Disclaimer and Notes: dueSouth characters and concepts property of Alliance. This demanded to be written before I finished Ten Thousand Angels.
by Raine Wynd
To those who'd known him before he'd gone to Canada, Kowalski appeared simply to be quieter, more mature, less likely to rush off half-cocked. Within three months of his return, he'd been awarded a merit pay raise and another citation for bravery. Lt. Welsh had been concerned that without Fraser, Kowalski wouldn't be able to work half as well, but Kowalski had proven him wrong. Welsh had assigned Kowalski a new partner, a pretty, gregarious brunette named Jennifer East, and the two seemed to balance each other out well.
No one thought anything of the changes in Kowalski until Vecchio stopped by the station to pick up his sister from work. He was in the midst of trying to get Frannie to hurry up when Kowalski walked past, stopping long enough to maneuver around them both. In those seconds of eye contact when Kowalski had to stop, Vecchio saw something that chilled him to the bone. There was absolutely no life in Kowalski's blue eyes, no joy, no warmth, none of the animation Vecchio expected. It was as if Vecchio was looking into a shell of a man whose heart had been ripped out, stomped on, and then burned at the stake. Instinctively, Vecchio recoiled. He watched as grim acceptance of his reaction crossed Kowalski's angular face, then with a nod, the too-thin, too-pale man continued on his way. His partner followed a heartbeat behind him, but instead of moving on, she lingered. Curiosity piqued, Vecchio waited for the introduction.
"Hey, Frannie," Jennifer greeted, smiling warmly. "Is this the gorgeous brother you're always telling me about?"
Frannie rolled her eyes. "Now don't go telling him that, Jennifer," she admonished her. "Ray, this is Jennifer East. Detective East to you. She's Ray's partner. Don't go getting any ideas."
"Ideas?" Vecchio asked, affronted, but he nonetheless took the slender hand Jennifer extended and shook it. "Say, what's wrong with him?" he asked, and jerked a thumb towards Kowalski. "He having a bad day?"
A puzzled look appeared on Jennifer's high-boned face. "A bad day? No, that's just Ray. He's not really social. Never has been, long as I've known him." Jennifer paused. "You knew him before he went to Canada, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but I thought— "
"Let's go to lunch, shall we?" Frannie interrupted. "Jennifer, you wanna come along?"
Jennifer looked down the aisle towards her partner, then back at Frannie and her brother. "Nah," she refused. "Better get going on the paperwork or Welsh'll have our heads. Nice meeting you, Ray Vecchio." Quickly, she made her exit.
Vecchio waited until he and his sister were seated in a booth at a Chinese restaurant not far from the station and had placed their orders to ask the questions swirling through his head.
"Okay," he demanded, "what happened in Canada? How come Kowalski's different?"
Frannie looked at her brother, measuring him. Ray waited her out, too used to being sized up by others more skilled than his sister, even as he wondered why she seemed to feel the need to do so. He decided she was just trying to find the words, and relaxed somewhat. "He doesn't talk about it," she pronounced finally. "I think Ma knows. I don't know. Ray just came back and he was different. Like maybe he grew up or something." Frannie shrugged. "Why, you think that's a bad thing?"
"No, no," Vecchio protested. "It's just I remember he wasn't that quiet. Or that skinny." He paused as a thought occurred to him. "What happened to Benny?"
"Fraser? He stayed in Canada. RCMP gave him a promotion, his choice of assignments, and a medal for bravery. He's assigned somewhere out in the boonies now. He writes occasionally, but I don't think he's coming back." Frannie sighed for lost opportunities. "Last letter we had from him, he seemed happy."
Vecchio pondered the information a moment as their server set their food down. "I always thought he'd jump at that chance to stay up there," he remarked. "Thought Kowalski would stay up there with him."
"He was there almost a year," Frannie pointed out. "It's no wonder he's different."
While Vecchio agreed, he couldn't shake the sense that the reason behind the change was connected to Fraser somehow. "Benny ever ask about Kowalski?"
Frannie frowned, thinking. "Not that I can remember," she said at last. "Ma keeps the letters, though; you know how she hates to throw out anything."
Vecchio wasn't sure exactly why he was so intent on finding out the reason. Puzzles fascinated him, though he would be loath to admit that particular truth. Maybe it was the look on Kowalski's face. Maybe it was the knowledge that it didn't feel right that Kowalski wasn't the hyperactive individual Vecchio remembered. Whatever the reason, Vecchio had to know.
It didn't take much effort on his part to get his mother to lend him the letters. He read them quickly, glad he wasn't actually listening to Fraser relate his life in Canada. The man wrote like he talked, which was to say that it was very long, detailed, and downright boring in places. Vecchio found it odd that while Fraser asked about everyone else, he never once asked about Ray Kowalski.
Vecchio decided the best way to find out was to ask Kowalski directly. The following day happened to be Friday, and he found out from his sister that Kowalski had the weekend off. Hoping that Kowalski would be amenable to a drink after work, Vecchio approached him with that idea.
Kowalski was standing at his desk, locking it up for the night. His partner was talking animatedly about a movie she apparently planned to see, and she was trying to get him to go with her. Vecchio watched as Kowalski smiled tolerantly at her and refused.
Undeterred, Jennifer pressed on. "Well, if you don't want to go with me, why don't you grab a beer with Ray here — " she gestured to Vecchio "— and catch up on old times? Come on, live a little. You're just gonna go home and stare at the aquarium where your turtle used to be." She smiled, but there was steel in her voice. "Do I have to get physical with you?" she demanded.
Her gaze locked on her partner's. He stared back, holding it, and then sighed. "No. Go home, Jen."
"He's all yours," she told Vecchio. "Good night, gentlemen."
Feeling oddly like he'd just been given permission, Vecchio spoke. "Come on, Stanley, let's go."
Vecchio was disappointed. He'd thought for sure using the other man's hated first name would provide him with a reaction, but Kowalski only nodded, and proceeded to follow him out to his Riviera. The Italian-American was further surprised when no protest was made about whose car they were going to drive; Kowalski simply got in on the passenger side of the Riviera and waited patiently for Vecchio to get behind the wheel and start up the car.
Vecchio chose a pub he was fairly certain wouldn't be too crowded for conversation. The entire time there, Kowalski ignored him, though Vecchio tried to interest him in casual chatter. After a few minutes, Vecchio gave up, and decided he'd wait until after the first round of beers to do his interrogation.
Kowalski surprised him, though. After their server had taken their drinks, Kowalski spoke for the first time. "You think you got a good plan, Vecchio?" Kowalski demanded quietly. "Get me drunk, and you think I'll talk? Is that the plan?"
"And what if it was?"
Kowalski snorted. "Plan's fucked, Vecchio. I was thinking about telling you anyway." He leaned back to allow the server to set two mugs and a small pitcher of beer on the narrow table, then slipped her a five dollar bill. Without missing a beat, she palmed it into her pocket, asked if she could get them anything else, then walked away.
"So?" Vecchio asked. "You didn't used to be so goddamned quiet. It bothers me. I hate being bothered."
The other man shrugged, then seemed to come to a decision. "Ever been to Fortitude Pass?" he asked.
Dread slithered up Vecchio's spine like a python up a tree intent on the dinner it could sense lay waiting to be devoured. "No," Vecchio answered. "What happened? You didn't meet up with that bitch Victoria, did you?"
Kowalski poured a half mug full of beer. Picking up the mug, he studied the refraction of the overhead lighting on the amber liquid. Vecchio couldn't remember when he'd seen Kowalski move so slowly, so deliberately. It grated on his nerves the way watching Fraser lick one more revolting object had.
"Answer me, damnit!" Vecchio demanded as his patience ran thin.
"Not her," Kowalski said, and set the glass down. He kept his eyes on his hand, which still gripped the mug handle.
Vecchio sighed in relief.
"But I might as well have."
Fearing the worst, Vecchio swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat. "What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure how we ended up there. We were always going in one direction or another, especially since Fraser didn't know how to take a vacation from pursing perps," Kowalski began, his voice low, as if just the memory alone was a strain on his energy. "It was almost Thanksgiving, and all I wanted was a hot shower and someplace with four walls to sleep in. I was tired. I think he was too, but he wasn't admitting anything. I was already resigned to the fact we weren't gonna ever find the Hand of Franklin, not when we were chasing all kinds of crazies through all that snow and trees and crap, and neither of us armed with anything more than a single hunting rifle, which he insisted he carry since it wasn't legal for me to have a gun in Canada, and a skinning knife."
Kowalski paused and took a sip of the beer. Still, he kept his eyes averted from Vecchio. "Anyway, a freak snowstorm blinds us just south of this tiny little town Fraser says is just on the other side of the pass." Kowalski set the mug down and closed his eyes. "You ever seen Frase freak out? Just absolutely totally lose it?"
Vecchio shook his head, forgetting for a second that the other man couldn't see. "No, but I always thought he was a bit crazy."
"Sergeant Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father, and for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture remained attached as liason to the Chicago PD for a number of years, Mr. Perfect, Nothing Ever Sticks to Him and He Who Licks Everything, lost it." Kowalski's voice was dry. "I had to build the igloo, had to do everything, while he ranted and raved and stormed at God for all the crap he's been through. I would've thought it funny except that it scared me to death."
Kowalski was silent a moment. "Finally, I wrestled him to the ground. Did the only thing I could think of to do and hoped he wouldn't kill me for it."
Vecchio wasn't entirely sure he wanted to hear what happened next. "What was that?" he questioned, suspecting the answer.
"I was gonna tell him one day you know?" Disgust filled Kowalski's voice. "Tell him everything, tell him why I was willing to give up all that I had and go wandering around Canada instead of being a cop and a hero and Stella's ex and everything else. I just wasn't gonna let it fuck up everything. But I had to shut him up somehow, and I'd already hit him once. Promised myself I'd never do that again. Figured if a kiss could shut up Stella when she got going, it might work again."
Kowalski didn't speak for a long time. Vecchio suspected he was remembering what happened. In a way, Vecchio was glad for the silence. It allowed him time to digest what hadn't been said. He was getting the distinct vibe that more than a kiss had taken place.
"You know what the worst part is, Vecchio?" he asked, suddenly pinning his gaze on the Italian-American. "The worst part is that he took everything I could give him all that time we were snowbound, and then, four days later when the storm broke and we were headed into that damned town, he tells me where we'd been."
Unable to move, Vecchio could only hold the stare, caught by the sheer amount of pain he saw in the other man's eyes.
"Fortitude fucking Pass. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He was living out a memory. I was living out a fantasy." Kowalski laughed harshly. "I told him I loved him. He just looked at me. Didn't say a word. Just looked at me. I knew that look. Stella gave that look to me when she told me we were over and I begged her to stay." He laughed again. "Guess I should've learned no means no back then, but I never was good at listening to her. Never was good at much of anything, except fucking up."
He took another sip of beer. "Fraser didn't say anything. We didn't talk about what happened, but I'd sit across the fire at night and I'd bleed to death inside knowing he'd never again be the friend I once had, or the lover I'd wanted him to be. He never acted different, treated me like he'd always had, but I could feel the distance, you know? Got to be too much to be around him all the time. I finally asked him why he didn't want me that way. You know what he told me?" Ray laughed harshly. "'Not necessary." All this time, I gave up everything for him, and he— " Ray stopped, took a deep breath. "We parted ways about a month later. I worked a few months in a restaurant in Toronto just so I could get some money for a plane ticket and a deposit on an apartment, and then I came back."
Vecchio's heart ached for the other man. "Benny's the straightest man I know," he remarked, floundering for something to say.
Kowalski snorted. "No shit, Vecchio. Tell me something I didn't find out the hard way." More quietly, he added, "Never loved another man like that. I'd rather die than love anyone like that again."
There was nothing Vecchio could say to that. He had his answers. The question now was what to do with the man seated across the table from him, emotionally dead, and, Vecchio suspected, waiting for the chance to complete that process. Oh, it wouldn't be deliberate suicide; no one would be able to prove anything other than a cop getting killed in the line of duty, but Vecchio knew it would be suicide all the same.
Kowalski seemed to realize that Vecchio knew his intentions. "Don't worry, Vecchio. I won't get anyone else killed."
"Is that your answer?" Vecchio burst out in a sudden rush of anger. "Just take a walk into a bullet one day?"
Kowalski shrugged and took a drink. "Ain't like I got a lot of time left anyway."
He paused, seeing the angry confusion rise in Vecchio, and decided to forestall the explosion. "You know most of the story, might as well tell you the rest. I was pretty messed up when I left Fraser. God only knows how I got to Toronto in one piece. I got it in my head I had to find some guy who looked a lot like him just so I could fuck him clear outta my mind. Wrong decision on all counts."
"Let's just say he'll be the last fuck of my life."
Shocked, Vecchio could only stare at the other man. "You. Have. AIDS?" he managed finally.
Kowalski toasted him. "Score one for the ex-cop."
Kowalski's eyes glittered for a moment. "You got something against it, Vecchio?" he demanded. "Other than your religion, which you scorned years ago?"
"I just thought you loved Stella."
"I did." Kowalski's voice was flat. "Has nothing to do with whether I like guys or not. Sure as hell has everything to do with me not trusting women. Not that it matters. I'm not going to love again. Not worth it. Are you going to try again?"
"Maybe," Vecchio answered, hesitating.
Kowalski laughed disbelievingly. "Sure, Vecchio. Keep telling yourself that."
Deciding it was time to change the subject, Vecchio tried a new topic. "What happened to that GTO you had? I was looking for it in the parking lot earlier."
"Put a loan on it," Kowalski informed him. "Frannie needed money."
"I hope she bought something useful with it," Vecchio said darkly. "You loved that car."
Kowalski shrugged. "It's only a car. I'll get it back sometime." He didn't seem particularly concerned with it. "You can have it if you want. I owe you a car anyway."
The evening went downhill from there. Not long afterwards, Vecchio dropped Kowalski off at the latter's apartment, and continued on to his own home. Deeply troubled by the night's revelations, Vecchio decided to make a few phone calls. After leaving several messages, Vecchio went to bed, hoping that his messages would be returned the next day.
The following morning, Vecchio staggered into the living room, coffee in hand, and flipped on the news. What he saw and heard shocked him.
"In local news this morning," the pretty, blond haired newscaster said with the saccharine empathy Vecchio hated, "police have identified the white Caucasian male who was killed last night in gang warfare. The body is that of Detective First Class Stanley Raymond Kowalski, who was recently honored for his work with inner-city youth. Three suspects have been arrested in connection with the shooting. The city will hold a memorial service for Detective Kowalski on Wednesday."
Vecchio didn't want to believe it. He was ready to grab the phone and call Welsh when the doorbell sounded. He opened the door to find the lieutenant standing there. Vecchio took one look at his former commanding officer and knew the news was true.
He wanted to weep, but the tears wouldn't come. He stayed dry-eyed through the memorial service, through the burial, through the reading of the will. He wasn't surprised to discover that Kowalski had had a large insurance policy; what surprised Vecchio more was who received the asset distribution; he hadn't realized Kowalski had strong friendships with many of the same people Vecchio counted as his own friends. What intrigued him the most was the bequeathing of a dream catcher to Fraser, with the instructions that Vecchio was to deliver it personally to Fraser along with a sealed note.
The afternoon following the reading of the will, Vecchio finally received an answer back from one of the messages he'd left: Fraser returned his call. Not wanting to deliver bad news over the phone, Ray decided it would be best if he met Fraser in person.
As it turned out, it didn't require a trip across Canada, just a trip across town to the Consulate where Fraser had been temporarily assigned.
After exchanging pleasantries, Fraser asked, "So what brings you here?" He gestured for Ray to sit in one of the guest chairs in front of Fraser's desk and then, when Ray made his choice, sat across from him.
Ray hesitated, then decided to just do it. "Kowalski asked me to give you this." He handed the bag with the dream catcher in it and the envelope over to the Mountie.
Fraser pulled the dream catcher out of the bag and stared at it. He swallowed once, twice. Then he set the catcher down on the desk and carefully slit open the envelope with a letter opener from the top of the desk.
He read the note in silence, then looked up at his old friend. "Where is he now?" Fraser asked urgently.
"At St. Paul's Memorial Gardens."
Fraser looked puzzled. "Who is he visiting? Did something happen to his parents?"
"No, Benny. Nothing happened to his parents." Vecchio paused, hating what he had to say next. "A week and a half ago, he walked into a shootout and didn't come back. He was off-duty. There was no reason for him to be on that particular corner at that time of night, even if it was only six blocks away from his apartment."
Fraser stared at him, horror dawning in his expression. "I thought— I asked for this assignment because I wanted— Oh dear. Now I understand what he wrote."
"Benny, what did he say?"
Wordlessly, Fraser handed over the note. Vecchio read: "Fraser: I'm sorry, but it's too late for dreams and I'm too tired of trying and too sick to care. Maybe Vecchio can explain it better. Thanks for everything."
The note was signed simply, "Love, Ray K."
Vecchio looked at Fraser. "What took you so long to call back?" he asked quietly. "I left messages for you all over the place."
"When did you call?"
"Before he went walking."
Fraser closed his eyes and shuddered as he took a deep breath and exhaled it. "I was unavailable until four days ago, and then I had to prepare for traveling here." He paused as something registered. "What was Ray sick of?"
For a moment, Vecchio was tempted to tell Fraser the truth, to hurt him as Kowalski had been hurting, but Vecchio found he couldn't. It dawned on Vecchio that if an insurance investigator came around, hunting for evidence that Kowalski's death wasn't accidental, something as simple as the dream catcher could become proof to suicide. "Kowalski? I dunno," Vecchio lied instead. Discreetly, Vecchio slipped the note into his pocket and made a mental note to burn it as soon as possible.
He figured he owed Kowalski that much courtesy. Looking at Fraser now, Vecchio knew the Mountie would be devastated by the truth, and decided Fraser was better off not knowing.
What Vecchio didn't know was that Fraser already knew. He'd come to Chicago intent on confirming the lab results that had somehow gotten sent to him instead of to Ray Kowalski; undoubtedly, Kowalski's insurance company had had old address on file from when Kowalski had been traveling with Fraser and all his mail had come in care of Fraser. From what Fraser could interpret of the results, he could see that his friend had an aggressive form of AIDS. He wanted to talk to Ray, get clarification, and make amends for the way he'd acted in the wake of their incident at Fortitude Pass.
Now he'd never have the chance.
Just as Fraser thought this, Vecchio turned to him. Tears welled in the ex-detective's eyes and Fraser felt the answering pull. Wordlessly, the two friends hugged each other and let the tears fall.
where does your heart go when it falls
and there's no one there to catch it
mine just splintered into a million pieces
across the ice of your resistance
and i don't think i'll ever be strong enough
to put it all back together again
without you, i was someone adrift
with you, i was whole and grounded
until i told you just what you meant to me
i should've never opened my mouth
it's too late for dreaming you'll be mine
and too early for believing you'll want me
someone please shoot me now
and put me out of this misery
*** End ***
©2.12.00 Raine Wynd
The Lost Chance Trilogy continues with After the Heart Falls. NC-17 warning on that story.