Please note that this story is Slash, dealing with a male/male relationship between Benton Fraser and Ray Vecchio. If this offends you, or if you are under 18, please read no further. It is also a sequel to an Alternate Universe story, and if you haven't read it, I doubt this will make any sense.

Thanks to Linda, who valiantly beta-read the first 2/3 of this. Any errors are my fault for not waiting for her to see the rest.

Dealing with the Past (sequel to Dealings)

by Laura Mason

Prologue: An American in Inuvik

The Vecchios aren't outdoor people. I mean, the closest I got to camping was in my own backyard in a homemade tent, back when I was 10 or so. We never traveled, didn't take vacations. Driving to visit out-of-town family was rare. So? It didn't seem important. Important was making ends meet, food on the table, getting shoes for growing kids. Those were my Ma's priorities, and the old man wasn't much but he managed to do that.

But I'm beginning to see why people like to get away from it all. To travel and see a new part of the world. When it's quiet like it gets here, you can hear all kinds of things. Sometimes at night I think the stars are making noise -- at least, I think that once all the millions of animals who wake up once the sun goes down just to make an incredible racket in the darkness finally shut up. Being out here with Benny has been totally different from being at home. There's time to think, to just sit and do nothing. It's nice.

Yet in a lot of ways, it's just like being at home, too. I see my own family and neighbors in the tribe. It seems that no matter where ya go, people are just the same. Well, most people. I don't think there's anyone else, anywhere else, who's like Benny. That's a good thing. I mean, it's not that the world couldn't use more really good, thoughtful people like him. But I mean it's good because there's nothing wrong with Benny being unique. And he is.

In Chicago, everyone is playing the angles, out for what they can get, any way they can get it. Doesn't matter who it hurts as long as they get theirs. After prison, I was sure no one played by the rules except chumps like me who couldn't afford to get sent up again. And even I bent some rules, where I thought I wouldn't be caught. Just to do my job. Get a gun. Survive.

Then Zuko calls with another hard-luck case, and this Mountie walks in my door. Lectures Frannie about "propriety." Too polite, too good-looking, the guy couldn't be for real. Except he was human enough, desperate enough to go to Zuko, right? Still, this isn't the usual kind of guy I deal with, someone who's comprised so often that he doesn't even remember the word "ideals." This Mountie still has ideals, still believes in them, and the longer I know him the more it becomes clear that he's from another planet.

Well, he was raised by his grandparents, so he's a little old-fashioned. And his father... Benny idolized the guy. It sounds like Robert Fraser was even more upright and do-gooding than 20 Mounties. But if you ask me, Benny's doing enough all by himself. Everyone in his building knows his name and comes to him for help with every injustice, every repair bill, every my-baby-sitter-isn't-here-yet -- everything. Is that enough? Of course not. Benny is out there helping strangers on the street, too.

But the funniest thing was when Benny decided to help me. I mean, I wasn't looking for help. I'm not some damsel in distress. I didn't *ask* for his help. He just popped up ready to give it, deciding all by himself that I'd been framed and setting out to prove it. Defying Zuko while he was at it and nearly getting himself killed.

What do you do with someone like that? Damned if I knew.

So we became friends. And now we're here in his homeland. Benny's himself here. It's fascinating and wonderful to see. So I watch him. I really can't help myself, he draws my eye. And Eric and the other Tsimshian, they watch me watching him. I guess they haven't decided yet whether I'm trustworthy or not. Good for Benny or not. But they've made me welcome anyway, for Benny's sake.

In Chicago Benny seemed so alone. And when I brought him around my family, he seemed kind of overwhelmed. I mean, I know we're loud, but Benny acted like he'd never seen that many people at once before. But it's not true. These people are an even bigger family than the Vecchios, and he's known them most of his life. Despite the normal Benny shyness, he's comfortable and happy here, talking with these people and sharing their daily lives.

They consider Benny one of the tribe. I don't know if it's for his father's sake, or if they just love him for who he is. But their love and protectiveness have been apparent from the moment we arrived. Eric treats him like a brother. And I consider Benny one of the family; my family. So maybe we all want the same thing. Whatever is best for him, whatever makes him happy.

I wonder if he realizes how many people care about him, here and in Chicago? Probably not. Even now, among these people, I think Benny believes he's alone.

They've made us at home here. We arrived expecting to camp out near the ruins of his father's cabin. Instead we were met by Eric as we left town, and brought here. I met so many people that first evening that I thought I'd never keep them straight. But it really hasn't been that hard. Living with them every day, seeing them as individuals, I learned names and family relations.

Benny and I were installed in the midst of their homes, in our own tent, but part of the tribe nonetheless. Most of the tent is full of my luggage, but there's room for our bedrolls, as Benny likes to call them. Sleeping bags in Chicagoese, thank you kindly. But except for the time we're asleep, we are really among the tribe more than separate. I thought it was pretty interesting how they managed to host us among them and give us privacy at the same time, but Benny said that it's a common way of keeping adolescent boys in line. They'll often spend time out of their family house, camping in the tribe like this.

The thought that they considered me -- us -- like kids, that kind of bothered me at first. But then I figured out that to these people unattached males, no matter how old, are like boys. They don't care for a family, they don't need to hunt or otherwise provide for others. And they don't have any women to cook for them. So it does make sense. And it really doesn't bother me. Much. At least at home, I know I'm not like that. I take care of Ma and the girls. For a single guy, I'm about as attached as you can get.

At least, I want to believe that I'm responsible. I suppose someone else would look at Ma, cooking and doing for me, and figure that I'm immature. Still living in my father's house. No, my house now. I've paid the bills. And paid the Zukos, too, with my life. Money would have been easier.

But I don't want to think about Frankie now, here.

Being among the Tsimshian, it's kind of fun to be a boy again. Oh, we work. This isn't a relax-by-the-pool vacation. Benny and I spent days clearing debris at his father's cabin, and then Eric offered to help us cut some logs to start rebuilding the walls that were completely burned. Thank God, Eric believes in power tools instead of chopping everything down by hand. I wonder where Benny gets that? He goes off with an axe while Eric and I are revving the big two-man saw. Okay, it's quite a sight when Benny starts swinging that axe. But I'm just as happy -- and still very tired at the end of the day -- using all the gas-powered help I can get.

Eric's not the only person from the tribe who's come to the cabin to help us. Every day a few people are there, carrying and cutting and nailing. They all know more about this than I do. When I volunteered to come up here and help Benny, I really had no idea what I was getting into. If I had to build even a simple shelter, it would be comical. Or I'd die. But these people know how to construct a house that's rock solid -- nothing could knock it over. So I watch them and learn a little, and mostly do grunt work. I suppose that does make me just about as useful as an adolescent boy, actually.

Some of the women offered to do our laundry, but Benny insisted that we'd do it ourselves. So we went along with them, helping to carry their baskets, and spent a morning by the water. I learned how valuable Ma's Kenmore really is. I'll never complain about repair bills again.

The tribe cooks and we eat with them. After enjoying their hospitality for two weeks, I wanted to cook. So Benny took me to town to see what supplies I could scare up. Pasta -- okay, noodles I made fresh and dried over a branch Benny rigged -- with caribou meat and homemade sauce, made in a tub large enough to hold Benny. I've helped Ma at the holidays, but I've never cooked for that many people before! Still, they seemed to enjoy the "exotic" food, though I wasn't invited to be part of the regular rotation of cooks. Actually, I don't suppose we'll be here long enough to join it. We should be heading back south in a day or two.

So all in all, it's been more pleasant than I thought this trip would be, particularly once we heard the news about the fire. It was so odd, something like that happening right before we left Chicago. But it didn't ruin the trip. Of course Benny was upset to see his cabin damaged, but he's been very matter-of-fact about fixing it up. These things happen, and Benny isn't one to feel sorry for himself.

The RCMP sent someone to see us and talk about the fire. They thought it might be arson, but no one can figure out any motive for that. So the official report chalked it up to "possible lightning strike," and we went back to work. But I kept turning it over in my mind. The cabin wasn't insured, and it contained nothing of value to anyone but Benny. When the officer asked him, Benny said he didn't have any enemies.

But he does, though I doubt Frankie would be content with lighting a log cabin in Northwest Bumblefuck for his revenge. That's just not enough. No, there's going to be a move someday, but a lot closer to home. Hopefully, against me and not Benny or my family. But I don't want to think about that now, either.

Benny is so very happy and at home up here that I couldn't understand why he hasn't put in a transfer request to get back here permanently. But when we were talking with the RCMP officer, I began to understand. They're polite to him. Hey, it's Canada. Even I'm polite up here. But that's all they are, polite. There's no warmth, no fellow-officer attitude like you'd expect. Even a Chicago cop like Gardino gives Benny more respect and camaraderie than these guys. Until that changes, I guess he'll be staying at the Chicago Consulate, no matter how much the assignment wastes his talents.

Guard duty. That idiot Inspector keeps putting this wonderfully talented officer on guard duty. Benny takes it very well, though, and I suppose after living up here, with all this space and quiet, guard duty might be the only time he gets to organize his thoughts and feel like he's alone.

Stupid as it is, I kind of enjoy when Benny's on guard duty, too. It's a good time to get things off my chest without him interrupting. Who knows? Maybe someday I'll tell him about Joliet, how it really was. Or something even more far-fetched. Like how I came up here and had time to think and feel again. How he came into my life and changed it for the better. Benny changes everyone he meets for the better.

What do you do with a guy like Benny? Once we got here I finally puzzled out the answer to that question. You fall head over heels in love with the jerk.

 1. Canadian Sunset: July 2, 1996

Benny has moved out of sight, talking with Betty and Sarah. So I'm just sitting here, staring at the beauty around me. Yes, I'm a city boy, but I can appreciate this place. Particularly when it's a little warmer than my last trip. I'll never forget freezing my ass off under that cabin in that snowsuit. But today I'm just in a turtleneck, jeans, flannel shirt, jacket, gloves, and work boots. And I'm almost comfortable. I'd like to put on my parka, but I'd never hear the end of it. At least there'll be a fire later tonight.

"Vecchio." I try not to jump a foot, though Eric has snuck up behind me again. He seems to love doing that; I've seen the twinkle in his eyes. But there isn't one today, he looks dead serious. Uh oh. Have they decided I'm a bad influence on their Benny?

"Hi Eric. Sorry, I was just daydreaming."

"You appreciate the land."

"Yeah, I guess I do. It's a little ... empty, compared to what I'm used to, but it's very clean. Peaceful."

Eric nods and motions for me to follow him. So I do, wondering what's going on. We walk for a while, away from the tribe's houses and past the areas I recognize. When it feels like we're in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by young trees, Eric stops and sits on a rock. There's a fallen tree across from him. Our first day in the woods I fell when I stepped on a rotted log, so I move to test it before sitting down, facing Eric.

"You've learned a lot since you came here."

Yeah, even a stupid American can learn not to put his big ass on a rotted log, Eric. "Yes. It's very different from Chicago."

"And from the jail?"

I don't bother to ask how he knew. Probably Benny told him, figuring they should know before they let me live among them. I just nod at him. Eric's not much of a talker, which usually makes me babble. Not today. Let him wonder for a change.

"You watch him."

Well, that's to the point, I guess. Deflect, deflect. "So do you, Eric. It seems like you've been watching out for him for years."

"You watch him." Okay, can't keep avoiding the question. Even though it isn't a question.

"He's my friend." I stand up and pace around Eric's rock and he doesn't move or even bother to follow me with his eyes. "He's a good man. People take advantage of him sometimes." Of course, that's not why I'm watching him, either. But thankfully Eric doesn't push it, just nods. I'm still pacing when he continues.

"There was a stranger at the cabin. Before the fire. We heard about them." I stop dead and turn to stare at him.

"You didn't tell the police that," I accuse, but he calmly answers.

"No."

"So it was arson? But..." I shake my head. It just doesn't fit. Benny has no enemies, according to him. Frankie wouldn't do this, it isn't his style. So what stranger would come to this remote place to set a fire and watch it burn? "Do you know who it was? Did you see them?"

Eric shakes his head in reply.

"We should tell the RCMP, see if they can find ... Jeeze, Eric, we've been all over the place since then. If there were any clues, they're destroyed by now!" We've been all over the cabin, we've moved the wreckage, and we've been tromping through the woods destroying footprints, too. We couldn't have done a better cover-up for whoever did this if we'd planned it.

But Eric shakes his head again, then stands and moves to the log I was sitting on a minute ago. He crouches down and reaches under it with both hands, pulling out a metal box that looks sooty. Eric holds a finger to his lips, and I'm quiet as I move beside him and crouch down. Eric opens it, it's not locked, and shows me: money. Piles of it. I make sure that my gloves are still on before I pick up a stack of the bills and look at them. U.S. currency, still in the paper binding. Sequentially numbered.

I look to Eric, who stares back at me impassively.

"This isn't Benny's," I begin.

"We know that," Eric replies.

"And it's not from that frame-up of his dad, either. That money was all in a bank..." I'm trying to figure out what this means. "This is money from a robbery."

Eric nods at me again, solemnly. "It was left in the cabin, to be found by the authorities. But we found it first." And they brought it here and hid it, to protect Benny.

"He's never stolen anything in his life." I don't need to see Eric nod. "But someone wants to get him in trouble." Shit! I stand up and pace, angry now. "They burned his father's cabin just to get everyone's attention." His family's heritage, destroyed, just to hurt him. I'm boiling now, but I have to really think. "Eric, we need to destroy this." There won't be any fingerprints on the box, I'm sure of that. And the money's gotta go, it's too dangerous to keep it.

"We agreed you'd decide. Do you need the numbers?" and he points to the bills. Damn. I'm supposed to be the experienced investigator, and I would have burned this without noting the serial numbers? Somehow I forgot that burning the money isn't the only way to protect Benny. Figuring out who did this will help him even more.

"Thanks, Eric. Yeah, let me write these down." We sit in the woods, going through stacks of cash, getting ready to burn money. I think about my own depleted savings account, and Benny's hole-in-the-wall in Chicago. How much indoor plumbing this could buy for the cabin. Hell, the tribe could probably use the money pretty badly, for so many things

Except that if any of us tried to use it, we'd wind up in jail. So instead Eric reads off serial numbers, and I count as we talk about Chicago, and my family, and how different the world is in cities. And the money, ten thousand in thirteen-year-old twenty-dollar greenbacks, goes up in smoke here in these woods.

*** *** ***

Ray returns to the village at last, with Eric, and I smile at them both. I'm so glad that Eric has finally decided to accept Ray. It's obvious as they come fill their plates, laughing a little. Ray gets dragged off by some of the children and I hear them asking if Ray can tell a story while he eats. It's amazing how well he gets along with these children, who would seem to be very different from his nieces and nephew. No one in the tribe holds Ray's prison time against him. Even before I told them he'd been wrongly convicted, he was welcomed here. Eric choosing to become his friend makes that complete, and I smile happily as Eric comes to sit beside me.

"I told you he's a good man," I say, still watching Ray moving away from the adults, relaxed and happy.

"You did, Mountie. And you said he's your friend."

I nod and take another mouthful of Betty's stew, tasting the herbs we gathered just a few hours ago. "A very good friend. I don't know how I managed in Chicago before I knew him."

"He says you're part of his family."

I'm quiet for a moment, but that's never bothered Eric. It's nice to be with people who allow time to ponder, to formulate a reply. In Chicago things move so quickly. "Yes, I suppose I am. Ray and his family took me in and made me welcome. Very much like you have done." Eric smiles, and then we eat in companionable silence.

It is time to leave here. Ray is needed back in Chicago, and while I still have leave time available to me, I'm not planning to stay without him.

It has been very good to be here. Good to do work, physical labor, instead of the inaction of my duties in Chicago. Although the loss of my father's cabin was distressing, the tribe has made my time here pleasant as well as productive. I can never repay this kind of generosity, extended to me as an old acquaintance and to Ray simply because he's my friend.

Hours later we sit beside the embers of the cooking fire. Ray, of course, sits closer than anyone else. I think he'd actually be building up the fire if he could; Ray is always cold. The children are in bed now, and the adult fireside conversation is usually stories of the old days, told by the elders. Ray listens to them, his eyes wide, but if I ask him later he'll pretend that he was sleeping, or that the stories were meaningless to him.

But tonight the stories are different. An elder has brought out the talking stick, and everyone takes turns telling stories of the Trickster. Ray surprises me, for tonight instead of simply listening, he actually accepts the stick and tells his own story. I shouldn't wonder at this, for the children of the tribe named him storyteller immediately, and they clamor for stories of his nieces' and nephew's adventures. Ray invents stories, and re-tells ones I recognize from books I cherished in my own childhood. Though I doubt my grandmother would have approved of Ray's versions of these classics, and the way Ray changes the parts he doesn't like. When I asked him about one story, he shrugged, then said "Kids have to face real life soon enough, Benny. Why not make it a happy ending for them now?"

Ray has been listening carefully and understands the type of story being shared tonight, and his story is definitely adult, a tale of a man who pretends to be what he is not. I listen and idly wonder if he is speaking of Frank Zuko, or possibly his own father.

Or himself.

I've seen the masks Ray can wear. I love it when Ray is himself, without disguise, as he is with his family. I've always felt privileged that he remains that way when he's with me, with only the occasional -- well, daily -- grouching to cover his feelings. And here among the tribe, Ray has been himself, relaxed and funny. Though tonight the mantle of storyteller changes him, makes him less approachable. More mystical, though Ray would deny it. Ray has seemed very happy in our time here, and that has made my joy in being home complete.

I suppose Ray would laugh if I told him that I feel it is my duty to protect him and, indeed, this whole tribe. The land itself seems vulnerable to me, and not just to the ill-conceived schemes of those who'd exploit it for profit, like the men who built that dam. The air is being poisoned, and the water too. Nature itself destroys, with lightning strikes like the one that must have hit the cabin. How much damage could that have done in the woods? The tribe is at risk for living off this dangerous, endangered land. And Ray? Ray is the most vulnerable of all.

Benton Fraser, RCMP, guardian of everything? That is presumptuous, and Ray must never know how I fear his open, loving nature being used against him. How I dread Frank Zuko's power in Chicago, and wish I could move all the Vecchios here, to become part of the Tsimshian instead. Thinking about Ray cooking for the tribe makes me smile. I can imagine Mrs. Vecchio's horror over the lack of a proper kitchen, and no butcher on the corner. And even imagining that, I can see her feeding her people here, just as Betty does. Serving up love and care as easily as she serves the stew.

The embers barely glow now, and the stories have stopped, though no one moves to leave the fireside, to end the evening by heading for bed. We sip beverages, count the stars, and think. I love having the time to contemplate rather than simply react. To cherish these people I love, who are all so kind to me.

I notice Eric staring at me intently, looking for something in my face. Then he turns and shares a look with Ray, who smiles and shrugs at him. Eric shakes his head, smiling back. Tomorrow morning we'll strike our tent and prepare to leave. Eric said he would drive us to town. Whatever is on his mind, we'll have time to discuss it tomorrow.

The beauty of the night burns my eyes.

 2. Jet Plane

Most of the luggage was re-checked in Winnipeg, though Ray still insisted on carrying three bags. Fortunately Fraser didn't feel the need to carry anything with him, so they'd managed to get all three past the gate attendant and stuff all of the bags under their seats or in an overhead compartment without complaint. Fraser insisted that prescription medication was the only item that had to be carried in-hand, but Ray was firm in his belief that he needed to have a full change of clothes with him, just in case. Along with granola bars, water bottles, and what seemed like an impressive array of toiletries for a man with so little hair.

One of the bags was entirely devoted to gifts from the Tsimshian, so it could truly be said to be Fraser's carry-on. Except that more than half of the gifts were for Ray. Betty had sent along recipes and a chunk of warm cornbread for the two men. Evidently she shared Ray's fears about airplane and airport food. When she said goodbye to them, she'd told Ray that he was a good cook, but needed practice rolling out noodles. Ray had laughed and kissed the woman's cheek, and kept to himself his thoughts that soon he'd be able to find stacks of ready-made pasta at home in a "real" store.

Sarah had made them both medicine bags to wear around their necks, for protection. They'd kept them on for the first flight, Ray admitting as he'd fingered the soft suede which hung next to his crucifix that in such a tiny plane, he was glad to have extra protection. But once they'd arrived in Calgary, they'd both felt self-conscious about their backwoods look. The boots and jeans that had been so comfortable and socially acceptable in Eagle Crest seemed kind of ratty in a city. So the bags were unknotted and removed from their necks, then carefully stored in the duffel bag. Along with the carving from Eric, the pipe from Albert, moccasins from Eddie for both of them, and the pictures the children had drawn for Ray, illustrating the stories he'd told them.

Now at O'Hare, many hours later, Ray was suddenly back to his Chicago persona. He walked faster, complained louder, and used his bags as a weapon to move other pedestrians out of their path. They'd just hopped off of the people-mover, Fraser apologizing to everyone they passed. Ray was past the next gate before he realized Fraser wasn't beside him. He must have stopped. Ray halted his own pugilistic progress and turned to find his friend.

"Benny? You okay?" Fraser was standing completely still in the midst of the typical O'Hare crowds of businesspeople, vacationers, and students. Then he turned and ran back in the direction they'd come. Ray swore under his breath and took off after the Mountie, bags swinging off his shoulders.

"What did he see this time?" Ray muttered breathlessly as a woman swung after him with her briefcase, gesturing angrily at the dripping Starbucks cup in her other hand. "A little old lady getting mugged? Drug sales?" Another shouted curse followed him down the terminal. "Why do I try to keep up with SuperMountie?"

Fraser had reached the split for terminals F and G and was looking both ways. Then he took off down the G concourse, and Ray skidded around the corner after him. To stop, dead, when he hit the broad back of his friend.

"Fraser?" he whined. But the Mountie hadn't even felt the impact.

"It's really you," he whispered. Then, louder, "Victoria."

"Hello, Ben. What are you doing in Chicago?" She was beautiful, a vision of dark curls and a sweet face. And Benny chased through an airport to follow her, Ray realized.

"I was going to ask the same of you." Fraser smiled warmly at her. "Perhaps you could tell me while we have some coffee?"

"I'd love to, Ben, but I'm on my way to catch a connecting flight. I was in Arizona, visiting my sister, and the only flight to Toronto connected here."

"Oh." Fraser's whole body shrunk with disappointment, and both Ray and the woman observed it.

"Maybe I could change the flight for a later one?" She smiled, and Fraser smiled back.

Ray smiled, too, his face stiff. He'd been forgotten completely, for the mope he was. But he couldn't just leave without a word, like some jealous kid on the playground. At least, not after the three weeks they'd just spent together. Ray tried to keep his tone very, very light.

"Hey listen, Benny, I've gotta get going. I'll see you over the weekend, okay?"

"Oh, Ray. This is Victoria Metcalfe. An old acquaintance of mine." The introduction was polite enough, but Fraser's eyes never left Victoria's face. "Victoria, this is my friend Ray Vecchio."

"Nice to meet you," and her elegant hand was extended to him. Ray shook it, feeling more of a doofus than usual as he smiled, unable to think of any polite words. Then they came to him.

"Any friend of Benny's," and as their hands parted, Ray saw a flicker of something in her eyes that put him on the defensive immediately. Benny was head over heels; he was glowing at her -- people boarding planes in the other terminal could see it. Yet it looked like this woman was jealous? Ray told himself he'd misread her look. Still, it was as if she resented being introduced...

Of course, now they were back to staring and smiling at each other, and Ray knew it was past time to make his exit. "Well, you two have fun. Benny? Thanks for everything. That was a great trip."

Those words somehow reached through the visible haze of lust around the Mountie. "Ah, yes, Ray. Thank you, very much, for all your assistance." But then he was gone again, staring at the lovely woman, a radiant smile on his face as she took his arm and they walked away.

Ray Vecchio stumbled through the airport, claimed their checked baggage and threw himself into a cab, feeling more alone than he'd felt in years. Or at least, in the last six months.

***

The whine from beside his chair was nothing new; Dief had been upset for three days, since Ray came home without Benny. Ray had thought the Mountie could never forget his wolf, the faithful companion who'd saved his life. He'd thought wrong, and he was about ready to howl himself.

Ray drove to Benny's apartment yesterday, but he hadn't managed to go up and knock. The old building's halls were cleaner than Ray remembered them being, and a few of the neighbors were there, working on various projects. Mrs. Gamez recognized Ray and confirmed that the Mountie had brought home a lovely girl, very polite just like him. She then went on to tell Ray all about the work they were doing, how Benton had proposed before his vacation that they all work to fix up the building, to show their new landlord what excellent tenants they were.

Ray tried to be polite, knowing Benny cared about his neighbors. It was a typical Benny idea, fixing up the slum someone'd bought. The landlord was just as likely to raise the rents in response to their hard work instead of extending their leases. Ray left feeling very depressed, and kicking himself for it. How childish was he, anyway? Benny was just his friend, and friends don't see each other every day. Ray was spoiled by all those weeks when Benny had no one better to spend the weekend hanging out with.

He climbed into his car, glad he'd left Dief with his mom, and took a long drive.

But today he'd gone to his office to run her name through the computer, even though he knew that Benny would never forgive him for such an action. Ray told himself he was being foolish, overprotective, jealous. But it wasn't foolish, was it? For Victoria Metcalfe was a convicted criminal who'd been released from prison just eight months ago.

Ray stared at the file for a moment, wondering if Benny knew. Then he scrolled back and saw the name of the arresting officer, the Mountie who'd chased her into a blizzard and come back with his man -- oops, woman. Of course there was more to the story than the bare facts in the report, and Ray's imagination was ready to fill in those details. Benny, intently tracking the mysterious figure, then rescuing her from a bear or an avalanche or something like that. The heroic figure finally seeing the face of the woman he'd pursued, revealed as he held her close, sheltering her from whatever danger there'd been. The perfect face, the dark curls, the wide eyes. Staring into each other's eyes, then finding shelter in some remote area, and huddling together by the fire to stay warm and alive...

Ray snorted at himself and decided he should be writing romance novels instead of chasing after runaways and cheating spouses. The only thing he couldn't imagine was the scene where Benny turned in the woman he loved to face trial for her crimes. Hmm, armed robbery with a guard killed. She'd driven the getaway car for the man, supposedly unaware of his plan. The defense's case presented her as an unwitting accomplice, someone who got involved with the wrong man and trusted him, to her own ruin. And Benny knew all this. He'd no doubt heard her story before the blizzard was over.

Ray thought about Benny a little longer, and realized exactly how it had happened. Benny had probably hired a lawyer for her himself, then told her that she had to face her actions or she'd be running away forever. Preserving his duty and doing what he believed was best for her, no matter how hard it had been.

Ray shut down the computer and headed home. Victoria was an ex-con. So? Ray was one, too. How could he mistrust someone over that? Lots of people in jail had simply made mistakes, not understood the consequences of their actions, or trusted the wrong person. Ray couldn't treat Benny like a child or tell him to be more cautious. Benny knew this woman -- at least, he knew her more than Ray did. If Benny had accepted Victoria's version of the robbery based solely on her word, well, that was how Benny was. The Mountie had believed in Ray's innocence without proof, too.

Any way he looked at it, if he tried to talk to Benny then Ray would seem like the childish, jealous jerk he truly was. It wasn't right to hurt Benny's happiness with Ray's nebulous suspicions. But Ray knew the real reason he'd stay quiet. He couldn't risk losing the best friend he'd ever had.

So Ray took Dief to the park with Maria's kids, and tried to be happy for his friend. They were still friends, and would be even if Victoria became a permanent part of Benny's life. She'd probably get him to move from that rat trap of a building, anyway. The wolf and the kids chased around until they were exhausted, and they all returned home for a loud and long family dinner.

It was midnight before Ray climbed into bed, Diefenbaker stretched out under his window. He was just beginning to drop off when it hit him.

"Shit!" Ray leaped out of bed and the wolf barked at him. He was too busy re-dressing himself to care. "Dief, I'm such an idiot." Ten minutes later he was still rummaging his dresser for the paper, car keys in hand. "I know it's here... aha!" He tucked a slip of paper in his pocket and headed for the door, calling "C'mon, boy, I need some company."

Two hours later Ray had the confirmation. The money Eric found in the cabin, the money he'd burned, was from the robbery Victoria took part in. According to all official reports, none of the cash had ever been recovered. Ray stared at the screen until his eyes blurred, then shut down the computer and tried to think it through.

It was hours later, time that had passed unnoted in the windowless office, when Ray felt he'd sorted out his mind enough to go home. He didn't believe Benny had helped Victoria hide the money there, no matter how damning the evidence. He'd been with Benny that whole trip, and the Mountie had never looked for anything in the wreckage. No, Benny was blameless, he was as sure of that as he'd been the day Eric showed him the box.

Victoria must have hidden the money there herself. Perhaps Benny had taken her to the cabin, on their way to the RCMP station. Or perhaps he'd just told her about it, and while she'd been out on bail, still awaiting trial, she'd somehow gotten there with her share of the loot. Of course Benny would have bailed her out; even if he'd been the one who turned her in, he wouldn't have wanted her to rot in jail.

The other possibility was that Victoria had somehow made off with all of the robbery money, and hidden it in Benny's cabin. The mysterious figure who'd been there before the fire might have been the other robber. Maybe he'd recovered the rest of the cash, then burned the cabin and left the ten grand there in hopes of covering his tracks.

Ray made a few notes, things to check about the other bank robber. Notes to talk to a snitch about the current rates for bills that could be traced, like the ones Eric found. He wondered how to find out about people in Canada who did such laundering. That was assuming that the robber stayed in Canada; he might have hopped a plane anywhere. The same technology that made it so much harder to use the money from the robbery made it a whole lot easier to physically escape.

When Ray finished, he took Dief back to his house for breakfast. He listened to everyone chatter, knowing he was being too quiet but unable to get his mind away from Victoria. She'd seemed genuinely happy to see Benny despite what he'd done, though it must have felt like a betrayal when he turned her in. And she seemed smart enough to know that Fraser wasn't responsible for the length of her sentence. There must have been circumstances that made the sentencing so harsh. Politics, maybe, and of course that dead guard. And the other robber still being at large. Lots of things could affect sentencing.

But any way you looked at it, ten years is a very long time. It had been almost unendurable for Ray, and he wasn't beautiful like Victoria. How did she handle watching herself age and change, locked away from life and everyone she cared for? Ray thought the women's prisons might be a little better than Joliet. Maybe she hadn't been treated like a punching bag, the way he had. But still, it was prison and that wasn't good.

But she'd really looked at Benny with love; Ray couldn't have imagined that. Hell, it was the last thing he wanted to see. Second to last, really. Seeing the love for her in Benny's eyes, that was worse. Not that Ray had any claim on Benny. His feeling were his own problem, and even if he wasn't lusting after someone completely uninterested in men -- or him -- there'd been a couple guys at prison who'd made sure that Ray could never seek out a physical relationship with a man. He was fucked up and fucked over.

Ray told himself he had to stop obsessing about Benny's life. And then the doorbell rang, and there was the happy couple in person, come to claim the wolf.

 3. Top of the World: July 17

Benton Fraser was the happiest he'd ever been in his life, and he cherished the unfamiliar feeling. Even the eviction notice in his pocket as he stood guard wasn't able to dim his joy. He would be off duty in another hour, and then he'd be going home. Not going to an empty apartment with only Diefenbaker for company. No, to a home, where there would be hot food, warm lights glowing in the windows no matter how late he arrived. Home to Victoria.

Only two weeks since that chance meeting at O'Hare, and his life was completely different. He had a true partner, a helpmeet. Someone he could count on to fight the eviction with him, someone to stand by him no matter what. Someone to love. That was the most important thing, what truly made the difference.

Still, Fraser was being unfair if he tried to claim he'd never had someone to rely on before Victoria came back into his life. After all, Ray had been there, working alongside him, believing in him. Ray had even believed in his father's innocence without proof, and Ben knew Ray would also help him fight the new landlord's plans to demolish his apartment building. Even though he hadn't been seeing much of Ray the last few weeks because of this miraculous reunion with Victoria, Fraser knew he could count on the Italian's friendship.

Diefenbaker didn't seem very fond of Victoria. Ben attributed it to jealousy. The wolf had never shared Ben's time or attention before. For heaven's sake, Fraser had been so wrapped up in Victoria that he hadn't even thought of Diefenbaker for days. Of course the wolf had a right to growl at Victoria a little. Thank heavens the Vecchios were so understanding, and that Ray was so reliable.

Certainly everyone else was just as enamored of Victoria as Ben was. Why wouldn't they be? She was charming with his neighbors, never condescending or superior. She didn't complain about his tiny apartment, or the lack of luxuries. When they'd gone to Ray's home, she'd been friendly and attentive to the whole family. And they'd all been their usual loud and welcoming selves.

Except Dief, and perhaps Ray. Ray had been quiet that day, friendly but ... wary. Ray watched Fraser and Victoria talking together, and there was something in his eyes. Doubt?

Fraser used the remainder of his time on guard outside the Consulate to ponder this riddle of Ray, and shortly before he went off duty he reached a satisfactory conclusion. Unfortunately, unless Fraser wanted to confront Ray directly, he'd never know if it was the correct conclusion.

Ray, with his investigative skills, had found out about Victoria's past. And Ray was still processing this information. Ray probably was aware of Fraser's own role in her arrest, which might lead to questions about how well they knew each other. Still, being an ex-convict himself, Ray would never be unforgiving or assume all the facts were precisely as stated. In fact, just those prison memories being invoked might account for Ray's moodiness that afternoon.

He hadn't seen Ray once since then, and Fraser decided to invite Ray to lunch tomorrow, to discuss the eviction notice. Perhaps, once they both relaxed for a while, Fraser could tell Ray the full story of his first meeting with Victoria, and thus allay some of his friend's worries.

***

"Sure, Frannie can ask that lawyer she's dating to help you write testimony for the City Council meeting. And I can call some reporters I know and try to get you some publicity. But evictions happen all the time, Fraser." Lunch was finished, and they'd been discussing the landlord's eviction notice for most of the meal. Fraser had almost forgotten how much he enjoyed spending time with Ray, just talking and eating together.

"I understand, Ray." The Mountie toyed with his cup of coffee a moment. "I simply can't give up without a fight. It's not for me, you understand. My neighbors cannot afford other housing."

"Victoria wouldn't mind moving, eh?"

"Why would you say that, Ray?" Ben blushed even as he asked.

"She just seems a little out of place in that building, Benny, that's all." It was the first time Ray had called him 'Benny' all afternoon.

"No, you're wrong. She's fit in wonderfully. Better than I expected she would, frankly. She's been working alongside me, painting in the hallways. And today she's downtown, leading the picket in front of the landlord's office building." Fraser was so proud of her, proud to be seen with her. Victoria was an exceptional woman, as he'd always known. The robbery had been a youthful mistake, a matter of trusting the wrong man because he'd said he loved her -- surely that was the kind of mistake one forgave without question.

"That's great, really terrific. I guess I misjudged her." Ray's voice wasn't right, and Fraser wasn't convinced.

"I realize my relationship with Victoria must seem sudden to you, Ray, but I can assure you I know her better than you might think."

"Sure."

"Ray, I'm familiar with your investigative skills, but the bare facts are not the whole story. I saved her life, and she saved mine."

"Yeah, okay, I get it." Ray's voice rose to a louder tone, one Fraser'd only heard directed at others, like those drivers who cut Ray off. He'd never before used that rude tone to Fraser. "I have an imagination, Fraser. You don't need to roll the whole movie."

"I don't understand." Oh, that came out very cold and prim. Well, Ray's abruptness did bother him, no sense pretending otherwise.

"I was there at O'Hare when you found her; I saw your face. I know you love her, that you've always loved her and there'll never be anyone else like her, okay?" Ray was still quite loud, sarcastic -- and angry, Fraser realized, though he wasn't sure why. People at nearby tables were staring.

"That's very true, Ray, but certainly there's no need for you to mock my feelings. I thought we were friends."

"Aw, Fraser... Jeeze!" Ray slammed his fist down on the table, and everyone else in the tiny restaurant turned to look at them. Ray's head was down, he somehow looked defeated, and Fraser didn't know what to do.

"Perhaps I should leave now, Ray." He'd just started to rise when Ray's hand came down over his own. He looked down into burning green eyes, intensely searching his face.

"Please, Fraser, sit down. I'm sorry. I was out of line saying anything about your feelings for her. I apologize."

He sat and cleared his throat. "Apology accepted, Ray. I don't know what I've done to distress you, but ..."

"It's not you, Fraser. It's this -- case I'm working on. Just ignore me." But Ray's voice still wasn't right, and Fraser didn't believe he'd told the truth. At least, not the entire truth. Still, there might be a case bothering him.

"Can I assist with your case in any way?"

"No, I don't think so. This guy came to see me today, on his own. No more Zuko referrals, you know, and I need some business if I want to keep eating. But the guy gives me the creeps, Benny. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something wrong with him or his story."

"What are you investigating for him?"

"He said he's trying to track his birth mother. Gave me a story about being adopted after his dad died, back in the early sixties. But it doesn't ring true."

"You've always trusted your hunches, Ray. Perhaps you should refuse the job."

"Too late for that, I've already taken his deposit money. I did run a check on the name he gave me. Found a couple of leads, too. Nothing fishy there; at least not yet."

"It is time for me to get back to the Consulate, Ray."

"Sure, Fraser. Here, you go pay and I'll leave the tip." Ray pulled out a rather large roll of cash and Fraser felt his eyebrows rising even as he took the bills Ray held out to him. "Aw, don't give me that look. I don't usually carry this much cash, but that nutcase today paid in cash. And Ma was asking for grocery money, so I didn't deposit it."

"I'm sure you're very careful and aware of the best way to handle yourself in your city, Ray."

"Yeah, yeah." Ray waved him away, and Fraser headed toward the cashier to pay their bill. However, he wasn't quite far enough away to avoid hearing Ray's quiet: "Just like I'm sure you know what you're doing with her, Benny."

***

Dennis, the superintendent of the building, held up his lease again and the small crowd erupted into applause for the cameras surrounding them. Victoria was still right beside him, and she squeezed him as she spoke into his ear, trying to be heard over the din. "It's like a fairy tale, Ben."

"Indeed." Fraser turned to her and kissed her forehead, for once not caring if he was being indecorous in such a public place. Victoria handed him a folded slip of paper.

"We should have a celebration tonight. You pick these up on the way home. I'll be waiting for you."

Then lights were on them as Mackenzie King and the news crew she'd brought to the meeting found him. He answered her questions, smiled into the camera, and when he looked for Victoria, she'd vanished into the crowd -- no doubt headed home.

Half an hour later, after the news crews were finished and the crowd of tenants and total strangers had dispersed, Fraser headed back to his apartment with Diefenbaker. He wasn't surprised to see Ray waiting at the corner in his car.

"Ray! Did you hear the news?" Fraser held the door and seat for the wolf, then climbed in next to his friend.

"Yeah, I was actually here for most of it. Makes a good story for Mac, too. Who knew Dennis had any guts?"

"You may have misjudged him in the past, Ray, but he's shown that one good man can make a difference in many lives." Fraser shifted in his seat and felt the folded paper in his pocket. "Oh, Ray, I just remembered -- I need to run an errand. Perhaps you could drop me at the next corner?"

"What is it, Benny?"

"Victoria asked me to pick up some food for a celebration. She gave me a list," he pulled the paper and unfolded it, and money fell out. Fraser put the folded bills inside in his pocket. "Champagne -- well, it is a special occasion. Truffles, pate..." The Mountie's voice trailed off. "Ray, I have no idea where to purchase such items."

"Well, not in your neighborhood, Benny. But there's a gourmet market on Webster." Ray turned the car and they drove in silence for a while. "I thought you said Vicky doesn't mind living simply."

"Victoria has never once made me feel that my home or my lifestyle is inadequate, Ray. And I don't believe that was her intent tonight." Fraser could feel himself blushing. "She merely said that a celebration was in order, and I agreed with her."

"Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Though I gotta warn you, Fraser, I don't have a lot of cash with me." Fraser turned to look at him, and Ray waved a hand airily between them. "Just in case you're only carrying pink and purple money tonight."

"I have U.S. greenbacks, Ray. Victoria tucked the money in with the list."

"Great." The rest of the ride was silent, and Fraser realized he missed the usual Vecchio style of offering driving tips to other drivers at the top of his lungs. Ray was still subdued. Things really hadn't eased between them.

They bought everything on Victoria's list, and Fraser happily added a tin of Scottish oats, just like he used to get at home. They finished just as the store was closing for the night. As they loaded the bags in Ray's car and Diefenbaker rejoined them for the ride back to the apartment, Fraser finally thought of a way to make Ray relax and behave normally.

"Ray, would you join us for our celebration?" He hoped this was the way to prove to Ray that his friendship was important. That having Victoria in his life wouldn't change their relationship.

"What?" Ray sounded scandalized.

"Will you come up with me and have some champagne? After all, you brought Ms. King and her press connections into our struggle."

Ray swerved, then pulled the car over. He turned in his seat, eyes blazing. "Fraser, Victoria just sent you to buy two sacks of romantic food and wine, and you're inviting me up to your apartment to share them? With the two of you?"

"Certainly, Ray." Fraser kept his best poker face in place as Ray shook his head and blustered a little longer. Then he smiled. "Plus, you'll be able to help me carry everything upstairs."

"Ah, now the truth comes out. You're bribing me with fancy Canadian stuff to get help carrying groceries." But Ray was smiling, and the next car that cut him off received the usual Vecchio hand signals, horn blowing, and shouted advice.

So the two men trooped up the stairs together, carrying loaded bags and accompanied by the clicking of Dief's nails on the bare floorboards. It was comfortable and wonderful, Fraser thought. Then they entered the apartment, and Ray's eyes widened in surprise. Fraser realized Ray hadn't been here since Victoria came to Chicago.

"It's a little more homey now, don't you agree?" Aside from the glowing lights, the tiny room sparkled with new paint, new curtains, and luxurious new linens and pillows on the bed.

Victoria came out of the kitchen area in time to hear Ray's heartfelt, "Yeah, it sure is."

"Ben, you're finally home." She brushed past Ray and his bag of groceries to kiss Fraser and take his bag. "Did you find everything?"

"Yes, Ray took me to the correct establishment for celebratory foodstuffs." Ray didn't even comment on Canadian vocabulary; he was still staring at the lit candles on every surface of the room. "I'd bought in bulk, in case of power failure," Fraser explained to him, but Ray remained silent.

"You sit down and relax for a bit, Ben. I'll make a snack for us, and chill the wine." Victoria looked over at Ray, who finally met her glance. "Ray, are you staying?"

"Yes, for a glass of champagne," Fraser spoke up quickly. "After all, Ray brought the media to the hearing."

"Great." Her voice wasn't very enthusiastic, though, and Fraser wondered if Ray had been correct and Victoria had been anticipating a romantic evening. Then he put the thought aside. They'd had three weeks of romantic evenings alone. Eventually they had to make room for a friend in their lives. Fraser loved Victoria more than anything or anyone, but surely they could be with Ray tonight, and regularly. Sharing their interests with others would only strengthen their love.

Fraser thought back to his grandparents, the only marriage he could remember observing. They'd always had housefuls of friends, people who loved books or who organized the dances and club meetings that frequently were held in their village. Even with the burden of a young child, they'd never asked for less to do, or more time alone. Instead, they'd taken on more and more together, always there to support each other.

His fight for the future of this building was like that. Victoria had been there, strengthening him and making the battle even more important because of her belief in it. Fraser felt elated, thinking of the years ahead with such a partner and lover. What couldn't they accomplish?

And surely, as their love kept growing stronger, it would extend to include others. Not just Ray, but new friends they'd make together. And children, Fraser hoped.

Ray wasn't at the window any longer, he realized with a start, but then Fraser placed his friend's voice in the kitchen, talking calmly with Victoria. Once he concentrated he could hear their words.

"I make Ben happy," Victoria was saying, "and that's all that matters, isn't it?"

"Yes, you do." Ray sounded flat, Fraser thought. "That's the important thing. Not what you did or didn't do twelve years ago. Still, I think it's fair to warn you. You hurt him and I'll kill you."

"I consider myself warned," was Victoria's cool answer.

Fraser shook his head, appalled at Ray's overprotectiveness, but there was a smile on his face, too. Ray would relax now, and time would prove to Ray that Victoria loved Fraser, just as much as he loved her. Victoria re-entered the room with a plate of hors d'oeuvres, and Ray followed with three glasses. Fraser smiled at them both, knowing himself loved.

 4. Desperado: August 1

Ray kept asking for a phone call, but the cops interviewing him just ignored his request and kept asking questions.

"You're saying this money was from a client?" This from blue shirt. Ray thought the name was Huey.

"It must be his. The money I spent at Nikko's was from the deposit he paid me on his case."

"Tell us again who this client is."

"The guy, Edgar Jolly, came to my office last week, looking for someone to investigate his adoption records and locate his birth mother."

"Do you have an address for him?"

"Sure, at my office."

"You'd never seen him before that time?" This from Gardino, who'd evidently been assigned 'bad cop' duty today. Ray remembered him from the Drake arrest and knew the cop didn't normally behave like a hard-ass.

"Never heard of him, never saw him until he walked in the door. It was a routine case."

"Yet you took a twenty-five thousand dollar deposit from him for this work?"

"What?" Ray burst out laughing. "Jeeze, if I could charge rates like that would I be living in this city? No, Jolly gave me two hundred. Cash, like I said."

"Yet your bank records show a deposit last week of twenty-five thousand, cash. With serial numbers that match those reported from a bank robbery twelve years ago," Huey replied.

Ray felt his blood turn cold, even as he tried to keep his face impassive. Victoria, or her partner. He'd been set up, just like one or both of them had tried to do with Benny in Canada. But who were they really after? Benny, of course. Ray forced his attention back to the detectives.

"Was this bank job in my neighborhood or something? 'Cause I gotta tell you that doesn't mean a thing to me."

"Wise guy. It might mean something to your Mountie friend," Gardino parried. "He arrested one of the scum who did the job. Maybe he caught them both, but let the other one go. And now he's sharing the gratitude with you."

Shit, they'd put it all together. Fast. And it looked convincing, even to Gardino who knew Benny and had worked with him on his father's case. "I want an attorney."

"Fine. But before we get you a public defender, Vecchio, let me read you this. 'You are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent..."

Ray tried to blank his mind as he was fingerprinted, photographed, and put in a holding cell at the precinct. He'd been framed; now there was an original idea. Not. But Benny was in danger now, too. Ray knew he should call home, tell his family what was going on. For that matter, he should call Frank Zuko and crawl on his belly for help. But when he shook the bars and yelled that he wanted to make a phone call, Ray knew he would call Benny. And say what? Watch your back? You're going to be in jail with me soon? Ray was almost relieved when they ignored him.

***

Fraser was yanked off guard duty when the Chicago police came to see Inspector Thatcher. They questioned him in front of her, and Fraser knew he'd never forget her face when she heard him admit to living with one ex-convict and being friends with another.

They eventually hustled him down to the station, "for further questioning," but he still asked Thatcher to call his neighbor and get a message to Victoria. Fraser was a law enforcement officer; he knew that questioning was often a prelude to an arrest.

The interrogation seemed to go on forever, endlessly repeating the same things. No, he never accepted any cash from a robbery. Yes, his girlfriend... well, fiancee really... was involved in a robbery twelve years ago, but she had done her time in jail and paid for her crime. Yes, he had bought some items at Le Bon Gourmet. No, Ray Vecchio did not give him stolen money, nor did he "pay" Vecchio in stolen money. Pay Ray for what -- being his friend?

When Inspector Thatcher came in with a cup of tea and the policemen left, Fraser was exhausted. Still, he looked up at her with hope in his eyes.

"Constable Fraser, I've been to your apartment. There is no woman there. Nor is there any sign that anyone else has been staying there. Your neighbors did confirm that a woman you introduced as Victoria has been there, but she is gone."

"There must be some mistake. Or a misunderstanding. Victoria is probably afraid. She already did jail time for a crime which she did not commit..." Thanks to me, his mind added, and Fraser stood up, ready to leave and go find poor, frightened Victoria. She'd be frantic for him...

"Perhaps. Please sit down, Fraser." Thatcher handed him the tea, and sat in the wooden chair across the table from him. "I've shared my brief investigation with the Chicago police, and they were kind enough to tell me more about this situation. Fraser, it looks very bad. The police have a warrant to search your apartment. Perhaps you should cooperate with them."

"Inspector, I am cooperating. I've told them everything I know, which is nothing. I cannot explain why they think I've been spending stolen money."

"They were investigating an anonymous tip which led to the arrest of your friend, Vecchio. They're searching his home and office, too. But you're the connection between the money and Vecchio."

"No." Fraser sat back, feeling stricken. Poor Ray. "What evidence do they have against him?"

"Like you, he allegedly spent a small amount of tainted money. However, he's under arrest because there was a large deposit into his bank account. Cash from an armed robbery, one which you investigated twelve years ago."

"Not..." But it was, it was Victoria, and it was all his own fault, wasn't it? She'd come back to him, but Fraser remembered her anger, that first night back at his apartment, how she'd hit him and cried. She couldn't really forgive his betrayal, even though she loved him. How had he ever thought she would?

"Yes, the robbery Metcalfe was involved in. The police believe you were hiding the money, because you double-crossed her when you sent her to jail. They think you asked Ray to launder the money."

"Inspector, if I did double-cross her, what could have prevented Victoria from telling the authorities at the time? And why would Ray be foolish enough to deposit stolen cash into his own account? This is a street smart Chicagoan."

"An ex-convict." Her mouth was pursed as she said the words.

"There is more to that story than you know. Ray knows better than to go shopping with the proceeds of a robbery. In this city there are many safer ways to get rid of the cash." Fraser saw the belief in her eyes, right behind the disappointment. He supposed that he'd never been quite real to anyone he worked with at the Consulate. They tended to see him as a dutiful Mountie, and not as a man. Certainly not as someone torn by grief, vengeance, or love. Only Ray had truly accepted all of him, though Fraser believed that Victoria understood...

"Fraser, I think you should have an attorney present during the rest of this questioning. I'll arrange for one." She tried to smile at him, and he nodded in resignation.

"Thank you, Inspector."

***

Fraser had been released, but it was only a temporary reprieve. They refused to let him talk to Ray, and he was too ashamed of what he'd brought on the Vecchios to go to Ray's home. So Fraser walked home, still worried about Victoria and staring at every dark-haired woman he passed. If he could only find her, he'd explain it all and make it right. They'd clear Ray, and he'd stay with Victoria, show her that he'd never make the same mistake, never betray her again.

When he entered his apartment building, the Police were waiting for him.

"Benton Fraser, you're under arrest for the murder of Edgar Jolly."

They cuffed him and led him away. He managed to get Willy's promise to keep Dief as they took him outside. The police wouldn't answer any of his questions, and Fraser spent the ride back to the precinct trying to recall any cases involving that name, Jolly.

He was held in another interrogation room until Inspector Thatcher arrived with his attorney, a mountain of a man in a dark suit. "Constable Fraser, this is Howard Wilkerson. The Consulate has retained his services for you."

"Thank you, Inspector. Sir." He shook the man's hand and looked into the dark eyes that were assessing him. Wilkerson seemed intelligent. Probably more competent than whatever attorney they'd assigned to Ray. Even though Francesca worked for a legal firm and currently was dating an attorney, Fraser knew Ray was once again at the mercy of the Public Defender's office. Francesca worked for a patent law firm, not criminal attorneys.

"I'll leave you to discuss the case." Thatcher seemed subdued. No, it was almost flirtatious. Wilkerson's rugged looks must appeal to her. Either that or the money behind his well-tailored suit and expensive briefcase.

"Inspector, before you leave, may I ask a favor?"

"What is it, Fraser?" That was much more in her normal annoyed tone.

"Ray Vecchio. I haven't been allowed to visit him. Could you please see him, just for a moment, and tell him I regret that he was pulled into this situation." Thatcher curtly nodded and left the room.

"Constable Fraser, I must tell you that the police have a very good case here." Wilkinson seated himself comfortably and pulled out a notepad from his case. Fraser liked his voice, very gruff and straightforward.

"I don't see how that is possible, Mr. Wilkerson, since I have done none of the things they are accusing me of."

"Ben -- may I call you Ben? -- they found Jolly dead in Ray Vecchio's outer office. The bullet is a .38, the same caliber as your service revolver. Which was found in your apartment and apparently has been recently fired. Which has no one else's fingerprints on it. Are ballistics tests going to show that your gun is the murder weapon?"

"I honestly don't know, sir. It may be possible. As I'm sure the police reports indicate, the door to my apartment does not lock. Although the trunk in which I keep my gun is usually locked, I believe someone could easily open it with the correct implements." Fraser stood and paced the room. "May I ask you some questions, Mr. Wilkerson?"

"Certainly." Wilkinson smiled up at him, and Fraser hoped he would be believed by this man he didn't know.

"Thank you. Who was Edgar Jolly, and why would I have motive to shoot him?"

"Jolly was a regular low-life. Suspected of fraud, suspected of armed robbery in several states and wanted in Canada as well for questioning on a robbery. One which I believe you're familiar with, since you captured his partner. Of course, at her trial Metcalfe referred to him as Eddie Jay, which was his alias at the time. He's been convicted of several small-scale crimes and done some time, but nothing recently."

So Victoria had been in contact with her old partner, too? Looking for her share of the robbery. Perhaps not -- maybe it was just the opposite, and he'd tracked her down instead. Maybe Victoria had hidden most of the money, and then when Jolly found her she'd acted in self defense. Of course she'd be terrified, then run. She must be unaware that Fraser and Ray had been implicated...

These thoughts flashed through his mind even as Wilkinson was speaking. Logic kept reminding him there were no prints on the gun, which had been carefully placed back inside his trunk. And why would Jolly's body be at Ray's office? For that matter, why would Victoria or her partner want to implicate Ray with some of the stolen money? That sounded more like something Zuko would do...

"I see." Fraser continued to pace and took his time to phrase a reply to Wilkinson. "It seems that I -- and my friend -- have been set up. Though I do not wish to believe her capable of murder, it seems apparent that Victoria Metcalfe has killed her ex-partner, probably in self defense. I'm sure she had no idea she'd incriminated me."

"The police think you were working with Jolly and Metcalfe back in '84. They'll be trying to prove that you ran off with the money, then killed Jolly when he finally caught up with you."

Fraser sat down and looked Wilkerson in the eye. "Mr. Wilkerson, I know it must appear that I am guilty. But a complete investigation will prove my innocence."

"I'll put some people to work verifying your story, Ben. And please, call me Wil." At the Mountie's confused look, he continued, "It's a nickname."

"Ah. It seem to me, Wil, that the first vital step is to locate Victoria Metcalfe. She can attest to the truth, and I'm positive she'll be cooperative once she realizes what has happened."

"Ben, there's one problem with that avenue of investigation. Victoria Metcalfe died six months ago in Alaska."

***

Ray walked down the hallway which was becoming familiar to him at the Cook County lockup. He'd been shocked to see Inspector Thatcher waiting for him yesterday, but the news she shared with him was completely unbelievable. Benny was in this damn place, too, and accused of murder. Ray could only remember the look in Fraser's eyes when he saw her at O'Hare -- God, was that only a little over a month ago? That whole trip to Canada seemed so long ago. It had a dream-like quality now.

Surely Ray had seen love in her eyes as she stared back at Benny. Hadn't he? Hadn't Benny, for that matter? But no, that woman, that bitch, had murdered someone and framed Benton Fraser for the crime. Not, of course, that Benny would believe it. He'd be making excuses for her, Ray was sure of that.

Ray clenched his hands into fists as he was ushered into the booth where Frannie was waiting, grateful that his sister would come but still embarrassed at being seen here. He'd let them all down so terribly. He looked through the glass and saw a second person -- Maria? It was Maria's coat and sunglasses, but this woman was taller and thinner, and her dark hair was straighter...

"Irene?" He croaked, and Frannie waved the phone at him angrily, her eyes blazing. He picked up the receiver and listened to her, staring at Frank Zuko's sister, who he hadn't seen since high school. God, those days in gym class, dancing with her...

"Maria and I came to see you together." Frannie's eyes clearly shouted 'she's disguised as Maria and don't ruin it you mope.' "She drove me here, since I don't like traffic downtown."

"That's really nice of both of you." Ray waved to Irene, who smiled at him and handed Frannie a sheet of paper.

"So Ma's all worried you're not eating," Francesca continued as she slid the paper to where Ray could read it. She kept talking, a soothing blur of sound, as he quickly scanned the typewritten sheet.

'Frank Zuko met with a man and woman on June 25th this year to discuss buying some cash from a robbery. The woman was very attractive with long, curly dark hair. The man was blonde, also with long hair. Zuko and the woman haggled over price, Zuko stating that the rate on the streets for such bills would be 20 cents on the dollar and the woman insisting on more. They settled on 35 cents on the dollar, that price including some services to be performed at Zuko's direction. Zuko put the robbery money in his home safe.'

Ray looked at Frannie, who smiled tremulously even as she continued her story about Tony Jr. Then he looked at Irene, who had removed her sunglasses and was crying.

"She can't... Frannie, let me talk to Maria. Please."

Francesca moved and Irene took the seat, holding up a plain envelope addressed to the 27th Precinct. Ray shook his head and smiled at her, waving the phone as Frannie had done to him. Irene finally wiped her eyes and picked up.

"I heard you were back in the neighborhood."

"Since June."

"I never thought you'd leave France. It was all you talked about, seeing Paris..." She just smiled at him as another tear rolled down her cheek. "How are you?"

"Okay... I'm divorced now. I have a little boy. Vinnie." Her husky, oh-so-familiar voice made Ray feel 20 years younger.

"For your father," he whispered, nodding.

"Yes. I'm looking for a school for him, here in the States." Irene was trying to fold up the note and put it in the envelope, but her hands were shaking too badly.

"You can't do this. He'll kill you." Ray put a hand on the glass, and Irene put hers opposite it.

"I have to, Ray. I watched you sent to jail once before for a crime you didn't commit. Back then, I couldn't do anything. This time -- the robbery money they claim you have -- that's what Frank bought from that woman back in July, isn't it?"

"Probably. Sure sounds like her," Ray pointed to the paper. "Better put that away now."

"She knew he wanted it, that's why he overpaid."

"We know he hates me. Please, think about what you're doing."

"I'm not a little girl any more, Ray. I don't know everything that's happened between you two, but I know what Frank is doing to you and your family is wrong."

"That doesn't matter. What if you get hurt? What happens to Vinnie? You have to look out for yourself."

"Ray, I never thought I'd hear you sound that much like our fathers." Irene's beautiful eyes were so intense as she smiled at him. "Ray Vecchio used to sit with me and tell me his dreams. Someday, he'd be protecting people from bullies and criminals. Someday, he'd make sure that our neighborhood wasn't run by crooks. He didn't look out for number one."

"Yeah. Well we all know what happened to that kid."

She just shook her head with that wistful smile as the guard came in to take Ray back to his cell. As he left, he stared back at the two women watching him. He mouthed 'I love you' at them both.

***

Howard Wilkinson had two investigators from his staff trying to find evidence of Victoria's presence in Chicago. The airlines had no record of her arrival in Chicago on the date Fraser first saw her at O'Hare. Though the tenants in Fraser's building all identified her photo in a photo lineup of dark-haired women, there were no fingerprints anywhere in Fraser's apartment except his own and Vecchio's.

Francesca visited Fraser and told him that the Vecchios had claimed Diefenbaker from Willy, for the duration. She tried to be upbeat about his case and Ray's, but the visit had ended with her in tears. Inspector Thatcher had also visited once, reported to him on the meager information she'd been given on Ray's case, and then left.

Wilkinson's people reported that Victoria's body had been identified after the automobile accident by her sister, Elizabeth, a resident of Bald Eagle, Alaska. The local police, and an investigator who was hired in the area, had been unable to locate Elizabeth Metcalfe. Her house was abandoned and her bank accounts were empty. Fraser remembered Victoria's remark about visiting her sister in Arizona, but there was no record of an Elizabeth Metcalfe in that state, either.

"If we had some evidence of Victoria's presence here in Chicago, we could exhume the body and check the dental records. But the judge won't do it solely on the identification by your neighbors." Wilkinson looked frustrated, and Fraser thought that perhaps the man finally believed his story. "I spoke with Vecchio and his attorney yesterday. He supports your story completely, which is good for you but not so good for him. I'm afraid, given where Jolly's body was found, that he is going to be charged as an accessory to the murder."

***

"All these women visiting you, Romeo. I'll bet it was a broad got you here in the first place."

Fraser didn't respond, but he nodded his head as he was once again led into the visiting room. If only he could see Ray. Then he saw a dark head in the visitor's area and a part of his brain immediately knew Victoria was there, come to free him and explain it all. Tell him it hadn't been a deliberate, cold-blooded plot but a misunderstanding...

Then the woman turned and he saw Mrs. Gamez there, smiling at him shyly. They both sat, and Fraser tried to smile back at her despite the pain in his heart. Victoria wasn't coming back. She'd erased her presence deliberately. He was a fool.

"Benton, we're all very worried about you."

"I appreciate your concern, Mrs. Gamez."

"That investigator, he says he's working for your lawyer. He's been all over the building, talking to all the neighbors and showing her picture."

"Yes, and thank you for your assistance to him. We're trying to prove that Victoria was here. The authorities believe she died in an accident months ago."

"Well, as long as he's really working for you. None of us wanted to tell him anything unless you said so."

"Anything you say can only help me, since the truth is what needs to be heard."

"Then I'll go see him and give him this." She pulled a foil-encrusted object from her purse. "I haven't opened it -- it was in my freezer like you said, remember?"

He had no idea what she meant -- and then, suddenly, he did remember. They were painting in the hallway, Victoria and him and the Gamez children. Margarita had stepped out to admire their work, and she'd mentioned that when the meter reader came, the utility room door sometimes left a gouge in the paint on the opposite wall.

Victoria set down her brush and took a quick break, stretching gracefully as she headed down the hall toward the restroom. She usually wore gloves for all the work, to protect her hands, but today it was humid and they were stuck in her back pocket, Fraser noted as he followed her with his eyes.

When she disappeared from view, Fraser realized someone was speaking to him, and he met Margarita's amused glance with a blush. He requested a large sheet of foil. When she brought it, he picked up the brush Victoria had left on the edge of the paint can, dipped it to add paint, then wrapped it securely in the foil. "Freeze this and you can retouch the scrapes whenever you need to. Just pull it out to thaw when you need it."

He didn't remember Victoria making any fuss when she came back to work. But by then, he'd replaced her brush with his own, hadn't he? And Victoria was always the one to wash up the painting equipment when they were done...

Fraser came back to the present and stared at Margarita Gamez, calmly sitting there holding such vital evidence. She smiled back at him, reflecting the dawning hope on his own face. "You... I cannot possibly repay you for thinking of this. It could be crucial..."

"I'm glad to help, Benton. I'll go call that man right now." She stood to leave with a last smile. "We miss you and Diefenbaker at home. It will be good to have you back."

 5. Not a Day Goes By: September 1996

Fraser stood waiting outside the room where Ray was being questioned yet again, his public defender present at Ray's request.

In the weeks since their release Ray had been jumpy and terribly quiet. Fraser had been there with the entire Vecchio clan to take Ray home, and he'd seen a Ray Vecchio he didn't recognize. Not just the dark circles under his eyes, or the loss of weight Ray couldn't afford -- this man was dangerous, angry and wound tight. Fraser knew he'd seen glimpses of this hard, cold part of Ray before, but never so out-of-control. And never for so long.

Fraser kept waiting for Ray's anger to ease. But even as their routine resumed and Ray began driving him to the Consulate again, Ray still barely spoke. Fraser talked, all the time it seemed. Filled Ray in on the fingerprints Mrs. Gamez provided, which led to the disinterment of Victoria's alleged body. Dental records proved it was Elizabeth Metcalfe who'd died, not her sister. With that small piece of the truth uncovered, the case against them both started to fall apart. Both men had solid alibis for the time period when Jolly had been shot, corroborated by witnesses. The money in Ray's bank account had been deposited in person, but no one working that day could identify Ray Vecchio as the man who'd made the deposit.

Fraser was released first, and graciously accepted all the apologies of the Chicago P.D. with Inspector Thatcher and Wilkinson at his side. Ray's release took longer, though Fraser was frustrated in trying to determine why exactly that was true. The only logical conclusion was that Ray didn't have the Canadian government on his side, breathing down the detectives' backs.

They took Ray home, Fraser apologizing to him and to his family over and over as Francesca drove them in the station wagon. Ray's only comment was a terse "Forget it," as the car stopped and he jumped out and vanished down the street on foot.

Ray reappeared at dinner time and announced that he hadn't paid rent on his office this month, and he wasn't going to pay it now. The landlord could have his computer and furniture for the back rent. Ray was going to find a real job, a normal job that would bring in money regularly. The whole family -- and Fraser -- listened to Ray's pronouncement quietly. They weren't back to normal either. Mrs. Vecchio's eyes were just as red and teary as they'd been while Ray was locked up. Francesca, too, was silent and jumpy. Maria and Tony couldn't even argue, which Fraser had observed was normally their main form of communication with each other. Only the children behaved normally around Ray, and only with the children did Ray seem at peace.

Two days later Ray had two jobs, one as a janitor at a grocery store and the other as night watchman at a warehouse. Fraser, who'd been spending all his free time at the Vecchio home, became aware that Ray spoke to no one, ate, worked, and slept in a haze. When he wasn't eating a meal, Ray was in his room. Weeks went past and still nothing changed. Fraser didn't know how much longer Ray could maintain that level of tension without hurting himself.

Today, in an effort to get Ray to relax, Fraser planned a Saturday afternoon at the local park with the children and Diefenbaker. Then Detectives Gardino and Huey had shown up at the Vecchio home, asking them to come downtown and answer a few questions. Ray froze for a moment, and turned so white that Fraser was afraid his friend would pass out. Then, suddenly, Ray was back, and he had Frannie calling his lawyer before they left the house. Ray also insisted on driving his own car, rather than riding with the police. Fraser rode with him, and found himself calmly talking to Ray as if his friend were on a ledge, about to jump.

"I'm sure this is just routine, Ray, nothing to be so worried about. We've both been cleared of any wrongdoing." His assurances didn't even seem to register on the man, who drove with the wheel clutched so tightly his knuckles were white.

"Constable Fraser?" Detective Huey's voice brought Fraser back to the present and he turned.

"Yes, Detective?"

"We have a few questions for you, too, if you'll join us." Fraser followed the man back in the room. Ray's lawyer looked bored, Ray looked like he wanted to take a swing at Detective Gardino, and there was a third policeman in the room. One Fraser hadn't met before. The unknown man rose.

"Constable, I'm Lieutenant Welch. We've been trying to get your friend to cooperate with us. I hope you'll be more helpful." Fraser didn't reply, just stood at parade rest. "Please, have a seat."

Fraser sat next to Ray, who was scraping the paint off a pencil with his fingernail now, eyes down, jaw clenched.

"We received this letter anonymously last month." A plastic-covered sheet of notepaper was spread in front of Fraser, who read the paragraph carefully, his mind racing.

"Any idea who sent this, Constable?"

"It appears to describe... Victoria Metcalfe." He was so disappointed in himself. He still couldn't manage to just say her name, and he knew Ray heard the hesitation, too, as a flash of angry green eyes burned him briefly before returning to the table.

"Yes, and the blonde man's description matches Jolly. We're not idiots." Gardino rose as he spoke, but at a glance from the Lieutenant sank back down in his chair.

"Constable, we want to prove Zuko's involvement in money laundering -- and possibly in framing you and Vecchio, too." The lieutenant paused for a moment, but Fraser didn't speak. "Now, an anonymous letter like this one isn't enough to get us any kind of a warrant. But if you have anything else you can tell us, maybe we can get an order for surveillance on his home. It might lead to finally putting Frank Zuko in jail, where he belongs." Welsh's eyes were honest, Fraser decided as he stared back at him.

Then Fraser looked to Ray, who remained silent, his head down. Why on earth wouldn't Ray cooperate with them to incriminate Zuko?

"Lieutenant, I'm afraid I have no idea who sent you this tip. Though it would seem to be someone inside Zuko's home, or who is in his confidence. Perhaps one of his men is trying to take over his operations?"

"We already checked that out, but no one we pulled in admits to knowing anything about Metcalfe," Huey said from his post at the door. "If she's still in this area, Constable, she might be in contact with Zuko again. Your best chance of bringing Metcalfe to justice is to cooperate with us."

Fraser sat very still, thinking about that possibility. Ray believed Victoria had fled the United States, but why would she need to do that when she'd covered her tracks so completely? When officially she was dead? But if she'd stayed in Chicago, then she must know Fraser was now free. So where was she? Wouldn't she be coming back to continue her revenge somehow? Detective Huey was correct, Frank Zuko was the best connection they had to her at this point.

Involving Ray in the scheme was Zuko's idea, the anonymous letter he'd just read proved that. Victoria had merely wanted to punish Fraser. If he could find her, speak to her, apologize to her again... If he forgave her for what she'd done, would she finally knew his love was real?

Fraser spoke without further thought.

"Frank Zuko verbally threatened both our lives back in May, Lieutenant. It wouldn't surprise me that instead of sending his men after us again, he decided to frame us both for robbery and murder. I spent time in Cook County hospital after the 'message' from Mr. Zuko, if you need corroboration, although at the time I merely reported a mugging. I felt it best not to mention Zuko's involvement."

Gardino and Huey were out the door as soon as Fraser finished speaking.

"Thank you, Constable. We'll get someone in here to type up your statement, and once you sign it we should be able to get our warrants."

"That's it, then." Ray's attorney stood. "I'm leaving now, Vecchio. Thanks for wasting my time here."

Fraser nodded, watching the Lieutenant and Ray's attorney leave. Ray still sat, one hand clenched around that pencil, his jaw twitching with stress. He wouldn't meet Fraser's eyes.

"Ray?"

"God damn it, Benny." Ray's voice was soft, but he was shaking with anger.

"I don't understand what's wrong."

"Of course you don't. All you needed to hear was that you might find her again, and you can't even wait to talk to me first." Ray stood and shouted at the Mountie, not caring that he might be overheard. "You just spill your guts, hoping that bitch will come back to you and wave her magic wand, make it all okay."

"I.." Fraser paused, trying to control himself. That wasn't true. Ray was behaving irrationally. "Was there some reason you didn't want Frank Zuko implicated?" He couldn't bring himself to ask if Ray was somehow indebted to Zuko again.

Ray looked at Fraser, his mouth twisted bitterly. "Now you ask? That's great, Fraser. Of course there is a reason, or I would have told them what that bastard did to us." Ray stalked out of the room, leaving Fraser alone, waiting for the stenographer.

***

Ray tossed another pebble at Irene's window, then began climbing the vine as he'd done 18 years ago. Hell, as he'd done a few weeks ago, as soon as he'd been released. Now, as then, Ray knew if he was caught he was dead. It didn't matter. He needed to see Irene, to talk to her. Tonight wasn't about adolescent hormones, it was life and death.

"Ray." The soft whisper didn't startle him, much. "Here, let me help you." Irene helped pull him in the window, smiling at him as she gasped, "I didn't expect to see you tonight."

"There's trouble..." Ray began, but she stopped him with a gentle finger on his lips.

"Shh, just catch your breath for a minute. You're not seventeen, you know." She moved to her dresser and flicked on the tiny coffee maker sitting there. Ray looked at her long bare legs and a shiver went through him. She was still beautiful, all these years later. But he wasn't here to stare at her.

"Irene, you've got to leave here. It's getting more dangerous. The cops are going to put Frank under surveillance."

"But why?" She moved to sit next to Ray, on the floor behind her bed. It was their place, where Ray's long-ago self had spun idealistic dreams and stolen kisses from her. "What danger am I in if they're watching Frank? I'm not doing anything wrong, Ray."

"I know, but... Is Vinnie still here?"

"No, he's in Vermont. The term starts next week, and he's boarding at the school."

"Good, that's good."

"Oh, you're freezing. Here..." She rose and brought him her own mug, still half full of warm coffee. "Drink that, more will be ready soon. Since Vinnie's out east, I'm looking for an apartment in New York."

"Will you be safe there?"

"From what, Ray? You know the family business doesn't involve women. Why are you so worried about me?" Irene's warm hand cupped his cheek, and Ray turned his head to kiss her palm. Time for honesty.

"The police are trying to find out who sent an anonymous note to them about Frank meeting Victoria Metcalfe."

"No..."

"They want Frank, Irene. This is the best angle they have -- maybe the best information they've ever had."

"But they can't trace it."

"No, but when Frank realizes the heat is on, he's going to try to find out why. He must have people inside the force, informants."

"But..." Irene's face turned white. "I was here, and he'll know that no one else could have heard them."

Ray put his arms around her, rubbing her back as he tried to reassure her. "It's okay, it'll be all right." He prayed that was the truth. "You're leaving soon."

Irene pulled away from him, her eyes blazing. "Where do you think I can go, Ray, where Frank won't find me?"

"There's got to be a way. Take Vinnie and run away. You've got money. Get a new name and never look back."

"I couldn't do that to my son." She sounded shocked at the suggestion. "He deserves a good education, a real family -- his heritage."

"Heritage?" Ray hissed as he stood, trying not to scream his frustration, and turned away from her. "What heritage is that? Besides being afraid of your own father, your own brother?"

"Frank won't hurt me." Irene stood, picked up the mug, and walked to her dresser to refill it. "I'm getting upset over nothing. Even if Frank finds out what I did, he'll understand. He'll know I wanted to protect you."

"And you think he'll forgive a betrayal that brings the cops here?"

"They won't be here. Frank is too smart for them."

"Oh, that's lovely. Defend him."

"I don't defend what he does and you know that. But we're blood, and I know Frank. He is smart. And he won't hurt his own family."

Ray looked at her, and realized that Irene was still the girl he'd known so many years ago. Despite having her own child, despite a failed marriage and years of living in the midst of the Zuko brutality, Irene still believed there was honor among thieves. Still thought her brother had a code beyond 'cover your ass.'

And Ray didn't believe any of it, but he didn't want her to change, either. She was beautiful and naive, and she reminded him of Fraser. He wondered if he always fell in love with people who needed protecting from harsh reality. And what was wrong with him, that Ray couldn't keep a core of innocence the way they had? He'd let prison and life knock all his dreams out of him, and turn him into someone he didn't want to be.

Ray sank back to the floor, his arms around his knees. "Oh, God, this is all my fault. You never should have sent that note. I should have stopped you..." He dropped his head to his knees.

"Ray, no one can stop me from doing what is right. Not any more." Irene set down her coffee and moved back beside him, pushing his head up, and then she kissed his wet face. "I do what I want, Ray." She kissed him again, and comfort slowly turned to heat.

Irene maneuvered Ray back until he was lying on the floor, and held him there with the full length of her body. They kissed until Ray was dizzy, and Irene was moaning as she rubbed against him.

"Irene... love. We can't." He tried to sit up, but she pushed him back.

"Ray, you do love me. You always have." She was wild-eyed, her hair a mess and her mouth swollen.

"Of course I do, but..."

"Then give me what I need, Ray. I'm so alone. Since the divorce -- please, Ray." She kissed him again, gently and slowly. "Just as a friend who loves me. I won't ask for more. No strings..."

Her mouth was on his again, hot and sweet, and the pain of their mutual loneliness brought tears to Ray's eyes as he kissed her eyes, her neck, her breasts.

***

Ray carefully entered his house in the grey light of pre-dawn. The house was silent and his family was evidently asleep. He crept up the stairs and there, blocking his door, was Diefenbaker. The wolf silently came forward to greet him, and followed Ray inside the dark room.

"Benny?" Ray called softly as he closed the door behind them both. The Mountie was there, asleep in the armchair by the window, the street lights outside gently highlighting his face. Ray didn't want to wake him -- he wanted to just stand there, watching him sleep -- but something important must have brought Fraser here in the middle of the night. "Benny." Ray touched his friend's arm gently.

"Ray?" Fraser was awake immediately, though he looked confused.

"Yeah, Benny, I'm here. What's wrong?" Silence followed the question, and Ray braced himself for another disaster: more betrayal from Victoria, more threats from Zuko.

"Ray, why didn't you tell me about Irene Zuko's involvement before the police questioned us?"

Ray froze for a moment, staring at the pain in Benny's face. It was quite a contrast to the peace that had been there moments earlier, and Ray knew he had only himself to blame. He sighed and sat on the floor in front of Fraser, looking up into his friend's face. "I wasn't trying to hide anything from you... I'm sorry. I've been so scared, Fraser, I'm still afraid -- but it wasn't right to take it out on you."

"Ray, I'm not here to demand an apology."

"Fraser, let me finish. Please. I was unfair to you, and even though I swore I wouldn't do it again, I brought up your feelings for Victoria and used them against you. I had no right."

Fraser's eyes were solemn as he said, "You were correct, however. I do want to find her, and that's all I was thinking about today."

"I know, Fraser. It's okay." They sat quietly for a few minutes, Diefenbaker's panting the only sound in the dark room. "Did you follow me?"

"Actually, Francesca talked to me tonight when I came to see you and you weren't at home. We discussed the questioning, and how you've been out walking in the neighborhood for hours at a time."

"Seems like quite a leap."

"Well, I do know that the Zuko home is within walking distance, Ray. But actually, I didn't make the connection until Francesca informed me that Irene Zuko had visited you at the jail, and that you were old friends. It wasn't difficult to deduce that she'd written the letter, and that you were protecting her, not shielding Frank Zuko."

"You really thought I'd keep quiet for Frank Zuko's sake?" Ray was mildly upset by the thought.

"I was afraid he had a hold over you again, Ray. Though I didn't understand what it could be." Fraser's earnest face brought him instant forgiveness for the thought.

"That's it, Benny, we've gotta start talking again. We kind of lost the habit, but I promise I'll try to tell you what's going on if you'll do the same."

"Agreed, Ray." Fraser's smile was like sunshine, even in the darkness around them.

"I'm never owing Zuko anything again, Fraser. Period. No matter what. I didn't call him when I was in jail, and I'd spend the rest of my life there before I would." Ray looked down at his hands, then out the window. "Irene wrote that damn note, Fraser, even though I asked her to leave it alone. And she doesn't believe Frank could hurt her..."

"She must care for you a great deal," Fraser said, looking a little afraid.

"We were good friends in high school, Fraser. She's nothing like her brother." Ray relaxed as he spoke about Irene. "We were so young -- I can't believe I was ever that young. I'd sneak up to her room and we'd talk for hours. Or make out."

"Wasn't that dangerous, given her family's attitude?"

"Probably part of the attraction, Benny. Just like that darkness in Vic..." Ray stopped himself.

"It appeals to me, yes, I suppose that's true." Fraser looked like he'd be sentenced to death for loving her, and Ray quickly spoke to reassure him.

"It's human nature, Benny, not a crime." Ray knelt and caught Fraser's face, making sure he met his eyes. "That's exactly what we did, too. I wanted to prove I wasn't afraid of Frankie or his family, and I used Irene. She wanted to defy her father, and I was a good way to do that."

"That sounds... cold, Ray."

"In a way, yes. But that's not the whole story, either. We really are friends, Benny. She tried to get me out of jail, and I'm trying to protect her from Frank." Ray sank back down, wondering if Fraser could understand something he barely understood himself. "We genuinely care about each other, even though we're not in love with each other."

"You're not in love?" That seemed to bother Fraser even more. "But you were with her tonight. Weren't you?"

"I went there to warn her, to get her out of town. She won't listen to me..." Ray stared out the window again, until he felt Fraser's hand on his shoulder. He looked up and smiled sadly. "She's lonely, Fraser. And I've been alone so long..."

Fraser said nothing, but he seemed to understand. Ray wondered again if Victoria had been the Mountie's one-and-only. Fraser, too, was isolated and very alone. Ray knew his friendship and his family's easy affection didn't change that fact. Fraser didn't belong in Chicago. Maybe, with Victoria, he'd felt that he finally did belong somewhere. No wonder he still loved her, still wanted to find her.

Ray looked down as he continued, "It was just comfort, Benny, and we both knew it. Not true love. Not even lust, really."

"Understood, Ray." Ray smiled up at Fraser at that. Such a typical Fraser remark. God, he loved this guy.

"So, to answer your first question, Benny, I should have told you about Irene sooner. If they'd left us alone for a few minutes, I would have filled you in. I knew you would help me protect her."

"Of course, Ray."

"I'm just sorry you can't count on me the same way. I haven't been very understanding about Victoria."

"Being incarcerated again must have been very frustrating and upsetting, Ray."

"Yeah, but as soon as Irene showed me that note I knew who'd put me there -- and it wasn't Victoria. But you were still locked up, charged with murder... I can't forgive her for hurting you, Fraser."

"Ray..."

"I know you forgive her, Benny. I know you want to find her again, and not to arrest her. But you love her, Benny. I don't. I just see she's hurt -- deliberately betrayed -- someone very important to me."

"Ray!" Fraser looked at him as if Ray had two heads, and Ray looked away, knowing he'd revealed too much. "Oh, Ray," Fraser repeated, his voice filled with affection. "That's overwhelming. Thank you." Ray dared a glance and saw Benny smiling at him, looking more relaxed that he'd been in months. "You're a very generous friend. Protective. I admire that very much in you."

"Thanks, Fraser." Ray's face twisted as he rose and walked to the closet. Of course Benny was too innocent to be threatened by Ray's love. Hell, people being in love with Fraser was nothing new. Ray's love was accepted -- no, taken for granted -- and Ray only loved him more for it. Even if Fraser understood that Ray loved him as more than a friend, the big hunk of a Canadian wouldn't feel threatened. He'd never been held down by bigger guys, forced... Ray stood perfectly still for a long moment, trying to breathe deeply.

Well, that was over. None of it mattered, except that his anger and jealousy over Victoria had been hurting Fraser, and Ray didn't want to do that any more. He opened the closet and began rummaging.

"I should probably go, Ray." Fraser rose, too, though he didn't move away from the window.

"Nah, don't leave, Benny." Ray pulled blankets and an extra pillow down from the shelf.

"It's very late."

"It's very early, but we can still get a few hours of sleep." He handed his armload to the Mountie standing by the doorway. "Here, knock yourself out -- make up a bedroll for yourself."

Despite a few token protests, Fraser eventually settled down on Ray's carpet, wrapped in blankets with Dief at his feet. Ray watched him as the Mountie's breathing deepened, thinking about other times he'd watched over Fraser's sleep. He couldn't protect Fraser from Zuko back then, and Ray was afraid Fraser was in even more danger now. But how can you protect someone from love, or make them see it's a destructive love? All Ray's street smarts, his skills, his gun -- all his weapons were useless against Victoria. And his own love for Fraser was worse than useless; it couldn't possibly protect the Mountie.

Ray fell asleep wondering if Fraser would ever be truly safe.

 6. I'm a Fool to Want You - October 1996

Fraser was once again standing guard outside the Consulate, a duty which had become more onerous in the past month. Although it was gratifying to see Diefenbaker enjoying being out-of-doors, Fraser himself longed for a more mentally stimulating duty. Of course, since he was being disciplined for lying in his reports, as revealed when he admitted to the Chicago police that he'd been beaten by Zuko's men, the endless guard duty was meant as a punishment -- and was Fraser's only duty.

Fraser loved the RCMP, was proud to be a Mountie, and he knew he deserved sanctions for going to Zuko in the first place. Still, he couldn't help feeling that the RCMP had let him down, first with their lukewarm investigation of his father's death, and later with their indifference after he caught Gerrard. Fraser had turned in one of his own, and officially that seemed to be as serious a crime as Gerrard's corruption, betrayal and murders.

Guard duty had become unpleasant because Fraser's thoughts seemed to chase in circles, and the long periods of tedious watch dragged on forever under the influence of such companions. Fraser had always found remaining alert and watchful an easy part of the duty, but the force of emotions his thoughts now carried made even that basic task more difficult.

Victoria -- memories of her were always first to arrive in his weary brain. He could still see the look in her eyes while they made love, feel the softness of her dusky curls, hear the music of her voice. He remembered walking home with such anticipation, knowing she'd be waiting there, heating a pot of soup, a smile on her face as he entered the tiny apartment...

But it had all been a lie, hadn't it? Fraser thought, sometimes, that it wasn't. Perhaps Victoria did love him, perhaps she hadn't been acting. But if she loved him she also hated him, and hate won out. Victoria could have lived simply with him, working cheerfully and honestly -- but she wanted more, and she wanted it any way she could get it, even illegally. No matter who it hurt. With her beauty and brains, she'd never had to struggle for long. There had always been men who were willing to help her, unscrupulous men who were also after easy money.

Zuko might be one of those men now, Fraser believed. How they'd found each other didn't matter; with Frank Zuko's involvement in so many criminal dealings in Chicago, it truly wasn't surprising they had discovered their mutual interests. Those interests were what would keep them working together, Fraser thought. They both hated him, and no doubt both hated Ray, too. Zuko would never forgive Ray's defiance, and Victoria would harm Ray simply because Fraser was his friend. She'd no sooner located Fraser than she'd met Ray, and Ray's friendship was a rock Fraser leaned upon -- that had to be obvious in the time she'd spent with Fraser.

Ray -- thoughts of Ray were a torment and a relief. Fraser couldn't imagine how he would have dealt with Victoria's betrayal without Ray there to lean on. While he knew their friendship was important to Ray, too, the cost of it seemed too high. Because Ray was always the one paying that price. Though Ray had finally broken through the fear and anger he'd been hiding behind, he was still working at menial jobs with no future, struggling to pay bills that had only grown during his time in jail. Despite that, Ray was obviously happier, and his mother and the rest of his family were also visibly relieved, smiling at Fraser as if he'd worked a miracle.

Fraser thought about the time he'd spent behind bars, and those thoughts led back to Victoria. He'd spent less than a month incarcerated, while she'd spent ten years in jail. As had Ray -- and Ray, Fraser knew, was completely innocent. Victoria, while he'd always believed her claim of innocence, probably deserved her sentence. After all, she'd had the proceeds of the crime to sell to Zuko. And she'd been in contact with her ex-partner, too. Though the evidence was all circumstantial, it did appear she'd murdered Jolly. Not in self defense or panic, either. Deliberately taking Fraser's gun, carefully leaving no prints, luring Jolly to Ray's office -- those were premeditated acts, not a crime of passion or fear.

Knowing all this, finally seeing Victoria clearly, Fraser still loved her. Still wanted her back. He sometimes spent the night at his window, staring at the street, watching for her. Longing for her. He was sure that she was still in the area, now working with Frank Zuko. He could picture the two of them together and felt certain Zuko was the key to finding Victoria again. Bound by their hatred for Fraser, but Victoria would also be attracted to Zuko's power and money. She would stay, offering Zuko her body. Few men would be able to refuse Victoria's beauty, but Zuko would also appreciate her intelligence. Fraser knew they were still together, a menace to him, to Ray and his family, and all the honest citizens of Chicago. And none of that truly mattered to Fraser, except that it might lead him to finding her again.

Even more incomprehensible, Ray understood those feelings. Ray didn't share any admiration or love for Victoria, yet he could still be Fraser's friend despite the hold she had on the Mountie. Ray didn't condemn Fraser for his confused yearnings; he told Fraser it was natural and tried to support him. Ray and his family were wonderful people, proof that even in this noisy, filthy city there was goodness. Fraser wished yet again that the Vecchios could all become part of Eric's tribe, where they would be surrounded by other good people and their kindness would be honored, not exploited.

Some nights when Fraser sat at the Vecchio dinner table, he clearly saw the house as a fortress, where warm food and loud voices held evil at bay. It didn't seem possible that they could prevail for another night, yet alone forever. But Fraser vowed he'd make sure they stayed safe in their fortress, able to love and live in peace. If Zuko threatened Ray again, Fraser would do anything necessary to protect his friend.

He never dared ask himself what he would do if Victoria threatened Ray.

The clock on the bank building sounded, and Fraser was relieved of his duty by Constable Turnbull. As he re-entered the Consulate, Ovitz announced that Inspector Thatcher wished to see him. Fraser knocked on her office door, then entered when she spoke to him. He approached her desk, and was surprised when the Inspector stopped her work and rose to speak to him.

"Constable Fraser, the Chicago police department has asked that you be assigned temporarily as liaison to work with two of their detectives, as part of a surveillance team observing Frank Zuko." She rose and walked around the desk, closer to Fraser. "Is this change in duty acceptable to you?"

"It sounds challenging, sir. Uhh, M'am." This was an opportunity he hadn't dared hope for.

Thatcher nodded, then spoke very softly. "The Chicago police feel that your experiences with Mr. Zuko in the past may enable you to identify some of his associates for them. They also know that you will be able to identify Victoria Metcalfe, should she still be associating with Mr. Zuko."

"That seems probable, sir."

"At ease, Fraser, at ease. For God's sake." Thatcher was annoyed now, her usual state with Fraser, but he relaxed as bid and she moved back behind her desk. "I don't want to ask the government of our country to hire another attorney for you, Fraser."

"Understood."

"You will cooperate with the Chicago police, you will keep your nose clean, and you will report back here once your duty with them is complete. I still expect weekly reports of your activities, turned in to me each Monday before noon."

"Certainly, Inspector."

"Dismissed, Fraser." Thatcher sat back down, and Fraser left her office, excitement in his heart. He would find Victoria.

***

A month of surveillance at the Zuko home, listening to Frank's daily routine, had not produced any evidence of wrongdoing. Nor had Fraser been able to identify any "associates" though he spent most days and nights at the listening post, and reviewed the surveillance photos every morning.

Most disappointing, though, was the inescapable fact that Victoria had not been anywhere near Frank Zuko. While the Chicago police officers had been bored from the second day of the job, Fraser had his secret hope to buoy his spirits and keep him alert. The police officers he worked with didn't know him well enough to recognize just how nervous and jumpy Fraser felt.

Of course, that didn't apply to Ray. Ray had noticed the change in him almost immediately, and as time passed Ray seemed very concerned about Fraser. Finally, Fraser explained his new assignment to Ray, reassuring him that he was well.

Later that night, alone in his apartment after a 12-hour day, Fraser realized that he had waited a full week to tell Ray he'd been assigned to the Chicago PD. Since the men still saw each other daily, and since Fraser and Ray had both promised to communicate more effectively with each other, that was an unacceptable delay. Fraser considered his motives, and finally realized that he'd been afraid of hurting Ray, or of somehow losing his esteem when Ray realized how besotted Fraser still was. Of course, Ray had shown him over and over that he knew and understood Fraser's feelings, though he didn't share them.

Fraser chastised himself for doubting Ray's friendship yet again. Ray had shown more understanding than Fraser ever expected regarding his infatuation with Victoria. Unlike the police, Ray wanted to hear about Fraser's hopes and disappointments.

And now that weeks had gone by, Fraser was truly disappointed. He was finally just as bored and restless as the others in the van. He skimmed through the surveillance photographs yet again, an endless parade of men in dark coats and dark sunglasses, supplicants and sycophants. All against the backdrop of Zuko's large, well-kept home. Fraser closed his eyes and pictured the Vecchio house, in need of paint and with curling roof tiles. He remembered the autumn afternoon when Ray had climbed to the roof with his brother-in-law, repairing a few of the worst areas. Then Ray raked the small lawn, while Tony put up storm windows and Fraser (with Diefenbaker) entertained the children. Both Francesca and Maria had part-time jobs now, to help with household expenses, and while they'd never say so to her face, no one wanted Mrs. Vecchio to have to watch her very energetic grandchildren all by herself.

The vision of Ray in the sunlight, laughing with Tony as they took a break to watch the children running with Dief, remained in Fraser's mind. Ray was such a good man, despite the surface gruffness. Such a fierce, loving friend. Fraser wished he had Ray's ability to express his emotions, to show his feelings. To return the affection that so often helped sooth Fraser through his disappointments in life.

Fraser had failed miserably at being that kind of friend after Ray's release from jail. Oh, he'd been present whenever possible, but he hadn't actually assisted Ray. Though Mrs. Vecchio seemed to give him the credit, Fraser believed Irene Zuko's friendship had done more good for Ray. Though it did seem that Ray's improvement dated from that night they'd finally talked. Well, maybe Mrs. Vecchio saw more than Fraser realized. She probably knew about Irene, too. There weren't many secrets in the Vecchio household.

Even as he was thinking of her, Irene's voice came over the monitoring equipment.

"You wanted to see me, Frank?"

"Come on in, Irene. Have a seat."

"Frank, I'm busy."

"Packing?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. I told you I'm going east, to be near Vinnie's school. I don't like being this far away in case there's an emergency."

"Ah, New York. Great city." Although Frank's voice remained even, there was an edge in everything he said.

"Frank, was there something you wanted?" Irene's voice was annoyed now.

"Yeah, Irene, I want a sister who won't lie to me. Who won't betray our family behind my back." A scraping sound, and Fraser imagined Frank rising to move closer to his sister. "A sister who isn't a whore for every ex-con loser in the neighborhood."

A smack, followed by another, louder impact. A cry, quickly cut off, and the sound of a body hitting -- furniture? the floor?

"You sorry slut." For the first time Fraser noted a slurring in Zuko's speech, and wondered if the man had been drinking.

"Hit me again, big man, if it makes you feel better. You're just proving he was right about you." Irene laughed. "I told him you'd never hurt me! But I guess a man who'd frame his friend will do anything."

"Friend? When was that nobody my friend?" Zuko stomped around the room, and they could hear him slamming possessions on his desk. "He's nothing! Only you would disgrace this family with such a man."

"Disgrace the family? How could I bring us any lower, Frank? You and Poppa made our family name dirty."

"How can you say that. People respect us!"

"People fear you, Frank. No one respects you."

The men in the truck waited anxiously. There was no sound, nothing for a long minute. Then Zuko's voice came again.

"Get out. Get out before I kill you." The words were almost whispered, and the hatred in his voice was terrifying to Fraser.

"I'll finish packing." Irene, somehow, sounded completely normal.

"No, go now. You only take what's on your back, whore. Go to your damned nobody. If he doesn't have enough money to take care of you he can put you on the streets to earn a living for yourself."

"Frank, you can't..."

"I can do whatever I want, Irene. Your father always spoiled and indulged you. I won't. Get the hell out and never darken my door again. You're not my sister."

Another long pause, and then the sound of a door. Fraser was on his feet, out of the van before Huey stopped him. "Where are you going?" the detective asked, grabbing Fraser's sleeve.

"She can't be left unprotected." Fraser could tell he wasn't communicating effectively, but he was too upset to frame a careful response.

"Why not? We're trying to get something on Zuko. The sister is useless. Let her go."

"She's the one who sent the note," Fraser gasped, knowing Ray would be angry. But not as angry as he'd be if Irene were harmed.

"So? If she didn't come forward, she's not going to testify now. This is some kind of family fight, something about her lover. It's not our business."

"Her lover is Ray Vecchio!" Fraser cried, desperate to escape the tall detective's grasp.

Detective Gardino jumped out of the van beside them. "Let him go, Jack, and saddle up. Fraser's right."

"What?"

"Zuko just left the house, and according to Marty he's packing. Zuko actually pulled the gun out when he climbed into the car."

"Where's Irene?" Fraser asked. "Is someone watching her?"

"She went off on foot, heading south."

"She's going to Vecchio's house, isn't she?" Huey asked. Fraser only nodded. "Shit. Let's move." While the two detectives ran to their car, two blocks away, Fraser took off on foot in the direction of Ray's home.

***

Ray was restless, and so he'd been standing on the front porch despite the cold. When he saw a woman walking down the street without a coat, he sighed and wondered if Ma still had a Goodwill package in the basement. Then she came closer, and he recognized Irene. A half-frozen Irene with tears on her white face. He ran to her, pulling off his jacket.

"Irene?"

"Ray." That was all she managed before she burst into tears. He put his coat around her and tried to hold it, and her, as she shook with emotion, finally sinking to her knees on the frost-touched grass of Mrs. DiNunzio's lawn.

"What's happened? Is Vinnie alright?" Ray couldn't imagine what had sent her out of her brother's house in this state.

"Frank--" she choked out, turning her face up to him. "Frank hit me, Ray." He saw the redness now, in the lights from the house. Irene would have a bruise later; she needed some ice. But she was so cold.

"Honey, come in the house. Let me take care of you, get you warm." Ray knew he'd feel rage later, once she was calm and could tell him exactly what Frank had done to her. But right now he was just worried, simply anxious. Until he heard the voice from behind him.

"Yeah, slut, let the jailbird warm you up." Ray turned to see Frank swaying on his feet, a gun in his right hand. His car was at the curb, still running with the driver's door wide open. The tinny sound of its alarm was somehow loud in the dusk. As was Frank's breathing.

"Frank," Ray acknowledged.

"Shut up, asshole," Zuko replied, waving the gun in Ray and Irene's general direction. "I wanna talk to my sister."

"You have no sister, Frank. You said it yourself." Irene was calm again, now that danger was here. Ray tried to match her coolness, but it fell apart when he saw Benny approaching from behind Zuko.

He must have telegraphed it, because Zuko whirled around, gun following his erratic movement. Ray tried to move for his arm, but Irene pulled him back even as Frank spun back to face them, then settled on a position that let him watch both Fraser and the other two.

"Constable Fraser. Now Dudley Do-Right is here, now we'll get somewhere." Zuko laughed. "The upright Mountie who's too good to do business with me is here. If I'd had tits, though, I suppose we'd have gotten along just fine. You don't care how dirty your bitches are."

Ray saw Fraser's face tighten with anger, but his friend remained motionless and silent.

"She was one hot tamale, Constable. Can't blame a guy for letting his dick run his life, can I? Oh, wait, I can -- 'cause I blew the bitch's head off when she tried to double-cross me." Zuko's wild laughter started again, and Fraser moved toward him.

Ray saw Zuko's hand come up and somehow knew that no matter how much he'd drunk, Frank could still shoot straight. Ray moved forward, trying to put himself between Fraser and Frankie. "Fraser!" Ray screamed, panic in his voice, and he saw Benny turn. Then Ray felt someone behind him, and realized -- too late -- that Irene had moved with him.

The first gunshot seemed incredibly loud. So loud that Ray couldn't hear the others, though he saw Frankie pulling the trigger and saw the cops running up behind him, their own weapons extended. Ray saw Fraser falling, then felt the impact in Irene's body as she slammed into him. Ray moved, frantically trying to cover them both, to block Frankie's line of fire.

Then Frankie jerked, his gun dropping from his hand, and fell. Ray lurched toward him, reaching for Frankie's gun, which he managed to push out of Zuko's reach. The cops were there, too, Gardino telling him to back away and Huey on the phone calling for an ambulance. Ray froze where he was, one hand on Frankie's shoulder. Zuko was crying, grabbing at his arm.

"Step back, Vecchio."

Ray tried to stand up and realized something was wrong. He swayed, dizzy, then fell back onto Zuko, who screamed. Ray's left shoulder throbbed when he tried to push himself away.

"Goddamn it, he's trying to kill me," Zuko yelled.

Then Huey was there, carefully helping Ray move back while Gardino cuffed Zuko. Ray heard sirens, heard voices and realized the neighbors were there, had heard or seen some of what happened.

"Benny?" he asked, trying to look for his friend.

"Calm down, help is here." Huey was being nice to him, it seemed, and Ray was even more confused. Huey led him over to one of the ambulances that had pulled up, and made him sit down. Fraser and Irene were both on gurneys already, being loaded into the vehicles. Uniformed police were everywhere, holding back nosy crowds. Ray was so dizzy.

"Raimondo! Oh my God."

"Ma?" Yes, his mother was over there, along with the rest of the family, trying to get past the officers.

"I'll talk to her," Gardino offered. "Tell her which hospital to go to."

Why did Ma need to go to the hospital? Ray wanted to ask, but he was having a hard time getting the words out. A paramedic was talking to him, but Ray just passed out.

 7. Where Do We Go From Here? January 3, 1997

Irene Zuko had been moved to an east coast hospital, closer to her son, for her extended recovery from the gunshot wound to her abdomen. Ray Vecchio, neighborhood folk hero, was home now with his arm in a sling, recovering from the damage to his left shoulder. His jobs were both waiting for him -- no local business wanted to fire him after all the great publicity over the shooting.

Only Fraser was still at St. Luke's, still recovering from the bullet that had torn through his side and lodged dangerously close to his spine. He tried not to feel mistreated. After all, Ray's family all visited, as did his neighbors and his coworkers. They'd even tried to bring some holiday spirit to his room, as the tiny potted Christmas tree attested. Still, it was not enjoyable to be enduring physical therapy, feeling like an infant as he re-learned how to walk.

Worse was the boredom of his tiny room. Fraser's window faced a blank wall. And for all Ray's good points, the man could not pick books, and neither could anyone else in Fraser's acquaintance. Fraser read the simplistic mysteries and thrillers they brought him in one long stretch, and they didn't engage his imagination nearly enough. He had even tried to get Francesca to go to the library, to find him something more challenging. Fraser felt he craved some good nonfiction. But she didn't have a library card and didn't even know where the local library was located.

Still, it was wrong to complain. Things were finally looking up. The arrest of Frank Zuko for attempted murder was a hopeful thing, though Fraser doubted Zuko would get the kind of sentence he deserved. Too much influence, too many wealthy lawyers. Still, the Chicago police informed him that Zuko's own mob associates didn't appreciate the publicity and frowned on the kind of drunken behavior that had led to this arrest. Even if Zuko went free, it seemed his power and influence were gone.

Fraser sighed. Sadly, there would always be those ready to step in to fill any void of power in the underworld. Still, Zuko's vendetta against Ray, Irene, and Fraser would be practically meaningless.

Of more immediate concern to Fraser, Lieutenant Welch had -- quite generously -- offered to clear Ray's name thanks to Irene's testimony against her brother. It seemed she knew more about the incident that led to Ray's jail sentence than anyone had ever suspected. Fraser found himself quite indignant that she'd never said anything at the time, never stood up for her friend. He couldn't forgive her for letting an innocent 17-year-old go to jail for ten years.

Yet from what Fraser understood, this revelation hadn't affected Ray and Irene's friendship. They weren't in love, just as Ray had said, but they were staying in touch as old friends. Ray might not be in love, but he still cared for Irene. And Ray was a forgiving person, Fraser thought. Maybe too forgiving. Then he remembered how what Ray felt about Victoria, and how he couldn't forgive her for hurting Fraser. Maybe they were both better at forgiving on their own behalf than when another person hurt a friend.

Fraser's thoughts stalled on Victoria. He wondered if she was dead, if Zuko had been telling the truth that horrible night. Somehow, Fraser couldn't believe it. But then again, he'd deluded himself regarding Victoria before. Frank Zuko wasn't being charged with her death despite boasting that he'd murdered her in front of witnesses. Fraser had read the long, depressing transcript of Zuko's formal questioning, again courtesy of Lieutenant Welch. The Lieutenant, who'd been the one to get Fraser assigned to the Zuko investigation, was becoming a good friend.

In the transcript, Zuko claimed he'd been drunk and didn't remember what he'd said. Zuko's attorney spouted legalese about statements while impaired. When questions moved on to Ms. Metcalfe's current whereabouts, Zuko's answer was particularly enlightening -- at least to Fraser.

"You think she stayed in Chicago? That woman high-tailed it out of here as soon as she killed her partner. She's no fool. Is that why Constable Fraser was still hanging around my house? Did he really think she'd come back to him?"

Fraser wondered if everyone in the world knew how little he meant to Victoria, except him. He had believed she would stay close, if only to watch her revenge. Now he began to realize that hurting him was just one aspect of the plan that ended with her having all the robbery profits and walking away free.

A knock on the door pulled Fraser from his thoughts. "Can I come in?"

"Ray? Ray, it's good to see you."

"Yeah, I finally convinced Ma I could manage to get here in a cab. Still can't drive with this sling." Ray looked very well. His coloring was finally normal, he was dressed in casual, comfortable clothes, and he had a huge smile on his face.

"I appreciate this very much, Ray."

"A little bored, Fraser?"

"I'm afraid so, Ray."

"Why aren't you watching TV? There's a Bulls game."

"I'm afraid I don't care much for basketball, Ray."

"Hmm, the Hawks don't play till tomorrow. Well, then, how about some new books?" Ray lifted a satchel to Fraser's bed.

"Books?"

"I got the librarian to help me pick some out for you. That library isn't so bad. Pretty quiet, though."

"Ray, these are wonderful." There were five books, all of them new to Fraser, and included the biography of a Chicago policeman, essays, and a collection of true crime stories.

"I'm glad you like them. They're not due back for two weeks." Ray rubbed Diefenbaker's head as he continued, "Down, furface. I need that chair." He eased into the chair beside Fraser's bed, his smile still in place. Fraser suddenly realized that Ray had missed him, too.

"Thank you. For these, and for saving my life."

"Benny, I didn't save anybody's life. Gardino and Huey saved us all."

"That may be true, but I know why you were in the line of fire, Ray." Fraser was determined to say this, and he saw Ray recognize that determination, and stop whatever deprecating remark had been on his tongue.

"You're very welcome, Benny. I just wish I could have protected you and Irene a little better." Ray might never understand why the neighbors who'd seen the shooting had made him sound so heroic in the press. As he told Fraser, they all looked down on him for his jail record. So why were they so impressed that he'd tried to take a gun away from Frank Zuko?

Fraser saw Ray's embarrassment and changed the subject as gracefully as he could. "Is your family well?"

"They're all fine. Tony's back to work, the layoff really was just seasonal. And Maria's quit her part-time job. Frannie's still working on the weekends, though. She says she likes it."

"Your mother called yesterday. She sounded happy."

"Well, she enjoys feeding me. She wants you to come to our house when they release you so she can do the same for you."

"That would be very nice, if it's not too much trouble."

"Benny. You're family," Ray scolded gently.

"Thank you kindly, Ray. Are you going back to work soon?"

"The doctor says I can start at the warehouse next week. The sling should be gone by then. And in another two weeks, I can go back to Lund's Market." Ray sat back, a tiny smile on his face. "I'm just not sure if I will. I've been offered a new job, downtown, working on for a security agency. They have an opening in the department that handles museums and the Art Institute."

"I beg your pardon?" Fraser thought he'd misheard Ray.

"Yeah, since the official pardon came through I no longer have a criminal record. So Nash Security can hire me. And since that writeup in the paper made me sound like some kind of hero..." He trailed off, watching Fraser's face, seeing the understanding dawn.

"Ray, that's so wonderful." Fraser knew what it meant to his friend to be able to hold up his head among his neighbors. No wonder Ray looked so happy, and Mrs. Vecchio had sounded so joyful when they spoke.

"The thing is, Benny, I wonder if that line of work is really up my alley." Ray put his head down and Fraser couldn't read his expression. But he sounded quite serious.

"Ray, why wouldn't it be interesting to you? And it sounds like you'd be using a lot of the skills you developed when you had your own business." Fraser had to convince Ray to take this chance to change his life for the better.

"Yeah, but I probably need a partner. Someone who maybe can talk intelligently with those museum types, someone who appreciates their point of view. But who knows about security, and has police experience."

"Have you discussed this with Nash Security? They probably have people on their staff."

"No, their people all have their own assignments. That leaves it up to me to find someone." Ray smiled at him. "So what do you think of Detective Huey?"

Feeling somehow hurt, Fraser carefully answered. "I believe most of the Chicago officers I've encountered are very busy with an extensive backlog of cases, Ray."

"That's very true, Benny. But you're not very busy." Ray looked directly at him with a big, silly grin.

"Me?"

"Yep. I thought it'd be perfect for you."

Fraser had to pause for a moment. Did Ray know him at all? Did Fraser himself know what he really wanted? "Ray, are you asking me to leave the RCMP?"

"Well, I'd be real tired of endless grief and guard duty, but I know you're built differently, Benny. So I could talk to Inspector Thatcher about having you assigned to us as a liaison officer, assisting Nash Security, with a stipend paid to the RCMP for your unique services."

Ray's smile as he spoke was like sunshine, and Fraser was sure that same radiance was being reflected back at his friend, though he couldn't speak.

"Of course, you've got to get out of this hospital first. So how's your therapy going, Benny?"

Fraser settled back against his pillows, accepted the glass of water Ray poured for him, and paused for a moment before he began to update his best friend -- soon to be his partner -- on his progress. Having something to anticipate was the best medicine he'd received all month. As he looked at the glowing face beside him, Fraser knew that was true for Ray as well.

***

One year later -- January 1998

Ray's voice was a never-ceasing arpeggio as he drove his "new" 1971 Buick Riviera through the city he loved. Fraser sat beside him, Diefenbaker in the rear seat -- the only animal privileged to ride in the car Ray had always wanted to own -- and they enjoyed the view through the windows. Fraser sometimes thought Dief understood Ray just as well as he did on days like this. Ray's words were complaints, but the tone of his voice showed plainly just how happy Ray truly was.

The car was the most obvious change, but Fraser knew that since his promotion, Ray was also dressing more formally in finely-tailored suits. While Fraser also knew that the person who tailored them was a friend of Mrs. Vecchio who did the work inexpensively, that really didn't matter. The results, that Ray looked professional and debonnaire, did.

Ray's voice rose in an uncomplimentary remark as he exchanged rude hand gestures with a fellow driver on Lake Shore Drive, heading the Riviera north from the Museum Campus.

Of course, Fraser reflected, the entire Vecchio family was happier, and certainly more prosperous. The past Christmas had been an incredible week of overindulgence, over eating, and true Vecchio-style joy. Joy that included more drinking, spending, arguing, and more people than Fraser thought appropriate at every meal. Ray had truly meant it when he said Fraser was part of the family, and so he'd been present for all the merry-making. And Fraser had been part of the shopping trips for the endless stream of elaborate presents for the whole family, too.

"Benny, are you listening to me at all?"

"Of course, Ray," Fraser lied. He knew Ray wouldn't call him on it, through a flash of a green-eyed glance showed that Ray wasn't fooled.

"So how about it? You want to have dinner tonight at Al's?"

"Actually, Ray, I'd prefer we order a meal for carryout and go back to my apartment."

"Really?" Ray wondered. "I thought you didn't approve of styrofoam containers."

"Normally I don't. But I'd like to discuss something with you, Ray, and I think it might be more appropriate in the privacy of my home."

Now there was a definite pause, and Ray looked over at Fraser for a long moment. "Sure, Benny."

Fraser turned to look out his window and allowed himself a smile. Ray wouldn't ask, and he wasn't about to give any further information. While Ray might be slightly uneasy now, Fraser didn't believe the subject he wished to discuss would be unwelcome. It was time to acknowledge all that they meant to each other. Time to move their friendship to a new level by admitting their love.

Though it seemed an odd way to reach an epiphany, just over four weeks ago, while they were testing alarms at a new account, Fraser had looked over at Ray. He was immediately assaulted with the memory of a hundred such looks, all vividly recalled. All plainly showing Ray's love for him. And, Fraser suddenly realized, remembered because of his own love for Ray.

Fraser wondered how he'd remained willfully blind for so long. He realized that the Vecchios already knew Ray loved him -- and probably knew he loved Ray, though he'd only admitted it to himself last month. Even Eric, during one of their infrequent phone calls, asked how "his Italian" was.

Looking back, Fraser blushed to remember how Victoria disrupted their lives. Helped blind him to the real love right in front of him. How besotted he'd been. Well, it had taken a full month to forgive himself, even though he knew Ray had forgiven him long ago. But he wasn't going to let Victoria remove any joy from his life, or waste any more of his precious time with Ray.

"Look at that sunset, Benny," Ray instructed as they reached an intersection with a wide parkway stretching west.

"Lovely, Ray," Fraser replied, looking at his rose-tinted friend as they drove on.

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