Author’s Note: The scenes of Ray’s journey take place in chronological order. The bits of dialogue do not, necessarily. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether they happen at all. Thanks so much to my beta reader, LGwynethGuest, whose attention to detail definitely made this a better story.
Written for Jodie for Due South Sekrit Santa 2012.
Florida, it turns out, is a lie. The promise of sun, sand, surf and a nice, easy, relaxing retirement devolves over time into a reality of rain, hurricanes, swamps, mosquitoes with a taste for Italian blood, and slowly going out of his mind with boredom.
Him and Stella, well, that turns out to be a lie too, but that’s his own fault and he refuses to blame anyone else for it.
Stella sees him off at the airport. “You don’t have to,” he tells her.
She says, “I know,” and kisses him goodbye.
“You can ask, you know.”
“What happened with me and Stella. I don’t mind.”
“Oh. I had simply assumed that if you wanted me to know, you would tell me of your own volition.”
“Well, I’ve got plenty of volition, so I’m telling you.”
Six months ago, the world collapsed out from under everyone in a cloud of dust and debris roiling through downtown Manhattan. The next day, Ray woke up and asked Stella for a divorce, because he did this–all of this–for all the wrong reasons and life’s too short to settle for less than what you really want.
One month ago, Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. Ray went out and bought a plane ticket.
In the end, they part amicably. Ray sometimes thinks Stella knew this was coming probably since the day they met and was just waiting for him to catch up. But that’s okay. He doesn’t hold it against her because he probably wouldn’t have heard it from anyone other than his own heart.
He thinks they might stay friends after this is all over. He hopes so and thinks she does too.
“What exactly did you mean by ‘all the wrong reasons’?”
“The truth? Kowalski took something from me, so I wanted to take something from him too. Not that it was deliberate or anything, but underneath that’s what was going on.”
“Took something from you–you mean, your life?”
“I mean you.”
When the plane’s wheels leave the ground, Ray’s grip tightens on the arms of his seat, his knuckles turning bloodless. That’s nothing new: he’s done it every time he’s flown since his and Fraser’s plane went down in the woods all those years ago. What’s different is that, looking around, he sees he’s not the only one.
“The funny part is…you know what Stella said when I told her?”
“That it was okay, because deep down she thought she’d probably felt the same way about you.”
The weather in Atlanta is so much like Florida that Ray keeps checking the signs to reassure himself that the plane didn’t turn around midair. He’s got a two hour layover, so he orders a pizza and then throws it out half-eaten because Atlanta pizza is just as wrong as Florida pizza.
Ray has a feeling that Atlanta on the whole would be as wrong for him as Florida, but that’s okay, because he’s not staying. He’s just passing through.
“I don’t understand. Ray and Stella were–“
“–Over long before he met you, yeah, I know. But he was always there. Even though she knew they weren’t good for each other, she knew she could always count on him to be around when she needed him. But then you said ‘jump’ and he said ‘when’s the first flight to the middle of nowhere?'”
“I…I had no idea.”
“Sometimes I think she knew I’d do the same. We were both just waiting for you to call.”
Because of the new security rules, Frannie’s not waiting for him at the gate when he lands at O’Hare. He gets his bags–way too few for having his whole life in them–and loads them onto one of those vending-machine carts. When he gets past security, though, there she is: wearing her uniform and balancing her daughter on her hip. He doesn’t buy the immaculate conception thing for a second, but she looks confident and self-assured in a way he’s never seen before and he’s never been prouder of his baby sister than he is at that moment.
Ray greets them both with a kiss and tickles his niece’s chin until she laughs, showing off her mother’s smile. He and Frannie regard each other for a moment with the irony of why he’s here.
Then she tilts her head and smiles at him. “Welcome home, Ray.”
“Ray, about Francesca–“
“I know, Benny. She told me.”
At home, Ma spends the whole night complaining about how she never sees him anymore except when he’s on his way somewhere else. But she cooks up a meal the likes of which he hasn’t had since the last time he came home for Christmas, so he endures the grousing with good humor.
The table’s loud and crowded, packed with even more people than when this was his house, but Ray can’t wipe the stupid grin off his face. On his way to somewhere else or not, for tonight it’s good to be back. For a minute the years fall away and he can almost see Benny leaning in the doorway in his shirt sleeves, asking Ray how to recognize polenta.
He wonders how much grief he could’ve saved all of them if he’d just realized then how deeply the crazy Canadian was going to worm his way into his life and his heart.
In the morning, Ma plies him with a gallon tub of homemade lasagna to take to Fraser. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her it probably won’t make it through security, let alone customs.
“You would really give it all up for me?”
“Why not? I’ve given it up before for worse reasons. Besides, what’s to give up? A house full of screaming kids and Ma screaming louder than all of ’em put together?”
“You miss it.”
“Yeah, I miss it. But that’s what holidays are for. So as long as you don’t mind spending American Thanksgiving in Chicago every once in a while, we’re good.”
The customs agent in Calgary gives the usual spiel about what is his business in the dominion of Canada. Ray answers, “Visiting a friend.”
It’s true for the moment. Whether it stays true, well, that depends on Fraser.
“I don’t understand. So you didn’t come here to ask me to come back to Chicago with you?”
“If I asked you to come back to Chicago with me, would you?”
“That’s what I thought. That’s why I’m not asking.”
He probably should’ve called ahead. Or mentioned that he was coming in his last letter. It’s not like Benny would’ve told him not to come.
Sure, surprising him in the middle of preparations for a siege worked out okay for Ray last time, but there’s a lot of water under the bridge since then. As far as he knows, Fraser doesn’t have any international death squads out for his blood these days. He might not even be home.
Ray has visions of Fraser coming home from dog-sledding across the tundra for fun to find him frozen to death on the front step of the cabin because he couldn’t get in.
That thought keeps him occupied all the way from Calgary to Vancouver.
“But you hate it here.”
“I never said that. When did I say that?”
“The first time you came to Canada, you complained about the snow, the cabin, and my insufficient arsenal. The second time, about the excess of trees and lack of civilization–“
“Jesus, Benny, don’t you know me well enough by now to know I bitch about everything? It don’t mean anything except my mouth is running.”
He could’ve booked a direct flight at least from Chicago to Vancouver, probably. Ray doesn’t know why he picked a route that has him hopping around the continent like a stone skipped across a pond.
Maybe some part of him knew he’d need the extra time to gather his courage.
“Ray, you’re the bravest man I know.”
“Nah, Benny, I’m not. If I was, I never woulda left in the first place.”
“I don’t understand. What you did in Las Vegas took an incredible amount of courage.”
“Maybe. But running away from you, from this? Without even saying goodbye? Not just once, but twice? That took a coward.”
It’s March. Back in Florida, that means there are days here and there when it doesn’t rain. In Chicago, the snowfalls are becoming fewer and farther between and what snow doesn’t melt off the ground is a dingy yellow gray from days and weeks of smog and dirt trampled into it. When Ray steps off the plane in Yellowknife, it still looks like a Christmas card.
Okay, so the snow at the edges of the runway is a little bit gray from being plowed under to clear the airstrip, but mostly it’s evergreen and white as far as he can see.
There’s not a speck of red. Not that he figures there should be–there’s another jet, some kind of bush plane, and probably a snowmobile still in his future–but Ray can’t help feeling a little disappointed all the same.
“You wanna know the real reason I moved to Florida? Because you never came back.”
“But, Ray, by the time Ray and I returned from our adventure, you had already gone.”
“That’s the thing, you see. I didn’t think you were coming back from your ‘adventure.’ I guess I figured you got Kowalski up here where you wanted him and just forgot about me.”
Ray hasn’t slept in probably twenty-four hours. Oh, he tries to, but each new leg of the trip seems to bring new terrors with it.
This time he sees Fraser telling him that going home to the ass-end of nowhere and never coming back was his way of telling Ray he never wanted to see him again. That he has his blond pretty boy so he doesn’t need him anymore.
He knows that’s not true because Frannie told him Kowalski came back to Chicago years ago. It still haunts him.
“I could never forget about you.”
He’d been a different man after Vegas. A man who wanted his old life back so badly he could taste it, but wasn’t at all convinced he deserved it. When Muldoon shot him, it was like a message from heaven, telling Ray it didn’t matter why he’d done it, he’d still sinned too badly to count himself one of the good guys anymore. And giving up Fraser to the new guy was his penance.
Ray knows now that God doesn’t work like that. No matter what some of the priests say.
“Don’t apologize. I thought you didn’t want me around because after that year undercover, I didn’t want me around. I did some things I’m not proud of, Benny. For a while there, I kinda lost myself. So when I got back to Chicago and you had a perfectly good me substitute running around with you, I thought, what right did I have to take back my life when he was doing a better job of living it than I was?”
“Ray, Ray was my partner and my friend and I care about him a great deal, but he wasn’t you. He could never be you.”
The first time he flew into Inuvik, Ray had been surprised by how unexpectedly modern the airport was. Okay, so it was no O’Hare, but he’d been expecting something more along the lines of the little one-room building in the middle of a runway that Fraser had preferred to more commercial airports.
This time, the sight of the Inuvik airport means a lot of things to him. For one, he’s so close to Benny that he almost can’t breathe with the anticipation of it all. And second, that maybe he’s not leaving civilization that far behind after all. It’s nice to know this place will be here if he ever needs to remind himself of that.
There’s still no flash of serge in the crowd. He really should’ve called ahead.
“All this time you were waiting for me to call? But I never called.”
“Sure you did, Benny. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Ray, I’m fairly certain I would remember telephoning you to ask you to come here.”
“I never said it was a telephone call.”
There’s a twenty-something kid in a blue uniform staring at Ray when he gets off the final plane in some town he can’t even pronounce. He’s about to make a quip about Italians not being that much of a novelty, even up here, when she asks, “Detective Vecchio?”
The question gets Ray’s attention. It’s riveted by his sudden recollection that the Mounties who’d collected Ian MacDonald from them had been similarly dressed. “Yeah?” he asks.
“Corporal Fraser asked me to convey his regrets that he isn’t able to pick you up himself, but he’s currently wrapping up a case involving the illegal trapping and sale of wolf pelts. He said you would understand.”
Understand that Dief will never forgive him if he doesn’t catch the bastard? Yeah, Ray does. What he doesn’t understand is how Benny knew to send someone for him at all. And then it hits him.
Stella. He didn’t have the nerve to warn Benny himself that he was coming, so she must’ve done it for him.
Ray may not have ever really been in love with Stella, not the way he wanted to be, but there are still times when he loves that woman.
“So what did happen, anyway? With the new guy, I mean? I kinda figured you and he had sledded off into the sunset to live happily ever after.”
“Well, Ray, quite simply Ray Kowalski wanted something I wasn’t able to give.”
The cabin is quiet and dark when the kid—Robin—drops him off. There isn’t a fire going, because it’s dangerous to leave a fire burning when no one’s home, but there are detailed instructions in Benny’s neat hand for how to build a fire. Clearly he remembers Ray’s last attempt.
Fortunately, the fire in the fireplace is a lot more cooperative than that half-damp pile of sticks in the woods. Before long, he’s dozing in front of it, drifting in and out of dreams that play out different versions of the reality he both hopes for and fears on the inside of his eyelids.
“Oh, you mean like he wanted you to give up all this and go back to Chicago with him?”
“No. That would have been no trouble at all, if…well…”
“One can hardly give one’s whole heart away when the greater part of it already belongs to someone else.”
When the cabin door opens, at first Ray’s convinced he’s still dreaming. The first thing he sees is Dief bounding over to him. The wolf’s older now; he doesn’t have quite the bounce in his step that Ray remembers from Chicago, but that doesn’t stop Dief from putting both front paws on Ray’s chest and licking him for all he’s worth.
He looks up and for a moment there’s Fraser across the room, just staring at him. Their eyes connect and it’s like something snaps in both of them. Before Ray can even register that he’s crossed the room, Benny’s kissing him.
Suddenly, all the things they never said to each other don’t matter quite so much. Maybe they’ll have that conversation later. Maybe they won’t have it at all. Ray doesn’t really care, because the answer to the question he’s been most afraid to ask is currently sucking on his tonsils.
He just doesn’t think about where else that tongue has been recently.
“Someone else. You mean…me?”
“Of course. Do you doubt it?”
“Nah. Not anymore.”
“I see. Well, Ray, I may have been belated in coming to the realization and for that I apologize, but…for a very long time there has been no one who meant more to me than you.”
When they finally let go of each other long enough to breathe, Ray pants out: “How…how did you know?”
He doesn’t mean, how did you know I was coming. He means, how did you know why I came? How did you know what I didn’t know myself until six months ago? How did you know how badly I want this?
Benny touches his face and the look in his eyes is everything Ray’s ever wanted to see or ever wants to see again. “I didn’t,” he answers just as breathlessly. “But I hoped…”
“Hope.” Ray swallows hard and pulls Benny close like he’s never gonna let go again. “Hope is good.”
“Does it make me a bad person that I was hoping you’d say that?”
“No, Ray, not at all.”
Somewhere in the middle of it all, Ray realizes that for the first time in days–months, years, maybe his whole life–he’s not just passing through on his way to somewhere else.