"Constable, are you limping?" Inspector Thatcher called through the door of her office, as she noticed her deputy coming down the corridor from the photocopier.
Benton Fraser stopped, turned automatically with military precision and faced his superior's doorway. He had to choose his words carefully, so as not to actually lie. "Not limping, precisely, sir, no."
"Then what are you doing."
"I'm favouring one leg, sir. My knee is bothering me, just a little. A twinge. Sir."
"Have it looked at, Constable. By tomorrow."
Four hours later Fraser and Ray Kowalski were crouched behind an abandoned car, waiting to spring after some malefactor lurking in a nearby warehouse. Ray had his gun out and at ready. The Mountie, as usual, was armed only with his wits and his stiff-brimmed Stetson.
"Ray, would you do me a favour? Would you look at my knee?"
Ray started. Fraser was the best looking life form he'd ever met of either sex, but he was still obsessed with his ex-wife, Stella. While he had no doubt that his partner's knees would probably be as attractive as the more visible parts of the Mountie, he really wasn't interested. "You mean, now?"
"Yes, right now. I calculate at least another 287 seconds before our man comes out."
"You want me to measure it?" Ray was thinking of an anecdote Fraser had told him about the time he and the real Vecchio had crash landed in the woods and a delirious Fraser had asked his partner to measure his legs.
"No Ray, I don't think that's necessary. I'd feel if it were swollen. Just look."
Ray still wasn't sure. "You're going to keep your pants on, right?"
"Certainly. The left knee, Ray."
Feeling foolish, Ray glanced at his partner's leg then looked away embarrassed. "Okay, I looked."
Fraser nodded his thanks, then sensed Ray needed an explanation. "Inspector Thatcher noticed that I was having trouble with my knee today. She ordered me to have it looked at." He craned his neck over the edge of the car to get a better view of the warehouse door. "Any minute now, Ray. Get ready."
Ray didn't like this. "She meant a doctor, Fraser-buddy."
"No doubt, but she didn't say it specifically, so technically . . . " Fraser stood up, "Now, Ray, there he goes!"
A jean-clad and t-shirted figure had burst out of the warehouse and across the parking lot. The detective and the Mountie sprinted after him together. Then Ray, through the corner of his eye saw Fraser trip and tumble to the ground. Without thinking, he halted, just long enough to see that his partner was still in a sitting position and didn't look like he was in immediate danger. Then he sped off again. Once the hoodlum was safely in the custody of some uniforms, Ray trotted back to where Fraser was still sitting on the ground, holding his left knee and wincing.
"Should have shown that to a doctor, Fraser. Not a flat-foot with experimental hair." He snickered and reached an arm out to help his partner to his feet. Fraser shook his head.
"I can't stand on it, Ray. You'll have to call an ambulance, I'm afraid."
Ray froze. "What do think it is?"
"I just hope it's not what I think," answered his partner.
Fraser didn't have to wait long for an x-ray. Ray guessed the hospital staff were all itching to get a look at what he, Ray, had no interest in - the Mountie undressed. Ray paced the waiting room while they wheeled Fraser back and forth from one examination room to another and one doctor to another. Hours passed. Ray couldn't see what the fuss was all about - so a guy puts his knee out. At last a nurse came and told Ray he could sit with Fraser in the examination room.
"What's the story?" Ray demanded, pushing the curtain aside. Fraser was in a hospital gown and sitting on the edge of an examination table. "What's taking so long?" Ray didn't like the sight of his friend in this vulnerable position. The old Vecchio had seen Fraser hospitalized a number of times. Ray had read about these incidents in Vecchio's file. But Stanley Ray Kowalsi had never seen his partner like this. It scared him. Once Fraser had played possum to infiltrate a funeral parlour and played dead just a little too well, freaking Ray out. Ray felt that same panic again now. A shudder went through him.
"They want me to stay overnight." Fraser was explaining. " and do some more tests tomorrow."
"Did they say why?"
"No, but I think I know why." Fraser pursed his lips together, as if trying to decide what to say next.
"That's not important right now, Ray. What is important is, would you take care of Diefenbaker for me?"
"Sure. I'll go pick him up at the Consulate and keep him overnight."
"Thanks Ray." The Mountie seemed to be thinking hard again. "If anything were to happen to me, would you continue to take care of him for me? Possibly for a very long time?"
The shudder came back and stayed, turning into a cold chill. "You know I will."
"You're a good friend, Ray. Go now. Dief will be worried."
The bone cancer ran its usual, swift course. First there the were treatments, the hope. Then, little by little, the things that made Fraser look like Fraser began to drop away: the dark hair, the chubby cheeks, the sturdy muscles. Finally the lively glint in the blue eyes was replaced by a tiredness that lasted all day and every day.
When it became clear that an end was in sight, Fraser, usually so correct, so according to the rules, skipped over all of the textbook stages. He went right past anger, denial, bargaining and depression, paying them no heed. He went straight to acceptance. Ray, however, was another story.
Two years ago he'd watched cancer take his own mother and lived through the feelings of helplessness. Throughout his life he'd also seen distant family and acquaintances go through the same. Even so, it was a different kind of experience, to see his strong partner dissolve so quickly before his eyes. He only saw Fraser's spirits falter once, on a night when the noise in the street outside his hospital room was particularly insistent.
"I spent a lot of time alone in the North, Ray," Fraser confided. " It was normal there, to be alone. I wasn't lonely. I wasn't frightened. But here, there's so much life crowded into such a small place. I don't want to be alone. Just be here for company, Ray. It shouldn't be much longer."
And Ray had choked out his promise to be there every day.
"Vecchio. My office." Welsh's voice was gruff but there was a kindness in it that Ray appreciated. He had been expecting this. Welsh had been giving him nothing but Mickey Mouse cases for two months now. He hadn't solved many.
"Sit down, Detective." Welsh came straight to the point. "How long do they say he has left?"
Ray snorted. "They keep changing the story. Months. Weeks."
"What's the latest version of the story, Detective?"
Ray swallowed hard. "Weeks," he said sadly.
"Then take some sick time."
"I'd rather work, sir."
"Ray, in your present condition you're a danger to yourself and your fellow officers." Welsh insisted. "Take off that holster. Clear off your desk. Bring me your files."
The doctor sat Ray and Thatcher down in her office. She had a name tag on, telling who she was but Ray didn't care. Just another one of the army of doctors that did things to Fraser. Nuked him, cut him, moved him from room to room, took him off one machine and onto another. Nothing they did made any difference.
"I understand you're listed as next of kin for Mr. Fraser," said the doctor with the irrelevant name to Thatcher.
"That's correct. I'm his commanding officer."
"And they tell me you are here every day," she said to Ray.
"I'm his partner." Said Ray.
A few beats of time passed. "Oh." said the doctor, carefully. "When you say 'partner', do you mean in the sense of..."
"Police partner. I'm a detective. He's an RCMP liaison officer." He looked at Thatcher. Maybe she wouldn't approve of his promoting Fraser to her job just to impress some doctor. "Deputy liaison officer," he corrected. "Was, before all this."
The doctor nodded. "You never do know these days. So many different kinds of relationships out there. Now, what this is about. There's something important I'd like to discuss with both of you. It's about having him transferred to another ward."
"You don't usually ask us when you do that" put in Ray, annoyed.
"This is different." The doctor didn't seem angry. She'd heard it all before. "I'd like to have him transferred to the palliative care unit. I'm afraid it's time."
Thatcher was first to speak. She had trouble with the words "Palliative care? That means we give up on him."
"That's not the way we look at it," said the doctor. "We've done all we could to treat the disease. Now we focus our attention on making what time he has left as pleasant as we can."
"What would happen to him there?" asked Thatcher.
"There would be no more active treatments. He'd get pain medication more often, since there'd be no more reason to be concerned about his being alert. We have a kitchen so we could make him something to eat whenever he feels up to it. You could cook there too if you want. Most important, any visitors he wants, any time day or night. Even pets, as long as nobody else on the floor is allergic."
"Sounds like Club Med," muttered Ray. "What's the catch?"
The doctor sighed. "The catch is - his next of kin signs an agreement that there will be no attempt at resuscitation when the time comes. No heroic measures. We just, well, let him go in as much peace and dignity as possible."
"That sucks." Ray left. Thatcher signed. It was done.
Ray had to admit after a few days that the palliative care unit had been a good idea after all. Fraser's room had a big window. Meg had brought a couple of pictures from his room: a portrait of the Queen and a northern landscape. Ray had begun to call the Ice Queen by her first name, now that they spent so much time together in Fraser's room. Fraser himself never deviated from the formality he used to talk to his superior officer. Ray suspected he did it so that he would still feel like an RCMP officer. Francesca and Meg made snacks and even supper when they visited Fraser after work. For themselves and Ray. Fraser seldom ate or drank any more. The single IV on his left arm kept him nourished but there was no other equipment attached to him. Ray sat with Fraser so much now that he stopped noticing that how pale and thin he was and stopped asking Fraser if he wanted to try sitting up. He knew Fraser was too weak, so he just cranked up the bed when there was any reason his friend to change position.
On this summer evening Ray was sitting chatting with him, Meg and Francesca as if Fraser were hosting them in his living room. Dief, no longer an outcast, curled up at the bottom of the bed at the Mountie's feet. With two women in the room, the conversation had turned to clothes. Ray wasn't paying much attention, he was bored. Then Meg said something that startled him.
"Constable, I've had your red serge sent to the cleaners."
"Red serge?" said Fraser, "Sir, I think I made it clear that I wished to be buried in the brown uniform. With all respect, sir, we did discuss this."
"Fraser, people will expect to see you in your dress uniform."
"Nobody's going to see me. Why would anybody see me? What are you talking about?"
"At the memorial service, of course. Everyone will be coming to see you. You're a popular man, Constable."
"I never gave permission for a memorial service. My will is quite clear, no service. I want to be sent to Dawson City for burial immediately, and in the brown uniform."
"Constable, you're being unreasonable. How could you even imagine us all not having a service for you. You'll have a regulation service and you'll be properly dressed for it."
"I want the brown uniform, sir. The one you wouldn't let me wear." Fraser seemed to be trying to raise his voice. The effort made him cough. Then he went on, "Why wouldn't you ever let me wear the brown? You never did tell me."
Meg smiled. "That first day when you came to my office, Fraser, I saw at once you were a classic 'winter'. Dark hair, pale skin with blue undertones. A 'winter' should never wear brown. I'm also a 'winter'. You were right when you used to say red suits me. It does, and it suits you, too. That's what I want you to wear." Then, in a whisper, "Forever."
"Thank you kindly, sir, but shouldn't a dying man's wishes be respected?"
"Not when the dying man is behaving like a moron!"
"Meg! Are you nuts?" Ray couldn't stop himself. "What the hell are you saying to him?"
Francesca interrupted. "Okay, I think I have a solution for this." She waved her arms to calm everyone down in that classic Italian way she had. "I went to this Jewish wedding once. The bride and groom left before the end of the party and just before they went she changed into this suit, see? Lavender, with this really nice matching hat. They called it a going-away outfit. So you see, here's what we can do..." she turned to Fraser, who was watching wide-eyed from the bed. "You. Let Meg do the memorial service. Everybody wants it and you won't know the difference, right?"
Ray couldn't believe what he was hearing. He thought women had hearts. The witches. What are they torturing him for? Francesca was still talking.
You wear the red for the service, see, like Meg wants. Now you" she turned to Meg, "after everybody goes home, you promise to make sure somebody changes him into the brown uniform and he can go home in that. So, what do you think?"
"Agreed" said the Inspector "When the service is over, Fraser can wear whatever he wishes."
"I still don't want a service, but alright" said Fraser, "It's a reasonable compromise."
"Good, that's settled," declared Francesca, "I need a cup of tea. Anybody else want one?"
"I would, Francesca," said Fraser, "and if its not too much trouble, would you please make me a piece of toast to go with it?" Francesca smiled, beckoned to Meg and the women went off to the kitchen together. It didn't take two fully-grown women to make tea and toast. It did take two women to hug each other, out of the men's view, because Fraser wanted food after many days without appetite.
"Well, what do you know," thought Ray "He actually feels better. Women, they know what to say to him. And look at me, I can't say anything to help him" Tears came into his eyes and he hoped Fraser didn't notice. "I'm nothing but a waste of skin."
Of course Fraser did notice. "Something wrong, Ray? Outside of the obvious, I mean."
"Christ Fraser! We're talking about your funeral here!"
"Oh that. Well, Ray, proper planning. Now the Inuit always dress their dead in . . . "
There was a pause. Fraser voice went serious. "I shall. Soon."
"God Fraser, I didn't mean it like that! Jesus, I'm sorry, I always say the wrong thing! I promised I'd help you through this. I'm a total F(*^-up!" He fled the Mountie's room.
Back in his car, Ray lashed out at himself. "What's the matter with me? Fraser needs support, he needs his best friend to help him. What good am I to him? I sit in his room like a zombie. I don't talk. When I open my mouth the wrong thing comes out every time. OK, sure I'm there everyday. I swore I would be and I'm doing it. But that's not enough. I gotta think of something." Then, a thought he'd never had before came. "Vecchio would know the right things to say. He should be here, not me." From that thought came an idea. Then a plan. He worked it out as he drove home.
This would be hard to do. Ray was not good at talking to his superiors. Every time he dealt with someone in authority he said the wrong thing and, well, pissed them off. Welsh had said it often enough. Ray knew that about himself. But not this time. "This time," Ray swore to himself, "I'm not going to louse it up."
For the rest of the drive home Ray rehearsed the speeches he would make, to Welsh, to the Feds, to anyone and everyone who would help him do right by his partner.
It was the beginning of the early morning shift on the palliative care floor of Chicago Hope. The night nurses brought the day nurses up to date on the events of the last eight hours. They saved talking about Mr. Fraser for last.
"He's still here," announced the chief night nurse. "He was barely breathing all night. I don't understand how but we still have him. I don't see him making it through the morning. Cheryl,"she addressed one of the younger nurses, "call his friend. Tell him to come as soon as possible. Oh, and somebody should sit with him until the friend arrives.
"I'll do that myself," said Cheryl "I have something for him."
Cheryl made the call to Ray. Then she went over to the nursing station desk and took a brown paper bag from a drawer. She went to the kitchen and cut up the contents of the bag into tiny pieces, put them on a plate and went to Mr. Fraser's room.
He was asleep. She had been told he used to be a cop and that he used to be amazingly gorgeous before he got sick. She studied the sleeping features. Yes, that made sense. He must have been incredible - before. Gently she shook his shoulder to awaken him.
Fraser grunted slightly and opened his eyes. It took him a moment to register the face in front of him, then he said "Good morning, Cheryl. How are you today." He's always so polite, thought Cheryl.
"I'm fine, Mr. Fraser. I brought you something. My brother went to Vermont on vacation and he brought this. It's not exactly from Canada but it should be the same. See. Maple candy." She put the plate near the patient's face, letting him smell the sweetness. "Do you think you could swallow some? I've cut it up really small."
In answer, Fraser parted his lips. He looks just like a baby bird, Cheryl thought, and carefully put a tiny piece of the candy onto the man's tongue. There was pleasure for a moment, then pain. "I'm sorry. I just thought you'd like a taste of something from home."
"No, its fine. Really. Let me have some more, please. It hurts a little, but it's worth it."
Ray found them this way as he rushed in. He snorted. "Should have known I'd find you making out like a bandit. Good-looking women feeding you stuff. Don't believe you're sick, man. Not for minute. Why don't you get off your ass?"
Fraser laughed feebly and it was like a tonic for Ray. Then the Mountie drifted off to sleep again. "You just wait around a few more minutes, Fraser-buddy," he thought. "Just hang on a little longer and old Ray will have something to make you happy. I ain't much, and I can't give you much, but at least I managed to get you something - somebody - you really want."
Ray settled into a chair beside his friend's bed where he could watch Fraser breathe. "Just keep breathing a little more, Fraser, just a little more." Then he heard footsteps in the corridor. High heels. Not the person he was waiting for. It was Francesca.
"Is he still here?" She asked, sitting down on Fraser's other side and picking up his hand. Ray swallowed hard, trying to get the lump in his throat down so he could speak. "Yeah, he's here." Ray himself wasn't breathing very well, so heavy was the lump. Would there be time? Would Fraser be able to hang on long enough? Then there was another sound of footsteps. Heavier, this time. Men's shoes. They were running.
Ray looked up as a dark-haired man came through the door. Francesca leaped to her feet and threw herself into the man's arms. Then she jumped away, guiltily. The man took her close again. "It's okay, Frannie. I'm me again. You can talk to me. I've come home."
So this is Vecchio, Ray thought. He knew what Vecchio looked like of course, but seeing him in the flesh felt strange. "Good going, Vecchio" he muttered to himself. "You made it. Now talk to him. Say the right thing. Help him."
"Oh, Ray." The tiny woman clutched her brother for a moment, then, arms around each other, they turned towards Fraser's bed. Ray saw the pain in the Italian's eyes, the tears welling up. "I wouldn't have known it was him. Oh, Frannie . . . "
"Come on, Vecchio, come on," Ray thought, "you're here for a reason."
Vecchio sat down on Fraser's other side and picked up the thin, white hand that his sister had dropped. "Benny." He said softly. "Benny, wake up for a minute." Fraser opened his eyes and looked right into the eyes of his former partner. "Ray . . ." he began and then stopped. Um . . . hello," he spoke again. "Who are you?" Vecchio's eyes were tear-filled now, of course, but he still chuckled.
It's OK to talk to me, Benny. Assignment's over. How've you been doing?"
"To tell you the truth, Ray, I've been better. Have you met, um . . . " Fraser turned his head with great effort to where Ray had been sitting, wordless the whole time. That's Fraser, thought Ray, polite even on his f(*^ing deathbed.
Vecchio looked at Ray for the first time. "Pleased to meet you."
"So, you're me." said the dark-haired Ray.
"I'm not you," said the blonde Ray, "That's why I brought you here."
The Italian nodded. "Understood."
There was nothing more they needed to say to each other, now. Both knew they would talk a great deal - afterwards. Vecchio turned back to the Mountie. "Its good to see you, Benny."
"I don't think so Ray."
"I'm happy to see you." There were long pauses between the words, "but I'm not happy to have you see me like this. I know it must be hurting you. Francesca and Ray . . . . Stanley . . . they saw it all happen slowly. But you . . . it must be a shock for you to see me this way. You've come home. You should be happy. I'm spoiling it for you. I'm so sorry."
Ray's heart broke. Fraser was suffering more now. His last minutes would be miserable and he, Ray, was responsible. Then Vecchio spoke again.
"That's okay, Benny, I'm not seeing you like this."
"No way, man. You know how I'm seeing you?"
"Remember that time on the train, you went after Thatcher and scooped her up on the back of your horse."
"Of course I remember."
"You looked good that day Benny, real good. Whenever I thought about you, while I was away, that's what you looked like. Rescuing damsels on a horse. Just like one of those knights. That's the way I'm seeing you now, Benny."
"I'm glad, Ray."
"And, Benny . . . "
"I'm always going to see you that way, I promise."
Francesca spoke. "I've never seen you on a horse, Fraze. You must have looked pretty dashing."
"Oh, he did." Said Vecchio. "Say, I got an idea. Why don't you get up on a horse now and show Frannie what you look like."
Fraser inhaled with effort. It took a while for him to exhale again. "Now?"
"Yeah, right now."
There was a pause while the Mountie thought this over. "I suppose I could. Francesca, would you prefer any particular colour of horse?"
"White, of course, Fraze. Like one of those knight-guys."
"Well, that's not regulation but under the circumstances . . . white horse . . . and which uniform?"
"You choose, Fraze. You look great in anything."
"Thank you kindly, Francesca. The brown, then."
"Climb up on the horse, Benny" Vecchio said softly to his friend, bending low to his face. "Go for a ride. You go just go for a nice ride, man."
Fraser closed his eyes. His tired face pulled into a weak smile. He breathed in once, let the air out with a deep sigh and didn't breathe again.
"Have a safe trip, Benny" choked Veccho, "You say hi to your parents for me."
"It worked," thought Ray. "I didn't screw up this time. I did the right thing for him after all." He forced himself to look away from his partner's face and towards Vecchio. The Italian was sobbing into Dief's neck. Francesca was crying too, her head on Fraser's chest.
"Its over." Ray said it more to himself, but Vecchio heard. "You made him happy."