watched, but he didn't do anything, and I hated him for that. Can you understand?" Fraser nodded, unwilling to speak and break the flow of Matroni's memories.

"Sure, Ray shouted at Zuko, and after that day he quit hanging around with him. But I was angry that he didn't help me fight them off, or find a way to stop it. So I held a grudge, and when that girl died, I wasn't going to stick my neck out for him. I told myself Ray had been paid off to take the fall.

"Of course, I don't really know. Maybe Ray was afraid of the Zukos, just like me. We were just kids. So I did just what he'd done. Nothing.

"I couldn't wait to leave for college. I've never gone back to the old neighborhood. As soon as I could afford it, I moved my folks, too." Matroni's eyes were watering now, and the hand holding the coffee was shaking so hard he spilled hot liquid on his own lap. Fraser took the cup and set it down, then used his handkerchief to help mop up the spill.

"Professor Matroni, I can't promise you that this will help Ray. I have no official standing here, nor has Frank Zuko lost power or influence in the 17 years since these events. But I think you might feel better if you told me what you know."

"You aren't working with the police? Ray won't be acquitted?" Matroni looked upset, but Fraser had to be honest and so he shook his head.

"I'm sorry. I don't think I'll find any tangible evidence after all these years. Certainly I haven't uncovered anything yet that would enable the police to reopen the case."

Matroni put both hands on his steering wheel and bowed his head over them. "Frank Zuko sold drugs during our senior year. He was very obvious about it; stupid, but Zukos are above the law, you know? When his old man found out, there was hell to pay. Zuko didn't mind drug profits, but he didn't want his crown prince's hands dirty."

Fraser could imagine an 18-year-old Zuko, swaggering and brash, who simply knew nothing bad could ever happen to him.

"Sheila was Frank's girlfriend, everyone knew that. I left that party before they arrived, but I know she wasn't there with Ray. Frank Zuko gave her the drugs that killed her, and his family covered it up and put the blame on Ray. It was graduation, people act stupid. Ray might have willingly taken drugs or had some drinks. It wasn't like him, but we all were giddy..." Matroni opened his car door. "Let's walk back to the school; I've got a meeting in 20 minutes."

"I appreciate all you've told me. I can promise you that no one will hear about this conversation from me." Fraser walked along with this man, wondering about the 18-year-old Ray Vecchio. He had a vision of burly men, like those he'd seen at Zuko's home, forcing drugs down Ray's throat and planting evidence in his pockets. He clenched his fists and controlled himself.

"I'm glad Ray has a friend like you now. But I don't think I've told you anything Ray doesn't already know." Matroni stopped and looked at Fraser's face, meeting his eyes at last. "I heard that Ray does work for Zuko now."

"Yes, it's true that Mr. Zuko occasionally asks Ray to help someone on his behalf. That's how I met Ray, actually."

"Really?" Matroni looked at the Mountie again. "So it's not as bad as I thought, is it?"

"I don't claim to understand their relationship fully. It seems based on the fact that the Zuko family helped the Vecchios keep their house when Mr. Vecchio passed away. Ray was still in prison."

"Yeah, I'd heard that, too." Matroni took a few steps away, then turned back to Fraser. "You could get hurt, talking to people about Frankie's past. Be careful."

"Thank you kindly, Professor Matroni," Fraser replied calmly, trying to look confident despite his summons to face Zuko.

"If you talk to Ray, tell him I'm sorry." Matroni disappeared into the building, and Fraser turned and started his trek home.

***

At a quarter to twelve Fraser approached the Zuko house. He should have been surprised to see Ray there, leaning against his car at the curb.

"Ray."

"Fraser."

"I have an appointment."

"Yeah, I figured. Haven't been waiting too long, though."

"But..." So Ray had seen his nervousness last night. Sometimes it frightened him, how well Ray seemed to know him.

"I'm going in with you, Benny." Ray took a few steps toward the house, stopping when Fraser didn't follow him. "Unless you have a problem with that."

"I'm sorry, Ray, but I do. I have private business with Mr. Zuko." There was a storm of emotion in Ray's expressive eyes. Fraser saw hurt, fear, and stubbornness before he spoke to forestall any argument. "I do appreciate what you're doing, Ray. But I have to face this alone."

"Alright, you go in alone. But I'm still coming. I want to talk to Frankie, too. And I'm giving you a ride home when this is over."

"Understood." The two were admitted together, and Ray hurled himself into a chair in the foyer, his coat pulled tight around his body, while Fraser was admitted to the office where he'd last seen Zuko.

"Constable Fraser. Good to see you again." Zuko was just as friendly, just as phony. Fraser felt his stomach turning as he thought about what this man had done to Ray. He barely managed to nod in response to Zuko and take the seat indicated for him.

"Well, Constable, I understand Ray took care of your little problem."

"Quite."

"So you are happy with his services."

Again, a curt nod. As if Ray's "services" were anything compared to the way Ray gave of himself, over and over. And Zuko had been his friend, once. He had to know. But he'd still sent him to jail, knowing who he was and how it would be...

"Well, it's time to talk about your services for me. I told you I might need a favor some day..."

"I believe I'm already doing you a favor, Mr. Zuko." Fraser rose and paced, unable to keep still a moment longer.

"I wasn't aware of that." Zuko looked genuinely puzzled, but amused, too. Sure of himself.

"I believe that my silence amounts to a valuable favor. That you're happier if I don't tell the police how you framed Ray Vecchio for a crime that you yourself committed, and let him spend ten years in prison in your place. Am I right, Mr. Zuko?"

Zuko was silent momentarily, then laughed. "You have quite an imagination, Constable."

"My imagingings should be of great interest to your business associates as well as the authorities."

"Look, you're crazy. I'm very sorry for what happened to Ray. I've even tried to help his family, and Ray himself, since his release."

"I suppose you were easing your guilty conscience. It hasn't stopped you from continuing to use Ray for your dirty work."

Zuko's face was turning red. "You can't talk to me like this."

"I won't bring my information to the attention of the press, but I do intend to speak to Ray and his family. They should know what kind of person they've been welcoming into their home. I think that's all, Mr. Zuko." Fraser turned toward the door, and Zuko slammed his fist down on his desk.

"You seem to be under the impression that you can tell me what to do. That's not how it works, Constable. No matter what wild accusations you throw at me, I give the orders. You are going to do exactly what I say." Zuko rose and leaned over the desk, his face dark with anger. "You will leave your post next Friday afternoon for ten minutes at precisely 2:44 PM. You will not ask why, you will not tell anyone about this conversation, and you will make up an excuse for why you were gone... tell them you had to piss. Anything. Just do it. You owe me. That's what is going to happen here." By the time he finished, Zuko was shouting.

"No, Mr. Zuko, it won't..." Fraser cut off as the door slammed open and Ray walked in, followed in a moment by the goon who'd admitted them both, who was drawing his gun. "Ray, watch out!" Fraser called, watching Ray spin even as Zuko bellowed.

"What the hell is going on here, Ray? You bust down my door? Gino, get out of here. I'll handle them." The goon left, angrily slamming the door behind him. Ray turned to them, both hands extended, empty.

"Sounded a little loud in here, Frankie. Everything okay?"

"We're clarifying some details of our deal, Ray. That's all."

"I see. So everything is fine, right?" Ray looked back and forth between the two men, who were still glaring at each other.

"I believe Mr. Zuko understands me perfectly, Ray." Fraser could tell Zuko did by the anger in his face.

"C'mon then, Benny, let's get out of here. See you, Frank."

Zuko watched as the two left, side by side. His face grew even more angry as he watched them, and as soon as he heard the front door close he picked up his phone.

***

"Sorry, Benny, but you are not going back there tonight. You're staying with us, and that's final."

"Diefenbaker..."

"We'll pick him up." Ray swung the car in the direction of his apartment, and Fraser relaxed. Ray was being overprotective, but that was very much in character for Ray. Zuko wouldn't attempt to harm Fraser; they were at an impasse. Lost in his thoughts, Fraser was startled when the car stopped and Ray jumped out. "You wait here, Benny, and stay alert. I'll get furball."

His friend ran up the steps and Fraser watched, and suddenly realized that Ray had come bursting into Zuko's study, looking for him, simply because he heard raised voices. From what Francesca had told him, he'd assumed Professor Matroni was correct – that Ray was afraid of Frank Zuko. But it wasn't true. Ray had been more than ready to stand up to Zuko today.

So he hadn't gone to jail out of fear of the Zukos' power. Did that mean Ray didn't know who was really responsible for Sheila Obama's death? But how could he not know? His sisters and mother knew. And Ray was a detective, constantly putting together scanty facts and insightful guesses. Wouldn't he have done the same for a case that affected his own life?

Fraser shook his head, wondering if he'd ever understand Ray. A happy "woof" at the window told him they were back, and he carefully let his wolf into the back seat as Ray settled himself.

"Okay, let's head home." Ray put the car in gear.

"Ray, it's only 2 o'clock."

"You got someplace better to go?"

"Shouldn't you be at your office?'

"Naw, I took the day off."

"Don't you have a case you wanted my assistance with?"

Ray sighed dramatically but kept the car heading toward his house. "Fine, fine. Let's drop Dief with Ma. He'll be in wolfy heaven – she's making meatballs for Sunday. And calamari for tonight. Then we can swing past the office, get the files, and go have a little lunch at Monk's while you check them over. Sound good?"

"Certainly, Ray."

***

Their lunchtime review of the case file was going to result in a new direction for the investigation, and as they pulled up at Ray's office building, Fraser felt satisfied with his day's work. Ray was happily chatting about their plans for the weekend as they took the steps down to his office.

"Hockey playoffs? I don't think so, Benny. There'll be basketball games..." Ray stopped speaking when he put his key in the door. "Didn't I lock up when we left here?"

Fraser went on alert. Ray was always careful about locking his door. They stood to either side of the door, and Ray drew his gun, holding it upright with both hands. At his nod, Fraser turned the knob and pushed the door wide. There was no one in view, so both men cautiously moved into the office. Ray indicated the doorway that led to his desk, now blocked by the hall door, and placed himself along that wall. Fraser was moving to close the hall door when he felt cool metal on his neck.

"Drop the gun, now, or this guy is dead." Fraser didn't recognize the man holding a gun on him, who was now moving him inside the office and closing the hall door behind them both. Fraser watched as Ray slowly, carefully lowered his gun to the floor.

"Take my wallet and whatever else you want, just leave us alone."

"Shut up. Get down on the floor." At that command, Ray's eyes widened with fear, but he didn't move.

"I said, get down. Now." Fraser saw the movement of two more men in Ray's office and tried to warn him, but it was too late. There was a quick, hard blow to Ray's head and he crumpled to the floor. The two men stepped over him as they holstered their guns and approached Fraser and his assailant.

"We got a message for you from Frank Zuko." Fraser watched them put brass knuckles on their gloved hands, and waited for a chance to defend himself. But then the man next to him spun him around, and one of the others grabbed his arms and held him.

The pain went on for a long time. He was grateful when someone finally knocked him out.

***

Fraser woke to pain all over his body and unfamiliar sounds. He cracked his eyes and realized he was in a hospital. Then he heard a voice, and ignored what it was saying to let sheer relief wash over him. Ray was all right.

"C'mon, Benny. Have a little ice, you're okay now, everything's okay." Ray was pleading with him, so Fraser opened his mouth and accepted the chipped ice. "That's it. Okay, so who's the president of Canada?"

"Ray, I ..." But it hurt, everything hurt. He couldn't finish the sentence except to moan.

"Yeah, okay, you're right, I don't know that one either. S'okay, just lay there for a minute. I'll get the nurse." Fraser opened his eyes all the way and saw Ray, his head bandaged, stand up and push the call button. "We'll get you some pain killers as soon as they check you over."

Half an hour later, he was finally given pain medication in his IV line. He'd seen several doctors, several nurses, and Inspector Thatcher, who'd been called by the police. They'd taken Ray's statement while Fraser was still unconscious, but Thatcher had remained to speak to Fraser herself, since he was under her authority.

Much as he disliked lying, Fraser couldn't tell the police or the RCMP that his beating was a "message" from crime lord Frank Zuko. Not if he still wanted to have a job. Fraser had to deal with Zuko alone.

But first he had to figure out how to keep Ray out of it. Ray hadn't heard the "message," but Ray knew what had happened, just the same. After all, Ray had been the one who insisted Fraser not be alone once they'd left Zuko. Ray knew the score. He'd probably always known it.

Finally feeling a little better, Fraser sank back and closed his eyes again. He'd be kept overnight, the doctors had said, then released to stay with Ray's family. He shouldn't be alone until his bruised ribs healed. Until then, he'd need assistance to bandage them and dress himself.

Ray was still at his bedside, silent now.

"Ray, are you sure you're well enough to be sitting up in here?"

"The doctors released me, Benny."

"Perhaps you should go home and rest."

"I will, once you're out for the night." But Fraser didn't believe him; Ray was planning to guard him, despite his own injuries.

"I could get someone from the Consulate to stay if you're worried..."

"Yeah, have them stay here because you think the muggers might come back for more Canadian money?" Ray snorted and the room was silent for a long time. Then Ray's voice came, very softly. "I guess you've figured out what happened in '78. I should have told you myself, instead of letting you talk to Frannie."

"What would you have told me, Ray?"

"The facts. Not things that can't be proved, things that make no difference now anyway. It's too late, Fraser. Hell, it was too late by the time I figured it out, and that was years ago."

"Why is it too late, Ray?" Fraser kept his own voice down, although Ray's was rising alarmingly.

"Because nothing will change for me or my family. If that's what you wanted."

"That was the main reason, yes."

"And the other reason was that damn favor you owe him, right? Frank won't let you out of it, no matter what you think you have on him."

"That appears to be his answer. But I'm quite determined, Ray."

"Determined to get yourself killed rather than do what he wants? Benny, don't be an idiot." Ray stood up and paced anxiously. "I tried to warn you before we started... I knew you wouldn't be happy breaking the law."

"You were correct."

"Wow, there's a first. You admit I'm right."

"Now Ray..." But Ray wasn't trying to banter, and his arms windmilled, interrupting.

"Well, I'm right about this, too, Fraser. Frank will never let you go. Your only hope is to get transferred back to the Territories, right away, as far as you can go. Maybe then he'll leave you alone."

"Ray, please sit down. I understand what you're saying, but the RCMP doesn't want me back in Canada and I don't see a way around that."

"Let me talk to your Inspector, explain it to her. If she knows your life is in danger, she can rush a transfer." Ray was seated, as requested, but he was leaning forward on the edge of the chair as he spoke to the prone Mountie.

"The only thing that would expedite is my dismissal from the RCMP for misbehavior, Ray."

"I wish you'd never heard of Zuko." Ray slumped back into the chair, his head down.

"I can't wish that, Ray, because Mr. Zuko did more for me than he ever intended. However, I will not do anything immoral or illegal, no matter how much I value his assistance."

"Yeah, I know it means a lot to you that Gerrard's in jail at last." Ray's head was down, watching his hands shred the menu card from the nightstand.

"You've misunderstood me, and I want to be very clear on this, Ray." Ray looked up at him and Fraser continued. "It's true that revealing the truth behind my father's death was important to me, and that I am satisfied to have brought his killer to justice. However, that is not something I feel gratitude to Frank Zuko about. You are the one who did that, not Zuko."

"But we'd never have met if not for Frank..."

"Correct. And that is precisely why I am grateful to Zuko. When he sent me to you, he did more than assist me with my father's murder investigation. I met you and your family, and became a part of your life. I have a friend unlike any other I've known."

Ray just stared at Fraser, his eyes glowing.

"I didn't investigate Sheila Obama's death in order to have power over Zuko, Ray. I did it because you are my friend and a fine person. Your family and neighbors should know the truth; you deserve to be publicly cleared. But I don't have the kind of proof necessary to do that."

"But you still believe I was innocent?"

"I don't believe it, Ray. I know it."

Ray just stared at him, his face alight, and then the blush began. Ray stood and stamped around a little, muttering and covering his embarrassment. Fraser heard a comment to the effect that there were maybe ten people total in the 'frozen armpit of the north.' He settled back, feeling sleepy now that the pain medication was working. When Ray saw Fraser's eyes fluttering, he settled back into the chair alongside the bed, leaning forward again.

"I don't know what to do, Benny," Ray whispered, but Fraser was too tired to respond. "There's gotta be something I can do. I won't let him hurt you again."

 5. The New Deal

Ray sighed with relief when Fraser was finally settled in his room at the house. Ray hadn't slept very much last night. Hospital chairs seemed designed to prevent rest, probably because visitors weren't supposed to stay overnight with their gun in one hand as he'd done. Ray knew he looked like hell as he drove Benny back home.

But Ray's exhaustion had gone unremarked in the general alarm over Benny's rainbow of bruises and cuts. The Mountie was assisted upstairs, tucked in, fed broth, and given two of his prescription painkillers. Dief jumped up next to him on Ray's bed without any argument about wolf hairs from Ray. And in minutes, Benny was out like a light.

"Keep guard, boy," Ray whispered to Dief. He didn't think Zuko would try anything here. At least, not this soon. The point of yesterday's incident had been to encourage cooperation, or Benny would be dead now. Ray shook his head in disgust as he thought how worthless his attempt to guard the Mountie had been. And watching him sleep wasn't going to do any good, either.

Ray left the room and headed downstairs. He needed to end this situation, somehow.

He wound up sitting at the kitchen table, nursing a cup of coffee as his mother moved around, cleaning up the tray he'd brought down from the sick room.

"Ma?"

"Yes, Raimondo?"

"Remember how I used to want to be a cop? When I was a kid?"

"Of course. Mr. Kelly told you stories for years."

"You never said I shouldn't try. Like Pop." Ray shifted on his chair and took a sip of coffee. "But when I'd talk about it, you always looked worried."

She moved closer to Ray and put a soft hand on his cheek. "You saw that? My boy." Ray turned his head and kissed her palm. "I know you like to help people, but it's a very dangerous job. So I worried you'd get hurt."

"But if it's important, worth getting hurt..."

"I want you happy, my darling." And her hand moved to the bandage on his head. "Working with Benton is dangerous, yes? But you seemed very happy. Until now."

"This is my fault, Ma, not Benny's. And I'm not unhappy, I'm just..." He stopped, then whispered the words, ashamed of himself. "I'm afraid." But his mother didn't let go, she stood beside him and pulled him into her arms, holding him close.

When she released him at last, everything was back to normal as she fussed, "I see those dark circles under your eyes. You need some sleep, too."

Tears were right at the surface, but he tried very hard for his normal tone of voice. "Sure, Ma. I just need to take care of something first."

He rose and carried his cup to the sink, covering his runaway emotions with action. He was just too tired, and he'd been too scared yesterday when he revived and saw Fraser's bloody body on the floor beside him. It was all catching up to him now. He was undone by his mother's tenderness.

He stopped to kiss her cheek on his way to the door. "I'll be home soon," he lied. Then he headed for his car and the Zuko house.

***

Of course he was told to wait. Frank Zuko couldn't let every punk who came knocking without an appointment walk right in. Zuko sent for people; no one sent for him. So Ray sat, still in the wrinkled and dirty clothes he'd worn yesterday, ignoring the stares of those who passed him.

"Ray. Good to see you." Oh, today Ray rated a personal welcome. He rose and moved to the doorway where Frank stood.

"Frank. I'm sure you know why I'm here." Ray walked in and waited for Zuko to close the door behind them. "Your boys tried to knock some sense into my head."

"Sorry about the love tap, Ray, but you did have a gun." Frank smiled widely as he sat down, but the smile vanished when Ray refused to sit in the supplicant's chair and instead crossed behind the desk right after Zuko. He leaned against the drawers, a smile on his own face at Frank's discomfiture. Ray was blocking Zuko's access to his own gun.

"Leave the Mountie alone. Get someone else to do your dirty work, okay?"

"Ray, I know we're friends, but even you can't talk to me like this..."

"We're not friends and we haven't been since we were thirteen, Frank." Ray leaned over, his hands on the arms of Zuko's chair, trapping the shorter man in his seat. "How much were the taxes your father paid, Frank? A few thousand dollars each year? I could have paid them myself, working at Burger King, if I'd been free."

"Ray, whatever that Mountie told you isn't true."

"He didn't tell me anything, Frank. I know who gave Sheila the drugs and it wasn't your father's goons. It was you."

"Ray, I didn't..."

"Don't lie, Frank. I'm sure daddy got involved; you weren't smart enough to dope me up and put the junk in my pockets. But you're the one who picked me as the lucky dope out of that mob of kids, aren't you? Why frame just anyone when you can get the guy who used to be your friend. The guy who was stupid enough to love your sister..."

"Leave Irene out of this!" Zuko shoved Ray in the chest and knocked him backwards to the floor. Zuko stood up so quickly that his heavy chair fell over backwards. He hissed "You should never have touched her, Ray," as he yanked his .45 out of the desk drawer, hand shaking.

"I didn't. Not the way you mean." Ray sat up slowly, his weight on his arms, watching Zuko but making no move. "Irene was my friend, and I loved her. Hell, I still love her enough to be glad she got the hell away from your father and this life." Zuko, because he was armed, was stupidly overconfident and didn't call his men.

"Shut up. Get the hell out of here or I'll kill you." But Ray saw his opportunity and moved, knocking Zuko to the ground with a sweeping kick Fraser had shown him. Zuko fell heavily, gun dropping to the floor. Zuko swore and tried to move for it. He couldn't; Ray had his full weight on Zuko's chest and was able to hold his arms down.

"Not until I get my payoff, Frank. When someone takes the fall for you, it's not free of charge. I'm here to collect at last. And then it's over; no more oh-so-generous gifts for Ma, no more contact with my family. We're through."

"I don't owe you a damn thing." Zuko was struggling and Ray kneed him in the groin. His screech was muffled by Ray's hand. When Zuko's body uncurled, Ray released his mouth. Zuko didn't struggle, just choked out "I'll kill you and dump you in Schiller Woods, Ray. They'll never find you." Despite the threat his eyes were full of fear.

"We disagree, Frankie. I think you owe me for ten years of my life I can never get back. And the pocket change you've spent on me and my family doesn't begin to cover that. Neither does anything I've done to you. Yet."

Zuko struggled, then stopped and closed his eyes. "That damn Mountie."

"Yeah, the Mountie. He's free, as of right now. No more threats, no favors, no contact. Period." Ray shook him, then smiled as Zuko met his eyes. "Anything happens to him, next week, next year, ever -- I'll come back for you, Frank. And you'll be the one dumped and never found." His voice dropped lower, softer, but Frank shivered as he listened. "You think you're tough, Frank? Would you have survived at Joliet? Without your bodyguards and buddies to watch your back?"

Ray rose and left Zuko lying on his soft carpet, staring up at him. "Fraser is mine now. Deal?"

"I'll kill you," Zuko whispered.

"Maybe. You can try." Ray met his eyes, wearing the face he'd never wanted to show anyone once he was released. "Maybe I'll kill you."

"It's a deal. Now get the hell out of here." Zuko's pale face was covered in sweat.

"One more thing, Frank, and I want the truth. Frannie's husband?" Zuko sat up slowly, leaning on one arm.

"No. I thought about it, but no."

Ray nodded, acknowledgment and farewell, and turned to leave the room. He honestly expected to feel or hear a gunshot before he made it to the door, but it never came. He was on the street and at his car before the shaking began. He managed to pull away and drive a few blocks before he had to pull over, stop the car, and open the door to vomit.

***

Ray pulled up to the house feeling like death warmed over. He hated being dirty, unshaven, and he reeked of vomit and fear-sweat. He felt wobbly on his legs and wondered how he'd make it past his mother without a scene. He didn't -- as soon as the car door opened, his mother and Maria were both there, exclaiming over him and dragging him inside.

"Ray, you look like shit!"

"Maria!"

"Sorry, Ma, but look at him. Where were you all this time? Why didn't you get some sleep?"

"Maria, stop bothering him. Come here, my son, and take off these dirty clothes."

"Ma! Maria, cut it out. I can undress myself." Ray's protests were ignored completely and he found himself in the shower on the main floor, his clothes vanishing out the door to be laundered, before five minutes had passed.

"Here's your robe, Ray." Maria stuck her head in the room as she laid the robe on the vanity. "Ma's making up the sofa for you to sleep on, since Benton's in your bed."

"Fine, fine. But what about the kids?"

"I'm taking them out to a matinee, so the house will be quiet for both of you. Get some rest."

"Sure. Thanks, Maria." The warm water felt lovely though the shaking didn't stop. He was still scared, more afraid than he'd ever been in his life. He seriously thought about going upstairs to get his gun out of the drawer he'd locked it in. He'd always vowed never to have the gun in this house, with the kids, unless it was unloaded and locked up. Since he was fairly sure he wasn't thinking clearly right now, he decided to leave it alone for now.

He shut the water off and dried himself quickly. He managed to brush his teeth, but not to shave, before he dragged himself into the living room and threw himself on the sofa, tugging the blanket down.

Before he fell asleep, he heard his mother's approach and felt her hands brushing over his head. He thought she hummed a song from years ago.

***

When Ray opened his eyes the room was dark except for a faint light from behind the sofa, carefully placed so it wasn't in his face. It showed him Fraser, sitting in the armchair opposite him, sound asleep.

"Aw, Benny. Hell, you'll be even more sore and stiff." He pushed the blanket off and sat up, but as soon as he moved Fraser's eyes popped open and he jumped a little.

"Ray. You're awake."

"Yeah, I am. What genius decided you should be resting in a chair instead of my bed?" Ray stood up and stepped closer to the Mountie. "How are you feeling? Do you need a pill?"

"No, Ray, I took some medication about an hour ago. I believe that is why I dozed off here."

"Okay. Good. Hey, I seem to have slept all day. I'm sorry." Ray turned away, looking for the clock on the VCR. "Eight o'clock! Where is everyone, then?" A whine and sharp bark answered the question, partially, as Dief stuck his head up from behind the sofa.

"Your brother-in-law took the family out for dinner, to celebrate a bonus he received today. It seems that he suggested a new method of drywall installation which requires fewer hours of labor, and his employer is appreciative."

Ray laughed. "Yeah, appreciative. Two months from now he'll lay off Tony because he doesn't need as many guys anymore, thanks to that suggestion."

"The thought had occurred to me as well," Fraser admitted, and they shared a smile. Then Ray remembered everything, and he began to shake again. He tried to cover it with movement, but Fraser saw and was on his feet in a moment. "Ray? Are you all right?"

"Fine, Benny. Just a little tired, still..." But he knew Fraser didn't buy it, and he wondered how he could bluff Frank Zuko but not tell a white lie to Benny. "I saw Zuko today."

"What happened? Did he hurt you again?" Fraser was right there, supporting him, but Ray couldn't stop shivering.

"No, he didn't do anything. We just talked. About you, about the past..."

"Did he admit to his crimes? Were you taping him?" Fraser looked so hopeful, but Ray just shook his head. "So what's the plan, Ray?"

"No plan. It's over. You don't owe Frank any favors, and he doesn't owe me anything, either. We have a new deal."

"I'm not sure I understand, Ray." Laughter from Ray, for so long that Fraser began to look concerned again. Ray tried to pull himself under control.

"Neither do I, Benny. And I'm still scared and I don't know what could happen. But for right now, it's over."

Fraser frowned in concentration. "Then perhaps it would be sensible to leave town for a short time? A few weeks?"

"I think that would be great, Benny. You go visit your home for a while, take some vacation time."

"I meant both of us, Ray." Fraser smiled at him. "I'd love to show you my country in the summer, when there's midnight sun."

Ray tried to think. His first reaction was that he couldn't leave his family unprotected. But he was the danger; they were more likely to be caught in the crossfire if he was here with them. "Yeah, endless sunshine so I can find a tree to use as a bathroom, right?" Ray groused. Fraser only smiled in return. "Sure, Benny, let's plan a trip to Canada. Watch the snow melt and the mooses mating."

"It's moose, Ray."

"That's what I said, isn't it?"

***

The trip was finally all set. Ray finished his packing and looked over at the small duffel Benny had brought over tonight, the only thing he was taking for the whole two weeks. Ray would've thought Dief needed more luggage than that.

Maybe he'd over packed. It was summer; perhaps he didn't need the snowsuit from his last trip north. But he'd stuffed it in there, just in case. Better warm than sorry. He had thermal underwear, too, lots of sweatshirts and his jeans. Only casual clothes. He remembered that tiny one-street town; there was no need to dress up for any trips to restaurants or theaters. But he'd packed extra batteries and a huge flashlight; books and first-aid supplies; granola bars and chocolate -- it wasn't that Benny didn't think about food, but Benny's idea of a good meal was water and pemmican, and Ray didn't like the thought of waiting until he caught and killed something to have some real food.

So he had a very large, very warm, brand new sleeping bag. An oversized suitcase, very full. And Fraser had something that looked like Frannie's handbag. Maybe smaller.

Ray sighed and locked the suitcase, then headed downstairs. The TV was blasting in the living room, but he could still make out Benny's voice, telling the kids some kind of Eskimo story about where they were going. Something about two masks that fit together perfectly and how the Raven took them back to their tribe. Ray remembered that case from a few months ago; Benny had been busy for days, chasing around town with some guy named Eric from back home. Ray drove them a couple of times, and found a name for Benny. Some forger who carved volcanic rock. Eric had evidently stolen these masks, but Benny wasn't sure who was the rightful owner. The Canadian and French governments were still hashing it out, and letting "experts" examine the masks they'd recovered.

Benny was spending the night with them so they could get to O'Hare early. Dief was actually staying with the Vecchios for the two weeks, so he could avoid the quarantine. It had taken a month to arrange the trip, to get low-priced tickets instead of paying top dollar. To clear up the cases on his desk and get Benny's vacation request approved. But now everything was set, and they could go someplace and relax without watching for Frank Zuko over their shoulders 24 hours a day.

Zuko had made no move, and Ray wished he could relax. They had a deal, and they both knew how to stick to such deals. But the only time Ray had believed Zuko was when he'd threatened to kill him. As he stood in the hall, watching his family and Fraser, the phone rang and Ray jumped. Nerves. He headed to the kitchen, calling "I've got it."

"Hello."

"Hello, this is Constable Turnbull from the Canadian Consulate."

"Oh, hi, Turnbull. What's up?"

There was a pause, and then the voice began again. "Hello, this is Constable Turnbull..."

"I know, I know. It's me, Ray Vecchio. Now what do you want?"

"I'm attempting to reach Constable Fraser, who told me he'd be available at this number until his flight leaves tomorrow."

"Yeah, he's here. One minute." Ray set the phone down and moved to the living room. "Benny, it's Turnbull for you. I swear, Canada can't survive five minutes without you to guard it. How will they manage while you're in no-phone land for two weeks?"

Fraser ignored Ray's complaints as he smoothly rose, excused himself from the children, and walked to the kitchen phone. Ray followed him, but then realized he should give his friend some privacy while they were here. There wouldn't be much of it for the next two weeks, after all. So he went back to the living room for a few moments, until he heard Fraser's voice call him.

"Benny, you'll make a Vecchio yet," he joked as he strolled to the kitchen again. "Hollering like that instead of politely coming in and tapping my shoulder..." But Fraser's face was stricken and he immediately knew it was serious. "What's happened?"

"The Consulate had a call from the RCMP station near my father's cabin. Ray, there's been a fire."

"What kind of fire? A forest fire?" Ray thought Fraser looked shocky, so he sat him down in the kitchen chair. "Here, drink some water."

"No, just the cabin itself. They believe it may have been lightning." He obediently drank the glass Ray held out to him. "Ray, I have to go find out what happened and try to repair it, if possible. But that's not what you intended from this vacation."

"I'm not completely helpless, you know. I can probably help you fix it up, if you want. Nail up boards, whatever."

"Logs, Ray. We'll have to cut our own lumber."

"You're kidding me."

"I'm afraid not. But I do have a second axe for you to use, Ray."

"So we're set then? We'll fly up tomorrow, like we planned, and check it out?"

"The burnt areas may remain hot for several days, Ray. We won't have any shelter."

"Yeah, that really changes the 'no electricity, no bathroom' ambience of the place." Ray laughed and shook his head. "Don't sweat it, Fraser. I'm going with you even if we wind up sleeping in the car for two weeks."

The look of relief on the Mountie's face was worth a sore back, Ray figured. "I'm sure we can procure a tent, Ray."

"Yeah, it's summer, right? Shouldn't get much colder than 30 below at night."

"Now Ray, the average summer temperature is well above that, even if you're referring to Fahrenheit..."

 

Continued in Dealing with the Past

 Feedback welcome

Back to Due South page