Title: More than Friends
Author: Pita Patter. Comments please at [email protected]
Pairing: Fraser/Vecchio
Rating: R.
Category: Drama
Summary: Benny finds a friend and more.
Warnings: Angst. Also, it's not what it looks like, so hang on.
Disclaimers: Benny, Ray and everyone else here belong to Alliance, although I took them out to play.
Notes: Deannie inspired me once more for this. You are the best, girl. Chris gets my love for the meta-beta job.

 

"No one is so accursed by fate
No one so utterly desolate
But some heart, though unknown,
Responds unto his own."-
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

 

More than friends

 

Civilian Aid Francesca Vecchio had a stack of files in her arms as she observed her brother, Detective Ray Vecchio, and his unofficial partner, Constable Benton Fraser, enter the bullpen of the 27th precinct. Even above all noise and turmoil typical of a police station, Francesca sensed the aura of tension. Both policemen wearily approached Ray's desk, Fraser sitting down on the chair facing Ray, Diefenbaker by his side.

Judging by the state of her brother's suit, Francesca knew they had spent another day in one of Fraser's unbelievable goose chases. Where did he find all those situations she did not know. All she knew was that Ray kept following him.

Francesca hugged the files harder and sat at her desk, still staring at the duo. It was kind of endearing, really. But from the look on Fraser's face, she knew what it would ensue.

With her best smile, Francesca rose up and delivered the files to those who were waiting for them before walking over to her brother's desk.

"Hi guys."

Fraser stood up. "Francesca."

Ray didn't even brother to raise his head. "Want anything, Frannie?"

"Nothing from you, bro", she made a face, then turned to Fraser, all purring. "Benton, I just want to say that even though the movie starts at 7, I will still pick you up at 6:00 anyway, and I guarantee we won't miss the previews."

Fraser did not even have the time to answer.

"Hey!" reacted Ray. "What are you talking about? We are going to play pool tonight." He turned to Fraser, plea in his voice. "Benny, you said you'd come this time."

The Canadian looked at Frannie and blushed, as he turned to Ray, "I... Ray... I... seem to have misunderstood the dates, Ray... I apologise."

Ray eyed Frannie's triumphant smile and sighed in frustration. "I was looking forward to that, Benny. Specially after the day we had."

"I'm really sorry, Ray", The Mountie seemed crestfallen. "I promise I'll make it up to you tomorrow night."

The Italian nodded, still reluctant. "All right, Benny. But I'll take you up on that, you hear?"

"Of course."

"Good", chipped Francesca happily, and kissed Fraser in the cheek, then playfully touched the tip of his nose. "Don't be late."

Ray watched as Fraser's eyes followed Frannie sashay back to her desk. The Italian sighed deeply, then tapped his friend's back, "C'mon, Benny. Let's get to forensics."

The sounds of the busy police station muffled the sharp sounds of two hearts breaking.

* * *

Ray endured the rest of the day trying not to think about the dreadful kind of night that he would have. Actually, that night had already begun. Alone, inside the Riv, bearing the cold wind, facing Lake Michigan and his own misery. Damn. He was really looking forward to his night with Benny. Such occasions had been very rare since his best friend had started dating his baby sister and the both of them had become more than friends.

It was still awkward, though. He remembered when Fraser asked his permission to start dating Frannie. The Mountie stammered, blushed beet red and was so ultimately embarrassed that Ray thought he would have a stroke or something. As for Ray, well, he was so ultimately broken-hearted that he thought he would die on the spot.

Intellectually, of course, Ray had always known that Benny someday would find a nice girl, marry and have a few little Frasers. The Mountie surely would want to settle down and have a family of his day one day.

But Fraser would never, ever, want Ray.

Not that Ray had really had any illusion that his very uptight and very straight friend would ever return his feelings. He knew Benny'd never understand those feelings, much less love him back. Ray had already convinced himself that Benny's friendship was such a blessing that asking for more could break some secret sacred law that he didn't know. It was as if God somehow threatened him: "If you want more than this, you'll lose everything." So he tried not to want more. But it didn't mean it was easy, did it?

Ray had already acknowledged the fact that the only person he would ever love in his life would never love him back. He had even tried to make his peace with it. Benny'd be near Ray, as a friend - as his best friend. Ray could see him, could scent him, could touch him (within limits) and could even dream about him, but he could never, ever let Benny know how he felt. It would be wanting more, and wanting more was forbidden, verbotten, out of the limits. Major no-no. That was the law, the secret law, the golden rule. If he broke it, hell would fall upon him.

Some days, it'd get tougher, and he'd feel down, but other days he'd really relax at the true joy of being near Benny. On those blessed days, Benny's mere presence on Earth would be enough to make Ray feel at peace with the Universe, and the fact that Benny was near him would be only an added blessing.

That, of course, had been the outlining of his life until Benny had asked him to date Frannie. It took Ray a lot of effort not to punch Benny, out of pure anger. Ray couldn't be sure why exactly he'd been angry: at himself for being such a coward; at Benny for having the nerve to put the moves on his baby sister; again, at Benny for proving him wrong when he told Frannie that "guys like him don't marry girls like her"; at Francesca for taking Benny from him; or again, at himself for being a double coward and allowing them to date.

It was a good thing he ended not punching Benny, though. Not that he could have done that to the man he loved, anyway, but truth be told, the guy was not to blame. Damn it, Frannie was an attractive woman, after all. Maybe her persistence had just got through Benny's defences. In the end, she had won. She was a winner. A conqueress.

But from then on, Ray had become a creature filled with fear. What Ray feared the most was that they broke up and he'd never get to see Benny again. He'd never forgive Frannie if that happened. Ray tried to shake that thought from his mind. Benny would never let that happen. Because they were friends through thick and thin. Right?

Maybe his sister could end up marrying the Mountie, and Ray wondered how much that would hurt. He was sure it'd hurt. Maybe he was wrong. Who knows? It could be actually nice to watch his baby sister fill the house with little Frasers. He could be happy for them, and end up forget all about this nonsense about having feelings for his best friend.

Oh God. Who was he kidding? Forget Benny? Yeah, right. Pigs. Fly. Get the picture.

He let out a long, painful sight, thinking how much and how long would it still hurt. His whole life? Until he died? And what did they say about afterlife, and unresolved matters in this life? No, he didn't want to come back as a ghost and spook Benny! He loved Benny too much to do that.

Ray stopped staring at the lake to check on his wristwatch. Eight thirty. His Ma would be worried if he did not get home soon. He got inside the Riv and sighed.

What would Benny be doing now? At this time, he'd still be with Frannie at the movies. Would they be making out? Ray laughed out loud. Yeah, right. Benny, making out in public. He was a gentleman. At the most, Benny would have his arms around her shoulders. Until this moment, Ray hadn't seen anything more intimate than Frannie kissing him in the cheek and Benny holding her arm. Ray had even spied on them, for Pete's sake, and now he was ashamed he did that. But Ray couldn't help but wonder what would happen if he saw their first kiss. Shit, he should say *when* he saw their first kiss.

With another sigh, Ray revved up the Riv to head home, feeling the wound getting deeper somehow. It was the wound he always felt when he faced his future. He shouldn't care about it, anyway, because there was nothing to be done. For after all, he knew what his future would be like - or wouldn't be, for that matter.

His future wouldn't have Benny loving him. Benny wouldn't wait home for him, just to feel his heart relieved to see him walking through the door. Benny wouldn't surprise him with candle light dinner, or flowers. No Valentines with roses and wine. Benny wouldn't look at him as if there was no one else in the world, or as if his eyes were the only source of light in his path. Benny would never fall asleep in his arms, naked, sweaty, sticky and smelly after a whole night of hot lovemaking. Benny wouldn't catch him in his arms after a bad day at the station and make the universe right again.

Benny would never do any of those things or many more. And Ray would have to live without them.

Better face reality and get ready for the first Frannie-Benny kiss.

Damn it, they even rhymed!

***

"You look quite lovely tonight, Francesca."

"Well, thank you, Benton. You are very handsome yourself."

"Tea is ready. Want some?"

"Thank you."

Francesca sat at the table of the sparsely furnished apartment, looking intently at Fraser as he poured the tea. He noticed her inquiring stare.

"Is there something wrong?" he asked, as he handed her a steaming cup.

She took it, then shrugged. "You tell me, Benton. You accepted going out with me tonight knowing full well that our date was only on Thursday. But then, when I saw your face at the station, I knew you wanted to talk, so I pulled the little stunt that we had a date, and you played along with it. Well, we went out, and yet you hadn't said a word, Fraser. Is there something going on or did I get something wrong and you are really dating me?"

The Canadian looked up at her, his face a statement in sadness and desolation. He sighed, then dejectedly cast his eyes down.

"I was right", said Francesca, feeling far from happy about her triumph. "So, do you wanna tell me or do I have to pluck the truth out of you?"

Fraser raised his thumb and scratched his eyebrow. "You are... very perceptive."

"And you are stalling. Come on."

Fraser sighed. "I did it again. I risked his life."

"Oh Frayze." Francesca felt her heart clenching. "Tell me."

"Oh, there's nothing to tell. Let's just say it involved a can of beans, a surfboard and a Greek widower. The point is that I always endanger him. I don't know how I end up doing it, because if anything happens to Ray..." Fraser pressed his lips firmly, not able to finish the sentence. Francesca could have sworn he suppressed a sob.

Reaching out, she gently covered his hand with hers. "No, you don't do that. He doesn't have to follow you. It's his choice."

"Out of friendship. That's why he follows me." Fraser smiled sadly. "Ray is such a giver. I am so proud that he calls me his best friend."

"But you want to be so much more than that. Why don't you tell him so?"

Fraser took his hand away and hugged himself, closing his eyes as if in physical pain. It was not far from the truth. Fraser shook his head, feeling his heart breaking inside his tight chest. How he wanted to do as Francesca suggested. How he dreamed about it. He was going insane from wanting that so much. Yet he shook his head firmly. "I can't do that, Francesca."

The girl shook her head, impatient. "We've been through this so many times before. It's not healthy, Benton. Look at you. I can't stand to see you like this."

Fraser opened his eyes and shrugged. "You are a very good friend, Francesca, but apparently you fail to understand. I cannot risk what I have with Ray. He was the first person to give me true friendship and acceptance. It's not everything that I want, but I'll never have what I want. What I have right now is not little. If I tell him, I will lose everything I have. And if I lose this, I won't be able to go on. I need Ray, even if only as a friend. Please try to understand it."

Francesca squeezed his arm gently. "You deserve so much more. I just want you to be happy, that's all. I care about you, Benton."

The Mountie tried to smile. "I appreciate what you are doing. I really do." He turned to get a cup of tea for himself. "I wonder what your brother might think, though. We are not really dating, and I feel as if we are giving him a wrong impression. It's not honest."

"I'm doing this because I want," she said. "It's my choice."

"There is something else that worries me. Francesca, please, don't let me spoil anything for you. I would hate if you jeopardise any chance of your developing a real relationship because of our... present agreement."

"Stop worrying about me, Benton. We have a clean deal: you need someone to talk, I am here for you. I know you'd rather be dating another Vecchio, but at least I can listen. You need to open yourself to someone."

"You are a very attractive and interesting woman, Francesca, and some day a fine man will come for you and make you very happy."

"I want you to be happy, too. If listening is the way I can help you, then please let me listen. I cannot believe you had all this inside of you for so long and you wouldn't talk to anyone. If I hadn't forced you into talking to me, you'd still have no one to talk to, do you realise it?"

She was right. Probably he'd be insane at that point. "Yes, I do."

"And not talking makes it hurt even more, Benton." Frannie smiled at him. "I hope talking about it helps. Are you better now?"

The Mountie nodded, "Yes, I guess." He knew he'd have to do better than that if he was to convince the smart Vecchio girl, so he added a winning smile. "Yes, I am better, thank you."

"Will you be OK?"

"Of course." He put both empty teacups in the sink. "It's getting late. Let me take you home."

"There's no need, Benton. I can go by myself. It's not that long car ride."

Fraser looked at her. "I insist."

Knowing better that to argue with Fraser about a chivalrous gesture, Francesca picked up her purse and her coat and let herself be escorted home.

***

Two nights later, Francesca was with being escorted home by another man. Only this time she was fuming.

"Couldn't you have made an excuse so we could have left earlier?"

"Frannie, if I could, I would, believe me!" said Ray, driving the Riv back to North Octavia. "You know how Aunt Gioconda can get." He smirked. "At least you got a beautiful gift."

Frannie rolled her eyes. "Oh, yes, a dreadful handmade sweater that looks totally fashion-challenged! Besides, I didn't want to stay so late. Shantal is going to pick me up to go dancing in an hour, and my hair is a mess!"

Ray could not avoid the edge of irritation in his voice. "Don't you better avoid going out this weekend, since Fraser is on a business trip on Thatcher's orders?"

"What that has got to do with anything? I am just going out with my friends, Ray."

"And Fraser is your *boy*friend. Don't you think you owe him some, oh I don't know, decorum?"

"Oh, Ray, please."

Before Ray could charge another verbal volley, the police radio in the Riv cracked to life.

"All units near Midway Airport, please respond. All units near Midway please come in."

Ray immediately picked up the radio, "Vecchio here. I'm on the Eisenhower Expressway near Cicero Avenue."

Francesca almost squealed, but Comm Central interrupted her attempt on fuming, "Then it's yours, Vecchio. Neighbours are complaining of strange noises inside an abandoned building at 2590 South Pulaski, near the entrance of Garfield Park. No sounds of firearms reported. It's probably nothing, but there could be drug dealing going on."

"Ok, I'll check it. I might need some back up. Stand by for request."

"Roger, Vecchio. Comm Central out."

As Ray shut the comm off, Francesca turned to him, seething. "Are you out of your freakin' mind? Why did you do that? I'm gonna be late!"

"Frannie, you heard what they say. It's probably a fast thing, like some possum or homeless people endangering themselves. Besides, this is quite far out to send a unit."

"Ray, this is your day off! *Our* day off!" she added pleadingly.

Ray never paid attention to her and made a left turn on Cicero. "The building should be over there," he pointed ahead. "Anyway, I want you to stay in the car while I take care of it."

"In the car? Alone? In this neighbourhood? No way!"

"Way!" He retorted. "I remember what happened the last time you were supposed to wait in the car. Remember it? At that bank? I told you to stay in the car, you didn't, the bank was robbed, I almost drowned along with Benny and you almost got yourself shot. Ma wanted to kill me and she still talks about it!"

"Are you trying to tell me you really think I'm gonna be safer in the car?"

"Yes, I am!" Ray parked the car, having found the target building, and then checked the gun in his ankle. "And if you keep me here with your hammering, it will take even longer."

Frannie crossed her arms angrily and sulked, "Well, then just *go* already. I want to go dancing tonight."

Ray felt his anger rising as he slammed the Riv's door and went inside the condemned building, trying to keep Frannie and her maddening ways out of his mind so he could concentrate on the job. He carefully made his way inside, amidst the dust and dampness reigning in the dilapidated structure. The only light he could count on was the light of the street and he tried to make the most out of it. His ears were alert to any noise, and he picked up the muffled sounds of human voices somewhere ahead of him.

The detective moved silently further inside the unstable construction, following the noises until they were clearer. Carefully climbing down a wobbly wooden stairway with several steps missing, he met four teenagers - two couples whom the oldest could not be more than sixteen years old. Apparently, not only they were drunk, but they were also preparing for a session of pot consumption probably followed by making out.

Firmly, as he had been trained, Ray took out his gun, then held it as he stepped in front of them and announced, "This is the police. Stand up and raise your hands above your head."

The girls suppressed a shout, and the boys jumped up, scared. The oldest one said, terrified, "Don't shoot us, man!"

"All of you, line up in front of me. Hands high!"

They obeyed shakily, all vestiges of alcohol abuse rapidly dwindling away. Ray could tell they were at the verge of panic, the girls trying hard not to cry - so were the boys. Still, he made it visible to them that there was a gun at their faces. "What were you doing here?"

"Nothing, man", said the oldest, a little bulkier than the other one, with curly hair. "We were just hanging around."

"I see. And if anyone of you is old enough to buy that booze you can call me Charles, Prince of Wales," Ray gesture to the bottles left behind. "So, what would you do if I told you it's time to do some hanging around downtown?"

They gasped, now scared sober. One of the girls asked, "Are you going to arrest us?"

Ray sighed, cursing himself and lowering the gun. "That's what I'm supposed to do. But I don't think I'll do that."

The tension among the teens lowered, and a few sighs could be heard in the dark. Putting the gun away, Ray was trying to think of a good way not to let them walk away totally unpunished - but a loud noise on the upper level disrupted his thoughts. It sounded like a heavy object falling.

"What was that?" asked a scared blonde girl.

"Some of the structure must've fallen", guessed Ray. "Come on, kids, let's get out of here. That will teach you not to go inside condemned building ever again."

They started to run through the dust and dark places towards the staircase. Another crashing sound came to their ears, and the girls yelled in fright. Ray urged, "Just move fast, people, come on!"

"Ray!" called a voice from down the stairs. "Ray, where are you?'

"Frannie!" Ray fumed. "Frannie, get out of here now!"

As he helped on of the teens to climb the precarious stairs, he could see Frannie moving towards him, her face tight with tension as the smell of dust and dampness thickened tenfold inside the building. His anger rose.

"What are you doing here? Can you for just once do what you're told, for cryin' out loud?  I told you to stay in the car!" Ray was still helping the youths up the stairs, since they were still a bit drunk and moved slower. He turned to Frannie, "Are the kids out?"

She looked up, and felt dust stinging her eyes. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Come on", urged Ray seething. "Let's get out of this building so I can chew your head off. Go on, move your fat ass!"

Clumsily climbing the stairs with her high heels, Frannie retorted, "Would you stop the whining? I'm going up as fast as I can!"

That was the last thing she said. With a loud and angry cry, the entire world seemed to fall on their heads.

***

The world began to reform itself around Frannie as a voice endlessly calling her name made it through the fog of her mental confusion.

"Frannie? Frannie, can you hear me?"

"...Here", she mumbled and tried to sit up. It was not easy. "I'm here", she repeated, and wondered where *here* was. It all came back in a flood.

There was still a lot of dust in the air, but the scenery had changed a lot. It if seemed dirty before, it was absolutely filthy and dusty and damp. The dim light from the street now was nothing more than a faint one, darkening not only the whole place but also Frannie's heart. They were in deep trouble.

"Ray?"

"Over here."

It took her some effort, but Frannie could finally sit up. In doing so, she could also identify the dull throbbing by the side of her head - pain from the loose board that had probably hit her head and knocked her out in the process.

The whole place looked like a war zone, with debris all over. When they came in that place, the basement of the big house was divided in a couple of smaller rooms. Now there was no ground floor and there was just only one big, destroyed room. Big chunks of the ceiling lay down near them. A heavy beam, maybe from the top of the stairs, was laying just inches from where her head had previously been, so she figured it had missed her miraculously. *Time to write your guardian angel a big thank-you note, Francesca*, she thought.

Then her attention finally turned to her brother. "Oh my God, Ray!", she shrieked and rushed to him.

Ray hasn't been as lucky as his sister. He was under a wall that had probably been holding the beam that had missed Frannie. He tried to calm her down, "I am fine, Frannie."

As Frannie got nearer him, she could see Ray was trapped under a large chunk of cement slant along his right leg and upper body. Actually Francesca could not see much of Ray besides his head, neck and one shoulder. She noticed a huge wooden board also between his body and the wall over his body, and it probably had broken the fall. That had been a good thing, otherwise Ray's leg and ribs could have been crushed, his bones squashed.

His face was pale and plastered with heavy dust, and his sparse hair was caked with pieces and bits of masonry. There was blood oozing from a painful cut in his forehead, and his eyes, usually so bright green, were dark and spiritless with pain. Frannie couldn't see the details in the shadows, but she spotted a big, dark stain on Ray's clothes. He was bleeding pretty badly.

She tried to sound cheerful, though. "How are you feeling, bro?"

"Not that bad", he tried to suppress the hiss of pain and smile at the same time. Failed on both. "You?"

"Actually I am fine. What happened?"

"I know as much as you: part of the building came down, but I don't know why. Could be a gas leak, a structure failure, or something. It doesn't look like it's bound to happen again, though. I have been lying around, and heard nothing."

"Lying around? How long have I been out?"

"Two, maybe three minutes. I tried to call you and those kids, but apparently they took off as soon as they hit the street."

"Jerks", she mumbled. "But you need help right away. Where's your cell phone?"

He closed his eyes, grimacing. "In my suit. Right pocket."

It was the pocket at the side of his suit currently located under the wall - probably it had turned to dust. Frannie didn't even flutter. "Ok, let's move to Plan B. Do you think you can hold on until I go get some help?"

"I won't go after you, if that's what you are afraid."

Frannie made a face. "Hardy harhar, what a joker. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Take your time."

As Frannie got up, she realised that taking her time was the one thing she couldn't do. Ray looked like he wouldn't be able to hold on much time. She rushed towards the stairs and after a few seconds of confusion, she realised they were gone.

"Small problem, Ray."

"No stairs?"

"Exactly."

"Figured as much". He tried to crane his neck. "Look around, Frannie, there must be some way for you to get out."

"Ray, you need to get out more than I do. I will take you out of here."

"And how do you plan to do that?"

"First, I need to move you."

Ray seemed to blanch. "I am not sure it's a good idea, Frannie."

Francesca, however, acted as f she hadn't even heard him. She walked around him gingerly in her high heels, stumbling in chunks of ceiling, bits of masonry, all sort of debris imaginable. The smart Italian girl used her hands to feel the wall that was crushing her brother's slender body. She also touched Ray and he hissed in pain. "Sorry", she said. Frannie finally found the corner of the plate. Using both hands, she tried to give it a lift. It didn't even move. That was definitely not going to work.

"Forget it, Frannie", said Ray. "You better get out of here."

"I'm not going anywhere without you, Ray", she said firmly. "If I did that, a lifetime wouldn't be enough to calm Ma down. Even two lifetimes." *Not to mention Benton*, she thought, but she didn't say it loud. "Now I gotta find a way to get you of here fast."

Ray sighed, and his voice was shaky. "You're wasting time. We still don't know exactly why this part of the building fell, and the whole lot could come down any minute."

Frannie was walking around in the dark, looking for something to use. "Ray, you're bleeding pretty bad, do you know that?"

Now the good old sarcastic Ray was back. "Amazing as it seems, I noticed that, thank you."

"Well, then shut up. You're not helping and things won't get better with you gabbling away. I need to think."

Ray sighed noisily, but he did stop talking. Frannie tried to stay as calm as she could, but Ray's time was virtually trickling away. She had to help him, or Fraser'd never forgive her. Truth is, she'd never forgive herself for not taking care of Ray as Fraser expected her to do. Her mother would be devastated to lose her son. Nope: things not working out were not an option.

That was when Frannie saw a pipe lying around under what seemed to be a ton of dust. From somewhere deep in her mind, came a memory of one of her brother's adventures with Fraser; they used a sort of pipe to lift something heavy. Perhaps she could something as they did. Frannie tried to picture a scheme. All she had to do was wedge the pipe under the slab where Ray was trapped, get something to use as a full... full... fulcrum, or whatever, lift the slab, use something heavy to hold the pipe down as she pulled Ray out of it.

A plan, finally.

Frannie dragged the pipe noisily across the big room and began to adjust it to the slab of cement. Too bad it didn't fit. And she broke a nail. Frannie swore softly.

Ray couldn't see her from where he was lying. "What are you doing?"

She didn't stop working. "I think I found the way to lift up this wall you're under."

"It's not gonna work, Frannie. You should try to find a window, or maybe dig your way out of here."

"Ray," said Frannie, annoyed, "You don't have a saying in this."

"This place could blow up and bury you, Frannie. Just because we can't smell gas doesn't mean there isn't a leak."

She kept on working, and grabbed a loose chunk of wall to use as a fulcrum. "Ray, how many times do I have to tell you? I'm not going anywhere without you. Besides, there sure is some help on the way. Maybe those kids called someone."

Ray snorted. "Those kids probably are half way to Springfield right now. "

"And what about the precinct? Won't they try to check on you?"

"It might take a while."

Never stopping her efforts to put the pipe under the wall, Frannie attempted to restrain from wondering if Ray could actually endure their eventual arrival. "See? There is help on the way." She could only hope she was right.

Unable to move, Ray could only rant. "Can't you do what you've been told? You have to get out of this place. If you stay here, you can die."

"Well, I've told you before I'm not leaving you, Ray, and I'm gonna tell you how many times it takes to get it into that thick head of yours. Ma would never forgive me if I left you here. Neither would Benton. He is your best friend."

"Frannie, listen to me."

Trying to force the pipe, Frannie lost her temper. "Ray, shut up. I'm trying to think. You stay quiet."

Ray sighed and closed his eyes, Addam's apple bobbing as he swallowed dry. He was so quiet and so pale that Frannie got scared. The fact that he had obeyed her when she told him to shut up was also scary. She felt her heart tightening with fear and tried to dispel her apprehension by working harder on her task.

As Frannie was still trying to get the pipe in place, she spotted a huge block of cement lying a couple of yards to the left of Ray's shoulder. It might be what she needed to get the wall in place. She let the piper go and went over there. The block had a shape similar to a brick's, but it was a bit wider. It might hold the piper. Filled with hope, Frannie squatted and wrapped it in her arms to lift it up. She didn't want to estimate its weight, but it was certainly heavier than the 20-lb flour sacks that she picked up for her Ma at the market.

When she let it go, the noise started Ray, who opened his eyes and craned his neck. Frannie looked at her hands. They were not only beyond dirty, but also sported several scratches - and another broken nail

"Damn! The second nail I broke!"

Ray shrugged, "I told you it was useless. There is nothing you can do, Frannie, except get out of this place. You have to get out of this building, Frannie."

She was beginning to get annoyed at his insistence. "Are you deaf? I've just told you I won't leave you, or Ma will kill me. Besides, I am getting very close to lift up this thing crushing you."

"Frannie, let me tell you why you have to leave and why it is useless. One: you have to leave because if this building falls down, it will take down both of us, and I don't want to think what it will do to Ma, to lose us both at the same time. Two, it is useless because I am bleeding like a pig here and when this wall gets off me, the lack of pressure will probably make me bleed faster."

His words were very true, but Frannie didn't want to hear them. So, she just looked away from him and got back to putting the pipe in place. "We don't have time. We shouldn't be wasting valuable time arguing. You are in bad shape, Ray, I need to get you out of under that thing."

"You are right, Frannie. We don't have time. You have to dig your way out of here fast." There was a grim and flat tone in Ray's voice when he stated, half in darkness, his features hidden but grim. "I am dying."

"You are not", said Frannie, but her voice was not as nearly as determined as it was before.

"Frannie, I don't even hurt anymore. That is not good. But I need to talk to you before I die."

She got so scared and angry that she exploded, "Would you quit it with all the dying already?!"

In her anger, the pipe found a way under the wall and stayed there. Frannie widened her eyes, then looked hastily for the chunk of wall to use as a fulcrum and the block of cement to hold down the pipe. Ray heard the fuss and asked, "Frannie, what - ?"

"Stay quiet, Ray!" Now Frannie sounded like the old Frannie. "If you want to talk to me, fine, but first I need to take you of there. After you are out of under this rock, we can talk all you want." And before he could say anything else, Frannie put the chunk of wall under the pipe then pushed the tube down. The wall lifted slowly, and the pipe went in far, the fulcrum with it - the further piper and fulcrum went, the higher the wall came. When Frannie thought it was enough, she let the pipe go and it stayed there. One victory.

*YES*

"Frannie?"

"Not now, Ray!"

Frannie grabbed the block and used it to steady the pipe. It worked. She couldn't believe that she had achieved one of Benton's feats. She ran over to Ray and beamed.

"Did it work?" he asked quietly. Frannie nodded. "So now what you're gonna do?"

"I'm gonna pull you of there."

"Do I have a choice?"

"No."

"Can I make a dying request?"

"You're *not* going to die, Ray."

"Still, would you do something for me?"

"Of course. What is it?"

"Careful with the suit, willya?"

Frannie smiled. "Sure thing." She got in position. "I think this is going to hurt, Ray."

Ray couldn't help but laugh for a couple of second, heartily, fully. "Yes, I think you're right, Frannie."

She took hold of his collar. "On the count of three. One..."

Then she pulled him with all her strength, so she could do it in one take.

With a yell that could have curled her hair, Ray jerked as his body was pulled from under the slate, and Frannie grimaced at what she saw. The damage to his bony body was unbelievable and the worst part was trying to bandage it together.

That part Ray said about not hurting was probably true, because Frannie poked quite hard and moved clumsily over his wounds, and he hardly complained. She used her pantyhose to tie his arm real tight next to his shoulder, and it helped stop the bleeding. She didn't want to think that those little white things on his arm could be bits of bone. Her coat was wrapped around his torso to immobilise his midsection, from where a huge hole poured blood and her stylish top was put there to stop the loss of the precious liquid.

All the time, she tried to keep his spirits up, making wisecracks. "I could kick myself for leaving Aunt Gioconda's sweater in the car. This would be the perfect excuse to thrash it."

Ray hardly answered, still dizzy from the pain. He didn't even swear.

When Frannie did all she could (and knew) for her brother, she sat cross-legged and put his head on her lap, making him comfortable. "How do you feel now?"

He looked up, his eyes a bit dull. "Don't feel much. So, it's not bad."

"You'll be all right, Ray. It won't be long till someone comes here."

Ray didn't answer to that. "I really... I really need to talk to you, Frannie."

"Yeah, you said that before. OK, you can talk now. What you wanna talk about?"

"Benny."

"Benton? What about him?"

Ray looked up at her, looking intently inside her eyes. "Do you love him?"

"Ray, don't you think it's a little bit personal?"

"Come on, Frannie, I am bleeding to death. Can't you see the big picture? I asked you a question. Do you love him?"

Frannie thought for a while. She knew how much she'd wanted Benton, how much she'd pursued him, how much she'd lusted after him - and how all that had disappeared when he opened himself to her and trusted her with his deeper secrets. Her feelings had shifted then. So she answered the best way she could. "I have deep feelings towards Benton. I care about him. I like him very much. Is that what you are asking?"

"No, I asked you if you love him."

"Why?", she snorted. "Do you want me to marry him?"

Ray didnít hesitate when he answered, "Yes."

First Frannie widened her eyes, then she sighed, and finally she shook her head before looking down at him, almost annoyed. "I don't get it, Ray. When I used to run after Benton and throw myself at him, you didn't like it, but you didn't seem so worried about it. You warned me he wouldn't ever look at me, or marry me. You thought yourself to be so superior because you thought Benton and I would never be an item. But that changed. When Benton asked you to date me, you grouched like a bear with a severe case of toothache, and you still get sour about our relationship."

Ray's temper flared. "It's because since he started showing interest on you, you've been manipulating him! The minute you got him wrapped around your little finger, you stopped chasing him like a rabbit in the tundra and you started to act as if he was your doormat." He paused to catch his breath. "You snap your fingers, he follows you like a puppy. Now he's out of town and you want to go dancing with your friends. You don't even worry about him. He's out of town and you don't call him to know if he's okay." Another pause, and now his voice seemed hurt. "Damn it, Frannie, you know that he's not good at showing his feelings. The guy's never dated any girl since he came from the Frozen Armpit of the North, and not because of lack of candidates. He seems to like you. I don't think you're treating him fairly. He doesn't deserve it."

"And still you want me to marry him?"

"I want him to be happy. He seems to think that happiness is with you. Benny wants you, Franny. So marry him, make him happy, please. Have a bunch of little Frasers, fill Ma's house with small Italian-Canadians." He closed his eyes. "I just wish I were there to see it."

*Oh my God.*

Frannie picked everything in a flash. She knew what was going on, and the world suddenly entered sharply in focus, all lights shining so brightly in her head that they were blinding her mind's eye. It couldn't be true. No, fate couldn't be playing such a perverse joke on two of her most favourite people in the whole world.

For the first time, Frannie caressed her brother's head. Not that she hadn't wanted it before, but she was so scared that the gesture might look like as way of saying goodbye to Ray. And she didn't want to say goodbye to Ray because she didn't want to believe that he could die in that cold, dirty basement in some abandoned building at a suburb north of Chicago. And at that particular moment, his dying would not only be hurtful, but also mean and cruel.

But death could be near. Especially at the way his skin seemed cold to her touch.

She couldn't walk away from that fact that Ray could be dying, and that was the only reason why she'd break Fraser's trust, as she was about to do. If Ray was really dying and if he felt about Benton the way Francesca thought he did, then Ray deserved to know the truth.

Frannie sighed deeply to take courage. "Ray, what I said is true. I have deep feelings for Benton. If he asked me, I might've even married him and settled down with him in Canada. But the truth is that Benton doesn't want me. He has never wanted me. He doesn't want me."

"Of course he does, Francesca. You should see how he gets scared when women try to put moves on him, but when you get around..."

"Ray," Frannie's voice was soft and gently, "You know I am right. And so were you. You were right when said that guys like him never marry girls like me."

"Why are you saying that?"

"Benton doesn't love me, Ray. We don't really date. We go out sometimes, have dinner, go see a movie, and then he uses my shoulder to cry on, or we just talk. He usually just talks, because he doesn't cry a lot, no matter how sad he is. You know Benton - hard to express feelings."

Ray got alarmed, at the verge of panic. "Sad? Benny is sad? He's never told me he is sad. Why is he sad? What does he talk to you about?"

"He is sad because he loves someone else, Ray. He loves someone that he thinks will never love him back. That's what we talk about." She looked deep inside his eyes. "We talk about you, Ray. You're the one he loves."

Ray was staring at Francesca, trying to read his sister's face, looking for signs of deception or prank. His eyes, that had been dull until that moment, suddenly sparkled into life, and his whole face glowed in sheer joy, as Frannie had never seen before. Then he closed his eyes, with a long sigh and a deep moan. His heart was aching and his body was getting cold. "Shit."

"Ray?"

He chuckled, his eyes still shut, his voice more nasal. "My luck. I discover he loves me the moment I'm dying, Frannie. It's the story of life."

"You're not dying. I don't want to hear you talking like that anymore. When we get out of here, I'll tell Ma that you said such things and you'll have a lot of explaining to do."

Ray opened his eyes, his voice getting firmer. "Frannie, listen to me. You got to do me a favour."

"Sure."

"You have to tell him..."

"No! You'll tell him yourself!"

"I love him, Frannie" Ray said the words with so much fervour that Frannie felt her heart flutter. "It feels like I have loved him all my life, but my heart have only told me that when we met at that holding cell. Tell him that, please. He'll remember. Tell him Detective Armani looked at him and fell in love with him."

"No, Ray, *you* will tell him, and..."

"Tell him", Ray insisted. "Tell him I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Ask him to forgive me for being such a coward. But maybe he can understand. I was a coward not to tell him, because I was afraid he'd be so repulsed he might go back to Canada. I figured he'd run away in disgust, and I'd never hear his voice again, or see his face. I'd even miss furface. I just needed to be with him. I needed him in my life, please tell him. I'd never been able to live without him, and the only thing good that I'm dying before him, is that I won't see him dying. I'd have died with him, too. I loved him too much. Tell him that, please."

He was talking in the past tense already!

Frannie felt tears forming in her eyes, and squeaked. "No, Ray, please..."

Ray used his good hand to grab what part of Frannie he could reach and begged, "Please tell him. Promise me, Frannie, please promise me, so I can die in peace."

"I promise", she said, putting her hand over his to calm him down. "I promise, OK. But you're not going to die, Ray."

"I'm dying, Frannie", he relaxed in her touch. "But that's okay," he whispered. "Just tell Benny I loved him and I'll die happy. I guess I'll always love him, do you know that?" He sighed. "Gosh, Frannie, I'm so tired." He closed his eyes, his voice getting quieter. "Need to rest a bit." He sighed, and his body was still.

"No, Ray, don't fall asleep. Talk to me!" She nudged him a little. "Ray, please don't go!"

No answer.

"Ray, don't go." Frannie's tears were streaming down her cheeks and her voice was almost inaudible. "Don't leave me alone, Ray."

There was not much Ray could do about it at that particular moment. Frannie frantically thought of something to do. Finding nothing, she rested her head near Ray's and wept loudly, shoulder convulsing violently as she sobbed uncontrollably, unable to say if her brother was dead or alive, feeling her heart bleeding almost physically inside her chest.

***

It took fifteen more minutes before the paramedics arrived with the firemen, and they broke in. The high school kids that Ray saved had called them. Francesca, who didnít expect help, was devastated when they arrived, and even a little confused. The medics said their wounds could be worse, and they let her ride in the ambulance with Ray. Her brother was all hooked up on plasma, and Francesca asked about his chances, but the EMTs wouldn't say anything about his diagnosis. His skin looked so grey to her and she shuddered the whole way to the hospital.

At the hospital, they were taken to different rooms at the ER. Francesca's head injury (she didn't even realised she'd been bleeding) was quickly treated, as well as her scratches and bruises. Lieutenant Welsh arrived as soon as he could, and she gave him a full report. He told her he'd take care of all police aspects from then on. The hospital called her family and Ma and Tony arrived almost an hour after they had been brought in.

By the time they got there, though, Francesca had been told that Ray was going to make it. Apparently, she had done all the right things for him when she bandaged him with her own clothes, and the help had arrived in time. It would probably take almost a month until Ray was fully recovered from the loss of blood and the broken arm, but he'd be okay. Francesca cried heartily in relief.

Immediately after that she argued with the doctor. He wanted to keep her in observation the rest of the night. Her brief loss of consciousness when the stairway fell might be an indication of a concussion. Francesca would have none of it. The compromise reached was to wait for her family to arrive, and until then she was to be kept in the infirmary. Ray was in a semi-intensive care unit, because they had already begun the blood transfusions to his battered body.

"Bambina!"

Francesca let her mother hug her. "Iím fine, Ma. Ray is the one in bad shape."

Mrs. Vecchio caressed her hair and looked carefully at her daughter. "You don't look hurt, grazie Dio."

"I've been better, Ma. I'm dirty, my hair is a mess and I broke two fingernails," complained Francesca. "Now they want me to stay here for the night. I might have a concussion."

"Do as the doctor say, cara. It's for the best." Mrs. Vecchio hadn't stopped touching her daughter, caressing her gently without being able to hide her fear of having been so close to lose her youngest and her son at the same time. "Oh, I was so worried. We were preparing a surprise for you, and then you gave us this surprise."

"Surprise? For me?"

Her mother smiled. "Look."

Francesca looked through the room's window and Fraser was at the hall talking to the doctor. She was surprised, and her mother explained, "Benton called saying he would arrive early from his trip, and we thought it would be a good surprise for you. He was waiting at the house for you and Raymondo to arrive from Aunt Gioconda's when it all happened. Not even Raymondo knew."

Realising he was being observed, Fraser thanked the doctor and knocked at the door before opening it. "May I come in?"

"Benito, please, come in." Mrs. Vecchio gestured, and he closed the door. "Francesca didn't know you were coming."

Frannie was embarrassed. "Yes, Ma has just told me. It's a surprise."

"How do you feel?" asked Fraser.

"I'm OK. Actually, I'm tired."

Mrs. Vecchio stood up. "I'll see if they let me see Raymondo now."

"Ray can have visitors?" asked Fraser. "I'd also like to see him. Later, of course."

"Yes, the doctors say we can visit. But only one at a time. Tony is with him right now. I'll see if he's done."

The old Italian woman closed the door and left the couple alone. Fraser looked at Frannie. "Are you really all right?"

She stood up. "Yes, I am. I have some cuts and bruises, and I need a hairdresser pronto, but I'm fine."

The corner of Fraser's lips were lifted. "You are wearing scrubs. Quite a change in your style."

"Oh, god. Please don't let anyone know, or my fashion reputation would be ruined forever." Fraser smiled. "I had to use my blouse to stop Ray's bleeding. He was bleeding pretty bad." Frannie shuddered to remember all the red. "God, it was so bad." Her voice broke, and she felt tears forming.

Fraser took her in his arms. "It's over now. And I'm so proud of you. The doctors said you saved his life. Thank you." He kissed her forehead and lifted her chin gently, so their eyes could meet. "I would have never been able to live without him. And you didn't let it happen. I'll be forever grateful to you, Francesca."

On the outside, from a distance, Ma Vecchio looked through the window glass and observed the scene with interest. At her side, Tony was impressed, "Are these two getting really serious?"

"I think appearances can be deceiving." The old, sage woman shrugged. "Anyway, it's too early to talk marriage, but at least they are good friends. And that is much more precious than a spouse, don't you think?"

The son-in-law had to nod in agreement.

"Come on," urged Mrs Vecchio. "I want to see my son right away."

Inside the room, Francesca looked away from Fraser and began to grow red. Really red. Beet red. Very uncharacteristic. She knew she'd had to tell Fraser what happened in that basement. There was no way she could hide all the things Ray had told her. It was not as if Ray had sworn her to secrecy. But Frannie was so ashamed that she had broken the vow of confidentiality Fraser asked.

"Francesca, is there something wrong? Something with Ray?"

She inhaled, looking for courage. "Nothing is wrong with Ray. Benton, there is something I need to tell you, but I don't know how. Please forgive me. Ray asked me to tell you something and..." She still couldn't face him. "I'm so ashamed, Benton. I let you down, but please try to forgive me."

He was alarmed. "Francesca, what is it? What Ray did ask you to tell me?"

"You have to remember Ray thought he was dying and that he had lost a lot of blood. It was his dying wish. First he wanted us to get married and fill Ma's house with Frasers, then he chewed me off for not treating you like you should be treated. We argued a bit, and he said that all he wanted for you was to be happy. Well, he got the impression that you only seemed to be happy with me, so he wanted me to promise him that Iíd marry you, that I wouldn't let you down and that Iíd make you happy."

Francesca paused, but the distress in her face told Fraser that there was more to come. "And what did you do?"

"I was so scared, Fraser", she held him tight, still remembering the cold, the dampness and the dust that mingled with her terror in the air of that cold room. "I wasn't sure if Ray was gonna make it. And Ray kept saying that he was dying, that it was his last wish, so I... I told him."

"Told him what?"

"Told him that we weren't really dating, because... because... you love him."

Fraser blanched. Francesca winced, thinking she was gonna get the indifferent or hurt look from the Mountie, but he was way beyond that.

Fraser wanted to look at the watch to know the exact minute where all his flimsy hopes of happiness had been utterly lost. Ray would hate him, disgrace him, shove him out of his house and sever any and all contact with his family as soon as he got his strength back. Fraser just knew it. He could feel all the things that Ray had let out of his life coming back to him: loneliness, cold, bleakness, solitude, emptiness...

The Mountie straightened his back, preparing for the first of many blows. "So. What did Ray ask you to tell me?" *As if I didn't already know.*

"He wanted you to know that he was glad to be dying before you did because he would have never been able to live without you." Francesca looked up at Fraser, seeing his face gradually changing, from sadness to fear to disbelief and shock. "Those were the exact words he used referring to you, and those were the exact words you used referring to him. He said Detective Armani looked at you and fell in love with you." She brought her hand to his face gently. "That man loves you more than I knew it could be possible, Benton. The things he told me... I wish any man had told me half the things he said that he feels about you."

"He... l-loves... *me*?" Fraser felt reality fogging him. The first thing he thought was that Francesca must be a bit confused. "No, you heard it wrong. He probably was not rational at the time, and that bump in your head could also..."

She interrupted him sharply. "Stop it, Benton. Stop not wanting to believe. Ray was not delirious, and I wasn't delirious either. Ray said he wanted you to know that so he could die in peace. He also said he had been a coward." Francesca realised there were tears down her cheek, and she wiped them, sniffling to order him, decisively. "Now do a favour to me and to yourself: stop being a coward and go to him. Go to him and stop wasting your time."

Fraser kept staring at Francesca, his eyes still a mixture of terror and surprise and excitement. His heart was banging against his ribs. He could not entirely believe it until Ray said so himself, of course, but until then, he had hope. He held Frannie tight in his arms.

"Francesca", he said, between her dark hair. "How am I ever gonna be able to thank you?"

"Just go in there, be happy and make my brother happy. That will be thanks enough. Now go already."

He kissed her cheek once more before dashing out of the room and headed for the semi-intensive care unit. Francesca shook her head. She would miss those conversations and the occasional movie, but she couldn't complain. All she wanted that moment, though, was to witness that moment.

Carefully, before any doctor realised she was out of her room, Frannie made a beeline for the SIC unit. In no time, she saw her mother and Tony outside a room. Excited, Mrs. Vecchio spotted her daughter and announced, "He is conscious! My Raymondo is conscious!"

"That is good, Ma. Is Benton with him?"

"Yes. Don't you want to go in, too?"

"Later, Ma. The doctors said one person at a time." She glanced at the room and saw it had a glass window. Fraser was putting a chair to get next to Ray. Francesca said, "Tony, why don't you take Ma for a coffee of just to sit down? She must be tired."

"Yeah. Let's go, Ma."

As they walked away, Frannie discreetly looked at the window inside the room. She saw how her brother was all bruised in different shades of purple, black and green and also patched up by bandages and machines. At his side, Fraser had sat on a chair, and had his hand on Ray's. They were smiling at each other. Ray winced a bit when he did that, and Fraser probably was telling him not to strain himself. But Ray couldn't take his eyes off Fraser, and neither could Fraser. Frannie found that cute.

To a stranger passing by, the scene looked like two close friends caring for each other in a hospital room. Frannie was glad to know there could be much more between two friends. A wave of relief washed her to know that two souls would start to be happy. A smile spread all over her face. She couldn't be happier for the two men she loved. Those two lucky guys.

The End

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