Fraser shifted the gears of the sleek, black GTO as he exited the freeway at the O'Hare International Airport turnoff, keeping a careful eye on the heavy traffic around him. Driving the classic Pontiac was definitely different from his experiences driving the bold, in-your-face Buick Riviera. For one thing, the GTO had a stick shift. It had been several years since Fraser had driven a vehicle with a manual transmission, and that had been a four-wheel drive Jeep. Fraser had found there was a big difference between driving an all terrain vehicle on snow-covered, practically nonexistent roads than driving a low-slung car on hard, paved streets -- in traffic, no less. It had taken an entire afternoon of lessons from his unofficial partner, Stanley Raymond Kowalski, a.k.a. Ray Vecchio, before Fraser got the hang of driving a stick again. After the first half hour, Ray had driven them to the police impound lot to 'borrow' a car, fearing that Fraser would strip the gears and ruin the brakes on the car he and his father had worked so hard on together for so many months. But by the end of the day, Fraser had managed to convince Ray to allow him to drive the GTO home from the impound lot after returning the borrowed vehicle.
It was an interesting sensation for Fraser to know he had such power as the black car offered at his command, even though he scrupulously kept to the speed limit. But he had to admit, he felt just as comfortable driving Ray Kowalski's GTO as he had the few times he'd driven Ray Vecchio's Riviera, which was to say, he did not feel comfortable at all. For some reason, American males had some strange notions when it came to their automobiles...
Fraser parked the car in the short-term parking lot next to the Delta terminal and went inside to meet Ray's flight. Ray had taken an impromptu weekend trip to Washington, DC to see an old friend of his, and he'd asked Fraser to pick him up when he returned. Unfortunately, Ray's flight landed in the middle of the afternoon, and it had been no easy task to get permission from Inspector Thatcher for the time off, but Fraser had done so... after promising to flex out the hours taken over the rest of the week. But he had been late leaving the Consulate for the airport due to a last minute call from a Canadian citizen regarding his lost passport, and an accident on the freeway had caused major traffic delays, and now Ray's flight was due to land any minute.
As he made his way through the crowded terminal toward the security checkpoint, Fraser's thoughts lingered on his job. Inspector Thatcher had been slowly assigning him duties more appropriate for a Deputy Liaison Officer, leaving behind those days of sentry duty and picking up her dry cleaning, as she came to know and trust him, and had slowly come to tolerate what she thought of as his strange habit of co-policing the city with Ray Vecchio. As for her rather confused personal dealings with him... Fraser found his cheeks heating slightly. It was... not easy working with a woman who was attractive, intriguing, and interested in him, no matter how hard she fought it, especially when Fraser knew there were instances where he found himself reciprocating her feelings for him. But she was his superior officer, in rank as well as title, and such relationships rarely worked out to the benefit of both parties. And that, unfortunately, was that.
Fraser gave a small sigh as he cleared security and walked to gate 21B. New responsibilities at the Consulate were only one of the things that had changed for him during the past seven months, and those changes had shaken Fraser up even more than when he'd been exiled to Chicago for turning in Gerard for the murder of his father. Back then, at least, Fraser had been used to being alone, to not depending on anyone else but himself. But in the three years since he had known Ray Vecchio, his solitary world had been literally turned upside down. He'd been unofficially adopted by the entire Vecchio clan, and with that came the noisy, chaotic world of 'family,' something with which Fraser had no real experience. He also had learned to see things from a different perspective, for it was rare indeed that he and Ray approached the same thing in the same way. And, somehow, Ray Vecchio had managed to find a way to slip past the invisible barrier Fraser had unknowingly erected around his heart from a very young age, and had become closer to him than anyone Fraser had ever known.
And then Ray was gone.
The very foundations of his life in Chicago had been torn asunder when he'd returned home from his holiday in northern Canada to find his home, and all his belongings, had been destroyed in a fire. Less than an hour later he'd walked into the 27th District police station to discover that Ray Vecchio was gone, under deep cover in the Mob, and it would be a long time before he came back... if he ever came back... and during that time Fraser, as well as everyone else, had to pretend that Stanley Raymond Kowalski was Ray Vecchio. His best friend.
Fraser's relationship with Ray Kowalski had been rocky at first. Ray was less confident, as well as more erratic, than the real Ray Vecchio, but he had a vulnerability about him that had touched Fraser, and made him want to get to know the man beneath the charade. As a rather odd consequence of this, Fraser found himself acting more like an older sibling to Kowalski, guiding him toward the better path. Unfortunately they tended to behave like siblings toward one another as well, bickering and snapping and arguing with each other, even coming to physical blows once. Yet they really had become friends, and Fraser was proud at how Ray had come unto his own in the time he had known him.
Fraser's footsteps slowed, then stopped altogether as he reached the gate where Ray's plane was due to arrive. Had already arrived, Fraser corrected himself silently. According to the information posted at the ticket counter, flight #1481 from Washington, DC had arrived fifteen minutes ago, and the gate's waiting area was empty. Perhaps Ray had gone downstairs to claim his luggage? Fraser turned on his heel and headed for the escalator, his mind resuming its wandering track.
Devastated by the apparent abandonment of yet another person he cared deeply about, Fraser hesitated to allow his friendship with Ray Kowalski to deepen. Oh, they were good friends, and Fraser valued their friendship, but that invisible wall around his heart had grown a tiny bit thicker now, and even though Fraser knew better than to judge a person based on other people's actions, he found that he didn't want to open himself up to the possibility of experiencing that kind of pain again. After all, Kowalski was only taking Ray's place temporarily. When the real Ray returned, the other man would be sent to who knew where in order to protect both of them. And if the real Ray never returned... Ray Vecchio had been the first person Fraser had let slip past the wall in more years than he could remember, and if Ray never returned, Fraser knew in his heart, he would be the last.
When Fraser arrived at the Baggage Claim area, he found a few stragglers still waiting to retrieve their luggage, none of whom were Ray. Fraser scanned the area again, puzzled as to where his friend could be. Then he walked over to a white courtesy phone and picked up the receiver.
"Good afternoon," Fraser replied. "I am trying to locate a passenger who arrived on Delta flight #1481 approximately twenty minutes ago, and was wondering if you would be so kind as to page him for me?"
"Where in the airport are you now, sir?" the woman asked.
"I am in the Baggage Claim area, at the carousel where his luggage should have arrived."
"And the passenger's name?"
"Please wait where you are. It'll be a few minutes before the page will be made."
"Understood. Thank you kindly."
Fraser hung up the phone and made a quick trip to the men's room. He had just finished washing his hands when a male voice sounded over the loudspeaker. "Will arriving passenger Raymond Vecchio please meet your party in the Baggage Claim Area. Raymond Vecchio, please meet your party at the Baggage Claim Area."
Exiting the washroom, Fraser walked over to the baggage carousel, scanning the few pieces still left on the belt for any sign of Ray's luggage. None of them matched.
"I hear you're looking for me?"
Fraser's entire body froze, and he would later swear his heart had stopped beating before it began to pound in double time as his brain recognized the voice he'd feared he'd never hear again. Feeling as though he was moving through air thick as molasses, Fraser turned to face the owner of that voice, and felt his blood pool at his feet.
Ray Vecchio, the real Ray Vecchio, stood before him, his tan healthy, his smile wide, and dressed in the sartorial splendor of Georgio Armani. But that smile was rapidly fading, a look of concern replacing it. "Benny?"
Something was wrong with Fraser's breathing, and his lungs struggled to take in oxygen. Perhaps someone had shut off the air conditioning? But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered more to Benton Fraser right now than confirming the reality of what his mind and ears and eyes were telling him. "Ray?" came a strangled whisper, and it took Fraser a moment to realize that the sound had come from his own throat.
"In the flesh," Ray's attempt to lighten the atmosphere fell flat, and he stepped forward to put a hand on Fraser's upper arm. "Benny, are you okay?"
It was the touch that did it. Warmth from those long, elegant fingers spread throughout his body, providing him with undeniable proof that it was indeed his best friend that stood before him. Whole. Healthy. Alive. "Ray!!"
The next thing Fraser knew, he was clutching Ray tightly to him, breathing in his scent, smiling into Ray's shoulder as a tear or two made their escape. Ray returned the embrace with just as much enthusiasm, pounding him on the back and laughing. They kept at it for a long moment, ignoring the arrival of more passengers from the next flight scheduled to use that particular carousel to claim their luggage. But finally Ray released him, and Fraser reluctantly let his friend go.
"Jeez, Benny. Not even back five minutes and you're already trying to ruin another suit."
This time the joke caused a smile to begin quirking at the corner of his mouth, and Fraser allowed it to bloom unhindered. "Welcome home, Ray."
Ray returned the smile, his green eyes sparkling. "It's good to be home, Benny. It's good to be home."
Ray picked up the luggage that had sat unnoticed at his feet, and they began walking towards the elevator that would take them to the parking garage. "So how's everybody?"
"Everyone is well, Ray. Your family is in good health as well as in good spirits, as you will no doubt discover for yourself quite soon." They arrived at the bank of elevators and rode one to the third floor. "Your coworkers are fine as well, and I'm sure they will be pleased to have you return once again into the fold."
They exited onto the third level, and Fraser led the way to where the car was parked. Ray stopped in his tracks as they approached the GTO, then gave a low whistle as he moved to examine the classic vehicle. "Wow. This is some kinda car, Benny. A real American classic. Not as classic as the Riv, mind you, but classic." He stood up and glanced around. "Hey, where is my baby, anyway? You didn't bang her up or anything, did you, Fraser?"
Fraser swallowed hard, feeling his cheeks heating with embarrassment. How could he tell Ray that his beloved car had been destroyed seven months ago, and on this, what should have been one of the happiest days of Ray's life? "Er, the Riviera is not here, Ray. This is the car I drove to pick Ra... you up in."
"You?" Ray questioned, incredulous. "Driving this car? Who'd you have to bribe to do that, Fraser?"
Fraser opened the trunk and stowed Ray's bag inside, then moved to the passenger door and unlocked it, opening it for his friend. As he walked around to the driver's side, Fraser hung his head dejectedly. Ray was going to kill him, there was no doubt in Fraser's mind about that. Then after perhaps a year or two, maybe he'd think about letting Fraser explain what had happened. Oh, well, no point delaying the inevitable. He climbed inside and closed the door, waiting until Ray had done the same before beginning to speak. "Ray, about your car..."
"You scratched the paint, didn't you?" Suspicion was heavy in his voice.
"Well, no. Not exactly..."
"What, dented the fender? Broke a tail light?" Ray's voice was growing in volume.
"Uh, no, Ray..."
"Don't tell me there are more bullet holes in it, Fraser."
"No, Ray," Fraser said truthfully. "Your car was not shot up again."
"Well, what then?" Ray demanded loudly.
Fraser cleared his throat, and prepared to meet the Wrath of Vecchio. "I'm sorry, Ray, but your car was blown up by a performance arsonist seven months ago."
A long moment of silence passed, the type of silence just before a person's world came to an end, and Fraser bowed his head as he waited for the imminent explosion.
"I know, Benny."
The words were spoken so softly that it took a moment for Fraser to realize they'd been spoken at all. He raised surprised eyes to meet Ray's warm, green gaze. "My doppleganger told me. He had to debrief me about all that you'd... we'd been through together over the past seven months. He seems like a good man."
Fraser studied his friend's face carefully. There was no anger or disappointment to be found, only a hint of sadness amidst the warmth of understanding, and gentleness of deep friendship. "I've missed you so much, Ray," Fraser said, surprising himself with the bold, but honest, statement. "It hurt when you left without saying good-bye..."
It was Ray's turn to lower his head. "I had no choice, Benny. I hated keeping all this from you, but I was under strict orders by the Feds. I didn't expect to get the call while you were on vacation, and I couldn't tell you good-bye on the phone -- it was an unsecured line. I'm sorry I hurt you, Benny, please believe me. If there had been any other way to do it..."
More silence, while truths were digested, accepted. It was time for the healing to begin. "I understand, Ray," Fraser said quietly. "And I'm proud of you for volunteering for such a dangerous mission. You are an excellent police officer, Ray, and that belief, that faith, was something I clung to while you were away."
A faint blush colored Ray's cheeks, but he met Fraser's direct gaze with no hesitation. "I held on to the fact that I knew you would be there for my family, Benny, and that helped, a lot. But I worried about you... about who would be there for you while I was gone. I'm glad my doppleganger was around, from what he told me... but I didn't know it at the time, Benny. I was worried about you."
Fraser smiled warmly at his best friend, a wonderful feeling spreading through his chest at Ray's words. "Thank you, Ray. It's been... a very long time since there was someone who worried about me."
Ray's eyes softened with understanding. "I'll always be worrying about you, Benny. No matter where I am, no matter what happens. Always."
This time the silence that fell was filled with the best kind of communication, the kind that ran deeper than words. How had Fraser been so lucky to have found such a friend in Ray? He hadn't been looking for a friend when he'd arrived in Chicago on the trail of his father's killer, and somehow he doubted Ray had been either. It was said that something good could always be found in the midst of life's tragedies, and Fraser's friendship with Ray had been more than 'something good.' Quite simply, Ray Vecchio was the best thing that ever happened to him.
"We'd better get going, Benny," Ray said, breaking the comfortable silence between them. "Rush hour's already started, and it's gonna take forever to get home."
Ray had been correct. Traffic on the freeway was even worse now than it had been on Fraser's drive to the airport, but the long drive was enlivened as they shared with each other stories about some of the things they'd done during their time apart. Ray could not give him many details about the investigation, mainly talking about some of the more personal aspects of his time in Las Vegas, but Fraser didn't care. The sound of his friend's voice, whiny timbre and all, after so long an absence was like a balm to his wounded soul, soothing away the all the pain and loneliness not even Fraser himself had realized ran so deeply. Without even realizing it, a small smile found its way to his lips.
"What are you smiling about?" Ray asked, and Fraser did not need to take his eyes off the road as they reached the exit that would take them to the Vecchio house to know Ray was smiling as well. He could hear it in Ray's voice.
"Oh, nothing, Ray," Fraser replied, knowing his response would get a rise out of his friend. He wasn't disappointed.
"Oh, no you don't!. Don't you start with that, 'nothing, Ray,' and 'ah,' and 'hmmm' business again, Fraser. I know when you say 'nothing' you mean 'something,' and that 'nothing' always winds up getting us into major trouble. So spill already."
Fraser could barely keep a straight face. He knew for certain that the next time Ray got behind the wheel of a car in order to give Fraser a ride somewhere, any and all stop signs, turn indications and traffic lights would become fair game. Revenge may be a dish that was best served cold, but revenge Ray Vecchio style could be interesting indeed. "It's not important, Ray."
"Benny..." Ray whined, and the first giggle that sneaked out of Fraser's throat caught him unawares. The second he tried to smother with a hand pressed to his mouth, but the third giggle would not be denied, and before Fraser knew it both of them were laughing like five-year-olds.
Fraser could see Ray wiping his eyes as he caught his breath again from the corner of his eye. "Fraser?"
"Yes, Ray?" Fraser replied as he wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt. They were approaching Ray's neighborhood now, and Fraser needed to collect himself before facing the excitement of a Vecchio family reunion.
"You are the most annoying man I know."
"Understood." But Fraser couldn't help but add, "Thank you kindly, Ray."
"Don't mention it."
They were silent as Fraser parked the black Mustang in front of the three story house. Shutting off the ignition, Fraser turned to face his friend. "Are you ready?"
But there was no answering smile on Ray's face as he reached for something in his jacket pocket. "Not quite yet, Benny. Here," Ray handed him a white envelope, a hint of sadness in his expression. "He wanted me to give you this."
Kowalski. Fraser hesitated a moment before reaching out and taking the envelope from his friend's hand.
"You want me to leave?"
"No, Ray," Fraser replied immediately. He never wanted Ray leaving ever again, no matter what the reason. "Please, stay."
Ray nodded in reply, but Fraser wasn't sure if he understood. Then he thought better of it. Ray understood him better than anyone else in this world. Taking a deep breath, Fraser opened the envelope and removed the folded piece of paper within. Unfolding it, he silently read what might be the last words Stanley Raymond Kowalski would ever say to him.
I've never been too good at saying good-bye, but I wanted you to thank
you for everything you've done for me during the past seven months. You know,
when they told me about you before all this started, I thought, 'this guy just
couldn't be for real.' But you were. You took me seriously, and you took the
whole situation seriously, even when I didn't make things very easy for you.
Hell, none of this could have been easy on you. Vecchio was your friend,
and, from what I've seen of him, you chose well. You showed up one day to find
me when you should have found him, and I could see that it hurt you. It surprised
me when you became my friend. You didn't have to -- the charade could have
been kept up if we'd just worked on cases and been seen in public every so often.
But you did become my friend, and I became your friend... as much as I could be,
anyway. But that was okay, you know? I knew it couldn't have been easy for you,
and I didn't want to push you into anything you weren't ready for. The point is we
were friends. And we still are, you know what I mean?
I'd like to think some of your goodness rubbed off on me, you know? That
I'll stop and think about what I'm doing now... maybe even think, 'what would Fraser
do?' I think that knowing you will make me a better cop... a better person. I owe
you for that, Fraser. And someday I hope I'll be able to repay that debt.
Anyway, I'd better stop now, before this letter gets too mushy. Take care
of yourself, Fraser. Think of me every now and then, 'cause I know I'll be thinking
about you. Give Dief a hug for me, and tell him to watch out for those blackberry
filled donuts, man... they're a killer.
Oh, and one last thing. Thank you kindly.
Fraser closed his eyes as he finished reading the letter, a single tear tracing a lonely path down his cheek. He would miss Ray Kowalski very much -- his lack of vocabulary, the tough guy exterior he tried to project in order to hide his own vulnerability, but even more, Fraser would miss the strange feeling of kinship Kowalski had engendered in him... the 'big brother/ little brother' mentoring that had given Fraser a taste of what it would have been like to have grown up with a younger brother.
"Benny?" Ray's voice was filled with compassion as well as concern.
Fraser took a deep breath and opened his eyes, wiping the tear away with a brush of his hand. He would miss Ray, yes, but Fraser had a feeling that he would cross paths with Ray Kowalski again. He folded the paper neatly and returned it to its envelope before slipping it into his jacket pocket. Then he turned to face Ray. "I'm fine, Ray... and thank you."
Ray looked at him quizzically. "For what?"
"For bringing the letter," Fraser said quietly, for once allowing himself to express how he truly felt. "For coming home safely... for being my friend."
"I'm the one who should be thanking you, Benny," Ray replied, his voice growing hoarse. "I owe you so much--"
"No, Ray," Fraser interrupted gently. "You owe me nothing. You're my best friend."
Ray smiled warmly at him. "And you don't owe me anything either, Benny, 'cause you're my best friend, too. Deal?" Ray held out a hand.
Fraser matched Ray's smile, and reached out to shake Ray's hand once, firmly. "Deal."
"Good. Now let's go inside and get fed to within an inch of our lives."
Ray unhooked his seat belt and opened the door to get out, and Fraser
followed suit. The world was still a far from perfect place, yet
Fraser's corner of it had just become a little brighter, thanks to the
bright green eyes and the warm Italian heart of the man who meant
more to Fraser than life itself. Ray had opened up a whole new
world to Fraser three years ago, and there was still so much of it left
to be explored. With any luck, Benton Fraser and Ray Vecchio
would be allowed to explore it together for many years to come.
Copyright March, 1998 by Angela Rivieccio. This story is not
intended to infringe upon any copyright holders of DUE SOUTH, including
Alliance, CTV, BBC, TNT, or any other copyright holders, past, present
or future, and was not written for profit, but for enjoyment by fellow
fans around the globe. Please do not copy, electronically or otherwise,
for anything other than personal use without express written consent
of the author. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.
Thank you kindly.