Episodic Romance

Episodic Romance, a due South adventure of the Fraser/Kowalski variety.
Rated as "R" for your sanity convenience. Somewhere around 70,000 words.
Film students, dead gangsters, becoming Ray Vecchio, Old Chicago, and familiar faces.

Written for the Red Ships Green Ships 'zine and findable here

Introduction and Story Notes
Episode 1 Shadows and Men That Do Not Exist
Episode 2 Not Greta Garbo at all
Episode 3 Nothing like drowning
Episode 4 Your Own Personal Ghost
Episode 5 Nothing Would Be Easy Ever Again

Episode Two: Not Greta Garbo At All

Ray wakes up.

He doesn't even remember going to bed, and as he flails a little just to check that yeah, his limbs are still attached, he finds that he doesn't remember his bed having hospital corners either. 'Cause he's kind of trapped. He doesn't know what kind of crazy person would make a bed that's like being mummified… no, he does. Fraser. Fuck. Fraser must have put him to bed and everything, and yeah, Ray really is making Fraser's back a shitty mess, the couch last night and now putting Ray to bed. And Ray might be skinny but he ain't no flyweight.

And the idiot box is on, and it sounds like Dief's liking it anyway, and it wasn't on when Ray went to sleep after his sleepy-sleepy drink. Which he is so getting Fraser about once he figures his way out of the origami bed from hell, 'cause you're supposed to warn people if you're going to put knockout drops in their drinks; unless, of course, you're the sort of person who gets off on that sort of thing, which Fraser so isn't. Unless he knows Fraser nowhere near as well as he thinks. Ray manages to slip a hand down his side under the really crazy tight covers and checks, yeah, he still has pants. No wicked ways have been had.

And now, Ray's awake, it seems like the covers are getting tighter and he can't breathe, and he knows it's just panic and he's just weirding out, 'cause the last time he had a made bed, it was in a hotel and he and Suzanne made a lot of effort to mess it all up. Before the poncho salesman, obviously. Okay, not so obviously, but considering that Su dropped him faster than a dead fish, it's safe to say she wasn't looking into that kind of possibility. Plus, Ray thinks Juan had crabs. Okay, more like hopes. Probably just has a cousin with a seafood restaurant. Almost certainly the one he went to after everything imploded to try and you know, get with the holiday spirit, and instead had a waiter ditch a platter full of something squiddy on his head. The only good thing about that was nobody sat near him on the trip home.

And Ray's just about to stroke out, briefly considering the possibility that the floral comforter from hell is actually an alien organism that was just waiting for the chance to smother Ray to smothery death, when Fraser steps into the room. The idiot box gets louder, no, it's just the door to the living room open, and the neon clock forms a halo around Fraser's head as he appears to a chorus of electro-synth music.

"Ah, Ray, have you slept well?" Fraser hasn't. He's a sucky liar when he actually puts the effort in. His eyes are kind of red and the perfect Mountie hair is pretty damn experimental, and yeah, he's holding his back funny. Damn couch. Fraser's all messed up and it's all Ray's fault.

Let's not start that again, is the thought that flits through Ray's mind, before the more pressing concern of being trapped in bed by a floral comforter and not being able to breathe with it becomes even more pressing. "Fraser–" that was hard work "–Covers. Tight. Can't. Breathe." And yeah, by the end of that, Ray really can't breathe, can feel his face going red and hot and it's nothing like drowning.

He barely hears the "Oh dear" as Fraser pulls at the comforter and then hears a little better, "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, Ray, quite the contrary." And yeah, Fraser's babbling a little, as he always does when his good intentions go awry, like it's his fault or something.

Ray so wants to meet the person that convinced Fraser that everything was his fault, that he had to apologise for the sun rising and the sea being salty and Daley being mayor for life. Okay, given Chicago voting, it could well be that Daley would end up the world's first dead mayor or something, but that's not the point. Fraser just doesn't get the concept of not-your-fault and Ray wants to find the person whose fault that is and punch him.

Fraser starts apologising again and his hand starts reaching to check Ray's pulse.

Strike what Ray just said, he wants to find that person and punch him hard.

And yeah, Ray has a sneaking suspicion that the name Bob Fraser might be involved somewhere. But right now, the key thing is to look like he's breathing and talk to Benton buddy. He could of course, just reverse the polarity of the guilt trip, go on about how he's wrecked Fraser's back and Fraser will be walking funny all day. That's what an amateur would go for, but Ray's a pro at Mountie wrangling and knows all that will mean is that Fraser starts getting guilty about not bringing his own bedroll and causing mental torment to his one true friend substitute.

No, the smart solution is to pull Fraser back into Mountiedom until his hair is perfect and his tongue is wet and ready to lick disgusting evidence. "Fraser, we need to get the inside track on the shooting, you hit the bathroom and I'll play hunt the one pair of jeans that are clean and without holes. And if I can't do that? Do you prefer clean with holes, or hole-free and looking like I've just changed the oil on the Goat?" Ray doesn't really give Fraser a chance for reply, just starts shucking off yesterday's jeans until Fraser disappears avec grand valise to do whatever a Mountie needs to do at this juncture.

And bam! Bam! Before you'd know it, Ray is already out of the door with a cup of coffee and a half stale donut held in his mouth, shedding sugar onto his rawhide t-shirt. Fraser disapproves of Dief and donuts, but he likes them pretty much himself and Dief has been a Good Boy guarding Ray the hung-over depressed maniac…

Ray hasn't even got the lecture about proper breakfasts today. And Fraser's grinning like he's won the lottery and bought himself a little iceberg of his own. After he gave a good half of the money to Josey Inuk's rehabilitation centre for wayward walruses.

And Ray hasn't been good with the Rolling 22s since the business with Levon, so he swings the Goat towards Albany Park and the Rocking 21s. Only, Ray hasn't got very far when he realises there might be a reason why none of the cinema kids could give them colours or anything, sure it might just be because they're Canadian and pure as the driven snow. Canadian snow not Chicago snow which is kind of dirty and scuzzy. Now Fraser, being smart, would say that is because the gang bangers wanted to conceal their identities; Ray is dumb and knows now it's because this isn't a gang thing at all.

So Ray tells Fraser, gets a load of Canadian vowels, and they start back to Oriole to do their whole pesky kids routine. They even have a donut-eating dog, okay, yeah, half wolf, okay Dief. And Ray said that aloud, which is faintly worrying; and Fraser treats it as normal, which is really worrying because it means that Ray is turning Canadian by osmosis and will soon be incomprehensible and polite. So yeah, needs to stop that before it starts, go and shout at people and make bad guys shake and quiver in their boots at the threat of Ray's boots, which will be doing the kicking, while Fraser does the booking.

And Ray's following Fraser along the expectorated trail of the bullet, when the sky suddenly looms large and everything goes dark.


The last thing Ray remembers is gravel. It's the first thing in his head when he wakes up wondering why it isn't digging into his face no more. His face thinks it's getting intimate with gravel, when really there's just cool flatness. The second thing is that it is fucking dark. Really dark. Ray's been tied up in dark rooms before now, even before he met the Mountie and got on the crazy train. You see, there's always some light, coming in through the door jamb and once you let your eyes adjust, yeah Ray knows he sounds like Fraser here, you can see fine enough to get loose and go kick some heads.

But there's no light. Which means the room's sealed real tight. Like hermit sealed room tight; no, airtight. And Ray doesn't even have a chance to begin to panic, because his ears have woken up, and they hear crying.

Fraser. Fraser's crying. Ray doesn't know where Fraser is right now, he knows the Mountie's kind of to his right and up a bit probably slumped against the wall, but he doesn't know where Benton is. Just that it's dark and scary… and hell, probably about thirty years ago back when Benton wasn't allowed to turn on the lights.

A worse person than Ray would try and shake him out of the funk; a better person would do the same. Ray? It's not because his hands are tied that he's doing this. Not really, if Ray talked long and hard enough, Fraser would come back. No, Ray might dress it up all fancy, tell himself that he's giving Benton what he didn't have then. A little boy, alone in a cold dark world without love and reassurance. He just has to remind him that he isn't a little boy anymore, he's a man, and better than that, a Mountie and he can do anything. And there's nothing left for him to be afraid of.

It would be a lie.

Ray's doing this because he's a scuzzball opportunist; Ray knows that in the bottom of his stomach even as he wriggles along the floor, crawls up the serge trying not to think of how it makes him feel because he'll never get to feel like that again, and does it.

He kisses Fraser.

It's not a big kiss, more of a peck, like he gives Ma Vecchio to say goodnight like he really is her son. He always kisses her, trying to tell her that her real son isn't facing a good chance of dying and never being found 'cept by the bugs and the coyotes. Only he can't because he's the walking talking embodiment that her bambino might not come home at all. And that one day even this ratty carbon copy will be gone like charred paper on the breeze.

But this isn't like kissing Ma at all, and not just because Ma didn't have whiskers, or at least, not guy whiskers just a little fuzz like the stuff that Frannie was forever bleaching. It felt nice and soft, Benton has…, it's sharp and cutting like him, but there's something about it Ray liked very much… Okay, Ray likes everything about Benton very much, every part he'd seen and every guess he'd made at the parts he hadn't. And Benton Fraser is so fucking perfect, that Ray reckons that what he was imagining had to be pretty damn close to the real thing, unless Ben's cock has a hinge or something, like Frank's. And Ray's getting off on this way too much, he knows that and it feels like something's crawled into his stomach and died, like a bird stuck at the bottom of a chimney.

And there's a moment, when the dead bird is even stiller, if a dead bird can get still, or maybe it was just thrashing out its last before, and is dead now; when time goes all long, like maple syrup oozing from the bottle onto little Stanley's pancakes while he eyeballs it all the way down and wills it to go faster. And then, Fraser asks the Question, and Ray feels his mouth moving, it's his turn to say it. Nothing's changed. They're still partners. If Fraser would have him.

Then Fraser's lips brush his cheek. Tentatively, Fraser's trying not to overbalance, because he's all tied up and propped against a wall; while he somehow tries to talk to Ray with his eternally wind-chapped lips without making a sound. It's only then that Ray realises that neither of them have spoken and the Question just isn't. Isn't what it was, what Ray thought it was, maybe wasn't there at all. And Ray's trying to get a grip on that, and why the Fraser in Ray's head sounds so wrong right now lecturing Ray on friendship and bonding and historical shit, while the Fraser here is nuzzling his cheek like he's a lifeline. No, it's beyond that, Ray isn't being felt up like a lifeline, like somebody who has just saved his best buddy from the evil closet monster in the dark. Ray isn't a lifesaver, he's life. Maybe even love.

And this is freaking Ray out, because maybe he's reading too much into it. There's no way this actually guarantees that Fraser is actually into Ray's fantasies of domesticity and faintly pervy sex. So, for once, Ray goes against embracing the freak – not that he can hug a Mountie with his hands behind his back – and gets all practical. Ray's sure that practical is Fraser's job, but when he gasps, "Stay still, Fraser. I'm going for your bootknife. Don't move a freaking muscle even if Lassie comes to tell you that Little Orphan Annie has fallen down a mineshaft." Sure, Ray can hear Fraser's snarkish practicality in his brain, but what he gets is a desperate wet sound.

And Ray's back down on the floor and wiggling his way towards the granny boots of Mountie-hood, backwards, and trying to figure why they have two sets of laces and how Fraser manages to fit a knife in since they're so full of Fraser. Fraser has beautiful leg muscles, not dancery, but ones that you can climb mountains with. And now Ray's got it, clasped in his hands, and it's all awkward and he can't see what he's doing and he goes for Fraser's feet 'cause at least the boots will protect them if he screws up. And this is hell on Ray's muscles, not just the arm ones, but all those little shits that live in your back as well, 'cause Ray's having to flex everything to get some serious movement… and it's so wrong, it being dark here, 'cause Fraser really ought to be getting one hell of a floor show.

And getting Fraser to turn without both of them falling on their collective asses and having to wiggle around on the floor with a fucking knife to get back up again or become cop sashimi at which point getting up would be totally fucking academic. Now, that's tough, but do-able, and Ray doesn't even have to say anything, Fraser just knows to ease himself up the wall, get standing, press hard against the wall when turning and sort of slide down. Ray wishes he could see it, Fraser going down onto his knees like that would be kind of hot. Ray manages to stay away until he's sure Fraser has assumed the position, and then Ray figures out where Fraser's hands are and begins to cut real slow. And then he kind of hands Fraser the knife before rolling off Fraser's back and landing on the floor again.

The floor's cold and hard, and Ray is just lying there wondering why Fraser isn't doing him and there's this big clock thing in his head ticking down to when there will be no air in the air proof room. Tick, tick, soon. And then he hears Fraser bump into something, apologise to the shelving or whatever, bump again and click.

Light floods the room. It hurts. Okay, it didn't flood, the bulb is only a forty-watt if that, and it barely lights the edges of the strong room. But Ray's eyes are still watering as strong fingers begin to loosen the ropes from his wrist. Ray cuts the ones off his feet himself. He lets Fraser rub some more circulation back into his hands.

The strong room, safe, whatever, is one of those really old ones with just a wheel to open the door on the inside. This kind of made the ropes a necessity if you were in the habit of giving cops lumps on the head and then lumping them in there. Ray tries to take in the stuff on the shelves, but not too hard, leaves all the fine detail to Fraser, and finds that the mooks had left him his boot-gun and he takes the lead into the corridor.

They just stand there for a moment, which is dumb, but there's no freaking cover.

There's also a lack of signage. Typical bad guys: forgot all about the Planning Regulations and stuck that nice big red exit sign in the trash along with the donuts from yesterday's heist planning meeting.

If Ray were in a movie, the whole place would scream Evil Headquarters. But Ray knows that most bad guys don't hide underground; they hide behind lawyers and smokescreens. Those big enough to afford a secret underground lair anyway and those are the ones that never get caught. Not the regular types that just lie, cheat and steal to make life interesting. Ray's met a lot of criminals and the scary thing is most the time, they're just like the guys trying to catch them.

They're just regular guys. And if that's not a scary thought, Ray doesn't know what is.

Ray knows evil underground lairs never happen, but he's stuck for some other explanation here. Nice normal people do not give cops eggs on the head and then lock them in a really big underground safe…

It all becomes academic when Ray begins to hear voices floating down the corridor. He's still too far away to make out words and judging by the look on Fraser's face, that's true for the Mountie too. But Ray doesn't need to hear the words, because he can feel the rhythm and it's the old favourite of band leaders everywhere, the Whack-A-Cop Waltz; it's got a funky rhythm and every so often you switch the guy who leads and all the time you try not to bump into the elephant in the room.

Ray's heard if before, even before he started working with Fraser. He's heard it at shoot-downs and hostage negotiations; he's even heard it from the other side of the fence, kindly cleaning everyone's gun for them while they figure things out. Because whoever he was then was such a nice guy and respected the chain of command, unlike some people the guy who thought he was leading could mention. 'Course there's never a real chain of command or things don't get so far. If you have a proper leader, you have respect. Like Welsh; Ray and the guys might argue all they like about the little things, but they don't give him shit when it comes to the big decisions.

Ray can hear two voices and they're switching all over the place. There are also these weird pauses, which Ray knows aren't normal. They're not silences, like where everyone stares at their boots until somebody gets the brain cells together to say something. These are pauses like they're waiting for something Ray doesn't know about yet.

Ray doesn't like things he doesn't know. They make him jumpy.

And really anyone sensible would be moving away from the angry people who probably have guns, the folks with uncertain murderous intent directed their way, and the gaps in the conversation that make no sense. Anyone sensible would be making for the nearest exit, wherever that is.

But then, anyone sensible isn't crazy. And Fraser is, and Ray isn't too hot about himself right now.

The voices are getting louder, but Ray isn't sure whether that's because he and Fraser are getting closer or the guys are getting more pissed. Then Ray starts picking up voices, and surprise, surprise, the answer is ‘both of the above.’

"You wouldn't know smart if it hit you on the head and called you momma, kid." The voice is at once quiet and loud. Ray understands. It's like angry old people, like Albert when people give him shit and don't listen to him, let alone believe him. There's a tiny note in Albert's voice that means resignation, he's used to it and knows that most folks won't ever change their minds about anything. Ray thinks most folks are kind of dumb like that. They prefer boring to what might be something exciting and real. And that note? The resigned note that means that your mom doesn't really expect to actually make you pick your boots off the rug? It's not here.

The guy sounds really angry. Still isn't in charge none, though. If he was in charge, he wouldn't be shouting like some grandma who's had her flowerpots kicked over for the last time, you hear?

"You've really put us behind the eight ball with that one," the voice continues, "What's wrong with you, hmm? You're normally sharper than this. You all hopped up on mesca? Mister Valentino would not stand for any of this, you know."

And then there's that weird pause, maybe they're waiting for Mister Valentino to come out of the back room and tell them whose fault this is. It's a good explanation, but there's still something queer about it.

Ray and Fraser are still closing in, through the echoing hive of tunnels. Ray knows Fraser is trying to ignore the so not Code lighting and electrics. Looks to Ray like they were a second thought, like somebody dug out a big set of tunnels and forgot about the lighting, which is dumb. There are some funny long-dead tubes attached to the walls in places, and they're about regular enough for some lighting or something, but Ray can't ask Fraser, who'd know these things, because noise is dumb as well. 'Cause up there are angry men, possibly with guns. Guns that haven't been lovingly ‘cleaned’ by Ray.

It's not as if you can just count the voices, could just be the most of the gang are kicking back and watching the show. And on cue, the other voice, harder and firmer and dripping condensation, "I don't think Mister Valentino would want us to do anything other than ensure the security…"

He doesn't get any further, old guy is riled up but bad. "You don't think. Too right you don't think, you dumbass!"

Ray's still not sure whether they're getting closer or the old guy's getting louder, when they turn a corner and end up looking through a door maybe five yards away. Ray sticks his hand out to stop Fraser, which is dumb, because Fraser's already stopped. And then he scrabbles around in his pockets for a pair of glasses that aren't dark and cool, because he needs to see a little better.

But Ray's right, the guy speaking is old, and he's asking a younger guy whether he wants to do the dance with him. A nd Ray is pretty damn sure he doesn't mean that in a Crystal ballroom, champagne and martinis way. The old guy has these faint traces around his face that are probably the last tatters of handsome. The younger guy still looks kind of pretty, his hair's grey and his jaw's square.

The office, because that's what's at the end of the tunnel; an office, it's smart and dark with wood panelling. It's like the tasteful lawyer's office where Ray and Stella signed away their dreams; one of those strange back-to-back desks that some dealer probably bought off some little old lady for six dollars and a look at the picture of her grandchildren, one of those green banker's lamps, and one of those squirty decanter things that Ray swears have a proper name. Ray wanted to squirt it everywhere, back then, wash all the bad away, be a kid again, carving his name on a tree with Stella… and those are the sort of thoughts he can do without, because he's doing surveillance here, he's investigating. He wants to know whether these guys whack cops on the back of the head on a regular basis, or if this was just a one off.

Ray gives up on finding his decent glasses, it's not as if he's going to shoot down here, is he?

"And, tell me, what does Mister Valentino think of this flim-flam? I doubt he has a Chinese angle on it. Speak clearly, you tend to mumble like you're full of muggle when you don't have the bulge." The old guy moves his eyes from the younger guy to the table.

There's a hat on the table. A proper gangster hat, sitting on a pair of two-toned shoes, for which Vecchio, clothes-hound that he is, would give his eye-teeth. Ray knows; he's seen the invoices, tried the Armani once and refused even to come out and give the nice fibbies a twirl, it was that bad. Ray knows that clothes don't really make the man, attitude and personality does, and Ray has the Vecchio 'tude down. The shoes are fancy and probably something even softer than Italian leather, and they get more than a spit-shine whenever the dirt gets so bad it falls off.

They're both looking at the hat, and maybe it's just kind of symbolic. Like a relic of a saint or something. Like Mister Valentino is now singing with angels, but we have his hat and it can cure you of hives. Or maybe they're just including it in the conversation, the same way Fraser includes Diefenbaker.

But Ray has this feeling that they're waiting for it to say something.

And so's Ray. He's sure as hell waiting for something. And as the silence drags out like something that gets dragged out for a long time, Ray can feel the muscles between his shoulders go all tense, and he can feel his holster moving with it. Ray wants to say something, do something, confront the punks.

And he's just this side of twitching, and the muzzle of his gun is beginning to weave around like he's drunk. Which he isn't. Fraser made sure of that, not that Ray would go on the job blitzed or anything. It's worth more than that, even if Ray isn't. Ray knows his schedule like it's the back of his hand. And he's watching the back of his hand twitch like a twitching thing.

Maybe it's just the inaction.

But like this, his aim won't be worth shit and he'd be going off half cocked anyway.

Ray's trigger finger is the proverbial itchy one, and that's so not what he and his Mountie need right now. What they need is to find out just enough to get a bead on what's going on, and then to make it out all quiet like mice.

Mice aren't known for their shooting. Not even Great Yukon Yodelling Mice.

Maybe Ray's making the mice up or maybe he's spent just too long on stake out with Fraser. Stake outs never really felt like this, though. Neither did concussion.

Maybe it's the adrenalin, maybe he feels threatened because somebody planted an egg on his skull. Maybe it's because of what happened there in the dark.

Ray palms his gun, wraps his fingers around the barrel and hands it to Fraser. He mouths something about his fingers being all twitchy. Dief can read lips and he had to learn that little trick off somebody, right?

Ray gets a little silent "understood" back. Ray's pretty sure that what Fraser understood was the way the returning circulation in his hands made them throb a bit, like coming in from the cold but different. And if Fraser understood, you know, the other thing? Ray's okay with that.

Even Ray doesn't know what Fraser's going to do with his piece. Probably going to tuck it in his Sam Browne or hang it from his lanyard. And it's not as if they're going to need it, anyway. Shooting is not the name of the game here. And given the dust out here in the long-ass corridors, it's just the two of them. Three of them if you count that hat. And Fraser hasn't given him the gun straight back, so it must be okay.

So, Ray watches and listens and stuffs his hand in his jeans pocket, where it can twitch merrily to itself and not bother anybody.

The younger one's starting now, sounding more confident, like he's quoting somebody, or reciting a speech; "Fairbanks, Mister Valentino acknowledges that I was wrong to dry-gulch those buzzers—"

He's interrupted again; this time Fairbanks is just plain anxious, "And one of them's a Mountie. You know what they say about Mounties. They always get their man." If this was a movie, Fairbanks would be up for an Oscar. He's so true to life that he heads off into cliché. What the Academy forget is that cliché is cliché for a reason. And in Ray's experience, that reason is Benton Fraser RCMP.

"He's still a buzzer, just a cop with a crazy lid and fancy clothes. And he's got a keister like a fairy, even if the other guy is the one who makes like some bindlepunk." Ray's not sure what that means, but he doesn't think it's flattering, even if it means the guy likes Fraser's ass, because there are some people who are not allowed to look at Fraser's ass like that. Ray shouldn't let Fraser's ass distract him, though, and he's glad Fraser is behind him.

"So it two took taps with the sap to put him to sleep, but he can only find his man if he has a clue, and he ain't got nothing, no prints, no evidence. Nothing." Ray knows he shouldn't count on that, but then, junior gangster here knows nothing of the nose. "And when I left he was sleeping like professional skirt between jobs, like a baby. We just chuck them out, where we found them, and they chalk it up as more of that dark fruit that been pulling heat on each other of late. Mister Valentino figures that we should just put the breaks on things for a while, and let the smokes get on with it, until they're zotzed or under glass."

That didn't make much sense. Beyond the bit where, should the hat agree, they're going to come right back to the safe to throw their guests out again. And find that they're loose…

Ray and Fraser need to make dust.

Only, Ray wants a decent look at the guys. Okay, so Fraser can draw them up a storm back at the station, but sooner or later, Ray will need to know what they look like. The film students are less than traumatised, so yeah, the Ice Queen will be wanting Fraser back soon. Ray just wants to get a decent look so he can spot them if they're up the queue from him at Sandor's Palace of Pizza or something.

Arresting random party-goers out for the whole Guys And Dolls experience would put him in Welsh's bad books for life and then some.

Ray's fingers close in on his glasses in his pants pocket.

Or at least, they close in on what his glasses were. His pinkies close in on a load of broken glass and twisted metal that must have taken most of the impact while Ray made intimate with the gravel.

Ray yelps.

He didn't mean to, but now they're all looking right at him and Fraser.

And there's something damp about his pocket and it doesn't feel like blood. It's like Ray's aware of everything except himself, everything is too big and too much. It's like he's grown roots right between a Mountie, who won't shoot, and a bunch of geriatric crazies, who probably will.

The younger guy reaches behind his back. Even Ray, not a fan of gangster movies when you get down to it, knows that the guy will call it a heater.

Ray doesn't have his gun; things are going to get hot.

Ray is rooted to the spot.

And his mouth doesn't seem to be working, nothing does. There's no point in being a poet on the inside, when you can't get the stuff outside.

Fraser steps out from behind Ray.

Ray just knows they are going to die, there and then. And nobody will find the bodies, because they're in a set of secret underground tunnels belonging to a pair of gangsters from the days when everybody wore hats all the time.

Fraser has just stepped out from behind Ray and it takes Ray a moment to realise that he's got Ray's gun trained on the goons.

"Gentlemen, if you would be so kind to raise your hands in the air, then I will not have to use this firearm in accordance with my duties as an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police." It takes Ray a second to figure that only Fraser would threaten not to shoot people. It's just worded so you think otherwise, and Fraser's voice has a touch of steel that Ray hasn't heard before.

Ray's broken through the water. He starts to move, as he sees himself throwing the gun to Fraser in his head and the way his partner took down those gold-stealing toxic-waste dumping ghosts. Ray moves forward a bit and tries to catch the ball. "Yeah, Chicago PD! Get your hands in the air and make like statues!"

Yeah, statues like the one Ray was doing a great imitation of before Fraser came out of the Mountie Pacifism Zone to cover his ass. Ray still can't see what these guys have to do with the not really traumatised at all film students; but they are going down. Score another one to…

There's a muffled thwump, and suddenly the room's full of smoke. Ray's eyes are watering as he pulls his sleeve up to cover his mouth. Ray's coughing. Fraser should be using his superior breathing control and be grabbing the goons, but instead he's almost choking on the snow-white fumes. Ray grabs him by the stiff collar of his uniform and drags him out into the corridor.

They stand there until the smoke's gone. A silence only broken by Fraser's coughing.

Ray takes his gun and waits to see whether the oldster gangsters want to come out to play, and when they don't and Ray can see where he's going at fucking last, he heads into the room.

The first thing Ray notices is the hat's gone.

The second thing is that the gangsters are gone with it.

The one thing different about the room besides the absence of a) gangsters and b) the voodoo hat is the trapdoor open behind the desk. Ray peers down into the darkness as Fraser roots around for the smoke bomb.

Going down there would be a really bad idea, it's dark and there's a guy down there that hits cops like it's Whack A Mole down at Six Flags or Old Chicago. They have no back-up and no clue where the tunnel goes or who they're following.

It's a bad idea, they agree without speaking, suddenly sensible. So, instead, they head back in the corridor and move around carefully until Fraser detects an air current that will lead them to the surface.

They're still prowling through the forty-watt twilight when Ray asks, "Fraser?"

Ray waits for the unavoidable "Yes, Ray?" and is somehow really relieved when he gets it. It's some sort of sign that the world is still normal, or as normal as it gets. And maybe a sign that nothing has changed. Ray thinks he wants change, Ray thinks about those moments in the dark when Fraser's lips parted under his, Ray thinks about those moments when something other than cold and deadly water pressed against his lips. But Ray doesn't want change. It's confusing him, and so he takes refuge in what they had.

So Ray doesn't kiss Fraser, even though he wants to. His lips don't press against Fraser's when he says, "Thank you kindly for not throwing my gun at them." And the earth doesn't move. Ray's still standing.

He's just about kept his balance through the whole of this damn tightrope trick.

Now he's back on terror firmer, it makes sense to regroup, retreat, and run away.

Strangely enough, it makes sense to Fraser too, who adds that they really should gain some intelligence on the whole matter before attempting to force another confrontation.

So, they go to the 2-7. Ray isn't sure he should be driving, but he can't feel an egg on his head, and everything feels clear, and Fraser isn't telling him not to. That Ray feels the way he does proves that they were hit on the head by professionals. People don't always take that kind of care these days. And any thought with "these days" in it is a disturbing thought 'cause it means that Ray is getting old and soon will start turning his stereo down and start wearing cardigans. Cardigans. Shake, bad guys, shake, Ray has a cardigan and isn't afraid to use it.

Ray hates paperwork and now he has to fill in an Officer Hit Over The Head Report. And that's the official reason they're at the 2-7. Nothing to do with needing to consult with Frannie about his alter ego's amazing knowledge of the mob. Nothing to do with maintaining his cover so that the guy with the amazing knowledge of the mob doesn't find his knowledge extended to a first hand experience of a mob execution somewhere nice and isolated with a shovel in the back of the trunk. No, Ray Vecchio doesn't need to consult his hamster-loving baby sister about nothing, he's just checking up on her, and yeah, protecting her from the big bad world of law enforcement.

Ray hadn't really noticed the rope burn on his wrists, sure, they were sore, but Ray had better things to think about. Sadly, when Ray turns up in the bullpen Mountie in tow, it turns out Dewey doesn't have better things to think about at all. That's why he opens his trap and starts in with, "Vecchio, was she an animal or something, keeping you tied up like that, or was it because you're a tiger in bed, nah, can't be that 'cause you're you. You wanted her to tie you up and make you…"

Huey looks like he wants the ground to swallow him headfirst and looks kind of relieved when Fraser interrupts Dewey just before he got to the steamy details. Ray's just sort of knuckling down to the paperwork, just scanning the room for his sister for five seconds 'cause despite the Sword Of Desire, there's no reason Frannie should listen to Dewey talking this kind of trash. There are just some things that Francesca Vecchio was not born to know.

And Ray's trying to make the form out all readable and nice, 'cause there's a pretty girl in the office where they deal with this and all the other medical shit, and suddenly that seems a less important reason than, say, because Fraser will like it if it's all pretty. Ray's thinking like a fourth grader who's spent his lunch break picking flowers for the new lady teacher with that cashmere jumper that's vaguely interestingly tight there in a way that he doesn't quite understand. And yeah, Ray's only got half an ear on the flow of the Fraserspeak, 'cause geriatric is surprisingly hard to spell and when something's this weird you need to write clear in case the dame comes down to the bullpen to ask loudly whether he really was attacked by geriatric gangsters and totally kill his street-cred. And Ray still hears what his Mountie's saying and he can translate it perfectly.

"Perhaps your preoccupation with Detective Vecchio's sexual mores is in some way compensatory for your own lack of female companionship, which, perhaps you should pursue rather than persecute your colleagues without purpose or mercy. If you made some small adjustments in your lifestyle, I am sure that you could be tied up by the woman of your choice. I'm not sure how such a proud and noble creature is involved, but I'm sure you could find somebody who shares even that interest, though I would like to remind you at this juncture that poaching is a felony and we should protect this creature from the destruction of its habitat…" And Fraser goes on like that, and Dewey's looks like he's sure he's being insulted but doesn't know how. Ray swears that if that asshole starts ragging on Fraser, he'll tell him exactly how. Dewey, my man, he's saying that you're not getting and any and should wash more and have a perverted interest in beavers. And that's just cool, the way Fraser can say something in such a way that most folks think he's saying something else, and maybe Ray's been most folks before now, because, the thing that happened in the vault? Ray did not see that one coming. Okay, Ray really didn't see that one coming because they were in the dark, but you know what Ray means.

And there's a look in Huey's eyes that suggests that he might have more of a clue, and probably won't tell his partner anyway. Sure, they get on most of the time, but making unfounded statements about other people's sex lives like it's hilarious shit; that ain't buddies. You don't hit other cops below the belt, or at least not too much and not too close to home. Everyone in the bullpen knows Ray isn't getting any 'cause he ain't really Ray and because his ex has him so screwed 'round her little lawyer finger that you could put a pearl on him and sell him at Tiffany's.

And thinking of Tiffany's makes Ray think of breakfast and how stale donuts kind of suck as one, even if it means that Fraser didn't get to closely examine his kitchen and notice that the level in the bottle of Dawn by the sink never goes down and end up scrubbing and bleaching the place out, Ray would have died of embarrassment and made the place look messy. It wasn't as if he had dinner last night either, just Fraser's amazing knock-out tea. Maybe Fraser should serve it at diplomatic functions.

Frannie comes in squeaking happily. And calling out to "Harding" that she's found that file he was helping her look for yesterday. And Ray looks across at Fraser, who just rubs his eyebrow and Ray knows, even before he notices the pumpkin pants look a little deflated.

It's a good thing that Frannie wasn't in the bullpen five minutes earlier because Ray would have had to defend her honour and her sweet and virginal ears. And yeah, it wasn't his pants on fire at "sweet and virginal" because they weren't his words, or Fraser's words, and probably not even the real Ray Vecchio's words, but Ma's and no force on earth or heaven would set fire to Ma's pants. But Ray's glad that Frannie's here now, 'cause that means that he can ask her if there's somebody he should know that knows all this mob stuff. And by that Ray means anyone Vecchio knows that they've forgotten to tell him about.

So Ray asks, and apparently the answer is Uncle Lorenzo, which tells Ray absolutely nada, zip, zilch. So he ends up echoing Frannie like a loon, "Uncle Lorenzo?" For that he gets Frannie's elbow in his ribs, all lady-like. For somebody so small, she sure packs some punch. Ray wonders whether it has something to do with his not quite doppelganger, you know, teaching his kid sister to take care of herself, like somebody who's seen the worst mankind has to offer and wants his little sister getting none of it. Or Frannie's first husband, the one they're oh-so careful not to mention around Ray.

Fraser told him about it, because Fraser has a memory like an elephant, okay maybe a woolly mammoth, a red arctic-dwelling woolly mammoth that jumps off cliffs because it was raised by lemming librarians. And Ray knows exactly why they don't talk about things like that. Ray knows a lot of things like that. He tries hard not to talk about them too, about Fraser's mouth, about Fraser's lips, about Fraser's tongue. Talking about it is so not a good idea, not for a cop. But there's more than that, Ray isn't afraid that talking will make it real; quite the opposite, as Fraser would say, Ray's afraid that it will make it so it's never been. Everything will reset, that's the rules, Ray thinks. Ray hopes. He can have Fraser as long as he doesn't talk, as long as it's off-screen, in the dark, silent.

All he has to do is walk those unscripted paths behind the scenes.

To do that, he has to be absolutely one hundred per cent Ray Vecchio now. And he still has to ask Frannie again, 'cause clearly Unc' is something else the Vecchios don't talk about. And Ray needs to know what he isn't talking about. Like he needs to know Fraser, but barely knows him at all, beyond the guy really appreciating a night light if he gets tied up or something and his father sucking like a sucking thing. At least Ray's old man was unambiguous, least until he came up from Arizona and they both still don't know where to stand what with the elephant in the room; you knew where you were standing with Damian Kowalski. Comes to that, you knew with Ray Vecchio Snr, the guy was a consistent shitty loser. But what if your father got put up on a pedestal and kindly voices whispered his greatness in your ears, while tears burned on your cheeks because he never loved you enough? Maybe Fraser wants nobody to know him. Just like he never really knew his father.

"You know, Uncle Lorenzo." Frannie's got her hands on her hips and is putting the staring thing and the form on Ray's desk together. "Maybe you should go home and lie down, or better, come home–" Big stress there on home, the Vecchios still didn't quite get that Ray staying in Octavia wouldn't work, couldn't cope without a Raimundo to deal with all of Tony's Destroy It Yourself, "–and lie down, because you're not supposed to be alone with a head injury, are you?" Frannie pauses for a breath, then quits with the breathing when the thought hits her. "Fraser wasn't hurt was he?"

As Ray looks around for his Mountie, and can't see him; must have gone to the john. So Ray checks Dewey is in his seat, which he is, sniffing his armpits and asking Huey whether he really does smell worse than a musk ox. Ray hopes one day he'll be able to make the comparison for real, and maybe send Dewey a postcard.

Ray's been staring into space, which has probably weirded Frannie out even more.

"Come on, Ray, I need you to fetch me down some file boxes." Frannie turns and heads out to the supply closet, still wiggling her ass like she wasn't his sister at all, maybe it's the default setting or something. Like the motor mouth. Frannie's still nattering about how she told the guy from supply not to put them up there, but clearly he didn't hear her and Ray knows that no guy will actually hear Frannie unless she raises her neckline a little.

And then they're at the door, and Keene and Dixon come past from the fraud squad, so Ray opens his mouth and asks, "Don't you have a step ladder, sis?" He gets another elbow for his trouble and yeah, he can tell the detectives are trying not to laugh as they head off into the distance. Something about the way their shoulders move together, making the fabric of their cheesy-ass suits form peaks down their spines. Twin peaks, kind of fitting, those two dress so alike and Ray could bet that there wasn't a cop out there who didn't expect them to start talking in chorus.

Ray thinks he read a book where that happened, once.

They get in the closet after some awkwardness which wouldn't happen if Ray was Fraser. Ray can confirm the continued presence of Frannie's step ladder by the way it keeps pressing into his back. Ray can even see Frannie's step ladder without even looking at it, like it had burned itself in his eyeballs, like that computer screen they had down in Dispatch. It looks on, even when it's off, telling you about crimes long past and units long disunited. They keep it to confuse good honest folks with, Ray knows there were a whole bunch of cops who never own up to a couple of hours 'round Laramie and North looking for a stray horse. An impossible task even if you're only short a Mountie, let alone looking for a horse that had long since bolted. Or done whatever horses do in Chicago. Ray wonders what brand of dog food Fraser gets the wolf.

Frannie's ladder is pink and glittery and has ribbons on the handles which tickle up against the part of Ray's back that his t-shirt never quite covers. Not that it's an issue or something; Ray has no illusions about girl cooties. Maybe he already has them, the way he thinks about Fraser. And Ray needs something else to think about, something not Fraser, so Ray thinks about how nobody ever steals this ladder. There was a kick-step once, back in the mists of time, when Welsh's accountant wasn't permanently installed in a filing cabinet and the good people of the 2-7 didn't know about the leisure facilities of Aluvik or the correct way to call a moose. It is talked of, even now, Huey holds court with the rookies and tells them about the Great Kick Stool War and how always backing your partner ain't always the best course of action. Now Ray's on the job, Huey skips the bit about how Vecchio's Armani greatcoat was found covered in kick stool tracks flying from the flagpole. Nobody would ever believe him now, and if Ray doesn't do the job right, they will never believe it again.

So, Ray's thinking really hard about Frannie's step ladder and how no cop would lift it because, you know, it's pink and girly and there are glitter stickers on the legs and braided ribbons on the handle bit. Maybe Frannie should be giving crime prevention advice or something.

So, Ray's thinking really hard about Frannie and watching the words form on her lips and radiate outwards and hit him like waves.

"It's like this, Ray,–" for once, Ray isn't going to get a run down on Sword of Desire "–=–Uncle Lorenzo is seriously old and lives in a home, St Jeanne de Chantal's, and you, Ray Vecchio, are his favourite nephew in the world ever and bring him cakes and help him annoy the nurses."

Ray can't see where the problem is, besides the obvious, you know, that his favourite uncle swore in Polish and tried to rearrange his dad's face one scary-ass Christmas, but Ray knows there's something bigger than that coming. "You see, there's this teeny problem, Uncle Lorenzo is the sweetest guy you'd ever meet and knows everything there is to know about Capone and the mob. The thing is–" Bingo, Ray's hit paydirt, or at least the elephant in the room. "–he's nuts. He thinks it's still the wooshing twenties and if he's not careful all these mob guys with weird names will come out of the woodwork and slap him." Ray thinks about this for a split second and doesn't even correct Frannie on it, he feels this happy right now, nervous as hell, but happy. "So, he's really careful who he talks to, and he'll only tell family."

And that's it?

That's what Frannie's worried about? That Ray isn't the right Ray? Ray would laugh, but that ain't such a neat idea, particularly when a guy far away could get killed and a guy right here right now could get elbowed to death. So he gets the details from Frannie, you know, is he an Uncle or an Unc, what is his favourite candy, can he borrow his Armani greatcoat. And that he really should once again thank Ma for succeeding where the drycleaners couldn't and getting those track marks out of the fabric.

There's nothing to stop a guy from going home to visit his mother in his lunch-hour. He might even bring his partner with him, if he wants to, a man's partner is like family, you know. They're not a band of brothers for nothing, you know. The gang together kind, not the musical kind though, because while Fraser can probably play any musical instrument known to man, Ray can't play a comb and paper. And Fraser probably has no idea about the musical kind, Ray doubts it was in Vecchio's Mountie Re-education Program. Hell, Vecchio would probably be so jealous of Ray if he knew that Ray had been at the Great Charity Benefit at the Palace Hotel Ballroom that night, you know, the mother of all farewell gigs that one. He'd been in the crowd with Stella. Vecchio would be so jealous once Ray got him home nice and safe. And that's what Ray keeps reminding himself of as he thrashes out how many Sunday lunches this will cost him and tries to get out of carving any meat, because Ray plus sharp object and minus glasses sounds dangerous.

But Ray Vecchio would do it, think nothing of it, and right now, he's Ray Vecchio, walking back to his car, wearing his beautiful coat instead of that beat-up denim jacket thing he was wearing because he was spending the week undercover as a punk skunk dealer, and he's smiling at the neighbours because he's known them all his life as he gets behind the wheel with a different swagger in his step and Ray knows that once he crosses town, he'll be there.

Ray hates nursing homes, old folks' homes, whatever you call them, even more than he hates hospitals. It's something that's almost a smell, but not quite. Something tangible. It's like dead people and mothballs, because sure people die in hospitals, but somewhere beyond the disinfectant there's hope. Nursing homes… that's when you've given up, given in, they have this smell that is well, Ray isn't sure at all what it is except the absence of hope. It's not an old people smell, Ray doesn't like it, but then there are plenty of things Ray doesn't like, and they still don't make him feel like this inside. Ray knows some crackerjack old people, not just Albert and well, everyone smells, Ray probably smells of pizza and gasoline from too many exploding things. Fraser, now Fraser, he smells all pine fresh and clean… or that's what Ray thought, but the only thing that he could pick up when he leaned in and kissed Fraser there in the dark was the salt metallic smell-taste of his tears. Not all pine fresh and clean, and not at all like a block of wood, though Fraser does a pretty good imitation for the whole drive over to meet Ray's favourite uncle, all business-like and Mountie-like and perfect-like. Unless you're Ray, you'd never know that it isn't really Fraser at all.

That and the whole hating old folks homes thing, that puts Ray in a really shitty mood that he doesn't want or need to be in right now. He needs to be glad and happy to visit his favourite uncle and on an even keel to cope with childhood stuff that Vecchio hadn't even told his hypothetical therapist, let alone some profile guy from the Fibbies. So you know, Ray thinks of caribou thundering through the snow, allegedly a calming thought, and once you get past the thundering hooves of skull-cracking death – you know? – maybe it is. Ray can see the powder snow making patterns like vertical waterfall and as he drives he just looks closer and closer and the movement of the little crystals gets slower and slower until it's in perfect rhythm with his heart.

Then Ray Vecchio pulls in at the Jeanne de Chantal Home and parks his car taking up two spaces at a time. He's good enough not to park in the bay marked DOTCOR in big white dyslexic letters. Possibly because the paint or whatever they use to mark roads is still wet, and there's a guy, wearing in dungarees that make him look even skinnier than he already is, carefully chalking out the next bay. Ray doesn't get a good look at him as he gets out of the car, just hears his, "hey, um, do you guys know how to spell ‘resident’?" with odd vowels that make Ray think of curling. They've already decided that Ray needs to handle this on his own, so Fraser… Fraser's going to help a fellow countryman in need.

A Mountie wandering around a nursing home would be way too distracting. For this to work, Ray doesn't need distracting. At least no other type of distracting than him. Ray needs all the attention on him, not folks trying to figure where the Mountie came from, because they might well move onto noticing other things. Ray thinks for a moment about Motherwell, it's kind of like that but different. There, Fraser was part of Ray's image, his prop, as it were. Everyone knows that Vecchio hangs with a Mountie; so, if some cop comes with a Mountie and an attitude, then it stands to reason that the cop must be Vecchio. The nurses here don't know a cop called Vecchio, they know a concerned nephew.

Ray's walking in, and smiling and nodding at the nurses, like he belongs here, been here, just here to see his elderly uncle. And something in the coat's DNA makes sure that he blesses himself at the nuns hurrying past with their eyes to the heavens. Sometimes Ray wonders what nuns see, they're always smiling. They aren't smiling now. And Ray knows something bad is happening or has happened and there are some real visitors down the corridor with real tears pouring down their faces.

Still, everything happens for a reason. Maybe there is some divine plan out there and everything will be beautiful and sunlight some day.

Still, that's not the plan here, the plan here is to exploit, take advantage… No, Ray doesn't want to think like that, grabs a seat and puts his head in his hands for a moment, and yeah, deep breaths, caribou thundering on the snow-plains. He's not Ray Kowalski with a plan to find out why a fucking hat is getting him hit on the head while investigating a sham shoot out; no, he's Ray Vecchio coming to see his favourite uncle and maybe pick his brain a little about the case.

Ray tips back on the chair, just a little, a micro-tip really; only for a nun to give him that death-stare only the righteous, the godly, and the Mounties can do. And he tips back like a good little boy and gives her a look that is pure guilty schoolboy and then a little grin, the one that says "life is tough, but it goes on" and "I'm okay, really" and "sorry about the chair, this place feels too much like home." It's a nice chair, some dark wood Ray can only identify as expensive. But it's scuffed and bashed a little, tiny chips out of the surface, like this place is some mansion that's gone to seed.

Rather like the house in East Octavia, with its smoke damaged clapboard and yard of chaos. Like it stayed still while the world changed. Like Uncle Lorenzo, and maybe like Ray Vecchio, playing cops and robbers in a world full of gangsters and mob princesses and driving one of the strangest American mass production cars, in fashion but slightly out of step and not really noticing it.

It's Ray Vecchio that steps into the room. He doesn't notice that he's out of synch and he doesn't care about it anyway.

"It's me, little Ray. They keeping you okay here?" He does that thing where he tilts his head slightly and smiles. Ray Kowalski has only ever seen Vecchio in grainy home movies of a cousin's wedding and odd bits of news footage, obscured by a guy in a red suit that screams "look at me" almost as loudly as those garish shirts scream "don't look at me, look at him!" and the nice designer ones whisper that he was never there at all. For Ray that little tilt of the head is second nature. Why shouldn't it be? He's Ray Vecchio, after all.

Lorenzo squints, eyes narrowing, and for a moment Ray Vecchio almost fades in panic, leaving Ray Kowalski to take the rap. But, then, he smiles and Ray Vecchio knows that smile. It's his favourite uncle, capisce? He spent as much time as he could with him, whenever he could escape Ma tying him to her apron strings. He would lie with his belly rubbing the rug with his head propped up on his hands as he listened to men with crazy names writing history with tommy guns and bootleg whiskey. There were glamorous dames running speakeasies and packing heat. They had those long cigarette holders and everyone wore a hat. It was better than watching the Untouchables on the box, because this was real, and his Uncle Lorenzo was the bravest of them all, drinking with Capone and dropping messages into trashcans for Ness.

Ma would come and shake her head, and Uncle would make a joke, and Ray never understood why Ma didn't laugh.

He does now. His uncle is looking at him and smiling with desperate adoration. "Ray, kid, you look so thin…" he begins, before Ray interrupts him and says that he's running long hours back in the days when cops where robbers and the feds were gods. His favourite uncle carries on, looking slightly beyond Ray, like there's somebody else in the room, when Ray knows there isn't, the nurse left so he could have some ‘private time’ with his dear demented uncle. "Caro, you look so thin, are you sure they're paying you good enough? I know you're a good man, but sometimes a man has to touch the benevolent fund or his family starves. And I know you do right by your Ma, but starving yourself isn't the answer."

In Uncle Lorenzo's world, the gangsters are fading into a vindictive mire as the start of a new evil begins to sweep the shores of the New Country, turning breadbaskets into dustbowls and American dreams into nightmares. And Uncle Lorenzo can hear the wind coming and watch the leaves strip themselves from the trees faster and faster. And the eye of that storm is still so very far away.

"You haven't been to the drugstore lately, have you Ray?" There's something dark in those eyes and Ray remembers when he stopped laughing and started just putting his head on the side and smiling the faintest of smiles. Ray remembers hoping that his uncle never realised that it was the best he could muster.

"What?" It's an odd question, but Ray knows that everything his uncle says leads back to the mob, rather like the bruises on his mother's face after his old man came in late. "Somebody using them as some sort of front or something? Selling something harder than soda at the fountain?"

"Tapeworms." A tiny voice in the back of Ray's head moans about how that is so not an answer and that he'd give this nut crazy, he's crazy real good now, crazy enough to be somebody else. Ray ignores it, the same way he ignores the faint buzzing sound behind his head and the way his uncle is looking towards where it seems to be coming from. "You never go believing doctors and druggists, kid, they only want to sell you some new sickness."

His uncle isn't really crazy; he just has a different view of time than other folks.

For a moment, he sees a paunchy guy with posture that screams bad attitude gawping at him like he's grown a new head or something. But that's nothing. Maybe there was something odder than usual in Benny's bruise balm gunk. One moment the guy's there, the next he's gone.

It must be because he keeps getting this feeling that somebody else is in the room.

The way Uncle Lorenzo stares over his shoulder and asks whether he's come far.

That or his favourite uncle is losing what little he's got left of his mind. And Ray prefers the mysteriously invisible stranger to that. "We still have the house on East Octavia, Unc, you know that. We had a little fire, but everything was fine and my friend Benny even rescued the goldfish. After he rescued Frannie, of course."

Ray grins, a real grin this time. He might be a little economical with the truth here, but yeah, Benny really did save the goldfish. No way is he telling his uncle that it was arson though; he'd think that the Big Man himself had ordered it, not Greta Garbo.

Not Greta Garbo at all.

Rudolph Valentino.

Ray decides to perch on the ottoman. There are no nuns to tell him not to sit on the arms, so he does and gets his head real close to his uncle's. "There was a shooting over at Oriole Park–" Ray isn't even sure there was an Oriole Park back then. Maybe it was all corn fields; maybe they were building strip-malls. Thing is, he can't find another name for the area. "–and we think that this mook, Valentino, was involved, but I don't know jack about this guy."

And it's like Lorenzo's talking to somebody else, and maybe he is, some mobster buddy from back in the mists of time, popped in for dominoes and a nice cup of ectoplasm. "Now, we get why he really wants to see his uncle, now, don't we? And is it because he loves him and wants to buy him cakes? No, it is because he doesn't know something. But he wants to learn, and that's good, kids these days, think they know it all. It takes a wise one to realise that he doesn't."

And had the guy left it at that, Ray could have written it off as some strangely parental rant, like the ones where becoming a cop is a bad idea, and will get him killed, is too little money for too much danger. And it's not as if he's saying anything that bad, it's one of those reversed insults that the Mountie does, says something nice and you spend five minutes figuring out that if it wasn't downright rude, it sure as hell wasn't complimentary. Like that. But the other way 'round.

Thing is, Uncle Lorenzo doesn't leave it there, "I don't know what yours is like, maybe you just don't know anything that's actually useful, and you, I could write a book about how useless you are. If I were Ray here, I'd listen very carefully to every word you say and then do the opposite. Considering that he's doing all right for himself, he must be doing that, capiche?"

And Ray's just about to open his mouth and remind Lorenzo about Rudolph Valentino when the crazy starts again, "Well, I don't know how you do it in Canada, but in America we are free to say what we think…" and thankfully, it tails off there.

Ray doesn't want to know what it is about Canada, unless Valentino had contacts up there or something, like gangsters would hang in Moose Jaw or something, and then it would help justify Fraser on the case. Ray thinks that the kids were just a coincidence, and there's only so long before the Dragon Lady comes to the same conclusion. "Uncle, you know anything about Rudolph Valentino, not the movie star? Because I've got myself a pail-load of traumatised Canadian school kids."

Lorenzo laughs. It's a hearty, normal laugh; like Ray's just made some off-colour joke about two nuns and a ping pong table. "You've got it all wrong. Valentino's so clean; nobody can get dirt on him, not Capone, not Ness, sure as hell not anyone else. He's a classy guy, a smart guy; he ain't going to go around doing things like that. He doesn't use his muscle, he uses his brain."

Ray could take this tactful, but he knows tactful isn't the way to go. Maybe this is too like an interrogation, but he'll square it with himself later, he'll have to. "So, he's got a lot of brains, and they say you can't take it with you."

The old guy goes pale. For a moment, Ray thinks about heart attacks, and nurses, and how his Ma will never ever forgive him.

And then, he breathes, thank God, and Maria, and even St. Jeanne de Chantal. And what he breathes is, "You know."

"I spent my day being hit on the head and held prisoner by two goofball capos who ran everything past a hat," Ray whines, "Yeah, I know he's dead. I want to know why a dead guy is terrorising play parks."

Shit. Lorenzo looks like he's about to cry, hands up at his temples like that, like he has the mother of all migraines. "I don't know. I just don't know. Everything's wrong. They keep telling me that the Cubs suck, and that you can't buy a comic book for a dime… All I know is that Valentino's dead, but he didn't want anyone to know about it, because then there wouldn't be a war or nothing, because nobody would know, so nobody would move in his territory."

"No vacuum," Ray mutters, not even realising it, "Nature abhors a vacuum."

It's like something Benny said long ago finally makes sense.

"Exactly. And the bosses abhor vacuums as well, they all have to have the most and… what if the Big Man finds out, finds out that I know that Valentino's dead and haven't told him?" He's afraid, really afraid, because to Uncle Lorenzo the Mob were never something on the idiot box between the Lone Ranger and Batman. The Mob aren't entertainment, they're real and dangerous, and can send you down to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Ray just takes his hands and hushes him like a baby, says that he'll not tell anyone where he got this from; that it won't go in his report or nothing. It won't matter how many dirty cops Capone and Bugs Moran and the others pay in bloodstained dollars and drinks on the house; none of them will ever hear where Ray heard this from.

And in the end it must be good, because he stops with the crying.

Ray says he's leaving as his Uncle starts talking to the empty room again.

The sun burns like the judgement of God outside, so Vecchio eases off his overcoat and Kowalski bunches it up in his arms, ready to throw into the back of the Goat. Fraser's waiting like he was outside the Ice Queen's office. Ray knows he's got to shake him up a little, get the real Fraser back, peel away the perfect matinee idol Mountie, 'cause Dudley Do Right does nothing for Ray. Sucks at detecting, too.

"Hey, you lost your new friend?" Ray asks. The guy seemed strangely familiar, and Ray wishes he could remember noses the way Vecchio could. Ray would swear that he'd seen the guy somewhere before, if you asked him, which Fraser wouldn't because Mounties don't approve of swearing none.

"Sister Magdalene came to ask Mr McDonald if he would be so kind to check the fuse box, it seems that the lighting failed in the ballroom during the residents' weekly swing dancing session. I offered to help with any injuries, but the Sister assured me that my aid would be quite superfluous and asked what a Mountie was doing here, in Chicago." This is getting Ray off-balance, it shouldn't because Fraser has lied for him, or at least, lied for the real Ray Vecchio plenty enough. It's not like he's going to get caught out and thwacked with a ruler by some irate nun. None of it's going to happen, because once Ray zones out the sound of blood rushing in his ears, he can hear Fraser continuing, "And I, of course, told her that I had first come to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father, and have henceforth remained—"

Ray shouldn't cut him, he shouldn't be afraid to show Fraser how off kilter he is now. The guy's his partner, his, uh, kissing buddy. Because it hasn't got further than that yet, and Ray can't pick up the right signals, has no idea how this is going to play out. It's like he's playing poker in a pitch dark room.

"As a liaison with the consulate, where you stand outside and polish the Ice Queen's boots." Ray butts in, just like he shouldn't. He shakes things up. It's what he does. If everyone else is freaked, then they won't notice that he is. First lesson of interrogation and a damned good one when it comes to undercover too.

Get on with the show, Kowalski, he tells himself as he opens the car door and gets in. Fraser does too; they're in synch like that. Like they know what the other guy's doing, or thinking… except they're not, because Ray has no idea what Fraser is thinking or how to play it from here. Sure, Ray knows what Fraser is thinking about the case, but he has no idea about the kiss or what's going on with them now.

"Lorenzo's a nice guy, crazy but nice, you should get Vecchio to introduce you some time." Because Ray sure as hell isn't going to do it, Ray knows there's only so far he can push these things before they all come tumbling down like a matchstick tower.

"Ah. Well, the last time that you, Ray, had need to call upon your uncle in some professional capacity; I was somewhat indisposed." It's bland and it's got the librarian perfect grammar thing going for it, but Ray thinks there might be some undercurrent there. Maybe Fraser's just prissy, or maybe he's waiting for Ray to ask a question, has set things up so he can answer a question. The why of that, Ray isn't sure about, but thinking about it, answering a direct question can't be a bad thing. Maybe the indisposition is in some Fraserish grey area uncovered by the Mountie code.

"Indisposed? Fraser, you're never sick. You roll around in dumpsters and take me for a swim in the lake they call Michigan, and you still never get sick. Me, I'm a regular guy. I get sick, I take sick days, sometimes I don't get sick and I take them anyway. You, you have enough sick days stacked up that Mountie Central is just praying you'll take them."

"I was undercover as an art teacher at an institution specialising in the education of young ladies." Ray can practically taste the understatement.

"Don't see why that should stop you from paying a visit to my poor sick uncle, Fraser. Ma says you're practically family after all." Ray knows that last bit is practically mean, but he needs to give Fraser that push so that Fraser tells him whatever he wants to but can't.

It's like Fraser's barely reined in for a moment, like he's an angry guy just about listening to the little guy with the calming words in his way; then he blurts out, "I was undercover as someone of the female persuasion." Fraser's not exactly angry, but Ray picks up on the frustration at not really knowing the words. Ray thought it was him with that problem, not Fraser. Fraser's reverse… reverb… verbose and smart. He can't really get why Fraser's just told him that, and he can't think of the right question to ask.

Ray's a coward. Nobody hold the press, because it ain't news.

He hides from things, sometimes with a bottle, sometimes with loneliness, mostly with words and smarts.

This time he hides behind Lorenzo, like a kid hiding behind his old man's legs. "Yeah, the guy almost realised there was something seriously queer, fishy, totally not kosher. I thought he had me made when he said I was too thin. And then he started on some weird shit about tapeworms and drugstores and never to trust health food or doctors. You got any idea what that means, Fraser, because I'm bang out of clues here? I don't think it has anything to do with our friends with the safe and the talking hat, but you can't be too sure, can you?" Ray's babbling like a book.

"Ray, I do believe that at one point in the early twentieth century, tapeworms were marketed as a dieting aid."

Ray isn't going to listen to the pros and cons of the tapeworm plan. "Fraser, that's gross."

It's kind of surprising to find that Fraser considers anything gross, except for a dozen dozens of egg-type things. Instead of arguing the point, or just agreeing in that passive-aggressive whatever-you-say way of his, Fraser hands out a "Quite" and then says something about people placing their health in jeopardy for a cosmetic look. Apparently, Fraser finds this vain, shallow and futile. That Fraser's telling him this means that he thinks Ray is none of the above.

This makes Ray happier, even though he was pretty damn pleased just to get the info on Valentino. The info that he hasn't told Fraser yet, so he does, "My uncle came up with the goods. The guy was a mob boss who kept his place at the table by being smart. When he died, he'd made sure most folks didn't know, so he just kept his place… you know, despite being deader than most of Mort's clientele."

"Ah," says Fraser, which is the Mountie equivalent of the little egg timer that turns up on the computer screen whenever you want it to do something. It means ‘processing, come back later.’ Ray has more patience for Fraser than he does for the 'puter, so he sits quietly and waits for Fraser to solve the case or compare it to something involving caribou.

Fraser does neither of those things. Instead he gets that distant look that makes Ray think of another gross: Gross' Rubber Novelties and the duckie of evil.

Is it just Ray or have all the lights gone out?

The birds overhead almost sound like a kid crying

When Fraser speaks it's like he's reading a script for the first time after a sudden change wrought from on high; like he's reading a Teleprompter; or like he's one of those actors with a guy remembering the words for him and whispering them to him from the dark side of the stage. "Rudolph Valentino, whose name was in fact a total coincidence, that is to say there was no causative relationship between his name and that of the popular actor of the golden age of the silver screen, kept out of the hands of both the law and rival gang-leaders by dint of possessing a wide range of scandalous information gathered through his operation of secret establishments for the sale and consumption of alcohol and his association with a number of prostitution rings, in particular one run by a Bang-Bang-Betty—"

He's spitting out the words like he's some kind of machine gun, bang, bang, bang. If the stuff wasn't so crucial to the case, Ray would wonder if Fraser understood it at all, or maybe he was speaking in tongues or some other freaky shit.

Ray's not normally one to brood about things silently, his mouth and his brain are hardwear… hardwired. Which is why Ray says what he thinks. Which Fraser normally calls candour.

"Fraser, this is information about the case. You know, the case we're investigating. About poor traumatised Canadians and the even poorer more traumatised lump in my braincase that I got investigating them. So you've just found this out from, say, your sign-painting buddy; or you've known it all along, which is just not buddies."

Ray doesn't think it was supposed to come out like that.

For starters, Fraser says nothing about Ray interrupting. Something's rotten in the state of Denmark.

"I just recalled. Ah. You, Ray Vecchio," he says the name slowly stressing every syllable, "You told me. In passing. Some time ago. It just came back to me, when you began recounting your encounter with your uncle, Ray Vecchio's uncle."

Fraser is a shitty liar, really. He can do a hundred interesting and morally dubious things with the truth, but expect him to outright lie and the results will suck. Ray doesn't call him on that, not exactly. "Bull. Shit. You never forget anything." Ray shouldn't be angry, they've got the information they need, they are working like a well-oiled machine, they're both contributing to the big heap of information in the car with them. "Like I said, bullshit." Ray can't calm down, it's like somebody deactivated his calm down switch and forgot to tell him because he's fucking screaming at his partner.

"Do. Not. Do this. To me, Fraser."

And it's like suddenly, Ray's out of steam, off the heat. Fraser's just looking at his granny boots like they were shouting at him all the time, not Ray at all.

Ray just knows the genius move to make this all right. He asks Fraser to come and stay over his, talks about how that bad back won't get any better on that cot, and how they've both had a stressful day… And how Ray's bed is a lot bigger than Fraser's cot, and better for Fraser's back, and there's space for two of them.

And they're across town again and Ray coaxes Fraser out the Goat. Fraser floats up the stairs behind Ray and into the apartment. It's like he's already sleeping, like he's gone and lost himself somewhere in his head. Ray should be happy about this, happy that everything's okay, that they're not fighting. Ray should be happy that everything's all right, that everything is as it was. Funky cop and crazy Mountie fight crime together in Chicago's bright lights and dark nights.

Ray doesn't know why that feels wrong.

It always used to feel right. He doesn't know why he feels scared about it.

He thought they had equilibrium going for them. But now not so much, it's more like everything was frozen and now it's like freeze-thaw-freeze. One minute perfection, and the next, thaw. Ray remembers Fraser saying something about how things freezing and thawing over and over would eventually wear down mountains. Ray doesn't want to be a mountain.

It's like there's nothing between pulling at each other until they shatter like broken glass or staying the same forever, perfect because they never actually do anything that isn't in the job description, isn't in the script.

Ray doesn't want that, Ray wants what they had in the safe. Ray wants their duet, and if one of them stops singing for some reason, the other will carry on, carry the tune, carry the other guy.

He doesn't want to fight.

Fraser doesn't give a shit about what Ray wants. What Fraser wants is to be right all the time. To tell Ray what to do, what's right, what's wrong.

The Alka Seltzer's back on the breakfast bar.

Ray knows it's because Fraser thinks he really shouldn't drink. Fraser doesn't care that Ray knows the stuff tastes like shit, because it's good for him, because maybe it will remind him not to get so bloody plastered next time, won't it?

Ray doesn't remember when he got Fraser up against the wall like this, or when he started punching the wall just inches from his best friend's head, or when he started shouting about alka seltzer and how Fraser can never ever leave the schoolmarm at home.

Ray doesn't give a fuck about the drywall, the neighbours, his fist.

Ray doesn't give a fuck about the strange sounds that eventually coalesce into Fraser-speech in the back of Ray's brain. Fraser repeating his name like it's a mantid and fluffing about how he doesn't know what is going on at all, and maybe all this tension is too much, and maybe Ray should ease himself back into the cop routine. Ray doesn't want to ease himself back in, and he sure as hell doesn't want to talk to Welsh about easing into anything.

Ray wants to show Fraser how it feels when somebody tries to smother everything about you. Ray wants to show him how Alka Seltzer, and knock out tea, and comforters of doom feel.

Fraser's mouth is hot and wet and tastes of tea and confusion.

Ray doesn't know how he got here. He doesn't understand how he went from wanting to pound his partner into the ground to this hot, wet place. He doesn't understand how he got from there to this tongue pushing against his own.

Ray doesn't understand anything right now, except heat and touch and movement.

Ray's hips want to move, so they do, grinding against the serge, against a familiar hardness. There are stars behind Ray's eyes, for the first time since he realised he would never be an astronaut. Stars, flowers, bright things blossoming in the darkness behind his eyelids.

Ray doesn't understand when he closed his eyes, Ray just sees the stars and at last everything isn't Stella. All Ray understands is now, and close and harder.


Ray doesn't understand air either, but he knows it would be kind of nice as the stars give way to infinite darkness.

Ray's feet pull him back across the lacquered floor until he's slouching up against the end of the breakfast bar. The overhang between, you know, the top and the base is digging into the soft bit below Ray's ribs, but he doesn't care, because right now, the air is sweet and hits harder than vodka. Not as hard as Fraser's mouth hits him, that would be like, Ray's never done drugs but he has this feeling that Fraser's mouth is better than cocaine, better than heroin, better than jumping off a warehouse roof. It's that good. And Ray's falling hard, already a junkie for his next touch, his next kiss, his next hit.

Ray finally stops gasping long enough to stop looking at Fraser's boots, not that they're not fine or anything, and trail his eyes up. The first thing Ray notices are how meaty the pumpkin pants make Fraser's thighs look, the second is how hard Fraser is for him. Fraser's hard, for Ray. None of this has just been a dream, or wishful thinking. Ray isn't in a coma living some in some strange wish-fulfilment limbo, because the proof is right there in front of him, hard between Fraser's legs and struggling against the weight of the serge to get up closer to Fraser's stomach.

Ray doesn't notice Fraser's stomach because it's all covered with heavy woollen formality, but he's already seen it. Fraser in a sweater with the cuffs unravelled at the edges; Fraser in a henley with his stomach framed with the dark straps of those suspenders; Fraser standing there, his hair mussed with sleep, wearing only his union suit.

It's all distracting and it kind of slows Ray down from getting to Fraser's face. Ray expects it to be a mirror of his own, and not in the sense that he normally thinks about Fraser and mirrors, like Fraser's some refugee from Through the Looking Glass or Bizarro World. Normally Ray thinks about Fraser and mirrors like in that episode of Star Trek where Spock had a beard and was evil.

This time, though, Ray knows what he's expecting, and knows that it will be good, so it won't matter if he spends a little longer taking a look at Fraser's crotch. And then he'll look up, and Fraser will be panting, a little flustered, his hair just a little out of place, and he'll be licking his lip the way he does. And then, he'll be licking Ray's lip and his tongue will push into Ray's mouth and Ray won't fucking care what else Fraser might have licked today.

Ray looks up.

Fraser looks like somebody's turned all the lights out.

No, that isn't an afraid of the dark look. Sure, Ray could only feel Fraser there in the vault, but no, it isn't dark at all.

Fraser's a caribou in the headlights, his eyes are empty and dark and reflecting the light back. Reflecting Ray back and Ray can't see anything of Fraser at all in them. He doesn't need to, it's all over Fraser's face and Ray thinks he's turning into a mirror as his mouth forms the same perfect oh.

Time stands still, like glass. Fraser told Ray once, on a stake-out, that glass is really a liquid, flowing invisibly slowly towards the bottom of the pane. Ray thought it was cool. Some folks in the future, wearing their jet packs and space unitards, would be looking at big puddles of glass where some guy right now had left his hi-ball out. Fraser knocked it down, knowing science and archaeology and stuff, but it didn't stop him dreaming of a Space Fraser talking to a Space Ray about how the glass wasn't always flat while a Space Diefenbaker frolicked after donuts in the ozone layer.

Ray doesn't know how they got from there to here. Story of his life: always missing the moment. The moment when he was a real hero, the moment when Stella stopped loving him the way he loved her, the moment all this shatters like brittle glass dropped on the sidewalk of life.

Fraser's the one to rediscover his lips, the one to rediscover words, to rediscover how to break Ray's heart all over again.

He doesn't mean to, Ray will keep telling himself that after his Mountie has walked out the door.

"I… ah… I think I should return to the Consulate," he says it as if they're the hardest words in the script. Ray feels a little flutter there, not that he'd own up to fluttering like a chick, because it's not about Ray, it's about Duty. Ray thinks he can live with that. Then Fraser kills even that little flutter and manages to make Ray feel like a guilty unobservant shit-head as well. "I ought to return to the Consulate–" Fraser makes another go at it, and sounds more confident, determined, "–after all, Diefenbaker may well have returned home."

Ray never noticed that they lost the Diefster. He wants to scream at Fraser, ask why the fuck he didn't tell him this afternoon, and when Ray ran out of breath, he would choke out that he would have helped Fraser…

There are so many things Ray could say about this.

He doesn't say any of them, after all Fraser never felt he was important enough to know about it. Ray doesn't know what makes him feel worse, that Fraser didn't tell him, or that he didn't notice that they were missing Fraser's favourite person of the four-legged variety.

Ray pastes on a smile and makes reassuring small talk about the wolf's homing instincts.

He doesn't say anything about the kiss, if that's what it was; Ray's getting less and less clear on that. And he smiles as he lets Fraser out, and he thinks of Fraser talking about literature and some disconnected phrase.

It's not as if Ray knows what an "antic disposition" is anyway, it sounds too energetic right now. Right now he feels like he's drowning again, 'cept there's no panicking here, just cold, cold, calm.

And Ray doesn't want it. Ray wants his anger back, Ray wants to work himself up and dance until his feet bleed or he keels over exhausted onto the couch. Ray wants to feel something, he really does. So he tries, he slams the drawer on the sideboard, the one where Ray keeps all the presents from Vecchio's birthday, the Italian silk ties, the car parts, and the basketball shirts. Ray had to open them, surrounded by Vecchios, had to play the thing for real. But he'd opened them really carefully, like a little old lady trying to save paper, and he'd put them all back neatly. It was the right thing to do, seal them all back up and leave them for Vecchio, so he'd know he was never forgotten there in the desert and the bright lights.

The lights in Vegas are bright and cold across the Nevada desert, where they confuse the coyotes and chuckwallas into wakefulness into a neon-coloured dawn.

There isn't any vodka left, so Ray makes do with the last of the Glen Tallanach. There's barely a glass full, but that's all right. It's enough to push Ray over the edge and he falls and wants to keep falling forever.

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