..and I'll Believe

Ray headed for his car, not quite able to keep the grin from his face. He lost that battle entirely when he saw Fraser's sidelong glance at him, and the scolding frown the Mountie gave him for his apparent delight. As he knew it would, his grin elicited Fraser's own wide smile. "Come on, Benny, let's go grab a bite."

"Thank you, no. I've been bitten enough for one day." Ray laughed, and climbed into his car. Fraser got in as well, looking not at all upset at Ray's amusement -- rather he looked resigned, with the polite long-suffering expression mothers and friends of people with unusual senses of humour all carried. Fraser had, in the line of duty, been bitten by a Peckinese. The elderly woman whose dog it was had spent nearly an hour apologising -- Ray had spent the following hour teasing Fraser about his charming women of any age. Fraser never seemed to mind -- much, as long as Ray didn't get too personal or too public with his teasing remarks. Ray knew that when he did get too close to the line Fraser withdrew behind his polite, nonchalant habits.

Pulling into the light -- for Chicago -- traffic, Ray spared his friend another look. "I mean, it isn't like it wasn't *her* cardoor you were jimmying open, Fraser."

"I was not *jimmying* it open. I was merely applying a bit of--"

"Coathanger and elbow grease," Ray supplied.

Fraser barely looked at him with a hint of annoyance. He sat quietly for a bit, and Ray realised with a fresh burst of delight that he was trying to think of a more suitable phrase for 'coathanger.' He grinned again, and waited. Finally Fraser sighed. "Well I _was_ doing it at her request, Ray. I hardly think that assisting someone in distress deserves to be referred to by such language."

"Oh you do? You rather I said it in Italian?"

Fraser said nothing, and Ray didn't blame him. It wasn't the Mountie's fault Ray was in such a good mood- nor that he preferred to express it by giving his friend a difficult time. He gave Fraser a few minutes of misleading silence, then asked, "So you gonna tell Dief?"

"Tell Dief what?" His tone said he was either honestly confused, or hoping Ray wasn't about to say what he was.

With a huff of impatience, Ray explained, "Tell Dief about the Pekinese! It isn't every day you go around with other dogs.. he's sure to be jealous. Don't think you can hide it, though, it's not like lipstick on the collar you can wash out before the wife sees it. He'll be able to smell the saliva on your pantsleg."

When there was no response, Ray looked over. Benny was staring at him, astonished. Ray gave him a look. "What?"

"I... I thought you'd be worried that Dief might go attack that poor dog."

Ray shrugged. "Yeah, I know. I don't wanna be too predictable, you know? Gotta keep you on your toes." He could tell, from the mildly horrified look in Benny's eyes, that the other man was not looking forward to the exercise. Ray laughed again.

He dropped Fraser off at the Consulate; they were working opposite shifts, and Ray had stopped after work to pick up Benny for an early breakfast before taking him to work and taking himself home to bed. The small delay helping the woman with her car -- an old Mercury, Ray figured she deserved what she'd gotten -- had only made Fraser slightly late.

Shaking his head, he knew his friend would be in for trouble with the Dragon Lady. He also knew Fraser wouldn't try to explain, though he had a perfectly good excuse.

'Listen to me.' He shook his head. 'Now he's got me doing it.' Not so long ago Ray would have scolded Benny as well, for getting himself into trouble. Even so mild a trouble, by helping someone out of a jam-- even so small a jam. Which in itself was unusual, Ray realised. Normally the lady would have turned out to be an escaped forger whose illegal plates would have fallen into sight as they'd unlocked her door, thereby embroiling them in a days long hunt for her husband, the plate maker, and in doing so interfere with a six-month FBI investigation and only barely managing to save the day with a ball of yarn and Mountie-induced luck.

Shaking his head, Ray could only imagine what life would be like without the kind of weirdness Fraser had brought into his life. As he parked his car and headed for the house, he realised the serious implication of that question. 'What would life be like? I'll tell you. You'd be spending your days doing a thankless job for too little pay and your nights sitting in front of the tv wondering when, or if, something important was going to happen. Instead, you've *got* something important, and if that requires putting up with inexplicable weirdness from time to time, then so be it.'

Yes, sir, he nodded to himself. One of these days he was going to start talking out loud to himself, and then he *would* be in trouble. Calling out as he stepped inside the front door, he found his mother in the kitchen. He went to talk while he wound down enough to sleep. He had two days off before changing back to the day shift -- barely enough time to get his internal clock switched to sleeping at nights. He'd promised Ma he'd spend tomorrow running errands for her, but today he'd get to laze about the house, enjoying the freedom one could only find when the kids were at school -- or the entire family out of state.

His mother was, not surprisingly, cooking. "Oh, Ma, you're not making me breakfast? I told you, me and Benny--"

"Of course I'm not making you breakfast. You think I want to cook for someone who won't even eat it?" She waved a spoon at him, and he could see know it was covered in flour. Baking, then. He smiled eagerly, and stepped forward to give her a kiss.

"Then what are you making? Need any help?" He moved forward to peer in the bowl.

"Raymondo, when I need you to taste what I'm making, I'll let you know." She gave him a stern look.

"Taste? Ma, I said help, not eat."

"I know what kind of help you mean. The kind you always mean. You'll be such a burden on your poor wife, always getting in her way when she tries to cook."

Ray sighed and shook his head. There had never been a time when his mother was *subtle* about his getting married -- except of course during the short time he had been married. But lately it had become tiring to hear. Maybe because he knew he wasn't going to be getting married again. Explaining that to her was more than he wanted to think about. "That's ok, I'll marry someone who can't cook." He offered her appeasment.

Her expression at that made Ray smile; it seemed to be his day for annoying those he loved. It was a good annoying, though. He was almost certain of it. "So what *are* you making?" He grabbed a mug and poured some hot water for tea, and sat down on one of the kitchen stools. They talked for awhile, about this that and the other, and before Ray found himself yawning and ready to head for bed, he'd been given a small cinnamon roll fresh from the oven. He kissed his mother on the cheek and headed for the stairs, licking melted butter from his fingers.

He chuckled as he heard his mother say, ostensively when he was out of hearing range, "You *will* marry someone who can cook. I'll see to that. You need someone to put some meat on those poor old..." He got to the stairs before he heard the rest, though he knew what she was saying. Someday she was going to change her ranting, just to see if he was paying attention. He left his shoes by the closet and headed for a shower, then sleep.

The next day started out pleasantly enough. He'd been able to grab some leftover lasagna for his breakfast; Ma'd have chastised him for it had she seen him but she had gone across town to stay with Aunt Louise for a few days while the older lady recuperated from a strained wrist. That's what happened when you let 65 year old women in the park on the first best spring day of the year -- they start playing frisbee with the college kids and next thing you know you're standing in the hospital listening to a doctor explain why women her age should be kept indoors. Ray had barely been able to hold back his grin, content to give Aunt Louise dirty glances when the doctor wasn't looking.

She'd just glared back, and whispered that at least she'd received a few telephone numbers for her pains. Ray had wisely remained quiet about that when Ma offered to stay with her while she let her wrist heal -- making comments about asking a 20 year old stud to cook and clean for her wouldn't go over well. Ma had never really approved of her sister's care-free view of life, even when as a teenager she'd benefited from it. Ray didn't think Ma knew that Louise had told him all those stories about their younger years -- and he was smart enough not to let on.

Now he was standing in the hospital again, staring around him. In the midst of the people rushing around, calling to each other and asking for help, he recognised the doctor who had wrapped his aunt's wrist. It was surreal, that not too many hours ago he'd watched the other man calmly and sternly place a bandage around what was such a minor injury.

Now, with blood smeared across his greens, he was calmly and sternly trying to piece together a woman's femoral artery before she bled to death. The room was chaos. The detective knew that emergency rooms were often thus, it was the nature of the business and not too surprising. Even when the emergency wasn't one, people coming in were often in a panic, reeling from shock and fear, clutching at nurses and doctors to do something, do it now, make everything all better and the pain go away.

He'd seen it every time he found himself here, the nature of his business such that he was called here at least once a month, sometimes more. Luckily he was never here in uniform, else he'd be turned to and asked for help he couldn't give -- people in pain wanted someone, anyone, to take over, take care of them and make it all right again.

He ached, though, for someone to ask him now. For someone to need him to do something, to ask him for something he could give -- be it directions to a pay phone or a cup of coffee, for someone to hang onto while they waited for news. The emergency room was overrun, and no one could see anything except those bloody bodies before them, focusing their attention for repair, for hope, or for grief. Ray tried to stand out of the way, even as he silently begged someone to speak to him and draw him into a task which would take his focus away from horror engulfing the entire room.

A city bus had been hijacked, by two well-rehearsed men with semi-automatic weapons and a bag full of grenades. They'd had the bus pull into a parking lot -- half full of cars, for they'd chosen a shopping center in the middle of the day. A prepared list of demands had been delivered by courier, who soon proved to be unwitting of the role he played. The police had kept him for questions, while a ring formed around the parking lot: police, SWAT, newsreporters and onlookers. Such an unexpected way to spend a Thursday afternoon, Ray had reflected at the time. Terrorists struck in out of the way places, or behind closed doors where no one could see. Not out in the middle of everything, where everybody could see and you had no idea what would happen next or from what direction it would come.

He'd been pulling into the parking lot when the bus had arrived; his only clue that something was amiss was the fact that the city bus pulled into the lot. When it parked and sat quietly he'd begun walking over -- his day off, but of course what cop could stay out of trouble when it presented itself nearby? He'd been a good five hundred yards away, no one else anywhere nearby. Brushing his hand along his jacket pocket, he reassured himself that his cell phone was with him.

He'd gotten within three hundred yards when the first twelve emergency vehicles pulled up and he'd hit the ground. The list of demands had been delivered the moment the two had first struck, inviting the cops to meet them in the parking lot. Ray had quickly placed himself behind the line of cars, and even more quickly become involved in the rescue. Although out of his area, the Lieutenant in charge had issued him a kevlar vest and radio along with everyone else, and set him to sitting and waiting with the other personnel.

Standing now in the emergency room, Ray couldn't quite remember what had happened. Somehow things had gone wrong -- from the cops' and everyone else's point of view. The two men had planned things so carefully that he couldn't believe they'd failed to anticipate the obvious. When the demands were refused and the negotiations faltered, one man on the bus had opened fire.

For a split second everything hung still in strained agony -- they couldn't open fire on a bus full of hostages, and the cops could hunker down and wait out the spray of bullets. Anyone else hanging around at that point became part of the stampede away, only by a miracle kept orderly enough by the uniformed officers that it caused no injuries. When the weaponsfire ended they'd peeked out... and saw what Ray still couldn't describe. An explosion, set off by a bagfull of grenades. A dozen killed instantly in the front of the bus, others, shielded by seats and bodies only incredibly injured, and those gathered around hit by flying metal and burning plastic treated in the parking lot to keep the hospitals nearby free of the unnecessary clutter.

Ray had found himself here, in this emergency room -- not even sure which hospital he was at until he recognised the doctor who'd treated his aunt. He couldn't recall why he'd come; he wasn't injured and knew none of those who were, and the cops assigned to this jurisdiction were taking care of the questions and answers still needing to be resolved. With another look around, he decided he had no reason to be here, and perhaps a lot of reasons to leave. He wasn't going to sleep tonight as it was, and standing here staring at the chaos wasn't going to help.

He walked away, feeling the thick blanket of numbed shock tighten around him. What he need right now was a hot shower, a cup of coffee, and a place he could hide for the rest of the day. The smell of rubbing alcohol and burned flesh was clinging to him and he wanted nothing more than to be completely rid of it. As he walked away from the hospital -- vaguely recognising where he was, and how close by the parking lot was, he walked back to get his car. It was a good thing, because he wasn't certain he could get on a city bus and not throw up. People on the sidewalk gave him a wide berth. He was glad no one accosted him with sympathy or inquires. He couldn't bear to hear even the simple ones, what happened and are you all right, too far beyond his ability to address. Perhaps, he thought dimly, I am in shock.

Perhaps I should go back to the hospital.

No, they didn't need any more bodies there, taking up time and resources. He was fine... uninjured anyway, and after a hot shower he'd feel ok. As he neared the shopping center and flashed his badge to get inside the wall of barricades, it occurred to him that he couldn't go home, not like this. His mother would have a fit. Couldn't go to the station, because he didn't have any clean clothes there right now. Used the last batch only two weeks ago, after a footchase that had left him sprawling in mud. He hadn't got around to bringing any to the station, so that left....

Fraser. He'd go to Fraser. He felt something tight inside him begin to loosen, as the decision was made. As he reached his car, he nodded to himself. "I'll go to Benny. He'll...." his voice trailed off as he didn't know exactly what his friend would do. He only knew that was where he needed to go.

Fraser looked up as Ray stepped into the doorway. He dropped his pen and was coming around the desk before Ray could figure out his startled reaction. *Perhaps he's heard about the bus, and he knows I was there.* It seemed reasonable, the Mountie seemed to know everything, why not that one man was at a scene with hundreds of others?

"Ray? Are you all right? Do you need a doctor?"

"A doctor? No, 'course not. I need a shower. Why do you think I'm here?" Sometimes his friend made no sense.

Fraser took Ray by the arms and led him slowly to a chair. "Are you sure? Come on, Ray, sit down."

"I'm fine, Benny, I'm not going to break. I just need a hot shower and I didn't have any clean clothes."

Fraser crouched on the floor beside him, running his hands over Ray's arms and face. "Why didn't you go home?"

Benny didn't seem to be listening to him, more intent for some reason on feeling every part of Ray's body. Ray wondered why they were getting into that now, of all times. But he answered the question. "'cause Ma would have a fit. You know how she is, she'd have a heart attack to know I was there. She'd take one look at me and drop."

Fraser nodded. "I see. Well you don't seem to be injured, although I'd say you might be suffering from mild shock. A hot shower is probably a good idea."

Ray smirked. "I told you. Where's your towels?"

"Uh, not here, Ray. Come on," he put a hand under Ray's arm and tugged gently.

Ray stood up and followed willingly. When Fraser led him outside he gaped. "You keep the towels outside? I knew you Canadians were weird, but this...."

"Yes, Ray. Come on." Benny continued steering him around, until he found himself at his car. He said nothing until he realised Benny was putting him *in* his car, in the passenger's seat.

"Benny? Where we going?" He wondered if they could stop for a pizza along the way. Then something told him he wasn't very hungry, and might not be for awhile.

Fraser looked over at him, and Ray found himself wanting to melt into his expression. "It's all right, Ray. Trust me."

Ray smiled. That was fine, just what he wanted. That's why he'd come, right? To let Benny take care of things. He nodded, and leaned back. Everything was going to be fine. Fraser had said so, and Fraser never lied.

When they pulled up outside his house, Ray stared at him accusingly. "I told you what Ma'll do! Benny--"

"It's all right, Ray. Your mother isn't here right now."

"Oh." Ray considered for a second. "Well ok then." He let Fraser help him out of the car and to the front door. He wanted to shake his friend off and tell him he didn't need to be coddled, but he couldn't find the energy. It wasn't going to hurt anything to let Fraser get him inside -- not like the neighbors would be scandalised. He laughed at the thought of his neighbors being scandalised by anything, after last year's interesting blow-up at the Henley's. Blow-up... that didn't sound right.

He tried to think of what to call the family scandal that had had the neighborhood in titters for months. When he finally gave up searching for a word, he looked around and saw he was standing in the bathroom, half-undressed. Startled, he caught Fraser turning towards him after laying his shirt neatly on the hamper.

Fraser caught his look, and explained, "I don't know if it can be saved, it's damaged rather badly. But perhaps you'd rather decide that, after you've had your shower and some rest."

"Ok." Ray didn't mind about the shirt. Even though he complained loudly and often, it wasn't that unusual to lose clothes in the line of duty. Casualty of the job, he told himself. Casualty? That didn't sound right either. He looked down at Fraser, who was removing the last of Ray's clothing. "Benny? Did we catch them at least?" It was easier to bear a ripped silk shirt when the ones responsible were behind bars.

Fraser stood up and gave him an odd, quiet look which Ray couldn't figure out. "Yes, Ray, the men responsible are dead."

"Oh." Ray absorbed that. He suddenly realised that the sound he was hearing was the rush of water -- his hot shower. "I guess I'll take my shower, now."

"You do that." Fraser put his hand on Ray's shoulder, and Ray found it reassuring. Nothing could go wrong now that Fraser was here. He stopped. Wrong? Why would something go wrong? He shook his head and stepped into the stream of water, letting Fraser pull the curtain closed. For several moments he simply stood there, eyes closed, and let the water cover him. It felt wonderful, so cleansing, stripping away all the scents and grime of....

He let out a scream, and fell to the bottom of the tub. He barely saw the curtain being flung out of the way, and then Fraser was there, holding him, saying his name. Ray grabbed onto him and held on tight, burying his face in Fraser's shoulder. Strong arms held him, and he noticed the exact moment the hot water was shut off, for he could no longer feel it against his legs -- the rest of him was covered by Benny.

One small part of his mind wanted to know why he was paying attention to the water and whether it was on or off; the rest of his mind was filled with images of fire and screaming, sirens and reverberations of impacted air. He clutched Fraser's shirt, trying to dig himself into it, away from the fear that was hitting him like hot tar, dripping through his skin into his bones and pulling him down. He wanted to do something, anything, which would get him out of this.

They kept screaming and there was nothing anyone could do, everyone standing around stunned, staring at the bus and when one man finally stepped forward it was like puncturing a pressure valve; armed men and women surged forward, shouting to each other and calling through radios. There was nothing they could do, though, except stand back and let the firemen put out the flames and the ambulances in to carry people away.

The smell of scorched metal and scorched flesh filled the air, billowing with the smoke and making him want to vomit. Out of his jurisdiction and not trained for medical rescue, there had been nothing to do but stand out of the way and watch.

"It's all right, now. Let it out."

He heard a voice over the shouting in his head, and didn't know if it came in response to something he'd said aloud or to the pictures in his head. He didn't care, as long as it stayed with him, and he pushed his face harder into a warm, wet shoulder and sobbed.

Later he began shaking, cold and spent. Fraser immediately moved away, but only briefly as he then helped Ray to stand. Wiping water from Ray's face, he said nothing, just held on as Ray stepped out of the tub. He wasn't sure his legs would hold him, so he kept a firm grip on Benny's arm. Ray tried to say something, but he didn't know what he needed to say. He was cold, though.

"I know. Here, let's get this around you."

He looked down to see Fraser wrapping a large bath sheet around his waist. Another was pulled across his shoulders, and then he was led out of the bathroom and into his room. He saw his bed and knew he wanted nothing more than to crawl into it and disappear. He looked over at Fraser. "Stay here."

"What?" Fraser met his gaze, but didn't seem to have understood.

Ray swallowed and tried again. "Stay here."

"You mean, here, or.." he indicated the spot where he was standing, then his face cleared. "Oh... Ray, I'm not going anywhere. You're going to bed, but I'll be right here."

Ray nodded. "Good." He tried to grab onto Fraser, to affirm Fraser's statment, but discovered his hand was already painfuly tight around a fistful of shirt. He left his hand where it was, and sat down carefully on the bed. That seemed to spark another spate of shivers, and he leaned sideways onto his best friend.

He couldn't think clearly, not sure exactly what it was that hurt so much -- fear, guilt, grief, shock, regret -- any number of things, a myriad of reasons to fall apart. He only knew he couldn't think, screaming occasionally that he couldn't do anything, that someone should have done something. Through it all he felt arms holding him and heard a soft voice in his ear.

Finally he collapsed against Fraser's chest; he felt himself being laid back onto the mattress, towels pulled away and blankets tugged into place. He rolled onto his side, curling up and grabbing the top edge of the sheet. "Benny, Benny... don't leave...."

"I'm not leaving, Ray. I'm right here."

A hand brushed his cheek, and Ray closed his eyes. "Don't leave, Benny. I need you.... I need you Benny."

"I know, Ray, I know. I'm staying right here."

The voice was close, very near his ear. He smiled, relaxing into an exhausted doze. "Knew you'd take care... love you, Benny. Knew...."

The satisfying blankness of the beginnings of sleep took him away then, and for a time he knew nothing anymore.

A month later Ray was sitting in his mother's kitchen (his house, her kitchen, what to do?). He'd finally outlasted the relentless inquiries as to his stability, gradually creeping in past the flickering images that wound through his skull. Everyone was stunned, and Ray was shocked again by the macabre interest shown by those not directly affected. Those who had known no one in the bus, in the area, at the hospital... full of questions as if by knowing more they could become part of the trauma. Why anyone would want to was beyond him, and he'd glared off the questions easily.

Those who were genuinely concerned had simply stayed near and waited. Ray grinned, now, at how Benny had practically moved in, sleeping on the living room couch almost every night. Ray had a vague impression of a very politely conducted argument about the sleeping arrangments; he didn't know who had won and could only assume it was a compromise between a pallet on the floor and a vacated Vecchio's bed.

Oddly enough, Dief had positioned himself on Ray's other pillow, and remained there. Granted it was a feather pillow, but still.... It had been nice, having Benny and Dief in his home. Really nice.

Now he felt almost himself again, listening to his mother prattle on about Louie and the kids and Mr. Carson's poor betrothed daughter. "I can't imagine what he was thinking!" Ma shook her head, kneading dough and scattering flour across the counter.

"Who was thinking?" Ray realised he'd missed part of the monologue.

"Oh, That Mr. Carson. Everyone knows his little Maria is not in love with that boy! Why he should make them marry I don't understand."

"Maybe she's --" Ray clamped his jaw shut. He hadn't been about to say *that* had he? "Maybe she doesn't know she loves him." 'Smooth, Ray, very smooth.' He looked up to see his mother giving him one of those looks.

"Don't speak of such things, Raymondo. Maria is a good girl. No reason at all for her to be married off to one such as that Mitelli boy."

"Yes, Ma." He sipped his cocoa again and looked around. "Did Benny say when he'd be over?" For a second he felt twelve years old, asking his mother if a friend could stay the night. Fraser had been gone that morning, when Ray had woken.

He saw her measuring look, and wondered what he'd said. "He didn't say."

"He didn't?" That was odd. "Did the Embassy call?"

"I don't know. I don't ask, Raymondo, if a person doesn't want to share his business with me then I don't ask."

Ray almost choked on his cocoa. Not ask? Yeah, right. And he had some swamp land he'd like to sell. "He coming back for supper?" he asked casually.

His mother just looked at him. "He did not say he would be here for supper. That boy, so polite, he'd say if he were." Ray heard the cautionary tone in her voice that said she knew something was wrong, but not what and therefore could not say.

"Yeah, he would. Gotta talk him out of that someday." Ray set the empty mug down on a counter, not meaning a word of it and knowing it. From the glance Ma gave him, she knew it too. "I guess I'll drop by and ask him, on my way to work."

He had only gone a few steps before his mother spoke again. "Raymondo."

"Yeah, Ma?"

"You know I don't interfere in my children's lives--"

"Since when?" Ray's voice rose a pitch.

She continued, ignoring him. "I want my children to be happy."

"Yeah? And?" He prompted, when she fell silent.

"Figlio mio, I think if you go after him... you will not be happy." She wouldn't look at him, but her tone was kind. Ray didn't have a clue what she was talking about.

"Ma? Did Fraser and I have a fight while I wasn't looking?"

She didn't answer, just stared at him for a moment, measuring him with her eyes, then rested a hand on his arm. "Let him be. It's for the best."

"What's for the best? Ma, what are you talking about?"

Instead of answering she shooed him away, and he knew from years of experience that staying and asking would get him nowhere. Fortunately he had another recourse.

"Benny? You in here?" He opened the door a bit, after no one answered his knock. "Benny? If you're decent yell."

Hearing nothing he opened the door wider, and stepped in. And stopped. Normally sparse, the apartment was now almost deserted. Furniture and linens all still in place, but the chest was gone. Ray moved over to the closet -- empty. "Oh my god..." He checked the kitchen, thinking that maybe Fraser had had some freak accident which required the laundrying of all his clothes at once. But the kitchen was empty as well, the few dishes and staples were gone. He whipped out his cellphone.

"Yes sir, his plane left this morning."

This has to be some kind of sick joke, Ray thought. That, or he's being sent on some secret mission. Yeah, for the Canadian government? Right. "Could you check that again? Constable Benton *Fraser*."

"Yes, sir," Betty answered patiently. "Constable Fraser. Transfered to Yathkyed, effective today."

"Yathkyed.. OK where's that?" Ray thought he sounded remarkably patient... for him. Why she sighed at him he didn't know.

"It's on the south shore of the Yathkyed Lake. Northeast of Angukuni Lake."

God save me from Canadian humour, he prayed. Aloud, he said, "Look, can you tell me when he got the transfer orders?" Probably they came in today, all of a sudden. He'd have had no warning, no time to swing by the house, barely enough time to pack, time to arrange for Dief's transport. Right now he'll be feeling terrible about not saying goodbye to me and everyone else. Some part of him will be angry at the unfairness of it all. Surely, he would be. He'd have to be.

"One moment." He waited while she did her paper shuffling, trying not to yell at her to have the information memorised. "The request was submitted 21 days ago. Approved seven days ago."

Ray dropped the phone.

He was too distracted to be polite -- fortunately he was too distracted to be rude. He stared out the window of the small cafe, watching the winds go by. When the waitress/flight control officer asked him if he wanted coffee he only nodded and she left him alone. The coffee remained on the counter, cooling slowly as he stared.

What had happened? Was Fraser in trouble? Had the RCMP snatched him up and back dated the request to make it look as though he'd gone willingly? Had Victoria come back -- or more likely, if it was likely at all, resurfaced in Yathkyed and Fraser had gone to her? Had Fraser been telling him about this all along, for the last 21 days, and he simply hadn't heard?

The choices swam through his mind until he couldn't tell which were the more preposterous and which the more likely. Surely he had missed something, somewhere along the way which would tell him, prepare him for what he would find. He tried to remember, 21 days back.

21 days? One week *after* the explosion. Fraser had made this decision while Ray was totally unable to form coherent thought, much less help him do... whatever it was he had needed Ray to do. So either Benny hadn't gone willingly, or somehow he hadn't needed -- or thought he'd received after trying to ask for -- Ray's help.

What had happened?

"Excuse me?"

Startled, Vecchio looked up to find a large, burly, flanneled man standing beside him holding a mug of coffee. "What was that?"

"Are you Ray Vecchio?"

"Yeah?" Suspicion began to form. A government plot, snatching Fraser and now him. Had they seen or heard something they hadn't been supposed to?

"I'm Dan Sundowner. I'm gonna be your pilot today."

"Oh. Hi." Before he could form a question that made sense, the man continued.

"You look a little worried. You ever flown a puddle jumper to the north, before?" He seemed friendly enough, although his underlying amusement at the funny foreigner was evident. For once Ray didn't care enough to point it out. He simply nodded, thinking of the interrupted vacation the year before. "You going up for business or pleasure?"

"Gotta find out what happened. He just left. That's not like him! He just left and didn't say anything and I have to know...." He stopped, suddenly realising he didn't want to be telling this to a stranger.

He felt a hand briefly tap his arm. "Family trouble? I understand. Hey, we'll be ready to take off in about half an hour. You got your bags?" The man's tone had changed, and suddenly Ray felt like... he wasn't sure what. A Canadian? No longer an outsider. He looked at his feet, and saw his bag lying there. "Why don't you let Ricky stow it, for ya. Finish your coffee then come on out to the plane."

Nodding, he wondered how best to say thank you -- he didn't want to chance ruining the man's pleasant demeanour. With a slow half smile, he whispered, "Thank you kindly." He heard Benny's voice echo in his words and he almost felt better.

Dan grinned and left. Ray continued to stare out the window, not really thinking, until the man returned to say he could board the plane. Ray could only nod, grateful that the pilot didn't seem inclined towards friendly conversation. He noticed the concerned looks, and was strangely warmed by them. That a stranger could care whether *he* were miserable or not.... Where was Benny?

The flight seemed to take forever.

He found the missing Mountie in Yathkyed, in the local RMCP office. One of two Mounties assigned to the area, Fraser was doing desk duty while Albert Dennys made his rounds -- four months of traveling the outlying areas, checking in with the far-flung residents and travelors. All this he'd been told, easily and cheerfully enough, by the young woman who'd met the plane. She seemed more than happy to talk about the newest arrival -- Ray had been terse with her, cutting off a deluge of 'and he's so nice'. But she gave him directions to the office, exchanging a look with Sundowner that was meant to be -- or so Ray supposed -- sympathetic.

He didn't want their kindness. Not yet, not now. He wanted Fraser.

Entering the small two-room office, he found him. Sitting behind a desk, doing paperwork in a precise, neat hand, Fraser looked... untroubled. Or maybe it was just concentration. Ray cleared his throat and watched Fraser's look of polite greeting change to shock as he saw his guest.

"Ray!" He stumbled as he stood, knocking the chair out of the way.

"Frase... Nice digs--" he cut himself off. This wasn't what he wanted to do. This wasn't a casual 'so what's new' facade. He swallowed, and looked his friend straight in the eye. "What happened, Benny? Can you talk about it?"

"Ray..." the other man looked uncomfortable, and Ray became concerned.

"Maybe we can talk someplace else?" He lowered his voice carefully, wondering where the conspiracy was. Whatever the threat, though, Ray knew he would get his friend out of it. Get him out, and safely home.

"That won't be necessary, Ray. I... I supposed I should have expected this. I assure you I am not in any trouble."

The last words were said clearly, but with an odd hesitation. As if it were true, but not... quite. Ray cocked his head sideways. "Then why are you here, Benny? Punishment detail? You piss off the Dragon Lady?" Something occurred to him, and he leaned forward to whisper, "You undercover?"

"No, Ray, nothing like that. I..." He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a nervous move Ray had rarely seen in Fraser. He was about to offer his help with *whatever* the problem was, when Fraser asked, "Perhaps you'd like to sit down? I... have some coffee." He moved away, towards the coffeepot.

Ray watched him, and knew that something was up. Benny said he wasn't in trouble, but he didn't look exactly thrilled, either. Getting him to admit what was up shouldn't be too hard, at least. He'd always been able to get Benny to open up to him. He accepted the mug of hot coffee, and sat down near Fraser's desk as Fraser sat back down behind it. He held a mug of his own, handled it but not drinking. Finally Ray nudged, "What's wrong, Benny? Why are you here if you're not in trouble?"

He watched Fraser take a deep breath. "I asked to be sent here, Ray."

"What?" He hadn't exactly expected *this*. "Why? What for? You trying to rescue some trapped Esk-- excuse me, Inuit or something? Eric come by and ask for your help again?"

"No, Ray." Fraser shook his head, and Ray could see a calm settle over him. As if he'd overcome his initial upset and was resigned to telling him the truth. "I requested a transfer, it was approved. I asked for a small post, in a Northern rural area like the one I held previously. I was sent here."

For a moment Ray sat quietly, waiting for the rest of the explanation. Then he shook his head. "Maybe I'm missing something, Fraser, but I don't get it. *WHY* did you ask for a transfer? I thought you liked Chicago."

Something inside him choked briefly as he said the words. Fraser had certainly enjoyed aspects of his stay in Chicago, accepting his exile with grace and equanimity. But Ray had seen those times when Fraser stared out at the city, and he'd known his friend was seeing something else.

Something white, wide, and unsettled. This was, after all, Fraser's home. Not the big, noisy, dirty, rude city Ray called home. He shook his head. It didn't matter. The chance to return would not have made Fraser become... rude. Not to leave without an explanation, without lots of goodbyes and farewell parties and forwarding addresses.

Fraser looked away, but answered. "I thought it would be best."

"Best? For who?"

"For me."

When Benny said nothing more, Ray stood up and walked over into Fraser's line of sight. Ray wanted to reach out -- and shake the man into making sense. Instead he asked calmly, "Why for you?" He pushed aside the turmoil inside, the pain at not knowing what was happening -- the knowledge that something horrible had happened and his friend hadn't talked to him about it, given him the chance to help instead of disappearing into the wilderness.

Fraser still did not meet his eyes, gripping the coffee cup hard. "I regret I was unable to explain this to you before I left. It would have saved you the trip--"

"You think I mind? You think it bothers me to travel hundreds of miles into the middle of nowhere, not knowing why you're gone, whether you're in trouble or how bad? Benny, get serious. You're my best friend -- I'd do anything for you." Ray was surprised to see how easy it was to say, even though it was true.

Fraser looked up. "Even let me do this?"

"Do *what*?" Ray was getting exasperated. "Benny--"

"Leave. Let me stay here, where I belong. Let me... be."

"Be what?" He didn't want to think about Benny leaving. Being gone.

"Be here. A Mountie, where being a Mountie is.. one of the most important thing these people need."

"Not a window dressing?" It hurt to say, but suddenly he understood. He saw it, clearly, how much it must have meant -- and in Fraser's place, would he have given up the chance to be important again, needed again, be a cop instead of a decoration? He nodded. "I'm sorry, Frase. I didn't think...." He began to head back to his chair, ready to proceed to the 'when's your vacation time and what's your phone number' when it hit him. "But why didn't you *tell* me? Why so sudden? One month, Frase... You never said anything."

From Benny's reaction, Ray knew he'd come nowhere close to unraveling things. A flinch, a look of guilt -- guilt?! -- and eyes sliding away again, towards the floor.

"Benny?" He couldn't help the sound of his voice -- the hurt that Benny couldn't trust him with the whole truth.

"I'm sorry, Ray...."

"Benny, why did this happen so sudden?"

Whispering, Fraser answered only, "I thought it best."

"*WHY*?" He was tired of hearing those words. It couldn't be best, not if it was making him this mad.

Finally Fraser met his gaze, and the unwavering gaze scared Ray like no part of the conversation had. "I thought it best we not be friends any longer."

Ray felt the floor shift underneath him. This was not Benton Fraser, best friend and best cop and best all-around decent man a guy could hope to know. Someone had obviously kidnapped the real Benny and replaced him with this duplicate. Benny would never say those words to *anybody*. Especially not....

"Why?" He forced the word out, realising it was the only thing he'd been saying for several minutes.

"Because I don't love you, Ray."

It took Ray a bit to work this out. Stunned, he had to get his brain working again. Confused, he had to figure out what Fraser meant. And why it meant Fraser had to leave. Fraser had called him his best friend, and had always seemed proud of the fact. So now, all of a sudden, that wasn't OK?

Dimly, he heard the sounds again. The sound of a shower, sound of an explosion, and the sound of his voice. Saying 'I love you'. Saying 'please don't leave me'. Saying 'I need you'. Saying all those things he felt, wrapped in Benny's arms after seeing the world burst into flames, he'd actually said the things he'd been feeling and hadn't quite figured out what to do about.

Benny had heard him, understood... and run. Numb, he stared at Fraser. "So you leave?" His voice was little better than a squeak. Where had the pilot landed, Wonderland? None of this made sense, none of this could be real.

"I'm sorry, Ray. I thought it best... I can't... trust me, Ray. It's better that I'm gone."

"Because you don't love me?" Hadn't Benny ever heard of unrequited love? The ever popular, 'can't we be friends'? Didn't the man know that Ray needed him nearby, in any way shape or form, loved in return or not?

"Yes, Ray." A simple nod. As if Fraser had now completed his task, difficult but finally at an end, leaving only the final loose end to tie up.

"And I'm supposed to believe that?"

Benny flushed. Ray saw, and it startled him out of his shock -- his last words had come from nowhere, and he didn't have time now to examine them. But now he knew, he could feel it, he could see it. "You're leaving to protect me or something? Or protect yourself?" He threw the words out, not wanting to hurt but needing to find out.

"Please, Ray," came the faint plea.

"Tell me."

"I didn't want you to be hurt."

The words came, unsatisfactory. Ray knew it, and knew Benny knew it. He waited, wondering if Fraser would let himself get away with this. Of all the truths in the world, he'd have bet that 'Benny not hurting Ray Vecchio' was at the top of the list. Arrogant, maybe, but true. That's the way Fraser was, the way their friendship was. Is.


Ray came forward, grabbing Benny by the jacket, going down on his knees in front of the man who was again desperately trying to avoid his gaze. "I'm your best friend, Fraser. You're *my* best friend. I happen to love you, but that doesn't mean anything that it doesn't have to mean. It hasn't meant anything more than *loving* you for almost a year, now. So why does your knowing change everything?" He wondered if he was crying or if his voice just sounded that way. He didn't care.

Fraser didn't answer. Ray hadn't expected him to -- he knew Benny would have already thought things through, and made his choice, and nothing Ray could say would change the other man's mind. While Ray had been wrapped in cotton following the explosion, Benny had been debating with himself, weighing the choices and applying for a transfer.

Even while he'd stayed at Ray's side while he needed him. Ray gripped tighter, shaking Benny slightly. "You're lying to me Benny."

Hurt eyes met his. An accusation never made in earnest, now laid out for denial or affirmation. One last chance to take it back. "I..." Fraser tried, and faltered. Ray pushed.

"Tell me, Fraser. Look me in the eye and tell me, and I'll believe you. I will walk out that door and never come back, never see you or the rest of Canada ever again. Just tell me."

Fraser looked at him, and for once Ray couldn't read him. Couldn't make out the strange expression in his eyes, in the way he sat calmly, all traces of discomfort gone. A hollow formed in Ray's stomach, but he waited.

"Ray... I am truly sorry. I don't love you. And I think you should go." Ben's voice dropped.

Ray stared for a moment, mind utterly blank. Then he let go of the Mountie's jacket, stepped back, and picked up his cold mug of coffee. He rinsed it at the sink, set it to dry, and headed for the door. He heard nothing behind him, and he didn't turn around.

He found Dan at the cafe, having lunch with the young woman who'd met them. "You flying back south tonight?"

"That's right, got a medical run in the morning. You going back down today?"

"Yeah, I am." Ray saw his bag at Dan's feet, and realised he'd left it on the plane. He reached for it. "What time we leaving?"

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