I’m glad Lys wanted something light and gentle for her birthday. She’s had a difficult year and I’ve been writing some pretty serious fics recently. So, this was really fun for moo and I hope she gets a little smile from it.
Minus twenty-five wasn’t cold by the arctic standards Fraser was used to, but it was definitely too cold outside to be comfortable in only swimming trunks. He watched the snow blow across the floor to ceiling windows and mused, as he floated, that it was therefore fortunate that he was indoors.
What unconscionable decadence - to be luxuriating in warm water, unclothed but for a pair of boxers that served as improvised swim trunks, while winter howled outside, separated from him only by panes of glass.
Fraser had been loathe to go the hotel’s indoor pool without a proper bathing suit but Ray had persuaded him that his shorts in fact covered as much (or as little) as a bathing suit and nobody would notice the difference or care.
In this much, Ray was right. Fraser was alone in the pool. Whatever other travellers were going through Dryden in December, none of them, it seemed, had an interest in sharing that particular hotel pool with him that Wednesday night. The pool was so small and shallow that to Fraser it was like a huge bath. He lay back against the water, stretching his arms and legs. He glanced at his own feet as they bobbed in front of him, white against the blue/green glow the underwater lighting gave off.
Blue/green glows. In a north-western Ontario towns, they can fool you. Dryden usually had mono-chromatic black skies with the stars washed out by the glow from the pulp and paper mill. Most nights these skies are dark, but occasionally in the winter the northern lights do dance and shimmer across them. While he was in the pool he thought a few times that he could see the aurora borealis in the sky beyond the glass enclosure. But it was only the lights from the fast-food restaurant across the street, distorted by fumes from the constantly-belching smokestacks.
Fraser back-stroked lazily to the pool’s edge and felt the blowing of one of the underwater jets. He pressed against it, enjoying the rush of warm water against his bare back. Ray’s bullet was still there, lodged against his spine. The doctor’s had warned him that in later years it may shift and cause a problem, but most likely not until he was very much older. As would the wounds in his leg come back to haunt him some day, or at least Buck Frobisher thought so.
Well, time would tell. No sense in borrowing trouble. Tonight he was comfortable and warm. He only had minor aches and stiffness, and he hadn’t even noticed those until he had felt them ease in the water. Ray was in Florida, trying to make a life with the woman who had unmade the other Ray’s life. Both Stella and I, Fraser mused, seem to be destined to have Rays in our lives. I hope she makes him happy.
Fraser flipped himself over onto his front and took a few unhurried crawl strokes to the other end of the pool and then back, not for exercise for the action was too slow and tame to qualify, but just to move and flex his limbs
Ray, the present Ray, came through the door into the pool area while Fraser was swimming. Fraser paused mid-stroke and stood up in water that came only to the middle of his chest, then ducked back to submerge himself to his neck. The air in the pool enclosure was cooler than the water.
“Aren’t you coming in?” It was a rhetorical question, since was Ray was clad in his jeans and t-shirt and therefore not about to jump into the water with him.
“Naw, you go ahead, I’ll just read my magazine.” Ray settled himself onto one of the plastic pool-side chairs and opened the magazine he had in his hand.
Fraser resumed his floating. When had he last been in a swimming pool? He cast his mind back . . . it was in the hospital recovering from the gunshot wound in his back. And he hadn’t been swimming under his own steam but been manipulated and pulled through the water as therapy. Before that he couldn’t remember the last time he had “gone swimming” simply as recreation. He wouldn’t be here even now if their flight from the arctic down to Toronto hadn’t been diverted to Dryden because of weather. The airline had put him and Ray in this hotel with a pool. He had seldom gone swimming just for fun at any time in his life. Swimming was a means of locomotion, like running, which he didn’t do for pleasure either.
Well, attitudes could change - and wasn’t his own life proof of that. He decided he would spend more time at indoor swimming pools when they got back from Chicago. They were marvellously relaxing. No, people didn’t always keep doing what they were raised to do. Hadn’t he adapted to Chicago, with the help of first one Ray and then another, to the extent that he found himself guide to Quinn when the need arose.
And hadn’t this second Ray, a city mouse, spent a happy month with him and Dief in the north and learned not only to appreciate it but to actually thrive there? Yes people did change. There Ray sits, reading a magazine and he never reads magazines . . . Fraser’s mind drifted with his body.
Then a wide arc of his arms pushed him up against the edge of the pool and his head bumped. He was not hurt, but only jarred. The jolt re-focused his brain. Ray - reading a magazine? That was out of character and Fraser wasn’t aware of any life event Ray had undergone recently to change THAT. He stood up in the pool and looked over to where his friend sat reading, apparently engrossed. Fraser climbed the flimsy aluminum ladder out of the pool, shook himself off like a wet dog and padded, dripping, over to Ray. “What are you reading?”
Ray smiled and whipped the magazine behind his own back. “Don’t touch. You’ll get it all wet.”
“What’s so fascinating?”
“Dry off, then I’ll let you look.”
Fraser picked up a couple of clean towels from a rack on the wall and headed off to a changing room to get back into his own jeans and flannel shirt. Then, still barefoot, he pulled another chair beside Ray’s and held out a hand. “Let me see.”
Ray closed the magazine and handed it over, saying, “Look at the cover.”
It was Life magazine. On the cover was none other than Francesca Vecchio, holding a toddler up over her head and smiling lovingly at it. She was standing in the living room of the Vecchio house with other children of varying ages as well as Ma Vecchio. Then he read the captions. At the top of the picture was “Chicago Woman Has Six Children By Immaculate Conception” and at the bottom “And She Loves Them All Like Her Own”.
“Oh dear,” Fraser breathed.
“Thought that would surprise you,” Ray said.
“I . . . that’s . . .how can. . .” Fraser stammered.
Ray snickered. He had already read the cover story and had the advantage of his Mountie friend.
“. . . and Immaculate Conception is mis-used,” Fraser went on, “It’s not like Time to make such a mistake. Immaculate Conception means . . .”
“Hey, I was raised Catholic. I know what it means. Now read the article and you’ll see it’s not a mistake.”
Fraser leaned back in the plastic chair and read.
The article told of an Italian woman who had begun doing fund-raising work for the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, an order of nuns who devoted themselves to helping Chicago families. She became fascinated by one of their projects - providing respite care for families with high-need children. The Sisters of the Immaculate Conception organised a network of homes where children with severe medical or emotional problems could go for a day, a weekend, or sometimes longer so that their families could have a break from the demands of their constant care.
Francesca Vecchio, the article explained, lived in a big house with just herself and her mother - the rest of the family having gradually moved off to their own various households. So she began by taking in only one child at a time. Francesca kept her job as civilian aide with the Chicago Police Department and her mother cared for the child during the day, with Francesca taking over evenings and weekends.
Then the sisters approached her with an extension of the plan. Social service agencies provided funding for foster care and respite homes. Francesca could establish the Vecchio house as an official foster home and receive payment to care for as many children as she and her house could house. The plucky woman quit her police job and undertook full-time respite care. Up to six children of different ages and problems could be found in her house at any given time, receiving the love of an Italian “aunt” and “grandmother” while their own families rested and gathered strength against the time when they were ready to take the children back.
Fraser read with fascination the interviews with Francesca, the Sister Superior and Ma Vecchio. Even Ray had given an interview by telephone from Florida, telling how happy he was that the family home - his property, in fact - was being used for such good work.
When he finished the article, Fraser handed it back to Ray and sighed. “Well, she’s nothing if not busy.”
“Good on Frannie. You dump her, and she finds a way to give her love some other weird way.”
Fraser didn’t like this. “Dump her? Ray, I did no such thing.”
“Fraser, you admitted you liked her and then ran off and haven’t called her since.”
“I didn’t ‘run off’ as you say. In fact, I flew off, but I didn’t really do that either.”
“You could have called her or e-mailed her or something before we went off looking for the hand. She was probably expecting that.”
“I fully intend to call her, Ray. When we get back to Chicago. And visit. And . . . well . . . press my suit.”
Ray frowned in puzzlement. “She won’t care what you’re wearing.”
“No, Ray. I don’t mean to iron my uniform. I mean to court her. Seek her hand.”
“Oh. Well, you shouldn’t have let so much time pass but I guess she’ll still give you her . . . hand,” Ray sniggered.
“Ray, don’t be lewd. My intentions towards Francesca always were honourable.”
“If they weren’t they sure have to be now, what with a whole order of nuns looking out for her.”
Fraser had called ahead to ask Francesca if he could come visit, not wanting to take her by surprise. When he arrived at the Vecchio doorstep, she greeted him wearing slacks and a loose sweater. She wore neither make up nor perfume and without these he almost didn’t recognise her by sight or smell.
A Chicago December being, at its most blustery, balmy by comparison to the Canadian north, Fraser needed no more than his overcoat and some galoshes over his civvies.
“Where are the children,” he asked after stepping in the door and exchanging preliminary greetings with her.
“What makes you think there’s children here?” Francesca smirked and Fraser saw the woman he knew emerge a little.
“We saw the magazine article. And, of course, all these toys on the floor and the smear of pablum on your sleeve.”
“Well, um, yeah. Maria and Tony are taking them all out for a few hours so we can have a nice visit,” she said softly then she turned in the direction of the kitchen and screamed at the top of her lungs “Maaaa! He’s heeeeeeeeere!”
Ma’s voice from the kitchen screeched back “Lunch will be ready in a minute!”
Two years before Fraser had been so comfortable in this house that he would have just strode in, but with neither Ray nor Ma in the room to lend familiarity he stood, awkwardly, in the doorway.
He did bend down to remove his galoshes, prompting Francesca to say “Oh my God, you’re still in your coat. Let me take that.”
Hearing this, Fraser expected her to come at him and fairly tear the garment off his body, but she only picked up his galoshes and put them in the vestibule closet, then stood waiting for him to hand her his over-coat. She put it away on a hanger and still they stood in the vestibule.
“I’d like to meet your charges one day,” said Fraser. He was surprised at his own discomfort. This house didn’t feel home to him without Ray in it.
“And they want to meet you. I told them all about my friend, the Mountie.”
“Well, that will be nice.”
It occurred to Francesca to move him out of the doorway, so she took him by the sleeve and steered him towards his usual armchair in the living room. “Come on in and sit down. Where’s Kowalski?”
Fraser dropped into the familiar seat and told her that Ray had gone from the airport directly to his parent’s new apartment and that he, Fraser, would be staying there with them until he found an apartment of his own in Chicago. This was partially true, but in fact Ray was also letting him visit Francesca all alone first so that he could declare himself to her. It was an unexpected bit of good fortune, Fraser thought, that her hoard of children was not there to distract them.
Then the conversation wound down into an uncomfortable silence. The words “my friend, the Mountie” hung in the air and Fraser wondered how he should interpret them.
“So, I guess you’ve been up in the north all this time?” Francesca asked.
Fraser was taken aback. He had told Ray (Francesca’s brother) that he and Ray (not Francesca’s brother) had gone off an adventure and had assumed that information would make its way back to the rest of the Vecchio family. “Didn’t Ray tell you?” he asked, lamely.
“I sort of thought I would hear it from you, Fraszh.”
“Francesca, I . . .”
“No, it’s okay. I got the message.”
“Oh, then Ray did tell you.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean I understood what YOU meant when you didn’t call. I was hurt at first but I got over it. I’ve done a lot of thinking since then and I realised it’s for the best.”
“But . . .”
It wasn’t Fraser’s day for getting to finish sentences. Ma interrupted him with a shout of invitation to the table for lunch.
It was only the three of them, so Ma served them lunch in the kitchen – all the faster to get food from the stove and directly onto his plate.
“You lost weight while you were away,” Ma observed and from her tone it was no compliment. It appeared to be her aim to rectify the situation all in one feeding. Fraser was barely able to get one course off his plate and into himself before more food materialised. He kept up the pace as best he could, with strains of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice playing in the back of his mind. The more he ate, the more there seemed to be coming at him. Actually he was glad of the distraction. The conversation that had begun in the living-room with Francesca had not gone according to plan. Francesca’s attitude was different from what he had expected. And what had she meant by saying that she “understood what he meant”?
During the brief moments when their mouths were empty enough to allow speech, the three exchanged accounts of the last few months. Francesca described the idiosyncrasies of her various young charges and Fraser described in detail the pursuit and capture of Muldoon.
His eyes grew misty and the pace of his narrative slowed a little as he came to the events in the mineshaft. Ma, whose attention seemed to be entirely on the business of stuffing him, picked up on the change in his mood.
“Something special must have happened down there, caro?”
Fraser swallowed before answering, carefully. “Well, it was quite emotional to see my mother’s killer finally brought to justice.”
“Something else happened. You can tell me and Francesca. We’re your family.”
At the word ‘family’ Fraser’s eyes didn’t quite fill with tears but glistened sufficiently for even Francesca to notice the change in their moisture level.
Fraser debated briefly whether or not to divulge what he had seen and experienced. But then, if he succeeding in wooing and winning Francesca for his wife, she would come to share his deepest moments. And Ma would become like his own mother.
So, with a sniff and a preliminary clearing of his throat he told them. “I saw my mother. She touched my face and smiled at me. My mum. And then she took my father by the hand and led him away. They were so happy to be together again at last,” Fraser broke off, unable to continue without giving in tears.
The Vecchio women had no such inhibitions. They cried openly at this then wiped their eyes – Francesca with a napkin and Ma with her apron.
“Oh, that’s so beautiful, caro!” Ma snuffled, and then hauled herself to her feet drew a pan of zitti out of the oven, thereby signalling that the emotional interlude was over and she expected Fraser to return to eating duty.
The different courses eventually became more and more sugary, to Fraser’s relief. Dessert courses signalled that the end of the meal was in sight. At last, when Fraser was afraid he could hold no more, Ma announced, “Well, that’s all I had time to make. When you come back, Benito, I’ll have a chance to make a PROPER meal for you. Now, bambini, you go talk in the living room.”
Fraser forced himself to his feet and made a move towards the kitchen counter to help with the dishes but Ma protested, “No, no, no, no. You two go talk. You should have a lot to talk about. The living-room. Go.”
Fraser and Francesca both blushed but obeyed.
“See here’s the thing, Fraszh, after you went away I got to thinking about stuff. You don’t know this, but that day you were all in the interrogation room with that Big Toe Nail guy . . .”
“You mean, Big Toe Blake?”
“Whatever. Me and Thatcher were watching you there and talking about you.”
Fraser cringed slightly. He had feared that these two women might been discussing him at some point or other but couldn’t be sure when or where.
“I told her to look at you, really look at you. I told her you didn’t belong in the city. God, especially not Toronto! I’ve been to Toronto.”
“So have I,” Fraser said, hoping to steer the conversation away from this embarrassing topic, “There are some very interesting architectural . . .”
Francesca, however, wasn’t going to let him change the subject. “When I told her to look at you, that’s when I looked at you too, and I think I really saw you for the first time myself. I used to look at you all the time, well, I guess you know that.”
Fraser only ducked his head and avoided her eyes momentarily.
“But I was looking AT you so hard I don’t think I really saw you any better than Thatcher did. Until that day. You know who I felt like? Scarlett O’Hara. Have you seen ‘Gone With The Wind’?
Francesca paused. Apparently she was expecting an answer. Fraser was about to reply, automatically, that he had read the novel long before seeing the movie, but then realised that this wasn’t the right time for such a comment. So he only nodded, tentatively.
“Scarlett O’Hara loves this Ashley dude for years and years and years. She throws herself at him even when he’s married and she humiliates herself over and over. And then comes the day that she can actually have him and it turns out the guy she loved never existed. She made him up. She didn’t want the real Ashley after all.”
Fraser ahemed and then ventured. “Francesca, are you saying you don’t love me any longer?”
“Oh Fraszh, of course I love you. You’ll always be a brother to me.”
This wasn’t what he wanted to hear. “But – you covered my picture with lipstick!”
Francesca chuckled. “That was really silly, wasn’t it. But you sort of grow up a lot when you see all the troubles other people have. Like the kids I take care of and their families.”
Fraser sat in silence, wondering what to think and what to say. Finally he took the plunge and came out with “What about Rhett Butler? He loved Scarlett for years and never let her know it.”
“Are you saying you really loved me for years, Fraszh? Aw, that’s so sweet.”
She sounded like she was describing a charming kitten with a pink bow around its neck. Fraser was now totally lost. The conversation he had intended to have with Francesca wasn’t going to happen. She seemed to have lost interest and was treating him like a brother. And here he had once said to Ray that all women were their sisters. Who knew that particular bit of pseudo-folk-wisdom would come back to haunt him like this?
I’ve got to get out of here, Fraser thought. I’ve got to think this through. Distance, I need distance. Fortunately he had an easy out. He was under instructions from Ray to his cell phone when he was finished at the Vecchio’s so Ray could come and pick him up. Now would be a good time to beat a speedy retreat.
“Yes, I guess it is sweet,” he agreed, lamely. “Oh, look at the time. I’d better call Ray to come pick me up.” He strode with what dignity he could muster to the vestibule and then spoiled the effect by bending over the low telephone table, presenting his rump full face towards Francesca. He straightened quickly, realising the position he was in, and hurriedly punched in Ray’s cell phone number.
After calling Ray to pick him up, Fraser endured another twenty minutes of awkward conversation with Francesca before his rescue arrived. Quick hellos and good-byes were exchanged among Ray, Francesca and Ma, who emerged from the kitchen for purpose, and then the two friends left the Vecchio house together.
Francesca went over to the window and Ma trailed after her. The two women stood and watched through the window while Ray and Fraser got into Ray’s GTO.
“Benito wasn’t here very long. Is he coming back later, cara?” Ma asked.
Francesca turned to answer her mother. “I think so, Ma. I hope so.” Then she turned back to the window and as the GTO sped away she gazed after it and said softly. “Now you know how it feels.”