he first thing Fraser saw when he deplaned in Chicago was Ray Vecchio
waiting at the gate, a smug-looking Diefenbaker at his side. Dief was
wearing a harness of the kind habitually worn by the drug-sniffing police
dogs that patrolled the airport.
"Hey, when did Dief get a badge?" Ray whispered in Fraser's ear.
Fraser waved to Ray Vecchio across the velvet ropes separating them, tilting his head slightly to the side to answer Ray. "Unless Im very much mistaken, never," he said. "Ive told him a thousand times hes not eligible."
As they passed the last flight attendant, Dief scrambled to his feet, barking excitedly, and ran straight to Ray Kowalski, circling him and sniffing, glancing between him and Fraser.
"Whats with him?" Ray Vecchio said, looking at Dief, who was lying on his back as Rays nearly-invisible hands gave him an enthusiastic belly rub.
"Well, I dont know, Ray," Fraser said, mildly. "Perhaps it's the carpet; there's a chemical compound in the adhesive used to install industrial carpeting that smells very like decomposing meat. Of course, humans dislike the odor, but it's very attractive to canines."
Ray Vecchio was watching him with obvious concern. "Forget the wolf, Benny, come here," he said, and swept Fraser up in a brief, warm hug. "You look better," he said, drawing back to look at him. "Im glad, Benny."
"Thank you," Fraser said. He glanced down at Ray, half-expecting to hear a mocking comment, but Ray just smiled a little, shaking his head as he ruffled the fur behind Dief's ears.
"So, Benny," Ray Vecchio said. "You're gonna come eat with us tonight, right?" He slung an arm around Fraser's shoulders and started walking with him towards the baggage claim; Ray followed, Dief at his side.
"Say yes, Fraser," Ray said. Fraser looked back at him, startled. "What?"
"Eat, Benny," said Ray Vecchio. "Food. I know they have it in Canada, I've been there, remember?"
"He's worried about you," said Ray. "Go eat with him, it'll make him feel better. Plus, he's got Zippy, right? You'd have to go there anyway to pick him up."
"You have to come by the house anyway," said Ray Vecchio. "I've still got Sta-- your turtle."
"Ah," said Fraser. "Right you are, Ray."
They picked up Fraser's bag, which was, for once, one of the first ones unloaded, and followed Ray Vecchio to where he'd parked his car- yet another Riviera that he'd acquired, with characteristic optimism, in Florida.
"Isn't it illegal to park here, Ray?" Fraser asked mildly, putting his luggage in the trunk.
"No parking space is illegal when you've got official police business," said Vecchio.
"I'd hardly call this official police business," Fraser said.
"Sure it is," said Ray, coming-- somewhat surprisingly-- to Vecchio's defense. "Look, he's got a police dog and everything." He sighed. "That was one of my favorite things about being a cop, you know. The parking was great."
"You're not helping," Fraser muttered.
"Sure I'm helping. I'm picking up an official liaison of the Chicago Police Department," Vecchio said, getting into the car. "That's official enough."
Fraser eyed Ray, who had climbed into the back seat with Diefenbaker. He hoped his father wouldn't decide to start following him on cases again; the back of the Riv was getting downright crowded.
With an effort, he wrested his attention from such speculation and returned it to the matter at hand. "And I suppose that Diefenbaker's new rank in the K-9 Corps is official, as well?"
Vecchio smirked. "Why, yes, Benny, as a matter of fact it is."
"How on earth did that come about?"
"Welsh pulled some strings," Vecchio said. "He said Dief does more around there than any of the other dogs-- hell, he does more than some of the cops, not to name names or anything-- and if you can be an official liaison, so can he."
"I never said you didn't have the skills," Fraser corrected. "I merely said you didn't have the discipline. You don't catch the other dogs begging for scraps in the break room, do you?"
"You just don't see 'em," Ray Kowalksi said, catching Dief by the muzzle and shaking him affectionately. "The K-9 guys hang out downstairs most of the time. They think those dogs walk on water down there."
"Yeah, well I know better," Ray said firmly, stilling Dief's face and looking him in the eye. "So don't be getting delusions of grandeur or nothing."
"You pay and pay and pay," Fraser said, turning to stare resolutely out the front window.
They drove in silence for a while, and then Ray Vecchio took a deep breath, as though gathering his courage. "So, your sister's a real nice lady," he said.
Fraser blinked. "You called Maggie?"
"I just-- I wanted to make sure you got there OK." Ray kept his eyes fixed on the road. "She said you were going to be fine. That I shouldn't worry."
"Maggie is a very perceptive woman."
"So this isn't going to be one of those things where you go around acting normal for six weeks and then go apeshit in the middle of the bullpen one day and have to be taken away on a gurney, is it?" Vecchio shot him a nervous look. "Cause I don't think I can stand the suspense."
Fraser leaned back slightly into the cool pressure of Ray Kowalski's hand, which was cupping the back of his neck. "No, Ray," he said. "This isn't going to be like that."
Vecchio pulled into his driveway, sighing. "Well, anyway," he said. "The car's in Mrs. Devane's garage across the street, we can pick it up after dinner."
"That should be fine, Ray," Fraser said, holding open the door of the Riv for Ray and Dief.
The house was, as always, brightly lit and cheerful, but was considerably more quiet than it had been in the past; Fraser remembered Ray mentioning that his sister Maria and her family were in the process of buying a home of their own, and supposed that they must have moved already.
"Ma and Frannie are at a thing at church," Ray Vecchio said. "Jumble sale or something. It's just us tonight." He hung up his coat. "I'm gonna go see if Stella needs anything." He went towards the kitchen, leaving Fraser in the process of hanging up his own coat.
"Wow, Stella's cooking," Ray said. "She must like you more than I thought."
"You're right," Fraser said. "It does smell delicious."
Ray looked wistful. "I miss smelling stuff," he said. "Of course, working with you, not being able to smell things is probably a good thing, but still, it don't feel right."
"Can you not smell at all?" Fraser asked, curiously.
"Not the same," Ray said. "It's hard to describe. Senses are... different."
They started walking down the hallway. "In what way?" Fraser asked. "You obviously see and hear. Or am I being overly simplistic?"
"It's like seeing and hearing," Ray said, shaking his head. "Only it's not, because I'm not physical anymore, so obviously I'm not absorbing sound waves or whatever." They entered the dining room. "It's more like-- you know when you're not looking behind you but you still know somebody's there? Kind of like that."
"What about--" Fraser was interrupted by a loud crash behind him. He turned to see Stella Vecchio, the shattered remains of dinner at her feet, staring white-faced over his shoulder at Ray.
"Stella?" Ray Vecchio hurried into the room, setting a steaming dish down on the table. "Are you OK? What happened?"
She looked at her husband, and then back at Ray, who looked nearly as shocked as she did. "I--I feel--" She pressed a hand to her temple. "Excuse me," she said, and turned sharply, nearly running to leave the room.
A moment later, they heard the bathroom door slam.
"Oh, God, Fraser, I didn't know she'd be able to see me," Ray said; he was, if possible, even paler than usual. "I have to talk to her--" and he vanished.
Fraser looked from the floor to Ray Vecchio's puzzled face. "Oh, dear."
He knelt, and started to pick pieces of ceramic out of the steaming mess, careful of the sharp edges.
A muffled shriek came from the bathroom. Fraser winced; really, Ray would have to learn more tact. He hadn't made much noticible progress so far in his existence, but what was the afterlife, after all, but a second chance?
Ray Vecchio, eyes wide, hurried out into the hall. With a sigh, Fraser got to his feet and followed.
Vecchio was standing outside of the small bathroom across the hall from the dining room, talking to Stella through the closed door. "I'm fine," Stella was saying in a high-pitched, wavering voice. Fraser could faintly hear Ray Kowalski trying to be soothing, but he doubted that Ray's efforts would be very effective, given the circumstances.
Stella's voice rose. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Ray Vecchio stared at the closed door. "I just wanted to make sure you were OK, babe, I heard you scream, I was worried."
"Not-- dammit. Ray, please, could you just-- go clean up the dining room or something. I'll be out in a minute. I'm fine."
Fraser took Ray's arm gently and steered him back towards the dining room.
"What just happened here, Benny?" Vecchio asked, looking entirely baffled.
"I think--" Fraser cleared his throat. "I think perhaps she was taken by surprise."
"Yeah, you think?" Ray made a vague, complicated geture indicating the shattered dish, the bathroom, and the neat heap of broken crockery that Fraser had made on a napkin. "Just-- what the hell has she got to be surprised about? She knew you were coming, and besides, that wouldn't explain why she..." he waved his hand at the doorway.
"Perhaps the meal was intended to be a surprise," Fraser said, glancing down. "Meatloaf is one of my favorites, after all."
Ray looked at him skeptically. "And seeing you freaks her out so much she drops dinner and runs to the bathroom?"
"It's not unheard of," Fraser said. "I remember the cook at Ma McGinty's Family Restaurant in Moose Jaw once dropped an entire soup tureen when I walked in the door; it took her a full half-hour to recover from the shock." He looked at the floor, where the remains of Stella's meatloaf steamed gently. "Of course, I was carrying the carcass of a walrus at the time-- Ray, have you got a dustpan?"
Ray ignored his request, pacing back and forth in front of the door into the kitchen. "I don't believe this."
"Well, it was a very small walrus, of course."
"Meatloaf surprise. That's ridiculous. I'm gonna go check on her again."
"Ray, she may not want to be disturbed--"
Stella's voice rose, sounding agitated. Fraser couldn't make out any words, but her tone was unmistakable.
"Who is she talking to?" Ray started towards the hall.
Fraser rose hurriedly, trying to get between Ray and the door. "She's probably talking on her cellular phone--"
"In the bathroom?"
Two bangs, a slam, and Ray Kowalski came storming through the closed door, passing clean through Vecchio, who shuddered, stepping back just in time to narrowly miss being hit in the face by the door as Stella flung it open, stalking through after Ray Kowalski. Her eye makeup was smudged, her lips pressed together, her posture stiff and tight; she looked furious, and Fraser was suddenly very glad that Ray was already dead.
"Oh, of course!" she yelled. "Just walk away, pretend there's nothing wrong!"
Ray Kowalski wheeled to face her. "What is your problem, Stella?" It seemed to be costing him an effort to maintain his vehemence; Fraser worried that if he got any more worked up, he might wink out of existence altogether. "I said I was sorry, I didn't mean to--"
"You told me to go!" Ray Vecchio said, throwing up his arms in frustration. "Forgive me for doing what you asked, I didn't mean to insult you by respecting your wishes or anything--"
"You never mean to! That's exactly it! God, Ray, you always do this--"
Fraser looked at Stella in dismay. "Surely such generalities aren't--"
"Do what?" interrupted Vecchio. "Worry about you--"
"--die?" Ray stepped closer to Stella, clenching his fists. "Hang around and haunt your bathroom, is that what I always--"
"Do stuff like this!" Stella flung out an arm; her pointing finger passed through Ray's head, but neither of them seemed to notice. "You're always somewhere you're not supposed to be, you never know when to leave things alone--"
"You looked like you were about to pass out!" Vecchio said. "Forgive me for the mortal sin of being concerned about you--"
"I'm glad Ray didn't leave me alone," Fraser said, trying desperately to defuse the conversation. "His support has been invaluable." He stepped between Stella and Ray Kowalski; he felt compelled to protect Ray from Stella's wrath, which was quite irrational, really, considering the circumstances.
"I left things alone!" Ray yelled, dodging Fraser to face Stella. "I left everything alone, you don't get more alone than dead--"
"Well, that obviously didn't make a difference, did it? You seem to be coping just fine--"
"Yes, well, we all deal with trauma differently," said Fraser, a little too loudly.
"Stella!" Ray Vecchio looked shocked. "We are glad Fraser's-- you're not making any sense!"
"It's not my fault, dammit, Stella, I didn't know you'd be able to see me--"
"Oh, well that's even better! Maybe I should be glad I can see you, at least now you can't start following me around again. I'm still a lawyer--"
"Surely," Fraser said desperately, "litigation won't be necessary."
"--and I don't have to put up with this!"
"Oh, yeah, it's horrible," Vecchio said, his face red with frustration. "God forbid I should worry about my own wife--"
"I mean, you were my wife, Stella, I was worried about you--"
Fraser raised his voice. "The jurisdictional issues alone--"
"That doesn't give you the right--"
"Stella!" Ray Vecchio had finally taken her by the shoulders and turned her bodily to face him. "What the hell is going on here?"
Stella's eyes widened. She looked from Fraser to Ray Kowalski, and then finally to Ray Vecchio, and shut her eyes for a moment, visibly gathering her composure.
"Nothing, Ray," she said. She glanced at Dief, who looked up from the ruins of the meatloaf, his muzzle smeared with ketchup.
"Whatever happened to not speaking ill of the dead?" Ray Kowalski demanded. "Isn't that like a rule or something? I coulda sworn my mum used to say that."
Fraser cleared his throat. "Perhaps it would be better if we rescheduled dinner for another night."
"None of the other rules seem to apply," Ray grumbled. Fraser and Stella ignored him.
"Yes, Constable," Stella said evenly. "I think that would be a good idea."
"Maybe," Ray Vecchio suggested, "a night when everyone is sane."
"Besides, I hate your meatloaf," Ray muttered, glaring at her over Fraser's shoulder.
"Nothing is wrong with my meatloaf," she hissed out of the corner of her mouth.
"Other than it's on the floor," Ray Vecchio muttered.
"Just because I don't make it the way your mother did--"
"Yeah, Ma has this funny thing where she always serves food on plates."
Fraser cast a pleading glance at Stella. "It certainly smells delicious," he said. "Apart, of course, from being on the floor, and really, I must apologize for Diefenbaker..."
"Don't apologize," Ray Kowalski muttered. "He's the only one who'd eat it."
Stella glared at Ray over Fraser's shoulder. "I can't do this," she said. "I'm sorry, Fraser, I didn't want things to turn out this way, I just--"
"I understand," he said. "It's been a very difficult time for everyone, I think, and I'm afraid I've brought back..." He coughed, and had to stop himself from looking over his shoulder. "Well. Call it bad memories."
Stella looked at Ray again, her eyes suddenly bright. "Not... not all bad," she said, and cleared her throat. "But I-- please. I need some time... alone." Obligingly, Ray Kowalski vanished, with a sigh that could be heard in this world and the next.
"Of course," Fraser said. Ray Vecchio now looked hopelessly confused; Fraser took his arm, gently drawing him out of the dining room. "Perhaps you can show me where the turtle is, Ray."
"Yeah, okay. Sure. Whatever." Ray had packed up all of the various accoutrements he'd needed for Zippy and Dief, and had them sitting on the floor next to the turtle tank. "I'm gonna bring the car around, Benny," he said, one hand already on the door. "Can you get this stuff?"
"Yes, thank you kindly." Fraser gathered up the tank and bags quickly, hoping to get safely to the car before Ray Kowalski decided he needed a final word with Stella. It wasn't the most courteous way to take his leave, but in certain circumstances discretion was the better part of valor. The night air was clear and cold; Fraser remembered the last time he'd left the Vecchio house, and shuddered. Ray Kowalski was sitting on the front steps.
"Hey, you OK?" Ray got up and came to stand beside him, resting his hand on Fraser's shoulder; he'd made himself solid so that Fraser could feel him.
"Yeah." Fraser watched Ray Vecchio pull up in the GTO, the car's finish gleaming like ink in the streetlight. "It's just... this was easier in Canada."
"It was just us," Ray said. "Here, we got a different set of problems. More people to worry about. Stella-- God, that was a mess."
"Perhaps," Fraser observed, "you should have refrained from insulting her meatloaf. It's not as though you were going to be eating it."
Ray sighed. "Yeah, I know," he said. "It's just-- she knows all my buttons, you know? Even you can't wind me up quicker than she can."
"I imagine," Fraser said, "that the converse is also true."
"Yeah, you're about right. All those years and the one thing we got out of it was the ability to piss each other off."
Ray Vecchio got out of the GTO and tossed Fraser the keys. "Here, Benny," he said. Ray Kowalski, despite his agitation, greeted the return of his car with delight, and immediately wandered over to the front of it, sticking his head through the hood to check out the engine.
Ray Vecchio helped Fraser secure his luggage and the turtle tank, and then leaned against the car with a sigh. "I'm really sorry about all this, Benny," he said. "I don't know what's wrong with her, you know she's not usually like this."
"No, of course I realize that, Ray," Fraser said. "And it's completely natural for her to have been upset, under the circumstances. I wasn't offended."
"You keep saying that, Benny, but I just don't see it," Ray said, shaking his head. "You don't freak out like that just because you see your ex's best friend, who you knew was coming over for dinner, in your own dining room. Doesn't make sense."
"Tell him she's got PMS," Ray suggested, emerging from the GTO's interior to join the conversation.
"Ray!" Fraser exclaimed, scolding before he could help it. "That's terribly insensitive."
"How is that insensitive, Benny? She's acting crazy!"
"He'd probably believe it," Ray Kowalski said. "Men always say that when women act kooky."
"That doesn't make it right," Fraser said reprovingly.
"I know, I know." Vecchio looked back at the house with a sigh. "I dunno, maybe she's got PMS or something."
"See, I told you," Ray said, quirking a grin. "Even dead I know guys better than you do."
"Ray. Ray--" Fraser looked helplessly between them, and then turned resolutely towards Ray Vecchio. "Ray, you've got to make allowances," he said. "As much as Stella loves you, she did love Ray as well, and they had known each other since they were children. It can't have been easy for her-- everyone feels sympathy for a widow, but often people aren't very supportive of grief for an estranged spouse."
Ray Vecchio sighed. "I get what you're saying, Benny, but it just doesn't seem to explain her flipping out like that."
"Ray." Fraser's voice was gentle. "Imagine how you would feel should such a thing happen to Angie."
Ray's face tightened, and he nodded.
"Buy her daisies," Ray Kowalski suggested. "She likes daisies. And those little bitty rosebushes that you grow in the windowsill."
"Ray says-- said," Fraser caught himself. "That is, Ray told me once that Stella liked daisies."
"And the little roses," Ray Kowalski prompted.
"Also miniature rosebushes," Fraser said. "In pots."
"Not the long-stemmed roses? Angie used to like those," Ray Vecchio said. "Red ones."
"And she carries tension in her lower back. When you see her kinda wiggle her shoulders when she thinks nobody's looking? Rub her back that night, she'll fall right to sleep."
"The potted ones last longer, I imagine," Fraser said. "Also, my experience in such matters is admittedly limited, but it seems to me that small acts of consideration such as a backrub would be appreciated."
Ray poked him. "Tell Vecchio about the shoulder thing, Fraser."
"In addition," Fraser said, feeling a bit like a ventriloquist's dummy, "people often give subconscious cues when they're feeling tense. Stella may well have such a habit... perhaps she moves her shoulders when her back aches, for instance."
Vecchio blinked at him. "You know, Benny, I think I've seen her do that, now that you mention it," he said. "You got any more good advice in that head of yours?"
"She likes strawberry sorbet," Ray Kowalski said.
"She likes strawberry sorbet," Fraser said.
Ray smiled. "Thanks, Benny," he said. "Guess it's a good thing for me you've got that crazy memory, huh?"
"Er... yes, Ray," Fraser said. Ray Kowalski grinned. "Let's go home," he said.
Ray leaned over and kissed him at the first red light, flaring to near-invisibility; Fraser could feel the rasp of his stubble. "Hey, guess what?" he said, perking up a bit.
"Your dad says he'll help me build a cabin in your closet."
"The closet in my office?" He reached out, and felt his hand taken in a firm, cool grip.
"Nah," Ray said. "I'm thinking the one in our bedroom would be more fun."
Fraser smiled, and squeezed Ray's hand. "That sounds like a great idea, Ray."
"It's a walk-in closet," Ray said. "It's got plenty of room."
"You only need enough room to stand."
"I know," Ray said. "Bob told me. But I want you to be comfortable there."
"I will be," said Fraser, "I am." He glanced over at Ray, a shimmering outline with a solid, callused hand, and knew that it was true.