Rating: NC-17 for m/m sex
Warnings/Notices: I use spoilers for all sorts of episodes, in my universe the series ended with "Flashback," and there's major hot Mountie love ahead.
"I'm telling ya, Benny, it ain't here."
"We've hardly made a proper search, Ray."
Detective Vecchio rolled his eyes and his shoulders, regarding the office with ill favor.
"We've made a more than proper search for a bomb considering the call came from someone who sounds like Tweety Bird." Ray flung his hands out, indicating the untidy state of files and papers on the desk, the unplugged phone, the peeling wallpaper. "This place is a dump. Even the city workers won't use it. There's nothing here worth blowing up, the dogs couldn't find anything, and I was ready for lunch two hours ago."
Blue eyes calmly regarded him. "A few more minutes will make the difference between a lackadaisical search and a thorough one, Ray."
"Benny, there is *nothing here!*"
Both men jumped. Ray's hand went to his gun. When Fraser looked up towards the source of the noise, little pieces of thin, white glass fell from the rim of his Stetson.
The lightbulb above them had exploded: hardly a surprising event, considering how damp the ceiling was.
Ray eased back into his casual stance as Benny took his hat off and shook it free of glass before setting it on the desk. He raked a hand through his hair in an uncharacteristic gesture of frustration.
"What is it, Benny?"
The dark head shook slowly. "Something, Ray, just isn't right about this."
"You don't say."
Fraser frowned at him, and Vecchio thought for about the thousandth time in the last two years that the man, good friend though he was, was still the most annoying man in the world. It felt like Fraser was determined to make a case out of this, whether there were actually a case here to be made or not.
But Ray had already stated his opinion on the matter, and right now, despite his usual MO, Ray wasn't in the mood to push it. Fraser had been wearing a strange face these days: half distraction and half despair, he supposed. Frankly, it looked mostly like homesickness. Chicago was about to get serious about autumn, and Ray guessed Benny was missing the tundra even more than usual. It made the detective unwilling to give the guy more grief, however much he wanted lunch.
Of course, if Ray were in a maudlin mood, he might start thinking about how much it sucked that the best friend and partner he'd ever had wanted most in life to be five thousand miles away from him, making igloos and learning new Inuit stories. He might also think about how he'd be willing to do just about anything to get the idiots due north to shake the sand out of their eyes and realize they were wasting prime police officer material and ship the guy back home. Sure, he'd miss the guy, and his career would probably suffer quite a bit too, but it'd be worth it to know Benny was happy. Hell, they could write each other, couldn't they?
Anyway, compared to all that, hanging around this trash heap for a few more minutes wasn't really that big a deal.
"Is something wrong, Ray?"
"What? Nah. You done yet, Fraser?"
The Mountie sighed, pulling down just slightly on his brown uniform jacket, making sure everything was smoothly in its place, then reached for his hat.
His fingers froze an inch from the rim.
"Did you hear that, Ray?"
But the detective already had his handgun out.
Someone was singing: an odd, tinny, flat little voice, a little like Tweety Bird.
*Rockaby baby, in the tree-top.
When the wind blows the cradle will rock.*
The two men edged out of the office, looking down the rows of evacuated cubicles. A fluorescent light was flickering. The carpet was filthy.
*When the bough breaks the cradle will fall.*
Ray opened the drawer with the tape recorder, and both of them saw it was over-sized.
*And down will come baby *
"Benny!" They were running then, flying down the corridor, side by side.
* cradle and all.*
The explosion happened in stages, first rippling out from the recorder's black case, then ignition and expansion from the explosives hidden in the desk itself, rippling out and out with the unfolding of each blue-orange petal. The ceiling shattered, the floor buckled, and the deafening roar of it burned the thick air to black ash.
The men ran. Fraser and Vecchio kept their eyes on the corridor ahead, on the door, and finally on the patch of sky through that charred haze, making sure the other stayed by his side, making sure their legs carried them through and out.
And then they were through and out, bursting from the embers of the building, all but soaring over the black asphalt of the parking lot, shouting now at the crowd of dislocated workers to move back, move away from the building as it erupted and sank, blasted and showered down all around them in burning hailstones.
They sought cover behind the black truck of the bomb squad, gasping, looking each other over, checking for smoke or fire or holes in Ray's gray suit or Benny's perfect Mountie red tunic, grinning even as they choked and wheezed and made sure they both had all their fingers and toes.
And then, slowly, the smiles disappeared. They stared at each other, eyes puzzled.
"Benny?" Ray finally asked. "Where did the dress reds come from? You were wearing the brown uniform."
But Fraser was shaking his head, slowly. "You were wearing your blue suit, Ray, not the dark gray. And isn't that your favorite silk shirt?"
Ray looked down, as did Benny, completely lost for an explanation. The soft green *was* his favorite silk shirt. And this was his favorite suit, too.
And then even as he was staring down at himself, Ray realized he wasn't panting, and that his ears weren't ringing from the blast. He wasn't even dusty. In fact, for the first time ever, he was just as spotless as Benny.
He looked up and met wide blue eyes. His own, he supposed, betrayed his fear more clearly.
Benny's mouth opened, working slightly for several seconds before words actually came out.
"I'm glad Diefenbaker wasn't with us."
"Oh, God. Benny."
They stared at each other some more, then a man erupted out of Fraser's stomach.
Ray screamed and fell back, then screamed again when another man came out of his own body. But it wasn't the sight that caused his fear this time; it was the sickening sensation of it -- of something passing through his body, pushing the atoms and essence out of alignment, shoving through him like gloopy ice, formless and sharp as knives.
And it was then, as Ray was skipping away from the man -- a member of the bomb squad, still in his black protective gear -- that Ray realized what was happening.
"God, Benny. They're walking through us!"
"So it would appear, Ray," Benny's unhappy voice replied. "The sensation is extraordinarily unpleasant."
They met back up and moved towards the wall of the shops across the street from the burning office building, dodging people and things looming around them.
"We're dead, aren't we, Benny?"
The blue eyes turned with his to the sight of the fire, the blackened skeleton of the building, the people running and screaming, shuffling, calling.
"Lieu!" Ray ran forward suddenly towards Harding Welsh as the man stepped from his car. "Welsh! Sir!"
But the man didn't see him, and Ray had to dodge two more men and a woman cop before he reached Welsh's car. By then, the lieutenant had moved into the thick of the crowd.
"Where's Vecchio?" Welsh shouted. "Where's Fraser?"
"Oh, God." Ray felt something then -- a cold brush at his chest: his crucifix, a comforting weight usually.
He turned to Benny's voice, Benny's face, the awfulness of it making its slow way into his brain or at least into his mind. He supposed he didn't really have a brain anymore. Oh well, it wouldn't be the first time for that.
"God, Benny. Ma. What's Ma going to say?"
The world folded in on itself, and it felt even worse than a SWAT team repelling through his innards. Ray found himself staring into Benny's face because it was the only thing not dark and twisted up. Fraser's eyes stared back at him, Ray felt better about being afraid, because Benny felt that way too, and whatever the hell -- oh, better not think that word right now -- whatever was happening, they were going to deal with it together, and that was better than nothing, if you thought about it.
A woman was crying. They heard her in the darkness, but Ray still knew who she was.
The black became lines, and filled in with slow color. A woman was kneeling in prayer, her words whispered between small cries. A priest sat beside her, holding her hand, and there were others in the church, far off, giving this woman privacy.
"Aw, Ma." Ray's voice was full of apology, sympathy and shame.
Fraser was at his side as he approached her. Ray held out his hands, took them back, stared with eyes larger than Fraser had ever seen in that expressive face.
"Ma? God, I'm sorry, Ma."
"It's not your fault, Ray."
Vecchio rounded on him, his voice hushed only because they were in church sort of. "It was too my fault, Benny! I should have figured out it was a trap. I should have gotten us out of there. Now you're dead and I'm dead and we both look like amateurs!"
"Raymondo," Mrs. Vecchio sobbed.
"Awww!" Ray wound up on his knees by his mother. "Ma? Ma! I'm right here, Ma! I'm sorry. I didn't mean to leave you and Frannie and Maria! I mean, you got my pension now, but " Fraser watched Ray's hands flutter in frustration, then realized with shock the man was still trying to make things right, even though he was dead.
"You gotta talk to Welsh about it," Ray was explaining now. "He'll make sure the funeral's taken care of, and then there'll be payments once a month, but you gotta keep on top of them, because --"
" they'll stiff you, and the family will need every cent. Damn, but I'm sorry it's not more. Fifteen years on the force --"
"What?" Ray's eyes glared at him while his mother wept into her handkerchief.
"She can't hear you, Ray."
Ray wanted to protest. Every line of his body made that clear, even within the folds of his loosely, if impeccably, tailored suit.
"You have to be strong for this," the priest said, and only then did Ray realize he knew the man.
"You think maybe Father Behan could hear us, Benny?"
"How would he be able to do that, Ray?"
"I don't know! But he's a priest, right? They got you know a special line on this sort of stuff."
Benny made a worried face.
The Mountie cleared his throat apologetically. "Given the Catholic church's view on conversing with spirits, Ray, it's quite possible he would not welcome a discussion with us. In fact, he might respond with a ritual that could have unpleasant repercussions."
Ray stood up, blinking. "Exorcism, huh? I hadn't thought of that one."
Mrs. Vecchio sniffed, then sobbed harder. Ray's eyes filled with sorrow. "Well, who could hear us, then? We could get a message to her."
Fraser looked at his friend in concern, then refrained from saying that there was little they could say to comfort Mrs. Vecchio, and concentrated.
"Well, perhaps "
The world folded in on itself. This time, the two men -- or ex-men -- moved towards each other, willing to allow the universe to go insane, but unwilling to be parted by that same universe. When the darkness became lines, then color once again, they were standing in Ray's house. Francesca was sleeping on the sofa in her clothes, only her shoes cast off to the floor. It was obvious from her red, puffy face that she had been crying.
"Aw, Frannie!" Ray whined.
Fraser, however, was looking at the white-gray mound of fur stretched over the woman's admittedly shapely legs.
Did the wolf twitch just slightly in his sleep?
Nothing this time.
"He's deaf, right?" Ray said. "Maybe we gotta wait for him to wake up on his own."
Fraser obviously wanted to debate that. It was clear in every line of his body, for all that he was holding himself at his usual stiff-backed attention.
Ray turned to his sister, then crouched down to whisper in her ear. "I'm sorry, Frannie. I didn't see it in time."
"Ray," Fraser said gently, "neither of us saw it. How could we? The inspection team, including the dogs, went through the area thoroughly, and they found nothing."
Ray stood up with a snarl. "Don't hand me that! You're the one who wanted to keep looking!"
"So it follows, doesn't it, that I should have found the bomb? But I didn't, and now we're dead, and I think we should probably start concentrating on that."
Ray leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. "Concentrate on what? Being dead?" He threw his hands in the air. "I don't think lack of concentration's going to change the situation, Benny."
"Probably not, Ray. But there may be something we can do, even in this state, to help find our killers." At a sudden thought, Fraser looked around.
Ray scowled harder. "What?"
Fraser looked abruptly innocent. "What?"
Ray erupted. "Don't start that with me! We're dead! I'm not putting up with that Mr. Innocent Act for all eternity! You got that?"
Fraser backed off a pace, narrowly avoiding bumping into -- or perhaps bumping through -- the coffee table. "I was only wondering if perhaps my father would appear, Ray."
In an instant Vecchio went from anger to anxiety, looking around the room as the blood drained from his face. "My God, you're right. They can come get us now, can't they?"
"'Get us,' Ray?"
Ray got irritated now, though the anxiety remained. "Oh, yeah. It's all very well for you. You got your super-Mountie-original father here, and your mother too. I bet she's waiting for you on the other side with hot chocolate and warm hugs. And probably all the dead Mounties in the history of Canada will throw you a party and tell you how wonderful you were. But some of us ain't got it so good, you know? I mean, if my old man shows up, we'll both know I'm not heading to heaven with you."
When Fraser didn't point out that his friend was being silly, Ray looked at him carefully. The blueness of the eyes that met him made the man look like he was glowing from inside in the dim room.
"My mother?" Fraser asked quietly, despite the hope booming through the words. "Do you think so, Ray?"
The tall, lean man seemed to wilt slightly, but his eyes were warm and tender. "Why not, Benny? I sure hope so."
Fraser smiled back into those eyes a moment, then looked around the dim room. With a sudden frown, the Mountie went to the window.
Ray frowned to match him as he joined his friend at the window. "But it was just God, this is creepy."
"We seem to be moving forward in time," Fraser mused. "Perhaps it occurs when we change locations. Since we seem to have control over our movements through space, perhaps we can learn to control our movements through time as well."
"Fraser, being suddenly taken to some place because I'm thinking about it isn't my idea of having control over something."
"Well, it's a start, Ray. We may in time learn how to control things better."
Ray grunted. "It still sucks."
Fraser was silent so pointedly Vecchio turned to him with impatience, preparing himself for the pep talk.
Instead, Benny's eyes were almost haunted.
"What?" Ray demanded, though his tone wasn't as harsh as he'd wanted.
"My father told me, when he came back those first times, that he didn't know how it worked, that he had no idea whether he were real or just part of my mind. I dismissed his evident ignorance out of hand, deciding that either he was concealing from me some great truth about the afterlife, or that he was, in fact, only a projection of my own thoughts and therefore knew nothing about the afterlife.
"Now, however, it seems clear that he was simply being honest with me. There's no way to understand the bylaws of this existence." Fraser's eyes glinted with rare frustration. "Are we being kept here while we solve our own murders, or is this a temporary period of adjustment, a time when we're allowed to say goodbye to our loved ones?"
Ray nodded. "Are we supposed to walk the Earth until Judgment Day, or do the white angel guys come soon and show us our new digs? Are we in Purgatory, or does everyone just get to hang around until they're ready to go on?"
"Exactly, Ray." Fraser tugged at his tunic. "I must confess as well that I have no desire to spend eternity in my uniform."
"Yeah, yeah," Ray said, though the tone expressed a sympathy lacking in actual words. "It itches."
"That it does or rather " Fraser tugged at the tunic again, his eyes looking down in concern. "Or rather, it did."
Ray looked at him in surprise. "Really? The itch is gone? Well, maybe that's a benefit, you know, like bad things don't get to follow us."
"Perhaps." Fraser's tone was openly doubtful. He walked to the nearest wall and ran his hands over its surface, then he crouched and stroked the carpet.
"What are you doing, Fraser?"
"I can barely discern a difference in the texture between the wall and the carpet, Ray. My senses seem to have become quite dulled."
Ray stroked the velvet seatback near his, then ran a hand over his shorn head. Frowning, he also tried the wall and the carpet. "Damn, you're right. I can tell there's a difference, but I can't really *feel* it." He shivered and crossed his arms. "Creepy."
"Our hearing and eyesight would seem to be unaffected, though I doubt we could actually taste anything." Fraser winced. "In fact, I recall my father complaining that my French fries had no taste."
"Your father's ghost ate your French fries?" Ray asked, eyes wide. "Ha! If mine had ever tried that I'd have screamed murder!"
Fraser stared at him.
"What?" Ray asked, fighting the urge to check his face for smudges.
Fraser's voice was pure wonderment. "Your father's ghost appeared to you as well, Ray?"
Vecchio shrugged stiffly. "Well, sometimes, Benny. Do we have to talk about it?"
"I should think any insight we could gain would be welcome at this time, Ray. Besides, it would seem likely that one or both of our fathers will, in fact, appear soon, and I would like to be prepared for any contingency."
Ray shrugged again. "I dunno, Benny. Who says they weren't just figments anyway, you know?"
Now Fraser looked uncomfortable. "Well, I did have some evidence that others besides myself saw my father's spirit."
Ray looked quite rocked at that. "What sort of evidence?"
"Well, Buck Frobisher told me, when we were on the train for the Musical Ride, that he could see my father. In fact, the two of them seemed to carry on somewhat extensive conversations."
Ray scratched his cheek, though it was obviously a gesture, not a response to stimulus. "You sure? I thought he was just talking to himself."
"And then it would also seem that he appeared to Gerard."
Ray lost his pose. "What?"
Fraser nodded, looking somewhat chagrinned. "Do you remember when he fell from the window and landed on the car? Well, I believe he fell because my father appeared to him and offered him assistance. When Gerard tried to take it, of course, my father had no hand to help him with, and so the man fell."
"I see," Ray said. A moment of silence followed, and then came the sound of a suppressed snicker.
Fraser stared at his friend in astonishment. "Ray!"
The detective regarded the Mountie innocently for several seconds, then burst into laughter.
Between gafaws, Ray managed to force out, "I would have paid money to see that! He sticks out his hand, but he doesn't have a hand! I bet Gerard felt like a monkey after that one! AHAHAHA!"
Fraser glared at the man for several seconds himself before a smile cracked his face, and then a laugh cracked the smile.
Diefenbaker *woofed* happily, his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging.
"HAHAHAHA!" said Ray and Fraser.
"Diefenbaker?" Frannie asked, her voice husky from crying. "Something wrong, boy?"
Only the wolf responded to the call, however, leaping from the couch as the woman watched in confusion. One bound brought Diefenbaker to Fraser's side, where, however, the creature sat abruptly and emitted a faint whine.
"What's wrong, sweetie?" Frannie asked. "Do you need to go out?"
"Diefenbaker," Fraser explained calmly, crouching down to look into his wolf's eyes. "I know this is upsetting for you, but you have no idea how pleased I am that you can see me."
The wolf whined again, but sounded somewhat more encouraged.
"Can you see me too, Dief?" Ray asked.
"All right, hang on." Frannie got up from the couch, her body sagging dispiritedly. "I need to get going, though, so if I let you out you have to stay around the house, all right? Maria should be back soon, and she'll let you back in." Frannie had reached the front door and opened it even as she yawned and mumbled to herself, "I wonder if there's any coffee left."
"Go on outside, Dief. Ray and I will follow you," Fraser instructed, and indeed the men made it outside without having to walk through any doors or walls before Frannie shut the house up behind them. Ray stared at the door a long moment, wanting to reach through it to his sister.
"Aw, Frannie," he whispered.
Dief whined again.
"Yes, I'm sorry that I'm dead, Diefenbaker," Fraser began. "I assure you that it wasn't my intention, nor Ray's."
"Yes, I realize you're confused, and you're probably feeling somewhat guilty for not having been there. But you had promised Willie that you would accompany him to the game, and I know he was very much looking forward to having you there."
"Well, I have to admit that I am glad you were spared."
The wolf whined again.
Fraser shook his head. "No, when my will is read, the instructions will clearly dictate that you will be returned to your homeland. I would never have abandoned you here in Chicago."
Dief's next "woof" sounded somewhat scornful.
"Well, that was a highly specialized circumstance," Fraser said reproachfully.
"What?" Ray asked.
Benny ducked his head slightly. "Victoria."
Ray's face went carefully blank, then he nodded. "Well, I would have taken him back home, I guess, if that's what you wanted."
Fraser stood. "Thank you, Ray."
Vecchio gave another stiff shrug, and the Mountie turned back to his wolf.
"Now, Diefenbaker, before you leave, we could use your help, if you're willing."
Fraser smiled with approval. "I thought as much. We need to examine the crime scene, but Ray and I both seem to be suffering from a lack of sensory acuity. Your nose would be invaluable to us."
"Yes, and your other skills as well. However, I do believe you have now stooped to fishing for compliments. Just because I've lost my mortality doesn't mean I now intend to indulge you."
"Oh, lighten up, Fraser! This has got to be hard on him!"
"I can't have him use this as an excuse to lose even more of his edge, Ray. After all, he'll soon be returning to his feral existence and will need his wits about him."
Ray reached into his pocket, frowned, and then pulled out his empty hand with a disappointed sigh.
"I was trying to get him a donut," Ray said.
Fraser frowned at him. "That seems unlikely."
"Well, didn't you see that episode of *Magnum?* Magnum was dead, and his old friend was dead too and they could just make donuts and stuff appear by wishing for them."
"That seems quite a frivolous depiction of eternity, Ray."
"'Time has no meaning with infinity and jelly donuts,' Fraser."
Fraser's response would remain unspoken, for Frannie came out the door then, dressed in (for her) subdued clothing. With a nod to Dief, she climbed into her car and drove down the road. Ray's sad eyes followed until she was out of sight.
Dief barked in sympathy, then again to command attention.
"Yes, that's true," Fraser noted. "Ray, Diefenbaker has quite a bit of ground to cover to reach the site our of the explosion. It will take him some time to reach --"
"Fraser, if you think your wolf hasn't figured out some way to bum rides wherever he wants to go by now, you're living in dreamland."
"Now, Ray. I'm sure that Diefenbaker understands that the people of this community who make their living from transportation services wouldn't Oh, you're probably right." Fraser threw up his hands in surrender.
Ray was stunned. "Benny?"
"Oh, we're dead! I'm tired of pretending that he doesn't do whatever he wants to do!"
Dief's whine was pitiful in the extreme.
"No." Fraser was adamant, his arms crossed and his back stiff. "If you wanted me to continue to have faith in your sense of justice and morality, then you shouldn't have made it clear that my faith was so misplaced."
Dief's entire body seemed to droop.
"Fraser," Ray said, scowling, "we're trying to get him to help us, remember?"
"I've counted on Diefenbaker's help, Ray, but I've never bribed him for it, anymore than I've ever bribed you for it anymore, in fact, than you've ever bribed me. It's something about our friendship that I've treasured."
"Fraser!" Ray snapped, shifting uneasily. "Let's not get all complicated here."
"Just 'cause we're dead doesn't mean we gotta get all weird."
"On the contrary, Ray. I believe that we are going to have to make some dramatic adjustments."
"Why?" Ray's hands were curling up.
"Because we're dead, Ray. Everything has changed."
Ray snorted. "Doesn't look like much has changed to me. I'm still trying to catch a killer. Dief still doesn't like being told he's bad. You're still the most annoying man in the world."
"Well, I believe we're no longer quite 'in the world,' Ray."
Vecchio turned up his palms, as though making a "case closed" gesture before the jury. He turned to the wolf. "It was the office building at 2387 Mapp Street. You know the one, by the Burger King and across from the adult bookstore?"
Dief yapped. Fraser sighed.
"Good boy. Now, I don't think Fraser and I can keep up with you, so we'll meet you there, okay?"
Another yap, a look at Fraser for confirmation, then the wolf whined, turned, and ran down the street.
"What did he say?" Ray asked.
"I believe he asked us to be careful."
Ray shrugged. "Little late for that."
Together, they watched Diefenbaker come to a sudden halt on the corner. Not many minutes went by before a bus stopped, opened its doors, and allowed the wolf inside.
And Benny sighed.
One of the more troublesome aspects of arson inspection is that fires stink.
They stink so badly, in fact, that they tend to erase more than just the physical evidence of the crime, but also the precious odors as well. Everything tends to register to the nose simply as "burnt." This is particularly true when gasoline or explosives are used to start the fire, or when there are chemicals such as cleaning solution or inks present in the ruins. And this is all aggravated by wind-blown ashes, fire-hose water and foam, and permeation from broken gas lines.
Diefenbaker tried not to let the uniform stench defeat him, turning over everything within his power, sniffing the burned-out shell of a building from back to front, side to side.
"Pity the arson squad wasn't this thorough," Ray griped, standing with Fraser among the blackened wood and melted steel. "I mean, what? They're done?"
The Mountie (so to speak) looked about the remains of the building, noting that while yellow tape warned away the literate, there was no guard, nor sign of any on-going investigation. From the afternoon sidewalk bustle behind them, any civilian would find it a simple matter to sift through the bomb site at will.
Fraser determined that Diefenbaker would be busy for some time, and so turned back to the street to scan for a newspaper machine.
And then he was standing in front of the machine, Ray at his side.
"Hey," Vecchio complained, "warn a guy first."
"Sorry, Ray. I suppose I still haven't gotten the hang of this."
Ray shrugged, no doubt thinking as Fraser was of the trip they had made from the house, staring at each other and trying to get to the right place and time to meet Diefenbaker at the scene even though they had no real idea of what they were doing.
Had his father found the afterlife this confusing, Fraser wondered? Perhaps that was why it had taken him so many months to appear to him, though Fraser had often wondered if the Christmas season hadn't also played a role.
"Four days," Ray muttered.
"It's been four days since we died," Ray said, looking at him sharply. "Didn't you come over here to see the date on the paper?"
"Oh." Fraser blinked. "Yes."
"You all right, Fraser?"
"I'm *dead,* Ray!"
Large green eyes stared at him, and for once in his existence, Fraser didn't tamp down the irritation rising his chest.
"Ray, could you please explain to me why you're not more bothered by the fact that we're existing as spirits? I mean --" Fraser threw out his hands, indicating the bright sidewalk and the people who walked past, not seeing them, the blackened building that four days ago had taken the lives of two police officers, the sunlight that could no longer burn their skin, the air they no longer actually breathed. "We're --"
"Dead. Yes. I have figured that one out, Fraser." Ray's voice softened. "It happens, Benny, and it happened to us...and I don't know about you, but I'm thinking it's working out pretty well, huh? I mean, we're still here, and soon when it's time "
"What?" Fraser looked at him in near-awe. "Do you know what will happen next, Ray?"
The Italian Catholic smiled. "Well, not to get too mystical here, or nothing, but God's going to take us where He wants us to be, and it's looking like we'll be there together, right? So there's nothing more to worry about, really. I figure, we're getting the chance here to fix things up, bring our killer to justice, say goodbye. Then -- Heaven."
"Heaven?" Fraser pronounced the word as though it were something new in Russian.
"Yeah. You, me, eternity " Ray smiled and looked away. "Not too bad. And we'll get to see your folks, like we said, and you know what? We might meet John Wayne!"
Fraser couldn't help smiling, or thinking about the chance of meeting Shakespeare or Newton, nor could he help instinctively dismissing this easy optimism.
"Surely," he murmured. "It can't just be "
"Why not?" Ray looked around them, and Fraser was struck almost physically by the peace in those green eyes. "Who says dying has to be all strange and freaky? Why can't it just be walking along with your best friend to a door, or maybe a hall, and just knowing you're going on to the next thing? I mean, we lived good lives, didn't we? We tried to help people out. You were practically a saint, and I tried my best to keep up. Why shouldn't we get the brass ring?"
"I never knew," Fraser said softly. If they weren't dead, Ray wondered if he'd have heard those murmured words at all.
Blue eyes pierced him. "That you weren't afraid of death."
Ray shrugged. "I guess I wasn't, not really." He laughed, obviously at himself. "More afraid of pain, I guess."
"I was terrified of dying," Fraser confessed. "I suppose I still am. But it's good, Ray." He tried to smile again. "It's good that you're here with me."
Ray reached up and patted him on the shoulder. Both of them registered the almost non-feeling of the contact. Both were also relieved that Ray's hand didn't simply pass through him.
"It'll be all right, Benny. After all, when it comes to pain, you're about the most fearless there is, and we all gotta be afraid of something."
Fraser took off his hat, ran his hands over the brim, and put it back on.
"Thank you, Ray."
Diefenbaker barked, his tail wagging furiously.
Benny and Ray stood before the wolf, who whined slightly in confusion, then shook himself and nosed the dirt at his paws.
Fraser squatted down and pushed the dirt around a bit, then dug out a small piece of blue plastic. Ray knelt by him and together they made out the lines of letters: Y-S-C-H.
"This is from the tape recorder," Fraser said.
"I didn't get a good look at it," Ray confessed, "except to see that it was bigger than it should be."
"Perhaps to insulate the explosives inside," Fraser mused.
"Maybe. But look at this plastic " Ray frowned. "I've seen this somewhere be --"
Vecchio startled slightly, then blinked. The world had almost begun to shift and darken.
"You were starting to fade," Fraser explained.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I just think I know where we need to go next."
Benny nodded, and the two of them stood up together.
"Fraser," Ray said, "how can you hold that thing, anyway?"
Fraser's eyebrows went up, and together they looked down at the ground which was, in fact, undisturbed. Fraser fingered the plastic and kicked at the dirt. A little cloud of ash came up, then settled, and everything looked exactly the same.
"It would appear that I'm actually only holding a sort of image of the artifact."
"I guess the rules are gonna confuse us for a while, Fraser." Ray shrugged. "At least we can take it with us."
Fraser nodded and took a deep, steadying breath which reminded him that he couldn't actually breathe and thus defeated its own purpose. He tried clenching his empty hand instead, and looked down.
"Diefenbaker, this was excellent work." The wolf preened. "Now, Ray and I have to move quickly on this before the trail gets too cold. You need to return to Ray's house before they get worried about you."
The wolf's tail drooped.
"We'll see you tonight," Ray said. "We'll tell you what we find out."
"Woof!" The tail wagged, then the wolf spotted his bus and took off.
Fraser turned to Ray's face and waited as his friend brought them to an electronics store. They compared the plastic piece to every tape recorder there, then went on to the next store, and then the next.
"This isn't working," Ray announced in frustration at 5:15 PM. Fraser noticed with relief that his time sense hadn't deserted him in death.
They looked around the electronics department at Sears, rows of black boxes with little dials and knobs and glowing faces. A large man in a T-shirt was standing before a larger TV screen, watching the tape of a football game. A woman with big hair stood with her back to the man, yet it was obvious they were together. She was looking at a smaller, cheaper set. Fraser could almost feel the argument rising up between them.
And yet how many years had they been married? As thick as the tension, there was love. She looked after her husband. She was worried about their finances. He wanted a fancy TV -- yes, for the game, but also for her, for the house he made for her.
Fraser shook himself. "Yes, Ray?"
Vecchio glared at him a moment, then let it go. "I said, I know I've seen this thing before."
"The plastic, Fraser! It's tickling my brain something awful."
"Ray, we're dead."
"Oh, don't start that again!"
"I look back over my life, and I see service and duty, and yet all that matters is the people I loved, and those who loved me."
"Aw, Benny." Ray's eyes were full of both pity and fear. "Don't do this to yourself."
"My mother, my father, my grandparents, Dief, Victoria almost Victoria, actually. You."
"What are you talking about? Half the women in Chicago are in love with you. Besides, there were others, right? Women before Victoria."
Fraser shook his head. "Not that I loved, not who loved me being lusted after -- yes, I do know the term, Ray -- isn't nearly the same." Blue eyes regarded him. "You're much richer than I, Ray."
"What, because I got a big family? Besides, Ma loves you, you know. She thinks thought of you as her son too. And Frannie would have loved the real you, you know, if you'd loved her back."
"She never looked past my face, Ray, even when I tried to let her see."
"You did?" Ray looked impressed. "That was really great of you, Benny. I never thought, you know, that you'd give her a chance."
Fraser seemed to be readying himself for something. "Ray, that path -- the path your sister offered wasn't what I wanted with my life. I respected her desire for a husband, a family, children, but I don't --"
"Kids!" Ray shouted. "That's it!"
The world folded around them, darkened, brightened, colored, steadied. They were standing in the middle of the toy department.
Ray jogged down the aisle, Fraser following almost blindly.
"Bring it here, Benny!" Ray called. "See? I *knew* I had seen it before!"
Fraser looked at the big blue plastic tape recorder. On the side, the letters were molded and painted yellow: P-L-A-Y-S-C-H-O-O-L.
"A child's tape recorder," the Mountie murmured.
"Yeah, a stupid kiddie toy. Goes along with the whole Tweety Bird thing, I'm thinking."
"But why? Why put the explosives in a child's tape recorder? There would be more room for explosives and padding in a traditional ghetto blaster."
"You're spouting all sorts of new words, Fraser," Ray accused. "I'm beginning to suspect your whole naïve act is just one big put-on."
But Fraser didn't answer. He knew who had to be behind this now, and he knew that Ray knew. It was clear there in Ray's eyes when you knew what to look for.
"There was nothing you could have done, Ray. Carver, I'm sure, bears just as much grudge against me personally now as he does you."
"It doesn't have to be Carver," Ray said desperately. "Just because it's a child's toy doesn't mean it was Carver."
But the world folded, and a man was laughing.
They were in a prison cell. Carver was sitting on his bunk, a little smile on his face. Then he was laughing again, a strange sort of giggle that made his eyes shine.
"Rockabye baby in the treetop." Tweety Bird, right down to the lisp.
"You bastard," Ray spat.
The world folded, and became ice.
Ray blinked his eyes clear and looked around. There was nothing anywhere but snow and some snow-covered trees with snow-covered mountains in the distance. It was silent as a church, commanding as a crucifix in the bright sun. He could not smell the air, but he knew it was clean and sharp.
"I'm sorry, Ray." Fraser stood next to him, the bright red so clear against the snow. "But I had to get out of there."
"You had to get me out of there, you mean." Ray walked over the snow which didn't crunch or allow him to leave footprints. "I got us killed."
"Ray, damnit. Don't say that!"
Ray twirled around, eyes enormous. "You -- you swore!"
"And you're blaming yourself for something that isn't your fault. You did everything right, Ray. Carver was just lucky. And with Diefenbaker's help, we'll see that his crimes are brought out in the open."
"And what? He'll get a couple more life sentences on top of the ones he has now? God, Benny, if I'd just seen through the whole mess in the beginning "
"You would still have found a way to turn him in, Ray, and then he would have still fixated on you, and he would still have found some way to " Fraser's eyes went distant.
"Ray, how did Carver reach us from prison?"
Ray shrugged. "Hit man."
"But this was no ordinary hit, Ray. The tape, the explosives, the careful timing to make sure only you and I were in the building: this murder took a great deal of planning and care."
Now Ray's eyes were no longer seeing the world around them. Fraser waited patiently for his friend to speak.
"Joe Parsons, over at the 23rd. He died about six months ago. He was shot, execution-style, his hands wrapped up in twine. I heard they ran the MO, and it matched this guy Laster but Laster was in prison. Parsons had put him there." Ray looked sick. "God, Benny, is that it?"
Fraser was going to ask, then realized he knew where Ray was going with this. "You think we're not here to solve our murder, but to discover the *means* of our murder."
"Someone out there is offering custom-made hits for prisoners. Maybe they're even targeting cops." Ray began to think, then everything sort of froze when he dimly felt Benny's hand on his shoulder.
"Ray could we please just rest for a little while first? Just for an hour or so?"
"Sure, Benny. Are you tired?"
Fraser looked at him a moment, then shook his head and removed his Stetson to smooth back his hair. A fallen log nearby served as a chair, and after a few moments Ray joined him. Together they looked over the Canadian wilderness and for the first five minutes it took everything Vecchio had not to jump up and scream at Fraser to get the lead out.
But the five minutes after that were better, and the next five better still. Finally, Ray sighed and allowed himself to relax, rolling his shoulders and stretching his neck. It was odd to think about "muscles" now, or bones or blood or skin; it was actually all gone now, but habits seemed to be hard even for the dead to break.
Drawing in a breath to share this modest insight with his friend, Ray wound up instead staring with alarm at the grief on Fraser's face.
"I need to tell you something, Ray."
Vecchio pulled a face. "And I'm guessing I'm not going to like it."
Fraser looked even more miserable. "No, you're not. I'm so sorry, Ray."
"Don't be apologizing for something you haven't even done yet! I'm sure whatever it is it isn't that bad. After all, we're dead, right? So what can you tell me that -- Oh my God!" Ray was on his feet. "You slept with my sister, didn't you?"
Fraser looked at him blankly, then seemed offended. "No, I didn't! How can you think that?"
"How can I think that?" Ray sputtered. "How can I -- you wouldn't tell me!"
"I shouldn't have needed to tell you!" Fraser was standing now as well. "You should know me well enough to know I would never just use your sister like that!"
Ray blinked, his anger gone even more suddenly than it had come on.
"Well, what is it, then?"
Just as quickly, Fraser returned to looking afraid. His jaw worked a while before sound came out. "I hope, after this, more than anything,, Ray, I hope we can still be friends."
Ray waved that off. "Of course we're still going to be friends. Now, get it off your chest, then we'll go catch some bad guys from beyond the grave."
"I had meant to tell you before, Ray." Fraser bit his lip and thumbed his eyebrow at the same time. "I meant to tell you when there was still something that just perhaps we could do about it provided you would still speak to me, of course, and provided that I could be so fortunate, although I had little reason to hope --"
"I'm in love with you, Ray."
Ray blinked, thought for a long moment, then shook his head.
"I think I'm getting a little senile in my death, Fraser. You wanna run that one by me again?"
"I didn't mean for it to happen, Ray."
"You're in love with me."
Fraser couldn't tell if that were a statement or a question, and so remained silent.
Fraser cleared his throat. "Well, I as you know, Ray, I have loved you as my best friend for years."
"But that ain't what we're talking about here, is it?" Ray's voice was glum. Benny tried to take some encouragement from the lack of panic and outrage.
"No. I suppose I realized I wanted more from our relationship " Ray squirmed. " when we were dealing with the Bolt Brothers."
"The bomb?" Ray was looking at him like he was crazy, but there was still no anger or disgust in those green eyes. Fraser's legs -- in whatever state they could be said to exist -- felt weak, and he sat once again on the fallen tree.
"I had been spending the days leading up to the trial trying hard not to think about my kiss with Inspector Thatcher," he began.
"You kissed the Dragon Lady on the train!" Ray crowed happily, looking exactly like he had when he'd once congratulated Fraser on having "a woman in there." "I knew it!"
"Yes, Ray, though it's only because we're dead that I can speak of it."
Ray turned thoughtful. "Yeah, you're giving away all your secrets now." His half-smile vanished as he realized what one of those secrets was. "Aw, Benny. You know, I don't think you're really in love with me."
Despite his careful review of dozens of scenarios, this was a response Fraser hadn't anticipated.
"No." Ray sat beside him on the log, turned to face him with a rare show of unforced confidence. "I mean, no offense, you're my best friend and all, but when it comes to emotions and love and stuff, you're about as clueless as they come, Fraser."
"So you've made a point to mention before," Benny said stiffly.
Ray bulldozed on. "I mean, you and me, we're tight, right? And I'm thinking about your childhood and how you grew up so alone, although I know you had friends like Mark and stuff. But still, you were lonely but you were home, where you're happy. Now here you are in Chicago, and you only have one close friend, and you're lonely except for me. I can see how you'd fixate on me a little. Hell, I've fixated on you sometimes, and I got tons of people to worry about!"
Fraser stared at him. "You have fixated on me?"
Ray shrugged. "Sure. I've found myself thinking about you too much -- you know, worrying about whether you were going to be mugged in that rat-trap you live in, mortgaging my house when you were in jail, things like that."
The Mountie looked disappointed. "Those were acts of a friend, Ray. A great friend, but just a friend. I'm talking about love."
"But that's just it!" Ray exclaimed. "Don't you see? There you were on the train with your boss, and you kissed her, right?"
"But then I'm betting that right after that she ordered you to forget about it and told you you didn't have a chance."
Fraser frowned. "Yes."
"And so you know what that means."
"You were frustrated!" Ray smiled happily.
Fraser waited, but Ray seemed to have reached his conclusion. "I'm afraid I don't quite see your point, Ray."
Ray rolled his eyes. "Think about it, Benny. You're itching for more from the Dragon Lady, but she's, you know, unreachable. And then here I am, your friend, and we you know, uh, we care about each other a lot, so you sort of get confused inside and you want what you want from Thatcher, but you think about how you could get it from me instead."
Ray looked so pleased with himself that it was difficult -- though essential -- for Fraser to shake his head.
"I'm sorry, Ray, but it was nothing like that."
"Hey, don't shoot me down so quickly! Think about it."
"I have thought about it, Ray. My love for you didn't come out of confused dreams or misplaced longing. In fact, I had to think very long and hard before I realized I loved you as more than a friend."
Momentarily defeated, Ray slouched down.
"I had been thinking about my kiss with the Inspector," Benny began again. "About how soft her lips and body were, about her strength and fire, about the undeniable chemistry between us, and it made me think of that night with Victoria, watching the Northern Lights. And so even while we were fighting and the Bolt Brothers almost killed us, I was on this emotional high, thinking of possibilities with her, thinking that I had another chance at love.
"And so I went home that night and thought. I don't think I slept the entire clock 'round. And before dawn I had realized something."
"I never really loved Victoria, anymore than she ever really loved me. I loved the idea of her, the beauty of her. I had confused love with romance. And I was doing it again with Meg Thatcher. A long, ecstatic kiss on top of a train stirs the blood and fills one with the desire to write poetry, but it's nothing compared to real love."
Benny gazed into Ray's eyes now with an open adoration that had Vecchio leaning slightly away even as the man continued: "And I knew this because I compared what I felt for them with what I felt for you."
"That doesn't mean what you feel is you know."
"Sexual, all right? You don't have to feel sex stuff towards me just because we bonded so tight."
Fraser shook his head slowly with a rueful smile, his blue eyes sparkling with the lights from the snow. "Ray, I have been sexually attracted to you since we met."
Now it was Fraser's turn to produce a casual shrug. "Why shouldn't I? You're an extremely attractive man. I believe I've intimated that to you before."
Ray stared at him in shock.
"In fact, during the early days of our friendship, I was under the impression that my attraction to you was returned." He paused for Ray to sputter again. "It took me some time to realize that you were simply offering me a more intimate sort of friendship than I had ever known before. And when I was certain that you didn't intend for things to become physical between us, I cannot pretend that my disappointment wasn't more than compensated for by my delight in our other means of closeness. I buried my attraction to you as far down within myself as I could, and indeed, there were many weeks that sometimes passed when I hardly thought about it at all."
"Meaning there were some weeks when you thought about it a lot!" Vecchio accused.
"Well, you sometimes made it very difficult for me to think about anything else, Ray."
Benny cringed slightly. "I am not in any way attempting to imply that my emotional responses are your fault, Ray. I'm only saying that you are quite beautiful."
Ray gave a weak gasp.
"Well, you are, Ray." Fraser sounded almost disapproving. "You must know you have remarkable eyes. You certainly use them to your advantage when you converse. In fact, if we were living in an earlier century, I'm sure you would routinely accent them with kohl."
"I would not!"
"Many men used make-up in the --"
"I don't care!" Ray stood up and walked away, then paced back, and away, before turning back and sitting down again. "Yes, I know my eyes are all right. Valerie said so, didn't she?"
"You know, the dancer with my sunglasses."
"I thought you called them 'strippers,' Ray."
"She's a nice girl!"
"Well, she was certainly right about your eyes. However, she neglected to mention your hands, which are long and elegant, and the classic and pleasing curve of your skull, to say nothing of your neck."
"Leave my pencil neck out of this," Ray growled, face flushed.
"Now that's silly, Ray. You don't have a pencil neck. It's as long and elegant as your hands and your body, and made, if I made say so, for kisses."
"And, of course, I suspect you're quite aware of the pleasing properties of your backside."
Fraser rolled his shoulders defensively. "Well, why else would you wear such baggy clothes all the time?"
"Benny," Ray strangled out, "I can't talk about this with you."
Fraser signed. "Actually, Ray, I believe we *have* to talk about this. I'm certain it's part of what we're meant to do with this time. And besides, it hardly makes a difference now, does it?"
"Of course it makes a difference!"
"It's a moot point, Ray. We no longer have bodies to feel sexual about, whatever our preferences."
"It's the principle of the thing!" Ray stood up again, brushing snow off his knees with near-numb hands. "You *wanted* me! And you never even said a word!"
"Did you want me to say something?" Fraser knew if he had a body his head would be hurting.
"Yes! No! Yes!" Ray stormed away, stormed back, harrumphed, and sat back down.
"Do you find that you can't forgive me for this, Ray?" Fraser tamped down his anger at what was feeling more and more like a betrayal, but when Ray's green eyes blinked at him, he knew shame at having misunderstood his friend.
"This isn't about forgiveness, Fraser. This is about me thinking our friendship meant one thing and finding out it meant something else. Everything that I thought went on between us was wrong."
"I never lied to you, Ray."
"You can lie with what you don't say and as well as what you do."
"Lies of omission?" Fraser thought about it. "I told you how I felt in my actions, Ray. And if I kept myself from expressing certain actions, it was only to keep from offending or alienating you."
"You still should have told me." Ray pouted, his chin on his fists, his eyes on the undisturbed snow at their feet.
"I was planning to, Ray. I did only know it was true love a few weeks ago, as I said, and I had no idea my time to tell you while we could still do something about it was so short."
So slowly Fraser wondered briefly if the world were folding up again, Ray's head came up.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Fraser reviewed his last few sentences. "I had no idea I would die, Ray."
"Do *what* about it?"
Fraser grasped understanding to his breast as though it were a wounded pup. "Ah! Oh. I only meant --"
"Do you really think in a million years, in a million lifetimes, I would ever *ever* want to with a guy?!"
Fraser realized he was listening for Ray's final words to echo off the distant mountains. He gave himself a slight shake.
"Ray, I only meant that if we had wanted to act on my feelings --"
"Yuck! Jeeze! That is disgusting!"
Fraser's back straightened that last centimeter. "It is hardly 'disgusting,' Ray."
"Yes, it is!"
"You really feel that kissing me would have been disgusting?"
"Of course it would!"
Benny looked forward, staring out over the white expanse, feeling the connection to home he had sought in bringing them here. Over the pass to the northwest one entered a deep valley that was beautiful in summer, but in the winter looked so lonely and forlorn that a man's heart could break with it.
"Aw, Benny, don't get your feelings hurt. I just don't do things like that, all right?"
"All right, Ray."
Several minutes passed, until it seemed that Benny could feel his friend collapse in on himself.
"Benny, look. If there was even a chance, if I could even maybe on a dare think about doing stuff like that, then, you know. But I don't. I couldn't."
"I know what?" Fraser's blue eyes turned finally and saw that Ray was giving him everything he could. "You'd kiss me?"
Ray laughed, his eyes bright. "Benny, for the love of God, I'd marry you."
Fraser could not, nor did he wish to stop his smile. Considering everything, it was a staggering compliment.
"Thank you, Ray."
The broad, lean shoulders gave a trademark rolling shrug. "So what do you think? Do we hang out in Carver's cell and see if the guy contacts him? 'Cause I'm thinking he probably won't."
"We need more information about others who made have hired this man or woman."
"I'm thinking it's elaborate enough they maybe need a team."
"An organization?" Fraser thought about that. "If so, then they may be operating outside of Chicago."
"So how do we get Diefenbaker to the station?"
"I fail to see what Dief can do there, Ray."
"Why, look up the information we need in the computer database, Fraser."
"Ah. Of course." Fraser frowned at him. Was this some sort of payback?
Continue to Part II