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Strangers and Other Angels

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Somehow, putting up a tree and decorating for Christmas lost its charm in warm weather. Though the temperature had dropped to fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and Ray had seen his customers coming into the bowling alley dressed in gear more suited to a ski slope, it still didn't seem like December yet. Not that Ray suspected Stella would notice.

He sighed tiredly and wondered how he'd gotten to this point. A year ago, marrying Stella, moving to Florida, retiring from the police force, and making a new life together all had seemed to make sense. She'd been the first woman in a year to see him as simply Ray Vecchio, a decent human being doing a job, and something in him had responded to that. The initial flirtation had been nothing more than an automatic reflex born out of long habit; he hadn't expected her to respond. To discover she had genuinely been interested in him — well, it was a bit like finding an oasis after miles of nothing but desert sand.

Now that he'd drunk his fill and had time to look around, he found himself seeing his wife in a completely new light. This was the first Christmas since his year undercover in the Mob that he was going to spend without his family around; he and Stella had flown up to Chicago to be with the Vecchio clan last year. He'd wanted to fly them all down this year, but Stella had vetoed the idea. Not for the first time, he wished he'd never told her about how he'd managed to afford Armani suits on a cop's salary. She'd promptly convinced him to divert the funds from the few careful investments he'd made into their struggling business, pointing out how he wouldn't need to purchase new suits since a) he was in Florida and b) he wasn't following a certain Mountie into God-knew-what-disaster-zone.

A half-smile formed on Ray's lips as he thought of Fraser. Ray missed his friend, more than he was willing to admit. There were days when Ray swore he saw a Mountie in the passenger seat of his newest Riviera, or found himself automatically making sure he'd cleared a wolf-safe zone in the back seat when he shoved in groceries. Other times, Ray found himself glad that he didn't have Fraser or Diefenbaker around; it meant he would never risk his beloved car again to more than the usual traffic dangers.

He wondered what Fraser would get Diefenbaker for Christmas, and if Stan was still traveling with them. From what Frannie had said in her phone call a few days ago, no one had heard from either Fraser or Stan for months, and the assumption was that they were in an extremely remote part of Canada. Frannie had mentioned that the plan had been for Fraser and Stan to return to Chicago sometime before the end of the year, and that everyone in the family was hoping that they'd be back for Christmas.

Ray sighed. A part of him wished he was in Canada with Fraser and Stan, even if it meant he'd be bitching about the cold while he was there, and being forced to deal with the very real suspicion he had that Fraser and Stan's relationship went beyond friendship. Anything was better than being around a woman who had, seemingly overnight, developed an obsession for making their business successful, to the detriment of their personal relationship.

Stan had warned him, back when Ray had made the call to Canada to let Fraser and Stan know about the engagement. As if Stan was standing next to him, Ray could hear the other man's words.

"Listen, there's somethin' I gotta tell ya," Stan had said quickly. "I love Stella, but she can get really intense, ya know? I mean, really, really intense. If you can handle it, then I'm happy for you."

The last sentence now seemed to echo in Ray's head, even as his flippant reply came back to haunt him.

"Sure, Stanley. I can handle Stella," he'd drawled, his tone insinuating that he would do it better than Stan had.

Now, with the vision of hindsight, Ray realized that Stan had been trying to do him a favor. Or maybe it had been Stella that Stan had been trying to protect. Ray wasn't sure, and somehow, he didn't think it would matter anyway.

Ray had truly believed that he could handle Stella's passions, but then he'd discovered just how single-minded she could be. It made him think of Fraser's dedication to justice, and for a long moment, Ray wished he could trade one day of following Fraser as he hunted down the barest thread of connectivity to some crime for the life he was sharing with Stella.

"You have that look again," Stella noted, sounding annoyed as she walked up to the counter where Ray stood, watching the few customers they had. She slapped down a spreadsheet and eyed him as if he was still the detective he'd been and she the prosecuting attorney.

"What look?" Ray asked defensively. He hated it when she sounded irked. It made him wonder if he was supposed to pretend that she hadn't managed to keep him away from his family at Christmastime, when she knew full well how much it pained him to be away. It was any wonder he had any attention for the business at all.

He studiously ignored the spreadsheet, knowing it was going to say what he already had mentally calculated.

"The one that says you're feeling sentimental. Get over it. I just balanced the accounts. We can't afford to take a day off, not if we want to break even this year."

"Don't you think I know that?" Ray demanded with sudden anger. "In case you haven't noticed, Stella, I own a piece of this too. Don't act like I'm dumb, because I'm not. And yeah, I'm feeling sentimental. My whole family's freezing their asses off in Chicago, and I'm not even remotely cold yet. Except whenever you walk into the room. It's not my fault this place isn't making a lot of money."

"Oh, and it's mine?" she drawled, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

"You were the one who was supposed to hire a mechanic, not me," Ray shot back. "Now we got six lanes broken out of twelve, and league night is tomorrow." Even as he said the words, he knew they were starting down a familiar path. Lately, all they seemed to do was argue, and he was sick of it. He heard Stella's reply without really listening to it, found himself responding, but a large part of him remained detached. Whatever love he'd felt for her was now locked away. As if he was an observer, he watched himself stomp out of the bowling alley and head out to the parking lot.

He got into his car with something close to a sigh of relief. For a long moment afterwards, he laid his head on the steering wheel. Though he rarely drank to excess, the temptation to do so was strong.

"Ain't nothing wrong with a drink, son," a voice beside him said.

If he removed his head from the steering wheel, Ray knew he'd see his father's ghost in the passenger seat. "Why? So I can wreck this car just like you did with your car whenever beating up Ma and us kids wasn't enough of an outlet for you?"

"The bitch pissed you off. You need to unwind," his father replied.

"Go back to Hell, I don't need you for advice," Ray retorted, lifting his head to glare at the ghost.

His father radiated disapproval, but left a few moments later.

Ray started the car and headed for a place he knew gave him peace. A jogging trail ran the length of the bay, and at various points along the concrete retaining wall, stone benches had been strategically placed so that one could sit and stare out at the water. Parking in a half-full lot of an office building across the street from the bayside trail, Ray locked his car, then made his way across.

On this particular afternoon, he could see that an assortment of joggers, walkers, bicyclists, and rollerbladers was making use of the trail. The strong smell of the bay assaulted his nostrils, but he breathed it in anyway, knowing that it was part of the reason he came here. In a way, having to breathe the pungent odor made him remember how Fraser had always been smelling and tasting what had seemed like everything.

He chuckled softly to himself, acknowledging that as much as he'd protested and complained, Fraser's methods of crime-solving had had merit.

Ray crossed his arms against the sudden chill of longing.

Crazy, he told himself. Fraser nearly got you killed every time he got you involved with something, and you miss recoiling in disgust over his obsession for tasting things?

He snorted, knowing the answer.

Staring out at the rolling waves, he let the feelings he kept hidden from Stella surface. He wasn't sure what to call what he felt for Fraser, wasn't even certain if he wanted to put a name to the deep-rooted emotion. The only thing Ray knew for sure was that his life wasn't the same without Fraser in it.

Nor, Ray admitted silently, was his life the same since he'd left Chicago. Everything seemed different, hollow somehow, as if he was merely going through the motions of living. The first blush of excitement over all the changes he'd made in his life had faded; the gloss worn off, leaving him feeling like he was missing something important.

He'd dealt with loneliness before; going undercover in the Mob had taught him realms about homesickness and feeling alone in the middle of a crowd. He was feeling the same way now, except that what made it worse in some respects was that he was supposed to be home. He had willingly chosen to be here in Florida instead of staying in Chicago. As Stella had reminded him on more than one occasion, he had voluntarily given up sharing a house with his family, taken the retirement that the department had offered him, and chosen to be with her instead. No one had held a gun to his head to get him to make all those changes in his life. In retrospect, it seemed as though he'd made those decisions just as quickly as if someone had been holding said gun.

The thought troubled him deeply, left him with a sourness in the pit of his stomach.

"Do you mind if I sit here?" a breathless female voice asked.

Startled out of his thoughts, Ray jumped. He turned to find a petite woman dressed in a white T-shirt advertising a recently held citywide festival, neon pink exercise tights, white socks and running shoes pacing the space beside him. She looked like she had been running. Her brunette hair had been French braided, revealing an oval-shaped face, neatly plucked eyebrows, a small nose, blue eyes, and full lips. He guessed her age to be early twenties.

"No, go ahead," Ray told her, regaining his composure.

She flopped onto the bench with an exaggerated sigh. "Thanks," she said after a moment. "I really shouldn't push myself to run the entire way, you know, but I get going, and I can't stop. Guess that kinda makes me like the Energizer Bunny, huh?"

Against his better judgment, Ray found himself drawn to respond. "I suppose."

"My mom used to tell me that I had to stop sometime, but I never believed her." She favored Ray with a grin. "Then I grew up."

"Sucks, doesn't it?" The words tumbled out of his mouth without conscious thought, and Ray paused. He hadn't wanted to talk to anyone, preferring to be alone, but now that the stranger was here, he discovered she was an interesting diversion to the thoughts that kept pushing him.

"'I don't want to grow up, I want to be a Toys 'R' Us kid,'" she sang, quoting an old commercial.

Ray laughed. The sensation felt strange, and he sobered quickly as he realized it had been a very long time since he'd laughed like that.

She must've caught the look on his face, for some of her own animation faded. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "You probably came here to be alone. I'll go and leave you be."

She started to rise.

Ray didn't stop her, but turned again to face the water.

She hesitated. "You know, it's definitely none of my business, but you look like you lost someone. Or maybe that you're thinking about losing someone."

Her perception made him wonder if his inner turmoil was that obvious. He didn't dare turn around, for fear that his feelings showed in his face.

"Well, okay," she confessed, "I'm not psychic, but I just know I used to come here when things weren't going right between the dork and me. And I know I used to wish I had someone to talk to who had no idea who I was or who she was." She paused, and Ray could swear he could see her vibrant personality fade a bit at the confession. "Never happened, though. Might've made a difference. People don't talk to strangers, except maybe on Jerry Springer and then it's usually something pretty weird like my sister's ex-husband married his brother in order to screw the family goat. Gotta keep up the ratings, I guess."

Ray's lips twitched into a reluctant smile. She had a point. He did need to talk to someone. Still, he had his pride, battered and bruised though it was, and he had never been one to express his feelings to strangers. He remained silent, unwilling to respond. He had the oddest sense that if he said something to her now, he'd be confessing everything to her, and he didn't want to do that.

She seemed to accept his reluctance, and came to stand beside him. Easily, she stepped up onto the bench and leaned on the railing, her back to the water. For a wild moment, he thought she was going to fall, but then she balanced herself. Still, he couldn't stop the automatic reflex to reach out a hand to brace her.

She glanced over her shoulder at his hand and shook her head, refusing the gesture of protection. "My shoes are a little slippery," she claimed. "As long as the wind doesn't pick up, I'll be fine. 'Course, I'm so damned short it's any wonder the wind doesn't blow me around more."

He eyed her dubiously, but put his hand on the railing near her just in case.

"Hard to believe it's almost Christmas, isn't it?" she said conversationally. "I lived in Brooklyn for two years," she reminisced. "I'd never seen snow, 'cause I was born and raised here. I don't think I'll ever be that cold again in my entire life. All those layers —" She shuddered. "Taught me all sorts of new definitions of cold."

"You miss it?"

She laughed. "Nope. Not in the least. Got my life here." She paused. "Such as it is. No family, no kids, no pets, and fifty hours a week spent working in a Dilbert world."

At Ray's blank look, she explained, "I'm a systems architect."

"A computer programmer," he interpreted, remembering a group of them who'd come into the bowling alley one night.

She frowned, then shrugged, accepting his interpretation. "It's more than that, but I take it you're not familiar with computers."

"Not really," he answered. "Used to use them when I was a cop, but that was— " He stopped, surprised by the amount of pain that surfaced as he calculated the length of time since his retirement. "A lifetime ago," he finished.

"A cop? Really?" She seemed genuinely interested. "Did you ever do anything like you see on TV? No, wait, let me guess. You look Italian, so you worked undercover for the Mob? Though if you did, you probably couldn't tell me anyway, so let's pretend I didn't ask that. Where were you a cop?"

He had to smile at her enthusiasm. "Chicago PD," he said, the words sounding reassuringly familiar to his ears. He nearly closed his eyes against the wave of memories that assaulted him like the waters of the bay against the retaining wall. He'd said the phrase so many times, it now seemed odd to realize how long it had been since he'd used it in the course of his everyday life.

"Wow. So what's the weirdest thing to happen to you when you were a cop?"

"Fraser." The name was on his lips before he could stop himself.

"And who was Fraser?" She looked at him, and her breath caught. "I'm sorry. He's who you're missing, isn't he?"

Ray took a deep breath. "Yeah. And no, he's not dead. He's just — " He stopped again, and realized he needed to start over. "Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father, and ended up staying on as liaison to the Canadian Consulate. He saved my life a couple of times, I shot him in the back once, and he—"

Ray had to pause as suddenly, words failed him. The woman beside him looked at him with such openness, such compassion, it was all he could not to break down into tears. It had been so long since anyone had looked at him like that. The expression on her face reminded him so much of Fraser that it nearly broke his heart.

Somehow, he found the strength to continue. "I've never met anyone like Fraser. He was the most arrogant, self-centered, trusting, upstanding, and annoying man I've ever met. He was one of those people who really believed that you were innocent until proven guilty, that everyone had a good side. He was the best damned cop I've ever seen, the best friend a man could ever have. There isn't anything I won't do for him."

"You love him." She stated the words simply.

Ray turned to face her more fully, once again stunned at her uncanny insight. Until that moment, he hadn't quite been able to pin down a name for what he felt for Fraser.

"I do," he admitted slowly. "Not like — well, you know." He couldn't bring himself to say the words; old prejudices died hard.

She smiled. "Not like a lover, but more than a brother?" she guessed.

He nodded tightly.

"So what's stopping you from being with him?"

In reply, Ray pulled his left hand out of his pocket. The gold ring he wore glinted in the afternoon sunlight.

"I don't know if she really liked him, but every time I talk about Chicago, she acts like I'm living in the past. Maybe I am. I don't know." He shrugged uncomfortably.

"Is that where he is now?"

"No, he's traveling in Canada with my wife's ex-husband." Suddenly, Ray was struck by the irony, and he began to chuckle despite the aching wave of longing that washed over his heart. "The other Ray."

"Your name is Ray? And your wife was previously married to a guy named Ray?"

He nodded. "His first name is Stanley, but he goes by Ray," he clarified.

"How do you know your wife isn't thinking of him? Oh, God, that sounds bad. Sorry, I shouldn't have asked that."

"No, it's okay. I know Stella isn't thinking of him. She doesn't usually pass up the opportunity to remind me of how he failed her. She's always saying how much better I am at doing things for her than he was. To listen to her, you'd think he was a major waste of humanity." The observation surprised him even as he spoke it. "Which she probably thinks I am now."

"Whatever for?"

"Because I don't give a damn about running a bowling alley, or living in Florida."

With that, the pieces of his emotional puzzle seemed to snap into place. As clearly as a crime scene, Ray could see that he hadn't really been seeing through the shattered glass of his marriage. He'd chosen instead to bury his head in the bushes like some rookie cop, unable to face what was so clearly in front of him.

All Stella cared about was what she wanted, and she didn't care what she did to get it. Ray wasn't sure if she'd ever loved him. Suddenly, he didn't care to find out. He wasn't aware he'd voiced his thoughts aloud until the stranger spoke.

"What do you care about?" the woman beside him questioned. "Besides Fraser, I mean."

"Being a cop. My family. The life I had." The words tumbled out of him in a torrent.

"Then maybe you ought to go back to that. I mean, you can't really go back home and all, because everything changed the moment you left, but at least you can be where you're loved and respected and what you want matters. What's the point in living if all the joy's been sucked out of it? I mean, I know you can't be happy all the time, but if you're surrounded by people who matter to you and who can really be there for you when things get rough, it makes it easier."

Reeling with the weight of his revelations, Ray could only stare at her as her logic resounded in his head.

"I moved to Brooklyn for love," she confessed. "Hated the city, hated the snow, hated the job I had to take there because it wasn't what I'd been promised. Love was the only thing keeping me there, and it wasn't enough. I could never do anything right, from keeping the dishes clean to who I went out with to staying out of touch with the people she didn't approve of. I ran away one night and came home. She found me. Promised me the world if I just let her back into my life." The stranger exhaled heavily. "I did. It was the biggest mistake of my life. Took me forever to understand I should've never opened the door when I had my freedom back."

Freedom. The word seemed to echo in the wind. Am I that trapped, that leaving Stella seems like I'm declaring my independence? he wondered. The thought terrified him. "Stella doesn't keep me on a tight leash," he protested.

Then another thought occurred to him. "You're a lesbian?"

The stranger smiled. "No. But if I was inclined to be that way, Cassie would've been the one I would've wanted. If she said drive off a cliff, I would've done it with no questions asked. I didn't exist except as a part of her. Didn't want to think of myself as anything else. Cassie took advantage of that. She needed a computer guru for her business, I was it. Night and day, what she wanted was what I tried to do. I woke up one day and didn't know who I was. Scared me to death. All I could see was snow on the ground and snow in her heart and this great big whiteness where the person I thought I was used to be."

Ray found his voice. "I don't want to live like this, like I am now," he declared quietly. "I know it's only a matter of time before the business goes under, and I don't give a damn. It's just not important, you know? Like you said, it's almost Christmas, and all I can think about is that I left everyone I care about back in Chicago." He paused as his words registered.

"I left everyone I care about in Chicago," he repeated almost wonderingly. "And Fraser's supposed to be coming back soon, so maybe he'll be there too."

The stranger favored him with a small, understanding smile. "If I were you," she suggested gently, "I'd go and start packing. I'm sure your family would be delighted to have you as a surprise Christmas present."

"Yes," Ray agreed in a daze. He didn't recognize his voice. "Of course."

Still, he continued to stand there a moment longer.

"So?" she prompted.

Embarrassed, he flushed, then turned to leave. He was halfway across the street before he belatedly remembered to thank her, and turned back to do so.

Strangely enough, she had disappeared. Panic seized him as he thought that maybe she'd tumbled into the bay, and he searched the immediate area frantically before he saw a bright spot of neon pink some distance away. Realizing she was too far for him to reach, guessing she had resumed her running, he then made his way back to his car.

"'Bout damn time you came to your senses, son," his father said proudly as Ray slid into the car. "Look out for number one, that's what you gotta do."

Ray ignored the ghost, managing not to respond to the comment through sheer force of will.

He walked into the bowling alley three hours later. Stella pounced on him like a lioness protecting her cubs.

"Where have you been?" she demanded.

"Out," he replied shortly. "I just thought you might appreciate me saying good-bye this time, instead of just sneaking out like I thought about doing."

"Good-bye? Sneaking out? What are you talking about Ray? We have a business to run!"

"No, Stella, you have a business to run. I have a cross-country trip to make. Christmas is in four days, and I plan on being with my family. You'll just have to survive on your own, which I suspect you do quite well. Oh, and while I was out, I filed for divorce. Have a nice life, and a Merry Christmas. Don't worry about getting me a present, leaving you is gift enough."

He left Stella staring, openmouthed, at his retreating figure. Dimly, he heard her shouting something, but as he had climbed into his car, he ignored her.

****

"You didn't," Stan protested three days later. It was Christmas Eve, and both men were feeling companionably mellow enough to lower their usual defenses, or maybe it was just the combination of spiked eggnog, Ma Vecchio's cooking, and the late hour. "You left Stella?"

"Yeah. Surprised?" Ray held his breath, half-prepared for an attack. He'd gotten the impression that Stan still saw himself as Stella's defender, even though they were no longer married.

The other man shook his head. "No. Told Fraser you and her wouldn't last, but he didn't buy it. Said something about how you sounded like you were really going to make it work." Stan shrugged. "I would've bet him, but he only bets for air and matchsticks."

Ray was silent a moment as he absorbed this new tidbit of information. Some part of him knew he should feel insulted that Stan hadn't expected the relationship to last, but he was still coherent enough to realize that Stan had known Stella since they were kids, and therefore would know her in ways Ray hadn't been able to.

"Where is Fraser anyway?" Ray asked.

"Upstairs with your niece, I think, reading her a bedtime story." Stan shook his head as if to clear the eggnog-induced fog, and rose to his feet. "Think I'm gonna turn in myself."

He started to go, then paused. "I'm sorry about Stella," he said sincerely. The sympathy surprised Ray, but he was beginning to understand that Stan wasn't a predictable man.

"You still love her?" Stan asked, throwing yet another curveball.

"No," Ray answered without hesitation. The two-and-a-half days of driving had given him plenty of time to think about his feelings, about his life and the direction in which he wanted it to go.

Stan nodded, and Ray half-expected him to say, "Good." He was surprised to hear him say instead, "Guess I should feel sorry for her, but I don't. I mean, I love her, always will, but I know what she's like. An' some people just can't let other people in enough to really risk being in love, because that's a loss of control, and God help her if Stella ever lost control. She hates that. An' I never really thought about how you have to trust that the other person you're with is gonna catch you when you fall until I left here."

Ray's eyes met Stan's. Without speaking, they both understood that one man had changed their lives irrevocably.

"So what did you get him for Christmas?" Ray asked quietly. Some part of him recognized that he ought to still be upset that Fraser and Stan were lovers, but he'd had his suspicions about them for a long time. After factoring in a few assorted comments from Stella and from a bewildered Frannie who still didn't get the clue that Fraser wasn't interested in her, Ray had formed his own conclusions. Now he just waited for the confirmation that no one else in his family seemed to have.

Stan ducked his head slightly as if embarrassed and chuckled. "You," he said simply.

Ray's eyes widened. Panic seized him as he read into the statement. At a loss for words, he could only stare at Stan.

"And a new hunting knife," Stan continued blithely, not quite suppressing a grin at Ray's discomfort. "He lost his when we went after a bunch of baby seal trappers."

Ray didn't know whether to smack the younger man for taking the chance that Ray would make it home or to thank him profusely. In the end, he settled for neither. "Baby seal trappers?"

Stan rolled his eyes. "It's a long story, trust me." He yawned and got to his feet. "Fraser tells it better than me anyhow. Least this time they didn't club him over the head."

He walked to the edge of the living room where it opened up to the hallway. "Oh, an' Ray— if you're thinking what I think you're thinking, you're wrong. Fraser's a freak, but not a kinky freak. An' I don't share, not like that."

Ray sighed, relieved.

"'Sides, it would screw up everything, you know? An' I don't think either of us wants to lose what we have. We'd end up dividing this house, making the family and Fraser choose sides. I got used to your family, Ray. I mean, I had to, in order to be you while you weren't being you, but I never felt so accepted by a bunch of strangers like I do here. I know Fraser feels the same way." Stan grinned impishly. "Ma would be so upset if you, Fraser, and me fought. Not sure if I wanna be around for that."

"You saying you're scared of my ma?" Ray challenged lazily.

"Aren't you?" Stan shot back.

"What, do you take me for stupid?" Belatedly, Ray realized he'd given the other man a prime opportunity to tease him. "No, don't answer that. I was pretty stupid to marry Stella."

"You thought you knew her," Stan remarked. "Guess I was pretty stupid, too."

A look of shared understanding and compassion passed between the two men. In that moment, what had been a tenuous, even awkward friendship borne of circumstance, blossomed into something stronger.

Ray smiled. He was too relaxed to move, but knew he had to or risk being jumped on in the morning by his rambunctious younger relations since the Christmas tree was in the living room. "Good night, Stan." He glanced at his watch. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas to you, too."

Long after Stan had left the room, Ray remained. He was still on the couch when Fraser entered.

"So what do you do now, Ray?" Fraser asked quietly.

Ray half-chuckled. Trust Fraser to ask the hard questions, he thought. "You gonna be here after Christmas?"

Fraser nodded. "Yes, I've taken Inspector Thatcher's former position at the Consulate. Ray — Stan I mean — convinced me it would be difficult for me to start over somewhere else, though given the fact that he seemed fairly tired of our adventuring and wanted to go back to police work, I tend to believe he had rather selfish motives."

"Can't say I blame him," Ray responded. "Almost two years in Canada with you — I'd never have lasted the first six months."

As he'd expected, Fraser didn't disagree with him. "Given your distaste for cold weather, I thought for certain you would be staying in Florida."

"Just isn't the same, Benny, especially at Christmas." Ray stood up and looked out the window at the snow-covered ground. He half-smiled as he remembered the stranger's words. "Not when all I could see was sand and palm trees and this great big desert where the person I thought I was used to be."

He glanced back at Fraser. "I'm no businessman, Fraser. I'm a cop, a retired cop maybe, but it's what I know. I can't live without my family and my friends near me; it just doesn't work. I get homesick and I start worrying about who's taking care of Ma and Frannie and whether Maria and Tony aren't fighting again. And maybe it took an angel for me to figure it out, but I missed you the most."

"An angel, Ray?" Though the question was posed in Fraser's usual manner, Ray could tell that his words had moved the other man.

"Well," Ray shrugged, "maybe not an real angel, but she sure was a stranger, and she helped me."

"I see."

Ray smiled. He knew Fraser didn't understand, and it didn't matter. It was enough that Fraser was here with him. "Good night, Fraser."

"Good night, Ray."

*** Finis ****