It wasn't his fault.
No one said so; no one needed to. It was one of those self-evident things: there'd been thousands of miles between them, Ray doing his cop thing in Chicago and Fraser doing his crazy risk-taking law-defending thing in the Territories, so obviously Ray wasn't any kind of factor. When Ray stopped by the 27, three days after he got the news, not wanting to go in but needing to -- because he had to get some old case notes from Welsh to give to his new lieutenant at the 32, but also because he was being sucked back in, like the 27 was some kind of black hole -- no one said it wasn't his fault. When Welsh gave Ray the notes he needed, gripped his arm, and said, "How you holding up, Kowalski?" Ray heard, loud and clear, It wasn't your fault, and what came out of his mouth was, "I know," instead of Fine, sir, or whatever the lie of the day was. When Dewey said a half-hearted hello and Huey wouldn't even look at Ray, they weren't saying it either, loud and clear. And when Ray was nearly out of the silent, understanding, non-accusatory gauntlet of the squad room, he almost bumped into Vecchio in the doorway.
They stared at each other for a long moment, Vecchio's mouth fixed into unhappy lines, and just like that Ray was so scared he couldn't see straight. He pushed past Vecchio and almost got out of the station before he had to duck under a stairwell and just stand there, gasping for breath and shaking uncontrollably for a long time before he'd calmed down enough to be good for driving.
Ray's lieutenant at the 32 had no idea anything was up, which was good, because therapy would've just about killed Ray. After running into Vecchio, though, he knew he wasn't gonna be any good as a cop for a while, so he cited a family emergency and took the week off. No point in anyone else dying just because Ray Kowalski couldn't think straight anymore.
No point in the anyone else being him, either; Ray was still sane enough for that. He knew that if he saw a scumbag with a gun, he was going to step right in front of the damn thing, and he didn't know if after that he'd start screaming, just one big jumble of incoherent rage and shoot me then, you fucking bastard or if he'd raise a hand, go all straight and calm, say think for a moment about what you're doing, son, because that was how --
That was how Ray woke up, every single morning. Ray woke up wondering what Fraser's last words had been, how they'd probably been "Let's just think this through calmly," or something equally stupid; how it had been a gun, a damn gun, how at least glaciers and snowstorms and cliffs and cold weren't evil, just there, in a way you couldn't fight; how it was Ray's fucking fault that he was thousands of miles away and couldn't remind Fraser that guns were dangerous and now Fraser was dead.
The first thing Ray did, literally the first thing after he'd sat there stunned on his couch clutching at his phone and breathing in little jolting gasps, hating Inspector Thatcher's guts and desperately grateful she'd thought to let him know, was call right back and ask about Dief.
"I beg your pardon?" Thatcher asked. She sounded a little sniffly. Human.
"Diefenbaker," Ray repeated. "What's gonna happen to him?"
"I -- I hadn't thought --"
"That's okay," Ray said, real calm. "Send him down, care of Ray Kowalski. I'll look after him."
Silence on the line. "That's ... very kind of you, Detective," Thatcher said.
So at the end of the week Ray went, in the middle of his newfound afternoon free time, to pick Dief up from quarantine at the airport. When they let Dief out and handed him over, Dief went and huddled up against Ray's legs, warm and furry and shivering a little. Ray eventually coaxed him out to the GTO, and Dief curled up in the back seat without commentary. When they got back to Ray's apartment, though, Dief sniffed around like he was making it sure it was all still in working order before coming back over to Ray and looking up expectantly.
"Okay," Ray said, crouching down next to the wolf, "this is how it works. I leave the back window open so you can do your business when I'm not around. You, uh, you get kibble so you don't keel over from too much junk food, and when I feel like it I'll spring for pizza for both of us. Got it?"
Dief gave a little whuffle of agreement and licked the end of Ray's nose.
That was all she wrote; Ray ended up hanging onto Dief and wailing into his fur for fuck knew how long, while Dief shuffled and whined and tried to snuggle up right back. But after that Ray felt better. He gave Dief human food probably more than he should've, and talked to Dief probably more than he should have either, but that was okay. He let Dief sleep in his bed most nights too, and even though Dief snored like a truck with a bad engine and Ray occasionally got bitten by the intermittent fleas, having something warm to wake up near was really helpful.
And then he went back to work. What the hell else was he supposed to do?
It had been the best course to take post-Stella, and it was the best course to take post-Fraser, too. Ray tried to stay smart and take the low-profile cases, though, the ones without any real risk of firearms. Small-time robbery; community projects; stakeouts. Seemed like the smartest move.
The 27 was still a black hole. Ray had to go there sometimes -- liaising, it was probably called liaising even if it was just interdepartmental -- because his new lieutenant thought that Ray was a good choice for gofer if he needed info from Welsh. And Ray couldn't complain, because that ... He just couldn't.
The first time he came in with Diefenbaker was a mistake. Dief perked right up and trotted around looking for handouts just like usual, and he got some too, but a few of the officers went pale when they saw him, like Dief was a ghost, and Francesca burst into tears.
"Oh, fuck, Frannie, I'm sorry," Ray said, scrambling to find a tissue box.
"N-no, I'm sorry," Frannie said, accepting the tissues and giving Ray a look with her eyes all huge and tragic. "I shouldn't -- it's just --"
"I know," Ray said, real quiet, and Frannie gave him a tremulous smile and squeezed his arm too tight for a moment. Ray shook her off gently before -- before anything, just preempted every single splintering possibility and went to Welsh's office.
Welsh was good. After that first time he hadn't asked how Ray was holding up, just did the cop talk, moved it along, left Ray alone. This time Welsh told Ray about a guy who was technically in the 32's jurisdiction, only someone at the 27 had been after this guy for months, so could Ray maybe see his way to a cooperative stakeout deal? "Sure," Ray said. "Sure, sounds good," and tried to duck out.
That's when he realized the real problem with bringing Dief in to the station. It wasn't just Frannie's waterworks -- no, he couldn't find the damn wolf. "Hey, Jack, you seen Diefenbaker?"
Huey glanced up. "Sure," he said. "Lunchroom." And when Ray was already turning, Huey added, screwing his momentum, "Kowalski. Vecchio's in there."
"Uh-huh," Ray said, and went anyway, because he needed to find his stupid wolf.
Both Dief and Vecchio were in the lunch room, like Huey said; Vecchio was sitting, glaring at Dief, while Dief gazed up at him adoringly, all smug wagging tail. "Did I say 'No, of course, take the meat out of my sandwich. I didn't want a ham sandwich, I just wanted a lettuce sandwich! I'll let the wild animal have the prime cut!' Did I say that?" Vecchio demanded. "No, I did not say that. And what do you do? You take it!"
Dief made an inquiring noise.
"No, I'm not gonna just forgive you for this," Vecchio told him, and then his head snapped up, like cop instincts had belatedly switched on and he'd felt Ray watching him from the doorway. "Kowalski," he said, and it sounded annoyed, but then he'd sounded annoyed when he was talking to Dief, too.
Ray became aware that he was gripping tight to the doorframe. He let go and stepped into the room. "He's not allowed processed meat. It gives him stomachaches."
"I didn't give him the sandwich," Vecchio said.
"I know," said Ray, and scratched at a sudden nervous itch at the back of his neck. "Listen, I ..."
"What?" Vecchio demanded after a moment.
Ray wanted to offer him Dief. Really wanted to. Not on any permanent basis, and not because he wanted to be going home without the furball, but because Vecchio had been almost smiling through the bitching, and it felt like for this one moment he could actually look Vecchio in the eye without wanting to panic. But Vecchio would have to be psychic not to take it the wrong way and think Ray really was trying to get rid of Diefenbaker, which ... Ray was not ready for that conversation. Ray would never be ready for that conversation. "Nothing," Ray said. "C'mon, Dief."
Dief whined faintly and licked Vecchio's hand -- "Ah, no, gross!" Vecchio said -- but Dief ignored the theatrics and trotted back over to Ray, leaned up against Ray's leg the way he always did these days. Ray gave Vecchio a little apologetic shrug, and after a moment Vecchio returned it, only a little reluctantly. "So I'll, uh, I'll see you around," Ray offered. "I got a stakeout tonight. Cooperative thing."
"Fisk case?" Vecchio asked, suddenly focusing on Ray. It was the first time, ever, Vecchio hadn't pretended at least a little that Ray wasn't in the room, and the difference -- the difference was, Ray felt for the first time in months like he was in the room, existed. It wasn't a good feeling; it felt like being tired, like having patchy stubble and scuffed-down shoes and bone-deep weariness. Ray breathed in, present, solid, miserable, and nodded. Vecchio quirked a little smile in return. "The Fisk case is mine," Vecchio said. "Thanks."
"Sure," Ray said. "If you come to switch me out early, I'll save you doughnuts."
Vecchio's eyebrows went up a little, but all he said was, "Done."
"Okay," Ray said, "okay, later," and dragged Dief out of there, took the wolf for a long walk so he wouldn't sulk when he was left at home on stakeout night. Dief hated stakeouts anyway. He always got bored and snored in the back seat, and if he didn't have Fraser sitting next to him, making conversation to keep them awake and drown out his wolf's impolite noises, Ray just didn't want to have Dief along at all.
Fisk's apartment was dark except for a lone lamp and flickering TV light when Ray parked outside the building, and in three hours the only change was the lamp shutting off. The ambient TV light kept jittering on, a blue-white grainy light that reminded Ray of an endless reel of old unseen horror films. He sipped his coffee, long since cold, and played the radio just softly enough that occasional jangly chords jolted him out of his bored sleepy daze. Fisk didn't leave, and no one turned up, and Ray was stuck in the stupid strobe-light cold-coffee gray limbo of a pointless stakeout, to be followed by restless sleep he wasn't looking forward to.
"At this point I'd say the likelihood of anything happening tonight is very small."
Ray snorted softly into his coffee. "Yeah, tell me something I don't know," he said, the loud confinement of his voice startling him all the way awake.
He froze, his insides twisting into cold sick knots. He made himself turn his head.
Fraser was sitting shotgun, in jeans and plaid flannel, his stakeout civvies, hat perched neatly on his lap, his attentive profile half-illuminated and pointing towards Fisk's apartment. For a short eternity, everything that had happened during the long awful spring since Ray'd said goodbye to Fraser after Muldoon's trial was done, all of it was gone, erased. For another, Ray knew that he was dreaming, except he'd just woken himself up. Fraser was still sitting there, so still that Ray finally settled on the obvious option: over-tired fucked-up hallucination.
"Oh, fuck, go away," Ray said.
Fraser's head snapped around. He looked hurt, actually hurt. "I know it's a bit sudden, Ray," he said, "but I would have thought you had at least a few questions, not just a callous dismissal."
"Yeah, yeah, I have questions," Ray snapped, tearing his eyes away; trying to devour all the little details of his own stupid hallucination was more fucked-up than he ever wanted to be. "First question: is Fisk smuggling his drugs straight through Starbucks? If so, wow, we got him!"
"Ray -- Ray --"
"No, shut up," Ray told the steering wheel. His vision was starting to blur a little. Exhaustion and panic, fuck, that was it. "I don't want to know. You're not here. You're not here."
"Well, I suppose in one sense I'm not here at all, but --"
"Did I not tell you to shut the fuck up?" Ray snarled, whipping around to glare at Fraser -- who wasn't there, of course, but staring at him through the window, looking bewildered more than anything else, was Vecchio. Ray groaned and reached over to roll the window down. "Hey."
"Hi," Vecchio said warily.
"Late night," Ray told him. "You're just in time. I got lots of doughnuts."
Vecchio's face softened a little. "You didn't need --"
"Yeah, but I wanted to," Ray interrupted, and Vecchio actually smiled, a tight tired smile, and accepted the bag of doughnuts with grace.
Until the weekend Ray figured he was safe; he must have dreamed it, hallucinated, something that was a one-time unfortunate side-effect of staying up too late on too little sleep and being willing to nurse his own misery. But Friday afternoon, coming home after a long day and thinking vaguely of ordering pizza and maybe calling Vecchio to see if he'd made any headway on the Fisk case, everything got turned upside-down again.
Ray'd just ordered a pizza, was literally hanging up the phone; he turned around and slammed painfully back against the breakfast bar, propelled by shock. It was Fraser, solid-looking in his red uniform, standing there like something real and taking up most of the space in Ray's tiny kitchen.
"You know, Ray," he said, "it wouldn't kill you to order a pizza with vegetables now and then. In fact, it might be quite beneficial to your health."
"Uh-huh," Ray said. He squeezed his eyes shut. Opened them. Fraser was still there, watching him with moderate concern. "I would not hallucinate a public service announcement."
"That would seem unlikely," Fraser agreed.
"And it's early," Ray went on. "I've been sleeping. Sometimes. So I'm not dreaming."
"You're not dreaming," Fraser repeated, with less worry now, and a lot more sympathy.
And just like that, with the breakfast bar still digging into his back and the orange light of sunset filtering into Ray's apartment, making everything surreal, making this real, Ray suddenly wanted to touch Fraser. He wanted it more than he'd ever wanted anything -- more than he'd ever wanted to impress Stella, more than he'd wanted to make his father proud, more than he'd wanted to save his marriage, more than anything, so bad he couldn't fucking breathe. "But you're dead," he said, like he was twelve, like he was crazy, and gripped hard at the counter.
"Yes," Fraser said gently. "I'm sorry, Ray."
"Yeah, well, me too," Ray mumbled, and took off for the living room, where Diefenbaker was snoring on the couch. Ray dropped down next to the wolf, mostly because he wasn't sure how much longer his legs would hold out, but also so he could bury a hand in Dief's warm breathing fur. Dief stopped snoring, snuffled, lifted his head, and looked at Ray for only a moment before gazing past him. His tail started wagging, a cautious back-and-forth swish; he made a little whining noise Ray'd never heard before.
Ray forced himself to turn his head, and yeah, Dief was staring at Fraser, who had apparently followed Ray into the living room and was standing next to Ray's coffee table. Mostly next to. He was standing in it, just a little.
"Don't do that!" Ray told him helplessly.
"Ah, quite sorry, Ray," Fraser said, and stepped out of the table.
"So you're really here," Ray added, in the face of the evidence.
"Yes," Fraser agreed, looking relieved. "And I really am very sorry for barging in on you like this -- but there really is no protocol. Or perhaps there is a protocol, but from my own observations it seems like the general idea is to frustrate and confound the living with strange and inopportune advice, which is hardly -- well. Of course my relationship with my father is different than my relationship with you."
"Trust me, Frase, you're doing a good job," Ray said, and blinked. "Your father?"
"Ah. Yes. I think hauntings may run in my family." Fraser looked so damn earnest about it, too.
"Great." Ray sank back on the couch. Dief glanced over at him again, still doing that weird little whimper-whine, which basically covered Ray's feelings on the subject. "That's -- that's great, Fraser. So what's your unfinished business?"
"Unfinished business, Ray?"
"Yeah, you know." Ray waved a hand. "The reason you haven't moved on. The thing you still have to do."
"I see," Fraser said thoughtfully, and sat down in one of Ray's armchairs. He seemed to actually be sitting on it, too, not sinking creepily halfway in like he'd done with the coffee table. "Well, my father's unfinished business was -- specifically it was to avenge the death of my mother, but in a larger sense I suppose it was also to forge some sort of relationship with me before it was too late." He gave Ray a slightly concerned sideways glance. "Considering the capture of my own murderer, and the fact that those people I care about are still alive and well, I really can't see what ... Ray?"
"No, keep going," Ray forced out. He'd started shaking around my own murderer and had somehow made it to the teeth-chattering stage in ten seconds.
Fraser made an aborted motion towards him and settled back with a sound of frustration. "This isn't working, is it," he said. "Whatever I'm still here for, it has to do with you, but I've distressed you."
"You're dead," Ray told him, and covered his face with his hands, shutting out Fraser's look of frustration and concern, shutting out Dief's faint whine and everything crazy in the whole damn world. "Dead I can deal with. Dead happens. Fixing stuff from the afterlife, that doesn't happen, because when you're dead you're done, Fraser, so I'm not doing this."
Fraser didn't say anything.
Ray looked up cautiously and saw that he was alone except for the anxious wolf. "But you saw him too," he said to Dief. "So I'm not crazy."
Dief gave a little whuffle of confirmation, but the fact that Ray understood what Diefenbaker was trying to say didn't really lend any weight to his 'Ray is sane' theory. Great.
"When's the last time you slept?" Vecchio demanded on Monday afternoon when Ray came by to see if anything had happened with Fisk over the weekend. No Hi, how you doing? just a demand to know Ray's sleep schedule.
"Thursday," Ray said, because he was too tired to lie about it.
Vecchio's face went hard. He finished filing some papers a lot more ominously than he had any right to, and slammed the drawer shut. "When's the last time you ate?"
"Last night," Ray said. "Mom."
"Jesus Christ, Kowalski, really?" Vecchio grabbed his arm and dragged him down the hall. Ray didn't fight it very hard, not until they'd reached the parking lot and he caught on to the fact that Vecchio was pulling him in the direction of the latest green Riv. Then he dug his heels in, but Vecchio said, "I am buying you some damn dinner, so get in the car," and Ray didn't have a good enough reason not to. Well, it would mean leaving the GTO in the 27's lot overnight, which as bad ideas went was pretty high up there, but Ray was really damn hungry and not really awake, so he went with it.
He tuned back in around the time when Vecchio shoved a plate with a burger and fries on it in his direction. Ray ate. Vecchio had the decency to wait until he was halfway through the burger before he said, "Okay, talk."
Ray gave a little snort of laughter. "Or else?"
"Yeah, or else someone higher up notices you're not doing so hot," Vecchio said quietly. "You were fine last week. Mostly. And today you're falling into your damn plate. What's happened?"
Ray prodded a fry into his ketchup. Ate it. Wash rinse repeat. "Fraser," he said.
When he looked up, Vecchio was still just sitting there, not looking surprised at all. Of course he wasn't. But there was a big damn difference between being haunted by Fraser's memory and being literally haunted by Fraser, even if he'd been polite and hadn't turned up since Ray'd said he couldn't deal. That was the real reason he hadn't slept: sheer paranoia. What if he turned around and Fraser was there? There wasn't any family history but Ray wasn't about to discount a spontaneous heart attack. Worse, though, every time he turned around and Fraser wasn't there ...
It was like everything he'd done since saying goodbye to Fraser in Canada, all the ways he'd learned to not act like there was a Fraser-shaped gap in his life, they were all gone. What's worse than a dead best friend? A dead best friend who sits in your armchair going on about unfinished business and giving you worried looks.
There was no way Ray was giving Vecchio anything more to go on than the name.
After a long minute, during which Vecchio stole one of Ray's fries and gazed out at the traffic going by, giving Ray plenty of time to see that Vecchio looked drawn with tiredness too, he turned back to Ray and said, "It's knowing he's not out there saving the world."
That was only true of one tiny unselfish fraction of Ray's mind, but he nodded anyway, because tiny truth or not it was still true.
"I keep thinking I could've done something," Vecchio added.
"Yeah," Ray said, and finished off his Pepsi, making a loud obnoxious rattling noise with the straw. "Congratulations, you get it."
"You're a real asshole, aren't you," Vecchio said mildly.
Ray gave him a tight cocky smile, but that didn't mean Vecchio wasn't right. "I'll get some sleep," he said. "I'll sleep, and tomorrow I'll be good for stakeouts again. You got anything?"
"No," Vecchio admitted. "All my informants swear up and down that it's Fisk, but as far as I can tell he's the most law-abiding citizen of Chicago."
"We'll get him," Ray said, As apologies went it was pretty terrible, but Vecchio's tired quirk of a smile meant he'd accepted anyway.
Fraser turned up again on Ray's next stakeout night. He had the decency to clear his throat this time instead of just starting right in on a conversation, but Ray still barked his shin on the underside of the dash and swore the air blue for thirty seconds.
"Sorry," Fraser said.
"I'm doing my job here," Ray said. "You are distracting me from my job."
"Sorry," Fraser said again. "Is there are more convenient time I could drop by?"
"Yeah," Ray said. "Never." He looked over at Fraser, and Fraser looked back at him, Stetson perched neatly in his lap, his face patient and concerned, and Ray's heart broke all over again. "Please," he said. "I can't -- I can't remember you if you're still around."
"But don't you want me to be?" Fraser asked reasonably.
"Yeah," Ray admitted, and stared out at Fisk's dark house. "But this isn't you. It's like a tape recording or something. It's like -- your dad dies and all of a sudden you find all the notes he left, and you realize he loved you and here's all the advice you need, and that's -- that is all you need. Me, I don't need notes, I know all that stuff already, but if you can't be here for real --"
"I don't want to leave you," Fraser interrupted.
Ray's words stumbled to a halt. He stared at Fraser. There'd been interrupting.
"I've been ... left alone too often," Fraser went on. "I know how that feels. And I think that's what my unfinished business is, Ray: I have to make sure you're all right when I leave."
Ray sputtered. "You have left! I'm fine!" but Fraser's look said he hadn't fooled anyone, so he ducked his head and took a couple of deep breaths. "Okay," he said. "But we need a couple ground rules. Like, you can hang out with me over dinner, but not on stakeouts or cases. I do not want my concentration fucked up."
"Understood," Fraser said, quite happily. "Well -- I'll see you later, Ray," and when Ray looked over at the passenger seat, it was empty.
"I got an idea," Ray told Vecchio later that week. Vecchio was glaring over some kind of report, and when he looked up at Ray for a second his body language was telling Ray to back the hell off; then he relaxed and looked relieved for the interruption. "I been asking around," Ray said, "because I had this brilliant idea that your informants are not my informants. Anyway, I got a new lead. Address for us."
"Okay, shoot," Vecchio said.
"Flower shop," Ray said, and added, seeing Vecchio's gaze wandering the bullpen, "I decided to leave the wolf out of this one. He goes nuts for bouquets."
"Yeah, well, we all have our weaknesses," Vecchio retorted, standing. "Lead on, Macduff."
Ray had no idea what that meant, but he knew better than to ask. Instead he ignored how non-fidgety Vecchio was about being in the passenger seat -- anyone who owned a '71 Riv had to be a big fan of driving his own car, but Ray balanced this out against having a Vegas limo and called it even -- and in ten they were at the flower shop. They both knew better than to mention Fisk straight up, but something was definitely hinky: the woman running the shop took one look at the badge on Ray's vest and clammed up, not even wanting to answer simple questions like how much a dozen roses would cost. Vecchio was a lot better at keeping a straight face through this than Ray was, so he got out of there as fast as he could and did his disbelieving eyebrow gymnastics in the parking lot. A minute later Vecchio joined him.
"We need to get our hands on her books," Ray said. "Deliveries, customers -- and fast."
"If you've got any bright ideas ..."
"No," Ray admitted. Here was where Fraser would be useful. He could probably sniff out a weird ingredient in the flower shop and bypass all the paperwork, go straight to the nondescript truck hanging out back and bust a whole drug ring in a half-hour without breaking a sweat. But Ray was an ordinary human, and it turned out Fraser had been too, so Ray just hunched his shoulders and turned back towards the GTO.
"Hey," Vecchio said. "Late lunch?"
"Yeah, sure," Ray said.
They went to a cheap Italian bistro. Ray expected Vecchio to bitch about the food -- it was definitely not as good as his Ma's, which Ray knew from experience -- but Vecchio just ate up, looking thoughtful. Ray was just about to ask him snippily if he wanted to share with the class when Vecchio said, "You know, I can see why he liked having you around."
Ray stiffened up. "Oh, fuck off."
"Nah, I mean it," Vecchio said. "You're pretty useful when you're not having some kind of meltdown."
"Yeah, well," Ray said, fiddling with a napkin, "you're kind of tolerable if I don't bring Dief along. Then you can't bitch about him ruining your suits."
Vecchio's mouth quirked up on one side. "Does he really have a thing for bouquets?"
"Actually yes." Ray grinned. "I'm telling you, that wolf sustained some lasting damage, and I don't mean the part where he pretends to be deaf."
"Maybe we all did," Vecchio pointed out, and just like that the brief joking moment was gone, but Ray couldn't actually get angry again, because -- lasting damage, yeah. Dief with his busted eardrums, and Vecchio, Ray got suddenly, going off to Vegas not because he was stupid enough to think that being Languistini would be fun, but because it was the right thing to do, the only way Vecchio could get anywhere near the kind of good Fraser did, and Ray ...
Ray stared across the table at Vecchio and said, "Hey, I had this thought. How about I stop being a jerk?"
Vecchio looked surprised, but he just said, cool and amused, "I hear it's a process."
Ray flipped him off, but he also picked up the tab when Vecchio wasn't looking, so ha ha.
"Me and Vecchio are working a case," Ray told Fraser over some inane nature documentary that night. "So, y'know, you don't have to worry about me being alone."
"If you say so, Ray," Fraser said absently, and kept watching the herd of moose.
"They're shipping in bulk," Vecchio announced with an air of great satisfaction. Ray gaped at him, because of all things he hadn't expected Vecchio would actually come around to the 32 -- called maybe -- but here he was, wearing a suit jacket and slacks and solved-the-case smugness, so Ray pulled it together.
"The flower shop?" he guessed. "It'd have to be a lot of bulk to be illegal."
"It is," Vecchio said. "And it's sloppy, but it's not actively stupid -- if no one's looking for it, who cares how many petunias they're ordering? Anyway, we can get a warrant for that, and it'll give us time to look at the books."
"I'm all over this," Ray said, getting up. "You got one yet?"
"I figured you could come to the warrant department with me," Vecchio said, so they did, got their papers filed, headed for the flower shop. Ray, in the passenger seat this time and feeling a little weird about that; there was something about letting Vecchio drive, the two of them definitely on a case together, that made it seem like liaising for real. It was stupid, but he felt it anyway.
At the flower shop, the woman was helpful in that careful, precise way people often were when they knew they were busted. Vecchio and Ray went into the back together to get the books, and it turned out Ray and maybe Vecchio too had been riding high on this sudden sense of partnership, because both of them forgot to keep an eye on the woman; next thing they knew, there was the slam of a door and the screech of tires. Ray swore and remembered to grab the book while he was chasing after Vecchio out into the yard behind the shop, where -- yeah, it was the woman driving away, and for a second Ray caught a glimpse of Fisk on the passenger side, and then there was gunfire.
Ray always dove instinctively when there was gunfire. That was standard. The problem was, he had the book of customers and deliveries wedged against his side, tangling with his vest, and his hands were shaking too badly to reach for his gun. Through the ringing in his ears he could faintly hear Vecchio returning fire, but none of the sensory information was coming through the way it was supposed to.
Dimly he heard "Ray. Ray. Ray," and looked up to see Fraser crouched in front of him, face a perfect picture of concern, his hands hovering uselessly above Ray's shoulders. "It's all right," Fraser was saying. "It's all right. No one's been hurt."
"No one's been hurt?" Ray repeated disbelievingly. "Sure no one's hurt, Fraser, except you're still dead!"
He became abruptly aware that the yard was perfectly quiet, and that Vecchio was staring at him with a lot more concern than Fraser had been. Well, of course. Fraser didn't think he was nuts. Ray covered his face with his hands and tried desperately to stifle a despairing giggle.
He heard the sound of Vecchio's feet crunching over. "Hey," Vecchio said quietly. Ray forced himself to look up, and forced himself to take Vecchio's outstretched hand, be pulled to his feet.
"Fuck, I'm sorry," he said.
"Nah," Vecchio said. "It happens." And before Ray could demand what, exactly, Vecchio found normal enough about this situation to say something like that, Vecchio had picked up the order book and added, "We'll look at this tomorrow. Tonight we're getting really, really drunk."
Ray thought about this for a second. "Yeah, okay."
He'd figured Vecchio meant a bar, but they ended up at the apartment Vecchio had rented when he got back from Las Vegas. It was in a nice neighborhood -- that was hazard pay for you -- with a good view of the skyline and a couch that was apparently made specifically for Ray to sprawl on it. So Ray settled in, doing his sprawling thing and not shaking too much anymore. Vecchio brought out two glasses and a bottle of gin, and they got to work on it.
Ray figured he might as well get the hard parts over with as soon as possible; he'd still be coherent and he wouldn't mind sounding stupid the further along in the bottle he got. So: "I'm sorry I'm a screw-up," he said.
"It happens," Vecchio repeated, and that seemed to mostly cover it. So Ray shrugged and knocked back half a glass, focusing on the burn until his jitters went away entirely. He watched the skyline, the hypnotizing white glow of the spires atop the Sears Tower. Vecchio poured himself a second glass and said, real quiet, "You get used to it. You have to."
"I will," Ray said, but Vecchio shook his head, so he subsided.
"You have to," Vecchio repeated, "And you have to understand that it doesn't get better. Mostly not. I don't dream about my Pop anymore, but that's mostly about perspective, you know? You spend enough time as a hard guy and you forget why he scared you in the first place."
"Vecchio --" Ray tried, but he didn't take the glass of gin away. He knew an excuse when he saw one.
"So I'm saying it's okay," Vecchio pressed on. "First time near a gun again, you get a damn pass."
Ray knocked back the rest of his glass and coughed. "I should go to the range."
"Might help," Vecchio agreed. He offered Ray the bottle, but now that Ray had a little buzz, enough to calm him down, he was fine. Didn't want to get dizzy. So he shook his head, and Vecchio set the bottle aside entirely, sighed and slouched down next to Ray with their shoulders touching. Excuse, Ray thought, but he didn't pull away, just let his eyes drift shut and breathed, breathed like he was relearning how.
The case stalled again, since Fisk and his accomplice were AWOL and it would take them at least two weeks to go through all the suppliers and contractors. Both Welsh and Ray's new lieutenant let them, though, because busting Fisk's drug ring would be a big damn deal. Ray also suspected that Welsh was just happy to see him doing some work, maybe to see Vecchio doing some work, but he wasn't about to try finding out if he was right. As long as Welsh didn't mind, things were good.
Things were better than good, actually: every day after they followed up leads, Ray and Vecchio would get dinner, then head back to Vecchio's place. The first night Vecchio used the drinks excuse again, only they got caught up arguing whether basketball or hockey was the better sport, and by the time they'd compromised on baseball and tuned into that night's game (Sox vs Yankees, they were so fucked) the excuse seemed pretty pointless. After that they didn't even try, just went back to Vecchio's. talked and talked. Ray found he was actually useful catching Vecchio up on the doings of the younger nieces and nephews of the Vecchio clan; he also discovered that Vecchio could do an impression of Maria's husband Tony that made him fall off the couch laughing. Somewhere around the fifth night Ray mentioned his first undercover gig, and that had them swapping story after story, funny ones first and serious ones later, a few things about Vegas, although Vecchio still didn't want to talk about that and Ray sure as hell wasn't going to make him.
"And once," Vecchio was telling him, "I almost got trapped in entrapment. Contraband Armani, small-time thing, only I was trying to sell to someone from Internal Affairs. I only had my ass saved at the last moment because that's when Fraser --"
"Showed up?" Ray supplied into the silence. Vecchio nodded, and Ray managed a grin. "He was really bad about blowing your undercover stuff."
"Tell me about it," Vecchio said, rolling his eyes.
After that there was no off-limits. Vecchio made Ray tell the story of his first day with Fraser, how he'd busted up one of Vecchio's precious Rivs. When Ray mentioned the time he'd had to crossdress for a job with Vice, Vecchio had a matching story about Fraser going undercover at a girls' school as a favor to Vecchio. And they didn't stop, either; both of them kept talking about Fraser, as much as they could, until Ray got the feeling he was trying to speak enough that he'd fill up every single memory, cram them all with details until they turned into insulation and he'd never have to hurt again. He didn't know what Vecchio got out of it. Maybe the same thing.
"It would be better if you crosschecked the database with Francesca," Fraser opined at the beginning of the new week.
Ray almost slammed into the car in front of him and shot Fraser a sideways glare. "Why?"
"Well," said Fraser, and rubbed at his eyebrow, because apparently the afterlife didn't do any favors to nervous tics, "it would certainly expedite the investigation."
"Expedite," Ray muttered.
"Accelerate," Fraser clarified. "Raise your efficiency."
"Yeah, well, maybe I don't want to," Ray said, refusing to look at Fraser. He had to watch the road anyway. "I'm having a good time for the first time in a long while, okay? A really long while."
"That shouldn't stop you from the pursuit of justice," Fraser said admonishingly.
Ray laughed. "See, Fraser," he said, "that's your whole problem, right there," but when he looked over, Fraser was gone. Ray wasn't surprised. If he was Fraser, he wouldn't want to hear it either.
Fraser did have a point, though. Ray made Frannie crosscheck a few things, and it got them a probable shipment address; a warehouse down by the docks, of course, because people just couldn't bother being creative these days. Ray and Vecchio got Welsh's permission to do a stakeout, so they went out in an unmarked car and sat together in the dusk, drinking coffee in companionable silence.
"You'll be good if there's any action?" Vecchio wanted to know.
"Yeah," Ray lied. He didn't get shaky when he heard his own shots on the firing range, but that wasn't the same goddamn thing.
"I don't think it's fair of you to put Ray in unnecessary danger," Fraser put in from the back seat. Ray groaned and dropped his head down on the dash. He knew Vecchio was giving him a puzzled look, and he didn't have time for this.
"I don't have time for this," he said, in case Fraser hadn't gotten the message.
"Oh?" Vecchio asked; "I think you have to, Ray," Fraser said. "While I'm sorry to have caused you unnecessary distress with my death, there's no reason Ray should be caught in the crossfire as well."
"Then you should wait until he isn't around," Ray mumbled.
"Who?" Vecchio asked.
"Nothing," Ray said. "Nothing, just arguing. With myself."
"Uh-huh," Vecchio said, unconvinced, but he dropped it, and if the silence was a little less companionable, and Ray could still feel Fraser radiating disapproval from the back seat, well, that was just the way it was. Eventually Vecchio thawed out and started talking odds for the World Series, and Ray let himself relax a little, even with the world's most obnoxious ghost in the back seat.
About two hours in, there was movement down by the warehouse. Vecchio and Ray slipped out of the car -- Ray didn't check to see if Fraser was still there -- and made their way down. Jackpot, Ray thought; Fisk himself wasn't there, but the lady from the flower shop was, and the stuff in those crates sure as hell weren't bouquets. Vecchio was already radioing quietly for backup, and Ray sidled around the edge of the warehouse, trying to count the trucks, see how big this operation was, maybe memorize a few plate numbers in case anyone tried to get away. He was concentrating so hard on the plates that he didn't notice someone was in the shadows with him until he heard the click of a gun locking.
"Watch out, Ray," Fraser said unhelpfully.
Ray looked down the barrel of the gun and then up into Fisk's face. So he was here after all, all sleezy six feet of him, looking damn satisfied with himself. Fisk was grinning; nowhere to run, cop. Off to one side was Fraser, standing there, just standing there, this stupid useless illusion, and it hit Ray all over again that Fraser was dead, because the Fraser he knew would already be stepping between the gun and Ray, hands raised nonthreateningly, saying --
-- saying "If you'll just be kind enough to put down your weapon, I'm sure we can work all of this out at the station --"
-- except that was Ray's voice, freakishly calm and steady, Ray's hands casually in the air like he did this every damn day, and hey, he got why this worked for Fraser, because Fisk looked seriously confused, totally unsure what to do with the almost sociopathically calm and polite cop looking down the barrel of his gun. Ray couldn't see Fraser anywhere. He took a deep breath and kept looking earnest.
"Chicago PD! Drop it!"
And there was Vecchio, right on cue. Fisk's head turned and Ray was knocking the fucking gun out of his hand, cuffing the bastard up against a wall, and now, now he was starting to shake again. He didn't care. He read Fisk his rights and hustled him off to a squad car, one of the dozen that had come as Vecchio's backup.
"You okay?" Vecchio asked him quietly.
"I don't know," Ray said honestly, and didn't resist when Vecchio wrapped a firm arm around his shoulders and dragged him off to the car. He didn't make a noise of complaint when Vecchio called Welsh on his cell and left a message saying they'd be processing Fisk and company in the morning, nor when Vecchio bypassed Ray's apartment and took Ray back to his place, like it was a normal night. Ray followed Vecchio up the stairs kind of dazed, and sprawled down on the couch automatically.
Vecchio sat down next to him. "Okay," he said. "What the hell was that?"
"A good arrest," Ray said, but they both knew what Vecchio was asking, so he took a deep breath and said, "I don't know. Just ... someone has to do it."
Vecchio was very quiet for a long moment, long enough for Ray to start fidgeting and feeling awful. "I know," Vecchio said finally. "But I don't want to lose you too."
Ray turned towards him, startled; Vecchio was deadly serious. His eyes were a nice color, Ray noticed inanely, beautifully green in the lamplight, and he was -- holding Ray's shoulder, still holding Ray's shoulder, hadn't actually ever let go. Vecchio's face was hard to read, and for a moment that stumped Ray, until he remembered that unreadable on Vecchio actually meant scared. Oh, Ray thought, or maybe said aloud, but either way Vecchio said "Kowalski --" and Ray said, "Shut up," and couldn't tell who started the kiss.
All things being equal, it was actually a pretty lousy kiss. They were both afraid, and Vecchio's hand was starting to make Ray's shoulder go a little numb, and Vecchio's nose got in the way. But Ray had a hand in this and he was gonna see it through, so he tilted his head a little, wrapped his hands around the back of Vecchio's neck, and bam, it was a good kiss. It was a kiss that made all of Ray's joints go loose, made Vecchio voice a little groan of surprised pleasure, made the pain of Vecchio's too-tight hand on Ray's shoulder go abruptly from annoying to really hot. Ray echoed Vecchio's moan and wiggled as close as he could, given their awkward position on the couch.
Eventually came the thing with the needing to breathe. They both pulled away reluctantly, gasped for a second or two, and went back at it, because if they stopped -- if they stopped there would be talking.
On the other hand, Vecchio was a horrible person. The next time they had to break apart for air, he set a hand on Ray's chest. "Kowalski --"
"Don't talk," Ray said. "You talk, bad things happen."
Vecchio actually laughed a little at this. "If you gave me a second ... Do you like the 32?"
"Yes?" Ray ventured, still mixed up from the kissing. Talking would make bad things happen but he also just wasn't that capable of it, spent adrenaline and redirected blood flow and sheer weirdness all ganging up on him.
"What if you transferred back?" Vecchio asked. "Welsh keeps bugging me about it."
Whoa. Ray blinked and made his brain work. "We just did the most fucked-up complicating thing possible and you want to partner officially?" he demanded.
Vecchio thought about this for a moment. "Yeah."
Ray stared at him. "You're unhinged."
"Maybe," Vecchio said. "I'm also tired of --" He gestured vaguely. Ray's brain supplied, with increasing cruelty: Being alone. Putting duty first. Always doing the right thing.
"Yeah," he said. "Me too," and rubbed his thumbs through the short bristly hairs at the base of Vecchio's neck, watched in fascination as Vecchio's eyes fluttered momentarily closed. "Okay," Ray said. "I'll transfer back."
Vecchio looked at him. "You will?"
"Yeah," Ray said. And maybe they were both a little unhinged, but he was -- okay, here, home, safe, and ready to do this thing. This time he kissed Vecchio with intent, and it was good pretty much instantly.
Around three in the morning, Ray shuffled out naked to use the can and get a glass of water. Vecchio was still conked right out, like anyone sane would be, but since they'd already established that Ray was nuts, this seemed okay. He navigated Vecchio's little kitchen in the ambient city light, and almost spilled his water trying to avoid walking through Fraser on his way out.
"Jeeze, give a guy a little room!" he hissed.
"I think you've already got one," Fraser returned, which -- was that one of those entendre things? Ray stared. Fraser's mouth quirked up into a half-smile. "How are you, Ray?"
"Fine," Ray said. "I'm fine." He sipped his water and thought about how unselfconscious he felt, how weirdly devoid of anger. He met Fraser's eyes again -- still blue, too blue for this light, like he was being lit from somewhere else, maybe the inside. "I'm fine," Ray repeated gently. "I miss you. Everyone misses you, but Vecchio and me, we -- I'm sorry we couldn't be there. I figure we just do our best now."
"Yes," Fraser said simply. He reached out and touched Ray's cheek, and Ray felt it, the softest whisper of a touch, like a snowflake. He closed his eyes, smiling, pressing his own hand to his cheek like he could keep Fraser's hand there. When he opened his eyes Fraser was gone.
"Okay," Ray said to the empty air. "Well. Bye," and he went back to bed with Vecchio.